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In Revue: Ghosts, Rascally Rabbits, and Dutch Resisters

Because Toronto’s more movie obsessed than a Quentin Tarantino screenplay (yuk yuk), Torontoist brings you In Revue, a weekly roundup of new releases.

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It’s a g-g-g-good looking man! Patrick Wilson in Insidious. Illustration by Chloe Cushman/Torontoist.

Well, it’s almost Easter. And you know what that means! Time for the annual wash of Easter movies that crowd theatres each year, seizing on the swell of springtime Easter-mania we’ve all grown tired of. Oh, wait, that never happens. And except for movies about Jesus, there really aren’t that many Easter movies. Well, there are now, as Hop, um, hops into theatres. If bushy tailed kiddie movies aren’t for you, then there’s also an okay haunted-house movie by James Wan and some wartime flag-waving out of the Netherlands. Also opening at TIFF Bell Lightbox is Essential Killing, starring Vincent Gallo as a wandering Taliban trooper, which we reviewed during TIFF 2010.

Insidious

Directed by James Wan
3 ½ STARS


The eagerness with which James Wan (Saw, Dead Silence) uses Insidious to build up a name for himself as a certified Master of Horror is, thankfully, the most pathetic thing about this. Witness the way Wan drops in Sam Raimi–esque Easter Eggs, winking at Billy the puppet from Saw, and the way “A JAMES WAN FILM” stretches menacingly across the opening credits, as if it means anything. Wan’s keener quality may grate. But, to his credit, with Insidious he’s managed to put together the best, albeit most wildly uneven, “JAMES WAN FILM” since Saw.
Starring Patrick Wilson (vying, as ever, to ascend to the legit leading-man ranks) and Rose Byrne as a young couple who move into a sprawling old house with their two children, Insidious begins as a slow-burning haunted-house picture. Items in the house start disappearing, things go bump in the night, and, after encountering some looming off-screen presence, one of their boys (Ty Simpkins) goes into a catatonic coma the doctors can’t explain. The weirdness (jump scares and more) continues to pile up, forcing the family to a new house, which makes things even weirder. Fitting into the standard gender schism inherent to pictures like this, Byrne’s hysterical housewife believes in the ghosts and spectres looming around her while Wilson’s level-headed high school teacher takes the more coolly rational approach. Eventually he caves and allows his wife to call in a group of ghostbusters, led by go-to li’l old lady Lin Shaye, to purge the house.
Wan’s eagerness wears on the film. He’s unable to sustain the spooky tension that hangs over the first half, impatient to get to all the stuff with other-worldly demons and weird-looking wooden dolls. To his credit, though, the film’s more wacked-out second half—in which Wilson’s doubting daddy enters an ethereal nega-realm to rescue his son—feels, for all its overt silliness, more accomplished.
In all but chucking the foreboding atmosphere it establishes early on, Insidious may not rank alongside haunted-house classics like The Changeling or The Amityville Horror. But its backslide into cheesy, carnivalesque mise-en-scène puts it right up there with similarly lopsided spookers like Steve Miner’s House or the granddaddy of ‘em all, Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist.
Insidious opens Friday, April 1, in wide release. Click here for showtimes.

Hop

Directed by Tim Hill
4 STARS


On paper, especially the paper plastering subways and streetcars and city buses, Hop looks pretty lousy: a cheap, rushed-to-market film meant to capitalize on the Easter season and the snowballing popularity of Russell Brand’s man-pixie mania. But pieced together by Illumination Entertainment, the upstart animation studio behind last year’s delightful Despicable Me, Hop is an absolute pleasure. As with their previous effort, the gang at Illumination has blended the unrepentant cutesiness of Dreamworks with the wit of Pixar.
Brand voices E.B., a twenty-something (in human years) rabbit who dreams of drumming in a rock band, despite being fated to assume the mantle of his father (voiced by Hugh Laurie) as Easter Bunny. Stifled, E.B. escapes to Hollywood, where he almost gets run over by Fred (James Marsden), another twenty-ought slacker suffering through a fraught relationship with his own demanding daddy (a perfectly cast Gary Cole). The two agree to help each other out, Fred by helping E.B. land a drumming gig (cue an excellent cameo by the Blind Boys of Alabama, and a sub–Spongebob Movie cameo by David Hasselhoff) and E.B. by promising to leave Fred alone. Meanwhile, back on Easter Island, an ambitious chickadee named Carlos (voice of Hank Azaria) plans a coup against the Easter Bunny’s tyranny.
Thematically, Hop may never move out of “follow your dreams” territory, but it’s so full of humour and sugar-rushed ecstasy that it’s hard to care. Marsden is incredibly likable, even if he’s a bit handsome for a slacker, and Brand proves that his faux-naïve waggishness can work even without his physical form whirling around on screen. With a tone somewhere between Bee Movie and Willy Wonka, Hop manages to do for Easter what The Nightmare Before Christmas did for Halloween: provide it with its own richly imagined, candy-coated mythology. And with not so much as an incidental crucifix to sully the whole thing.
Hop opens Friday, April 1, in wide release. for showtimes.

Winter in Wartime

Directed by Martin Koolhoven
2 STARS


Based on a popular Dutch young-adult novel, Winter In Wartime made a huge impression when it premiered in the Netherlands in 2008, out-performing U.S. blockbusters like The Dark Knight and Twilight. No small feat. But consider its sappy, almost-propagandistic treatment of the Dutch resistance during the Second World War, it’s no surprise that Koolhoven’s film would furnish a home audience with a nationalistic sense of the warm-fuzzies.
The film follows a teenage boy, Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) living in “neutral” Holland under Nazi occupation. His father (Raymond Thiry), mayor of the town, seems to submissively kowtow to the Germans, while his scruffy uncle (The New World’s Yonick van Wageningen) appears to be admirably involved with the underground Dutch resistance. When Michiel stumbles across a downed English soldier (Jamie Campbell Bower), he begins sneaking him food and medical supplies, and plotting to smuggle him across the border. Like uncle, like nephew, as they say.
Boasting some of the most boring on-screen bicycling since Il Postino, Winter in Wartime is a drab little picture with a largely uncritical attitude towards the Dutch’s role during the Second World War. The light, Hardy Boys–styled fantasy of warfare and resistance enjoyed by its protagonist is rarely troubled. It’s also impossible not to think of Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book (2006), which while working in a more openly melodramatic register still managed to represent the operations of Dutch resistance with sufficient complexity. Even later in the film, when our plucky protagonist learns a few harsh lessons, it seems as if he’s receiving schooling in cheap plot twists, not the adult dealings of warfare. With Winter in Wartime, Koolhoven has crafted an intermittently ripping yarn, but an entirely bland and by-the-numbers adolescent war film.
Winter in Wartime opens Friday, April 1, in limited release. Click here for showtimes.

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