I kinda get the beef with William Malone’s House On Haunted Hill, I mean it’s essentially a lazy, paper thin story gussied up by a whole bunch of spooky visual effects and fancy, baroque production design, but I loved it anyhow. Malone is the same guy who made the infamous FearDotCom and such was also the case there: nonsensical narrative made entirely watchable by pure visual artistry alone. Maybe the guy has a yet to be discovered career in music videos ahead of him. Anyways, the plot revolves around a weird looking building sat on a cliff overlooking the sea, a place which was once a freaky asylum run by a mad surgeon (Jeffry Combs with nary a word of dialogue) who murdered his patients. Half a century later it’s owned by snarky amusement park guru Geoffrey Rush and his potty mouthed femme fatale wife (Famke Jannssen). They invite several bored LA types over for the night including a faded baseball star (Taye Diggs), a movie studio VP (Ali Larter), a smarmy hotshot Doctor (Peter Gallagher) and a tabloid journalist (Bridgette Wilson Sampras). The deal is, if you make it one night alive in this place Rush will pay you a cool million bucks. You can guess what happens next. This film is very short on story and a lot of it is just characters wandering through grimly lit corridors and getting haunted by unseen terrors. The characters are hilarious though and the cast is really having fun. Rush is a gnarled hoot as the misanthropic tycoon, with a pencil moustache as precariously thin as his threshold for having tantrums. The lovely Janssen is saddled with a trashy role that’s beneath her classy talents but she’s game and makes this chick one seriously bratty, scene stealing bitch. Chris Kattan also shows up as like… the butler or caretaker of this place I guess? I had an acting teacher once tell us that every performance you give should be modelled after the physicality and essence of one member of the animal kingdom. Chris heard that and apparently decided to base every role for the rest of his career on a squirrel with a serious meth habit, because that’s what I felt like I was watching when he was onscreen. I can understand why this film doesn’t get a lot of love, it’s a remake of a no doubt cherished 60’s horror film and that coupled with its lack of a real story… I get it. However, I really enjoyed it for the set design and very freaky visual horror creations. I think that director Malone missed his calling as a full blown, thoroughbred surrealist like Lynch or Merhige because he has a real gift with abstract, otherworldly makeup, editing and FX. Some of the berserk visual stuff later is right out of a post modern video collage installation and reminded me of like Jacob’s Ladder or Eraserhead. If Malone put that talent to work in a project that would allow him to fully be taken seriously as a filmmaker he’d be the stuff of Lynchian legends. But hey, this film is super fun too, if kinda slight. Rush and his merry band of fellow cast-mates are great, and like I said it gets genuinely fucking weird right near the end, and weird is always good. Oh also, bonus points for using Marilyn Manson’s Sweet Dreams as a kind of theme song. Oh and also: this is like one in an unofficial trilogy with 13 Ghosts and Ghost Ship as early 2000’s ensemble piece gonzo horror with metal infused soundtracks, produced by the Dark Castle label, excessively opulent special effects and bad reputations, and I love all three to bits no matter what anyone says.
Aaron Sorkin gets a lot of props for his writing and the guy has done some good stuff but I can’t let him off the hook for Malice, a backwards ass psychosexual melodrama that’s so bad it isn’t even good, it’s just hot fucking mess, twice baked roadkill in summer bad. I wanted to love this because I’m a huge fan of melodramatic 90’s potboilers and also it stars Alec Baldwin, Bill Pullman and Nicole Kidman, three wicked sharp and always reliable stars. But man, this thing is just a fucking mess.
The plot, if you could call it that, revolves around three central characters: a college dean (Pullman), his wife (Nicole Kidman) and a hotshot surgeon (Baldwin) with a severely self proclaimed god complex and generally corrosive, unpleasant personality. After he’s sued big time for malpractice when he wrongfully removes her ovaries in an emergency procedure the plot just completely derails and descends into sleazy lifetime thriller territory. The twists contain zero logic, the characters are nondescript cardboard inserts save Baldwin who does his best to save it but eventually gets cornered by the silly narrative just like everyone else. Oh yeah and there’s a subplot about a serial rapist/killer on campus that’s thrown in there seemingly for the fuck of it as an afterthought, but you’ll guess who it is the moment he shows up just because he’s such a recognizably creepy dude. There’s supporting efforts from Josef Sommer, Bebe Neurith, Peter Gallagher, Tobin Bell, Anne Bancroft, an early Gwyneth Paltrow appearance and George C. Scott himself as a cantankerous old veteran doctor with a Santa beard. Wicked cast, right? Too bad they’re all mostly wasted.
I love a good deception/betrayal/psycho doctor potboiler but the gears all have to click together and come up with something that’s believable or you just end up in Eric Roberts two dollar bin material (sorry Eric but it’s true). This thing is ridiculously plotted right out the ass and what’s worse is we didn’t even care one ounce about these characters from the start so we don’t even get the masochistic rush of seeing people we’ve invested in get flushed down the drain of a bad script. This thing just flatlines, and even the scenes that provide some vague thrill seem episodic and detached from the story overall. The only halfway saving grace is Baldwin who really relishes the grade A asshole role enthusiastically, for the first half anyways until things really begin to disintegrate. I will say he gets one of the best lines of his whole career here though. When second guessed by one of his underlings in the OR, he later growls at them in in the locker room: “If you ever question me again in there I’ll take out your lungs with a fucking ice cream scoop” “I’m not gonna like you much, am I?” His colleague bemoans, to which he affably replies “What are you talkin’ about? Everybody likes me.” It’s a terrific moment and the only sign of life in an otherwise awful film.
Tony Goldwyn’s Conviction is a searing dramatic tale that’s heavily based on true events, and is essentially the underdog story boiled down to its most effective elements, with inspiration running throughout its truly remarkable storyline. Hilary Swank can be a force of nature in her work, and she’s dynamite here as Betty Anne Waters, a small town girl who is very close with her rambunctious sibling Kenny (Sam Rockwell), who grows up as the troublemaker of the two, running afoul of a nasty local police officer (Melissa Leo). When his next door neighbour is found stabbed to death, Leo sees it as her opportunity to get rid him for good, and tampers with evidence, until he is convicted. Guilty until proven innocent is the mantra with this difficult tale, and because it’s based on a true story that happened in real life, it unfolds at a snails pace of tragic events in which a satisfying outcome sometimes just seems out of reach. With Kenny in wrongfully convicted and rotting in prison while his wife and daughters edge towards moving on, Betty does the unthinkable: with no previous experience in college, let alone law, she decides to study for the bar exam, in order to eventually represent Kenny in court, and prove his innocence. It seems like something from a movie, and here we see it, but this is something that really, really happened, which to me is extraordinary and essential to make known. She persists through many obstacles both great and small, and with the help of a dapper senior colleague (Peter Gallagher), and a perky fellow law student (Minnie Driver) she passes the exam and sets out to defend her brother. It’s a rocky road, beset with the decayed and deliberately lost memories of years before, and the police officer’s longstanding belligerence. Unreliable witnesses, uncooperative testimonials and all sorts of stuff get in her way, but Betty ain’t a girl to quit or back down, a character trait which Swank seems to have been born to play, and is the lighthouse which guides this fantastic film along its track. Rockwell exudes burrowing frustration as a man in a position of incomprehensible sadness, hopeful yet resigned to his fate which has been orchestrated by evil, targeting him in wanton cruelty. Painful is the word for him here, and when Rockwell sets out for a mood in his work, you damn well feel it. Juliette Lewis briefly rears her head as a dimbulb witness who plays a part in Betty’s quest, as does Clea Duvall very briefly as another witness who seems to have no idea what she actually saw. Melissa Leo is an actress who is utterly and totally convincing whether she’s on the good or the evil side of the coin, holding the audience in rapturous awe with seemingly little effort. Here she’s so nasty it radiates off the screen, providing a core incentive for Betty’s struggle, whether or not the events actually played out like that. Director Tony Goldwyn is an actor himself and uses that experience to forge a film with respect and sympathy for its two leads. One of the more underrated films of 2010.