Saturday, February 25, 2017

People Suck: "I don't feel at home in this world anymore." a poignant, blackly comic indie

I don’t feel at home in this world anymore. (2017)
96 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Soul-searching and nihilism cross paths in “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.,” the very auspicious directorial debut of actor Macon Blair, who’s already proven himself a nuanced performer in front of the camera between 2014’s “Blue Ruin” and 2016’s “Green Room” (both written and directed by best friend Jeremy Saulnier). In telling his story of a woman who’s grown increasingly fed up with people around her, the film dabbles in a few different genres, from an observational single character piece to a relationship dramedy to a violent crime-thriller with farcical undertones. Here is a strange, great little indie that welcomes an absurdist streak laced with poignant pangs of truth through a simultaneously outlandish yet believable chain of events.

Ruth (Melanie Lynskey) is reaching her tipping point. A nursing assistant on the meek side, she finds herself losing her capacity to care for people who are rude and awful: a patient takes her last breaths right before uttering racist epithets; a fellow bar fly spoils the ending of a book Ruth is reading; and someone completely cuts her off in a grocery store checkout line. When she comes home, her place has been robbed, but the only missing valuables are Ruth’s grandmother’s china, her laptop, and her antidepressants. With the police putting off the robbery—since she left her back door unlocked, they don’t consider it unlawful entry—Ruth takes matters into her own hands. First, she makes a plaster of Paris cast out of the intruder’s footprint in her backyard and then finally has luck tracing the exact location of her stolen laptop with the lost-and-found app on her phone. Even if she doesn’t have a search warrant, Ruth goes off to the address but not before asking for backup from her oddball neighbor, Tony (Elijah Wood). Sooner or later, Ruth and her new buddy, armed with nunchuks and ninja stars, get more than they bargained for without knowing that the real thieves, Marshall (David Yow), Dez (Jane Levy) and Christian (Devon Graye), are on their tail.

The wryly amusing opening montage of public annoyances and disaffection rings incredibly true and might even hold up a mirror to the worst tendencies in all of us. Immediately, one can relate to Ruth and her up-to-here exasperation, spectacularly played by national treasure Melanie Lynskey, who’s once again given the chance in a lead role following 2012’s “Hello I Must Be Going.” A character actress of modest subtlety, emotional nuance, and comedic timing, Lynskey is sublime, stingingly sad and adorably amusing in equal measure. It is a reactive role that Lynskey makes feel proactive yet ill-equipped. Elijah Wood is offbeat and oddly sweet as Tony, who’s more than a colorful, nunchuk-swinging caricature; he likes lifting to heavy metal music, walking his dog, and going to church. Devon Graye, Jane Levy, and David Yow make up a suitably weaselly bunch, and each of them are interesting in their own evil ways. A hilarious Christine Woods even makes quite the impression in all of two scenes as Meredith, a bored, day-drinking housewife who happily invites Ruth and Tony to come into her home when they pretend to be cops none too well.

“I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” (a perfect title taken from a 1962 Jim Reeves song, “This World is Not My Home”) could feel tonally uncertain or tangential at times, but everything still feels of a piece with Ruth’s messy, restorative journey. As written and directed by Macon Blair, the film never loses its way with Ruth and Tony as two characters we care about. When the film does shift gears into darker territory, explosions of ultra-violence are skillfully staged and loaded with suspense. The climax is a knockout, satisfyingly grisly near a swamp in the forest as it is strikingly shot by cinematographer Larkin Seiple (2016's "Swiss Army Man") in Portland, Oregon. If the characters didn’t feel as grounded and specific to one world as they do here and filmmaker Macon Blair didn’t have such a command of tone, the outcome would be different. As is, “I don’t feel at home in this world anymore.” is a special, genre-fluid gem that’s as much about humanity as it is about vigilantism. Ruth might not have any faith left in the world at the beginning, but by the end, she certainly finds hope where she can get it.

Grade: B +

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Woke Horror: Horror looks good on Jordan Peele in bold, devilish "Get Out"

Get Out (2017)
103 min., rated R.

Jordan Peele, one-half of sketch-comedy duo “Key and Peele,” must have had the foresight to know the America that would be born around the release of his accomplished directorial debut. It being a horror film, “Get Out” marks Peele’s first foray into a genre one doesn’t ordinarily equate him with, and his intentions are devilish, thoughtful, and courageous. Racism still exists and it’s an unsettling thought, so Peele dares to repurpose the taboo of an interracial relationship from 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” through a looking glass by way of 1975’s “The Stepford Wives.” Taking itself too seriously to be called a “horror-comedy” but knowing when to make an audience chuckle out of discomfort or with an intentional one-liner, “Get Out” is worth celebrating as ballsy, incendiary genre filmmaking ready to takes chances.

When 26-year-old photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) prepares to leave the city to go upstate with Rose (Allison Williams), his white girlfriend of five months, to meet her parents for the weekend, he asks her if they know that he’s black. She reassures him that her family is progressive and even promises that her dad would have voted for Barack Obama for a third term. Once they get to the estate, things start off okay. Dean (Bradley Whitford) and Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener), a psychiatrist and neurosurgeon, welcome Chris in open arms, even if Dad oversteps in his attempts to relate, calling his daughter’s boyfriend, “my man,” and plays the socially liberal card too much. They also have black “servants” in groundskeeper Walter (Marcus Henderson) and very polite maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), who helped care for Rose’s grandparents. Then, when Missy offers to hypnotize Chris to kick him of his smoking habit, she gets a hold on him and takes him back to a memory of childhood trauma that has overwhelmed him with guilt. It’s not fully until an annual gathering of the Armitages’ older bourgeois white friends where Chris feels like he’s in a “twilight zone.” Of course, something extremely devious is going on, but what?

Gutsy in both its conception and delivery, “Get Out” is sharply envisioned with the right amount of uncomfortable humor and outright malevolence. Without the foreshadowing of its opening scene, the film begins with deceptive hopefulness and very well could have been the start of a more naturalistic “Meet the Parents” for Chris. The tone writer-director Jordan Peele strikes is quite assured, balancing knife-cutting tension and tension-relieving humor into a mix that gels. The script is so smartly plotted and tightly conceived, little details that might feel like throwaways at first turning out to make total sense when viewed in retrospect. It’s also unpredictable for those paying attention, as Peele never prematurely spills out his bag of tricks or telegraphs any revelations before Chris gets there. All bets are off, and by the time Chris and the audience are both up to speed about what awaits him, the disturbing horror elements get cranked up to eleven. The final third is executed as a breathless climax, a satisfying, crowd-cheering ride, and Peele even sticks the ending by continuing to subvert his audience with one last moment of misdirection that becomes cathartic.

Behind the camera, Jordan Peele proves himself to be a real actor’s director, too, starting with the superb work from Daniel Kaluuya (2015’s “Sicario”). In his breakout lead role as Chris, the British actor brings such charisma and accessibility to a man who feels a little uneasy being in an environment as one of only a few black folks and then, once the jig is up, justifiably so. As the viewer learns with Chris about what’s really going on, there is a true sense of worry for him. The instantly appealing Allison Williams (HBO’s “Girls”) has a tricky line to tread as Rose, who clearly loves Chris in the five months they’ve spent together but doesn't totally cancel out the possibility of her having any involvement with the overall strangeness, either. Rose first sticks up for him in front of a police officer coming to their aid after they hit a deer on their way to her parents’ house and asks for Chris’s identification, even though Rose was the one driving. Her character is fully formed and memorably sells a final moment involving milk, Froot Loops, and the iconic “(I’ve Had) The Time of My Life” from “Dirty Dancing.” Impeccably cast as Rose’s parents Dean and Missy, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are aces, wavering between warmly welcoming and intimidating. The casting of Caleb Landry Jones is almost a given by now that any character he plays is up to no good, but he’s effective nonetheless as Rose’s off-putting brother Jeremy. Betty Gabriel, a force to be reckoned with in 2016’s “The Purge: Election Year,” is chilling as hell as the crying-while-smiling-brightly housekeeper Georgina. Finally, stand-up comedian Lil Rel Howery is a scream as Chris’ best friend Rod, a TSA agent who takes his job deadly seriously and acts as the voice of reason and an audience surrogate. His jokier scenes of investigating a missing person could have hurt the momentum and tone with the current action involving Chris or felt divorced as if from a different, broader movie, but rarely do.

Tech credits are straightforward, with a few exceptions, but still worth mentioning. Flanagan and Allen’s jaunty “Run, Rabbit, Run” is used to creepy effect in the prologue, shot in one take where a black man (Lakeith Stanfield) becomes lost in a posh suburban neighborhood at night. The score by first-time feature composer Michael Abels has a bluesy, whispery, down-home vibe and maximizes the off-center tone. In terms of visual style, cinematographer Toby Oliver turns a hypnotherapy session into a truly freaky nightmarescape. During it, Missy sends Chris' consciousness to a place she calls "the sunken place" that calls to mind Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin” and, perhaps as a deliberate nod with the participation of Catherine Keener, Spike Jonze’s “Being John Malkovich.”

“Get Out” is blistering, disquieting, slyly satirical and entertaining. The jump scares that exist here are still properly timed with musical stingers and do actually intensify the rising dread, but it's the anxiety Chris feels and the anticipation of what sinister secrets live under the white-picket fence suburbs that become the bulk of the subversive fun. The film never wimps out, confronting ideas of racial expectations and assimilation for piercing social commentary without taking a sledgehammer approach. With the help of the fiercely indie-minded Jason Blum getting a picture like this greenlit within the studio system, Jordan Peele sticks to his guns and seems to have fully made the film he wanted to make without any tinkering or mainstream pandering. He is such a trailblazing talent behind the camera that one gets excited just thinking what ideas are festering in that mind of his for a sophomore project. Giving one plenty to think about and discuss later, “Get Out” is as important as “12 Years of Slave,” and suffice it to say, it might be more scarily relevant now than ever. 

Grade: A - 

Monday, February 20, 2017

No Checkout: Beyond its location, "Havenhurst" has little to recommend it

Havenhurst (2017)
80 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

More “Crawlspace” than "Rosemary's Baby," “Havenhurst” has its production design in order with an atmospheric house of trapdoors and passageways. It’s too bad, then, that the script jumps the rails. Writer-director Andrew C. Erin and co-writer Daniel Farrands (1995’s “Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers”) conceives of a solidly intriguing mystery, too, but only at first, until the payoff turns out to be so pedestrian. Julie Benz has the viewer’s sympathy as recovering alcoholic Jackie Sullivan, who checked herself into rehab after her addiction caused a tragedy involving her young daughter. Now sober, she hopes for a clean slate and a fresh start at Havenhurst, a stately apartment building for reformed addicts, run by superintendent Eleanor (Fionnula Flanagan). As Eleanor explains to Jackie the rules, anyone who slips and goes back to their old ways is evicted, so as Jackie makes that promise, she signs a lease. When Jackie realizes her close friend Danielle (Danielle Harris) and junkie boyfriend were the last to vacate the building—the film shows its hand early in the bloody opener, so we're certain that eviction is fatal—she also puts it together that she might have to hit the bottle again if she wants to uncover the dark secrets buried inside Havenhurst. 

