Thursday, 28 October 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

Kristi Rey, sister of Paranormal Activity 1's Katie, has just bought home her newborn son, Hunter, to the home she shares with her husband Dan, her step-daughter Ali, housekeeper Martine and family dog Abby. After an apparent break-in, the family install security camera around the house. But what the cameras begin to capture is seemingly unimaginable: Strange noises, items moving on their own, and unexplainable events which seem to be revolving around the new arrival...

Paranormal Activity was one of the simplest, original and scary movies of last year. Shot on a low budget in the directors own house on handheld cameras, it took the idea of the 'found footage' film and made it genuine, a mile away from your run-of-the-mill Blair Witch Project copies. No overacting, no outrageous scenarios, and it's not completely trying too hard every 2 minutes; the film plays out slowly and effectively over 90 minutes, delivering shocks at just the right times. To put it short, there was a reason why this film stood out amongst all the others. Paranormal Activity 2 sticks to the all the same principals, and tries to recreate the same atmosphere of the first, but unfortunately it just gets the timing all wrong.

Let me start off by saying Paranormal Activity 2 is an odd film in that it's a sequel... which is actually a prequel. It's a sprequel. Set roughly 60 days before the death of Micah Sloat in the first film, this film shows where the demon plaguing the Rey sisters first settled before it terrorized Katie and Micah and also explains why the demon is attacking their family in the first place. Trying not to give away spoilers here, but the end of the film actually occurs AFTER the events in Paranormal Activity 1, making this sequel the bread in the Paranormal Activity sandwich; explaining what happened before and after PA1 which I thought was very clever, though whether or not it leaves a door open for a possible third film is questionable. I'll leave it to Paramount to screw things up by demanding Paranormal Activity 3. Seriously, the franchise is given a good ending here, don't drag it out like Lions Gate did to Saw.

The acting is pretty standard across the board and it has to be to deliver the feeling of realism. There are no exceptional performances, though it is of course good to see the dog, Abby, doing everything it needs to on cue, as well as the baby, Hunter, which is important to the development of the story here. The difference is that this time around, we have professional actors filling the roles: Sprague Grayden (Kristi Rey) has appeared in various TV dramas and Molly Ephraim (step-daughter Ali) has been in a number of Broadway plays. Anything less than professional from these guys would have sloppy, naturally.

With a different director at the helm and with a bigger budget, things could have been dramatically different this time around. Somewhat surprisingly, things are quite restrained here, with the only real evidence of a bigger budget being a larger house as the setting and the addition of 6 more fixed cameras alongside the digital camcorder. The biggest difference though is the sense of timing throughout the film. In PA1, things went along at a nice, steady pace, gradually building up to more and more violent behaviour from the demon. In PA2, things don't move at a steady pace at all. For the first hour, things move extremely slow, and my God do I mean slow. We're talking glacier slow here. Continental drift slow. Every now and again, something minor happens, yes, and it certainly does get more and more aggressive as time goes on, but you're left wondering where on Earth the next big moment is coming from. Then, in the last half hour, it seems as if even the director is getting bored of this and ramps things up to 11. Trust me, it goes from 0-60 in about 4.2 seconds. It's a shame, because the ideas are there, but the execution is somewhat poor.

Overall, it's hard to say anything new about Paranormal Activity 2 which hasn't already been said about Paranormal Activity 1. Apart from the new characters and the explanation of back story, it's pretty much the same film. Same amount of shock and scare, same kind of uneasy feeling about going back to your dark, empty house once its over. The problem is it just isn't carried out as efficiently as the first film. It certainly sits nicely with its predecessor, but ultimately comes off as inferior. This is a franchise that's delivered proper shocks so far and is actually somewhat entertaining, so here's hoping that we don't get reach Paranormal Activity 6. I like these films, please don't go Nightmare on Elm Street on our asses.

Rating: ***

Saturday, 23 October 2010

The Social Network

Mark Zuckerberg is a Harvard student who sets up a website to rate the attractiveness of female Harvard undergrads after being dumped. FaceMash, the resultant website, soon gets him in trouble but also stirs up an idea - a social network for all Harvard students where people can choose who to be friends with, add photos and have the college experience entirely online. After weeks of writing code, and with financial assistance from his best friend Eduardo Saverin, The Facebook goes live and is a huge immediate hit. But, did he steal the idea from a pair of twin rowers? Can Zuckerberg handle the potential and growth of his creation?

Let's not beat around the bush here. This is the Facebook film. The story of the creation of Facebook and of the people involved (or not) with its creation and initial success. Of course, we are all aware of how successful Facebook became. But the main question about this film has obviously been this: Why on earth has the story of the creation of Facebook been turned into a 2 hour film directed by David Fincher? I myself asked what on earth Fincher saw in such a story. I'm a big fan of Fincher, his previous films such as Fight Club and Seven are amongst my favourites, so why has he made his next project the story of the youngest billionaire on Earth? Two things emerged: It's a fascinating and compelling story, and it's extremely well written. EXTREMELY well written.

This is, of course, due to the fact that this film was based on a book (The Accidental Billionaires) which was adapted by West Wing and Studio 60 supremo Aaron Sorkin. I wouldn't be any kind of film critic if I didn't mention Sorkin's trademark rat-a-tat dialogue which is ever present throughout his work, including this, and it fits well. What gets forgotten is Sorkin's ability to create drama and tension. He's done that here, creating a fantastic story from something which had the potential to be very long, slow and painful. He picks up on the drama and, although it may be exaggerated, it makes for a great 2 hour film.

Jesse Eisenberg is fantastic as Zuckerberg, playing him perfectly. Funnily enough, it's almost the same character he played in Zombieland; a guy who is uncomfortable with real social interaction and is more at home in front of a computer screen. What Eisenberg, and the script, plays on most is the irony that Zuckerberg creates a website which is designed to bring people together and yet it actually ends up alienating him from his one and only real friend. Eisenberg plays Zuckerberg as an awkward, angry geek who doesn't want to be told what to do, and yet ironically ends up getting manipulated by Sean Parker, founder of Napster and, now, consultant to Facebook. He ends up making Zuckerberg highly unlikeable. For all his failings and downfalls, everything that happens to him he brings upon himself, even if he does feel some sense of remorse and regret for what happens between him and Saverin. To paraphrase the last line of the film, he's not an asshole, he's just trying so hard to be.

Andrew Garfield plays Eduardo Saverin, co-founder of Facebook, and the only character in the film you feel sorry for. Here, it plays out that Saverin got absolutely screwed by Zuckerberg and Parker, thus the breakdown in relations between the two co-founders. You see Saverin trying to fight a losing battle as he sees Zuckerberg getting manipulated by Sean Parker right in front of his eyes. This leads onto Sean Parker himself, played by Justin Timberlake. A good performance, but this film portrays Parker as nothing more than an asshole. He's absolutely irredeemable; he dabbles with drugs (which ultimately leads to his forced exit from Facebook), he walks into and out of business ventures on a whim, and leads Zuckerberg to start dreaming of bigger things for The Facebook, promising billions rather than millions. Timberlake puts in a really convincing performance as a Machiavellian manipulator, goading Zuckerberg to taste the forbidden fruit and to cut out his best friend from the business they started together. An honourable mention goes to Armie Hammer who plays both Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, twin rowers who believe Zuckerberg stole their idea for a Harvard-wide social network.

This film hinges on three things: The relationship (and eventual breakdown of) between Zuckerberg and Saverin, the question of whether or not Zuckerberg stole the idea for Facebook from the Winklevoss twins, and the burgeoning relationship between Zuckerberg and Parker. It's a mess of storylines which could easily have become congested, but Fincher and Sorkin keep everything in check, telling the story in flashback after the opening 15 minutes. The two anchors, which the story always goes back to, are the two lawsuit depositions in which Zuckerberg is testifying; one from the Winklevoss's and one from Saverin. It's a good way to keep the story grounded, to always have a reference point, and it's also a good way of explaining what's going on. It also acts well in juxtaposing images of Saverin and Zuckerberg's friendship as told in the flashback main story with their more recent 'hatred' for one another in the deposition, with this setting becoming crucial and more dramatic near the end. Watch out for the 'signing your own death certificate' scene for some real drama and possibly the best scene in the movie.

Overall, for a film about Facebook, you don't see the actual website an awful lot in the 2 hours you spend watching this. But then, that's because this film's not really about Facebook the website. This film is about Facebook's creation, mainly Mark Zuckerberg and the friendships/relationships he forms/destroys. It's extremely well written, and visually it's akin to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button - Fincher has developed a 'look'. It's surprisingly engrossing and delivers some real moments of tension and drama, as well as some well-needed light relief in places. Anyone looking for OMG's and LOL's will be sorely disappointed.

Rating: ****1/2

Saturday, 16 October 2010


Frank Moses is a retired black-ops CIA agent now living a quiet life, his only excitement coming from repeatedly phoning his pension services representative, Sarah, to flirt. But when it becomes clear someone wants him dead, he has no choice but to go on the run, taking Sarah with him. As he uncovers a deception which goes back to a previous mission, he realises that to survive, he'll need to find and put together his old team, all ex-assassins who have been labelled RED: Retired, Extremely Dangerous...

It would seem 2010 has been the year that those graphic novels that have that certain 'something different' about them have made it onto the big screen. Of all of those films we've seen, this would arguably be the most formulaic. Plenty of action, quirky characters, cute love story, nice plot to keep everything together, nothing particularly special. However, looking at this film, I can't help but draw comparisons to another film I've seen this year. Veteran, star-studded cast? Lots of gun fire and big explosions? Yes! It's the DC Comics version of The Expendables! But don't be put off by that. DC obviously knew what they were doing, clearly they knew that Red was a far stronger story than The Expendables or else they wouldn't have released 2 months after Sly Stallone's action dud. And wouldn't you know it, they were right.

The big difference for me is that whilst Red does have a packed cast of well-established, veteran star actors and actresses, it doesn't completely go all out and cast every single role in the film with a name actor like The Expendables did. It was just too much, and Red dials it down to a much more manageable level. As well as that, there's an actual story in Red that keeps all the gun fire and explosions in context. Although said story may be a tad unbelievable, you have to understand we're entering the realm of the graphic novel, so it's allowed a few liberties I'd say. The Expendables tried taking itself seriously and it backfired. Spectacularly.

Bruce Willis plays the same role he's been playing and playing well for the last 22 years; he indeed plays John McClane again under the guise of Frank Moses, albeit a highly trained version of John McClane. Mary-Louise Parker plays the same kind of role she's been playing for 6 seasons on Weeds; the cooky, off-centre female with near-deadpan delivery of lines which have come to define her as an actress. John Malkovich is really entertaining as Marvin, who has developed paranoid tendencies after being given daily doses of LSD for 11 years (in that case, he looks great, fantastic). He doesn't go too over the top with the paranoid weirdo persona, but rather plays with it well and makes it work within the film. Helen Mirren also appears an ex-assassin now running a quiet B&B (whilst taking a few contracts on the side) and she's very good, as always, and very British, as always. Amongst all this, Morgan Freeman seems to get lost, even though he's very important to the plot. It's not to say he puts in a bad performance, it's just not a particularly strong one. Karl Urban, the new Judge Dredd, puts in a good performance as well as CIA Agent Cooper, the man tasked with tracking down and killing Moses. Perhaps the next Bruce Willis?

The action in the film is good, highly entertaining, and it's laid on thick and fast. I don't think you get more than 10 minutes after the initial action sequence where there isn't a gun fired, an explosion happening or a fight breaking out. Whether or not you care though, it's almost entirely unbelievable. Stopping a rocket propelled grenade by firing a bullet exactly at the tip of the rocket? Stepping out of a car as it's going into a tail spin and then walking away as the car spins past you and misses by an inch? Helen Mirren firing a machine gun? As I said before, this is a graphic novel adaptation, so it's always going to have the element of fantastical action and that makes this a good bit of escapist fun. It's fun to see thing explode. It's fun to see these famous, well-established actors go outside their comfort zone (except Bruce Willis). It's fun for people to get shot. It's a fun film!

Overall, this isn't a great film, but in no way is it a bad film. You'll have seen better films this year, even better comic book/graphic novel films, but you could certainly see worse films this year, God knows I have. I did say that 2010 was the year of the 'something different' graphic novel film and this is no exception. The film's adamant on having an actual plot and storyline and that makes you forget at times what exactly its source material is, but the OTT action and near-impossible scenarios certainly ground it. If you went to see The Expendables at the cinema, I'd recommend going to see this so that you can see how the 'star-studded action film' should have been done in the first place.

Rating: ***

Sunday, 10 October 2010

The Girl Who Played with Fire

Mikael Blomkvist and the editors of Millenium magazine are on the trail of a people trafficking ring after a bright, young investigative journalist and his girlfriend uncover a trail of johns and pimps running the ring. However, after the journalist and his girlfriend are assassinated, who should get the blame but Lisbeth Salander, friend and ex-lover of Blomkvist who has recently returned to Sweden after a year abroad. When her guardian, Nils Bjurman, gets brutally murdered as well, the noose seems to be tightening around Lisbeth's neck. Can Blomkvist get to the truth? Can Lisbeth clear he own name whilst evading police capture?

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was a film I saw earlier this year and completely loved. Based on the series of books by the late Stieg Larsson, it was the start of 'The Girl' trilogy of films, which made me eager to see this sequel. Every great film trilogy has the 'weak link' film. The Godfather trilogy has The Godfather III. The Lord of the Rings trilogy has The Two Towers. Even the Toy Story trilogy has Toy Story 2. I sincerely hope that The Girl Who Played with Fire is the weak link in The Girl trilogy. Don't get me wrong, it's not a bad film, not by a long shot. This film is still a lot better than a lot of the mainstream Hollywood junk being churned out at the moment. The Girl who Played with Fire just isn't a GREAT film.

One of the main reasons The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was so good was because of the on-screen chemistry and relationship between Mikael Blomvkist, played by Michael Nyqvist, and Lisbeth Salander, played by the excellent Noomi Rapace. With The Girl Who Played with Fire, you get two mini-films in one, as the two characters don't meet until the end. This is, of course, vital to the plot of the movie, but nevertheless it means that you don't get to see the great on-screen chemistry they had built up in Dragon Tattoo. For a film not to take advantage of something like that is near to being a cinematic crime, even if they were tied down by the source material. It's a real shame, but it does give both of these actors to demonstrate their own separate acting abilities, and they play the parts extremely well, much as they did in Dragon Tattoo. I realise I'm mentioning Dragon Tattoo an awfully lot for a review of its sequel, but that's how truly good it was.

I believe the main problem with Played with Fire is that it wasn't quite as slick as its predecessor. Played with Fire doesn't truly develop characters or explain the somewhat complicated storyline enough for me. Considering the film is 2 hours long, it goes to show how much is crammed into this film that they have to breeze past the basics like introductions and explanations. The story is just as good and just as intricate as the plot of Dragon Tattoo, one would expect nothing less from Larsson. The problem is that this film adaptation doesn't have enough time to explain everything the way Larsson would have wanted it explained or else we would have been looking at a version of Played with Fire being released which would have been nearing a running time only rivaled by Cleopatra.

Visually, it's a case of as you were with Played with Fire. Different director in Daniel Alfredson but you still get the visuals of an aesthetically pleasing Sweden, the slow editing and stringent use of close-up. It's a case of Alfredson using the template Oplev laid down with Dragon Tattoo. Story wise, there isn't as much action in this installment. You do get the odd fight scene and car action, but other than that, it's a very wordy movie with a lot of conversation and it just slows the movie down. You get a lot of conversation, and a lot of Salander smoking a cigarette sitting in front of a laptop. Having said that, the first half hour of the film could easily be classed as a soft porn film with the amount of nudity and lesbian sex scenes. An eye opener certainly, but necessary to the plot? Questionable.

Overall, this is still a good film, an engrossing two hours with enough twists, turns and suspense to keep you engrossed as anyone who's read the book will tell you. However, Dragon Tattoo set the level of expectation far too high for this film and it just can't reach it, though it was never likely to in all honesty. It's well worth seeing, as I said earlier it's a lot better than 95% of what's out there right now, but just don't expect another Dragon Tattoo. Fingers crossed The Girl who Kicked the Hornets' Nest can finish this trilogy in style.

Rating: ***1/2