Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Shock Girl: Aesthetically flashy "Like Me" doesn't make a clear point

Like Me (2018) 
80 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

An edgy visual scorcher with social-commentary aims, “Like Me” is just like its lead character: it seeks your attention but doesn’t have much to say. Speaking a similar visual language to films by Gregg Araki and Harmony Korine, and maybe a bit of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” the film is writer-director-producer-editor Robert Mockler’s stylistically flashy directorial debut. “Like Me” certainly has a hypnotic, psychedelic quality from its neon-hued aesthetic and seems to have provocative ideas for the viewer to ruminate, but what it wants to say exactly about desire for connection and validation in a desensitized social-media age is never entirely clear. There is a statement to make about the 21st century’s fixation on a desperate pursuit of mass approval and fame, or just infamy, but so many other films have left viewers with more to take away than this one ever does.

17-year-old Kiya (Addison Timlin) is an attention-starved loner who commits crimes for online views. Wearing a mask and wielding a gun, she holds up a drive-thru convenience store, making the clerk plead for his life and urinate all over himself, and records it all on her phone. Kiya posts the video online and it goes viral, garnering vehement response, particular by one video blogger, Burt (Ian Nelson), who condemns her and her content. She then picks up a homeless man and takes him to a diner to eat pancakes and plates of other messy food. Kiya then checks into a motel and seduces the owner Marshall (Larry Fessenden) into coming to her room, only to force-feed him junk food until he regurgitates it, all while uploading the footage to her site. Marshall becomes her hostage of sorts, as the two of them embark hit the road, but how far will Kiya go to gain more than a million page views?

Indebted to experimental cinema, “Like Me” is unconcerned with being a traditionally plot-driven narrative, but it doesn’t really work as a fascinatingly harsh character study in alienation. Disturbing in not only what it shows but what it suggests about an extreme representative of the millennial generation, the film mostly amounts to 80 minutes of video performance art that becomes an abrasive endurance test before the halfway mark. With her sweet face masking her character’s delusional, disturbed psyche and evasive intentions, Addison Timlin (2014’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) pushes herself to dark, weird and daring places as Kiya and exercises power over every person she comes in contact with. She doesn’t have to be a warm, likable and morally just protagonist to be compelling to watch, but it does become a problem when there aren’t any other layers to reveal about the sociopathic Kiya, who remains a blank if capably dangerous cipher rather than an aloof character worth our concern. She aims to shock and that is about it. Even when Marshall (played by a vulnerable Larry Fessenden, who looks like Jack Nicholson here more than ever) asks if she has any family, Kiya replies, “Everybody dies,” and then changes the subject.

As Kiya and Marshall go on the road, filmmaker Robert Mockler would seem to be heading his story in directions that might surprise, startle, or shed insight into these characters, but “Like Me” dwindles to nothing but the only kind of catharsis Kiya can inevitably attain after all of her transgressions. If the film impresses in any way, it is Mockler’s technical eye. Following the opening gun-point robbery, Mockler stages a dizzying, discordant montage of fast-paced, twitchily edited images on a loop, focusing on Kiya doing push-ups as her entire bedroom is stuck in a state of constant rotation and then cutting to her mouth chewing on candy that oozes through her teeth, until she eventually vomits on the camera lens. It’s arresting and repellent all at once, with a quick nod to David Cronenberg's "Videodrome," and the squishy sound design of eating and slurping food is effectively disgusting that those who are so inclined will definitely not want to view this on a full stomach. Then again, once the film proves to have little else to recommend it, even those disorienting visual flourishes turn tiresome, indulgently artsy and seizure-inducing after a while. Mockler still stands as a filmmaker to watch, but “Like Me” feels like a lot of empty, assaultive style with ideas that are left unexplored. 


Saturday, January 27, 2018

The Running Men and Women: "The Death Cure" an engaging, satisfying closer to a middle-of-the-road trilogy

The Death Cure (2018) 
142 min., rated PG-13.

Whereas several YA novel adaptations have become franchise non-starters (“The Golden Compass,” “I Am Number Four,” “Beautiful Creatures” and “Divergent”), the “Maze Runner” series has at least gotten to its third and final chapter in the three-part series adapted from James Dashner’s novels and has retained the same director. 2014’s “The Maze Runner” felt like a grabby, breathless build-up to a lot of underwhelming hurry up and wait with answers to the mystery given the “to be continued…” treatment. The second installment, 2015’s “The Scorch Trials,” was still middle-of-the-road and repetitive but more exciting with thrillingly kinetic action set-pieces enlivening an episodic story. Both anticlimactic films left ample room for improvement, and that improvement finally comes with “The Death Cure,” a capper on this trilogy—which, thank goodness, did not get bifurcated—that happens to be the most engaging and satisfying.

Out of The Glade and The Scorch, Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) and company—Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Frypan (Dexter Darden), Brenda (Rosa Salazar) and Jorge (Giancarlo Esposito)—are immune to the Flare virus that has infected the world’s population. In their efforts to break out fellow “Glader” Minho (Ki Hong Lee) on a train en route to the “Last City,” the WCKD homebase of operations, but they get the wrong cargo car and bust out the other youthful lab rats. Meanwhile, the outside world is divided and dying, and traitorous Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) stands with WCKD official Ava Paige (Patricia Clarkson) on the verge of finding a cure for the virus that has gone airborne and harvests Minho to test his blood for a serum. Can Thomas and his scrappy crew break into the fortress city and take down WCKD once and for all?

Whereas the first film had an ace in the hole and the second film ran in circles, “The Death Cure” never stops moving and actually advances the narrative with a brisk drive, more urgency, and a sense of finality. Returning director Wes Ball and writer T.S. Nowlin have a steady handling of all their characters and bring more of a variety and scale to the proceedings in terms of locations. From one perilous set-piece to the next, the film is enthralling and evenly spaces its action highlights apart during an 142-minute run time that rarely, if ever, lulls. Several of them are impressively devised, from a thrilling opening train rescue, to a frightening WCKD simulation involving an arachnid/scorpion-like Griever, a suspenseful run-in with snarling, zombified “cranks” in a tunnel, a vertiginous jump from a skyscraper to a safe landing, to a hairy sequence with a crane picking up a bus full of precious cargo. All that besides, it raises the emotional stakes and makes the fate of one of the key characters pretty gutting.

Dylan O’Brien (who was critically injured on set during a stunt sequence, delaying the film’s release) still cuts a strong yet vulnerable hero as Thomas, who remains loyal to his friends and insists on not leaving anyone behind. While the connection between Thomas and Teresa was always the least of this series’ priorities, Kaya Scodelario is less of a blank and gets more of a significant arc here as Teresa, who has aligned herself with WCKD for what she hopes is for the greater good but still conveys a sense of guilt for turning on her friends. Rosa Salazar, once again, commands the screen as the headstrong Brenda; Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Newt still remains the standout and the most sympathetic of Thomas’ fellow Gladers; and an “old friend” pops up without feeling like a cheat. The film also more effectively uses its adult cast, above all Patricia Clarkson, who is now less of a cardboard heavy as Ava Paige than she was at the start of the series, while Aidan Gillen again plays smug and sniveling well as the turtlenecked Janson.

When the “Maze Runner” series first premiered in 2014, it was left to be compared with “The Hunger Games” and “Divergent” before the former came to its conclusion and the latter was unceremoniously brought to an end due to the low box-office gross of "Allegiant." While these films haven’t come close to matching the emotional depth and ideas woven into the narrative of “The Hunger Games” saga, it has still gotten by on its individual moments of kineticism and air of mystery. What better way, then, to end a trilogy than by going out on a high note? Just as the YA adaptation genre is quickly fading out, “The Death Cure” mostly avoids feeling past its prime by finding its way out of the maze, sprinting in and earning its closure.


Saturday, January 20, 2018

Re-Heat: Familiar, long-winded "Den of Thieves" at least gets the job done

Den of Thieves (2018)
140 min., rated R.

“London Has Fallen” screenwriter Christian Gudegast, making his directorial debut, and co-writer Paul Scheuring (2003’s “A Man Apart”) have clearly seen Michael Mann’s “Heat” and every other trail-blazing crime saga that has come before the morally murky “Den of Thieves,” where the cops are as shady (and tatted) as the criminals. It’s lukewarm, if you will, and only slightly less generic than it would seem without ever reinventing the wheel, but as a junky genre picture released during January’s notorious dumping ground, it gets the job done decently enough.

Ex-military ex-con Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) leads a score outside a Gardena donut shop in Los Angeles to steal an armored car from cops with his crew of Outlaws, Levi Enson (50 Cent), Bosco (Evan Jones), Mack (Cooper Andrews), and driver Donnie (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), but their robbery ends in the killing of a few cops. Heavy-drinking LAPD lieutenant Nick “Big Nick” O’Brien (Gerard Butler) and his major crimes squad, “The Regulators”—among them, Murph (Brian Van Holt), ‘Borrachio’ (Maurice Compte), ’Z’ (Kaiwi Lyman), and Gus (Mo McRae)—are already on to them by picking up on calling cards from previous unsolved heists. When bartender Donnie, the newest inductee of the Outlaws, is tazed by Nick, he wakes up to being interrogated by the cops, and while finally confessing to playing a role in the crime, Donnie withholds information on Merrimen’s next move: make off with $30 million in out-of-circulation $100 bills before they get shredded at the Federal Reserve Bank.

Putting on airs about itself from the beginning, “Den of Thieves” opens with a statistic about bank robberies occurring every 48 hours in L.A. — the bank robbery capital of the world. From there, the script by Christian Gudegast and Paul Scheuring wants to blur the line between the good guys and the bad guys, the cops and the robbers, as both Nick and Merrimen—which connotes what Robin Hood and his Merry Men stood for—are each other’s counterpart dealing in corruption. Full of testosterone, bravado and macho posturing, including a scene of target practice between Nick and Merrimen that’s the equivalent of measuring dicks, the film wants to have something on its mind about the duality of man, but that idea never quite lands. Scenes with Nick dealing with his fed-up wife, Deb (Dawn Olivieri), walking out on him and taking their two daughters, attempt to humanize and flesh him out but just eat up time. Then, in an intentionally awkward scene, Nick walks into a dinner party uninvited to his wife’s sister’s house and embarrasses her by signing the divorce papers, while stealing a few sips of wine and then hugging his wife’s date before he’s forced to leave. A little ambition is commendable, but the film gets greedy with a final twist that tries for the level of “The Usual Suspects"; it should recontextualize everything that came before, but it just feels needlessly tacked-on.

When the viewer first meets “Big Nick,” Gerard Butler chomps on a sprinkled donut off the ground of the big score’s crime scene and thereafter masticates the scenery throughout. Grizzled and not asked to be liked, Butler tears into his wild-card role of reckless, belligerent dirty cop Nick O’Brien, who remains contemptible for most of the film, and puts in one of his more compelling, immensely watchable performances to date. By contrast, Pablo Schreiber (who has built up a TV career with Netflix’s “Orange Is the New Black” and Starz’s “American Gods”) is more understated yet still intense and hard-edged as Merrimen, carrying himself with a calm swagger. 50 Cent blends in with Merrimen’s crew as Levi without calling attention to his stardom but surprisingly blends into the background for much of the film; he has one vaguely amusing but out-of-place scene where he takes his daughter’s prom date aside, right into his garage/gym with his bodybuilding friends to get the teenage boy to agree to a curfew. It’s the magnetic O’Shea Jackson Jr. (2017’s “Ingrid Goes West”) who overshadows the two co-leads and becomes the middle man as bartender-turned-robbery-driver-turned-police-informant Donnie, coming off as the most interesting and appealing character.

As thoroughly familiar and long-winded as it is, “Den of Thieves” is recommendable for the solid performances and the slick style that Christian Gudegast brings to the table, along with an edgy score by Cliff Martinez. Even if the dramatic stakes don’t amount to much, the elaborate heist on the Federal Reserve Bank of Los Angeles is cleverly staged and planned, using Donnie as a Chinese food delivery man to distract from the main score, and there’s a tense third-act shoot-out in bumper-to-bumper traffic that culminates in a stand-off between our main pro- and antagonists. Shaved down to ninety minutes or just two hours, the film might have felt less repetitive in getting where it’s inevitably going, but it is fairly entertaining in the moment as standard pulpy thrillers go. 

Grade: C +

Friday, January 19, 2018

Step Away From Your Children: "Mom & Dad" gleefully depraved and bonkers with Nicolas Cage at his Cage-iest

Mom & Dad (2018)
83 min., rated R.

Known for being one-half of filmmaking team Neveldine/Taylor who made the hyperkinetic, stylishly gonzo “Crank” movies and directed Nicolas Cage before in 2011’s “Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance,” writer-director Brian Taylor goes batshit-crazy all on his own in “Mom & Dad.” In this horror film with a subversive, gleefully mean spirit, the entire concept of parenthood—bringing life to a child and keeping them safe from harm’s way—gets completely reversed and taken to mighty extremes. Functioning as the flip side of 2015’s “Cooties,” where a viral outbreak turned bratty kids into blister-infested, teacher-eating zombies, “Mom & Dad” dares to just go for it, being every bit as depraved and bonkers as it sounds.

