Lita On Film

Archive for October, 2010|Monthly archive page

Paranormal Activity 2 (2010)

In Film Reviews on October 27, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Find this review on!

I’ll come right out and say it: the first “Paranormal Activity” (2007) didn’t really do it for me.  More specifically, I found it so boring that I had a hard time concentrating even when the supposedly climactic scenes of terror were unfolding.  Naturally, my hopes for the sequel weren’t high: I expected to be bored, laugh a lot, and possibly doze off.

Not so!  I think we may have encountered a rare instance here in which the sequel outshines the original.  Whereas the first film felt claustrophobic and irritatingly repetitive, “2” manages to contextualize its things-that-go-bump-in-the-night conceit in a way that turns the story from being all-out silly to actually scary.

“2” focuses on a slightly unconventional family: young mother, baby, older husband and his teenage daughter.  We soon find out that the young mother is the sister of the female character from the first film, Katie.  Soon the references are flying thick and fast; it’s definitely preferable to have seen the first film before venturing out to see “2,” otherwise much of the dialogue won’t make sense.  Oddly, though, this storyline doesn’t feel artificial and forced—perhaps because of the intensely intimate filming techniques (hand-held, indoor surveillance cameras), the family’s interactions feel pretty natural.

And it’s this naturalism—not to say realism—that makes the film scary.  Unlike the first film, “2” allows its characters and setting to breathe a little; people come and go, and the viewers occasionally get treated to a scene or two outdoors, which makes the interspersed scenes of indoor nighttime mayhem all the more terrifying.  Perhaps a new director (Tod Williams, “The Door in the Floor”) and a bevy of new writers are exactly what this franchise needed—though Oren Peli, the writer/director of the original, is still heavily credited.  Adding a larger cast of characters to the story along with extra creepy elements, like the scenes of the family dog being terrorized and the baby looking intently at something invisible, give the film enough structure and depth for its “gotcha” moments to be really effective.

There is an interesting analysis to be done on both “Paranormal Activity” films in regards to gender; in both instances, the primary target of said activity is a young woman, and the films’ focus on the domestic sphere as the locus of horror points to a long line of haunted house/haunted woman films.  Though “Paranormal Activity 2” may not be the rich fountain of allegorical material that makes up films like “The Amityville Horror,” “Poltergeist,” or “The Others,” it’s a surprisingly effective little film that might be just the ticket for your Halloween movie pre-gaming this weekend.  Then you’ll be primed for something truly scary.

“Paranormal Activity 2” is currently in wide release.

2 new docs by Cinema Libre

In Film Reviews on October 20, 2010 at 8:48 pm

Find these reviews on!

“For My Wife…” and “Water Wars”

Cinema Libre Studios specializes in consciousness-raising documentaries about a variety of left-leaning subjects—some of its most well-known releases include Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War On Journalism (2004) and Angels in the Dust (2007).  The studio is currently preparing to release Oliver Stone’s controversial new documentary South of the Border (2009), which features, among others, Raul Castro and Hugo Chavez.

On August 31st, Cinema Libre is releasing two new documentaries on DVD: For My Wife…, the story of Charlene Strong, an LGBT rights activist, and Water Wars, a look at the ongoing water crisis in Bangladesh and its implications for the rest of the world.

For My Wife… is an intense, deeply felt film.  At barely an hour’s running time, it packs in more sadness, outrage and redemption that you’d think possible.  Ms. Strong’s story is both heartbreaking and deeply inspiring: after her partner of 9 years was killed in a freak flash flood, she had to battle hospital policies (which did not recognize her as her partner’s next of kin) and a funeral director’s prejudice in order to lay her partner to rest.  Outraged, Ms. Strong took her story to the Washington state legislature, where her testimony helped to pass a bill that protects the rights of same-sex couples in life-and-death situations.

After that, Ms. Strong became a celebrity championing LGBT equality; the film follows her as she begins working with national LGBT-rights organizations, chats with Gloria Steinem, and is honored at the GLAAD Media Awards.  The film is interspersed with other stories of unimaginable discrimination, and the speeches given in the Washington legislature in opposition to the same-sex rights bill are nothing short of shocking.  Through all of this, Ms. Strong remains a deeply dignified, inspiring protagonist.  To say that this film is a call to action doesn’t really do it justice: it’s a call to humanity.  Anyone who is not in support of LGBT equality has a moral obligation to watch this film.

Water Wars: When Drought, Flood and Greed Collide is a portrait of the water crisis in Bangladesh which, the filmmakers imply, could be a microcosm for the future of the entire world.  Bangladesh is surrounded on three sides by India and on the fourth side by the ocean; it relies on the Brahmaputra river, which flows from North-East India, for 65% of its fresh water.  However, with no regard for its smaller, less powerful neighbor, India has decided to divert 70% of the Brahmaputra away from Bangladesh all together in order to provide more water to Indian citizens.

Through interviews with Bangladeshi officials and residents, Oscar-nominated director Jim Burroughs chronicles the seasonal struggles that the people of Bangladesh face.  When the rainy season comes, Indian dams are opened to prevent flooding—which, of course, creates massive flooding downstream in Bangladesh.  In the drier seasons many huge rivers in Bangladesh dry up entirely, as the Indian dams hold in as much water as possible.  Burroughs explores the daily lives of this desperate population, and also widens his focus to include other stories of how water shaped human history, from the 1953 flooding of Holland through the debacle that was Hurricane Katrina to the Tsunami of 2004, which killed over 200,000 people.  Burroughs interviews Dutch water-management experts, who have been “keeping the water out since the Middle Ages,” as well as Bangladeshi activists and academics, several of whom warn that failure to distribute water rights evenly and fairly could result in the next World War.  Water Wars also comes in at a tidy running time of about an hour—this keeps it punchy and compelling, and its narration, by Martin Sheen, is a nicely authoritative touch.

Anyone with a thirst for timely, relevant documentaries should seek out Water Wars and especially For My Wife…, and should keep their eyes peeled for more releases from Cinema Libre.

Water Wars and For My Wife… are both available on DVD from beginning August 31st.  Visit for more information.

Picture Me (2009)

In Film Reviews on October 9, 2010 at 3:03 pm

Find this review on!

“Picture Me: A Model’s Diary” follows Sara Ziff, a young model at the top of the fashion world, as she falls first in and then out of love with this stunningly inhuman industry.  The daughter of a professor, Ziff comes from an educated and well-off family, and her decision to go into modeling has put her at odds with her parents’ expectations.  When the films starts she is 19 and, having modeled since she was 14, her parents are ready for her to go to college.  She, however, has other ideas.  The film is shot primarily by Ziff’s boyfriend, Ole Schell, who follows her around the world for four crazy years of photo shoots and Fashion Weeks.  Their relationship isn’t exactly clear—he seems much older than her, and he’s the only one watching out for her on these globe-trotting expeditions.  Ziff only talks to her parents very rarely on the phone, and she seems to become more and more fragile as her modeling career continues.

“Picture Me” paints a disturbing picture of the fashion industry primarily through what it does not depict: not once do we see Ziff (or anyone else) eat anything during the film, though everyone smokes constantly, and there is offhand talk of cocaine.  No one seems to do much sleeping either, and the girls are subjected to paparazzi at all times, even when they’re backstage completely naked.  Perhaps because she has the benefit of an intellectual family and a good education, Ziff begins to get unhappy with how she’s treated—like a doll, not like a human being.  Eventually, even the $100,000 checks she gets start to lose their allure.

Ziff and Schell interview many other models, and this adds a great deal of substance to the film.  They all seem to know each other and care for each other, though it’s pretty disturbing to see that many emaciated people in one place.  We hear horror stories from several: one is in huge debt to her modeling agency and doesn’t know how to pay it back; another emigrated from Eastern Europe to become a model, had an unplanned child at 17, and now doesn’t know what else to do.  Though we only get snippets of these women’s stories, it’s easy to see that the anecdotes they’re willing to discuss on film are really only the tip of the iceberg.


After gallivanting around the world’s fashion capitals for four years, Ziff decides that she wants to do more with her life, and enrolls at Columbia at age 23.  Though it might seem superficial or even self-pitying to some (particularly Jeanette Catsoulis of the “New York Times,” who eviscerated the film in her recent review), I found this film to be very affecting.  Ziff is so young and so naïve at the beginning of her journey that what we’re really watching is her personality taking shape over the course of the film.  By the time she’s 23, she has developed not only a sense of perspective, but a backbone.

“Picture Me” was opened in very limited release on September 19th in NYC, to mark the end of Fashion Week.

New Documentary: 2,501 Migrants: A Journey

In Film Reviews on October 9, 2010 at 2:23 pm

Find this review on!

In this contemplative documentary, director Yolanda Cruz follows indigenous Oaxacan artist Alejandro Santiago as he creates 2,501 life-size statues—one for every person who’s left his native town of Teococuilco in search of a better life.  Though it’s slow to get going, the film eventually becomes an inspiring story of the hope that art can instill in marginalized, disadvantaged people.

