“That´s it?” was my immediate reaction as Paranormal Activity ended and, after a brief copyright notice (no credits), the screen went black. Kudos to writer/director Oren Peli for turning this unpretentious home video footage into an entirely watchable film, the folks at DreamWorks for discovering it, and the Paramount marketing team for turning it into a must-see event. But really – is that all there is?
Considering the hype machine that preceded the release of Paranormal Activity, disappointment was inevitable. The film has been sold as the scariest movie ever made, with trailers showcasing audiences jumping in their seats and not a single frame of the actual movie. So Is it scary? Nah, not really. It´s thoroughly creepy though, and there are a couple boo! moments that might catch you off guard.
The film begins by thanking the families of Micah and Katie; what we´re about to see is purported to be real, “found footage” of the couple, who we presume from this opening are no longer with us. It´s the same setup as The Blair Witch Project, and the similarities don´t end there. That seems about right; Paranormal Activity opens ten years after Blair Witch; I´m not sure the moviegoing public could take more than one of these per decade.
Micah (Micah Sloat) has just purchased a new video camera; the film begins as he turns it on for the first time. He´s bought the camera because his girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) has been recently experiencing the titular activity and he wants to attempt to document the evidence. She´s had encounters with a ghost (or ghosts) since she was a child: an apparition by her bed as she sleeps, she can feel it breathing on her neck.
But she can´t just leave their house, as an expert (Mark Fredrichs) explains: the demon will follow her wherever she goes. Still, we expect her to try – or to take some kind of action – but she seems to want to get on with her life. The majority of the film is a collection of scenes of ghostly doings, mostly shot at night, by a static camera as Micah and Katie sleep. This is intercut with daytime scenes of exposition, as the couple watch video from the previous nights, talk about what to do, and argue. There´s a lot of arguing, as Micah, who is never really convinced despite his first-hand experiences, begins to taunt the demon.
The film relies on its scare scenes, which I won´t spoil. It´s built on a presumption that what we´re seeing is real, or really happened – and while we´re fully aware this is not the case – there isn´t a single element in the film (well, maybe one at the end) that challenges this presumption. No credits, no scenes that appear professionally filmed, and the filmmakers aren´t trying to fool us with a shaky-cam or hyper-editing either: like Blair Witch, this is the real deal, shot for around $10,000 over the course of a week.
But yeah: that´s it? There´s enough story here for a ten minute YouTube video. Drawn out over 90 minutes, boredom soon replaces suspense. Interest in the characters is minimal. At its best, Paranormal Activity works on the level of a documentary short subject, or a clip from Unsolved Mysterious; these things we´re seeing, they might really exist. As a feature, however, we´re left wanting. It is creepy and unsettling, and it´s a clear success story for those involved (I have a feeling the story behind the film would make a better movie than the film itself), but I´m at a loss how to rate or recommend it. The tacky ending veers me towards the negative.
The best thing about The Blair Witch Project was not the film itself, but the mythology that surrounded it: the witch and her legend and all that creativity that surrounded the marketing. There´s precious little of that surrounding Paranormal Activity and its nameless, arbitrary demon – there´s just not enough story, backstory or otherwise, in the film itself to make that possible. It´s a creepy little collection of ghostly scenes and a whole lotta hype.
Test of a great thriller: is it still great after the credits have rolled? We don´t get too many of those. Test of a good thriller: is it good enough while you´re watching?
Law Abiding Citizen sits firmly in the ‘good thriller´ category. By the end, it has turned completely implausible, and on top of that, it isn´t even satisfying on an emotional level. But for the previous 100 minutes, director F. Gary Gray and writer Kurt Wimmer have provided a taut, suspenseful thriller that delivers levels of moral complexity to boot. By the end, they´ve painted themselves into a corner – I realize now that no explanation could have satisfied. But it´s fun watching them paint.
In a home invasion robbery, inventor and gadget-maker Clyde Shelton´s (Gerard Butler) wife and daughter are brutally killed. He survives, getting a good look at the murderers before being knocked out. Police have arrested both suspects, who are about to go to trial.
But lawyer Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), who works for the district attorney, wants to guarantee a victory. So he negotiates a deal with Clarence Darby, who will testify against Rupert Ames and plead guilty to a reduced count of third-degree murder. His accomplice gets the death penalty, while Clarence gets a reduced sentence and will be out in a few years. Clyde is left with the image of Nick shaking hands with the man who murdered his wife and daughter.
Flash-forward ten years. Ames is about to be executed by (painless) lethal injection. But something goes terribly wrong, and he´s put through immense pain before dying. Police suspect tampering, and target his former accomplice, Darby. But Clyde gets to him first. He paralyzes his family´s murderer before killing him in the most gruesome way imaginable. And then gives himself up to police.
Mind you, all the above is enough for most features, but transpires in the first fifteen minutes of Law Abiding Citizen. Here´s the kicker: Clyde continues to murder those involved with his case from behind bars. And he continues to do so until he gets what he wants from Nick, which remains something of a mystery to Nick and the audience. “I´m gonna bring the whole system down on your head.” And he does.
But how does he do it? Surely, he must have accomplices working for him. But locked away in solitary confinement, how does he get word to them? Trying to figure this out and put the pieces together is where a lot of the fun in the film lies. I don´t think a satisfactory answer could be provided, but by the end they give us the least plausible scenario anyway, along with the most unimaginative delivery. Shame.
On top that, the finale is a thriller movie cop-out. Such a morally complex film most of the way – in movie logic, at least some of Clyde´s actions are justified, and he surely isn´t your standard bad guy – and then we get easy answers and black-and-white good-bad theorizing at the end. Double shame.
But until then, this is a fun ride. Gruesome and sometimes unpleasant – one shocking scene recalls Andrew Dominik´s Chopper – but never uninteresting. Here´s what they should´ve done: don´t explain how Clyde did it, and then give us a finale out of Fincher´s Se7en. That woulda been something.
Half-disguised as sci-fi, Robert Schwentke´s The Time Traveler´s Wife is one of the better romances of recent years; touching and affectionate and plenty sentimental but never manipulative. And the hero happens to travel through time, randomly, to events in his past or future, while the love of his life is locked into a more or less normal existence.
In that, it´s similar to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And for me anyway, while it doesn´t match up to Button on the technical side of things, it provides the emotional kick that I found the Oscar-nominee lacking. Still, in both of the films the sci-fi premise feels like a gimmick that only distances the films from their audiences; we can relate, but only so far, and the stories could have easily been told using a more reality-grounded premise.
The Time Traveler´s Wife opens with a young Henry DeTamble riding in the back seat of a car, his mother driving. There´s what appears to be an accident, but Henry suddenly finds himself back at home, watching another version of himself with mom and dad. Moments later, he´s back at the scene of the accident, his mother dead in a fiery inferno. He´s comforted by an older version of himself (played by Eric Bana), who wraps the young time traveler in a blanket (Henry can´t take his clothes with him when he travels – a nice thought, but so much screentime is dedicated to him scrambling in search of clothing that I wish they left it out. Time travel is a big jump to accept, I think we could take some clothing too )
Many years later, Henry runs into Clare Abshire (Rachel McAdams) while working at a public library. He doesn´t know her, but she sure knows him: an older version of Henry has been visiting Clare throughout her life. They´re destined to be together, of course, and soon get married – Henry disappears at the wedding, but his older self is nice enough to swoop in and fill in. Predictably, the time travel creates some complications for their family life.
Few movies can be successful as both sci-fi and romance; even something like the Richard Matheson-written Somewhere in Time was less than fully satisfying. Fewer films still can successfully incorporate time travel without inviting plot holes; it´s a sci-fi writer´s favorite device, but logically speaking, it never really feels right.
Schwentke´s film, based on the book by Audrey Niffenegger, succeeds as a romance; surprisingly so, given such an offbeat premise. But it´s a mess of incoherence as sci-fi; Schwentke, perhaps wisely, treads carefully, giving us the events fast and loose without really considering them.
It´s when you consider the time travel that things start to fall apart. When Henry travels, he does so in progressive fashion (he never goes back further in time than he has before), for no real reason other than it would screw with the plot if he did (towards the end, this forward progression is abandoned and he travels forward and back in time without much rhyme or reason – and Henry has the opportunity to screw with the plot, but never does.) All this time travel, and the past and future are always perfectly flush, everything happens as it should; you might think that Henry could change the future by his actions in the past (and logically, he should be able to, right?) but no – we progress as if fate has sealed the timeline.
And sure, fate is good fodder for romance. Not so much for science fiction. Go into The Time Traveler´s Wife with an open mind and you may not be satisfied with the results. But go in with an open heart and you´ll be swept away.
Also opening: Robert Zemeckis’ 3D motion-capture A Christmas Carol (IMDb), which features the voices of (in its original-language version) Jim Carrey as Scrooge and a number of other characters, Gary Oldman as Bob Cratchit, and Bob Hoskins, Robin Wright, Cary Elwes, and Colin Firth, among others. In Prague, however, the film is only screening in a Czech-dubbed version.
And: Zemský ráj to napohled (An Earthy Paradise for the Eyes, (IMDb), a comedy from director Irena Pavlásková. Screening in Czech.