Thriller

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012)

Warning: This review contains spoilers for the first three Paranormal Activity films, but I’ve avoided spoiling too much about Paranormal Activity 4 itself (until the Stray Observations – read those at your own risk!)

Back when it first received a wide release in 2009, the original Paranormal Activity was a breath of fresh air. Compared to the 5-year old Saw series, for instance, its thrills and scares were generated not by the amount of blood onscreen but by the unseen terrors that it set off in our imaginations. The found-footage genre wasn’t exactly new at that point (having already been used in, for instance, REC and Cloverfield), but it hadn’t reached the seemingly ubiquitous status that it has now. Audiences responded and the film grossed nearly $200 million worldwide. Because of that huge success, there’s been a new Paranormal Activity movie released every October since, and 2012 is no different, bringing us Paranormal Activity 4.

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Stay (2005)

Film #13: Stay (2005)

In the mood for a mystery, I consulted my film library and randomly chose one. I had never heard of 2005’s Stay, written by David Benioff and directed by Marc Forster, but its attractive cast made the case for a spontaneous viewing. The film begins with a rollicking POV shot of a car accident on a bridge. Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), a 20-year-old survivor of the wreck, goes to see his usual psychiatrist, only to find a “substitute shrink” in the form of Dr. Sam Foster (Ewan McGregor). After Henry tells Sam that he plans to kill himself in a few days’ time, Sam is distressed enough to confide in his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts), herself a suicide survivor. Sam starts to investigate Henry’s background more in-depth, and as he does, his reality begins to unfold, leaving him unsure of who, exactly, is the crazy one in all of this.

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Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

Film #8: Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)

After watching the second Paranormal Activity film a few weeks ago, I had an immediate urge to follow-up with the third. Despite the disappointment of that film, I just love horror movies, and I have a special fondness for these found-footage movies that immerse the audience in verisimilitude. In any case, I would have expected the third movie to follow Katie and Hunter after the events of the second, but instead, it jumps back in time to the 80s and glorious VHS tapes to show us all the stuff that happened to Katie and Kristi when they were young. And so this movie follows them, their mother Julie, and their mother’s boyfriend Dennis, who takes it upon himself to film the house every night after noticing some unnatural dust settling on tape after an earthquake (which was only recording because they were about to make a sex tape – yes, the series finally went that route, but no, it doesn’t actualize into any nudity).

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The Orphanage (2007)

Film #7: The Orphanage (El Orfanato) (2007)

The Orphanage is a 2007 Spanish-Mexican film written by Sergio G. Sánchez and directed by J.A. Bayona, his debut feature film. It’s considered by many a horror film, but it also borrows heavily from the fantasy genre, which isn’t surprising given that it’s co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, director of the fantastically fantastical Pan’s Labyrinth from the previous year. Protagonist Laura (played by Belén Rueda) returns to the orphanage she grew up in with her husband Carlos (Fernando Cayo) and their seven-year-old adopted son, Simón (Roger Príncep). Simón doesn’t know that he’s adopted, or that he has HIV – two secrets that an elderly social worker (Montserrat Carulla) threatens to reveal after she visits Laura one day. Shortly after this encounter, Simón disappears, and Laura is driven to despair.

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Insidious (2011)

Film #6: Insidious (2011)

Insidious is a horror film brought to us by James Wan, director of the original Saw film. While that movie was a slasher, this film is a quieter but equally effective stab at the supernatural subgenre. After moving into a new house, Renai and Josh Lambert (Rose Byrne and Patrick Wilson) face a familial crisis when their son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) inexplicably slips into a coma. Three months later, Dalton, still comatose, is moved from the hospital back home, where Renai (and Dalton’s younger brother) begin to see things and fear that the house is haunted. The family moves to another new place, but when problems persist, Josh’s mom Lorraine (Barbara Hershey) brings in psychic-esque friend Elise Reiner (Lin Shaye). Despite Josh’s initial protests, Elise’s methods prove that Dalton’s soul is lost in a supernatural world called ‘the further’, and it’s up to Josh to go in and recover his son.

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Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Film #3: Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

Two years ago when the first Paranormal Activity came out and had everyone shitting their pants, I saw it and did a webcam review for the now-defunct Rotten Tomatoes Show. I didn’t bother to keep up with the series as the sequels rolled off the line, but since PA2 was on Netflix, I decided to hit it up, remembering the fond feeling I felt toward the original. Paranormal Activity 2 is a “parallel prequel” to the first, taking place before and a little bit after its predecessor. Instead of following a couple, the sequel gives us a full-fledged family – newborn baby, dog and all. Adding to the camcorder shots is footage from security cameras that the Rey family installs after they come home to find their house in disarray (but with nothing stolen). Over the next couple of weeks, wife Kristi and daughter Ali start to suspect a supernatural presence in the house, though father Dan remains obstinate.

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The Crazies (2010)

It’s probably unfeasible, but I’ve decided that over the course of 2012, I’m going to try to watch 100 movies. This is the first.

