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Paranormal Activity (2007)
I've heard people say you won't sleep after seeing this movie. I almost fell asleep watching it. Though PA is often compared to the Blair Witch Project, and though superficially it may seem to share a few of that earlier movie's strengths, in fact it makes the one mistake that BWP so carefully avoided: of showing too much. BWP doesn't show you a single thing that is obviously supernatural; but PA goes all out on fleeting shadows, self-incinerating ouija boards, swinging lamps, billowing sheets, windy living rooms and demon-victims being dragged across the hallway.
This is all so terribly over the top that instead of being scary I found it quite ludicrous. Of course the haunted couple never does the obvious things, like switching on the light, closing the bedroom door, or changing sides in the bed (the girl is the one targeted by the 'demon' yet sleeps next to the open door.) I'll grant that the actors aren't doing a bad job, but a lot more is needed to make the antics of this particular demon even remotely believable. Especially as some inconsistencies are pretty glaring. e.g., the paranormal expert Dr. Fredrichs makes it clear he can't do anything for the couple, yet the demon is very angry at his being in the house. Why? The fact that at least three different endings were filmed doesn't say much for the integrity of the entire concept either. It feels pretty much random; a lot of things could have been added or left out without it making much difference. From what I read the original ending is probably more in keeping with the concept of the film than the one now shown in cinema's, that has a demon that's a bit too keen to play for the camera and provide a good, old-fashioned shocker.
Great hype. Big yawn.
Plodding, illogical, overlong
I've never read any of the Potter books, so I watched HP & the HBP as a movie plain and simple, and found myself bored to tears. Of course the art direction and design are again spectacular, but the story is a loose patchwork of disparate elements that is far from compelling and often seems unacceptably random. Why, for instance, does Dumbledore need to drink the fluid that contains the horcrux? It is also quite galling that characters who possess impressive powers of magic never use them at obvious times. Dumbledore is able to magically transport himself and Potter to a desolate rock in the sea (though it's unclear why they would stop there except for creating a nice shot), but then when he has to cross the lake in the cave, he has to conjure up a boat
? Logic is nowhere to be found; the Hogwarts management must be senile to keep allowing the obviously evil Malfoy in, and blind not to suspect Snape. And while Voldemort's cronies have ample opportunity to kill Potter, they refrain from doing so because Voldemort has to do it himself. Why are villains always so unpragmatic? Of course a movie about magic requires suspension of disbelief. But that doesn't mean the makers can get away with anything. And while there is much talk of the more serious, 'psychological' nature of this installment, it all struck me as pretty obvious and very superficial. It's all very well to turn Malfoy into a doubting, troubled youngster all of a sudden, but how did that come about? Nobody cares to explain that to the viewer. In all, this is an overlong, self-important offering that ploddingly drags along to an unsatisfying end. The Prisoner of Azkaban remains, by a wide margin, the best of the Potter films.
Haunted Homes (2004)
Utter nonsense, and boring too
Just when you thought the inanity of TV-programming had hit rock bottom, along comes Haunted Homes and brainlessness is again redefined. In this series a team of self-proclaimed 'paranormal investigators' visits families who claim to be bothered by ghosts. The formula for each episode is identical, and centers on a 'vigil', involving the victims and the team sitting around in the haunted house, at night, with the lights out, waiting for the ghosts to appear.
Why at night? Why in the dark? Why would the spirits of dead people care whether it is day or night, or light or dark? The only reason that night is the favorite playtime for ghosts, is the fact that humans don't see very well in the dark and want to be asleep at night. Tiredness, sensory deprivation and sitting still in a dark house, especially with the suggestion firmly in place that a ghost may manifest itself, will cause all kinds of sensations that the suggestible and the boneheaded may ascribe to supernatural activity.
Of course infrared cameras and sound recorders are set up paranormal investigators tend to think their antics become 'scientific' as soon as an electrical appliance is involved. Needless to say, nothing of note is ever recorded on these devices, let alone anything that could serve as evidence for supernatural activity. Yet the team's psychic, the horrible Mia Dolan, oozes fantastical stories about everything she 'senses', and comes up with quite detailed descriptions of the alleged ghost and its history, though rarely are attempts made to verify these. I've seen one episode where they did; but the finding that historical records did not line up with Mia's tale merely got a passing mention and after that was simply ignored.
Interestingly, the team does comprise a token skeptic, a professor of psychology who will go into the haunted place and always finds he doesn't hear, see, or feel anything special and that as far as he's concerned there is no ghost. Again this seems to be done for form's sake only; his conclusions are simply brushed aside as Mia elaborates her spooky fantasies. Of course every random noise that is heard is immediately interpreted as evidence of a haunting; so are headaches, chills, 'the feeling of being watched' indeed, in one case where the recorders hadn't recorded anything because the battery had run out they actually called that proof of ghostly activity! Never are these far-fetched interpretations challenged or obvious rational alternatives explored.
Episodes end with a 'cleansing', where Mia, amidst a sea of candles, removes the ghost from the house by reciting the De Profundis in what is probably meant to be Latin. It is all so utterly ridiculous that words fail to describe it. One or two episodes may amuse those with a sense of humor, or may educate viewers with an anthropological interest in the sheer nonsense grown people are apparently prepared to believe but after that it all becomes just extremely boring.
Dark and compelling entertainment, though not very accurate
The ingredients do not necessarily suggest a successful TV-series. There's extreme, relentless, at times mind numbing violence, graphically depicted; barely a single sympathetic character is in sight; there is not the slightest hint of anything humoristic (well, except for Ian McNeices delicious newsreader); and as always actual historical fact is twisted and turned into something that may be suitable for entertainment purposes but rather (over)stretches credulity at times one wonders why, because it's not as if these people actually were a dull bunch leading uneventful lives. Yet "Rome" is strangely haunting and compelling. Often it does a good job of transporting the viewer to a world unencumbered by Christian sensitivities, particularly in its love of bloodsports, its dealings with slaves, and its relaxed attitude to sex and public nudity. Full frontal male nudity is not eschewed, still the final frontier in film-making. Also, and more importantly, "Rome" conveys the constant sense of tension, intrigue and threat dominating the lives of those in power. Finally, a fairly good job was done of giving a realistic impression of the city itself in those final decades before the birth of Christ. It is, however, weird and rather silly that the characters speak English but throw in occasional Latin. Typically, many of the main dramatic historical events are not shown, but only told in flashback. For instance, we do not witness Mark Antony's finest hour, his eulogy at Caesar's funeral, that swayed Roman public opinion against the assassins. Several decisive battles, including that of Actium, are also conveniently skipped.
The story is told from the vantage point of two soldiers, one eventually rising through the ranks, the other only finding a settled existence towards the end. Both are, though in name only, based on historical characters. Gruff and dutiful Lucius Vorenus is haunted by personal tragedy. He struggles with his role as a father and his allegiance to a loosing party, that of Mark Antony; struggles that at one point will land him as the leader of a band of hired assassins. His unlikely friend Titus Pullo leads an aimless existence that never manages to be carefree and that only gains some focus whenever some fighting is to be done. The plot has been constructed around the far-out premise that the whole birth of the Roman Empire pivoted on the actions of these two men, rather than those of Julius Caesar and his ilk. The idea has been woven into the story so tightly and cleverly that it is surprisingly easy to suspend disbelief.
The first season is the more consistent and compelling of the two, dealing with the battle between Julius Caesar and Magnus Pompey. The strife between the families of Caesar and Brutus is exemplified by their two matrons Atia and Servilia, both in their way as vicious and devious a schemer as you're ever likely to see. The development of the relationship between Vorenus and Niobe is believable and quite touching. The second season then depicts the power struggle between Mark Antony and Gaius Octavian, and introduces the exotic element of Egypt, where Cleopatra's court appears to be some kind of whorehouse and the Queen herself a scantily dressed upmarket prostitute. Halfway through this season the story start to get ragged, and some plot lines hang by a precariously thin thread (the way Vorenus discovers his daughter's betrayal is like something out of an uninspired Miss Marple episode). A Jewish subplot is randomly tacked on and feels like a cumbersome invention to burden the story with irrelevant premonitions of Christ. Furthermore, it doesn't help that a substantial number of the more interesting characters, notably Cicero, Servilia and Brutus, are killed off. The "Xena, Warrior Princess"- act of Gaia in the battle of the Collegia is probably the low point of the series. Fortunately, things are pulled together for the final episodes, where the story is satisfyingly wrapped up and the viewer is indeed left, in Octavian's words, with the sense of having traveled a long road.
History buffs will find ample cause to be annoyed nonetheless. Many events are fabricated, characters are missing (where are Octavia's husband Claudius Marcellus, Atia's husband Lucius Phillippus and Marc Anthony's wife Fulvia?), people weren't really in the places where we see them at the moment we see them there (Caesar wasn't killed in the Senate, Cicero wasn't killed at home), and several details of costume and ritual are anachronistic or invented. Alexandria is shown as some rustic backwater rather than the dazzling metropolis it was. Characters are sometimes almost insultingly distorted. Cicero wasn't the abject hypocrite and coward he's been made into by the makers of the series. He delivered the Philippics against Antony himself, and was a figure of great power and huge popularity. Atia gets even worse treatment: described by Tacitus as one of the most admired and devout matrons of Rome, who couldn't bear crude language and was deeply serious, she is turned into a foul-mouthed, violent she-devil. Generally speaking it is a pity that most of the characters are rather flat and stereotyped. It sometime makes it hard to believe when they do change, as when the cynical libertine Mark Antony suddenly waxes philosophical after loosing the battle of Actium. Easily the most complex, fascinating and moving character in the series is that of Brutus, played with consummate skill and total conviction by Tobias Menzies. It is a great pity that the scriptwriters did not retain for him his dignified suicidal death, but instead have him madly confront an entire legion on his own, and die a death mirroring that of Caesar the symbolism is very trite. Such concerns may seem academic, but in this TV-dominated age its only too likely that many will think that after watching "Rome" they actually know something of Roman history. Not so but they will have been splendidly entertained.
Emperor's new clothes
Spoilers... Really now, what's to spoil? Story lines don't come any thinner than this. Synopsis: Huge monster appears out of nowhere, destroys city, everybody dies, the end. There isn't any sense of commitment to the main characters, who after the random, gratuitous intro spend their time running around screaming. There is no suspense, no explanation, no point. Predictably, the full view of the monster is saved for last, when even the appalling camera work (yes, I KNOW it's intentional) can't disguise the mediocre CGI, nor the lack of inspiration among the monster-designers. Equally predictable, the nasty foot-soldiers it drops look like big spiders contact with which will make you feel ill and eventually reduce you to an Alien-plagiarism. One does wonder why American filmmakers are so eager to destroy their big cities, especially after 9/11 has provided us with bone chilling imagery that will make any movie of this kind look silly in comparison for decades to come. Not just silly, actually; the way 9/11-like images are opportunistically recycled in this cinematic non-event struck me as rather tasteless. A BBC reviewer quite rightly called it 'plain 9/11 porn'. The makers have worked under the false assumption that 'live', shaky camera-work in dark surroundings will lift it all to a high level of hip artistry, but really, all it does is give you a headache. Any inexperienced klutz suffering from advanced Parkinson would get steadier handycam images than the guy supposedly holding the thing during these exasperating 75 minutes. It's all a very poor Blair Witch rip-off. Add to that the prevailing darkness and half the time you simply haven't got a clue what you're looking at: as a viewer, I felt insulted. This isn't 'intriguing' or 'artistic' or 'novel', it's just sheer, lax arrogance. Avoid at all costs.
Garbled and unfocused
To this non-reader of the book, the plot line in this film hardly made any sense at all. There is a great fuss about 'a prophecy' Voldemort needs to get his hands on, but what it is or why he needs it remains unclear almost until the end. And once found, it basically appears to dispense the tacky morale that Voldemort is the true weakling because he'll never know love or friendship. That eventually either he or Potter must die is again not an insight that seems to require any great prophetic gifts. Before these stunning pieces of wisdom are revealed, towards the finale of the movie, the viewer has sat through a prolonged but lame attempt to psycho-dramatize HP. Though Potter ended up as the hero in each of the previous movies, we here find him all of a sudden an inexplicable outcast, old friends suddenly picking fights with him. Are his buddies that fickle? Themes of loneliness and first love crop up, but are handled in a hackneyed and rather embarrassing way. There's much ado about The Kiss, yet at the first setback HP apparently drops his girlfriend like a brick, and without a question asked or a word of explanation offered. The adolescent shouting matches might have been just bearable hadn't the acting been so wooden.
Worse, the attempts at realism compromise the mood of magic and surprise that was maintained in one way or another throughout the previous installments. Moments of quasi art-house spareness and puerile introspection do not sit well with the undeniably dazzling visualizations of the magical world - even though some of the latter (the great hall with its magical ceiling; the moving paintings; the brooms etc.) do pale somewhat on their fifth outing. On the other hand the design of the Ministrry of Magic is spectacular to say the least.
Many characters merely seem to put in an appearance to remind us that they are still around. New characters do not generally improve matters. Helena Bonham Carter was better as the Corpse Bride; here, she merely overacts. Imelda Staunton, though, is a joy to watch and makes the most of the twisted Umbridge.
It all ends with a big wizard fight that looks like "Lord of the Rings meets The Matrix", and no doubt will satisfy viewers hungry for spectacle. None of it, though, struck me as particularly original, nor very exciting to be honest.
Inconsistencies abound, of course. I wondered how it was that nobody could see the thestrals except those "who have seen death", yet later on Ron and Hermione who couldn't see them before are suddenly flying on their backs. The idea of Umbridge letting herself be lured, all alone, into the woods by the youngsters whom she knows to be her sworn enemies is way of track. And if it is as easy to kill with a spell as we see here, why didn't Malfoy sr., or Voldemort, or Potter for that matter, die ages ago? As I see more of the movies, I not only wonder where it's all going, but I rather get the impression that Mrs. Rowling was wondering the same while writing it all. In the final reckoning, I'd rate OOtP below GoF, and way below PoA, which remains in my view by far the strongest installment to date.
Monster's Ball (2001)
This film tackles several highly charged themes at once (death penalty, racism, dysfunctional families, suicide), and inevitably stumbles in doing so. Dramatically it is seriously unbalanced by the accumulation of violent deaths and high drama in the gripping first half, offset by the highly undramatic and very intimate focus on the budding Berry-Thornton relationship in the second. Both parts are separated by a needlessly protracted and gratuitously explicit sex scene which I found rather tasteless and quite annoying. Halle Berry's performance is powerful, Thornton's less so; the one character that I felt truly involved with was Sonny, played impressively by Heath Ledger, but he vanishes from the scene after half an hour or so.
The final scene is so cliché that I couldn't believe my eyes - all of a sudden we're in Disneyland. In all, a film that is interesting for its prison scenes, but doesn't quite know where to go from there; apparently sincere in its intentions, the story just tapers off. Towards the end, my mind wandered.
Marie Antoinette (2006)
Overlong, boring and inaccurate
Watching this movie, I was repeatedly reminded of the fifties "Sisi" trilogy starring Romy Schneider. Only, that had a plot. Here, all you get are the endless sweet-colored pictures, the occasional pomp&circumstance scenes, and the idealized, soft-focus versions of the real characters. And then all of a sudden (yet, still at least half an hour too late) it's all over, exactly at the point where the action, i.e., the Revolution starts. Okay, so Sofia Coppola was not aiming for a historically correct depiction of Marie-Antoinettes life. She must have realized that historical accuracy was not an option in a film that has Louis XVI's Parisians dancing in the foyer of an opera house that wasn't built for another 100 years. The question is, what WAS she aiming for? I must confess that I have no idea. Unless she was trying to convey to the viewer the boredom of the Queen's life. That worked - I was magnificently bored. The repetitive scenes of M-A's gambling, drinking and dressing are very colorful, but you fill up on them pretty quickly. The attempts at sketching a historical context are so perfunctory that I can't think why they bothered at all. And the much discussed use of pop music in the score is utterly random, a mere gimmick without any deeper meaning. There are no characters to identify with. Most of the cast never rises above caricature, with the gay hairdresser as the absolute nadir. Unbelievable that somebody still has the guts... Louis XV is not far behind, the acting verging on the amateurish. Dunst, too, has hardly more to offer than vague smiles, dimpled cheeks and perambulations in dazzling rooms; it is not like there is a script full of brilliant dialog that offers major acting opportunities. Instead, there's another box of shoes, another glass of champagne, another party. It's the cinematic variant of muzak. Anything positive? Well, one thing that is spot-on is the way the film shows how the lives of M-A and Louis were lived in public, and the often ridiculous and/or embarrassing consequences of this. Also, Coppola at least had the decency to grant M-A that she never actually said "let them eat cake". But it would have been so much nicer to see such accuracy embedded in a film that takes its subject seriously overall, and not merely uses it as an excuse to indulge visual sweet-tooths.
This time, the magic only comes from the computer
Let me begin by saying I haven't read any of the books, nor do I plan to, so I'm judging the film for what it is by itself. Basically, after having seen it twice, I remain unconvinced. It lacks the stylistic and narrative coherence of PoA, which remains easily the best of the 4 present HP movies. The first half of GoF in fact was a major disappointment: it seemed HP had fallen to the level of the next thirteen-in-a-dozen CGI action movie, and I expected Bruce Willis to turn op any moment. Sure, the special effects are more than a few notches up from the now endearingly clumsy efforts in part 1, but as we all know by now special effects alone don't make a movie. Fortunately, the second half is rather better. Beautiful imagery all through, and believable and touching emotions accompanying the much anticipated "Death". I wish, though, that Radcliffe and Watson would act with a little more spontaneity; maybe HP should stop clenching his jaws all the time? There is a lot of humor in GoF too, which in a way is nice, though incongruous at times. It's also a symptom of this movie trying to be too many things at once. The rock-band at the Xmas ball was one tongue in cheek joke too many, IMHO, and detracted from the believability of Hogwarts. Believability, on the whole, was my main problem with the film, and I suspect that may well be J.K. Rowling's fault rather than anyone else's. Of course the HP stories require "suspension of disbelief" - but that does not imply that all sense of logic and consistency can just be thrown overboard. Just a few of my niggles:
- HP is a wizard, isn't he? So why, at crucial moments, doesn't he use magic?
- *spoiler*: The whole point of the plot was to get HP over to the graveyard where Voldemort could get to him. For this aim Barty Crouch Jr. (alias Moody) has changed the Triwizard Cup into a "portkey". Why didn't he simply change any object HP would touch into a portkey? - he could have done without the entire tournament, it would have been so much quicker and easier!
- *spoiler*: Why, if Voldemort needs HP's living blood to revive himself, does he force him through a potentially deadly tournament?
- Prof. MacGonagall is deeply shocked when Moody turns Malfoy into a ferret to teach him a lesson - "We do not use transformation as a punishment"; yet she apparently sees no problem in sending several students into a potentially deadly contest.
- How come HP doesn't recognize Wormtail, whom he met in the previous episode as Peter Pettigrew?
Et cetera, et cetera. I'm also bothered by the "deus ex machina" device that Rowling constantly applies to get HP out of his predicaments - in this case, the sudden and unexplained appearance of his parents. It makes for very unsatisfying plots. The believability of Voldemort isn't helped either by making him into one of those verbose villains who are compelled to give a speech and explain, explain, explain, before coming to the point (after the hilarious gag made of this in The Incredibles, no movie-maker can afford this any longer). Why would an evil man like Voldemort bother?? (Nor could I believe in Crouch Jr as a villain, but that's due to the fact that I only knew David Tennant as the incredibly silly hypocrite Mr. Gibson in "He knew he was right"...)
All in all: good entertainment for viewers who like visual thrills and are focused or sleepy enough not to look too far beyond them.
Final Destination (2000)
Mildly entertaining, but silly and inconsistent
The beginning is actually quite good, though not recommended for those with fear of flying. Main character Alex gets a vision of the plane he's in, and that's about to airlift him and his classmates to Paris, exploding. He panics, and together with some of his friends gets kicked off. Of course, the plane then explodes as foreseen. Alex has cheated Death. But as he finds out, this simply means that the survivors are still listed to die, and to be sure, soon enough one after the other gets killed in the gruesome and unlikely ways befitting, I suppose, of this genre. It's up to Alex to figure out Death's rules, and to thwart his plan. That's where things become silly. It is the usual problem in horror movies with supernatural forces: the supernatural world behaves so utterly banal and childish that it stops being scary. Why on earth would Death play a game like this? Logic is obviously thrown overboard entirely. Why would a girl who knows she's next in line to die, go outside in a raging thunderstorm where broken, live power lines are lashing about, to rescue her dog? How do Alex and his chums know so exactly where and how they can get into the morgue at night? Why does Alex repeatedly almost die when sheltering in a wood cabin, and why does the strange wind that presages a death blow through the cabin, even though Alex figures out a minute later that it isn't actually his turn yet? How come the three survivors eventually go on for six months without trouble, even though it turns out they are still scheduled to die? Did Death need a break?? I don't even care to wonder about the psychology of the characters, who are able to deal with one friend's gruesome death after another without shedding a single tear. Worst of all are the obligatory FBI men, who for some strange reason do not arrest a kid who is repeatedly found at the scene of violent deaths, and whose fingerprints are found on a knife sticking in a dead body. They do pick him up when a scared teacher sees him in her front yard, but then - ...just let him go again. Huh? And oh yes, of course: when they finally do decide to arrest him, in the middle of the night in a dark wood, they obviously turn on their sirens and lights, so that he can see and hear them coming a mile away, and has plenty of time to escape. In short: if you are feeling in the mood for something fairly dumb, with an occasional effective scare thrown in, as well as a few cute kids to look at, this will do. If you are looking for intelligent entertainment, look elsewhere.