All posts by pacejmiller

Bandwagon Reviewers and Reveal-All Previews

I’ve got no new material and I’m getting tired of studying all day, so I’ve decided to have a rant about a couple of things.

Bandwagon Reviewers

There’s nothing that irritates me more right now than bandwagon reviewers – people who jump to unequivocally praise or attack a film without having experienced it themselves, for no reason other than the fact that everyone else is.

I like this poster better
I like this poster better

After putting up my reviews of Angels & Demons, I decided to have a look around at some other reviews on the ‘Internets’ to see what others thought of the film.  The reviews were mixed, but the general consensus was that the film was an upgrade on and had more action than its ‘dull’ predecessor, The Da Vinci Code, though the silliness of the plot and its conspiracies were heavily criticised.  As someone who enjoyed the movie, I thought the comments were fair.  The film was far from perfect, but it was, after all, based on a novel, and it already did its best to minimise the most preposterous elements of the plot.

One thing led to another and I found myself on some forum discussing the film, and I was appalled by the number of people blasting the film, and the novel on which it was based, to bits.  The problem was, almost none of these people had actually SEEN the movie or READ the book.  They had based their views entirely on an unflattering review of the film (1.5/4 stars) found on the forum’s website (and the reviewer had not read the book either).  All of a sudden, Angels & Demons had become the worst movie and the worst book of all-time.  They fed off each other, seemingly getting more and more excited at deriding a film they have never seen and never will.  Look, if they had seen the film or read the book and thought it sucked the big one or had issues with its themes because of religious sensitivities or even had genuine reservations about the film for whatever reason then fair enough.  But what do they think they are gaining from this self-validating, bandwagon behaviour?  The irony is that in trying to make themselves seem ‘above’ movies like Angels & Demons through their baseless barrages, all they are really doing is exposing their own insecurities.

One poster even criticised the film’s screenwriters, Akiva Goldsmith and David Koepp, saying that those two alone were enough to for him to ‘keep away’.  Goldsmith has worked on films such as I Robot, The Da Vinci Code, A Time to Kill, I Am Legend and won an Oscar for A Beautiful Mind, whereas Koepp has to his name films like Jurassic Park, Jurassic Park 2: The Lost World, Snake Eyes, Stir of Echoes, Mission: Impossible, War of the Worlds, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Panic Room and Spider-Man.  Just about every screenwriter has a few stinkers in their resume, but one must have exceptionally high (or phoney) standards to make a conscious effort to avoid movies written by those two.

Anyway, it got me thinking – just to what extent do film reviews alter our perception of a film, even on a subconscious level? I refuse outright to read any full review of movies I intend on seeing at the cinema beforehand (though I do try to gauge things on a more general level), but the fact is, many people make their decisions on what movies to see and avoid based purely on reviews they have seen or read.  And consequently, oftentimes those people may go into the film with a pre-conceived opinion of it, which rarely changes even after they’ve actually seen the movie because they’ve already made up their mind about it.  Or perhaps people generally have a tendency to conform to popular opinion – if everyone thought a movie sucked but you secretly liked it, would it in some way impact your outward expressions about the film?

I wonder how far this extends – do reviewers themselves get influenced by what other reviewers may have said?  I think it’s a possibility.  If all the top reviewers are declaring a film a masterpiece, would a lesser known reviewer be willing to risk his credibility by panning it (or vice versa)?  Given reviews and (consequently) word-of-mouth can essentially make or break a film at the box office, I think this raises some very interesting questions.  Sometimes all it takes is a few bad reviews from critics at advanced screenings for things to snowball and doom a film to failure (or worse, straight to DVD!).

Two things that ruin a movie

(1) Previews that reveal too much or show the best scenes

To me, the movie preview/trailer is a double-edged sword.  It’s intended to attract people to watch the film, and so they are tempted to show you the best scenes by cramming them all into a couple of minutes.  But in doing so, they tend to reveal too much, to the point where they almost need to put a SPOILER warning on the preview.  Especially if they show scenes from the end of the film where there is a twist.  When audiences actually go see the movie, they know it’s not over because they haven’t seen that particular scene yet.

Another problem is peculiar to previews for comedies, where they feel they must show all the best jokes.  I don’t know how many times I went to see a comedy because of the couple of good jokes in the preview, and they turn out to be the ONLY worthy jokes of the entire film!

My best movie experiences have been the ones where I knew virtually nothing about the film, going in not knowing more than just a basic premise.  If the movie turns out to be good, it exceeds all expectations, but if it’s crap, no advance knowledge would have rectified that.

Movies are best enjoyed when you know very little going in
Movies are best enjoyed when you know very little going in

I still remember when I was back in high school and planned to see Armageddon with a friend after school one day, but he was late and we missed it.  Instead we went to see the only other movie on at that time, a film neither of us had even heard of, called There’s Something About Mary.  To this day, that film still ranks as my best movie experience of all time.  We both came out feeling like we had torn all our abdominal muscles.  I’m sure I would have loved the movie even if I had heard about it beforehand, but going into it completely clueless made it very special.

I understand the need to sell the movie, and for infrequent movie-goers, knowing what a film is about and getting a sense of whether it is any good is crucial in deciding what movies to watch.  But for people who watch a lot of movies (like me), it can definitely ruin a movie by revealing too much or creating unrealistic expectations.

