Paranormal Activity: Go See This Movie!
Sunday, October 25, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist
Two Saturdays ago I went and saw the new horror movie Paranormal Activity with my boyfriend and a couple of friends. I can safely say this is one of the best horror films I've seen in the past decade.

A lot of people are going to compare it to The Blair Witch Project. And on one hand, yes, there are some similarities between the two films, most notably the cinéma vérité mockumentary style that the film is shot in. On the other hand, I think it's a real disservice to Paranormal Activity to compare it to Blair Witch, because I think a lot of people are going to assume that the same problems that plagued Blair Witch are present in Paranormal Activity.

First of all, the characters are approximately 110% less hateful than the shrieking, terrible people who populated The Blair Witch Project. The structure of the film demands that the characters push the envelope a little bit in terms of unreasonable behavior, so you will need to be able to live with the idea that someone would actually take the time to film a loved one having a terrified breakdown instead of immediately comforting them. However, though the male lead tries your patience a touch, ultimately by the time things get really hairy, he's fairly sympathetic.

Second of all, Blair Witch had moments where it felt like the action was just sort of meandering all over the place. In contrast, Paranormal Activity is very tightly plotted and executed, and because of that, the film has an incredible tension that continuously ratchets up over the course of 86 minutes. By the time the final few night time scenes rolled around, my stomach was literally aching from the stress of it all (I mean that in a good way).

I don't want to spoil any of the plot points, so I'm going to stay very vague here. I dislike films where the scares are strictly about people popping out of doorways unexpectedly, or loud noises/soundtrack spikes that catch you off guard. That's sort of cheating. My favorite kind of horror is the when a film delivers an idea or an image that truly sticks with you. That's what Paranormal Activity does so well - there are parts of this movie where just seeing certain images is going to make your skin crawl. It's an almost entirely blood-free movie, yet still manages to be terrifying, which is a nice break from the standard gore fests such as the Saw franchise that seem to be the only other horror films available right now.

Sufficed to say, if you like horror at all, go see this movie right away. It MUST be seen in a theater for several reasons. First, it's the kind of thrill that's tons of fun when surrounded by hundreds of people feeling the same horror you are (in fact, this will be the only time you'll ever see me suggest you actively seek out the busier times on Friday and Saturday nights, since in this case, crowded = good). Second, the sound design is really top-notch, and you'll want the full effect of the theater, since this is just not going to look or sound as great on your home setup.

I can't recommend this film strongly enough. It's a must-see for any true horror fan (we discuss this film and other scary things on my podcast this week, for those of you who want to hear all this in audio form.

one word of caution: if you get motion sickness easily, this may not be the movie for you, because there's a lot of shaky handheld camera work in this film.
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Meet the Nook, the new e-book hotness of the week
Tuesday, October 20, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist
Courtesy of Engadget, here's a picture of the newest e-book reader, dubbed "the Nook", from Barnes & Noble:

According to the article posted at Engadget, the new e-book reader will feature several intriguing Kindle-killer features:
  • Built-in WiFi and free 3G connectivity, to better enable impulse buying
  • An SD slot, so you can expand the memory as needed
  • FULL COLOR!!!!
  • Pretty excellent battery life (up to 10 days, if you disable WiFi)
  • Touchscreen
  • Most importantly - the "LendMe" feature, which will apparently allow you to transfer the book to other readers for certain period of time. The #1 thing that had been keeping me from committing to an e-book reader has been the inability to lend/give books away once I'm done with them.
It looks great, and is priced competitively to the Kindle. Like the Kindle, there is a version of the software available for the iPhone as well, which is good for people like me who already own one of those little lovely devices.

I'm very interested in this new product, so we'll see what other details trickle out as the release date gets closer. I'm very excited at the thought of being able to buy extra batteries for it, as well as the ability to "easily download" PDFs. I'd like to learn more about how that would work (I just hope and pray that we'll be able to do the smart and easy thing, using the USB connector to transfer directly from your computer to the device, versus Kindle's bizarro "email it to yourself").

Thoughts? Anyone out there as psyched about the new device as I am?

edited to add: Make sure you read the Engadget article for a full video demonstration and all the sexy ass details you can shake a stick at.
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Welcome to the Dollhouse (season 2)
Thursday, October 08, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist

Good news. Dollhouse is back!

Bad news. It might not be back for long!

