Reel Opinions

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Rum Diary

I have a feeling that those who are already fans of the writings of author Hunter S. Thompson will get more out of The Rum Diary than I did. The movie is a hazy and often muted look into the author's world, with distant characters, and a narrative that comes across as a series of anecdotes. Some of these are quite funny and entertaining, but more often, I was bored, and found myself missing the visual style that director Terry Gilliam brought to the last film based on one of Thompson's works, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

picThe story behind the film is that Johnny Depp (who starred in Fear and Loathing..., and stars once again here) discovered Thompson's unpublished manuscript for The Rum Diary while preparing for the earlier 1998 film. The actor convinced him to publish the book, and now, has played a large part in it reaching the big screen. He managed to coax director Bruce Robinson out of retirement to helm the film, and helped secure some strong acting talent to tell the story. But the movie failed to connect with me. The semi-autobiographical story that Thompson wrote inspired by his early days as a journalist is missing a fresh look at the material. Much like Depp's downplayed performance in the film itself, the movie seems to be downplaying itself, as well as the absurd aspects that might have made it stand out.

picDepp plays Thompson's on screen persona, Paul Kemp, who arrives in Puerto Rico in 1960 to take a job at a struggling English-language newspaper. He arrives at the job drunk, but at least he seems to be in good company, as everyone else who works there seems to be drunk or high, much to the chagrin of his new boss (Richard Jenkins). His fellow employees include a photographer named Sala (Michael Rispoli), who has a passion for cockfighting, and the bizarre Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi), who delivers the most interesting performance in the film as a guy with an interest in Hitler and top secret illegal substances. Kemp arrives at his new job with little ambition other than to make some money. But he soon gets involved with a wealthy American entrepreneur named Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart), who is trying to pull off a land development scheme on the island. Kemp's main interest in Sanderson stems from his beautiful young fiance, Chenault (Amber Heard), whom he harbors strong feelings for.

picThe movie forms a loose narrative, hopping from one subject to the next, or sometimes a funny sequence, such as when Paul and Sala are driving along the street in a hollowed out car. But there's no real emotional investment to anything happening on the screen. The intensity that Thompson was famous for in his writings is missing here. The movie drags, when it should be wild. Likewise, we have a very strong cast, giving some rather muted performances here, save for a few exceptions. Aside from the previously mentioned Ribisi, Amber Heard manages to give some personality and warmth to a character who easily could have come across simply as an object of desire. The most baseless character in the film is oddly enough Paul Kemp himself, who often comes across as a blank slate we know little to nothing about. We hear Thompson's words coming out of his mouth in both his dialogue and occasional narration, but we don't get any of his passion.

picSince The Rum Diary ends up having very little to say, it does not take long for boredom to set in amongst the audience (the man sitting behind me fell asleep a couple times, only to be aroused by his companion), and for the two hour running time to feel a lot longer than it actually is. It's well known that the movie's been sitting on the shelf for a while before its release, and it certainly shows signs of an intriguing, but troubled production. Despite Depp's obvious passion in getting the book on the screen, none of it comes through in the movie itself. I'm sure he was thrilled to be taking on Thompson's material and character again, and there's a nice little tribute to the author at the end. But really, the movie feels like it's excluding anyone who does not share Depp's passion and interest for the man.
There are moments that amuse and lead one to think that The Rum Diary is finally going to find its footing, only to have the movie go back to its same sluggish approach to the material. The movie doesn't even take advantage of the natural beauty of the island setting. While it's not without its charms, this movie ends up being a big disappointment.

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Puss in Boots

I love the idea behind the character of Puss in Boots - a Latin lover and swordsman (with the voice of Antonio Banderas, no less) who seems to have no idea that he's in the body of a cat. The idea is funny enough itself, but is it funny enough to carry a movie? Well, not this movie, at least. I kept on waiting to get wrapped up in what was going on the screen, but the movie remains surprisingly lethargic and kind of dull. Puss in Boots (which serves as an origin story of sorts for the feline) just didn't work for me.

picThose expecting a formula similar to the Shrek films where the character originated (rapid-fire dialogue, modern day jokes and references, peppy pop music on the soundtrack) will be disappointed. You'll also be disappointed if you're looking for any connection to the Shrek universe, as there is none. Instead, director Chris Miller (Shrek the Third) has given us an adventure story that mixes elements of the Zorro films, classic Spaghetti Westerns, and some fairy tale references thrown in to give it at least some loose relationship to the earlier movies. It's a great idea in theory, and I wanted to like this movie a lot more than I did. But it's surprisingly lacking in energy, and aside from one mild chuckle, I didn't find myself laughing at all. I guess jokes about cat behavior and their nature (which seem to make up a majority of the gags) don't get you far.

picWe learn the story of Puss, and how he was abandoned at an orphanage as a kitten. He was treated as an outcast by the other kids, but quickly befriended fellow outcast, Humpty Dumpty (voice by Zach Galifianakis). Humpty was obsessed with finding the magic beans that could grow a beanstalk leading up to the Land of the Giants, and the treasures it holds. Their friendship grew as the two became older, going on various adventures to search for the fabled beans. But, one fateful night, it all ended when Humpty attempted to rob a bank (he owed some thugs some money), and Puss became an outlaw for being associated with the thieving egg. Since that night, Puss has become a wandering adventurer, stealing what he needs from the evil and greedy, and helping the poor and oppressed when he can. He still searches for the magic beans, however, which he learns are currently in possession of the outlaw couple, Jack and Jill (voiced by Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris, respectively).

picThere is another adventurous cat seeking the beans, and her name is Kitty Softpaws (Selma Hayek), a master thief who is just as much of a romantic and as quick with a sword as Puss is. When the two join up, Puss learns that Kitty is working for his former friend, Humpty. The two rivals must put aside their past differences and work together in order to steal the magic beans from Jack and Jill, with Kitty's help. There are a couple of high speed chases, and a journey up to the Land of the Giants in order to steal the goose who lays golden eggs. It certainly sounds like a plot that should work, but Puss in Boots is never funny enough or imaginative enough. The new characters are not that interesting, Jack and Jill (despite game performances from Thornton and Sedaris) never come across as villains we can get involved with, and the whole thing seems surprisingly low key for an animated feature. There are some fun action and chases sequences thrown in, but they are separated by long periods where not much happens.

picThe film is certainly beautifully drawn and animated, as we have come to expect from Dreamworks, so there are some really nice images to look at. But that only takes the film so far. The main character, and Banderas' lively voice performance, also manage to only take things so far. Puss remains essentially a one-joke character here, just as he does in his supporting roles in the Shrek movies. I was hoping this film would maybe open him up a little as a character, but despite learning his background story, he gets very little development here. Maybe there's only so much you can do with someone like Puss in Boots. I hope not, because I really do love the character, and I wanted to love this movie. I found myself smiling quite a lot during the first 20 minutes or so, but then that smile faded as I started to wait for something to happen, and it never came.
In recent years, Dreamworks has released a string of very strong animated films including How to Train Your Dragon, Megamind, and Kung Fu Panda 2. Puss in Boots represents a small step back. I'm sure they'll find their footing again soon. And in case anyone's wondering, no, I don't want to see any of the other Shrek characters getting their own spin off movie.

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Friday, October 28, 2011

In Time

Writer-director Andrew Niccol likes to give us worlds that resemble our own, but differ in intriguing ways. In his breakout film, Gattaca, he gave us a world where human reproduction had been replaced with genetic splicing. In The Truman Show, he gave us a world that was completely under the control of an ego-maniacal TV producer, who was filming the life of a simple man 24-7. His latest film, In Time, explores a world where time itself is the most valuable asset, and can be bought, traded, stolen, used as currency, and even fought over. It's a fascinating idea, but instead of fully exploring this idea or the world itself, it opts for a more conventional action thriller approach that is certainly watchable, but somewhat disappointing given the possibilities on display.

picThe imaginative world and the idea behind it serve merely as a launching point for a Bonnie and Clyde-style story of fugitive lovers on the run, with plenty of chases, shootouts, and high speed cars fleeing from danger. All of this is done with a certain amount of skill, and Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried (as the fugitive lovers) are fun to watch. I just wanted the movie to slow down long enough for me to enjoy the world Niccol has created for his characters. I'm uncertain if the film is supposed to take place sometime in the distant future, or perhaps on an alternate version of Earth. We learn early on that people age normally on this world until they reach the age of 25. At that point, they simply stop aging, and a green digital clock that's permanently on their arm begins to tick down their remaining time. Everyone starts with one year worth of time left to live on their clock. But in this world, time can be bought, sold, gambled, and traded by simply clasping hands with someone else. Everything costs time in this world, and some have more than others. The wealthy elite are allowed to live for centuries, as they add more and more time to their clocks. Meanwhile, the lower class citizens who live in the slums must literally live day-by-day, and minute by minute.

picWe meet our hero, Will Salas (Timberlake) - a working class man who punches his clock at the factory every day, and has a mother (Olivia Wilde), who looks the same age as him, but is actually 50. Both live a modest life, adding whatever minutes they can to their remaining time. One day, Will saves the life of a wealthy man with over a century left to live from some thugs who wanted to steal his remaining time. After they've escaped and they are alone, the man is grateful to Will, but also admits that he has lived longer than he would like, and wishes he did not have to wait so long to have to die. He gives most of his remaining time to Will, and dies shortly afterward, letting his remaining seconds run out. With time literally now on his side, Will decides to see how the other half spend their prolonged existence. At a high scale gambling casino, he encounters one of the world's richest men, Philippe Weis (Vincent Kartheiser), as well as his lovely daughter, Sylvia (Seyfried).

picThere is an instant connection between Will and Sylvia, but it is cut short when a police detective known as a Timekeeper (Cillian Murphy) begins pursuing Will for information on the dead man he was seen with. (A security camera filmed Will being nearby the man who gave him his time right before he died.) Will flees, taking Sylvia hostage. As the two try to stay ahead of the pursuing lawmen, Sylvia gets a first hand look at how the poor scrape by to survive with their few minutes each day, whereas the rich live forever. They soon become a pair of noble outlaws, stealing precious time from banks, and delivering it to the needy. There are some fascinating ideas of class warfare at the center of In Time, with the wealthy passing down such few time limits to the working poor each day. It may be obvious, but it's effective, and it would be even more so if Niccol was allowed to truly explore his world.

picThis seems to be where the movie is going during the first half. We don't fully understand the world or its rules, but we are intrigued, and we want to learn more. We get some tasty tidbits of info, but for the most part, the movie eventually downgrades itself into endless action and conventional stunts. The movie remains watchable throughout, we're just left wondering what the movie could have been if it had stayed as intelligent as the first hour or so was. At least the movie doesn't sell itself completely short. I kept on dreading the movie would go into full-on brainless mode, which it never does. And Timberlake and Seyfried make an attractive couple, even if these aren't the most interesting characters they've played.

picI guess I could be considered of two minds regarding In Time. I was entertained, but not enough that I didn't sigh a little when the movie took a turn from the intelligent to the contrived. I also didn't care about the characters enough to fully get involved with the movie. And yet, I'm glad I saw it. There are certainly some inventive ideas on display, and when you see as many movies as I do, any film that attempts to do something a little different is always welcome. The idea is there. The potential is there. I don't know, maybe the screenplay needed another draft or two to flesh things out. Or maybe it was studio interference, demanding more action set pieces. Whatever the case, I would love to hear Niccol talk about the world he created, and hear some of the ideas he wasn't able to use in his script.
Please don't read this review as a straight-out pan. Read it simply as this is a very interesting movie that could have been so much more.

