You're Next

You’re Next (2013), directed by Adam Wingard

Blue Jasmine (2013), directed by Woody Allen

It’s been a while since I’ve done a proper Tuesday Double-shot Review, so I’m glad to be back in the swing of things here. In case you’re not familiar with the concept: two movies, one cheap night at the cinemas, some smuggled in outside food. Pretty basic.

First on the list yesterday was catching up with horror film phenom You’re Next. It seems like lately there’s been this pattern of a horror movie getting huge buzz on the festival circuit and eventually getting a wide, much talked about release. Last year I guess it was the genre-bending Cabin in the Woods. Earlier this year we had the The Evil Dead remake, Evil Dead.

Right now, and for the past couple of years really, buzz is surrounding You’re Next like flies around a corpse. It played to some huge excitement at a couple of festivals in 2011 and for whatever reason hadn’t managed to be distributed since, despite the niche notoriety. Well, now it’s here and we horror lovers can decide for ourselves.

This is a cabin in the woods horror movie, even if it is a really nice cabin. A family is having a little reunion at the parent’s beautiful house in the country. Brothers, sisters, boyfriends, wives…that sort of thing. There’s some tension, some hugs, some arguments. And then, of course, some people in animal masks show up and start picking them off one by one.

Ugh. Family reunions, amiright?

What’s unique about You’re Next, which isn’t abundantly clear from the start, is that it consciously works to turn around many of the cliches of the genre people who don’t actually like horror movies complain about; chiefly the way seemingly smart characters turn into mindless nitwits the moment the going gets tough, especially the women.

The fact that (SPOILERS, of course) Erin turns out to be a killing machine herself is the joy of the film. We all go to slasher movies to see good kills, we all secretly or not so secretly root for the killers, so You’re Next turns out to be a whole lot of fun because in this one we can root for the killer AND feel good about it.

Sick? Sure. Enjoyable? Absolutely.

The way Wingard sets the whole thing up is great, with some cardboard acting and typical cabin in the woods type buildup. Erin is this bubbly, fun Aussie woman who you just know is going to scream a whole lot and either die at the end or somehow manage to escape, likely through luck. This is what Wingard wants.

So it’s great to watch that setup unravel and have the true nature of the film slowly come to light. By the end most everyone watching (who can stand the gore) will likely be cheering and having a good old horror movie time. I know I did.

I have a couple of minor, nitpick squabbles. For one: the axe. If Erin is as resourceful as she is supposed to be she would have picked up that damn axe. She had at least two chances. So that bugged me because it made no sense. Normally I wouldn’t care, especially in a slasher movie, but because the film goes to such lengths to establish the spacial aspects of the location, and the items in it, this error was incredibly obvious and distracting.

The end also doesn’t entirely work. I get we needed to see that axe fall on someone, but it played no importance to the story to have it hit the cop. It comes off as gimmicky. Have it hit the boyfriend, great ending.

Otherwise, You’re Next is a whole lot of good times. If you go for that sort of thing. Again, I do.

Blue Jasmine is a rather different movie, but is another one which worked for me for the most part, but never astonished me.

Allen, in serious, behind-the-camera mode, brings the globetrotting phase of his career to San Francisco in this one, to tell the story of a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown thanks to the illegal financial dealings of her husband, which have left her alone, broke and broken.

I’m a huge Woody fan (heh) it must be said, and so can’t help approach his films in relation to his career. Many of his films suffer merely because they aren’t as good as others on his resume. This isn’t a standout Allen joint, in my occasionally humble opinion, though there is greatness in it.

Blue Jasmine is great because of Cate Blanchett’s performance, and not entirely much else. The story is fine, some of the other characters have charm or some uniqueness, but this is principally a character study of Blanchett’s Jasmine’s broken psyche.

Blanchett is fabulous. She has the not so easy task of playing a woman who could react to any situation any number of ways at any time. She is a classy lady, but one who clearly comes from, and has recently returned to, a situation not quite so refined. So there is a fish out of water element, but she also must play the obvious emotional and mental problems without over performing them or having them take over the character.

She handles it all marvelously. By the end of the movie her vacant stare is devastating.

Allen handles the character, both as a writer and as a director, with exceptional skill, never manhandling the characters traits behind the camera (not something Woody often does), but letting them be revealed through this magnificent performance he is conducting.

To me, though, the rest of the movie doesn’t live up. It’s good, don’t get me wrong, but I never for a second cared about her sister or her partners or even the flashbacks half as much as I cared about Blanchett’s present predicament. I just wanted to watch her interact with people, and luckily much of the film is devoted to this. That which isn’t, however, doesn’t hold up.

It’s not a great movie, because one brilliant performance, one great character, does not a movie make. The storyline is almost like background music, and by the end I walked away without that wonderful feeling of having had an entirely whole experience from a movie, a feeling Allen has managed to evoke in me many times over.

So there we have it, two films, both great in ways, hampered in others, and really, totally, completely different from one another in every way. What a wild, crazy Tuesday it was. The end.

You’re Next and Blue Jasmine are in cinemas now.

The Conjuring

The Conjuring (2013), directed by James Wan

The Wolverine (2013, directed by James Mangold

Sorry, that’s the best funny title I could come up with. Not a lot of material here. I guess I could have gone with “The The,” but that seems worse. And beside the point.

Double-shot Tuesdays 2013 Summer Movie Season Edition is up and running again, this week with a couple staples of the Hollywood silver screen: the haunted house and the comic book movie.

First up in James Wan’s The Conjuring. Wan is a rising star in Hollywood. He’s best known for coming up with and directing the first Saw movie, which of course spawned the never-ending franchise. 2010′s Insidious put him back on horror fans’ radars and now this year he is the horror king it seems, with both this film and Insidious: Chapter 2 hitting cinemas.

Oh and next year, he’ll be the man behind Fast & Furious 7, which, as we all know, will be fantastic.

Now, I’ve said it before, I’m a fan of horror in all its various forms, but nothing else can legitimately scare me, give me those shivers down the spine, like a ghost story. I love slashers, but I find them thrilling or funny, depending on the tone. Vampire movies, zombies, etc. are, again, enjoyable but they don’t keep me up a night.

But a well made ghost story? Forget about it.

The Conjuring is such a ghost movie, one of the best I’ve seen in some time. It is terrifying.

As most critics have pointed out, detractors and admirers alike, the film is somewhat of a throwback and relies heavily on the tropes of the genre. In part it’s whether or not you think that’s a good thing which will determine if you enjoy the film.

For me, I love genre horror movies and a well made one can be dear to my heart. The Conjuring is extremely well made. Sure it has all the bump in the night cliches, but backed up by a look, a pace and a spirit (if you’ll excuse the pun) which really does the material justice.

It takes on a neo-horror tone and look harkening back to the ’70s, which is becoming a popular approach to horror and I think proves that instinctively we all understand the textural, corporeal feeling of film, as opposed to digital. But that’s another issue.

The “true story” is nothing new. A family moves into a new, creepy house, weird things start happening, experts are brought in, there’s an attempted exorcism at one point, there’s even a couple of videocamera-looking Paranormal Activity shots thrown in at one point. Even last year’s The Possession had a similar plot.

But you know what? I loved that film and I was thrilled as hell by this one too. There isn’t a haunted house trick in the bag which Wan doesn’t throw at us at some point, and while the pace of the whole affair is unrelenting, it works for the tone of the movie and helps to beat the audience into submission. It never feels unjustifiable or overtly cheap. There were a legit couple of moments where I wondered if I could take anymore. It was great.

In a slight state of shock, I stumbled across the theatre to regain my senses with some good old Hollywood fluff.

But The Wolverine surprised my expectations (made considerably low by a recent viewing of the Origins Wolverine movie) by taking a more thoughtful approach to the superhero genre and focusing on things like character and plot, rather than a paint-by-numbers back story and superficial emotion masquerading as depth.

If anything The Wolverine is more of a fish-out-of-water story more akin to an international thriller than the roller coaster rides of the first three X-Men films, or the two spinoffs. I couldn’t help but think about You Only Live Twice, the Japan-set Bond film, as I watched Wolvie tackle a bit of a whodunit as he woes women and squares off against some unpleasant baddies on the quest for power.

I know I have a reliance on directors when it comes to my criticism but I think the auteur thing apples here again. What surprised me most about The Wolverine was its interest in character. Logan is more than a gruff, “bub” snarling lone wolf in James Mangold’s clawed tale. The film takes its time to take a look at what drives Wolverine, why he is the way he is and how his immortality influences his actions and interactions with others.

So it’s no surprise Mangold is a director known for character-heavy dramas like Walk the Line, Cop Land and Girl, Interrupted, along with smarter-than-average Western 3:10 to Yuma. The man obviously has an interest in what drives people, what makes them do what they do and act the way they act, and that shines through in The Wolverine.

At a screening for another movie last night I heard a group of people talking about The Wolverine. They did not care for it. They said there wasn’t enough action, that it took too long to get to fight scenes and that is was more of a romance than an action film.

I know trailers are partly to blame (although not enough to warrant a law suit, a la Drive) but I really wish people had more patience to take a movie on its own terms and not have preconceived notions about what it should be. What I enjoyed about The Wolverine, what made it probably my favourite X-Men movie to date, is that it went for something different, that it was willing to take a chance on a more slow-burning approach and didn’t rely on the same old escalating-action-sequence motif which now dominates summer movie season.

Even then it’s not perfect. It’s final fight is a bit of a let down (mainly because we have no emotional connection to this faceless opponent), but all final fight scenes are these days it seems. It does have some great action set pieces, such as the fight on the train or the arrows. I felt I had watched a thrilling movie. But I also felt like I had watched a movie with characters I cared about and where I had actually sympathized with the mutant title character, something which Origins in no way managed.

It’s a step up from senseless fun and while I enjoy senseless fun (Furious 6, anyone?), I was surprised and delighted to find The Wolverine to be something more.

