Monday, October 31, 2011

Favourite Halloween Movies: The Exorcist

I thought it'd be fun to write about some of my favourite horror films in the days leading up to Halloween. 
Third on my list ...The Exorcist (1973).
Directed By: William Friedkin 
Based on the Novel By: William Peter BlattyStarring: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow and Linda Blair 

Often credited as the scariest movie of all time, The Exorcist manages to remain just as terrifying as it was when it was first released. Considering most horror films don't necessarily age well, The Exorcist still manages to pull in new generations of fans who find it legitimately unsettling. 

Why I Love It: The story of the demonic possession of 12-year-old Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) may have too slow of a plot build for some audiences (it takes nearly 45 minutes for the film to truly get underway); however, it sets up the relationship between young Regan and her mother (Ellen Burstyn) as a loving one that will face the ultimate test when Regan is brutally taken over by an unseen demon. With its viscerally shocking scenes of possession and religious confrontations, The Exorcist ingrained itself into popular culture from the moment of its initial release. 

The films is stylishly atmospheric and contains some of the most memorable scenes in not only the horror genre, but in film overall -- the most iconic being the shot of Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) silently emerging from a taxi to stand in the night, surrounded in mist, in front of the MacNeil house as he mentally prepares to face-off with the demon inhabiting Regan. The demon causes the once-polite girl to swear, spit, vomit and growl in a horrifyingly inhuman voice -- the moments when Regan is able to come through and ask for help before being taken over once again are unsettling in their portrayal of a young girl completely vulnerable to a terrifying supernatural situation. 

It's the religious and spiritual themes that make the movie more than just your average horror film. Villains like Freddy Krueger or Michael Myers is one thing; the notion of an evil spirit inhabiting the body of a good and innocent girl is something entirely different. The words coming out in the demon's voice and the physical actions it forces Regan to take are all the more jarring because she's still a young child. While some (audiences and critics alike) have accused the film of religious exploitation over the years, The Exorcist remains a powerful horror film with jarring imagery of demonic possession while delving into such issues as a crisis of faith. 

Combined with Jack Nitzsche's chilling score and some of the most iconic scenes in film, The Exoricst was controversial when it was first released and it raised the bar for the horror genre. Few have been able to match its power to unsettle and terrify.

Favourite Scene: 
Here's a pretty good video of the five scariest scenes from the film. Embedding wasn't allowed, but you can VIEW IT HERE.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Movie Review: Paranormal Activity 3

Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
Directed By: Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman
Starring: Christopher Nicholas Smith, Lauren Bittner, Chloe Csengery and Jessica Tyler Brown

The best horror films are often the ones that make our skin crawl without the director ever having to show us exactly what is getting under our skin.

Knowing very little about the Paranormal Activity franchise (I saw the first film once and never bothered to watch the sequel), I thought this three-quel prequel did a solid job of gradually building tension without ever going over-the-top in the cheap scares department. It just proves that, in most cases, the less you see, the scarier the situation.

Under the assured direction of Henry Joost and Ariel Shulman, the film takes its time setting up the scene for this third instalment -- a rarity in most horror films nowadays, which tend to go straight for the gratuitous shots of blood and gore.

It's 1988 and siblings Katie and Kristi have moved into a new house with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and mom's boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Almost immediately, younger sister Kristi starts telling her family about her new imaginary best friend, Toby. Around the same time, Dennis accidentally catches some suspicious activity on his video camera one night. He goes into detective mode and sets up three cameras around the house -- one in his bedroom, one in the girls' bedroom and one that pans over the living room and dining area.

Paranormal Activity 3 is prequel meant to explain why these two sisters are susceptible, throughout their life (and in the other films), to visitations from things that go bump in the night.The formula has already been established with the first two films; yet, despite the "been there, done that" feel of the film, it still manages to spook its audience.The use of an oscillating fan to capture paranormal activity on the panning camera in the kitchen is an especially creepy touch, leaving the audience to catch mere glimpses of strange activity from their peripheral vision only.

Proper character development is often the biggest casualty in the "found footage" sub-genre; however the two young actresses playing Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) give solid performances. From start the finish, these two young actresses -- and the unseen spooks -- sustain our attention, and a consistent sense of dread, from start to finish. It's not the actual scares that hold our interest, it's the slow-building suspense and sudden jolts.

The only real downfall is the perplexing ending that very nearly topples the entire film with its bizarre and unexplained conclusion. It pretty much guarantees a fourth movie is in the works, but the cliffhanger leaves no real clues as to which direction the franchise will go in next.

Although the whole "found footage" trend has essentially been reduced to a gimmick at this point, the creators of Paranormal Activity 3 show that, if used right, it can still rise above average material and produce some genuine scares.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Movie Review: Moneyball

Brad Pitt as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane
Moneyball (2011)
Directed By: Bennett Miller
Written By: Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian
Based on the Book By: Michael Lewis
Starring: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Philip Seymour-Hoffman

"It's hard not to be romantic about baseball." There's a lot of truth behind that quote, uttered by Brad Pitt in the lead role as Oakland Athletics General Manager, Billy Beane. There's no denying the long love affair that American cinema has had with the sport -- more than any other game it looks and sounds the best on the big screen, from those slow-motion pitches to the sharp crack of a bat. It's a sport filled with long and quiet lulls, punctuated by moments of euphoria and excitement, much like we experience in life.

Adapted from Michael Lewis' 2003 novel Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, director Bennett Miller's film closely examines the 2001-2 season of the down-on-their luck Oakland A's. As Billy (Brad Pitt) explains to his teams scouts, "There are rich teams and there are poor teams, then there's 50 feet of crap, and then there's us." Billy is, essentially, completely handicapped by the lowest salary constraint in the big leagues. Where teams like the New York Yankees boast millions of dollars to pick and choose from among the best prospects, the A's have a middling few hundred thousand to spend. When Billy recruits Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics major from Harvard, as his new assistant GM, Billy risks alienating his entire staff as he and Peter play a strange numbers game in an attempt to lure cheap, seemingly mediocre players to fill their roster. Billy and Peter are under the assumption that they can assemble a playoff-worthy team under budget by using a computer-generated analysis created by a factory worker named Bill James to draft players. To the majority of scouts and owners, Billy has lost his mind and irresponsibly erases decades worth of how baseball franchises go about forming their teams.

Moneyball is one of the best sports genre movies released in years. It instantly made my top five favourite sports films list (which also includes baseball classics Bull Durham, Field of Dreams and A League of Their Own, along with the underrated soccer gem The Damned United). However, unlike the other films mentioned, Moneyball delves into the behind-the-scenes drama and inner workings of what it takes to build a winning team. There's more drama behind office desks than on the field.

Pitt and Hill as Billy Beane and Peter Brand.
With Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zaillian's sharp dialogue and expert pacing, Moneyball manages to take what, on paper, may read as a dull plot and crafts an inspirational saga about a team of underdogs.

The chemistry between Pitt and Hill is what really drives the fantastic script home. They have an instinctual knack for comedic timing, yet both demonstrate they have the dramatic chops to keep the film grounded. This odd couple carries the weight of the film on their shoulders, with occasional help from an excellent Philip Seymour-Hoffman in the small role of A's manager Art Howe.

This is Pitt's maturest performance to date -- he's subtle and nuanced, even in the lighter comedic moments. Whether spitting tobacco or tossing aside chairs, he's both a loving father and a quick-to-anger former athlete who loves the game of baseball. Billy is the outcast at the centre of a struggling sports franchise and, while all eyes are on him to turn things around quickly, he ultimately becomes the beating heart of the team. He doesn't just want to win, he wants it to mean something.

Moneyball examines the harsh realities that face major league teams when they are unable to take it all the way and the pressures that come with a restless fanbase and hovering owners breathing down your neck. Movies like Moneyball force us to remember that, despite the abundance of riches in professional sports, there are those who really do care -- for love of the game.


Thursday, October 13, 2011

Favourite Halloween Movies: The Shining

"All work and no play make Jack a dull boy."
I thought it'd be fun to write about some of my favourite horror films in the days leading up to Halloween. Last week I did Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).

