Sunday, September 24, 2017

DIY Labyrinth: Imagination on a budget runs wild in charmingly weird "Dave Made a Maze"

Dave Made a Maze (2017)
80 min., not rated.

Watching loopy indie “Dave Made a Maze” is like crawling inside a wonderfully quirky mind where imagination runs wild. It’s the brainchild of writer-director Bill Watterson and co-writer Steven Sears, and while it feels like a Michel Gondry-Charlie Kaufman-Terry Gilliam convergence on a budget that was never made, there is an irresistible weirdness and handmade charm that these filmmakers create all their own. Amusingly whimsical and offbeat without being off-putting or grating, “Dave Made a Maze” is crafty fun that does a lot with a little. 

When Annie (Meera Rohit Kumbhani) comes home from a trip to her apartment, she finds a fort made of cardboard in her living room with the voice of her struggling artist boyfriend Dave (Nick Thune) echoing from inside. Dave sees it as his biggest accomplishment, but he’s been lost in it for three days and the maze can’t be destroyed. Dave explains to Annie that the labyrinthine structure is much larger than it appears on the outside and that it isn't safe for anyone else to enter. Sure enough, once Annie, Dave’s friend Gordon (Adam Busch), their neighbors and a film crew, led by documentarian Harry (James Urbankiak), head inside on a rescue mission, the maze is cavernous and even more complicated than they imagined. The group faces dangerous challenges, from origami birds, to Rube Goldberg-like booby traps, to a musclebound, flesh-eating Minotaur, and if Dave, the maze creator, trapped himself, how will the others find a way out? 

Featuring the calling cards of a first-time effort with budget constraints, “Dave Made a Maze” has just enough material to withstand an 80-minute feature, but only just. As a lo-fi genre oddity, Watterson and Sears construct a clever concept with creativity, resourcefulness, and a lot of cardboard. If the viewer is looking to have their hand held and get a plausible explanation, the film is predicated on one just going along with it all. It follows its own anything-goes internal logic, like when those who go in after Dave trigger booby traps and are slain like arts-and-crafts projects bleeding red papier-mâché streamers, or when all of the characters turn into cardboard puppets briefly after jumping down an escape tube. Had the film relied on body prosthetics and geysers of blood when certain characters do lose their lives to the maze, it would be very gruesome, but the tone is kept light and gleefully wonky since cardboard is the most frequently used material here.

Meera Rohit and Kumbhani and Nick Thune are likable as Annie and Dave, and their situation as a couple is economically presented, while the supporting players add some color. Underneath the larkish nature of the happenings and the almost-cartoonish but still bonkers mayhem, Dave is facing personal and career dysphoria at thirty years old. It’s a relatable theme that receives short shrift, but the film is more interested in inviting audiences into the niftily detailed world production designer Jeff White has created within Dave’s maze, and the Mondo Boys also orchestrate a cool musical score that sounds like an 8-bit video game with organs. If one craves something different from studio fare, the imaginatively designed “Dave Made a Maze” delivers low-budget originality in spades.

Grade: B 

Friday, September 22, 2017

Blocked: Jump scare-laden "Friend Request" wishes it were "Unfriended"

Friend Request (2017)
92 min., rated R. 

There was potential for another horror film to be made about cyber-killing and the pitfalls of having the world at our fingertips, but 2015’s “Unfriended” still remains the gold standard apparently. Following the same blueprint as that ingenious little Blumhouse-produced freak-out but not its committed technical gimmick, in which the entire film was shot from a laptop within a real-time Skype chat room, “Friend Request” is like the lame, conventionally shot Lifetime Original knockoff. Released in Europe in 2016 under the title “Unfriend” and now opening wide on over 2,500 screens, this shoddy Johnny-come-lately doesn’t deserve to trend. Writer-director Simon Verhoeven and screenwriters Matthew Ballen & Philip Koch try forging their own path with a witchcraft angle, but they are so beholden to staging a tedious parade of jump scares, none of which work due to being predictably telegraphed and unsparingly used. That “Friend Request” even received a theatrical release is just baffling.

At a California university, popular psychology major Laura Woodson (Alycia Debnam-Carey) seems to have it all. She has a hunky pre-med boyfriend, Tyler (William Moseley), and shares an apartment with her two best friends, feisty blonde Olivia (Brit Morgan) and equally feisty Isabel (Brooke Markham). Laura is such a nice girl on campus that she even gives the time of day to weird goth classmate Marina Mills (Liesl Ahlers), who hides under a black hoodie, and becomes the loner’s first and only friend on Facebook. Once Laura scrolls through her new friend’s posts of darkly artistic but disturbing self-created animation videos and keeps receiving needy messages and video chats from Marina, Laura tries distancing herself and decides not to invite Marina to her birthday dinner with her close-knit group of friends, also including crestfallen, tech-savvy Kobe (Connor Paolo) and Isabel’s boyfriend Gustavo (Sean Marquette). Once pictures of Laura’s dinner party start trickling through on Facebook, Marina immediately feels rejected. The final straw comes when Laura decides to unfriend Marina on Facebook, triggering Marina to hang herself over a circle of fire while filming it on her laptop. Laura receives the suicide video on her Facebook wall, and following Marina’s death (even though the police cannot actually locate her body), she and her friends have their computers commandeered by Marina’s angry ghost (or something). As each friend around Laura dies, their recorded death is posted to her profile, and neither the video nor her profile can be deleted. Not only are the lives of Laura’s closest pals lost, but her 800-plus Facebook friends dwindles to such a precipitous degree that Laura will soon feel as lonely as Marina did.

In an age where so many horror films are knocking it out of the park, it’s movies like “Friend Request” that give the too often spit-upon genre a bad name and make one almost want to give 2002’s unpleasant “FearDotCom” a second chance. Despite this being director Simon Verhoeven’s English-language debut, that doesn’t mean it’s deserving of a pass. Disbelief must certainly be suspended in a story where a spirit controls Internet code and turns it into a code resembling the symbols of dark magic, but this script is just downright silly and never terribly smart in using technology and social media. In fact, “Internet Addiction Disorder” is touched upon a few times to probably sound of the moment, but the intriguing seed that begins in “Friend Request” just lazily devolves into an ineffectual slasher, laden with overbearing fright tactics of supposedly creepy faces emerging from the darkness and popping real close into the frame. The film's idea of building dread is having characters investigate noises down dark hallways and entering even darker rooms, and in spite of its R-rating, constantly cutting away before a death scene. Whereas all of the jolting payoffs are of the cheap, screechy, sped-up variety, much creepier is the imagery of headless dolls, black mirrors, and spiky forests in Marina’s handrawn, Tim Burton-esque video illustrations. This is also one of those films where the cops are useless, disbelieving dolts, and our heroine must undergo her own Nancy Drew investigation, taking a trip to an orphanage and uncovering a derivative backstory.

The poor cast is done few favors, but they all seem to be bringing conviction to their stick-figure characterizations. The appealing Alycia Debnam-Carey (TV’s “Fear the Walking Dead”) offers sympathy and natural charisma as Laura, and for a while, Liesl Ahlers is tragically human before she becomes a punishing ghost in the machine. Brit Morgan lends some spark, too, as spitfire Olivia, but none of Laura’s circle of friends are never that distinctly drawn enough to be more than walking, talking and eventually screaming profile pictures. So, of course, when they all begin getting knocked off one by one (usually by a swarm of CG wasps), our hearts don’t really go out to them. Then, as the film keeps tabs on how many followers Laura dramatically loses on her friend list as her real friends bite the dust—priorities!—one cannot help but giggle and face-palm at the filmmakers’ confused, heavy-handed attempt at social satire and tragedy. Unlike “Unfriended,” which knowingly indicted its cast of vapid, self-involved kids, this one seems to have no clue how heartless and cynical it’s actually being. Reliant on pandering to the teenybopper crowd who will no doubt be hiding behind their cell phone screens and probably checking their own Facebook, the exceedingly moronic “Friend Request” easily occupies the lowest rung of theatrical horror releases of this or any other year.


Friday, September 15, 2017

Get Out!: Surreal, incendiary "mother!" unlike anything else out there

mother! (2017)
121 min., rated R.

Daring in ways a lot of modern filmmakers would not even try in fear of failing, writer-director Darren Aronofsky is one of cinema’s most courageous cinematic artists who really swings for the fences and never lets his audience know where he’s taking them. His latest offering may be the last word in his thoughtful, challenging auteur sensibilities. Shrouded in cagey mystery, “mother!” is, no contest, the least commercially viable and most polarizing studio film of the year, and amen to that. Paramount Pictures has allowed Aronofsky to make precisely the movie he intended to make, and he pushes things all the way to the point that mainstream audiences aren’t going to know what hit them. It is not quite the “Rosemary’s Baby”-like horror film that it’s being sold as in the violin-heavy, brilliantly cut trailers—and one of the very similarly designed one-sheets—but it is its own fascinating creation that impresses with a singular vision and staggeringly fearless nerve. Though it's important to keep an open mind with the final product on the screen, many will find this experimental piece of work to be esoteric, pretentious self-therapy for the filmmaker and others will be infuriated that it deceives in not being the kind of film advertised (perhaps another “It Comes at Night” situation). A cinematic Rorschach Test, anxiety attack, and hallucinatory nightmare unlike anything else, “mother!” is a tour de force that is hard to process after just one sitting but even harder to ignore and worthy of discussion for years to come.

In “mother!,” nobody has an actual name and the single setting is just as much of a living, breathing and bleeding character. “Mother,” a not-yet-pregnant young woman (Jennifer Lawrence), and “Him," her older husband and a celebrated poet with writer’s block, have formed a paradise together in an isolated farmhouse in a painterly clearing. She spends her days restoring the house by herself and making meals for them, he tries working to publish his latest masterpiece, and they clearly love one another. One night, there is a knock at a door, and it’s a strange Man (Ed Harris) who claims to be an orthopedic doctor searching for a bed and breakfast and keeps having coughing fits. Against Mother’s cautious opinion, Him opens up their house to the Man and gives him a room. The next morning, the stranger’s wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) knocks at the door. This other couple make themselves at home and can’t keep their hands off each other. And then the Man and Woman’s two adult sons (brothers Brian and Domhnall Gleeson) show up. And then more uninvited guests keep coming. And then things turn violent and anarchic.

Because it is so difficult to beat around the bush about what is going on underneath the surface of “mother!,” it is recommended that readers who haven’t yet seen the film should stop right here and return later once they have. As all forms of art should be, there doesn’t seem to be one interpretation or reading, and this one in particular will be in high demand of analysis essays. Beginning as a quiet, intimate chamber piece (apart from the blazing opening sequence that foreshadows what one is in for), the film gradually rips apart the married couple’s tranquil existence with growing tension and erupts into such an intensely surreal, powerfully visceral fever dream that confounds the viewer and Mother alike on which way is up and which way is down. Like a pot of boiling water with the auteur’s metaphorical ambitions and ample suggestion slowly bubbling to the surface, the proceedings almost play out like a straight-faced version of a door-slamming (and door-knocking) farce, until the reveal of a human heart in a toilet and a blood spot in the floor board that just won’t go away. It is all an allegory for fame and adoration, artists and muses, the life of being a mother who feels that she has to do everything, mankind’s assault on Mother Earth, and the cycle of creation and death. In some respects, this is also of a piece with Darren Aronofsky’s oeuvre, whether it be the themes of obsession in 1998’s “Pi" and 2010’s “Black Swan,” or his foray into the Bible, like his 2014 Noah’s Ark retelling "Noah."

If acting is about taking chances and going out of one’s comfort zone, Jennifer Lawrence does just that and more in taking on the role of Mother, and this is an actress whose versatility knows no bounds. In her bravest and most demanding turn to date, she gives her all and throws herself into the material, while being put through the extreme wringer. One could probably argue that Mother is solely a vulnerable innocent, but Lawrence is actually the film's emotional guide who also brings ferocity and backbone in the final stretch, even as her voice is constantly ignored. Everything unfolds through her eyes and everything that happens around her is like a nightmare from which she can not awaken. Cinematographer Matthew Libatique (the director’s loyal collaborator) creates such a boldly showy dance of the camera, shooting handheld on 16mm film and intricately choreographing a series of master shots through the confines of one house, and rarely strays from Mother, as a lot of the coverage is on her face, from behind her, and over her shoulder. As Him, Javier Bardem conveys a tricky balance between loving warmth for his wife and detachment with chilling fits of rage in between. The rest of the cast is all in—including a certain friendly face who won’t be named here and is a surprise to see—but of the hanger-ons who are already seen in the trailers, Ed Harris is effectively suspect and Michelle Pfeiffer is a deliciously wicked, sexy, tipsy storm of unpredictability and intimidation. Any film could always use more of Pfeiffer's presence, but she makes quite a lasting imprint with her sly, darkly funny facial expressions in which she stumbles around a house that isn't hers and asks Mother forward questions about her sex life and whether or not she wants to have children of her own.

Enticingly strange, rattling, unshakable, and even punishing, “mother!” flips the bird to convention and refuses to be pinned down to one genre box. One is better off just surrendering to Darren Aronofsky playing the viewer like a puppet and then making up his or her own mind afterwards. In command of every frame, Aronofsky keeps tightening the vice, sporting an exquisitely unsettling sound design and throwing in a few jump scares to keep the audience (and Mother) uneasy. When the film hits a startling, nightmarishly incendiary crescendo that quite literally throws in the kitchen sink at one point, it never lets up and will not be easily forgotten. Subtlety flies out the window, and yet, it’s all calculated and part of what Aronofsky wants to say with a giant exclamation point. He wants to provoke, wreck our nervous systems, and give the gobsmacked viewer plenty to mull over, and all three goals are met. While reactions to this unsafe, studio-produced art film with household names will undoubtedly be split down the middle on what works and what does not work, and what it all means, there is always a place reserved for movies that trigger an emotional response, shake you up and change your mood, and leave so much room for debate. One thing we can all agree on, though: “mother!” is something else!

Grade: A - 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Bourne to Kill: O'Brien solid and Keaton even better in workmanlike "American Assassin"

American Assassin (2017)
111 min., rated R.

There are so many spy action-thrillers out there that they begin to blend together and fail to bring anything fresh or memorable to stand apart. And, with all the Jason Bournes and Jack Ryans of the world coming before the late Vince Flynn’s best-selling 16-book series centering around undercover CIA counter-terrorism agent Mitch Rapp, “American Assassin” was bound to feel like another boilerplate spy action-thriller, even with its seemingly important title. Director Michael Cuesta (2014’s “Kill the Messenger”) doesn’t do anything particularly novel with the source material, especially with a formulaic script by screnwriters Stephen Schiff (TV’s “The Americans”), Michael Finch (2015’s “Hitman: Agent 47”) and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (2016’s “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back”), but every now and then, he breaks away from a workmanlike competence and stages several bloody, brutally felt and cohesively choreographed hand-to-hand combat scenes that one would prefer to watch in a short demo reel rather than a 111-minute feature film. 

Not even two minutes after Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) proposes to bikini-clad girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on their Spanish beach vacation do Islamic terrorists open fire on the entire resort, killing Katrina and wounding Mitch. Eighteen months later, Mitch has grown a beard, developed a self-training regimen before carrying out his revenge plan, and infiltrated the cell of his girlfriend’s murderers. When he makes his move on the ISIS-like extremists and nearly gets killed, CIA black ops intervene and do the dirty work for Mitch. Enter CIA Deputy Director Irene Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan), who has been monitoring Mitch for a while, believes his skills to be off-the-charts, and recruits him for elite training with former U.S. Navy SEAL and Cold War vet Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton). Initially, the no-nonsense Hurley doesn’t like Mitch’s attitude, but as he proves his mettle and distinguishes himself from the other recruits, Mitch goes on his first field mission with Hurley and Turkish agent Annika (Shiva Negar) in Rome to recover plutonium that’s being used to build a nuclear warhead by an operative known as Ghost (Taylor Kitsch). This will be the true test to see if Mitch can actually follow orders.

As an emotion-driven revenge story that hinges on Hurley’s pearl of wisdom to Mitch—“never, ever let it get personal!”—“American Assassin” works up enough investment. The opening vacation scene that immediately shifts into real-world horror is rattling and visceral, and the grueling training exercises that Hurley puts Mitch and other young men through are exciting to watch, including a virtual-reality laser tag with painful results and a pseudo-mission in a mock IKEA set. Mitch Rapp is not military-trained but self-taught and as agile as Jason Bourne; he is an everyman driven by personal trauma. However, the film seems to do away with that idea, rendering it half-baked and opting to be another standard-issue globetrotting thriller that checks all the boxes. The geographical location changes in almost every scene. There is the anticipated unveiling of the identity of a mole. And then, not exactly by this genre’s playbook per se, the film throws in a gratuitous torture scene where finger nails get extracted in gruesome close-up and a big, bombastic finale with disaster-movie CGI that would be more fitting in Roland Emmerich’s “2012.”

Replacing Chris Hemsworth in the role of Mitch Rapp, Dylan O’Brien wouldn’t seem like one’s first choice—and he wasn’t—but he is more than capable in breaking away from YA territory (MTV’s “Teen Wolf” and the “Maze Runner” series) and being molded into the next stoic action star. When the script actually gives him the chance, he believably pulls off the arc of being an emotionally numbed soul turned maverick killing machine, but even better, O’Brien sells the wiry physicality and proves that his pre-production training paid off. As Mitch’s tough-as-nails handler Stan Hurley, Michael Keaton elevates a stock Obi-Wan Kenobi role with plenty of watchable hardassery and that madman glint in his eye, and then he later brings a volatile, Beetlejuice-like eccentricity to one key scene where he has a mouthful of blood (you’ll definitely know it when you see it). On the other hand, the eye-catching Shiva Negar, as undercover agent Annika, doesn’t always have much more to do than look glamorous and then eventually pick up a gun when the time calls for it. Sanaa Lathan gets handed all of the most laughably self-serious dialogue that anybody would have a tough time selling, but it’s a relief when she actually sparks an intentionally amusing one-liner in her last scene. And, lastly, Taylor Kitsch does just fine with what he’s given, snarling with menace whenever he can, but his Ghost is really just another evil, chaos-obsessed psychopath who may as well have “Daddy Issues” tattooed on his forehead.

“We kill people who need to be killed,” is the rah-rah mentality behind “American Assassin,” but nobody will be buying a ticket to a violent espionage thriller expecting to find subtle politicking and tasteful moralizing. If Mitch Rapp does get the franchise treatment, it would behoove of Lionsgate Films to figure out what might make Vince Flynn’s protagonist stand out from the already-crowded pack, and in doing so, handle the emotional component more consistently. From what one gets so far, “American Assassin” remains a largely forgettable, if adequately entertaining, action picture that gets the job done but never achieves more than that.

Grade:  C +

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Midlife Perfection: Witherspoon gets to be her perky, winsome self in blandly nice "Home Again"

Home Again (2017)
97 min., rated PG-13.

First-time writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer must have learned a thing or two from filmmaker parents Nancy Meyers (2015’s “The Intern”) and Charles Shyer (1987’s “Baby Boom,” 1991’s “Father of the Bride,” 1994’s “I Love Trouble” and 1995’s “Father of the Bride Part II”) because her feature debut, “Home Again,” has that glossy, Meyers-Shyer touch all over it. Since she has grown up on the sets of her parents’ movies, this film, unfortunately, exists in such a cushy Hollywood bubble that it’s hard to buy into and relate to any of it. A great deal of the appeal behind mom Nancy Meyers’ films is the luxuriously cozy, bourgeois interiors and decor out of a Pottery Barn, and while Meyers-Shyer delivers in that respect somewhat, everything else reminds of a brightly lit sitcom that’s too cute, too banal and in desperate need of a reality check. If anything, “Home Again” might go down easiest as a fluffy, flavorless diversion that one can wash the dishes and fold the laundry to without missing much.

About to turn the big 4-0, interior decorator Alice Kinney (Reese Witherspoon) doesn’t know what the next step in her life will be. She has separated from her music exec husband, Austen (Michael Sheen), and moved her two adorable daughters, Isabel (Lola Flannery) and Rosie (Eden Grace Redfield), from New York and back to Los Angeles in the pastoral Spanish ranch where Alice grew up. Her late father was an Oscar-winning, Cassavetes-like filmmaker and her mother, Lillian (Candice Bergen), was his muse before Dad’s philandering ended the marriage. When Alice goes out with her gal pals (Dolly Wells and Jen Kirkman) to celebrate her birthday, she meets a handsome twentysomething, Harry (Pico Alexander), along with his brother Teddy (Nat Wolff) and buddy George (Jon Rudnitsky), who make up an aspiring filmmaking team. They dance the night away with the help from a flowing amount of shots and all end up back at Alice’s pad, and while Alice and Harry start to hook up, it ends early. In the morning, Alice’s mother arrives, only to be charmed by the three guys and encourage her daughter to let them stay in her guesthouse until they get on their feet. Instead of becoming the Houseguests From Hell, these three become live-in nannies to Alice’s girls, mister fix-its to her kitchen cabinets, designers to her business website and, in Harry’s case, a regular sleeping partner. Oh, gee, Alice’s life is awful but will surely get better.

Even without wizards and fire-breathing dragons, “Home Again” is a complete fantasy, but did it have to be such a bland one that goes for the tired cliché when it should be steering clear of it? When the viewer first meets Alice via voice-over and still photographs of her and her filmmaker father, the film gives one hope that writer-director Hallie Meyers-Shyer, herself, is writing what she knows and will bring a personal perspective, as she, too, has parents who are in the biz. Instead, this woman-in-her-40s story follows the trajectory of an aggressively nice and facile confection about a woman with no real problems but to have three men 13 years her junior doting on her. Save for Harry standing up Alice to a dinner party, George taking a freelance rewriting job behind Harry’s back, and the three young men’s mad dash to a fifth grade school play in the film’s dramatic climax, there’s little tension, conflict, or drama that can’t be solved with a hug and lasagna leftovers. There’s even a subplot with Alice trying to get her interior decorating career off the ground and snagging her first client in a vapid socialite (Lake Bell), but the only worthwhile incident that comes out of that is Alice’s amusingly drunken comeback. Basically, everyone is just so darn nice that even Alice’s British music-exec husband really isn’t that bad.

Reese Witherspoon has done “nice” already, and coming off her stunning, complex work in HBO’s “Big Little Lies,” “nice” seems like a waste of her wide-ranging talents. The fetching actress can’t help but just show up and be a charming ray of light, however, one wishes the character she’s playing had been more interesting and layered on the page. Alice leads a comfortable life with friends and a family and no detectable financial worries, and it only seems to get better. Witherspoon does at least get to be her perky, winsome self, and admirably, the film never judges Alice when she begins sleeping with Harry. Pico Alexander (2016’s “Indignation”) is boyishly cute as suave director Harry, but he is such a vanilla bore that it rings false when Alice sleeps with him sober. Nat Wolff is appealing as usual, playing the actor of the trio, but one never gets a sense of Teddy’s talent as an actor that he might as well be this film’s Vincent Chase from “Entourage.” As screenwriter George, who learns the way Hollywood works when hearing out their producer’s notes on his script, SNL cast member Jon Rudnitsky is much better, stealing scenes with his fresh, charismatic presence and energy that do not exist in the supposedly hunky Harry. This time working opposite Witherspoon to play her mother and not her future mother-in-law like in 2002’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Candice Bergen is lovely to see again on screen and gets in some choice one-liners, but she’s largely underutilized. 

As idle comfort food that never strays from a light and airy mood, “Home Again” is pat, predictable and oh so pleasant. Dean Cundey’s lensing is creamy and sun-bleached beyond belief, but the writing is not at all sharp, aside from a few moments during meetings with Hollywood agents all named Jason and a Jason Blum-like horror producer (Reid Scott), and there are about four blissful montages too many where all conversation is drowned out when characters smiling and laughing is apparently the most efficient shorthand. Alice’s life just doesn’t seem that rough or relatable to see an entire film about it. Why go to “Home Again” when there’s an easy, preordained solution for everything?


Wednesday, September 6, 2017

It Knows What Scares You: Classily mounted, heartfelt, goosebump-inducing "It" should make Stephen King proud

It (2017)
135 min., rated R.

Expectations were as high as a child’s lost balloon for this feverishly anticipated adaptation of Stephen King’s 1986 horror tome “It,” so it’s a pleasure to report that this R-rated, studio-backed cinematic treatment meets and then surpasses them. Although there was already a 1990 TV miniseries that can be fondly remembered most for Tim Curry’s creepily jolly Pennywise, there was plenty of room for improvement. Adjusting the time period of King’s 1950s-set story to the summer of 1989, streamlining the narrative structure, and refusing to soften the macabre, explicit nature of the material (except for his mature decision to omit a final orgy scene, which was, uh, for the best), director Andy Muschietti (2013’s “Mama”) brings forth his own commanding vision while complementing and retaining the essence of the original text. It must have been a daunting undertaking, but everything clicks: the casting is pitch-perfect across the board, the period-specific details are authentic without becoming parodic, the scares are effectively executed, and the telling of King's sprawling, 1,138-page source material (or at least half of it) is economically conceived and thematically rich. A coming-of-ager about the woes and anxieties of being a kid in a looking-glass town damned by an an evil entity, “It” is elegantly mounted, classically confident, adult-minded, goosebump-inducing and never without a beating heart. Out of the slew of Stephen King adaptations to choose from, this is decidedly one of the very good ones.

In 1988 in the small Maine town of Derry, the last moment between stuttering 13-year-old Bill Denbrough (Jaeden Lieberher) and little brother Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott) was making a paper boat together for Georgie to take out in the rain, only for Georgie to go missing. A year later, as soon as school lets out, Bill and his three best friends, wisecracker Richie Tozier (Finn Wolfhard), asthmatic mama's boy Eddie Kaspbrak (Jack Dylan Grazer), and nervous rabbi's son Stan Uris (Wyatt Oleff), spend the early days of summer trudging through Derry’s sewer system because Bill still believes brother Georgie to be out there somewhere. The "Losers' Club," as they call themselves for feeling like misfits, eventually find new members in chubby new kid Ben Hanscom (Jeremy Ray Taylor), who spends his days reading up on the cursed town of Derry; Beverly Marsh (Sophia Lillis), a cool, tough outsider who doesn’t fit in with the other girls and has a rough time at home with her abusive father; and the homeschooled Mike Hanlon (Chosen Jacobs), who's still haunted by the death of his parents and can't cut it working at his grandfather's slaughterhouse. If they can fend off mullet-haired bully Henry Bowers (Nicholas Hamilton) and his gang, maybe they can conquer anything. As these kids come together, they discover the same dark, shapeshifting force is tormenting all of them, taking the shape of whatever fears them and usually taking the form of a balloon-toting clown named Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgård). “It” dwells in the sewers of their hometown, where the disappearance of children has become an unfortunately regular occurrence, and comes around every 27 years to prey on children. Can they beat “it”?

Pennywise will certainly be getting many horror fans floating into the theater, but “It”wouldn’t be what it is without fully realized characters who are always in the forefront and collectively share a warm, close-knit underdog camaraderie. The script, credited to Chase Palmer & Cary Joji Fukunaga (2015’s “Beasts of No Nation”) and Gary Dauberman (2017’s “Annabelle: Creation”), is rather densely plotted but tightly edited with each scene given a clear purpose and providing room to breathe for its seven protagonists. Hardships, such as bullying, abuse, and racially motivated violence, could have felt like clichés, but each one is executed with enough specificity and truth to be fresh and compelling; seeing where most of these kids come from and the adolescent pains they experience are almost horrific enough before a certain clown gets sent in to terrorize and feed on children. As the parents are either absent or subject their own kin to varying degrees of abuse, this lucky seven have nowhere to turn but to each other.

With such sharply drawn people, who all have distinct personalities, hormone-driven curiosities and personal struggles, the horror moments frighten and unnerve all the more. A number of stupendously devised set-pieces do not leave one wanting, starting with the chilling exchange between yellow-slickered Georgie and Pennywise in the storm drain after he loses his paper boat. From the way Andy Muschietti tensely stages this interaction, as well as little Georgie’s startlingly grisly demise that's only witnessed by a neighbor lady's cat, he displays a classy mise-en-scène and then bravely pulls no punches. An off-kilter painting of a spindly woman who looks like one of Guillermo del Toro’s creations comes to life for Stan. Ben gets chased in a library by someone or something he sees in the archival records. The germaphobic Eddie encounters an infected leper. A messy blood explosion out of Beverly’s bathroom sink is another humdinger, recalling the gallons upon gallons of plasma to saturate an entire room since Johnny Depp’s demise in “A Nightmare on Elm Street.” The spooky, ramshackle Neibolt Street House that these friends enter is also a nightmarish funhouse of “scary,” “not scary,” and “very scary” surprises. As “It” leads to a final showdown between the "Losers' Club" and Pennywise in Derry’s sewer system, the film carefully reels back the over-the-top, seemingly unfilmable elements that plagued the 1990 miniseries (remember that chintzy-looking arachnid in the adult section?) and approaches it as a vivid child’s nightmare brought into reality.

With an ensemble piece like this, director Andy Muschietti makes sure to spread the wealth of screen time to each cast member. Like the group of friends in “Stand by Me" (another Derry-set Stephen King adaptation), “The Goonies,” “Super 8” and, most recently, “Stranger Things,” these seven kids are likable and extremely charismatic, whether they’re busting each other’s chops or just sticking together, and the performances are all wonderful. Proving to be an intuitive natural after receiving lead roles in four feature films in just three years, 14-year-old Jaeden Lieberher (2016’s “Midnight Special”) is the film’s main emotional anchor, poignantly painting Bill’s heartbreak of a young boy who lost his younger brother and refuses to believe he’s gone for good. By his side are four other standouts: newcomer Sophia Lillis is superbly affecting as Beverly, the Molly Ringwald of the group, who retains a strength in spite of her poor school reputation and awful life at home; Jeremy Ray Taylor is endearing and brings so much empathy to Ben, who takes the brunt of Henry Bowers' bullying and shares feelings with Bill for Beverly, as well as a closeted soft spot for a certain ‘80s boy band; and both Finn Wolfhard (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), as the trash-mouthed Richie, and Jack Dylan Grazer, as the fanny-packed Eddie, provide much-needed levity with their cheeky, profane sarcasm.

Wisely, the malevolent, elusive entity known as It is left a mystery, even if his modus operandi is pretty clear. Although It's most frequent form is Pennywise the Dancing Clown, it is a celestial manifestation of every child's most primal fear with the power to manipulate others to do his vicious bidding. Never caught imitating Tim Curry’s iconic portrayal but putting his own creative stamp on evil incarnate, Bill Skarsgård makes for an indelibly chilling and fiendish Pennywise that coulrophobics will have trouble keeping him out of their nightmares. Without flooding every scene, Pennywise is deliciously and judiciously used, and from the way the actor is made up to every choice he makes in terms of playfully sinister vocalization and physical movements, Skarsgård’s Pennywise will deservedly go down as one of horror cinema’s freakiest monsters next to Robert England’s Freddy Krueger.

Technically vital and aesthetically artful, the film is graced with Chung-hoon Chung’s sumptuously atmospheric cinematography, Claude Paré’s lovingly textured production design (keep your eyes peeled for the local moviehouse marquees), and Benjamin Wallfisch’s unsettling score, leavened by the sweet use of The Cure’s “Six Different Ways” and a music cue to New Kids on the Block. Aside from one glaring use of CGI where the "Losers' Club" finally stand up to Henry Bowers in a stone-throwing fight, the special and make-up effects are largely practical, with CGI fleetingly and seamlessly used as enhancements, and more effective because of it. The floating balloon in the opening Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema logos is also a playfully inspired touch.

At two hours and fifteen minutes, "It" is assuredly paced and never feels longer than two, and it's still only the first chapter. Unlike the novel and the miniseries, this film opts to focus on the characters as children, and sure enough, the closing credits do begin with the title card, "It: Chapter One," to prepare one for more to come. That the film was pre-planned to be split into two chapters doesn’t feel like a cynical or self-indulgent gambit, a la Peter Jackson's “The Hobbit,” because there is actually more story to tell and one can hardly wait to see Bill, Ben, Beverly, Richie, Eddie, Stan and Mike take on their fears once again as adults. Before one goes on a tirade about Hollywood’s lack of original ideas and penchant to remake everything for financial reasons, “It” is that rare instance where a filmmaker respects the source material and just wants to turn out the best possible film he can with a lot of care and talent. If he’s not already, Stephen King should be awfully proud. 

Grade: A - 

Saturday, September 2, 2017

Failing Alison Bechdel: "The Layover" a cruel, lazy insult to female friendship and comedy

The Layover (2017)
88 min., rated R. 

“A Film by William H. Macy” is a good place to start for what makes “The Layover” so baffling and depressing. One is willing to forgive director Macy just this once for having a lapse in discernment and getting himself involved with a project this disgraceful, but is he okay? Has he been replaced by a tone-deaf alien pod person? What exactly drew him or anyone to this material? There’s really no way of knowing, but Macy’s second feature behind the camera, following 2014 drama “Rudderless,” was squandered on this female-centric comedy that particularly hates its female characters. There’s no way to defend a film that sets two best friends against each other and reduces them to stereotypically petty, immature, unpleasant, regressive gargoyles who destroy their lifelong friendship over a hunky man. If the characters and audience were treated with respect and intelligence, or if any of it were actually funny, that might make the proceedings slightly more forgivable, but that’s never the reality. As if any movie ever needed to evoke the nightmare of Kate Hudson and Anne Hathaway sabotaging each other after neither one would give up the same wedding venue and date in 2009’s equally insufferable “Bride Wars,” “The Layover” is lazy and desperate at best, and insulting and misogynistic at worst.

Kate (Alexandra Daddario) and Meg (Kate Upton) are best friends who are both in flux. Finishing up the last day of school before summer vacation, Kate is an English high school teacher who gets told by her principal that she should change career paths and cut hair instead. Meg, a cosmetics saleswoman, botches a sale when the major company realizes her products are made in North Korea. One is more conservative and stable than the other, and the other is promiscuous and blowsy. After their mutually rough day, Meg drags Kate out of bed to be spontaneous and start their vacation by booking a flight from Seattle to Fort Lauderdale (figure that one out). Boarding the plane, Kate and Meg get all hot and bothered when their middle seatmate arrives in the form of Ryan (Matt Barr), a blonde, hunky firefighter. Both women are instantly smitten and begin flirting with Ryan, but that’s only the beginning. Their flight gets cut short when Hurricane Cindy hits, forcing them to endure a layover in St. Louis and check into a hotel. As soon as they run into Ryan on the elevator, he invites them to the lounge for a drink, and the game is on, as Kate and Meg compete and one-up each other like bitter enemies, all because of one man.

More than a breezy farce that audiences aren’t supposed to give a lick of thought to, “The Layover” is a mean-spirited endurance test with an IQ relative to room temperature. Kate and Meg are set up as being best friends since fifth grade who live together, watch “The Bachelor” together and down a bottle of Chardonay together. Why one would want to throw away their sisters-before-misters bond for a chiseled piece of ass they just met is beyond anyone of sound mind. The birdbrained sitcom conflict that screenwriters David Hornsby & Lance Krall (TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) dreamt up is one-dimensional and contrived beyond belief that it’s ridiculous to even try believing a single second of it. Of course, if these characters acted sensibly and got over this little competitive tiff, there’d be no more movie otherwise, and that might have been preferable. Kate seems like the more well-adjusted one at first, but both Kate and Meg just proceed to sink to unbelievably low levels of immaturity and sabotage. The number of times the script strains for humor as these women one-up and destroy one another are more pitiful and embarrassing than humorous, but everyone involved apparently thought all of this was hilariously wacky. When Ryan wants to relax poolside, Kate tries to keep up with her friend’s bust by hacking up her one-piece bathing suit that works in her favor. One of them attempts to drug the other. Meg triggers Kate’s fear of heights by getting Ryan on a hot air balloon with a one-eyed operator, who ends up getting a cork in his good eye. They both compete in a knock-down, drag-out food fight at the hotel’s continental breakfast. And, then, when Meg gets locked in a disgusting gas station bathroom and covered in feces on her way out the window in the film's crassest and unfunniest gag, the viewer feels her pain all too well. 

Alexandra Daddario and Kate Upton are game and committed for whatever comes their way, unafraid to look goofy and act terrible for the sake of a theoretical laugh, but this dreck is beneath even both of them. Who are we supposed to root for when Kate and Meg have such a shallow, single-minded goal? Daddario can be likable and has fine comedic timing—she was one of the few bright spots in this summer’s “Baywatch”—but not even she can retain her dignity. Upton isn’t much of an actress, although she could be a charming performer with a better project. If burping after chugging a Dr. Pepper in front of airport security is considered comedy, she gets more comedy to do here as party girl Meg than she did in 2014's “The Other Woman,” which was by no means great but celebrates female independence by comparison. Matt Barr (TV’s “Sleepy Hollow”) gets to play the tug-of-war object known as Ryan. It’s not too surprising that, by the time the story has to wrap things up, he’s not as perfect as Kate and Meg thought. Barr is definitely easy on the eyes in an athletic surfer-dude kind of way, but he’s given no more to do than be a bland hottie with a bod and little to say. Matt Jones (TV’s “Mom”) seems to be the most decent person in the film as Craig, a jeweler at a hotel for a convention who ends up helping the love triangle get to Florida. However, the script even uses and abuses him, making him the cause of a car accident based on Meg’s payback that was directed at Kate.

High on cruel humiliation but low on genuine laughs, “The Layover” could have worked, even with the same cast and William H. Macy's serviceable direction. The script just doesn’t do right by anyone, wasting some very funny people (Molly Shannon, Rob Corddry, Kal Penn) who get two scenes apiece to avoid stealing the attention off the silly plot proper. Maybe two women should’ve written the script; then again, no women would concoct such a reductive premise in 2017. There are two other female characters, one of whom is having an affair with a married man and the other a nagging, emasculating bride. Needless to say, there’s little affection for anyone on screen with XX chromosomes, and yet, there’s a disingenuous turn-around as the film’s forgone conclusion wants to have it both ways with a falsely positive ending about female friendships and empowerment. Akin to sitting in the aisle seat on a long flight, having your elbow slammed by the flight attendant’s beverage cart again and again, and having the back of your seat kicked, “The Layover” succeeds as a miserable experience. Alison Bechdel will be furious.


Friday, September 1, 2017

They'll Huff and Puff: "Jackals" not half-bad as standard-issue invasion thriller

Jackals (2017)
87 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Home-invasion movies are some of the most dependably terrifying because, unlike ghosts and monsters, someone intruding our personal domain happens in the real world. As so many other movies of this ilk have come down the pike—2007’s “Them,” 2008’s “Funny Games” and “The Strangers,” 2011’s “Kidnapped,” 2012’s “Mother’s Day,” 2013’s “The Purge” and “You’re Next,” 2016’s “Intruders," “Don’t Breathe,” and “Hush,” just to name a few—it’s hard not to feel a sense of redundancy when a new one wants to join the club. For a siege horror-thriller with a cult angle, “Jackals” surely does what it needs to do. It’s efficient, nasty and tightly wound, but it’s also so familiar, almost bordering on plagiarism, and concludes with no catharsis, relief, or hope of any kind. One’s mileage will certainly vary, but in this case, the getting-there is the destination all the way. If audience members are willing to subject themselves to being thrown into a hopeless abyss, this standard-issue home-invasion slasher isn’t half-bad.

At her family’s remote cabin in the woods, Kathy Powell (Deborah Kara Unger) awaits the arrival of her son, Justin (Ben Sullivan), who left his family to join a murderous cult. Keeping her company are self-involved son Campbell (Nick Roux) and Justin’s girlfriend Samantha (Chelsea Ricketts), along with Justin’s infant daughter. Not much later, Justin arrives involuntarily with his father, Andrew (Johnathon Schaech), with whom Kathy is divorced, and Jimmy (Stephen Dorff), who was hired by the Powells to deprogram Justin. Once Justin is brought in and tied up to a chair, the family hopes to snap him out of his warped state, while Jimmy makes it his mission to break him down. As soon as night falls, everyone inside the cabin is lined up for the slaughter when Justin’s “other” family comes for him and will do anything to get him back. Did the Powells think that the cult wouldn’t come looking for him?

Before the main carnage commences, the film opens on March 24, 1983 from a masked killer’s POV, shot in one unbroken take, as a home invader makes his way into a family home, stands over them in their beds and then slaughters the family of three with a pair of scissors. It sure grabs the viewer’s attention, but it isn’t anything we haven’t seen before already in 1978's "Halloween," 1986's “Manhunter” and 2012's “Sinister.” Most of “Jackals” is like that, however, director Kevin Greutert (he of the allegedly final two “Saw” movies and 2014’s Bayou-set chiller “Jessabelle”) stages most of it pretty effectively anyway. Cinematographer Andrew Russo lends dread and creepy atmosphere to the isolated, supposedly idyllic setting, and the cult members, all hiding behind animal masks, a la “You’re Next,” are certainly menacing and mean business. The family inside the cabin is outnumbered but rather resourceful, crafting makeshift weapons out of knives and putting hot oil on the stove in case the cult members make it inside. Until one gets the sense that the Powells are ultimately doomed and have no chance against the unstoppable cult, the film ekes out some very tense moments, as the family members nervously wait for the intruders to pounce.

Written by Jared Rivet, the film, apparently based on true events (or so the title card says), quickly sets up the situation at hand. Had the script cared to flesh out how Justin, now going by “Thanatos,” got involved with his new “family” and what drew him into their way of thinking, the final product might have been better for it and packed even more of an emotional punch. Given the life-or-death circumstances, there isn’t a lot of time for character development, despite that of the expository variety, but the actors are all solid—particularly Deborah Kara Unger and Johnathon Schaech as a divorced couple with pent-up tension—and find ways into making their characters almost seem like more than just pigs for the slaughter. “Jackals” borrows the most from “The Strangers,” but when a derivative B-horror tale can still hold its tension for the length of its running time, it’s at least following through on its aim.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Drag Her to Hell Already: “Ghost House” shrieky but not actually scary

Ghost House (2017)
99 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Thailand-set possession chiller “Ghost House” certainly has some reliably spooky imagery—you can't really go wrong with a gnarly-looking crone—and proficient production values for a low-budget VOD offering. Unfortunately, that’s about it. Everything else feels rote and hardly ever scary. Seriously, when will white people vacationing in foreign countries learn that they should never disrespect other cultures? They always end up regretting it.

This time, couple Julie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Jim (James Landry Hebert) are traveling to Bangkok. After Jim proposes to Julie, they run into British travelers Robert (Russell Geoffrey Banks) and Billy (Rich Lee Gray), who are staying at the same hotel and invite them out. Jim gets to experience a Thai strip club, while Billy stays outside with Julie, and then their next stop is to a cultural graveyard with a miniature shrine. Robert goads Julie into stealing the stone figure, and as Robert runs for his car, Julie sees what she’s up against—an angry Japanese spirit—and is left cursed. Over the course of three days, Jim realizes something just isn’t right with his fiancée and, as he comes to learn from local driver Gogo (Michael S. New) and American expat Reno (Mark Boone Junior), the spirit that has attached itself to her wants Julie’s soul. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Director Rich Ragsdale engineers a few startling moments, but his film as a whole is more like a derivative pastiche that steals from the best, primarily Sam Raimi’s deliciously operatic “Drag Me to Hell.” At every turn, the grotesque, witchy-looking spirit haunting Julie keeps turning up in the background and pouncing toward the camera; it's creepy the first couple of times but thereafter becomes so repetitive. The grim moral dilemma, a la “Drag Me to Hell,” that Jim faces to save Julie has no follow-through, either, and just feels like one more missed opportunity.

Learning how to scream her lungs out in Rob Zombie’s two “Halloween” films as Laurie Strode, Scout Taylor-Compton puts herself through the wringer again here as Julie, but she’s better than the material. Without being given the chance to bring much else to her character, she screams, cries and jumps in fear a lot; Taylor Compton’s Julie is merely a pawn at the mercy of a ghoul, and the only ones who can help her are witch doctors. Including an over-the-top finale that is more silly than frightening, “Ghost House” ends up being a cacophony of obligatory jump scares and overcompensatingly shrieky musical stingers. Even the tiniest bit of subtlety might have allowed the film to deliver more satisfying, shiver-inducing chills.

Grade: C -