Friday, October 21, 2011

Demon Night: Things Go Bump in the Night Again in “Paranormal Activity 3”

Sometimes the third part of a horror franchise is great (here’s looking at you “Dream Warriors”) and sometimes it can be just bad (“Halloween III” anyone?). Ok they’re mostly just bad. Scary or not, the third entry always begins to show some signs of fatigue and an overwhelming sense of “been there done that.” That’s mostly true with the latest shot-on-video-cause-we-love-reality-TV scary movie “Paranormal Activity 3.” Here’s the bottom line, right up front: this movie sort of has a “we’ve seen this stuff before” vibe but it still remains a pretty tense experience. It’s not exactly as outright nightmare inducing as the first entry, but it still maintains a superior level of suspense amongst the freaky ghostly goings on. And in fact, it does a great job of expanding on the story and characters established in the first two entries.

In the first film a young couple is being tormented by a spirit. Katie and her boyfriend Micah set up cameras to capture the paranormal phenomenon. In the end Katie becomes possessed and kills her boyfriend. In the second film, which is actually a prequel, we’re introduced to Katie’s sister Kristi. Apparently both girls had a run in with a spirit when they were children and this time the ghost seems to be after Kristi and her newborn son. Now in this new entry we flash back via VHS to 1988 when Katie and Kristi are young girls. Katie is played by Chloe Csengery. Kristi is played by Jessica Tyler Brown. Both girls turn in marvelous performances. You don’t see them acting because they’re disturbingly realistic. They’re so good in fact I’m wondering whether they knew they were going to be in a movie at all. Kristi and Katie’s mom is Julie (Lauren Bittner) and she’s now married to wedding videographer Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith).

The family notices a few strange noises and Dennis decides to set up some of his video equipment to see what exactly is going on. The film wastes no time getting to the creepy stuff as we almost instantly begin to see signs of very weird activity. Some evidence is so obviously paranormal that you wonder why Dennis and Julie don’t grab the girls and get the heck out of the house right away. There are creepy moments with a babysitter, and Dennis’ camera buddy that all point to “this house is definitely haunted.” Dennis pushes on and even though there’s plenty reasons to suggest something unworldly (such as young Kristi having full on conversations with a presence named Toby that can’t be seen) they stick it out. And a game of Bloody Mary doesn’t exactly end well. It’s sort of made unclear but it seems that Dennis literally wants to see a demon walk across the TV before he’ll do anything. Eventually they can’t take it anymore and go to stay at Julie’s mother’s house, which, without giving too much away, ends up being the worst idea of all.

The movie employs the same scare techniques as the first two films. We get steady shots of the couple and children sleeping and then scary things begin to happen. Dennis even rigs a camera to an oscillating fan that pans back and forth, which is used rather effectively in several scenes. There were parts in this film where I was pretty scared, but not outright terrified. And the audience seemed to be having a good time. Besides now it’s obvious that when you see a “Paranormal Activity” movie you pretty much know what you’re getting and that’s enough for me. The film does give another layer to a growing mythology with these characters and it’s pretty fascinating what screenwriter Christopher Landon has came up with. It’s obvious that he’s more influenced by “Rosemary’s Baby” than just some gore fest. The film was directed by the two guys (Henry Joost & Ariel Schulman) who were responsible for the “is it real or not?” documentary “Catfish” and they certainly lend a realistic hand to the third entry of this surprisingly good trilogy.

If you enjoyed the first two films, you’re more than likely going to like this one as well. Maybe you won’t jump as much as you did with the other films and the scares won’t keep you up at night, but this is a scary movie franchise that relies on good old fashioned foreboding tension and atmosphere to create fear, not blood and guts (not that there’s anything wrong with that). After having to endure seven “Saw” flicks, the new “Paranormal Activity” franchise is certainly a breath of ghostly fresh air. GRADE: B

