Wednesday, August 31, 2016

The Smith Way: Flat, dopey "Yoga Hosers" doesn't deserve its peppy leads

Yoga Hosers (2016)
88 min., rated PG-13.

In case you don’t remember the pair of unimpressed Manitoba convenience-store clerks in Kevin Smith’s 2014 walrus horror film “Tusk,” a whole movie has been dedicated to them in what is the second chapter to Smith’s “True North” trilogy. They are played by Harley Quinn Smith, Kevin’s daughter, and Lily-Rose Depp, Johnny’s daughter, and their scrappy enthusiasm might be the best part of this anemic, flat-footed slacker piffle. Otherwise, “Yoga Hosers” represents writer-director Smith getting in touch with his inner teenage girl; that is, if your inner teenage girl likes getting baked. It should play as the type of undemanding, likably spirited “Bill & Ted”-ish lark that girls the same age as its protagonists might put on at a slumber party, but one can’t imagine anyone enjoying this nepotistic exercise more than the Smiths and the Depps.

When 15-and-a-half-year-old best friends Colleen McKenzie (Harley Quinn Smith) and Colleen Collette (Lily-Rose Depp) aren’t glued to their cell phones and complaining that everyone around them is so “basic,” they are practicing yoga and jamming in the back of their workplace, convenience store Eh-2-Zed. Once they get invited to a grade 12 party by hunky upperclassman Hunter Calloway (Austin Butler), they end up having to go in to work for the store manager, Colleen C’s father (Tony Hale), who’s going on vacation with his girlfriend (Natasha Lyonne) to Niagara Falls. The Colleens would be the last to realize that their boring night behind the counter would turn into their defeat of a long-hidden Winnipeg Nazi (Ralph Garman) and his army of murderous foot-tall bratwursts called “Bratzis” with the aid of bumbling Quebecois manhunter Guy Lapointe (Johnny Depp). Pretty "basic," eh?

Trying hard to be hip and never really working, “Yoga Hosers” is crammed with snarky millennial teenspeak that would make Diablo Cody face-palm and an initially cute but ultimately tiresome “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”-like profile introduction for every petty character that the viewer will never see again. Aside from a lovely moment with the Colleens performing a rendition of Styx's "Babe," there are one too many jam sessions. And, with the film being set in Canada, the "Canadians talk funny, eh?" joke stops being amusing after, maybe, the fifth "aboot." Kevin Smith doesn’t intend to take any of this seriously, so neither should audiences, but that doesn’t mean it deserves a pass. If taken as an aspiringly great movie, it is drivel, but even with a delightfully stupid lark, which this clearly is, there should be more wit and less self-pleased wackiness. 

Front and center as the Colleens, real-life 17-year-old childhood friends Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp are peppy and adorable—or should we say “adorbz”—in front of the camera. They aren’t exactly revelations or breakout stars, but they are charming, have a natural chemistry with each other, and could have film careers if they wanted them. Meanwhile, Kevin Smith called in a lot of favors with a little help from his friends, including Justin Long, not in his walrus suit but in spandex as the Colleens’ teacher Yoga Bayer; Haley Joel Osment, as the Canadian Hitler; and somehow, a cameo-ready Stan Lee. As for Johnny Depp reprising his role as doofus inspector Guy Lapointe, he’s vaguely more amusing and less talky than he was in “Tusk” but still grating all the same. At least here, Lapointe doesn’t feel like he’s coming out of a different movie entirely. Finally, through the tacky—and not even charmingly tacky—use of green screen, Smith is seemingly shrunk and cloned to play one of multiple “Bratzis.”

Irresistibly loopy as the "Clerks" creator's first "kids' movie" sounds, featuring the Führer's sausage babies, a Nazi scientist spelling out his heinous backstory in the voices of Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone, and Satan-worshipping serial killers, to boot, “Yoga Hosers” isn’t half as fun to watch as it probably was to make. Whereas 2011's “Red State” marked the "human hockey jersey's" auspicious direction into disturbing horror and “Tusk” was an insane wackadoo that, for all its self-indulgences, was ballsy enough to follow through to its logical conclusion, this horror-comedy effort is just shaggy and dopey. It’s almost as if Smith is laughing at his own jokes, but the jokes almost never land anyway. Guess you had to be there. It’s unfortunate that “Yoga Hosers” is such a lamely executed dud because it seems to come from a place of love, and it has a certain harmlessly goofy naïveté that keeps one from getting too angry about it. A premise this random and weird could have worked as inspired lunacy, but maybe it just wasn’t meant to be this time. Whatever spark the girls showcase here will hopefully be in the service of a much better script when the Colleens return for “Moose Jaws.” 

Grade: C - 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

We Go Together: "The Intervention" familiar but comfortably low-key and nicely acted

The Intervention (2016)
90 min., rated R.

Bearing more than a passing resemblance to 1983 antecedent “The Big Chill” and even its second cousin, 2014’s “About Alex,” “The Intervention” can now be added to the collection of bittersweet weekend reunions among friends. It feels like a movie we have seen before (let alone one that comes around no less than three times each year at Sundance), and yet, that familiarity is part of the comfortable appeal. Even if there is nothing too revelatory about it, the film is frequently amusing and insightful with an excellent ensemble and more than enough emotional truth. In surrounding herself with friends who are all accomplished, likable working actors, actress Clea Duvall makes her directorial debut with “The Intervention,” and it’s a solid start.

Five thirtysomething friends institute a “marriage intervention” to hash things out between on-the-rocks couple Ruby (Cobie Smulders) and Peter (Vincent Piazza) for the weekend at Ruby and sister Jessie’s (Clea DuVall) family house in Savannah, Georgia. There’s Annie (Melanie Lynskey), who’s adverse to having children with fiancée Matt (Jason Ritter) and cannot stop drinking. The commitment-phobic Jessie has brought along her girlfriend of three years, Sarah (Natasha Lyonne), who lives in L.A. away from her girlfriend, and Jack (Ben Schwartz) brings along carefree, bi-curious 22-year-old Lola (Alia Shawkat). As Ruby and Peter needle each other before they even get out of their car and can’t let it go from there, Annie begins to strategize with the rest of the group on how to finally sit down their friends. Then again, perhaps those who live in glass houses, like Annie, shouldn’t throw stones.

The enjoyment had between the actors promptly rubs off on the viewer. Of the cast, Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall get to reunite 17 years after “But I’m a Cheerleader.” Lynskey is adorably neurotic as Annie, who tries to play mediator but wants to call the shots. For instance, just take her pep talk to Peter that begins as the “Cheers” TV theme song. Cobie Smulders gets to be spiky, and her dinner discussion on trying to understand Hitler’s point-of-view is priceless; playing a married couple with Vincent Piazza (2014’s “Jersey Boys”), one can feel the band-aid on their marriage coming off. Alia Shawkat adds the most levity as Lola, the only non-friend of the group who’s derided for her youth.

No matter the tension that is already there between Ruby and Peter and the ripple effect the married couple’s drama has on everyone else, the film feels like warming up in a cozy blanket when just watching everyone hang out. The chemistry amongst every cast member is organic, Clea DuVall's writing is wise and observant, and her direction is modestly assured. Slight and tidy though it ends up being, “The Intervention” is diverting in a low-key, unpushy indie sort of way.


Friday, August 26, 2016

Mouse Hunt: "Don't Breathe" plays like an overwhelmingly tense death grip

Don’t Breathe (2016) 
88 min., rated R.

This is how you do it. Showing up nearly every other home-invasion suspenser, “Don’t Breathe” is the kind of lean, mean thriller that takes a shrewdly simple premise with a minimalistic setting and knows how to milk it for maximum tension and stark intensity that never ebb. Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez, who made one of the more respectable horror remakes of yesteryear with 2013’s gleefully gore-soaked “Evil Dead,” has gone and formidably crafted one of 2016’s most memorable nerve-shredders that plays like a relentlessly and overwhelmingly tense death grip. With blessedly airtight plotting and a consistent sense of “what-would-you-do?” panic, “Don’t Breathe” is proof that viewers can still be thrilled.

Tired of her abusive home life, Rocky (Jane Levy) needs to get out of the slummy wasteland that is Detroit and escape to California to start a better life for her and her younger sister. In the meantime, she breaks into expensive homes and steals with thug boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) and nice friend Alex (Dylan Minnette), whose father happens to the owner of a security system company with a key to homes in the area. For their final score, they get wind of a Gulf War vet allegedly sitting on $300,000, which he received as a settlement after his daughter was hit and killed by a car. When getting sight of the man (Stephen Lang), they realize he is blind—only one of them initially questions the morality of stealing from a blind person—and figure it will be “a piece of cake.” Rocky, Money and Alex get way more than they bargained for when they have vastly underestimated their target whose other senses are extremely heightened. Getting in wasn’t so much a problem as it will be getting out alive.

Narrative simplicity is a film’s best friend. It worked for 1967’s “Wait Until Dark” and 2002’s “Panic Room,” and it works again with a like-minded successor like “Don’t Breathe,” a wiry, resourceful chamber thriller that keeps churning out surprises in 88 minutes. From a no-fuss screenplay with efficiently drawn characters, writer-director Fede Alvarez and co-writer Rodo Sayagues shift sympathies, asking the viewer to align him or herself with the lesser of two evils, as the burglars become the victims and the one being burglarized turns out to be the victimizer. Every plot point seems set up for a reason and not just as a throwaway; a story Rocky tells about finding comfort in a ladybug when locked in her mother’s trunk as a child is not only painted with a lingering poignancy but will be recalled for the climax. As this cat-and-mice game plays out (most of it in real time), the film is cleverly constructed with ruthless efficiency like a Rube Goldberg contraption. It’s all very edge-of-your-seat stuff.

For every move the characters make that doesn’t correspond to the viewer’s instructions, director Fede Alvarez keeps upping the ante and finding more reasons for audiences to dig their fingernails into their armrest and bite them all off. He knows exactly what he’s doing, leaving one off balance when we expect genre standbys to be detonated. With his use of pin-drop silence and close calls, it is hard not to hold one’s breath or to keep quiet along with Rocky and Alex. His expert control on pacing and verve behind the camera is mightily impressive, too, even technically dazzling. As the trio of home invaders break in and case the joint for the loot, the camera fluidly moves through the floor and every which way in a seemingly unbroken shot, informing us where certain weapons are before the sleeping giant awakens. Tightly shot and edited like everything else, a basement-set sequence where The Blind Man forces a total blackout is ingeniously conceived in particular, lending immersion to the way its actors are actually stumbling around in the darkness and how the scene was shot in black-and-white film stock. The floor plan of the house also makes geographical sense, transforming every space into a nightmarish maze not unlike Wes Craven’s unfairly forgotten “The People Under the Stairs.”

Though what Rocky is doing is criminal—and she still makes it her goal to not leave without the money they came for—Jane Levy (2013's "Evil Dead") somehow makes her worth rooting for, and the character's sincere yearning to get away with her sister is certainly identifiable. Up to being placed through the physical and emotional wringer yet again under the tutelage of Alvarez, Levy is sensational, riding the line of hard-edged delinquent and root-worthy survivor, and she has an ideal face for a horror movie. (Without getting deep into spoiler territory with the events of the third act, there is one sloppy discrepancy involving Rocky's jeans being magically sewn up after they have been sliced open; it's a surprise the filmmakers didn't catch this continuity gaffe during the editing process.) Of the other two burglars, Daniel Zovatto (2015’s “It Follows”) is convincingly sleazy as a cornrowed punk named Money, who’s obviously a goner, and Dylan Minnette (2015’s “Goosebumps”) imbues decency and intelligence as Alex, who pines for Rocky. And then there’s Stephen Lang, a character actor who makes for an imposing human monster without saying much when his muscular frame and ready-to-kill instincts can do all the talking.

Set in a desolate Detroit neighborhood where nothing can be heard or seen, “Don’t Breathe” doesn’t require much suspension of disbelief and terrifyingly so. If there are any reservations that could potentially break the film’s otherwise dread-filled spell but still do not, it is in how far director Alvarez is willing to go to make his audience gasp and squirm. Nevertheless, the secret revealed about The Blind Man is unthinkably icky, sick and shocking in a way that will certainly make one’s jaw drop. Cut down to the essentials, “Don’t Breathe” is a fierce, breathlessly harrowing masterclass in terror and suspense. Be prepared to get stressed out and leave the theater exhausted.

Grade: A - 

Saturday, August 20, 2016

No Country for Any Men: "Hell or High Water" a soundly crafted heist western that's about something

Hell or High Water (2016)
102 min., rated R.

There is a bleak yet darkly funny tone coursing through the DNA of “Hell or High Water” that has echoes of Joel and Ethan Coen’s crime yarns, particularly “No Country for Old Men.” There is also a sense of desperation during hard times all over this "honor among thieves" heist Western, capturing a socio-economical specificity in West Texas. Written by “Sicario” screenwriter Taylor Sheridan and directed by David Mackenzie (2014’s tough but electric prison drama “Starred Up”), the film is a post-modern Western, not in the traditional sense where gunslinging cowboys duel outside of a saloon but in its existence as a bank-robbery thriller that actually has it in for the banks. With as much bite as a rattlesnake but leavened with a retained levity and humanity, “Hell or High Water” is resolute and smartly told, a cinematic high point of the summer.

Divorced father Toby Howard (Chris Pine) and his impulsive older brother, ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster), rob bank branches in a string of sleepy Texas towns. Their long-suffering mama died a few weeks ago and they have a mortgage on their family’s West Texas ranch to pay off before the banks foreclose on it. Getting into a crime-spree groove, the brothers pick up a new getaway car for each robbery and bury it afterwards. Meanwhile, Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges), a grizzled Texas ranger nearing retirement, takes the case and gets on the Howard brothers’ trail with the accompaniment of his half-Mexican, half-Comanche partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham). With the bank-robbing brothers’ temperaments not quite coinciding, Tanner goes against Toby’s better judgment of robbing one last bank—a bigger one—but it might be the one fatal mistake in their otherwise well-thought-out plan.

“Hell or High Water” doesn’t drill for anything new, but it is soundly crafted in what it does so well with its genre influences. Narratively straightforward and thematically complex, the film aims for uncompromising resolutions over corkscrew plot twists and is even more ruminative for it. On both sides of the law but with major layers of gray, there are two male relationships that run parallel throughout — Tanner and Toby, and Marcus and Alberto. Ben Foster, always quite the fascinating live-wire, is such a chameleonic character actor that he can belong in any story, modern or period. Here, as wild-card brother Tanner, Foster revels in the part and manages to bring more than enough fallibly human shadings and humor to an archetype that he could by now play on cruise control. It is Chris Pine, though, as Toby, the calm, cool and collected brains of this sibling operation who proves his growing versatility as an actor. Counterbalancing mainstream blockbusters (“Star Trek Beyond”) with smaller fare like “Z for Zachariah” and this modest $3.5-million effort, Pine is more than just a handsome leading man. This time, there is a quiet thoughtfulness and an aggressive fire in his belly that is well-suited to the actor’s strengths. Though his moral compass is steadier than his brother's, Toby is flawed and knows it, as he even tells one of his sons to believe what he hears and to not be like him and Uncle Tanner. A marble-mouthed Jeff Bridges is excellent as Marcus Hamilton, being handed some sharp, witty lines, while delivering on-target character work and still holding onto a little of The Dude from “The Big Lebowski.” Despite the slurs that ignorantly erupt from Marcus’ mouth, Bridges and Gil Birmingham (quite good, too, as Alberto) share a playfully amusing partner interplay that grows into more of a friendship.

In its careful and laconic form of filmmaking and director David Mackenzie’s fondness for long takes, there is an admirably elegiac quality to “Hell or High Water.” In tandem, the pacing is never in a rush but still moves forward with little predictability. As a result of getting to know where Toby and Tanner come from and what their current situation is, the viewer actually begins to root for them to get away with the robberies. Shooting in New Mexico as an acceptable stand-in for West Texas, cinematographer Giles Nuttgens not only captures the beautiful but unforgiving vastness and flatness of Texas but also the textured, lived-in details of the small towns within. There is a memorable bit in a T-bone restaurant with a no-bullshit spitfire of a crusty waitress, played by veteran bit player Margaret Bowman (she has played “Del Rio Motel Clerk” in “No Country for Old Men” and “Townsperson” in “Bernie”). Katy Mixon (TV's "Mike & Molly") also has a great couple of scenes as financially strapped waitress Jenny Ann who’s given a portion of the brothers’ money as a tip by Toby and won’t give it up to Ranger Hamilton as evidence. Director Mackenzie and screenwriter Taylor Sheridan seem to bring out the best in one another that perhaps a follow-up in any genre would do the cinematic universe some good. Their story doesn’t always go in ways the viewer expects and they manage to say something about the status quo without belaboring the point.

Grade: B +

Saturday, August 13, 2016

All Food Goes to Heaven: "Sausage Party" clever and surprisingly audacious but not consistently funny

Sausage Party (2016)
89 min., rated R.

An inspiredly goofy idea for a short stuffed into the casing of a feature-length film, “Sausage Party” is the anti-Veggie Tales, an irreverent satire that challenges religious faith and existentialism with the use of anthropomorphic supermarket products who eventually just want to get it on. No, seriously. Designed to be inappropriate, pervasively filthy and even a little audacious, this R-rated, for-adults-only animated comedy certainly has more going on upstairs than just wiener jokes, but why isn’t it more consistently funny? Even at a brief 89 minutes, the chuckles become scattered and there is too much slack, repetitive wandering-around in between the better jokes, underscoring the dead stretches. As directed by Greg Tiernan (he of nearly every “Thomas & Friends” short) and Conrad Vernon (2012’s “Madagascar 3: Europe’s Most Wanted”) and credited to four—count ‘em, four—screenwriters, Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir (2015’s “The Night Before”) & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”), “Sausage Party” may be stretched thin but subversively goes where not even “South Park: Bigger Longer & Uncut” dared to go. Think of it as “Toy Story,” but only if that Pixar adventure had phallic, profane-talking edibles.

With “Red, White and Blue Day” right around the corner, the food items on the shelves at Shopwell’s Supermarket are excited to finally be chosen by the “Gods” (the customers) and taken to “The Great Beyond” (the kitchen). Little do they know that once food goes out those doors, they are doomed to be slaughtered. Frank (voiced by Seth Rogen) is a pork sausage in a sealed package. It’s forbidden for a sausage to put himself inside of a hot dog bun, but Frank and Brenda Bunson (Kristen Wiig) want to do more than touch “tips.” Once Frank and Brenda are chosen and placed in a cart, a returned jar of Honey Mustard (Danny McBride) clouds their beliefs about the horrors that await them before committing suicide. Through a series of circumstances, the sausage and bun escape from their packages and become stranded in the aisles of Shopwell’s. Meanwhile, girthy, deformed wiener Barry (Michael Cera) witnesses the gruesome horrors that do in his friends and must journey back home to warn those still at Shopwell's.

For its concept alone, “Sausage Party” deserves props for existing at all. With the aid of alcohol, weed, or maybe even harder drugs, one can imagine this playing like knee-slapping gangbusters, but at a certain point, its thematic and philosophical ambitions start to outweigh its readings on the laugh meter. As for the theological allegory about atheism, it is most certainly there, as Frank learns he can't be intolerant and just shove his atheist beliefs down the throats of those who do believe, like Brenda. Amid the bursts of inspiration, there are plenty of easy food puns, while the consistent abundance of F-bombs, spoken by food, seems to ride on being inherently amusing but wears old after a while. When the jokes aren’t firing, the plot tediously follows Frank meeting with Native American liquor bottle Firewater (Bill Hader) to learn the truth about their existence, while Brenda, Sammy Bagel Jr. (Edward Norton), Lavash (David Krumholtz) and a leggy lesbian taco named Teresa (Salma Hayek), who also wants to get inside of Brenda’s bun, go down different aisles in the store after-hours.

The heartiest laughs come mostly during the first and third acts. With a shopping cart wreck that creates a cloud of flour in the freezer section, a memorably hysterical bit pays homage to a war film. There’s a dementedly funny sequence where Frank’s fellow grocery pals become murdered in horror-movie style (i.e. baby carrot genocide, the skinning of a potato, the poor cheese gets microwaved on top of the poor tortilla chips, etc.). Picking up its original steam back in the grocery store, the bonkers climax goes to dark, very wrong places. Helping greatly, the terrifically talented vocal cast goes for broke, beginning with Seth Rogen who finally gets his chance to play a horny frankfurter. The desirable relationship between Frank and Brenda is beguilingly raunchy and innuendo-filled. As Brenda, Kristen Wiig only knows how to be a comedic standout, whether she’s nervously singing or coming across as sweet even when calling an Armenian flatbrad a “floppy fuck.” Without spoiling too much more, Nick Kroll voices a douchey, juiced-up douche, and a vocally unrecognizable Edward Norton does an uncanny Woody Allen impersonation as a Jewish bagel.

Viewed in a stone-cold sober state—not far off from 2007’s “Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters”—“Sausage Party” is obscenely funny in fits and starts and there’s something gleefully twisted but never mean about its rambunctious attitude. The screenplay is also an equal-opportunity offender, using nearly every race, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation as a part of the food concept. Being half the brainchild from the smartly stoned minds of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, though, more laughs would have been nice. It is surely one of the most cleverly conceived and limits-pushing comedies in recent memory, animated or not. It just makes one want to laugh more. The filmmakers may even go a step too far, but they decidedly save their most perversely uproarious—even shocking—gag for an orgasmic finale that redefines the word “food porn.” If nothing else, “Sausage Party” will go down in cinematic history as the first and (probably) last film where a hard taco shell performs cunnilingus on a hot dog bun.

Grade: C +

Friday, August 12, 2016

The Big Friendly Dragon: “Pete’s Dragon” a lovely, melancholy surprise

Pete’s Dragon (2016)
102 min., rated PG.

There are only seven stories to tell in the cinematic world, but “Pete’s Dragon” wondrously reinvents a story we already know by the way it has been told. Based on Malcolm Marmorstein’s screenplay of the enjoyable-but-not-universally-beloved 1977 Disney musical that tried to ape the exuberance of “Mary Poppins,” this loose 2016 remake soars above as its own special creature. Besides “Candle on the Water” not being heard and no one breaking out into song, the film is still lyrical in tone but mutes the lighthearted whimsy for a more grounded, less Disneyfied approach. Confirming the story’s heart and soul are never swallowed up with special effects and that the weightier material never becomes heavy, writer-director David Lowery (2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and co-writer Toby Halbrooks display a deft touch in actualizing their eloquent, warmly felt vision to the screen. If this “Pete’s Dragon” calls to mind “E.T.” and “The Jungle Book” more so than its 39-year-old counterpart, it is for the best, as audiences come to genuinely care about the friendship between a boy and his unlikely companion to the point of failing to hold back tears.

After a car accident that took the lives of his parents, 5-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) was left an orphan and lost in the forest. He was soon found and brought up by Elliott, a protective dragon with the ability to camouflage and go invisible. In those six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliott build their own life, living off the woods near the Pacific Northwest town of Millhaven. They are never seen until Jack is spotted alone by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the 11-year-old daughter of local lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley). Jack’s fiancée, park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), makes a connection with Pete when discovering her lost compass around his neck and wants to know where he came from. When Grace and Jack bring the lost orphan into town and then their home, everyone in Millhaven will soon meet Elliott, including Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford), who loves spinning yarns about the time he once witnessed a dragon, and Jack’s pro-deforestation brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who could make a fortune in capturing the dragon.

Lovingly realized without any signs of studio handprints, “Pete’s Dragon” very well retains director David Lowery’s Terrence Malick-influenced indie roots with melancholy and a small-town, folkloric quality. At the same time, it is never limited in visual scope or a childlike sense of magic and wonder. Not unlike experiencing the death of Bambi’s mother for the first time, the film’s prologue that establishes how young Pete becomes orphaned is heart-stoppingly tragic but tastefully done and poetically shot. Though one will come for the charming story about a boy and his green dragon, Lowery isn't afraid to confront dramatic but relatable subject matter like loss and grief instead of timidly handling it with tongs. As the owner of the dragon, Oakes Fegley (2014’s “Fort Bliss”) is wonderful, locating Pete’s arc of a feral Mowgli to a virtual alien being reintroduced to society, not unlike Jacob Tremblay’s Jack in “Room,” to domesticated boy. One has no trouble instantly believing in Fegley’s bond with Elliott and rooting for them to reunite. 

In the roles of the adults, Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford won’t be found singing “Brazzle Dazzle” while painting a lighthouse, and frankly, it’s a relief. As Grace, Howard is a winning beacon of light, deeply invested in a character with maternal instincts. Redford emanates wisdom and charisma as wise, believing old Meacham. Oona Laurence, so exceptionally true in “Southpaw,” does nice work here and keeps reminding one of an old soul, even as a 14-year-old actress. The character relationships between Jack and Gavin and Jack, Grace and Natalie are also efficiently and clearly defined without being clumsily spelled out. For all intents and purposes, Gavin and other members of the town’s dragon hunt are the antagonists. Karl Urban isn’t allotted too many dimensions to actually be interesting, but he’s not painted in such broad baddie strokes as Shelley Winters’ hillbilly matriarch. One of the film’s weaker and more conventional elements, his existence is still more necessary than not for conflict. Last but certainly not least, there can’t be a Pete without a dragon. Elliott, the fire-breather, is a giant lovebug, a decidedly CG creation but as tactile as his fur.

Gentle, wistful and touching, “Pete’s Dragon” is a winner that will surprise the cynicism out of those who sneer at anything rebooted or remade. Save for a couple dragon sneeze gags, the film never gives in to cutesy antics and resists pandering to children but actually takes its time in terms of its pacing and storytelling. Enriched by on-location shooting in New Zealand and Bojan Bazelli’s beautifully sylvan cinematography, the film forgoes too much CG fakiness. The soundtrack has also been blessed with songs by The Lumineers and St. Vincent that add to the folksy, homey but timeless feel. Breathing with the emotional heft Disney has been looking for in its live-action offerings, “Peter’s Dragon” is a lovely end-of-the-summer surprise.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Dawn of the Worms: Effectively squirmy moments aside, "Viral" just OK

Viral (2016)
85 min., rated R.

“Catfish” directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman have a second feature out this year, following the Emma Roberts-Dave Franco cyber-thriller “Nerve,” and this time, they’re not saying anything prescient or plausibly scary about technology. No, “Viral” is yet another quarantine thriller, this time no adults allowed. Screenwriters Christopher Landon (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and Barbara Marshall (TV’s “Terra Nova”) lay the simple plot and character groundwork adequately—we get just enough from the characters to care whether they see life to the end credits or not—and the film has a few effectively squirmy moments, even if the parasitic threats here are visually familiar of FX's "The Strain." It is technically well-made, but once the plotting flattens out and the fates of the characters can only be met a couple of ways, “Viral” doesn’t add anything to the zombie-virus movie canon that we haven’t seen before.

Nice, studious Emma Drakeford (Sofia Black-D’Elia) and spiky older sis Stacey (Analeigh Tipton) have recently moved to a California town with their father, Michael (Michael Kelley), who’s separated from the girls’ mother and now teaches at their new high school. Instead of experiencing the challenges of fitting in, these teens will have to face something more globally threatening. There is an outbreak of the Worm Flu somewhere in the United States, and to prevent it from spreading, the military quarantines the Drakeford family’s desert community. When Emma and Stacey get separated from their father, they don’t listen to him and stay home but instead attend a house party that turns out to be a giant mistake. Stacey gets spewed in the face with an infected teen’s blood, leaving Emma and neighborly crush Evan (Travis Tope) to fight to stay healthy themselves and hopefully save Stacey.

Amidst a lot of holing up in a house and the toss-in of predictable jump scares, “Viral” periodically delivers the eerily gross goods. What happens to the town’s Patient Zero, Emma’s friend Gracie (Linzie Gray), is startling and a hide-and-seek moment between the sisters and one of the infected supplies tension, as does a wormy encounter with Evan’s stepfather (Stoney Westmoreland). Emma and Stacey don’t waste time in putting themselves in harm’s way by foolishly attending a bacchanal down the street, but Sofia Black-D’Elia (2015’s “Project Almanac”) and Analeigh Tipton (2013’s “Warm Bodies”) do click as polar-opposite sisters without overplaying their differences. Their undying love is also palpably felt when fateful decisions must be made. Despite a global infection, the film agreeably remains smaller in scale and works more on a human level that way. “Viral” doesn’t quite slither under one’s skin enough times to make a recommendation, but those in for a decent genre time-killer could probably do much worse.

Grade: C +

Monday, August 8, 2016

Unprotected Melody: "Lace Crater" a strange, intimate venereal-horror indie

Lace Crater (2016)
83 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Not the first to come down this particular pike, what with “Contracted,” “It Follows,” “Nina Forever” and “Bite” in just the last three years, micro indie “Lace Crater” explores venereal anxieties within a horror narrative, again. That inexplicable title aside, cinematographer and short-form filmmaker Harrison Atkins makes an auspicious writing-directing feature debut with this understated, unusually spun mumblecore-ish horror drama. It might ultimately be a bit thematically murky, but "Lace Crater" carves out a distinct identity for itself in ways that are intimate and even tragic.

Coming off a bad breakup, Ruth (Lindsay Burdge) gets away for the weekend with a group of friends (Chase Williamson, Jennifer Kim, Keith Poulson) in one of their family’s homes in the Hamptons. She opts to stay by herself in the guesthouse, which man-bunned host Andrew (Andrew Ryder) claims to be “haunted.” The first night after she and her friends drink and get high in the hot tub, Ruth goes back to her room and ends up being spooked by “Michael” (Peter Vack), a nice stranger in a burlap cloak who happens to be a spectral presence. They start with conversation and then after Michael stops hesitating and shows Ruth his bruised but normal-looking face, they have a one-night stand. Once Ruth returns home, she begins feeling sick, the symptoms worsening from nausea to night sweats to delirium to throwing up an inky sludge and alienating herself from her once-closest friends. 

In just 78 minutes (sans credits), "Lace Crater" tells the low-key story of two souls meeting one another, one alive but not well and one dead living in a closet. Initially, the viewer is unsure whether or not Michael means Ruth any harm; the cause of her fate is decidedly inadvertent on his part. What Harrison Atkins wants to say about having sex with a ghost isn't exactly clear, nor do we get much bearing on how damaged Ruth is from her past relationship with her ex-boyfriend (producer Joe Swanberg). Is this a finger-wagging cautionary tale about one-night stands? Or maybe a tragedy about a romantically hopeless human being no longer relating to the living? The end result is too ambiguous to say, however, hazy answers to such questions are probably beside the point to the film’s attention to mood and sensitive empathy. Lindsay Burdge (2016’s “The Invitation”) is the watchably offbeat and natural focal point as Ruth, hitting notes of vulnerability and loneliness that are nothing short of authentic. Once she starts not feeling herself, Ruth does what most people with health insurance would do; she visits the doctor who ends up diagnosing her with a rare sexually (spectrally?) transmitted disease. As it turns out, what Ruth comes down with cannot really be reversed.

Writer-director Atkins envisions Ruth’s tryst with Michael as a shadowy LSD trip and shoots the protagonist’s cracking psyche in a way that’s truly unsettling and controlled without resorting to cheap tricks. The film also has a deadpan sense of humor; for instance, the ghostly Michael is actually pretty handy with a sewing machine. Gideon de Villiers’ handheld camerawork and the cool synthesizer score by electronic band Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo lend themselves to Atkins’ creepy but dreamy tone. More strange than scary or funny, “Lace Crater” is almost too reserved to a fault, however, as a more thoughtful midnight movie, there is a certain sadness and affecting subtlety that hopeless romantics may find haunting. One can just imagine Dr. Ruth having a fascinating opinion on the subject.

Grade: B - 

Friday, August 5, 2016

The Expendables: Margot Robbie one of few bright spots in disappointingly ragged "Suicide Squad"

Suicide Squad (2016)
123 min., rated PG-13.

Following the lead of this spring’s turgid DC Extended Universe entry “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” “Suicide Squad” is another massive disappointment but even more so as its advertising campaign held such inspired, darkly fun promise. It just goes to show that a misleadingly awesome trailer can be made from a mediocre movie. Written and directed by David Ayer (2014’s “Sabotage"), who should have been a snug fit for a premise involving convicted miscreants coming together to do some good, the film is a sloppy mess that relentlessly sells itself and its billboard-ready antiheroes short with unwieldy, choppily edited storytelling, undernourished characters and lackluster action. Narrative cohesion be damned, there are at least five movies stapled together here that would be more worthwhile than the severely flawed finished one making its way into theaters. It is a bummer to report, but as if something went amiss somewhere from conception to the scripting stages to principal photography to the editing process, "Suicide Squad" is the ragged result.

In the wake of Superman’s supposed death, no-nonsense black ops government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a ragtag task force of criminal metahumans she labels “the worst of the worst" to fight crime. They include not-too-bad hitman Floyd Lawton/Deadshot (Will Smith), who would give anything to be back with his 11-year-old daughter; Dr. Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a former psychiatrist who gave up her sanity for her patient Joker (Jared Leto); Digger Harkness/Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a roguish Aussie hooligan who carries around a stuffed unicorn; El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), a tatted gangbanger with regrets for using his pyrotechnic abilities on his family; Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a cannibalistic genetic mutation who lives in the sewers; and a few more who are barely dealt with. Waller has Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) to look after this dangerous team, but she has also manipulated Flag to fall in love with archaeologist Dr. June Moone (Cara Delevingne), now the host of an ancient witch named Enchantress whose heart in a box is controlled by Waller. If these disparate but selfish individuals can stop the real villainess from building up her army in the soon-evacuated Midway City and running the world, they will receive the reduced prison sentences Waller promises them and, maybe, just maybe, they can learn to work together. And if they fail, they die, and so be it. 

Dashing one’s hopes that this might be the jolt in the arm DC Comics adaptations needed, a ‘la Marvel’s approach to “Guardians of the Galaxy” and “Deadpool,” “Suicide Squad” is a fraud. It misses most of the gleefully anarchic personality and exhilarating rhythm found in its kick-ass 2-and-a-half-minute trailer sharply cut to musical covers of “Bohemian Rhapsody” and "I Started a Joke." Getting around the fact that David Ayer’s hard-edged vision was probably muzzled by Warner Bros. to nab a PG-13 rating, the finished product exhibits bigger problems than the missed opportunity of an R. Slapped-together montages with aurally pleasing pop/hip-hop songs and cheeky, flashy graphics are mistaken for satisfactory character development, a technique done with even more care in, believe it or not, 1998’s house-party teen comedy “Can’t Hardly Wait.” There is economical storytelling and then there is haphazard, half-assed storytelling, which in this case feels like the weekly recap of a TV series. The members of the Suicide Squad are such an odd bunch that one wishes writer-director Ayer didn’t rush through their introductions like a marathon runner, each criminal established in an expository briefing for the time it takes Amanda Waller to finish digging into a rare steak during her pitch meeting. With such an overstuffed cast of antiheroes and supervillains, more time would have been valuably spent exploring these characters for longer than bare-minimum snippets; maybe, that way, the viewer would actually be invested in their mission of saving the world from Armageddon, a derivative conflict that holds no tangible stakes here. 

With a few exceptions, the script does its “suicide squad” a disservice, taking but one breather in a bar to actually concern itself with its characters who must at some point make up a cohesive unit but only come across as pawns in Amanda Waller’s pocket. Moreover, they don’t really get the chance to be bad guys; they just keep reminding us. Appropriately introduced by The Rolling Stones' “Sympathy for the Devil,” Viola Davis carries herself with her formidable “voice of God” and gravitas, like always, as cold, ruthless puppet master Amanda Waller. Though she’s not a super-villain, Waller might even be worse. As soft hitman Deadshot, Will Smith rides on sheer star power; he played an alcoholic superhero in 2008’s “Hancock,” and here, his charismatic wisecracks shine through every once in a while. With what little he is given, Jay Hernandez manages to garner more sympathy than most as ready-to-burst pacifist El Diablo, while an unrecognizable Jai Courtney at least registers some humor as Captain Boomerang. Meanwhile, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje’s Killer Croc and Karen Fukuhara’s soul-trapping swordswoman Katana are absolutely expendable with barely-there backstories and characterizations, while Adam Beach’s scaling-proficient assassin Slipknot is a sixth fiddle benched as soon as he comes on-screen.

Filling in the gaps made by the script, the incomparably cast Margot Robbie dominates and brings so much life to every scene she's in. Disappearing into the role of gonzo, dollfaced sexpot Harley Quinn, the actress is clearly having a blast with the Bronx accent and every dementedly bubbly giggle, wielding of her baseball bat and strut in her hot pants. Robbie is so endlessly watchable and unpredictably crazy that she makes a case for Harley's own origin story. From the 10-15 minutes we see of The Joker, Jared Leto fully commits with his method turn. He is effectively freaky in his make-up and metallic grill but grievously underutilized, and it seems most of his efforts found their way on the cutting room floor. Interestingly enough, it’s Harley's flashbacks of Joker's corruption before falling together into the vat of Ace Chemicals that compel more than the plot proper. And then there’s Cara Delevingue, making a lasting mark in “Paper Towns” but struggling to sell menace as the real threat here. She can’t help it that, aside from Dr. June Moone’s spooky transformation and cool get-up, Enchantress is a lame bore who spends most of the movie practicing Zumba in a silly headdress on a monument altar as a swirling vortex of garish CGI hovers above. If she weren’t hokey enough, Enchantress has a brother, Incubus (Alain Chanoine), who just becomes another tacky CG monster that looks like scraps from “Gods of Egypt.”

In giving the film the benefit of the doubt, “Suicide Squad” intends to check a lot off its to-do list—and litter in Easter Eggs that fanboys and fangirls will pick up on—but does not quite know how to execute it all. It's doubtful even a three-hour "ultimate edition" cut can solve the film’s fundamental issues. Late attempts at pathos do not work and character motivations fail to connect, as if key scenes were missing to bring the necessary emotional impact. The action set-pieces aren’t the least bit thrilling, just a forgettable bunch of choreographed fights with murky lighting and fast cutting. Harley Quinn’s solo scene of kicking ass in an elevator even underwhelms, despite being cued to K7’s “Come Baby Come.” And, finally, the visual palette is rainy and grungy, not unlike the bleak sameness of Zack Snyder's "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice," only popping with psychedelic-pop colors in the early scenes with the cackling Joker and his main squeeze, as well as the end credits. There are indelible images and glimpses of a much better movie here, but in the way it has been cut to ribbons and then released, it is too frustratingly uneven to recommend. One envisions a superior “Suicide Squad” had Harley been saved by her jokey puddin’, leaving the two of them to paint the town red. Now, why couldn’t we have seen that movie?
Grade: C -