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Column Fri Oct 19 2012

Paranormal Activity 4, Smashed & Easy Money

Steve-at-the-Movies-300.jpg

Paranormal Activity 4

They may not look pretty or come across as especially sophisticated, but watching the fourth installment (as I have the previous three) of the Paranormal Activity series with an audience, one thing becomes abundantly clear: the folks the make these movies know how to wind up and freak out an audience. Watching Paranormal Activity movies is unlike viewing any other films in a given year.

There's something of a formula (thanks to title cards that read Day 1, Day 3, Day 11, etc.). We learn to look at a series of static shots with a keener eye than we do most other horror films. We're scanning every corner of the frame for movement or a shadowy figure or a swinging light fixture — any sign of a ghostly presence. I love that moment when a new scene starts, and inevitably someone in the audience will whisper "Uh oh." The latest ads for PA4 have night-vision shots of a preview audience jumping, screaming, and otherwise getting antsy while watching the film. I was skeptical that the audience I saw it with would follow suit, but I'll be damned if they didn't. The fear was genuine, the screams well earned, even if the particular story in this new installment is a little threadbare.

In the timeline of the story of the demonized Katie (Katie Featherston), PA4 is the most recently set of the four films. She and the son she stole from her sister in PA2 have moved into a new home, across the street from a teenage girl Alice (Kathryn Newton, who I recognized from Bad Teacher), whose family — parents and younger brother — agree to take care of Katie's "son" for a few days when she supposedly goes into the hospital. Considering I'm pretty sure Alice's parents have never even met Katie, it seems odd that they would take in her kid, but OK...

The two young boys start hanging out even thought Katie's kid is a freak, and pretty soon weird things start happening in the house, either being caused by this little stranger or something that's watching over him — an invisible friends of sorts. Since this is yet another found footage film, the excuse for having camera in most rooms of the house is that Alice's boyfriend (the quite funny Matt Shively) secretly converts every computer in the house into a camera at her behest so she can review footage of these strange occurrences. When the boyfriend isn't actually in the house, he and Alice are video chatting, so we get to see her approximate narration as she's conveying stories to him about the titular activity.

Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (PA3 and Catfish) do their usual job of slowly ramping up the scares, and I've said before, in a movie like this, if it can consistently scare me, I'm hooked. I'd even go so far as to guess that PA4 has more frequent scares than its predecessors. The hits just keep on coming. The film's deepest flaw is Featherston. She's a good actress at playing regular Katie, but I never found her particularly menacing when she's prowling around the neighborhood or inside someone's house. She does some pretty horrific things to certain people in this movie, but I never got a sense of danger or dread off of her. When she switches on the demon face, that's a different story. But her dead-eyed creeping around did nothing for me.

Fortunately, Katie isn't the scary centerpiece of the film — that honor belongs to both of the little boys and a series of terrifying moments carried out by unseen forces. PA4 also brings back into the series this idea from the previous film that some sort of coven of women has a hand in all of this childnapping. The funny thing about this series is that if the good guys win, the series is done, so we always basically know who's going to die or live to see the next installment. But if we're not rooting for the ghosts to continue scaring us, then how will we continue having fun year after year?

Storywise, PA4 is probably the weakest of the bunch, but who's really watching these for story? Actually, I am. I want there to be an understandable thread that binds this franchise together, and certain things feel a bit fuzzy and random here. These aren't unforgivable offenses, and they certainly don't stop the scary from happening. Who knows where they'll take us for the next chapter, but I'm still on board with only slightly less enthusiasm than prior to seeing PA4. And while it may not match it in terms of frequency of big scream-worthy moments, Sinister is still the better movie overall in this current crop of recent horror releases.

Smashed

This micro-budget indie film features one of the single greatest female performances you will see all year, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) playing Kate, a young wife and raging alcoholic along with her husband Charlie ("Breaking Bad's" Aaron Paul). The couple has based their entire relationship on loving two things — each other and immense quantities of booze, which somehow fuels their good times as they spend night after night out getting loaded.

Then one night while giving a ride home to a stranger, she is talked into smoking crack for the first time and she wakes up the next morning not knowing where she is. With that incident fresh in mind, she decides rock bottom has been hit and makes the decision to quit drinking. And did I mention that Kate is a teacher of young children, and that the first time we see her in class, she throws up in class, and says it's because she's pregnant? She's a mess, but her commitment to sobriety seems legitimate, which makes it all the more painful and frustrating that Charlie has no interest in joining her, although he claims he's supportive of her efforts.

What becomes clear from watching this remarkable performance from Winstead is that sobriety isn't just difficult because she's not drinking; it's tough because she has to live with herself and the reasons she started drinking heavily in the first place. First on that list is probably her atrocious mother (Mary Kay Place), also a fan of the drink.

But Smashed is the bet kind of misleading, because while it is about alcoholics literally, in a more symbolic sense it's about a young couple in love having to get over the first major hurdle in the their happy-drunk lives. Charlie is about as immature as someone in their late 20s-early 30s could be, but he's not a terrible person in the slightest. He just hasn't grown up since he met Kate, and with her being sober, she's starting to notice the maturity gap for the first time (probably because there wasn't much of one prior to her sobriety).

The film is in no way preachy about it's lessons about being sober. Recent Oscar-winner Octavia Spenser plays Kate's much-needed sponsor keeps the faith-based AA messages grounded in the day-to-day reality of Kate's life. The supporting cast also includes Nick Offerman as a pervy vice principal at the school and Megan Mullally as the school's principal, who is thrilled at Kate's pregnancy news (yeah, I don't see that leading anywhere bad). With this eclectic cast, you might think Smashed is a comedy, and there is without a doubt a whole lot of humor in the story. Director and co-writer James James Ponsoldt wisely wants us to focus on the couple and what their relationship is actually built on — is it love or drinking? Both answers offer their share of painful revelations.

When all is said and done, the film's heart and soul rests in Winstead's performance. She has quite simply never been better, and I'd even go so far as to say she's never been given the chance to do so. It's always a remarkable and exciting experience to watch an actor do the best work of his/her career to date, and Winstead is so down and dirty in her portrayal of Kate both drunk and sober that it's physically exhausting just watching her go though this uneven transformation. This is the best movie opening this weekend, and I hope Smashed is playing somewhere near you. The film opens in Chicago today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To ready my exclusive interview with Smashed star Mary Elizabeth Winstead and director James Pondsolt, go to Ain't It Cool News.

Easy Money

Crime dramas seem to be landing on our shores with the tide from Scandinavian countries and neighboring Denmark with an alarming and fun frequency. The latest among them is Easy Money, a film from a couple of years ago in Europe finally making it stateside and starring Joel Kinnaman, most recently seen in AMC's "The Killing" and in supporting roles in the US version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Safe House. (He's probably best known for a movie that he's still shooting, the remake of Robocop.)

I'm a great admirer of Kinnaman's work, mostly from "The Killing," but he's a very different creature in Easy Money, in which he plays JW, who is going to an expensive school and attempting to pass as rich to blend in with his wealthy classmates. He's attempting to date an out-of-his-league heiress (Lisa Henni), and is plotting to commit crimes to get a lot of cash in a hurry. The film also tells the story of Jorge (Matias Varela), who seems to be on the run from just about everyone from the police to the Serbian mob. He holds up under JW's care while he brokers a massive drug deal that will hopefully finance a disappearing act for himself.

The final player is this twisting and turning film is Mrado (Dragomir Mrsic), one of Jorge's pursuers — not as easy a task as one might think, especially when his young daughter is foisted upon him by her mother, and Mrado must take her with him on his hunt. Mrado is a professional killer, and as the lives of these three men start winding their way toward each other, it's clear that JW's baptism into the criminal world is going to be a fiery one.

Director Daniel Espinsoa has a great eye for impressive visuals, and an equal gift for finding interesting faces to popular Easy Money. Kinnaman does an equally strong job playing both a nervous first-time criminal and a confident young man trying to pass for rich and sophisticated. Easy Money has a few genuinely shocking moments of violence, and it's probably just best that you don't trust anyone who opens their mouth to be telling the truth. And the film ends in a burst of very smart and very dumb maneuvers from our three lead characters. It's a remarkable journey into the lowest depths of the criminal element in and around Stockholm. I'm not sure there are any valuable life lessons being dealt with here, but it is a smart film about largely dumb people. The film opens today at the Music Box Theatre.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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