Archive for September 20, 2009

"Into Temptation" Movie Poster

"Into Temptation" Movie Poster

Okay, right off the bat, maybe it’s fair to say that your host can’t be neutral on this one. Not only was writer-director Patrick Coyle’s second feature (the first being 2003’s little-seen “Detective Fiction”) lensed entirely in my hometown of Minneapolis, much of it was shot not even a mile from my house. A good half the action or more takes place a the fictitious St. Mary Magdalene Catholic church, which is, in actuality, Incarnation Catholic church, which is just about ten blocks up 38th street from my house and right across the street from where I attended elementary school. And hey, even though this is an ultra-low-budget effort shot on hi-def video, it’s still pretty cool seeing one’s home environs up on the big screen.

Our story is pretty straightforward : hip, liberal young priest  Father John Buerlein (played by Jeremy Sisto, who turned in superb roles as Brenda’s crazy brother Billy on HBO’s “Six Feet Under,” as the inattentive-at-best husband in “Waitress,” and as the nominal love interest in Lucky McKee’s outstanding and powerful humanistic horror flick “May, among others—and I guess he’s now one of the leads on “Law And Order,” a show that, even though it’s been on literally forever, I admit I’ve never seen more than two- or three-minute snippets of when flipping through the channels) is hearing confessions in his working-class (and purportedly downtown, even though it’s on 38th) parish one day when a young woman  (who we later learn is named Linda, played by Kristin Chenoweth, who I understand starred on TV’s “The West Wing”) comes in and gives a doozy—she’s there to confess a sin she’s about to commit, namely taking her own life. She then proceeds to tell Father John about her tragic childhood (her stepfather repeatedly raped her beginning when she was twelve) and how this set in motion a chain of events that lead her to eventually become a high-end escort. She’s tired of being a prostitute, though, sees no hope for the future, and has decided to end it all. Why she came to Father John to make this heartfelt (and heart-rending) confession, though, is a mystery that will remain unknown to us until the film’s very last scene, and one that he himself will never uncover (along with her final fate—and we in the audience are in the same boat as him with that one, since the movie never explicitly states whether she goes through with her plan in the end or not, although she sure is ready to).

All Father John sees of her through the confessional is a somewhat large and impressive crucifix  dangling between her (also somewhat large and impressive) cleavage, and when she’s done telling her tale, he rushes out to try and stop her from leaving the church only to find she’s already gone.

The memory of her confession remains with him, though, and in the days that follow, in between attending to his other parish duties such as counseling his flock, administering mass, and what have you, he begins to try to formulate a plan to figure out who this woman was, where he can find her, and how he can save her. Soon he’s trolling the streets of Minneapolis’ (admittedly largely imaginary, but they do a good job of turning the last nominally sleazy block of Hennepin Avenue into it) “red light” district and trying to find any sign of this ethereal woman.

Fearful that he’s getting in over his head emotionally, he relies upon another priest at a decidedly more well-to-do parish for moral support (as well as a loan after he gets mugged), and recruits one of his parishoners, an ex-Gold Gloves boxer, to back him up as he combs our fair city’s “mean” streets in his quest.

His physical search is neatly paralleled with his concurrent emotional and spiritual one, and the juxtaposition of the two is obvious without being heavy-handed. It’s a fine line to walk and Coyle’s tight script and economical direction straddle it perfectly, and Sisto is absolutely dynamite in conveying his character’s quiet inner turmoil that threatens to become out-and-out anguish at any moment. Honestly, we don’t know if he’s more interested in her out of pure concern, sexual attraction, or a deep psychological need on his own part to be a savior. And neither does he. Maybe he’s drawn to her because of her plight, maybe it’s because he gets off on being a hero, maybe the similarities between her story and that of the saint for which his parish is named are too much to ignore and literally compel him to go forward,  or maybe it’s just because of her tits. In truth, of course, it’s all of the above, and only as he begins to resolve all of these conflicting reasons for wanting to find her does he draw closer to her in her final, fateful hours.

Again, the parallels between resolving his own inner conflict and resolving the mystery “on the ground” before it’s too late are in no way subtle, yet handled incredibly effectively. Paradoxically, the direction, scripting, and acting are more subtle and understated than the core of the plot itself.  This is key to the film’s success, because in lesser hands this whole thing could come off as incredibly heavy-handed.

