Friday, March 31, 2017

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

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

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

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 For the time being, Rose is asked to look after Kat, who already seems aloof and withdrawn, or maybe just possessed by a Satanic presence.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

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

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

Grade: C +

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

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

Life (2017)
103 min., rated R.

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

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

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

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

Grade: B +

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mighty Morphin Nostalgia: "Power Rangers" goofy but better than expected

Power Rangers (2017) 
124 min., rated PG-13.

Every generation has its nostalgic property, but how does one reboot a cheesy, admittedly uncool 1993 Fox Kids TV show about a team of color-coded superheroes mentored by an alien wizard for a 2017 audience? Lionsgate put their faith in the vision of director Dean Israelite (2015’s “Project Almanac”) and screenwriter John Gatins (2012’s “Flight”), and while there’s always room for improvement, this isn’t a bad start if the studio wants to rake in money and build a franchise. Even having watched the show as an undiscriminating child, seen the 1995 motion picture in theaters, been the red ranger for Halloween one year, and made my parents take me to see a live show, there wasn't any overwhelming desire to see “Power Rangers” for this writer, so within that context, expectations are mostly exceeded. No one should be going into it expecting anything more than a silly sci-fi adventure geared for teens, but as corporate filmmaking goes, it actually looks and feels like a legitimate feature film. 

About 65 million years ago during the Cenozoic Era, Power Rangers were tasked to protect Earthlings and look after a magical crystal. The Green Ranger, Rita Repulsa (Elizabeth Banks), rebelled against her team and in a war against the Red Ranger, Zordon (Bryan Cranston), gets blown into the ocean. Now in the present-day in the small coastal town of Angel Grove, a new team of Power Rangers will have to assemble. After a school prank that loses him a potential football scholarship and leaves him under house arrest, star quarterback Jason Scott (Dacre Montgomery) ends up going to detention. Amidst the room of troubled misfits are recently unpopular cheerleader Kimberly Hart (Naomi Scott) and on-the-spectrum genius Billy Cranston (RJ Cyler). When Jason, Billy, and Kimberly end up in a restricted area of a mine, they also meet up with daredevil Zack (Ludi Lin), who lives in a trailer and takes care of his ill mother, and angsty rebel Trini (Becky G.), the new girl in town. The five kids unearth color-coded power coins and come across the alien ship of Zordon, thus realizing the super strength and other powerful abilities they’ve adopted will be put to great use. Meanwhile, once the corpse of evil incarnate Rita is reanimated, she is hellbent on finding the Zero Crystal that is hidden underneath a Krispy Kreme (yes, the donut chain) and destroying the planet. With the fate of the universe at the hands of these teens, will they learn to work together and be able to morph into their warrior armor? Can they defeat Rita so she doesn’t return for the sequel?

After an unpromising, albeit brief, joke involving masturbating a cow, “Power Rangers” wants to be a somewhat grounded and grittier iteration of the ‘90s brand before embracing the kitschy tone of the for-kids-only TV show. Playing like “The Breakfast Club” by way of “Chronicle,” the film follows an origin story template with loose similarities to the 2015 rebranding of “Fantastic Four.” The high school drama involving Jason’s failed football career and tempestuous relationship with his father (David Denman) is of the “Varsity Blues”/“Friday Night Lights” variety, and Kimberly’s falling out with her squad is heavy-handed where her former friends meet her in the school bathroom to literally cut her out of a group photo. There is fun and wonder in the early sections of the kids figuring out their powers, as well as jumping between a mountainous crevice and finding a watery cave that leads them to Zordon’s spaceship. The viewer also eventually finds an emotional investment—it’s not deep but it certainly exists—in these five teenagers who become unlikely friends and an unlikely team of superheroes; a surprisingly touching use of Bootstraps’ cover of “Stand by Me” works in the film’s favor after the stakes get real. And while there is shameless product placement (read: don't forget to grab a Krispy Kreme donut after the show), it amusingly finds its place as a plot point.

