Sunday, August 27, 2017

Drag Her to Hell Already: “Ghost House” shrieky but not actually scary

Ghost House (2017)
99 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Thailand-set possession chiller “Ghost House” certainly has some reliably spooky imagery—you can't really go wrong with a gnarly-looking crone—and proficient production values for a low-budget VOD offering. Unfortunately, that’s about it. Everything else feels rote and hardly ever scary. Seriously, when will white people vacationing in foreign countries learn that they should never disrespect other cultures? They always end up regretting it.

This time, couple Julie (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Jim (James Landry Hebert) are traveling to Bangkok. After Jim proposes to Julie, they run into British travelers Robert (Russell Geoffrey Banks) and Billy (Rich Lee Gray), who are staying at the same hotel and invite them out. Jim gets to experience a Thai strip club, while Billy stays outside with Julie, and then their next stop is to a cultural graveyard with a miniature shrine. Robert goads Julie into stealing the stone figure, and as Robert runs for his car, Julie sees what she’s up against—an angry Japanese spirit—and is left cursed. Over the course of three days, Jim realizes something just isn’t right with his fiancée and, as he comes to learn from local driver Gogo (Michael S. New) and American expat Reno (Mark Boone Junior), the spirit that has attached itself to her wants Julie’s soul. Don’t you just hate it when that happens?

Director Rich Ragsdale engineers a few startling moments, but his film as a whole is more like a derivative pastiche that steals from the best, primarily Sam Raimi’s deliciously operatic “Drag Me to Hell.” At every turn, the grotesque, witchy-looking spirit haunting Julie keeps turning up in the background and pouncing toward the camera; it's creepy the first couple of times but thereafter becomes so repetitive. The grim moral dilemma, a la “Drag Me to Hell,” that Jim faces to save Julie has no follow-through, either, and just feels like one more missed opportunity.

Learning how to scream her lungs out in Rob Zombie’s two “Halloween” films as Laurie Strode, Scout Taylor-Compton puts herself through the wringer again here as Julie, but she’s better than the material. Without being given the chance to bring much else to her character, she screams, cries and jumps in fear a lot; Taylor Compton’s Julie is merely a pawn at the mercy of a ghoul, and the only ones who can help her are witch doctors. Including an over-the-top finale that is more silly than frightening, “Ghost House” ends up being a cacophony of obligatory jump scares and overcompensatingly shrieky musical stingers. Even the tiniest bit of subtlety might have allowed the film to deliver more satisfying, shiver-inducing chills.

Grade: C - 

Friday, August 25, 2017

Insta-Friends: Plaza brings crazed hilarity and humanity to pointed “Ingrid Goes West”

Ingrid Goes West (2017)
97 min., rated R.

Acridly funny, brazenly entertaining and up-to-the-minute, “Ingrid Goes West” is at once a sympathetic character study of a mentally unhinged young woman caught in the age of “likes” and “hashtags,” a dark cringe comedy that remains grounded, and a pointed here-and-now social comment on how anyone on social media can create their own persona for the world to see. That’s a lot of ambition for a filmmaker’s feature debut, but writer-director Matt Spicer and co-writer David Branson Smith nail the tricky tone with almost startling nerve and insight. Oh, and the fearlessly hilarious and quick-witted Aubrey Plaza, as the titular Ingrid, proves that she’s been capable of so much more than being the definition of “awkward” in a daring performance of raw, crazed perfection and undeniable empathy.

Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) is in a fragile state. She has just lost her best friend—her mother—and uses her iPhone like an extra appendage, rarely looking up from the screen. Following her stint in a mental institution, Ingrid seems to have grown and gets to start her life over. As soon as Ingrid finds a magazine article about Venice Beach’s boho-chic, Instagram-famous photographer Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen), she looks up her profile to find that she’s #blessed with 267K followers and openly posts an entire narrative, complete with hashtags, from the avocado toast she eats, to her vacation in Joshua Tree, to the Joan Didion book she allegedly reads, to the hair salon she frequents. When Ingrid comments on one of her pictures, Taylor responds back. A lightbulb then goes off in Ingrid’s head: she takes her inheritance to go find Taylor and contrive a meeting and, hopefully, friendship. How long can Ingrid keep up the charade?

From the first time we see Ingrid, her mascara running from her intense, tear-filled eyes as she scrolls down the Instagram photos of latest stalkee Charlotte (Meredith Kathleen Hagner) and then crashes her wedding, pepper spray in hand, to get vengeance for not being invited, the viewer will initially find it impossible to connect to someone who comes across as a disturbed nutjob. Instead, “Ingrid Goes West” keeps finding ways to challenge and surprise with equal amounts of satirical exaggeration and dramatic subtlety. Subverting what audience members will expect from the actress who could perfectly play Daria Morgendorffer in a feature film one day, Aubrey Plaza stretches her deadpan persona as Ingrid Thorburn by going to dark, weird, desperate and heartbreakingly lonely places that never seem less than organic. She is still comically anarchic, but there is something unnerving, pathetic, sad and relatable to what Aubrey brings to a character who could have come off insufferably needy, thoroughly unlikable and just batshit-crazy. Even though Ingrid is delusional and needs more psychiatric help than she is given, one is able to feel for her and understand where she’s coming from. She just wants to be liked and accepted by any means necessary.

Elizabeth Olsen is spot-on, playing Taylor Sloane not as a walking punchline of a phony, vapid SoCal stereotype who calls everything "amazing" and "the best" but a human being who actually exists. It’s a testament not only to Matt Spicer and David Branson Smith’s script but the way in which Olsen makes the complexities of Taylor seem true. By Ingrid’s perception, Taylor is perfect; she’s bubbly, seemingly cultured, and has a fulfilling life made from bottomless funds. In a way, though, Taylor is just like Ingrid, even without any mental illness. As Taylor’s technophobic husband Ezra, who quit his job to become a pop-artist urged by his wife, Wyatt Russell is affable, but even his character is smartly written with unexpected layers. On the other side of the spectrum, Billy Magnussen is malevolent bravado and coked-out volatility incarnate as Taylor’s live-wire brother Nicky, who quickly sees through Ingrid and her motivations. And then, in the most innately likable role and only his second feature after portraying father Ice Cube in 2015’s NWA biopic “Straight Outta Compton,” O’Shea Jackson Jr. has endless swagger and charisma as Dan Pinto, Ingrid’s Batman-obsessed landlord who aspires to be a screenwriter and develops a trust in his tenant.

More than a “Black Mirror” episode, “Ingrid Goes West” feels like the female-centric cousin to 2000’s exceptionally cringe-worthy “Chuck and Buck” and even 1992’s “Single White Female” (which gets name-dropped), minus the use of a stiletto as a murder weapon and the lesbian subtext. The film is definitely a comedy, but it never compromises its bleak worldview, nor does it strain for wacky laughs. From the sublime to the ridiculous, the situations still remain candid and germane to how the characters would behave. With the warts-and-all depth of its characters and how they communicate, the film carves out its own path, taking the relevance of the social media craze and the transparent times we live in to an extreme. Ingrid is worth following through every bump in the road, and the filmmakers ensure a pitch-perfect ending, or beginning at the end, for her.

Grade:  B +

Sunday, August 20, 2017

A Simpleton Plan: Soderbergh returns from retirement in larkish "Logan Lucky"

Logan Lucky (2017)
119 min., rated PG-13. 

Even after announcing his retirement from feature filmmaking around the release of 2013’s “Side Effects,” Steven Soderbergh has had a busy run on TV, directing HBO’s Liberace biopic “Behind the Candelabra” and being a creator of Cinemax series “The Knick.” Soderbergh ends up eating his words, returning with “Logan Lucky,” a deceptively frivolous comic caper that effortlessly weaves a gentle bit of socio-economic commentary on the American Dream into the light fun of a heist being pulled off at a NASCAR race by seemingly bumbling bumpkins. As a twisty heist film, “Logan Lucky” is not always apparent where it’s going, outsmarting the viewer without seeming overly impressed with itself.

