Mama (2013) Review

mama-poster01Mama is a 2013 horror film directed and written by Andres Muschietti and produced by Guillermo del Toro. The story is about two girls, Victoria and Lily, that were orphaned when they were three and one years old, respectively. For five years they are raised by a mysterious supernatural entity, and afterward they are found in a feral state and placed under the care of their father’s twin brother Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel.

Guillermo del Toro’s involvement is visible throughout the movie. I remember reading an interview where del Toro stated that, when it comes to filmmaking, he treats monsters the same way that he treats people – his fascination with monsters is a trademark of many movies that he’s involved with. In most supernatural horror movies, the villain is a malevolent entity that mostly serves as a plot device, sometimes with a simple backstory tacked on. In Mama, the ghost actually feels more like a character – a villainous one, sure, but one with emotions and desires that make sense within its supernatural realm. For me, this is the biggest part of what makes Mama stand out as a horror movie.

Muschietti’s direction is not to be trifled with, either. He relies mostly on old-school scares, but his skillful use of lighting and camera angles creates a distinct visual style and an effective atmosphere for a horror movie. For example, there is one scene where, on the right part of the screen, we see Lily through a door tugging at a blanket with someone off-screen holding its other end, while on the left part of the screen, we see a hallway where Victoria is talking to Annabel, oblivious to what is going on in the next room. Creative scenes like this are also a part of why Mama is above the average Hollywood supernatural thriller. There are quite a few jump scares, but they are well handled and, for the most part, actually pretty effective.

That being said, parts of the film can feel a bit conventional at times. It does use some old horror cliches, and its structure is fairly standard. However, it makes up for it with a story that is actually interesting, and with its attention to creating well-rounded characters, natural or supernatural.

I will close by saying that the ending of the movie has proven to be somewhat controversial among viewers. Without spoiling anything, I can say that I thought it was brilliant, and a very fitting conclusion to the story.

Making Your Own Movie

Korean director Chan-Wook Park, who happens to be one of my favorite directors of all time, shot a 30-minute film named Night Fishing in 2011 by using exclusively his iPhone. I believe that the purpose of this interesting experiment was to illustrate a point: In this day and age, if people want to shoot a film of their own without spending large amounts of cash, the means to do it are more accessible than ever.

While it is entirely possible to shoot a movie on your smartphone, the quality of the image and the sound will inevitably be noticeably inferior to movies shot on actual film cameras – which, of course, are not affordable by any stretch of imagination. However, amateur filmmakers now have a much more accessible alternative in their hands: DSLR cameras. These were originally designed for photography, but since 2008 manufacturers have been offering the option to shoot high definition video on these cameras. So, let’s take a look at some things that you’ll need. Let me say upfront that this is not a comprehensive guide. There are already extensive guides that deal with every little aspect of DSLR filmmaking and contain an amazing wealth of information. Let’s call this blog post a brief introduction.

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Of course, the first thing you’ll need is a camera. Choosing the right camera is crucial; you have to check things like supported video formats. There are lots of guides and reviews out there that will help you choose the right camera. One safe and popular option is to get one of the cameras from Canon’s EOS series. The low-end cameras in the series, such as the recently released 700D or its predecessors (550D, 600D, 650D) are great for the job. Of course, depending on your budget, there are also more professional (and pricier) cameras, such as the 5D and the 7D. You can’t go wrong with one of these. Of course, several other companies such as Nikon, Sony and Pentax, also offer solid options. Choose wisely.

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One of the biggest advantages of DSLRs is the fact that the lenses are interchangeable. Each lens has different characteristics, such as focal length and aperture, that make it more appropriate for some uses and less appropriate for others. Most cameras come with a simple zoom lens that covers most basic needs. Other lenses can cover more of your filmmaking needs. The problem, however is the price. Lenses are, in general pretty expensive, and many of them are even more expensive than the camera body! But don’t fret, there is hope: the 50mm prime, a lens with a fixed focal length of 50mm, no zoom. You absolutely need a 50mm prime lens. One example is the Canon EF 50mm f/1.8 II. Compatible with all the Canon cameras mentioned above, this lens is ideal for close-ups. Affordable, shoots very sharp video, and has a very nice bokeh (meaning the blur of the objects in the background that are not in focus). Other manufacturers offer similar lenses compatible with their cameras. If you only get one lens, make it a 50mm prime.

