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The Conjuring (2013)
Good not great ghost story
A decent spooker - it doesn't live up to many of the rave reviews it has received, but it's not bad at all. Most horror films these days are so by-the-numbers that the better ones like this often get graded higher on a curve. As with so many ghost stories I found Conjuring's windup better and way more frightening than the eventual climactic events - the atmosphere was so dread-filled that I (a died-in-the-wool horror veteran) was genuinely uneasy for the first half hour or so. As more was revealed it got less frightening - I still find that the less you see, the less you know, the more your imagination has to fill in the blanks - the scarier a movie tends to be. The performances were all top-notch, particularly Vera Farmiga as the medium; special mention should be made of the younger actresses, who were all very believable. Definitely the best horror film of 2013 that I've seen, but again, I'm grading it on a curve.
Wonderful, eerie storytelling
Ringu tells its story with a quiet eerie power and is a fascinating film to re-watch. There are certain implications made earlier in the tale that contribute to an overall circular motion, a ring that has no bottom and no top, an endless chain of events (for the record--yes, I know the Ring of the title refers to the ring of the telephone after the tape is viewed but there is still this aspect of completing-the-circle in the story structure); certain unsettling questions are left to the viewer to ponder afterward and this is a good thing. Listen, for example, to Yoichi's explanation as to who told him to watch the tape (the implication being that death is not necessarily the end for Sadako's victims); note also the hooded figure in the video and its reappearance near the end of the film and the name to which the heroine assigns to it (the question here is along the lines of whether certain events were preordained from the start)....all of this is interesting stuff to mull over. Told with simplicity and economy, Ringu is superior to the American remake -- in itself still a good thriller but one short on subtlety -- a textbook example of Japanese horror at its most inventive and frightening.
The Stepford Wives (2004)
A script "straight" (pardon the expression) out of Stepford
Lovely Nicole Kidman is obviously game and tries hard but has little to work with here. Bette Midler is unappealing and the actor saddled with the supposedly "funny" (it's anything but) flamboyant gay role is sunk by the embalmed material. Glenn Close plays the campy it's-really-a-drag-queen part that we encounter in seemingly every Paul Rudnick-scripted film (and lately in many Glenn Close films as well); I like her a lot better when she's actually giving a real performance not working the broadly comic schtick overtime. (Memo to screenwriter Rudnick, from the mouth of that smart, talented underground filmmaker, Bruce LaBruce: "being gay is not enough." Think about it, please). Bryan Forbes, Katherine Ross and Paula Prentiss, et.al did this movie much, much better back in 1975, and it should have been left at that. The Stepford Wives is, for all its efforts, another pointless, badly written (the plot holes are already legendary), and yes, mechanical Hollywood remake.
The Haunting (1963)
Maybe THE cinematic ghost story of all time
This excellent cinematic version of the great Shirley Jackson novel still retains its power to chill, thanks to the eerie, subtle approach of director Robert Wise, the evocative B&W cinematography of David Bolton (check out the unnerving "face in the wall" sequence") and the fine performances all around; Julie Harris in particular shines as the sensitive, fragile Eleanor. This film is of the less-is-more school of horror, in contrast to the ridiculous let's-throw-in-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink Jan DeBont remake from 1999. As of this writing that version is widely available in DVD and VHS everywhere and the original is still only available on video (and even then it's rather hard to find): another little Hollywood injustice still waiting to be corrected.
Ghost World (2001)
Disappointing--if you've read the graphic novel also
This movie is better than probably 90% of the other stuff out there, and I would recommend it to most smart moviegoers. BUT (major but here), I was dismayed that Ghost World's original creator, Daniel Clowes, and the film's director, Terry Zwigoff, decided to rearrange the plot line and ended up destroying the main focus of the book, which is the relationship between two teenage girls, Enid and Becky, and how it eventually, heartbreakingly, dissolves. The movie is mainly concerned with the relationship between Enid (well-played by Thora Birch) and the middle-aged sad sack played by Steve Buscemi (who is excellent, as usual). The character of Becky, Enid's best friend, is basically cast aside. I was really looking forward to a smart, funny independent feature film taking an honest look at teenage girls as they teeter on the brink of adulthood, wondering exactly who they are and what their lives should become. That sounded fresh and new, if not downright revolutionary, particularly coming from a male writer and director team. Instead I got this (relatively) conventional, boy/girl quasi-romance, dressed up in post-slacker hipness - did Clowes and Zwigoff think maybe the movie wouldn't fly without a major male character? I'm guessing yes. My hope is that all the critics and other folks out there who loved the movie might be compelled to seek out the original book now. It's light years better.
