Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Step Up with LSD: "Climax" off-putting but intoxicating and unforgettable

Climax (2019)
95 min.
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Limited) 

Not afraid of stirring up controversy, pushing limits, or daring audiences to walk out in disgust, iconoclastic writer-director Gaspar Noé (2015’s “Love”) runs with his artistic freedom, specializing in swirling, disorienting camerawork; graphic sex, violence and drug use; and just a general unsparing, rule-breaking danger. With his latest insane, French-and-proud-of-it provocation “Climax”—Noé’s fifth feature in twenty years—all those elements are here, plus the art of dance, and already baked into Noé’s adventurous modus operandi of filmmaking, so all naysayers need not apply. Inspiring ambivalence, “Climax” is alternately an endurance test and pure art-house cinema: it’s exasperating and off-putting, confrontational and self-indulgent, and daring and transfixing. There really is no way to passively watch a film like this, as Gaspar Noé might as well be saying, “You’ve seen nothing yet.”

It’s 1996 and a French dance troupe made up of twentysomethings from all over the world is about to tour America. They’ve been rehearsing for three days in a former boarding school and now they’re ready to imbibe and party after their last rehearsal. Choreographer Selva (Sofia Boutella) is flirting with “walking STD” dancer David (Romain Guillermic), who’s not done sleeping with all of the female dancers; Taylor (Taylor Kastle) does not approve of his sister Gazelle’s (Giselle Palmer) boyfriend Omar (Adrien Sissoko); lesbian lovers Psyche (Thea Carla Schott) and Ivana (Sharleen Temple) are having trouble in paradise; Lou (Souheila Yacoub) isn't drinking because she's pregnant yet hasn’t told anyone; and the creative leader, Emmanuelle (Claude Gajan Maull), has her young son Tito (Vince Galliot Cumant) with her before putting him to bed. When Selva is the first to not feel well and then one of the dancers empties her bladder right on the dance floor, it seems someone has spiked the communal bowl of sangria with a potent batch of LSD, resulting in a violently paranoid mob mentality, guttural screaming and crying, and hedonistic-turned-bestial impulses that run rampant. 

“Climax” begins with a bird’s-eye view of a woman stumbling through a blanket of snow, until she collapses. She starts making a snow angel, blending the white snow with crimson red from her blood-covered body and then proceeding to scream and crawl. Presumably, this woman is the possible survivor of a harrowing situation, and then, like Gaspar Noé’s other works, the end credits roll as if we have already watched the film, coupled with a text reading that the film was based upon a true event in 1996. Then we are introduced to the many members—maybe twenty or so—of the dance troupe through a playback of their talking-head auditions on an old TV. Surrounding the boxy TV are books and VHS tapes of Dario Argento’s “Suspiria,” Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession,” Lucio Fulci’s “Zombie,” and many more of Noé's influences. The first dance sequence, set to Cerrone's disco-electronic "Supernature" and mastered in a single take, is electrifying and and breathtakingly staged as the dancers krump, vogue, bone break and flex, and sensuously slide across the floor, and it will easily end up being one of the most rewatchable cinematic moments this year. Before the LSD kicks in, there’s a ten-odd-minute patience-test of the characters, usually two together in the frame, sharing petty gossip, making confessions, and crudely talking about sex, as if to get a sense of who these people are beyond their shared talent. As “Climax” pulses along without an escape, watching it is like being the only sober one at a party where everyone else is in an altered state; in a way, the film is not outwardly trippy as much as the viewer is a witness to everyone’s bad trip.

If nothing else, “Climax” is a technical wonder, with Gaspar Noé and cinematographer Benoît Debie’s (2013’s “Spring Breakers”) virtuoso collaboration of the always-moving camera assisting in sustaining an edgy mood through long takes and rave-like lighting. Apart from the masterful opening dance routine, there is a hypnotic overhead shot of a high-energy dance circle that slowly but surely takes a turn, some of the dancers getting more aggressive and three them laying on the floor by the end, clearly feeling the early effects of the acid (followed by a thirty-minutes-in flash of the main credits). At a later point, once the madness has already struck, the camera flips on the floor as if the drugged-out dancers appear to be an orgy of intensely writhing and thrashing bodies on the ceiling. Improvising off a five-page treatment, the entire cast is fearlessly uninhibited and spontaneous, game to be placed through the wringer and take their minds and bodies to frenzied extremes. Sofia Boutella (2018’s “Hotel Artemis”), a former professional dancer, is the only recognizable face and the only working actor in the bunch, and she is captivating to watch with the willingness to dive into the physically and emotionally draining demands with a freakout involving her black tights.

While the easily offended and weak-stomached will find the film repellent and unwatchable, Gaspar Noé’s most fiercest defenders might even fool themselves into believing there is more here than a nightmarish experience. It’s hard to say what lives under the surface—text flashes on the screen, like “Life is a collective impossibility” and “Death is an extraordinary experience,” as if to lend meaning—and how much of Noé’s intoxicating high-wire artistry actually serves the storytelling and how much of it is just the ballsy auteur’s urge to shock and show off. Even at 95 minutes, “Climax” is a wildly challenging, often numbingly repetitive sit that overwhelms, mesmerizes, and intimidates. If it never quite achieves the emotional heartbreak as 2010’s mind-blowingly transcendent, legitimately great “Enter the Void,” there’s still no way to deny Noé’s berserk descent into hell and loss of control being effectively visceral and unforgettable. Indifference isn’t really an option for a dizzying, brain-melting sensory assault that is hard to endure but even harder to shake.

Grade: B -

Friday, March 8, 2019

Just a Girl with Fireball Fists: "Captain Marvel" a good start with Brie Larson owning title role

Captain Marvel (2019)
124 min.
Release Date: March 8, 2019 (Wide)

Since the DC Cinematic Universe scored with 2017’s “Wonder Woman,” Marvel Studios finally decided to play long-overdue catch-up with their bid to give a female superhero—Carol “Vers” Danvers—the chance to headline a solo origin story, so it’s impossible not to root for “Captain Marvel.” Beyond this being groundbreaking for Marvel, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (2015’s “Mississippi Grind”), who co-wrote the script with Geneva Robertson-Dworet (2018’s “Tomb Raider”), get stuck with the setup phase, which they at least construct as an amnesiac mystery, and are obligated to fit their title character into the grander universe. Even as the twenty-first entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it somehow feels more like a Phase One installment by not showcasing the best of which Marvel is capable, though it’s thankfully not as forgettable and underwhelming as 2010’s “Iron Man 2” and 2013’s “Thor: The Dark World.” “Captain Marvel” proves sturdily entertaining and empowering all the same, but the best is likely yet to come.

Plagued by strange dreams, Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) still has no memory of her life before living on planet Hala, colonized by the Kree, but after being rescued from a crash, she has been mentored and groomed into a warrior by commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who calls her “Vers.” He urges Vers to fight without using her superpowered abilities, like blasting fireballs out of her fists, and Kree’s A.I. ruler Supreme Intelligence (Annette Bening) tells her to control her emotions. During a mission with Yon-Rogg and Kree’s Starforce team, Vers is captured by the shape-shifting enemy Skrulls, led by Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), to read her mind and then escapes, hurtling towards Earth and landing inside a Blockbuster Video (the time period is 1995). To Vers, Earth is Planet C-53, and once she attracts the attention of a younger, pre-eyepatch-wearing Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Vers will discover how she started as an Air Force fighter pilot, and together, they will have to put an end to the intergalactic war and protect cosmic cube Tesseract.

Marvel has continued to hire exciting filmmakers to bring a signature style and really let their creative personalities shine through. With “Captain Marvel,” it should come as no surprise that co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s first giant, effects-driven tentpole shines the best during the quieter, human-centered scenes, like when Carol and Nick Fury are just bantering or when Carol goes to Louisiana to visit best friend/co-pilot Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) and Maria’s 11-year-old daughter Monica (Akira Akbar). After all, Boden and Fleck are known for indies, like 2010’s disarming gem “It’s Kind of a Funny Story,” and have previously worked on a much smaller scale, so it is a bit disappointing that their action scenes aren’t as confidently helmed, often rendering them murky and choppily edited. There are rousing if not exactly memorable action set-pieces, and if there are any sequences that stand out, there is an entertaining double chase on a train between Carol and a Skrull, who keeps shape-shifting into different train passengers, as Fury and Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg) are chasing Carol below the train. 

