★★★★ / ★★★★
The Lamberts, led by schoolteacher Josh and musician Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne), recently moved into a new house with their three kids (Ty Simpkins, Andrew Astor). In the beginning, there were small incidents around the house like books being put out of place but no one ever touching them. Then the changes started to become more noticeable like Renai hearing malevolent voices from a baby monitor when no one was supposed to be upstairs other than the sleeping infant. One night, one of the children, Dalton, went to explore in the creepy attic and fell from a ladder. He was hurt but there was no serious injury. The problem was, the next morning, Dalton wouldn’t wake up. Doctors claimed he was in a coma but they couldn’t explain why. Written by Leigh Whannell and directed by James Wan, “Insidious” was a creative, thrilling, old-fashioned haunted house film. When you’ve seen a lot of horror movies, you start to feel as though you’ve seen everything in the genre, that nothing can surprise you anymore. But there are times when movies like this would come and take you completely by surprise. From its title card in gargantuan red text designed to summon 70s and 80s cheesy horror nostalgia down to its chilling soundtrack, it immediately showcased its knowledge of horror conventions. I got the feeling that maybe it was going to poke fun of the standards. In some ways it did, but I was happier with the fact that it took the known conventions and made them better by altering them just a little bit. In a wasteland of bad remakes and cringe-inducing adaptations, a spice of modernity feels like a new breed. The first half worked as a horror picture because of the way it patiently built the suspense. The ghosts were scary but they didn’t go around following the family (depending on how one sees it). They were just hanging about, taking up the same space as the living. The director was careful in revealing too much. Sometimes the ghosts were on the background and the characters didn’t see them. But the audiences certainly did. Sometimes the apparitions were on the foreground and we had no choice but to scream at the images thrown at us. Because the director varied his camera angles and the types of scares, the film held an usually high level of tension. Each situation was a potential cause of alarm. In a dark room, we knew that something was going to happen but it was a matter of when. “Insidious” also worked as a horror-comedy. Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), a geek tech duo who seemed to have been plucked from Ivan Reitman’s “Ghost Busters,” provided required tension-relievers as they attempted to get bigger weapons to detect the ghosts. Meanwhile, the addition of Lin Shaye as the concerned psychic was an excellent counter-balance to the more comedic moments. Her character reminded us that “Insidious” was a horror movie first and foremost by allowing us to see what she saw in a dark room via Spec’s drawings. For an old-fashioned horror flick, “Insidious” felt progressive, even fresh. Sitting in a packed theater, I felt like the film continually threw snakes of increasing size onto my lap. I screamed louder each time.
Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
A family of four, led by Daniel and Kristi (Brian Boland and Sprague Grayden), decided to set up cameras all over the house because they believed someone vandalized their home while they were on vacation. Several days after the cameras were set up, the family reviewed the recorded images and started to notice strange things like objects moving by themselves. We observed baby Hunter (played by William Juan Prieto and Jackson Xenia Prieto) focused on something while in his crib in the middle of the night. Ali (Molly Ephraim), the eldest child, initially thought it was cool that the house was haunted so, along with her boyfiend (Seth Ginsberg), they tried to communicate with the spirits using a Ouija board. That’s never a good idea. “Paranormal Activity 2,” directed by Tod Williams, had a solid rising action. It was similar to its predecessor, directed by Oren Peli, because it managed to convey chilling images by showing very little. For instance, when the mother started hearing noises in the baby’s room and found that the weird noise wasn’t there, she headed to the connecting bathroom. Then something small would move near the crib. It obviously wasn’t the wind because the doors and windows were shut. When the mother returned to the room, the object ceased to move. It was scary because it defied physics. A moving object can’t abruptly stop moving without some force acting against it. Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie’s (Katie Featherston) return worked in some ways. Their appearance reminded me of why I enjoyed the first picture so much. They had good chemistry and their interactions were playful and amusing. But when the film started to weave in and explain how Micah and Katie’s story was related to the family in question, it felt forced. It began to feel like I was in a room watching a home movie and the writers were next to me as they attempted to write the script using a loud typewriter. It lacked believability. Once the kitchen cabinets and drawers were flung open at the same time, it was downhill from there because it wanted to increase the ante. But it didn’t need to. I missed the amusing scenes when Martine (Vivis Cortez), the family’s nanny, believed the house was haunted so she tried to let the good spirits inside using various incense and prayers. I also thought it was funny when Ali “researched” haunted houses and seemed to believe everything she read on the internet. The boyfriend just smiled because he knew how silly it was. It was simple, but I think it worked as a commentary for the young and not-so-young’s dependence on computers when we desperately need information. “Paranormal Activity 2” had some good scares and uncomfortable (but fun) chuckles as byproduct of stress (or fear) but it offered nothing new.
