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Fraser’s forest follies, The Jailhouse doesn’t rock, and Girl power supreme

by Mark Burger

Fraser’s forest follies, The Jailhouse doesn’t rock, and Girl power supreme

Films geared toward the family audience rarely have the word “vengeance” in the title, but along comes Furry Vengeance, a screen farce so feeble, one might accurately say it’s feeble with a vengeance.

The story, such as it is, concerns the efforts of a group of forest animals (raccoons, squirrels, birds and the like) to thwart plans to bulldoze their home by repeatedly harassing and humiliating Dan Sanders (Brendan Fraser), who’s spearheading the redevelopment project.

Dan already has his hands full, dealing with a demanding boss (an unrestrained and unfunny Ken Jeong), an impatient wife (Brooke Shields, who has absolutely no chemistry with Fraser) and son Tyler (Matt Prokop), one of those prototypical screen teenagers who resents Dad for uprooting him from Chicago to move to their present digs.

Fill in the blanks. For the next 90 minutes — and it sure feels a lot longer than that — poor Dan is subjected to a variety of slapstick disasters that escalate in destruction (if not laughter), until even he is forced to realize that maybe animals deserve their own little corner of the world to call home.

The pro-environment undertones to the story are certainly laudable, but Furry Vengeance has fewer laughs than an oil spill. Only during the end credits, in which members of the cast engage in a remake/remix of “Insane in the Membrane” does the film even approach the fast-paced frivolity that would have made it an amusing diversion.

It may be moderately amusing the first time that Dan gets sprayed by skunks, but by the third or fourth instance one gets the uncomfortable feeling that the filmmakers are merely killing time. Fraser (also one of the film’s executive producers) has proven himself an able farceur, but there are only so many variations of being bird-dropped, bee-stung, bear-chased and otherwise battered that, by the end of the film, even he seems relieved that it’s over.

It’s not a moment too soon, although a persuasive argument could be made that it’s far too late.

Set in the fictional North Carolina town of Colton and filmed in the actual North Carolina town of Burgaw, The Jailhouse (now playing at selected times exclusively at the Wynnsong 12 in Winston-Salem) is a low-budget, “Twilight Zone”-type chiller that never takes full advantage of its spooky premise.

C. Thomas Howell toplines as Seth Delray, a deputy sheriff new to town who is forced, along with his family, to occupy the apartment below the local jail until their new house has been completed. This turns out to be a bad idea, as the negative vibes and bad memories from the jail’s past begin to take possession of poor Seth.

Before too long, the wife and kids have ditched him, he’s hollow-eyed and twitchy, prone to downing hard liquor before breakfast and smacking his lips at the prospect of tormenting and terrorizing the inmates (including Rey Valentin and Lindsay McKeon, the latter as the only female prisoner of the bunch).

This slow-moving film musters up some decent atmosphere, courtesy cinematographer Joe Stauffer, but slumps at a slow pace, capped off by a bizarre twist ending that feels more like a horror-movie cop-out than a legitimate turn of supernatural irony. The Jailhouse is best suited to the small screen, if it’s best suited to anything at all.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (opening Friday) is a superior adaptation of the international best-seller by Stieg Larsson. An Americanized version is (predictably) in the works, but it’s difficult to envision a better rendition than this one, which has already become the biggest box-office hit in Swedish history and a huge sensation throughout Europe.

Michael Nyqvist stars as Mikael Blomkvist, a reporter whose reputation was recently wrecked in a scandalous libel trial. With six months to go before being imprisoned, he is tapped by an aging tycoon (Sven-Bertil Taube) to solve a missing-person’s case that has remained a mystery for over 40 years. With nothing better to do except count the days down to his incarceration, Blomkvist agrees.

Much to his surprise, he is soon to find himself on a complex and convoluted trail of deception that might well have baffled him — were it not for Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace), the title character, a hard-bitten computer hacker who joins forces with Blomkvist to crack the case. Together, they painstakingly piece together a series of disparate clues that not only puts them on right track, but also puts their lives in danger.

Graphic, provocative and chilling, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (Man Som Hatar Kvinnor) is a riveting piece of cinema, terrifically realized in Nikolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg’s screenplay and by Niels Arden Oplev’s crisp, compelling direction. This is a hard-hitting, high-tension super-thriller, with multiple layers and some unexpected (and shattering) detours into human drama. To reveal more about the film’s plot might well spoil some of its surprises, of which there are plenty. In any language, it’s a knockout. (In Swedish with English subtitles)

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