Saturday, April 22, 2017

These Deals Were Made For Shooting: "Free Fire" a genre exercise that grows monotonous


Free Fire (2017)
90 min., rated R.

“Free Fire” is the kind of genre work that one can either see as tight, dark fun or interminable tedium on the screen. The footprint made by anything Quentin Tarantino, particularly 1992’s “Reservoir Dogs,” is all over this blackly comic chamber piece about an arms deal gone wrong (read: a real-time, feature-length shootout), except that this one pales in the execution stage. In 1978, two groups of characters meet in an abandoned Boston warehouse for a covert arms deal. Irish Republican Army rebels Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) are buying, and Justine (Brie Larson) and Ord (Armie Hammer) are orchestrating the deal with their connections to the sellers, South African gun runner Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and partner Martin (Babou Ceesay). When Chris does not get what he ordered, finding AR-7s instead of his promised M-16s, both parties get off to the wrong foot. Tensions rise even more when the token dolt, Stevo (Sam Riley), recognizes Vernon’s driver, Harry (Jack Reynor), and has a big beef with him. One shot is fired, and then it’s mostly every man for himself. Who could possibly be left standing? 

If there is anything consistent between "Free Fire" and any previous projects by cult filmmaker Ben Wheatley (2012’s “Kill List,” 2013’s “Sightseers,” and 2016’s “High-Rise”) and wife/co-writer Amy Jump, it’s his gallows sense of humor. Not much more than a premise involving a real powder keg of a situation, the film is narratively simple and unburdened by complexity, and Wheatley does carry an absurdist tone throughout here with the dynamic of his cast. The fact that a bunch of people end up nearly dead and/or caught is most likely the joke, but that doesn’t mean it deserves a pass when the outcome is this sloppy. Lasting 90 minutes, the film isn’t taut enough, and instead of escalating and kicking into high gear, it just becomes static and monotonous. The characters aren’t particularly engaging or given enough attention before the gunfire to get to know them or become invested in whether they live or die. Really, they are less characters than they are chess pieces with busy mouths. Once introductions are out of the way, it’s a lot of shots being fired, ducking behind crates and cement blocks, and crawling around on the dirty floor. The sense of geography and where one is in relation to another is never well-established that, for all we know, each character might as well be in a different warehouse. There is very little variety to any of the action, and the scope is limited and claustrophobic without aiding the tension. Even for a ultraviolent farce, it’s not that memorably violent, save for one’s character squishy demise against a van.

“Free Fire” is a less-than-worthwhile genre exercise in profane banter, gunfire, and John Denver music that thinks it’s clever without being all that clever. It has definitely been adeptly cast, most of the actors getting his (and, in Brie Larson’s case, her) day with adding color and snappy, albeit forgettable, bon mots, while being outfitted in ’70s clothing. Only a handful of the performances are noteworthy, however, including Armie Hammer, a hoot and impeccably dressed as Ord; Sharlto Copley, who brings a sexist, boorish charm and bravado as “international asshole” Vernon; and Brie Larson, if only because she elevates everything and her Justine is at least a little more sensible than the men.

Combining purposefully rough-and-tumble but not-very-stylish camerawork and everything else that Wheatley seems overly confident with, the film never really cooks. Portishead’s Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury score is right on at least, as is a recurring saxophone flourish to their music score, and a sight gag involving a skeleton umbrella in the third act amuses. With really no one to cling to—maybe Justine because she’s the only woman and she’s played by Brie Larson, or maybe Armie Hammer because he’s so charismatic and handsome?—the bleak punchline means nothing in the long run. “Free Fire” has a lot of the necessary ingredients for a no-frills technical challenge, as if it were inspired by a stage play, but it ends up just being pointless nihilism without being able to walk the walk or completely talk the talk.

Grade:

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Monster Smashed: "Colossal" audacious enough to make up for tonal flaws


Colossal (2017) 
110 min., rated R.

An alcoholic confronting one’s inner monsters has never been explored in the way it is in writer-director Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal,” where the monster is both literal and metaphorical in a story both human and fantastical. Grafting a you-can’t-go-home-again indie comedy and addiction drama to Guillermo del Toro’s “Pacific Rim,” of all things, it is an ambitious combo that sounds heavy-handed but nearly reinvents the Japanese kaiju monster movie with its wildly weird, objectively original conceit. Between 2008's "Timecrimes" and 2014's “Open Windows,” Vigalondo is a filmmaker who never makes the same movie twice—even if they are all audacious undertakings—and “Colossal” is surely a breath of fresh air with a wonderfully unusual whopper of an idea for a genre-hopping hybrid. That it hazards to be daring and different almost makes up for the merging of two disparate genres not always hanging together snugly.

Gloria (Anna Hathaway) is a trainwreck. She has little money and no prospects after losing her writing job months ago. When she returns home to her New York City loft apartment still drunk following a late night, Gloria finds her bags already packed by fed-up English boyfriend Tim (Dan Stevens). With nothing else to lose, she heads back to her hometown and squats in her childhood home on an air mattress. Gloria runs into an old friend, Oscar (Jason Sudeikis), who owns a half-renovated bar and offers her a job. Though she knows it’s probably not a good idea, she slips right back into her old habits after hanging out with Oscar and his two drinking buddies, bar fly Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) and puppyish simpleton Joel (Austin Stowell). One morning, she wakes up hungover in typical fashion but discovers on the news that a Godzilla-like monster has attacked Seoul, South Korea, and soon comes to realize that her actions and physical movements synchronized with the monster are not even close to coincidental. The consequences of Gloria thoughtlessly getting blackout drunk are as big and catastrophic as the collateral damage in Seoul.

“Colossal” isn’t always comfortable in the tricky tonal shifts it has to make, but its pure audacity counts for a lot. Beginning with a small-scale, down-home vibe and a focus on personal struggles, the film initially sees Gloria shocked and saddened by the news reporting the loss of lives on the other side of the world, and then when she realizes the monster is caught on camera and mimics a familiar nervous tick of hers, she’s dumbfounded. Once the story zigs and zags, it shapes into something inventive and surprising. Just before the film might back itself into a corner, there is a method to Nacho Vigalondo’s madness, as he gets at something darker and more serious, using the monster angle as a metaphor for addiction, abusive relationships, and overall pain. 

The viewer will either go with the surreal leaps taken by “Colossal” or not. With such a one-of-a-kind premise, part of the fun is seeing if Nacho Vigalondo can pull it all off when he eventually has to explain himself. The film increasingly hints at the source of the monster, flashing back twenty-five years earlier to a young Gloria (Hannah Cheramy), and as Vigalondo keeps the reason for Gloria’s monster manifesting itself so close to the vest and underdeveloped, it’s like a dangling carrot. It is a stretch how the two narrative planes connect, but one respects how the story is kept grounded for so long and keeps the rules consistent (i.e. the destruction on Seoul only happens when Gloria is in a certain place at a certain time). By the end of it all, Gloria’s alcoholism just kind of fritters away, as if Vigalondo no longer knows how to handle it. The results are not seamless, but they are interestingly oddball.

Watching Anne Hathaway play a functioning alcoholic, it’s hard not to think of her raw, achingly true turn as a drug-addicted black sheep and perpetual screw-up in Jonathan Demme’s “Rachel Getting Married.” Hiding behind her bangs, Hathaway seems more than willing to play Gloria honestly at the cost of likability when a flawed and selfish character is much more interesting. It is a compelling, loosely funny, and affecting performance from the lovely actress who has been the focus of unnecessary hatred in recent years, and there is an empowering quality to Gloria by the end. Oscar is the kind of affable slacker character Jason Sudeikis can play in his sleep, but he knows how to play despicable, too, and subverts expectations with Oscar's arc into alcohol-fueled rage and jealousy. The switch might come off a little sudden, but it’s been there all along, just bottled-up. No doubt about it, “Colossal” has distinction, and it ends with a choice line and reaction by Hathaway, but it's fated to be most memorable for a premise so unique and so-strange-you-got-to-see-it. Perhaps it doesn’t hold the profound catharsis it could have, though it is better to swing for the fences than to go through the motions and not try at all.

Grade: B - 

Friday, April 14, 2017

Family Goes Fast: "Fate of the Furious" certainly needless but still delivers a fun brand of dumb thrills


The Fate of the Furious (2017)
136 min., rated PG-13.

It took seven movies and the crushingly tragic real-life death of one of its leading stars for “The Fast and the Furious” franchise to actually reinvigorate itself and become the movies they should have always been: innately fun live-action cartoons with charisma and outlandish stunts. When these movies finally found a middle ground and tried being less self-serious and a little less earthbound without diving straight into outright parody, they improved with age and more absurdity. The small turnaround began with 2011’s “Fast Five,” but 2015’s “Furious 7” was easily the most favorable entry in the “Fast and the Furious” series. It was gleefully and exhilaratingly amped-up, as well as a poignant capper and tribute coinciding with the passing of Paul Walker. With that said, it’s 2017 and there’s still billions of dollars to be made and more cars to destroy for an eighth installment in this cash-cow franchise. “The Fate of the Furious”—OK, so the titles are just getting more nonsensical—doesn’t better the last, but it still meets one’s cravings with an acceptable brand of spectacularly dumb thrills that keep upping the ante.

Now without brother-from-another-mother Brian O’Conner and sister Mia—they’re retired and off raising their own family—Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) and Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are on their honeymoon in Cuba. Their second chance at happiness is interrupted when he is blackmailed into taking a job for cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who requires something from him to put her grand agenda into place. When Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) calls back Dom and his team, including Letty, attractive computer hacker Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), and class clowns Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges) and Roman (Tyrese Gibson), to steal an EMP bomb from Berlin, Dom is already in cahoots with Cipher and makes his act of double-crossing known, albeit not the reason why. From there, some members of the team have made the Top 10 Most Wanted List, but CIA fixer Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his new recruit, “Little Nobody” (Scott Eastwood), swoop in to corral them and earn an extra set of hands in foe Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham). Next up in New York City, where Cipher needs Dom to steal a briefcase of nuclear codes from the Russian Defense Minister, Hobbs and the team find a new base of operations and try to bring Dom back in.

Returning screenwriter Chris Morgan (who penned the previous five scripts) keeps plugging away,  trying to think up new directions to take this series without jumping the shark, while director F. Gary Gray (2015’s “Straight Outta Compton”) gets a piece of the pie and takes over for Justin Lin and James Wan. Neither one holds any pretension for what kind of movie they’re making, and they both know that there’s not much under the hood, just as Dom himself assures us the importance of who’s behind the wheel rather than what’s under that hood. Right off the top, “Fast and the Furious” fans get what they’re looking for: the title cards flying off the screen during aerial shots of Havana; up-skirt shots of booty-shaking chicks in pink thongs; and Dom doing a lot of macho posturing before racing his piece-of-junk car backwards right before the finish line while it’s on fire. As the plot proper gets underway, Dom is the one going rogue and turning on his family this time. It would seem like a switch has just been flipped, like Cipher has witch-like power over Dom, but although the viewer is kept in the dark before the unveiling, the reasons for his involvement are personal. These movies always have a McGuffin; if it’s not the Nightshade device, it’s nuclear codes because it's always about nuclear codes, right?

The action set-pieces are big and ridiculous, just as they should be, albeit sometimes too widely spaced for a 136-minute feature film that does a lot of globe-trotting (this team really gets around). There is an awesome, well-choreographed prison break with Hobbs and Shaw, the sequence entirely cued to electronica. With her team of hackers working hard, Cipher’s eyes fill with evil at her creation of complete chaos in the Manhattan streets by taking control of vehicles and unmanned “zombie cars,” and it’s a nutty sequence of puppet mastery. Finally, there is more gravity-defying fun in Vladain, Russia, on a frozen tundra. First, it’s used for Tyrese Gibson to cling to just the door of an orange Lamborghini as if he were water-tubing, and then has Hobbs steering one of Cipher’s unleashed torpedoes with his tree-trunk legs; all that’s missing is a wholly mammoth riding on top of the nuclear submarine.

With Paul Walker gone, the loss of his presence is still felt, but the cast acts as an ensemble—nay, family—again. Inside and out, Vin Diesel knows how to play family-minded patriarch Dom Toretto with a somewhat interesting wrinkle thrown in. After spending the last few films being an amnesiac and then a recovering amnesiac, Michelle Rodriguez is almost more affecting than the telenovela feel of Letty not knowing the person she loves. Tyrese Gibson and Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges are energetic comic relief as always, and Jason Statham’s Deckard Shaw gets to share a fun enemy-to-ally banter with Dwayne Johnson’s superhuman Hobbs. As for the newcomers, Scott Eastwood is a little bland but an easy-on-the-eyes addition, and Dame Helen Mirren classes things up with her couple of lark-ish scenes, having a cup of tea in a tavern. Growing blonde dreads after having no hair as the badass Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road,” Charlize Theron’s Cipher is decidedly the most memorable of the villains in this particular series, especially for the caliber of the actress. As Cipher, who equates herself to a baby-snatching crocodile at a watering hole, Theron is deliciously insane with ice water in her veins and the ability to give fierce side-eye. It’s a vastly underwritten part that mostly has the actress talking about choice theory and standing in the hacking control room of her private room. That Cipher never actually gets behind the wheel of a car is a missed opportunity, and she really should have been given the chance to have a beatdown with Letty, but you can’t get everything you want.

Like Vin Diesel as an actor (and there’s nothing wrong with that), these movies have a limited skill set. When “The Fate of the Furious” is on the go and not getting into the weeds of its pedestrian plot, it fires on most cylinders. There is too much time with someone mentioning the importance of family that it almost puts to shame Adam Sandler’s droning on about the same topic in most of his comedies. And, there are oversights with Deckard Shaw changing sides—forget that he murdered one of Dom’s own two movies ago—and the convenient, unexplained recovery of another villain. Forced humor with Hobbs turning out to be his daughter’s soccer coach actually has its pleasures, as does a whole sequence with a baby and Deckard. “The Fate of the Furious” is certainly needless, but no other popcorn-movie series right now can own a balance of inanity and insanity and make it fun. This installment does what it should and isn’t resting on the series’ laurels.

Grade: B - 

Monday, April 10, 2017

Frankie Pretty: “The Assignment” finds little pulpy fun in gonzo premise


The Assignment (2017)
95 min., rated R.

Formerly called “Tomboy” and then “(Re)Assignment,” transgendered revenge tale “The Assignment” is about a hitman becoming a hitwoman against his, now her, will. Though the film already garnered controversy by the political correctness police when it screened early at film festivals, it’s hard to say whether or not the film is actually “transphobic.” Sure, gender reassignment surgery is used as a punishment for its lead character, but even if the film came off reprehensible in its handling of transgender issues, nothing would change that it’s too talky, tacky, and leaden to reach critical mass as the entertaining B-picture it preferably wants to be. Credit “The Assignment” for the courageously off-color concept, but discredit it for the standard, underwhelming execution that actually does very little with said concept and never goes far enough. The hope for a gonzo, pulpy action-thriller just never becomes the reality.

San Francisco hitman Frank Kitchen (Michelle Rodriguez) has been a very bad man. When he wakes up, he has involuntarily undergone gender reassignment surgery by a disgraced rogue surgeon, Dr. Rachel Kay (Sigourney Weaver), who goes by “The Doctor” and obsesses over William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe. Of course, now, Frank is a woman (still Michelle Rodriguez) as a reminder that he killed the surgeon’s brother. According to the surgeon, she proudly performed the surgery on Frank, giving him a new life away from the “macho prison” he’s been living in as a man. Frank is none too happy and goes on his/her way to seek revenge on Dr. Kay and everyone involved on her payroll, including crime boss “Honest John” (Anthony LaPaglia), and hopefully settling down with nurse Johnnie (Caitlin Gerard), who hooked up with him/her pre-operation.

Like the kicker of Pedro Almodovar’s “The Skin I Live In,” “The Assignment” invites a more transgressive film than the one writer-director Walter Hill (2013’s “Bullet to the Head”) and co-writer Denis Hamill ended up making. Though peppered with screen wipes and black-and-white panels ripped straight from a graphic novel, à la “Sin City,” it’s still never quite lurid or over-the-top enough to be a midnight-movie hoot, providing uninspired shoots-outs and too few gut-level thrills. The payback portion of the plot is bullet-ridden but drab, as there’s not much catharsis or any tension for the viewer to feel for Frank getting justice on those who double-crossed him.

With her voice more monotone than usual for hard-boiled voice-over, Michelle Rodriguez does fine with what she has, including a prosthetic penis and some laughably unconvincing facial hair when she’s still the male Frank Kitchen. Performed hammily with an icy composure by Sigourney Weaver in a straitjacket, the well-spoken but delusional and hubris-driven Dr. Kay is, by far, the more interesting character. She sees herself as an artist and sees gender as identity rather than biology. Her psychoanalysis and interrogation scenes with Dr. Ralph Galen (Tony Shalhoub) are sometimes fun to watch, but there is a lot of clunky expository dialogue to cover when it's meant to gain insight into Dr. Kay's twistedly highfalutin mind. Even B-movies attempt and sometimes succeed at sneaking in a comment on something of social value, but “The Assignment” doesn’t choose to do this. A depth-free, purely-good-times B-movie is all well and fine, as long as there is something more to recommend it, but there’s not. This is junk and not even the fun kind.

Grade:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Codger Robbers: "Going in Style" a safe, amiable excuse to watch old pros


Going in Style (2017)
96 min., rated PG-13.

