Thursday, October 29, 2015

Whatever, Chef: Despite some edge, "Burnt" comes out a bland dish

Burnt (2015)
100 min., rated R.

Anyone who has ever watched Chef Gordon Ramsay in his various reality TV series, "Kitchen Nightmares," "Hell's Kitchen," and "MasterChef," knows that chefs are complicated beings. They're arrogant and militant jerks in the kitchen because they're very discerning when it comes to food, but that doesn't rob them of humanity, either. "Burnt" aims for a similar sensibility and one with a pricklier edge than last year's tasty, Jon Favreau-starring delight "Chef," until it comes out a bland, unsatisfying dish that ultimately lacks the courage of its convictions. Director John Wells (2013's "August: Osage County") and screenwriter Steven Knight (2015's "Pawn Sacrifice") initially cook up a tough, sometimes dark character study, but as it becomes bound to the warmed-over formula of a Bad Boy Becomes Better redemption story, it feels haphazardly told and half-finished to be more on the nose, it's a bit choppy and undercooked.

Chef and restaurateur Adam Jones (Bradley Cooper) was once the toast of Paris, but he burned too many bridges with his hubris, recklessness, and addiction to drugs, alcohol, and sex. After being sober for two years and shucking exactly one million oysters in New Orleans for his penance, he's apparently ready to open his own restaurant and earn his three-star rating from the Michelin Red Guide. In doing so, Adam gets help from maître d' Tony (Daniel Brühl), who harbors a crush on him and gives in to letting the culinary rock star run the restaurant at his upscale London hotel. Adam must also recruit a team made up of old friends, including Michel (Omar Sy), a former sous chef who was wronged by Adam years ago in Paris, and ex-con Max (Riccardo Scamarcio), as well as sous chef Helene (Sienna Miller), a feisty single mom who sees right through Adam. Even though Adam is such a controlling, hot-headed jerk, can he redeem himself with his orgasm-inducing dishes? Can he be loved? 

For a drama about a clearly talented protagonist who strives for culinary perfection, "Burnt" isn't perfect itself. The one-and-done opening narration seems like a hasty addition in post-production that adds nothing to character details we learn about gradually throughout the film. There are theoretical stakes, but what the narrative mostly comes down to is whether or not Adam will earn his third Michelin star, pay off his drug debt (a needlessly tossed-in subplot that gets tidily resolved), and prove to his staff that there is a human being under all of that assholery. If it seems like the script will refreshingly resist making Helene a love interest for Adam, it mostly does, save for a hint at the possibility of a relationship, but she deserves someone who doesn't grab her by the collar in a rage (really, what a guy!). The fiery kitchen-nightmare scenes, where Adam acts like a dictator in his own kitchen, has plate-throwing tantrums and browbeats his staff, are intensely watchable and invariably the most interesting. The film is also best when Adriano Goldman's camera salivates over the succulent food preparation, trying to out-food-porn "Chef," that it would be wise not to watch on an empty stomach. 

Before Bradley Cooper became a household name, he starred in 2005's short-lived TV show "Kitchen Confidential," itself based on an Anthony Bourdain best-seller, as a recovering addict-turned-executive chef named Jack Bourdain. Here, his Adam Jones seems like an obvious extension of that character in a feature film. Adam is self-destructive and temperamental, and he won't be mentally stable until he reaches unattainable perfection, and Bradley Cooper bites into the unlikable role of the diva chef with an inner brokenness and hot-and-cold volatility. The character has interestingly contradictory philosophies about food; he thinks "consistency is death," and as his mission statement goes, "I want to make food that makes people stop eating." Cooper is so credible playing a prick troubled by his demons and inflated by his own ego that it's too bad Steven Knight's script softens him with teachable, redeemable moments and a pat "family dinner" coda, and instead of caring about Adam, one's interest relies solely on the appeal of the attractive, piercingly blue-eyed actor who's scruffier and less svelte here. He proves that he's no less of an actor when the material isn't up to his level, particularly in one vulnerable, alarmingly raw moment when Adam falls off the wagon and stumbles into the kitchen at frenemy chef Reece's (Matthew Rhys) sterile, minimalist restaurant. Since Adam's backstory that made him a failure in Paris is still pretty sketchy, it would have been more compelling to see a feature film about that failure rather than the redemption.

John Wells' direction is fine, and he has populated it with a more-than-capable cast. Sienna Miller, as sympathetic single-mom sous chef Helene, holds her ground with her "American Sniper" co-star; Emma Thompson is as warm, sardonic and magical as only Emma Thompson can be as Dr. Rosshilde, a recovery therapist who gives Adam weekly wisdom with his drug tests; Uma Thurman has two scenes as lesbian food critic Simone, who once slept with Adam; and hot rising star Alicia Vikander (2015's "Ex Machina" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.") shows up at the end to be lovely as usual but is given very little else to do as Anne Marie, the daughter of Adam's late mentor who used to date him in Paris. The rest of "Burnt" doesn't even come close to the passion and the heat in the kitchen and tries to be palatable for mainstream consumption, which is just a compromise and detriment to itself. It's in no way a bad film, but no more than middle-of-the-plate or deserving of much of an enthusiastic reaction, much less two Michelin stars. As Adam Jones tells his staff when speaking of his haute cuisine, "If it's not perfect, then you throw it out!" He makes it so easy to say the same about the film.

Grade:

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ghosts of Apple's Past: "Steve Jobs" audacious, sharp, superbly acted, but also exhausting



Steve Jobs (2015) 
122 min., rated R.

Commendably, director Danny Boyle's "Steve Jobs" reminds more of Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" married with Alejandro González Iñárritu's "Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" than any cradle-to-grave biopic. Breaking up the monotony of the conventional rise-and-fall bullet points by encapsulating the Apple co-founder's life and career as a three-act backstage drama, the film is a rigorous whirlwind of movement and rat-a-tat dialogue. In this case, screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (2011's "Moneyball"), adapting Walter Isaacson's biographical book, finds the essence of Steve Jobs by splitting his story structure into three crucial moments, while making Jobs' tempestuous relationship with his daughter the emotional crux of the story after initially seeming to have a hole where its heart should be. The film might not fill in all the blanks and check all the facts as Alex Gibney's recent documentary "Steve Jobs: The Man in the Machine" did, but it is an entirely different beast and works as an audacious companion piece.

Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) was intelligent, meticulous, temperamental, and cursed with a God complex. That much has to be true. Minutes before his first product launch for the Macintosh computer in 1984, he micromanages backstage and tears into computer engineer Andy Hertzfeld (Michael Stuhlbarg) because the voice demo for the Mac won't say, "Hello," thanks to a glitch in the system. He was acrimonious and insubordinate, but always standing by his side is his left and right hand, long-suffering marketing director Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet), even when problems of the personal variety could plague his head space before the launch. Jobs denied the paternity of his 5-year-old daughter, Lisa (Makenzie Moss), in a Time Magazine article, as well as financial support for ex-girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), the mother of his child who's living on welfare. In 1988, after being ousted from Apple, Jobs is about to launch the NeXT Cube but finds time to separately confront his mentor, Apple CEO John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who's frustrated from Jobs failing to give him credit or acknowledge the Apple II team. Finally, in 1988, before presenting the iMac, Jobs discovers the error of his ways from Wozniak and his now-19-year-old daughter (Perla Haney-Jardine). To distill Jobs' character, Wozniak hits the nail on the head with a sharp line: "It's not binary. You can be decent and gifted at the same time."

More of a warts-and-all snapshot than a complete portrait of its human subject, "Steve Jobs" isn't always insightful in giving us a full understanding of Jobs, but that never seems to be its intention. What it is, however, is admirable as a precisely made, theatrically talky, propulsively paced, and superbly acted drama. How accurate any of it is really doesn't matter, as long as the film itself is engagingly applied. The electric direction by Danny Boyle (2013's "Trance") is given a jolt by Aaron Sorkin's densely written screenplay, where (like everything Sorkin pens) every person is always sharp-witted and hyper-verbal with a snappy retort and is able to frantically walk and talk with a ping-pong rhythm. As long as it's consistent, which it is, the style works. Also, the three acts are keenly distinguished by Alwin H. Küchler's cinematography and aesthetically appropriate film stocks for the given computer age (grainy 16mm for 1984, polished 35mm for 1988, and super-clean digital for 1998) and composer Daniel Pemberton's pulsating score varies from synthesizer to symphonic opera to bell tones with the utilization of Apple products.

Melting as one into the role of Steve Jobs, Michael Fassbender is mesmeric as he navigates so many layers of a complicated non-fiction figure. He may even look less like the real Jobs than Ashton Kutcher did in 2013's "Jobs," at least until he suits up in a black turtleneck, but resemblance isn't everything. Rather than just impersonating him, Fassbender captures the essence of Jobs' ego, selfishness, and brilliance. As Joanna Hoffman, Jobs' marketing chief/"workplace wife"/voice of reason, the beyond-reproach Kate Winslet is a powerhouse (though, and it's a minor issue, was her Polish-Armenian accent always there or just subtle?) and sells all of her juicy, often moving confrontations. As Jobs' friend and colleague Steve Wozniak, who still can't deny the genius' unflattering reputation, Seth Rogen is a greatly sympathetic counterpoint. Jeff Daniels is also strong, having the rhythm of Sorkin's dialogue down pat from acting in three seasons of the Sorkin-penned show "The Newsroom" on HBO, here playing former Apple CEO John Sculley. All three actresses playing Jobs' daughter Lisa at ages 5, 9, and 19 are also good at injecting emotion and truth at every moment (Makenzie Moss, Ripley Sobo, and Perla Haney-Jardine, respectively).

When the words crackle with wit and volatility, the pace doesn't relent, and the top-drawer actors get to show that they're more than up to the task in bringing Aaron Sorkin's script out of the theater and on to the screen, "Steve Jobs" exhilarates and exhausts. As very good as it is, the film, however, strikes one contrived note in the end to atone Jobs, who admits he is "poorly made," and his relationship with 19-year-old Lisa (Perla Haney-Jardine), who satisfyingly gives it to her father in verbally Sorkin-y fashion. Where this conversation ends, though, also happens to shoehorn in the germination of the iPod. Before then, "Steve Jobs," like its subject, doesn't care if it's liked or not. Like Sorkin's script for 2010's "The Social Network," he once again captures the arrogance of a smart, successful creator. How ironic, then, that both Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs were (or at least portrayed as) uncivil, socially difficult men who revolutionized human communication. 

Grade: B +

Friday, October 23, 2015

Glam Power: Channel your inner tween girl for mostly irresistible "Jem and the Holograms"

Jem and the Holograms (2015)
118 min., rated PG.

Hasbro's "truly, truly, truly outrageous" 1985-1988 animated series "Jem" (or "Jem and the Holograms") gets translated into a glossy live-action treatment for the millennial YouTube-and-Instagram generation, but it's harder to resist than the sanitized Disney Channel feature it appears to be. The second effort in which horror-centric Blumhouse Productions converged with Hasbro, "Jem and the Holograms" is clearly targeted for a young female audience and achieves what it sets out to do on that front; think of it as counter programming to "Goosebumps." Written by Ryan Landels, the film is mostly a formulaic rise-to-stardom origin story about girls and their guitars, à la 2001's bouncier and more satirically clever "Josie and the Pussycats" (itself a live-action adaptation of Archie Comics' all-girl band who got a shot at stardom with a record deal), but director Jon M. Chu (2013's "G.I. Joe: Retaliation"), who has shown choreography skill with two of the "Step Up" movies and concert documentary "Justin Bieber: Never Say Never," knows well enough to approach the story's themes of individuality and musical expression with a sincere heart. It's the kind of fluff that the slow clap was invented for.

Musically talented wallflower Jerrica Benton (Aubrey Peeples) lives an unexceptional life in Pineview, California. After the death of their inventor father, Jerrica and little sister Kimber (Stefanie Scott) moved in with their Aunt Bailey (Molly Ringwald) and their foster sisters, Aja (Hayley Kiyoko) and Shana (Aurora Perrineau). Their little familial unit is now coming down on hard times when Aunt Bailey informs Jerrica that they might lose the house. When Jerrica isn't being the caretaker of the family, she is usually writing songs in her bedroom, and one of those times where she actually records herself in a pink '80s-style wig, going by alter ego "Jem," strumming the guitar, and singing one of her original songs, Kimber decides to post the video on YouTube behind her sister's back. By morning, the video has gone viral and gained as much Internet popularity as "Twiggy the Waterskiing Squirrel." Record executive Erica Raymond (Juliette Lewis), the CEO of Starlight Music Enterprises, has already contacted Jerrica through email with the hope of signing Jerrica and making her over into the world-loving "Jem." Jerrica negotiates and only accepts after she's able to bring her three sisters along to L.A. The girls love being world-famous and getting set up in a Hollywood Hills mansion, but Jerrica will have to learn with the help of her late father's message inside of his inactive invention, a robot called "S1N3RGY (Synergy)," that she will have to create her own destiny as "Jem."

Framed as a truth-telling video diary from Jerrica herself, "Jem and the Holograms" takes its time to get the viewer warmly acquainted with the charming characters and does make a clear arc for our female protagonist who comes into her own. Their journey from being ordinary to famous certainly comes with its conventions, like a falling-out between the sisterly band when the unscrupulous Erica Raymond has solo plans for Jem, while the "Earth to Echo"-esque sci-fi element involving hologram-projecting robot Synergy comes in a bit late, only to seem a bit wedged-in and incidental. Director Jon M. Chu cleverly employs the device of intercutting YouTube clips of kids dancing and/or performing music, aided by percussive beats, with the story proper. It works well the first time in its use as a drum battle when Jem calls the shots on her deal with Erica through email. Near the 113-minute mark, though, when Jem has already learned that she has to create her own destiny and not fear the unknown, an onslaught of Instagram testimonial videos made by her fans who incessantly praise her becomes a little much, to the point of being gimmicky, repetitive, and precious rather than simply aspirational and empowering. On stage, Jem even shouts, "This is our time!" to her screaming fans, as if she were Ren McCormack from "Footloose" or running for the presidential election. It's the one overly artificial note that nearly takes a hammer to everything the film has already achieved but still can't undermine how much it wins over the audience. 

Big-screen newcomer Aubrey Peeples, resembling a face morphing between Kat Dennings and Kristen Stewart, is naturally winning as Jerrica/Jem, an unassuming role model who can still work a crowd. Stefanie Scott (2015's "Insidious: Chapter 3") is a vivacious eye-catcher as open-book younger sister Kimber, although when the story centers so much on Jerrica wanting to discover the message their father left to her, it's an odd oversight that Kimber wasn't left anything by her father (was Jerrica his favorite?). Hayley Kiyoko and Aurora Perrineau, as foster sisters Aja and Shana, have their sassy moments, particularly the former as an artistically one-of-a-kind juvie attendee, but they are clearly just part of Jem's multiracial entourage. The film has a welcome edge in the form of Juliette Lewis' record producer Erica Raymond. In what is otherwise an archaic movie clichéthe Calculating Music Producer—Lewis gets to dig in her claws and make the stock role a lot more fun to watch than if it were occupied by a lesser actress. Given her distinct delivery and expressions, she makes certain lines snap, like when she encourages Jem and the girls to "squinch" and to "look like you're having fun but don't really have fun" when coming out of a limo for a red-carpet event. Even if he seems a tad too old to be playing Jem's obligatory love interest, Ryan Guzman (2015's "The Boy Next Door") is a charismatic specimen as Erica's intern son Rio. His just-out-of-the-shower moment is bound to get a reaction out of squealing teenage girls. Saddled with a slimly conceived part, former teen queen Molly Ringwald is still a wonderful face from the past to see on the screen again as Aunt Bailey. Also, Nicolas Braun has a funny bit role as Erica's goth parking valet who constantly bugs her to listen to his demo.

From an adult perspective, "Jem and the Holograms" was not made for a 28-year-old man, but tween girls are going to dig it. The writing does not always hold up to close scrutiny. Why is there no mention of Jerrica and Kimber's mother? How is it that a record exec immediately wants to sign Jerrica, based on one hit video, and her sisters before even seeing their talent? The foreclosed-home subplot with Aunt Bailey is also dropped without the proper payoff, but if you want hard reality from your "Jem and the Holograms" movie, you're barking up the wrong tree. When the film works, though, the four young actresses share a natural bond and eventually could pass as a real-life all-girl band, and the songs are toe-tapping and energetically performed, particularly the undeniably catchy "Youngblood" at L.A.'s fictional Open Air Club and their finale of "I'm Still Here." Overall, this live-action teen fantasy has the lasting power of a bubblegum pop single and no reason to be two minutes shy of two hours, but it's wholly likable in a cheesy, girls-with-pink-eye-shadow-and-guitars sort of way and wears as much glam and glitter on its sleeve as it does heart. If you meet it halfway, you may just find your inner 13-year-old girl.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, October 22, 2015

He'll Get You, My Pretties: Dopey "Last Witch Hunter" bogged down by ugly effects and clunky script


The Last Witch Hunter (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.

It is no secret that Vin Diesel has an affinity for horror-action fantasies because, after playing an escaped convict with the ability to see in the dark in three movies ("Pitch Black," "The Chronicles of Riddick" and "Riddick"), he's now ready to play a centuries-old, witch-slaying badass in, what do you know, "The Last Witch Hunter." This $90-million supernatural action-fantasy is goofy, C-grade malarkey, for sure, but it gets one wondering where all those millions went. Though the film is burdened with some of the junkiest and most visually ugly special effects seen in a big-budget theatrical release, the end product is more of a blah mediocrity than Uwe Boll levels of bad. That may be damning with faint praise, but take that as you will.

In a dark period during the 13th century, valiant warrior Kaulder (Vin Diesel) was cursed twofold by the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), who killed most of mankind, including Kaulder's wife and daughter, with the Black Plague. Then, right before he slays the witch, she curses him once more with her own immortality. 800 years later in 21st-century New York (actually Pittsburgh), where witches live among the humans and have made a truce to never use magic on them, Kaulder is the last of his witch-hunting kind. When he's not sleeping with pretty flight attendants and driving his sleek Aston Martin (boy, immortality is cruel), he's in cahoots with a shadowy organization, aligned with a brotherhood of priests, called Axe & Cross. Kaulder's mentor, Dolan the 36th (Michael Caine), is suddenly placed under a death curse from black magic, but a younger successor, Dolan the 37th (Elijah Wood), is branded and assigned to protect Kaulder. Along the way, they meet Chloe (Rose Leslie), a good witch with the gift of "dreamwalking," and with her help, they can get closer to killing the warlocks who are responsible for trying to resurrect the Witch Queen.

Directed by Breck Eisner (who seemed more assured with 2010's "The Crazies") and written by Cory Goodman (2011's "Priest"), Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless (2014's "Dracula Untold"), "The Last Witch Hunter" gets off to such an awful start that it's surprising how generally diverting it can be when it actually tries, even as it's consistently dopey. When we first see Vin Diesel's Kaulder, he's bearded—a sight that fortunately (or unfortunately?) isn't as laughable as Nicolas Cage's blond ringlets in 2011's "Season of the Witch"—and venturing into a cave to kill the Witch Queen. Everything is drably lit, as it would be in a dark cave owned by maggoty-faced witches entwined with vegetated tendrils, but the cinematography is so dreary and the cutting so choppy that most of the action set-pieces become barely comprehensible messes of pixels and fire. If the screen didn't continue to be so flooded with chintzy, unimpressively rendered CGI, like a digital storm of flies, the film might hold more palpable danger and threat, but it seems director Eisner wanted to just up the cheese factor.

Vin Diesel is an intimidating enough presence in any action role he takes on and he throws off a few quippy lines here and there, but as 800-year-old Kaulder, there is no sense of the toll his immortality has taken on him. Sure, he has mournful dreams of his late wife and daughter, but it's difficult to care for this immortal (and indestructible) man who seems pretty comfortable with his new playboy lifestyle. One would be less surprised if Nicolas Cage were cast as a witch hunter, but even Diesel has been more charismatic in his seven "Fast and the Furious" movies than he is here. As weathered priest Dolan 36th, Michael Caine is obviously too much of a class act for this schlocky material. He's merely on hand for exposition duties and giving fatherly advice to Kaulder as if he were replaying Bruce Wayne's butler Alfred in Christopher Nolan's Batman films. Hopefully that paycheck was nice. As Dolan 37th, who was once saved by Kaudler as a kid when his parents were killed by a witch, Elijah Wood mostly looks like a deer in the headlights. After he's introduced and seems like he'll figure more into the proceedings, Wood disappears, only to later be involved in an eye-rolling twist. As Chloe, who just wants to live a regular witch's life running her bar of magical elixirs before it burns down, Rose Leslie (2014's "Honeymoon") is one of the few bright spots, coming off the most committed and carrying herself with more charisma and spark than anyone else. She makes the film more tolerable than it has a right to be. 

Though it's not based on a graphic novel or a cult trading card series, "The Last Witch Hunter" is creatively uninspired fan fiction posing as an original fantasy-adventure property, aside from the stray moments of inspiration (a boy is led to a colorful tree of gummy bears) and amusement in a clunky script ("You look like a terrible band from the '80s," someone comments on a council of good witches). Otherwise, the overcooked plot doesn't so much develop as it jumps from one exposition dump to another, as if a little boy were telling a story with a lot of "and then this happened…," which just becomes tedious after a while. It will probably still please anyone who likes "Dungeons & Dragons" and the like, but overstaying its welcome at 106 minutes, "The Last Witch Hunter" hopefully doesn't lie that this is the last.

Grade: C - 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

O Gore Ye Faithful: "A Christmas Horror Story" looks cheap and falls flat

A Christmas Horror Story (2015)
99 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

Finding horror in the sacred holiday of Jesus Christ's birthday, "A Christmas Horror Story" is a humorously twisted, sometimes determinedly campy Canadian horror anthology that won't be a gift that keeps on giving. It is only a notch above terrible, and that's unfortunate, given the efforts of three directors (Grant Harvey, Steven Hoban, and Brett Sullivan) and five writers (James Kee, Sarah Larsen, Doug Taylor, and Pascal Trottier). A very mixed stocking with four stuffers, this dud vaguely connects its four simultaneously told tales, all set on Christmas Eve in the town of Bailey Downs (the fictional Canadian town from teen-werewolf gem "Ginger Snaps"), and includes a wraparound with a slumming William Shatner as spiritedly booze-swigging deejay "Dangerous Dan" yakking on the radio. Ultimately, "A Christmas Horror Story" belongs on a certain list, and it's not a nice one.

The film begins on the North Pole, where Santa Claus (George Buza) experiences the death of one of his elves before the rest of them become infected with a flesh-eating contagion. There's plenty of frenzied carnage and stabbings with Santa's staff, none of which is as imaginatively wacky as the wild closing twist. The weakest tale involves three teens (Zoé De Grand Maison, Alex Ozerov, Shannon Kook) sneaking into the basement of St. Joseph's Academy where two students were killed one year ago. It has some eerie ideas around some predictably timed jolts, but the story peters out too quickly and happens to be the least overtly Christmassy. The next vignette involves a black-hearted rich family getting dragged to the patriarch's old aunt's home to steal an inheritance, but the cracking of a Krampus ornament later leaves the family stranded on the side of a snow-covered road and running for their lives from the real Krampus. This thread might be the most satisfying in how it all culminates with a wicked punchline, but it deserved its own standalone treatment rather than being part of an uneven omnibus. Lastly, parents (Adrian Holmes, Oluniké Adeliyi) trespass into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree. After their asthmatic son (Orion John) goes missing, they find him in a hollowed-out tree, but it isn't their son. This "changeling" story might have the most legitimately creepy story to tell, but like all of the stories, the crisscrossing structure botches the goods. 

In theory, "A Christmas Horror Story" has all of the makings of a Christmas-loving horror fan's dream movie, but the reality misses the mark in nearly every way. Instead of each story unfolding on its own time, the editorial choice to intercut back and forth between all four stories is a frustratingly mismanaged one, as none of the stories are able to work up much momentum when it's off to the next. The production values are direct-to-video-level cheap and style-free, and the music score is equally low-rent. Both the horror and comedy elements mostly fall flat. This schlock is too hokey within its low-budget limitations to actually hate, but it's also not that well-made to ever scare or divert enough. It's lame, lurching, and exceedingly mediocre when it should have been scary and more fun. The good news is that "A Christmas Horror Story" just makes one even more excited to hold out a couple more months for "Trick 'r Treat" director Michael Dougherty's "Krampus" instead.

Grade: D +

Monday, October 19, 2015

The Monster God: "Goosebumps" not scary but fun, lively Halloween fodder for YA set

Goosebumps (2015)
103 min., rated PG.

In the 1990s, R.L. Stine's "Goosebumps" book series (as well as the GB-7-rated TV series) was aimed at young adults with an interest in anything creepy and fantastical. Now, in a time where horror movies for kids only seem to be animated, like 2012's trifecta of "Hotel Transylvania," "ParaNorman," and "Frankenweenie," director Rob Letterman (2010's "Gulliver's Travels") and screenwriter Darren Lemke (2013's "Turbo") set out to make the kind of live-action movie Joe Dante doesn't make anymore. In lieu of adapting one of Stine's stories, they use his stories as a meta jumping-off point for a premise that reminds of 1984's "Gremlins," 1987's "The Monster Squad," and 1995's "Jumanji." It will be hard not to get a kick out of this big-screen feature, and what it lacks in adult frights is made up for with a sense of playful fun and an enthusiastic cast.

After the death of his father, 16-year-old Zach Cooper (Dylan Minnette) tries making the best of the move from New York City's hustle and bustle to the sleepy Delaware town of Madison with his mother, Gale (Amy Ryan), who has accepted a position as a high school vice principal. He quickly meets the teenage girl next door, Hannah (Odeya Rush), who's homeschooled and overall sheltered by her father, "Mr. Shivers." When Zach suspects a domestic disturbance next door, he will soon discover that "Mr. Shivers" is actually young-adult horror author R.L. Stine (Jack Black) whose bookshelf of manuscripts are all locked. However, when Zach and new friend Champ (Ryan Lee) go snooping into Stine's household to find Hannah, they unlock one, leading to Stine's most malevolent monster, ventriloquist dummy Slappy (voiced by Black), unleashing every monster the author ever created to leap off the pages and terrorize the suburban town. The only chance any of them have to survive is if the bad-tempered R.L. Stine can write a whole new story to capture all of his creations.

There was an opportunity for "Goosebumps" to be a little spookier and take more advantage of R.L. Stine's literary monsters, but the film's monster-mash premise is plenty inspired to overlook what could have been. A ton of monsters (a demented clown, a mummy, a scarecrow, a pumpkinhead, a vampiric poodle, zombie-like ghouls) are actually only glimpsed as figures in a crowd in group shots that aren't even held for that long. The Abominable Snowman of Pasadena, a giant praying mantis, the Werewolf of Fever Swamp, a blob, and lawn gnomes, however, are given their own frantic action sequences, all of them rendered as overtly CG creations, while maniacal ventriloquist dummy Slappy (who has a "serious Napoleon complex") has major involvement in the story. In the instance of our heroes battling the evil lawn gnomes, hordes of them have the nasty intent of trying to drag R.L. Stine into an oven (perhaps a nod to director Letterman's own "Gulliver's Travels," which also starred Black), while another throws a knife at Zach and Champ shoves one of the ceramic nightmares down the garbage disposal. The film could have used more of this nightmarish anarchy.

Dylan Minnette's natural charisma and comic timing were showcased in 2014's "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day," and here, as teen Zach, he handles all of that again with aplomb, as well as the emotions of losing a parent. Odeya Rush (2014's "The Giver"), who resembles Mila Kunis, is touching as Hannah, who has a secret that doesn't allow her to experience a normal teenage life. The choice of casting Jack Black as storyteller R.L. Stine probably came with a lot of trepidation, but he's clearly having a blast and gets the balance right without ever turning Stine into a grating fun sponge. The supporting players are also a fun group, including Ryan Lee, as girl-crazy best friend Champ, whose comic relief is effectively used sparingly; Jillian Bell, her daffy, scene-stealing self as Zach's bedazzling-obsessed, man-chasing Aunt Lorraine; and Timothy Simons, as a police officer, and Amanda Lund, as his gung-ho but ill-informed trainee. As Zach's mother Gale, Amy Ryan shares lovely mother-son moments with Minnette, and while her character is marginalized, she still gets to actualize a character and a few passes at humor.

Some things are best left to childhood memory, but "Goosebumps" is actually pretty entertaining for Kiddo's First Horror Movie without pandering or talking down to its audience. Could it have been scarier? Yes, probably, but it's clear who it was made for, and it will probably give goosebumps to anyone under 8 as a "Cabin in the Woods"-lite romp. There is still plenty that will please those who read the books when they were hot off the press in 1992. A "Steve King" joke is funny, as well as a high school auditorium set of a play for "The Shining." As one would expect, Tim Burton's regular composer Danny Elfman orchestrates an appropriately impish score for the dark-but-not-too-dark material. An old carnival in the woods is atmospheric and it's put to exciting use with a set-piece involving a ferris wheel. The real R.L. Stine gives a cute cameo (listen for his name), and finally, the first set of final credits inventively use the cover art of several of Stine's paperbacks. Amusing and moving at a lively clip, "Goosebumps" is agreeable Halloween fodder for the YA set, and that just might be enough.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Season of Treats: Fun "Tales of Halloween" not without weaknesses but full of macabre goodies

Tales of Halloween (2015)
90 min., rated R.

A new wave of extreme horror anthologies where more filmmakers contribute his or her own short-form yarn has made a welcome recovery in recent years. In the tradition of 2007's "Trick 'r Treat," a consistently fun and crisply atmospheric holiday staple that probably had Warner Bros. kicking itself for not giving a theatrical release, "Tales of Halloween" is yet another horror anthology not merely set on All Hallows' Eve but very much reveling in the iconography of October 31st. Eleven directorsall under a collective moniker, The October Societyhelm ten stand-alone stories in one 90-minute package, so there is diversity but enough of a cohesive vision. Furthermore, it is thankfully more tonally at one with that aforementioned genre treat, as well as its obvious influence of 1982's EC Comics incarnate "Creepshow," than the extremely hit-or-miss duo of 2013's "The ABCs of Death" and 2014's "ABCs of Death 2." By now, it goes without saying that, with an omnibus structure from a smorgasbord of artistic voices, some stories will be stronger than others. "Tales of Halloween" rolls the same way, as some tales are more Halloweeny than other ones, but there is always a sense of macabre fun and danger to put genre buffs in the mood for the season of the witch.

Opening with a main title sequence, rendered in disappointingly shoddy animation, that credits the filmmakers beforehand, the film tries weaving in an omnipresent narrator with Adrienne Barbeau essentially reprising her role as breathy radio disc jockey Stevie Wayne in John Carpenter's "The Fog" (1980). Launching this compendium of ghoulish stories is "Sweet Tooth," in which an urban legend comes to grisly life when a babysitter and her boyfriend end up eating all of her charge's candy. Writer-director-editor Dave Parker ("The Hills Run Red") spins a humdinger of a story-within-a-story, perfect for around the campfire, and it sets the tone for the entire film with a devilishly wicked cautionary tale that should put the kiddies on a candy strike. Next up is director Darren Lynn Bousman's (he of three of the "Saw" sequels) "The Night Billy Raised Hell," in which a neighborhood recluse (Barry Boswick), the devil himself, spreads plenty of mischief and uses innocent trick-or-treater Billy (Marcus Eckert) to do the evil deeds. This one is subjectively familiar of 2004 feature "Satan's Little Helper," but Barry Boswick's full-tilt-boogie turn is darkly amusing, and Bousman caps it all off with a mean resolution.

The third segment, "Trick," follows two couples at home who are terrorized and dispatched by a group of malevolent trick-or-treaters. Directed by Adam Gierasch (2010's "Night of the Demons" remake), it is well-shot, suspenseful, and features one cleverly sick little twist that changes perspective. As for director Paul Solet's ("Grace," "Dark Summer") contribution, "The Weak and the Wicked" stands out from the rest for being a strange revenge-fueled western between a trio of murderous hoodrats (Grace Phipps, Noah Segan, Booboo Stewart) and a wannabe vigilante (Keir Gilchrist) in a Viking costume. Given the title, it's also the weakest. "Grim Grinning Ghost," written and directed by Axelle Carolyn (who spearheaded the whole project), is a great rebound from there. After leaving a Halloween party hosted by her mother (Lynn Shaye), a young woman (Alex Essoe) experiences car trouble and then suspects her walk back home comes with being stalked by a ghostly woman. Ominous and tense, this particular tale is the creepiest of the bunch and ends with a perfectly timed jolt. Director Lucky McKee's ("May," "The Woman") "Ding Dong" makes a creepy allusion to "Hansel and Gretel" as a woman (Pollyanna McIntosh) grieves over the loss of her child every Halloween, so much that her emasculated husband (Marc Senter) can't handle it when she turns into an actual witch. McIntosh gives an inspiredly nutso performance, enhanced by some seriously freaky effects. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade:

Thursday, October 15, 2015

House of Secrets: "Crimson Peak" grandly mounted old-school horror

Crimson Peak (2015) 
119 min., rated R.

A grinningly spooky, grandly mounted gothic horror-romance, "Crimson Peak" is director Guillermo del Toro's (2013's "Pacific Rim") fondly realized throwback to Edgar Allan Poe's literary works, "Jane Eyre," Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca" (1940), the Hammer Horror films of the 1950s and '60s, Jack Clayton's "The Innocents" (1961), and Robert Wise's "The Haunting" (1963). Appreciably R-rated but more sophisticated than gory, the film is gloriously overripe by design and, unsurprisingly, such an impeccably crafted feast for the eyes that it makes one wish they regularly made horror movies like they used to in this old-school vein. Del Toro takes the creaky old bones of a lurid macabre tale set in a haunted house and makes them strong again where, as clichéd as it sounds, the house is certainly a character unto itself.

"Ghosts are real. This much I know," begins Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), who lost her mother at 10 years old and thereafter saw her mother's ghost who warned Edith, "Beware of Crimson Peak." Such impending danger would not become clear until fourteen years later in Buffalo, New York. Being a young woman in the late-19th century, Edith aspires to be a writer and have her manuscript published, but it is dismissed as a mere ghost story. Not long after the aristocratic Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston), a baronet from England, with his cold sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) arrives into town, looking for an investment in his clay mining machine, Edith's beloved father (Jim Beavers) meets a gruesome demise that affectionate Dr. Alan McMichael (Charlie Hunnam) has his suspicions about. Being the last of her family, Edith becomes Thomas' wife and moves her to Allerdale Hall, a sizable and ornate but damp and decayed estate in Cumberland country that the siblings have been left by their parents. There, the newlyweds, along with Lucille who carries a chain of every key to every door in the home and serves her new sister-in-law a cup of bitter tea each day, nestle in. Sooner or later, Edith will realize the severity of her ghostly mother's warning.

"Crimson Peak," a title which refers to the red clay oozing from the bowels of the property and turning the snow red, begins with a creepy prologue and delivers the kind of screechy, unrestrained scares one will be expecting. Then, writer-director Guillermo del Toro and co-writer Matthew Robbins (1997's "Mimic") take their time with the story, tipping their hand early that Thomas and Lucille are up to no good but keeping their sinister intentions shrouded in enough mystery. As Edith says early on about her manuscript, itself not a ghost story but a story with ghosts in it, the film sees that difference through. The ghosts here are both metaphors for the tragic past and literal when they're haunting and warning Edith, but by then, it's too late. The design of the moaning, crimson-red skeletal apparitions are, as only del Toro can achieve, grotesque yet arrestingly beautiful, even with the apparent use of CGI (one of them is actually played by Doug Jones, who's always called upon to go under heavy make-up and prosthetics to bring otherworldly creatures to life).

The exquisitely cast actors make the most of a classical soap opera, led by Mia Wasikowska as Edith, a protofeminist heroine who's independent-minded, strong-willed and sharp enough to eventually pick up on the bread crumbs. Tom Hiddleston could easily be pigeonholed as Marvel's intoxicatingly evil villain Loki, but here, as Thomas Sharpe, he transcends one's expectations of the character with a little sympathy, as he might actually love Edith. Charlie Hunnam's (who previously worked with the director on "Pacific Rim") purpose as fourth wheel Dr. Alan McMichael is obvious, but he plays the part well with a low-key nobility. Above everyone else, though, Jessica Chastain is deliciously in rare form, not only from now starring in her second horror film (the first being 2013's Guillermo del Toro-produced "Mama") but getting the chance to sink her teeth into a spitefully juicy Lady Macbeth-ish part without driving it into camp. As Lucille Sharpe, pitiful malice incarnate, she finds unnerving menace and subtle humor in the way she just scrapes a spoon against a china bowl when feeding Edith or feeds a butterfly to an army of ravenous ants.

Thomas E. Sanders' lush production design, Brandt Gordon's equaled art direction, Kate Hawley's sumptuous costumes, and Dan Laustsen's fluid, atmospheric cinematography steal the show out from underneath the film's stars. Allerdale Hall, or Crimson Peak as its real name, is an opulent sight to behold in every detail, from leaves and snow falling through the unfixed roof of the foyer to blood-red clay oozing out from the loose floorboards to the old Victorian bathtubs that may or may not have been a murder scene. The story is about as old as any horror movie when characters would walk through dark corridors in puffy-shouldered nightgowns with a candelabra in hand. As Edith discovers an avalanche of deadly secrets that pull open the curtain to what the Sharpes are up to, the viewer is already a few steps ahead, but Guillermo del Toro's patient reveals help with suspense without frustrating too much. Before Edith even gets to Crimson Peak, there is a sly moment of misdirection with a razor on a bathroom sink, but the climactic moments set at the Sharpes' homestead are really sensational, del Toro staging a wickedly violent and wonderfully overwrought Grand Guignol strewn with plenty of crimson. In a film such as "Crimson Peak," it is easy to gush about the stylish, grandiose production values more so than the emotional content, which is slight by comparison. Still, this is a visually mouth-watering retro homage that doesn't feel hollow and feels exactly like the kind of film del Toro has been dying to make.

Grade:

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

DVD/Blu-ray: "Dope" fresh, likable and stereotype-free coming-of-ager

Dope (2015)
103 min., rated R.

Debuting at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, "Dope" received several offers from production companies and studios before being sold to distributor Open Road Films. Everyone must have seen something special and seen it as the fresh, joyful, vibrant little indie that it is. You can't help but root for this summer coming-of-ager, which also counts as an upward slope for writer-director Rick Famuyiwa, who took a hiatus for good reason after his 2010 flop, the hysterically lame "Our Family Wedding." Positioned next to fellow summer coming-of-ager and Sundance indie darling "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," this is the one that actually deserves attention. It's certainly rough around the edges, but for a '90s-esque teen comedy set in a violent urban neighborhood, making digs at cultural appropriation, and getting the ball rolling with a drug deal, it deftly walks a tightrope most of the time. In a way, "Dope" reminds one of "Risky Business" but has its own distinct voice to slightly subvert the formula.

Obsessed with 1990s hip-hop culture and sporting a Kid 'N' Play high-top fade, Malcom (Shameik Moore) is a geeky straight-A student who's applied to Harvard but for now lives in an Inglewood, Calif., neighborhood called "The Bottoms" with his bus-driving single mother (an underused Kimberly Elise). He's in a punk band called "Awreeoh" (sounds like "Oreo") with his two best friends, 14% black Jib (Tony Revolori) and lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), who can't get through high school without getting bullied. When they're surprised to get into a drug dealer Dom's (rapper A$ap Rocky) birthday bash after being invited by Malcolm's crush, college-bound Nakia (Zoë Kravitz), a shoot-out ends the party. The next morning after escaping, Malcom discovers $100K worth of Molly and a gun have been stashed in his bookbag, but he's already being pursued by another dealer.

For 103 minutes, "Dope" keeps up its breakneck pace and never wastes a scene or character. It benefits greatly from energetic direction, with rewinds and a voice-over narration by Forest Whitaker, and likable performances. 20-year-old Shameik Moore is a revelation as Malcolm, instantly charismatic and earnest yet confident. In a madcap comedy, it helps to have characters grounded in reality, and Malcolm is a bright protagonist. In a funny, unexpected misadventure Malcolm finds himself in, drop-dead gorgeous model Chanel Iman has no problem getting naked and looking ridiculous for a viral YouTube meme as a drugged-up sexpot. It would be easy for everyone to be a stereotype, but writer-director Rick Famuyiwa takes care of that, too. As the college essay framework has seemingly become the new staple for coming-of-agers, what with "The Spectacular Now" and "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," it sets up the film's resonant themes about race and class. The change in tone is jarring at first and a bit preachy, but it's also clever and moving. Finally, the soundtrack is simply infectious, including early-'90s hits like Naughty By Nature's "Hip Hop Hooray," Black Sheep's 'The Choice Is Yours," and the three leads' fictional band Awreeoh's songs (written by Pharrell Williams). A refreshing summer break from robots and superheroes, sequels and reboots, "Dope" is, indeed, dope — and the good kind.

Grade:

Don't Let Them In: Roth's perverse, gore-free "Knock Knock" tortures Keanu Reeves

Knock Knock (2015)
99 min., rated R.

Making his name on gut-bucket splatter ("Cabin Fever," "Hostel") that many naysayers still label as "torture porn" and taking time off after 2007's "Hostel: Part II," director Eli Roth now has two movies released in the same month. Besides the delayed, disappointing cannibal gore-show "The Green Inferno," Roth shows a slight growth with his fifth feature, "Knock Knock," a homage to 1977's obscure male-entrapment sleazefest "Death Game" that actually features no gore and very little blood. It's still torturous, but in a different way with infidelity leading to the punishment of psychological taunting. A film like this doesn't require subtlety to be successful, and Roth knows perfectly well that more trash is for the better. A seemingly standard and tawdry home-invasion psychosexual-thriller, "Knock Knock" takes more chances than not by taking itself seriously and acting like a dark farce all at once.

Happily married 43-year-old deejay-turned-architect Evan Webber (Keanu Reeves) stays back at his modern Hollywood Hills home to get some work done on a project as his artist wife (Ignacia Allamand) takes the kids to the beach over a long Father's Day weekend. During a rainstorm his first night of baching it, he gets a knock at his door by two dolled-up, soaking-wet young women, Genesis (Lorenzo Izzo) and Bel (Ana de Armas), who were dropped off at the wrong address for a party, and invites them in to get warm. Evan calls them an Uber, but for a 45-minute wait, it doesn't take long before the two tarts ask to put their clothes in the dryer and become very open about sex. Next thing Evan knows, they come on to him and prod him into having a threesome. In the morning, Genesis and Bel surprise Evan with breakfast but also a messy kitchen and very childish behavior. Evan has regrets and eventually gets forceful, asking them to leave. They refuse by vandalizing his wife's sculptures and threatening him with statutory rape charges. Once Evan drops Genesis and Bel off somewhere, that won't be the last time he sees them. His life is just beginning to get torn apart.

A change of pace for Eli Roth, "Knock Knock" is a perverse, slightly satirical cheap-thrills entertainment that goes off its rocker into taboo territory and turns female empowerment into a deadly weapon. Roth is an expert of escalation and applies his quirky sense of humor better here than he did in "The Green Inferno." The way Genesis and Bel pretend to be a game-show host and "Vanna White," respectively, and try to deafen former deejay Evan with his vinyl collection if he answers a question incorrectly is mined well for tension and discomfort. With only a passing resemblance to Roth's own "Hostel" (a male fantasy becomes a torturous nightmare) and Michael Haneke's "Funny Games" (even the two female predators change into white robes instead of white tennis apparel), the film is a fairly one-note cautionary tale without much of a clear take. From a screenplay Roth co-wrote with Nicolás López (2013's "Aftershock") and Guillermo Amoedo (2015's "The Green Inferno"), it seems as if they are saying this: when a family man does a nice thing by taking two vulnerable, attractive young women out of the rain and into his home and then takes a shower with them for a little ménage à trois, he deserves to be punished. 

Keanu Reeves must be a masochist and completely aware of his reputation for not being the most skilled thespian  in the world because he's quite a good sport in playing the terrorized, emotionally exhausted Evan. When he's eventually tied up and gets to be ungagged, Reeves lets out such a histrionic expletive-laden tirade that equates the women to "free pizza" and then comes close to the campy levels of Nicolas Cage's multiple bee stings in "The Wicker Man" ("My ears! My ears!" replaces "Not the bees! My eyes! My eyes!"). Compared to last year's "John Wick," where Reeves played a hitman of few words, he's more effective with less dialogue. As femme fatales Genesis and Bel, Lorenzo Izzo (Eli Roth's real-life wife/ongoing lead) and Ana de Armas do grab one's attention, flipping the switch from seemingly innocent sex kittens to crazy and unpredictable life-ruiners as Genesis and Bel (if those are even their real names). "You don't look that dangerous," Evan foolishly says when he first lets them in, but what they're capable of becomes clear. They're juvenile yet hyper-sexual creatures with motives that also become progressively clearer yet not too clear-cut in a conclusion that makes death a desirable option for poor Evan, or else he has a lot of explaining to do to his wife.

Save for a few secondary characters—Colleen Camp, who essentially played the same role as the "free pizza" with Sondra Locke (both of them getting producing credit here), has a bit role as a nosy massage therapist"Knock Knock" is a three-character chamber piece that's unafraid to get mean or go for broke. Roth stages the action well within one location (Santiago, Chile believably subs for Los Angeles) and cinematographer Antonio Quercia's classy lensing belies the trashy material in a good way. Sharply beginning with the camera gliding through the art-decorated hallways of Evan's family home and ending with The Pixes' "Where Is My Mind?" with the art-decorated hallways crudely defaced, "Knock Knock" is a sick joke that thinks it has more of a point to make than it really does, but there is a gleefully sick sense of fun that most erotic thrillers lack these days.

Grade: B -