Friday, October 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 (Tod Williams, 2010)

Rather than picking up where PARANORMAL ACTIVITY left off, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 goes back to explain where the demon that tormented Katie and Micah came from and what it wants. This sequel/prequel observes Katie’s sister Kristi Rey (Sprague Grayden) and her family, which includes husband Dan (Brian Boland), stepdaughter Ali, and their infant son Hunter.

One day the Reys come home to find that an intruder has wrecked their house, although the only thing that seems to be missing is a necklace Katie gave Kristi. Sufficiently spooked, they install multiple security cameras, but strange things happening around the house keep Kristi in particular on edge. Unexplainable noises awaken the baby. A pan is knocked from its secured storage spot. The pool cleaner mysteriously is removed from the pool overnight. Over time the disturbances become more aggressive.

Following the series’ conceit of presenting edited found footage, PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 consists of house surveillance videos and some interactions caught by camcorder. Much of what’s captured on tape and hard drives is mundane, but it’s precisely the ordinariness and long takes in these scenes that can make them so unnerving when the supernatural element disrupts the tranquility. For instance, watching someone sit at a kitchen island isn’t inherently compelling, but the anticipation of something happening while patiently focusing on the scene pays off with a massive jolt when the cabinets and drawers explode open for no reason.

It’s in this manner that PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 consistently succeeds at constructing jump moments with deliberation during routine home settings. The scares in PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2 aren’t as frequent or always as well built as the original film’s, but those that exist are still pretty effective. In day-to-day life, unseen things that go bump in the night, or the daytime for that matter, have a way of frightening the living daylights out of us. The same applies to the movies.

Grade: B-

Session 9

SESSION 9 (Brad Anderson, 2001)

In SESSION 9 a five man crew is hired to remove the asbestos from an old, abandoned Massachusetts mental hospital shuttered due to rumors of sexual and satanic abuse. Exhausted from having a new baby at home and pinched financially, crew leader Gordon (Peter Mullan) does whatever it takes to undercut the other bidders and secure the contract. His ambitious promise to complete the work in a week looks daunting, but a ten thousand dollar bonus is there for the taking if they are successful.

The domestic and work pressures on Gordon are readily apparent, and the rest of the crew is similarly on edge. Phil (David Caruso) and Hank (Josh Lucas) are not on the friendliest of terms since Hank stole the other’s girlfriend. Mike (Stephen Gevedon) is a law school washout treading water in a job below his skills and interests. Gordon’s nephew Jeff (Brendan Sexton III) has an abnormal fear of the dark. The dilapidated asylum with a spooky history may be a stressful place for a well-adjusted person to work, let alone for the tense and highly suggestible.

SESSION 9 is heavy on mood and light on narrative substance, but the pervasive sense of dread that it sustains trumps the slightness of plot. Credit a fantastic location and smart sound design for inducing a tangible state of fear. Viewed from above, the imposing mental hospital in the countryside resembles a bat with large wings. The interior’s decaying walls and broken tiles bear the marks of a place ravaged by psychological pain trying to escape.

SESSION 9 draws its title from the last in a series of doctor and patient reel-to-reel tape recordings that one crew member finds and becomes obsessed with listening to. The slight wobble in the playback enhances the unsettling nature of interviews conducted with the alters of a woman suffering from multiple personality disorder. These chilling talks play out as little more than theater of the mind, yet they’re as scary as anything the film depicts. The same applies to the telling of the reason for the asylum’s downfall as a working facility. Like a good ghost story around the campfire, the recounting of supposed atrocities is horrible enough to hear to give one goosebumps.

Since SESSION 9 opened in 2001, director and co-writer Brad Anderson has done a lot of TV work. He directed an episode of the anthology programs MASTERS OF HORROR and FEAR ITSELF and helmed seven episodes of FRINGE. SESSION 9 might have been tighter as an anthology short or an investigation into the paranormal on episodic television. The thinly developed characters wouldn’t be as much of a problem in those formats, and a shorter version could pare down plot misdirects that add running time and little else.

The one area SESSION 9 benefits from being a feature film is in how Anderson draws out the atmosphere and mystery in a manner that would suffer with commercial breaks. SESSION 9 may feel a bit incomplete or small in scale at film’s end, but even if the answer isn’t as compelling as the secret, it gets under your skin for the duration and digs a little deeper with a creepy concluding line.

Grade: B-

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Audition (Ôdishon)

AUDITION (ÔDISHON) (Takashi Miike, 1999)

After seven years widowed Japanese TV producer Aoyama (Ryo Ishibashi) feels that it is time to find a new wife in AUDITION. A co-worker offers to assist by putting out a casting call for a film no one intends to make and letting Aoyama pick thirty applicants. They will interview the women, which then gives Aoyama the opening to charm whichever prospective actress he selects as a potentially viable spouse.

Even before the audition, he is captivated by the submitted profile of Asami (Eihi Shiina). This demure young woman with an old soul possesses all the qualities Aoyama wants in a wife, and his enthusiasm for her is undisguised during the audition.

It isn’t hard to imagine a Hollywood film taking AUDITION’S scenario and making a drama or romantic comedy. A lonely man seeking love is a familiar set-up, and about the first third of AUDITION plays like a standard melodrama. However, AUDITION is directed by Takashi Miike, an unbelievably prolific filmmaker who is notorious for turning out movies that get placed under the Asian extreme classification. At some point things are going to take a wrong turn in AUDITION, and boy do they ever.

The drastic shift in tone and style is the film’s ace in the hole. When AUDITION changes gears, the main character and the audience are equally disoriented. It’s the rare film that provides the experience of being caught off guard on a consistent basis or acquires a feeling of danger because it doesn’t play according to the rules. That’s what Miike accomplishes with great skill in AUDITION and varying degrees of success in his other movies.

AUDITION’S second half is packed with disturbing surprises and a pitch black sense of humor. The climax is as unrelenting and difficult to watch as anything I’ve seen in a horror film because it embraces the pain that its counterparts never dare too. Whether reading AUDITION as a portrait of coming to terms with grief, a feminist revenge tale, or a graphic exploration of romantic attachment and idealism, it remains a terrifying film.

Grade: B+

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Never Let Me Go

NEVER LET ME GO (Mark Romanek, 2010)

NEVER LET ME GO follows the lives of friends Kathy H. (Carey Mulligan), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Ruth (Keira Knightley), who grew up together at Hailsham, a boarding school for special children like them. The film begins in 1978 with them as children and concludes in 1994 with the three as adults trying to make sense of the world. Kathy is the pensive one of the group, and her thoughts and observations provide the narration to NEVER LET ME GO. To say much more about the veiled truths in the plot would ruin the experience of discovering them.

The rich subtext in NEVER LET ME GO wouldn’t mean anything without the care given to the story. Screenwriter Alex Garland’s skillful adaptation of the fantastic Kazuo Ishiguro novel reveals the secret about these characters basically from the outset, yet the underlying science fiction aspect is treated as a canvas for the relationships and emotional turmoil instead of being the plot’s main focus.

NEVER LET ME GO can be about the soul, technological innovation, media messaging, or any number of things beyond what the plot spells out. While the characters are vessels for various interpretations of their existential crises, the main story regarding love and purpose plays well enough on its own.

NEVER LET ME GO also digs into the foundation of our beliefs and the astronomical impact of how we often accept unquestioningly what we are taught and what we view, especially as children. The carefully chosen euphemisms convey concepts with large implications for the kids, yet it is through such words that passivity is branded into them. Director Mark Romanek and cinematographer Adam Kimmel employ a nostalgic and otherworldly visual sensibility to evoke the golden years of innocence and ignorance. The film looks and feels like beautiful heartbreak.

Grade: A

Friday, October 08, 2010

Life as We Know It

LIFE AS WE KNOW IT (Greg Berlanti, 2010)

In LIFE AS WE KNOW IT married couple Peter and Alison Novak (Hayes MacArthur and Christina Hendricks) try to set up their best friends with each other, but the disastrous first date between Holly Berenson and Eric Messer (Katherine Heigl and Josh Duhamel) assures there won’t be a love connection in the near future.

