Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Doris is Not All Right: "Ouija" prequel smarter, scarier and more stylish than its predecessor

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
99 min., rated PG-13. 

An occult parlor board game used to contact the dead at slumber parties was an ominous idea not satisfactorily fulfilled in 2014’s slick, harmlessly hokey but wholly forgettable “Ouija.” With indie writer-director Mike Flanagan, one of the horror genre’s top filmmakers to watch after 2016’s sensational “Hush,” now at the helm, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is able to right a lot of the wrongs of the first film, which was tamed by its PG-13 rating and only employed the most tepid-to-cut-rate frights to scare 13-year-olds into their sleeping bags. This prequel still retains a seemingly wimpy PG-13 but making a difference is that it is actually unsettling and has been expertly directed without the air of a work-for-hire effort. With this fresh start marrying the innocent with the horrifically wicked, all signs point to an improvement for the Hasbro-branded “mystifying oracle” and the reputation of horror follow-ups.

It’s Los Angeles, 1967. After the death of her husband, widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) has had to raise her two girls, high school sophomore Lina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson). She runs a business out of her home—some might call it a scam—as a fortune teller, welcoming paying clients who want to communicate with their late loved ones and hopefully giving them peace. Lina and Doris assist their mother in making sure the séance readings go off without a hitch, until Lina opines that their tricks are getting a bit stale. Once Alice brings a Ouija board into the house as a new prop, Doris begins playing with the planchette to talk to Daddy. As Alice learns her youngest can act as a conduit to the spirit world, she keeps Doris from school, which alerts Principal Father Hogan (Henry Thomas). Pretty soon, Doris is channeling the powers of something far more evil.

Both a period piece and a possession chiller, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is also something of an origin story, set almost 50 years before the 2014 teenybopper flick which introduced Paulina Zander, played by the overqualified Lin Shaye. By filling in the backstory of the Zander family and their “wonderful talking board" and remaining consistent with the series, writer-director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (2013’s “Oculus”) can’t completely disregard Stiles White-directed first film. Without comparing the two films too much, the filmmaking is far from lazy and generic and with a clearly singular vision on display. There is a much greater concentration on character this time around instead of watching boringly pretty teenagers get picked off in one-by-one fashion. The scare tactics are rarely of the false variety with bombastic musical stings (only one nightmare sequence was counted and no character sneaks up on another). Even working on a brand within the studio system, director Flanagan actually knows how to toy with an audience’s expectations on occasion, resisting the predictable jolt when it’s expected. And, rather than noticeably cutting corners to appease a wider crowd, he demonstrates restraint when needed.

If it weren’t for characters we gave a hoot about and were written with lives outside of the narrative, the horror would hold less impact and suspense would be nil. Filmmaker Flanagan knows this and gives his actors more meat to work with. Before now, Elizabeth Reaser has never been given the major screen role that she deserves. A beacon of warmth and sympathy, Reaser is wonderful as Alice Zander; she will do anything for her two girls and does truly believe that her fortune-telling work could do some good for other people in grief. The stakes are also high when the family receives a foreclosure notice on their doorstep. As Lina, Annalise Basso (who previously worked with the director on “Oculus”) is just as strong, and then there’s Lulu Wilson (2014’s “Deliver Us from Evil”) as Doris. Incredibly effective once the precocious girl becomes a vessel for evil, Wilson sells it as creepily well as any acting veteran could; her monologue to Lina's unsuspecting senior crush (Parker Mack), telling him how it feels to be strangled, is seriously chilling. Finally, Henry Thomas provides more emotional depth than most post-“Exorcist” priest roles as Father Tom Hogan, the principal of the girls’ Catholic school who has lost his spouse, too.

Before any of the serious chills, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” taps into the playful giddiness one might actually feel when pushing the Ouija planchette around with a group of pals. Lina is first introduced to the spirit board at a friend’s house, against the wishes of one of them who is very easily spooked, making for some quite funny results. As actual horror is concerned, there is plenty that unnerves, whether it be a look through the planchette, to a disturbing school-recess incident aimed at Doris’ bully with a slingshot. Also, the sight of the supernatural entity taking over Doris’ body, starting with widening her mouth like putty, is hair-raisingly sinister. The cherry on top of a horror film that is both smart and scary is when it is this classily constructed with loving late-’60s period detail and elegant camera techniques; an era-appropriate Universal Pictures logo and a scratchy title card with a copyright at the bottom that kick off the film are nice touches. This being a contemporary horror film, the film isn’t completely free of jump scares. When there are too many, the surprise trick of the jump scare is rendered laughable and even exasperating, but Flanagan uses them sparingly and places them with proper care and timing that even a handful of them are real doozies. If only every supernatural horror film with a colon and subtitle could prosper like “Ouija: Origin of Evil” when it’s handled with style and jittery, devilishly fun inspiration.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Doing Math and Taking Names: Sluggish, convoluted execution at odds with amusing premise in "The Accountant"

The Accountant (2016)
128 min., rated R.

It’s a shame how one’s evaluation of a film can shift almost halfway from interest to frustration and disappointment over the course of two hours. Set up as a slow-burn thriller, “The Accountant” is compelling as a bizarre genre-bender until it’s not. The film attempts to be convincing and an amusing hoot almost simultaneously, the low-key, sluggish approach by director Gavin O’Connor (2011's "Warrior") at odds with the needlessly convoluted script by Bill Dubuque (2014’s “The Judge”). Imagine if John Nash from “A Beautiful Mind” somehow procured a particular set of skills that of a Jason Bourne or John Wick.

Fronting himself as an antisocial accountant near Chicago, Christian “Chris” Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a savant mathematician who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a young boy. Oh, and he’s a crack shot and can crunch more than just numbers. After signing a contract with robotics company CEO Lamar Black (John Lithgow) and CFO sister Rita (Jean Smart) when more than $60 million goes missing from the books, Chris is paired up with chipper junior accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), employed by Black. When he works alone and uncovers a series of illegal transactions overnight, Dana is intrigued by this man and becomes the one person in Chris’s life with whom he makes a connection. Meanwhile, soon-to-be-retired Treasury Department director Ray King (J.K. Simmons) blackmails analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), forcing her to find a certain accountant whom Ray has tracked in surveillance. And, let's not forget, a mysterious hitman (Jon Bernthal) is also targeting Chris and Dana.

“The Accountant” works best when it’s tracking Chris through his unique upbringing and his precise, albeit unexceptional, way of life. When their mother (Mary Kraft) couldn’t handle taking care of an autistic child, young Chris (Seth Lee) and his brother (Jake Presley) were raised and trained in combat by their strict military father (Robert C. Treveiler). As a result, now as an adult, Chris completes a ritual of myofascial release therapy every night where he cranks the heavy-metal music and turns on a strobe light while rolling a wooden dowel over his shins. With a quiet, more reserved demeanor, Ben Affleck is surprisingly well-suited to the role of Christian Wolff, and somehow, his portrayal of autism is hardly ever mannered. Also helping are the quirky interactions between Chris and Dana; Anna Kendrick cannot help but be luminous by just showing up, and her charming work as Dana makes for a likely partner. Nearly everything else gets in the way.

There is a welcome deadpan sense of humor trickling through "The Accountant," which, given its silly premise could have been titled “Accounting Sniper." Otherwise, it is somber and all over the place, ultimately unsure about what it wants to do and how to go about it. The film tantalizes at first in watching the pieces of the so-called puzzle come together. Then, as the viewer connects the dots even before characters explain their motivations, major plot turns are revealed to be either shrug-worthy or forgone conclusions, adding to the film’s protracted length. How a hired gun (Jon Bernthal) and his assassination operation fits into the proceedings counts as both. Also, the extraneous “B” plot involving the Treasury Department investigation is absorbing until it’s anticlimactic. Even as a muddle, "The Accountant" is watchable and half of a good movie, but less definitely would have equaled more. When the viewer tries to reach for something at the end, his or her hand just closes on air. 

Grade: C +

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Like Old Times: Duplass and Paulson make lovely conversation in "Blue Jay"

Blue Jay (2016)
80 min., not rated.

Like kissing cousins with Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise/“Before Sunset”/“Before Midnight” trilogy, “Blue Jay” is a walker-and-talker of an indie about a former couple reuniting as friends. Working from a script by Mark Duplass (who stars as one-half of the on-screen couple), director Alex Lehmann makes his feature debut and, as he should, invests a lot of trust in the naturalistic connection between Duplass and Sarah Paulson. Mature and intimately staged, “Blue Jay” is a little two-hander that almost feels like it effortlessly could have been made in less than two weeks. It’s not an action-packed night out at the movies, but to viewers who don’t have Attention Deficit Disorder, more than enough happens to make it a pleasure being in the company of two endlessly engaging actors. 

Out of touch for more than two decades, former high school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) run into each other at a grocery store in their California hometown. He is back to fix up his mother’s house to put it on the market after her recent death, and she is in town visiting her pregnant sister. He is married to his work, and she is married to an older man with stepchildren. Once they get to talking, Jim and Amanda grab coffee at a cafe, The Blue Jay, and make up for lost time later at Jim’s old house. As if nothing has changed between them, Jim and Amanda fall back into the past. 

Gently observant and exquisitely performed, “Blue Jay” plays out like a lovely 80-minute conversation. The film is reliant on the momentum of Jim and Amanda catching up and reopening their past, not on a long-winded plot of forced incidents and misunderstandings. As Jim, Mark Duplass (HBO’s “Togetherness”) poignantly essays the part of a lost man like Jim who doesn’t know what he’s doing in his life; the role here isn’t far removed from his character work in 2012’s “Your Sister’s Sister” and 2014’s “The One I Loved.” In a way she only knows how to be, Sarah Paulson (FX’s “American Horror Story”) is exceptional, finding a vivacious spirit and so much nuance as Amanda, who isn’t opposed to relive the same chemistry she had with an old boyfriend, even if it’s just for one night. As a pair, these two bring major context to what these characters had without the crutch of flashbacks. When they re-enter Jim’s untouched bedroom and press play on his old cassette-tape player, their listening to an old recording of the former couple pretending to be married gains insight into the history of Jim and Amanda’s then-relationship. The use of Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love Yous” also manages to get one’s heart fluttering. 

Within the budgetary parameters of the formerly called mumblecore aesthetic, “Blue Jay” is refreshingly stripped-down filmmaking. It’s strikingly shot in nostalgic black and white and captures a sense of wistfulness with a few snapshots of small-town Americana. In stepping away from the film, it might not all dramatically stick, but at the same time, it is full of achingly bittersweet feeling in the smallest of moments that can’t help but be relatable. Even when wounds are opened and regrets are felt, it feels organic to Jim and Amanda's day-long interaction, and then there is a cathartic sense of closure or maybe even a vital, hopeful step toward another shot. The viewer is ultimately rewarded by just watching Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson carry the film with help from the words of Duplass’ script and the subtle dance of Lehmann’s camera.


It Follows War: Sociopolitical climate and ghostly horror partner up in chilling "Under the Shadow"

Under the Shadow (2016)
84 min., rated PG-13.

Many who steer clear of it might forget or not even realize that the horror genre is often used to express more kinds of evil than just masked killers stalking and slicing up sex-starved teens. Beneath the scares, George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” commented on 1968’s racism and 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was Tobe Hooper’s response to government lies during the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Now, take “Under the Shadow,” an Iranian horror film about the culture’s sociopolitical climate and female subjugation that marks the feature directorial debut of Iranian-born filmmaker Babak Anvari. Before the supernatural element of an Islamic spirit even creeps in, the setting in war-torn Tehran is frightening enough to make one worried for the safety of a mother and daughter. “Under the Shadow” admirably makes the claim that war and ghostly entities can work together to evoke terror in a horror film.

During the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a wife and mother living in a Tehran apartment building. Returning home after being forced to quit medical school for her political protests over the revolution, she is frustrated to have to give up her career goals. When her doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is soon drafted to a military post, Shideh is relegated to a routine of working out with Jane Fonda on prohibited VHS and taking care of their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) on her own. Each day, the people of Tehran are in alert with air raids and threatened by missile attacks, Shideh and Dorsa taking refuge with the neighbors in the basement of the building. Unlike other families in the complex, Shideh refuses to leave the city or their home, despite Iraj urging her to take Dorsa to stay with his parents. When a missile does hit on the top floor, it brings something with the wind — the wrath of a djinn.

Patiently directed by Babak Anvari, “Under the Shadow” is never turned into a dumbed-down box of scares. This is a welcome slow-burn, as the genre moments come gradually as an extension of the film’s already-horrific milieu. After Iraj is gone, the relationship between Shideh and Dorsa runs hot and cold. Before the djinn even makes its presence known, Dorsa’s favorite doll goes missing and then she comes down with a fever, and Shideh becomes very irritable after finding her workout video unspooled in the trash bin. Playing a woman stripped of her passion in the medical field and now restricted to her gender-based role, Narges Rashidi is excellent, remaining sympathetic even when her character hardens. When she has the chance to flee the home with Dorsa, Shideh doesn’t get too far, as she is stopped by police in the otherwise empty streets and taken to the station to be accused of being indecent for not wearing her hijab in public. Maybe she is better off staying put and defending herself from the malevolent imp.

A film as ambitious as “Under the Shadow” wants to have its horror both ways and, for the most part, earns it. Writer-director Anvari deftly suggests the notion that one evil spurs on another, and he doesn’t let one overshadow the other. Metaphorical or not, the presence of the djinn is alarming, particularly in a few instances. When Shideh wakes up to someone in bed next to her, it definitely isn’t her husband. The sight of the djinn wrapped in a printed fabric sheet is also used to jolting effect. Cinematographer Kit Fraser effectively creates a sense of claustrophobia, the windows in Shideh’s home all marked with tape in an X-shape never an option to escape. If it’s not quite as suffocatingly atmospheric or an unparalleled standout in the horror genre, “Under the Shadow” still packs a chilling punch, no matter where the audience lives.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

She's So Gone: "Girl on the Train" absorbing but not much more than well-acted potboiler

The Girl on the Train (2016)
112 min., rated R.

There is enough good over the duration of “The Girl on the Train” to keep this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel on the rails, but with one caveat: expect less than meets the eye. As this twisty page-turner has been likened to “Gone Girl” and the supremely crafted 2014 film adaptation, there are thematic similarities but even more significant differences. Whereas director David Fincher’s verve, precision and wicked wit gave Gillian Flynn’s best-seller a delectable kick, director Tate Taylor (2011’s “The Help”) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (2014’s “Men, Women & Children”), who transplants the story’s setting from London to New York, don’t quite find the same success with Hawkins’ book. Part character study, part soapy melodrama, and part domestic whodunit, the film nevertheless lives up to the allure of the paperback pulp in the way everything unfolds to the strength of the performances of a uniformly attractive cast. When you get right down to it, “The Girl on the Train” winds up being a skillfully acted Lifetime potboiler without turning campy.

Twice a day, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) commutes from the suburbs to Manhattan for work by train. Each time, she looks at the houses adjacent to the tracks, particularly one that belongs to a seemingly perfect married couple whom she has never met. Being divorced and an alcoholic, Rachel loses herself when gazing from afar, wandering what their lives are like and wanting what they have. Said couple is pretty blonde Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who look like they couldn’t be any more in love. Megan is a nanny two doors down to the baby of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he was having an affair when still married. One of those mornings, Rachel sees Megan on her balcony kissing another man who isn’t Scott but maybe Megan’s therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), but what happens later that day becomes fuzzy by her memory lapses when Rachel experiences another drunken blackout. It turns out that Megan has gone missing when Rachel is questioned by hard-nosed Detective Riley (Allison Janney). What's a girl on a train to do?

In its setup, “The Girl on the Train” gives the impression that it will play throughout as an emotionally rich character triptych with three unreliable narrators in the form of Rachel, Megan, and Anna. When it stays on this path and we follow Rachel's shaky perception of the other women, it is awfully intriguing. None of them are perfect, and all of them have either had a child, wanted a child but could not conceive, or never wished to have a child. And as for the men, all of them are red herrings, whether they are controlling or just suspicious, while there’s a real misandrist treatment of one of them. Above all (even the central murder mystery), Rachel’s journey toward psychological clarity is plenty absorbing. Over the course of the film, the details of Rachel’s tragedy are gradually revealed and allow her to be more empathetic. Like “Gone Girl,” part of the enticing thrill and fun here is peeling away the layers with its “Rashomon”-quality narrative structure that keeps weaving between time and perspectives to reveal each character’s salacious or tragic truth.

Bleary-eyed and admirably unglamorous, a well-cast Emily Blunt retains her British accent that only makes her Rachel even more of an outsider. Diving right in to play such a broken, pathetic protagonist who may or may not be trusted, Emily Blunt is riveting, her raw and vivid work as a blackout drunk being the most noteworthy asset the film has to offer. Haley Bennett (2016’s “The Magnificent Seven”) gets to add shades of vulnerability to Megan, who could have just remained an objectified sexpot but holds far more complexity and insecurity. Anna isn’t nearly as fully drawn, but Rebecca Ferguson (2015’s “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) brings some sympathy to an underwritten role that of a cold “other woman.” Luke Evans, Justin Theroux, and Édgar Ramírez all do what they can, while Laura Prepon, as Rachel’s roommate Cathy, acts as a voice of reason and then disappears halfway through for no reason.

Sleekly photographed (though Tate Taylor’s editorial choices are often questionable) and earning a boost from Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristic but fittingly haunting score, "The Girl on the Train" initially seems weighty before it settles for tawdry. Without the element of surprise, the film would not work at all. That isn’t to say that the final reveal of who was involved with Megan’s disappearance will come as a jaw-dropping shock—through the process of elimination, it might become clear to some more quickly than others—but the screenplay does a fair job of throwing the viewer off-balance beforehand and wringing tension out of how Rachel fits into the crime. While “The Girl on the Train” might not be the water-cooler thriller of 2016, it is most certainly pretty juicy guilty-pleasure trash. No matter the quality of the destination, the ride there is still worthwhile.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Don't Die: Nasty "31" an alternately numbing and rattling Rob Zombie freakshow

31 (2016)
102 min., rated R.

Having shown some maturation with 2013’s creepy, more artistically disciplined “The Lords of Salem,” auteur Rob Zombie harkens back to 2003's “House of 1000 Corpses” and 2005's "The Devil's Rejects." His latest effort luckily doesn't feel as assaultive and thrown-together as the former, a shrill, unpleasant mess, nor is it on the same scripting level as the latter, the filmmaker's magnum opus. Rest assured, his crowd-funded and low-budgeted “31” is grimy, nasty and down-and-dirty but as pure and blunt as a grindhouse B-movie. Zombie leaves all hope and polish for dead, never playing it safe and caking his film in ugly grime yet again. The idea behind this one comes from Zombie reading a statistic that Halloween is the top day of the year where people go missing, so as a result, “31” is like “The Most Dangerous Game” with murderous clowns.

On Halloween 1976, a van of carnival workers headed to their next venue in the dusty Southwest is ambushed and kidnapped. When they come to, they become the victimized attractions for Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson) and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr), three wealthy Satanists in powdered wigs who wage bets on who can survive 12 hours in a labyrinthine factory. The name of the game is “31,” and once one sadistic clown is unleashed upon the remaining group at a time, all Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and Levon (Kevin Jackson) can do is pick their defensive weapon and not get cut into ribbons. The odds are not in their favor.

As uncomplicated plot loglines go, “31” is pretty much death-for-death’s-sake carnage with one goal for the characters the viewer is intended to follow: stay alive. The carnie “contestants” are thinly drawn but more appealingly colorful than most archetypal “Rob Zombie Movie” characters who usually just spout off oh-so-adorably crass things, however, we really only care by default whether they live or die. Luckily, Meg Foster’s earthy matriarch type Venus and a fierce Sheri Moon Zombie (the director’s wife, muse and lucky charm) as Charly get to be the main badasses.

The antagonists, though, are a more interesting lot. Where else are you going to find a Spanish-speaking midget Nazi named Sick-Head? E.G. Daily (best known for playing Dottie back in 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and her endless voice credits, including Tommy Pickles from Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats”) gets to make 55 look like just a number and puts her own demented sexpot spin on Sex-Head, a dollfaced, lollipop-licking killer. Then, with his whole face smeared in white make-up and his shit-eating grin stained by his own blood, Richard Brake is the unsettling face of “31.” Established from the black-and-white pre-credit monologue where he blathers like a juicy Quentin Tarantino psychopath character before killing a priest, Brake’s work as talkative evil incarnate Doom-Head is scarily committed and disturbingly fascinating. Dressed as French aristocrats, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr are having a twisted ball as the game’s puppet masters but feel disconnected from the rest of the film, especially since they somehow have the ability to be omniscient spectators.

A visual mixed bag with enough striking, atmospheric imagery (for one, Rob Zombie knows how to light the hell out of a graffitied bathroom), “31” could not have been made by anyone else, and a Zombie joint can rarely ever be called boring. As a horror filmmaker, he is skilled at injecting no-holds-barred danger and urgency, not sparing anyone if he can help it and almost doing for Steven Tyler’s “Dream On” what he did with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and its powerful usage in “The Devil’s Rejects.” Like in all of his films, except maybe “The Lords of Salem,” there is a trashy stridency that can be off-putting here, even if that's the point. It is also occasionally hindered by insanely spasmodic handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing—two simultaneous fights with chainsaw-wielding clown brothers Schizo-Head (David Ury) and Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) barely hang by a coherent thread—but director Zombie has a recognizable artistic style and he’s sticking to it. Alternately numbing and rattling, “31” is a balls-to-the-wall, carnivalesque killing spree that doesn’t merely settle for in-your-face and goes for bludgeon-to-the-head. In other words, it’s probably exactly what Zombie fans will crave.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Lovecraftian YA: "Miss Peregrine" flawed but delightfully strange and distinctly Burton

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016) 
127 min., rated PG-13.

Based on Ransom Riggs’ 2011 novel, itself based on a series of eerie vintage photographs, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” falls right within the gothic, imaginatively kooky wheelhouse of director Tim Burton (2014’s “Big Eyes”). Though it’s not an original property, this horror-fantasy YA hybrid is fanciful and delightfully strange, which is to say that it feels like pure Burton. Adapted by Jane Goldman (2014’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service”), the film might not always know what to do with all of its characters, but in taking visual cues from the pen-and-ink illustrations of Edward Gorey, along with the monster design of H.P. Lovecraft, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is impeccably designed without feeling as plastic and soulless as an “Alice in Wonderland.” Young children may not be ready for this one, despite “children” being in the title, but Burton apologists who share his darkly whimsical sensibilities should find it more engaging than most.

Florida teenager Jake (Asa Butterfield) used to lap up the stories his grandfather, Abe (Terence Stamp), would tell him about a special orphanage for peculiar children on a Welsch island of Cairnholm during World War II. Now a little older and wiser, Jake accepts that the stories were fictional, until he finds his grandfather bloodied, having had his eyes gouged out. Abe’s odd final words also involved Jake finding a bird, the loop, and September 1943. Encouraged by his psychiatrist (Allison Janney) to find closure with his grandfather’s death, Jake decides to use the clues from a book Abe left him and travel to Cairnholm with his father (Chris O’Dowd). Once there, Jake finds his way to the orphanage in ruins, until he gets thrown into a time loop, where every day is September 3, 1943, the day before the Germans bombed the abode of headmistress Miss Alma LeFay Peregrine (Eva Green) and her children with peculiarities. None of them age, as they keep happily reliving the same loop, but they all might as well be done for by the invisible, soul-eating Hollows, led by white-eyed shapeshifter Barron (Samuel L. Jackson). It is Jake’s destiny to protect his new family with his own peculiarity.

It isn’t too peculiar that “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is best when sticking to Jake going through a day with Miss Peregrine and her peculiar children. When it comes time to follow a plot, the film becomes too busy and expository for its own good, but Tim Burton still has a way with eccentricity that avoids feeling like mere window dressing. As our conduit, Jake is bland and inexpressive by comparison to everyone else, and unfortunately, Asa Butterfield (who was so full of promise in “Hugo” and “Ender’s Game”) comes off so flat that his presence is merely functional here. He does get himself a love interest in the wide-eyed Ella Purnell, a captivating Emma, who controls air and must wear lead shoes to prevent herself from floating away. The peculiar children are memorable, though with so many of them and only so much time they aren’t all fully realized as characters. The script defines them by their peculiarities, but at least they all become useful in some way by the end. For instance, there is an invisible boy named Millard (Cameron King) and two burlap-masked twins (Joseph and Thomas Odwell); Olive (Lauren McCrostie) is a firestarter; Enoch (Finlay MacMillan) can reanimate the dead with animal hearts; Hugh (Milo Parker) is a boy with bees living in his body; and Claire (Raffiella Chapman) hides a toothy second mouth in the back of her head behind blonde ringlets.

Having made hay out of tepid projects with her seductive vampiness and veritable talent (2014’s “300: Rise of an Empire” and “Sin City: A Dame to Kill For”), Eva Green is always one to watch, and as the pipe-smoking Miss Peregrine, she expertly multitasks maternal warmth and enigmatic aloofness. We learn that Miss Peregrine was born an “ymbrine,” who can manipulate time and take the form of a bird, but it’s just too bad she sits out the third act. Relishing in another baddie role after “Kingsman: The Secret Service,” Samuel L. Jackson aims over the top with his hamming as Barron and creates some menace doing it. On the other hand, a treasure trove of talent is criminally squandered. For a spell, Judi Dench wanders in for little reason that some of her work as fellow yumbrine Miss Avocet may have hit the cutting room floor; as her little screen time remains, it’s just a mystery what drew the dame to this bit role. Chris O’Dowd and particularly Kim Dickens are neglected as Jake’s parents. Rupert Everett also shows up, initially unrecognizable as a suspicious ornithologist.

With eyeball-munching entering the equation at some point, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” works as impish entertainment, especially when it’s being downright peculiar. Emma filling a sunken ship with air from her lungs is wondrously executed, while Jake leading Emma on a rope along the beach, as if she were a kite, is a lovely image. The grotesquely amusing sight of Frankenstein’d toys puppet-mastered to life recall the macabre of earlier Burton, as does the creepy concept art of the Hollow monsters. Not to mention, the animal-shaped shrubbery in Miss Peregrine’s courtyard is an instant reminder of “Edward Scissorhands.” The fun and wildly weird climax really sparks to life, though, during a carnival on Blackpool Pleasure Beach’s boardwalk. In a nod to Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion effects with undeniable creativity, Jake and the peculiars use an army of skeletons to battle the Hollows, which are made visible by snowballs and cotton candy. Making sense of the time-loop business won’t satisfy those who hold everything under a microscope, but all of the paradoxical particulars is easier to swallow than the final destination. Screenwriter Jane Goldman reportedly reworked the ending of the novel, and while it’s not a complete deal-breaker, a blissful conclusion seems like a dishonest and icky choice for a story about mortality. Not without reservations, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” does have a sense of melancholy at its core, but even more so, Tim Burton’s distinct stamp and affection for misfits all over it. 


Friday, September 30, 2016

Dumb and Dumber: "Masterminds" not without some giggles but pretty mediocre

Masterminds (2016) 
94 min., rated PG-13.

For a film that posits to be “based on a true story,” “Masterminds” (once called “Armored Car,” as seen on the slate in the outtakes) is not some kind of hard-hitting docudrama exposé or cautionary tale. Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo bank robbery in Charlotte, North Carolina—the second-largest one on U.S. soil—this caper farce is actually a PG-13, Lorne Michaels-produced goof about a bunch of oafs with slapstick stunts and gross-out jokes with vaginal cream and defecation in the pool. Best known for 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite” and 2005’s “Nacho Libre,” director Jared Hess does have a way of treating his characters with equal mockery and affection, but one wonders what the Coen brothers could have done with this stranger-than-fiction tall tale. Faint praise, to be sure, “Masterminds” is much less dire than most will be expecting, based on principal photography wrapping over two years ago, multiple release delays and the bankruptcy of its studio.

Working as an armored car security guard for cash-handling business Loomis Fargo, David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) seeks a little adventure for once in his life. After he and co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), with whom he’s long carried a torch, joke about what they would do with the money if they robbed their work, Kelly’s pal, Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), gets the idea to pressure the none-too-bright David into making him their inside man. Since David has the key to the vault, he succumbs and successfully steals $17 million and then, according to the rest of Steve’s plan, buys a plane ticket to Mexico. Kelly’s conscience comes through when realizing Steve has made David the fall guy and become mighty greedy with the loot. When David is identified in Mexico, Steve hires a hit man, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), to do away with the "mastermind." Stupid is as stupid does.

Like one character’s elegant description of a situation—“dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes”—that might be a fair assessment of “Masterminds,” too. Director Hess and screenwriters Chris Bowman & Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey bring such an absurdist streak to this material that most of it rarely takes on a condescending or mean-spirited tone, but whether or not it’s always amusing is often a different matter. White-trash quirkiness and David’s bumbling incompetence are the source—sometimes, alleged source—of the comedy. Two of David’s disguises, one including feline contacts and a long blonde wig and another that makes him look like NBC film critic Gene Shalit, are also very funny. It’s hard not to laugh at the committed mugging of Zach Galifianakis and at his expense, but his David never comes off as much more than a harmless dolt and patsy. Kristen Wiig remains likable, even as her Kelly uses her feminine wiles on David and acts as an accomplice in making him look like the sole criminal, while Owen Wilson doesn’t really get any standout moments as the film’s main scumbag.

Having stolen scenes left and right over the summer in “Ghostbusters,” the wild-eyed Kate McKinnon doesn’t step far out of sketch territory with her out-there shtick as David’s fiancée Jandice, but nearly choice she makes is hilariously inspired. When Jandice is asked why she’s marrying David, she explains that she met David at her husband’s funeral, “That one’s dead. This one’s alive. I’ll take the live one.” Cued to Enya’s “Only Time,” a montage of David and Jandice’s awkward and just-plain-bad poses for engagement photos is also a hysterical highlight. Leslie Jones (the third Ghostbuster in this movie) gets more jokes thrown her way as an FBI agent, as someone comments on how she’s tall enough to be in the NBA and, at a later point, confuses her for a male detective. She handles such slams with aplomb, but there isn't much else for her to do. Even if he seems to wander in from a different (and much darker) movie, Jason Sudeikis might have the most against-type role, not playing the smoothest guy in the room as hitman Mike McKinney. When he and David end up bonding over 1961 classic “The Parent Trap,” it does lend the film a surprising bit of sweetness.

“Masterminds” is a certain type of comedy, twofold. It’s the type of comedy that offers a few giggles in the form of random non-sequiturs, but the viewer won’t really remember the cause of said giggles after the fact. The laughs aren’t all that memorable, but at least some exist rather than none at all. It’s also the type of comedy that feels like a project beneath everyone’s talents, all of them playing caricatures who aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, as if the actors signed on before they became household names. Every moment that works is more on account of the cast and only their collaborative comedic skill keeps this from being a total disaster; it's just a mostly inoffensive waste of time. With worse comedies out there raising one’s tolerance for mediocrity, “Masterminds” scrapes by from not being rancid or too annoying. 


Thursday, September 29, 2016

River Monsters: “Deepwater Horizon” simply but grippingly told

Deepwater Horizon (2016)
107 min., rated PG-13.

Documenting the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, “Deepwater Horizon” is simply but grippingly told. Being based on true events—and opening with an audio play of one of the survivors about to give his sworn testimony in court—the film risks lacking suspense, and yet that never seems to be a problem. Director Peter Berg (2014’s “Lone Survivor”) skillfully relives the BP oil drilling rig explosion and fire that happened on April 20, 2010 to 126 crew members. It’s a realistic, immensely scary dramatization mounted with harrowing intensity, just not much more than that, landing somewhere between a pyrotechnic-laden disaster pic and survivalist human drama.

Leaving wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) for 21 days and nights, technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) goes off on a routine tour of duty on Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling rig 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. His boss, Captain Jim Harrell (Kurt Russell), is angered by the BP executives’ go-ahead to run a pressure test that ensures the integrity of the oil well with malfunctioning equipment. Despite the readings of red-zone pressure, the Transocean workers follow through with the test to make up for BP being behind schedule and over their budget. Then, a geyser of mud, gas and water erupts through the pipe, and the vessel is engulfed in flames. With debris and fire surrounding him, Mike must risk his own safety to rescue his remaining crew members.

Scrupulously crafted and technically imposing, “Deepwater Horizon” is an honorable story of heroism and survival. Basing their screenplay on David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul’s New York Times article “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (2013’s “World War Z”) and Matthew Sand (2009’s “Ninja Assassin”) are streamlined and workmanlike in their handling of characters. A scene at home, where Mike’s daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) practices showing and telling about her science project, is pretty on the nose. When the Coke can, standing in as the oil rig, explodes, it’s some heavy foreshadowing for what’s to come, and yet, it’s an efficient way to introduce outsiders to how deepwater oil drilling works. Jimmy Harrell asks one of the clueless BP workers to remove his magenta tie because the color signifies a severe warning in their industry. In the first half once the characters are on board, a lot of the shop talk—while more comprehensible than “The Big Short”—will go over many heads, but it’s accessibly conveyed. As director Peter Berg mounts the lead-up to the oil blowout with a fair amount of dread, waiting for the explosion is like lying in wait for the shark from “Jaws” to attack.

Earning top billing, Mark Wahlberg solidly inhabits the role of Mike Williams as a likable family man, sharing some emotionally stirring scenes before and after the horrific event. When Mike steps into action, he is a believable flesh-and-blood hero. As Mike’s loving, concerned wife Felicia, Kate Hudson is mostly called upon to canoodle with Mark Wahlberg, talk to him over Skype, and then later sit and wait after she can’t get any information on her husband’s status. She has a little more to do than Laura Linney in “Sully,” but somebody had to take the obligatory part to represent all of the wives, and Hudson does it with conviction. Everyone else, including Kurt Russell, who gets one scene with real-life stepdaughter Hudson as the crew's trusted boss; Dylan O’Brien (2015’s “The Scorch Trials”), as floorhand Caleb Holloway; and Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”), a charismatic presence as sole female navigation crew member Andrea Fleytas, is there to try and stay alive. Lastly, John Malkovich gets to be heartless and greedy with a thick Louisiana drawl but too few shades in between as BP exec Donald Vidrine; ultimately, though, the disaster itself is the real antagonist here.

As a story, “Deepwater Horizon” moves in a straight line from start to finish. That the eleven casualties aren’t really given the time of day as fleshed-out people is a missed opportunity, but what director Berg is able to spectacularly stage should not be marginalized. Where the film excels is in building stressful tension and “you-are-there” urgency, along with ratcheting up the stakes with plenty of bone-crunching moments that will have the squeamish turning away. Attention is held for the full 107 minutes, and if all Berg wanted to do was immerse the viewer in this disaster without exploitation, then the film accomplishes what it set out to do.