Splice Review

Splice Review

What an incredible movie. Easily the best movie I’ve seen all year, and an instant minor classic, if not an instant full-blown sci-fi classic.

You know how Alien has those three or four WOW moments? I’m thinking of the chest-burster, the reveal of the alien all grown up, the dripping acid through the whole ship.

Well Splice has more of those. I’m serious. Maybe this is just the post-viewing buzz, but I’d put Splice right up against Alien, and I’d take Splice.

The mark for me of a really great film is one that refuses to settle where others would stop. Take for example the train sequence in the classic The Fugitive. It’s bad enough there’s been a shootout and someone is dying, but THEN the bus is on the train tracks, and THEN Kimble barely gets away, and THEN the train derails and chases him.

I don’t want to spoil any of the surprises, but I was really pleased that Splice had a number of moments like that. It took some creative chances that I was stunned to see in a  mainstream release.

It’s also an impeccably well-constructed story, with a lot of what we call “plants” in screenwriting (setting something up early and paying it off later) that are subtle enough that when the payoff comes you remember, but not so overt you see what’s up next coming.

I was surprised many times during this film.

It also has the good sense to have a sense of humor about itself, most notably during the aftermath of one of the biggest shocker scenes in the film.

I laughed, I was moved, I was impressed, I’m in awe.

Go see this movie.

Spring Break Movies Update (and belated top 10 notice)

I saw a lot of movies over spring break. Here are my thoughts.

The Crazies

This film has a surprisingly high mark on rottentomatoes, which I think is more a result of its grim competence than any superlative work in the film. Watching this movie I felt overwhelmed by how gloomy the approach was, and while I enjoyed it as a sturdy genre picture I never felt any scene reached a level of terror or dread necessary to sustain the downbeat tone – though the opening bit with the ex-town-drunk walking onto a baseball field with a rifle was excellent.

It’s always nice to see Timothy Olyphant getting work, I’m a big fan of his. But for me his sort of intense-eye charm works best in more overtly comic roles (a la “The Girl Next Door”) though lately he has played a lot of bland characters. I’m hoping his TV series on FX gives him more meat on the bone character-wise than he has in “The Crazies”.

So for me “The Crazies” was ultimately a bit disappointing, it never really thrilled me except for in its opening scene. It’s one of those movies that is difficult to criticize apart from the thin character work but hard to love.

Shutter Island

I have read the Dennis Lehane novel on which “Shutter Island” is based and was concerned audiences would find the ending implausible. Judging by the general reaction to the film that hasn’t been a problem.

I suppose it isn’t a huge surprise though, because Lehane’s ending isn’t really so dependent on the actual reality of the situation so much as the ideas at play. I enjoyed the novel and the film as well.

But for me “Shutter Island” is sort of like an exquisitely constructed 18th century French door. It’s pretty to look at, sure, but it’s not going to change your life. Scorsese is such a master filmmaker it’s tough to imagine him putting anything together that’s altogether bad, and that certainly isn’t the case here.

But despite the major psychological hurdles going on for the characters and the wowza ending, I found myself disengaging from “Shutter Island” as a viewer. Perhaps it’s just the immaculate polish on that French door.

Valentine’s Day

To me this was surprisingly not the worst movie ever. Admittedly I went in with low expectations.

But to be fair to “Valentine’s Day” it’s a relatively breezy and amusing comedy. If that’s what you want to call it. Obvious attempt at extracting cash from love-struck pockets would be another fair moniker.

A couple stand out thoughts…

-I’m pretty sure Jessica Biel can get a date on Valentine’s Day

-Is Jamie Foxx ever, EVER going to give another performance even in the same zip code as his work in “Ray”?

-SPOILER: hey, Bradley Cooper and Eric Dane have a gay scene. That seems progressive. Oh wait, the movie throws in a cheap gay joke immediately afterward, as if to say “Don’t worry, we still think gay people are weird.” sigh.

-How much money did they pay Julia Roberts to phone this in?

Listen, you know what you are going to get with “Valentine’s Day” but it’s done with just enough wit and pace to prevent you from hating it. It’s actually a decent film.

Crazy Heart

What’s interesting to me about “Crazy Heart” is how it has storytelling errors that wouldn’t make it past first draft workshop at any film school writing program but overcomes them with it’s folksy charm and Jeff Bridges.

These errors include…

-A rambling, often conflict-free narrative

-A midpoint (Bad Blake’s car flips) that seems to happen for no logical reason (Bad Blake gets sleepy and randomly flips the car over when he comes to)

-Characters repeat information the audience is already aware of several times in conversation with other characters, so you essentially re-hear some conversations twice

But all this stuff doesn’t really matter, “Crazy Heart” is not a movie in a hurry. It’s practically a musical, with long scenes of Bridges as “Bad Blake” singing away. There are a few moments of genuine tension and conflict, but that’s not the draw here. The draw is Bridges as Blake, belt perpetually unbuckled, emptying out his pee can when he parks his truck, playing at bowling alley’s drunk as a skunk. And doing all this with such charm, such old dog spunk, that you can’t help but love him.

Bridges carries this movie as much as one actor probably can carry a film, and that’s a big reason why he’s likely to win the Oscar.

Fish Tank

This was one of the more challenging movies I’ve seen in a while, clearly made for not-that-much money, but a film that engaged my attention far more than comparatively lavish productions like “Shutter Island”.

It’s about a 15 year old English girl living on the rough side of town who wants to become a break dancer. But that’s not actually what it’s about. This is why I like the film.

“Fish Tank” is basically your standard coming-of-age story, the difference is, it’s told using very extreme moments. This will not be playing on ABC’s Sunday Night Movie.

The film sort of lulls you into a false sense of security, making you think it will just go through its paces with an uncommon amount of grit but no real danger.

Then late in the game it goes big, taking huge chances and making dark moves. Combine those storytelling risks with an elegantly subdued ending, and this is some excellent work in the story department.

This is exhibit A for me in the case that good movies don’t require a ton of money.

Alice in Wonderland

I don’t get this at all. Why spend a couple hundred million bucks to redo “Alice and Wonderland” and not really change it much at all. I know Alice might be a bit older and some elements here and there are different, but for the most part this is your mother’s “Alice” just dressed up in a fancy 3D coat.

Burton and Co. do put in some fun touches with the animals (I loved the monkey’s holding candles in the Queen’s room, as well as her fish servant who swivels around on his tail).

In general because this doesn’t stray too far from what we all know as the Alice story it’s the small details that elevate it. Alice’s foppish fiance-to-be Hamish taking a second look inside his tissue after blowing his nose, the strangely battle-scarred metallic look of the army of cards employed by the Red Queen. Her heart shaped lipstick application. These little touches are the most the film has to offer.

Mia Wasikowski (hopefully spelled that right!) is regrettably bland in the lead role. She’s exactly how you would imagine Alice, it’s easy to see why she was cast. That holds up for a while but eventually when she has to grow a pair and become a kickass Joan of Arc-character her lack of real fire is a drawback.

Because the film has a been-there feel I think it’s comparable to Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” another pointless remake. Neither really engaged me because I felt I’d seen them before. I would also add that some of the new touches, such as the implausible and highly saccharine epilogue, don’t add much at all.

Depp is perfectly fine as the Mad Hatter, though I think Burton’s reliance on him as a filmmaker has worked to the detriment of both parties here. In his attempts to play wild-and-crazy guys Depp has become somewhat predictable. And his Hatter doesn’t surprise. An unknown actor or someone cast against type might have worked better here.

Special Note

A friend asked me to do a top 10, and I realized I actually have one on the site. If you search along the side or type in “Top 10 of 2009” you should be able to find it. Cheers.

Meh?

Book of Eli Review

This movie is strange in a lot of ways.

The violence is well-choreographed and fun to watch, it’s vicious and bloody and often quite brief.

Now trying to work in tandem with that violence is a strong message for religion, specifically for the value of the Bible (the titular book).

That’s a weird combination, especially since the violence is shot and edited to give the viewer pleasure.

Gary Oldman is here, playing a villain for the 183243th time. As far as Gary Oldman villains go, this is near the bottom of his villain-roles in terms of originality and menace. As has been mentioned in many reviews he reads, and his intelligence in this post-apocalyptic world (where most are illiterate) is a nice touch. But past that he’s basically just a “bad guy” and not deep enough as a character.

Denzel is, as always, awesome. The man can hold up just about any movie. He’s got Presence with a capital P. Denzel’s got to be getting up there in years by now, but I believed he was dangerous. He made me forget the stunt double.

I think the bottom line with this movie though is it’s a strange juxtaposition of stylish violence and heavy-handed messages about faith.

Add in a third act which largely feels predictable and a big twist that isn’t really that big or important to the story, and I was pretty disappointed.

The film is opening strong, which I think is more a testament to Denzel and the marketing than the merits of the movie itself. It will be interesting to see if it holds up long term with more than just Christian audiences.

Top 10 of 2009

Hi there

So a precursor to this list is that as a screenwriter I constantly consume narratives, be it for film or otherwise, in my studies. Because of that I crave originality, which may somewhat bias my preferences towards the weird indie film. That being said, here goes.

1. Up

Borderline perfect, Pixar’s Up should be taught during mastercourses on Story with a capital S. Proves that traditional three act structure and narrative, executed basically textbook-style, can still have the power to thrill and awe when the pieces are performed so brilliantly. Taking the grumpy old man in typical suburbia and by the end having him fistfighting an archvillain on a blimp while dogs “dogfight” in fighter planes in the surrounding sky, that’s a journey so out-there, so fun and still so very moving. Fantastic work, by the best in the business, animation or otherwise. Pixar has the secret.

2. World’s Greatest Dad

What a pleasant surprise. I had seen some of Bobcat Goldthwait’s previous film (Sleeping Dogs Lie) and the scenario for his new one intrigued me. I didn’t realize what I was getting into. Bobcat takes a simple dark comedy premise (an aspiring writer achieves fame through forging his son’s suicide note) and takes it to dazzling heights. The ludicrous escalation provides satire on religion while Robin William’s father character’s journey towards personal liberation is both darkly hilarious and still emotionally engaging. Even in smaller scenes, such as William’s strangely variable cute nicknames for his teacher girlfriend, Bobcat doesn’t settle for lines of dialogue and character interactions to play out how we expect. This is a deeply original film, and some of the most fun I had all year watching movies.

3. Observe and Report

Speaking of deeply original and most fun, I loved Observe and Report. I don’t give a damn what anybody says, I felt the absurd and extremely offensive moments were totally in keeping with the fascist central character and I applaud Jody Hill for going to the dark places he did and urging us to laugh at them. Rogen is a revelation, and don’t forget Michael Pena’s hilarious turn against-type as a lispy security guard. The finale is jaw-dropping but offers deeper meaning upon analysis (sexuality vs. violence in America). The musical selection is eclectic enough to draw notice, and powers along this crazy, twisted film to its absurd denouement.

4. Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans

*This was accidentally left off by mistake when I initially published this last

Bad Lieutenant is my kind of movie. Is it a great film if you broke it down in a classical analysis? Probably not. Is it capable of continuously surprising you? Yes. And it does this not out of some simple desire to shock or be different, but from a genuine thematic place. Werner Herzog has said he was looking to investigate the “bliss of evil” and in doing so he takes the neo-noir to an altogether weird place. The bad guy wins. And wins. And wins again.

And the movie is perfectly fine with that being funny. In fact it even embraces it.

That’s rare, and very entertaining.

5. District 9

They don’t make sci-fi movies like District 9 much anymore, which is a damn shame. Providing a subtle enough allegory while still proving entertaining enough as its own story, District 9 reinvented the aliens-on-earth film, and in the process established Neil Blomkamp as a major new talent to watch. Hopefully the higher ups who nixed his Halo project are kicking themselves now, because as the 3rd act showed, Blomkamp knows how to stage thrilling action. The personal journey of Wikus van de Merve was extraordinary and almost inevitable as well, but even though we know it’s coming Blomkamp and Co. still manage to convince us for small moments maybe, just maybe, Wikus won’t turn into that hero we know he will. Great movie.

6. The Hangover

Drama is easy, comedy is hard. So true, as anyone who has tried to write a feature comedy knows. The Hangover definitely relies on shock value for  a lot of its laughs, and doesn’t really hold up nearly as well on a second viewing. But seeing this film in a packed theatre is watching comedy magic at work. It really really works, and I missed some of the jokes in the theatre because myself and others were laughing too hard. Creative variations on old character types (Galifianakis’ oddball brother-in-law) and a wild series of events (tigers, Tyson, marriage to strippers, etc.) keep The Hangover flying. Best straight comedy of the year (for best insane dark comedy of the year see World’s Greatest Dad or Observe and Report).

7. Star Trek

Well-reviewed for a reason, Star Trek is a gold-standard model for pacing a modern action tentpole. The energy of the film and its skill at dispensing with exposition and characterization on the fly, with humor and wit, were its real accomplishment. Sure, it looks pretty, too. The action scenes left me wanting more throughout, not in a good way, in a can-you-please-show-me-an-actual-fight way. But because the core work of the film, the Spock-Kirk relationship, was so well-constructed, I didn’t care. J.J. Abrams continues his hot streak.

8. Inglorious Basterds

I’ve never been the biggest Tarantino fan (I don’t like Pulp Fiction) but with Death Proof (great action) and now Inglorious Basterds (great dialogue) as well as myself catching up on Jackie Brown (gem), I’m turning around on that opinion. This film is basically just a really expensive series of dialogue set-pieces, and is a lot closer to being a play than anyone will bother to think about. It’s in these dialogue scenes, crackling with tension, laden with subtext, taking place in multiple languages, that Tarantino shows us what a master writer he can be when he’s not indulging in long-winded nonsense. Terrifically entertaining from start to finish with a star-making performance by the deadly, but giddy, dandy, Christopher Waltz as Hans Landa. Brad Pitt gets an unreasonable amount of comic mileage by sticking his chin out (literally). And Hitler dies! Woohoo!

9. 500 Days of Summer

It’s no small feat to breath fresh air into the romantic comedy, but this film does just that. By shuffling the chronology and breaking traditional format in a few key moments (see the parallel evening shot in split-screen and the impromptu musical number for examples) Summer keeps us on our toes as viewers, though it tells a very timeworn story at its core.

10. Drag Me To Hell

There’s a talking goat. That sort of sums up this movie for me. Campy fun, over-the-top, including the best brawl on film all year (and it was between Alison Lohman and an old gypsy woman). The craziness is nonstop all the way to the bitterly dark (and admittedly a little funny) ending. For my money this is the best Raimi movie in years, over his perfectly fine but ultimately somewhat blah and generic Spider Man films (blasphemy, I know). Best use of projectile vomit all year.

Sherlock Holmes/It’s Complicated Double Pack

Howdy

A couple new reviews today.

Sherlock Holmes

I’m a huge Guy Ritchie fan and think Snatch is the best all-style no-substance movie EVER. So I was excited to see Ritchie working with a larger budget on a studio tentpole.

Not being a Sherlock Holmes expert by any stretch I can only judge the film on its merits standalone.

I felt that the Holmes/Watson old-married couple dynamic played well throughout and was the highlight of the picture. Jude Law was certainly funny as the “man” of the couple, but Downey rightfully steals the show.

Affecting a strange, mildly pompous voice for the character Downey gets laughs out of lines that aren’t even jokes. His quick tongued delivery is fitting for the character as written here.

I found myself missing Ritchie’s usual array of stylistic tics, here relegated to a few slow-mo fights (strategy explained by Downey in funny and informative voiceover) but apart from that this film could have been directed by about 20 other directors-for-hire.

The A plot, the mysterious return from the dead of Mark Strong’s occultist villain, is reasonably intriguing but ultimately it feels as though if Holmes fails to solve this case he won’t lose much. This restrains interest in the proceedings and makes the second act drag.

I enjoyed the occasional hints that Holmes is sort of a functioning lunatic, always needing a new case to solve. That darker edge could have been explored a bit more without losing the comic tone.

Near the end the film sort of peters out its focus on Holmes/Watson, bringing forth the woman in their lives more. This to me felt counter to what the central message of the film seemed to be (Holmes and Watson are meant to be together).

Bottom line, fairly amusing but ultimately mediocre.

It’s Complicated

I saw this movie in a fairly unpopulated theatre and was pleasantly surprised by its steady supply of amusing one-liners and farcical situations. With all the laughter in the theatre you’d think it was playing to a packed house.

By no means does it reinvent the wheel, but it keeps the laughs coming which is a big deal for any comedy. And the target demographic of older women is one vastly underserved by the movies out this time of year. I expect this film to have long legs at the box office and succeed through word of mouth.

Alec Baldwin is invaluable here, his husky delivery making everything he says seem slightly insincere. He is the reason the picture works. Steve Martin, in contrast, struggles to give life to a very underwritten role as Meryl Streep’s lonely mom’s nice-guy architect. He’s remarkably bland here.

John Krasinski scores laughs practically everytime he pops up as the son-in-law who unfortunately happens to witness nearly all Meryl Streep’s character’s misdeeds (affairs and marijuana-smoking, basically).

Listen, the French have been doing this stuff for centuries and I’d bet the average French farce of this sort is probably superior to this film. But for what it is, It’s Complicated delivers well-enough.

Winter Holiday Review-A-Palooza 2009

Below are reviews for Avatar, The Blindside and Up in the Air

Avatar Review

As much a victim of its own hype as a genuine disappointment, Avatar rides in on a wave of hype largely the fault of the marketing department. But The Dark Knight did too, and it delivered the goods.

I think it’s worthwhile to compare the two. Both are hyper-expensive tentpole pictures from big name directors with premises that can easily lend themselves to videogame-like movies.

The Dark Knight ascends above that potential pitfall and offers a rich, complex story. It’s not just an epic in scope and budget.

On the other hand Avatar is an epic only in name. It’s super-expensive and probably represents a step forward technologically in the field of film. Story-wise, it’s not the same story.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock you’re probably vaguely familiar with the premise. Basically, to put it simply, it’s Pocahantas. Or Dances with Wolves. Or every archetypal Western ever.

Sam Worthington is well cast as the central tough, paraplegic Jake Sully who finds his legs in the body of the indigenous Na’vi people of the planet Pandora. He does a fine job with the role, his rough and tumble charm keeping the audience on his side.

Really the performances in general are great, and Cameron’s tech improvements make the Na’vi performances the most realistic captured in this type of film, definitely outshining LOTR‘s Gollum.

But the characters are thin, sometimes laughably, particularly the antagonists. Giovanni Ribisi’s corporate sleazebag is offered no shades of gray, neither is his cigar-chewing military commander lackey.

The story is a heavy handed allegory for every white man conquest ever, from the American venture into Native American territory to colonialism all over the world.

And the sci-fi “world” is not really all that creative. Almost all the creatures are just facsimiles of animals on Earth, just adding a leg or an eye or gills. The Na’vi’s culture calls to mind generic presentations of Native Americans in countless films, with a shade of Christianity.

The action is perfectly fine, sometimes stunning just in terms of scale. But Cameron’s not reinventing the wheel with any of this, only on a tech level.

It supposedly took years and years to get this project off the ground. Maybe that time would have been better spent polishing the script.

Final note. “Unobtanium”. Seriously?

The Blindside

This film does avoid a lot of the sappy sentiment the story could easily have fallen into and for that the filmmakers deserve credit. Unfortunately it does not avoid them all.

In general there’s a gloss to presentation, a sort of mainstreaming, that calls to mind a Hallmark movie of the week. I think this is most clearly seen in Oher’s “tough guy” friends, who might as well be out of “mean black guy” central casting. Sandra Bullock clearly is playing the “star” role, and it’s sad to see Oher’s character, who has the real extraordinary story, shifted to the background.

Quinton Aaron does a really nice job with the role, and the few character moments he gets (such as stuffing dinner rolls into his pants at Thanksgiving) play nicely. But he’s rendered into a sort of mute giant, who only changes when prodded by supportive white people. While the movie is by no means racist it does miss an opportunity to tell a great story about a black man.

I just personally found the film sometimes corny, what with Oher’s 98th percentile “protection instincts” and other moments like that. Watching photos of the real Oher being drafted by the Ravens I couldn’t help but think his real story was likely much more grimy and real, and probably a lot more interesting.

Up in the Air

This movie was the top pick of the National Board of Review and the DC film critics, and right now it looks like a frontrunner for Best Picture come Oscar time. I think that’s a bit sad. Here’s why.

Up in the Air is a fine movie, well-made, well-acted and with a worthwhile message. It has things to say about isolation, the economy, relationships, and contemporary technology’s distancing effect.

