Tagged 2007

Paranoid Park; Or, Teenage Crime and Punishment

Paranoid Park. 2007. Directed & Written by Gus Van Sant; based on the novel of the same name by Blake Nelson.
Starring Gabe Nevins, Taylor Momsen, Jake Miller, Dan Liu, Lauren McKinney, & Scott Green. MK2/Maximum Films/IFC Films.
Rated 14A. 84 minutes.
Drama

★★★★
POSTER
Gus Van Sant is yet another American director by which I’m enthralled. Not every last project he undertakes is as spectacular as his greatest, though there’s always a sense he pays attention to the minute details of his stories, that he wants to whittle life down to the nitty gritty. Each Van Sant film usually explores people on the fringe, characters living at the edges of society in one way or another, often the types that are sensitive to the world and its plights. No matter what his focus, Van Sant’s eye is always catching the beauty of the situation.
Paranoid Park examines the guilt (and paranoia which comes as a packaged deal) of a young skater kid, whose thoughtless action one night leads to the accidental murder of a security guard on the local train tracks. Based on a Young Adult novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant adapts the screenplay into a psychological piece of cinema that looks at the hubris of youth and the disaffected attitudes of a young man, as well as ponders deeply the meaning of morality, how we live with ourselves when something challenges it, and most importantly how we either repent or forget our actions. Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Rain Kathy Li help Van Sant cultivate his flawless look and feel, which fits so perfectly in the world of high school. As we float along with the camera, we’re given a peek into a time of life everybody’s been through. Although, the boy in the middle of all this experiences a far more adult situation than his brain, his morality, his will power can ultimately tolerate.
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The flowingly beautiful cinematography is amazing. So many sequences I could mention, though it’d take forever. I love how the cinematographers slow certain things down, scenes you’d likely not imagine in slow motion. And in this way, they capture the gravitas of the situation, the plot. We can see clearly how devastated emotionally the main character becomes, as the camera lingers on him, on his movements, his face. Every little morsel of detail gets captured and in an extravagant way. To the point high school and teenage life seems more glorious and grand than it ever did in real life. There’s a heightened realism which hooks you. The visuals root the emotional experience of this film’s journey with the main character, taking you on a ride that feels at times as if it has you over the top of the clouds, gliding without care yet at the same time with the weight of the world upon your shoulders.
There’s great use of music, too. There’s this very classical sense about the film overall, as if it were made with adults in mind yet a story concerning teenagers. Lots of big band type stuff, pieces of music that’ll harken back to the 1940s and 1950s both in terms of music at the time, as well as in the sense of the movie itself feeling like one of those yesteryear classics. This in part plays into the feeling that Paranoid Park is similarly themed as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, that these teenagers – mostly the main character Alex (Gabe Nevins) – are ahead of their time. Perhaps that’s not a good thing, perhaps Alex is too ahead of himself and doesn’t realize the destruction he’s wreaking upon his own innocence. Nevertheless, there’s an old timey atmosphere in some of the shots.
Other wise, Van Sant continues on with his impressive style. Gorgeous, sweeping tracking shots, slow motion moments where time feels stalled and we’re watching Alex try and keep his mind straight while walking through a world filled with distractions and danger. The quiet and thoughtful style of Van Sant helps us feel involved in the plot, and most importantly we’re engrained in the perspective of Alex while he holds onto his sanity, trying to salvage his morality; if the latter is even possible.
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When it comes to the plot and the characters, everything feels so natural. I love the scene where police officers come to talk with skateboarders at the high school because you can hear them talking lightly over him, making comments, laughing and carrying on. There’s a real sense of disaffected, disconnected youth. When the cop passes around a picture of the murder victim and everybody sees him cut in half on the tracks, most of the young boys laugh, blown away by the brutality yet seeming utterly undisturbed. Certainly there’s a hint of something in Alex’s eyes, but even he doesn’t appear overly moved. At least not until later. But all the characters, the setting, the way high school kids feel throughout the screenplay and how the skaters interact with people and one another, is every bit organic. Couple that with the wonderful cinematography and there’s a highly realistic quality always present that makes us feel initiated into the world which Van Sant shows us.
Front and centre, Nevins puts in a spectacular performance. He is the crux of it all. In some cases, young actors are not my favourite. If we’re being honest. Only some are able to attain the level of emotionality necessary for fiction; others rarely hit that mark and always feel as if they’re acting, never like they’ve slipped into the role. Nevins has a natural quality that’s always there, through each scene and situation. His emotional depth is vast. We see him in the shower ready to break down, juxtaposed with his otherwise calm demeanour. We watch him go over everything in his mind, pieces of memory and slivers of guilt. This is a great role and Nevins uses it to the fullest. At times I want to shake him. Sometimes I’d like to throw my arm around him, say it’s going to be okay. Either way, the character of Alex and his moral dilemma comes across well through Nevins, pulling us in until we’re so close that the suffocating guilt and paranoia the character feels is nearly our own.
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I bought Paranoid Park years ago on a whim. I love Gus Van Sant, even if I don’t love every one of his films. Though, most I do. I’m glad I picked this movie up because it pays off incredibly. There’s a nice sense of slow burning drama, almost to a point of thriller-like tendencies. Although what Van Sant does is keep things dreamy, perpetually enclosing us in the psychological space of our main character, the troubled young skater Alex. Using excellent cinematography, fun choices of music, and riding on the important performance of Gabe Nevins, Paranoid Park tries to get at the heart of morality, how it operates in the idiotically naivety of youth. Mostly, it presents Alex’s moral dilemma and then asks us to speculate about what sort of person he is, and what kind of man he will be eventually. Moreover, Van Sant attempts to peer inside how we connect with the world in our youth and the various ways in which we’re meant to act, versus all the ways in which we want to act and how we hope to connect with the world. A scene late in the film involving Alex and his girlfriend epitomizes his disconnect from life and the world around him, from a sense of normality. It’s easy to see that Van Sant, as well as novelist Blake Nelson, understand the trials of youth. Placed in an extreme situation, these trials are even more intense, and this film opens them up in front of us in all its psychologically scarring glory.

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Danny Boyle’s Sunshine Takes Its Sci-Fi Seriously

Sunshine. 2007. Directed by Danny Boyle. Screenplay by Alex Garland.
Starring Cillian Murphy, Rose Byrne, Chris Evans, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, Hiroyuki Sanada, Benedict Wong, & Michelle Yeoh. 20th Century Fox/DNA Films/Ingenious Film Partners/MPC.
Rated 14A. 107 minutes.
Adventure/Sci-Fi/Thriller

★★★★1/2
POSTER
Ever since first laying my eyes upon Trainspotting, I’ve more or less knelt at the altar of Danny Boyle. His films are incredible, often very emotionally compelling and with lots of interesting things happening, no matter the subject. I’m a fan of most of his films, barring a couple that weren’t my cup of tea. On the whole, he’s fantastic. Particularly I find he has two talents: working with science fiction elements (even if he’s only really done that previously with 28 Days Later…) and working with human drama. Luckily, sometimes both of these crossover into one another.
Sunshine is such a film. There’s part of this story focused on the sci-fi plot, the idea of the sun beginning to burn out and mankind trying to find some way to reignite it, lest they be relegated to a world that will perish without its heat and power. The other part is about men and women, human beings, how we see the world and how we imagine what’s outside our own. Furthermore, Boyle and writer Alex Garland look at the human relationships which ultimately the fate of mankind will rely on should we need a crew like those abord the Icarus II to go on a similar mission. In addition to the great drama and the solid science fiction, Sunshine is a visual and auditory journey which many films of its kind aren’t often able to achieve. Garland gives us the interesting writing, as Boyle works his magic with the help of cinematographer Alwin H. Küchler to craft a gorgeous piece of cinema that stands up to some of the better efforts out of the genre in these past few decades.
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I’m sure a good deal of right-wing leaning moviegoers will dismiss this as leftist propaganda. However, forget those types. This is a solid science fiction story. It has echoes of other films we’ve seen before, from Event Horizon to Alien. But Sunshine is very much its own tale. Alex Garland is a solid screenwriter, having already worked with Boyle on The Beach and 28 Days Later…, so that’s at least given them chemistry. And they use it to their advantage. Garland is great at getting to the raw emotion of characters, which is evident in the other aforementioned films, as well. When Capa (Cillian Murphy) must be the only one to go through the airlock, the interim captain isn’t happy, and this brings out a load of tension for a while that plays into the idea that humans aren’t all built equipped with the capacity to handle such tension. These are the situations of human drama that make science fiction better than just a ton of wild elements. Without this basic suspense and tension brought out through the humanity of characters (they don’t even need to be human just have to have heart), sci-fi can easily fall flat. This movie is served well by the writing of Garland’s characters, their development, and the situations in which they find themselves forced along their arduous journey.
Moreover, Garland has a good writer’s mind for action. Not every writer is as good with one as the other. Although, Garland breaks that open being capable of good dialogue, interesting characters, as well as making the story feel exciting by pacing things well, and adding in the appropriate action like he does here.
A few of the sequences are spectacularly adrenaline-filled. One of my favourites is the whole airlock scene, as the interim captain ends up floating off in space and freezing, his face cracking into bits. Sad, even if he’s an asshole. Then just the entire suspense of Mace (Chris Evans) nearly freezing to death too is thick enough to cut with a knife. The first time watching, I wasn’t sure he’d make it. Nice when action scenes aren’t simply big set pieces or explosions or anything like that, but rather built on suspense and tense developments.
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Not only are the characters and the plot well written, Garland’s writing is given breath by the excellent performances. Cliff Curtis, ever a solid character actor, does such a good job as the resident psychologist, whose own obsession with the sun mirrors the villain Pinbacker (Mark Strong). Love Curtis and to see him here giving his all is one reason the supporting cast is as good as the leads. Rose Byrne and Michelle Yeoh are each excellent, as well. They add a great element to counter all the testosterone brought particularly by Evans. Speaking of him, he does well with his character, meant to be a hot-headed sort that wants to kind of push his way forward rather than sit around and talk. In that sense, Evans and Murphy’s characters are juxtaposed nicely. Murphy, as always, is a powerhouse, and he gives a quiet, thoughtful performance as the lead Robert Capa. On his back and through his perspective we encounter each twist and turn throughout Icarus II’s mission. There’s always an intriguing aspect to Murphy, both physically in his looks and in the way he acts. He can become many types, most recently wowing me in BBC Two’s Peaky Blinders. Here, he plays this young doctor, but one with a head on his shoulders, a conscience, so that Capa eventually goes through this trial where he’s put to the physical test, not just having to use his brain but also his body. Lots of great performances make this one entertaining bit of science fiction adventure.
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There’s a bittersweet devastation about the finale. Sunshine takes you to a place of serious science fiction and drama, then twists it all up into something amazing, dark, exciting. Once we come to discover Pinbacker, the fifth crew member left on the Icarus II in its waning moments, the whole eerie angle of the story comes to light (pun not intended; pun hilarious, though). The final half hour has plenty of sweaty tension once more. This carries you right to a beautiful yet slightly sad conclusion. Either way, Danny Boyle and Alex Garland created one hell of a sci-fi picture. From the 1990s onward there aren’t a huge amount of sci-fi movies that I consider amazing. Some, yes. Not a lot. In my humble opinion, Sunshine is an amazing film. It is beautiful, strange, dark at times. Never will you find the pace too slow, nor will you feel as if excitement is lacking. With so many good performances and the writing tightly woven into an emotion-filled, tense, and wild story, it’s hard not to enjoy. Throw this on next time you need a science fiction injection. I hope Boyle will go back to the genre someday, as he has great chops for it.

Take a Tense Little Ride with Trigger Man

Trigger Man. 2007. Directed, Edited, & Written by Ti West.
Starring Reggie Cunningham, Ray Sullivan, Sean Reid, Heather Robb, James Felix McKenney, Seth Abrams, & Larry Fessenden.
KINO International/Glass Eye Pix/Scareflix/CCR Productions.
Unrated. 80 minutes.
Drama/Thriller

★★★1/2
POSTER This is a slightly unusual film out of Ti West’s filmography. He is a great director, in my opinion. You either dig him, or you don’t; no middle ground. And that’s fine, if everybody liked the same thing we’d be a boring lot of humans. For those of us who enjoy West and his brand of horror, Trigger Man comes as a surprise. I remember listening to an interview he did talking about how this film sort of came up on a whim. He wrote a script, brought it to Larry Fessenden, and then they had time to shoot it, so a real indie shoot came about. Ultra low budget. Almost rogue-style filmmaking.
Apart from the visual feel and the actual use of digital rather shooting on film, West looks at a more dramatic thriller angle than anything horror. Sure, the horror of humanity comes out. That’s a huge element. Most of his movies, aside from recently with The Sacrament, tend to go for classic horror elements while he does his best to subvert expectations, keeping with the spirit of indie film. Trigger Man works because it doesn’t necessarily try to change anything. It works by building up an atmosphere of dread, each scene slowly, steadily amping up the feeling that at any moment a horrible event is about to take place. True to what later became signature to his personal directorial style, West slow burns through his plot before reaching a nicely executed finale. Then if the terror isn’t enough for you concerning real people and their sometimes hideous actions in this raw look at a story that’s not unbelievable in the slightest, maybe I’m weak. Maybe I should hang up the ole horror hat.
Nah. I dig this one. It isn’t near perfect. However, West makes me sweat enough throughout this sparse flick that I can’t help watching it now and then. It’s a tough one to find on DVD, but luckily I picked it up last year. I’ll always support West’s films and I can admit when there are faults. I refuse to not acknowledge a solid low budget thriller when it’s in front of my face. You shouldn’t expect his best, though don’t sell West short here.
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This movie was never intended to be on a grand scale. West had the time and wanted to make something with a very minimalist take, so instead of opting to shoot on film (as he usually does) he went digital. The entire film is much different from any of his other work, even his early feature The Roost. With a handheld and kinetic style, West uses this feel to create as much tension possible. If anything, this is a nice exercise in suspense. You can judge this for being low budget and all that, but it wasn’t ever meant to be anything more. Larry Fessenden, a mentor of West’s in the industry, gave him about $10K to make it. They found some nice locations, kept the cast to a bare minimum. West had a small story that worked for the basic needs. Nobody’s expecting a reinvention of the genre. Part of me enjoys Trigger Man because West isn’t exactly swinging for the fences, as he so often does with his other brilliant features. Here, he does his best at cultivating a specific mood of tension that worms its way through the short 80 minute runtime. Many might not find the finale rewarding. I do. The tension pays off in an excellent way and I find it properly horrifying. Along the way we’re treated to a couple smatterings of blood, one particularly chunky, gross practical effect honestly looks real. I found that one unsettling, in the best kind of horror way.
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Ultimately, I don’t know if there’s even a lick of truth to the concept that West claims this is inspired by a true story. If so, I’d love to see what the real scenario was, how it played out, what exactly went down the whole time. But forgetting all that this is still a real-feeling situation. These guys essentially wander into the path of something over which they have no control. Then it’s a sort of city dweller v. backwoods story that descends into utter nastiness. Part of the ultra-realism is the sound design by Graham Reznick. When these guys are out in the midst of the forest, near the river, running for their lives, we get the feeling of being right next to them, as the river rushes and their voices carry. Some likely find that annoying, which I totally understand. To me, these elements only add to the extremely raw atmosphere. There’s also not so much a score as there is this wonderfully ambient noise from Jeff Grace . At times that does morph into something more musical in terms of short pieces that accompany specific moments. Still, the best parts Grace offers up are these brutish shrieks and hypnotizing swirls of sound that wrap you up then rattle you; almost representative of the mental processes going on in someone’s head were they in such a life threatening, insane situation as these guys. Everything is minimal. The story is contained. The blood is gruesome when it comes, but only comes in a couple little bursts. The camera work consists of digital handheld shooting, nothing fancy; only once or twice do we get shots that are motionless, everything else keeps the chaotic pace by wavering and keeping on the move with the characters, zooming from the landscape to their faces and expressions of fear. The music is kept down to a handful of places where it’s nearly perfect. Through and through, Trigger Man is a utilitarian production that if anything knows how to use its bare necessities and structures itself accordingly.
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You’ll either dig it a bit, or find it unappealing. There’s really nothing halfway about Trigger Man. Similar to the way people seem to feel about its director. Personally, Ti West is someone I find incredibly talented. He and I are close in age, so part of my affinity for his work has to do with the fact many of the movies he seems to admire and have grown up watching are the same ones as myself. Because of that they reflect in his own work, in turn capturing my attention. Not only that, though. West is simply a great director. He makes interesting choices, as well as the fact he’s an interesting writer. Preferring to take things slow, his films are sometimes categorized as being boring. A word I’ll never use in reference to any of his features. But to each their own. For me, he’s a fascinating artist that often takes a genre story we know and brings his unique vision to a story in order to freshen things up. Trigger Man doesn’t necessarily liven the survival thriller sub-genre. It does excite and keep you on edge, or at least it does for me. Give this one the chance, it’s a taut piece of work. Ignore the flaws and get past the handheld stuff. West is a scary guy, no matter if he’s working within the walls of a haunted hotel, dealing with vampire bats that turn people into the living dead, or wandering the forest with people running for their lives. It’s all spooky.

Joshua Makes You Question the Nature or Nurture of Evil

Joshua. 2007. Directed by George Ratliff. Screenplay by David Gilbert & Ratliff.
Starring Sam Rockwell, Vera Farmiga, Celia Weston, Dallas Roberts, Michael McKean, Jacob Kogan, Nancy Giles, Linda Larkin, Alex Draper, Stephanie Roth Haberle, Ezra Barnes, Jodie Markell, Rufus Collins, Haviland Morris, & Tom Bloom. ATO Pictures.
Rated 14A. 106 minutes.
Drama/Horror/Thriller

★★★★
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The creepy kid sub-genre (if that’s legitimately a thing) in horror is one that’s seen plenty of ripe material. Some of the classics dominate, such as The Omen and the lesser loved but awesome The Good Son featuring young Macaulay Culkin and Elijah Wood. Then there are others which aren’t as great, though still enjoyable, like Children of the Corn. What makes us so worried in general about the killer kids, the little psychopaths, young boys and girls capable of murder, manipulation, and so much more, is the idea of nature v. nurture. With any representation of evil, adult and child alike, it’s a question of whether innocence is real. If it is inherent in human beings automatically and evil becomes engrained in people throughout the course of their lives. Or if there’s no such thing as innocence, and at birth humans are part of a cosmic Russian Roulette, in which children can come out on the opposite shade of that spectrum.
Joshua examines such questions of innocence. Even after the credits start to roll and we’ve watched with dread those final moments, there are no blatant answers. It may seem like everything’s obvious. Although that’s certainly not the case if you look closely. Added to the finale and its ending there are several key moments which call into question what exactly has happened. People can say they’ve got a definitive answer, and they may offer quite a deal of evidence to that point, yet there will always be a hovering air of mystery. Considering these events, when you look back on the film as a whole you start to try piecing together various theories, moving back and forth between possibilities. Ultimately, this is a strength, as Joshua is highly likely to stick in your mind, days after seeing it, possibly longer. And after so much madness you’ll start to question whether evil really is nurtured all the time after all.
Maybe innocence is far too fleeting.
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I love the natural feeling of the relationship between Brad and Abby (Sam Rockwell & Vera Farmiga). One of the biggest things about any drama, no matter what sort of genre boundaries it crosses, is that the character need to feel real. I don’t care what sort of story you’re telling, if the characters in your screenplay don’t connect with people emotionally on some level then there’s really no hope for anything else you’re attempting to do. While this movie is absolutely a (psychological)horror-thriller its main structure is an intense family drama. The foundation of which is always going to be real, honest characters. One example is early on when Brad joins Abby in bed – he’s trying to start sex, without being obnoxious, and his wife isn’t really ready yet, but he’s kissing her ass (literally), telling her how gorgeous she is, to the point of saying he loves how her armpits smell.
When the horror-thriller elements star to kick in hard there are obvious comparisons, and maybe homages, to similar films now considered classics. For instance, just Abby’s hair alone and later her pale complexion will have most people thinking of Rosemary’s Baby. As Joshua (Jacob Kogan) further manipulates his parents he becomes reminiscent of an even more actively involved Damien Thorn.
One of the eeriest scenes comes when the dog dies. The way Joshua mimics his father begins to show us how the boy might possibly be a psychopath. We know already there’s something not quite right, but this is a spooky moment. Even Brad starts to get a peek into the personality of his son, and though he soon forgets mostly about it this is a big turning point. As an audience, we’re gradually privy to more of his creepy behaviour that leads us farther and deeper into the boy’s psychopathy.
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Rockwell is a fantastic actor. He does well with a variety of characters, and this is no different. The character of Brad is complex. He’s a very loving, understanding husband, and all at once a man with needs, both emotional and physical. Later on, he becomes a sort of vilified father near the end. So as an actor Rockwell has tons with which he can work. He’s easy to relate with watching him deteriorate, and this is probably why it’s all so effective. We feel for him all the way. Alongside him is Farmiga, another awesome talent. She is always watchable, even in movies where there’s nothing too exciting going on. Here, she’s saddled with playing a role similar to the ones played by Mia Farrow and Lee Remick, only this is a much more realistic portrayal of a woman driven to madness by pregnancy and/or motherhood. It isn’t easy to portray an honest character like this, but Farmiga gives us the good and bad of a new mother, one that’s already experienced the exact same thing not even a decade before. Having seen several women go through that new life as a mother, including the rocky beginnings, I find Farmiga’s performance to be extremely on point. And when Joshua further drives his mother into psychological ruin there are some good scenes between Farmiga and Rockwell, where they give us a devastating look at a corroding marriage.
The best scene of all is the last one in the park, after Brad finally snaps. Everything about it is incredibly well executed. Love the score that accompanies the moment, very ominous and psycho-thriller-esque. But just the way Rockwell goes mental, fighting the men around him, it’s so intensely emotional. The camera draws back, panning out and giving us this almost auditorium-like view of the confrontation. Overall, a wonderful sequence.
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This is a 4-star film that I’d put up at the top of the pantheon of creepy kid sub-genre. Of course Joshua doesn’t come along with any of the outright bloody horror many of its counterparts boast. Nonetheless, it is horrific. A psychological thriller with enough viciousness to hold the attention of most. There are good performances, however, the writing is what does most of the work. Not every creepy kid flick has much innovative about its story. What Joshua doesn’t attain in its few missteps it gains back in an overall willingness to step outside the usual expectancies of the sub-genre and it makes up by subverting those ideas, giving us something altogether creepy and slightly original. The film avoids cliche at many turns simply due to the fact it opts for a plot that doesn’t dive into the supernatural. Everything is much too real and impressively believable.
Dig in, you’ll find a treat especially if creepy kids get to you. This is one boy I won’t soon forget.

Hostel: Part II – A Deservedly Misandrist Romp

Hostel: Part II. 2007. Directed & Written by Eli Roth.
Starring Lauren German, Roger Bart, Heather Matarazzo, Bijou Phillips, Richard Burgi, Vera Jordanova, Jay Hernandez, Jordan Ladd, Milan Knazko, Edwige Fenech, Stanislav Ianevski, & Patrik Zigo. Lionsgate/Screen Gems/Next Entertainment/Raw Nerve/International Production Company.
Rated 18A. 94 minutes.
Horror

★★★★
POSTER
I’m unabashedly one of Eli Roth’s biggest fans. When Cabin Fever came out, I couldn’t enjoy it enough while all my friends bashed it. But then again, I was always the biggest horror fan of my close friends. Either way, his career was on my watchlist. Then once Hostel came out I considered it the first post-2000 gore horror that was actually worthwhile. And truthfully, not many gory movies since have been as effective; albeit there are definitely a few as good, possibly a bit better. Not many, though.
Roth is a unique guy. He has his own sense of humour. His predilection for Italian splatter films shows, as does his interest in the B-movie feel. However, those aren’t a detriment to his talent. He’s ripe with fun ideas and his ability to shock yet shock with substance is visible even through the thick coat of blood covering his films. Don’t just look at the Hostel movies (forget there’s another one past the first two) and think it’s all about the gore. It’s about the secret impulses below a thin veneer of humanity in society. Maybe at times things are campy. That’s just Roth’s sensibilities that come from, like myself, a lifetime of watching any and all films you can get your hands on. No matter what, Roth brings the visceral grip necessary to keep Hostel: Part II fresh in your memory a while – the reasons for which may vary from person to person, even gender to gender.
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I’ve always loved the score in both Hostel films. There are these creeping string pieces that spell ominous, slowly scaling behind scenes. Great stuff. Reminds me of some classic bits of horror cinema, which adds a nice air to this gore film (and though I say gore film I mean it in the best sort of sense here). The ominousness of Roth sits over everything, as the score makes things more tense and suspenseful at times. It almost lures us in like the poor traveling souls that get roped into being meat for the hunters.
The special effects virtuoso pairing of Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, along with their wonderful team at KNB EFX Group, provide Roth with the appropriate nasty practical effects which make the original and its sequel into top notch horror. If you’re having gore, have it right. Berger and Nicotero have the right stuff, giving all those brutal bits a proper punch. The blood is plenty, and it looks great! You need a chopped off head or some even more disgusting effects? Greg and Howard are your men. And they’re unreal at their jobs.
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One thing I dig, in terms of killing and gore, is that Roth opts to include a woman engaging in the murder this time. The Erzsébet Báthory-style lady, whose predilections involve draining the blood of other women apparently. This shows that Roth is an equal opportunist, giving women just as much fun as the men. In sick, murderous terms. Furthermore, even just the fact this film is a bunch of women on a trip instead of men is pretty excellent. Roth isn’t afraid to try killing off a trio of women, as opposed to the horny young men from the first outing. Another part of this is that Bijou Philips plays a sort of horny character herself, though, this is offset by Jordan Ladd and Heather Matarazzo, as they play more subdued roles, women with heads on their shoulders; for the most part. It’s just nice to have a different group, instead of Roth merely switching the genders. He creates whole new, interesting characters out of these three women. And having one of them meet their demise at the hands of the Báthory substitute? Sweet horrific perfection. Another fun bit – the three women we follow are introduced in an art class, where a male model hangs dong; objectified enough? Perfect response to those who complained about women objectified in the first film. They were, in a sense. But they were more femme fatale than anything. Here it’s just a man being drawn, while also having his dick ogled by a bunch of women. Love it.
Also, Roth’s screenplay is almost better here than the first film. I dig how the original only barely touched on the secret society of human hunters. But the way it’s expanded upon here makes things so much more sinister. One of the greatest scenes out of Hostel: Part II is when all the big businessmen are bidding on victims – it not only shows us the vast, wide reach of the company, it puts us into the sick perspective of seeing many of these men in wholesome type situations, all the while flicking on their smartphones to find the perfect victim to suit their nasty needs. A well-written and executed sequence all around. Going further into the company, especially focused on the two men planning on engaging in a kill, is a real great way for Roth to move on in the sequel. If it were just another story of people going away and getting killed, which plenty of it still is, then things would be dull, and quick. Rather, Roth chooses to switch back and forth between the victims and the soon-to-be killers, providing a look at both sides of the operation.
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I love the look and feel of this film’s aesthetic over the first. Even though the original is a favourite of mine from the last 15 years in horror. Part II has an almost Gothic style. Particularly in the different chambers where people are being murdered. I love the sequence with Mrs. Bathory, as she’s listed in the credits. It is so god damn disturbing, and Roth films it in such low, flickering light that it takes on the feel of a dungeon. Later on, once we move further into the warehouse of kill rooms, it becomes even more Gothic in its darkness. Cinematographer Milan Chadima worked with Roth on Hostel, and again does good work here. The look of this sequel is slightly darker, it seems. More of a blue-ish hue over things casting many scenes in a dismal light, making each moment bleak. And does it ever get bleak. In fact, Chadima works with the girls from the beginning while they’re in the sun, enjoying a vacation. By the time he’s finished with them, the frame is almost always wrapped in shadow. Lots of  close-ups that capture some amazing looks, some pensive stares, as well as a few spectacular wide shots I cannot get over (ex. when they walk into the big murder factory with its rundown and Third World look; amazing shot). Overall, the cinematography is even better here than the first.
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WARNING: spoilers ahead in case you really care.
Eli’s writing may almost be at its best here. In my humble opinion. Because he takes on a whole bunch of things. Of course there’s female nudity again in this one, yet things have changed. Like I mentioned, a woman is part of the secret hunting society, and she kills brutally before bathing in blood. Then there’s the part I love most – one of the men, the one who showed the most bravado leading up to the event, ends up being a total fake. Or at least he ends up losing his courage, whatever. And better yet – the literal castration that happens is the ultimate thumb in the eye to any accusations of fragile masculinity on the part of Roth. He goes for broke on that one. And I love how Roth, likely unknowingly (because I’m being overly nerdy here), parallels – pardon my pun here – two balls. First is the eyeball of a woman burned up in Hostel, here it’s the dick and balls detached from a man. Just the fact that Ladd’s character turns the tables on the man torturing her is enough for me. She’s a bad ass.
The Ruggero Deodato cameo as an Italian cannibal is classic. Such a nice nod, and love how Deodato plays the character. The briefest sort of appearance, yet memorable. How he just smiles, cuts up some dinner then heads back over to his table.
A masterfully horrific 4-star affair. Roth is a modern horror man, whose influences show. Yet unlike Tarantino, whom I love but who borrows too liberally at times (mostly in the past), Roth translates his influences into his own passions. The fact Takashi Miike did a cameo in the first and Deodato does on here is testament to that; he literally throws his heroes in the mix. But the gore, the story, and the violence turned against men brutally for a change makes Hostel: Part II and underappreciated horror sequel in the post-2000 genre landscape. Roth is a modern master of horror, I continue to follow his work and will do so until he finishes his career; a long one, hopefully.

Paranormal Activity’s Modern Hauntings

Paranormal Activity. 2007. Directed & Written by Oren Peli.
Starring Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat, Mark Fredrichs, Amber Armstrong, and Ashley Palmer. Solana Films/Blumhouse Productions.
Rated 14A. 86 minutes.
Horror

★★★★
paranormalactivity_posterWhen done correctly, I am a huge fan of found footage. Whether it’s using the thriller style, as I recently enjoyed in the film 419, or horror (The Blair Witch Project, Cannibal HolocaustHome Movie, and many more), I believe that if a director uses the sub-genre appropriately then it can be extremely effective. Particularly, horror movies using found footage can end up having a huge impact if it isn’t simply a gimmick, or a wasted tool in the director’s arsenal.
Even further than that, a writer (or writers) needs to know the limitations of the sub-genre, as well as where it can go. Too many writers seem to let the screenplay of a found footage film fall by the wayside, like it isn’t an important aspect so much as the visuals prove to be. Very bad way to look at ANY genre or sub-genre; you always need a good script, or at least an impressive idea to work from.
There are things I do love about Paranormal Activity, while I’ve got a gripe or two, as well. Mostly, I think Oren Peli really did an excellent job as director in cultivating an impressive piece of modern horror. He singlehandedly changed the found footage game, in my mind, after the originals left their highly impressive (and better) mark – like The Blair Witch Project and the infamous, controversial Cannibal Holocaust. Now there are plenty of others, since this film’s release in 2007, trying to work off the simple yet excellent format Peli landmarked.
This is not a perfect horror, nor is it my favourite found footage film. However, I’ve got to say that when I first saw Paranormal Activity – and to this day – there were elements and scenes which really unsettled me greatly and left a lasting impression on me. I don’t think, as a veteran in watching films and TONS of horror, that I’m easily frightened. But genuinely, at times, I found myself clenching up. Not to say I wept in terror or curled into a ball. Though, I can readily admit my muscles tightened and my heart rate pumped fast in several scenes, which is all due to the acting of the two leads and the good work of writer-director Oren Peli.
paranormalactivity1I won’t waste time relating the plot. This is one of those movies we ALL know about; if not, head over to IMDB or Wikipedia and it’s laid out pretty well. I’d like to just move into the things I liked/disliked about the movie.
An aspect of the screenplay I truly do love is how the character of Micah antagonizes the presence in their home. Starting early on, within the first fifteen minutes even, Micah begins to make fun of the whole concept of some spirit (or whatever) in the house; he plays creepy music, saying he’d like to make the presence feel at home. I always like when a story incorporates scepticism in an interesting way; Micah is a part of that, as he pretty much riles up the thing in their house.
Otherwise, one of the greatest parts in my mind about Peli’s Paranormal Activity is that the effects really started to push the envelope for found footage. Since 2007 there have been plenty more found footage films which used effects to a greater degree, but at the time this came as sort of revolutionary for the sub-genre. Before this movie, and those which followed it (both sequels and other films imitating this style), most found footage horror tended to go for the lost in the woods scenario, adding in tons of shaky cam and screaming and blood/gore here or there. Peli came along and decided to keep the camera stationary almost all of the time, which really helped, and on top of that he tried as best he could to do as much practically as possible, as well as the great majority of the film is centred so much on the relationship between Katie and Micah.
Keeping the camera in one place the way he does, Peli is able to let us relax a bit and get more into the characters and the story/plot than other found footage allows us. As I said, the shaky cam is prevalent in many other films similar to this. Even the amazing Blair Witch Project, there are a couple nearly nausea inducing sequences where the characters are running, screaming, and the camera is jostling around along with their movements; to the point where it’s tough to follow anything. Luckily, that was one of the first real found footage horror movies where shaky cam became a thing, so at the time it wasn’t really overdone.
Paranormal-Activity-3Nowadays with so many less exciting films than that trying to read in its huge footsteps, we get too many horrors using found footage and throwing in the shaky cam as a legitimate portion of the film when in fact it only detracts from the end product; we’re tired and sick of the shakiness, it’s not simply low budget and realistic it makes things look lazy. In Paranormal Activity, Peli foregoes that nonsense and allows us to get into the relationship between Katie and Micah, watching their lives unfold instead of constantly having one of them manipulate the camera, moving it around, and so on. Though Micah absolutely holds the camera at times, it’s not him running around and catching nothing except blurs. Whenever he does move it, the moment is brief, or at the least Micah is usually standing in one place. I think, albeit probably an obvious touch, Peli does his film a great service by allowing the camera to stay still a lot of the time. That way, his story comes out further, the characters are more interesting, and the plot is able to move along without the audience becoming totally unnerved (not in the right way) by the camera movement constantly shaking us out of touch with what’s happening in the film.
For this reason, as well as the fact effects are incorporated in a fresh way (not saying they’re spectacular; merely they were slightly new to this sub-genre), I truly feel Peli broke new, interesting ground with his found footage horror movie. Not only did it spawn a series of sequels, a whole franchise, Paranormal Activity – in a different way from its predecessors – had other filmmakers looking to do a low-budget horror almost copycatting everything about it.
They say imitation is the most sincere form of flattery; in this case, I think it’s mostly about cashing in.
still-of-katie-featherston-in-paranormal-activity-(2007)-large-pictureFinally, it’s the acting from Micah Sloat and Katie Featherston which truly got to me. I think Sloat did a good enough job, especially in terms of being the sceptical and doubting boyfriend; he isn’t completely ignorant and arrogant in his speech, mostly he brings this aspect across through his coy, annoyingly playful demeanour. He certainly acts like a bit of a douchebag, but I think that’s almost definitely the right way for Micah to seem, as a character – it brings out that doubt very clearly for all to see.
Above all else, it’s Featherston who sells this film from start to finish. I like the character herself; she’s been followed all her life, basically, by some kind of spirit, an entity. Not that it’s a new idea. It’s how Featherston plays the character, the innocence she always seems to display and this naive but concerned nature in her. While Katie is the one who believes in it all, there’s still this naivety about her in that she’s holding onto the innocent part of herself, even while this demon/spirit/entity has latched onto her and won’t leave her, or Micah, alone. The way Featherston performs is incredible, unbelievably actually in the final half hour. Once things start getting very intense and claustrophobic in their little house, Featherston does a perfect job portraying all the terror Katie is feeling; there’s one moment where she tells Micah she feels something in the hallway, and I honestly got a fright just out of the urgency in her voice, the look in her eyes. Amazing job and makes Paranormal Activity all the better for it; anyone else would probably not have been enough. Featherston pushed this film above a ton of other found footage out there with subpar acting and lazy characters.
Paranormal-ActivityWith an undeniably horrifying final 15 minutes, I can definitely say this is a 4 out of 5 star film. There could’ve been a little more in certain parts, but overall this is an excellent modern horror. I’m not saying this will send you to bed cowering under the covers like when we were children. What I am saying is that Oren Peli did a good job directing this, as opposed to so many shaky useless found footage efforts, and he tried to instil the film with as much practicality (from plot to effects) as possible.
This is a slow burn type of horror film, in my opinion. It does well building up tension, in part that’s due to excellent actors, and in the end there’s a massively satisfying and creepy conclusion. Love the end and watching this for the first time since its release 8 years ago, I must admit I like the film more than I’d originally thought.

30 Days of Night: Scary Vampires, Flawed Script

30 Days of Night. 2007. Directed by David Slade. Screenplay by Stuart Beattie/Brian Nelson/Steve Niles; based on the comic by Steve Niles & Ben Templesmith.
Starring Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster, Mark Boone Junior, Mark Rendall, Amber Sainsbury, Manu Bennett, Megan Franich, Joel Tobeck, Elizabeth Hawthorne, Nathaniel Lees, and Peter Feeney. Columbia Pictures.
Rated 18A. 113 minutes.
Horror/Thriller

★★1/2
30-days-of-night-theatrical-posterTo start, while I don’t like that director David Slade did one of those junk Twilight movies, I’m a big fan of his work on Hard Candy, the episode “Open House” in the 4th season of Breaking Bad, and most of all I love his directorial efforts in the 5 episodes of Hannibal he directed (“Mizumono”, “Ko No Mono”, “Savoureux“, “Potage“, & “Apéritif“); he’s also produced nearly 30 episodes of the show, as well. One of the reasons I think he actually ended up involved with Hannibal might be due to his work here in 30 Days of Night because of the level of blood and how it looks, the visuals. I don’t think this is a spectacular movie, though, one of the things I do enjoy most about it is the overall aesthetic – from the atmosphere and tone to the actual look of the blood and the effects.
I have mixed feelings about 30 Days of Night. On one hand, I think there’s some decent acting along with incredible visuals and plenty of good ole blood and gore. But on the other, I do feel as if the script is pretty flawed in a few places where it ought to be much stronger.

Right off the bat, even though the tone of the movie is awesome and that aspect often takes time to build, I feel as if 30 Days of Night is a tad too long. I mean, I’m a person who loves both atmosphere and character development in horror. Really helps a movie sort of grab hold and not let go if you can fall into it those ways. Yet there’s a point where things go on too long. I think there could’ve been 15-20 minutes cut from and it wouldn’t have damaged the film, but that’s only my opinion; I’m not a director, I’m not a screenwriter. I just think that, while the concept of this movie is awesome, it isn’t particularly tough to grasp. There’s no need for this pushing two hours. And I get it – 30 days – but that’s the funny thing, even in that amount of time I still felt like those 30 days had passed quickly, so I find it all very strange.
CTF - 30 Days of Night - PairThat being said, I do really love the story. Funny enough, the comic series started as a film pitch. Ended up as a comic then began a movie; weird how the system works, as soon as it’s viewed as a commodity in the comic world THEN the execs want to use it because it has a base already. Sad, funny, weird.
Unfortunately, I have a few problems. Right off the bat, Barrow can be flown to almost every day of the year – like anywhere else conditions can vary, but it’s not inaccessible and especially not for 30 days at a time. Then, it’s as if Barrow is completely lit up one day then the next day there is complete darkness, stretching on for a month. Totally unrealistic. It’s a slight process until the darkness has sort of spread over the entire town. But, y’know, I guess if we’re talking vampires there’s a slight suspension of disbelief going on in the first place. Still it’s hard to get past blatant and upfront errors like that when the whole plot pretty much hinges on some of these facts. While it originates from the comic, it might’ve been better had the adapted screenplay tried to fix some of these mistakes. I don’t know how that whole adaptation process works, so I’ve no clue how much liberty the screenwriter would’ve had in terms of crafting a slightly fresh story. Either way, I don’t like how parts of the story’s logic works against the film, I don’t care if it went that way in the comic series or not. They would’ve been better off coming up with a fictional Alaskan town instead of using Barrow and so obviously distorting factual stuff.
30-days-of-nightThere are pieces of the film I do truly enjoy.
Love the music. Of course, it turns out Brian Reitzell – another Hannibal alumni – is the composer. Great score, honestly. Lots of strings and some brass, interesting percussion for which he seems to have a fondness.
As I mentioned earlier, I think part of why David Slade ended up on Hannibal himself as both director and producer is because of how he works visually. For all the crappy storytelling and logic in 30 Days of Night, Slade injects a ton of brutal and beautiful imagery. One of my favourite shots – and everyone’s I’m sure of it – is the aerial view as the vampires first really take hold of Barrow; it’s this amazing shot sort of floating above, all the creatures feeding, blood spurted everywhere in the snow. All that white against red, the music, everyone screaming and the vampires making hideous noises. The movie is overall nothing special to me, but I have to say that this particular shot is one of the best shots in a horror movie over the last decade. Too bad the entirety of the film couldn’t hold up to the aesthetic Slade tried to give it. Unfortunately for him, the story’s just not there.
arvin-30-days-of-night-32231674-3000-2000Big thing I did enjoy are the vampires themselves. It’s strange how Slade went from vampires like this to those of the Twilight persuasion; a conversation for another time. Here, though, the vamps are how they ought to be: cruel, Other-ish, savage. I thought the way the production of the film came up with a language for the vampires was interesting because it worked, as well as the fact it sounded pretty damn eerie to hear them communicating. Very mysterious and cool. I liked this aspect of the movie a lot. Naturally, a vampire movie’s main aspect needs to be the vampires – regardless of anything else, the plot, the subplots, the story, it’s all secondary to the vampires. Honestly, if you don’t have good vampires it won’t work no matter how fresh a story ends up.
At the same time, no matter how god damn scary your vampires are, no amount of savagery from them can save the lack of proper story and logic which is so evident in 30 Days of Night.
30-daysI don’t care how visually incredible I find this film, I can’t in all good conscience give this movie more than 3 out of 5 stars. To be honest, I want to give it 2.5 instead but I won’t simply because I think there’s a great all around look and feel to 30 Days of Night. There is a good story in there, however, I just cannot bring myself to get past glaring errors. Straight away, the whole inclusion of Barrow is a terrible decision; from the comic to the film, bad idea. Extreme weather would keep flights out maybe a day, possibly two, but there’s no way in hell Barrow would find itself cut off for longer than that. Certainly not for 30 days. Anybody with Google can figure out – from proper sources – all the information they need about Barrow, or any other god damn place on the map for that matter.
Okay, you know what? This gets 2.5 out of 5 stars. There’s too much bullshit nonsense happening for me to ignore and while I love the vampires, plus all the bloody, gory intensity which comes along with them, I can’t ignore enough for that to make this worth it.
30-Days-of-Night-horror-movies-8549739-2048-115730 Days of Night is good enough for the vampires. Come and see them, enjoy their bloodletting. Don’t come and expect to get a story and plot that’s ultimately going to make you think something fresh and innovative happened here. While the idea is great, using Barrow to accomplish it, trying to root this in reality, fails because REALITY WILL NOT LET IT WORK. There was a time I didn’t think too much about the logistics of this movie, I turned my brain off I suppose. I let the movie whisk me away with its aesthetically pleasing blood on snowy landscapes and the dripping gory faces of its vampires.
Now, I see you for what you are, 30 Days of Night: a farce and a letdown. You’re no better a movie than half of the crap getting churned out. This movie works for me only in the way any other mindless, nonsensical movie does, like that type of action or comedy or whatever you don’t need a brain for – switch off, tune out, enjoy. Took me a while to figure this out. If you want David Slade’s best work, go watch some Hannibal, or the excellent Hard Candy.