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):