Monday, November 9, 2009

Review: Paranormal Activity

Whenever a movie is sold as “the scariest movie ever” – which is how many of my friends described this one to me – you’re bound to be a little disappointed.  Paranormal Activity is scary, and though it didn’t meet expectations as one of the scariest movies of all time, it still holds its own as far as fun horror movies go.

The story revolves around a couple, Katie (Katie Featherstone) and Micah (Micah Sloat), who have just moved into a new house together.  As they begin to notice strange happenings and unexplained noises around the house – misplaced keys and the sound of whispering during the night – Micah decides to videotape everything as it happens.  After setting up a video camera at the foot of the bed, the couple observes the strange phenomena that occur night after night, allowing a sense of dread to build throughout.

The plot is simple enough, but the story is significantly enhanced by the documentary style of the movie.  A door slamming on its own or a bang from the kitchen would hardly be as terrifying in the context of another, more fantastical horror movie, but in Paranormal Activity the insistent normalcy of the characters and their life together makes the smallest things, like a rustling sheet, cause for alarm.  Katie and Micah are realistic and relatable, and it really does feel as if you are watching a friend’s home videos.

However, the plot is so simple that it drags at times.  During the first half hour very little happens.  A bang here or there, a creaky door moves half an inch or so without provocation… and that’s about it.  As the movie continues, the feeling of anticipation intensifies and the scares come about more readily, but I have to admit that much of my anxiety was based on the fact that I was told I should be scared out of my mind, and not because I was legitimately frightened.

There are also a few plot points and pieces of dialogue that don’t seem to fit.  For example, Micah refuses to contact a recommended “demonologist” for help when things start to get worse, reasoning, “This is my house, and you’re my girlfriend, and I’m going to take care of it!”  This macho declaration comes out of nowhere and doesn’t seem to fit the character in the least; instead, it comes off as a hackneyed plot device, which amounts to nothing about fifteen minutes later when Katie discovers that said “demonologist” happens to be out of the country for the next few days.  The movie also throws in some confused information found online about a woman who had similar experiences, but that too does little to serve the plot or clarify what’s going on with this couple.

It’s also difficult to drum up much sympathy for Katie, a character who, though realistic, is awfully annoying (and strangely a dead ringer for Jessie from “NYC Prep,” a comparison which does her character few favors if you have any idea what I’m talking about).  Prone to whining and screaming at her boyfriend, but never taking the slightest action to help herself – is there really only one demonologist in the whole wide world who can help her? – audiences might find themselves hard-pressed to truly care what happens to her.


Speaking as a hardened, desensitized horror buff, the ending is not terribly original or surprising.  Frankly, I thought the payoff to all that suspense would be greater.  But that’s not to say Paranormal Activity isn’t worth seeing – it just probably won’t hold up well to a second viewing.  Still, it’s a fun thriller that provides some genuine scares and a few accidental – but hearty – laughs.

Final Rating (out of 5):




Sunday, October 4, 2009

Review: Zombieland

Zombieland is a fantastic, refreshing spin on your average zombie movie, serving up its fair share of laughs and scares.  Well, more laughs than scares, but I don’t think it should be any other way.  Zombieland kept the whole audience laughing, much in the spirit of Shaun of the Dead – but with its own unique twists.  The movie begins with a brilliant slow-mo montage of various zombie chases, complete with arcing blood spatters and flying objects, and features animated “rules” (kind of like the animations that pop up during football games) that appear throughout the movie.  It’s these distinctive little things that make the movie so much fun to watch.  Oh, the zombie killings are impressively revolting (but not for the faint of heart).


Zombieland takes place in a fictional present-day America where the first zombie was a result of a tainted hamburger.  Columbus (all the characters are nicknamed after their hometowns) is one of the last surviving humans left.  Played by an appropriately dorky Jesse Eisenberg (most recently seen playing essentially the same character, sans zombies, in Adventureland), Columbus has no friends, family, or social skills – and he admits to having been exactly the same way even before the zombie apocalypse.  He’s still alive because of the strict set of aforementioned rules he follows (for example, Rule #4, “the double tap”: shoot all zombies twice to make sure they’re really, really dead), but he’s completely alone in the world.  His goal in life, aside from surviving in Zombieland, is to brush a hot girl’s hair behind her ear.  And then, preferably, lose his virginity to her.

