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The Men Who Scare, And Goats

November 7th, 2009

This has been a rare, two-movie weekend for me. Last night Vic and I went to The Men Who Stare at Goats, and this afternoon I caught up with Paranormal Activity after a disastrously failed attempt on Halloween night in which a horde of loudly-talking, cellphone-texting underage kids drove me from the theater.

Now, I have seen more than my fair share of George Clooney movies. That’s mostly because of Vic; Clooney sits atop her “gimme” list. But I admit that I like him as well. (He’s not on my “gimme” list, but he is on my “if I swung that way” list.)

George has a bunch of positive attributes: roguish charisma, sincerity about parlaying his fame into making the world (specifically Darfur) a better place, and–perhaps most important–an inability to take himself seriously. He understands the limitations of fame and the simple truth that the people you treat like shit on the way up will be waiting for you when you come back down.

Clooney also makes interesting choices. He could’ve easily become a romantic comedy star, but he’s only made one (One Fine Day) since his breakout role on E.R. Instead, he turns up in all manner of quirky stories, quite often playing against type as someone either mentally deficient or bugfuck nuts.

Which brings me to The Men Who Stare at Goats, in which Clooney portrays one of the former members of a (real-life) clandestine, U.S. Army unit which was dedicated to developing psychically-powered super-soldiers. This semi-fictionalized adaptation of Jon Ronson’s book of the same name bops back and forth between modern-day Iraq and the early ’80s, as a reporter (Ewan McGregor) meets up with Clooney’s character in the present and delves into the oddball history of the “First Earth Battalion.”

I wish that it spent more of its time in hippie-dippie land. When it does, it fulfills the promise made by the trailers of a silly, satirical look at the military. But honestly, The Men Who Stare at Goats should have been titled The Man Who Once Stared at a Goat. Because, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve pretty much all of the goat-staring that it has to offer. The present-day Iraq material is okay, and–just as in real-life–does tie into the legacy of the “First Earth Battalion,” but the ’80s material is much more fun.

My other excursion to the multiplex this weekend was Paranormal Activity, the latest in the sub-genre of “found footage” horror flicks. While I don’t think it quite lived up to its terrifying reputation, it’s worth checking out if you’re into this sort of thing.

To be honest, I was surprised that The Blair Witch Project, which made nearly $250 million against an initial budget of about $25,000, didn’t immediately spawn a legion of knock-offs. The low entry level coupled with the possibility of a massive return on investment seemed likely to inspire a horde of would-be M. Night Shyamalans to spend their nights scaring the shit out of some amateur actors and capturing the results on digital video.

While I’m aware of a few such movies, the only one I can recall that was of much consequence was Cloverfield. And that one was really a mid-budget Hollywood flick masquerading as a cheap indie project.

Now comes the true Blair Witch successor. Paranormal was reportedly made for about half of Blair‘s already-minuscule budget. Seriously, I could’ve bankrolled this thing out of my saving account.

It shares the same handmade aesthetic and improvised dialogue, but outdoes Blair in one area: it actually delivers some on-screen spooky stuff. That’s not to denigrate the earlier film; it managed to be quite scary without ever showing a damned thing. Blair left you debating whether anything supernatural had occurred; Paranormal makes clear that some shit is going down.

The hauntings are quite minimalist, mostly simple, in-camera physical effects and banging on the walls. Yet it’s all the more effective for underplaying its frightful activities.

The storyline is reminiscent of this summer’s Drag Me to Hell, with a young woman (Katie Featherston as “Katie”) facing a demonic force which grows with each passing night. But this poor kid has to deal with something that Alison Lohman’s bank teller never did: a dick with a video camera.

Okay, to be fair, the “found footage” sub-genre demands that someone continue filming events long after the time that any reasonable person would’ve put down the damned camera. So, it’s not entirely his fault that live-in boyfriend Micah (played entirely coincidentally by Micah Sloat) is such a douche. Still, rarely have I found myself wanting to punch the camera on which the film was being shot. Micah’s douchebaggery goes well above and beyond the call, continually escalating the situation and generally making Katie’s life miserable with or without sinister help.

Now, it’s not a spoiler to say that things do not end well for Katie and Micah. The film open with a slate suggesting that it is being made available courtesy of the local police. Besides, another given of a “found footage” movie is that it ends in death and/or disappearance. If anyone was still around, no one would have to “find” the footage.

Reportedly, Steven Spielberg suggested the current ending of Paranormal Activity after championing the movie’s theatrical release. Having read about the various alternate endings (and viewed the original, which can be found online), I agree that the final cut is a big improvement. Yet, another alternate version involving a slit throat sounds even better still than the slightly cheap (CGI-enhanced?) “boo” with which the film now ends.

I found myself fidgeting a bit during the last reel, and feel that its already short 86 minute running time could’ve been trimmed to an even leaner 75 without losing anything. At the end of the day, I’d much rather see Drag Me to Hell again than watch Paranormal Activity a second time. Still, it’s nice that a horror film which depends more on suggestion and simple fear of the dark has succeeded over merciless torture porn like Saw VI.

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