Pay no attention to the misogynistic, “He-Man Woman Haters Club” trolls: the inestimable Brie Larson is well-cast and wonderful as Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. Defining the role as well as Robert Downey Jr. did with Tony Stark, she has a plucky, no-nonsense but charismatic presence with a quip at the ready; sick of being told that she’s too emotional, Carol is an ass-kicker but also a peacemaker. The character doesn’t experience a conventional A-to-B growth, nor has she been written with many interesting flaws besides rebelliousness, but what she learns about herself is more of an internal arc, and the viewer discovers more about Carol at the same rate she begins to fill in the blanks of her past. Looking like he just wrapped “Die Hard with a Vengeance,” Samuel L. Jackson gets to be funny and loose, sharing a playful, snappy buddy-comedy chemistry, and shows a softer side when it comes to kitty cats. The most seamless effects work actually happens to be the “fountain of youth” digital trickery for Jackson’s Nick Fury, and Goose the cat is also a scene-stealer with a surprise that makes him more than just a furry feline. Lashana Lynch provides warmth and strength as Carol’s best friend Maria, and her reunion with Carol might make up the film’s most affecting moments and could have been deepened even more. Annette Bening and Jude Law certainly make do with their allegiance-shifting roles, but it is Ben Mendelsohn, who has played a number of baddies and brings unexpected shading and comic timing in his reptilian make-up to Skrull leader Talos that will surprise viewers to have their opinion of him change over the course of the film.

With such high expectations for Marvel to keep striving for more and hitting a successful stride, particularly with their “firsts” like 2014’s unapologetically goofy “Guardians of the Galaxy,” 2016’s visually exciting “Doctor Strange” and 2018’s culturally significant “Black Panther,” “Captain Marvel” is a good but unspectacular start. The incorporation of ’90s-era nostalgia does contribute to the fun without overdoing it, including references to dial-up Internet, payphones, pagers and tied-at-the-waist flannel shirts, and decade-specific tunes, like TLC’s “Waterfalls,” Nirvana’s Come As You Are,” Hole’s “Celebrity Skin,” and No Doubt’s “Just a Girl,” which is prominently used. There’s also a very nice tribute to Stan Lee in the studio logo, as well as a requisite cameo that will make filmmaker Kevin Smith especially happy. If “Captain Marvel” rakes in the dough—and it will—it leaves room for improvement in a sequel now that the table has been set in introducing Carol Danvers. Whether going by Carol Danvers, Vers, or Captain Marvel, she is a welcome addition to the MCU and the Avengers, as she will make a formidable force against Thanos.

Grade: B -

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Not My Son: "Hole in the Ground" a well-acted, beautifully moody build-up with a letdown of a payoff

The Hole in the Ground (2019) 
90 min.
Release Date: February 26, 2019 (VOD); March 1, 2019 (Limited)

Director Lee Cronin’s feature debut “The Hole in the Ground,” a character-driven, Ireland-made horror piece he co-wrote with Stephen Shields, almost comes close to being on the level of previous bold horror-centric acquisitions from indie film distributor A24. While it feels cut from a more conventional cloth than other thematically similar films, particularly Leigh Janiak’s “Honeymoon” and even a little of Jennifer Kent’s “The Babadook," it still wisely trusts in the emotional underpinning of a mother-son story that taps into the unnerving notion of a parent not always feeling like they recognize their child. “The Hole in the Ground” may not break much new ground, but it does kindle some eerie imagery and assured performances from its two actors.

Ready for a fresh start away from her abusive husband, young mother Sarah O’Neill (Seána Kerslake) makes the move with son Chris (James Quinn Markey) to a rural fixer-upper near a small Irish village. Her biggest concern is Chris adjusting to his new school and making friends. Soon after an encounter with a catatonic neighbor woman, Noreen Brady (Kati Outinen), standing in the middle of the road, Chris runs off into the woods, where Sarah finds a gigantic sinkhole. She finds her son and gets him back home safe and sound, but thereafter, something doesn’t seem quite right about Chris. When Sarah and Chris come across Noreen again, this time in front of their house, the old woman tells Sarah, “It’s not your boy,” and bashes her head into Chris’ passenger window. Chalking the incident up to Noreen’s mental illness, Sarah confides in Noreen’s husband, Des (James Cosmo), who lost his son, and sure enough, Chris’ new behavior—he is no longer petrified of spiders and he pours parmesan cheese on his spaghetti, even though he used to hate it—proves Sarah’s suspicions to be correct that the boy who answers to “Chris” is an imposter.

From the start, there is a sinister level of portent in the beautifully shot early frames of “The Hole in the Ground.” Chris’ reflection is distorted in a funhouse mirror (the first of a recurring motif) at a seemingly abandoned carnival with his mother, and then Stephen McKeon’s dread-inducing score kicks in before a topsy-turvy overhead shot of Sarah’s car traveling down a forest road to assure audiences this won’t be a sweet bedtime story. The film isn’t coy about its genre leanings, but there is a restraint and a measured pacing to how Lee Cronin lets his minimalist chiller unfold without any cheap scare tactics. It is strange that Sarah never seems to report the dangerous sinkhole or mention it to anyone, but at 90 minutes, the film is otherwise tightly constructed and looks and sounds terrific. 

Seána Kerslake is compelling as loving mother Sarah, who’s medicated and dips into a state of paranoia that the viewer isn’t sure what she’s seeing can be trusted. Newcomer James Quinn Markey solidly sells the personality of the real Chris, a normal child who likes playing a goofy-face game on the count of three with his mother but struggles making friends in a new school, and then capably turns on the creepy aloofness of a changeling. Even if the climax is a bit anticlimactic compared to the atmospheric build-up, “The Hole in the Ground” remains attentive to its characters and achieves a mood that is creepy, unsettling, if not exactly frightening, and finally open to ambiguity. It’s effective enough that one is excited to see what nightmarish scenario Lee Cronin cooks up next.

Grade: B -

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Find Something, Leave It: Huppert turns formulaic "Greta" into nutso camp

Greta (2019)
98 min.
Release Date: March 1, 2019 (Wide)

If it weren’t for the “…from Hell” thriller label the film embraces, “Greta” would pan out as a lovely platonic May-December relationship drama about loneliness, but that would make it far less twisted, bonkers, and fun to watch. Writer-director Neil Jordan (2012’s “Byzantium”) and co-writer Ray Wright (2010’s “The Crazies”) approach the material with just enough of a wink, recognizing what kind of movie they’re making and diving wildly into a blurred mix of camp and black comedy. As the “Single White Female”-esque surrogate-mother-from-Hell entry in this well-worn but admittedly irresistible sub-genre, “Greta” is a high-end B-movie with a pedigree (and a warning against being a Good Samaritan). It’s formulaic and prefers not to get psychologically deep, but given a major lift by a gleefully unhinged performance by Isabelle Huppert (2016’s “Elle”) and Chloë Grace Moretz’s emotionally vital and forthright presence.

After her mother passed away a year ago, recent college graduate Frances McMullen (Chloë Grace Moretz) left Boston to live in Manhattan with her best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe), in a Tribeca apartment that Erica’s Daddy bought. About to get off at her stop on the subway, she finds a handbag that belongs to an older woman. Despite the street-smart Erica urging her not to, Frances decides to return it to its rightful owner, Greta Hideg (Isabelle Huppert), a friendly French widow who lives alone since her daughter left for Paris. Greta is so grateful and invites Frances inside for coffee, and from there, they begin an unlikely friendship that fills the void in each other’s life. They make dinner together and play piano, and Frances tags along with Greta to adopt a dog that’s about to be put to sleep. Everything is going well, until Frances is at Greta’s home and finds a cabinet full of handbags identical to the one she found on the subway, along with other women’s names and phone numbers on post-it notes. Realizing she has been manipulated and took the bait, Frances shuts down Greta, ignoring her many calls and voicemails and leans into Greta when she shows up at the fine dining restaurant where Frances works. Greta’s stalking worsens, though, as she stands outside the restaurant for hours on end and makes it clear that she’s not going anywhere until Frances remains her friend because, as Greta says, “Everyone needs a friend.”

Anyone who has ever seen a movie about a possessive, aggrieved character who doesn’t take rejection lightly will catch on before Frances does, but that’s customary in this type of film. A De Palma-esque dream within a dream besides, “Greta” takes on a loony, almost surreal logic, as the script strains credulity to give Greta supernatural powers of sorts, like the ability to be unseen, to show up in Frances’ face when she least expects it, and to gain access into Frances’ apartment. Seemingly normal and sophisticated at first, Greta takes some time to reveal that she isn’t playing with a full deck, doesn’t know the definition of personal space, and will keep turning the screws until Frances pays attention to her. Not unlike Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest, Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Hedy Carlson, Greta has clearly lost her mental stability through years of loneliness, her new obsession stemming from her maternal love and neediness, which gives her traces of pathetic vulnerability before showing her certifiably dangerous capabilities. Clearly having a ball as the villain, the divine Isabelle Huppert is fascinating to watch as she makes Greta's insanity feel controlled at times and intensely explosive at others, and she manages to find surprising, darkly amusing notes to play in a mostly stock role. Watching Huppert spit her gum out into her younger co-star’s hair, joyously twirl around like a deranged ballerina when she goes in for the kill, and then make a huge scene by flipping a table at a restaurant is delicious popcorn-entertainment fodder.

Chloë Grace Moretz is sympathetic as the impressionable Frances, who aside from seeing the good in people doesn’t make many dumb mistakes (even if she doesn’t just block Greta’s number); she calls the police in the early stages of Greta's stalking, even if their efforts are ineffectual, and when she’s finally captured by Greta, Frances does deserve points for making a feisty getaway attempt. Maika Monroe (2015’s “It Follows”) also sparkles as the privileged, yoga-stretching Erica, a would-be throwaway role that the actress enlivens with sharp line readings and no-nonsense, Greek chorus-like intelligence, while Stephen Rea (who tends to work with director Jordan) steps in as a private eye who might as well be wearing a name tag that reads, “Next Victim.” 

What seems largely derivative remains eminently watchable the juicier and more overwrought “Greta” gets, and director Neil Jordan unabashedly inserts menacing musical stings to punch up the horror-thriller dread. A sequence where Frances begins receiving real-time photos of an unsuspecting Erica at a bar on her phone from a sneaky Greta is a tensely creepy highlight, and the use of a cookie cutter in self-defense is bloody inspired. While the table-turning finale adheres to the climactic undead-killer and to-the-death showdown tropes, it still satisfies immensely. There comes a point where it’s hard to take much of "Greta" seriously, but then again, Neil Jordan presumably doesn’t want us to take this nutso, slickly shot psychodrama as seriously as his performers who are committing 100%. 


Friday, February 22, 2019

Keeping it in the Ring: "Fighting with My Family" a warm, funny winner even for the wrestling-averse viewer

Fighting with My Family (2019)
108 min.
Release Date: February 22, 2019 (Wide)

When a movie centered around a subject that one has zero interest in (i.e. pro wrestling) can entertain and make the viewer care through and through, it has to be doing something right. So it goes with “Fighting with My Family,” a thoroughly engaging underdog sports saga that gives World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Paige the fictionalized biographical treatment, itself inspired by a 2012 hour-long British documentary special “The Wrestlers: Fighting with My Family.” Written and directed by Stephen Merchant (co-creator of TV’s “The Office”), the film sports sharp humor, humane sensitivity, and a little insight into the professional world of WWE and the over-the-top pageantry that comes with it, along with a winning lead performance by rising star Florence Pugh (2017’s “Lady Macbeth”). Leaving skepticism and all preconceived notions at the door, “Fighting with My Family” will surprise as an early-2019 gem that won’t require wrestling-averse audiences to know Big Show from Sheamus.

Born with wrestling in her blood in Norwich, England, scrappy 18-year-old Saraya-Jade Bevis (Florence Pugh) has always dreamed of joining the WWE one day and now goes by the moniker “Paige” (Rose McGowan’s Paige on TV’s “Charmed” is her favorite character). Having been trained by their working-class parents, ex-con Patrick “Rowdy Ricky Knight” (Nick Frost) and Julia “Sweet Saraya” (Lena Headey), she and older brother Zak “Zodiac” (Jack Lowden) know every move in the ring, and together as a family, they run a local wrestling gym for troubled youths and manage an indie wrestling league in their close-knit community. Both Paige and Zak get their breakout chance when they’re invited to try out for WWE talent scout and coach Hutch Morgan (Vince Vaughn) in London. Tensions arise between siblings when Paige only makes the cut to train in the WWE’s NXT boot camp. When Paige gets to Orlando, she learns how hard the training really is and that her Hot Topic-attired oddball image might not exactly be the typical WWE brand, feeling overmatched yet insecure by other trainees who are blonde, sun-tanned models and cheerleaders. As Zak deals with his dashed dreams and the reality of having a newborn baby with his girlfriend back home, Paige will have to persevere if she wants to make it to the big time.

Writer-director Stephen Merchant establishes the family dynamics so well, presenting the tatted, buzz-cut mohawked Patrick and the pink-haired, lip-pierced Julia as loving, brashly funny parents, and it helps that Nick Frost and Lena Headey are so perfectly cast and provide part of the film’s levity. Merchant, who wouldn’t seem like an obvious choice for the material, brings a specificity to this Norwich family and their devoted love for each other, as well as for wrestling, and takes the sport as seriously as the characters do. Fierce but accessible, Florence Pugh makes Paige easy to warm up to with a quick sense of humor and a vulnerability underneath her hard-edged, seemingly unapproachable exterior, and it’s a thrill to watch the character refuse to quit and grow more confident, pushback and nerves be damned, until her victorious debut in the ring. Jack Lowden (2018's "Mary Queen of Scots") is equally strong and understated as Zak; though the focus is on Paige, the narrative doesn’t forget about the rejected-turned-resentful Zak, whose goals are thwarted for not having the spark that his sister does, and gives the subplot emotional heft. Also, Vince Vaughn is effective in acerbic mode as coach Hutch Morgan; Dwayne Johnson (who produced the project) appears as his magnetic, charismatic self in a few scenes with flashes of his eyebrow-raising “The Rock” persona; and Merchant casts himself and the hilarious Julia Davis (HBO’s “Sally4Ever”) as Zak’s girlfriend’s straight-laced parents who loosen up by the end. 

“Fighting with My Family” isn’t immune to hitting the predictably routed notes of any rags-to-riches story, but it’s not exactly a fatal deal-breaker when a well-trodden sports formula is executed this well and upends expectations with certain characters Paige meets along the way. Culminating with Paige’s debut at WrestleMania, where she became history’s youngest Divas champion in 2014, there is an aspirational quality that should resonate with anyone pursuing their dream of choice. Again, rest assured, one does not have to know anything about pro wrestling or even be a fan of it to get something out of “Fighting with My Family.” Unsuspectingly touching and definitely a clap-worthy crowd-pleaser, it is sure to be a sleeper hit that will convert the uninitiated to gain a newfound appreciation for the “fixed,” albeit not fake, sport. 

Grade: B +

Monday, February 18, 2019

Merry Zombie Apocalypse: "Anna and the Apocalypse" a scrappy, exuberant, toe-tapping genre-buster

Anna and the Apocalypse (2018)
93 min.
Release Date: November 30, 2018; February 12, 2019 (VOD)

Intersecting a multitude of disparate genres on the Venn diagram, “Anna and the Apocalypse” is a Scottish “High School Musical” set around Christmas with zombies coming to town. It’s alternately toe-tapping, cheeky, bloody, and surprisingly touching. Based on the late Ryan McHenry’s 2011 short “Zombie Musical,” the film is lovingly made with humble means by director John McPhail and screenwriters Alan McDonald and McHenry, refusing to stodgily remain in one lane and adeptly criss-crossing a coming-of-age high school dramedy, a zombie horror picture, and a full-blown musical. Alive with a sincere, scrappy "let's-put-on-a-show" enthusiasm that proves infectious, “Anna and the Apocalypse” is one exuberantly inspired genre-buster that will be wonderful for any time of the year.

Leading a spirited ensemble, newcomer Ella Hunt is sympathetic with an appealing mix of charm, edge, and pluck as Anna, a high school senior who plans to live in Australia for a year instead of going straight to university, much to the chagrin of her widowed janitor father (Mark Benton). Until then, she’s just trying to get through the school day, as are classmates John (Malcolm Cumming), Anna’s adorably sweet, torch-carrying best friend; lesbian newspaper editor Steph (Sarah Swire), who wants to make a difference at a soup kitchen while her parents are in Mexico without her for the holidays; Lisa (Marli Siu), Anna’s happily-in-love friend who’s excited about putting on the school’s Christmas show; and videographer Chris (Christopher Leveaux), Lisa’s boyfriend who needs to find his creative voice to pass a class. Little do they all know that their small Scotland town of Little Haven has become threatened by a lethal flu-like virus that’s turning everyone into a flesh-eater. When four of them are holed up in the bowling alley where Anna and John work, they must dodge the zombies and make their way across town to their loved ones who are barricaded in their high school with tyrannical headmaster Mr. Savage (Paul Kaye).

The enormously likable “Anna and the Apocalypse” has all the trimmings of a cult favorite: zombie carnage, memorable characters, and song-and-dance numbers. While the film isn’t necessarily scary, it is merrily blood-splattered—Anna uses a razor-sharp candy cane decoration and a seesaw at one point to slay a couple zombies, and an undead head gets fed through the bowling alley’s ball return—and dread-inducing in spots, like when our group of characters must take a shortcut through a darkly lit Christmas tree emporium. Making even more of a poignant impact, there are actual stakes by having endearing, distinctly drawn characters to root for, and not everyone makes it out without a bite. Catchy and full of yearning, the songs by writers Roddy Hart and Tommy Reilly manage to develop the characters in their respective crises before the zombie outbreak and push the story forward, beginning with the melancholy-tinged “Break Away.” And, without ever looking overly slick or rehearsed the night before, the small-scale musical numbers are often stirring and joyfully choreographed.

