Friday, October 23, 2009

Paranormal Activity

First time director Oren Peli has crafted a truly worthwhile horror movie with Paranormal Activity. It's a great horror movie because it has nothing to do with what most of today's horror movies do. It has no gore, only one real jump scare (and a tremendous one at that), no ingenious killer who sets traps far too complicated to actually work, etc. It's a ghost story... sort of. It concerns itself with Katie and Micah, a couple who're experiencing a sort of haunting. A haunting of what, they're not immediately sure. Katie has experienced such things occasionally since she was a young girl, but at many different locations. So they know it's not a haunted house. They're told by a kind psychic that Katie isn't being followed by a ghost, but by a demon, and he recommends they call in a demonologist, since he himself won't be able to help (he only deals with ghosts). Stranger and stranger things begin happening, as Katie, and eventually Micah, begin feeling a desperate helplessness about the experiences.

The thing that works so well about the movie is that it has no interest in showing off its special effects to show how grossly shocking a killing is. This is certainly not the geek show that modern horror has become. On a reported budget of only $15,000, it has almost no effects to speak of anyway. What it does have are chills, unsettling imagery, and tension galore. Peli has clearly learned the age old lesson that it is much more effective to make people anticipate something happening than actually show it happening. We watch the screen with eyes focused, trying to see something appear. We watch the hallway, the light on the door, the couple sleeping benignly on the bed. Sometimes, things that go bump in the night, just go bump in the night, which ratchets up the tension as we await the inevitable escalation of events.

Paranormal Activity is shot like a home movie. The storytelling technique used is that of Micah (Micah Sloat) filming everything he can after buying an expensive video camera that he hopes to use to capture footage of the demonic manifestations. Katie (Katie Featherston), the one who's actually haunted, isn't so keen on the idea, as she gets no adrenaline rush, nor any perverse pleasure from the torment. Often we see Katie frustrated with Micah's insistence on the camera, while Micah thinks it's their once in a lifetime opportunity to capture evidence of something extraordinary. Although the movie isn't without its humor, as Micah goes back to grab the camera when Katie yells in the other room (we hear her asking "Did you go back to get the camera?" as he looks down at a spider occupying their bathroom floor). As well as Micah always trying to "get extra curricular" with the camera in the bedroom.

When things start going more than just "bump" in the night, the movie works because we've had these characters and this situation so pumped full of suspense, without a payoff. It's really superb filmmaking, and honestly the use of sound is the best I've seen (heard?) in a movie this year. The sound design takes the movie to such a higher level of impressiveness than it would've been at otherwise. The movie overall is the best fright movie I've seen in a long time. One that is actually frightening because it's trying to give us the creeps, not just make us jump, or gross us out with more elaborate killings than the last movie. There's a moment near the end that I thought would've been a perfect ending, and when the movie kept going I was a bit disappointed, thinking it was going to ruin what had been so great. I'm glad it kept going, as the ending it did have was just as wonderful. Especially for those, like myself, that have been turned off by horror movies for a long time, I can't recommend this one enough. Because it's not a "horror movie", it's a "scary movie", if you get my meaning.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

American writer/artist Maurice Sendak wrote his signature children's book Where the Wild Things Are in 1963. Since then many people have wanted to make a movie of the book but had had so much trouble with it that it'd been deemed by most, "unfilmable". Not surprising, considering that the book only contains something like nine or ten sentences. But its imagery is so striking that many people, like me, remember the what the Wild Things look like, even if we haven't read the book in 20 or so years. Well, brilliantly odd director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich, Adaptation.) has directed an adaptation of the succinct classic into an hour and a half long film combining live action actors, animatronics, and CGI.

The story, like that in the book, involves a young boy (maybe 10 or 12 years old) named Max, who is sent to bed without supper for "making mischief". But he escapes to his imagination, a magical world where fearsome monsters roam. He becomes their King (hey, it is his world after all) and they dance and play before he becomes homesick and returns to the real world, where his supper is waiting on him, still warm.

Apparently, Jonze went several months in the casting process before finding young Max Records to play Max. It's good that he waited, because the kid is terrific. In the opening sequence, Max builds an igloo out of piled up snow, treating it like a fort, he attacks his older sister and her friends with snowballs as they're about to go out. They laughingly join in, but leave after one of them jumps on top of the igloo (with Max still in it), crushing it and leaving Max snow covered and crying. Max resents that his teenaged sister didn't stand up for him, or comfort him, or anything like that. Leaving him lonely and upset. He takes his anger and frustration out on her room, smashing things and leaving copious amounts of snow to melt all over. He apologizes when his mom gets home, and they go about cleaning up the mess. But when he rebels again later that night (when his mom's boyfriend is over), he rebels a bit too much and is sent to his room. This sequence is done with such loving detail to the feelings of childhood that I was prepared for true greatness from the rest of the movie. Jonze and Records are able to bring out such hurt and sadness out of Max and his lonely life (a loving single mom who is stretched a bit too thin to give him the constant attention he needs, a disinterested sister, seemingly no friends). We understand completely Max's need to get away, and escape to his imagination. Maybe having been the younger brother who got left out of things makes me connect to this a bit more than some people might, I often escaped to my imagination at that age. Regrettably, the movie gets both more and less impressive once Max arrives in his untamed imaginary world.

The Wild Things themselves are quite impressive. A wonderful voice cast consisting of James Gandolfini, Chris Cooper, Paul Dano, Catherine O'Hara, Lauren Ambrose, and Forest Whitaker, really help bring these strange characters to life. They're aided in this by a wonderful mix of people in giant Wild Thing suits, with CGI faces (and occasionally aided in their movements as well). The CGI was, I thought, flawless. It's a stunning technical achievement for the special effects crew and Jonze's ability to always make the characters seem like they're in the same plane of existence as our live action hero. Not for a second did I think of them as anything but their characters, it was tremendously well done. Jonze was also assisted in the movie by his regular cinematographer Lance Acord, who contributes some truly incredible photography. It's beautifully filmed in such a way to bring out the nostalgic feelings of childhood, but dark enough to not let us forget about the scares we had as children too.

Sadly, I just lost interest in the story about two-thirds of the way through. It really does feel like there just wasn't enough story to justify the runtime of a feature length movie. Jonze slows down the pacing, thankfully, instead of trying to hype things up for the kids in the audience. But still, I just wasn't as emotionally involved in the land of the Wild Things as I was in the real world. It could be because this wasn't the type of imaginary world I escaped to as a child, or because I'm no longer a child who escapes away to my imagination, but I don't think so. There are plenty of childrens movies that allow me to empathize and escape to a different world with the characters. I just think that it wasn't affecting enough in its extended story to grab me. Still, so much of the movie is extraordinary that I can't help but recommend it, despite its flaws. Lack of story is a big flaw, but the rest of the movie makes up for it overall. A classic childrens book has been made into a good movie, even if I don't think it will make people forget about the book through the years. We'll come back to it more often than we'll come back to the movie, but that's not such a bad thing, is it?

Friday, October 16, 2009

Whip It-the most fun I've had at the movies this year

Drew Barrymore comes from one of the most prestigious acting families Hollywood has ever known. She began acting at the ripe old age of 5, and came to national attention at 7, when she was picked by her future godfather Steven Spielberg to be one of the young stars of E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. After rebelling against anything anyone expected of her throughout her teens and early twenties, she added the title of Producer to her resume at 24, taking an extra added amount of control over her career. It took her ten years to also add the title of Director to her ever more impressive resume, and it was worth the wait.

Whip It is one of those movies that feels so familiar because it skirts near many cliches, while side stepping them just enough to not feel like we've seen this movie a hundred times before. It stars Juno's Ellen Page as Bliss Cavender, a Texas teenager who regularly competes in beauty pageants at the behest of her pushy but loving mother Brooke (Marcia Gay Harden, I think the only real Texan in the cast). While in a head shop trying to get her mom to buy her a pair of boots she likes, Bliss sees a group of tattooed girls on roller skates handing out flyers. She grabs one and finds out that they're roller derby girls promoting an upcoming game. So she convinces her best friend Pash (Arrested Development's Alia Shawkat) to go with her to Austin to check it out. There, she sees the tough, up-tempo game and is immediately hooked. After the game, she meets one of the girls, Maggie Mayhem (Kristen Wiig), who tells her she should come to the open tryouts and see if she wants to join up. Although she's little, Bliss turns out to be one of the fastest girls on skates, so the team happily asks her to join. All the girls have a kind of stage name that they go by, with names like Smashly Simpson, Rosa Sparks, and Bloody Holly. Bliss is re-christened Babe Ruthless, and begins her love affair with the roller derby, and (of course) comes-of-age by the end of the movie.

There's also a short, but sweet, little love story with a guitar player named Oliver. But really, the relationship that gets the most attention, deservedly, is that of Bliss and her parents. Bliss rebels against the beauty pageant mentality that she feels her mom has been pushing on her, and turns to Maggie Mayhem when she isn't really able to talk to her father (Daniel Stern, where has he been?) who actually would love to talk to his daughter about her life. Maggie becomes a kind of mentor to young Bliss, and Kristen Wiig proves that she's not only one of the funniest members of the Saturday Night Live cast, or a comedic scene stealer in movies like Adventureland and Walk Hard, but also a talented dramatic actress. But she isn't the only one who provides a realistic and sympathetic adult. Barrymore and writer Shauna Cross (adapting her own book, Derby Girl) don't make Brooke into the domineering stage mom that Bliss feels like she is. And Daniel Stern gives a wonderful take on the supportive dad archetype, a guy who unconditionally loves his daughter, understands what she's going through finding a sport that she loves (as Texas football is for him), but is still believable as an angry and concerned parent when Bliss doesn't come home one night.

Drew Barrymore shows none of the amateurish signs that often pop up in a directorial debut. There are no awkward moments with the actors, no scenes that should've been cut short, and she handles the drama and comedy with equal aplomb. She also makes roller derby exciting, while explaining enough of the rules to let us know what's going on. The derby scenes are exciting, and in the grand tradition of sports movies, it even ends with a "Big Game". Another thing that Barrymore thankfully doesn't do is villainize anyone, even the closest thing we have to a villain, Juliette Lewis's Iron Maven and her rival team. It's very nice to see such command of tone from a director, and enough intelligence to side step full-on cliches. Barrymore has now become an official triple-threat, actor/producer/director. She's made a terrific directorial debut, one of the best movies of the year, and I look forward to seeing more from her in the future.