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“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 She has been replaced by Valerie (Amanda Seyfried), an alluring young woman besotted with poor/oh-so-dreamy woodcutter Peter (Shiloh Fernandez, who affects a bewildering wannabe Elvis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

Shriekfest 2010: “El Orfanato,” “Wolf Creek”

“El Orfanato” (2007)
Starring Belén Rueda, Roger Príncep, Fernando Cayo, Montserrat Carulla

Cheery, idyllic childhoods are uncommon. Laura (Rueda) believes she had one, and she wants to recreate the experience by reopening the orphanage of her youth, now a rambling, creaky building in disrepair. Since moving in, though, Laura and her husband Carlos (Cayo) have noticed some alarming changes in their adopted son Simón (Príncep). Simón begins to talk of a new friend, Tomás – invisible to Laura and Carlos – who lives in the orphanage and wears a sack mask. An eerie woman (Carulla) who claims to be a social worker shows up unannounced with a file on Simón; later that night, Laura spots her lurking in the coal shed. The bizarre events culminate in Simón’s disappearance, and Laura’s growing suspicions that the orphanage may be haunted by ghosts of the friends she left behind. In that respect, “El Orfanato” is a beautifully shot, nerve-wracking ghost story in deliciously ominous setting. Director Juan Antonio Bayona goes only for the under-the-skin frights – the unexplained thumps and bangs above and in the walls; unrelenting, hostile silence; Laura’s growing certainty that someone or something in the house is toying with her. Or has her grief driven her to the brink of madness? Bayona – and Rueda, who delivers a raw, heart-twisting performance – give away nothing until the moment is absolutely right. Because in “El Orfanato,” as in all good ghost stories, it’s the tale, the people and spirits wrapped up in it that matter most. A

“Wolf Creek” (2005)
Starring Cassandra Magrath, Kestie Morassi, Nathan Phillips, John Jarratt

The forever-winding Australian outback is said to be one of the harshest, most inhospitable natural environments in the world. Greg McLean has that dusty, barren soil in his blood, which explains why in “Wolf Creek” the outback feels as much like a character as any of the unknown actors. The terrain appears to watch, silently and knowingly, as three friends – English tourists Liz (Magrath) and Kristy (Morassi), plus their Aussie pal Ben (Phillips) – travel deeper into the middle of nowhere in search of a crater. It’s but a matter of time before the car won’t crank and the trio faces a night huddled together inside, away from the unforgiving landscape. Obliging, helpful chap Mick (Jarratt) drives up, his headlights like glowing animal eyes breaking up the darkness, and offers to tow them to his camp and fix the car. In his odd smile and tone there’s an edge only Ben catches, but he’s outnumbered and a little too eager to impress Liz. Only after Mick has towed the travelers hours from the crater do they realize his only interest in mercy is making them scream bloody murder for it. The unblinking torture (like the bit with the severed spinal cord) and the endless, agonized sobbing are a bit gratuitous at times, and certainly a bit heavy-handed, but McLean does what he sets out to. He crafts a film that flirts with torture porn yet has enough smarts, psychological chills and awe-worthy cinematography to stand squarely apart from it. B+

Review: “Brick” (2005)

How far can a movie coast on style? If Rian Johnson’s snaky-plotted, murky, hyperarticulate “Brick” is any indication, the answer is “far, very, very far.” There’s not one element left uncalibrated, from the score (equal parts “Chinatown” and “Casablanca”) to the colors (all gray-tinged) to the dialogue (make friends with words like “yegg” and “reef worm”). Shot for shot, “Brick” looks and sounds so unassailably cool that if the characters don’t hold water, well, we barely notice.

Certainly modern movie characters who spout off lines like “the ape blows or I clam” or “I’m not heeling you to hook you” are jarring enough, but Johnson goes one better by setting “Brick” in a SoCal high school that exists as its own society (like “Heathers” sans smartened-up Valley Girl affectations). There are caste systems to be maintained, mores to be observed; there is protocol to be followed. And save for the vice principal (Richard Roundtree) and a mother or two, there are no adults in sight in this world, the students — all precocious enough to put those long-winded “Dawson’s Creek” mopers to shame — are free agents in this eerie, surreal blur of a world.

One of the amazing things about “Brick” is the way Johnson draws us in (granted, it takes a good 30 minutes, a discerning eye and a fair amount of patience) and coerces us into accepting this eerie world as reality. Panache can do that to a viewer. The young actors, particularly the versatile Joseph Gordon-Levitt, work hard to sell the concept: Brendan Frye (Gordon-Levitt), a high school pariah by choice, gets a panicked call from his ex-girlfriend Emily (Emilie de Ravin). She’s in trouble, she says, and that’s all he gets before he finds her dead body near a sewer. Determined to help the only girl he ever loved, Brendan and his pal The Brain (Matt O’Leary) make like gumshoes. (When do they have time for class, you ask? Homework? Showers? Best not to ask too many logical questions.) Their sleuthing leads them to an underground drug ring headed by The Pin (Lukas Haas, scary in his supernatural calm), who never leaves his oafish, loose-cannon bodyguard Tugger (an explosive Noah Fleiss) far behind. Haas and Fleiss have the chops to turn their characters from harmless kooks — a pusher with a cane? — into men (albeit young ones) no one should want as enemies.

From here the complications flower. Also in the mix are Laura (Nora Zehetner), a pretty socialite who’s more conniving than she looks; Kara (Meagan Good), a wannabe femme-fatale; and Dode (Noah Segin), Kara’s flunky and a hopeless drug addict who knew Emily more intimately than he’ll admit. All have varying degrees of involvement in Emily’s mysterious death, but Johnson deserves credit for making their parts seem more intricate than a series of “aha!” moments. Although there is a lot of talking, there’s also a surprising amount of violence and one hell of a pedestrian-plays-chicken-with-a-car sequence. In all honesty “Brick” is such a complex film that it rewards multiple viewings (in this way it’s a fitting precursor to “The Brothers Bloom.”) The director demands that the audience do the work in unraveling the story; even though the characters provide explanations, we’re not sure we can trust them. And Johnson plots the movie in such a way that even though we see events happen, what we’ve seen only makes sense at the end … and maybe not even then.

So yes, the script, the dense plotting, the ripped-from-Raymond-Chandler dialogue — all require a willful suspension of disbelief to work, but once the surrender happens the full ambition of “Brick” crashes down. Stupefying, isn’t it, that a film this high-concept could keep us riveted until the bitter end? Gordon-Levitt shoulders much of this responsibility, and what a performance he gives. He’s always had chameleon-like talents; here he takes that to another level. Gordon-Levitt nails what few emotions the closed-down Brendan lets slip; he lets the character fill him up top to bottom, and he lends “Brick” what little (very little) emotional authenticity it has. With him doing the selling, there’s no choice but to buy in.

Grade: A-