Hereafter & Paranormal Activity 2

As a child, I always loved Halloween.  It was the one time of year I was allowed to eat candy with complete abandon.  It was also fun to pick out my costume from the nearby discount store.  Would I be a spaceman or a cowboy or a cartoon character?  The choice was nearly overwhelming.  I was always accompanied on my treat-gathering mission by a parent, usually my mom.  When I was about 10, I was allowed to go out on my own.  I felt like such a grownup, walking through my neighborhood after dark …dressed as an astronaut.  I was nearly back to my house when a car drove by and some teenaged punk in the front seat threw an egg that slammed hard into my shoulder.  The impact stung for several minutes, but the emotional damage lasted several years as the fear of another attack turned my love of Halloween into a deep dread.  As an adult, the appreciation of Halloween returned as the celebration morphed from exclusively a child’s holiday into something grownups could participate in as well.  Hollywood jumped on the bandwagon as well with more than a few scary movie releases in the weeks leading up to Halloween.  This week, “Hereafter” takes a look at the afterlife and how the living deal with it and “Paranormal Activity 2” tries to scare up as much business as last year’s surprise hit.  One is scary good while the other is scary bad.

Hereafter

George Lonegan (Matt Damon) is a psychic who can communicate with the departed family members of the living.  When he holds a person’s hands, George is instantly connected with those who have died and can pass along any messages they might have for their relatives.  George sees his ability as a curse but his brother Billy (Jay Mohr) thinks he should use it to make money.  On the other side of the world, Marie Lelay (Cecile De France) is on a vacation with her lover on a tropical island when a tsunami nearly kills her.  While her heart is stopped, she experiences a white light and familiar faces that seem to be calling to her.  Revived, Marie, a television journalist in Paris, can’t return to her familiar way of life as she ponders what she experienced.  In London, twin brothers Marcus and Jason (George and Frankie McClaren) try to stay one step ahead of child protective services while they help their heroin-addicted mother appear to be on the straight and narrow.  While running an errand for his mother, Jason is struck by a delivery truck and killed, leaving Marcus to deal with the loss in a dysfunctional home.  Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard) has just moved to San Francisco after a difficult end to her last relationship.  She decides to try and meet people by taking a cooking class at the local learning annex.  There she meets George when the chef pairs them up as cooking partners.  When their hands accidentally touch, George sees a flash of Melanie’s past and hopes he can keep his ability a secret to avoid ruining a budding romance.

The first thing you should know about “Hereafter” is to ignore how the movie is being sold in the TV commercials.  Much like the George Clooney film “The American,” the movie is presented as more energetic than it actually is.  In the case of “The American,” the low-key flick was still entertaining and delivered interesting characters who did interesting things, just not with a lot of car chases, fist fights and explosions.  “Hereafter” gives the viewer a great deal of navel gazing and little of that is very interesting to watch. 

The film follows George, Marie and Marcus as their stories unfold, completely unaware of each other.  Damon’s George spends much of the film avoiding his gift, protesting that it’s a curse, but only once does he completely refuse to give a reading.  This one instance is particularly jarring as it involves a woman who begs to be reconnected with her dead child.  Aside from that brief scene and the few featuring Bryce Dallas Howard, much of “Hereafter” is deadly dull.  The three main characters don’t mingle until the last act.  This final confluence of events doesn’t deliver much in the way of emotional payoff.  Despite the film being about life after death and how the living deal with death, “Hereafter” has very little life in it.  The film plays like three separate movies that are held tenuously together by The Grim Reaper.  Many films tell stories this way, but usually do so with more focus and impact.  There’s little about “Hereafter” that leaves a mark on the audience.

“Hereafter” is rated PG 13 for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images and brief strong language.  The tsunami is rendered in vividly detailed CGI, but there’s no gore and nothing frightening about it.  A group of boys chase another boy into the street where he’s hit by a truck and lands with a thud on another car’s windshield.  We see a little blood in that instance.  Foul language is widely scattered.

Clint Eastwood directed “Hereafter” and I’ll have to say I’m surprised his film is as dull and scattershot as it is.  Usually, Eastwood focuses his storytelling and characters like a laser beam, getting to the point quickly and efficiently.  In this case, the movie plods along as if it is walking through knee-deep mud.

“Hereafter” gets two guitars out of five.

Paranormal Activity 2

A young, blended family with husband Daniel (Brian Boland), wife Kristi (Sprague Grayden), daughter from Daniel’s first marriage Ali (Molly Ephraim) and one year old baby boy Hunter arrives at their suburban home to find it trashed by either robbers or vandals.  The only thing missing is a necklace belonging to Kristi’s sister Katie (Katie Featherston).  In response, Daniel has numerous security cameras installed that cover most of the interior and part of the exterior of the house.  The family also does a great deal of taping with their own camera as they like to film family get-togethers and the various milestones as Hunter grows up.  The cameras capture various odd occurrences that, at first, seem minor, and then build in volume and violence.  The housekeeper/nanny tries to burn incense and say prayers around the house, but gets fired for her efforts and soon, all Hell is breaking loose…literally.

There’s not much I can say about “Paranormal Activity 2” that won’t give away some important plot point, but I’ll try to dance through the mine field with as much information as possible.  The film is an effective horror/thriller that gives the audience more than a few “gotcha” moments and, at least twice, elicited screams from some in the crowd at my showing.  Of course, those moments that make you jump in your seat are the reason we see films like this.  Between those moments there is a great deal of nothing; but it is necessary to create the scares that come later.  Those who have seen the first film know a quiet night in a nice house is just a set up to amplify the fear.  The grainy, blue-gray security camera footage once again gives the story a documentary feel. 

The players this time feel like they are trying hard to act as if they are not acting.  Most of the time it works but every once in a while it feels forced.  There are also some odd uses of hand-held cameras recording bits of dialog that seem unlikely to be the subject of home movies.  Of course, some of this just goes along with the territory for a film that is supposed to be as real and organic as possible.  As the demonic shenanigans hit high gear in the film’s final act, any issues with style and camera work are forgotten.

“Paranormal Activity 2” is rated R for some language and brief violent material.  I can’t say much about the violence without spoilers, but I will say some of the action is brutal, yet brief.  Foul language is scattered and usually occurs in the vicinity of some scary happening.

When I heard there was going to be a sequel to “Paranormal Activity,” I feared the worst.  One need only be reminded of the “Blair Witch” sequel to understand my trepidation; but, using a very similar formula as the first film has made this effort almost as good.  Perhaps since we’ve seen this before, this film’s overall impact is dulled, but whatever the reason; “Paranormal Activity 2” doesn’t quite live up to the original.

“Paranormal Activity 2” gets four guitars out of five.

If it’s Halloween, it must be time for another “Saw” movie.  The seventh and final installment (allegedly) of the horror series is the only film coming out in wide release this week; so I’m also adding a few art films that have been out a while that you may not have heard of.  Vote for the next movie I see and review.

Saw 3D— A deadly battle rages over Jigsaw's terrifying legacy in the twisted seventh and final chapter of the hit horror saga.

It’s Kind of a Funny Story—What's a 16-year-old boy doing playing music and table tennis with adult psychiatric patients - on a school day?

Buried—Paul Conroy is not ready to die. But when he wakes up 6 feet underground with no idea of who put him there or why, life for the truck driver and family man instantly becomes a hellish struggle for survival.

Catfish—When a 20-something New York City photographer is contacted on MySpace by an 8-year-old painting prodigy from rural Michigan, he becomes deeply enmeshed in her life.

Stan’s Choice—Stan sees and reviews any movie currently in theatres.

Release dates are subject to change and not all films may be shown in Knoxville, TN.

Have a question?  Send it to stanthemovieman@att.net.  Follow Stan on Twitter @moviemanstan.