starring Amy Adams, Emily Blunt, Alan Arkin, Jason Spevack
screenplay by Megan Holley
directed by Christine Jeffs
THE LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT
starring Garret Dillahunt, Sara Paxton, Monica Potter, Tony Goldwyn
screenplay by Adam Alleca and Carl Ellsworth, based on the motion picture written and directed by Wes Craven
directed by Dennis Iliadis
RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN
*½/**** Image A- Sound B+ Extras C
starring Dwayne Johnson, AnnaSophia Robb, Carla Gugino, Ciarán Hinds
screenplay by Matt Lopez and Mark Bomback, based on the book Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key
directed by Andy Fickman
by Ian Pugh SPOILER WARNING IN EFFECT. Norah (Emily Blunt) is a sort of overripe Juno MacGuff: older but no wiser, quick-witted but shiftless. As she sticks her hand underneath a railroad track, pulling it out just before a train passes, the question is clear: why is she here, doing something so unbelievably stupid, when she should be out trying to get a life? Turns out this game of chicken reminds her of the day she and her sister Rose (Amy Adams) discovered that their mother committed suicide. Christine Jeffs's Sunshine Cleaning feels like a response to a recent spate of smarmy little indie films in the sense that it bothers to explore the self-aware idiosyncrasies typically taken for granted, and it comes to the startling conclusion that perhaps these "personality quirks" aren't the building blocks of individualism, but rather signposts for unresolved trauma and budding mental illness. (Given how contradictory this film is to the Little Miss Sunshine mentality (and Alan Arkin's presence makes the comparison inevitable), can we assume that its title is a double entendre?) You may laugh when Rose's son Oscar (Jason Spevack) is kicked out of school for licking his teacher's leg, or when her father Joe (Arkin) hustles unsuspecting business owners with one get-rich-quick scheme after another, yet the lingering question is whether or not they'd engage in "funny" behaviour if not for their inherited anguish. "It's tough raising a kid by yourself, huh?" Joe tells Rose after she asks him to babysit at an inconvenient time. "Try two." The attempt to mine humour from these tragic aftermaths doesn't make Sunshine Cleaning a morbid film, exactly--but it definitely makes for a haunted one.
Eager to impress her old high-school chums with a business of her own, Rose asks cop-beau Mac (Steve Zahn) to help her set up a crime-scene cleanup service with her sister. In the wrong hands, this scenario might have been reduced to these women coming to terms with their own feelings through self-ennoblement, cleaning up the bloody leftovers from other peoples' tragedies and generally making the world a better place. But you have a feeling this is what the characters are expecting more than the filmmakers--and because Jeffs knows what she's doing, she calls the sisters out on it almost immediately. Determined to connect with one of their "clients" for her own peace of mind, Norah tracks down a dead alcoholic's daughter, Lynn (Mary Lynn Rajskub), to hand off a few personal effects. Lynn, alas, mistakes this would-be stalking for a romantic overture, something Norah never bothers to deny and that leads her to realize, too late, that you haven't really learned anything if your self-actualization arrives at someone else's expense. The point is driven home by Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.), a friendly cleaning-supply salesman who lost his left arm in some never-explained accident--a constant reminder of how tempting it is to compare and contrast personal disasters when such matters are ultimately unquantifiable.
Regrettably, the rushed conclusion seems not merely abrupt, but, because the movie was in the process of weaving a relatively sophisticated tapestry of loss, simplistic and asinine as well. Your childhood's up and left you, Kid, and high school doesn't matter anymore. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust--if you want to move on, you're the only one who's going to be able to do it. Wes Anderson did the whole shebang a lot better in The Darjeeling Limited, mostly by acknowledging the obviousness of these lessons and using them to plumb deeper depths--like, for example, the reasons why we don't always take these lessons to heart. Jeffs, meanwhile, dumps all her eggs into a CB radio, a metaphorical transmitter for existential contact with the dearly departed. By concentrating on the foibles that are only too easy to understand but almost impossible to comprehend, Sunshine Cleaning is consistently funny and occasionally touching for the right reasons; it just doesn't stick in the mind as long as it should.
A brand-new 2009 redux of Wes Craven's infamous splatter classic of the same name, The Last House on the Left also explores themes of personal responsibility--and it, too, trashes them by treating its own conclusion like an afterthought. The basic plot elements are recycled with fidelity: Mari Collingwood (Sara Paxton) and her friend Paige (Martha MacIsaac) are raped and tortured by Krug (Garret Dillahunt) and his gang of fugitives, who subsequently seek shelter from an incoming storm at the summer cottage of Mari's parents (Monica Potter and Tony Goldwyn). Iliadis, less of an "angry young man" than Craven was when he told this nihilistic joke in 1972, has no interest in the grindhouse humiliation that defined the picture's predecessor, although his relentlessly dispassionate depiction of violence is unsettling in its own right. The only moment in which the film actually leers, in fact, is when Dad, a doctor, applies stitches to the broken nose of one of the convicts. It's also the moment when Krug's girl Sadie (Riki Lindholme)--fully established as contemptuous of rich kids "born with silver spoons up their ass," like Mari--asks the Collingwoods, with practised innocence, "How many houses do you have?" What makes The Last House on the Left so terrifying is the ineffable ease with which anger and sadism fold into courtesy and regret.
