Cheap thrills and goat killers share psychic themes
Two movies about paranormal activity share little in common. Paranormal Activity is a movie that was made in the ultra cheap hand-held style of The Blair Witch Project and has been doing nearly as well as that horror phenomenon from a decade ago. Steven Spielberg has been a champion of the little horror film that could.
The Men Who Stare at Goats, on the other hand, is a satire based very loosely on true events, about a U.S. military experiment to create super soldiers with psychic abilities. It has the backing of its star, George Clooney, who promoted the movie at the recent Toronto Film Festival.
The former wants to scare the crap out of you; the latter wants to make you laugh at the absurdity of war with a Dr. Strangelove vibe.
Paranormal Activity definitely has the creep factor going on and it is certainly better than a recent horror film it mildly resembles, Drag Me to Hell. That said, this film plays more like an episode of the TV series Ghost Hunters, with cinematography to match. Made for just $11,000 by the director, Oren Peli, and filmed in his own house with no script, just improvised by the actors with a few suggestions, it beat Saw VI for the top spot at the box office in its first week of wide release.
It has a few good scares, but one has to sit through nearly 80 minutes of mind-numbing tedium before the payoff, a payoff that isn’t really worth the wait. It does have an advantage with the lead actors, two people who you’ve never seen before, so the idea that they are filming their own night terrors is more plausible than if you recognized one of them from a recent cat food commercial.
This movie is a success thanks to Spielberg doing a social networking blitz. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, although it’s a shame a better movie wasn’t given the Spielberg support.
It you like The Blair Witch Project, you should like this movie, but it you thought Witch was much ado about nothing, you might come to the same conclusion after viewing Paranormal Activity.
This Clooney film is a likable, but empty-headed mess that wants to filter the “war is absurd mantra” through a plot that never comes close to delivering the satirical edge it needs to succeed. A game cast led by Jeff Bridges, conjuring up the spirit of The Dude from The Big Lebowski as a military crackpot, Clooney as his devoted follower and Ewan McGregor as an emotionally screwed up journalist, can’t find much in the script by Peter Straughan, based on the non-fiction book by Jon Ronson.
The film begins in the Vietnam War era when the idea of psychic powers was a groovy notion. We are told that President Regan approved of the program, a sly reference to his wife’s belief in the occult.
After the 1970s start, director Grant Heslov (who worked with Clooney as screenwriter on Good Night, and Good Luck) and the script take us forward to Iraq in 2003. Journalist Bob Wilton (McGregor) is looking to impress his wife, who has left him for his editor, by finding a fresh angle on the war. When he stumbles upon Lyn Cassady (Clooney) at a bar, he thinks he has found his angle. The fact that he buys into the psychic angle at all is a testament to how desperate his marriage woes have made him.
Clooney’s Cassady is nuts but in a calm, benevolent way, and his performance is often entertaining despite the laughs that never really come except when mild-altering drugs are involved.
The Men Who Stare at Goats is one of those weird, failed movies that will hook you into an at-home rental in a few months when you see the cast list (Kevin Spacey also shows up, and that redhead from Lost, Rebecca Mader).
Mind-altering drugs just might make it seem better than it is.
Paranormal Activity *1/2
Directed by Oren Peli; rated R
The Men Who Stare at Goats *1/2
Directed by Grant Heslov; rated R
" I respect the skeptics. I just ask that they respect what I do and come and have the experience before you actually judge me. Not everybody needs closure. Not everybody has unresolved issues. Everyone’s messages are different. But when you witness a reading, spirit talks about such specific details."