Ghost Team (2016)
★★ / ★★★★
A delightful comedy with bona fide intention to entertain despite its limited budget, “Ghost Team,” directed by Oliver Irving, might have been improved significantly if it had undergone more rewrites designed to trim elements that don’t work and to amplify its strengths. Individual scenes work either as a comedy or horror; the picture is clearly made by fans of television shows that involve ghost hunters because references are abundant. However, the film does not command a strong enough tone or identity of its own to convince the audience that this particular story is worth telling and seeing.
Sick of the ennui of their every day lives, best friends Louis (Jon Heder) and Stan (David Krumholtz) find inspiration from their favorite ghost hunting show and decide to form their own group of paranormal investigators despite not having any money to buy fancy equipments meant to detect otherworldly activities, let alone other friends that would comprise their team. Highly determined to go on their first expedition, Louis and Stan manage to convince relatives (Justin Long, Paul W. Downs), who just so happen to have connections with the necessary electronics, an equally bored co-worker (Melonie Diaz), and a local psychic (Amy Sedaris) to join them in the attempt to gather evidence that ghosts really do exist in an abandoned farmhouse. As it turns out, they just might stumble upon what they’re after.
Each character is given a defined personality. This is not particularly difficult to accomplish but too many of its contemporaries tend to overlook the importance of the viewers being able to tell the characters apart, especially in scenes where it is dark and people end up running around and screaming for their lives. Although these characters are pigeonholed into certain archetypes, it works well enough because the comedy is never really meant to skewer. It helps that the performers seem at ease and genuinely having fun with their roles.
A few scares are surprisingly effective given that the film is, for the most part, a comedy. I enjoyed the scenes where characters split up to explore the farmhouse and there are cutaway scenes where we observe them on different screens. It subtly plays on perspective and expectations. One moment we are in a dark room with the characters and we are not certain whether they should or should be afraid. But then we get a chance to look at the monitors that see everything and we learn that something is in the room with them and they have absolutely no idea.
The twist is amusing and briefly enjoyable because it gives the filmmakers a chance to be more creative. For instance, their take on “zombies” is actually rooted on reality. Despite this, the third act is, without a doubt, the weakest link because once the rug has been pulled from under us, there are no more surprises. We realize then that one of its strengths is how it has managed to tease our curiosities, we were invested in what paranormal phenomena were in store for us as viewers and for the motley crew as first-time ghost hunters.
Written by Oliver Irving and Peter Warren, “Ghost Team” is a comedy that is unafraid to be quiet. This works in horror scenes, at times accompanied by an effectively uneasy score, where characters explore a strange room and all we hear are their footsteps and their curious breathing. This also works in the more comedic scenes because they allow us to absorb the jokes… and the non-jokes. With a few more script revisions, with special emphasis on the third act, it would have been a horror-comedy to be remembered—not necessarily for decades down the line but at least during the year of its release.
When in Rome (2010)
★ / ★★★★
Have you ever seen a movie in which you wanted it to end approximately ten minutes in? Kristen Bell stars as a curator who decided to go to Rome for her sister’s (Alexis Dziena) wedding despite the fact that she was married to her job. In Rome, she met a charming guy (Josh Duhamel) who was also the best man of her brother-in-law. However, the lead character caught him kissing another woman so she decided to go to a fountain to complain about how much she did not believe in love and steal a few coins. The owner of the coins (Will Arnett, Jon Heder, Dax Shepard, Danny DeVito) became desperately in love with her and followed her when she returned to America. The main problem with the movie was the fact that it just wasn’t funny. I quickly grew tired of it because there were too many clichés, too many slapsticks, and too many illogical reasoning. When the main character found out about the potential solution to all of her problems forty minutes into the picture, she found one excuse after another to not accomplish her goal. I simply did not believe that the decisions she made were true to her character because she started off as someone who accomplished what needed to get done in the most efficient way possible. Even though Bell and Duhamel were nice to look at and they did have some sort of chemistry, I did not really feel any sort of real tension between them and why they should ultimately get together in the end. Chances are, if one has seen the worst romantic comedies out there, one would know where “Where in Rome” was going. It offered no surprises and I got the impression that it didn’t even try to be funny, which was what bothered me most about it. I found myself trying to chuckle at some of the jokes but I couldn’t find myself to do so because the material was just not up to par. There was absolutely no confidence in the material; if it did, it would have tried to do something different with the characters or how the story unfolded. A twist within a twist would have been more than welcome because perhaps it would have been less soporific. Instead, I wished for the movie to shift its focus on Anjelica Houston’s character, the main character’s boss, because she had presence, as intimidating as she was, when she entered a room. Presence was exactly what the film needed and since it did not know what it was supposed to be, the project ended up being a mess.
