Friday, December 21, 2018

The Big Merman: "Aquaman" welcomes the goofy but doesn't always gel into fun

Aquaman (2018)
143 min., rated PG-13.

Once a running joke on HBO’s “Entourage” and then abruptly introduced in 2017’s “Justice League,” DC Comics character Aquaman gets his solo origin story. “Aquaman” is a behemoth of Saturday morning cartoon silliness, and in principle, it knows exactly what kind of movie it wants to be and presents a welcome change of pace from the self-serious house style of previous DC Extended Universe entries. Sounding like an unmissable blast, with a long-haired, tattooed Chippendale dancer as our hero; Willem Dafoe riding a hammerhead shark; Amber Heard sporting a jellyfish dress; an octopus playing the drums; and Patrick Wilson emphatically shouting, “I am the ocean master!” as if he were playing it for keeps in a Shakespearean play, “Aquaman” is ultimately not as fun as it should be and without much feeling to go with the fantastical eye candy.

Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa) was born half-mortal, half-Atlantean when his mother, Atlantis Queen Atlanna (Nicole Kidman), washed up on shore in the seaside Maine town of Amnesty Bay, only to be rescued and fall in love with his father, lighthouse keeper Thomas Curry (Temuera Morrison). When Atlantean soldiers came to the surface to take Atlanna back home, Arthur was left to be raised by Thomas and to learn of his Atlantean powers and communication with the creatures of the deep. Thirty-three years later, Arthur is Aquaman, using his strength and powers to rescue Navy sailors from pirates, one of whom is Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), who’s out to settle a score for letting his father die. Not long after, Atlantean princess Mera (Amber Heard) arrives in Amnesty Bay, asking for Arthur’s help to dethrone Atlantis ruler King Orm (Patrick Wilson), who wants to wage a war with the surface world and also happens to be Arthur’s half-brother. In order to defeat Orm, Arthur must retrieve a mythical trident, but being the bridge between the land and sea, he must also find it in himself to demonstrate the qualities of a king to restore order in Atlantis.

Filled with intermittent pleasures within a bloated 143-minute running time, “Aquaman” is a film that alternately excels and flounders when it leans into its inherent goofiness. There seems to be a singular vision here, and yet it still manages to wobble in tone, from earnest to campy, while giddily throwing everything at the screen. Associated with the horror genre, as well as making arguably the best “The Fast and the Furious” movie (2015’s “Furious 7”), director James Wan luckily scores with the larger-than-life sights of his underwater realms, but it’s the script by screenwriters David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick (2016’s “The Conjuring 2”) and Will Beall (2013’s “Gangster Squad”) that doesn’t always do Wan or his game cast any favors. There really isn’t an elegant way to unload exposition, but it is particularly cumbersome here, and while the film is light and jokey, it never gels into funny, with jokes that are corny at best and juvenile and clunky at worst. To be fair, the film could have been another pesky origin story of a reluctant hero that gets a fresh coat of paint from mostly being set under the sea and it is a self-contained oceanic opera that isn’t beholden to the DC Cinematic Universe, save for one throwaway line about Aquaman defeating Steppenwolf. 

Very much like a Dwayne Johnson or John Cena, Jason Momoa is a physically brawny presence and confident even when he looks silly and refuses to put on a shirt. As the carefree, beer-drinking Arthur/Aquaman, he fills out the role with an endearing likability and poses well, but there is too much of a monotony to his comic delivery. Looking like she’s playing Ariel cosplay as the hydrokinetic Mera, Amber Heard has a lot of fun with the role, chewing a bouquet of flowers at one point in a weird bit of fish-out-of-water comedy, and fiercely holds her own without ever being a damsel in distress. It is a joy to see Nicole Kidman in a superhero movie, and like every role she takes, Kidman commits even in the small part of Atlanna and brings much-needed warmth and gravitas; she even gets the most thrilling fight sequence. Faring less well is Patrick Wilson, camping it up and indulging in the cheesy, one-note villainy of ocean master Orm without selling the bonkers dialogue, and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II doesn’t have much to do as pirate Black Manta, an afterthought probably best left to the sequel.

“Aquaman” is, if anything, cool to look at, but not much more than that when the viewer’s involvement with the story and characters leaves something to be desired. Using the “dry for wet” technique for the underwater scenes, director James Wan does deliver a detailed, over-the-top visual extravaganza before garish, bombastic CGI overload sets in. The first sight of Atlantis is a colorful, majestic sight to behold, and there is a memorable, beautifully nightmarish shot of Aquaman and Mera diving down to the Kingdom of the Trench as they’re nearly engulfed by a swarm of hellish sea creatures. And, on land, there is an immersive, excitingly staged rooftop chase with Mera in Sicily. Also, that Wan specializes in horror is evident, as an explosion will suddenly interrupt a quiet moment like a jolt in a horror film and, despite the noticeable pattern, take one off guard every time. Still behind 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” “Aquaman” turns the tide for the DCEU ever so slightly with its leaning toward the tongue-in-cheek and the sheer spectacle of it all, but it’s a lot of movie that doesn’t quite float.

Grade: C +

Career Makeover: Lopez's charisma can't fully carry vanilla "Second Act"

Second Act (2018)
103 min., rated PG-13.

“Second Act” would like to be “Working Girl,” except it’s more pleasantly vanilla than biting, funny, or romantic. As a Jennifer Lopez vehicle, it does play to the strengths of the star’s charismatic presence and includes a solid supporting cast. Director Peter Segal (2013’s “Grudge Match”) and screenwriters Justin Zackham (2013’s “The Big Wedding”) and Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas have a main plot contrivance that works more than it should — it’s one where a character puts on a ruse, which could be solved in minutes through a simple conversation but would end the movie rather quickly. Around the, yes, second act, “Second Act” becomes a different kind of film with a saccharine plot development even more contrived than its setup, undermining its imparted message about personal reinvention and risk-tasking with street smarts versus book smarts to redirect its focus on a soapy, emotionally manipulative subplot out of a Lifetime Movie. The film is watchable as fluff goes, but for this viewer, 2002’s “Maid in Manhattan” was much more charming. 

Street-smart 40-year-old Queens native Maya Vargas (Jennifer Lopez) has fifteen years of experience working as an assistant manager at big-box store Value Shop in Ozone Park, but she’s been passed over for a promotion because she only has her GED and not a college degree. On her birthday, Maya’s best friend/co-worker Joan (Leah Remini) and hunky baseball coach boyfriend Trey (Milo Ventimiglia), who wants to marry her and start a family, try to lift her spirits, but it’s not until her Stanford-bound godson, Joan’s son, gives Maya the best present: a résumé makeover with Ivy League credentials and an amped-up Facebook page with copy-and-pasted photos of her climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and posing with the Obamas. This catches the eye of Anderson Clarke (Treat Williams), the CEO of Manhattan’s high-end consumer products firm Franklin & Clarke, who calls her in for an interview. Maya seems to be an ideal candidate for the consultant position, even though she slights the false advertising of the company’s organic skin cream, which has been created by Clarke’s business-savvy daughter Zoe (Vanessa Hudgens). How long can Maya keep up her secret that she’s not a college grad, or does her experience and smarts speak for themselves?

For a while, “Second Act” works as a wise and empowering, if generic, workplace slice-of-life before giving over to the plot mechanics of a Cinderella rags-to-riches story involving deception. Besides Maya’s rise to the top of Franklin & Clarke in creating a genuinely organic skin cream, she also has to contend with the breakup of boyfriend Trey, who wants a baby more than she does due to a giant secret she has kept from him. As for the aforementioned second-act plot “twist” that tries adding weight to an otherwise featherlight story, it deals with Maya and her daughter whom she gave up for adoption when she was a teenager living on the streets. Not only predictably telegraphed and convenient in its scripting, it changes the rest of the film into a much less interesting one, while keeping the emotions as shallow as a kiddie pool and as treacly as a Hallmark greeting card.

Multi-hyphenate Jennifer Lopez (2015's "The Boy Next Door") has always been a magnetic performer on screen as much as she is on stage, and she’s even able to put her superstar baggage aside here to play a relatable, sympathetic character like Maya, who can bust a move in an impromptu number to Salt-N-Peppa’s “Push It” with her gal pals in the kitchen. One could watch Lopez banter back and forth on a loop with Leah Remini (TV's "Kevin Can Wait"), who enlivens the obligatory role of Sassy Best Friend as Joan and brings their real-life chemistry as longtime friends to the screen. Milo Ventimiglia (TV’s “This Is Us”) is a charmer, despite being saddled with the boringly written role of Trey, a baseball coach whose main characteristic is that his ass always looks good in jeans. Vanessa Hudgens (2013’s “Spring Breakers”) gets to play Zoe as both cunning and vulnerable, but the writing is too superficial to fully earn that arc. Annaleigh Ashford and Charlyne Yi also lend quirky support as tightly wound development executive Hildy and acrophobic assistant Ariana.

The comedic moments are on the hammy side, giving its star a slapstick moment where Maya quits her job, proudly struts on her way out, and then falls over the chain of a cashier lane. A moment where she must prove her would-be Mandarin fluency with the help of Joan’s Asian veterinarian in her ear is okay for a few easy laughs, but more amusing is a scene in which Anderson Clarke wants Maya to show her skill as a crew coxswain at his country club. Once it’s time for Maya’s big lie to come out, it’s naturally televised, so all of her loved ones can watch her be honest with herself and everyone she’s duped. “Second Act” is glossy, innocuous holiday fare that shouldn’t let down Jennifer Lopez’s most faithful fans, but it’s too bland to be the crowd-pleaser and the feature-length advertisement for organic skin cream that it seeks to be.


Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The Love Bot: Fun, sweet "Bumblebee" is what the previous five "Transformers" movies should have been

Bumblebee (2018)
113 min., rated PG-13.

A prequel-reboot of the Hasbro toy line, “Bumblebee” is what 2007’s “Transformers” and its subsequent four sequels should have been all along: a coming-of-ager that follows in the tradition of those "boy and his dog" pictures, only this time a girl and her robot. “Adorable” wouldn’t be the operative word to describe any of Michael Bay’s numbingly noisy, soulless, pandering movies, which gave big-budget studio moviemaking a bad name, but director Travis Knight (2016’s “Kubo and the Two Strings”) and screenwriter Christina Hodson (2017’s “Unforgettable”) do the series right, turning it around with a lighter touch and a big, marshmallowy heart worn on the hood. If you always wanted to feel something—anything—in a “Transformers” movie with the bonus of a pleasing ‘80s soundtrack, now is your chance.

On planet Cyberton, the Decepticons have waged a civil war with the Autobots, forcing Optimus Prime (voice of Peter Cullen) to send B-127 (Dylan O’Brien, in the first scene) to Earth and establish a base for his fellow rebels. Crash-landing near San Francisco in 1987, B-127 is sighted and evades capture by the military, led by Agent Jack Burns (John Cena), but once ambushed by an incoming Decepticon, he has his memory and voice wiped clean before taking cover as a yellow Volkswagen Beetle and going into hibernation mode. Enter 17-year-old Charlie Watson (Hailee Steinfeld), still reeling after the fatal heart attack of her mechanic father and not seeing eye to eye with her mother (Pamela Adlon), stepfather (Stephen Schneider), and younger brother (Jason Drucker). All Charlie wants is her own car, and when uncovering the yellow Beetle in the scrap yard of her father’s auto body shop on her 18th birthday, Charlie dusts it off and takes it home. To her surprise, Charlie finds her car to actually be a self-configuring robot, whom she renames "Bumblebee" and discovers to have more humanity than the military that wants to neutralize him. Charlie and Bumblebee form an unlikely friendship that only gets stronger once two Decepticons, Shatter (Angela Bassett) and Dropkick (Justin Theroux), land on Earth and use the military to take out their Autobot target.

Like 1982’s “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” and 1999’s “The Iron Giant” with a touch of 1968's "The Love Bug," “Bumblebee” trusts in the gentle, touching friendship between a mortal young person and an alien lifeform, and in doing so, the story remains stripped-down and focused as it should be without coming off rudimentary. Having a fresh pair of eyes and talent like director Travis Knight, who has background in stop-motion animation at studio Laika, makes a world of difference in why “Bumblebee” shockingly works as well as it does. By making the viewer actually care about and relate to the humans and, yes, even the metallic but quite expressive and endearing Bumblebee, the film then makes way for humor that is playful and actually amusing; rousing action set-pieces that are skillfully and coherently staged; brisk pacing that still takes a breath for a quiet, well-earned emotional moment; and seamlessly integrated effects that are given a chance to be admired without choppy editing. And, not only contributing to the service of nostalgia, the soundtrack is well-chosen, featuring Tears For Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World,” Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” and The Smiths’ “Girlfriend in a Coma,” and germane to how Bumblebee comes to speak again as he channel surfs on the car radio. That the film makes sure Bumblebee gets introduced to “The Breakfast Club” and then ends on that ‘80s mainstay’s iconic Simple Minds musical cue is just the cherry on top. 

Grounding the story with her naturalism, Hailee Steinfeld (2017's "Pitch Perfect 3") is engaging and charismatic—and when isn’t she?—as Charlie Watson, who’s a bit of a social misfit but passionate about music and loses herself in fixing up cars. That the script actually gives Charlie something to do, even when the Decepticons show up to destroy Bumblebee, is refreshing; her diving talent might even come in handy at some point. It might sound like a low bar, but hands down, Steinfeld gives the strongest performance opposite a Transformer. The rest of the cast makes the most of the material, particularly Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (2018’s “Love Simon”), enormously likable as Charlie’s slightly geeky neighbor and amusement park co-worker Memo, who gets shut down every time he tries to introduce himself; John Cena (2018's "Blockers"), providing his comic timing as Agent Jack Burns, who’s initially antagonistic but not without a few shades of gray; and Pamela Adlon (FX's "Better Things"), who brings authenticity to an otherwise stock role as Charlie’s mother. Not just by default but on its actual merits, “Bumblebee” has a leg up on any live-action movie with “Transformers” in the title, to the point that there’s really no comparison. It may still involve sentient, self-configuring robots, but there’s a sense of fun and more undeniable warmth and sweetness than any of the previous movies combined. Who knew it was possible?


Monday, December 10, 2018

Christmas Horror Stories: "All the Creatures Were Stirring" a rare but uneven low-budget Christmas horror anthology

All the Creatures Were Stirring (2018)
80 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Available on DVD, On Demand and Digital Video, the film will also be premiering on Shudder on December 13th. 

Husband-and-wife filmmakers Rebecca and David Ian McKendry make their shared writing-directing debut with “All the Creatures Were Stirring,” a rare low-budget anthology film of horror tales set on Christmas Eve and featuring a smorgasbord of actors recognized in the horror community, as well as the fresh-faced Constance Wu (2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”). Enticing in conception but not always successful across the board in execution, the film is rough around the edges, even more so than anthologies can often be. There is an inherently mixed-bag quality to the omnibus structure, as not every storyline can possibly be tantamount to a bull’s-eye, and in the case of “All the Creatures Were Stirring,” only two out of the five are solid. 

“All the Creatures Were Stirring” is framed through an awkward first date between Jenna (Ashley Clements) and Max (Graham Skipper), who meet up to attend a play called “All the Creatures Were Stirring” at a Los Angeles community theater. As the director (Maria Olsen) comes out on-stage with a title card for five short tales and the actors put on their amateurish performance in an avant-garde way with few props, each story plays out. First up is “The Stockings Were Hung,” in which a low-key Christmas office party with a gift exchange goes horribly wrong when a Jigsaw-like mastermind rigs the presents with different surprises. It works up suspense, but ends before it really has a chance to get going. “Dash Away All” involves suburbanite Eric (Matt Long), already late to get home to his wife and parents for his birthday/Christmas dinner after doing some shopping, locking himself out of his car with his cell phone inside. In the parking lot, he comes across a van, occupied by Sasha (Catherine Parker) and Frankie (Makeda Declet), and asks to use their burner phone to call for assistance. Little does he know that these good Samaritans need him, too. This thread stands out the most for being deceptively fiendish and unpredictable.

“All Through the House” centers on Christmas scrooge Chet (Jonathan Kite) on December 24th, defacing his neighbor’s lawn decorations and denying a donation for his neighbor’s child before sitting at home alone. Before he knows it, Chet is visited by three ghosts to teach him a lesson about the spirit of Christmas. It’s an off-kilter Dickensian tale—our coke-snorting scrooge doesn’t realize he snorts tinsel—but never as amusing as it thinks it is being. “Arose Such a Clatter” might be the weakest in which private investigator Guy (Mark Kelly) accidentally hits Blitzen, the reindeer, on the road and then finds himself being stalked by a vengeful Rudolph. This one could have been a lot of fun, and though there are knowing noir and giallo touches in terms of color filters, editing, shooting style, and production design, the story itself feels like forgettable filler.

“In a Twinkling” stands as the most refined and confident segment from a production standpoint in which Steve (Morgan Peter Brown) prepares for a full moon, getting ready to chain himself for the night right before his group of friends (led by Constance Wu) knock on his door to party. As lycanthropy shifts into ‘50s-style extraterrestrial mode and black-and-white with splashes of color (not to mention a shot from 1964’s awesomely bad “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians”), this “Twilight Zone” story is amusingly weird, and it’s fun to see the adorably funny Constance Wu. Finally, the last story, “And To All A Good Night,” circles back around to the wraparound segment, and while it has a creepy, David Lynchian vibe, it underwhelms like everything else.

While it might not be the McKendrys’ aim to elicit any major frights, one doesn’t take away much of anything from this spotty collection of darkly tinged holiday stories. Under these low-budgeted prospects, “All the Creatures Were Stirring” seems to have been a labor of love by its makers, but the project is ultimately hurt by its lack of resources. Even though it’s set in Los Angeles, the film displays little specificity when the majority of the stories are shot in dull interiors. In spite of budgetary restraints, it can’t get a pass for feeling like a disappointing missed opportunity.


Friday, November 30, 2018

Thankless Shift: "Possession of Hannah Grace" competently made but plodding and not scary

The Possession of Hannah Grace (2018)
86 min., rated R.

There might be worse horror films involving demonic possession than “The Possession of Hannah Grace,” but such a backhanded compliment still doesn't make it worthwhile. It might look like the film is subverting expectations by getting its standard exorcism done in the first five minutes. From thereon, Dutch director Diederik Van Rooijen and screenwriter Brian Sieve (MTV’s “Scream”) take a nifty idea by staging their horror film inside a morgue and ruinously strip it of all its possibilities. For morgue-set chillers that were executed better, look no further than 1998’s morbidly creepy “Nightwatch” and 2015’s effectively skin-crawling “The Autopsy of Jane Doe.” Unless self-opening morgue drawers and the sounds of bones cracking are unnerving enough for 86 minutes, “The Possession of Hannah Grace” just kind of lies there without any legitimate scares.

In the throes of possession, teenage girl Hannah Grace (Kirby Johnson) is writhing while chained to a bed and sprayed with holy water before supernaturally levitating the priest who’s performing the exorcism and impaling him on a large crucifix; before a second priest is nearly strangled to death, Hannah is suffocated with a pillow by her father (Louis Herthum), leaving the exorcism unfinished. Three months later, Megan Reed (Shay Mitchell), an ex-cop who turned to alcohol and pills after blaming herself for her partner’s death, lands the position of an overnight intake assistant in the morgue at Boston Metro Hospital. She is now clean but still struggling, and the solitary work is just what Megan and AA sponsor Lisa (Stana Katic), a nurse at the hospital who told her about the job opening, think she needs to stay out of trouble at night. On Megan’s second night of the graveyard shift, the sliced and burned body of Hannah Grace rolls in. As Megan tries photographing and fingerprinting the cadaver, the equipment fizzles out and Hannah’s fingerprints won’t register in the database. Then, Megan may or may not be hallucinating that a horde of hell flies come out Hannah’s body and that tremors keep spilling scalpels all over the floor. When Hannah’s father breaks into the morgue to try and immolate his daughter’s body in the incinerator to destroy the demon once and for all, all hell breaks loose for Megan and anyone else (i.e. the ambulance driver and the security guards).

Plodding from interchangeable scene to scene of Megan opening and closing Hannah’s morgue drawer, unzipping and zipping back up Hannah’s body bag, and waving her arms around to motion the automatic sensor lighting, “The Possession of Hannah Grace” falls into repetition, never really getting out of first gear, or paying off beyond a surface level. Directing with slick, bare-minimum competence, Diederik Van Rooijen does make the most of his brutalist hospital monstrosity and keeps the lighting dim (a bulb going out in the ceiling lighting to briefly form a crucifix is a more subtle touch than it sounds). He also thankfully goes light on fake-out jump scares, but the level of dread is never suffocating as it should be and even a jolt on the hospital roof with a flashing red light is flubbed by its obvious timing. 

Shay Mitchell (TV’s “Pretty Little Liars”) makes a valiant effort of throwing herself into the material before having to react in fear, but she feels stifled by a script that doesn’t do much with Megan’s flawed, complex backstory, which is given a rather perfunctory redemption arc. At some point, someone asks the same question everyone else is wondering — why hasn’t Hannah killed Megan? Megan might make a great new host for the demon, being damaged and working on some inner demons of her own, but that question never gets the clarity it should. Contortionist Kirby Johnson is creepy enough as the titular Hannah Grace, who is never more than a flexibly undead passenger in her own film, but by the time she actually leaves her slab, the climax of Hannah crab-walking and spider-walking up walls is too silly to be scary, the fakey CGI doing the film no favors. Though designed to frighten, “The Possession of Hannah Grace” is a moribund exercise in how to make a horror movie that’s easy to shake off as soon as the lights come up.

Grade: C - 

Friday, November 9, 2018

Z-Day: "Overlord" a solid genre mash-up of war picture and zombie horror

Overlord (2018)
109 min., rated R.

A glorified B-movie with solid production values and reliable backing by J.J. Abrams, “Overlord” (as in Operation Overlord) makes a promise it can keep: it’s an unapologetically R-rated genre mash-up that entertains while it lasts. Director Julius Avery (2014’s “Son of a Gun”) and screenwriters Billy Ray (2013’s “Captain Phillips”) and Mark L. Smith (2015’s “The Revenant”) package their film as a period World War II picture, one as well-made as the “Saving Private Ryan”s of the world, and then flip expectations by siccing Nazi zombies on the soldiers. Mind you, this isn’t a prestige picture, but a pulpy good time that opens with a bang and then bakes an entirely different realm of bloody horror into its wild revision on history. In spite of relegating its crazy, gloriously fun payoffs to the back half, “Overlord” still excels as the kind of crafty, tastily deceptive mainstream genre effort of which there should be more.

On D-Day, June 6, 1944, a team of Allied soldiers are preparing to skydive into Nazi-occupied France with a mission: destroy a radio tower that’s blocking communications. When their plane is shot down, Private Boyce (Jovan Adepo) parachutes to the land under him and survives the jump. In the forest, he finds other survivors, including Corporal Ford (Wyatt Russell), who won’t rest until the mission is complete; Tibbet (John Magaro), a Brooklyn wise-cracker; and Army photographer Morton Chase (Iain De Caestecker), who doesn’t know when to ditch the camera. They encounter a woman named Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier) who lives in town her 8-year-old brother Paul (Gianny Taufer) and their ailing aunt. Chloe lets them hide out and regroup in her attic from a group of Nazis, led by the lecherous Captain Wafner (Pilou Asbæk), but when Boyce sneaks into the medical lab of a nearby church, he comes to the discovery that the Nazis are conducting mad experiments, Dr. Herbert West-style, involving a serum that creates undead super-soldiers. Evading land mines will actually be the least of their problems.

Hitting the ground running, “Overlord” wows in its visceral, breathlessly harrowing opening sequence, as the paratroopers go airborne and Private Boyce chaotically drops from the plane, flipping around past artillery fire and an exploding aircraft before triggering his parachute and landing in the water below. First and foremost, this is a war picture, and an effective one at that, and once the heightened horror elements eventually come in, the shift is pulled off with surprising ease. The film slows to a crawl pretty early in Chloe’s aunt’s home—it somewhat calls to mind the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds,” albeit without as much of the unbearable tension—but once Boyce realizes what he and his team are up against, it gets back on its feet and gains back its momentum. Despite all of the jump startles being predictably timed, the intensity slowly but surely gets ratcheted up, the gore rips, and the thrills are well-executed, like a chase between Chloe and a relentless super-soldier, as well as an extended tracking shot of Boyce running out of the catacombs of the church as it explodes. There is also a spectacularly gnarly body-horror show-stopper in which one of the soldiers finds himself being reanimated by the Nazi scientist’s serum, ending with an image that could be a Fangoria Magazine cover.

Though taking a long time to hit its stride, “Overlord” impresses most as a showcase of tactile, retro-styled practical effects and prosthetics for audiences who are sick and tired of CGI. The characters are all painted as archetypes, but they all evolve over the course of the film, and the personalities of the actors help smooth over their lack of individual development. Jovan Adepo (2016’s “Fences”) is the film’s conscience as Private Boyce, carrying himself well as a reluctant hero worth actively rooting for; Wyatt Russell (2017’s “Table 19”) channels his father, Kurt, in 1982’s “The Thing” as all-business Corporal Ford with an appealing swagger; John Magaro (2017’s “Marshall”) is obnoxious from the outset as wise-ass Tibbet but endears as he takes Chloe’s young brother under his wing; and newcomer Mathilde Ollivier imbues a quiet strength and take-charge agency as Chloe. Finally, Pilou Asbæk chillingly chews scenery to bits as evil incarnate even before becoming mutated as the rapey Captain Wafner. “Overlord” may not be the first Nazi zombie movie ever or as gleefully tongue-in-cheek as 2009’s “Dead Snow,” but it will work for those who like a historical snapshot rewritten with a dose of over-the-top carnage of the reanimated variety.

Grade: B - 

Monday, November 5, 2018

Release the Beast: "Monster Party" depraved fun, until it's not

Monster Party (2018)
89 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

A dash of 2016’s “Don’t Breathe” and a pinch of 2013’s “The Purge” with an energy not unlike 2018’s “Mom & Dad,” the emptily mean-spirited “Monster Party” sets up a tense situation in the guise of a dinner party with fellow AA members. Casper (Sam Strike) and his two friends, couple Dodge (Brandon Michael Hall) and Iris (Virginia Gardner), survive by ripping off yuppies. When Casper discovers his gambling-addicted father to be in a live-or-death jam with a strip-club crime lord, he needs to come up with $10,000. Luckily, Iris is planning to cater a dinner party for a well-off Malibu family, the Dawsons, so Casper and Dodge pose as Iris’ hired help. 

Roxanne Dawson (Robin Tunney), the matriarch, struggles to put on a happy face between her swigs of white wine, while patriarch Patrick (Julian McMahon) is clearly a creep, and their children, sexy yet acerbic Alexis (Erin Moriarty) and smug, intimidating Elliot (Kian Lawley), couldn’t be more different. Then the guests arrive, including Milo (Lance Reddick) and his much-younger arm candy, Becca (Sofía Castro); two obnoxiously douchey bros (Jamie Ward, Chester Rushing); and a slicked-back-haired guitar player (Diego Boneta). While the Dawsons and their guests make a toast, Casper and Dodge scope out the rest of the house and try to open the safe, leaving Iris to keep guard in the kitchen. It’s a celebratory dinner for their sobriety as addicts, but considering the resident douches have already done bumps of coke and white wine is served at dinner, they are suppressing more lethal urges, and things quickly go horribly wrong.

Written and directed by Chris von Hoffmann (2016’s “Drifter”), "Monster Party" is depraved fun, until it’s not. Most of the cast gets to chew scenery, and while it’s fun for a while, there’s not enough emotional investment in the burglar characters (except for maybe the pregnant Iris), and even if there was, nearly everyone dies in a senselessly cruel way. There is efficient style and a perverse sense of humor to most of the over-the-top carnage throughout, but by the end, all that seems to be here is an unsympathetic, nihilistic exercise in violence.

Grade: C +

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Mother of Dance: "Suspiria" rebirth hypnotic, staggeringly unsettling, and ready for dissection

Suspiria (2018)
152 min., rated R.

Luca Guadagnino’s loose remake of Dario Argento’s stylishly kaleidoscopic 1977 giallo “Suspiria” has been a decade in the making. If Argento’s awe-inspiring fever dream still remains matchless, this 2018 rebirth of “Suspiria” is nothing short of audacious, going its own singular way, reinventing itself, and avoiding comparison altogether with a grimmer, daringly transgressive vision. Almost defiantly, Guadagnino's film differs visually, narratively, and emotionally from Argento’s surreal, operatic phantasmagoria, and it is far more thematically dense and heady with a 152-minute running time but nearly just as artfully hypnotic and sure to be extremely divisive. Instead of imitating or being beholden to a masterwork, director Luca Guadagnino (2017's "Call Me by Your Name") and screenwriter David Kajganich (2016’s “A Bigger Splash”) expand upon the source in a post-World War II Germany historical context and confront how guilt and shame fit into power struggles between leaders and followers, all while still spinning a story about a coven of witches running a dance academy. Deliberately taking its time but grabbing hold like an inescapable spell taking over and washing over the viewer, “Suspiria” seduces, disturbs, and mesmerizes, as if the film itself was conjured through dark, inexplicable alchemy.

The original “Suspiria” was pretty straightforward in terms of story—a young American ballerina comes to discover that her ballet school in Munich is run by a coven of witches—but it was more of a sensory experience anyway. The fundamental bones of the narrative and character names remain the same here, albeit with an integral tweak, the academy now all-female, not co-ed, and specializing in avant-garde dance in lieu of ballet. Unfolding through “six acts and an epilogue set in divided Berlin,” the film opens in 1977, Berlin, with dance student Patricia Hingle (Chloë Grace Moretz) seeking immediate help from her psychiatrist, Dr. Jozef Klemperer (Lutz Ebersdorf), when she tells him that the Helena Markos Dance Company is run by a coven of witches who have invaded her thoughts. He chalks up her hysterics to delusions, until Patricia goes missing. The next day, Ohio Mennonite dancer Susie Bannion (Dakota Johnson) arrives in Berlin to join the dance company and be taught by her idol, dance instructor Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton). When the formally untrained Susie is welcomed to audition, her raw potential instantly catches the eye of the austere Blanc and all of the other matrons. With rumors suggesting that runaway Patricia has left to join the radical anti-fascist group Red Army Faction, her disappearance leaves an open spot for Susie, who’s given free room and board. Fellow dancer Sara (Mia Goth) is the next one to realize that something isn’t quite right with the school when she meets with Dr. Klemperer, and by that time, it’s too late for Susie, Blanc’s ultimate muse whose talent for the dance is tied closely to the wicked goings-on in the bowels of the school.

In form and style, “Suspiria” is distinctly its own beast, one that unsettles, sears into the recesses, and leaves one staggering out of the cinema two and a half hours later in a daze but ready to unpack all of it post-haste. Unconcerned with making it a mystery that the dance company is indeed a front for a coven, director Luca Guadagnino finds his own languid yet transfixing tempo to tell this story with a queasy, forbidding mood that completely envelops and haunts the viewer. Conjoining Susie's growing sisterhood into the company and the coven's machinations with Dr. Jozeph Klemperer's parallel story thread, writer David Kajganich’s screenplay extends well beyond the original film and functions within a larger societal context as the outside world faces its own strife and shifting allegiances. The specificity of the story’s 1977 backdrop, a time of political unrest in Germany during the German Autumn, is crucial, not arbitrary. As news breaks out on TV sets, on radios, and in conversation about the Baader-Meinhof gang, responsible for bombings and the Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking to eradicate the lingering Nazism, politics exist within the witchy dance company, too. There is very much an internal divide between the matrons, based on who they think should remain in control of the coven, whether it be the ancient Helena Markos or the revolutionary Madame Blanc.

Departing from the vibrantly colorful aesthetic of Argento’s film, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (2017’s “Call Me by Your Name”) lends a moody, painterly eye to every textured frame, employing ‘70s-style zooms, long takes, and split diopters to the suitably gloomy color palette of rainswept Berlin. Though Goblin’s part-tinkly, part-foreboding, whisper-laden music score is hard to match, Radiohead vocalist Thom Yorke’s indelibly eerie and portentous arrangement comes mighty close, along with Yorke's mournful original song "Suspirium." Damien Jalet's choreography and Walter Fasano's editing of the expressive, carnally loaded dancing, which plays an integral role, are both stunningly precise, as seen in a dread-inducing public performance of Volk that has all of the dancers costumed in red rope. Whereas Argento sprinkled in show-stopping, elaborately gruesome slasher-centric set-pieces from beginning to end, the first act of violence comes forty minutes into this film, and it is unshakably ghastly. Marrying airtight editing and shockingly grotesque imagery, the sequence is a tandem dance, cutting between two different studios and building to two wildly different crescendos, in which Susie dances Blanc's intricate choreography, unknowingly controlling disgruntled Russian dancer Olga (Elena Fokina) like a malleable puppet, her body supernaturally smashing into the glass mirrors and violently contorting itself into a pretzel. 

Dakota Johnson is subtle but physically uninhibited as Susie Bannion, navigating through the story quite differently than Jessica Harper’s Susie did in the original film; in one way, Susie is a passive vessel being groomed for a sinister purpose besides playing the protagonist in the dance troupe's signature piece Volk, but in other ways that should not be revealed, she has more power than anyone as she gets drawn further into the darkness and leaves her devout Mennonite upbringing in the dust. Mia Goth (2017’s “Marrowbone”), an ethereal and unique screen presence, is a more accessible guide as Sara, who learns through Dr. Klemperer that danger is afoot at the academy and does some of her own investigating. As the severe Madame Blanc, Tilda Swinton is effectively intimidating and compelling. It is a testament to Swinton's chameleonic abilities, not to mention rather impressive prosthetic make-up, that she is able to unrecognizably disappear into two other key roles, one of which is Dr. Jozef Klemperer, a Holocaust survivor still in despair over the disappearance of his wife, Anke (Jessica Harper, in an affecting cameo). Though credited as unknown actor "Lutz Ebersdorf," Swinton provides a much-needed source of compassion and a sympathetic emotional entry into the story as Klemperer. With that said, it’s interesting to note that no other men are given speaking parts besides a couple of police inspectors who are stripped naked and mocked by the witches. Down to the smallest of parts of the predominantly female cast, all of the performers make a lasting impression, including Chloë Grace Moretz, as the quick-to-leave Patricia; Angela Winkler, as the menacing Miss Tanner; Ingrid Caven, as Miss Vendegast; and Renée Soutendijk, as Miss Huller.

Alluring, challenging, and impossible to turn away from, “Suspiria” is decidedly not most films, nor is it for everyone, but it will provoke strong reactions nonetheless. Requiring deeper consideration after one has mentally processed what has just been experienced and even repeat viewings to rediscover new takeaways, it cannot be dismissed or denied for its unmistakable craft and rattling, spellbinding power. As the film reaches its sixth act and heads toward an unsparing, splatter-laden Grand Guignol climax that of a ritualistic sabbath, it simultaneously takes mercy with an epilogue so unexpectedly cathartic and quietly heartbreaking; it turns out there might be a shred of humanity in even the darkest corners of witchcraft after all. For those willing to give oneself over to it, “Suspiria” feels like a full meal that demands to be dissected and pored over, and whether anyone wants it there or not, it slinks under one's skin and stays there.

Grade: A - 

The Greatest Frontman: Rami Malek rocks and music thrills in safe but entertaining "Bohemian Rhapsody"

Bohemian Rhapsody (2018)
134 min., rated PG-13.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” has been a long-gestating project and then became a troubled one mid-production. Director Bryan Singer (2016’s “X-Men: Apocalypse”), with an uncredited Dexter Fletcher finishing the film, and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (2017’s “Darkest Hour”) aim to tell the story of British rock band Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury, and while their film might not take as many risks as Queen did as a misfit musical group in the 1970s, it is an entertaining, if mostly safe and formulaic, biopic that soars during the musical moments. There is no way to tell an entire life in one film in all of its complexities, especially when taking a broad, cherry-picking approach, so it is no secret that nearly every biopic of a revered, influential figure takes dramatic license. Without “Bohemian Rhapsody” breaking free of the conventions of the subgenre it falls under, the accuracy of Rami Malek’s spectacularly magnetic turn as the excitingly unconventional Freddie Mercury is more than enough to overlook the bullet-point, A-to-B narrative that only scrapes the surface of the details.

Before rechristening himself as “Freddie Mercury,” he was Farrokh Bulsara (Rami Malek), a 24-year-old Persian immigrant working as a baggage handler and living under the roof of his conservative parents in 1970, London. He was drawn to music as his personal form of expression, and while checking out London’s music scene, Freddie follows a band called Smile, compromised of guitarist Brian May (Gwilym Lee) and drummer Roger Taylor (Ben Hardy). When he witnesses their lead singer quit after a gig, Freddie auditions on the spot and surprises them with his four octave range. Bringing bassist John Deacon (Joseph Mazzello) on board, the band is formed, selling their van to produce their debut album, and deciding on the very regal band name “Queen,” a band of four misfits playing for other misfits. They then land a contract with EMI Records, at which point Freddie meets and gets engaged to fashion store clerk Mary Austin (Lucy Boynton), who would remain the love of his life next to his ten cats. Once Queen rises to public consciousness and records their fourth album in 1975, Freddie goes through ups and downs of accepting that he is gay, though still loving Mary; hosting big parties where he alienates his fellow misfit band members; suffering spats with the band; and later being diagnosed with AIDS.

Being an authorized biopic (surviving Queen members Roger Taylor and Brian May, along with the band’s manager Jim Beach, were producers on the film), “Bohemian Rhapsody” is objectively standard, ticking all the boxes of any music biopic, and careful not to ruin Freddie’s legacy, even if that means massaging the truth here and there. Perhaps it is the fault of 2007’s spot-on “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which left no cliché untouched when parodying music biopics, that every forthcoming “real” biopic feels pedestrian by comparison if it isn’t taking a detailed look at a seminal moment in time. If the film is rather sanitized and chaste, dutifully preserving a PG-13 rating and only touching on Freddie’s sexuality, promiscuity, substance abuse, and AIDS diagnosis (respectively, Freddie shares a glance with a man entering a restroom and frequents leather bars, cocaine is merely shown on a coffee table, and he coughs blood into a tissue), Rami Malek (TV’s “Mr. Robot”) makes up for the glossy screen treatment with his uncanny commitment.

Channeling the real Freddie Mercury’s flamboyant mannerisms and stage presence with the power to command a crowd with an "Ay-Oh," Malek is larger-than-life but endearing, and there’s no room to criticize Malek’s singing because it’s mostly all Freddie. Besides wearing an initially jarring dental prosthetic that grows more comfortable, he loses himself in the role and locates the essence of Freddie’s charisma without the fear of exposing his ego and flaws. Peerlessly cast as Brian May, Roger Taylor, and John Deacon, Gwilym Lee, Ben Hardy (2017’s “Only the Brave”), and Joseph Mazzello (1993’s “Jurassic Park”) distinctly round out Freddie’s bandmates and form a wonderful familial dynamic. As “love of his life” Mary Austin, whom Freddie first comes out to as bisexual and stands by him even when their love becomes a different kind of love, Lucy Boynton (2017’s “Murder on the Orient Express”) is lovely and fully authentic, while Allen Leech (2014’s “The Imitation Game”) only gets to play up the parasitic, enabling, altogether villainous nature of Paul Prenter, Freddie’s manager turned lover.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” is bookended by the Live Aid benefit concert at London's Wembley Stadium in 1985, and how the film culminates in Queen's rock performance is immersive, thrilling, and electric. Why Queen’s music has endured comes out loud and clear in this transcendent late-film center piece. Before that, the development of writing songs, such as “We Will Rock You” and the stomp-stomp-clap, and a perfect recreation of the “I Want to Break Free” music video featuring the band in drag, are highlights. There is an amusingly inspired meta moment involving Mike Myers (who banged his head twenty-six years ago to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in “Wayne’s World”) as record label exec Ray Foster, who favors “I’m In Love With My Car” but deems “Bohemian Rhapsody” too operatic and too long at six minutes. The production itself is straightforward but slick, achieving its most style during the aforementioned Live Aid pinnacle, a nightmarish press conference where the media tries to force Freddie to dish on his private life, and the barrage of negative pull quotes from magazine critics flashing on the screen in front of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” album cover.

Save for a few dramatically reconfigured beats in the script to achieve inevitable forgiveness, where “Bohemian Rhapsody” takes liberties and shortcuts—is this the real life, or is this just fantasy?—will only really be apparent to those with a close knowledge of Freddie Mercury’s life. Freddie’s relationship with cater-waiter Jim Hutton (Aaron McCusker) that would continue for seven years until the singer’s death is only cursorily explored. They share a nice moment after one of Freddie’s parties, parting ways before Jim tells Freddie to look for him when he learns to like himself, but the way in which Freddie reconnects with Jim, who just so happened to be home and apparently isn’t seeing anyone else, not long before he goes to Live Aid is far too easy. “Bohemian Rhapsody” might not be the final word on Freddie Mercury, as it could have taken a deeper dive into certain aspects of Freddie’s life, but as a rousing greatest-hits catalogue and a showy, star-making showcase for Rami Malek, it leaves one on an energized note.