My Neighbor Totoro (1988)
★★★ / ★★★★
“Tonari no Totoro” also known as “My Neighbor Totoro” has been on my Netflix queue for about six months so I was so happy when it finally arrived in the mail. It must be noted that this review is based on the dubbed version so some of the dialogue might have been lost in translation. Written and directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the film had a very simple story with a big heart. It was about two sisters (Dakota Fanning and Elle Fanning) who recently moved to the countryside with their father while their mother (Lea Salonga) stayed in the hospital due to an undisclosed illness. The girls, since they were still at a young age, could see dust sprites and spirits, one of which was Totoro, who was supposed to be a troll but he looked more like Snorlax to me (yes, the Pokémon) because of his lax nature but incredibly cute proclivities. The whole movie was basically how the sisters used their imagination as an escape from the ennui of the countryside and dealing with their mother’s illness. I enjoyed that it was simple because the sadness in the core’s story easily appealed to adults while the cuteness appealed to the kids. I’ve read some critiques saying that the movie was slow and aren’t as grand as other Miyazaki projects. In some ways, I agree but at the same time I think those people have missed the point. The movie was supposed to be from a child’s perspective. When you were a child, didn’t everything appear so simple? There’s no taxes to pay off, no job to go to, and no fear of taking an exam that can determine your future. It was all about running around in the outdoors and getting caught up in pretend play. I loved the fact that the younger sister’s qualities reflected real life; she constantly mimicked her older sister, was always in “me” mode and she didn’t quite yet grasp the idea of danger. Details like that elevated this film for me because it showed there was some thought under the sugary cuteness. However, there were some underdeveloped characters that I thought were interesting but were never really explored. For instance, the boy who seemed to like the older sister and the grandmother who once could see the spirits when she was a child. I especially wanted to know more about the latter because I felt like she had a lot of wondrous stories that she could potentially tell the girls (and to us). “My Neighbor Totoro” offers a healthy dose of great imagery (such as when Totoro stood in the rain with the girls) and is obviously inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it was a masterpiece but I appreciated the innocent feel it had. Characters going on great adventures isn’t a must for animated films to be interesting. And that’s one of this picture’s important messages: adventures can happen right in your backyard.
Spirited Away (2001)
★★★★ / ★★★★
Every time I watch “Spirited Away,” I am in complete awe from start to finish. When Chihiro and her family discovered an abandoned amusement park on the way to their new house, Chihiro’s parents were turned into pigs right when the sun started setting and she found herself alone in an alternate universe full of strange creatures and spirits. Chihiro must then navigate in her new world and find a way to turn her parents to their original form and return to the human world. There many elements to love in this animated film. One of those elements was Chihiro’s drastic change from a whiny, spoiled girl to a mature individual who was capable of making decisions under extreme pressures. With the responsibilities that the bathhouse (where she had to work so that the witch would not turn her into a pig) had thrusted upon her, she eventually learned to break from her “me” mindset and really care for others. I also admired the fact that there were many morals that could be learned from this picture but none of those lessons felt heavy-handed. The movie merely showed what was happening and then it was up to us to determine why certain events were unfolding before our eyes. The concept of false first impressions was definitely at the forefront. Instead of making the hideous monsters one-dimensional, they turned out to be quite docile and adorable in their own ways. I particularly loved the raddish spirit, the stink spirit and No-Face because each of them were put under the spotlight at some point which at first suggested that they were not friendly or had something up their sleeves. The level of imagination of the picture was very impressive. Everything is so magical–from a giant baby capable of making threats to a one-footed lamp that worked as a guide–that it was able to easily entertain the kids and make the adults look back on childhood when anything seemed possible. Directed by Hayao Miyazaki, “Spirited Away” was a complex demonstration on the power of imagination. Or better yet, how our imagination can inspire us to pull something from within and make it a reality. I would also like to note that I believe this is stronger than Miyazaki’s other classic animated feature called “Princess Mononoke.” The reason why I prefer “Spirited Away” is that I feel like this one had more magic, depth and malleability. It really offers a first-rate adventure that is unforgettable.
Thir13en Ghosts (2001)
★ / ★★★★
I decided to revisit this movie because it scared me when I saw it back in middle school. Directed by Steve Beck, “Thir13en Ghosts” was a mess in every sense of the word. A father (Tony Shalhoub), his two kids and the nanny (Rah Digga) were invited to visit a home they inherited from an uncle (F. Murray Abraham) who dedicated his life collecting spirits. Not knowing that there were ghosts locked up in a basement of a mansion made out of glass, the family decided to visit, along with a psychic (Matthew Lillard) and a man (JR Bourne) who let the family know about the inheritance. This movie did not make sense to me. It spent about half of its running time showing the characters walking around the place and arguing. It quickly got annoying because it didn’t help the story to get anywhere near interesting. In fact, I really wanted the ghosts to escape their respective cells and start killing off the characters because maybe then they’d stop arguing and finally face the mission at hand. I was astounded that there were twelve very interesting ghosts (various methods of scaring and killing their victims, for instance) but the audiences never really get to know them other than their names. Some of them were obviously angry and were prone to attack anyone, while some of them looked more sad and just stayed in one corner. It made me wonder about their varying reactions to their visitors. The “scary” scenes were aided by a booming soundtrack so I didn’t find it to be truly scary. The violent scenes might have been gory and kinetic but my actions of flinching and looking away had nothing to do with genuine fear that is requisite of truly chilling horror pictures. If the movie didn’t take itself too seriously, it might have worked in some angle. There were some lines voiced out by the nanny that were very amusing but none of it was enough to save this sinking ship. If Beck spent more of his time actually helming the suspense instead of the violence and loud sountrack, this definitely would have been a rewarding experience. Instead, the audiences unjustly got a movie with loud barks and no bite.