Saturday, March 31, 2018

Back to the Past: "Ready Player One" fun but dampened by hollow core and so much muchness

Ready Player One (2018) 
140 min., rated PG-13.

Theoretically, “Ready Player One” should be a kicky, awesome ‘80s and ‘90s pop-culture fan’s wet dream. The major selling point of this adaptation of Ernest Cline’s popular 2011 sci-fi novel is fueled by nostalgia, spotting all the blink-and-you-miss-them Easter eggs of pop-culture icons from movies, TV, video games and comic books crammed into every nook and cranny. Adapted by author Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn (2008’s “The Incredible Hulk”), the movie is a torrent of breakneck-paced world-building and exposition, paper-thin characters and relatively low stakes, and as directed in the magical Amblin wheelhouse of Steven Spielberg (2017's "The Post"), it is an occasionally fun but more often bloated and exhausting extravaganza of sensory overload and so much muchness. If an escapist pop entertainment only had to succeed based on back-patting recognition, then this would be an unparalleled success. In reality, it’s closer to being a bummer.

The world is a dismal place in 2045 after corn syrup droughts and bandwidth riots. In Columbus, Ohio, teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) lives in a shabby trailer on top of other trailers—a slum-like place called “The Stacks”—with his Aunt Alice (Susan Lynch) and her deadbeat boyfriend (Ralph Ineson). Like the rest of the population, Wade spends most of his time in the OASIS, a virtual reality created by James Halliday (Mark Rylance), who died five years ago and has left behind a competitive quest to unlock Easter Eggs and retrieve three keys leading to the ultimate prize: ownership of OASIS itself. When he’s in OASIS, Wade is Parzival and meets others who can’t share their real-world names, like the scrappy Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), the hulking Aech (Lena Waithe), Samurai warrior Daito (Win Morisaki) and ninja Sho (Philip Zhao). Meanwhile, the unscrupulous Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), head of conglomerate Innovative Online Industries, and his army of players called "Sixers" will prevent Wade and the others from winning at any cost so he can seize control of OASIS.

Essentially "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" in a phantasmagoric simulated world, “Ready Player One” rightfully sees a veteran filmmaker like Steven Spielberg digging into his kitchen-sink bag of tricks (and lens flares) and emulating the overactive imagination of the kid in all of us. Alas, this is arguably not Spielberg's level best, even if he’s clearly eager to please and getting the chance to play. The vast majority of the movie is spent in the OASIS, animated like “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” that noisy, overwhelmingly non-stop images pass by without much emotional connection. Most of these virtual-reality scenes are so frenetically staged but rarely genuinely exciting or stomach-dropping, and without the help of a few slowed-down frames, there is no time to breathe and take in every detail within this synthetic world. The lack of any true stakes is also a problem; gamers who die in the Oasis just lose the money they’ve accumulated and have to start over. That leaves a relentless “Where’s Waldo?” of Easter Eggs (The DeLorean! King Kong! The jeep-chasing T-rex! Freddy Krueger! Chucky! Beetlejuice! The Iron Giant!) and references to Buckaroo Benzai, John Hughes’ movies, the chest-burster from "Alien," to Nintendo 64’s “Goldeneye.” This hectic onslaught of pop culture is like a microcosm of the movie as a whole; it’s momentarily diverting to identify familiar iconography but always in a rush to get to the next set-piece.

If the movie spent more time with the flesh-and-blood Wade and Samantha than avatars Parzival and Art3mis, these characters might have been the heart of the story, but the talented Tye Sheridan (2016's "X-Men: Apocalypse") and Olivia Cooke (2018’s “Thoroughbreds”) can only equip themselves so much in playing underwritten conduits. Of the two, Cooke is the most engaging and breathes the most life into Art3mis/Samantha; even though she eventually has to become rescued, she has too much intelligence and too many abilities to be pigeonholed as a damsel-in-distress or just a love interest. Mark Rylance, when he shows up, does bring a sense of sensitivity and heartache as Steve Jobs-like figure James Halliday, while Ben Mendelsohn chews into his role of “dickweed” Nolan Sorrento, who can’t even get his John Hughes movie trivia right. T.J. Miller also gets handed a lot of shticky one-liners that only land half the time as IOI bounty hunter I-R0k.

Hollow and in need of a soul, “Ready Player One” is merely name-checking, goodies-spotting spectacle that only delivers when there's enough rest to drink in the sights. The grim reality of 2045 is no match for the colorful, anything-can-happen virtual reality full of pop media from the creator's youth, and while Steven Spielberg does pour on the childlike sentimentality in the end as he is wont to do, the viewer is too emotionally removed from the artificiality of the proceedings to feel much at all, even in a story where goodness and perseverance dominate greed. The needle drops on the soundtrack—Van Halen’s “Jump” to Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” to A-ha’s “Take On Me”—are at least irresistible, and a dance-off in a nightclub, introduced with New Order’s “Blue Monday,” is pretty joyous. However, out of all the individual set-pieces, there is exactly one downright inspired show-stopper, taking place inside an iconic horror film and evoking the playful giddiness and ticklish imagination that the rest of the movie never quite reaches. Revealing how this awe-inspiring sequence unfolds and how it simultaneously subverts and plays into expectations with laughs would be criminal, but sneaking in to just see this section might be worth the price of admission. “Fun” is the operative word here, but “Ready Player One” isn't as much fun as it should be and could have been so much more as not only candy for the eye but for the heart.

