Archive | April, 2014

Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones (2014)

28 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: *1/2

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

What should have been a fresh new start to the “Paranormal Activity” franchise, in terms of its setting and tone, instead turns out to be a mess of a movie that should put it to an end. It’s the spin-off, or possibly the fifth film, in the franchise, entitled “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones,” and instead of taking place in a lily-white suburban house, it takes place in a working-class Latino neighborhood in Oxnard, California.

It still uses the “found-footage” gimmick, which of course is a given for the franchise, but this film feels kind of like a “fan-video” instead of an actual film, as if someone watched the other four movies and then decided to make their own version with their own camera. That would explain why some of the acting is stilted in scenes where the characters are supposed to be shocked by new, supernatural discoveries (an example is when one of the characters has a bite on his arm; “Dude I think it’s a bite or something”). That’s probably not a fault to the actors, who at least try to work with the material they’ve been given, but to the writer-director Christopher B. Landon (who, to be fair, has written a better thriller in the past, 2007’s “Disturbia”). He doesn’t give them much to work with.

The story centers around two post-high-school boys, Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) and Hector (Jorge Diaz) who fool around with a new video camera. They film themselves riding laundry baskets down some stairs, taking tequila shots with Jesse’s grandmother, all that fun stuff. Jesse lives in the apartment above Anna, who is found murdered, presumably by a former classmate of Jesse’s. Jesse and Hector bring their camera as they sneak into the apartment to investigate. They find signs of witchcraft, including a spellbook, and even some pictures of Jesse. What does this mean?

As time goes by, strange things happen around Jesse, as Hector films it all. He is suddenly super strong, as he defends himself against two ghetto thugs, and has other abilities that transform him. But the problem is, he is changing into something that is taking away the better of him and turning him into something dangerous.

This is admittedly a good story, and with better material, this could have been an effective horror film, if you kept the characters and locations, dropped the “found-footage” gimmick (as well as the “Paranormal Activity” title, for that matter), and made some major alterations in the script (alterations to what, I’ll get to in a bit; there’s a lot that needs to be addressed). Show the process of this transformation, show how it’s really affecting the character and his family and friends, and really, just take that premise and start over with that.

There’s one sequence that’s oddly both unsettling and entertaining (“Chronicle”-like, if you will); it’s when Jesse discovers he can’t fall because an invisible force always catches him. Hector films him falling backwards with something supporting him, and it even works when he falls off a chair. Of course, when Hector tries it, he falls to the ground. Jesse and Hector upload the footage to YouTube, where of course the YouTube commenters respond negatively, claiming it’s just smoke and mirrors. That was a good scene.

But that’s one good scene among one stupid scene after another. The choices these characters make are so stupid they date back to old standard horror-movie clichés. The camera has a light on it so the characters can see in dark places they explore. But when they’re being chased and don’t want to be seen, the damned light is still on, giving away their location!

And the worse thing is, they never come to the authorities about everything that’s happened, even though, since they’ve been recording everything that’s happened, they have video footage that can make their story check out. Not once does it ever occur to them to bring the police into the situation. Even when they discover that a wicked coven is involved, they bring in a would-be gangster and his huge friend to check the place out.

Actually, that scene in which they’re attacked by the witches who have some plan in mind (apparently, it’s to create an army of possessed people; I think I may have missed something) has the biggest unintentional laugh in the movie, as the gangster fights them off with a shotgun. Give the film some credit for having someone finally use a gun to try and fight off the supernatural, but I have to ask the question, “Was this meant to be a PARODY of the ‘Paranormal Activity’ movies?”

I want my answer to be “yes,” because there is no way I could possibly take a horror film seriously when it brings in a Simon game to answer questions for the invisible demon that’s haunting the main character. That’s right. I am dead serious. Instead of a Ouija board, the characters use a Simon game to communicate with the spirit. Guys, save it for “Scary Movie 6.”

What about the scares, you might ask. Aren’t there any good scares? The main jumps are of the “it’s-only-a-cat” variety. While those are fine, they can be a bit much. The main scares for me came when Jesse, now evil, discovers he is telekinetic and even tortures his dog. Being a dog-person, that made me feel uneasy. And there were some other good scares in the final act, I’ll just say. But there’s also those scenes that should be scary but are really not because of the way it’s executed, such as when the characters are hiding from someone or even when they use the old cliché of going to check on someone whose back is turned to them. Of course something bad is going to happen when that person turns around. We’ve seen this stuff before.

I did like the two lead actors, Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz. They’re likable in a goofy way, share great chemistry as two buddies, and are fun to watch as they react to every dangerous situation they come across.

It’s no wonder the studio decided to release this film in the first weekend of January (the worst opening date you could think of) instead of giving it an October Halloween release. It’s as if they know they don’t have anything special and didn’t want many people to see it. Hopefully, someone else take this premise and make something better and smarter with it. As it is, “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones” is a mess. And what’s worse is that all of these “Paranormal Activity” movies kept giving us the impression that everything was building up to something. I don’t think I care to find out what it is anymore. (Or maybe I will when the sixth film comes out.)

Oh, and there’s something else I should add that should clarify exactly how silly this franchise has gotten. Without giving anything away, there is time-travel in the final act of the film. There you go.

Come Morning (2013)

3 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

As I’m writing this review, it’s been a few days since I saw “Come Morning.” And I’m convinced that it’s one of those films that haunt you with not only how good it is but also how profound, effective, and unforgettable it is. It has a premise that sounds like a suitable idea for a tense thriller, and it’s easy to expect something exciting but also kind of generic. But not with “Come Morning.” It has its effective setup, it grabs you, and then it takes you where it wants to go.

The film is about 10-year-old D (Thor Wahlestedt) and his grandfather Frank (played wonderfully by Michael Ray Davis) who are on an afternoon hunting trip. The trip takes a tragic turn when D accidentally shoots and kills a trespassing neighbor. D wants Frank to call the authorities and explain what happened. But due to a long-running, complicated (and violent) feud between the two families, Frank knows that telling the other neighbors that the death was an accident won’t go well, and so he and D set out to bury the body deep in the woods.

The story occurs mostly in the woods and mostly at night, which creates an ongoing, effective, metaphorical visual for the narrative—the deeper into darkness the characters embark into, the more lost they become in their moralities. Things slowly but surely go more wrong as suddenly the realization of D’s accidental murder isn’t as relevant as what becomes revealed later with Frank. Some of his demons come back to haunt him, he runs into enemies from the past, and his actions causes him to consider his own morals and ethics as well as the loss of D’s innocence.

What really makes this whole film special is just how subtle it is. There is much revealed of the history between Frank’s family and the neighboring family, but hardly anything is spelled out for the audience. We just get visual storytelling, understated dialogue, and thought-provoking questions to interpret by the time the film is over. Without giving too much away, there isn’t just the guilt that D feels, but there’s more than Frank feels when it comes to facing his demons and trying to find ways out of the danger he put his family through; you can feel that he has had things happen that he can’t feel proud of and also can’t forgive himself for. It is also a damn good thriller; very suspenseful and becomes even more so as it continues.

Derrick Sims

Most of the praise for “Come Morning” unquestionably goes to Derrick Sims, who not only wrote and directed the film but also edited and photographed it. Not knowing another way to put this, I’ll say every move he makes for this film is the right one. There’s one particular scene in this film that spoke me in many ways as to just how great Sims was as a filmmaker; without giving too much away, it involves the final moment in a character’s life. It’s an amazingly effective scene that could have gone one of two ways and may have sunk the film. It went the other way and became the best scene in the film.

I also admire how he shot the film himself. It’s as if he had this vision in his head and just wouldn’t be satisfied unless he created it. And indeed, the cinematography is first-rate. I don’t know how he managed to create beautiful scenery when most of the film takes place in the wilderness in the dark, but he certainly did.

This is a great film; one of the best I’ve seen in a long time. That’s why it shocks me that while it had great reception at festivals (including the Oxford Film Festival, where it received the Jury Award for Best Cinematography), the film never got a real theatrical release. That’s a shame, because I can see a lot of people seeing “Come Morning” the same way I did: as an atmospheric, unforgettable, well-executed, haunting piece of art.

NOTE: “Come Morning” is available on DVD and BluRay, and can be purchased at