I’ve never suffered from sleep paralysis before, but I find the subject fascinating. When I question friends who’ve suffered from it, they’re quick to change the subject, as the memories of the experiences still affect them. Of course, this just raises my curiosity about the subject. What I find truly interesting is how many people experience the same thing when they go through sleep paralysis: pressure on their chest, inability to move or make any vocal sound (like scream), and the shadow people–dark human-like figures that enter the person’s room.
The premise of Rodney Ascher’s “The Nightmare” is a series of interviews with people who suffer from sleep paralysis. He gets them to describe their experiences and then does reenactments with actors on a set. This put me off initially, because this basically sounds like any cheesy paranormal-themed show where they have interviews with “victims” of haunting and such and then have actors do their best horror impression on a fake-looking set. But the thing about “The Nightmare” is that these reenactments, for the most part, work. Ascher shoots them effectively, like a real horror movie–he builds atmosphere and doesn’t rely too much on jump scares.
The interviews themselves focus solely on the interviewees’ experiences; there’s no delving into the scientific or medical reasons as to why sleep paralysis occurs, nor is there a look into the cultural impact (people accused of being possessed or some other supernatural reason). This is strictly from the point of view of these people who must endure countless sleepless nights lying in terror because they’re simply too afraid to sleep.
The reenactments rely on the interviewees’ description–a narration, essentially–of what happens when they sleep. Asher uses traditional TV-style sets in place of real bedrooms, but the dim lighting masks much of the “fakeness” of the environments. He plays with shadows well, hiding the dark figures lurking in the shadows. Often Ascher uses doorways or windows to frame the shadow people, highlighting them against the darkness, before letting them slip into the room with the victims.
It’s very effective, in small doses.
The illusion begins to fall apart when the camera lingers too long on the shadow people, which allows the audience to see that they really are just people in a black full-bodied leotard. There are a few moments when one of these dark figures creep uncomfortably close to one of the victims, and the camera pushes just too close to their faces. It’s at this moment when you can easily see the stitching and texture of the fabric covering the shadow person’s face. Then is just looks silly–an actor hovering too close to to someone’s face, and the other actor putting on her best “I’m-too-scared-too-look” face.
Then there are instances when the “fakeness” is intentional. There’s one scene that shows one shadow person–actually I should specify that it’s the actor playing the shadow person–move from set to set, changing his costume before entering another room with another one of the victims. There are even shots where the studio lights above the sets are clearly visible. I’m not entirely sure what the purpose of this was, but I have to admit I found them visually interesting, though I’m glad Ascher kept these to a minimum.
“The Nightmare” is interesting in that it straddles that line between genres. It’s most definitely a documentary, but the reenactments are, at times, so effective that any one of those segments could be its own movie. It’s worth a look for horror fans tired of found-footage copycats and C-grade torture porn. Rodney Ascher and cinematographer Bridger Nielson find ways to keep the tension up even during typical floating head interviews, and I’d be interested in seeing them tackle the subject in a more conventionally-structured horror film.
It’s been a week since I saw Mad Max: Fury Road, and I can’t really explain why I’ve sat on this review for so long, other than I just don’t really know what to say about this movie. It’s ridiculous. All sorts of ridiculous. I guess a good way to describe what I really think is to attempt to transcribe what I was thinking when watching one of the many action set pieces.
(The bad guy, Immortan Joe, has just rounded up a war party to go searching for Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa)
Wow, that’s a lot of dudes to go searching for one woman. And they’re all kinda psycho. Woah, is that Tom Hardy strapped to the hood of that dude’s car? That’s crazy.
WTF. There’s this truck full of taiko drummers. Guess they’re getting this little army amped up for battle.
Wait. Is that a wall of speakers in front of those drummers? Is that truck basically made of speakers and amps? That’s nuts.
Hold up. Hold the #$%^ up. Is that a guitar player shredding on his guitar in front of that wall of speakers? Oh wait, no, he’s suspended in front of the wall of speakers. HE’S DANGLING IN FRONT OF A WALL OF SPEAKERS WHILE RIDING ON THIS TRUCK WITH DRUMMERS BANGING AWAY BEHIND HIM. AND HE’S SHREDDING CRAZY GUITAR RIFFS.
Oh, oh, now his guitar spits fire. IT SPITS #$%^-ING FIRE.
Alright, the chase is on. There’s these hedgehog or porcupine-looking cars trying to kill Charlize Theron. Now there’s cars crashing all over the place.
Oh damn, Tom Hardy can’t do a damn thing tied to the hood of that car. And now that car is trying to crash into Charlize Theron. This is nuts. Now they’re throwing explosive spears all over the place.
Now there’s dudes hanging from long-ass sticks trying to get on top of Charlize Theron’s truck. It’s like a damned Cirque du Soleil show up in this ish.
There’s a sandstorm coming. Damn, nature, you scary.
Oh shiznit, they’re actually going to drive into that storm. Oh hell, there’s lightning and tornadoes all over the place.
IS THAT #$%^-ING TORNADO ON FIRE?
How the hell is Tom Hardy still alive?
How is anyone alive?
WHAT AM I WATCHING?!
And I was smiling for the entire movie.
It’s a common trope in zombies movies these days to feature a scene where the hero hesitates before having to kill a loved one who has recently turned into one of the undead. This may only last for a minute or so, but eventually the hero gathers his or her wits, and proceeds to mercifully kill what was once their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend/brother/sister/etc. Now, imagine that one scene as the entire movie. No running from a horde of zombies, no scrambling to find shelter or supplies. Just the inevitable moment where the hero must act on the obvious – or not.
That’s the premise of Maggie, an apocalyptic zombie drama starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin. And it works, mostly. Ahnuld plays against his type for this film, portraying a father dealing with his daughter’s eventual turn into one of the undead. The daughter, played by Abigail Breslin, knows what’s going to happen to her and is trying to live the last few days of her life as normally as possible.
A lot of attention for this film is being focused on The Governator’s low-key performance. Ever since returning to acting, Arnold’s films have mostly been what you’d expect: him spouting one-liners, shooting some guns, and generally causing mayhem. But here, he’s quiet, reserved, and I think only fires a gun once throughout this whole movie. It’s a performance that probably won’t win any awards, but is captivating to watch. Schwarzenegger’s sheer screen presence is enough to draw your eyes to him, regardless of whatever else is going on in the frame.
Abigail Breslin’s performance is also solid. I would expect the character to be heroic in some way – defiantly resisting the urge to turn and eat flesh and doing whatever she can to hold on to her humanity. Hold on she does, but also in a reserved way that plays well with Arnold’s quiet mannerisms. Breslin is still just trying to live her life by hanging out with friends, arguing with her parents. Basically, being a teenager.
What really struck me was how serious the movie took its subject matter. On the surface, it’s a zombie movie, but it could really be described as a close-knit family dealing with one of its members becoming terminally ill. Replace any mentions of a zombie plague with “cancer” or some other terrible real-world illness, and the effect is similar. Regardless of the cause, this movie is about a father watching his daughter slowly die. Now tell me that doesn’t bring a tear to your eye.
Although I could easily recommend this movie to most people, a few things do prevent it from being perfect. The ending is a little unsatisfying, the pacing in the last third feels a little off, and there’s just a bit too much handheld camerawork for my taste (I get it, this is a low-budget indie film. I’m sure you can still afford a tripod, but props to director Henry Hobson and DP Lukas Ettlin for some otherwise beautiful imagery). Still, it’s an interesting movie especially for Ahnuld aficionados like myself. He may not be blasting away terminators or trying to freeze Batman to death, but it’s fun watching Arnold, you know, act in a movie.
I’m an M. Night Shyamalan apologist. I’ll admit it. I love (most of) his movies, and can even find merit in the ones I don’t particularly like. There was a time when I felt that much of the criticism aimed at M. Night Shyamalan was unfounded, coming from people who just “didn’t get him.” But I “got him,” so well, in fact, that I wrote a thesis paper on his films back in college. They had something to do with what his films are really about (The Sixth Sense isn’t actually about ghosts, Signs isn’t actually about aliens, etc.). But now, I’m have a much harder time defending his movies, even to myself, probably because the spark he had in the late 90’s/early 00’s is gone. Now I’m looking at movies that he’s directed where Shyamalan seems like he’s just phoning it in, and it’s a shame.
