Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Some Enchanted Evening

There's something appealing about a shamelessly over-the-top movie. If Orphan (2009, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra) has failings--and it does--shame is not one of them. It pursues its perversities and violent set-pieces with a startling (and frankly refreshing) single mindedness into which questions about propriety and taste never enter the equation. It's kind of brilliant that way. If it weren't so crazily stupid at points during its running time, it might even be some kind of crackpot masterpiece. You know what you're in for in the first five minutes, when an overhead shot of pregnant Vera Farmiga in a wheelchair gives way to a LOT of blood. It earns its "R" rating right off the bat, by suggesting awful things involving a woman's reproductive organs and process. But that's only the beginning. Things REALLY get fun when the title character enters the scene, adopted by our unfortunate parents (Famiga and Peter Sarsgaard). There's something a little bit odd about Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a Russian girl who is scarily bright, oddly mature, and scarily manipulative. Bad things happen to people who cross her. As evil children go, she's world class. The film then proceeds to skirt right up to our culture's taboos about depictions of children. There's a twist at the end of this movie, and it's a good one. The filmmakers disguise their intent with deft sleight of hand. But there are strange plot holes, too, as if they thought up their set-pieces without considering how they played in terms of internal consistency. Along the way, you have a chilly, Cronenberg-esque production that uses its genre conceits to test their characters to destruction, showing every crack that appears in loving detail. The performances are mostly very good, especially the child actors (one of whom is deaf), but the dark family secrets seem occasionally banal. It's not a GREAT movie. Hell, it might not even be a good movie. But it is a FUN movie, the kind where you sit on the edge of your seat wondering if the filmmakers are going to take the next step suggested by their plot. Mostly they do.

There's a certain amount of deja vu involved with Richard Matheson's novel, Hell House, and the movie version, retitled The Legend of Hell House (1973, directed by John Hough). At its core, it has the same plot as Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, in which a quartet of ghost-busting investigators move in to a famously haunted house and take its measure. It even casts some of its characters in identical archetypal roles: The Scientist and the weak-willed Medium. The two stories are like shadow companions. Dark reflections of one another. But there's a key, difference. The Haunting of Hill House (and the film version from 1964) is an elegant, even delicate, instrument meant to strike deep chords on the intellect. Its object is terror. Hell House has no qualms against punching the audience in the gut. Its appeal is more visceral, its object tending more towards "horror" than "terror." In any event, the film version of The Legend of Hell House, like the book itself, is a minor classic, and suggests that the best way to adapt Matheson is to let Matheson himself do the adapting. The filmmakers have added a wonderfully dreary atmosphere to the film, from the brooding, fog-bound mansion to the weird, electronic score. When you're dealing with a haunted house movie, the mood is the key. The performers are up to the material and take it seriously. This is Roddy McDowell's movie, for the most part, even though top-billed Pamela Franklin is fine as the weak link in the chain.

The premise behind Enchanted (2007, directed by Kevin Lima) is as clever as it is goofy. It postulates a Disney fairy tale character thrust into the "real" environment of New York City, where "happily ever after" doesn't exist. This premise provides a framework for an agreeable send-up of Disney films and a terrific showcase for star-on-the-rise Amy Adams as our wayward heroine. When there are no woodland creatures about to do her bidding, she engages the wildlife that IS available in the form of rats, pigeons, and cockroaches. When confronted by insoluble relationship problems, she bursts into song (bringing the street musicians in Central Park along with her in a show-stopper). It's all utterly charming, and I confess to being more or less on board for most of the running time. It finally trips itself up at the end, when it lapses into self-aware deconstruction rather than clever send-up, and the live action version of the evil queen, played by Susan Sarandon, looks more than a little bit like a refugee from a fetish ball. Still and all, it was fun for a while, and Amy Adams is a force of nature. Fun.

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