Luckily for Columbus, he soon meets up with tough Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), surly and sexy bad-girl Wichita (Emma Stone), and her little sister, Little Rock (Abigail Breslin).  Zombie-filled hijinks and a bit of romance ensue.

The gun-toting, hedge clipper-wielding Harrelson is hilarious and offsets Eisenberg’s dry wit perfectly, and Stone and Breslin do fine in their roles.  Along with the actors, the movie’s fast pace and constant humor make difficult to find much to complain about.  The only slight grievance I have is that the story lags a bit in the middle.  Bookended by plenty of zombies and exciting action at the beginning and the end, the middle – in which the story focuses on characters whose back-stories aren’t terribly interesting – seems a bit slow and out of place.  Still, that small flaw is more than made up for with a cameo from Bill Murray (one of the funniest and most unexpected parts of the movie) and the climactic ending, which is in fact facilitated by the slight lag in the middle.


All in all, I highly recommend this zombie flick for anyone with even the smallest sense of humor and an affinity for zombies – you really can’t go wrong.

Final Rating (out of 5):




Sunday, September 20, 2009

Review: Inglourious Basterds


In case you’re in a hurry, I’ll give you my verdict up front: I loved Inglourious Basterds.  Loved it!  So much so that I had to write about it, despite it not really being a horror movie. But before you get too excited and go running off to the theater, let me declare that I adore and admire all Tarantino movies (yes, even and perhaps especially Death Proof), and if you don’t at least respect Pulp Fiction, then frankly I wouldn’t bother going to see this movie.  I say this because most people I know who don’t love Tarantino tend to go the other way and hate him with a passion, and if that's the case, there’s really no point in seeing his movies unless you like to complain a lot.  Because this is a quintessential Tarantino film, with all the flourishes. So, if you have an open mind, a Tarantino fixation, or an appreciation for brilliant dialogue and dark humor, then I’d start considering Basterds as your next night out.

If you do go to see it, however, be well prepared for short slices of gruesome, gory action followed by long, elaborate scenarios and winding conversations – but if you’ve seen any Tarantino movie, you’ve probably come to expect (and happily anticipate) that.  Basterds has Tarantino’s trademark lengthy but sharp conversations – some spoken in three or more languages here, no less – and though I'm positive that there were tons of movie references that went right over my head, I found myself constantly sitting tense and at attention, savoring every word and nervously awaiting the inevitable climax.  The thing is, you can't be impatient with Tarantino.  If you spend every conversation waiting only for the action that may or may not come next, you’ll spend most of the movie simply waiting.  You have to relax and relish the story as it unfolds – and this is not a short story, clocking in at just over two and a half hours – or you'll probably hate it.

Now, let me address a few issues. Yes, there are graphic depictions of dead Nazis getting scalped (complete with the obligatory sawing noises). Yes, someone does get beaten to death by a baseball bat, wielded by “The Bear Jew” (played by Eli Roth, who I can only describe as enthusiastic to a fault).  But if you can handle those things – which happen only briefly at the beginning, followed by comparatively little violence for the rest of the movie – the rest of the movie is so funny, smart and well acted that I personally think it’s worth sitting through a few scalpings.

Yes, this movie is completely historically inaccurate. I know some people are apparently upset by this, to which I must say: there are tons of WWII movies in existence that are historically accurate.  Isn’t it okay, by now, to have one that’s not quite so reverent and politically correct?   In any case, Basterds seems to be much more a commentary on the genre of WWII movies than on the event itself.  But if you can’t get past the made-up, alternate-reality nature of the movie, I must urge you not to see this, as it will only anger the surly historian within you.

Yes, Christoph Waltz is fantastic.  Amazing.  Brilliant.  So good at being a Nazi villain it’s scary.  The comment that he deserves an Oscar for his performance seems spot on to me.  I won’t go into the other characters because there were so many (Brad Pitt, Shosanna Dreyfus, Diane Kruger, Til Schweiger, I could go on and on and on) and they were truly all so good.  See for yourself.

Finally, I don’t want to say much more than that since I feel like the previews already gave away too much, as they always seem to these days.  But, even knowing everything I already knew going into the movie (the preview left little to the imagination as far as the basic storyline), the plot was convoluted and twisty enough to keep me very much on my toes and worrying about what would happen next.  As I said, keep in mind: some bloody violence, no historical accuracy, lots of dialogue, and amazing acting.  If even just one or two of those things appeal to you, I’d take the chance and see it.  If nothing else, I guarantee it will stimulate some heated conversation – which is what Tarantino does best.

Final Rating (out of 5):




Saturday, September 19, 2009

Review: Jennifer's Body

I went to see Jennifer’s Body on Friday night predisposed both to love and hate it.  Written by Diablo Cody, the same woman who wrote Juno, I was hoping for some original, realistic female characters, a la Ellen Page.  At the same time I was skeptical, to say the least, about the decision to cast Megan Fox – an actress best known for her one-dimensional performance in Transformers – in a leading role.  And finally, wildly differing reviews gave me even less an idea of what to expect, so I went to the theater hoping for the best and prepared for the worst.

In short, I don’t think this movie is either.  It’s certainly not the genre-breaking, earth-shattering piece de resistance that Diablo Cody was probably going for, but it’s also not nearly the piece of trash some critics are purporting it to be.  It’s a witty, dark, and sometimes flawed take on the horror genre, female friendships, and high school drama. 

Jennifer (Megan Fox) and Anita (or “Needy,” played by Amanda Seyfried) are best friends, but it’s clear from the beginning that it’s an abusive friendship.  Needy is a good-girl geek, while Jennifer is the hottest girl in school.  Jennifer keeps Needy around to make herself feel better, because despite being the most lusted-after girl in Devil’s Kettle, Minnesota, Jennifer is also deeply insecure.  It’s a fairly common situation among teenaged girls, but it all gets much more complicated when Jennifer is sacrificed to Satan by a guyliner-wearing emo band, fronted hilariously by Adam Brody.  She then becomes a boy-eating succubus and an even less appealing best friend to Needy.

Toxic female friendship is a fantastic idea for a horror movie, if you ask me, and director Karyn Kusama does a good job giving the film a campy, self-conscious vibe.  However, while at times Jennifer’s Body is deliciously over the top, the overall tone of the movie isn’t consistent.  It seems as though Kusama wasn’t entirely sure if she wanted this to be darkly funny or scary, a satire on horror film or an actual horror film – and it’s simply not scary enough to be pure horror.  There are some highly creepy moments, but it’s devoid of any truly scary scenes.  I personally wish Kusama had gone all out and made it a completely campy flick, because I think it had the potential to be the next Heathers, showing once and for all that “Hell is a teenage girl.”  But sadly, it doesn’t quite go there.

Which brings me to my next point: the dialogue.  Or rather, the Cody-isms.  In Heathers, the outlandish slang fit seamlessly into the script and was wielded perfectly by the actors.  Phrases like “What’s your damage?” and “Lick it up!” became part of a cult culture.  In Cody’s first script, Juno, “Honest to blog?” and the constant use of the word “vadge” seemed timely, if a little overdone.  However, the slang in Jennifer’s Body sticks out in every occurrence and is more of a distraction than anything else.  Jennifer says “Jell-O” instead of jealous, she advises Needy to “Move-on dot org,” and Needy’s boyfriend uses the word “dilhole” in earnest.  If that’s how adults think kids are talking these days, they’re quite mistaken.  If, on the other hand, Cody was simply trying to inject her trademark witticisms into the script, I’d say the effort was a little heavy-handed.  Furthermore, the actors themselves don’t seem comfortable with much of the dialogue, making many conversations stilted and unrealistic.

The actors aren’t all impressive, either.  Megan Fox isn’t bad, but she does what she’s told and not a bit more.  She doesn’t bring much more than a surface sexiness to the character of Jennifer, and her insecurity (an important part of her character and the plot) isn’t adequately conveyed until almost the very end of the entire movie.  Amanda Seyfried doesn’t shine like she has in past roles (though it seems likely that the blame lies more with the director than with Seyfried), but does a better job of playing a multifaceted character.

Despite all of my complaints, though, there are so many wonderful things about Jennifer’s Body.  Cody plays with stereotypical female tropes like the “good girl” and “bad girl” in ways that are too rarely explored in film.  Just to have a female screenwriter writing interesting, atypical parts for women is heartening.  Teen sexuality is also looked at in a more realistic, multi-layered way; shockingly enough, “good girls” do have sex, and in this horror movie a woman doesn’t have to be a virgin to survive to the end.  It’s original and quirky, and funny.


If you liked Drag Me to Hell or Teeth, I’d say definitely go see this.  It’s not quite as smart or clever as those movies, but I think it’s worth a look.

Final Rating (out of 5):




Sunday, September 13, 2009

Review: Rob Zombie's Halloween II

I knew I shouldn’t have bothered to go see Halloween II, Rob Zombie’s latest bizarre gorefest, but I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for almost any movie given the glossy, Hollywood-makeover treatment, particularly those from the horror genre. This year’s Friday the 13th remake, 2003’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 2004’s Dawn of the Dead – I’ve seen all of them, and enjoyed them all for different reasons.  Some remakes are funny and self aware, poking fun at the genre, while others are just plain scarier than the originals – after all, I like to be really scared, and Jamie Lee Curtis whimpering in a closet isn’t quite as terrifying now as it was when I was ten.  But for every good remake (and obviously “good” is a relative term), there are twice as many remakes that are absolutely terrible – and Halloween II is one of those.

To be fair, Halloween II isn’t so much a remake as a re-imagining of the old story, as was Rob Zombie’s first Halloween.  Composed of some of the same events as the 1978 original, this story takes place in modern times, with a few (absurd) added touches.  Halloween II picks up where the last one left off: Laurie Strode, played by an annoyingly whiney Scout Taylor-Compton, has recently shot Michael Myers (whose body is, of course, missing), and now lives with Annie Brackett, a character from the first movie, and Annie’s somewhat creepy father, Sheriff Brackett.  She is an understandably screwed up gal, which Zombie illustrates with Laurie’s recurring, nonsensical dream sequences and her Nancy Spungen-esque wardrobe.  Just as she’s starting to get back on her feet, Michael (risen from the grave yet again) finds her and proceeds to kill everyone within a hundred mile radius.  Gore ensues.

The movie looks scary enough, to be sure.  Every character is made up phenomenally: Annie with her facial scars, Laurie’s dirty dreads and runny makeup, the sheriff’s greasy, bald head and bulging eyes.  No one is given the Hollywood pass on looks, and that does lend the movie an unsettling atmosphere, at least for a while.  However, the mood is effectively ruined after the first few murders, when it becomes clear that there will be no suspense whatsoever.  In short – and this is technically a spoiler, but you may as well know now – everyone dies.  If you see Michael Myers within a thousand feet of any person, you know for a fact that that person is going to die within the next five minutes.  Now tell me, where’s the fun in that?  By having Michael kill his victims almost immediately, every single time, all tension is eliminated.  I’m personally a fan of the drawn-out, suspenseful chase, which is wholly absent here, but even hardcore fans of gore won’t be satisfied because the killings are so brief and visually confusing.  (Was that a woman’s head or a man’s arm?  Who did he just kill?  I don’t know!  Does it even matter?)

In lieu of suspense or logic, Zombie makes the most bizarre decision of all: he gives Michael Myers sporadic visions of his dead mother (played by Zombie’s wife, Sheri Moon Zombie), a younger version of himself, and a white horse – all of whom do nothing of interest.  Michael’s mother, dressed in a glowing white dress and raccoon eye makeup, orders Michael to kill people while his younger self recites pointless lines and sports an even blanker face.  The monotone voices and vacant countenances of these characters are probably meant to be disturbing, but they instead come off as laughable, forcing one to wonder why Zombie insists on casting his wife in every movie he makes.  Even more puzzling, though, is why the characters were written into the movie in the first place.


There’s also Dr. Loomis (Malcolm McDowell), another character who does little to advance the plot or provide insight, but who does take up large amounts of screen time boring the audience and chewing scenery.  All of this strangeness culminates in an incomprehensible ending that just screams for yet another bad sequel... but let me be the first to admit that I’ll probably go and see that one, too.  Call me an eternal optimist, but I’m always looking for my next big scare.  This just wasn’t it.

Final Rating (out of 5):




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