DAN IN REAL LIFE
There are movies you enjoy and movies you don't, and then there are movies that you detest so thoroughly that you watch them more actively than most films you love; your anger keeps you alert.
Such is the case with Peter Hedges' Dan in Real Life, an insufferably precious, fraudulent, and unfunny work that's all the more exasperating for being such a spectacular waste of talent; in a film featuring nothing but gifted performers - and Dane Cook - no one involved seems aware that the tone is consistently off, the characterizations are relentlessly unappealing, and the situations our protagonist (Steve Carell) finds himself in are neither charming nor remotely believable. Its title notwithstanding, "real life" is something the film doesn't have even a passing connection to.
As Carell's titular widower rediscovers romance with his brother's girlfriend (a miserably ill-used Juliette Binoche) while vacationing with his hugely extended, aggressively high-spirited family, one scene after another seems designed to make you cringe at the aching cutesiness of it all: the stymied lovebirds' ridiculously labored Meet Cute in a book-slash-bait store; the shockingly half-hearted slapstick wherein Carell hides in a shower or falls off a roof; the hysterically forced merriment of the clan as they play charades or participate in team crossword-puzzle solving. (They're like the Waltons on nitrous oxide.) Devoid of a single moment of honest human interaction, and boasting plot strands that require everyone onscreen to behave like a selfish, meddling, noxious pain, Dan in Real Life is, astonishingly, even more unbearable than...
As Saw III was the single most irredeemable movie I viewed in 2006, I figured if Saw IV wasn't the single most irredeemable movie I'd yet seen in 2007, it would stand as an improvement in the series. With that in mind, Saw IV is an improvement. Director Darren Lynn Bousman pulls off a few stunningly effective scene transitions - his fluid wipes between contrasting locales have an almost magical "How did he do that?" quality - and it's kind of fun watching Tobin Bell portray Jigsaw before releasing his inner sociopath; with Bell's pitiless monotone suggesting dry-rot of the soul, the flashback sequences here indicate that, if he ever escapes the horror genre, the actor could have a lucrative career playing heartless bureaucrats in liberal rabble-rousers. (And bully to Saw IV for opting not to bring Jigsaw back from the dead, as the film's opening, beyond-gory autopsy makes clear.)
In all other ways, though, the movie is terrible, mostly because it's so terribly dull. No effort is made to provide tension or scares - as ever, Bousman appears convinced that viscera alone will do the trick - and a bunch of proficient-enough performers give deeply unimaginative, unconvincing performances. The climax, meanwhile, is the series' most insipid one yet; apparently, the filmmakers have given up even pretending that the inevitable "twist" will make a lick of sense. Jigsaw may be deceased, but I had hoped Saw IV would offer a more engaging screen killer than mere ennui.
30 DAYS OF NIGHT
Midway through the vampire flick 30 Days of Night, after picking off another victim in the movie's daylight-deprived Alaskan community, one of the bloodsuckers says to his toothy allies, "We should have come here ages ago," and I couldn't have agreed more. Vampires on the loose in a town forced to spend a month under a shroud of darkness? Where has this idea been all these years? Originating in a series of graphic novels, this inspired set-up - so original yet so simple - jazzes you from the start, and barring a few baffling editing choices, it's a technically accomplished piece of work, to boot. The industrial rumblings of the score and the sound effects are weirdly, wonderfully creepy (the undead make horrific, gargled shrieking noises like the pod people in Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers), and director David Slade has a gift for unsettling imagery; an overhead pan of the vampires attacking their prey, leaving bloody swaths in the snow, is a particular thrill.
30 Days of Night might have made for a minor horror classic had the characters simply been denied the power of speech - and I'm not just referring to the vampires. The monsters' subtitled, Euro-baddie hissings are ceaselessly silly, but even worse are the stoic mutterings of the humans; their flat, uninspired dialogue is, unfortunately, perfectly matched by the actors' flat, uninspired portrayals. (You know you're in trouble when Josh Hartnett is cast as a movie's emotional center, and even Ben Foster's twitchy loon feels derivative of all the other twitchy loons Foster has played over the years.) Every time you're hoping to be truly scared, the conversations and the performers' depressingly sub-par work make you laugh, and prevent 30 Days of Night from ever being more than an acceptable - barely acceptable - Halloween-themed diversion. If you want to see something really scary, though, check out Dan in Real Life instead.