Saturday, October 23, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

When it was released nationwide this time last year, Paranormal Activity was a bigger hit than initially expected. Shot on an unbelievably minuscule budget, it pulled in a worldwide gross of nearly 200 million dollars and got a ton of positive reviews dating as far back as its festival run in 2007. While there was a certain level of backlash from people who thought it was an overhyped bore, it still proved popular enough to warrant a sequel. But while most studios wait two, maybe three years after a movie's release before making a sequel, here we are a scant twelve months later, talking about Paranormal Activity 2. I enjoyed the first one a lot, so let's go check out the second one.

To be truthful, the movie is really more of a prequel than a sequel, taking place roughly two months prior to the events of the first movie. At the center of the story is Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden), the sister of the young woman tormented in the original Paranormal Activity. When she and her husband Daniel (Brian Boland) come home to discover someone has apparently broken in and trashed the place, they install a series of strategically-placed security cameras set to record 24 hours a day.

The cameras quickly begin capturing a number of strange occurrences. Lights flicker before turning themselves off, things begin moving around on their own, strange noises happen in the middle of the night, typical haunted house stuff. The family's housekeeper (Vivis Cortez) warns that there are evil spirits at play, but only Ali (Molly Ephraim), Daniel's teenage daughter from a prior marriage, seems to pay her any mind. Though she at first posits that the spirit could actually be her mother trying to communicate from beyond the grave, its increasingly malevolent behavior soon convinces Ali that it may be a demon that is targeting her one-year-old half-brother Hunter (William and Jackson Prieto).

When Oren Peli made the original Paranormal Activity, he showed that you don't need a ton of money, big-name stars, or buckets of blood to make an effective horror movie. All you needed was some suspense and a little spark to send a viewer's imagination running wild. Paranormal Activity 2 made the wise decision to avoid messing with what worked in its predecessor, giving us more of the same yet building upon it. It follows the same formula and makes it way more frightening. And while it borders on hyperbole, I have no problem calling it one of the best horror movies of 2010.

Stepping into the role of director is Tod Williams, who deftly taking over where Peli left off. He could have done something incredibly stupid and gone the Blair Witch 2 route, but Williams doesn't change what worked before. He takes the formula from the first movie and cranks up the suspense and the scares. Williams even borrows some of the original movie's scares and adds something new to them, making them even scarier. Doing so allows him to play with the audience's expectations. In using some of these familiar setups, he kindles an "oh no, not this again" feeling before spinning it in a different direction and scaring the pants off the viewer.

He also manages to effectively combine cheap scares and suspense. With each scene, Williams essentially places a nuclear bomb somewhere in a room. You don't know where the bomb is, you don't when the bomb will detonate or even if it will at all. But you know it's there, and just when you think it's gonna go off, it doesn't. And when you breathe that sigh of relief, that's when Williams lets loose. Sometimes it's a short scare, other times its prolonged. And in the last fifteen or twenty minutes, it's insanity. Williams knows exactly what he's doing, and the movie is a lot better for it.

I also liked the fact that the concept of multiple stationary cameras was introduced. It allows the movie to get away from everyone needing to lug cameras around all the time. (The character of Ali does seem fond of carrying a camera around, but only does so when the plot actually calls for it.) It also gives use the opportunity to capture events and get camera angles that wouldn't be possible otherwise, while averting that whole "why do they keep filming?!" problem that's plagued the found footage genre.

Continuing on, I'm not sure if I should critique the writing. Scripts are really inconsequential in a lot of horror movies. But I will give Paranormal Activity 2 an A for effort in the writing department. Writers Michael R. Perry, Christopher Landon, and Tom Pabst actually make a decent go of it. The way they connected this haunting to the first movie's was a neat idea, but I'm still not sure if I liked their explanation for the demon's presence in the first place. I thought it was scarier when the demon was haunting them for the sake of being evil. The only thing that really scares me more than a reason is no reason. The good thing is, though, that the motive is explained in such a way that it could be written off as sheer conjecture by the characters. The demon could still be evil for evil's sake.

