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.
A year after Twilight scorched the cineplex with its tale of forbidden teenage human/vampire love the second chapter of author Stephenie Meyer's harlequin saga has arrived to once again stir the loins of enraptured tweens (and their mothers and their mothers' mothers) everywhere. Having already sold out its first 2 000 showings several days before its release The Twilight Saga: New Moon is arguably the most critic-proof movie of the decade. And yet here goes ...
From a filmmaking standpoint New Moon represents an immediate upgrade over its predecessor which all too often felt slipshod and amateurish. Under the more assured hand of director Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass About a Boy) who took over the reigns from Twilight helmer Catherine Hardwicke the film can at least boast the gloss and shine of a real Hollywood movie and not some straight-to-video hack job. Better visual effects more accomplished camerawork improved production design and a more seasoned cast all add up to a vast improvement in production values in New Moon. It could very well be the awesomest issue of Tiger Beat ever.
Where the film falters — fatally in my opinion — is in its porous plotting and sluggish pacing. Meyer's source material mandated that its teenage heroine Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) be separated from her vampire paramour Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) at the outset with the bulk of the narrative devoted to Bella coping with the loss of her goth James Dean. But producers of the adaptation loath to reduce their most valuable asset to a mere cameo expanded Pattinson’s presence — and the film suffers for it. Edward lingers throughout New Moon's prolonged first act strutting around in slow motion and uttering lines like “Bella you give me everything just by breathing” before finally ditching the old lady and disappearing to Italy on official vampire business.
The inciting action — Edward’s departure — is followed by a decided lack of action specifically in regards to the futile efforts of Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) a musclebound shape-shifting werewolf who emerges as a potential rebound candidate for Bella. The two friends engage in a painful protracted flirtation: She ogles his (typically shirtless) chest stares deeply into his eyes and tells him he’s beautiful but when he makes a move she shuts him down citing her continuing devotion to Edward who appears repeatedly to her in the form of a distractingly cheesy Obi-Wan Kenobi-like apparition. In the end poor Jacob is left holding nothing but an aching pair of werewolf blue balls.
New Moon is all about longing: Bella longing for Edward; Jacob longing for Bella; me longing for something anything to happen. The film teases us with ominous talk of a looming war between vampires and werewolves but it’s just that: talk. The real action I’m told is saved for the next two Twilight installments Eclipse and Breaking Dawn which judging from the current trend will no doubt be stretched into six equally critic-proof films. Until then we're forced to subsist on New Moon's meager melange of pointless adolescent melodrama — sprinkled liberally with gratuitous shots of toned shirtless boys.
While the original 1950s sci-fi cult classic pointed to the Cold War and the threat of nuclear war in a timely manner this The Day the Earth Stood Still is just a rehash. Do we really need Keanu Reeves to tell us how we’ve messed up the planet? In any case he plays Klaatu an alien being inside a human body who comes to Earth in a giant sphere to “talk” to our world leaders about our destructive behavior. In fact he’s the deciding factor on whether to destroy the human race in order to preserve Earth OR give us another chance. Of course no one is going to let Klaatu speak to the U.N. which leaves the alien no other choice. Until that is he joins up with a pretty scientist (Jennifer Connelly) and her stepson (Jaden Smith) and sees just exactly how warm and fuzzy humans can be. Oy. It might be too late though since Klaatu’s giant robot friend (“Gort” in the original) is already gearing up for his mission to kill and destroy. At least casting Keanu Reeves was a smart move. Klaatu’s lack of emotion and few words is right up the actor’s alley; he makes it look soooo easy. Connelly on the other hand is making the same mistake she did when she starred in Hulk -- playing a brilliant scientist of some kind who is inevitably wasted onscreen. Jaden Smith is kind of an impertinent little snot through most of the movie who wants Klaatu dead but suddenly changes his mind just at the right moment. And then there’s Kathy Bates as the Secretary of Defense who stonewalls Klaatu’s request to meet the world leaders. She nearly ruins the whole thing! It’s not that The Day the Earth Stood Still is a poorly made film. Director Scott Derrickson sets the right tone and aptly applies the state-of-the-art special effects when it’s needed -- especially when the robot starts to work his particular destructive mojo by unleashing millions of tiny mechanical bugs who eat through everything. The main problem with this remake is bad timing. The original was creepy and quiet and menacing with its alien takeover theme in a way moviegoers had never experienced in 1951; it hit a chord which has carried it through its cult status. But to redo it now when we’ve seen the same kind of movie done in so many better ways doesn’t make any sense. In trying to keep to the original’s spirit this Day comes off as derivative unimaginative and tedious. Should have left it alone folks.
Inspired by true events we are told Emily Rose's harrowing tale through her priest Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson). As sanctioned by the Catholic Church Father Moore tried to perform an exorcism on the girl but failed. On trial for what the prosecution calls Emily's "negligent murder " Father Moore isn't afraid to go to jail. He is just desperate to tell Emily's story--how this fresh-faced seemingly healthy 19-year-old farm girl (Jennifer Carpenter) goes off to college and comes back home speaking in tongues eating giant bugs and apparently inhabited by not just one but six separate demons who finally kill her. This is what Emily's family and Father Moore firmly believe happened to her. The medical community however claims Emily suffered from a combination of epilepsy and psychosis that without proper medication resulted in her death. In a case that will certainly further her career if she wins whip-smart defense lawyer Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) sets out to prove Father Moore only wanted to help. While the facts are laid out the underlying question as to whether supernatural and evil entities truly exist remains constant. Don't expect any answers.
