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Disturbia (2007) Print E-mail
Friday, 13 April 2007
If you’ve seen the trailers, you already know that “Disturbia” could be described as “I Was a Teenage Rear Window.” The setup resembles that of Hitchcock’s classic: confined to a limited area, the protagonist begins casual peeping-tom activity—watching the behavior of his neighbors, gradually coming to believe one of them may be a murderer. What to do about it? He can’t really prove anything and he can’t leave—and he may have begun making the possible murderer all too aware of his existence.

The careers-to-now of the makers of “Disturbia” aren’t promising; director D.J. Caruso made the Al Pacino movie “Two for the Money,” which was barely released. His “Taking Lives,” with Angelina Jolie, fared somewhat better and got good reviews, but it didn’t burn up the boxoffice. Screenwriters Christopher Landon wrote “Blood and Chocolate,” which earlier this year was in and out of theaters in an eyeblink. Cowriter Carl Ellsworth has mostly written for TV, but he did work on the script of the pretty good thriller “Red Eye.” And of course the movie is indeed a takeoff on the great Hitchcock movie; it’s acknowledged in the press notes, as well as Antonioni’s “Blow Up” and Michael Powell’s “Peeping Tom.” (But not De Palma’s “Blow Out”?) And Shia LaBeouf, whatever his qualities, is no Jimmy Stewart.

All of this turns out to be beside the point. “Disturbia” is a fast-paced, amusing and well-made little thriller. Sure, the cast and other elements show it’s targeted at the teen-to-20s crowd, but older folks will be likely to have a good time with this surprisingly intelligent movie. It has some drawbacks, to be sure; the loud score by Geoff Zanelli is obvious and trite, and the chamber-of-horrors climax is overextended. But these are relatively minor flaws in a movie that effectively kicks a good deal of ass.

The movie opens with a low key father & son bonding scene, as Kale Brecht (LaBeouf) and his dad (Matt Craven, currently on “Raines”) are fly-fishing. On the way back to home, there’s a horrendous car wreck—two of them, in fact—and the father is killed. A year later, Kale is surly and acting up at school; when he punches his Spanish teacher at the end of the school year, he’s fitted with a tracking bracelet that will keep him at home and in the yard around his house. He soon puts of a yellow ribbon marking the boundaries of his life, using garden shears, a garden gnome, shovel handle, etc., as fence posts.
At first he’s inclined to lay around his room playing video games, but his mother Julie (Carrie-Anne Moss), fed up, cuts his TV cord and cancels Xbox. This doesn’t improve things much; now Kale lies around the front room watching TV, and occasionally peeping at his neighbors by means of binoculars. He’s amused to note that the guy across the street is having an affair with his housekeeper (while his wife’s out of the house). Mr. Turner (David Morse), in the house to the rear, seems to do nothing but mow his lawn—which he does several times a week.

Neighbor kinds begin playing pranks on him, knowing he can’t really chase them—because when he does, the wrist monitor sets off an alarm and the cops immediately show up. It doesn’t help that Officer Gutierrez (Jose Pablo Cantillo) is the cousin of the teacher Kale socked. His gabby friend Ronnie (Aaron Yoo, pretty funny) occasionally stops by.

Things pick up when an extremely attractive girl (Sarah Roemer) his own age moves into the house next door. She’s mildly curious about Kale, while he’s deeply curious about her, especially when she takes a daily dip in her backyard swimming pool. He makes a little headway when she admits her name is Ashley. (Well, it had to be that or “Madison.”)

Caruso and the writers are very cagey and deft about developing the plot; at first, Turner isn’t any more interesting than the guy having an affair across the street, and a whole heck of a lot LESS interesting than Ashley. Like “Rear Window,” “Disturbia” is clever in having the lead only gradually become interested in the daily life around him, activities he ordinarily wouldn’t have noticed, but his enforced isolation brings it all into sharper focus. They’re also good at inserting material into the background of scenes that we gradually pick up on—like the news reports about a recent kidnapping. One evening, Kale and Ronnie realize that Mr. Turner occasionally drives a car that fits the description of one known to be used in the kidnapping.

From this point on, the movie tries to develop both the suspense elements and a teenage romance between Kale and Ashley, but we’re really more interested in Turner and the question of did he or didn’t he. But those romance scenes are very well handled; when she learns that Kale has been eavesdropping on her, Ashley is at first irritated, but then he describes what he’s learned about her. And that, she decides, is either the creepiest or the sweetest thing she’s ever heard….

The entire cast is very good, with LaBeouf holding scenes very well. He’s been popping up the last few years in a surprising range of films, including “Holes,” “Constantine,” “A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints” and “Bobby.” He’s in “Transformers,” due out in a couple of months, and will probably play the son of Indiana Jones in Spielberg’s next movie. Here, he’s just enough of a goofball to be endearing, while never letting the pain of the loss of his father vanish entirely from his eyes. His scenes with Roemer work well, partly because both actors use convincing teenage body language of a variety not often seen in films.

Carrie-Ann Moss is mostly off screen, but does get involved in some action scenes at the end, though they’re a long way from what she went through in the “Matrix” movies. David Morse is one of our current great underplayers; everything he does is carefully controlled and measured—and since his character here is pretty clearly a murderer, this makes him even scarier. Turner knows he’s scary, and he likes it.

Caruso understands how to build suspense and how to pay off sudden-shock scenes. Far, far too many directors wrongly believe that in scenes like that—something important appearing abruptly—the sound effects and image must be simultaneous, but Caruso is clearly aware of the truth, that the image should arrive a few frames before the sound or music stinger. I can’t explain why that works, but years of observing it failing has showed me the way to the truth. Many directors knew this; Spielberg is expert at it, but so was William Castle.

The sets are almost another character here. The production was shot in Southern California (though the setting is Anywhere USA), and they tracked down a striking-looking Craftsman-style house in the Green & Green tradition to use as the Brecht house. With its angular, dark woodwork, the building looks like a real home, the kind you’d want to protect.

When the story reaches the inevitable climax, Caruso errs in prolonging things much too long; Turner’s house seems to have catacombs rivaling those under the streets of Paris. And all doors open suddenly, every shadow has a lurker. Unlike the rest of the movie, this is dismayingly obvious.

The movie isn’t original, but it’s not striving for originality, either. It’s a thriller in the classic mode, reconfigured a little for the intended audience, but it delivers the goods with a strong, likeable cast, well-built suspense, a good sense of humor and a climax that, even if prolonged, is satisfying. No classic, but a good Hollywood movie.

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