[REC] 2 (2009)
★★ / ★★★★
“[REC]²,” written and directed by Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza, began a few minutes after a reporter (Manuela Velasco) was dragged by a zombie-like creature into darkness. This time, a SWAT team (Óscar Zafra, Ariel Casas, Alejandro Casaseca, Pablo Rosso) and a health minister (Pep Molina) made their way inside the quarantined building to get a specific blood sample. They hoped to make an antidote just in case the biological infection touched the general population. But the Ministry of Health wasn’t telling the truth about his identity. He was actually a priest and there was something in the blood that the Church was determined to have. “[REC]²” was enjoyable because the dark atmosphere, which made its predecessor so chilling, remained foreboding. The hand-held camera remained the picture’s conceit but it still worked. When a character turned a corner, I anticipated that a zombie was right there waiting for its next victim. What I liked most about the the film was it didn’t rely on the atmosphere to keep us interested. Instead of giving us the same concept and the only disparity consisting of different characters running around the apartment complex, it tried to answer questions about what the reporter saw at the end of the first film. That is, the specific reason why the other priest experimented on a little girl and possibly other children. However, “[REC]²” became less interesting when we stopped seeing the events through the SWAT team’s perspective. Three idiotic teenagers (Andrea Ros, Pau Poch, Àlex Batllori) decided to sneak inside from the sewers with, of course, a video camera. There was a sudden shift in tone. Since they argued so much, their situation just felt silly. When they were on screen, I felt like I was watching a banal slasher flick instead of a horror movie with a solid concept. “Let’s get out of here!” insisted one of the doomed teens. But she didn’t have the courage to leave her friends. Why? If I was convinced something was a really bad idea, I won’t do it. I have a brain and a will of my own. It had gotten so irritating, I actually wanted them to get bitten and turn into zombies so there would be no more whining. The movie had a couple of wonderful scares. My favorite, although requiring a leap of faith, was when our protagonists discovered that there was a place within a room invisible to the naked eye. The camera became a necessary tool, not just a conceit, to see the place of interest. While one holding the camera was able to see in darkness, the rest of them were blind. The monster could be right next to them and they would have had no idea. Our hearts beat a little faster for them. It had moments of creativity but the multiple perspectives was executed with a lack of focus. Nevertheless, I give the writer-directors credit for turning “[REC]” upside down. Unlike most sequels of the genre, “[REC]²” felt necessary.
Little Fockers (2010)
★ / ★★★★
It seemed like Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) and Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) had finally found a way to get along after years of power struggle which often involved physical pain. Much to Greg’s surprise, Jack wanted him to be the “Godfocker” or the head of family. But when Jack began to feel a gnawing suspicion that Greg was having an affair with a beautiful pharmaceutical representative (Jessica Alba), Jack and Greg’s temporary ceasefire was shaken. Directed by Paul Weitz, “Little Fockers” was lifeless, tedious, and humiliating. There was no good reason for these characters to be on screen again because not only was there no story, there was no chemistry among the characters. We learned nothing new about them and they weren’t very funny because all of the jokes were either uninspired or recycled from other lame-brained comedies. The “I’m watching you” joke may have been amusing more than a decade ago but after hearing the same joke over and over again, it wasn’t even chuckle-worthy. The slapstick scenes served no purpose other than to disgust and Alba’s character doing physical stunts felt utterly desperate. The only two characters I found somewhat amusing were Roz (Barbara Streisand), Jack’s mom, and Prudence (Laura Dern), the recruiter for the elementary school Jack and Greg were interested in for the twins. Roz’ jokes about sex and aging were transparent but least they served a nice break from the two warring fathers. Prudence, on the other hand, was amusing because she found herself in disbelief when dealing with the Fockers. Having experience in working with obnoxious kids and dealing with, to put it lightly, difficult parents her fake smile was all too familiar. I enjoyed Dern’s performance, even though she wasn’t given very much to do, because she made Prudence relatable and less of a caricature. Unfortunately, the picture had to return its focus to Jack and Greg attempting to make each other’s lives miserable. It was almost masochistic. Toward the end, I thought its sweetness was completely false because the evolution in Jack and Greg’s relationship was absent. It was insulting that the filmmakers actually believed that we would buy the charade. The scene right before they were nice and gooey, Jack and Greg were so mean-spirited toward each other, I wondered if they genuinely regarded each other as family. Greg perfectly knew that Jack had a serious heart condition yet he wasn’t attuned enough not to throw a punch. With a sharper script equipped with enough character development and jokes that were actually funny and subversive, perhaps “Little Fockers” could have passed as a remotely mediocre comedy. Instead, this movie personified what the bottom of a barrel looks and sounds like: dark, depressing, and desperate.
Hostel: Part III (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Scott (Brian Hallisay) was about to be married in a week so Carter (Kip Pardue), the best man, decided to take his friend to Las Vegas, Palm Springs being their cover from Amy (Kelly Thiebaud), for a bachelor’s party with Justin (John Hensley) and Mike (Skyler Stone). As the four gambled, Kendra (Sarah Habel) and Nikki (Zulay Henao) eyed Scott from a distance and later informed them that there was a party way out from The Strip. As the hours passed by, Mike was eventually nowhere to be found. “Hostel: Part III,” written by Michael D. Weiss and directed by Scott Spiegel, was promising because of its surprising first scene involving a scraggly guy in his twenties (Chris Coy) who mistakenly entered an Eastern European couple’s hotel room and was invited to have a drink. While its predecessors were set in Slovakia, it should be noted that this installment took place in Las Vegas. In its own way, on purpose or otherwise, it created a challenge for itself. Since Eli Roth’s “Hostel” and “Hostel: Part II” were set in a foreign country, it was almost easier to identify with the characters, despite their seemingly innate lack of common sense, because of their nationality. There was an underlying statement about the xenophobia found in all of us when we are in a different country and hear people speak in a foreign tongue. In this picture, the Americans became the tormenters, so the protagonists had to have something special in order for us to root for them. They did not. While each had his own distinct personality and temperament, we knew nothing about them other than their quirks and what they told one another. Hence, when the twists in the screenplay finally arrived, I felt little to no emotional impact while watching it. Although the scenes involving torture were still grizzly and bloody, one of them involving bugs, they failed to encourage a visceral response from me. Perhaps it had something to do with the style of shooting scenes and the way they were put together. Instead of having drawn-out sequences designed to increase our dread as the characters became more confused about the whereabouts of their friends, there was more than a handful of scenes interrupted by manic cutting and aerial shots of the city. Furthermore, there tended to be more people in one shot which took away some of the feelings of isolation we were supposed to experience with the characters. There was one change that I thought was somewhat interesting. Instead of simply having a room with just a victim and his tormenter, people were actually allowed to watch from behind the glass. The spectators’ chairs had buttons that they could press if they chose to bet, for example, how many arrows it took to kill a person. The concept worked because it made sense in terms of the film’s setting. If “Hostel: Part III” was able to take that level of creativity and had been more consistent with it, it would have been a passable addition to the franchise. It was hinted that Elite Hunting had more branches, one located in Asia. With all the missing people because of this sadistic group (who liked to hunt Americans) one would think that the FBI or the CIA were more informed.
Hostel: Part II (2007)
★ / ★★★★
Affluent Beth (Lauren German), debbie-downer Lorna (Heather Matarazzo), and brassy Whitney (Bijou Phillips), American art students in Italy, decided to go on a trip around Europe over the weekend for some relaxation. While on the train, one of the models (Vera Jordanova) they had the pleasure of sketching just hours prior recommended a gorgeous must-visit hot springs in Slovakia. It seemed too good to refuse so the trio happily accepted. Little did the girls know that just minutes after they checked into a hostel, there was an auction, held by Elite Hunting, a murder-for-profit group, in which rich men bid on women where the winner could do whatever he wanted with his winnings. Written and directed by Eli Roth, I give a little bit of credit to “Hostel: Part II” because it tried to do something different from its predecessor. Instead of focusing solely on the would-be victims, it actually spent some time with the men who wanted to experience something they’d never forget. Todd (Richard Burgi) was gung-ho about killing something with his hands while Stuart (Roger Bart) was more reluctant. The way Todd and Stuart talked about committing an act of unimaginable violence to another human being was disturbing because certain phrases they uttered, like a joke or a snide remark, reflected an underlying struggle in attempting to make their victims less human. For instance, while sitting in the car on their way to the torture factory, Stuart asked his friend if he thought what they were doing was sick. Todd answered the question as one would express strong dislike toward a certain type of food. Furthermore, the picture allowed us to peek inside the business. We saw the important figures who made the negotiations when something went wrong. We discovered some of the requirements stated in the contract if one chose to be a part of Elite Hunting. We also learned that certain rules were allowed to be broken for the right price. Although it had potential to be a good sequel because it strived to expand its universe, the film just wasn’t good enough. Because there weren’t enough scenes dedicated to Todd, Stuart, and their relationship with the business, watching it all unfold was like observing a drowning person: an occasional gasp of air came hand-in-hand with its desperation to keep afloat. For the sake of so-called suspense, the material had a natural tendency to relegate to the three girls trying to run away from the burly bad guys in leather yet we knew all along that they had no chance of outrunning them. That was a crucial difference between this film and its predecessor. Part of the fun of “Hostel” was we actually believed that Paxton (Jay Hernandez), who made an appearance here, was able to escape despite his odds. There was technique, tension, and, most importantly, humor, in the manner in which he had to camouflage with the environment to avoid being detected. In here, a character ran into the forest and we expected her to trip. And she did. Lastly, I was especially sickened with the scene in which an adult pointed his gun on several children’s heads. One of them was shot in the face. But for what? Some could argue that the adult intended to teach a lesson. I argue it was for mere shock value. It felt cheap. “Hostel: Part II” was plagued with boring protagonists and lackluster execution. I wanted to find dark humor in its extreme nature but I ended up just sitting in my chair, depressed with all that was happening.
Paranormal Activity 3 (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Katie (Katie Featherston) delivered a box of videotapes to her sister’s house (Sprague Grayden) which contained events in September 1988 when young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and young Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) lived with their mom, Julie (Lauren Bittner), and her boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith). Julie and Dennis decided to make a sex tape. Just when things began to become pornographic, they were interrupted by an earthquake. As the couple ran from the room to get the kids, the camera captured an invisible figure with the help from the dust that fell from the ceiling. This strange occurrence inspired Dennis to install cameras for two reasons: to gather evidence that there really was a ghost in the house and to see what it wanted from them. “Paranormal Activity 3,” written by Christopher Landon and Oren Peli, did not only deliver a dearth of genuine scares, it offered only one piece of new information that connected Katie and Kristi’s stories from Peli’s “Paranormal Activity” and Tod Williams’ “Paranormal Activity 2,” respectively. When the credits rolled, I wondered why they even bothered. There was no connection, as a family, between the characters and everyone seemed to be playing dumb. They consistently waited to hear weird noises or see furnitures move by themselves instead of actually doing something to try to prevent them from happening again. Perhaps I would have felt more scared for the family if the parents were more protective of their children by allowing their instincts to take over once in a while. Sometimes we just know that there’s something really wrong. We don’t wait for all the facts before taking action especially when it comes to survival. If Dennis reviewed the tapes each day, I didn’t understand why the filmmakers did not allow him to see the videos in which Katie’s bed was moved by an unknown force and she being violently dragged across the floor. That was an important moment, a potential climax, and it should have been shown. If I was their father and I saw what happened to my kids the night before, there was no way I was going to stay in that house and allow my children to be harmed. In some instances, the film failed to milk what they had. Dennis and Julie hired a babysitter (Johanna Braddy) so they could have some alone time in the city. It was the ’80s and teen slasher flicks, most of them involved babysitters, dominated the horror genre. It could have been more pointed with its irony when the house ghost, with a white sheet over its head, inched toward Lisa as she read a book in the kitchen. Once the sheet fell to the ground, the tension was gone and it reverted to being a soporific bore. “Paranormal Activity 3,” directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, had very limited tricks up its sleeve. I was thunderstruck not because of the visual effects behind the paranormal happenings which, by the way, were just mediocre, but because of its overall lack of imagination to propel the story forward. If I were to compile a ratio between scenes of nothing happening and “scares,” the former would outweigh the latter by a factor of five.
Final Destination 5 (2011)
★★ / ★★★★
A group of co-workers were on their way to a retreat that would supposedly help them become a better team. But when Sam (Nicholas D’Agosto) was somehow able to see the future involving the collapse of the suspension bridge their bus was on as well as the deaths of his colleagues, he grabbed his girlfriend, Molly (Emma Bell), got off the vehicle in a panic, and a walked away from the impending disaster. Gymnast Candice (Ellen Wroe), lubricious Isaac (P.J. Byrne), myopic Olivia (Jacqueline MacInnes Wood), patient Nathan (Arien Escarpeta), whistleblower Dennis (David Koechner), and mercurial Peter (Miles Fisher) followed paranoid Sam to safety. Sure enough, the survivors, dubbed “Lucky 8” by the news, started to die in the order in which they were supposed to on that bridge. Written by Eric Heisserer and Jeffrey Reddick, “Final Destination 5” was like its other sequels with one scintillating detail. Bludworth (Tony Todd), a recurring character in the series as a mysterious coroner, informed Sam and his friends on how to quench Death’s thirst. With this knowledge in mind, we got to observe, at least in the latter half of the film, how the characters turned against each other, as well as possibly forcing strangers into the mix, because they wanted to live. Yet even when we were presented with a solution, the execution wasn’t strong enough. This could be partly attributed to a weakly established protagonist with a motivation as shallow as a dog’s. After each death scene, the picture relegated to the hackneyed romance between Sam and Molly. During the first scene, the Molly broke up with Sam. Naturally, the latter was very confused because, at least from his point of view, everything seemed to be going well. Later, we came to discover that she felt she needed to break the relationship for Sam. It turned out that her ex-boyfriend was offered an internship as a chef in Paris, but he wouldn’t accept it if Molly was to remain in America. The romance was not only a sophomoric attempt to get us to care, such scenes slowed down the picture’s momentum immensely. They were good at pouting and giving each other puppy dog eyes but none of these qualities contributed to the horror and the suspense. Why must there always be a couple fighting for their love in just about every other horror movie? If it’s not necessary, it’s an easy way to fill up the minutes with junk. What I wanted to see were more scenes that built up to one character inevitably meeting his or her grizzly demise. There was a dark sense of humor in the deaths. I especially liked the massage parlor with the acupuncture needles and the LASIK surgery scenes. They got under my skin, in a good way, because I have a fear of allowing someone else, like a masseuse or an eye surgeon, to be in charge of my body. Range was also present. Some deaths were quick and painless (only appearing to be painful with all that blood on the floor) while some were slow and almost unimaginable. Directed by Steven Quale, “Final Destination 5” was forebodingly formulaic but the deaths contained enough imagination. If the romance was completely excised in place of the main character actually doing something relevant to stay alive, it would have been more exciting.
The Hangover Part II (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Two years after a bachelor’s party turned into horrendous but hilarious mess in Las Vegas, Phil, (Bradley Cooper), Alan (Zach Galifianakis), and Doug (Justin Bartha) headed to Thailand to see Stu (Ed Helms) get married to Lauren (Jamie Chung), despite the father of the bride’s disapproval of the groom. Two nights before the big day, the four friends, along with Lauren’s sixteen-year-old brother, Teddy (Mason Lee), each quaffed a bottle of harmless beer at the beach. The next day, Phil and Alan woke up alongside Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong), an international criminal, with Doug and Teddy missing. Like last time, the party had no choice but to retrace their steps, find the persons of interest, and get back to the wedding in time. The cardinal sin that “The Hangover Part II,” written by Craig Mazin, Scott Armstrong, and Todd Phillips, committed was underestimating their audiences’ capacity to appreciate a sequel that, in the least, tried to be original. I had no qualms about the characters making an utter fool of themselves by getting into the most ridiculous situations involving Russians and their pet monkey, prostitutes with something unexpected in their panties, and Paul Giamatti being devilishly magnetic as a crime boss, but giving us a facsimile of its predecessor was not only lazy on the filmmakers’ part, it was also quite pessimistic and insulting. Given that the first film was such a success nationally and internationally, one would expect that the writers would at least try to come up with something different so that, after watching the final product, we would be begging to see more. The characters weren’t allowed to move past their adventures in Vegas and I wondered, with great frustration, why not. Alan kept bringing up what had happened in Vegas two years ago in almost every other scene. It was counterproductive because instead of drawing us into this specific new adventure and slowly revealing why frolicking all over Thailand was special in its own right, referencing to its counterpart forced us to compare analogous scenes–this one overwhelmingly inferior. The jokes ranged from bad to completely absent. I didn’t see what was so funny about smoking monkeys and ten-year-old kids engaging in underaged drinking. Nor did I recognize why the characters eventually broke out in song instead of just engaging in silence. At times, scenes with a poverty of words can work given the right timing and direction. These guys embodied hedonism which, in reality, almost always comes with a price. Instead of being boisterous jerks all the time, stereotypically American in that they had no regard or respect toward other cultures, why not allow them to sit and consider the fact that perhaps their heedlessness led them exactly where they should be and deservingly so? “The Hangover Part II,” clumsily directed by Todd Phillips, was a comedy that was diffident in terms of dealing with real emotions. Sure, it was about having fun and getting into trouble afterwards. But the filmmakers had forgotten that their project was about friendship, too. From what I saw, these guys were not worthy of each other’s friendships. Then why should they be worthy of our time?