Monday, October 26, 2009

Top Ten Horror Movies of the Decade

According to my spiffy Hotel For Dogs calendar, this year is almost over. Now it would be the professional thing to wait the final months until unveiling this list, but I say nay! October is the time for horror so I apologize if the scariest movie comes out in these remaining weeks, but here are my Top Ten Horror Films of the Decade

#10 – Caché

This is more of an unconventional choice and that’s why I decided to place it so low. It’s not really a horror film, but it’s an unsettling movie with a few powerful scares. Georges is a talk show host who keeps receiving videotapes on his doorstep. The tapes show surveillance of him and his family. The director, Michael Haneke, is not interested in giving you a lot of answers, but he does keep you on edge for the duration of the film.

#9 – Saw

Remember when there was only one? Saw broken into the horror scene and shook it up. Now a couple torture-porn movies come out a year, but Saw was unique. Yes, the themes in the movie are rather stupid and the acting is all over the place (Not in the good directions), but this is still a fun, gruesome ride. Also Michael Emerson is in it so you know it’s worth the #9 spot on that alone.

#8 – The Ring

Once again, just ignore the sequel. Saw started the torture-porn movement and The Ring gave us a million Japanese remakes. So why in the world would I be rewarding these? Despite all the havoc they inadvertently gave to the multiplex, the initial entries were still great. Naomi Watts and Gore Verbinski bring a lot of credibility to what could have been just another horror movie. The conclusion to the madness isn’t very satisfying, but we’re still left with a large handful of really creepy images and a very cheap way to prank your friends. “Seven days.”

#7 – Signs

Yes! I like Signs! A lot! I’m not sure when the backlash began for Signs, but it hasn’t stopped for many years. In reality, this is M. Night Shyamalan’s best and most mature movie. The suspense is top-notched and earned. Its messages about religion and faith are handled well especially when you have Mel Gibson performing the monologues. Yes! I like Mel Gibson! Despite his crazy drunk bigoted ramblings, he’s still one hell of an actor. Why do I have to justify myself to you? Next movie!

#6 – The Descent

When The Descent is really good, it’s crazy good. When it’s just okay, I can’t frankly remember most of those scenes. The Descent is about a group of girls who decide to go spelunking and low and behold a lot of things go wrong. It takes longer than it should for things to go wrong, but once it does it becomes masterful. The film treats its audience with intelligence by never explaining things, but giving you enough clues to let you form your own conclusions. Also make sure you watch the original ending, not the lame American one.

#5 – Paranormal Activity

You can see my full review for Paranormal Activity on this site so I’ll just give you the shortened version. This is definitely an imperfect movie, but that won’t stop me from recommending it to people. The movie is very clever with how it uses its low budget and really shines thanks to the realistic performances by its leads. Don’t let yourself be spoiled from others about any of its scares; they’re rather cool. Yet some advice if you’re in a similar situation as this couple: Try locking the bedroom door? Couldn’t hurt.

#4 – The Orphanage

The best horror movies aren’t about how scary the monster looks, but how unnerving the sounds are when it’s coming towards you. The Orphanage is a master class for atmosphere. It’s about a woman who is reopening the orphanage where she grew up. Soon after she arrives, her son befriends someone who his mother can’t see. Lead by a tour-de-force performance by Belén Rueda, this movie will creep you out. Also I have complained about a few of the endings thus far on the list, but I guarantee you this one is fantastic.

#3 – Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon

Remember Scream? Remember how awesome and groundbreaking it was in deconstructing the genre? This is even better. I found this film basically by accident, but I’m thrilled that I did. Behind the Mask is a mockumentary following a man named Leslie Vernon who wants to be the next Jason Vorhees or Michael Myers. He shows the documentary crew all the steps it takes to be a successful serial killer. This almost validates all of the silly Friday the 13th and whatnot movies because it gives the illusion of all the work each of these serial killers. This movie also stars Robert England in the reverse role as the “Ahab.”