Grade: C +

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Crazy in Love: "Unsane" a nutty, skillfully executed experiment without phoning it in

Unsane (2018)
97 min., rated R.

Audaciously conceived and skillfully executed, “Unsane” fits into unretired director Steven Soderbergh’s adventurous, experimental phase early in his career, with 1997’s “Schizopolis,” 2002’s “Full Frontal,” 2005’s “Bubble,” and 2009’s “The Girlfriend Experience.” The gimmick here is that the film was shot in ten days on an iPhone 7 Plus—this is the second American film to be shot on an iPhone since Sean Baker’s wonderfully vibrant “Tangerine”—and Soderbergh milks it with filmmaking prowess. A psychological thriller as a bravura experiment, “Unsane” is a craftily maddening “Gaslight”/“The Snake Pit” cocktail of paranoia, horror-centric obsession and, like half of Soderbergh’s own “Side Effects,” an indictment of the mental healthcare system.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) has just left Boston for a job opportunity as a financial analyst in Pennsylvania. Suffering from PTSD and prone to hallucinations, she keeps seeing her needy stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), whom she has a restraining order against. When she sees a therapist at a clinic and admits to contemplating suicide sometimes, Sawyer is told to sign a series of routine forms in the waiting room. She thinks she’s just scheduling a follow-up appointment before going back to work, but when following a nurse and being asked to change into a hospital gown, Sawyer has actually voluntarily committed herself for 24 hours in Highland Creek Behavioral Center. To make matters worse, one of the orderlies turns out to be David, or is she just imagining it? As Sawyer keeps acting out and telling the staff that she’s being held there against her will, her stay gets extended to seven days. Is Sawyer actually insane and a threat to herself and others? Or is the hospital just keeping her there as a bed-filler as long as her insurance company will cover her stay? And is the orderly dishing out her pills really her stalker?

Written by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer (2010’s “The Spy Next Door”), “Unsane” keeps the audience off-balance, putting into question Sawyer's mental health and making her an unreliable narrator of sorts. It is from her shaky perspective that the story is told, like an inescapable living nightmare where one feels paranoid and helpless to the point that his or her voice cannot be heard. When the film shows its hand earlier than expected and switches gears, it still remains gripping, and when it finally unravels into a nasty, loopy genre exercise, it is still effective. Committing to every scene she’s in, Claire Foy (Netflix’s “The Crown”), resembling Helena Bonham Carter and Sarah Paulson, is riveting as the awesomely named Sawyer Valentini. Sawyer is independent but often brusque, edgy and volatile, clearly having issues after she sets the no-strings-attached rules with a Tinder date and freaks out when he invites her into her apartment for a one-night stand. What awaits this brittle, complicated and multifaceted character, though, is much, much worse.

Lending fine support, “Saturday Night Live” alum Jay Pharoah provides a source of humor and support as wise fellow patient Nate, who has a stowaway phone on him; Amy Irving, great to see on screen again and very strong in her few scenes as Sawyer’s  widowed mother, who will do anything to get her daughter out of the institution; Aimee Mullins, startlingly confident as the clinic’s unflappable administrator Ashley Brighterhouse, who defends her facility’s practices; Juno Temple, appropriately over-the-top and convincing as cornrowed patient Violet, who welcomes Sawyer by throwing a bloody tampon her way; and there’s an extended cameo by a certain A-lister that adds amusement. Being terrified himself nineteen years ago in “The Blair Witch Project,” Joshua Leonard does the terrifying this time and cuts a delusional, pathetic stalker out of David Strine.

Acting as his own cinematographer and editor again (under pseudonyms Peter Andrews and Mary Ann Bernard, respectively), director Steven Soderbergh can not only say he shot his film entirely on a smart phone with a wide angle lens, but the stunt of doing so certainly serves the material that calls for an invasive, distorted vibe. He places one into the same disorienting mindset as Sawyer, employing double exposure when she is given a high dosage of a drug (an unsettling freakout) and blue-tinted lighting in a scene set in a forest. Watching a film with low-grade aesthetics that moviegoers aren’t accustomed to seeing on the big screen, it is an unusual yet always-watchable experience. Coming from a filmmaker who never phones it in—at least when he’s not making an “Ocean’s Eleven” sequel—“Unsane” works as a smart, creepy thriller that might make anyone feel a little nuts.


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Ritualist's Remorse: "Pyewacket" keeps tight leash on character and insidious, nerve-rattling tension

Pyewacket (2018)
88 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Writer-director Adam MacDonald, he of 2015’s intensely harrowing “Backcountry” about a couple’s camping excursion gone horribly wrong, pulls out a daring premise for his follow-up project. Horror indie “Pyewacket” does what the most successful horror films should do, caring about its scares as much as about keeping its characters in the forefront. Had the genre elements been stripped altogether, the film would still be very involving as a character drama. MacDonald has not only conceived a wicked, unforgiving horror tale about a moral quandary with “Pyewacket” but something far more disturbing and devastating about human frailty, the difficulty of loss, the power and dangers of belief, and the irreversibility of a wish that just might come true.

Angsty teen Leah Reyes (Nicole Muñoz) has turned to the dark side since her father’s death. She has a deep interest in black magic, pentagrams, and the occult, and her relationship with her mother (Laurie Holden) has grown strained. Having a hard time with her husband gone, Mom signs a lease on a house two hours away up north and uproots them. Leah’s anger deepens, having to leave her friends, who also think black magic is cool. After emotions run high and Leah has a fight with her mother, she runs off into the woods to perform a ritual from a book, using milk, herbs, a strand of her mother’s hair from a brush, and blood from her own wrist. This, in turn, invokes a witch to kill her mother, but even after Leah’s mother sincerely apologizes for being hard on her, there’s no taking back what the regretful Leah has summoned.

Thankfully not another routine horror movie where a family moves into a house haunted by a supernatural presence, “Pyewacket” builds a pall of insidious, mounting dread within a fully realized mother-daughter drama that drives toward a gut-punch finale. Director Adam MacDonald never pulls the focus away from Leah’s crumbling innocence and tumultuous relationship with her mother. Besides their button-pushing arguments, there is also enough affecting downtime between daughter and mother to show the love that’s still in there, getting the viewer to hope everything will turn out all right for them, even if their fates are already sealed. Once Leah performs her ritual, MacDonald eschews easy jump scares for a slow-burn tempo of good, old-fashioned tension and mood. How much the viewer actually sees is kept judiciously under control with effectively creepy use of shadow and two separate moments involving footsteps, and a droning sound design is nerve-rattling enough.

Nicole Muñoz and Laurie Holden are excellent in roles that give them tricky emotional avenues to traverse. Both characters are struggling emotionally and in a great deal of pain following the loss of their father and husband, but both cope in different ways — Leah dabbles in the dark arts and her mother turns to wine. Muñoz has a calm, authentic presence as Leah, which helps make the destructive way of dealing with her harsh feelings toward her mother believable, as well as the immediate regrets after cursing the person who bore her. As a mother who is at her wits' end but doing the best she can and wants to start anew for both herself and Leah, Holden remains sympathetic with instances of warmth and anger as Mrs. Reyes.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop—and the when and how—is a major source of the suspense, and even when Leah’s cynical best friend Janice (Chloe Rose) sleeps over one night and ends up being found in Leah’s mother’s car crying hysterically the next morning, the mystery of what she saw that horrified her is left to our imaginations. From there, the final fifteen minutes are frightening, blurring the line between what is real and what takes form as the witch. Director MacDonald compromises nothing with the grim final moments and the implications of everything that has transpired. As “Pyewacket” teaches, wishing tragedy against the one you love out of temporary rage just opens up far worse repercussions for both parties.


Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Good Girl: "Flower" confirms Zoey Deutch as a magnetic star

Flower (2018)
93 min., rated R.

“Lolita” meets “The Bling Ring” meets “Thelma & Louise,” “Flower” is a surprisingly engaging, independently spirited kids-behaving-badly drama with consequences and blips of unexpected sensitivity. A lot of coming-of-agers are about the loss of innocence, but the offbeat story writer-director Max Winkler (2011’s “Ceremony”), son of Henry, and co-writers Alex McAulay and Matt Spicer (2017’s “Ingrid Goes West”) want to tell has the teenage protagonist eventually gaining her innocence back and not judging her in the process. Shaping up to be one of the most intuitive actresses of her generation, Zoey Deutch (2017’s “Before I Fall”) pops as a magnetic, charismatic star and brings her irresistible presence and genuine feeling to a brazen character who is decidedly not a delicate flower.

Profane and free-wheeling, Erica Vandross (Zoey Deutch) is a San Fernando Valley 17-year-old who gives men sexual favors and then blackmails them for cash with her friends (Dylan Gelua, Maya Eshet). It’s all a means to an end, saving up to bail out her father, who’s in jail for robbing a casino, but when Erica isn’t doing that, she’s a normal teen, snapping selfies and frequenting the mall and the local bowling alley. While her mother, Laurie (Kathryn Hahn), has been dating Bob (Tim Heidecker) for a year and has just invited him to move in, she finally meets Bob’s depressed, overweight 18-year-old son, Luke (Joey Morgan), who’s just being released from rehab for his addiction to diet pills. Erica doesn’t adjust to the change too well, but when teacher Will Jordan (Adam Scott), whom Erica and her friends see at the bowling alley a lot, is claimed to be the predator Luke accused of molesting him before being sent to rehab, she plans to extort him for what he did to his soon-to-be stepbrother. "Shaking down a child molester is our moral obligation," Erica says with a sense of validation, but things eventually turn real when her scheme doesn’t go according to plan.

Erica is full of life but not a conventionally likable heroine that the viewer can instantly warm up to and be on her side. She is not very kind and will only put on her charm and charisma if bribed with money, but Erica is who she is and doesn’t care what others think, keeping a sketchbook of all the penises she’s seen and nonchalantly offering Luke a blow job as if it were a stick of gum. With that said, Erica is still human, innately good but complicated and making bad choices out of desperation for a selfless cause. Zoey Deutch consistently walks on a razor’s edge between likable and irredeemable, fearlessly forming a one-of-a-kind creation out of the reckless Erica with her gleefully cavalier bravado and quick-witted energy masking an underlying sadness and fragility. More than anything, Erica remains true to herself and isn’t deserving of punishment, just learning to love someone else.

Beginning as an acerbic, risqué, yet troubling slice-of-teen-life and then morphing into an even darker road movie before ending as a love story, “Flower” surprises in the tonal shifts it makes. Where the film goes from there is a little tidy, but it mostly stays true to Erica and Luke. The rest of the cast is obviously in support of Zoey Deutch’s lead turn, but they all find little nuances where they can, including Kathryn Hahn, whose cool, carefree, yet sweet attitude as Erica’s mother Laurie seems to have been carried over to her daughter; an understated Tim Heidecker, big-hearted but fallible to getting angry as Laurie’s boyfriend Bob; Adam Scott, subverting his affable persona with a tricky role as Will Jordan, who seems like a nice guy but might have a secret to hide after an unseemly accusation; and Joey Morgan (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”), who has the clearest arc next to Erica as the very troubled yet sympathetic Luke. "Flower" is a little rough around the edges, but like in anything, Deutch remains endlessly watchable.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Girls Just Want to Raid Tombs: Vikander and thrilling set pieces make "Tomb Raider" a solid adventure

Tomb Raider (2018)
118 min., rated PG-13.

Let’s face it: the 2001 Angelina vehicle “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider” was a dopey, lifeless, joyless video game adaptation, but its 2003 sequel, “Lara Croft: Tomb Raider - The Cradle of Life” was something of an improvement and featured Lara punching a shark and then riding it to the ocean’s surface. Now, fifteen years later, the video game property gets a new beginning with “Tomb Raider,” allegedly more faithful to the rebooted 2013 video game, and auspiciously hands the starring role to Alicia Vikander (2016's "Jason Bourne"). With the bar on video game adaptations set so low, “Tomb Raider” comes out solidly on top on its own terms, tracking an intelligent, more relatable and even fallible heroine rather than a buxom, stoic cipher through a narrative of game-like levels and executing set-pieces that actually divert and excite. It's certainly inconsequential, but where it counts the most, a good deal of fun in the moment as an "Indiana Jones"-esque adventure.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is an independent woman who didn’t go to university, instead working as a bike courier but barely able to afford her rent in East London. Her aristocratic father, Richard (Dominic West), has been missing and presumed dead for seven years, but Lara refuses to believe he’s actually gone. When Richard’s business associate Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas) re-enters her life to tell her that she must claim her inheritance or sell it off, Lara holds off when she finds a key to her father’s secret lair filled with his life’s archaeology work. Taking it upon herself to find out what happened to him, Lara sets off to Hong Kong to find Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), who can take her on his boat to Yamatai, an uninhabited island off the coast of Japan that happens to be Richard Croft’s last-known whereabouts. Once there, Lara crosses paths with her father’s rival archaeologist, Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), who hopes to raid the cursed tomb of Queen Himiko, the Mother of Death, to bring back a piece of it to shadowy organization Trinity.

“Tomb Raider” offers as much nutrition as a jumbo-sized popcorn, but after screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons get all of the exposition out of the way, the film charges headlong with a driving momentum and keeps stacking the danger. Before Lara even gets to Hong Kong and then gets into a stormy shipwreck near Yamatai, there is a speedy, cohesively shot and edited "fox hunt" bike race around London with very little to no shaky cam, "Premium Rush"-style. Director Roar Uthaug (2015’s “The Wave”) then devises a number of hairy, enthrallingly delivered situations for Lara Croft, particularly when she escapes Mathias Vogel and his cronies through the jungle, off a fallen tree and down rushing rapids, and then treads carefully on a rusted plane perched over a waterfall that leads her to her getting her hands on a parachute and falling through the trees. It’s a thrilling, tightly paced extended sequence that actually gets the viewer clutching their armrests. Once Lara eventually has to raid a spooky, elaborate tomb, the third act, full of booby-trapped spikes, falling floors, colored jewel puzzles, and a sarcophagus, is fraught with nail-biting tension.

Alicia Vikander makes a far more appealing and compelling Lara Croft than Angelina Jolie ever had a chance to be across two movies. When we first meet Lara, she loses a boxing match, being put in a chokehold and then having to tap out. Actual emotional groundwork is laid for this Lara, having missed her father for all these years and now determined to find him, and she’s more capable as someone who has lived on her own without relying on her family’s money. Closer to a flesh-and-blood mortal than a video game avatar (with the one exception where she climbs a rock after a stomach wound), Vikander is also more vulnerable and flawed, making her journey worth caring about when she’s not bulletproof or invincible, just believably resilient, gutsy and resourceful in her problem-solving and physical challenges. Also, unlike Jolie’s portrayal, Vikander’s Lara doesn’t seem to be created in the male gaze (there’s no gratuitous shower scene of her naked back); she might spend the entire second half in a tank top, but she’s never sexualized.

As an overhaul that endeavors to upstart a brand-new Lara Croft franchise, “Tomb Raider” rights all of the wrongs of its previous incarnations, injecting more heart and thrills than the 2001 and 2003 movies ever did and never wasting the talents of its star. Of the supporting cast, Dominic West is on screen long enough to efficiently establish the love for his daughter and the pain his disappearance has caused her. Daniel Wu (2017's "Geostorm") is an agreeable sidekick as Lu Ren, who gets Lara to the island but then gets less to do from there. Walton Goggins digs into another standard villain role, relishing in the purely evil nature of it without adding any layers, though he's been on the island for seven years and apparently has a family to get home to when he’s done raiding the tomb. Nick Frost and Jaime Winstone also pop up in comic bit roles as a married couple of pawn shop owners. If Alicia Vikander's Lara Croft returns in the future, the prospect of a sequel is more promising than threatening, or if this is it, “Tomb Raider” is a diverting, muscular one-and-done outing.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bye, Closet: "Love, Simon" a sensitive, sweet, lovable miracle

Love, Simon (2018)
109 min., rated PG-13.