The Conjuring and The Wolverine are in cinemas now.

The Internship

The Purge (2013), directed by James DeMonaco

The Internship (2013), directed by Shawn Levy

This past weekend felt like a slight one for this Summer Movie Season. No big blockbusters, no superheroes, no explosions.

But it did have some all-American violence and a re-pairing of the biggest comedy team of 2005. What’s not to love?

Well, as it turns out, not that much.

The Purge is a gimmick film centred around the concept that in the near future of America crime has been virtually eliminated and unemployment is nearly extinct (not sure how that’s related, but OK), all thanks to a yearly purge: a 12-hour window of opportunity for people to commit any sort of crimes they like without fear of punishment.

So step one to the movie is buying that, which really shouldn’t be a problem, it’s a movie after all, so why not?

I actually thought the concept had promise, what with the human nature implications and lock-and-load Americanism at play. Plus it looked like it could be downright scary with these creepily-masked intruders breaking down Ethan Hawke’s steel-reinforced door.

As it turns out, The Purge is part cabin-in-the-woods horror, part thriller, part vigilante action film, but mostly it’s just dull.

Part of the problem is it can’t pick which of those to be. The film starts off firmly grounded in reality, with newscasts asking experts how the purge works from a psychological standpoint and with the film seriously considering the implications of giving crime a free leash for a night.

Then it switches gears with this masked gang of yachting commerce students and tries to become a intruder horror movie a la Funny Games. These kids skip with machetes and sing children’s songs and generally act like their all 11 years old and on mushrooms at the Texas Chain Saw Massacre house.

While this doesn’t make a whole lot of sense (even if these kids did want to kill on the purge, why would they act like leftovers from The Shining creep sequences?), it also goes against the most interesting aspect of the movie: average human beings allowed to commit whatever crimes they like.

My biggest problem is no one in this gang ever breaks the facade. It would have been really interesting to see these young psychopaths as actual young people. It would have been a whole other thing to have one of them all of a sudden question what they’re doing, or get upset when one of the others dies, or hesitate before a kill.

They don’t. They are undaunted, horror movie killing machines, which goes against the reality-based setup.

But you have to take a film by its own merits, and this one clearly wanted to be a horror movie. At this it does not succeed either. There are some slightly creepy moments, but the film goes light on the violence, never pushes the boundaries and relies on gimmicks far too much, such as the three or four moments when someone is about to kill someone else but unexpectedly gets killed at the last second by someone else entirely. First time: sure. Fourth time: shame on you.

It’s a symptom of a movie which has a basic idea and little much else. The script feels slapped together and never takes the time to delve into what could really make this set-up interesting: the deeper human nature questions. We see it momentarily with Hawke’s character debating the sacrifice of a life to save his family, but in a film where the most interesting concept is the grey area between right and wrong, there are far too many blacks and whites in The Purge.

By all measure The Internship is a slight film. On one level it’s a giant, very long commercial for Google. It’s an unhesitating celebration of commercialism and the American Dream. It all seems a tad more than naive.

But dammit if Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson aren’t charming as all heck and manage to turn this senseless idea of a movie into a moderately charming and enjoyable little film.

The idea that two philistine 40-something men who know nothing about computers could manage to get, let alone succeed at, an internship with Google is of course ridiculous. The filmmakers realize this and simply don’t care, and by the end of the film, neither should the audience.

And it’s all thanks to Vaughn and Wilson, who, for some reason, work well together. I suppose it’s the classic comedy team up, really. Vaughn is the fast-talking, larger-than-life (both physically and by his personality) comedy central, while Wilson is the straight man, with his slow Southern drawl and puppy dog features.

The two work well together and despite my initial complete disinterest in the entire affair I couldn’t help by the end but to get swept up in their fast talking, pants-off charming ways. They’re not the first pair to keep a movie going on charm alone, in fact they come from a great tradition of it (Crosby and Hope, Jerry and Lewis, Weaver and Xenomorph), and I don’t think it’s a great insult to say they save this movie.

Just an idea though: how much better would this film have been if they were allowed to be gay? I mean, it seemed pretty obvious anyway, but if they finally hooked up at the end? Could have provided some on-screen sparks, that’s all I’m saying.

The Internship is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s charming enough to be entertaining, although that’s the extent of it. It might pass my Internship Purge, but just barely.

The Purge and The Internship are in cinemas now.

Evil Dead

Evil Dead (2013), directed by Fede Alvarez

It’s not often I get a little nervous before a horror flick, but I have to say, with all I’d been hearing about walkouts and excessive gore, I was a little unsure what what I was getting myself into when I sat down for Evil Dead.

But then again that feeling is one of my favourite parts about horror movies. And when a film fulfills that fear, when it pushes me to my limits? Oh boy. Love it.

Evil Dead hits the spot.

I don’t often like to do this, but I feel one of the best ways to start approaching Evil Dead is by responding to complaints.

One of the main ones I’ve read (because, let’s face it, I rarely get to actually TALK about movies) is that it lacks the humour of the original, that it’s far too serious or violent or gory for the writer’s tastes, that it wallows in the muck of bad taste.

