Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Double Feature: 'Paranormal Activity 4' & 'Sleepwalk with Me'

As some of my readers may know, I'm on vacation all this week. The reason I mention this is not because I'll be cutting back on the writing, but because my goal this week is to see at least nine movies in the theaters that until now I haven't seen. That's right, NINE. More than eight, less than ten. It's an ambitious undertaking, and one I think I can achieve without too much effort. But that also means that in order to get out timely reviews, I'm going to have to churn out these "Double Features" mini reviews until next week at least. They're not my favorite; I always feel like I'm screwing over a good movie by not giving it a full-length write-up, but there you have it. Movies gotta get seen. Reviews gotta get posted. So say we all.


First up is Paranormal Activity 4, the latest in the long-running horror franchise. While The Blair Witch Project introduced most modern audiences to the "Found Footage" genre, it was the Paranormal Activity series that popularized it to an insane degree, inspiring dozens of filmmakers to design their movies to be shot on hand-held camcorders and conveniently-placed security cams. The genre is cheap to produce and creates all but automatic moneymakers, but with all the lame copycats that have been released, only a few are really worth seeing. Until recently, the PA series was firmly in that group, especially after a very good prequel Paranormal Activity 3, by Catfish directors Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. With both returning to direct the sequel, Paranormal Activity 4 had to do little more than promises of the same to meet my expectations.

Paranormal Activity's first blond?
Unfortunately, this latest offering lacks much of the punch and originality that made number three such a good time. While there were parts of the story - which focused on teenager Alex (Kathryn Newton) and her family reacting to strange happenings around their house - that were honestly nerve-wracking and scary (stuff moving around your house without reason is STILL freaky), the directors just didn't have the strong story that they possessed the first time around. Characters never really react logically, and the connections to the previous films are tenuous at best. Worst is the lack of innovation; using Skype and laptop cameras to capture visuals around the house might have seemed inspired at the time, but it ends up looking like just another camera, unlike the infamous "fan-cam" from PA3. And on top of that, I think it's funny that series villain Katie (Katie Featherton) keeps ending up caught on candid camera throughout the entirety of her life. At this point you could stop including her in every PA flick and I doubt people would notice  the difference.

She's 15, so there's only so far I'll go with the sexual innuendo.
Newton is solid, and she's got a decent supporting cast behind her including Matt Shively as Alex's boyfriend, real life married couple Alexondra Lee and Stephen Dunham as her parents and Brady Allen and Aiden Lovekamp as requisite creepy kids. But they can't overcome an overlong, not-all-that-scary horror flick that ramps up at the end (it's actually got a better ending than its predecessor) but really makes you wait through what feels like hours of slog for it. While a sequel is all but guaranteed at this point, you have to wonder whether this is a signal that the end is coming, or if Paranormal Activity 4 is just a weak offering from a still-viable franchise. Either way I won't tell you not to see this latest installment, as it does answer some questions left over from the previous trilogy. But you might want to go back and see the originals first, or maybe even wait for the DVD release. Either way, definitely skip any of the IMAX showings out there, as there is just no need to see this movie with that level of screen and audio definition. Your standard cineplex will work just fine.

The other half of this review belongs to Sleepwalk with Me. Never heard of it? Neither had I, but this gem was brought to my attention by Todd, who had heard of it off of one of her hometown radio stations. Formerly a one-man show by Massachusetts comedian Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk with Me is the truth-based story of Mike's struggles with becoming a successful stand-up comic, his relationship with his girlfriend, and a debilitating sleep condition that causes him to act out his dreams, often to his own detriment. Mike gradually manages to improve his conditions on all three fronts, and the film chronicles his journey towards success and happiness with hilarious results.

Probably the most shocking aspect of Birbiglia's tale is that the most outrageous details of the story are based on truth; Birbiglia really does suffer from rapid eye movement behavior disorder, which once caused him - in his sleep - to jump out of the second story of a motel while on a comedy tour (a leap which is chronicled in the film). Birbiglia's brutal honesty about his condition, as well as his self-depreciating approach to himself as a subject, is a main factor that the whole thing works so well. His inability to put himself on a pedestal connects him to the audience with ease, and it is this connection that allows him to be frank about the troubles he was getting into as a younger man.

Is this the face of a sleepwalker?
If there's one thing Sleepwalk with Me has in spades, it's heart. Thanks to the easy connection to its protagonist, you can sympathize with Mike in times good or bad ("Now, when I get to this next bit, remember; you're on my side."). Birbiglia is not a great or an evil man; he's human, prone to both mistakes and insights, and that's what makes him so compelling as a film lead. His willingness to expose his weaknesses to scrutiny is a trait that all people should be able to share. That said, he has some solid friends, most notably Six Feet Under's Lauren Ambrose as his long-suffering girlfriend Abby. There are also a number of well-known stand-up comedians who make their presence felt, even if they're relegated to small roles. Birbiglia - who also directed - really keeps this story about stand-up comedy within the family, so to speak, and makes it feel as though we are outsiders getting a peek inside this difficult, why-would-anyone-want-this lifestyle.

Something bad is about to happen...
Needless to say, if you can you should catch a showing of Sleepwalk with Me if at all possible. Never has there been a better movie about stand-up comedy, and there are enough elements throughout to ensure it is no one-trick pony. The film has begun to wind down its theatrical run, as at this point it's only showing in a few dozen theaters around the country (it's high had been 135). That means if you're REALLY lucky, it MIGHT be playing within 100 miles of you. If it's anywhere close, you should absolutely do yourself and Birbiglia a favor and see this on the big screen. If not, then the eventual DVD release will have to suffice. Both Todd and I are thrilled we went, and I just want to make sure this excellent little film gets its due.

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