Friday, May 27, 2016

Mutant War: "X-Men Apocalypse" entertains and coheres, despite a lot of moving parts

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
147 min., rated PG-13.

Considering 2014’s ambitious “X-Men: Days of Future Past” was Marvel and 20th Century Fox’s way of “decanonizing” the series and hitting the reset button, whatever was teased to come next had few chances to really satisfy. The third entry, “X-Men: Apocalypse,” may not be superior to its predecessor, but it’s a solidly absorbing culmination of its own trilogy, as well as a smooth transition into Bryan Singer’s 2000 original film. There are a lot of moving parts and there is no shortage of mutants, and yet somehow, director Singer and screenwriter Simon Kinberg (2015’s “Fantastic Four”) manage to handle everything with a compelling, cohesive hand in the execution that hardly ever feels cluttered or unwieldy as one might have judged. At its so-called worst, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is just fun and zippy.

Ten years have passed since the mutants traveled back in time, so for those keeping score at home, it’s 1983. Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy)  has established his School for Gifted Youngsters as a safe haven for mutants to control their powers. With the shape-shifting Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), Hank McCoy/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), and Alex Summers/Havok (Lucas Till) at their aid, a group of new students will join the ranks of the X-Men, including Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), who can shoot optic beams; reptilian teleporter Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee); and the telepathic Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). Meanwhile, in Poland, Erik Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) has put his telekinetic abilities as Magneto to rest, living quietly as a steelworker with his wife and daughter. Also, in Egypt, CIA agent Moira MacTaggert (Rose Byrne) has stumbled upon a tomb that since 3600 B.C.E. has contained the first-ever mutant, En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac), who will rise again and bring civilization to a cataclysmic end. First, he will new need a body to transfer into with the help from his four recruited disciples, or the “Four Horsemen.”

At 147 minutes, time zips by. So blazingly paced that it doesn’t leave you much time to scrutinize the characterizations that could have afforded more breathing room, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is enormously entertaining and just as emotionally impactful. With the all-powerful Apocalypse around, this film may be the closest Marvel has ever come to making a horror movie. There’s a welcome nightmarish quality and major stakes here, only to be paid off in a third-act showdown that does not underwhelm. Not unlike Ultron, Apocalypse finds so much wrong with the present world that he finds obliteration to be the only option. Unrecognizable under pounds of blue latex that could have rendered him lifeless or made him look like a Power Rangers villain, Oscar Isaac is actually commanding and creepy. The actor is more charismatic and versatile than the part actually deserves, but Isaac does as well as anyone could. Even as the globe-trotting plot flits from Egypt to Ohio to Poland to East Berlin to New York, the film is infused with a beating heart from every interaction between characters who never felt accepted.

With a revolving-door ensemble of mutants, the film gets a bit crowded, and some of the characters may fall into the background, but for the most part, it’s hard to carp too much. James McAvoy is still an unfailingly warm and wise center as Charles Xavier, and he gets a nice reunion with Rose Byrne’s Moira MacTaggert, who had her memories of him wiped at the end of “X-Men: First Class.” Usually a formidable presence as Magneto, Michael Fassbender is more poignant and complex here as Erik, a tragic hero, particularly during a gut-wrenching tragedy that befalls his family and the general history of his survival in Auschwitz. Jennifer Lawrence gets less to explore this time around as Raven/Mystique, but she’s still a steadfast leader and gets to sport radical ‘80s hair and clothes in her first scene. 

As the younger counterparts of Cyclops, Jean Grey and Nightcrawler, the immensely talented Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner (HBO’s “Game of Thrones”) and Kodi Smit-McPhee stand out the most, believably essaying the roles already inhabited by James Marsden, Famke Janssen and Alan Cumming. As energy-sword-swinging Psylocke, one of the “Four Horsemen,” Olivia Munn fills out the supposedly comic-faithful costume but looks rather goofy, almost campy, in her purple ninja-bondage get-up when she’s not fighting and just standing around to pose. Evan Peters is still a major highlight as Quicksilver. Everything with the lightning-fast boy who still lives in his mom’s basement is an inspired tour de force yet again, particularly when he saves the day in a dazzling, giddily funny sequence set to Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" that equals (if not one-ups) a similar set-piece in "Days of Future Past."

Amid the thrilling spectacle and recognition of spotting familiar characters in their youth, “X-Men: Apocalypse” is still about marginalized beings that shouldn’t feel they have to hide their abilities, especially when they could better the world. It’s also not above having a sense of humor. As a few of the students exit the multiplex showing “Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi,” there is a knock at the third installment of a movie series being the worst, clearly at the expense of the first trilogy’s third “X-Men” not directed by Bryan Singer. It was wise for Singer to return to his mutants because, despite not having four hours to develop each and every one of them, he never loses sight of the emotional weight and has true reverence for their histories and relationships. “X-Men: Apocalypse” doesn’t shake up the cinematic universe, particularly post-“Deadpool” and “Captain America: Civil War,” but when a superhero conglomeration of more than 10 characters feels well-stuffed rather than overstuffed, it doesn’t have to be a complete game-changer.


Friday, May 20, 2016

Private Dicks: "The Nice Guys" a snappy, chemistry-rich cocktail of noir violence and comedy

The Nice Guys (2016)
116 min., rated R.

When thinking about some of the most surefire pairings in buddy-cop comedies, one probably wouldn’t believe that he or she would one day see Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling together. It’s so unlikely that maybe that’s one of the reasons why their partnership works so well in “The Nice Guys.” With its title decidedly a misnomer, the film offers “Lethal Weapon” screenwriter Shane Black’s special cocktail of violence and odd-couple humor as his third outing behind the camera following 2005’s “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” and then 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” Already well into the early-summer movie season with every offering either being a sequel or connective tissue in some superhero universe, this deliciously retro noir comedy is like watching a blast from the past, a refreshingly adult-minded, deservedly R-rated pleasure that's almost guaranteed to be a very fun sleeper surprise.

It’s 1977 in Hollywood. The naked body of porn star Misty Mountains (Murielle Telio) has just been found after her car plummets off a mountain road and crashes through a house. Boozy, chain-smoking, slightly dim-witted private eye and single dad Holland March (Ryan Gosling) is on the case but also trying to find Amelia (Margaret Qualley), a young woman who’s gone missing. Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe), a messenger who delivers them with limb-breaking muscle, also finds himself hired by Amelia to get rid of the man stalking her, and after punching out March and breaking his arm, they are paid by Amelia’s Department of Justice-employed mother Judith Kuttner (Kim Basinger) to bring her in. In order do that and find out how her disappearance is connected to the porn star’s death, March and Healy must enter the adult film industry scene, run afoul of various thugs, and get a little assistance from March’s wise-beyond-her-years 13-year-old daughter, Holly (Angourie Rice), who may be a brighter detective than her widowed dad.

In the same key as “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang,” “The Nice Guys” is snappily co-written by director Shane Black and writer Anthony Bagarozzi. There is a kind of rat-a-tat humor between these characters, as well as an ample amount of screwball bumbling on Holland March’s part that is staged like a ballet. March is a functioning mess and a low-rent detective who’s practically a con artist when he charges a woman who asks him to find her husband whose ashes already sit in an urn on her mantle. Healy is more of an enforcer who might have a questionable moral code, but he’s very honorable when it comes to him seeing a predator preying on a young girl. The plot is persuasive enough, but even if one just tunes out the noir convolutions of who is with who and who wants the film-reel McGuffin, the film prospers most through the stars’ dynamite chemistry when mouthing Black’s energetic dialogue that never feels effortful.

Perhaps the right comedic scripts haven’t come his way before, but Ryan Gosling has never been given the chance to really be funny before. Sure, he made a charismatic pick-up artist in “Crazy, Stupid, Love.” and stole laughs with a housing bubble ready to pop in “The Big Short,” though, as Holland March, Gosling displays a limber flair for comedy in ways both physical and slyly verbal. With that said, Russell Crowe, who’s not exactly associated with comedy either, is the right foil with a face and ability for deadpan. 15-year-old Australian newcomer Angourie Rice is a breakout phenom as March’s grown-up, compassionate daughter Holly. Frequently stealing a scene from her far more experienced screen partners, she is not only excellent in the role but also well-used, being given actual business to do as a character and becoming March and Healy’s sort-of Nancy Drew who even ventures into the most inappropriate places for a teenage girl. Holly could have easily become a helpless child in peril and nothing more, but that never happens, and Rice ensures that she is definitely someone to keep an eye on. In keeping up with the against-type vibe, Matt Bomer is believably vicious as hit man John-Boy, named for sharing the same mole as actor Richard Thomas on “The Waltons.” Finally, Kim Basinger reappears with Crowe for an “L.A. Confidential” reunion and sells all two of her scenes.

From the not-yet-restored Hollywood sign to the radio smog alerts to a “Jaws 2” billboard and The Comedy Store, “The Nice Guys” is so steeped in groovy, lived-in ‘70s details without veering into parody. There’s no room for complaints on a visual or aural level, that’s for sure, with aces era-specific production design and costumes coordinated well with music by Kool & The Gang, Earth Wind & Fire, and The Temptations. Beyond those pleasures, it is a veritable testament to Shane Black’s sharp script that lands the laughs even when an innocent person is gratuitously caught in the line of fire as collateral damage. The pace also rarely lets up, right down to the climax that is madcap chaos cleverly conceived at the L.A. auto show. Loose, witty and often wickedly hilarious—and even just plain wicked—“The Nice Guys” makes no apologies for wanting to give audiences a good time. If this is the start of a franchise, count me in.

Grade: B +

Next-Door Sisters: "Neighbors 2" not as fresh but nearly as smart and funny

Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising (2016)
92 min., rated R.

The existence of “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising,” a sequel to 2014’s frequently funny but also relatable raunchfest “Neighbors,” seemed like a no-brainer. If staging another generational war between married couple Mac (Seth Rogen) and Kelly Radner (Rose Byrne) and a next-door sorority rather than a fraternity sounded like a carbon copy, it might not be as fresh but at least a lesser continuation still knows how to be raunchy and smart with an even more distaff, equal-opportunity spin. Without a socially progressive bent and the all-in enthusiasm of its cast, this sequel wouldn’t be as much fun as it is, but “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” is nearly on par with the first one. And, if there’s one rowdy, defiantly R-rated comedy that features Zac Efron and his sculpted torso this year, let it be this lively, palatably bawdy romp and not the embarrassing, unlikable comedic nadir that is “Dirty Grandpa.” 

Expecting another baby girl on the way, Mac and Kelly are ready to sell their home and find themselves in escrow for 30 days, so before they can actually close, the interested buyers could back out for any reason. No sooner does the empty Delta Psi Beta fraternity house next door become occupied by the girls of Kappa Nu when rebellious, long-to-be-cool freshmen Shelby (Chloë Grace Moretz) and her two new college friends, Beth (Kiersey Clemons) and Nora (Beanie Feldstein), stop rushing a sorority to start their own. The girls are sick and tired of attending frat parties just because sororities aren't able to throw any and have as much crazy fun as the guys can. Meanwhile, alpha-male Teddy Sanders (Zac Efron) is having a quarter-life crisis, having to wear a shirt now at Abercrombie & Fitch and watching his closest frat bros advance in their careers. His roommate and best friend, Pete (Dave Franco), is about to tie the knot to boyfriend Darren (John Early) and asks Teddy to move out. With nowhere else to turn, Teddy decides to help the sisters stand their ground against the Radners, who politely ask the girls to not party for a month, but he might be open to switching sides when war breaks out between the “old people” and Kappa Nu.

Opening with a morning-sickness gag that may be less outrageous than it is desperate and unreassuring, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” luckily gets to the next laugh pretty quickly and has something to say within its three-tier narrative. Writer-director Nicholas Stoller and writers Andrew J. Cohen & Brendan O’Brien & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg still manage to make their characters likable, even when their actions are unlikable. All of them have understandable goals: Mac and Kelly want their house sold without any problems; Shelby, Beth and Nora can’t afford their sorority house, so they must throw rush events to raise money; and Teddy is a lost soul who’s trying to find his purpose. Underneath the oh-so-wrong jokes of a two-year-old playing with a vibrator and sorority girls throwing used tampons at the Radners’ windows, the film still incorporates the grappling of adult responsibility from the point-of-view of Teddy, who’s now considered old, while Mac and Kelly need a little reassurance that they're going to be good parents of two children. The new wrinkle here is the sexism and double standards in a college campus' Greek system and Shelby and her friends’ protesting against it by establishing the first sorority that can rage. There's even a feminist icon costume party where the sisters dress up as Oprah, Hillary Clinton and Joan of Arc. Instead of spelling out a preachy, heavy-handed statement, the writers find smart, articulate ways of tucking such socially conscious commentary into this farcical situation.

All over again, Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne are funny, endearing and identifiable partners as Mac and Kelly. Byrne was the first film’s scene-stealing secret weapon—and it was lovely to see a wife character getting to be a badass leader rather than a nag or stick in the mud—but since more time has to be made for Teddy and the Kappa Nu sisters, there’s more equal playing field for everyone. The often-underestimated Zac Efron no longer has to prove himself. Still BMOC charismatic as the clingy, stunted, but smarter-than-he-looks Teddy, Efron gets to wring even more laughs on his own, but the idea of teaming him up with Rogen and Byrne was an inspired one. 

Chloë Grace Moretz has a lot of wild, weed-laced fun, letting herself loose with all the comic shenanigans as Shelby, who’s as much of a misfit loner as she is a take-charge leader. As Beth and Nora, Kiersey Clemons (2015’s “Dope”) and newcomer Beanie Feldstein (Jonah Hill’s sister) are appealing go-getters who have bright futures in comedies. There are just enough scenes between the three girls that, like the frat brothers in the original, aren’t just stereotypes. As a counterpoint, Selena Gomez’s game extended cameo as a perky sorority president is pretty amusing. Ike Barinholtz and Carla Gallo are well-used, as Mac’s best friend Jimmy and his perpetually gum-smacking wife Paula, who are back together now and pregnant. Dave Franco reprises his role without being integrated into the main story, but that’s the point; his Pete has moved on, whereas Teddy has not. It’s refreshing, too, that his engagement with another man is not treated flippantly as a joke.

When all else fails, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” trendily turns to gross-out gags that contemporary audiences shouldn’t find too shocking and too many over-the-top pratfalls. Still, it’s never mean and not overly politically correct that it forgets to be funny, and there are more hits to make up for the occasional misses. For instance, Mac and Kelly’s reactions to one of Kappa Nu’s sabotage schemes—they hack into the couple’s phones and forge a miscommunication—strain common sense in a non-sequitur sequence that could have been excised and wouldn't have changed a thing. Better is a running joke where the Kappa Nu pledges do work around the house, dressing, talking and bumbling around like Minions. The airbag prank from the original isn’t rehashed but actually has a new purpose here to satisfying effect. There's one Holocaust joke made by the Jewish Mac that skips over offensive and goes right to hilariously bold. Then, when Mac and Kelly get back at the girls, a chase set-piece during a tailgate party is an anarchic highlight where Teddy, rubbed in grease from a roast, uses his body as a distraction. Just to be clear, “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising” shouldn't be oversold as some brilliantly comedic window into women’s lib or a lofty dissertation, but it has more socially relevant ambition than most comedy sequels and more side-splitting moments than one expects from a rigid formula. 

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Home Sweet Evil: Pretty worthless "Darkness" lacks vital nightmare fuel

The Darkness (2016)
92 min., rated PG-13.

For Australian director Greg McLean—he of 2005’s savagely grisly gut-wrencher “Wolf Creek,” underseen killer-croc thriller “Rogue” from 2007, and his debut’s equally visceral 2014 sequel “Wolf Creek 2”—“The Darkness” is his first studio venture, and it’s such an unfortunate misfire that one cannot believe is from the same Greg McLean. The premise of a vacationing family unknowingly bringing home a supernatural force from a sacred Native American cave is a perfectly creepy hook on which to spring for a horror movie, but telling a story, generating dread, or even staging an effective jolt seem to elude McLean this time. Even if the film’s failure is yet another case of test screening-influenced studio tampering, it would be a moot point because “The Darkness” ultimately falls on the side of amazingly dull and indistinguishable. It almost makes one long for the dozen other mediocre copies of this supernatural horror formula.

On a camping trip in the Grand Canyon, architect Peter (Kevin Bacon) and now-sober Bronny Taylor (Radha Mitchell) enjoy their time with their two kids and another family. When their autistic son, Mikey (David Mazouz), breaks away from his teenage sister, Steph (Lucy Fry), on a trail, he falls through the sand into a cave. There, he finds five ancient, symbol-marked stones that he takes and puts in his backpack. Once the Taylors arrive home, Bronny sniffs a rancid odor and keeps finding the sinks running. She assumes Mikey is the culprit behind the wasting of water, but he blames it on his imaginary friend “Jenny.” Then sooty handprints begin appearing in the house, the neighbor’s dog won’t stop barking, and Mikey somehow starts a fire without having access to the matches. Might the youngest Taylor be experiencing a possession from the spirits of the Anasazi Indian tribe? Ding, ding, ding!

Co-written by Shayne Armstrong, Shane Krause and director Greg McLean, “The Darkness” seems as if it will deftly thread familial strife into a haunted-house picture with mystical phantoms but just muddles the mixture and generically takes the same genre steps. It is set up that every family member has his and her own self-destructive flaws. Bronny used to be an alcoholic but now has her sobriety to show for it, while Peter at one time had an affair and is soon tempted by a college grad new to his company, only to place a major strain on his and Bronny’s marriage. Steph also has an eating disorder, still unbeknownst to her parents. These seemingly important character details would seem to serve some purpose and then end up not mattering very much in the long run. Attempts at frights are feeble at best. Steph waking up to an animal hovering over her in bed and Bronny seeing a shadow walk past her while taking a bath are as creepy as the film almost gets, but each set-piece lacks a satisfying payoff. The timing necessary to make even a jump scare work is also botched, and not doing the editor any favors is Tom Oliver's hazy cinematography. Bone-tired plot conveniences abound, too, like good old Movie Internet Search Engines acting as exposition for the characters and the audience, as well as a handy Mexican healer (Alma Martinez) who happens to be a friend of a friend.

Take away the Anasazi ghosts and "The Darkness" might have been better off as a straight family drama. No strangers to the horror genre, the better-deserving Kevin Bacon and Radha Mitchell certainly seem invested in their roles but then look woefully lost once the dopey mumbo-jumbo takes over. Their Peter and Bronny take an awfully long time to realize something is wrong with their son, particularly Peter, and when Bronny notices something ominous in a photo on their Grand Canyon trip, she fails to relay it to anybody. Lucy Fry (2014’s “Vampire Academy” and the upcoming “Wolf Creek” TV series) and David Mazouz (TV’s “Gotham”) fare just okay as the kids. Also, of all people, Paul Reiser bafflingly pops up as Peter’s piggish boss.

Culminating in a hokey "house cleaning" that plays like a third-rate “Poltergeist,” “The Darkness” not only settles for the same old thing, but there’s no discernible passion behind it or any standout moments that give the old pulse a good raise. Nodding off is actually a real possibility. In its opening weekend, it might turn a tidy profit for its PG-13 target audience, who will take up a whole row and be on their cell phones the entire time, because it’s sure as hell not going to satisfy more discerning horror fans. Never scary for a second and bereft of atmosphere, this milquetoast genre effort is just a derivative, immediately unmemorable yawner. It's pretty worthless all around. 


Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Art as a Family: “Family Fang” an odd duck that still manages to be affecting

The Family Fang (2016)
105 min., rated R.

Finding a slightly better project to be his second time both in front of and behind the camera after 2014’s often caustically funny but uneven “Bad Words,” actor and director Jason Bateman finds a strange family unit at the center of “The Family Fang.” Adapted from Kevin Wilson’s 2011 novel by screenwriter David Lindsay-Abaire (the 2015 “Poltergeist” remake), the film is bittersweet and unusual enough to carve out a niche for itself in the annals of dysfunctional-family indies. Droll but emotionally vivid without becoming a funeral dirge, “The Family Fang” finds an original avenue into dark familial issues by examining the emotional costs on the adult children of avant-garde artists who test their relationship for their art form.

In the 1970s and ‘80s, Caleb (Jason Butler Harner) and Camille Fang (Kathryn Hahn) made their two children part of their public performance art pieces, whether it be pretending to rob a bank or shocking passersby in the park with an inappropriate punk song. In the present day, the damaged Fang children who were once referred to as “Child A” and “Child B” are now both stagnant in their careers — Annie (Nicole Kidman) is an alcoholic actress faced with being in the tabloids for giving in to do a surprise nude scene and Baxter (Jason Bateman) is a novelist struggling over his third book. After Baxter is hospitalized from an accident, he reconnects with Annie and his parents (Christopher Walken, Maryann Plunkett) in their childhood home. When Caleb and Camille leave their kids to take a spontaneous trip after an argument, the police find the Fangs’ car with the signs of a struggle and blood spattered across the dashboard. Annie knows it has to be another one of their parents’ art pranks—perhaps their magnum opus—but Baxter isn’t so sure.

“The Family Fang” shows Annie as an adult in a scene out of context that director Jason Bateman later returns to in the middle of the story. Even if it were there to add suspense to the storytelling, this in media res framework is an odd and unnecessary choice that adds nothing and could have easily been fixed for the finished cut. Otherwise, the Fang family’s prankish art pieces in flashback provide eyebrow-raising and light chuckles, and there is a nifty touch that blurs the line between fiction and reality involving critics debating over whether or not the Fangs’ work is profound art or hooey. The character observations are more than interesting to make up for the aforementioned out-of-sequence device, and piecing together the clues that will point to Annie and Baxter’s parents’ whereabouts is also worth the investment. 

Jason Bateman, who specializes in cynical, deadpan quips, keeps proving his capabilities of reaching emotional depth, particularly here as the wounded Baxter. He believably creates a strangely close sibling bond with Nicole Kidman, who’s excellent as Annie. Both of their characters receive emotional releases, but they’re acted and depicted on screen as small, low-key victories. Christopher Walken and Maryann Plunkett also forgo one-dimensional weirdness and leave poignant marks as the respectively self-involved and warm artist parents who hold a big secret over their kids’ heads.

Boiling down to a third-act secret, “The Family Fang” is a journey paved with a few surprising revelations to overturn the familiarity of estranged siblings coming together and reflecting over their childhood memories. Even with the offbeat premise feeling like it wouldn’t be true to life and thus resonate, the film is never indebted by a quirky Sundance movie checklist and makes sure the emotions always feel uncomfortably authentic. Bateman’s execution of such tricky, seriocomic material is not always tonally sound, but he gets affecting performances out of his high-profile cast, including himself. This is definitely not cookie-cutter nor is it a sophomore slump, leaving one curious to see what he does next as a filmmaker.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Drive Her Crazy: Sarandon shines in occasionally annoying, mostly endearing “The Meddler”

The Meddler (2016)
100 min., rated PG-13.

At worst, “The Meddler” could have been as shrill and nails-on-the-chalkboard obnoxious as “Because I Said So”—that 2007 comedy with Diane Keaton as a smothering mother—but it is smarter, more humane and more amusing than that. As annoyingly doting as the film’s meddling mother can be, Susan Sarandon is a pleasure to watch and makes the character more identifiable than a one-note joke. As written and directed by Lorene Scafaria (who last pulled double-duty with 2012’s “Seeking a Friend for the End of the World” and before that wrote the script for 2008’s “Nick and Nora’s Infinite Playlist”), the film is imbued with a sunny, light touch and an honest understanding that eventually—it does not happen right away—wins one over. Despite its early flaws, “The Meddler” is more of a warm and cozy love note to mothers everywhere than Garry Marshall’s “Mother’s Day.”

Uprooting from New Jersey to Los Angeles, widow Marnie Minervini (Susan Sarandon) wants to be close to her screenwriter daughter, Lori (Rose Byrne). She is set for life by her late husband’s fortune but doesn’t really know how to spend her time besides hanging out at L.A.’s shopping mall The Grove, taking in a movie, and buying iPads from the Apple Store’s Genius Bar. Marnie also drops in unannounced on Lori, whose wounds from a failed relationship are still fresh, and lets herself in with her spare key, although at least she never shows up without bagels. When Lori demands that they need boundaries, Mom still leaves long voicemails as if her life depended on it and starts going to her daughter’s same therapist (Amy Landecker), patient confidentiality be damned. When Lori tells her mother that she has to go to New York to shoot a TV pilot early in the morning, Marnie tries to keep busy, doing favors for everyone she meets, like helping with the wedding for Lori’s lesbian friend Jillian (Cecily Strong), volunteering at a hospital, and giving a lift to 23-year-old Apple Store worker Freddy (Jerrod Carmichael) who wants to go back to school. Marnie can lend her generosity everywhere to distract herself, but sooner or later, she will have to confront her grief and maybe find a hobby. 

“The Meddler” really is writer-director Lorene Scafaria’s pride and joy. It’s so personal for the filmmaker that she was inspired by her own relationship with her mother and shot the film in her very same house where she wrote the script. Apart from strains of one of those bumbling, sitcommy music score here and there, the film’s annoyance and frustration factors do level off. It lets Marnie talk an awful lot but also listens to her. From the moment her voice-over as a voicemail comes in with a “Noo Joisey” accent that might sound like a broad affectation on an SNL skit, Marnie could have turned into a caricature in lesser hands, but there is context to why she is so doting and meddlesome. Moreover, Susan Sarandon is spirited and just plain endearing, and with an actress of her stature, she is fully capable of locating moments of real heartache with depth and subtlety.

As a rule, Rose Byrne is perpetually a dependable joy, and she gets to tap into a different side of herself. As Lori, she must act depressed and is gone during the middle section, but she’s fully relatable in her exasperation and finds a mutual closeness with her mother. In a role that might have been offered to Sam Elliott first, J.K. Simmons is a charmer and creates a lovely chemistry with Sarandon as retired police officer Randy “Zipper,” working as security on a  movie set, who drives a Harley Davidson, listens to Dolly Parton, and has a chicken coop at home. As Lori’s friends who never actually share any screen time with her, Cecily Strong, Lucy Punch, Casey Wilson and Sarah Baker are given little to do and mainly on hand to take Lori’s place and praise Marnie.

Initially, “The Meddler” isn’t as adorable as it thinks it is. Plain and simple, how nicely the film works is predicated on how much one likes Marnie. Also, amidst some of the more uncomfortably acute observations between mothers and daughters, particularly one in which Marnie is invited to N.Y.C. to be on the set of Lori’s show, there is a bit too much attention on a subplot involving a serial killer loose in the city. There's a wacky payoff when it should have just remained a minor detail underscoring Marnie’s coddling over her daughter. Fortunately, Lorene Scafaria’s compassion for this mother character who must mirror her own mother does become infectious. A quiet empathy creeps in and balances out the earlier, more irritating stretches once Marnie’s denial of her own grief subsides. And that delightful Sarandon; this movie allows her to shine.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Marvel Entree: Brisk, adult-minded, entertaining "Civil War" a great start to Marvel's Phase 3

Captain America: Civil War (2016)
146 min., rated PG-13.

Finally, audiences can get to the entree that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been leading up to after all the solo superhero movies. The in-fighting between the Avengers has always been as much of a challenge as fighting against a villain. “Captain America: Civil War” now poses an actual war in the family, and without actually being an official “Avengers” sequel—Thor and Bruce Banner/Hulk take time off here—this is more of a turning point than “Avengers: Age of Ultron” had the chance to be with a more complete story where the conflict comes organically and the emotions feel real and earned. Brisk, consistently entertaining and more adult than cartoonish, “Captain America: Civil War” is Marvel’s Phase Three getting off to an auspicious beginning.

Seeking a biological weapon, Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and company stop Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo) in Lagos, Nigeria, but there is some collateral damage caused by the telekinetic Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). From there, U.S. Secretary of State “Thunderbolt” Ross (William Hurt) introduces a regulation agreement called the Sokovia Accords to keep a watchful eye on the Avengers, or else retirement could come early. Distraught by the encounter of a mother (Alfred Woodard) of a son whose life was taken in the Avenger’s destruction in the Eastern European attack, Tony trusts the government’s decision. A division soon forms once Steve’s brainwashed buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), now Hydra’s Winter Soldier, is accused of a terrorist act at the UN Accords meeting in Vienna that kills Wakanda’s King T’Chaka (John Kani). On Cap’s side are Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Wanda, and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), who enlists the help of Scott Lang/Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), while Lieutenant James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow, Vision (Paul Bettany) are Iron man’s allies, as well as eager-beaver teen Peter Parker (Tom Holland) and the vengeful Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman). Meanwhile, our heroes will have to also face an intelligent foe, Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), who’s pulling all the strings.

Returning after 2014’s “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely pull off the tricky balancing act of when to be light and when to be dark, knowing how to juggle an excellent roster of characters we’ve already met in the MCU and introducing a few new supporting players, and checking off all the studio boxes in satisfying fashion. Following the Avengers’ destruction in New York (“The Avengers”) and then in the fictional Sokovia (“Avengers: Age of Ultron”), this film, in a change of pace, also smartly acknowledges and directly addresses the unnecessary destruction rather than exploiting post-9/11 imagery. The consequences are real and there is actual dramatic weight, even when there are exhilarating action set-pieces to be had. For those who want something to ponder afterward, there’s enough here. It’s hard to choose an actual side to get behind because the film has a bit of grey; both Captain America and Iron Man feel they are doing what’s right and they have their personal reasons. For those who just want to be entertained for 146 minutes, it has that in spades, as well. 

These movies have become ensemble pieces, and miraculously, no one feels like a mere cog in the machine yet, as everyone gets a little time to shine. Robert Downey Jr. just keeps springing right back into the glib Tony Stark, but luckily, he gets to add more devastation and vengeful rage to the mix here. Hats off to the pretty seamless de-aging effect of Tony, taking Downey Jr. back to his “Chances Are” days, and the “Only You” reunion he has with Marisa Tomei as Aunt May. From 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger” to now, Chris Evans has fully come into his own as Steve Rogers, sticking to his guns and given a point-of-view. Scarlett Johansson is back in her kick-ass glory Natasha, who’s put in a tricky position in having alliances with both Tony and Steve. No longer a henchwoman for Ultron, Elizabeth Olsen’s mind-controlling Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch is less of the afterthought she was in “Avengers: Age of Ultron.” As Wanda is placed on house arrest after the unfortunate death toll in Lagos, she and Paul Bettany’s Vision also share a sweet, quiet character moment of compassion in the kitchen before taking different sides. Room is splendidly made for the little guys in the form of Paul Rudd, who brings the same affable goofiness he did to his solo vehicle as Ant-Man, and Chadwick Boseman, very sympathetic as T’Challa and impressively filling out the suit as Black Panther. The film’s MVP, though, is Tom Holland (2012’s “The Impossible”), who’s terrific in putting his own fun, perfectly boyish, infectiously chatty stamp on the web-head.

Taking itself seriously without being self-serious and timing its humor perfectly, “Captain America: Civil War” is this year’s preferable, adroitly executed cross-over feud among superheroes. As any film should, it properly meets expectations on the side of quality and is still able to surprise. For a nearly two-and-a-half hour film jam-packed with characters, the film certainly has a lot going on, but it somehow avoids feeling bloated with the Russo brothers’ expert pacing. The comedy is never overplayed and more character-centric, as if it’s actually emerging from the characters’ mouths rather than the screenwriters. The action is more than glossy spectacle and never loses sight of the stakes at hand. A rooftop fight that extends to a car chase is a major highlight, and the pivotal showdown on an airplane tarmac is outright fun, pulling out all the stops and going on just long enough. Fight choreography is often jaw-dropping, adding even more of a brutal intensity than what these directors and cinematographer Trent Opaloch brought in “The Winter Soldier.” The Russo brothers are on such a roll that if they keep it up for “Infinity War,” superhero fatigue will cease to exist.

Grade: B +

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Wedding Jitters = Bug Bite: "Bite" delivers the ickiness with small means

Bite (2016)
90 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Canadian director Chad Archibald has kept himself very busy, churning out two low-budget features in 2015 and not about to stop. The problems with “Ejecta” and “The Drownsman” were more at a script level than anything in the technical sense, but it is imperative that what has been written on the page doesn’t derail before actually going before the cameras. Now, on to his third directorial effort in the horror arena, Archibald goes the gross-out route. Part travel horror story, part marriage-anxiety drama, part transformative body horror yarn, “Bite” is a commendably disgusting monstrosity of pus, bodily fluids and eggs that’s startling in its goopy, squishy ickiness. One certainly can't say the makers didn't achieve what they set out to do.

Casey Morgan (Elma Begovic) vacations in Costa Rica with her two best friends, Kirsten (Denise Yuen) and Jill (Annette Wozniak), for her bachelorette party. At first, it’s fun and drinks, but a drunken one-night-stand and a seemingly ordinary bite from an insect in a lagoon end the trip on a bum note. When returning home with regrets, her engagement ring missing, and the surprise gift of an antique baby high chair from workaholic fiancée Jared (Jordan Gray), she begins having cold feet. Her landlord and future mother-in-law (Lawrene Denkers) is already a strict, unpleasant old maid and bugs Casey about not handling her wedding preparations sooner. Casey decides that she needs to postpone the wedding, but before she has a chance to tell Jared, her bug bite gets worse. Her senses heighten. She loses her appetite and begins feeling nauseous. And to think the eventual metamorphosis was all from a little bite.

Sharing the same bloodline not only with 1986’s David Cronenberg-directed ‘The Fly” but even 2013’s underseen horror indie “Contracted,” “Bite” is nothing if not loud and proud about its own gooey grossness. As a horror filmmaker working on a shoestring budget, Chad Archibald doesn’t try for jump scares but consistently tests that the viewer’s gag reflex is in working order. He even deceives the viewer before the title card with one of Casey’s girlfriends documenting their exotic trip, leading us to think the rest of the film will be shot in found-footage form. Luckily, it’s not, but it goes to show what an economic shorthand the aesthetic can be when it’s sparingly used. The two-tier script by Jayme Laforest is a clever metaphor, paralleling Casey’s bite with the festering doubts concerning her looming marriage and having children. An indelibly cringe-inducing dream sequence of Casey waking up to her friends surprising her with a baby shower one-ups the urination-on-the-floor scene in “The Exorcist.” To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Oh, Mother: "Mothers and Daughters" well-intentioned but tedious and flat

Mothers and Daughters (2016)
90 min., rated PG-13.

Intertwining multiple stories about motherhood is apparently an impossible formula to crack lately. It didn’t come too easily for veteran Garry Marshall with last week’s terrible clunker “Mother’s Day,” featuring Jennifer Aniston, and it doesn’t work for first-time feature director Paul Duddridge’s “Mothers and Daughters” (originally titled “Mother’s Day”), co-starring Aniston’s “Friends” castmate Courtney Cox. Like that starry holiday fiasco, this indie has plenty of proven talent in front of the camera, so lack of talent isn’t the problem here. It’s just that screenwriter Paige Cameron strings together so many mother-daughter clichés, perhaps expecting the on-screen talent to somehow elevate everything on the page, and director Duddridge (along with co-director Nigel Levy) is unable to visualize any of it in an interesting way without the use of text messaging, FaceTime, or just an old-fashioned phone call ad nauseam. Because one or two stories simply weren’t enough, it is a fool’s errand to pick out the most compelling vignette.

Set in Manhattan—primarily the Pig + Cow Building—“Mothers and Daughters” vaguely connects five stories as single photographer Rigby Gray (Selma Blair) recollects her mother. Before she goes on tour to photograph hunky musician Nelson Quinn (Luke Mitchell), Rigby must decide if she wants to go through with an unexpected pregnancy or not. For bra designer Georgina Scott (Mira Sorvino), she has the sudden urge to get in touch with the daughter she gave up for adoption. She’s about to be featured in a fashion magazine run by cold, high-powered Nina (Sharon Stone), who’s butting heads with daughter Layla (Alexandra Daniels) for throwing away her Princeton education to follow her real aspirations. Also, lawyer Becca (Christina Ricci) realizes her sister, Beth (Courtney Cox), is really her mother after the death of her grandmother whom she thought was her mother her entire life. Finally, Gayle (Eva Amurri Martino) is in debt with husband Kevin (Paul Wesley) as he tries launching a bakery business. Having estranged herself from her parents by running away and getting married, she tries renewing her relationship with her mother, Millie (Susan Sarandon), after two years over Skype.

A female-centric slice-of-life that wishes to be an eye-opener on what it means to be a mother, “Mothers and Daughters” offers precious little insight by criss-crossing the problems of each mother and daughter and then rarely venturing beyond the shallow end. 2009’s “Mother and Child” did this sort of thing much, much better. Covering adoption, family secrets, and possible abortion, the film is at least able to approach these heavier subjects with some honesty, but in most cases, depth is out of the script’s reach and there’s an easy resolution for all of them. To possibly stretch the film out to a full 90 minutes, there is even an unnecessary scene shared between Rigby’s camera-lens candy Nelson and his estranged mother (Elizabeth Daily). It’s through FaceTime, go figure, and the scene that precedes it has Nelson nearly raping a drunk girl at a bar. Only his mother could love this scumbag. Then there’s Paul Duddridge’s thoroughly bland direction. There’s little attempt to vary the shots and blocking beyond monotonous one-on-one conversations, via phone or computer, that it becomes hard to remain engaged in anything the characters are saying. Perhaps it was a set choice for the here and now when our communication is rarely in the flesh anymore, but this is supposed to be about relationships, not “Unfriended 2.”

“Mothers and Daughters” really does resemble a Lifetime movie that managed to get lucky with assembling an impressive roster of actresses and then wastes just about every one of them. Selma Blair is offbeat enough of an actress for her Rigby to be the throughline, but the way her “will-she-or-won’t-she-get-an-abortion?” subplot is handled slowly loses its nerve in exchange for romantic convention with Rigby's obstetrician having a sudden interest in her. At the mercy of such patchy, dramatically flat writing, no one has much of a chance to be more than unremarkable. Of course, the only mother-daughter relationship that genuinely rings true is the one portrayed by real-life mother-daughter pair Susan Sarandon and Eva Amurri Martino. Their time together is spent entirely on a computer screen, economically creating a history during a brief Skype session. Sarandon must have had a free afternoon, but she doesn’t phone in anything, finding some nice subtlety in a teary-eyed seven-minute scene.

Everyone involved probably thought they were making a worthwhile women’s picture to turn around the gender inequality in the film industry. It cannot be denied that “Mothers and Daughters” means well, as it even makes a dedication to all mothers before the credits roll. That’s all well and good, however, there is no reason it should be such a tedious, simplistic slog that relies more on contrived plot mechanics and stating the obvious than saying anything with nuance or at least a fresh point-of-view. One of these days, someone is going to celebrate the career of motherhood again and, hopefully, it will result in a better film.

Grade: C -