Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Left for Dead: "What Keeps You Alive" a tightly coiled, unforgiving study in pulling the rug out

What Keeps You Alive (2018)
98 min., rated R.

As anyone familiar with the horror genre knows, nothing good ever comes out of a couple taking a retreat to the woods. Going a step further, “What Keeps You Alive,” written and directed by Colin Minihan (2016’s “It Stains the Sands Red”), takes the universal fear of not really knowing another person, particularly a significant other, and turns that betrayal into a startling, tensely compelling cat-and-mouse game of survival. In a refreshing change of pace—and it’s about time since 2005's "High Tension"—this is a harrowing relationship horror film between two women and their shifts in power.

Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) takes her wife, Jules (Brittany Allen), to her great-great grandfather’s rustic lakeside home in the remote woods for a romantic getaway to celebrate their one-year anniversary. On their first night, they drink wine and canoodle on the couch, until one of Jackie’s childhood friends, Sarah (Martha MacIsaac), stops by; she still lives across the lake with her husband (Joey Klein) and wanted to make sure everything was okay on account of the house being empty for so long and seeing the lights on across the way. Jules is taken aback when Sarah addresses Jackie as “Meghan,” but Jackie explains that she never liked her name and changed it once she came out. The next day, while Jackie goes into town, Jules is still hurt by her partner’s lack of communication but soon comes to the realization that Jackie is not the woman she married.

Too much has already been divulged, but the less one knows going into “What Keeps You Alive,” the better. Writer-director Colin Minihan sets a simmering pace and a tone of deceptive normalcy. Once there’s a shockingly visceral jolt of violence that knocks the wind out of the viewer, the film craftily flips and skews expectations, redefining the kind of story being told. Post-reveal, the film might have gummed its tension, but that is never the case here. Minihan has such a controlled directorial hold and brings drastically impressive verve to his minimalist narrative behind the camera, employing dexterous cinematography by David Schuurman that efficiently sets the geography of the house from the get-go and later has the camera soaring over the lake in a thrilling canoe chase. An artfully edited sequence of cleaning up a crime scene, illuminated by a black light and set to piano keys, is chilling, and a second-floor scuffle is effectively executed, leaving the viewer to watch the ceiling from the first floor rumble and wait for the victorious party to come down the stairs. The use of a classical aria over some of the violence also works, as does the return of Silverchair’s “Anthem for the Year 2000,” which Jules claims to be their song in Jackie’s jeep when they first get to the house.

More than up to the different demands the script asks of them, Brittany Allen (2017’s “It Stains the Sand Red”) and Hannah Emily Anderson (2018’s “Jigsaw”) are both excellent. Physically and emotionally, Allen (the director's wife) is put through the wringer as Jules, a woman who opened her heart to the person she trusted most, only to have it broken and possibly stopped in an unimaginable nightmare that will force her to fight tooth-and-nail. An expert pretender of changing emotions on a dime as Jackie, Anderson sells her normal, smiley veneer and the sinister motivations hiding underneath, while digging into the heart of darkness that is influenced by both nature and nurture. Although the film narrows in on Jules and Jackie, Martha McIsaac (2009's "The Last House on the Left") makes an indelible impression with only a handful of scenes as Sarah, who hasn't seen Jackie/Meghan in a long time, stills hangs onto a traumatic memory from their past, and might be the one who unintentionally opens up a can of worms.

Where Jules and Jackie begin and end as a couple does not devolve into standard victim and victimizer tropes; what Minihan achieves is a bit more complex than that and never loses the emotional component that comes with a human tragedy, often intercutting the present action with black-and-white memories of the once-happy couple. Even if the climaxes start to multiply before the ultimate end—a final decision Jules makes is based more on moving the plot along than common sense—“What Keeps You Alive” is a tightly coiled, unforgiving study in pulling the rug out and crafting tension with vicious force.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, August 28, 2018

School of Misfits: "Boarding School" a defiantly unusual but always interesting hodgepodge

Boarding School (2018) 
101 min., rated R. 

Always one to bounce around genres, writer-director Boaz Yakin—he of 2000’s sports crowd-pleaser “Remember the Titans,” 2003’s Brittany Murphy-Dakota Fanning dramedy “Uptown Girls,” and 2015’s military search dog adventure “Max”—dips into strange, lurid territory with passion project “Boarding School.” The film is overwrought but oddly likable, daring to be a little different as a dark fairy tale that combines gender identity, a Holocaust survivor’s story, sinister happenings at a private school, and bloody violence. While not every ingredient works in tandem, as Yakin tries walking a tonally wonky tightrope, “Boarding School” is very much a curiosity piece if there ever was one.

Living in a New York apartment in the 1990s, bullied Jewish 12-year-old Jacob (Luke Prael) keeps having nightmares about his Holocaust-surviving grandmother whom he’s never met. His mother, Isabel (Samantha Mathis), can’t take it anymore, while his stepfather, Davis (David Aaron Baker), is a little more supportive. The next morning, Jacob receives the news that his grandmother has passed away and attends the funeral. Left home alone with boxes of his grandmother’s belongings, Jacob tries on her dress and long evening gloves and then begins tangoing to an old record just as Davis walks in on him. At that point, Jacob is sent away to a boarding school for unique young people run by headmaster Dr. Sherman (Will Patton) and his wife (Tammy Blanchard) and finds six other misfits as his classmates—among them, facially deformed Phil (Nadia Alexander), Jacob’s roommate; mentally handicapped Elwood (Nicholas J. Oliveri); twins Lenny and Calvin (Kobi George, Kadin George); Tourette syndrome-diagnosed Frederic (Christopher Dylan White); and death-obsessed Christine (Sterling Jerins), the daughter of Jacob’s stepfather’s business senior partner. When there’s an alleged suicide, Jacob believes there is something afoot in the place of learning that feels more like a prison.

“Boarding School” sets up the viewer for a supernatural tale with vampiric leanings, only to make an unexpected shift into a form of bait-and-switch storytelling. The film is thematically provocative, but mostly skims the surface when it comes to paralleling Jacob’s transvestism with his grandmother, who survived a Nazi soldier by sharpening her teeth with a nail filer. As a snake-pit horror film, it’s more conventional but still compellingly eccentric before the whodunit portion of the film becomes more of a disturbing whydunit. Luke Prael (2018’s “Eighth Grade”), looking like a younger Ezra Miller, is as sullen as Jacob is called to be, but he is such a fascinating find, not always nailing a Brooklyn accent but certainly selling his character’s tracking arc and ultimate transformation that brings him closer to his late grandmother. Will Patton (2017's "Megan Leavey") exudes an unscrupulous presence right from the start, but he’s still effective as Dr. Sherman, while Tammy Blanchard (2016’s “The Invitation”), as initially trustworthy but strict schoolmarm Mrs. Sherman, more gradually makes the switch to someone who shouldn’t be looking after children. Sterling Jerins (2016’s “The Conjuring 2") is frighteningly precocious as the morbid, possibly sociopathic Christine, and in a gender-bending bit of casting, Nadia Alexander (2018’s “Blame”) is quite touching as Phil, whose burns have branded him a freak in others’ eyes. “Boarding School” might not have a firm hand on its identity at all times, much like its protagonist, but it’s always interesting as a defiantly unusual hodgepodge that refuses to be tied down to one classification of genre.

Grade: B - 

Friday, August 24, 2018

Puppet Say What?: Human cast and puppeteers bring ribald commitment to scattershot "Happytime Murders"

The Happytime Murders (2018)
91 min., rated R.

The late Jim Henson probably would have never guessed that his company's Henson Alternative banner would be able to greenlight a theatrical film in which its first visual gag perversely involved a lactating cow giving an octopus a money shot in the backroom of a porn shop. That’s just the tip in “The Happytime Murders,” a filthy, hard-R-rated noir with puppets that wears bad taste and shock value as a badge of honor. Joining the ranks of 1989’s “Meet the Feebles,” 2004’s “Team America: World Police,” and 2016’s “Sausage Party,” if not really with the same results, this one-joke comedy showboats as a raunchy, dirty-minded twist on a family-friendly brand, but it’s hit-and-miss when it comes to the blue, profane material, which is the film’s entire selling point and raison d'être. Stepping out of the shadow of father and Muppets creator Jim Henson, director Brian Henson (1996’s “Muppet Treasure Island”) and screenwriter Todd Berger deliver exactly the kind of movie they’re selling — it’s rampantly juvenile, like hearing a teenage boy’s discovery of the words “pussy,” “fuck,” and “cock” that are repeated over and over, but only periodically funny.

In the City of Angels, puppets coexist with humans, but they are considered inferior. Disgraced from the LAPD after his poor handling of a hostage situation that subsequently put a law in place to prevent puppets from being on the force, washed-up, hard-boiled private eye puppet Phil Phillips (voiced by Bill Barretta) is hired by nymphomaniac/femme fatale puppet Sandra (Dorien Davies) to look into a blackmailing scheme against her. When the assignment takes him to XXX shop Vinny’s Puppet Pleasureland, he witnesses the aftermath of a puppet massacre of shredded fluff, including bunny Mr. Bumblypants (Kevin Clash), who was once part of the ensemble of a popular ‘90s sitcom ‘The Happytime Gang.” At the scene of the crime, Phil clashes with his ex-partner, sugar-addicted FBI detective Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy), who testified against Phil twelve years ago after an incident that nearly took her life (a puppet liver transplant saved her). When Phil’s brother Larry (Victor Yerrid) becomes the next hit, he believes someone is bumping off the entire cast of “The Happytime Gang,” so Phil and Connie must reluctantly team up again.

