Fright Night (2011)
★★★ / ★★★★
Charley (Anton Yelchin) used to be a dweeb. His former best friend was Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a complete nerd whose hobbies consisted of dressing up and role playing. Charley’s recent surge to popularity earned him a girlfriend, Amy (Imogen Poots), and much cooler but insensitive guy friends (Dave Franco, Reid Ewing). Ed had a growing suspicion: that Charley’s new neighbor, Jerry (Colin Farrell), was vampire and he was responsible for their classmates’ sudden disappearances. Charley didn’t take Ed seriously. He thought Ed’s suspicion was a sad cry for them to be friends again. That is, up until Ed failed to show up to class the next day. “Fright Night,” written by Marti Noxon and Tom Holland, was a fast-paced vampire film, set in the suburbs of Las Vegas, equipped with modern twists to keep us interested. The characters were likable even though they weren’t always smart. We knew Charley was a well-meaning young adult because he considered and questioned if he was doing the right thing. The checkpoint that went off in his head was his best quality, but it was also what Jerry tried to exploit. The predator must exploit its prey’s weaknesses. There were predictable elements in the picture. For instance, we expected the characters who chose to run upstairs to hide from the blood-thirsty vampire to never make it out of the house alive. And they didn’t. Maybe they didn’t deserve to. After all, with all the references thrown in the air, the teens must’ve seen a vampire movie or two prior to being vamp food. However, the writing was self-aware of the conventions and it wasn’t afraid to throw allusions to the original film, vampire movies, and literature. Though the expected happened, I felt as though it was more concerned with giving the audiences a good time. I loved its somewhat elliptical storytelling. The rising action was often interrupted by a mini-climax. The drawn-out set-up of investigating, hiding, being hunted, and escaping worked quite effectively. By giving us small but fulfilling rewards, it kept us wondering what would happen next. Still, the story could have used more character development. Charley’s mom (Toni Collette) felt like a cardboard cutout of an unaware parent. She knew her son had unique interests but to not question him seriously when their neighbor seemed to have a genuine complaint in terms of privacy being breached felt too convenient. Charley’s mom seemed like a tough woman but she wasn’t given room to grow. What the film needed less was of the self-described vampire expert/magician named Peter Vincent (David Tennant). Obviously, he was necessary for comic relief. I laughed at his ridiculousness, but what I had a difficult time accepting was the fact that he could survive a vampire attack multiple times. His backstory was sloppily handled. I commend “Fright Night,” directed by Craig Gillespie, for taking the original as an inspiration and telling a different kind of story. Its flaws didn’t matter as much because it had fun. It sure is more interesting than a shot-for-shot remake of the original which most likely would have forced us to ask why they even bothered.
Easy A (2010)
★★★ / ★★★★
Olive (Emma Stone) was invisible like most of us when we were in high school. But when a false secret that she confidentially told her best friend (Alyson Michalka) was overheard by a Jesus fanatic (Amanda Bynes) in the ladies restroom, word traveled around the school like a virus that she was willing to sleep with anyone and everyone. Her newfangled reputation made her popular, which Olive admitted she enjoyed at first, but soon she began to feel harrassed by her peers and adults. “Easy A” had an effervescent charm and edge that most teen flicks could only wish they had. It caught me by surprise because I thought it would be another raunchy movie about teens with nothing on their minds but attaining empty sexual encounters. Or worse, the teens ending up as the jokes’ punchline instead of the situations in which they were thrown into. Instead, we had a bona fide main character with a brain, a sense of humor, and effortless charisma. The film’s heart was immediately established within its first few minutes so we willingly stood by our lead character as she attempted to navigate the uncharted waters of high school rumors and ugly backstabbing in which a friend was readily able to betray. We may not always agree with her actions but we like her all the way through. Stone injected buckets of enthusiasm and made the material better than it should have been. I liked that she was very sarcastic, fully equipped with references to teen movies of the ’80s, and came with progressive parents (the hilarious Patricia Clarkson and the sublime Stanley Tucci) who seemed to await the opportunity to share way too much information with their kids. The picture had a very funny rising action as Olive explained to us, through a video blog, what had happened and why she eventually came to regret her decisions. She even had time to explain to us the plot of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlett Letter” and why it was relevant to her life. It was a good decision on the writer’s part because I was one of those students who only pretended to read the book in high school. I thought it was unfortunate that the movie’s swift pace came to a screeching halt when Olive started to acknowledge her feelings toward the sensitive guy under the school mascot (Penn Badgley). I thought that aspect of the movie was unnecessary because it shouldn’t have been about her finding a man. The film’s message about owning up one’s actions and being free of labels were somewhat muddled by “the first romance” angle. Directed by Will Gluck, “Easy A” might have dealt with sexuality and the power that comes with it in a commercial way but it needed to because its intended audiences are teenagers. It worked because the script was full of rat-tat-tat witticisms, self-awareness, and even small ironic touches adults might l enjoy.