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Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Mighty Macs

Tim Chambers' The Mighty Macs is agreeable and inoffensive, G-rated, and will probably be a hit with young kids. I didn't much care for it, but I don't think this movie was made for me. It's a movie for people who just want to see a nice little uplifting story. Nothing wrong with that. I just would have wanted some originality, or at least one interesting character to go along with everything else.

pic"Inspired by a true story", the movie is about Cathy Rush, a real life girls college basketball coach, who is played in the film by Carla Gugino. As the film opens, it's 1971, and Cathy has recently married to an NBA referee named Ed Rush (David Boreanaz). Ed is "old fashioned", to put it mildly, and chauvinistic to be more blunt. He thinks his new wife's place is at the home, and is not really supportive about the idea of Cathy taking a job as the new basketball coach at Immaculata College. As is tradition in these kind of formula films, the school has a last place girls basketball team, as well as other problems, such as the school only having one ball, and the gym has recently burned down. The President of the school, Mother St. John (Ellen Burstyn) warns Cathy not to expect much. Naturally, she will defy all expectations, mold the girls into a championship team in a few montages, and they will head for the big championship game, bringing honor to the school, which is in danger of being closed down.

picWe don't find out much about the girls Cathy coaches, or really what made this team so special that the previous teams obviously lacked. I don't expect originality in these kind of underdog stories, but some individuality is often nice. The girls who make up the team are pretty much treated as a singular unit in Chambers' screenplay. There's also Sister Sunday (Marley Shelton), a young nun who is having a crisis of faith early on when we first meet her. Supposedly becoming the assistant coach to the basketball team helps her with this problem, as we never hear about it again, and she seems perfectly fine. This is the kind of movie that knows the formula, and knows what notes to hit, but it oddly keeps on skipping over the stuff that should come between.

picTake Cathy's husband, Ed, for example. For the first half of the film, he keeps on voicing his displeasure that his wife is working, and that he never gets to see her. Tension is established in the marriage, and we wait to see how it is resolved. Lo and behold, it's apparently resolved off camera (or in another draft of the screenplay), as with very little explanation, Ed suddenly becomes much more supportive of his wife's dream after a simple phone call where she tells them her team won. From that point on, he's showing up at all the games, and cheering them on. It feels like something is missing in this character. We have a beginning and an end, but he's missing a middle where he's supposed to be wavering between his old ideals, and slowly starting to accept those of his wife.

picAnd yet, I can't really hate the movie. It's so darn eager to please, and the performances are actually pretty good. It's the kind of movie where you hate being a cynic towards it, but you can't help it, because what's up on the screen is likable and all, it's just not very good. The movie is missing that special something that a formulaic sports film needs to stand out. Things like strong dialogue, or strong characters, or maybe an unexpected turn from the rigid and predictable plot. This never happens, so The Mighty Macs ends up being nice and all, but really quite bland. There's just nothing to get excited about here.
Like I said before, little kids, and people who just want to see a harmless movie where nothing really bad happens will no doubt enjoy this. I'm not disappointed that I saw this movie, really. It's just nothing you need to race out and see at the theater. Luckily, this should be appearing on DVD fairly soon.

