Thursday, June 30, 2016

Doghood: Very Todd Solondz-y "Wiener-Dog" cynical but humane

Wiener-Dog (2016)
90 min., rated R.

Writer-director Todd Solondz (2012’s “Dark Horse”) can be a specialized taste—many find his work to be depressing, off-putting miserablist tales that put his characters through the wringer—and his latest won’t change anyone’s mind. A sort-of follow-up to the unofficial Dawn Wiener series, “Wiener-Dog”—the nickname of the filmmaker’s bullied 11-year-old character from 1995’s unflinchingly spot-on “Welcome to the Dollhouse”—is true to form for feel-bad auteur Solondz. It’s simultaneously cynical and sad, compassionate and humane, and this time also kind of stale. Even with an actual wiener dog involved, don’t be fooled into thinking Solondz has gone soft. While the film isn’t without hints of hope and insight, “Wiener-Dog” is just as thorny and starkly humorous with more to recommend it than not.

“Wiener-Dog” follows the titular dachshund, linking a revolving door of four vignettes—a tetraptych, if you will. The first owner is an inquisitive boy named Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), who’s comforted with a pet dog by father Danny (Tracy Letts) after surviving cancer. Brittle, unhappily married wife Dina (Julie Delpy) is not happy about it, and eventually, once Danny gets stuck walking and training the puppy, he has just about had it, too. Remi loves “Wiener-Dog,” but when the man’s only friend gets sick, he has to say goodbye. Right before the animal is supposed to be put to sleep, vet assistant Dawn Wiener (Greta Gerwig) actually ends up rescuing and nurturing the pooch back to heath before renaming the pup “Doody.” When Dawn runs into her former bully-cum-crush, Brandon (Kieran Culkin), she happily tags along with him on a road trip to Ohio. By the end, she meets Brandon’s Down Syndrome brother Tommy (Connor Long) and wife April (Bridget Brown) and decides to give them “Doody.” 

Before the last two stories, there is an amusing intermission with “Wiener-Dog” taking a long quest through Monument Valley, a winter storm, a baseball field and a strip club stage as a western-style ballad is sung. The connective tissue mostly ends from there because when we next find the dachshund—or maybe a different one—the owner is a one-hit-wonder screenwriter and film school professor Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito). This thread could be a great short film on its own, DeVito superbly heartbreaking as this sadsack, and a scene where an incoming film student can’t even name a single film in front of the professors is very funny. From there, the dog is now named “Cancer” and owned by Nana (Ellen Burstyn), a bitter, sick old woman who’s visited by her granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet). It’s the first time in years that Zoe has seen Nana, and this time it’s for a selfish reason: she needs money to fund her unfaithful boyfriend Fantasy’s (Michael James Shaw) art project.

The performances are all strong, focusing in on Solondz’s specific tone. Aside from the fully sympathetic Danny DeVito, Tracy Letts and Julie Delpy are bitterly funny as Remi’s mostly awful parents. As Solondz is wont to do, already-established characters are recast. Even though 2004’s “Palindromes” cruelly killed off Dawn Wiener (Heather Matarazzo) from “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” she is still alive and now played by Greta Gerwig. This might be the most hopeful we will ever see Dawn, and Gerwig brings a tender loneliness that may or may not be fixed by “Doody.” The last section is the most poignant, all thanks to Ellen Burstyn, who’s hilariously prickly as she is devastating, and Zosia Mamet also does nice work as her lost granddaughter.

Structured as a life cycle from youth to old age, “Wiener-Dog” could be seen as Todd Solondz’s version of “Boyhood" mixed with "Marley & Me," only with the filmmaker’s signature blackly comic tone and the mandatory need for a hard drink afterwards. It is a Solondz film and emphasized by one of the characters calmly stating, “We’re all going to die,” so animal-loving viewers probably shouldn’t become too attached to the doggie. There is a lot of suffering here and a tinge of catharsis, and where else are you going to find a tracking shot of a trail of doggie diarrhea made poetic? Those already in tune with Solondz’s pessimistic worldview will find more to like here than viewers coming into "Wiener-Dog" blind.

Grade: B - 

Monday, June 27, 2016

Don't Come Back: "Independence Day" sequel zaps the threat, the fun and thrills of predecessor

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016) 
119 min., rated PG-13.

1996’s “Independence Day” broke box-office records and turned post-“Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” Will Smith into a movie star, so much so that he didn’t have to appear in the sequel. The largest of the large-scale summer blockbusters, director Roland Emmerich’s (2013's "White House Down") sci-fi disaster spectacle rightfully has its defenders; it was the first time he was able to share with the world his predilection for blowing up famous landmarks real good. Oh, the writing was dumb and some of the film's non-explosion effects look clunky and not fully realized in 2016, but there was also a sense of fun, a threat and an excitement there that do not register in the sub-par, by-the-numbers sequel “Independence Day: Resurgence.” There is always a spot reserved for a disaster movie in cinemas (last summer's "San Andreas" got it right), but it should be better or even bigger than this moronic excuse for air-conditioning. It’s no more than competent on a technical level and sometimes inches away from being a disaster itself.

Twenty years after the War of 1996 where Captain Steven Hiller (Will Smith, only seen in a painting hung in the White House) beat the alien scum, the humans are more advanced, having developed hybrid alien vehicles and weapon systems should the space invaders ever return, while Madam President Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) is now in the Oval Office. When a foreign spacecraft nears the moon’s Earth Space Defense station, the government shoots it down, against the wishes of ESD director David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum), now joined with ex-flame Dr. Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg). It’s not long before a mothership attacks the planet intent on drilling to the planet’s core to kill all of mankind, forcing feeble and grey former President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) and fresh-out-of-a-coma scientist Dr. Brackish Okun (Brent Spiner)—both reeling from the psychic connection they have with the aliens—to come back into the fold. That leaves Whitmore’s grown daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe) and her fiancée, fighter pilot Jake (Liam Hemsworth), along with rival/friend Captain Dylan Hiller (Jessie T. Usher)—the late Captain Hiller’s stepson—to take their Earthling independence back once and for all.

Packed to the gills with so many characters, “Independence Day: Resurgence” doesn’t give a dime about any of them and yet keeps on adding more “stuff” until everything is an afterthought to the destruction. The first “Independence Day” wasn’t exactly a beacon of intelligence, but its storytelling was comparably eloquent. Helmer Roland Emmerich and his committee of co-writers—Nicolas Wright & James A. Woods and Dean Devlin and James Vanderbilt—concoct a script so crummily overwritten with so many underwritten subplots fighting for screen time. If all that weren’t enough, Levinson’s kvetching father Julius (Judd Hirsch) gets in on the story, particularly when he teams up with a teen (Joey King) and her three siblings in their family station wagon to drive to safety. Also, in a wrongheaded decision, screenwriter Nicolas Wright is cast as annoying comic relief, a nervously chatty accountant who learns to toughen up. Emmerich also increasingly loses his hand on pacing and coherence, busily intercutting between Washington D.C., Area 51, and the Moon’s defense headquarters, all of which lack the scope one wants to see in a genre movie based purely on sensation. 

In a mix of returning cast members and newcomers, the ensemble is a good one, but most of them are dealt a sorry hand with forgettable, tissue-thin characterization. Making one of several encore performances here, Jeff Goldblum bothered to return, and he’s at least fun to see at the head of a summer movie again. As David Levinson and not Ian Malcolm, he gets exactly one memorable, self-aware throwaway one-liner, “They like to get the landmarks,” that might be missed during the chaos. Though the PTSD-suffering President Whitmore hasn’t aged enough to act like he’s 80, Bill Pullman also gets to be an old face from the past. Liam Hemsworth finally gets a chance to flash some charisma as hotshot pilot Jake; if Hollywood ever set out to reboot “Top Gun,” he could probably fill Val Kilmer’s shoes in the Iceman role. Then there’s Jessie T. Usher, whose Dylan is exactly as brash and quip-ready as his stepfather but really has nothing to do; his interpersonal conflict with Hemsworth’s Jake is so lame that it has “get over it!” written all over it. Crazy-haired Brent Spiner makes a welcome comeback as the kooky Dr. Okun, and his loving same-sex relationship with Dr. Isaacs (John Storey) is invested with the vaguest authenticity. Vivica A. Fox is back as Jasmine Hiller, who apparently changed career paths from an exotic dancer to a doctor without comment, but the character is so poorly handled, her screen time petering out abruptly to a deflating degree. She might as well have been written out like Will Smith. Continuity does not continue with the absence of Margaret Colin’s Connie, Levinson’s wife, and Mae Whitman’s First Daughter Patricia Whitmore. In place of Whitman is Maika Monroe, who made a name for herself in both “The Guest” and “It Follows.” It’s not her fault that the role is so blankly written, resulting in an uncharacteristically flat performance. In one last sexist female part, the bizarrely present Charlotte Gainsbourg is left to ask a lot of questions as Levinson’s doctor love interest.

Two decades is a long wait for a sequel, and this was the best the moviemakers could come up with? Viewed as nothing more than a popcorn-munching tentpole, “Independence Day: Resurgence” doesn’t even offer many medium-sized thrills, which director Emmerich is evidently clumsy at generating this time. Why must a smart, clever script and well-designed destruction be mutually exclusive in a film like this? Both are sacrificed in this case. While the visual effects team does manage one gravitational-pull trick, lifting everything and everyone into the sky, it can be counted as the only spectacular piece of spectacle. Smacking more of obligation than energy or charisma, “Independence Day: Resurgence” has the staying power of a sparkler without enough fireworks to co-exist with its big, dumb predecessor.

Grade: C - 

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bikini Kills: "The Shallows" lands preposterously but makes for gripping fun

The Shallows (2016)
87 min., rated PG-13.

Outside of 1975’s one-and-only “Jaws” and the dumb-fun likes of 1999’s “Deep Blue Sea” and 2011’s “Shark Night 3D,” a solid “killer shark thriller” is hard to come by, unless it’s being cheekily played for camp and involving Tara Reid and tornadoes. It comes as a pleasant surprise, then, that “The Shallows” is an auspicious addition to the genre and relocates the threat in a toothy fish again. Spending an entire movie with Blake Lively as she fends off and hopefully defeats a great white shark, this life-or-death survival thriller does exactly what it needs to do as its high-concept “‘Gravity’ in the Sea” logline would suggest and does it with a more-than-sufficiently tense sense of fun. Learning how to surf will most likely be deleted from many audience members’ bucket lists.

After losing her mother to cancer, medical school dropout Nancy Adams (Blake Lively) gets away from her home in Galveston, Texas for some me time. On vacation in Mexico, she makes her way to a private beach where her late mother frequented. She surfs the whole afternoon, taking in the waves with two locals, but when going out for one last wave, Nancy is attacked by a great white shark. She swims to a rock island protruding out of the water, grabbing her bloodied thigh with a bite wound and screaming for help. For the next 12 hours before the high tide rolls in, Nancy can’t do much, except wait for help to come or throw in the towel and risk swimming to shore. About 200 yards away from shore, Nancy is in quite a pickle, along with suffering from the cold temperatures, exhaustion and more injuries from the coral below, but might be able to take her chances in swimming to a buoy. Whatever happens, this tough cookie isn’t going to give up so easily.

“The Shallows” is an armrest-clenching B-movie with A-movie production values. Skillfully directed by Jaume Collet-Serra (who previously made stylishly gnarly horror films “House of Wax” and “Orphan” and then three Liam Neeson-driven thrillers in a row) and penned with a no-frills simplicity by Anthony Jaswinski (2014’s “Kristy”), the film provides enough backstory for Nancy—and mostly does it with economy—in order to make the viewer care if she gets out of this sticky situation alive or not. Blake Lively does a credible job of holding one’s attention, and not only from being easy on the eyes in a bikini for most of the film. Nancy isn’t MacGyver, but she comes close with her medical know-how and survival capabilities. Who knew you could stitch a shark wound by using an earring and a piece of a wet suit? It can be a challenge for an actor to sell lines that involve talking to him or herself, but Lively more than pulls off a one-woman show. Even when an attack takes place off-camera, everything we need to know is on Lively's emotive face. Despite the character having some handy medical knowledge, she forms Nancy into a resourceful and sympathetic born survivor to whom we can relate. As for the vicious man-eater himself, the computer-generated effects are seamless most of the time.

The pacing is pretty airtight at a just-right 85 minutes. There are tasty jolts and thrills sprinkled amidst the waiting game. As Nancy can’t move from her rock but shouts and waves her hands out to a beachcomber awaking from a drunken stupor onshore or the pair of surfers she met, there’s heart-pumping suspense in waiting for the appearance of a dorsal fin or the jaws of death to pull them under. There’s also well-placed humor, particularly in Nancy’s interaction with an injured seagull she names “Steven Seagull” (played by Sully) who’s like her Wilson to his Tom Hanks. And, with the film being shot on Lord Howe Island in New South Wales, Australia, Flavio Martínez Labiano’s cinematography is as attractive as any of John Stockwell’s aqua-related movies (“Blue Crush,” “Into the Blue,” “Turistas”). Some of the tension only lags with an overuse of slow-motion early on, but Collet-Serra and his editor sure do manage a foreboding, very cool silhouette of the shark in a wave as Nancy rides her last wave.

Except for a hokey, overly on-the-nose coda that reaches for emotional heft, “The Shallows” never bites off more than it can chew. It is giddily suspenseful, to-the-point summer popcorn entertainment with as much flab on its narrative bones as Blake Lively has on her athletic waist. Going in, the film doesn’t demand much suspension of disbelief until the final act, which kicks into high gear and keeps topping itself with one preposterous setup followed up with an even more preposterous payoff. And yet, Nancy’s final face-off is no less crowd-pleasing as when Chief Brody uttered, “Smile, you son of a bitch!” before blowing up the pesky great white to bits. The climax may be improbable but it’s fun, and fun is all that really matters here. Director Jaume Collet-Serra probably isn’t out to make high art, but for the number of times a modest thriller can’t even be executed well on its own terms, making an effective one might as well be a kind of lost art. We already have “Jaws,” and now “The Shallows” can swim in the same water. 


Friday, June 24, 2016

Dressed to Kill: “Neon Demon” defiantly strange, beautiful, virtuoso cinema

The Neon Demon (2016)
117 min., rated R.

Danish auteur Nicolas Winding Refn’s last film, 2013’s esoteric, atmosphere-drenched revenge art film “Only God Forgives,” made 2011’s electrifying “Drive” look like a straightforward popcorn picture by comparison. With “The Neon Demon,” a glittery, deeply strange nightmare full of the filmmaker’s avant-garde sensibilities, it is even less of a mainstream crowd-pleaser. Those not willing to bask in Refn’s unapologetic, art-minded bravado might want to take their business elsewhere. It’s his most divisive, least palatable and most unclassifiable that it’s really not for everyone, but for those who speak Refn’s filmic language and are open to a startlingly unrivaled vision, this is a defiant, seductively crafted piece of outré cinema dripping with menacing allure and mouth-watering beauty.

"I can't sing, I can't dance, I can't real talent. But I'm pretty, and I can make money off pretty." Pure, fresh-faced 16-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning) comes to the City of Angels to make it as a model without any family or any experience in the industry. Aside from amateur photographer Dean (Karl Glusman), she is on her own, staying at a fleabag Pasadena motel. When she kills it at a Grand Guignol-style photo shoot, Jesse is quickly befriended by friendly make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). Soon, she learns how treacherous modeling will be when she meets two cruelly beautiful models, plastic surgery addict Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), who size her up but do not yet see her as a threat. Once she’s successfully signed up with a model agency, the youthful and beautiful Jesse is on the fast track of being desired as fresh meat by all the photographers and designers. By selling her soul, she is past the point of no return and unaware that her wicked competition is circling.

In a case of splashy style prevailing over substance but the style actually being the substance, “The Neon Demon” is a viciously bleak, thematically loaded metaphor and cautionary tale of the cutthroat, vanity-obsessed modeling biz and the loss of innocence in the form of a phantasmagoric horror film. La La Land is said to change people, and boy howdy does it, but it's also quick to chew one up and spit them out. “Beauty isn’t everything. It’s the only thing,” spoken in blunt honesty by a fashion designer (Alessandro Nivola), becomes the thematic throughline and ultimate goal for its characters in this cosmetically familiar new-girl-comes-to-town-with-big-dreams story that never takes the safe, expected route. It gets even kinkier and more lurid than “Showgirls.” As the film enters its third act and meshes the carnal with the macabre, the horror of this once-figurative soul-eating modeling world comes out in full swing with an insane hoot of a final blow. While director Nicolas Winding Refn is in full command of the visual medium and proves to push his actors to fearless and interesting levels, his screenplay, co-written with Mary Laws & Polly Stenham, isn’t always as adept. A stray wildcat and a neon triangle might exist merely as symbols, or perhaps one just shouldn’t overthink what amounts to a surreal fever dream.

Having just turned 18 a couple months ago, the expressive Elle Fanning is the embodiment of a pretty ingenue. As Jesse makes the transformation from a modest up-and-comer to a corrupted, narcissistic mannequin whom everyone wants to be, Fanning approaches that dichotomy with captivating poise. The one thing that doesn’t change is her naïveté, blinding her to the dangers around her. Even when Jesse's intentions may be kept mysterious, as she eventually states, “I’m not as helpless as I look,” Jesse still needs to watch her back. Equally venomous as self-obsessed models Gigi and Sarah, Bella Heathcote (2016’s “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”) and real-life model-turned-actress Abbey Lee (2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road”) sink their sharp teeth into their parts with intentional humor and looks that could kill, their jealousy and envy begetting violence. Smiling sweetly but holding a freaky-deaky edge close to her vest, Jena Malone never fails to spark as the enigmatic Ruby and dares to go to some dark, sick places. Nothing can really prepare even the most adventurous viewer for her perverse, disturbing scene that prompted theater walk-outs, but Malone brings a creepy desire in Ruby to said scene that makes it seem to exist for a reason rather than just shock-for-shock’s-sake. Other bit parts that make up this world are well filled, including Alessandro Nivola, effortlessly funny as a slick fashion designer who praises his new muse for being “a diamond in a sea of glass"; Christina Hendricks is dropped too quickly but nails her one scene that shows how merciless her modeling agency is run as the no-bullshit Roberta; and Keanu Reeves snags a few laughs out of the sleaziness he oozes as scummy motel owner Hank but serves no real purpose beyond a sinister, cringe-inducing dream sequence.

Lynchian and Kubrickian in feel with some Dario Argento, “The Neon Demon” nevertheless bears the hypnotic, vibrantly specific imprint of Nicolas Winding Refn with long takes and extra beats of silence. Adding to his limit-pushing, take-me-or-leave-me form, he bravely stages a longer-than-expected performance-art sequence with a strobe light that could be found in 2010’s Gaspar Noé-directed mold-breaker “Enter the Void.” Whether or not Refn is showing off, it’s such a thrill to watch him at work that there’s no denying his entrancingly deliberate precision in his tone and pacing and his striking aesthetic in every pristine frame. A model itself in visual and aural perfection, the film has been lushly shot as a kaleidoscopic nightmarescape by Natasha Braeir and composed by Cliff Martinez, befitting the eerie, coolly alien vibe with another propulsive, synth-heavy score. Lest one forget who directed the film, Refn’s initials (“NWR”) being planted on the screen during the opening credits rides a fine line between smugness and brilliance. With that said, it’s hard not to relish the fact that Refn would probably cackle in the faces of audiences who bemoan his arresting efforts for being too ambiguous and far-out. A lot of movies play out in front of us and then we just go back to our everyday lives. Other films are anything but ephemeral and leave a lingering, hard-to-process effect. Love it or hate it, “The Neon Demon” is still a haunting, ethereal, ultimately singular experience that will not fade from memory anytime soon. It will confound, it will polarize and, yes, it will disgust, but rest assured, it truly is unlike anything you are likely to see in 2016 or any other year.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Like a Hurricane: "Krisha" a stunning, ferocious knockout on a budget

Krisha (2016)
83 min., rated R.

The black sheep of a family tries being a better human being in the ferocious, powerful “Krisha,” a remarkable feature debut from writer-director-editor-producer Trey Edward Shults. In expanding his 2014 short film, the 28-year-old filmmaker used his own family and friends as the ensemble to tell his story without a whiff of self-indulgence. Shults takes what on the surface is just another indie drama about family dysfunction, but he seems to have filmmaking instincts in his bones, even for his first feature, that it is no surprise the film received the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award in the narrative feature competition at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival. It is a testament to what one can do with little means—a nine-day shoot for under $100,000—and a lot of talent behind the camera. “Krisha” is unmistakably great independent cinema that stings like a bee.

The sixtysomething Krisha (Krisha Fairchild) hasn’t seen her extended family in a decade, but she is making an effort for Thanksgiving. Once arriving in Texas, she’s already agitated, wheeling her suitcase behind her and going to the wrong house at first and then stepping in mud. Finally, Krisha is greeted warmly by her sister, Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), and some other relatives. It’s a full house, with Robyn and her husband, their kids and spouses, a newborn, cousins and a pack of barking dogs. She appears slightly calm and collected, setting up shop in her guest room bathroom with all of her pills and keeping a box with a key she wears around her neck. Krisha thinks she has healed herself and takes on the responsibility of cooking the bird for the holiday feast to prove she’s back on track, but there are too many painful demons bound to come out and threaten the family gathering. How much longer can Krisha hold it together?

An intimate, unflinching character study and familial slice-of-life, “Krisha” is a gut-punch of jittery, devastating power that actually reinvents dysfunctional family, addiction and redemption dramas into a singular work of art. This would seem like a cathartic therapy session while the cameras ran, but as much as one can in a little over a week, time and care have been placed into telling this story with the utmost honesty. The film doesn’t judge Krisha but merely observes her as a wounded human being with her sins and regrets bubbling to the surface. Opening and closing on the title character’s face with a similar long tracking shot, her naked expression at the end is different from the beginning; the unnerving impact is the same, though. Front and center, Krisha Fairchild (the director’s aunt) is a shattering powerhouse. She is phenomenal, free of artifice and layering this hurricane of a character with a constant worry and vulnerability under a placid facade and then eventually letting it all hang out. As for the rest of the family, no one seems to be “acting.” Director Shults’ real mother, Robyn, isn’t a professional actress, but she’s utterly natural and unaffected as Krisha's sister who loves her but isn’t afraid to tell her that Krisha has to actually do the work in order to fix her relationships.

Lacerating yet sympathetic, the film is anything but unfeeling. Several of Krisha’s one-on-one exchanges with family members snap into focus as they unfold. When she tries to reconcile with her estranged grown-up son, aspiring filmmaker Trey (Trey Edward Shults), and make up for lost time, the unblinking longing in Krisha’s face and Trey’s refusal to look at her are both quite telling. In another scene, Krisha and her prickly brother-in-law Doyle (Bill Wise) have a cigarette on the back patio, playing catch-up until he can no longer keep quiet and calls his wife’s sister "heartbreak incarnate," “a leaver," and "an abandoner." Also, there is an incredibly moving moment where Krisha reunites with her dementia-suffering mother (Billie Fairchild). Quaking tension and unspoken bitterness course through this slow-motion train wreck before the uncomfortable truths rear their ugly heads.

“Krisha” doesn’t sound like it would be pulse-pounding, but it heightens the senses as much as any psychological horror film. In a way, it might actually be one, lying in wait for the proverbial bomb to detonate on Thanksgiving and never has the high-stress preparation of a turkey been so nerve-jangling. It’s in Trey Edward Shults’ confident verité filmmaking technique that truly captivates. Cinematographer Drew Daniels is like an observant fly on the wall with a bravura dance of the camera, evoking Terrence Malick (with whom Shults actually interned). The camera whirls around, albeit fluidly, as Daniels tracks Krisha’s movements in the kitchen while preparing the turkey, to the college-aged nephews wrestling and playing football, to the family dogs chasing each other in the yard. The score by composer Brian McOmber is unsettling and jarring in the best sense, appropriately accentuating Krisha’s deteriorating psyche. So raw, vividly real and personal as if it weren’t meant for anyone’s eyes, this is a staggering knockout that leaves one absolutely stunned.


Monday, June 20, 2016

Cake and Children: "Clown" balloons fake trailer into ballsy terror yarn

Clown (2015) 
100 min., rated R. 

Back in 2010, “Clown” first originated as a fake trailer that was purported to be a new film from “master of horror Eli Roth.” Instead of instituting a lawsuit when finding the video uploaded to YouTube, Roth was delighted by the idea, agreeing to attach his name as producer and backing writer-director Jon Watts (2015’s “Cop Car”) and co-writer Christopher D. Ford to turn their 77-second video into a feature-length film. For those with a taste for macabre entertainment, “Clown” not only has a crackerjack premise that of a ghastly “Tales from the Crypt” yarn but a fully developed execution. It’s not every time a germ of an idea pays off as an actual film, but Watts and Ford—and for that matter, Roth, who’s always one to have in your corner when it comes to the genre that scares us—are able to take chances and impressively never compromise their black-hearted vision.

When the clown cancels last minute for their son’s birthday party, family-man realtor Kent McCoy (Andy Powers) happens to find a clown costume in a trunk in the basement of  a renovated property. He makes for a good replacement, but the morning after the party, the clown get-up just won't come off — not the make-up, no matter how hard he scrubs; not the red nose or rainbow-colored wig, no matter how hard he tugs; and not even the suit. Kent tries everything (using an electric saw is probably the worst idea), even with the help of pregnant wife Meg (Laura Allen), a dental hygienist who nearly rips off his entire real nose with her forceps. Then he beomes ravenous for sweets, the rumbling of his tummy never ceasing, and gets very sick. As Kent tries to locate the demonic origins of the costume, it might already be too late as he can no longer fight his hunger to kill and eat children. Meg hopes her husband is still in there, but their son, Jack (Christian Distefano), could become a victim.

Shot in 2012, “Clown” was released two years later in Italy and has sat on the shelf until now seeing a VOD release. Like many a grindhouse flicks, that a trailer blossomed into a 100-minute film is a miracle unto itself; even more admirable is how good the screen-ready final treatment actually turned out to be. For a premise that rides the line of dumb and freaky, the filmmakers make it work and achieve the latter. With cosmetic similarities to 1986’s “The Fly,” 1996’s Stephen King adaptation “Thinner” and 2014’s “Starry Eyes,” the film is a story of deterioration and transformation. The idea of someone morphing into an evil monster with every sign of their former self and humanity gradually disappearing is always ripe for horror, and there’s something terrifying about the irreversibility. It’s worked with vampires and werewolves and now we can add evil clowns. In order for an unbelievable situation like this to work, the performances should do some of the heavy lifting, and they do. From the start before his metamorphosis, Andy Powers has an affable everyman quality without turning Kent into a pathetic milquetoast. Then once the clown suit becomes his skin and Kent’s body is essentially a host, the actor sells the horror under the clownish latex without losing sight of the tragedy he’s causing himself and his family. Laura Allen holds her own as wife Meg, shouldering an emotional stance that rides over into desperation as she’s torn to have her husband back. Understandably, Meg sides with her friends and father at first, thinking Kent has just lost his mind, but then she will do anything to have her husband back, no matter how selfish it is. Also, always-memorable character actor Peter Stormare is on hand for exposition as clown suit expert Karlsson, delivering it as kookily as he can.

As a truly horrific and demented cautionary tale that takes itself seriously, “Clown” increasingly crosses the line and goes as far as it possibly can without becoming unwatchably grim. In ways both perverse and wince-inducing, the film has it in for children, both petulant and innocent. Once Kent goes on a murderous rampage, director Watts knows just how much to show before cutting at the right moment. The setting for a sinister sequence at a Chuck E. Cheese is inspired and a blood-flowing nightmare staged inside a play tube is creepily exploited for tension and gnarly gore. Without ever treating itself as a joke but not really having a lot of time for subtlety, the script still squeezes out burnt-to-a-crisp humor where it can without completely pulling the viewer out of its unsettling spell. Neil Sedaka’s 1962 poppy song “King of Clowns” even drops in as a wicked counterpoint right before Kent attempts to kill himself. 

"Clown" gets a little stretchy in the middle—the proactive Meg has to read through books featuring drawings of the demonic culprit and snoop around the house where Kent found the costume—but for a twisted terror tale with an empathy buried underneath, this is an unthinkably ballsy piece of work. The film is also technically capable and moodily shot, particularly inside a neon-colored, carnivalesque indoor golf course, and there's the occasionally morbid stylistic flourish (i.e. the scene of a boy scout having his hand bitten cuts to a grade-school student making a red handprint on a paper for an art project). Horror fans will rejoice that this fiendish nasty finally came out of hiding, while coulrophobics can safely sit this one out.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

No Giggling Matter: "Tickled" an odd, engrossing stranger-than-fiction doc

Tickled (2016)
92 min., rated R.

Tickling used to just be innocuous playtime, so when did it become a titillating sport? In “Tickled,” an engrossing documentary about an unusual and quietly popular subculture, the viewer goes right along with directors David Farrier and Dylan Reeve as they uncover the online world of “Competitive Endurance Tickling” and dig up even more dirt than the mere existence of it. It sounds like lurid fiction, but it’s not. Despite the cuteness of its title, “Tickled” will shock and start a conversation.

Covering curious human interest pieces of the weird, the bizarre and Justin Bieber, Auckland, New Zealand pop culture journalist David Farrier continued his beat when he happened upon a Facebook page for “Competitive Endurance Tickling” (CET). On there, he found countless videos of athletes—all of them fit and college-aged—being paid to be strapped down and tickled by other fit college-aged athletes. When Farrier contacted the business operator known as Jane O’Brien Media through email, he was mocked for his sexual orientation and called a “little gay Kiwi.” Nasty slurs then grew into threats: “If you want to stick your head in a blast furnace, do it.” Not wanting to stop there but actually motivated even more, Farrier and friend/co-director Dylan Reeve would soon set out to shoot a documentary on their findings. They flew to America and were able to speak with a former CET participant whose life was nearly destroyed by the high-paying sport, as well as a bondage-tickling fetishist. The filmmakers received threats of U.S. legal action filed against them, but Farrier would later find the bullying monster hiding behind different aliases and unlimited funds.

Any documentary exploring the anonymity of the Digital Age is a horror movie for our times. 2010’s more empathetic “Catfish” was one, and “Tickled” is another. It’s in David Farrier’s tenacity that this story was told at all. The harsh and unhelpful emails Farrier received from Jane O’Brien employee Debbie Kuhn would make anyone quit the investigation altogether, but not this Kiwi. Kuhn’s homophobic slurs are hilariously ironic, considering the homoerotic nature of the production of videos featuring muscular young men on top of one another tickling each other and giggling. Even as the plot thickens and darkens, one still can’t believe it. A film tackling such a specific subject that is still ongoing can’t help but be a bit anticlimatic, but “Tickled” is nothing short of fascinating. It’s disturbing, eyebrow-raising and purposefully infuriating. Stranger than fiction, for sure.


Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Don't You Forget About Her: Overdue sequel “Finding Dory” a delightfully necessary catch

Finding Dory (2016)
97 min., rated PG.

The term “classic” is not something that should be thrown around willy-nilly, especially when it’s something from the 21st century, but 2003’s beloved “Finding Nemo” is, indeed, one. It was and still holds up as a disarming, heartfelt, funny and wise undersea adventure with inspiredly fizzy humor, excitement, endearing characters, and a sincere message delivered with warmth and truth. There are thirteen years between the original film and the sequel, but not every overdue follow-up has to be a slapdash hanger-on purely made for monetary gain and bedspread tie-ins. Unlike how 20th Century Fox’s Blue Sky Studios churns out a regrettably mediocre “Ice Age” sequel every few years, Pixar actually lets an appropriate length of time pass to tell a story that was worth telling. The computer-animation studio kept the bar high with “Toy Story 2” and “Toy Story 3,” and now the long-awaited “Finding Dory” more than measures up to Pixar's standards as the emotionally sound, lovingly conceived continuation we didn’t know we wanted and needed. 

One year after helping clownfish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) find son Nemo (Hayden Rolance, taking over for Alexander Gould), forgetful blue tang Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) now resides in the Pacific reef with her friends. When she assists Nemo’s stingray teacher on a field trip in a migration class, something in the lesson sparks a recall of her mother and father. Since Dory never gave up on the crotchety Marlin in his quest to find his son, the father-and-son clownfish team up with their amnesiac friend to track down her family. As the search party goes, Dory, Marlin and Nemo do reach Marro Bay, California’s Marine Life Institute, where Dory believes she grew up, but get split up in different exhibits and along the way meet various aquatic friends, some more helpful than others.

Doubly confirming that Pixar's next-level storytelling never panders to one age group and vocal performances can be something special when the casting fits like a glove, “Finding Dory” is beatific entertainment guaranteed to delight audiences beyond a single-digit demographic. It’s kind of a spin-off but more of a direct sequel, and it’s a natural progression for Dory. Writer-director Andrew Stanton (2012’s “John Carter”) returns, alongside co-director Angus MacLane, and first finds the lovable sidekick in her own origin story. Since she was a little squirt, Dory (Sloane Murray) suffered from short-term memory loss—or, in her words, “short-term remember-y loss”—that worried her parents, Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Diane Keaton), but they loved her just the same and taught her how to find her way home. The scenes with the perfectly suited Levy and Keaton are as sweet as they are heartbreaking.

An irresistible standout in “Finding Nemo” with her winning vocal work as everyone’s favorite amnesiac blue tang, Ellen DeGeneres is just as adorable, bringing wonderfully daffy humor and emotional heft without ever becoming an abrasive pest. Sweet-natured in her naiveté, Dory can do whatever she puts her mind to because she was taught to never give up. With this being Dory’s story, Andrew Stanton’s sparkling screenplay opens up more emotional layers to the pre-established character, and as a plus, Marlin and Nemo still figure prominently without just swimming around in the background. DeGeneres’ platonic chemistry with Albert Brooks is still very funny and engaging as Brooks’ bond with Hayden Rolance’s Nemo is touching. In addition to those three, Ed O’Neill is amusing back-up as cantankerous, antisocial octopus Hank (Ed O’Neill), whom Dory meets in the tank at the Marine Life Institute and refers to as a “septopus” since he lost a tentacle. For Dory’s tag placed on her fin that guarantees her entrance back into the open water, he makes a deal to get her to her parents’ exhibit with the use of his camouflage skills. Other charming, memorable characters include Dory’s old “pipe pal,” short-sighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson, TV’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”), and echo-location-challenged beluga whale Bailey (Ty Burrell), as well as a pair of slacker sea lions Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) who never leave their place on a rock, and a helpful loon named Becky who has seen better days.

Lovely to look at and filled to the gills with heart and wit, “Finding Dory” has the right to be regarded as that magical rarity that avoids all the pitfalls of being a disappointing sequel. It has similar narrative beats to “Finding Nemo,” but it has its own story to tell that, as the old adage goes, will make audiences laugh and cry. The animation is, without fail, appealing, colorful and textural in every oceanic detail. The undersea characters have genuine human emotions. Jokes are invented rather than rehashed. For instance, there’s a hilarious running joke involving Sigourney Weaver as the marine park announcer that hits every time, merely from DeGeneres uttering the actress’ name. Dory, Marlin and Nemo's journey is also thrilling and pertly paced from start to finish, cleverly jetting from water to land; the underwater spectacle of Dory and Hank swimming away from the grabby hands of the aquarium exhibit's child visitors is an inventive touch. Best of all, the message that one shouldn't let his or her handicap stop them from achieving their goal is sensitively and movingly handled. A joyful gem in the sea, “Finding Dory” deserves to be remembered as well as the first fish tale. Remember: What would Dory do?

Grade: A - 

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orc Games: "Warcraft" full of sound and fury, signifying care-free tedium

Warcraft (2016) 
123 min., rated PG-13.

The mythological fantasy genre seems like the hardest one to crack sometimes, and scripted, acted movie adaptations of video games rarely work. An example of both, “Warcraft” is an egregiously tedious and perplexing experience. It should not be a necessity to have played Blizzard Entertainment’s massively multiplayer online role-playing game "World of Warcraft" to enjoy what plays out on screen, but for all of the skill director Duncan Jones, son of the late David Bowie, has shown in his previous smaller-scale sci-fi efforts (2009’s “Moon” and 2011’s “Source Code”), it’s rather disheartening to state that “Warcraft” can’t even deliver on its own merits as a summer blockbuster. Full of sound and fury, signifying you know what, it’s bound to alienate anyone who isn’t part of the prepackaged target audience. Bottom line, this is a tough sit.

From what can be understood, Draenor—the world of orcs—is dying. Orc warlock leader Gul’dan (performance-captured by Daniel Wu) uses dark magic called The Fel to create a portal into the realm of Azeroth and enslave all of the humans When decent orc chieftain Durotan (Toby Kebbell) discovers Gul’dan’s nefarious plans, he decides to unite with the humans. Meanwhile, in Azeroth’s kingdom of Stormwind, noble human commander Lothar (Travis Fimmel) and his brother-in-law, King Llane (Dominic Cooper), lead their people into war against the orcs. Adding to the confusion are more characters: there’s wizard guardian Medivh (Ben Foster) and his mage apprentice Khadgar (Ben Schnetzer), and half-orc/half-human prisoner Garona (Paula Patton) who’s caught between the Alliance and Horde orc clans. Or something to that effect.

For a $160-million, CGI-loaded fantasy tentpole, “Warcraft” is lacking in fun, heart, stakes, imagination, and narrative momentum. The early scenes with Durotan and pregnant wife Draka (Anna Galvin) actually approach gravitas, but from there, the film plucks one into this world with little sense of, well, anything. Evidently, writer-director Duncan Jones and co-writer Charles Leavitt (2015’s “In the Heart of the Sea”) either have so much respect for the audience or just assumed that even the uninitiated would have been able to fill in the blanks of their ineffective world-building. (By the way, glossaries are not included at the screening.) Somehow, the story is simultaneously slender and needlessly dense and vaguely defined. The characters are mainly ciphers. The dialogue is bombastic. There’s really no clarity of time and no relationship to latch onto to save this movie’s life. To give credit where credit is due, the physical details of the hulking orcs are competently realized with motion-capture and a few of the fights between both clans are thunderously brutal. And, every so often, an action set-piece is directed with verve, too, before they all start to look the same, much like the sometimes garish, barely distinguishable orcs with bad underbites.

If the viewer cannot care less about what is happening on the screen before them, then the film is rendered an unfeeling empty shell, despite even the tiniest grace note or technical merit. That leaves all of the actors not voicing the orcs to play dress-up. Travis Fimmel makes for a rakish warrior hero but looks drunk and enervated, even when nothing of interest is learned about Lothar. Poor Paula Patton tries giving a genuine performance as green-skinned half-breed Garona, but the beautiful and talented performer is constantly upstaged by the plastic Halloween costume fangs jutting out of her mouth. Even for unintentional howlers, it’s a major distraction. No one else seems to make a good or bad enough impression, including the normally reliable Ben Foster, although Glenn Close (!!) does have the smarts to get in and get out with an uncredited role as a hooded mage named Alodi.

One can almost admire the ambition of filmmaker Duncan Jones working on a much larger canvas and adapting pre-existing material, much like when David Lynch took on "Dune." Just the same, that doesn’t make “Warcraft” any less of an inert, uninteresting blunder that drones on and on—123 minutes feel like 180—and still too often stops to catch its breath to remind us of how eye-rollingly silly it all is. With this digitalized studio-bred fiasco, he’s allowed one wipeout and will likely climb out of this fiery pit for his next project. “Warcraft” might be someone’s idea of awesomely geeky entertainment, but whatever the appeal is beats the hell out of me. If an auspicious filmmaker can’t even get the first installment right, then threatening the idea of turning this video game series into an entire franchise should be rethought and eternally buried. It would be worth living without.