Of the diverse but CW-ready actors, Dacre Montgomery and Naomi Scott are naturally engaging as Jason and Kimberly, while RJ Cyler (2015’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) proves to be the scene-stealing standout with the most charisma as Billy. Ludi Lin is likable as Zack, too, and Becky G. is eye-catching as Trini but a little stiff around the edges, but these latter two get less of a chance to form their characters or leave much of a mark. Bryan Cranston somehow brings gravitas to Zordon, a holographic face on a pin-art wall, while Bill Hader is passable comic relief as robotic sidekick Alpha 5. Above all else, a half-menacing, half-goofy Elizabeth Banks is undoubtedly having the most campy fun out of her castmates as super-evil villainess Rita Repulsa, and with a name like that, how could she not? Chewing scenery full-tilt like it’s a delicious dessert, she prowls around with her staff in hand and even slurps down pieces of gold at one point.

“Power Rangers” isn’t exactly a quote-unquote “good” movie, but it is the closest to what fans will ever get. Save for an early dizzying single take of Jason getting into a car accident, the cinematography by Matthew J. Lloyd is unspectacular, taking on a junky shaky-cam shooting style and adding a few canted angles. Otherwise, in comparison to 1995’s “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: The Movie,” the production values are slick and more sophisticated without the look of Styrofoam sets. And as for the performances, they are acceptably earnest rather than terrible. Action sequences are fine but all move in the same stylistic fashion with slo-mo until the big showdown in the heart of Angel Grove when our heroes inside their dino Zord vehicles take on Rita and her monsters. The TV show’s theme song also gets less than thirty seconds to shine, and only fans will recognize the cameos turned in by two of the former Rangers in a crowd shot. As a vehicle for something that was pretty lame in retrospect, “Power Rangers” might even be too good for its source material.

Grade: C +

Monday, March 27, 2017

Serial Mommy: "Prevenge" gruesomely funny but also sneakily poignant

Prevenge (2017) 
88 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

It’s not every day the cinematic world sees a humorous slasher film where a pregnant mother is doing all the slashing, all because her baby tells her to do so. Seven months pregnant herself during an eleven-day shoot, British actress Alice Lowe goes all the way in establishing herself as a triple threat for her directorial debut. Lowe previously co-wrote and co-starred in 2013's Ben Wheatley-directed genre-mixer "Sightseers," and it was such a wickedly offbeat comedy of deathly errors that one can see how naturally Lowe’s tonal deftness came to fruition for "Prevenge."

Lowe plays Ruth, a pregnant mother who’s not in control anymore. With her partner no longer in the picture, it is just Ruth and her unborn daughter still cooking in her belly. When she’s not having check-ups with her midwife (a scene-stealing Jo Hartley), Ruth is out on her quest throughout London for revenge (for reasons that come to light later on) and the pushy demands of Ruth’s baby in a high-pitched, Shirley Henderson-ish voice make her do it each time. Whether it’s offing a creepy pet store owner (Dan Renton Skinner), a leering bar DJ (Tom Davis), a cutthroat business manager (Kate Dickie), or an exercise nut (Gemma Whelan) who doesn’t take well to charity door-knockers, Ruth also gives each victim a kiss on the forehead, post-murder, like a mother does to her baby before bedtime.

What might sound merely like a sick joke about pregnancy driving one to kill, "Prevenge" is actually a gruesomely funny doozy of a tar-black comedy. Since Ruth’s first few victims happen to be men, it also initially leads one to read it as a man-hating fantasy, but it’s anything but. Writer-director-actor Alice Lowe seems to be getting at a nugget of truth most hormonal mothers can probably identify with (this male writer can only assume). Ruth is deeply bonded with the little girl growing inside her belly and will satisfy her no matter what, even if that means corrupting her mind in the process to see what is morally right and wrong. As we come to learn, Ruth’s lover died in an accident made by the tough choice of his rock-climbing team, but Lowe reveals it in a way that’s gradual and not so blunt. Even if the consequences of Ruth’s actions never seem to manifest, what is next for both Ruth and her baby is pretty clear by the end. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +

Thursday, March 23, 2017

When a Ghost Texts: Stewart mesmerizes in understated "Personal Shopper"

Personal Shopper (2017)
105 min., rated R.

Since 2015’s densely layered “Clouds of Sils Maria,” writer-director Olivier Assayas has found a muse in the intuitive Kristen Stewart, who was the first American actress to win the César Award. Their second collaboration occasionally has echoes of their first, from Stewart both times playing a high-profile celebrity’s personal assistant constantly on the phone to the audience feeling like they are in a fog. Slippery and enigmatic but soupy, “Personal Shopper” marries several different movies together and mostly strikes a fluid balance. It’s a ghost story, but it’s also a mournful arthouse drama about grief, a meditation on identity, a bit of a whodunit mystery, and there is a lot of shopping and sometimes even trying on high-priced clothing made for a runway. With zero preparation on what it is or where it’s headed, the film is unexpected and entrancing in that way, but unless its meandering form is rewarding enough for you, not every piece coheres in the end.

An American living in Paris, Maureen Cartwright (Kristen Stewart) works as a personal shopper for a modeling socialite, Kyra (Nora von Waldstatten). By day, she mopeds around the city, running errands, buying designer couture to fill her employer’s closet, and then dropping off bags of clothing and jewelry at Kyra’s apartment. Maureen is not inspired by her job, but the main reason she stays in Paris is because she’s waiting to make contact with recently deceased twin brother Lewis and make sure he has found peace. She is also a medium, and before her brother died of a heart attack due to a malformation of the heart—a condition that Maureen shares and could claim her life at any time—the siblings made an oath for the one who passes to send the live one a sign. When Maureen thinks she might have made contact in his large country home, which her brother’s former lover (Sigrid Bouaziz) is desperately trying to sell, she isn’t quite sure if the presence she feels (and eventually sees) is Lewis. At the same time, Maureen starts receiving texts from an unknown number while she’s on a train to London. Does she have a stalker? Is it the spirit of Lewis who now might have unlimited minutes in the afterlife?

Reading aloud the premise of “Personal Shopper” to a casual filmgoer is bound to make it sound sillier than how it plays out. Filmmaker Olivier Assayas weaves a mysterious, lonesome mood that only initially seems like it will be a conventional, jump-laden spookfest. Thankfully, it is not, but the film could have been alternately titled “Medium,” as Maureen spends the night in her brother’s old chateau, following creaks and dripping faucets in the dark. The supernatural elements are rather delicately handled, too, at least before Assayas chooses to actually show the gauzy poltergeist floating around and vomiting an ectoplasm. As noncommittal as it often is, the film is actually best when it’s just observing Maureen’s day. During her off time, Maureen researches the abstract art of Swedish painter Hilma af Klint and watches an old movie based on Victor Hugo holding séances. The film’s most masterful stroke is how Assayas breathlessly executes a stalking scene through, of all things, text messaging and ratchets up the teasing tension to a nail-biting degree when Maureen’s phone goes off airplane mode. When she begins receiving those strange texts, the anonymous texter gets personal, prodding information out of her that leads Maureen to fulfilling forbidden desires, like trying on shoes and clothing that belongs to Kyra. 

In step with the filmmaker’s understated European sensibility, “Personal Shopper” is concurrently contemplative and frustrating. Nothing seems accidental, though. It operates on a frequency that not everyone will take to, but Assayas takes his time, brings things to such a pin-drop hush, and deals in ambiguity so much that he never seems interested in satisfying audiences with easy answers. He obviously sees what Kristen Stewart can do, too, and gives her a lot of the heavy lifting. As Maureen, the 26-year-old actress mesmerizes, her nuanced, finely modulated work so subtle and unforced that one could easily accuse the performance of being a lot of nothing, but that would be a false assumption. Stewart speaks volumes without saying anything at all, essaying an adrift young woman with the desperation to make contact with her brother weighing her down. Yorick Le Saux’s camerawork is also a dream, particularly in one motion through a hotel hallway that follows an invisible presence down the hall, out of the elevator, and out of the lobby doors.

