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Fear and Learning

Fear and Learning (photo)

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Evil is a bitch in “Paranormal Activity.” Notwithstanding a few things that go bump in the night, Paramount’s supernaturally successful Slamdance pickup — promoted this week from midnight cult-film spooking to a limited release in normal business hours — might more accurately be called “Scenes From a Hellish Relationship.”

Living sinfully in San Diego, young day trader Micah (Micah Sloat) and his English-majoring girlfriend Katie (Katie Featherston) bicker over how to deal with ghosts in the house — otherwise known as skeletons in the closet. Asserting in various ways that the place is his to protect (he paid for it, etc.), manly Micah hooks up a camcorder and keeps it trained on the bed after dark. This makes Katie increasingly uncomfortable, not only because her beau naturally hopes to capture some late-night nookie along with the paranormal action. Meanwhile, Katie, armed with lower-tech tools, scares Micah silly with her nagging demeanor — as unemployed live-in girlfriends are presumably wont to do.

With frights like these, who needs horror? Certainly not Oren Peli, whose minimalist mock-doc tease mostly limits its nightmare to unsettling sounds, a swinging door and footprints in baking powder — give or take Katie and her, uh, possessive habit of keeping an eye on Micah at all hours. Nervously at first, then impatiently (or with a yawn), the viewer scans Micah’s milky black-and-white surveillance-cam footage for something that might go boo — until it’s plain as day that nothing dangerous is going to appear that hasn’t already been introduced.

Far more ingenious as a work of economic crisis-era penny-pinching than of genre (or gender) play, “Paranormal Activity” is virtually unimaginable without an earlier low-budget horror sensation (take a wild guess), to which it pales in comparison. The film’s one and only opening credit has Paramount thanking Micah and Katie along with the San Diego Police Department — the “real” source of the feature presentation. But the studio’s true debt, like Peli’s, is to “The Blair Witch Project.” If Katie were any more wicked, she’d know enough to pin this particular haunting on poor Heather Donahue.

10072009_AnEducation.jpgAs you may have heard, a star is born in “An Education.” As Jenny, an early ’60s suburban London teen who considers giving up Oxford for a man almost twice her age, Carey Mulligan is a stunner — quick-witted and graceful in the old school rom-com tradition. The movie, too, is a snappy throwback to earlier charms — part of the current pre-sexual revolution revival, along with “Mad Men” and the Beatles reissues (the first half of them, anyway). Pleasingly conventional, “An Education” teaches us again that there’s almost nothing harder to resist in movies than a girl’s makeover, particularly when the change is philosophical as well as cosmetic.

In Danish director Lone Scherfig’s believably bright frame, Mulligan’s prep-schooled Jenny goes from balancing books on her head and reading Camus to singing along with Juliette Gréco LPs and dating David (Peter Sarsgaard), who coaxes her out of the rain and into his car under the guise of deep concern for her cello. With the reluctant approval of Dad (Alfred Molina), Jenny attends a concert with dreamy David, who could be referring to “An Education” when he calls the performance “as classical as you can get.”

And predictable, too, is this trifle, as adapted by Nick Hornby from Lynn Barber’s memoir — but so what? Jenny, who starts skipping school to attend auctions of pre-Raphaelite art and the like, falters in her studies, but excels at receiving David’s too-good-to-be-true courtship — no surprises there. David, telling little white lies alongside bigger ones, charms the pants off Dad before doing the same, but literally, with Jenny, whose devirginized deadpan quip is one for the ages: “All that poetry and all those songs about something that lasts no time at all?”

Indeed, it doesn’t take long before Jenny gets her diploma from the school of hard knocks, her education bumping hard against those pre-revolutionary gender codes. If, Oxford or no, all she’s expected to do is marry well, then why not have a little fun first? It’s a credit to Scherfig and Hornby — and Mulligan — that “An Education” remains enjoyable even as it’s administering its profoundly simple lessons.

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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