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Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

There is one very simple reason why the first "Paranormal Activity" was such a staggering success. Those people at Paramount sold their movie incredibly well. Sensing they had another 'Blair Witch Project" on their hands, they marketed their film as one of 'the scariest movies of all time'. Trailers showed just how terrified audiences were with real life camera footage (on a film about supposed real life camera footage) capturing all the jumps and scares in the cinema in all its grainy night vision glory. You were made to believe you had to see this film. As a result, curiosity changed from an original and ultra low budget indie horror experiment, to a film that effectively boiled down to a dare on the audiences behalf. And they accepted in their droves. The first "Paranormal Activity" is one of the most successful films ever made. From its original budget of a mere fifteen thousand dollars, it went on to gross over $193 million. However, with all this huge hype behind the film, the finished product could never withstand it all. I greatly looked forward to the films eventual release (I had heard about it quite some months before it was finally released) and felt it would be a very welcome surprise to see an original and inventive American horror in what seemed like a very long while. So while it was fairly original and certainly inventive, the final product just didn't impact me the way I had originally envisioned. Having said that, I can certainly imagine what it would be like walking into this film knowing next to nothing about it, and the shock it would have. But it is a tiny and very limited resource horror film. When the biggest of Hollywood blockbusters are struggling to meet the hype bar they are setting for themsleves, then what chance did this single location, zero CG effects, no name chiller have? And whats more all it had to fall back on was its gimmicky premise. Supposed 'found footage' in cinema has been going for decades now. Even more recently the marketplace (especially horror) has become crowded with them. So my opinion of the original was this: as a very cheap exercise in how to get an effective and neat little horror movie in cinemas, it worked. And at the very least the fact that the film attempted to create an atmosphere for itself, as opposed to relying on gore and cliche tricks of the genre, a lot must be said. However, as the experience it was built up to be, the film never once delivered. But with opening numbers like that, is it really so shocking that its sequel has been rushed into production in time for Halloween and in exactly a year since the first films release?

The "Saw" franchise has, for the first time in 6 odd years, a competitor to its yearly Halloween throne. In fact, the first "Paranormal Activity" was so successful, it seems to have buried the "Saw" franchise once and for all, with its supposed final offering out this week. While this should be cause for celebration in itself, especially if you feel the same way I do about the "Saw" films, then consider now, that "Paranormal Activity" films will now be clogging up the multiplexes every year for the foreseeable future. The films, so cheap to make, must be sending their makers laughing all the way to the bank. However, and this is something I never anticipated; but "Paranormal Activity 2" is actually rather good. It is exactly what a decent sequel should be: it opens out the world and provides some backstory, it ups the game and stakes, and it offers more of the same except, y'know, slightly different. If you detested the first one then Part 2 will do absolutely nothing to sway you, but I have to say, I more than once felt myself gripping my armchair in tension. Unfortunately it may also seem that me recommending this film, based on the first ones successful critical reaction, can do nothing but take away from the experience for you. If the first one couldn't withstand the hype, then chances are that this one can't either. After all, these are films based on waiting. Waiting for something to happen. Anything. And as a result, there is not really much action in the film at all. But if your up for going along with the film, then there is no reason why you can't get the shivers as I did more than once throughout the running time.

The plot initially surprises as being set before the events of the first film. This is one of the successes of the film, that in its mere story it actually improves the first one. Kristi and Dan move back home with their brand new born baby Hunter. Documented by Dans daughter Ali, we see the family and watch Hunter grow. The protagonists here are actually presented as likeable, compared to the slightly annoying owners in Part 1. With a family we relate to, more characters-one of them an infant, tension is immediately raised when all sorts of spooky goings on begin to happen. We learn that Katie, from its predecessor, is actually Kristis sister. Both her and the soon to be doomed Micah make appearances throughout adding a refreshing layer to proceedings. So we follow the exact same pattern as the first, as night time cameras are set up to document the house at night when its occupants have all gone to bed, and this is when all the eerie tension begins. Yes, the same title of 'Night #_' can initially become quite monotonous, what with the film intent on following the same tried and tested material, it is lucky the final product is as effective as it is. This is a particular wide frame with next to nothing happening in it. The sound turned low, your eye frantically searches the frame, looking for something that may be out of the ordinary. Then something loud or unexpected very abruptly happens. Yes, its cheap and yes it is not necessarily hard to scare audiences with it, but my God it works. It seems those in charge of the follow up also learned a few lessons of what was not particularly successful from the first one, and as such, the sequel features far more action and genuine scares, as opposed to just loud BANG noises of which the first had in plenty. Go along with it and you may find yourself shivering along to the scares, wether you want to or not. Acting is serviceable and all effects are competantly handled. When the action does kick off, he film itself is quite nicely reminiscent of "Poltergeist" and "REC2" from earlier this year.

