Tuesday, September 29, 2015

This Is 70: Cute, glossy "Intern" benefits from De Niro and Hathaway's charm

The Intern (2015)
121 min., rated PG-13.

Like any cozy piece of wish-fulfillment comfort food from writer-director Nancy Meyers (2003's "Something's Gotta Give," 2006's "The Holiday," 2009's "It's Complicated"), who's never shot a less-than-perfect kitchen or polished interior seemingly staged by Crate&Barrel, it would be easy to cast a cynical eye on "The Intern." Still existing in the Nancy Meyers Cinematic Universe, bathed in enviously cushy and tasteful luxury if life were only this easy, the film once again gets by on the strength and charm of her actors. Also, instead of the bland-as-white-Wonder-Bread fluff about well-off white people and their problems it might resemble, this intergenerational workplace dramedy is wiser, more identifiable, and more appealing than that. It's a nice and comfortable soufflé, with a sunny, glossy disposition in a well-scrubbed, gentrified New York and a hip, modern workplace design that will not dash anyone's hopes, but the real benefit is watching forty-years-apart stars like Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway share a sweet connection. They're wonderful together.

A retired 70-year-old widower living in Brooklyn, Ben Whitaker (Robert De Niro) was a VP for a factory that made telephone books (remember those?). Now, he has a hole in his life that needs to be filled. As luck would have it, Ben responds to flyer for a six-week-long "senior intern program" at an online couture fashion start-up called "About the Fit" and aces the interview process. Ben's boss is Jules Ostin (Anne Hathaway), a type-A woman in her thirties who turned her business into a booming success, filling positions with 216 employees and 4 new interns. Jules has reached her five-year goal in nine months and seems like she would have her life together, living in a brownstone with her husband Matt (Anders Holm), a full-time dad, and daughter Paige (JoJo Kushner), except her heavy work load takes away from her time at home. When it's suggested to Jules to relieve her of some stress by hiring a more-seasoned CEO, she initially resists, worried that everything she built will be misguided. This is where Ben comes in. At first, he begins as Jules' personal intern, but she has nothing for him to do. Then, against Jules' expectations, Ben might just be what she needed as her most unlikely friend.

With "The Intern," writer-director Nancy Meyers overcomes one's expectations of a middlebrow, commercially viable comedy about a retiree turning into a magical Fairy Godfather who can teach a career-driven woman to stick to her feminist guns. Although Meyers still has little time for cynicism when the movies are the one place viewers can experience a healthy, congenial worldview, her latest film might represent her most mature and progressive. In households and the career world, the wives and mothers can be the bread-winners and the husbands and fathers can be the homemakers and (despite a few jealous stay-at-home moms who aren't exactly cheerleaders for Jules' feminism) no one will judge either party. The generational gap between Ben and his younger fellow co-workers is mined for humor, albeit not in a way that mocks him; that one of the twenty-something interviewers acts like a telephone book is something from the Stone Age is a stretch but never dwelled on, either. Robert De Niro is moving and just plain lovable as Ben, an old-school baby boomer who's at an age where everyone around is dropping like flies, but he's never treated as a saintly mascot. From his first meeting with the short and guarded Jules, he begins to admire her dedication as the founder of her own company and proves himself not only to her but to others in the office that he is observant, helpful, and chivalrous. If Anne Hathaway's fashion magazine intern Andy Sachs from "The Devil Wears Prada" grew up into her own boss and changed her name, the result would be Jules Ostin. Hathaway is so winning and completely credible as this warm, if business-minded, personality with a lot on her plate. Your heart aches for her struggling to balance life and work, and there is a genuine poignancy to a touchy-feely scene set in a San Francisco hotel room where Jules openly discusses her rocky marriage with Ben.

Sometimes a little too cute and toothless but ultimately in touch with universally human feelings, "The Intern" is a pleasantly smart entertainment for adults that resists condescension and cheesed-up sap, actually taking time out of its 121 minutes to listen to and understand its characters. The likable supporting players are also fun to hang around, including the lovely Rene Russo as the company's in-house masseuse Fiona, "another oldie but goodie" who's mutually attracted to Ben; a delightful Christina Scherer as Jules' harried, overworked secretary Becky; and the always ingratiating Andrew Rannells as Jules' office manager. The film only really falls out of step with the established reality in one self-contained segment. When the multitasking Jules accidentally sends an incriminating email to her mother, Ben and the boys, employees Jason (Adam DeVine) and Lewis (Jason Orley) and intern Davis (Zack Pearlman), do Jules a solid by breaking into the mother's house to trash the email. It proves Ben's camaraderie, but with a musical cue to "Ocean's Eleven," it is a needlessly broad and silly tonal lapse into farcical hijinks. In spite of coming down to some pretty didactic speechifying and wrapping up an interpersonal conflict in a neat, tidy bow, the film rings plenty of true notes to power through the false ones. For once, it feels like Nancy Meyers is making progress in becoming more in touch with the real world.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Activists on a Plate: "Green Inferno" doesn't shrink away from gore but lacks a reason to care

The Green Inferno (2015) 
100 min., rated R.

"The Green Inferno," extreme horror practitioner Eli Roth's fourth film, has surely endured a bumpy trip to theaters. Shot back in 2012, premiering at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, and then scheduled to be released in the U.S. in 2014, the film was then pulled from distribution a month before its original release due to financial difficulties. A year later, it's finally being unleashed upon the public as the inaugural release under producer Jason Blum's platform arm BH Tilt, but was all the hold-up worth it? Those who are easily squeamish and have a beef with Roth's speciality in the vicious slaughter of xenophobic travelers (2003's "Cabin Fever," 2006's "Hostel" and 2007's "Hostel: Part II") will already know his "new" film isn't for them, and it wasn't really made for them anyway. Still, as a supporter of Roth who knows what he's getting into and can say his extremely violent films are worth more than the disparaging label of "torture porn," there is no denying that "The Green Inferno" is the filmmaker's first time being off the mark. What deserved to be Roth's relentlessly feverish magnum opus of terror is actually his worst directorial effort.

Idealistic Columbia freshman Justine (Lorenza Izzo), the daughter of a U.N. lawyer (Richard Burgi), feels the need to stand for something and make a difference. Coaxed into the activist group on campus by the affably plump Jonah (Aaron Burns) and charismatic but heartless and sanctimonious leader Alejandro (Ariel Levy), she joins the group in taking a plane to the Peruvian jungle to save the rainforest. There, the team—among them, Alejandro's jealous girlfriend Kara (Ignacia Allamand), tattooed lesbian Samantha (Magda Apanowicz) and anxious vegan girlfriend Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), pothead Lars (Daryl Sabara), and a Chilean guy named Daniel (Nicolás Martínez)chains themselves to the bulldozers for a deforestation project that threatens the Amazon's native tribe and films the whole scene on their phones for viral attention. Once the protest nearly gets them killed and then handcuffed by the guards, a frightening incident that leaves Justine disillusioned and clear-eyed, they head back home on a celebratory flight, but engine failure causes the plane to crash. Though there are a few fatalities, the survivors are captured and imprisoned in a bamboo cage by the indigenous tribe. Wearing the same yellow jumpsuits as the loggers, the would-be activists look like the enemy and will have to try real hard to escape before becoming the tribe's barbecue.

Intended to revive the cannibal splatter subgenre and be a homage to the granddaddy, Ruggero Deodato's Italian punisher "Cannibal Holocaust" (1980), "The Green Inferno" is, by design, as unpleasant, grueling, and exploitative as it should be as a wholeheartedly visceral experience. For their script, Eli Roth and co-writer Guillermo Amoedo (2013's "Aftershock" and Roth's upcoming "Knock Knock") have the bones of a pointed comment on "slacktivism"a term derisively used against millennials who irresponsibly use social media to get credit for supporting an issue without any actual effortand a devilishly ironic cautionary tale about a clash of cultures—American activists getting killed and/or eaten by the same tribe they thought they were protectingbut the execution is slathered in contempt and tonally misjudged. Before eyes are gouged out, tongues are cut out, and both are feasted on, the opening 30 minutes are practically worthless and tedious with awkward, on-the-nose dialogue and perfunctory writing that fails to create characters worth caring about. The film would be more of an upsetting, genuinely horrific experience had Roth not asked viewers to cheer on the punishing fates of his annoying nitwits but to actually fear for them. In a skewed way, the aboriginal people are the heroes and the one-note "do-gooders" are just their dinner, but it's still hard to give a damn who lives and who dies. Continually, Roth sells himself short by undercutting the power of the horror with juvenile attempts at gag humor involving cathartic masturbation and explosive diarrhea that have no place here. Even the infighting between the collegians doesn't work because most of them are insufferable jerks who can't be eaten quick enough.

If anything, "The Green Inferno" is a director's movie all the way. Eli Roth rebelliously brings it and pushes limits most mainstream horror features do not, and if there is any real accomplishment, it's the on-location shooting in South America with a real Peruvian tribe. Never one to timidly shrink away from unblinking carnage, Roth still shoots the violence with a brutal confidence and doesn't always cut too soon (sometimes not soon enough that one feels the MPAA might just have a high threshold for gore, or their entire system is just bogus). The plane crash that gets the activist team back into the jungle is realistically staged and legitimately distressing, like a shot of adrenaline. After each survivor is snatched up and "greeted" by the tribesmen, tribeswomen and children covered in red paint, there is a jittery apprehension in seeing the bug-eyed, disoriented activists being pawed and pulled along, as well as the hysterical Amy's long blond hair shedding in a sea of villagers. The first kill at the hands of a pierced, white-eyed Captain Jack Sparrow-lookalike elder (Antonieta Pari) might be the harshest and most effective, evoking wincing and mouth-covering disgust (thanks to Gregory Nicotero's gnarly gore effects), and when the activist gang's "'Scooby-Doo' plan" in giving the tribe a recreational high (don't ask) backfires, a munchies feast is the most tongue-in-cheek. Then again, an escape sequence where Justine gets away, foolishly takes one wrong step and nearly drowns down a muddy river is treated so quickly that it feels like a non-event. Unfortunately, the performances Roth gets out of his actors do not help and run the gamut from merely competent to stilted and amateurish. From the first time pop singer Sky Ferreira comes on screen, one hopes her inauspicious acting debut as Justine's sneering, vampiric roomie Kaycee will be her swan song, too. A better film hopefully awaits Kirby Bliss Blanton (2012's "Project X"), who can scream bloody murder like a champ, but only Lorenza Izzo (Eli Roth's real-life wife) reaches believable emotional heights with a battered vulnerability as Justine, the virginal final girl who might be the only well-intentioned character with any rooting interest.

Despite a little social context that bookends "The Green Inferno," nothing else seems to matter. What's left is an endurance test with a cynical punchline out of a shaggy-dog story. At a stop-and-start pace, the viewer is forced to watch each member become a piece of supper meat, or be fed to CG ants, or be prepared for a genital mutilation ceremony, and this is not even writer-director Eli Roth's grisliest and most uncompromising piece of work. Roth may never make a movie for general audiences, and hats off to him for always making the movie he wants to make and making it as horrific as he wants to within reason. Calling "The Green Inferno" vile, repulsive, and merciless would be loving compliments to Roth—it apparently caused a screening audience member to faint at the Deauville American Film Festival in Francebut none of the fundamental elements that make a horrific experience impactful come out to play. Never quite as gripping, scary, or shocking as a cannibalistic horror film could and should be, it's just flippant blood and guts but no brains and very little reason to care.


Saturday, September 26, 2015

When a Man Resists a Woman: "Sleeping with Other People" given boost by frank script and likable leads

Sleeping with Other People (2015)
101 min., rated R.

Leslye Headland impressed with her uninhibited, razor-sharp 2012 writing-directing debut "Bachelorette"—an underseen biter of a film that deserved more attention, despite garnering little mainstream appeal outside of its recognizable cast—and to follow it up, she's gone and made a New York-set romantic comedy that is closer to a big-studio film. Aptly described by Headland herself as a "'When Harry Met Sally...' for assholes," "Sleeping with Other People" is certainly more frank and fizzy than the majority of romantic comedies to come down the pike, but it's not as radically fresh as it thinks it is, either. At this stage in the game, as David Wain's cheerfully scathing "They Came Together" has already taken the piss out of the genre, we know that men and women still can't be friends in the 21st century, but writer-director Headland at least pretends they can for a while on a "will-they-or-won't-they?" path with some tart dialogue and mostly likable characters. 

Jake (Jason Sudeikis) and Lainey (Alison Brie) first meet as Columbia University undergrads in 2002 and lose their virginity to each other on a rooftop. Still in New York City, they reconnect after twelve years when both walk out of a sex-addiction group. Entrepreneur Jake is a serial cheater who can't commit to any of his girlfriends and Lainey, now a kindergarten teacher, is addictively hung up on her former T.A.-turned-longtime crush, boring, dweebish OB/GYN Matthew Sobvechik (Adam Scott), who's married with a baby on the way. They both need to get their personal lives in order before they can be in a relationship with anyone, so Jake and Lainey make a pact to not sleep with one another, complete with a safe word to break the urge. On their mutual road to celibacy, they each try out their own respective flings, but the viewer already knows what's good for them — hop into bed and get it over with already before Lainey aces her MCATs and relocates to Michigan for med school.

The thing about romantic comedies trying to subvert character types and archetypal narrative beats is that they start to feel homogeneous anyway. As such is the case with most modern examples of the genre, "Sleeping with Other People" includes a no-sex pact in the premise, the frank sex talk, the walking-and-talking in Central Park, the romantic complications and, still, the last-minute decision to go get the girl. What writer-director Leslye Headland does differently here is root her characters' sexual hang-ups in a surprisingly raw honesty, particularly Lainey's obsession with Matthew. After Lainey breaks it off with her current beau (gamely played by Adam Brody) at a restaurant, she immediately texts her go-to sex partner and it is palpable that she hates herself for it. The film does take a bit to find its footing—the laughs aren't quick to land nor do they fire on all cylinders until around the time of Jake and Lainey's first date—but once it does, Jason Sudeikis and Alison Brie really click as an engagingly flawed couple with winning chemistry.

Jason Sudeikis keeps being given leading duties or third billing in studio comedies (2011's "Hall Pass" and "Horrible Bosses," 2013's "We're the Millers" and 2014's "Horrible Bosses 2"), but he seems to remain in his comfort zone, doing the persuasive Chevy Chase thing that he's honed throughout every movie. Here, as Jake, he still gets to play a caddish jerk, albeit a likably caddish jerk who can make written jokes feel germane to the character. If Alison Brie still isn't a household name given her collective work on TV's "Community" and her scene-stealing abilities in another bright romantic-comedy (2012's "The Five-Year Engagement"), she surely deserves to be. Brie is always a wonderful delight with spot-on comic timing, and here as Lainey, she gets to stretch her dramatic muscles. Her character is broken and painfully fragile, continuing to sabotage herself when making herself a booty call for Matthew and have her heart broken. The supporting cast is a strong one, too, filled with the usual-suspect roles that used to be filled by Judy Greer. Natasha Lyonne is there as a sounding board and not much else as Lainey's lesbian gal pal Kara, but the invariably appealing Amanda Peet at least plays the role of Jake's divorced single-mother boss as well as it was probably written with intelligence and well-roundedness. As Jake's best friend and co-worker Xander, Jason Mantzoukas is just okay, but he's more in sync as a pair with Andrea Savage as his wife Naomi. Together, they are hilarious if underused until they get to show what they're made of with their banter during the closing credits. 

"Sleeping with Other People" exceeds a flat start and one misstep in the third act, namely a misguided screwball fight during brunch that exists to advance to the resolution, but it buzzes along with enough edge and sweetness to compensate. A scene in which Jake gives Lainey a tutorial on female masturbation, particularly a technique he calls the "dirty DJ," with an empty green tea bottle is very funny without straining too hard. Then, later on, when Jake invites Lainey to drop Molly and attend his friend's 7-year-old son's birthday party, Lainey gives an infectiously loose and fun dance lesson to David Bowie's "Modern Love." The film does find a lovely spot to leave off with Jake and Lainey remaining platonic buddies rather than lovers, but instead of being more honest and satisfying, it inevitably makes its way to the conventional destination. That's no spoiler, and at least there is a cute homage to Mike Nichols' "The Graduate" that gets worked in well with the happy ending. In this genre, it's better to enjoy the journey, especially when it's one that is uncommonly smarter than most.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Woman on the Verge: Haunting "Queen of Earth" descends into madness with spectacular Elisabeth Moss

Queen of Earth (2015)
90 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

With 2014's acidic character study "Listen Up Philip," writer-director Alex Ross Perry carved out a real niche for seeing the flawed, human side of people—self-absorbed, snippy, unpleasant—but it proved that movies about insufferable people can sometimes grow insufferable, too. "Queen of Earth" is an even more demanding animal, as it's anything but cheery in tracking the disintegration of a prickly, symbiotic female friendship and a descent into madness for one of the women. Led by two courageous performances by Elisabeth Moss and Katherine Waterston, the film is a spectacular acting showcase but also a fascinatingly moody and intimate psychodrama that eats away at the viewer's senses and comfort levels. Comparisons to anything by Ingmar Bergman, Roman Polanski's "Repulsion" (1965), Woody Allen's "Interiors" (1978), and Lars von Trier's "Melancholia" (2011) would not be unwarranted.

From the one-two punch of her New York City artist father's suicide and a painful breakup from a boyfriend with whom she became co-dependent, Catherine (Elisabeth Moss) is having a really hard time. With an easel in tow, she ends up retreating to best friend Virginia's (Katherine Waterston) parents' vacant lake house for a week of R&R in the serene woods. Instead, tension is thick and a mutual resentment sucks out all the oxygen in the house, particularly when Catherine is unhappy to find out Virginia is now dating a neighbor named Rich (Patrick Fugit), who sees Catherine as an entitled brat and isn't shy about letting her know that. Eventually, Virginia realizes her once-dear friend has lost all composure and begun a mental collapse, but Catherine is the only one without a clue.

Alarmingly haunting as a chamber piece that unfolds with horror-tinged foreboding and unease, "Queen of Earth" remains controlled and subtle, while slicing deep into the psyche and memories of an emotionally heightened Catherine. From frame one, the tone is set. Elisabeth Moss is unblinkingly raw and shattered as Catherine, who has just been dumped by her boyfriend. The camera remains tight on her face, smeared of mascara from all of her crying. She is more than upset; she is boiling with rage and in accusatory mode. With the double loss of both her late father and her boyfriend, Catherine loses her sense of entitlement. Under the best circumstances, Virginia and Catherine are able to sit and open up about their past relationships with other men, but then the sudden presence of Virginia's new boyfriend, Rich (Patrick Fugit), is just one more catalyst for Catherine's paranoia. Catherine was hoping it would just be her and Virginia, but this time, her stay is a counterpoint to last year's stay when Virginia was put off by Catherine and her boyfriend. As Virginia tells Catherine, "Well, we should switch places — see how we feel then." 

Discomfort is the name of the game to the gutting end, and writer-director Alex Ross Perry knows to make the viewer squirm. In two particular instances, Catherine spits a carefully literate monologue of pure venom at Rich that one is surprised she only uses her words and doesn't reach across the table to stab him, and then the horror of Catherine's breakdown externalizes itself when she experiences a dreamlike nightmare at a party Virginia hosts at the house where all of the guests may or may not hover over her like the coven of satanic high-rise residents in "Rosemary's Baby." When Catherine begins unraveling, Moss is unshakable and startlingly eerie, finding a wide range of emotions before her character's descent into madness (the film was unconventionally shot in order). Complementing Moss' performance, Katherine Waterston is asked to be the least showy of the two but no less captivates as the aloof but comparably stable Virginia as the cracks in her friendship with Catherine rip apart what they once had.

Never has the wilting of an untouched salad at Catherine's bedside ever mirrored the deterioration of one's mental state. Emotionally cool, cuttingly blunt and palpably claustrophobic, "Queen of Earth" hits a raw nerve with chilling daring but also depicts a downward mental spiral and depression with the utmost honesty and the least amount of melodrama. Alex Ross Perry's filmmaking instincts and command of mood are distinctly masterful here, surrounding himself closely with such talented collaborators to make his film of a piece. Evoking the last strands of Catherine's sanity, Keegan DeWitt's dissonant, classically ominous score is like a nightmare of piercing wind-chime clanging and doom-laden piano keys, and Sean Price Williams' 16mm lensing is gorgeously naturalistic in capturing the isolation of the lakeside setting and overwhelmingly close to the trauma at hand. Ultimately, though, the film is anchored by the mesmerizing performances Perry wrings out of his two actresses who are more than up to the task of challenging themselves. Even when one feels anxious to get out of the house and run far away from these two characters, one still can't turn away from their disturbing plight.

Grade: B +

Friday, September 18, 2015

Pro-Choice Grammy: Short, sweet, funny "Grandma" gives Lily Tomlin a role to run with

Grandma (2015)
72 min., rated R.

Back to honing character-rich films, director Paul Weitz wrote indie dramedy "Grandma" specifically for Lily Tomlin, whom he worked with in 2013's neither-here-nor-there Tina Fey-Paul Rudd vehicle "Admission," and here, she gets a long-time-coming career rebirth. Whatever the reason, it's almost inexcusable that Lily Tomlin hasn't had a lead role since 1988's "Big Business"that's twenty-seven years ago and that was a co-lead opposite Bette Midler—and now, at 75 years old, Tomlin essays a role in which she's always spryly on point. The film only seems slight, being shot on a small-scale $600,000 budget and lasting a slender, episodic 72 minutes that manages to still be enough time to tell a cohesive story. "Grandma" just happens to be short and sweet, and for that matter, smartly acerbic and gently human, too. 

Back in the 1970s, Elle Reid (Lily Tomlin) was a poet, but she hasn't written much since. A year and a half after the death of her lovely wife of thirty-eight years, she drives away younger girlfriend Olivia (Judy Greer), calling her "a footnote" and telling her to leave her key. That same day, Elle's 16-year-old granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner) stops by and cuts to the chase — she's pregnant and needs $630 for an abortion before her appointment scheduled at 5:30 p.m. that afternoon. Elle has $47 to her name and cut up all of her credit cards for a wind chime, so she doesn't have it, but she is willing to get out her 1955 Dodge Royal Lancer (that's Tomlin's own car) and hit the road to get the money. Throughout the day with Olivia riding shotgun, Elle visits estranged people from her past, hoping someone out there will lend them the money.

Written and directed by Paul Weitz, "Grandma" could have been played for sitcom-styled wackiness, but that is never the case. A simple intergenerational road movie and a sensitively felt warts-and-all character study with a refreshing worldview and a feminist, pro-choice slant that never goes preachy, the film is as no-nonsense as Elle herself. Tight without being contrived, the film is mostly about the encounters Elle and Sage have throughout one afternoon, but where each one of their stops go is surprising and make an impression. Elle is not a caricature written to lob laugh lines, but she's naturally funny as a feisty, prickly woman with enough years of experience that she get a free pass for being so prideful and stuck in her ways. She is also not up with the times and doesn't care. She will speak her mind and doesn't care. When Elle gets her and Sage kicked out of a coffee shop by the manager (John Cho) for speaking too loudly about abortion, she mocks the only two "Ozzie and Harriet"-looking patrons in the joint and drips her drip coffee on their way out. Beyond her often aggressive exterior, Elle's love and selflessness shine through with her time spent with her granddaughter. Lily Tomlin is outstanding here, running with this character and upending the crusty old granny cliché with spirit and layers that are as comic as they are tragic and purely authentic. Julia Garner, who can't help but have a pixie quality with her blonde curls whenever she's onscreen, holds her own opposite her robust, seasoned co-star. Painting Sage as a teenage girl who has self-respect but might have had poor judgment by getting pregnant when she wasn't ready, she gives an understatedly winning performance.

Other supporting roles inform the viewer about Elle and give a plethora of veteran thespians room to work. After a summer of being thanklessly cast and mostly wasted threefold, the immeasurably wonderful Judy Greer gets an actual character to play as Elle's recent ex Olivia. As Elle's daughter Judy, a business woman with a treadmill at her desk, Marcia Gay Harden finds humanity in a character who could've easily been written as a humorless, one-note harpy. As Karl, Elle's old flame who's willing to help her out and finds time to smoke one more joint with her, Sam Elliott manages to make 71 years old look sexy and brings a whole history of heartache between Karl and Elle that's telling in only roughly ten minutes tops. Nat Wolff, as Sage's worthless boyfriend Cam who's put in his place with his own hockey stick; Laverne Cox (Netflix's "Orange is the New Black"), as tattoo artist Deathy who doesn't have the money she owes Elle but can give her a new tat; and the late Elizabeth Peňa, as a bookstore/cafe owner to whom Elle tries selling her first edition books, stop by for a few minutes, too. Finally, Colleen Camp has a very brief if funny bit to play as a cafe customer who can't seem to get the hot sauce she requested.

With "Grandma," poignancy and laughs come in a small package. If there should be any imperfections, the film isn't terribly interesting on a technical level, but it's modestly shot with a warmly appealing glow by cinematographer Tobia Datum. Never a calculated awards-time vehicle for its screen veteran or a case of boomer bait, this satisfying little end-of-the-summer treat deservedly gives Lily Tomlin a chance to lead a film with a worldly, tart-mouthed, fully formed character and plenty of colors to play. For sure, she belongs on a short list for awards noteworthiness if awards mean anything.

Grade: B +

Mr. Whitey: Johnny Depp chills to bone in solidly gripping "Black Mass"

Black Mass (2015)
122 min., rated R.

Like a modern-day Lon Chaney, Johnny Depp actually lives inside the make-up of James 'Whitey' Bulger, Boston's most notorious gangster-turned-fugitive who committed as many crimes as drug dealing, racketeering, extortion and murder. The consummate acting chameleon, who has fallen into a comfort zone of playing dress-up for far too long, should not be underestimated this time in "Black Mass," a gritty, bloody, gripping 1970s Boston-set crime saga that shoots for electrifying greatness without grasping it but nevertheless delivers as a mature effort. Buried underneath a head of thinning, slicked-back hair, the crystal-blue eyes of a predator, and a sinister smile that reveals a dead tooth, Depp is the magnetically vicious centerpiece, but director Scott Cooper (2013's "Out of the Furnace") and screenwriters Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth (2014's "Get on Up") aren't exactly slouches in their efforts, either. Along with any upcoming picture about organized crime that comes down the pike, "Black Mass" invites comparison to the gangster genre's benchmarks, 1990's "Goodfellas" and 2006's "The Departed," but what the makers brought to fruition is more of a grim slow-burn than a stylistically vibrant copy of a Martin Scorsese opus.

Based on Dick Lehr and Gerard O'Neill's 2013 true-crime novel "Whitey: The Life of America's Most Notorious Mob Boss," the film will inform those who are less aware of the fascinating particulars behind Irish-American mobster James 'Whitey' Bulger's story. From the points of view of his criminal associates who come forward to the FBI, a confessional framework begins flashing back to 1975 when Bulger is back in South Boston from spending time in Alcatraz for nine years. He's laying low, but has acquired his Winter Hill Gang, including right-hand man Steve Flemmi (Rory Cochrane), go-to executioner John Martorano (W. Earl Brown), and trusted muscle Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons). Once the Italian mafia starts coming into his territory, Bulger is met by a childhood friend, FBI Agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), and they strike up a deal in which the criminal will be their informant and provide the Feds with information to bring down the Italians. This alliance grants Bulger immunity from his crimes that the FBI seem to turn a blind eye to, but as the bodies pile up well into the '80s, everything begins catching up with Connolly.

Considering his recent catalogue of outlandish, over-the-top "characters," worst of all being a buffoonish, mustachioed art dealer in this year's disastrously shticky "Mortdecai," Johnny Depp might be next to make an overdue acting renaissance as the diabolical James 'Whitey' Bulger. In essaying an intense, cold-blooded sociopath acting upon his formidable rage, Depp is utterly chilling, but he also conveys the love and loyalty he had for his family and community. He will play a benign game of cards with his mother or have his gang help an old neighbor with her groceries, but then again, he can't help himself when giving his son, Douglas (Luke Ryan), advice to punch someone only if there are no witnesses. If there's a more internal, morally grey struggle to project, Joel Edgerton does more strong work as FBI Agent John Connolly, who makes a deal with the Devil and, in a way, is more of a corrupt weasel than Bulger. 

Chock-full of A-list talent, the film sports a sprawling ensemble, all of them taking on acceptably believable Boston accents. Jesse Plemons disappears fully into his role as Kevin Weeks, not just from the fact that his putty-face makeup makes him look like Mark Wahlberg, and Rory Cochrane does subtle work as Bulger's close associate, Stephen Flemmi. Peter Sarsgaard makes a memorable turn as jumpy, coked-up hitman Brian Halloran, and David Harbour, Kevin Bacon, Adam Scott and Corey Stoll round out the roster of those in the FBI office. A film like this even squeezes in Benedict Cumberbatch as Bulger's privately devoted senator brother Billy. The women in the picture remain on the fringe, but they all stand out. Even if it's just a thankless spousal role and she vanishes all too soon without explanation, Dakota Johnson packs heart and fire into Lindsey, Bulger's common-law wife, especially when going head-to-head with the man of the house over a quandary with what to do about their suddenly ailing son. Julianne Nicholson is sensational, bringing vulnerability and bravery to the part of John Connolly's wife Marianne, who refuses to fraternize with any of her husband's informants in her home; a confrontation with Bulger in her bedroom doorway is as uncomfortable and riveting to watch as any of the film's brazenly violent scenes. Juno Temple seems to continue being typecast as tarts, but she still makes an impression out of her brief appearance as Steve Flemmi's prostitute stepdaughter/girlfriend.

What it lacks in verve and pizzazz that might have glorified the crime-ridden lifestyle, "Black Mass" has a legitimate sense of time and place and is kept alive by bursts of savage, unflinching violence, either carried out by one of Bulger's executioners or Bulger himself in broad daylight. Whenever Johnny Depp is on screen, he is such a powerful, unpredictable force that his presence alone is able to eclipse the sometimes overly subdued pacing. That and the film always seems to be rising like a simmering pot. Tension runs particularly thick in a deliciously written, darkly funny dinner scene at John Connolly's house: Bulger asks Agent John Morris (David Harbour) how he made the marinade for the steak, but because it's a "family secret," he won't spoil it. Not much more time has passed before Morris gives away the ingredients, and Bulger's tone grows more intimidating and accusatory. "You spill the secret family recipe today, maybe you spill a little something about me tomorrow?" Without digging too deeply into James 'Whitey' Bulger's psychology for insight to see where the evil stems from—we only know the idea of Bulger, and that's fine—"Black Mass" is still a solid, down-and-dirty crime drama made compulsively watchable by Depp and his stellar support.


Because it's There: "Everest" impressively mounted but oddly uninvolving

Everest (2015)
121 min., rated PG-13.

A large-scale, stupendously well-made dramatization of the 1996 expedition tragedy that befell two climbing groups on their way down Mount Everest and took the lives of eight, "Everest" looks like the kind of white-knuckler designed for ginormous IMAX screens. It sure is, and it would mean more if weren't so uninvolving. Human connection is quite vital in a survival drama, so that when the film has reached its inevitably downbeat, potentially resonant closing cards, it should pack an emotional blow. The fates of these people are worth our cares and concerns only by defaultunless this were a tongue-in-cheek slasher movie, who wants to see anyone living and breathing not living and breathing anymore?—that "Everest" doesn't satisfy with much emotional investment as a fatalistic human drama. What it does do well, though, is give audiences the vicarious experience of being at high altitudes and feeling the frostbitten temperatures and overall human suffering.

Based on the tragically true events that led to Jon Krakauer's non-fiction best-seller "Into Thin Air" and honoring the real-life climbers by executing the hardships with the utmost credibility, "Everest" does deserve points for feeling less like a Hollywoodization with contrived peril and emotional manipulation. Director Baltasar Kormákur (2012's "Contraband" and 2013's "2 Guns") could have taken numerous shortcuts, but save for importing real snow and recreating a mountain in a Pinehood studio, he dauntingly shot on-location in Nepal and the Dolomites in Italy around 15,000 feet and under harsh, unforgiving conditions. When it comes to the film's technical prowess, it is on sturdier ground, but screenwriters William Nicholson (2014's "Unbroken") and Simon Beaufoy (2010's "127 Hours") never give the viewer human lifeforms that feel fully formed. For what it's worth, no one springs into a magical action-adventure hero.

"Everest" sluggishly takes its time getting to the summit of Mount Everest, but doesn't even take full advantage of that uphill climb in letting the viewer get a true sense of who any of these flimsily drawn people are or why they do what they do. The film follows New Zealander Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), the leader of the Adventure Consultants group's expedition, as he leaves pregnant wife Jan (Kiera Knightley) at home to go train his clients and climb the planet's highest mountain on May 10, 1996. Among the climbers are filthy-rich Texan doctor Beck Weathers (Josh Brolin), who's climbing against the wishes of his wife Peach (Robin Wright); divorced postal worker Doug Hansen (John Hawkes); and Japanese woman Yasuko Namba (Naoko Mori), who hopes to be the first woman to climb all "Seven Summits." After landing in Nepal and making preliminary runs before their attempt to reach the summit, thirty-four climbers spread over into three groups and make their ascent. Touching the top, they all begin their way down as a brutal snowstorm blows their way, freezes their oxygen tanks, and strands the teams in "The Death Zone."

The gigantic cast portraying real people is an excellent roster of talent to have attached to a film, and all of them push themselves, looking frozen to the bone. Nothing against any of the performances, but each character is only identified with a defining trait or a one-line backstory. Receiving top billing, Jason Clarke might be the most affecting as selfless leader Rob Hall, who already calls his unborn child "Sarah" and promises his wife that he will return back home. Introducing himself as "100% Texas," Josh Brolin's gung-ho Beck Weathers might come the closest to having a personality. As mailman Doug Hansen, who's driven by wanting to prove to his children that they, too, can achieve their dreams, character actor John Hawkes brings his usual Everyman quality, but he doesn't get a whole lot else to do. Likewise, Jake Gyllenhaal doesn't get a lot to play, either, usually seen laying about and drinking as cocky, laid-back American dude Scott Fischer. On the other hand, Emily Watson does a lot with a little, relaying heartbreaking emotion as Helen Wilton, the base camp's mother hen. Also, as Rob's pregnant wife Jan and Beck's wife Peach, Keira Knightley and Robin Wright are both emotionally vivid and excel in thankless roles that mostly require them to act worried and wait by the phone. With all of that said, the star attraction really is the life-threatening Mount Everest itself, courtesy of Salvatore Totino's oft-breathtaking cinematography. The IMAX 3D format also makes use of that vertiginous sensation you want in a movie like this, namely during a rattling ladder crossing.

Despite the admiration that it was made at all, "Everest" just isn't as impactful as a movie called "Everest" should be. The tragedy is despairing, certainly, but it's not terribly rich with feeling beyond the surface. The screenplay fails to flesh out the characterizations and, not helping matters once the weather worsens, the characters become hard to distinguish beyond the colors of their Northface parkas and geographically where they are in relation to one another. Early on, when the climbers all sit around in a tent, Jon Krakauer (Michael Kelly) throws the question out there, asking why they're going through with their arduous trek up Mount Everest, even when they know the consequences and have loved ones back home. Some might just be thrill-seekers; others have a lot of money or swell with hubris, so why not? Mostly, though, their reasoning boils down to British mountaineer George Mallory's quote, "Because it's there." No cut-and-dry reason can really explain why anyone would be such a masochist, but it's still problematic when we have no handle on what makes any of them tick. "Everest" can be harrowing and palpably shuddersome when the biting cold and the treacherous mountain itself are putting the climbers through the wringer, but anxiety and suspense only come in fits and starts when the film is already half over. An incredible true story deserved a more incredible telling where the human element wasn't left out in the cold.

Grade: C + 

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Little Monsters: Impish "Cooties" brings on the chuckles and entrails

Cooties (2015)
88 min., rated R.

Flesh-eating children will be the death of their teachers in "Cooties," an uneven but gleefully un-PC and irreverent horror-comedy that comes across as an acerbically quick ensemble comedy show that would air on NBC with prepubescent zombies dropped in for conflict. Being horrific and comic at the same time is a tonal push-and-pull that can be hard to crack, and debuting directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion and screenwriters Leigh Whannell ("Saw" and the "Insidious" series) & Ian Brennan (TV's "Glee" and the upcoming "Scream Queens") settle for an impish, all-in-good-fun romp of gasps, chuckles and entrails. It always feels like the film will break out even more and be the best it can be, hopefully realizing its utmost potential, but a decently entertaining midnight-movie favorite with a moderate cult following will just have to do.

Finding himself back in his Illinois hometown and just trying to write a book about an evil boat, aspiring New York horror writer Clint (Elijah Wood) picked the wrong day to be a sub at Fort Chicken Elementary. Unbeknownst to him and the rest of the facultyamong them, the perky Lucy (Alison Pill), whom Clint hasn't seen in fifteen years and still has eyes for him; gym teacher Wade (Rainn Wilson), Lucy's intimidating jackass boyfriend; socially awkward sex-ed teacher (Leigh Whannell); closeted-but-not-convincing-anyone art teacher Tracy (Jack McBrayer); and tightly wound conservative Rebekkah (Nasim Pedrad)a tainted chicken nugget makes its way into the cafeteria and snowballs a viral outbreak that turns the classrooms of entitled brats into wheezing, growling, blister-infested monsters. Outnumbered and vulnerable, the adults (and a few children who made it) can only barricade themselves in the teacher's lounge for so long before they must fight back and get to safety. 

Built around childhood's innocuous (and fictional) disease from the opposite sex that gets turned into an icky foodborne virus, "Cooties" has an inspired premise that's off-the-charts gross, especially right off the top and in the first act. The opening title sequence, which includes the killing of a chicken, the infection of the carcass from a fly, the manufacturing of chicken nuggets, and then a pig-tailed girl in the cafeteria biting into the oozing food, is disturbingly bleak and stomach-churning enough to make one go vegan.  Next up, "Patient Zero" has her pig tail ripped right out of her scalp, squishy sound effect included, by a bully named Patriot (Cooper Roth), who was born on September 11th, and takes a chunk out of his cheek. It's that kind of movie, folks. A lot of the film's bonkers humor is wrongchildren playing tetherball with a severed head and jump roping with intestines are a few of the macabre sightsbut within the tongue-in-cheek tone and handling of teachers banding together against their infected pupils, it feels so right. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Damned Trick-or-treaters: "Hellions" a fiendishly fun trip to pregnancy hell

Hellions (2015) 
81 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Halloween-masked child demons demand more than King-sized candy bars in "Hellions," a phantasmagoric horror treat that could also be seen as a metaphor for unplanned teenage pregnancy. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Bruce McDonald (2008's inventively creepy "Pontypool") and written by Pascal Trottier (2013's "The Colony"), the film is an impish treat tailor-made for lovers of All Hallows' Eve like a razor blade wrapped in a piece of candy — a comparison only true-blue genre fans will understand. In lieu of being a conventional, purely literal run-and-hide thriller about evil monsters, McDonald and Trottier bring a more surreal, dreamlike approach to their uniquely stylish little nightmare. It's much more about an abstract, "what's-real-and-what's-not?" mood than a strong narrative structure, and for some, that will be much of the fiendish fun all along. 

The last thing goth-dressed 17-year-old Dora Vogel (Chloe Rose) probably wanted to hear on Halloween night was the news that she is four weeks pregnant. After a checkup appointment at Dr. Henry's (Rossif Sutherland) office, her whole world seems to come crashing down internally. She hasn't told boyfriend Jace (Luke Bilyk) or even her mother (Rachel Wilson), who leaves Dora home alone to take her younger son (Peter DaCunha) out trick-or-treating. As she nervously waits for Jace to pick her up to go to a party, not-too-ready to tell him about a fetus growing inside of her, Dora deals with the occasional egging of her house windows to the annoying trick-or-treaters. All hell breaks loose when the same insidiously masked trick-or-treaters come ringing her bell, evidently not out to trick and making it clear that they want Dora's unborn child for sacrifice. With only the local cop (Robert Patrick) being any help, can the soon-to-be young mother make it through the night in one piece? To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.


Friday, September 11, 2015

When G-Rents Go Loony: "The Visit" marks Shyamalan's command of playfully kooky horror

The Visit (2015)
94 min., rated PG-13.

A once-promising auteur during the aughts, M. Night Shyamalan seemed to squander his clout right around 2004's "The Village," followed by a downward spiral of two disappointing misfires (2006's "Lady in the Water" and 2008's "The Happening") and two impersonal, big-budget for-hire projects (2010's "The Last Airbender" and 2013's "After Earth") that could have been made by anyone, so it was time for a turnaround. Now, a lot is riding on "The Visit," a low-budget horror comedy given the approval by Jason Blum's Blumhouse Productions. There would be nothing more pleasing to report than that the film is a return to form for Shyamalan. While it's not up to scale with "The Sixth Sense," "Unbreakable," or "Signs," "The Visit" is like a twistedly fun bedtime story made with a filmmaker's childlike glee that will certainly ruin the comfort of going to grandma and grandpa's house.

15-year-old aspiring filmmaker Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and 13-year-old wannabe rapper Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) have never met their grandparents, whom have been estranged with their Philadelphia single mother Loretta (Kathryn Hahn) for reasons Becca intends to discover in the documentary she's shooting. When Mom puts her children on the train, while she herself goes off on a cruise with her boyfriend, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) meet Becca and Tyler with open arms and take them to their Pennsylvania farmhouse in the snow-covered country for a week-long visit. The kids enjoy spending time with Nana baking cookies when Becca isn't using Tyler as her co-director, but it's not until night falls when Pop Pop gives them a bedtime of 9:30 that something strange seems afoot. Becca wakes up and spots Nana throwing up downstairs. The next day, Tyler suspects Pop Pop hiding something in the shed out back. Both of their grandparents' behavior just gets stranger from there. Via Skype, their mom just reassures them that her parents are just old and probably getting a little senile, but something about Nana and Pop just isn't quite right.

Lest one think the "found-footage" format is so five years ago or that M. Night Shyamalan is a little late to the party, "The Visit" actually savvily builds the mock-documentary conceit into the story and uses it in a more practical sense. As a deliberate choice, there is no music score, unless it reflects Becca's actual documentary, so there's nothing to signal a jump scare, making said jump scares more effective. (Only does the denouement uses an intentionally sappy song because it's Mom's favorite.) As soon as Becca and Tyler go under the house to play hide and seek, just like their mother did when she was a kid, and discover a third party under there with them, the film sets a kooky, off-kilter tone that constantly plays with the audience's expectations. Shyamalan has his actors play it straight but breaks away from the earnestness and self-seriousness that plagued both "Lady in the Water" and "The Happening." Instead of accidentally earning unintended howlers, "The Visit" is actually knowingly and liberatingly funny. Seemingly, Shyamalan has finally learned how to execute his self-aware sense of humor without coming across campy, inviting the viewer to laugh along with him, and loses his mind a little in the process—and for the better. He finds a playfulness in the odd, often crazed behavior of Nana and Pop Pop and how Becca and Tyler react to it all. This isn't to say that the film doesn't dispense a couple of menacingly creepy moments, like Nana cackling in her rocking chair while staring at the wall or how she tells Becca to get all the way in to clean the inside of the oven, à la "Hansel and Gretel," in a running bit that has an unexpected payoff. There's also an amusingly nervous game of Yahtzee and a deeply icky shocker involving elderly incontinence that produces raised eyebrows and squirm-inducing giggles.

Carrying out Shyamalan's tradition of directing child actors, like Haley Joel Osment, Abigail Breslin and Rory Culkin, he coaxes likable performances out of Aussie newcomers Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould (2014's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day") as precocious filmmaking expert Becca and germaphobic rapper Tyler. DeJonge has a poised, natural presence who's able to make her ten-dollar filmmaking words, like "mise en scène" and "denouement," more organic than scripted, but Oxenbould is the real standout, being charismatic and slinging laughs left and right whenever he replaces a swear word with a female pop singer's name or the one time he imitates Nana's nighttime running in and out of the frame. As Nana and Pop Pop, stage actress Deanna Dunagan and screen veteran Peter McRobbie play their roles to the hilt. They're both a hoot, Dunagan positively ooky whenever making the switch from warm and loving to catatonic and possibly sinister and McRobbie unnervingly and blackly comic when he becomes paranoid or starts getting dressed for a costume party that already happened years ago. Finally, with just a few bookending scenes and Skype sessions, Kathryn Hahn finds emotional layers as a single mother with a troubled past that left her on poor terms with her parents.

After "The Sixth Sense," audiences were predisposed to expect a "Big Twist" with each next film M. Night Shyamalan would churn out. With "The Visit," Shyamalan doesn't get caught up in plot gimmicks, with the mock-doc style being gimmicky enough as when one of the siblings ill-advisedly investigates the basement, but mines the question of "What's wrong with Nana and Pop Pop?" for suspense. The answer might be anticipated by good guessers, but it's not obviously telegraphed or so out of left field. While it might have succeeded as a straight-ahead horror film not far off from "The Taking of Deborah Logan," "The Visit" operates more as a humorously demented and nightmarish yarn that taps into a child's perception of their eccentric grandparents with the sinister aura of one of those "Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark." Apart from an overly sentimental epilogue that at least has the decency to wrap up Becca's documentary and give her mother closure, Shyamalan still seems in command of his tricky tone. If it's not going to be his undeniable penance, it is certainly a good start in the right direction but will be misunderstood and divide audiences. This goes to prove that when Shyamalan gets counted out, he comes roaring back with something wonderfully weird.