Next, the tripod. Unless you’re going for the Blair Witch style of guerrilla cinematography, you need one of those to keep your camera still. These can make a huge difference in how professional your film looks and feels. There are many different kinds of tripods out there, including some very solid, cheap options.

Sound can make a big difference in how professional and polished a film will feel. DSLRs with the capability to shoot video typically have an integrated microphone, but it might help to get an external one, for two reasons: One, an external microphone will usually offer better sound quality and might have features such as noise reduction and a wind filter. Two, you can position the external microphone any way you like, rather than having it at the exact location of the camera. For example when the sound source you are recording is close to a wall, it helps to move the microphone closer to the subject in relation to its distance from the wall, to limit the effect of sound reflection from the wall. I’d say that Rode is the company that is considered the authority in such microphones, and they offer a wide range of options.

Last, but not least, you will need video editing software. After you have filmed all the scenes and transferred them to your computer, you will need appropriate software to put them together and form a complete film. There are free options available, such as Windows Live Movie Maker, VSDC Video Editor and Avidemux, that offer basic video editing capabilirty. However, there is a great deal of commercial software, for example Adobe Premiere Pro, Sony Vegas and Cyberlink PowerDirector. These offer many more options, such as transition effects, image quality enhancement, and many other tools to experiment with. Many of these are easy to use, with straightforward drag-and-drop interfaces.

That’s all for now. This post turned out to be much longer than I expected, but I still feel that I have barely scratched the surface of the topic. Anyway, if you are interested in further information, a very good source is the freely available e-book “The DSLR Cinematography Guide”. Have fun and happy filmmaking!

Manos: The Hands of Fate (1966) Review

manosposter Directed by, and starring, manure salesman Harold P. Warren from El Paso, Texas with a miniscule budget and various technical limitations, Manos: The Hands of Fate had faded into obscurity, until it was recovered in 1992. It is a horror film that is often called the worst film of all time, which is however now considered a cult classic.

The plot seems like a typical cliched horror movie setup. A family consisting of a couple, Michael and Margaret, their daughter Debbie, and her dog Peppy, lose their way on a road trip. They find a house on the side of the road and they ask the caretaker, Torgo, whether they can spend the night there. Based on Torgo’s bizarre appearance and demeanor, not to mention his dialogue (“I take care of the place while the Master is away!”), any reasonable person would run away and never look back, but for some reason the father insists that they stay there for the night.

Afterwards, it is revealed that the house is lodging a polygamous cult led by the Master, who may or may not be dead. What we do know for sure is that he has a glorious mustache and several loyal wives. Of course, they have to decide what is to be done with their visitors, who are desperately trying to find a way to escape.

torgoThere are a lot of scenes that make little to no sense. For example, the film opens with a series of long driving scenes where nothing happens, and where presumably the opening credits should have been placed. Another scene has the couple staring at a portrait of the Master and his dog for several minutes and saying over and over again how scary it looks. There is also a scene where Torgo tries to seduce Margaret, and the less I say about that, the better. Trust me on this one. There’s much, much more, but I will refrain from spoiling the experience further.

There is no other way to put it; the film is abysmal. Every single aspect of the film is terrible. The dialogue is strange and disjointed – not to mention horribly dubbed, the editing creates blatant continuity errors, the lighting makes everything look way too dark, the music is dull and repetitive, the plot is full of holes and logical errors, and much, much more. The highlight, however, is John Reynolds’ performance as Torgo, who is probably the most interesting and sympathetic character of the film.

themasterThat being said, there is something compelling about Manos. Don’t get me wrong, from a filmmaking standpoint it has practically no redeeming features. However, it represents the artistic vision of a man, Harold P. Warren, who clearly loved what he was doing and was driven by his fascination with the medium, even though he had no idea how to make a film. It is oddly refreshing to watch a movie driven by enthusiasm and the joy of creation, no matter what the final result is. Warren knew how bad it was, but nevertheless he was proud of his creation – as he very well should be. There are several articles about the creation of Manos on the Internet, and I believe it’s a truly fascinating story that’s well worth reading about. For lovers of bad cinema, watching Manos is a must. It represents the medium of film as a creative outlet for people who want to express themselves, and I won’t deny my admiration for people who do so.