The Others (2001)
the ghost story is back
Warning, spoilers ahead--please don't read unless you've seen the film!
Predictably, a lot of know-nothings are complaining about the twist at the end of The Others, claiming that it "rips off" The Sixth Sense. Well, guess what, the-protagonist-who-is-already-dead surprise was *hardly* introduced by The Sixth Sense; this plot device has been around since at least the old days of The Twilight Zone television series of the 50's, and as recently as in an 80's movie called Siesta, which was directed by Mary Lambert and starred Ellen Barkin (oops, looks like I just gave away the ending to that--sorry!). Besides, I have to admit that the twist here (actually the DOUBLE twist) completely threw me, and I was one of those who managed to figure out The Sixth Sense's big surprise midway through the film. Anyway, surprise endings aside, there is much else to admire in this fine ghost story. Nicole Kidman gives a very good, sensitive performance, and she has an excellent supporting cast behind her, particularly the two children, who are entirely believable. The film is rich in atmosphere and uses all the trappings of the classic ghost story (the isolated house, mysterious strangers, darkened rooms, etc.) beautifully. If you like ghost stories (and like me, are happy to see them back at the box office thanks to the success of The Sixth Sense) then hie thee to this fine film.
"Four score and twenty years ago, our forefathers did........something."
Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst are absolutely delightful as two ditsy 15 year old girls who stumble cluelessly upon (and into) the Watergate scandal in this clever comedy from 1999. The supporting cast, including Dan Hedaya as "Tricky Dick" Nixon, Dave Foley, Bruce McCullough, and the peerless Teri Garr, are all great. This would be a good renter to watch along with Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, another smart, funny piece of fluffy cotton candy. Both are my ideal of what good "chick flicks" are all about. Score: 7/10
Runaway Bride (1999)
A 110 minute sitcom
A sub-par romantic (alleged) comedy with typically lukewarm, middlebrow handling by director Gary Marshall. I simply grew weary of the whole enterprise within the first half hour and couldn't wait for it to end. A far better choice, if you're in the mood for a pleasant Julia Roberts flick, is My Best Friends Wedding.
The Haunting (1999)
Come Back to the Five and Dime, Shirley Jackson, Shirley Jackson
A vulgar, inept reworking of the classic novel by Shirley Jackson, and its very fine film adaptation from Robert Wise in 1963. The only thing this one has going for it are the lovely, imaginative sets. All else--the script, performances, and especially the direction by Jan DeBont are, to put it kindly, not good. All the subtlety and ambiguity of the original are tossed out the window in favor of a lot of noisy special effects that wouldn't scare a 5 year old. The only frightening thing about this nonsense is that it received as many positive reader comments on this board as it did! Rating: 4/10 for the sets and a certain amount of campy, so-bad-it's-fun entertainment value.
Not as bad as it first seems
I hated this film when I first saw it (gave it a 4/10) but I had to admit it seemed as though the director was trying to make a genuine film and not just a quickee garbage sequel to the fine original film, The Blair Witch Project. Having just viewed it again on DVD, I would give it a slightly above-average rating (6/10). The acting, with the exception of Kim Director as the Goth girl, is not good, and the story doesn't quite make it, but this movie still has a filmmaker's integrity and it was fairly entertaining upon second viewing, with a few standout sequences (the graveyard scene--which you should watch closely for a couple of eerie touches; the morning-after rain of paper, and the goth girl's trip to the town market--again which you should watch closely). DVD viewers beware though: the director's commentary is really pretentious and repetitive--I lost track of the number of times the man used the phrase "trying to depict the dangers of confusing fiction and reality", or words to that effect, and he let his bitterness about the critical and public reaction to the film creep in once too often. Like I said, he was trying to create an artful film here and I give him credit for that, but having to listen to all his hot air about his efforts was a trial.
Sometimes it's best to let the work speak for itself.