Saturday, October 31, 2009

Paranormal Activity ***

Paranormal Activity
*** out of ****

You've all heard of this movie by now. You've probably heard many things about it. I'm here to tell you that everything you've heard is true.
Now playing nationwide just in time for Halloween, the film was demanded by enough people that it's now becoming a national phenomenon. The story is fairly simple: Katie and Micah are girlfriend and boyfriend that are living together in a nice big house. Their relationship is healthy and they are happy, except that there seems to be something in the house. At first they suspect a ghost, but soon are convinced it's actually a demon that's been following Katie around her whole life. Micah buys a video camera and much to the chagrin of his protesting girlfriend, starts filming themselves as much as possible, including a wide-shot of their bedroom all night while they sleep. Slowly but surely the camera starts to pick up strange unexplainable things happening, usually in the middle of the night. At first they're subtle: strange noises like bumps and footsteps, but then get more and more real, like lights turning on, phantom breezes, shadows, and footprints left in baby powder, until it ultimately stops playing around. While Katie is terrified of it, Micah refuses to be scared and actually eggs it on, hoping to catch more and more happenings on tape. They bring in a physic, who doesn't help them at all. They talk about different ways to get rid of it, but are ultimately powerless against it.
The film is about as indie as it gets: microscopic budget, no-name stars (although both newcomer leads, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, are very good), no music score, and practically no special effects. At least they don't look like special effects- I have to wonder how they pulled off some of the more complex tricks that this invisible spirit performs. The film makes every effort to make all the footage look real, including removing the studio logo and even the credits from the finished product. (And it is fake- don't fall for any rumors you may hear. This movie is NOT real or based on true events.) The reason this film has attracted so much attention is that it sucks you in and puts you in the room with these people. The scary events are that much more scarier because it feels so real. Even if you know something scary is coming, it's still enough to make your heart race and maybe to even make you scream. Personally, I left the theatre physically shaken, and I think a lot of other people did, too.
The film is not perfect, though. The handheld camerawork does get annoying and even dizzying at times because the handler is obviously not a professional cameraman. The film is slow to get going, and while some of the scares are worth the wait, a lot of the exposition is pretty boring. The film also gets kind of repetitive since the whole thing takes place in their house and because we never see the thing, we only hear it and see its effects on the real world. It tends to do a lot of the same things repeatedly.
Paranormal Activity will surely go down in history as one of the scariest movies ever made. While there is the obvious inspiration from The Blair Witch Project, the film offers serious comparison to movies like The Exorcist, Jaws, and Psycho. It's scary as hell. Don't watch this one alone!
I would recommend this film to horror junkies, and basically anyone looking for a good scare. Be warned that it may be too intense for the average moviegoer.

You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Zombieland ***

*** out of ****

Finally, a zombie movie for the whole family. Ha, not really, but it's close.
Zombieland is one of a few movies that shows how funny zombies really are, even in their natural environment- dark, scary places. The world has been overrun by zombies and there are only a few people left. A group of four such people are traveling across the country in hopes of finding something or somebody safe. Jesse Eisenberg plays pretty much the exact same character he played in Adventureland, the insecure virgin. But where his Adventureland character lost credibility and became boring, his Zombieland character prevails and turns these insecurities into strengths. See, he has a running list of strict rules for surviving in the United States of Zombieland: keep your cardio up, always check the backseat, and beware of dead-end bathrooms, a feeding ground for the undead. He hitchhikes with a redneck badass with a shaved head in the form of Woody Harrelson (The People Vs. Larry Flynt). This guy has no rules and kills zombies just for fun. They meet up with two con artist sisters, played by the gorgeous Emma Stone (Superbad) and the spunky Abigail Breslin (Little Miss Sunshine). After being tricked by the girls- twice- they finally join forces with them to survive. A splendid amusement-park finale gives the title its true meaning.
The film is filled with not only gut-wrenching gore and killings, but with plenty of crude physical comedy and pop-culture references. ("What's the best thing about Zombieland?" "No more Facebook status updates!") While the emotional part of the story falls short, it makes up for it with its laugh-a-minute style that never gets old. (Of course, the movie's less than an hour and a half long. It's hard for anything to get old in that time.) Bill Murray has a funny cameo- as himself, of course- but frankly, it could've been funnier. And- wouldn't you believe it- the film actually manages a few real scares.
Zombieland is not wacky enough- and too self-serious- to be a parody. It is exactly what it is, a zombie comedy/horror film that's more concerned with its characters than the flesh-eating villains, and sacrifies suspense for violence and laughs. It's not for every taste, but for anyone with a slightly sick sense of humor, this is definitely your dish.
I would recommend this movie to horror fans and anyone who likes dark comedies.

You can watch the trailer here:

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Toy Story/Toy Story 2 3-D **** (Double Feature Rerelease)

Toy Story 3-D
***1/2 out of ****

Toy Story 2 3-D
**** out of ****

Overall: **** out of ****

What more is there to say about the Toy Story movies? The classic films are getting a limited two-week rerelease exclusively in a 3-D double feature. This is obviously a very expensive publicity stunt to promote the upcoming Toy Story 3 (out in June), but who cares? It means we get to see two of the greatest animated films ever made on the big screen again, and in a new format that makes it feel like you're seeing them for the first time.
The first Toy Story (one of my favorite movies) is practically the definition of instant classic: an idea so universal and wonderful you can't help but think, why didn't anyone think of that before? The boys at Pixar just got there first. The toys in Andy's room come alive whenever he's not there. Woody the cowboy doll is his favorite, until he gets a cool new Buzz Lightyear action figure for his birthday, and Woody gets forgotten. An accident makes Woody and Buzz get separated from Andy and are forced to work together to get back home. The casting of Tom Hanks as Woody and Tim Allen as Buzz are inspired and perfect. This was the first fully computer-animated feature film, so obviously features some amazing animation, but the real wonder lies in its unforgettable characters and humor. Who could forget Mr. Potato Head, Hamm the piggy bank, Rex the wimpy dinosaur, the loyal Slinky dog, or those cute little green aliens? It's also amazing how the film has stuff for both kids and adults: the young ones won't catch the many pop culture references or more subtle adult jokes. (I'm thinking of Potato Head's perfect silent "kissass" joke.)
And as it turns out, Toy Story 2 is even better. This film adds great thrills and emotion to the mix. After Woody's arm is ripped, he is stolen by a greedy toy collector (a splendid voice performance by Wayne Knight) and it's up to Buzz and the gang to get him back. The problem is, it turns out Woody is a valuable collector's item. He meets the rest of his set- the excitable cowgirl Jessie, the adorable horse Bullseye, and the wise Prospector. They're being set to go to a toy museum in Tokyo, and Woody is slowly convinced to go with them. The film has a wonderful emotional high point at Jessie's flashback sequence with the Oscar-nominated song "When She Loved Me." The animation is even better, and the film is even funnier. The pop culture references are staggering: kids will love the A Bug's Life merchandise sprinkled throughout, and adults will see the nods to films like Jurassic Park and Rear Window. (Strangely, the faux bloopers at the end provide some of the biggest laughs in the whole film.)
The 3-D is, for the most part, pretty subtle, giving the viewer a chance to peer into the world rather than for the characters to jump out, although there is the occasional right-in-your-face effect. The effects are wonderful, especially for two films that weren't even originally made for that format. They take the films (dare I say it?) to infinity- and beyond. The big question is, are they worth paying for in the theatre if you've already seen them, which most young people in this country probably have? My answer is, if you love these films for what they really are, then yes. They are absolutely worth your money because seeing them at home cannot compare to the experience of seeing them on the big screen. After all, this is also an opportunity for kids who weren't around when the films first came out to see them for the first time. Plus, they are two movies for the price of one.
I would recommend these films to anyone who likes animated movies, especially Pixar. If you've seen them before, these films do not dull with repeat viewings.

You can watch the double-feature trailer here:
You can also watch the original Toy Story trailer here:
You can also watch the original Toy Story 2 trailer here:

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Surrogates ***

*** out of ****

Surrogates is your typical summer movie, only released in the fall. The basis for the plot is a bit like The Matrix: in the future, people live out their lives through robots they call surrogates that they control and send out into the real world. Surrogates have become so widespread and so universally used that it is now considered unsafe to go outside in the flesh. Bruce Willis returns to action films as an FBI agent trying to solve the homicide of the son of the man who invented surrogacy. His character dislikes surrogates but uses one anyway. In his investigation, he discovers a new weapon that destroys surrogates and kills the people attached to them. After his own surrogate is destroyed, he is forced to finish the case with his real body.
The movie itself is exactly what you'd expect: a big, dumb sci-fi movie that tries to be relevant but ultimately is just entertaining. However, there is one piece of genius in the film. People can make their surrogates look like whatever they want, and most people choose a younger version of themselves. While the "human" Willis is aging and bald as he is in real life, the "robot" Willis is a much younger version of himself with blonde hair! The fact that part of the movie has him looking better than he has in years is half the fun for fans of the star.
I would recommend this movie to fans of Willis, and of sci-fi/action movies that don't require a lot of thinking.

You can watch the trailer here:

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Informant! **1/2

The Informant!
**1/2 out of ****

Another early Oscar contender is kind of a long shot: a mid-budget, non-independent comedy about corporate crime. This is the typical comedy built for intelligent older people (although the advertisements try to market it to younger viewers), which typically falls short on laughs on many occasions.
The Informant! stars the usually buff and good-looking Matt Damon as an office drone in the early 90's who gets sucked into alliance with the FBI after he admits to his bosses conducting price fixing operations with their competitors. The film is filled with his narration, clever random thoughts on everything from TV show ideas to polar bears' noses. These thoughts rarely have anything to do with what's going on onscreen, so they provide the majority of the laughs in the movie. He wears a wire for them and digs up dirt on all his coworkers. Once the FBI move in and make their investigation known, things get complicated. Scott Bakula (TV's Enterprise) and Joel McHale (TV's The Soup) are both good as FBI agents working with Damon, as well as Melanie Lynskey as his ever-supportive wife, but all these good actors feel wasted in roles that are simply unfunny.
Damon is the real jewel here; his transformative performance (complete with extra weight, glasses, and moustache) is completely believable. His character is a complete bonehead, and as we find out, not a reliable narrator. Most of the laughs come from his performance, because sadly, the script cannot generate many by itself.
The Informant! is a strictly OK movie, a comedy that isn't all that funny but does have its endearing moments. While it may be remembered for it's star's wonderful performance, the film itself is simply not exciting enough to earn the exclamation point in its title.

You can watch the trailer here: