Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Review: Sinister

Sinister is an original story with buckets of potential that fails to deliver a final, satisfying punch. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the experience is still so chillingly unique and enjoyable.

Ethan Hawke plays Ellison, a down-on-his-luck writer who’s ten years out from his first (and only) bestselling book, a true crime novel that exposed a murderer and put Ellison’s name on the maps. We quickly learn, from the unfriendly town sheriff, that Ellison’s follow-up book floated another theory about a different crime that not only turned out to be wrong, but also helped to free a killer from prison. Thus the reason the sheriff is so loathe to welcome Ellison and his family to town: Ellison hopes to revive his writing career with a book about a girl who went missing after her entire family was murdered – in the very house he’s moved into.

I think you can see where this is going.

It’s not long before Ellison finds a box of Super 8 “home movies” in the attic, labeled with seemingly innocuous titles such as “Family hanging out” (points if you can already spot the double entendre!). In the name of research, Ellison dutifully sets up the film projector and begins to watch the films. As you probably already know from the trailer, that’s when shit starts to get real.

First of all, I was thrilled to find that the plot revolved not simply around a nondescript “writer” character, as so many horror movies do. The true-crime angle was an unexpected and interesting little twist on an old horror standby, and served to make Ellison’s presence in the town, and the house, much more believable. It also helped avoid the standard question – “Why don’t they just move?!” – as things got worse and worse in the house. The answer? Ellison’s greed and hunger for fame simply won’t let him. He hangs onto the possibility of a New York Times bestseller like a dog with a bone, and as we see him in his study watching old videotapes of himself on talk shows, discussing his one and only success, we can almost sort of understand why.

I think that is the film’s strongest aspect: it’s determination to take old horror tropes and shake them up a bit. Take voyeurism, for example. There is something implicitly creepy and wrong about watching people who don’t know you’re watching them. Horror is basically all voyeurism, but Sinister, like some other horrors (most recently in The Cabin in the Woods), takes it a step further. We’re watching the characters, who are watching something they probably shouldn’t be watching, which only makes us feel like maybe we shouldn’t be watching. We watch the home movies with Ellison out of morbid curiosity (and they are horrible, not in an explicitly gory way, but in a disturbing, blood-curdling way), even though we know better, even though we know he’s eventually going to pay for the indiscretion. The films themselves, and their back-story, are simply a new twist on something that dates back to, and calls to mind, much older films like Peeping Tom and Rear Window.

Then there’s the musical score. Frankly, I’m not even sure you can call it music, as much of the score seems to be made up of whispered words and repetitive sounds (such as the opening click of the projector). Regardless, it works. The score is just about the creepiest thing I’ve ever heard. Not only that, but while it doesn’t distract, it truly adds to the suspense and ambience of the film. The sound is a character unto itself.

Which brings me to my final point, and my only grievance. The film does such an amazing job of building suspense throughout; it’s a slow burn, which, again, evokes much older horror films and keeps the audience (most of which is so desensitized by constant jump scares) on the edge of their seat. But although the plot is, in my opinion, quite original, it’s also somewhat predictable. Not in the sense that we’ve seen it all before, but in the sense that there is a clear trajectory to the story, and despite the fact that Ellison seems blissfully unaware of that trajectory, we can see where it’s headed fairly early on.

That’s not a problem in and of itself; there’s nothing wrong with a clear-cut storyline, as long as the story itself is good enough to take the audience for a ride. The problem is in the payoff, though. The entire movie builds dread by showing only enough to tantalize, to hint at the horrors that lay ahead. In the final act, however, everything is on the table. Everything is shown, and instead of upping the creep factor, it dials it back. What was once terrifying because we couldn’t quite see it as it skulked in shadow… well, that’s now in full daylight (figuratively speaking), and much less scary. It’s a bit of a disappointment for such a spectacular buildup.

Despite my last point, Sinister is fucking scary and hella good. What’s more, it’s unlike almost anything else we’ve seen in horror lately, and that alone makes it something for horror fans to celebrate.

Final Rating (out of 5):

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Review: Chernobyl Diaries

You know, there really needs to be a curve when it comes to grading horror movies, for two reasons: 1) there is huge dearth of truly good horror, and 2) horror fans are not looking for all the same things other movie fans are looking for.

