Thursday, October 25, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4: Errrrmmm... Not This Time

I thoroughly enjoyed the first Paranormal Activity film.  It genuinely creeped me out and that's not easy to do.  I go into horror movies looking to get scared, challenging the film to make me jump or keep me up hours after the movie has ended in fear of what I just saw.  The first one accomplished that.  It was new and they did it on an $11,000 budget.  So, naturally, there were going to be sequels.  More money means more effects means more hands at work means better, right?  Not exactly.  The second one I didn't feel to be that scary, either.  Where as the first movie had performances that seemed natural, like real people.  The performances in the second one were much more manufactured and synthetic.  The scares were scarce, mostly because the first one trained us when the scary bits were about to come (save for one scene in the kitchen in broad daylight that nearly made me shit my pants).  It might've just been my love for the first film that hyped up my expectations for its sequel that let me down.  So, as for the third one, which I did actually like, I think my sights were a little bit lower, allowing me to enjoy it better.  Plus, I think the scares were there.  It was creepy.

As for this latest installment of the Paranormal series... it basically fails where the rest have succeeded.  Nice try.  You gave it a good shot.  I realize you only had less than a year to write it, cast it, shoot it, edit it and release it, but you missed the mark.  I'm sure you'll get it next year (seeing as how you've set it up for yet another sequel).  And that's the beauty of the series... there really doesn't have to be an end to them.  It's not like it's one house that's haunted or one person... that demonic shit can follow you anywhere.  So, until they literally make no more money, they're going to keep releasing them.  Some will be terrifying where others (cough) like this one (cough) will bore the crap out of you.

This one follows Alex, a 15-year-old girl and her 6-year-old brother Wyatt in Nevada.  A strange child has moved in across the street, Robbie, whose mom suffers some sort of accident that causes Alex's family to take the child in for a few days while his mother recuperates.  That's when some freaky shizz starts to go down, ya know what I'm sayin?  Of course you do!  You've seen it three times now.  The "twist" of it, you can see coming from a mile away because you've been waiting since the second one for answers.  And yet, no new answers have arisen.  In fact, new questions keep popping up.  It's like the Paranormal Activity films are being secretly written by the writers of Lost.  They keep writing confusing plot twists with each movie with no real answers in sight, but in the back of their minds-- "eh, we'll figure out answers eventually."  By the time the movies finally come to an end, my guess is that there will be more questions left unanswered than there will be answered.  Nothing new happens in this film other than some cool night-vision-Kinect-sensor-stuff.  While Alex is very likable, no one else in the family really is.  The parents don't care what she has to say and after meeting her mom you almost root for her to die.  Alex's boyfriend is a douche-bucket of a moron, attempting to be the comic relief, but just comes off irritating.  It's just a shoot-and-a-miss any way you look at it.

The biggest problem wasn't the unoriginality of the plot, it was the lack of scares.  There were a few things that went bump in the night, but they were the expected scares in the exact places you knew they would be.  There was nothing new to pop out at you.  I tried so hard to be scared.  I held my breath, let my heart start racing, but the scene would just fizzle out and after awhile it was too much effort trying to be scared.  I had to face the fact that a franchise I could normally count on to give a few good jumps wasn't going to this year.  But, that's okay, because there's always next year.

There will be a good that comes from this mess.  This is the first Paranormal that hasn't met the sales numbers of the previous entries.  This is the first one to get genuinely poor reviews from nearly everyone.  They're going to know they've failed and the franchise will be placed in more capable (if not capable, at least different visionary) hands than the previous two.  But, I'm telling you now... you can skip this one.  Wait a few weeks, look up the ending online, watch the scene that is going to inevitably lead to the next sequel and look forward for next Halloween.  I guess this year we will be devoid of scares.  Do yourself a favor... go rent Drag Me To Hell again.


