The era of the found footage film has grown almost as long as the need to have a ready franchise to eat up Halloween box office dollars. Not that the two have been drawn together before as perenniallyw close as the Paranormal Activity franchise is currently attempting to. Because there will be no more Saw movies, and name recognition makes Paranormal Activity the heir apparent to the gruesome adventures of Jigsaw.
But, in trading one formula -- that of hideously planned and executed murders to appease a vengeful psychopath -- for another (slow burn, surveillance video, ghost hunting) Paranormal Activity has painted itself into a tight corner stylistically and even for the genre of found footage itself. Beyond a certain point it becomes too much of a burden on ones suspension of disbelief, when a multi-sequel mythology strains for reasons to have a character carrying a camera around the entire fucking time. It's already contrived.
So, following the events of PA2 -- itself a concurrent prequel of the first film -- the third installment heralds yet more bad news for anyone unfortunate enough to be even tangentially related to Katie (Katie Fetherstone), the possessed hausfrau of the original.
In 2005, a year before the first film, Katie drops off a box of videotapes with her sister, Kristi (Sprague Grayden), detailing their childhood as documented by their mother, Julie's (Lauren Bittner) boyfriend, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith); conveniently a freelance videographer, in 1988.
Julie and Dennis, during the course of putting Dennis' skills and equipment to use making a pornographic movie of themselves, are rocked by an earthquake. Upon reviewing the footage with his goofball assistant (a fun Dustin Ingram) Dennis notices that some wayward dust seems to reveal the outline of an invisible figure. Coupled with his would-be step daughter's newfound "imaginary friend" Toby, with whom her conversations seem oddly serious, Dennis decides to set up his video equipment to capture some "Supernatural Doings". Guess what happens next.
What began with writer/director Oren Peli's 2007 indie frightfest -- indie until it was picked up by Dreamworks, given some technical polish and a marketing budget that belies its inexpensive roots -- has morphed into a money grab. While the original didn't break much in the way of new ground it was very effective at generating tension and capitalized on a creepy atmosphere. A direct vision of Peli's deepest, spectral terrors the film stayed grounded in its conceit, and more importantly its hints of a backstory enigmatically reinforced the ill-defined sense of dread. It had all the elements of a pretty great, stand-alone ghost story.
Its huge success, of course, demanded more of the same. And like any good meal, the more bites taken inevitably lessen the impact. With something like Paranormal Activity 3, what started out as solid comfort food now almost feels like a microwaved soup and sandwich -- the esoteric difference between charming and boring.
Directed this time out by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (of Catfish fame), working from a script by Christopher B. Landon (Disturbia) the indie pair do add some cred to this outing but are hamstrung to the degree because, aside from some well-placed jump scares, the entire construction of the franchise already has you waiting to be freaked out. The shot compositions often too obviously include the space that you just know a shadowed figure will appear in.
They do manage to generate some tension with the neat trick of having the industrious Dennis mount a camera on an oscillating fan, thus giving him a wider shooting range. As the frame slides, hypnotically, back and forth between the kitchen and the living room the palpable sense that (of course) something is on the verge of jumping out at you isn't particularly undercut by the fact that, yes, that is bound to happen. It's still a little creepy.
But it isn't particularly exciting, either -- even at its brief 80-odd minutes. And what's sort of sad about that is the underlying story -- as much as it's a mystery killer for a far better original film -- would totally work as a stand-alone, conventional horror film. I could see Dario Argento directing the shit out of this 30 years ago. The creepy little girls are one element; Julie's imperceptibly sinister mother; other themes that are too spoilery to get into. Had PA3 been given a script that was actually designed for a more gothic, conventional telling, as opposed to the constraints of the franchise and its built-in stylistic and visual tropes, it might have been something more.
Paranormal Activity 3 may admirably rely on tone and atmosphere to elicit its scares. But there are only so many ways to re-work a formula and it appears this would-be, long running franchise has already been tapped out.
It's a testament to the quality of BBC television films that they are almost always well made enough to pass for their theatrical cousins -- particularly, when the setting is period. On top of the refined looks, period drama is something the BBC does well. In a country possessed of tradition, it's easier to jump back in time.
With Toast that time is the '60s, and the place is Wolverhampton, England, the birthplace of Nigel Slater (Oscar Kennedy). Nigel is a put upon kid, though not in the same way many children were in the industrial gloom of postwar England. Instead, Nigel's father (Ken Stott) owns a factory, and their family is fairly well off.
Despite that, Nigel's dad is a stuffy, irritable and inexplicably frugal man. His mother (Victoria Hamilton) suffers from an asthmatic condition but even more distressingly, cannot cook to save their lives. While she boils whole tins of food in their labels and screws up pies (or anything that isn't toast) Nigel longs for the sights, smells and tastes of real food. He hides out with cooking magazines the same way a horny teenager surreptitiously steals away with a copy of Penthouse.
Sucked even further down the rabbit hole of culinary bliss, Nigel attempts to try out his newly studied skills in the kitchen with some spaghetti Bolognese that his parents stare at as if it were from outer space. His mum quickly falls back on the reliable toaster.
But all those carbs don't help Nigel's mother, whose health takes a turn for the worst. Enter, Mrs. Potter (Helena Bonham Carter) a crass, married maid whose golddigger tendencies are quickly sniffed out by Nigel. Immediately set at odds against the floor-scrubbing, nylon-wearing housekeeper with a billowy, buxom rear that now attracts his father's nervously attentive glances; Nigel comes to despise Mrs. Potter and her formidable skills in the kitchen.
When Slater Sr. begins to fall for her culinary and feminine wiles, Nigel and Mrs. Potter enter into a silent competition for his affections. And, as the saying goes, the way to a man's heart is through his stomach.
And if you're getting the sense that Toast might be a biography of Gordon Ramsey: The Early Years, you'd almost be right. Instead, Nigel Slater went on to become an equally famous -- in England at any rate -- and influential food writer, broadcaster and journalist. Toast is the story of how he discovered his love of haute cuisine.
Directed with somewhat workman-like competence by S.J. Clarkson (EastEnders), Toast still veers rather wildly between light-hearted, youthful reminisces and somewhat heavy handed drama that lays the tragedy on a bit thick in places -- the Christmas morning sequence became almost funny for its clumsy heaviness -- that is nearly ironic when contrasted with the films tonal lightness.
That's not to say it's badly done. There's a certain comforting feel to Toast that derives mostly from the cast (particularly Stott's gruff, yet layered turn) and the wonderful period look and feel. Oscar Kennedy pulls off a typically British child -- i.e. preternaturally well-mannered and maturely irritated -- that recalls every Cockney urchin since Dickens. Freddie Highmore (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) portrays the older Nigel with a bit more depth in a turn that amounts to a guest-starring spot. Bonham Carter is game, as the sort-of wicked nanny who really only wants to be loved.
It's a perfectly agreeable film, whose narrative weaknesses aren't enough to really hold against it. Toast is a breezy bit of surprising fun that's built in appeal is that it's like a children's film that's directed at everyone.
And it'll make you hungry.
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