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.
Matt Reeves' magnificent Let Me In is an Americanized adaptation of Let the Right One In a Swedish horror film which itself is based on an acclaimed novel by John Ajvide Lindqvist (also Swedish). As such its setting has been moved from frigid Scandinavia to the more familiar but no less frigid Los Alamos New Mexico a town depicted as so bleak and uninviting as to provoke a lawsuit from the state’s tourism commission. Its atmosphere is particularly inhospitable to timid loners like 12-year-old Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) a spindly late-bloomer who suffers regular humiliations at school courtesy of a trio of pubescent sadists.
Owen’s home life isn’t much better: Dad’s gone for good pending a divorce from mom who’s an aspiring wino and something of a religious nut. He seeks refuge nightly in the solitary confines of his apartment complex courtyard where he meets and befriends Abby (Chloe Moretz) a new neighbor and apparent kindred spirit whose quirks include a penchant for walking barefoot through the snow. That along with her professed inability to recall her exact age provides Owen with the first clues that his new friend may not be entirely normal.
She is in fact a vampire. And like any vampire Abby requires blood for sustenance. But since the sight of a little girl chomping on the necks of locals is certain to raise eyebrows at Child Protective Services she entrusts the duty of procuring nourishment to her haggard elder companion (Richard Jenkins). First believed to be Abby’s father but later revealed as otherwise he (his name is never stated) trots out wearily on occasion to find a fresh young body to drain of its blood. His skills appear to be slipping in his old age (like Owen he is a mere mortal) and his sloppiness soon attracts the attention of a grizzled local cop (Elias Koteas) who has no idea how far in over his head he is. (The film is set in 1983 when the vampire-detection tools available to law enforcement officials were woefully inadequate.)
Meanwhile Abby and Owen’s relationship blossoms and notwithstanding the inevitable complications that arise in every human-vampire relationship they develop a profound and sweetly innocent bond. Still lurking in the back of our minds is the knowledge that Abby at her core is a remorseless bloodsucker and one significantly older than her pre-teen visage would have us believe. Is her affection for Owen sincere or is she merely grooming him to assume the role of her caretaker once her current one exceeds his usefulness?
There’s a great deal of manipulation at work in Let Me In both on the part of Abby and director Reeves who alternates between tugging on our heart-strings and butchering them. Abby is one of the truly great horror villains — so great in fact that I suspect many audience members won’t view her as one even as her list of mutilated victims grows. Reeves does well to preserve an element of ambiguity resisting the urge to proffer a Usual Suspects-esque denouement inviting us instead to connect the story’s dots ourselves. The film’s unique and affecting juxtaposition of tenderness and savagery combined with a slew of stellar performances makes for an experience unlike any other in recent horror-movie memory one whose effects will linger long after the closing credits have rolled.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Pixar makes it ten gems in a row with this enchanting animated story of 78-year-old Carl Fredricksen a recent widower who decides to fulfill his (plus his late wife’s) lifelong dream of tying thousands of balloons to their house and floating off to a mountaintop in South America. But he soon discovers a stowaway in the form of Russell a precocious eight-year-old “Wilderness Explorer” who he reluctantly allows to accompany him on his journey. Together the unlikely pair embark on the adventure of a lifetime encountering Kevin a rare 13-foot tall-flightless bird; Dug an overly-friendly talking pooch; and Charles Muntz a once-famous adventurer who now lives alone in a massive airship surrounded by a pack of attack dogs.
WHO’S IN IT?
Sticking to their general custom of casting actors not big stars in key voice roles Pixar assembled a superb cast for Up led by veteran TV star Ed Asner (The Mary Tyler Moore Show) as the aged Carl who takes flight in his house and finds there is a lot to learn about life even as you near death. Asner’s grumpy delivery provides the perfect counterpoint to nine-year-old Jordan Nagai’s Russell a bright and optimistic kid who proves an invaluable assistant to Carl throughout their journey. Christopher Plummer (The Sound of Music) is authoritative and intriguing as the obsessed Muntz and John Ratzenberger (Cheers) extends his streak of Pixar films to 10 as a construction engineer who tries to convince Carl to sell his house. Bob Peterson does delightful double duty as two of the key dog voices lovable Dug and the menacing Alpha head of the pack.
Like Pixar’s previous Oscar-winning masterpiece Wall-E Up is a ‘toon that is not content to explore the same places we’ve seen in previous animated blockbusters. Centering an action comedy around a 78-year-old man isn’t a strategy you’ll find in the youth-obsessed Hollywood recipe book but it pays great dividends here with a moral that life’s greatest adventure is the one you share with someone you love. The non-humans — particularly Kevin and Dug — are hilarious and unique and a silent sequence detailing the courtship and marriage of the Fredricksens is a sweet touch that could have come straight out of a Charlie Chaplin movie.
With a string of critically-acclaimed hits that includes Toy Story Finding Nemo The Incredibles Ratatouille Wall-E and now Up Pixar is ruining it for everyone else. There is simply no way they can be topped when it comes to pushing the boundaries of animated movies. Bad for other studios. Good for us.
Could Up which just became the first animated film to open the Cannes Film Festival also become the first to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar since Beauty and the Beast in 1991 (before the Animation category was even established)? At this point in the year it’s actually a good bet. Whatever the case expect Up to earn several nominations come Oscar time.
A swashbuckling swordfight across the skies between two near-octogenarians? It’s the best action scene in a summer full of ‘em.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Oh pleeeeeease! Get to a theater fast. Up is also available in 3-D at select locations. Either way it’s a must-see.
Crystal Lake. Dumb kids in the woods. Sex drugs booze. A hulking maniac in a hockey mask wielding a machete. Yeah that about sums it up.
Are you kidding? The new Jason Derek Mears probably fares best among the actors because he doesn’t have a single word of dialogue. Everyone else unfortunate enough to stumble in front of the camera – Jared Padalecki Amanda Righetti Danielle Panabaker Travis Van Winkle – is basically fodder for the slaughter. Some of them get naked. Most of them get dead. Some die more gorily than others. No one dies quickly enough. Having previously (and woefully) directed the 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre helmer Marcus Nispel does his best – and worst – to resurrect yet another popular horror franchise from the past. He also adds absolutely nothing new to the formula. Quite frankly anyone could’ve directed this film. Judging by the results anyone did. This is the 12th Friday the 13th film for those keeping score at home and with any luck it’ll be the last. Of course it won’t be. But we can always hope.
By Noah Davis & Kit Bowen
With the release of O, Shakespeare's intense play Othello gets a distinctively modern update, centering around a prep school's black basketball star, Odin, his white girlfriend, Desi, and the jealous teammate Hugo, who wants to break them up. We asked our writers how they thought the movie held up against the play, who did the best acting job of the three leads, and what is their favorite Shakespearean teen movie.
Hollywood.com: Here we are once again, another Shakespeare play getting a teen update. Did the story of Othello work in a modern adaptation?
Kit Bowen: Unfortunately, no. Othello really works best in an adult world rather than a teen-age one. You never truly buy into Odin's all-consuming feelings toward Desi. I mean, honestly, in the story they've only been going out for four months. And the issues at stake in the original Othello deal with war and the fate of a country, not on whether Odin gets a basketball scholarship to a major university. The relevance of O doesn't measure up to the play.
Noah Davis: Making Shakespeare's play Othello, which was written in 1604, appear to be torn from yesterday's headlines is no small achievement. The series of shootings in American high schools, particularly in Colorado's Columbine High, ironically kept O from being released earlier. Had the filmmaking team thrown caution to the wind and released O, say, one week after the Columbine tragedy, the impact would have been stunning, and thus a teen update would have worked better. Shakespeare wrote his play for the masses--the groundlings who could not read, but given the absence of TV and movies held the stage to greater respect than we do today. So those watching O might consider Othello was much more timely to the mass audience of 1604 than it would be to all but a small, elite audience today.
Ultimately, I think the writers failed to convert it realistically to a modern teen outlook.
Hollywood.com: There were two (but perhaps only two) major departures from the original plot. One was to reveal Iago/Hugo's motive, and the other was to make Othello/Odin's race an issue. Was either a mistake, and if both, which was the bigger mistake?
Noah Davis: I think both were mistakes. It makes utterly no sense for the Iago character, Hugo--who, in the climax of the play, as here in the movie, falls into silence when his scheme has been carried out, thus maintaining the unknowability that is his hallmark throughout the play--to lay out his motives for us, which is what happens here. In a decision that's even more damaging than making Iago/Hugo spill the beans, the writer and director have made the classic mistake of assuming that Othello is about race, an issue that, at most, is tangential to the play, which is first and foremost about jealousy.
Kit Bowen: Can I talk now? Geez, I guess we've hit the mother lode for Noah, folks. However, I agree with him to some extent. Obviously, when playing Iago in the play, the actor can go two ways, either playing it straight and serious or playing it for the devious and maliciously wry imp that he is. That's the beauty of it. However, in O, Josh Hartnett has been directed to play Hugo straight and, as if the audience were not smart enough, is given a very clear cut motive of a son not loved by his father. Boo hoo. I think if they chose to play Hugo as an apathetic rich spoiled kid who just didn't give a damn and did the whole thing for kicks, would have been much more interesting--and would relate better to this day and age. The race issue was completely unnecessary.
Hollywood.com: Of these teen remakes, which Shakespearean-themed movie have you thought worked the best?
Kit Bowen: My personal favorite was Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet. I thought the whole modern reworking was brilliant, and that Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes had the maturity to handle the roles. Loved the part when Juliet actually wakes up before Romeo takes the poison. I thought maybe, just maybe, this time the plan would work. But that's because I'm a romantic.
Noah Davis: Romantic, shmomantic. Kit, you're softer than the Pillsbury Dough-Boy. The best translation of Shakespeare to a teen setting is My Own Private Idaho. Gus Van Sant knew what to change and what to leave alone to make this work, and work well. Keanu Reeves was Prince Hal, a bumbling doofus who doesn't know how to treat his true friends, and the scenes in the flop-house where he held court were a perfect mimicry of the parody device Shakespeare used in the play. River Phoenix gave a deep and moving performance, and the cinematography was excellent.
Hollywood.com: As Kit mentioned, Shakespeare is pretty weighty matter for a young actor to handle. Of the three leads, Josh Hartnett, Julia Stiles and Mekhi Phifer, who did the best job?
Noah Davis: Julia Stiles, who is now a veteran of three teen Shakespearean updates, does a fine job, even if she is hamstrung by the dialogue at times. Josh Hartnett had the right look for the high school dreamboat in The Virgin Suicides, but, so far, he hasn't given any indication of being an actor. He simply doesn't have the depth or sense of ominous mystery to pull off Iago. He acts entirely with his overhanging brow and clenched jaw, and he very quickly becomes a drag. Mekhi Phifer has some nice relaxed moments, especially cuddling in bed with Stiles. But this Othello has been drained of humor and sexy playfulness. Finally, he's as uninteresting as all upright young men usually are.
Kit Bowen: Ms. Stiles is certainly the standout because of her experience, but her Desi isn't the strongest performance she's given in a Shakespearean context. That would have to be Kat in 10 Things I Hate About You, which is a juicier part for her by far. Phifer phones in the performance, but honestly, how can you take Othello and turn him into a prep school basketball star? Hartnett, on the other hand, was a victim of bad direction. I believe he could have turned in something more compelling if he was motivated to do so. He had something in his eyes that was creepily similar to the Iago I've seen on stage.