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(Movies) My Last 3: The Pyramid, The Book Thief, The Sacrament

Entertainment 150The Pyramid (2014)
This is a minor found-footage horror movie that I had been interested in mainly because I thought (mistakenly) that it was directed by Alexandre Aja. He’s a horror director I’ve really come to like after watching High Tension, the remake of The Hills Have Eyes, and Horns. It turns out he only produced it, which is a real shame. Under the hands of some better filmmakers, this could have been really good.

The Pyramid is a faux documentary set during the Egyptian uprising of 2013 about a group of archaeologists uncovering an ancient structure that appears to have been built and then buried underground. After unearthing the apex of the pyramid, they find a way inside — and a series of events lead them further and further into the byzantine hallways. It doesn’t take long before they discover a malevolent force trying to keep them there, and kill them one by one.

The set-up and a lot of the action is actually fairly well-done here. I was impressed by the plotting; in a lot of found-footage movies, the characters have to contort themselves to have a reason to keep filming, or to go deeper into a horrible situation. Here, I thought it was fairly well-handled if a bit obvious that they were expositing. Once the scientists make it inside the pyramid and the proceedings get underway, the atmosphere changes dramatically and the sense of peril mounts really well.

Still, a lot of the dialogue is just clunky, and Denis O’Hare (hi, Russell Edgington!) is the biggest name and best actor there but you wouldn’t know it. The ending and the revelations about the true nature of the pyramid might work or it might not, depending on your tolerance for warped Egyptian mythology and low-budget (for a feature film) CGI. Even though the archaeologists and documentary crew are really put through the ringer, it doesn’t quite feel like torture porn because there are clear stakes and a hope — however small — that these hapless men and women will survive.

If you’re a found-footage enthusiast (like me) and are looking for a decent B-grade horror movie that’s slightly left-of-center, you could do worse than The Pyramid. It’s not astonishing, but I thought it was solid enough.

The Book Thief (2013)
A little girl is given up for adoption to a poor but lively German couple, right around the time the Nazi party is coming to power. After her new father discovers she can’t read, he teaches her and through that process instills in her a love of books and stories. As Hitler’s grip on Germany tightens, their Jewish and progressive neighbors are rounded up and disappeared. The community changes. And the son of the father’s wartime friend (himself a Jew) comes to their door seeking sanctuary.
The Book Thief is an adaptation of an Australian novel written by Markus Zusak, and it’s pretty obviously one of those movies that come out during Oscar season as a prestige picture. The cinematography is beautiful, the direction is measured and restrained, and the acting has that stiff, important quality — for the most part.

Here, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson and newcomer Sophie Nelisse make up the family that binds together through the onset of World War II, and they actually do a pretty wonderful job. Rush is breezily amiable as the cool, engaged dad; Watson is unrecognizable as a muttering, severe house-frau. Nelisse is an effortless actress, moving through the story with whatever is required of her. It’s quite impressive to watch these three, especially as the hard exterior of Watson’s housewife cracks and you see the effect that the war and the political situation has on her.

And yet, the story itself doesn’t quite land with the weight it’s clearly trying to. It meanders from subject to subject with the expansive air of a biography but it doesn’t quite leave you with anything you can take with you. The framing narration — the voice of Death talks about the proceedings with a bemused, detached air that’s really grating — isn’t as clever or thought-provoking as it thinks it is. And honestly, the ending is a bit of a let-down in its obviousness. Instead of being emotionally affecting, it feels manipulative instead.

Still, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie that explores the lives of ordinary Germans during the Nazi regime, and for that alone it’s worth a look. The performances are solid enough to keep you engaged even as you roll your eyes whenever the movie tries to prey on your sympathies. The only Oscar nomination it managed to earn was Best Score, and the music from John Williams is quite well done. I just wish that it was in service to a movie that had been more artful in what it wanted to do.

The Sacrament (2013)
More found-footage horror! This time, a documentary crew from Vice magazine travels to Bolivia after one of their fashion photographers receives a letter from his estrange sister inviting them to a religious commune that’s been started there. Upon arrival, they’re more than a little freaked out by the vibe they get from the followers of “Father”, and just when they’re about to shrug and say “different strokes for different folks” the movie takes its turn.

What follows is an updated and fictionalized account of Jonestown, one of the biggest mass suicides in American history. Directed by Ti West, this move maintains a great sense of tension throughout; he really knows how to mine the vague unease one would feel among an isolated group of fanatics. As events unfold and escalate, it becomes increasingly clear that the documentary crew are in over their heads, and that discovery is appropriately terrifying.

The main reporter, Sam, is distractingly stiff and unconvincing as the narrator of the documentary. As things unravel and it becomes harder to justify the decision to keep filming, the framing of the found-footage format begins to suffer; you’re not sure why the camerman would keep documenting an increasingly desperate situation. A lot of the dialogue rings hollow, especially the stuff surrounding Father — the actor portraying him has a off-beat charisma all his own, so he makes it work regardless.

Ultimately, this is a great movie for found-footage and Ti West fans, but I’m not sure it’s a must-see film. If you’re in the dark on a Friday night and are looking for something to get the blood pumping, this is certainly a good choice.

 
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Posted by on November 18, 2015 in Movies, Reviews, Uncategorized

 

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My Last Three Movies: Final Destination 3, Tammy, Jersey Boys

Entertainment 150Final Destination 3 (2006)
If you’ve never seen a Final Destination movie, it pretty much goes like this: one person in a group of high-school/college students sees a horrifying calamity unfolding in their imagination right before it happens and freaks the hell out. They (and a number of friends and acquaintances) avoid the disaster, but Death — not one to be cheated — stalks after them one by one, making sure to correct the tapestry of fate before too long. It’s a really neat concept, especially since it’s a slasher film with an existential threat more than an actual killer.

Even still, the Final Destination series has always vaguely disappointed me because it flirts right up to the line of doing something really interesting or thought-provoking with the premise before retreating back into the safety of its Rube Goldberg devices (each character is killed in an increasingly complicated set of freak accidents) or sophomoric foreshadowing and discussions about death. Even the really good ones (like the first two) are fun, but leave me with a sense of dissatisfaction. Whether it’s fair or not, I always kind of want them to be more than they are.

The third movie doesn’t hold up as well as the first two, and it’s here where we start to see the seams of the formula showing. This time, the epic accident is a roller-coaster malfunction that’s fairly impressive but not nearly as harrowing as the plane crash or highway traffic accident that preceded it. The build-up to the set piece is stocked with groan-worthy dialogue, and it almost feels like the writers have gone out of their way to make these characters as unlikeable as possible.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Ramona Flowers in Scott Pilgrim!) leads the cast here, and she does a pretty good job. Her love-interest co-lead (Ryan Merriman) is Wonder Bread bland, though, and it all goes downhill from there. The group of “lucky” students saved from Death by roller coaster only to be killed in arguably more gruesome ways later on are almost uniformly terrible, and it makes me feel mean to wish horrible things to happen to them only to see them suffer some pretty terrible fates.

Horror movies are at their most fun when they have engaging or fun characters to root for, an inventive premise that’s fun to explore, and a sense of inevitability that never lets the main characters off the hook (even though they’ve won…for now). With Final Destination 3, there’s really only the knowledge that everyone you’re seeing will suffer and die, and after three installments of it the whole affair feels a little sadistic. There needs to be something more to it; inventive and gory ways to kill supporting characters just aren’t enough at this point.

Still, if you’re a horror franchise completionist or like watching annoying characters die in terrible ways, pull up a chair and pop it in. The DVD has a “Choose Your Fate” feature that opens up a few alternate scenes that might actually be fun.
Tammy (2014)
This was a rare misfire from Melissa McCarthy, a sort of mumble-core comedy that no one really knew what to do with. It was loaded with talent (Alison Janney! Susan Sarandon! Kathy Bates! Sandra Oh! Dan Akroyd!) and had a potentially amazing premise, but for some reason it felt like a hybrid between a Duplass Bros. movie and an earnest Cameron Crowe road-trip film.

Tammy (McCarthy) is fired from her dead-end burger job after wrecking her car running into a deer (don’t worry though, the buck is fine) and comes home to discover her husband in an emotional affair with another woman. She runs next door to her mother’s house and threatens to leave — only to be pushed out the door by her grandmother (Sarandon), who insists on coming along. She is, after all, providing the car and the trip money.

A series of misadventures follows, of course. We see Tammy and her grandmother Pearl getting into all kinds of trouble, and it becomes increasingly clear that Pearl might actually be the hotter mess of the two. Both women learn a bit more about themselves than they bargained for, and stumble into potential relationships with a retiree and his son after Pearl has a one-night stand with the older gentleman.

The movie takes a few dark turns that feel oddly specific yet not-quite-jokey that makes it hard to navigate the emotional turns. Pearl is an alcoholic diabetic, which…we’re never quite sure how to feel about. She’s funny when she’s drunk, until she isn’t, and her diabetes is a potential problem, then maybe a huge one, then maybe not so much. It’s almost like the writers themselves aren’t quite sure what to do with their own characters.

Nevertheless, both McCarthy and Sarandon are great when the material allows them to be freely funny, and the beginning of the film is awesome enough to carry you through the uneven, emotionally-dissonant second act. Tammy gets increasingly dramedic as it goes on, smoothing down the jagged edges of its protagonists as if admitting it would be kind of exhausting watching them be as crazy as we know they could be for a whole two hours.

Still, it’s worth watching. There’s great stuff there, and the worst of the film is never bad enough to make you tap out. If you’re looking to put on a comedy, laugh hard for thirty minutes, then maybe fall asleep in front of your television, this is one for you.
Jersey Boys (2014)
Clint Eastwood produced and directed this movie adaptation of the jukebox musical, and you can tell that this was a fairly faithful conversion from stage to screen. A lot of the narrative tricks are there — actors breaking the fourth wall to speak to the audience, smooth transitions from expository monologues to in media res action, even the way actors speak their lines point to a theatricality that was meant for another medium. This isn’t a bad thing per se, but I think I would rather have someone trying to take advantage of the fact that film provides them a certain amount of freedom they wouldn’t have had on stage.

I think your enjoyment of the film will largely depend on your awareness of the catalogue of the Four Seasons and how much you like the unique vocal stylings of Frankie Valli. His signature sound is a high falsetto that lowers to a kind of nasally tenor(?), which isn’t for everyone but I find pretty nice. The story moves from the early days of Valli’s career in a rough New Jersey neighborhood, to the formation and dissolution of the Four Seasons, to his later solo career and family troubles. The music matures accordingly, from nascent 50s doo-wop and crooner covers to 70s pop standards that I was surprised were written so early. Valli’s songwriting partner, Bob Gaudio, is responsible for some legitimately great music.

The story, though…that’s something else. While it doesn’t fall into the standard musical biopic structure (earnest ingenue works hard from humble beginnings, breaks through to success, falls to excesses of drugs or affairs or general assholery, makes a comeback that ends the film), it does spend most of its time on the unhappy career of the Four Seasons. Tommy DeVito, the group’s de-facto leader and money manager, is portrayed as a selfish and irresponsible grand-stander who accrues a shocking amount of debt during the group’s success. His personality makes it difficult to enjoy the breakthrough of the Four Seasons, and he’s the single reason the group busts up.

Frankie Valli himself produced the movie in part, so I have to be a little suspicious of the narrative here. He had enough pull to appear on the credits, so he probably had enough pull to influence the story. Did DeVito really sink the Four Seasons? Is it really true that Valli’s post-Seasons career was almost entirely working whatever jobs he could find in order to pay back DeVito’s debt? It feels like he could have pushed that part of the narrative to justify his absence to his family; it’s clear that his wife and daughters were bitter about his not being there, and the movie suggests the only reason he was on the road so much was a misguided sacrifice of one type of family for another.

Still, the performances are solid, the direction is competent and the song arrangements are decent. It’s a reasonably good adaptation that will serve you well in place of a more immediate or energetic live-theatre show. If you’re really big into 50s doo-wop or jukebox musicals, or you want to see Christopher Walken as the world’s most paternal mob boss, give Jersey Boys a try.

 
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Posted by on September 9, 2015 in Movies, Reviews

 

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The AFI Top 100 Films: Psycho (#18)

Entertainment 150Psycho (1960)
Starring Anthony Perkins, Janet Leigh, Vera Miles and John Gavin
Written by Joseph Stefano (screenplay) and Robert Bloch (novel)
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock

There shouldn’t be a need to tell you that this review will be discussing spoilers for the movie Psycho, but just in case you weren’t expecting it — this review will discuss spoilers for the movie Psycho. If you haven’t seen this grand-daddy of all horror movies, you should definitely do so at your earliest convenience. The rest of the review will be here when you’re done!

I was one of those people who thought they knew the story; it’s been discussed at length in our popular culture, and I had seen the first season of Bates Motel. I assumed that the story hinged on the relationship between motel owner Norman Bates (Perkins) and his lodger Marion Crane (Leigh), with the climax being that infamous shower scene. Imagine my surprise when that scene happens a third of the way into the film; there was a lot more about Norman and his motivations to uncover.

That’s what makes Psycho so great; it sets up your expectations and then subverts them gleefully. Just when you think you have a handle on where the story is going it takes a hair-pin turn and you’re left reeling to get a handle on your new surroundings. And when you get the lay of the land, another whiplash turn, another disorienting layer with which to familiarize yourself. Alfred Hitchcock, working from a screenplay adapted by Joseph Stefano, does a masterful job with pacing here, smashing down his dominoes as soon as he’s set them up.

The initial part of the story focuses on Marion Crane, an office worker for a real estate company. One day, her boss entrusts her to deposit $40,000 to the company’s bank account. Instead she steals it, hoping to start a new life with her long-distance boyfriend, Sam (Gavin). She ditches the car she left town in, buys a new one and flees down the California coast. Forced to stop during a heavy rainstorm, she finds herself in the Bates Motel.

By now, you’re invested in her story and where it’s going. While she’s clearly not a good person (she stole a pants-load of money from her trusting employer after all), she’s our protagonist. We’re invested in seeing whether or not she succeeds; if she doesn’t, we want to know how she’ll get caught and what the consequences are. This feels like a story about her theft and what it will do for her and her lover.

Then we meet Norman Bates, the proprietor of the Bates Motel. He has a series of small conversations with Marion that reveal his character and history, including a troubled relationship with an overbearing mother. When Norman’s mother decides that he’s gotten far too close to Marion, she decides to take matters into her own hands; while the lodger is in the shower, Mother storms in and stabs her to death with a knife.

perkins-psycho

So much for Marion’s story. Her employers have noticed her absence as well as the missing money by now, however, so they’ve reached out to her sister Lila (Miles), who in turn reaches out to Sam. Together they track Marion’s steps along with a private investigator, and are eventually lead to the motel. The P.I. gets too close, so Norman’s mother kills him too. Meanwhile, Lila and Sam go to the Sheriff’s home and discover there that Norman’s mother has been dead for some time.

What?? What in the world is going on? The answer to that question leads to one of the craziest scenes in cinematic history, a terrific double-whammy of reveals that quite frankly astound. The denouement where Norman is psycho-analyzed goes on a little longer than it needs to, perhaps, but I suppose that was necessary for audiences of the time to even wrap their minds around what they had just seen. Nowadays we’ve become so familiar with abnormal psychology that Norman may seem almost pedestrian by comparison.

But there’s no doubt that Psycho had a tremendous impact on movies, almost single-handedly creating the horror genre as we know it today. Norman’s story is the template for so many slashers who’ve come in his wake — the Freddy Kreugers, the Michael Myers, the Jason Voorhies. Bates is the first of their kind, a monster preying on the unsuspecting pretty blondes of the world.

Hitchcock keeps us in suspense by constantly toying with us. He presides over all of the surprises he has in store with the supreme confidence of a master storyteller. The reveals happen exactly when they’re meant to, deployed for maximum effect, keeping us on our toes. The conversations between Norman and Marion are slow burns, setting us up with context to make the impact of the revelations meaningful while misdirecting us on what’s really going on. Anthony Perkins plays Norman with such layering that you’re quite intrigued by the obvious tension his various feelings towards his mother creates. You get a sense that he’s a bit fucked up, but the surprise is in revealing just how fucked up he is.

The rest of the cast does quite a good job, but this is really the showcase for Hitchcock and his screenwriter, Joseph Stefano. Hitchcock went through great lengths to preserve the secret of the story — it’s rumored that once he bought the rights to Robert Bloch’s original novel he bought as many copies of it as he could. He charged theatre owners to prevent audiences from walking in to the movie after it started, so that you had to see it the way he intended.

Those extraordinary measures created a sensation, and Psycho was wildly successful on its release. Its quality is what has helped it stand the test of time. I think our fascination with crazy stalkers began here; we owe an entire facet of cinematic history to Hitchcock and company.

Rating: 9/10.

 
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Posted by on November 5, 2013 in AFI Top 100, Movies, Reviews

 

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Five Favorite Horror Films

Entertainment 150When I was but a wee leveret growing up in the wilds of Baltimore City, I really wasn’t able to watch many horror movies. We were a religious household, so anything seen as ‘celebrating’ the Devil or the occult were strictly off-limits. As is often the case with kids who grow up in oppressively spiritual households, there’s been a bit of a rubber-band effect. I now LOVE horror movies, and appreciate anything that scare the pants off of me. I didn’t really get a chance to indulge that love until I met Ryan, who has been kind enough to open me up to a wide variety of frightening films.

I now know the distinct flavors of horror films from each decade. The 70s are really impressive with their love of atmosphere, isolated places, insanity and gore. The 80s movies ratchet up the gore and really entrenched a lot of the tropes in horror we love to play around with; the slasher franchises mostly started here. In the 90s we became wry and self-aware with our horror movies, and our victims got younger — high school and college students are really common. We left the supernatural behind in favor of, well, crazy, demented and murderous people. The 2000s saw torture feature prominently, and our aesthetic grew dingier, grungier than ever before.

Since Halloween is only ten days away and a lot of our cable channels are doing their customary horror marathon thing, I thought it’d be fun to think about my favorite horror movies and exactly what it is I love about them. Horror movies are a great avenue into the fears we hold deep down in our lizard brains and exploring how and why they manifest the way they do. Here’s a few of the things I find especially scary. Probably not surprisingly, I have a preoccupation with the breakdown of society.

5. When A Stranger Calls. A year after Halloween blazed the trail of bringing insanely scary horrors right to your doorstep, this movie takes it to the next level. The first twenty minutes is an amazingly taut short film on its own; it’s earned its place on this list on the strength of that alone. “Have you checked the children?” and “The call is coming from inside the house!” are taken from this movie. After the first act, the movie becomes a detective story leading to another wonderfully twisty horror set-piece at the end. It’s a complete surprise — the creeping dread, paranoia, and obsession of the psychotic murderer and the private eye chasing him down is palpable. Wonderful stuff.

4. 28 Days Later/Dawn of the Dead (remake). I’ve included these two movies as a package deal because they occupy the same spot in my brain — they were what made me get zombies as a horror concept. 28 Days Later is celebrated for its “man wanders alone in deserted London” sequence, which is incredibly eerie, but the final act — which sees the survivors visiting a horror worse than the zombies they’re sheltered from — is even better. The sequel, 28 Weeks Later, is really solid as well; the scares have a lot more to do with the zombies in that one. Dawn of the Dead, remade by Zack Snyder from the George Romero original, opens with a sequence that brings the horror of zombies home in a very literal sense. I won’t spoil it here, but going to bed one night with everything normal and then waking up to find that the world has effectively ended has never been done better than it has been here. The lives the characters make for themselves hold up in an abandoned mall is fascinating, and the choices they make once they have to rebuild a society for themselves reveals a lot about our survivors. Both of these movies are the standard (to me) against which all zombie movies will be held.

3. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This is one intense movie. Even before the gang gets to the creepy house in the middle of the Texas wilderness, they get this weird harbinger of what they’ll be facing. They pick up a hitchhiker who pulls a knife, injures one of the passengers, and is summarily kicked out. It’s all downhill from there. What follows is a movie that’s shocking not only for its gore, but for how unabashedly, completely crazy its villains are. Just when you think you have a handle on how insane things can get, something comes along to top it. The dinner scene is just one of the most terrifying things ever. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen that just makes me want to take a shower after watching it. So gnarly. I love it.

2. The Blair Witch Project. When The Blair Witch Project hit in 1999, it wasn’t so much a movie as it was an experience. It was one of the first films to use viral alternate-reality marketing really effectively, to the point that some audiences actually thought they were watching a snuff film on the big screen. Creating a totally believable legend from whole-cloth made the found-footage premise that much more terrifying, and the little bits that existed outside of the movie made the film itself that much scarier. Knowing the story of Rustin Parr makes the final image — already chilling — absolutely nightmarish. To this day, the woods at night are one of the scariest things on God’s green earth, and it’s all thanks to this one movie. It kickstarted my love of horror in a big way.

1. Threads. This is kind of a cop-out, especially since it’s not really horror and there are a lot of really GREAT horror movies out there. But this is the scariest movie I’ve ever seen, and not enough people have watched it. I need to be the evangelist for it! Set (and made) during the Cold War of the 1980s, Threads follows a woman named Ruth as she prepares to marry her high school sweetheart Jimmy. Then World War III breaks out. Told in a hybrid of drama and documentary styles, Threads is intensely graphic in its depiction of the run-up to nuclear war and the effects of us destroying ourselves. It’s insane to me to think that we could have come so close to doing something we’d never be able to recover from, especially when that decision rests in the hands of just a few people we’ve elected to keep us safe from just such a thing. What makes Threads so scary is not that it depicts the end of civilization in such an unblinking fashion; it shows us what our quality of life would be afterwards — practically non-existent.

What about you guys? What’s your personal favorite horror movie?

 
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Posted by on October 21, 2013 in Movies, Pop Culture

 

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