Friday, April 29, 2016

Dude, Where's My Kitten?: "Keanu" a solidly funny start for Key & Peele

Keanu (2016)
98 min., rated R.

Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, the creators and faces of the Comedy Central sketch series “Key & Peele,” take their bread-and-butter comedic skills to their first feature film “Keanu” with mostly successful results. Director Peter Atencio and screenwriters Peele & Alex Rubens have enough experience honing this team’s brand of comedy on the small screen that the film’s rompish nature helps smooth over the stretch marks and occasionally slack pacing. If it doesn’t blaze on all cylinders as a consistently hilarious cult comedy, there are more highs than lows to convert those less familiar into fans and pave the way for an even better follow-up vehicle. Profane and ridiculous as hell but smarter than most mainstream comedies, “Keanu” is an action-comedy that you don’t see every day with one adorable kitten as its mascot. 

Dumped by his girlfriend, Rell (Jordan Peele) is down in the dumps, laying about on the couch and getting high, until he finds a stray kitten at his L.A. door. He names the little bundle of fur Keanu and they instantly bond to the point that Rell stages and photographs little movie dioramas for a calendar. Two weeks later, Rell comes home to find his place ransacked and Keanu gone. With the help of straight-laced family-man cousin Clarence (Keegan-Michael Key), whose wife (Nia Long) and daughter are out of town on a camping trip, they must pose as street-tough gangsters and get mistaken for the shadowy, notoriously sadistic Allentown brothers. All they want is Keanu back, but they find themselves way in over their heads with drug dealer Cheddar (Method Man), his gang The Blips, and the actual Allentown brothers.

Brazenly loopy and sometimes inspired—even when its basic ordinary-friends-have-one-crazy-night concept reminds one superficially of “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” and “Pineapple Express”—“Keanu” can be sensed as the type of comedy that will trigger even more laughter out of the viewer with an audience who’s already in-tune with Key & Peele’s brand of racially subversive humor. Being acquainted with the headliners’ sketch-sized comedy work will certainly help but luckily isn’t a prerequisite, as Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele have distinct delivery and both have an easy, engaging rapport. The so-stinkin’-cute Keanu is pretty much a MacGuffin to the plot, but he nearly steals the human actors’ thunder whenever he runs into frame and meows. (The cat wrangler deserves props.) Within the supporting cast, Tiffany Haddish is also a charismatic standout as Hi-C, one-fourth of Cheddar’s Blips.

In the hands of Key and Peele, “Keanu” plays with and challenges racial stereotypes in ways that are more clever and less lazy than anything the 2015 Will Ferrell-Kevin Hart comedy “Get Hard” tried to do. Their performances of convincing Cheddar and his gang with their hard, “n-word”-spouting personas, “Tectonic” and “Shark Tank,” is never not amusing and sometimes uproarious. Even as this fish-out-of-water scenario is played for laughs, there is still an element of real danger within the drug-dealing milieu; if this wasn't a comedy, Rell and Clarence would probably meet their maker by the end. In a bizarre, unpredictable sequence where Rell and Hi-C have a drop-off in a Hollywood Hills home and wait to collect, Anna Faris brings down the house as an aggressively coked-up, Samurai sword-swinging version of herself. 

Like a lot of comedies today, “Keanu” probably could have undergone a trim to do away with the few times the energy stalls and the slim narrative tries to overextend itself. However, when it’s funny, it’s very funny. A running joke involving Clarence’s love for George Michael actually gets funnier as it’s repeated. As Clarence/“Shark Tank” listens to his playlist of George Michael on a stakeout in his minivan with Cheddar’s thugs, Bud (Jason Mitchell), Trunk (Darrell Britt-Gibson) and Stitches (Jamar Malachi Neighbors), and convinces them that the ‘80s English pop singer is actually cool, this film makes the most memorable use of “Faith” even after 2002’s “The Rules of Attraction.” There's also a darkly riotous sight gag involving Rell’s cornrowed, racially confused neighbor/dope dealer (Will Forte) and a python. As competently as one can, director Peter Atencio straddles the line between drugs, a little torture-chamber sadism, and a baby feline. The action is also slickly staged and violently over-the-top, knowingly aping “The Boondock Saints” in the film’s opening church-set massacre and “Bad Boys II” in the courtyard of a rival drug dealer’s mansion. And even when bullets are flying, bags of cocaine are exploding and a lot of time is spent in a seedy strip club, there’s still an underlying sweetness that proves infectious for Key & Peele's fans and cat lovers alike.

Grade: B - 

Holiday Horrors: Marshall botches another holiday with lame, mawkish “Mother’s Day”

Mother’s Day (2016) 
118 min., rated PG-13.

“Mother’s Day” will be the third time director Garry Marshall has pulled together an attractive ensemble to fit into multiple stories for one big ode to another Hallmark holiday. The last two star-packed extravaganzas, 2010’s “Valentine’s Day” and 2011’s “New Year’s Eve,” weren’t much more than frothy, manufactured comfort food that one might catch on cable around their respective holidays without investing too much of their attention. Marshall has learned from the mistakes he made twice before by whittling the number of stories down to four, but with one screenwriter turning into four—Tom Hines, Lily Hollander, Anya Kochoff (2005’s “Monster-in-Law”) and Matthew Walker—“Mother’s Day” still repeats the same problems and then adds a whole new set that it's hard to know where to begin. It’s obvious, mawkish and vanilla, and then sometimes it’s even insultingly lame and inept.

Hopscotching all around Atlanta during the week before the second Sunday in May to check in with mothers (and in one case, a single father), “Mother’s Day” starts with Sandy (Jennifer Aniston), a divorced interior designer who has an amiable relationship with her ex-husband (Timothy Olyphant) with whom she has two sons. That all changes when he unloads the news that he eloped with a sexy, younger, Twitter-savvy woman (Shay Mitchell), resulting in a lonely and insecure Sandy. Sandy’s friend is Jesse (Kate Hudson), who lives next door to sister Gabi (Sarah Chalke). They’re both so estranged from their backwards Texas parents (Margo Martindale, Robert Pine) that they’ve lied about their personal lives; Jesse is married to Indian-American doctor Russell (Aasif Mandvi) and they have two sons, and Gabi is married to a woman named Max (Cameron Esposito) and they have a son. Guess who makes a surprise visit?

Meanwhile, Bradley (Jason Sudeikis) is a widowed gym owner with two daughters. It’s his first year without his late Marine wife (Jennifer Garner), and the ladies at his gym try getting him back out there in the dating field. Could he run into a fellow single parent of the opposite sex, like Sandy, at the grocery store? While we’re at it, Kristin (Britt Robertson) and Zack (Jack Whitehall) are a young unmarried couple with a baby girl. She has cold feet about marriage, while the British bloke moonlights as a bartender and stand-up comic, and it might have something to do with being adopted and wanting to find her biological mother. Throughout all of this, on every TV that plays the Home Shopping Network, career-driven host Miranda Collins (Julia Roberts) smiles on and promotes her Mother’s Day mood pendants. Where does she fit in? Is she an alien hellbent on taking all the mothers to her mother ship?

Bland and creatively bankrupt (that is, unless you count Julia Roberts re-wearing the same wig she wore in that fake astronaut movie in “Notting Hill” as a sort-of wink-nudge joke), “Mother’s Day” is about as authentic as a silk flower arrangement. Director Garry Marshall, bless his heart, seems so out of touch from anything remotely human or current with a hacky, hammy directorial style. Too often, Marshall aims for allegedly crowd-pleasing laughs in ways that just come off pandering and/or wrong-headed. The situational comedy with Jesse and Gabi’s racist, homophobic parents is already annoyingly broad, and the fact that these caricatures’ reliance on hitting one note of bigotry is actually being played for laughs just makes everyone involved look tone-deaf. Who actually thought it would be hilarious for an Indian-American to be called a “towel head” by his mother-in-law in a movie supposedly celebrating mothers? That same mother-in-law's grandson is named Tanner, so she can rip on the color of his skin, too. And a little person turning out to be the manager of Shorty’s Saloon? Let us not even speak of the dopey police-chase slapstick involving a runaway RV and a Mother’s Day parade float shaped like a uterus. Most of the attempts at poignancy clang as well, including the false moment where stand-up comic Zack wins the crowd over for taking his adorable baby daughter up on stage, not for his sub-par jokes. One thing “Mother’s Day” at least improves upon from “Valentine’s Day” and “New Year’s Eve” is that these characters do talk about other things besides the upcoming titular holiday. To counterbalance that, the script is noticeably stuffed with plenty of insipid dialogue to go around instead. For instance, “I have abandonment issues,” Kristin states before whining about being adopted. Or, when Bradley's eldest daughter comes into the room as he watches a video of his late wife singing karaoke and comments, "Mom loved karaoke." Groan.

The star-powered cast tries, even when the material isn’t helping them. As Sandy, Jennifer Aniston fares the best out of anyone in that she actually gets to be charming, funny and honest. Whether she’s running late to a job interview and ripping her blouse, having a rant in her car in the grocery store parking lot, or telling her ex that his new hot wife “can have [her sons] for Flag Day,” Aniston deserves the credit, not the script. Growing into an endearing comic presence, Jason Sudeikis is very likable as Bradley, and he and Aniston who last co-starred together in 2013’s “We’re the Millers” share a nice enough chemistry together that someone ought to write them their own smart romantic comedy. It’s too bad the writing still lets Sudeikis down, forcing him into a dumb, forced gag involving getting his teenage daughter tampons at the grocery store and then having to rap Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance” before having a great fall over a wall (get it?). Kate Hudson is a winning presence even though her film choices have been questionable, but even here, her screen time is wasted on nonsensical character lies, offensive racial humor and unfunny wackiness. Sarah Chalke is also a welcome sight, making one want to see her in movies more often and ones that are much better than this. Britt Robertson and Jack Whitehall are appealing as the film's token young mother and father, but not only does their story feel the most wedged-in, their history as a couple is underwritten and, thus, low-stakes. Behind that famous mega-watt smile and one unfortunate strawberry-blonde bob wig, Julia Roberts must be doing her director another favor to thank him for her beginning success in “Pretty Woman,” but once her character thaws out, she has a nice moment or two.

There are no two ways about it: “Mother’s Day” is not a good movie, but there is a constant tug-of-war between it being an innocuous time-filler and a wacky sitcom hell, and the latter wins out. Doing nobody any favors, this also has to be one of the most amateurishly edited theatrical releases seen in quite some time, erratically cutting to one of the other storylines without telling us anything new and then not letting a scene play out long enough. Not to mention, there is an absurd amount of clumsy line dubbing when actors’ backs are turned to the camera; wasted frames with pointless, baffling cutaways; and the worst kind of mugging from extras who are ill-advisedly given too many reaction shots and gratuitous lines. Apparently, a bunch of movie stars weren't enough, so Garry Marshall let his friends and family each get their own frame. Like the frustrating struggle of finding a Hallmark card that isn't cloying in its heartfelt words or clunky in its effort to be funny, "Mother's Day" doesn't even deserve to be seen by the special ladies who brought us all into this world. 

Grade: D +

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Punks vs. Nazis: Tightly cranked "Green Room" ratchets up lip-biting tension

Green Room (2016)
94 min., rated R.

Unless it’s obscure, “Green Room” is the first siege thriller that pits a punk band against a clan of white-power neo-Nazi skinheads. It’s that specificity in the premise and of both cultural subsets, as well as a nearly suffocating level of tension, that writer-director Jeremy Saulnier gets so right. In 2014’s “Blue Ruin,” Saulnier’s breakout sophomore effort, the filmmaker proved himself one to watch as an artisan in lean, mean visual storytelling about the cycle of violence and the primal human need to survive. “Green Room” is more of a straight-up genre picture, but even if that’s the case, it is cool, efficient, ultra-violent genre filmmaking.

About to end their tour through the Pacific Northwest, Arlington punk rock band The Ain’t Rights—anti-social media bass player Pat (Anton Yelchin), guitarist Sam (Alia Shawkat), lead vocalist Tiger (Callum Turner) and drummer Reece (Joe Cole)—need a solid gig. They’re so desperate for cash that they even have to siphon gas for their van from vehicles in parking lots. When they are interviewed by a Mohawked radio host, he sets them up with a gig right outside of Portland but warns them that the sketchy backwoods venue will be full of skinheads and advises them to avoid politics. Their set goes rather well and the pay is $350, but right before the band clears out, one of them witnesses a brutal murder that they weren’t supposed to see in the green room. The white-supremacist club bouncers have to clean up the situation quickly before calling in bar owner and leader Darcy (Patrick Stewart), but the band, along with the murder victim’s friend Amber (Imogen Poots), successfully hole themselves up in the green room and will have to outsmart their assailants on the other side of the door if they want to get out alive. There’s safety in numbers, right?

Unsparingly grim and lip-bitingly tense, “Green Room” rattles along on forthright escalation rather than corkscrew twists. It is a slow-burn thriller that still feels tightly cranked and smartly enthralling, simmering to its boiling point and then ratcheting up the intensity with attack dogs and box cutters. Writer-director Jeremy Saulnier lulls the viewer into the desperate, glamorous on-the-road lifestyle of The Ain’t Rights before any of the startling carnage. Things might not get much deeper here than a face-off between a punk band and neo-Nazis, although the assumed ideas of both of these groups are at least challenged a bit with more humanity than the norm of most exploitation pics. For instance, The Ain’t Rights play a game of choosing their “desert island” bands with their choices nicely ironic (i.e. Simon & Garfunkel, Britney Spears, Prince, etc.). On the villainous side: “We’re not keeping you. You’re just staying,” Nazi henchman Gabe (Macon Blair) says with a sinister calm, but then there’s a telling, all-too-human vulnerability. 

The punk-band characters aren’t given fleshed-out backgrounds, but their camaraderie with one another feels genuinely drawn and not acted. They have too much personality to just be fodder for the Nazis’ machetes and who they are is informed through their actions and decisions. Instantly, the viewer can rally behind them as soon as their lives are put in danger. Some of them may become victims, but they were simply at the wrong place at the wrong time. The cast is adept, with the familiar faces—Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat and Imogen Poots—being the standouts. To single out the kick-ass, mullet-haired Poots, the actress is especially watchable with a clipped, dryly amusing delivery as wild-card stranger Amber. Game to get down and dirty as cold-blooded yet pragmatic skinhead leader Darcy Banker, Patrick Stewart is chilling and threatening without having to even raise his voice, which is formidable enough at an inside-voice level. “Blue Ruin” lead Macon Blair is anything but one-note as club bouncer Gabe who tries to call all the shots and do everything efficiently but knows he’s in over his head.

A merciless maelstrom set within grungy, cramped quarters for much of its 94 minutes, “Green Room” mounts and mounts with grabby urgency and anything-can-happen danger. A battle of wits and survival begins as Darcy uses his power of persuasion from the other side of the door and asks the band to hand over the gun they've retrieved, forcing The Ain't Rights to become resourceful in other ways as they plan their escape out of that one door. When the kill-or-be-killed spree takes off in the second half, the violence is very savage and matter-of-fact without coming across gratuitous for the hell of it. It's also underscored by cinematographer Sean Porter having an eye for making nerve-shredding chaos look controlled. A couple of the characters’ deaths happen off-screen or in the darkness, but there are enough understated down moments between the remaining bandmates before their demises that allow the loss of those lives to be felt with a proper impact. Overall, “Green Room” still seems a tad slight without the same kind of contemplative depth or cathartic resonance as Saulnier’s “Blue Ruin." Then again, is it a pulpy, ruthlessly paced, nastily fun midnight movie? Yes, yes, it is.


Friday, April 22, 2016

Buy, Don’t Rent: Skeevy “13 Cameras” worms under your skin

13 Cameras (2016)
87 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“13 Cameras,” Victor Zarcoff’s feature writing-directing debut, is a compellingly unpleasant voyeur chiller that might also act as a paranoid cautionary tale against renting a home. The film opens with a double statement: “More than 30 million surveillance cameras have been sold in the last decade. Last year, over 8,000 people were watched in their homes without their knowledge.” The validity of those statistics may not be clear, but they certainly work in favor of setting a queasy tone. The elemental moral of the story? Buy your home; do not rent.

Relocating from New York to California, newlyweds Claire (Brianne Moncrief) and husband Ryan (PJ McCabe) rent a house that’s perfect for them. Their landlord, Gerald (Neville Archambault), is a little gruff in appearance and smells of feces, but otherwise, Ryan thinks he’s pretty harmless. Unfortunately, the couple is oblivious to what Gerald is doing under their noses, watching their every move with installed surveillance cameras all over the house, including the shower. Claire is pregnant, while Ryan is already having an affair with his assistant, Hannah (Sarah Baldwin), and that bit of information is seen by Gerald. What is Gerald capable of beyond spying with his little eye?

Sweaty, disconcerting but also technically assured, “13 Cameras” delivers the desired impact of feeling like someone is breathing heavily down your neck. Worse, when one of the characters comments that Gerald smells like “spoiled mayonnaise” or a “dirty diaper,” the viewer can smell him, too. As a compliment, sinewy character actor Neville Archambault has a face one does not want to see at night, and his perverted, smarmy Gerald can be added to the list of scary movie villains. There’s no explainable method to Gerald’s madness; his hobbies just happen to be of the unsavory, psychopathic variety. Aligning ourselves with the young tenants can be a little tricky, as Ryan is dishonest and selfish, while Claire is the one honest character to earn our sympathy. As these flawed characters—Claire has her whiny moments—PJ McCabe and Brianne Moncrief are natural and sympathetic enough.

“13 Cameras” breaks little ground, but as an exercise in how to put an audience into a vise-like grip and give them the creeps with the stench of grime palpable, it has done its job. Writer-director Victor Zarcoff takes his time, as it won't be until the final ten minutes or so that Claire and Ryan notice the cameras, but lays the cards out immediately. Gerald is oppressively creepy as soon as he walks on screen and doesn't have any charisma or personality to be a more fascinating character. Still, Zarcoff's handling of violence is never more gratuitous than it needs to be, as he never gets off on it but rather keeps much of it off-screen or utilizes the power of suggestion. It’s almost guaranteed that you will need a shower once it’s over.

Grade: B - 

Let Snow White Go: Visuals and scenery-chewing aside, "Huntsman" a needless prequel/sequel

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)
123 min., rated PG-13.

Everyone gets an origin story, even the huntsman who keeps owning half of the title of these “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” retellings. A prequel-cum-sequel to 2012’s solid, visually arresting “Snow White and the Huntsman,” “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” has the same look as that medieval fairy tale and maybe a little more lightness but doesn’t always seem to know what to do with itself, story-wise. Refreshingly, the women are almost always the ones in charge here, even if the film names itself after its least interesting character. In sum, the film has no veritable reason to exist, however, the production design is very, very pretty and a couple of the performances are camptastic enough to entertain. 

Long before there was a Snow White, there were royal sisters Ravenna (Charlize Theron) and Freya (Emily Blunt). When Freya loses her child to her suddenly murderous husband, she unleashes her once-dormant ice powers. Consumed by grief and anger, Freya builds her own palace out of ice and trains an army of children to fight her wars. Two of her most skilled soldiers, Eric (Chris Hemsworth) and Sara (Jessica Chastain), have now grown. Though Freya forbids anyone to love in her kingdom, Eric and Sara succumb to their passion for one another. Taking it as betrayal, Freya separates the lovers with frosty dark magic and thwarts their plan to run away together. Seven years later after Queen Ravenna is killed, Eric is called upon by Snow White, now the ruler of the kingdom, to find the missing Magic Mirror that keeps the thought-dead Ravenna impossible to defeat.

Written by Evan Spiliotopoulos (2014’s “Hercules”) and Craig Mazin (2013’s “The Hangover Part III”), “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” is, once again, a little “The Lord of the Rings” with its goblins, dwarves and evil objects and, this time, a little “Frozen,” minus the songs and an adorable snowman. Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, the first film’s Oscar-nominated visual effects supervisor, makes his directorial debut and makes sure the visuals dazzle at least because the script is overstretched with Liam Neeson spelling everything out as Mr. Narrator. Too often, the film even fakes out the viewer with the deaths of characters and then reneges on his or her fate. Following Eric’s journey to find the Magic Mirror, all that’s truly left is a diverting showdown between the huntsmen and the royal sisters. There's also the clumsy attempt to work around Snow White not making an appearance. It’s just odd when she’s the subject of conversation but only seen once from the back—an obvious body double—in front of a mirror. The excuse for her absence is made by her husband, King William (Sam Claflin), telling Eric that Snow White is terribly unwell. Whether it was actually due to Kristen Stewart’s adulterous scandal with the first film’s director, Rupert Sanders, or that she just had no interest in this story, the actress didn’t miss much.

Chris Hemsworth and Jessica Chastain are up for the swashbuckling physical challenges and get to do some liplocking in the hot springs as Eric and Sara, but they mostly go through the paces. Their romance works even less than their matching Scottish accents. An over-the-top, deliciously evil Charlize Theron is given little to do for most of the film, but she gets to go big and gnaw on that scenery again with relish as her Ravenna is still consumed by vanity and power and ugliness. This is Emily Blunt’s show, though. As ice queen Freya, she is fun to watch but restrained and manages to bring a little tragic shading. This time, the merry band of eight dwarves only appear in passing, but Nick Frost does reprise his role as Nion and has a prominent part in the story, as does Rob Brydon’s Gryff, Nion’s half-brother. Initially, Frost and Brydon make obnoxious comic relief that one wishes they were frozen by Freya immediately, but then they find an amusing back-and-forth banter with a feisty Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach as flirty female dwarves Bromwyn and Doreen.

As long as the Evil Queen and the Ice Queen are parading across the screen, the film remains watchable. Unfortunately, we’re supposed to care about the huntsman and his huntswoman’s relationship, and Charlize Theron’s Ravenna (despite being included in the early going before the film becomes a sequel) doesn’t show up until the last act where she becomes as unstoppable as the T-1000. “The Huntsman: Winter’s War” also gets by on empty spectacle, so by the criterion of Colleen Atwood’s elaborate costume design and everything else visible to the human eye, it would be a recommendation. Otherwise, this unnecessary prequel/sequel/spin-off can be left out in the cold.

Grade: C +

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Happy Horror: "Holidays" too wildly uneven to be cause for celebration

Holidays (2016)
105 min., not rated (equivalent to an R).

As of late, horror anthologies have been all the rage, and it’s no wonder why. This particular format for the genre can be fun and exciting to see how far a filmmaker’s creative juices can flow in short bursts. However, when the conception and cover art of a film are better than the finished product, it is a crushing disappointment. Such is the case with “Holidays,” a grab-bag of eight short horror films that take on different holidays in the chronological order of a calendar year, each demented little exercise ending with a greeting card revealing the individual holiday and the writer-director. On a segment-to-segment basis, it is going to be a roll of the dice with a collection of films made by different creative voices—there’s no way around that—but “Holidays” still can’t quite hack it as a whole.

“Valentine’s Day” comes out of the gate first from writer-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer, whose debut “Starry Eyes” was one of 2014’s most unshakable films. It’s all very “Carrie” as teenage misfit Maxine (Madeleine Coghlan) gets bullied by her catty classmates, particularly queen bee Heidi (Savannah Kennick) who cruelly dubs her “Maxi-Pad.” She crushes on her dreamy swim coach (Rick Peters), who’s in need of a heart transplant, and will do anything to get her feelings requited. The brightly hued fantasy elements, synthesizer musical beats, and a red baseball cap worn by one of the mean girls like P.J. Soles would slap a smile on Brian De Palma’s face. Everyone acts in such broad, go-for-broke fashion, bordering on obnoxious, but the story's morbidly romantic, if rather obvious, conclusion still packs a nasty punch. In “St. Patrick’s Day,” writer-director Gary Shore (2014’s “Dracula Untold”) inventively eschews evil leprechauns for a pagan folktale. When schoolteacher Elizabeth (Ruth Bradley) finally gets her wish to get pregnant, the outcome is best described by her doctor, “It’s like ‘Rosemary’s Reptile.’” Shore’s tale is a freaky, darkly absurd original, and it somehow works in a particularly iconic “Grease” character.

The first story to actually frighten is “Easter,” written and directed by Nicholas McCarthy (2014’s “At the Devil’s Door”), in which an inquisitive little girl (Ava Acres) questions her mother why Easter is actually celebrated and then paid a visit by the big bunny. After an amusing beginning—Mom unintentionally scares her daughter by saying Jesus comes back from the dead on Easter—this yarn becomes a child’s nightmare with one effectively spun jump scare, gnarly creature make-up, and a bold and bleak capper. Sarah Adina Smith’s (2014’s “The Midnight Swim”) “Mother’s Day,” the fourth segment and the second one to be about a bizarro pregnancy, goes nowhere fast, but the premise at least intrigues. 24-year-old Kate (Sophie Traub) becomes pregnant every time she has sex. When she’s referred to a fertility ceremony in the desert, well…where it goes from there amounts to a “That’s it?” ending. Luckily, Anthony Scott Burns (a visual effects artist) comes in as scribe and helmer to “Father’s Day” and allows his contribution to be at the top of the heap. It follows Carol (Joceilin Donahue), as she receives a tape from her father (Michael Gross) whom she believed to be dead and is then guided by his disembodied voice. Burns creates a haunting atmosphere from start to finish, and it’s the kind of short film that feels more like a resonant effort than something tossed off. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.


Friday, April 15, 2016

Welcome to the Jungle: Favreau pulls off talking animals in lush “Jungle Book”

The Jungle Book (2016)
111 min., rated PG.

Disney keeps returning to “The Jungle Book,” Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 compendium of stories about the young man-cub in the jungle, what with the classic 1967 cartoon, a much-belated 2002 sequel and a 1994 live-action revisionist take that was diverting as an “Indiana Jones”-esque entertainment. Technically accomplished and wonderfully enchanting, director John Favreau’s live-action/mostly-CGI iteration isn’t so much a reimagining or reinvention with any attempts to be hip or post-modern. Rather, it is exactly what Kipling might have imagined for a straightforward but quintessential adaptation with a healthy budget and advancements in technology without losing the story’s heart and soul. 

Plucky man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi) tries learning the ways of the pack, being raised by mother wolf Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o) with her pups in a pack led by Akela (Giancarlo Esposito). During the dry season when all the animals in the Indian jungle gather at the Peace Rock to drink the water, Mowgli is singled out by Bengal tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba), whose scars are proof that man is dangerous to the jungle and not welcome. He issues a warning to the wolf pack that the man-cub better be gone or his life will be taken. When Mowgli decides to leave the jungle for the safety of his family, loyal black panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) agrees to look after him and be his guide to the man village where the dreaded “red flower” (fire) exists. But first, along the way, Mowgli nearly becomes the prey to snake Kaa (Scarlett Johansson), befriends lazy bear Baloo (Bill Murray) and runs afoul of gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken). 

Director Jon Favreau (2014’s “Chef”) and screenwriter Justin Marks (quite the rebound from 2009’s “Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li”) have moved away from the goofier antics of the ’67 cartoon but hold on to the warmth. Timeless in feel and grand in production, “The Jungle Book” is also visually gorgeous without sacrificing the story’s vital emotional component. Advancing the ground that “Avatar” and “Life of Pi” have already laid, the visual effects of the flora and fauna are practically a milestone, lushly rendered in a world that looks tactile and vibrant and immersive. Only does the revisiting of iconic songs, such as Baloo’s good-life song “The Bare Necessities” and King Louie’s swinging anthem “I Wan’na Be Like You,” come off a bit tentative but more so in retrospect than in the moment. The songs are still catchy as when they were first heard, and the separate performances of Bill Murray and Christopher Walken, respectively, have more of a casual shagginess than any signs of auto-tuned slickness. Even better, though, is a delightful reprisal of the songs in the film’s end credits as the characters pop up in little scene dioramas of a page-flipping storybook. 

12-year-old newcomer Neel Sethi shows traces of child-actor precociousness as Mowgli, but overcomes that quickly when he’s more than up to the task of selling the physical and emotional demands of a young boy who’s trying to find his place in the jungle. Sethi, mind you, virtually acts opposite empty space and couldn’t look more right for the part. Then there’s the impeccable voice cast, which somehow isn’t that distracting in a mere name-value sort of way that takes you out of the story. Ben Kingsley brings a no-nonsense wisdom and gravitas to Bagheera. Voiced by Bill Murray, Baloo is as lovable as his animated counterpart. Idris Elba cuts an imposing royal terror out of Shere Khan, and Christopher Walken’s distinct staccato makes the papaya-eating orangutan King Louie both menacing and amusing. Lupita Nyong’o also provides some of the film’s most moving moments on account of the maternal warmth and compassion in her voice in portraying Mowgli’s adoptive parent Raksha. Mowgli’s encounter with hissable python Kaa is disappointingly brief, but Scarlett Johansson makes her moment count, her breathy voice perfection for the animal’s seductive nature. 

Without many new wrinkles, “The Jungle Book” feels old-fashioned but alive with actual urgency and stakes. For a fable that’s far more adult than it is cartoonish, there is a fair amount of danger here—even the villainous Shere Khan meets an end that recalls Hans Gruber’s in “Die Hard”—that will scar children. An ambush by Shere Khan in the high grass is intense and rousing, as is Mowgli’s escape during a stampede of buffalo and a chase through King Louie’s monkey temple. “The Jungle Book” is such a vivid, thrilling adventure that it is astounding the film’s principal photography took place entirely in L.A. sound stages. The animators have outdone themselves, doing photorealistic work that makes the viewer forget he or she is really watching computer creations voiced by actors in voice booths, which is no small feat. It’s almost a miracle, let alone a welcome surprise, that there is still a poignancy to retelling this story. 


Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Silent Night: "Hush" a sensational, bare-bones cat-and-mouse thriller

Hush (2016) 
87 min., rated R.

Now here’s how you execute a high-concept thriller. Typically in a home-invasion thriller, there is a couple who needs to rely on each other before their fight-or-flight instincts force them to keep going. In “Hush,” a deaf-mute woman pit against a ruthless killer must rely all on sight to save her skin; that’s true resourcefulness. Pared-down even more so than 2007’s “Vacancy” and 2008’s “The Strangers,” writer-director Mike Flanagan (2014’s sharp-looking but overpraised “Oculus”) and his co-writer, wife and leading lady Kate Siegel, have come up with a doozy of a premise so novel and compact that it will make other filmmakers envious he or she didn’t think of it first. Creative simplicity can be hard to do, but "Hush" pulls it off beautifully.

More than up for the challenge to act without a spoken word, Kate Siegel gives a demanding, emotionally compelling performance as Maddie Young, a deaf-mute novelist living in a cottage in the woods. She permanently lost her speech and hearing at age 13 from surgical complications for bacterial meningitis, but she’s independent and her isolated life has allowed her to focus on writing her new book. When a masked, hunting-knife-and-crossbow-wielding man (John Gallagher Jr.) comes her way and realizes her limitations, he first steals her cell phone. Maddie is able to lock herself inside her home and eventually exhausts every possibility of escaping through other doors and windows, distraction methods included. She can try to remain one step ahead of her stalker, but the man is quite determined to get in for one reason. This dire situation can only end with one of them left standing.

Premiering at 2016’s SXSW Festival and not long after being released on Netflix, “Hush” is a sensational little cat-and-mouse thriller, a study in bare-bones minimalism even. Director Mike Flanagan shrewdly gets the viewer into Maddie’s headspace, heightening our senses with a dinner she’s making and then dropping out the sound. Flanagan also very efficiently sets up his protagonist's way of life, her career, her family and her dating status all in a matter of ten minutes. Once faced with a living nightmare, Maddie is completely at a disadvantage and might appear helpless, and yet, she is more resourceful and makes better judgment than most horror-movie heroines who have all of their senses. It can be very easy to sit back and judge the mistakes of movie characters, but Maddie feels like a real person and not a mindless pawn used to propel the plot forward. Even so, she is still not some superwoman immune to getting hurt. Making the transformation from a woman just going about her night, enjoying the freedom of living alone and maybe getting some work done, to a survivalist who refuses to be a victim with the senses and tools at her disposal, Kate Siegel's strong-willed, sympathetic Maddie is worth celebrating as a female-empowerment figure next to Laurie Strode, Nancy Thompson, Sidney Prescott, and Erin from "You're Next."

Opposite Siegel's Maddie, an against-type John Gallagher Jr. (2016's "10 Cloverfield Lane") is effectively threatening as the neck-tattooed killer, who takes off his creepy mask and reveals his face so Maddie can’t pull the “I won’t tell anyone” card. He has no motive for his actions, which will not satisfy viewers who need more explanation, but that brings a frightening sense of reality to the film’s portrayal of random attempted murder as sport. There are three other characters, including Maddie’s sister Max (Emilia Graves) on a FaceTime call, her neighbor friend Sarah (a likable, eye-catching Samantha Sloyan) and Sarah’s boyfriend John (Michael Trucco), but they are mainly here to actualize a life for Maddie or to become collateral damage.

Owing a debt to 1967’s “Wait Until Dark,” with a blind Audrey Hepburn overcoming her intruders, but never beholden to an exact formula, “Hush” is impressively, torturously tense and distressing. What Flanagan has wrought is essentially one long chase, playing out in real time for 87 minutes, but it’s such a tightly focused chase, moving at a clip rate and carried out with deft staging and heart-pounding, thumb-screw tension. He adeptly defines the spatial geography of Maddie's house, so we always know where Maddie's male terrorizer outside is in relation to her inside. There's also at least one squirm-inducingly brutal jolt, particularly a bit involving a sliding glass door. Close to the third act, the film also inventively plays with the notion of story endings and worst-case scenarios, tying in Maddie’s indecision on how to end her own stories. Over before the cat-and-mouse game has any time to get repetitive, “Hush” tautly and satisfyingly delivers the goods to anyone who thought the home-invasion subgenre was in dire need of life support. 

Grade: A - 

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Good Times: Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” a fun, sweet slice-of-life and time capsule

Everybody Wants Some!! (2016)
117 min., rated R.

Conceived as a “spiritual sequel” to 1993’s wonderfully quotable stoner comedy “Dazed and Confused,” writer-director Richard Linklater’s (2014's "Boyhood") “Everybody Wants Some!!” does for ‘80s Texas college life what he did with that ’70s slice-of-life. It was the last day of high school then and it’s the weekend before the first day of college now. As much as it is a lovingly accurate time capsule and aimlessly about sex-crazed jocks chilling out, boozing it up, getting high, and cruising for chicks, there is a sweetness and wisdom that goes with the fun. Not too much deeper than a good time but more than a mere nostalgia trip, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is that rare, inviting party that you don’t want to see end.

It’s 1980 and a few days before classes start at a Texas college. Jake Bradford (Blake Jenner) is an incoming freshman and baseball pitcher about to live in a house of fellow ball players. He carries himself with a quiet confidence, but he’s a little intimidated by his new housemates. There are the cocky seniors, Roper (Ryan Guzman) and McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin), and pompous pitcher Jay (Juston Street) who’s more of a joke than a legend, but there is the team’s only black player, Dale (J. Quinton Johnson), who shows Jake respect; a hippy-dippy, philosophical transfer Willoughby (Wyatt Russell); and Finn (Glen Powell), another philosophical guy who tries charming the ladies by talking about his “average penis.” As 1 of 4 freshmen, Jake does as the seniors do, sowing their wild oats at the local disco, then a country bar, then a punk rock show, and then later a party for theater and dance students. They also tool on each other before they even hit the locker room and the field for practice. Through all of this, Jake sets his eyes on Beverly (Zoey Deutch), a lovely theater major who actually picked him out of all the other guys first.

To call the film “plotless” or “low-stakes” wouldn’t be incorrect, but “Everybody Wants Some!!” is a microcosm of a young adult experiencing freedom away from home, and Richard Linklater encapsulates this pivotal transitional period perfectly. With loose-limbed energy and naturally funny repartee, he knows how to make a shaggy narrative look effortless, breezy and elegant as a Robert Altman mosaic. Not only named after Van Halen’s rock anthem, the film is peppered with eclectic but pitch-perfect musical samplings, including The Knack’s “My Sharona,” Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” and Devo’s “Whip It.” Also, the period details are affectionately recreated to a fare-thee-well without feeling like a wink-and-nudge spoof. Linklater even gets the porn-star mustaches right (in an amusing touch, the seniors rip on one of the freshmen who can only grow peach fuzz).

Similar to how Matthew McConaughey, Ben Affleck, Parker Posey, and others first began as unknowns in “Dazed and Confused,” the ensemble here is a fresh-faced, undeniably talented one; most likely after this launching pad, we’ll be seeing a lot more of them. At the center as Jake, Blake Jenner (who broke out as a series regular on the fourth and fifth season of TV’s “Glee”) has an affable, boyish appeal about him. He’s identifiable as a soul-searching kind of guy who doesn’t have all the answers but has just enough spark without being a bland conduit. As the Matthew McConaughey/Wooderson figure, a stache-rocking Glen Powell (a hilarious scene-stealer on TV’s “Scream Queens”) gives a star performance as Finn, who’s not written as a stereotypical jock but endearing, open-minded and literate enough to be reading Jack Kerouac while puffing on a pipe. Wyatt Russell (son of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell) has an easy-going presence as the stoner on the team who curates his collection of “Twilight Zone” epsidoes. Tyler Hoechlin (MTV’s “Teen Wolf”) looks like he time warped back from the ‘80s as Willoughby, the ultimate alpha-bro as senior team captain McReynolds who can be a bad loser when Jake beats him at ping-pong. As the film’s only well-rounded female character that isn’t mud-wrestling eye-candy, Zoey Deutch (2016’s “Dirty Grandpa”) is adorable, radiant and down-to-earth as Beverly, and her likeness to Lea Thompson is no coincidence; Deutch is Thompson’s daughter. Everyone has a great face that fits the period and no one with a speaking part is left untested.

Excelling with young actors who get what Linklater was going for and just great writing, the characters would probably hang out in the same circle as the guys in 1979’s “Meatballs” and 1982’s “Porky’s” but rarely ever come off as just jerks. Idling with characters who are likable and interesting without a formal, guiding plot is not like shooting fish in a barrel, but it’s in Linklater’s wheelhouse to open up and understand his characters and break down stereotypical molds. Funny, honest, good-natured, surprising, purely diverting and seamlessly of a piece with “Dazed and Confused” in its laid-back vibe, “Everybody Wants Some!!” is special enough to become a touchstone in the coming-of-age comedy genre. You’ll want some more, all right.

Grade: B +