This week brings three new major releases to Triangle cinemas, at least two of which are vying for Taken 2’s spot at the top of the charts. We’ve got Tyler Perry’s action debut in Alex Cross; the latest chapter in the Paranormal Activity saga; and an Oscar contender for Best Documentary with Searching for Sugar Man. Enough time’s been wasted, let’s get started.
The character of Alex Cross first graced screens in the 1997 thriller Kiss the Girls and its quasi-sequel, Along Came a Spider. Those two films starred Morgan Freeman in the role of Cross, a brilliant police detective that used his forensic psychology skills to greater use than a gun. Girls did pretty good at the box office, while Spider languished, basically killing the franchise until Summit Entertainment decided that bringing a mostly forgotten character back to the screen could somehow win over both audiences looking for something that wasn’t created in a comic book, and those that looked back at the original series with fondness.
Alex Cross stars Tyler Perry as the titular character. Here we meet the young detective for the first time, making a name for himself on the streets of Detroit as the best cop in the city. When a wealthy young woman is brutally tortured and murdered, Cross and his team (which includes Edward Burns, Mr. Box Office Poison himself) manage to crack the killer’s (Lost’s Matthew Fox) code and save his next victim from the same grisly fate. Taking this as a personal insult, the killer then sets his sights on Cross’ family and friends for revenge.
Your opinion on Alex Cross will largely depend on whether you can buy Tyler Perry, forever to be known for starring as Madea and making a bazillion dollars in the process, as a tough-as-nails Detroit cop. This is the type of character that, even when he’s off the screen for five minutes, the supporting characters spend that time discussing how brilliant he is. It seems almost unfair to point out that the directing and script are horrible, as the acting wouldn’t have been any better if an A-lister was behind the camera. The first time Perry knocks someone out with an open-handed slap, I checked out. Skip this one; if you’re a Perry fan, just drop an extra buck in the collection plate Sunday morning to alleviate the guilt a little.
Next up we have the latest entry in a very lucrative franchise, Paranormal Activity 4. I just realized today that this series has officially taken over as the cheapie Halloween release from Saw, as that franchise quit pumping out quickie sequels almost immediately after the success of PA. And why shouldn’t Hollywood acquiesce that title onto PA? Whereas almost any other studio would feel no qualms in throwing anyone with half a script and a grasp of which end of the camera to stand behind at the franchise to keep it rolling, Paramount has actually nurtured it along with a creative streak not seen in years from a major studio. By looking toward directors of the most buzzed about documentaries and offering them their first major studio gigs, the PA series is 3-for-3 in quality entertainment that doesn’t cost a bundle. So with Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, the directors of both the controversial “doc” Catfish and Paranormal Activity 3, invited back to oversee the fourth installment, where does it rank among the other installments of the series?
PA 4 opens up five years after the events of the first two films. Katie and Hunter are still missing, and there have been no clues as to where the pair has gone in that time. A family in Nevada befriends a small boy who has just moved in across the street, and after his mother is hospitalized, takes him into their home for a few days while the mom recuperates. The boy is stand-offish and talks to an invisible friend for much of the time, until he starts focusing on getting the son in this family “ready” to meet this invisible entity. Before you know it chairs are sliding across floors, toys are mysteriously lining up in hallways, and knives are disappearing. Spooooooooooooky!
Here’s the thing: I’m a sucker for these movies. For all of the detractors that ask, “Who’s scared of a door opening and closing?” the answer is me. I watch these films, and spend the rest of the night hearing my house make noises and assuming that I’m about to die. In my mind, there is something much more scary about an entity you can’t put your hands on screwing around with your property than your generic undead boogie man attempting to stalk you. That is what is so ingenious about the PA series; by taking that which we are most familiar with in our day to day lives, and turning those very things against us, we are left with a feeling of helplessness and horror. PA4 falls in line with the first three films, and is a fine choice for your Halloween viewing this year.
Finally, we have the most buzzed about documentary of the year, Searching for Sugar Man. In the early 70s, Rodriguez was just another struggling folk singer with a small group of fans that watched him play in the bars around Detroit. After releasing two albums that were met by the public with general indifference, the troubadour disappeared from the music scene, leaving behind nothing but whispers about an unappreciated genius and tales of a suicide performed on stage.
What wasn’t known at the time was that those albums were huge hits in South Africa. Discovered by a generation tired and confused by the apartheid movement that surrounded them, they latched onto the words they heard coming from Rodriguez’s records and took them to heart. The albums were such successes that they quickly went gold ten times over, without the news ever reaching America that someone finally appreciated the singer’s brilliance.
Sugar Man walks you through this story, showing you firsthand how dangerous it was for these groups of kids to listen to music that the government at that time labeled as subversive. Whereas many here might consider the music to be just another example of the folksingers of the time who were all attempting to be lesser versions of Bob Dylan, youths in South Africa found the singer to be the voice of their struggle. In fact, it is said in the film that in a liberal family’s home at the time you would find three albums: The Beatle’s “Abbey Road”, Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, and Rodriguez’s debut title; many assumed he was as big in America as the other two acts.
Decades later, a South African music reporter in search of a story decides to finally investigate the tale of Rodriguez and his rumored death. Along with a record store owner that regards himself as one of the singer’s biggest fans, they begin to unravel the mystery surrounding the elusive songwriter.
Sugar Man’s biggest strength is its ability to avoid all of the Behind the Music clichés that befall almost any musical doc. We are not given the sugar-coated rags to riches story that has become the norm for these types of films. Instead, we are shown how one man can cause change, no matter how small, and provide comfort to a people in desperate need for it. What we, the viewer, are receiving is one of the most entertaining yet powerful films of the year, and a sure-fire contender at the Oscars this year.
So in review:
• Avoid Alex Cross, unless you have some ulterior motive for watching it
• Paranormal Activity 4 is a fine film to get your Halloween season started
• Searching for Sugar Man will probably be one of the best films you watch all year