‘Whip It’ excels through phenomenal casting, and a ‘Paranormal Activity’ review too

11874295_gal Two words elevate “Whip It” from predictable teen angst-underdog sports movie to a fun and funny roller-derby hit: Ellen Page.

Actually, that’s simplifying things a bit. It’s the entire cast, led by the capable Page who hits her tried-and-true off-beat irritated teen mark. But among the ranks are Kristen Wiig, Drew Barrymore, Alia Shawkat, and even Juliette Lewis (who I normally kind of hate), all of whom do well to take this movie up a notch and bring the audience into the roller derby scene much more than if the roles had been filled by less-memorable players.

Bliss (Page) floats through her tiny Texas town life being mostly miserable. At 17, she bounces from being dragged to beauty pageants by her mother, being outcast in her high school, and being stiffed for tips at her waitress gig.

Then she happens to witness a few roller derby players dropping off fliers in a head shop/shoe store in nearby Austin. Bliss grabs a flier, sneaks off to the event, decides to try out – joins the losingest team in the league, becomes a breakout success, and so on.

All these things are the standard fare in movies such as this, and director Barrymore doesn’t do much that’s exactly out-of-the-box. What she does, however, is give her ensemble room to breathe and to have a ton of fun with the film.

First, “Whip It” is populated with some funny people. Shawkat did a hysterical turn on the now-defunct “Arrested Development,” and Wiig is a “Saturday Night Live” alumna who has been doing small and varied character parts in most of the big comedy movies of late, including “Extract,” “Knocked Up,” “Adventureland,” and “Walk Hard.”

Lewis is a more-than-capable superbitch and even Jimmy Fallon, the league’s game announcer, manages to maintain his funny (even though he comes dangerously close to losing it because Barrymore gives him much more screen time than he deserves, or maybe can handle). Smaller roles are played just as well, and all the roller derby teams are populated by actresses that look mean, run with the roles and pass their good times onto the audience.

Then there’s Page. As in “Juno,” she nails it, bringing her usual power and pain to moments of teenage hardship and triumph. You’re right there with her as she struggles to make her parents happy and balance her own needs and wants. Her emotions bleed through at all points, whether she’s crying with her mother, angrily confronting her parents, or wailing around the roller rink, equal parts excited and terrified.

The rest of the movie may be fairly standard, but it’s a testament to its direction and its cast that “Whip It” still works exceedingly well. It’s not the deepest film ever made, but it’s plenty fun.

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Scares and atmosphere plentiful in hyper-hyped “Paranormal Activity”

12269069_gal The theater experience is pretty essential to enjoying “Paranormal Activity.”

It’s an extremely simple movie. One camera. Two actors, three tops in any given scene. One set – the interior of a house, including living room, kitchen, bedroom and attic. That’s all.

But what could be relatively low-key and unimpressive in “Paranormal” is extremely elevated by experiencing it in a packed theater full of screaming, gasping patrons. Everyone else jumping right along with you brings up the scare factor by quite a few degrees.

Which is why the marketing for the film is almost as good as the film itself. Limiting the release, gathering attention via social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook, and giving potential audiences the option to “demand” the film in their town serve to keep most showings sold out. The one I attended in Ann Arbor had people lined up down the block – on a Thursday. In its second week.

The premise of the movie is simple, and not all that new. Borrowing from “The Blair Witch Project,” the movie’s principal actors, Katie Featherston and Micah Sloat, hang around their house and hear creepy things. Katie’s been more or less “haunted” all her life, and after moving in with Micah, things have gotten a little creepier than usual.

So the couple decides to keep a camera running to capture the handiwork of the apparent ghost. At first it’s minor things: Keys jump off a counter in the middle of the night and unexplained footsteps sound through the house. Nothing too strange.

But things escalate, mostly due, it’s assumed, to Micah’s cavalier attitude about the ghost (he’s all like, “This is so cool,” much to Katie’s chagrin). The creepiness increases, mostly while the couple sleeps.

The methodology of the movie lends it a lot of support. Shot on that one hand-held, we get the impression of reality even though we’re likely dealing with many standard camera tricks. That said, the leads know how to sell what we’re seeing. They do a phenomenal job of interacting with each other, freaking out steadily and increasingly, and bringing back levity to the situation during the daylight hours. Tension is released slightly, but only as a contrast to an ever-growing plight that takes place when darkness falls.

“Paranormal” expertly builds this tension. The slow-burn of weirder and weirder things happening is just enough to keep audiences worried, and as I mentioned above, the shared excitement of a packed house only heightens the experience.

The movie also chooses its moments well. It speeds through hours of footage of the couple sleeping to reach the juicy parts, but even this speed-up tactic brings its own sense of anxiety. We know when the film slows down to normal speed at 3:14 a.m., not only is something about to happen, but the characters still have another three or four hours to sit in the dark and deal with it. And occasionally, the time-lapse shows us just how frightening and how extensive the paranormal activities can be.

Meantime, daylight scenes are filled with just enough exposition about the ghost, its origins, and what to do about it that the story is pushed forward without the audience being overburdened. Movies like this have a tendency to lay things out like a blueprint: It’s a poltergeist, a specter or a demon; here’s what it’s after, here are its powers, here’s how to get rid of it. Call this number, bless this room, sprinkle this dust, say these prayers.

“Paranormal” gives the characters enough to do so that they’re working against the … activity, so to speak, without handing them a surefire method of exorcising the evil. All these choices lend to the dread that builds steadily over the course of the film to its understated, well-designed climax.

If you have the opportunity to see “Paranormal” in a theater, even with the high degree of annoyance that accompanies large crowds of freaking moviegoers, I highly recommend checking it out. For all the hype this film has received, it deserves most of it and it will scare you. Especially in a room of 100 other scared people.

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Phil

He's like, you know, the guy.

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