Archives for October 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

Paranormal Activity 3 PosterRating: ★★★½☆

The demon in the “Paranormal Activity” movies doesn’t just go bump in the night. No. It also likes to yank your hair, possess your kids, move your furniture, drag you across the floor, and beat the hell outta you. What a douchebag.

Like its predecessor, “Paranormal Activity 3” winds back in time in an attempt to further trace the origin of its supernatural mysteries. The year is 1988. Sisters Katie and Kristi are young and naive. When their father, Dennis, begins to suspect that an entity might be roaming around their house, he sets up some cameras to catch the bastard on the act. Turns out, videotaping on an excessive scale runs in the family. If these folks went out more often, they’d probably end up with priced footage of Big Foot and the Easter Bunny.

The recordings eventually reveal that, something… is among their family. Because this is our third attendance on what is essentially the same movie, this discovery is only shocking for them. “Paranormal Activity 3” suffers from The Side Effects of Unplanned Franchising, where its makers force a complicated plot to adapt to a simple concept that’s best left untouched. This move is applied to successful movies so countless sequels can be produced in the expense of the original’s reputation. (The idea of [REC] probably wasn’t enough for three more sequels, so they added an out-of-place supernatural twist, which we saw in [REC] 2.)

Katie and Kristi

Katie and Kristi

The mythology in “Paranormal Activity 3” has wandered too far, wrongfully assuming that it’s scarier if we know more about its monster. It introduces elements that comes out of nowhere, asking questions that will be answered in, of course, “Paranormal Activity 4”. As for the demon, his presence here is much more welcomed than in the previous two films, thanks to the sisters. We know now that the demon’s nickname is Toby, and that he is a good sport when it comes to children’s tea parties. Toby’s motives are also revealed, but his actions don’t seem to enforce it.

Many say that people tend to “perform” when they know that a camera is watching. The same could also be said for Toby, who acts out his terror in perfect accordance with the position of the cameras. One of the movie’s few innovations is the placing of one camera on top of an oscillating fan; the camera pans back and forth from the kitchen to the living room. Toby’s choice of movement in this area of the house will not only scare the person in the room, but also the person who watches the recording later on. That’s twice the scare.

Toby

Toby

The humans, on the other hand, are not so sure what to do with themselves. They are aware of the evil, choreographed demonic presence, but their snooping around just seems to taunt the beast, which is actually a benefit for a horror-hungry audience. Excluding the cheap scares in the earlier scenes, “Paranormal Activity 3” produces massive tension and dread that’s unfortunately toned down by the fact that we’ve all seen it before. This could have been the scariest movie in years if it wasn’t two movies too late.

The subtle flaws are beginning to surface, the repetition is beginning to wear out, and the forced franchising is something I disapprove of, but I can’t give “Paranormal Activity 3” a negative rating. Those who buy a ticket for this will get what they paid for. This installment is louder and faster, with a camera that’s more mobile, thanks to the father with a relentless passion to videotape everything, as if he has no family to worry about. What a douchebag.

Friends with Benefits

Friends with Benefits PosterRating: ★★½☆☆

Romantic-comedies have become such a static routine in Hollywood that even the two lead characters in “Friends with Benefits” have memorized its blueprint. Earlier scenes present us with mild optimism when we learn that our impending couple is considerably aware of the genre’s most common clichés. But their advantage leads to no benefit when they go right ahead and implement the things they were formerly trying to rebuke.

By the movie’s unsatisfying end, we get the feeling that the purpose of the references was to inform us that what we are watching is no different from the rest of its pack. Instead of utilizing its awareness as a stepping stone for improvement, “Friends with Benefits” lingers in mediocrity by idly pre-apologizing to the faults it plans to commit. What’s the point?

Ashton Kutcher Katherine Heigl

Ashton Kutcher Katherine Heigl

What the movie lacks in screenplay is made up for in its cast. Reader, you have no idea how refreshed I was to see a rom-com that isn’t starring either Katherine Heigl or Ashton Kutcher. These two actors have spent so much time within the territory of their preferred genre that their careers have gone from complacent to comatose.  Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher are to romantic comedies as Milla Jovovich and Jason Statham are to action movies. A personal note of mine that may also come in handy in your future is this: Movies starring Heigl or Kutcher must be so bad that only Heigl and Kutcher and would agree to star in them.

Anyway. “Friends with Benefits” features real actors; some are mature and distinguished, like Richard Jenkins and Woody Harrelson, while others are young and growing, like Justin Timberlake and Mila Kunis. The latter two stars I mentioned have recently taken on serious roles that have established themselves as capable actors. Here, they play characters that are part stereotypes, part marketing campaigns. As you may already know, the apparently recyclable plot of “Friends with Benefits” requires frequent sexual activities, meaning that Timberlake and Kunis will have to bare a lot of skin. (The previous sentence may have just sold a few DVDs.) Would it be wrong to think that the makers are more interested in their looks than their talents?

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake

Though restrained by a weak script, Timberlake and Kunis do what they can to lift the movie. When the plot pauses, the scenes between them are joyous and snappy. We enjoy their goofy and honest friendship, which is why we frown when the genre interrupts the fun by telling them that it’s time to fall in love. We’re not at all surprised to see the final minutes unfold inside an airport terminal and a train station. I shall rejoice in the day I see my first romantic-comedy that will end somewhere different like, say, Antarctica, or Mars.

“Friends with Benefits” is not necessarily a bad movie, but it is a movie that we don’t need to see. Because if we lend our support to them, greedy Hollywood executives will have no other choice but to repeat the same event under a different title. Last year, we were cursed with the successful “Valentine’s Day”. Later this year, we will have the oddly similar “New Year’s Eve”, a romantic comedy starring both Katherine Heigl and Ashton Kutcher.

Real Steel

Real Steel PosterRating: ★★★★☆

As soon as the first of many electrifying robot battles in “Real Steal” went underway, I found myself instinctively recalling old memories that I didn’t know I still had. I remember how I used set aside furniture in the living room to create space for an arena. I would gather my toys in that arena, and our gang would have some fun. I thrashed them all around, pounded them against each other, and flung them against the ruthless ceiling. Things would be cooler if my stuff could do more than just withstand nonstop hammering, but it was a restriction that my imagination couldn’t handle.

“Real Steel” is the giant robot action movie my inner child has been waiting for. It demonstrates deep affection for its robots by investing in aesthetic qualities that similar movies are indifferent to. Each machine is skillfully designed. All the robots enjoy such a specific shape, physique, color and theme that we can identify any of them upon sight. And because professional boxers were motion-captured to generate the mechanical fights we see on screen, the movements between these visually appealing robots are authentic and in harmony. Here is a good example of a special effects movie that doesn’t depend on computers to do all the work.

Real SteelThe world in “Real Steel” has reached a time where man is no longer permitted to box. The roars of the crowd appear to like the replacement of human fighters: huge, towering robots that are assembled to disassemble their challengers through brute force. Robot boxing has become so popular a sport that we see it being held in vacant alleys, dark warehouses, and luxurious stadiums. This is the kind of sport that I would prefer to watch from afar. You do not want to be in the front row, uninsured, when one of those massive robots gets tossed out of the ring.

So the renewed sport has proved to be profitable, except for people like Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman), one of probably many boxers who ended up broke. Now Charlie himself has taken a shot at the sport, but his lack of funds and experience is not helping him.  “Real Steel” is the blending of the Underdog Story and the Robot Action Movie. Try to imagine Rocky Balboa outside the ring while he gives commands of combat to The Terminator. The action sequences in “Real Steel” are exciting because we are given the rare opportunity to cherish them. The robots brawl two at a time in the contained space of a boxing ring, achieving a level of control and comprehension that’s beyond the ADHD disability of Michael Bay and his defenders.

Dakota Goyo and Hugh JackmanAn element in the movie that might have been overdone is its attempt to maximize human drama by giving Charlie an 11-year-old son he didn’t know of until now. Their relationship is diligently developed, which gives significance to the robot fights. But even though the father-son relationship needlessly stretches the film to a long 127 minutes, I stay true to the thought that cheesy characters are better than no characters at all.

“Real Steel” is based on the highly-acclaimed 1956 short story, “Steel”, by Richard Matheson. I’ve read that the source material has a more serious, thoughtful approach to the struggling boxer who has been cast out by machines. The movie adaptation has converted the original story into a more common premise, because the more familiar a story is to the public, the more likely they are going to see it. Sad, but that’s just the way things are.

Numerous fans of the original Matheson piece are afraid that the shallow, but nonetheless fun, movie version will hurt the reputation of “Steel”. I don’t believe that this is the case. Any publicity that will cause a broader awareness to “Steel” is good publicity. Oscar Wilde makes a good point when he said: “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.”

Drive

Drive Poster Rating: ★★★★½

One scene that defines the stylish and disciplined vigor of “Drive” transpires inside a slim, narrow elevator. Our heroes enter the elevator; the doors slam shut. By the time they open again, we have been taken through a hint of suspense, a moment of intimacy, and finally, a burst of ultra-violence. That the movie was able to depict and contain three different moods in a limited space and time astounds me.  This is the rare kind of movie that fully values its existence, using every second of its running time for its benefit.

“Drive” stars Ryan Gosling, the Oscar-nominated actor who was given more international appreciation in his previous work as Jacob Palmer in “Crazy, Stupid, Love”. Here, a name eludes him as promotions only refer to his character as “Driver”. The inquisitive effect of a screen name like Driver reminds us of Edward Norton’s character in Fight Club, who was only identified in the credits as “Narrator”. Both evoke the same aura of ambiguity, although the Gosling character is more subtle and composed.

Carey Mulligan and Ryan GoslingDriver’s professional and personal life is centered around cars. He occupies the role of a stunt driver for the movies. He also works as a mechanic, fixing cars when he’s not flipping them on set. Beyond that, he also participates in robberies by agreeing to be the getaway driver. Driving seems to keep Driver occupied. He hardly ever speaks. Ask him a question, and his words halt after the answer is given. There are not more than two instances in the entire film where he speaks three sentences in a row. His quiet nature strays away from conventional personalities and takes us to a person so perplexing, even his fellow characters join the audience in trying to understand him.

Driver doesn’t fit the profile of the commercial action hero. He doesn’t have a sense of humor, nor does he fancy fashion and attention. He isn’t decorated like The Transporter or every other Dwayne Johnson character ever. He has his own issues with the law. Sure, the movie features a pretty girl for him to fall in love with, but this is not to give him a love interest, but a motivation.  He doesn’t try to be a hero, but the circumstances give him the opportunity to act like one.

The physical intensity that may seem to be hiding within the Gosling character is made up for by the exceedingly elegant style of Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn. The brilliant opening sequence tells us that Refn is uninfluenced by the works of the majority. We see Driver in a car chase with the cops, but Refn treats the dark streets as a puzzle for suspense rather than a playground of destruction. Driver makes use of streetlights, blind spots and empty corners as a way to outsmart his opponents. Michael Bay will be disappointed by the absence of explosions.

Ryan Gosling as DriverCarey Mulligan also stars as Irene, a lonely mother waiting for her husband to return home from prison. Driver, who shares the same apartment building, feels her solitude. He keeps her company, but conversations are occasional. The movie invests in their relationship in a way that the plot doesn’t set in until the half hour mark. Driver’s secret life results into serious trouble with some powerful, cruel men. He intends to keep Irene as safe as possible.

To call “Drive” an action movie would not do it justice. It’s not just about cars getting smashed. Not a lot of action movies are praised for its moments of silence. I like it when emotions and stories are told through stares, moods, and music. When Driver realizes that he might not be able to return, he calls Irene, and tells her how he feels. Simple words, but we sense its weight because those words came from a guy who hardly ever speaks three sentences in a row.

Green Lantern

Green Lantern PosterRating: ★½☆☆☆

Of all the second-rate comic book movies that has occupied most of 2011’s summer, “Green Lantern” is the only one of its crowd without a saving grace. “Captain America: The First Avenger” saw a true hero in Steve Rogers, giving as much attention to his human character as with his superhuman attributes. It was the goofy playfulness of “Thor” that made its overall silliness acceptable. “X-Men: First Class” was a prequel that founded itself on prior knowledge, instead of avoiding it. “Green Lantern” doesn’t have a singular thing that could make it more than what we already expect. It fulfills the requisites of the superhero genre, then immediately stops trying.

Millions of years ago, long before the nuisance of 3-D, an assembly of aliens called the Guardians formed an intergalactic peace-keeping organization. Each member, called a Green Lantern, was assigned to protect one of the 3,600 sectors of the universe. We’re not sure how many planets or galaxies each sector covers, but we trust the judgment of the Guardians. With the whole universe accounted for, the blue, big headed Guardians have decided to spend the rest of their immortal lives in a planet called Oa. This peace is interrupted when a colossal, evil force named Parallax figured that it would be real evil if he started to eat planets; Earth and Oa are on his menu.

Parallax

Meanwhile, on Earth, our central human characters who coincidentally all have daddy issues, are introduced. Hal Jordan is a reckless test pilot whose actions on the job are always questioned by his authorities. When a severely injured Green Lantern crash lands on our planet, Hal is the one chosen by the Lantern’s ring as his replacement. His duty later lands him in Oa, where he meets the Guardians. Plot details are discussed, obvious questions are asked, and shallow dilemmas are regarded with undeserved seriousness as a delay for the obligatory climactic confrontation, like taking 90 minutes to get to a destination 60 minutes away.

“Green Lantern” never earns involvement with its audience by detaching itself from all senses of reality. In a scene before Hal received the ring, he is kidnapped by a green ball of energy which flies him several miles. When the power of the ring is bestowed upon him, Hal hovers through the open atmosphere to, uhm, impress a girl. The world is entirely oblivious of his superhero activities. Either that or the ring also grants him invisibility.

Ryan Reynold and Blake LivelyThe remaining characters are just about as naive as Hal. The Guardians, whose planet is also facing literal consumption, are unmoved by the gravity of the situation. They sit in their pillars, filled with wisdom… pondering. I assume the state of Parallax for most of the movie isn’t so different. He, or it, is a giant, sloppy, shapeless blob of goop, gunk, and scum. There’s not much for him to do before the obligatory climactic confrontation on Earth. I imagine Parallax floating in space, filled with hatred… scheming.

I may have neglected to mention Hal’s love interest, Carol, who is played by Blake Lively. Ms. Lively was given a small part in “The Town”, but that was a real role. Here, she is downgraded as the object of intimacy that, when secrets are found out, will also become a cheap target of villainy. Behind every superhero is a woman waiting to be captured.

Soul Surfer

Soul Surfer PosterRating: ★★★☆☆

“Soul Surfer” is a based-on-fact film about the life of Bethany Hamilton, an optimistic, blissful young girl who rode lots of waves, lost an arm, and rode lots of waves some more. Back in 2003, when she was just thirteen years old, Bethany’s left arm was bitten off by a shark. Now she is a champion surfer, renowned in her field of sport and admired by people worldwide who share similar disabilities.

What we have here is an incredible, inspirational story that’s overshadowed by lazy, uninspired moviemaking. In “Soul Surfer”, Bethany’s life has been reduced to formula, filtered through a lens of familiarization. The raw power of her story becomes covered with so much bland, Hollywood melodrama that very little of it makes is retained in the final product. Aaron Ralston should be pleased with what Danny Boyle did with his story; “127 Hours” was one of the best movies of 2010. However, if I was Bethany Hamilton, I’m not so sure if I would be pleased with what Sean McNamara did to my story.

Bethany Hamilton

There is the distraction of another surfer named Malina. She appears in the same competitions that Bethany participates in. She is that character who is selfish, and mean, and willing to play dirty if that’s what it takes to win. Malina is only here to fill the role of a villain in a movie that doesn’t need one. Is there really room for a character like her in a film dedicated to Bethany Hamilton? Another problem is the dialogue. Because the movie’s aim is to inspire, we understand it for engaging in its epiphanies and being vocal about them. The mistake is in the decision to prolong them. It extends simple insights into lecture’s length, as if we need extra space to get its point.

Behind the blatant errors of the movie lies a topic that deserves more discussion than it is generally given. Many critics were troubled, even dumbfounded, by the unmatched optimism of Bethany and her family. They found it hard to believe that a girl could lose an arm and barely develop a speck of cynicism because of her, well, faith. I failed to see the mystery in this. Maybe my advantage is that I share the same faith as Bethany. I understood her smiles, her contentment, her undying hope. Believe me; I’ve known people like us who have smiled through a lot worse things.

NIck VujicicThe Hamilton family was reported to be always present during filming. They wanted to ensure that their faith was never dismissed from the movie. Some of the producers and scriptwriters were not in favor of this, advising the family to let them tone down the religious subtext. The Hamiltons was probably told numerous times that religion doesn’t sell.  Because the studio was said to be too hesitant to mention “Jesus” in “Soul Surfer”, they just used “God” as a… compromise. It’s weird how “Jesus” can’t be used in its intended context when you see how it’s commonly uttered as a substitute for curse words in order to achieve a PG-13 Rating.

Learning about Bethany Hamilton for the first time reminded me of Nick Vujicic, a motivational speaker whom I’ve listened to several times. Nick, whose faith is also no different than mine, was born without arms and legs. His physical abilities are limited beyond our imagination, yet there are very few people I can think of right now who are happier than Nick. His hobbies include traveling, fishing, golfing and swimming. I would watch a movie about the life of Nick Vujicic. Maybe such a film could cause Bethany’s “doubters” to do some rethinking. It truly mystifies me how people could choose to see an absence of cynicism rather than the presence of joy.

Well, what do you know…

Nick Vujicic and Bethany Hamilton