Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

Sequels, prequels, alternative imaginings… they’re everywhere. When did straight-up sequels become so boring? We now need accompaniments and side-films to ‘bolster’ the original. We’re apparently hungry for them. This can sometimes lead to a bit of confusion with the cinema-going audience: when exactly is this film set? This should be less of an issue when a franchise follows the traditional numbering of 1, 2, 3 etc. You’d naturally expect 2 to follow on from 1, and so on and so forth. But no. There’s something spooky going on with Hollywood’s numbering system right now, primarily driven by the Paranormal Activity series. So with that being said, where does the fifth instalment, which drops the numbering, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones, fit in?

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

This really is the question: where does it fit in? The Paranormal Activity franchise has been going for some years now. It began with a fresh take on the found footage format and introduced is to Micah (Micah Sloat) and Katie (Katie Featherston) – the latter of which was haunted / followed by a demon that would later possess her and send her on a killing rampage. Then, in Paranormal Activity 2 we got an immediate prequel about how Katie got the demon onto her, but also finished after the events of 1… in 3 we got an even deeper prequel to 1 and 2 of Katie and her sister being haunted as kids… in 4 we got a sequel to 2 (keeping up here?), which showed Katie and her stolen nephew. So, where does Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones go? And why bother with the change in numbering? For all intents and purposes this is Paranormal Activity 5, although that would then confuse things considering Paranormal Activity 5 will be released later in 2014…

Yes, it’s a confusing mess. Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones was hinted at as a post-credits scene in Paranormal Activity 4. Apparently, this series of films is huge in the Hispanic community, so they decided to focus onto a Hispanic family living in southern California. The film follows Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and his family after he wakes up with a bite on his arm. He develops all manner of seemingly supernatural powers and ends up being able to communicate with an entity that’s following him. Over the course of the film we follow Jesse’s corruption by the spirit. which changes him from the good time guy he used to be into something more… demonic.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

So, it’s semi-familiar territory here. We have our favourite invisible demonic force back again for the fifth time. Plus, we’ve ditched the fixed cameras and resorted back to the Blair Witch Project-esque handicams. Although this shakes up the Paranormal Activity format, it also loses one of its reasons for being charming: increasing audience familiarity with the surroundings. It’s this fact that had you surveying every scene like a detective to pick up on the slightest twitch of curtains or grunt and groan. Although this format has been somewhat worn out after four instalments, it’s a trademark of the series… which has been lost.

But what of the scares? Unfortunately, Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones still relies on jump scares and loud noises. It still has that ominous sub-bass rumble to accompany the tense scenes (a marvellous trick to get you on edge), but the scares are all too forced / LOUD NOISES. That being said, it was nice to see a slight variation introduced into the scare cauldron. We actually see some demonic powers being used for the first time; it’s no longer just an invisible creature stomping around (although the powers are only seen through the possessed individuals). I’m almost hoping that at some point they reveal this demon. Although that’ll have the Jeepers Creepers effect (i.e., the creature ceases to be scary), it’s needed. After all, this series is going to have to end at some point isn’t it? Why not bring the demon out? Having said all that, I’d say Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones succeeds at scaring more than its immediate predecessor.

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

Fans / followers of the franchise will ultimately be rewarded / disappointed though. As I mentioned at the outset, the series has chronology issues for sure. This film will just add to this confusion. Despite the rebranding, this isn’t a separate entity; it still fits into the existing set of events as some sort of bizarre prequel / sequel / accompaniment. That’s spoiling nothing, and keeps EVERY option open for you!), but it’s true!

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones isn’t the shot in the arm that the franchise has been calling out for recently. It seems like we’re constantly spinning in a demonic vacuum and not advancing the overarching plot all that much. There are scares there for the more nervous amongst us / those with hearing aids turned up too loud, but again the film fails to capture the magic of the original Paranormal Activity. Paranormal Activity 5 best advance things along with this Katie plot, or it can expect me to deliver an even more damning verdict…

But then again, Paranormal Activity may be another bloody prequel. The sequencing currently stands at 3, 2, Marked Ones, 1, 4… and I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t taught that bizarre numbering order when I was back in school. Let’s end this review in a similarly odd way: And that’s all I have to say about that really / Or I may unleash my own demonic rage / Something that truly reinvigorates the franchise again / Firstly, I’m hoping for something new and inventive.

Phage Factor:

2.5 Stars

The Last Stand (2013)

The Last Stand (2013)

How often do you hold people to their word? You know, when someone says something to you and they really pull through a bit later down the line. It might be “I’ll call you soon”, or “we’ll definitely go on another date”… sometimes these hopes are cruelly dashed and date number two never comes (oh what could have been!). But one guy has really been true to his oath. Way back yonder he told us all “I’ll be back”, and you know what? He is! Sure, it might have been his catchphrase for more years than it should have been, but here he is. Back once again for the renegade master us all in The Last Stand

Yessiree, Arnold Schwarzenegger is back. And not just in a cameo role… no, he’s back in the lead heading up an action movie. He may have had some personal things to take care of (being a Governor, fathering illegitimate kids), but he’s doing a Sylvester Stallone and relaunching his Hollywood career. But he’s doing it different to Stallone. You’d expect Predator 3 or Terminator X, surely? But here we see him take on an original film. Well, I say original… it’s not quite the most unique film you’ll see this year…

The Governor's back... he said he would be...

The Governor’s back… he said he would be…

Arnie plays Ray Owens – the county sheriff of the sleepy town of Somerton. And he’s old. He’ll tell you this a few times, as will other people. Remember: he’s old. Anyway, his town’s going to get a whole lot less sleepy as fugitive drug cartel leader Gabriel Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) is heading to Ray’s town to plough on through to Mexico. On his tail he’s got the FBI, headed up by Agent John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) and everything they do seems to fail… but can Cortez make it past Ray (who’s forgot that he’s The Terminator) and his rag-tag bunch of deputies, including Luis Guzmán and Johnny Knoxville?

As you can see, it’s not the most remarkable plot. It’s a pretty by-the-books action movie where you already know the eventual outcome and can probably even take a guess at any twists and turns. But that’s not the point – this is classic action movie territory. It’s got more car chases than you can shake a stick at (and I can shake my stick at a hell of a lot of cars), an explosive array of weaponry and yes, a good dose of humour. Whilst the film is strangely lacking the “big” Arnie lines of yesteryear, he still manages to throw in a quip or two. Nothing in Dr. Freeze territory, but a nice smattering nevertheless.

The Last Stand (2013)

I’m also pleasantly surprised to see a good supporting cast in the movie. It seems that nowadays when big action heroes make their return, they return very much alone without any other stars in the cast. Yes, yes, we can overlook The Expendables and The Expendables 2 because that was the whole point of those films! It was refreshing to see Forest Whitaker taking a role in the film. Sure, it wasn’t one of his most memorable performances, in fact you’ll probably forget it, but you can’t deny that the guy is a great presence on-screen. Similarly it seems that Johnny Knoxville has found his niche as the slightly unhinged Lewis Dinkum. He can just totally let go and go as crazy as he likes and it works splendidly. One could argue that Knoxville out-acts Arnie when on-screen, but I guess that’s the point – Arnie’s an old guy who’s been burnt before – he’s world-weary.

I just felt that sometimes it was as if Arnie wasn’t 100% on the set. Maybe I’m comparing him to 1990’s Schwarzenegger when we last really saw him regularly on-screen. This is a different character. It may have been intentional, but I’d have liked some more nostalgia in there. I wanted a witty kill line. I wanted him to get to a chopper. I wanted him to scream “nooooo” in his Austrian-American accent. It seems that fellow comeback King Sylvester Stallone is only too happy to engage in some fan service in his outings. Time will tell whether Arnie will follow suit or will plough on in a resolutely “same but different” approach.

Who doesn't love a CORNY car chase? Yeah, we can pun too...

Who doesn’t love a CORNY car chase? Yeah, we can pun too…

Where the film falters for me is that it sometimes felt a bit too “fast and loose” and some of the dialogue and scenes were entirely superfluous or screamed “PLOT EXPOSITION”. It also had a hell of a lot of plot holes in there too. Sorry, but how in the world does Cortez’s car go for so long on one tank of petrol considering it’s 1000 horse power? That’d need refilling every 16 miles! Also, there’s this whole “race against the clock” theme… but how in the sweet name of Dr. Freeze does all of this happen in the space of 90 minutes of “in film” time? They’re incredibly organised in Somerton it’d seem. OK, maybe they’re not crushing holes, or even really holes, they’re just flawed logic. But I guess this is an action movie… we can suspend our disbelief.

The Last Stand marks Arnie‘s return to the big time in Hollywood. It probably isn’t the bona fide classic return to form that many were hoping for, and many of the funniest parts are in the trailer, but it’s a solid start for his return. I’m just keen to see where he heads next. Casting my eye over his upcoming schedule hints at a return to the Arnie of yesteryear… I just hope that he does it gracefully so that he doesn’t come off as the old man that The Last Stand wants to paint him as.

So he is back. He said he would be and he is. Well, at least he’s back in body. His quippy, slightly larger than life ego is still yet to show up. Please, for the love of god put him in a film that includes helicopters, a crazy plot and a lot of people dying in gag-filled ways… DO IT. DO IT NOW!!

Phage Factor:

3 Star

Savages (2012)

Sometimes you just expect directors to deliver a certain “type” of film – normally because they rightfully play to their strengths. Take Ridley Scott for instance. His movies have been from a wealth of genres, but have always had that “epic” nature to them. Scott doesn’t really do movies about introspection. Similarly, with Quentin Tarantino you’re not going to get a humourless, dull looking film – you’re getting full-on acting set in a very Tarantino-esque universe, regardless of whether it’s set in World War II or Japan. Along with this, you also expect a certain level of quality with the piece – more so if the director’s carrying several Oscars under his / her belt. So what happens when the director deviates from the path? Savages.

Savages comes from Oliver Stone – a three-time Oscar winner and writer of such classics as Platoon and Natural Born Killers, as well as a slew of politically-bent films such as W, Nixon and JFK. Savages deviates from this political bent (if taken at face value) to deliver a story about drug trafficking across the Mexican-US border in California. In a nutshell, two friends: one ex-US army (Taylor Kitsch) and one academic / botanist / hippy (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) find a way to make the best marijuana possible and make a fortune. However, the Mexican cartel headed by Salma Hayek and her lieutenant Benicio Del Toro want their share of this business. Oh, and John Travolta‘s involved as a corrupt Federal agent… Sounds like a great cast right? Sure, I can’t fault that, but the film just isn’t as good as the sum of its parts.

The happy couple…. or throuple.

The entire story is actually based on a book by Don Winslow, which I haven’t read, so I can’t comment on the film’s accuracy in this respect. The flaw for me was just caring about some of the characters, namely Blake Lively‘s “O”. “O” or Orphelia is the girlfriend of both Kitsch and Johnson – they both sleep with her and live with her in a very hippy-esque manner. Despite the fact that I imagine Kitsch‘s character John would never do this considering his general bad-mannered demeanour. He’d be more likely to kick your front teeth out if you accidentally glanced at his girl over a crowded bar. Now, it’s “O” that causes a hell of a lot of trouble for the boys in this film and I just found myself wondering why the hell they didn’t just cut and run. Her back story is muddled (mentions of an absentee mother who doesn’t care, yet she writes these loving e-mails to her is just one of these) and you just realise how vapid she is as a character.

However, this isn’t the major thing that drew me to despair. No no, that came about 10 minutes before the end of the movie. I obviously won’t ruin it, but Oliver Stone whips out one of the most hackneyed and amateur ways to end a movie. I’m not even talking about the sequel-bating that most films offer, but something else entirely worse. I’m unsure if the original book does this or not, but if it does, then Stone shouldn’t have followed it to the letter. It’s horrible and incredibly frustrating. I actually found myself getting angry as it unfurled. Movies don’t often make me angry, but this genuinely did.

It all goes along with the fact the movie seems to think it’s far cleverer and wittier than it actually is. For a start, it’s narrated by Blake Lively who gives the ol’ “don’t think I survive just because I’m narrating this…” – this isn’t witty. Hell, Kickass did this exact same thing two years ago. It also just came across like it was trying too hard to be something cool and pulpy like some of the modern day-set Tarantino movies. The sound effects, the editing, the cultural references. All just tried way too hard.

Benicio Del Toro: Reliably disturbing. Reliably brilliant.

Having been so negative on the movie, I must commend some of the actors, especially the always reliable Benicio Del Toro. This guy oozes malevolence in every role he takes and this is no exception. It reminded me of just how great he was in Sin City and he yet again turns in a strong performance. The same is true of Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kickass) and even Salma Hayek. I thought the tent-pole names really pulled their weight. It was also great to see John Travolta return to the cinema after a hiatus following tragedies in his personal life. It should however be noted that he’s only in 4-5 scenes, but he shines in them. I love the recent Travolta – anything non-campy past Pulp Fiction is grand with me. This performance reminded me most of Face/Off… just without the wild and whacky impressions of Nic Cage.

We’re hiding our identities until you change the ending…

For a two hour plus movie, I just felt the film was bloated. It had its great set pieces and some eye candy and I felt my interest rising throughout the second half of the film, but any enjoyment was completely obliterated by that hackneyed ending. After the credits roll you’ll be sat there wondering “so what… that’s it?”. It’s not frustrating for the right reasons, such as Killer Joe‘s cliffhanger, it’s frustrating because it’s just bad.

Savages is a disappointing film, especially considering the great ensemble cast and some quality performances. At the end of the day, it ended up coming off like a video game’s script than anything else. Nothing against game developers, but you expect far more from an Oscar-winning writer than you do a story writer for Nintendo. And that ending? Good God that ending stank.

So my advice remains that you should always play to your strengths. Sure, it’s fun to dabble in new ventures, but at least make sure those ventures might yield something worthwhile. Just as I don’t expect Michael Bay to helm the next Tree of Life, or Quentin Tarantino to tackle an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, I don’t expect Oliver Stone to turn in something like this. He knows better. Then again, even Ridley Scott has turned in some questionable output recently, so it seems like these ageing juggernauts don’t always hit the target. And to be honest, they probably don’t care either. Frankly, I’d rather they took the occasional chance than resort to what James Cameron has tasked himself with: abandoning all diversity and just dedicating himself to making Avatar sequels. Such a waste.

Phage Factor: