Sunday, January 24, 2010

Paranormal Activity

Year: 2009
Director: Oren Peli
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat

When it came to this film, I was torn between thinking I was going to be bored to death or being scared shitless like I was when I first saw Gore Verbinski's The Ring. And I carried this feeling into the theatre yesterday as I geared up to watch Paranormal Activity.

For those of you who don't know, Paranormal Activity is a low budget horror film in the same vein with The Blair Witch Project. It was made a few years back, but is only gaining recognition now, thanks to Steven Spielberg who changed the original ending and Paramount Pictures for giving it exposure.

Like Blair Witch, Cloverfield and Quarantine before it, Paranormal is made up of camera footage, this time recorded in a house occupied by a young couple. Katie and Micah have just recently moved in together, and they have a problem. Katie claims to have been haunted by a mysterious force since she was little, and it has been following her on and off. Micah decides to install a camera in their bedroom to record any weird phenomenon going on while they sleep.

And indeed, the camera records some strange occurences, like the door moving by itself, unexplainable shadows, loud thumps and footsteps and lights going on and off. There is also an incident where Katie sleepwalks and has no memory of it the next morning. Soon, Katie and Micah get into heated debates on how to handle the situation e.g. Katie hires a psychic to evaluate her problem, but Micah doesn't believe in him. Micah attempts to use an Ouija board, and Katie vehemently objects. All this make matters worse when the demonic force switches into high gear in the third act.

First time director Oren Peli used his own house to make this film, and I gotta say, it's a nice house. Lots of room, two bathrooms, a swimming pool outside. If I hadn't seen this film, I'd like to live there heheh. But jokes aside, Peli manages to scare the audience half the time, usually when the couple is asleep and the camera is rolling. There's a clock at the lower right corner of the screen to indicate the time of the happenings, and it adds to the suspense. Unlike other films, this one scares you by emphasizing what you can't see and not what you can see.

Katie and Micah, who use their real names here, have no prior acting experience, but are excellent in their roles as the hapless couple. There's always an advantage of not using established actors in films like these; it makes them more real and you won't be distracted by any star quality famous actors have.

Are there any downsides? Yes. For a film that is only 90 minutes long, it feels much longer than that. The story takes a little too long to unfold, as we are made to watch the bedroom goings on one after another. The psychic's second visit to the house, which is of no benefit to the couple, makes no sense in the way it was executed in the film. And why do these two sleep with the door open? Is that an American thing, or are they so keen on inviting some otherworldly thing in?

It does have a chilling ending though, one that might stick in your mind for a while. Spielberg reportedly recommended this ending, and after discovering what the original ending was, I think Spielberg did the right thing. The last 15 minutes just manages to lift this film above average.

Good for at least one watch. Not for the weak hearted. (3.5/5)

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus

Year: 2009
Director: Terry Gilliam
Cast: Christopher Plummer, Heath Ledger, Tom Waits, Lily Cole, Verne Troyer, Andrew Garfield

The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus is the film the late Heath Ledger was working on before his untimely demise two years ago. The film would have been left incomplete if not for director Terry Gilliam getting Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to play some of Ledger's parts. The result: it works perfectly, although the film itself isn't quite solid.

Imaginarium focuses on a travelling street troupe led by Dr Parnassus (Christopher Plummer), an old man who is able to guide the imaginations of others through his magic mirror. He is assisted by a sleight-of-hand expert, Anton (Andrew Garfield), daughter Valentina (Lily Cole) and the midget Percy (Verne Troyer).

The truth is, Parnassus is thousands of years old, because long ago he had made a bargain with Mr. Nick (Tom Waits), a mysterious man whom the former regards as the Devil himself. Parnassus had won the bargain and been granted immortality, until one day he fell in love and wanted his youth restored. So he and Nick make another bargain, and in return for his youth, Parnassus would hand over any child he bears to Nick when he/she turn 16. And Valentina's 16th birthday approaches.

One night, the troupe picks up a stranger called Tony (Heath Ledger), who doesn't remember much about himself, but is willing to help the troupe with their business. Then Parnassus makes a bet with Nick again, and the winner gets to keep Valentina. Tony tries to help Parnassus win the bet by enticing people to enter the magic mirror. However, problems surface in the form of Tony's dark past involving Russian mobsters, and Anton, who cares about Valentina, tries to sabotage Tony's efforts.

This is one WEIRD film. There, I said it. This film has weirdness and surreality written all over it. Gilliam, who co-wrote the film, presents to us a world beyond our own, where our imaginations can be both tempting and deadly. In this story, for every person that walks through the mirror, they are given a choice: to turn their darkest side towards goodness, or give in to temptation. The former will give Parnassus a win, while the latter favours Nick. And it's fun to see how the world within the mirror translates on screen, how it plays differently with each individual.

Plummer, Waits and Cole all deliver in their respective roles, but Ledger is the real focus here, even if he only appears in 1/3 of the film. I think Ledger's best parts were when he was inviting the crowd to watch the troupe's show. He's a natural in that character. Depp, Law and Farrell fill in for him when Tony steps into the mirror, and they all do quite well. Though I must say, by the time Farrell's part comes in, the film starts to feel tiresome.

The surreality is in overdose at times, overwhelming the film and losing its plot. It needs something concrete to hold it down and make it more accessible to the audience, for sometimes it feels like something a junkie would be experiencing when he's on a high.

All I can say is, this film isn't for everyone. If you like Heath Ledger, you might want to see him one last time. Otherwise, you may get something different than expected. (3/5)

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Year: 2009
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Rachel McAdams, Mark Strong

And so I begin the new year on this blog a little late with a review on Sherlock Holmes, the world's most famous detective, at least before Batman.

This film adaptation on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic character begins with Holmes (Downey Jr) and his trusty sidekick/best friend Dr Watson (Law) rescuing a young woman from being sacrificed in a deadly ritual by Lord Blackwood (Strong). Blackwood is sentenced to the gallows, but before he is executed, he warns Holmes that he will come back from the dead and kill three more people.

And unfortunately, that's exactly what happens.

So Holmes and Watson set off once more on the case, following clues and fighting bad guys along the way. Holmes faces an obstacle in the form of Irene Adler (McAdams), who has her own agenda regarding Blackwood.

Plotwise, it doesn't sound like much, does it? But Guy Ritchie makes it all work. How? Well, it's simple. Focus on the leads. Update the settings. And make it fun. And voila, we have a winner.

Ritchie makes up for the scarce plot by keeping the audience entertained throughout. First, he makes Holmes a likeable guy, not by picturing him as a debonair detective with English manners, but a roguish man with sharp one-liners. Then, Ritchie makes it contemporary by inserting several action sequences and some nice explosions and crashes, stuff you wouldn't expect to see in Victorian era England. Finally, put in some neat touches, like Holmes' superbly accurate perception of things and his ability to deduce the hows and whys of a crime, played back before or after it happens. All this work in unison to ensure the film stays sharp and funny throughout.

Downey Jr brings his surefire charm to the lead role and pulls it off splendidly, though his British accent isn't perfect. Jude Law on the other hand is brilliant as Watson, who acts as the perfect foil to Holmes, Holmes being the rebel with no boundaries, and Watson as the logic and reason. Downey and Law have great chemistry together, as if their characters have known each other for years, thus successfully bringing their 19th century bro-mance to life. McAdams is almost forgettable as Irene, the sneaky romantic interest to Holmes who eventually becomes the damsel in distress. Mark Strong is wasted as the villain here, we barely see him on screen long enough to acknowledge him.

Kudos must also be given to the production team for creating old London beautifully. It is shot in detail and given a grey hue to suit the time and mood of the era. There's also a fine CGI action sequence atop the incomplete London bridge at the film's climax, nicely done as well.

All in all, a great film adaptation of the world's finest sleuth, and a sequel is sure to follow. (4/5)


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