“The Happytime Murder” isn’t always as outrageously witty as it thinks it is, but it isn’t without its comically inspired, so-very-wrong bits, including a wham-bam-thank-you-mam puppet sex scene, complete with Silly String ejaculation that Phil’s secretary Bubbles (Maya Rudolph) is prepared to clean with her disinfectant spray bottle ready to go. The filmmakers coast on the idea that puppets are people, too—they are oversexed, they drink and smoke, they ingest a lot of drugs, and they could all use their mouths washed out with soap—and it’s shocking and a little subversive at first before the novelty tuckers out. When the gumshoe mystery and buddy-cop comedy are given time to breathe over all of the R-rated gags, the film works more than not and even cleverly incorporates the “carpet matching the drapes” as a plot point (don’t ask); with that said, there is a spoof of the crotch-flashing interrogation scene in “Basic Instinct," but it would have been more surprising had it not already been used this year in “Deadpool 2." Director Brian Henson and writer Todd Berger do miss an opportunity to flesh out their world populated by humans and puppets, who are marginalized as second-class citizens in society. “Sock” is considered a slur to them, and that’s really as far as the allegory about race and discrimination goes.

There’s nothing wrong with the very basic concept behind “The Happytime Murders” or even paying homage to a classic hard-boiled film noir with puppets and humans, but it’s a disappointment that the overall execution feels strained. As scattershot as some of the humor tends to be, the puppeteering craft is still on point, and the puppeteers’ hard work gets to be rightfully showcased during the end-credit reel. Ironically, the best laughs come from the humans. The irrepressibly funny Melissa McCarthy never not commits, handling potshots at her supposed masculinity and sexual solicitation with pluck and valiant self-deprecation as Connie Edwards, and she does have an amusing banter with Bill Barretta's Phil Phillips, even if he's a chain-smoking puppet. Maya Rudolph is game as ever, playing Phil’s bubbly and loyal secretary appropriately named Bubbles, whose best scene is shared with McCarthy when she uses her expert lock-picking skills. Elizabeth Banks turns up as Jenny, Phil’s former flame and the only human cast member of “The Happytime Gang,” who’s turned to stripping, playing her quiet scenes with the utmost earnestness and then getting a chuckle out of a striptease act to a bunch of horny rabbits with a carrot and a peeling knife. They're all in on the joke, but they all bring as much commitment to this ribald silliness as they would to a serious drama. One thing is for sure that “The Happytime Murders” would make the Muppets blush and maybe feel a little naughty.

Grade: C +

Friday, August 17, 2018

Punk Season: "The Ranger" brings extra meat to otherwise bare-bones slasher pic

The Ranger (2018)
77 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

"The Ranger"—pitting punk rockers against a psychotic park ranger in lieu of neo-Nazi skinheads à la 2016’s “Green Room”—has a cool concept that it comes as a surprise no one has beat it to the punch already. Writer-director Jenn Wexler (making her feature debut) and co-writer Giaco Furino cook up such a simple, enticing plot hook for an ‘80s-inspired slasher pic in the great outdoors, but it is in its linking of a tough yet vulnerable young woman and a killer park ranger as sort-of kindred spirits that lends a little meat to an otherwise bare-bones 77 minutes of pick-‘em-off tropes. What the film often lacks in suspense, “The Ranger” finds enough freshness and an ultimate catharsis to go with its inherent conventions.

After fleeing a city punk club busted by the cops, pink-haired Chelsea (Chloë Levine) is cornered on the street and then saved by hot-headed boyfriend Garth (Granit Lahu), who stabs a police officer. Hopping in a getaway van belonging to runaway Amber (Amanda Grace Benitez), the two go on the lam with their friends, couple Jerk (Jeremy Pope) and Abe (Bubba Weiler). Garth hatches a plan for them to lay low, squatting in Chelsea’s late uncle’s cabin in the woods until everything blows over, but first, these rowdy kids stop at a convenience store in town, where their littering and disrespectful back-talking rubs a park ranger (Jeremy Holm) the wrong way. Once making it to the cabin, they tag trees, build a bonfire, and play their loud punk music, much to Chelsea’s chagrin as her past catches up with her. When a shot is fired, ending the party and injuring one of them, the park’s dementedly strict ranger begins taking out the punks for violating the laws of his mountain.

Setting a tone of uncertainty, “The Ranger” opens with a gunshot echoing over the edge of a cliff with a young Chelsea (Jeté Laurence), who will be forever changed. For the next thirty minutes, the film is a loosely paced hang, tagging along with these unruly, drug-addled punk-rock characters as they go on the run and mistake a cabin in the woods as a safe haven. Save for Chelsea, the rest of the punk characters are thinly developed and mostly unlikable, though it’s no fault of the performers, who play the obnoxious, authority-hating kids as written.

Chloë Levine (2016’s “The Transfiguration”) is most sympathetic and brings extra shading to edgy “final girl” Chelsea, who has repressed the traumatic memory of the last time she visited her uncle (Larry Fessenden) at his cabin; since the tragic death of her uncle, her life has continued to be filled with toxic men, including Garth, Chelsea’s controlling asshole of a boyfriend. It is nice to see a same-sex couple normalized without anyone commenting on it and then getting equal-opportunity to become slasher fodder, too, but if Jerk and Abe had been distinguished beyond their physical appearances to make us care about them, their demises would sting more and be more affecting. The ranger in question is not a random, masked killer but an authority figure from Chelsea’s past, and Jeremy Holm (TV’s “Mr. Robot”) essays a heightened, threatening version of Smokey Bear with unforced creepiness in the ownership he feels he has over Chelsea. Until a deliriously strange scene in the ranger’s basement where a survivor is placed in a cage, Holm’s performance is gleefully off-kilter yet in control at all times.

