The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.
Just in time for Christmas comes Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel a giant furry lump of coal in the stockings of fans of quality filmmaking everywhere. The latest episode which picks up soon after 2007’s absurdly successful live action/CGI hybrid Alvin and the Chipmunks finds the titular singing rodents on uncertain ground after their manager/guardian Dave Seville (Jason Lee) is injured in a freak concert accident. (In a gimmick lifted right out of Revenge of the Nerds II he spends the entire film in the hospital bedridden.)
Dave’s befuddled substitute a videogame-obsessed ne’er-do-well named Toby (Zachary Levi wielding a strained slacker schtick even less convincing than his bumbling geek act in Chuck) is ill-suited to helping Alvin Simon and Theodore handle the rigors of high school or deal with the challenge of a rival all-female singing chipmunk trio the Chipettes. With dissension in the ranks and a decisive battle of the bands looming the three brothers must find a way to overcome their differences and rekindle the magic that first propelled them to the top of the charts.
In theory adding a girl group to the mix roughly doubles the selection of songs to choose from but the actual singing and dancing in Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel presumably the whole point of this tedious exercise feels greatly reduced in comparison to the first film. (I wouldn’t know for sure — I’ll be damned if I sit through another screening torturous screening of it.) Which depending on your perspective may not be a bad thing. Personally I found it to be a double-edged sword: Fewer excruciating squeaky-voiced covers of songs like “We Are Family” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” means more room for lame jokes and awful acting both of which can be found in ample amounts.
As with its predecessor this Squeakuel is the perfect movie for those who find Teletubbies and Dora the Explorer a little too highbrow.
As a wife and mother Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) has a seemingly idyllic life until a sudden accident rips her family away from her. That sets in motion a kind of healing reunion a year later. Her feisty friend Juno (Natalie Mendoza) and Beth (Alex Reid) convince Sarah to join a few other friends on a caving expedition--including Holly (Nora-Jane Noone) a butch caver who impulsively does whatever she wants and Rebecca (Saskia Mulder) an overly-cautious climber who needs to map out everything they do. Thing is this thrill-seeking challenge turns out to much more than they expected especially when they are trapped and suddenly notice white shadows squirming around them. Not good. The mostly unknown actresses in this scare fest are all decent in their Descent--and although grappling with one-dimensional characters the women still manage to convey the suffocating feeling of being confined in small spaces. In the dark dripping wet environ they deliver realistic reactions to the horror unfolding around them which is about as chilling as anyone can imagine. MacDonald as the long-suffering widow is a particular treat as she changes from a pitiful whiner to a kick-ass survivor who exacts revenge in different ways. Originally released in England British director Neil Marshall has handed us an appropriately creepy film which taps into primal fears--dark claustrophobic spaces things that go bump in the night--situations we usually see men deal with. So it's quite refreshing to watch women handle it especially in the way Marshall unravels the female camaraderie as expertly as the climbers tie their ropes. The Descent displays squirm-inducing violence that's not at all white-washed just because there are ladies involved. It's gory and brutal. The scariest moments are often obscured by the dark and in some scenes the film resorts to a Blair Witch Project point of view by watching the action through a camcorder. Although this Americanized version has a different ending from the British version (apparently one not so morbid) it's still far better than last year's abysmal The Cave. The Descent will definitely get your heart rate up!
Once respected NYPD detective Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis) is now pretty much on his last legs literally and figuratively. He drinks is relegated to a desk job and walks with a limp. One morning after a long shift he’s corralled into transporting a petty criminal Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) to the courthouse 16 blocks away so he can testify by 10:00 a.m. What Jack doesn’t know is that Eddie is one of the key witnesses in a case against crooked cops--that is until the two start getting shot at. Then it becomes crystal clear. The main bad guy Jack’s former partner Frank (David Morse) basically lets Jack know Eddie will never testify to just go ahead and hand him over but Frank underestimates Jack’s desire to finally do something good. So Jack and Eddie fight their way to the courthouse block by gut-wrenching block. Oh no there’s nothing formulaic about 16 Blocks not at all. In a film as predictable as this the only thing that’ll make it stand out is the performances. 16 Blocks nearly succeeds--but not quite. It would seem Willis is playing a character he’s played a hundred times before--the misunderstood and slightly unorthodox cop with a heart of gold. But as Jack the actor does a nice job trying out some new things namely playing fat bald and grizzled. You can almost smell how bad Jack’s breath has to be. Rapper/actor Mos Def who usually brightens any film he’s in also tries his hand at something different but his choices aren’t as smart. As the talkative and affable Eddie Mos comes up with one of the more annoying nasally accents ever recorded. After about five minutes of screen time you desperately want him to stop and say “Just kidding! I don’t really talk like this.” But he doesn’t. It’s too bad something like an accent can ruin an otherwise decent performance. Old-school director Richard Donner best known for his Lethal Weapons is a consummate professional when it comes to making these kind of movies. In other words he pretty much paints by numbers. We watch Jack and Eddie get out of one tight situation after another as the gaggle of bad cops try to gun them down. I mean 16 blocks doesn’t seem that far to go so they better throw in as many highly implausible obstacles as they can. Chinese laundries alleyways rooftops subways. And yes even a city bus which the pair--who have by now bonded big time--has to hijack. Donner also employs a popular but nonetheless annoying technique of zooming in when the action heats up so you can’t really see what’s going on. Even if you’re addicted to action movies--a Bruce Willis action movie no less--16 Blocks just doesn’t deliver the goods.
Although the film's title suggests there might be some deeply relevant British national allegory in the film post-colonialist comedy fans shouldn't get their hopes up. The plot of Johnny English such as it is goes something like this: The title character a bumbling junior-level spy (Rowan Atkinson) is suddenly thrust into active duty when every other agent in the British Secret Service is blown to smithereens during a bombing at a fellow agent's funeral. When the Crown Jewels are stolen it's up to English to discover the culprit and in the process he unearths a plot to replace the Queen of England with a French entrepreneur who has some pretty nasty real estate development plans for Merry Olde Blighty. It's a sorry excuse for a story sure but such paltry fare as plot character development and dialogue don't matter much when you connect the bits with U.K. fave Atkinson hamming it up in his trademark blundering way. And he really is funny in this movie--maybe not pee-your-pants funny but certainly hoot-out-loud funny. As with any spy spoof some of the shtick works and some doesn't but on the whole Atkinson and Co. do a good job in spite of the contrived script and pithy lines writers Neal Purvis Robert Wade and William Davies have pieced together for them.
If Cervantes' Don Quixote were a modern-day spy this would be his story. Atkinson tilts at Johnny English's windmills with the vigor and extravagance fans of the comedian's trademarked physical comedy have come to expect. Whether he's crashing a funeral pantomiming to ABBA in front of his bathroom mirror invading a hospital with guns blazing or getting his tie caught in a sushi bar conveyor belt Atkinson gives this movie's hackneyed scenes personality they probably wouldn't have had in any other actor's hands. Comedian and fellow Brit Ben Miller takes his first strokes across the pond as English's sidekick Bough playing Sancho Panza to Atkinson's Quixote to fairly good effect. The real "straight man" in this farce however is Natalie Imbruglia as love interest Lorna Campbell. The girl can't act her way out of a paper bag but when you look the way she does in leather pants and stilettos talent is beside the point. John Malkovich is underutilized as the villain Pascal Sauvage whose anti-English (that's the nation not the spy) sentiments have driven him to lay claim to the throne of England which he plans to use for nefarious purposes.
Based as it is on a character Atkinson created for a TV commercial for a major British credit card it's not surprising that the characters in Johnny English are far more entertaining when they're improvising 60-second physical comedy scenes than when they're attempting to further the so-called plot. What is surprising is that such pedigreed moviemakers as director Peter Howitt (Sliding Doors) production company Working Title Films (producers of Elizabeth Fargo and Billy Elliot) and producer Mark Huffam (The Hours) are attached to such a silly film. Then again everybody needs to let loose sometime; maybe this is their idea of a vacation.