#2 – REC

Like all good foreign horror movies, this one has already been remade. Ignore Quarantine (but it looks like most of you already had) because REC is a very tight and suspenseful thriller. Like Paranormal Activity, REC is made up entirely of raw footage from a film camera. Yet this scenario is a little more plausible than most to why the characters are constantly filming everything. It is about a local TV news team who is filming a regular segment called “While You’re Sleeping.” They are following the firefighters when they get a mysterious call to an apartment complex. Once they arrive, things go nuts and everyone inside has become quarantined. It’s a shorter film, but there is not a wasted second.

#1 – Let the Right One In

I adore this movie. So much. People often forget there were TWO vampire romance movies that came out last year. This one just happened to be Swedish and involving twelve year olds. Also this one has actual vampires, not ones doused in glitter. Let the Right One is the very eerie tale of a young girl vampire who moves into town and is hungry. She isn’t a monster, but because of what she is, she has to be monstrous. The movie brings up some complex themes of dedication and existence while juxtaposing them with beautifully haunting images. See this as soon as you can before the American remake comes out next year.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Ticket Stubs: Paranormal Activity

By now you’ve already heard of Paranormal Activity. Typically this is the type of smaller film that I would latch onto, talk about like crazy, and then everyone would continue to ignore it. Yet the fates of cinema worked with me this time. I don’t know how the word of mouth avalanched to the point that this $11,000 film is now available nationwide.

So here’s the big question: Is this Little Engine That Could worth the ride? In short, yes. The longer version, the rest of this review. Paranormal Activity is the story of a twenty something couple who have been experiencing some peculiar things around their house. Micah decides the best idea is to record this activity on an expensive film camera that he buys. That’s where the movie begins. The entire film, much like Cloverfield, is made up of Micah’s footage. Yet unlike Cloverfield, you can actually see where Micah plugs in the battery. Having the camera in the house only angers (or perhaps amuses) the entity that is tormenting the couple.

Now the torment is what everyone is talking about with this movie. At night Micah sets up the camera and points it towards their bed. Then during the early hours, something happens. It has often been observed that with restraint, true creativity reigns. Would certain Hitchcock films be as successful if he didn’t always try to fight against the oppressive Hays’ Code? The filmmakers behind this movie didn’t have a censorship issue, but a budget one. Too many horror films rely on special effects to heighten their scares, but this movie reminds us what is really scary is what we can’t see. Every “scary scene” is a showcase for clever filmmaking tricks. I know roughly how Peter Jackson created Gollum, but I can’t figure out how this film made….sorry, I can’t say. This film is only becoming more popular and I’m sure some of the biggest scares will be spoiled. I don’t want to be that guy.

So why do these scenes work? No one is taking pity on the film by saying that “it is scary for its budget.” It is scary in spite of its budget. The intimacy of this movie is outstanding. Having the camera so close to the action is one thing, but what really makes the film frightening is that they properly set up the environment. This movie has been unfairly compared to The Blair Witch Project. Paranormal Activity succeeds every time Project failed. Blair Witch is boring because you can’t stand being lost in the woods with those numskulls, whereas I enjoyed my time with Micah and Katie. They feel like two very real people. They each have naturalistic flaws and they always properly respond to the madness that they are faced with. I give a lot of that credit to the real Micah and Katie. Working with amateur actors is always a risk, but their performances feel so raw that it’s almost impossible to pinpoint when they are “acting.”

Now this movie is far from perfect. The exposition is handled rather poorly, too many of the sequences during the day aren’t needed, and there is a bit of a pacing problem throughout the film. None of these put a real damper on the film because what shines through is its clever approach on a genre that is at its best when there is fresh talent like these guys.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

2009 Anthony Award Winners

As I mentioned in my last post, I was the chair of the Anthony Awards for this year's BoucherCon. The convention concluded today and I had a blast. Sure, I'm comically exhausted but I'm proud of the work I did there, especially looking at the Anthony Awards. I honestly believe that this was a really really strong list of nominations and I'm very satisfied with all of the winners. What? Oh who won? Okay, I'll tell you.

