Friday, September 30, 2016

Dumb and Dumber: "Masterminds" not without some giggles but pretty mediocre

Masterminds (2016) 
94 min., rated PG-13.

For a film that posits to be “based on a true story,” “Masterminds” (once called “Armored Car,” as seen on the slate in the outtakes) is not some kind of hard-hitting docudrama exposé or cautionary tale. Based on the 1997 Loomis Fargo bank robbery in Charlotte, North Carolina—the second-largest one on U.S. soil—this caper farce is actually a PG-13, Lorne Michaels-produced goof about a bunch of oafs with slapstick stunts and gross-out jokes with vaginal cream and defecation in the pool. Best known for 2004’s “Napoleon Dynamite” and 2005’s “Nacho Libre,” director Jared Hess does have a way of treating his characters with equal mockery and affection, but one wonders what the Coen brothers could have done with this stranger-than-fiction tall tale. Faint praise, to be sure, “Masterminds” is much less dire than most will be expecting, based on principal photography wrapping over two years ago, multiple release delays and the bankruptcy of its studio.

Working as an armored car security guard for cash-handling business Loomis Fargo, David Ghantt (Zach Galifianakis) seeks a little adventure for once in his life. After he and co-worker Kelly Campbell (Kristen Wiig), with whom he’s long carried a torch, joke about what they would do with the money if they robbed their work, Kelly’s pal, Steve Chambers (Owen Wilson), gets the idea to pressure the none-too-bright David into making him their inside man. Since David has the key to the vault, he succumbs and successfully steals $17 million and then, according to the rest of Steve’s plan, buys a plane ticket to Mexico. Kelly’s conscience comes through when realizing Steve has made David the fall guy and become mighty greedy with the loot. When David is identified in Mexico, Steve hires a hit man, Mike McKinney (Jason Sudeikis), to do away with the "mastermind." Stupid is as stupid does.

Like one character’s elegant description of a situation—“dumber than a suitcase full of buttholes”—that might be a fair assessment of “Masterminds,” too. Director Jared Hess and screenwriters Chris Bowman & Hubbel Palmer and Emily Spivey bring such an absurdist streak to this material that most of it rarely takes on a condescending or mean-spirited tone, but whether or not it’s always amusing is often a different matter. White-trash quirkiness and David’s bumbling incompetence are the source—sometimes, alleged source—of the comedy. Two of David’s disguises, one including feline contacts and a long blonde wig and another that makes him look like NBC film critic Gene Shalit, are also very funny. It’s hard not to laugh at the committed mugging of Zach Galifianakis and at his expense, but his David never comes off as much more than a harmless dolt and patsy. Kristen Wiig remains likable, even as her Kelly uses her feminine wiles on David and acts as an accomplice in making him look like the sole criminal, while Owen Wilson doesn’t really get any standout moments as the film’s main scumbag.

Having stolen scenes left and right over the summer in “Ghostbusters,” the wild-eyed Kate McKinnon doesn’t step far out of sketch territory with her out-there shtick as David’s fiancée Jandice, but nearly choice she makes is hilariously inspired. When Jandice is asked why she’s marrying David, she explains that she met David at her husband’s funeral, “That one’s dead. This one’s alive. I’ll take the live one.” Cued to Enya’s “Only Time,” a montage of David and Jandice’s awkward and just-plain-bad poses for engagement photos is also a hysterical highlight. Leslie Jones (the third Ghostbuster in this movie) gets more jokes thrown her way as an FBI agent, as someone comments on how she’s tall enough to be in the NBA and, at a later point, confuses her for a male detective. She handles such slams with aplomb, but there isn't much else for her to do. Even if he seems to wander in from a different (and much darker) movie, Jason Sudeikis might have the most against-type role, not playing the smoothest guy in the room as hitman Mike McKinney. When he and David end up bonding over 1961 classic “The Parent Trap,” it does lend the film a surprising bit of sweetness.

“Masterminds” is a certain type of comedy, twofold. It’s the type of comedy that offers a few giggles in the form of random non-sequiturs, but the viewer won’t really remember the cause of said giggles after the fact. The laughs aren’t all that memorable, but at least some exist rather than none at all. It’s also the type of comedy that feels like a project beneath everyone’s talents, all of them playing caricatures who aren't exactly the sharpest tools in the shed, as if the actors signed on before they became household names. Every moment that works is more on account of the cast and only their collaborative comedic skill keeps this from being a total disaster; it's just a mostly inoffensive waste of time. With worse comedies out there raising one’s tolerance for mediocrity, “Masterminds” scrapes by from not being rancid or too annoying. 


Thursday, September 29, 2016

River Monsters: “Deepwater Horizon” simply but grippingly told

Deepwater Horizon (2016)
107 min., rated PG-13.

Documenting the worst oil disaster in U.S. history, “Deepwater Horizon” is simply but grippingly told. Being based on true events—and opening with an audio play of one of the survivors about to give his sworn testimony in court—the film risks lacking suspense, and yet that never seems to be a problem. Director Peter Berg (2014’s “Lone Survivor”) skillfully relives the BP oil drilling rig explosion and fire that happened on April 20, 2010 to 126 crew members. It’s a realistic, immensely scary dramatization mounted with harrowing intensity, just not much more than that, landing somewhere between a pyrotechnic-laden disaster pic and survivalist human drama.

Leaving wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) for 21 days and nights, technician Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) goes off on a routine tour of duty on Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling rig 41 miles off the coast of Louisiana. His boss, Captain Jim Harrell (Kurt Russell), is angered by the BP executives’ go-ahead to run a pressure test that ensures the integrity of the oil well with malfunctioning equipment. Despite the readings of red-zone pressure, the Transocean workers follow through with the test to make up for BP being behind schedule and over their budget. Then, a geyser of mud, gas and water erupts through the pipe, and the vessel is engulfed in flames. With debris and fire surrounding him, Mike must risk his own safety to rescue his remaining crew members.

Scrupulously crafted and technically imposing, “Deepwater Horizon” is an honorable story of heroism and survival. Basing their screenplay on David Barstow, David Rohde and Stephanie Saul’s New York Times article “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours,” screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan (2013’s “World War Z”) and Matthew Sand (2009’s “Ninja Assassin”) are streamlined and workmanlike in their handling of characters. A scene at home, where Mike’s daughter Sydney (Stella Allen) practices showing and telling about her science project, is pretty on the nose. When the Coke can, standing in as the oil rig, explodes, it’s some heavy foreshadowing for what’s to come, and yet, it’s an efficient way to introduce outsiders to how deepwater oil drilling works. Jimmy Harrell asks one of the clueless BP workers to remove his magenta tie because the color signifies a severe warning in their industry. In the first half once the characters are on board, a lot of the shop talk—while more comprehensible than “The Big Short”—will go over many heads, but it’s accessibly conveyed. As director Peter Berg mounts the lead-up to the oil blowout with a fair amount of dread, waiting for the explosion is like lying in wait for the shark from “Jaws” to attack.

Earning top billing, Mark Wahlberg solidly inhabits the role of Mike Williams as a likable family man, sharing some emotionally stirring scenes before and after the horrific event. When Mike steps into action, he is a believable flesh-and-blood hero. As Mike’s loving, concerned wife Felicia, Kate Hudson is mostly called upon to canoodle with Mark Wahlberg, talk to him over Skype, and then later sit and wait after she can’t get any information on her husband’s status. She has a little more to do than Laura Linney in “Sully,” but somebody had to take the obligatory part to represent all of the wives, and Hudson does it with conviction. Everyone else, including Kurt Russell, who gets one scene with real-life stepdaughter Hudson as the crew's trusted boss; Dylan O’Brien (2015’s “The Scorch Trials”), as floorhand Caleb Holloway; and Gina Rodriguez (TV’s “Jane the Virgin”), a charismatic presence as sole female navigation crew member Andrea Fleytas, is there to try and stay alive. Lastly, John Malkovich gets to be heartless and greedy with a thick Louisiana drawl but too few shades in between as BP exec Donald Vidrine; ultimately, though, the disaster itself is the real antagonist here.

As a story, “Deepwater Horizon” moves in a straight line from start to finish. That the eleven casualties aren’t really given the time of day as fleshed-out people is a missed opportunity, but what director Berg is able to spectacularly stage should not be marginalized. Where the film excels is in building stressful tension and “you-are-there” urgency, along with ratcheting up the stakes with plenty of bone-crunching moments that will have the squeamish turning away. Attention is held for the full 107 minutes, and if all Berg wanted to do was immerse the viewer in this disaster without exploitation, then the film accomplishes what it set out to do.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

Brohood: Convincingly acted "Goat" unflinchingly observes frat culture

Goat (2016)
96 min., rated R.

Based on a 2004 tell-all memoir by Brad Land who pledged Kappa Sigma at Clemson University, “Goat” is the piercing, chillingly unflinching flip side of the good-time goofiness in “Animal House,” “Old School” and “Neighbors.” It could be a documentary on the rite of passage of fraternity initiation—or a horror film—and should be shown on college campuses to initiate more regulation. Writer-director Andrew Neel and screenwriters David Gordon Green (2013’s “Prince Avalanche”) & Mike Roberts do not seem to be telling the viewer how to think or feel, opting to merely observe the frat-bro culture and hazing for what goes down. “Goat” isn’t a fun party that anyone with a good head on his or her shoulder would want to attend. With that said, it’s still fascinating to watch how it explores our society's idea of masculinity and so-called brotherhood.

After a house party with his older brother Brett (Nick Jonas) in the summer, introverted but approachable Brad (Ben Schnetzer) leaves but not before agreeing to drop off a hooded guy and his friend. Following their directions to a remote drop-off, he is then violently assaulted and has his car jacked. As Brad takes the rest of the summer to recuperate from the incident, he decides he might be ready to start college on time in the fall and ends up pledging Phi Sigma Mu to join Brett. With roommate Will (Danny Flaherty), Brad attends the frat’s first big party of the year, which makes brotherhood look like the life. Then Hell Week begins. Is the physical and psychological terrorism endured by Brad and the other pledges actually worth it? How far is too far? If these are your Greek brothers, who needs them?

Startlingly candid from the real Brad Land’s point-of-view, “Goat” still isn’t presumptuous in having all the answers as if to understand the alleged appeal of fraternities. That the film isn't a straight-up indictment or an endorsement makes director Neel's approach much more daring, allowing everything to speak for itself and asking viewers to make up their own minds, too. The hazing scenes are brutal and effectively hard to watch, most of the testosterone- and power-driven scenarios as homoerotic as they are homophobic when involving booze, bodily fluids and phallic foods. If there is a moral center, it is Ben Schnetzer (2014’s “Pride”), devastatingly relatable as he is excellent in playing Brad with a breadth of sensitivity and intensity. The trauma that Brad initially experiences acts as a catalyst for reclaiming his manhood through Phi Sigma’s week of punishing rituals. Nick Jonas (TV’s “Scream Queens”) is strong and unexpectedly nuanced, too, as Brad’s blood brother Brett who slowly discovers his newfound mixed feelings about his frat. All of the other young actors, standouts including Gus Halper and Jake Picking as pledge masters Chance and Dixon, are assured and come across as legitimate frat brothers. In a brief but vital bit, James Franco shows up as a Class of 2000 alum who has a wife and kid at home but pounds beers and shots when he returns to the brotherhood.

“Goat” is one very harsh account, of course, but the truth never feels stretched and the emotions are nothing short of true. The only clear limitation is a subplot involving Brad and his crush, Leah (Virginia Gardner), that's introduced in the first half, as if to go somewhere, and then written out with no closure. In contrast, Brad and Brett's sibling relationship is never shortchanged. As it should, the film instills one with more than enough outrage, so if those who are off to college want to rush a frat after seeing "Goat," then they will have egregiously missed the point. Boys are just being boys, right? There’s a conversation starter.


Friday, September 23, 2016

Suicide Squad: Ensemble the biggest draw in overlong but entertaining "Magnificent Seven"

The Magnificent Seven (2016)
132 min., rated PG-13.

As a general rule, all remakes are unnecessary, unless the original films weren’t any good to begin with. “The Magnificent Seven” is a remake of a remake — John Sturges’ 1960 Western of the same name was itself reworked from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece “Seven Samurai.” That should mean that this retelling is as fresh as a tumbleweed. The good news, then, is that this one isn’t half-bad when viewed on its own terms and actually makes for a better version of “Suicide Squad.” Director Antoine Fuqua (2015’s “Southpaw”) and screenwriters Richard Wenk (2014’s “The Equalizer”) and Nic Pizzolatto (HBO’s “True Detective”) might make a few updates, but the multicultural ensemble is still the biggest draw.

It is 1879 in Rose Creek, where decent farmers are being driven off their land for gold by oily capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), who sets the local church aflame and shoots down those who stand up to him. When her husband (Matt Bomer) is murdered in cold blood, Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) refuses to let her home and town be taken from her. She makes a proposition to Wichita bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) with the offer of a small fortune if he helps defend Rose Creek from Bogue and his henchmen. Chisolm eventually rounds up a ragtag of strays: drunken card-trick-playing gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt); legendary but PTSD-suffering sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his buddy, knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee); Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo); trapping mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and lone Comanche archer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). Chisolm included, there are seven, and will they be ready to hunker down and ward off Bogue?

Leaving a trail of bodies but still finding time to crack wise, “The Magnificent Seven” is a traditional Western that embraces all of the classic tropes but with some snappy (and somewhat anachronistic) interplay. Like any team-assembling film, the getting-there is about as fun as the third-act face-off. It is a measure of how well a cast can improve a film with their distinct personalities, even if one cares a little less about these men as characters than the engaging actors playing them. What the film lacks in soul and characterization for these intriguing, fantastically named lawmen makes up for it with a satisfying, strategically planned showdown in the town. Director Fuqua has a skillful handle on all of the action, never resorting to the trap of shaky-cam as so many contemporary action films do, and expectations are particularly subverted in terms of who are the last men standing. Also, never mind the PG-13 rating; the violence is savage and anything but watered-down.

Leading the seven is a reliably cool Denzel Washington, who gives a rather low-key performance as Chisolm. Riding around in black from hat to boot, Chisolm is a compelling enigma, but once we learn more of his backstory, it’s a case of too little, too late. Positioned as the comic relief of the bunch as Faraday, Chris Pratt’s smart-aleck charisma is never not pleasing here; leave it to him to divert two gunmen with a card trick while they’re holding him up. Ethan Hawke might have the juiciest part as the haunted Goodnight Robicheaux, and a strangely high-pitched Vincent D’Onofrio gets to to be the biggest live-wire as the bearded Jack Horne, while Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier only register with the physical demands of their roles. Throughout all of this, Haley Bennett holds her own against her male co-stars and leaves an affecting imprint as the recently widowed Emma, who seeks righteousness but will gladly take revenge on Bogue. Last but not least, a Western—or, really, any genre film—is said to only be as good as its villain, and Peter Sarsgaard gets to be deliciously merciless without literally twirling his mustache and manages to inject legitimate menace into the garden-variety part.

Faultlessly cast and handsomely photographed, the finished cut should have either been 90 minutes or exchanged some of the plodding overlength in those 132 minutes for more character meat. Any character substance that comes in is revealed too late in the game to prove any additional interest or catharsis. Though it blows chances for more lasting power, “The Magnificent Seven” fits the bill as an entertaining oater. It doesn’t have to be weighty or meaningful when watching enormously charismatic actors play with guns in the Old West will suffice.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Late Delivery: Zellweger charms but freshness shot in blandly pleasant "Bridget Jones's Baby"

Bridget Jones’s Baby (2016)
122 min., rated R.

Oh, 2001 nostalgia. Renée Zellweger hasn’t graced audiences with her presence in six years (2010’s long-shelved horror film “Case 39”), so no matter the quality of her comeback, it is nice to have her back. It has been even longer since we last saw her reprise lovably clumsy and unapologetic British writer Bridget Jones, and it would be wonderful if it were as delightfully witty as 2001’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary.” The contrived 2004 sequel, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” was a greatest-hits rehash that upped Bridget’s buffoonery, but Zellweger was still appealingly daffy and gave it more than enough moments of pleasure. With this third outing based on Helen Fielding’s characters, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is alternately pleasant and bland with little of the original film’s sharp, sparkling writing and more jokes that feel labored. It’s no chore to catch up with Bridget, but she needed better support from material that didn’t feel old-hat in 2016.

When we last found Bridget, she was engaged to emotionally constipated barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). Now, on her 43rd birthday, she finds herself alone again (cue the Celine Dion pop ballad) but a little lighter and no longer a smoker or a huge drinker. Pushing past her breakup and trying not to worry about being a singleton or a spinster while her friends are all married with kids, Bridget puts first her job as a TV news producer. When deciding to celebrate her middle-aged independence for a weekend trip to a music festival with friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani), also the anchor of Bridget’s news program, she ends up shagging American matchmaking-algorithm guru Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey). It’s just a one-night stand, right? Not long after, Bridget gets matched up with Mark as the godparents for one of their friends’ baby, and after the christening, they sleep together. If Bridget decides to juggle both men, she will have to tell them both once her pregnancy test reads positive. There’s a 50/50 chance Mark or Jack could be the father.

Occasionally funnier and more enjoyable than it probably has any right to be, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” will certainly appease Bridget’s fans no matter what. The first film’s Sharon Maguire does return as director and author Helen Fielding and screenwriters Dan Mazer (2013's "I Give It a Year") and Emma Thompson have affection for Bridget and allow her to make poor decisions in the workplace and her romantic life, even if some of them feel more like hacky, annoying romantic-comedy tropes. Times have changed somewhat; apart from her quitting smoking and weight loss, Bridget now keeps her diary on a tablet. Also, at the TV studio, there is a spiky new boss (Kate O'Flynn), bringing along her a crew of man-bunned hipsters and trying to bring a radical edge to the network. Through it all, Renée Zellweger slips back into her signature role as if 12 years never passed, and it’s still adorable to hear her drop an F-bomb in her British accent. With age and less pudginess, Bridget still charms as her plucky, relatable self, but her predicament gets stretched out predictably for too long, and there’s little tension to where it is headed by the final reel.

Bridget’s caddish ex-boss and fling, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), is now out of the picture and six feet under, and for better or for worse (maybe worse), that choice leaves more time for Mark and Jack. As Mark Darcy, Colin Firth is still intentionally milquetoast and seemingly dull but achieving likability through his deadpan wit. Retaining his “McDreamy” status, Patrick Dempsey is his amicable, seemingly perfect self, but he and Zellweger don’t have much sparkle together. Better are Sarah Solemani (reminding a bit of Emily Mortimer), a lovely, saucy newcomer as Bridget’s gal pal and news talent Miranda, and Emma Thompson, giving herself the funniest lines as Bridget’s no-nonsense gynecologist Dr. Rawlings who keeps describing her patient’s pregnancy as “geriatric."

With sequelitis already set in, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” strictly abides to formula, and sometimes, that’s just fine. Enough of it is comfortably cute. Although other times, the screenplay strains pretty hard to get laughs, hinging one too many times on Bridget's momentary incompetence, like feeding the wrong lines to Miranda who’s reporting on a genocidal dictator. A nonsensical complication that forces Bridget to forgetfully lock her belongings in an ATM vestibule is also eye-rolling. There was a fine line between comic gold and sitcom territory in the first two films, but this is middling sitcom stuff. With that said, there are still a handful of laughs, like a conversation between Bridget and her once-salty-mouthed friend Shazza (Sally Phillips) that equates “puppet shows” to sex in front of Shazza’s children. Despite the loyal efforts from all who have returned—don’t forget Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent as Bridget’s mum and dad—“Bridget Jones’s Baby” forgoes a lot of the fun and snap of the old Bridget. Maybe this is one character who really has reached her sell-by date.

Grade: C +

Friday, September 16, 2016

Same Woods, New Cameras: "Blair Witch" less petrifying than its older sibling and cousins

Blair Witch (2016)
89 min., rated R.

Starting with “10 Cloverfield Lane” being the successor to 2008’s “Cloverfield,” the year of the secret belated sequels is upon us. Advertised under fake title “The Woods” before being unveiled as the sequel-cum-remake to 1999’s low-budget groundbreaker “The Blair Witch Project,” “Blair Witch” is another shaky-cam excursion into the woods and not the terrifying game-changer it has been hailed to be out of the festival circuit. When the one-of-a-kind original premiered at the 1999 Sundance Film Festival, it made audiences believe that the footage they were watching was authentic. Turning out to be fictionalized, though, did not break the film of its intensely jittery, powerfully suggestive spell. With this 2016 sequel continuing the legacy—and forgetting 2000’s critically-reviled-but-slightly-better-than-that “Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2”—it's too bad that beyond the surprise marketing coup, that is where the ingenuity mostly ends. As it happens, “Blair Witch” is no match for its predecessor or, quite frankly, many of the effective found-footage entries that followed. The results just don't live up to the overinflated hype.

After Heather Donohue went missing back in 1994 in the Black Hills Forest of Burkittsville, Maryland, her brother James (James Allen McCune) finds a DV tape on YouTube that very well could be footage shot by Heather herself. Wanting to find closure and answers, he gets in touch with local vlogger Lane (Wes Robinson) who found the tape. Coincidentally, James’ close friend Lisa (Callie Hernandez) wants to make a documentary and decides to use this as an opportunity without exploiting her pal. They convince two more, James’ childhood friend Peter (Brandon Scott) and girlfriend Ashley (Corbin Reid), to go camping in the Black Hills Forest and then find their guide in Lane and his purple-haired girlfriend Talia (Valorie Curry), another local with knowledge of the Blair Witch legend. Ignoring a sign that reads, “No entry after night fall,” the six enter a trail into the woods, and then strange, unexplainable things begin happening, particularly at night. They hear noises outside their tents. They lose time. They try to leave but end up walking in a circle. Will James and his friends actually find his sister and the house where she vanished, or will they just become another set of victims to the Blair Witch and her woods?

In director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, horror fans trust. They transcended the genre with both 2013’s thrillingly unpredictable “You’re Next” and 2014’s wickedly entertaining “The Guest,” but not this time. Based on their previous efforts, “Blair Witch” serves as a significant letdown. It feels less than inspired, and what’s more, it barely lifted a hair on this viewer’s body, which is usually a difficult feat. How are these talented guys even capable of making a horror film that equates to a "is-that-all-there-is?" shoulder shrug? To give them the benefit of the doubt, the filmmakers are in one of those “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situations from the outset. If they change too much of the formula, it would be seen as disrespectful and no longer of a piece with the lore, and if they don’t change anything, it is just a beat-for-beat rehash. The film largely opts for the latter, calling back key moments from “The Blair Witch Project,” even to the point that the characters roast sausages over the fire, and the pentagram sticks are kind of a must.

Director Wingard does offer up a few moderately clever ideas with the advancement in technology since 1999. Each character wears a camera clipped on their ear with a built-in GPS, and there’s a drone that Lisa sends up over the trees for aerial shots, but neither sophisticated addition adds much more to the proceedings as one might expect. The first hour of setup takes a long time to start paying everything off, especially when so much of it feels like a pale imitation that forces one to make a running checklist of what worked better the first time. A few jump scares are needlessly tossed in, while a character humorously acknowledges that everyone needs to stop startling her. Aided by a booming, sometimes chilling sound design, there is a squirmy body-horror moment involving someone’s injured foot and a sequence where one must crawl through a very tight dirt tunnel will most likely get the claustrophobics. Once it comes down to the last 15 minutes or so, the film improves ever so slightly, ratcheting up the creepy intensity but also devolving into a lot of camera pans, camera shaking, glitches and cuts to black, and characters screaming and calling out for their friends.

When it does finally take off, “Blair Witch” showcases the filmmakers’ craftsmanship, but nothing new or exciting is brought to this officially tired subgenre. The immediacy and freshness is just not there. As characters experience possibly supernatural phenomena in the woods and run for their lives, we should be gasping for air and scared out of our minds with them. It’s no fault of the actors, who competently reside in their parts and put blood, sweat and tears into their mostly unaffected work, however, this group is decidedly harder to care about than our trio of documentary filmmakers 17 years earlier. For those who have yet to follow Heather Donohue, Josh Leonard and Michael Williams into the woods or haven't seen anything else filmed with the first-person conceit, “Blair Witch” should do the trick as a decent vessel for scares. For everyone else, it is more of a frustrating experience than a petrifying or satisfyingly visceral one. Perhaps this whole found-footage aesthetic really should be put down like an old dog if two of the best in the genre right now can't even breathe life into it.


Saturday, September 10, 2016

Drops of Life: "Other People" a deeply affecting, painfully funny, superbly acted must-see

Other People (2016)
97 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

Just calling “Other People” an illness drama would be underselling its worth. Superficially, it falls into a genre of quirky, wacky dramedies that tend to premiere at Sundance and make film critics want to rip their hair out, but former “Saturday Night Live” writer Chris Kelly makes his auspicious writing-directing feature debut with deft modulation, insight and unblinking honesty. Without ever striking a false note—helped by the fact that most of it is autobiographical from Kelly’s own life—the film feels like the first of its kind and runs the gamut of emotions with universality, a sometimes painfully authentic ring of truth and prickly, natural releases of humor. Sensitive yet bittersweet and often very, very funny, “Other People” never feels like it is trying to hit big dramatic and comedic moments; it just feels true to life.

29-year-old David Mulcahy (Jesse Plemons) is a struggling comedy writer, based in New York City. His had early success with a spec script for a TV pilot he sold to a network, but now his recent breakup, unbeknownst to his family, with live-in longtime boyfriend Paul (Zack Woods) has also left him feeling down. When his life takes an even more severe turn with the cancer diagnosis for mother Joanne (Molly Shannon), a second-grade teacher, David returns home in Sacramento for a year. Back in the suburban household with conservative father Norman (Bradley Whitford) and siblings Alexandra (Maude Apatow) and Rebeccah (Madisen Beaty), he hopes to bring comfort to his mother after she decides to quit chemotherapy. Not only is David going to lose his biggest support system in mother Joanne, but his career and longest relationship are both on the line.

Walking a delicate tonal balance that can be tricky and nearly impossible to pull off, “Other People” gets off to a tearfully sad and then unexpectedly amusing start. It begins where most tearjerkers end and then circles back around. This isn’t really the kind of film that requires a “spoiler alert,” but right off the top, Joanne’s family has just lost her to cancer. Her sobbing husband and kids surround her in bed, and then the phone rings. From the voicemail that can be heard, the caller is one of Joanne’s clueless friends, sending out her condolences for newly discovering Joanne to be sick in between a drive-thru order at Taco Bell. That same tightrope mastery is achieved again and again.

Leading the way as David, Jesse Plemons (who seemed to be first noticed on TV’s “Friday Night Lights”) is outstanding in a vivid, understated way. He handles the fully formed part of a gay character with a subtlety that can’t really be recalled on film. Instead of overplaying stereotypical effeminacy in his voice or his body language, Plemons has a way of turning hand gestures and the biting of his nails into subtle character nuances. Every situation, like running into a former classmate, making a grocery run where an item on the list cannot be found, and going on an awkward date, are made relatable by Plemons and Kelly’s writing. Not since her rangy, revelatory in 2007’s “Year of the Dog” has the lovely Molly Shannon been given the chance to be this wonderful. In a role that allows her to be funny without being shticky and locate real pathos without any Lifetime Movie-ready hysterics, Shannon movingly essays a wife, a mother, a daughter, a friend and a teacher who is slowly being drained of life, light and joy. It is palpable and heartbreaking.

There are no small parts or small actors here in the supporting cast. Bradley Whitford is in a tough spot but terrific as David’s father Norman, who hasn’t yet accepted his son’s sexuality even a decade after his coming-out but doesn’t love him any less. June Squibb and Paul Dooley could have approached broad caricature as David’s dotty grandparents, but they are poignantly actualized, too. John Early (2016’s “Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising”), as David’s closest hometown friend Gabe, is down-to-earth and innately charismatic, and 14-year-old J.J. Totah (TV’s “Glee”) is also hilariously expressive as Gabe’s confidently flamboyant younger brother Justin, who puts on an absurdly entertaining Lady Gaga-esque dance performance in his father’s living room.

Feeling too personal to ever fall into mawkish sentimentality, “Other People” isn’t squarely a “cancer movie.” It is all from the perspective of a young man in a state of flux and inserts supporting characters into the main narrative as parts of writer-director Chris Kelly’s slice-of-life tapestry. Though visually straightforward, the film is nevertheless an accurate snapshot of suburbia, refreshingly shot in California’s capital; there is also a subtle shot of a neighborhood park where David and Joanne go for a walk, revealing the progression of newly built homes over twelve months. Also, in a sneaky stroke of genius on Kelly’s part, the recurring sounds of Train’s 2001 single “Drops of Jupiter (Tell Me)”—much to David’s annoyance each time—comes full circle with supreme poignancy and perfection. Smart, affecting and keenly observed, “Other People” is a note-perfect must-see that makes the viewer feel long and deeply.


Friday, September 9, 2016

Brace for Heroism: Eastwood and Hanks stick the landing of thoughtfully crafted “Sully”

Sully (2016)
96 min., rated PG-13.

In such an era of a 24-hour news cycle, some press stories that are ultimately positive and prove there still is a little good left in the world sometimes get lost in the shuffle. On January 15, 2009, US Airways Flight 1549 was departing from LaGuardia Airport to Charlotte with 155 souls and 3 flight attendants on board, but pilot Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger had to make a forced water landing in the Hudson River and evacuate everyone aboard. It was a risky decision, but a necessary one, and Sully was branded a national hero. Everyone has heard of the “Miracle on the Hudson,” and with any dramatization of a true story taken to film, the viewer already knows how it ends. Obviously running longer than 208 seconds, veteran director Clint Eastwood’s “Sully” takes a look at both that miraculous landing and the aftermath.

When the film first introduces Sully (played by Tom Hanks), a commercial airline pilot with 42 years of experience, he is full of self-doubt. He does not feel like a hero, being plagued by nightmares of the plane crashing and the pressure of being in the limelight and under scrutiny. Minutes after takeoff, he and his co-pilot, Jeff Skiles (Aaron Eckhart), suffered a double engine failure when a flock of geese disabled both engines and had to make a quick decision, despite the instructions by air traffic control to circle back to the runway. Now set up in a Marriott Hotel, Sully is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (Mike O’Malley, Anna Gunn, Jamey Sheridan), who make it their goal to prove that the pilot could have made it back to LaGuardia or to New Jersey’s Teeterboro Airport. After the fact, Sully’s saving of 155 passengers is a wonderful miracle, but did he have to put everyone at risk?

An honorable portrait of unquestionable heroism, “Sully” is more thoughtful than most “untold true story” dramatizations and appealingly forgoes a surplus of adoration that keeps the film from being hagiographical. Directed by Clint Eastwood (2014’s “American Sniper”) from a tightly constructed screenplay by Todd Komarnicki (2007's ridiculous Halle Berry-starring thriller “Perfect Stranger”), based on Chesley Sullenberger’s autobiography “Highest Duty” co-authored by Jeffrey Zaslow, the film begins after the crash. It resists stodgy chronology for a sensible nonlinear structure, recounting the leading-up to the crash from various perspectives, that of the air-traffic controller and several of the passengers, “Airport”-style. The depiction of the turbulence in the cockpit and the cabin, where the landing chants—“Brace, brace, brace! Heads down, stay down!”—of the flight attendants (Ann Cusack, Jane Gabbert, Molly Hagan) chillingly reverberate, and the forced water landing on the Hudson River is truly harrowing. Also, between the fascinating NTSB investigation and Sully’s inner crisis, there is a judicious amount of biopic leanings with standard, none-too-revealing but logically placed flashbacks to a young Sully first exploring his passion in flying planes.

After being on the sea in “Captain Phillips,” national treasure Tom Hanks is his reliable self in the air. It is easy to take Hanks’ effortless talents for granted, but as Chesley Sullenberger, he anchors the film and conveys a haunted man in a top-flight performance without any showiness. The actor may not look like the silver-haired Sully, who does make an appearance during the credits with the actual crew, passengers and his wife, although that matters very little. Hanks more than suggests the man’s duty and resulting PTSD as a pilot in charge of human lives in the air. Lending terrific support and levity is Aaron Eckhart as co-pilot Jeff Skiles, who was the only other person to be in the cockpit with Sully on that day. As Sully’s concerned wife Lorrie, Laura Linney fills in this thankless part with more weight and depth than was written on the page, and it’s entirely played over the phone while her character is in Danville, California. There is also an array of familiar faces (Valerie Mahaffey, Sam Huntington, Christopher Curry) playing the harried passengers.

Though any film could be afforded more complexity in 20/20 hindsight, “Sully” is made with such a finely understated simplicity that it is nearly miraculous there is any impact at all. Much of the film takes place in Marriott hotel rooms and conference rooms when it’s not on the plane, and somehow, director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern still bring workmanlike production value to those otherwise bland locations. There’s great poignancy and humanity in the last moments of Sully and Skiles’ investigation during their public hearing where the simulations by other pilots do not compute with the real experience. Even though the results of the story are public knowledge, it is in the filmmaker’s crafting of tension that keeps it all compelling. Eastwood brings special care to his study of not what makes a hero but what makes a human being with expertise. “Sully” might just be Eastwood’s most accomplished effort in years.


Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Spawn of Bad Choices: "Antibirth" a bananas but half-baked trip

Antibirth (2016)
95 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Many horror films tend to be about more than is apparent on a surface level. “Antibirth,” the narrative feature debut of experimental video artist Danny Perez, is an addict’s drug-fueled pregnancy through the prism of a psychedelic body-horror nightmare. It is a safe bet no one will expect the whacked-out, royally bananas goings-on of this half-baked fever dream, but at one point or another, a film needs to have more to it than a trippy, “what-the-hell-am-I-watching?” vibe. Visually hallucinatory as "Antibirth" might be, the viewer will have felt he or she has endured a bad trip rather than a cinematic high.

Lou (Natasha Lyonne) doesn’t get through one day without drugs, alcohol and junk food. She’s on a lifelong bender, cleaning at a motel by day and getting wasted whether she’s out or at home in her late father’s trailer that she inherited. Even after a wild rave in the Michigan woods with best friend Sadie (Chloë Sevigny), Lou fails to remember what happened that begins making her feel ill. Soon enough, she realizes she might be pregnant with morning sickness and blowing up like a blimp at an alarming rate, despite not having slept with anyone in months. It’s not until a military vet named Lorna (Meg Tilly) shows up and lets Lou in on a medical experiment conspiracy that might be afoot. Lou is not going to be all right.

Dancing furries in a kids' bowling alley. An alien conspiracy. Pus-oozing blisters. The birth of a creature crossed between a wookiee and the demonic mutant offspring in Larry Cohen’s “It’s Alive.” All of these disparate images and plot points only muddy the waters for the sake of being weird and, thus, keep the viewer at arm’s length. Were it not difficult to warm up to already with an inscrutable, stream-of-conscious narrative, “Antibirth” doesn’t really care if we like its obnoxious protagonist or not. By no fault of Natasha Lyonne, who gives it her all with sardonic recklessness, Lou is decidedly flawed and hard-edged as a burnout, a role Perez wrote directly for the actress, but she is also too passive and consistently self-destructive to care about her abnormal plight. It is almost preferable to see a character who is far from being squeaky-clean and likable and having it all figured out and then seeing him or her gradually earn our sympathy. Still, in the case of Lou, she isn’t even interestingly vulgar. Read the rest of the review at Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: C -