27 November 2009

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity

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B+

Paranormal Activity
2009, 86mins, R
Director: Oren Peli
Writer: Oren Peli
Cast includes: Micah Stoat, Katie Featherston
Release Date: 16th October 2009

“Paranormal Activity” has snared a fair degree of buzz in recent months, having sat on studio shelves for nearly two years Paramount whipped the picture into theatres and have somehow come out as winners. The film which cost well under $1 million has gone onto gross over $100 million and turned director Oren Peli into the next big thing. Shot in a “Blair Witch Project” style of handheld chaos the movie is an effective creeper of a motion picture, not outright terrifying but certainly unsettling. Peli avoids the horror genres excesses and guns for subtler thrills and spills and the results are rewarding and promising in equal measure. It’s not perfect neither is it the scariest film of all time but “Paranormal Activity” is an undeniably effective slice of low budget filmmaking.

Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) are a young couple with a disturbing problem. They believe that Katie is enduring haunting and has done since a young age, a particularly aggressive and potentially dangerous demon supposedly the antagonist. After consulting those knowledgeable in the paranormal the couple invests in a camera to keep track of the menace’s movement during the night, the recording device placed a few feet from their bed. As the nights go on the presence grows ever more unpredictable and active, resulting in the couple’s degeneration of courage and mental stability.

“Paranormal Activity” is the very definition of lean and mean, lasting a paltry 86 minutes with the vast majority spent trying to spook viewers. Certainly for those seeking a quick rush of Goosebumps the film fulfills their needs, it’s never a truly frightening picture but it retains an uneasy eeriness from the first reel. Peli seems to have been birthed from the less is more school of filmmaking and such a creed is put to neat use here, the limited budget would probably have resulted in a scrappy looking demon so the director uses other disturbing mechanisms to keep viewers on their toes.

The handheld aesthetic obviously adds a sense of realism and energy to proceedings but by the same token pretty much ensures cinematography is flushed out the window. The night based shots are still and beautifully lit but any other moments are flustered and raw, the day time sequences particularly harsh from a visual viewpoint. Those who also find handheld camera movies make them feel noxious are going to suffer pretty badly during “Paranormal Activity” the camera is kinetic and does a credible degree of shaking. However much is redeemed during the actual ghostly interludes, the camera lies still and a quietness envelops proceedings beautifully, Peli slowly making each encounter more extreme than the last. By the end of the movie “Paranormal Activity” is palpable, the scripting and storytelling stemming from a slow burning form of terror baiting. Those AD induced viewers who need blood and guts thrown at the screen from the first scene will be a little miffed but by the finish “Paranormal Activity” induces fear far above the level torture porn could ever hope to.

The performances from Featherston and Stoat are just okay but Peli has the skill and understanding to work around them. The improvised dialogue is impressive even if some of the acting isn’t and by the climax, somehow, the audience has come to sympathize and feel for the young lovers. There are a few (mostly bathroom) based moments that feel unnecessary and corny but the general mounting of the characters is believable, building them up and fleshing them out at a satisfying rate. Sure at times the newcomers seem a little out of their depth but the earnestness that kills a few of the quieter dramatic moments actually powers up the more chilling ones. Despite shortcomings in a few areas the duo does give it their all during the bedroom based fright scenes and this actually helps rather than damages these sections.

The ending is wonderfully ferocious and haunting whilst some of the imagery created on route sources shivers out of nowhere. Peli does deserve kudos for such an accomplished job and surely will carry on making interesting and solidly engaging horror movies. Much like “The Blair Witch Project” did in 1999, it is almost a certainty that “Paranormal Activity” will slowly amass an army of haters and the claims of it being the greatest fright fest of all times will abate. I agree that the film is a cut below the very best horror movies but judged purely within its own year the movie surely deserves to be considered amongst the finest examples of its genre. An intriguing and commendably spine tingling experience, “Paranormal Activity” warrants a solid recommendation.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

23 November 2009

Movie Review: 2012

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D+

2012
2009, 158mins, PG-13
Director: Roland Emmerich
Writer (s): Harald Kloser, Roland Emmerich
Cast includes: John Cusack, Amanda Peet, Danny Glover, Thandie Newton, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Oliver Platt, Wood Harrelson
Release Date: 13th November 2009

“2012” represents the disaster titan known as Roland Emmerich working at full pelt, cramming special effects, paper thin characters, illogical plot twists and risible dialogue into a bloated running time. I have found some of Emmerich’s past works to be guilty pleasures but “2012” skips the fun and goes straight for the dumb. Fans of destruction on a massive scale will enjoy healthy portions of proceedings but for those desiring a little extra meat to go with their visual cheese, this isn’t the blockbuster for you. Very little of “2012” is worth watching, a particularly disparaging fact when you take its 158 minute length into consideration.

