Saturday, August 20, 2016

No Country for Any Men: "Hell or High Water" a soundly crafted heist western that's about something

Hell or High Water (2016)
102 min., rated R.

There is a bleak yet darkly funny tone coursing through the DNA of “Hell or High Water” that has echoes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s crime yarns, particularly “No Country for Old Men.” There is also a sense of desperation during hard times all over this "honor among thieves" heist western, capturing a socio-economical specificity in West Texas. Written by “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie (2014’s tough but electric prison drama “Starred Up”), the film is a post-modern western, not in the traditional sense where gunslinging cowboys duel outside of a saloon but in its existence as a bank-robbery thriller that actually has it in for the banks. With as much bite as a rattlesnake but leavened with a retained levity and humanity, “Hell or High Water” is resolute and smartly told, a cinematic high point of the summer.

Divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his impulsive older brother, ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), rob bank branches in a string of sleepy Texas towns. Their long-suffering mama died a few weeks ago and they have a mortgage on their family’s West Texas ranch to pay off before the banks foreclose on it. Getting into a crime-spree groove, the brothers pick up a new getaway car for each robbery and bury it afterwards. Meanwhile, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled Texas ranger nearing retirement, takes the case and gets on the Howard brothers’ trail with the accompaniment of his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). With the bank-robbing brothers’ temperaments not quite coinciding, Tanner goes against Toby’s better judgment of robbing one last bank—a bigger one—but it might be the one fatal mistake in their otherwise well-thought-out plan.

“Hell or High Water” doesn’t drill for anything new, but it is soundly crafted in what it does so well with its genre influences. Narratively straightforward and thematically complex, the film aims for uncompromising resolutions over corkscrew plot twists and is even more ruminative for it. On both sides of the law but with major layers of gray, there are two male relationships that run parallel throughout — Tanner and Toby, and Marcus and Alberto. Ben Foster, always quite the fascinating live-wire, is such a chameleonic character actor that he can belong in any story, modern or period. Here, as wild-card brother Tanner, Foster revels in the part and manages to bring more than enough fallibly human shadings and humor to an archetype that he could by now play on cruise control. It is Chris Pine, though, as Toby, the calm, cool and collected brains of this sibling operation who proves his growing versatility as an actor. Counterbalancing mainstream blockbusters (“Star Trek Beyond”) with smaller fare like “Z for Zachariah” and this modest $3.5-million effort, Pine is more than just a handsome leading man. This time, there is a quiet thoughtfulness and an aggressive fire in his belly that is well-suited to the actor’s strengths. Though his moral compass is steadier than his brother's, Toby is flawed and knows it, as he even tells one of his sons to believe what he hears and to not be like him and Uncle Tanner. A marble-mouthed Jeff Bridges is excellent as Marcus Hamilton, being handed some sharp, witty lines, while delivering on-target character work and still holding onto a little of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” Despite the slurs that ignorantly erupt from Marcus’ mouth, Bridges and Gil Birmingham (quite good, too, as Alberto) share a playfully amusing partner interplay that grows into more of a friendship.

In its careful and laconic form of filmmaking and director David Mackenzie’s fondness for long takes, there is an admirably elegiac quality to “Hell or High Water.” In tandem, the pacing is never in a rush but still moves forward with little predictability. As a result of getting to know where Toby and Tanner come from and what their current situation is, the viewer actually begins to root for them to get away with the robberies. Shooting in New Mexico as an acceptable stand-in for West Texas, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens not only captures the beautiful but unforgiving vastness and flatness of Texas but also the textured, lived-in details of the small towns within. There is a memorable bit in a T-bone restaurant with a no-bullshit spitfire of a crusty waitress, played by veteran bit player Margaret Bowman (she has played “Del Rio Motel Clerk” in “No Country for Old Men” and “Townsperson” in “Bernie”). Katy Mixon (TV's "Mike & Molly") also has a great couple of scenes as financially strapped waitress Jenny Ann who’s given a portion of the brothers’ money as a tip by Toby and won’t give it up to Ranger Hamilton as evidence. Director Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan seem to bring out the best in one another that perhaps a follow-up in any genre would do the cinematic universe some good. Their story doesn’t always go in ways the viewer expects and they manage to say something about the status quo without belaboring the point.

Grade: B +

Saturday, August 13, 2016

All Food Goes to Heaven: "Sausage Party" clever and surprisingly audacious but not consistently funny

Sausage Party (2016)
89 min., rated R.

An inspiredly goofy idea for a short stuffed into the casing of a feature-length film, “Sausage Party” is the anti-Veggie Tales, a satire that challenges religious faith and existentialism with the use of anthropomorphic supermarket products who eventually just want to get it on. No, seriously. Designed to be inappropriate, pervasively filthy and even a little audacious, this R-rated, for-adults-only animated comedy certainly has more going on upstairs than just wiener jokes, but why isn’t it more consistently funny? Even at a brief 89 minutes, the chuckles become scattered and there is too much slack, repetitive wandering-around in between the better jokes, underscoring the dead stretches. As directed by Greg Tiernan (nearly every “Thomas & Friends” short) and Conrad Vernon (2012’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”) and credited to four—count ‘em, four—screenwriters, Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir (2015’s “The Night Before”) & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”), “Sausage Party” may be stretched thin but subversively goes where not even “South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut” dared to go. Think of it as “Toy Story,” but only if that Pixar adventure had phallic, profane-talking edibles.

With “Red, White and Blue Day” right around the corner, the food items on the shelves at Shopwell’s Supermarket are excited to finally be chosen by the “Gods” (the customers) and taken to “The Great Beyond” (the kitchen). Little do they know that once food goes out those doors, they are doomed to be slaughtered. Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen) is a pork sausage in a sealed package. It’s forbidden for a sausage to put himself inside of a hot dog bun, but Frank and Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig) want to do more than touch “tips.” Once Frank and Brenda are chosen and placed in a cart, a returned jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) clouds their beliefs about the horrors that await them before committing suicide. Through a series of circumstances, the sausage and bun escape from their packages and become stranded in the aisles of Shopwell’s. Meanwhile, girthy, deformed wiener Barry (Michael Cera) witnesses the gruesome horrors that do in his friends and must journey back home to warn his friends.

For its concept alone, “Sausage Party” deserves props for existing at all. With the aid of alcohol, weed, or maybe even harder drugs, one can imagine this playing like knee-slapping gangbusters, but at a certain point, its thematic and philosophical ambitions start to outweigh its readings on the laugh meter. Amid the bursts of inspiration, there are plenty of easy food puns, while the consistent abundance of F-bombs, spoken by food, seems to ride on being inherently amusing but just wears old after a while. When the jokes aren’t firing, the plot tediously follows Frank meeting with Native American liquor bottle Firewater (Bill Hader) to learn the truth about their existence, while Brenda, Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), Lavash (David Krumholtz) and a leggy lesbian taco named Teresa (Salma Hayek), who also wants to get inside of Brenda’s bun, go down different aisles in the store after-hours.

The heartiest laughs come mostly during the first and third acts. With a shopping cart wreck that creates a cloud of flour in the freezer section, a memorably hysterical bit pays homage to a war film. There’s a dementedly funny sequence where Frank’s fellow grocery pals become murdered in horror-movie style (i.e. baby carrot genocide, the skinning of a potato, the poor cheese gets microwaved on top of the poor tortilla chips, etc.). Picking up its original steam back in the grocery store, the bonkers climax goes to dark, very wrong places. Helping greatly, the terrifically talented vocal cast goes for broke, beginning with Seth Rogen who finally gets his chance to play a horny frankfurter. The desirable relationship between Frank and Brenda is beguilingly raunchy and innuendo-filled. As Brenda, Kristen Wiig only knows how to be a comedic standout, whether she’s nervously singing or coming across as sweet even when calling an Armenian flatbrad a “floppy fuck.” Without spoiling too much more, Nick Kroll voices a douchey, juiced-up douche, and a vocally unrecognizable Edward Norton does an uncanny Woody Allen impersonation as a Jewish bagel.

Viewed in a stone-cold sober state—not far off from 2007’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters”—“Sausage Party” is obscenely funny in fits and starts and there’s something gleefully twisted but never mean about its rambunctious attitude. The screenplay is also an equal-opportunity offender, using nearly every race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation as a part of the food concept. Being half the brainchild from the smartly stoned minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, though, more laughs would have been nice. It is surely one of the most cleverly conceived and limits-pushing comedies in recent memory, animated or not. It just makes one want to laugh more. The filmmakers may even go a step too far, but they decidedly save their most perversely uproarious—even shocking—gag for an orgasmic finale that redefines the word “food porn.” If nothing else, “Sausage Party” will go down in cinematic history as the first and (probably) last film where a hard taco shell performs cunnilingus on a hot dog bun.

Grade: C +

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Big Friendly Dragon: “Pete’s Dragon” a lovely, melancholy surprise

Pete’s Dragon (2016)
102 min., rated PG.

There are only seven stories to tell in the cinematic world, but “Pete’s Dragon” wondrously reinvents a story we already know by the way it has been told. Based on Malcolm Marmorstein’s screenplay of the enjoyable-but-not-universally-beloved 1977 Disney musical that tried to ape the exuberance of “Mary Poppins,” this loose 2016 remake soars above as its own special creature. Besides “Candle on the Water” not being heard and no one breaking out into song, the film is still lyrical in tone but mutes the lighthearted whimsy for a more grounded, less Disneyfied approach. Confirming the story’s heart and soul are never swallowed up with special effects and that the weightier material never becomes heavy, writer-director David Lowery (2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and co-writer Toby Halbrooks display a deft touch in actualizing their eloquent, warmly felt vision to the screen. If this “Pete’s Dragon” calls to mind “E.T.” and “The Jungle Book” more so than its 39-year-old counterpart, it is for the best, as audiences come to genuinely care about the friendship between a boy and his unlikely companion to the point of failing to hold back tears.

After a car accident that took the lives of his parents, 5-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) was left an orphan and lost in the forest. He was soon found and brought up by Elliott, a protective dragon with the ability to camouflage and go invisible. In those six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliott build their own life, living off the woods near the Pacific Northwest town of Millhaven. They are never seen until Jack is spotted alone by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the 11-year-old daughter of local lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley). Jack’s fiancée, park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), makes a connection with Pete when discovering her lost compass around his neck and wants to know where he came from. When Grace and Jack bring the lost orphan into town and then their home, everyone in Millhaven will soon meet Elliott, including Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford), who loves spinning yarns about the time he once witnessed a dragon, and Jack’s pro-deforestation brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who could make a fortune in capturing the dragon.

Lovingly realized without any signs of studio handprints, “Pete’s Dragon” very well retains director David Lowery’s Terrence Malick-influenced indie roots with melancholy and a small-town, folkloric quality. At the same time, it is never limited in visual scope or a childlike sense of magic and wonder. Not unlike experiencing the death of Bambi’s mother for the first time, the film’s prologue that establishes how young Pete becomes orphaned is heart-stoppingly tragic but tastefully done and poetically shot. Though one will come for the charming story about a boy and his green dragon, Lowery isn't afraid to confront dramatic but relatable subject matter like loss and grief instead of timidly handling it with tongs. As the owner of the dragon, Oakes Fegley (2014’s “Fort Bliss”) is wonderful, locating Pete’s arc of a feral Mowgli to a virtual alien being reintroduced to society, not unlike Jacob Tremblay’s Jack in “Room,” to domesticated boy. One has no trouble instantly believing in Fegley’s bond with Elliott and rooting for them to reunite. 

In the roles of the adults, Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford won’t be found singing “Brazzle Dazzle” while painting a lighthouse, and frankly, it’s a relief. As Grace, Howard is a winning beacon of light, deeply invested in a character with maternal instincts. Redford emanates wisdom and charisma as wise, believing old Meacham. Oona Laurence, so exceptionally true in “Southpaw,” does nice work here and keeps reminding one of an old soul, even as a 14-year-old actress. The character relationships between Jack and Gavin and Jack, Grace and Natalie are also efficiently and clearly defined without being clumsily spelled out. For all intents and purposes, Gavin and other members of the town’s dragon hunt are the antagonists. Karl Urban isn’t allotted too many dimensions to actually be interesting, but he’s not painted in such broad baddie strokes as Shelley Winters’ hillbilly matriarch. One of the film’s weaker and more conventional elements, his existence is still more necessary than not for conflict. Last but certainly not least, there can’t be a Pete without a dragon. Elliott, the fire-breather, is a giant lovebug, a decidedly CG creation but as tactile as his fur.

Gentle, wistful and touching, “Pete’s Dragon” is a winner that will surprise the cynicism out of those who sneer at anything rebooted or remade. Save for a couple dragon sneeze gags, the film never gives in to cutesy antics and resists pandering to children but actually takes its time in the pacing department. Enriched by on-location shooting in New Zealand and Bojan Bazelli’s beautifully sylvan cinematography, the film forgoes too much CG fakiness. The soundtrack has also been blessed with songs by The Lumineers and St. Vincent that add to the folksy but timeless feel. Breathing with the emotional heft Disney has been looking for in its live-action offerings, “Peter’s Dragon” is a lovely end-of-the-summer surprise.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dawn of the Worms: Effectively squirmy moments aside, "Viral" just OK

Viral (2016)
85 min., rated R.

“Catfish” directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have a second feature out this year, following Emma Roberts-Dave Franco cyber-thriller “Nerve,” and this time, they’re not saying anything prescient or plausibly scary about technology. No, “Viral” is yet another quarantine thriller, this time no adults allowed. Screenwriters Christopher Landon (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and Barbara Marshall (TV’s “Terra Nova”) lay the simple plot and character groundwork adequately—we get just enough from the characters to care whether they see life to the end credits or not—and the film has a couple effectively squirmy moments, even if the parasitic threats here are visually familiar of FX's "The Strain." It is technically well-made, but once the plotting flattens out and the fates of the characters can only be met a couple of ways, “Viral” doesn’t add anything to the zombie-virus movie canon that we haven’t seen before.

Nice, studious Emma Drakeford (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and spiky older sis Stacey (Analeigh Tipton) have recently moved to a California town with their father, Michael (Michael Kelley), who’s separated from the girls’ mother and now teaches at their new high school. Instead of experiencing the challenges of fitting in, these teens will have to face something more globally threatening. There is an outbreak of the Worm Flu somewhere in the United States, and to prevent it from spreading, the military quarantines the Drakeford family’s desert community. When Emma and Stacey get separated from their father, they don’t listen to him and stay home but instead attend a house party that turns out to be a giant mistake. Stacey gets spewed in the face with an infected teen’s blood, leaving Emma and neighborly crush Evan (Travis Tope) to fight to stay healthy themselves and hopefully save her.

Amidst a lot of holing up in a house and the toss-in of predictable jump scares, “Viral” periodically delivers the eerily gross goods. What happens to the town’s Patient Zero, Emma’s friend Gracie (Linzie Gray), is startling and a hide-and-seek moment between the sisters and one of the infected supplies tension, as does a wormy encounter with Evan’s stepfather (Stoney Westmoreland). Emma and Stacey don’t waste time in putting themselves in harm’s way by foolishly attending a bacchanal down the street, but Sofia Black-D’Elia (2015’s “Project Almanac”) and Analeigh Tipton (2013’s “Warm Bodies”) do click as polar-opposite sisters without overplaying their differences. Their undying love is also palpably felt when fateful decisions must be made. Despite a global infection, the film agreeably remains smaller in scale and works more on a human level that way. “Viral” doesn’t quite slither under one’s skin enough times to make a recommendation, but those in for a decent genre time-killer could probably do much worse.

Grade: C +

Monday, August 8, 2016

Unprotected Melody: "Lace Crater" a strange, intimate venereal-horror indie

Lace Crater (2016)
83 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Not the first to come down this particular pike, what with “Contracted,” “It Follows,” “Nina Forever” and “Bite” in just the last three years, micro indie “Lace Crater” explores venereal anxieties within a horror narrative, again. That inexplicable title aside, cinematographer and short-form filmmaker Harrison Atkins makes an auspicious writing-directing feature debut with this understated, unusually spun mumblecore-ish horror drama. It might ultimately be a bit thematically murky, but "Lace Crater" carves out a distinct identity for itself in ways that are intimate and even tragic.

Coming off a bad breakup, Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) gets away for the weekend with a group of friends (Chase Williamson, Jennifer Kim, Keith Poulson) in one of their family’s homes in the Hamptons. She opts to stay by herself in the guesthouse, which man-bunned host Andrew (Andrew Ryder) claims to be “haunted.” The first night after she and her friends drink and get high in the hot tub, Ruth goes back to her room and ends up being spooked by “Michael” (Peter Vack), a nice stranger in a burlap cloak who happens to be a spectral presence. They start with conversation and then after Michael stops hesitating and shows Ruth his bruised but normal-looking face, they have a one-night stand. Once Ruth returns home, she begins feeling sick, the symptoms worsening from nausea to night sweats to delirium to throwing up an inky sludge and alienating herself from her once-closest friends. 

In just 78 minutes (sans credits), "Lace Crater" tells the low-key story of two souls meeting one another, one alive but not well and one dead living in a closet. Initially, the viewer is unsure whether or not Michael means Ruth any harm; the cause of her fate is decidedly inadvertent on his part. What Atkins wants to say about having sex with a ghost isn't exactly clear, nor do we get much bearing on how damaged Ruth is from her past relationship with her ex-boyfriend (producer Joe Swanberg). Is this a finger-wagging cautionary tale about one-night stands? Or maybe a tragedy about a romantically hopeless human being no longer relating to the living? The end result is too ambiguous to say, however, hazy answers to such questions are probably beside the point to the film’s attention to mood and sensitive empathy. Lindsay Burdge (2016’s “The Invitation”) is the watchably offbeat and natural focal point as Ruth, hitting notes of vulnerability and loneliness that are nothing short of authentic. Once she starts not feeling herself, Ruth does what most people with health insurance would do; she visits the doctor who ends up diagnosing her with a rare sexually (spectrally?) transmitted disease. As it turns out, what Ruth comes down with cannot really be reversed.

Writer-director Atkins envisions Ruth’s tryst with Michael as a shadowy LSD trip and shoots the protagonist’s cracking psyche in a way that’s truly unsettling and controlled without resorting to cheap tricks. The film also has a deadpan sense of humor; for instance, the ghostly Michael is actually pretty handy with a sewing machine. Gideon de Villiers’ handheld camerawork and the cool synthesizer score by electronic band Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo lend themselves to Atkins’ creepy but dreamy tone. More strange than scary or funny, “Lace Crater” is almost too reserved to a fault, however, as a more thoughtful midnight movie, there is a certain sadness and affecting subtlety that hopeless romantics may find haunting. One can just imagine Dr. Ruth having a fascinating opinion on the subject.

Grade: B - 

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Expendables: Margot Robbie one of few bright spots in disappointingly ragged "Suicide Squad"

Suicide Squad (2016)
123 min., rated PG-13.

Following the lead of this spring’s turgid DC Extended Universe entry “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad” is another massive disappointment but even more so as its advertising campaign held such inspired, darkly fun promise. It just goes to show that a misleadingly awesome trailer can be made from a mediocre movie. Written and directed by David Ayer (2014’s “Sabotage"), who should have been a snug fit for a premise involving convicted miscreants coming together to do some good, the film is a sloppy mess that relentlessly sells itself and its billboard-ready antiheroes short with unwieldy, choppily edited storytelling, undernourished characters and lackluster action. Narrative cohesion be damned, there are at least five movies stapled together here that would be more worthwhile than the severely flawed finished one making its way into theaters. It is a bummer to report, but as if something went amiss somewhere from conception to the scripting stages to principal photography to the editing process, "Suicide Squad" is the ragged result.

In the wake of Superman’s supposed death, no-nonsense black ops government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a ragtag task force of criminal metahumans she labels “the worst of the worst" to fight crime. They include not-too-bad hitman Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), who would give anything to be back with his 11-year-old daughter; Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a former psychiatrist who gave up her sanity for her patient Joker (Jared Leto); Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a roguish Aussie hooligan who carries around a stuffed unicorn; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a tatted gangbanger with regrets for using his pyrotechnic abilities on his family; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a cannibalistic genetic mutation who lives in the sewers; and a few more who are barely dealt with. Waller has Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to look after this dangerous team, but she has also manipulated Flag to fall in love with archaeologist Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), now the host of an ancient witch named Enchantress whose heart in a box is controlled by Waller. If these disparate but selfish individuals can stop the real villainess from building up her army in the soon-evacuated Midway City and running the world, they will receive the reduced prison sentences Waller promises them and, maybe, just maybe, they can learn to work together. And if they fail, they die, and so be it. 

Dashing one’s hopes that this might be the jolt in the arm DC Comics adaptations needed, a ‘la Marvel’s approach to “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool,” “Suicide Squad” is a fraud. It misses most of the gleefully anarchic personality and exhilarating rhythm found in its kick-ass 2-and-a-half-minute trailer sharply cut to musical covers of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and "I Started a Joke." Getting around the fact that David Ayer’s hard-edged vision was probably muzzled by Warner Bros. to nab a PG-13 rating, the finished product exhibits bigger problems than the missed opportunity of an R. Slapped-together montages with aurally pleasing pop/hiphop songs and cheeky, flashy graphics are mistaken for satisfactory character development, a technique done with even more care in, believe it or not, 1998’s house-party teen comedy “Can’t Hardly Wait.” There is economical storytelling and then there is haphazard, half-assed storytelling, which in this case feels like the weekly recap of a TV series. The members of the Suicide Squad are such an odd bunch that one wishes writer-director Ayer didn’t rush through their introductions like a marathon runner, each criminal established in an expository briefing for the time it takes Amanda Waller to finish digging into a rare steak during her pitch meeting. With such an overstuffed cast of antiheroes and supervillains, more time would have been valuably spent exploring these characters for longer than bare-minimum snippets; maybe, that way, the viewer would actually be invested in their mission of saving the world from Armageddon, a derivative conflict that holds no tangible stakes here. 

With a few exceptions, the script does its “suicide squad” a disservice, taking but one breather in a bar to actually concern itself with its characters who must at some point make up a cohesive unit but only come across as pawns in Amanda Waller’s pocket. Moreover, they don’t really get the chance to be bad guys; they just keep reminding us. Appropriately introduced by The Rolling Stones' “Sympathy for the Devil,” Viola Davis carries herself with her formidable “voice of God” and gravitas, like always, as ruthless puppet master Amanda Waller. Though she’s not a super-villain, Waller might even be worse. As soft hitman Deadshot, Will Smith rides on sheer star power; he played an alcoholic superhero in 2008’s “Hancock,” and here, his charismatic wisecracks shine through every once in a while. With what little he is given, Jay Hernandez manages to garner more sympathy than most as ready-to-burst pacifist El Diablo, while an unrecognizable Jai Courtney at least registers some humor as Captain Boomerang. Meanwhile, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc and Karen Fukuhara’s soul-trapping swordswoman Katana are absolutely expendable with barely-there backstories and characterizations, while Adam Beach’s scaling-proficient assassin Slipknot is a sixth fiddle benched as soon as he comes on-screen.

Filling in the gaps made by the script, the incomparably cast Margot Robbie dominates and brings so much life to every scene she's in. Disappearing into the role of gonzo, dollfaced sexpot Harley Quinn, the actress is clearly having a blast with the Bronx accent and every dementedly bubbly giggle, wielding of her baseball bat and strut in her hot pants. Robbie is so endlessly watchable and unpredictably crazy that she makes a case for Harley's own origin story. From the 10-15 minutes we see of The Joker, Jared Leto fully commits with his method turn. He is effectively freaky in his make-up and metallic grill but grievously underutilized, and it seems most of his efforts found their way on the cutting room floor. Interestingly enough, it’s Harley's flashbacks of Joker's corruption before falling together into the vat of Axis Chemicals that compel more than the plot proper. And then there’s Cara Delevingue, making a lasting mark in “Paper Towns” but struggling to sell menace as the real threat here. She can’t help it that, aside from Dr. June Moone’s spooky transformation and cool get-up, Enchantress is a lame bore who spends most of the movie practicing Zumba in a silly headdress on a monument altar as a swirling vortex of garish CGI hovers above. If she weren’t hokey enough, Enchantress has a brother, Incubus (Alain Chanoine), who just becomes another tacky CG monster that looks like scraps from “Gods of Egypt.”

In giving the film the benefit of the doubt, “Suicide Squad” intends to check a lot off its to-do list—and litter in Easter Eggs that fanboys and fangirls will pick up on—but does not quite know how to execute it all. It's doubtful even a three-hour "ultimate edition" cut can solve the film’s fundamental issues. Late attempts at pathos do not work and character motivations fail to connect, as if key scenes were missing to bring the necessary emotional impact. The action set-pieces aren’t the least bit thrilling, just a forgettable bunch of choreographed fights with murky lighting and fast cutting. Harley Quinn’s solo scene of kicking ass in an elevator even underwhelms, despite being cued to K7’s “Come Baby Come.” And, finally, the visual palette is rainy and grungy, not unlike the bleak sameness of Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," only popping with psychedelic-pop colors in the early scenes with the cackling Joker and his main squeeze. There are indelible images and glimpses of a much better movie here, but in the way it has been chopped and released, it is too frustratingly uneven to recommend. One envisions a superior “Suicide Squad” had Harley been saved by her jokey puddin’, leaving the two of them to paint the town red. Now, why couldn’t we have seen that movie?
Grade: C - 

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Stupidity Sells: "Nerve" sublimely loopy fun before going off the rails

Nerve (2016)
96 min., rated PG-13.

Kids, the Interwebs is a dangerous place. With Instagram, Snapchat and now Pokémon GO trending, “Nerve” is a nifty millennial cyber-thriller about a social-media fad that’s not completely implausible. The title is the same as a trendy fictional app that plays like an online game of “truth or dare,” minus the “truth,” where the user can choose to either be a “watcher” or a “player.” After the player completes a dare, he or she gets paid a large sum of money deposited directly to their account. Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (2012’s “Paranormal Activity 4”) and screenwriter Jessica Sharzer (TV’s “American Horror Story”), adapting Jeanne Ryan’s 2012 novel, preach about online anonymity—remember their 2010 pseudo-documentary “Catfish”?—but engage their cautionary tale with such a lively charge that one cannot write off this slick, sublimely loopy diversion even when it nearly short-circuits in the final level.

Timid Staten Island high school senior Venus “Vee” Delmonico (Emma Roberts) has lived her life without taking many risks. She has applied to the California Institute of the Arts for photography but cannot bring herself to tell her mother (Juliette Lewis), who wants her daughter close to home after the death Vee’s older brother. Vee’s extroverted best friend Sydney (Emily Meade) is more of an adrenaline junkie and introduces her to Nerve on her phone. After being humiliated by Sydney, Vee decides to give Nerve a shot and accepts her first dare as a “player.” When she’s challenged to kiss a stranger at a diner, that stranger turns out to be a player named Ian (Dave Franco). The watchers like Vee and Ian as a team, but as they make their way into Manhattan and instantly receive online fame, the dares become increasingly more life-threatening. Can Vee trust Ian? Are the prices of the dares really worth the consequences?

Not too disparate from 1997’s “The Game,” 2012’s “Would You Rather,” 2013’s “Cheap Thrills” and 2014’s “13 Sins,” “Nerve” is ludicrously fun before it becomes just ludicrous. The solid premise comes with a dose of cultural relevance as the watchers logged into Nerve can’t get enough of Vee and Ian going through with a parade of escalating dares. The rules of the underground game are efficiently explained, including the reason why Vee cannot snitch to the police. Then, when it comes time to properly wrap up the loose ends—and make a socially conscious point—the film starts to fall apart a bit in a sub-“Hunger Games” showdown that lacks punch but not heavy-handed moralizing. As what can sometimes happen after a big mystery is revealed, the vague answers just don’t live up to everything that came before.

25-year-old Emma Roberts is still able to convince as a 17-year-old, and as Vee, she is a likable heroine who’s still believably game in risking her safety for monetary gain that will help her mother. There are certain nice character details that break Vee from being a wallflower that would seem overly constructed from high-school movie clichés (i.e. she is a fan of the Wu-Tang Clan). Once Roberts and Dave Franco pair up, they make an attractive couple together, the camera eating them up. Ian’s motivations are intentionally kept a mystery, but Franco juggles being seductive and untrustworthy with his charisma and devilish grin. Of the supporting cast, Emily Meade (2016's "Money Monster") is entertainingly loose as Vee’s adventurous but insecure best friend Sydney, an avid “Nerve” player who just wants to be “insta-famous,” and Miles Heizer (2015’s “The Stanford Prison Experiment”) is endearing as Tommy, Vee’s virtual Duckie. Juliette Lewis is also always a sight for sore eyes, even if her participation in the story as Vee’s mother is limited.

“Nerve” is exciting and unpredictable for a long time, amplified by some truly hair-raising and credibly staged stunts, not to mention the way cinematographer Michael Simmonds stylishly shoots New York City in a neon glow as an anything-can-happen playground. From something as amusing as the Nerve players slipping out of an expensive couture store in their skivvies to hanging from a crane atop of a skyscraper, co-directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman know what they’re doing, skillfully stacking up the danger. Vee forced to be Ian’s eyes on a blindfolded motorcycle ride through traffic at 60 mph is a thrill. Watchers in the actual audience who have a fear of heights will be stressed out when someone crosses a ladder between 10-story apartment windows, and a dare on the train tracks is also genuinely hairy. Taken strictly on its own merits, “Nerve” works well as a silly, swiftly paced escapist entertainment that will garner enough followers to ride vicariously with its players.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Bourne Again: "Jason Bourne" a capably made slog of redundancy

Jason Bourne (2016)
123 min., rated PG-13. 

Universal Pictures probably should have left well enough alone after Paul Greengrass turned down his first chance to direct a follow-up to the “Bourne” trilogy. Many might have thought “The Bourne Legacy”—the superfluous but surprisingly engaging 2012 spin-off with Jeremy Renner as a different super soldier—was the way to kill a franchise, it actually poses the question, “Where is Aaron Cross when you want him?” Reuniting director Greengrass (2013's "Captain Phillips") and star Matt Damon after 2004's "The Bourne Supremacy" and 2007’s “The Bourne Ultimatum,” the definitively titled “Jason Bourne” cannibalizes its own franchise for a duller rehash set in the post-Edward Snowden zeitgeist. The spare parts are certainly there, but this rebirth is only periodically thrilling and more often stale. Can Jason Bourne just call it a day and turn himself in already?

Jason Bourne/David Webb (Matt Damon) has been living off the grid and fighting in an underground ring in Greece, or something. Of course, he is still wanted, this time by CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), whose team is creating yet another black-ops program. When he reconnects with old CIA contact-turned-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), he discovers new information about his late father (Gregg Henry) and how he died. Concurrently, Dewey is in cahoots with young social media CEO Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed) and his launch of a new phone app to invade every citizen’s privacy, while determined CIA analyst Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) wants the chance to bring in Bourne. Being pursued by assassin Asset (Vincent Cassel), the revenge-minded Bourne isn’t about to go in quietly.

Strictly for those who want to see essentially the same movie audiences were treated to three times already, the cynically conceived “Jason Bourne” feels like it was created by way of “Mad Libs.” There are new globe-trotting locations. There are new authoritative antagonists yelling at computer screens. And, instead of Operation Treadstone, there is Operation Iron Hand. Really, what is the difference? Whereas Paul Greengrass knew how to create momentum and found a way to push things at a propulsive clip then, this fifth entry is more like a cold slog to nowhere special, albeit with a few spurts of interest. It certainly isn’t anything in Greengrass and editor Christopher Rouse’s screenplay, which tries tapping into the relevance of cyberterrorism but barely does anything interesting with that idea. As an action film, it is proficiently made, at least when the skill of the choreography can actually be made out. Greengrass’ old shooting-style habits die hard, going beyond kinetic and right into erratic, incoherent pummeling. There’s an edgily executed motorcycle chase in the streets of Athens during a riot. Then, when Greengrass gets done trashing the Vegas strip with a Dodge Charger and a SWAT vehicle in an interminable chase that would be more at home in “Furious 7,” there is also a brawl of blows and choking between Bourne and his assassin that is intense and full of nose-cracking realism but handled so frenetically. Throughout most of the action set-pieces, the choreography still gets lost in all the chaos of Barry Ackroyd’s jerky, sometimes too-tight cinematography and co-writer Rouse’s choppy editing.

Matt Damon is back in the saddle, nine years later as Jason Bourne. The actor is still persuasive in the stoic role, but almost all emotional connection to Bourne is gone here. He has been off the grid, sure, and he has most of his memory back, okay, but what exactly has he been doing in the interim? Don’t ask such silly questions because that one is never answered. No one else has a life beyond the standard-issue plot of Bourne being tracked and then the CIA losing him; whether they are undynamic ciphers, pawns and/or cogs in the machine, this is Bourne’s world and they’re all just living in it. Even those who apparently share a past with Bourne hold little weight. As new CIA director Heather Lee, Alicia Vikander brings a fierce intelligence to this nothing role whose motivations are constantly called into question. Julia Stiles makes a stone-faced return as Nicky Parsons and, once again, she is out of the picture before you know it as if the writers didn’t know what to do with her anymore. Finally, Tommy Lee Jones is, well, Tommy Lee Jones.

Talk about a return engagement, minus the engagement. “The Bourne Ultimatum” made a muscular, satisfying capper to the supposed trilogy and “The Bourne Legacy” showed potential for a reboot with an entirely different character. “Jason Bourne,” however, doesn’t revitalize or bring anything freshly intriguing to the series, nor does it accomplish that much on its own terms. It might even make fans of the trilogy forget what made the previous films so engrossing in the first place. Before the series calling card of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” gets cued up, there is the suggestion that there will be a next time, but perhaps Greengrass should just stop while he’s ahead.


Moms Gone Wild: "Bad Moms" hilariously naughty but also insightful

Bad Moms (2016)
101 min., rated R.

“Bad Moms” corners the market on being exactly the wild crowd-pleaser it thinks it is. It’s uninhibited and naughty, but most of it is also ticklishly hilarious with the mouth of a sweet sailor and more insightful than its promo would suggest. Nobody needed a newsflash that there could be a gender turning of the tables in raunchy comedies—yes, women can be just as free and crazy as men—but it’s still liberating when the women get to be defiant and call the shots. Known forever as “the writers of ‘The Hangover,’” Jon Lucas and Scott Moore (2013’s “21 & Over”) wrote and directed this frisky and fun party romp in which the number of laughs can successfully be counted on more than both hands. This female-driven mix of bawdy humor and maternal empowerment may be predictable from a narrative standpoint, but it’s been made with a heartfelt foundation and such comedic relish that the rollicking misbehaving feels well-earned.

32-year-old Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) is an overworked, over-scheduled, perpetually late working mom of two (Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony). While her husband, Mike (David Walton), is a layabout, she is underpaid working for a millennial-run coffee company in Chicago, picking their kids up from school and taking them to their respective after-school activities, having dinner ready and served, attending PTA meetings, and doing it all over again the next day and the next. After an especially long day, Amy is encouraged by tight-assed alpha-mom president Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate) to attend the PTA meeting at her kids’ school, but she ends up firmly quitting the organization. Amy soon finds kindred spirits in two moms, the brash, inappropriate Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and needy, put-upon Kiki (Kristen Bell). All three of them are sick and tired of trying to be the perfect parent, and once Gwendolyn wages a war against her, Amy plans to bite back by running for PTA president and free every other mom from all the worthless meetings and bake sales.

Even for a raucous R-rated comedy played for laughs, “Bad Moms” is smart and fundamentally truthful when it comes to show how moms give their all each day, sometimes with little appreciation from anyone who isn't a mother hen. Striving for perfection and being on a busy schedule every hour of the day can be exhausting, so maybe caring a smidge less and cutting loose for a bit isn’t so “bad.” Writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore clearly understand this notion from a male perspective and thread the needle well by making sure the three women come off likable from the onset so their behavior doesn’t strike as too infantile and irresponsible. Upon Amy quitting the PTA, she does undergo a swift change. She is too hungover from her obscene acts in the grocery store with her new friends to make breakfast for her kids. She plays hooky from work, talking back to her younger boss (Clark Duke), and instead enjoys a quiet breakfast to herself, goes shopping, takes in a matinee movie with the girls and goes to a fancy brunch afterwards. Basically, Amy is on a vacation from her life, and she deserves it. 

Amy, Kiki and Carla—and Gwendolyn, for that matter—are all recognizable motherly types, but each one of the comedic performers brings a surprise that makes their characters more than two-dimensional. Mila Kunis is the glue, ensuring that Amy feels relatable, sympathetic and flawed, yet never acts below her intelligence. She is too much of a tough cookie to just be a doormat for her cheating dolt of a husband and Gwendolyn. Kristen Bell is always an inviting presence but also gets to be a sneakily daffy delight; it’s especially fun to see her Kiki let her hair down and stand up to her controlling husband. Playing a rebellious mom with the most sexual agency, Kathryn Hahn is the gut-bustingly inspired standout, a wild-card dynamo slaying every tastily dirty one-liner without anything resembling a filter. Like Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids," this role could have been cartoonish, but Hahn finds a decency, faithfulness and warmth in the otherwise entertainingly coarse Carla. As Amy’s counterpoint, Christina Applegate is an acerbic ace, even in an initially one-note role as the catty and calculating but insecure Gwendolyn. Her overly prepared PTA meeting, full of over-the-top PowerPoint presentations, is priceless, as is the final scene between her and Amy that cuts Gwendolyn down to size. In the two roles of Gwendolyn’s mean-girl minions, Jada Pinkett Smith mainly has to follow Applegate but gives good side eye as Stacy, while Annie Mumolo gets to sneak in some sharp asides as the perpetually snubbed Vicky. As the sole male eye-candy who isn’t a cheater or a complete idiot but gets to be objectified, Jay Hernandez is innately charismatic with the little bit he’s given to do as hunky widower and father Jessie.

“Bad Moms” is far from being the most attractive-looking film, seemingly shot through gauze and overlit like a sitcom set on the sun, and its story conflict may become strained. However, in the grand scheme of things, those are but small blips when generated laughter is a comedy’s top priority. The game cast’s ready-to-party vibe is so infectious that a montage of the trio’s drunken rampage through the supermarket, cued to Icona Pop danceable “I Love It,” after they first meet proves to be an uproariously funny and expertly edited centerpiece in spite of—or perhaps because of—its broadness. An uncircumcised penis bit goes on long, but the ladies don't beat it into the ground without producing a giggle. The end credits pack a nice touch, too. Instead of the dreaded blooper reel, there is a rather poignant and very amusing sit-down with six of the actresses and their mothers, remembering old times; Applegate’s memory of being taken to 1980’s “Cruising” is a major highlight. “Bad Moms” cannot attest to being wholly subversive, but it has enough of an appealing edge and the belly laughs consistently arrive on schedule. This is what happens when you put a whole lot of funny women in a room and let the cameras roll, and it's saying something when those in charge of the dailies are two men.