The allure of a jump scare that perfectly-timed loud noise that sends a horror movie audience jumping is hard to ignore. They're easy but effective — if you want to shake people up nothing works as well as a well placed violin screech or slamming door sound effect. Thankfully the new evil ghost movie Sinister mostly avoids the easy way out by developing its lead character a novelist with a drinking problem and exploring an inventive twist on "found footage" (the guy actually finds footage). It all works quite well… that is until it starts relying on jump scares.
True crime writer Ellison Oswalt (Ethan Hawke) hasn't had a hit book in years but he hopes to change his life around by investigating a set of murders committed in the backyard of a suburban home. To immerse himself in the history Ellison moves his entire family into the house where the committed murders took place (and without telling them their new home's little secret). He immediately falls down the rabbit hole discovering a series of Super 8 movies depicting the first killings and a string of other bizarre murders all captured on gritty film. Ellison loses himself to the movies only flinching when his wife Tracey (Juliet Rylance) begs him to come to bed or his son Trevor (Michael Hall D'Addario) wakes up in a fit of terror from an anxiety ailment. But as he watches and rewatches the snuff films Ellison begins to see a connection between them: a shadowy figure who it turns out might be a supernatural entity.
Great horror rides on its lead and Hawke serves Sinister well. He's ambitious and overly confident of his abilities as he digs deeper and deeper into the history of the Super 8 movies. He makes some poor choices — why writers in movies are continually keeping secrets from their families and drinking way more whiskey than their finances would allow is one of Hollywood's great mysteries — but Hawke is adept at making the act of watching someone watch something interesting. His obsession with the mystery his slowly disintegrating mind is reminiscent of Jack Torrence in The Shining.
But before Sinister gets that involved with its central character it strays into run-of-the-mill haunted house territory. Vincent D'Onofrio pops up for a quick expositional Skype chat to inform Ellison that the dark being in his home movies might be a Pagan deity that eats the souls of children. That would explain all those pesky kid ghosts that keep whispering in the ear of Ellison's Ashley (Clare Foley) and making creepy bumps in the night.
Sinister's most terrifying material comes from the grainy "found footage." When director Scott Derrickson moves back and forth between Ellison and the films the writer illuminated only by the flickering projector it's chilling. But the movie progresses away from that into its own conventional horror movie. Weighed down by explanation and meandering action Sinister loses track of its character angle in favor of the almighty jump scare. It's exhausting — but then again as the nickname suggests they never fail to make one jump.
Writer/director Brian Goodman bases this gritty look at a couple of tough guys growing up in South Boston on his own experiences. The reality he brings to the table is what makes this compelling tale a notch above others in the same genre. We first meet Brian (Mark Ruffalo) and best pal Paulie (Ethan Hawke) as they are caught up in a violent armored car robbery. Their entrée into a life of low-level crime is detailed early on in flashbacks in which they are operating under the guidance of a local criminal Pat (director Goodman). Catching up with them in the present day about 12 years later Brian is now married and has two sons while Paulie is determinedly single. Neither has graduated past the workaday life of the average hoodlum and are still taking their lead from the no-good Pat who decides to teach Brian a lesson by gunning him down and leaving him for dead in the snow. Time in prison -- and a conflict between the two friends -- make up the core of the film’s final act when decisions must be made about the eventual paths their lives will take. Fulfilling his promise as one of the screen’s most underrated actors working today Mark Ruffalo gets a three-dimensional role with real guts and complexity. His sterling performance is gritty and finely detailed immersing himself into this low-life loser who is desperately trying -- and failing -- to lift himself up and find a new life. Ethan Hawke is equally fine even if we just saw him play a similar role last year in Sidney Lumet’s similar crime drama Before the Devil Knows You're Dead. Like Ruffalo Hawke completely throws himself into the mind of a Southie and captures the essence of such a character. It’s the two actors’ increasingly conflicted -- and at turns polar opposite -- relationship that makes up the heart of What Doesn't Kill You. Goodman as you might imagine acquits himself nicely in the local criminal role and Amanda Peet nicely underplays Brian’s suffering wife. Donnie Wahlberg (who co-wrote the script) is from that part of the city and adds a good deal of authenticity to his smaller detective role. Brian Goodman an experienced and seasoned actor turns to writing and directing for the first time with remarkably assured self-confidence and a command of exactly what he wants to say. Certainly he’s covering an area he knows well having lived this life in the exact locales in which he’s shooting. With the atmospheric dark gray cinematography of Chris Norr and Robert Hoffman’s sharp editing Goodman’s film delivers with just the right amount of grit and street violence. Mostly though it’s a strong character study. The combination of Goodman’s expertise on the subject and his lead actors’ superlative interpretation pay off in making What Doesn't Kill You so extremely effective. It’s a fascinating and informed look at a place most people will only get to know through the movies.
Dave Chappelle is a Hollywood anomaly. Not only because the comedian felt his soul was worth more than $50 million (the reported amount he walked away from when he left his Chappelle's Show) but also because he lives worlds apart from the place--literally and figuratively. In Block Party not a moment is spent trying to go deep inside the man behind the comedy yet that much is ascertainable. The documentary tells instead of his September 2004 mission to organize a rap/R&B block party/concert in Brooklyn and hand out the event’s "golden tickets" at random to people in his Dayton Ohio community. It cuts back and forth between concert footage with his standup and the often-funny events that precipitated it. Those hoping for some sort of mea culpa will be disappointed (and should be ashamed); rather it's Chappelle's show seemingly the way he wanted Chappelle's Show. While Block Party obviously contains no acting there is a bevy of performers. The catalyst of course is Chappelle and as he did so well on his show he turns mundane observations into knee-slapping hilarity—thanks in no small part to his infectious laugh that follows everything he says. He also plays the part of hip-hop goodwill ambassador both reuniting groups and diversifying the lineup. His tastes and schoolboy enthusiasm might even be enough to endear the hip-hop naysayer. See he prefers artists who are progressive--artists who say something punctuated by actual live music! Acts like The Roots Kanye West Common Erykah Badu Jill Scott Mos Def Talib Kweli Dead Prez and a reunited Fugees--the film’s climax if you will--make theater dancing all but unavoidable and massacre stereotypes. And they're all Chappelle-approved for an extra layer of authenticity. Block Party perfectly pairs subject with director. Michel Gondry--best known as director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind--has a voyeur’s curiosity an artist’s eye for aesthetics and an ear for left-of-center music (he is also an acclaimed music-video director). He is not interested in somehow exposing Chappelle to his legions of fans and few detractors but he does touch on something that might surprise: Chappelle with his genuine benevolence seems just as content to get a smile as he does a laugh. Such is the case when he invites an entire college band to come play at his block party and pays their way; or when he pleases the crowd by assembling the aforementioned eclectic mix of musical acts groups which might’ve gone their careers without appearing together. But what Gondry captures best is this freak of nature who’s so maddeningly candid in front of a camera.