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Column Fri Jan 03 2014
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones
Let's assume that if you're reading this you haven't completely given up on the found-footage format or the ongoing Paranormal Activity storyline, which up to this point has found ways to focus on the present or past tormenting of sisters Katie and Kristi Rey, either separately or together. I'm not giving away whether or not any members of the Rey family show up in this adjacent tale or not, but I like that the people producing this series have at least made an attempt to break with a few mainstays and are branching out ever so slightly, with still terrifying results.
Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones will likely be referred to as the Latino Paranormal Activity (I'm thinking alternate titles like Actividad Paranormal or perhaps Fenómeno Paranormal) since it's set primarily in a small apartment complex that seems occupied entirely by Latino residents. Unlike the other films in the series, The Marked Ones does not make use of security or otherwise fixed cameras as its primary source of footage.
Here, a young man named Jesse (Andrew Jacobs) walks around with his best friend Hector (Jorge Diaz), documenting their day-to-day doings, which includes a couple of choice encounters with some strange happenings in one of the other apartments, said to be occupied by a woman some jokingly refer to as a witch. But when the woman turns up dead, possibly at the hands of another mutual friend of the boys, naturally the kids with the video camera feel the need to break in and do a little investigating.
When Jesse gets what appears to be a bite mark on his arm, he begins to have wild dreams and his personality begins to become decidedly more aggressive. He also seems to gain pretty cool powers that protect him from all manner of harm. As Hector and their female friend Ali (Molly Ephraim) continue to dig to find out what happened in that creepy apartment and what is going on with Jesse, things get progressively scarier and more dangerous.
Written and directed by Christopher Landon (writer or co-writer of Paranormal Activity 2-4, as well as the director of Burning Palms), The Marked Ones adds a much-needed shot in the arm to the Paranormal Activity franchise and big-picture storyline. By freeing up the camera as well as the restrictive confines of the Rey family, the story is given a chance to breathe and expand and let us contemplate the possibility that the singular evil that has been a part of the Rey sisters' lives since they were children might be part of a much bigger universe of nastiness.
Again, trying not to give too much away, but even the place The Marked Ones fits in the Paranormal Activity timeline is called into question at one point, with enjoyable results. The fact that both this series and the Insidious films come from producer Jason Blum left me wondering whether the use of a similar storytelling device here and in Insidious 2 was a coincidence.
As with all horror films, ultimately the only question that matters is: Is it scary? Without a doubt, The Marked Ones has a large number of truly scream-inducing moments. There's an extra layer of creepiness thanks to more overtly religious undertones than any of the other Paranormal Activity films, but again, the changes are much appreciated and, for the most part, improve the quality of the movie. The young actors all do convincing work at playing curious and loyal friends, although Jesse's transformation from nice kid to vicious asshole probably should have been a bit more gradual for us to really feel his torment at turning on his friends against his will.
At the beginning of this review, I referred to this film as "adjacent" to the main Paranormal Activity storyline, which is partially true. There is still an official Paranormal Activity 5 scheduled for release in October. This film has just enough connective tissue to earn its name without really furthering the story as we know it so far. The end of The Marked Ones is about as groan-worthy as many of the other Paranormal Activity sequels have been (the makers have never quite been able to stick their landing the way writer-director Oren Peli did on the first one), but a dopey ending doesn't take away some of the solid work in the rest of the film. I'm not sure if I'm ready for more of these type of side stories or not in this franchise (let's not turn this into another "American Pie Presents..." label), but this work is an interesting experiment that largely succeeds in keeping the scares coming and its story moving.
The Great Beauty
The latest work from the great Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, This Must Be the Place) opens with an old-school house party — as in a part at someone's house, filled with a mixture of young and pretty guests as well as old friends of the guest of honor. We don't know any of the characters at this point, so the sequence is just a loud, pulsating, colorful flurry of activity celebrating the 65th birthday of journalist and Rome's resident ladies' man Jep Gambardella (played by one of the greatest actors in the world, Toni Servillo). The Great Beauty is about Jep at a turning point in his long, lavish life, rarely without a companion on his arm or a drink in his hand. He manages to be aloof and observational, but also finds the time to jump into one of the film's many lengthy but enticing conversations about life at its core and on its surface.
But rightfully so, Sorrentino is also keen to show off his city a little as well, from its ancient architecture to its thriving club life. In many ways, Jep has been living in this marvelous place for so long, he's forgotten how glorious it can be, and so it seems fitting that in this period of his taking stock in the life he has lived up to now, he rediscovers the city with all its flaws and loveliness. And we're the lucky souls who get to take that journey with him. This flow of remembrances and regrets is triggered when he finds out his first love has died, and he goes through the agonizing realization that she might have also been his only love.
Being a man of words and no shortage of cynicism, Jep is something of a live wire at the parties we see him attending, as he slices and dices the hypocrites and phonies, even among his large group of friends. It's a nasty business sometimes, but these people are so fickle, they've often forgiven him by the next party. At each new gathering, we know a bit more about the participants and grow to have our favorites, as well as those we loathe as much as Jep. He can be so cruel at times, audiences may be slightly put off by his judgmental stance, but Servillo is so pitch perfect in his portrayal, it's difficult for us to stay mad at him either. Watch Servillo in a handful of fantastic scenes with Jep's editor (played by the dwarf actress Giavanna Vignola), who lends him an ear and cooks him a meal in her office, as they talk about pretty much everything but work.
There's a wonderful flow to The Great Beauty (in Italian, La Grande Bellezza, which is on the short list for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nomination) that is exemplified by a end-credits, POV boat ride down the Tiber River, a ride that glides effortlessly as the camera gently pivots left and right to catch whatever is around the next corner — sometimes nothing — much as Jep does through his memories. He's a frustrated man because he wanted to be not just a beloved writer but also one of influence, a journalist who could take down the corrupt in power — something I'm guessing he never quite achieved. Jep becomes the voice for all of those who seem to have it all and realize they have little of substance in their lives. In many films, it difficult to feel sympathy for folks who fit that description, but Sorrentio and Servillo pull it off almost effortlessly (if you don't count Jep's suffering) and to perfection. The film opens Friday in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
One of the greatest feelings in the world for a film critic (or at least for this film critic) is to sit down to watch a new movie and realize just as its beginning that you have no idea what the movie is about before it starts. It's usually a realization that drifts into my mind just as the credits begins: "I've somehow managed to read nothing about this film leading up to this moment." I get a charge of excitement, preparing for that moment of discovery.
It's a feeling I rarely get watching studio-released work, whose main marketing objective seems to be telling you pretty much every important plot detail before you ever make it to the theater. And you can't blame the distributors or studios for the phenomenon because for every trailer or commercial that gives you too much information, there are tens of thousands of people ready to watch, even though they know the risks. We live in a time where we can know as little or as much as we want to going into a film, and we really have no one to blame but ourselves. People complain just as much about a trailer that tells us nothing as we do about one that gives away the murderer's identity.
So settling in to watch director Wladyslaw Pasikowski's Aftermath, the only thing I knew about the film was that it was set in Poland. I found out later that because of its quite obviously controversial subject matter concerning a shameful period in that nation's history, the film has been banned from some Polish theaters, thus adding to the shame. Said to be "inspired by actual events" (which I'm guessing from the way this film plays out is not the same as "based on a true story"), Aftermath concerns two brothers, one of whom, Franek (Ireneusz Czop), left his small Polish farming village 20 years earlier to live in Chicago. But when brother Jozek's (Maciej Stuhr) wife and children show up in Chicago unannounced, Franek heads to Poland to find out what's going on back home.
What he finds is that his Jozek is at the center of an explosive situation regarding the town's past during World War II, a history that no one in the village (especially those alive during the war) wants dragged out for public display. The truth of the matter is that the big secret isn't that difficult to figure out (although some of the specifics are shocking and horrific), so the real drama of the film is watching the brothers first navigate their own problems involving the death of their parents and abandonment issues, and then turn their attentions toward the angry villagers, who find every possible way to complicate the lives of the brothers and their determination to uncover the entire truth. They find a few allies and people willing to talk and fill in some of the missing pieces along the way, but for the most part, the pair are on their own. Before long, harsh words and minor misbehavior escalate into something much more destructive.
Aftermath has a bit too much melodrama in the mix to be truly great, and the frequent use of certain derogatory and anti-Semitic terms is going to unhinge a few viewers, and rightfully so; the overt bigotry of these people — both those in the village and even Franek, who has had his share of perceived indignities at the hands of Jewish bosses in America — is almost impossible to comprehend. If director Pasikowski's goal was to point the bleakest, most grim, awful portrait of rural life in Poland, where time appears to have frozen since the 1940s, he has accomplished it.
At the same time, he ramps up the tension to such heights, it's almost impossible to believe that anyone else in this situation wouldn't have cut their losses and run away. The film is a ragged slice of European country life, where the enemy is anyone who is different and has more than you do. It's not a pretty film, but it's a story I've never seen told quite this way before, and it leaves us with the slimmest glimmer of hope that even in a place where evil is entrenched so deep, things might get better. The film opens Friday in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
Liv & Ingmar
Although the directing credit belongs to Indian-born filmmaker Dheeraj Akolkar, it's clear from the outset that we are in the very capable hands of now-75-year-old Liv Ullman, the Norwegian actress who began a long and fruitful personal and professional partnership with the Swedish writer-director Ingmar Bergman in 1965 with their first of many films together, Persona, when she was 25 and he was 47 (and both were married to other people when she got pregnant).
If you've seen the films these two made together — such as Shame, Hour of the Wolf, The Passion of Anna, Cries & Whispers, Scenes from a Marriage, Autumn Sonata or Saraband — then you know how important their collaborations were to film history. But the film unlocks a few of their more personal dramas as well; their relationship was so tumultuous that Ullman had to flee to Hollywood and then Broadway just for some stability.
In an essential interview with Ullman, she attempts to explain the bond these two great artists formed, and it's so moving, it will likely bring you to tears. She's too Scandinavian to sugarcoat their fighting — both verbal and physical — or how he essentially kept her prisoner at his home when they were together; yet there's a air of magic to what brought and kept them together as well. And her attitude about the more physical confrontations is almost scarily blasé.
And then, of course, there are the film clips, with Ullman looking more beautiful and hypnotic with each new film. Her bright blue eyes cut right into our hearts and minds even today (she looks stunning for her or any age even today). With scene after scene, we're reminded of Bergman's mastery of shadow, framing and camera movement (with more than a little help from cinematographer Sven Nykvist in most cases) and of Ullman's absolute command of her talents as an actor. Director Akolkar includes a bit of behind-the-scenes footage, but none of that is nearly as revealing as Ullman reading passages from her book Changing or letters she wrote to Bergman.
With chapter headings like "Loneliness," "Rage," "Pain," and "Longing," you may begin to see a pattern in the frequent themes of Bergman's life and work. But it's no coincidence that the final chapter is "Friendship," because after they broke up, the "painfully connected" partners seemed be become better friends by the day. It's established fairly early that in the 40-plus years (in which they made 11 films) Bergman and Ullman knew each other, she only had knowledge of a fraction of his life. That being said, it was that creative fraction that Bergman seemed to hold most dear and was the dominant force in his life. Liv & Ingmar is a wonderful tribute, a love letter to a friend, and a treasure for fans of their collective work. The film plays in Chicago once per day from Saturday, Jan. 4 through Wednesday, Jan. 8 at the Gene Siskel Film Center.