Few things match like “young girls” and “horror”, just ask the Japanese. Even in the Western world, horror films starring children have been quite effective. Quien puede matar a un niño?, Children of the Corn, The Omen, The Other to name but a few. One movie that also wants to be on that list is Orphan, in which we meet Esther, a young girl who spends her life in an orphanage after her family was killed. She’s quite good at drawing and playing the piano, you know. Esther is lucky: the Colemans, a happy couple with two children, want to have a third child and have decided to introduce an adopted child into the family. Esther is lucky, the family is less so. Because Esther isn’t just a normal cute girl… Esther is [ooh ahh, spoiler alert narrowly avoided by SPAT, the Spoiler Prevention Action Team.]

Actually, it doesn’t matter whether you know the truth about Esther or not (not that I’ll spoil the movie for you). It’s quite clear she’s malicious and she doesn’t have the best intentions for most members of the family (or indeed anyone who stands in her way). If you already know why Esther is doing these things, it doesn’t spoil any of the fun… I can assure you, the movie had been spoilt for me. There are movies which are mainly based around the twist and once you know the twist, the fun ends. The Sixth Sense, a movie I’ve been trying to avoid like the plague, is allegedly such a movie. Other films may have their hidden secrets, but the outcome doesn’t spoil the rest of the film. Something Alfred Hitchcock tried to prove in a couple of his films.

Orphan has decided not to be tackled by its twists. While you already know Esther isn’t your regular sweetheart, her new parents John and Kate are still quite unaware, which helps add tension. Esther’s ‘brother’ is scared to death of  her, but doesn’t dare to reveal what he knows about Esther. Miraculously, to an extent you sympathize with Esther, mainly because a lot of classmates are a bunch of regular bastards and deserve to be confronted by an Esther-like person. Serves them right, horrible bunch of bullies!
What is definitely less great is that the director (Jaume Collet-Saura)  has tried to make his film even more scarier. In fact, he has achieved the opposite. Take the scene where Kate Coleman (Vera Farmiga) is in the bathroom, early in the film. The medicine cabinet is open, so you and Kate can’t see the mirrors on the front. Then… shock! horror! scary music!… she closes the cabinet… and nothing happens. Later in the film the exact same thing happens and… shock! horror! scary music!… her husband suddenly stands next to her. Oh my, how completely the opposite of scary that was. It’s not the only example, there are even scenes where the camera follows Cate or John (Peter Sarsgaard) and when the character turns around, there’s nothing there. It’s as if Collet-Saura was trying to make a scary movie but ends up with Scary Movie. Luckily, there’s only a handful of scenes like this and the rest is a lot better. Not in the least thanks to Isabelle Fuhrman who is perfectly cast as Esther. (Never thought we’d find a girl that could outdo Jodelle Ferland.)

Had it not been for that handful of irritating scenes, Orphan would’ve definitely ended up in my top five of 2009. Nevertheless, it’s great value, even if you already know what’s in store. Not that you know everything…

P.S. Never try to google the word ‘orphan’ when you’re reviewing this film. Unless you’ve mentally prepared yourself for dozens of pictures of starving orphans all around the world.
P.P.S. Don’t stop reading here: there was a bonus update on Saturday, concerning the best music of 2009 (well, if you’d ask me, of course…).

Millennium 1: Men who hate women

The United States have their hard-boiled detectives and film noir types, but what have the Europeans set against that? Cranky old men in the UK and Scandinavia. Frost, Wallander, Morse… that sort of thing. Lately, the Scandinavians have been busy to ‘invent’ a crime subgenre that benefits from the European diversity. (In case you didn’t know: it generally means that directors need an investment from a couple of countries, countries that in turn ask the director to have a bit of their glorious country inserted into the movie. Thus the European thriller was often an artificial and convoluted creature.) In 2004 the Danish made a crime series (The Eagle) that detailed the maffias and corruption in several countries and for once the result didn’t seem contrived. The series starred von Trier regular Jens Albinus, had music from Jacob Groth and several episodes were directed by Niels Arden Oplev. The latter two helped create the first film of the Millennium trilogy: Men who hate women (a.k.a. Män som hatar kvinnor a.k.a. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The signs were good and thanks to the international popularity of the books, there was no need for artifical funding by several European countries. Everyone was happy to honour Stieg Larsson and keep the books as Swedish as possible, so as not to upset the millions of fans.

The Millennium trilogy you see, is based on the three books by journalist Stieg Larsson. Besides being good books, the series also benefited from Larsson’s early death. Larsson wasn’t the best journalist in the world, his friends tell you in the several documentaries on the DVD, but he was devoted to exposing corruption and misogyny. Thus he created three books starring the middle-aged journalist Mikael Blomquist and punk hacker Lisbeth Salander. (Both are in a way versions of what Larsson hoped to be: an relentless investigative journalist and a ballsy person.) Blomquist is on trial for slander and she’s asked by a company to investigate whether he’s honest or not. They don’t meet.
Blomquist is sentenced to a couple of months in jail, but this doesn’t have to happen immediately. This is when Blomquist (played by Michael Nyquist)  is asked to investigate the mysterious disappearing and possible murder of a mogul’s niece. Blomquist accepts the offer, not only because the vanished girl used to be his babysitter. Blomquist soon finds out he’s not particularly welcome in this remote village, where a lot of people have a hidden agenda and/or connections to the extreme right. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Lisbeth Salander concludes Blomquist isn’t the worst egg in the world and offers her help. It’s the birth of an unlikely duo.

