I will not have time to write any reviews this semester until my thesis is finished. I'm writing mine on the impact the Internet is having on film criticism.
Anyways, here's a brief rundown of some of the films I've seen so far, in no particular order:
(Note: It may seem like I'm throwing high ratings around, but the truth is a little more unfortunate. I don't have enough money to see every movie I want to, so I've become a little more selective about what I'm willing to pay full price for. You understand.)

The Wolfman: Long, boring, over the top, and almost entirely faithful to the source material. I caught it at a midnight showing for a dollar and didn't regret it. Avoid paying full price.
1.5 stars

The Box: Looks and feels like a classic episode of The Twilight Zone. Appropriate, considering it was based on a short story (by the great Richard Matheson) that was made into one of the best episodes of the series' first season. To this day, I can't stop thinking about the implications of the film's final minutes. One of the most thought-provoking new films I've seen in a long time.
4 stars

Up in the Air: George Clooney does it again. This movie is funny, sad, and almost painfully timely. Bonus points for not pulling any punches towards its satisfying ending. Worthy of all its Oscar nominations.
4 stars

The Road: I loved the book (by No Country for Old Men's Cormac McCarthy), and the prospect of a motion-picture adaptation made me nervous. I was even less excited after seeing some promotional material that seemed to depict vast departures from the source material. I'm happy to report those concerns were unnecessary. This movie is more faithful to the book that I ever imagined it would be. Kudos to director John Hillcoat and screenwriter Joe Penhall for not trying to make this story more like other contemporary films. Bleak, haunting, beautifully shot, and brilliantly acted, some viewers may ultimately find the movie repetitive, depressing, and pointless.
3.5 stars


Keep Away From These Wild Things

Where the Wild Things Are is a film about a lonely boy named Max (Max Records) and his imaginary adventure. When his sister’s teenage friends get a little too rough during a snowball fight one day, he throws a tantrum in her bedroom. His lively imagination and short temper get him into trouble later, when, wearing a wolf costume, he embarrasses his mother in front of her boyfriend. She yells at him, saying he is out of control, and he runs away.

Alone in the night, Max gets into a small sailboat in a pond near his house and sails away. After seemingly crossing a vast ocean, he arrives at an island populated by seven large, hairy, disheartened creatures. When they threaten to eat him, Max convinces them that he is a great king from a distant land with the ability to bring happiness to the wild clan. They make him their leader, and what follows is a tale of childhood frustration, friendship, and family.

Adapted from Maurice Sendak’s 1963 children’s book of the same name, Where the Wild Things Are is one of the most stylish films of the year. Part-time music video director Spike Jonze (Adaptation) obviously had a clear vision for this movie, and his creativity oozes out of every frame. The film’s bleak color scheme and bare scenery lend it a more depressing tone than might be expected of a movie based on a children’s book, but it never seems inappropriately so. Its handheld camera style makes you feel like you’re watching with the eyes of another child or monster, tottering around with the characters on screen.

The visual techniques wouldn’t be quite as effective, however, without the mesmerizing soundtrack by Jonze’s former girlfriend and Yeah Yeah Yeah’s lead singer, Karen O. With her backing band, The Kids, Karen O has crafted a group of songs that, as a whole, perfectly express the anger, fear, sadness, and joy that Max feels throughout the film. Since the music is sprinkled so sparsely throughout the movie, each song is quite striking the second it starts. They’re all so memorable in part because they’re all so noticeable.

Considering more than half the film’s characters are giant, hairy monsters, it’s a good thing its computer effects aren’t nearly as conspicuous as its soundtrack. The creatures, designed by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and approved by Sendak, come alive on screen in every way. Their huge, computer-generated faces are every bit as emotive as those of their human costars. From their feathers and fur ruffling in the wind to their beleaguered panting after a wild rumpus, the monsters all look and feel as gritty and natural as the dirt clods they throw at each other’s heads.

But despite its impressive technical achievements, Where the Wild Things Are’s story is severely lacking. It doesn’t help that the characters, all of whom speak and act like the little boy imagining them, take painfully long to express themselves to one another. As a result, their laboring dialogue only serves to irritate the audience and stall the plot.

Of course, it wouldn’t be necessary to stall the plot if there were any sort of plot to begin with. Being based on a 10-sentence children’s book, however, leaves the film’s 101 minutes boring and hollow. It seems Jonze uses setting changes in place of story progress, because the same things happen over and over, only in different places. First they fight, play, and whine in the forest at night. Then they play, fight, and whine in the sand during the day. The scenery may be consistently breathtaking, but it leaves the plot feeling noticeably cut and paste.

All the more frustrating is that, in the few rare instances in which the story approaches any semblance of development, it is quickly and mercilessly cut off by a character’s temper tantrum or hurt feelings. Fifteen minutes later, Max has everyone settled down enough for another unfortunately timed outburst. This happens time and time again without fail whenever anything substantial is about to occur. It’s far too plodding for a story in which nothing gets done and no one learns anything.

The Verdict: Where the Wild Things Are is a difficult film to judge. Its spectacular creature effects, stunning scenery, and organic camera work make it one of the most unique visual experiences of 2009. Throw in a tailor made film soundtrack that’s actually worth buying –a rarity these days- and you’d think it would all add up to one of the year’s best pictures.

Unfortunately, all these factors are let down by annoying characters in a slow story that refuses to pay off in the end. Some will argue that the film was purposefully made that way to appeal to children, but that’s too easy an excuse. Young kids may like looking at the pictures, and they may understand the characters’ words, but they certainly won’t read any further into it than that. Where the Wild Things Are may succeed in using childish language and actions to convey the complex emotional struggles of a stubborn little boy, but it loses the audience in the process. The final result is a movie that’s too complicated for children and too boring for adults.

2 stars (out of 4)


The Fourth Kind is Second Rate Sci-Fi

The Fourth Kind features Milla Jovovich (The Fifth Element) as Dr. Abigal Tyler, a psychologist who moves to the secluded town of Nome, Alaska to take up her murdered husband’s study on the natives’ sleeping habits. Many of the townspeople report an owl keeping them awake by staring into their bedroom windows late at night. When Dr. Tyler begins hypnotizing victims to get a better idea of what’s really keeping the citizens of Nome awake, her husband’s study takes a terrifying turn into the realm of science fiction.

Cut with “real” footage of the Nome study, The Fourth Kind is presented in a rather unique documentary style. The film as a whole is presented like a super high-budget episode of Unsolved Mysteries, with “real” footage and audio of the events at Nome interspersed with scenes of actors and actresses reenacting a dramatic narrative. With an introduction by actress Milla Jovovich and centered around a filmed interview between director Olatunde Osunsanmi and the “real” Abigail Tyler, the movie goes out of its way to bring that based-on-a-true-story feeling home.

While it seemed cheesy at first, I was surprised to find this format both effective and engaging. Whereas films with a strict actual footage approach, like the recent Paranormal Activity, can be either bought into or not; The Fourth Kind’s admitted mix of fact and fiction leaves the viewer more room to doubt. Since the director admits up front that the majority of the film is acted fiction, the file footage is automatically set apart as fact. Whether or not anything like these events ever happened in Nome (hint: they didn’t), it sure seems like they could have.

But these “real” excerpts contribute more than just an air of believability. Osunsanmi’s (and editor Paul Covington’s) masterful use of split screen during key scenes keeps the viewer’s eyes darting around the screen, cranking up the audience tension in some already suspenseful situations. The audio and video excerpts, as well, provide some of the film’s legitimately chilling moments. One audio clip, in particular, gave me some pretty serious goosebumps.

It’s a surprise, then, that despite having a format encouraging believability, The Fourth Kind’s most notable flaw is its lack of realism. By the film’s halfway point, some legitimately freaky stuff has gone down, and characters start to fill stereotype roles (the expert, the skeptic, etc.) rather than react like real humans. It’s frustrating when characters hold back important, potentially life-saving information, seemingly just so the director can squeeze a few more drops of drama out of the story.

The Verdict: If you’re a fan of cheesy, In Search Of…-style science fiction, you’ll love The Fourth Kind. Its unique take on the recent documentary fiction trend is, in a lot of ways, the most believable of them all. It’s unfortunate, then, that its characters are the least realistic. Their horrible choices, plus some less than stellar dialogue, will be sure to drive some viewers away.

Still, if the subject matter piques your interest, The Fourth Kind is one of the better recent films in the genre. If you’re unsure, you can’t go wrong with a rental in a few months.

2.0 stars (out of 4)


Paranormal Activity

Paranormal Activity is about Katie and Micah, a young, well-off couple who are haunted by a supernatural being in their San Diego home. Since it has followed Katie her entire life, she just wants to leave it alone. Micah, however, brings a camera into their bedroom to document the haunting.

Any more plot detail would spoil the movie (there are more than enough spoilers in the trailer), so I’ll say only that things get worse for Katie and Micah before they get better. Luckily, the camera is there to capture it all, and it’s from the camera’s point of view (think The Blair Witch Project) that their story is told.

Paranormal Activity benefits from its stripped-down approach in more ways than just marketing. Though some of character development scenes between Katie and Micah are repetitive and long, the scenes where Micah leaves the camera running on a tripod in the bedroom while they sleep are worth the wait.

When that clock at the bottom of the screen stops, everyone in the theater knows something creepy is about to happen. Your eyes dart from the dark hallway to the shadowy staircase, looking for any sign of the haunting. These moments of carefully crafted tension will have you holding your breath on the edge of your seat every time.

The Verdict:
Yes, Katie and Micah are kind of annoying. It quickly gets old watching them bicker about the same things over and over again. Without the minimal character and plot development in the boring daytime scenes, though, we wouldn’t have the bedroom scenes; and boy are they ever worth it. No, this movie isn’t nearly as terrifying as some would claim, but during those few moments when the lighting and tone are absolutely horror-perfect, it’s easy to see why Paranormal Activity is the defining film of this Halloween season.

2.5 stars (out of 4)


Not Inventive Enough

The Invention of Lying takes place in a world where everyone tells the whole truth all of the time. Ricky Gervais (of the U.K.’s The Office) stars as Mark Bellison, an unsuccessful writer who is frequently called varying combinations of “fat” and “loser”. After a failed date with the beautiful Anna McDoogles (Jennifer Garner) knocks his self-esteem down a peg, Mark is fired from his job and $500 short on rent.

Mark, ready to take what little money he has and give up his apartment, arrives at the bank only to find that the computer systems are down. When the bank teller asks him how much money is in his account, the spark of ingenuity leads him to request more than he actually has. The teller, never having encountered a lie, gives him the full amount. Just like that, Mark invents lying, and he soon learns he can get anything he wants with even the most unbelievable fib.

The Invention of Lying is a perfect example what good casting can do for a movie. Not only does it have the unstoppably hilarious Ricky Gervais in both its starring role and behind the director’s chair (along with Matthew Robinson), the film also features Jonah Hill, Louis C.K., Rob Lowe, Jeffrey Tambor, and Tina Fey as a smorgasbord of brutally honest supporting characters.

Filling the romantic comedy with actual comedians rather than the usual Hollywood hunks and starlets proves to be The Invention of Lying’s biggest asset. Gervais and crew unflinchingly deliver on the laughs. Mark’s interactions with his friends, neighbors, and coworkers couldn’t get any funnier without losing the family-friendly PG-13 rating.

But while the comedic elements of The Invention of Lying go off without a hitch, the romantic subplot is less than memorable. We’ve already seen chubby everymen trick beautiful women into falling for them in countless romcoms this year alone, so why pay for it again? The movie is more than funny enough to stand on its own as a comedy, but falls flat by dragging an unconvincing romantic subplot along.

The predictable romance is made all the more frustrating by an entirely unnecessary third-reel development that serves only to muddle the film’s floundering finale. Wrapping up one storyline by starting a new one is never a good idea after more than an hour and a half, especially in a comedy. You’ll be ready to go home long before the movie’s 99 minutes are up.

The Verdict:
The Invention of Lying has a three-part story when only two parts are needed. It’s disappointing to enjoy a movie so much at first, only to find yourself checking your watch through the last 20 minutes. This film could definitely have benefited from some liberal editing. The beginning may be a blast, but the film’s last reel is a sappy drag, so unless you’re a Ricky Gervais superfan or a hopeless romantic looking to lure your significant other to the theater, you may want to save your money.

1.5 stars (out of 4)


Zombies Ate My Review

Get ready, everybody, because it’s finally here. The Big One. The Zombie Apocalypse. Most of Earth’s human population is either dead or infected with a horrible disease that makes them fast, ferocious, and hungry for flesh. Those still alive think they’re alone. The only thing left to do is survive.

Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg, fresh from Adventureland, playing pretty much the same character), a college student from Texas, has come up with a list of rules to make surviving just a little bit safer. On his way to Ohio to see if his parents are alright, he runs into Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), whose knack for zombie killing is surpassed only by his love of Twinkies. When they meet two girls, Wichita (Superbad’s Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Little Miss Sunshine’s Abigail Breslin), they find out a California amusement park may be the last zombie-free place on the planet. Can they trust each other enough to get there alive together?

Such is the basic premise of Zombieland, the latest film to cash in on the immense popularity of zombie fiction. These aren’t your average, mindlessly shuffling undead masses, though. Zombieland’s epidemic is the result of a disease, and the infected become tirelessly energetic (living) zombies filled with cannibalistic rage.

This sets the stage for some of funniest and most entertaining zombie kills to hit screens since 2004’s Shaun of the Dead. Shotguns, baseball bats, grand pianos, and more are used, often to hilarious effect, to take out the ravenous trash. Woody Harrelson’s Tallahassee, sure to be a horror fan-favorite for years to come, is especially notable for his twisted, zombie killing ingenuity.

The zombie killing hijinks get so crazy that if it weren’t for Ruben Fleischer’s skillful use of slow motion and computer generated special effects, Zombieland might be little more than absolutely ridiculous. Fleischer masterfully uses these effects to accentuate every cracked zombie skull and bloody shotgun blast, though, and it looks and sounds as good as a zombie can. From the gorgeous opening credits sequence to the very last zombie splat, this movie will impress your eyeballs.

Zombieland gets by on more than just pretty blood and breaking glass, though. The film’s small cast brings its characters to life and brings likability to the table in a genre that desperately needs relatable characters to work. Emma Stone and Jesse Eisenberg nail the post-apocalyptic chemistry between their two characters; and although I would have liked to see Eisenberg in a departure from his usual character type, I have to admit he plays the scrawny, sarcastic kid well.

And Woody Harrelson doesn’t miss a beat as Tallahasse, Zombieland's lovable Zed-ender. It’s impossible to miss how much fun Harrelson, who personally arranged his character’s wardrobe, has in this role as he spits out one-liners and takes time to “enjoy the little things,” smirking the whole time. Surprisingly, there’s more heart behind the Twinkie-obsessed zombie stomper than all the other characters combined. Just look out for his banjo.

Unfortunately, a few loose strings keep Zombieland from reaching its full potential. At the beginning of the film, we are given a set of characters with different goals and different ideas about survival. Without spoiling anything, I can say that a number of these goals are either forgotten or ignored by the time it’s all over. This won’t keep you from enjoying the movie at all, but it may leave a bad taste in your mouth after it’s done. Still, Zombieland is one film that seems perfect for repeat viewings, and in a world where PG-13 popcorn flicks spawn week after week, that makes it a valuable rarity.

The Verdict: There are no two ways about it. This movie is an absolute blast. From comedy and cursing to horror and gore, Zombieland has everything you could love about R rated movies. Zombies have rarely been this funny. See it twice, then start saving for the DVD.

3.5 stars (out of 4)


Not Worth Rushing

These days, few months seem to pass without the release of a new remake of a cheesy, decades-old horror movie. Now, just in time for rush week, we have Sorority Row. This remake of the 1983 slasher movie, The House on Sorority Row, was obviously tailor made for a college crowd, but is it worth the price of even a student discount ticket?

Sorority Row tells the story of six Theta Pi sisters who, despite the wishes of their house mother (Star Wars’ Carrie Fisher), throw fantastically wild parties filled with sex, drugs, and alcohol. When the girls catch a cheating boyfriend, they decide to pull a ‘Serious and Permanent Psychological Damage’-level prank to get him back. To everyone but the audience’s surprise, their little joke takes a mortal wrong turn right around the time the creepy music kicks in.

Eight months later, during a graduation party, the creepy music comes back and the remaining sisters start dropping dead. With so many lives on the line and a twist around each corner, everyone quickly becomes suspect.

The only proof of innocence Sorority Row offers any of its characters is a bloody and violent death at the hands of its hooded killer, and that is by far its strongest point. Some seriously satisfying slasher film deaths are offered here for fans of the genre. I won’t dish on any of them here- there aren’t enough of them in the movie to lose even one to a spoiler- but I’m sure horror fans can imagine a number of things a tire iron with knives on it can do to a sorority girl.

The problem, however, is that director Stewart Hendler seems to think the only way an audience can enjoy a good horror movie kill is if it already hates the doomed characters. This fills Sorority Row with some of the least sympathetic characters in recent history to bloody the silver screen. Ellie (Rumer Willis), the only sister who doesn’t spend more than 80% of her screen time arguing or acting catty (with a capital B), spends 98% of her time screaming. What is once genuinely alarming becomes something of a joke before annoying everyone in the theater, and that’s just in the first half hour.

On top of being annoying and unlikeable, the Theta Pi sisters seem to exclusively make bad decisions. It’s as if they all got together on the morning of the big party and decided to see what it would be like to act like horror movie victims for a day or two. You go from excitedly yelling, “Don’t go in there!” to resentfully grumbling, “She’s going to go in there” long before the film’s 101 minutes are up, and that’s why Sorority Row loses its charter.

The Verdict: Even with its cringe-inducing college kid kills, Sorority Row can’t save itself from horror remake mediocrity. Sure, the blood flows almost as freely as the alcohol at Theta Pi’s graduation party, but all the fun of a good slasher is lost when the audience spends the whole movie thinking about how dumb its characters are. Were a few of the sisters as likeable as Fisher’s crotchety Mrs. Crenshaw, this movie might have stood out. As it stands, Sorority Row will wash out faster than the chalk the Greeks covered campus with this week.

1 star (out of 4) Skip it.