Monday, March 30, 2015

Sonny Dearest: "Mommy" soars as wild, heady, heartbreaking cinema

Mommy (2015)
139 min., rated R.

Only 25 years old and not about to pace himself with five films already under his belt in five years, French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan burst onto the filmmaking scene with 2009's "I Killed My Mother," won the Jury Prize at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival for his latest film and even shared it with Jean-Luc Godard's "Goodbye to Language." Dolan's smashing "Mommy" continues the enfant terrible filmmaker's themes about resentment in mother-son relationships. If Dolan wasn't already known as a wunderkind in certain filmic circles beyond Canada, he cements himself here as a true discovery whom cinephiles should keep an eye on and revisit his previous efforts. As human drama, it's wild and alive but controlled and intimate, and as pure filmmaking, it's bravura. At a walloping 139 minutes, "Mommy" is never less than captivating.

An opening text prologue lets us in on a new (but fictional) Canadian law that parents can consign his or her child with behavioral problems to an institution. Just as she gets into a car accident that wasn't her fault, widowed mother Diane "Die" Després (Anne Dorval) receives a call from her son's detention center. Her troubled, bad-mouthed 15-year-old son, Steve O'Connor (Antoine-Olivier Pilon), set the cafeteria on fire that injured a younger student and flooded the facility, forcing Die to home-school him. Broke at 46 years old but able to afford a house in the Quebec suburbs, Die is a mess who can barely take care of herself, and that's even before she's fired from her job as a "Dear Abby" columnist at which point Steve promises to take care of her. Across the way lives married neighbor Kyla (Suzanne Clément), a painfully shy high school teacher on sabbatical who suffers from a stutter and could use a little light in her life. After Steve bites the hand that feeds him, Kyla happens to drop by Die's house and fixes up a gash on Steve's leg. In the long run, Kyla becomes good friends with both Die and Steve, whom she starts teaching in-house. Die knows that Steve will be fine for now, but it might not last.

As "Mommy" unfolds in hopeful but tragic fashion, the viewer gets sucked into the shifting dynamics between Die, Steve and Kyla. In matching writer-director Xavier Dolan's empathy for his characters, all three performances are exceptional. Smacking her gum, smoking cigarettes, dressed in garish, trampy clothes and lugging around a tacky, clangy carabiner of keys with a pen attached, Anne Dorval's dynamite performance is raw and nuanced as Die. She loves her son, but it's tough love, and she's doing the best she can. As the volatile juvenile terror named Steve, Antoine-Olivier Pilon is riveting to watch. He's commanding and convincingly unruly but also vulnerable and charismatic. Steve has ADHD, attachment disorder, and a bit of an Oedipus complex. When Steve comes home with groceries in a shopping cart and a "Mommy" necklace, Die assumes he has stolen everything, which sends Steve into a fit of rage to the point that he chokes his mother. Die defends herself and locks herself in a closet, waiting for him to calm down. When Steve isn't being violent, belligerent and not obeying his mother's house rules, he is a loyal son. A poignant Suzanne Clément does wonders with the complexly written role of Kyla, and while one may wonder what her relationship with her real family seems so detached, it's a thrill to watch her character gradually open up with her temporarily new family.

Dolan has an effective ear for music, including Dido's "White Flag," Counting Crows' "Colorblind," Celine Dion's "On Ne Change Pas," and Lana Del Rey's "Born To Die," every use of music hitting an emotion whether it be melancholy, joy, or immediacy. A euphoric sequence that uses Oasis' "Wonderwall" as a source of liberation and progress in the characters swells the heart. He also frames his film in 1:1 aspect ratio (a small frame about the size of a huge postage stamp) that only gets pushed wider for a couple of special sequences. Very late in the film, there is also a change of course with a fantasy montage so beautifully conceived as pure visual storytelling and so full of feeling. Also, see if you can notice two visual cues to "Home Alone." Rough, heartbreaking, heady, and everything in between, "Mommy" undoubtedly leaves one stunned, exhilarated and moved. This is bracing cinema to behold.

Grade:

Saturday, March 28, 2015

No Soap-Dropping: Ferrell and Hart can't get "Get Hard" funny enough

Get Hard (2015)
100 min., rated R.

"Get Hard" is better than it looks, which is to say that it's still not very good but not intolerably awful. Theoretically, a mismatched buddy comedy (with an obvious double-entendre title) starring go-to doofus Will Ferrell and pint-sized, motor-mouthed Kevin Hart to riff on one another and goof off together sounds like it could be an anarchic gas. They could be like Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy in "Trading Places." Add to that theory that comedies about race relations can be smart and funny, too (check out 2014's "Dear White People" for a recent example). While "Get Hard" isn't operating on that level, this is a dumb, silly R-rated comedy out to push the envelope but reel it in safely, more along the lines of the lame 2003 Jamie Kennedy comedy "Malibu's Most Wanted." Given the recent controversy of the film screening at the SXSW Film Festival in which an audience member was appalled by the comedy's homophobia and racism, "Get Hard" is not even offensive enough to be worth getting riled up about. It's just too middle-of-the-road and not all that inspired for that.

Dimwitted Wall Street fat cat James King (Will Ferrell) is marrying his hot, gold-digging fiancée, Alissa (Alison Brie), and has just been named partner by his father-in-law boss (Craig T. Nelson). He goes from having so much money to the feds interrupting his engagement party, being accused of fraud and embezzlement and then slapped with a 10-year sentence at San Quentin State Prison. In the 30 days he has, James pays Darnell (Kevin Hart), the honest-living operator of a car wash in James' office tower parking garage, $30,000 to train him to "get hard" and defend himself in the slammer from getting assaulted and becoming "someone's bitch." The catch is, the white James just assumes the black Darnell is an ex-con, but he's closer to Cliff Huxtable than a street thug. As Darnell renovates James' mansion into a prison and gets some insider advice from his gang leader cousin, James will eventually get "hard," even though he's actually being framed.

