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Reviews

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
(2010)

House of Gothicism
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is exactly the kind of horror movie you want to hate. It's a remake, it involves a child in peril, and it contains some (and I say "some") very nasty violence. Just watch--you'll have trouble hating it.

Guillermo del Toro's new collaborative effort with first-time director Troy Nixey is, simply put, horror done right. There's a lot here that can be found in any horror movie that comes out now, but this one succeeds for relying on tone and setting rather than blood and guts. The acting from all three leads is surprisingly good, and Nixey shines as well behind the camera.

However, at the heart of the film is a ballsy story co-written by del Toro that really keeps the film stable. Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is originally based on a 1973 British TV movie that has been hailed as one of the scariest movies ever made. The remake features a new main character: Sally, a child, played by Bailee Madison. Sally moves into a new Gothic mansion with her father (Guy Pearce) and a new stepmother (Katie Holmes). There, she discovers a ventilation system where she hears breathy voices calling to play with her. At first, the voices are friendly. Then, they're vicious and violent.

The violence of the movie is one of the reasons why this movie succeeds so nicely. The first scene is grisly and is, without a doubt, the reason why Don't Be Afraid of the Dark earned its R-rating rather than its intended PG-13. There isn't constant violence. In fact, there isn't even that much of it. Most of it is bloodless, but all of it is enough to make us squeamish and afraid.

Another area in which the movie excels in that respect is its design. The mansion that Nixey and del Toro chose is gorgeous. The intense lighting, which Nixey noted as "inspired by Rembrandt" in the Q&A following the film, is moody and adds to the heavy tone of the movie. The house is just creepy on its own, but it becomes creepier thanks to the creature design. Unlike what the trailer tells you, the creatures are pretty tiny. What creeped me out about them was the loud, shrill screeches they let out. It'll give you chills. Keep a keen ear and listen for del Toro, as he voices a few of the creatures.

Don't Be Afraid of the Dark is a very fun and very creepy horror movie experience. Though not without its flaws, it has a strong story stabilized by good characters and a surprisingly dark ending, and it's got some good acting too. It's hard not to be absorbed in the mesmerizing light pools of the mansion, and it's even harder not to be entertained. As usual in del Toro films, darkness and unseen monsters reign, and as usual, it's pretty damn unnerving.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2
(2011)

What My Childhood Died For
I remember when I was five years old. I remember my mother reading Harry Potter to me, the way her hands turned the pages, the way she placed her bookmark in the book when she thought I had fallen asleep. I remember wanting to be Harry Potter. I was Harry Potter twice for Halloween, as a matter of fact, wandless and only armed with jack-o-lantern shaped box for keeping candy. And now, almost at age 18, I have created a new memory of my own, that of sitting next to my mother, and now my brother, in a dark theater, sobbing together at the thought that it really is the end of my favorite series, Harry Potter.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 is the near-perfect finale to one of the most beloved series ever written. David Yates has created the first, and unfortunately only, classic of the Harry Potter film series in a spectacular and emotional thrill ride. Dark, brooding, and downright suspenseful, Harry Potter ends with an enormous bang, one whose reverberations will be felt for years to come.

The bang that this movie creates only begins with its fine actors. Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint have matured into real adult actors now. Once cute and dopey, the trio has now become truly magical at their profession. Though it's a spectacle to watch the chemistry between our three leads, they're overshadowed by an impossibly large supporting cast. Maggie Smith returns to give a sweet performance. Ralph Fiennes reprises his role as Voldemort and totally creeps us out. The real star of the show is, however, Alan Rickman. Finally, Rickman emerges from the depths of the great sets and shows his true acting chops as Snape. He's just fantastic to watch.

And the film is technically brilliant as well. The visual effects go heavy on the pyrotechnics, so why not throw in a little slow-motion while we're at it? And so David Yates does, but whereas most directors (other than Zack Snyder, that is) can't handle slow-motion, Yates does it perfectly. It's thrilling, and it's only aided by Eduardo Serra's cinematography. He's an expert at what he does: Serra loves playing with color, and it totally works in every way. Sometimes, the film is so drab looking that it almost becomes black-and-white. What Serra films is gorgeous. He's secured himself a nomination for Best Cinematography.

The film isn't without its flaws however. Steve Kloves' script is lacking as usual, placing far too much emphasis on action and not enough on the characters themselves. Humor is used improperly to lighten the otherwise moody atmosphere. That said, the way Kloves writes action, and the way Yates directs it, is marvelous.

While it can't help but feel as though there's a full half hour missing from the final cut, Yates and his team have made a brilliant film. I almost feel weird saying that a Harry Potter film is great. Mainstream films just shouldn't be this good, but thankfully, they still can be. Movie magic still does exist after all.

Unfortunately, no matter how many times we see these characters when we watch the movies or read the books again, they'll never be fully resurrected. It's the first time that matters the most. After that, it's never the same. Everything ends, unfortunately, and so does the Harry Potter series. I have grown so much with Harry Potter, but it's finally time to lay it to rest. Goodbye, Harry and crew. You'll be sorely missed.

Super 8
(2011)

Eight Reasons to See Super 8 (and Two Reasons Why Not)
Instead of presenting this as a normal review, I'll put it in the form of bullets. I just think it's more reader-friendly for this. It also helps to avoid plot details, and that's probably better if you want to go in with a blank slate.

1. If you like Steven Spielberg, you'll like this movie. J.J. Abrams has clearly created the movie as a homage to the classics that Spielberg has made. Echoes of Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jurassic Park are felt throughout the entire film. Super 8 directly borrows Jaws' style in that the viewer only gets brief glimpses at the monster for the first two thirds; it isn't until the last third that the viewer sees it in its entirety.

2. The acting. Elle Fanning is the highlight of a great cast of child actors. Fanning has proved herself once with Somewhere, but she ups the ante with Super 8. There's one great scene where she has to act as though she's acting in a movie filmed by the other children. She, along with the rest of them, nails it.

3. J.J. Abrams' script. The writing is one of the best things about Super 8. It's rich, fast, and, again, Spielbergian. Abrams' screenplay is delightful because it plays on the viewer's own childhood memories. It's basically one long nostalgia trip.

4. J.J. Abrams' direction. He basically becomes Steven Spielberg to make this movie, as seen in his use of constant Steadicam shots and visual restraint when it comes to the shots of the monster in the early parts of the movie.

5. The cinematography and color palette. Also reminiscent of 1970s blockbuster film is the visual look of the movie. The drowned-out colors are similar to that of Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

6. The train sequence. The best scene in the movie is one involving a train crash. It's basically what you've already seen from the first trailer, but this time, it's from a different point-of-view. Watch this in a big theater. You're going to want to hear how great the sound editing is in this scene.

7. The monster. I'm not going to say anything other than that I very much enjoyed the way the monster looked.

8. The tone. Like The Goonies, Super 8 is a summer movie that's made to make you feel like a kid again. It's wonderful, at times whimsical and at other times frightening. It's exactly what one should want from a summer movie, but...

Reasons why not to see Super 8: 1. J.J. Abrams got too bogged down in becoming Steven Spielberg. The film is sometimes obnoxious in how much it wants to be Jaws. This ends up getting in the way of the film's great story, and keeps it from becoming a classic.

2. It's not perfect. Super 8 has pacing issues a lot of the time and will often involve characters and subplots that completely unnecessary. There are certain elements of the movie that could have absolutely been taken away without any repercussions.

Overall, Super 8 is worth seeing. Take the family out and have fun. See it in a big theater with a good sound system. It's a fun but unfortunately forgettable ride.

Another Earth
(2011)

Two Can Be as Bad as One; It's the Loneliest Number Since One
Just what is it about indie science fiction that is so fascinating? Maybe it's the idea that great effects are done on a small budget. Or maybe it's the simple fact that it's indie filmmaking. Regardless of pretense or the filmmaker's confinements, indie movies of the "lesser" genres (action, horror, sci-fi, etc.) almost always impress, Another Earth being no exception to this general rule.

Another Earth marks a marvelous turn that most sci-fi movie writers are too scared to take, and that is into the realm of a character drama. Mike Cahill's thought-provoking debut as director (and writer and cinematographer and editor) is a risky venture, but it almost always works. Unfortunately, Cahill has concocted a premise that is too interesting for his small, pensive movie, but the beautiful Brit Marling makes it possible to ignore most of the film's most glaring issues as she sweeps the audience away with her acting.

It's best to go into Another Earth without any outside knowledge, but if you've come to this page, you probably know too much already. Here is your chance to leave before I begin with story details...

Still with me? Good. Another Earth is centered around Rhoda Williams (Brit Marling), an MIT student who becomes frenzied after she finds out that scientists have discovered a planet nicknamed Earth 2. Earth 2 is the same in composition as our earth, however the problem is that Earth 2 has suddenly moved from behind the sun and into view in our night sky. Rhoda drunkenly leaves a party and drives away, only to accidentally hit another family's car while she is stargazing. The mother and child are killed; the father (William Mapother), on the other hand, is left in a coma. Four years later, Rhoda is released from jail and the father awakens from his coma. It's up to Rhoda to find the courage to apologize and right what she has done wrong.

Visually, Another Earth is an impressive film. There's a constant reminder that the film is independent--Cahill is forced to rely on grainy hand-held shots for some of the film's most beautiful moments--and yet it's very well-done for a film that supposedly cost $150,000 to make. Cahill returns to his roots in filming sharks and jellyfish for National Geographic by giving the human form a feeling of mystique. There are quite a few shots of Rhoda walking in slow-motion, Earth 2 looming in the background. But it's all worth it: the viewer is constantly introduced to the world's cruelty and ugliness, but Cahill has somehow made it serene and strangely inviting.

Whether or not Another Earth could have possibly held together without great actors is something that should be called into question. Brit Marling gives the performance that every actress wants to give. She adds a seemingly impossible amount of depth to the character of Rhoda. We feel her pain constantly, and it's all thanks to Marling. Marling is worthy of a Best Actress nomination for her work in Another Earth. Although William Mapother is not to be ignored either. Maybe you've seen him on "Lost" when he played Ethan, however here, he doesn't play a baddie. He's honest and human in his slice-of-life performance.

Another Earth isn't perfect, in fact, it's far from it. The interesting ideas of two earths, a whole new you, and fear of doppelgangers is underused, if not absent entirely. The ending is, without a doubt, science fiction at its best, however it's really the only scene in the movie that is pure sci-fi. The ending could be a "twist," but I'm not going to call it that because the ending is just as subtle as the rest of the movie. Nevertheless, it packs a punch. Cahill should feature the same premise in his next film, but this time, he should entertain all the special effects that everyone wanted to see in this one.

At the Sundance Film Festival this year, Another Earth won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, an award given to the film that best portrays a sci-fi story. There may not have been many movies at Sundance that could have qualified, but there's no question that Another Earth deserved. Cahill's first movie is quiet, well-made, and has the makings of an indie classic. Brit Marling and William Mapother's chemistry perfectly fits Cahill's excellent script, causing the audience to ponder "What if...?" for the entire movie. It's mystifying science fiction, the kind without explosions and the kind without little green men. And Cahill proves that this, this lo-fi, destructive, and emotionally tense meditation, may be the best kind of science fiction.

Midnight in Paris
(2011)

Parisian Holiday
"Do you think it's possible to love two women at the same time?," asks our protagonist Gil Prender to a tour guide discussed Auguste Rodin's love for his mistress and his wife. Like that's the first time we've heard that question in a Woody Allen movie. Infidelity, gorgeous women, and neuroticism are some of Allen's favorite motifs, so it's really not too much of a surprise that they all appear in Midnight in Paris.

That said, Allen's rendition of those ideas feels fresh this time. Midnight in Paris is a sweet, fun romp through the art world of France. This light comedy may not have some of the heavier messages about adultery and art that previous Allen films have had, but Midnight in Paris is, nonetheless, an enjoyable exercise in allusion to the Lost Generation and artists of the 1920s.

Midnight in Paris begins with the same idea of a man, in this case a screenwriter named Gil played by Owen Wilson, searching for connection with the real world. The protagonist is clearly a projection of Allen's self, but no matter. Gil is engaged to the Inez, played by a blond Rachel McAdams who coincidentally (or is it?) looks like Scarlet Johansson from Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Inez bores Gil with her pretentious friends and spiteful parents, which ultimately causes Gil to seek inspiration on his own time by drunkenly wandering that streets of Paris. One night, he is invited into a car that takes him back to the 1920s where he meets his favorite writers and artists, something that eventually leads to a breakthrough in his work. A large supporting cast includes Kathy Bates, Allison Pill, Adrien Brody, Michael Sheen, and Marion Cotillard.

Allen's conception of Paris is just as romantic as the story itself. The film's physical look matches some of the complexities of the women in that it appears to be almost splashed in gold. It is, after all, the City of Lights. It's a beautiful movie that matches the pretty faces of its starring women.

Allen's screenplay leaps right off the page thanks to his cast, but this too is something that isn't unusual for a Woody Allen film. At his best, Allen picks actors that play their parts with a sense of realism that, when combined with some elements of the fantastic, charm the audience. Just about everyone here manages to do just this, with the exception of Rachel McAdams, who tries her hardest with an underdeveloped character. Marion Cotillard is the best of the cast (as per usual) in her role as Picasso's mistress. She's bursting with sexuality yet she's grounded in her ability to deliver her dialogue with her natural French accent.

Midnight in Paris is fantastique. In comparison to Woody Allen's previous tales of lust and spite, his newest film feels like a dessert rather than a filling entree, yet this is exactly how a good, highbrow summer movie should be. The cast shines just as bright as the lights at the top of the Eiffel Tower and Allen proves himself worthy of his place in society as a master director once again. By no means a classic, Midnight in Paris is a pretty little diversion, one that is grounded in a theatrical gimmick that totally works every time. This, along with The Tree of Life, will be one of a few summer movies that will dazzle visually (without explosions) and somehow manage not to insult the viewer's intelligence.

The Tree of Life
(2011)

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
As enigmatic as Terrence Malick films usually are, The Tree of Life poses quite a problem for anyone trying to make sense out of it. It's arguable whether the film actually has a story, and there's very little spoken dialogue. But it takes a true auteur to make a great film without those necessary elements. Ladies and gentlemen, I present you with Terrence Malick, art- house provocateur and world-class director.

The Tree of Life is, simply put, a masterpiece. It's pure art, a wonderfully ambitious mystery that runs just under two hours and a half. Malick has created cinema at its finest--it shocks, it causes awe, and it requires thought. While the entire cast's mostly silent performances are amazing, they're overshadowed by the visual poetry of Malick's creation.

The creation of the universe is what this movie opens with, and its destruction is its finale. Immediately, the viewer knows what he's getting into. Reviewers have called this the "most ambitious film since 2001: A Space Odyssey," and they're totally right in saying that. It's a literal journey of a movie, one that stretches from prehistoric times to the future, but one that focuses primarily on a family living in the 1950s in Texas. The father is Brad Pitt. He's stern and believes that the matriarch, played by Jessica Chastain, is naive for fostering a relationship with the world that allows for innocence. Their three children age with them, only to learn life's true lessons.

Most of the feeling of wonderment from in The Tree of Life arises from the fact that it is gorgeous. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who has worked with Malick previously on The New World, brings his visual prowess to the movie by putting so much care into every shot. The composition and camera angle of every single shot are not only beautiful but they're meaningful as well.

And yet Malick's film is still cryptic. While Lubezki presents the viewer with colorful, almost sensuous shots of nature, Malick has chosen to keep the viewer interpreting. The creation sequence, easily the best part of the film, includes dinosaurs, hammerhead sharks, jellyfish, close-ups of mitosis, and cosmic nebulae over Mozart's "Lacrimosa." It's all beautiful, but why is it here? That's for you to mull over.

The Tree of Life is an experience, not a movie. Movies present a story and portray a clear message to the viewer. Experiences are something more, and The Tree of Life is just this because it is something of a revelation. Riddled with biblical imagery, the movie's central themes are deeply religious and personal. The Tree of Life is cinematic heaven, a film that is so moving on a primordial level that it inspires fear and awe. There's simply nothing on earth like it.

Bridesmaids
(2011)

Having the Wedding Cake and Eating it Too. It's a Women's World, After All.
Maybe gross-out comedy and chick flicks aren't usually connected, but that should all change with Paul Feig's Bridesmaids. The Judd Apatow-backed comedy boldly bucks that trend by carefully balancing emotional elements and hilarious jokes. What many comedies are incapable of doing these days is getting dramatic points across while simultaneously making the audience laugh. And that is just where Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig's screenplay succeeds so brilliantly. There is, of course, a brilliant group of actresses that puts her writing to work as well. This cliché-busting doesn't last the entire movie, however--it regresses into typical romantic comedy territory in the final third--but no matter, Bridesmaids is one of the only funny comedies in recent memory.

Bridesmaids' wonderful central character is Annie, played by Kristen Wiig. Annie's life hasn't been every woman's dream. Her venture as a baker has failed completely, she can't afford her rent, she has occasional sexual romps with a man (Jon Hamm) who refuses to be her boyfriend, and she simply has no friends. Even worse is the fact that her best friend (Maya Rudolph) is getting married and has asked her to be the maid of honor. And to complete it all, she has to deal with a troop of other women helping with the wedding. The ensemble cast is rounded out by Rose Byrne, Melissa McCarthy, Wendi McLoven-Corey, and Ellie Kemper.

But just why does Bridesmaids rise above other female-driven rom-coms? The simple answer is Kristen Wiig. Her writing breathes life into normally one-dimensional misguided women. The more complicated answer is all of the actresses' ability to make each character seem normal. More often than not, women with waists the size of toothpicks prance across the screen in search of a male counterpart that they hoped to marry. This is not the case with the women of Bridesmaids. Those who have married or placed themselves in other traditional roles have found themselves to be stuck in harmful situations. Characters like Annie who haven't still have their own problems. It's not easy being a woman, apparently (please note that I'm male), and Bridesmaids certainly glorifies living the life of a "real" woman who actually faces problems.

Bridesmaids was nicknamed "the female Hangover" when the trailer came out. That's not a horrible comparison at times, but most often, Bridesmaids is an original movie. None of the jokes are borrowed and while some of the characters feel like Apatow archetypes now, each woman seems new and enriched. Even the method in which punchlines are told is original. There are two sequences, one on a plane involving a drugged out Annie stumbling through first class and one in a fitting shop involving food poisoning and a white dress, in particular that are notable for being especially hilarious. The delivery is important: in both scenes, five jokes come together in one big punchline that caused the audience to roar with laughter. It's a grand but all too normal affair and it works for almost all of the movie.

If Bridesmaids is the future of comedy, I look forward to going to the movies more often. Women are just as hilarious as men. It's a simple fact of life that writers often ignore. And all it took was Mumolo and Wiig to show us this. Equally emotional and sexual, Bridesmaids is a smart comedy that only comes once a year. Say "I do" to Bridesmaids. It's $11 that's actually worth spending at the movies.

Hobo with a Shotgun
(2011)

How Did They Ever Make a Movie Like Hobo with a Shotgun?
"When life gives you razor blades, you make a baseball bat...out of razor blades!," shouts Hobo with a Shotgun's main villain, Drake, before he cuts a man in two. If that wasn't any clue as to what you can expect from Hobo with a Shotgun, then heed this: it very well be one of the most violent movies ever made. Jason Eisener's gloriously bloody neo-grindhouse movie is disturbing in every sense of the word. And what's wrong with that? Absolutely nothing, apparently.

Hobo with a Shotgun is the most bizarre thrill ride of the last ten years. It's a new, classless rendition of Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's neo-B-movie masterpiece Grindhouse. It definitely shows; it's often way too violent for its own good, so much to the point where it's plainly upsetting sometimes. It's not very funny, but despite all this, the movie is beautiful, if one can call it that, in its array of color. Rutger Hauer gives an amazing performance (surprisingly) and Eisener shows promise for his future as a director.

To say Hobo with a Shotgun has a plot might be a lie depending on who you ask, but it's worth reading a brief summary. Basically, the viewer is presented with a Hobo (Rutger Hauer), who gets off in Hope Town, a slum in an unnamed country. Hobo witnesses acts of violence done by Drake, a mob figure, and his two sons who act as his henchmen. He's then prompted to violence himself to correct the wrongs Drake and his two sons have inflicted upon the town. The battle escalates to a full-fledged war between the homeless of Hope Town and everyone else. What ensues is ridiculous, gory, and ridiculously gory.

Clearly, this isn't a movie for people who can't handle gore. The first ten minutes are fairly inoffensive, but the next 75 are relentless. Hobo with a Shotgun never holds back either. From penises shot at close ranges to decapitations, Hobo with a Shotgun is chock full of blood. Even more disturbing is that nobody is safe in this movie. There is in fact a scene in which a bus full of children is set on fire by the bad guys. Killing children on-screen is a generally accepted no-no in horror movies, but Hobo with a Shotgun is edgy enough to go there.

The filmmaking itself is very well-done. Jacob Eisener makes countless allusions to previous B-movies and horror masterpieces alike. And despite all the violence that could distract any viewer, the film is really a respectable piece of cinema. Rutger Hauer delivers an interesting, purposefully idiotic performance as the unnamed Hobo. Furthermore, the cinematography of Hobo with a Shotgun is drenched in a rainbow colors. Yes, it's drenched in color. Reds, greens, and blues can sometimes almost overshadow the subjects of many shots, and blood certainly tints shots a wonderful shade of raging red-orange. It's all reminiscent of Dario Argento's Suspiria, an Italian horror film that showcased its elaborate death sequences with great cinematography.

A few years down the line, nobody is going to remember Hobo with a Shotgun. Hobo is a great character. He breaks the rules. He gets the women. But he's just another guy. And that seems to be the movie's biggest problem. Hobo with a Shotgun is a knockoff version of Machete or Grindhouse. Albeit it's a pretty good one, but it's simply too disturbing to remember its story. What should be funny is often just sick. Nevertheless, Hobo with a Shotgun is a graphic, "fun" B-movie trailer adaptation.

Scream 4
(2011)

Stab Me Gently With a Machete
"What's your favorite scary movie?" whispered a faceless killer in the opening line Wes Craven's original Scream. And now, fifteen years later, it may not be the opening line anymore, but it's still that same, jarring punch of a phone conversation opener. Scream 4 shows a return to what the original was: a great, fun, and self-aware parody of the horror genre. Maybe this is for the better, maybe this is for the worse, but in the bloodiest and most meta installment yet, Craven moves the story along faster with even less horror and more comedy. Most of what the movie shows the audience is things they have seen already in the other three Screams, but it's so damn fun to watch it all unfold all over again.

Scream 4 is a similar plot to the first few. A killer strikes and people die. If you want a few more details, you can keep reading: Ghostface strikes again in Woodsboro. It's not just any coincidence that Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell) is back in town promoting her new autobiography of her struggles in the past fifteen years. And as the teenage bodies continue to drop, it becomes increasingly more apparent that Sidney is next. Courtney Cox and David Arquette are brought back for their original roles. The new cast members include Emma Roberts, Hayden Patteniere, Adam Brody, and Rory Culkin.

Scream 4 offers a fair amount of suspense. There are some legitimately disquieting sequences, however most are marred by blasts of annoying albeit funny comedy. The kills are notably more violent--guts and blood are everywhere by the time the kills are done--but it's not necessarily to the film's advantage. Still, as sadistic as it may be to say this, the murder sequences are planned nicely and are definitely entertaining to watch.

Comedy is used in Scream 4 more nicely than it is in all three installments. It may be used too often because it ends up replacing most of the horror, however it is certainly funny. The opening sequence is no longer scary or creepy, rather it is one convoluted joke involving three simultaneous movies. And it's all in good taste, but true fans of horror may not be happy with this one.

The cast and their characters are a major improvement over Scream 3. Hayden Patteniere is wonderful as the sarcastic Kirby, a closeted horror film geek who poses as the hot popular girl. Thankfully, Neve Campbell is featured less in this one because, as her career has progressed, she has just done more of her "pouty-face" expression for her role as Sidney. David Arquette is still insanely annoying as Dewey, but Courtney Cox is always a treat as Gale. The new cast members are satisfactory enough.

Despite a surprising ending, Scream 4 is more of the delicious same material as the first one. Scream 4 was not a needed installment. In fact, the Scream series did not need to be rebooted. But, and there's a big "but," Scream 4 is very entertaining. Scream 5 may be overkill (oh, don't you just love puns?), but for now, Scream 4 is a fun watch. See it in theaters with a large group of friends and enjoy.

Insidious
(2010)

Insidious is Truly Insidious
How many horror movies are actually scary? Three, maybe four? Make that five. Insidious just made the list.

James Wan's Insidious is unusual in every sense of the word. It's a 100-minute thrill ride that is a homage to countless horror movies, including Poltergeist and The Shining, and often enough, Insidious succeeds in bringing the scares. Terrifying and entertaining, Insidious threatens its viewer with an insulting amount of jump scares, however it does not matter when the result is this good. Popcorn entertainment may not be this fun again for a while.

Insidious' plot may sound contrived, and that's because it is. Leigh Whanell's original script borrows a lot of previous horror greats. Renai (Rose Byrne) and Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson) are a married couple with three children that have just moved into a new house. Yet not everything is perfect. The protagonists' marriage is tense and cold and there's something deeply unsettling about their home. It isn't long before one of their sons, Dalton, falls from a ladder while he is investigating a noise in the attic and becomes comatose. The house isn't done with the Lamberts yet. And the filmmakers aren't done with us either.

Wan shows a clear sense of maturity with Insidious. That is to say that he has stepped it up from the bloody albeit twisty Saw and the boring Dead Silence. Insidious alludes to past horror masterpieces frequently, and after all, isn't copying the sincerest form of flattery? Wan uses all this to his advantage--Insidious becomes creaky, slow carnival ride that never lets up. Wan has clearly learned from the masters; now he's just showing off.

As if Insidious' atmospheric tone wasn't enough, Wan has made Insidious a textbook example of horror done right. Lighting is used to create intrigue and mystery; the camera whirls and shakes to give the film an unsettling dissonance. Often Insidious verges on corny, but this is all with good intent. Violins certainly hit the high notes to give the viewer chills.

But Insidious is far from perfect. In fact, Wan's film is still marred by many flaws, notably a tonal change about halfway through that nearly wrecks any momentum gained in the quiet first act. It also seems that every two minutes there is a jump scene. This is a something that works at first, but by the end of it, it gets to be a bit much. And while there is some much needed comic relief in some of the scariest parts, it doesn't quite hang together when jokes are made. Furthermore, some elements of the plot are nonsensical, yet all this can be missed when disbelief is suspended.

In 2009, Paranormal Activity was hailed as one of the scariest movies ever. It's time for Insidious to get the recognition it deserves. Insidious may not be everyone's type of horror movie, but it's an intelligent, scary, and well-made film designed for people who actually care about watching movies. Although Insidious may take itself way too seriously, it's hard to ignore a film that is so intensely scary as this. There's one scene where Lorraine, played by Barbra Hershey, says, "I had a dream last night. I was in the house. I was very afraid." Aren't we all, darling.

Sucker Punch
(2011)

Pulp Objectification
In a day when Hollywood craves good original screenplays, Sucker Punch proves that some filmmakers should stick to adapting great source material. An exuberantly bad pastiche of genres, Sucker Punch is the anti-Quentin Tarantino film. Zack Snyder's story is mashup of several different genres, none of which prove successful in the long run. The number of believable lines in Snyder's screenplay can be counted on two hands, thus providing very little material for the potentially good cast of women to work with. Snyder clearly doesn't know how to construct a visually disinteresting shot, but it all doesn't matter because the film trips over its own feet constantly.

Sucker Punch is told from the point-of-view of Babydoll (Emily Browning), a young girl who is sent to an asylum by her father after she accidentally kills her sister in the bravado opening sequence. It isn't too long before Babydoll realizes that she is scheduled for a lobotomy. Her vivid fantasies cause her to realize escaping is her only way to survive. Babydoll enlists the help of the girls in her ward to help guide her through her intense journey out of the asylum. The supporting cast includes Abbie Cornish, Carla Gugino, Vanessa Hudgens, Jena Malone, Jamie Chung, and Scott Glenn. Look for a brief performance from Jon Hamm at the very end.

What's good about this film is, indeed, pretty good, however there are very few things I can say in this area, unfortunately. Zack Snyder is a visual extraordinaire. His slow motion shots of flying weaponry and spinning girls are a wonder to watch. Larry Fong, the cinematographer for 300 and Watchmen, does wonders with the supersaturated blacks and oranges that create a moody contrast between fantasy and reality.

The story is bizarrely fragment and surprisingly boring. Four 20-minute action sequences punctuate the storyline involving the asylum, which is unfortunate because that was the only one I was actually interested in. The beginning and end are worth seeing for their emotional intensity and surprising depth, however the war/samurai/dystopian/medieval fantasies are flat and plain, despite the action displayed on screen, which should be rich but isn't at all. Very often, the story sucker punches itself and doesn't every get back up.

Sucker Punch is meant to be an action movie and yet its action sequences are the least interesting parts. Each one attempts to allude to a previous great film in its respective category, but each one is unsuccessful. Furthermore, the choreography of each fight is exactly what one might expect; there isn't a single thing that excites or creates any sort of reaction.

Zack Snyder has clearly stated that Sucker Punch was supposed to be 18 minutes longer with an alternate ending. The question is, do I care? The answer is yes, oddly enough. Sucker Punch has the strange potential to be a classic. After all, how many films received negative reviews upon their initial release and ended up in cult fandom?

One other shortcoming of this film that should absolutely be noted is the treatment of women. Although Sucker Punch wants to be a feminist movie, it actually turns out to be demeaning more than anything. Scantily clad women are sexualized throughout the entire film, and it is our job to be thrilled by the imminent danger of rape and abuse that so often happens in the asylum. It's scary to think that somebody let this kind of plot happen in this day and age.

Sucker Punch truly hit me hard, but not in a good way. The objectified, stiletto-wearing protagonists stumble through the entire middle third, making the good beginning and ending moot. The cast is oddly bland, but Snyder makes up for it with his impressive visuals. Overall, Sucker Punch is an experience people shouldn't enjoy. It's a post-post-modern mess that will be remembered as a geekgasm, for now at least.

Win Win
(2011)

Raging Calf
We all saw The Kids are All Right. Many of us enjoyed it and helped it to become a success. What we all haven't seen is Win Win, which is truly unfortunate because it is a more honest though not necessarily better family dramedy than The Kids are All Right. Thomas McCarthy, the writer-director of Win Win, shows one of the best recent examples of realism with his oddly charming screenplay and rich characters. Often enough, quiet movies like this one go unnoticed. I strongly urge people to go see this and not let that happen.

Win Win's plot sounds too complicated for a light comedy. Mike Flaherty (played with tenderness by Paul Giamatti) is happily married to his wife (Amy Ryan) and has two children. This all sounds nice, but his New Jersey law practice is failing. On the verge of losing everything, Mike decides to take a $1,500 monthly commission by becoming the guardian of a client that was recently put into a senior citizen home. As Mike is moving his client's belongings to the home, he meets Kyle (Alex Shaffer in his debut performance), his client's grandson. Kyle has run away from his mother, a drug addict living in Ohio. Mike takes Kyle in and finds that he has a talent for wrestling. As Kyle becomes a bigger part of the family, the Flahertys come closer together and find that they love Kyle.

Win Win boasts a great cast full of well-known Oscar nominees, semi-well-known actors, and complete unknowns. Paul Giamatti is, as usual, a treat to watch as he completely transforms himself into his part. But the real standouts are Amy Ryan, Alex Shaffer, and most importantly Bobby Cannavale. Ryan's supporting performance feels honest and endearing. Shaffer's performance sometimes feel forced, however this is all in character. Shaffer is an actor to watch; we'll see more of him. It is Bobby Cannavale who steals the show as Terry, Mike's divorced and klutzy friend. Cannavale's role demands an actor who can give a fun and sad performance all at once--Cannavale nails it.

Thomas McCarthy as director has done a satisfactory job. Where the great in this film really lies is his extraordinarily ordinary screenplay. In terms of other realistic dramas, we need look no further than Breathless to see what McCarthy has done so right. Jean Luc-Godard immortalized the naive beauty of a regular couple living during the 60's in France. McCarthy has so beautifully humanized an extremely normal family living in America during the recession. Win Win is not particularly well made per se, but does it really need to be when there's such a great screenplay?

Win Win is an actor's film above all else. And yet its story is somehow uplifting and compelling at the same time. The same film could not have come out of another cast or writer. It's a shame this was released in March because it is sure to be overlooked by the Oscars in 2012. Win Win is not a memorable film, but for now, it is a wonderful, small, and quiet film that deserves praise and love from everyone.

Incendies
(2010)

Our Love Became a Funeral Pyre
When people watch the Oscars, they don't usually care about the Best Foreign Film nominees. Incendies provides so many reasons why people should actually get to see those nominees at all costs. Incendies is the kind of film that one walks away from feeling emotionally drained, one where it stays in the viewer's mind for days on end. Like an intense personal experience, it takes a lot to come to grips with the film's story, a moving plot full of twists and catharsis. At the New Directors/New Films Festival in New York, at which I saw this last night, Denis Villeneuve explained that he has made four films in Canada, but this is the first one to be released in America. Right now, I see no reason why Villeneuve, or any of the actors for that matter, shouldn't have a great future ahead of them.

Based on the play Scorched by Wajdi Mouawad, Incendies follows a non-linear plot that spans two generations. In the present day, Jeanne and Simon are twins who have lost their mother, Nawal. Nawal has stipulated in her will that Jeanne and Simon must return an envelope to the brother they didn't know existed who is currently living in a fictional Middle Eastern country. Only then can the twins give Nawal a proper burial. Jeanne feels obligated to return the letter, so she goes to the Middle East, only to realize some of Nawal's nastiest secrets. As Jeanne uncovers more about Nawal, the viewer is shown Nawal's story. The film builds up to an unforgettable ending that is sure to rock any viewer.

Incendies already had great source material. I've praised the plot enough, but one thing I must add is that the play is apparently four hours long, according to Villeneuve. It's impressive that this movie succeeds so nicely because I can't imagine that anything was cut. But to back up that source material, there's some really great acting. The entire cast plays their parts with such an emotional vigor that it seems impossible that this work of art wasn't autobiographical.

Furthermore, Villeneuve has made a film that relies on great filmmaking to impact the viewer. The cinematography is beautifully bland, surely a nod to some of the deserts in the Lebanon- like land where the movie takes place. Color scheme is also used to Villeneuve's advantage to show the parallels between Nawal and Jeanne's lives. Villeneuve seems to love working with extended zoom shots that shock the viewer with their overwhelmingly long silences. Why Villeneuve didn't receive critical acclaim (in America, at least) before Incendies is a mystery.

There are many movies about the Middle East. Some have failed miserably in their attempts to strike an emotional chord with critics and viewers alike (Redacted, Rendition), but others have been extremely successful (The Hurt Locker, Lebanon). Incendies could very well be one of the best films ever made about the conflicts in the Middle East. It has its flaws which keep it from being a masterpiece (maybe it could've lost five or ten minutes), but it is that rare type of film that really resonates beyond the initial viewing. Hopefully, Incendies will be remembered for years to come as the little, brilliant film that spawned the great fame of Denis Villeneuve.

Red State
(2011)

Conservative, White, Scary, and Red All Over
Last week, Melissa Leo said "f---" on the Oscars and was bleeped out for it. Wanna see her doing something worse, like being a bad-ass conservative and shooting up feds? (What? You thought the phrases "Melissa Leo" and "bad-ass conservative" didn't belong together?) Well, luckily, you get to see it in Red State. Yeah, Red State is a crazy movie and there's simply no other way to put it. Although I haven't seen all of his films, Kevin Smith's newest movie must be his most risky one to date. Sometimes, risks in movies aren't worth it; they're usually just dismissed as being pretentious. Don't let this one fall to the wayside. It's something well- worth seeing.

So, a summary. Well, that's not so easy when Red State is a genre-bender. The film can be divided in to three parts: a teen sex comedy, a psychological torture porn, and a bloody action-filled shootout. Basically, three horny teenagers discover a website that they call the "Craigslist of porn." The boys find a middle-aged woman (Melissa Leo) who lives in a town close to theirs on the site, and, on a fateful Friday night, arrange to have sex with her. When they get to her beat-up trailer, she drugs them and brings them to the ultra-conservative Five Points Church, where they are covered in saran wrap and forced to endure a sermon the ends in someone's death. What happens from there on is something you'd have to see to believe. All I'll say that it's disturbing, darkly funny, and f--ked-up. And by the end, you'll honestly say to yourself, "What the f--- is going on?"

When the news came out about Kevin Smith (the writer-director of Clerks and Chasing Amy) doing a horror movie, people were surprised and scared of what a mistake it could be. I'm pleased to say that they were wrong. Red State carries on with Smith's great reputation as a writer. Not only is the film incredibly witty in parts, but it also takes the audience out of their own comfort zone by taking horror movie clichés and turning them on their heads. I won't give specific examples, but there are many characters who die without any warning, sometimes ones that you think are going to turn out to be the heroes in the end. But no, Kevin Smith loves f--king with us, so naturally, Red State is like a roller-coaster ride that just never stops.

The best and certainly most risky part of the film is a 15-minute sermon that lasts for most of the second act. Michael Parks plays the leader of the church in this scene and he gives one hell of a performance. As evidenced by Inglourious Basterds, it is possible to pull off extremely long sequences of dialogue, but you have to get good actors to back it up. And Smith couldn't have gotten someone better to do it. Parks' performance is incredibly tense and creepy.

And Parks isn't the only great performance in Red State. Melissa Leo, who is now riding on the success of winning an Oscar for The Fighter, gives an insanely good performance as a conservative who's ready to kill when her husband gets shot in an accident involving the hostages. Leo plays her role with an emotional intensity rarely ever seen on film. There are parts of the movie where her performance feels too real, like her character could actually exist. But I haven't even discussed John Goodman. Goodman, who is famous for saying "Shut the f--- up, Donny!" in The Big Lebowski, surprises with his acerbically witty performance. At one moment, he pulls of seriousness and in the next, he pulls of Smith's dry sense of humor. The younger actors of the film, whose names I wish I knew, are also worth noting, for they have a future in film.

Smith's direction is never nearly as risky as his script, and that is the one area where Red State falls slightly short. With such strong writing, one might expect a more memorable directing job. Shot with RED (fitting, huh?) digital cameras, the film feels a little too jumpy at times. Sometimes, this works very well for the film, but at others, it just makes it feel unnecessarily frantic. Nevertheless, it's an interesting cinematic exercise.

As you may have imagined, the film also has its political implications. I don't necessarily agree with them , but they also took away from the experience. Smith is known for his brazen and fearless fits of political rage, but there is no reason why they should end up in his movies.

Did you read that far? Wow, you must really respect my opinion! In short, Red State is the kind of film that could have only succeeded when it was directed by a certain person, and that person was Kevin Smith. His violent and often brutal story is unlike I've ever seen before. The acting is just great; it's unlikely that you'll ever see acting this good in a horror movie again. Red State is that rare kind of movie that breaks the mold by changing its genre three times, which is just one of its spectacular oddities. It's unlikely that something like Red State will ever happen again. B+

Unstoppable
(2010)

You're Waiting for a Train (That's Going to Kill You, If You're Not Careful)
Let's start this review off in a proper manner for this movie, and by that I mean let's make it extremely blunt: Unstoppable is frenetic mess. Sometimes that isn't really all that bad in an action movie. It's worked before in Salt and Cloverfield, to name a few, but Unstoppable simply cannot pull it off. I started watching it with the expectation that I was going to have fun and I ended with a headache. Tony Scott makes the movie tense, that is for sure, but the way he does it is annoying. Though there are occasional instances when Unstoppable is nearly as nail-bitingly suspenseful as its writers hoped, most of the time, it falls flat on its face and (dare I say it?) becomes a train wreck.

Unstoppable claims to be inspired by true events. It's not a lie; it actually happened once in Ohio, but the stakes were not as high and nobody was hurt. Like any tabloid magazine, Unstoppable is inevitably sensationalized. It has full right to do this (it's an action movie after all), but not to this extent. The film starts with two stories that don't end up intersecting until halfway through the movie. A young conductor (Chris Pine) and a wise older engineer (Denzel Washington) are paired together to transport twenty train cars of zinc. But their day gets completely derailed (I had to!) when a train goes rogue and starts operating on its own when a worker is an idiot. Meanwhile, back at the station, a train operator (Rosario Dawson) gets angry and yells a lot while somehow acting rationally. The two trains roar closer to each other and the suspense mounts.

The film's biggest offense isn't its outlandish story, but rather it's Scott's obnoxious direction. From around ten minutes in, the camera does not stop moving. Yes, I understand that this device is meant to build suspense, but it just ended up frustrating me. What happened to the good old days when it was honorable to use slow movements to create anxiety? Clearly, they're long gone.

Not only this, but the editing is equally staccato to match this. As I said before, it's not always so horrible to have this style in an action movie, but sometimes it's nice to get an idea of what I'm supposed to be looking at. Editing shouldn't be used to bewilder the viewer unless that style is somehow needed in the movie.

What isn't a mess is the acting. Dawson, Pine, and Washington all play their parts with just the right amount of believability. The characters are not too tangible, but they are not too fake either. Most of the time, the story is also entertaining. Although a bit overlong, Unstoppable's simple plot is enough to entertain the audience...were it not for Tony Scott. I can frankly say that I have never seen a movie with a more bizarre villain than a rogue train. Yep, even weirder than Christine.

As it turns out, what Unstoppable comes down to is style. And that was Scott's biggest mistake. Instead of making a slower train-on-the-run like his previous and better film The Taking of Pelham 123, Scott has directed this one like a music video to very little success. You very well may enjoy it more than I did if you can get past the unnecessary intensity of the first third. Still, Unstoppable is a mess. There's simply no other way to say it.

Life in a Day
(2011)

July 24, 2010: Life out of Balance
Morning, July 24, 2010. "It'll all end well," a man says to his younger son, who is currently throwing a tantrum. "It'll all end well," he reassures the boy. What will end well? This situation? This day? This life?

As Life in a Day progresses, the viewer travels through the lives on many, literally living vicariously through others. This amazing documentary, produced by the Scott Brothers (one of which is the famous Ridley Scott) and directed by Kevin MacDonald, travels all over the world on one all too regular day: July 24, 2010. Starting in the morning, a time filled with a happiness and renewal, and ending in the evening, a time of reconciling and sadness, Life in a Day profiles things that should be commonplace. The best part: these things are certainly not commonplace. The Earth is a beautiful place. Our lives are great. Why not display them on film? And that is just the point.

Like any great documentary, Life in a Day is a poignant film. But unlike many great documentaries, it follows a subject that should not be poignant. If you have ever seen Amelie, you know the great beginning sequence. An unseen narrator shows us two glasses dancing on a table, a firefly dashing across a yellow-lighted French street, and a man erasing the name of a dead friend out of his address book. Imagine a movie like this entire opening sequence and you've got Life in a Day. Beautiful imagery, such as a teenage boy shaving for the first time, is common throughout the entire film. One shot especially, that of a skydiver falling to Earth, is probably the best part of the entire film. In a scene reminiscent of Koyaanisqatsi, a woman tumbles through the upper layers of Earth's atmosphere. It is quiet for a brief minute, and then, as the clouds engulf her, the noise of the people seeps in. The couple laughs together, sharing a time like no other together.

