Shark Night (2011)
★ / ★★★★
A group of college students (Sara Paxton, Dustin Milligan, Chris Zylka, Sinqua Walls, Alyssa Diaz, Katharine McPhee, Joel David Moore) visited a lake house in Louisiana for some fun in the sun after finals. One of them, Sara (Paxton), was from the area but she left her hometown three years ago and never went back. Her friends thought it was strange how Sarah, in all the years they’ve known her, never became intimate or even hooked up with a guy. Meanwhile, the barely clothed undergraduates, gleefully playing in the lake, were unaware that the water was infested with sharks. “Shark Night,” based on the screenplay by Will Hayes and Jesse Studenberg, lacked the courage to come off as completely ludicrous. If it had been more confident, it could have worked as a parody or even a satire. From its first scene involving a topless girl who had to search for her swimsuit in the water, it was obvious that the material wasn’t meant to be taken seriously. The shark attack lasted for about three seconds of choppy editing and it wasn’t scary in the least. While a handful death scenes, aided by CGI, were rather neat, the few seconds prior to the characters’ deaths felt almost like wasted time. There was no patience from behind the camera prior and during the attacks. The formula was this: The camera would go underwater and about five seconds later, someone screamed out of pain. Sometimes having a character just pulled from underwater by a very strong shark and its victim never having to scream for help could work just as effectively or even more so. Let the camera linger for about five seconds on the surface of the water. Doing so would give us a chance to observe waves created out of panic turn into utter quiescence–an illusion that a shark attack never happened. Moreover, the movie could have benefited from more extreme typecasting. For instance, Nick (Milligan) was supposed to be the geek who wanted to become a doctor. He had his MCAT coming up but the only reason he decided to come with was because he pined for Sara. They knew each other through other friends but he lacked bravado to ask her out on a simple date. He didn’t think he was good enough for her. Yet without his glasses, he looked like another jock who should have all the confidence in the world. How were we supposed to believe that he had something to prove? The one character I found most interesting was Blake (Zylka), the blonde Adonis obsessed with fake tanning. He wasn’t especially smart, even self-absorbed at times, but when tragedy struck, it turned out he was the most sensitive and relatable. Having a final girl, which inevitably just had to be Sara because it was her hometown, was anticlimactic and frustrating because the character wasn’t established as strongly as she should have been. As a rule of thumb, for horror movies that require a “final girl,” the protagonist has to be someone we will be behind no matter what. Sara wasn’t that person. Ironically, it was Blake. It could have been an excellent twist if the writers had been more aware of and fleshed out the inconsistencies in their screenplay. Directed by David R. Ellis, “Shark Night” was tame compared to other bloodfests like Alexandre Aja’s “Piranha.” It wasn’t even as fun.
Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Pietari (Onni Tommila) and Juuso (Ilmari Järvenpää) snuck onto a restricted mountain where so-called seismic researchers, some Americans, were assigned to excavate something mysterious deep within the ice. The two boys overheard that what was embedded inside was going to redefine the world’s notion of Santa Claus and Christmas. When Pietari got home, he began to research about Old St. Nick and his origins. It turned out that the legendary figure was far from nice and jolly. According to the books, every Christmas, he kidnapped naughty kids, put them in a cauldron, and ate them. Pietari was determined not to get taken. Written and directed by Jalmari Helander, “Rare Exports” brimmed with scintillating originality, enough to inject kids with increasing unease and force the adults to watch with fascination. It was fun to watch Pietari run around and put pieces together because there was something innocent and bold about him. Since he wasn’t taken seriously by adults and fellow children, he felt he had something to prove. His determination and thirst for adventure was similar to the beloved kids from Steven Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial,” Richard Donner’s “The Goonies,” and J.J. Abrams’ “Super 8.” But like the aforementioned flicks, the film worked as a family drama. Pietari and his dad (Jorma Tommila) lived by themselves where interaction with others required a vehicle due to distance and safety issues. There was a moving scene during Christmas Eve when the two sat on the table and ate gingerbread cookies. Nothing else was prepared. The absence of the key woman in their lives was palpable. Even though it wasn’t fully discussed, we were able to infer that Pietari and his dad were still mourning from the death of his mother and wife, respectively. The son asked his dad whether it would make a difference to him whether he, too, would “disappear” and if he had been good this year. The father deflected the questions with a loud command of sending his son to bed. Sometimes it’s easier to circumvent the truth. On Christmas day, Pietari found that the bait for the wolf trap his father had set the day before was gone. Instead of finding a wolf in the pit, there was a skinny man with a beard. The film played with our expectations some more and threw around very strange red herrings like a kid opening presents with delirium. Our lack of knowledge involving the origins of Santa Claus in their part of the world served as a wonderful, magical, creepy source of tension. The man that the father and son found was critically injured and seemingly unable to understand language. He only responded, with extreme alarm, when Pietari was around. Pietari thought it was Santa Claus and he just had to tell his friends given what he knew. But none of them were to be found. Toward the end of the film, CGI was used profusely, but it was utilized to enhance the experience. “Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale” was unafraid to tackle darker material yet it was quite satirical. Its brazenness and creativity in putting our little protagonist in the face of danger without coming off as exploitative was admirable.
The Thing (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
In John Carpenter’s “The Thing,” the opening shot featured two men in a helicopter shooting at a dog in order to prevent it from reaching an American research facility. “The Thing,” written by Eric Heisserer and directed by Matthijs van Heijningen Jr., consisted of the events that led up to aforementioned curious scene. When a group of Norwegian researchers, led by Edvard Wolver (Trond Espen Seim), stumbled upon an alien space craft in the Antarctic ice, Dr. Halvorson (Ulrich Thomsen) was immediately alerted. But before the scientist and his assistant, Adam (Eric Christian Olsen), could get there, Dr. Halvorson recruited an American paleontologist, Kate Lloyd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), for her expertise. Upon their arrival, they learned that not only was there a craft, there was also an alien trapped in ice a couple of meters from the wreckage. What I enjoyed most about the film was it successfully emulated Carpenter’s paranoid tone. Although I knew what the alien was capable of, there was a sense of excitement in the way Kate and the Norwegian crew opened up the alien’s body and explored the grim and disgusting details inside. When the camera showed the guts and the organs, I felt like I was in that room and I wanted to participate in touching the viscera and the accompanying slime. If anything, the picture proved that even though most of the audience knew what was about to transpire, as long as the journey that led up to the characters’ discoveries was interesting, the project could still stand strong. The prequel shared the same main weakness as Carpenter’s movie. There more than ten characters but we only somewhat got to know Kate. There were at least two other characters worth knowing more about. For instance, how well did Adam and Kate know each other prior to their mission? It seemed like they had some history. If their relationship was more defined, the latter scenes in which Kate suspected that Adam was possibly infected by the alien virus would have had more impact. After all, if you think that someone you’ve known all your life is no longer that person you’ve grown to love and care about, that he or she is simply a replica of an extraterrestrial, and it is necessary to kill that certain someone, wouldn’t you feel rotten before and after deciding to eliminate that person/being? To some extent, I would. Even though, in truth, that friend is an alien, it has the face, the voice, the mannerisms of a human being. I also wanted to know more about Sam (Joel Edgerton), the helicopter pilot. There were a few scenes which suggested that there was an attraction between Sam and Kate. Again, another possible human connection that could have been milked more with the regards to the bizarre happenings. “The Thing,” based on the short story called “Who Goes There?” by John W. Campbell Jr., while suspenseful most of the time, it was ultimately let down by having too much CGI. I didn’t need to see the craft being activated when it didn’t even get to fly for even a few inches. What I wanted to see more was the creature, hiding inside a human, just biding its time till its prey inevitably lets his guard down.
