Tuesday, October 31, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B +

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Game Restart: "Jigsaw" not necessary but a morbidly fun homecoming

Jigsaw (2017) 
91 min., rated R.

In 2004, Lionsgate and Twisted Pictures knew they had a nastily crafty little horror film in “Saw” that could make bank as a franchise, one whose raison d'être was the array of twisted and gruesome but admittedly inventive Rube Goldberg-like death traps characters would endure to prove how much they wanted to survive. For six consecutive years, another sequel was released around Halloween, and after 2010’s “Saw 3D: The Final Chapter,” it officially seemed like “game over” for this franchise. Now, in 2017, the time has come, not only for Halloween but an eighth installment, now titled “Jigsaw.” For this go-around, fresh blood has been brought in with twin filmmaker brothers Michael Spierig and Peter Spierig (2015’s “Predestination”), and that was an auspicious move, particularly for those who have a nostalgia for this Grand Guignol series.

At the start, Detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett), along with a SWAT team, pursue a criminal onto a rooftop where he triggers a mechanism before being shot dead. This sets in motion a game in an undisclosed location, where five strangers—Anna (Laura Vandervoort), Mitch (Mandela Van Peebles), Ryan (Paul Braunstein), Carly (Brittany Allen), and another—wake up in a cell-like room with buckets on their heads and chains attached to their necks. If they don’t confess their sins and offer up a little blood, they will all be dragged closer and closer into a saw. Once some of them survive their first test, the doors open to the inside of a barn where more games await. Somehow, each corpse of the person who fails their test turns up elsewhere for the detectives to find. As they bring in the first body to the morgue, medical examiners Logan Nelson (Matt Passmore) and Eleanor Bonneville (Hannah Emily Anderson) discover that a piece of flesh has been carved out of their bodies in the shape of a jigsaw puzzle, which happens to be the calling card of the long-dead John Kramer (Tobin Bell), better known as Jigsaw. Is this a copycat of Kramer? Did Kramer ever actually die? Or, is someone carrying on his legacy again? 

As helmed by the Spierig brothers, “Jigsaw” feels more like a survival thriller set in a haunted house of traps than a slab of torture porn that lingers on the suffering. After so much tail-chasing narrative convolution and sloppily thrown-together chronology-twisting from the previous films that felt retroactively constructed to keep this franchise going, “Jigsaw” starts over. Even as it cuts between the police investigation, a gorier but not-that-gratuitous “CSI” episode, and the games at hand, it is the most cleanly plotted the series has seen in a while. This back-and-forth structure doesn’t hurt the momentum this time so much as give the viewer some relief. Keeping with the franchise, the tricycle-riding clown puppet and sow mask return for appearances, and there is a rug-pulling, bait-and-switch twist in terms of whodunit that comes with a flashback-filled exposition dump, but screenwriters Pete Goldfinger and Josh Stolberg (2010's "Piranha 3D") take a chance in the finale that feels more inspired than derivative.

"Jigsaw" does well in keeping the viewer guessing, setting up plenty of red herrings in the outside world. Detective Halloran is grizzled and shady; medical examiner Eleanor is a closeted Jigsaw fan who keeps a studio of torture sculptures she designed herself; and her morgue partner, Logan, is a tortured war veteran who has lost his wife and lives as a single parent to his daughter. Even though Tobin Bell’s John Kramer died at the end of “Saw III” (an autopsy was proof in “IV”), and yet seemed alive from appearing in flashbacks throughout the previous entries, could the filmmakers have found a roundabout way to resurrect him? The “test subjects” have names, as they usually do, but like in all of these movies, all of the characters are thin with backstories more than personalities. Still, there is plenty to be gripped by and tense about.

While it almost seems odd to discuss the technical merits of a “Saw” movie, this film has none of the garish, jittery, often-obnoxious cutting of all of the previous films or the grimy warehouse interiors. Sure, the plot proper is shot in a barn, but even with editor Kevin Greutert (who cut five of the “Saw” movies), the aesthetics are slicker and more impressive with a brighter color palette and more coherent visual sense. There’s almost a restraint here, and that sense of restraint might betray hardcore fans of this franchise who bought a ticket to see gory demises. The featured carnage, though, does involve an acid-filled syringe, a leg-tightening wire, a funnel slicer, and in the film’s most effectively wince-inducing highlight, a trap in a grain-flooding silo that ups the ante when sharp objects begin getting thrown in, targeting its two victims. In the end, “Jigsaw” ranks at the top of the heap—it’s far better than “IV,” “V,” “VI,” and “The Final Chapter”—and while it’s hardly necessary, this is a morbidly fun homecoming for Jigsaw.

Grade: B - 

Friday, October 27, 2017

Unpleasantville: Tonally wacky "Suburbicon" works just fine as an arch dark farce

Suburbicon (2017)
104 min., rated R.

For his sixth time behind the camera, George Clooney bests his last directorial effort (2013’s disappointingly dull “The Monuments Men”) by dusting off an old script by Joel and Ethan Coen from 1986. With the Coen brothers’ DNA all over it, “Suburbicon” is a blackly comic satire about 1950s white homogeneity, and as that, the film is a familiar, nihilistic shaggy-dog story, like a Norman Rockwell painting splattered with blood. Unfortunately, there are two neighboring stories that co-exist in “Suburbicon,” and the one that’s less developed is where co-writers Clooney and Grant Heslov came in and took a pass at the original script. Based on a true story of a black family moving into a Levitttown, Pennsylvania community, this “other” story is a statement on racism, but it never seamlessly mixes with the crime noir portion, at least not as effectively as it could have like peanut butter and jelly (a sandwich that does become a plot point). Though the results feel like a patchwork of 1944’s “Double Indemnity,” 1996’s “Fargo,” 1998’s “Pleasantville,” and 2002’s “Far from Heaven,” “Suburbicon” is absurd, unwholesome fun that works better as an arch dark farce than actual satire.

In the wholesome, cookie-cutter suburban community of Suburbicon—an alleged melting pot of folks from New York, Ohio and Mississippi with manicured lawns and white picket fences—the first black family, Mr. and Mrs. Meyers (Leith M. Burke and Karimah Westbrook) and son Andy (Tony Espinosa), have moved in and created an uproar with the white majority. Next door, the Lodge family has its own problems. In the middle of the night, Gardner Lodge (Matt Damon), wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Julianne Moore), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe) and Rose’s twin sister Maggie (Julianne Moore) are tied up and chloroformed by a pair of menacing home intruders (Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell). Rose is chloroformed the heaviest and winds up dying in the hospital. As the police try to catch the robbers who murdered Rose, Maggie remains living with Gardner and Nicky because “the boy needs a mother.” From there, Nick grows suspicious of his father and aunt when they don’t seem to recognize his mother’s killer in a police line-up. 

“Suburbicon” isn’t covering any fresh territory, the dark underbelly emerging from the idyllic, picture-postcard ‘50s façade practically its own film subgenre by now. Regular folks pulling off a crime and turning out to be too incompetent for the job is also a throughline in most darkly comic, screwball crime capers written and directed by the Coen siblings. Director George Clooney lends a solid sense of irony to the proceedings, even if some of the turns are telegraphed before they actually happen. There’s an overriding amount of cynicism for the characters, particularly Gardner and Maggie who aren’t really meant to be likable and come off more as gee-whiz caricatures with deviousness creeping in rather than flawed human beings. The Meyers family members are relegated to scapegoats and a juxtaposition as another violent crime goes on next door unheard and unseen. Save for their son who plays catch with Nicky, the mother is hardly a character without a first name and the father is even more of a non-entity without a first name, let alone a single line of dialogue, all of them intentionally marginalized. It’s all part of Clooney’s satirical aim, saying that white people can literally get away with murder when a family of color is enduring a mob with torches and Confederate flags. Even if it’s a little obvious and ham-fisted, this is a critique of racial injustice that is treated as bluntly and ugly as it should be. 

Matt Damon does well by the limits of his milquetoast everyman role as Gardener Lodge, who finds himself way in over his head. Julianne Moore gets the chance to play dual roles even after this year's "Wonderstruck," and while she makes the roles of Rose and Maggie distinct, Rose only appears for the first fifteen minutes. As Maggie, Moore returns to her “Far from Heaven” wardrobe but with a dippiness and Stepfordized smile that almost hides how rotten she might be. When a pencil-mustached Oscar Isaac comes in as wily claims investigator Roger who smells something fishy going in with the Lodges, he adds a much-needed jolt of energy and intelligence. Like the casting in most of Coen-directed films, the faces are memorable, including character actor Glenn Fleshler (TV’s “True Detective”) and Alex Hassell, who perfectly resembles a greaser from the ‘50s, as the two home-invading brutes. As Nicky, newcomer Noah Jupe (TV’s “The Night Manager”) is an expressive find and about the only decent character worth latching onto besides the Meyers family. 

“Suburbicon” is diverting from moment to moment as an insurance scam goes violently wrong and the bodies start to pile up accidentally, and for an actor who’s worked with the Coen brothers four times, director George Clooney makes sure the Coens' absurdism comes through. The characters are never really etched beyond two dimensions, and maybe that is the point, but the film has the courage of its convictions at least to do away with certain characters and gives Nicky an earned happy ending of sorts. Director Clooney also gets ace work out of his technical team, Robert Elswit’s cinematography and James D. Bissell’s production design by James D. Bissell bright and immaculate without crossing into parody (the former takes advantage of the Hitchcockian noir aspects of the story with a strangulation happening in a silhouette on a wall). Only does composer Alexandre Desplat punch up his comically exaggerated score to an overbearing degree a little too often. Falling short of meaning and profundity, “Suburbicon” is not some prestige picture, but for those with a questionable sense of humor, it is a delightfully black-hearted, tonally wacky diversion.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Get Out for the 18th Time: Cursed production aside, "Amityville: The Awakening" isn't that bad

Amityville: The Awakening (2017) 
85 min., rated PG-13.

For an installment in an 18-films-and-counting series about a cursed house, “Amityville: The Awakening” has been cursed itself. Filming was completed back in 2014 and release was originally scheduled for January 2015. The release date was then delayed and moved around three more times before being pulled from distributor Dimension Films' releasing schedule entirely. Now, after three years of being in the can, the film is available for free streaming on Google Play and headed for a DVD/Blu-ray release after that, and incidentally in that span of time, three other in-name-only “Amityville” knockoffs have passed this one by. One would expect “Amityville: The Awakening” to be nothing short of abysmal, but if one can put all of that troubled production nonsense aside, it is actually far more watchable than all of that might suggest. Technically a reboot to 1979’s “The Amityville Horror,” this one positions itself as a self-aware entry by commenting on the original, its prequel and sequels, and even the slick, hollowed-out 2005 remake and rendering all of them fiction — not a bad way to reroute this left-for-dead franchise. It is still pretty much a standard haunting tale with basic night-terror frights but respectably well-made on those terms alone. 

Forty years after Ronnie Defeo brutally slaughtered his family of six in 1974 in the middle of the night, the house at 112 Ocean Avenue in Long Island, New York, gets a new family. Joan (Jennifer Jason Leigh) has gotten a deal on the property and relocates her two daughters, goth teen Belle (Bella Thorne) and little Juliet (Mckenna Grace), along with Belle’s twin brother James (Cameron Monaghan). The house is close to her sister (Jennifer Morrison) and not far from the best neurological department for the incapacitated James, who’s been in a coma for two years, living in a vegetative state in a hospital bed. Having to start a new high school for her senior year, Belle is not coping well with the move, but Mom believes the house will be good for James and help him towards recovery. Once Belle begins getting picked on at school, she learns from a nice boy, Terrence (Thomas Mann), that it’s the reputation of her new house. Belle may be the last one to find out, but she will be the first to believe that something has been awakened in the house and has already latched itself to her brother. 

Living up to the Blumhouse name in terms of atmosphere and production values, “Amityville: The Awakening” might be the classiest looking film in the series, with very few of the obnoxious flash cuts of the Ryan Reynolds-starring do-over. Writer-director Franck Khalfoun (2013’s “Maniac”) actually allows tension to build to tell his more character-based family drama before unleashing some creepy house jolts and pretty much becoming a rehash of 1982’s “Amityville II: The Possession” and even 2009’s “The Haunting in Connecticut,” which also involved an ill teen. With that said, the clever little wrinkles that Khalfoun comes up with to hopefully enliven this particular series are interesting. For one, the whole meta angle is pretty amusing. Terrance first shows Belle a copy of Jay Anson’s book, “The Amityville Horror,” and then convinces Belle and his girlfriend-of-sorts Marissa to watch his DVD of the 1979 original film at Belle’s new home at 3:15 am, the exact time Ronnie Defeo went berserk with a shotgun. There is even mention and visual recognition of the prequel, “Amityville II: The Possession,” and the 2005 remake to which one of the girls says, “Remakes totally blow.” For two, there is also a bounding circle in the backyard that contains the evil, a plot point that might come in handy later on. 

Strip away the blood-stained past in the Amityville house and there is a solid-enough family drama inside. Bella Thorne (2017’s “The Babysitter”) broods but brings enough emotional honesty to the role of Belle, James’ twin sister who initially just feels like a selfish brat tired of being second fiddle to her twin brother but also deals with guilt for feeling responsible for her brother’s state and is later faced with a difficult choice to save him. Jennifer Jason Leigh sells the denial felt by mother Joan, who has put every inch of her life into keeping her son alive even if he may not wake up. As James’ doctor, Kurtwood Smith takes a swift exit, as one does after an attack by hell flies, but Thomas Mann and Taylor Spreitler (TV’s Kevin Can Wait”) also both make impressions as Belle’s new friends Terrence and Marissa, only to disappear later on. And, for someone who mostly lays in bed with his body contorted, Cameron Monaghan (TV’s “Shameless”) is effective on that level, until having to take on the “kill them all” role that every actor in this series must. No one will fall on the sword in recommending “Amityville: The Awakening,” except for the most diehard “Amityville” fans, but it’s too competent to be a fiasco. With that said, an “Amityville Horror” universe should still be counted out. 

Grade: C +

DVD/Blu-ray: "Girls Trip" a blue, boisterously funny crowd-pleaser

Girls Trip (2017)
122 min., rated R. 

It is only fair that women get the chance to behave badly and not be judged for it, and after the most recent female-centric comedy “Rough Night,” “Girls Trip” once again cheerfully revels in wildly outrageous behavior among gal pals on vacation. Blue-humored and boisterously funny, the film is a true crowd-pleaser that rides on the effortless, gangbusters chemistry and infectious energy of its four appealing leads and earns every single one of its laughs. Director Malcolm D. Lee (2013’s “The Best Man Holiday”) lets his cast sell the bawdiest, most over-the-top of gags, while championing female sexuality and the unbreakable bond of sisterhood. Things get heartfelt in the home stretch, but even the sentiment feels as earned as the comedy without turning artificial or coming across as contrived. “Girls Trip” was the surprise hit of the summer in theaters and it will surely endure as a girls’ night-in.

Having not seen her college girlfriends—“The Flossy Posse”—in five years, successful self-help author and lifestyle guru Ryan (Regina Hall) decides to invite them all on a trip to New Orleans when she’s chosen as the keynote speaker at the Essence Festival. Time has changed for most of them: Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith), once the life of the party, is now a frumpy, divorced single parent of two, always prepared and always on a schedule; Sasha (Queen Latifah), a former journalist, now works as a celebrity gossip blogger and her fabricated stories are no longer paying her bills; and the group’s risk-taker, Dina (Tiffany Haddish), is still a brash, sexually voracious force of nature who wasn’t born with a filter. When a paparazzo sends Sasha a photo of Ryan’s ex-NFL star husband, Stewart (Mike Colter), who also serves as part of Ryan’s brand, making out with a younger woman, these old friends aren’t about to let one of their own get walked all over.

Written by Kenya Barris (TV’s “Black-ish”) & Tracy Oliver (2016’s “Barbershop: The Next Cut”), “Girls Trip” follows a familiar route, as all four women have their own interpersonal dilemmas, but Ryan, Lisa, Sasha, and Dina are all fleshed out beyond types and resemble real human beings the viewer can be invested in. Regina Hall, who has always been a comedic standout ever since the first "Scary Movie" spoof, solidly grounds the film as Ryan, whose best-selling book “Having It All” differs from her reality, while Jada Pinkett Smith and Queen Latifah get their time to shine with the comedy (they sneak in a terrific reference to “Set It Off,” which co-starred Smith and Latifah) and land the dramatic moments. They are all lovely and wonderful, but the dynamite secret weapon is Tiffany Haddish (2016’s “Keanu”), a stand-up comedian but the lesser-known of the four, and this is her scene-stealing, revelatory moment. Like Melissa McCarthy in "Bridesmaids" and Kathryn Hahn in "Bad Moms," Haddish is an uproarious, uninhibited breakout star as the potty-mouthed, line-crossing, scene-causing Dina. When this comic dynamo gets to be unleashed, she is a go-for-broke gas; what Haddish does with a banana and a grapefruit as an oral sex tutorial is shockingly, hilariously pornographic and burned into one's memory. Even if Dina is the broadest of all four ladies and around for shits and giggles, she is decent and fiercely loyal when it comes to her friends. In supporting roles, Larenz Tate is innately charming as Ryan’s untapped romantic interest and Kate Walsh steals laughs as Ryan’s agent Liz, who uses colloquial slang to seem hip.

“Girls Trip” features a hallucinatory absinthe trip, public “golden showers” on a zip line between two French Quarter bars, and a sexual encounter with a hunky 21-year-old’s fearsomely lengthy appendage. It may not be afraid to deal in filth and embrace its R rating, but similar to the like-minded "Bad Moms," none of the hedonistic stuff would work as well without a likable, lived-in dynamic between these four ladies who make us believe they could be the closest of friends in real life. There is, indeed, a sweet core and a warm heart beneath all of the raunchy naughtiness. “Girls Trip” is a full two hours, but that only means that we get to spend even more time with the Flossy Posse.


Sunday, October 22, 2017

Boy's First Chainsaw: Half-hearted prequel "Leatherface" gratuitous in every way

Leatherface (2017)
90 min., rated R.

43 years since the late Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterfully raw “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was rightfully placed on the pedestal of the horror genre, six more films have continued this franchise, all to varying degrees of success. There was the wacky sequel, two rehashes, a remake, a prequel to the remake, and a sequel that returned to the roots of the first film. Now, as a chance to really return to the roots of Hooper's original, "Leatherface" is billed as a prequel and the origin story of Jedidiah “Jed" Sawyer and how he was born into a sick, depraved Texas family of killers. The idea of exploring the genesis of a boy and his chainsaw could have germinated into a worthwhile, compelling companion piece, but French directors Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury (who found their calling in their genre of choice with 2007 Grand Guignol “Inside”) and screenwriter Seth M. Sherwood undercut everything that was so frightening and unknown about Leatherface, kind of like the first act of Rob Zombie’s 2007 re-imagining of “Halloween.” Even those who were actually itching to see the chainsaw-loving madman in his formative years will go home knowing as much about Jed as they did before the rote, half-hearted "Leatherface."

On his tenth birthday, Texas backwoods boy Jed Sawyer (Boris Kabakchief) receives his first chainsaw that he gets to use on an interloper, egged on by his pig-farm family’s matriarch, Verna (Lili Taylor). He disappoints his mama, not having the guts to do the job, so Grandpa finishes the job for him. Then, in 1955, Jed lures a young woman to a barn, where his siblings trap and brutally kill her. She happens to be the daughter of local Texas Ranger Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff), who doesn’t have concrete evidence to link the Sawyer boys to the crime but vows for retribution. Ten years later, slow, hulking Bud (Sam Coleman) and more-controlled Jackson Sawyer (Sam Strike), one of whom is actually named Jed, have been shipped off to a mental institution for extremely mishaved youths where all of the patients have had their names changed for protection. When Verna arrives at the asylum to visit her babies with a lawyer in tow, she is rejected, forcing her to unleash a riot that allows all of the patients to break free. This leaves sociopathic couple Ike (James Bloor) and Clarice (Jessica Madsen), as well as Bud, Jackson, and sympathetic nurse Lizzy (Vanessa Grasse) as a hostage on the couple’s part, to go on the run from the law, but Hal Hartman (Stephen Dorff) is on their trail and wants to set things right, or so he sees as right.

Some cinematic monsters should not be demystified and just remain as they were meant to be—pure embodiments of evil—but the potential to humanize them is always there if executed well. Sure, Leatherface is a byproduct of a toxic family of homicidal maniacs who dine on their victims for family dinners, but that was already conveyed in the films before “Leatherface.” Treating the narrative as a mystery is the biggest miscalculation, using one of the Sawyer boys as an obvious red herring, and actually does a disservice to the film’s aims; the answer to who will become the flesh-masked, chainsaw-wielding Leatherface of the title—is it Bud or is it Jackson?—is already made clear in the film’s first scene at Jed’s birthday party. There is, however, the tiniest bit of interest in seeing how it will get there, but too much time is wasted on characters who are even less likable than Leatherface. 

Lili Taylor seems to approach the role of Verna Sawyer with more dimension than the script affords her, playing a denial-riddled mother who will do anything for her children, while Stephen Dorff plays police officer Hal Hartman as a strict archetype, a corrupt pig who’s obsessed with justice but crossing all lines of the law and more than a little unhinged himself. The only decent human being in the film is Vanessa Grasse’s Lizzy, who’s charmed by Jackson on her first day of rounds at the hospital, but she makes for a pretty bland heroine who is never quite feisty enough; when she has the chance to run, she doesn’t take it. Who are we supposed to root for then?

Part on-the-lam road movie à la “The Devil’s Rejects” and part revenge thriller before culminating in Leatherface reuniting with his family and his favorite tool, “Leatherface” lacks the insight or psychological examination to even warrant being made about the making of a murderer. The on-location shooting in Bulgaria is at least convincingly disguised as dusty, gritty Texas and there's shrewd use of Patti LaSalle's soothing 1960 ditty "It's Over" over the last couple of frames, but all that’s really left to take away is a lot of splattery kills and a twisted family-comes-first message. Directors Bustillo and Maury squander no opportunity to rub the viewer's nose in the ugliness and unpleasantness on screen to the point that their film feels gratuitous in every way, from not only its mere existence but also its shocks, including a sex scene with a corpse and three characters rather efficiently hiding out inside a dead, maggot-infected animal carcass. If there’s anything more to add, it's that everyone seems to have their own opinion on which installment is the worst after “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” and while it is still a notch above the campy one that had no help in making stars out of Renée Zellweger and Matthew McConaughey, “Leatherface” counts as the second most worthless addition to the series.

Grade: D +

Friday, October 20, 2017

Let It Go: Hopelessly muddled "The Snowman" never thrills, coheres, or satisfies

The Snowman (2017)
119 min., rated R.

The first (and presumably last) adaptation of one best-selling novel in Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s crime series following policeman Harry Hole, “The Snowman” could have been, at worst, a standard-issue but watchable and reasonably involving investigative procedural and whodunit. Despite top-notch talent on both sides of the camera—Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson star, Tomas Alfredson (who made 2008’s sublime “Let the Right One In” and 2011’s less-than-sublime but still sturdily crafted “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) directs, and Martin Scorsese executive produces—the reality of it is actually a disaster unfit for release. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but this is an example of a film that has obviously been through extensive reshoots and cuts after a tight production schedule left 10-15% of the script unfilmed that the finished product resembles nothing short of a half-finished muddle. With results this shockingly calamitous, director Alfredson and screenwriters Peter Straughan (2015’s “Our Brand Is Crisis”), Hossein Amini (2011’s “Drive”) and Søren Sveistrup (TV’s “The Killing”) have instantly melted away any chance of turning the rest of Nesbø’s crime fiction into future cinematic projects. Something was definitely lost in translation because this final cut can’t possibly be the riveting cat-and-mouse thriller anyone signed up for, not even ticket-buyers.

Oslo police detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is such a grizzled, tortured drunk that he wakes up hungover and shivering in park shelters and on benches. He wants to be in the lives of both ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who’s now dating Dr. Mathias (Jonas Karlsson), and her troubled teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates), but Harry is too unreliable to commit. After being under suspension, he is now ready to take on a new case, just as he receives a handwritten letter that addresses him as “Mister Police” and is signed with a childlike snowman drawing. Enter Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), a new recruit who’s transferred from Bergen and still seems to be holding onto a case that’s quite personal. Harry soon partners up with Katrine on a missing persons case that turns into a grisly murder investigation where the serial killer dismembers women’s heads with a wire and stacks them on top of a snowman. Can Harry and Katrine find the elusive Snowman killer before another head is found?