Scream 3 (2000)
★★ / ★★★★
Post-college life was tough for Sidney (Neve Campbell) as she moved away from her friends and family to live in a house deep in the woods with her dog. Who could blame her for being traumatized after a masked killer, or killers, exhibited a fixation for murdering those she was closest to? “Stab 3: Return to Woodsboro,” a successful horror franchise, was in production in Los Angeles but the actors were attacked and killed by Ghost Face. It seemed like the killer’s plan was to murder the actors in which they died in the movie in order to attract Sidney’s attention and come out of hiding. The two obviously had issues to resolve. There was only one problem: Sidney, Gale (Courteney Cox), and Dewey (David Arquette) had no idea which script Ghostface had in hand because three versions were written. It meant there were three different order of kills and three different endings. Still directed by Wes Craven but the screenplay helmed by Ehren Kruger instead of Kevin Williamson, “Scream 3” had potential for excellence but the execution was too weak to generate enough tension to keep me interested. What I enjoyed was Sidney, Gale, and Dewey’s doubles (Emily Mortimer, Parker Posey and Matt Keeslar, respectively) because they were exaggerated versions of the real ones. What I didn’t enjoy as much was they weren’t given very much to do other than waiting to die in a gruesome fashion. And while the material played upon the actors’ self-centeredness despite being second- or third-rate celebrities, it didn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know. What made the first two movies so enjoyable was the fact that the comedy and horror were connected in a smart way. In here, the material relied on spoiled celebrities as a source of comedy and Ghostface’s hunt for Sidney as a source of horror. Since the two failed to connect, the script felt painfully stagnant. I wondered where the story was ultimately heading. Furthermore, the chase-and-stab formula became less exciting over time. It was awkward how the film would stop in the middle of the suspense and cut into a less exciting scene. In doing so, the scares lost considerable amount of momentum. And when it finally decided to return to the murder scene, it just looked silly and gruesome. It began to feel like a standard slasher flick. “Scream 3” still winked at itself, like the villain in a trilogy becoming seemingly superhuman, but it lacked the edginess combined with other necessary elements to bring the movie to the next level. It just didn’t feel fresh anymore. When the unmasking arrived, I just felt apathetic. It’s not a good sign when you’re looking at the clock every other scene to check the remaining minutes you have to sit through.
Scream 2 (1997)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Two years had passed since the Woodsboro murders. Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was now in college majoring in drama, Gale Weathers (Courteney Cox) became a best-selling author, and a movie known as “Stab,” inspired by the aforementioned killing spree, had just been released. But when a couple (Jada Pinkett Smith, Omar Epps) was murdered during one of its screenings, Dewey (David Arquette) quickly, despite the limp, ran to Sidney’s protection and movie geek Randy (Jamie Kennedy) was present to explain the rules of horror sequels. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, “Scream 2” was able to defy the odds by pointing its fingers on bad scary movie follow-ups without being one itself. The film worked on multiple levels because it had more than one joke that worked. For instance, it acknowledged the idea that horror pictures seemed to be lacking in African-American characters and other minorities. Aside from the doomed couple in the memorable first scene, we knew the joke made a lasting impression when a minority was randomly placed next to one of the main characters and we couldn’t help but chuckle. However, it didn’t feel forced because the story took place in college. While the murder scenes were less creative–but more gory and elaborate as Randy stated–than its predecessor, they retained a level of cheekiness, especially when Sarah Michelle Gellar was given the chance to shine as the “sober sorority sister,” so it was fun to watch. We knew that her decision to go upstairs, as we learned in the first film, was a very bad idea but she did anyway. Downstairs, it seemed like she knew how to defend herself so maybe, despite being blonde and pretty, she would be lucky enough to escape. But it wasn’t just about murders on campus. Cotton Weary (Liev Schreiber), the man Sidney wrongly accused of killing her mother, had just been released from prison. The fact that he had motive to take bloody revenge and his thirst for fame warranted serious suspicion. It was a reminder that we couldn’t always trust Sidney’s judgment which was a small twist from typical slasher flicks where we take comfort in the virgin making all the right decisions to make it to the very end. The film spent more time on the characters and worked on the undeveloped strands from the first installment. What remained the same was everyone was a suspect. From Sidney’s pre-med boyfriend (Jerry O’Connell) and sassy friend (Elise Neal), Randy’s movie-loving classmates (Timothy Olyphant), to the reporter (Laurie Metcalf) desperate for the latest scoop. “Scream 2” was a vat of self-awareness; I relished every witty line and irony within an irony. Most impressive was sometimes the joke and horror came hand-in-hand.
★★★★ / ★★★★
Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) was left home alone because her father had to travel for business. That probably wasn’t a good idea because one of her friends, Casey (Drew Barrymore), had just been butchered by Ghost Face, a masked figure who had a penchant for calling women and asking about their favorite scary movie. Written by Kevin Williamson and directed by Wes Craven, “Scream” solified its place in the horror genre because it successfully parodied slasher flicks that plagued the 70’s and 80’s without becoming another forgettable bloodbath. Or worse, turning into something it wanted to poke fun of. Half the fun of this film was that the characters had seen a bunch of scary movies. References from Paul Lynch’s “Prom Night” to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining,” most of the characters knew that running into a dark room and asking, “Who’s there?” meant a gruesome death. And deservingly so. Horror movies, in essence, is survival of the fittest. The colorful characters were aware of the rules (yet ironically breaking them) and by acknowledging such rules, the audiences had a feeling that anything could happen. Everybody was a suspect. There was Casey’s father who had gone missing, an ambitious reporter named Gale Weathers (Courtney Cox) who was willing to do whatever necessary to deliver the breaking news first, and Deputy Dewey (David Arquette) who was never taken seriously as a cop because of his boyish good looks. Sidney’s friends were suspects, too. Sidney’s boyfriend (Skeet Ulrich) was very frustrated because she wouldn’t give up her virginity, Randy (Jamie Kennedy) and his love for horror pictures was a red flag, Sidney’s sassy friend (Rose McGowan) was perhaps too supportive of her, and Stuart (Matthew Lillard) was just too strange and energetic–perhaps he needed an extracurricular activity which involved running around and cutting people up. Or maybe Sidney was just losing her mind because she had not yet moved on from her mother’s murder which happened to be exactly a year ago. What made the film even better was the finer details. Some of the characters’ names were references to other famous horror movie characters (like Billy’s last name being Loomis, a nod to Dr. Sam Loomis in John Carpenter’s “Halloween”) while others were chuckle-inducing images (like the school janitor’s name being Fred and wearing red and green striped shirt, a wink at Freddy Krueger in Craven’s “A Nightmare on Elm Street”). It was clear that the director loved the movies he cited. By highlighting the unspoken rules and exposing their formulaic silliness, Craven reminded us why we enjoyed being scared and then laughing at ourselves (after a couple of days) for being so scared once we got home to the point where we rushed in turning on all of the lights so we could feel safer. “This is not a movie,” Sidney claimed. I wouldn’t be too sure.
★★★ / ★★★★
An isolated town in the middle of the desert with a population of 14 had to deal with giant worms attracted to anything that caused a vibration above ground. Kevin Bacon and Fred Ward star as two friends with a couple of odd jobs. They liked to joke around, talk about women, and make silly decisions based upon rock, paper, scissors. But after finding a dead body and stumbling upon man-eating worms, they had to toughen up and warn the town that they soon would be up for the picking. What I liked most about this movie was its self-awareness. It knew that the concept was silly so did not take itself too seriously. Instead, it took advantage of our lack of knowledge about the organism. Initially, we had no idea how the worms looked like and their capabilities. As the picture went on, as the characters began to struggle for survival, surprisingly, the worms started to smarten up and plan in order to capture their prey. The characters were then forced to get creative in two fronts: How to get away from the worms and how to destroy them. My favorite scenes were the ones where the characters were given the chance to have a closer look at the creatures. I constantly had a sneaky feeling that those worms weren’t really dead, that perhaps they were smart enough to pretend. It gave me the creeps because I just have a disgust for anything that resemble worms or snakes. I also highly enjoyed the scenes with Reba McEntire and Michael Gross as a couple who had a penchant for collecting firearms. Unlike horror movies, especially zombie and slasher flicks, I noticed that the writers did not allow their characters to argue with each other like there was no tomorrow. Time was of the essence and the importance of teamwork was consistently highlighted for survival. I also noticed a low number of false alarms which is atypical for horror pictures, even horror-comedies. Since it wasn’t the norm, it made me feel uneasy in a good way. I felt like I was always on my toes, which was a great sign because it meant that I was engaged. I enjoyed the material because it surprised me in many ways and I felt like the filmmakers and actors had fun while making the picture. Kudos to the special effects and make-up team for creating the disgusting worm guts. “Tremors,” directed by Ron Underwood, achieved cult status and understandably so. With its B-movie premise and tone of silliness, it was easy dismiss. However, it was undeniably fast-paced, energetic, adventurous and farcical. It’s one of those movies that can brighten up one’s night during an uneventful weekend.
★★★ / ★★★★
Cher (Alicia Silverstone) was not the type of popular girl who loved to bully those who were at bottom of the social ladder. She would rather spend her time shopping for designer clothes with her best friend (Stacey Dash). She was the type of popular girl who cared about her grades because her father (Dan Hedaya) kept her in check and her ex-step-brother (Paul Rudd) implicitly urged her to care more about the bigger issues in life. In her charmingly narcissistic way, she decided to give back to the community via giving the new girl in school (Brittany Murphy) a much needed makeover which led to a series of happenings that allowed her to realize who she was romantically in love with. As light and easily digestible the movie was, I was very entertained by it because the dialogue seemed simple on the outside but there was an intelligence and self-awareness in its core. I liked that the main character was an airhead but she had a defined perspective that she stuck with throughout which made her endearing and consistently interesting. For instance, when she was about to go out in skimpy clothing with the boy she really liked (Justin Walker), her father asked her what she was wearing. She responded by saying that it was a dress and Calvin Klein told her so. Furthermore, it was just refreshing to watch a popular girl not having to result to doing mean things to others just so she could get her way. Yes, she could be a brat at times but that trait did not define her. When her grades were low, instead of scheming of ways to blackmail her teachers (Wallace Shawn, Twink Caplan), she did the unexpected by playing matchmaker. Since she saw the world as a happy place, she believed that by helping others realize how good the world was, everything would come into place for her. Silverstone did a wonderful job playing the wide-eyed barbie because she made her character relatable, genuinely funny and, yes, even smart and witty (I love her scenes in debate class). The picture was honest with its title and it did not get lost in the satirizing the Beverly Hills high school kids when it could easily have been. Adroitly written and directed by Amy Heckerling, “Clueless” became a key figure in teenage pop culture because it was successful in its attempt to embrace the high school clichés but at the same time turning them upside down and pointing the fingers at us. Although we could not help but judge these kids as shallow and annoying, we laughed at (and with) them and maybe even cared about them. I think that says something about us.