Craven left us with the thought that violence, in any form, only results in needless pain and guilt, while Iliadis implies that the pain and guilt are simply defense mechanisms to alleviate culpability and therefore no less worthy of contempt than the rage that spawned them. Indeed, the film's gestures of "comfort" are, perhaps, more horrible than what they attend. Just as Krug offers a modicum of relief to his victims as he kills them (showing a cop a picture of his kids as he strangles him, or ordering Mari to tell Paige that "everything's going to be all right" in the throes of death), it's difficult to ignore that the Collingwoods manage to save Mari's life in this version, only to allow her to witness part of the climactic massacre--casting her safety in a light of frightening irrelevance. Unfortunately, The Last House on the Left shirks from these concepts and feels perfectly justified in leaving its disdain with the obvious villains and its uncritical sympathies with the obvious heroes. The "paralyzed in the microwave" scene prominently featured in the trailers? It serves as the film's final whammy, once all the "good guys" have been spirited to safety. In other words, it's unnecessary--the damage is done and the rage is still impotent--and only exists to sate the audience's theoretical bloodlust. Without due introspection, the picture joins a long list of garbage that sees these horrible acts as something that should exist exclusively for our unironic pleasure. Dirty Harry becomes Sudden Impact with the push of a power button. While it's impossible to completely erase everything that came before it (and this epilogue bears signs of intervention from a studio unconvinced that the finished product was "extreme" enough), it's nevertheless one of the more stinging disappointments in recent memory.
In the grand scheme of things, The Last House on the Left does fare a great deal better than this week's other remake/reboot of a '70s cult classic, Race to Witch Mountain--a kids' film that wants to sit at the grown-ups' table but can't bring itself to go that extra mile. Ex-con/cabbie Jack Bruno (Dwayne Johnson) has to escort alien-children Seth (Alexander Ludwig) and Sarah (AnnaSophia Robb) to their spaceship before government agents led by by Ciarán Hinds or some kind of alien assassin catches them. You know the rest--except, perhaps, that a good chunk of the story takes place at a sci-fi convention, where all the weirdos in costume collectively form a belaboured symbol of how fandom and obsession have sapped science fact and fiction of its wonder and curiosity. If you think I might be reading too much into this childish piffle, consider that any film which casts Garry Marshall, of all people, as a weaselly Harlan Ellison (or, more accurately and "subtly," a weaselly science-fiction writer named "Donald Harlan") obviously has something on its mind.
Pretty bold for the remake of a pre-Star Wars piece of sci-fi to lodge its complaints in such a transparently bitter fashion, and I do sympathize to a certain degree--Lord knows my tolerance for references to womp rats and the Kessel Run was long ago exhausted. But in Race to Witch Mountain, it always feels like an excuse for the film's own pathetic sense of wonder. And for something that so readily laments the state of sci-fi today, it sure locks in step with the modern actioner well enough. (Telepathy and telekinesis ain't got nothin' on hyperkinetic editing and slo-mo car crashes, I guess.) By the time rational scientist Alex (Carla Gugino, who apparently didn't get her fill of this shit in Watchmen) joins the ride, you're so desensitized to the thing that its throwaway references to environmental concerns, illegal aliens, and the PATRIOT Act just wash over you--and why shouldn't they? Nothing here has to matter, right? The film certainly makes that loud and clear during the end credits, as Jack and Alex drive off into the sunset in the long-coveted Ford Mustang from Bullitt. Trading one immature attachment for another, Race to Witch Mountain is a kiddie primer for this brave new world of Transformers-style arrested development. Originally published: March 13, 2009.
THE BLU-RAY DISC - RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN
by Bill Chambers Disney brings the abysmal Race to Witch Mountain to Blu-ray in a state-of-the-art 2.40:1, 1080p presentation. Just glossy enough to placate the big-box crowd and just gritty enough to honour its celluloid (i.e., Super35) origins, it's an impeccable transfer I wouldn't hesitate to call demo-worthy if this weren't, y'know, Race to Witch Mountain. I've read complaints that the image suffers from poor shadow detail due to crushed blacks, but contrast separation looked fine on my monitor. Owing to a mix even blander than Greg Gardiner's cinematography, I can't say I was equally delighted by the accompanying 5.1 DTS-HD track, although I recognize that criticism of the sound design is not the same as criticism of the audio itself. Still, this is definitely one of those times I wish I could take advantage of a disc's D-BOX motion code, for the added flavour.
Not counting the retail and Digital Copy DVDs of the film included in the double-width keepcase ("a $74 value," boasts a sticker on the front cover), the package is rather light on bonus material, hallelujah. Extras begin with a 23-minute batch of "Deleted Scenes" (nine in total) featuring optional video intros from director Andy Fickman. Strangely, for being too funny was the main reason most of these were cut--specifically, for indulging in the kind of fish-out-of-water humour I'd argue is this genre's birthright. I will say that a moment in which Carla Gugino acts, in Fickman's words, like a "Southern belle" in order to fool a park ranger is more painful than all her grotesque vamping in Watchmen. There is, for what it's worth, an alternate ending that inevitably returns the Ciarán Hinds character to the fold, though not as a parking valet as I'd predicted. (Evidently the ol' crowd-pleasing poetic turnabout is currently unfashionable.)
These elisions as well as a 4-minute selection of bloopers are 4:3 letterboxed and thus appear windowboxed on 16x9 displays; the only HD supplement is "Which Mountain?" (8 mins.), a featurette wherein Fickman reveals Easter eggs buried in the film that will ostensibly appeal to movie buffs but are more likely to curry favour with his corporate masters, as he points out a seemingly endless barrage of cameos from Disney executives. (Also, it's reaching a little to link Garry Marshall and SF through"Mork & Mindy" .) Fickman's a shameless sycophant, which is I guess how he's been able to thrive in Hollywood when he seems more suited to teaching bio or selling insurance. Blu-ray propaganda plus trailers for the BD release of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Princess and the Frog, and Hannah Montana: The Movie cue up on startup and join previews for Ponyo, Earth, Up, Santa Buddies, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, and Disney Parks under the "sneak peeks" sub-menu. Originally published: August 3, 2009.