The ratings for the new season of Dollhouse have been abysmal. Ratings for the premiere were pretty bad, but dropped even more the next week. This is a sad thing, because I really liked some of the stuff I saw in the last few episodes of the season. And then I finally got around to seeing the infamous never-aired 13th episode, "Epitaph One" and that desire to see more Dollhouse was further strengthened within me.

First things first: if you haven't seen Epitaph One, you need to stop right now and go download it on iTunes or via Amazon's Unbox site. Ironically, the best episode of Dollhouse ever (and seriously, it's good enough to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the finer episodes of other sci-fi series such as BSG, Lost and Babylon 5) is the one episode that will probably never air on regular television. Anyway, obviously this post will contain spoilers for that episode, so do yourself a favor and see it first - you deserve to experience its mind-blowing revelations without being spoiled.

Here's some thoughts, based on what I saw in Epitaph One, as well as the first two episodes of Season 2:

Eliza Dushku is not a bad actress. Contrary to what a lot of people think, she's had some moments where she's shown what she's capable of bringing to the table. Consider the scene in epsiode 1 of season 2 ("Vows") where her new husband (played by scrumptious BSG vet Jamie Bamber) attacked her. Her face ran an incredible gamut of emotions, and you really felt the persona's wit and intelligence, as she was convincing enough to delay her fate for at least a little while.

The problem with Dushku is that I think she's better in a supporting role. Her natural charisma is best utilized in the role of a foil for other characters. In the lead role on Dollhouse she's being asked to be, in many ways, the straight man among characters. This isn't her strong point as an actress, and it's compounded by the fact that her character is still too broad - we have a great sense who Victor, Sierra and even Mellie/November are, but I feel like Caroline is still too poorly fleshed out to be worth cheering for as a protagonist.

However... watch Epitaph One, and you finally (FINALLY!) get a sense of what Dushku might be able to do with the character, if Echo is allowed to finally evolve into a persistent character. She's shown hints of it in the first two episodes, as we're made aware that Echo DOES retain some level of consciousness about events, even as she's being driven by her various personas. Epitaph One shows us what Echo will eventually become - a master personality who can simultaneously have consciousness at the same time as her current persona.

The real star of the show, though, is Whiskey . I enjoyed Amy Acker's work on Angel (especially once her Illyria personality emerged), but I never would have guessed at how great she'd be in this very limited role on the show. Part of it is definitely her skill as an actress, since she's proven she can be more versatile than Dushku. But part of it is also that Whiskey's just simply a more interesting and compelling character than Echo. Echo is just trying to get back to who she was - Caroline - and that's not that interesting for me (partially because I found original Caroline to be sort of annoying). Whiskey, in contrast, will probably NEVER go back to being who she once was. Her struggle with her sense of self - what it means to have a soul, what it means to question every impulse you have - is so much more profound because of that fact.

It was interesting to see Whiskey struggle to understand who she was with the Dr. Saunders personality embedded in her. Her pain at knowing that her phobias were something that someone else intentionally embedded into her was really visceral. I also found it really fascinating that the scars that once used to cause her pain now became a safety net of sorts for her, as she reasoned that remaining "broken" in that way was an insurance policy against Adelle Dewitt re-enlisting her to serve as an Active.

We can see in Epitaph One that many of Dr. Saunders strongest personality traits live on in Whiskey even after she reverts to Doll form. The poignant ending of that episode shows Whiskey once more serving as the caretaker to the lost souls roaming the Dollhouse (or what's left of it). We also see that perhaps a part of her never conquered her fears of leaving, despite the semi-hopeful ending of Vows.

I still have trouble seeing how this show is going to get from the present to the results of Epitaph One. I love so many of the ideas of Dollhouse, but my ongoing struggle as a viewer (and as a fan trying to get other viewers interested) with the show is that often the execution isn't living up to the ideas being pitched each week. For example, it's nice to see Alexis Denisof (a.k.a. Mr. Alyson Hannigan) pop up as a senator investigating the Dollhouse, but those scenes are a classic example of how the show often violates a central rule of writing: Show, don't tell. We see the senator yelling about how BAD and EVIL the Dollhouse/Rossum is, but we don't really get a good sense of why that is, exactly. In the present tense, the Dollhouse seems by and large like a particularly high tech brothel. 90% of the viewing audience doesn't really understand the endgame present here, because the show is mostly concerned with having characters TELL us things could get bad, instead of showing us just what that means.