A football star-turned-coal miner and a one-armed-handed Iraq War veteran-turned-bartender, Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) are brothers down on hard times. Jimmy has just been let go for liability reasons—he has a distinct limp—and can’t even afford his phone bill. Then, after a fist fight with obnoxiously arrogant NASCAR sponsor Max Chilblain (Seth MacFarlane) in Clyde’s bar, he gets the idea to rob North Carolina’s Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600. First, the Logan brothers will need a veteran safe-cracker in the form of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who’s currently incarcerated in Monroe Correctional Facility for five more months. That won’t do, so with the help of the Logan brothers’ gearhead beautician sister, Mellie (Riley Keough), and Joe’s two born-again idiot brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), they will plan distractions to break Joe out for the day and complete the robbery. And, before the end of the day, Jimmy has to catch a beauty pageant for his adorable daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), with whom he shares with his ex-wife, Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes). The Logans aren’t known for their luck, but can they pull this one off?

Proudly marching to the beat of its own drummer, not unlike something by Joel & Ethan Coen, “Logan Lucky” is a larkish, offbeat caper that flips the too-cool-for-school slickness of Steven Soderbergh’s “other” heist movies—a news interviewee actually coins the term, “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”—and ends up being better for it. More leisurely and down-home than the splashy “Ocean’s” trilogy, this film's laid-back pacing and unshowy cinematography befit the South, but the screenplay, credited to first-timer Rebecca Blunt (a mysterious screenwriter who doesn’t exist and could be another pseudonym for Soderbergh himself or wife Jules Asner), is rather tightly constructed when the heist gets going. Half of the fun comes in seeing whether the Logans and the Bangs can ultimately pull off the operation, but the getting-there, which includes delivering unbirthday cakes to mild-mannered bank vault tellers, painting cockroaches with nail polish, and prison convicts holding guards hostage until they get their "Game of Thrones" books, is what counts. 

On paper, the idea of casting Channing Tatum and Adam Driver as brothers from the same womb shouldn’t register, but they make it work. Looking more like a regular working-glass guy than a ripped male stripper, Tatum is terrific as the good-natured, hard-working Jimmy, and Driver complements him with perfect deadpan as the comparably quiet Clyde. As Mellie Logan, Riley Keough (who apparently borrowed her wardrobe from 2016’s “American Honey”) is the Marisa Tomei from “My Cousin Vinny” of the group, glitzed up in gaudy fashion, big hoop earrings, and long, colorful fingernails but smarter than she lets on in how she carries herself and shuts up Bobbie Jo’s husband Moody Chapman (David Denman) about driving cars with manual transmission. Not one who’s regularly offered to perform comedy on screen, “newcomer” Daniel Craig (who gets an “introducing” credit in the trailer) is having a ball playing Joe Bang. The typically stoic actor earns some of the film’s best laughs when telling the Logan brothers about the low-sodium salt alternative he uses on his eggs and then later explaining the chemistry behind his design of an explosives device with gummy worms. Around every corner, the ensemble reveals an unexpected A-lister, including Katie Holmes, Seth MacFarlane, Katherine Waterston, Sebastian Stan, and Hilary Swank, all of whom make the most of their screen time.

Steven Soderbergh definitely has an affection for these characters and never sinks into condescension for this regional milieu of people who could be easy to mock. It’s set up that Jimmy and Clyde Logan are not the brightest bulbs in the tanning bed, but that might not completely be the case. They are colorfully drawn, often surprising, and diverting to hang out with for a couple of hours. Not even the JonBenét Ramsey-like beauty pageant for young girls gets too much of a send-up, “Little Miss Sunshine”-style.” In retrospect, the narrative checks out for the most part, even if the third act’s obligatory rewind gets a bit too cute. As long as one gets on board with the filmmaker’s casual vibe, “Logan Lucky” is a hoot and a half. Now that Soderbergh is probably back in, making a trilogy with the Logans wouldn’t be such a bad idea.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Dolls Are Never Just Dolls: Solidly familiar "Annabelle: Creation" conjures up more creepy tricks

Annabelle: Creation (2017)
109 min., rated R.

It’s official: more than just superhero movies are becoming part of a larger cinematic universe. “Annabelle: Creation” is a prequel to 2014’s “Annabelle,” itself a prequel spin-off of 2013's “The Conjuring,” and lays the groundwork for its own shared universe. While the announcement of another origin story for the apple-cheeked porcelain terror sounded like it would be a needless cash-grab, rushed into production based on the last film being a hit with the public, expectations perked up when the project was entrusted to director David F. Sandberg, who made one’s fear of the dark scary again with 2016’s “Lights Out.” Three years later, the finished product itself puts all naysayers in their place, having been crafted with actual care and know-how. Conjuring up a variety of new tricks to upstage the scare tactics of its predecessor, “Annabelle: Creation” is such a solidly familiar fright machine that, following 2015’s “The Conjuring 2” and 2016’s “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” exists as a rare example of how to do a canonical scare picture right.