During the next couple years Holly and Messer only cross paths when attending their friends’ parties and doting on Peter and Alison’s baby. One day news arrives that Peter and Alison have died in a car accident and left their two single friends with shared custody of their one-year-old Sophie.

Neither Holly nor Messer were aware of the big responsibility their friends were entrusting them with. The love for their friends and orphaned daughter transcends their dislike for one another, so they try their best to raise a child together and live under the same roof.

Reviewing films usually means assessing the stylistic treatment of a subject rather than critiquing the subject itself. LIFE AS WE KNOW IT is a special case where the core idea of the film is as off-putting as the way in which the premise is depicted. When it comes to films featuring characters engaging in controlling behavior from beyond the grave, LIFE AS WE KNOW IT ranks up there with the romance P.S. I LOVE YOU, in which Hilary Swank’s dead husband’s letters dictate her day-to-day life.

Screenwriters Ian Deitchman and Kristin Rusk Robinson set up a scenario in which the loss of two close friends isn’t traumatic enough. Instead the protagonists must also rearrange their entire lives, give up their own places, and become unwitting caretakers to an orphaned child in their deceased friends’ home. No worries, though. It’s all to be accepted because those friends knew these two single people were meant to be together despite all evidence to the contrary.

Director Greg Berlanti’s romantic comedy approach makes LIFE AS WE KNOW IT’S rather repellent set-up even more unpalatable. The cutesy but chemistry-free banter, scenes of playing house, and Holly and Messer’s neighbors finding the situation so adorable are among the major miscalculations in tone.

In fairness, the film doesn’t ignore the strains on the main characters. It simply chalks them up to the worthwhile costs of Holly and Messer getting necessary life makeovers. The film’s comfortable sitcom-like form allows LIFE AS WE KNOW IT to settle into a groove in which the goings-on are taken for granted no matter how deeply dysfunctional this arrangement is. While Sarah Burns’ funny performance as a frazzled social services case worker deserves a better film than this, thankfully she brings the needed acknowledgement of how absurd the basis of it is.

Grade: C-

Sunday, October 03, 2010

The Black Cauldron

THE BLACK CAULDRON (Ted Berman and Richard Rich, 1985)

THE BLACK CAULDRON was Disney’s 25th animated feature, their first to use CGI, and the studio’s first PG-rated cartoon. At the time it was the most expensive animated movie ever made.

The fantasy adventure tells the story of Taran (Grant Bardsley), a boy who daydreams of being a great warrior while he goes about his work as an assistant pig keeper. He’s not watching after any ordinary pig, though. Hen Wen is an oracle capable of seeing where the The Black Cauldron is. The Horned King (John Hurt) wishes to capture Hen Wen so he can find the Cauldron and use it to reanimate an army of deathless warriors.

THE BLACK CAULDRON is based on the second book in Lloyd Alexander’s fantasy series THE CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN and rooted in Welsh mythology. The source material offers a rich foundation for an epic quest not unlike THE LORD OF THE RINGS, but in attempting to spin a compelling tale for kid and adult sensibilities, the adapted screenplay struggles to satisfy either audience.

The characters, especially bland hero Taran, lack the personality found in the enduring and beloved Disney protagonists. THE BLACK CAULDRON is too frightening for younger viewers, and appeals to them, like a cutesy creature in a comic relief role that functions as a proto Jar-Jar Binks, throw off the tone in what is at heart a serious journey.

THE BLACK CAULDRON is much darker and more violent than expected from Disney or animated movies in general 25 years ago, which may explain why it was a commercial failure. In spite of its shortcomings, this is a film and series of novels ripe for remaking. From today’s vantage point, THE BLACK CAULDRON looks like it was ahead of the curve. A rip-roaring adventure that can be spread over several films and attract all age ranges fits perfectly into the franchise model that studios are following. Fantastical elements, like an army of the undead, can be better realized with today’s technology.

As is to be expected from Disney, THE BLACK CAULDRON is beautifully animated and has the added interest of using a darker-than-usual palette. It’s not a good film, but for one with the reputation of being the studio’s worst animated feature, it shows that interesting work is done in it.

Grade: C-