Well, first of all, if you don’t like hardcore horror movies, and I mean real horror movies – genre movies, not just “satires” and genre-benders – don’t go see Evil Dead. And, as Bruce Campbell himself has expressed, walk outs and indignation are a sign of a good horror flick.

I don’t like Lord of the Rings, fantasy stuff, but I understand that’s just my thing. I guess I’m just not desensitized to three hour films about exceptionally short people walking.

Also, I don’t think I’ve seen The Evil Dead (the “The” is the distinguishing difference) since high school, but I remember from that viewing that it was a very different movie from its subsequent parodic sequels, which I have seen far more recently. It’s different because it takes itself seriously. It’s not without humour or fun (just as this remake is not without humour), but for the most part it’s a straight-up gore fest.

That might be a tough distinction for some, because it was made with a low budget by a bunch of film students and therefore comes off as a little dated and cheesy now. But their intentions were pure. In its heart it’s an intense, gore-filled, off-the-wall horror movie.

I firmly believe that if Raimi and Campbell et al. had had the budget, technology and support this new one had, their 1981 film would have looked similar to this. Maybe a little weirder and a little funnier, sure, but I’m not arguing this new one is better than the original. Heck, I think Evil Dead 2 is better than the original. I’m just saying it’s very good, and has the similar intentions that made the original film very good.

I get annoyed by these so-called horror fans who think it’s all fun and games so long as no one makes a gory horror film that takes itself seriously. Personally I love horror movies. And that includes serious ones, ones actually intended to scare, jolt or disgust me. I don’t need or always want them to be all wink-wink, “look we’re making a horror movie, how silly,” for me to enjoy them. I’m not talking torture porn either, because Evil Dead is not torture porn. It has a plot and characters you root for.

And I’m not some sick case either. I hold down a normal(ish) job, love my mother, treat my friends well, turn into a big softy around cats and play a lovely rendition of “I Can’t Make You Love Me” on the piano.

I just happen to also enjoy watching people get dismembered with a chainsaw in a movie from time to time.

That’s why I’ll take a film like Evil Dead over a Cabin in the Woods any day. I thought Cabin had some interesting elements and some laughs, but I’ll take the actual genre film over the meta, postmodern, nerd experiment, thank you.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not perfect. It’s a little too slick for its own good, what with the pretty people and the mostly straight-laced cinematography. It outstays its welcome slightly. It lacks the ingenuity and frantic energy of the original. Its attempts at character development is at times perfunctory and a bore. It’s no The Evil Dead.

But despite that it’s still the best, straight up, balls-to-the-wall horror flick I’ve seen in some time.

It’s full of gnarly gore and relentless intensity, all put together with a great sense of story and craft. The actors, even the female ones, are never fetishized; they come off as real people that you care about. It avoids that gloomy, sweaty-slick Platinum Dunes style that’s ruining horror. It’s a remake that actually recognizes and utilizes what made the original work. It’s still a great premise for a film, this whole book of the dead bit, and plays out well again here.

I’m not saying you have to, or should, like it. I’m just saying I did and please don’t try to ruin it for the rest of us. Thanks.

Evil Dead is in cinemas now.

Snitch (2013), directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Dark Skies (2013), directed by Scott Stewart

In the spirit of my recently implemented Tueday doubleheader nights at the cinema, I caught up with a couple of the big openings from last weekend.

And was I in for a night of lingering disappointment, let me tell you. But not without some highlights.

First up was Snitch, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson’s first real attempt at “serious acting.”

Side note: Two of the trailers before this Rock movie were other Rock movies coming out shortly, the new G.I. Joe flick and the new Fast and Furious flick. At least Snitch isn’t a franchise Johnson has just been plugged into.

Snitch is something of a failure as the morality-based issue film that it tries to be, but it works rather well as an old-school one-man-against-a-bunch-of-badies low-key action film. Actually on that level it works surprisingly well.

There’s a number of reasons for that. For one thing, despite his physique and movie star status Johnson is rather good as the everyman caught in a bad situation. He plays it well. There’s a great scene early in the film where he tries to set-up some corner drug dealers and ends up getting his ass kicked. Not only is it refreshing to see The Rock get his ass kicked, it’s also enjoyable to see how well Johnson plays a vulnerable character. Turns out the man can act.

The film also works well as a believable, down-to-earth action movie. There’s no outrageous action sequences. At no point does Johnson hang from a helicopter or drive a car into a blimp or whatever. But there is a whole load of tension building to an excellent car versus semi chase sequence that is thrilling as hell while never seeming overblown or outrageous. It’s even filmed well, which is like finding the Rosetta Stone this day and age.

Where the film gets into trouble is as it tries to mean something. When Charles Bronson took out a bunch of street hoods in Death Wish you yelled “F-yeah Charles Bronson” because you hate criminals too and everybody is happy. In this film we’re supposed to be angry about minimum mandatory sentences for first time drug offenses, but I don’t see how getting the audience to root for Johnson taking out a bunch of hardcore drug dealers is supposed to garner sympathy for this.