I’ll refrain, like the professional critic I’m not, from giving away too much more (well, okay, I kind of blew a big chunk of the ending already) — suffice to say that Father John learns very little in terms of concrete information as the movie draws to a close, but learns the most important thing that he possibly could—that “closure, ” such as it is, comes from within, and that he can “know” this woman, and know a kind of peace, without ever knowing what really happens to her. The up-in-the-air nature of the ending demands that we as an audience take that lesson to heart, as well, and in that way, it works beautifully. The conclusion is only unsatisfying for us if we allow it to be, if we are more focused on what happens in the movie than we are on what it’s really about.

Understatedly dramatic, turbulent, and gripping, “Into Temptation” is a provocative, thought-provoking and ultimately extremely rewarding piece of work. It speaks softly, yes,  but it also speaks volumes, and it’s a movie that will stay with you for a long time. I’d say the same if it was shot in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago—or even St. Paul.

"Sorority Row" Movie Poster

"Sorority Row" Movie Poster

Theta Pi must die!

Pretty good tagline, huh? “Sorority Row,” a remake/update of 1983’s superb “The House On Sorority Row,” does indeed boast a couple of good “zingers” in its “viral” and standard marketing campaigns, the other being “Sisterhood Is Forever.”  They’re direct, to the point, and easy to remember. Enough to pique your interest.  But is that interest ultimately rewarded?

The cast is a testament to the continuing power of nepotism in Hollywood, featuring as it does Rumer Willis (Bruce and Demi’s kid) and Briana Evigan (daughter of Greg, still best remembered as title character B.J. McKay in TV’s “B.J. And The Bear”) among its bevy of young almost-starlets. They each out in good turns as basket-case Ellie and quasi-hero Cassidy, respectively, and are  the only two sisters among a group of five members of the exclusive Theta Pi sorority who share a deadly secret between them to show any sort of remorse for the part they played in a deadly prank gone wrong that left one of their other members at the bottom of a disused mine shaft.

The initial premise of accidentally killing their friend while she’s pretending to be dead is clever enough and fleshed out in much more detail than it was in the original, but in all fairness this remake suffers from some of the same flaws that so many previous entries in the horror classic do-over sweepstakes do : it’s more stylized than it is stylish, it’s trying overly-hard to be “contemporary” and “relevant” while remaining ostensibly true to its “source material,” and has an unfortunate tendency to over-explain things just in case its audience leans too heavily toward the moronic —for instance, we can see with our own two eyes that the killer is using a tricked-out tire iron, there’s really no need for dialogue exposition to confirm that fact, and while we’re at it, there’s no need to keep reminding us of the fact that Megan, the unfortunate victim in question, can’t possible be alive—we know that, too, and when the sisters who dumped her and some of their friends start getting killed off one-by-one on the night of their college graduation, the movie doesn’t even try particularly hard to sell us on the idea that it could be her back from the grave to exact vengeance, so why keep mentioning it as a possibility?

The real identity of the killer is the main source of intrigue here, and while some of the “red herrings” along the way are pretty blatantly absurd (Carrie Fisher as the stereotypical drunk house mother, for instance, never seems plausible as the face beneath the murderer’s graduation gown hood, but they sure do try to sell us on the idea for a little while), it’s nevertheless an interesting enough little mystery, and when the raging psychopath is finally revealed, to give credit where it’s due, it actually is fairly surprising.

The rest of the principal cast—Leah Pipes as super-bitch Jessica,  Jamie Chung as perpetually-cheated-on Claire, and Margo Harshman as drunken uber-slut Chugs—all do well enough with their roles, and director Stewart Hendler keeps things moving at a pretty brisk and at times even suspenseful clip. No one here has anything to be ashamed of, that’s for sure.

But then, there’s nothing that particularly sets this film apart from the passel of teen- and twenty-something-horror out there. It’s involving enough for about 100 minutes, but in no way especially memorable, yet alone groundbreaking. You won’t reflect on it much later, nor be dying to rent it on DVD. It all fades from memory pretty quickly.

It’s not bad, that’s for certain, but it never rises above the level of “acceptably average,” so while your host isn’t willing to go so far as to say you should give this movie a pass, the fact is that you won’t be missing a whole lot if you don’t see it, especially since there’s sure to be something else more or less exactly like it that comes along within the next few weeks.