★ / ★★★★
Four friends developed psychic powers when they were kids after they rescued a boy with Down Syndrome, Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg), from bullies. They decided to camp in the snowy mountains but noticed an oddity. Animals seemed like they were running away from something and the military had quarantined the area. While Henry (Thomas Jane) and Pete (Timothy Olyphant) left to pick up some beer at a local convenience store, Beaver (Jason Lee) and Jonesy (Damian Lewis) invited a man inside their cabin, unaware that the man’s body encased an alien creature. Based on Stephen King’s novel, “Dreamcatcher” suffered due to a lack of flow. There were essentially three stories and their connections weren’t fully fleshed out. There was the aforementioned four friends dealing with nasty aliens in the woods, the flashback sequences when they were children and how they got their powers, and Col. Abraham Curtis’ (Morgan Freeman) desperation to solve the alien mystery, which he had been involved in for twenty five years, before he retired. The screenplay jumped one from one strand to another which often broke the tension. For example, when Jonesy and Beaver saw a trail of blood that came from the bedroom where the man slept, it was interrupted by a scene with the colonel delivering yet another speech about how driven he was to finish what he started. If the bloody trail scene had been allowed to finish without interruption, the horror would have been more effective. Adding a scene with a completely different tone allowed us to breathe and maybe even take a bathroom break. The CGI let the picture down immensely. I didn’t mind seeing the worm-like creatures (I have a weakness for creepy crawlers) but showing a full-bodied alien didn’t leave anything to our imagination. The aliens could take in any form because they had the ability to project what we wanted to see. One of the characters claimed that he had seen an alien in its natural form and it was horrific. The filmmakers should have stayed away from showing the extraterrestrials’ true form and let us wonder because I didn’t think they looked scary at all. CGI becomes outdated but the images we form in our minds do not. “Dreamcatcher,” directed by Lawrence Kasdan, failed to answer a number of critical questions. For instance, why did the four friends eventually stopped seeing Duddits? Their gifts seemed more like a burden in their lives so did they feel some sort of bitterness toward their childhood friend? The film lasted over two hours so leaving out answers was no excuse. Perhaps if there had been fewer scenes of military men and more scenes of the four friends’ struggle, I would have cared more.
The Gravedancers (2006)
★★ / ★★★★
Three friends from college, Harris (Dominic Purcell), Kira (Josie Maran) and Sid (Marcus Thomas), decided to go back to their friend’s fresh burial ground for a final goodbye. After alcohol affected their brains, probably not dissimilar back when they were still in school, Sid found a letter, decided to read it out loud, and the trio danced on strangers’ graves. Weeks after their unwise–to say the least–grave desecration, strange things began to happen in their homes. Later on, with the help of two somewhat amusing paranormal investigators (Tchéky Karyo, Megahn Perry), they found out that the letter was a spell designed to awaken spirits. The three angry ghosts, an axe-wielding piano teacher, a child pyromaniac and a judge with a penchant for sexually mutilating women, were not going to stop until their victims were dead. “The Gravedancers,” written by Brad Keene and Chris Skinner, was at its most interesting when the pesky CGI didn’t get in the way of story and old-fashioned scares. Notice the scene in the bedroom when Harris woke up and saw what he believed to be his wife’s arm around him. When he recognized that his actual wife (Clare Kramer), Allison, had just stepped out of the shower, the picture quickly revealed the rotting corpse. Chances are, someone who’s seen a number of horror movies is familiar with that set-up. What disappointed me most was the director, Mike Mendez, failed to milk every second of it. Waking up next to a dead body was horrific in itself. But there was no next level of fear. It seemed like either Mendez just didn’t care to put his signature or he didn’t have real control of the material. After about two reaction shots from the lovers, the corpse was in the middle of the frame and the CGI, the spraying of the glass, took over. Why did the window have to break? Sometimes less is more. Another aspect that didn’t make sense to me was that the ghosts were willing to kill those that didn’t dance on their graves. It gave me the impression that the body count mattered more than the storyline. Lastly, the rivalry between Allison and Kira felt contrived. Instead of increasing the tension, every time Allison got jealous of Kira, I felt like I was watching a bad soap opera. The rolling of the eyes and the awkwardness in the air hindered the momentum of the rising action. They were adults but I felt like they were stuck in high school. Nevertheless, the film had some good scares in the superior first half. The opening and closing of the doors, the strange creaking noises, and the piano-playing in the middle of the night were creepy. Too bad it was always a dark, rainy night. I wondered if the writers ever heard of a thing called diminishing returns.
★★★ / ★★★★
Graeme (Simon Pegg) and Clive (Nick Frost), British comic book fans, on their way to explore the legendary Area 51 came across an alien named Paul (voiced by Seth Rogen), on the run from government officials who wanted to exploit his extraterrestrial abilities. Written by Nick Frost and Simon Pegg, “Paul” was a quick-witted buddy road trip comedy equipped with a plethora of references to various sci-fi pop culture, obscure and mainstream. The film opened at the San Diego Comic Con. While it did make fun of fans dressing up as their favorite movie and comic book characters, it was never mean-spirited in its approach. In fact, it was a rather good start. Its bona fide sense of humor, situational or otherwise, was exactly why we wanted to follow Graeme and Clive in their epic, awkward, exciting adventure. As usual, Pegg and Frost had wonderful chemistry. The way they delivered their lines and the way they moved around each other convinced me that their characters were true BFFs. I looked at the CGI Paul with grand curiosity. Initially, I found him to be rather stoic. But the longer I stared at him, the more easily I could identify his subtle facial expressions; I almost wanted him to be my pet. He was funny and rather harmless. More importantly, the writing took advantage of the strange creature on screen. We learned specifics in terms of his abilities. For instance, while he had the power to become invisible by whim, he could only do it if he held his breath. Gifts with limitations are interesting. The government agent in charge of capturing Paul was called Agent Zoil (As in Lorenzo Zoil–get it?), gleefully played by Jason Bateman. Bateman being serious in a picture like this was like watching a giraffe attempting to do somersaults. It just didn’t ring together. However, it worked. His attempt to suppress his little ticks was what made the role funnier than it should have been. Also, there was a balance. We saw glimpses of how dangerous he could be. As he aimed his gun toward a moving target, I found myself holding my breath. I took the intensity in his eyes quite seriously and I didn’t expect to. His fellow agents (Bill Hader, Joe Lo Truglio), ambitious but incompetent and rash, highlighted the man in black’s intractable goal of getting to Paul first. One of the qualities I admired most about the film was it didn’t overwhelm us with cryptic allusions. There were obvious camera angles which served to highlight an important science fiction actor walking in on a frame. I didn’t get some of the references but I wasn’t bothered by them. Either I felt like I was still in on the joke or I was too preoccupied wondering what would happen next. “Paul” was sweet but never sentimental, funny but never obnoxious. I did wish, however, that we could have seen more of the alien hotspots that Graeme and Clive visited. After all, they were supposed to be on an epic road trip. And I would have been floored if Special Agents Mulder and Scully from “The X-Files” made brief appearances. Still, the picture did do without.
Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sally (Bailee Madison) was sent by her mother to live with her father (Guy Pearce), Alex, in Rhode Island while he and his girlfriend (Katie Holmes), Kim, restored the historic Blackwood mansion. Despite the manor house being dark and creepy, it wasn’t haunted by ghosts. It was, however, home to little creatures in the basement whose diet consisted of children’s bones and teeth. Based on the screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Matthew Robbins, “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” reached a synergy between horrific and fantastic elements. Although Sally had the tendency to mope about, we loved her because she was sassy, and we cared for her because her childlike curiosity often got the best of her. It could have taken the convenient path of simply putting children in peril to deliver cheap thrills, but the material strived to be more than that. It provided us with a proper background story that involved Blackwood (Garry McDonald) and his desperation to save his eight-year-old son from the teeth-hungry creatures. Like the best horror movies, I found myself wanting to know more about the source of horror and why the antagonists were motivated to do the things they did. The jump-out-of-your-seat and cringe-in-your-seat moments were earned. Naturally, Alex didn’t believe in her daughter’s stories. He believed the stories were a product of adjustment issues. After all, Sally felt like she wasn’t wanted by her mother, claiming that she had been given away. It was expected that the father would eventually realize that the creatures from her daughter’s imagination were actually real. It was a matter of exactly when. Perhaps as he looked through a keyhole and a needle was waiting on the other side? When Sally took pictures using a polaroid camera during an important dinner? It teased our expectations and the answer was given to us when we least expected it. However, I wish the filmmakers showed less of how the creature looked like. It didn’t help that their bodies were revealed early on. It didn’t give us time to speculate. The teeth-lovers were CGI and I wasn’t too convinced that the animation complemented the gothic interiors of the mansion. It would have been just as effective if we only saw the creatures’ glowing eyes as they hid in darkness from under the bed and staring ravenously on the other side of the hallway. Furthermore, Kim could have been more developed. She was Sally’s eventual mother figure (rather than an evil stepmother) who was reluctant in her ability to parent. That struggle was interesting and an exploration of her feelings of inadequacy would have added another layer of emotional resonance. “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark,” directed by Troy Nixey, was accompanied by a gorgeous art direction and cinematography. Like the towering Overlook Hotel in Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” it made me want to explore its interiors as well as its grounds.