Saturday, October 20, 2012


The fourth installment in the spook-fest found footage series is the point at which it's officially something for fans only. At this point in the "Paranormal Activity" universe, there's too much backstory and not enough scares for newbies to be interested. The second and third installments were repetitive, yes, but still offered up true scares and jump-at-you moments. Now scares are produced from jump-cuts to loud sounds (doors shutting, backpacks dropping). There's no more looming dread and nothing left to catch us off guard. To be forever helmed by "Catfish" creators Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, "Paranormal Activity 4" announces the franchise's transformation into strict merchandise.

Credit is due, though, to the new gimmicks and creativity in found footage techniques. This is the first entry to feel current and contemporary, especially after the third's prequel pre-dating it to the 80s. Instead of a video camera mounted on an oscillating fan, there are MacBooks, iPhones, Skype and even the Xbox Kinect used to innovative effect. We follow Alex (Kathryn Newton) as she discovers weird happenings surrounding her young neighbor, Robbie (Brady Allen), who's invited to stay with Alex's family when his mother falls ill. There's less build of suspense, especially with less reliance on the night-time footage which previous installments have banked on. Although the return of statuesque, stalking Katie -- of which all this supernatural activity surrounds -- is a blast.

My showing of the movie brought co-directors Joost and Schulman for a quick Q&A session. The guys noted that, as the ending teased with nibbles of plot development and a laughably goofy final shot, the fifth title is already well in the works. And after being asked when they think they're going to stop making sequels, they responded, "When are you going to stop coming?" Touché, gentlemen.

Monday, October 15, 2012

ARGO Review

Ben Affleck's "Argo" is a blend of incredible true story and Hollywood movie magic. This is illustrated perfectly in the movie's opening explanation of the backstory behind the 1979 Iran Revolution. It's a combination of real world footage and classic storyboard drawings, which sets up two things. It not only mirrors the film's true story of creating a fake movie to rescue six American hostages from Iran, but also emphasizes the style in which Affleck tells this true story. There is close attention to facts with just the right amount of flourish and embellishment. It's smart Hollywood, and it's smart filmmaking. After only two directorial features before this (2007's "Gone Baby Gone" and 2010's "The Town"), Affleck's third feature feels like the work of a real veteran, and it's the one that'll give him his due come Oscar night.

A group of about fifty Americans were taken hostage at the Embassy in Iran, but six of them got away and were secretly housed by the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). It's been too long keeping them there, and the CIA needs a plan to get them out. Tony Mendez is a professional CIA "extractor" who's the best at getting people out of these situations. Out of the possibilities the CIA hatches up, it ends up being Mendez's seemingly outlandish plan that becomes the most plausible. At the height of sci-fi movie popularity after the huge success of "Star Wars," the idea of filmmakers doing location scouting in an exotic, foreign land is apparently believable.

Ah, the power of Hollywood. Also the absurdity, and poking fun at the industry is where a lot of the film's humor comes from, which is an unexpected addition considering the life-or-death scenarios of Iran it addresses at the same time. The script from Chris Terrio is a triumph in this complex tonal balance as well as its tight, focused precision in executing the rescue of the American hostages. Most thrillers create tension from car chases and fire fights, but here breathless excitement is manufactured through exquisite timing and careful plotting. It's a race to the airport between Mendez with his fake film crew and the Iranian revolutionaries uncovering the identities of the missing hostages -- and it's white-knuckle, nail-biting suspense.

The setup of the rescue mission had to be fabricated down to the details of a real script, producers and even press coverage. Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin), a hardened and snarky film producer, and John Chambers (John Goodman), an accomplished makeup artist, jump on-board and make sure the project -- which, needless to say, never gets made -- is the real deal. This leads to a script reading at the Beverly Hilton with the "real" film crew in a scene that beautifully intercuts with the "fake" film crew preparing their nerves for the inevitable escape. It's an affecting moment and brings to light the real world implications, how this moment in history foreshadowed the political landscape we live in today.

Affleck's high-class popcorn pleaser shares a love for the transcending power of movies while reminding us why we go to the movies. There's a scene where Iran airport security is shown storyboards for the fake "Argo," and they're enchanted. Performances across the board are great: Cranston easily breaks free of any "Breaking Bad" restraints while Goodman and Arkin prove a comic pairing. Affleck as Mendez is nicely understated, and we learn that he's a father, as well. "Argo" paints Mendez as an American hero, just like, yes, something straight out of a movie.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Coming off the success of his Oscar-winning "Precious," writer-director Lee Daniels decided to get down and dirty for his next picture. This weird, reverse sexploitation, faux 70s-styled comedy-thriller, period piece, detective drama is exactly the schizophrenic jumble of words I just described. If "The Paperboy" has one thing going for it, it's that it's nearly impossible to properly describe. And it, most certainly, will be unlike anything you've seen recently. One could also say, however, that the movie is quite literally a hot mess.

I mentioned reverse sexploitation. Notice the way Lee Daniels doesn't shy away from letting the camera lovingly caress Zac Efron who for the most part is unclothed. Efron plays the peculiarly aloof Jack who becomes smitten with the lover, named Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), of a convicted man, Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack). With campy cinematography full of jerky camera zooms, jumpy editing and smoldering lighting that blares the frame, this throwback style would ordinarily admire the female figure. And Kidman plays up for it, too, savoring her carnal energy in every lip bite and suppressed, suggestive moan -- but no. Though she's the focal point for Jack's desires, the camera always points to him. It's daring, and there's no denying the passion. These A-list actors give their all and lay themselves bare (most notably Matthew McConaughey in a scene of raw defeat and vulnerability), but the B-movie aesthetic and D-movie tone lay all efforts to waste.

Wild-haired and crazy-eyed, John Cusack plays Hillary with perverted conviction. Charged for the murder of a local officer in deep south Florida, circa 1969, the dripping humidity and clinging sweat is almost palpable. In the way he captured grimy naturalism in "Precious," there's no knock against Daniels for creating heaps of atmosphere here. A Miami Times reporter, Ward Jansen (McConaughey), comes to town to investigate the crime along with his black partner, Yardley (David Oyelowo). The case is narrated by Macy Gray playing Jack's family maid, Anita, to create a twisted version of "The Help." Mix that with a dash of Craig Brewer's artful trash "Black Snake Moan," and you get "The Paperboy." It loses all hope for artistic integrity, however, once the plot takes a dive bomb in its final act, which sends characters into a swampy conclusion that defies all logic.

It's lurid, sexually charged yet flaccid, disturbing and, worst of all, really dull considering its pulpy premise. Kudos to Daniels, however, by making the movie which will always (and only) be remembered for it getting booed at this year's Cannes and a scene where Nicole Kidman urinates on Zac Efron's face. Intrigued? Go see it, I dare you.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


It's too easy to call Jason Moore's "Pitch Perfect" a hyper-blend of "Mean Girls," "Bring It On" and "Glee" -- although it very much is a hyper-blend of those three and then some. But, like I said, that's too easy. What this surprise smash hit out of left field really is is a high-energy, impossible-to-hate tale of collegiate a cappella that is heartfelt, hilarious and just weird enough to have a strange fascination with projectile vomiting. Witness the movie's pre-credits opening scene, and tell me I'm wrong.

The always reliable Anna Kendrick plays Beca, an attractive yet introverted girl entering her first year of college at Barden University. She's less than enthused about going to school and would rather jump ship to Los Angeles to begin her career as a DJ. Her father (John Benjamin Hickey), however, is a professor at the university and isn't about to fund that before she gives school a try. This also means she has to find a way to get involved. Lucky for Beca, the campus' all-girls singing group, the Bellas, is looking to regroup after a disastrous loss last year at the finals. Chloe (Brittany Snow) and Aubrey (Anna Camp), the figureheads of the Bellas, are tired of staying in the shadow of the rivalry all-male singing group led by the insidiously brash Bumper (Adam DeVine). And as a perfect cameo by Christopher Mintz-Plasse reminds us, this is not high school glee -- hint, hint.

The movie owes its peppy attitude to a wealth of young talent across the screen and its writer, Kay Cannon whose credits include 22 episodes of "30 Rock" and some "New Girl," and you can see that irreverent humor peeking through in every line. Take, for example, the punchy one-liners from the competition commentators (John Michael Higgins and Elizabeth Banks). Headlining the young cast is Rebel Wilson, the vivid Aussie who made a claim for herself as the weirdo in "Bridesmaids" and has taken off since then. She plays the self-proclaimed Fat Amy who gives herself that name so skinny girls don't have to behind her back. If anything, "Pitch Perfect" provides Wilson the role that'll make her a star. The casting across the board is admirable with a playful chemistry between the rivaling a cappella groups. This comes to a head during a "West Side Story" style showdown where song improvisations are thrown back and forth in battle.

"Pitch Perfect" is fueled by the engine of its music, which is constant and flat-out great. In between bouts of musical numbers, catchy mash-ups and exciting hooks, a lot of the movie does model itself off teen comedy tropes and harkens back to the movies of John Hughes as did "Easy A." The movie plays into the whole a cappella craze that already excists and does so without ever taking itself too seriously painting the extra-curricular activity as equal parts nerdy, sexy and silly. And it wouldn't be complete without a love interest for Beca. He arrives in the form of Skylar Astin (best known for his stage role in "Spring Awakening" and most recently appeared in an episode of HBO's "Girls"), playing the relentlessly charming Jesse who Beca for some reason has a hard time being wooed by. For us, however, Astin is an absolute delight.

Friday, October 5, 2012


Rian Johnson's "Looper" has the distinct feeling of being a classic even as you're watching it. It's set in a dystopian future -- two, in fact -- one that is 32 years in the future and another 30 years beyond that. In the way it unfolds two parallel universes recalls Christopher Nolan's labyrinthine "Inception," and the vividly detailed portrayal of a dysmal future brings to mind the gritty detail evoked by Alfonso Cuaron's "Children of Men." And in its characters, themes and brooding tale of justice and morality through a sci-fi neo-noir landscape, it's hard to not call it a new version of "The Matrix" and "Blade Runner" for this generation. Best of all is that in capturing the essence of each of these films, Johnson's "Looper" triumphs in being something wholly original and breathtaking that would be a shame if it didn't get remembered for awards season.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a man who was hired as a looper for the mob. He lives in the year 2044 when time travel hasn't been invented yet. Thirty years later, however, it will be, and it's only used by an illegal crime syndicate. They kidnap, throw a hood over their victim and send them back in time to be assassinated and disposed of. In this fully-realized universe, loopers carry a weapon called a blunderbuss which looks like a streamlined shotgun. Loopers have their blunderbuss while the Gat Men carry a long-barreled revolver called a gat which they cherish. The Gat Men are mafia-types who skulk around in trench coats and are led by a haggard crime boss named Abe (Jeff Daniels).

In the future, drug use has simplified to using eye drops to get a fix, and some citizens have been affected with the power of telekinesis, referred to as TK. Those who have the power, however, only twirl coins in the air and use it as a pick-up line. The exception is a man called the Rainmaker who in the future, year 2074, is apparently using his power toward evil. He's doing what's called "closing the loop," which is when the older version of a looper is sent back in time to be executed by none other than himself. A friend of Joe's, a reckless man named Seth (Paul Dano), realizes he's about to close his loop and lets his future self go, a selfish act that Abe cannot let stand.

As if foreshadowing Joe's own predicament to come, he comes face-to-face with a thirty-year-older version of himself, played by Bruce Willis. It's interesting to note how Gordon-Levitt doesn't look like himself -- thanks to subtle makeup work, his face is ever so slightly transformed to resemble Willis'. The younger actor deadpans, smirks and scowls just like his veteran counterpart, too. And playing the older Joe gives Willis his best performance in years. There's a scene where the seemingly impossible happens. Joe sits at a rural diner sitting across from himself, thirty years in the future. Having a conversation with yourself opens a door of endless possibilities, and Johnson is smart to only focus on what's immediately important to the characters' dire situation. He leaves all else the scene implies for us to decipher and question on our own.

Also artful and intelligent is the way Johnson's screenplay employs the use of time travel. It isn't so much the forefront of action but instead a backdrop to create unexpected thematic intricacies. The ingenuity of Johnson's writing really shines when young Joe finds himself on a desolate farm. It's a stirring contrast between the grime of the city where either the mob or destitute vagrants reside. On this farm Joe meets Sara (Emily Blunt), a tough single mother who doesn't shy away fending off late night intruders with a shotgun. Her son, Cid (Pierce Gagnon), becomes an extremely important element to the well-being of both young and old Joe alike.

In sci-fi action blockbusters, women characters are generally used for sexual intrigue and eye candy. In the case of both farm girl Sara and old Joe's loving wife (Summer Qing) with whom he spends a new life in China, "Looper" has elements of a rather profound love story, something that may come as an added surprise. That again speaks to Rian Johnson's finesse as a filmmaker. In 2005, he debuted with "Brick" giving us a high school noir narrated by a newly re-branded Joseph Gordon Levitt. After an underwhelming second feature, "The Brothers Bloom," Johnson is back announcing himself firmly as a new commanding presence in the industry worth recognizing.