The problem is that, for all it's excellence, Epitaph One isn't technically a "real" episode. While it's available online, it's never aired, and therefore a good chunk of the viewing audience has never seen the actual scenes that demonstrate (instead of just telling) what the Dollhouse tech can really lead to. For example, there's a great scene in Epitaph One where the Higher Powers send down a messenger personality that gets imprinted onto Victor. It's then that we see exactly what the larger plan behind the Dollhouse really is - permanently selling the bodies of the Dolls to rich and powerful clients who wish to live forever. Epitaph One also establishes that in the future the technology has evolved far enough so that ANYONE can be imprinted remotely, even without being specially fitted as the Dolls in the present are. Topher posits that you could robo-call a whole city and instantly have an army of mind-wiped slaves. These are two totally chilling scenes and really help the viewer understand what's at stake in this particular universe. But again... they're stuck in an episode that hasn't aired, and so it's hard to consider them part of continuity.

One of my complaints about Dollhouse is that it sometimes moves too slowly. I think the second episode, "Instinct", is a perfect example of that. After the drama of the finale, plus the season opener, the show had a good head of steam going. So, it was disappointing to see the show take a step backwards and produce a monster-of-the-week format episode immediately after that. The problem is that what was great about Epitaph One - the passion of the various characters, the urgency you felt as a viewer, the dark and driving tone of the show - are often not present each week. It's very frustrating.

Random thoughts:
  • The most important thing ever: Victor's face is back to normal. Yay! It's also interesting that Adelle obviously hasn't totally given up on her affection for him.
  • Victor still loves Sierra.
  • Boyd loves Whiskey. I thought Whiskey was being a little unfair with Boyd, since it seemed pretty clear to me last season that he was attracted to her, even before he knew she was a Doll. Epitaph One shows that this relationship does progress, even if they sadly don't end up together. Amy Acker just totally killed me when she tearily confessed that she wished that they would have had more time together before the world went to hell.
  • Whiskey's psychological warfare with Topher was amazing to watch unfold. Not only did Acker bring her A game, but Fran Kranz was also incredible as we saw Topher really struggle with the idea that this game he's been playing at might be more harmful and dangerous than he ever realized. Many people have criticized the character for being too flip about his work - I've even seen people accuse him of being a sociopath. But I think that between Vows and Epitaph One you can see that Topher is anything BUT an uncaring sociopath. Indeed, we see in Vows that his happy-go-lucky persona has begun to crack, as he's confronted by the result of his handiwork in the form of a vengeful and psychologically damaged Whiskey. You can see the pain he feels at the realization that Whiskey chose on her own to hate him. In Epitaph One we see the final end for Topher, as it appears his role in orchestrating the literal end of humanity has driven him insane, reduced to a weeping child.
  • I'm disappointed that you had Apollo and Helo back together in the first episode, and neither of them had their shirt off. Boooooooo. Dimly shot wedding night scenes are no replacement of a full on daytime shot of Jamie Bamber topless.
  • You know what, show? It's not immortality if your consciousness doesn't survive. That's Whiskey's whole point about giving up the Dr. Saunders personality. That consciousness would cease to exist if they put a new personality into her. What the Dollhouse tech does is NOT the same as transferring your consciousness to a new body. It's making a copy, and that's a totally different thing. It's cloning your mind, not transferring it. If you were to clone me, and I was then standing in a room with my clone, I wouldn't go, "Oh, well, I can totally die right now, because hey I'm still going to live on." No, you'd go, "Hmm... better kill my clone before it gets any funny ideas about stealing my place."
  • Apparently in the future Alpha is an ally, so I guess we don't have to worry about him getting killed off any time soon.
Anyway, we'll see what happens the rest of this season. FOX hasn't canceled the show yet, but on the other hand, keeping it exiled on Friday night and paired inexplicably with their new sitcom Brothers (not exactly compatible demographics) isn't doing it any favors either.

In the meantime, let's enjoy what we've got. Summer Glau is guest starring on a future episode (as is Michael Hogan and Keith Carradine), and hopefully we'll start getting much closer to the events hinted at in Epitaph One. Hopefully you enjoyed this belated review - did I do my best?