There are many good things to say about Men Who Hate Women, but some deserve a special bit of credit. First and foremost the writers, who decided to make Lisbeth Salander’s character more prominent (but without betraying the nature of Larsson’s novel). Equally important is Noomi Rapace, who leaves a lasting impression as the gutsy but troubled Lisbeth Salander. And finally composer Jacob Groth, who went to Eastern Europe to hire the help of one of the biggest choirs, so the film would have a score that may be subtle but stands out. Despite the financial support of a lot of European tv networks it gave this film the feeling of a grand Hollywood production, whilst keeping the grittiness Hollywood films will never have.

Because yes, the title is not Men Who Hate Women without reason: what has happened (and happens) to Lisbeth and several other women is not the sort of thing you can talk about during the next family dinner. And unlike a lot of American films the violence isn’t glorified or beautified. No, it’s shown as brutal and vile as it is. At the same time, Lisbeth Salander isn’t exactly a princess herself: she is raped and takes revenge by returning to the rapist and tattooing a warning message on the rapist’s stomach. Probably not someone who’ll go topless to the beach next summer.
But it’s exactly this sort of behaviour (the fact that both Blomquist and Salander have their serious flaws) that makes this film so believable and good.

And hardcore fans of the film should watch out for the DVD, which is the extended version of the film (as shown on Swedish television). For the film, a subplot that wasn’t necessary was deleted, reducing the cinema version by 30 minutes. This puts Men Who Hate Women closer to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King which did a similar thing and luckily not closer to a lot of other European films which could only get support from networks if they’d added extra footage (read: bonus fodder) so the networks could broadcast the film as a mini-series (thereby filling their schedules for two or three weeks, but reducing the film’s power – but it’s not as if networks tend to care about quality).

Millennium 1: Men Who Hate Women may be bold and brutal, but it’s good European cinema. The Americans, who are not too keen of the brutalness of the film, have announced they’ll remake the film in 2011. It’s already the least anticipated movie of the decade. Misogyny isn’t a fun subject and this film proves you can show it in a film, without reducing yourself to the level of the 80s rape revenge movies like Extremities. Mainly because most abused women aren’t Farrah Fawcett and fairy tale endings don’t always exist in real life. We may seem civilized but underneath this thin layer of manners lies a dark world. Thus spoke Stieg Larsson.


De Laatste Dagen van Emma Blank

Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam has already been responsible for several films: Abel, De Noorderlingen (The Northeners), De Jurk (The Dress), Kleine Teun (Little Tony), Grimm and Ober (Waiter). Compared to its predecessors, De Laatste Dagen van Emma Blank (The last days of Emma Blank) sticks out because of its long title. However, the director’s typical touch has not been altered: this film too displays a wit so dry it’s waterproof.

Oddly enough, this film has been met with a lot of criticism because of its artificial setting. Surely this sort of argument doesn’t make sense: we’re talking about a film by van Warmerdam, whose De Noorderlingen featured a prefab village in the 1950s where a woman is suddenly idolised for her religious gifts, whose Ober featured a waiter who started complaining to the screenplay writer about his role in the film… van Warmerdam’s movie thrive on tiptoeing on the line between realism and surrealism.

This film introduces us to Emma Blank, an eccentric woman who is on the verge of dying… or so she claims. Blank doesn’t look that ill but insists of being taken care of by her staff, a butler, a cook, a maid, a gardener and the doglike Theo (played by director van Warmerdam himself). That’s right, there’s a man, who may or may not be mentally handicapped, pretending to be a dog. Early on in the film, we learn that Emma’s butler is actually her husband, but just how the other people in the house are connected to each other isn’t clear. Nor is it obvious why they choose to remain in the same house as the tyrannic Emma Blank. It’s all a mystery, much like Emma’s fatal disease.

What I like most about this film, apart from its black comedy, is that most of the film is set in or near Emma’s house. This – as I mentioned before, in my review of the director’s previous film, Ober – is van Warmerdam’s forte: give the man a location the characters can hardly escape from and he gives you a piece of gold. Emma Blank does organize the occasional outing, but it’s immediately obvious that staying home would’ve been a better option.
Also, most of the characters are not exactly innocent lambs, so you don’t mind too much that a lot of bad stuff happens to them. Sure, most of them can be forgiven for their deeds, but only one character (the gardener) is not that morally abject as most of the others.

I guess that’s what a lot of people find off-putting, the lack of people you can empathize with. To me, the idea of watching people suffering from living inside a prison they wanted to be in can be the base of a good black comedy. To me, De laatste dagen van Emma Blank also proves Alex van Warmerdam is very much an auteur director, someone with a typical and personal style. This may not be the most accessible of his movies but to fans of his work it should be a treat.

8/10 (and the n°5 in my Top 10 of 2009)

Film 2009: the Top 10

Twelve months of film condensed into one list of ten films. Please note that (for the very first time) the top five exists of three Swedish movies and two Dutch movies. Odder than ever before, here’s my Best of 2009.


People who didn’t like horror already had their vampire film to cherish (Twilight, starring the allegedly yummy Robert Pattinson), but now there’s a horror film horror fans can show to horror haters: the name is Let The Right One In and it’s my n°1 of 2009. (full review here)


The first film in the trilogy based on Stieg Larsson‘s books does what a film adaptation should do: have good performances, re-invent the book to make a better film out of it (without betraying the book, director Niels Arden Oplev made hacker Lisbeth Salander’s character more prominent) and having two releases: the original tv version (2 episodes of 90 minutes) and a cinema version (which cuts out the  less essential storyline but keep the story complete). Films two and three will hit the European continent in 2010, an American remake is already scheduled and at this moment the least anticipated film of 2011. (full review in January)


I gave it my best shot and awarded this movie 8.5/10. I’m not sure if the movie would’ve received an 8 or a 9 if it had been directed by another director. Het Echte Leven isn’t perfect, but it’s quirky and has the ability to bring a smile to your face when you’re walking past your movies and get to the letter E (provided you archive your movies in alphabetical order). (full review here)


An older man who’s hit in the eye by fireworks, a singer on a coach trip that’s halted because of vandalism, two young girls into booze and webcam dances, male bonding that crosses the lines, a teacher whose righteous remarks turn her into an outcast… De Ofrivilliga is a film about peer pressure, or as we said it earlier this year: “Involuntary (Happy Sweden) shows its nature in the title. Part of it shows the shortcomings of the human race, the bracketed part is highly ironic. De Ofrivilliga is a social drama but there’s plenty to laugh at, even if it’s not always out loud.” (full review here)


Plot synopsis: This jet-black comedy from Dutch director Alex van Warmerdam concerns a nasty woman named Emma Blank (Marlies Heuer). A crabby geriatric who lives in a seaside villa and is gradually withering away from cancer, she treats her servants like dogs. Her constant browbeating pushes them beyond the point of indignation and ultimately threatens to incite a small-scale rebellion. (full review pending)


The story of a nice couple (with a somewhat dark history) adopting a sweet, clever girl from an orphanage. Isn’t she sweet? No, she isn’t. Had director Collet-Serra not gone for the easy “I’m gonna scare you” tricks (e.g. the closing of a medicine cabinet with mirrors on it… ooh, you never know if something’s there behind the actress… or the camera pretending someone’s following someone but there isn’t), this would’ve been a contender for Best Film of 2009. All hail to Isabelle Fuhrman‘s portrayal of the not so innocent orphan.


The Wrestler, the latest Darren Aronofsky offering, surely doesn’t pose as a feelgood movie (…) The film ends in a way not unsimilar to Aranofsky’s earlier film Requiem for a Dream. The man sure likes his climaxes. (Full review here)


Some of my friends also watched the movie and while our rating of the movie differs (between 3 to 4.5 stars out of 5), there are a couple of things we could all agree on: the film is thought-provoking and quite disturbing. So let’s skip the score and rate the movie with words… Eden Lake is “disturbing and thought-provoking”/10. (Full review here)


Given that 2009 was the year a lot of films were hard to rate, there was no doubt Eden Lake and Antichrist had to be in the top ten, which made it a tough cookie to crack for the eighth spot: I could go all the way and give it to Moon or make an effort to show you normal films were also made this year. In the end, I didn’t pick Moon because, as interesting as it was, it left me unfulfilled and because I was annoyed at the lousy spelling of the word ‘satellite’ (it’s always written as ‘sattelite’ at the top of the video messages). So let’s give this spot n°8 to Two Lovers (or Two Lovvers as Moon would put it), which was reviewed here.


Arguably the best review of Lars von Trier’s latest film (by critic Kurt Vandemaele) included this sentence: “When fans claim only von Trier could make this movie, they’re forgetting only von Trier would want to make this movie.” Truer words still need to be discovered. Antichrist, the latest movie by von Trier, is one hell of a bad trip. (Full review here)

Bubbling under…
12. MOON

Let The Right One In

Hello and welcome to 2010! On this very first day of the year it’s custom to do two things, pondering about the future (all the best from me and the others behind DV) and looking back at the year we’ve survived. If the media reviews are anything to go by, 2009 was pretty gloomy. Maybe the Mexican flu was even the jolliest thing of the year. Looking back at my film top 10 of 2009 (the list appears next Monday), two things became apparent: on the one hand 2009 was the year Sweden boomed (three films in the top five), on the other hand young girls were not always what they seemed. One film combined both factors and is my deserved number one: Let The Right One In.

Yes, it may surprise you, but this is the first review of this film here at DV, despite appearing in most of our lists. I can’t vouch for the others, but I had the wicked plan to save the best for last. And no, nothing seemed a better number one than this one. True, it is overhyped, but it’s a great film that does deserve the attention. It even managed – and this is quite rare – to be liked by people who generally don’t like horror, which is quite an achievement. Even the Lord of the Rings trilogy (excellently directed by Peter Jackson) still struggles from convincing people who hate sci-fi, fantasy and horror to watch it. For some reason, Let The Right One In manages to fill the gaps.

The film introduces us to Oskar, a young boy who’s bullied by a couple of classmates. In his anger, he takes a knife and stabs a tree, imagining the tree is the bully. He’s observed doing this by a young girl, who’s just moved in next to Oskar’s mother. The girl is Eli, possibly even more of a loner than Oskar and adamant Oskar won’t be allowed to become her boyfriend. Eli has a good reason for that, as we’ll find out later in the movie.

Actually, I don’t know why I’m still hiding the plot of one of the most talked about movies of 2009, but at least we’re still sticking by the rules. So why is this a horror movie? Well, it’s actually a good point: despite involving vampires and the occasional spontaneous combustion, Låt den rätte komma in (to use its original title for once) adds as much drama to the film as there are horror elements. It looks as if this film was the breakthrough film for director Tomas Alfredson (°1965), whose next project will include Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman (whose botox overdoses have made her a horror genre of her own). And even though Kåre Hedebrant was quite convincing as the badly plagued Oskar, there’s no denying Lina Leandersson makes quite the startling debut as Eli.

Above all (and this does perhaps explain why it’s so popular) Let The Right One In chooses beauty above gore, a more uncommon approach. The film benefits from its snowy environment, but even in the other scenes the director paid a lot of care to how the movie would look on screen. Gore is there, but hardly ever is it emphasized (quite a welcome exchange to the thousands of recent horror movies which believe they’ll be so much better because they use gallons of fake blood).

So there you have it… people who didn’t like horror already had their vampire film to cherish (Twilight, starring the allegedly yummy Robert Pattinson), but now there’s a horror film horror fans can show to horror haters: the name is Let The Right One In and it’s my n°1 of 2009.

Two mini-reviews make one full review

So many recent movies, so little time to write in-depth reviews, so here we go with two movies from 2009 in mini-review form.


If the question was: “Who’s the blandest director in Hollywood?” a lot of people would answer Ron Howard. Howard has become the icon of films that are well made (direction and acting) but aren’t quite stimulating. One watches a film by Howard and then one does something else. By comparison, I still feel Kelly Reilly sinking in the dirt of Eden Lake (which I saw in the beginning of this year).

Howard based his film on the play by Peter Morgan. Morgan’s screenplays have been made into familiar films before. His work includes The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and the underrated Martha, meet Frank, Daniel and Laurence. Whilst reading the previous sentence, there’s a good chance you showed some reaction to the title The Queen, a film by Stephen Frears. According to a lot of people I know, that film was more engaging than Frost/Nixon is. Nevertheless, the stakes were equally high for both Frost and Nixon as they were for the Queen (who couldn’t rule on without reacting to Diana’s death, if the masses had anything to say). Unable to find American sponsors prior to the interview, David Frost staked all of his money and the chance to ever work on tv again to get his interview with Nixon. The former president needed to win this verbal duel if he didn’t want to go down as the worst and most corrupt president of the United States. Howard’s Nixon (played by Frank Langella) is proner to a lot more sympathy from the viewer than the real deal (a bonus feature on the dvd compares the key scenes from the film to the actual interviews). Michael Sheen plays Frost so smooth the 1977 version from the actual interviews looks more like someone taken from 60 Minutes or Newsnight. The John Birt from the film looks a lot more vibrant than the Birt we’ve come to know from his years as director of the BBC (to this date, the satirical magazine Private Eye dubs hollow manager’s lingo from the media world ‘Birtspeak’ and adorns the feature with a cartoon of Birt as a Dalek). All of this isn’t necessarily bad, but it did help me conclude that what I’d been watching was the Hollywood version of these epic interviews. Right to the last frame as the film ends with captions telling you what has become of both Frost and Nixon. As if the protagonists from Frost/Nixon were nothing more than the Arkansas housewife from the tv movie of the week. Surely, most of us will know that Frost and Nixon lived on and yes, Frost’s career boomed after the interviews and yes, Nixon never really succeeded in cleaning up his reputation. If you needed to read that in a caption, my fair guess is you’d never go to watch this film anyway. “Booh, this looks like some historic movie, let’s go watch something with exploding cars instead…”
Frankly the Frost/Nixon interviews were so monumental you’d have to be a complete tit to make a bad movie out of it. Howard has the talent to make sure that didn’t happen. Sure, it’s a film you watch late at night without falling asleep, but frankly, these interviews were worthy of a more compelling film. Not just a 7/10 film.