The film riffs on the idea that according to the Mayan calendar the world will end in 2012, a fiery and watery apocalypse set to engulf the planet and take humanity down with it. After a hokey scientific explanation for the impending doom we meet struggling writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) who is suffering from a lack of direction and a broken family. Upon taking his two children away for a weekend vacation he meets Armageddon nut Charlie (Woody Harrelson) who informs him of the upcoming 2012 based disaster. Initially skeptical Jackson quickly starts to believe when everything around him starts to collapse, fleeing with his family from the newly ravaged landscape he calls home. The family learns that several ships have been designed to take selected members of humanity to safety and so in a bid to ensure the future of his wife (Amanda Peet) and kids, Jackson makes a beeline for the escape craft’s Asian destination. Elsewhere scientist Dr. Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) struggles to try and find a solution whilst all around him the world’s fiercest and most famed leaders (including Danny Glover as the US President) succumb to the inevitability of unstoppable chaos.

The key problem with “2012” is that it isn’t particularly exciting; indeed by the final third the film becomes positively boring. It’s sad that Emmerich can compose such a lavish digital feast yet utterly fail to construct a decent script or interesting characters. I don’t require detailed profile analysis or groundbreaking and dynamic relationships from my popcorn cinema but it’s nice to have halfway engaging or modestly affable screen entities to latch onto, especially if the movie demands a big running time. “2012” presents the viewers with a selection of lightweight characters and uninspired story arcs, not helped by a set of thespians all operating on autopilot. John Cusack provides a lazy and generic turn as the father on a redemptive mission whilst supporting players like Thandie Newton and Amanda Peet fair little better. Peet has always been an extremely questionable acting presence and in “2012”she tears through her scenes with an almost intense blandness, creating absolutely no chemistry with Cusack as his estranged wife. Danny Glover isn’t horrendous in the Presidential role but he’s also instantly forgettable whilst the like of Oliver Platt and Woody Harrelson are wasted in useless parts. The one saving grace is Chiwetel Ejiofor who despite a ridiculous romantic subplot alongside Newton actually injects a little heart and flavor into his character, and some much needed drama into the film.

The disaster sequences look excellent but generate little adrenaline. Emmerich takes great pleasure in eviscerating global landmarks but he appears to have lost his touch with creating entertaining set-pieces, as a man who can tolerate even “Godzilla” the lack of tension or credible excitement is depressing in “2012”. Indeed before the end Emmerich has milked several ideas more than dry, sequences continually involving the taking off of an aircraft are inane to start with so on the third go around, they really don’t work. The job done on “2012” must have stemmed from many computers working at full blast but it would appear from a creative standpoint the film represents the half assed efforts of a doped up monkey. Nothing seems original and the small portions that do boast fractions of imagination are rendered hopeless via the filmmaker’s inability to play it subtlety or exploit it but once.

There are far too many subplots and silly characters in “2012”, a genuinely terrifying revelation given its mammoth duration. Why Emmerich needed to include a rich Russian, his booby girlfriend and their two obnoxious kids is anyone’s guess as they only worsen the unapologetically horrendous pacing further. Alongside this assortment of needless freaks we also get a supply of asinine humor and some seriously ridiculous moments of action. I’m all for suspending disbelief when a movie is good but “2012” asks far too much and delivers much less, a moment with a dog shimmying it’s way to an escape vessel is probably amongst the most idiotic sequences I’ve seen all year. The dialogue is resoundingly rubbish but I was expecting as much, it’s the other failings that sting the most.

“2012” is big and stupid but represents little in the way of proper fun or escapism. I was expecting more and whilst from a purely effects driven standpoint it is spectacular, nothing else really approaches the levels of quality I associate with great blockbusters. Apparently this is to be Emmerich’s final toss of the disaster dice and I can’t say I’m sorry, based on the evidence provided by “2012” his filmmaking skills have severely dulled over the years. “2012” is a bloated carcass of a motion picture and a depressingly expensive waste of celluloid.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

13 November 2009

Movie Review: Jennifer's Body

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B-

Jennifer's Body
2009, 102mins, R
Director: Karyn Kusama
Writer: Diablo Cody
Cast includes: Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried, Johnny Simmons, Adam Brody, J.K Simmons, Kyle Gallner
Release Date: 18th September 2009