There is already a love-it-or-hate-it divide between both critics and audiences with “Personal Shopper,” but it would be entirely dishonest to say that the film doesn’t have the power to hold one’s attention as if under a spell. Like Maureen, the viewer never finds concrete answers and feels lost in limbo right along with her. That may be the point all along, but where it ends up in the last shot is almost too opaque to be accessible, holding back on the profoundly haunting catharsis Assayas clearly strives for. It’s easier to commend what the film tries to do rather than for what it ultimately achieves, and yet, it’s hard to stop thinking about the sections that do work and what the filmmaker’s muse can do with just a little.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Office Purge: "Belko Experiment" familiar but still effective at its sick job

The Belko Experiment (2017)
88 min., rated R.

James Gunn had a draft of “The Belko Experiment” in his drawer for quite a while now, even before the major studio nabbed him to direct 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The premise instantly calls to mind a hybrid of 2000’s “Battle Royale,” 2012’s “The Cabin in the Woods,” and 2013’s “The Purge” in the workplace, and as an elevator pitch, it’s a depraved humdinger. Given that Gunn’s script has been directed by Greg McLean (he of the ruthlessly vicious “Wolf Creek” films and 2016’s worthless “The Darkness,” which called for a recovery project from him), the outcome is more unsparing and mean-spirited than darkly fun. “The Belko Experiment” might also think it gives its audience more to chew on afterward than it really does, but that still doesn’t take away from it being an effectively sick, nasty, berserk piece of work. It’s so good at its job that even after a while, it does admittedly become too blunt and numbing for its own good.

A sterile, imposing office skyscraper in the middle of remote Bogotá, Colombia already seems off from the start, but on this particular day, the security is military grade, searching every worker’s car at the gate and sending home every local employee. The employees of nonprofit government company Belko Industries go on with their day, until a mysterious voice on an intercom makes an alarming announcement: if two out of the eighty people in the building are not killed within thirty minutes, then two will be chosen at random. Then the building goes on lockdown, steel shutters covering every window and door. With everyone leaving their own respective floors and meeting in the lobby, COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) tries to alleviate any panic and assures everyone that it is probably a sick joke. Of course, that’s before two employees’ heads explode from the inside from an implanted tracer tag (every worker has one to evade kidnappings in South America). Next up in this so-called social experiment, thirty people must be killed in two hours or sixty more will die. Only a divide can form when the still-sane Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.) tries to reason and think about their options, while others have a different point-of-view and no trouble getting down and dirty if it means more hope for them to survive.

More cynically minded than satirically savage, “The Belko Experiment” has nothing new to say or add to the conversation of human nature and man’s primal instincts coming out in a every-man-for-himself, kill-or-be-killed situation. If it’s a satire, what is it actually satirizing? Corporate power? The “what would you do?” concept has been mined many times before, sure, but it’s still a provocative hook by which to amp up the violent carnage and exploitation. For a straight-ahead genre pic that goes for the jugular, director Greg McLean knows how to work up a palpable sense of anxiety and uncertainty to connect the audience to the characters’ life-or-death quandary. And, at a no-nonsense 88  minutes, the narrative structure is tight and free of excess, except for the fact that the film becomes an excessively bloody and grisly free-for-all. 

The characters are pretty much all types, adequately set up before the bloodletting occurs, and just enough time is spent between friendly co-workers in their cubicles to hope certain ones don’t become a recipient of a bullet to the head or a knife in the gut. Most of them are played by an interestingly assembled cast, too, including Michael Rooker as a maintenance worker; Melonie Diaz (2013's "Fruitvale Station") as a woman having a hell of a first day on the job; and a grinning John C. McGinley as an office pervert who inevitably makes the switch into alpha-male psychopath. Compared to those who are just inconsequential slasher-flick fodder, John Gallagher Jr. (2016's "Hush") is a solid everyman and voice of reason, and both he and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) are a couple worth latching onto until the end. Tony Goldwyn is also quite chilling as the boss, who wants to maintain order but makes a choice and ends up only being out for himself at the end of the day.

James Gunn’s cheeky, twistedly amusing sense of humor sneaks through from time to time but not nearly enough. For instance, after someone is hacked to death in a restroom stall, the door shuts to reveal and linger on a sign that reads, “Keep this area clean and please wash your hands.” There’s even a little levity with the inclusion of office stoner Marty (Sean Gunn, James’ brother who had a long run as the eccentric Kirk on TV’s “Gilmore Girls”) and his conspiracy theory that it’s the water in the water coolers making everyone crazy. Ironic musical choices do not work, not the Spanish covers of “I Will Survive" and “California Dreamin’” that open and end the film, and not a montage of panic cued to classical opera.

Next to learning who is playing God and orchestrating this experiment, guessing the last man or woman standing becomes the ultimate purpose here, and finding out both are not unsatisfying. Director McLean and writer Gunn even use the “final girl” archetype to mess with our expectations. When the head honchos open the armory vault and load up on guns for themselves, it does dash one’s hope for more brutally inspired kills outside of making a machete from a paper trimmer. Also, before it’s too late, death by tape dispenser is a new one. Sometimes more than the murders themselves, the anticipation is scarier. A horrifying scene in which a group of men who put themselves in charge start lining up workers by age and those with children of a certain age before a mass execution especially holds one in its relentless grip. “The Belko Experiment” offers a cool idea and some cheap thrills, but the execution could have led to much more than a routine if skillful kill-a-thon. Maybe a sequel, which McLean and Gunn obviously hope for, can learn from this film’s missed opportunities and improve upon itself much like “The Purge” has with each new installment.

Grade: B - 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Sweet Inferno: "The Devil's Candy" lean, mean, intensely creepy metal horror

The Devil’s Candy (2017) 
80 min., rated R.

It took fearless Australian filmmaker Sean Byrne’s “The Loved Ones,” 2012’s comically twisted, balls-to-the-wall gem, a long time to finally see a release and now his follow-up is here. If anyone was brave and lucky enough to see Byrne’s debut, then it gives one an idea of what to expect with “The Devil’s Candy,” a merciless, confidently helmed, and wickedly unnerving horror indie. On the most fundamental level, all a horror film really has to do sometimes is be horrific, and here is a purposefully horrific, tonally pitch-black throat-grabber that focuses on character to make the shocks feel well-earned. A story about a loving family moving into a home with a bloody past superficially holds similarities to other horror films, but that’s about where it ends for Byrne’s film. It combines several horror subgenres to include elements of possession and the serial killer film in a good old-fashioned Faustian tale that crosses into the heart of darkness. If it is a little familiar in certain places, “The Devil’s Candy” is punchy, intensely creepy stuff on the whole.

Metalhead painter Jesse (Ethan Embry) moves wife Astrid (Shiri Appleby) and teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco) into a remote home in Texas. They get a good deal for it and learn why once the realtor has to disclose the deaths of the former owners. “It’s not like Charlie Manson lived here,” he jokes before selling Jesse and Astrid the house. Astrid is anxious about affording a mortgage and Zooey has a hard time adjusting to her new school, but Jesse is about meet bigger problems. Not long after turning the garage into his art studio, he begins painting over his latest commission project with something he has no recollection of creating on the canvas: an upside-down crucifix and fiery flames over children, including his own daughter. Something seems to be flowing through him, and though Jesse loses track of time, he could be painting his most inspired, albeit disturbing, work ever. Does Jesse have a new muse, or could it be leading to something more dangerous? Then, one night, Zooey answers the door to the former owners’ adult son, Ray (Pruitt Taylor Vince), who doesn’t hide the fact that he’s very troubled. Astrid and Zooey are a bit more sympathetic, but Jesse tells him to leave, shutting the door in his face. Little does the family know that Ray sees Zooey as his next piece of “candy” to serve up to the Prince of Darkness.

Evocative of a more mature style of horror filmmaking, “The Devil’s Candy” smartly favors ideas and suggestion over explicit violence, at least initially before it has the gall to really shock. In almost all cases, writer-director Sean Byrne knows how far to take things without merely making an exploitation picture. Since the film wades into disturbingly dark territory, it very well could have become too much to take. The implication of Ray’s evil doings is obviously more palatable than seeing everything in graphic detail, but it’s still visceral and, in one instance that follows him spying on two boys playing in a field, even more frightening in a way. Byrne does it again in a startlingly auditory moment where Astrid and Zooey hear something horrible outside in the front of their house and panic. The plotting is potentially standard, but Byrne’s film doesn’t look or sound like other horror films. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Save a Horse, Eat a Man: “Raw” a daring, unsettling coming-of-ager like no other

Raw (2017)
99 min., rated R.

Cannibalistic horror film “Raw” isn’t the first of its kind to have such an effect on viewers, but reportedly, it made multiple audience members faint and heave at a screening during 2016’s Toronto International Film Festival. Such a physical reaction should give the film a badge of honor, however, there is more to it than just a series of flesh-eating money shots. This French-Belgian import marks the shockingly assured feature debut of writer-director Julia Ducournau, and it’s a square peg in the round holes of coming-of-age films for being about a young woman’s sexual awakening and gradual desire for flesh. Like a steak is to a strict vegan, “Raw” is clearly not going to be to everyone’s palate, and it shouldn’t have to be, but perhaps it should strictly be seen by the steeliest of stomachs, the not-so-faint of heart, and those nonjudgmental of others’ newfound eating habits. More importantly, it's for an audience that craves a horror film with a fierce female voice.

16-year-old vegetarian Justine (Garance Marillier) is attending veterinary school, following in the footsteps of her parents, who drop her off, and her older sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), who’s in her second year of study. During her first night in the dorms, she is awoken by upperclassmen who put her and other rookie freshmen through a series of brutal hazing rituals. Justine’s initiation continues with a class photo where the entire group is doused in buckets of blood and then soon after forced to eat a piece of raw rabbit kidney. In no time, her first taste of meat awakens something in her. Gradually, Justine changes, ripping into a raw chicken breast in the middle of the night and then very casually slicing a dog open during a dissection class in front of her gay roommate and only friend Adrien (Rabah Nait Oufella). At it turns out, veterinary school will change her forever and that one carnivorous moment will not be her last.

Classily directed and sensitively written by Julia Ducournau, “Raw” could hold a place in the transgressive wave of New French Extremism, but it is not out to purely disgust and shock. Ducournau has every opportunity to do just that but takes her time in revealing Justine’s journey, while trying to understand what Justine herself can’t fully understand and can’t resist. Lest one think this story about cannibalism will be entirely grim and track Justine going on a fleshy, id-centered killing spree, it surprises in that way. In fact, the word, “cannibal,” is never once uttered (or read in the subtitles). The cannibalism functions more as an erotically charged metaphor for nascent femininity, and how well the film works is a matter of subjective interpretation and Ducournau’s tone. At times, it’s darkly funny and even touching in its own way when the film gets to the heart of Justine and Alexia's sisterly bond.

Pre-credits, the very first image of “Raw” is so still and elegantly composed, and yet something abruptly shocking happens. Set in the middle of a country road, the camera spots a woman walking along the side, cuts to an oncoming car, and then back to where the woman was walking but can no longer be found. When the car comes flying back, the female walker jumps into the street, forcing the driver of the car to swerve and hit a tree; the seemingly suicidal bystander then gets up, unharmed, and walks over to the car. What this has to do with the rest of the film is revisited later on but should be experienced first-hand. 

19-year-old feature newcomer Garance Marillier is in every scene, and as Justine, she goes to the brink without any fear. When she crosses that line, it’s believable and compelling to watch. Justine is also just a teenage girl, experiencing her first wild party, losing her virginity, and getting all dolled up before going out. Peppered with queasy moments, the film isn’t gratuitous but still unflinching and unusually artfully done. Just take the intimate moment where Justine licks and then begins to nibble on a severed finger, while most cringe-inducing of all might be a Brazilian wax gone wrong and a pesky rash that Justine can’t stop scratching. The work by cinematographer Ruben Impens (2013’s “The Broken Circle Breakdown”) is striking, particularly one image that holds on Justine underneath her bedsheet as if she’s in the womb. Not a “fun” film, per se, but a fascinating one, “Raw” is a lusty, unsettling, disturbing cinematic cherry bomb that boldly goes where most American films wouldn’t dare.

Grade: B +