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Entries in sinister (3)

Thursday
Aug292013

Getaway

Despite a filmography that consists of a few stinkers, Ethan Hawke is a daring actor, mainly because he isn’t afraid to plant himself in all kinds of different films. In the last three alone, he has starred in a home invasion thriller (“The Purge”) a wonderful romantic drama (“Before Midnight”) and an intensely frightening supernatural horror movie (“Sinister”). He’s drawn to ideas, even if the final product encompassing those ideas isn’t always successful, like the aforementioned “The Purge” or 2009’s alternate take on vampire mythology “Daybreakers.” This leads me to wonder why he would ever agree to star in something like this week’s “Getaway,” a derivative, brainless action film with zero ideas and only the thinnest of stories. After seeing “Before Midnight,” it was obvious he was going to appear on my obligatory best-of list at the end of the year. After watching “Getaway,” it’s now apparent he’ll also appear on my worst.

The film has a nifty stylized, black and white opening that begins in a wrecked apartment with blood and broken glass everywhere. Initially a first person view, it eventually transitions to a third person view where we first see our protagonist, an ex-racecar driver, Brent (Ethan Hawke). It’s his apartment that he shares with his wife, who has been abducted by a mysterious man for unknown reasons. Cut not too far in the future and he finds himself in a game where he has to use his driving talents to pull off certain jobs and if he calls the cops or is caught, his wife dies.

And thus begins a movie with no plot structure, no flow, wimpy dialogue and annoying characters so inconsequential and uninteresting that one of the two main ones isn’t even given a name, an 18 year old girl that IMDB so aptly classifies as “The Kid” (Selena Gomez). Yet the nameless character isn’t the biggest problem, but rather her and Brent’s utter lack of personality. It must be no more than a few minutes in before Brent is racing away from cop cars through a darkened Bulgaria, so no time is taken to truly characterize this man and make him someone we should care about. A mid-movie sob story about why he gave up racing is so forced in as to be almost comical. Similarly, the first time we meet his wife, she’s being dragged screaming down a dank, decrepit hallway by two goons who lock her up for safe keeping. It’s obviously not an ideal scenario for any person, but who exactly is she? If not for the mysterious voice on the other end that helpfully labels her as Brent’s wife, we would have never even known, given that they don’t share a single minute of screen time prior to the kidnapping.

To be fair to the film, it’s not like it has high aspirations. It knows it’s a big, stupid action picture and it plays it up for all it’s worth, creating high octane chases through narrow alleyways, cluttered highways and crowded parks at seemingly every turn. It never takes the time to make these scenes work in conjunction with what little story it has, though, instead opting to make The Kid a genius tech geek, able to hack into security networks with nary a plausible explanation, no doubt a quick and accessible way to bypass all that pesky talking. But none of these scenes work because it never truly feels like the characters are in any real danger, given the incompetent police force chasing them. At one point, after he slams into a cop car, The Kid remarks that he just committed assault with a deadly weapon, which gives the police the authority to shoot at them, yet they never do. Never does it come to mind that perhaps they could take out a tire or two, effectively ending his rampage. The only ones that are smart enough to pull out their guns are the mysterious voice’s hired hands, but even they only shoot at the body of the car, despite the knowledge that the car is armored. The worst driver in the world would be able to escape such idiotic opposition.

If there was some type of skill put behind the crafting of these action scenes, many of these problems could be ignored, but such a reality is quickly dashed. Directed by Courtney Solomon, whose only other directing credits include 2000’s abominable “Dungeons & Dragons” and 2005’s equally bad “An American Haunting,” has no idea how to stage an action scene to elicit excitement. Instead, it’s the editing that hopes to manufacture it in a thinly veiled attempt to hide the fact that what’s going on isn’t really all that interesting. The scenes are cut in rapid succession similar to the shootouts in 2009’s “Gamer,” to the point where you can barely even register certain shots before they disappear. If some of these shots were any shorter, they’d be subliminal.

Then the twist comes and the mystery man is revealed, not that we actually know who that man is as a character. The reveal is more one of the actor playing the mystery man, which means little to nothing in the big scheme of things. Strangely enough, questions are left unanswered, which is tough to do in a movie with such little plot to speak of, though you likely won’t care enough to have them answered anyway. When the movie ends, the title card flashes onscreen once more, almost as if it’s telling you to get away as fast as you can. You likely won’t need to be told twice.

Getaway receives 0.5/5

Friday
Jan182013

Mama

If it’s January, that can mean only one thing: movie studios are dumping whatever crap they have sitting around into theaters. Every year, during a time when the general population is optimistically looking forward to making the next 365 days better than the last, movie studios do their part, albeit in a small way, to prevent that from happening. This week, we have Mama, a film where the most appropriate describing adjective is “stupid.” I suppose for a January release, it’s not half bad, particularly if compared to last year’s genre offering, The Devil Inside, but such praise is faint. Mama is still ridiculous, played out and, worst of all, not scary.

The film stars Jessica Chastain (also in this month’s Zero Dark Thirty, a film much more worthy of your time) as Annabel. She’s a rocker who is in a serious relationship with Lucas, played by Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Five years ago, his twin brother went on a killing spree that culminated in the death of his sister-in-law and kidnapping of his two young nieces. However, on his dash out of state in a car with an ironic vanity plate that reads “N1 DAD,” he spins out of control and they disappear from the public. After a desperate search, Lucas stumbles upon the two girls, Victoria, played by Megan Charpentier, and Lilly, played by Isabelle Nelisse, but his brother is nowhere to be seen. He eventually gains custody of the girls and takes them home after a much needed psychiatric evaluation, due to the imaginary friend the girls developed while stuck in the wild they call Mama. Eventually, weird things start happening around the house and Annabel and Lucas start to wonder if Mama is actually something more than an imaginary friend.

And of course she is. Any question regarding the validity of such supernatural claims are quickly put to rest when Mama presents herself within the first five to ten minutes, before the title card even pops up. The best horror movies keep you guessing and hide its monster, allowing your brain to concoct whatever terrible creature it can. Mama shows its cards way too early. Despite being partly veiled by shadows or shown in silhouette early on, the basic idea of the creature is put in place too early, effectively crushing any build the movie could have had otherwise. To make matters worse, when you finally do get a good look at her, she’s anything but scary and, if we’re being totally honest, looks like Gollum with long, flowing hair and Down syndrome.

For this reason and many others, Mama fails to elicit a sense of dread, much less maintain it like the best horror movies do, like last year’s bone-chiller, Sinister. At its most effective, Mama is unsettling, not because it’s scary, but because, if you know your horror movies enough to predict them, that a loud jump scare is right around the corner. Even if you aren’t a horror movie connoisseur and aren’t privy to the workings of horror movie scares going in, you will be when you come out. Mama picks one tactic and then uses it over and over and over again, ad nauseam. If you don’t figure out the ending beforehand (which you may not given that certain scenes make zero sense in the context of the story), you’ll have nevertheless mapped out the path to it. That’s how utterly clumsy and predictable this movie is.

The most enjoyment one could gather from watching Mama comes from laughing at the sheer silliness of it all, like when the two girls are found and have mentally and physically transitioned into comical spider-like creatures. Additionally, spotting contradictory dialogue exchanges becomes a rather fun game after some time. One standout example comes during a scene when an extraneous side character claims to not be religious and not know much about the afterlife or the supernatural, directly before explaining in great detail the reasoning and motivations behind the persistent ghost. Expository dialogue is looked down upon and for good reason—it’s usually forced in because the filmmakers/screenwriters couldn’t figure out a way to properly convey the story in a less direct and more meaningful way—but I’ve never seen it appear so bluntly and hypocritically.

Mama is a mess. It benefits from having some decent performances, most notably from the talented Jessica Chastain, but even a talented actress such as her can only do so much with such thin characters. With little to move the plot along aside from time-filler dream sequences (some of which actually have additional dream layers within them, like a mini Inception), Mama quickly becomes stagnant and tiresome.

Mama receives 1/5

Friday
Oct122012

Sinister

Sinister hearkens back to classic horror films. It isn’t overly violent and relies more on mood and imagery to create a disturbing and frightening atmosphere. It doesn’t rush through its story to please the ADD generation, but builds slowly, tightening the tension until it becomes too much to bear. The film, quite frankly, is terrifying. It stumbles in a few key areas and relies a tad too much on played out horror movie tropes (the creepy kid thing isn’t scary anymore, let’s move past it), but it’s likely to chill you to the core. It’s one of the scariest movies in at least a decade, so if fright is fun to you, you won’t have more fun at the movies than you will with Sinister.

Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) is a crime writer. He investigates real life murders and tries to uncover things the initial police investigation may have missed. Part of his process is moving into or near the house or area that the heinous event took place, which has just led him to an eerie house in what appears to be a fairly standard Midwest town. In this house, a family was murdered, all but the smallest child who went missing. Not too long after moving in, Ellison finds a box of old film reels in the attic. Curious, he brings them down, hooks them up and begins to watch them. Each reel depicts the brutal murder of a family and they are accompanied by spooky symbolism and a mysterious man looking on. Eventually, strange things begin to happen in the house and Ellison begins to realize he may have put himself and his family in danger.

Sinister begins with footage from one of those film reels and it perfectly captures the tone of what is to come. What is shown should be left for the viewer to experience, but it immediately crawls under your skin, and does so without resorting to cheap tactics. It’s a violent exhibition, but it isn’t gory. It’s also scary, but it isn’t in your face. Such restraint is held throughout nearly the entire movie. Aside from a couple “Gotcha!” moments (including a horrible one at the end that effectively ruins the sense of eeriness the film had captured up to that point), the film is more about ambiance. It’s more about the fear of what’s going to happen rather than of what actually does. Sinister understands something that very few modern horror movies do: feeling is key. Emotionally unsettling the viewer is more effective than occasionally making them twitch.

What it also understands is that horror movies need a fleshed out script and good acting just as much as any other movie. The bane of the genre these days is its neglect of story and list of no name actors unconvincingly hamming it up onscreen. Sinister, though its story is admittedly familiar, feels so unique because so much care was put into its creation. The characters aren’t just fodder for the creature to take out like in other horror films. Here, they are fully realized with complex emotions and motivations. The best scene, in fact, isn’t even a scary one. It’s a dramatic scene between Ellison and his wife, Tracy (Juliet Rylance), as they fight over Ellison’s lies that brought them to live in a house where grisly murders took place. Most horror films wouldn’t even consider including this scene, but something tells me Sinister's filmmakers knew their movie would be incomplete without it.

At the end of the day, Sinister is an above average horror film with above average acting and a keen understanding of what is truly scary, but it nevertheless falls into traps of the genre that are seemingly impossible to avoid. One can’t help but wonder why Ellison, who suspects that whoever committed the murders depicted on the film reels planted the box for him to find, wouldn’t move his family, if not himself, out of the house immediately. This is a horror movie standard that was brilliantly addressed in James Wan’s underrated Insidious and Sinister falls prey to it. In fact, there are plenty of “Don’t go in there!” and “What was he thinking?” moments throughout the entire film, but one must forgive (or go with) these moments. Without them, there wouldn’t be a horror movie to watch. The one genre misstep Sinister embraces and actually improves on is the comedic relief. Too many horror movies throw comedy into the mix only to disappointingly break the tension; whatever goodwill it had built to that point dissipates. In Sinister, these moments are a welcome reprieve. They give you a chance to calm down from the unrelenting terror you’ve just sat through in the scene prior.

Sinister will scare you so bad, you’ll feel the pulse racing in your feet, and that’s in spite of a few key moments that don’t work, including a horribly unfrightening slow motion scene involving a dark house, long hallways and children. Its biggest issue is probably its ending, which feels all too abrupt after such a slow, gradual build, but they say it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. The same holds true for Sinister and by the end of this journey, you won’t need to pull over to pee. You’ll have already done so in your pants.

Sinister receives 4/5