“Jennifer’s Body” is an interesting second screenplay from 2008 Oscar winner Diablo Cody, primarily because it’s so intensely different from her debut effort “Juno”. The funky Cody lingo is still in strong supply but “Jennifer’s Body” is a motion picture focused on the disembowelment of boys rather than uncalled for teen pregnancy. For her second stab at feature films Cody has opted to tread the horror-comedy route, the result is an entertaining movie to be sure but the academy is in no danger of having to provide the writer with her second gold statue. Aside from being a far sillier motion picture “Jennifer’s Body” is also plighted by far more fundamental cinematic flaws than “Juno”, the whole filmmaking process considerably less polished this time around.

The film unfolds in the little Minnesota town of Devil’s Kettle, where Jennifer Check (Megan Fox) is the alpha hottie of the local High School. Admired by everyone and desired by many, Jennifer has an unusual best friend for a girl of her social stature, the plainer and on the surface at least geekier Needy (Amanda Seyfried). When up and coming indie band “Low Shoulder” roll into town the girls go to watch them in the town’s bar, only for the establishment to burn down in a ferocious inferno. Needy and Jennifer escape but the latter ends up in the sinister group’s van, the other left in a dazed and confused panic. Later the same night Jennifer re-emerges a blood soaked and gaunt mess, but the next day she is as normal and narcissistic as ever. As time moves on Needy starts to suspect something is up and quickly connects a slew of murdered high school boys with Jennifer’s peculiar behaviour and inconsistent mood. After carrying out some research she comes to believe that Jennifer has been possessed by a demon that feasts on human flesh (teenage boys in her case) and in a bid to defend her own boyfriend Chip (Johnny Simmons) Needy takes an offensive stance concerning her meat gobbling BFF.

Diablo Cody is despite her financial and awards success an acquired taste, some people revel in her bizarre but quick witted dialogue whilst others can’t abide the quirkiness of it all. I loved “Juno” and so was only to happy to tackle another slice of Cody pie, especially given that the genre switch between that feature and this ensured repetition was unlikely. In the end “Jennifer’s Body” does avoid Cody simply going through the paces again but it is a less impressive screenplay, the dialogue is excessively indulgent at times and the middle section definitely sags in contrast to the opening and closing acts. I had a decent time with the film but it’s far from flawless and it sits several notches below “Juno” in nearly every conceivable respect.

The cast is populated with young but fairly recognisable faces, chief amongst them Megan Fox. Having left a positive impression on me with “Transformers” and “How to Lose Friends and Alienate People” Fox disappointed earlier this year by handing in a dreadful performance in robotic sequel “Transformers Revenge of the Fallen”, so for her at least “Jennifer’s Body” is a mission of speedy redemption. The role of Jennifer is despite what advertising would have you believe more of a supporting part, Seyfried’s Needy actually narrating the film and featuring in nearly every scene. Certainly it’s the latter actress who gets the chance to dish out a meatier and more rewarding performance but both ultimately succeed in “Jennifer’s Body” even if one is asked more of than the other. Seyfried anchors the picture like a true pro by creating a sympathetic and engaging character whilst Fox gets to flex her comedic muscles and sex up the screen. Together they make a surprisingly good fit and conjure an entertainingly odd spark, which is more than can be said for the scenes between Seyfried and Simmons. Playing Needy’s boyfriend Simmons is a bland and eyebrow raising addition to the cast, certain sequences involving him and hearty doses of exposition are easily the movie’s nadir. In smaller parts J.K Simmons and Kyle Gallner are modestly efficient and as the front man for “Low Shoulder” Adam Brody makes for a believable douchebag.

In terms of horror-comedy “Jennifer’s Body” is notably more effective at bringing the funny than cooking up proper scares. Cody will always have a way with words and despite this representing a step down for the scribe she stills crams in some solid jokes and draws a reasonable tally of laughs. More at fault for the patchy fright rate is director Karyn Kusama who seems largely clueless as to how scary moments should be presented. The feature offers a few nifty jump scares and at least one deliciously unsettling scene (it takes place in an empty house and boy is Megan Fox menacing) but the subtler elements of horror filmmaking are in short supply. Kusama shoots with visual flair but large portions of the feature seem stylistically excessive and overbearing, instances were hazy flashbacks and slow motion are deployed simply don’t work. The cinematography is pleasurably spooky when it needs to be but Kusama fumbles too many other elements for that to act as a reasonable lone condolence.

The movie packs admirable punch and energy in its closing 40 minutes and opening 25 but the middle section feels a little bloated and less focused. Running at 102 minutes “Jennifer’s Body” could have been just as successful with 10 minutes of flab removed, leaving the audience more comfortable during the central segment in the process. The performances and Cody’s writing would still be able to keep the characters snappy and believable, making me to wonder why Kusama decided to maintain the longer cut. It’s a bamboozler for sure, albeit a grievance that I was ultimately able to forgive on the strength of the film’s frantic finale.

“Jennifer’s Body” is a good effort but definitely not a great one, even within the confines of its limited genre. For Fox and Seyfried it’s an undisputable success but for Cody it marks a slight (but far from fatal) regression whilst doubts still linger over “Aeon Flux” helmer Kusama. I recommend taking a look at the film when it arrives on DVD but as a big screen outing it’s not an essential trip. Cody is still separate from the mainstream and remains a credible purveyor of the weird and wonderful but “Jennifer’s Body” isn’t quite the encore fans will have been hoping for, despite its numerous charms.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

7 November 2009

Movie Review: The Fourth Kind

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D

The Fourth Kind
2009, 98mins, PG-13
Director: Olatunde Osunsanmi
Writer (s): Olatunde Osunsanmi, Terry Robbins
Cast includes: Milla Jovovich, Will Patton, Elias Koteas, Hakeem Kae-Kazim, Corey Johnson
Release Date: 6th November 2009

“The Fourth Kind” is a stinky helping of science fiction wrapped up under the illusion that it carries some sort of emotional weight, a film that desperately wants audiences to believe “the actual case studies” depicted are a thing of reality. Debut director Olatunde Osunsanmi stages the movie as a dramatization of events that occurred at the beginning of the 21st Century, with bursts of supposedly genuine footage to support the uninvolving story on display. With movies like “The Blair Witch Project” and the recently released “Paranormal Activity” having proved that contemporary viewers are still keen to chow down on “true story” horror, I see no reason why “The Fourth Kind” won’t strike a rewarding box-office chord, but ultimately as a viewing experience it’s boring and dubiously constructed.

The movie takes place in Alaska and focuses on Dr. Abigail Tyler (Milla Jovovich) who is still reeling from the spooky and questionable death of her own husband. The narrative which is contained within a supposedly real interview between the actual Dr. Tyler and Osunsanmi himself then purports to tell how several of Abigail’s patients began to endure coincidental and frightening visions, resulting in the doctor linking these supernatural aspects with alien abduction and then the death of her own spouse. This idea of splicing real with dramatized might work for the most undiscriminating viewers and is in itself an intriguing concept, but ultimately in execution it leaves a great deal to be desired.

The film forcibly addresses its need to be taken as a serious production, the movie even begins with Jovovich herself explaining how the story really occurred and that her interpretation of Dr. Tyler is just a performance, but that it’s based on a real woman who endured all of the events depicted in the motion picture. However that’s where things start to turn nasty and from there on in the film feels fraudulent and reeks of desperation, Osunsanmi killing his story through brute force and over exaggeration, much like a child lying to its parents. The conviction is present but the way in which it’s presented is ill fated and lacks subtlety, whilst the actual story at the movie’s heart feels awfully soggy and unexciting.

I’ll reserve a kind word for Jovovich who commits to the role solidly and actively tries to overcome the weak screenplay and poorly staged gimmick at the project’s centre. She does a decent job with the character (certainly a better one than the Dr. Tyler who appears in the interviews, whimpering and overplaying everything) and almost succeeds in turning her into the sort of fully rounded screen presence that good movies get built around. Everyone else is relentlessly monotonous and one note, again they’re all apparently playing existing people, but never once did I feel that these hackneyed stereotypes could be living amongst us. Decent actors like Will Patton and Elias Koteas fumble their parts in a blaze of eagerness and earnestness, further undermining the film’s goal of being believed rather than rebuked.

As a thriller the movie fails on the grounds that it’s bland and as a horror it only offers one decent boo moment. Occasionally the filmmakers create some chilling imagery and an atmospheric sense of discontent, but the PG-13 rating stops them from getting hardcore whilst the attempts at documented terror are let down by obvious CGI and a worrying predictability. Osunsanmi seems pretty talented at wielding shrill and loud sound effects but given the lack of genuine horror offered they simply seem like a lazy and cheap antidote to the movie’s more terminal problems. Anybody under 13 might be provided with a dose of the jitters after a viewing of “The Fourth Kind” but ultimately even the majority of the teens still locked out of the R-rated circuit will still find this a lackluster disappointment.

For all of Jovovich’s efforts the movie never achieves much of an emotional heart or dramatic weight, the lousy screenplay and dishearteningly unconvincing exposition ruining the pictures chances before it really kicks off. The title of the film refers to the fourth kind of alien contact, which is abduction. In honesty I’d much rather be taken by a UFO armed with probes and vicious green men than sit through this again, because at least an actual alien kidnapping wouldn’t be lacking in creepiness or believability, both of which are absent in “The Fourth Kind”.

Review by Daniel Kelly, 2009

4 November 2009

Retro Review: Saw (2004)

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C+

Saw
2004, 103mins, R
Director: James Wan
Writer (s): James Wan, Leigh Whannell
Cast includes: Cary Elwes, Leigh Whannell, Danny Glover, Monica Potter, Dina Meyer
Release Dates: 29th October 2004



Having descended into the realms of stretched franchising that sucked up Jason and Freddy beforehand; it’s easy to forget that the first “Saw” film is now only five years olds. Directed by then newcomer James Wan the movie was an inexplicable hit and has to this date spawned five further sequels, a rash of motion pictures that I have largely to this day stayed away from. As far as debut efforts go “Saw” isn’t bad and certainly boasts several instances of well executed tension and prolonged viscera but certainly doesn’t deserve admittance into the club reserved for the horror genres finest efforts. I can see why the movie drew crowds in during late 2004 but ultimately it’s stunningly prolonged appeal is a little harder to fathom.

The movie opens in a dingy bathroom that is currently being occupied by two men, both chained there against their will without a clue as to why. The first is Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes) the second Adam (Leigh Whannell) neither able to recall the moments before they awoke in the dungeon like restroom, and offered only a few clues as to why. It transpires that they are the latest victims of the Jigsaw killer; a sadistic murderer who plays out grisly games with his targets, but in a unique twist always provides them with an extreme way to evade death. In this instance Dr. Gordon has to kill Adam before the clock strikes Six or he will be left to rot, and as a consequence his wife and daughter will become mere statistics in the killer’s unstoppable rampage.

“Saw” is by turns exceedingly clever and frustratingly dumb, though in fairness this opening chapter doesn’t revel quite so feverishly in the obscene bloodshed as its immediate brethren. I take issue with several of the plot contortions on display and a few of the performances are definitely less than stellar, yet somehow the thing still manages to operate successfully on a base level. As a thriller “Saw” does admittedly hold your attention from start to finish and packs several punchy scenes, which in retrospect are enough to make it a watchable enough example of recent horror cinema.

The performances veer between ropey and adequate, the two central figures provided by Elwes and Whannell serving up a chief example of this. On one hand Whannell is believable and perfectly solid; he creates a decent character and attacks his part with enough realism and grit to make it engaging. On the other hand Elwes goes too far, he’s never dull but taking him seriously is an unfortunate chore for most of the picture. There is also an inconsistency in the character, at points he’s logical and tolerable on others he’s a whimpering and hammy mess. Outside of those two the film is populated by non entities and stereotypes, Danny Glover is achingly familiar as a cop on the killer’s tail whilst Monica Potter is given nothing to do as Gordon’s put upon wife.

The screenplay is fond of twisting the viewer’s perception as to where the property is headed, and whilst this is satisfying to a degree, by the end the feature ends up taking the proverbial piss. The big reveal at the conclusion is lazy and requires a massive suspension of disbelief, on watching it seems unlikely but when given further reflection it’ simply dumbfounding and stupid. That said large chunks of “Saw” also work, against all odds the torture sequences manage to creep the viewer out and many of the reveals provided in the middle section do make for fascinating moral dilemmas. The first and second acts of “Saw” are far more impressive than its hasty and cheap final segment, during these parts Wan is positively hooked on keeping the audience guessing rather than foaming at the camera lens over tepid chase sequences and gimmicky self mutilation.

From a stylistic standpoint some of “Saw” is over directed but given its reported $1.2 million budget the feature looks surprisingly sharp. The bathroom setting has a creepy and unsettling aesthetic whilst other environments manage to unearth the same gritty and malevolent vibes. “Saw” is a film that unfolds in an evil world, it’s pretty humourless and everyone is struggling with dark thoughts and feelings. I don’t see “Saw” as any sort of classic, indeed it treads dangerously close to mediocrity on occasion, yet undeniably it is a somewhat efficient thriller. Worthy of five sequels I think not, but overall a flawed yet interesting look at grunge cinema in the 21st century.


A review by Daniel Kelly, 2009