But it feels at a distance too. It might be a natural byproduct of Clooney’s character, a career loner who fires people for a job. Maybe it’s the way the move sort of coasts by not really putting Clooney to the test until the very end.

After that very strong moment involving Clooney’s love interest (a stellar Vera Farmiga), which I won’t spoil, the film seems to have no idea how to end.

I don’t buy the notion it’s a bravely ironic ending, I think Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner genuinely did not know how to end their film, so they just stopped. It’s a very unsatisfying ending that doesn’t really say anything in my opinion.

There are some really strong moments here and there, particularly a wedding day cold feet scene involving Clooney and Danny McBride. But really I think the reason this is leading the pack right now has more to do with the lack of competition than the merits of the film itself. It feels important and right because of the relevance to the economy, and other great movies (Inglorious Basterds, District 9) are more identifiably genre pictures and therefore considered frivolous. Bull.

Certainly not a bad film, but I think vastly overrated.

2012 – What Can I Even Say?

2012 Review

What can I say about 2012 that hasn’t already been said?

It’s absurd, obviously. You don’t go to this movie for coherent story logic.

The attempts at sincere emotion largely fall flat, again sort of a given for Roland Emmerich films.

What’s interesting is the cast is actually pretty strong, and fine thesps like John Cusack and Chijewetel Ejiofor do what they can but the material isn’t up to their talents.

But you know what? Running nearly 2.5 hours, the film doesn’t drag as badly as it should. And that’s largely because Emmerich and Co. keep the pedal down for long stretches.

Granted the film essentially devolves into long “chase” sequences, wherein the chaser is an imploding Earth and the chasee is Cusack and Co. in increasingly larger vessels (first a limo, then a small jet, then a huge airplane, and finally a massive “arc”).

Personally I found the ending a bit of  a letdown, and without giving it all away, let’s just say they take the easy way out.

Is this worth seeing in theatres? I mean let’s face it, probably not. But seeing it on TV would be FAR worse.

On the big screen the spectacle does still shock and awe at moments, on the small screen you’ll just hate yourself for spending any money on it.

If you dig this type of craptacular disaster-fest, you’ll enjoy 2012.

Bad Lieutenant aka Nicolas Cage is Crazy

Bad Lieutenant Review
Thanks to my general poverty I haven’t been to the movies as much as I would like recently, so we’ve been a bit short on updates here at Benaflix.

But I’m back with a vengeance to spread the word on “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”.

Basically it’s about Nicolas Cage playing a detective whose moral compass gradually evaporates. The movie begins with said detective performing a nobel act, jumping into the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina to rescue a trapped inmate.

This does not payoff, as Cage’s character injures his back. The resulting pain is part of the reason he starts doing copious amounts of coke, pills and just about anything else that’ll get you high.

He also starts going more than a little crazy, hallucinating iguanas, pulling random clubgoers over to shake them down for drugs and/or sexual favors.

Herzog is pretty clearly not as interested in this sort of generic dirty cop tale as he is in the thematic undercurrent. Cage’s character is going over to the dark side, indulging in his more animalistic instincts. Herzog and Co. take every opportunity to remind us of this literally by finding a way to incorporate snakes, alligators and the aforementioned iguanas.

How he incorporates these and some other strange touches is basically half the fun of the picture, so I won’t ruin it.

But to give a sense of the strange tone the pic descends into, consider the following scene.

Nic Cage is riding along with a drug dealer named Big Fate, played by Xzibit. He threatens Fate, then  tells his henchman he’ll kill them all. He then says something to the effect of ‘I’ll go till the break of dawn!”. A smile cracks across his face. It almost seems like something for the gag reel. And then Cage cracks up. He laughs like a crazy man.

The others join in, also laughing. As if this is the most normal thing in the world.

And this is actually a pretty minor example of the crazy fun the film has to offer.

If you enjoy seeing Nicolas Cage do his crazy-man schtick, if you enjoy films that have the potential to surprise, and if you enjoy Werner Herzog’s particular brand of crazy — go see this movie.