I’ll start with the second point. There are some amazing horror movies out there, but there’s a reason those movies aren’t winning Oscars or getting perfect scores from Roger Ebert. A great horror movie doesn’t need deeply, perfectly developed characters or a never-before-seen storyline. Of course, it can have those things – Silence of the Lambs, for example, went far beyond superficial character development with Clarice Starling and the plot was definitely unique (to say the least). It was one of the few horror movies to win Best Picture at the Oscars. It’s an amazing, scary, psychological, thrilling film, and one of my favorites. But the fact is that it’s not the scariest horror movie I’ve ever seen; it’s not even close.

What are some of the scariest movies I’ve ever seen? The Strangers. The Ring. The Descent. And what do all of these movies have in common? Minimal character development, high suspense. Honestly, when I’m in the mood to be scared shitless, I don’t care very much about the characters’ inner lives and hopes and dreams. Of course I need to get to know them enough to care about them, but as soon as I have that hook, the thing that makes me want to see them get out alive, then I’m ready to move right along to the scares. Almost all horror films follow a basic formula to some extent, and some of the best horror films work hard to evoke that old, tried-and-true formula. It’s not a formula that’s conducive to winning Oscars, but it’s a formula that can really work when done right.

Then there’s the other thing – there are fewer and fewer really great horror movies. Like all other Hollywood genres, the horror film is suffering due to a lack of imagination and an overabundance of remakes. Accordingly, the horror fan has been forced to adjust her expectations. Which is not to say that I can’t recognize a terrible horror movie when I see one (for example, the recent Nightmare on Elm Street remake was inexcusable, and no grading curve in the world could save it from failing abysmally), but I have learned to enjoy the simpler pleasures of the adequate horror film. I’m still constantly on the prowl for the perfect horror (which I actually stumbled upon in the wonderful The Cabin in the Woods just a month or so ago – see, they do exist and that’s why we horror lovers continue to search), but I’m also willing to accept a movie that gives me sufficient thrills and chills without being particularly spectacular.

All of this is to say that I’m annoyed that The Chernobyl Diaries has a rating of 25% on Rotten Tomatoes (especially when the abysmal Paranormal Activity 2 holds a steady 59%). While I usually agree with Rotten Tomatoes' assessments, I find this one incredibly misleading. No, this movie doesn’t reinvent the horror genre, but as this excellent review (from a horror fan website, natch) says, it’s “a fun take on familiar tropes.” Yes, we’ve seen it all before: seemingly mentally-challenged characters go to a stupidly dangerous locale in search of “adventure” only to find, duh, they’re in a stupidly dangerous locale that they’re ill-equipped to handle. They wander dark stairwells and begin dropping off like flies; panicky decisions ensue. It’s all been done before.

And yet The Chernobyl Diaries manages to infuse some real excitement into the whole endeavor. After the characters find themselves stranded in Chernobyl through mysterious circumstances (aside from the stupidity it took to bring them there in the first place), the film takes off at a hurtling pace and it hardly lets up until the closing credits. The scares mainly rely on pop-outs and loud music, and it would be great if there was more to it than that, but it’s also acceptable that there’s not. I was also pleasantly surprised to discover that it was not yet another bogus “found footage” movie, a subgenre that I think is more than worn out already. As is, Chernobyl provides plenty of shocks (the first one, especially, is a mix of frightening and hilarious) to maintain interest and a high level of tension. Bottom line: it was scarier and more fun than the majority of horror movies I’ve seen in theaters lately.

Can you guess who the least likable characters are? Of course, there’s a lot to criticize, too – though, first I must point out something I don’t criticize: the decision-making skills of the characters. First of all, we’re talking about a bunch of people who thought that visiting Chernobyl, the site of a still-radioactive nuclear disaster, would make for a super duper vacation. This is our baseline for smart decision-making. In other words, it’s not high. Which is not to say that I find it unrealistic, either; I don’t doubt that there are a multitude of idiots out there who think this would be awesome. So, yes, the characters make many, many dumb decisions throughout the movie. Is it annoying? Sure. Did I find it unrealistic? Absolutely not.

The only thing that bothered me was the ending. First, the two least interesting, least likable characters are the only ones left to see it. Second, it’s a total cop-out, a nothing ending that leaves the audience wondering what just happened, and simultaneously not giving a fuck. Really, it’s in keeping with the rest of the movie: it just is what it is, and what it is is adequate. There’s nothing below its surface, but luckily its surface is enough for one fun viewing. Frankly, I’m okay with that.

