Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

Carrie by Kimberly Peirce

A re-imagining of the classic horror tale about Carrie White, a shy girl outcast by her peers and sheltered by her deeply religious mother, who unleashes telekinetic terror on her small town after being pushed too far at her senior prom.

First off, it’s going to be very hard not to compare this remake to the original. Not because of the original’s success or how revered it was, but because of how similar both films are. This new remake of Carrie from director Kimberly Peirce, unfortunately, doesn’t do enough to justify its retelling.

The original Carrie explored the theme of power and control between adults and teenagers. Carrie’s mother Margaret hits her when Carrie doesn’t listen to her. And in another scene, a teacher cusses at a group of students and smacks one of them in the face in front of the entire class.

What works against the remake is today’s current standards of parenting.  In today’s age, hitting a child is much more frowned upon than it was in the seventies. If a kid is cussed or smacked by a teacher in school nowadays, they can legitimately fight back by bringing it to the school board or by calling the police. These politics ends up watering down the film’s themes, removing a lot of the edges off of the story. The threat of violence, whether it’s coming from adult onto the teenager or vice versa, is dampened. The state of today’s politics is not something I hold against the film, but the film doesn’t seem to want to challenge current social taboos and play in the politically incorrect. The entire effect of the horror is watered down as a result.

Director Kimberly Peirce makes up for this by adding modern horror movie aesthetics onto the story. There are loud jump scares, sharp objects are held closely into people’s faces making frantic expressions and people creepily walk by in the background undetected. The major difference between the original and the remake lies in the way that it scares its audience. In the original, the horror was a looming creepiness that stayed with me after the film ended. I reflected upon the inevitable tragedy of Carrie being an unfortunate outcast being pushed to the point of no return. In the remake, the horror is emphasized in the immediate present of the physical violence that’s about to be unleashed.

Everybody looks attractive and for a story about a social outcast in an image-conscious high school environment, that is a problem. In the novel, Carrie is described as a plump girl. Chloe Grace-Moretz is pretty regardless of how much the filmmakers try to dress her down. This works against her, but other than that, Chloe Grace-Moretz does a good job with what’s she’s given.

Julianne Moore is scary as Margaret White. It’s much more over-the-top than Piper Laurie’s version. I would argue Moore’s performance is scarier, if only because it was more psychotic and violent by comparison. The most engaging scenes are between Margaret and Carrie. The supporting characters end up becoming more black-and-white and it comes off bland. If you ask me, what makes the story so tragic are the grey areas, the edges and how it was hard to imagine how things could have ended otherwise.

Carrie is an okay adaptation that doesn’t completely honor the mechanics of its tragic story and deters from challenging the political correctness of today. It comes off more like a fairy tale than a tragedy. What the remake ends up proving is how tight the original movie was and how things are much scarier when the horror stays with you long after the story has ended. I can only say this because I seen the original film. So overall, people who haven’t seen Brian DePalma’s Carrie will probably like this version more by default.

Evil Dead by Fede Alvarez

Evil Dead by Fede Alvarez

Five friends head to a remote cabin, where the discovery of the Book of the Dead leads them to unwittingly summon up demons living in the nearby woods.

The three Evil Dead films is a trilogy of inconsistencies. The opening of Evil Dead 2 rewrites the events of first Evil Dead, and Army of
Darkness’
opening rewrites the conclusion of Evil Dead 2. The sequencing of events has always connected only inside the audience’s minds as a complete storyline. My first-ever experience with the Evil Dead franchise wasn’t watching the films but instead going to see Evil Dead Musical, which combined the first two Evil Dead story lines together (which in my opinion was much better). So I didn’t know what a remake would mean in context to continuing the story or what kind of expectations to have for an Evil Dead remake. So to get right into it…

The new Evil Dead… is so-so. I did not find the reason that justified this remake.

The major issue with Evil Dead is that there is no X factor. It’s neither funny or has a lead performance akin to Bruce Campbell’s in the original that raises the piece above the sum of its parts. I’m not asking for either again. The story plays fast and loose with its characters, as a result we never genuinely know who we should be rooting for till it’s too late. The typical stupid horror movie mistakes they make are unbelievably stupid. The lack of humor in itself is not a problem but there’s no additional layer or emotion contrasting to what’s going on. So the audience is left simply moving through the plot points, guessing who’s turn it is to die next. That would be okay if we weren’t
already so familiar with the story. Evil Dead completely relies on its scares to entertain the audience alone, and somehow that falls short.

The practical in-camera effects deserve praise, as they add effective weight to the scares and sufficient texture to the gore. The end
result is quite cringe-worthy. Practical effects bring more weight to the spectacle than CGI and I applaud anyone who is not letting
practical effects die. I suspect director Fede Alvarez would say the X factor is the gore and the scares. But after the Joss
Whedon-produced Cabin in the Woods, I’m expecting more now by default. If only this movie was released first….

It’s been reported Sam Raimi is going to make Army of Darkness 2, which will connect to the events of this remake. He’s
free to do what he wants, but it’s not going to improve this Evil Dead remake by any means. For that, viewers who haven’t seen The Evil Dead will be probably enjoy this more. Fans of the original like myself would probably like this remake a lot more if it wasn’t called Evil Dead.

World War Z by Marc Forster

World War Z by Marc Forster

Gerry Lane, a retired United Nations employee who must travel the world to find a way to stop a zombie pandemic.

I haven’t read the original novel going into World War Z. There have been some complaints that this film departs heavily  from the novel, but apparently the novel reads like a series of personal accounts. If that’s the case, it’s probably more effective to experience the story through a first-person perspective for a film. On with the review…

The PG-13 rating has always been an interesting constraint for horror movies as it cancels the use of gore and forces more ingenuity in creating the scares. Marc Forster creates a constant frantic sense of jeopardy and properly raises the stakes. Even though it’s possible to outsmart and escape from these running zombies, we fear that the characters will eventually fatigue and lose from being outnumbered. The opening set piece was shot too shaky and cut too fast and it seemed like Marc Forster didn’t learn anything from the action in Quantum of Solace. But the set pieces improve as the film progresses.

By the finale, I was fully immersed into this world, alert of everything that can startle the fast-running zombies and looking out for every possible human mistake. I was cringing at every door squeak and wished a can of WD-40 would just fall out of the sky on their laps. That said, the characters don’t make typical stupid horror movie mistakes. Even in times of risk and with the occasional accidental mistake, they take the proper precautions and do the most sensical thing.

Zombie films typically are set in a town or city. What makes World War Z an unique experience is its international scope, we get to see the entire world react to the zombie outbreak. It gives a political and cultural cross-section of how different countries would react to such a catastrophic event. It holds a mirror to our current world. This was the most interesting part of it for personally as it sets itself apart from George Romero films or The Walking Dead.

The most valuable Brad Pitt brings to the film besides his star power is the big-budget production values itself. The cast performs fine but it’s by no means a performance-driven film. The studio has decided to produce a sequel, as the war in the novel lasts for a decade. And it will probably continue to draw from the U.N reports in the novel. Depending if Brad Pitt returns to the role or if the story unfolds with a new protagonist, the story can go either which way. I’ll probably see it then but for now, the epilogue doesn’t tease me that much.

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

Dark Shadows by Tim Burton

 

Barnabas Collins, a 200-year-old vampire who was imprisoned in a coffin but is unearthed and makes his way back to his mansion now inhabited by his dysfunctional descendants. He soon runs into trouble revitalising the family’s canned fish business, as his jealous ex-flame and imprisoner Angelique Bouchard, runs the rival company.

A screenwriting teacher of mine used to stipulate that for each scene you write in a screenplay, you must ask yourself, “What is the goal of this scene? How do I want the audience to feel in this instance?” For Dark Shadows, I imagine it would be a difficult question for the screenwriter to answer and he would end up thinking for a long time the right combination of words to describe the specific feeling.

The story structure of Dark Shadows is an issue common amongst TV-to-Film adaptations. It reminded of Andrew Lau’s 2005 cinematic adaptation of the Japanese anime Initial D, where they tried to cram the first season into one cinematic film experience. Dark Shadows has a meandering TV show-like storyline where it plants several subplots that it doesn’t have enough time to develop within the span of a theatrical film. There is a delayed sense of driving action in this enclosed world. For instance, considered that all the evil things she has done to him, Barnabas has a lot of patience with Angelique. It would have made complete sense if Barnabas set out to kill her on a quest of revenge right after he is unearthed in the 70’s. They stylistically choose not to do that, which explains this heavy sense of TV pacing in this movie.

The ephemeral tone is what really drives the movie. It’s tongue-in-cheek at times with the 70s, there are fish-out-of-water jokes and people are murdered at the drop of a hat. There is a very “anything goes” tone and the weirdness of it all kept me entranced, anticipating where it was going to go. It was very funny, but not in a laugh out loud sort of way, but in a cerebral way. It’s hard to describe but there is structure in its chaos and it’s existence alone is something to be marveled at.

The cast and performances were noteworthy, mainly because of how specific they were to building the tone of the film. Johnny Depp plays Barnabas completely straight, much to many of the movie’s fish-out-of-water gags. Maybe because he looked so much like Nosferatu in his appearance and in some of his physicality (notice how he wraps his arms), if they ever made another post-modern silent movie like The Artist, Depp would fare well in a silent film performance.  I really liked the amount of humanity Eva Green was able to inject into Angelique Bouchard. She finds a human center to such an evil character and we see the motivation behind her irredeemable actions. I’ve complimented her performances three times now and she’s slowly becoming a favorite. Lastly, it was nice seeing Michelle Pfeiffer in a film again.

I do wonder what people who have seen the original series would have said about this movie. I’m too young to know. Personally I  had no prior knowledge of the original television series and for anybody who aren’t ready to put in the effort and fill the gaps mentally, they will probably be disappointed by the film adapation. It’s a very odd film operating on an obscure frequency and it wouldn’t have been made without the prior financial success of Burton-Depp collaborations. In a sense, they’re both getting weirder together.

If Tim Burton’s goal was to adapt the original Dark Shadows tone to film, then he accomplished it. Is that a worthy justifiable goal? Does it justify the TV-like tone? I can’t say but I would rather see Burton experiment with something than just slapping the usual “Tim Burton Brand” onto something.

The film worked on me, but I honestly cannot say I’d watch it again. As a movie about a vampire, it might not have longevity.

Red State by Kevin Smith

Red State by Kevin Smith

A group of teens receive an online invitation for sex, though they soon encounter fundamentalists with a much more sinister agenda.

I used to be a Kevin Smith fan. I liked all his work up till Clerks 2. I would look up funny clips of his speeches and occasionally read his blog. Zack and Miri Make A Porno made me laugh but it was not something I could recommend to somebody else. I thought Cop Out was one big juicy raspberry but it was not the reason why I do not care for his work anymore. The real reason is because he’s gotten so whiny these couple of years it’s just a turn-off listening to him talk about anything these days. As someone who wants to work in the film in industry, I could not empathize with his view of film critics and/or Hollywood politics. I purely see those as good problems to have at this point. I totally understand and respect that he is probably in a different stage in life than me but I just cannot help it. Sorry.  On with the review…

Michael Parks is really good and brings a muted creepiness as Reverend Abin Cooper, but he needs subtitles. I understood Jeff Bridges in True Grit word for word and still found Parks’ drawl scratchy delivery difficult at times. Melissa Leo goes over-the-top. That’s all I have to say about the acting.

Red State titters between being a satire, a horror film and a late night B action movie. All three genres end up competing against each other. The horror was not horrific enough; it’s watered down once the action kicks in. That’s a problem because it’s satiric metaphors are never fully physicalized and they end up being stated through dialogue. The violence is meant to be taken seriously but there’s a scene involving a cop receiving a head shot outside Abin Cooper’s house that looked  too funny to be shocking. At the final dialogue set piece with Agent Joseph Keenan (played by John Goodman), it seems like the film is giving you permission to laugh at what’s going on, but I was not sure if I was supposed to. What floats to the surface after all this genre clashing is the message of the film, which seems too on-the-nose. After watching Red State, I could not recall a specific scene or any characters (besides Michael Parks) that were memorable. What I can tell you is what Smith thinks is wrong with America.

It’s nice to see Kevin Smith write in a different voice and it’s too bad he claims to have only one more movie in him before quitting as a filmmaker (I do not believe this at all). I assume his cinematographer Dave Klein must be thrilled to finally be able to pan the camera, do handheld and use a crane shot. As he admits, he’s not the strongest director in the world. Horror is a visual medium and he would probably benefit in a genre that is more based on writing. But you know what? It’s a new direction! It’s something new from him. So again, I must go back to … I don’t know what the hell he is being so whiny about!

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

The Woman in Black by James Watkins

There is something admirable about the PG-13 horror film. It is not allowed to be gory, crass, nasty or graphic, and that forces the filmmaker to use alternative, more subtle methods to induce scares for audiences. Scary thoughts and ideas have to be implied as opposed to physicalized. Often it takes more thought and discipline to achieve this. Joe Dante’s The Hole is one good example. I would even argue the latter Harry Potter films are essentially horror films for children as well.

Anyways, the set-up: Daniel Radcliffe plays Arthur Kipps, a young lawyer, who recently lost his wife from childbirth, travels to a remote village where he discovers the vengeful ghost of a scorned woman is terrorizing the locals.

Malcolm Gladwell in Outliers: The Story of Success speaks about the 10,000 hour rule, the idea that mastery in any skill must involve practicing it for up till 10,000 hours. From all those years of playing Harry Potter, actor Daniel Radcliffe has proven the 10,000 hour rule with the skill of “acting to nothing.” Much of the film’s scares hang on the reactions off Radcliffe’s face, everything that the film wants the viewer to believe is present is communicated and punctuated through his performance. He has matured and refined his act into a disciplined performer than previously relying on instincts as he did on the Harry Potter films. A popular criticism that’s been circulating around is that Daniel Radcliffe is a bit young to be believable as a solicitor that has recently lost his wife. I did not mind it as it was not a conscious observation to me as I watched the film. He is a very watchable presence and carries the film competently.

Jump scares are something one can grow out of in life. It used to be the part in a horror movie I dreaded the most when I was a child and now as an adult they do not scare me at all. After all, there’s only 2 possible results to a jump scare: either the jump scare was for nothing (in which there was no point to the build-up and it’s just there to scare you to keep you unsettled for the real scares later) or for something (in which the build-up was giving away the surprise of the scare, i.e. in The Descent, there is never any build-up music/sound effects to a scare). Personally there were too many jump scares utlized in the film.  That said however, it is still a legitimate aesthetic choice because it can still prove very effective for a teen audience.

The film gave me 4-5 genuine scares. The Woman in Black‘s scarier moments come from the idea that children are vulnerable to death and danger without proper parental protection. It’s a lingering omnipresent feeling provided by the film’s gloomy gothic atmosphere. The Woman in Black is picking off all these children and the parents cannot do anything to protect them. One noteworthy scene that gave me the creeps was a child victim who dies from drinking lye. The little child helplessly collapses, spits bloods and drops dead. Nobody can do anything but watch her die. That’s pretty scary, isn’t it?

Which reminds me, to all the responsible parents out there: Please respect the film’s rating, do not take your child to see this because Daniel Radcliffe is in it. 13 is the minimum age for this movie.

I really enjoyed the ending. It was poignant and bittersweet. Although I didn’t think the very last shot was necessary (I’m not going to say what it is but people who end up watching the film can reply to me on that).

Overall, it’s a competent horror film with a fine lead performance cast in a role that plays to his strengths. It’s not great, but it is pretty good work. You can easily nitpick it to death, but I am not going to. I look forward to seeing more of Daniel Radcliffe in future films.

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Martha Marcy May Marlene by Sean Durkin

Before I review this movie, I have to talk about exposition in screenwriting. If you already know what exposition is, please skip ahead.

Exposition is the facts that you need to know to follow and understand a story. As film is a visual medium, the general rule in giving exposition is that you should always “show, don’t tell”.  i.e. You should never have a character say he is deadly killing machine, instead you show him taking out 10 people at the same time in a scene.  The best exposition is done as invisible as possible. The viewer should not be aware of it. At the worst of times, it disconnects the viewer because all of sudden they are shown the nuts and bolts of the story. It is simply not engaging or entertaining.

As a screenwriter, I wrestle with the idea of exposition. First of all, you have to get certain information across for the story to work. So you have to do it. Second of all, you have to make exposition interesting. What constitutes as interesting? Where is that line? My personal favorite example is in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery where they have a character named Basil Exposition whose sole purpose is to give exposition. So he’s giving you the exposition but because of the “wink wink” postmodern factor it is interesting again. So where is that line between interesting and uninteresting exposition? In Christopher Nolan’s Inception, often characters are explaining what’s going onto each other. Can we justify that it was interesting because Leonardo DiCaprio’s character was teaching Ellen Page’s (whose character is representing the audience) how the dream world works? Was there another way to show the audience what’s going on without the dialogue?

Martha Marcy May Marlene is a drama pasted on top of a horror movie skeleton. It is about a young woman named Martha (played by Elizabeth Olsen), who has just escaped an abusive cult in the Catskill mountains to stay with her older sister  Lucy (played by Sarah Paulson) and her husband Ted (played by Hugh Dancy). As she recovers, Martha deals with delusions and paranoia from her dark past.

Elizabeth Olson is an engaging actress and carries the film competently, she plays a naive innocence against massive trauma and we experience the inner turmoil she is hiding from everybody. What can I say? I like underplaying performances. John Hawkes is great as the leader of the cult. It’s a very subtle performance that is quite creepy. I have noticed him in several movies (Michael Mann’s Miami Vice where he played an informant) and even a Canadian short film where in the opening sequence he sets his arm on fire (I cannot remember the name of it). He’s a fine screen presence. I hate that there is not enough of just normal dudes on film. Hawkes will probably have to work his way up through playing disheveled creeps or crazy people to get a starring role like Michael Shannon in Take Shelter. I wish him all the best.

So how is it horrific? It is how Martha acts and what she says that suggests remnants of an odd warped view of the world (from the influence of being in the cult) that contrasts with societal norms represented by Lucy and Ted. Martha is taciturn about her past, she never directly tells Lucy what has happened (No exposition! Hurrah!). However the audience knows as we switch between the past and the present, the story shows pieces of what happened and leaves plenty of space for us to imagine the in-between. The horror forms out of everything between the cracks.

Non-linear storytelling is the trend this year with the likes of The Iron Lady, J. Edgar, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and We Need to Talk About KevinMartha Marcy May Marlene contains the best justification of the non-linear storytelling device this year so far.

It’s well-written, disciplined piece of drama that knows the subtlety of it’s own punches. And you know what? Basil Exposition is nowhere to be seen and I was rather marveled by that accomplishment.

Kill List by Ben Wheatley

Kill List by Ben Wheatley

“Wait, so it’s a horror movie about hitmen? How does that work?” That’s how I reacted the first time I heard about the premise of Kill List. What possibly can be scary about hit men?

The set-up? A British soldier Jay (played by Neil Maskell) returns home from Kiev. He is suffering from his disturbed past from a non-specific failed mission in Kiev. He’s strapped for cash and his wife Shel (played by MyAnna Buring) urges him to take a job with his old friend Gal (played by Michael Smiley) as contract killers. His disturbed past surfaces as he spins out of control during jobs and ominous employers raise the stakes.

You may be thinking: what the heck is scary about that?

The way we take information has progressed and audiences have evolved. Subtext has now become supertext. Kill List is a film that understands this and chooses to plays all it’s beats beneath it’s surface.  It is not about what is being shown to the audience. It is everything that is not being shown: an off-kilter look, an obscure comment and a random action. There is something happening behind the curtains and all these random little things engage you to ask questions. “What the hell is going on?” “Why did she do that?” Kill List engages through creating distance with its audience.

One must remember the first rule of horror: it is never being literal. Horror stories are about ideas. Anything physical (i.e. a monster) is a mere physicalization of an idea.

The film ended and I was unnerved. I did not know what idea it was that I was rattled by. It’s a looming feeling that sits there in front of you. I felt like rewatching the film again to check if I missed anything. But I did not miss anything. I had no grasp on what it was and that’s quite unsettling.