These days, if a preview of a movie I want to watch comes up in the cinema, I close my eyes and turn away.  If I have no intention of watching the film, I’ll check out the preview to see if it can change my mind.  Recently I’ve taken a liking to ‘Teaser’ trailers – they let you know the movie is coming and give you a taste, but no more.

PS: I couldn’t help but sneak a preview of Night At the Museum 2 during my last trip to the movies.  Was it just me or was the preview really unfunny?  For its sake I hope they kept the best jokes out of the preview!

(2) Movie reviews that reveal too much plot

Another reason why I don’t read full reviews before seeing a movie anymore is because they reveal way too much.

Nowadays, most movie reviews, professional or otherwise, provide SPOILER warnings in advance – but these are largely limited to ‘twists’ – and even so, simply knowing that there is a twist in the movie will often end up spoiling it.  I remember when my sister came home from watching The Sixth Sense and began raving about the ‘twist’ ending.  She wasn’t the only one because everyone was talking about it.  Consequently, despite not knowing what the actual twist was, I ended up figuring it out minutes into the film when I got around to seeing it for myself.  It was still a good film, but I wonder how mindblowing it would have been had I not been been warned about the twist in advance.  The same thing happened when I watched The Usual Suspects, though to its credit, that twist still got me!

It’s not just the twists either.  So many reviews I read these days spend half the word count (or more!) outlining the plot.  I don’t have a problem with revealing the general premise of a film because most people want to have an idea of what the film is about, but what’s the point of summarising what is going to happen in the first half of the film?  I want to know if the movie is worth seeing, not read a synopsis of the plot!

Take an example of a review of Angels & Demons I found at a respected newspaper’s website (skip this paragraph NOW if you don’t want SPOILERS!).  In this relatively short, 15-paragraph review, it tells us that: (1) Langdon wants to but is denied access to the Vatican archives, so he can’t finish his book; (2) they are about to elect a new Pope and the 4 leading candidates have been kidnapped; (3) the villain has a canister of antimatter and will blow up the Vatican if he is not stopped before midnight; (4) it seems the secret ancient sect of the Illuminati is behind it all; (5) Skarsgard’s Swiiss Guard character is against Langdon and Mueller-Stahl’s character is an ‘arrogant’ cardinal; (6) there are a number of ingeniously sadistic murders ; (7) the film has a fanciful climax; (8) the Sistine Chapel, St Peter’s Square and Piazza Navona are among the places Langdon will visit.

Taken together, that’s pretty much half the film right there.  If I hadn’t read the book and accidentally stumbled upon this review before seeing the movie it would have KILLED half the excitement and enjoyment.  At least the first half-hour of the film would have been sat through in boredom because the review already tells us what’s going to happen!

Okay, rant completed!  Now back to studying.

Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

Angels and Demons

Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.

After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time.  Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about.  Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised.  It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.

In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!

Background

Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes).  As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about.   All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around.  Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.

Action, action and more action

Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace.  However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore.  Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.

The difference is in the adaptationThe Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum.  Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.

Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better.  To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal.  There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler.  Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.

Cast

The mullet is gone
The mullet is gone

Terrific all-star cast.

Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something).  Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him.  Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.

The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon.  As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.

I was glad to see Ewan McGregor (as the ‘Camerlengo’) again on the big screen after bumping into him in person while vacationing in Berlin.  By the way, he was brilliant in the role.

There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss.  Note both names were changed from the novel.

Special Effects

Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there.  And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.

I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects.  Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).

There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot.  You’ll just have to watch it!

Religious Themes

I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting.  It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-church and pro-faith undercurrent.  Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect.  Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting.  Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.

Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels.  Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly.  A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it.  It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller.  Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.

This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).

Final Thoughts

In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.  It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.

Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself).  It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!

I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel.  However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.

Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.

4 out of 5 stars!

Movie Review: Star Trek (2009)

star-trek-new-poster-1

Today I took some time out of my busy study schedule to go check out the new Star Trek movie.  Some call it the new JJ Abrams movie.  You know, the one everybody’s talking about.

Just a disclaimer: I’ve never been a Star Trek fan, never seen an episode of the TV show, and only saw one of the films (I can’t even remember which one – perhaps First Contact or Nemesis – and I can’t remember a single thing about it).  Like most normal people though, I have heard of some of the catchphrases and I know of Kirk, Spock (including his ears and hand gesture) and Scotty, but that’s the extent of my Star Trek knowledge.

And so, I went into the movie relatively optimistic but unsure of what to expect.  I came out of the film raving about it.  Honestly, it blew my mind!

The new Star Trek is what has been called a ‘reboot’ (kind of like the new Batman films with Christian Bale) that explores the origins of its two most famous characters, Captain James T Kirk and his pointy-eared Vulcan friend, Spock.  It’s also considered a ‘prequel’ that sets the foundation for a whole new series of films.  With the exception of one person, the film sports an all-new cast that is fresh, young and brimming with vitality.

As per my usual review code of conduct, I won’t give away the plot, and honestly, I don’t even know if I could explain it even if I wanted to.  There’s a fair bit of what I assume is ‘Trekkie’ jargon (but it could also be basic science stuff) that went right over my head and the film didn’t exactly take its time to explain everything in detail.  But it’s not hard to figure out the basic premise of the storyline and what is going on.

