Saturday, April 30, 2011


"Insidious" (2011)

The new horror film from "Saw" director James Wan, "Insidious," was produced by Oren Peli, the guy behind the "Paranormal Activity" phenomenon. It makes sense as this film has many similarities with the two "Paranormal Activity" installments which I admire equally; that is, things going bump in the night when they shouldn't be. Peli's horror sensation worked because it re-captured teen audiences' attention with slowly built-up tension and real scares when they were previously getting pummeled with the likes of "Saw" and "Hostel." Wan and his screenwriter Leigh Wannell's new horror entry "Insidious" does one better. It refines the tastes presented by "Paranormal Activity" escalating the contraption of a haunted house to even more skilled technique and trickery. It's as if James Wan wanted to fix what he started with "Saw" and the torture porn craze.

Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh (Patrick Wilson) moved into a new home wanting to start a new life with their three kids. With piles of unpacked boxes and the family still trying to get everything together, things--of course--don't get any better. Enter the paranormal house guests. It starts with strange sounds, uncomfortable feelings of someone watching and a threatening voice from the baby monitor. Then their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) has an accident that puts him into a months-long coma. But it's no secret that whatever happened to Dalton was no real "accident."

Cracking under the pressure of dark visions and paranoia, Renai demands that she and her husband move the family to a new home. No such luck. Turns out that whatever's haunting them isn't just confined to their previous home, but rather, travels with them in their son Dalton. They decide to bring in a paranormal expert named Elise, played by a captivating and scene-stealing Lin Shaye, with her two hipster comic relief sidekicks.

What really gets "Insidious" under your skin is the expertly created atmosphere thanks to clever and unique camera work, lighting and set design. Not to mention the great music composed of shrieking, dissonant strings. In an exercise of unrivaled suspense, Elise performs a type of séance wearing an elaborate gas mask to communicate with the spirits haunting Dalton. They sit around a table lit low with a green lamp and bright flash bulbs popping behind them as the camera swiveling around the table. More impressive are the unsettlingly horrific images the movie brings to viewers that stay burned in the back of your mind; these images are reminiscent of "The Shining" and "The Ring" as the plot itself borrows greatly from "The Poltergeist" and "The Exorcist."

When the film enters the realm of "The Further"--which was its original title--things get delirious ramping up the spooky haunted house into a wild amusement park ride. But it never loses its subtle nuances of keeping those creepy demons and malevolent afterlife spirits the primary focus of fright.

Saturday, April 23, 2011


"Water for Elephants" (2011)

Francis Lawrence's "Water for Elephants" (he previously directed "I Am Legend" and "Constantine," so how he came to something so classic is a mystery) is a sweeping romance in an extravagant setting with a trio of engaging characters--and an elephant--at its center. The film answers burning questions about two of the main actors, Robert Pattinson and Christoph Waltz. First, we walk into this film wondering if, as a leading man, Pattinson will be able to escape his pale-faced glitter vampire of "Twilight" and play a man named--gasp!--Jacob, ironically enough. The answer? He pulls it off and does just fine alongside the elegant as always Reese Witherspoon as his romantic counterpart.

The bigger question answered, however, is whether Christoph Waltz's Oscar win for "Inglourious Basterds" was a fluke. The talented actor proves with resounding confidence that it was indeed no fluke, and Waltz has again been provided with a contradictory and complicated character he can really sink his teeth into. It was as if the role was tailor made for him.

He plays August, a circus owner and ring leader who rules his microcosm of a society within the Benzini Bros. Circus with an iron fist. Much like the twisted Nazi he played in Tarantino's "Inglourious Basterds," Waltz plays August as both childlike and sadistic, amiable and murderous, and in every single scene he carries these traits with him. August relishes in being able to control others, including his own wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), but loses control of himself far too often exploding into violent fits of rage. Again Waltz is the scene-stealer and elevates this period piece melodrama into something unexpectedly impressive.

Based off the best-selling novel by Sara Gruen, the story is told through a flashback of Jacob as an old man (played by Hal Holbrook). It's 1931, and just as he's about to take his final veterinary exam at Cornell University, Jacob finds out his parents have died forcing him to hit the road. And, what are the chances, the first train that passes by which he decides to jump onto just happens to be a traveling circus show. Jacob gets taken in and starts doing small work for the circus until he meets Marlena and her ill show horse. After nearly getting thrown out by August after Jacob made the executive decision to put down Marlena's horse--and therefore the circus' main attraction--he decides to keep him on as a vet.

In the era of the Great Depression, times are hard and jobs are few. The film's atmosphere does a good job of capturing the period's desperate feel interlacing it with the carefree but reckless circus atmosphere full of shenanigans, animals, drinking and not without some dissension, too. The allusions to the social and political undercurrents of the time are enough to where they give the overarching story some weight and insight. The circus is also bursting with color and vivacity captured thoroughly in the cinematography when not observing the darker, murkier underbelly such as life upon the train in between shows.

Most important to the story is the blossoming--yet forbidden--romance between Jacob and August's wife, Marlena. The interplay between these three characters is engaging and harrowing enough to keep us caring for how it inevitably turns out for the main couple. Witherspoon's Marlena is a character not brave enough to leave her husband when she should've but also smart enough not to upset his ill temper. She is a lovely but smothered centerpiece to the circus, a glowing vision of a female equestrian bareback rider.

Also important is the beautiful performing elephant Rosie who becomes the circus' main attraction. The scenes where characters engage with her have heart and a natural sweetness to them that comes from any moment of people working closely with intelligent animals. The contrasting moments of animal cruelty are as hard to watch as you could imagine. We care for Rosie because she's charming and full of personality as much as any movie animal in recent memory.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

SCREAM 4 Review

"Scream 4" (2011)

In the multiple twisty and hilarious openings of "Scream 4," Anna Paquin and Kristen Bell watch the opening to "Stab 6" as they star in the beginning scene to "Stab 7" poking fun at endless horror sequels such as the "Saw" franchise. In this opening sequence alone, Wes Craven's return to his own slasher flick franchise acknowledges its own pointless existence--really, who needs a fourth installment of anything?--but in this acknowledgement, he creates a fourth-quel that is welcomed and even necessary. It's another send up of horror movie clichés, which are reconstructed through clever wit and cheeky humor. As the movie's tagline suggests, we're in a new decade of horror now, and things have changed since the 90s.

With the original "Scream" trilogy, we've become familiar with these movies taking place within their own horror movie world to the point where even the characters know it. We are one step ahead because we've been there before, and so have they. The stakes are raised for "Scream 4." The characters in the movie refer back to the original "Stab"--based off Sidney Prescott's traumatic life in Westboro, a town that seems forever haunted with murders--while we as an audience refer back to the original "Scream." At this point in Westboro's history, and the point in which "Scream 4" takes place, the murders have become the town's mythology, a running joke for both them and a wink to us as the audience. Now everybody's in on it.

The guidelines of horror movie tropes the "Scream" films both reference and follow have been revamped. The new installment places itself more as a remake or reboot than a full-blown sequel, and there are new rules that come with such. One of Ghostface's ominous over-the-phone questions now asks victims to identify a horror remake. And when the scared teenager on the other line desperately rambles through the extensive list, we can't help but chuckle.

The new story exists in two generations: the young one that takes Westboro's murderous history as a joke hosting "Stab" watching marathons; and the older one, the adults who are scarred from their past experiences in the town. The leading lady in this is Neve Campbell as Sidney Prescott who apparently doesn't age. Sidney has returned to her hometown of Westboro promoting her new self-help book on the very same day as the anniversary of the original murders. Courtney Cox as Gale Weathers and her sheriff hubby Dewey, played by David Arquette, also return. The two actors' real life divorce manages to get mentioned by a character in the film, another nod. Seeing these three back together is a treat in itself perhaps mostly in the perverse pleasure of witnessing how tired they all look.

The plot is essentially a retooling of the original "Scream," and Craven and his writer Kevin Williamson--who helped pen the first two installments--want us to recognize this; it's the whole point. There isn't, however, a lack of fresh faces and--more importantly--new blood. They include Sidney's young cousin Jill (Emma Roberts), Jill's friend Kirby (Hayden Panettiere) and two leaders of the school's cinema club who provide us with all the insight on the newest horror fads, Charlie (Rory Culkin) and Robbie (Erik Knudsen). The latest rules? Killers now have a fetish with recording all their kills, and the only way to survive anymore is being gay.

"Scream 4" is wickedly smart, a horror remake that is simultaneously a big "fuck you" to horror remakes. Not to mention a big "fuck you" to current society trends of social media and internet stardom. More concerned about having a lot of bloody fun than being flat-out scary, it succeeds. I laughed more than I jumped, but there are definitely still moments of suspense as you cling to the arm rests. It's in its humor where Wes Craven finds irony even in between effectively gruesome and unfunny killings. From an entertaining opening to an over-the-top and ridiculous finish, it's a clever creation and a nostalgic look back.

And just think. Beyond the self-referential winks and the endless meta-humor, the return of Ghostface even excels as a stand-alone horror flick. It's certainly better than any of the usual horror crap out there today and a cut above. Pun intended.

Friday, April 8, 2011

HANNA Review

"Hanna" (2011)

Here's a film that easily could've fallen flat on its face. Director Joe Wright--who's best known for his dramatic period pieces such as "Pride and Prejudice" and Best Picture nominee "Atonement"--taking on the action genre for the first time with a young star at its center. The trailer made it look weird, like it might not pan out into something successful. It being weird remains true, but it also is a successful triumph for the director. It's very much like nothing you've seen before, the most audacious piece of cinema you'll find in theaters as of late, and it's brilliant. Maybe a bold claim, but here are some reasons to back it up.

1. It's an ingenious mash-up
Joe Wright provides us a superb combination of genres. It's an action thriller, art house fare and a twisted fairy tale fantasy all in one. Again, something that could've fallen flat on its face, but Wright and his writers--David Farr, Joe Penhall and Seth Lochhead--breathe life into a titillating premise in strange and perversely delightful ways. While holding true to Hollywood tropes of a chase thriller, Wright also breaks them down re-serving them up in unexpected and unorthodox ways.

2. There's Saoirse Ronan
This young actress who captivated us with her eyes alone in "Atonement" leading the way through the turbulent waves of emotion holds her own again up against A-list actors. Saoirse Ronan is phenomenal playing the fierce miniature warrior Hanna--just 16 years old--who's out to save her own skin. Growing up in the woods with her father, Erik (Eric Bana), she learned to fight, kill and protect herself against danger. We're introduced to her just as she has shot an arrow into a giant deer. "I just missed your heart," she whispers to the dying creature in her soft German accent.

Hanna is a mystery to us, her origins unclear even to herself. Her father used to be a covert agent, and now he knows something that makes him a wanted man in the eyes of one CIA officer, Marissa (Cate Blanchett). This woman also wants Hanna. With an albino look and quick intellect, Ronan as Hanna captivates us all over again just as she did back in 2007.

3. The action looks good and has purpose
Taking note from "Run Lola Run," Hanna partakes in a lot of fleeing and escaping given her desperate circumstances. This is going to lead to a lot of action, and not only that but action that matters. In an interview, Wright expressed his worries about directing the action sequences in the film. An unnecessary worry because the action is swift, enthralling and exquisitely shot. The entire film is visually sumptuous with stylish flourishes that heighten the already crisp and proficient filmmaking. There is one scene where Erik is tailed, which is entirely one long shot reminiscent of that infamous shot from "Atonement"--it works wonders here, too.

All the pieces of action are creative, well-implemented and are set to an electrically charged score from the Chemical Brothers. Thanks to the music, a whole new feel emerges such as when Hanna breaks out of the concrete CIA facility set to a thumping beat and flashing strobe lights. There's purpose to Hanna's plight in these moments of excitement and suspense, and through them the film even finds instances of quirky wit and poetic beauty.

4. It's both sinister and human
Cate Blanchett plays Marissa as cold and soulless, and it fits. With a severe look, sharp business attire, devilish red hair and painfully good dental hygiene, she is a clear cut villain in the story. She hires a dastardly man to help her seek out Hanna. This odd-looking man whistles what sounds like a children's nursery rhyme, but he does so in such repetition that it turns dark and menacing.

Against all this sinister energy pursuing Hanna is the humanity found in an eclectic caravanning British family she comes across during her journey. Headed by the lovely Olivia Williams, the family consists of a young girl around the same age as Hanna named Sophie (Jessica Barden). She's the first girl her age Hanna has met, and she begins to learn what it's really like to be a young carefree girl and to have a friend. This moment of grounding Hanna's life in reality really makes us feel for her; we feel bad that no matter what she does, she'll be forced back into life as a fugitive.

5. It's a Grimm fairy tale
What's best about Joe Wright's "Hanna" is how it wraps itself up as a Grimm fairy tale. Hanna's final destination takes her to meet an elder man in what looks like a shack inspired by a gingerbread house, maybe Hansel and Gretel. It's in the middle of some bizarre abandoned amusement park clouded in mist. And when Hanna and Marissa finally come face to face, Marissa emerges from the mouth of a giant wolf head as if she herself were the big bad wolf and Hanna, little red riding hood. Take that, Catherine Hardwicke.

Saturday, April 2, 2011


"Source Code" (2011)

It all starts with a man on a train. He wakes up unaware of where he is or how he got there. A woman sits across from him and seems to know him but isn't referring to him by the right name. Panicked, he goes into the bathroom and takes a look at his reflection only to see a face looking back at him that is not his own. Moments later the train explodes in flames, and Army pilot Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhaal) awakens again this time in a darkened capsule, something called the source code.

"Source Code" is this year's minimalist "Inception" where traversing dreamscapes is replaced with limited time traveling. Director Duncan Jones returns after his 2009 debut film "Moon"--which I personally thought was a rather stolid and stagnant film--this time with a more superior screenplay from writer Ben Ripley. Together they create a moving and enthralling science fiction thriller that becomes less about the accuracy of the science and much more about the believability and potency of the emotions. The level of complex observation of human nature found in what could've just been tightly-wound ticking time bomb entertainment is unexpectedly welcome and poignant.

In the film's first moments everything is laid out for us. The commuter train to Chicago upon which Colter found himself isn't, technically speaking, real. It did exist, but so did the explosion he experienced which killed everyone on-board. It was a terrorist attack, one to which Colter has been specially assigned to find and identify the bomber therefore preventing a more large-scale attack on the city.

He communicates with an Army scientist named Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) who helps him to understand his mission through the source code, which was invented by Dr. Rutledge (Jeffrey Wright) who has faith in his experiment. Through source code Colter is able to tap into the consciousness of a victim on the train--the one that resembles him most--while playing out the last eight minutes of the experience on that train before the explosion.

The film mostly consists of Colter's return trips into those last eight minutes. Each one is a little different than the last acting as impressions of what could happen on the train. Each time Colter enters consciousness, a pop can cracks open and fizzes, coffee spills on his shoe and the woman sitting across from him begins a conversation with, "So, I took your advice." The woman is Christina (Michelle Monaghan) who only knows the man Colter is portraying through their frequent trips on the train. No matter the variation of events, the immediacy and frantic urgency of the situation doesn't change. Every time Colter runs out of time before completing his mission, he's sent back in to do it all over again much like "Groundhog Day" where he remembers each previous time before.

The initial plot and vehicle of intrigue for "Source Code" is a contraption, and it's one that frustrates at first but then continually expands and evolves in the character's mind and our own. Suspension of disbelief with the science is necessary but not in the film's understanding and expression of human longing and desire. There's a depth to Jake Gyllenhaal's performance as Colter that gives us reason to believe that him falling in love with a fake projection of a real woman who has already died is actually possible.

Likewise, Michelle Monaghan is radiant and lovely finding room to breathe within a role that really only allows her to repeat lines and seem bewildered. Jeffrey Wright is effective as the man who essentially becomes the mad scientist of the operation while Vera Farmiga is absolutely convincing as a woman who shifts her perspective from severe disciplined operation to sympathy and compassion.

"Source Code" works hard and fast--like Colter at its center--doing a lot within a brisk 94 minutes. It shares an entire riveting journey inside crazy metaphysics but, even more, inside the fragility of the human condition with a thought-provoking and powerful grace note at its conclusion.