Because regardless about my “real world” opinion on this issue, by the end of the movie I was firmly in the pro-justice, anti-drug dealer camp. So the last blurb about how unfair stiff sentences are didn’t exactly make my blood boil. All I thought is that if they keep Omar and Juan Obregon off the street then God bless them.

But if you can look past that, Snitch is a solid, well made thriller that’s actually highly enjoyable. Also Barry Pepper is in it. I always feel the need to point that out.

Dark Skies could have been a solid sci-fi/horror movie if again it wasn’t for some weird politics going on. Unfortunately that aspect is far harder to overlook with this one.

The movie is about a family that starts having strange things happen to them in their house. Familiar? Things bump in the night. Somehow their kitchen gets reorganized in a less-than-helpful way. The kid starts acting weird. Dad sets up video cameras to record everything going on in the house. Familiar?

The film is also from the same producers as Insidious and Sinister, so you know from the start how this is going to go down. Things will get creepy, they’ll escalate and then there will be a big, likely disappointing, finale. But those films, especially Sinister, were actually quite good. Dark Skies is less than great.

Dark Skies throws a slight curveball by having aliens in the mix. I liked the sci-fi aspect as something different. I also thought Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton were great leads. There are genuine scares in the film. I believe it has the basic elements of a potentially highly entertaining scare show.

But then it gets all weirdly right wing, family values, judgmental on us and totally lost me. Spoilers upcoming.

The finale of the film involves the family having to do their utmost to stay together as a family unit. On the Fourth of July. While Stars and Stripes Forever or something like that is playing on the TV. After buying a shotgun and boarding up the windows. And then what’s the reason that doesn’t work and a kid gets abducted? Because he watched a few minutes of a crappy porno earlier in the film.

I mean, if I’m going to get abducted I’m at least going to watch porn with good production values and better music. Just saying.

So while the buildup has some punch, the payoff falls completely flat because it’s ridiculous and preachy and, let’s just say it, a little xenophobic. I mean, I know these aren’t pleasant Mexicans just hoping for a little landscaping work, but the whole tone of the last act reeks of “board up yer windows and get yer guns cause them aliens are coming.”

You could have this payoff and not end up with this tone, but the whole Fourth of July thing sets an undeniable agenda. And it’s one that I’m not comfortable with.

And then the kid gets abducted because he watched pornography once. Just had to reiterate that. I hope it sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me. Let’s hope that’s not the aliens’ overall agenda or else the entire population of North America might soon find themselves abducted. Think about that the next time you logon. I guess one group of told-you-sos might remain. Maybe the makers of this film.

So two films that hit unfortunate road blocks, but I think Snitch at least made it through with only a misdemeanor ticket. It shouldn’t have to do any time, but I guess you never know with these mandatory minimums. Damn government. But Dark Skies deserves the slammer for tricking us into swallowing its us-versus-them, Holier-than-thou high-ground finale. For shame.

Snitch and Dark Skies are in cinemas now.

Broken City (2013), directed by Allen Hughes

Mama (2013), directed by Andres Muschietti

In my effort to save money and to see more movies at the same time I did a double-shot cheap Tuesday night at one of our local theatres here.

So I thought, why not write a double-shot cheap review? Do you feel frugal and smart? Or just cheated? Exactly.

Plus, what better way to review two mostly forgettable, mediocre movies that have absolutely no relation to one another? Exactly.

First up for the night was Mama, a Canadian-Spanish horror/ghost movie, “presented” by Guillermo del Toro and staring everybody’s new favourite actor, Jessica Chastain.

Now when I see that a horror film is “presented” by Guillermo del Toro I prepare myself for something a little different, likely quite gothic, with some elements of fantasy. I’m thinking Splice, Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, The Orphanage (which I must admit, I have not seen).

Dead on (pun intended). While it has its share of conventional horror moments (weird noises in the house, faces in mirrors, “it was just a dream” moments), Mama also has enough creativity behind it that it not only comes across as scary, but also compelling.

It’s kind of a weird mix, to be honest. While on one hand there’s this really rather intriguing story of a (SPOILERS) long-dead escaped mental patient still searching for the baby she stole, and of two little girls she takes in and raises, there’s also this side where they have to visit an archive at some point, and consult an expert, and have the woman hear something weird and creep around the house until something scares her and us.

Some of it works and some of it doesn’t. The plot is far too complicated. Characters go off to do their own thing and are forgotten about for long periods of time. There’s so many agendas by so many characters it’s hard to care about all of them. Some of them are quickly tossed aside, making me wonder why they were needed in the first place. Some of the “gotcha!” scares are a little much and there’s too many of them.

But the ghost, the horror part of the film, is genuinely creative and well wrought. It’s all CGI but it works really well and the design of the ghost is rather unique and very effective. I had the old chill down the spine feeling on more than one occasion.

The gothic atmosphere also works well and gives the material a grandiosity modern horror films tend to reject (thank you Paranormal Activity). I mean, how many cliff-top ghost story finales do you see anymore? It lost me at the end with the butterfly finale and us somehow being asked to see it as a beautiful compromise that the ghost is going to drag a little girl away to death (presumably). Didn’t buy it.

But in general, Mama is a unique and well made ghost story.

Skipping merrily to the other end of the cinema, I sat down for Broken City just as it started.

Broken City was marketed as an action film, complete with hip-hop soundtrack, but it’s actually a political thriller, lots of talking with some occasional bits of action.

This one is getting panned, but you know what? I didn’t mind it. Sort of like Mama, I thought it was decidedly OK but with some definite positives (that’s my only way to tie these two films together).

You’ve got Wahlberg doing his Wahlberg thing (which I like), you’ve got Russell Crowe playing a character with a personality (which was a nice change from Les Miz), you’ve got BC boy Barry Pepper (if you want to see me embarrassed ask me about the time I met Barry Pepper) and you’ve got an urban political plot with ins and outs and backstabbings all round.

The Hughes Brothers have a way of making movies that under no reasonable reasoning should work, but that I can’t help but like. I still haven’t quite put my finger on why. I’m a From Hell fan. Now that’s out there in the world. I also thought The Book of Eli was an entirely decent movie.

I had the same reaction to Broken City. Nothing especially interesting was going on, but through competent directing and engaging performances it drew me in. I enjoyed watching it, wanted to know how it played out. That’s not what I would call a rave review, but maybe this is a case of exceeding low expectations.

(Huge Spoiler) The worst part for me was seeing Coach Taylor all shot up. It got personal at that point.

The film is not to be taken seriously. I don’t see it as an accurate representation of urban municipal politics or as a relevant voice against corrupt government. It doesn’t reach anything nearly that lofty. But as a political thriller with more than a few entertaining twists and turns, it works, to a point.

So there you go, my cheap Tuesday, cheap thrills, movie night. I’ll save intellectual musings for films worth it. If you want thoughtless entertainment, these are two viable options. Especially for half price.

Mama and Broken City are in cinemas now.

Paranormal Activity 4

Paranormal Activity 4 (2012), directed Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Well, here we are. Paranormal Activity 4. I doubt it’s the last we’ll be seeing of this series too, seeing as they can be made for the same price as a 1989 Honda Accord and gross over $30 million opening weekend.

You know, as a fan of these series up until PA 3, I still held out hope for PA 4. Most people (well, critics) seem to have given up on them. I don’t blame them, really. I get it. They are getting tedious.

That being said PA 4 is far better than PA 3 but still not that good. You know what I’m saying? We’re back in present day, so that works better given the immediacy of these movies. There’s some neat gimmicks, such as the Kinect dots. There are some genuinely chilling moments.

But it still has a been there, done that feel and offers no substantial breakthroughs, either in gimmick or story.

Okay, so here’s my problem as the series goes on: the filmmakers try to infuse the usual “bump in the night” routine with some much-needed mythology, but never take the time to try and have any of it make any sense.

This is lazy filmmaking at its worst. When Paranormal Activity came out its strength was its gimmick: the whole found-footage thing. It was a great horror film, even if for only the first time you saw it (which is true for many horror films). In the second one, for me at least, the gimmick still worked and there were some tweaks to it and the story worked. It might be my favourite of the series.

Then part three was terrible (see my review for reasons) and now the fourth one, although much better than the third, is still relying on the gimmick for everything. And if I’m tired of the gimmick, who the heck isn’t?

My point is, is that this far into a franchise you need to start to develop the story and mythology more. I’ve now seen four of these things and I still have no idea what these movies are about.

There’s a demon (?) named “Toby” who likes to possess young children and is summoned with the circle in triangle symbol thing. But he also possesses Katie, I guess. And can also wreck havoc as a paranormal entity. And he was summoned by some witches, or something? And is trying to get to Hunter? Even though he already had Hunter? But that was Robbie?

See what I mean? The filmmakers throw in a couple of plot tidbits and then don’t bother to explain anything, or even modestly develop any sort of backstory, and then just get back to the shaky cameras and things falling from the ceiling.

Don’t get me wrong, there are still some scary bits. I liked how it incorporated new technology, like Skype-ish video calls, into the found footage thing (even though, who keeps their laptop open all the time?). The young woman in the movie was excellent. There was certainly some creepy kid stuff that got under your skin. The ending is shocking, I guess.

But even then, with the ending, the only thing scary about it is it’s shocking and weird. It’s never explained. At all.

And it doesn’t seem as though anyone cares. I can’t find any fan pages and only a few reviewers trying to decipher the bits and pieces of mythology for the series, something easily found for other franchises. Because really, who cares? The filmmakers obviously don’t, otherwise they would put a little more effort into it. They love to just drop a few new twists right at the end, before cutting to credits and enticing us to go see the next one to maybe understand what’s going on (as unlikely as that is).

The filmmakers say they have a plan worked out and all will be explained but that sounds a bit too Lost-ish for my taste and I’m worried about how long they are going to take getting there. PA 4 is doing worse at the box office than PA 3 did, but it will still make buckets of money for Paramount and I’m sure they are more than happy to keep cranking them out. PA 5 is set for release next October, apparently.

And I’ll go see it. Because I’m committed to this franchise. Because as much as I know I’m being taken for a ride to get my hard-earned dollars, I’m still going to shell out and hope that something is explained. I know I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll be there. Maybe I’ll get a few scares out of it. Some tense, sweaty moments. Maybe I won’t.

But I’ll be there. I understand if you won’t be.

Paranormal Activity 4 is in theatres now.

Sinister

Sinister (2012), directed by Scott Derrickson

Well after the non-horror, horror-sounding Seven Psychopaths it was straight back on the spook train for a preview screening of Sinister, and I have to say, this was a warm return.

I love (good) slasher movies and other types of horror, but nothing gets under my skin like a good old fashioned story of the paranormal. This one worked. I’m man enough to admit that at points it scared the hell out of me.

Ellison (Ethan Hawke), a true crime novel writer, moves into a new house with his family to start working on his next book. He doesn’t tell his family this but the house they’re moving into is in fact the murder house. The family that lived there before them were hung from a tree in the backyard, except for one daughter who is still missing.

Anyway, they move in and Ellison finds a box of old reel-to-reel film and a projector in the attic. Curious by nature, he settles in for a movie night only to find that the reels hold footage of five murders, including the hanging. And the shadowy image of a mysterious figure…

There’s a lot about the film that I thought worked really well. I liked the gimmick of the reel-to-reel film and all the shots of Ellison setting up the projector and editing the film. It had a real textural quality to it that grounded the story and gave it substance. Also there’s nothing scarier than 1970s film stock. Seriously.

I’m also a sucker for all that bump in the night stuff. I know it’s overdone but it still gets to me. The sound of the projector firing up in the middle of the night all by itself is chilling. And Mr. Boogie is a haunting figure. I would have liked to know more about him, or see him in action, but his presence alone worked well enough.

I heard people complaining as they left the movie that it wasn’t scary. One incensed  woman even took the time to stop and complain to the college girls working the box office.

I had two thoughts on this. First of all, maybe I am abnormally susceptible to horror films and that’s what makes me like them so much. They actually work on me. I get scared. Obviously they work really well on a lot of other people too, who simply don’t like horror movies because they don’t like that sensation. I do. But then again I hate roller coasters, so we all have our things.

Secondly, if you don’t get scared, if you just think horror movies are dumb or whatever, why go see them? So you can prove how tough you are to the box office people on the way out? I mean, were we watching the same film? I’ve seen a lot of horror movies, and although it’s far from the best I’ve ever seen, Sinister is a good horror movie and genuinely scary. Get over your need to prove to yourself you’re better than this horror movie. Get into it. Have fun.

It’s such an interesting genre. There seems to be three types of people when it comes to horror: those who love them, those who can’t take them and those who watch them but think they’re dumb. I’m glad I’m in the first category, because the second is missing out and the third is too jaded for my tastes.

But maybe they like roller coasters. I don’t know.

I’ll agree that Sinister overstays its welcome somewhat, has some plot points that go nowhere or don’t work (what’s up with the animals?) and has a weak, abrupt ending that felt incredibly unsatisfying after a truly impressive buildup. I wanted Officer So and So to come back and for there to be some actual tension or struggle at the end, something to get into and let me route for the characters. Instead the ending just happens and that’s that.

But endings are the hardest part of a horror film and this isn’t the first great one to have been marred by a weak ending (I’m looking at you, The Strangers).

I felt right up until the end that this was the best horror film to come out so far this year. Considering the ending and thinking back a bit more I would say The Possession is better, but there are certainly scenes and elements of Sinister that I liked more than Possession. Possession is a better movie overall but Sinister had me more frightened. It’s more off-putting. Which I like.

If you like that too, check it out. And if you don’t like it leave the poor box office people alone. They don’t care.

Sinister opens in cinemas today.

The Possession

The Possession (2012), directed by Ole Bornedal

The Possession doesn’t have an original bone in its broken, twisted body but that doesn’t prevent it from being one of the best new horror films in recent memory.

I’m a big fan of horror movies, but I have to admit I’m a pretty picky fan. It’s a rare case to have a horror film really impress me. I love watching them, even when they’re bad, probably because there’s a part of me that’s sick and twisted and likes to test how much gore/scares/weirdness I can take. I admit it.

I know my limits. I don’t like torture porn, such as Saw or Hostel or whatever. And straight up Hollywood horror flicks usually fall flat. Not weird enough. I wrote before that in terms of actual scares, I think only ghost movies really get the job done. But I forgot about demons. Cause they’ll get ya.

We know this story right? Object leads to possession. Little girl starts acting weird. An academic is consulted. Bring in the religious figure. Let’s get exorcising. Nothing new. So how can it be as good as it is?

I think that’s what I think about horror in some ways. Hear me out. Because it’s so hard to do something original, and because the basis of the genre appeals to me so much in the first place, the real joy is seeing somebody do it well. It’s like bluegrass. Sure, every song uses the same three chords, but when somebody uses those same three chords really well…hot damn.

Like this.

The Possession uses those same three chords (figuratively) really well. It’s a tense, building film, with some serious scares and an eye for what makes a great horror flick. It takes its time with the characters, invests you in their lives, throws some weird stuff at you, provides that all so essential human element to the terror and then closes the trap.

I couldn’t help but think of Cabin in the Woods when the girl opened that box. I could picture Richard Jenkins in a control room routing for her to pull out the bug. But I’ll take a film like The Possession over Cabin any day. Cabin wanted to be smart in pointing out the tools of the genre while celebrating the genre itself, which made it weak. Pick one Whedon.

Bornedal doesn’t get wishy-washy about it. He obviously loves a good scare show and delivers one accordingly, rolled-back eyes, back bending and all. He realizes that what makes a good horror film isn’t just the tools, it’s not characters that we don’t care about, it’s not just any old killing entity. It’s the craft and care that go into it. It’s the love of the genre. It’s the real, get you in your spine scares.

Listen, I’m excited about October coming up because I like to dive into some horror. I may, now that I live near a good video store, even go back and visit some weird essentials that I’ve missed. I may even write about them.

For now though, if you want a primer, check out The Possession. It’s scaretacular? Spookeriffic? I don’t know. Just watch it.

The Possession is in theatres now.

The Woman in Black

The Woman in Black (2012), directed by James Watkins

If you’re going to make a ghost movie in this day and age, and especially if you’re going to make it a period ghost movie, you better have a damn good story to back it up. I mean, this is the day and age of Paranormal Activity. A lot of people hated that movie, I loved it, but that doesn’t matter, the point is that it exists and that it upped the ante for modern horror. To go back from such a timely movie to a stuffy, Poe-ish gothic horror film, you’re going to need something more than bumps in the night to get the audience involved.

The scariest things to audiences are those that they can best relate to, that seem the most possible. If you set your movie in turn of the century (not the last one, the one before) you already have your work cut out for you. There’s no way I’m going to be terrorized by a ghost while riding in my horse-drawn carriage or searching an old root cellar with a candle. It’s just not going to happen. So I’m already once-removed from the scary bits.

So like I said, you better make up for that with a great story. This is where The Woman in Black really fails. Not only does it rely heavily on tried and no-longer-true ghost movie cliches (A strange noise! A figure lurking in the background! The candle went out! Is somebody there?!) it has a story that I barely understood and a conclusion that audiences will figure out about an hour before the main character does.

The end result is that the film is boring. It’s gunning for “atmospheric” and “tense” but because I don’t care about the story, because the scares are really amateur hour and because the main character says about three words per half hour and otherwise just walks around looking morose/inquisitive, there’s nothing to grab my attention.

Let’s face it, the main reason this got made and the real reason anyone even really cares about it is that it’s the first post-Harry Potter film for infamous chain smoker Daniel Radcliffe (or so I’ve heard…). I feel sorry for this guy, and maybe this was a great choice. I mean, think about it. Millions of people around the world have watched this guy grow up as Harry Potter. He IS Harry Potter in their minds (for some of us he’s the boy in The Tailor of Panama, but we’re a minority I understand). And now that’s all over and he has to convince people that he’s not magical, he’s just actor Daniel Radcliffe.

Personally I think it’s time for him to take on the traditional typecast breaker artist junkie role, but he went another route. (Just read that he is next going to play Allen Ginsberg. So, so called it.) This is a quieter role, perhaps an attempt to show himself as a more classical actor, and certainly a declaration that he wants to play adult roles, what with having a son in the film and all. Also, with such high expectations, let’s face it, it’s probably not the worst thing in the world to start your post-Harry Potter career with a dud. Now he can relax.

But it certainly is an odd role. As I said, he hardly speaks. It’s a very quiet film, which can be an advantage (see There Will Be Blood…) but here just adds to its creakiness. And Radcliffe, I’m sorry to say, is a little Potter-ish in it as he searches around for clues and faces supernatural forces. I don’t think he whips out a wand at any point, but the role is far from an about turn.

I’m going to give this film credit for the first two minutes and the last ten. It has a great little opener that is simple but affective and certainly peaked my interest. And then it lost my interest for about an hour and twenty minutes and then it suddenly picked up again for a great climax (even if the finale was lame). It even induced a spine chill in me as the titular woman came screaming across the room at Harry (sorry). It is a truly exciting scene.

But lovely bookends do not make for a great shelf (or something). The Woman in Black is a bore, there’s really no other word for it. It reuses haunted house cliches we’ve all seen before, it offers little in the way of a compelling story to make up for it and the whole thing comes off as stuffy and old fashioned, but without the class or cleverness of the best classics to make it worth your while, in some sort of Poe sense.

Basically it’s no Paranormal Activity. Haters can hate.

The Woman in Black is available on home video now.