Saturday, January 12, 2019

Wheel of Fortune: "The Upside" pat and predictable but mostly transcended by Cranston and Hart

The Upside (2019)
125 min., rated PG-13.

The 2012 French film “The Intouchables,” itself based on the true story of the unlikely friendship between white, wealthy quadriplegic Philippe Pozzo di Borgo and Algerian caregiver Abdel Sellou, was such an enormous success in its native country that one could bet a star-studded English-language remake would be on the horizon in no time. Now titled “The Upside” and co-starring Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart, the story remains pretty much the same, and the result is a shameless crowd-pleaser that cynics will find mawkish. It is pure formula, which is to say that it’s pretty pat, clichéd, and wholly predictable, and yet still squeaks by on the good will of its actors who transcend the material.

Out on parole after doing time for petty crimes, Dell Scott (Kevin Hart) is a streetwise ex-con with a family that doesn’t want him and no job prospects. When he attends a job interview at the penthouse of one Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), Dell assumes it’s for a janitorial position, but growing impatient as he waits, he barges in on the interview process with Phillip and his loyal assistant, Yvonne (Nicole Kidman), demanding a potential employer’s signature just to appease his parole officer and show that he’s trying to find work. A widower and a quadriplegic from a hang gliding accident, Phillip wants someone who won't take extraordinary measures if he stops breathing. Enter Dell, who has an edge and an attitude and might be the least qualified to be Phillip's live-in "life auxiliary," but Phillip thinks he will be the perfect fit, much to the chagrin of Yvonne. Besides having to lift Phillip into his chair each morning and drive him around, the gig is good money for Dell, as he clears a couple grand per week and catches up with paying child support to ex Latrice (Aja Naomi King) and son Anthony (Jahi Di’Allo Winston), but it also gives both men a chance to become pals and change each other.

As director Neil Burger (2014’s “Divergent”) and writer Jon Hartmere generally adhere to the source material beat for beat with minor tweaks, like transplanting the story to Manhattan (though shot in Philadelphia), “The Upside” comes down to a familiar trajectory with very few to no surprises. It's the same arc in any feel-good movie about a relationship forming between two people made opposites by race and socioeconomic status, and this time, one of them is disabled. As reductive as it may sound, Phillip opens his ears to Aretha Franklin and learns to loosen up with a joint every now and then, followed by having the munchies and ordering 14 hot dogs (!), and Dell grows to appreciate the finer things in life like art and opera arias. Bryan Cranston and Kevin Hart are irresistible foils, dishing out amusing moments that will earn light chuckles, although a joke involving Hart’s Dell being skittish about changing Phillip’s catheter (or even uttering the word “penis”) gets laid on pretty thick and Dell fumbling inside Phillip’s high-tech shower is stale. Otherwise, Cranston colors the grieving Phillip with more depth than the script ultimately sheds for him, as well as a comic slyness to make Phillip's bond with Dell believable, and the role of Dell gives Hart a solid opportunity to inch closer to handling more dramatic duties, while still playing well within his comedic wheelhouse.

A broader-strokes echo of its French predecessor, “The Upside” aims to push emotional buttons, and while it’s not always effective, it is certainly hard to dislike. Since this is Cranston and Hart’s show, Nicole Kidman is fine but untested as Phillip’s no-nonsense assistant Yvonne, and Julianna Margulies has one scene as the woman with whom Phillip has been having an epistolary relationship until finally meeting, courtesy of Dell’s power of persuasion. The upside is that “The Upside” is better than most January fare, coasting along on the likable performances of its actors.

Grade: B -

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Capsule Reviews of 2018 Films

Ben Is Back (2018)
103 min., rated R.

The biannual drama exploring the impact a child’s addiction has on a parent following “Beautiful Boy,” “Ben Is Back” is the more straightforward effort and, consequently, the stronger of the two. Writer-director Peter Hedges focuses less on the relapse-riddled journey of addiction and more on a parent’s trust and fierce fight. Julia Roberts is too often taken for granted, and while she has been taking roles as of late that subvert her movie-stardom charm with that megawatt smile, her work as Holly Burns is one of her most compelling and nuanced to date. When Holly returns home with her three kids on Christmas Eve, she is both startled and happy to find her son, Ben (the ubiquitous Lucas Hedges), standing outside; he’s supposed to still be in rehab. The film smartly fills in the gaps as it goes along, as Holly and Ben’s encounters with other people at the mall or at Christmas Eve mass inform details of Ben’s downward spiral. With unfussy direction and performances that never hit a false note, “Ben Is Back” is tough and affecting, even when it takes a dip into thriller territory. Grade: B +

Bird Box (2018)
117 min., rated R. 

“Bird Box” is what M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening” wanted to be. With a minimalist premise—chaos breaks out when people begin seeing mysterious entities that compel them to kill themselves—based on Josh Malerman’s 2014 novel, the film really is riveting from start to finish, infusing nightmarish urgency with a thoughtful human element, while wisely leaving the threatening presence to the imagination. Sandra Bullock is commanding as the ambivalently pregnant Malorie who holes up with a group of strangers, memorably played by Trevante Rhodes, John Malkovich, Danielle Macdonald, and Lil Rel Howery, just to name a few. Destined to do for blindfolding what “A Quiet Place” did for not making a peep, this spiritual post-apocalyptic cousin could have been silly, but director Susanne Bier makes it work effectively. Grade: B

Burning (2018)
148 min., not rated.

Korean director Lee Chang-dong’s “Burning” is a film that unfolds like a dream and leaves a haunting, unsettling imprint afterwards. Aspiring to be a writer but working as a delivery driver and living on his family’s farm while his father is in prison, Lee Jong-soo (Yoo Ah-in) bumps into a childhood friend, Hae-mi (Jong-seo Jun), who later asks if he could take care of her cat when she leaves on a trip to Africa. Upon her return, Hae-mi brings along with her Ben (Steven Yeun), a cultured, well-off man with an air of mystery. At no point during “Burning” is it clear where things are headed: it begins as a slice-of-life, segues into a character study, and then shifts into a paranoid thriller. Lee keeps one guessing throughout, even after the final shot, and doesn’t give answers when they aren’t needed in what is a simmering, enigmatic study in loneliness and subjective perception of the world. Grade: B +

The Clovehitch Killer (2018)
109 min., not rated.

Evil hiding in a picturesque Bible Belt town can be much more disturbing and frightening than a masked killer with a butcher knife in plain sight. Director Duncan Skiles’ coming-of-age psychodrama “The Clovehitch Killer” takes that it-could-happen-anywhere factor with a matter-of-fact mundanity in place of overt exploitation. Charlie Plummer beautifully plays Tyler, a good teenage boy who after finding a box of S&M pictures discovers that his father Don (a chilling Dermot Mulroney), a god-fearing Scout Leader family man, might be a serial strangler who was never caught. There have been hints of Mulroney going to dark places before but never this far, and it’s a testament to him that viewers will keep second-guessing themselves. Overlooked this year, “The Clovehitch Killer” is a work of slow-burn dread and mystery, culminating with unexpected poignancy. Grade: B +

Cold War 
88 min,. rated R.

Pawel Pawlikowski’s “Cold War” is a sweeping 88-minute Polish romance between traveling musician Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) and eye-catching singer Zula (Joanna Kulig) set against the Cold War in the 1950s and spanning decades in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia, and Paris. The film is admirable from its pristine black-and-white cinematography shot in the Academy ratio to the aching emotion its two actors evoke to the most indelible use of 1952 ditty “Rock Around the Clock,” but the romance that can’t be just doesn’t emotionally connect fully. Perhaps the short run time does the central relationship a disservice, but as one character says, “time doesn’t matter when you’re in love.” Grade: B -

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
120 min., rated PG-13.

Somehow, “The Joy Luck Club” was the last major Hollywood film to feature an all-Asian ensemble, and that was a quarter of a century ago. It would be one thing if it were just significant in cultural representation, but “Crazy Rich Asians” is an enormously charming, pleasantly funny, and swooningly romantic breath of fresh air. Constance Wu is uttering winning as Rachel, an NYU game theory economics professor headed to Singapore for a wedding with serious boyfriend Nick Young (newcomer Henry Golding with the dreamy magnetism of an old-fashioned movie star) and meet his family, who happens to be ridiculously wealthy. Together, Wu and Golding are a couple worth rooting for, and the ensemble is divine, including Michelle Yeoh as Nick’s withering, inflexible mother and Awkwafina, who’s a scene-stealing blast to watch as Rachel’s best college friend. Directed by Jon M. Chu with splashy, vibrant energy and lavish glamor that would make Jay Gatsby swoon, “Crazy Rich Asians” is overlong at two hours but such a wonderfully buoyant and easy-breezy piece of crowd-pleasing entertainment. It fully deserves to be the runaway success that it was. Grade: B

Destroyer (2018) 
120 min., rated R.

A grim, grimy, and intense crime drama, “Destroyer” might be some viewers’ candidate for the feel-bad movie of 2018, but it's worth sticking out. Bringing interior life to her haggard make-up, Nicole Kidman slays in her dark, meaty, flawed role as Erin Bell, a weary, hard-as-nails Los Angeles detective obsessed with tracking down the leader (Toby Kebbell) of a gang she and her romantically involved partner (Sebastian Stan) infiltrated undercover before he was killed during a robbery. Director Karyn Kusama seamlessly reverts back and forth in time before the film’s climactic “aha!” moment, but it’s really Kidman and her dynamite performance that gives “Destroyer” a haunting force. Grade: B

Dumplin’ (2018) 
110 min., rated PG-13.

Based on the novel by Julie Murphy, “Dumplin’” is a warm hug of a movie with a pure-hearted, down-home charm. Coming off her breakout role in 2017’s “Patti Cake$,” Danielle Macdonald is wonderful again as Willowdean, the plus-size teenage daughter of former Miss Teen Bluebonnet beauty pageant queen Rosie (Jennifer Aniston). After the death of her positive aunt who raised her and raised her on loving Dolly Parton’s music and attitude, Willowdean decides to do what her aunt almost did: enter the Miss Teen Bluebonnet pageant. Resisting to turn its Texan characters into caricatures, “Dumplin’” is sweet as pie, easy to like, and body-positive without a condescending bone in its body. Grade: B

The Favourite (2018) 
119 min., rated R.

Only a tasteful, stuffy British period drama on the surface, “The Favourite” has the prickly, off-kilter sensibilities of Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos (2017’s “The Killing of a Sacred Deer”) coursing through its veins, despite this being the first script he did not have a direct hand in (Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara co-wrote). It’s discomfiting, sharp-tongued and cruelly funny, albeit with an underlying sympathy as character allegiances keep changing. Olivia Colman is excellent, sinking her teeth into the role of the needy and childish but pained Queen Anne, and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are tremendous as Lady Sarah and Abigail, respectively, who connive and compete for the rank of Anne’s affections. Made even more intoxicating with precisely crafted tracking shots, fish-eye lens flourishes, and exquisitely baroque production and costume design, “The Favourite” is a deliciously biting, bawdy, and juicily acted chess game of spite and jealousy. Grade: B +

The Grinch (2018)
90 min., rated PG.

No one can begrudge children born in the last decade to enjoy 2018’s “The Grinch” as their first version of the story. However, to those who have read Dr. Seuss’ 1957 rhyming book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!” or have seen 1966’s long-running Christmas TV special (or even Ron Howard’s 2000 live-action film, which gave Jim Carrey an inspired comic turn buried under lots of green make-up and fur), this animated feature-length edition is a brightly colored and occasionally energetic but unnecessary release-date filler for the Christmas season. Benedict Cumberbatch might be the biggest draw, doing his dastardly best as the lonely, self-loathing grinch who, this time, grew up in a dreary orphanage, and Cameron Seely’s Cindy Lou Who is adorably plucky. Directors Yarrow Cheney (2016’s “The Secret Life of Pets”) and Scott Mosier do retain the simplicity of the original story, and every once in a while, there is a sweet moment or an amusing visual gag (like the Grinch commenting on how loud the crunch of the snow is when tiptoeing around a Who’s yard). If the world needed another retelling of this reliably sweet story, it’s a pleasant, harmless babysitter of a movie that’s on brand for Illumination Entertainment, but you’re still an aggressively tepid one, “The Grinch.” Grade: C +

The House That Jack Built (2018) 
152 min., rated R.

Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier (2014's "Nymph()maniac: Volume I") is up to his nervy provocations again with “The House That Jack Built,” a film as difficult and deliberately off-putting as it is mordantly droll at times. It isn’t mere exploitation, but one shudders at the fact that there is a director’s cut somewhere out there. Matt Dillon displays career-best work as the titular Jack, a serial killer with cleaning compulsions who’s known in the newspapers as Mr. Sophistication. He confesses his tale to a man named Verge (Bruno Ganz), dividing it into “five randomly chosen incidents over a twelve-year period” of his sixty-plus murders. Riley Keough is affecting as the fourth incident’s Jacqueline, the closest Jack has to a girlfriend whom he still demeans by calling her a simpleton. In saying something about hubris, the representation of great art, and how murder might be the purest form of great art, “The House That Jack Built” is admirable and shocking, but too self-indulgent by half that it certainly won’t convert anyone to want to see more of Lars von Trier’s body of work. Grade: C +

Mandy (2018)
120 min., not rated. 

If Merriam-Webster’s dictionary was updated with the word, “bug-fuck nuts,” “Mandy” would be sitting pretty as an example of the definition. Filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, even after 2012’s mesmerizing, one-of-a-kind freakout “Beyond the Black Rainbow,” delivers a death-metal phantasmagoria, a hypnotic, absolutely bonkers and surprisingly cathartic journey to hell and back. Crazy-eyed, on-full-blast Nicolas Cage is the best kind of Nicolas Cage, but he’s also anguished here as a lumberjack who gets hellacious revenge on the LSD-fueled cult (and mutant Cenobite-like bikers) that kidnapped and killed his artist wife Mandy (acting chameleon Andrea Riseborough, the film’s tragic heart and soul). A little ponderous at times, but once it kicks into high gear, it's a fast and furious ride with a gnarly chainsaw fight a major highlight. A searingly vibrant and more psychedelic “Mad Max” on bath salts, “Mandy” is the one film Nic Cage fans, acid trippers, and cult fans can worship together. Grade: B

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)
131 min., rated PG.

"Mary Poppins Returns," a sequel set twenty-five years after 1964's "Mary Poppins," may not always escape from the shadow of its beloved predecessor, but this is a welcome revisit with an old friend. It’s an unenviable task to fill in for Julie Andrews, but Emily Blunt is an utter delight as the ageless Mary Poppins, inheriting the iconic role and putting her own tartly funny mark on the magical nanny without impersonating Andrews (though she nails the stance coming out of the sky). The songs are in the service of a not-so-exciting story—Mary returns to help adult Banks children, Michael (Ben Whishaw) and Jane (Emily Mortimer), along with Michael’s three motherless children, as they must stop the bank from repossessing their family home—and director Rob Marshall knows how to stage a number, making it all look easy and effortless. Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s songs are catchy, if not instantly hummable; a bubble bath leading to an underwater number of “Can You Imagine That?” is a dazzling standout, seamlessly integrating live-action into gorgeous Technicolor animation, and Broadway staple Lin-Manuel Miranda, as cockney lamplighter Jack, leads the expertly staged “Trip a Little Light Fantastic” as a tip of the hat to Dick Van Dyke’s “Step in Time.” One number, “Turning Turtle,” with Mary's eccentric cousin Cousin Topsy (Meryl Streep) is more of a tangential lark without really pushing the story forward; Streep is surely a hoot, but the direction of this particular sequence is much pushier than the rest. When it holds the spotlight on the practically perfect Blunt and keeps the songs coming, the whimsical and ebullient “Mary Poppins Returns” has more than enough pep in its step to enjoy. Grade: B

The Oath (2018)
93 min., rated R.

Interesting times we live in when Ike Barinholtz’s directorial debut “The Oath,” a satirical here-and-now dark comedy, is so timely and pointedly has something to say about the ideological divisiveness in Trump’s America. Set in a slightly exaggerated version of the real world where POTUS has asked citizens to sign a loyalty oath, the film takes place during a less-than-civil Thanksgiving dinner when politics enter the conversation. Barinholtz stars and has assembled quite the cast, including comedy superstar Tiffany Haddish as his wife; Carrie Brownstein as his sister; Nora Dunn as his mother; Barinholtz’s real-life brother Jon as his brother; Meredith Hagner as his brother’s conservative girlfriend; and John Cho and Billy Magnussen as the two CPU agents that enter the household and bring the eruption of violence on Black Friday. When it grows into home-invasion horror a bit (complete with menacing music over the day cards), the film eventually deflates, growing shrill and chaotic. “The Oath” is at its sharpest when it mounts heated discomfort around turkey dinner, but inevitably pulls its teeth in the end. Grade: C +

Roma (2018)
135 min., rated R.

A lovely memory piece of quotidian life in glorious cinematic form, “Roma” is easily writer-director-editor-cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón’s most personal and humanistic work. Always showing rather than telling, the film invites audiences to live along with housekeeper Cleo (a stunning Yalitza Aparicio in her feature debut) as she works for a middle-class family in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City in 1970. Though it demands patience and an open mind as it unhurriedly takes its time, “Roma” is intimate yet epic in scope, authentically observing Cleo and everyone around her in a time and place that feels utterly lived-in and spoken in Spanish, as well as the indigenous language Mixtec. As Cuarón never feels pressured to move the story along with plot, everything happens and nothing happens in “Roma.” Shot in crisp, ravishing black-and-white by Cuarón himself, the film is intoxicatingly beautiful, so much that every single image could be framed and hung on a wall like a painting. With his penchant for long takes that aid in its slow rhythms, the film forces one to live in each moment and soak up the imagery in a method of visual storytelling that sometimes wordlessly tells its own story. “Roma” is gentle, quietly poignant, and rich in specificity. Grade: B +

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)
117 min., rated PG.

Sony Pictures expands upon the Spider-Man lore with an inclusive introduction to “Spider People” in the vibrant, entertaining, and often very funny “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” an animated parallel-universe superhero surprise. Shameik Moore voices Miles Morales, a biracial Brooklyn teen who’s having trouble fitting into his private school before he’s bitten by a radioactive spider, and if this sounds like a tired rehash of every “Spider-Man” film, there are plenty of meta jokes on the whole “origin story” trope. Clear in vision, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is a hopeful relaunch of the property with as much of a warm, heartfelt through-line as it does numerous non-pandering laughs. A hilarious John Mulaney, as pig Spider-Ham, and Nicolas Cage, as Spider-Noir, round out the terrific voice cast. Admittedly, the animation has a slight blur to it as if the film was shot in 3D and then viewed without glasses, but once one settles into that deliberate stylistic approach, it has all the markings of a comic book brought to gorgeously rendered life, complete with panels, thought balloons, and written sound effects. Beyond being just geeky fan service for those who have read every comic issue of Spider-Man, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is fully accessible, a pop entertainment that deserves as much fanfare as any of the live-action incarnations of the web-slinger. Grade: B +

Support the Girls (2018)
90 min., rated R

A scruffy day-in-the-life hang of a film, writer-director Andrew Bujalski's “Support the Girls” is such a small, human-scale film that it could be overlooked by year’s end; it is slight and modest, but observant and unassumingly touching with a primal scream dying to come out (and it does). One of the greatest pleasures is watching the eternally winning Regina Hall, who should be a household name if she isn’t already. Tough, tender, sympathetic, and fully realized as Lisa, the protective manager of Hooters-like wings joint Double Whammies, Hall is given the chance to lead the charge and spread her wings. The supporting cast orbiting around Hall is stellar, too: Haley Lu Richardson, a delight as the optimistic Maci, continues to prove she’s a bright screen presence, and newcomer Shayna McHayle (better known as her musical moniker, Junglepussy) is full of charisma as the straight-shooting Danyelle. Taking place over one busy day, the film feels completely lived-in and natural. It also has a lot to say about what it takes to work in the service industry where gender objectification is inherently part of the gig, but these women aren’t strippers; they’re there to serve the male customers and make them feel special. “Support the Girls” is American independent filmmaking done right, opening a window into a snapshot of lives where people work just to survive. Grade: B

Vice (2018)
132 min., rated R.

A scathing indictment of former vice president Dick Cheney, “Vice” may or may not be entirely factual, particularly in conservatives’ eyes, but this plays more as a real-world horror film with a dose of irreverence to wash it down. Christian Bale, in an uncanny make-up transformation, disappears into the charisma-free Dick Cheney, who it seems ran the Bush administration more than we thought, and Amy Adams is strong as second lady Lynne Cheney, while Sam Rockwell and Steve Carell have fun doing shallow but dead-on impersonations of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, respectively, that would fit right in with an SNL political sketch. Director Adam McKay’s kitchen-sink style that he showcased in 2015's “The Big Short” is just as effective here, particularly with a laugh-out-loud fake-out roll of the end credits and a Shakespearean pillow-talk soliloquy that juxtaposes the reality. “Vice” is entertaining, but something just seems to be missing to make it great. Grade: B -

Vox Lux (2018)
115 min., rated R.

Opening with a jolting school shooting and ending with a full-on pop concert, “Vox Lux” is an aggressively provocative film about the blurred line between fame and infamy, the past shaping the future, the twilight of innocence, and the exploitation of a tragedy for fame. Raffey Cassidy compels as Staten Island 14-year-old Celeste, who survives a horrific act of gun violence and unites everyone with her voice before being quickly groomed into a pop superstar. In the film’s second half, Natalie Portman takes over as the 31-year-old diva version of Celeste, a bedazzled Lady Gaga type who’s now a belligerent train wreck with a big ego and even bigger addiction problems, while Cassidy has a dual role as Celeste’s teenage daughter. Portman acts the hell out of the part, cranking her Staten Island accent up to 100, and perfectly serves the abrasive, damning purpose behind writer-director Brady Corbet’s film. “Vox Lux” is something else, but it’s hard to forget. Grade: B

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Lost Girl: Harrowing backwoods thriller "Rust Creek" simple but not simplistic

Rust Creek (2019)
108 min., rated R.

“Rust Creek” might look like yet another hillbilly rape-revenge thriller headed exactly where one expects, but after a familiar setup, it ends up paving a different path for itself. Jen McGowan (who previously made 2014’s lovely indie “Kelly & Cal”) and screenwriter Julie Lipson are less interested in putting their heroine through the degrading wringer and instead find an identifiable focal point in a young individual venturing out on her own and not being prepared for what’s coming next in the forgotten backwoods. If it’s not exciting enough that the film is written, directed, shot, and production designed by women, “Rust Creek” is primal but finely nuanced and harrowing without wading into gratuitous, punishing exploitation.

Instead of going right home for Thanksgiving, athletic, ambitious college senior Sawyer Scott (Hermione Corfield) heads to Washington, D.C. for a job interview. Following the GPS on her phone, she takes a detour off the main route through rural Kentucky but then comes to a closed-off road. Sawyer pulls over on a side road and gets out to study a paper map, only to be approached by country bumpkin brothers Hollister (Micah Hauptman) and Buck (Daniel R. Hill) in their pick-up truck. The men initially come off friendly, but once Hollister steps in front of her door and antagonizes her, Sawyer defends herself and manages to escape into the woods with a knife wound on her leg. As the brothers come looking for her, she hides, while wrapping up her leg to stop the bleeding, and ends up surviving the night without being found. Once Sawyer gets lost even deeper in the woods, she ends up being rescued by the brothers’ cousin, crystal meth cook Lowell (Jay Paulson), who may or may not be her savior to get out of dodge.

“Rust Creek” is simple but not simplistic. It begins as a straightforward survival tale with a “what-would-you-do?” scenario that’s horrifying in itself as every shred of hope keeps being taken from Sawyer. Once Sawyer is found and taken back to Lowell’s trailer, the film is still tense but subverts the first act, evolving with the surprising, unforced, and thankfully unromantic kinship between Sawyer and Lowell. Other characters enter the story in crucial ways, including the local sheriff (Sean O’Bryan) and his deputy (Jeremy Glazer), who have different feelings about locating the missing driver of the abandoned vehicle. 

Hermione Corfield (2015’s “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) is a promising find, capable of carrying a film and impressively essaying a relatable young woman on the cusp of her future, only to have to stare death in the face. Her Sawyer is quick-thinking and resourceful, taking advantage of everything around her, and not a pushover when it comes to putting up a fight and having a lot left in her, and Corfield communicates so much with her expressive face to clue us in to what she’s thinking. Micah Hauptman and Daniel R. Hill are effectively despicable and menacing without being the sharpest tools in the shed, but Jay Paulson is an unlikely source of compassion and humanity, upending expectations as meth cook Lowell. 

As the film progresses, one thinks less of movies like “I Spit on Your Grave,” “The Last House on the Left,” or even 2013’s underseen indie “Black Rock” and more of 2010’s riveting “Winter’s Bone,” which also told a tough story with a vivid sense of place, and that’s not a shabby comparison. Dynamically photographed on location in the Kentucky woods with cinematographer Michelle Lawler, filmmaker Jen McGowan brings an evocative mood and authenticity to the tranquil but treacherous landscape that, excuse the cliché, feels like a character unto itself. Even if “Rust Creek” isn’t always cooking up thrills, that it becomes more meditative and character-oriented makes the film a stronger genre effort overall. It digs its claws into you, but then it proves that not all Kentuckians are cut from the same cloth.

Grade: B

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The Worst Films of 2018

This year, there were either fewer bad movies or I just dodged a slew of bullets. Nobody sets out to make a bad movie, but these were the five worst in my eyes. 

Dishonorable Mentions (in alphabetical order): The 15:17 to Paris; The Open House; Peppermint; The Possession of Hannah Grace; Tag; Winchester

5) Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare - By now, the reliable (and profitable) Blumhouse Productions has proudly earned the right to put their name before the on-screen title for the first time, but regrettably, “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” is their first major misfire that looks more like a generic Asylum Entertainment release and actually makes one long to watch Blumhouse's own “Ouija” instead. Watching characters forced to play a game and then die in bloodless ways, one gets the nagging feeling that this film was edited down to a toothless PG-13 rating to appease a teen demo. While last year’s surprise “Happy Death Day” didn’t need an R-rating to be fresh and fun, the bottom-feeding “Blumhouse's Truth or Dare” actually aims to be scary, but there isn’t a solitary scare to its name and, most frustrating of all, it’s thoroughly sanitized. Truth? “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” is a waste of time that will whet a horror buff’s appetite for something more devilish and satisfying that never comes. Next, can we get "Blumhouse's Apples to Apples?"

4) Slender Man - 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. If the filmmakers hoped to make Slender Man an enduring horror icon out of a fleeting cultural phenomenon with this film, they failed miserably.

3) Krystal - What is one supposed to make of “Krystal,” yet another baffling directorial effort from William H. Macy after 2017’s “The Layover”? Poorly conceived and unsure of what it wants to do or be, “Krystal” is a failed feel-good charmer full of Southern drawls and gonzo Devil imagery. Nothing works and nothing rings true. Climactic emotions arrive unearned. Nick Robinson plays 18-year-old Taylor, a self-proclaimed “old soul” suffering from PAT, who puts on a biker persona when he meets and falls head over heels with Krystal (Rosario Dawson), an ex-stripper/hooker/addict with a heart of gold, at an AA meeting. Everyone in the fine ensemble seems to be acting in entirely different movies: rapper Tip “T.I.” Harris is in a stalker thriller, and William Fichter, as the worst doctor ever, belongs in a sitcom, or maybe he’s right at home and nothing else fits. Rosario Dawson does give a true performance as the titular Krystal in an otherwise phony story, where nobody acts like a real person. Unfortunately, like everything else, Krystal eventually succumbs to the machinations of the script.

2) Show Dogs - Harmless and genial in nature as it may look, “Show Dogs” is actually a creatively lazy, notably unfunny dog, as it’s never, not once, laugh-out-loud funny and not particularly clever. Mercilessly but surprisingly, the flash-in-the-pan “Who Let the Dogs Out” is never played, but “Turner & Hooch” is referenced and there is a meta line about talking dog movies not being made anymore, and yet, here we are. Doody calls for a plot, even in a goofy, over-the-top action comedy like this, but just think “Miss Congeniality” with talking dogs in which a Rottweiler member of the K-9 unit (voice of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges) and a human FBI agent (Will Arnett) must team up to go undercover at a prestigious dog show in Las Vegas and save a smuggled panda. Setting a new low for family entertainment, “Show Dogs” is just lame, pandering bizarre kids-will-like-anything dreck. And if young children love anything more than talking animals, it’s a kidnapping and smuggling plot where the climax involves a bad guy firing shots and an adorable CG panda getting thisclose to a charter plane propeller. Even if options for an early-summer movie the entire family can enjoy are sparse right now, everyone deserves better than the grim “Show Dogs.”

1) Life Itself - Why did “Life Itself” have to steal the name of the beautiful 2014 documentary and memoir of film critic Roger Ebert? Known for creating TV’s “This Is Us,” writer-director Dan Fogelman strains to be deeply profound and resonant with a whirlwind of tragedy through three chapters of happenstance, like an interconnected mosaic not unlike “Crash” and “Babel.” Instead, this painfully contrived and patly realized drama purports that Life is an unreliable narrator, as tragedy befalls every character. Fogelman seems to be his own unreliable narrator, as his film seems to know very little about life and thinks it’s clever and meaningful when there’s far less than meets the eye. The cast is an embarrassment of riches, including Oscar Isaac, Olivia Wilde, Annette Bening, Mandy Patinkin, Olivia Cooke, Antonio Banderas, and Laia Costa, but all of them play tragic pawns rather than characters, and individual moments of authenticity just blow in the wind of this mawkish self-importance. Profundity might have existed in its intent, but watching the sprawling and conceptually ambitious “Life Itself” is like experiencing an emotionally sadistic prank. If “Final Destination” aimed and failed for deeper meaning and employed less creative deaths, it would look like this clunky, trite, overwritten charade.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Solve to Live: Until its unsatisfying conclusion, "Escape Room" an expertly tense gimmick

Escape Room (2019)
100 min., rated PG-13.

Jumping on the real-world trend of team-building, puzzle-solving escape rooms, “Escape Room” takes the life-or-death thriller approach. Boasting an enticing high-concept premise that's broadly not unlike 1997’s “Cube” or 2009’s underseen “Exam,” this is a clever, engaging little thriller as long as one can suspend disbelief and just go with it. Director Adam Robitel (who seems to have fallen into a sweet spot for having his films, this and 2018's “Insidious: The Last Key,” be the first wide releases in January of each year) and screenwriters Bragi Schut (2011’s “Season of the Witch”) and Maria Melnik (TV’s “American Gods”) sustain their premise for the long haul with skillful execution and more than enough ticking-clock tension before they have to reach an endgame and dole out answers. Even then, “Escape Room” will be an easy sell to those who enjoy solving puzzles (and escape rooms) and were intrigued by the chamber piece-like “Saw” but were not having the torture and cruelty.

Six strangers each receive puzzle boxes that unlock invitations to the most intensely immersive escape room in a Chicago building with a $10,000 prize. There’s mousy but brilliant college student Zoey (Taylor Russell); squirrelly grocery store stocker Ben (Logan Miller); arrogant investment broker Jason (Jay Ellis); scarred Iraq War veteran Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll); happy-go-lucky trucker Mike (Tyler Labine); and excitable gamer Danny (Nik Dodani). Once they all arrive and wait for the game to begin, escape room expert Danny tries to take the lead, but as he and the others begin to realize, the waiting room is part of the game and just the beginning. Not only will these strangers, who all have something in common from their pasts, have to collaborate as a team and be resourceful in their hunting for clues, but they will have to stay alive.

Exchanging gore and forced shock tactics for jittery, tried-and-true suspense and gasps galore, “Escape Room” is an expertly devised gimmick. With propulsive pacing and John Carey and Brian Tyler’s buzzy music score assisting in keeping one on edge, the film allows one to look past the inherent absurdity and logistics of the time and care it would take the mysterious puppet master to elaborately construct everything. The actors throw themselves into the material, Taylor Russell (Netflix’s “Lost in Space”), Logan Miller (2018’s “Love, Simon”) and Deborah Ann Woll (Netflix’s “Daredevil”) being the biggest standouts, and make the most of their two-dimensional characters with their clashing personalities and ability to swiftly make smarter decisions than any audience member probably ever could. The varying rooms are shrewdly designed, from a waiting room that becomes a literal oven, to a perilous frozen lake, to a psychedelic black-and-white checkerboard room. In the most memorable set-piece, the characters enter a topsy-turvy billiards bar where a panel in the ceiling drops periodically to disorienting, palm-sweating effect and the radio unnervingly keeps playing Petula Clark’s ‘60s earworm “Downtown.”

Bookended by an unnecessary in medias res cold open and two tacked-on epilogues that don’t stick the landing, "Escape Room," even for a wrap-up that isn’t as satisfying as the ride preceding it, is too entertaining to be written off. There is a gripping connectivity between the viewer and the characters in figuring out how to escape each room, and the mystery of why they have been chosen to be tested is tantalizing enough. Until it seems to be banking on a potential sequel to clear up the whys and hows, “Escape Room” is a surprisingly commanding suspense thriller. As an inaugural 2019 release, it’s an effective start, to boot.

Grade: B