And yet, there are some truly disturbing scenes. At a Love Parade, multiple people are shown getting trampled to death. A few rush over to help the fallen victims, but many carry on, screaming to their heart's content. One part that people will surely have a reaction to is the slaughterhouse scene. Fair warning: a cow is shot in the head twice. The cow is later decapitated graphically. As these scenes show, sometimes life isn't always great. The images may be ugly and bleak, but they are always beautiful.

Life in a Day is a beautiful time capsule of people in the new millennium. Simply put, it's a wonderful portrait of people who do regular things. On a more complex level, it's a documentary about how lives are constantly changing. Every action we do changes the next action that is going to happen. Time is important. It's also shaping these actions. What's going to happen tomorrow? After all, as Scarlett O'Hara once said, "Tomorrow is a new day."

Somewhere
(2010)

Fortress of Solitude
"Who is Johnny Marco?" asks a reporter at a press conference. Johnny, played surprisingly well by Stephen Dorff, sits in his seat, dumbfounded by what the reporter has just asked him. At a loss of words, his reply is "Um...," and suddenly, the scene ends and the viewer is brought to a completely different place. Somewhere is not about identity crisis, as it may seem from that description, but rather about a split personality: a man divided between his two jobs, father and celebrity. Sofia Coppola's uneven, but overall rewarding, film is subtle, sad, and beautifully realized. Upheld by sweet performances, Somewhere manages to deliver with its extended periods of silence and stylish direction.

The metonymic opening scene of a car racing around a circular track in a seemingly barren desert brilliantly represents Somewhere's antihero Johnny Marco. Johnny is a B-list celebrity who enjoys the luxuries of the Château Marmont Hotel in West Hollywood where he watches twin strippers pole dancing and enjoys frequent partying. And then there is Johnny's paternal side. Cleo, Johnny's daughter from a previous marriage, suddenly becomes a major part of himself when his ex-wife takes a leave of absence from Cleo's life. And all too quickly, Johnny begins to realize that he is lonely and unhappy.

Surely, Coppola's style is not for everyone. Somewhere, the polar opposite of Coppola's previous film, the hyper-stylized Marie Antoinette, is drawn back and sleepy. The camera-work in Somewhere lingers on everything, making sure that the viewer is totally thrown into Johnny's solitude. Sometimes, this just is not necessary at all. The opening sequence, while poignant and interesting, fails to completely impress because it is two times as long as it needs to be, much like the rest of the film.

But in many ways, Coppola's style is not all that different from that of Marie Antoinette. Much like the way Coppola alluded to French film with its bubbly atmosphere and choppy edits, Somewhere makes use of the art of homage once again, only this time Italian film plays a major role. When Coppola's narrative takes Johnny to Italy for an awards service, the film noticeably becomes very different. Everything seems to be drawn out, as if the viewer has to see everything. Coppola incorporates elements of Federico Fellini's 8 1/2 and La Dolce Vita to show a sense of disconnect between Johnny and the rest of his world.

Somewhere's look mirrors Johnny's life. The pastel-colored furniture of the Château Marmont represents Johnny's falsification of reality. Everything appears dreamy with a slight aqua tint in most scenes. Moreover, Coppola uses very few objective shots, showing a lack of emotional connection between the viewer and Johnny, a mere reflection of Johnny's relationship with Cleo.

Where the movie falls short lies in Coppola's screenplay. While the movie is well-written, the biggest problem lies in the fact that there is too little dialogue. Not a single word is uttered during the trying first third of the movie. Relying on a great soundtrack is not always the best way to construct a great movie, but thankfully, Coppola has Dorff and Elle Fanning to act her characters brilliantly.

The title of Coppola's well-crafted film is a probably reference to "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." As Dorothy muses over how great the land is "over the rainbow" in The Wizard of Oz, she never probably realized how physically and emotionally distant this mythical area could be. Johnny is now living in this "somewhere," a utopia known as Hollywood inhabited by scummy paparazzi and rude movie stars, and find that it really is not all that it is cracked up to be. If only Dorothy knew that Hollywood was not a land "where troubles melt like lemon drops," but rather a desolate sea of solitude.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
(2010)

We Grew Old Together
In the beginning of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the viewer is immediately introduced to the dark nature of the film. Hermione puts her parents under a spell that makes them forget she ever lived ("Obliviate!"). The Minister of Magic warns that Voldemort has returned. A teacher from Hogwarts hovers over a table, only to be dropped to her death by Snape ("Cruciatus!"). And so we begin the dark final chapter of Harry Potter, and quite possibly one of the better ones, too.

Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe), who is now seventeen years old, has dropped out of Hogwarts. Instead of learning spells for his last year, he will be hunting down the Voldemort's seven horcruxes, or the pieces of Voldemort's soul. When he finds all of them, he will destroy them and end Voldemort for good. But the trials that await him were enough for the writer of this film to split it into two parts, a decision that was probably for the better. Part 1 of the final installment follows Harry and his friends, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and Hermione Granger (Emma Watson), in his fateful journey. In this odd twist on the road movie, the characters learn about the histories of the wizarding world as well as a few things about themselves.

The style of the sixth Harry Potter film, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, has carried over into this film. The visuals are even colder in this one, with a greater amount of grays, blacks, and whites. Cinematography is not the only thing David Yates, the director, relies on to keep the film moody and disturbing. Steven Kloves, the writer of the film, has chosen to keep J.K. Rowling's disquieting atmosphere by removing all humor found in the other films. His simplified version of the story has not left out the least kid-friendly sequences in the movie, these being the violent ones. Over the course of the movie, we only begin to see characters die; there are many more to come in the morbid second half.

While the movie is never uplifting, it is impossible not to be spellbound by some of the haunting sequences, most notably a brief but intense torture scene towards the end. The animated "Three Brothers" story is easily one of the best scenes in the entire Harry Potter series. Much like the anime sequence in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, it is rather risky but successful animated piece of the film. The action scenes in this one are also very well done, and possibly choreographed better than those of the other films. In Deathly Hallows: Part 1, the parts with action (although there are only a few, unfortunately) are snappy, suspenseful, and quick. Never once is it tiring to hear another "Expeliarmus!" shouted by Harry.

What is tiring, however, is the pacing in Deathly Hallows. Although Part 1 is obviously a build-up for the epically long battle of Part 2, the viewer may grow a little tired during the second act, a part of the movie that is mostly about slowing down the story to look at the psychological effects of the past seven years on the main characters. It is interesting, however, to see the strings of Ron, Harry, and Hermione's relationship coming undone. And were it not for strong character actors like Watson, Radcliffe, and Grint, the middle third may not have held up. Most of the movie plays like a taut political thriller, full of muggle intrigue and corruption, but sometimes it may movie a little fast for young viewers, although this is not necessarily a film to bring the young ones to see.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 presents some very good performances, realistic special effects, and complicated story arcs, some of which are compromised by a free-form plot structure. With the cliffhanger ending of Part 1, we move one film closer to leaving behind the beloved trio that Rowling started twelve years, an event that will be tearful for fans of all ages. Part 1 is the calm before the storm. And now for the storm...

Catfish
(2010)

Super Sad (Possibly) True Love Story
The tagline on Catfish's deceptively dark poster read "Don't let anyone tell you what it is." The studio is totally correct in saying this, but make sure everyone tells you how good it is. Catfish is a wild pastiche of genres crammed into a brilliant criticism of the Youtube Generation's presumption that the internet is a safe place. Unlike many other TV shows and newspaper articles that have tackled a similar topic, Catfish takes this criticism to a whole new level by documenting the entire process of catching a "catfish," a person who is not quite what he seems to be. Although the movie should be questioned in terms of its veritableness, it is thrilling, sad, and often funny account of a Facebook romance with a person who does not match their profile.

*Catfish is a hard film to describe without giving too much away. In short, the film's advertising inaccurately portrays the film. It is the supposedly true story of Nev Schulman and his Facebook friend Megan Faccio. Nev, a photographer that lives in New York, met Megan through her half-sister Abby, an eight year-old who sent Nev a painting of one of his photographs that was published in the New York Times. Nev begins to become romantically intertwined with Megan. But the more he finds out about her, the less he realizes he actually knows about Megan.

Filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have done an amazing job making this film. From the films pixelated studio credits to the film's closing shots, each sequence is more interesting than last. Emotions run wild in this film from the characters, but also from the audience, most of which is done through clever editing and unique filmmaking methods. The best example is the garage scene shown in the trailer, which so brilliantly constructs suspense through quick cuts and dark shots. Catfish is dissimilar to other documentaries because it does not rely on interviews for this type of emotion, but it instead relies on the audience to react in a certain way. It does not demand a loud or obvious reaction, but rather a subtle one, something that can be discussed with friends afterwards. And unlike many other documentaries that simply present the facts, Catfish supplies a interesting commentary towards the end of the film.

Catfish is all the proof one needs that documentaries are not always boring. This documentary is fascinating in many ways, most of which cannot be said without revealing the end. I have many more things to say about this film, but a lot of them deal with the ending, which is jarring, but not exactly the big reveal that Rogue Entertainment's advertising has depicted it to be. The movie sometimes verges on being a little too real. And by this I mean that it could follow in suit of I'm Still Here and be a complete hoax. Whether or not it is fictional does not affect my feelings about this movie, but it certainly did not feel like it was entirely a true story all the time.

How well do you know your Facebook friends? Are you sure they are who they say they are? Catfish leaves you in a state of paranoia wondering if the internet is as safe as you thought it was. In a time where people are worried about identity theft and take so many precautions online, Catfish could not be a more timely film and one that definitely needs to be seen by everyone. It probably is best to go into the theater without seeing any advertising, but the film can still be enjoyed (if that is the correct word for it) regardless of seeing the advertising. Though The Social Network may have overshadowed Catfish by being the bigger Facebook movie, Catfish is arguably better in some ways and more worthy of attention. Sad, suspenseful, and dramatic, Catfish is never short of amazing, making it easily the best documentary of 2010.

*Note: The summary above and the trailers do not spoil the movie's plot, however it is recommended the film should be seen with as little knowledge as possible.

Hereafter
(2010)

Never Let Me Go
Hereafter is a different type of film from Clint Eastwood. It does not have shoot outs, it does not take place in California, and it is not hard-boiled. What it is, however, is gentle and quiet, with some moving performances and fairly good writing. Hereafter is often moving, even if its script does become sappy at times. Its hard to remember that great directors are the most versatile ones and Clint Eastwood simply proves this by making a sad, Babel-esquire movie about trauma and death.

Hereafter follows three stories about death. The first is about a French journalist, as played by the great Cecile de France, who nearly dies in a tsunami and rethinks her life afterwards. The second is about a psychic (Matt Damon), who can actually communicate with the dead, although he chooses not to do so. He has quit his job as a psychic and wants to return to a normal life. The third is about a British boy who loses his brother in a car accident and tries to overcome his death. The three stories intertwine, although it does take a long time for the stories to even start coming together.

Peter Morgan's writing shines in this movie. Morgan, who previously wrote The Queen, has written another good script, even if this one is not as good as his other writing. Although the story feels a little "easy" in terms of its predictability and deus ex machina turns towards the end, it is still an interesting story and one worth watching. Morgan and Eastwood's ideas on death may not be for everybody, especially because the movie never deals with religion, but nevertheless, it is still an unusual and enthralling story.

The acting from most of the main cast is very good as well. Cecile de France, a relatively unknown actress in the United States, outdoes the rest of the cast in her sad but delicate performance. Matt Damon, probably the most well-known actor in the movie, is pretty good, but he will never be able to have a performance as great as the one in Good Will Hunting. Unfortunately, the performance of the British boy falls short. Played by both Frankie and George McLaren, the acting is sadly emotionless, even during the saddest scenes, and feels fake. Although the may just be children and one cannot expect much from child actors, there have been much more believable and better child performances.

Clint Eastwood has made a good movie with Hereafter. It is not a great movie, per se, but it is an interesting one nonetheless and one that is worth watching simply for this reason. Hereafter is certainly not one of Eastwood's best (in fact, it is probably one of his lesser good ones), but it is one of his must unusual ones and should be seen to show that he can direct in many genres. Eastwood has directed thrillers, westerns, and sports dramas, but never a delicate drama upheld by great performances. And for that reason, it should be seen, even by Eastwood fans who are sure that they will hate it. From a tour de force opening tsunami scene to a somewhat odd and disappointing, but quiet end, Hereafter is a unique movie from a person that one may not expect to make this kind of film.

Note: My rating would be a 7.5/10 (or 3/4) if I could give it half-stars.

Never Let Me Go
(2010)

I Sing the Body Electric
Mark Romanek's Never Let Me Go opens with a scene of a woman staring at a man on an operating table. She stares at him through a glass wall and he stares back at her, a tear streaming down his cheek. It is moments like these that work so well in Never Let Me Go, a dystopian science fiction drama that is both tender and frightening all at once. Romanek's haunting imagery combined with some great acting acting really make this film work as a great adaptation of Kazuo Ishiguro's still greater book of the same title. While the pacing may be a bit uneven, a moving story with a purposeful emotional disconnection holds together quite nicely on the silver screen.

Without saying too much, Never Let Me Go is a story about what it truly means to be humans. That does not mean that there are aliens involved, but there are other science fiction elements that are subtly blended with complex emotions. The story revolves around Ruth, Tommy, and Kathy, three children growing up at a school called Hailsham. Hailsham is bizarre in many ways, but the children simply take it as it is. The children eventually learn a nasty secret about themselves from a teacher. Ruth (Keira Knightley), Tommy (Andrew Garfield), and Kathy's (Carey Mulligan) lives change forever as they suddenly learn to live their lives differently. As they grow up together, they experience sex, sadness, and love in unexpected ways.

Mark Romanek, who is probably better known for his work on music videos, has made this film look sad and cold. The cinematography fulfills the book's sense of depression through images of repetition. One especially beautiful shot is the closing one in which two pieces of cloth lie tethered, almost trapped, on a barbed wire fence blowing in the wind. The film's beauty lies in its color palette, which leaves out all primary colors. Romanek said in interviews that he borrowed the color palette from the excellent 1968 British film If..., a fitting place to borrow from for this movie.

The acting from all three main actors is very good. The performances probably do not merit any Oscars, but they are still great to watch. Carey Mulligan shines for a second time here, although her performance is probably better in An Education. Andrew Garfield, a fairly new actor, does well as Tommy, playing his character with all the strange mannerisms that he had in the book. Look for Garfield in The Social Network. He definitely will be one to keep an eye on. Keira Knightley also is quite good as the conniving Ruth, although her performance is nowhere near as good as those of Garfield and Mulligan.

The pacing of the movie was its biggest problem. The middle of the movie inches along a bit too slowly, whereas the book moved at a constantly brisk pace. Though the movie should and did spend a little more time on character development, it spent a bit too much time and could have easily lost fifteen minutes. The plot of the book has also been presented out of order, with the major twist revealed a half hour into the film. This will strange for anyone who read the book, for it makes the character development very different.

Never Let Me Go is sad, depressing, and interesting in many ways. Though it is not bound for Oscar gold, it is brilliant in its quietness. It may not be enjoyed by people who have not read Ishiguro's brilliant book, but fans of the book will certainly appreciate Romanek's direction and the performances of Mulligan, Knightley, and Garfield. If any movie could make you sad for hours, it would be this one, so be prepared, and bring some tissues.

As Never Let Me Go shows, coming into a person's life can be even harder than letting go.

The Tempest
(2010)

There's Something About Prospera
The Tempest opens with a shot a sand castle that melts away when water rains down upon it. This shot is probably one of the most interesting ones in the entire film, even if Julie Taymor has so brilliantly made every shot beautiful. It also is a really great shot because it is silent with the exception of the sound of the rain. And that is the major problem with this film. The acting and cinematography are fairly solid, but a good portion of the film is extremely hard to understand due to fast-moving Shakespearian English. Some of the film also ventures into the realm of the bizarre with an odd electric score and overly long special effects sequences. The Tempest is not bad; Julie Taymor could have done better.

The Tempest's somewhat simple, and yet somewhat complicated story follows Prospera (Helen Mirren) and her daughter, Miranda (Felicity Jones). That's right. Taymor changed Prospero's gender for this one. Prospera was banished from Milan, where she was believed to be practicing black magic. Her brother sent her off in a boat with Miranda and she ended up on a deserted island. Prospera plans to bring Miranda back to power in Milan through manipulation and trickery. To begin executing her plan, she summons a storm that brings her brother and the King of Naples to her island. A great supporting cast includes Alan Cumming, Djimon Hounsou, Russell Brand, and Chris Cooper.

It may be impossible for Julie Taymor to compose a beautiful shot. Though I was not a fan of the special effects, everything that was shown was interesting. Stick around for the credits, which are set to shots of books falling through water. This a simple, but specific example of some of Taymor's best work in this film.

The acting is also great in this. Helen Mirren shines as Prospera, a role that could have been made for her 400 years ago by Shakespeare. I have no idea why Taymor decided to change Prospero's gender, but it was all worth it just to see Mirren play her. Djimon Hounsou is also excellent as Caliban, a power-hungry slave that attempts to form a conspiracy to overthrow Prospera. Among one of the biggest surprises is Russell Brand. Brand, who often plays dirty rock stars in movies such as Get Him to the Greek and Forgetting Sarah Marshall, gets (sort of) serious as a drunk who teams up with Caliban.

Unfortunately, the film is rather hard to understand. The sound was horrible, but I am not totally sure that the version I saw was completely finished. Any dialogue in the first five minutes was inaudible because the sound of the waves crashing on the ship was so loud. On top of this, Taymor has written a masterful but difficult script in Shakespearian English. Die- hard Shakespeare fans may be pleased, but most other people will be lost for most of the movie.

Sometimes, directors start making mistakes when they try to get experimental. That is what may have happened with The Tempest. Taymor had so much potential to make a great film, but what came out in the end was a good-looking but tiresome movie. The acting is phenomenal, but the sound is not. The cinematography is great, but the script cannot match it. For Shakespeare fans, The Tempest is a must-see, but for everyone else, it is probably only a rental.

Note: This was seen at the New York Film Festival. The sound may have still been unfinished at this screening.

Let Me In
(2010)

Love at First Bite
Five years ago, nobody would have thought that vampire love may be romantic. Now, it seems as though that is the only way people can picture vampire love. Sookie frequently gets ravaged by Bill on True Blood. Bella is evermore loyal to Edward in Twilight. Along came a spider called Let the Right One In, a charming and disturbing Swedish film that was about adolescence and love infused with a little vampire horror. It was a film that was said to be perfect in many ways. And then it was remade as Let Me In and in a surprising turn of events, it worked very well. Let Me In is almost as good as Let the Right One In. Matt Reeves has masterfully matched the tone and cinematography of the Swedish film and tweaked it a little bit to make it his own. Some of the best performances of the year so far are in this film and Michael Giacchino's score shines in a subtle and beautiful way. The few plot changes are inoffensive and the writing is well done.

Let Me In is not what it seems to be. It is a case of poor advertising in which it so frequently portrays the film as an in-your-face horror movie. Let Me In is actually a rather tender tale of boy meets vampire. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a twelve year-old who is constantly bullied at school. One night, Owen meets a strange, but friendly girl who moves in next door. She is twelve (more or less) and appears perfectly normal. Her name is Abby (Chloe Grace Moretz). One problem: she is a vampire. The film beautifully examines pre-pubescent love. It is only a horror movie sometimes, but most of the time, Let Me In is a drama and romance.

Matt Reeves, who previously directed the cinema verite horror film Cloverfield, slows it down a lot with this film. He has reproduced the tone of the Swedish film quite nicely through color palettes and cinematography. The film is often subtle and solemn, except for in the gory scenes, which nicely contrast with the rest of the film. The score from Michael Giacchino, who has also composed the scores for Lost and Up, matches the tone of the film. At one moment, the score can be sad and sweet, while in the next moment, it can be loud and booming. What is most interesting is the switch between the two moods, which is equally as subtle as some of the action and chemistry that goes on between Abby and Owen.

Reeves has also done a very nice job with the actors involved in this film. Chloe Grace Moretz, who plays her role with equal maturity as she did for Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, is worthy of an Oscar again for playing Abby. She makes the viewer, as well as Owen, feel so emotionally distant simply through facial expressions and simple mannerisms. Kodi Smit-McPhee does a fantastic job as Owen. Never once was there a time when the audience did not feel sorry for his character.

It is very possible that Let Me In is the best remake to date. Nobody would have ever predicted that someone could reproduce Let the Right One In in a way that was original and faithful at the same time. It may not be the horror movie that the studio was advertising, but it certainly is a movie that is worth watching. Matt Reeves, Chloe Grace Moretz, and Kodi Smit-McPhee are names that people should keep an eye on. We'll see a lot more of them in the future. As for Michael Giacchino, he has got some tough competition from Hans Zimmer for the Best Original Score Oscar, but he definitely deserves it.

People may criticize Let Me In for being too much of a direct copy of Let the Right One In, but honestly, a good movie came out of it, so who cares? Besides, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

Piranha 3D
(2010)

Just when you thought it was safe to go into the water...again
In 1978, Joe Dante made Piranha, which is known for being campy fun. Dante went on to make Gremlins, The Howling, and Small Soldiers. In 1981, James Cameron made Piranha Part Two: The Spawning, which is considered by some to be one of the worst movies ever made. Cameron went on to make Avatar and Titanic, the two highest grossing films ever. Now, in 2010, Alexandre Aja made Piranha 3D. What will Aja make in the future? Hopefully, some really good movies because Piranha 3D is the most fun I've had in theaters ever. From bouncing boobs to heads being ripped off, Piranha 3D is simply terrible and at the same time, all too good. This is the kind of movie that is just so bad it is good and there is no other way to say it. The 3D gags are quite fun and there are a few surprising jump scenes along the way.

If the plot of Piranha 3D sounds outrageous, it is because it is far fetched and ridiculous in the best way possible. In a small town centered around the beautiful Lake Victoria, a small earthquake opens up an underwater crevasse. Inside this crevasse are little piranhas. Yes, you read it right. The piranhas are prehistoric and hungry for blood. One problem: it is Spring Break and hundreds of college students are partying in the lake. If you laughed at this description, this movie is probably for you.

The best part of Piranha 3D is anything that is way over the top, which is most of the film. There is a two minute "underwater ballet" sequence in which two beautiful, completely nude women fondle each other in the lake. And we see everything. It is honestly the dumbest scene, but it is purposefully stupid. The last 45 minutes have to be the most gory scenes ever shot on film. Gallons upon gallons of blood are spilled in these scenes. None of the ultraviolent parts will be spoiled, but even though these parts do disgust, they also incite laughter. Many people do not get this and walk out of the theater around half way through, but stick around. You will not regret it.

Piranha 3D also marks the second time that 3D has not been used as another "dimension" since REAL-D technology was invented. Over the course of the brief film, vomit, a hook, an anchor, piranhas, a bitten off penis, and more are thrown at the audience. Yes, that's right, even a bitten off penis. The special effects and 3D are terrible, but in a good way. As weird as that sounds, this movie works for the sole reason that is bad-good, like Grindhouse or Machete, only worse.

Piranha 3D is like a great roller coaster: mostly fun with a few jolts along the way. Full of boobs and blood galore, Piranha 3D creates a lot of laughs as the summer comes to a close. Alexandre Aja done such a horrible/terrific job with this film that I cannot help but think he has got other good tricks that he has yet to show us. Although it was a flop, Piranha 3D may just be the most fun movie this year. At least there is a sequel (supposedly) coming.

The Last Exorcism
(2010)

"Devilishly good?" This one's demonically good.
There have been quite a few "shaky cam" movies (cinema verité as it is known to cinephiles) in the past 15 years. The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity, REC, and Quarantine are all good examples, to name a few. People may be tired of this trend, but I ask everyone to give this style just one more chance with The Last Exorcism. Daniel Stamm's creepy film is by no means great horror (in fact, it is more suspense and mystery than horror), but it does deliver the goods while giving off quite an interesting message about the spooky underbelly of fundamentalist America. The acting and filmmaking are solid for the most part and the story moves along quite nicely, even if it is a bit slow in the beginning. Eli Roth may have slapped his name on this film, but do not be fooled, The Last Exorcism is not a typical horror film.

The Last Exorcism centers around Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), who is constantly doubting his devotion to his faith. Cotton performs exorcism because he is a self-proclaimed "healer" and knows that none of what he does has any truth behind it. When he gets a letter from the Sweetzer family asking him to perform an exorcism, he agrees to perform one for the last time and allows a documentary crew to follow him. This time, the victim is Nell (Ashley Bell), a sweet girl surrounded by a bizarre and disturbed family. Cotton performs the exorcism and finds some surprising results when he finds that her demon may actually exist.

One should be forewarned that the plot of this film is a bit uneven in terms of its pacing and is not exactly horror. The horror elements do not even begin to set in until about halfway through. But when these elements do become apparent, the film does start getting really creepy. While there may not be the expected "jump scenes" (though there are three or four) or lots of gore, The Last Exorcism succeeds in making the viewer scared because it is atmospheric, unlike many current horror movies that want to shove the scares down the viewer's throat. Although most of the story feels recycled with pieces from the stories from other films like Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist, the pieces are put together in a manner that comes off as something new. Many people may not love the ending, but those who understand the movie and its message will appreciate it.

Daniel Stamm comes off as a very smart director. Stamm takes average horror conventions and puts them to work. His use of the "found footage" technique works especially well in this case. The film starts out as a documentary complete with hidden cameras and interviews and then descends into an audience-friendly (or motion sickness inducing, for some) style when his story gets creepier. Stamm has also done an excellent job directing the actors. Fabian and Bell give believable performances in one of the few horror movies where good acting is vital. For a first time filmmaker, Daniel Stamm has definitely pulled off quite a feat by successfully grabbing the audience through his style that evokes suspense, horror, and comedy simultaneously.

The Last Exorcism is certainly not for everyone. It is a movie for people who can comprehend horror movies that are more complicated than the average PG-13 popcorn horror film. The film gets a bit intense as the plot moves along (fair warning: a cat is smashed to death by a camera) and it culminates in an ending that surprisingly passed in this PG-13 flick. Daniel Stamm has done an excellent job with the film's style, the actors give great performances, and the plot is interesting. There is a reason why movies about demonic possession are still being made and that is because it is still an interesting topic. The Last Exorcism puts a new twist on the average possession story. So far, Stamm's Last Exorcism is the only good horror film of 2010.

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