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

500 Days of Cancer: Joseph Gordon-Levitt Simply Shines in “50/50”

Cancer sucks. Unfortunately just about everyone knows someone who has been affected by this horrible disease. There are people who survive it and there are those who don’t. Sometimes it’s hard to tell a story about someone getting cancer without coming across as a disease-of-the week TV movie. There are some that just work on a cinematic level, such as the Oscar-winning tear jerker “Terms of Endearment.” And now for the Judd Apatow crowd we have the exceptional comedy-drama “50/50” which follows a twenty seven year old man who is diagnosed with a rare form of spinal cancer and how it affects him and those around him. It’s a movie that’s all at once sad and humorous and is told with 100 percent honesty and it completely earns whatever tears you may shed for it.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, who at the beginning of the film is complaining of back pain and night sweats. He sees his doctor and much to his surprise a tumor is found on his spinal column. He’s in shock as he should be since he’s only twenty-seven years old. He’s a young guy who’s supposed to be in the prime of his life, but unfortunately cancer can affect anyone, even those who don’t drink or smoke or care about the environment enough to recycle. Adam is dating Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard) and when he tells her you can tell from her reaction that she’s not exactly ready to be Adam’s caregiver. And why should she be. Sure she cares about Adam, but they aren’t a married couple and taking on the responsibility of looking after a cancer patient is something no one in this world would ask for. It puts a strain on their relationship to a point where, as she’s only human, Rachael begins seeing another man. Adam tells his mother (played briefly but wonderfully by Anjelica Huston) and his father (Serge Houde) who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. We get to learn a lot about Adam and his relationships to the people in his life and it’s made clear that the closed relationship he has is actually with his best friend Kyle (Seth Rogen doing his best Seth Rogen).

Adam begins his cancer treatments which rightfully begin to take a toll on him physically and emotionally. He connects with some older cancer patients played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer. They offer him pot macaroons. He also begins seeing a therapist named Katherine who much to Adam’s surprise is much younger than him. She’s played by Oscar-nominee Anna Kendrick who just simply radiates charm whenever she’s onscreen. Its quickly revealed that she’s a newbie and Adam is in fact only her third patient (she’s working on her doctorate). This situation is new for her and it’s new for Adam. There scenes together begin to indicate that perhaps Katherine and Adam have more than just a doctor-patient relationship, but the focus of the film remains about Adam’s having to deal with cancer and strains it puts on his life. The film’s main focus remains his friendship with Kyle and how something so serious can affect a typical “bro” relationship. Kyle insists that Adam’s cancer can be used to help the guy get laid and he’s certainly loving being able to get high with his buddy with medicinal marijuana. Adam’s prognosis seems worse than anticipated (he reads online that he basically has a 50% survival chance) and he learns that he must have surgery as his tumor has not been responding to the chemotherapy. This puts a whole new strain on things and leads into an extremely heart wrenching and powerful third act.

The film was actually written by comedy writer Will Reiser, a close personal friend of Rogen’s in real life who insisted he tell his own story about getting cancer at a young age and being able to make a full recovery. You can tell that the relationships in the film feel genuine, the laughs are funny (a reference to the late Patrick Swayze is actually pretty hilarious) and help release the dramatic tension and have a level of authenticity that is nearly unheard of in films like this. Director Jonathan Levine, having a strong independent background gives the film an intimacy that makes you feel a part of the characters life. It’s realistic, funny and painful. The actors’ performances, especially Gordon-Levitt are on a level beyond what words can describe. The emotions translated through his performance are just simply astonishing.

“50/50” is a just simply a terrific little film. It’s comical and yet dramatic and balances the two perfectly well. The emotions you’ll feel are extremely well-earned and will resonate with anyone who has every known someone affected by this horrible disease. It’s a wonderful story about the power of friendship in a time of grief and what's it's like for a young person to stare death in the face. It's a movie that will resonate long after it's over. GRADE: A

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Dance Dance Revolution: In Defense of the “Footloose” Remake

The new “Footloose” movie is a lot better than it has any right to be. And that’s not because it’s remake of a movie. It’s because it’s a remake of a movie that was bad to begin with. I mean honestly, the film’s story just doesn’t make any sense. A town where dancing is banned? Dancing! Banned? A few kids get killed in a car accident after dancing (and drinking) and apparently the dancing caused them to crash, not the elevated alcohol levels. It was lame and cheesy even for an 80s movie, so therefore this story, which is basically the exact same thing, should make even less sense taking place in the age of iPods and “Dancing with the Stars.” And thankfully there are no references to Twitter or Facebook. Therefore, I present the idea that this new “Footloose” is not only a decent and fun movie, but it might even improve upon its original inspiration.

Is Herbert Ross’ “Footloose” really all that special? Sure it helped launch Kevin Bacon’s career (which actually started four years earlier in “Friday the 13th“) but what has really stuck are those catchy tunes that make their appearances every now and then at weddings and other social gatherings that involve (legal) dancing. Kenny Loggin’s title track is infectious and it’s even more so in the new film’s opening credit sequence which also follows many happy feet as they bust a move. Except this time the characters know the song and sing along as if they all had seen the original film and maybe that’s possible because I think every teenager in this movie could probably win “So You Think You Can Dance.” But then tragedy strikes and public dancing is made illegal for anyone under the age of 18.

The town of Bomont, Georgia is a religious town and its bible thumping preacher Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) is part of the board which made dancing (and playing loud music) a criminal offense much to everyone’s chagrin including his own teen daughter Ariel (Julianne Hough). Shaw’s own son was one of the kids killed in the car wreck and he’s vowed not to let it happen again. That is until new kid Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) swaggers into town to live with his aunt and uncle. He’s from Boston and this supposed bad boy doesn’t get how dancing can be illegal. He butts head with the local deputy who gives him a citation for cranking up some tunes too loud in his VW Beetle, he catches the attention of Ariel even though she’s in a doomed to fail relationship with a creepy redneck guy, and befriends Willard (Miles Teller) who effortlessly steals every scene he’s in. Seriously, Mr. Teller is a great and charming actor. He was also great in “Rabbit Hole” which you should go out and rent right now if you haven’t seen it. Some scenes involve Ariel clashing with her dad because when you restrict teens from being able to dance it can cause some seriously deviant behavior (like dating creepy redneck guys). It’s only a matter of time before Ariel and Ren join forces to rebel against the oppressive elders.

But let’s get to the point, why does one see a movie called “Footloose”? The dancing! Except that since it’s illegal in this movie there’s not exactly a lot of it, but when it happens it’s great. There’s some pretty great choreography going on here. Ren can certainly bust a move (he was on the gymnastics team at his old high school, if that’s not badass I don’t know what is) and when he gets angry and frustrated he lets it all out in a recreation of Kevin Bacon’s famous “angry abandoned warehouse dance.” It was corny then and it’s still corny now. Some cheese is simply timeless. I really enjoyed a sequence where Ren takes Ariel, Willard and Willard’s girlfriend Rusty (Ziah Colon) to a line dancing bar in the city a couple hours outside of town. It’s revealed that Willard just might be the only person in Bomont who can’t dance. And afterwards Ren makes it his mission to teach this goofy kid some moves. Set to “Let’s Hear It for the Boy” of course.

Yes this whole thing is utterly ridiculous and I still insist that the story would make way more sense set in the 1950s or some other oppressed decade. Or it would work as a flat out musical where silly laws (like having to pay to go to the bathroom) just feel more natural. But alas director Craig Brewer who brought some southern twang charm to “Black Snake Moan” (and the Oscar-winning “Hustle & Flow”) has somehow managed the impossible: to take a movie that’s pretty lame and make it not quite as lame while being set in modern day). I think I honestly believed the characters and their wanting to express themselves and the two newcomer leads are actually pretty decent. Let’s face it, we could have easily been stuck with the likes of Miley Cyrus and a Jonas brother. While this new film sill has its corny moments, they feel sort of sincere and the movie has a more mature feel than I was ready for. This isn’t “High School Musical.”

“Footloose” honestly surprised me. It should be bad bad bad, but I found myself enjoying it. The dancing is impressive, the cast is charming and I found myself tapping my foot more than once. “Footloose” purists might scoff, but this is probably the best they could have done with the material. The original film in my opinion just doesn’t hold up well today and feels extremely dated. The defense rests. GRADE: B+

Friday, October 14, 2011

In Cold Blood: “The Thing” is a Prequel Worth Seeing

Let it be known that weather the alien creature in “The Thing” was achieved using practical effects or computer effects it was going to be awesomely gross no matter what. Having said that, there is a lot of CGI in this new prequel to the John Carpenter’s 1982 cult classic “The Thing,” but we can work through it together. However it’s important to note, that while most of the effects are not practical like in the original, they achieve a certain level of grossness that was surprisingly enjoyable (assuming you like that sort of thing). There are plenty of disgusting tentacles and wormy appendages that will most likely give those sensitive to such images the willies. The best thing that can be said about this new “Thing” is that while nowadays remakes, prequels, and reboots are all the rage, this movie – which doesn’t quite match the power or sheer innovation of the 1982 film – still manages to work as a nice companion piece and gives us a glimpse of that scary creature as it assimilates and systematically kills off an entire Norwegian research facility before making its way to a beardy Kurt Russell (who sadly makes no cameo if that’s what you were hoping for).

The film begins just a few days before the events of John Carpenter’s film. It’s 1982 and it’s wintertime in Antarctica. It’s freaking cold. Paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has been asked to take a look at an extraterrestrial spacecraft that has apparently crash-landed thousands of years earlier. They remove a frozen alien being from the ice and prepare to thaw it out. However, if these scientists had seen “Encino Man” they would probably realize that when ancient creatures are frozen in ice, they’re rarely dead. Kate joins an entire Norwegian research facility filled with men (and just one other woman) who are pretty difficult to tell apart. But there’s a few attempts at character development so that we at least get to know some of them before they’re slaughtered. Of course, since we know the entire facility is mysteriously wiped out (and everything pretty much charred) we know these people won’t be sticking around for very long, save for two non-speaking Norwegians who don’t speak English who appear at the beginning of the 1982 film. It’s here that the plot of this new film, like the creature itself, begins copying its processor’s plot: the creature is very much alive and begins to “absorb” the scientists and then “mimic” them one by one. It sort of works like a virus and it’s difficult to know who is human and who is not which appropriately creates extreme paranoia within the group. Kate, being a practical woman, quickly grabs a flamethrower and begins torching anyone who doesn’t seem quite human.

“The Thing” will not become a horror classic the way the Carpenter’s remake became a horror classic, but there are still plenty of things I enjoyed here. Both films share a similar visual style that helps connect the films. There’s nothing particularly flashy about the photography even though a European has directed the film (Matthijs van Heijningen Jr.) Heijningen is a proclaimed fan of the original film and it shows because people who know the first film well will be able to see the small connections and the film’s ending leads wonderfully into the opening of the 1982 film. The film works despite its heavy use of CGI effects, but the creature is so disturbingly disgusting it’s hard to find fault with the effects. There’s just no way that modern filmmakers will use animatronic effects like they used to and it’s time for all of us to accept it. And I liked the slow build up. The film could have easily just started with a typical scene of someone being attacked by an unseen monster but luckily we don’t get any of that. I thought the performances were good even though writers Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore don’t particularly flesh out any characters very well. Kate isn’t exactly Ripley, but Winstead plays her with an intelligent spunk which I liked. And there are some good jump scares that help lighten the tension.

Remember this is the type of movie that we’ve all seen a million times before but there’s a reason why movies like this work. It’s fun to be scared. “The Thing” works as a nice companion piece to the 1982 film, it’s similar in style and structure and while most will call it just a “copy” of that film I think there’s enough new material here (and nods to the original like nice tributes to Ennio Morricone’s terrific score) that fans of the first film will find something to like about it. Of course nothing will ever top the gross spider head, but this alien is still one of the most enjoyably disgusting creatures put on film. Sure this new film may not exactly be out of this world, but it’s certainly a welcome addition to the scary movie holiday season (and ten times better than having to sit through another “Saw” sequel). GRADE: B