Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Space Storm: "Space Station 76" a groovy, low-key original

Space Station 76 (2014) 
93 min., rated R.

Expectations are going to doom "Space Station 76" for what it is rather than what it appears to be, or what it is not. It has the campy, spoofy trappings of being a joke of itself, but tonally, it has more in common with "The Ice Storm" and "Happiness" than "Spaceballs" and "Galaxy Quest." If a blackly comic Todd Solondz drama copulated with the '70s television series "Space: 1999," "Space Station 76" would be the bundle of joy. A space opera-cum-tragicomedy about marital distress, suburban ennui and unfulfilled dreams befit with its 1970s time period, the film is as dry and melancholy as it is sharply made and amusing. Working from a script he co-wrote with Jennifer Elise Cox, Sam Pancake, Kali Rocha and Michael Stoyanov, based on their stage play, veteran TV actor Jack Plotnick makes his directorial debut, assembling a groovy cast and playing by his own rules in sustaining a consistently low-key, seriocomic tone. Through the sadness, it's still a lot of fun.

Aboard Omega Space Station 76, the ship is led by the closeted and severely depressed Captain Glenn Terry (Patrick Wilson), who's a heavy drinker and smoker still reeling from a break-up with Daniel (Matthew Morrison), his co-pilot who has been promoted to a different ship. When the first female commander, Lt. Jessica Marlowe (Liv Tyler), hops aboard, she is far more advanced than the captain who resists her abilities to be more than his equal. There are also the passengers to contend with: inattentive, Valium-popping shipwife and mother Misty (Marisa Coughlan) and her robot-handed husband, Ted (Matt Bomer), and their latch-key daughter, Sunshine (Kylie Rogers). Misty is shagging horndog Steve (Jerry O'Connell), whose wine-downing wife Donna (Kali Rocha) has just had a baby, while Ted tackles his sexual repression with nudie magazines and fantasies. Meanwhile, Jessica starts warming up to both Sunshine and Ted, much to the resentment of Misty. Tension arises between everyone on Space Station 76.

Usually, a four-person script is a recipe for disaster with too many cooks in the kitchen, but there is only one vision in "Space Station 76." Co-writer/director Jack Plotnick's baby is exceedingly well-designed on such a tight budget, using the retro-kitschy decor of vintage polyester pants and the bow-chicka-wow-wow soundtrack for all they are worth. Seth Reed's impressive production design attains a sly sense of humor in the invention of this '70s space world. There are therapy sessions with a drug-prescribing robot ("I'm going to up your dosage of Valium to…as much as you like!"). The shipwives program the meals at the press of a button. A cryogenically frozen Yorkshire Terrier puppy comes in a box. All of these details are worthy of chuckles, but the approach of the story and characters is more adult, which is to the film's strength, and the humor reveals character subtleties. It's a gamble to actually take these characters and their emotions seriously, but dammit, it works.

Across the board, there isn't a false move made by the ensemble. With the worst/best mustache, Patrick Wilson is first just an unstable jackass but then peels back layers of heartache as Captain Glenn Terry, who's heartbroken and can never seem to follow through on a suicide attempt due to the ship's safety measures. Her wonderfully warm self, Liv Tyler is well-suited as the sweet, outwardly self-possessed Jessica, the new outsider aboard the ship who has never been to Earth and begins a friendship with little Sunshine since she can't conceive a child of her own. As the emotionally numb Misty, who puts on a chipper facade to hide her passive-aggressiveness and vindictive jealousy, Marisa Coughlan is perfectly acerbic, and Matt Bomer is also game to play it straight (in more ways than one) as Ted. Kylie Rogers, in her feature debut, is surprisingly touching without ever being cloying as Sunshine who's horrified to keep seeing her five baby gerbils bite the dust from its mother. A scene where she has Daddy let her play the "Anti-Gravity Game" is a joyous one. Used just enough, Kali Rocha is a hoot as Donna, an equally inattentive mother and wife who, on their move to a more well-off ship, prioritizes a few small boxes over taking her hibernated mother-in-law. Also, as a nice touch, the Trivial Pursuit answer of who played Dr. Dave Bowman in "2001: A Space Odyssey" makes a brief appearance as Jessica's widowed father.

Like this summer's "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Space Station 76" also has great taste in '70s music while in space, including Ambrosia's "How Much I Feel," Todd Rundgren's "Hello It's Me" and "I Saw the Light," and The Weather Girls' "Laughter in the Rain." Sincere without mocking, this is a passion project made by people with an affection for character dramas and sci-fi pictures alike. Instead of aliens, the characters populating this spacecraft encounter extramarital affairs, suicide attempts, and jealousy — and who knew asteroids could be compared to discontent and "dreams of a future that never happen"? An amalgamation of two genres that make a perfect fit into something we haven't quite seen before, "Space Station 76" might not play to everyone's sensibilities, but it would be hard to see why not.

Grade: B +

Monday, September 29, 2014

'Toon Town: "The Congress" flawed but quite a trip

The Congress (2014)
122 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Director Ari Folman (2008's animated war film "Waltz with Bashir"), adapting Stanislaw Lem's novel "The Futurological Congress," surely isn't phoning it in with "The Congress," an ambitious mess that seems to shove so many ideas in its own head and then comes out the other end not knowing what we should take away. Perhaps that's up to the viewer to mull over, but it keeps the film from being the visionary masterpiece it could have been. The premise is open for revolutionary, challenging opportunities, much like Brandon Cronenberg's 2013 satirical horror curio "Antiviral," in which the celebrity-obsessed common people could pay a pretty penny to have the same disease as their favorite star, and "The Congress" is certainly the more compelling film to watch.

In a tremendous, even poignant performance, Robin Wright plays Robin Wright, herself, but as a B-grade actress about to hit forty-five. Back in 1987, she was seen in Tinseltown as the future, a young and beautiful star on the rise, when winning the role of Princess Buttercup in “The Princess Bride." Now, her career is pretty much over after the "terrible choices" she has made. Robin's last contract is upon her: the executives at Miramount Pictures (if Miramix and Paramount ever merged), led by president Jeff Green (Danny Huston), want to "scan" her face, body, and emotions. Instead of acting ever again, the studio will have a sample of her, and basically, Robin can enjoy life and collect a hefty paycheck while her eternally youthful avatar does all the work. With a boost from her agent Al (Harvey Keitel), she finally goes through with it with the scan. Above all, Robin decides to do it for her kids, the snarky Sarah (Sami Gayle) and the increasingly deaf/blind Aaron (Kodi Smit-McPhee) with whom she cares for in an old airplane hangar. Twenty years later, she drives to the annual Futurological Congress, an event where Miramount's new digital technology is showcased. Seeing press interviews of her doppelgänger who stars in a franchise as a sci-fi heroine, the real Robin begins her crisis of self-doubt and cynicism of the Hollywood system's future.

A thoughtful study of an aging actress, a phantasmagoric chemical fantasy, a cutthroat meta-commentary on studio rights, commerce and technophobia, and probably a dead-on prescient crystal ball, "The Congress" promises more than it fully delivers. Once the film makes its change into a surreal animated zone, not unlike Dorothy landing in the Technicolored Land of Oz, the film begins fascinating and turns into something wonky, hallucinogenic, and anything-goes, which aren't necessarily bad things. The internal logic within the animated world is sometimes murky, but since it is so fantastical, it is easier to swallow. From that switch, though, writer-director Folman isn't quite able to push the whole journey into the most satisfying directions, losing its way and then finding its way to the heart of the story with Robin's kite-obsessed son. Even so, "The Congress" has plenty to recommend it, most of which is Wright's performance. Going down this rabbit hole is definitely one to experience.


Friday, September 26, 2014

Skull-king Around: Hader and Wiig are lovely together in tender, funny "Skeleton Twins"

The Skeleton Twins (2014)
93 min., rated R.

If the 2000 Mark Ruffalo-Laura Linney indie "You Can Count on Me" didn't exist, another bittersweet dramedy about the rekindled bond between an estranged brother and sister might sound like a fresher concept. Sundance-approved indie "The Skeleton Twins" mines pretty bleak subject matter, too, but, by and large, it's like a recurring frown that keeps getting turned upside down. On a lighter note, it's hard to feel blue when former "Saturday Night Live" cast members and friends Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig ground such dark, ostensibly depressing material with their innate levity and joy, jointly and individually. Supporting this spectacular duo is writer-director Craig Johnson (2009's mumblecore-y "True Adolescents") and co-writer Mark Heyman's (2010's "Black Swan") screenplay that knows what emotions to stir and when and where. Here and now, and by the end of the year, this is a keeper.

Twin brother Milo (Bill Hader) and sister Maggie (Kristen Wiig) used to be known as "the gruesome twosome" by their Halloween-loving, now-late father who committed suicide years ago, but they haven't seen one another in ten years. Self-destruction and depression must run in the family because when we first find Milo, he attempts to end his life in the bathtub of his L.A. apartment. Over in her upstate New York hometown, Maggie isn't doing too well, either, about to swallow more pills than recommended just as she stops to answer a hospital call about Milo's condition. Though he resists when Maggie flies to see him, she invites him back home for a while to stay with her and her upbeat, cool-as-a-cucumber husband Lance (Luke Wilson). A gay waiter/struggling actor without an agent, Milo can't seem to get his act together, dropping in unannounced to reconnect with older book store owner Rich (Ty Burrell), his former high school English teacher who seduced him. Maggie, though holding down a good job as a dental hygienist, isn't above having her own issues when she begins sleeping with her hunky Aussie scuba-diving instructor (Boyd Holbrook) and hasn't been honest with Lance in her cold feet over getting pregnant. Will these twins get their crap together while they're together? 

Too modest to come off precious and too true to come off cloying, "The Skeleton Twins" is not a heavy drama nor a zany comedy, but a nimbly executed hybrid of both tones. It is easy to attribute the two leads' note-perfect performances to this little film's big success, but the writing and direction are also on point. Mark Heyman and Craig Johnson walk a tightrope, counterbalancing real-life crises and a refreshingly mordant, prickly sense of humor. They never box in any of their characters, especially the "skeleton twins," as faultless individuals. Milo and Maggie feel like living, breathing, fully formed people in how they make poor, sometimes unlikable choices and yet have enough agency to blame themselves for screwing up. They're not sulking martyrs, either, but in a film that actually charters fresh territory of "the thirtysomething"move aside, twentysomethings and middle-agers—Milo and Maggie just happen to be depressed at this certain point in their lives. And, as brother and sister, they promise not to keep secrets, even when one of them does and isn't proud of it, but most importantly, they learn to fight to strengthen their bond to what it used to be. After all, siblings need to stick together. 

No stranger to bending her comedic chops and widening her range as an equally dramatic talent, whether it's in "Friends with Kids" or this year's "Hateship Loveship," Kristen Wiig is exemplary as Maggie. In a role that plays to her well-rounded gifts, Wiig finds layers of regret and uncertainty and, best of all, brings understanding and empathy to those layers. From playing stereotypically flamboyant "city correspondent" Stefon on SNL's "Weekend Update" sketch, Bill Hader is the standout without outshining Wiig. He will always do anything to get a laugh, but this is a revelatory change-of-pace turn that puts him on the same promising career journey as his co-star. In playing a sarcastic, depressed gay man, Hader never overdoes or underdoes it, thus showcasing his deeper abilities to provide pathos with the laughs he can so easily extract. Like the many sketches they shared together on the small screen, Hader and Wiig are a dream team, so it's not even close to being a stretch that they are twin siblings. Seen in their lovely, effortless rapport, they bring out the best in each other, and they both do awards-worthy work that will probably go underserved by the Academy. 

The supporting roles could have been handled as thankless caricatures or types, but the way they're written or acted, or just a combination of both, exceeds expectations. Luke Wilson's Lance would ordinarily be pinned into a corner as a weakling or a jerk, but thankfully, he's a sweet, go-with-the-flow kind of guy who still might not be right for Maggie. Ty Burrell, in a night-and-day departure from his hilariously endearing performance as doofus husband/dad Phil Dunphy on TV's "Modern Family," impresses as Milo's first love who's now living a lie. Joanna Gleason even provides shades of empathy in her brief moments as Milo and Maggie's spiritual, self-absorbed mother Judy who remarried, uprooted to Arizona and only makes time for her children when it's convenient for her.

Whether or not it's a crowd-pleasing shorthand for Milo to lift Maggie's spirits, their lip-synching duet of Starship's cheese-tastic 1987 dance-rock hit "Nothing's Gonna Stop Us Now" has an off-the-cuff magic about it that makes such a sequence one of this year's most delightfully joyous moments. It's a safe bet the viewer will be touched and grinning from ear to ear. Same goes for a scene where brother and sister get high on nitrous oxide, and it might include the funniest use of flatulent sounds, thanks to both Hader and Wiig. From flashbacks of holding one's breath underwater and dressing up for Halloween connected to the present, the film's thematic elements are symbolically underscored by Craig Johnson's simple, often poetic direction. Visually, this small film looks like it could belong on the small screen, with its scope relegated to interiors and very tight shots. Then again, Reed Morano's autumnal lensing has a crisp radiance, and there's a graceful score that never dominates. Despite a second-to-last scene with too-perfect timing that still works in its continuity with the opening scene, the film is couched in a ring of truth with its overall lack of resolution and a lasting poignancy in its wistful, hopeful final shot. Milo and Maggie are emotional downers when we meet them and emotional uppers, sort of, when we leave them; they are like addicts to making mistakes, but hopefully, they will learn from them. Capable of even making cynics feel, "The Skeleton Twins" is beautifully tender, gentle, melancholy and also very funny, a wonderful antidote for seasonal depression.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It's Back: "The Pact 2" conjures up jump scares but little suspense

The Pact II (2014)
96 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Writer-directors Dallas Richard Hallam and Patrick Horvath made a little knockout of a movie with 2012's "Entrance," which was described as "mumblecore with stakes." For now, before they make another original film on the crafty, emotionally rattling levels of their feature debut, they have taken over for Nicholas McCarthy of 2012's "The Pact" and produced a sequel, succinctly titled "The Pact II." As McCarthy moved on and proved again in his latest, the cleverly dread-filled "At the Devil's Door," Hallam and Horvath prove themselves to still be confident men of their craft. The handing of the baton is seamless, both pictures building a creepily low-key dread, but what no one has really figured out is blending ghosts and a serial killer. Even when dealing with the supernatural, there should be established rules, something that should tell us where we, as well as the characters, stand in the film's reality and something the original and this new follow-up muddle up. Rather than advance the saga of "The Judas Killer" in any surprising or satisfying way, this one just sort of treads water until it's over. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.


AAAHH!!! Real Boxes: "The Boxtrolls" a macabre, richly detailed charmer

The Boxtrolls (2014) 
100 min., rated PG.

The art of stop-motion animation seems like an arduous, intricate process, creating a whole world with miniature models and then shooting and setting up so many single frames at a time. When a film of that style comes off so lovingly handmade, something's being done right. So far, the folks at the Oregon-based Laika Studios are beyond reproach of being devoted to their craft and transcending Gothic surrealist art into entertainment with their last two marvelously special, wonderfully dark and strange features, 2009's "Coraline" and 2012's "ParaNorman." Their latest effort, "The Boxtrolls," doesn't quite scale those sophisticated penny-dreadful gems, nor is it a middle-of-the-road misfire. There is just something so admirable and richly detailed about directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable's stop-motion adaptation of Alan Snow's novel "Here Be Monsters!" Simply, it is too impishly charming, inventive and spectacularly mounted with passion and vision galore to downplay.

In the Victorian town of Cheesebridge ("A Gouda Place to Live!"), the denizens have it fixed in their heads that underground-dwelling boxtrolls are bad, but they're really misunderstood creatures who wear different boxes to distinguish themselves. Orphaned by his inventor father (for reasons that come to light later) when he was just a baby, Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright of "Game of Thrones" fame) has grown up with the boxtrolls, being conditioned to live and eat like one, and doesn't know any different. He isn't one much for hygiene, living in the subterranean depths of his foster family's lair made from junk hoarded from above. Up there, snarling exterminator Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), along with his three toadies Mr. Trout (Nick Frost), Mr. Pickles (Richard Ayoade) and Mr. Gristle (Tracy Morgan), wants to join the elite society of white hats to dine on cheese with Lord Portley-Rind (Jared Harris), so he tries doing away with any boxtroll he can find on the cobblestone streets at night. When the lord's daughter Winnie (Elle Fanning), a precocious girl obsessed with boxtrolls and expecting they are capable of "biting the flesh off her bones," witnesses Eggs leading the alleged monsters, she discovers the boy has no idea he's a human being. Will Winnie team up with Eggs and his boxtroll family to stop Snatcher's plan?

Leaches, tranvestism and child abandonment; if you have wanted more of each in your animated films, "The Boxtrolls" goes there, but the viewer won't find "mountains of bones and rivers of blood" as Winnie hoped. In loosely adapting the source material, screenwriters Irena Brignull and Adam Pava boldly touch upon mature themes of genocide, social climbing and indifferent parenting, as well as a "Don't judge a book by its cover" message, in ways that do not talk down to children, although it could be an awkward ride home for parents. There is also a noticeable effort in injecting wit for the adults, like plenty of cheese puns and a joke involving Milk and Curd Way that earns an audible rimshot effect. That the makers take enough time to construct an actual story is as stupendous as their bread and butter. Perfecting the jerkiness into a smoother look without losing the charm, Laika has constructed another meticulous, aesthetically dazzling world of the upstairs/downstairs variety. The steampunk-styled animation is drool-worthy, and the design of the boxtrolls and Snatcher, in particular, are as stylized and delightfully exaggerated as we have seen before in "Coraline" and "ParaNorman."

The grunting, bug-eating boxtrolls headlining the film are strangely endearing, but their makers haven't really given them a lot to do. The real protagonists are Eggs and Winnie, who can both learn from one another. Eggs is virtually Mowgli, raised by boxtrolls instead of wolves, and has had a father figure all this time in Fish (Dee Bradley Baker), but Winnie teaches him how to be a proper boy and shake hands with upper-class party guests (even if he's not pleased to meet them); inevitably, he doesn't have the most genteel manners. Winnie, on the other hand, loves hearing the allegedly gory stories of the boxtrolls and doesn't get much attention from her father. Isaac Hempstead Wright lends a warm voice to lost boy Eggs, but it's Elle Fanning who brings the spunk, and her taste for the macabre makes her even more of a delight. Bravo to the rest of the voice talent for mostly masking their typically recognizable voices and not distracting from the story. Ben Kingsley is highly amusing and deliciously nasty as the dastardly villain Archibald Snatcher, practically an animated Timothy Spall, who obsessively eats a bit of cheese, no matter if his lactose allergy results in his entire face swelling up like a grotesquely shaped gourd. In one of the film's several subversive touches that keep in with the studio's progression, Snatcher crossdresses as fear-mongering drag queen alter ago Madame Frou Frou to spread the word about the "evil" trolls when he isn't snatching them up. Nick Frost and Richard Ayoade are also self-aware as henchmen Mr. Trout and Mr. Pickles, who see themselves as "the good guys" until the simple-minded stooges begin to question their master's motives.

With the predominantly British voice cast and the characters' love of cheese, the film reminds of Aardman Animations' output, particularly "Wallace & Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit," as well as the off-kilter, hand-in-hand sensibilities of Roald Dahl and Tim Burton. As a comedy of manners and little, sharp-toothed gremlins making the most unconventional familial unit, "The Boxtrolls" has imagination, heart, morals and a mind that thinks outside of, if you will, the box from homogenized animated fare. It might not have the enduring "classic" status or hit with the same emotional impact of Laika's previous treats, but it's enough of a quirky, appreciably offbeat achievement to stand out and deserve an audience. Laika has proven to be Pixar's biggest rival with their rapidly evolving, time-consuming style of animation and handling of story and characters, and that's not such a bad place to be. Come for the visuals, stay for the heart.


Or, The Ass-Whooper: "The Equalizer" a ridiculously brutal, entertaining blast

The Equalizer (2014) 
131 min., rated R.

A belated screen adaptation of the popular 1985-1989 TV series starring Edward Woodward as a retired-intelligence-officer-turned-vigilante and relocating from New York to Boston, "The Equalizer" doesn't fall into the trap of deadly seriousness or one-liner-spewing jokiness. Instead, as written by screenwriter Richard Wenk (2012's "The Expendables 2"), directed with invigorating brio by "Training Day's" Antoine Fuqua, and headlined by "Training Day" star Denzel Washington, this is a ruthlessly R-rated, unapologetically take-no-prisoners entertainment that, despite its fuzzy moral stance, is just cool as hell. On a narrative level, the film doesn't reap any ground that hasn't already been fertilized before. Since the dawn of time, vigilante movies have proven that violence begets more violence and never really solves anything. It's still just a revenge picture—a very, very violent and stylish one—but helps create the illusion that it's more than just Washington teaching corrupt pigs lessons, kicking Russian mob ass and not wasting time to take names. Even as just that, it's a kick-ass blast. 

A head-shaven Denzel Washington is ideally cast as Robert McCall, whose government operative days are behind him but never forgotten as he lives alone and keeps down a modest job at a Home Depot-type store. When he goes to a late-night diner to read and drink his tea from home, a teenage call girl named Alina/Teri (Chloë Grace Moretz), with the dreams of being a recording artist but tied to her Russian pimp, makes small talk with him. They begin a friendship, and then another night in the diner, McCall notices Alina's roughed-up eye and hesitance to take a job with a client right outside. But the time he walks home with Alina, he witnesses first-hand the girl being slapped by pimp Slavi (David Meunier) and can't do anything about it. Once he sees that Alina is hospitalized for a worse beating than before, he heads down to the "Russian Nights" escort service above a nightclub/restaurant in hopes of winning Alina's freedom by paying off Slavi. Instead, McCall takes out Slavi and his four uselessly armed henchmen in nineteen seconds (he uses a stopwatch), and his thirst for blood won't end there even when the slick, evil Teddy (Marton Csokas) is called in to fix things for the Russian syndicate. They will all be punished.

For what "The Equalizer" wants to dobecause it certainly doesn't have anything deep to saythis is action-revenge pulp that thrills, almost to the point of queasily glorifying its dynamite violence but delivering it with visceral, unflinching punch. It only feels a bit gratuitous when the brutality of the five men is recounted from someone else's perspective who wasn't even there and the camera lingers on someone getting stomped on repeatedly. One could draw superficial comparisons to 2004's "Man on Fire," where Washington's CIA-operative-turned-bodyguard vowed to kill anyone involved in the kidnapping of his charge (Dakota Fanning), although Fuqua's visual style is less flashy and numbing and more stylishly direct than that of Tony Scott. The very first action set-piece, where McCall takes out five gunsels at a time in an upstairs Russian lounge, is the most cathartic and fun to watch since these men are directly responsible for putting Alina in the hospital. The hand-to-hand combat is also expertly choreographed with a brutal impact, such as a corkscrew through the chin and a bullet to the jugular. John Refoua's editing is comprehensibly tight and yet unusually deliberate, slowly simmering before anyone earns their comeuppance. With cinematographer Mauro Fiore behind the camera, Boston is shot as a gritty, glittery crime-ridden landscape, where the nighttime "makes everything seem possible again." There's even one artistic shot of an upside-down Teddy and his tatted back superimposed with the night city sky, as if he's now in control.

Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk foreshadow the eventual return of Robert McCall's past military skills with a vocalized summary of Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" and then keep up the mystique of this character for a long time. When we first meet McCall, he is quite precise and obsessive-compulsive in his rituals. He has a Zen-like outlook on life by avoiding refined sugars. He places his silverware where he wants it and settles into a good book, courtesy of his late wife's book list. McCall has very few struggles, except for knowing when to quit his vengeful path, but Denzel Washington is riveting and commanding, approaching the role with a friendly generosity and then, with the turn of a switch, a searing intensity and swagger. He's a kind, generous people person who looks as harmless as a Bible salesman (or "a monk," as one of Teddy's thugs calls him) with his plain clothes and book in hand, and he would rather take the bus than drive around in a fast sports car. Robert McCall is usually outgunned but never outsmarted, always being steps ahead of his adversaries and methodically scanning the room before handing out the blows with efficiency. If we didn't hate the girl-abusing scumbags, we would worry for their lives when McCall gets to them. Once our "knight in shining armor" pays a quick visit to a couple of retired intelligence colleagues (Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo), we glean a little more information about McCall. Moreover, he's promised to never go back to what he was, but like he says in a simple line of dialogue, "When somebody does something unspeakable, you do something about it because you can." Works for me.

Dressed like a young Jodie Foster, Chloë Grace Moretz is convincing and affecting as underage prostitute Alina who's hoping for her one ticket out of her dubious occupation and is luckily given a chance by her new father figure. Even between the time Alina is victimized and then catches up with McCall in a final scene, Moretz's presence still lingers, and there might be hope for her. All of the Russian thugs and shady cops (one played by David Harbour) are one-dimensional and despicable, but as Teddy, a fiendishly chilling (and classily dressed) Marton Csokas, nearly resembling a tatted-up Kevin Spacey, at least registers as a more interestingly cold emissary. He's sniveling and formidable with a physical magnetism and a threat in his voice, whether it's condescending a Boston mob boss by belittling him for his size or getting information out of Alina's fellow hooker Mandy (Haley Bannett). Csokas and Washington also share a quietly tense scene across from one another at a restaurant dinner table where either of them could combust and go at the other's throat any minute.

Stubbornly running a little north of two hours, "The Equalizer" comes perilously close to burning itself out and even throws in an excessive, borderline-parodic walking-away-from-a-fiery-explosion sequence in slow motion. Then comes the big confrontation in the booby-trapped home-improvement superstore straight out of a graphic novel with plenty of hardware in bulk at his disposal. One of the most memorably resourceful and creatively grisly showdowns in recent years, it goes over the line into something one might see had Kevin McAllister upped the ante with blow torches, hedge trimmers, power drills, and throat-slashing wire. Nevertheless, there's a much-needed lightness in McCall's friendship with genial, overweight co-worker Ralphie (Johnny Skourtis) who works on getting his weight down in hopes of passing the test to be a security guard. McCall even convinces a couple of the younger guys at work that he was a "Pip," a back-up singer for Gladys Knight. Black humor sneaks in when McCall lets go an armed daytime robber at the store, only to walk down an aisle and take a sledgehammer off the rack; it's implied what he does offscreen after returning and wiping it down in a later scene. Not to fear, "The Equalizer" isn't bereft of feeling or humanity when it's buzzing with adrenaline. Truly an "equalizer," Denzel Washington makes sure of that. 

Grade: B +

Monday, September 22, 2014

Taking Out Scum: "Walk Among the Tombstones" a grisly, watchably unsettling crime thriller

A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014)
114 min., rated R.

"Badass Liam Neeson Bloodlust Actioner" is now its own genre, as all of them are starting to blend together, but his latest isn't actually of a piece with the "Taken" movies or "Non-Stop" at all. Closer in tone and the favoring of methodical storytelling to "The Silence of the Lambs," "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is an anomaly in the best way — it's dark, disturbing and often grimly unpleasant, as it should be. Directed by Scott Frank, the screenwriter who penned "Get Shorty," "Out of Sight" and "Minority Report" and made his auspicious directorial debut with the 2007 crackerjack thriller "The Lookout," the film is based on the book by Lawrence Block. Fans of crime fiction will immediately know that character P.I. Matthew Scudder (here played by Mr. Neeson) has been at the center of his own eighteen-novel series and was last essayed onscreen by Jeff Bridges in 1986's "8 Million Ways to Die." If audiences can stick out the grisly material, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" could be the start of something more riveting and adult than Neeson's increasingly silly "Taken" series.

Retired as a police detective and recovering from the drink as an eight-year AA member, Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) is now an unlicensed New York private eye doing favors for people. When one of his AA mates, junkie Peter (Boyd Holbrook), requests his help, Scudder meets Peter's brother Kenny (Dan Stevens), a well-off drug trafficker. His wife has been kidnapped and brutally killed by two men in a white van, even though he actually paid her $400,000 ransom. Though hesitant to be paid off by a drug dealer, Scudder takes on the job since Kenny can't go to the cops and he begins his investigation throughout the boroughs, realizing that a series of female kidnappings, all connected to drug dealers, could lead him to the serial killers. Meanwhile, Scudder makes friends with T.J. (Brian "Astro" Bradley), a street kid who likes to draw and wouldn't mind solving crimes with the ex-cop. Can Scudder find the killers with a specific M.O. before they strike again?

As hard-R, hard-hitting pulp with noir leanings, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" opens in 1991 with a socko shooting in a bar, where Scudder's reading of the newspaper with coffee and two liquor shots gets interrupted. Then the credits sequence gets under the viewer's skin with a sensuous-turned-prurient sequence of a blonde woman who's revealed to be a victim with her mouth taped. It's not exactly the most tasteful stylization, but it is effectively creepy without growing gratuitous or distractingly misogynistc; how does one show depravity without at least hinting the depravity anyway? From there, the film, now set in 1999, has an air of foreboding, not only from the way writer-director Scott Frank has cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr.  ("The Master") shoot New York City as a dank, atmospheric place of cloudiness and rain but how details of the impending Y2K are sprinkled throughout. Oh, and remember payphones? 

Liam Neeson, as we already know, is a reliable, rock-solid actor, but he shouldn't be taken for granted. Capable of playing a pensive, flawed, albeit noble, detective/hitman/man-with-a-very-particular-set-of-skills in his sleep, he can be called in to headline anything that requires threatening bad guys on the phone and it still doesn't feel like he's phoning it in. The character of Matt Scudder has been under hard times, attending AA meetings but still going strong without hanging on the precipice of his sobriety. This should be a clichéd archetype by now, but Neeson gives Scudder his usual grizzled credibility and shadings of regret and decency. Ancillary support is provided by Boyd Holbrook and Dan Stevens, who are believable as brothers on different ends of drug dealing, and David Harbour and Adam David Thompson deserve credit for being the ickiest serial killers in recent memory. Making a chilling mark is Ólafur Darri Ólafsson as an odd person of interest who works as a cemetery groundskeeper and tends to his pigeons on the roof of an apartment building. Finally, Brian "Astro" Bradley is a natural as the street-wise T.J., who luckily leavens the somber tone with some humor. 

For a long time, the male psychos are kept hidden in shadows while driving around in their creepy white van, but this isn't really a whodunit. Around the midpoint, the film unveils its two sickos (David Harbour, Adam David Thompson) as they start off their banal morning making breakfast and reading the newspaper, one of them in their underwear. With both of their faces in plain view, they seek out a new young woman to prey on in the form of a 14-year-old Russian girl walking her dog, alarmingly cued to Donovan's "Atlantis," and the sight of her red raincoat won't be lost on those who remember 1973's "Don't Look Now." Interestingly, it's also implied that the two psychopaths are lovers, but that avenue is never explored. Without sounding more heavy-handed than it really is (until the use of freeze frames and AA voice-over come in during the third-act stand-off appropriately set in a cemetery), the film is about a shattered man trying to find salvation with his demons, along with its breadcrumb-leaving mystery. For a scummy New York-set crime potboiler that comes the closest it can to being a horror film, "A Walk Among the Tombstones" is stylishly shot and solidly told in a slow-burn procedural fashion. Downbeat, sure, and guilty of some overlength, but it's also watchably unsettling.


Sunday, September 21, 2014

Reunion at a Funeral: Cast does most of the work in pleasant "This Is Where I Leave You"

This Is Where I Leave You (2014)
103 min., rated R.

As a narratively tidy, tonally messy slice-of-life dramedy, "This Is Where I Leave You" passes or fails an easy litmus test you either forgive its missteps and fall for its successes, or you can call b.s. on the whole thing. Adapted for the screen by Jonathan Tropper from his own well-received 2009 bestseller, the film has one big draw in the form of seeing one of the most appealing ensemble line-ups and getting them all in the same room, literally. From his spotty track record of broad, shticky comedies ("Just Married," "The Pink Panther," "Night at the Museum" and "The Internship"), director Shawn Levy is not a man of nuance and doesn't seem to be the right choice for a seamless give-and-take between family drama and humor. Luckily, he either pulls some good performances from his actors or they pull them out all on their own. Take it as a more enjoyably benign and less demanding version of "August: Osage County," and you'll get along fine.

Radio producer Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is having a crisis-filled day. When he brings home a birthday cake to wife Quinn (Abigail Spencer), he walks in on her with his jackass shock-jock boss (Dax Shepard), whom she's been sleeping with for a year. After that revelation, he leaves his job and then gets a call that his father has passed away. When the Altman siblings must come together for their father's funeral and comfort now-widowed mother Hillary (Jane Fonda), a psychologist and writer not afraid to talk about sex with her children around, they all return to the old homestead in Upstate New York. While Judd tries to keep his looming divorce hush hush, everyone else arrives with their own baggage: the no-nonsense eldest, Paul (Corey Stoll), is the only one who has stayed in town to take over the family store and has been trying to conceive a child with wife Annie (Kathryn Hahn) for too long; sarcastic sister Wendy (Tina Fey) is a mother of two and the wife to a rich suit of a husband who cares more about work than family; and baby brother Phillip (Adam Driver) is a perpetual screw-up and brings along his latest girlfriend Tracy (Connie Britton), an older woman and his therapist who might be too mature and successful for him. Meanwhile, Judd runs into local woman Penny (Rose Byrne) who still has eyes for Judd and Wendy reconnects with Horry (Timothy Olyphant), her old fame who still lives across the street with his mother due to a brain injury. If that doesn't already sound like enough dysfunction, Hillary tells her children that it was their father's final request to have them all sit Shiva for seven days and sort through their problems under one roof again.

As a byproduct of there being so many characters to juggle and the source material's author writing the script, "This Is Where I Leave You" often feels overcrowded and only partially formed with certain characterizations and all the subplots it traffics in and then only skims. In helming this dramatic comedy, director Shawn Levy doesn't always get the mixture right, either, overstating an annoying running joke with a rabbi's (Ben Schwartz) old "Boner" nickname when the scene rarely calls for it or treating a secret belonging to Linda (a lovely Debra Monk), the Altmans' family friend/Horry's mother, like a contrived 11th-hour plot reveal. Noticeably, there are two scenesa mere five-person conversational scene in a bar and a brawl among brothers on the front lawn that could be given more slack because it's almost right out of a screwball comedythat are so frantically cut like a pinball game the film could induce whiplash. When Levy cools it with the preponderance of easy sitcom-style laughsi.e. Wendy's toddler son's potty training regimen; a baby monitor is left on upstairs during an extension of their father's wake, only for everyone to hear an ovulating Alice and Paul getting it onthe film counters those wedged-in bits with snappy, jabby exchanges and cutting truths. The more touching moments are less surface-level when they aren't so pushy and actually find subtle, genuine feeling, such as a scene where Judd and Phillip get high in a classroom of a the synagogue and reminisce how their father showed love in his own way, or the couple of times Judd and Wendy have heart-to-heart talks on the roof.

Initially, it's hard to buy all of these cast members as one big family, let alone a family whose patriarch was a Jewish atheistand from one throwaway line, one who celebrated Christmasbut they all pitch in to make it work and gel as a likable familial unit with simpatico chemistry. Of course, a strong cast can only be as strong as what is written for them and, thus, the majority of them are given more chances to bring depth to these characters than others. As cleavage-showing, over-sharing matriarch Hillary, Jane Fonda never lets any of the breast-implant jokes get her down and brings a warmth and humor to the role, but a nearly better-than-ever Jason Bateman is the rock a movie like this needs. As Judd, he essays a man who has seemingly lost everything in one fell swoop and needs some family time to do his soul-searching. Tina Fey is pretty terrific as sister Wendy, hitting notes of truth and making good with her organically quick wit. Her easygoing one-on-one scenes with Bateman, as well as Adam Driver, connect the most. Driver, himself, seems typecast by now as youngest sibling Phillip, a man who's still a boy, but he's a livewire performer who lends an off-kilter appeal and unpredictability every which way. Corey Stoll, an actor with actual gravitas, is given more time to rage and let loose than dig into much meat as the cold, serious Paul, who realizes he was never any fun. 

It seems the hilarious Kathryn Hahn would turn in more dramatic work, and she earns some of it to herself, but a scene where her Alice puts the moves on an ex-lover in the Altman family that isn't Paul seems like something from her "Step Brothers" shtick routine. Connie Britton is left with little to do as Phillip's older girlfriend, but she approaches this superfluous role with authenticity when given the chance, particularly in her second-to-last scene when she reconsiders what she's even doing with an irresponsible younger man. There is also very little to Penny, "The Girl That Never Left" who puts the "manic" in "Manic Pixie Dream Girl" and runs the local ice skating rink but is never seen teaching a single class. Rose Byrne's character is just an idea, but she infuses such an unchallenging part with her wonderful adorability. Finally, in an awkward place as the always-confused Horry, Timothy Olyphant still brings a sensitivity to a literally handicapped role that feels shortchanged.

Oftentimes, mainstream movies pride themselves on being messy and complicated like real life by having their characters say pat platitudes about life being, well, messy and complicated, invalidating its intentions by being too neat and on-the-nose. There's no way around it: "This Is Where I Leave You" is one of those facile crowd-pleasers rather than a weighty think piece, but it also enables the viewer to put on their blinders, shake out the film's false notes and allow it to hit a sweet spot that feels closer to home than manufactured Hollywood domain. And, with so many likable actors assembled to make up a dream cast, it's hard to complain when the blips of laughter and pathos seem like all their doing.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Gone Girl: "Eleanor Rigby" a stirring, richly acted examination of love and loss

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014)
122 min., rated R.

A collective 180-minute tome version of "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby" was screened at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. With one part subtitled "Him" and the other subtitled "Her," it approached two sides of the "he said/she said" story. The Weinstein Company then acquired distribution rights and planned to release it as one film first, which kind of defeats the purpose of writer-director Ned Benson's experiment, but this isn't another "Hobbit" situation where one film is needlessly (and cynically) overstretched into three. "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them," as the title appears onscreen, is the complete story told from dual viewpoints, forming an appreciably two-sided, nonjudgmental condensation and making for an absorbing, stirring, finely nuanced examination of a relationship broken by the heartbreak of loss. From what's up on the screen, no one will be able to tell that the film was cut separately into two versions. 

When we first meet our thirtysomething married couple, Conor Ludlow (James McAvoy) and the knowingly named Eleanor Rigby (Jessica Chastain), they have just finished dinner at a posh restaurant. They have no money to pay the check, so they try to make a subtle run for it and high-tail it down the street to a park. This is when they were still happy and deeply in love, but the next time we see them is their lowest point. In the wake of a personal tragedy, Eleanor tries to commit suicide by jumping off a bridge, but the results are unsuccessful. After being relieved from the hospital, she goes to stay with parents Mary (Isabelle Huppert) and Julian (William Hurt), librarian sister Katy (Jess Weixler), and Katy's young son (Wyatt Ralff), and then has her dad put in a good word for her to go back to school. It is evident that Eleanor has cut all communication to husband Conor, who is trying to keep his restaurant afloat with his best friend Stuart (Bill Hader) as the chef and then seeks support from his aloof father, restaurateur Spencer (Ciarán Hinds). When Connor spots Eleanor leaving school, he tries finding the right time to communicate with her, but it can only work if she allows it.

Throughout its truncated, albeit not choppy, and deliberately paced 122 minutes, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" runs the gamut of emotions, from idyllic love to devastating pain to the hope of starting anew, and always cuts to the bone of those emotions. For his narrative feature debut, writer-director Ned Benson knows that, without a shorthand, it is smarter to show rather than tell. A story about love and loss doesn't break any new ground—at times, one might recall 2010's Ryan Gosling/Michelle Williams love tragedy "Blue Valentine"but it's the delicate and honest execution in which Benson goes about telling it. Without too much teasing or placing too much of a distance between the viewer and the characters, Benson makes us work a little by dishing out the enigmatic particulars of Eleanor and Conor's rift slowly. Viewers accustomed to receiving answers easily and quickly might be overly frustrated with the way the film gradually reveals its layers, but it's one of those films where it seems like nothing is happening, and yet everything is happening.

This is a stunningly acted picture across the board, everyone making a solid mark. It's hard to expect anything less, but Jessica Chastain is excellent in her multi-tiered performance as the Eleanor Rigby of the title (and yes, her Beatles song-inspired name does get mentioned). Even in a tough spot, as Eleanor refuses to discuss the elephant in the room, she's vulnerable, tough, open, and seemingly unable to strike a false note or show a shortage of range. James McAvoy, who has always deserved more accolades for his work, is every bit Chastain's equal, being tasked with more sensitivity as Conor whose heart aches when trying to understand why his wife abruptly cut off communication with him. He has a way of being a magnetic charmer but also hinting at something restless, angry, and flawed underneath. Both actors create such a soul-mate history from the earlier romanticism we see, as well as other glimpses of their happiness, to what tore them apart. The invaluable Viola Davis does strong work as Professor Lillian Friedman who takes a chance on Eleanor, a role that which she gives life, levity and compassion. Isabelle Huppert, as Eleanor's French wino mother, and William Hurt, as her academic therapist father, feel lived-in and share lovely, even biting, moments; startlingly enough, they actually look like they could be Chastain's parents. As their younger daughter Katy, Jess Weixler also shares a sweet, supportive and even jokey rapport with Chastain. Bill Hader, as Conor's chef buddy, and Nina Arianda, as actress/bartender Alexis who works for Conor, round out the cast without seeming like mere types.

An empathetic, perceptive, and emotionally rich character study, "The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them" actually explores its characters, while being kind to them and still letting life throw them around. Both Conor and Eleanor have different ways of grieving. He doesn't know what to do, struggling to make a business work, despite watching his father in the same profession. She wants to reinvent her life and find herself again. When Eleanor and Professor Friedman sit and talk over a cheeseburger and fries, the professor speaks openly of her own emotional toughness with her past relationship: "He went soft; I stayed hard." Ditto for Eleanor in her marriage with Conor. Every now and then, a character will speak in a platitude, not unlike that of a screenwriter's sounding board, but somehow the dialogue never clangs because it seems germane to how these smart, urbane people would think and talk. For instance, when Eleanor is comforted by her father, he says, "Tragedy is a foreign country — we don't know how to talk to the natives." The implications of the two characters' past are heartbreaking and the final scene captures a beautifully open-ended sense of hope, but one still might be devoted to find out even more in the additional cuts, "Him" and "Her," to find a fuller resonance. As it turns out, Conor and Eleanor are worthy of the viewer's time, care, and concern, even when the film puts themand usthrough the wringer. Eleanor Rigby might disappear, but the impact this film strives for and attains isn't going anywhere. 

Grade: B +