Remarkably, “Love, Simon” is the first of its kind: a gay coming-of-age dramedy being distributed by a major studio and hitting mainstream multiplexes. Shattering the glass ceiling and representing the LGBTQ community on 2,400 screens, the film is unprecedented but also happens to be wonderful, wearing its tender, open heart on its sleeve for the world to see. Based upon Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” “Love, Simon” is intimate and deeply felt both as a slice-of-high-school-life and a portrait of a closeted teenage boy ready to live his truth. It’s sensitive and sincere without ever coming off corny, beautifully written and unforced without ever reaching for the violins or turning into a Freeform Original Movie, and if he were still alive today and more aware of political correctness, John Hughes probably would have written and directed it.

A senior at Creekwood High School, affable 17-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is tired of living a double life: he feels like a normal teenager who just happens to be gay. It shouldn’t change the way anyone perceives him, but Simon isn’t quite ready to unveil his secret to his loving family—parents Emily (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and younger aspiring-chef sister Nora (Talitha Bateman)—and close group of supportive friends—bestie Leah (Katherine Langford), new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and soccer player Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.)—and confront the pressure and fear that it could change his relationships with them. When an anonymous fellow Creekwood student, under the moniker “Blue,” posts on a Post Secret-like blog that he is gay, Simon jumps at the opportunity to respond via email and they begin a correspondence and a penpal friendship that could help each other and perhaps blossom into something more. At school, Simon looks at everyone, wondering who could possibly be “Blue,” but when he accidentally leaves his email account open on a school library computer, confident social outcast Martin (Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s secret. This begins a blackmailing scheme, as Martin threatens to out Simon if he doesn’t help him woo Abby, that only takes a toll on Simon and his friendships even more.

Identifiable, wise, affecting and just plain sweet, "Love Simon" manages to charm and entertain as a crowd-pleaser and not sacrifice truth. As written by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger (TV’s “This Is Us”) and directed by Greg Berlanti (2010’s “Life as We Know It”), the film never feels less than passionately made, effortlessly balancing touching pathos and quick-witted humor. It may not recreate every person’s coming-out experience, but the details are all authentic and relatable. The film normalizes Simon as a teenager who is just like anyone else and deserves love just as much as the next person. As Simon begins picturing who “Blue” might be, the film envisions each “suspect” in front of the computer, and there is also a sharply funny scene where Simon imagines all of his straight friends coming out to their families. When Martin’s blackmailing scheme could have diminished the film into manipulative, predictable developments, that is never the case. Though his actions are annoying and selfish, threatening to take away Simon’s free will to reveal his secret on his own terms, Martin is too oddly likable the way Logan Miller (2017's "Before I Fall") plays him to ever become a one-note antagonist (he even cleverly dresses as a Freudian slip at a Halloween party). Always key in a high school film, the soundtrack is complimentary of a young person’s life, including Bleachers’ “Rollercoaster” and 1975’s “Love Me.” There’s even a flight-of-fancy musical number to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me”) on a college campus that is delightfully smile-inducing in its exuberance. Like a lot of romantic comedies, the film culminates in a grand, public declaration of love, as the viewer is waiting to exhale right along with Simon before he meets "Blue" in person and has his giddy Jake Ryan Moment on a carnival ferris wheel.

Nick Robinson (2017’s “Everything, Everything”) is so darn likable and sympathetic as Simon Spier, who deserves to be the hero anyone afraid to come out of the closet can look up to and learn from. Simon has known that he was gay since he was a preteen infatuated with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, but his resistance to coming out isn’t because he’s ashamed of it; he just doesn’t want to change the way his two major support systems see him. This is Robinson’s show, but everyone in the sprawling ensemble gets time to shine. Rounding out Simon’s close group of friends who are all winning and share natural chemistry with each other, Katherine Langford (Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”) is warm and supportive, as Simon’s best friend Leah, who harbors a secret of her own; Alexandra Shipp (2017’s “Tragedy Girls”), so charismatic and eye-catching as the down-to-earth Abby that one completely understands why a few classmates have a crush on her; and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) lends gregarious personality to Nick.

Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are lovely as Simon’s open-minded parents Emily and Jack, each of their individual moments with Simon resonating with tenderness and honesty. Even if they were given a few more scenes, Garner and Duhamel are likely the the most lovable and progressive movie parents since Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson in “Easy A.” Tony Hale’s goofy shtick, as trying-hard-to-be-hip vice principal Mr. Worth with a penchant for oversharing with his students, gets laid on a bit too thick, but Natasha Rothwell (HBO’s “Insecure”) is much funnier and better used as Ms. Albright, the exasperated theater teacher who never minces words during rehearsals of “Cabaret” and even calls out a couple of jocks in the cafeteria when they mock Simon and another out-and-proud classmate, Ethan (Clark Moore, who’s a sharp-tongued scene-stealer).

Stories about gay characters coming out and/or falling in love have been told on the indie, arthouse and foreign circuit for quite a while now. While a handful have made more progress coming into the mainstream—2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” 2015’s “Carol,” 2016’s “Moonlight” and 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name” were all awards contenders—and are comparatively less upbeat, “Love, Simon” marks a turning point. A joyous, celebratory poster child for love and acceptance, the film remains true to itself. It’s the kind of special cinematic treasure one will wish he or she had to turn to when figuring themselves out at 17, and that a LGBTQ story is getting a mainstream release, “Love, Simon” is a miracle and a major step forward.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Time Warriors: "A Wrinkle in Time" has its faults but also ambition, imagination and personality

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
109 min., rated PG.

Ava DuVernay gets the chance of a lifetime to stretch herself as a filmmaker, having directed 2014’s Martin Luther King, Jr. portrait “Selma” and then 2016 racial-inequality documentary “13th,” and not only helm a big-budget Disney fantasy blockbuster but an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel (which was previously made into a chintzy 2003 made-for-TV film). Many have claimed the source material to be unfilmable, but DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee (2013’s “Frozen”) and John Stockwell (2007’s “Bridge to Terabithia”) come as close to nailing a screen treatment of L'Engle's novel as anyone probably ever will. Wildly ambitious as it is flawed, “A Wrinkle in Time” is bursting with an imaginative vision and balances lightness and darkness, like the kind of whimsical, offbeat live-action fantasy entertainment that rarely gets made anymore and that everyone’s young self would have watched in a bygone era back to back with 1984’s “The Neverending Story.”

It has been four years since bright, science-minded middle schooler Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has seen her father, Alex (Chris Pine), a scientist who wanted to shake hands with the universe and then disappeared after proving his theory of traveling through the galaxy with only one’s mind. Meg’s scientist mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), hasn’t lost hope yet, but it’s hard for both Meg and her prodigious 6-year-old adopted brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), when they’re being bullied at school. One evening, an unfazed Charles Wallace lets an ethereal, chipper woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) into their family home, but before Mrs. Murry can call the police, Mrs. Whatsit mentions a “tesseract,” a fifth dimension that Alex was hoping to find before he disappeared. Not long after, Meg and Charles Wallace, along with smitten classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), are visited by Mrs. Whatsit and two other celestial guardians, Mrs. Who (Mindy Khaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). They want to help her find her father on the dark planet of Camazotz, but Meg will have to find it in herself to make it happen before an evil darkness falls upon the universe.

As Meg’s emotional and dimension-hopping journey unfolds, “A Wrinkle in Time” imparts a wise and powerful message about self-worth, although it’s often delivered heavy-handedly through the words of wisdom by Mrs. Which. Along with that, Jennifer Lee and John Stockwell’s script sprinkles in a little more inelegant exposition than necessary, like when Charles Wallace conveniently overhears two teachers talking about the anniversary of Alex Murry, but at least Mrs. Which’s explanation of “The It,” a toxic evil that could wipe out all good on Earth and the rest of the universe, is handled with ample showing over telling. Once the three astral guides are dismissed and Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are on their own, the film picks up steam and leads to some strange, vividly conceived through-the-looking-glass set pieces that are easy to get swept up in. From a nightmarishly cookie-cutter, 1950s-style suburban cul-de-sac with Stepfordized mothers, to a crowded beach welcomed by the creepily cheery Red (Michael Peña), our heroes head down an even more abstract and dangerous rabbit hole.

Storm Reid (2016’s “Sleight”) is a wonderful find with an accessible presence as Meg Murry, who’s worth following as a heroine little girls of color will imagine as themselves on screen. It’s refreshing to find a heroine who must embrace her “faults” and use her light goodness to overcome the darkness. With less screen time than everyone else, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw convey real warmth and parental love that ground the story as Dr. Alex and Kate Murry. When Meg finally reunites with her father, the actors create such a touching embrace that the viewer can feel a lump in his or her throat. 9-year-old newcomer Deric McCabe is almost too cutesy and precocious as brother Charles Wallace (whose full name is always uttered), but that precociousness gets a dark, sinister bent in the second half. In the role of “The Boy,” Levi Miller (2017’s “Better Watch Out”) is likable and wide-eyed as Calvin, who experiences a verbally abusive father at home, so it makes sense that he tags along with Meg on an adventure.

Major star power comes in the form of the three Missus, who all look on point, thanks to the suitably gaudy costume design by Paco Delgado and make-up by LaLette Litterjohn. As the Glinda-like Mrs. Whatsit, who continually speaks her mind that she has little faith in Meg, Reese Witherspoon is chirpy and daffy, and as Mrs. Who, Mindy Kaling is beatific if mainly there to spout quotes credited to everyone from Shakespeare and Gandhi to Outkast and Chris Tucker. And then there’s Oprah Winfrey. Seeing Winfrey standing thirty feet tall is admittedly goofy, but she commits all the way and has such a regal presence with her glittery lips and eyebrows, even if Mrs. Which gives the same brand of inspirational sermonizing as Winfrey’s real-life TV persona. Zach Galifianakis also shows up as the man-bunned Happy Medium, thankfully restraining his typical shtick a bit.

Ava DuVernay being the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a production budget over $100 million is a celebration in itself, and “A Wrinkle in Time” earns points for being a family film with ideas and ambitions without pandering or playing things safe. For the sake of a feature-length film, the storytelling is often compressed and ungainly, but it’s not a deal-breaker. The small, quiet moments are intimate and affecting, and the big, wondrous moments are vibrant and dazzling most of the time; though one of the Missus morphing into a flying lettuce creature is a delightfully zonky sight, maybe some of the more overcooked CGI and green screen work is just better imagined in the reader’s mind than on screen. As a film that encourages one to embrace his and her faults, “A Wrinkle in Time” is young at heart but abundant in psychedelic, idiosyncratic charm, in spite of—or perhaps because of—its own faults. It’s more admirable when a film takes chances and shoots for the stars anyway.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Pretty Little Sociopaths: Cooke and Taylor-Joy are frighteningly impressive in wry, black-hearted "Thoroughbreds"

Thoroughbreds (2018)
92 min., rated R.

The bite of “Heathers,” the noirish friends-hatch-a-murder-scheme story of “Heavenly Creatures,” and the darkly deadpan tone of any Yorgos Lanthimos film commingle to breed “Thoroughbreds,” an extremely confident writing-directing debut from 28-year-old playwright Cory Finley. While it’s evident that the material was originally written as a play—and a razor-sharp one at that—Finley brings plenty of strikingly austere cinematic technique within the interiors of a sprawling McMansion to offset the staginess and gets a couple of killer lead performances out of Olivia Cooke (2015’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (2017’s “Split”) that will make all up-and-coming actors green with envy. “Thoroughbreds” is wryly unsettling and restrained in its wicked worldview of human nature drained of empathy but not entitlement and sociopathy. It might be as cold and black-hearted as its characters, but that is surely the point.

Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is wired like a human being, but she is incapable of feeling anything — not anger, not love, not sadness, even after putting her sick horse out of its misery. She feels very little emotion when reuniting in an upper-crust Connecticut manse for a SATS tutoring session with Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who used to be best friends with Amanda in sixth grade. Finishing boarding school early, Lily is ahead of the game and has accepted payment by Amanda’s mother, to boot, but she’s not quite comfortable with her old friend’s emotionless demeanor. On the flip side, Lily feels pressured and keeps in check the resentment she feels toward her obscenely rich, aggressively can-do jerk of a stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), who belittles Lily’s widowed mother (Kaili Vernoff), installing a tanning booth because he says she could use some color, and spends his life exercising and juice-cleansing. As Amanda begins hanging out with Lily like old times, she sees how Mark treats Lily and asks her if she’s ever considered killing him; Lily scoffs at the idea. When Lily discovers that Mark has already paid full tuition to a school for troubled girls, killing her stepfather is no longer just a wishful possibility in her mind. To carry out their plan, Lily and Amanda have to hire help in confident drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin), who has big dreams but still lives at home and moonlights as a dishwasher at a nursing home. The girls decide to blackmail Tim, paying him off do their dirty work with a gun while they keep airtight alibis, but to paraphrase Robert Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

“Thoroughbreds” simmers with measured, ice-cold yet exacting and hypnotic precision when concentrating on Amanda and Lily’s one-on-one power play and malice. Writer-director Cory Finley’s dialogue is deliciously cutting without being too clever for its own good, and his performers make every word in the script roll off the tongue as if it’s second nature for these privileged characters. Eerie unease and mounting tension are underscored throughout by composer Erik Friedlander’s discordant, atonal score, infusing cello and drums. There’s even shrewd use of the reverberating sounds of Mark using his rowing machine upstairs. The fact that Finley always chooses suggestion over showing anything explicit is the true sign of a patient, assured auteur behind the camera. With cinematographer Lyle Vincent (2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), he’s never afraid of stillness and radio silence, elegant tracking shots through Lily’s opulent home, or holding a shot, particularly in an unblinking long take with a slow zoom during the crucial climax that keeps the bloody deed offscreen and relies all on sound and the exit and re-entrance of a character.

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are frighteningly impressive and ideal foils for one another. Cooke is sensational as the affectless but direct Amanda, who has always had to try a little harder than others to feel something, as seen through her practiced smile in a mirror and her demonstration of “the technique” to cry crocodile tears on cue. In playing a detached, sociopathic character who can’t easily produce a smile or tears without effort, Cooke is funny, sad, and chilling all at once. “The only thing worse than being incompetent or being unkind or being evil is being indecisive,” Amanda coolly says to validate her plan with Lily; her logic might be cockeyed, but one can't really disagree. The compellingly expressive Taylor-Joy is her equal match as Lily, subtly communicating a nervous breakdown and then fierce determination and cunning behind posh composure. In his final film role before his untimely death in 2016, the late Anton Yelchin lends some much-needed humanity and class difference as Tim, who may be pathetic, delusional and desperate but still hangs on to a moral compass, and it’s a heartbreaking reminder of what a talent he was and how much he will be missed. 

“Thoroughbreds” is juicy, twisted, and spectacularly acted, but regrettably, it doesn’t end on the controlled, perfectly cathartic punctuation of horror, tragedy and poignancy that holds one in bated breath. Instead, Cory Finley keeps going with an epilogue that seems to be there for conventionally satisfying closure to spell out where characters are now. Despite that minor misstep, Finley still announces himself right out of the gate as an exciting talent to watch, and maybe he can bring Cooke and Taylor-Joy with him. As Heather Chandler would say, it would be so very.

Grade: B +

Friday, March 9, 2018

Screaming to the '80s: "The Strangers: Prey at Night" lean, atmospheric and relentlessly tense

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)
85 min., rated R.

Fear may be subjective, but murderous trespassers stripping a person's home of its safety should frighten the daylights out of anyone with a pulse. Tapping into the fear of a home invasion, writer-director Bryan Bertino's “The Strangers” deserves more praise than what it received in 2008 for being a no-frills, elegantly simple, immensely creepy and nerve-jangling horror suspenser. Considering “The Strangers: Prey at Night”—more of a companion piece than a direct sequel—is coming out a decade after its predecessor, it’s a relief that the finished piece is so much more effective than it has a right to be. With couple Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) meeting a tragically grim demise because they were home, the only connective tissue this time are the three masked strangers, only credited as “Dollface,” “Pin-Up Girl,” and “Man in the Mask,” going on to terrorize a new batch of defenseless people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Anything but a lazy redux, "The Strangers: Prey at Night" is a crackerjack exercise in atmosphere, rising tension, and sustained terror with command of character, location, and ample retro filmmaking panache.

Before sending angsty teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) off to boarding school, parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) drag along their eldest, golden boy Luke (Lewis Pullman), for the weekend to Cindy’s aunt and uncle's trailer community on Gatlin Lake. When they arrive late at night, they seem to be the only ones there. Cindy and Mike want to spend quality time with their kids, but Kinsey runs off to get some air and Luke goes after her. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad answer a knock on their trailer to a young woman (Emma Bellomy), standing in the shadows, asking, “Is Tamara home?” They chalk it up to her probably being lost, but once Kinsey and Luke find a couple of dead bodies in another trailer, the unsuspecting family must survive the night as the young woman remerges in a mask, along with two other masked strangers (Damian Maffei, Lea Enslin), to menace the familial unit with knives and axes.

Mounting and mounting with forthright force, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is a visceral workout with no actual release until the credits roll. The sense of foreboding and portent is hair-raising and atmospheric from the opening frame, focusing on a dark, foggy, lonesome road after Kim Wilde’s synth-pop hit “Kids in America” abruptly ends and then starts up again as a truck with the titular trio comes around the bend. Even if one has not seen “The Strangers,” director Johannes Roberts (2017’s “47 Meters Down”) foreshadows what’s in store when the strangers make their first knock at the door of an old couple’s trailer. From there, writers Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai (2016’s “The Forest”) economically develop lives in progress for the main family of four instead of cutting right to the literal chase.

The characters are drawn as an ordinary family and not just empty knife fodder. While it’s always going to be less frustrating when characters in horror movies behave like intelligent, attack mode-ready superhumans and can turn the tables on their terrorizers, Kinsey and her family all react as realistically as one would and with believable fallibility when thrown into a horrific situation they weren’t ready for, and it’s worthy of applause when some of them find it in themselves to fight back. The performers are all given enough time to flesh out their roles and evoke sympathy even before they find their fates on the line. Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson are likable and emotionally true in every way, respectively, as Cindy, a mother who’s at the end of her rope trying to help her daughter but wants the best for her, and Mike, a good cop-type parent who knows how to get on his kids’ good sides. The fact that they would sacrifice their own lives for their children is palpable on screen. Lewis Pullman (son of Bill) is also quite good as Luke, who loves his sister, even if she hasn’t been making anyone in her family proud, and must later protect her as best as he knows how.

Chief among the cast, though, is Bailee Madison (2011’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”). In her second R-rated horror film, she gives it everything she has, physically and emotionally, as the shell-shocked Kinsey. Emotionally drained and paralyzed with fear, yet eventually giving in to the former of the fight-or-flight response, the young actress sells every action and emotion. Letting down her tough exterior to be vulnerable and understanding that her teenage rebellion no longer matters now, Madison makes Kinsey’s arc clear and complete from a headstrong teenager to a single-minded fighter and a hopeful survivor.

Widening the hunting ground and hiding spots beyond a ranch home in the middle of nowhere, the film is inspired in its use of open space within a desolate mobile-home community. One striking set-piece in the trailer park’s swimming pool, surrounded by neon-lighted palm trees, while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blares, is a particularly virtuoso marriage of image and sound, as Luke takes on one of the ax-wielding assailants on the pool deck and underwater. Cinematographer Ryan Samul (2014’s “Cold in July”) holds a shot for maximum dread, whether it's on the smiley face spray-painted on a mailbox or the swing of a swing set, but also pleasingly employs technical flourishes, like zooms, that help differentiate it from the jittery style and often subtle framing in Bryan Bertino's original film. Whereas “The Strangers” used country records on a turntable to disquieting effect, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” makes it evident that these strangers have a penchant (and excellent taste) for ‘80s pop music, playing everything from the aforementioned “Kids in America” to Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” Complementing Adrian Johnston’s John Carpenter-inspired score, these upbeat music choices make for a playful counterpoint to the carnage on display.

Achieving its goal to rattle and unnerve, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is lean and breathlessly intense, calling back the spareness and ambiguity of its predecessor, while embracing conventions from slasher movies of yore. The scariest element of both “Strangers” films is that these menacing masked psychopaths have no real motive; they pick people at random and force them to be victims as if it’s a game. When Liv Tyler’s character asked why they were doing this to her and her boyfriend, the best answer she received was, “Because you were home.” This time, when Kinsey asks the same question, one of them chillingly replies, “Why not?” There are knowing nods to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Christine,” and “Scream,” all of which point out director Johannes Roberts’ love and respect for the horror genre without coming off as mere pastiche. Moving like a shark with encroaching doom, this is an expert example of how to keep an audience on edge almost relentlessly and give them a reason to care about the people put in harm’s way.

Grade: B +