“Red Riding Hood” is moony PG-13 porn for teens

Seyfried and Fernandez prepare to go "Twilight" on each other in "Red Riding Hood."

Oh, to be a teen-age girl in a Catherine Hardwicke film these days. What a pip it must be to be lovely, hormonal and saucer-eyed and feverishly desired by not one but two handsome lads! And at the mere tilt of your pretty head they’ll squabble over you like starving hyenas over a rotting zebra carcass! One guy to dash in and defend your honor, and one to bat his bedroom eyes, unbutton your blouse and round second base … this must be the stuff dreams are made of.

Actually, “Red Riding Hood” is more like the stuff the “Twilight” films are made of — and considering Hardwicke directed the first of that franchise, anyone who’s surprised by these similarities likely has spent the past five years living under a rock. “Red Riding Hood,” sadly, is exactly the kind of film Edward/Bella fans wanted Hardwicke to produce: sexually charged but tame enough to garner a PG-13 rating; overflowing with Longing Glances of Forbidden Feelings all set to an unapologetically pheremonal score; rife with strained performances (mostly by the men, who aim for “sexy” but actually hit “constipated”); and a truly, unforgivably horrendous CGI werewolf.  Fans of Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” and “Lords of Dogtown” hoping for a return to that form are in for a letdown. Whatever promise there seemed to be in the concept of updating/reimagining a well-known fairy tale has left the building. “Red Riding Hood” is just more porn for the tween-something serial texting and forever-14-at-heart sets.

The major problem with Hardwicke’s update has little to do with the plot and everything to do with the execution. Gone is the naïve red hood-wearing child of bedtime story fame. She has been replaced by Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), an alluring young woman besotted with poor/oh-so-dreamy woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, who affects a bewildering wannabe Elvis lip snarl). Her parents — Suzette (the forever-rigid Virginia Madsen) and Cesaire (Billy Burke) — have different plans. They have arranged for Valerie to marry Henry (Max Irons, who should wear a sign that reads “Nice Guy Without a Prayer”), the son of the village’s wealthiest blacksmith. This burgeoning love triangle is interrupted by tragedy — the dreaded werewolf that plagues Daggerhorn kills Valerie’s sister and stalks the townspeople. Attempts to capture the beast end badly, so Father Auguste (a twitchy Lukas Haas) calls in famed witch hunter Father Solomon (Gary Oldman), who brings his own torture chamber. He intends to catch the werewolf, alright, but only if he can persecute a few witches in the process. Father Auguste, as Oldman plays him, is a megalomaniac who delights in shoving his mythology down people’s throats.

This isn’t a totally inaccurate description of “Red Riding Hood” as a whole. Because there’s little nuance to be unearthed anywhere in David Johnson’s script, in Hardwicke’s direction or in the actors’ performances. Visually “Red Riding Hood” is attractive, even magical, with its wood cabins made shadowy and sensual by roaring fires and swirling snowflakes. The mystique begins and ends here, though (excluding the reveal of the werewolf’s identity, which is genuinely surprising). The acting sinks the whole production. Fernandez, saddled with the sexy bad boy role, snarls and squints his way through the film while exhibiting almost no personality. He never feels like the right choice. What’s worse, neither does Irons, who thinks looking surprised is the antidote to Fernandez’s slitty glances. Henry’s just as wooden and uninteresting as Peter, and neither seems worthy of empathy. Burke and Oldman, who gets perhaps the juiciest parts, does too little and too much with the characters, respectively. Oldman treats “Red Riding Hood” like an all-you-can-eat buffet, devouring whatever scenery appears in his way. Only Julie Christie, as Valerie’s mysterious grandmother, and Seyfried make much of an impression. Seyfried, at least, offers some ingenuity and simmering sexual energy. As far as damsels go, Valerie is a far cry from the foolish, simpering Bella Swan, yet the story forces Valerie to make senseless choices.

Yes, this is the mortal sin of “Red Riding Hood”: It takes a cunning heroine and turns her into a lovelorn fool. For shame.    

Grade: D

Top 10 actors/actresses of 2009

How many blog comments, I wonder, have inspired whole posts?

I don’t have an answer to that question, but the ever-astute Encore Entertainment posed a difficult but interesting question: Who gave the best performances, the ones that would top my list of favorites for the year?