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100 Worst Movies of the 2000s
Thursday, October 01, 2009 | Author: Mad Typist
Now, I got a lot of crap from friends about my non-review review of G.I. Joe, with many of them stating that I wasn't allowed to diss a movie I hadn't seen. I mostly thought, "Well, if it looks like shit, stars actors that I know are shitty, and/or are directed by shitty directors... it probably is safe to avoid because it probably shit and I don't need to throw 10 bucks away to prove something I already know." In other words, while you shouldn't judge ALL books by their covers, I think it's still fair to judge SOME books by their covers. I mean.... how good could this be:
Anyway... Courtesy of the Onion AV Club, I stumbled upon Rotten Tomatoes' "100 Worst Reviewed Films of the last decade." The fact that I've managed to avoid seeing almost ANY of these proves to me that my policy regarding judging certain films from their trailers and advance reviews is certainly a good way to keep from wasting your hard earned dollars. From that list, here are the Worst Films I've actually seen, along with my excuse (feel free to peruse the list and share in the comments section which ones you've seen and why):

#94 - The New Guy
Okay, I saw this movie mostly because D.J. Qualls was pretty funny in Road Trip, and because it has Eliza Dushku in it. And at one point in the movie, Eliza rides a mechanical bull in a very seductive fashion. That fact, plus the fact that there are at least 5-6 legitimately funny parts of this movie, make it a decent enough experience that I don't regret seeing this in the theaters for the cost of a matinee ticket.

92 - Babylon A.D.
I didn't pay to see this movie, but caught it when it came around on HBO. I was curious to see how it was, because the trailer was amazing, so I thought at a bare minimum it'd probably have good special effects. Plus, it starred Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh, who are both great action stars and freakishly charismatic even when saddled with poor material. I was well aware that the movie was a potential disaster, because the fights between the director, star and studio are pretty well documented. And yeah... it was pretty much a hot mess. Since I saw it for free and was really really bored at the time, I can't feel too bad about watching this. There were several moments where the film hinted at the decent story it COULD have been, given better circumstances.

70 - New Best Friend
Another one that I caught on cable. I'm not sure why I watched this, other than the glee I probably felt watching Mia Kirshner's obnoxious character get killed on screen. Trashy and terrible stuff.

47 - Soul Survivors
I watched this because it had Eliza Dushku in it. And clearly, I can't be trusted to make good decisions when she's involved (see: my comments for #94 on this list, plus my endless prattling about Dollhouse). This one is ALMOST in the category of "So bad, it's good".

42 - House of the Dead
You know what? This is one of my favorite bad movies of all time. It's biggest "stars" are Clint Howard and Jürgen Prochnow. It has a cast of 30+ year old actors attempting to pass themselves off as teenagers in the wood for a "rave" (one of the worst raves ever committed to screen, by the way). For no reason, it features a female character who spends the entire movie running around in a jumpsuit emblazoned with red and white stripes, with one breast featuring a blue background with white stars. And her name is Liberty (get it? get it?). And to top it off, it's directed by the master of schlock, Uwe Boll. I watch this shit at least once a year. It's a special, special film that can only be appreciated with a fifth of vodka and a close group of friends who will help you heckle this one. LOVE IT.

27 - Battlefield Earth
Another film you shouldn't apologize for seeing. This is one of my favorite "comedy that doesn't know it's a comedy" kind of movies. Gloriously cheesey. Vain and self indulgent. Worthy of the finest MST3K treatment. I celebrate this film in all its terribleness.

26 - Kickin' It Old Skool
It's a terrible film that I was nonetheless happy to watch. There are a few good chuckles in here. I don't know... maybe the Jamie Kennedy Experiment finally wore me down to the point where I submitted to his comedic charms (seriously, did you see the episode with Bob Saget?). I was also optimistic, because Kennedy's last film Malibu's Most Wanted was actually much better than people gave it credit for. The same, sadly, cannot be said of this film.

23 - The In Crowd
I love when movies about romantic rivals (in this case, two blandly hot chicks) is really more about the homoerotic subtext between the two characters. Yes, the maintext was about the two girls fighting over the stud in the cardigan. But the delicious lesbian subtext was pretty epic. Plus, there was murder(!) involved. Good enough for me, though I wouldn't exactly recommend this to anyone other than a true connoisseur of so-bad-it's-good cinema.

1 - Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever
Not only did I see this in a theater for full price, I actually convinced an entire group of friends to go see it with me. I.... have no excuse. There aren't enough adjectives in the English language to describe what a total failure this film is.
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