October 2009


paranormal-activity-posterSo recently, I’ve been bitching about horror movies masquerading as other things and then up pops Paranormal Activity which more or less delivers exactly what a viewer expects. It doesn’t set out to make you laugh. It doesn’t set out to bend your mind as you try to compute the continuity and implications of multiple time jumps. It sets out to scare the bejesus out of everyone who watches it.

The frights borrow heavily from chapter one of Alfred Hitchcock’s Scary Movie Making For Dummies and follow the master’s advice that the man with the axe is far scarier if you don’t see him.

The format comes from Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield, et al. And yes, that means shaky handicam shots, a half-assed explanation of discovered footage, a seemingly improvised script and a time stamp in the bottom right hand corner.

The result, despite the rather hackneyed set-up and devices, is a film that made me jump several times in the first half and would’ve continued to do so right to the end if it hadn’t been for a couple of major problems that I’ll get to in a minute.

Paranormal Activity, according to its own website, is the film that everyone is talking about and judging by some of the soundbite reviews, I could be forgiven for thinking it was going to scare me to death, or maybe turn some of my grey hair back to black. It tells the story of Micha and Katie who’ve just moved in together, into a strangely large house in suburban San Diego. Micha brings his guitar and PC, Katie brings her CDs, a sizable collection of pyjamas and the notion that she’s been tormented by an evil spirit since she was eight-years-old. For reasons never fully explained, Micha reacts to this latter discovery by investing in some home video equipment and becomes determined to capture evidence of the spooks and spectres who’ve been scaring his girlfriend. For equal reasons, Katie lets him.

Actually, this all works rather well. The two leads, like the other five characters featured in the 99 minutes, are unknowns, but they convincingly bounce off each other, have a good chemistry and authentic relationship and manage to give rather understated performances which makes the opening premise a fairly easy sell. Katie talks about this possession like it was an old teddy bear that’s just been with her forever and has really become part of her. I warmed to her and her story and wanted to believe, which is half the battle.

So. What’s the problem with the other half of the battle? Well, part of the problem is that the scares become so clearly signposted that some of the suspense just evaporates. When, for the fifth time, Micha sets up the camera in the bedroom and they go to bed, we know that something is going to happen and something always does. At the start, this amounts to nothing more than distant footsteps, whispers, shadows and a moving door. This builds as the movie progresses, and that door becomes something of a focal point, but because it’s all framed in exactly the same way, some truly shocking and terrifying moments are diluted. Katie standing motionless over Micha as he sleeps while the clock in the bottom right hand corner fast forwards through the early hours of the morning is a very effective and eerie tool the first time we see it, less so the second time. Add to that, Micha’s nonsensical discovery of internet footage of a similarly possessed woman’s exorcism and my right eyebrow is moving north.

Still, all that I could just about overlook if it wasn’t for The Main Problem. As the scares increase and lives are in danger, the reaction from the two protagonists becomes utterly unbelievable and the continued filming of both the spooky events and the daytime tension and arguments is simply baffling. By the time we get to the denouement, the main question isn’t, “What’s going to happen?” It’s, “Why are they still there, still filming?” Of course, no filming equals no film, but first-time writer and director Oren Peli needs to come up with better reasons for these things to happen and these reactions to play out. The film put down some great work in the first hour and this decision to abandon logic and hope no one notices just strives to undo all that.

None of this should detract from the fact that in places this is a scary, atmospheric film and despite the repetative nature, the bedroom scenes, more often than not, delivered a sense of dread. The fact that everything is filmed within the house on a hand-held does give the sense that there is no escape either for the couple or the viewer. Did it make me check under the bed at night? No. But it did make me realise that if I ever secretly film a ouija board’s cursor moving on its own before board bursts into flames, the least I’m going to do is check the Yellow Pages and if Bill Murray’s number turns out to be unlisted, maybe I’ll settle for an estate agent.

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triangle-quad-newOne of these days, I’m going to go to see a horror movie and what I’ll actually sit down and watch will be a horror movie. Zombieland was a comedy and Triangle is a thiller and at this rate, Saw VI will be a western.

What ultimately makes this review a bit of a bugger to write is that Triangle is one of those films where saying too much about what it’s about would spoil the experience and what is safe to say doesn’t make it sound particularly rivetting.

Melissa George stars as Jess, a single-mother of an autistic child who goes on a sailing trip with some buddies. They go through a freak storm, their boat is overturned and they’re eventually picked up by a passing cruise ship that appears to be deserted until things go a little crazy. They stay that way until the end.

It’s the “things go a little crazy” bit that makes this such a challenging, absorbing and initially confusing film. Up until the storm, the pace is quite relaxed — pedestrian, almost — but all the way through, there’s a sense that something’s not quite right.

Apart from the remake of Amityville Horror, my only frame of reference for Melissa George was God knows how long ago when she was Angel in Home & Away so I was pleasantly surprised by how good she is here. She’s the centre of proceedings and it’s the convincing way she plays Jess as tired, edgy and distant that shepherds the movie successfully through the tentative scene-setting of the opening act and she really excels once “things go a little crazy.”

Director and writer Christopher Smith keeps the anticipation palpable and, somewhat tiring if my nerves are to be believed , never really presents the jump he promises until near the end. The result is uncomfortable, claustrophobic and unsettling for all the right reasons.

Couple of gripes. Some of the CGI is terrible. When things fall into the ocean, you’re never really in any danger of believing that something has fallen into the ocean. It happens a couple of times and only serves as a reminder that you’re in a cinema watching a movie. The second gripe, well, I can’t really mention without giving too much away, but there’s a fourth instance of something that never explained … and it needs to be explained because instances two and three are more than adequately covered.

It took Smith two years to write the movie, such were the demands of the structure and continuity. It’s been time well spent and he’s created a conversation piece. While I can live with possible plot-holes and without concrete explanations of why that ship and why the thing is called Triangle in the first place, I did feel he could’ve been more explicit in how the film should be interpreted. Was it all real? Was a Faustian bargain at its heart? Well, yes, no, both, neither, maybe. I dunno and perhaps I should.

I do enjoy quick turnarounds. I wrote The Boy Who Threw Rocks at Trains last Monday, subbed it out on Sunday and today it’s been accepted by Jersey Devil Press and will feature in the December issue. So consider it my Christmas present to you. Expect a reminder at the time (of the story being published, not Christmas).

… those who understand binary and those who don’t.

I thank you.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, that segues quite nicely into the news that my short story — Everything Binary — has gone live over at Neon Magazine. It’s a cracking journal and I’m loving the stark, black & white photography they use. And it’s British, which is something of a rarity and all the more reason to click that link if it wasn’t attractive enough as it is.

For those unfamiliar with the drill, go have a read of the story along with all the other work in Issue 21. There will be a quiz later.

zombielandWithin the first minute, I knew I was going to like Zombieland. Five minutes later, during the Metallica accompanied opening credits, I suspected I was going to love it. I so enjoy being right.

Quite naturally, the storyline of most zombie flicks tend to fall into seige and survival territory and, of course, there are large aspects of that here. The last fifteen minutes are pretty much exclusively that. But while, Shaun of the Dead managed to introduce a buddy angle to the formula and arguably invent the hybrid genre of zom-rom-com, Zombieland introduces the notion of a zombie road trip movie, so in amongst all the stock baggage of the genre, it still manages to feel new.

Incidentally, it’s a horror-comedy with the strong emphasis on comedy. Don’t go expecting your stomach to be churned or your skin to provide a platform for jumping. It’s sorta nasty in places and kinda gory in others, but it’s far, far funnier than it is either of those things. A stoned Bill Murray reinacting a scene from Ghostbusters with a vacuum cleaner had me laughing so hard, I might have farted a little bit.

The storyline is thankfully kept free of complication. Two mismatched survivors of the zombie apocalypse team up to travel cross-country in search of something they can call home, preferably sans-zombie. Jesse Eisenburg plays Columbus (because he’s heading for Columbus, Ohio) and Woody Harrelson plays Tallahassee (for similar reasons). Columbus has survived thus far by living his life according to some strict rules: cardio, fasten seatbelts, don’t be a hero, check bathrooms etc. Tallahassee basically just really, really enjoys killing zombies. It isn’t long into proceedings before our little band are joined by a sister con team of Emma “Wichita” Stone and Abigail “Little Rock” Breslin, two becomes four and we’re heading for fun and games in an amusement park in LA.

The zombies, in this outing, are of the running / jumping / climbing trees variety a la the 2004 remake of Dawn of the Dead, with a notable difference being that here, they aren’t strictly speaking undead, but rather the victims of a 28 Days Later style virus that originated with an infected burger. There’s an unexplored nod to The Stand here that’s only cough-and-you’ll-miss-it mentioned, and while it’s no great loss as the movie is far happier focussing on the effect rather than the cause, the fact that it’s been thought about and considered is very welcome.

Performances all round are excellent. Woody Harrelson reprises his redneck role from Natural Born Killers and he hasn’t been funnier since Kingpin. His character is simply about killing zombies but his little subplot of tracking down some Twinkie bars (“Twinkies have expiry dates, you know”) and those loved-ones he misses from his old life adds substance and flesh to the character. The greatest compliment I can pay is that I missed him when he wasn’t on screen.

His co-star Eisenberg is new to me, but he has instant likeable, geek charm that seems strangely familiar for ten seconds before you realise why. He looks like Michael Cera. He talks like Michael Cera. His lines sounded like they were written for Michael Cera. All this made me wonder, that while the Columbus role is filled very comfortably indeed, why the makers didn’t russle up another few thousand bucks and hire Cera. All this is further confused by Emma Stone’s involvement, given they were both in Superbad.

Without giving too much away, though, a sizable chunk of the middle act belongs to a cameo from Bill Murray, who plays himself. Bill Murray, in my humble opinion, operates on genius level in everything I’ve seen him in (although, in Zombieland, he questions the merit of his role in Garfield) and it was during the section filmed in his supposed mansion that I realised how much I was enjoying these characters and the world they inhabited.

And it’s a world that’s shot and framed very well and interspersed with post modern captions reminding us of Columbus’s all-important rules, in a font that looks straight out of the videogame TOCA Race Driver. Net effect is the somewhat stock, grey, washed out atmosphere of the early parts of the film still manage to feel very 2009 and fresh. Sprinkle in some inobtrusive CGI and super-slo-mo here and there, and it’s something of a treat to look at, particularly with all the mood pieces like the broken up jumbo jet lying derelict in the middle of a freeway.

A downside? Well, at eighty-eight minutes, perhaps ten of which are credits, my arse had barely warmed my leather VIP seat before it was over, even with that cheeky fart thrown in. Call me odd and hypocritical after decrying Hollywood’s seeming inability to tell a story in under two hours, but I’d have happily sat through another twenty minutes, no problem at all.

You should see it. I want to go see it again. Right now, in fact. Pick you up in an hour?

The Invention of LyingIn the spirit of the movie, The Invention of Lying is a reasonably funny, reasonably entertaining film whose hi-concept idea, while original and inventive, ultimately fails to deliver on its promise and doesn’t quite manage to be the lynchpin to hold together 100 minutes of cinema. And it really, really, has far too many montages.

In more colourful terms, Ricky Gervais plays Mark Bellison, a screenwriter in a world where there is no lying and, hence, no creativity, so is charged with writing non-fiction narratives of events from the 13th century, a century where nothing much happened except for the plague. His movies aren’t popular, he gets the sack and as he’s about to be evicted and die homeless and unloved, a synapse reaction allows him to tell a lie. Because no one has any concept of lying, everyone believes him. And hilarity ensues, right? Well, kinda.

The good news is that the movie is better than the trailer makes it out to be. It isn’t just a reverse of Liar, Liar and it isn’t just a movie about a guy using his unique talent to get laid and rob casinos. While I’d probably still quite like to see that movie, there’s more substance here and, dare I say, it’s a more intelligent movie and we’re left with more discussion points because of it.

In a world where no one lies, there is no fiction, there is no flattery, there is no creativity, no one smiles if they don’t have a reason to, no one says your bum doesn’t look to big in that dress … but also, it seems that no one is able to hold their counsel, which came as a surprise. This meant that for the first twenty minutes, people basically insulted Ricky Gervais and it all became a little grating and samey. Someone tells Ricky he’s fat / ugly / untalented. Ricky says, “Aw …” and shakes his head a bit. You get the picture.

It also provides my first problem with the continuity and it’s a problem that rears its head from the outset. If no one is able to have an unexpressed thought because to do so is a lie (and I’m fifty/fifty on whether I’m buying that or not), Mark Bellison seems able to do so from the off. When his secretary is giving a long list of reasons why she’ll be happy when he gets fired, he takes a breath to retort … and then doesn’t. Why not? The rules suggest he should let rip in a full and frank manner.

Thankfully, this attention to detail is nowhere near as lacking in the world these characters inhabit. Everything has a sort of drained 60s hue to it. Most things are grey or brown or grey-ish brown. Cars are dull boxes. Furniture, fixtures and fittings are all about functionality and adequacy. On the wall of Mark’s apartment, he has a dartboard and a painting of a dartboard. A particular delight is the brilliant signage and advertisements used. Coke is a brown, sugary drink. Pepsi is for when there’s no Coke. An old folks’ home entrance has the welcoming phrase: A Sad Place For Hopeless Old People.

Ricky, himself, turns in a strong, warm, believable performance. Fans of The Office or Extras won’t find much new — the role is hardly a stretch — but he does know how to portray an character that people can empathise with and a couple of scenes really gave me goosebumps. As co-writer and co-director, he should be less satisfied. For a movie where the premis is so good, there should be endless opportunities for gags while still allowing room for the emotion and intelligence that comes through so well in his TV work. Instead, the plot never really gels, too many characters are inconsequential (although Rob Lowe is great) and we uncomfortably jerk from one act to the next with an implausible love story serving as a backbone. Welcome along, Problem #2 with the continuity. The problem is, we never really get a handle on why Ricky’s character covets Jennifer Garner so much. He goes from dating her to falling in love with her with no encouragement from her and no sign that she’s ever going to love him back. At best, she’s a little pleasant to him once or twice. She treats him as badly as everyone else. She’s not even the best of a bad lot.

The religious turmoil that seems to be riding in this movie’s wake strikes me as a little baffling as there’s no real anti-religious message here, just as there’s no pro-religious message. The message I came out of the theatre with was, with our without religion, people have the capacity to be horrible, bitchy, kind, beautiful and apathetic to each other. It’s no more insulting to religious types than Jesus of Nazareth was to atheists. It’s a fictional movie and people should be strong enough in whatever belief system they hold dear to survive any perceived roasting from a motion picture. Plus, Mark delivering his sermon from the back of a two Pizza Hut boxes is my favourite part of the film.

So. An honest summary. The film just about gets pass marks. It was funny enough to make me laugh out loud a few times and smile many more times. Ricky’s good. Jennifer isn’t. It’s a film I’ll probably enjoy again on DVD. It’s a film I wouldn’t recommend going to the cinema to see unless you can’t bear waiting six months to see it. I’m disappointed I didn’t love it but then, honesty is often not the best policy.