Friday, October 19, 2012

The Book of Mormon: Tomorrow Is a Latter-Day

Trey Parker and Matt Stone may be the most genius comedy writers of our time.  They began a little cartoon show, maybe you've heard of it, South Park which has been running for sixteen amazing seasons.  Their political/social commentary is unparalleled right now.  There's more to learn about society and popular culture from South Park than there is from any news show or magazine publication.  I recently watched a documentary about South Park called Six Days to Air, which if you have Netflix I highly recommend you check it out.  It basically shows how episodes of South Park are thought up, written, animated, recorded, packaged and shipped ready to air in only six days.  On Wednesday night when you're watching the newest episode, just know that next week's episode has yet to even been thought up.  That's how incredible these guys are.  Their comedic minds are always working, always on.  And the way the world is right now, they'll never be out of source material.

It's evident that music has always been a staple of any Parker/Stone collaboration.  Beginning with their first film they made in college, Cannibal! The Musical, to South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, to the ever-popular Team America: World Police, music has been a huge factor.  If you watch the South Park movie, it can almost be viewed as a Broadway musical.  And I know for a fact that the Team America soundtrack has sold nearly as many copies as the movie itself.  So, it was only the logical next step for Parker and Stone to write a Broadway hit.  What's great about the two is that they don't just put out shows or films to collect a paycheck, they're always challenging themselves to create something unique that the world has never seen before.  A musical about cannibals, a Mormon who becomes a porn star (Orgazmo), a TV show/movie cartoon made with paper cut-outs, an action movie solely starring marionettes.  Is there anything left for these two to do?

What's great about the inspiration of the musical is how it book-ended itself.  When Broadway writer/composer Robert Lopez saw South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, he was inspired to write the Broadway hit Avenue Q.  When Trey Parker and Matt Stone wanted to write Team America: World Police, they went to see Avenue Q for research.  There, they met Lopez which eventually led to the creation of one of the funniest, poignant, and informative musicals of our generation: The Book of Mormon.

The Book of Mormon tells the story of devout Mormon Elder Price at the age of 19, ready to go off on his two year mission.  He's prayed every day that he'd be send to the most wonderful place in the world: Orlando.  Instead, he's sent to Uganda, Africa along side fellow Mormon Elder Cunningham-- a fat, sloppy, uninformed, pathological liar.  Once in Uganda, he's united with his fellow missionaries who have been there for years, yet unsuccessful thus far in performing a Baptism on the locals or converting anyone to Mormonism.  That's pretty much all I want to reveal about the plot, because it's just so damn brilliant, giving anything further away would cheapen the experience.  I would also recommend avoiding listening to the recording of the songs (save for the one posted below) so that each moment of the musical is new, exciting, and downright hilarious.

In the hands of lesser talent, The Book of Mormon could've been a giant f*ck you to the Mormon religion.  It could've easily gone the route of chastising their beliefs, degrading them and religion as a whole.  However, Parker and Stone are masters of the, while unsubtle, delicate parody.  Instead of being two hours of straight Mormon bashing, they've created real characters, with real beliefs set in an environment where God is hated.  Elder Price is a real person who, like almost anyone in an organized religion, sometimes questions his beliefs but holds strong because he truly knows the eternal reward will be great.  Elder Cunningham is, in the performance I saw, a little bit over the top, mugging for the audience, but still, deep down, has a wonderful heart and truly cares about humanity.  He's a pathological liar, but he lies not to hurt others, but to make people like him.  He's a bit of a weirdo outcast who only wants one thing: a best friend.

The message of the play is not Mormonism, or rather religion for that matter, is wrong.  It's that not everything written, whether the Bible or the Book of Mormon, should not be taken literally.  It's meant to be understood metaphorically and that the core basis of any religion is that people should be good and humane to one another at the end of the day.  It's when any religion takes text written literally that trouble can arise.  Matt Stone has been quoted as saying the play is "an athiest's love letter about religion".  And this is very evident in the play.  Yeah, they poke the most jabs at Mormons, taking passages of text out of context and exposing them for ridiculousness, but they're doing it lightheartedly.  Mormons are the focus, but religion is the over-arching theme.  From everything I've read, most Mormons actually enjoy the show because it's not demeaning them for their beliefs.  It's parodying them, poking fun at themselves in the most whimsical way.

There's a bigger picture at play here.  First World Problems are distinct when privilaged white religious boys are sent to third world countries trying to preach about a God in a setting ripe with famine, poverty, and AIDS.  The introduction of Uganda and the Elders leads to the funniest song I think I've ever heard ("Hasa Diga Eebowai").  It's an incredibly vulgar and offensive song, but when looked at from the perspective of the villagers singing it juxtaposed with the newbie Mormons, it is an apt representation of how illogical it should seem to be able to convert these people.  I honestly believe everyone should see this show.  It will speak to you as well as hurt your cheeks from how much you're laughing.  It's a brilliant show and one of the best musicals I've ever seen.  Whether you're just a South Park fan or a die-hard theater buff, this is one show that shouldn't be missed by anyone.


As an added treat, here's a song from the musical that was performed last year at the Tony Awards.  It will be extra incentive to go and purchase tickets to see the show.  The show will ONLY be at the Pantages Theater in LA until November 25th.  Check it out... it's awesome.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Sinister: A Demonic Tightrope Walk

I always get pretty pumped around October because I love scary movies.  I'm not talking Saw or Hostel because those aren't scary.  They're torture-porn.  And while seeing a human being being chopped up can be fun occasionally, it's not good cinema.  I'm talking horror.  I'm talking literally being so scared your heart is pounding, you're biting your nails, you're screaming when something spooky happens that you didn't expect.  Unfortunately, a lot like comedies, there's only one or two good ones each year.  Maybe I'm difficult to scare, but I really respect a movie that can keep me from blinking or breathing in anticipation of what is going to happen next.  The Paranormal Activity movies succeeded in this cause.  Even last year's Insidious was effectually creepy.  But, this year... not so much.  House at the End of the Street, The Apparition, The Devil Inside, The Possession, even Chernobyl Diaries failed to execute a proper "scary" movie.  The closest thing to actually creepiness was The Woman In Black.  Now, one week before the fourth Paranormal Activity jumps to theaters, we've got Sinister.

There is so much that works about Sinister beginning with the writing.  From even the first few minutes, it's easy to tell that a lot of thought was put into the script.  It's not compiled of stock characters that are there simply to die in an already programmed order of deaths.  These are real characters with real internal and external conflicts.  Ethan Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer, who, because of his job, has relocated his family in the town of an unsolved murder/missing child's case.  He's looking for his next big break.  His previous book, Kentucky Blood, written ten years prior, that earned him his fifteen minutes of fame and fortune, has fizzled out to its last penny.  Now, he's looking to reclaim some of the benefits and recognition.  While researching the case, having moved his family into the same home the family was murdered in, he finds a box of super 8 home movies with other family murders on them.  After capturing the photo of what appears to be the killer, supernatural forces start to arise inside the house.  Finally, Ellison learns that a deity named Bughuul is responsible.

It is definitely a creepy movie.  Bughuul is a freaky sight to see and the paranormal occurrences in the house do keep you on edge, but it seems that for every moment in the movie that delivers true terror, there's something else that snaps you back to reality.  It's 50% terrifying, 50% disappointing.  Like, for instance, Bughuul is creepy and drives fear into your heart, but the ghosts of missing children walking around look like they've been put in cheap stage make-up.  Ellison's son suffers from night terrors, and in one scene emerges from a box backwards, making you wonder... okay is it night terrors or something else going on?  I wonder how this is going to tie in to the rest of the story.  Then, it doesn't.  It's not talked about again.  And the ending.  No spoilers here, but the ending is very anti-climactic.  A good horror movie should be a lot like a balloon.  Start deflated, then slowly build it up to size.  Then, once it's reached it's maximum capacity of air... POP!  That's what Paranormal Activity does so well.  It starts off slow, then builds and builds and builds and finally when the tension is so great you can't stand it anymore, BOOM you're in the climax of the movie.  With Sinister, it's like the balloon is slowly being blown up little by little, then when it's only around halfway full, someone got bored and just deflated the balloon by letting it fart out the rest of the air.  The movie ends right when it seems its about to get good.

But, like I said earlier, there are still good moments of creepy tension (including one particularly frightening scene involving a lawn mower).  Because the writing of the script is so well done (other than the mother's interactions with the children-- seriously, why can't anyone write parental/child conversations anymore??) the audience is invested in the characters.  They want to follow Ellison and his research of the case all the way to the end.  But, in the end, the execution wasn't exactly what is recommended in a successful horror movie.  It's abrupt ending is just too much for me to fully enjoy the movie.  However, it is the best horror film of the year, so far, but that isn't saying that much about the rest of the horror genre in 2012.


Seven Psychopaths: Bang Bang Kiss Kiss

Before even thinking about venturing over to see Seven Psychopaths, which you should do NEXT since I know you all took my advice and saw Looper, you need to watch another fantastic movie first: In BrugesIn Bruges is one of my top ten favorite movies of all time.  It's one of the most clever, funny, well-written, well-shot, well-acted, overall films I've ever seen.  At the writing slash directing helm of both of these gems is Martin McDonaugh.  These are the only two major pictures he's done minus some shorts he's worked on for other projects.  He's a little bit Shane Black, a little bit Guy Ritchie and a lot bit genius.  The guy can intricately yet delicately weave in comedy, drama, sadness, pleasure, and outright gore into one movie and you don't want to ever see it end.  Once you get a feel for McDonaugh's style with In Bruges, then you can scamper on over to your local viewing hole and watch Seven Psychopaths all the more excited for what you are about to witness.

I like when a director and a leading actor can find a certain chemistry that makes them work well together in order to lead to the entire film being stronger.  Scorsese has DiCaprio.  Rian Johnson has Joseph Gordon-Levitt.  Ridley Scott has Russell Crowe.  Tony Scott had Denzel (or should that be the other way around?  Too soon?)  McDonaugh has Colin Farrell.  Now, Colin Farrell can be kind of a campy actor that either like or dislike.  I don't think there's anyone out there whose just neutral on the guy.  His career started off kinda funky with high movies like Minority Report and The Recruit and low movies like Daredevil and SWAT.  However you feel about the guy, he really shines when he's allowed to be his ol' Irish self and let loose in a Martin McDonaugh penned script.  Farrell, who can tend to be a weak link in his films, really is the icing on the cake-- the rubber band that holds the entire film together.

Here, he plays Marty, an alcoholic Hollywood screenwriter attempting to finish his latest screenplay idea entitled: Seven Psychopaths.  However, he's stuck.  He's only got one psychopath idea for the script which turns out to be not even his idea at all... just a story he heard whilst intoxicated and forgot wasn't his.  His best friend Billy (Sam Rockwell) spends his days as a dog-kidnapper with extremely religious partner Hans (Christopher Walken) in order to reap the reward money once they return the kidnapped dogs.  Unfortunately, this time they dognapped a Shih-Tzu from dog-loving gangster psychopath Charlie (Woody Harrelson), who will do anything and kill anybody to get his dog back.  Lucky for Marty, this is all perfect fodder for his screenplay.

That's the "plot" like reading No Fear Shakespeare is reading Hamlet.  It nowhere near encompasses all of the beauty and complexities of the real thing.  The interwoven story lines, the connections of each psychopath and who each one ends up being are all what really drive the movie.  There are moments of true heart with earnest scenes between Hans and his dying wife.  There are moments of true shock (pretty much when ANYONE in the movie is killed).  And, above all, there are moments of pure hilarity.  The writing and the dialogue are so crisp and delicious, it's difficult to not be upset when the end credits start to roll.

It's also incredibly meta.  The movie is so self-aware, its as if McDonaugh was writing it while holding his mansack and flipping the bird to Hollywood action stereotypes.  It's a commentary about how the rigid structure of American action films have become so concrete, they're basically carbon copies of each other.  McDonaugh uses the character of Billy to try and persuade Marty to write his screenplay in epic Michael Bay fashion with shoot-outs and car chases and all that, when all Billy wants to do is write a movie that, at the end of the day is about peace... a movie called Seven Psychopaths.  It's Adaptation on crack.

While Farrell is the anchor of the boat, the crew have much to offer as well.  Sam Rockwell plays Billy, one of the psychopaths, almost as a dog.  He's cute, he's cuddly, he's not too bright, but if he gets backed into a corner he'll attack.  He's also surprisingly loyal to Marty.  Tom Waits is great as the bunny-cuddling psychopath there to tell his psychotic past stories to Marty in order to help him with his script.  Woody Harrelson is great because even though his entire motivation is to get back his one true love, his dog, he's still a terrifying gangster capable of anything.  But, it's Christopher Walken, surprisingly restrained, that steals the showHans is essentially the voice of reason.  The psychopath who found God, who sits back unafraid as the rest of these morons do exactly the dumb stuff he knows they're going to do.  And as Hans, Walken is perfect.

Seven Psychopaths is one of my top five favorite movies of the year.  It's one damn entertaining movie.  The seemingly-mundane conversations are reminiscent of early Tarantino.  There will literally be just a conversation (such as the brilliant opening scene of the film), yet it reveals everything about the characters having it.  McDonaugh doesn't just go for the cheap laugh, his writing has purpose.  And it succeeds in every way possible.


Here Comes The Boom: Kevin James Devoid Of Farts

Alright, let's just put this out there right now.  I like Kevin James.  I do.  I think he's a very funny comedian.  His stand-up was one of the reasons I decided to get into the game of comedy.  I thoroughly enjoyed King of Queens much to the dismay of anyone I'm currently associated with.  There are far worse sitcoms out there.  Then, the show ended and James decided to start making movies.  Now, granted, they're not the greatest argument when it comes to American cinema, but they're fine for what they are.  I actually respect the fact that he's out there making movies for families instead of going the crass PG-13/R territory that he very well could have.  Paul Blart: Mall Cop wasn't the worst movie I've ever seen and for what it was (a family-oriented movie about a mall cop) I personally don't think it failed.  It may not have been for everyone, but it wasn't horrible.  Zookeeper also wasn't the steaming pile of Happy Madison porta-potty runoff that it could've been... it actually made me laugh.  Would I recommend it to anyone to rent on their own?  No.  But, that doesn't mean that I walked out of the theater with a sour taste in my mouth (as I did with, say, Jack and Jill)... it had funny moments.  Grown Ups, which I attribute more as an Adam Sandler movie than a Kevin James movie was, yeah, awful... but he didn't write it.  While he hasn't had that one spectacular role that sets him apart from actors in his comedic field, he also doesn't deserve the hateful scrutiny typically associated with his name.

Now, with that being said, Here Comes The Boom falls right into that same category.  It's not going to win any awards (I don't even think it'll win any razzies to be honest) but it's not a genuine waste of film, either.  I don't believe anyone will be walking out of the theater, fists clenched shaking towards the heavens cursing the name of Kevin James... it is what it is.  And what it is is Kevin James as a down-on-his-luck, apathetic school teacher who decides to become an MMA fighter in order to raise money to help save the music class at his school.  And while the film is no Warrior, it's respectable to see James able to incorporate a pretty violent sport into the family comedies he's been doing the last few years.  But here's the crazy part-- it's not your typical fat-guy-falls-down-you-laugh type of comedy.  In fact, it's not much of a comedy at all.  It's a sports movie.  The movie doesn't rely on James' classic fat jokes, it's purely about UFC.  James actually bulked up adding a little muscle tone, for the role.  Now that's fat-guy-comedy dedication right there.

James plays Scott, an indifferent high school biology teacher whose lost his flare for teaching.  But, when a budget cut forces the cancellation of Mr. Streb's (Henry Winkler) music class, Scott decides to become an amateur MMA fighter in order to raise $48,000 to save the class, as well as win the heart of fellow teacher Bella (Salma Hayek).  It's a simple premise, but one we've seen numerous times.  The underdog trains, has a special talent for the sport, rises up and eventually finds himself in the final showdown.  It's the atypical sports movie formula with that added Kevin James comedic flair.  And the end result, while not perfect by any standards, doesn't fail with its delivery.  The fighting is fun and you find yourself actually rooting for James to succeed.  I think what separates Kevin James from a lot of the sports comedies released is that he's actually a likable guy (and, come on, who doesn't like Henry Winkler?).  There's a certain innocence that emanates from James that's hard to deny in any movie.

Where the movie fails, however, is the second act.  While it's certainly appreciated that James did everything in his power to eliminate all fart jokes and fat guy humor, the rest of the comedy is just a bit stale.  For every five attempts at jokes, only one seems to land.  The training sequences, an element that should be ripe for comedy, are underplayed and less humorous than they should've been.  But, it's the third act that really shines.  Scott doesn't become a UFC beast.  He doesn't magically have what it takes to defeat his opponent, he's still just a simple biology teacher fighting for his school and it really works.  If the rest of the movie could've borrowed a little magic from the end, it would've resulted in a better film.  However, if the farts were added in, it would've been worse.  Vanilla ice cream, while plain to most, is still a treat.  And, while this may be my least favorite Kevin James film, I still applaud him for what he's trying to do.  He's just still a ways away.


The Master: Arthouse Regression

You've got to have a certain kind of patience when watching a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.  His first major release Boogie Nights clocked in at an overly-long 155 minutes.  It's the simple case of a writer getting to direct his own movie and not wanting to cut anything out (see also Quentin Tarantino, Judd Apatow, James Cameron).  His follow up film Magnolia was an exhausting 188 minutes.  I could write a whole dissertation on the flaws of that movie.  Then, he experimented with trying to tell a story in under two hours and the result was the somewhat unfulfilling Punch-Drunk Love.  His last movie There Will Be Blood, while long (158 mins), had purpose in almost every scene.  But, in his latest feat, The Master, 137 minutes feels like watching Magnolia twice.

I've got a love/hate relationship with PTA.  His movies are long-winded, esoteric, and incredibly egocentric.  Yet, they're also beautifully shot, his dialogue is always very crisp, and his big picture plot elements are unrivaled.  He just gets too bogged down in his own banal self-indulgence.  He takes thirty minutes to show something that could be done in ten.  The Master suffers from this the most.  A good forty-five minutes go by before anything remotely interesting happens.  PTA usually starts off pretty slow, but where as There Will Be Blood does it effectively, keeping the viewer interested even though there isn't a single word of dialogue uttered in the first fourteen minutes, The Master fails to keep the attention.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Freddie Quell, a Naval veteran with serious emotional problems trying to adapt to normal life outside of the service.  He falls in with Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), the "master" of The Cause (essentially Scientology), entranced by his teachings, and finally feels at home.  Unable to shake his violent and sexual tendencies he turns to Dodd, who takes Freddie under his wing, for guidance.  It's not an overly-complex plot and in most cases wouldn't take another director two and a half hours to tell, but it's PTA's exhaustively slow pace that weighs the movie down making it feel like it will never end.

There are some truly extraordinary moments, though, in the film.  These moments usually show up when Phoenix and Hoffman share screen time together.  The two are magnificent in their portrayals of Freddie and Master, Phoenix especially who is essentially unrecognizable.  Phoenix pours everything into the role.  As Freddie, his right eye squints just a little more than his left, he speaks out of the right side of his mouth, his walk is hunched.  He's completely transformed himself into the character-- a character you both empathize with and are completely disgusted with.  Hoffman is great also playing the restrained Dodd.  He's not a religious zealot, pontificating every second of every day trying to rope in any and all members into The Cause.  No, he's calm, collective, but with sporadic moments of explosive frustration.  It boils down to the fact that he's almost entirely full of shit.  He's so convincing, it's hard to figure out if Dodd actually knows he's full of shit or if he actually believes the things he says.

The Master is a hard movie to enjoy, but you'll also find yourself captivated by it.  It is by no means Paul Thomas Anderson's finest work, in fact, it's probably his most self-serving.  You almost have to sit back and wonder who he's trying to entertain with this film.  Like Magnolia, each scene seems as masturbatory as the next.  However, there is a higher entertainment value to Magnolia (well, at least the first two and half hours) that seemed to be missing from The Master and was replaced with "art for the sake of being art".  If you're looking for PTA at the top of his game, maybe skip this one and watch some Daniel Plainview for the next three hours.