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Films I Neglected To Review: Insert "Houston, We Have A Problem" Joke Here.

By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 09/03/11 14:19:46

In between barbecuing, swimming and not watching the MDA telethon in protest of the shabby way in which they treated Jerry Lewis by dumping him as host of what would have been his final go-around on the show that he basically built and sustained for nearly a half-century, here are a handful of short reviews of new films that include two cheesy horror efforts, the directorial debut of an acclaimed actress and a look at one of the biggest financial scandals of all time and how it could have been stopped over a decade ago.

In space, as we all well know, no one can hear you scream but that is certainly not the case with your friendly neighborhood multiplex. That said, it is likely that if any screams are to be heard from the auditoriums screening the long-delayed sci-fi thriller "Apollo 18," they will be less of the terrorized type and more of the "I paid $10 for this load of crap!" variety. Utilizing the found-footage gimmick popularized by the likes of "The Blair Witch Project" and "Paranormal Activity," the film purports to consist of footage taken during a clandestine eighteenth Apollo mission to the moon that was launched in December, 1974 that shows how things went horribly wrong and explains why we to this day have never returned. On the surface, it sounds like a potentially intriguing idea for a film but director Gonzalo Lopez-Gallego and writers Corey Goodwin and Brian Miller have completely botched it up in the execution. (To be fair, the film was rumored to have been filled with numerous production hiccups, so it is unclear as how to accurately parcel out the blame.) While the film spends an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to sell its basic premise, it mysteriously undermines itself by messing up on the little things; while I am willing to buy the notion that thousands of NASA workers could be sworn to secrecy in regards to the details of the launch, I find it hard to believe that someone would have gone out and ordered commemorative uniform patches mentioning a mission that theoretically doesn't exist and a crew that theoretically never went into space. Exacerbating that problem is that so little happens during the next hour or so that all you can really do to pass the time is pick at the story's logic, especially since the film completely fails to convey they mystery and terror of the unknown that is space in the way that "The Blair Witch Project" did with the woods. And when we finally discover the source of all the terror. . .well, it turns out not to be long-dormant Transporters but the real reveal is so astoundingly rock-stupid that a mass of transmogrifying robots would have actually made sense by comparison. One of the review quotes cited in the ads (which is weird since the film was not screened in advance to the press, ostensibly to protect the mystery but really to prevent the word of its lousiness from getting out before the opening weekend) actually goes so far as to compare "Apollo 18" to the all-time classic "Alien" in terms of sheer scariness. Not only is it nowhere near as frightening as "Alien," it fails to evoke the raw terror of the likes of "Aliens in the Attic."

When the news about Bernie Madoff, the New York hedge fund manager whose impossibly high annual returns were found to be the result of a massive fraud that ended up bilking investors to the tune of approximately $50 billion dollars, first broke a few years ago, it was almost inevitable that someone would make a movie about it even though the amount of greed and hubris involved was so staggering that they made the financial depravations of Enron and Worldcom look like penny-ante bunco by comparison. The new documentary "Chasing Madoff" is the first one to tackle the story head-on and does so by looking at it largely through the eyes of Harry Markopolos, an ordinary financial analyst who crunched the numbers Madoff was generating more than ten years ago and almost immediately discerned that something fishy was going on. Unfortunately, his allegations were ignored, mostly because Madoff was making so much money for so many people at the time that the authorities were willing to turn a blind eye even in the face of Markopolos' compelling evidence that Madoff was running nothing more than an enormous Ponzi scheme. Alas, while Jeff Prsserman's film is the first on the subject, it is nowhere near the great one that the material deserves. At best, it plays like a cinematic version of a reasonably compelling "Vanity Fair" article--it gathers together all the essential details of the story and presents them in a manner lucid and cogent enough so that even complete novices can understand what happened. The trouble with that approach is that it doesn't dig much further than the basics of the story and those viewers who know those elements and who are looking for a more in-depth look at Madoff's crimes are likely to come away slightly disappointed. Combine that with a rudimentary cinematic approach--the usual style featuring talking head interviews, archival footage and pseudo-arty cutaways--and the result is a movie that will leave audiences feeling angry, just not angry enough.

In films ranging from low-budget indie fare like "Down to the Bone" to glossier star-filled studio films like "The Departed" and "Up in the Air" to unapologetic B-movie stuff like "Running Scared," "Orphan" and "Source Code," Vera Farmiga has become one of the most intriguing and compelling actresses to emerge over the last few years. In the new film "Higher Ground," Farmiga makes her directorial debut with a story that examines one woman's evolving relationship with Christianity over the years and it changes and shapes her in unexpected ways. Corinne (played by Mackenzie Turner as a child, by Farmiga's younger sister, Tessia, as a teenager and by Farmiga herself as an adult) gives her life over to Christ at her local church as a child, drifts away from it as a teenager as she becomes interested in boys and winds up getting pregnant. After she and her husband and child miraculously survive a car accident, she re-embraces her faith and the family joins an evangelical community that provides her with a sense of purpose at first but whose constraints involving the place of women in the congregation (who are better seen than heard and certainly not asked to interpret or question Scripture in any way) eventually force her to look for something else in her life.

On the one hand, the film is a bit of a mess--the story rambles on a little too long for its own good and some of the digressions (especially a bit where Corinne and a more enlightened friend draw sketches of their husbands' genitalia) are a bit silly--and it never quite pulls itself together into a coherent whole. At the same time, while it isn't exactly a successful film in the end, it is often a fascinating one. As a director, Farmiga is generous in the way she allows her fellow actors to take center stage instead of keeping the focus entirely on herself and her depiction of religion is interesting in the way that it avoids the expected cheap shots--for the most part, she portrays the various forms of religion and its practitioners in generally positive ways instead of as the monstrous entities that might have cropped up in a less subtle handling of the material. In the end, "Higher Ground" isn't a great movie but it is a pretty good one and while I certainly hope that Vera Farmiga doesn't give up her day job anytime soon, her work here is impressive enough to make me keenly interested in seeing what she comes up with next as a director.

There are two types of people in the world--those who would never dream of wasting their time and money on going to see anything called "Shark Night 3D" on the basis that it sounds like irredeemable trash and those who would rush out immediately to see it on the basis that it sounds like irredeemable trash. Alas, the final film is neither quite good enough or bad enough to live up to said expectations. Essentially a slightly more expensive of those ridiculous low-budget water-based campfests that Roger Corman now cranks out for the SyFy Channel (featuring Dinosharks and Megapiranhas and the like) with a heaping helping of "Straw Dogs," of all things, thrown in for good measure, the film follows a bunch of dopey college kids (with Sara Paxton and Katherine McPhee being the most familiar faces of the bunch, not that you will be looking at those faces for very long) as they go off to spend the weekend at a remote lake house. As it turns out, the lake is inexplicably filled with sharks of all varieties and after a couple of them get chomped up (I don't want to give anything away but when a group of seven in a film like this features five white people and two minorities, you can pretty much figure out who definitely isn't going to be hanging around for the final reel), the others struggle to survive their long shark night of the soul. (Of course, you are probably thinking that survival for the rest would be relatively simple as long as they stay out of the water but wouldn't you know it, the script keeps finding reasons for them to get back in.)

As I said, the film is incredibly dumb but on the other hand, it is difficult to mount a credible complaint about the logic and intelligence of something called "Shark Night 3D" without sounding like an idiot yourself. For a little while, it is sort of fun in a cheerfully and knowingly moronic way--fully realizing that it is bound to be compared to the immortal classic "Jaws," the film kicks things off with a blatant copy of the famous opening scene of the sexy lone swimmer screaming while her paramour on the beach fails to hear her--and the walking MRE's that make up the cast, though clearly cast mostly for the way they fill out their bathing suits (in this regard, Katherine McPhee is no mere runner-up), are amiably dopey enough as they go through their familiar paces. However, as the film goes on, it gets dumber and dumber and when it finally gets to the ultimate explanation of how and why the lake is harboring so many different species of shark beneath its salty surface, the revelation is so astoundingly idiotic and nonsensical, even for a film that presents uber-lummox Donal Logue as the local sheriff, that if it had been presented as the solution for an episode of "Scooby-Doo," those responsible would have been sent back to the writers room with an admonition to come up with something a little more plausible and intelligent. Although there have been worse movies than this to emerge over the last few months, the best thing to be said about "Shark Night 3D" is that as shark-based thrillers shot in questionable and not-entirely-successful 3D go, it is better than "Jaws 3D"--that said, it isn't [that much better.

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