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Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Three Musketeers

The filmmakers behind The Three Musketeers started with a simple idea - Take Alexander Dumas' classic adventure story, and update it for today's youth with a lot of out of place weaponry (like mechanical guns and flame throwers), CG effects, and slow-mo fight scenes. Next, hand the screenplay off to Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies, and order them to make it as inane and idiotic as possible. Then, hand the movie over to Paul W.S. Anderson to direct, since his past efforts like Mortal Kombat, Alien vs. Predator, and the Resident Evil films obviously make him a likely candidate to helm a rousing adventure story. Finally, cast a bunch of actors but give them absolutely nothing of note to do, and blow up the budget to the point that the movie looks like money is being burned for no reason in every frame of the film. Add it all up, and you have a candidate for one of the very worst films of the year!

picWhere do I begin? More importantly, where do I end? This movie is such a mess in so many ways, it's hard to know. The film is set in 17th Century Paris, but everybody who lives there either talks with modern day British or American accents. When we first meet the Musketeers, they are dressed like ninjas, and using stealth to attack the guards protecting Leonardo da Vinci's secret vault. Our Musketeers include the leader Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), the spiritual Aramis (Luke Evans), and the muscular Porthos (Ray Stevenson). They have been teamed up with Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich), who is very good at dodging and disarming the various booby traps that guard the treasure they seek within the vault - secret plans for a battle airship that da Vinci designed, but apparently forgot to tell anyone about. The Musketeers and Milady do a lot of martial arts sword fighting, and slow-mo dodging, until they are finally able to find the plans they're looking for. Before they can celebrate, Milady betrays them, and delivers the plans to England's evil Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom), who is a villain of the mustache-twirling Snidely Whiplash variety.

pic"One year later", the movie tells us, and the Musketeers have fallen on hard times. The evil Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) has put his army in charge of keeping the peace in France, so the three heroes have mostly disbanded. Along comes the young D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman), who is sadly to be the hero of our picture. Despite the title, the Three Musketeers actually have very little to do with anything after the opening sequence, and the shallow, wooden D'Artagnan takes center stage for the rest of the movie. He's come to Paris to be a Musketeer himself, and finds the city under the cruel law of the Cardinal's soldiers. He likes to pick fights with random people he meets on the streets, even the Musketeers themselves, so naturally, they decide he'd be a good candidate to bring the team back together, and fight back against the tyranny in the city. Meanwhile, the scheming Richelieu is trying to provoke a war with England by setting up a fake affair between France's Queen Anne (Juno Temple) and England's Buckingham. And then the Queen's jewel necklace is stolen. Oh, and there's a really silly subplot involving the foppish King Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) always being behind in fashion. It serves as both a lame running gag, as well as a lame plot that the movie spends too much time on.

picIt all leads up to a ridiculous climax involving warring airships. There are a lot of CG effects, explosions, and people running around on fire. I guess we're supposed to be so impressed, we're not supposed to ask how the French forces managed to build an airship of their own during the short time the Musketeers were sent off to England to rob from the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the sequence isn't impressive enough to prevent us from asking logical questions like this, as the whole thing has the feel of a video game. And why did the French make theirs look like a pirate ship, complete with a giant skeleton carved up front? And why does a secondary character like the Captain of Richelieu's guard, Rochefort (Mads Mikkelson), suddenly become the main villain of the movie during this sequence? And who thought it was a good idea to give the Musketeers a fat comic relief sidekick who looks and acts like Chris Farley?

picI could go on, of course, but I'll spare you and stop. I don't want to give the impression that I am against the idea of turning The Three Musketeers into a campy movie spectacle. I've never actually read the book, so it's not like I was sitting there, gnashing my teeth over what was being done to these characters. All I ask is that if you're going to take this intentionally ridiculous approach, please do it well. Paul W.S. Anderson gives us performances that are all over the map, ranging from wooden and dull, all the way to awful scene-chewing. He also seems to be at a loss as to how to make this material work, so he just throws more money up on the screen, and hopes we won't notice. The bigger this movie gets, the stupider it becomes. I actually considered walking out early a couple times, but some strange force kept me in my seat, wanting to know just how much dumber this thing could get. At least I got my answer. Oh boy, did I ever.
In what can only be called hopeless optimism, the movie has an open ending that seems to suggest that a lot of sequels are on the way. I have a certain admiration for that level of optimism, but if it means me having to sit through more of this junk, then I'd rather be pessimistic myself. Whenever a bad movie ends, I'm usually happy to be finally free. Not this time. I was saddened by how so much had gone into so little.

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The Way

In The Way, a somewhat cynical and bitter old man (played by Martin Sheen) learns that life is a journey, and while there will inevitably be problems along the way, there is beauty everywhere. This conclusion is certainly nothing new. In fact, there's very little if anything in The Way that we haven't seen before. But Sheen's son, Emilio Estevez (who wrote, directed, and has a cameo in the film), has made a genuinely heartfelt, if not somewhat plodding, movie that should prove to be a genuine crowd pleaser.

picSheen plays Tom, an eye doctor in L.A. who, as the film opens, devotes his life to his job and hanging out with his work friends on the golf course. Whether or not he is currently married or divorced is not revealed, but he does have a son named Daniel (Estevez). We witness in flashbacks that a few years ago, Daniel quit the medical field so that he could journey around the world. Tom did not approve of the decision, and he has not spoken to his son since. But then, he receives word that Daniel was killed in a storm while backpacking across the Pyrenees Mountains. Daniel had just started out on a pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago, a 500-mile trek that people have been making for 1,000 years. Tom must fly to France to identify his son's body, and collect his ashes.

picTom's initial intention is to fly back home with the ashes after the body has been incinerated, but looking through his son's belongings and learning about the journey he was taking inspires a spur of the moment decision in Tom to complete the pilgrimage of the Camino de Santiago, and to spread his son's ashes along different markers along the way. He is somewhat unprepared for the journey ahead, but at least he is not alone for long, as he meets some fellow hikers along the way. These include an overweight Dutchman (Yorick Van Wageningen), a chain-smoking woman from Canada who comes across as being very cynical, but is generally goodhearted (Deborah Kara Unger), and an Irish writer who is suffering from writer's block, and hopes the journey along the Camino de Santiago will inspire him (James Nesbitt). No prizes for guessing that this initially dysfunctional group will have many moments of soul-bearing, and end up changed for the better by the end of the journey.

picThe Way follows a predetermined path, but its heart is in the right place, and it has some strong performances to its credit, particularly from Sheen and Unger. This may be a feelgood movie, but at least it doesn't get trapped in syrupy sweetness, or forced sentiment. It's well made, has some gorgeous scenery, and the overall message of the film rings true. Sure, it would have been nice if the movie had been less heavy-handed in delivering that message, but I guess you can't have it all. There's also some clunky dialogue in Estevez's script, such as when Tom is told "You don't choose a life, you live one". This line comes early in the film, and it made me wince and worry about what else was to come. Fortunately, the movie ends up working as a travelogue, as well as a silent meditation on the lives of these characters Tom meets along the way.

picWhat saves the film from falling into mediocrity are some genuinely touching moments, such as when Tom thinks he sees Daniel at different points during his journey. There are also plenty of colorful locals for Tom and his fellow travelers to interact with, so the movie never becomes monotonous. It probably could have been trimmed just a little, though. At just over two hours, the movie feels a little padded sometimes, but at least it's not terribly so. At least the picture never stalls, or stays in one place for far too long. And when Tom and his friends arrive at the end of the journey, we can understand their feelings of exhaustion and accomplishment. The emotion rings true throughout, but it's at its best at the end. The movie itself is a mixed bag, but it works enough that I'm recommending it.
The Way does what is expected, I guess. It's a quiet little spiritual film about personal journeys, and I'm sure some audience members will like it even more than I did. I admired the performances and the characters, but thought that the script stumbled a few places along the way. At least it manages to recover, which is more than what some films can do. I guess that's enough in the end.

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Tuesday, October 25, 2011


Here is a small little indie movie that will probably go undiscovered in theaters, and I doubt will have much of a life on DVD. That's a real shame, because Norman is a sweet and smart movie. Best described as a coming of age story set around a teen faking his own death, director Jonathan Segal and screenwriter Talton Wingate have given us a film full of quiet humor, and emotional depth.

picThe film is a starring vehicle for young actor Dan Byrd, who broke out in last year's Easy A, and here proves he has what it takes to carry a film by himself. His character is Norman, a quiet high school student who pretty much keeps to himself, and goes to great lengths not to draw attention to himself. Part of this is that he knows no one at school likes him, let alone accepts him. A bigger part is that Norman does not want anyone to know what kind of a life he leads at home. His mom was killed not long ago in a car crash, and now his father (the invaluable Richard Jenkins, who is great as always) has developed stomach cancer, and is wasting away right before Norman's eyes. He knows he will be alone when his dad dies, and that thought scares him. He's been keeping these problems bottled up all this time to the point that Norman himself is starting to contemplate suicide.

picWith all these problems and frustrations at home mounting, who can blame Norman when he blows up at his best friend James (Billy Lush) during a heated argument, and tells a life-changing lie that he has cancer - stomach cancer, of course. He even shows James his dad's x-rays for "proof" that he is dying. He tells James not to tell everyone, and figures that will be the end of it. Naturally, before the school day is over, everyone in the different student cliques knows, and Norman suddenly finds himself the center of attention for the first time. His English teacher (Adam Goldberg) is sympathetic to him, and even enlists him to give a speech at a school-spirit assembly. Of course, in order to keep this lie going, he has to continue to keep his home life and the physical state of his father a secret.

picWhile all this is happening, Norman also happens to meet a pretty young blonde girl named Emily (Emily Vancamp), who genuinely seems interested in him. She's cute, she's sunny, and it seems like an impossibility to Norman that a girl this cute and smart could actually like him. It also complicates the whole "death" thing, now that the kid's found a reason to live. Where Norman goes from here is fairly predictable, as he is forced to choose between living a lie, and admitting everything (including his feelings) to Emily. What carries the film are the heartfelt performances, especially from Byrd and Jenkins. Their father and son scenes have real emotional weight. Norman is doing his best to stay strong and supportive in front of his dying father, while we get the sense that the dad would probably be happier if his son broke down and cried right along with him. Both are straining to be strong, and it's wearing them down. Their scenes together are the strongest in the film.

picThe relationship that builds between Norman and Emily is also sweet, but doesn't have quite the same emotional depth. Emily is a likable character, if not a bit underwritten, but the two young actors have good chemistry together. Their scenes together are a cute little teen romance, but don't stand out much. What does stand out is the movie's sly sense of humor. It's very subtle. This is not a laugh out loud movie, but there are definitely some moments or a quick line that will catch you off guard, and make you chuckle. But it's Byrd's lead performance that really carries the film. He has a "quiet rage" that seems to constantly be bubbling under the surface that fits the character. His pain and anger is visible just enough for us to notice, but is subtle enough for us to buy that no one around him would notice it until maybe it was too late.
Norman works on the strength of its cast, and it has a lot of very good and truthful scenes. At the very least, it cements my belief that Richard Jenkins is one of our most valuable actors, and gives it his all in just about every performance, and this is no exception. If the movie stunk, I would still say it was worth seeing once for his performance. Fortunately, there's a good movie here to go along with his great performance.

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Monday, October 24, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

2009's low budget Paranormal Activity was a clever little ghost story that used our fear of the dark and the unknown to great effect. It was such a big hit at the box office, it managed to officially replace the Saw franchise as the annual Halloween horror release. Last year's sequel, Paranormal Activity 2, was a disappointment to me at least, as I thought it played too close to what worked last time, and much of the thrill was gone. For the latest installment, directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost still stick a little too close to tradition, but manage to throw in an ingenious new method of shooting the action, and a lot more genuine thrills and scares than the previous sequel. It might not be very original, and I don't know how long this formula can last, but Paranormal Activity 3 worked for me, at least.

picSaid formula revolves around two sisters, Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden), who have been haunted by a demonic and invisible entity most of their lives. In the past films, we watched the ghostly happenings around them via video camera equipment that each of their husbands had set up to record the strange goings on in their suburban homes. The main gimmick of Paranormal Activity 3 is that the movie is set in September 1988, when Katie and Kristi were still children. In this film, Jessica Tyler Brown (young Kristi) and Chloe Csengery (young Katie) portray the sisters, and we get to see the very beginnings of the hauntings, when little Kristi starts talking about and to an imaginary friend who may or may not be more real than anyone suspects, and whom goes by the name of "Toby".

picToby supposedly lives in the crawlspace in the little girls' bedroom, and wakes young Kristi up in the middle of the night to talk to her. Strange things start happening around the house, such as mysterious sounds or bumps in the middle of the night, and the girls' electronic toys turning on by themselves. Their mother, Julie (Lauren Bittner), doesn't think much of the strange things happening, but her boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) just happens to be a professional video editor for wedding videos, and starts using his equipment to tape the stuff happening around the house around the time Toby shows up. He hooks cameras up to every room in the house, including one attached to a rotating fan, so it can pan back and forth between the connected kitchen and the living room. Unfortunately for Dennis, and the rest of the family, Toby obviously does not like to be videotaped, and he lets it known with doors slamming, furniture smashing, and soon putting the lives of Kristie and Katie in danger.

picParanormal Activity 3 is the kind of movie you need to see in a theater with the right crowd to get the full effect the movie's going for. It's the kind of movie where you jump at the slightest sound, or the slightest notion that something's there that wasn't there before. (Is that someone's shadow, or is it something...else?) You laugh when it turns out to be nothing, and then BAM...the real jolt hits. Sure, this is nothing new, but this movie knows how to dish out the jolts and make them hit hard. It does a great job of creating tension and suspense out of very little, or sometimes nothing at all, and then rewards us with a strong payoff as Toby increasingly makes his presence known to people other than Kristie. There are some clever bits involving Julie and a babysitter that is watching the girls, and the whole set up of the camera hooked to a rotating fan creates some memorable imagery.

picIt could be argued that the movie is all jolts and no brains. Anyone who goes to these movies to think will be wasting their time. There's the whole situation with Dennis filming certain events that just simply shouldn't be. There are moments where he should just put the camera down and run, but he keeps on filming for the sake of the audience. Maybe we should be grateful, but it still requires a great leap of logic to swallow the fact that hell is breaking loose all around him, and all he cares about is getting that perfect shot. There's also the film's ending, which I will not reveal, but generates more questions than answers, as well as creates some plot holes concerning the earlier two films. The earlier entries seemed to be pretty self-contained, but this ending seems to be a set up for the inevitable fourth movie coming next year.

picIt would also be a great disservice not to mention that the film's ad campaign is made up largely out of footage that is not in the final film. This puzzles me, obviously. Yeah, it's kind of nice for once not to have the best scares in the film ruined in the ad campaign, but it still seems very misleading. Comparing the movie on the screen with the movie in the trailers, it's almost like two completely different films were shot. Was that the case? Are they saving this stuff for the DVD? Will the footage appear in the next one? Was there a lot of last minute editing? I figure we'll know the answer soon enough, but it's still a little frustrating. The footage in the trailer even seems to hint at a completely different ending, one that fits a little bit better with what has been established in the earlier films. Why the filmmakers went the route they did, I don't know.
That being said, I guess the ultimate question is Paranormal Activity 3 scary? In a quick jolt kind of way, yes. It made me tense and uneasy, and while it played out during its brief 80 minute or so running time, I was completely involved. You walk out of the theater, you laugh, and you remember having fun watching it. Those who didn't like the other movies won't like this one, I gather. But, if you've been with the series up to this point and generally had fun, this one won't disappoint.

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