As a nasty genre piece, “The Ranger” does pack a visceral kick once it gets going, with the ranger’s separate use of a bear trap and an axe viciously bloody and appropriately wince-inducing. The time period isn’t clear, but without cell phones, leaps in plausibility are solved in that these kids can’t easily call for help once their lives are placed in danger. When writers Jess Wexler and Giaco Furino gradually show their hand, the film grows a bit anticlimactic, not milking as much tension out of some of the showdowns as it could have (a brief cat-and-mouse game in an empty convenience store comes to mind). Before finishing strong with a fiercely satisfying final confrontation in a watchtower, the film firmly sticks with Chelsea, whose personal conflict and arc are the main thrust of the narrative. Ostensibly a scrappy indie throwback to the slashers of yore, “The Ranger” holds more impact as a survival drama about a young woman facing her buried trauma in her male-dominated life and taking her freedom back once and for all.

Grade: B - 

Monday, August 13, 2018

Cruel Summer: "Summer of '84" hits a nostalgic sweet spot as Hardy Boys mystery

Summer of ’84 (2018)
105 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

"Stand by Me." "The 'Burbs." "Disturbia." Netflix sensation "Stranger Things." Comparisons come easy with “Summer of ’84,” a Spielbergian pastiche of a boy-who-cried-wolf coming-of-ager, a Hardy Boys mystery, and a horror film. With the oft-recycled iconography of kids riding around on their bikes, using walkie talkies, and solving a mystery over the course of one memorable summer, the film hits a nostalgic sweet spot without trying too hard. Collectively known as Road Kill Super Stars (RKSS for short), directors François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell, who showed their stuff in 2015’s giddily over-the-top VHS-schlock homage “Turbo Kid,” opt for a lower key and a more dangerous vision, working from a script by writers Matt Leslie & Stephen J. Smith. If “Summer of ’84” feels generally derivative, it has familiar charms and affection for its influences, as well as a pall of darkness and melancholy.

“It all might seem normal and routine, but the truth is: the suburbs are where the craziest shit happens,” claims 15-year-old conspiracy theorist Davey Armstrong (Graham Verchere) in the early days of his 1984 summer vacation in Ipswich, Oregon. When he's not on his neighborhood newspaper route, Davey spends his summer days with his trio of close friends—Tommy “Eats” Eaton (Judah Lewis), Dale “Woody” Woodworth (Caleb Emery), and Curtis Farraday (Cory Gruter-Andrew)—hanging out in their treehouse to look at dirty magazines and debate between Ewoks and Gremlins, frequenting the local bowling alley, and playing a nighttime game of hide-and-seek. A dark cloud soon hovers over the town of Ipswich as a serial killer the news calls the “Cape May Slayer” begins murdering teenage boys. When Davey considers Mr. Wayne Mackey (Rich Sommer), the nice, single police officer across the street who buys a lot of dirt for his garden, as a suspect, he convinces his pals to observe Mackey’s daily routine, break into his home, and find some concrete evidence to prove his theory is correct.

Without beating one over the head, “Summer of ’84” uses its specific timeframe as a feeling of more innocent times juxtaposed with a threat right across the street. The film takes its time establishing Davey, his home life with his parents, and his close-knit circle of friends before the mystery of the serial killer gets underway with stakeouts and investigations. As the main entry point into the story, Graham Verchere (TV’s “Fargo”) makes Davey an appealing boy hero; notably, when Davey is caught snooping around by Mr. Mackey and must put on a normal face, Verchere does a more believable job than most actors in recent memory. While they might feel molded out of archetypes, the remaining three kids are all likable, and they look and sound like real kids. Caleb Emery is a sympathetic standout as the sensitive, chubby Woody, and Judah Lewis and Cory Gruter-Andrew make the most of the half-formed Eats and Curtis. A charismatic Tiera Skovbye is also welcome as dream girl Nikki Kaszuba, the pretty next-door babysitter whom Davey has pined for and peeps on, but she actually gives him the time of day. Rounding out the cast is Rich Sommer (TV’s “Mad Men”), who admirably underplays the suspect part of Mr. Wayne Mackey and keeps one guessing as to whether he really is the “Cape May Slayer” or not.

Clearly aiming for a template of movies the filmmakers were raised on, “Summer of ’84” easily feels like it could have been made the very year in which it is set (Le Matos’ killer synth-heavy score and the use of Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer” help seal the deal). Like many before it, the film knows when to offer some levity, courtesy of the adolescent boys’ amusing interplay, to release the tension. Daring to play with expectations, the nervy final fifteen minutes throws in a sucker punch that might put off some viewers, but it only heightens the life-and-death quotient and the false sense of security that much more. Needless to say, as a throwback to films of yesteryear, “Summer of ’84” does not feel the need to reinvent the wheel, but it solidly captures the time, not only the era but a young boy’s first brush with mortality and doom-laden paranoia when nobody believes a kid.


Friday, August 10, 2018

Big Ass Shark: "The Meg" pulls back too much but still entertains as half-cheeky, half-straight fun

The Meg (2018)
114 min., rated PG-13.

Without competing to be this summer’s “Jaws,” or an effective shark thriller like “The Shallows” and “47 Meters Down,” or even something as outlandishly parodic as a “Sharknado,” “The Meg” passes or fails with a litmus test: do you want to see a movie involving a ginormous prehistoric shark that bleeds from action star Jason Statham? Yes, yes you do. With a grislier, go-for-broke, R-rated vision in adapting Steve Alten’s 1997 novel “Meg,” it could have gone the “Piranha 3D” route with Eli Roth at the helm when he was attached early on in the pre-production process, but director Jon Turteltaub (2013’s “Last Vegas”) and screenwriters Dean Georgaris (2006’s “Tristan & Isolde”), Jon Hoeber & Erich Hoeber (2013’s “Red 2”) straddle the line between playing things straight and cheerfully embracing the ridiculousness of their premise without much winking. “The Meg” is as smart as bait, but it is just the ticket as a tongue-in-cheek late-summer entertainment. Does the film feel like its dorsal fin was clipped a bit to attract a wider audience? Sure, but judged strictly on its own merits, it is still a tasty commercial crowd-pleaser.

At the Mana One research station 200 miles off the coast of China, billionaire investor Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson) drops in to see what he’s funding as a crew of scientists—including marine biologist Suyin (Li Bingbing), daughter of the facility’s founder Dr. Zhang (Winston Chao); operations manager Mac (Cliff Curtis); facility engineer Jaxx (Ruby Rose); physician Heller (Robert Taylor); and joke-cracking-in-a-panic remote pilot DJ (Page Kennedy)—hope to explore the depths of the Mariana Trench. When submarine pilot Lori (Jessica McNamee), along with crew members Toshi (Masi Oka) and The Wall (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), reach the ocean floor and go through a thermocline layer, it leads to them discovering a sub-ecosystem with species not known to science, particularly a giant creature that won’t let them leave. Their submarine gets trapped 11,000 meters down and the crew is losing oxygen. Called into duty is Lori’s ex-husband, deep sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Jason Statham), who botched a rescue in the Philippine Trench that left him having to make the tough decisions five years ago. He has since been living in booze-addled solitude in Thailand and must now combat with the same big threat he came across those years ago. Thought to be extinct for two-million years, a 75-foot prehistoric Megalodon shark is very much alive and ready to eat. Can Jonas and his crew stop the Meg before she heads toward the crowded beaches of Sanya Bay and chows down?

All in the name of fun, “The Meg” is what it is and makes few apologies for the most part. In setting up the characters and the discovery of the Meg, the film does take a half-hour to get moving, and in one of the film’s several nods to “Jaws,” it's a while before seeing the blood-thirsty shark. Outside of Jonas and Suyin, the majority of characters are just chum for the Meg. Some of the line readings, both comic and dramatic last-breath good-byes, fall flat, too. Fortunately, the Meg, herself, is a spectacularly beastly creation, powered by mostly convincing CGI and never losing her menace, and the first face-to-face encounter with the monster of the deep by Suyin’s 8-year-old daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai) in the underwater glass tubing of the Mana One is tense and memorable. There are just enough suspenseful situations for the characters to be placed in peril, from Jonas swimming toward the Meg in hopes of shooting it with a tracking device from a harpoon gun to then being reeled back to the boat, to Suyin daring to get inside an indestructible polycarbonate plastic shark cage, which becomes a chew toy for the Meg. One will also lose count in the number of times characters fall off the side of a boat and into the water at the worst moments. Aside from the obvious, there are a few specific homages to Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, like a bride’s Yorkie named Pippin, though the black Labrador retriever from the beaches of Amity was named Pippet, and a just-below-the-surface attack with the Meg turned on her side. 

Giving Dwayne Johnson a day-off, Jason Statham is in his element as Jonas Taylor, a steely hero with a haunted past but also a sense of humor (he sings “Just Keep Swimming” from “Finding Nemo”) and an out-of-the-shower moment to show off his washboard abs that haven’t yet been ruined by his binge-drinking. Statham also shares a cuter interplay with the adorable Sophia Cai, as Suyin’s precocious daughter Meiying, rather than the wedged-in romance with a charismatic Li Bingbing (2014’s “Transformers: Age of Extinction”). Though not everyone gets enough to do, the international ensemble gets to split up the film’s tone into comic relief and earnestness, Cliff Curtis, Rainn Wilson, and Page Kennedy particularly standing out. 

One can spot the missed opportunities where “The Meg” could have been leaner, meaner, and more decisively playful. It sometimes lags when it should be cutting to the chase. With the forced, sterilized PG-13 rating holding back the carnage a bit, it could have gone even more over-the-top and been boundless in dreaming up gruesomely balls-out ways for the Meg to gobble people up. Putting the early pacing issues and child-gloved shark violence aside, the film still entertains with a sheer lack of pretension when director John Turteltaub keeps delivering the sudden jolts, tense close-calls, literal shark jumping, and giddy excitement, particularly when the Meg hits the beach and comes across a buffet of beachgoers (including a poor schmuck rolling around in a giant hamster ball on the water). No one should be expecting great art with “The Meg” because it’s just what the marine biologist with a sense of humor ordered.

Grade: B - 

Pied Piper of Boresville: Spineless "Slender Man" fails to brand meme an enduring horror icon

Slender Man (2018)
93 min., rated PG-13.

The genesis of Slender Man, a thin, tall and faceless Pied Piper of sorts who abducts children, began as a “creepypasta” meme in 2009 on Something Awful’s website forum and has since became a dangerous viral sensation. A feature film revolving around Slender Man would seem exploitative after several real-life incidents resulted in teenage believers of the fictional figure being influenced to commit violent crimes, but “Slender Man” never effectively hits a raw nerve to even be offensive. Whether or not it’s another horror film victimized by MPAA negotiations and higher-up interference to obtain a teen-friendly rating—how else to explain why it feels so tame and incomplete?—the film being distributed by Sony Pictures and Screen Gems is a mess any way you slice it. Squandering any promise it had as a cinematic campfire tale, “Slender Man” is instead a dreary, gutless, undercooked horror effort that’s slim on tension and shocks, its PG-13-rated training wheels not doing it any favors.

When high school friends Hallie (Julia Goldani Telles), Wren (Joey King), Katie (Annalise Basso), and Chloe (Jaz Sinclair) learn that their male classmates are going to summon the child-snatching Slender Man, they get together for a sleepover to do the same by watching an online video full of ominous imagery and chiming bells. A week later, Katie is the one most affected, and being the daughter of an alcoholic father, she gets her wish of being anywhere but home when she goes missing during a field trip in their small Massachusetts town. With nowhere else to turn, Hallie, Wren, and Chloe do some digging and discover Katie, prior to her disappearance, went to the woods to summon Slender Man for herself, and the only way to find their missing friend is to offer something up to the boogeyman. The three end up going to the woods with an object they each care about and sit blindfolded, but when one of them removes her blindfold and looks into Slender Man’s eyes, the remaining few begin to have their realities warped. It’s only a matter of time before they all fall under the curse of the suit-wearing entity and go missing just like Katie.

Written by David Birke (2016’s “Elle”) and directed by Sylvain White (whose only horror background stems from 2006’s direct-to-video knockoff “I’ll Always Know What You Did Last Summer”), “Slender Man” fails to capitalize on the eerie mythos of its nightmarish title figure. The film actually doesn’t start off too bad, initially showing glimmers of the moody, restrained picture it might have been at one point. When Katie is the first to disappear, the emotional reality of the remaining three friends feels more authentic than most films of this ilk, as they actually mourn the mysterious loss of their friend and have trouble going on with their normal everyday lives. From thereon, the film becomes a repetitive cycle of tedious storytelling, as each girl has her mind toyed with and comes face to face with Slender Man. Wasting the talents of physicality of Javier Botem, who has previously brought so many spindly monsters to life with practical make-up, Slender Man is a weakly defined, rather bland boogeyman, who is compared to a virus, and at his savviest, he uses FaceTime to creep out two of his victims. 

The choppy second half smacks of compromise and feels noticeably mangled by studio-mandated cuts, abandoning characters who haven’t yet been taken by Slender Man. When Wren and Hallie go to Chloe’s house after she stops showing up to school and won’t answer their calls, they find Chloe staring outside her bedroom window like a zombie, and that’s the last anyone ever sees of her. A scene involving a science-class dissection comes and goes, not only failing to deliver a money shot with a scalpel that the film’s advertisements promised but actually framing the scene in a way that eliminates one of the key characters altogether. It’s just yet another scene clearly missing from the final cut. Most frustrating of all, there isn’t a legitimately unsettling moment to be found, just a series of fisheye-lensed, strange-for-the-sake-of-strange imagery; dream-within-dream sequences; and a lot of murky cinematography and dim lighting that don't help with any of the attempts at jump scares. Any “sighting” video of Slender Man is more hair-raising than anything in the film.

Tasked with carrying much of the film as main protagonist Hallie, a track-and-field star who is never seen practicing, Julia Goldani Telles (Showtime’s “The Affair”) is enough of a fresh-faced talent to give her character some shred of concern for the viewer. That’s more than what can be said for Annalise Basso (2017’s “Ouija: Origin of Evil”) and Jaz Sinclair (2016’s “When the Bough Breaks”), who just become fodder for Slender Man. It is Joey King (2017’s “Wish Upon”), the most well-known of the young actresses, who gives her all to this material as Wren, believably looking scared out of her wits during a blackout in the library stacks. Then again, none of the nondescript characters matter, each given very slender characterization. Before the tacked-on coda with a narration by a supporting character (Taylor Richardson as Hallie’s younger sister Lizzie), the last image involving a tree is the creepiest and most indelible, but not reason enough to slog through the spineless previous 90 minutes. Somehow incapable of inducing a single shiver and thoroughly unsatisfying all around, “Slender Man” makes one want to watch “Ringu,” “The Ring,” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” reference points that the film never reaches. If the filmmakers hoped to make Slender Man an enduring horror icon out of a fleeting cultural phenomenon with this film, they failed miserably.

Grade: D +

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Accidental Spies: Kunis and McKinnon make mid-level "Spy Who Loved Me" more diverting than it should be

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)
117 min., rated R.

For an action-comedy, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” often feels more like two movies slammed together than a deft hybrid of the two disparate genres. It's a sporadically funny comedy that champions the steadfast friendship at the center, and then it’s also a straight spy thriller strewn with a lot of stabbed, bullet-riddled bodies. 2015’s uproarious Melissa McCarthy vehicle “Spy” did it better, but as co-written by director Susanna Fogel (2014’s “Life Partners”) & David Iserson, this mid-level romp rides almost entirely on the easy, undeniably enjoyable chemistry between its two comic foils, as well as a few proficiently helmed action set-pieces. The premise is generally timeworn—two ordinary people get plucked into the espionage world—and yet “The Spy Who Dumped Me” is made watchable and diverting by the pair-up of the likably acerbic Mila Kunis and the confidently goofy, twinkle-eyed Kate McKinnon whose talents do not go untapped.

Los Angeles organic-market cashier Audrey (Mila Kunis) has just been dumped over a text message by her boyfriend, Drew (Justin Theroux). After celebrating her 30th birthday with out-of-work actress best friend Morgan (Kate McKinnon) and setting aflame to some of Drew’s things, Audrey learns that her ex is actually a CIA operative when a pair of agents, Sebastian (Sam Heughan) and Duffer (Hasan Minhaj), pull her into a van for questioning outside her workplace. She is oblivious to Drew’s real line of work, and not long after he reveals his occupational secret and that he broke it off for her own safety, he is gunned down at her apartment. Drew’s dying wish is to have Audrey deliver a package (an important flash drive hidden in the base of a fantasy-football trophy) to a source at a cafe in Vienna, Austria, so that leaves Audrey, with Morgan in tow, to trot the globe while trying to dodge bullets. As their misadventures pile up in Prague, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam, so do the bodies, and in working on their first big mission as spies, Audrey and Morgan could get used to this.

Despite the title being an obvious spin on 1977's 007 outing “The Spy Who Loved Me,” “The Spy Who Dumped Me” isn't really a satire or some some tired spy-movie spoof, but rather a comedy that takes its spy-movie carnage seriously. To wit: a gun-wielding woman has her forearm stabbed, a man’s head gets plunged into a steaming pot of fondue, an innocent Uber driver is shot in the head, a villain is impaled on a spike, and a thumb is severed to unlock a phone. Given director Susanna Fogel’s last directorial effort being a low-key indie about a female friendship, the action is actually skillfully staged, given a major assist by “Bourne” and “Bond” stunt coordinator Gary Powell, particularly the desaturated-toned opening set in Lithuania where Drew throws himself into action. At the same time, the tonal balance between all of the madcap comedy and eyebrow-raising, bone-crunching violence can be jarring. It takes an adroit touch to swing from comedic quips to R-rated violence, a touch that doesn’t always play comfortably here, but Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon do a lot to smooth over this hurdle and any of the inconsequential plot mechanics involving the McGuffin-y flash drive.

Mila Kunis’ Audrey is the straight woman in the equation, but as the dumpee in the title, Kunis brings a grounded sympathy and natural pluck to someone who never finishes anything and feels she should be doing more with her life. No longer on the margins, Kate McKinnon is as front and center as Kunis, and she is a go-for-broke giggle generator with an excitability that cannot be faked or tamed. Here, her lovable, intensely alive co-leading turn as "too-much" Morgan (the discovery of her last name earns a chuckle) gives the “SNL” breakout plenty of room to turn it up. Not only is Morgan a big personality but a big feminist, so much in fact that she becomes awestruck when she meets the head of MI6, Wendy (played by an icy but not humorless British-accented Gillian Anderson), whom Morgan admirably calls “a real-life Judi Dench” and “the Beyoncé of the government” in the same scene. McKinnon is such a brilliant, scene-stealing comedienne, punching up one-liners with her sharp, inspired comic deliveries and daffy facial reactions not unlike Madeline Kahn, that she exists on a higher plane of her own making. Kunis and McKinnon are terrific bouncing off one another, making Audrey and Morgan's bond more significant than the flash drive sought after by intelligence agencies and terrorists. Thankfully, the script never contrives a falling-out for these two friends but only brings them closer. Audrey does, however, get the option of a new romantic rebound in the form of Sam Heughan (TV’s “Outlander”), who’s physically able in the hand-to-hand combat scenes and has rugged good looks as dashing MI6 agent Sebastian. As one-note as their parts are, Jane Curtain and Paul Reiser are also very funny in brief, other-side-of-the-phone scenes as Morgan’s oversharing New Jersey parents. And then, ready for her close-up in a sadistic thriller, Ivanna Sakhno is frighteningly chilling as dead-eyed model-gymnast assassin Nadedja whose only true friend is a balance beam.

More violent and bloody than one might be expecting in a studio action-farce starring Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon, “The Spy Who Dumped Me” somehow remains spirited by the very nature of its two stars. Much of the humor is situational—Audrey and Morgan hijack an older couple’s car until realizing it’s a stick shift; they end up having to get behind the wheel of an Uber driver’s car while evading bullets; and Morgan goes undercover as a trapeze artist at a Cirque du Soleil performance—and director Fogel finds a way to make most of these fish-out-of-water situations fresh. There is a funny setup and payoff to an Edward Snowden joke and also a rather amusingly critical observation at the expense of dumb American tourists when Nadedja is tasked to kill Audrey and Morgan but finds other interchangeable targets that fit the same description through her scope. Not every joke lands—two needless gags involving diarrhea mercifully stop before going too far and could have been excised entirely—but the source of most of the laughs comes from the stars knocking a surprising one-liner out of the park. “The Spy Who Dumped Me” might not be as consistently side-splitting as one hopes it would be, and the 117-minute film could have afforded to lose at least fifteen minutes when Audrey and Morgan face one double-cross too many. When Kunis and McKinnon get to just do their thing, it really cooks.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Night of the Creeps: Crampton a reliably wicked highlight in bonkers but ultimately unsatisfying "Dead Night"

Dead Night (2018)
82 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Jumping through a few different horror subgenres as it goes along, “Dead Night” (which, for some reason, was changed from original title “Applecart”) is far more bizarre than its generic, dime-a-dozen title might suggest. Director Bradford Baruh, making his feature debut, and screenwriter Irving Walker devise a peculiar grab-bag of cabin-in-the-woods horror, home invasion thriller, creature feature, and the occult with polished production values. Even before the crazy, blood-soaked inciting incident occurs, it grabs one’s attention, but when the film splits its time with a distracting, momentum-stalling framing device and then jumps the rails into nonsense, “Dead Night” gradually pulls the viewer out of its devious, gruesome spell. 

Casey Pollack (Brea Grant) drives her family to the Oregon woods for a spiritual healing retreat in a cabin built on top of an iron oxide deposit after her husband, James (AJ Bowen), has been diagnosed with cancer. With their two kids, Jessica (Sophie Dahl) and Jason (Joshua Hoffman), and Jessica’s friend Becky (Elise Luthman) in tow, they settle in and get dinner started, until James finds a woman unconscious outside in the snow. The woman is Leslie Bison (Barbara Crampton), a politician running for governor, and while the Pollak family offers her spaghetti and warmth, she begins acting ungrateful and asking rudely forward questions. Once James asks her to leave, things turn ugly fast. 

Director Bradford Baruh is efficient with character introductions, utilizes his wintry milieu to set a nightmarish mood, and then confidently escalates uneasy tension, while one jolt in the snow-covered forest actually reminds of the unforgettable hospital hallway sequence in 1990's "The Exorcist III." What doesn’t help with suspense or urgency is how the current action is haphazardly intercut with faux true-crime show “Inside Crime,” complete with interviews, reenactments, and a hokey host (Daniel Roebuck), indicating how the story ends; the heinous murders that ensue are pinned on Casey, earning her the name “Axe Mom.” This dual-narrative conceit is an ambitious way to shake up a seemingly familiar story and play with perception of reality, but it might have worked more successfully had the crime show preceded the rest of the film or succeeded it as a bit of twisted irony. Where "Dead Night" shifts into Lovecraftian, "Evil Dead"-adjacent territory is bonkers and out of left field, although foreshadowed in the film's creepy-turned-gory 1961-set prologue. All the while, as the Pollacks arrive to the cabin, a white-cloaked figure lurks outside, seems to be brewing something in the woods that looks like a giant butt plug, and watches Casey’s case on “Inside Crime” on a bunch of televisions as if it were a future event.

The highlight of “Dead Night” is that it has an ace up its sleeve in the form of respected genre goddess Barbara Crampton. Though her sinister motivations will be preserved as mysterious as they are in the film, Crampton is a wicked presence at the center as Leslie Bison, and she seems to be having a ball in the part with a devil’s wink. The rest of the performances are all competent in bringing credibility to the wild goings-on, too. Brea Grant (2016’s “Beyond the Gates”), in particular, brings a sobering reality to her role of Casey, fiercely protecting her brood when she has to but then learning that the fates of her family are sealed and cannot be reversed. There’s also blood by the bucket and effectively icky, gooey practical effects on a limited budget to divert horror fans. When it's finally revealed what is actually going down in the woods, the final payoff of "Dead Night" isn't so much satisfying as it feels misguided and silly, despite Crampton being all in.