Best Novel: The Brass Verdict by Michael Connelly
Best First Novel: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
Best Paperback Original: State of the Onion by Julie Hyzy
Best Short Story: "A Sleep Not Unlike Death" by Sean Chercover
Best Critical Nonfiction: Anthony Boucher: A Biobibliography by Jeffrey Marks
Best Childrens/Young Adult: The Crossroads by Chris Grabenstein
Best Cover Art: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo designed by Peter Mendelsund
Special Service Award: Jon and Ruth Jordan

The award this year was designed by Bright Ideas in Broad Ripple and I think it looks beautiful. It's a crystal book with the name of the award etched onto its "cover." Then a real magnifying glass is aimed in that direction all while on a nice piece of marble. Below are two pictures without the etchings on the crystal.

Truly, I'm so happy with how all of this turned out this year and I couldn't have done it without the great volunteers I've had and the most cooperative (and enthusiastic) nominees I could ask for. Thanks everyone.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Spiffy Reminders and BoucherCon

Hey everyone,

Just a reminder that two of my favorite books of the year are actually now available to buy. The Ghosts of Belfast (The Twelve) and Juliet, Naked. I highly recommend both of them and you can see more paragraphs explaining why in their respected reviews.

Also while I have your attention, BoucherCon is next week! BoucherCon is the world's largest mystery convention and this year it's in Indianapolis. I've had the fun job of being in charge of the Anthony Awards and those will be awarded next Saturday. Check back at this blog for the winners. Or follow me on Twitter to get more up-to-date information from the ceremony @AustinLugar

Also a really fun thing I'm doing will be a series of interviews for The Reel Deal at BoucherCon. So once again, check back at this blog for the YouTube links and schedules of when they will air on The Reel Deal. I don't want to jinx anything, but we have a lot of great authors confirmed for a sit-down interview to discuss their relationships with Hollywood. One MAY rhyme with Bichael Bonnelly and the other is most definitely Charlaine Harris. Also many more.... Get excited.

Ticket Stubs: The Invention of Lying

From a young age we were all taught that lying is wrong. In The Invention of Lying, Ricky Gervais and Matthew Robinson say that may not be true. Lying takes place in an alternate reality where everyone in the world speaks only the brutally honest truth, except for Gervais’s character, Mark Bellison, who has discovered the ability to lie. These conditions make reality unbearable to live in. Visually, this place does not appear to be dystopian, but it’s the way everyone treats each other. Without social boundaries, everyone expresses their envy, hate, and ambivalence to each other the second they feel it.

So why would you lie about anything at all? (First the window, then it’s through the wall!) The film suggests several options about why people lie and when they should. Initially Mark believes he can shape the world to be exactly how he wants it. He was recently fired from being a screenwriter at a major film production company. Since there is no such thing as fiction, there are only history lessons shown in theatres. Reenacting (or any acting really) is a form of lying, so all the stories are presented by a professional reader sitting on an armchair facing the camera. Mark was assigned the 1300s, which features the cinematically uninteresting Black Death. He becomes a superstar when he “discovers” a lost historical document from that century involving aliens and nude Amazonian women.

As the plot continues, Mark struggles with sincerity and how to find the right balance to live. This moves the movie into a controversial direction. I apologize for possibly speaking down to you lovely readers, but let me bluntly state this: You do not have to spiritually agree with a film in order to respect and enjoy it. No one (hopefully) wanted Tevye to accept Jesus Christ as his Lord and savior in Fiddler on the Roof and the same applies to this movie.Gervais addresses the issue of fame and power in the excellent BBC series Extras and briefly in The Office. It’s a subject he’s obviously fascinated by. These examinations arrive at a similar thesis: fame is shallow and unsatisfying. So what can one do to lie and be satisfied? Mark becomes fulfilled when he is using his superpower to help his fellow man. Jonah Hill plays a fellow tenant in Mark’s building who is suicidal. Every time the two of them pass by, Hill says he will try a new way to end his life. He is miserable until Mark gives him hope that was never conceivable before.

I’ve talked a lot about this movie so far but I really haven’t brought up its genre. This is a comedy. Not only that, it’s a really funny one. The movie is jam-packed with some of the funniest actors working today including Tina Fey, John Hodgman, Louis C.K. and many more I’d rather not spoil. (Listen carefully to the voice of the police officer.) The premise provides a lot of unexpected and clever one-liners. One actress who I honestly didn’t think could pull them off was Jennifer Gardner. In Alias, I believed she could kick my butt, but I didn’t think she could make me laugh. She is given the difficult task of playing a character that is intensely shallow and judgmental, but she must also subtly show why Mark Bellison is so smitten with her. For a character that doesn’t have a lot of depth on the page, Gardner did an amazing job.

To me comedy is all about giving the audience something they aren’t expecting. If someone sees a joke coming, then they won’t laugh. (This can be debated since I’ve now seen several crowds crack up during the trailer for Old Dogs.) My favorite comedies are the ones that make me laugh throughout, but also have messages that I hadn’t considered before. This is the reason why I consider Ricky Gervais to be the best comedian working today.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Ticket Stubs: The September Issue

Fashion is an enigma to me, as evidenced by my typical attire. In the latest documentary, The September Issue, one person describes the industry as the act of playing pretend. If this is true, the conductor of everyone’s imagination would be Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue magazine. Her power in fashion is seen and talked about extensively, but I have the feeling that we have only seen a sliver of her power in these 90 minutes. The film quickly establishes that she is a force that is respected and feared.

For the film follows Vogue as it is preparing for the 2007 September issue. As everyone knows—When I say everyone I mean, those who are interested in fashion—the September issue of Vogue is powerful. It’s their biggest issue and can quickly establish upcoming trends in fashion. Where would we be without the fur revival in the 90s? Let’s not even think of it. In 2007, Wintour was planning the largest issue yet: over 800 pages.

From a journalistic point of view, this act is ambitious but surprisingly maintained. There are levels of disagreement from within the Vogue office, but there are no typical scenes of conflict. Wintour is the ultimate trump card. Throughout the film a creative director, Grace Coddington, constantly disagrees with Wintour’s decisions, but is always shut down within milliseconds. In fact, Coddington is the only one who will openly talk against Wintour. Everyone else praises her or, wisely, keeps mum.

Wintour is a powerhouse and is undeniably the top of the food chain. The fascinating aspect of her perceived persona was that I wasn’t convinced she was a huge fan of fashion. I saw her more interested in power and fashion was just the career she used. If she wanted to be the queen of the book business, I believe she could have maintained it. She alludes to the fact that her family doesn’t respect her career path, but because Wintour is so internal we are uncertain if she cares.

One can unfairly assume that Wintour is simply mean with some of the things she says, like saying the documentary’s cameraman needs to go to the gym. That is more characteristic of her alter ego, Miranda Priestly played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada. That would be premature for, from what I’ve seen, it looks like she is more apathetic than purposefully cruel. Some can actually see that as worse, but I find it more respectful.

Speaking of respect—How ‘bout that segue-way!—I was surprised to find myself not being judgmental against the fashion industry. Everyone treats each picture and outfit with such intricate care, just as I would towards a film shot or paragraph. One thing I found really interesting was the terminology they used. The adjective they used the most often to simply describe an outfit was “pretty.” All of Vogue’s fashion was aimed towards women and I liked how that word was used instead of “hot” or “attractive.” For these outfits aren’t used as mating signals. To wear the clothes featured in Vogue is for the intent of pleasing yourself or impressing your fashion peers.

This was one of the many revelations I had that made this film so interesting to a fashion “noob.” I would now like to learn more about this field, but that doesn’t mean I want to DVR America’s Next Top Model (Tyra Banks scares me). For I almost felt pity towards the models. Almost none of them had any speaking lines in The September Issue because in this stage of fashion, they are simply accessible mannequins. Props for the artists. I am not being factious when using the word “artists” because what they are crafting takes an insane amount of creativity and intellect. I want to learn more about them or at the very least, revisit this well-made film.