Spoorloos (The Vanishing, 1988) Review

spoorloos_1988Spoorloos is a 1988 mystery thriller directed by George Sluizer, that is often considered a genre classic, and justifiably so. At first it might be hard to pinpoint why it is so effective and engaging, but its unusual structure and narrative, combined with fine performances from its leads make it a very interesting watch.

Rex and Saskia are a young Dutch couple who are on holiday in France. At some point, they stop at a gas station to rest. Saskia goes to buy some drinks while Rex is waiting in the car, but she never returns. Rex immediately suspects abduction, but he is unable to prove anything or find any clues about what happened to her.

The film is not about who did it. The villain is revealed rather early on, and there is no concern in hiding his identity from the viewer. A lot of time is devoted to develop the character of the villain, who at first seems to be an ordinary family man who, however, is secretly plotting the abduction of a woman. We observe his initial efforts which he carries out with full determination, without any second thoughts about what he is about to do. However, we are not told anything about his motive or his background and, most importantly, about what he intends to do with the woman he abducts.

I believe what makes the film so effective is the fact that it’s careful about what information it reveals and what it withholds from the viewer. The audience is left in the dark concerning the events that transpire at the gas station, and even the fate and current whereabouts of Saskia. It is the lack of this information that drives Rex to madness. He tries to move on with his life, but the uncertainty is always lingering in his mind, degenerating his being into an obsessive search to discover the truth about what happened to Saskia, not even knowing whether she’s alive or dead.

The film’s unusual structure is very effective in evoking feelings of dread and desperation to its audience. We sympathize with Rex, and we even start developing a similarly obsessive need to discover Saskia’s fate. We try to consider what the villain could have done based on what we know about his character, but again, we aren’t given too much information either.

Spoorloos is often categorized as a horror film. This might seem a little baffling at first, since there are no visceral scares, supernatural entities, gore or other elements typical of the horror genre. It is, however, more chilling and harrowing than most conventional horror movies. That is because it plays to the subconscious and identifies with the primal fears of the audience, removing them from their comfort zone. Any avid horror fan will tell you that what you don’t see or know is much scarier than anything you see on the screen. Spoorloos is the kind of film that exploits this to its fullest extent.

One Room Movies

I really enjoy movies that take place mostly – or even entirely – in one room or confined space.  What I find interesting about those movies is how they manage to create atmosphere and suspense and develop interesting stories solely based on the strength of their actors’ performances and character interaction, most of the time on a very low budget.  Here I’ll list a few of my favorite movies of this sub-genre and I’ll try to include both obvious and less obvious choices.  Of course there’s a lot more, so feel free to list your own favorites in the comments section.

rwRear Window (1954): One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most well-known classics.  A reporter (James Stewart) suffers a leg injury and has to stay in his apartment wheelchair bound for a few weeks.  He passes his time by spying on his neighbors with binoculars and at some point suspects that there has been a murder in one of the apartments.  So, he tries to unravel the mystery with the help of his romantic interest (Grace Kelly).  Hitchcock as always masterfully builds up suspense and puts the viewer in the position of the reporter through a series of first person views.  The entire movie takes place in Stewart’s apartment and the apartments that are visible from its window.  One of the best films of the genre.

exam-2009-01Exam (2009): A nifty little British thriller that involves 8 candidates giving an exam to determine who will be hired to work for a mysterious corporation.  However, when they take a look at their exam papers, they find out something very interesting and confusing.  Saying anything else would be giving away too much, so suffice to say that it’s a fun little movie that’s well worth watching., and is packed with nice little surprises along the way.

findersfeeFinder’s Fee (2001): Another small, low budget film featuring some good performances by James Earl Jones, Ryan Reynolds and Matthew Lillard.  Tepper (Erik Palladino) finds a wallet in the street and invites its owner to his apartment to pick it up.  The same night, his friends come to his apartment for a game of poker.  He also finds out that the wallet contains a winning lottery ticket.  Again, I won’t give away more about the story, but this is also a fun little movie that gradually builds up suspense and takes full advantage of its premise.

