This Is It | Love Happens | Halloween II

Cinema reviews for Oct. 29
This Is It

Directed by Kenny Ortega. Starring Michael Jackson, Alex Al, Nick Bass, Michael Bearden, Daniel Celebre, Mekia Cox, Misha Gabriel, Chris Grant, Judith Hill, Dorian Holley, Shannon Holtzapffel, Devin Jamieson, Bashiri Johnson, Charles Klapow, Jonathan Moffett, Tommy Organ, Orianthi, Darryl Phinnessee, Mo Pleasure, Dres Reid, Ken Stacey, Tyne Stecklein, Timor Steffens.

We´ve been led to believe that Michael Jackson, in mountains of debt, arranged a 2009 concert tour against his own will as a way to make some quick money. That he was heavily medicated around the clock, that the strain of preparing for the tour was too much for him and may have contributed to his death. And one might be excused for thinking (as I did) that releasing This Is It posthumously a few months later as a worldwide “two week only” event was a cash grab for the Jackson estate.

All that may be true, but absolutely none of it is evidenced in this film, assembled by director Kenny Ortega and a team of editors from rehearsal footage of Jackson and his production team from April to June. It´s a unique and exhilarating film that flies in the face of my expectations, and is quite unlike anything I´ve seen before: part concert documentary, part backstage behind-the-scenes production footage, equally fascinating.

This Is It begins with footage of prospective dancers about to audition for the concert production, some overcome with emotion. It moves to Jackson´s press conference in London, where he announces “this is it…this will be the final curtain call.” And quickly we’re transported to the stage for the remainder of the film: what seems to be a near-complete recreation of what that concert would entail, including full musical numbers back by props, dancers, and digital footage, interspliced with production asides that reveal a Jackson quite unlike the one we might expect.

Michael Jackson is vibrant and enthusiastic here – certainly not the sickly or drug-addled figure we might come to expect. A decade plus removed from the stage, but he hasn´t missed a beat. The production side of Jackson is revealing; he directed the production along with Ortega, and knows exactly what he wants, and how to carefully motivate his crew in order to get it.

Highlights are many. They include a rendition of Smooth Criminal backed by a digital montage that seamlessly inserts Jackson into shots taken from Gilda with Rita Hayworth, Dead Reckoning and Tokyo Joe with Humphrey Bogart, Larceny, Inc. with Edward G. Robinson and other 40´s films (and it must have been inspired by this excellent video of Fred Astaire dancing to the song.) Thriller is backed by footage intended for 3D (would the concert audience be wearing 3D glasses?) of ghouls and zombies rising from the grave and walking towards the camera. Black or White concludes with a memorable guitar duel between Tommy Organ and Orianthi; I Just Can’t Stop Loving You features and impressive duet with Judith Hill.

The energy on display is magnetic; two hours seem to fly by, not a particularly easy feat for a concert film or a documentary. It only lags – just a bit – towards the very end, with Jackson performing Billie Jean and Man in the Mirror solo on the stage.

The bulk of the film was shot with what appears to be three digital cameras: two of them high definition, one, well, not so high definition. The first two cameras capture a near flawless image that belies their behind-the-scenes intent; the third is of an expectedly (but acceptably) lower quality, windowboxed inside the 1.85:1 frame. Audio quality is also flawless. By all accounts, this rehearsal footage looks and sounds as good as any fully-produced concert film.

I´m not a particular fan of Michael Jackson, or his music. But This Is It is something special, even profound. If the concert went forward, it would have been quite the curtain call for Jackson. Instead, this film serves as a fitting tribute.



Love Happens

Directed by Brandon Camp. Starring Aaron Eckhart, Jennifer Aniston, Dan Fogler, John Carroll Lynch, Martin Sheen, Judy Greer, Frances Conroy, Joe Anderson, Sasha Alexander, Clyde Kusatsu, Anne Marie DeLuise, Tyler McClendon, Panou, Michael Kopsa, Michelle Harrison. Written by Brandon Camp & Mike Thompson.

Love never quite happens in Brandon Camp´s Love Happens, a well-intentioned but seriously mishandled film. It´s been marketed as a romantic comedy, but there´s precious little romance and no comedy; the film is instead a maudlin drama on the nature of death and grieving that´s been run through the Hollywood ringer.

Aaron Eckhart stars as Burke Ryan, a widower and author whose book on grieving has turned him into a Tony Robbins-like self guru. The film is in trouble right off the bat, as it doesn´t know whether to treat this character with derision or sympathy; Burke seems sincere enough, but he´s also exploited a market of people dealing with loss for money. Well, we can treat the character with derision, in any case: he´s completely disingenuous, and an incredibly poor lead. In most movies, Burke Ryan would be the villain, a snake oil salesman out to scam the recently bereaved; here we´re expected to sympathize with and root for him.

Camp has come back to Seattle to give a four-day seminar (and, apparently, meet with executives about a TV show and line of merchandise). His manager Lane (Dan Fogler) steers him towards the money, but also seems to have Burke´s best interests at heart. You see, he has a terrible secret: despite helping people with their losses, he has yet to get over the death of his wife. Oh, the irony. His wife died in a car accident in Seattle three years ago, and her father (Martin Sheen) comes to yell at Burke at the seminar for reasons yet to be fully explained.

