Thursday, July 30, 2009

Review: "Orphan" is the pick of the litter

Ladies and germs, the shark movie of the summer has arrived.

Let me back up a skoodge: A decade ago (Really?! Put a fork in me!) a bona fide cinematic gem swam into theaters almost entirely under the SONAR. That gem was Deep Blue Sea, and it was the sleeper hit of the summer thanks to the combined forces of smarts, Thomas Jane in swimming trunks, one of the best surprise kills in movie history, and the most important point of all: No one outside of the production staff ever had the slightest inkling that a movie about intelligent sharks who kill people indoors could be anything other than a steaming heap of direct-to-video crapola.

Orphan, the bisected corpse of Samuel L. Jackson welcomes you and all your twisty, nervy, OMG-I-can't-believe-they-fucking-just-did-that gorgeousness to the fold. And fans of solid, out-of-left-field genre entertainment, rejoice: This summer's shark movie may very well be the most fun you'll have being suckerpunched by a tween all year. Is it trash? Sure. But it's trash that knows exactly what it's doing, which is more than I can say for some movies with ten times its budget and none of its balls.

"Pounder? I don't even know 'er!"

A wonderfully tense wolf-in-sheep's-clothing mystery about a distraught couple who adopt a creepy talking Russian doll after losing their own unborn child, Orphan starts off with a bang - or, rather, a splat - in the form of the most disturbing childbirth nightmare since The Fly 2. Only this time, instead of Daphne Zuniga it's The Depahhted's Vera Farmiga in the stirrups. So it's ... you know, watchable.

We quickly learn the basics: Kate (Farmiga, which sounds more and more like a gourmet cheese the more I have to say it) and John Coleman (adorable bear-in-progress Peter Sarsgaard) have two children, pre-teen Daniel and wee Max, an impossibly adorable little girl who is also deaf and mute. (Not that that's going to end up being important or anything.)

Turns out Kate miscarried the couple's third child, Jessica, and also had some issues with the bottle and almost killed Max by accident, or something. And there's a pond. I don't know, it gets a little Don't Look Now (for more reasons than I'll get into) but it's all good because before you know it, the Colemans are off shopping for a new kid, and for some ungodly reason settle on Esther, a Russian 9-year-old who sits in a room painting all day and singing songs from Beaches to herself.

"I said no more chocolate pudding!!!!"

Esther is played by 12-year-old Isabelle Furhman, a DC native who does a killer job with both the role and the accent, which would have tripped up actors three times her age. I can't get into too many details without spoiling the Big Twist, but I give this little chicklet mad props for pulling off a virtually unplayable role very convincingly both before and after the character's big secret is revealed.

Anyway, back to what I can talk about: Kate starts to think that There's Something Wrong With Esther but her hubby doesn't see it, and of course it starts to tear the family apart, which is exactly what Esther wants. Why does she want it? Well, figuring that out is part of the fun. And how far will she go to get what she wants? Farther than many filmmakers would dare, which is what makes the movie such a hoot to watch.

Again, without spoiling anything major, Orphan manages to squeeze in a host of evil-kid standbys (playground "accidents", treehouse mishaps, nasty drawrings) and then raises the bar by adding in some extremely intense and graphic murders. It's all in terribly bad taste, really. But you know what? It kind of works. And what's more, I'd already been accidentally spoiled on the Big Twist going in, so I knew what was going on from scene one and I STILL had a blast watching it all unfold.


And for that I credit Farmiga, Sarsgaard, and Furhman (extra credit for the always-glorious Margo Martindale, although she has almost nothing to do as the couple's therapist), who somehow make this tawdry, nasty little package actually believable. It just goes to show that if you get actual actors to play these roles, you can make what otherwise might have been a laugh-off trifle into a legitimately creepy, intense bit of fun.

Will you see every plot turn (and possibly even the Big Twist) coming? Sure you will - they're not re-inventing the bloody tricycle wheel here, and anyone who has seen The Omen, The Bad Seed, The Good Son or numerous other bad-kid movies will know exactly what's coming next. But the actors somehow make the sickening inertia of it all palpable and just real enough to work, without making it so believable that you'll be unduly concerned about the young actors involved (because be warned, there are LOTS of inappropriate moments for these kids).

Once the secret is out and the blood has dried, it's clear that in the end this wasn't really about Esther or her wacky neck and wrist ribbons, it was about what makes a marriage tick. And for balancing well-rendered melodrama with an impressively ballsy genre flick, Orphan is the pick of the litter.

(out of 5)

Alternate review title: "John and Kate Plus Hate"

For more horror movie reviews from a picky sissy, check out the Reviews repository.

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Anonymous Te* @ Slasher Film Sanctuary said...

The John & Kate Plus Hate part made me laugh out loud. Oh and I disagree about Mrs. Whorehees' cooking, she cooked the best vegan tofu burgers I ever had he pleasure of wiping my ass with. ;P

August 3, 2009 6:48 PM  
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