Now that’s a thinker … but one that only lasted about six minutes. Then in marched the answers, and I present them to you thusly:

The ladies

Mo'Nique's blistering turn in "Precious" deserves to be called the best of the year.

  1. Mo’Nique, “Precious”
  2. Abbie Cornish, “Bright Star”
  3. Gabourey Sidibe, “Precious”
  4. Melanie Laurent, “Inglourious Basterds” 
  5. Vera Farmiga, “Up in the Air”
  6. Melanie Lynskey, “The Informant!” 
  7. Isabella Rossellini, “Two Lovers”
  8. Vinessa Shaw, “Two Lovers”
  9. Charlyne Yi, “Paper Heart”
  10. Meryl Streep, “Julie & Julia”

The fellows

Christoph Waltz creates the perfect villain in "Inglourious Basterds."

  1. Christoph Waltz, “Inglourious Basterds”
  2. Adam Sandler, “Funny People”
  3. George Clooney, “Up in the Air”
  4. Matt Damon, “The Informant!”
  5. Tobey Maguire, “Brothers”
  6. Joaquin Phoenix, “Two Lovers”
  7. Paul Schneider, “Bright Star”
  8. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, “(500) Days of Summer”
  9. Mark Ruffalo, “The Brothers Bloom”
  10. Zachary Quinto, “Star Trek”

Readers, which actors and actresses delivered the year’s best performances? Let’s hear your picks.

“Jennifer’s Body” a witty, surreal teen comedy

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

Amanda Seyfried weathers flesh-eating demons, whiny indie bands and poof sleeves in "Jennifer's Body."

I knew it. I knew it. I knew that if I hoped and prayed and wished and waited a long, long time that the Bizarro Alternate World would take over and the unthinkable would happen. And in “Jennifer’s Body,” the unthinkable has become reality: The brunette’s dicing up male hearts like room-temperature butter, and her mousy blonde friend — who wears tortoise-shell glasses! — is nothing but a mopey, fraidy-cat sidekick.

(Sigh.)

It turns out this is not Bizzaro Alternate World so much as just the warped plot of the Diablo Cody-penned wittier-than-thou “Jennifer’s Body,” a pointless but way fun horror comedy that lampoons teen movie cliches with wicked glee. And since this is, you know, Diablo Cody, all the fun is wrapped up in dialogue so sharp and self-conciously urbane that you have shredded murder victims described as “lasagna with teeth” and an indie band frontman (Adam Brody) who yearns to “reach out to fans in the shitty areas, too.”  

Yep, “Jennifer’s Body” is that kind of movie, another hip reinvention of the teen horror movie that ends up completely farfetched but also completely enjoyable. Part of that trashy fun stems from Megan Fox’s rather impressive performance as Jennifer Check, the resident hottie at Devil’s Kettle High School who spends her post-cheer practice time consuming male flesh. (She’s not killing people, you understand; she’s “killing boys.” There’s a difference.) There’s Brilliant Subversion No. 2 — a girl who’s not the victim, who is, in fact, making mincemeat out of boys? Love it. Standing petrified on the sidelines is Anita “Needy” Lesnicky (the insanely talented Amanda Seyfried), who suspects her more socially desirable B.F.F. — “sandbox love never dies” Needy offers up as reasoning for their unlikely friendship — is a killer. Too bad Needy can’t get her sensitive, Strokes haircut-sporting boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) to believe her. But she has to try real hard because if not The Big Dance will become (he he) an “all-you-can-eat buffet.”

That’s what I love most about “Jennifer’s Body,” lines like that. These words bear no resemblance to the way people actually talk, though if they do it’s probably because everybody saw “Juno,” figured it was the new “Clueless” and started a flip pad of jargon. (Come to think of it, that isn’t a half-bad idea, starting a log of Diablo Cody-isms. She’s so hot these days.) There are other killers so funny it’s nearly impossible to laugh at them. Needy and Jennifer’s pet names for each other? Monastat and Vagisil. Jennifer is “actually evil, not high-school evil.” When Chip’s mom begs him to carry pepper spray to the dance, he responds: “I can take care of myself. I’ve been using the Bowflex.” And there’s a bit about Thai food and sex that might cause public consumption of pad Thai to go up or down depending.

This whimsical absurdism bleeds (pardon the pun) into much of “Jennifer’s Body,” which means there’s not much substance — unless you count the characters. Fox does more than what’s expected of her — she proved she had comedic chops in “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People,” but, really, who saw this coming? — and has a lot of fun with Jennifer. Her delivery’s just right, though it’s doubtful any man in attendance will notice. With the way Fox fills out her teeny heart hoodies, ushers should have buckets handy to catch the drool. But enough about Fox. Why use too many words for her when there’s a better, meatier part played by a better actress with more range? Given her own fair looks, it’s shocking to see Amanda Seyfried plain-Jane it up as Needy, but she looks every inch the meek friend. There’s a sadness to Needy that Seyfried’s not afraid to explore, and later a looming darkness that’s unnerving, not the least bit cutsey. This is why Seyfried will become a household name — she’s got such talent you can’t help but like her in anything.

Jennifer may be the body, see, but Needy’s the soul. And hey, someone’s got to do the real heavy lifting while Megan Fox makes sexy.

Grade: B-

Ones to watch: 10 stars on the rise

If there’s one thing I love, it’s “Golden Girls” reruns. If there’s one thing I love more than that, it has to be seeing actors with enormous talent bust right through the showbiz ceiling. Because, quite frankly, it’s the quiet talents, the lesser-known actors, who often prove to be the most interesting.

And so I present you with a list of actors and actresses primed to hit, as Postal Service would say, such great heights:

  1. Sarah Burns — If her perfectly timed performance as the love-obsessed Hailey in “I Love You, Man” is any indication, there’s no stopping this comedienne. Get some more films on that resume, Sarah, and give the people what they want. 
  2. Jack Carpenter — Remember the day Jack bowled you over with his gawky charm in “I Love You, Beth Cooper” because a few years down the road, he’ll be the next Jay Baruchel, only more accessible, less quirky. Count on it.
  3. Jemaine Clement/Bret McKenzie — HBO, in its infinite wisdom, saw fit to give “The Flight of the Conchords” to the world, and we fell hard for the saltine-dry comedic stylings of Jemaine and Bret. Take that to the big screen, boys.
  4. Brandon T. Jackson — As Booty Sweat-swigging Alpa Chino in “Tropic Thunder,” Jackson held his own against Robert Downey Jr. — no mean feat. It’s clear he’s got talent to burn, so smarten up, directors, and give him the match.
  5. Lee Pace — Pace is destined to be remembered as “that weird piemaker guy” from “Pushing Daisies.” But heads up, Hollywood: This Oklahoma-born talent has dramatic chops perfect for meaty leading parts like Calpernia in “Soldier’s Girl.”
  6. Aubrey Plaza — Aubrey steals whole scenes from Amy Poehler in “Parks and Recreation.” Then she steals Seth Rogen’s heart in “Funny People.” And she’s got a ball-busting indie hipness as cool as her bangs. What more could you ask?
  7. Kristen Schaal — This funny lady is hardly new to showbiz — she’s popped up in movies like “Adam & Steve” for years. But if it took her hilariously weird turn as Conchords stalker Melanie on “Flight of the Conchords” to make her a household name? OK, then. 
  8. Paul Schneider — Schneider might be the most underappreciated actor of his generation. He balances subtle comedy (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and drama (“All the Real Girls”) like a champ, and now he’s giving prime-time TV a whirl. Let’s hope he’s on the cusp of something big. He deserves it.
  9. Amanda Seyfried — My but the brick-brain girl from “Mean Girls” has come a long way. She made dumb look funny, then won us over as Lilly Kane in “Veronica Mars” and a conflicted bride-to-be in “Mamma Mia!” Methinks becoming part of Diablo Cody’s “It” list (re: “Jennifer’s Body”) will take her even farther.
  10. Charlene Yi — She played a perpetually stoned Yoko to Martin Starr’s Lennon in “Knocked Up,” and now she’s co-written what looks to be the sleeper indie rom-com hit of summer ’09, “Paper Heart.” We haven’t scratched the surface of what this girl can do.

Everybody knows how this works (you’ve been here, you’ve bought the T-shirt, you spat your gum out behind that tree root): What other actors/actresses do you see poised to do great things?