Into Burke´s life comes flower girl Eloise Chandler (Jennifer Aniston). Just like in Chaplin´s City Lights, although Eloise isn´t blind. She does pretend to be deaf to avoid having to talk to Burke, and would have to be deaf and blind to fall for him (a Helen Keller reference is even thrown out there to confirm it). Eloise is an eccentric type who writes obscure words behind hotel room pictures (?) and has just broken up with her musician boyfriend.

And, she´s barely in the movie. No, this is the Burke Ryan show all the way, as we watch a step-by-step of how not to help others – or yourself – in the grieving process. Did your son just die? Well, come walk on a bed of hot coals while we all cheer you on. Burke even stands on the hot coals to goad the poor man to walk on over. Can´t stand to go into a construction store after your son was killed in a construction accident? Sounds like a field trip to Home Depot is in order. Cue montage music.

Love Happens plays out almost like a horror film, with the audience yelling at the characters not to make these wrong, clearly stupid decisions, even though we know the screenplay requires them to do so. The film has its heart in the right place, but everything feels so completely wrong.

Love Happens is Camp´s directorial debut. His father, Joe Camp, made the Benji movies, and this one is handled with about the same amount of sentimentality.



Halloween II

Written and directed by Rob Zombie. Starring Sheri Moon Zombie, Chase Wright Vanek, Scout Taylor-Compton, Brad Dourif, Caroline Williams, Malcolm McDowell, Tyler Mane, Dayton Callie, Richard Brake, Octavia Spencer, Danielle Harris, Richard Riehle, Margot Kidder, Mary Birdsong, Brea Grant, Howard Hesseman, Angela Trimbur, Diane Ayala Goldner, Jeffrey Daniel Phillips, Adam Boyer, Duane Whitaker, Betsy Rue, Mark Boone Junior.


Well, I hated Rob Zombie´s first Halloween, but I´ll give credit where credit is due: his sequel is brutally effective, a nightmarish vision that almost reaches arthouse pretensions. It still doesn´t work as a movie – it drags along with a near total lack of suspense or tension, looks so damn ugly, and all these characters are still unlikable – but as a visceral punch to the gut it delivers the goods.

Like the 1981 sequel to John Carpenter´s original, Halloween II picks up right where the first entry left off: it´s the same night as the events of the previous film, Michael Myers (Tyler Mane) has been ‘killed´, and Laurie Strode (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Annie Brackett (Danielle Harris) are taken to the local hospital. Of course, Myers isn´t really dead, and he´s soon murdering nurses and watchmen and stalking Laurie through chilly hospital corridors. It´s taken right from Rick Rosenthal´s Halloween II, and while straightforward, some of the better work by Zombie in his sequel: there´s some actual pacing and atmosphere on display.

But it´s all too brief: the film suddenly diverges and we flash-forward to one year later. Laurie is now living with Annie and her father, Sheriff Brackett (Brad Dourif); she still has nightmares about the events of a year ago and is seeing a psychiatrist (played by Margot Kidder). Meanwhile, Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell) has turned into a media whore to promote his new book, which promises to reveal new secrets about Myers, who has become a serial killer phenomenon.

Ah yes, Michael Myers; his body was never recovered, though Laurie and Loomis adamantly deny he could still be out there. Or…could he? Yes, apparently Myers has been living in a makeshift cabin the woods for the past year – just like Jason Vorhees – waiting to make his return on Halloween Day. Zombie amps up the realism here, giving us a raggedy-clothed, long-bearded, rotted-mask wearing Hobo Myers, who does indeed return to Haddonfield to embark on another killing spree.

And thus we have a decapitation via a shard of glass, strangulations, endless stabbings, brutal bare-hand violence, and the showstopper, when Myers stomps a man´s face into a bloody pulp and then props him up for display. This isn´t your typical studio slasher film; the violence is realistic and sickening and with each thrust of the knife – we don´t usually see penetration, but the soundtrack fills us in – I was disgusted and uncomfortable. I give a lot of credit to Zombie because this is exactly how on-screen violence should be depicted, and most cinephiles will leave his film feeling like they would after leaving Pasolini´s Salo. I only fear that the actual audience for Halloween II is receiving it quite differently.

Now, the rest of this movie is just as bad as his first, but Zombie at least takes it to such wildly divergent depths that he´s no longer mimicking a classic original and looking pale in comparison. John Carpenter´s original Halloween was a masterpiece that stood far above all the sequels and imitations and the slasher genre that it heavily influenced. Zombie´s Halloween II is on the very fringe of that genre, with talk show excursions featuring Weird Al Yankovic and Michael Myers dream sequences featuring his younger self, his mother, a gallant white horse, and rotting pumpkin people gathered around a dinner table. It´s so far removed from the original that it fails to offend its memory, no matter how hard Zombie tries.

But there´s little atmosphere on display outside of a grungy cesspool. The characters (including Laurie Strode) are all vulgar trailer trash, Jerry Springer rejects that we come to hate and don´t mind seeing slaughtered. McDowell is usually fun to watch, but to even the playing field, the Loomis character has been turned into an indefensible prick. There´s no suspense in the film; it´s all kill, kill kill. Admittedly, there are some memorable moments amidst the dreck.

Halloween II is too pretentious for mainstream audiences and too vile for most everyone else, though a select few may appreciate it and Zombie´s vision.

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