1993’s “Grumpy Old Men” and 1995’s “Grumpier Old Men.” 1997’s “Out to Sea.” 2000’s “Space Cowboys” and “The Crew.” 2013’s “Last Vegas.” One can count on more than one hand the number of comedies revolving around old fogies going back to their youth and the good old days, and by now, it is a moldy genre all its own. “Going in Style,” however, is a remake of the 1979 comedy that starred George Burns, Art Carney, and Lee Strasberg, and with the likes of today’s acting legends, this comedic caper with a timely of-our-times backdrop goes down pretty gently. Surprises are few in 2017's inconsequential, albeit amiable, “Going in Style,” but director Zach Braff (2014’s “Wish I Was Here”) and screenwriter Theodore Melfi (2016’s “Hidden Figures”) have such an unbeatable trio set in place that it makes the filmmakers’ jobs that much easier.

Joe (Michael Caine), Willie (Morgan Freeman), and Al (Alan Arkin) are retired Brooklyn seventysomethings who have been friends for more than thirty years. When Joe learns that the mortgage payment on his house has tripled, he hopes to settle the situation at his bank, where at the same moment three men rob the place. In awe of the robbers' skill as a witness, Joe flirts with the idea of pulling off a heist with his two pals, particularly once it’s announced that their former steel mill is freezing all pensions. Roommates Willie and Al initially think Joe is just joking, but once realizing that they have nothing left to lose—the former needs a kidney transplant and only sees his daughter and granddaughter via Skype, and the latter could just use one last hurrah—these two get on board. Even if they get caught and thrown in prison, at least Joe, Willie, and Al can go out with a bang and then have free housing and better medical care. 

Unlike the hacky, overly unctuous “Last Vegas" (which also starred Morgan Freeman), “Going in Style” does not feel the need to pander and constantly reach the lowest-common-denominator. Though the humor does often fall into easy shtick, this is decidedly the better film of the two. It should hardly be a rarity, but one can count their blessings that this one is mercifully free of Viagra jokes and technological ineptitude (i.e. none of the fellas are confused by iPhones or how to operate a computer). Amidst the shenanigans played for laughs, the one nugget of truth in Theodore Melfi’s script is the fact that our three protagonists of a certain age are experiencing a financial crisis in today’s zeitgeist, so, of course, they see it as more than a lark to rob a bank and take back what is theirs.

All playing familiar versions of their on-screen personas, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, and Alan Arkin aren't out to challenge themselves or snag Oscars for next year. It's apparent that they're having fun together, and watching these three strut their stuff and never break a sweat with their collective charm and charisma is not a bad excuse to kill an hour and a half. The supporting cast is a fine bunch, including Matt Dillon, Christopher Lloyd, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Maria Dizzia, Joey King, Kenan Thompson, and John Ortiz. Ann-Margret, nearly reprising her character from “Grumpy Old Men,” is also always delightful to see, even when her only function here is to play the overtly flirtatious Annie who would like to get it on with the irascible Al.

Considering director Zack Braff showcased more personality behind the camera thirteen years ago in “Garden State,” this is surely an impersonal, even forgettable, studio project for him. He tries to inject verve and energy with the overuse of split screens and pushy instances of broad mugging—Josh Pais is particularly annoying as a bank manager—and one of those generically jaunty comedy music scores obtrudes every now and then. With that said, “Going in Style” is a “nice movie.” It’s never once hilarious, but it is a mildly amusing, safely good-natured crowd-pleaser with more giggles than groans. A trial-run robbery—the guys shoplift food from a local grocery store—followed by their getaway in a motorized shopping cart gets the film’s biggest laugh, while seeing a couple of the geezers get high, or Alan Arkin and Ann-Margret in the sack, is as edgy as things get. Without the caliber of these three senior pros, the film might not have much else going for it, but generally, being in the pleasant company of Caine, Freeman, and Arkin is just enough.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Hospital Hell: "The Void" an insanely fun mishmash of everything nightmarish


The Void (2017)
90 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“The Void” ends up as a different movie than what it is at the start, and that’s a compliment to Canadian film production company collectively known as Astron-6. Written and directed by Jeremy Gillespie and Steven Kostanski (the former being one of Astron-6’s founders and the latter an equal partner), the film is good for what it is: a gleefully whacked-out genre grab-bag of 1976’s “Assault on Precinct 13,” 1982’s “The Thing,” 1987’s “Hellraiser,” and even a little of 2016’s “Baskin.” There are so many signs of influence that even if the parts aren’t anything original, how they form an '80s-inspired B-movie throwback whole is mighty crafty.

Out on an ordinary nightly patrol on the side of a back road, small-town police officer Danny Carter (Aaron Poole) witnesses a bloodied guy (Evan Stern) stumbling out of the woods. He immediately brings him to Marsh County Memorial Hospital, where Carter’s estranged nurse wife Allison (Kathleen Munroe) is working the night shift. After a nurse kills one of the patients, Carter and Allison, along with several others—Dr. Richard Powell (Kenneth Welsh), medical intern Kim (Ellen Wong), a pregnant young woman (Grace Munro) in the waiting room with her grandfather (James Millington), and the shotgun-toting Vincent (Daniel Fathers) and the mute Simon (Mik Byskov)—must also evade a threatening group of knife-wielding, horn-blowing, white-cloaked figures lurking outside. Tension rises inside with the clashing personalities and then members in the band of survivors start rampantly morphing into something else. Little do they know that an entrance to Hell is closer to them than they think.

A cosmic siege thriller/sci-fi/cult-horror mishmash turned up to eleven and borrowing around from John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Clive Barker, “The Void” is taut, bonkers, frequently freaky, and complete with a foreboding synth-heavy score by Blitz//Berlin. Delivered through punchy resourcefulness and spectacularly icky, creepy-crawly prosthetics and practical creature effects, the film has gore and splatter out the wazoo. At the same time, co-directors Gillespie and Kostanski show just enough of the tentacled, Lovecraftian monsters at first with savvy use of lighting and cinematography, as not to spoil the goods too soon. Enough of the imagery is the stuff nightmares are made of, particularly a simple, albeit creepy-as-hell, shot of the hooded disciples standing together outside the hospital, lit by a red police strobe light.

If the viewer gradually learns about the sufficiently drawn characters and their relationships as the film goes along, one discovers what they’re up against at the same speed, too, and never knowing where it’s going is a bona fide asset. Aaron Poole, as Carter, might be the closest to a lead, and the performances are decent across the board; Ellen Wong (who was so disarming and sprightly in “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”) is fun to see again as flippant nurse-in-training Kim. Its reach may exceed its grasp in the end, but for the right audience that is so inclined, “The Void” is an unbridled gateway into the demented, schlocky, and perverse. It’s absolutely willing to reach far-flung nuttiness without ever going beyond its modest budgetary constraints. What can separate a purely unpleasant film and a gory, gnarly one is a sense of raving fun, and pastiche or not, this one is insanely fun.

Grade:

Friday, March 31, 2017

Princess of Darkness: Rewards are few in moody “Blackcoat’s Daughter”


The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2017)
93 min., rated R. 

Forgoing original title “February” for a much more foreboding choice, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is a divisive experience. On the one hand, it’s a shivery, hushed mood piece that defines the term “slow burn,” favoring atmosphere and a certain chilly vibe over story momentum and just about everything else. On the other hand, it’s inert, striking one note and staying there. No matter the side one takes, there is auspiciousness in the writing-directing debut of Anthony “Norman Bates” Perkins’ son Osgood Perkins, whose second film “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House” already got picked up by Netflix last year, to get one excited to see where he goes from here. While Perkins certainly takes advantage of his frigid and isolated location, so much that its presence is actually felt throughout, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is a minimalistic horror effort that doesn’t give enough over to the viewer when it’s all over.

The female students at The Bramford School, a remote Catholic boarding school in upstate New York, are about to begin their winter break. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) and Rose (Lucy Boynton) are the last to leave, waiting for their parents to pick them up. For the time being, Rose is asked to look after Kat, who already seems aloof and withdrawn, or maybe just possessed by a Satanic presence. Later that night when Rose sneaks out with her boyfriend to tell him that she might be pregnant, she returns home to find Kat acting strangely and kneeling in the boiler room. Meanwhile, a young woman named Joan (Emma Roberts) with a medical wristband is picked up at a bus station by a nice man, Bill (James Remar), and his less-forgiving wife, Linda (Lauren Holly), who would rather he not bring up the death of their daughter in conversation. They’re headed to Bramford, but how these separate timelines converge is not as easy to guess as it sounds.

Seen entirely on the level of an audio-visual exercise, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is meticulously crafted, sure-footed, and drenched in raven-toned dread. Julie Kirkwood’s austere but ominous lensing and the string musical score by Elvis Perkins, the director’s brother, are part and parcel of the film’s unsettling atmosphere. It’s admirable, too, that Osgood Perkins is not a spoon-feeder, relying on his audience to have patience, pick up on the hints and interpret the goings-on for themselves, and breaks from the tropes of mainstream horror films; he even goes for a more old-fashioned approach with the use of pay phones. His screenplay, though, is undercooked and bereft of much of a point. The film crisscrosses between Kat and Rose at school and then Joan getting a ride, and though one gradually learns how the two sections intersect, it still doesn’t come fully together to reward those who have stuck out the languid pacing for a payoff.

The actors all capably key into the morose and restrained tone of the piece. Taking quite the leap from Sally Draper on TV’s “Mad Men,” Kiernan Shipka makes an indelibly chilling mark as Kat, a vessel to carry out wicked deeds. When she starts to look like death, Kat is way past the point of no return. Lucy Boynton (2016’s “Sing Street”) is mainly asked to react, but before then, she characterizes Rose with some charisma and prickliness. As Joan, Emma Roberts is compellingly cryptic until one understands who she is supposed to be, and even that is an unconvincing reveal. Creeping and crawling like the slow drip of a faucet, “The Blackcoat’s Daughter” is eerily suggestive, bypassing obvious jolts for a fearsome mood and disturbing insinuation, but it’s not quite enough this time. In the very last shot, there is a moment of clarity and hopelessness for one character that should be impactful in some way but mostly leaves one in a state of indifference. Even if he resists throwing the viewer a bone, Perkins sure knows how to craft a quiet sense of solitude and slowly approaching doom. 

Grade: C +

Look Who's Talking Like a Boss: "Boss Baby" milks just enough wit from strange premise


The Boss Baby (2017)
97 min., rated PG.

Guileless but mischievous, animated comedy “The Boss Baby” hits the tickle spot every now and then, even if it will most likely fade from memory following the length of the running time. Written by Michael McCullers (2008’s “Baby Mama”) and directed by Tom McGrath (he of the three “Madagascar” films and minor 2010 animated effort “Megamind”), this adaptation of a 2010 children’s book by Marla Frazee is adorable and bizarre all at once, and maybe even too needlessly complicated for its own good. Without pandering as much as one might expect in the humor department, "The Boss Baby" offers enough moments of visual and verbal wit from such an appreciably strange premise to offset the occasionally too-easy jokes of the diaper variety. How does one even resist 97 minutes of Alec Baldwin voice-puppeteering a baby business shark? You don't.

7-year-old Tim Templeton (voiced by Miles Christopher Bakshi) likes being an only child. He adores his bedtime ritual when Mom (Lisa Kudrow) and Dad (Jimmy Kimmel) sing him The Beatles’ “Blackbird” to sleep. Tim is soon faced with the fear of being forgotten when his baby brother arrives, but major suspicion sets in when his family’s new addition gets dropped off by a taxi and dances up to the door wearing a business suit and tie with a briefcase and Rolex. To Tim's eyes and his eyes only apparently, this is no ordinary baby. Competition instantly ensues between Tim and Boss Baby (Alec Baldwin), who was actually sent by company BabyCorp to pull off a mission to make sure babies are getting just as much love as puppies. They may not get along swimmingly at first, but Tim must soon partner up with Boss Baby to make sure Baby Corp stays in business and defeat a baddie by the name of Francis E. Francis (Steve Buscemi), a former Boss Baby and now Tim’s parents’ boss at Puppy Co., while finding the special formula that prevents the bossy infant from becoming a real crying baby. It's all very complex.

Kids and adults alike will scratch their heads, learning where babies really come from. You see, “The Boss Baby” exists in an alternate reality where Tim’s mother is shown with a baby bump, but the babies are actually churned out in a factory with a conveyor belt. Instead of going immediately home to a family because he fails a tickle test, Boss Baby gets sent to management in BabyCorp, where baby geniuses make it their mission to go up against puppy corporations and see to it that families don’t stop having babies. Even though Boss Baby only shows his true cunning side to Tim, the parents evidently think nothing of their newborn son showing at their door and just take the business suit he wears as a cute quirk. One either goes with the very loose logistics or calls ca-ca on the whole enterprise

With a to-the-point title and a high-concept premise—he’s a baby who dresses and acts like a corporate boss—the film actually grows overplotted when straying from Tim and Boss Baby’s sibling rivalry and into a generally formulaic espionage plot. A meeting that Boss Baby heads with a group of neighborhood babies is amusing stuff, as is a slapstick chase in the backyard showing the juxtaposition between parental perspectives and the actual frantic mayhem between Tim and Boss Baby, along with his baby associates. That complication should have been enough on its own. Somewhere along the way, though, screenwriter Michael McCullers must have thought the story needed a Big Bad with a dastardly plan involving a rocket full of puppies, but there's the sneaking suspicion that nothing of the sort would be found in the source material, a 36-page picture book.

Alec Baldwin is inspired casting as Boss Baby. One can just imagine the actor having a ball in the recording booth because Baldwin completely sells it as this fast-talking mini-businessman making calls on a Fisher-Price phone and throwing cash around as bribery. Miles Christopher Bakshi leads the way as our 7-year-old hero and lends a good amount of charm and ring of truth to a child's fear of losing attention from their parents. Tobey Maguire provides the narration as an adult Tim, but it only baffles the viewer even more on what was real and what was part of his overactive imagination as a child. The flight-of-fancy sections that bring Tim’s imaginary adventures to life are creatively visualized and energetic through colorful, appealingly retro animation, and there is some funny business with Tim’s wizard alarm clock Wizzy, a Gandalf knockoff.

For one bare bottom joke and infant frontal nudity that comes with a censor, there are even more subversive, slightly edgy touches to almost place "The Boss Baby" into curiosity territory. If the villain's evil scheme to wipe out any demand for babies wasn’t loopy enough for you, there is the notion that teleportation can be accessed through sucking on a pacifier and a climax that randomly throws in an airplane full of pelvis-shaking Elvis impersonators en route to Las Vegas. A “cookies are for closers” line being in reference to the Alec Baldwin-starrer “Glengarry Glen Ross” will surely go over the little tykes’ heads, but it’s a sneakily clever Easter Egg for grown-ups. From the fine folks at DreamWorks, “The Boss Baby” goes down easily as a fun diversion, from Alec Baldwin's very entertaining turn to even some of the story's surreal absurdities. Just drop your many, many questions scrutinizing the plot into the diaper genie.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Space Horrors: "Life" carried out with enough skill and tension to stand out


Life (2017)
103 min., rated R.

With any new space-set horror thriller, it’s hard not to stop thinking of 1979’s “Alien,” the grandaddy of the genre. “Life” is derivative, sure, but if it’s a rip-off of that Ridley Scott-helmed mainstay, this is one of the more potent and effectively executed rip-offs. That it works so well is due in no small part to director Daniel Espinosa (2012’s “Safe House”) carrying it all out with so much skill, craft, and tension. Nothing comes bursting out of someone’s chest, but there is plenty of startlingly icky spectacle and show-stopping suspense to come close to rivaling that bravura example of horror and get one’s heart racing. There’s so much good in “Life” that it’s able to stand out from the like-minded crowd.

A six-person crew of the International Space Station is on a mission through space to make an exciting breakthrough. The two Americans are smart-aleck pilot Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) and medic David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal), who prefers life in space than on Earth. The British members are Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson), who’s in charge of quarantine protocol, and biologist Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare). There is also a Japanese system engineer, Sho Murakami (Hiroyuki Sanada), and Commander Kat Golovkina (Olga Dihovichnaya). When they retrieve a sample from a damaged probe on Mars, it contains an extraterrestrial life form that thrills the crew and schoolchildren on Earth. The single-celled organism, dubbed “Calvin,” is described by Hugh for being, “all muscle, all brain.” From there, “Calvin” can only grow stronger, more intelligent and more hostile because, as one of them says, it needs to kill to survive, but someone will have to live to make sure it doesn’t reach Earth.

In a film like this, it is key that the viewer can care about the characters before they get picked off one by one. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick (2016’s “Deadpool”) only bring functionality to establishing background details for a few of the characters—Sho has a wife and newborn baby back home, and David is something of a sullen misanthrope—that it feels like a missed opportunity more time wasn’t taken to develop them, even efficiently with a few extra lines of dialogue here and there. The performances by the multinational cast, though, are without fault, everyone credibly uttering scientific jargon and feeling like a real person before becoming alien fodder. Even in a film where Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal are the biggest stars and get top billing, this is more of an ensemble piece, and the order in which the crew gets taken out by “Calvin” is largely surprising.

“Life” isn’t provocative enough to ask existential questions, and it’s just as well. On the terms of a B-movie with an A-movie budget, it works as a top-notch gripper with enough inspiration of its own and the kind of set-pieces that rattle audiences in their seats. Tech credits are aces across the board. Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography is gorgeous and lucid, the film kicks off with an elegantly devised unbroken shot that glides with the floating crew members down corridors of the space station. Jon Ekstrand’s unsettling score elicits goosebumps on more than one occasion. The design of the alien organism, “Calvin,” melds the beautiful with the grotesque into a flower-cum-squid creature, and the sight of zero-gravity gore is a gnarly touch. The reading of children’s book “Goodnight Moon” also lends a mournful tone to the doom that might await the survivors. Without ever losing its nerve, the end of “Life” is such a radically nifty and memorably hopeless sucker punch that one is surprised and delighted the studio actually went for it. Your move, “Alien: Covenant.”

Grade: B +