Thursday, January 19, 2017

Big Personality: Shyamalan gets groove back with creepy, classy, nutty "Split"

Split (2017)
117 min., rated PG-13.

With 2015’s shivery, lightly humored “The Visit” triggering his welcome return to form, writer-director M. Night Shyamalan has regained a new lease on life after his career lowlights from 2006 to 2013. In his second effort backed by Universal Pictures and the horror-adjacent Blumhouse Productions on another $5-million budget, “Split” puts hope in the Shyamalan name again. A corker of a chamber thriller made in a classical style, the film is creepy, classy and very nutty. It treats Dissociative Identity Disorder as seriously as “Psycho,” “Dressed to Kill,” “Raising Cain” and “Fight Club” did when it otherwise could have played solely as a gimmick for cheap, exploitative thrills, and James McAvoy is the show in a tour de force turn—or turns—that will knock your socks off. Even with an extraneous last-second surprise that neither makes nor breaks the previous 115 minutes, “Split” is an effective chiller.

Upon leaving a birthday party at the mall, troubled teenager Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), along with birthday girl Claire (Haley Lu Richardson) and best friend Marcia (Jessica Sula), are kidnapped by a strange man named Kevin (James McAvoy). When the girls wake up in their captor’s underground lair, Claire and Marcia want to be proactive and fight him, but Casey responds differently, remaining still and reading the situation. Every time the man comes to their room, his identity changes, from a stern, high-heeled matriarch named Miss Patricia to sweet, rap-loving 9-year-old Hedwig to harmless clothing designer Barry and back to a germaphobic brute named Dennis who might be a rapist. It becomes apparent to Casey that the man has brought them there for a disturbing sacrificial purpose, leading to the unveiling of his 24th personality, “The Beast,” who craves pure human flesh. Meanwhile, Dr. Karen Fletcher (Betty Buckley) keeps receiving emails and drop-ins from her patient, realizing another identity is in charge of Kevin this time.

“Split” promptly jumps into its socko abduction setup. In the first few minutes, Casey leaves Claire’s birthday party with Marcia and Claire’s father after being invited out of pity. As the girls wait in the car while Claire’s father puts presents and a bag of leftover food away in the trunk, Casey notices the spilled-over leftover containers in the rearview mirror; next thing she knows, the man that gets into the driver’s seat is a stranger. This is a scary, dread-inducing opener that could happen to anyone and the mere suspense in whether or not these girls can escape by connecting with one of Kevin’s more benign personalities is extremely tense. Aiding the tension is meticulous cinematography shot in contained spaces by Mike Gioulakis (2015’s “It Follows”), achieving palpable claustrophobia and foreboding out of the situation with the three girls. In M. Night Shyamalan’s first step of averting expectations from what initially plays as a TV bottle episode, the film actually spins two more narratives that dive into the psychology of Kevin by way of Dr. Karen Fletcher and develop Casey with progressively icky flashbacks of a childhood hunting trip with her father and uncle.

The endlessly magnetic James McAvoy gives himself over completely to the juiciest role(s) of a lifetime, committing to every alter that shows his or her face. For all of the scenery chomping and showboating in the performance, McAvoy is spectacular. He gets to go wild, laying out distinct personalities and switching back and forth to different ones on a dime; it’s staggering when McAvoy is able to run through all of them in a third-act scene. Haley Lu Richardson and Jessica Sula convincingly fulfill the roles of the two other abducted young women, but Anya Taylor-Joy is the standout as Casey, who has gone through life hoping for detention just to distance herself from everyone else. Between her turns in “The Witch” and “Morgan” last year, Taylor-Joy has such a watchable, thoughtful presence from her placid and ethereal face. Another pivotal role is supplied by Betty Buckley, who’s excellent as Dr. Karen Fletcher, bringing warmth, intelligence and perspective. Shyamalan makes a cameo, as he is wont to do, but it’s amusing and brief without becoming a distraction (unlike the sizable role he gave himself in “Lady in the Water,” and look how that turned out).

Methodically crafted with a quiet, measured sense of dread, “Split” will weed out the more impatient viewers. It does not spoonfeed anything and doesn’t always go where one expects. There are also off-kilter alleviations of humor with the childish Hedwig, who uses “et cetera” superfluously and keeps wanting to show Casey his room, and the ways the girls blankly respond to Kevin’s revolving door of personalities. And, as always the case with any Shyamalan joint, audiences might expect to have their minds blown with a twist ending. In terms of “Split,” there is more of a low-key “aha!” moment. Only does Shyamalan become his own worst enemy in the very last scene, a left-field stinger that alternately no one will see coming (stay off Wikipedia!) and almost feels like a scrapped alternate ending. Lips are sealed on the film’s destination, but it does recontextualize everything that has come before it that no one could have predicted. Before the filmmaker tries to open his latest film to a hopeful “Shyamalan Cinematic Universe,” “Split” works more than enough as a bravura game of twenty-four cats and three mice. It’s a treat to see that Shyamalan has his mojo back.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

DVD/Blu-ray: "Keeping Up with the Joneses" middle-of-the-road but not unlikable

Keeping Up with the Joneses (2016) 
105 min., rated PG-13.

“Keeping Up with the Joneses” can't compete with the other action-comedies it emulates, like “The In-Laws” or the Albert Brooks-Michael Douglas redo, "True Lies," “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” "Knight and Day" and “Killers,” in which one or two characters turn out to be involved in espionage. Director Greg Motolla, who has made good (2011’s “Paul) and even great films (2007’s “Superbad” and 2009’s “Adventureland”), and screenwriter Michael LeSieur (2006’s “You, Me and Dupree”) come up with this unremarkable action-comedy that wrings a few light chuckles out of its formula, but with this much talent, there should be more laughs than there are. It isn’t bad so much as it’s just an unassuming, middle-of-the-road time-waster all around. 

Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher)—he heads the HR department at an aerospace company and she’s an interior decorator—could use a little spice in their marriage and their safe suburban cul-de-sac, especially when they return home from dropping off their sons for summer camp. A little excitement creeps in when married couple Tim (Jon Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gal Gadot) move in across the street. A travel writer and a social media consultant-cum-cooking blogger, the new neighbors are attractive and accomplished, but something seems too perfect about the Joneses. While Karen grows more and more suspicious of them, Jeff takes his time, being won over by a possible friendship with Tim. Sooner or later, though, the jig is up: the Joneses are not who they say they are and might just be undercover spies on a dangerous mission.

If there ever was one, “Keeping Up with the Joneses” is a case of the script being stale and tepid, and the likable cast giving it as much life as it can. Zach Galifianakis and Isla Fisher are in milquetoast, aw-shucks mode initially but each one has their moments as the film goes along, and Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot are solid and comedically inclined when the opportunity allows it. One could see the latter couple being funnier and sexier with sharper material not written by the “You, Me and Dupree” scribe. There aren’t enough big laughs to fill 105 minutes’ worth—for one, a better payoff is lacking for a potentially inspired gag when Hamm takes Galifianakis to an underground snake restaurant—but some lines are amusing and the big climax where the Gaffneys must go undercover at an Atlanta hotel is lively. “Keeping Up with the Joneses” will fall out of one’s memory as soon as it's over, but it is a pleasantly disposable farce, no more and no less.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Gas Guzzlers: "Monster Trucks" sweeter and more fun than you'd expect

Monster Trucks (2017)
105 min., rated PG.

For all of its negative pre-release buzz, “Monster Trucks” is decent enough proof that any film in January shouldn’t be judged and bashed purely based on its dump-month release or preconceived notions. Lowered expectations only help it more, though. It is better than it has any right to be and it’s exactly what it sounds like, with a premise as high-concept as one gets. Take two things that 8-year-old boys love—monsters and trucks—and fuse them together for the Nickelodeon Movies production “Monster Trucks,” a kid-and-their-unlikely-friend fantasy adventure that evokes 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” 1993’s “Free Willy,” 1995’s “Magic in the Water” and 2005’s “Herbie Fully Loaded.” Older viewers will have to put up with some pretty irresponsible destruction that still never feels as bombastic as a “Transformers” movie, but that is a small price to pay when one admittedly ends up caring about a boy and his living, breathing monster truck.

At a drilling site in North Dakota, Terravex Energy hits a water pocket two miles below. Against the assertion of scientist Jim Dowd (Thomas Lennon) that there might be an ecosystem, boss Reese Tenneson (Rob Lowe) orders to resume the drilling until the rig explodes and unleashes three primordial, amphibious creatures; two are caught but one escapes. Meanwhile, high school loner Tripp (Lucas Till) is working on an engine at an auto parts garage and junkyard and stops when he notices a tentacle slithering around the car crusher. It turns out to be the missing monster that drinks petroleum like water and wedges itself underneath the hood of Tripp’s beat-up pickup truck and powers it like an engine. A friendship is formed with the newly dubbed “Creech,” but when Tenneson’s thugs (led by Holt McCallany) come looking for the creature, Tripp, along with overachieving classmate and biology tutor Meredith (Jane Levy), must evade Terravex and help his monster pal reunite with his family.

Pure of heart and holding no pretense for being more than exactly what it is, “Monster Trucks” is agreeable, low-impact entertainment, nothing more and nothing less. Director Chris Wedge, making his live-action feature debut following animated efforts “Epic,” “Robots” and the first “Ice Age,” and screenwriter Derek Connolly (2015’s “Jurassic World”) concoct a familiar story out of spare parts with an eco-friendly message, but what really matters is the sweet charm between Tripp and Creech, as well as Tripp and Meredith. The characters are pretty much all stock, but they are made engaging by a cast that’s so enthusiastic and committed. They know they're not in an awards contender and are able to modestly transcend what’s on the page. 

Lucas Till brings loads of sincerity and makes for a charismatic protagonist as Tripp, and Jane Levy is a warm and likable love interest as Meredith. A welcome supporting cast of adult actors might be underused, particularly Amy Ryan, as Tripp’s waitress mother, and Danny Glover, as junkyard boss Mr. Weathers, who get two scenes apiece, and Rob Lowe doesn’t get to do much with the smarmy baddie role, but others make more of an impression. Barry Pepper exceeds expectations with a nice turnaround as the initially disbelieving Sheriff Rick, the boyfriend of Tripp’s mother, and Thomas Lennon is a little less Thomas Lennon here and excels with his uptight shtick as the well-meaning scientist who actually wants to save “Creech” and his monster family. 

Inconsequential and undemanding without shame, “Monster Trucks” is a silly, sweet-natured diversion that won’t set the world on fire but achieves what it sets out to do. The concept is a strange one, but an appealingly strange one that never questions itself with overrated logic and makes one wish more studios would crank out kids movies as strange and fun as “Monster Trucks.” It runs over 90 minutes, but the time flies by without ever coming off too frantic, and the effects of the lovably slimy “Creech” are seamless, as is the action where "he" essentially drives a truck and hops rooftops. It knows its audience without pandering to the lowest common denominator, and that’s something.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Meddling Kids Go Adios: "The Bye Bye Man" inanely executes cool premise

The Bye Bye Man (2017) 
96 min., rated PG-13.

“The Bye Bye Man” contains the tiniest kernel of a cool, creepily folkloric idea—an entity has the power to force a person to see things that aren’t there, not see things that are there and commit generally horrible acts when its name is spoken or given any thought—that could have resulted in a 21st century cross between “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Candyman.” To be fair, there have been far worse hooks for January-released PG-13 horror movies, but even by those standards, it is still clunky, perfunctory and inanely executed. Centering their titular boogeyman as a flimsy plot device that would scare as an urban legend around a campfire, director Stacy Title (1995’s “The Last Supper”) and screenwriter Jonathan Penner (the director’s husband and a three-time contestant on TV’s “Survivor”) seem to have learned all the basics to make a horror movie but don’t have the stylistic chops to actually make an effective one on their own.

Looking to get out of the dorms of a Wisconsin university, slightly dorky college student Elliot (Douglas Smith) and pretty girlfriend Sasha (Cressida Bonas), along with Elliot’s jock best friend John (Lucien Laviscount), rent out a furnished old house off campus. Sasha is the first to feel a supernatural presence, and then a silver dollar coin keeps falling out of an old nightstand with the inside of the drawer reading, “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” ad nauseam. Elliot ruffles through the drawer, only to find the name, “The Bye Bye Man,” carved underneath the liner. After a house party in their new digs, Sasha’s psychically sensitive friend Kim (Jenna Kanell) holds a seance with the three housemates that only ends up inviting the hooded reaper (Doug Jones) going by the name “The Bye Bye Man." Elliot begins to research a mass murder that took place in town nearly 50 years ago and could be linked somehow, but these four friends are already driven to insanity by just speaking and even thinking the man’s name. They all grow paranoid—Elliot thinks Sasha is sleeping with John when she’s not, and Sasha keeps seeing John come on to her—and lose track of time, while one of them comes down with a fever and a case of the sniffles. As the Bye Bye Man edges closer and closer to them, they might as well kiss their own asses goodbye.

Based on short story “The Bridge to Body Island” by Robert Damon Schneck, “The Bye Bye Man” is creepier on paper than in the delivery where it actually counts. Moments of unease and impending doom are temporary, and the husband-and-wife filmmakers fumble their rules so badly that the longer one gets away from this silly mess, the more they want to tear it apart. 2015’s “It Follows,” also about a stalking entity that spreads from person to person, was able to get away with little exposition because its rules were set and the sense of dread was inescapable, but here, no one has seemed to figure out the hows and whys. First off, the mythology of the Bye Bye Man is actually nonexistent and left unexplored, despite our hero taking an obligatory trip to the library archives. Was he ever an actual person, like Candyman and Freddy Krueger, or has he always been a nightmarish manifestation of people’s minds? No idea; he just is. And why the silver dollar coins? Also, what the hell is with the Bye Bye Man’s man-eating bloodhound at his side? It certainly doesn’t help that the horrendously animated hound looks more like the weed-smoking Freddy Krueger caterpillar from 2003’s “Freddy vs. Jason” and poses little menace. Secondly, the characters give the ghoul power by saying/thinking his name, but they will slowly die off after having their minds messed with. So, if his name is never spoken or given a moment’s thought, what does the BBM do on his off days? In spite of being under major duress, the characters soon act illogically and none too brightly. If one of them says with a lucid enough mind that He Who Must Not Be Named can play tricks on them, how is it that he or she immediately gives in when spotting a bloodied family outside of their wrecked vehicle next to the train tracks? The subsequent death plays out so quickly without any suspense that it almost seems like it could register as a hallucination for the audience.

Character factoids are introduced and then abandoned, like Elliot’s parents dying in a crash, possibly involving a train since there is so much baffling locomotive imagery, but who’s to know? The characters aren’t unlikable or uncharismatic, but they sure are thinly characterized and the actors never quite convince once they have to project fear. A lot of what comes out of their mouths is insultingly on-the-nose and, thus, provokes accidental laughs. This goes with someone trying to get their mind off of the Bye Bye Man while driving by singing along with The Everly Brothers to their 1958 ditty “Bye Bye Love.” Douglas Smith goes for it as Elliot (and on occasion morphs into Rami Malek), while Cressida Bonas is so weak and bland as Sasha that she can’t even sneeze authentically. Aside from the spindly Doug Jones who works better in the shadows as the Bye Bye Man, the one thespian that makes the most impression is Jenna Kanell, who has little screen time as goth psychic Kim. Two other roles are thanklessly filled by tested actresses deserving of more to do. Carrie-Anne Moss, who must be paying off a debt, unbelievably acts with a straight face as a detective who hangs up her initial skepticism about Elliot babbling on about an evil force. And then, in case one was wondering what Faye Dunaway was up to, here she is, appearing for less than a day’s work to shovel out exposition as Widow Redmon and hand a co-star a revolver as a solution to his problems. Dunaway looks regretful, but we can't blame her.

One can actually see this concept playing well with a smarter script that didn't under-think everything and more confident direction, but as it stands, there aren’t many nice things to say about “The Bye Bye Man.” Appreciably, the film does not rely constantly on easy, screechy jolts. Then again, it’s so apparent where it was cut down from an R-rating. Take the virtually bloodless prologue, set in 1969, where the Bye Bye Man’s first victim (a town reporter played by Leigh Whannell) blows away his suburban neighbors on a sunny day with a shotgun, which apparently is filled with blanks. Belying its otherwise watered-down PG-13 rating, the conclusion is at least grimly uncompromising and should feel like a punch to the gut, but the film hardly earns it. “Don’t think it, don’t say it,” the characters repeatedly say as a warning to themselves and others, but let’s just call it a day and say what everyone is so predictably thinking: don’t see it. Hey, the film was asking for it.


Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Best Films of 2016

2016 had its ups and downs, like any year, but it was an impressively good year for movies. It was so good that it was tough to find homes for all of the very worthwhile films, and this is the first time since my top 10 in 2011 that two films have tied. Here are the 10 (okay, 11?) best films of 2016. These are the films that I can see myself revisiting again and again and left a lingering impact. That's no small feat, but these films did it.

Honorable Mention: Captain America: Civil War; Elle; Everybody Wants Some!!; The Eyes of My Mother; Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them; Hell or High Water; Hidden Figures; Hunt for the Wilderpeople; Little Men; The Love Witch; Manchester by the Sea; Midnight Special; Tallulah; Trash Fire

10) The Edge of SeventeenTeenage angst is hardly a beacon of originality in the annals of high school cinema, but most paramount is in how it is executed. Beyond just a disarming vehicle to watch Hailee Steinfeld shine in a lead role, the film breaks ground by pinpointing exactly how it feels to be a teenager, from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig’s script that observes and crackles with wit, edge and wisdom. Far from being just another trite, generic teen movie, “The Edge of Seventeen” deserves to be seen by anyone who has ever been a teenager, whether that ship has sailed twelve years or forty years ago. Honest, affecting and whip-smart.

9) The Invitation/10 Cloverfield Lane (tie) - There had to be a tie for this spot because both “The Invitation” and “10 Cloverfield Lane” are two great slow-burn thrillers with the genuine power to thrill. The first is so ominously suggestive and tensely coiled that, by the time we realize where this dinner party of estranged friends is going, it hits hard in the gut. Director Karyn Kusama makes a tour de force of a comeback behind the camera, expertly tightening the screws and twisting our expectations. Then there’s the feature debut of Dan Trachtenberg with “10 Cloverfield Lane,” a spiritual successor to “Cloverfield” that works like gangbusters in its own right. Executed with such unquestionable know-how in working its audience to a fever pitch, this chamber thriller is riveting and tautly wound.

8) The Lobster - The estimably weirdest film of 2016, “The Lobster” is also one of the most sublimely audacious with a tone so precise that it can’t help but be one of a kind. Greek director and co-writer Yorgos Lanthimos (“Dogtooth”) builds a near-dystopian future where one must find a romantic partner in 45 days or risk being turned into an animal of their choice; an understated Colin Farrell plays a paunchy loner who chooses a crustacean. Startling, darkly witty and unsuspectingly moving in its mix of shock, absurdist sense of humor and melancholy, “The Lobster” is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. For the most adventurous, it cannot and will not be compartmentalized. 

7) The Witch - Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” is the fourth remarkable debut from a first-time filmmaker on this list, and it’s so masterfully crafted that it is even being endorsed by the Satanic Temple. Set in 1630, New England before the Salem Witch Trials, this folktale unsettling and transfixing as one watches uncompromising evil encroach upon a pastoral family of faith and the suspicion of the innocent escalating. A slow-burn mood piece rich in portent, dread and ambience, “The Witch” requires patience, but it is the most accomplished horror film of the year. 

6) Nocturnal Animals - It was seven years since fashion designer turned filmmaker Tom Ford’s last film (his impressive 2009 debut, “A Single Man”), but “Nocturnal Animals” is one hell of a knockout. Gritty fiction seamlessly bleeds into a slick reality as a chic, affluent L.A. art gallerist (Amy Adams) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) and reads it, realizing the dark and violent yarn is a bleak response to their failed marriage. As the desconstruction of an artist’s veiled influence through the prism of a disturbing, nihilistic revenge-fueled noir thriller, this is a cunningly told example of literary storytelling mastery that coalesces and then blindsides with its cumulative power and sears in the back of the brain. 

5) A Monster Calls - Unique and profound, cathartic and transcendent, “A Monster Calls” deftly marries another story about grief and loss with a fantastical angle from the vision of adolescence. Author Patrick Ness adapts his own novel and director J.A. Bayona beautifully translates to the screen this young adult fairy tale, approaching mature themes such as the fragility of life, the knowledge of a loved one’s mortality, and the necessity of anger after loss. Tough-minded and unsentimental but warm without becoming treacly, “A Monster Calls” packs a wallop and earns every emotion. Whether or not it is commercially viable for families will be up for debate, but this is a special film that should be vital viewing for everyone, young and old. This one is for the ages.

4) Krisha - The black sheep of a family tries being a better human being in the ferocious, powerful “Krisha,” a remarkable feature debut from 28-year-old writer-director-editor-producer Trey Edward Shults. Without a whiff of self-indulgence, it’s a family affair with Shults’ aunt Krisha Fairchild as the titular Krisha, a sixtysomething-year-old woman making an effort at Thanksgiving to visit her family. She harbors so many demons that Krisha may not be able to keep it all together much longer. An intimate, unflinching character study and familial slice-of-life, “Krisha” is a gut-punch of jittery, devastating power that actually reinvents dysfunctional family, addiction and redemption dramas into a singular work of art. 

3) Moonlight - Watching the sublimely empathetic “Moonlight” is like living in someone else’s skin for two absorbing hours, and that a film can fully achieve what it strives to do is a triumph. Adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play “Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue,” writer-director Barry Jenkins tracks the evolution of a gay black boy who’s just trying to survive in Florida and longs for human connection. Three different actors portray the same introverted boy who goes by a different name in different stages of his life, and Alex Hibbert (as “Little”), Ashton Sanders (as “Chiron”), and Trevante Rhodes (as “Black”) are all achingly exceptional. Integral supporting performances by Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, and André Holland also leave deep impressions. Immersive, compassionate, tender and quietly powerful, “Moonlight” has a reverberating impact that follows one home.

2) Other People - Just calling “Other People” an illness drama would be underselling its worth. It’s too personal and smartly observed to ever fall into mawkish sentimentality, which it easily could have, and it never feels the need to hit big dramatic and comedic moments; it just feels true to life. An auspicious writing-directing debut from former “SNL” writer Chris Kelly, this autobiographical slice-of-life is deftly modulated, insightful, honest, sensitive, bittersweet and even sometimes very, very funny. Aided by two outstanding performances from Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon as a gay TV writer and his mother who’s dying of cancer, this must-see makes one feel long and deeply.

1) La La Land - “Whiplash” writer-director Damien Chazelle’s rhapsodic valentine to classic Hollywood and its city of lovers and dreamers was the most joyous experience of 2016. It was so much more than just a lighthearted homage to the golden age of the Technicolor movie musical and more bittersweet than a rose-colored fairy tale. Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling spark electric chemistry with their third on-screen pairing, this time the most adorable and meaningful as two struggling artists who meet cute in Los Angeles. Gloriously exuberant, swoon-worthy, unconditionally romantic and exhilarating, “La La Land” is sheer nirvana for movie lovers.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Everyone Copes: "A Monster Calls" a profound, cathartic fable for the ages

A Monster Calls (2016)
108 min., rated PG-13.

Unique and profound, cathartic and transcendent, “A Monster Calls” deftly marries another story about grief and loss with a fantastical angle from the vision of adolescence. Author Patrick Ness adapts his own novel and director J.A. Bayona (2012’s “The Impossible”) beautifully translates to the screen this young adult fairy tale, approaching mature themes such as the fragility of life, the knowledge of a loved one’s mortality, and the necessity of anger after loss. Not every film deserves to be described as “poetic,” a word that has always been bandied about, but “A Monster Calls” reaps that distinction. This is one for the ages.

No longer a boy but not yet a man, 12-year-old Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) is experiencing a lot at his age. He is bullied at school. His parents are separated, Dad (Toby Kebbell) having moved to America and visiting Conor from time to time. Worst of all, he is about to lose the best thing in his life: his beloved Mum (Felicity Jones), who’s dying of terminal cancer. One late night at his desk at 12:07 in the morning—this specific time later becomes a pattern—Conor is visited outside his window by an intimidating grumble coming from across the countryside near an old church and graveyard. It is actually a sprawling yew tree that pulls its roots from the ground and morphs into a monster (voiced and performance-captured by Liam Neeson). The monster promises Conor four more visits with three tales that will later conclude with Conor having to confront his own nightmare. As his mother’s condition worsens and his relationship with his stern grandmother (Sigourney Weaver) grows even more distant, Conor finds himself isolated and not ready to meet the demands of the monster.

It isn’t often that films revolving around young protagonists face themes that are usually intended for adults. 2015’s “Inside Out” proved that animated films can be as mature, if not more, than anything live-action, and already this year, “Pete’s Dragon” was an emotionally stirring fable of grief, as orphan Pete was brought up by a mythical dragon in the forest after losing his parents in a car accident. “A Monster Calls” roots its own territory not only across the pond but in a different idea of grief. As much as he is in pain and full of sadness in preparing for the death of his mother, Conor is furious at everything around him, and understandably so. As can be assumed, a lot is demanded of 14-year-old newcomer Lewis MacDougall emotionally. He is excellent as Conor, giving the full weight to a young boy’s fear and fury of letting go of his mother.

Voiced and acted with motion capture by Liam Neeson, the yew tree monster has been magnificently rendered. The purpose of the monster could easily be misconstrued at the outset, convincing those to expect him to merely get revenge on Conor’s bullies or somehow save his mother. Instead, the monster acts as a coping method for the pre-teen boy to face the unthinkable. In other necessary roles, Felicity Jones is painfully heartbreaking as Conor’s mum, evoking the last strands of life and spirit she has left, and Sigourney Weaver brings more layers than are initially expected as the grandmother.

With a combination of majestic imagination and tender emotional heft, director J.A. Bayona tells a complete story that serves as a deeply felt arc for Conor and deepens the further it goes. The visual effects are in the service of a story rather than mere top-of-the-line spectacle that might overwhelm the story, and the stories the monster tells Conor about a queen, a prince, an old pharmacist and a healing tree are strikingly visualized as watercolor paintings. Tough-minded and unsentimental but warm without becoming treacly, “A Monster Calls” packs a wallop and earns every emotion. Whether or not it is commercially viable for families will be up for debate, but this is a special film that should be vital viewing for everyone, young and old.


Thursday, December 29, 2016

Kids These Days: "American Honey" an alive, free-flowing road trip

American Honey (2016)
162 min., rated R.

British filmmaker Andrea Arnold made a splash with 2009’s “Fish Tank” and brings a lot of vitality from across the pond in “American Honey,” a free-flowing, impressionistic road trip about living on the edge of the American heartland. So lived-in and alive that it could be a documentary, the film carries one along on a wave of sadness, transcendence and hope. There was no actual script for her actors to follow, but writer-director Arnold reaches invigorating heights of filmmaking and raw visual poetry with music and feeling. For nearly three hours, this is an unflinching yet compassionate and revealing piece of work.

Acting newcomer Sasha Lane, who was picked out of a spring break crowd on Panama City Beach by Andrea Arnold, is a fresh-faced discovery as a dreadlock’d Oklahoma teen named Star. Before fleeing her rough life of dumpster diving for food and taking care of two young kids, she locks eyes with a confident guy named Jake (Shia LaBeouf), who offers her a job selling magazines door to door in different neighborhoods. Star soon becomes the new girl in a shady crew, led by manager Krystal (Riley Keough), riding along in a white van of smoking, tatted, underprivileged young people like herself headed to Kansas City. While living in and out of motels and trying to make money during the day, the free spirit also hopes to connect with Jake. For once, Star finally feels wanted, but what will become of her?

“American Honey” doesn’t quite justify its sprawling 162-minute running time, but it certainly makes its own hypnotic path with its free-form narrative, aided by Robbie Ryan’s handheld, fly-on-the-wall cinematography (shot in a boxy 4:3 aspect ratio). Although Andrea Arnold carefully avoids trashy condescension toward her characters, it is sometimes difficult to buy that any of them beyond Jake could be effective salespeople, but that's a minor point amidst the big picture. Fearlessness incarnate, Sasha Lane has an incendiary spark and a natural screen presence, while touchingly actualizing Star's arc to selfishness and self-realization. Shia LaBeouf fits right in as charismatic hustler Jake, as does Riley Keough as no-bull manager Krystal, and every other face (a lot of them unknown actors from off the street) looks like a real one that could be found loitering in a K-Mart parking lot or shopping mall. Arnold’s musical choices are even indelibly used, including Rihanna’s “We Found Love,” Carnage’s “I Like Tuh,” Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You,” Raury’s “God’s Whisper” and the title song by Lady Antebellum. A lot of time is spent in that van with Star and these kids, but one thing is for sure: you can’t take your eyes off of them.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Worst Films of 2016

After 2016, let us forget that these pieces of junk were ever made by human beings, not chimpanzees or aliens, and actually saw the light of day. Life is too short. Cheers to a new year with fewer bad movies.

5) Shut In - Dull, by-the-numbers and really rather dumb, “Shut In” is only a suspense thriller in theory. This snoozer misdirects the viewer into thinking he or she is watching one of three subgenres—a psychological thriller, a supernatural thriller, or a “…From Hell” thriller—but that suspense wears off real quick and trades it in for plodding tedium. It’s also a waste of Naomi Watts, Oliver Platt, Jacob Tremblay, and some handsome cinematography. 

4) Mother’s Day - “Mother’s Day” will be the third time late director Garry Marshall has pulled together an attractive ensemble to fit into multiple stories for one big ode to another Hallmark holiday. The last two star-packed extravaganzas weren’t much more than frothy, manufactured comfort food, but “Mother’s Day” repeats the same problems and then adds a whole new set that it’s hard to know where to begin. It’s obvious, mawkish and vanilla, and then sometimes it’s even insultingly lame and inept. Jennifer Aniston fares the best out of anyone in that she actually gets to be charming, funny and honest, but she deserves the credit, not the terrible script.

3) The Darkness - The premise of a vacationing family (led by Kevin Bacon) unknowingly bringing home a supernatural force from a sacred Native American cave is a perfectly creepy hook on which to spring for a horror movie, but telling a story, generating dread, or even staging an effective jolt seem to elude "Wolf Creek" director Greg McLean this time for his first studio venture. Never scary for a second and bereft of atmosphere, this milquetoast genre effort is just derivative and immediately unmemorable. It almost makes one long for the dozen other mediocre copies of this supernatural horror formula.

2) Warcraft - The mythological fantasy genre seems like the hardest one to crack sometimes, and scripted, acted movie adaptations of video games rarely work. An example of both, “Warcraft” is an egregiously tedious and perplexing experience. It should not be a necessity to have played Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game “World of Warcraft” to enjoy what plays out on screen, but this is bound to alienate anyone who isn’t part of the prepackaged target audience. For a $160-million, CGI-loaded fantasy tentpole, “Warcraft” is a tough sit, lacking in fun, heart, stakes, imagination, and narrative momentum.

1) Dirty Grandpa - Surely the blueprint for “Dirty Grandpa” must have sounded like uninhibited fun for a hard-R road comedy. For better or for worse—all right, definitely worse—this is a raunchy, unprecedented opportunity for 72-year-old Robert De Niro to play a perverted lout of a widower making it his goal to have sex with a college girl and revel in general inappropriateness. Hopefully the paychecks were worth it for De Niro, Zac Efron, Aubrey Plaza, and everyone else involved. Smarmy, smutty and stupid, “Dirty Grandpa” wasn’t only a pandering and groan-worthy insult against immature humor but the most off-putting motion picture of the year.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Space Heroes: "Hidden Figures" a necessary, warmly felt crowd-pleaser

Hidden Figures (2016)
127 min., rated PG.

When a film based on true events is released during awards season, there is the cynical notion that it will be the cinematic equivalent of eating broccoli. To be sure, “Hidden Figures” has a Disneyfied, feel-good stamp all over it and takes dramatic license like any film does, but one would have to be dead inside to not respond to it positively as a stirring celebration. Set during oppressive times when change hadn’t yet begun, this overlooked history lesson about three unheralded African-American women who deserved their due for their work in space travel is a significant one but also entertaining and marvelously acted. Such a story shouldn't have dragged its feet to be told to the world in 2016, but it's better late than never. 

Based on the non-fiction book by Margot Lee Shetterly, “Hidden Figures” shines a light on the unsung pioneering heroes on the ground and behind the scenes at NASA during 1961 in Hampton, Virginia, as the Russians were ahead of the curve in space exploration. A widowed mother of three with a full-time job, Katherine Goble Johnson (Taraji P. Henson) works as a mathematician, calculating the astronauts’ launch windows. She is assigned to the Space Task Group, led by Al Harrison (Kevin Costner) and dominated by white men (save for Harrison’s white female assistant), and would have to hike half a mile away to a different building to use the “colored ladies room” and use a different coffee pot. There was also no protocol for women to attend briefings, which would seem important for Katherine to sit in on since the data changes every day and makes all of her work moot. Her two other colleagues were just as crucial. Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) is a “computer,” doing the work of a computing department supervisor without the proper title or pay raise. While raising a family, Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe) is an engineer who would later receive permission from a judge to attend night classes to expand her knowledge. Their efforts would lead to astronaut John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) eventual orbit around Earth, relying upon Katherine’s exact calculations, and this would mark an important turning point in civil rights and gender equality.

Director Theodore Melfi (2014’s “St. Vincent”), who co-wrote the script with Allison Schroeder, keeps a light, accessible touch for this uplifting story, but “Hidden Figures” is really driven by bright performances. These strong, smart, proud black women are far from just sassy types; they are fierce and good at their jobs. In bringing life to Katherine G. Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson, Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and acting newcomer Janelle Monáe are all spark plugs, full of sympathy, likability and strong-willed determination. Henson is ostensibly the lead, and very good, but the lesser-known Monáe is so enormously charismatic and confident in front of the camera that if she continues her career in acting after this and “Moonlight,” lead roles should await her after this breakthrough. Mahershala Ali (2016’s “Moonlight”) is exceedingly charming as Colonel Jim Johnson, Katherine’s military suitor who would eventually become her husband; getting a man is just part of the packaged deal. In slightly antagonistic roles, Jim Parsons, as main Space Task Group engineer Paul Stafford, and Kirsten Dunst, as the stringent, no-nonsense Vivian Michael, aren’t quite hemmed in as caricatures but prove that mere condescension counted as racism; fortunately, the actors receive key beats of mutual respect with Katherine and Dorothy, respectively. Lastly, Kevin Costner solidly underplays it as NASA director Al Harrison, who’s tough but begins to trust Katherine and let her have a voice.

“Civil rights isn’t always civil,” Mary’s husband Levi (Aldis Hodge) tells her, and that’s the unfortunate truth. This is just one example of historical progress, and we still have a long way to go. Warmly felt and necessary about the black female experience, “Hidden Figures” isn’t so much about the uncertainty of the outcome, which is history, but how Katherine, Dorothy and Mary get there. Is this Hollywood treatment glossy and sanitized? Maybe, but that hardly makes a dent in the film’s robustly satisfying entertainment value, and if a story worth telling must be told in crowd-pleasing fashion, then so be it. This is a winner.

Grade: B +