Film #1: The Crazies (2010)

The Crazies is a horror/thriller remake of the original 1973 film. I’ve never seen the original, so I can’t do any comparisons. This movie takes place in a small Iowan town of 1200, where attractive town sheriff Timothy Olyphant and his attractive town doctor wife Radha Mitchell try to escape a federal lock-down after a plane crash infests the town’s drinking water with a chemical that’s turning its inhabitants violently insane. Accompanying them is the attractive town deputy Joe Anderson and his handlebar moustache.

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Moon (2009)

Heads up, this review is riddled with spoilers. RIDDLED!

Moon is a British science fiction film quietly released in 2009. It got some attention from its screening at Sundance, but besides that short-lived buzz, it got little notice from the media or the public in general. This is one of the more tragic facts in recent cinematic history, because this little indie movie was able to evoke the isolating tone of 2001-era science fiction while delivering an intelligent and reality-based story. Moon is the debut feature film of director Duncan Jones, and on that note, I have to disclose my bias in reviewing this film, since Jones is the son of the handsome and ageless rock star David Bowie, a man who visits me in my dreams every night and can do no wrong. But even with that conflict of interest accounted for, Moon is seriously an awesome movie.

In the near future, Earth’s energy crisis will finally be resolved through the harvest of helium-3, an element used in nuclear fusion that is found in abundance on the moon. Lunar Industries operates a moon-based facility that mines and transports the helium-3 back to Earth. Overlooking this process is a single employee, whose contract of loneliness lasts three years. We join Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) as he nears the end of his long shift. With live transmission to Earth apparently blocked, Sam watches delayed recordings from his wife and new daughter on Earth. Despite the assistance of an emoticon-faced robot named GERTY (voiced by Kevin Spacey), Sam is beginning to break down psychologically. After a hallucination causes him to crash and pass out on a harvesting expedition, he comes to in the station’s medical bay. And this is where things get weird.

Sam investigates the accident site and finds someone unconscious. Turns out, it’s him. They’re both Sam Bell, as GERTY reveals. After some initial hostility from Sam2, they begin to piece together the facts of the situation. It turns out that the original Sam Bell is back on Earth with his teenage daughter, his wife having recently passed. The memories and videos from them have been manipulated and implanted into each clone. After a three-year service, the clones begin to deteriorate, before they’re finally incinerated in a pod that they believe are taking them back to Earth. The new clone is awakened just like Sam2 was after the crash, then quickly takes over the shift after some rehabilitation.

This is an incredible story that evokes thoughts about corporations, technology, personhood, and the ethics surrounding cloning. Every turn in the story could have been treated as some kind of big twist, but instead, the script just slides them out, confident that the audience will be satisfied enough intellectually to not require a dramatic delivery. It is, in all manner of sorts, a slow burn of a movie. And how could it not be? It’s set on the moon, the loneliest place humans have ever been to. Using models instead of CGI, Jones gives us plenty of wide long shots that let us get lost in the emptiness of space. The colorless, barren moon surface is only slightly less terrifying than the pitch black sky above it. It’s a nice setting for a movie largely about its characters’ psyches.

To say “characters” in the plural is a slight stretch, however, since Moon is mostly a one-man show. Sam Rockwell is one of my favorite actors, able to make characters seem both amiable and a bit psychotic with ease. Playing against himself, Rockwell gets to paint his performance with every shade of emotion. From the hopelessness of Sam1 to the frustration of Sam2, Rockwell is what carries Moon through its sometimes lengthy sequences. Another tragic fact of this film is that Rockwell was ignored by the Academy and never nominated for Best Acting in Moon. How he could have been overlooked is beyond me.

Lending his voice to a robot tethered by rail to the station ceiling, Spacey is a nice accompaniment to Rockwell & Rockwell. His droll voice is perfectly suited for a mechanical assistant. It’s only natural to see GERTY and think of HAL, and the filmmakers know this, so they play GERTY’sintentions somewhat ambiguously at first. Soon enough, however, it’s clear that GERTY is entirely on Sam’s side. This sort of Bizarro-HAL is a breath of fresh air in a genre where robots are often just cold, calculating, and murderous. As we root for Sam to find a way around his injustice, GERTY roots with us, offering his assistance at all turns. But it’s still never easy for the Sams – the fact that GERTY is rail-based keeps him from being too omniscient or powerful, a restriction that only makes sense given Moon‘s low-key future.

Bathed in bright lights and completely sterile white interiors, the set design evokes THX-1138, another slow-paced science fiction movie with a conspiratorial theme. It’s futuristic, but entirely rooted in reality. The models, which look fantastic, add to this approach. So does the fact that it only takes place a generation into the future. The problem that Sam Bell is there to solve is one of our most immediate and pressing; the problem that surrounds the use of his clones is one that lurks in the shadows of our technological future.

Moon is a thinking person’s movie, akin to several excellent decades-old science fiction films. Its steady reveals keeps the story interesting, and when the pace begins to lag, it’s supported by Rockwell’s stellar performance and beautiful direction from Jones. I saw that there was some talk of a trilogy of films set in Moon‘s fictional universe. Although I’m usually against such ideas, I think that as long as Duncan Jones gives those movies the intellectual and technological attention he gave to Moon, then we have two movies to look very forward to.

Final Rating: 9/10

Stray Observations:

  • One thing I wish the film had addressed was the nature of the hallucinations Bell started having. When he burned himself he saw a teenage girl – but it wasn’t his actual-aged daughter, was it? And was it the same figure he saw in the harvester? It just seems like a weird loose end in a story so fully realized.
  • I also wasn’t sure what the point of making the clones get sick after 3 years was if they were just going to get incinerated anyway. Could anyone help me figure these points out, because I might very well just be overlooking something.
  • If you like to watch Sam Rockwell unravel into mental instability, make sure to check him out in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a trippy movie directed aggressively by George Clooney.
–James A. Janisse

Saw 3D (2010)

Two years ago I wanted to review the new Saw movie for The Rotten Tomatoes Show. Having not seen the most recent installments of the series, I marathoned the first five films and then dragged myself to the theater to see the sixth. When I was finished that day, I had witnessed a series that consistently got worse with each subsequent sequel. The following year, I consciously ignored the release of the purportedly final Saw. But now it’s available free on Netflix, and I figured that I might as well see the way the series ended.

Wrapping up the now-sprawling mythos of these movies would be no short order. After the innovative original and the first two subpar-but-not-wholly-inexcusable sequels, the filmmakers killed off Jigsaw and started f0llowing Detective Mark Hoffman (Costas Mandylor), who managed to be the most unfulfilling and bland replacement a horror series has ever seen. We’ve followed this cardboard oaf around for three films, and his fate is the focus of the ultimate entry as well. The parallel victim story follows Bobby Dagin (Sean Patrick Flanery), a man whose fabricated Jigsaw-survival story has made him a best-selling author. Flanery has to go through and save a bunch of his acquaintances by playing Hoffman’s games. It’s the exact same set-up that we saw in the 3rd, 4th, and to some degree 6th film in the series, and its familiarity is stifling. Worse off, the filmmakers try to include some kind of “see no evilhear no evilspeak no evil” theme, but it’s too underdeveloped to be clever in any way.

On Hoffman’s trail is the latest one-film protagonist, Detective Matt Gibson. Actor Chad Donella fits in with the rest of the cast since he’s hammy and awful. Detective Gibson fits in with the rest of the characters because he’s entirely unremarkable. The film eventually tires of him, lazily gunning him down with an automated turret early on in the third act. Under Gibson’s protection was Jill Tuck, Jigsaw’s ex-wife who has popped up in every film since the fourth. Her role is much more central to Saw 3D, which is both a good and bad thing. Good because Betsy Russell has obviously made some kind of deal with Time – at 47 years old, she is still every bit as toned and attractive as a 20-somethings woman; bad because she’s weak as both a character and an actor. But she did make me laugh whenever she ran, so that’s something.

Being part of the series that helped establish the phrase “torture porn”, Saw 3D has all the gore you’d expect it to. The opening scene features flying intestine, another has Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington getting the skin ripped off his back, and in one unnerving scene, a fish hook has to be yanked out of a person’s stomach through their throat. Just typing that disgusts me. These gruesome acts are filmed in the usual unforgiving close up. But you already knew that this would be the case, it’s a damn Saw movie.

As the film begins to wrap up, its flaws appear more and more egregious. Logic is trampled by the need for more gore. One of the last tests that Dagin has to endure is unlocking a door using a combination etched into his molars. Nevermind the complete inanity of how one could have chiseled numbers with such precision in the back of this man’s mouth – anything so long as the end result is someone pulling their own teeth out with a wrench! The film’s final twist is both predictable and disappointing. Spoiler alert, turns out that Dr. Lawrence Gordon (Cary Elwes), the guy who cut his foot off in the first film, has been helping Jigsaw this whole time also (because Amanda and Hoffman’s retcons weren’t enough, apparently). This whimper is the way that Saw chooses to die. It’s something it really should have done four movies ago.

The first Saw was a great horror movie. Sure it was flawed, but it was original and bold. As the derivatives kept coming, the series kept dulling itself. Sure it maintained an unhealthy level of gore, but it traded its sincere originality for imitation intelligence, with convoluted storylines in place of actually smart twists. Nothing embodies this drastic decline better than Mandylor as Hoffman. As he lumbers around the police station, stabbing person after person in the exact same way, it becomes shocking how this movie manages to be even worse than its precursors. There’s really no way that Saw 3D couldn’t be the last film in the series, because with it, the devolution of the series is finally complete.

Final Rating: 1/10

–James A. Janisse


Buried (2010)

A minute into Rodrigo Cortés’ Buried, Ryan Reynolds wakes up to find that he has been… well, buried. With his awakening, the audience begins its 90-minute stay underground. We are allotted no breaks via flashbacks, no breathers via cutaways. From start to finish, we share Ryan Reynold’s claustrophobia in this well-plotted and very suspenseful film.

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