“Paranormal Activity 3” creative round of scares

While you sleep....

The “Paranormal Activity” franchise’s greatest advantage is probably going to be its greatest curse further down the line — the element of surprise. Backed on the gimmick that it’s authentic ‘found-footage’ of sinister ghostly happenings around an extended family and their homes, three installments in, I’m not altogether sure they can hold it together for further ones down the line. They’ve squeezed all the creative juice they can out of the concept — but ah, what delicious juice.

The first film’s underdog status is a story well-told, as is the mediocrity of its successor. Paramount wisely picked two total curveballs to helm “Activity 3”, the makers of the potentially-fake documentary “Catfish”, Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. This is a film buzzing with creative energy and sly sleight-of-hand, with tension only ramping up as Schulman and Joost unleash one crazy set-piece after the other. There’s no household object here that isn’t fair game — that the malicious spirits in this film will not try and turn against the characters (and ultimately, the audience).

The film traces the first two film’s main characters, Katie and Kristi, back to their sisterly childhood roots in 1988. In those films their sinister childhood happenings were only hinted at, here they’re fully depicted. The footage is “caught” by way of their mother’s videographer boyfriend, who senses something isn’t right and sets up cameras in rooms all over the house. Just as the first two films did (or should have, in theory, the second being a failure) we ease into the proceedings by way of cheap, self-conscious jump-scares. But as the nights go on and on, the happenings intensify. The last 15 minutes of this film are pure, undiluted terror, with a capital T.

“Paranormal Activity 3” serves also as a satisfying counter-argument for many things I, as a viewer, tend to scream at the screen in horror films — “Why won’t you get out of the house?!”, “Don’t go in the closet!”, etc. The directors, clearly very conscious of these genre trappings, work them into the plot in very clever ways. And I can’t emphasize this to you, the reader, nearly enough — catch this on a late weekend night, with a packed audience. Part of what makes these films such unique experiences is how responsive the audience is to them – shouting, heckling, and screaming all through the running time.

Part of my deep respect for this franchise is that it trains the viewer to look for even the tiniest changes in a given scene — lulling us into a constant sense of unease and squeaminess. These movies are proof that you don’t need dangling intestines or crazed chainsaw-wielders to strike deep fear in the hearts of moviegoers. And deep fear it is — “Paranormal Activity 3” is the best horror-movie experience I’ve had since I caught the original, in September 2009. All bets are off for this one, as is my hat. See what I did there? B+

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“The Ides of March” film-noir twist on politics and loyalty

Gosling's character Stephen touring for George Clooney's radical politician in "The Ides of March".

It’s one thing to be the star of a film and also write, direct, and produce it. But to tinker with and deconstruct one’s own famously charismatic, silky screen persona is another thing entirely. George Clooney pulls off all five of these things with uniformly strong results in the political drama “The Ides of March”. Clooney is Mike Morris, a man whose talk of broad reforms and revisionist policy have captured the attention of a nation. Set over the course of a week leading up to the Democratic primary in Ohio, Morris’s campaign team include the jaded Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the young, idealistic Stephen played by….you guessed it, Ryan Gosling. This is the fourth time in the last 10 months Gosling’s name has showed up in a review of mine, and the fourth time I’ve emerged fairly awed with his work [and his looks].

Paul Giamatti is a rival candidate’s campaign manager who tries luring Stephen over to their camp, which sets off a chaotic set of events in which loyalties are tested and principles are violated. And that’s really what “Ides of March” is about. Not necessarily who wins the primary, but what ends people will go to ensure it goes one way or another. Gosling is our moral center here, and as he skews towards a shadier ethical ground, our sense of balance as viewers is totally thrown for a loop. Leaving “Ides of March”, the disturbing thing is how easily you can emphasize with Gosling’s arc. If such a youthful, energetic force can fall, who can’t?

Gosling’s face has been a particular joy to watch as a filmgoer — not because of his looks, mind you, but because of how much he communicates with his face. In “Ides”, his eyes are put to just as much work as his mouth, and one could certainly argue his performance gains its power from it. Side roles include Marisa Tomei in solid form as a Times reporter, Jeffrey Wright as a governor whose endorsement may be key to the primary, and Evan Rachel Wood as an intern. The script certainly tinkers with our expectation of a ‘love-interest’ role [the interest being for Gosling], taking some fairly jaw-dropping turns with the character.

There’s not a weak link in the cast, Clooney particularly standing out for his work as the candidate in question. So many times, in films like “Up in the Air” and the “Ocean’s” trilogy, we’ve perceived Clooney’s characters as suave, collected, vibrant guys. “Ides of March” is notable in that for the first time, we see very plainly that this is an act on his character’s part. Clooney, both in front of and behind the camera, propels the film forward at an intense clip.

Clooney as a director continues to develop as a stylist, working with cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to create a silhouette-shrouded, seedy vibe throughout. One particular scene, in which Gosling and Hoffman’s characters debate ethics lit against the American flag is some of the most ingenious cinematography this year. [the fact that the scene was filmed in Ann Arbor’s own Power-Center notwithstanding]

Clooney’s own liberal ideologies, however, pose more of a problem to the film. Seeing as much of the film takes place in town-hall debates, Clooney manages to work in some wry, of-the-moment observations of our own political landscape. Although I understand some of these scenes were necessary to establish his character’s political standing, there’s a point where it stops feeling like George Clooney’s character talking, and more like George Clooney. Given how deeply he dives into the remainder of his role, it makes these stick out sorely.

I don’t think anyone could call “Ides”‘s various plot twists shocking, but they’re handled with just the right tone and delivered so convincingly by the cast that it almost fools you into thinking they’re unforeseeable. Matters certainly take a turn for worse in the final 30 minutes, in which the film’s overall question is resolved — who can Stephen trust? Anyone? Himself?

“The Ides of March” doesn’t decide whether to be about politics or ethics until it’s a little too late to make much sense of the former. That said, the film’s tight grip on style and tone, as well as a near-perfect ensemble cast, ensure a gripping drama whose final message [and final shot, for that matter] is sure to unsettle many, and maybe rouse a few to action. B+

“50/50” satisfying and touching cancer comedy.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the cancer-stricken Adam, and Seth Rogen as his concerned stoner buddy in "50/50".

Tragedy can be kind of a funny thing, if you think long enough about it. So much of people’s lives are devoted to presentation of control; be it of a situation, of a job, of emotions, et cetera. So the fact that a single event can tear all that down and strip one of their control carries a really dark, somewhat sinister irony about it. “50/50” explores that in the most appropriate way possible — with a heavy dosage of humor, some moments of genuine heartbreak and poignancy, and brownies laced with cannabis. It’s a good time to be had at the movies.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is the man whose life rapidly unravels, with the shocking revelation that he has a severe form of spinal cancer. See, he’s a 20-something health nut with a steady if shady girlfriend and a goofball best friend; played by the only guy I can think of who deserves his absurdly-expensive paychecks to show up in movies, laugh and get high. Yes, friends, Seth Rogen is in this film, and his loose comedic energy provides a lot of the film’s surprisingly frequent laughter.

The chance of survival Gordon-Levitt has makes up the title of the film, and to be sure, “50/50” dives very deep into the confusion and hurt that his character, Adam is feeling. But “50/50” is just as much about the effect his disease has on other people, and the brilliant supporting cast bring both believability and humor to their roles. Rogen does well essentially playing a variant on himself in real life — see, he’s good friends with screenwriter Will Reiser, whose script here is based on his own experiences of getting cancer at a young age.

Anjelica Huston is perfect as Adam’s hopelessly if adorably dependent mother. Bryce Dallas Howard continues making a name for herself in Hollywood playing unsympathetic girlfriend-characters, and the veteran Philip Baker Hall is hilarious as a fellow cancer-patient with a fondness for all things cannabis.

Anna Kendrick, whose career build-up continues in the wake of roles in “Up in the Air” and the “Twilight” films, hits just the right notes as Adam’s therapist who wants to maintain a degree of distance from her, admittedly, very good-looking patient. Gordon-Levitt’s status as one of the best-looking men in Hollywood, admittedly, compromises the film’s believability on one occasion — he has a hard time picking up girls at a local bar. If there’s any female (or for that matter, male) readers who aren’t in love with Gordon-Levitt, I demand an explanation.

There’s a moment towards the end where our lead, who’s been fairly composed up to this point, lets out a furious scream. As an audience member, all through the film I’d been laughing with his character, but it’s in this little 10-second beat that I realized how deeply I felt for him. The subtle ways in which writer-director Jonathon Levine builds that up for us — believable supporting characters, convincing interactions, and constant deviation from movie formula to create a more honest, open tone — go a long way towards setting it apart from the majority of films in this genre, and probably this year. Refreshingly unpretentious, and satisfying on all levels. Oscar voters, take note. A-