Don’t Eat During This Movie

paranormal_activity_movie_poster

Paranormal Activity Review

I’ve seen Cloverfield, Quarantine and Blair Witch Project but none of their shaky cams bothered me. Now Paranormal Activity actually made me puke in a trash can, no joke.

So this is not one of those movies you sneak a sandwich into, FYI.

Basically it’s a pretty simple ghost movie helped immensely by the restraint of the filmmakers, who are sure to keep the payoffs to a minimum and the atmosphere to a maximum.

It’s about a couple, who we are informed through opening titles had something bad happen to them in “real life”. Coincidentally, the “real life” couple has the same names of the actors. Hmmm.

The girl, Katie, has been haunted by some spirit since she was little and now the haunting is starting to affect her relationship with Micah, her live-in boyfriend.

He sets up a camera to record them sleeping, providing a rare stationary setting for the camera in the film.

In a lot of ways the rest of the film does sort of come off as filler, even in a shorter film like this the majority is just Micah and Katie chatting and/or arguing, but those conversations do provide a necessary relationship and backstory base to payoff the scares.

And some of those scares really do payoff, a couple in particular do a really nice job of seamlessly incorporating some modest FX to great effect.

I don’t want to give away anything, because the movies couple surprises and jolts are worth enjoying fresh. Actually I’d advise people interested not to read anything about the movie before seeing it.

Does it work? Probably not completely, but it’s entertaining and ends on a satisfying note.

I saw it with a packed house, and I’d agree with A.O. Scott of the NY Times that that’s the best way to see it, with a house full of people screaming. Without that audience participation vibe, you might just get a headache from all the shaky cam and find it long-winded in reaching the scares.

Bottom line here is if you like this sort of thing, bumps in the night and whatnot, you should be entertained

Surrogates/Zombieland Double Pack

surrogates

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Surrogates Review

It’s like World of Warcraft, only everyone is playing. And in robot avatars.

This movie got largely negative reviews, which after seeing it was a bit of a surprise to me. I suspect to some degree readers of the graphic novel are willing to give the film a bit more leniency, as the graphic novel did not seem like a ripoff of Minority Report and I, Robot, especially with its numerous fake scientific journal articles and Paul Giamatti-esque lead.

Not that many details have been changed in the screen translation, there’s just not enough time to dig into the central concept with enough depth to set the film that much apart from something like I, Robot.

Bruce Willis is great at playing this type of character, a detective-type who doesn’t buy into the system and happily thumbs his nose at it. He has a line at one point about a girl lawyer for the shady robot manufacturing company who for all he knows could be at home touching her male member that I thought nicely summed up his character.

No one else gets much to do, and for some reason Willis’ partner is female in the film adaptation (in the graphic novel he was male) and noticeably lacking in the sense of humor the same character had in the graphic novel. Surrogates is a pretty grim affair so that levity might have helped.

Still it was mostly working for me, I think this might be a case where reading the graphic novel first actually helps the impression the film leaves.

Zombieland

Just got back from this. Judging by all the positive reviews out there you might think this was an incredible movie. It’s not, but it’s still a pretty good one.

It’s zombies, it’s the apocalypse, you know the drill. Like Shaun of the Dead, Zombieland mixes actual scares and actual emotion with witty nonsense.

That mix is mostly effective and the film is often funny, particularly during the opening credit sequence which is absolutely hilarious and honestly probably the highlight of the movie, showing slow-mo scenes of zombie-dom such as a bride jumping her unwitting spouse.

Once we’re into the film proper the story coasts along largely on the charm of Jesse Eisenberg as the post-apocalyptic nerdy teen, whose Woody Allen-lite routine has yet to grow old in my book. Also clearly having a good time is Woody Harrelson as his zombie-killing partner.

They meet up with Abigail Breslin and Emma Stone, the latter of whom provides a love interest for Eisenberg.

There’s a frequent voiceover that often over-explains basic elements of the story and emotional feelings of the lead character. It’s a crutch and just unnecessary.

Apart from that this is a lot of fun, and I found particularly intriguing how the story takes two simple plants (Eisenberg’s character dreams of brushing a girl’s hair over her ear and is afraid of clowns) and really pays them off.

The movie works, for sure, but it could have been a smidge better. The unecessary voiceover and a certain petering out of comic momentum hold it back from greatness but it’s definitely a good time.

-Dan Benamor