Saturday, July 7, 2007

Ghosts and Demons and Hotel Rooms

"Don't go in that room. It's evil."

Never have truer words been spoken in a spooky movie. 1408 had me flinching, jumping, and keeping my hand near my eyes so I could cover them in moment's notice.

It was great!

Like I said in my "Ah...Summer" blog, Stephen King short story adaptations tend to go well, and this one definitely goes quite well. Being trapped in a creepy hotel room is enough to scare tons of people. Being trapped in a creepy hotel room from the imagination of Stephen King? Totally new ballgame.

Samuel L. Jackson, aka "I'm in almost every movie ever made" Jackson, plays the creepy hotel manager. He's probably not actually creepy, but I pretty much convinced myself that something wasn't right about this man. Bravo, Mr. Jackson, for doing that. It kept me a little on edge even before the film moves to room 1408. Jackson, though, is only in the movie for maybe a total of 10 minutes. (I think I'm actually being generous.) The star, and the film's carrier, is John Cusack.

I don't know if anyone knows it, but John Cusack is actually an underrated actor. He's probably one of the highest rated underrated actors in the business, but that doesn't change the fact that he doesn't get all the props he deserves. Eighty percent of this movie is about him stuck in a hellish hotel room with nothing but his freaked out psyche and his trusty tape recorder to keep him company, and much like Tom Hanks acting opposite a volleyball, Cusack does some great stuff.

Cusack plays Mike Enslin, the author of a handful of Top Haunted Whatever books. He used to be a better writer but his daughter died very young, and his life crumbled around him, making him an extremely cynical son of a bitch. When this cynical Mike Enslin first enters room 1408 at the Dolphin Hotel in New York, the audience is probably far more tense than he is. (Thanks, movie trailers.) Then things begin to happen--explainable things at first, then the unexplainable. The slow change from cynic to believer to scared out of his mind flows very smoothly across Cusack's face, almost as if the tension from the audience ebbs into the film.

1408 is kind of a hard movie to review. Mostly because I like to talk about story points and explain my reaction to said points. This isn't the kind of movie that should have bits revealed. Even if I try to be cryptic, I fear that I will give something valuable away. Let's just say that I like being scared, truly creeped out, and 1408 did a good job of that. (I'll never hear The Carpenters' "We've Only Just Begun" the same way.) Yes, once some of the big bad revealed itself, I relaxed a bit in my seat, ...but not completely.

When Mike first walks into the room, many things are set up--odd paintings on the wall, a small closet next to the bed, a mysterious stain on the carpet. Oh, a let us not forget the grotesque pictures of all the deaths that have happened in the room. That'll stay with you through the movie! All of these things stay with you. Even after the initial tension has passed, you keep wondering when these things are going to come into play. That's the greatest thing about this movie--the anticipation. The payoff is by no means a throwaway topic, but nothing beats the seat-grabbing anticipation that keeps you going until something pops out and says "boo!"

If you're a fan of Stephen King or not, 1408 is what every good adaptation should be. It hints at the classic ways of scaring audiences. Much is left to your imagination, and even when the scary is revealed, it's only a blink. And you're still left to workings of your brain to make it more or less freaky. This, in my opinion, is far more nightmare-inducing than any cheesy slasher flick. Not the absolute best scary movie I've ever seen, but it's very far from being the worst.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

An Addition to the Commonwealth

There are movies that are hard to categorize, but you always find yourself lumping them all together the same. Driving Lessons falls into that familiar yet unnamable category of independent drama. Well, it was unnamable until my brilliant friend Kate (that's K8 to all you blog fans) came up with a great name for the genre—the Commonwealth Comedy. To quote the brilliant woman herself, "This humourous film generally centers on a somewhat odd, yet real, scenario and introduces its audience to an eccentric group of heroes and villains. Most importantly, these movies tend to originate from Great Britain or one of their many remaining commonwealths. Thus, the Commonwealth Comedy." That, my friends, is Driving Lessons in a nutshell.

A coming-of-age story in the vein of HAROLD AND MAUDE without the sexual tension, Driving Lessons is about a young man named Ben Marshall (Rupert Grint) who's been tucked quite securely under his mother’s (Laura Linney) wing for far too long. When she persuades him to find a job, Ben begins working for retired actress Evie Walton (played brilliantly by Julie Walters).

I’m not going to lie. I wanted to see this movie because I love Rupert Grint. I love Harry Potter, and I love Ron, so naturally I would have an affinity towards the cute-as-a-button kid who plays Ron. I am delighted to say, even though there are definite reflections of Ron, Rupert Grint doesn’t disappoint. Grint plays Ben with so much perfected awkwardness that I found myself urging someone to give the guy a good shake to loosen him up. Even when Ben finds himself at a club dancing with a pretty girl, his shoulders are still hunched and his smile never completely lets loose.

It's all probably because Ben's mother is a teensie bit overbearing and extremely Christian. Now wait a minute; don't beat me up. I have no problems with people being Christian. In fact, I tend to think it's a good thing for people to have good ideals. But Laura Marshall is one of those showy Christians--the ones who think it's a sin to sit in the back of the church. She believes that every good deed she does must be broadcast from the rooftops so everyone knows she's done a good deed. The overpowering need to be perfect makes Ben, as well as his father (Nicholas Farrell) a

This inability to emote shows in Ben's horrendous driving skills. He can't relax behind the wheel and finds himself running into a trashcan when he's taking his driving test. His mother wants him to keep taking driving lessons not really because she wants him to get better but because she wants to have the control.

When Ben begins spending his days with Evie, she slowly but surely sucks him into her world. At first, like he is with his driving, he’s scared out of his mind. When Evie tricks him into a camping trip, though, Ben finds a part of him that he didn’t know was there…and soon his driving, as well as his life, begins improving.

Like most Commonwealth Comedies, this film is a bit predictable. It’s pretty obvious that good things will happen to Ben, and he will break out of his goody-two-shoes life to become his own man. But who cares! The greatest thing about a good independent film is the story that gets you to that ending and the characters involved. Evie and Ben’s story is a wonderful one—a story that reminds everyone friendships can span generations and be more meaningful than family sometimes.

Writer/Director Jeremy Brock penned this script specifically for Walters and Grint, and it definitely shows. The familiarity the two have developed working together in the past (Walters plays Mrs. Weasley if you didn't know) shines on screen. This is probably the reason the middle of the movie is far better than the beginning. Ben’s life before Evie is mundane, and he sticks out like a sore thumb. Therefore the scenes are slightly mundane and a bit awkward. Once Ben becomes a part of Evie’s world, the film definitely picks up, and makes up for the slow beginning.

When he leaves her world and returns to his mundaneness, it's all the more depressing to look at the life his mother has built for him. For all her showy Christian ways, the woman could learn a lot from her far more Christian family.

I think this movie is adorable and endearing, yet it is definitely not for everyone. If you find yourself turning your nose up to the likes of Strictly Ballroom or Blow Dry, maybe you should stick to watching Walters and Grint in Harry Potter, but if you like your stories small, quirky, and wonderfully (if predictably) charming, give Driving Lessons a try. Oh, and if you've never heard of Blow Dry, and you do like these kinds of movies, make it a Harry Potter character weekend. Blow Dry stars the lovely Alan Rickman.