Sunday, October 23, 2011


"Paranormal Activity 3" (2011)

It still works. Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost, the directors of last year's controversial pseudo-documentary "Catfish," take the reins of the third installment in the highly popular found-footage horror franchise. And as much as the series has definitely set its own formula by now, "Paranormal Activity 3" does not feel derivative and still gives viewers something to be terrified about. It's clear Schulman and Joost have a sense of humor because this installment gives us new scare tactics that play with audience expectation.

The best of these clever devices is a camera mounted atop the base of a rotating fan. It pans at a deliberate and painfully slow pace between the kitchen and living room giving us a lot of anticipation to chew on before we see the other end of that camera's range. It's a dastardly trick. Along with this camera, there are only two others mounted in bedrooms unlike the second installment which had a whole security system of cameras to watch. The movie is a prequel to the events of the first taking place in September 1988, which explains the lack in technology. This aspect, though, is about the only thing that's period piece material. The high-vaulted ceilings and overall look of the home make it look incidentally quite modern, and the babysitter's outfit is a bit obvious.

But decade accuracy isn't the point here. The story follows Katie (Chloe Csengery) -- of the first film -- as a young girl living with her sister Kristi (Jessica Tyler Brown) and her parents, Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) and Julie (Lauren Bittner). The setting of a prequel is meant to show how Katie initially had an encounter with the evil forces that drove her to the activity of the original movie. Consequently, a lot of the action focuses around Katie and her sister. These girls, however, aren't your typical creepy young girls in horror movies. They're ordinary, everyday young girls. Except when Katie wants to play a scary game of "Bloody Mary," saying it three times could actually bring horrific results. And Kristi's imaginary friend "Toby," who she talks to with intimidated obedience, is the one making noises at night.

"Paranormal Activity 3" causes a larger sense of unsettling dread than even the first two installments. It might be because the looming presence in the house feels more personal and malicious -- and from Kristi it even gets a name. The second movie enlisted jump-out scares to utmost effect. And while this outing still toys with that, it even more effectively finesses pure suspense in moments where nothing even happens. Take the last 15 minutes, for example, which had me literally shaking with anxiety.

These films are, if nothing else, a lesson in restraint when it comes to eliciting scares. Sure there's no restraint when it comes to the number of sequels they're going to keep churning out -- "Paranormal Activity 4" is inevitably on its way -- but I would much rather see eager audiences sitting down to spooky ghost stories than the glib and vile "Saw" splatter-fest which previously dominated Halloween movie season.

My review of Paranormal Activity
My review of Paranormal Activity 2

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


"The Ides of March" (2011)

The fourth feature directed by George Clooney (following "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," "Good Night, and Good Luck" and "Leatherheads"), "The Ides of March" provides us with knowledge a lot of us may already know: the current climate of American politics leaves no room for idealism and dignity. It's a harsh and cynical look at the modern presidential campaign landscape, but it's also less about the candidates and more about the campaign managers working for them. There is scheming, backstabbing and lapses in loyalty aplenty, and it's all a riveting inside look at the men behind the faces we end up voting for.

The movie stars Ryan Gosling playing another rather introverted character. It's a much different character than "Drive," but his focus and intensity remains the same. Just when we think we have him figured out, he surprises us with a twist of action. He plays Stephen Meyers, a press secretary for Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney) during a presidential primary in Ohio, which acts as a pressure cooker for the proceedings. Perfectly cast, Clooney plays Mike Morris as an idealistic fictional Obama in 2008 candidate who is articulate and promising with a new kind of politics. Stephen works under Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman in top form), a seasoned campaign manager for Morris. On the other side of the playing field is Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for the opponent Pullman. All of these men, save for Stephen, are hardened realists who know exactly how to play their pieces on the board. Young professionals such as Stephen have yet learned how to check their values at the door.

The screenplay (adapted from Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North") co-written by Clooney, Willimon and Grant Heslov paired with Clooney's understated direction brings conversations and exchanges to the utmost importance. The title suggests a grand sweeping Shakespearian theme, but Clooney's goals are actually much simpler and straightforward and, in such, create an even greater impact. What Clooney strives to present may not be wholly profound, but it is pulpy and provocative. I don't think the screenplay sticks in the knife as deeply as Clooney hopes, but he still assembles an astonishingly powerful cast to navigate murky waters where the lines of political and emotional agenda get skewed.

A New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei represents manipulative media involvement in the campaign looking for the best scoop. A key conversation between her, Stephen and Paul early on shows where true loyalty lies along with the real perception of any campaign -- it always divulges into disappointment no matter who takes the title. At one point Stephen receives a call from Tom Duffy with a job offer to change sides. Motives here become unclear. Does Duffy actually want Stephen, or does the offer simply work as a ploy? Stephen is just opportunistic and looking out for his best interest revealing a surprising but subtle amorality. The real focus of the plot doesn't arrive, however, until a scandal surfaces around a luscious intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Stephen is handsome and suave, so he charms Molly into bed but in the process learns some unnerving information.

From here the film is tight, smart and swiftly paced showing us everything we've already come to know about how campaigns are really run in this country. It plays as if the pressure cooker finally goes over, and scenes flow with boiling urgency. The revelations keep us riveted but what keeps us engaged and interested is the toxic and malevolent atmosphere that Clooney expertly upholds. It's down and dirty stuff with men in pressed suits, and it's all the more disturbing considering the setting. "The Ides of March" works like a wrenching punch to the gut in the acceptance that sometimes politics is just about keeping a job.