London River

In September 2001 the United States were attacked by a group of terrorists, something you may have heard about. Countless novels and films have been written about it, mainly because the USA hadn’t been attacked on their own soil before. Unlike London, which was also attacked this decade (on 07/07 of the year 2005). For some reason, the British didn’t really feel the need to make films about this trauma: London said it had been attacked before, a couple of times even during the IRA period. Rachid Bouchareb‘s London River is a film about these attacks. It stars Brenda Blethyn as Elisabeth, the mother of Jane, a young girl living in London. She calls her daughter after the attacks but only manages to get through to Jane’s voicemail. After several calls and still no answer, Elisabeth decides to leave Guernsey and go look for her daughter. Meanwhile, African Ousmane (Sotigui Kouyaté) is also unable to reach his son Ali, whom he hasn’t seen since Ali was six. Their lives intertwine as it turns out that Jane and Ali knew each other. The mother is severely shocked as she didn’t know Jane was befriended with a muslim. Surely, this Ali had indoctrinated her poor daughter!
As Elisabeth and Ousmane are on the same quest (to find a trace of their child, hopefully alive), they often meet, but Elisabeth can’t get herself to open up to the man whose son might have been together with her daughter.
London River is an emotional film, combining the attacks as well as the unbearable aftermath for the families of possible victims. Elisabeth is genuinely frightened by the muslim world (at an Arabic language course her daughter might have attended, she asks the tutor if those symbols are genuine letters and whoever speaks such a weird language) and everywhere she looks in the cosmopolitan city she sees people with non-caucasian skin. This, combined with the unsuccessful search for her daughter, make the poor woman feel completely uneasy.
I won’t tell you whether Elisabeth and Ousmane manage to find their children alive or not, but this does get answered at the end of the movie. What a shame then that the film doesn’t stop there and instead goes on for another three minutes, showing us how both parents are home again and reflect on their time in London. I think I could’ve done without that and without the scenes which overwroughtly show how the police can’t help Ousmane and Elisabeth: for incomprehensible reasons, a lot of police scenes are filmed in murky basements. Still, the film effectively shows you the unease of these two strangers in a city they don’t know, unable to puzzle together the lives of their child that apparently has managed to become somewhat of a stranger. The most effective scene is in the second half of the film, as both Ousmane and Elisabeth are exhausted by the long walks, sit down on a bench and talk. The despair is painfully obvious there.

Paranormal Activity

Just over a week ago I had the distinct pleasure of being in the same cinema theatre as a bunch of school kids. The kids should’ve been 14 to 16 years old. The movie wasn’t good, but the kids were awful. Mobiles were switched on with the sound off so they could wave the display lights around, there was cheering and clapping whenever scenes were ending and boo sounds when the next scene would start. By the end, I’d gotten sympathy for a film I didn’t like, just because it had to compete against these brainless brutes. Of course, the kids were obliged to see the film, which made them automatically dislike it and noone was there (not that I could spot) to introduce them to the film. I don’t want you to see those two factors as an excuse for this hooliganesque behaviour, the total lack of respect is horrible, but let’s go back to our school years: weren’t obligatory trips always disappointing, a fact you’d persuaded yourself of before the cultural experience had begun? Surely, this would be different if I’d be in a room full of adult people (18+ is adult, after all) who’d gone to the cinema of their own free will and had chosen one particular film out of 18 possibilities…?

Wrong! No sooner had Paranormal Activity started or a young couple entered the room, who after being seated, constantly checked the time on their mobile’s display and took a lot of time reading and sending text messages to their friends. Apart from being agonized by this behaviour, I’m also curious: horror films, if powerful enough, manage to make these idiots stop their business and watch the screen in awe. This has happened before (see my Eden Lake review) and now it was time to see if Paranormal Activity could do the same.

These nincompoops had (of course) come to watch the film because of the hype around the film. Me… not so much. As soon as I’d heard of the hype, I tried my best to block all the information about this film, so I could watch it for what it was: a film. Not a hype. Let’s go back to The Blair Witch Project, released a decade ago, which had taken a lot of time to travel from the US to Europe and thus it was hardly able to stand up with all the weight of the hype on its shaky shoulders. Hence the European critics and moviegoers rated it less than the Americans.
But that was back in the twentieth century… right now, in this modern day and time, surely things are different…? Erm, not really, or so it appears: Paranormal Activity was actually completed in the year 2007, was shown at a couple of genre festivals, but had to wait till the autumn of 2009 before getting a global release. Most people aren’t aware of this, but so many movies are made every year only a handful of those will get a worldwide release. Subsequently, making a top list is a rather silly idea, because after all there’s a fat chance you won’t have even seen 1% of the world’s output. (By the way, stay tuned for my Best of 2009 list, appearing on these very pages next Monday.) Paranormal Activity tried to have a better chance by using modern-day equipment like YouTube, showing footage of people fainting during screenings. Whether doctored or not (probably yes), it did help to get the film distributed. What a shame then that the people who were aware of the allegedly scary movie ended up bitterly disappointed. You see, if you go to a film without some form of anticipation and you spend an enjoyable 90 minutes, you’ll like the film.  If you go to a film that apparently has made people faint and you get to the end of the film still fully conscious, you’ll feel cheated. One of the films I often quote in this respect, is Silent Hill, which used scary music and visual effects to warn you something incredibly scary was ahead… but the frightening scenes never lived up to my expectations because of this. Likewise, Romero added so many effects to scare you in Land of the Dead that, by the time a zombie did pop up, you’d probably yawn.

I have the distinct pleasure to inform you that Paranormal Activity is a lot cleverer than that. It presents itself not as a film but as a documentary on what has happened to young couple Katie and Micah, who were living in a house which displayed some paranormal activity. Micah, very much a 21st century boy, had bought a camera and some equipment to record what happened at night, when the couple were sleeping. Thus, a fair amount of the film consists of fast-forwarded footage of two people sleeping until something happens. The clever part is that the fast-forwarding stops a bit before the actual proof of paranormal activity. Which means you suddenly start watching footage in real time, wait because nothing is happening and suddenly a light switches on. It’s scary in the way Japanese films are scary, because of built-up tension and atmosphere.

As the title suggests, the spirit or demon in the house manifests itself at night through paranormal activities, which does mean you don’t get to see the ghost, but you do get to hear sounds or lights switching on and off, doors opening and closing, etc. etc. One of the more displayed stills from the film (pictured next to this text) shows Katie suddenly getting up in the middle of the night and just standing next to the bed for an hour and a half, unaware of what she’s doing. Because this is shown in fast-forward motion, this is a lot scarier than a lot of gore, even though all you see is an immobile woman and a timer racing through the night. Never mind it distinctly echoes the climax to The Blair Witch Project.

In lesser news, Paranormal Activity also does the trick I genuinely hate about most horror films. A lot of horrors have either an overly scared girl (screaming her lungs out every twelve minutes) and a manly hero or a slightly cocky guy combined with a girl you could feel some sympathy for (apart from the fact she’s staying with this total pillock, what a stupid girl she must be). Despite Katie’s personal experience (she’s been assaulted by spirits before) and countless warnings, Micah insists on using the camera to record every moment of their lives, even if this might make the paranormal manifestations worse. Also, he doesn’t mind provoking the spirit in true Neanderthal fashion: me protecting girlfriend, me scare you away. To summarize, Micah really got on my nerves and I started praying to the demonic entity to kill Micah as soon as possible. Even though of course Micah’s video footage is what allowed this film to be compiled.

Speaking of which, the paranormal activity and the video footage made me think of a book, which even used the same font as Paranormal Activity: the rather excellent House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski. I can’t be certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Oren Peli, writer and director of Paranormal Activity, has read the book. Of course, by referencing House of Leaves and The Blair Witch Project (voluntarily or accidently), you do place your films near other media that may well banish you into their shadow. Paranormal Activity isn’t a match to these two, even if Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat do an excellent job. Especially Katie deserves a lot of credit, being the centerpiece of the film and showing a young woman on the verge of breaking down after having been the target of paranormal activities for a couple of years. In an attempt to look like genuine footage, the film doesn’t have credits. It mainly mentions the names of Katie and Micah at the beginning of the film (and by thanking the couple’s families for allowing Peli to use the footage, you know things won’t end good). As if you were watching an actual documentary. And at the very end, after the film’s climax, the film ends with a black screen telling you this was directed by Oren Peli and that’s it. The lights go on and the audience remains in their seats, slowly coming to terms with the fact they’re in the real world again. Yes, the young couple I’d mentioned in the beginning of this review had lost their appetite to use their mobile phone, instead soaking up the antics of Micah and Katie. And, when the lights switched on and people just sat there, one woman behind me said: “I haven’t been so frightened by a film since Silent Hill.” Usually, I’ll be the last person out of the theatre, not moving from my seat until the credits have ended, but this time I was the first to leave.

Which only means one thing: Paranormal Activity uses a lot of atmosphere and tension rather than graphics. And since what you don’t see will scare you more, it is quite frightening. Had it not been for a couple of plot tactics to build up tension (Micah’s cockiness only aggravates the tense Katie even more) the film would’ve ended with an even better score. Now, it’ll have to be satisfied with 7.5/10.

Fish Tank

In just under a fortnight this decade will be over and a new one will emerge, generally a time for bigger resolutions. So here’s my request: can all the directors in the world stop shaking around with those cameras if it’s not necessary? (And let’s face it: it hardly ever is.) Ever since Dogma 95 and The Blair Witch Project directors found it an übercool tool to add some reality to their films, but more often than not, the only thing it made audiences do was throw up their dinners. Fish Tank suffers from the same problem: cameras jump around for no obvious reasons (it even made me become nostalgic of Jess Franco‘s zooming effects) and in one scene we see protagonist Mia (the excellently cast Katie Jarvis in her debut role) dance to music when suddenly the camera swings around and the sun hits us straight in the eye. There’s only two words for that: bad directing. (Tight budget or not.)

Don’t get me wrong: this is by no means a criticism of the entire film, just of a couple of scenes. Fish Tank is actually quite a decent movie and it’s those details (or are they?) that – from my point of view – keep it from being a stand-out film. Director Andrea Arnold has both been vague and informative about her film’s title. Sometimes she leaves it to the viewer to judge why the film bears this name, in other interviews she said we look at Mia, her family and surroundings like we look at a fish tank.

Mia isn’t blessed with the most perfect surroundings: she’s been kicked out of the umpteenth school, has a love/hate relationship with her little sister Tyler and her mother is a single woman keen on booze and snogging with nearly strangers. As the film opens, we see Mia watching a group of girls mimicking MTV videos. Mia mocks them and soon the verbal fight ends with Mia headbutting a girl and possibly breaking her nose. Life is tough where Mia lives.

Arnold shows us Mia, her toughness and how that’s nothing more than a mask, but does so without being too overt about it, a fault lots of filmmakers make. If there’s any difference between Mia and the girls from her neighbourhood, it’s that Mia is a lot better at dancing than the other girls, who seem to copy the dance moves from tv without any emotion. As if Romero’s zombies had taken over the seedier places of the city. Mia hopes that her dancing may give her a chance to leave the rotten place, but fear not, DV reader, Billy Elliot it ain’t. Andrea Arnold makes no effort to shield you or Mia from the toughness of life and the main difference is that we’re less naive than her. If we see an advertisement for female dancers in a club, the font looks a bit shambolic and the ad does specify the girls have to be older than 18, we know happiness doesn’t lie around the corner.

Another thing is Connor, the new lover Mia’s mother has. This guy seems different from all the previous creeps and is even genuinely kind to Mia and Tyler. Mia even makes an effort to open up to this guy, at which point you can only start hoping there won’t be a moment when the boundaries between mother’s lover and the fifteen-year-old girl will be broken. Mind you, both Mia and Connor don’t mind a bit of alcohol themselves. Yet, credit given where credit is due, Arnold takes the story down a path I hadn’t expected it. Add to this the film’s surroundings, which is depicted with more detail than necessary (there’s a plotline where Mia takes it up for a decrepid horse) and you end up with a film that has more gravitas than most films in this genre: either they end up being unbearably tough and virtually unwatchable (I never feel the need to watch a Shane Meadows movie) or they’re dosed with so much sugar you watch the film with a sick taste in your mouth (the Billy Elliot variety).

What a shame then that there are a couple of scenes where the movie doesn’t look good. I assume it’s a lack of budget rather than negligence, but anyway, it’s a bit of criticism I have to take along. Especially since it isn’t a debut (Arnold’s first feature length film was 2006’s Red Road and she even won an Oscar for her short movie Wasp, both starring Natalie Press).


P.S. Here’s the trailer, with French subtitles but in the correct aspect ratio (yes, the film was made in 4:3 ratio, an oddity in 2009):

Mid-month mainstream mix

Why review one movie if you can review a couple at the same time? Not always DV material, these movies were nevertheless released in 2009 and deserve a word. Be that good or bad.

I can’t say I looked forward to the second Twilight movie. Not because I’m not a teen girl (therefore I don’t go all putty when I see Pattison) and not because the first one is still on my massive “To See” shelves, but this one smelt foul… here are the clues:
1) The press people weren’t allowed to see this upfront. Which either indicates the film has a couple of secrets the movie people don’t want to leak out… or it’s a piece of shit. Given that this film was based on a book which has been out for a while, one may be inclined to predict the latter reason is the valid one.
2) The Batman Forever phenomenon. The more indier a soundtrack gets, the more there’s a reason the film tries to draw you in with fancy names. Movies like Juno have a clear view of what they want for their soundtrack, hence it being based predominately on Moldy Peaches tracks (with a hint of Belle and Sebastian – because it fitted). However, Batman Forever had a soundtrack of which only five tracks had made it to the film itself, the others were “inspired by the motion picture”. If you were somewhat musically conscious in the 90s, you’ll drool over a list of bands like Nick Cave, Flaming Lips, Michael Hutchence covering Iggy Pop, Mazzy Star, U2 and PJ Harvey. The great soundtrack to this film (and sequel Batman & Robin) didn’t make the films any better, though. Twilight 2: New Moon features tracks by Bon Iver & St. Vincent, Lykke Li and Thom Yorke. Looks like you’re better off just listening to the soundtrack.
3) One clip I watched showed me bad direction and worse effects, not unlike The Golden Compass, also a Chris Weitz movie. Also bear in mind this was a preview clip. That’s the clip they want you to see upfront.
Conclusion: avoid!

Slumdog Millionaire
Yes, believe it or not: this Danny Boyle film was released in 2009 in my country and therefore it’s a 2009 film. I hadn’t watched it before it won all those Oscars, so in hindsight there’s no way you can’t think of this film as multi-awarded while you’re watching it. Was Slumdog Millionaire so good all those Oscars were justified? No. And it’s quite likely that if the film hadn’t gone for such an absurd deus ex machina (providing us with one of the least likely final scenes of a film this year) it would’ve gotten less Oscars. Still, after the absurd climax the film ends in a Bollywood song, with a tone that seems to mock the previous scenes. Anyway, Slumdog Millionaire was a decent film in a year (2008 in most countries, including the UK and US) not too many films didn’t stand out, which is probably why it was so awarded. Regardless of the hype, the film deserved an 8/10 for its good direction, great camerawork and decent performances. And yes, we’ll choose Slumdog over Sunshine anyday.

The Informant! is the latest Steven Soderbergh film, starring Matt Damon (who gained a lot of weight to be in the film). The film shows you how Matt Damon’s character Mark Whitacre becomes (rather unwillingly) an informant for the FBI because his company and many other international companies in the food industry were involved in fixing prices. Whitacre is somewhat of a dope character, but he isn’t passed off as the gentle nincompoop you can both laugh at and relate to. Which is good, as it makes the film more plausible.
Still, this movie could have been one of the key films of the year, mainly because its themes: company fraud and food-related issues, can it get more 2009? Yet I felt the film didn’t have enough punch to become truly memorable. It’s so fluffy a couple of days after the film you have to think what the film was about. And by now we know Soderbergh can direct and Damon can act, so less is no longer more. The film picks up speed and content in the second hour, so at least you don’t leave the theatre feeling hungry, but again it shows that Soderbergh still seems more obsessed by quantity rather than quality. The verdict is 7/10, but it’ll be the lowest of the 7-rated movies in my upcoming list.

Coming up as well: Fish Tank and a movie you might have expected earlier on DV, but the end of the year is nigh and we save the best for last… any guesses?

La Fille du RER

The 'fille' on the way to the REROn your left you see Jeanne, portraying a young woman (or: girl) descending some stairs to take the local train in Paris (or: RER). And that’s why the film is called The Girl on the Train or (in its original title) La Fille du RER. It may be any RER, but Jeanne (as portrayed by Emilie Dequenne) isn’t any other girl. Jeanne’s story shocked France and many other countries in 2004. Yes, La Fille du RER is based on a true story and this time the producers didn’t make that up to make a larger audience flock to the cinema, this truly happened… or did it?

Let’s scroll back to 2004 and the unsettling news that a young woman was attacked on a local train by a group of youngsters who had taken her for a Jewish girl and had assaulted her. They’d cut some of her hair off and had carved in her belly.
Outraged? Well, so was France. But… prepare yourself for more outrage. Not long thereafter, it was revealed that the attack hadn’t taken place at all and the girl had invented this story. Rather than to question why a girl would do such a thing, the media were angry they’d been used and condemned the girl for inventing such a crime.

Fast forward to 2009 and to a film by André Techiné that tries to shed some light on the backgrounds of this story.

 And yes, that’s what we get to see: the full background of the story, though it must be added that sometimes this doesn’t always make for engaging cinema. But as a psychological study it’s a fairly interesting film. Mainly because it shows how things can develop if you’re living a lie, an extreme lie.
La Fille du RERThe film explicitly shows the involvement of the media in this story, changing Jeanne from the victim of a outrageous crime to a symbol of how today’s rotten society has no respect for other people and victimizes them beyond belief. And then,
when the story was revealed to be untrue, rewriting her as another symbol, of a respectless girl with no shame, a lack of knowledge of history and a sick tendency to manipulate the media. (Never mind Jeanne never actively looked up the media to sell her story.)

This is a trap Techiné doesn’t fall for, instead spending from the start of the movie a lot of time portraying the events that led up to the young woman’s fabricated story and developing more insight into this girl’s ‘twisted’ psyche. You get to know Jeanne, feel her despair, see her degree of naievity (i.e. how she was manipulated by her boyfriend) and, despite her errors, you can feel some sort of sympathy for her. Not unlike Rosetta then, Dequenne’s breakthrough role. In fact, you (or at least I did) feel so much for her that by the end of the movie (when Jeanne is jailed for deceiving everyone) you also feel a bit of outrage against the French system, because a jail sentence may not be the right punishment for this girl. (Usually, we don’t tell you how movie end here at DV, but in this case it’s different as a) the film is based on a true story and therefore a bit of googling would’ve given you this information too and b) the film is more of a social study rather than a whodunit thriller.)

If you’re in for a night of engaging cinema, we advise you to seek elsewhere, but if you’d like to find out how people can derail and psychology ticks your right buttons, then you might find this the right movie for the night. 

 Score: 6 to 6.5/10

Here’s the French trailer with Dutch subtitles. If you’d like to watch it with subtitles, go to the film’s site: