Monthly Archives: October 2013

From 2009: “Paranormal Activity,” Reviewed: Simply Irresistible.

Note: This is a never-before-published review I wrote in October 2009.
“Keep it simple, stupid.” This bluntly axiomatic direction is at the heart of some of life’s biggest successes – and nowhere is that more true than Hollywood, where filmmakers often need a reminder of the folly of complexity for complexity’s sake. A decade ago the marvelously less-is-more The Blair Witch Project freaked out audiences without buckets of blood, and with a total production budget of less than the catering bills of most studio projects. But it’s been 10 years, and horror has once again come to mean wretched excess: gore galore (now in 3D, no less), souped up by the torture porn of the Saw and Hostel franchises. It’s time for another low-budget genre exercise to kick us in the teeth with its ridiculous simplicity. It’s time for Hollywood to learn the lesson that more money does not mean better quality. Frankly, it’s way past time for Paranormal Activity, a boring title for a breathtakingly satisfying movie.

Filmed three years ago in the home of director Oren Peli, Paranormal Activity scares us with a premise so stripped-down as to make Blair Witch seem like Titanic. The film features a total of four characters, with two only in a handful of scenes – leaving the rest of the movie to be borne on the inexperienced shoulders of Micah Shoat and Katie Featherstone, unknown actors who go by their real names in the story. Micah and Katie, we’re told, have been dating for a while and recently moved in together. Katie waited until shacking up with Micah to share an unusual fact about herself: since childhood, she has been tormented by an unseen force that she believes to be a demon.

The entire film is composed of “found footage” shot by Micah using a handheld video camera he purchased as a response to Katie’s revelation; Micah, something of a lunkhead, plans to use the camera to film their household lives and show Katie that what she has always considered a haunting is in fact nothing more than errant gusts of wind, or at worst a determined but utterly human stalker. In short, he trivializes her fears, and through the lens of the video camera we’re given a fly-on-the-wall perspective of that trivialization. We also get to see bits and pieces suggesting exactly what’s got Katie so spooked – and it’s not a gust of wind.

What is it, exactly? We’re never told, and we never see anything more than banal unexplainable phenomena: a door that pushes itself open and closed; a shadow without substance flitting across a wall; odd noises that are investigated without resolution. These are the parlor tricks of a run-of-the-mill haunted house experience, and director Peli delivers them to us with absolute sincerity and chilling effectiveness. Best of all, unlike Blair Witch (which treated its suspense with a similar strategy of what-you-don’t-see-can-still-scare-you), the story even provides an organic ebb and flow of its shocks. The film’s footage is presented in chronological order over a couple of weeks, but most of the shocks occur at night when the couple are sleeping, with the camera positioned at the foot of their bed. Whenever the scenes transition from mundane daytime to the gray-green glow of night, we’re quickly conditioned to expect something creepy to happen. And our expectations are richly rewarded.

Paranormal Activity is a genre film, and truly transcendent genre films are rare: The acting here is unexceptional, and the narrative settles much too easily for conceits designed to keep Micah and Katie in the house, regardless of how stupid it makes them look. But if it’s not a great movie, that doesn’t keep Peli’s film from remaining a great experience for anyone seeking a good scare. At any age, we’re all still capable of being startled by someone sneaking up behind us and yelling “Boo!” Sure we’re embarrassed to fall for something so elemental, but our embarrassment doesn’t make it any less effective. By keeping things simple, the makers of Paranormal Activity are showing audiences – and Hollywood – just how smart they really are.

“The Counselor,” Reviewed: All Talk, All The Time.

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Reflective men often find themselves at a place where they are removed from the realities of life.” That line is uttered late in Ridley Scott’s The Counselor (rated R, for extreme violence, sexuality, drugs and language), in a conversation between a drug lord (Ruben Blades) and the eponymous lead character (Michael Fassbender), who’s gotten himself and those around him in a speck of trouble. The quote separates the men from the boys, as it were, by suggesting that the power to act on what’s really going on, rather than dwell on the way things ought to be, is the greatest strength one can have. It’s also mind-blowingly ironic, coming from a film whose screenplay consists entirely of characters responding to the world falling down around their ears by talk, talk, talking about it.

The Counselor has drawn wildly mixed critical reactions: Many reviewers are writing it off as a colossal failure, while others defend its peculiar choices as manifestations of a fierce commitment to exotic intellectualism. The common thread in all these reviews is the screenplay by Cormac McCarthy, a novelist whose books (including “The Road” and “No Country for Old Men”) offer glimpses into a harsh, unrelenting worldview of nihilism and anger. McCarthy is a gifted visualist of worlds that are fascinating to read about but that no one would ever want to live in. He’s also – based on this, his first-ever original script – an absolutely terrible writer for the screen. Whatever else producer/director Scott may have done right in The Counselor, he owns the decision to move forward with the McCarthy script – to allow all those words to come out of these characters’ mouths. It’s a crippling mistake in what could have been a seductive dark thriller.

The plot is simple, and fine: The Counselor – we never learn his name – is a lawyer whose expensive lifestyle prompts him to foolishly get involved in one of his client’s (Javier Bardem) drug deals. The deal goes sideways, and The Counselor’s unwitting fingerprints are all over it. Bad people come after him, everyone he’s been working with, and Laura (Penelope Cruz), the woman he loves. Honestly, that’s about it – a lean plot that could make for a taut, powerful cautionary tale about Avoiding Temptation. But what could have been a potent 90-minute lark becomes a two-hour slog, thanks to the tangential conversations tacked on to every scene.

The Counselor asks Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt) for advice about this nasty business he’s about to enter into. They both advise him against it, while throwing in a few thousand words apiece about the nature of evil. Later, as things fall apart, he asks them for help; they reply with a few thousand more words about the inevitability of retribution and betrayal. When The Counselor is hiding in lawless Juarez, Mexico, he asks a bartender if it’s safe to go outside. The barman responds with a monologue about what it means to fear death. Later still, when Pitt tries to pick up a woman in a hotel lobby, it turns into an uncomfortable back-and-forth about the fact that he’s asked her to have a drink with him. I swear, if someone in this movie were to ask someone else for the time, they’d get a lecture about how watches work.

The whole film is like this. It becomes kind of funny after a while. Every character, no matter their situation or their seeming educational background, is more interested in chatting about Deep Thoughts than in simply exchanging information in a way that might otherwise move things along. This ultimately leads to a serious case of not caring a whit for what these people go through, which is ironic in a movie that has some pretty lurid fates befall its characters. But we’re numbed by all the chatter.

Frustratingly, there are things to like about The Counselor. Scott and cinematographer Dariusz Wolski have created a painterly view of their characters’ world: even the ugly scenes are still compelling to look at. Bardem and Pitt contribute polished performances, and Cameron Diaz, playing Reiner’s thoroughly unlikable girlfriend, exudes venom as a rhymes-with-witch caricature that perfectly fits her unexpectedly substantial role in the plot. Fassbender is less successful; his trademark inscrutability here works against him, as we never can figure out if he’s meant to be sympathetic or just a big amoral creep who deserves his eventual comeuppance.

But good and bad performances are rendered equally inert in The Counselor, whose black hole of a screenplay swallows everything it touches. With luck, after this Cormac McCarthy will stick to writing apocalyptic novels instead of movie scripts that merely make us wish for the end of the world.

(IMAGE: Fassbender and Cruz in The Counselor, directed by Ridley Scott; courtesy of 20th Century Fox.)

“Escape Plan,” Reviewed: They’re Too Old For This, Um, Stuff.


Escape Plan, the first full-on screen pairing of Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, is an Aftertaste Movie – one that offers more satisfaction once you’ve left the theater than while you were watching it. In my case, that satisfaction came from chuckling at the film’s ludicrous choices, which would have been impolite to other moviegoers but is perfectly appropriate in the car on the way home.

Stallone plays Ray Breslin, a brilliant security expert who has made a career out of allowing himself to be treated like an inmate in the world’s most escape-proof prisons, for the sole purpose of breaking out of them. He’s hired by the CIA to take on an ultra-secret holding facility, but this time things are different: This lockup has been designed by people who have studied Breslin’s advice, and built a very, very secure prison. Unlike all the other ones, I suppose. He’s aided and abetted in his escape efforts by another inmate, Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), who … well, he also wants to escape. That’s how inmates feel about prison, I guess.

Before long we realize that the prison’s corrupt warden (an enjoyably hammy Jim Caviezel) knows who Breslin really is but doesn’t care, as he’s being paid to make sure Breslin stays in this particular prison forever. The reasons for this are never quite made clear, but in the meantime it’s fair to wonder why anyone would think it wise to get rid of a guy who knows how to break out of prisons by putting him in a prison. The same goes for some of the other inmates, who, we learn are similarly there not because they’ve been found guilty of various crimes, but because their former villainous cohorts paid to have them locked up in perpetuity. What’s the world coming to, when movie bad guys don’t want to just kill their enemies any more?

Stallone and Schwarzenegger are by now both much too old to be doing this kind of thing, but Arnold looks like he’s enjoying himself; his Rottmayer has a twinkle in his eye and a playful tone that, while inappropriate to the actual text of the movie, are at least fun to watch. As for Sly … he needs to stop playing characters who are supposed to be clever. After spending nearly 40 years defining himself onscreen by his bicep measurements, it’s too late for a reinvention. He’s simply not credible as a man capable of fashioning a sextant out of eyeglasses and a ballpoint pen. He’s not even credible as a man capable of saying the word “sextant” without giggling.

As a throwback to the mid-’80s action vehicles that made them megastars, Escape Plan is in some ways a gentle, inoffensive comfort; and there are at least two moments in which the audience is allowed to laugh (although only one, I think, was intentional). But that’s a far cry from being a good movie. If you want to watch aging action heroes in their element, try The Expendables – a movie whose title, at least, understands just how throw-away films like this really are.

(IMAGE: Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone in Escape Plan. Photo courtesy of Lionsgate/Summit Entertainment.)

“Carrie,” Reviewed: Mean Girls And The Frustrated Director.

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It’s not fair to evaluate a movie in terms of the book from which it’s been adapted, or an earlier film that it has remade. Works of art should be allowed to stand on their own, and be judged first and foremost on what they have to say, and how they say it. That said, it was pretty much impossible to watch Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie and not think, Brian DePalma’s was so much better.

Carrie, of course, is the story of repressed suburban teen Carrie White, whose mom is not-so-slightly off the rails in her embrace of evangelical Christianity and whose lack of social skills has made her a pariah in the halls of her high school. What brings all this into Stephen King territory (“Carrie” was his first-ever published novel, back in 1974) is the addition of telekinetic powers: Carrie’s got ’em, doesn’t really understand ’em, and ultimately uses ’em in a big, bad way.

“Carrie” was a slim novel that told a pretty simple story, and DePalma’s 1976 adaptation (with Sissy Spacek as Carrie and Piper Laurie as her mom) embraced the elemental themes with a lurid vengeance. In remaking the story for a more modern sensibility Peirce, still best known for her emotionally devastating 1999 film Boys Don’t Cry, goes in a different direction. The girls who torture Carrie in school are today known as bullies or “mean girls,” and they naturally use digital video and Facebook to heap more humiliations on their victim. Peirce’s Carrie White (Chloe Grace Moretz, of Kickass and Let Me In) wants to fit in more badly than did Spacek’s version; her pain is more layered, and her struggles to reconcile her home and school lives are more acutely felt.

In short, Peirce’s Carrie is an emotional drama first and a horror movie second – which would be fine if the text of King’s novel gave the filmmaker enough meat to chew on. But King wasn’t interested in telling a nuanced tale of high school angst; he wanted to scare us. DePalma got that, and built a lean, supple tale of terror, but Peirce’s Carrie seems less impressed by those elements – she wants to get inside the heads of Carrie, her mother (Julianne Moore) and the girls who abuse her in and out of class. Without a story that fully explores those ideas, however, she’s reduced to moving in for close-ups of her actors – giving us plenty of opportunities to stare deeply into their eyes and infer all the complex pain that the script never articulates.

This dissonance is felt most painfully at the climactic prom scene, where the bullies have arranged their most ambitious act of mean-spirited “revenge” against Carrie, and where all hell breaks loose when the trap is sprung. DePalma, who never met an extreme camera angle he didn’t love, shot that sequence with an articulate mix of extreme close-ups, split screens and rococo color shifts that combined to celebrate the chilling chaos of a broken mind. Peirce, by contrast, is more restrained and literal: She can’t pull away from Moretz’ anguished face, so we’re left with a flat series of medium shots that deny us the full impact of everything going on around her.

Kimberly Peirce’s Carrie isn’t bad because it’s not as good as Brian DePalma’s; rather, it’s just bad, and DePalma’s version shows us why. Peirce is an expert at getting into the minds of her characters and creating films that help us care about them. But Carrie doesn’t give her the raw materials with which to do that: It’s a lean, mean scaring machine, and one gets the impression that Peirce has little interest in that kind of art. DePalma loved Carrie for what it was; Peirce wants to turn it into something more. But a thing is what it is.

(IMAGE: Chloe Grace Moretz in Carrie. Photo courtesy of Screen Gems.)

“Rear Window,” Reviewed: Room With A View.


Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window screens for one night only at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave., at 6:30pm Wednesday, October 16 at the Little Theatre, 240 East Ave. I’ll be presenting the film and leading a post-screening discussion. Here’s a review I wrote about the film — Hitchcock’s greatest work, in my opinion — on the occasion of a restored version that was released in 2002.

Usually I have anywhere from a day or two to a few weeks between seeing a movie and posting a review. This week’s column, however, has been 16 years in the making – dating back to the first time I saw “Rear Window,” during an Alfred Hitchcock retrospective at the Little Theatre in January 1984. It returned last week to the Little as the latest classic film to be scientifically restored to its original glory (a few local Kodakers even helped out), but I expect most folks won’t flock to see its newfound lack of faded colors or graininess. A good restoration is like an unsung hero: only the most diehard cinephiles will notice the seams that are no longer showing. No, a sprucing up is mostly a good excuse to re-examine this “Window” – Hitchcock’s best film, and one that’s both a sharp commentary on the human condition and a taut little thriller. Who could ask for anything more?

Since its original release in 1954, probably about a gazillion film critics – and certainly Hitchcock himself – have observed that the voyeuristic tendencies of the film’s L.B. “Jeff” Jeffries (James Stewart) are a near-perfect metaphor for the very act of watching a movie. Jeff, a daredevil photo-journalist laid up with a broken leg in his Greenwich Village apartment, has been so bored over the past six weeks that he’s taken to spying on his neighbors across the courtyard; he’s looking for a thrill, and he finds one – though not as he might have expected. Amid the various sad, quaint, and amusing human dramas seen through his camera’s viewfinder is a henpecked husband who appears to be trying to care for his sick (or maybe just lazy) wife – until the wife disappears, and Jeff begins to suspect foul play.

Besides Hitchcock’s single-set direction and an arresting trio of lead performances (more on them later), it’s “Rear Window”’s story – or rather, the gemlike details that adorn this treasure – that gives it such satisfying and complex richness. From the start we figure Jeff is probably right in thinking the sweaty Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr) capable of killing his spouse, but we’re a bit biased, aren’t we? I mean, this is a Hitchcock movie, after all. But it’s just banal reality to Jeff’s acerbic nurse Stella (Thelma Ritter), who shushes his wonderings with disdain: “We’ve become a race of peeping toms.” His girlfriend, the fashion model Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly), is similarly disabusive of Jeff’s homicidal theories – and that he’s eventually proven correct doesn’t mitigate his “rear-window ethics” (as Lisa calls them) in the first place.

Jeff’s relationship with Lisa is more than a subplot to the did-he-or-didn’t-he? mystery across the yard. Their banter – he avoiding further commitment, she offering jocular compromises while hiding her disappointment – exposes Jeff as a bit of a heel, something this all-American actor was never afraid to play when Mr. Hitchcock came calling. His watching the neighbors magnifies this flaw, and as Stella and Lisa join him in his fears his moral elasticity increases – keeping a depraved distance between he and his fellow amateur detectives.

That depravity (especially in Jeff’s brusque treatment of Lisa) often skirts the edge of meanness, and it’s another mark of the quality of John Michael Hayes’ script (from a short story by Cornell Woolrich) that we occasionally feel more sorry for murderer Thorwald than supportive of Jeff the cad. Before Mrs. Thorwald disappears, there’s an underplayed but tender scene in which the husband offers a flower to his bedridden wife – only to have it swatted away with a scornful laugh. Compare that to Jeff ogling his balletic neighbor Miss Torso while telling Lisa they have no future together and tell me: apart from a little detail of murder, who would you rather have for a partner?

Stewart’s legendary likability offsets these flaws, making Jeff an agreeable, if imperfect, hero, while Ritter’s no-nonsense wit and Kelly’s luminous vulnerability complete their emotional triangle of practicality, adolescent impetuousness, and elegant optimism. They don’t write characters like these any more – much less three in one movie. At 46 years years old, “Rear Window” is both a legitimate classic and a still-vital, postmodern spin on our capacity for rationalizing away our own behavior. Everyone involved in its making may be dead and buried, but the film’s own heart – and its pitch-black soul – are alive and well.

“Rear Window,” starring James Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, and Raymond Burr; written by John Michael Hayes; directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Not Rated (consider it PG, for suggested violence and sexual situations). From USA Films/Universal Pictures; now playing at area theaters. 10

“Enough Said,” Reviewed: Middle-Age Crazy.


I often wonder if actors who become really, really famous for a single role develop mixed feelings about their predicament: How do they avoid finding every subsequent performance judged in comparison to that career-defining part? And it’s so much worse when that success is derived from a performance on a TV series, when an audience can take years to get to know the actor – or think they know him.

I was reminded of this “problem” (one many struggling actors would no doubt be happy to have) upon watching Enough Said (rated PG-13), Nicole Holofcener’s gentle, pragmatic romantic comedy starring Julia Louis-Dreyfuss and James Gandolfini, who died suddenly last summer after a much-too-short career. Gandolfini, of course, hit it big with HBO’s The Sopranos, and that character’s towering menace pretty much set the stage for a long but limiting resume of “heavies” – tough guys, crooks, intimidating figures all. Did he ever go home at night and find himself depressed at not being challenged to show the world he could do more than that?

Holofcener gave him that chance in this, his second-to-last film. (In the final one, Nicky Deuce, to be released next year, he’ll play … a gangster.) Gandolfini plays Albert, a kind, quiet, overweight schlub who finds himself in an unexpectedly warm and winning relationship with Eva (Louis-Dreyfuss), a masseuse who has also just unknowingly befriended Albert’s ex-wife (Catherine Keener). Both middle-aged and soon to be empty nesters as their respective daughters head off to college, Eva and Albert are nervous about getting involved again – and in Eva’s case that nervousness is compounded by hearing a litany of complaints about her new boyfriend from his ex-wife, who doesn’t realize who Eva is really dating.

Enough Said is driven by Eva’s plight – and a premise that would be right at home in an old Three’s Company episode – but Holofcener, who also wrote the screenplay, is generous with her characters. She understands that the more we get to know Albert, the more strongly we’ll empathize for Eva. As with all of the director’s past projects (the acerbic Please Give, the smart Friends With Money), Holofcener never over-reaches here: Her goals are simple – show us these people, explain their troubles, get us to care about them – and her aim is true.

It’s a treat to see such a mature, fully realized film centered on a female lead; that said, I wish Louis-Dreyfuss had more to do with her character. Eva’s dramatic arc is painfully short; her decisions are logical and explainable, but abrupt and too easily forgiven by us, if not by Albert. (Oh, spoiler alert: He finds out.) Still, she’s fine in this not-quite-developed role, and anyway, it’s just such a treat to see Gandolfini stretch his legs that I don’t really care about the other stuff. His Albert is a benign conundrum: Is he really nothing more than the surface complaints freely tossed off by his ex? Has the blush of new romance blinded Eva to his flaws? Or is there more to him, and to their relationship, than that?

Gandolfini makes us care about that question. With self-effacing charm, he draws us in and makes us not want to leave the theater when the credits start to roll, just on the off chance Holofcener maybe included a few outtakes or something. Instead, we get a simple closing line over the end credits: “For Jim.” Enough Said.

(IMAGE: James Gandolfini and Julia Louis-Dreyfuss in Enough Said. Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures.)

“Don Jon,” Reviewed: Downloads On The Down-Low.


Let’s make one thing clear right away: Don Jon (rated R) is about sex. Sex sex sex. If discussions about sex turn you off, this review – and this movie – may not be for you. But for all its obsession with that biological function and why we all love it so much, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s first film as a director is actually kind of sweet – even gentle, in its way. And unlike its lead character, it’s smart enough to know the difference between a movie with a lot of sex and a movie that uses sex as a trigger for a true exploration of human feelings.

Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a walking New Jersey stereotype – obsessed with his bodybuilding regimen, his car, his fastidiously maintained apartment, and his unbroken social charm bracelet of one-night stands. (Picture “The Situation” from MTV’s Jersey Shore – and then, while you’re at it, pity me for knowing who that is.) He’s a ladykiller in all but the most literal sense, and even the women who subsequently confront him for never calling them again can’t stay mad at Jon for long. His lifestyle also includes a rather encyclopedic passion for online pornography – he’s addicted to the stuff, and like any addict can recite chapter and verse of why these simulated onscreen sexual experiences are superior to the real thing.

But Jon can quit watching porn any time he wants. Really. Just ask him – or better yet, let Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), his latest would-be conquest, ask him herself. Spotting her in a nightclub, Jon immediately fixes her in his traction beam of would-be seduction. But she’s more or less immune to his charms, and soon the player finds himself being played: She talks him into becoming a one-woman guy, going to night school, get to know each other’s parents, giving up time with his pals, and helping her decorate her apartment. Thing is, he’s still enjoying his online experiences on the sly – not realizing that what she doesn’t know now will come back to haunt him later.

Don Jon spends so much time developing its characters – not only Jon and Barbara, but his folks (Tony Danza and Glenn Headly) and a night-school classmate (Julianne Moore, in a third-act surprise appearance) – that it’s mildly surprising to see just how much plot gets squeezed in as well. At a trim 90 minutes, the film is as well sculpted as its leading man. Under their Joisey patois, these walking clichés actually have a lot to say about the world in which they live – and Gordon-Levitt, suddenly a director worth watching, has crafted a film that does them justice. It’s mid-October now, so I’m pretty comfortable putting this out there: Don Jon is the best mainstream directorial debut of the year.

(IMAGE: Scarlett Johansson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Don Jon. Photo courtesy Relativity Media.)