‘Margin Call’ and ‘Paranormal Activity 3’ feature two kinds of terror
By Carl Kozlowski 10/20/2011
In an era when far too many Hollywood movies are high-budget train wrecks heavy on spectacle and light on relevance, two films opening this week do a terrific job of demonstrating that good storytelling always results in an entertaining experience.
Both films — all-star “Margin Call” and micro-budget “Paranormal Activity 3” — offer vastly different scares, with “Margin” providing a thinly fictionalized look at how the 2008 financial meltdown began, and “PA3” serving up old-fashioned, bump-in-the-dark terror with ingenious aplomb.
“Margin Call” leaps right into its complex tale of financial chicanery and double-crossing gamesmanship, with Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, Spock in the “Star Trek” movie reboot and this film’s executive producer) sees the cold-hearted human resources director of his Wall Street firm giving the ax to 80 percent of his colleagues in one day. The problem is one of the dumped employees was Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), who slips Sullivan a flash drive containing shocking information and tells him to “be careful.”
Sullivan camps out at his desk to examine the disk and discovers that the firm’s massive investments in mortgage securities are starting to go belly-up. If the trend continues, the toxic assets would be worth more in losses than the firm itself is worth, meaning the firm, a behemoth not unlike Goldman Sachs, would be destroyed.
In a heavily verbose style reminiscent of the early ’90s acting classic “Glengarry Glen Ross,” a tense night filled with plotting over how to handle the situation — whether to sell off all the assets, even if that involves lying to investors, or face the music and watch the company die — begins.
The magic of first-time feature writer-director J.C. Chandor’s script lies in the fact that he not only presents both sides of the dilemma in a compelling fashion, but also explains the arcane world of high-finance in ways that anyone could follow and understand.
The fact that the film has such a stellar cast — Kevin Spacey, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, Paul Bettany and TV star Penn Badgely — doing great work adds to the film’s effectiveness.
Meanwhile, “Paranormal Activity 3” brings the scary back to theaters with the series’ most entertaining installment yet. The first film was shot for $15,000 and focused almost entirely on a couple named Katie and Micah, who were terrified by noises in their house and decided to set up video cameras at night to see what was really going on.
The original’s biggest scares came in its final minutes. “PA2” ups the ante tremendously by showing Katie’s relatives beset by boogeymen and rigging their house with seemingly countless security cameras as a result. While the filmmakers made sport out of the high technology, “PA3” flips the script brilliantly by taking viewers back to 1988, when Katie started experiencing ghostly presences as a young child and her mom’s boyfriend — a wedding videographer — filmed the mysterious activity with dated equipment.
The best twist in “PA3” comes when the boyfriend’s business partner rigs a camera to the base of a rotating fan, providing the disorienting effect of a constant pan shot in some sequences. This works because the rhythmic motion lulls viewers into a sense of complacency, yet drives up the tension each time the camera moves back and forth. The audience is anticipating a big scare, which the filmmakers dole out with expert precision.
In addition, the “PA” team’s increasing confidence means that they now relish making the audience laugh with several red herring moments. The business partner and a babysitter both attempt funny business with the camera, thinking it will only
affect the videographer, but just when viewers think these characters are comic relief, the unseen boogeyman unleashes terror on both of them.
Seen with a packed house of fans at the Cinerama Dome Tuesday night, “PA3” proved itself to be a total crowd-pleaser. Yet, while it expertly mixes big scares with big laughs, milking the tension of unseen terror with moments of spectacular disarray, its darkest revelations unfortunately border on being exploitative, drawing terror from endangering very young girls. But as its final revelation is delivered with deliciously evil glee, the audience clearly didn’t mind, and neither will anyone looking for a good time at the movies. n