Dense and jerry-built with puzzle pieces that pile up but never cohere or satisfy, “The Snowman” is not only choppy, hopelessly convoluted and unfocused but awkwardly directed and dismayingly dull. If this snowbound “The Silence of the Lambs” wannabe wanted to thrill or chill, it fails. If it attempted to pull off a thematic throughline about fatherless children, it fails there, too. The idea of a serial killer stacking a severed head atop balls of snow is certainly unnerving, but director Tomas Alfredson squanders it and makes allegedly foreboding cutaways to the killer’s Frosty-like calling card look just plain silly. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Following a promising prologue that clumsily spirals out of control, the first act that attempts to set everything up fails to create the urgency it should, and the next two acts never improve. The plot proper is continually rendered disjointed by sloppily inserted flashbacks, while subplots that don't matter are maximized and subplots that should matter are minimized. The film goes down so many blind alleys, one involving a naughty “pregnancy doctor” (David Dencik) who screams “red herring” because he paints his toenails red (don’t ask), that it's difficult to remain engaged in any of it and not feel enraged when the whole enterprise never amounts to anything but lumpy storytelling.

Michael Fassbender chain-smokes and looks sleepy without ever making Harry Hole compellingly damaged or even accessible. The viewer is informed that he’s a brilliant gumshoe and an addict who can’t make room for a family, but discoveries just sort of fall into his lap and he only seems to be addicted to nicotine. Lest one think the mind has to be in the gutter to mention what is wrong with the character’s name, “Harry Hole” is hard to get past. Rebecca Ferguson seems stripped of her magnetic presence that was showcased in previous films, and though she does fine with what she’s given, the layers to Katrine Bratt are confined by the supposedly twisty script, and by the end, she doesn’t get the closure she deserves.

In negligible roles that were either trimmed in the editing process or just somehow drew overqualified performers, an impressively amassed roster of actors is criminally wasted. Chloë Sevigny appears as a set of twin sisters, one of whom is on screen long enough to chop off a chicken’s head and exit the film after having her own head sliced off, while the surviving one disappears too quickly. Toby Jones has a glorified cameo, showing up long enough for one to shout, “Hey, it’s Toby Jones!” as a Bergen policeman; James D’Arcy puts on his suspect face as the jilted spouse of one of the missing women; J.K. Simmons at least has shady fun with his Nordic accent as a lascivious politician hosting a gala for the Winter Sports World Cup and possibly running a human-trafficking ring; and Charlotte Gainsbourg really does look like she has no idea what she’s doing here as Henry's ex-lover, and the less said about her fully clothed “sex scene” with Fassbender, the better. Finally, in the wonkiest of turns, Val Kilmer shows up in flashbacks nine years earlier as another alcoholic detective who may be connected somehow in this jumble. Appearing with his face seemingly frozen and his voice so inexplicably redubbed that it becomes a jarring distraction, Kilmer might have been recovering from oral cancer and one wishes him well, but why wasn't the part just recast or why weren't his scenes just scrapped altogether?

“You can’t force the pieces to fit,” Harry says to Katrine at one point that viewers wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he was breaking the fourth wall and aptly commenting on the haphazard structure of the film itself. Veteran editors Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker seemed to have had their own mystery to solve, doing everything they could to piece scenes together like a jigsaw puzzle. Riddled with so many baffling choices and moments of misdirection, "The Snowman" struggles to find any direction at all. There are films that spoonfeed audiences and films that make audiences do the legwork, but this one doesn’t even drop any clues to allow one to become invested in the case or go along with Harry and Katrine in finding the killer. Once it’s time for the identity of the Snowman killer to come out and be presented as what Roger Ebert coined as "the talking killer" cliché, one has long stopped caring that the reveal prompts an unsurprised shrug rather than a shock. The climactic face-off then throws in the most inanely contrived deux ex machina on a frozen pond that would only work if the killer were blind, or if it happened by an act of God, or maybe the filmmakers knew they had a mess on their hands and were just desperate to get it over with. If there’s any credit to be given, Dion Beebe’s lensing of Norway's frigid landscapes is often quite striking and moody. Unfortunately, not even a little visual competence can make “The Snowman” any less of an abominable slog. It is easily the worst studio release of 2017, thus far, and the year is almost over.

Grade: D - 

Monday, October 16, 2017

My Babysitter is a Satanist!: “The Babysitter” a fun, bloody sleepover romp

The Babysitter (2017) 
85 min., rated TV-MA (equivalent of an R).

If Elisabeth Shue’s Chris Parker of 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting” turned out to be a Devil-worshipping sexpot, the result might look a little like “The Babysitter,” a spirited and insanely fun horror-comedy that could become a sleepover favorite for teenage boys and even adult men in their jammies. Not to be confused with the 1995 Alicia Silverstone vehicle of the same name, “The Babysitter” is, without insulting bubblegum or pre-pubescent boys, a bubblegum romp through the eyes of a pre-pubescent boy. Finding a balance between horror and comedy can be tough, but director McG (2014's "3 Days to Kill") and screenwriter Brian Duffield (2015’s “Insurgent”) mostly straddle it well. The horror is bloody and over-the-top, the comedy is broad and raunchy, and the violence rarely sours the cheeky ‘80s-style vibe of it all. It belongs in the same stratosphere as 1985's “Fright Night” and 1988's “Night of the Demons,” and that’s rather good company to be in.

Bullied 12-year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) is tired of being scared of everything. When his parents (Ken Marino, Leslie Bibb) need a weekend away at the Hyatt to work on their marriage, Cole gets excited to spend the night with his babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving), who’s like every junior high boy’s dream — she’s cool, confident, sexy, and a sci-fi movie fan. When it comes time for bedtime, Cole decides to stay up and find out what babysitters do when their charges go to sleep. After the doorbell rings close to midnight, he watches as Bee plays a game of Spin the Bottle with a group of people, until one of them is stabbed in the head and the others drink his blood. Can Cole learn to be the man of the house and stand up to Bee and her cult of Satanists?

By sheer coincidence, “The Babysitter” shares similarities with the most recent “Better Watch Out,” a wicked Christmas horror-comedy. They both involve a pre-teen, a hot babysitter, and a progression into violence, and both feel a bit inspired by “Home Alone.” With that said, this one plays more as a coming-of-ager that then corkscrews into a pre-teen boy's nightmare with its tongue planted firmly in cheek. Besides being helmed with a good deal of hyperactive energy and becoming action-oriented in the end with pyrotechnics and stunts, it is hard to believe “The Babysitter” is from the same McG who directed the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and other action fare. Comparatively, this is his most micro-budget effort, most likely spending more money on music rights for pop songs. Too often, though, McG busies up his frame with graphics that fill the screen like a stylized wink but come off obvious and unnecessary, like the words “WHAT THE FUCK?” sprawling across Cole's face as he witnesses Bree’s sacrifice or “POCKET KNIFE” when Cole grabs his…pocket knife. It’s always appreciated when a film at least pays off its setups in the tradition of Chekhov’s Gun, and Brian Duffield’s script does just that with a knife being placed in the dishwasher, Bee teaching Cole how to defend himself with a move, and the protagonist’s fascination with aerodynamics.

Newcomer Judah Lewis (2016’s “Demolition”) makes Cole an endearing young hero, the kind of innocent who confuses “prostitute” with “Protestant,” and quite convincingly transforms into a big boy ready to save the day. Samara Weaving (2017’s “Monster Trucks”) is deliciously magnetic and scene-stealing as babysitter Bee. She is established as Cole’s badass guardian angel who also happened to make a deal with the devil for selfish reasons. It’s the fun relationship between Cee and Bee that does give the film a surprisingly sweet heart, as well as a youthful romance between Cole and the girl next door, Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind). Early on, there’s an odd but endearing moment where the babysitter and her charge watch 1971 western “Billy Jack” on a projector screen in Cole’s yard and act out a scene. The colorful supporting characters are also memorable. Robbie Amell and Bella Thorne (together again after locking lips in 2015’s “The DUFF”) stand out as perpetually shirtless jock Alex, who never explains why he doesn’t wear a shirt for most of the film, and dippy cheerleader Allison, who sobs in a corner after her boob deflates. Hana Mae Lee (speaking in a regular voice following the “Pitch Perfect” movies) and Andrew Bachelor round out Bee’s followers as the beret-wearing Sonya, who gets off on death, and token black guy John, who seems to be the target for every victim’s geyser of blood, and they, too, get room to shine and amuse within the horror-comedy tone. Ken Marino and Leslie Bibb are gone for a large part of the film, but they still make their scenes count in the beginning.

John Hughesian with a Satanic cult added, “The Babysitter” rarely takes itself seriously and plays out most of the absurdly bloody mayhem with a guffaw, even when a fire poker is harpooned through an eye and a breast catches a bullet. As bloody and perverse as it gets, “The Babysitter” retains a sense of fun, and that a film like this can somehow slide past smarminess—Weaving and Thorne do give Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair from “Cruel Intentions” a run for their money with a lip-biting French kiss—and find a likable charm in itself is something of a minor accomplishment. Even if it is several scares and laughs short of being the next best horror-comedy of the 21st century, it nevertheless carves out a niche for itself as a good time on a Friday night.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Die and Repeat: "Happy Death Day" throws slasher fans for a fun time loop

Happy Death Day (2017)
96 min., rated PG-13.

Over the years, there have been more than a few takes on the time-loop premise of 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (most recently as a teen drama with 2017’s “Before I Fall”), but it’s hard to believe no one ever tried putting a slasher-pic spin on it until now. With an inspired (and marketable) high-concept conceit and a morbidly tongue-in-cheek title to match, “Happy Death Day” is just what one might expect if Bill Murray kept reliving the same day and being murdered on a loop of resets. It sounds like the pitch of an idea that could practically write itself, but director Christopher Landon (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and screenwriter Scott Lobdell have a ton of fun tweaking the cycle of one character repeating the same day over and over until beating death, while abiding by genre tropes and then one-upping themselves just enough for the majority of a lean, pacey 96 minutes. “Happy Death Day” isn't the scarefest expected from Blumhouse Productions, and that scarcely matters because it is a clever, devilishly entertaining effort that successfully belies both its low budget and teen-friendly rating.

Bayfield University student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is having a rough morning on her birthday. After a night of partying, the hungover sorority sister wakes up bleary-eyed and in need of Tylenol in the dorm room of stranger Carter (Israel Broussard), just after she ignores a call from her father. Tree gets dressed and walks through the campus quad, bypassing an environmental activist with a clipboard and witnessing a sprinkler going off on a smooching couple and a car alarm blaring. When she gets to her Kappa Kappa Gamma house, Tree is approached by bitchy sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews) about her walk of shame and then roommate Lori (Rubi Modine), who gives her a birthday cupcake that Tree throws in the garbage. She’s also late to class and then almost gets caught fooling around with her married professor (Charles Aitken). As the rest of her day comes to an end, she makes her way to her birthday celebration at a frat house, but before she makes it there, Tree is killed at the hands of someone in the cherubic Bayfield Babies mascot mask. Immediately, Tree wakes up in Carter’s dorm again, noticing the very familiar beats of a day she already lived through. It soon becomes apparent to her that she is going to keep reliving the same Monday and never see tomorrow until she unmasks who wants her dead. In the process of becoming determined to solve her own murder and take back her own life, Tree will begin to see what kind of person she is on the outside, but it’s one hell of a way to learn a lesson on her way to self-improvement.

Though a PG-13 slasher film is like the equivalent of sex with clothes on, “Happy Death Day” gets around that hurdle by being less of a straight-up slasher and more of a darkly comedic murder-mystery that just so happens to involve a temporal loop and a knife-wielding masked killer. Slickly crafted with an atmospheric flair and a Bear McCreary-composed score that adds an air of creepiness, the film offers several suspenseful, even thrilling set-pieces, including a sequence in Tree’s boarded-up bedroom where she tries outsmarting her killer, as well as a chase in a hospital parking garage. The use of a birthday candle igniting a trail of gasoline is a shrewd little touch, as are production design details like a "Today is the first day of the rest of your life" sticker and a poster of John Carpenter's "They Live" in Carter's dorm room. Even more so, though, the film is a puckish comedy, evidenced in none other than a montage, cued to Demi Lovato's "Confident," where Tree begins tailing those on her list of suspects but just keeps dying when she's not looking. Not unlike whodunit slashers “Scream,” “Urban Legend” and “Valentine” where the whole cast is a suspect, Scott Lobdell’s script toys with audience expectations in terms of who just might be a red herring and who is actually behind the mask, holding the knife/baseball bat/half-shattered bong.

Tree is a vapid, self-centered, eye-roll-ready heroine to follow, but the vivacious, charismatic Jessica Rothe (who played one of Emma Stone’s roommates in 2016’s “La La Land”) establishes herself as a breakout star in her first high-profile lead performance. Utilizing her sharp comic timing and expressive face, she finds a way to charm the viewer even when she acts like one of Regina George’s “Plastics" at the start. Once our protagonist realizes she’s experiencing more than just a mild case of déjà vu, Rothe gains sympathy and actualizes a fully earned arc for Tree, as she takes on a badass, no-fucks-left-to-give attitude that’s fun to watch and forces one to actively root for her. Unlike any doomed nubile victim in a slasher flick (like, say, 1981’s “Happy Birthday to Me”), Tree gets so many chances that she eventually wises up and makes a different choice each do-over in hopes of changing her outcome. Audiences hoping to discover why Tree is experiencing a time loop will be barking up the wrong tree; she just is. Overexplaining and finding too much real-world logic in this scenario would have deflated all of the fun, and director Landon and writer Lobdell understand this well. They do, however, take moments out of the film’s tightly repetitious schedule for a sweet romance that develops between Tree and sole support system Carter, played with instant likability by Israel Broussard (2013’s “The Bling Ring”).

Repetitive by design but efficient with time and the rules that have been set up, “Happy Death Day” hits the ground running and rarely runs out of steam as a genre entertainment played with gusto. Headed to its inevitable moralistic destination, the film may slow down a skosh to get heartfelt and shed some light on Tree grieving the death of her mother who shared the same birthday as her, but it adds a crucial core to a story that is essentially a one-joke gimmick. With a concept as enticing as the one here, there will be slight disappointment for slasher-film enthusiasts who will play out in their heads a different version of this script, one goosed with more screams and an R-rating that wouldn’t have restricted its makers from holding back. However, instead of dwelling on the route that wasn’t taken, the “Happy Death Day” that was made is a welcome addition to the horror hybrids that blend a sense of mirthful levity with the macabre. As a purely fun diversion for the Halloween season not intended to give nightmares, it takes the cake.