PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 4

A half-step up from the third installment, but that’s not saying much. By now, the recording devices placed at strategic points around the house seem more like a plan to make a movie on the cheap than a clever way to be scary. And especially at the end, the supposed use of hand-held video makes no sense: who thinks to grab a camera while running for their life? There’s a good scene involving chopped vegetables and a knife, a creepy kid who has a way with a line, and evil Katie Featherston, back for her fourth go-round. But the frights are few, and to advance the plot, the screenplay relies on a far-fetched rationale for bringing that aforementioned creepy kid into the lead characters’ house, plus the refusal of the adults to acknowledge out-of-kilter phenomena despite repeated physical evidence and the growing hysteria of their daughter. Weak. — Jeff Schultz

END OF WATCH

It would be fascinating to take an LAPD officer to a screening of this slice-of-patrol drama, because to a civilian it seems so authentic in its depiction of police procedures and the scumbags encountered on any given night or day. The movie comes from a long line of “partner” flicks, many of which hurtle toward tragic climaxes. And if the title here doesn’t give away what’s to come, there’s a speech during a party whose foreshadowing you’d have to be dense to miss. But the plot turns that take us to the final scenes are the least of EOW’s accomplishments. Whatever Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Peña did to bond during pre-production shows up as two men who transcend friendship and a work relationship to become “brothers”, as each expresses so movingly under separate and radically different circumstances. The grittiness of the South Central neighborhoods and the ultimately exhausting profanity and moral sewage that spews from the gangbangers lend heft and atmosphere. And there are strong performances by three women: Anna Kendrick as Jake’s girl, America Ferrera as a cop, and the very scary Yahira Garcia as a murderous chola. This is nothing you haven’t seen before, but you’ll stay with it all the way. — Jeff Schultz

SINISTER

The trailer makes it look like yet another of the thrill-free, roster-filling genre entries that rake in whatever they can their first weekend, then disappear forever. Happy surprise: it’s super creepy, well told and makes sense, right down to the denouement you see coming but which has to end as it does. The killings are what make this special, two in particular (one involving a tree, one a swimming pool) whose imagery is disturbing, unsettling, even days after you’ve watched. While there is a supernatural element, the evil is mostly human, if pint-sized. And the movie is helped along by a decent performance from Ethan Hawke, who may be slumming here (as did Johnny Depp in SECRET WINDOW), but takes his role seriously. The rest of the cast are mostly unknowns — who the hell is Juliet Rylance? — but jumping out of the pack with a bang-up turn is an actor named James Ransone (from the tv series “Treme”), who plays the curious, nudgy Deputy with a combination of humor and earnestness that’ll make you want to see more of him in the years to come. — Jeff Schultz

SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS

After such a remarkable career, it would be inaccurate to call what Christopher Walken does here “the performance of his career”. He’s had so many extraordinary turns, in so many different types of roles (the bad guy, the good guy, the weird-creepy guy, the weird-funny guy) that singling out any one of them won’t do. Let’s just say that Walken has never been better than he is here. And let’s say of Sam Rockwell, who hasn’t been around as long, that this is the performance of his career… so far. He starts out the film as a sidekick; by the end he’s taken control. Rockwell and Walken stand atop a main cast rounded out by Woody Harrelson (who absolutely “gets” his quirky gangster) and Colin Farrell (rebounding nicely from the dullsville TOTAL RECALL remake), and amid side players the likes of Tom Waits and Zeljko Ivanek. With these guys, the movie was bound to succeed at the least as a glorious acting exercise. But it’s more than that; it turns a crime drama into a metaphor for the creative process itself. I know that sounds awfully pretentious, but somehow writer-director Martin McDonagh (working in the same mode as his great IN BRUGES) pulls it off, posing questions about violence and renunciation, action versus talk, acceptance or fighting back, which spring organically from the crazed goings-on. 7P is funny, violent, and brainy, but for all its many pleasures, it’s Walken who dominates — Walken, who by now has mastered the ability to take anything from a throwaway line to a character who could not exist in real life and give them the weight of genius. — Jeff Schultz

V/H/S

Yet another entry in the “found footage” genre, VHS actually accomplishes what 3 Paranormal Activities, a Last Exorcism, and a Devil Inside could not: it’s creepy and scary. This one is broken up into five stories and works because each one runs about 20 minutes long. We get a brief setup and payoffs that pretty much work. Much better than wasting 90 minutes listening to backstory and setup that ends with a crappy punchline. The “second honeymoon” short gave me the willies…the others fun. My biggest complaint is the main story: guys paid to break into a house and steal a VHS tape but must find the right one (which is how we see these creepy videos). Great setup, horrible punchline. If they’d improved that, VHS could have been the Blu-Ray of horror this year. Despite that, it is a must see for horror fans and proof that with enough talent and imagination, the lost footage genre can rise above the “Paranormal” type crap that comes out every year. — Stormy Curry

The latest twist on the “found footage” horror sub-genre takes the anthology route with multiple unconnected stories tied together by a weak framing device. With ten directors, most of whom wrote their segments, it could have been all over the map and uneven. But these guys (every one of the writers and directors is a guy) are working at a high level with no jarring shifts in tone. Nor, happily, are there any super-groaners among the stories. One in particular, “Second Honeymoon”, is excruciatingly suspenseful, real hands-over-the-face time. Another, “The Sick Thing That Happened to Emily When She Was Younger”, is done cleverly as a video chat. The acting throughout is remarkably natural — non-acting, really, especially the asshole frat boys in “Amateur Night” and their counterparts in “10/31/98”. If the “explanation” in the main story arc seems artificial and hokey, the rest is clever and effective. — Jeff Schultz

ARGO

ARGO starts as a historical drama, transitions to a satirical comedy about the outrageousness of Hollywood and ends up a political/hostage thriller. And while that sounds like it could be a mess, it is far from it. Ben Affleck handles it all with skill and talent. A lot of people loved THE TOWN, Affleck’s last movie. A lot of people didn’t. I loved it and I thought it showed a lot of potential for Affleck as a director. Potential realized! This is a great movie. In case you’ve missed the ads, ARGO is based on a true story. Six Americans escaped to the Canadian ambassador’s home when Iranian “students” took over the U.S. Embassy in 1979. They remained there in hiding for weeks. But the Iranians started becoming suspicious and they had to get out or be killed. After several bad options were floated, the CIA came up with the “best bad option” they had. A fake film, and passing the Americans off as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for the movie “Argo”. Affleck also stars as the CIA operative Tony Mendez. John Goodman is his Hollywood contact and Alan Arkin is the producer they go to to make their fake movie believable. Goodman and Arkin are fabulous. Affleck is good (his directing better than his acting). Bryan Cranston proves he is a great actor as Affleck’s CIA boss, especially in one of the penultimate scenes. ARGO has intrigue, comedy, drama and thrills. That it is all basically true (or true-ish) makes it even more fantastic. I would like to see Affleck direct a movie that he does not star in, because I think that is his best future. I could pick a lot of nits, like does anyone really believe Affleck as a hispanic CIA operative? But that is all minor stuff. ARGO is one of the best movies I have seen this year. — Alan Yudman

A flag-waving, crowd-pleasing entertainment that shows what Hollywood high-gloss and a vivid cast, guided by a director who knows how to tell a story, can do. Essentially a “Mission Impossible” episode with Ben Affleck as Peter Graves, it's comfortably old-fashioned, unafraid to be funny, and very self-confident. That swagger extends to the movie's uncomfortably effective portrayal of Iran and Iranians as, well, batshit crazy. That's borne out by historical record and made urgent by the current nuclear showdown; here it comes with maybe just a whiff of propaganda (for which I would not fault Affleck). A movie with a large cast sparkles when everyone delivers, and this is ARGO's biggest strength. John Goodman and Alan Arkin are terrific together; Bryan Cranston of course can't be in too many movies; there's a cute Adrienne Barbeau cameo and two funny, not-much-longer moments, one with Richard Kind, the other with Philip Baker Hall; the hostage ensemble does a wonderful job of conveying their growing terror; and Ben himself is solid without being a stick. (Although there is one hilarious beefcake shot of him that recalls the 1998 GQ cover.) Much of the suspense is of the car-won't-start-as-the-bad-guys-are-rushing-up and the jeeps-on-the-runway-trying-to-stop-takeoff variety. But you definitely get caught up in the escape in this possibly political escapist thriller. — Jeff Schultz

THE HOLE

Everybody knows Joe Dante. But few know about this 1999 thriller that shows what a master can do working within a timeworn but much-loved convention. Unlike the recent CABIN IN THE WOODS remake, Dante isn’t trying to challenge the genre. Nor, unlike many of the current crop of horror films, is there much gore, sex, or bad language. It’s more like a similarly-themed portal-to-Hell movie THE GATE, which also had humor and kids caught up in a supernatural adventure. What makes it work is an involving story, an enormously likable cast (young unknowns and Teri Polo and, for like a nanosecond, Bruce Dern) and a psycho jester as one of the monsters. The explanation for what comes out of the bottomless pit in the basement is satisfying, the relationship between the two brothers is warmly portrayed, and there are only a couple of times when a character is left alone with predictably horrifying consequences when you know that wouldn’t happen in “real life”. I put quotes around “real life” because, after all, we’re talking about a Hellgate, so accuracy isn’t all that important. Fun! — Jeff Schultz

THE FLAT

An elderly grandmother dies in Tel Aviv. Her relatives (including her grandson, the director of the documentary) come to the dead woman’s apartment to claim and dispose of the belongings. Amid the clutter of a life, an old newspaper is found, a copy from the 1930’s of Der Angriff, a virulently anti-Semitic Nazi newspaper. On the front page, an article by a leading Nazi of the period about his trip to Palestine, accompanied by a Jewish couple. The couple are the director’s grandparents. Thus begins a fascinating probe into the past that begins with the question: how did two Jews (who eventually fled Germany) end up as the friends of not just a Nazi, but SS officer Leopold von Mildenstein, an SD official who hired Adolf Eichmann and later went to work for Joseph Goebbels. From here, the film peels layer after layer off a mysterious onion, finding answers that only lead to more questions. And as the director does so, his search changes the lives of his mother (who knew some but by no means all of her mother’s secrets) — and of von Mildenstein’s daughter, located alive and well in Germany. The two biggest shockers in this fine exploration of family history and moral confusion are the grandparent’s continued friendship with von Mildenstein and his wife after the war, and the discovery that the director’s great-grandmother had been deported to the killing camp at Theresienstadt. Shot in such a way that the audience learns the story simultaneously with the actual participants, its conversations and realizations seem like scripted drama. That it is reality is all the more powerful. — Jeff Schultz

FRANKENWEENIE

Tim Burton obviously has a lot of love for the old “monster” movies, because there are a ton of nods to them in FRANKENWEENIE. In case you didn’t know, this is Burton’s remake of a short film he did 28 years ago. It’s the story of a young Victor Frankenstein and his dog Sparky. Victor is a normal, yet reclusive kid who loves his dog. Sparky is hit by a car and Victor is inconsolable. His science teacher plants the idea in his head that Sparky can be re-animated. So, Victor tries it and it works. The movie is adorable, touching and laugh out loud funny. Victor’s classmates are mostly young “monsters” and they each get their moment to show who they really are. The movie gets a little preachy about science in schools, but it also wears it’s heart on it’s sleeve. And at 90 minutes, there’s a lot to love about FRANKENWEENIE. — Alan Yudman

FINDING NEMO 3D

Without 3D, Nemo is one of the most beautiful movies I have ever seen. Images pop on screen, colors are incredible, and that’s just at home on DVD! That’s why I have to say Disney blew it big time. The 3D is actually flat and murks up parts of the world Pixar has created. Love the movie, glad to have seen it on the big screen with Holly, but have learned a valuable lesson. Beware the 3D re-release of a classic.

Stormy Curry