In any case, the story, while interesting in its own right, is not the strength of the film.  The strength lies in the way in which director JJ Abrams (the genius that created Alias, Lost and Fringe and produced Cloverfield) has reinvigorated the franchise with freshness, excitement and enthusiasm. You don’t have to be a Trekkie to enjoy this movie.  Star Trek WAS, for the most part, seen as a thing for die-hard fans and sci-fi geeks only.  One of the reasons I never got into it in the first place was because it seemed old and out-dated (despite being set in the future!), and the world it created was so extensive (with so many series, movies and novels) that I couldn’t be bothered making the effort to get to know it.  This film has provided the perfect spark to inject some much-needed life back into the franchise, and because it’s set right at the beginning, newbies to Star Trek (like me) can be eased into its world.

Abrams has inserted his unique directorial style and visual flair to the film.  Fans of his other works can probably spot the best elements of Lost and Fringe somewhere in there.  The new franchise players, Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto were knockouts. Pine delivered a scruffy yet charismatic Kirk, brash and arrogant but a born leader, whereas Quinto showed he could be much more than a psychopath killer (what happened to Sylar’s eyebrows?!), inhabiting the character of Spock.  The supporting cast is also great.  John Cho managed to leave Harold (of Harold and Kumar fame) behind, and Simon Pegg stole the show as Scotty.  Guys like Karl Urban and Anton Yelchin were also solid.

The film was action-packed right from the start and didn’t let up.  It also had just the right dash of humor.  As for the special effects – I didn’t really notice it that much because I expected to see space ships and lasers flying through space – but I suppose that means they did an excellent job of it by not allowing the effects to overwhelm the film.

There were only two weaknesses I could point out.  The first was probably the antagonist played by Eric Bana  (almost unrecognisable in heavy make-up), which I felt wasn’t really terrifying or imposing enough.  It wasn’t really his fault though because the focus of the film was firmly on the young Kirk and Spock.  The second was some of the action sequences, which still relied too heavily on the rapid cut scenes.

On the whole, however, the new Star Trek was fantastic.  I’m sure old Trekkies will enjoy it, as will those who simply like to watch a fun, exciting movie.  Despite its significant running length (126 minutes), I was left wanting more by the time the credits began rolling.

I’m not going to rush out to buy the series on DVD any time soon, but I’m glad to hear that this film could be the first of many.  Bring on the sequels!

4.5 stars out of 5

The Haunting in Connecticut – Fact or Fiction?

haunting_in_connecticut_ver22
Just how much of it is true?

Yesterday I watched the ‘based on the true story’ film The Haunting in Connecticut.

First, a short review

To be honest, despite the poor reviews the film was received, it wasn’t all that bad.  It was just average, and for a supernatural horror film, ‘average’ is pretty good these days.  In my opinion, it was one of those rare horror films that actually got better as it progressed.  In the first half or so, the attempted scares were your stock standard ‘boo’ moments and the bloody, visceral shocks you’d expect to see in any regular PG-13 horror.  I don’t know why, but for some reason I found myself actually frightened a few times in the second half, and that’s a rarity for me nowadays.  I even forgot how insanely and ridiculously stupid and non-sensical (even within the confines of the film’s own logic) everything was.  And for that,  3 out of 5 stars!

Fact or Fiction?

After I got home, I started wondering just how much of the film was really ‘based’ on the true story?  Was it even a true story to begin with?  Which characters existed and what parts of the film actually happened in real life?

And so I turned to the trusty old Internets for some answers.  The results were…interesting.

The film is ‘based’ on supposedly true events that happened to the Snedeker family in 1986 when they moved into a house that turned out to be a former funeral home.  Naturally, spooky stuff started happening.  Their oldest son, who was 13 at the time and being treated for Hodgkin’s disease (the ‘Matt Campbell’ character from the movie) started behaving strangely and their 17-year old niece said she was fondled by unseen hands.  The mother, Carmen Snedeker (the ‘Sarah Campbell’ character from the movie), also claimed to be the victim of demonic sexual assaults.  There were many other alleged disturbances (such as water to blood, putrid odours, crucifixes going haywire or disappearing etc) but these were the most serious.

Eventually, Carmen Snedeker brought in Ed and Lorraine Warren, the infamous old ghostbusting couple that covered the ‘Amityville Horror’ haunting.  The Warren’s nephew, John Zaffis, also joined in for observations.  They became convinced that the house was haunted by demons.  A Catholic priest was brought in and the spirits were exorcised, and things went back to normal after that.  The Snedekers left two and a half years after they moved in.

With help from the Warrens, the Snedekers’ story was first brought to light by the book In a Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting by Ray Garton, a horror fiction writer, and was also the subject of an episode of the TV show A Haunting titled A Haunting in Connecticut.  From what I’ve read about the book and the TV show, both were incredibly frightening.

Fact?

I wanted to know how credible the true story behind the movie was, so I dug a little further.

What John Zaffis said

John Zaffis is the nephew of the Warrens that were brought in by the Snedeker’s for help. Here is the full article he wrote about the Snedekers and their funeral home house.

In short, he discusses some of the background and events detailed in In a Dark Place and talks about his own experiences in the house.  Here’s an extract:

This is the case where I had my first encounter with a full formed demon and it is something to this day that I will never forget. I was sitting at the dining room table when it started to get ice cold in the room, at this point I knew something was getting ready to happen. I tried to get the other researchers or family members to respond to me by calling out to them but they did not. I knew at this point this was meant for me to experience alone. I had gotten up and walked into the hallway and looked up at the top of the stairs, I began to smell something like rotting meat which was all over this area and it was unbearable. As I continued to look up the grand staircase, I started to see something begin to form, as it slowly descended down the staircase. It was the ugliest thing I had ever seen, it had come to the last step on the staircase and it said to me “do you know what they did to us, do you know”? That was enough for me, I left the home and did not return for three days. I do not think I’ve ever encountered anything that has scared me as bad as that, I would not speak to anyone for days after the encounter, but I did go back to work on the case, the family needed our help.

Sounds pretty scary, right?

What Chip Coffey said

Chip Coffey is a self-proclaimed ‘psychic, medium, spiritual counselor and paranormal investigator’ who became involved with the Snedekers when the TV show was made. Here’s his blogger site.

Coffey also wrote an article about the haunting in Connecticut titled ‘Demons from the dark’ which mirrored a lot of the things said in Zaffis’s article. Here it is anyway.

Carmen Snedeker’s website

Carmen Snedeker is still around and she has her own website, which was surprisingly difficult to find. Follow this link to visit the page.

I must say, had I only seen Zaffis’s and Coffey’s articles, I would have found it all pretty convincing (maybe not convinced, but it would have been convincing).  But Carmen’s website smells funny – from the smiling ‘star-shot’ portrait to the shameless promotion of herself, advertising for supernatural investigators (including Zaffis), her touring lectures about the hauntings and (here’s the clincher) the brand new book on the haunting she is working on with Zaffis and Coffey!  Now they don’t sound so convincing anymore.

Carmen also mentions the feature film, which she believes “will bring a new understanding of what went on in the house”.  Clearly she had no idea of what the Hollywood producers had in mind.

Fiction?

From Carmen’s website, the Snedekers’ story began to completely fall apart.

What Garton said about his own book

From first publication of In a Dark Place, author Ray Garton has been savaging his own ‘non-fiction’ book and the Warrens.  I’ve found numerous examples of him condeming what he wrote as, effectively, made up.  By him.  Fiction.

Probably the most complete account comes from his interview at Horror Bound Magazine (see entire interview here – worth a read because it’s quite funny and interesting – and has some good advice for aspiring writers at the end):

Q: You’ve written both fiction and non-fiction. In one case in particular, a book that was labeled “non-fiction” should have been labeled “fiction” (through no fault of your own). For those Horror Bound readers who have a huge interest in the paranormal and who have followed the careers of Ed and Lorraine, what would you say?

 

A: Ah, the Warrens. Ed, of course, has gone to that great haunted house in the sky, but Lorraine is still around. Back in the early ‘90s, I was offered a chance to write a book for Ed and Lorraine. As a kid, I used to follow their ghost-hunting exploits in the National Enquirer. I thought it sounded like a fun job, so I took it. I went to Connecticut and spent time with the Snedeker family. They’d moved into a house with their sick son and learned the place used to be a funeral home. They claimed all kinds of spooky things had happened in the house. They’d called in Ed and Lorraine, and after investigating, the Warrens announced that the house was infested with demons. Some of these demons had anally raped members of the family.

A little aside here. Back when I was reading about the Warrens, they were ghost hunters. Every house they investigated had at least one ghost, and there was always a spooky story behind it. But after The Exorcist was so wildly popular, first as a novel and then as a movie, Ed and Lorraine stopped encountering ghosts and began to uncover demon infestations. And it seems that wherever they went, people were being sexually molested by demons. Makes you wonder, doesn’t it?

Carmen Snedeker was an unemployed wife and mother who was running an illegal interstate lottery business, about which she asked me numerous times to tell no one. I never met the son, who was said to be ill, although I was allowed to talk to him on the phone once, supervised by Carmen. When the boy began to talk about drugs and told me that he didn’t hear and see strange things in the house once he began taking medication, Carmen ended the conversation. As I gathered all the necessary information for the book, I found that the accounts of the individual Snedekers didn’t quite mesh. They just couldn’t keep their stories straight. I went to Ed with this problem. “Oh, they’re crazy,” he said. “Everybody who comes to us is crazy. Otherwise why would they come to us? You’ve got some of the story – just use what works and make the rest up. And make it scary. You write scary books, right? That’s why we hired you. So just make it up and make it scary.” I didn’t like that one bit. But by then, I’d signed the contract and there was no going back. I did as Ed instructed – I used what I could, made up the rest, and tried to make it as scary as I could. The book was called In A Dark Place: The Story of a True Haunting.

As soon as it was published, I started telling my story, knowing full well that it would not be too popular with the Snedekers or the Warrens. I was right. Carmen Snedeker, now Carmen Reed, has denounced the book. She claims they had little involvement in it, which is a lie. Since the release of that book, the Discovery Channel has aired a “re-enactment” of the story called A Haunting in Connecticut, which, of course, presents the Snedekers’ story as hard cold fact. Now a feature film based on the story is going to be released soon called The Haunting in Connecticut. I suspect the movie will begin with the words “Based on a true story.” Be warned: Just about anything that begins with any variation of this phrase is trying a little too hard to convince you of something that probably isn’t true. Last I heard, Carmen is working on a new book, to tell the real story – apparently they’ve settled on one. I don’t know if Carmen runs her little interstate lottery operation anymore, but now she’s claiming to be some kind of psychic healer. She says she’s always been a psychic healer, although I didn’t hear anything about it in Connecticut back in the early ‘90s.

These days, John Zaffis is the “investigator” being used to make this cockamamie tale look like something remotely resembling legitimate. Zaffis is the nephew of Ed and Lorraine Warren. He was around back when I was working on the book. He didn’t do much, just stood around. Lorraine told me he was learning the business. He told me a story about something he saw in the former funeral home – some kind of “fully formed demon,” or some such nonsense.

During my stay in Connecticut, Ed, Lorraine, and Zaffis repeatedly told me they had videotape of supernatural activity they’d shot in the demon-infested former funeral home (which I never visited because the current owners claimed the Snedekers were full of it and wanted nothing to do with the Warrens’ little dog and pony show). They assured me I would see that footage. Throughout my visit, they kept telling me the videotape was coming, that they were having trouble finding it, but they’d show it to me. By the end of my visit, there had been no sign of any videotape. After my experience with the Warrens, I talked to a couple of other writers who’d written books for Ed and Lorraine – and their stories were nearly identical to mine.

I found another message board thread on dejanews where Garton posted, and he had the following things to say about the Warrens:

I spent several days with the Warrens during that time.  I spent time with them in their home and ate with them and went on long drives with them.  Of the two, Lorraine is the sanest.  She’s an “enabler”.  Years ago, before their career in the “supernatural” began, Ed suffered from mental illness.  It was bad enough to keep him from working, and the only way he could make money was to hand paint haunted houses on dinnerplates and sell them door to door.  Once Ed decided that Lorraine was “psychic”, selling the haunted house plates eventually led to “investigating” haunted houses.  At first, they found “ghosts”.  But after the tremendous success of THE EXORCIST — both the novel and the movie — ghosts suddenly became demons.  If you go back and trace their career, you can see the sudden change.  Almost overnight, all ghosts were really demons trying to possess residents, and sooner or later, the demons anally raped someone. It never fails, every damned time, the Warrens’ demons bend somebody over a bed or a sink and beat down the back door, if you know what I mean.  From my time spent with the Warrens, I learned from Ed that their job is not really to “investigate” so much as it is to take the stories told by these families — most of whom are dealing with REAL problems like alcoholism, drug addiction, mental illness, and/or domestic abuse, problems that are buried by their supernatural fantasies, which are supported and made tangible by the very eager Warrens — and arrange them into a saleable package that will make a good book, and hopefully a movie.

Not only are the Warrens frauds, not only do they give a bad name to people who are SERIOUSLY investigating paranormal phenomena, I think they’re EVIL because of the way they exploit families already deep in despair and ready to shatter. I can ignore a simple con job … but the Warrens are actually damaging people who are already damaged, who are desperate and vulnerable, using them for the sake of a book, maybe a lucrative movie sale, or another story to add to their traveling dog and pony show.  Before I worked on that book, I’d followed the adventures of Ed and Lorraine Warren faithfully since I was a little boy.  I was excited to work with them.  Boy, was that a big disappointment.  It’s nice to believe there’s a smiling, grandparently couple out there chasing demons … but not when you know they’re hurting people for the sake of publicity and the almighty dollar.
What investigative journalist Joe Nickell found
Skeptical paranormal investigator Joe Nickell wrote a very insightful article entitled ‘Demons in Connecticut’. The article can be found here.
In it, Nickell discusses the background of the Snedeker family and why he thinks it was all made up for media exploitation.  It’s particularly interesting because Nickell was actively involved in trying to debunk the story when it first came to light and was being discussed on talk shows.  There are plenty of quotes from people who lived around the Snedekers who claim it’s all fake, and suggestions of how some of the paranormal activities could be rationally explained.

Concluding thoughts – so what actually happened?

After reading Garton and Nickell, I was ready to write the whole Snedeker haunting off as shameless attention-seeking and media exploitation.  But then I came across this message board, where two posters (brothers) claimed to have lived in the house after the Snedekers. Well, the problem is that their identities can’t be verified, but what they’ve written seems genuine enough.  And according to them, the house was definitely haunted, just not to the extent grossly exaggerated by the Snedekers.  There were voices, loud footsteps, swinging doors – but that was about it.

As someone who believes in ghosts, a former funeral home would be a prime candidate for a haunting.  And as someone who has done a fair bit of reading on ghosts, I understand that different people have different sensitivities to these types of things.  Further, people who are fit and healthy are less likely to experience things than people who are ill.  So it is possible that the house was haunted, and perhaps the Snedekers, with their sick son and multitude of problems, experienced more of it than other people.  But just about everything else points to shameless exploitation for a bit of money.

My guess is that there were probably a few spooky things that happened at the house (paranormal or not), but nothing as dramatic as they claim (and certainly none of the crap in the movie).  But when the Warrens got involved, things just spiralled out of control and it became nothing more than a money-making venture.  Assume you believe in ghosts for a minute – okay, it’s a funeral home, lots of dead bodies, so maybe a lost soul here or there – but why all these raging demons who like to molest people?  In real life (unlike in the film) there were no explanations offered, no dark history of torture or mutilation uncovered, no ancient burial ground or corpses in the cellar.

And come on, if you had something as terrifying as demons trying to anally rape you, would you stay in the house for another second?  I don’t care if you don’t have another dime in the bank – you wouldn’t just keep the lights on and go back to bed!

(SPOILERS!) FACT VS FILM (SPOILERS!)

Read on if you have seen the film or don’t plan on seeing it.

After looking into the facts behind the story, it seems there were only a few similarities between the film and the true story on which it was based.  We know that a family did move into a house that was formerly a funeral home, and they did it to be closer to the treatment facility for their son, who was suffering from cancer (Hodgkin’s disease).  We also know that the son did undergo some drastic changes in personality, and he would eventually recover, but he was probably nowhere near death as suggested in the film.  There were probably some alcohol and financial problems too.

Apart from that, just about everything else was different.  The Snedekers had 3 sons (aged 13, 11 and 3) and a 6-year old daughter.  2 nieces would move in with them later.  There was another tenant living upstairs.  Most significantly, there was no elaborate back story about a young medium boy who conducted seances, no stolen graves, no dead bodies stashed away in the basement, no dying reverend who happens to know everything, no carvings on the body, no box of human eyelids hidden under the floorboards, and certainly no burning down of the house.

As for the ghosts and paranormal events that happened in the house, only a few people know the truth, but the one thing we know for sure is that they were nothing like what was depicted in the movie.  ‘Based on the true story’?  Hardly.  Maybe more appropriate would be: ‘Inspired by events that may or may not have happened’ – but I guess that doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

Movie Review: Watchmen (2009)

I had been importing my short Flixter entries for all my movie reviews up to now, but I thought if any movie deserved a full review, it would be Watchmen, possibly the most anticipated movie of the year for many (unless Harry Potter 6 or Transformers 2 is more your thing).

Disclaimer: I will preface this review with two comments: (1) I am going to stick to my convention of not revealing much about the plot or what happens in the movie; (2) I have not read the Watchmen graphic novel yet (thought it might ruin the movie experience if I read it beforehand).

watchmen-poster

Watchmen (2009)

Director: Zack Snyder

Main cast: Malin Ackerman (Silk Spectre II), Billy Crudup (Dr Manhattan), Matthew Goode (Ozymandias), Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach), Jeffrey Dean Morgan (The Comedian), Patrick Wilson (Nite Owl II), Carla Gugino (Silk Spectre I)

Rating: USA: R, UK: 18, Australia: MA

Running time: 163 minutes

4 out of 5 stars

Watchmen is likely to be one of the most unusual films you will ever see.  It’s about superheroes, but it’s not your typical superhero movie.  Most of the superheroes don’t display any obvious supernatural abilities (which really just makes them people who like to fight crime and have costume fetishes).  It’s often difficult to discern who is good or evil, right or wrong.  Probably all of the main characters exhibit some form of mental disorder at varying levels of seriousness.  In a sense, they are the anti-superheroes.

As I said, I don’t like to reveal the plot for those that don’t want to know about it (but I assume most people who go to see it have a rough idea).  All I will say is that the story takes place in an alternate historical version of 1985, during the peak of the US/USSR Cold War.  This becomes clear in the opening sequences.

However, to some extent, it doesn’t really matter what the plot is about, because at its heart, Watchmen is a character movie.  The story is told in non-linear form, jumping from character to character and revealing their back stories through flashbacks.  There is a central line in the plot, a mystery waiting to be solved, but the focus is firmly on the characters – who they are, how they became the way they are, their personal struggles, their fears, desires, motivations and ambitions.  At the same time, there is this constant undercurrent about the nature of human beings, and in particular, their capacity (or lack thereof) for understanding and compassion.

The Watchmen graphic novel (by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins) first came out between 1986 and 1987, which explains the setting.  For many years, it was regarded as unadaptable, and after seeing this film, I got a sense of why that may have been the popular opinion.  It’s a shame that the movie was not made closer in time to the graphic novel, because the story reflects many of the contemporary anxieties of the American public of that period.  Many of those anxieties are still relevant today, but they have evolved (in the wake of 9/11) and the impact is not quite the same as it would have been.

Directing and Screenplay

Director Zack Snyder and writers David Hayter (who wrote the original script) and Alex Tse (who kept the best elements but amended much of it) should be commended on bringing Watchmen to life at last.  As I haven’t read the graphic novel, I cannot comment on how good the adaptation was, but as a standalone film, it was very good, though not great.  The difficulty may lie with the running length – at 163 minutes, it is very long for a superhero movie (though not as extraordinary as it would have been a few years ago) – but at the same time, you get a strange feeling that there was much more of this bizarre world yet to be explored.  Perhaps the director’s cut, which is supposedly 191 minutes (and coming out with the DVD), will be a more complete picture for those that want to see more of it.  For some, I imagine 163 minutes is already too much.

Acting

rorschach
Haley as Rorschach was amazing

The importance of the acting in a film like this cannot be understated.  For the most part, the actors in the lead roles delivered believable performances that traversed a plethora of emotions.  The clear standout would undoubtedly be Jackie Earle Haley as the freakish yet intriguing Rorschach, the best character by far.  You’re already impressed with him when he wears a mask that obscures his entire face.  You then become even more amazed when he takes off the mask.  Truly brilliant.

Not far behind is Patrick Wilson (Haley’s co-star in the magnificent Little Children), an extremely underrated and underappreciated actor who plays Nite Owl II, a slightly overweight and awkward social misfit.

If there is a weak link, it would have to be Matthew Goode’s Ozymandias.  While he may fit the bill physically (tall, lean and traditionally handsome), he doesn’t quite exude the charm and presence needed from the character.  Not to take anything away from Goode’s performance because it was adequate, but if you have to pick on someone it’s him.

Violence, Sex and Special Effects

Given the classification ratings for Watchmen, it’s not surprising that there is an abundance of incredibly bloody and gruesome violence (as well as ‘normal’ violence), a bit of sex and nudity (both real and assisted by special effects) and some coarse language (though not as much as I expected).  I’m glad they made this film for adults rather than worry about the classification and go for a toned down version that simply wouldn’t have worked.

The fight scenes were superbly choreographed – smooth, crisp and whole, thankfully avoiding the rapid cut scenes that have plagued action films of late.  And from the guy who directed 300, I would have expected nothing less.  On the other hand, Snyder didn’t shy away from some of the more frightening scenes either, displaying the pain, gore and blood in all its glory.

As for the special effects – they were good, but certainly not groundbreaking.  They did a fairly decent job with Billy Crudup’s Doctor Manhattan, but there were times when you could easily spot things that were completely computer generated (not that you would expect them to build the real thing).

Conclusion

On the whole, Watchmen was very very good – but it fell considerably short of the masterpiece some it expected to be.  It may seem unfair, but you cannot NOT compare the film to its source material (or at least its reputation if you haven’t read it), which is considered by many to be the greatest graphic novel of all time.

There were some absolutely brilliant sequences littered throughout this movie, but it was more scattered than consistent.  Those expecting an all-out action flick might be disappointed because there are quite a few ‘dull’ character development moments in between.  I assume there will probably be 4 broad classes of reactions to Watchmen: (1) loved the graphic novel and therefore loved the movie; (2) loved the graphic novel but felt the film did not do it justice; (3) haven’t read the graphic novel and now want to after seeing the film; (4) thought it was weird and stupid and didn’t get it.

I put myself in the third category.

Oscars/Golden Globes Film Reviews Part III

I’ve done it.  I finally managed to watch all the Oscar/Golden Globe nominated films I could possibly get to before the Oscar ceremony on Sunday!

Here’s the third instalment of my short Flixter film reviews and possibly the best of the lot!  The first instalment can be found here (Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, The Wrestler, The Reader, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, In Bruges, Pineapple Express, Burn After Reading, Tropic Thunder, Changeling, Mamma Mia, The Dark Knight and Kung Fu Panda) and the second here (WALL-E and Gran Torino).

Again, ratings are out of 5 stars.

rachel-getting-married1Rachel Getting Married (3.5 stars)

Years of suppressed family emotions explode around a family wedding. Well-written script with some clever dialogue and witty interactions, even though this type of drama would not be everyone’s cup of tea. A remarkable performance by Anne Hathway (I didn’t know she could act this well) and a solid supporting cast. Not all of it worked but enough of it did.

 

doubt1Doubt (3.5 stars)

Extraordinary performances all round (Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman as always, but Amy Adams really stole the show as the doubting nun), but it was an obvious play adaptation with lots and lots of talking. The characters were extremely well defined, though I couldn’t help but feel there was a certain clunkiness in the way things panned out. Not to take away too much from this film because it tackles many of the themes very cleverly through subtle actions and explosive dialogue.  Doubt is indeed an apt title for this film.

 

milkMilk (4 stars)

True story about the first openly gay public official in America.  Pretty incredible movie and a ridiculously superb performance by Sean Penn. It was entertaining, informative, frightening and enlightening all at the same time. Hard to believe it was only 30 years ago that this happened in our world. I particularly liked the ending where they showed the real life counterparts of the actors.

 

revolutionary-roadRevolutionary Road (4 stars)

It’s hard to know where to begin with a movie that explores the essence of life, love, marriage, children, work, dreams, hopes and reality. It is so rare to see such a brutal, honest, emotional portrayal of suburban and married life, no matter what era. Granted, some people won’t get it for one reason or another, but those that do will find a story that will resonate with them for a long time. All performances are outstanding – I know Kate Winslet has gotten all the attention for this role and The Reader, but Leonardo DiCaprio is really her equal in this film, and it’s a shame he didn’t get the same recognition. Michael Shannon was also brilliant and stole every scene he was in.

 

benjamin-buttonThe Curious Case of Benjamin Button (4.5 stars)

A strange premise but an ultimately rewarding film. The make up and special effects are the best I’ve ever seen, both the ageing and the de-ageing stuff is just phenomenal. The film works not really as a running narrative but rather as a series of moments, like its tagline. I found it very captivating to go through the journey of life with this bizarre character, through his ups and downs, flaws and all. There are some minor problems and it is a tad too long, plus Brad Pitt wasn’t truly able to capture the nuances of the ageing process (he acted like the way he looked rather than the age he was) – however, I think when it’s all said and done this is one of the more memorable movies in recent years.

*     *     *

NB: Just a few words about my rating and review system.  First and foremost, they are taken directly from Flixter, so are always short.  I don’t like to discuss too much plot in my reviews because I think it ruins a movie.  Which is why (even though I can’t help but watch them) I generally dislike previews because they tend to give away too much by revealing the best bits and almost always contain spoilers.  I also hate long reviews that reveal too much plot (this happens a lot these days in reviews I read) – what’s the point of telling everyone what the entire film is about?  With my ratings, they are out of 5 and are entirely subjective, always decided on the spot based on gut instinct after viewing.  I never re-adjust a rating afterward and I don’t compare them to previous ratings – hence two films can have the same rating but I may think one is better than the other.  Also, I tend to find there is a significant difference between 2.5 stars (below average) and 3 stars (good) and 3.5 stars (pretty good) and 4 stars (excellent), more so than other half-star differences.

Lastly, the only 5 star film reviewed in these 3 posts is The Wrestler, which I think is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.  For the Best Picture Oscar nominees, The Reader and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are tied with 4.5 stars, but I think the latter is the film I prefer.  Though it is a moot point anyway since Slumdog Millionaire is going to win!

Top 5 films of 2008!

I was just doing an online poll (www.abc.net.au/atthemovies/) of the top 5 movies of 2008.  The site provides a long list of films released in Australia in 2008 (which means some more recent films may not have made it – eg ALL of the best picture nominees for this year’s Oscars), from which users would first pick a shortlist.  And from that shortlist, the top 5 would be selected.

I was surprised.  2008 will always be remembered as the year Obama became president and the world economy went to hell.  But it also had some very decent films.  Very memorable ones.

So without further delay, here’s the 5 films I ended up with, in no particular order (drumroll please):

  • There Will Be Blood (5 stars)
  • Taken (4.5 stars)
  • The Dark Knight (4.5 stars)
  • Iron Man (4.5 stars)
  • Burn After Reading* (4.5 stars)

* I had picked Lust, Caution first, but switched at the last minute.  I suppose Lust, Caution was the better film, but I enjoyed Burn After Reading more, so there.

The results were totally unexpected.  There Will Be Blood was a classic, so that was a no-brainer.  I don’t usually rate action films that highly, but Taken was the best action film I had seen in a really long time.  I surprised myself by having 2 superhero movies in the list, but these (The Dark Knight and Iron Man) are undoubtedly 2 of the best superhero movies ever made.  Burn After Reading is the type of movie people either loved or hated, and I think to some extent it depends on the mood you’re in at the time of viewing.  I was in one of those moods, I guess, so I found it absolutely hilarious (though I may not get the same result on a second viewing).  Plus I’m a big fan of the Coen brothers and Fargo is one of my favourites of all-time, so there was also a little natural bias.

I should say that this is really more a list of my 5 favourite films of 2008 rather than necessarily the 5 best films.  Nevertheless…

What were your top 5?

Update: Golden Globe Film Reviews

I did a post not long ago reviewing the films that were nominated for the Golden Globes.  I guess I should now also be adding the Oscar nominated films to that list.

Since that post, I’ve seen a couple more: WALL-E and Gran Torino (the latter was not nominated at the Oscars though).  See the short reviews (from Flixter) below (ratings out of 5):

walleWALL-E (3.5 stars)

A very different animated film. I suppose it was well done, with amazing visuals (but nothing revoluntionary) and incredibly little dialogue, instead preferring to rely on the simplicity of the story, the cuteness of the characters and scattered humour to keep audiences interested. It also had a strong message about the environment and inactivity. But at the end of the day, it was still just another animated film. It certainly had its moments, but it’s going to take much much more for these types of films to seriously impress me (I should mention I’m not usually a big fan of animated films).

gran-torinoGran Torino (4.5 stars)

The story of an angry, racist, lonely old man and his relationship with his Hmong (Asian) neighbours. It was far from a perfect film – parts of it were stereotypical and heavy-handed, and some scenes lacked effectiveness. Nevertheless, it’s a film that moved me for one reason or another, and it’s a film that is likely to resonate with a lot of viewers long after the final scene. It touches on many important themes – life, death, family, loneliness, religion, racism, prejudice, redemption – and also presents the stark reality that a lot of youths are facing in America these days (and not necessarily just the minorities). In particular, I think it had just the right dosage of humour and the final resolution was also very well done.

I’ve still got plenty more to get through, including Milk, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Revolutionary Road, Doubt, Rachel Getting Married, Defiance – just to name a few.  I’m trying to get to them as soon as I can…

2009 Golden Globes Film Reviews

I love watching movies.  I also love writing.  So it’s only natural that I also like to review films.  So far I’ve got 431 reviews and 1202 movie ratings on Flixter, so that says a lot (and that’s just what I can remember).

With the Golden Globe winners announced yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to share a few short reviews on some of the movies I’ve seen that were nominated (taken straight from Flixter). It’s also a good way to give my blog some much needed padding in its baby stage.  I’ll add more if and when I see them (and there’s A LOT I still want to see).  Feel free to agree/berate my ratings, which by the way are out of 5.

Continue reading 2009 Golden Globes Film Reviews