Monday, October 24, 2011

The Thing (2011)

When John Carpenter remade The Thing From Another World in 1982, the resulting movie sadly didn't do too hot theatrically. My guess is that with E.T. coming out at roughly the same time, people would have rather seen a friendly little alien trying to get home instead of some interstellar monster killing a bunch of people. But time has been very kind to it, and The Thing has earned recognition as one of the best sci-fi movies to come out of the '80s.

So you'd think that somebody would have done a remake of the remake by now. That sort of thing is all the rage nowadays, right? But nope, Universal Studios figured they'd just do a prequel to it instead. That's actually something I can get on board with. With a prequel, you can style it like a remake and still tell a new story. I've been anticipating this prequel — oddly enough still titled just "The Thing" — ever since it was first announced. I was a bit concerned when Universal delayed its April release for a few months so reshoots could be done (which is never a good sign), but I still had to check out the movie on opening night. And I'm happy to report that this new Thing is a worthy follow-up to Carpenter's classic.

Befitting its "prequel" status, the movie picks up a few days before the events of the previous movie. As the story begins, paleontologist Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) is recruited by Dr. Sander Halversen (Ulrich Thomsen) to assist him and his team at a Norwegian scientific research outpost in Antarctica. She's shocked to learn upon her arrival that the Norwegians have discovered an alien spacecraft that has been buried deep beneath the ice for 100,000 years.

The team recovers the frozen body of the craft's pilot with the intent of studying it. But the creature they thought had died of exposure was only hibernating. It breaks free of its icy prison and begins causing all kinds of havoc around the camp. Kate discovers that the thing is capable of perfectly imitating a human being. Her paranoia that it could be anyone around her spreads to the others in the camp, putting everyone at each other's throats as a monster from another world eliminates them one by one.

While I will admit to approaching The Thing with some trepidation because of my affection for the 1982 movie, I'm happy to report that this new Thing isn't bad at all. I actually thought it was a fun piece of cinema. Unfortunately, the movie does have some flaws that hold it back from being as good as it could have been, but the 2011 Thing is still — even at its worst — a well-crafted love letter to Carpenter's movie.

The movie was directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., a Dutch filmmaker who I'd honestly never heard of prior to seeing The Thing. But I will say that I did enjoy his efforts here very much. His direction is very solid, creating a tense atmosphere that deftly invokes the same sort of paranoia caused by the previous Thing. Van Heijningen quickly establishes a claustrophobic feeling, no big feat considering how expansive Antarctica is. It perfectly conveys the sense that you're trapped with nowhere to go, and everything is out to get you.

My only problems were with some of the special effects, and the score composed by Marco Beltrami. Beltrami has done some great music in the past, but he really didn't do anything for me here. I barely even noticed any music in the movie at all, and what I did notice, I wasn't impressed with. I'd have probably been happier had Beltrami just recycled Ennio Morricone's music from the '80s Thing, but hey, you can't always get your way.

And my beef with the effects comes down to three little letters: CGI. Some of the CGI in the movie wasn't really all that convincing. It sure looked cool, and I understand that it was a necessity in order to pull off quite a bit of stuff. But you just can't top practical special effects. Couldn't they have just called in Rob Bottin and said, "Hey, can you give us a few pointers on how to make this stuff work for real?" I will admit that I'm actually not sure how much of the effects in the movie were practical and how much were digitally rendered, but some of the CGI is so obvious that I found it a bit distracting.

But let's move along to the screenplay, penned by Eric Heisserer and Ronald D. Moore. It's apparent that Heisserer and Moore love the prior movie as much as van Heijningen does, because their script echoes it a lot. They use that to their advantage, taking a few familiar setups and taking them in a different direction. For example, there's one scene where Kate rounds up everyone into one room and decides to test all of them to see who the thing is or isn't. Fans of the original movie immediately assume that she'll burn blood samples like Kurt Russell's MacReady did in the 1982 Thing, but Heisserer and Moore defy expectations and up with a completely different one instead. It's changes like that that make the movie feel fresh yet still somewhat familiar.

Heisserer and Moore also realize that if you're going to do an updated version of The Thing, you still need the element of paranoia. The thing's presence quickly turns everyone against one another, with some of the Norwegians letting their distrust of the Americans in their midst get the best of them. It's even more terrifying when you realize that since the audience, like the characters, doesn't know who the thing is until it reveals itself, it could be playing everyone against themselves. It could, and probably is, sowing the seeds of dissent amongst those who are still human to ensure its own survival. It's something subtle amongst all the violence and gore, and Heisserer and Moore pull it off very well.

Then there's the cast, who I thought were fantastic. A lot of the actors were just there to be cannon fodder for the thing, but they all did what was required of them with ease. Ultich Thomsen is great as the smug, self-assured lead scientist, while Eric Christian Olsen and Joel Edgerton are likable in their roles. The best performance, though, comes from Mary Elizabeth Winstead. She's a strong heroine, ready to take charge and jump right into the action as soon as possible. Winstead evokes memories of Sigourney Weaver's Oscar-nominated performance in Aliens, as she gives the character a gung-ho intensity that totally improves the movie.

I'll just come right out and say that the 2011 Thing sadly isn't as good as the 1982 Thing. But it's still a great flick that didn't let me down in the slightest. It's suspenseful and scary, and the less-than-convincing CGI can easily be overlooked if you really get into the movie's groove. As a prequel and love letter to (and perhaps remake of) Carpenter's movie, the movie couldn't be much better. And thus, the 2011 iteration of The Thing gets three and a half stars and a total recommendation from me. My only wish is that Universal Studios had released the movie as a double-feature with the '82 movie. But it'll still be fun to do when it comes out on DVD in a few months.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Found footage movies are rather polarizing, more so than other styles within in the horror genre. This is especially evident in the very successful ones; I know people who to this day will still argue whether or not The Blair Witch Project was good or bad. The same can be said for more recent fare like the Paranormal Activity movies.

When Paramount Pictures gave the first Paranormal Activity a wide theatrical release after its two-year stint on the film festival circuit, it was an unexpected hit. It was so successful, in fact, that one could argue that it's what killed the Saw franchise, its Halloween weekend competition.

But it's been the subject of a lot of heated debates since then. One side argues that the bulk of the movie is just some douchebag and his freaked-out girlfriend sitting around waiting for something to happen. The other argues that it's a suspenseful haunted house story that did the best it could with limited means. What do I think? I personally thought that both it and the sequel that followed it last year were, at the very least, really effective in establishing a dreadful, spooky atmosphere with some genuine scares.

In any event, the movies still proved to be financially successful and found an audience who actually enjoyed them. And that's what leads us to Paranormal Activity 3. Seemingly having fully supplanted Saw as the new annual Halloween tradition, the franchise borrows an idea from the second movie by taking another step back into the past to show us just where the demonic forces from the previous movies got its start. And even though it isn't quite as good as the first two, I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

Let me take you back to the year that was 1988. George H.W. Bush was elected into the White House, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince's parents just didn't understand, and yours truly was only six years old. The sisters depicted in the first two Paranormal Activity movies are just kids themselves, too. Young Katie (Chloe Cserngey) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) have recently moved with their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), into the home of Julie's boyfriend Dennis (Chris Smith). It isn't long, however, before bizarre incidents start happening around the house.

It begins when, during an earthquake, Dennis notices some falling dust silhouetting what appears to be an invisible figure in he and Julie's bedroom. A wedding videographer by trade, he installs his cache of camcorders around the house as surveillance devices to keep an eye on what's happening. Furniture moves around the house, household objects start levitating, a babysitter is accosted by an unseen being. As these events escalate, everything seems to focus on Kristi's new imaginary friend, "Toby." But as these occurrences become much more sinister in nature, it quickly comes to light that Toby is neither as imaginary nor as friendly as originally perceived.

If you've read my reviews, you're aware that I absolutely loved the first two Paranormal Activity movies. So I was naturally pretty excited to see the third movie. And I walked out of the theater disappointed that practically none of what appears in the trailers and commercials is actually in the movie. That's really the only problem I had with it. It's like they were advertising a completely different version of the movie. I wanted to see the movie from the commercials, because it looked awesome. But the actual Paranormal Activity 3 is not the one that the advertising campaign is promising. That's kind of a shame, though I must say that I still enjoyed the movie a lot.

Sitting in the director's chair are Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of the (allegedly fake) documentary Catfish. The way they put Catfish together made them a perfect fit for the "found footage" genre, and their work here is fantastic. Not a single frame of the movie is wasted. Everything is building to something, whether it's a scare of an advancement of the plot. This buildup fosters a level of suspense and dread that makes the frightening moments way more effective.

I especially liked their use of a camera that's ostensibly mounted on an oscillating fan. It pans back and forth across the living room and kitchen in twenty-second increments, allowing things to sneak up on us. It actually sets up two of the best scares in the movie. It was a novel idea on Joost and Schulman's part, a bit of creativity that really makes the movie that much scarier. I do think, though, that Joost and Schulman could have gotten away with stealing the split-screen concept from the Japanese Paranormal Activity. They could have pulled it off.

My only problem with their direction is that the movie looks way too crisp. For everything about the 1988 setting Joost and Schulman get right, the movie still looks like it was shot with high-definition digital cameras. My family used to own one of those big VHS camcorders, and none of the videos we shot ever looked half as good as this movie does. And I sincerely doubt that camcorders in the '80s recorded in 16:9 widescreen either. This whole paragraph, though, is basically just nitpicking. It's an incredibly minor gripe that doesn't even really matter in the grand scheme of things. Joost and Schulman did an otherwise great job, and they should be proud of themselves.

I also thought the script by Christopher Landon was very good. Both sequels have been about escalation; Paranormal Activity 2 escalated the scares, while this one escalates the scope of the franchise's mythology. The first two movies set up that Katie and Kristi have been haunted since their childhoods, and that one of their ancestors may have made some kind of deal with the devil. Without going into spoiler territory here, Landon expands upon this in a rather frightening way, one that could change how one would view the other two movies in retrospect.

While I will confess that part of the movie's concept — that we're watching VHS tapes the adult Katie gave to Kristi shortly before the events of the second movie — seems to only exist to shoehorn in cameos from Katie Featherston and Sprague Grayden, I thought Landon did an awesome job in expanding on the hauntings from the first two movies. Though the movie's status as a prequel means there was no forward movement in the franchise's overall arc, and we still don't know just where the hell things are going after Paranormal Activity 2's ending, Landon has still written a terrifying movie that both shakes up and adds to the franchise's ability to scare the pants off its fans.

London also manages to avoid a trap that a lot of found footage movies fall in by not having the characters argue over whether or not they should keep filming. More often than not, I've seen at least one scene in a found footage movie where someone will be justifiably pissed off at the cameraman and angrily demand that he stop filming. But not here! Everyone's pretty much cool with the cameras. And without those arguing scenes, the movie moves a lot smoother. It doesn't make any logical sense, since as in other found footage movies, the climax would make much more sense had whomever filming just dropped the camera and ran for the hills. But then the movie would just kinda stop and we'd have no ending, unless they started using footage from security cameras or even ditched the found footage gimmick and transitioned into a regular movie like in the climax of Behind the Mask.

He gives a group of characters that are all very likable as well. The first two movies both featured at least one character that you'd probably be justified in disliking. Pretty much everyone who saw the first movie thought Micah was an annoying douchebag and Brian Boland's character in the second one was kind of a prick. But everyone in Paranormal Activity 3 is someone you can root for, someone whose story you'll hope has a happy ending. It's a large part of what makes the movie so good. While it's certainly cathartic to see annoying characters face the monster's wrath in most horror movies, it can be just as scary to take a bunch of sympathetic characters and place them in peril. That's the kind of movie Landon has written, and I applaud his efforts.

It helps that the characters are all played by fantastic actors. Everyone in the movie puts forth their absolute best. Lauren Bittner gives us a credible, believable performance, while Dustin Ingram — who plays a friend of Dennis's and provides some of the movie's lighter moments — steals a lot of the scenes he's in. I got a real kick out of Chris Smith too. His performance is funny, enjoyable, and entertaining.

Of the child actors, Chloe Cserngey aces her role as the young Katie, but she's outshined by Jessica Tyler Brown. Brown alternates between sweet and spooky, giving us a lot of moments that are simultaneously cute and disturbing. She plays the role very mysteriously; you know that something is going on with her, but you're never quite sure what. In particular, the scenes where she wakes up in the middle of the night so she can have one-sided conversations with "Toby" are very creepy and foreboding. It's a great performance, one that actually helps add to the movie's feeling of dread.

Although I didn't like it as much as the first two, Paranormal Activity 3 is still a great flick. It's suspenseful and scary, and fills in some of the blanks in the overall story that may or may not have been created by the other two. But it raises just as many questions as it answers, more than likely just so they can have something to do in the next movie. (And if you think they aren't going to make Paranormal Activity 4, you're out of your mind.) That's something that can be overlooked, though, because it's still a damn find movie. You probably won't like the movie if you weren't a fan of the first two, but I am and I enjoyed it. So I'm going to give Paranormal Activity 3 three and a half stars on the scale. I do wonder, though, what they'll do with Paranormal Activity 4. Do they do another prequel? Do they follow up on the ending of the second one? I guess we'll have to wait a year and see.

Final Rating: ***½

Friday, October 21, 2011

Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010)

Though its origins can be traced back to 1980 and entered the cultural mainstream in 1999, the "found footage" genre has only recently become fairly commonplace. And with the genre's surge in popularity over the years, one of its most talked-about entries has been Paranormal Activity. Premiering at film festivals in 2007 and released theatrically in 2009, the low-budget haunted house story was a surprise hit at the box office. It was so popular that a sequel was almost immediately approved.

I reviewed Paranormal Activity 2 shortly after its release last year, but I've only recently discovered the existence of another Paranormal Activity 2. It turns out that the Japanese film industry decided to cash in on the success of the original movie by making their own sequel, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night. I'm used to Italy making sequels and spin-offs to American horror movies (the most famous being Lucio Fulci's Zombi 2, an unlicensed sequel to George Romero's Dawn of the Dead), but this is the first I've heard of that from Japan. And once I'd heard about it, I just had to see it. So let's dig into that other Paranormal Activity 2 and see if it was as good as the American one.

Our tale of terror follows a young woman named Haruka Yamano (Noriko Aoyama), who has just returned to her home in Tokyo after visiting the United States. Her return is not quite a happy one, unfortunately, as her trip to America had been cut short due to a car accident that broke both of her legs. With her father out of the country on a business trip, Haruka is left in the care of her teenage brother Koichi (Aoi Nakamura).

Haruka awakens one morning to discover that her wheelchair has moved on its own volition despite its wheels being locked. Initially believing that someone had broken into the house, Koichi sets up video cameras throughout the house to catch the burglar if they try it again. But when his cameras record footage of the wheelchair moving again, Koichi begins to suspect that a supernatural being is at play. This suspicion is further reinforced when a pile of salt he leaves in Haruka's bedroom is scattered by unseen forces.

But that will be the least of Haruka and Koichi's worries. The haunting begins to escalate beyond messing with wheelchairs and salt, as things around the house end up smashed and Haruka is dragged out of bed by her hair. An attempt to have a Shinto priest exorcise the house only serves to make the demon haunting them angrier. And if you've seen the American Paranormal Activity movies, you'll know that this story won't have a happy ending.

A few years ago, it seemed like every horror movie that Hollywood cranked out was based on a Japanese one. So I guess Japan finally decided to give a little tit for tat and copy an American horror movie. Granted, they did what Hollywood didn't and labeled their movie a sequel instead of a remake. But having watched this flick from start to finish, I can say that yeah, it's pretty much a Japanese remake of the first Paranormal Activity. It follows the exact same formula, right down to copying scenes from the original. You'd think they'd do more with a so-called "sequel" besides doing exactly what the prior movie did, but nope, you'd be wrong.

