I thought that living in the vacuum of unemployment would allow me to update the ole’ blog more frequently, but the thing about not having a full-time job is that you have to keep looking for one. Since it really dawned on me that others spend less time writing reviews and are paid to do so (and those who get paid actually are read by more than Facebook friends and some random web-surfers from Rwanda), it’s gotten harder and harder to keep it up. I like to think my dedication over the past two years is its own reward, but I’m not sure how much longer I can maintain a hobby that eats up so much time only to be read by a relatively small number of readers (who I am, of course, endlessly appreciative of).
In other words, ain’t nobody got time for this. Though I’ve settled for writing about only the highest-profile movies I’ve seen, there’s a lot that has come out over the past few weeks, and the least I can do is catch up on what’s out and recommend (or angrily criticize) the films you may be most curious about.
Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension
The Paranormal Activity franchise subsists wholly on found footage gimmickry, but there’s nothing wrong with a gimmick when it’s done well. The first couple sequels to the break-out original managed to ratchet up the tension by adding small adjustments like an oscillating camera, change in decade and hinting at a larger narrative arc. Now at flick number six, the need to inject fresh energy has lead the franchise in the wrong direction by focusing on the exact wrong things and ignoring what made the series so scary in the first place. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension has a lot of activity, but is decidedly normal.
The things left unchanged — quirky dysfunctional family, creepy child behavior, jump scares of both the genuine and fake-out variety, and sped-up nighttime recordings — add nothing but tedium to the proceedings. The big new addition to Ghost Dimension is, to the franchise’s credit, interesting in theory and clever in its implementation. The main characters find a strange camera in their house that allows them to observe the once-invisible spooky hijinks. Not only is this a natural progression of the series found footage conceit, it allows for some legitimately cool 3D video distortion effects (3D is the only way to view this film if you must). The 3D actually adds some extra oomph to a few of the otherwise-stale startle attempts, which have become more of a nuisance than anything else.
The spectral-camera hook also promises to answer the question of what exactly the ever-invisible spooky hijinks (caused by menacingly named ghost-demon-thing ‘Toby’) actually looks like. And the answer is… cheap CGI? That’s right, it turns out not showing the ghosts and forcing audience to use their imaginations is a much more effective strategy than throwing crappy special effects on the screen from the start of the movie. The obviously fake nature of wispy ghost trails and the Dementor-like Toby turns what was once a realistic nightmare scenario into just another theme park haunted house. The most maddeningly ironic thing is that, as the budgets have grown increasingly larger (Ghost Dimension cost $10 million whereas the original cost $15,000), this franchise has never felt cheaper.
Score: 2 out of 5
Guillermo Del Toro’s unabashed elevation of style above substance has worked out well for him so far, especially with regards to his dark fairy tale Pan’s Labyrinth (often referred to as his masterpiece). After the vibrant but insubstantial monster movie Pactific Rim, Del Toro reaches back towards Pan’s Gothic fairy tale sensibility for another dark, bloody horror-infused drama. As visually striking as anything the director has conjured up in the past, Crimson Peak simply provides more of that same mood without even attempting to create an original home for that distinct atmosphere to thrive in.
The story begins on a promising note as New York author Edith (Mia Wasakowska, who’s got the go-to look for Gothic stories) tries to navigate the very patriarchal world of novel publishing in the 1880s, soon seduced by and then married to British clay miner Thomas (the appropriately pale and gangly Tom Hiddleston). Thomas brings Edith back to his manor in London, which he shares with his creepy-as-all-hell sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain, who maybe hams it up a tad too much). Creepiness ensues… did I mention Edith has, since her childhood, been able to see ghosts? Luckily, the designs of these phantoms are far more detailed and spooky than anything Paranomal Activity The Ghost Dimension could cobble together.
Lavish production design and a genuinely unnerving tone is wasted on a slow-moving story with twists that are made so annoyingly obvious from the start, but are so familiar at this point that you’d be able to figure it out even the screenplay did have an ounce of subtlety to it. Still, it’s encouraging to see a Hollywood studio turn out such a weird bird and afford it a budget which makes such beautiful imagery. The movie doesn’t really fall into any genre specifically, and has a sort of old-fashioned energy that should be encouraged and admired. Just beware the potential boredom that comes with vapid eye candy, and tread lightly on Crimson Peak.
Score: 3 out of 5
Jem and the Holograms:
A few months ago I decided to watch The Hannah Montana Movie for shits and giggles, and I promised myself I would never watch it again. What I didn’t realize at the time is that The Hannah Montana Movie can disguise itself as other movies.
Fool me twice…
Honestly, this isn’t quite as bad. It’s got something to say to kids about the wonders and dangers of the internet, Aubrey Peeples (that’s a name, apparently) is a charming enough lead, and some of the awkward moments make for some truly classic unintentional comedy. The cringe is strong with this one, especially compared to other, more genuine recent teen-centered movies like The Duff. But at the very least I’ll take Jem’s generic (and slightly age inappropriate) pop songs over young Miley’s country-infused Disney garbage any day.
The more I think back on this movie, the more I realize how batshit insane it really is. Did you know there’s a goddamn robot in it? Maybe you would know that if you were aware of the Saturday Morning Cartoon, but I swear that robot’s the only link you’ll find to the source material. There’s also a joke that makes fun of homeless people, The Rock talks about ass blood at one point and Molly Ringwald is the mom. I’m so glad I was forced into seeing this strangely-lovable disaster in order to see Crimson Peak for cheap at the drive-in. Too cringe-worthy to enjoy but too odd to truly hate on, Jem is an almost-average kids’ movie, if only any kids had actually gone to see it.
Score: 2 out of 5
Beasts of No Nation
Netflix’s first original feature is the real deal, a hard-hitting and stunningly-shot war film that doubles as one of the bleakest coming-of-age stories you could imagine. Child soldiers as subject matter is a bold move for a first movie, but luckily Abraham Attah provides a formidable child performance as Agu, who joins a rebel movement after his family is murdered by the corrupt government of his nameless African country. Though his somber, pensive stares overshadow the childlike guilelessness of his character, Attah has a few star-making moments. The real show-stopper is Idris Elba as Agu’s nameless Commandant, who assumes the position of a warped father figure that is uncomfortably universal in his exaggerated masculinity which barely makes an insatiable lust for power and control. If this movie has a shot at any award nominations, it’s his supporting performance.
Production-wise, this is one of the year’s best-looking and best-sounding with Cary Fukunaga carrying double duty and cinematographer and director, doing a considerably better job as the former. Almost every shot could deserve to be hung on a wall, and there are moments of vibrant surrealism as a refreshing counterpoint to the dreary and all too commonplace images of death and destruction. Dan Romer’s score is another highpoint (fun fact: this is the second movie he’s composed with the word ‘Beasts’ in the title after Beasts of the Southern Wild), conveying the polarized tones of childlike wonder and disorienting bloodlust.
What keeps Beasts from rising to true greatness is its sluggish second half, which really grinds to a halt and overindulges in its repetitive depiction of war-time turmoil. That the gore which is so shocking the first few times on display becomes considerably less so over time is part of the movie’s thesis of desensitization, but it’s at the halfway point that the movie ceases to say anything new or profound about war or children’s place within it and simply overindulges in repetitive depictions of gorey chaos. Many of the later scenes allow Attah and Elba to flex their acting muscles, but provides no narrative progression or thematic insight. Like Del Toro in Crimson Peak, Fukunaga ignores the power of a well-structured plot and narrative suspense in favor of striking imagery. At least the characters in Beasts are intriguing enough that watching them stumble around aimlessly continued to stoke my curiosity until I truly realized we weren’t going anywhere interesting after all.
Score: 3.5 out of 5