On ghosts and glamour

No matter that it’s Halloween – if you’re looking for a fright or want to admire couture costumes, check out sophomore Josh Hock’s reviews of what’s playing in District movie theaters this weekend.

“Paranormal Activity”

Georgetown Loews – (Horror; R)

Roger Ebert once alleged that he considered himself and audience members to be “smarter than most movies,” but are they smarter than the advertising? With both critics and moviegoers swooning over Paranormal Activity, apparently not.

The film garnered national attention with some very clever Internet ads showing footage of one audience’s spooked reactions to a showing. The ads created enough buzz for Paramount Pictures to launch a campaign asking 1 million people to demand a wider release. It worked. And now people are swooning.

Perhaps then it is the marketing that should be lauded, not the film, which assuredly did not turn out to be the “scariest movie since ‘The Exorcist,’ ” as some critics promised. “Paranormal Activity” is yet another attempt to employ the recovered footage technique that was made famous by “The Blair Witch Project,” and later ruined in “Cloverfield.” This time, the footage is supposed to have been found in the household of a young couple who had hoped to capture proof that they were being haunted. They get their proof – every night at around 3 a.m.

If this film had been released earlier, say in 1998 – a year before “The Blair Witch Project” – it might have been a legitimate groundbreaker. However, the fact of the matter is this: It is 2009 and this is something that everyone has already seen.

The only thing that is certain to provide a real scare is the repugnant commendations put out by critics, who fail to recognize how tedious the film becomes. The paranormal activity in the film may be a bit creepy, but the viewer quickly learns to associate it with certain sounds (that really begin to fulfill the role of a traditional soundtrack that is supposed to be absent). This makes the supernatural events exhaustingly predictable, despite the fact that they increase in conspicuousness and drama as the film progresses. There is, after all, only so much an invisible demon can do.

This film is recommended for fans of “The Blair Witch Project,” “Diary of the Dead” or “The Amityville Horror” series.

“Coco Before Chanel”

Landmark E Street Cinema – (Biography, Drama, Comedy; PG-13)

For lovers of all things fashion and France, Anne Fontaine’s new movie about the woman who created modern fashion is a must-see; it is a refreshing break from the big-budget biography projects that have started to emerge from Hollywood.

Less biopic than cinematic portraiture, “Coco Before Chanel” is unabashedly accurate in detailing the life of Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel before her rise to fame as one of the first fashion designers of the contemporary period. Chanel even provides some of the dialogue: “Dress shabbily, they notice the dress. Dress impeccably, they notice the woman.”

While recent moviemakers have certainly produced great cinema using biographical themes, the focus is usually more on the movie than on its subject – probably because writers, producers and directors want to incorporate into the biography a plot they consider more entertaining than the truth. That they consider a legitimate biography to be a potential bore is the mistake; “Coco Before Chanel” proves it.

The film is true, plain and simple. Do not expect the mise-en-scene to be as chic as Chanel’s clothes. This is, after all, a movie about her life before the glitz and glamour of fame; it sticks to the period with particular accuracy. Instead, expect to inspired, moved and amused by the incredible story of an incredible woman, whose own legitimate heartaches, struggles and motivations make for a movie that rivals anything any Hollywood screenwriter could imagine.

The film is recommended to those who enjoyed period biographies like “La Vie en Rose,” “Warm Springs” and “Wilde.”

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