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Matthew Razak avatar 6:25 PM on 10.09.2009
Monday Review: Paranormal Activity and Couples Retreat



'Paranormal Activity' delivers the fear

The slow burn. It's a lost art in most film genres, let alone horror. Right now most horror consists of getting in, killing people quickly and shoving a few sudden appearances by the bad guy in your face. The art of suspenseful horror is one that is steadily fading from practice. This is why, among a plethora of other reasons, Paranormal Activity is one of the best modern horror films ever made. It doesn't coat the screen in blood or try to pounce on you with a sudden violin shriek. No, Paranormal Activity is a slow burn, building up terror over its entire running time until you're actually afraid for the couple the film follows to go to bed each night -- and once you leave the theater you're afraid to go to bed that night.

If you haven't heard of Paranormal Activity it is quite the Cinderella story. After being made for only $11,000 (though it doesn't show it in any way ) the film made the festival rounds winning instant cheers (or more likely screams) and was eventually picked up by Paramount, which was simply planning to do a very limited release in major cities, but due to the film's ever growing popularity the company has now decided to keep it running and add it to more cities.

That's the story behind the film, but it's the story in it that makes it so interesting. The film takes place entirely in a California home inhabited by couple who has recently moved in together. Katie, the female of the couple, has been haunted by something since she was a child, but the hauntings are getting worse. Micah, the male, decides that he will buy a video camera to record them as they sleep and see if they can capture anything. He of course records almost every other part of their life as well.

The film presents itself as home video from a real event that was put together by Paramount, and it adheres to this religiously. The opening is simply a few words of text thanking the police for the cooperation in putting the film out and the movie ends with no credits whatsoever. Of course by the end you're a little too creeped out to notice much other than the lights coming up. The film is so well paced (except maybe at the end) and put together that you start to wonder if it isn't all real. Both actors perform admirably in roles that must have been immensely challenging to even get into let alone pull off convincingly.

However, most of the film's horror credit must go to first time director Oren Peli who masterfully weaves together their story into one of the scariest things on the screen despite the fact that the creature is never seen, there is no score and the entire film takes place in a perfectly normal suburban house. Peli basically splits the film up between two parts: daytime and nighttime. Nighttime consists of the camera being placed on a tripod and watching the couple sleep and daytime consists of everything else. Nighttime is when the film gets really scary, and yet it's only about a fourth of the move. It doesn't matter though, every time the film cuts to the couple sleeping your heart instantly starts jumping and your eyes start frantically scanning the screen for anything.

Then it happens. A shadow moved or there's a thump. Small things that could happen in any house, making them all the more scary. The two sleepers might not have even noticed it, but you did and the girl next to you screaming did, and every night it gets a bit worse, a bit scarier and bit harder to pretend like you aren't freaked out every time the film cuts to the shot of the couple sleeping in bed. There's hardly anything that jumps out at you. There's barely much action other than tossing and turning, but you're scared the entire time that something is going to happen, and that's true fear and great horror. When a movie can do nothing and still be scary, you know it's doing something right.

As I said before, Paranormal Activity is an immensely slow burn. The daytime scenes are spent watching the couple attempt to understand what is going on and slowly crumble as their sleep is terrorized. It's almost normalcy for most of the movie. It's like a safety buffer between the parts where your palms start sweating and your heart picks up again. This is horror done not for the sake of gore and death, but to actually create fear. Not just fear inside the theater, fear after you leave and as you're going to bed. This isn't a horror film, it's a a lesson in how to build fear.






'Swingers' guys are all growds up

It happens to every comedian. They get older, and their comedy veers from that of the youth to that of the not so youthful. Couples Retreat is the epitome of this. The guys who made Swingers, possibly one of the most iconic male relationship movies of the 90s, have grown up and made a movie not about picking up girls, but about settling down and falling in love. For those of us who were weened on the idea that we're all "money, and we don't even know it" it's a little difficult to see, but is it bad? Not entirely. It's not entirely good either.

Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau have once again teamed up to write the screenplay for a buddy guy film. This time, however, the guys are mostly married and staring 40 in the face. When one of the guys and his wife feel that their marriage is falling apart they convince the rest of the couples to head to a marriage counseling resort with the promise that the marriage counseling is optional. Turns out it isn't, and all the couples go through questions about their marriage and life. Now the idea of Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman and Fazion Love trapped on an island doing hilarious things while accompanied by Kristen Bell, Malin Akerman, Kristin Davis and Kali Hawk (all in bikinis) sounds like one of the greatest ideas on earth for a bunch of various reasons -- it sadly is not.

The film actually starts out amazingly well, especially if you've been judging its comedy from the trailers. It seems Favreau and Vaughn (accompanied by Dana Fox) still have some comedy gold in their pens. It's not as quotable as their previous efforts, but there some great lines in there. As the group gets to the island and starts counseling the comedy is sharp and entertaining. It's looking like this is going to be a far more enjoyable movie than the standard rom-com trailers made it out to be. Vaughn, Favreau, Bateman and Fazion all seem to be on some good comedy 'A' game, even if some of the slapstick is pretty cheesy. The ladies, who play a much larger part than women in previous Vaughn/Favreau films, handle much of the comedy extremely well despite the fact that the boys get all the best punchlines.

Then things take a turn for the worse. As the actual story of the film starts to unfold the comedy falls flat, like it was sprinting down the white sand beaches pictured in the film and hit the ocean to fast causing it to fall over. As the comedic scenes dry up so that we can have some romance the film completely loses its charm until it feels like a romantic comedy from hell replete with a Guitar Hero showdown of epically stupid proportions and all four couples magically working everything out at the exact same time in the exact same location. Gone is the actual quality humor of the first hour and it's replaced with the kind of stuff you expect to find in a romantic comedy about married couples going to an island.

And so we are once again left with the question of why good comedians start making terrible movies as they get older. Is it just something that happens? Once you're past 35 or so you have to start making films that have lost their edge entirely. Are they that out of touch with what is funny? If that is the case then Couples Retreat mike actually show us the exact moment when this happens to Vaughn and Favreau.

[Please click the link in my profile so I may continue to fight off the evil that attacks the Australian clams every year.]

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