So the film offers the audience more. It could be argued that in attempting to create a reason why the Demon has targeted all these people, takes away from the creepy unknown and random attacks of the first. But it also gives more drama and story in a franchise very much devoid of both. I know watching again won't give me anywhere near the same reaction, but the film actually had me at one or two points. To get that in major horror releases these days is rare. To get it from a rush-released sequel is rarer still. And yet "Paranormal Activity 2" succeeds despite this. It over comes its gimmick source, familiar origins and low expectation (hate in some peoples eyes) reputation to deliver despite everything going against it. It's not art, and it's no were near a classic, horror or otherwise, but it is cracking audience bonding flick. The collective tense-jump-laugh has rarely been this satisfying in quite a while. For attempting genuine fear and scares without resorting to shock tactics, "Paranormal Activity 2" must at least be given more respect than it has been getting. This franchise may be about to get old, but for now, Part 3 does not seem to be all that bad a prospect.

Verdict: 66.6%
A very surprising roller coaster horror, that shocks in actually being more effective than its predecessor. Two excellent jumps, one or two nail biting encounters and an effective sense of dread in the atmosphere equals a very fun night out at the movies. Nothing to it, dead easy to make and mass produce, but it doesn't take away from the fact that the franchise knows how to unnerve its audience. Naysayers will not be converted, everyone else will sleep with the lights on.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Social Network

How ironic it must be to Mark Zuckerberg to have founded the worlds biggest social networking site, when he himself, is anything but social. Now with David Finchers film bringing even more unwanted attention upon him, it must be a constant chagrin to Zuckerberg, when all he wants is to be left alone with his computer. Or so Fincher's ''The Social Network'' would have you believe. Based on Ben Mesrich's 2009 book, 'The Accidental Billionaires', the film is not, wholly based on 100% fact. This is something that writer Aaron Sorkin, or Fincher ever denied. Sorkin himself was been quite objective on his intentions. He has been quoted 'I don't want my fidelity to be the truth, I want it to be storytelling'. Sorkin wants to entertain, rather than educate his audience. Their intentions known from the start show just what they have achieved here. They haven't set out to fire out facts and events in black and white. They have set out to make a statement. It may be a document of our time, but not of the factual kind. It is yet another triumph added to the most excellent Fincher's list of impeccable triumphs.

When initial reports came out detailing Finchers new 'Facebook Movie', reaction ranged from baffled to outright horror. This was Generation X's movie punk wunderkind, and he was selling out? Fincher was a master of the macabre, of skewering perceptions of the serial killer genre, not once, but twice. He deals in worlds full of threat and darkness and menace. Of radicalizing notions of pop culture in cinema. Every shot is meticulously planned out, and every subject he draws upon, is researched to the max. Robert Graysmith, the author of 'Zodiac' maintains that Fincher got further than he ever did on the confusing, disturbing and very slippery case. Wasn't Facebook below him? Then something curious happened. Finchers backwards fairytail ''The Curious Case of Benjamin Button'' was released to much acclaim. Sure, some purists might have argued against his branching out to more saccharine subjects, but few could argue against the success of his wild genre change. An epic meditation on love and life, there was no severed heads to be found in boxes anywhere. If this was Fincher selling out, then the grace and beauty and simple power of his love story ensured that no one could argue his commitment to it. David Fincher is the consummate Director. He has too good an eye for detail, too much talent and too much range to simply sell out. Suddenly the prospect of David Fincher's Facebook didn't seem so bad. It was only when Aaron Sorkin was announced as writer, that people began to grasp what was in store for them. ''The West Wing'' is one of the greatest shows ever. While I myself have not seen the full seven seasons, I have seen enough of it to know just how finely tuned Sorkin's ear for dialogue is. It is a pleasure to listen to, and therein lies many of the reasons the show appealed even to those who had little or no interest in Politics such as myself. Sorkin writes drama stunningly. If he can make Politicians exciting for me, then surely he can make Facebook exciting for those who turn their nose up at such a subject. Despite what you may think, Sorkin takes Facebook seriously. Perhaps he takes it too seriously, I will go into more detail on that later, but for his commitment to the story he must be applauded. Because this 'Facebook Movie' is so far, front and center primed to take home a lot of awards come early next year.

Set in 2003/2004, the film concerns itself not with the rise of Facebook, but rather the rise of its creator, Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg), currently, the worlds youngest billionaire. The fact that he helped create the Facebook revolution is only all the more stunning that it came out of something entirely negative and ugly. Ridicule of others online. Zuckerberg himself is painted as someone who's genius is matched only by his ego. He wishes to be held by high esteem by everyone, yet holds nothing but contempt for them. Eisenberg portrays him wonderfully. He is a contradiction of mass arrogance. He seeks everyones approval and yet mocks them. He wants friends, and acceptance yet most people are a burden. A very unenviable task for Eisenberg, he is never less than compelling. Of course the legal spiderweb that entailed the creation of Facebook and its success is what focus is kept on. The linear shifts from its beginnings to the legal wranglings of Zuckerberg and his only friend, Eduardo Saverin, played here by Andrew Garfield propels the drama. That there is also the lawsuit of whether or not Zuckerberg stole the original idea from two Harvard rowing champion twins, shows the potential for much of the story to buckle under the burden of its talky weight. Fincher keeps proceedings fresh and distinctive and shows a wry eye for humour along the way. The soon to be the future Spider-Man, Garfield provides much of the emotion of the film. His fractured relationship to Zuckerberg fuels a lot of the drama on screen. At its heart, the film is all about relationships and the strain money and success places on them. Tension is only further exacerbated with the arrival of Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake). The original founder of Napster, his reasons with getting involved with Facebook may not be entirely honourable and yet it is he, who Zuckerberg looks up to and wishes he could be more like. Parker is everything Zuckerberg is not, but in the end one gets the feeling, that Parker needs Zuckerberg a lot more than Zuckerberg needs Parker. Parkers genius lies in making those around him think they need him when all he really is, is a mouth. Unfortunately, of the three leads Timberlake is the only weak link. While perfectly serviceable I could never once get by the fact that 'Justin Timberlake is acting'. He is not wooden and he can certainly deliver a line, but it is his mere presence that is sometimes too distracting. While this might be what the character calls for, I ultimately found that to be too true to the case in point. Timberlake was portraying a character, next to Eisenbergs and Garfields real people.

Sorkin's script is 166 pages long. Usually each script page counts for a minute of film and yet the film runs to just over two hours. Finchers way of getting the running time down, while still including everything the story needed and deserved was to merely get his cast to talk fast. Really fast. That should give you an idea of how rapid the dialogue is presented. From the off in a fantastic pre-credit sequence Fincher draws us into our leads. Two characters involved in quick rapid fire dialogue across a table. Character traits are immediately established along with motives and shifting dynamics. It is the perfect introduction into this Harvard elite Fincher presents us with, and shows how rash decisions can lead to huge consequences. Like the founding of a multi billion dollar online empire for example. Eisenberg and Finchers new 'Lisbeth Salander' Rooney Mara trade insults, barbed delusions about the world and a complete relationship break down all in the space of four minutes. It is a masterclass in dialogue and is arguably the finest and most important scene in the film. Sorkin litters his screenplay with choice moments of necessary humour. The film might get bogged down were it not for this. And yet, I cannot help but wonder if a lighter touch still might have worked wonders for the film. It seems to be lacking from a true sense of drama as there never truly seems to be anything at stake or anything for the audience to invest emotionally in. There is next to no surprises in the plot for the film to be fully captivating. Zuckerberg himself, seems to take a back seat to Saverin and Parker in the second half, which is a shame, as his downward spiral into loneliness and social rejection was one of the most intriguing aspects for me. Fincher however surprises again with his film. He is comfortable dealing in any genre he feels like and his extraordinary vision is evident in every frame. And in those twins, he creates the most seamless special effect I have ever witnessed as one actors head is invisibly grafted onto another actors body. Twice. And you thought an ageless Brad Pitt was good?

Verdict: 78%
David Fincher adds another impressive layer to his bow and Sorkin reminds just how peerless he is when it comes to dialogue. Trent Reznor provides a fantastic debut score and Eisenberg excels. However, the lack of any true drama and urgency and Timberlakes casting takes it back down from masterpiece status. A fantastic nights entertainment with one of the best auteurs of our generation is waiting for those who decide to log on.

Sunday, October 10, 2010


There appears to be a new sub genre getting ever more popular amongst film makers. That is the single location and very claustrophobic thriller. Very recently we had the horror "Devil" set entirely in a stalled elevator where one of its five occupants is a seemingly malevolent entity. In early January of next year Danny Boyles eagerly awaited follow up to "Slumdog Millionaire" is the shocking true story of an extreme sports fanatic getting his arm stuck under a boulder and resorting to desperate risks for his survival. The film "127 Hours" promises a stunning emotional roller coaster ride upon its release. Now however we have Rodrigo Cortés thriller "Buried". A film that takes a huge risk in setting itself entirely within a coffin. Cortés' genius lies in his unfaltering committal to his story. While such a small and confining space could make for a very dull nights entertainment for some films, "Buried" surprises in being one of the most heart stopping exciting films of the year, making stunning and very cinematic use of its small spaces.

Paul Conroy awakes to find himself living every persons worst nightmare. He has been buried alive in a coffin and it is in here that we will spend the next 95 minutes. A normal blue collar truck driver, Reynolds plays the everyman with stunning conviction. He is the embodiment of being caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is during his work in Iraq that he gets taken hostage by terrorists and finds himself in this terrifying predicament. With only the very low light of his lighter and mobile phone left for him, Paul must find a way out before time runs out. The unrelenting claustrophobia is evident from the start. The scarceness of oxygen is palpable amongst the audience as much as it is Paul, such is the films effect. You can feel the scratchy sand on your face and feel the walls closing in as time is running out. Kudos must be payed to Cortés for mining the concept for all its worth. He wrings plenty of ingenious camera angles and tense obstacles out of our heroes 'situation'. How the film never once grows dull or outstays its welcome is a huge success for Cortés and his team. Sound design is fantastic adding to the nerve shredding terror along with one of the best scores of the year, enhancing the excitement and tension.

However, a film like this would live or die on its central actor. It is he who the audience spends every second with and were they not up the task, the film would feel considerably longer than its 90 or so minutes. While casting someone like Ryan Reynolds in this part might initially seem disjointing, it is all the more stunning at how well he pulls it off. An actor known more for his looks and his razor sharp timing and moter mouth skills; a film like this goes almost entirely against image by casting him in dark shadows and having him react to anonymous voices on the end of his phone for much of its running time. Reynolds never once fails to captivate. It shows plenty of more strings to his bow and if there is any justice, Reynolds will be nominated come the awards season.

Cortés may be trying to make a statement with his film. The maddening ineffectiveness of those Paul turns to for help casts a damning eye over the American Government and murky Political implications of the Iraq war. Thankfully he does not let this over-power the story, rather aide and move it along. However, if his intentions were in showing the dark side of those in charge of helping American soldiers and workers in Iraq, then why paint the Iraqis themselves as such psychotic individuals. A minor criticism in an otherwise expertly maintained and stunning thriller. Reynolds gives an incredible one man performance and Cortés mounts a very claustrophobic yet very exciting small space for our hero to escape from. Along with a delicious sense of dark humour, all involved turn in one of the most memorable films of the year.

Verdict 82%
A Hitchcockian thriller that the man himself would have been proud to put his name on, Rodrigo Cortés takes its very simple premise to its extremes and delivers a fantastic cinematic experience.

Friday, October 8, 2010

The Town

Ben Affleck has made a startling career transformation in a mere seven years. It was 2003 in which "Gigli" was released, an International box office flop that had Affleck rendered a laughing stock. Parody was everywhere; with Affleck it was just too easy and like shooting fish in a barrel. That career low, coupled with his disastrous marriage to Jennifer Lopez almost left his career in tatters. Stunning then that in just two films, Affleck has completely turned his fortunes around. No longer do people wonder how much more talented his original writing partner Matt Damon is, or if Affleck ever even had any input into "Good Will Hunting"? Now his name is a byword for smart and intelligent adult dramas that are actually entertaining movie fodder for a Saturday night. He entertains the masses, but does not ask them to switch off their brain to do so. He respects character and plotting and does not shy away from harsh or gritty themes. All this, from that guy in "Reindeer Games".

Affleck again returns to the seedy underbelly of his hometown of Boston. In his previous film, ''Gone Baby Gone'' he presented very unsavory characters that would sell their own child for drugs or money. He depicted just how tough the streets are and how easy it is to get lost in their moral murkiness. With ''The Town'', he presents us with 'Charlestown'', a small neighbourhood in the Boston locale, which we're told houses most of the criminals responsible for the 300 or so bank robberies committed there every year. It is here that we open on Doug MacRay (Ben Affleck), as he and his team rob a bank. Affleck shows his progression as a filmaker from the off, as this expertly mounted and brilliantly planned heist, is echoed in Afflecks Directing skills. In fact each of the three or so major action scenes are all brilliantly orchestrated. Events are feverous and hectic but never do the audience lose track of what is happening on screen. Its shoot-outs in particular rank as some of the best I have seen in years. As MacRay and his team take hostage Claire, (Rebecca Hall), a young bank teller, MacRay then takes it on himself to keep tabs on her, to make sure she does not give away any details she may have witnessed about MacRay and his masked group, to Special Agent Adam Frawley (Jon Hamm). As Doug and Claires relationship begins to grow, Doug soon realises that this may not be the life for him after all. But with the screws tightening from the FBI closing in and tension within the group itself, will he actually be able to make it out of Charlestown alive?

The ensemble cast are all superb. Affleck knows talented actors and litters his film with them. Hamm continues his role to superstardom as the very cunning and calculating Special Agent. In one scene in particular he jumps from slyly charming, to steel and beady eyed malice in a heartbeat. However Affleck does not drown his film with out and out bad guys. Characters here carry shades of grey to them. So while Frawley may be the antagonist, he is not all bad. Only Postlethwaite carries any of the panto 'boo and hiss' trappings of his villainous turn. Possibly the best performance of the film belongs to Renner as Jem, Dougs best friend. Exhibiting all the intensity that got him an Oscar nomination for ''The Hurt Locker'', his role provides a lot of the tension and emotion. A pent up ball of fury that may erupt at any time, his most heart stopping and stand out moment comes when he accidentally stumbles upon Doug and Claire on a date. His is a character borne out of his tough upbringing. Violence is all he knows and is the only way he knows how to express himself. He may not exhibit the remorse Doug has for his actions, but there is still something entirely sympathetic about him. A product of a rough and rotten upbringing, his downfall began at a young age when he killed another kid because he 'didn't like the look of him'. Under Renner's skilled wing, Jem isn't just the homicidal maniacal caricature he could easily have been, but something far more more sad and layered. Tension in the group comes from him at heart feeling threatened by Halls character. He doesn't want to lose his buddy and half brother and on these streets, family is everything. So when Doug tells him how he's 'getting out', what else can Jem do but fight? He is nothing outside of Charlestown and the prospect of existing in a world outside of it is too scary. Jealousy stems from Dougs ability to at least try to leave, something Jem could never do.

And then there is Affleck the actor. While this is undoubtably the best he has been in years, it is still outmatched by his skills behind the camera. One of the biggest strengths is the films ability to still seem fresh and entertaining when the the plot and themes are anything but. Boston crime in film is so common now, it could form a sub-genre onto itself. With Afflecks previous film, ''Gone Baby Gone'', it is also joined by ''Mystic River'' and ''The Departed'' in the familial stakes. That the film also shares parallel themes with the 1995 classic ''Heat'' and ''Point Break'', shows that Affleck is hardly treading on new ground here. It is this which while is certainly a big plus, it also means the film is prevented from 'classic' status. Events here have been covered plenty of times before and the film will offer you nothing new in the way of crime thrillers. It will however, offer a very solid and exciting evenings entertainment with some of the best ensemble acting in recent memory. Affleck should be applauded for making films for adults once again, and the films strong showings in both the US and Europe show that they are more than ready for films that don't have to rely on special effects to be a commercial hit. That Affleck has also changed the publics perception of his talent is astounding in itself. Tell anyone walking out of ''Forces of Nature'', that that actor will be writing and directing some of the finest and mature films appearing in cinemas in 10 years from now and they might have been liable to laugh in your face. In fact, I might have too.

Verdict: 79%
Ben Affleck cements his new found reputation as a very talented Director, with this expertly crafted and exciting crime drama. He builds on his Directing skills while also providing a more than solid nights entertainment. Expect to see this nominated for its outstanding cast come the awards season.