Final Rating (out of 5):

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin

I got a chance to see We Need to Talk About Kevin before it came out in theaters, which was so exciting because I’ve been dying to see it ever since I saw the trailer. It looked exactly like my kind of movie – creepy, suspenseful, a little scary. I wasn’t even sure what it was about; from the scenes in the trailer I hypothesized that it was some sort of “Omen 2012,” because Kevin looked so… evil. As it turns out, there was nothing supernatural about Kevin, but as is so often the case, the hyper-realistic feeling of this film made it all the more frightening.

The film opens with a shot of Eva (Kevin’s mother, played painfully well by Tilda Swinton) awakening from what appears to be a pill- and alcohol-induced sleep. When she stumbles outside to go to work, we see that her house is splattered violently with bright red paint, as is the windshield of her car. Strangely, Eva does nothing but wipe off her car with a clump of newspaper and continue on to work.

As the film progresses, we discover that Kevin (Ezra Miller) is in jail, presumably for doing something very bad (though we don’t know what), something that not only he is hated and blamed for, but also Eva. Although we don’t find out exactly what happened until the end, the movie employs a series of flashbacks to show what life was like for Eva and her family before the incident. We see Eva briefly as a carefree, adventurous young woman and travel journalist, and we see her fall in love with her husband Franklin (John C. Reilly). On what seems to be a bit of a whim brought on by a romantic night, she and Franklin decide to get pregnant.

And that’s where all the trouble starts – immediately.

Though we only see Eva pregnant fleetingly, we’re given the distinct impression that she’s not very happy to be so. Once the romantic impulse has passed, she seems overwhelmed and depressed by the reality. A difficult birth only makes matters worse, accentuated by a shot of Franklin happily holding and rocking their newborn child while Eva sits up in her hospital bed, staring forward grimly, ignoring the child.

From there we see the highlights of Kevin’s childhood: he doesn’t, or perhaps refuses, to talk for years, and when he finally does his vocabulary consists mainly of the word “no” – except in the presence of his father, when he becomes sweet and bubbly. Similarly, it takes upwards of five years to potty train Kevin – Eva believes out of spite. He purposely has accidents and seems to revel in his mother’s anger and discomfort as she is forced to change his diaper. And things only get worse, far worse, as he ages.

The story flashes back between these scenes of Kevin growing up to Eva’s present day life. She lives in a small, hovel-like house where her husband and daughter are conspicuously absent, and she moves through her life like a zombie. Not only that, but she readily accepts the abuse of her neighbors and fellow townspeople. When a woman slaps her in the middle of the street, seemingly out of the blue, Eva refuses to take an onlooker up on their offer to call the police. Instead, she claims it was her own fault. It’s the same with her paint-splattered house; she toils every weekend, scrubbing and sanding away the paint like it’s her duty or a sentence.

The film is both written and shot sparingly. We only get enough dialogue and back-story to understand what is going on in the moment, and solely through Eva’s eyes. Similarly, while the color red haunts Eva throughout, we never get a big, bloody payoff. The film simply teases, worries the viewer with these splashes of color, making us wonder at the subtext. I think it’s the perfect way to present such a story.

The actors are well equipped to carry such an emotionally intense, but spare, film. Swinton in particular is already getting Oscar buzz, which is well deserved in my opinion. She shows in Eva the perfect balance of conflicting emotions: a strenuous effort to be a good mother while trying to contain her rage (which occasionally bubbles over into abuse, regardless of the circumstances) and barely-concealed contempt for Kevin. Ezra Miller is excellent as both the malicious, manipulative incarnation of Eva’s memories, as well as the more realistic version we see briefly, but powerfully, towards the end. Meanwhile, Reilly is perfect as the affable, clueless (or deeply in denial) father.

In the end, the viewer is left to wonder who is truly at fault for what happened. While Kevin indeed seems the embodiment of evil for most of the film, when he finally talks to his mother in jail his attitude and disposition are rather different from what we saw through the possibly tainted lens of Eva’s memory. Was Kevin born bad? Did Eva fail to bond with him from birth, dooming their relationship and his upbringing from the start? Or was it a combination of factors? We Need to Talk About Kevin offers no cut and dry answers, but it provides more than enough to consider.

Final Rating (out of 5):