Thursday, November 16, 2017

Still Halfway to Justice: Uneven "Justice League" offers more levity but garish action gets in way of new team

Justice League (2017)
119 min., rated PG-13.

With 2016’s messy, bombastic, oppressively self-serious and failingly overambitious “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice” and this summer’s hopeful, confidently helmed “Wonder Woman,” DC Extended Universe superhero conglomeration “Justice League” had to not only cleanse the palette of the former but be as good as the latter. Fortunately, there is more levity, fun and humanity to be found in director Zack Snyder’s follow-up to “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice,” which was sapped of all three, and for almost two-thirds of its 119 minutes, “Justice League” is fleet, lively and even enthralling. Unfortunately, for every triumph with the Justice League’s loose, breezy dynamic, there are two steps back, and the scattered high points end up getting drowned out in an uneven whole of garish CG work and a generic dud of a villain. As of now, justice in bringing this iconic mega-team to life in a satisfying extravaganza is only halfway achieved, but there is still hope for an upswing with the DCEU. "Justice League" just isn't that time.

After Superman (Henry Cavill) and Batman (Ben Affleck) called a truce over both of their mothers being named Martha and were both joined by Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) to battle Lex Luthor’s engineered monster Doomsday, Superman impaled the monster with a kryptonite spear but selflessly died in the process. With Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman six feet under and leaving the world reeling from the loss, Bruce Wayne/Batman assembles an alliance to take on the End of Days, fast approaching in the form of intergalactic conqueror Steppenwolf (a motion-captured Ciarán Hinds) and his army of fear-smelling, insect-like Parademons who are out to steal three Mother Boxes (cosmic cubes of alien technology with infinite possibilities) from the Amazons, the Atlanteans, and the Earthlings. Bruce and Diana quickly round up their team, among them gawky young wisecracker Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) who dons a red suit and sports lightning-fast abilities as alter-ego The Flash; the whiskey-guzzling Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) who resides in the underwater Atlantis as the trident-wielding Aquaman; and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher), a former college athlete installed with robotic parts by his scientist father (Joe Morton) after a lab explosion. Can one of those Mother Boxes help resurrect a certain Kryptonian?

As directed by Zack Snyder and written by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon (who directed reshoots when Snyder had to step away during production after the tragic death of his daughter), “Justice League” has a lighter touch with “Avengers”-like banter, employing the sensibility of Whedon and the best and worst sides of Snyder as a visual filmmaker. The division of directorial visions and post-production issues—most of all being Henry Cavill’s distractingly digitized lips when the editors had to erase his mustache that he had to keep through contractual obligation for another film project—are noticeable on occasion, but there are moments and elements to like here, particularly early on. Sigrid’s funeral-toned rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Everybody Knows” plays over the opening credits, dramatizing the hopeless world without Superman, with an amusing newspaper headline asking if David Bowie, Prince and Superman have all returned to their home planets. Danny Elfman’s varied score then swings in as Batman fights off a criminal on a rooftop, jetting audiences back to Tim Burton’s 1989 original for just a moment. Wonder Woman’s solo sequence where she saves a group of hostages from a terrorist group, blocking every bullet with her bracelets, is attention-grabbing, and there is a thrilling set-piece on Themyscira where Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and the Amazons fend off Steppenwolf and his flying minions from getting their Mother Box. Then, as Aquaman, The Flash and Cyborg are introduced and their interactions tap into the bickering, joking vibe of a family forced to work together, the film still stays on solid ground. It’s when the plot—standard fate-of-the-world stuff—keeps having to kick in and center on thoroughly lackluster, uncanny-valley-residing CG villain Steppenwolf that the film begins to split at the seams. One would almost rather see a movie with the Justice League going to brunch (which does get its own joke) than save the world. 

As Bruce Wayne/Batman, Ben Affleck is given even less to do here than in his first incarnation as the character whose super power happens to be his wealth. By himself, he stoically conveys guilt for what happened to Superman, but luckily, Affleck looks more engaged when he’s around his co-stars. With co-lead duties, Gal Gadot more than holds her own as Diana Prince/Wonder Woman with her warm yet fierce presence, and she gets a funny gag with her Lasso of Truth aimed at Aquaman. The brawny Jason Momoa exceeds expectations, carrying himself with a devil-may-care attitude and dude-bro bravado, although his Aquaman is missing a few key beats to make sense of why he chooses to rescue the team at one point and then join them. As well-cast and understatedly compelling as stage actor Ray Fisher is as Victor Stone/Cyborg, he’s mostly a cog in the wheel, even with a tragic albeit undercooked backstory that would have made more room for pathos in an origin story. In charge of most of the comic relief is Ezra Miller as Barry Allen/The Flash, and he is the clear standout of the newcomers, almost reminding one of Tom Holland’s Spider-Man for still being in giddy awe of his powers. While early scenes of Barry visiting his imprisoned father (Billy Crudup) are cut short and his action moments are inferior to all of Quicksilver’s whiplash-fast sequences in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “X-Men: Apocalypse,” the endearingly enthusiastic Miller is a major source of the film’s joy and energy with cheeky, crowd-pleasing jokes linked to brunch and “Pet Sematary.”