Surf’s Up (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) was a penguin who knew how to surf but did not know how to have fun while doing it because his brother and mother did not always show their support for him. So when a recruiter for surfers visited Cody’s hometown, Cody did not think twice about competing in the Penguin World Surfing Championship. On his journey to the finals, he met an oblivious but very entertaining chicken (Jon Heder), a cute penguin lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel), a highly competitive penguin (Diedrich Bader) and a surfing legend (Jeff Bridges) who decided to hide from the world. I feel like I am the only person that did not enjoy this animated mockumentary. In what people found inspiring, I found recycled jokes, or worse, jokes that were just not funny. At first I thought it had potential because I have never seen an animated film take on a mockumentary style of storytelling. But I quickly got bored with it because even though everyone had a lot of energy, there really was no story and a defined main character. The images were cute (especially the baby penguins) but the movie did not have enough substance for me to really get into. As for the star-studded voices, I found them to be very distracting. Instead of seeing the penguins come to life, I was forced to think of the actors instead. I was pretty excited to watch this movie because it was light entertainment and I needed a break from a series of serious films. And when I heard that this movie was nominated for an Oscar, my expectations were that much higher but it did not deliver in a way where I could be entertained by the jokes while at the same time getting me to invest in the story. I will say, however, that this film was quite atmospheric at times. I loved the first few scenes when it went back in time to tell the audiences what made Cody feel so inspired to go after his dreams. There was a certain campiness and cleverness about it. Unfortunately, the rest did not hold up especially the scenes where the legendary surfer taught Cody “the ways” of being a real surfer. It was cheesy and, as a person who is not interested in surfing, I found the whole thing quite boring. I’m not sure if kids can enjoy this movie with bright colors alone. It needed a bit of edge, a bit of sadness and a whole lot of originality. Instead of elevating the picture, the mockumentary style felt like a bad gimmick.
Monster House (2006)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Rewatching this animated film three years later since it came out in 2006, I still think it’s pretty scary for children. Directed by Gil Kenan, “Monster House” is about three teenagers–sarcastic DJ (Mitchel Musso), portly but hilarious Chowder (Sam Lerner) and precocious Jenny (Spencer Locke)–who learn that the house in front of DJ’s home is alive as it starts taking inside it whatever and whoever it thinks to be trespassing (intentionally or unintentionally). So the three form a plan to finally put the evil house to rest. And who says that defeating a scary living house is an easy feat? What I love about this animated flick is that whenever I watch it, I’m instantly reminded of my childhood. When we were kids, my cousins and I had several adventures while pretending to enter a haunted abandoned house just like the characters did here. The dialogue between the three leads reminded me of those teen movies in the 1980’s (and the fact that the parents are barely on screen), while the soundtrack reminded me of the “Goosebumps” and “Tales from the Crypt” television series. Everything about it just brought me back and I guess that’s the main reason why I instantly fell in love with it the first time. I mentioned that I think this is somewhat scary for children. If the premise of the film that plays on the archetype regarding scary houses next door and the creepy people that live in them is not enough, it also has scenes of the house’ shadows being able to transform into anything as it visits a child’s bedroom, a dungeon-like basement with a shrine that reminded me of those indie creepy serial killer movies when the killer preserves his victims, and more. I’m torn because, at the same time, I’m very impressed with its creativity and willingness to not baby the childreen too much just in case they might get bored. Also, there were jokes about the teens, especially Chowder, not reaching certain developmental levels proposed by some theorists in psychology and I found them to be really funny. Other voices worth noting that added an extra spice to the film are Maggie Gyllenhaal as the babysitter, Jason Lee as the babysitter’s friend/boyfriend, Kevin James and Nick Cannon as the two police officers, Jon Heder as the videogame freak, and Steve Buscemi as the creepy neighbor. “Monster House” is a strong animated movie that should have been seen by more people when it was released. Steven Spielberg is one of the executive producers and I did notice some of his signature styles of storytelling. Even though it can get a bit scary, I’ll still show this movie to my future kids.