The cast's riveting performances is the real reason why Emily Rose isn't an original TV movie. Through Linney (Kinsey) Wilkinson (In the Bedroom) and Campbell Scott (Roger Dodger) who plays the prosecuting attorney we get three varying views on the subject of demon possession. Erin represents those who just don't know what they believe and Linney does a convincing job portraying a woman who is trying to do her job but at the same time is bothered by how it's affecting her. As the prosecuting attorney Scott is the naysayer. He's a devout Methodist but he doesn't believe in the Catholic notion of possession and exorcism. And of course Father Moore is the true believer. Wilkinson doesn't play him as a crackpot; rather he gives the character a calm intelligence. He also shows us a man who has been deeply affected not only by his failure to help Emily but by his compulsion to tell her story to the rest of the world. Then there's Carpenter as the tortured Emily. Apparently after director Scott Derrickson saw what the young newcomer could do with her body and voice to make being invaded by demons believable (pay close attention to her hands) he knew he would need very little special effects. Carpenter does an amazing job--without ever spewing green goo.
More than just a head-spinning pea-soup-vomiting horror flick Emily Rose roots its terror in reality which in a way makes it creepier. Now I'm not saying The Exorcist isn't one of the most frightening movies ever made but Derrickson who also co-wrote Emily Rose takes the horrifying idea of demon possession and turns it into something less graphic and more thought provoking. To begin with it's a little unnerving to know the Catholic Church is taking exorcisms pretty seriously. You might scratch your head on this one wondering if angels and demons really do exist. If at 3 a.m. the witching hour does indeed begin then the smell of something burning (sulfur perhaps?) means the demons have come out to play. Still in analyzing Emily's case through a courtroom the movie leans toward those soapbox Perry Mason-style speeches about fact vs. faith. Some of them work and are executed with full effect especially Erin's closing argument. But you know that if the same film starred Melissa Gilbert and Richard Chamberlain it'd be on the USA Network.
Only mildly titillating and not especially thrilling the wannabe erotic thriller In the Cut isn't able to rise to the occasion so to speak. This yawner stars Meg Ryan as Frannie a depressed creative writing teacher in New York who keeps mostly to herself unless it's to get together with her slutty half-sister Pauline (Jennifer Jason Leigh). Wary about love Frannie's seen how messed up relationships can get. The last guy Frannie dated an mentally unstable med student (Kevin Bacon) is stalking her while crazy sis Pauline is currently stalking a married man who has a restraining order against her. These people have serious issues and dour Frannie figures its easier just to fantasize about men and masturbate (hey don't we all?). Then she meets Det. James Malloy (Mark Ruffalo) an aggressive yet charismatic cop who questions her about the brutal murder of a woman in the neighborhood. Things get all screwy (in more ways than one) when the attraction between Frannie and Malloy grows and the slick detective ends up taking Frannie to some new sexual heights while at the same time strange occurrences are making her suspect Malloy is the murderer. Aw she's just so negative. It all comes to a head so to speak as the real murderer comes to light blah blah blah--but all we want to know is will Frannie finally find a good anti-depressant?
Along with so many actresses Meg Ryan apparently believes dying her hair brown wearing no makeup and sporting a sour and we suspect surgically enhanced face (she looks more nauseated than anything) gives her dramatic heft. And what about that gutsy move of showing a little frontal? Stop the presses--America's sweetheart bares her soul and her breasts! Unfortunately it all backfires. The usually perky Ryan can't dig deep enough to inhabit Frannie's miserable persona even though she's had practice (remember When a Man Loves a Woman and Courage Under Fire) and with In the Cut she comes off looking worse than ever literally and figuratively with a wrist-slitting performance that only proves comedies will forever be her forte (where's Sally when you need her?) As the skanky cop Ruffalo (You Can Count on Me) fares a bit better but still telling a woman all the things you want do to her in bed in a flat emotionless voice doesn't help his case as a sexually provocative leading man. If Ryan's Frannie was not so lifeless maybe she and Malloy could have sizzled but they never connect. The always-good Leigh would have made a much better Frannie. As disturbed Pauline she turns in the most interesting performance of the film.
Director Jane Campion (The Piano) admits she was going for a specific look and feel with In the Cut that of the emotionally charged '70s dramas and thrillers such as the classic 1971 erotic thriller Klute about an emotionally distant prostitute who helps a detective solve a string of murders. In the Cut tries to be Klute--sans Jane Fonda's Oscar-winning performance as the prostitute and Donald Sutherland's superb turn as the smitten detective. Campion's film lacks both stellar performances and the street grit that made those older films so powerful though she does give the film the same drab grimy look of a '70s indie film to match the mood of her main characters (and what fun that is). Plus the way she annoyingly films scenes out of focus makes you think you've got myopia--the periphery is constantly out of focus. Rather than being artsy all this does is trigger a headache.