This is rare, nuanced storytelling, anchored by one of Brad Pitt’s career-best performances and remarkable technical elements on every level. It’s a special film.
The novelty of "found footage" wore off almost immediately upon arrival, and yet the "style" persists, despite the fact (or maybe because of the fact) that it's tired and lazy. "Found footage" requires too much forgiveness on the part of the audience. If you find yourself thinking, as I did, during "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones", the fifth installment in the wildly popular series of films, "Why wouldn't he turn off the spotlight on his camera so as not to be detected by the hungry coven of witches looking to devour him?" then you're dead in the water. And so is the film. Thankfully, the entertaining chemistry between the two young leads in "Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones" (Andrew Jacobs and Jorge Diaz), almost saves it.
Evil spirits are up to their old tricks in "The Marked Ones", and this time the action takes place in Oxnard, California, in a working-class Latino neighborhood, a welcome change in style and feel from the other more generic suburban installments. Jesse (Jacobs) and Hector (Diaz) live in a crowded apartment complex, with multigenerational family members crowded into small rooms. Both have just graduated from high school and seem to have no plans, no jobs, no goals. The only thing they have any interest in is fooling around with their new video camera. At first, they just film each other doing dumb stunts involving laundry baskets and staircases. Hector draws a penis on Jesse's face while he sleeps. Hilarity ensues. They do shots of tequila with Jesse's feisty grandmother (Renee Victor). The only reason this banal footage has any entertainment value is because of the two actors. Their energy together feels unselfconscious; it doesn't feel like acting. They seem like real boys, real friends.
Soon, the boys become curious about Anna (Gloria Sandoval), a downstairs neighbor. Weird moaning sounds and bumps come up through the grate at night. The boys attach the camera to a wire, lower it through the grate, and, to their amazement, observe frumpy Anna, in the nude, painting a red circle on the stomach of a gorgeous naked woman. Again, the "found footage" trope requires that you turn off your brain that pesters you with questions such as, "That apartment down there has four rooms. Why would those two naked ladies choose to stand in the exact spot where the camera can pick up the action through the grate?" The fact that what the boys observe is disturbingly ritualistic is erased by the reality of the real live boobs on display down there.
The jokes stop when Anna turns up dead.
Naturally, the boys have to break into her apartment (now a crime scene) in the middle of the night to investigate. Because, of course. There are some legitimate scares, although most of them are of the "It was just a cat!" variety. Jesse and Hector loop in one of Jesse's cousins, Marisol (Gabrielle Walsh). The three kids discover, sitting around one of those old low-tech electronic Simon devices one night (a fun throwback detail), that the device appears to be tapped into the paranormal spirits, acting like a Ouija board, answering "Yes" or "No" questions, to the astonishment of the three kids huddled around Simon. But then things become more serious. Jesse has a mysterious bite on his arm. People disappear. And yet, again and again, they sneak into Anna's apartment to continue their filmed investigation.
Christopher Landon, involved as a writer and producer of the other "Paranormal Activity" films, steps into the director's role for the first time, and it is to his credit that he lets the dynamic between Hector and Jesse be the film's anchor. The plot is a dime a dozen, handled better and scarier on any individual episode of "Supernatural". But Hector and Jesse are adorable goofball guides, whose shared response to a paranormal event involves them whispering "What the f___" at each other, punctuated by giggling and bong hits.
The final scene of "The Marked Ones" loops us back to the first film, in an eerie tesseract, leaving the way open for more installments. Found footage may not be here to stay, but it hasn't exited stage right just yet.
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