When “Havenhurst” achieves effectiveness, it’s during a few fleeting moments of tension in its creepy location. Director Andrew C. Erin shoots the heck out of Havenhurst, and considering the climax is shot in a lot of dank lighting, it’s pretty impressive how the filmmakers avoid visual murkiness more often than not. The rest of the film makes it hard to stay positive. How Sarah (Bella Shouse), a foster child living in the building, is used in relation to Jackie is mighty obvious. As if it’s a requirement in horror movies, Havenhurst’s residents have a tendency to be startled by a noise and wander around to investigate and/or sneak up on one another, but that tactic becomes so repetitive, you could set your watch to it. To a laughable degree, the key villain has a master key for every door, every switch, etc. and has super-human strength, throwing his victims across the room like every murder starts out as a WWE match. And, from here on out, if no other horror movie keeps dusting off the cliché where our hero conveniently finds newspaper clippings at the ready and linked to the evil goings-on at hand, that would be super. “Havenhurst” does have the decency to get this bit over with quickly, albeit in a most ham-fisted, comically stylized fashion, with overzealous pans across the headlines. At the very least, this modestly budgeted effort takes the admirably downbeat, less-traveled ending that a studio wouldn’t touch in case it were too unsatisfying. “Havenhurst” is just too unsatisfying in other ways.


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Bad Teachers: “Fist Fight” bullies you into laughing and mostly fails

Fist Fight (2017) 
91 min., rated R.

The very definition of a one-joke comedy, “Fist Fight” is about as hilarious as the thought of two grown-ass teachers picking a fight after the bell rings. That premise makes it sound more like a “Funny or Die” sketch video stretched to feature-length than a film that was made with heart, soul, and talent, leaving this wearisome mediocrity to completely hinge on one’s tolerance for the combined comedic stylings of Charlie Day and Ice Cube. If you aren’t irritated by Charlie Day, you will probably like “Fist Fight.” If you find Ice Cube’s constant glowering humorous enough, you will probably like “Fist Fight.” For better or for worse, it is exactly what you think it will be.

On the last day of school, it's pure anarchy at Georgia’s Roosevelt High School, as the seniors superglue everything to the principal's desk, send meth-dosed horses running freely through the halls, and play other pranks on their teachers. It's also the day that the public school administration is making budget cuts and laying faculty off. Mild-mannered English teacher Andy Campbell (Charlie Day) hopes his job is still safe, seeing as he has a pregnant wife (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and daughter (Alexa Nisenson) at home. When Campbell witnesses the aggressive, borderline-psychotic attitude of hot-tempered history teacher Mr. Strickland (Ice Cube) when his class won’t pay attention, both teachers are called into the office of Principal Tyler (Dean Norris). As a result, Strickland is fired and challenges Campbell to a fight in the parking lot after school. How far will Campbell strain to get out of this teacher showdown?

Director Richie Keen (who has directed episodes of FX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia”) and first-time screenwriters Van Robichaux & Evan Susser are clearly out to make a mean-spirited, brazenly stupid farce and set their premise in the universe of a broad cartoon. In this world, teachers swear in front of their students, Strickland angrily takes an axe to a student’s desk, and students aren’t much better than Damien Thorn on the last day of school. As profanity and flagrant vulgarity tend to cover for genuine setups and punchlines of jokes here, "Fist Fight" intermittently feels more like detention than an enjoyably crude comedy. It's not about prudishness, but when the two-dozen-plus use of the F-bomb begins to sound forced and uninspired, it's a sign of laziness. This even extends to a scene set at a school talent show where Campbell's 10-year-old daughter chooses to sing Big Sean’s explicit “I Don’t Fuck With You” over “Seasons of Love” from “Rent.” Also, it seems like the filmmakers were bent on cramming in as many phallic jokes as they could, especially in the first half, as they keep revisiting two students mowing the football field into the shape of penis ejaculating on a set of breasts. A better running bit, also part of the Senior Prank Day, is a mariachi band following the principal around.

The script lets Charlie Day and Ice Cube do their own respective “thing," and these two play off each other well as comic foils. Day has a high-pitched, over-caffeinated comedic shtick that should be abrasive but worked in the first “Horrible Bosses.” As the mildly spineless Andy Campbell, he hits the mark when the character gets wildly exasperated. Ice Cube works fine within his prickly, one-note role as Strickland, who’s intentionally an enigma and never softened, but his only standout moments are an attempted mediation at a Model UN club table and his priceless reaction to a new-fangled coffee maker in the teacher's lounge. Otherwise, he has played this fearsome, stone-faced type before and even quotes his N.W.A. song with, “Fuck tha police," as if recognition equals cleverness.

Everything surrounding the big fight is of the hit-and-miss variety when involving the Greek chorus of extraneous characters. Christina Hendricks plays French teacher Ms. Monet, who carries a switchblade on her person and wishes harm on Campbell for misunderstanding a situation with him and a student in the men’s restroom, but her character is not fully realized to really amuse. Tracy Morgan is the football coach who’s trying not to screw his players’ mothers, and he gets a few choice lines, as does Kumail Nanjiani as a not-very-intimidating security guard. And, if any film needs a boost from a go-for-broke scene-stealer, it is usually Jillian Bell, here as guidance counselor Holly Grossman, who takes meth before school and inappropriately talks about having sex with a student. Her bits often hit, despite the questionable taste of the material, but like a microcosm of the rest of “Fist Fight,” jokes get beaten into the ground repeatedly. Ultimately, increasing annoyance just outweighs the chuckles that do exist, so by the obligatory outtakes that desperately try to make us think we had a better time than we did, it’s hard not to scowl as hard as Ice Cube. Viewers might be better off catching an episode of TV Land’s school-set show “Teachers,” which happens to be edgier, funnier, more acerbic, and it's on cable.


Friday, February 17, 2017

Tales from the Ovaries: Half-good "XX" showcases unheard voices

XX (2017)
81 min., rated R.

The mere conception of a horror anthology film with all of its short-form segments written, produced, and directed by women (and three of them from the point-of-view of a mother) is an exceedingly exciting achievement. Better late than never, huh? With there being something of a renaissance for horror anthologies in the indie world, it’s about time we get “XX”—titled after the genetic chromosomes required to make up the female gender—even if a few of the filmmakers’ contributions land the setups more than the payoffs. There are four stories here rather than eight (2016’s “Holidays”) or twenty-six (2013’s “The ABCs of Death” and 2014’s “ABCs of Death 2”), so that lessens the chances of there being many weak pieces or an erratic whole. Conceptually, “XX” has the right idea, and half the time, the grim morsels of this distaff sampler are pretty terrific, while the other two don’t make a lasting impression in the end.

"XX" starts strong with “The Box,” arguably one of the better segments, written for the screen and directed by short filmmaker Jovanka Vucokis. Based on a story by Jack Ketchum, this short begins around Christmastime when mother Susan Jacobs (Natalie Brown) is headed back home to the suburbs on a train after a day in the city spent with her two kids, Danny (Peter DaCunha) and Jenny (Peyton Kennedy). Sitting next to the family, there’s an unusual looking man (Michael Dyson) with a red gift-wrapped box on his lap. Danny asks the man what is in the box, and when the man opens it for his eyes only, the boy’s expression deadens. When it comes time to eat dinner at home with their father, Robert (Jonathan Watton), Danny isn’t hungry and he just stops eating. When this behavior has gone on long enough—out of concern by Robert more than Susan—his parents take him to get checked out. The doctor tells the boy that he could die if he stops eating, which Danny responds with, “So?” With the contents of the box shrewdly kept a mystery to the viewer (Danny only tells his sister and father in a whisper), “The Box” presents a wickedly provocative idea with sinister insinuations. Vucokis spins Ketchum’s yarn on an uphill climb of unease and ambiguity with chilling control and then delivers a hopelessly bleak final punch.

Next up is a tonally different beast with “The Birthday Party,” the auspicious directorial debut of Annie Clark, who’s better known as musician St. Vincent. Scrambling around finishing up preparations for her daughter’s 7th birthday party, Mary (Melanie Lynskey) remains in her robe. She’s startled by dressed-all-in-black nanny Carla (Sheila Vand of 2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), who insists Mary’s husband David (Seth Duhame) is back home early from his work trip. When Mary is shocked to find David slumped in his office chair, she has to act quickly, finding the proper place for the stiff body before the party starts. Playing more as a burnt-black-as-coffee farce than straight-up horror, the segment plays like a wonkier “Weekend at Bernie’s” with a surreal, off-center style and close-call tension. As a housewife keeping up appearances and then dealing with her emotions later, Melanie Lynskey holds it all together in an amusingly idiosyncratic turn. The situation is absurd and blackly comic at the same time—and indie auteur John Swanberg has a funny cameo as a rapping panda with a terrible haircut—before Clark caps it off with an indelible punchline. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

One Hero to Save Them All: "The Great Wall" not good but amusingly dopey

The Great Wall (2017)
103 min., rated PG-13.

Historians and the accuracy police probably won’t be too amused, but one of the enduring wonders of the world finally gets its own goofy period fantasy-spectacle with “The Great Wall.” The first English-language film by influential filmmaker Zhang Yimou (he of 2002’s “Hero” and 2004’s “House of Flying Daggers,” just to name a few), this China-Hollywood co-production is positioned as an expensive tentpole made to bring in the widest international audience. Even with a badly miscast Matt Damon playing 11th-century dress-up with his hair tied back into a ponytail and doing battle with CG lizard monsters, it doesn’t make a total mockery of itself, but beyond having a few visual pleasures going for it, “The Great Wall” isn’t really worth anyone’s while, either.

Pursued by Khitan bandits in China during the Song dynasty, a group of Westeners is searching for “black powder” (gun powder). When they set up camp at night, they are soon attacked by a monster, which kills most of the men but has its hand sliced off by Irish mercenary William Garin (Matt Damon). He and Spanish soldier Tovar (Pedro Pascal) survive and then find themselves at the gate of the 5,500 mile-long Great Wall to punish mankind for its greed. General Shao (Hanyu Zhang) is ready for a siege by those same monsters, referred to as the Tao Tai, who rise every 60 years, and when William shows them the severed hand as a trophy, it makes Shao and his Nameless Order, including Commander Lin (Jing Tian), believe this Westener might be a great warrior. All he has to do is kill the queen of the Tao Tai.

There are a lot of hands in the pot with screenwriters Tony Gilroy (2016’s “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”), Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro (2010’s “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), along with Max Brooks, Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz credited for story, but “The Great Wall” is pretty uninteresting on a scripting level. It actually might have been better off being entirely in subtitles because dialogue meant to be serious produces more laughs than the attempts at one-liners, which fall flat almost every time. Every so often, the film redeems itself with a moment of tension, like when two monsters trap General Shao’s people from both sides on the wall, or an exciting battle sequence, primarily one shrouded in fog when William slides down a rope to the ground on the other side of the wall and only the whistling of the arrows charging at the monsters can be heard.

Matt Damon lends star power (and a vaguely Irish accent that slips in and out) but looks unsure of himself when not fighting with his bow as William Garin, a slimly rounded protagonist. He’s apparently been left for dead twice before and even his partner calls him a “thief” and a “killer,” but William’s arc to a valiant hero that China needs lacks tension. And, yes, he’s kind of a “white savior,” which wouldn’t be a problem if one didn’t think the Nameless Order was fully capable without him with their warfare, acrobatic skills, and color-coordinated uniforms. When he’s not having a light banter with Damon, Pedro Pascal (Netflix’s “Narcos”) comes across as a personality-free dud as William’s sidekick Tovar. As prisoner Ballard, Willem Dafoe has so little of interest to do that he often looks clueless as to how he got finagled into this role. Considering English is not her first language, Jing Tian should get a pass, but she is sometimes laughably stiff; at least she doesn’t have to be held back by an obligatory romance with Damon.

Rather dopey and kind of amusing, “The Great Wall” is competent but dispensable filmmaking. The scale of some of the action sequences match the $150-million budget, and tech credits are passable enough for a theatrical release. Some fun does come out of the effects shots of the monsters galloping in slow-motion toward William before being stabbed in the mouth, and the fact that the Great Wall can lift itself up slightly to trigger a set of blades that slice up the monsters climbing the structure is a cool detail. The visual effects of the monsters themselves are vicious creations, courtesy of Industrial Light & Magic, but at a certain point, one realizes they sound exactly like the velociraptors from “Jurassic Park” and look similar to the aliens from “Alien.” Though it’s sometimes outlandishly silly enough to not be a complete slog, “The Great Wall” might be more diverting after consuming a lot of cocktails. 


Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Feeling Eel: "A Cure for Wellness" a visually stunning, gloriously bananas opus

A Cure for Wellness (2017)
146 min., rated R.

A studio like 20th Century Fox has taken quite the chance on Gore Verbinski’s psychological spa-of-horrors opus “A Cure for Wellness,” and good on them. It’s not a movie based on a novel, a classic film, or, Heaven forbid, an amusement park ride, but in its own richly atmospheric, perverse, and deliciously sick way, it’s a fairy tale smashed to pieces, a wicked indictment of corporate yuppiedom, and the giddily wacky result if Paolo Sorrentino’s “Youth” collided with Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” and the Hammer horror pictures of yore. Defiant and enticingly strange, “A Cure for Wellness” is inventively conceived and stunningly executed as a sensuous but inescapable gothic nightmare with insanity in its entrails, and that might prove to alienate and be too esoteric for a general audience. For the more adventurous, it’s bracingly eerie, daring, and crazed, no, gloriously bananas with a side of nutty. Nobody will accuse it of being boring or mass-produced, that's for sure.

On the day of arriving at his Wall Street office to receive a promotion, on-the-rise financial executive Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is instead saddled with a task. The firm’s partners sit him down in the boardroom, explaining that none of them want to lose out on a pending merger. If Lockhart wants to keep his position, they need him to bring back the CEO, Pembroke (Harry Groener), who has allegedly been vacationing at a wellness spa in the Swiss Alps. When he arrives at the castle-like Volmer Institute, once owned by a baron who discovered healing properties in the mountaintop’s water supply, Lockhart can’t get Pembroke to leave. There’s something off about the nursing staff, including Dr. Heinrich Volmer (Jason Isaacs). All of the patients look content, getting plenty of exercise with badminton and hydrotherapy and relaxation with their steam baths, and they are seemingly well-hydrated, drinking lots and lots of water. After Lockhart decides he’s had enough, his driver takes the car off the winding road, forcing the Wall Streeter to become a patient, too, with a broken leg. As Lockhart leaves his room and starts to investigate the institute, he also comes to meet the only young patient, Hannah (Mia Goth), who claims to be a “special case” and that she can reunite with her father once she gets better. Hannah then tells him that no one ever leaves. The sanitarium is more of a prison, and Lockhart’s stay is about to be permanent.

Mounted with a forbidding sea of portent, a keen sense of intoxicating pacing, and mesmerizing visual panache by Gore Verbinski, “A Cure for Wellness” doesn’t hide the fact that something nefarious is afoot. With that said, however, the meticulously woven narrative resembles a puzzle box with a menacing cloak of mystique that consistently hovers over the proceedings. Writer-director Verbinski and co-writer Justin Haythe (who both collaborated on 2013’s “The Lone Ranger”) submerge the viewer into this sinister bubble of a world right along with Lockhart, being led blindly down a rabbit hole of paranoia. Still reminding of a young Leonardo DiCaprio (even though they only share an eleven-year age difference) with just as much talent, the supremely watchable Dane DeHaan brings all the intensity and gravitas he has to the role of the slick and cold Lockhart, who perpetually lives with bags under his eyes and probably picked the wrong time to quit smoking. As this initially spiky protagonist slips more and more into madness that one isn't exactly sure of his fate, the viewer can’t help but stick it out to see if he makes it out; that Lockhart is written with a past involving his ailing mother and having been a witness to his father's suicide helps even more. As Hannah, Mia Goth (2014’s “Nymphomaniac: Volume II”) has an innocent but ethereal and one-of-a-kind quality. Whether one thinks Hannah is a dangerous experiment or an imprisoned princess of sorts in need of rescuing, she still keeps one guessing, and her liberating dance in a pub at the bottom of the hill is memorable. 

The film’s look is gothic yet manicured with a sterile serenity, and the tone is precise yet somehow controlled even when it gives way to wildly overwrought horror. Gorgeously icy and aesthetically ravishing with sights so startling and grotesque, it is an immaculate specimen, a film to drink in and make one’s mouth water. Benjamin Wallfisch’s haunting lullaby-like score accompanies the exquisitely baroque art direction and production design, and every lush, stylishly composed image by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Even if they only last a few seconds each, the simple techniques of a reflected shot from the eye of a taxidermied deer head or the camera being bound to the side of a moving train before going through a tunnel are dazzlers. The screenplay may not always hold up to close logical scrutiny—post-viewing, you may find yourself starting a lot of questions with, “Wait, what about the…” or “How could he…?”—but it’s a rarefied, enthralling treat when a film like this rarely goes where one expects. Such writing weaknesses are rendered minor and not really weaknesses at all when Verbinski’s arrestingly grand canvas is so right and so drenched in mood.

Taking a break from the technically laudable but bloated “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, Gore Verbinski is back to his visionary ways, concocting his most confident and uninhibited live-action effort in a while. “A Cure for Wellness” is nearly two and a half hours long, and there was surely a cure for making a few trims, but it’s a rapturous journey worth the run to get to the batshit-crazy finale. In a way, its excesses are not really flaws but perfectly organic to the kind of cinematic beast this is, and without them, it might be a different film. Not exactly a four-quadrant demographic kind of movie, it won’t be to everyone’s taste. For those who won’t mind squirming at the sight of a slithering eel-filled bathtub and wincing during a sequence with a brutally unorthodox dentistry practice, Verbinski’s latest presents a staggering, audacious vision worth seeing for oneself. More mainstream genre fare should be this brazenly weird.

Grade: B +

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Grey Rising: Dakota Johnson too good for duller “Fifty Shades Darker”

Fifty Shades Darker (2017) 
115 min., rated R.

Never as transgressive or even as sexy as fans of E.L. James’ hot best-seller were hoping, 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey” still wasn’t as bad as so many made it out to be. Director Sam Taylor-Johnson brought a sleek style, screenwriter Kelly Marcel did what she could to tone down the self-serious inanity of the author’s erotic prose, and Dakota Johnson was a natural find with movie-star spark. With “Fifty Shades Darker,” a different writer and director have been attached to this second volume, and they both happen to be men. Director James Foley (2007’s “Perfect Stranger”) and screenwriter Niall Leonard (the author’s husband) take a stab at this sexually charged material, but they make that first adaptation look like yeoman’s work. Apart from one hoping the best for sympathetic, usually independent-minded heroine Anastasia Steele, “Fifty Shades Darker” is just dull. At the same time, it is practically the same movie, and as the second and middle film of a trilogy, it feels like total filler.

Ana (Dakota Johnson) has broken up with damaged 27-year-old billionaire boyfriend Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan), refusing to formalize their BDSM relationship as his submissive. She’s fine without him, now having an assistant job at a Seattle publishing house, but when Christian won’t back down, Ana agrees to have dinner. He is open to new terms with no rules, no punishments, and no secrets, just a “vanilla relationship.” Outside of the sex, Ana and Christian are so boring together as a couple that their story keeps having to drop in short-lived complications. Christian’s mentally unstable ex-sub, Leila (Bella Heathcote), comes out of the woodwork and begins stalking Ana. Christian attempts to get Ana to meet Elena Lincoln (Kim Basinger), his “Mrs. Robinson," with no luck, but then Elena keeps running into Ana at the Grey family functions to warn her that Christian isn’t right for her. And then, promptly after Christian decides to buy the publishing house where Ana works, boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) tries getting fresh with Ana behind closed doors. It doesn’t help that they can’t even seem to have a conversation that doesn’t concern their relationship. They are so on-again, off-again, on-again and, well, you get the picture, and they don’t even share any similar interests or hobbies. If Ana and Christian stay on this road, their honeymoon phase will eventually run out. 

“Fifty Shades Darker” isn’t necessarily darker or that eventful. And that’s even with a pointless, out-of-nowhere helicopter crash (!) at the start of the third act. Mostly forgettable from one scene to the next, the film never gains any true momentum or tension that actually sticks. Every conflict that’s introduced is resolved in a snap. In fact, a couple of details capture more attention than most of the supposed drama: (a) on the bizarre choice of the set decorators, there is an amusingly out-of-place sight gag of sorts in the form of a movie poster on Christian’s childhood bedroom wall; apparently, our little flogger was a big Vin Diesel fan back in 2004, and (b) there is a sneaky direct reference to “Working Girl,” worked naturally into the narrative after Ana gets promoted to fiction editor, in which Johnson quotes real-life mother Melanie Griffith’s line from that 1988 film’s finale. The film’s one allegedly “darker” element is Christian’s “singular tastes” stemming from sexual abuse as a young boy. There’s a pre-credits scene where adult Christian has a nightmare flashing back to cowering in his bedroom, but the script treats child abuse as a plot point in need of no further exploration, glossing right over it as soon as it’s mentioned. In what is supposed to be a serious moment, it’s hard not to suppress giggles when Christian gives Ana a tube of lipstick to draw a line around his scarred, albeit built, chest, meaning that she can touch him anywhere but in the circle. Why is she just now asking about the cigarette burns on his chest? As for the sex scenes, there is more passion to them when they’re not ending too early, and director James Foley has decided to play an inappropriate pop song over every single one of them. And, for a film billed as a fantasy targeted at female audiences, there is still strangely more female nudity than male.

Dakota Johnson is so accessible, self-deprecatingly funny, and fun to watch that she can’t help but be smarter than the script she’s working with. As Anastasia Steele, she is still able to carry herself with enough sexual agency that allows her to stand her ground and set the terms, even when Christian already has an answer for her. She gives Ben Wa balls a try at a charity masquerade ball, takes her panties off at dinner, and then gets stimulated by her man in a crowded elevator. Ana asks the right questions, too, like why Christian would have her bank account information to transfer $24,000 into her account with one phone call, and pieces together pretty quickly who the strange girl following her might be. Still looking good and scruffier, Jamie Dornan still hardly stands a chance with the way Christian Grey is written. The character of Christian is at least, ahem, attentive when it comes to pleasing his lady, but he’s oh, so, damaged and the film barely bothers to understand Christian as more than just a wealthy, good-looking bore. Christian has somewhat softened his ways but still treats Ana more as a piece of property. He buys all six portraits of Ana at her friend Jose’s (Victor Rasuk) photography exhibition, so no other man can gawk at her. When she tells him about a book expo that she’s expected to attend in NYC with her hunky boss, Christian texts back, “The answer is NO.” Too bad poor Dornan has more promise as an underwear model or even a pommel horse gymnast. 

Next to Dakota Johnson and her subtle knack for finding humor in silly writing, there are other saving graces in “Fifty Shades Darker” that keep it from being unwatchable. The film is, once more, visually polished and armed with a few well-chosen musical choices (a coffeehouse cover of Coldplay’s “The Scientist” in the opening comes to mind). With the exception of Jennifer Ehle as Ana’s mother, most of the supporting cast is back, too, including the classy Marcia Gay Harden, as Christian’s mother, and eye-catching singer-turned-actress Rita Ora, who is a little less underused this time as Christian’s sister Maya. Otherwise, the series newcomers fall far short of their juicy potential. Bella Heathcote gives her all to the thankless role of Christian’s ex-sub Leila, who’s treated as an antagonistic specter; she also has no problem finding access into Ana’s apartment. In a sly bit of casting that takes one back to 1986’s “9½ Weeks,” Kim Basinger is a welcome sight as the woman who turned on Christian to kinky hanky panky. All she gets in return is a splash of champagne and a slap across the face. When the film dips its toes into shallow, soapy melodrama, it’s hard to deny the pleasure of a little camp, but caring about whether Ana and Christian finally get their happy ending is no more. Is anyone actually salivating for “Fifty Shades Freed” next year? For what it’s worth, we will all be freed after that. 


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Hitman’s Paradise: "John Wick: Chapter 2" delivers more balletic badassery

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
122 min., rated R. 

2014’s “John Wick” was a giddily efficient, stylishly awesome action film with balletic, hyper-violent choreography and a cheeky sense of humor. It was quite the showcase for Keanu Reeves as the feared hitman nicknamed “The Boogeyman” who came out of retirement, and in a way, that was Reeves’ way back into a career winning streak. Reeves may be accused of being a blank performer sometimes, but at least with this character who never shoots blanks, he brings a ruthless stoicism to the skilled badassery. Stuntman-turned-director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad return for “John Wick: Chapter 2,” a solid, if overlong, sequel that doesn’t quite top the original revenge flick but nonetheless delivers the goods. 

If “John Wick” has taught us anything, it is that there are two things that should never be taken away from a hitman: (a) his dog and (b) his car. Immediately after completing his vengeance on a Russian crime syndicate (led by Michael Nyqvist’s Viggo Tarasov), John Wick returns and he wants his damn car back. After locating it in the warehouse of Viggo’s cigar-chomping brother Abram (Peter Stormare) and sparing Abram but not his men, he goes back home, hoping to be officially retired. Just as he gets done reburying his cache of guns under the cement of his basement, Wick is soon visited by suavely coiffed Italian assassin Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) with a contract marker to which he refuses. When Santino sends him a message and burns his house down—and not to worry, the filmmakers don’t dare touch the new pet pit bull Wick rescued at the end of the first film—Wick has no choice but to honor his blood oath with the assignment: fly to Rome and kill D’Antonio’s sister Gianna (Claudia Gerini) to delete her place at the “High Table,” a global crime society. Things don’t go quite as planned, but when will all of the other hitmen in the world learn? Don’t make John Wick angry.

In the first “John Wick,” the motive behind John Wick’s killing spree was clearly personal—the puppy posthumously left for him by his late wife (Bridget Moynahan, reappearing in sun-dappled flashbacks and photos) is killed—so the violence felt cathartic. This time, the marker demanded by Santino D’Antonio is personal, but for the man, the myth, the legend, it’s really just business. Plot-wise, the film progresses into more of the same “just-when-he-thought-he-was-out-they-pull-him-back-in” formula with several new details supplementing this vivid world, and that's never a bad thing in this case. For this go-round, Wick's mission allows him to trot the globe to Italy, and director Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad get to have more fun expanding upon the clandestine universe of contract killers. There is a code in this community of killers and a darkly winking humor in their professional courtesy. Assassin mecca "The Continental" still plays a part, and in Rome, there is a fancy members-only hotel, The Italian Continental, another home base where violence will not be tolerated inside. Upon Wick’s arrival, he gets tailored and gets to try out his weaponry with a “sommelier” (Peter Serafinowicz). Another neat touch is a switchboard unit of tattooed women that handles the contracts, and apparently, the homeless should never be underestimated, either.

Being a half-hour longer than its predecessor, “Chapter 2” is less non-stop and more stop-and-start, but in a film crammed with so much gunfire and a body count that would make Jason Voorhees blush, a few respites are thankful. Stahelski and cinematographer Dan Laustsen (2015’s “Crimson Peak”) still let the intricate choreography of the gun fu-inspired fights play out and not get lost in nauseating, incoherent shaky-cam or millisecond-long edits. These filmmakers know how to get the rhythm right in an action sequence, and they never once fall back on stylized slo-mo. The film kicks off to a blazing start, cleverly blending a stunt from 1924 Buster Keaton film “Sherlock Jr.” that’s projected on the building of a New York City street and then pulling back to reveal an actual motorcycle spill. A couple of the action set-pieces equal those from its predecessor, including Wick’s retrieval of his car and a knock-down, drag-out fight between John and fellow assassin Cassian (Common) with a knife, a gun and a flight of stairs (that’s all you need). The production design of this crime underworld is also more slick than scuzzy, making sterling use of setting in New York's Lincoln Center and new PATH station, the Roman catacombs and the Baths of Caracalla during a rock concert, and a funhouse-mirror art installation in a museum.

The role of John Wick is still a smooth fit for 52-year-old Keanu Reeves, getting to be stoic but agile in mixed-martial arts, gunplay and cracking a deadpan one-liner. The character is a great shot but not invincible; he gets wounded a lot but has a high tolerance for pain. Wick also gets to live up to his reputation for killing three men with a No. 2 pencil. Members of the original cast do return, too, like The Continental’s very professional front-desk concierge Charon (Lance Reddick) and Ian McShane’s Winston, the hotel owner. The appearance of Laurence Fishburne, bringing regular swagger as a crime-lord ally, will elicit comfort in seeing a reunion with his “Matrix” co-star, while Ruby Rose (Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black”), who seems to be quickly making her rounds in movies this year, mostly gets to sign before proving to be worth her salt as D’Antonio’s deaf henchwoman. As expertly staged bombardments of headshots and other rapid-fire methods of carnage go, “John Wick: Chapter 2” is anything but a letdown, and based on the finale, the stakes are just going to get higher on a global scale for The Boogeyman. At this point, nobody wants to see Wick give up the ghost, as long as he doesn’t break a hip, but it’s guaranteed everyone’s new favorite hitman will kill again. Bring on the trilogy. 


Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Still Awesome: “The LEGO Batman Movie” a witty, gag-a-minute barrage of fun

The LEGO Batman Movie (2017)
106 min., rated PG.

On the big screen, the LEGO brand seems to bring out the wit and ingenuity that sometimes goes missing in a lot of live-action comedies. Spearheaded by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (this generation’s “ZAZ”), 2014’s “The LEGO Movie” was deliriously paced, brilliantly funny and unexpectedly touching, embracing imagination and thinking outside the box for a film ostensibly aimed at children. It made toy building bricks made of plastic awesome again and found a special place in the hearts of parents. As an offshoot to a commercial and critical success that one wouldn’t think could be equaled, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is just as awesome. Lord and Miller only serve as producers this time, but the efforts of director Chris McKay (TV’s “Robot Chicken”) and screenwriters Seth Grahame-Smith, Chris McKenna & Erik Sommers, Jared Stern & John Whittington are affectionate, playfully inspired, and relentlessly rib-tickling.

Having Christian Bale’s gravelly Batman voice down to a science in “The LEGO Movie,” Will Arnett delightfully reprises the role of the DC Comics crime-fighter. (Even before the film proper begins, Arnett is already goofing on one’s expectations of movie logos, “Mystery Science Theater 3000”-style without the bottom-screen silhouette.) When he isn’t Batman, Bruce Wayne is a loner in Wayne Manor on Wayne Island, nuking and eating his Lobster Thermidor alone, watching and laughing at “Jerry Maguire” in his personal movie theater alone, and swimming with his pet dolphins alone. At the same time, Bruce isn’t lacking self-esteem, being placed on a pedestal by his city and priding himself on his modesty, even while bragging about his nine-pack abs. He doesn’t even need a foe in The Joker (voiced by Zach Galifianakis), who is saddened to tears when learning that Batman doesn’t do “ships,” as in relationships (“I am fighting a few different people. I like to fight around”). As The Joker gathers the Rogues Gallery of villains (including the silly ones, like Calendar Man and Condiment King) to take down Gotham City, Bruce makes an appearance at the retirement party of Commissioner Jim Gordon (Hector Elizondo), who is passing the key to the city to his daughter, "Harvard for Police" grad Barbara Gordon (Rosario Dawson). The party is interrupted when The Joker and his posse crash it, but the crime clown unexpectedly surrenders. If Barbara’s plan to rid Gotham City of all crime is already underway with every criminal mind locked up, do the people of Gotham have any use for the vigilante crimefighter anymore?

There is more plot where that came from, finding time for Bruce/Batman to adopt orphan Richard “Dick” Grayson (Michael Cera), who later realizes he has two dads; the hero’s plan to get the projector from Superman's Fortress of Solitude to send The Joker and his band of bad guys to the Phantom Zone; and the playboy/superhero’s self-realization that it’s okay to accept help from family, including butler Alfred Pennyworth (Ralph Fiennes). That would seem like an overstuffed structure to balance, but “The LEGO Batman Movie” sees all of its plot threads satisfyingly tied off, and even with the jokes firing fast and furiously and Easter eggs being laid left and right, it always seems like the journey is building to something. The setup of Batman having a fear of “snake clowns” even gets a cute payoff before the credits.

With director Chris McKay and the five writers carrying the buoyant sensibilities of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s film over to this one, “The LEGO Batman Movie” is easily the most fun in the Batman canon. A savvy and knowing montage covering Batman’s decades-spanning phases—2016, 2012, 2008, 2005, 1997, 1995, 1992, 1989, and all the way back to the shark-repellent days in 1966—will not go unnoticed by those well-versed in the superhero’s motion picture legacy, as well as the joke that Batman has “aged phenomenally” for all those years. Fairly obvious references are still cleverly integrated, right down to the giddy recognition of iconic villains from other properties (including Sauron from “The Lord of the Rings,” Lord Voldemort from "Harry Potter," and the gremlins from “Gremlins”). A trip to the Fortress of Solitude allows for Batman to walk in on Superman throwing a party with plenty of guest cameos by the Justice League. The film also gets priceless comic mileage out of our manly hero’s love for romantic comedies and a “cosplay” revolving door before Dick Grayson becomes Robin. There are sneaky sight gags, too, like “Crime Alley” in the background of a photograph with Bruce and his parents, or Batman's smart jab at the plot of "Suicide Squad."

Boasting city blocks of inspiration and breakneck energy, “The LEGO Batman Movie” delivers twofold as an irresistible, gag-a-minute barrage of comedically golden humor and a reverential adventure for the Caped Crusader. Full speed ahead, it is always moving but making sure every detail gets its attention and almost every vocal performer in a cavalcade of talent gets in a line or two (let's give a shout-out to Ellie Kemper as a chipper floating brick that checks in bad guys in the Phantom Zone). The look of the animation is, once again, intentionally jumpy and still dizzyingly executed, and a freshly amusing touch is the recurring sound effect of the voice actors saying, “Pew! Pew! Pew!” when a gun is fired. For a film so lighting-fast in its pacing that it could induce whiplash, yet knows exactly when to settle down, the final stretch overextends itself a bit more than one would like. It’s almost too exhausting in one sitting, but so much of the film is a hoot that one can’t be too hard on it. While “The LEGO Movie” worked on an extra-special level for adults in terms of emotional heft, “The LEGO Batman Movie” still has plenty of heart that's sweet and sincerely felt. Heck, even Zach Galifianakis brings an almost-adorable vulnerability to The Joker.

Grade: B +