But to tell you the honest truth, any of the movie's flaws come from the script. I can't go too much into it without giving away a bunch of the movie (even though the plot synopsis did some of that already), but yeah, the script had a problem or two here or there. It's nothing that can't be totally overlooked, so the problems aren't as big as one might think they are.

The one weird thing about it that didn't really hit me until after the fact was the housekeeper character. What's with movies dealing with the supernatural having older ethnic characters that know everything turn up? At least she was more proactive in helping ward off the trouble than the demonologist from the first Paranormal Activity. Here, a light in the backyard flickers once, the baby starts crying, and she absolutely loses it. She starts waving incense around and saying prayers and incantations and we're barely twenty minutes into the movie, long before the really spooky stuff starts. This lady knows the score and the game hasn't even started yet. The family patriarch fires the poor housekeeper shortly thereafter, so I guess it she's just there to continue the horror movie trend of nobody listening to the prophet of doom.

I guess the only thing left for me to talk about is the cast. The actors aren't as memorable as Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat were in the first movie, but they all do just fine. Molly Ephraim is particularly likable and sweet, while Sprague Grayden is believable in her role. It's a shame, though, that Brian Boland's character is so unlikable. I mean, Sloat's character in the first movie was a tremendous douchebag, but he was still amusing. Boland's character is just a dick. But really, that's more of a complaint about how he's written than Boland's performance.

The funny part is that the family dog is the best actor in the movie. I don't want to sound like I'm disparaging the human actors, because I'm not. But the dog is actually a character you can sympathize with and root for, all because of how its scenes are handled and just how well the dog performs. I know I must sound crazy, but yeah, the dog was my favorite character, and whoever trained him should be applauded.

Is Paranormal Activity 2 better than its predecessor? I can't say for sure at this point. I'd probably have to sit down and watch both of them back to back to ultimately make that decision. But what I can tell you right now is that Paranormal Activity 2 is a damn scary movie in its own right. Whether or not you liked the original movie, the second one is a frightening flick no matter how you slice it. So to sum up, I'm giving it four stars and a recommendation. I just know that they'll make Paranormal Activity 3 after how successful this one's been at the box office so far, so here's hoping it won't be the one that sucks.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Jackass 3D (2010)

Hollywood just gets out of control sometimes, especially when it comes to milking something successful. I mean, how many 3D movies have been released lately, especially after the success of Avatar? It's getting to the point that just about any movie will be made in 3D nowadays, including the movie I'm reviewing right now, Jackass 3D. Yes, you read that title right. Not only did someone decide to make a third Jackass movie, but they made it in 3D. I'd ask why, but I'm afraid someone would tell me the answer.

Following in the footsteps of the TV show and movies that preceded it, Jackass 3D sees the nine usual suspects — Johnny Knoxville, Bam Margera, Ryan Dunn, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Dave England, Ehren McGhehey, Preston Lacy, and Jason "Wee Man" Acuña — engaging in stunts, pranks, and practical jokes that are dangerous, disgusting, and depraved. And it's all in glorious 3D!

When MTV first started airing the Jackass TV show ten years ago, I didn't think that we'd still be talking about it a decade later. But here we are in the year 2010, talking about the third Jackass movie. Even as a fan of the franchise, I'm still flabbergasted that it inspired one movie, let alone a trilogy. Who'd have ever thought it?

Though Jackass 3D has plenty of gross-out gags and awkward male nudity, it's actually tamer than you might expect. A lot of it simply goes back to the roots of the show, which saw the crew simply putting themselves in harm's way, putting strangers into Candid Camera-style situations, and generally being jackasses. And all of it is as funny as a Jackass fan could hope for.

Like the show and the first two movies, not every segment works. Did we really need the bit where Bam Margera gives us a wiener's-eye-view while he pees on people? Or the segment where a pig eats an apple that's wedged between Preston Lacy's butt-cheeks? How about Johnny Knoxville dressed as Santa, sitting in the top of a tree that's being cut down? Yeah, they're good for a laugh, but not a lot of them. The rest of the movie makes up for it, though, by being as outrageous as the Jackasses have always been. You could argue that it's just more of the same from them, but sometimes more of the same is still pretty good.

