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Wednesday, 27 October 2010

Trapped in the Closet: Paranormal Activity 2

Despite what the people running the Saw franchise seem to think, horror is the one genre where you can't keep doing exactly the same thing over and over again and expect to get the same results. You have to mix things up, if only a little, if you expect to keep scaring people. But messing with success in horror is a tricky business, and it only takes a few tiny changes to turn a deeply frightening tale into yet another "boo!"-fest.

For example, for the most part Paranormal Activity 2 sticks closely to the template of the original: there's a small number of people in a big house where strange things are starting to happen. Video cameras are set up to capture the weirdness, creepy things are filmed, and suddenly things get out of hand. But beyond those broad strokes this gets everything wrong.

Firstly, it's not a realistically annoying young couple that're being haunted here: it's a bland-ed out regular family that exhibits only the barest amount of personality required to push the plot forward (the husband fires the Mexican nanny for her smoke-filled rituals to ward off evil spirits; the perky daughter breaks out the ouija board because she thinks the spirit might be her dead mum).

Some reviewers complained that the original couple got on their nerves, completely missing the point: in the real world, people who are stressed are often annoying, what with their worrying they’re going to die and everything. Going for “likable” over “interesting” characters totally undercuts the realism that went a long way towards making the original’s collection of slamming doors and spooky noises scary. This is a generic family here, without a single recognisable trait: why should we care in the slightest what happens to them? And so we don’t.

The original manufactured a compelling sense of dread through its night vision video camera scenes by showing the same scene over and over - a bedroom with an open door and a darkened corridor beyond - and slowly adding tiny changes: a moving door, someone getting up in their sleep, a thumping sound. Paranormal Activity 2 instead shifts the action all over the house, totally failing to build any location-based tension: should we be scared when it cuts to the pool? The Kitchen? The baby's room?

Maybe if we had some sense of the layout of the house itself, but – despite an actual tour at the beginning of the film – the geography is mostly confused. Which again, detracts from the atmosphere: few things are as frightening as thinking there’s something coming for you in the dark, but where the original’s straightforward layout (everything led to the bedroom) could make the shadows in a dark hall disturbing, this is just a mess.

Even when individual scenes work, they never build on each other to create the awful sense of something demonic groping towards a hideous goal that made the first film so unsettling. In the first film, the evil had a plan and the couple couldn't escape it, each night something to be feared because you knew the unseen force was getting closer to whatever it had planned. One night a door would open, the next there’d be a thumping noise, then there’d be a thumping noise and the door would open; whatever was coming next, it wasn’t good.

In this, some rooms have things happen that are unsettling at first but quickly lose their power once it becomes obvious they’re going nowhere. In the kitchen a pot falls down, later some cupboards fly open… and that’s it for the kitchen. Doors slam shut or fly open, but there’s not much sense that something behind them wants to get in. It’s like the film-makers didn’t realise that in the first film the events weren’t just frightening on their own, they actually suggested something even worse. Here a slamming door is just a slamming door..

No surprise then that this has to eventually resort to showing people being dragged into the closet by an unseen force, but even that doesn’t really work; yes, being pulled around by an unseen being would certainly scare the shit out of you if it happened to you, but just watching it on a screen happen to someone we don’t care about is more puzzling than scary. What’s the unseen force going to do? Use the cast as human dust-busters? This film completely fails to establish any sense that the supernatural force has an evil scheme – it’s just doing things because it can, and like kids coming back to egg your house every night this quickly goes from deeply disturbing to deathly dull.

It doesn’t help that the film actually spells out the exact reason why all this stuff is happening (it’s the supernatural version of being harassed by debt collectors). One more time: the first film worked because it suggested so much but explained so little. Knowledge is power, and it empowers the audience – which is not what a good horror movie does. A good horror movie makes us little kids scared of the dark, not people going “ahh, if I say these lines and wave this cross around all this crazy shit is over”.

If nothing else, this does get one thing right – it skilfully illustrates the difference between a film made by people who want to scare an audience and know what they’re doing, and a film made by people who just want to make a film that looks like the last one. The first Paranormal Activity was a surprise hit: this contains no surprises at all.

Anthony Morris

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

As a comedy this makes a great suicide note: Life As We Know It

It doesn’t take much to be a film critic, but one of the skills you do need to have is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. You personally might not be a fan of [insert genre here], but you need to at least be able to see what fans of that genre may or may not like about a certain film. That way, when some sneering idiot dismisses a negative review of a pile of crap they happen to like with “it’s not made for you”, it’s possible to counter with a): I’ve seen enough of [insert genre here] to know the difference between a good and bad example of it, and b): how the hell do you know what kind of films I like in my down time anyway? So trust me when I tell you that I’ve thought long and hard about the following sentence: Life As We Know It is a film made for Satan.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s not a film made by Satan. Satan knows what the Hell he’s doing. No, this is a film made for the enjoyment of demonic beings who hate life itself. In case you’ve wisely missed the advertising, this is a film where a married couple die in a car crash and leave their one year old baby with their two best friends - who just happen to hate each other. Hold it right there: they gave joint guardianship of their infant child to two people who hate each other? Surely this hatred was a secret, right? I mean, what kind of shit parents would go “hey, if we both die but the kid lives, why not force our two best friends who can’t stand each other to fight over her?” The parents in this movie, that’s who, as Holly (Katherine Heigl) and Messer (Josh Duhamel)went on a shit blind date in 2007 and have openly loathed each other ever since.

If this totally insane idea was this film’s only problem – come on, the dead parents want their child to grow up in a family where they know the adults HATE EACH OTHER - then it wouldn’t have any problems at all. Decent rom-coms have had more contrived set-ups. But this isn’t a decent anything – it’s a non-stop insult to the audience’s intelligence and their basic humanity, and this sloppy set-up is just one of a long, long list of areas where this film clearly does not give a shit about anything past separating you from your money and they already got that at the door. Hell, they already got that when you saw it stared Katherine Heigl, right?

Confession time: I don’t mind Heigl. I thought 27 Dresses was an above average rom-com. Even The Ugly Truth, which was rubbish, was made better quality rubbish by having her in it. She’s charming, she can be funny when the script lets her, and she’s often the best thing in her films. But here she’s nothing. It’s not even the character’s fault: yes, Holly is yet another uptight no-fun role model for women who’s sole goal in life is to lock a man down, but she gets some supposedly “funny” moments and never says anything that’s outright hateful (which makes a change from The Ugly Truth, for starters). And yet, she brings nothing to the role. It’s like even she’s tired of making this kind of film, playing this kind of character. Good to see she’s caught up with the rest of us then.

The gender politics on show here are as offensive as usual, but again, it’s still business as usual. Of course Messer and Holly are opposites – that’s how this kind of film works – but guess who changes to make the relationship work? Messer starts off with four things that define him: a): his best mate, b): he’s a womanizer, c): he rides a motorbike, and d): he loves sports so much he has a job broadcasting them. But by the end of the film, all four of those things have been taken away – he literally has no character left outside of the relationship he’s in.

(hilariously, his bike gets destroyed when Holly – under his guidance – tries to ride it. She slips the clutch, it roars off out from under her and flies across the road to crash into a mailbox. Then a bus comes along and it must be one of those new-fangled buses that don’t have brakes or a windshield the driver can see out of, because it runs right over it. Why not have it run over his penis while you’re at it?)

In contrast, Holly’s character consists of making a frowny face, liking to bake and wanting to expand her bakery into a restaurant. Oh, and she has a small car and drinks wine (once, on her hunky doctor’s orders – she can’t even take a drink without a man saying it’s ok!). That’s it. Presumably if she had more characteristics, then the Heigl fans couldn’t identify with her (“hey, she’s reading a comicbook! I don’t like reading comicbooks! She’s not like me at all!”), but it does leave Heigl with not a lot to work with. Still, she’s done more with less in other films, so why she’s phoning it in here is a bit of a mystery… unless she realised early on that actually acting in this turd would just be wasting her time.

Where this really goes wrong is with the basic concept: you have two people who don’t like each other, forced together to look after a one year old child. Somewhat logically then, roughly three quarters of this film consists of either a): a couple arguing, and / or b): a small child crying. In some thrillers you get to dread a conversation scene because you know they always end with someone getting shot: here you dread the conversations because they always end in a fight. It should be renamed WALKING ON EGGSHELLS for the number of times one character starts a regular conversation with the other only to discover that nope, it’s time for another yelling match about the shitty situation they’re stuck in. Isn’t this the kind of thing we go to the movies to escape?

It was at this point that I started to actively wonder who this film was aimed at. After all, if you wanted people to stick together for the sake of their kids – which is kinda the message here, thanks to a totally throw-away conclusion I’ll get to in a moment – wouldn’t you make a film that actually showed some fun moments between all the struggle? But then I realised there had been a bunch of fun moments, I just hadn’t read them that way because the “jokes” in this film are, in some ways, even worse than the arguments and screaming babies.

For example we get not one but two “whaaa?” gay jokes: When Holly is trying to track down a would-be boyfriend – having only a collection of business cards that say “Sam” to go on – she makes a bunch of comedy calls. You know the drill: a flustered Holly saying “no ma’am, I didn’t know Sam was your husband”, etc. But when she gets a woman, Holly’s next line is “yes, I’m single…” Hilarious! The Sam she's called is a girl, but still wants to go on a date! And is also the most predatory lesbian ever, as she’s hitting on a wrong number after less than ten seconds’ conversation.

Then at a neighbourhood gathering – featuring one relationship where a henpecked husband is at his demanding wife’s beck and call, and another where the slutty wife starts hitting on Messer the second she sees him while her clueless husband watches on, because that’s how relationships work, right? – one guy talks away about how when he first started going out with his partner they were having sex everywhere all the time, but now with the kids, well, who has the time? And then we see his partner and it’s another guy! Whaaa! They were talking about gay sex!! Who knew. Or laughed.

Let’s not forget this films rare example of gender equality: having a baby cover the cast with bodily waste. He gets thrown up on, she accidentally smears baby shit on her face. Oh wait, I forgot the time Messer’s favourite baseball cap is held under a shitting baby's bottom – guess that’s one more character-defining article he gets taken away from him. Kind of a shame they didn’t have some baby shit get inside one of Holly’s cakes though, just to even things up.

Anyway, the list could go on – opening a used nappy and saying “It’s like Slumdog Millionaire in there” is another comedy high point – but it’s safe to say that as a comedy this makes a great suicide note. Just look at the poster: there’s a baby in a nappy walking and a guy dressed exactly the same striking the same pose! Because men are big babies, except when you need them to lend you money to expand your business. Yes, that happens in the film (to be fair, Messer does make the offer unasked) – no wonder it’s so hostile towards men, it assumes women can’t do anything without them.

At this stage it’d almost be possible to pull off the “this film isn’t for you” argument simply because I happen to be male. Men still run our society, and it’s one of comedy’s roles in society to mock the powerful. Not that this is actually mocking the powerful all that well (it’s not like Messer starts out as an arrogant pig or anything), and it’s certainly not going after men in an area where men overall exert their power universally (a workplace comedy as firmly anti-men as this would make a lot more sense and probably be a lot funnier). Of course, you’d still have to assume that women actually enjoy watching household arguments and listening to a crying baby to make that case, but fortunately for my long-winded argument Life As We Know It then wraps up with a dash to the airport and the audience-hating status of this film is put beyond all reasonable doubt.

That’s right: the dramatic climax of this film involves a last minute dash to the airport to tell someone not to leave. In 2010, the "creatives" making this film thought the most tired, worn-out cliché in all of Hollywood was as good a way as any to finish off the film. In this day and age there is no possible way to read this ending as anything more than a weary “fuck you” to anyone who thought they were watching anything more than a scam designed to separate audiences from their cash. Even dramatically it makes no sense: what, they don’t have phones? It’s not like the person leaving is going to a communication black hole – shit, it’s not even like it’s the first time they left (they’d been gone for months and just came back for the kid’s birthday). If this is the best they could be bothered doing, they shouldn’t have been allowed to make this film. Or, for that matter, any other.

Anyway, it all ends happily, in that it finally ends. Slightly before that blessed moment, we see that the kid stops crying, Holly is still baking, Messer has every single thing that made him an individual taken away from him, and its hellish depiction of both suburbia and relationships reigns supreme. It’s tempting to say this was a film made by monsters for zombies, or by the pain-loving Cenobites from Hellraiser for their own amusement, but no: this is a film that hates life, a film that celebrates all that is ugly and cruel in humanity, a film that in the end shrugs off every possible complaint against it with a weary shrug and a cynical sneer. Life As We Know It is a film for Satan, and the life it depicts is a life in Hell.

Anthony Morris

Monday, 18 October 2010

Bogged Down and Buried

Coming out of Buried, the friend with me said “that didn’t turn out the way I thought it would”. Even though I disagreed – it turned out exactly the way I thought it would, and the only way it ever could have turned out from about half an hour in – I knew exactly what he meant. Buried is a movie about a man (Ryan Renyolds) buried alive in a coffin: the last thing you’d expect from a synopsis like that is [SPOILER] he never gets out.

My friend went in expecting to see a Hollywood high-concept thriller much like any other, the kind where, for all the strengths of the high concept (they’re trapped on a bus that can’t slow down! They’re stuck on a plane with a killer!), the last 20 minutes end up being a chase after the bad guys who set up the high concept. Nobody really likes those endings, but in a thriller they’re needed: you can’t just let the bad guys get away now, can you? Unless you’re making the original version of The Vanishing, and even then [SPOILER] the buried alive ending there was a final shock twist, not something the entire film was built around.

Buried avoids the need for that kind of thriller payback ending – despite having at least one clear-cut villain - by stressing almost from the very beginning that this is a film about the Iraq war. It’s set in Iraq in 2006, our lead is a truck driver whose convoy was attacked, and he’s been buried alive as part of an extortion racket designed to extract money from the US.

Once that door is open narrative-wise, once you say “this is a film about something real, not just a man buried alive”, then the film is free to go in a different direction. In the real world hostages die; in a thriller, only the bad guys (and background characters) bite the dust. If the hero does die in a traditional thriller, it’s a heroic death that has real meaning; for all intents and purposes, Buried starts out with the lead already dead.

Part of the appeal of the “based on a true story” film is that it doesn’t have to follow traditional narrative structures. A plot twist that would be outlandish and laughable in a fictional movie becomes tolerable when we’re told it really did happen. Buried isn’t based on a true story, but by setting itself in a real place and time – a place and time where a lot of stories did end very badly – it’s able to successfully access a conclusion that wouldn’t be open to it if it had just been a generic thriller about someone buried in a box somewhere… well, generic.

Buried’s ending works because it’s set in a location where, for a number of years in the very recent past the very basis of the heroic ideal that thrillers are built upon has been proven to be a lie. Even then, it took years and years of the senseless waste of human lives in a war now generally seen as completely pointless to create one mainstream movie as up front about the failure of the thriller narrative (in contrast to the numerous and usually heavy-handed movies about the failure of the war itself) as Buried.

That’s more a sign of how safe and generic mainstream film-making has become in the 21st century than anything else (40 years ago a James Bond movie could end with Bond getting married then seeing his wife gunned down in front of him); hopefully future film-makers won’t need the equivalent of the Iraq War to take their stories somewhere beyond another final bad-guy beat-down. After all, it was that payback-driven attitude that helped start the Iraq War in the first place.

Anthony Morris