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Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
The Best Horror Series of the Decade
When the first Paranormal Activity was released to theaters, it caused more stir than any horror movie had in years. It started as a super-super-super low budget film made by friends, and, slowly, by fantastic word of mouth it became one of the highest grossing horror films. For good reason, too; Paranormal Activity and its sequel are truly horrifying films.
In an age of movies like Saw 3D, it is difficult to find a horror movie that can genuinely scare you, and even rarer one that doesn't rely at all on blood and gore to do so. What makes the Paranormal Activity films so original is that they went back to the unfortunately-forgotten idea of slow-build and suspense; particularly in the first film, there was no sudden and quick thrills. You waited. You got chilled. The terror built and built and built, almost to the point of being unbearable. I will never forget the way the first film was able to turn the taped night-time sessions into increasingly intense prisons of fear. Each time the lights on screen went out, the fear in the audience became more and more tangible. And eventually that fear realized itself in a haunting, terrifying, perfect finale.
This sequel is, admittedly, not quite as dedicated to the slow-build style that made the first one so good; the scares come pretty quickly and pretty intensely from the start. Having said that, it is just as scary and the use of an infant was a perfectly horrifying idea. If you are expecting an average, bloody, cheap thrills horror film, you will be disappointed by Paranormal Activity. This is realistic, believable terror and it is done with an admirable reliance on slow-build suspense and subtlety that makes Paranormal Activity the best horror series of the decade.
James Cameron's political action extravaganza...
Avatar is not the best movie of all time. Let's get that out of the way right now. It might be one of the biggest, just like director James Cameron's last film, Titanic, was. And since comparisons to that other Cameron classic is inevitable, let's talk about it right now: Avatar is not as good. Titanic was a huge epic event movie and yet managed to deliver a story that was undeniably personal and human; Avatar doesn't quite do that, and therein lies its greatest weakness.
But let me back up a few steps: Avatar is a very entertaining and thrilling ride, and most definitely worth seeing on the big screen. Filled with breathtaking imagery, dazzling effects, and grand storytelling with big emotions, it's exactly what a crowd-pleaser is made of. Unfortunately, grand storytelling has a way of becoming lost within itself. Cameron's script is strongly lacking in the dialogue department. The words coming out of the character's mouths often feel dry and fake, though the cast does its best with the material. Of particular note is the wonderful Zoe Saldana, taking the difficult role of the Na'vi princess and filling it with genuine humanity and emotion. Yet perhaps her very personal performance stands out like it does because the rest of the movie is so broad. This is evidenced even by the running time, a whopping 2 hours and 45 minutes, a length that is felt on more than one occasion.
Still, Avatar shouldn't be dismissed, and it won't be. As ticket sales already show, this movie is going to be around for a long time, and love for it will flow profusely. Yet there's also something more to Avatar; it is an inherently political movie. The story of the indigenous people being pushed out of their home and impressed upon by the invading humans does not allow for a non-political movie. What's amazing about Avatar is the innocent way in which it brings about its message and the subtlety with which it convinces you of its truth. Cameron uses his tale and its great big emotions to present us with stark images of military extremity and (let's face it) American consumer selfishness. It's quite notable that a movie can get us to root against the evil humans and have the main character refer to them as the 'aliens' by the end. Even the most lightweight film viewer will find it almost impossible not to notice the strong messages, and one must give Cameron props for the way he makes a movie set on an alien planet hit America right at home. The way the themes are naturally embedded in the story allows for easy relatability, and makes it easier for us to consider that some of our methods need to be reexamined.
Avatar is a two-sided film. On a purely entertainment-focused level, it is nothing more than a thoroughly enjoyable, great big action extravaganza, but it has major flaws. However, you have to admire a mainstream film that can examine such relevant issues in thoughtful, honest ways, and promote the most simple message of all: Peace.
Confessions of a Shopaholic (2009)
All Credit to the Charming Ms. Fisher...
Confessions of a Shopaholic is shockingly lightweight entertainment. The story of a quirky young woman who cannot control her urge to spend, it doesn't exactly call for depth. Yet it's a movie that will catch you by surprise. You may find yourself genuinely involved in its charming little tale, and even discover that you're mulling over its thinking points in your head.
But don't be fooled: There is nothing profound here. In the end, it is a movie all about shopping, and the women who love it. The script is witty, but not overtly so, and there is nothing unique in the film's presentation. Yet it is hard not to be entertained.
