Rings (Movie) Review

Rings (Movie) Review

Ten years ago the American chapter of that haunted videotape franchise shut its doors after a single deeply disappointing sequel. It made sense. VCRs were pretty much extinct by then so the tale of a haunted VHS tape didn’t exactly seem like something worth keeping around. It didn’t die in Japan though. Far from it. Sequels kept flowing down the pike right up until last year’s Sadako Vs. Kayako (aka The Ring Vs. The Grudge). So it only makes sense that Paramount might try and revive their version of the series to see if there was anything left in the tale of that little girl ghost in the well that might spook the pants off of contemporary audiences. So they made this one. Then delayed the release at least four times (and given the fact that footage that isn’t in the final film popped up in the early trailers, likely commissioned a whole stack of reshoots as well). Now Rings is finally here and it’s pretty damn horrible. In fact, it’s bad enough to make you nostalgic for The Ring Two, which really shouldn’t be possible.

So this big dumb movie inexplicably starts with Rings’ biggest and dumbest moment. It kicks off with an outbreak of the Ring tape on an airplane leading to a (spoiler) crash. Oh wait, you saw it in the trailer already. So that’s no spoiler. I’ll bet you probably thought it was a climactic moment, but nope it happens right off the top, and is completely disconnected from everything else in the movie, suggesting that it was likely conceived long after the original version of this movie was written or shot. Anyhoo, from there, Big Bang Theory’s Johnny Galecki pops up as a college professor (yes, really) who buys a VCR from a flea market that just happens to have the haunted tape inside. He watches it, and then we jump ahead months later as he sets up a club amongst his students where they all watch the video, and then pass it along to someone else for kicks. How does he know that would work, and why would he ever turn it into a game with his students? Who knows! The movie never bothers to explain.

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The main character is actually played by Matilda Lutz whose boyfriend (Alex Roe) ends up joining Galecki’s Ring tape pass-along cult. Eventually she ends up seeing the video herself, but can’t make a copy of the file. Why? Well because the Ring ghost has evolved for the digital age, silly! In fact, that pesky lil’ ghost hides a new video within the original video. Again, you might be wondering why? Well, so that Lutz and Roe can go on another mystery-solving quest to discover how that ghost girl was conceived and born. You’ll be surprised to hear this, but she didn’t have a particularly pleasant start in life. The hows and whys are doled out slowly. They may or may not involve Vincent D’Onofrio’s kindly blind man who offers helpful advice. I mean, he seems friendly enough so I doubt he’d do anything wrong. But at the same time he’s also the most famous face in the movie with little to do. I hate to put two and two together, but. (By the way,  if you’re angry about that vague spoiler, you should be even more angry at whoever made the Rings trailers since they’ve already given away the final scene/scares).

The most frustrating element of Rings right out of the gate is the way the movie keeps starting and stopping, introducing a somewhat compelling avenue for a sequel, then abandoning it for something else until this thing essentially becomes a remake of the first flick. You can feel that the script went through a lot of hands desperately trying to give the series a jumpstart (there are three writers credited and likely just as many uncredited, if not more).  Eventually it settles into the least interesting option by restaging scenes, stories, and ideas from the first movie only a little bit cheaper and a lot bit stupider. There are huge leaps in logic, plot twists that somehow make less than no sense, and a complete dearth of relatable human behaviour. It’s mostly just a bunch of generic pretty people making stoic expressions and speaking in a monotone manner until they are allowed to make a scared face.

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All that being said, Spanish filmmaker F. Javier Gutierrez (Before The Fall) does at least make it all look pretty. He’s knows exactly how to replicate the stylized dread that defines the aesthetic of these movies, and at least stages a few decent scares. Likewise, D’Onofrio is clearly having fun camping it up in his role, and it’s hard not to crack a smile as he somehow continually finds new ways to go even further over the top. Unfortunately, the fact that the movie looks good and has one decent cartoony supporting performance only makes it even more disappointing that the story is such a mess, and the bulk of the cast is so boring. Sure, this franchise died along with VCRs, but Gutierrez does occasionally remind viewers what made the original movie so creepy. The fact that everything surrounding those brief moments of success is so dire only makes Rings all the more frustrating. You can see glimpses of what a good Ring sequel might feel like in between all the nonsense, all the way to a final sequel-baiting moment so irritatingly obvious that you’ll want to scream at the screen. Oh well, at least this flick is bad enough that it will likely bomb and kill this franchise dead once more. That’s a relief. If you need a little more Ring in your life, learn to embrace subtitles. You wouldn’t believe how many Ring sequels await you from Japan, almost all of which are better than the flaming turd that is Rings.

Arrival (Movie) Review

Arrival (Movie) Review

When UFOs show up unannounced and hover over various locations throughout the world, it’s not normally a good sign. We’re conditioned through sci-fi blockbuster conventions to expect a lot of things to start blowing up. However, Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival is a very different beast in quite a welcome way. The Montreal filmmaker has been slowly weaving his way through various genres to claim them as his own, delivering art house thrillers like Incendies and Polytechnique before slipping into Hollywood with the kidnapping potboiler Prisoners and last years brilliant drug war action flick Sicario. When he makes small personal movies, they tend to come with unexpected spectacle. When he goes Hollywood, a soulful intelligence follows. Arrival certainly falls into the latter category and despite its many wondrous images the film is ultimately designed to mess with your head and heart in a rather wonderful way.

Arrival (Movie) Review 2The hero in this tale isn’t a president or soldier or even Charlie Sheen (despite what the title suggests), it’s Amy Adams as a linguistic expert and university professor. When the spacecraft show up unannounced, she’s contacted by Forrest Whitaker’s Colonel for help. They need someone to attempt to communicate with the aliens now that first contact has been made and Adams, along with theoretical physicist Jeremy Renner, has been called upon to find a way to speak to the creatures. They are soon whisked onto the immensely creepy ship, where gravity takes a holiday and the almost Lovecraftian aliens speak through what can only be described as floating ink drawings. Eventually, Adams and Renner find a way to break down and recreate the messages being sent to them. Unfortunately, they’re on a tight clock. Not every country is convinced that these aliens are friendly and some nations out there want to take a far more militant approach than a talky one.

It’s a strange set up, yet one that it undeniably intriguing. Villeneuve crafts a gripping sci-fi yarn, and one that doesn’t need violence and boom-boom to pull audiences into the drama. Instead, a mixture of mystery and dread propels Arrival, both in the question of what the aliens are trying to say and how humanity will react. As pure genre, it works. It falls more into the mindf*ck sci-fi category than anything else and will certainly cause plenty of jaws to slack amongst viewers who sign up for the film’s unique ride. There’s a deeper concept about how language defines our interpretation of reality that Villeneuve also explores that’s quite rich and even better, the filmmaker plays a unique game with movie language to express it. There’s a trick being played on viewers throughout the film that’s hard to pick up on at first and when it lands the results aren’t just clever, but emotionally devastating in a beautiful way.

Arrival (Movie) Review 3Villeneuve’s natural gift for cinematic spectacle is certainly on full display as well. Though he has a modest budget at his disposal by blockbuster standards, the design work is astounding. The giant tubular spacecraft are forebodingly beautiful and forgo cliché designs. The alien creatures are nightmarishly tentacled, yet mysteriously friendly in ways tricky to pin down. Every shot is beautifully composed and links into others magically. Arrival is gorgeous to behold in ways that will pull viewers deeply into its mysteries, yet the story remains profoundly human and carried off wonderfully by an excellent cast. In particular, Amy Adams is a rock at the centre and carries the emotional weight of the film with an elegant ease that proves why she has grown into one of the finest actresses of her generation.

Arrival is the type of thoughtful and large Hollywood spectacle that isn’t supposed to be possible anymore. Yet somehow, Denis Villeneuve has managed to pull it off twice in as many years. Like Sicario, it’s easy to take Arrival purely on face value for its genre joys, but those who wish to examine beneath the surface will be rewarded with a surprising amount of thoughtful explorations of themes woven into the crowd-pleasing patchwork design. It’s a sci-fi flick that should be immensely appreciated by fans of the genre for quite some time. Based purely on Arrival, it’s clear Villeneuve is the right man to take the Blade Runner reigns. Throw in everything else in his career and it’s a safe bet that Blade Runner will be a summer popcorn blockbuster worth more than empty titillation. Bring it on.

Project Almanac (Movie) Review

Project Almanac (Movie) Review

Oh time travel, you are a fickle beast aren’t you? Whether it’s Homer Simpson with a toaster, Marty McFly with a rad skateboard, the Loopers with their looping, or whatever the hell was supposed to be happening in Primer, things never quite go as planned now do they? You see there are paradoxes and temporal displacement and many other problems that just tend to be out of your average time traveler’s grasp. It always seems like a good idea at the time though doesn’t it? Especially if you’re a bunch of rowdy teens hoping for good time. Oh hey! Look, it’s Project Almanac. A movie about a bunch of teens who discover time travel while filming their adventures on camcorders. Yep, it’s the inevitable time travel found footage movie that we all should have guessed was coming. It’s ok too. Not great. Not horrible. Just ok.

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The film stars Jonny Weston as one of those teens who only exist in movies that seems to be a social reject from their entire high school community purely because they wear glasses. Weston plays a science wiz who creates impressive inventions in the hopes of landing a MIT scholarship. He gets one, but not it’s not enough for his out-of-work mother to afford. So he does what any teen genius would do in this scenario and hunts around in his former super-scientist father’s abandoned attic hoping to find a new invention. Instead he and his sister (Ginny Gardner, always filming everything for the sake of the found footage conceit) find an old video camera with a tape of one of Weston’s childhood birthdays. While combing through the tape, Weston finds footage of his teenage self in the background. He’s confused, but obsessed. Eventually he and his wise-cracking genius friends (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner) stop obsessing over the prettiest girl in school girl (Sofia Black-D’Elia, whose character is limited to being pretty and appealing) long enough to dig around in Weston’s basement and find hidden plans and parts for a time machine that Weston’s father was designing before he died. So they do what anyone would do in that situation, finish the time machine with car batteries and Xbox parts and go on an adventure. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Project Almanac was clearly conceived around the one sentence pitch, “Chronicle, but with time travel.” That’s exactly what the movie is and exactly how it plays. Granted, Chronicle was a pretty great and creative flick, so it was inevitable that knock offs would follow. The trouble is that the found footage shtick has grown past a trend and into a genre now, so this movie feels very generic. We all know the routine. A bunch of teens have semi-realistic bonding through jump cut footage for a while. Then they discover a supernatural element belonging to a specific style of genre movie. Then they talk about filming it for a while and then whatever clichés of the chosen genre take over from the found footage clichés. It’s how low-budget Hollywood B-movies are apparently required to be made these days. Even if the concept of characters filming every single one of their actions is feeling more and more realistic all the time, the movies are getting tedious.

Admittedly, Project Almanac is far from all bad. First time director Dean Israelite shows considerable promise as a filmmaker. He’s got a knack with low-fi spectacle and working with actors. The three guys at the center all give naturalistic performances with impressive chemistry, just enough to make you buy into the world. The homespun inventions are amusingly conceived and just credible enough to get away with the silly pseudo-science. Then once all the rambling set up is finally in place, the film offers a hefty amount of fun for a while. Playing off of teenage wish fulfillment fantasies and Groundhog Day “repetition makes perfect” comedy, the second act of the movie is a bit of a riot. It’s a spin of teen comedy tropes with just enough gentle science fiction to work as genre as well. The effects are charmingly low-fi and the tonal gearshifts keep things unpredictable. For a while, you’ll start to think that Israelite and the gang might pull this thing off and then the wheels come off.

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Inevitably, Project Almanac turns into one of those butterfly effect tales of the perils of time travel. It’s clear that’s where things are heading from the moment that the protagonist pops up on his old birthday video. For a while it works, sliding the movie gently from goof off fun into suspenseful fun. Then it all falls apart while speeding towards the finish line. Plot holes and logic gaps pile on top of each other at a feverish pace and the last 10-15 minutes has to be the least believably filmed section in any found footage movie ever made. It’s really a shame because Israelite and co. build up quite a bit of good will and charm dragging their Chronicle time-travel along for two hours before they lose the thread. Ah well, all things considered, it’s not a bad movie. At least a studio gave young and inexperienced filmmakers a chance to make something creatively conventional. That’s something. Now the next step is for Paramount to keep their Paranormal Activity-inspired micro-budget blockbuster wing alive without forcing every project into a found footage conceit that it doesn’t need. Project Almanac automatically would have been a better movie without being saddled with that baggage and hopefully someone at the studio noticed.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Movie) Review

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (Movie) Review

It’s hard to believe we’re now five movies into a franchise based on a locked off camera, a bedroom, and things that go bump in the night. When Oren Peli’s shot-in-my-bedroom indie got a major release from Paramount, it was a big ol’ shock. Here was a return not just to no-budget indie horror from a major studio, but also a film that pulled the genre from the torture porn era into the found footage era. Bringing in almost $200 million worldwide on a $15 thousand dollar budget, the movie was a big fat success story and thus began the inevitable Hollywood practice of repeating the trick to death. Sure, the Paranormal Activity 3 proved to be an enjoyable mix of 80s kitsch and high-fi/low-fi scares, but by part four the format had grown so nauseatingly sale that the profits dropped by half. However, money was still being made and so Paranormal Activity 5 was going to happen no matter what. Thankfully, the folks behind the series decided it was time to change things up and actually delivered a movie quite different from what came before. By borrowing (aka stealing) from a variety of different found footage horror franchises (mostly Chronicle), the Paranormal Activity franchise has somehow reinvented itself. Whether or not this new direction will lead to more sequels worth seeing remains to be seen, but the good news is that against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones is one of the best entries in the series to date.

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The first change is geographical, with this PA romp shifting locals to sunny Me-he-co (Mexico). The first 20 minutes or so settle into the standard found footage routine of watching a group of teens play pranks and connect over a camera. You sit around waiting for them to notice a ghost in their apartment or set up a little hidden camera night recording, but it never happens. Instead, two buddies, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) start investigating a murder that occurred in their apartment block. The victim is a mildly creepy old lady, and the major suspect is weirdly the squeaky clean valedictorian from their school. Then as the digging continues, things keep getting weirder. They find all sorts of strange cultish, coven-ish artifacts hidden in the apartment and then one morning Jesse wakes up with mysterious marks on his arm. Shortly after that, he starts to develop floating and super-strength powers a la Chronicle. Then a memory game he owns starts acting like an Ouija board, he pulls gross hair like strands from his eyeballs, and other creepy stuff is afoot. Essentially the film turns into a possession/coven horror yarn, which eventually (and rather cleverly) folds back into the ever-expanding Paranormal Activity universe.

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If you want to be cynical about it, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones reinvents the franchise by mixing in other popular found footage horror tropes of recent years and shifting the focus from middle class WASPS to a working class Latino market that the Paramount marketing department determined was a strong fanbase for the series. That’s all undeniably true and yet regardless of the reasons for changes in the series, those changes still work surprisingly well. Writer/director Christopher Landon (who has been scripting the series since the first sequel before earning the directorial promotion) clearly knows the franchise well enough to understand what to change and what to keep the same. There’s some shotgun action this time, the camera is constantly mobile rather than locked off, and there are even a couple gross out gags amidst the jump scares. Yet despite all that and the heaping doses of Latino stereotypes (Tequila? Check. Fireworks? Check. Gangbangers? Check. It’s all an ill-placed sombrero away from being offensive), the film still feels like a successful entry in the most tasteful horror franchise in decades. Sure, the found footage horror clichés pile up fast and furiously, but Landon has at least wallowed in that world long enough to know how to pull them off effectively and delivers a film with a few decent jolts and without the tiresome repetition that dogged Paranormal 2 and 4.

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Against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones actually deserves to exist and be a hit

Perhaps the Paranormal Activity series is settling into a pattern similar to the Star Trek movies except here all of the odd numbered entries in the franchise are decent and the even numbered entries are disposable. PA5 is as probably about as good as PA1 or PA3, which is to say that it’s a perfectly acceptable jump scare timewaster with more good will than innovation. The performances are fine, the effects are decent, the scares work (even if about 70% were given away in the trailer… sigh, when will marketing departments learn?), and it all wraps up quickly before boredom can set in. The movie is hardly a classic, but not even the original Paranormal Activity deserves that status. It’s just an acceptable genre romp and one that suggests that a little franchise reinvention might go a long way to keep these sequels coming. After Paranormal Activity 4, I felt like the series was already dead and should be shot in the head. After The Marked Ones, I’d actually be willing to give part six a chance. That’s really all the five-quel could have hoped to accomplish, so it has to be deemed a minor success at the very least. And let’s not forget the success of this franchise has allowed the production company Blumhouse to produce some actually decent original horror movies like Sinister and Lords Of Salem. So as long as these sequels are decent enough to keep bringing in cash, the folks collecting the money will funnel it back into more interesting genre films. In other words, against all odds Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones actually deserves to exist and be a hit. Now there’s a box quote for ya.