Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mighty Morphin Nostalgia: "Power Rangers" goofy but better than expected

Power Rangers (2017) 
124 min., rated PG-13.

Every generation has its nostalgic property, but how does one reboot a cheesy, admittedly uncool 1993 Fox Kids TV show about a team of color-coded superheroes mentored by an alien wizard for a 2017 audience? Lionsgate put their faith in the vision of director Dean Israelite (2015’s “Project Almanac”) and screenwriter John Gatins (2012’s “Flight”), and while there’s always room for improvement, this isn’t a bad start if the studio wants to rake in money and build a franchise. Even having watched the show as an undiscriminating child, seen the 1995 motion picture in theaters, been the red ranger for Halloween one year, and made my parents take me to see a live show, there wasn't any overwhelming desire to see “Power Rangers” for this writer, so within that context, expectations are mostly exceeded. No one should be going into it expecting anything more than a silly sci-fi adventure geared for teens, but as corporate filmmaking goes, it actually looks and feels like a legitimate feature film. 

About 65 million years ago during the Cenozoic Era, Power Rangers were tasked to protect Earthlings and look after a magical crystal. The Green Ranger, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), rebelled against her team and in a war against the Red Ranger, Zordon (Bryan Cranston), gets blown into the ocean. Now in the present-day in the small coastal town of Angel Grove, a new team of Power Rangers will have to assemble. After a school prank that loses him a potential football scholarship and leaves him under house arrest, star quarterback Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) ends up going to detention. Amidst the room of troubled misfits are recently unpopular cheerleader Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott) and on-the-spectrum genius Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler). When Jason, Billy, and Kimberly end up in a restricted area of a mine, they also meet up with daredevil Zack (Ludi Lin), who lives in a trailer and takes care of his ill mother, and angsty rebel Trini (Becky G.), the new girl in town. The five kids unearth color-coded power coins and come across the alien ship of Zordon, thus realizing the super strength and other powerful abilities they’ve adopted will be put to great use. Meanwhile, once the corpse of evil incarnate Rita is reanimated, she is hellbent on finding the Zero Crystal that is hidden underneath a Krispy Kreme (yes, the donut chain) and destroying the planet. With the fate of the universe at the hands of these teens, will they learn to work together and be able to morph into their warrior armor? Can they defeat Rita so she doesn’t return for the sequel?

After an unpromising, albeit brief, joke involving masturbating a cow, “Power Rangers” wants to be a somewhat grounded and grittier iteration of the ‘90s brand before embracing the kitschy tone of the for-kids-only TV show. Playing like “The Breakfast Club” by way of “Chronicle,” the film follows an origin story template with loose similarities to the 2015 rebranding of “Fantastic Four.” The high school drama involving Jason’s failed football career and tempestuous relationship with his father (David Denman) is of the “Varsity Blues”/“Friday Night Lights” variety, and Kimberly’s falling out with her squad is heavy-handed where her former friends meet her in the school bathroom to literally cut her out of a group photo. There is fun and wonder in the early sections of the kids figuring out their powers, as well as jumping between a mountainous crevice and finding a watery cave that leads them to Zordon’s spaceship. The viewer also eventually finds an emotional investment—it’s not deep but it certainly exists—in these five teenagers who become unlikely friends and an unlikely team of superheroes; a surprisingly touching use of Bootstraps’ cover of “Stand by Me” works in the film’s favor after the stakes get real. And while there is shameless product placement (read: don't forget to grab a Krispy Kreme donut after the show), it amusingly finds its place as a plot point.

Of the diverse but CW-ready actors, Dacre Montgomery and Naomi Scott are naturally engaging as Jason and Kimberly, while RJ Cyler (2015’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) proves to be the scene-stealing standout with the most charisma as Billy. Ludi Lin is likable as Zack, too, and Becky G. is eye-catching as Trini but a little stiff around the edges, but these latter two get less of a chance to form their characters or leave much of a mark. Bryan Cranston somehow brings gravitas to Zordon, a holographic face on a pin-art wall, while Bill Hader is passable comic relief as robotic sidekick Alpha 5. Above all else, a half-menacing, half-goofy Elizabeth Banks is undoubtedly having the most campy fun out of her castmates as super-evil villainess Rita Repulsa, and with a name like that, how could she not? Chewing scenery full-tilt like it’s a delicious dessert, she prowls around with her staff in hand and even slurping down pieces of gold at one point.

“Power Rangers” isn’t exactly a quote-unquote “good” movie, but it is the closest to what fans will ever get. Save for an early dizzying single take of Jason getting into a car accident, the cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd is unspectacular, taking on a junky shaky-cam shooting style and adding a few canted angles. Otherwise, in comparison to 1995’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” the production values are slick and more sophisticated without the look of Styrofoam sets. And as for the performances, they are acceptably earnest rather than terrible. Action sequences are fine but all move in the same stylistic fashion with slo-mo until the big showdown in the heart of Angel Grove when our heroes inside their dino Zord vehicles take on Rita and her monsters. The TV show’s theme song also gets less than thirty seconds to shine, and only fans will recognize the cameos turned in by two of the former Rangers in a crowd shot. As a vehicle for something that was pretty lame in retrospect, “Power Rangers” might even be too good for its source material.

Grade: C +

Monday, March 27, 2017

Serial Mommy: "Prevenge" gruesomely funny but also sneakily poignant

Prevenge (2017) 
88 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

It’s not every day the cinematic world sees a humorous slasher film where a pregnant mother is doing all the slashing, all because her baby tells her to do so. Seven months pregnant herself during an eleven-day shoot, British actress Alice Lowe goes all the way in establishing herself as a triple threat for her directorial debut. Lowe previously co-wrote and co-starred in 2013's Ben Wheatley-directed genre-mixer "Sightseers," and it was such a wickedly offbeat comedy of deathly errors that one can see how naturally Lowe’s tonal deftness came to fruition for "Prevenge."

Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant mother who’s not in control anymore. With her partner no longer in the picture, it is just Ruth and her unborn daughter still cooking in her belly. When she’s not having check-ups with her midwife (a scene-stealing Jo Hartley), Ruth is out on her quest throughout London for revenge (for reasons that come to light later on) and the pushy demands of Ruth’s baby in a high-pitched, Shirley Henderson-ish voice make her do it each time. Whether it’s offing a creepy pet store owner (Dan Renton Skinner), a leering bar DJ (Tom Davis), a cutthroat business manager (Kate Dickie), or an exercise nut (Gemma Whelan) who doesn’t take well to charity door-knockers, Ruth also gives each victim a kiss on the forehead, post-murder, like a mother does to her baby before bedtime.

What might sound merely like a sick joke about pregnancy driving one to kill, "Prevenge" is actually a gruesomely funny doozy of a tar-black comedy. Since Ruth’s first few victims happen to be men, it also initially leads one to read it as a man-hating fantasy, but it’s anything but. Writer-director-actor Alice Lowe seems to be getting at a nugget of truth most hormonal mothers can probably identify with (this male writer can only assume). Ruth is deeply bonded with the little girl growing inside her belly and will satisfy her no matter what, even if that means corrupting her mind in the process to see what is morally right and wrong. As we come to learn, Ruth’s lover died in an accident made by the tough choice of his rock-climbing team, but Lowe reveals it in a way that’s gradual and not so blunt. Even if the consequences of Ruth’s actions never seem to manifest, what is next for both Ruth and her baby is pretty clear by the end. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +

Thursday, March 23, 2017

When a Ghost Texts: Stewart mesmerizes in understated "Personal Shopper"

Personal Shopper (2017)
105 min., rated R.

Since 2015’s densely layered “Clouds of Sils Maria,” writer-director Olivier Assayas has found a muse in the intuitive Kristen Stewart, who was the first American actress to win the César Award. Their second collaboration occasionally has echoes of their first, from Stewart both times playing a high-profile celebrity’s personal assistant constantly on the phone to the audience feeling like they are in a fog. Slippery and enigmatic but soupy, “Personal Shopper” marries several different movies together and mostly strikes a fluid balance. It’s a ghost story, but it’s also a mournful arthouse drama about grief, a meditation on identity, a bit of a whodunit mystery, and there is a lot of shopping and sometimes even trying on high-priced clothing made for a runway. With zero preparation on what it is or where it’s headed, the film is unexpected and entrancing in that way, but unless its meandering form is rewarding enough for you, not every piece coheres in the end.

An American living in Paris, Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a modeling socialite, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). By day, she’s mopeds around the city, running errands, buying designer couture to fill her employer’s closet, and then dropping off bags of clothing and jewelry at Kyra’s apartment. Maureen is not inspired by her job, but the main reason she stays in Paris is because she’s waiting to make contact with recently deceased twin brother Lewis and make sure he has found peace. She is also a medium, and before her brother died of a heart attack due to a malformation of the heart—a condition that Maureen shares and could claim her life at any time—the siblings made an oath for the one who passes to send the live one a sign. When Maureen thinks she might have made contact in his large country home, which her brother’s former lover (Sigrid Bouaziz) is desperately trying to sell, she isn’t quite sure if the presence she feels (and eventually sees) is Lewis. At the same time, Maureen starts receiving texts from an unknown number while she’s on a train to London. Does she have a stalker? Is it the spirit of Lewis who now might have unlimited minutes in the afterlife?

Reading aloud the premise of “Personal Shopper” to a casual filmgoer is bound to make it sound sillier than how it plays out. Filmmaker Olivier Assayas weaves a mysterious, lonesome mood that only initially seems like it will be a conventional, jump-laden spookfest. Thankfully, it is not, but the film could have been alternately titled “Medium,” as Maureen spends the night in her brother’s old chateau, following creaks and dripping faucets in the dark. The supernatural elements are rather delicately handled, too, at least before Assayas chooses to actually show the gauzy poltergeist floating around and vomiting an ectoplasm. As noncommittal as it often is, the film is actually best when it’s just observing Maureen’s day. During her off time, Maureen researches the abstract art of Swedish painter Hilma af Klint and watches an old movie based on Victor Hugo holding séances. The film’s most masterful stroke is how Assayas breathlessly executes a stalking scene through, of all things, text messaging and ratchets up the teasing tension to a nail-biting degree when Maureen’s phone goes off airplane mode. When she begins receiving those strange texts, the anonymous texter gets personal, prodding information out of her that leads Maureen to fulfilling forbidden desires, like trying on shoes and clothing that belongs to Kyra. 

In step with the filmmaker’s understated European sensibility, “Personal Shopper” is concurrently contemplative and frustrating. Nothing seems accidental, though. It operates on a frequency that not everyone will take to, but Assayas takes his time, brings things to such a pin-drop hush, and deals in ambiguity so much that he never seems interested in satisfying audiences with easy answers. He obviously sees what Kristen Stewart can do, too, and gives her a lot of the heavy lifting. As Maureen, the 26-year-old actress mesmerizes, her nuanced, finely modulated work so subtle and unforced that one could easily accuse the performance of being a lot of nothing, but that would be a false assumption. Stewart speaks volumes without saying anything at all, essaying an adrift young woman with the desperation to make contact with her brother weighing her down. Yorick Le Saux’s camerawork is also a dream, particularly in one motion through a hotel hallway that follows an invisible presence down the hall, out of the elevator, and out of the lobby doors.

There is already a love-it-or-hate-it divide between both critics and audiences with “Personal Shopper,” but it would be entirely dishonest to say that the film doesn’t have the power to hold one’s attention as if under a spell. Like Maureen, the viewer never finds concrete answers and feels lost in limbo right along with her. That may be the point all along, but where it ends up in the last shot is almost too opaque to be accessible, holding back on the profoundly haunting catharsis Assayas clearly strives for. It’s easier to commend what the film tries to do rather than for what it ultimately achieves, and yet, it’s hard to stop thinking about the sections that do work and what the filmmaker’s muse can do with just a little.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Office Purge: "Belko Experiment" familiar but still effective at its sick job

The Belko Experiment (2017)
88 min., rated R.

James Gunn had a draft of “The Belko Experiment” in his drawer for quite a while now, even before the major studio nabbed him to direct 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The premise instantly calls to mind a hybrid of 2000’s “Battle Royale,” 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” and 2013’s “The Purge” in the workplace, and as an elevator pitch, it’s a depraved humdinger. Given that Gunn’s script has been directed by Greg McLean (he of the ruthlessly vicious “Wolf Creek” films and 2016’s worthless “The Darkness,” which called for a recovery project from him), the outcome is more unsparing and mean-spirited than darkly fun. “The Belko Experiment” might also think it gives its audience more to chew on afterward than it really does, but that still doesn’t take away from it being an effectively sick, nasty, berserk piece of work. It’s so good at its job that even after a while, it does admittedly become too blunt and and numbing for its own good.

A sterile, imposing office skyscraper in the middle of remote Bogotá, Colombia already seems off from the start, but on this particular day, the security is military grade, searching every worker’s car at the gate and sending home every local employee. The employees of nonprofit government company Belko Industries go on with their day, until a mysterious voice on an intercom makes an alarming announcement: if two out of the eighty people in the building are not killed within thirty minutes, then two will be chosen at random. Then the building goes on lockdown, steel shutters covering every window and door. With everyone leaving their own respective floors and meeting in the lobby, COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) tries to alleviate any panic and assures everyone that it is probably a sick joke. Of course, that’s before two employees’ heads explode from the inside from an implanted tracer tag (every worker has one to evade kidnappings in South America). Next up in this so-called social experiment, thirty people must be killed in two hours or sixty more will die. Only a divide can form when the still-sane Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to reason and think about their options, while others have a different point-of-view and no trouble getting down and dirty if it means more hope for them to survive.

More cynically minded than satirically savage, “The Belko Experiment” has nothing new to say or add to the conversation of human nature and man’s primal instincts coming out in a every-man-for-himself, kill-or-be-killed situation. If it’s a satire, what is it actually satirizing? Corporate power? The “what would you do?” concept has been mined many times before, sure, but it’s still a provocative hook by which to amp up the violent carnage and exploitation. For a straight-ahead genre pic that goes for the jugular, director Greg McLean knows how to work up a palpable sense of anxiety and uncertainty to connect the audience to the characters’ life-or-death quandary. And, at a no-nonsense 88  minutes, the narrative structure is tight and free of excess, except for the fact that the film becomes an excessively bloody and grisly free-for-all. 

The characters are pretty much all types, adequately set up before the bloodletting occurs, and just enough time is spent between friendly co-workers in their cubicles to hope certain ones don’t become a recipient of a bullet to the head or a knife in the gut. Most of them are played by an interestingly assembled cast, too, including Michael Rooker as a maintenance worker; Melonie Diaz (2013's "Fruitvale Station") as a woman having a hell of a first day on the job; and a grinning John C. McGinley as an office pervert who inevitably makes the switch into alpha-male psychopath. Compared to those who are just inconsequential slasher-flick fodder, John Gallagher Jr. (2016's "Hush") is a solid everyman and voice of reason, and both he and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) are a couple worth latching onto until the end. Tony Goldwyn is also quite chilling as the boss, who wants to maintain order but makes a choice and ends up only being out for himself at the end of the day.

James Gunn’s cheeky, twistedly amusing sense of humor sneaks through from time to time but not nearly enough. For instance, after someone is hacked to death in a restroom stall, the door shuts to reveal and linger on a sign that reads, “Keep this area clean and please wash your hands.” There’s even a little levity with the inclusion of office stoner Marty (Sean Gunn, James’ brother who had a long run as the eccentric Kirk on TV’s “Gilmore Girls”) and his conspiracy theory that it’s the water in the water coolers making everyone crazy. Ironic musical choices do not work, not the Spanish covers of “I Will Survive" and “California Dreamin’” that open and end the film, and not a montage of panic cued to classical opera.

Next to learning who is playing God and orchestrating this experiment, guessing the last man or woman standing becomes the ultimate purpose here, and finding out both are not unsatisfying. Director McLean and writer Gunn even use the “final girl” archetype to mess with our expectations. When the head honchos open the armory vault and load up on guns for themselves, it does dash one’s hope for more brutally inspired kills outside of making a machete from a paper trimmer. Also, before it’s too late, death by tape dispenser is a new one. Sometimes more than the murders themselves, the anticipation is scarier. A horrifying scene in which a group of men who put themselves in charge start lining up workers by age and those with children of a certain age before a mass execution especially holds one in its relentless grip. “The Belko Experiment” offers a cool idea and some cheap thrills, but the execution could have led to much more than a routine if skillful kill-a-thon. Maybe a sequel, which McLean and Gunn obviously hope for, can learn from this film’s missed opportunities and improve upon itself much like “The Purge” has with each new installment.

Grade: B - 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sweet Inferno: "The Devil's Candy" lean, mean, intensely creepy metal horror

The Devil’s Candy (2017) 
80 min., rated R.

It took fearless Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne’s “The Loved Ones,” 2012’s comically twisted, balls-to-the-wall gem, a long time to finally see a release and now his follow-up is here. If anyone was brave and lucky enough to see Byrne’s debut, then it gives one an idea of what to expect with “The Devil’s Candy,” a merciless, confidently helmed, and wickedly unnerving horror indie. On the most fundamental level, all a horror film really has to do sometimes is be horrific, and here is a purposefully horrific, tonally pitch-black throat-grabber that focuses on character to make the shocks feel well-earned. A story about a loving family moving into a home with a bloody past superficially holds similarities to other horror films, but that’s about where it ends for Byrne’s film. It combines several horror sub-genres to include elements of possession and the serial killer film in a good old-fashioned Faustian tale that crosses into the heart of darkness. If it is a little familiar in certain places, “The Devil’s Candy” is punchy, intensely creepy stuff on the whole.

Metalhead painter Jesse (Ethan Embry) moves wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) into a remote home in Texas. They get a good deal for it and learn why once the realtor has to disclose the deaths of the former owners. “It’s not like Charlie Manson lived here,” he jokes before selling Jesse and Astrid the house. Astrid is anxious about affording a mortgage and Zooey has a hard time adjusting to her new school, but Jesse is about meet bigger problems. Not long after turning the garage into his art studio, he begins painting over his latest commission project with something he has no recollection of creating on the canvas: an upside-down crucifix and fiery flames over children, including his own daughter. Something seems to be flowing through him, and though Jesse loses track of time, he could be painting his most inspired, albeit disturbing, work ever. Does Jesse have a new muse, or could it be leading to something more dangerous? Then, one night, Zooey answers the door to the former owners’ adult son, Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who doesn’t hide the fact that he’s very troubled. Astrid and Zooey are a bit more sympathetic, but Jesse tells him to leave, shutting the door in his face. Little does the family know that Ray sees Zooey as his next piece of “candy” to serve up to the Prince of Darkness.

Evocative of a more mature style of horror filmmaking, “The Devil’s Candy” smartly favors ideas and suggestion over explicit violence, at least initially before it has the gall to really shock. In almost all cases, writer-director Sean Byrne knows how far to take things without merely making an exploitation picture. Since the film wades into disturbingly dark territory, it very well could have become too much to take. The implication of Ray’s evil doings is obviously more palatable than seeing everything in graphic detail, but it’s still visceral and, in one instance that follows him spying on two boys playing in a field, even more frightening in a way. Byrne does it again in a startlingly auditory moment where Astrid and Zooey hear something horrible outside in the front of their house and panic. The plotting is potentially standard, but Byrne’s film doesn’t look or sound like other horror films. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Save a Horse, Eat a Man: “Raw” a daring, unsettling coming-of-ager like no other

Raw (2017)
99 min., rated R.

Cannibalistic horror film “Raw” isn’t the first of its kind to have such an effect on viewers, but reportedly, it made multiple audience members faint and heave at a screening during 2016’s Toronto International Film Festival. Such a physical reaction should give the film a badge of honor, however, there is more to it than just a series of flesh-eating money shots. This French-Belgian import marks the shockingly assured feature debut of writer-director Julia Ducournau, and it’s a square peg in the round holes of coming-of-age films for being about a young woman’s sexual awakening and gradual desire for flesh. Like a steak is to a strict vegan, “Raw” is clearly not going to be to everyone’s liking, and it shouldn’t have to be, but perhaps it should strictly be seen by the steeliest of stomachs, the not-so-faint of heart, and those nonjudgmental of others’ newfound eating habits. More importantly, it's for an audience that craves a horror film with a fierce female voice.

16-year-old vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is attending veterinary school, following in the footsteps of her parents, who drop her off, and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who’s in her second year of study. During her first night in the dorms, she is awoken by upperclassmen who put her and other rookie freshmen through a series of brutal hazing rituals. Justine’s initiation continues with a class photo where the entire group is doused in buckets of blood and then soon after forced to eat a piece of raw rabbit kidney. In no time, her first taste of meat awakens something in her. Gradually, Justine changes, ripping into a raw chicken breast in the middle of the night and then very casually slicing a dog open during a dissection class in front of her gay roommate and only friend Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). At it turns out, veterinary school will change her forever and that one carnivorous moment will not be her last.

Classily directed and sensitively written by Julia Ducournau, “Raw” could hold a place in the transgressive wave of New French Extremism, but it is not out to purely disgust and shock. Ducournau has every opportunity to do just that but takes her time in revealing Justine’s journey, while trying to understand what Justine herself can’t fully understand and can’t resist. Lest one think this story about cannibalism will be entirely grim and track Justine going on a fleshy, id-centered killing spree, it surprises in that way. In fact, the word, “cannibal,” is never once uttered (or read in the subtitles). The cannibalism functions more as an erotically charged metaphor for nascent femininity, and how well the film works is a matter of subjective interpretation and Ducournau’s tone. At times, it’s darkly funny and even touching in its own way when the film gets to the heart of Justine and Alexia's sisterly bond.

Pre-credits, the very first image of “Raw” is so still and elegantly composed, and yet something abruptly shocking happens. Set in the middle of a country road, the camera spots a woman walking along the side, cuts to an oncoming car, and then back to where the woman was walking but can no longer be found. When the car comes flying back, the female walker jumps into the street, forcing the driver of the car to swerve and hit a tree; the seemingly suicidal bystander then gets up, unharmed, and walks over to the car. What this has to do with the rest of the film is revisited later on but should be experienced first-hand. 

19-year-old feature newcomer Garance Marillier is in every scene, and as Justine, she goes to the brink without any fear. When she crosses that line, it’s believable and compelling to watch. Justine is also just a teenage girl, experiencing her first wild party, losing her virginity, and getting all dolled up before going out. Peppered with queasy moments, the film isn’t gratuitous but still unflinching and unusually artfully done. Just take the intimate moment where Justine licks and then begins to nibble on a severed finger, while most cringe-inducing of all might be a Brazilian wax gone wrong and a pesky rash that Justine can’t stop scratching. The work by cinematographer Ruben Impens (2013’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown”) is striking, particularly one image that holds on Justine underneath her bedsheet as if she’s in the womb. Not a “fun” film per se but a fascinating one, “Raw” is a lusty, unsetting, disturbing cinematic cherry bomb that boldly goes where most American films wouldn’t dare.

Grade: B + 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Disney Live: "Beauty and the Beast" at once faithful and fresh as a rose

Beauty and the Beast (2017)
126 min., rated PG.

The Mouse House seems to be making it a mission to give every animated classic the live-action treatment, and so far, the results have been mostly successful. In 2015, “Cinderella” was an earnest, old-fashioned but still enchanting retelling, and most recently, 2016’s “The Jungle Book” was a rousing adventure but even more of a remarkably seamless technical achievement that made audiences forget they were watching computer-generated creations in soundstages and not living, breathing, talking animals in the jungle. Now, in 2017, “Beauty and the Beast” never skips a beat in retaining the magic of the 1991 animated classic. To see Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s fairy tale retold on the big and small screen more than a half-dozen times each, turned into a stage musical that ran on Broadway for 13 years, and now returning to the silver screen once more, it’s a joy to see this tale as old as time come to lavish life in its truest, most traditional form. 

Bright, bookish Belle (Emma Watson) hopes there is something more out there than her provincial life in her 18th century French village. Her progressive views are seen as "funny" and she rebuffs the relentless advances of strong and handsome hunter and eligible bachelor Gaston (Luke Evans). When Belle’s papa, Maurice (Kevin Kline), goes off to sell one of his inventions and never returns, Belle is led by her father’s horse through the snow-covered woods to a castle where she finds him being held a prisoner for plucking a rose from the garden. Confronted by Maurice’s captor, she makes a deal with the hulking, anthropomorphic beast by taking her father’s place as the castle owner’s prisoner. Once upon a time, the Beast (Dan Stevens) was a vain, self-centered prince before he was transformed by the spell of an enchantress whom he refused to give shelter to during a wicked storm. His live-in servants were also turned into talking knickknacks, including candelabra Lumière (Ewan McGregor), clock Cogsworth (Ian McKellen), teapot Mrs. Potts (Emma Thompson), adorably chipped teacup Chip (Nathan Mack), falsetto wardrobe Madame Garderobe (Audra McDonald), piano Maestro Cadenza (Stanley Tucci), and feather duster Plumette (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). Locked away in the west wing of the Beast’s castle, too, is a rose that secures their fates. If the last petal falls without the Beast falling in love, he will remain that way forever and his staff will become antique rubbish. Only Belle can break the spell if she begins to see inner goodness in him beyond his hulking size, fur, and fangs.

From story beats to the songs, “Beauty and the Beast” is ever faithful to the timeless source, but director Bill Condon (who’s proven his musical chops before with 2006’s “Dreamgirls”) and screenwriters Stephen Chbosky (2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”) and Evan Spiliotopoulos (2016’s “The Huntsman: Winter’s War”) bring life, spontaneity, and more than a few subtle, refreshingly progressive updates to the table to make their film feel like this story’s very first incarnation. The Beast has a magical book in his library that enables Belle to teleport to Paris. The loss of Belle’s mother to the Black Plague is handled well and adds an extra emotional depth. The prince’s castle is nicely multi-culti. There is an amusing cross-dressing gag that pops up in the film’s energetic slapstick climax when the townspeople come to kill the Beast. Composer Alan Menken, who won an Oscar for scoring the animated version, returns here with the recognizable songs, including his Oscar-winning “Beauty and the Beast” (this time sung by Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Potts). Exuberantly staged with a CGI assist, “Be Our Guest” is the infectious show-stopper it should be. “Something There” is a sweet recreation of the Disney classic’s montage of Belle and the Beast realizing their mutual feelings for one another in the snow and around the dinner table. There are also a few lovely original songs, including “Evermore," "How Does a Moment Last Forever" and "Days in the Sun," by Menken and lyricist Tim Rice that nicely supplement the narrative with melancholy and hope.

When any animated Disney classic transitions into the land of live-action, the casting of beloved characters is key, and there’s the hope that the actors chosen can embody rather than slavishly impersonate Disney icons without just coming across as the costumed actors we’d see in the park at Disney World. Emma Watson makes a perfectly charming Belle, making the role her own with her natural grace. She’s still a kind, selfless bookworm but noticeably even more independent-minded and assertive with a backbone. It also helps that Watson can carry a tune pretty well, confidently leading her first number, "Belle," a spirited musical highlight that introduces Belle and her village. Even if the CGI of the Beast is not always seamless, looking too smooth in his motion at times, Dan Stevens is equally ferocious and tender as the cursed prince. Given the actor’s gentle eyes, one never forgets that there is an actual man under there. Luke Evans is just as one would envision the boorish, arrogant Gaston, preening with comedic gusto and showcasing his strong pipes. As Gaston’s loyal, fawning right-hand man LeFou, Josh Gad is a boisterously entertaining ham and provides the film with the biggest musical theater talents; he particularly sells the tavern-set “Gaston” and makes it an over-the-top hoot. While there are numerous hints at the supporting character’s sexuality, it’s an appropriate choice that makes the flamboyant LeFou even more endearing, so disregard the overblown pre-release backlash.

A wonderfully grand entertainment, “Beauty and the Beast” is sumptuously realized and paced beautifully. The $160-million enormity of the film never swallows up the beating heart of the story, nor does much CG artificiality show through. For one, the romantic relationship comes more out of actual chemistry and organic development than just going there because the script says so. And two, one actually cares about the fates of talking inanimate objects (all voiced and played by a high-class cast), hoping pieces of crockery will turn back into a human mother and son by the end. Without being overproduced, the melodic musical numbers deliver, too, with ravishing production values and rhythmic editing that's snappy but also allows the choreography to breathe. With enough time set between itself and its 1991 hand-drawn animated counterpart, 2017’s “Beauty and the Beast” splendidly holds a candelabra to be one of two definitive incarnations of the tale. It’s really quite magical and never tries hard to be winning. It just is. 

Grade: B +

Friday, March 10, 2017

On Like Kong: "Kong: Skull Island" delivers human-munching monster fun

Kong: Skull Island (2016) 
118 min., rated PG-13. 

As off-base as it might seem, “Kong: Skull Island” isn’t exactly a sequel, prequel, or reboot, even with its top-biller being one of cinema's most iconic movie monsters. Apparently, though, it is the second installment in Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ franchise, which is their answer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe called the “MonsterVerse” after 2014’s “Godzilla,” but it still delivers all on its own. Following in the footsteps of Marc Webber, Gareth Edwards, and Colin Trevorrow, director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (2013’s “The Kings of Summer”) graduates from a small little indie to huge blockbuster with a hefty studio budget, and his enthusiasm floods the project. Intentionally evoking the dangers of 1979’s “Apocalypse Now” and 1993’s “Jurassic Park” with the tone of an old Saturday matinee, the film is a rousing thrill ride. If audiences came to see the chest-beating primate in his glory and doing battle with gnarly monsters, take what you can get in the character department because “Kong: Skull Island” is pure rip-roaring fun. Big monster-movie fans might even call it awesome.

With the Vietnam War nearing an end in 1973, crackpot Monarch government operative Bill Randa (John Goodman) and seismologist Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) find a satellite image of an uncharted island in the South Pacific known as “Skull Island” that’s known for missing ships and planes like the Bermuda Triangle. For a geological expedition, they need a military escort and a skilled tracker, finding both in decommissioned British Black Ops Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). Among the members of their group are tightly wound, decorated Lt. Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his Sky Devil soldiers—Chapman (Toby Kebbell), Mills (Jason Mitchell), Slivko (Thomas Mann), and Cole (Shea Whigham)—and anti-war photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson). Once the choppers fly over Skull Island and Packard’s men start dropping bombs on the area, the team immediately dwindles from the fists of 100-foot-tall ape Kong and becomes scattered throughout the jungle. Kong doesn’t particularly like tourists, but as Conrad and Weaver come to realize for themselves and by the explanation of stranded WWII soldier Hank Marlow (John C. Reilly), there are other MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) to fear on Skull Island. 

“Kong: Skull Island” approaches its pacing like the best monster movies do. Though it opens with a one-two punch, set in 1944, the film gradually builds dread like a theme park ride. In a direct nod to “Jurassic Park,” Samuel L. Jackson’s Packard even warns his team, “Hold on to your butts.” And then, once the choppers get to Skull Island, all hell breaks loose in an intensely thrilling, goosebump-inducing sequence with the use of a Richard Nixon bobblehead a shrewd touch in the process. Gareth Edwards did a more chilling, teasing job of revealing his monster in the “Godzilla” reboot little by little, while director Jordon Vogt-Roberts shows his monster every chance he gets, and that’s fine, too. When Kong gets his first official reveal, it’s impossible not to sit up and take notice the way the big hairy ape is majestically framed as a silhouette against an orange sunset. Director Vogt-Roberts keeps things moving at a lean, brisk clip, never wasting time with his underwritten B-movie cutouts (i.e. the deepest one gets is soldier Chapman writing to his son back home). In fact, almost anyone is fair game when it comes to someone becoming monster food. 

The script must have been light work for screenwriters Dan Gilroy (2014’s “Nightcrawler”), Max Borenstein (2014’s “Godzilla”) and Derek Connolly (2016’s “Monster Trucks”). Don’t expect the flesh-and-blood characters to be fully defined because everyone gets about one defining trait apiece. And be prepared to not remember many of the one-liners because they’re mostly perfunctory if occasionally cheeky. “Kong: Skull Island” has an excellent cast, though, and everyone seems to be enjoying themselves. Maybe it’s typecasting since he owns the “Avengers” role of Loki, but there is always something a little unscrupulous about Tom Hiddleston. Even here, as mercenary Conrad, one keeps expecting the other shoe to drop, but Hiddleston is actually just playing the hero and he’s solid doing just that. Brie Larson is better, forthright with an easygoing charm and warmth as pacifist photographer Mason who might find a soft spot for the big ape and vice versa. There’s also Samuel L. Jackson, doing his eye-bugging Samuel L. Jackson “thing” and playing as bad as the other monsters on the island. Popping up nearly halfway through as a marooned soldier who’s been away from his wife and son in Chicago for 28 years, John C. Reilly is a standout, as his role deepens a bit more beyond comic-relief shtick.

Compared to Peter Jackson’s spectacular 2005 epic “King Kong”—which admittedly suffered from a wee bit of bloat—“Kong: Skull Island” is much more efficient, if sometimes to a fault, and over in a blink after only two hours. As spectacle designed to make audiences gasp and leave them giddy, the nutty, wildly entertaining set-pieces do exactly what they should, while boasting plenty of showmanship and technical prowess. Portrayed by Tony Kebbell through motion capture, Kong, himself, is astonishingly weighty and tactile as an effect, and who knew his favorite snack was live octopus? Among Skull Island’s fearsome fauna, there are giant tree spiders, log monsters, and skeletal lizards called “skull crawlers” in a yellow-tinted boneyard. Aiding Henry Jackman's driving martial music score, the film also pulls the viewer into the time period by dispersing ‘70s songs from the Vietnam era, including Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit,” David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust,” and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Run Through the Jungle.” Anyone hoping to see Kong climb the Empire State Building or experience another unlikely love story between an ape and a human woman might as well turn around and go back home. Taken as a lively, exciting adventure with rampaging monsters and everyone’s favorite ape—even if it’s just in-the-moment entertainment—“Kong: Skull Island” fits the bill perfectly. It’s not even summer yet.


Thursday, March 9, 2017

Killer Memory: Exceptionally well-shot "Lavender" works in dribs and drabs

Lavender (2017)
92 min., not rated.

Billed as a psychological puzzle box with supernatural leanings, “Lavender” has plenty going for it. It’s a good-looking production, evocative in mood and often imaginative in its camera movements and editing tricks. Writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly (2013’s “The Last Exorcism Part II”) and co-scribe Colin Frizzell play with lost or repressed memories to keep both the protagonist and audience in the dark, and for a while, it’s a sufficiently involving process, following the breadcrumbs as they come before being led to the eleventh-hour revelations. Alas, what it adds up to is less than the sum of its parts — but what polished, atmospheric parts.

With her memory practically wiped, ever since her family was killed in her house 25 years ago, photographer Jane Ryer (Abbie Cornish) tries living a normal life. Her relationship with husband Alan (Diego Klattenhoff) has been rocky, but their love for their 10-year-old daughter, Alice (Lola Flanery), keeps them together. Throughout her career, she has grown obsessed with shooting old houses, and it’s not until coming across one particular home that Jane realizes it might have something to do with her splintered memory. When Jane is late to pick up her daughter from school, she ends up getting into a car accident, brought on by the vision of a young girl in the road. Waking up in the hospital with severe memory loss, she eventually progresses with help from Liam (Justin Long), a psychiatrist. Then, once Jane begins receiving mysterious ribbon-wrapped boxes, she’s encouraged by Liam to pay a visit to her childhood home in the country and unlocks the truth behind her childhood trauma that her brain has kept a secret all this time.

Deliberately paced, the film is all the more absorbing for taking its time in setting up the pieces and inviting one to accompany Jane on her “is-she-crazy-or-not?” journey. As Jane begins receiving said boxes, one is actually unsure as to whether Jane is imagining it all, sending them to herself, or that she has a secret admirer with twisted intentions. Through it all, director Ed Gass-Donnelly employs nifty stylistic flourishes, including a slow-motion car accident. More impressively, the film opens with a frozen-in-time tableaux of a farmhouse crime scene in the 1985-set opening with young Jane (Peyton Kennedy) and then revisits that crime with a convergence of the past and present for the big climax. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Special Little Monster: "Girl with All the Gifts" familiar but grimly engrossing

The Girl with All the Gifts (2017)
110 min., rated R.

What’s one more YA novel adaptation about a post-apocalyptic society anyway, especially when it’s a good one? Based on Mike Carey’s novel of the same name, “The Girl with All the Gifts” centers on the aftermath of another zombie apocalypse—something audiences probably didn’t think they needed or wanted to see again—but TV director Colm McCarthy and screenwriter Mike Carey lend some sophistication and thought-provoking ideas to their already grim, bold vision that doesn't spare the viscera. Like seven seasons of “The Walking Dead” have taught its viewers, the survivors and human monsters are sometimes more interesting than the zombies. The new wrinkle here is adding a special hybrid character: an infected child called a “hungry.” 

Startlingly talented beyond her years, 13-year-old newcomer Sennia Nanua is most captivating as “hungry” Melanie, a sentient, domesticated breed who wakes up every morning in a bunker. She must strap herself into a wheelchair and secure her head before military guards come to her door and escort her to a class of other children just like her. Sympathetic, compassionate teacher Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) sees Melanie as more than a test subject and just a gifted model student, while the head scientist at the base, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close), is close to finding a vaccine to cure the outbreak and will never slack on gathering data, and soldier Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) has his reasons to not care for any “hungries.” When there’s a breach on the base by hordes of rabid zombies, the aforementioned characters, including Melanie, and a few other survivors will have to band together and make their way to a ruined London.

With a more streamlined approach to storytelling that uses familiar territory to its advantage, “The Girl with All the Gifts” resists more exposition than necessary and even avoids using the “Z” word. Adapting his own novel, screenwriter Mike Carey solidly handles the film’s sense of world-building, organically letting the viewer in on the widespread fungal infection through bodily fluids. Most of the characters are of the archetypal variety, but with the likes of the nice-to-see Glenn Close, Paddy Considine, and Gemma Arterton, they expose glimmers of humanity and a bit more complexity. At the same time, characters are sometimes too frustratingly human. For example, given the circumstances where “hungries” could be anywhere, military characters who go off on their own still make rookie mistakes.

Amidst all the like-minded genre offerings, “The Girl with All the Gifts” is smart and engrossing. Director Colm McCarthy doesn't quite change the game, but he brings fresh blood to a concept that couldn't sound more familiar on paper. The friendship between Melanie and Miss Justineau is key to fortifying the viewer's investment in these characters, and McCarthy capably stages more than a handful of moments with hold-your-breath apprehension, like one where the group must tiptoe past the sleeping "hungries" that infest an abandoned mall. The film makes the most of its $4-million budget, with an impressive scale and textured production design, and Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score of repetitive chants and hums is haunting to a subliminal degree. With so many shows and movies concerning zombie-adjacent viruses, the subgenre, at this point, really has to bring it, and fortunately, “The Girl with All the Gifts” shouldn’t get lost in the glut.