Returning for a handful of scenes, Amy Adams and Diane Lane share some nice moments as the mourning Lois Lane and Martha Kent, who thankfully don't have to be rescued this time, while J.K. Simmons is underutilized as Commissioner James Gordon. Though Ciarán Hinds is credited as Steppenwolf, this part could have been played by anyone. Aside from his giant axe and his army of Parademons, Steppenwolf is as unimpressive as Enchantress and Incubus in “Suicide Squad” and holds no threat when he looks so processed and animated, resembling a mutt mixed with a billy goat and an orc out of “Warcraft.” His agenda to create Hell on Earth and become a new god is also too uninteresting and murky, despite an overt exposition dump.

Less afraid of having a sense of humor than its predecessor but saddled with a pedestrian story, “Justice League” levels out as a distraction at best. If more time had been taken to develop each new member of the Justice League and much, much less time was spent on Steppenwolf, this might have felt more like an epic than a “meh.” Save for a couple exceptions, most of the action is executed as flashy, overblown, weightless blurs that the viewer might as well be watching the “Justice League” video game tie-in and not the $300-million feature film. As is the requirement of superhero movies to end with a big showdown, the one here is such a busy, aesthetically samey destruct-a-thon presumably shot in front of green screens in a studio warehouse that’s supposed to stand in for Russia. No matter what anyone says, “Justice League” will still deliver as the movie diehard comic book fans craved all this time, but when will the hope of better luck next time cease? As with so many superhero movies of any universe, there is always the sinking feeling that the studios fill audiences with promises that never come, hoping they will wait to see the next movie instead. This may be a minor course correction for the DCEU—it’s not a total bust—and maybe the release of a longer “Ultimate Edition” will improve upon things.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Be Kind: Emotionally earned "Wonder" celebrates compassion without turning mawkish

Wonder (2017)
113 min., rated PG.

“Wonder” has all the trappings of a feel-good picture that tells audiences how to feel and tests their sugar tolerance. It is sentimental, sure, but this adaptation of the 2012 bestseller by R.J. Palacio about a boy with a facial difference knows just when to reel in the emotions and make the puppet strings invisible, just like 1985’s “Mask.” Just as he did in adapting his own YA novel and making one of the most truthful, relatable and special high school-set films out of it with 2012’s “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” director and co-writer Stephen Chbosky keeps any potential mawkishness and overt emotional manipulation in check. Humane and open-hearted rather than cloying, “Wonder” never goes for a cheap cry, even with the passing of a pet, but sneaks up on audiences without pandering or straining to be inspirational. 

August “Auggie” Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) is an intelligent 10-year-old boy born with a congenital disorder that caused facial disfigurement, having endured 27 surgeries that have allowed him to breathe, hear and have a face, but otherwise, he considers himself a pretty ordinary kid. Having been homeschooled by mother Isabel (Julia Roberts) in his New York brownstone home all these years, Isabel and husband Nate (Owen Wilson) decide it’s time to enroll Auggie in a new school for fifth grade. Beecher Prep School’s principal, Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), supports Auggie and has him get shown around by three students, including rich-kid bully Julian (Bryce Gheisar), chatty commercial-actress Charlotte (Elle McKinnon), and scholarship student Jack Will (Noah Jupe) who gives Auggie a chance. At first, he wears an astronaut helmet to hide himself from the world, but eventually, Auggie will become more comfortable in his own skin when others begin treating him the way he should be treated.

As Auggie’s older sister Via (Izabela Vidovic) puts it, “Auggie is the sun,” but everyone in the cast gets more than enough to do. The screenplay by Stephen Chbosky, Steven Conrad (2015’s “Unfinished Business”), and Jack Thorne (2014’s “A Long Way Down”) takes time to delve deeper and flesh out other characters who get their own chapter headings and vantage points. Via has a rough time at school but doesn’t share it with her parents since they’re more worried about Auggie adjusting and takes a chance by signing up for theater; Jack Will carries on a friendship with Auggie, going over to his house and playing video games, and then around Halloween makes the mistake of saying a cruel remark about Auggie to his other friends; and Via’s former best friend Miranda (Danielle Rose Russell) has rebelled after returning from summer camp with pink streaks in her hair and sitting with a different social circle at lunch. As the film sheds light on the people in Auggie’s life and sees them beyond shades of black and white, it finds a relatable truth that one never knows what’s actually going on in one’s life, so why judge?

What keeps the film from turning Auggie into a saintly mascot that everyone can learn from is making Auggie and everyone around him feel like an actual human being. Jacob Tremblay, who got his revelatory start in 2015’s “Room,” is adorable but pours so much humanity and humor into Auggie that the transformative make-up never distracts or does all of the acting. Izabela Vidovic (2013's "Homefront") is emotionally available as Via who has trained herself to be self-sufficient and bottle up a lot, and there’s a lovely, moving scene on the Coney Island shore with the grandmother she called Grans (Sonia Braga), Via’s greatest support system who is now gone. Julia Roberts never hits a false note as Isabel, a loving parent who, by placing all of her attention on Auggie, has failed to realize the neglect of her eldest and finally finds time to finish her dissertation that she put on hold while homeschooling her son. Next to Roberts’ Isabel, father Nate might be dealt the most underwritten, almost too-good-to-be-true part in Auggie’s immediate family, but casting Owen Wilson as a cool, understanding parent makes up for that. Also, Noah Jupe (2017's "Suburbicon") is as much of a natural as Tremblay in playing Jack Will and Broadway’s “Hamilton” actor Daveed Diggs lends charisma and support as teacher Mr. Browne.

“Wonder” might be unabashed in its use of the standing ovation cliché twice during both Via’s school production of “Our Town” and Auggie’s elementary school graduation, but even those moments work and make one in the audience want to stand up and cheer. Because Auggie and other characters are so believably developed before this point, the film earns such a cinematic stand-by. It also helps that Stephen Chbosky’s direction is almost always character-oriented and low-key, aside from whimsical flourishes involving “Star Wars” characters and Auggie joyfully running down the school hallway in an astronaut suit to convey the character's active imagination and love of science. Handled with wit, grace, and more subtlety than expected, “Wonder” is a heart-driven celebration of compassion and empathy. Tidy but more than just an “anti-bullying” message movie, this is a gentle, emotionally earnest film for anyone who follows the golden rule in his or her own life. Every sniffle, tear of joy, and lump in one’s throat is earned.


Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Strangers on a Train: “Murder on the Orient Express” a poky ride that largely wastes a starry cast

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
114 min., rated PG-13.

A star-studded 2017 remake of Sidney Lumet’s star-studded 1974 film, “Murder on the Orient Express” is the second big-screen retelling of Agatha Christie’s 1934 whodunit yarn on a locomotive. Once again, it is lavishly mounted and bursting with a cavalcade of first-class acting talent, but this rendering is a surprisingly flat mixed bag. It’s only intermittently diverting, poky when it should be enthralling and suspenseful, and never as involving as it wants to be. While most of the film’s $55 million budget went to paying a troupe of stars as part of an ensemble piece, director Kenneth Branagh (2015's "Cinderella") comes off self-congratulatory by casting himself (and his glorious mustache) front and center in every frame like a one-man show instead of devoting much time to the other passengers. Having positioned itself as the award season’s kick-off for a starry, refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment and a whodunit mystery that is usually reserved for BBC and PBS, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a crashing disappointment with the biggest mystery being how it could waste so many untapped performers.

The great Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) has just cracked a case of a stolen artifact in 1934, Istanbul. When he runs into a scoundrel of a friend, Bouc (Tom Bateman), Poirot is offered a place on a sleeper train en route to Calais, France. Hopping on board the Orient Express, the detective hopes for a vacation, until an avalanche stalls the train. Then a dead body turns up in one of the cabins, having been stabbed repeatedly in the chest, and one of the passengers on the train is a murderer. The suspects include governess Mary Debenham (Daisy Ridley); black English physician Dr. Arbuthnot (Leslie Odom Jr.); husband-hunting widow Caroline Hubbard (Michelle Pfeiffer); smarmy art dealer Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), butler Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi) and private secretary Hector MacQueen (Josh Gad); religious maid-turned-missionary Pilar Estravados (Penélope Cruz); Austrian engineering professor Gerhard Hardman (Willem Dafoe); icy Russian Princess Dragomiroff (Judi Dench) and dutiful handmaiden Hildegarde Schmidt (Olivia Colman); dancer Count Rudolph Andrenyi (Sergei Polunin) and his sick, barbiturate-taking wife, Countess Elena Andrenyi (Lucy Boynton); and Cuban businessman Biniamino Marquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). Not everyone is what he or she may seem, and Poirot will not rest, interrogating each and every one of them on their alibis, until he finds the killer among them.

“Murder on the Orient Express” would seem to have all of the proper ingredients for a worthwhile whodunit, including pedigreed source material, a pro at the helm, and a seemingly endless murderer's row of A-listers all in costume and ready to shine. While Hercule Poirot might be one of Agatha Christie’s long-lived characters who appeared in 33 of her novels, he deadens the proceedings almost from the word go. With a hammy, self-amused accent, the preening, mustachioed Kenneth Branagh’s shtick delights at first and then grates on the nerves thereafter. In small doses, his comedy lands, from giggling while reading Charles Dickens to wearing a mustache guard in bed. However, as he opens the film in a lengthy prologue, proving Poirot is “the greatest detective,” and then even gets a backstory involving his lost love, it becomes a long haul with Poirot trying to outshine everyone else. Out of everyone, Poirot gets an arc, but it feels dishonestly earned. At the end of his case-cracking in Istanbul, he expresses his worldview to a policeman, “There is right, there is wrong, and nothing in between.” And yet, by the end of cracking the case on the Orient Express, Poirot takes all of ten minutes to realize that life is more complicated beyond black and white.

Screenwriter Michael Green (2017’s “Blade Runner 2049”) had his work cut out for him, adapting Agatha Christie’s oft-adapted yarn as a highbrow potboiler but taking few liberties outside of flirting with a certain passenger of a different race. With an impressively assembled cast at director Branagh’s disposal, it feels like a major missed opportunity when so many of them are underserved, not only for there being so many characters to manage but because director Kenneth Branagh makes himself the star. They are all purposefully underwritten playing strangers who have secrets and then all become murder suspects, each given a single compartment to play in, although only a few get the chance to make a juicy impression or even register. Haters of Johnny Depp will delight in knowing that he ends up being the corpse, and he might have the most lively interaction with Poirot over a pastry before rigor mortis sets in. Enlivening every scene she gets her hands on as Caroline Hubbard, Michelle Pfeiffer is appropriately slinky and gets in a few delicious lines. With her innate charisma, the lovely Daisy Ridley (2015’s "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens”) lends enough spark as Mary Debenham for one to wish she had more to do, while Broadway actor Leslie Odom Jr. has the same qualities and gets the same treatment. Josh Gad and Penélope Cruz each have their own respective moments, too, but in other thanklessly tertiary roles, Willem Dafoe is nearly forgotten and Dame Judi Dench gets to give annoyed glances and answer Poirot’s questions.

Production values are solidly handsome, with sweeping shots of the train ripping around the track on a snowy mountain, and Alexandra Byrne’s costume design is exquisite. Although on a few occasions, it seems as if even a pro like Branagh and cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos struggle on where to place the camera within the train. For instance, a tracking shot from the exterior of the train isn't even stylishly show-offy as it bungles the introduction of Mrs. Hubbard, roving from window to paneling to window to paneling, and an overhead shot that remains hovering in the corridor when Poirot discovers the dead body in one of the cabins is awkwardly staged, favoring the tops of the actors’ heads. A more fluid camera movement dollies down the aisle of the train, getting a reaction from each passenger. 

Since the whodunit reveal of “Murder on the Orient Express” is already well-known—and it is a humdinger—it’s a matter of seeing how the filmmakers will get there. As the film chugs along, the mystery lacks urgency, the tension remains slack, and the claustrophobia of being in a train with a murderer among the passengers is never taken full advantage of by Branagh’s stately direction. Poirot takes so many leaps from clue to conclusion with deduction that there’s little time for the viewer to get wrapped up in the mystery. As the motive behind the killer (or killers) clearly tries to move on an emotional level, the only thing the viewer is left to feel is indifference, and that shouldn’t be. All dressed up with little place to go, “Murder on the Orient Express” is just inert.


The Boy Who Wasn't There: "My Friend Dahmer" an unsettling and oddly sensitive portrait

My Friend Dahmer (2017)
107 min., rated R.

Based on Derf Backderf’s 2012 graphic-novel memoir and written for the screen and directed by Marc Meyers (2015’s “How He Fell in Love”), “My Friend Dahmer” dares to explore the formative years of notorious serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer before any of his actual murders that weren’t exposed until 1991. In the most psychologically disturbing sense, this is more of a coming-of-age story than a horror film that plants the seed of early psychosis by simply observing its subject in the late-1970s (shot in Dahmer’s real-life childhood home, to boot). It might not offer many new insights, but without excusing Dahmer’s actions that would devolve from weird to downright sociopathic, “My Friend Dahmer” is oddly a rather empathetic portrait the way it depicts high school and a broken home for an incipient serial killer before he passes the point of no return.

In 1978, Bath, Ohio, Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) is a senior at Revere High School. He’s a social outcast and just plain off. Although he plays tennis and plays in the marching band, Jeffrey mostly keeps to himself and spends his days after school collecting roadkill carcasses and dissolving them in jars of acid in a shed—his “lab”—in the woods. At home, his chemist father, Lionel (Dallas Roberts), wants Jeffrey to get out of his shell, going as far as throwing away all of his son’s animal-filled jars, while his mother, Joyce (Anne Heche), suffers from mental illness. Once Jeffrey realizes his “spazz attack” performance, inspired by his mother’s interior decorator with cerebral palsy, gets him attention at school, he is welcomed into a group of pals, John ‘Derf’ Backderf (Alex Wolff), Mike (Harrison Holzer) and Neil (Tommy Nelson), who find him oddly hilarious. Even as Jeffrey finds himself more accepted by this trio of friends, his parents file for divorce, forcing him to take up drinking and show even more erratic behavior. Jeffrey Dahmer’s violent tendencies, sexuality and biology aspirations slowly awaken once he finally meets the doctor (Vincent Kartheiser) who jogs past his house three times out of the week. 

Sensitive and unsettling in equal measure, “My Friend Dahmer” soundly centers on one pivotal stage in its subject’s life and never strays with a framing device or flashbacks. In a way, it still feels made up of moments that don’t always build upon each other, which might have increased the sense of dread, but the most compelling constant in the film is the actor portraying Jeffrey Dahmer. As the growing trend goes with Disney Channel alumni taking risks on the big screen, 21-year-old Ross Lynch takes the darkest route in portraying Jeffrey Dahmer. In what should be his breakout role, he alarmingly disappears and finds a sliver of sympathy before the monstrous side completely takes over. It’s especially uncomfortable to watch Jeffrey keep resorting himself to his prankish “spazz” stunts in the school halls and eventually, much to the encouragement of his “friends” and some jocks, a shopping mall. Dead-eyed behind clunky aviator glasses and physically awkward with a slumped-over gait, Ross’ performance is less mannered than it is subtle, bottled-up and chillingly detached. In supporting roles that bring context to who Jeffrey Dahmer is and who he will become, Dallas Roberts and Anne Heche are effective as Jeffrey’s bickering parents, and as aspiring-cartoonist Derf, Alex Wolff has an inviting presence but also gets to convey culpability and standoffishness through the course of his friendship with Jeff.

Writer-director Marc Meyers lays out an ethical conundrum and goes just far enough to the edge to allow one to empathize with a budding serial killer. Viewers who hope for cut-and-dry answers will not get such a thing since it is impossible to pinpoint what drives someone to commit such unspeakably awful crimes, but the groundwork is set up to hint at Jeffrey Dahmer’s homicidal and cannibalistic tendencies with his reclusiveness and morbid bone fascination. The signs are certainly there, as impure thoughts bubble inside of Dahmer, even if he hasn’t quite acted upon his impulses yet. As the film ends with Jeffrey picking up hitchhiker Steven Hicks, the viewer knows where things will lead and that all hope is lost. If “My Friend Dahmer” is absorbing enough in the story it tells and never pats itself on the back with an ultimate verdict on what made Jeffrey Dahmer a monster, it does make one intrigued to research more. 


Monday, November 6, 2017

Not Safe for Work: "Mayhem" gonzo, ultra-violent and mad as hell

Mayhem (2017)
87 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

If the office drones from “Office Space” acted on murderous impulse, “The Belko Experiment”-style, due to a viral outbreak, director Joe Lynch (2015’s “Evelyn”) and screenwriter Matias Caruso’s “Mayhem” would be the lunatic bloodbath. A satirically blunt indictment of corporate greed and a corrupt system, the film finds its own individuality as a mad-as-hell, metal-infused genre concoction that often plays like a frenetic, destructive video game on speed, and that is a giant compliment. Between the Greg McLean-helmed, Sean Gunn-penned “The Belko Experiment” from earlier this year and now “Mayhem,” there must be something cathartic for genre filmmakers who paid their dues working in a cubicle about sticking it to the 1%. "Mayhem" is one insane workplace comedy with misanthropic bite and bloody exploitation aplenty.

Successful but feeling like he’s sold his soul to law firm Towers & Smythe Consulting with little to show for it except for a corner office, executive associate legal analyst Derek Cho (Steven Yeun) is about to have the day from Hell. First, he discovers his precious coffee mug has been stolen by his fierce, condescending superior, Kara Powell (Caroline Chikezie), whom he dubs “The Siren." Then, after Kara throws Derek under the bus and gets into the ear of pompous, coke-snorting CEO John Towers (Steven Brand), aka “The Boss,” with no help from HR head honcho, “The Reaper” (Dallas Roberts), he is terminated. Just as Derek is escorted out of the building, a SWAT team and people in Hazmat suits arrive to quarantine the firm. While no one inside has noticed they all display symptoms with a red eye, the ID-7 Virus—an airborne strain that attacks the infected’s id and forces an imbalance between emotion and reason—spreads like wild fire through the office building. Taken out by the CEO’s bodyguards in the basement, Derek soon comes to and teams up with Melanie Cross (Samara Weaving), who not long before Derek’s termination was turned away when she tried fighting a foreclosure notice on her home. Armed with nail guns, hammers, electric saws, wrenches, and their own temporary insanity, Derek and Melanie aren’t about to stay calm, even though all traces of the virus are said to be eliminated in approximately eight hours with an antidote pumped into the ventilation system.

Following a fair amount of exposition-heavy setup, “Mayhem” never takes its foot off the gas with a humorously mean spirit, lots of ultra-violence, and a frenzied energy that proves infectious. Throwing a virus into a law firm is an extremely clever idea, especially when the sufferers can't be prosecuted for murder once the "red eye virus" is out of their systems. Told through flashback with deadpan narration by Derek and cutaways to paintings he’s created, the film opens with the in medias res damage of a previous viral outbreak in an Iowa office building. Though the rules are efficiently laid out, the ID-7 Virus mostly serves as a McGuffin to accelerate all of the anarchy and carnage that ensue. Once TSC gets hit, all inhibitions are thrown to the wind, as Derek’s afflicted colleagues begin acting violently and not holding back their sexual impulses. It’s advised by a quarantine specialist that stressful work-related situations should be avoided, but that’s a lot easier said than done. Also, stimulants, including caffeine, accelerate the effect of the virus, but “The Siren” keeps screaming for more coffee from her assistant. 

Having a blast with the gleefully gonzo tone of the film, Steven Yeun (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) and Samara Weaving (2017’s “The Babysitter”) make spectacular impressions on their own and form a badass team. Yeun is charismatic, assertive and quick-witted as Derek, and with a demented smile and a glint in her eye as Melanie, Weaving makes for an enthusiastic foil with a cool presence and sharp comic timing. As Derek and Melanie are hellbent on crawling their way upstairs where the top-of-the-food-chain scumbags hide out in a boardroom, the viewer sticks with these two all the way. Providing just enough quiet time from the relentless violence for Derek and secret hesher Melanie to argue on the quality of Dave Matthews Band and kindle attraction, director Joe Lynch keeps a fun vibe going when this could have just been an onslaught of brutal, meaningless executions. Not to put too fine a point on it, a little of “Mayhem” still goes a long way, but it is a delirious blitz, the perfect kind of primal midnight movie that would play like absolute gangbusters with a loud, boozy crowd at Alamo Drafthouse.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Norse Farce: Waititi turns "Thor: Ragnarok" into a goofy, rainbow-colored lark

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
130 min., rated PG-13.

A significant upgrade even from 2011’s solid but generally unexceptional Shakespearian fish-out-of-water fantasy “Thor” and particularly 2013’s dreary sequel “Thor: The Dark World,” “Thor: Ragnarok” is easily the strongest of the Norse God of Thunder’s own installments by going off brand and being more of a buoyant, slap-happy cosmic comedy without an ounce of self-seriousness. Hiring New Zealand filmmaker Taika Waititi (who put his own fresh spins on formulas with 2015’s “What We Do in the Shadows” and 2016’s “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”) proves to make a world of difference, opting for a jokier, cheekier tone and coming close to making his “Flash Gordon” that’s more aware of its campy trappings. Filled with more guffaws than danger—even though “Ragnarok” means the End of Days for Asgard—“Thor: Ragnarok” borders on being a lightweight lark, but it plays out as a brisk, splashy and unpretentious roller-disco bonanza that knows how to entertain.

After being imprisoned by fire demon Surtur and then escaping, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard to find mischievous half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in command of the kingdom. Loki explains to Thor that their father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), is dying, and when he does, his passing unleashes Odin’s exiled first-born daughter Hela (Cate Blanchett), the Goddess of Death, from centuries of imprisonment. When she deprives Thor of his mighty hammer, she vows to overtake the throne and bring down Asgard with the oncoming Ragnarok. Meanwhile, as Thor and Loki flee from Hela, Thor crashlands in a junkyard on planet Sakaar, where he’s picked up by Scrapper 142 (Tessa Thompson), who takes him to the Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum). There, Thor discovers co-worker Hulk, who hasn’t been in human form as Bruce Banner for two years, and must convince him to help save his homeland.

Marvel TV writers Eric Pearson Craig Kyle & Christopher L. Yost abide by the formula of the Marvel Cinematic Universe—Thor and company must demonstrate teamwork to save his people and defeat a Big Bad in a finale that culminates with a big battle—but what they bring to “Thor Ragnarok” is a refreshing amount of jocularity. They also answer every viewer’s question, “Where were Thor and Hulk?” during the events of 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” making this particular entry a “sidequel” of sorts. Director Taika Waititi’s trademarked touch of the quirky and offbeat is all over this tentpole project and enhances it a great deal, letting his own personality smother the obligation of the Marvel machine. The color palette matches every candy in a bag of Skittles, especially on planet Sakaar, and the retro synthesizer score by Mark Mothersbaugh is pleasing and propulsive.

The charming Chris Hemsworth has already shown his timing for comedy before as Thor and in other films (primarily 2015’s “Vacation” and 2016’s “Ghostbusters”), but this time, he’s unleashed with an adorable klutziness offsetting his muscle-bound masculinity. Hemsworth shares tremendous chemistry with Hulk/Bruce (both CG avatar and Mark Ruffalo) and Tom Hiddleston’s impish Loki, as well as Tessa Thompson (2015’s “Creed”), who’s indomitable with moxie as the confident, hard-drinking Scrapper 142, an Asgardian-warrior-turned-mercenary. Jeff Goldblum is at his Goldblum-iest—a good thing, indeed—as the flamboyant but maniacal Grandmaster, ruler of Sakaar, and Taika Waititi, himself, steals scenes as the voice of rock monster Korg. As far as other characters from the MCU cropping up, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has an amusing encounter with Thor and, briefly, Loki, while Natalie Portman’s Jane sits this one out but does get one quick mention involving Thor’s break-up. 

Hela, the villain of the piece, is a vicious, unforgivable badass who takes no prisoners (okay, she crowns Karl Urban’s Skurge as her executioner), but Cate Blanchett is too nuanced and magnetic of an actress that one wishes she were given extra shadings to play with this stock role. Hela may be Odin’s first-born daughter, and yet she is evil incarnate without much more to do than order someone to be killed or to do it herself. In any event, Blanchett goes all in, camping it up and having a grand time performing with an antler headpiece and a spandex suit that many will try donning next Halloween.

“Thor: Ragnarok” is so much fun and not afraid to be goofy and weird that it’s hard to complain too much. On the action front, set-pieces are only memorable when Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is being used, and that happens twice, and a gladiator match-up between Thor and Hulk is an amusing one. As the 17th piece in the MCU, it doesn’t challenge the rest of the installments in terms of emotional gravitas or stakes, but as a rainbow-colored blast, it does stand apart by reveling in the humor as much as the “Guardians of the Galaxy” films. Thor, we’ll see you in 2018's “Avengers: Infinity War.”


Friday, November 3, 2017

Double the Moms: Even with its bright spots, "A Bad Moms Christmas" feels like a strained quickie

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017)
104 min., rated R.

A sequel was definitely in the cards for 2016’s summer sleeper hit “Bad Moms,” a raucously funny comedy that rang true for overworked, underappreciated mothers everywhere amidst the rowdy R-rated material. Released not even a full year and a half later, “A Bad Moms Christmas” is the quickie follow-up, and as with any sequel, it runs the risk of going stale and looking like a money grab. Returning writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore do have enticing ideas for a continuation, like doubling down on the moms by bringing in three veteran actresses to play the moms’ moms and setting the story around the hectic holidays. However, despite the bright spots of those additions and a few laugh-out-loud moments, this is a less-sharp rehash with snow, holiday wreaths, and a scene-stealing Christine Baranski. For the most part, "A Bad Moms Christmas" has little else to say that the first one didn’t already, and the comedic bits are rarely ever as fresh and outrageous as they were the first time.

It used to be the most wonderful time of the year when there wasn't so much pressure placed on mothers to deliver a perfect Christmas for their families. This year, Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis) just wants a mellow Christmas, as do her kids (Oona Laurence, Emjay Anthony) and boyfriend Jessie (Jay Hernandez). Then, six days before December 25th, overly critical mother Ruth (Christine Baranski), along with dutiful father (Peter Gallagher), arrive to cramp her daughter's style. Always one to put down and one-up her daughter, Ruth already has her own plans to put on a perfect Christmas for her grandchildren, who are spending the holiday for the first time after their parents’ divorce. Harried stay-at-home mom of four Kiki (Kristen Bell) and loosey-goosey Carla (Kathryn Hahn) face similar situations before the birth of Jesus Christ. Kiki’s mother, Sandy (Cheryl Hines), is a clingy type who has no concept of personal space and wears T-shirts and pajamas with her daughter’s face printed on them. And then Carla’s mom, Isis (Susan Sarandon)—yes, like the terrorist organization—is a flaky, gambling-addicted drifter who hasn’t seen her daughter in two years and only shows up in Carla’s life when she needs money. With all three moms stressed out as it is having their lives thrown out of whack from their mothers visiting for the holidays, Amy, Kiki and Carla vow to take Christmas back.

Every once in a while, “A Bad Moms Christmas” finds the laughs and chemistry of the original “Bad Moms” when Amy, Kiki and Carla are together. Regrettably, writer-directors Jon Lucas and Scott Moore separate the original trio of bad moms and have trouble regaining the raunchy-sweet balance of their first film, opting for a pushier approach as if they were trying too hard to force the inappropriate wackiness. Having one of the kids say the unabbreviated version of "OMFG!" more than three times is one such example. When the film does try to mimic the original’s memorable, hilarious slo-mo montage where the moms went on a drunken bender through the grocery store, each set-piece feels like lazy diminishing returns. It first happens in a shopping mall, where the women grind on Santa and steal a Christmas tree from Lady Foot Locker, and then again in a sequence at a Sky Zone trampoline park that goes on twice as long with a game of dodgeball. The biggest disappointment here is that all three of the moms’ moms are drawn in such broad comedic strokes, until the sudden tonal jump into third-act apologies and would-be redemption arcs where the viewer is now supposed to care about them as real people and find them relatable.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn slip back into their roles, and how could they not when so little time has passed? Once again, Hahn is the MVP as the blowsy, uninhibited Carla, and as a delirious comedic force, she scores the biggest guffaws. No fault of the actress, Carla is noticeably even more cartoonish, perhaps psychotic, this time without as much of the endearing decency and heart she revealed before; it’s a surprise that she still holds down her job at a spa or that her one and only son, Jaxon (Cade Cooksey), is still alive. To redeem herself, Hahn does share a sweetly raunchy “meet cute” with a game Justin Hartley (TV’s “This Is Us”), a hunky fireman-turned-stripper named Ty Swindel with an appendage the size of a “parking cone,” when Carla waxes his undercarriage.

This time, the three co-leads must make room for an expanded ensemble. Though she looks nothing like Kunis to play her mother, Christine Baranski is a hoot, rooted in deliciously go-for-the-throat ice queen mode and slaying every cutting criticism aimed at Amy with expert delivery (“I didn’t know Rite-Aid made Christmas decorations!”). The character of Ruth is such an extreme, unsympathetic monster, and yet her Christmas plans are so over-the-top, one can’t help but laugh as she turns Amy’s suburban home into a Radio City Music Hall extravaganza: she hires help to decorate the front yard with a “Twelve Days of Christmas”-themed display that would make Clark Griswold green with envy; she buys tickets for the 5-hour Russian version of “The Nutcracker,” insisting the children will love it; and she has already invited close to 200 guests for a grand Christmas party, complete with special musical guest Kenny G and a sushi bar. Naturally, there is emotional baggage and years of insecurity underneath Ruth's cold exterior. The delightfully bubbly Cheryl Hines was made to play Kristen Bell’s mother, but her character Sandy is stuck as a one-note caricature, the kind of mother who creepily sits in the bedroom as Kiki and her husband get it on and then later buys the house next door. Susan Sarandon is better, knocking Carla for caring about her son as if it's a new “parenting trend” and at least making it clear from whose uterus conceived Carla. Unfortunately, Christina Applegate, as the PTA baddie from the original, only stops by for a cameo but makes her very brief screen time count.

A sillier, lesser “Bad Moms” is still eager to please, but there wasn’t enough time in between the moms’ last rebellious boycott and their latest to make “A Bad Moms Christmas” a worthy successor. Whether or not it was the result of STX Entertainment knowing they had a hit on their hands and had to rush out a sequel as soon as they could without any rewrite, one can only forgive so much when the once-deft blend of raunchiness and pathos feels more labored. The film has just enough laughs to not be a complete bust, but be that this is a Christmas movie, too, there has to be an obligatory, sentimental resolution that is only earned for the commitment and emotional range of Mila Kunis, who delivers a teary-eyed heart-to-heart to Ruth in a pew during Christmas Eve mass, rather than in the ways the characters have been written. Whereas "Bad Moms" was sneakily perceptive and true in its foundation, "A Bad Moms Christmas" is more threadbare and dramatically unconvincing. Twelve months will tell if we’re going to get “Bad Grandmoms” — for better or for worse.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Father's Choice: "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" full-bore Lanthimos strangeness

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
121 min., rated R.

With each new film by Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos, one prepares to see something odd and to be made uncomfortable and laugh as a defense mechanism to make the dread feel more palatable. Co-written again by regular collaborator Efthymis Filippou, who helped director Lanthimos make 2010’s “Dogtooth,” 2012’s “Alps,” and the strangest, most absurdly funny and wince-inducing dystopian-romance with 2016’s “The Lobster,” “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is their Kubrickian horror film with Greek tragedy leanings (the title refers to the Greek myth of Iphigenia) but their own completely unique rhythm. Watching the disintegration of a family as a result of the patriarch's past mistakes, it is nihilistic, perverse, bleakly amusing, and tough to shake.

Opening with a close-up and reverse zoom of a pumping ticker during open heart surgery set to a mournfully symphonic piece by classical composer Franz Schubert, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” sets its specific off-center tone with clinical detachment, which is apropos in that it involves a heart surgeon and his family. Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell), a cardiologist, and wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), an ophthalmologist, have two children, teenager Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and pre-teen Bob (Sunny Suljic). Their well-off lives in Cincinatti hold very little concern outside of who will water the plants and who will take the dog for a walk. For months, Steven has been having walk-and-talk meetings with a 16-year-old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan), the son of one of Steven’s former patients who died on the operating table. Martin eventually ingratiates himself into the Murphy family and even invites Steven over for dinner as a rouse to set him up with his widowed mother (Alicia Silverstone), but when Steven rebuffs her advances and tries lessening his time with Martin, it’s there that an indescribable disability befalls the Murphy children. If Steven doesn’t make a sacrifice, it could result in something worse for his family.

Controlled and methodically paced, to the point that some viewers may find it too sedate, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a parable of mystical evil that defies logic and science but concludes with fateful, harrowing consequence. It’s cryptic and completely of a piece with Yorgos Lanthimos’ previous films that resemble the real world but in a way that's heightened, warped, and played by the filmmaker’s own rules. The film holds the viewer from the start, introducing an atypical, almost-clandestine relationship between an adult man and a teenage boy and keeping the nature of that relationship a mystery. Once Martin’s aims become slightly more clear, Lanthimos keeps turning the screws with little relief or compromise as Steven and Martin’s power play grows more obsessive, karmic, and cruel.

The whole ensemble is attuned to writer-director Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou’s style of speech pattern, which is matter-of-fact but stilted. For a while, until emotions break through, every character could be a robot in search of sentience and humanity. Colin Farrell, sporting an impressively full salt-and-pepper beard, is commanding as Steven Murphy, playing him as a family man who sees himself as infallible when an operation goes wrong but crumbles when someone else takes his power. When the time does come, he will have to make a decision and take responsibility. With her hairstyle resembling that of her character in “Eyes Wide Shut,” Nicole Kidman is very good, playing up the banal role of a wife and mother but bringing an icy, forceful edge with a cracking brittleness. As children Kim and Bob, Raffey Cassidy (2015’s “Tomorrowland”), whose warbling of Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” does burn into one’s memory, and Sunny Suljic are more than up to the task of the film’s challenges, too. As Martin, who ends up going to extreme measures to cope with his loss, Barry Keoghan (2017’s “Dunkirk”) is subtle yet chillingly creepy in a way that gets under one’s skin; how he devours a plate of spaghetti is queasy on its own. Alicia Silverstone also has one memorable scene as Martin’s lonely mother, who comes on strong in trying to seduce Steven when she comments on his “beautiful” hands.

Plot holes do not exist in a film like “The Killing of a Sacred Deer.” While Martin does spell out the rules of his sinister intentions to Steven, how they happen are not easily explained and actually beside the point. Like many a films by Stanley Kubrick, there is a sterile elegance to the filmmaking and Thimios Bakatakis’ sublimely austere cinematography, from the use of tracking shots in hospital corridors, the way the lighting bounces off the walls, and the overall symmetry of the framing. As disturbing as Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” (either the 1997 or 2007 version will do) and most thematically similar to 2014’s Dutch oddity “Borgman,” the genuinely unsettling and provocative “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is designed to stir up lively conversation, while sticking in the proverbial knife, twisting it, and leaving it there. It’s difficult to enjoy but even more difficult to forget or deny.

Grade: B +