Therefore all credit most go to the delightful leading performance by the wonderful Isla Fisher. Her shopaholic Rebecca Bloomwood is a comic character for the ages, just happened to be stuck in a modest little film. Ms. Fisher will make you laugh, but, even more impressively, she brings humanity and reality to the movie's more dramatic scenes, scenes that could easily have become mawkish in the hands of a lesser actress. Luckily, working around such a talent brings out the best in all the rest of the cast too.
There's something to be said for truly lightweight entertainment that doesn't make you feel totally ashamed watching it, and that's precisely what this movie is. A guilty little pleasure that keeps on giving, this one is definitely worth a watch, and one hopes to see more and more of it's wonderful leading lady on screen.
Jennifer's Body (2009)
The Incompletion of Great Premise...
When Jennifer's Body was first announced to me, I met the idea with cautious curiosity. The idea of Megan Fox playing an evil high school beauty queen who eats the boys she seduces sounded... interesting, to say the least. When the trailer finally emerged, I got excited. Seriously. The combination of thrilling and funny hadn't been explored well at the theater in a long time.
Unfortunately, it still hasn't been explored well; at least not very well. The movie understands what it's going for: a comic horror film with just enough gore and jumps to be jarring and plenty of witty dialogue to stay fresh. The problem is, the two don't seem to meld together very well at any point. It's hard to say whether this has more to do with Diablo Cody's script or Karyn Kusama's direction; neither is at it's full potential here. Although, on recollection of the film, the too-random use of humor sometimes seems to have been the biggest problem.
But let's talk about what works. The leads are both very good. It was Megan Fox who got lots of good buzz about proving she could actually act, but Amanda Seyfried really impressed me more with her edgy role. The performances of both are worthy of accolades. They bring honesty and realism to what could have become total caricatures, and their performances help paint the deeper themes of the movie quite well.
Yes, there are deeper themes. It's not too hard to spot what Ms. Cody is trying to talk about here: The relationships girls have with each other. The whole 'Frenemies' idea that so defines high school girls. It's an interesting concept to examine, and it could have made for a truly entertaining AND thoughtful film.
But it simply isn't. While it wants to get there, it gets too lost in trying to be hip and current and 'alternative' to really become a film. And while the tension builds decently toward the finale, it all leads up to a climax that... doesn't really climax.
However, this is not to say Jennifer's Body isn't worth watching. Hell, I was entertained, and there are some sexy little scenes in there. The disappointment lies in thinking about what the premise promised, a promise that sadly wasn't quite fulfilled... 6/10 stars
The School of Rock (2003)
The Creation of Musical Fusion...
Every now and then a mainstream entertaining film comes along that breaks the boundaries of what we expect and turns itself in as a truly great film. School of Rock is one of those movies. Sharp direction from Richard Linklater, a talented cast, and a fabulous script from Mike White meld together to create a heartfelt, gut-bustingly hilarious tribute to rock 'n roll that will make a believer out of anyone.
Not enough praise can be given to Jack Black in what is truly the greatest performance of his career. As Dewey Finn, a down-on-his-luck guitar player/singer who pretends to be a substitute teacher in place of his friend and forms a band out of his class of ten-year-olds, Black creates a laugh-out-loud hilarious hero for the ages. Never on screen have I witnessed a more passionate, genuine performance, and the film is truly what it is because of him. He speaks about rock 'n roll as something 'pure' and 'awesome', and every word is filled with love and admiration. Extolling the virtues of rock 'n roll to his classroom, he talks about 'creating musical fusion' and how 'one great rock show can change the world.' What makes the whole thing work is that Black truly believes every word he's saying. And so do the kids.
The movie never stops being funny and yet still manages to maturely show the deeper changes Black affects in the students lives, from helping an unpopular boy gain confidence to encouraging an overweight girl with her self-consciousness issues. And it's not just about the kids either; it's a personal journey of self-discovery for the main character as well. In the same way the the kids help him to find meaning in himself, he helps them come alive from their drab and plain school days. The film even goes so far as to subtly suggest the flaws of the educational system and the lack of values put into special talents.
But without ever delving that deep, School of Rock is still a masterpiece of comedy that is impossible not to enjoy. And when that final rock show scene is reached, it's one of the most emotional, rocking moments in history. It IS musical fusion. It IS something pure, and cool, and awesome. And it is a genuine, verifiable triumph that you get the feeling might just change the world. 9/10 stars!