Writer-director Etan Cohen was one of three scribes behind 2008's "Tropic Thunder," a giddily offensive and very funny satire that mercilessly skewered the film industry and memorably put Robert Downey Jr. in blackface. Here, he makes his directorial debut and is once again part of a trio of writers, alongside Jay Martel & Ian Roberts (TV's "Key and Peele"). An apparent send-up of racial big-house stereotypes, "Get Hard" is equal-opportunity in its targets and has its moments, but it should be funnier than it really is. Prison rape is not an inherently knee-slapping topic, as long as the target is that of overprivileged white straight males, but it can most likely be done if the un-PC humor is handled with a tricky balance. There just isn't enough comic momentum within the flabbily paced 100 minutes and too few big laughs, and it seems director Cohen has no interest in paying off some of the jokes by either going too far or not far enough. Take for example when Darnell takes James to a gay brunch spot and dares him to take a man (Matt Walsh) into the bathroom stall and give him a blow job because that's "what [the gays] do"; there is a quick cutaway to a penis that James' mouth will eventually, in slow-motion, get close to and that's the punchline. Groan. Or, when Darnell tells James to go fight a muscular man in the park; the joke doesn't build to much. Even a set-piece where James tries getting in with a gang of Nazi skinheads once he's in on the inside is full of non-laughs. There are also the easy jokes where James bench-presses the diminutive Darnell and later dresses in gangster gear like Lil Wayne to go meet Darnell's thug cousin Russell (rapper T.I.), who leads the Crenshaw Kings gang and later names James "Mayo." Darnell also forms a sort-of friendship with a smiling gay man (T.J. Jagodowski) who would like to convert him. For the gags that do work, Darnell renovates James' mansion into a prison, staging a phone call line with James' housekeepers and later a prison riot simulation, and at the dinner table with Darnell's family and James, Darnell lies about his time in prison by summarizing the 1991 film "Boyz n the Hood."

When Will Ferrell and Kevin Hart are individually "on," they can be hilarious. Together, they are both game as always, but they're up against lackluster material, which seems to be the problem in most comedies of late. As James King, who drops statistics to rationalize why Darnell would have done time, Ferrell does what Will Ferrell does, playing a boorish, oblivious boob. Despite his wimpy cry-baby shtick, a great "mad dog" face, and his attempts at trash-talking, this role will not find a place in the lovable bozo's hall of fame. As Darnell, Hart might give his most grounded screen performance as a struggling family man who has a great relationship with his wife and daughter. He even gets more laughs than Ferrell when his energy is untamed, like when he pricelessly impersonates three different stereotypes in a prison yard to intimidate James. Edwina Findley Dickerson and Ariana Neal lend sweet, warm support as Darnell's wife Rita and daughter Makayla, both voices of reason, but other performers don't get the chance to fare as well. Alison Brie is always a go-getting comedian, but she's too good for the thankless, caricatured role of Alissa, James' spoiled, materialistic fiancée. John Mayer also makes his second cameo in a film this year (the one in "Zombeavers" is funnier), but this time, he plays himself.

Laughs in a comedy can trump everything else. Funny is funny, but "Get Hard" is never as edgy or as gut-busting as it thinks it is. Just imagine "Trading Places" with a dozen prison rape and "keistering" jokes—as if that film needed any. Is this a satire of retrograde stereotypes? Is it presenting 2015's close-minded, insensitive misconceptions and bigotries of other races and sexual orientations and then just mocking the characters for their misconceptions and bigotries? One can safely assume "Get Hard" doesn't even know what it is or how to do it. Held up against other vehicles with these individual funnymen, it is far better than Kevin Hart's deadening "The Wedding Ringer" from earlier this year, but there are so many Will Ferrell alternatives with more replay value. In spite of the predominantly limp script, these two do have some crackling chemistry together, but unfortunately, this vehicle does not go over like gangbusters. 

Grade:

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Chain Letter: Unshakably creepy "It Follows" a horror classic in the making

It Follows (2015) 
107 min., rated R.

Writer-director David Robert Mitchell's follow-up to his special, underseen 2011 slice of teenagedom "The Myth of the American Sleepover," teen horror indie "It Follows" is anything but a sophomore slump. Evocative in its teenage milieu and nerve-shredding in the urban-legend horror yarn it spins, this bracing, unshakable film proves how far more effective a movie can be with elegant simplicity, a singularly atmospheric vision, and a measured, less-is-more approach rather than being in studio hands. In an ingenious twist not seen since 2000's little-seen Brittany Murphy-starring slasher, where teens actually threw an orgy party to avoid being next on a serial killer's list, "It Follows" states a case for teen sex that goes against the old rules of horror flicks. Knocking boots has always given its active characters a death wish; now, it's one option in how to survive, like a chain letter.

19-year-old community college student Jay (Maika Monroe) has always dreamed of just going on a date with a cute guy. She gets her wish when going to the movies with Hugh (Jake Weary), but on their second date that segues into having sex in his car by an abandoned building, Jay is chloroformed and wakes up tied to a chair. Hugh apologizes, telling her that "it" will follow her, but she can pass it on to someone else to bide some time and hope it's over. Though supported by sister Kelly (Lili Sepe), friends Paul (Keir Gilchrist) and Yara (Olivia Luccardi), and neighbor Greg (Daniel Zovatto), Jay is not alone, but only Jay can see the ghostly entities that follow her. It's a different apparition every time, and if they get close enough, they can kill her. If Jay could get out of dodge, she would. All she can do is wait and run from the haunting forces, or just nip it in the bud by giving the curse to someone else.

Smartly executed, dread-filled and supremely unsettling, "It Follows" grabs the viewer and refuses to loosen or let go, coupling a timeless, naturalistic mood of teenage yearning with an inescapable doom encroaching upon Jay and her friends. The time and place could be the 1980s or 2015, what with vintage and new clothes, vintage and new cars, rabbit-ear TVs, the occasional cell phone and landline, and an E-reader in the form of a clamshell that one of Jay's friends reads from. David Robert Mitchell sets the tone with his unironically retro opener shot in one calm, unbroken take, a heel-clicking teenage girl (Bailey Spry) running out the door of her parents' suburban home, as if she's being chased by something not seen by the human eye. She gets to a beach and apologizes to her father on the phone, but by morning, she's a goner like Chrissie in "Jaws." For a film about haunting specters, the film could be full of actors in corpsy make-up pouncing into frame. But, no: writer-director Mitchell knows better. His extras, a few of them in the buff, show up and amble along toward Jay, and like Michael Myers, they take their time but don't let up. Old-fashioned suspense is employed with few visibly low-tech visual effects, the seams only showing through in one instance on a beach. 

Separating the more auspicious filmmakers from the wannabes, David Robert Mitchell pays major attention to the crafty framing of his camera and music. With an assured handling of Michigan locations and the summer-fall foliage, the film is crisply shot with beautifully composed shots by Mike Gioulakis and makes the slyest use of 360-degree angles. Every inch of Mitchell's film is also owned by the dissonant, hair-raisingly throbbing drips, creeping scratches, and rising tempo of Disasterpiece's (composer Rich Vreeland) chillingly ominous synthesizer score that welcomes comparison to Goblin's work in "Suspiria" and Charles Bernstein's score in "A Nightmare on Elm Street." As the score crescendos and then goes quiet when cutting to the next shot, it's so effective that one will be hard-pressed to not get goosebumps. With echoes of John Carpenter's "Halloween" and Wes Craven's "A Nightmare on Elm Street," there's a simple but freakishly edgy sequence at school, where Jay notices someone walking toward her classroom window during class. The climax in a Detroit city natatorium, where Jay and her friends used to swim, is anything but predictable, nothing going as planned. Finally, the conclusion is more delicate and open-ended than punchy or finite, but it feels right.

A likably spunky and resourceful heroine in 2014's awesome "The Guest," Maika Monroe deserves to attain as much "scream queen" status as Jamie Lee Curtis, Heather Langenkamp, and Neve Campbell. As pretty girl-next-door Jay, she is innately intelligent, emotionally available, and completely root-worthy. Keir Gilchrist (2010's "It's Kind of a Funny Story") is sweet and sensitive as Paul, one of Jay's sister's friends who shared a first kiss with Jay when they were kids and has always had something for her. Daniel Zovatto reminds of a young Johnny Depp as Greg, Jay's hunky older neighbor, and Lili Sepe and Olivia Luccardi, as Jay's sister Kelly and their oddball friend Yara, round out the likable, individualized group of characters. It's refreshing to see Jay's sister and friends believe her and stand by her in hopes of protecting Jay from her fate, even though they can't see what she sees. They all react exactly how kids their age probably would react in such an extraordinary situation, too.

The most enduring and cathartic kind of horror film is one that taps into universal fears with visceral punch and is also about something else. It's not very often a film comes along with the power to force one to check his or her back after watching it. Whether the viewer wants to look for it or not, "It Follows" can definitely be read as an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases without seeming too heavy-handed or disrespecting the viewer's intelligence. It's a cautionary tale that neither promotes nor shames teen sex, and for a horror film with a low body count, that never takes away from the film's heavy blanket of dread and uneasy apprehension and plenty of sinister frights coming out to play. Deservedly finding a place in the upper echelon of the horror genre for anyone jaded by the PG-13-level fare of late, "It Follows" is a little near-masterpiece that could be the splendidly creepy poster child for either eternal abstinence or not keeping it in your pants if you want to live. Run, don't walk.

Grade:

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Timber: Dull "Serena" about as involving as watching trees grow

Serena (2015) 
109 min., rated R.

Completed in 2012 as a hopeful bid for prestige-picture status, then sluggishly picked up for distribution by Magnolia Pictures, the long-shelved and belatedly released "Serena" reunites Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence after David O. Russell's "Silver Linings Playbook" and "American Hustle." Both stars are household names by now, but this Depression-era melodrama, an adaptation of Ron Rash's 2008 book from Danish director Susanne Bier (2012's "Love Is All You Need" and 2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire") and screenwriter Christopher Kyle (2004's "Alexander"), fails to impress. By nature, a 1930s story about greed, love and corruption in the lumber business is going to be dour and ponderous, but what lumbers along on screen is a plodding, bark-deep slog that screams, "Just read the book instead!"

As a Golden Age Hollywood costume drama with the Czech Republic posing for North Carolina, "Serena" is a hauntingly photographed but emotionally aloof love story. Set in the Smoky Mountains, 1929, the film begins with greedy, unethical North Carolina timber baron George Pemberton (Bradley Cooper) on the hunt for a rare panther. During his visit in Boston, he is mesmerized at first sight by Serena Shaw (Jennifer Lawrence), a gorgeous, strong-willed woman who was raised on a Colorado timber camp and then lost her family in a fire when she was twelve. Then, after a short exchange on horseback, Serena becomes Mrs. Pemberton. Complicating matters are the jealousies of George's right-hand man, Buchanan (David Dencik), of Serena and Serena's of the mother, Rachel (Ana Ularu), of George's illegitimate son. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned after a miscarriage.

In adapting Ron Rash's book, director Susanne Bier and screenwriter Christopher Kyle must have checked off the major plot points of the source material, hoping some sort of thematic or character substance would fill itself in later. The story is tedious, piddling and often choppily edited. The characters are equally as dull and underdeveloped. The pacing is more snail-like and comatose than unhurried. There's little tension. Even when the film tips into overwrought melodrama with throat slashings, murderous biddings, and an anticlimactic panther attack, Bier's sensibilities are far too tasteful for it to be entertainingly overwrought melodrama. The mystery surrounding Serena and the tragedy involving her family is more or less abandoned, and then Serena's kinship with mysterious woodsman Galloway (Rhys Ifans) seems to leap out of nowhere. Within 10 minutes, George and Serena are married. Within 109 minutes, we're still supposed to care to the blunt end.

Some contemporarily good-looking actors just don't mesh with the times of a period drama, and Bradley Cooper proves to be one of them, at least here. He's miscast and just okay as George, as his Boston accent noticeably comes and goes, and he's not really able to sell the character's moral ambiguity. Leave it to the baby-faced but versatile then-22-year-old Jennifer Lawrence to outshine Cooper. She always seems to be playing way ahead of her actual age and, as enigmatic siren Serena, might be the most interesting thing in the entire film. If only the title part were juicier on the page, so this could have been another standout performance to add to Lawrence's filmography. Respectively playing unhinged Appalachian woodsman Galloway and skeptical Sheriff McDowell, Rhys Ifans and Toby Jones round out the cast with professional, albeit unmemorable, work. No matter how lushly wrapped in period dress it might be or much star wattage it might have, "Serena" still comes out feeling like a bore.

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Brazzers Massacre: "Girl House" doesn't reinvent a rusty wheel, but it's a well-made wheel


Girl House (2015) 
99 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Directors Trevor Matthews & Jon Knautz and writer Nick Gordon should reward themselves for making a film that will satiate the expectations of exploitative stalk-and-slash affairs with skin. Like a presumptuous attempt to revitalize the "Slumber Party Massacre" video nasties of the 1980s into the new age, "Girl House" is a proficiently made slasher pic and reasonably scary for what it sets out to do. Opening with a prurient montage of soft-core porn, women moaning, and then a quote by Ted Bundy about the tenuous connection between pornography and male violence, "Girl House" already sets out to make one feel pervy and unclean, but how the women in the film are handled by being in charge of their sexuality is a smart move. It's voyeuristic and, like 2014's "The Den" and "Open Windows," seems to be more effective viewing on a laptop, but somehow avoids misogyny or full-out distastefulness. 

Desperate to take over paying her college tuition for her recently widowed mother, Georgia peach Kylie Atkins (Ali Cobrin) chooses to tease and strip naked in front of her webcam for a secure website called "Girl House." After being approached by porn mogul Gary Preston (James Thomas) on campus, she takes him up on his offer, becoming the new resident of a secluded mansion with other scantily clad young women. For all the world to see, cameras are installed throughout the house, "Big Brother"-style, capturing the girls' every move. The girls' have one particular fan, known only by his web handle, "Loverboy" (white rapper Slaine), a lonely, psychotic computer hacker. The individual fates of "Girl House" are sealed once the leering man gets access to the mansion and his massacre begins. 

Meant to motivate and perhaps empathize ever so slightly with the psychopath and his ensuing rampage, "Girl House" opens with a shocking Rehobeth, Alabama, 1988 flashback in which a chubby boy, nicknamed "Loverboy" (Isaac Faulkner), is chased by two girls who play a cruel, one-sided game of "I'll show you mine if you show me yours." He takes care of one of them in vicious fashion off a bridge. There's also a subplot with Kylie's old high school classmate, Ben (Adam DiMarco), who has always had a crush on her, finds out about her side job and reunites with her on campus. It's here and the whole webcast conceit that "Girl House" is a better version of "Halloween: Resurrection." When Ben's tech-savvy roommate Alex (Wesley MacInnes) starts watching one of the girls on her webcam in her dark, candlelit bedroom for a striptease, the scene builds to a tense clip as he starts to notice someone in the room and tries warning her. From then on, as Alex has access to all of the multiple cameras around the house, he becomes the audience surrogate, saying "Don't go in there" and "Turn around!" 

Passing for Marisa Tomei's daughter, Ali Cobrin (2012's "American Reunion") has a sweet, naturally likable screen presence to be the ultimate "final girl." Kylie is a good girl who tries rationalizing why she signs up for "Girl House" and excusing porn for not carrying the stigma it used to, and the actress never actually undresses for the camera. Aside from now-"clean" heroine addict Anna (Zuleyka Silver) who's been replaced by Kylie and actually becomes the reason "Loverboy" gets set off, there's a certain respect for the characters that the viewer doesn't want to see them killed. None of them are drawn beyond archetypal types, and some are even less than that, but they're not ice queens or indistinguishable. Still, it's too bad we don't really get to know any of them. There's Devon (Alyson Bath), the blonde main attraction; Kat (Alice Hunter) and girlfriend Mia (Nicole Fox); wild girl Heather (Elysia Rotaru); and health nut Janet (Chasty Ballesteros). Slaine, as he's appropriately known, is quite convincing and ferocious as "Loverboy," who almost becomes sympathetic but is too sadly corrupted by his sick, demented fantasies. Also, it's a refreshing choice that "Girl House" foreman Gary is revealed in an offhand observation to bat for the other team. 

Just as every "Friday the 13th" movie, or generally any slasher flick, basically punished its sexually active teens, "Girl House" more or less punishes those engaged in porn. One could probably write two reviews of the film resting on the viewer's opinion of how the filmmakers objectify their female characters or not to make an intentional statement about porn and violence, but any attempt at higher thematic aims, despite the Bundy quote, is neither here nor there. Since exploitation is all part of the film's premise, female nudity isn't exactly gratuitous, but it's still mighty plentiful for old times' sake. Punctuated by an edgy score by tomandandy and Chris Norr's (2012's "Sinister") slick, dynamic cinematography, the kills are harsh and nasty but quick. Though none of them are played for fun, one female character is slapped with a dildo and duct taped with it in her mouth. Another girl must escape from a sauna after being locked inside. The third act does build with all of the girls being stalked and slashed, but there is legitimate tension to smooth over the sketchier characterizations. One girl strikes their attacker with one blow to the head, expecting him to be down for the count, but then, there's a hugely satisfying, crowd-pleasing comeback. "Girl House" isn't even close to being high art and won't be winning any awards for originalityor any awards, period—but it's waywardly entertaining and well-made for what it is. 

Grade: B - 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Almost Convergent: Shailene Woodley keeps mostly mechanical "Insurgent" going

Insurgent (2015)
119 min., rated PG-13.

2014's fairly engaging dystopian sci-fi adventure "Divergent," the first screen adaptation in Veronica Roth's literary series, was another bid to get in on the pre-sold, sequel-ready YA franchise bandwagon. It prepped for more to come but, in its own right, also explored a few cool ideas about conformity and individualism, and had a stalwart center in Shailene Woodley whose free-thinking heroine didn't need a man but received one anyway. Quickly produced second entry "Insurgent" is definitely the middle installment, meaning it doesn't tell a complete story, pads most of its first two acts with been-there-done-that filler, and seems to be more concerned with its long-term goals, like what will happen in the next film. It's almost puzzling that everything adventurousand, yes, divergentabout this film is saved for the endgame, including the final shot that literally ends with a bang and teases one to want to see more.

Peace was seemingly attained with the social order of post-war Chicago's five factions. Set three days after "Divergent," the film catches up with Beatrice "Tris" Prior (Shailene Woodley) and former trainer-cum-boyfriend Four (Theo James), along with smart-ass former Dauntless trainee Peter (Miles Teller) and Tris' sibling Caleb (Ansel Elgort), as they are off the grid and hiding out in the Amity faction. Tris and Four have been named fugitives for crimes they did not commit, and though Tris had to kill one of her own when her life was at stake and her parents' lives were both taken, guilt is still riding heavy on her conscience when she sleeps. It's not too long before the four of them are pursued by Dauntless leader Eric (Jai Courtney), resembling the T-1000 and working under the orders of Jeanine (Kate Winslet), who wants the two Divergents brought to justice. Back at Erudite, the flinty Jeanine is testing Divergents in fatal simulations and hopes to destroy the rest of the Divergents with a mysterious box, which has been left by the founders and can only be opened by Divergents themselves. Furious at the status quo, Tris will never stop until Jeanine is dead.

As is usually expected with a franchise down the line, a different director and writing team march in for part two. Taking over for the predecessor's helmer Neil Burger and two screenwriters, director Robert Schwentke (2013's "R.I.P.D.") and screenwriters Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman (2014's "Winter's Tale") and Mark Bomback (2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes") must be doing do yeoman's work because, based on what's on the screen, author Veronica Roth's novel is mostly a rehash of the first. With most of the world-building introductions out of the way, "Insurgent" hits the ground running, rising in stakes and danger, but still suffers a bit from "trilogy-itis." Technically speaking, Tris is back in the same place she was, on the run and out to kill Jeanine, as is Jeanine in her "peace-keeping" schemes. As far as the plot goes, it sprints in place for a while, mapping itself from Point A to Point B: there's downtime in the peaceful sanctuary of Amity, a chase from Amity through the woods to a cargo train, a scuffle on the train with a "factionless" gang, and then more downtime in the Factionless safe zone and the Candor headquarters. It's not until the last half that the narrative actually gains traction when Tris sacrifices herself and any new secrets come to light.

The ever-terrific Shailene Woodley held the first film together with her likable, self-possessed quality as Tris, and she does it again here, while sporting a new pixie cut (which she rather impressively cuts herself early on as if she was a beautician when living in Abnegation). Being the star, she's never truly in any real grave danger, even as bullets whiz directly at her but seem to miss, but the actress sells the heroine's gun-toting toughness and athleticism even more so here. There is also a poignancy to Tris' internal regret, particularly during a trial in front of the entire Candor faction when injected with a truth serum that forces her to confess the deaths that haunt her. Once more, Theo James cements himself as more than just a hunky, brooding love interest needed to rescue his partner; only a bit more history is learned about him when his thought-dead mother enters the picture, but the heat he conjured up with Woodley is still very much there. It's kind of amusing to see Woodley joined even more at the hip by her two previous romantic partners, Miles Teller from "The Spectacular Now" and Ansel Elgort from "The Fault in Our Stars," playing Tris' turncoat competitor Peter and her physically weak brother Caleb, respectively. Teller, particularly, expectedly walks away with the film's best quips. As main antagonist Jeanine Matthews, Kate Winslet is in icy, lifeless form again, but her role is even more restrictive here, forcing the actress to stand in front of hologram screens and play on her iPad to control simulation tests. Finally, Naomi Watts and Octavia Spencer bring a little emotional heft if nothing else to their supporting roles of Amity leader Johanna and Factionless leader Evelyn, which amount to throwaway parts that don't ask much from these actresses. 

As a passable entertainment that's capably directed but mechanical, "Insurgent" mostly does the trick, being involving and pacey enough to sustain itself, but it's still a take-it-or-leave-it affair. With the film itself being propulsive in pace but not so much in story, it's made even more clear this time around that Shailene Woodley is better than the film surrounding her and makes the proceedings that much more watchable. Some of the visual effects this time deliberately look like a stylized, dream-like video game when Tris goes through virtual-reality levels of Jeanine's sims (for example, Tris has to save her mother, cameoed by Ashley Judd, in a burning house that floats high above the ruins of Chicago like in Disney's "Up," minus the balloons). They're overly busy and calculated in their choreography, but the aforementioned set-piece is still quite arresting to watch. By and large, the "Divergent" series still leaves room for improvement. If that improvement comes, we shall find out when "Allegiant" is inevitably split into two. Such is the status quo of YA-targeted franchises.

Grade: C +

The Hungry Outdoors: "Backcountry" harrowing and worth getting rattled about

Backcountry (2015)
91 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

"'Open Water' in the woods" sounds like an accurate logline for IFC Midnight release "Backcountry," a primal, gripping, realistic survival thriller that is as much about the will to survive and the terror in the wilderness as it is about a relationship being taken to the step. It's also based on a true story, but by now, that claim holds little water. Making his feature directorial debut, writer-director Adam MacDonald is confident enough to trust his story by never injecting any contrivances or added peril (i.e. lecherous mountain men, poisonous snakes, etc.) and keeping things tight and simple. He forecasts what is to come with an opening shot of the seemingly peaceful woods and then pans down, as we hear buzzing flies, before cutting to see if the carcass is animal or human. The harrowing tone is set and we're off.

Alex (Jeff Roop) can't wait to take game lawyer girlfriend Jenn (Missy Peregrym) camping in the Canadian wilderness and show her Blackfoot Trail. Once they arrive, she promises to put away her Blackberry in her pack and even comes prepared with bear spray, which Alex scoffs at and insists she won't need it ("We'll be lucky to see anything bigger than a chipmunk"). When Alex goes to collect some more firewood, he comes back to Jenn talking to vaguely flirtatious Irish backpacker Brad (Eric Balfour) and foolishly invites him for dinner at their campsite. Alex isn't too happy about the idea, nor is he too subtle about it in front of Brad. After their dinner and a confrontation, Brad leaves, but he is the least of Alex and Jenn's problems when they get lost. Alex's overconfidence of the hiking spot he hasn't visited since high school and refusal to take the map a park ranger offers him turns into rotten luck for the couple. Little does Alex know that they're in black bear country. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade:

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Beaver Fever: The best part about "Zombeavers" might be the title

Zombeavers (2015)
85 min., rated R.

What more do you need to know about "Zombeavers" beyond its inspired, to-the-point title? The joke is right there, but "Zombeavers" never succeeds on the glorious levels of "Snakes on a Plane," "Piranha 3D," or even the pair of "Sharknado" movies. Shot on the Walt Disney ranch next to where Old Yeller was shot, this micro-budget "B" horror-comedy is cheerfully dumb and harmless in its intentions but rarely ever lives up to its all-in-good-fun goal, either. Holding true to its word, it's outrageously silly and earnestly played without ever trying to be scary or even overtly spoofy, but in juggling laughs and gore, it's never as much fun or as crazy as those other animals-run-amok features. Worse, "Zombeavers" is more generic and amateurish than diverting in a Troma sort of way.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a group of college co-eds at a cabin are terrorized by zombified beavers after a toxic-waste spill in the lake. Okay, maybe not the part about the zombified beavers. Mary (Rachel Melvin) and her sorority sisters, recently cheated-on Jenn (Lexi Atkins) and liberal-mouthed Zoe (Cortney Palm), go to her cousin's cabin in Indiana to swim in the lake and get Jenn's ex-boyfriend off her mind for the weekend. It's not long before the arrival of the girls' respective boyfriends, Tommy (Jake Weary), Sam (Hutch Dano) and Buck (Peter Gilroy). When Jenn still refuses to forgive Buck for hooking up with another girl, she goes to take a shower, only to find a raving, drooling beaver that Tommy ends up bashing over the head and killing. The next morning, the five of them go for a dip, while Jenn stays on shore, worried that there are more beavers. And, oh, there are, and as many times as the dumb kids kill them, the ferocious undead beavers keep on coming back to life. There is no cell phone reception, the nearest hospital is thirty miles away, and the only neighbors around is an old couple, Myrne and Winston Gregorson (Phyllis Katz, Brent Briscoe), as well as creepy hunter Smyth (Rex Linn). Worse, if one of them gets bit, he or she turns into a buck-toothed beaver.

Debuting writer-director Jordan Rubin and screenwriters Al Kaplan and Jon Kaplan don't make it a secret that they're not taking their premise seriously one bit. They must know the movie they're making is stupid as can be, but somehow, it took three—three!—brains to write this lark. When the three girlfriends get some rays on the lake raft, one question remains: who in their right mind, especially sorority girls, would go check out a beaver dam? "Is it on, like, steroids or something?" one of them questions after the beavers start attacking. "Does it look like a baseball player?" Zoe retorts. Also, there are plenty of "beaver" puns. When one of the guys gets his foot chomped off, Zoe suggests using her bikini top to stop the bleeding. And, amidst all of the carnage, with beavers biting through the wooden floorboards on the other side of the door, two characters begin to have sex in the bathroom anyway. This is intentionally dumb stuff, but not smart enough to be self-knowing and work in the ways the "spam-in-a-cabin" tropes were satirized in 2011's "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil" and 2012's "The Cabin in the Woods."

Barely having enough to withstand feature-length, the 85-minute "Zombeavers" is surprising at least in the order of who's a goner and who's not. The actors, including Rachel Melvin (2014's "Dumb and Dumber To") and Peter Gilroy as the always-horny lout of the bunch, competently fulfill their requirements of playing broad-stroked stereotypes, showing their bare bodies on occasion and looking scared on command, despite the clearly ridiculous nature of being terrorized by rabid beavers that are obviously puppets. And, of all people, a mustachioed John Mayer gives an amusing cameo in the opening and closing moments as one of the careless truck drivers, alongside comedian Bill Burr, transporting the hazardous waste. Unfortunately, there's not enough wit or much inspiration and really nothing special here to contribute to this schlocky subgenre. Yes, "Zombeavers" delivers the gory, over-the-top payoffs that one is expecting, especially once the kids start turning into the critters, but few moments actually stand out. Maybe in the right frame of mind (a few libations might be recommended to enhance the experience), you might surrender to the movie's goofy, so-bad-it's-good appeal. 

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Nail Girl Goes to Washington: "Accidental Love" puts a nail through itself

Accidental Love (2015)
100 min., rated PG-13.

The lamely re-titled "Accidental Love" comes with one unfortunate production history. Starting in 2008 under the title "Nailed," shooting fell upon financing issues, leading to actors and crew members not being paid and director David O. Russell  (2013's "American Hustle") leaving the project in 2010. The film was shelved and then finished without Russell's involvement, floated into limbo, and since then, he has disowned it and "Stephen Greene" took over. Who is "Stephen Greene," you ask? Why, that's a pseudonym, like Alan Smithee. Sure, none of this would matter if what ended up on the screen was of some quality or watchability, but it does and it isn't. Adapted from Kristin Gore's (Al's daughter) novel "Sammy's Hill" by Gore & Matthew Silverstein & Dave Jeser, "Accidental Love" has so much talent behind and in front of the camera that bewildered viewers will just have to pause and wonder how it all went so disastrously wrong. It's that dreadful.

Small Indiana town waitress-on-roller-skates Alice Eckle (Jessica Biel) is just about to say "yes" to her sheriff husband Scott's (James Marsden) marriage proposal at a fancy restaurant before a nail gun lodges a nail three inches into her brain. She's rushed to surgery, but the doctors shut down the operation once the receptionist tells them Alice has no health insurance. The aftereffects are endless: Alice has erratic behavior and panic attacks, starts angrily spewing Portuguese, and gets fired from her job. Living like a depressed, drooling empty shell with her understanding parents (Beverly D'Angelo, Steve Boles) after Scott took back her engagement ring, Alice comes alive when she catches charismatic freshman congressman Howard Birdwell (Jake Gyllenhaal) on TV. Against the wishes of her family and Scott, who has moved on but was hoping to see a change in Alice, she goes to Washington, D.C., with her motley crew of hometown friends, Reverend Norm (Kurt Fuller) and Keyshawn (Tracy Morgan). Upon meeting the clueless Howard in Capitol Hill, she gets conked on the head, turns into a nymphomaniac, and she has her first orgasm with him. With the congressman's help, she hopes to make her nail-in-the-head situation a manageable cause to fight for and have a new healthcare bill passed.

More irritating than a mosquito and unflattering for everyone whose face can be seen, "Accidental Love" is a confused, artificial, idiotic, tone-deaf, hopelessly misguided train wreck. The film begins lightheartedly with the '50s pop ditty "Mr. Sandman" chirping on the soundtrack, as Alice rolls around on her roller skates, delivering fast food to vintage cars. Is this a farce trapped in a time warp? From there, it feels like being trapped in a room full of obnoxious, over-caffeinated pod people posing as cartoons, but really, it's just a bunch of talented actors floundering about without any detectable sign of direction. If the love-at-first-sight romance between Alice and Howard weren't already strained beyond belief, so many inscrutable plot detours clog the film. Howard ditching Alice for a Shaman ritual exercise? The uninsured Keyshawn's random romance with Capitol Hill security guard Rakeesha (Malinda Williams)? Pam spreading a rumor of child lesbianism among the politically driven girl scouts? By now, it's a moot point, but there's actually a scene that begins where a bed seems to be a-rockin' before it turns out to be two characters jumping on it. Does that still amuse anyone?

Everyone seems to be acting in a different movie here, and they're all trying—too hard, in fact. Jessica Biel has always been a fetching actress who has rarely been given roles equal to her talent, save for her memorable turns in 2002's "The Rules of Attraction," 2003's "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre," 2006's "The Illusionist," and 2012's underseen "The Tall Man." As protagonist Alice, Biel nearly retains her likability, but despite playing a woman with a nail in her noggin, she looks woozy in her aim for a tone and just dials it up to a thousand. Directed to smile like an imbecile, Jake Gyllenhaal is mannered and acting way beneath his God-given range as the wide-eyed Howard. Catherine Keener is one-dimensional and shrill as the scheming, for-herself Rep. Pam Hendrickson. James Brolin, as the Speaker of the House, stops by to choke on a girl scout cookie. Amidst the strangest, most eclectic ensemble since 2006's "Southland Tales," other bit roles are occupied by Paul Reubens, Tracy Morgan, Beverly D'Angelo, Kirstie Alley, and Bill Hader. They all should have known better.

With bad idea piled upon bad idea in the rubble, this embarrassingly atonal laughing stock practically refuses to work. It never nails a comfortable tone, pitched all over the place from wacky, broadly played screwball farce to a numbskulled romantic comedy to a political message about the little people and the unfair health care system. The satirical elements are there in sketch form, but the slapsticky humor, where Alice loses control and has fits of craziness, constantly works against them. Anything remotely competent about the production, like being in focus, is just negligible. A cringe-inducing creative fiasco if there ever was one, "Accidental Love" is so lost and mind-boggling beyond comprehension that it makes no sense it would be deemed finished to ever see the light of day. If David O. Russell was able to disown this brain-dead disaster, it will be much easier for the audience to boycott enduring a single minute of it. Other than that, it's a beautiful motion picture.

Grade:

Saturday, March 14, 2015

It's a Madder World: "Wild Tales" will tickle you with wicked delight


Wild Tales (2015) 
115 min., rated R. 

Wild is right. Argentina and Spain's Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar-nominated anthology "Wild Tales" spins six yarns within an omnibus structure, all of which spiral out of control, albeit deliberately. There are only so many original stories to tell, but writer-director Damián Szifrón finds a way of making his sextet of stories—each one about people behaving badly when situations turn uglyunpredictable and wickedly funny with a satirist's eye. That is if audiences are willing to laugh through situations that could be seen as morbid and extreme. What's more, all six tales are so strong, despite a structure that sometimes puts an entire film in danger of being rendered hit-and-miss and uneven almost by default. All of them vary in tone but feel of an insanely entertaining piece.

In jumpstarting the increasingly crazy ride that is "Wild Tales," the pre-credits opener ("Pasternak") is uncomfortably amusing and full of hate. On a flight, a model begins conversing with a music critic, only to realize he and everyone else on the plane knows her ex-boyfriend, Pasternak. Coincidence? Maybe not, but what happens next shouldn't be revealed here. Next up is "The Rats," in which a man stops at a cafe to eat late one evening. Moza (Julieta Zylberberg), the waitress, recognizes the customer; he forced her family out of their home and her father to commit suicide. She would rather be passive-aggressive, while the ex-con cook (Rita Cortese) would have no problem poisoning the condescending jerk's fries and eggs dish. The macabre outcome is more anticlimactic than most but watching the escalation unfold keeps the viewer on his or her toes.

"The Strongest," the third tale, has a relentless "Duel"-like nastiness about it: impatient motorist Diego (Leonardo Sbaraglia) crosses paths with a beyond-belligerent redneck (Walter Donado), learning the hard way about the consequences of road rage. It is at once shocking and funny in its savagery, enthralling, and completely dipped in irony. The fourth story, "Little Bomb," deals with Simon (Ricardo Darin), a demolitions engineer, having his car towed in an unpainted spot when picking up his daughter's birthday cake. He can't catch a break, especially with his hair-trigger temper at parking authority window, and his life just devolves from there. This one is most relatable and melancholy, as we side with Simon's frustration, before the cathartic punchline and then an oddly hopeful resolution.

The fifth, "The Proposal," is the darkest and least humorous by far, as wealthy businessman Mauricio's (Oscar Martinez) son runs over and kills a pregnant woman with his car (which happens off-screen) in a hit-and-run. The family is in ruins, so Mauricio and his lawyer (Osmar Nunez) ask a favor from their poor gardener/housekeeper of fifteen years, until negotiations all around is the final option. It's a cleverly spun turn of events, and while what ends up happening is a real shame, the impact of the sucker-punch end hits one like a hammer. Last but certainly not least, "Until Death Do Us Part" is a show-stopper, a tragic, deliriously entertaining whirlwind of every emotion possible that lives up to "Wild Tales'" name. Beginning with the joy of the wedding reception, cued to Sia and David Guetta's "Titanium," this 20-odd-minute segment spectacularly goes off the rails in the best of ways. When bride Romina (Erica Riva, in a fearlessly funny, to-the-hilt turn) discovers her husband Ariel (Diego Gentile) was cheating on her with one of the wedding guests, she turns into a scorned bridezilla who shows him not to mess with her and finds no reason to cut the party short.

Seeing Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almadóvar (2011's "The Skin I Live In") as a producer on "Wild Tales" should be a tip-off for what one should expect. Madness ensues and revenge is exacted, but all is delivered in surprising (and surprisingly human) fashion with deft storytelling and forceful filmmaking skill. Writer-director-editor Damián Szifrón and fellow editor Pablo Barbieri Carrera deserve a round of applause for the whole of their efforts, considering stories in the short form live or die on sustaining enough momentum and energy. All six yarns are self-contained, but are thematically connected by escalating rage and retribution, provoking questions about what makes people tick when they're at their worst. With so many killer punchlines to choose from, "Wild Tales" turns discomfort, desperation and the ugly corners of humanity into a delightfully nutty, unwholesome, take-no-prisoners platter.

Grade: B +