The Ryans only look like an All-American family. The patriarch, Brent (Nicolas Cage), is stuck in a soul-sucking job and his wife, Kendall (Selma Blair) left the workforce 16 years ago to devote her life to raising their two children, high school sophomore Carly (Anne Winters) and pre-teen Joshua (Zackary Arthur). Carly communicates more with her phone than she does with her parents when she’s not stealing cash from her mother’s purse, and Joshua sometimes annoys his father by keeping his toys out. Over the course of one afternoon around the time kids get out of school, something triggers inside all parents who find the insatiable desire to murder their offspring like primal savages in the animal kingdom. It’s only a matter of time before Carly and Joshua become victimized when Mom and Dad get home early.

“Mom & Dad” sets its darkly comic tone during the ’70s-influenced credit sequence, a succession of still images of the cast cued to a cover of Dusty Springfield’s “Yesterday When I Was Young,” along with a seemingly innocent moment where a mother buckles her young child in a car seat in the back and then exiting the vehicle, which is parked across the train tracks. Writer-director Brian Taylor imagines a B-movie premise set in cookie-cutter suburbia that sometimes feels like a short stretched to 83 minutes, but he delivers enough kinetic energy and wildly nutty mayhem to warrant feature length, while still knowing when to draw the line without taking the proceedings into complete tastelessness. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Fur Everyone: "Paddington 2" a rare delight that's just as wonderful

Paddington 2 (2018)
105 min., rated PG.

A bellwether of quality moviegoing at the beginning of 2015, “Paddington” could not have been more adorable and clever, honoring the charm, warmth and humor of Michael Bond’s cuddly, polite Peruvian bear in his first live-action feature film. Though a second installment was inevitable, “Paddington 2” is one of those uncommon sequels that is miraculously just as delightful, just as sweet as marmalade without turning maudlin, and just as tremendously funny without pandering. Writer-director Paul King returns to this rompish follow-up, alongside newly attached writer Simon Farnaby, and ups the ante just enough with another adventure for our favorite bear who never leaves home without a marmalade sandwich under his floppy red hat. It is absolutely impossible to resist.

Paddington (voice of Ben Whishaw) is officially one of the Browns. Happily living in the close-knit London neighborhood of Windsor Gardens with parents Henry (Hugh Bonneville) and Mary (Sally Hawkins), kids Judy (Madeleine Harris) and son Jonathan (Samuel Joslin), and live-in housekeeper Mr. Bird (Julie Walters), he is the glue that keeps the community running like clockwork. Working a number of odd jobs to get his Aunt Lucy (voice of Imelda Staunton) a birthday present for her 100th birthday, Paddington has his eyes set on a pop-up book of London—Aunt Lucy’s dream place to visit—but in the middle of the night, someone steals the book from Mr. Gruber’s (Jim Broadbent) antique shop and frames the bear. The thief happens to be the Browns’ celebrity neighbor, Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant), an egotistical washed-up thespian who uses his mastery of disguise to look for clues that inhabit the pop-up book and lead to a hidden treasure. In the big house, Paddington first stands out like a sore thumb from all the criminals, but eventually, his love of marmalade rubs off on the inmates and the grouchy chef, Knuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson). Meanwhile, back in the Browns’ neighborhood, Paddington’s absence is felt, but his family will do everything they can to help clear their little bear’s name.

“Paddington 2” is not only more sophisticated than most movies aimed at children and clear of snark and pop-culture references, but as a sequel, it never smacks of being made solely for monetary reasons. Without ever dropping the ball and coming off phoned-in, it is just as wonderful as its predecessor, recapturing the level of genuine care, charm and distinctly British wit that writer-director Paul King brought the first time around. A pop-up book sequence, in which Paddington imagines his visit with Aunt Lucy seeing all the landmarks throughout London, is a lovely and inventive flight of fancy. There is also some wonderfully inspired bits of slapstick, like the hijinks that ensue on Paddington’s last day of working as a barber’s assistant, the bear’s struggle at giving window-washing a shot, and a prison laundry mishap where Paddington accidentally turns all of the inmates’ uniforms pink.

Reprising his vocal performance, Ben Whishaw makes Paddington every bit as endearing and lovable as before, pouring generosity and optimism into a tactile animated creation. The cast members playing the Browns still get plenty to do, including Sally Hawkins, a delight as always and bringing her innate joy and resourcefulness to the part of Mrs. Brown, who quickly figures out the identity of the culprit; and Hugh Bonneville is her equal match as Mr. Brown with a knack for goofy physical comedy when he and his wife break into Phoenix's home. If Nicole Kidman injected a deliciously wicked edge to the first film as an evil taxidermist with a blonde bob, Hugh Grant is daffier and more flamboyant (the closing credits are a treat and give him his own musical number in a pink, bedazzled prison uniform) as the film’s antagonist, Phoenix Buchanan. As Grant only can, he mixes preening charisma and prickliness in the part of a hammy has-been actor and scoundrel he was born to play. Another new addition to the film is Brendan Gleeson, who can add the reputably intimidating prison chef Knuckles McGinty (on his tattoo, his name is spelled “Nuckle’s”) to his gallery of seemingly unsavory characters with a heart.

The incident-filled plot is admittedly busy in retrospect, but in the case of “Paddington 2,” one will be having such a great time that it’s not even worth nitpicking. The promotional message that kindness always wins is also never heavy-handed or transparently wedged-in, warming even the biggest cynic’s heart. As Paddington quotes his wise Aunt Lucy—“If we’re kind and polite, the world will be right”—those hopeful words and this sequel already make the typically dour cinematic landscape of January look a whole lot brighter. One cannot imagine this gem being forgotten by December, and entering into 2018, every movie has its work cut out for them.

Grade: A - 

Friday, January 12, 2018

The Neeson Express: "The Commuter" fun and amusingly preposterous before going off the rails

The Commuter (2018)
104 min., rated PG-13.

Practically a genre unto itself, the reliable collaborative efforts of actor Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra (2016’s “The Shallows”) have resulted in three slickly executed B-level action thrillers (2011’s “Unknown,” 2014’s “Non-Stop” and “2015’s “Run All Night”) for Neeson’s post-“Taken” career as a late-blooming action star. The tradition continues with “The Commuter,” an almost-Hitchcockian wronged-man yarn on a train that nearly apes the formula of the airplane-set “Non-Stop" but keeps up the fun for its first two acts before jumping the rails. By the standards raised by Collet-Serra, it is pretty disposable but still amusingly preposterous.

Formerly a cop with the NYPD, 60-year-old Michael MacCauley (Liam Neeson) has worked as an insurance salesman for the past 10 years to support his wife, Karen (Elizabeth McGovern), and their college-bound son, Danny (Dean-Charles Chapman). Five days a week, he takes a commuter train every morning from the suburbs of Tarrytown, New York to Grand Central Terminal and back. One seemingly normal work day, Michael is fired with severance pay, just five years short of retirement, and on his commute back home, a woman named Joanna (Vera Farmiga) strikes up a conversation that will leave him making the biggest decision of his life. Purporting to be an expert in human behavior, Joanna asks him a hypothetical question for an experiment that then becomes a proposition: if he can identify a passenger on the train who doesn’t belong—by now, Michael knows a lot of the familiar faces on his daily commute—and is carrying a bag with something her associates need, the $75,000 that’s stashed away in one of the train’s restroom compartments is his. If Michael doesn’t comply before the end of the line in Cold Spring, his wife and son will be killed.

Moving like a bullet, “The Commuter” is involving for a long time, as long as one bears in mind that very few of the plot developments hold water. The shrewdly edited opening montage draws the viewer into Michael’s day-to-day grind, efficiently establishing the monotonous repetition with slight tweaks up until the mundanity is ripped out of his life. As contrived as it all is—Joanna is apparently omniscient with an eye on Michael’s every move and even has the cell phone number of another regular commuter—the film depends on one just accepting such loopy logic and going along for the ride. With a film like this, a surfeit of red herrings abounds, as the viewer tries deciding who the odd passenger out might be before Michael does. There are moments of taut suspense, like when Michael hides underneath the train but must remain on it or kiss his family goodbye, and as one comes to expect by now, there are a couple of well-choreographed scenes of fisticuffs between Neeson and other male passengers, especially one fight (shot as a faux single take) in an empty train car over the seats and through the glass with a guitar used as a weapon. More so than Kenneth Branagh did with his 2017 incarnation of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Collet-Serra effectively takes full advantage of the cramped space within the train, his camera sleekly dollying back from train car to car with digital trickery and even through the punched holes of the ride tickets, reminiscent of the impossibly stylish camera movements in David Fincher's "Panic Room."

Liam Neeson is committed and in watchably fine form as usual in a role that Harrison Ford might have played back in the 1990s. A similar character in his wheelhouse, Neeson’s Michael is a family man who needs the money, having refinanced his house after the 2008 housing bubble, but wants to do the right thing and still acts with a moral compass in carrying out his task. Also, as most of Neeson’s characters do, Michael has a very particular set of skills, having been a cop, in his process of deduction, but as a man nearing retirement, he takes as many punches as he gives them. Vera Farmiga enhances every film she’s in, and even as mysterious puppet master Joanna who eventually becomes a voice on the phone, she still brings a cunning to her use of the words, “one little thing.” The remainder of the cast does what is minimally asked of them, but it does include the likes of Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill, Jonathan Banks, Elizabeth McGovern, and Andy Nyman.

Instead of trusting the simplicity of their premise and the morality that it entails, screenwriters Byron Willinger & Philip de Blasi and Ryan Engle (2014’s “Non-Stop”) eventually throw in a few more winding complications involving a conspiracy and one of the passengers being a witness to a city planner’s suicide (or was it murder?) to follow through on the film's socioeconomic, screw-the-rich subtext. Once the train literally derails—and, boy, does it derail in cartoonish but awesome fashion—the film morphs into a more routine action vehicle with backloaded exposition and a double-crossing seen coming a few stops before, thanks to a certain casting choice. By then, one realizes all of the film’s cards have already been played and the forgone conclusion is set. What “The Commuter” sets up is so intriguing that it’s a shame the rest of it pushes its luck and ends up being only passably diverting. 

Grade: C +

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Dream Reality: "Before I Wake" a poignant horror fable with allegorical underpinnings

Before I Wake (2018)
97 min., rated PG-13.

Shot in 2013, scheduled for a theatrical release in 2015, dropped from the release schedule altogether once distributor Relativity Media went bankrupt, and then picked up by Netflix in 2017 and now seeing a streaming release, “Before I Wake” is one of many long-in-the-can films that got an unfair shake from actually being seen by an audience. Fortunately, this is one of those rare times where it wasn’t because of the quality of the film itself. It is, however, not surprising that writer-director Mike Flanagan (2017’s “Gerald’s Game”) proves his acumen once again, making “Before I Wake” a horror fable that is smarter and more ambitious than any of the supernatural horror quickies that litter the genre selection on Netflix. Handling material that is more poignant than conventionally frightening, Flanagan locates a human component that is bolder and more interesting than most of the literal figments of fear.

After the death of their son, Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark Hobson (Thomas Jane) decide to create fresh start and foster a child. While Mark secures grab bars around the bathtub—their son drowned—Jessie takes down family photos of their beloved Sean (Antonio Evan Romero) and regularly attends a grief support group. They get lucky with Cody (Jacob Tremblay), a sweet, well-mannered 8-year-old boy who can't be spoken more highly of by his social worker (Annabeth Gish). He has a predilection for butterflies and keeps a book about them, but he also keeps a stash of caffeine under his bed to stay awake. As Jessie and Mark come to discover, Cody can tangibly manifest his dreams when he sleeps. One night, they see Sean reincarnated if only for a few fleeting moments, but Cody’s nightmares also fill his slumber.

Co-written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard (who was a co-scribe with the director on “Oculus,” “Ouija: Origin of Evil” and “Gerald’s Game”), “Before I Wake” is an allegory for trauma, grief and guilt beneath the trappings of a couple-raising-a-mysterious-child horror movie. The idea of a parent losing a child is a nightmare, but the script focuses more on the mourning period, how Cody becomes a kind of healing tool for them, and then eventually why Cody's subconscious has made his dreams a reality. That doesn’t mean Flanagan doesn’t get to classily orchestrate tension and startling jolts; he has quite an eye for graceful, moody visual compositions and delivers some ghoulish imagery, one being a literalized boogeyman Cody calls the “Canker Man” who almost resembles an alien but looks more like a child’s nightmarescape drawing of a monster come to life. The Hobsons’ encounter with the colorful butterflies fluttering all around their living room is also a magical bit of beautiful imagery out of a waking fantasy, where the viewer’s awe-inspiring awe matches the couple’s reaction.

Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane are tasked with playing familiar characters who wrestle with bereavement differently, but Bosworth in particular characterizes Jessie with more dimension and ethical complexity as a mother-turned-foster-mother who understandably uses Cody in selfish ways if that means seeing her son again. As much of a natural in front of the camera as any acting veteran, Jacob Tremblay (who actually shot this before audiences witnessed his revelatory work in 2015’s “Room”) is wholly believable and expressive as the adorably precocious Cody. Apart from the gravitas stemming from the performances that allow one to buy into the film’s ethereal sensibilities, the film runs into a few snags, like the impact of one crucial incident not seeming to hit a character as hard as it probably should and the ending opting more for clunky “telling” than “showing” (even if it brings a clearer context to everything that preceded it). Otherwise, nothing can undo “Before I Wake” from being an emotionally compelling metaphysical psychodrama that lands its deeper intent, while evading hokiness and heavy-handedness.


Friday, January 5, 2018

Elise Goes Home: Lin Shaye only reason for completists to check out “Insidious: The Last Key”

Insidious: The Last Key (2018)
103 min., rated PG-13.

Able to keep bringing back an audience and milk the "Insidious" series for all it's worth, Jason Blum and the folks at Blumhouse Productions have the savvy to play with time in order to keep around one of its coolest assets: veteran medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye, in a rare leading role). “Insidious: The Last Key,” the fourth entry, is actually the second installment, chronologically taking place after 2015’s “Insidious: Chapter 3” but right before 2011’s “Insidious” and 2013’s “Insidious: Chapter 2.” While the sleeper original and its pretty effective sequel (both directed by James Wan), as well as the even-more-effective prequel (directed by Leigh Whannell), all felt of a piece and seemed to have found a proper place to end, “Insidious: The Last Key” is undeniably the weakest of this scary, immensely fun quadrilogy. It fares well as an emotional journey for Elise, but as a horror film, it feels more generic and plodding, waiting for the next scare to come. The great Shaye notwithstanding, “Insidious: The Last Key” tests the devotion of even diehard fans.

As a child (Ava Kolker) in 1973, Elise lived with doubt and pain from her abusive prison-guard father (Josh Stewart) for having a special psychic gift that allowed her to communicate with the dead. In California, 2010, the parapsychologist has grown to help others using that gift with the help of her ghostbusting sidekicks, Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson). When she is called back to her penitentiary-adjacent childhood house in Five Keys, New Mexico, to offer her expertise to current owner Ted Garza (Kirk Acevedo), Elise must confront her scarred history and traumas, as well as her estranged brother, Christian (Bruce Davison), who resents his sister for leaving him. For Elise, purging the house of the demon that killed her mother (Tessa Ferrer) might mean taking a trip into the purgatorical place she calls “The Further” before it claims her nieces, Melissa (Spencer Locke) and Imogen (Caitlin Gerard).

In a series that couldn’t part with its Tangina-like medium just yet, Elise was strangled to death by the demon that possessed Josh Lambert and then resurrected as a specter herself to bring Josh back to the world of the living. As with “Insidious: Chapter 3,” where Elise was still alive and kicking, “Insidious: The Last Key” builds upon the mythology of how Elise became who she is by delving into her traumatic history, but after an involving prologue, the narrative structure strikes an uneven rhythm. Once the film moves to the present and finds Elise taking a trip to Five Keys to cleanse her house—it was never “home” to her—of the spirits she unleashed with her powers, there is a bit of misdirection. For better and for worse, the script by series writer Leigh Whannell diverts from being business as usual, paying off a throughline that the worst monsters are the humans who live among us but then doubling back on that idea by introducing the real force at work. When the film brings the demon with keys for fingers, credited as “KeyFace,” into the plot proper, the creature is creepy when left in the shadows but betrays the tangible practical effects of the “Lipstick-Faced Demon” and the “Bride in Black” when it’s rendered with the most CGI.

Helming the fourth installment, director Adam Robitel (he of 2014’s eerie “The Taking of Deborah Logan”) doesn’t quite have James Wan’s atmospheric panache, but he nonetheless has a way with adequately planting his jolts, sometimes on the off beats. A majority of the tension relies on watching Elise walk around the basement and darkened rooms with only a flashlight and a night-vision POV camera, although with a prequel, there isn’t much suspense when it comes to the fates of Elise, Specs and Tucker. There is, however, one socko jump-out-of-your-seat moment involving a bunch of suitcases in a dark tunnel that keeps teasing and psyching out the viewer with a waiting game before something pounces.

The key to whether “Insidious: The Last Key” works at all is Lin Shaye, who gets a substantial amount of screen time as she should. Starting out by filling out bit roles in genre pictures and finding her calling in several of the Farrelly brothers’ comedies, the 74-year-old character actress really gets her due as Elise Rainier in the “Insidious” franchise. This is Elise’s story, and this particular time, Shaye is called upon to bring more emotional heft to a tale that wants to be more than a broken record of jumps. Elise is the type of horror heroine who is still human to not be indestructible, but one feels comfort in going along with her into places others refuse to go. Leigh Whannell and Angus Sampson also reprise their roles as Specs and Tucker, whose Mormon missionary attire gets an explanation, but the film often leans too heavily on their doofus comic relief, which especially earns more eye-rolls than chuckles when they inappropriately hit on Elise’s pretty nieces. As Melissa and Imogen Rainier, Spencer Locke (2012's "Detention") and Caitlin Gerard (2012's "Smiley") each get their own moments of peril to be placed in and lend some assistance to their aunt, but they are mainly horror-movie pawns.

Simultaneously ambitious and not ambitious enough, “Insidious: The Last Key” may display more craft than the majority of PG-13 horror sequels or prequels theatrically released during the doldrums of January, but it doesn’t change that a follow-up with the “Insidious” namesake shouldn’t be this much of a letdown. Completists might even be disappointed that the title card does not open with the trademark violin-heavy score. Ensuring finality without recapturing the same unsettling spell of its predecessors, this entry just makes one wish the series would give up the ghost. Out of anyone, Elise Rainier deserves retirement.


Thursday, January 4, 2018

Not Fake News: "The Post" timely, finely crafted and superbly acted

The Post (2017)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg is now known for making two kinds of movies: exciting, sweeping blockbusters with a soft spot for sentimentality and intimate, potentially dry (or, in the case of 2012’s “Lincoln,” actually dry) fact-based dramas with a soft spot for sentimentality. “The Post” falls into the latter category as a historical drama about the free press, although it is talky without being dull or stuffy. It might not seem all that Spielbergian on the surface, but even for a film set in 1971, “The Post” is pretty timely and urgently told in its view on trusted journalism and fight for free speech. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Back when The Washington Post was running out of money, the newspaper was entrusted to publisher Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) by her late husband, who was left with the paper by Kay’s father and later committed suicide. Amidst her board of male members who dismiss her, Kay is able to trust editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who tries turning puff pieces like the coverage of Tricia Nixon’s wedding into hard-hitting headline stories. When White House military analyst Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys) offers The New York Times and The Washington Post classified documents of over 7,000 pages, it turns into an opportunity to print the government’s cover-up about the Vietnam War that spanned the terms of four U.S. Presidents and hold the government accountable. It comes down to Kay’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which comes with risky consequences; she could lose the company and go to jail, her co-workers could lose their jobs, and lives could be destroyed. Can the Post get the scoop and expose government secrets before their rival paper?

Written by first-timer Liz Hannah and Josh Singer (2015’s “Spotlight”), “The Post” serves as a precursor of sorts to 1976’s newsroom classic “All the President’s Men” before Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s downfall of Richard Nixon’s administration, so much that this film’s conclusion actually sets up the Watergate Scandal. The film may take a while to get the wheels rolling, but once it does, it is absorbing and reliably well-acted across the board. As the film rests on the side of the press, the repercussions of Kay Graham being prosecuted by Nixon looms over it all (and the 37th president is represented here with actual voice recordings, while he embodied by an actor from afar in the Oval Office window). Director Steven Spielberg remains on the grounds of Graham, Bradlee and the reporters, whether it’s during meetings or the shuffling through of documents, and there's an undeniable watchability to seeing people be good at their job.

Working with Spielberg for the first time, Meryl Streep is predictably terrific but terrific all the same as Kay Graham without bringing an ounce of self-conscious fussiness to her portrayal of an unsung heroine who probably isn’t widely known to the layman. Crippled by her self-doubt by being one woman in a board of sexist male egos who don’t think she has the resolve to make the tough choices, Graham undergoes the biggest arc, acting reserved while facing obstacles, until finding the courage to assert her voice. It’s one of Streep’s least showy roles after playing Florence Foster Jenkins, Julia Child, and Margaret Thatcher, but more riveting for the subtle nuances she brings to Graham. Tom Hanks gets to be more rascally and hot-tempered than usual as Ben Bradlee, who was already portrayed by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men,” and puts his own stamp on the muckraking editor. This is another first for Hanks and Streep to share the screen together, and of course, it is a delight to watch two legendary actors at work, as Graham and Bradlee occasionally clash but ultimately respect one another. Down the line, there is also a highly impressive deep-bench supporting cast, including Bob Odenkirk, Carrie Coon, Tracy Letts, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, Pat Healy, Alison Brie, Bradley Whitford, Michael Stuhlbarg, Zach Woods, and Broadway talent Jessie Mueller, just to name a few.

Any film revolving around publishing a newspaper story needs a goose of energy, and luckily for the most part, director Steven Spielberg brings tension and urgency to the writing room with crisp, fluid camera movements (courtesy of Spielberg’s longtime collaborator Janusz KamiƄski) and 1970s period details with the cigarette smoke made palpable. As the inevitable outcome approaches, the climactic phone call in the newsroom still holds one in bated breath, and it is a treat to see the sight of an old-fashioned Linotype machine, producing the written word in hot lead. Though “The Post” falls a bit short of feeling remarkable, it is still a rousing, finely crafted grown-up entertainment that, not unlike “Spotlight,” gives audiences the thrill of he or she knowing a story before it breaks, no matter one’s own political ideology.