About Schmidt (2002)
The Master Brings It Home...
Jack Nicholson, that master of acting, truly proved his versatility as an actor and cemented himself (in my opinion) as one of the finest actors to ever grace the screen with About Schmidt. We've loved Jack for years in all his really Jack-ish roles, playing the crazy, the hilarious, etc. But here we find him in a territory I've never before seen from him. In a role so vulnerable you can literally feel it, he delivers some of the most subtle and personal and moving work of his prestigious career.
Warren Schmidt is retiring. His daughter is getting married to a man who doesn't approve of. He and his wife can hardly relate to each other anymore. And with his retirement he has to face it all up front for the first time in a long time. And he doesn't much like what he sees. Through letters written to the impulse Tanzanian child Warren is sponsoring, we get a glimpse into what is going through the mind of a man faced with a life he isn't pleased with. But Warren isn't without hope. Rather than giving up, he gathers himself together and sets off on a mission to save his daughter (and maybe himself)- But is he too late? About Schmidt is a light-hearted film dealing with some very heavy issues indeed. It's a slow-moving, contemplative piece of work, and one that will keep you mulling for some time afterward. The character of Schmidt is a truly tragic; As he faces the close of his life he must also face that he's done nothing with it. He finds himself so very alone, a victim of never really going through with what his heart tells him to, limited by fear. Through the simplest of things Schmidt begins to see his life for what it really is, and this is where the movie excels.
The part is played to simple perfection by Mr. Nicholson; I defy you not to be moved by his journey. Hope Davis and Dermot Mulroney offer support as Schmidt's daughter and fiancé, and Kathy Bates even shows up as an hilarious and bizarrely unique mother-of-the-groom. No one can steal the spotlight away from Nicholson, though, as he really grounds the movie and makes it work as well as it does. Truly this is the work of a master, in a performance that really hits home.
Flaws? Well, it's a little too slow and a tad uneven in it's tone. It's definitely funny the first time through, and leads up to an undeniably heartbreaking final scene so memorable it's hard not to think about it the entire second time through. It's a movie that everyone should take the time to see. Can you learn a lesson from Schmidt? Do you see yourself in him? These are hard questions to ask, but as the movie brings us to that heartbreak and acceptance, it also leads us to a place of simple, beautiful hope that brings the entire film to a near-perfect close.
Marley & Me (2008)
This one sneaks up on you...
The advertising for Marley & Me set me against it, I'm not gonna lie. I didn't know much about it, except that it was about the "worst dog in the world" who was, of course, actually the best. The trailers made it seem like a not particularly funny money-making vehicle for the two stars in need of a hit.
Well, they got a hit at the box office, as was expected, but what I didn't expect was how much I would enjoy the movie. It's true, Marley & Me is about the dog, but it's also about a man and his family, and their realization that life can't be planned. The ample talents of Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston certainly help the movie along, but this really was surprisingly good. The dog goes through all the major changes of their lives with them, and as we watch the journey as well we don't quite realize how caught up in it all we are until the very end.
It's not a particularly fast-moving movie, and it is silly, but somehow the whole thing pulls itself off very well. It kept me entertained the whole time, that's for sure, and by the end it's clear how much the movie's actually meant to us; don't be too surprised to feel a tear forming in the corner of your eye. It's a credit to the filmmakers as well that the whole thing never seems too sappy to take. The supporting cast (Eric Dane, Alan Arkin, Kathleen Turner) were all good as well.
So take a chance on Marley & Me. I know that this one never looked any good, but trust me: It's worth your time. Sit back, relax, and enjoy! 7/10 stars!
A Harlequin Romance for Teens?
There was little doubt that Twilight was going to make millions at the box office. The books literally have become a phenomenon, with girls of all ages (and even some boys) delighting in their passionate, twisted love story. The inclusion of a vampire as the male lead was simply the extra dose of daydream fantasy that set the story on fire.
You probably know the plot. A young independent girl moves to a new town, meets and falls 'irrevocably' in love with a vampire, a member of a clan of strictly animal eaters. The fact that her blood is the most attractive blood said vampire has ever smelled (What a coincidence!) only heightens the passion.
Yet despite the steamy, sappy premise, the film somehow manages to make the relationship between the two leads truly captivating, much to the credit of the talented actors, Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson. The chemistry is positively electrifying between the two, and it's hard not to get excited about this complicated love affair. Despite more that their fair share of terrible lines ('You're like my own personal brand of heroin'), these two pull the whole thing off remarkably well.
The film certainly has its moments of pure silliness, and when the bad vampires come on screen (as they must) it really gets a little dumb. Despite the admittedly interesting inclusion of vampires, the movie has little gritty feel to it, which is unfortunate. Of course, it never has much hopes of moving beyond its harlequin premises, a fact reinforced by the inclusion of indie rock songs and the final scene being set at the high school prom. Ick. The movie never has aspirations beyond its pop culture material. However, the high school love affair themes are what made teenage girls lap it up.
Don't dismiss it immediately, though; Twilight isn't terrible. It has its high moments (and its lows), and the overall effect is satisfying. The emotion of the characters doesn't seem forced, and the human side of the story plays itself out pretty well. It never really seems like a real movie, but rather a somewhat cheaply-made book adaptation; which I guess is what it actually is. Honestly, though, the two leads truly recommend themselves, creating an utterly watchable romance. Their newly-discovered superstar status feels somehow deserved after this admirable effort. 5/10 stars...
Star Trek (2009)
Beyond the Final Frontier
It's not clear from the opening moments of J.J. Abrams' Star Trek what we're in for. A dramatic, action-filled opening greets us on a huge scale of special effects, makeup design, elaborate sets, and emoting. From there the film zooms along, introducing us to the characters, jetting off on a thrilling plot, racing us through action, humor, and character in an incredible display of movie magic until we reach the finale and simple ending. Yet somewhere along the way something has changed. Somewhere along the way we've been completely taken in, and Star Trek has emerged as something of a masterpiece.
To give away any of the plot would be to take away from what is truly a fantastic experience. I am in no way someone familiar with the original series, and guess what: This movie still blew me away. The feeling of elation filling me as I left the movie theater is a feeling the likes of which has not been produced by a summer action movie in a long time. Director Abrams has taken one of the most popular series of all time and created something current and completely enjoyable for all audiences. What's incredible is that he was able to take a material so beloved and turn it into something far beyond anything you'd ever expect from a Star Trek movie. It truly goes beyond the 'final frontier', and into great movie territory.
The cast all fit the movie perfectly, providing humorous characters with just the right amount of humanity to make them completely relatable. The film takes us on a journey that is so out-of-this-earth (excuse the pun), we can't help but drink it up. The movie is paced at a great speed to keep us utterly enthralled and still allow for the appropriate amount of depth. But most importantly of all, the film reminds us what true, wonderful movie-making is all about in the first place: Entertainment. 8.5/10 stars!!!
X-Men Origins: Wolverine (2009)
The loss of humanity...
When the X-Men series first premiered it was at the dawn of the new age of superheroes, and it was something of a revelation. For the first time, we were presented with mutants, heroes that were completely relatable. Instead of watching a campy B Movie, we were transported into an impossible world that seemed entirely plausible. While holding on to a great spirit of fun, the X-Men examined themes deeper than superhero movies; acceptance, identity, compassion, and forgiveness.
It's clear from the very beginning that X-Men Origins: Wolverine contains none of that. From the early-America set opening to the special effects overload finale, we are treated to nothing more than skin-deep cheesy pop. Even the cast list confirms the film's empty notions.
Hugh Jackman and Liev Schreiber lead the cast as mutant brothers without a place in the world. As the film rushes forward with little to no room for thought, they are approached by Col. William Stryker to join a top secret team of mutants going around the world on unclear missions. However, it's not long before the massive amount of killing being done becomes too much for our hero and he leaves the team to try and live life as a common man away from it all, which is, of course, impossible. You know where it goes from there.
Unfortunately even the ample charms of Mr. Jackman can't save this unadmirable dud. Despite having the makings of a decent plot on their hands, the film dissolves into nothing more than actiony silliness. That would still be somewhat acceptable, if it weren't for the tint it leaves on the source material. Instead of finding ourselves transported back into the thought-provoking wonder world we came to expect from this series, this thoughtless money-maker feels nothing but shallow. And with the recent advances made by films like The Dark knight and Iron Man to turn the superhero genre into a form truly respectable, X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a dark spot in the repertoire. Do yourself a favor: skip this one and stick to the great original series. 3/10 stars, and that's a compliment.