As bloody entertaining and song-happy as it is, "Anna and the Apocalypse" isn't afraid of having a bittersweet undercurrent to match the apocalyptic setting and the end of lives (both young and old), pushing it above being a frothy lark. It's never a downer, though, and how could it be? The instantly hummable cafeteria-set “Hollywood Ending” is the most unapologetically peppy bursting-into-song show-stopper about how reality disappoints and doesn’t match up with cinematic romances; Lisa’s “It’s That Time of Year” is a naughty riff on “Santa Baby” at the Christmas show; and “Turning My Life Around” is another upbeat standout, following an earbud-wearing Anna as she leaves her house to walk to school, oblivious to the zombie mayhem happening around her (perhaps a nod to another genre-smasher, "Shaun of the Dead"). As a dream project that co-writer Ryan McHenry (who tragically died of bone cancer) never got to see come to fruition and was made in his memory, “Anna and the Apocalypse” would have made him very proud. It deserves to become a musical staple that one will want to watch not solely around Christmastime. 

Grade: B +

Thursday, February 14, 2019

And Many More: "Happy Death Day 2U" a superior sequel that's just as fun and ups the ante and pathos

Happy Death Day 2U (2019)
100 min.
Release Date: February 13, 2019 (Wide)

2017’s “Happy Death Day” was shrewdly imagined as “Groundhog Day” with a whodunit slasher spin, and the result was cheeky, fresh, and a lot of fun, much like its sequel. The déjà vu is intentional again with “Happy Death Day 2U,” a sequel that seemingly shouldn’t exist or work and could have easily felt like a lazy, slapdash cash-in rushed into production to be released only 16 months later. While the film repeats itself by design, returning director Christopher Landon (who also co-wrote the script) avoids the easy pitfall of making the same movie twice and being too cute by a half. This time name-checking “Back to the Future Part II” (another movie its protagonist has never heard of), “Happy Death Day 2U” is funnier and just as breathlessly entertaining with a more sci-fi flavor and even more surprising pathos. It is ambitious and busier than its lean predecessor, but it might even be superior by upping the ante and deepening its characters.

The story opens shortly after the end of “Happy Death Day,” finding Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) and Carter (Israel Broussard) happily canoodling in Carter’s dorm room just as roommate Ryan (Phi Vu) barges in, having experienced a case of déjà vu like Tree, right down to being murdered by someone in their Bayfield University’s Babies mascot mask. Tree knows a thing or two about dying eleven times and tries to help before she herself relives her birthday, September 18th, all over again. When she discovers the quantum reactor that Ryan and two other science nerds, Samar (Suraj Sharma) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), created was the cause of her time loop, Tree gets sent into an alternate dimension, where everything is different: Carter is no longer her boyfriend but actually dating snarky sorority president Danielle (Rachel Matthews); Tree’s mother (Missy Yager) is still alive; and there is someone new behind that creepy baby mask. 

"Happy Death Day 2U" is a little less concerned with its slasher-centric plot than before, although a few set-pieces still manage to be suspenseful; in one case, Tree and Lori must enter an under-construction wing of the hospital to evade the killer. In another tonal high-wire act, director Christopher Landon expertly seesaws between absurdist comedy, poppy horror, an affecting emotional core, and crazy time looping, while raising the emotional stakes. By unveiling the answer to why Tree was stuck in a time loop, the film goes full-bore sci-fi and it's the most ideal direction this story could go. In a few small but amusingly savvy throwaway touches, Ryan asks why their university would ever choose a creepy baby as their mascot, and in another instance, Tree wonders what Carter is always looking for under his desk when she wakes up every time in his dorm.

A breakout star right out of the gate, Jessica Rothe is such a charismatic performer with tip-top comedic timing, while handling the dramatic challenge of making Tree sympathetic and organically making her come to terms with her grief. Like before, Rothe sells every facet of Tree’s situation and personal growth, her emotional conundrum feeling real and her furious aggravation hilarious, as she stomps through the campus grounds yet again, now with Carter and Ryan in tow. Also, there is another very funny montage that goes through the many ways Tree dies, from downing toxic cleaner to skydiving in her underwear without a parachute. Though not much time has passed, Landon was also lucky to get the entire original cast to return, including extremely supporting characters. Rachel Matthews even gets to be a true scene-stealer, bringing a sweeter, more generous side to Danielle, who uses her thespian talents to play a blind French student as a distraction to comedically pleasing effect. “Happy Death Day 2U” never seems like it means to be frightening, but it’s so much fun and emotionally involving, the kind of crowd-pleaser that audiences will want to experience on a loop.

Grade: B +

Last Rom-Com Heroine: "Isn't It Romantic" a smart, knowingly clichéd PG-13 romantic comedy

Isn’t It Romantic (2019)
88 min.
Release Date: February 13, 2019 (Wide)

“Isn’t It Romantic” is a clichéd PG-13 romantic comedy, but knowingly so, at once calling out and indulging in the general mechanics and conventions of every blissful rom-com. Having helmed a similar film-within-a-film conceit to ingeniously fresh effect with pathos to boot in 2015’s slasher-pic love letter “The Final Girls,” director Todd Strauss-Schulson employs a buoyant, breezy tone from a bright screenplay by Erin Cardillo and Dana Fox (2016’s “How to Be Single”) & Katie Silberman (2018’s “Set It Up”) that is always in on the joke and trusts audiences to do the same. Neither a full-on parody like 2014’s gleefully mocking “They Came Together” nor is it a “spoof” that thinks lazily referencing a number of films is the same as commenting on the genre (i.e. 2006’s “Date Movie”), “Isn’t It Romantic” is a gently meta ribbing with the brassy, appealing Rebel Wilson at its sweet center.

As a young girl in Australia, Natalie (Rebel Wilson) couldn’t get enough of watching romantic comedies, hoping she would one day be just like Julia Roberts and live happily ever after like in "Pretty Woman," but her straight-talking mother (Jennifer Saunders) squashed her dreams. Twenty-five cynical years later, she lives in a cramped New York apartment and works as an architect who designs parking lots. As opposed to her romantic comedy-loving assistant and friend, Whitney (Betty Gilpin), Natalie has closed her heart off to love and hates such movies now because they perpetuate lies to independent, goal-oriented women. After being mugged in the subway, Natalie takes a blow to the head, waking up in the Williams Sonoma-styled hospital room of a magical parallel universe not unlike a gauzy, idealistic romantic comedy. New York now smells like lavender and not garbage, her apartment building is now surrounded by bridal and cupcake shops, and her apartment itself is impossibly spacious and gorgeously designed. She also earns herself a flamboyantly gay BFF, Donny (Brandon Scott Jones, a scream), who lives to give her advice and hopes for a clothing montage, but has no life, job, or other interests of his own. Natalie’s suitor happens to be the rich and dashingly handsome Blake (Liam Hemsworth), who finds her positively “beguiling,” but wouldn’t you know it that Mr. Right is actually co-worker Josh (Adam Devine), who is already on course to marry stunningly beautiful swimsuit model and “yoga ambassador” Isabella (Priyanka Chopra).

Smartly self-aware and pleasantly funny, “Isn’t It Romantic” has so much affection for its formulaic genre that it winds up becoming the genuine article of a romantic comedy, and a charming one at that. The film is both obvious and sly but always savvy in its criticisms of the genre's archetypes and tropes, like Natalie pointing out how problematic it is for two women to hate each other in the workplace rather than stick together, and Natalie realizing the fantasy Movie Land she's stuck in is sorely PG-13 when her four-letter words are perfectly bleeped out by a truck backing up and her sex scene with Blake just keeps cutting to the morning after. Thankfully, the film avoids being hypocritical and largely stays true to Natalie’s disenchantment with rom-coms. Sure, it gets to have it both ways, but it allows her journey to reach a wise, well-earned destination, being just as concerned with Natalie as it is about which guy she will be embracing by the end.

Receiving her first solo lead role after being a standout supporting performer in every film she’s been a part of, Rebel Wilson gives her most vivacious and fully formed performance as Natalie, making the character's arc, from a talented but put-upon doormat blossoming into a confident woman who loves herself and can stick up for herself, fun to watch. Game to pratfall on cue and commit to any shenanigans that come her way like she does in the “Pitch Perfect” movies, Wilson also carries over her sweet, naturally honed chemistry with Adam Devine, who’s toned-down but still energetic as Josh. The soundtrack, featuring Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles," Annie Lennox's "No More 'I Love You's," and Donna Lewis’ “I Love You Always Forever,” is well-chosen, and an impromptu musical number of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” in a karaoke bar is an irresistible highlight, where all the patrons and servers turn into backup dancers and nail the choreography. While the script could have been written with an even sharper satirical bite, “Isn’t It Romantic” remains such a richly comic delight that proves romantic leads can realistically love themselves and fall in love. It’s just that beguiling.

Grade: B