The movie was written and directed by Toshikazu Nagae, who doesn't really bring anything new to the table outside of a few tweaks for the benefit of Japanese audiences. A real "been there, done that" feeling permeates the movie. That isn't always a bad thing, since the American Paranormal Activity 2 liberally borrowed from the first one yet was still very effective. But this particular movie feels more mundane, like it's just going through the motions.

Nagae does shake things up a little bit, however, by making the two main character siblings instead of a couple. By putting them in different rooms during the nighttime scenes, it gives him the chance to make the movie more visually intriguing. He accomplishes this by utilizing a split-screen effect to show us how the haunting affects Haruka and Koichi both simultaneously and separately as they sleep. It's a unique idea, but Nagae unfortunately doesn't really do much with it. Most of the scenes that involve it usually end up with both characters in the same room anyway.

And while Nagae's script closely follows what Oren Peli wrote for the first movie, there were a few things I feel like I should mention. One was the scene where the unlucky siblings bring in a Shinto priest to perform an exorcism. I'll give Nagae credit for going beyond the demonologist who said "oh crap, there's evil here, I can't help you" in the original Paranormal Activity. I just wish they'd capitalized on it more, though. There's just one scene with a priest, that's it. I don't know how spirituality and demon-fighting work in Japan, but couldn't they have gotten a bit more proactive in trying to overcome their ghost problem?

The other scene I just have to talk about is where the movie explains just how it's connected to the first one. [Be forewarned that this paragraph will contain SPOILERS, so skip ahead if you want to avoid them.] So you know how I mentioned that Haruka was in a car accident in the United States? It turns out that she accidentally ran over and killed Katie Featherston moments after the events of the first movie, and the angry demon has followed Haruka back to Tokyo. Not only does that contradict all three endings of the first movie, but thanks to the American sequel, it doesn't even fit within the continuity. I couldn't even begin to guess what was going through Nagae's head when he came up with that, but I'm fairly certain it didn't involve simple fact checking.

But at least the acting is solid. Noriko Aoyama and Aoi Nakamura are sadly not as memorable as their American counterparts, but they still do the best they can and are quite likable in their roles. I was actually surprised that Nakamura's character isn't as quick to provoke the monsters (or as completely douchebaggy) as Micah Sloat from the first movie, since the movie copied the original so much, but that was actually an okay change with me. Nakamura's performance is still engaging, as was Aoyama's. The pair are believable, enjoyable, and really hold the movie together.

If I may summarize my thoughts into a few words, Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night is okay. It's one of those movies that's just there, a simple way to kill an hour and a half without feeling like you've had your time wasted. The movie is a mediocre wannabe at worst. But then again, its best isn't really that great either. There are a few good scares, and one especially creepy scene near the end, but the movie isn't anything that hasn't been done better by other filmmakers. So I'm going to give the movie two and a half stars. It does make me wonder, however, if there will be a Japanese Paranormal Activity 3. I'd actually like to see that.

Final Rating: **½

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Red State (2011)

When some people find a niche, they like staying there. That's probably why half of Kevin Smith's directorial efforts feature his beloved stoner duo, Jay and Silent Bob. The six movies Jay and Bob appear in are comedy gold, but unfortunately, Smith's efforts to make movies without them haven't really been accepted all that well. Jersey Girl and Zack and Miri Make a Porno underperformed at the box office, and Cop Out was brutally savaged by critics.

Perhaps that could be one reason why for his latest film, Smith chose to try something different and stray away from the comedy genre he's called home since the release of Clerks in 1994. His destination: a horror movie. Loosely inspired by Fred Phelps and his hate-mongering Westboro Baptist Church, Red State is a stark departure from the nine comedies Smith has directed previously. It is different not only in tone and in content, but in how Smith approached it.

Instead of signing the distribution rights over to some big studio, he actually chose to distribute the movie himself, even taking the brave step to refuse to spend a dime on advertising. Smith's been taking the movie around the country as sort of a traveling road show, only recently teaming with Lions Gate to release it to DVD and video-on-demand services. But as much as Smith has talked up his movie on Twitter and his podcasts, is it worth the hoopla? I just have to find out.

The movie begins by introducing us to Travis (Michael Angarano), Jared (Kyle Gallner), and Billy Ray (Nicholas Braun), three Texas teenagers who just want to get laid. And thanks to that glorious tool known as the Internet, they think they've hit the jackpot. They've received an online invitation for sex from a woman (Melissa Leo) willing to take all three of them on. So yeah, of course they're gonna jump at a chance at that.

But what they don't know is that they've been drawn into something beyond their wildest nightmares. The lady who'd sent them the invitation had drugged their beers, and the three sex-starved teens wake up to find they've been kidnapped by the Five Points Trinity Church. An extreme religious cult led by Pastor Abin Cooper (Michael Parks), the church subscribes not to the idea of a forgiving, peaceful God, but one of hate and fear.

And believing himself and his church to be the vengeful wrath of an angry deity, Cooper plans to take his church's hatred for the world outside their chapel's walls to a new extreme. He fully intends to spark a violent crusade against not only the homosexuality that he's convinced is to blame for all of America's faults, but also against straight people engaging in what he deems "sexual deviancy." The church kills a gay man they'd also lured in under false pretenses, with Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray as their next targets.

But when a police officer passing through the area overhears gunshots, he reports back to Sheriff Wynan (Stephen Root). Members of the church kill the officer and to keep the law off their back, Cooper blackmails the sheriff by threatening to send his wife provocative pictures of the sheriff with another man. Sheriff Wynan retaliates by calling in a team of ATF agents led by Joseph Keenan (John Goodman) to bring down Cooper and his cult. What results is a standoff between the ATF and the Five Points Trinity Church that'll make the Waco siege in 1993 look like a friendly get-together.

Smith has tackled religion before, but Red State is a much more visceral, vicious movie than Dogma even thought about being. There is so much rage and anger in Red State that I'd have honestly never guessed he'd made it if I hadn't been aware of it beforehand. There's the occasional witty quip and one-liner, but beyond that, it's absolutely nothing like anything Smith has done in the past. It's almost like Red State was made by a different filmmaker who had the same name by coincidence.

I say that because I'm used to seeing Smith directing no-frills comedies. But Red State is a violent thriller, and the gritty, raw cinematography that Smith puts to use makes it definitely stand out visually from his prior efforts. And although the horror elements and influence are obvious, a thriller really is what Smith's made here. It doesn't completely work as horror beyond a certain point, but as a thriller, it totally works and Smith's direction helps Red State soar.

I also thought his screenplay was top notch despite some flaws I'll get into later. Again, the script doesn't really make itself evident as Kevin Smith's handiwork beyond a few jokes and clever jokes here and there. It's not loaded with references to hockey or pop culture, and the frank sexual discussions are kept to the first twenty minutes and then ditched altogether. Every scene in the movie is absolutely dead serious, the levity kept to a bare minimum.

But you can tell it's Smith's handiwork by the sheer amount of dialogue there is. Seriously, nobody ever stops talking. I don't think there's a single quiet moment whatsoever in this movie. The movie is so verbose, so talkative that you almost want the actors to shut up for a second and let the visuals take charge. (This complaint makes the very last line of the movie, someone yelling at a particular character to "shut the f—k up," funnier than it should be.) But hey, it's a Kevin Smith movie. A Kevin Smith movie without a ton of dialogue would be like a Quentin Tarantino movie without some woman's feet being front and center.

And as for those flaws with the script, I mentioned, there's really one that really stuck out seriously for me. I know most horror movies are supposed to have characters that are a bit on the stupid side, but this one had a character that was King of the Horror Movies Dummies. One of the kidnapped teenagers manages to secretly get free from his restraints and find a machine gun. And as he tries to escape, he ends up in the middle of the church's entire congregation. And just what does he do? Not a damn thing. He just charges straight for the door the first chance he gets. The dumbass kid doesn't fire a single shot. Yeah, there were kids in the room, but surely they'd have all hit the deck when he opened fire. As far as I could tell, he was the only one armed, so he could have taken out at least two or three before somebody managed to sneak up on him in the chaos. Yeah, the kid running out the door leads to a surprising twist, I'll give it that. But Smith could have had him try shooting and the gun jams, or he accidentally left the safety on and panicked, or something. Maybe this is me just nitpicking at little things, I don't know, but Smith could have had him at least try something.

