SXSW 2011: Insidious

James Wan and Leigh Whannell may be responsible for jumpstarting the most successful horror franchise of the last decade, but the duo has failed to recreate that level of success in anything they’ve made since then. But with the release of “Insidious,” it looks like they’ve finally cracked that nut, because the film is a creepy and atmospheric supernatural horror film that plays a lot like a modern day “Poltergeist” with a decidedly retro aesthetic. Though the film relies a little too often on cheap scares and loud musical cues to terrorize the audience, “Insidious” is a legitimately scary movie that will not only reinvigorate Wan and Whannell’s careers, but the kind of traditional horror films that “Saw” made redundant as well.

Josh and Renai (Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne) have just moved their family into a new house when oldest son Dalton (Ty Simpkins) bumps his head while exploring the attic and slips into a coma. The doctors can’t explain what’s wrong with him, so they move Dalton back home to be cared for by his mother. When Renai stars hearing strange noises and seeing frightening visions of ghosts lurking around the house, however, she becomes convinced that the place is haunted. But after they move again only for the angry spirits to remerge, she begs Josh to call in a specialist to investigate – a trio of ghost hunters that informs the couple it isn’t their house that’s haunted, but their son.

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As someone that tries to avoid horror movies whenever possible, it’s difficult to gauge how “Insidious” will play to diehard fans. Though it doesn’t really revolutionize the genre like “Saw” did, it has so many genuine moments of terror that cowards like myself will be on the verge of a panic attack throughout. It’s been a while since a movie has scared me as much as this, and it will likely cause nightmares for others. The film does lose some of its bite in the final act when one of the characters enters an otherworld called the Further that looks like a twisted version of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride, but by that point, Wan practically has you eating out of his hand; the scares are that effective.

He also makes some very daring stylistic choices – from the grainy film texture to the intrusive score – that evokes the horror films of the 70s and 80s. But while the movie looks great (especially considering it was made on a shoestring budget), it’s lacking in a strong central performance from Byrne or Wilson. In fact, they both seem to sleep walking through their roles compared to the lively performances of the film’s supporting cast, including character actor Lin Shaye as the paranormal medium and Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson as her clumsy assistants. Their introduction midway through injects a “Ghostbusters”-like playfulness that allows Wan to include some comic beats without lessening the weight of the situation, and it really adds a layer of enjoyment to the experience. After all, horror films are supposed to be fun to watch, and though “Insidious” trips up a bit in the end with a lame and predictable coda, it’s still a highly enjoyable piece of scare-you-shitless cinema that even a non-fan can appreciate.

  

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SXSW 2010: BARRY MUNDAY

Patrick Wilson hasn’t had the greatest of luck when it comes to movies and his manhood. He was castrated by a diabolical Ellen Page in “Hard Candy” and had trouble getting it up in Zack Snyder’s big screen adaptation of “Watchmen.” His third go-around with this particularly emasculating complication is Chris D’Arienzo’s “BARRY MUNDAY,” a movie that manages to be both funny and touching when it doesn’t seem capable of either. Though the film is obviously targeted towards a certain audience (namely, the kind of adult males who frequent this site), the fact that it plays like “Knocked Up” for grown-ups pretty much guarantees it will cast a larger net upon release.

Wilson plays the title character, a thirtysomething slacker with one thing on his mind: women. But when an embarrassing incident involving an underage girl, her father, and a trumpet results in him losing both of his testicles, Barry’s confidence plummets. To make matters worse, he returns from the hospital to discover that Ginger Farley (Judy Greer), a woman he doesn’t even remember having sex with, is carrying his illegitimate child. Faced with the prospect of his family name dying with him, Barry decides to embrace the pregnancy and his duties as the father – a decision that leads to the realization that it may have taken losing his manhood for him to finally become a man.

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Based on the Frank Turner Hollon novel, “Life is a Strange Place,” D’Arienzo’s film is an indie-sized production with a Hollywood-sized cast. Though the first-time director doesn’t bring much visually to the project, the screenplay (which he also wrote) is loaded with big laughs and even bigger heart. It may come off as a little weird that Barry Munday is able to transform from a wannabe ladies man into a responsible father so quickly, but when you take into account the fact that he’ll never be able to reproduce again, it actually makes a lot of sense. Most men think about the future of their legacy at some point in their lives, and though Barry can come across like an immature jerk at times, his journey to parenthood is engaging enough that you still root for him.

Still, it would be a pretty hard sell without someone like Patrick Wilson in the lead role, as the success of the film hinges on his performance. Wilson has been delivering solid work for years, but he’s still a relative unknown to most moviegoers. “BARRY MUNDAY” isn’t going to change that, but it’s a great venue for his talent, especially considering the role is so different from previous work. Judy Greer is also great as the homely mother-to-be, and Chloe Sevigny and Malcolm McDowell (as Ginger’s younger sister and father, respectively) bring life to otherwise paper-thin characters, but this is Wilson’s show. And when you’re playing the title character of a movie that proudly presents his name in all caps, that’s the way it should be.

  

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Passengers

Whenever a movie with an A-list cast suddenly disappears from the release schedule only to pop up on DVD several months later, you know it was probably for a reason. In the case of “Passengers,” it’s that the movie isn’t very good. Anne Hathaway stars as Claire Summers, a young psychologist assigned to the small group of survivors of a recent plane crash. When the patients begin disappearing, however, Claire teams up with one the survivors – a surprisingly carefree man named Eric (Patrick Wilson) – to unlock the truth behind the incident. Though Sony originally marketed the film as a supernatural thriller (it even had a very limited theatrical release around Halloween), there’s almost nothing supernatural or thrilling about it. Director Rodrigo Garcia tries to ratchet up the tension by sprinkling in ominous stalkers and conspiracy theories, but to little avail. Even the big twist ending – which the script tries to protect by ignoring the obvious – can be seen from a mile away, making the wait seem even longer. It’s always sad to see a great cast wasted (along with Hathaway and Wilson, the film also stars David Morse, Andre Braugher and Dianne Wiest), but “Passengers” just doesn’t have what it takes to be an engaging thriller.

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