Second on my list ...The Shining (1980).
Directed By: Stanley Kubrick
Based on the Novel by: Stephen King
Starring: Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd

Kubrick's films have always managed to leave me feeling unsettled. But I can never pinpoint exactly what it is that I find so disturbing about them. Whether it's his eerie classic The Shining or a non-horror film like Full Metal Jacket or even Dr. Strangelove, I'm always left impressed with how well Kubrick was able to capture the dark atmosphere lying just beneath the surface. It's a testament to his talent as a director to have you on the edge of your seat without ever really knowing why. With The Shining we actually know why we are on the edge of our seats; yet, Kubrick manages to keep us on edge even if we've read the novel and know the outcome. No easy feat.

Why I Love It: Growing up, I was a hardcore Stephen King devotee. At one point, I read his books as if no other author in the world existed. Although it has been years since I last read a King novel, The Shining was always one of my favourites. The thought of being trapped in an empty hotel over the long winter season with a father who is rapidly losing his mind gives the plot a claustrophobic tension that is hard to shake.

It's a cold, yet stylish, masterpiece of a film and an excellent how-to guide for future directors on how to slowly build and create atmosphere by using vivid visuals and pushing its main actors to the brink.

Few films are this psychologically overwhelming -- a close examination of madness (and what madness can ultimately set loose within a confined space), Kubrick provides the audience with a glimpse of how powerful a film can be when the central characters are unreliable narrators -- Jack, Wendy and Danny are either all off their rockers or onto something with regards to the hostile energies in the hotel.

Although the film does have its critics, its deliberate pace and gradual build to its climax ensures it will continue to remain a classic of the horror genre. Kubrick also manages to, arguably, make the ending even better than in King's original novel. With Nicholson leading the charge in an over-the-top, yet perfectly creepy, performance, The Shining is a must-see for any film fan.

Favourite Scene: An example of how one single, close-up shot, without any dialogue, can both leave the viewer unsettled and suddenly change the direction and momentum of the plot at the same time.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Favourite Halloween Movies: Nightmare on Elm Street

Robert Englund as Freddy
I thought it'd be fun to write about some of my favourite horror films in the weeks and days leading up to Halloween.

First up ... Nightmare on Elm Street (1984).
Written and Directed By: Wes Craven
Starring: Heather Langenkamp, Johnny Depp and Robert Englund

This was the second horror film I'd ever seen in my life at the time (second only to the wonderfully atrocious Dolly Dearest, which was essentially a girl-doll remake of Child's Play). I saw Nightmare way back in the sixth grade and I consider it my official introduction to the horror genre (sorry, Dolly).

Freddy Krueger (or Fred, as he's referred to in the original movie -- there's a bit of trivia for you!) remains one of my favourite film villains. He luckily hasn't been destroyed by the shoddy and over-the-top remakes that effectively ruined any enjoyment I ever had for classic villains Michael Myers (Halloween) and Jason Vorhees (Friday the 13th). Last years Nightmare remake starring Jackie Earle Haley was actually decent, although completely unnecessary. 

Why I Love It: While many horror film buffs that I've talked to tend to prefer gorier, grindhouse fare from the 1970s (or anything by Dario Argento), I've always been a bigger fan of the more traditional "slasher flicks" that were really big in the 1980s and early 1990s. I guess there's just something about a clever, shadowy villain chasing teenagers that I find more watchable -- its that whole idea of the "boogeyman" that you just can't seem to outsmart.

The plot, for those who don't know, is relatively unique for a teen slasher film: When it's discovered that reclusive creep Fred Krueger is the man behind the recent deaths of young children in a small town, the parents of the community mobilize a lynch mob in an act of vigilantism. They lock Fred in his house and set fire to it, scarring him beyond recognition before he eventually succumbs to his injuries. Years later, the children of the parents who took part in the lynching are being terrorized by a shadowy figure in their nightmares -- an act of revenge from the "spirit" of Fred.

I remember being so freaked out by the premise when I was a kid. Sleep can not be avoided and Freddy was not just some intruder you could lock out of your house. He got inside your head and stayed there. He didn't have a slow, ambling walk like Michael Myers or Jason Vorhees -- Freddy could turn into various people, or even objects, to confuse a dreaming teenager.  