The acting, though, totally makes up for the flaws. I will admit that I didn't like every actor — I thought the actors playing the three teen victims sucked and Melissa Leo's overacting was barely tolerable — but the majority of the performances are really good. Kerry Bishé makes a fine contribution to the movie, playing a young cult member who simply wants to get the children among them to safety. I also thought Stephen Root was great in his relatively short appearance in the movie, but then again, I usually enjoy his work anyway.

But Red State is carried by two performances in particular. One comes from John Goodman, whose performance is strong, credible, and quite effective. Goodman is fantastic in the role, effortlessly conveying all of the conflicting emotions his character is going through. It's an awesome bit of acting that I'd definitely call one of Goodman's best.

He's outshined, however, by Michael Parks. Parks is the best part of Red State, playing Reverend Cooper as a charismatic yet frightening monster. Every second he's on the screen is captivating. This is no more evident than in the monologue he has near the beginning of the movie, where he delivers a sermon to his congregation explaining just how homosexuality has supposedly destroyed America. Parks is fascinating to watch; he's terrifying yet you can't take your eyes off him. It's definitely one of the best performances I've seen in a while, for sure.

Red State is not a perfect movie. Truth be told, it's a mediocre thriller with two fantastic actors. But despite any complaints I have with it, the movie is worth watching just to see Smith step out of his typical comfort zone. Parks and Goodman are the biggest drawing points, sure. But the movie was a big risk on Smith's part, and I admire Red State for that. And while it is unfortunate that I can't give it more than two stars, I'm actually a little disappointed that Smith says his next movie — Hit Somebody, a sports comedy based on Warren Zevon's song of the same name — will be his last directorial effort. And the reason I'm disappointed is because I want to see where the bravery it took to make Red State would take him

Final Rating: **

Friday, October 7, 2011

Hatchet II (2010)

Though I'll admit that I haven't seen as many of them as I'd like to, I'm still a sucker for '80s slasher movies. I don't know what it is about them that I enjoy so much, but I can't help but sit down and watch them when I get the chance.

That's largely what drew me to Adam Green's Hatchet a few years ago. The movie was hyped by practically every horror news website there is as the second coming of the '80s slasher style, that it was a movie that could quite possibly be a game-changer for the entire horror genre. But that's all it was: hype. Hatchet, in truth, sucks. It was overblown, gratuitous, and was trying way too hard to replicate what came naturally for the movies Green wanted it to be like. It felt more like an unfunny parody than anything else.

But I guess Hatchet was successful, because Green got to make a sequel. I didn't and still don't see the need for Hatchet II, but hey, there it is. I will admit that I thought that it was a brave release, spending one weekend in sixty-eight AMC theaters without a rating from the MPAA. It didn't play anywhere within 100 miles of me, but I don't know if I'd have seen it anyway because of my feelings for the first one. But recently I figured what the heck, might as well at least rent the DVD and give it a shot. And I'm actually glad I did, because Hatchet II was nowhere near as bad as I'd initially feared.

The movie picks up immediately where the first Hatchet ended, with Marybeth (Danielle Harris) in the grip of homicidal monster Victor Crowley (Kane Hodder). She barely manages to escape and limps back to civilization, where she is quick to hunt down "Reverend Zombie" (Tony Todd), the fake voodoo priest who organized the boat tour that took her into Crowley's territory in the first place.

Marybeth tells Reverend Zombie about how everyone on the tour was massacred by Crowley, but all she wants is to reclaim the bodies of her father and brother (who Crowley killed in the first movie's prologue) and give them a proper burial rather than let them rot in some madman's shack in the swamp. Having figured out a way to seemingly kill Crowley for good, Reverend Zombie agrees to help Marybeth and assembles a lynch mob to back them up.

Considering how much I disliked the first Hatchet, I wasn't expecting a whole heck of a lot from the sequel. But Hatchet II is surprisingly entertaining. It's a flawed movie, of course, but I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The movie is a fun ride that, while risking becoming as unbearably gratuitous as its predecessor, actually does come close to matching the atmosphere of the '80s slasher flicks its creator intended for it to pay tribute to.

Adam Green returns to the world of Victor Crowley as the sequel's writer and director, and his efforts are a big improvement over his work with the first Hatchet. I really didn't like what he did with the first movie, but one could argue that it was due to his relative inexperience at the time. But as far as Hatchet II's direction goes, Green does a fine job. It's more polished and slick than the majority of those old-school slasher flicks and the kills are gratuitous to the point of being comedic, but Green manages to make Hatchet II feel very much like a modern blast from the past. Or at the very least, it comes a lot closer to that than the first Hatchet did.

I felt Green's script was inconsistent, however. He nails the all the character archetypes, but it doesn't seem to know if he wants to make a legitimate slasher movie or a parody of them. He gets bits and pieces of the time-tested formula right, but he spends way too much effort in trying to cram the movie full of the different comedic elements. For example, the redneck lynch mob argues over cookies and about how "Chad" is a really douchebaggy name. This takes up at least ten total minutes of screen time. Very little of the intended humor is actually funny, and like I said earlier, the various kills Green has dreamed up reach a point where they become more silly than anything else.

If the movie was supposed to be a satire of the genre's conventions like the Scream franchise or Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon, then Green didn't really do that great a job. And if the movie was meant to be a serious slasher movie, then Green did even worse. You'd think for a guy who wanted to create the next great horror icon, Green would at least attempt to work in some horror among all the terrible comedy.

At least his cast doesn't let the script bog them down. In the role of Hatchet II's resident "final girl" is Danielle Harris, who longtime horror devotees will recognize from her appearances in four of the Halloween movies. She steps into the role Tamara Feldman played in the first movie and immediately improves upon Feldman's terrible performance. Harris's Southern accent isn't completely convincing, but she is still very likable, engaging, and sympathetic. I really enjoyed Harris in the role, and it makes me wish she'd been hired to appear in the first Hatchet too.

I also really liked Tony Todd, whose role gets beefed up from the cameo he had in the first movie. You can always count on Todd to be great no matter what movie he's in or what character he's playing, and this proves to be no exception. He's suitably creepy in the role, playing it with so much conviction that he practically runs away with the movie.

But it isn't hard to enjoy his performance, when most of the cost beyond he and Harris are awful. The worst is Tom Holland, the director of Child's Play and the 1985 version of Fright Night. You can tell he has more experience behind the camera than in front of it, because his acting is awful. I often pick on some actors for being wooden, but Holland is the first actor I've seen who'd be in danger if termites got loose on the set. The guy is obviously not an actor, and I'm pretty sure the only reason he was brought into the movie at all so the cast could have one more big name from the horror genre.

And I guess I should at least make a passing mention to Kane Hodder, who returns to the role he originated in the first movie. It makes sense to have him play the killer, since if you're gonna make a movie with a wannabe Jason, you might as well have the guy who played Jason four times. There really isn't a lot required of Hodder outside of acting like a monster and killing people, and he does it like a champ. I said in my critique of the first movie that it felt like he was autopilot, but he does show a bit more effort here. But really, any faults would probably be due more to how Green treats the character than how Hodder plays him.

I know I've spent the bulk of this review ragging on the movie's various flaws, but Hatchet II isn't that bad a movie. It doesn't live up to any of the hype or marketing invested in it, I must say that. But the movie can totally work as a fun little flick to watch on Halloween. And thus, I'm going to give the movie three stars and a mild recommendation. And even at its worst, it's still an improvement over the first movie. I hear they're prepping Hatchet III right now, so let's hope it continues that trend.

Final Rating: ***