But did the movie really need to be in 3D? Probably not. There's actually a few scenes that are still 2D. But the scenes that put the 3D to good use are even funnier because of it. The 3D puts you right in the middle of the segments, which only makes them more gross when bodily fluids come flying at the camera and funnier when you realize that's probably the reaction they were going for in the first place.

You know exactly what you're getting out of a movie titled "Jackass 3D." If you're a fan of the franchise, you'll get a kick out of it. If you aren't, then you probably won't be seeing it anyway. Personally, I got exactly what I wanted out of the movie: a good time. Jackass 3D was a heck of a lot of fun that earns a solid three and a half stars on the usual scale. Happy tenth anniversary, Jackass, and thanks for the schadenfreude.

Final Rating: ***½

Monday, October 11, 2010

Highlander (1986)

With any long-running media franchise, it's possible for the franchise to run out of steam yet still keep trying to have a go at it anyway. But there are cases where a franchise hits the wall just as it begins. This is none more evident than with the Highlander franchise. A ton of sequels, a TV show, an animated series, and two video games have carried the Highlander name, and almost all of them have been negatively received. The only true exception is the first movie in the franchise. A cult classic in spite of having its name dragged through the mud by lousy sequels and successors, Highlander is a tremendous movie that stands high above the crap that followed it.

The story focuses on Connor MacLeod (Christopher Lambert), a man from the Scottish Highlands who, in the year 1536, is seemingly killed in battle by an evil barbarian known as "The Kurgan" (Clancy Brown). He awakens the next day to find himself in perfect health, a recovery that his clansmen believe is the work of witchcraft. Fearing he was in league with the devil, they banish Connor from their village.

Connor spends the next five years roaming Scotland until he is approached by Juan Sánchez Villa-Lobos Ramírez (Sean Connery). Ramírez explains that both he and Connor are part of a race of immortals, destined to be pulled to a far-away land for "The Gathering." It is during the Gathering that every immortal will fight until only one of them remains. The last immortal left will claim a great power known simply as "the prize." To prepare Connor for the Gathering, Ramírez teaches him the perks of his immortality, while training him in the ways of swordfighting and how to avoid decapitation, the only known method of killing an immortal.

Connor's story continues several centuries later, specifically the year 1985. Now living in New York City as "Russell Nash," Connor becomes aware that the Gathering has finally arrived. He, like all other immortals, are called to battle in the streets and back alleys of the city. But the battle becomes personal when the only immortal left standing between Connor and the prize is his ancient enemy, the Kurgan.

I absolutely love Highlander. I'd actually go as far as to call it one of my favorite movies of all time. Granted, it isn't flawless, but the movie makes up for it with a ton of imagination and lots of entertainment value. It's one of those movies that I could watch over and over again and never get sick of it. But what is it about Highlander that makes it so great?

Part of it comes from Russell Mulcahy's stellar direction. Though he had a budget of only 16 million dollars, Mulcahy treats the movie as if he had 160 million. The editing and transitions between the 1530s scenes and the 1985 scenes are excellently done, and Gerry Fisher's cinematography is utterly gorgeous. I can't believe how fantastic the movie looks. Parts of it are dated and some of the special effects are cheesy, but Mulcahy does a great job in the director's chair.

There's also the screenplay, credited to Gregory Widen, Peter Bellwood, and Larry Ferguson. Originally written by Widen while a student at UCLA and rewritten after it was sold, the script handles the story in a very cool way. Most movies would have told the story in a more linear fashion, but Highlander instead spreads the Scotland scenes throughout the movie as flashbacks. Doing it this way makes it somewhat easier to understand the motivations of the characters of characters like Connor and the Kurgan while still keeping things mysterious and dramatic.

What makes the script truly great, however, is the characters. They're all very well done, with the protagonists all being very engaging and amiable. You find yourself really liking Connor and Ramírez, while simultaneously being intimidated by the Kurgan. The Kurgan is one of the best villains I've seen in a movie, as he's both very cool and very scary. If the script did anything at all right, it's the characters.

But there are two things about Highlander that I thought set it apart from other fantasy movies. One is its soundtrack. While composer Michael Kamen contributes a beautiful orchestral score, he's overshadowed by the songs Queen performed for the movie. Eight Queen songs appear in on the soundtrack (six of which appear on their album A Kind of Magic), and they're all great. But the best are the Highlander franchise's de facto theme songs, "Princes of the Universe" and "Who Wants to Live Forever." The songs are almost too awesome, but they fit the movie well.

The other thing about the movie is its cast. The actors assembled for the movie give it their all, each of them showing an admirable level of commitment to their roles. Christopher Lambert is great in the lead role, playing the titular Highlander with a wide-eyed curiosity in the flashbacks and a stoic "seen it all" attitude in the 1985 scenes. Lambert plays Connor superbly, making the viewer honestly care about the character.

It helps that he has a fine supporting cast backing him up, though. In the role of Ramírez, Sean Connery is awesome, plain and simple. I can't say I see the logic in hiring a Scotsman to play an ancient Egyptian pretending to be a Spaniard, but I don't think Connery did either. He doesn't even try to put on an accent beyond his normal Scottish brogue, which only makes Connery's funny performance even funnier. He's fantastic, though, so I honestly can't complain about him.

In the role of the villainous Kurgan, Clancy Brown is perfect. He's frightening and intimidating, making the Kurgan a presence to be reckoned with. Even his voice is enough to make the Kurgan one hell of a villain. It's weird thinking a hulking brute who gleefully cuts people's heads off in Highlander is the same guy who voices Mr. Krabs on SpongeBob SquarePants. But Brown's performance makes the Kurgan a man who's not to be trifled with, for sure.

And as Connor's love interests, Roxanne Hart and Beatie Edney do fine jobs. Hart plays a forensics expert helping the police investigate the rash of decapitations throughout New York City, and ends up falling for Conner after he's suspected as a serial killer. Her character never really struck me as being all that important to the story, but I felt that Hart did pretty well all the same. Edney plays Connor's wife during his life in Scotland in the 1530s, and she's quite likable and sweet in the role. If they'd deleted Hart's character and added more scenes with Edney's, I wouldn't have argued.

I've never really been a fan of the fantasy genre, but I'll gladly make an exception for Highlander. It's not the best movie ever made, and the sequels and spinoffs that followed it may not have the best reputation, but the original movie still a fun way to spend two hours. Highlander is a cult classic that is probably deserving of more respect than what it gets. It's a great flick, one that I enjoy a lot and cannot recommend enough. If you haven't seen it, you're missing out on a real underrated treat. So on my usual scale, I'm giving the movie four stars out of five and my seal of approval. And in the realm of movies like this, if I may paraphrase the late, great Freddie Mercury: "Highlander has no rival, no one can be its equal."

Final Rating: ****

Friday, October 8, 2010

Barb Wire (1996)

Over the course of a few decades, both Marvel and DC Comics developed their own "shared universes," which allows their characters to co-exist in the same world and justify the occasional crossover. Marvel and DC's universes occurred naturally over a span of several years, but when the comic speculator market reached its peak during the mid-'90s, other publishers tried creating their own universes from scratch. Image Comics attempted this, as did Dark Horse Comics, through their short-lived "Comics' Greatest World" imprint. The CGW imprint was less than successful, lasting only a few years before being phased out and eventually forgotten altogether.

Oddly enough, one of the characters introduced during Dark Horse's CGW experiment actually got their own movie. That character was Barb Wire, a stereotypical "bad girl" created by writer Chris Warner in 1993. And just like the comic book that inspired it, the movie has practically faded into obscurity. Unfortunately, I knew of its existence, and I was dumb enough to actually watch it on HBO recently so I could write a review of it. I must be all kinds of stupid, because Barb Wire sucks hard.

In the distant, far-away year of 2017, the United States is embroiled in its second civil war. A Nazi-like faction called the "Congressional Directorate" has overthrown the government, and declared martial law in every city in the country. The only free city left is Steel Harbor, a lawless island city called home by Barb Wire (Pamela Anderson), owner and proprietor of a popular bar called "the Hammerhead." And in order to bring in a little extra cash on the side, Barb hires herself out as a mercenary and bounty hunter.

It isn't too long into the movie before Barb finds herself caught smack in the middle of some big trouble. Dr. Corrina Devonshire (Victoria Rowell), a defecting government scientist in possession of some crucial intelligence that would benefit those who oppose the Congressional Directorate, arrives at the Hammerhead asking for Barb's help in sneaking across the border into Canada. This would be no big deal, but Corrina's husband, resistance fighter Axel Hood (Temuera Morrison), is a former flame of Barb's whom she's never forgiven for their rather nasty breakup. When the contraband Axel and Corrina need to leave the country comes into Barb's possession, she's torn between her own desires and helping those who've asked for her aid.

Let's just cut to the chase: Barb Wire sucks. Anyone who tries making a serious argument that it's anything other than horrible is an idiot. The acting is awful, the direction is generic, and the writers probably weren't even trying. Actually, I could say that the entire movie isn't trying. It's like nobody wanted to even bother making a movie that wasn't terrible. Maybe they were trying to make a bad movie on purpose? I mean, there's no way they could have watched the production dailies and thought, "Yeah, there's no way this movie can fail. It's gonna be awesome." There's no way that happened.

Of all the movie's flaws, its most-cited is the fact that it rips off Casablanca. I don't just mean certain elements, I mean they took the whole plot, changed the location and the time period, and added some action sequences. That, and they gender-swapped some of the characters. Barb Wire replaces Rick, while Axel and Cora stand in for Ilsa and Victor Laszlo respectively. And what gets me is that nobody involved with Casablanca is acknowledged. The credits state that Barb Wire was written by Chuck Pfarrer and Ilene Chaiken from a story by Chaiken, which has to mean that either "Ilene Chaikin" is a group pseudonym for Casablanca's writers or they just stole the plot and didn't care about any sort of originality.

What's worse is that Pfarrer and Chaiken don't even steal Casablanca all that well. Their script is unflinchingly bad, filled with crappy dialogue and thoroughly unlikable characters. But I guess that makes sense, since a lot of independent comic books were full of the same thing at the time the movie was made. That doesn't change the fact, though, that the script is just dreadful.

David Hogan's direction doesn't help matters any, thanks to how generic and derivative it is. It looks like every other low-budget, B-grade action movie from the mid-'90s, and a second-rate one at that. He doesn't do anything memorable beyond the opening credits, and it feels like he's just going through the motions of making a movie. It actually gets kinda boring after a while.

Then again, you'll only be bored when you're not irritated by how bad the acting is. The worst offender is the star, Pamela Anderson. Barb Wire was supposed to be the project that turned her from a Baywatch babe into a full-fledged movie star. But what the makers of Barb Wire failed to realize is that Anderson is an awful actress. She's terrible beyond belief, and her attempts at being a sexy bad girl are really more skanky than sexy. And the dialogue is bad enough, but watching her try to deliver such poorly-written drivel made my brain want to shut down completely. But I guess crappy actresses like Anderson don't need talent when they have oversized fake breasts. Her chest is really the only reason she was hired to do the movie at all, so I guess the producers figured her rack would make up for how bad the movie and her acting were. But they don't.

The rest of the cast doesn't fare too better either, despite Anderson's lack of talent overshadowing everyone. Jack Noseworthy, who plays Barb's blind brother, is annoying, while Temuera Morrison and Victoria Rowell are lame if not forgettable. I also didn't think that Steve Railsback didn't make that much of an impression as the movie's primary villain. But it's not all bad, though. I did like Xander Berkley as Steel Harbor's crooked yet goodhearted police chief, and I really enjoyed Udo Kier and Clint Howard in their small and very thankless roles. But then again, I'm always happy to see Kier and Howard in any movie, even bad ones like this.

The '90s weren't a very good decade for movies based on comic books, and Barb Wire is proof enough of that. It's boring, uninteresting, pretentious at times, and poorly made, to be blunt about it. There's no reason for Barb Wire to even exist, let alone for anyone to actually watch it. So if you're looking for my rating, Barb Wire gets one and a half stars out of five. As I said in the introduction, the Barb Wire comics are about as close to obscure as you can get, and here's hoping the movie stays the same way.

Final Rating: