Sunday, January 27, 2019

Dead Fish: "Serenity" alternately daring, batshit bonkers, and wildly stupid

Serenity (2019)
106 min.
Release Date: January 25, 2019 (Wide) 

Not to be confused with Joss Whedon’s goofy 2005 big-screen continuation of his short-lived sci-fi TV show "Firefly," “Serenity” is ostensibly a lurid, steamy “Double Indemnity” neo-noir wannabe, until it’s not. As it goes, nothing really is what it seems, and it is daring and admirably deceptive that writer-director Steven Knight (2014’s “Locke”) snaps expectations and does not go through the motions of making a routinely pulpy potboiler. However, a plot reveal that later redefines the purposeful noir premise is simultaneously clever, batshit bonkers, and wildly, almost enthrallingly stupid. “Serenity” ends up being a film that doesn’t work, but it’s too bizarre not to recommend for curiosity's sake and might need to be seen to be believed.

An intensely committed (and frequently unclothed) Matthew McConaughey plays war vet Baker Dill, a chain-smoking, rum-guzzling captain of fishing boat Serenity, hiding out on the idyllic island of Plymouth and determined to catch a big tuna for big cash. His ex-wife, Karen (Anne Hathaway), shows up back in his life to offer him a proposition: for $10 million, take her wealthy and abusive husband Frank (Jason Clarke) out on his boat, get him drunk, and throw his body into the ocean for the sharks to do the rest. If Baker commits the crime, he will be doing it for his estranged son, Patrick (Rafael Sayegh). Meanwhile, a bespectacled, briefcase-carrying stranger, Reid Miller (Jeremy Strong), who may be a pesky sales representative, keeps just missing Baker when he goes out to sea.

The world writer-director Steven Knight sets up is recognizable enough to seem real, although plenty of mannered, off-kilter touches are woven throughout, like Baker yelling at the sky and calling the prized tuna by the name “Justice,” as well as Karen’s grand entrance, complete with the shimmer of her diamond wedding ring. Save for McConaughey, the performances are intentionally arch, too. A blond Anne Hathaway does breathy and conniving well with the sultry femme fatale role of Karen, and Jason Clarke is suitably despicable and irredeemable as Karen’s dead-husband-to-be Frank. Diane Lane is left adrift as Constance, an islander who pays Baker for his sexual services, spends her days inside staring out the slats of her window, and constantly asks him if he’s seen her cat (and no, that isn’t a euphemism; there is actually a black cat roaming around on the island). 

“Serenity” is sleekly made and certainly strikes as a singular vision, even in its existential ideas about coping mechanisms that attempt to step outside the box and reframe the film as something else. To say more would constitute as a spoiler, but the film hinges entirely on a massive endgame that is so ambitiously nutty yet so misguided that it feels more like a mind-melting hallucination than an emotionally cathartic wallop. After just one viewing, reevaluating all of the laid-out pieces that preceded the reveal mostly checks out, but such a process only raises more disturbingly icky, underthought questions in retrospect than it cares to address. Unfortunately, “Serenity” is an unexpected gimmick in search of a better movie. It’s the kind of off-the-rails, big-swing odd duck that will be more entertaining and challenging to talk about than to sit through again.

Grade: C -

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Half Full: "Glass" dares to take chances as the satisfying capper of a retroactive trilogy

Glass (2019)
129 min.
Release Date: January 18, 2019 (Wide)

Following the influential humdinger of a Twist Ending in 1999’s “The Sixth Sense,” writer-director M. Night Shyamalan somewhat backed himself into a corner by having to deliver an airtight twist ending every time. His follow-up, 2000’s “Unbreakable,” paid off, albeit not in ways audiences were expecting, as it was a moody, absorbing thinking-person’s superhero drama ahead of the inundation of superhero movies today when comic books were still niche and not as mainstream, but it was unfairly compared as if it had to show up the discovery of a lead character being deceased the entire time. Who knew, then, that it would be conceived as the first film of a trilogy once 2017’s “Split” came along; not only was that film a tense, well-crafted thriller on its own but sneakily ended up revealing and reframing itself with a tag in the last five seconds to be a stealth sequel to “Unbreakable.” Now to cap off a trilogy that’s retroactively been 19 years in the making, “Glass” is the satisfying final chapter with a clear vision and purpose in deconstructing comic-book mythology and superhero identities. 

Set three weeks after the conclusion of “Split” when sole survivor Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy) was rescued from Dissociative Identity Disorder-afflicted captor Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy) in the basement of the Philadelphia Zoo, the film begins with Kevin having kidnapped four high school cheerleaders. Meanwhile, vigilante superhero David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is busy capturing criminals in his rain slicker as “The Overseer,” using his home security agency as a front with son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark), and when he happens upon Hedwig, one of Kevin’s personalities, and brushes up against him, David uses his extrasensory abilities to locate where the four kidnapped girls are being held. In saving them, David and Kevin, now “The Beast,” cross paths and fight before the police department arrests them and sends them both to psychiatric facility Ravenhill Memorial Hospital. There, they are met by psychiatrist Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson), who specializes in treating patients with delusions of grandeur, and plans to put them under the microscope. Along with David and Kevin, David’s archenemy, the brittle-boned Elijah Price/Mr. Glass (Samuel L. Jackson), has also been institutionalized in the same facility, sitting in his wheelchair in a vegetative state for years. What will happen next with the reluctant hero, the anarchist, and the diabolical genius living under the same roof?

James McAvoy’s riveting performance of portraying twenty-four different personalities was a masterclass in acting, and he is a marvel once again, seamlessly bouncing between distinct personalities (and adding a couple of extra personalities) in a single scene. Without phoning it in, Bruce Willis shows up to work and delivers the same kind of laconic, understated work he did in “Unbreakable” as David Dunn. Samuel L. Jackson is deliciously good as Elijah Price/Mr. Glass; without speaking a word for a large chunk of the film, he still gives good glare and presents himself as a selfishly motivated mastermind out to create a real-world creation of a comic book. Sarah Paulson might not be given enough to actually play (at least at first), but it is a testament to her talent and cadence that she can make Dr. Ellie Staple’s many psychobabble monologues transfixing. The participation of Casey is pivotal as she suffers from Stockholm syndrome, even if her actual screen time is limited, but Anya Taylor-Joy’s quiet stillness is affecting.

Cackling in the faces of audiences who have been conditioned to know the beats of a superhero film, the visually sharp and emotionally compelling “Glass” defies expectations, zigging when one expects it to zag. The fact that Dr. Ellie Staple wants to debunk these supposed superhumans’ “delusions” seems like a non-starter, considering this is the third film in a trilogy and the viewer is already well aware of their capabilities, but it is all part of writer-director M. Night Shyamalan’s master plan. Whereas “Unbreakable” was an origin story for David Dunn and “Split” ended up being an origin story for Kevin Wendell Crumb, “Glass” is the culminating cross-over, weaving a spell that rarely shatters, even when Shyamalan gets a touch too cute and overtly self-aware about certain tropes and archetypes. One can see “Glass” dissatisfying or even angering comic-book fans who want to see a big-budgeted superhero actioner, but let them be mad. There certainly are reveals, however, the real “twist” here is that audiences do not get the conventional superhero vs. supervillain showdown; alternately, the denouement is small and bleak, but the film’s final moments do end on a note of hope. “Glass” is certainly not subtle—Shyamalan can be very on the nose—but this is audacious pop filmmaking that dares to take chances at the risk of failing, and that kind of chutzpah is something to admire.

Grade: B

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Best Films of 2018

From coming-of-agers to classy horror to everything in between, here are the best films of 2018, or rather, my favorite films of 2018, preceded by an Honorable Mention list.

Honorable Mentions: Anna and the ApocalypseBad Times at the El Royale; BlacKkKlansman; Black Panther; Ben Is Back; Burning; Can You Ever Forgive Me?; The Clovehitch Killer; The Favourite; First Reformed; Game Night; Green Book; Halloween; If Beale Street Could Talk; Incredibles 2; Love, Gilda; Mission: Impossible - Fallout; Paddington 2; Private Life; A Quiet Place; Ralph Breaks the Internet; Revenge; Roma; Searching; A Simple Favor; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse; The Strangers: Prey at Night; Thoroughbreds; Tully; What Keeps You Alive; What They Had; Where Is Kyra?; Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

10) A Star Is Born - 2018’s “A Story Is Born” is the fourth (or fifth, if 1932’s “What Price Hollywood?” counts) incarnation of a well-worn standard as old as Hollywood, this time with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. Rather than live in the shadows of its predecessors, this is an impassioned, intimate, and unusually fresh romantic drama made modern but remaining timeless about the cycle of show business and fame in which one-half of the couple’s rise is the other’s fall. Two stars end up being born in “A Star Is Born”—Lady Gaga in her first starring role and Bradley Cooper as a first-time director—and they’re both dynamite. Together, Gaga and Cooper are such generous scene partners, giving as much as they take and creating an electric, unfakable chemistry as their relationship blossoms. Honest, bittersweet, and alive, “A Star Is Born” tackles addiction with hard-hitting truth and no easy recovery but also digs into matters of the heart and the sacrifice a couple in the limelight must face when their careers are taking opposite trajectories. Destined to get audiences swooning and sobbing, a soulful iteration of an oft-told story has been born.

9) The Hate U Give - Based on Angie Thomas’ best-selling 2017 YA novel, “The Hate U Give” is a vital, empathetic drama about the black experience in today’s America. Very of the moment, it is a valuable message movie about racial injustice and growing up to realize how broken the system can be. Instructional without ever coming off heavy-handed or too didactic like a medicinal Public Service Announcement that’s good for you, “The Hate U Give” is filmic activism with topical subject matter that never loses sight of the human beings involved and their points of view. With her fully authentic, down-to-earth presence and chameleonic ways in how she must portray 16-year-old Starr Carter and the different versions of herself, the poised Amandla Stenberg is exceptional as a self-possessed teenager who has now lost two of her friends to violence and wants to use her voice but doesn't yet know how. “The Hate U Give” deeply resonates as a powerful, enraging, uncomfortable conversation starter that makes one want to be even more socially woke.

8) Love, Simon - Remarkably, “Love, Simon” is the first of its kind: a gay coming-of-age dramedy being distributed by a major studio and hitting mainstream multiplexes. Shattering the glass ceiling and representing the LGBTQ community on 2,400 screens, the film is unprecedented but also happens to be wonderful, wearing its tender, open heart on its sleeve for the world to see. Based upon Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” “Love, Simon” is intimate and deeply felt both as a slice-of-high-school-life and a portrait of a closeted teenage boy ready to live his truth. It’s sensitive and sincere without ever coming off corny, beautifully written and unforced without ever reaching for the violins or turning into a Freeform Original Movie, and if he were still alive today and more aware of political correctness, John Hughes probably would have written and directed it. A joyous, celebratory poster child for love and acceptance, the film remains true to itself. It’s the kind of special cinematic treasure one will wish he or she had to turn to when figuring themselves out at 17, and that a LGBTQ story is getting a mainstream release, “Love, Simon” is a miracle and a major step forward.

7) Widows - Applying his tremendous artistry to what could have been merely a genre picture, director Steve McQueen composes his most commercial film with maturity. Based on a 1983 six-part miniseries, “Widows” is intricately paced as it is sprawlingly designed with a wide narrative scope and an ambitiously meaty yet tight script by Gillian Flynn. Living alone with her cotton-balled Westie in her sleek penthouse after husband Harry (Liam Neeson) and his team all die in a heist, Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) corrals the other wives—Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki)—to carry out their husbands’ final job. Even if some characters could have afforded more room to breathe in the grand scheme of things, the picture never feels overstuffed, as “Widows” explores the world in which these characters live, from their personal lives to the Chicago political corruption and rivalry between alderman Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and criminal politico Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). In her second film this year with a sizable ensemble, Cynthia Erivo (2018’s “Bad Times at the El Royale”) is a force to be reckoned with as Belle, a single mother who comes late into the film as the driver, and when it does come time for the heist itself, it is a breathless thrill. A highbrow, socially conscious heist drama that has much more on its mind without coming across self-important, “Widows” is intoxicating and exquisitely made with stylistic precision and phenomenal performances from its A-list cast.

6) You Were Never Really Here - Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” as filtered through an art film, “You Were Never Really Here” is an arresting, disturbing, visceral, altogether haunting knockout. As written and directed by Lynne Ramsay, the film, based on a novella by Jonathan Ames, could have just stuck to the beats of a pulpy, standard-issue revenge noir-thriller, but it is more of a to-the-bone character study in tune to psychological struggles and closer to beautifully crafted, anxiety-fueled visual poetry. Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a psychologically tortured veteran who has the weight of the world on his shoulders, caring for his elderly mother and making a living out of rescuing girls from the sex trade. In his latest job as a hired gun, he must retrieve a senator's 13-year-old daughter. Joaquin Phoenix is incapable of giving a mediocre, false, or one-dimensional performance and has played his share of damaged characters. His Joe, haunted by an abusive childhood and traumatic memories on the battlefield, is yet another damaged figure chillingly brought to life by Phoenix, who fully inhabits the tormented pain and scary capabilities of the character, and yet there is a gentle sensitivity to him. The violence is intense and brutal but hardly sensationalized. Like a horror film that cares more about suggestion, the viewer feels like he or she sees more violence than they really do, as a hammer to the head is just suggested or only the aftermath is seen. Going a long way into putting the viewer into the disoriented head of Joe is Jonny Greenwood's piercing, jarringly dissonant score and immersive, cacophonous sound design. Leanly stripped down to its barest essentials and traversing one man’s depth of emotional sadness, "You Were Never Really Here" is staggering to watch, artistically alive, and never without feeling.

5) Suspiria - Luca Guadagnino’s rebirth of Dario Argento’s stylishly kaleidoscopic 1977 giallo “Suspiria” is nothing short of audacious, going its own singular way, reinventing itself, and avoiding comparison altogether with a grimmer, daringly transgressive vision. Almost defiantly, Guadagnino's film differs visually, narratively, and emotionally from Argento’s phantasmagoria, and it is far more thematically dense and heady with a 152-minute running time but nearly just as artfully hypnotic and sure to be extremely divisive. Instead of imitating or being beholden to a masterwork, director Luca Guadagnino and screenwriter David Kajganich expand upon the source in a post-World War II Germany historical context and confront how guilt and shame fit into power struggles between leaders and followers, all while still spinning a story about a coven of witches running a dance academy, led by a mesmerizing Tilda Swinton (who plays a total of three roles). Requiring deeper consideration after one has mentally processed what has just been experienced and even repeat viewings to rediscover new takeaways, it cannot be dismissed or denied for its unmistakable craft and rattling, spellbinding power. As the film reaches its sixth act and heads toward an unsparing, splatter-laden Grand Guignol climax that of a ritualistic sabbath, it simultaneously takes mercy with an epilogue so unexpectedly cathartic and quietly heartbreaking; it turns out there might be a shred of humanity in even the darkest corners of witchcraft after all. For those willing to give oneself over to it, “Suspiria” casts an inescapable spell as if conjured through dark, inexplicable alchemy.

4) Annihilation - Based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Alex Garland’s “Annihilation” is about venturing into the unknown and the beginning of something new, despite the title referring to the end of mankind. The thing about the unknown is that there are no tidily packaged answers, just a lot to debate and ponder, and Garland never pulls from that notion in what is a stunner of cinematic strangeness. Natalie Portman is superb as Lena, a biology professor who served in the Army for seven years and is still reeling from her military husband (Oscar Isaac) being presumed dead after he left for a top-secret mission; with a coterie of other female specialists, Lena must embark on the same mission that has never seen any survivors. Those hoping for genre chills and thrills will still get their fill, but the third act, in particular, becomes such a hypnotic humdinger of a nightmare that takes on an ethereal, avant-garde quality. Like the entire film, it is absolutely spellbinding and not like anything seen in recent memory. Audiences will stumble out of the theater dazed and confused, questioning what it is exactly they have just seen. With that said, the trippy, thrillingly unpredictable and unsuspectingly audacious “Annihilation” requires patience, full engagement and an open mind from an audience that does not need easily fed information meant to be beyond basic human understanding. 

3) Boy Erased - Adapted from Gerrard Conley’s memoir, “Boy Erased” is a study in empathy without ever becoming preachy or a weepy melodrama. Never merely coasting on good intentions to tell this story, writer-director Joel Edgerton instead sheds unflinching light on the enraging existence of gay conversion therapy and paints a sensitive, nuanced picture of a teenager struggling to come out and be accepted by devoutly religious, narrow-minded people who happen to be family. It would be easy and far less interesting if the script reduced certain characters to caricatures and villains, but “Boy Erased” is delicate in tone and performance without placing heavy judgment on anyone. Beautifully played by Lucas Hedges, Jared Eamons is the son of Arkansas Baptist minister Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his devout wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman). Marshall prides himself on having an upstanding family, until he believes Jared has just “lost his way” by coming out as a gay young man. Jared is enlisted in “Love In Action,” a twelve-day Christian “ex-gay” conversation therapy camp run by therapist Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton). Writer-director Edgerton employs a free-floating structure to tell his story, beginning with Jared on his first day at Love In Action and then eventually flashing back to reveal how he got there. Highly recognizable thespians don’t always disappear into the skins of their roles, but that is not the case here with the strong, sneakily nuanced work by Nicole Kidman, as Nancy, who comes to her senses, and Russell Crowe, as Marshall, who cannot be wavered in his belief that homosexuality is an abomination in the eyes of God. How the film concludes could have felt clichéd by employing a cinematic stand-by of one rolling their hand in the wind while driving—Andy Samberg spoofed this years ago—but it’s rather cathartic and poignant. Without stamping Oscar Bait on every frame, “Boy Erased” is deeply moving and important.

2) Eighth Grade - Surviving middle school was rough enough, and one can’t even imagine reliving it now in 2018 (not to date oneself), but the universal ways in which Bo Burnham’s rewarding writing-directing debut “Eighth Grade” explores that agonizing stage in one socially awkward teenage girl’s life—self-doubt and insecurities, social anxiety and the approval one seeks from the popular crowd, all magnified by social media eternally at one’s fingertips—are painfully honest, bittersweet, and often quite funny. Elsie Fisher turns in a remarkable breakthrough performance of vulnerability and all-around relatability as Kayla Day. A lived-in, zits-and-all slice-of-slice that amounts to small victories and a traceable, fully earned arc for Kayla, “Eighth Grade” keenly observes its wallflower protagonist clamber through social situations until she finds her voice and confidence. Without being a doctumentary, it is so accurate and identifiable that it might as well be one, as viewers will cringe and wish he or she were watching through a pin hole in a shoebox. Burnham is kind to Kayla but still lets her make mistakes and feel embarrassment, or else, how would she grow and learn anything? The viewer loves spending time with Kayla and wants to break down the barrier of the screen to tell her that middle school is the worst, but yes, it does get better. What will seem low-stakes to an adult viewer is rendered as a sensitive, life-or-death snapshot of the here and now in “Eighth Grade,” and it is a special, momentous achievement for all to see. Gucci!

1) Hereditary - For a horror fan, being more discriminating and patient to wait for a great film can be rewarding. With that said, Ari Aster’s electrifying feature debut “Hereditary” is honest-to-God, face-melting, gut-level horror, the cinematic equivalent of a nervous breakdown into madness fueled by loss and grief. Never underestimate a first-time writer-director like Aster, whose attention to detail is meticulous and loaded with suggestion, his pacing so masterfully assured, and his narrative profoundly disturbing, risk-taking and thematically rich. One immediately knows that he or she is in the hands of a veritable filmmaking craftsman with the know-how to transcend any genre to the level of intoxicating art. A deeply raw and unflinchingly harrowing domestic drama at its core, "Hereditary" has one invested in the plight of the vulnerable Graham family well before they disintegrate into a hopeless, irreversible hell beyond their control. Further highlighted by astounding performances by Toni Collette and Alex Wolff, this is an elegantly helmed slow burn with a tangible sense of foreboding and bursts of unsparing, heart-stopping horror that come in unexpected places and indelibly horrific imagery that instantly burns into one’s retinas. For anyone who thinks they know where the film is going, all bets are off, but everything is part of Aster’s insidious, soundly constructed master plan. When the film begins curdling into a take-no-prisoners nightmare and reaches an unforgettably distressing boil, it’s like watching a fiery vehicle with faulty brakes careen down a hill toward a cliff.  “Hereditary” knocks you on your ass, festers under your skin, and leaves one haunted long after the end credits. Brace yourselves.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

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

The Upside (2019)

125 min.
Release Date: January 11, 2019 (Wide)

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 -

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Blood Brothers: "Pledge" an efficient nightmare with few characters to root for

Pledge (2019)
78 min.
Release Date: January 11, 2019 (Limited)

Besides an attention-grabbing opener that shows its hand, “Pledge” deceptively begins as a college comedy about the desire to belong before bleeding into a nightmare about toxic masculinity and the juice not being worth the squeeze. Director Daniel Robbins and writer Zack Weiner (who also co-stars) take a page out of Eli Roth’s pacing and structure in 2006’s “Hostel,” and then proceed to take the boys-will-be-boys mentality to an extreme level. Filling out its 78 minutes efficiently, “Pledge” is confidently shot and has a nasty, buzzy thrill about itself, but would it have killed the filmmakers to at least provide a more likable or just sympathetic character who didn’t feel like composite leftovers from a “Porky’s” sequel?

Hoping to rush a fraternity, geeky freshman friends David (Zack Weiner), Ethan (Phillip Andre Botello), and Justin (Zachery Byrd) instantly get kicked out of a frat party for being “weird.” When they follow the address for a party given to them by attractive coed Rachel (Erica Boozer), it takes them far off-campus beyond a chain-locked gate to the house of an exclusive social club where the three good-looking bro members are more than welcoming and the party is filled with beautiful young women. It all seems too good to be true. The morning after, the three friends, plus two other unsuspecting pledges, are invited back the next night by rush chairman Maxwell Peterson III (Aaron Dalla Villa). Over the next 48 hours, they are tested physically, mentally, and emotionally but, once literal branding is the tip-off, not in ways they are expecting when their lives seem to be on the line by this shadowy organization. Bloodlust is just hazing, though, right?

Dragging the name of fraternities through the mud even more than 2016’s “Goat” already did, “Pledge” is tense for a while before it grows annoying and off-putting. To its credit, there are a few surprises, like who ends up being the “Final Boy,” and a torture method by way of a rat, fire, and a bucket is a wicked, if not entirely novel, way to kill off a character. The actors are certainly game for the fraternity hazing scenes and the wringer they’re put through, too, but none of them are defined as anything more than types. That these friends don’t have much more to talk about makes them feel like scripted creations, and while David, Ethan, and Justin will never be the same again, “Pledge” doesn’t really give us anyone to truly root for in the end.

Grade: C +

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 +

Lean on Pete (2018)
121 min., rated R.

For a story about a boy and his horse, writer-director Andrew Haigh’s “Lean on Pete” is unsentimental and understated but fully human. Charlie Plummer gives a sensitive, unaffected performance as 15-year-old Charley, who’s forced to become independent when his father (Travis Fimmel) can’t be relied on. He takes it upon himself to take on job helping out a horse trainer (Steve Buscemi) with a jockey (Chloë Sevigny), and in the process, Charley takes a liking to thoroughbred Lean on Pete. Where “Lean on Pete” goes from there is a desperate, unforgiving, melancholic journey for Charley, and the viewer will feel the weight of the world on him every step of the way. Never showing off or overtly manipulating for an emotional response, this is an authentically observed, deeply moving experience. Grade: A -

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; 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 of 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 play fast and loose with facts, 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