6441-eraserheadEraserhead (1977): OK, this might be stretching the boundaries of the sub-genre a little, but I believe David Lynch’s fantastic debut deserves a spot on this list.  A man named Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is invited for dinner with his girlfriend and her parents, where he learns that his girlfriend is pregnant.  Shortly afterwards, she gives birth to a disfigured monster-like baby.  His girlfriend and the baby move into his apartment and the rest of the movie takes place there.  The movie is full of surreal imagery and features a haunting soundtrack.  It plays like a bad nightmare and is filled with allegories on sexuality, existential philosophy and subliminal fears of parenthood.  I won’t say much more, but I will say that it involves a disfigured woman who lives in the radiator and a severed head that is used as a material to create erasers.  There are many theories about the meaning of the movie, and sometime I’d like to write a post with my personal take on it.  Overall it’s a pretty disturbing movie that you should definitely watch if you’re in the mood for something different.

1352715739-the-shining-corridorThe Shining (1980): Kubrick’s horror classic based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.  Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) is hired as the caretaker for the Overlook Hotel, so he moves there with his wife (Shelley Duvall) and his son (Danny Lloyd), where they will stay alone for the winter.  However, there might be some more sinister forces at work there.  Almost the entire movie takes place in the hotel.  Kubrick’s direction is amazing as usual, and he manages to evoke a feeling of claustrophobia and isolation through clever use of his camera and other creative visual and auditory tricks.  For example, there are some pretty creepy scenes where the boy navigates through the corridors of the hotel on his tricycle where these tricks are used to full effect.  A true horror classic that I love watching every now and then.

reservoir-dogs1Reservoir Dogs (1992): Quentin Tarantino’s debut redefined the crime genre and has had a huge impact on cinema.  After a failed diamond heist, the criminals who participated regroup in an abandoned warehouse, where they begin to suspect that someone among them is a rat.  Most of the film takes place in the warehouse, except for some flashback scenes.  What makes it particularly interesting is that we never see the heist itself and the action scenes are minimal, but we learn everything we need to know through dialogue.  With an amazing witty script and memorable characters, this is a gripping film that commands your attention from start to finish.

wQhVK7uHU21svoB26Mqv5u0jHT812 Angry Men (1957): Well, I saved the best for last.  Sidney Lumet’s masterpiece is about a jury of 12 men who are faced with what seems to be a clear-cut murder case.  However, one of the jurors (Henry Fonda) is skeptical and makes the group think a little more about it.  Throughout the film we follow the process that leads to various shifts of opinion and interesting group dynamics.  Each character is well developed and has his own character traits, which always affect their thought process and sometimes even get in the way of their search for the truth.  This film captures everything that makes this sub-genre so interesting by building suspense and tension through strong performances and creative camera work.  This is quite possibly the best film of the genre, and it holds up very well to this day.  If you haven’t seen it already, give it a watch.  You will be pleasantly surprised.

Cube (1997) – Movie Review

Cube is a 1997 low-budget sci-fi horror film by Canadian director Vincenzo Natali about a group of people trying to escape from a mysterious construction that consists of many cube-shaped rooms, some of which contain deadly traps. The movie has since spawned two sequels and has developed a cult following. So, let’s see how the movie holds up.

Warning: Major spoilers ahead!

The opening scene shows a man entering an odd cube-shaped room with metal hatches on each of its sides. However, he is neatly sliced into pieces by a near-invisible wire grid. You’d think that the skeleton in the human body would provide some sort of resistance against the blades so it wouldn’t be as easy as cutting through butter with a knife, but oh well.

Next, we meet our main cast: Quentin, a badass policeman who seems to assume leadership of the group, Holloway, a middle-aged doctor with a penchant for paranoia and conspiracy theories, Leaven, a young female maths student, Rennes, a well-known escape artist, and finally Worth, a man who doesn’t reveal much about himself

So, they start trying to figure out a way to get out of the construction. Well, it’s a good thing they have an escape artist with them! Surely he’ll prove to be a useful addition to the group and provide some good insight on how the traps in this place work. Oh wait, he’s dead. Seems like his skills didn’t serve him very well after all. Leaven then suggests that the rooms that are marked with prime numbers are safe. This theory seems to work for a while, and they find a mentally challenged man named Kazan along the way, who joins the group. Everything seems to be going well, but when a prime numbered room almost kills Quentin, the group sits down to think things over.

Holloway finally breaks down, and in an outburst of hammy overacting, rants about some conspiracy theories and accuses Quentin of having a thing for younger girls. I don’t really think there was any real basis for this accusation, but who cares? Worth is pressured by Quentin into revealing that he has worked on the construction of the outer shell of the Cube. He also believes that the Cube serves no actual purpose and any purpose it might have had was lost during the time of its construction, but they continued making it anyway. Also, they put innocent people inside it so that it wouldn’t be a complete waste. Uh, okay. I can imagine the dialogue between the workers on the project:

- Hey Joey, about that thing we’re making?

- That giant torture killer cube thing? Yeah, what about it?

- What are they gonna use it for?

- Uh, no idea. The boss doesn’t know either. Neither did the guy before him.

- So why are we still making it?

- Well, the boss says we already put too much money into it. We can’t abandon it.

- So we might as well have some fun with it! Wanna put a few people in it?

- Sure! Let’s also put in that guy from upstairs!

- Oh yeah, I always hated that guy.

- Cool! Let’s get some chloroform and let’s get going!

So… Is this supposed to be social commentary about something? Like, about projects that spin out of control so that nobody knows their original purpose? Kind of a weak metaphor, isn’t it? I honestly can’t think of a real life example that suits the metaphor. If anything, the problem with big government or corporate projects is that they know exactly what they want to do and will use any means necessary to attain their goals. Or maybe it isn’t really a metaphor and the filmmakers just made up an excuse to justify the movie’s premise. Anyway, moving on.

By using some information that Worth gave about the design of the Cube, Leaven leads them to edge of the Cube In the process, they get through a sound activated trapped room while keeping completely quiet. I gotta admit, this is a pretty tense and suspenseful scene. When they reach the outer layer, they find out that there is a gap between them and the outer shell. The group ties Holloway from a makeshift rope made out of clothes and holds her while she goes outside to investigate. However, when it’s time to pull her back in, Quentin finally snaps and intentionally drops her into the abyss. He also tries to isolate and sexually assault Leaven. Huh, seems like Holloway was right earlier about Quentin. Good call, doctor.

Anyway, the rest of the group now manage to isolate Quentin and try to get to the exit after figuring out that some of the cubes move to different places, and that the trapped rooms are actually marked with powers of prime numbers, not prime numbers. Suddenly, Kazan reveals that he can perform fast prime factorization in his mind. Now that’s a quite impressive, but oddly specific skill. Not to mention convenient for the plot, too.

With their new knowledge of how the Cube works, they manage to make it to the exit and they see the light of day as they open the hatch. Like all normal people would do after being trapped for several days in a giant device of torture and death, Worth just sits down and goes into an existential dilemma while Leaven tries to persuade him to go out. Okay, the rest of the movie required some suspension of disbelief but I really can’t take this. Kazan however is much more reasonable and promptly exits the Cube. Worth’s massive display of idiocy was – what a shocker – proven to be a not very smart move, as Quentin sneaks into the room and stabs both Leaven and Worth, as the three of them stay trapped in the Cube. I wonder why they didn’t hear the loud noise that these hatches make when they open and thus didn’t understand how Quentin came into the room. Oh well. The End.

As you might have figured out, I didn’t really like the movie. Its premise was intriguing at first but it wasn’t explored much, the acting was pretty bad and it eventually degenerated into a pretty standard Lord of the Flies kind of story. However, it does have its redeeming features. There are some genuinely tense moments and the characters are actually pretty interesting. I say give it a watch and make your mind up about it.

Phoenix Wright vs. Professor Layton

Phoenix Wright and Professor Layton Ace Attorney and Professor Layton are two of the most popular – and arguably best – puzzle adventure franchises for the Nintendo DS.  In a way, the two series are quite similar as they both focus on mystery stories and puzzle solving, and with an upcoming crossover for the Nintendo 3DS (Professor Layton vs. Ace Attorney), I decided to make a post comparing different aspects of the games.  This, of course, is based on personal preference.  Both series are great, and they are well worth checking out.

Gameplay: The gameplay is pretty simple in both series.  The games of the original Ace Attorney trilogy are actually GBA ports, so they don’t utilize many of the capabilities of the DS.  Their gameplay involves mostly point-and-click investigation and basic dialogue.  It is also possible to present evidence to people you encounter or witnesses in the courtroom to get more information.  Later entries in the series, such as Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney, have some interesting game mechanics, such as the capability to rotate pieces of evidence to examine every part of them, and features that utilize the microphone, such as dust fingerprinting.  The Professor Layton games were originally DS titles, so they take advantage of the capabilities of the DS.  Many of the puzzles involve dragging and rotating blocks and pieces, circling the right answer, writing out your answer with the stylus etc.  Overall, the gameplay of the Professor Layton series feels much smoother, so point goes to Layton.  Ace Attorney 0 – Professor Layton 1

Puzzles: Of course, the gameplay in both series is based on their puzzles.  In the Ace Attorney games, you have to use the witnesses’ testimonies and your evidence to find the solution to the mysteries you have to solve, while the puzzles in the Professor Layton series are mostly brainteasers, slider puzzles, logic puzzles etc.  Personally I feel that, while very enjoyable, Layton’s puzzles are usually disconnected from the story and it is possible to complete the game without really following the storyline.  On the other hand, the Ace Attorney puzzles are inextricably connected with the story.  You have to understand what’s going on, and it actually feels like you are trying to solve the mystery.  There is a genuine sense of accomplishment when you figure out the solution.  Point goes to Phoenix.  Ace Attorney 1 – Professor Layton 1

Artwork (Graphics and Music): This is another area where the Ace Attorney series suffers probably because of its GBA roots.  The backgrounds are nice and colorful and the characters designs have an anime feel, and the music can be infectiously catchy.  However, I believe they should have been upgraded a little for their DS counterparts.  Still, the graphics and music are fitting for the overall mood of the games.  In the Layton series, the artwork is on a whole different level.  The backgrounds and characters are beautifully designed, there are parts with voice acting, that is actually pretty good, and the video cutscenes are so good that they seem like they could have come from a Miyazaki film.  Point to Layton.  Ace Attorney 1 – Professor Layton 2

Characters: Both series have a diverse cast of main and recurring characters.  Both Wright and Layton have a sidekick (Maya and Luke, respectively) and other friends and adversaries.  My choice here is based on character development.  In the Ace Attorney series, each character has an interesting backstory and personality, and by the end of each game you feel like each of the characters has changed and learned something from the events that occurred, and you have followed them through their journey.  In the Layton series, I didn’t really get that.  Layton, Luke and the rest of the cast are very likable characters, but aside from some character quirks, they don’t seem to develop much throughout the series.  Point to Phoenix.  Ace Attorney 2 – Professor Layton 2

Story: Honestly, the most important part of these games for me is the story.  Both series have great and gripping storylines and it mostly comes down to personal preference.  Throughout their original trilogies, the stories of both games kept improving, and the third entries (Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Trials and Tribulations and Professor Layton and the Unwound Future) are arguably the best of their respective series.  The stories in the Layton series deal with themes of loss and redemption and have some pretty emotionally heavy moments.  The Ace Attorney games also tackle these issues, along with ethical issues and the importance of friendship and family.  Overall, I was fascinated more by the Ace Attorney storylines, that managed to find a perfect balance between engaging mysteries, gruesome murders and lighthearted humor.  The tone of the games is perfect.  Even in the darker parts of the stories, they don’t lose their sense of humanity.  Point goes to Phoenix.  Ace Attorney 3 – Professor Layton 2

Even though the winner of this little showdown was the Ace Attorney series, I urge you to try out both and make up your mind.  Both of them have some great games and will undoubtedly please fans and newcomers to the genre.

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