Santiago was born in Teococuilco, but his family moved to Oaxaca City when he was young.  Upon returning to his hometown, he discovered that its population had shrunk dramatically; almost all its male inhabitants who were young and strong enough to work crossed the American border to find jobs.  Many women went as well, and there are several heartbreaking scenes of a grandmother with her grandchildren in a stone and clay hovel, the young mother having died on her journey into the United States.  The town is missing an entire generation, and with only the very young and the very old left, it seems that Santiago’s birthplace could disappear entirely.

To honor the forgotten lives—and deaths—of these 2,500 migrants, Santiago decides to mount a monumental art project: he will sculpt individual statues to represent every single one of the town’s missing inhabitants.  As the process begins, Santiago is able to hire many young, indigenous Oaxacan workers to assist him—without these jobs, you can’t help but wonder, would those kids have ended up dead in the Arizona desert, too?

Though there are catastrophic setbacks (the studio floods at one point), Santiago’s young workers prove to be dedicated and courageous.  Several of them even decide they want to grow up to become “great artists” like Santiago himself.  This part of the film is particularly inspiring—not only is Santiago able to give these kids a vision of what their town used to be, and what art is, he’s able to help them see that their lives aren’t pre-ordained just because of where they come from.

Eventually, everyone involved in the project is flown to Monterrey, Mexico, to install the statues in an outdoor exhibition at a prominent museum.  The finished product produces an almost eerie cognitive dissonance; you keep expecting the figures to move, or talk, but of course they never do.  Santiago’s vision is powerful and affecting, and Cruz does a good job of carrying the viewer through the creative process.  Though the overall pace of the film is rather slow, at 57 minutes the film is a comfortable length and doesn’t try to overstretch its material.

“2,501 Migrants: A Journey” is available on DVD from Cinema Libre Studios ( and will be broadcast on PBS nationwide in October to commemorate Hispanic Heritage Month.

Devil (2010)

In Film Reviews on October 6, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Find this review on!

“Devil” is written by M. Night Shyamalan, and though he isn’t listed as the director, his influence on the feel of the film is palpable. Just like “Signs” and “The Village,” the story centers around a small group of people in confined surroundings, battling an unknowable menace. The difference is that “Devil” contains only five characters, and they spend the whole film stuck together in an elevator. If it weren’t for the other characters on the outside, it would be pretty difficult to sustain any interest in the film. Fortunately, director John Erick Dowdle (“Quarantine,” “The Poughkeepsie Tapes”) has the sense to cut back and forth between the confinement of the elevator and the somehow similarly claustrophobic urban landscape in which the story is set.

Our protagonist is Detective Bowden (Chris Messina), who gets called to a huge skyscraper in Philly after someone jumps out a window and plunges to his death. A heavy-handed (and annoyingly stereotyped) Latino voiceover informs us that the Devil often appears in the wake of suicides, to wreak havoc among random strangers. We watch said strangers gather in the elevator, and things go downhill fast. At first, they argue—then they start to die.

The film is well constructed, if one-dimensional; though the story is barely complex enough to sustain its 80 minute running time, there’s enough artistry to keep things moderately interesting. If the film were a little smarter, it could be a meditation on cinema and the nature of performance: much of “Devil” is taken up with the audience watching the Detective watch the other characters on a screen. Sometimes the screen freezes up and stops working, and sometimes the elevator’s lights go out—when this happens, we know, the Devil is once again about to strike. However, the film’s flimsy excuse for an ending and total lack of metaphysical comment—after it’s spent 70 minutes pontificating about the Nature of Evil—undermines any profundity that it might have been able to produce.

This is Shyamalan; we’re expecting a twist ending. When it finally comes, it’s not much of a surprise and certainly doesn’t add anything to the film. There’s a little coda in which the Detective takes one of the freed elevator passengers to the station in his car—and the possibility for a true twist is raised. Sadly, “Devil” decides to take the easy way out: its parting message is, “If the Devil exists, then God must exist as well.” That line reminded me of another disappointing film from the summer horror slate: “The Last Exorcism,” in which one character states, “If you believe in God, you have to believe in demons.” Well, no matter what you believe in, it shouldn’t be this movie. While it’s perfectly watchable, it’s not something I’d choose again unless I really had 80 minutes to kill. Whether or not Shyamalan can pull himself out of a rut of flat, predictable films full of offensively “ethnic” characters will be the real twist.