Looking back at his first commercial hit, The Sixth Sense, it’s easy to see why he was Hollywood’s “Golden Boy” for a moment. Newsweek even called him “the next Spielberg.” In The Sixth Sense all the way up to The Village, Shyamalan had displayed masterful control over his films; the writing, acting, mise en scene, and music were all in near-perfect sync. Look at the cinematography of Unbreakable — it’s gorgeous. The colors are a muted blue hue for much of the film which mimics the malaise felt by the characters. Then there’s a change, when Bruce Willis begins making use of his newly-discovered powers, which is accented by the subtle injection of color in some of the scenes, almost as if the characters’ new-found life is breathing life into the film itself. And the camerawork is something I look at for reference every now and then. Unbreakable‘s camera is wandering, with lots of handheld and crane shots, but it matches up perfectly with the dialogue. From a visual standpoint, it may be Shyamalan’s most ambitious film.
Fast forward to The Happening. As much as I enjoy M. Night Shyamalan’s films, this is one I can’t defend. It’s a misfire in all aspects: it’s miscast and though the music and cinematography harken back to his early work, with such an incredibly weak script, it all falls apart. I feel like this was a turning point for Shyamalan; what was working for him five movies ago is now working against him, and it’s probably why he’s moved into “director-for-hire” mode, directing big-budget features like The Last Airbender and After Earth.
In these effects-heavy movies, Shyamalan displays almost none of the inventiveness he did in his earlier, more supernatural films. While I’m not saying he needs to go back and do only movies about ghosts and aliens and creatures living in the woods, I feel like he’s lost his creative spark. A few years ago, he produced Devil, a low-budget supernatural thriller about people stuck in an elevator and one of them happens to be the Devil himself. It was a decent movie that suffered from predictability (and to be honest, some boredom as well). But, as part of Shyamalan’s “The Night Chronicles” brand of films, it felt like something more akin to what he was good at: telling stories of the fantastic, but rooted in reality.
In his recent After Earth, M. Night Shyamalan is working off a story by Will Smith and a screenplay co-written by Shyamalan and Gary Whitta (The Book of Eli). While it is certainly a fantastical tale (a coming of age story set on Earth a thousand years into the future), there wasn’t much that was relatable about it. Jaden Smith’s story arc about a boy who must face his fears and survive on his own is lost amid the special effects (some of which looked terrible by today’s standards) and his own shortcomings as an actor. Visually, the movie is fairly straightforward, with none of the auteur-like camerawork I expect from Shyamalan. For a $130-million-dollar movie, it looked kind of cheap. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think After Earth is terrible like The Happening, in fact I think children would enjoy the movie, especially young boys looking for adventure. I just don’t think it’s as good as it could have been considering the talent involved.
Maybe he’s going through what Tim Burton is going through: relying to much on large budgets to make up for a weak script and laziness with the cinematography. Give him a budget that forces him to be creative with what he has. Perhaps he should stick with building up his “The Night Chronicles” brand while producing and nurturing up-and-coming directorial talent. Regardless of what you may think of his films, he’s worked in the film industry for some time now, and I’m sure he’s got a treasure trove of knowledge he could impart on a newer generation who’s used to working on small budgets with limited equipment.
Hopefully, some time spent producing and writing films (but away from the director’s chair) will be enough to recharge his creative batteries. A lot of people have commented on how his ego was considerably inflated after his early success, and hopefully scathing reviews and a disappointing box office gross will be enough to reign him in.
There came a moment last night at Steff’s Sports Bar in San Francisco when former 1UP/MyCheats/GameSpy guru Mike Nelson put his drink down and said to me, “I was walking here and looking at all these people passing by, and I was thinking, ‘They don’t even know. People got laid off today and it was an end of an era. And they don’t even know.'”
I still don’t consider myself part of the “videogame industry,” but for a brief moment of my life, I worked in it. I lived and breathed it. And while I was in this bubble, I had kind of lost sight of what it is I was doing, what we all were doing. I was writing strategy guides and making silly videos for a website about videogames. Seriously, who the hell cares about that stuff? Apparently, a lot of people do.
When the news broke yesterday about the closing of 1UP, UGO, and GameSpy and the laying off of staff from those sites and their parent site, IGN, my Twitter feed was immediately flooded with tweets featuring the #1upMemories hashtag. At first it was from people I knew – old co-workers, friends I met while working there, etc. Then it came from random people I didn’t know – the “community.” And it was an amazing thing to behold.
I was waiting at the bar counter for some fruity coconut drink I ordered for Matt Leone (whose features can be read at Polygon) and I kept thinking about how 1UP meant a lot to a lot of people, and their outpouring of support over the past day was really touching. I haven’t worked at 1UP for more than a year, but at that moment I never felt closer to the 1UP community. Later in the evening, when more 1UP alumni and friends showed up to the bar, Mike’s words came back to me. It was an end of an era.
It really was. A lot of things in videogame media that we take for granted, like podcasting, really got its start at 1UP. Name any gaming podcast and I could tell you that it wouldn’t exist without 1UP Yours and EGM Live and Retronauts, and many more paving the way. And who could forget The 1UP Show? Groundbreaking, to say the least. And don’t get me started on this whole notion of “journalistic integrity.” The 1UP Network and its sister magazines was one of the few places that had that. Not that there aren’t sites now that won’t stick up for old-fashioned journalism ethics, but there aren’t that many in this age of ad sales and influential marketing teams.
This gathering at Steff’s wasn’t my first with the 1UP crew, and it probably won’t be the last, but it definitely felt like it. There was something in the air last night that signalled the finality of it all. I’ll admit I was getting a little misty-eyed. When 1UP and Gamepro alum Justin Haywald walked into the bar, late as usual, to the cheers and applause of many, everything suddenly felt very warm. We were all gathered near the counter (and taking up way too much space for this establishment), and I stood on a chair and tried to take a picture of everyone.
I realized that this wasn’t even close to everyone. But all the people at the bar – at that moment – carried with them the same memories as those that couldn’t make it out last night. They shared the same ups and downs, victories and defeats. These people had seen it all. System launches, studio closures, game announcements. E3’s, GDC’s, PAX’s, TGS’s, Gamescom’s. Lay offs, mergers, and site closures. To the world at large, none of this matters. But to a community of enthusiasts and players both pro and casual, those things mean everything. And 1UP was there for all of it over the past ten years. These people, just a sampling of a lucky few, had been through it. Most people don’t care, but many do.
“…it was an end of an era. And they don’t even know.”
There was plenty of reminiscing done last night. Countless exclamations of “remember whens,” usually followed by some embarrassing story. Jose Otero, who started as an intern the same time I started on the cheats section, pointed out the door of the bar to a building across the street. It was one of the old 1UP offices. We were there for only a few months before moving into IGN’s building. “A lot of memories in there for such a short amount of time,” he said. I nodded in reply.
I finally got that group picture. Again, it wasn’t everyone. Jeremy Parish, who is the last editor-in-chief of the site, was on a plane coming from Sony’s PS4 event in New York. Dan Hsu, former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor-in-chief, had gone off to create his own respectable gaming website years ago. Tina Palacios moved to Los Angeles. Alice Liang took a job a whole continent and ocean away in England. Garnett Lee went to GameFly. Jane Pinckard, who helped craft the memorable 1UP Show theme song, now works at a university. The 1UP Show creators set up their own production company, Area 5 Media, a few years ago. Former CGW/GFW editor-in-chief Jeff Green, who made an appearance at the bar earlier in the evening, had moved to game development.
Many, many more 1UP staffers of old had gone off to do other things, some in the games industry, some in entirely different fields. But the people in these snapshots were still connected to them through 1UP. Former 1UP video guy Richard Li once said over Twitter that he was “…deeply touched by the bonds established during our short time at 1UP, a period of unbridled creativity and kick ass friendships.” People came and went, but 1UP was the constant variable. The site was what connected us to each other even if we had never met in person, and is what connects us to our wonderful community of readers, listeners, and viewers.
On the train ride home with Mike Nelson, he said to me, “It’ll probably hit me in like a month. 1UP’s gone. Okay, maybe a week. It’ll be real in a week.”
I’m mixed on my feelings for The Secret World of Arrietty. Studio Ghibli’s latest effort to come to America is, on a technical level, fantastic. The artwork, sound design, and music are all great. But when it comes to the story, it falls flat. The American voice acting is droll, there’s no real ‘threat’ to the characters, and it commits an egregious sin at the end of the movie: the filmmakers literally tell you exactly what lesson you should have learned via voice over.
Based on the children’s book The Borrowers, Arrietty is about a family of Borrowers, tiny people who live out of sight and “borrow” (steal) things they need from regular humans, but only things that us normal-sized folk won’t miss. The world from the point of view of Arrietty is actually quite fascinating. Everything is new and wondrous to her, though from our perspective everything just appears larger. During her first “borrowing,” she venture forth from her family’s home with her father, Pod. While attempting to take a cube of sugar, she is discovered by the sickly boy, Shawn, living in the home.
This creates all sorts of problems for the tiny Borrowers. Their rule, whenever they’re discovered by humans, is to move since a human’s curiosity will eventually disrupt the Borrowers’ way of life. Arrietty befriends Shawn and must enlist his aid when her mother goes missing. Unfortunately none of these problems were ones I cared about. I felt that the dangers of the world they lived in were enough to keep me worried for the little heroine. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi, in his directing debut, does a great job of establishing the world, but once it’s time to amp up the stakes, the movie just doesn’t deliver.
As with most animated films, especially ones dubbed in English from their original language, the voice acting could make or break an audience’s enjoyment of the movie. I was particularly disappointed in this aspect of Arrietty. While the voice of Arrietty herself was fine (Bridgit Mendler in the American version, though I would’ve loved to hear the U.K. audio track with Saoirse Ronan), everyone else just seemed drab and dull. Shawn, voiced by David Henrie (the “Son” in the TV series How I Met Your Mother), sounded lifeless and Will Arnett, who voices Pod, is surprisingly boring. I assume Pod is supposed to be the stern father who tries his best to be the protector and provider of his family, but here he sounds bored with it all. And Carol Burnett, the legendary comedienne, sounds like she’s trying too hard to be the cooky old housekeeper. It all just sounds. . . off.
The slow pace of the film may also put off younger viewers. Children old enough to read the book itself may have the patience to sit through this, however. But at that point, maybe they should just stick to reading the book. The Secret World of Arrietty is a gorgeous movie, and the sound design may make this a disc to own on Blu-ray if you want to show off your home theatre. If you’re looking for something on the level of Spirited Away or most of Pixar’s films, you may be let down.
And another thing – it sounded, to me, like they couldn’t decide on how to pronounce ‘Arrietty.’ At times it was pronounced in a very American style, with an emphasis on the first syllable. Then all of a sudden, it would sound very Italian, with emphasis on the third syllable – Arrietty. It’s not that big of a deal, but it did bug me.
A lot is riding on the success of Red Tails. Most obvious is how this will be used as a measuring stick to gauge future box office performance of other action-adventure films with a predominantly minority cast. Sure, there have been plenty of big-budget films with a black or Asian or Hispanic (or whatever) actor in the lead role, but aside from the Tyler Perry-produced movies, there haven’t been many with an entire main cast that’s non-white. And if Hollywood wants to shake off its supposed “white-washing” of the cinemas, Red Tails needs to succeed.
And in a lot of ways it doesn’t.
The best way I could think of to describe this movie is to compare it to the aforementioned Glory. That film, made in the late 1980s, tells the story of the 54th Massachusetts Colored Infantry, an all-volunteer and all-black (except for the commissioned officers) infantry regiment that fought for the Union in the American Civil War. It’s a well-made and at times moving film about people fighting for a government that is willing to suppress them.
Now, take the same premise (an all-black fighting unit going to war for the United States at a time of segregation), and move it up to World War II. Still with me? OK, now strip everything away that was great about Glory and you have Red Tails. Here’s a run-down of all the times I rolled my eyes in Red Tails:
- The bad guys are stereotypically bad – If there was an actual ‘villain’ in Red Tails, it’s this hotshot German pilot whom our heroes dub “Prettyboy.” He sneers, looks down his nose at the “African pilots” (as he calls them) and of course, has a scar. All that was missing was a Snidely Whiplash moustache and it would’ve been the ultimate WWII bad guy stereotype.
- The pilots are stereotypes – No, not in the racist way. Many of the main characters follow typical soldier-in-a-war-movie plot lines. There’s the guy that drinks too much, there’s the new kid eager to fight, there’s the one that falls in love, there’s the wise-cracking one, there’s the stern commanding officer with a heart of gold, there’s the tough-talking executive officer who has to put up with all the pilots’ BS, etc. etc. etc. I understand that the screenwriters and filmmakers wanted to have some depth with these characters, but COME ONE. They fall into the most obvious war film stereotypes. In fact, you could probably guess correctly as to which one of them is going to die right after their introductions.
- The rousing speeches are given at the stereotypically right times – There were two moments that stand out in the picture when a character is delivering a speech that was written to stir up the audience and make them stand up and cheer for the good guys. The first is when the Red Tails’ CO, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard), is giving a report to his superiors in Washington. He tells them that they need combat assignments and that they “won’t go away” like his superiors thought they would (part of the speech is in the trailer). He gets through to them and is given what he asked for: combat missions. The second was right before the last mission of the movie, when the squadron is assigned to protect bombers flying over Berlin. I’ve nothing against rousing speeches, but their timing and delivery in the movie are more important than what’s being said. Both times in Red Tails it fell flat. In the first instance it happened too soon. The picture was barely getting started and Howard’s delivering a line that sounded like Oscar bait. The second time it fell flat because of the music. Yes, the music. Simply put, the score for this movie isn’t very good and didn’t serve to either highlight the air combat or the rousing speeches.
I understand the filmmakers were trying to add some depth to this war film, but if the filmmakers wanted depth, they should’ve looked toward, again, Glory. Example: in Glory, the character of Tripp (Denzel Washington) is the young ‘angry black man’ of the group. He probably joined up because there was literally nothing else left for him and the opportunity to kill would give him a way to vent his rage at the white man. He could’ve been a stereotype, someone to contrast with Morgan Freeman’s character, Rawlins, who is older, wiser, and understands how the world really works. But there’s one scene in Glory that erases any first impressions you may have had about Tripp, and it’s the flogging scene.
As anyone who’s studied American history can tell you, slaves in the U.S. were not treated kindly. But this is a film, and we need to see and not assume what had happened to some of these people. When Tripp is about to be flogged for going AWOL one night (to look for proper shoes), he has his shirt ripped off in front of his peers. And then we see it. The dozens of scars that criss-cross his back, evidence of the harsh life he left behind. He’s been flogged, no whipped before, but as a slave. Now he’s going to be whipped by his superior officers in an army that is supposedly fighting for his freedom. So what’s Tripp going to do? Take it like a man because that’s what he is. A man. Not an ex-slave. Not a black soldier in a white man’s army. A man. He never “broke” when being whipped by his white slave owners, and he’s determined not to break this time.
But is there a comparable scene in Red Tails? Nope. Probably the closest thing would be when the Red Tails’ CO, Col. Bullard (Terrence Howard) delivers a report to his Washington superiors about his squadron’s recent victories. He uses the moment to “stick it to the man” when talking to the overtly racist white officer who didn’t think the Tuskegee program had any chance in Hell of succeeding.It’s not a horribly bad movie (I’ve seen worse), but it suffers from so many war cliches that the only way I could recommend someone to spend money and see it in the theatre is to bring up the fact that big-budget movies representing minorities don’t get made often, and they should.
Essentially, I’d have to play the race card.
Don’t get me wrong – I didn’t dislike the movie. The air combat is exciting to watch and the special effects are what you’d expect from a George Lucas-produced movie (really really good). In fact, I’d say I had a reasonably good time watching it, but it was only after I realized this is no Glory. It also helped that the audience I saw it with laughed and cheered at all the right times, which reminded me that there are some people who are willing to buy in to war cliches. Still, sub-par acting, a messy script (there’s a whole subplot about a captured pilot that could’ve worked much better either as its own movie or left out entirely), and a questionable score just drag this movie down from what it should’ve been.
If you really want to watch something about the 332nd Fighter Group, watch the HBO-produced The Tuskegee Airmen or the decent History Channel-produced documentary narrated by Cuba Gooding, Jr.
And just to be fair, Edward Zwick, the director of Glory, isn’t a perfect filmmaker, either. He fell into similar war stereotypes with The Last Samurai and Defiance. And another note, there’s a review I read somewhere online that said this movie felt like an old serial from the 40s. It kinda does, and maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to turn the story of the Tuskegee Airmen into a mini-series…