Nightmare is a horror fantasy franchise that distorts reality and utilizes nightmare tropes to chilling effect; a surprise considering its low budget. Dream sequences involving stairs turning into mush so the victim is trapped in same spot is only one example of the creative, nightmare-quality the film takes on.

Although Freddy has very little actual screentime in the original film, it's the first time audiences got a glimpse of what would ultimately become his iconic outfit -- red and black striped sweater, clawed hand and fedora-like hat. Freddy eventually became a bit of a wise-cracking villain in the gorier sequels but, although some fans prefer some of the later films, the first film is arguably the true classic of the series.

Favourite Scene: Johnny Depp (in his breakout role) is pulled through his bed and...there's no real way to explain this properly. It's one of the most famous scenes in the film because it manages to be both ridiculous, creepy and gross at the same time. Plus, it's got that great (and by great, I mean cheesy) generic music that became the staple of many horror soundtracks. YouTube didn't allow any embedding, but you can watch the clip HERE).

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Movie Review: 50/50

Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Seth Rogen
50/50 (2011)
Directed By: Jonathan Levine
Written By: Will Reiser
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Seth Rogen, Anna Kendrick, Bryce Dallas Howard and Anjelica Huston

There are some people who, like myself, tend to avoid movies that centre around a fatal illness. These films are usually either one of two extremes -- far too devastating to watch or so sappy and self-important that you can barely sit through its running time. 50/50 is neither, thankfully. Instead it's a quietly intelligent look at one young man's cancer diagnosis and how he resolves to remain upbeat (and somewhat aloof) while undergoing chemotherapy treatment.

Adam (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a 27-year-old radio producer with a slacker best friend (Seth Rogen) and a distant and self-involved girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard), finds out he has a rare spinal cancer and that his odds for survival is deadlocked at a 50% chance.

The script by Will Reiser is based on his own battle with cancer six years ago and addresses how he and Rogen, his real-life buddy, dealt with the diagnosis. Gordon-Levitt is more than up for the challenge of filling Reiser's shoes onscreen, delivering a subtle and nuanced performance that is an early frontrunner for an Oscar nomination.

Adam couldn't be any more of an average joe -- the eternal "nice-guy" who enjoys his simple, regular life and its lack of complications. His "everyman" quality makes his diagnosis all the more heartbreaking, especially considering the insensitive manner in which it is delivered by a distracted doctor.

50/50 is a perfect blend of light-hearted comedy and a look at the sadness and fear that accompanies an illness that may very well result in death. Once faced with his own mortality, Adam begins to make some changes in his life -- inspired in part by his eternally optimistic pal, Kyle, and his new young, med-student therapist, Katherine (Anna Kendrick). With his concerns over his health and his deteriorating relationship with his girlfriend, Rachel, Adam comes to lean on the support offered by Kyle and, especially, Katherine more than ever. However, it's the scenes that Gordon-Levitt shares with Anjelica Huston as his mother where the film really soars. Both give such lovely performances that it's hard not to wish that the script had required them to share more screen time together. Although her role is much smaller than the rest of the cast, Huston's performance is the definition of a perfect supporting role.

The only real flaw in the film is the two main female leads. They are devoid of any real personality -- Howard portrays another variation on the bitchy character she recently played in The Help and Kendrick is still hanging onto the vulnerable smart-aleck characterization she used to earn herself an Oscar nomination for Up in the Air a couple of years ago. However, the film is all about Adam and his friendship with Kyle and director Levine gave both Gordon-Levitt and Rogen the freedom to ad-lib on occasion, which only adds to their chemistry.

While the notion of a lighter, more comedic look at cancer may turn some people off from seeing 50/50, they should know that the movie is also filled with moments of genuine despair and anger over the diagnosis. Watching Adam bond with two older men also suffering from cancer (played by Philip Baker Hall and Matt Frewer) is one of the highlights.

50/50 is a feel-good film that will make you laugh and cry in equal measure without falling into the trap of being overly sentimental. Certain scenes will stay with you long after the closing credits.