Twelve years after the tragic death of their daughter Bee (Samara Lee), dollmaker Samuel Mullins (Anthony LaPaglia) and wife Esther (Miranda Otto) have agreed to take in six orphaned girls and Sister Charlotte (Stephanie Sigman). Despite the couple’s farmhouse being in need of repairs like their lives, it’s as big as a home as the girls have ever seen. Janice (Talitha Bateman) and Linda (Lulu Wilson), the youngest of the girls, are inseparable, promising each other that they would never give up the other if adopted; in the house, they find a bedroom to share, but the polio-suffering Janice is stuck in the house most days. As is always the case in a creaky house, there is a locked bedroom that Samuel forbids, and eventually, Janice wanders into that room to find a key to a closet, where doll Annabelle sits. Once the evil entity using Annabelle as a conduit is unleashed, it takes hold of Janice and threatens everyone else in this makeshift orphanage.

In keeping with the classical vein of James Wan’s “The Conjuring,” the 1955-set “Annabelle: Creation” is old-fashioned in spirit but still alive in delivering a reliable brand of jack-in-the-box jolts that make horror movies a creepily fun communal experience. It takes the right filmmaker to make jump scares still feel hair-raising and exciting, and director David F. Sandberg definitely has a skillful hand for doing just that. His deliberate pacing instills a benevolent comfort in the orphan girls’ safety before tearing them down. Rest assured, Sandberg grabs the audience by their throats and does not let them rest easy. From a dumbwaiter, to a late-night telling of ghost stories under a bedsheet, to a ringing bell, to a scarecrow in a barn, to a motorized stairlift ride in the middle of the night, to a tea party from hell, Sandberg knows how to milk each set-piece with devilishly taut dread, inventive technical style, and a fearsome sound design. The director, who expanded his short to a feature with “Lights Out,” actually makes two nods to “Attic Panic,” another short he made, with light bulbs that unscrew on their own and a ghostly white bedsheet. 

David F. Sandberg is well aware that a scare picture can be empty without strong characters to root for, and he manages to wring credible, sympathetic performances out of his cast. As Janice and Linda, Talitha Bateman (2016's "Nine Lives") and Lulu Wilson take turns playing the leads here and both are intuitive performers as such young ages. Wilson, who played the possessed Doris in “Ouija: Origin of Evil,” gets to play the voice of reason here as Linda, who knows when to exit the forbidden room, when to run, and when to be resourceful with a toy pop gun. Anthony LaPaglia manages to mix intimidation and grief as Samuel, and despite being sidelined for most of the film, Miranda Otto dials it down as grieving wife Esther, who spends her life in a bed with a mask and is seen almost as a phantom whom a few of the girls fear. 

Narratively, the screenplay, credited to the first film's returning screenwriter Gary Dauberman, doesn’t break any new ground, nor does it have to when there is so much skill on display. These characters haven’t seen many horror movies, so they don’t always listen to audience members about not entering a closet they shouldn’t hide in or not sticking their head into the darkness of a well at night, but it’s forgiven because we wouldn’t have much of a movie otherwise. In telling the genesis of the demonic doll, the film later ends with an epilogue that nicely ties in with “Annabelle,” although those coming into this film without viewing that one can forget it. There is also a subtly spooky tease for what's to come in 2018's “The Nun,” a spin-off of "The Conjuring 2" in Warner Bros.' pipeline. When “Annabelle: Creation” really works, it works as a fiendishly effective seat-pouncer.


Saturday, August 12, 2017

Love Kills: "68 Kill" barrels straight into pulpy depravity

68 Kill (2017)
93 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Without reading a single page, writer-director Trent Haaga (2011’s “Chop”) seems to have brought Bryan Smith’s 2013 novel of the same name to vividly sleazy life with “68 Kill,” a pulpy, blowsy, down-and-dirty ride of Southern-fried grindhouse depravity steaming with the stench of sex, cigarettes, and gunpowder. Directed with gleefully balls-out abandon, Haaga’s sophomore effort has such an unapologetically crazy, nasty energy and goes in enough surprising directions, but one comes away remembering and wanting more of one thing: AnnaLynne McCord (2012's "Excision" and 2016's "Trash Fire"). She kills it yet again.

