Sunday, November 22, 2009

The Amityville Horror (2005)

Ah, the remake. Along with the sequel, it's one of Hollywood's most common standards. In a lot of my reviews, I talk about how often remakes are produced. My more faithful readers are probably sick of that by now. But the truth is that it seems Hollywood seems to be doing more and more remakes as time goes by, especially in the horror genre. No less than forty horror movies have been remade between 1975 and now. More than forty remakes in right around thirty-five years might not seem like a lot (an average of one or two a year), but that number also doesn't account for remakes from other genres.

While a lot of these remakes just get a stock "remakes suck, do something original" reaction from Internet movie fans, the anti-remake backlash was taken to the extreme with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. When Michael Bay's film company Platinum Dunes announced they would be remaking Tobe Hooper's classic 1974 film, the mere thought of it drew the hatred and vitriol of fans worldwide, many of whom said they would be boycotting the movie. Imagine the Movie Poop Chute message board from Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back on a massive scale, and there you go. But you know what? The movie didn't completely suck. Yeah, more passionate horror fans may have an axe to grind with it, but I liked it.

Following the financial success of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Platinum Dunes turned its attention from a famous horror movie supposedly inspired by a true story to another famous horror movie that has a legitimate basis in reality: The Amityville Horror. Originally a novel written by Jay Anson in 1977, the tale of a financially troubled family living in a haunted house on Long Island captured the imagination of the entire country. MGM adapted the book into a successful movie two years later, which went on to inspire no fewer than seven sequels (most of which didn't even involve the haunted house or take place in Amityville at all). Despite the absolute failure of its sequels, the original Amityville Horror has become something of a classic, and all the more ripe for Platinum Dunes to remake it.

Our story takes place at the tail end of 1975, where we follow George Lutz (Ryan Reynolds), his new wife Kathy (Melissa George), and her children, Billy (Jesse James), Michael (Jimmy Bannett), and Chelsea (Chloe Moretz). Preparing to move to a new neighborhood, George and Kathy discover what they believe will be their dream home in the small Long Island village of Amityville. But it's only after the Lutzes purchase the house that they discover the horrible past of 412 Ocean Avenue. The house's previous residents, the DeFeo family, had all been killed in their sleep by the rifle-wielding oldest son. He confessed to the murders soon thereafter, claiming that he heard voices within the house telling him to do it.

Of course, the Lutzes buy the house with the belief that "houses don't kill people," but it doesn't take long for them to start experiencing bizarre phenomena of their own. Ooze drips from the ceiling in one room, windows start opening for no reason in the middle of the night, ghostly voices echo in the basement, and the Lutzes start seeing ghastly apparitions that include Chelsea's new "imaginary" friend, the very restless spirit of Jodie DeFeo (Isabel Connor). And I'd be lying if I said Jodie was a friendly ghost. She nearly convinces Chelsea to jump off the roof of the house, and turns the children's babysitter (Rachel Nichols) into a babbling ball of nerves after she gets supernaturally locked in the closet Jodie's body was found in.

But despite Jodie's malicious actions concerning Chelsea, it soon becomes obvious that George is getting the lion's share of the haunting. He devolves from a genial, loving husband and stepfather to a harsh and abrasive jerk while sliding down the slippery slope of insanity. He threatens the kids, yells at Kathy, "accidentally" chops the family dog into itty-bitty bite-sized pieces, and soon moves down into the basement, where the preternatural voices grow louder and louder.

Fearing the worst, Kathy turns to local priest Father Callaway (Philip Baker Hall) and asks him to exorcise the house. That sort of thing doesn't sit too well with the house, as the force residing there assaults Father Callaway with a swarm of flies just as he starts throwing the holy water. Father Callaway flees, warning Kathy to get her family out of the house before it's too late.

While taking a few liberties with the original story (such as changing the house number from 112 to 412, and the fact that the real killer didn't have a sister named Jodie), the remake of The Amityville Horror isn't all that bad at all. And although I didn't think it was on quite the same level as other haunted house movies like The Others or even The Grudge, it definitely has its own charm and genuinely spooky moments. The acting is engaging, the direction is tight, and I really don't have all that many complaints.

Being that this is a remake, it'll naturally draw some comparison between it and the original. And while most people will argue against the rash of horror remakes that have popped up over the course of the last decade, the remake of The Amityville Horror is proof that remakes can actually be better than the source material. The remake is a sleeker, more refined movie, but it's a more focused movie too, which works in its benefit. Its tighter focus keeps it grounded, making it an improvement over the original. Yeah, I said it, remake haters. What do you think about that?

Anyone who knows the Amityville story knows the Lutzes all lived to escape the house, but director Andrew Douglas does a wonderful job setting up tension and a spooky atmosphere. Despite knowing the Lutz family survives, you're really not sure if any of them will make it out alive. The acting is sound, with Ryan Reynolds holding it all together. I'll admit, I was skeptical at first when I heard Reynolds had been cast in the lead role. Before he showed up in Blade: Trinity and The Amityville Horror, he was starring in light-hearted comedies like Van Wilder and the sitcom Two Guys, a Girl, and a Pizza Place, so I wouldn't have expected him to show up in a serious horror movie. Reynolds has a natural charisma that makes you want to like him no matter who he plays, and the character of George Lutz is no exception. He goes absolutely crazy by the end of the movie, but he's so good at it that you almost want to cheer on his insanity. I can't speak for anyone else, but the bit near the end where he pushes open the basement door and cocks his shotgun was so simple yet effective that it totally made me want to see him cast as a villain in the future.

Melissa George is entertaining as well, but like the rest of the cast, doesn't really stand out. And Chloe Moretz, as the typical precocious, creepy child that acts above everyone else that you see in a lot of horror movies lately, grated on my nerves so much I could barely stand it. I absolutely hate that kind of character, but Moretz is so darn cute that you almost can't hate her at all.

The script by Scott Kosar is okay for what it was, but did we really need all that background information on the house's history at the end of the movie? Screw looking for background info on the house! It's haunted, so leave! Douglas's direction is better, though. Douglas has obviously been influenced by the recent trend of remaking Asian horror movies. It's dark and foreboding, looking just as frightening as the events that take place. The directing is slick, yet some of the quick editing doesn't help anything. That's a minor complaint, though.

Sadly, for all the positive things I've said about it, the movie is largely forgettable. There's only one truly memorable scene, featuring Rachel Nichols as the world's worst babysitter. She's dressed like a whore, she smokes weed in the bathroom, and she gets a laugh out of telling the Lutz children about how the DeFeo family murders. And then she goes and insults Jodie, a mistake that gets her locked in a closet with the angry ghost of the young girl (who looks like a reject from a Japanese horror movie, thanks to her pale skin and long, nasty black hair). That particular scene, along with Ryan Reynolds's transformation from family man to shotgun-toting psychopath, was really terrifying.

But unfortunately, that's about it. As a standalone film without any of the baggage of being a remake, the movie makes for enjoyable viewing on Halloween night. I don't think The Amityville Horror will ever win any awards, but it's a fun movie that offers up some good scares. That's why I'm giving it three stars for being a perfectly acceptable horror film.

Final Rating: ***

The Amityville Horror (1979)

What's scarier than reality? If a movie about an psychopath slicing and dicing dozens of people with various sharp objects at some secluded summer camp was based on a real killer, wouldn't that scare the hell out of you? A number of movies have pulled the "true story" angle, and many people believe they're real to this day. Sorry to burst your collective bubbles, but quite a bit of these true stories are extremely loose interpretations at best. Let's use The Texas Chainsaw Massacre as an example. Tobe Hooper’s horror opus was purported to be a true story when it was released in 1974, with Michael Bay's 2003 remake using that to its benefit with the tagline "inspired by a true story."

But somewhere out there is a horror movie with a firm grasp on more than a few thin slivers of reality. It's not content to just use certain personality quirks used for original characters, instead using real names and addresses. Taking information from Jay Anson's best-selling book and the stories of those who lived it, the tale of a troubled Long Island family becomes a movie that raises more questions than it could ever think to answer.

On November 13, 1974, the quiet village of Amityville, New York, was rocked with the news that Ronald DeFeo, Jr. had shot and killed his entire family as they slept. After sitting on the market for a year, the house is finally sold to the newly-married George (James Brolin) and Kathy Lutz (Margot Kidder). The Lutzes pack up Kathy's three kids and the family dog and move in, hoping for the best.

Understandably a bit dismayed by the house's history, Kathy calls up a local priest, Father Delaney (Rod Steiger), and asks him to bless the house. That doesn't go too well, however, as a swarm of flies nearly overwhelms him during the blessing. It's all capped off with a very angry disembodied voice that tells Father Delaney in no uncertain terms to leave. The house even assaults him after he leaves, making him gravely ill, nearly killing him in a car accident, and even rendering him blind.

The warning to leave the house that had given to Father Delaney turns out to be one that the Lutzes should listen to as well. Breezes blow through the house with no discernable source, the dog angrily barks at what appears to be nothing, the plumbing backs up with a noxious black liquid, doors and windows start opening and closing by themselves, and the furniture moves around on its own. Kathy starts having nightmares about the murders, while her daughter creates a rather disturbing imaginary friend that may or may not be a spirit within the house. Perhaps the most negatively affected, though, is George. Each passing day sends him further down the road to madness, and he begins looking more and more like Ronald DeFeo as time goes on. George's gradual decent into insanity begins to look like the very unhappy house the Lutzes call home just might cause the events of one year prior to repeat themselves.

Of all the different sub-genres that horror has to offer, haunted house movies don't seem to be brought up all that much. Even with the recent success of Paranormal Activity, you don't really hear people extolling the virtues of haunted house movies. But one of the few that everyone knows is The Amityville Horror. When it comes to haunted houses, it's one of the big guns. It's not a particularly great movie, but considering that it was inspired by real people living in a real house in a real town, it'll definitely get your attention.

Speaking of the story's reality, let's touch on that for a minute. If you've read my review for either the 1974 or 2003 versions of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, you know how I feel about movies that spin the "true story" angle without there being any actual truth involved. There is no Leatherface, there is no cannibal family in Texas, there's only Wisconsin murderer Ed Gein. But the thing with The Amityville Horror is that some of the events actually happened. Did Ronald DeFeo, Jr. really murder his family? Yes. At the time of this review, he's in prison serving six consecutive 25-to-life sentences for each of the murders. Did George and Kathy Lutz really move into the DeFeo house? Yes. Was the house really haunted? The general consensus is "no."

Many believe the Lutz family fled the house after twenty-eight days just because they were financially strapped and couldn't make their mortgage payments, concocting a story about a haunting to justify it. The majority of the statements made by the Lutzes ended up contradicting themselves, and William Weber, DeFeo's attorney, actually came out and said he helped the Lutzes make up the story to correlate his client's defense in court. It also doesn't help that DeFeo had a violent temper anyway, and regularly used heavy drugs like heroin and LSD. With that kind of drug use, one could assume that any "voices" he heard were not ghosts, but hallucinations he experienced due to being really, really high. Nobody had tried debunking the book when the movie was released, so technically, saying that the movie was based on a true story was a reasonable claim. But now, it just covers the Lutz family moving into a house where an unspeakable crime occurred one year earlier. There's no fiction to that.

But enough about the so-called facts. We're here to talk about a movie, aren't we? So let's start with the work of director Stuart Rosenberg. Watching the movie, I got the feeling that Rosenberg didn't quite know what he wanted to do. He seems to intermittently lose his focus and momentum, never really building any suspense for more than a little bit at a time. Instead, Rosenberg goes for every cheap scare in the book, from jolting musical scares to things popping up when you least expect them. It's manipulative, and not even in a good way.

He does, manage, though, to get an excellent score to back him up. Composed by Lalo Schifrin, the music — long rumored to have been rejected for use in The Exorcist — is creepy, frightening, and just plain awesome. It was even nominated for an Oscar, ultimately losing to A Little Romance. But as just plain mediocre as the movie is, at least Schifrin's music is amazing.

But the fantastic music just can't help the rest of the movie. I've already touched on Rosenberg's direction, so let's move on to the script, penned by Sandor Stern. The writing is choppy and inconsistent, and if Rosenberg had trouble building momentum, Stern did him no favors. Things come across as silly a lot of the time, especially during the climax when George rushed back into the house to save the family dog. There's no need for that scene that I could surmise, and it just feels unnecessary.

And I'm also unsure of why the subplot with Father Delaney needed to take up so much time. It feels tacked on so the movie would jibe with all the other religious horror movies that were so prevalent in the '70s. If I'm going to watch a movie about a haunted house, I want to see the haunted house go after the people that live there, not some priest who was only in the house for a few minutes.

Last on my plate is the acting, which is so over the top that it just blows my mind. While Rod Steiger spends the whole movie chewing the scenery, James Brolin and Margot Kidder's performances made it hard to take them seriously. They have a believable chemistry together, but I'm just flabbergasted by their work here. There's that moment where Brolin pulls at his hair and shouts, "I'm coming apart!" It's just so laughable that I can't believe it was meant to be taken seriously. Kidder, on the other hand, goes through the movie with what appears to be a look of doe-eyed confusion on her face, as if she's thinking, "I was just in Superman, how did I end up here so fast?"

To sum it all up, The Amityville Horror is mediocre schlock that hasn't really held up all that well over the years. And I'm still surprised that it ended up with seven sequels and spin-offs between 1982 and 1996, along with that remake a few years ago. But The Amityville Horror is ultimately a weak movie that just happened to find an audience. But me, I'm going to give it two stars. At least the remake was an improvement.

Final Rating: **

Friday, November 20, 2009

Twilight (2008)

I used to think I was up to date on modern pop culture. I'm not hip by any stretch of the imagination, but I at least thought I knew what was going on in the world. But then along came Twilight. I'd never actually heard of Twilight before the movie was released last fall, so I was amazed by the frenzy it caused. Teenage and preteen girls went absolutely bonkers for this movie, and I had no clue why.

It turns out that Twilight was based on the first in a series of novels written by Stephenie Meyer. The series got its start in 2005 and apparently developed a pretty rabid following, but again, I was thoroughly unfamiliar with them until the movie's release. Maybe it's because I'm not as much of a reader as I used to be, or because I'm not a teenage girl. I don't quite know for sure. But because both my sister and mother had read and enjoyed the books after the movie's hysteria started, I figured I'd see what the hubbub was all about. But in my case, I decided to skip all the books and head straight for the movie. And I wish I'd skipped the movie too, because it's a real stinker.

Most teenagers don't really enjoy having to pack up and move somewhere new. But sometimes, it's just one of those things that will happen no matter how much you fight it. And as the movie begins, it's happening to Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart), whose mother is sending her from Phoenix to the small Washington town of Forks to live with her father (Billy Blanks). Her attempts to settle into her new life go smoothly, thanks to a group of classmates who befriend her as soon as she walks through the door of her new high school.

But it is the mysterious Cullen siblings that pique Bella's interest. Of all the Cullens, she is most drawn to Edward (Robert Pattinson) in particular. And despite his initial warnings that she should stay far away from him, the two begin bonding after he saves her from being hit by a car. But by the time they realize they've fallen in love with one another, Bella has put together a series of clues and deduced that Edward and his family are vampires. So it's good for her that the Cullens are the type of vampires that prefer animal blood over the human variety. But not every vampire has adapted that kind of diet, as three evil bloodsuckers have caught Bella's scent and want her as their next meal.

I wrote in the opening paragraphs that I haven't read any of the Twilight books. And if the movie is any representation of what Stephenie Meyer wrote, I don't think I'll ever read them. Why? Because the Twilight movie is absolutely dreadful from start to finish. The acting is terrible, the writing is laughable, and the direction is uninspiring. Every second of the movie is tedious to watch, and it took every bit of strength I had to keep myself from stopping the movie and abandoning this review. I'd rather watch sit and watch paint dry instead of watching the Twilight movie. I'd have rather had a conversation with Uwe Boll while he argued that his movies are timeless classics that rival Casablanca and Citizen Kane in terms of quality. I don't care if Twilight was made for teenage girls who love the books; that doesn't mean the movie had to suck so badly.

At the helm is Catherine Hardwicke, whose past résumé includes Thirteen, Lords of Dogtown, and The Nativity Story. Of her prior movies, I've only seen Thirteen, which I thought was actually rather well made. Twilight, on the other hand, is not so lucky. Hardwicke's inconsistent pacing makes it hard for the movie to find any sort of groove, and the whole thing is edited like a series of really bad music videos.

It doesn't help anything that Hardwicke seems to have decided that she wanted Twilight to have as little substance as possible. It's about a taboo love affair between a human and a vampire that the super-fans would have you believe is the strongest love to have ever been loved in the history of love, yet Hardwicke films it in such a way that there is no passion at all. She has cinematographer Elliot Davis shoot everything through an unappealingly gloomy grey filter, and constructs her scenes in such a way that they seem to have no life whatsoever. The production design looks like it's better suited for a teen-oriented drama on The CW, and the special effects are poor. (Regarding the special effects, Edward doesn't look "sparkly," as much as he does blurry. Was it so hard to just paint the guy head to toe in body glitter?) All in all, Hardwicke's direction is depressing to look at, irritating to follow, and just plain bad.

It doesn't help anything that she's working from such a bad script. It was written by Melissa Rosenberg, who had only written one feature film — the 2006 dance movie Step Up — prior to adapting Twilight. So basically she's written one lame movie, and followed it up by writing another. There are so many problems with Twilight's script that I'd be here all day if I wanted to really get into all of them. So let's hit a few of the big ones, shall we?

First off, the dialogue is total crap. The scene where Edward reveals that sunlight causes his skin to sparkle (instead of killing him, like it does in every other vampire story) is one of the worst offenders. The standout line of dialogue is, "This skin... this is the skin of a killer, Bella!" It's also the skin of a terrible actor forced to spout off dialogue that would get you laughed at if you said it earnestly. It's embarrassing to listen to, and I'm sure it was embarrassing for the actors to deliver.

And then there's the fact that there seems to be no plot at all. The whole movie basically seems to be, "Bella is a wallflower who likes to mope around and do nothing. Edward's a creepy, off-putting weirdo. She spends what seems like forever trying to figure out that he's really a vampire. They fall in love with each other despite the fact that she should be afraid of him and that he should be drinking her blood. There's a softball game in the woods. Some vampires fight. Bella and Edward go to the prom. The end." That's pretty much it for the whole movie. None of it is really all that interesting, but we're stuck with it.

There are characters that are introduced and promptly forgotten, as if they were just there so people would recognize them in the sequels. For example, the character of Jacob Black, as played by Taylor Lautner, shows up early in the movie. The love triangle between Jacob, Bella, and Edward is supposed to be a rather important part of the Twilight mythology, but all he gets are a handful of minor, practically inconsequential scenes before he's whisked away to Sequel City. Granted, I've been told that Jacob doesn't really become a major player in the books until the second one, but if the character isn't going to be put to any real use, why even include him? Was it just to satisfy the members of "Team Jacob" in the audience?

But we can't forget the characters. The stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid characters. The characters in this movie are some of the most pathetic, one-dimensional wastes of space I have ever seen committed to film. And I actually cannot get over the fact that the supposed hero of the story is basically two steps away from sticking Bella in a pit in his basement and telling her to rub the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose. Edward rambles on and on with his pretentious "what if I'm the bad guy?" nonsense, acting like Bella's presence makes him physically ill. And then at a certain point, he decides he's going to start stalking her. And I don't mean just following her around, watching her from a distance. I mean full-blown, super-uncomfortable, "make a person fear for their own life" stalking. Girls, let me give you a little bit of advice. If a weirdo that you've just met says that he "feels very possessive of you," then breaks into your house uninvited in the middle of the night and stares at you for hours while you sleep, that isn't romance. It's creepy and wrong and I'm pretty sure that breaking and entering is a crime in all fifty states.

And I honestly cannot judge Stephenie Meyer's writing due to my noted unfamiliarity with her books. But judging by the movie, Meyer has to be out of her friggin' mind. She's undoubtedly laughing her way to the bank as I type this, but how can someone possibly come up with such poorly done drivel and expect it to be taken seriously by anyone who can see through all the nonsense? Edward is a borderline psychopath who any sane female would have ran away from the moment he opened his mouth, Bella is quite frankly all air between the ears, and none of the other characters seem to have any sort of point. Even the villains are lacking a real purpose. I simply do not understand how this can be so popular. Maybe I'm not supposed to, I don't know.

Probably the worst part of this whole thing, though, is the acting. Holy crap, does the acting suck. I'll just come right out and say that with the exception of Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson, nobody in the movie is worth talking about. They're complete non-factors, essentially background noise that you never pay any attention to. And really, we're not supposed to pay attention to the other actors, because the whole thing is all about setting up the stupid romance between the two main characters.

So what's so bad about the stars, hmm? The answer is just about everything. They're dull and lifeless, as if the director was happy to stick cardboard cutouts of the actors in front of the camera and run with it. Considering how much time is spent to having them stare at one another, that joke I made about cardboard cutouts probably isn't too far from the truth. Stewart is just boring to watch, never playing Bella as anything other than a blank-faced, emotionless twit whose sole hobby is sitting around moping all day. On the other hand, watching Pattinson isn't as much of a drag as it is with Stewart, so he has that going him. But his performance is so stiff and makes Edward so uncomfortable to watch that it makes me wonder why Bella would ever fall in love with a clown like him.

Before you "Twi-hards" start leaving me angry comments, yes, I understand that this movie was not made for me. It was made for the people who have read all the books from cover to cover a million times, treasuring each word on each page as if they were precious jewels. It was made for the people who are still patiently awaiting the publication of a fifth book in the series. It was made for the people who put on their homemade "Team Edward" or "Team Jacob" T-shirts and stood in line for hours to see the advance midnight screening of the movie, then started camping out for New Moon tickets as soon as they got back out to the theater lobby. In short, it was made specifically to pander to the shrieking, swooning teenage girls who eat, sleep, breathe, and bleed Twilight.

But as I said before, the fact that the primary fanbase is made up of people who won't care one way or the other is no excuse to make such a shoddy excuse for a movie. I'm sure a ton of boyfriends got dragged to see this, so why not make something would appeal to them too? I mean, take a look at J.J. Abrams's reboot of Star Trek from this past summer. It was practically a love letter to fans of the show, but it done so well that it managed to appeal to non-fans as well. Twilight doesn't have that going for it, which makes me even more depressed because I can't even say I was forced to watch it. I saw it of my own free will. If I'd been roped into watching it by a loved one, at least I would have had an excuse.

As a movie, Twilight is so shallow that you'll crack your skull open if you dive in headfirst. While teenage girls will be enthralled with all the cheesy melodrama and swooning every time Robert Pattinson or Taylor Lautner appears, it's practically unendurable for those who have yet to succumb to the madness that has enveloped the movie's target audience. I simply cannot imagine anyone who isn't already a fan of the books enjoying this movie. I certainly didn't. I wonder if it's too late for Blade, Buffy Summers, or even the Frog brothers from The Lost Boys to show up and slay these lame vampires for good.

Final Rating:

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Brüno (2009)

When it was released in 2006, Borat was a critical and commercial success. Starring English comedian Sacha Baron Cohen, it was a mockumentary that followed a Kazakh television reporter across America in his quest to learn more about the country (and ultimately marry Pamela Anderson against her will). It became something of a pop culture phenomenon for a time, with fans of the movie imitating Borat's distinct voice and quoting his catchphrases. A parody of the character even turned up in Epic Movie.

But it was also a quite controversial movie as well. Baron Cohen and the movie's producers faced numerous lawsuits from people who were unhappy with how they were depicted in the movie, and there were plenty of folks who were upset with the extremely politically incorrect behavior of the title character.

Despite the previous controversy, Baron Cohen went the mockumentary route again this past summer with Brüno. A similar movie featuring another of Baron Cohen's characters from Da Ali G Show, Brüno is not quite as funny as Borat, but there are still some laughs to be had.

The star of the movie is the titular Brüno (Sacha Baron Cohen), an Austrian fashion reporter who is so flamboyantly gay that he makes Liberace look butch. As the film begins, his popular TV show has been cancelled after a mishap with an all-Velcro suit causes him to accidentally wreck a Milan fashion show. The resulting embarrassment completely kills all his popularity throughout Europe and causes his boyfriend to leave him for another man. Wishing to remain in the public eye, he figures it's time to take the United States by storm. Accompanied by his assistant's assistant, Lutz (Gustav Hammarsten), he heads for Los Angeles intending to become "the biggest Austrian superstar since Hitler."

But every chance he takes at fame ends up hitting a brick wall. His potential TV pilot — featuring disastrous celebrity interviews and a dancing penis — is called "worse than cancer" by a focus group. His attempt at making a sex tape with Ron Paul is a tremendous failure. He tries to foster peace between Israel and Palestine, but screws that up too. And he even runs afoul of Child Protective Services after accidentally revealing that he'd traded an iPod for an African toddler. Defeated, Brüno decides that the only way he can achieve the fame that eludes him is if he becomes straight. Will that be the change that Brüno needs to become the star in America that he was in Europe?

I'm not quite sure what to say about Brüno. I just can't believe how insanely over the top it is. If you thought that Borat pushed the boundaries of good taste, then Brüno will absolutely smash those boundaries. The comedy is far more uncomfortable that Borat's, and a lot of it works in an awkward kind of way. Maybe that's just the way it seemed to me, I don't know. But even at its most awkward, Brüno is still worth a watch.

As with Borat, I'm not sure I see a real need to critique Larry Charles's direction. When you make a movie using the "fake documentary" style, you've got to screw up something fierce to do badly at it. Really, nobody's expecting Scorcese-level direction here anyway. What we're watching Brüno for is to see Sacha Baron Cohen making everyone uneasy with his character's extreme gayness. And when it comes to that, it's a success.

The writing is credited to Baron Cohen, Anthony Hines, Dan Mazer, and Jeff Schaffer, though I assume that the greater part of their writing went into coming up with the concept and into scenes needed to push the plot forward. The majority of the movie is Brüno instigating chaos among people who don't know he's an actor playing a character, which I have to assume was all improvisational work on the part of Baron Cohen.

But as far as the movie's overarching themes go, Brüno seemingly has a bit more going on than Borat. Borat was a vehicle for Baron Cohen to expose people's hidden prejudices and racial ignorance through comedy. Brüno pretty much does the same thing, only with homophobia instead of racism, but also seems to be a satire of fame and celebrity status in America. Most of Brüno's attempts to find fame is a blatant parody of celebrity culture in general, like being famous for having a sex tape, promoting charitable causes despite not knowing anything about what you're supporting, one scene featuring stage parents who'd do any insane thing asked of them if it'll make their kids famous, and adopting an African child. Brüno trading an iPod for the child, though, seems to be a direct reference to the accusations that Madonna's adoption of a Malawian boy a couple of years ago was essentially her buying a child. The whole thing never feels like it's hitting you over the head with an indictment of celebrities, and it's a really funny way to razz famous people without being overtly mean about it.

But no matter what, Brüno lives and dies on the performance of its leading man. The movie would have been all for naught if he'd been unable to carry it, but Baron Cohen does a fine job. He's hilarious in the role, setting up outrageous moments with equally outrageous behavior of his own. It's been said that some people will do anything for a laugh, but Baron Cohen will apparently do anything to get a reaction from people that will make others laugh. I respect him for going out on a limb, especially since there were so many instances in which someone could have kicked the crap out of him (or worse), and I applaud him for being so funny while doing it.

Though this review has been generally positive, Brüno does have its flaws. The whole satirical homophobia thing feels really forced to the point of being intrusive. It wears out its welcome rather quickly, making me wish that Baron Cohen had just stuck with the mockery of the American obsession with fame by itself. But really, that's the only major complaint I have with the movie. It often feels like an attempt to replicate Borat, but it still works quite a bit of the time. So I guess I'll give Brüno three stars on the usual scale. It's not really a bad movie, it's just more of the same.

Final Rating: ***

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Paranormal Activity (2007)

It's weird to think that The Blair Witch Project is ten years old. It doesn't seem like it should be that old, does it? But that length of time makes it easy to forget just how big a movie it was. It was a pop culture phenomenon, and pioneered how filmmakers and movie studios would use the Internet as a promotional tool. The Internet has also been a boon for smaller movies that may have otherwise never been heard of, especially those in the horror genre. As they pop up at different film festivals, movie news websites pick up on them and the hype begins.

And over the last couple of months, the hype machine has been kicked into overdrive for this year's "little indie horror movie that could," Paranormal Activity. The movie premiered at the Screamfest Film Festival in 2007 and spent two years touring film festivals and college campuses before scaring the pants of Steven Spielberg and getting a distribution deal from Paramount Pictures. And with Paramount's backing, the movie's got a nationwide theatrical release two weeks ago. With tons of glowing reviews, the super-hype has become almost palpable. The movie's poster even has "one of the scariest movies of all time" plastered across it. So let's see if Paranormal Activity is worth it.

The movie focuses on Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston), a young couple who have recently moved in together. But the odd things happening around the house suggests that they are not alone. Katie thinks that it may be a supernatural being that she believes has been haunting her since childhood. Unconvinced yet curious, Micah sets up a video camera, hoping to catch the ghost in action.

It doesn't take too long for Micah's camera to pick up various occurrences in the middle of the night. Lights start flickering on and off, doors open and close on their own, and weird noises echo in the hallway. The oddest comes when Katie wakes up in the middle of the night and spends several hours standing by the bed, staring at Micah as he sleeps, before going outside to sit in the backyard. The fact that she has no memory of it afterward makes it even stranger. But when Micah starts egging on their supernatural visitor in order to catch it on camera, what starts out as mildly annoying behavior escalates to something more proactive and aggressive. And an unhappy ghost is a dangerous ghost.

Paranormal Activity will not appeal to people who don't like the "found footage" style of movie, or to those who have become jaded by movies that don't live up to excessive hype. But if you allow yourself to be sucked into what's happening, you'll find that it's actually quite effective. The actors are convincing; it doesn't rely on cheesy special effects; and it is crafted in such a way that it feels authentic. Granted, there's the "this is a work of fiction" legalese with the copyright notices at the end of the movie. And common sense will naturally tell you that it's all fiction. But it's the fun kind of fakery, the kind where as long as your suspension of disbelief can hold out, you'll want to think it's actually happening.

Part of what makes Paranormal Activity work so well is the efforts of writer/director Oren Peli. You would never guess that Peli has no formal training in filmmaking, because despite being armed with only a tiny cast, a high-end camcorder, and a $15,000 budget, the movie looks like it was made by someone with several years of experience.

I know that the movie could have been made traditionally, but Peli's use of the so-called "Blair Witch technique" makes the movie that much creepier. Peli uses it to build atmosphere and suspense instead of the hollow scares that plague most horror movies. He even goes one step further, making the antagonist our own imaginations. Instead of a seven-foot-tall masked psychopath with a butcher knife kicking in the door, the villain is booming footsteps coming from nowhere, lights flickering for no reason, a door that moves by itself, shadows that shouldn't be there. Peli makes darn sure that it is the unseen things that go bump in the night that we should be afraid of.

I also appreciated that Peli made sure that the ghost made its presence immediately known. I complained in my Cloverfield review that I hated having to wait half an hour for the monster to show up when it was the only reason I wanted to see the movie in the first place. And truth be told, there's more than a few movies like that. But Peli averts this, getting to the haunting within the first ten minutes. He doesn't waste any time running directly into the haunted house and pulling us in with him. Paranormal Activity doesn't waste any time getting to the point, and it's a better movie for it.

Another thing I thought was very well done was that it seemed entirely plausible for the camera to keep rolling. A lot of "found footage" movies lack that plausibility; when every bit of human logic would dictate that the characters should drop the camera and run for their lives, they keep filming. Why? Because there would be no movie if they thought logically. But Paranormal Activity's reasoning for continuing to document the haunting is actually believable: Micah's just kind of a prick that doesn't know when to quit. It's so simple, but the way the character is developed, it makes complete sense.

And speaking of the characters, let's get into the acting. With a movie like this, where the cast is comprised of only two or three people, the actors can make or break a movie. If they can't connect with the audience, then they'll tune out and you'll have a big ol' flop on your hands. But speaking solely for myself, I thought that Paranormal Activity's actors did a fantastic job.

Of the two actors, I thought that Katie Featherston was more impressive. She's in front of the camera for nearly the entire movie, so it falls on her to do the lion's share of the work. Featherston is up to the task given to her, and she's quite likable and sympathetic. She never gets really shrill or annoying, even as the haunting (and Micah's behavior) grows increasingly agitating. You wanted to reach into the screen and strangle Heather Donahue during The Blair Witch Project, but Featherston thankfully avoids that. She's not going to win an Oscar, but for the purposes of Paranormal Activity, she's perfect.

Playing her boyfriend and the movie's cameraman is Micah Sloat, who I thought was very entertaining. The character becomes more and more of a douchebag as the movie progresses. He seems less interested in helping Katie overcome her fears and more focused on antagonizing the ghost and catching it on camera. And though the character is a bit of a jackass, Sloat's performance is still an amiable one. I actually have to agree with Noah Antwiler's review and say that I could identify with Sloat's character. If all this weird stuff was going on in my house, I'd probably be preoccupied with trying to provoke the ghost into doing something so I could videotape the results and put the footage on YouTube. Maybe that speaks ill of me, but it's true. But regardless, I thought Sloat was a lot of fun, so I can't complain.

Naturally, Paranormal Activity will draw comparisons to The Blair Witch Project. Both of them have tiny budgets, were shot in similar manners, and have similar setups. The stars in both movies used their real names. Both had very unique viral marketing techniques, with Paranormal Activity's theatrical release starting in only twelve theaters and asking people to "demand it" through Eventful.com if they wanted to see it in their area prior to its wide release. And just like The Blair Witch Project, Paranormal Activity has gotten its fair share of backlash from people who believed that the hype was all in vain. But then, there's just no pleasing some folks, am I right? However, I'd actually go out on a limb and call it superior to The Blair Witch Project. That will be a pretty bold statement to some people, but I'd call it a possibility.

Hype or no hype, if you haven't seen Paranormal Activity yet, you've probably got your mind already made up regarding whether or not you'll like the movie. This kind of movie surely won't appeal to everyone, so if you do see it and don't like it, there's nothing wrong with that. But if you ask me, it's a damn fine horror movie. I don't know if it lives up to all of the hype, as if it ever could, but it's still a heck of a movie. So at the risk of adding to the hyperbole, I'm going to give Paranormal Activity four stars. It isn't a flawless movie, but it's good enough for me. And if any ghosts try screwing around with me like that, I'm calling the Ghostbusters. I don't care if the Ghostbusters aren't real, I'll call them anyway. See if I don't.

Final Rating: ****