Spineless, henpecked Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) flushes septic systems for a living and has been dating and living with the sexy Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) for six months in their Louisiana trailer. Liza gets money by sleeping with her piggish sugar daddy Ken (David Maldonado), but when she hatches a scheme that could give both Chip and her $68,000, Chip reluctantly agrees. As the couple breaks into the loaded scum’s house, Liza already seems to have the endgame in mind without telling her other half, but she goes through with it anyway by killing Ken and his wife. What also isn’t part of the plan is finding a witness named Violet (Alisha Boe), whom Liza forces Chip to throw in the trunk and hand her off to Liza's pervy, homicidal brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson). Shellshocked, Chip ends up getting away from Liza, the hot little psycho that she is, in her red Mustang and making off with Viola, who turns out to be the down-to-earth girl that he needs. Along the way, Chip runs into gothic gas station clerk Monica (Sheila Vand) and her trailer-trash friends that turn his life even more upside down. 

As each woman is presented as a powerful, manipulative, money-grubbing, man-trapping sexpot, a sense of female control bleeds from every shift in the plotting of “68 Kill.” Like a puppy loyal to his owner or a fly stuck in honey (an image the film actually opens with), Chip is a patsy who needs to learn to stick up for himself but just becomes an accomplice to each crime a woman commits. Posited as our hapless protagonist, Matthew Gray Gubler (2014's "Suburban Gothic") has the biggest challenge of keeping Chip a sympathetic and appealing dim-bulb, but he mostly succeeds. With that confidently wicked glint in her eye that never goes out, AnnaLynne McCord relishes the role of Liza, turning in another demented, uninhibited, dangerous, inspired performance with zero fucks to give. Making Liza more obscene and interesting than a conventional femme fatale, McCord remains immensely watchable even as she gets sidelined in the middle section. As Violet and Monica, respectively, Alisha Boe (Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”) makes a valiant impression, coming the closest to being the film's only sweetheart and pulling M's 1979 pop song "Pop Muzik" out of obscurity while driving into the night with Chip, and Sheila Vand (2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) shrewdly plays her part of a cold-blooded sadist whose blood only runs warm when she meets someone more psychotic than her.

Once Chip falls victim to a trailer full of crass, annoying Rob Zombie Movie refugees, "68 Kill" admittedly starts to spin its wheels, the film's pitch-black cheekiness giving way to torture that is no longer fun. Though Chip is inevitably the one who comes out on top in the end, the wish is that the film hadn’t left its two best assets—Liza and Violet—in the dust so much. The viewer might not want to spend any more than 93 minutes with any of these people, but one ends up loving to hate Liza the most. The point of it all might be a bit problematic, but in this case, the wild, often darkly amusing journey is the destination. Never compromising its nihilistic worldview or its adherence to bad taste, “68 Kill” takes its grindhouse aspirations straight to the edge.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Badder Moms: "Fun Mom Dinner" never takes off to be that fun

Fun Mom Dinner (2017)
89 min., rated R. 

Female filmmakers need all the support they can get, but “Fun Mom Dinner” from debuting feature director Alethea Jones and screenwriter Julie Rudd (Paul Rudd’s wife) should be funnier and so much more fun than it gets to be. It has the dubious distinction of riding on the coattails of 2016’s crowd-pleasing “Bad Moms,” which deftly built honesty into a hilariously raunchy free-for-all, but there were so many possibilities for another film to fill the domain usually taken up by so many male-centric comedies. With only the smallest nuggets of truth and delivering no more than smiles, “Fun Mom Dinner” is inoffensive and flat most of the time.

Former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom Emily (Katie Aselton) craves “me time” and more attention from her husband, Tom (Adam Scott), who barely touches her anymore. Emily’s friend, Kate (Toni Collette), tries to get away from her four kids any chance she gets, locking herself in the bathroom to get high. At the pre-school  both Emily and Kate's kids attend, perky but divorced single mom Jamie (Molly Shannon), who records her entire life on social media, invites Emily on one of her regular “fun mom dinners” with Melanie (Bridget Everett), a safety-first school volunteer who runs the student drop-off. Even though Kate wants nothing to do with them, Emily tricks her into coming to the dinner that promises, “lots of wine, no kids.” As these four moms let their hair down with a night out on the town on a school night (!), they come to find out that they have more in common than they thought.

Sapped of anything wise or acerbic, “Fun Mom Dinner” feels like it’s always just getting started. It’s tame and all sorts of lame, wavering between sincerity and rowdy antics with a very light R-rating. There are amusing ideas that don’t really go anywhere, like what if the moms snuck a joint in a restaurant restroom, only to trigger the sprinklers and a dine and dash, and then made a late-night stop at Walgreens? The ladies singing karaoke, specifically “99 Luftballoons” in German, is also more humorous in theory than follow-through by just petering out. A late scene on a marina dock also has some unrealistic blocking, as the women and their DD (Paul Rust) decide to stand at the start of the dock as they watch Melanie, dressed in a unicorn onesie, dive off the end of the dock to swim to a boat. Finally, the scenes with the dads—Tom and Kate’s husband Andrew (Rob Huebel) get locked out of Andrew’s house while watching the kids—never gain any momentum and just pad the already-short running time.

Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, and Bridget Everett are fun to watch together, but one can’t help wish that the script gave them all more to do than navigate clichéd character arcs. For instance, the tension between Collette’s Kate and Everett’s Melanie gets such an easy fix, and the viewer doesn’t really get a sense of the friction between them to begin with. Because any film like this needs a wild card, outrageously brash comedian Everett is up to the job, and she has a very specific comedic daring that earns a few mild chuckles here. A lot of familiar faces put in favors to the filmmakers, too, including the co-writer’s husband, Paul Rudd, who serves as a producer and cameos as a Jewish marijuana connoisseur with his partner (David Wain). Even Adam Levine comes in as a handsome bar owner who flirts with Emily after showing her his “Moms” tattoo (he has two moms), but it’s mainly a thankless role that doesn’t give him a lot to work with, except be a potential “other man” to light a married woman’s fire.

At the end of this “fun mom dinner,” moms learn to stick together, sure, but the journey doesn’t even get to be the destination. The film culminates in three of the moms going on the hunt to find Emily who went off with the hot bartender, and there’s the contrived misplacement of a cell phone and a wrong boat encounter. There is a Jake Ryan throughline, as in John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles,” that’s cute but not earned in terms of Emily and Tom’s marital rough patch. The situations should have been crazier, the insights could have been more fresh, and the dialogue needed to be punched up. At least director Alethea Jones bought the rights for an ear-pleasing 1980s soundtrack that includes “Head Over Heels” by The Go-Go’s, “Town Called Malice” by The Jam, “Whoa! The Cops” by Stupid Fresh, and "If You Were Here" by Thompson Twins. Slight and bland when it should be sharp and raucous, “Fun Mom Dinner” is benign viewing with a cast more than willing to cut loose but saddled with material that lets them down. It’s just sort of there rather than bad, so one can’t exactly find any glee in ripping it apart.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

King Flop: Brief but rushed "Dark Tower" doesn't shine so brightly

The Dark Tower (2017)
95 min., rated PG-13.

Stephen King’s eight-volume series, “The Dark Tower,” has been described as the author’s magnum opus, an amalgam of science fiction, fantasy, Western, and horror. This has been a long-gestating film project for a decade, and with such a dense mythology, it was deemed unadaptable, and apparently, it still is. As a condensed 95-minute feature film with a modest $60 million budget, “The Dark Tower” feels cobbled together, cut off at the knees with little room to breathe, and never epic in scope as it should be. There are traces of the film it could have been and should have been, but unfortunately, fans and the uninitiated are stuck with the film that it is. It may not be a complete disaster, but calling it not the worst King adaptation doesn’t make it any less mediocre.

11-year-old Manhattan boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) dreams of an alternate dimension, but his mom (Katheryn Winnick) and his cold stepfather (Nicholas Pauling) think the death of his fireman father (Karl Thaning) has made him mentally unstable. When he evades a pair of psychiatrists who are actually monsters from this other world in human form, Jake escapes and finds an abandoned Brooklyn house that holds a portal, thrusting him into the post-apocalyptic Mid-World. He finds a guide in a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba), who lost his father (Dennis Haysbert) in trying to protect the tower from Walter (Matthew McConaughey), the Man in Black. As it turns out, Jake is really one of many gifted children with "the shine” (read: psychic power) who can bring down the tower positioned at the center of the universe.

Technically sturdy but grievously truncated and streamlined, “The Dark Tower” starts off well with promise in Keystone Earth a.k.a. New York City before Jake actually enters the portal into Mid-World. From there, everything else is a surface-level rush job. Writer-director Nikolaj Arcel (2012’s “A Royal Affair”) and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen have brevity on their side, but it actually hurts this particular cinematic treatment; the film alternately moves quickly and dashes off plot points and supporting characters that should probably matter. A presumably once-commanding vision of Stephen King’s saga is detracted by half-baked world-building, abridged beats, and generic action scenes with too much CGI. 

Jake Chambers is decidedly the protagonist of the story and the one with an arc, and newcomer Tom Taylor is a natural and confident choice. Idris Elba is a magnetic, charismatic presence, and while he is able to bring a quiet gravitas to even the taciturn Roland, the role is so one-note that it’s hard to tell if the actor’s heart is even in it. Even a few light moments of fish-out-of-water humor fall flat, like Roland not knowing what a hot dog is before taking a bite. As if he’s channelling Christopher Walken’s Gabriel in 1995's “The Prophecy,” Matthew McConaughey seems to be relishing the role of Walter/The Man in Black, cutting a potentially delicious villain with swagger and hamminess but little actual menace. 

With the rumors of reshoots and failed test screenings, there were plenty of red flags, and unfortunately, they were true. Having no stake in whether or not this is a faithful adaptation of the source material, that shouldn't make or break the success of a film because all that matters is what made it to the screen. Alas, "The Dark Tower" is irreparably unsatisfying, and if it doesn't properly introduce the uninitiated to this world and doesn’t faithfully adapt the book for purists, who is it for exactly? Little Easter Eggs to King’s multiverse are fun to spot here and there but don’t mean anything in a larger context. Someone walks a St. Bernard (“Cujo”); there’s a photo of the Overlook Hotel (“The Shining”), a toy 1958 Plymouth Fury (“Christine”) and an abandoned amusement park named Pennywise (“It”). It’s too bad that the finished product feels like a middle-of-the-road pilot to a TV series that won’t get picked up.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Tough Mama: Tight, no-nonsense "Kidnap" does what it says on the tin

Kidnap (2017)
94 min., rated R.

Can a movie still be fun and effective without being particularly good? In the case of “Kidnap,” the answer is yes. With 2013’s “The Call” and now “Kidnap,” Halle Berry seems to be trying to get her own subgenre off the ground in which she plays a character who doesn’t need the police and takes matters into her own hands to rescue someone. This on-the-road abduction thriller is not even close to masterful as something like 1971’s Steven Spielberg-directed “Duel,” but it’s tight, legitimately tense and unrelentingly propulsive. Whittled down to the bare essentials and the fierce eyes of an Oscar-winning actress, “Kidnap” is a guilty pleasure without the guilt, a meat-and-potatoes kind of B-movie made for audiences to get their heart rates up and talk back to the screen. Nothing more and nothing less, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

The plot is so lean and no-nonsense that it would fit as a clue on a crossword puzzle. Single Louisiana mom Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) works as a diner waitress to put food on the table for herself and 6-year-old son Frankie (Sage Correa), but her ex wants full custody. One day, she leaves work to take Frankie to the park. When she turns her back not far from her preoccupied son to take a call from her lawyer, Frankie is gone. As Karla frantically makes her way around the park, calling his name and asking if anyone has seen him, she spots her son being pushed into a conspicuous teal Ford Mustang leaving the parking lot. Immediately, Karla kicks into action and gives chase to the white-trash kidnappers, vowing never to stop until she has Frankie back in her arms.

Opening with a series of home movies that show Frankie growing up from a baby, “Kidnap” is almost too cloyingly adorable at introducing the bond between mother and son. Once Frankie is abducted and plot contrivances lock into place—Karla’s phone dies and then falls out of her purse in the parking lot—the film slams its foot on the gas and rarely lets up. Director Luis Prieto (2012’s “Pusher”) works the audience to a fever pitch and mines high-stress tension, elevating an admittedly cheap, exploitative parent’s-worst-nightmare premise and cheesy, derivative material with Halle Berry’s one-woman show. Playing Karla as a badass mama bear trying to get her cub back single-handedly, Berry gives a forceful performance, gritting her teeth and turning on the hysterics with a believable urgency that never becomes laughable. It helps, too, because the film is mostly Berry behind the wheel of her indestructible red minivan and trying to stay on the vehicular tail of her son’s kidnappers, even if that means putting others' lives in danger. She sells every traumatized look and talking to herself, as well as a prayer monologue and a kick-ass line, “You took the wrong kid!” As a bonus, the actors playing despicable kidnappers Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple) are so well-cast that one can’t wait until they finally get their just desserts.

For all of the problems it had in actually seeing the light of day—filming ended back in 2014, Relativity Media went bankrupt, and the film’s release date was pushed back more than three times—“Kidnap” actually works. Without much use for padding (and the police, apparently), screenwriter Knate Lee finds enough road blocks for Karla getting back her son to keep both her and the audience on their toes. Likewise, director Prieto gets a lot of mileage out of the high-panic situation of losing a child and builds it all to a routine climax, set in the creepy wetlands, that is nevertheless suspenseful. There is, however, a brawl in Karla’s minivan that muddles the action into overly cut bits, which is more noticeable now more than ever after just seeing a far superior vehicular brawl in “Atomic Blonde.” 

Even when the film takes such a tumble—there’s also some hand-holding with needless flashbacks to moments not that long ago, a few baffling choices in terms of editing and cinematography, and some hilariously clunky extras—it knows how to drive that line between ludicrous and gripping. “Kidnap” doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, except a competent, crowd-pleasing genre quickie that amps up the anxiety throughout and gives its star plenty of facetime.

Grade: B - 

2017 Fantasia International Film Festival Review: "Tragedy Girls"

Tragedy Girls (2017)
94 min., not yet rated.

Ever since the self-aware stroke of genius that was Wes Craven’s "Scream"—a deconstruction of slasher movies that doubled as a great example of a slasher movie—there are haven’t been a ton of films that have come as close to turning the tropes of the genre inside out. With "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon," "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil," "The Cabin in the Woods," and "The Final Girls" the only other exceptions, "Tragedy Girls" can now join the clique. Sharing a subversive wit that’s closest to "Heathers" and a hip, quick-witted language that tips its knife to Diablo Cody and perhaps even the wildly underappreciated and just-plain-wild "Detention," this vibrantly vicious high school horror-comedy is going to kill as a future cult favorite that can be enjoyed unironically, but it might be too darkly offbeat for the mainstream — that’s their loss.

Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) are two peas in a pod. They’re high school girls, both trying to fit in by joining the cheerleading squad and prom committee, but they really want to be prolific serial killers and social-media stars. When they finally catch Lowell Lehmann (Kevin Durand), the machete-wielding maniac who’s been racking up a high murder rate in their midwest town of Rosedale, Sadie and McKayla want him as their teacher, but he proves unwilling to cooperate, so they just keep him chained up as their pet. In the meantime, the girls keep their murder skills sharp by killing anyone whom they deem needs to go and use those killings as content for their true-crime blog, “Tragedy Girls,” before the press gets the scoop. In secret, they’re tired of their efforts always looking like freak accidents, so they up their game, while trying to keep attention off of them by blaming the police for never catching the perpetrator. 

"Tragedy Girls" sounds like it could be too tasteless or too cute for its own good, almost smug, but it’s instead whip-smart and never lacking in wickedly clever gumption. Writer-director Tyler MacIntyre and co-writers Chris Lee Hill and Justin Olson have concocted a mean, potentially quotable script full of snarky attitude, constantly riding a very tricky tone between tongue-in-cheek lark with slit throats and a lovingly twisted portrait of two murderous besties. With something relevant to say about the world we’re living in where YouTube and Twitter spawn celebrities, the film is also just extremely entertaining. It races a mile a minute, dropping references to "Martyrs," Dario Argento, the "Final Destination" series, and Quento Tarantino’s "Death Proof" installment in "Grindhouse" and even a sneaky nod to "Cannibal Holocaust." The violence is broad enough to be splattery but not too sick, and imaginatively staged to be memorable, like a buzzsaw-happy kill in the school woodshop and another involving a piece of heavy gym equipment. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +