Saturday, June 29, 2019

Breakup Festival: “Midsommar” an unsettling yet perversely cathartic and darkly funny daytime nightmare

Midsommar (2019)
147 min.
Release Date: July 3, 2019 (Wide)

Ari Aster greatly impressed—and divided audiences—with his core-shaking feature debut, 2018’s “Hereditary,” but no matter what, everyone could agree that he proved himself to be a daring, thoughtful filmmaker and artist as if he has been working in the business for decades next to any of the greats. While Aster carries over similar themes of paganism and loss with his follow-up film, “Midsommar,” he explores a different kind of toxic and disintegrating relationship between a couple who should have already called it quits long before one of them experiences a major loss. Deeply unsettling as it is strange and perverse, the film is a darkly funny breakup drama framed through 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” where the viewer is, by design, rooting for them to not stay together. Even if some of the breadcrumbs may take another viewing to click into place, unlike the meticulous construction of "Hereditary," "Midsommar" still mounts like a cinematic panic attack and then lands with a disturbingly satisfying catharsis.

After receiving a startling email from her bipolar sister, psychology grad student Dani (Florence Pugh) tries to get in touch with her and her parents, but it’s too late when a sudden tragedy strikes. She turns to her boyfriend, Christian (Jack Reynor), for comfort, but he has been trying to end their four-year relationship (he thinks they have been together for three and a half) and now feels obligated to stay with her as she grieves. When Dani learns that Christian and his two college friends, fellow sociology student Josh (William Jackson Harper) and group boor Mark (Will Poutler), have planned an overseas trip for a nine-day solstice festival with Swedish roommate Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren) to the insular commune where he grew up, she gets a pity invite and tags along in hopes of exorcising her crushing grief. They arrive to the sunny, bucolic, ultra-inviting community with a warm welcome by Pelle’s friendly family and friends, all dressed in white frocks and tunics and ready to celebrate with games, dancing, and food. As the consuming of psychedelic properties get to be too much and the pageantry of the culturally unorthodox ceremony rituals prove to be too disturbing for these interlopers, particularly Dani, their fates might already be sealed.

From frame one, where a Nordic winter tableau with a woman chanting off-screen smash cuts to a ringing phone in suburban America, “Midsommar” immediately percolates dread and sustains it for the next 147 minutes through an unhurried yet hypnotic tempo and elegant craftsmanship. Then, like many a horror film about interlopers entering an unfamiliar place and ignoring the warning signs, the film presents the Swedish commune as a deceptively idyllic community, aided by exquisite production design, from intricate tapestries and wall decorations to elaborate dinner setups where the head of the table leads and a domino effect follows. Not only does the film fall into a vacation romp turned upside down into folk horror, it is a meditation on interpersonal communication in decline. Dani and Christian represent very different levels of gender communication in their relationship that is so dysfunctional it could be seen from space. They can’t even agree on how long they have been together, and Dani will apologize, even if Christian is the one who says something hurtful. Even as this would-be paradise full of wide open space seems like the right escape for Danny, there is no escape.

Much like the performance Ari Aster got out of Toni Collette in “Hereditary,” Florence Pugh (2019’s “Fighting with My Family”) is extraordinary, traversing a raw, overwhelmingly emotional  and always empathetic journey from fragility, neediness and fear to catharsis that demands her entire being. What’s more, Pugh is a dead ringer for a younger Kate Winslet. Jack Reynor (2016's "Sing Street") slides between playing Christian as charming and infuriatingly selfish and unsupportive, and while Will Poutler (2017's "Detroit") has a less complicated role to play, he is rather effective at playing a complete prick.

In stark contrast with its floral countryside setting where the sun eternally shines, “Midsommar” is a daytime nightmare of insidious portent and encroaching doom. This time, though, Ari Aster filters an unexpected sense of humor through the disorientation of foreign, allegedly too-good-to-be-true circumstances, from one of the character’s observations of a bear casually caged in the field and Mark’s crass, disrespectful American attitude. Even then, these seemingly incongruous flashes of comedy still feel like harbingers of doom, along with Bobby Krlic’s increasingly sinister music score, and how Aster handles bursts of violence are unflinching and visceral. Pawel Pogorzelski’s tour-de-force cinematography and Jennifer Lame and Lucia Johnston’s seamless editing find a quixotic alchemy, like in an overhead shot of Dani running into Christian’s apartment bathroom that then becomes an airplane bathroom. The camera tends to put the viewer at a distance from certain characters in wide shots, but there is always an intimacy when Dani is on screen.

There is a cruel inevitability to where “Midsommar” is headed, like watching a train wreck in slow motion, and while the payoff is not quite as gutting, how it gets there is no less chilling and operatic, akin to “The Wicker Man, with a tinge of twisted hope. Watching a decaying relationship be tested in a communal camp of questionable traditions, “Midsommar” isn’t an easy two-and-a-half-hour trip to take, but the experience is an unforgettably disquieting one that crawls under the skin and will dash any plans of making a bucket-list trip to Sweden.

Grade: B +

Monday, June 24, 2019

Nightmares in Babysitting: "Annabelle Comes Home" a blast of funhouse scares, heart, and likable characters

Annabelle Comes Home (2019)
106 min.
Release Date: June 26, 2019 (Wide)

Upping the ante as the third installment in the “Annabelle” series, “Annabelle Comes Home” delivers on the can’t-miss conceptual promise of a “Night at the Museum”-type spookshow with the titular pigtailed nightmare and other relics from the Warrens’ haunted artifact room. Also considered the seventh entry in “The Conjuring Universe,” the film might be the most satisfying film since we last saw the Warren family directly involved. Gary Dauberman (writer of 2014’s “Annabelle,” 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation,” and 2018’s “The Nun”) makes his directorial bow and works from his own screenplay, concocting a blast of an up-all-night babysitting adventure that blends funhouse scares and thrilling tension with a comparatively lighter tone, as well as the most heart this series has offered. “Annabelle Comes Home” not only cares about engineering hair-raising doozies, but it goes one step further by respecting the likable characters whom the viewer can easily care about. 

After a recent case involving the cuddly, sweet-faced doll Annabelle that acts as a conduit for an inhuman spirit, paranormal investigators-cum-demonologists-cum-husband-and-wife Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) have the doll blessed by a priest and then lock her away in a glass cabinet within their artifact room of other haunted objects in their suburban Connecticut home. A year later after the evil has seemingly been contained, the Warrens leave town to investigate another case while responsible teen Mary Ellen (Madison Iseman) babysits their 10-year-old daughter, Judy (Mckenna Grace). What could go wrong? Mary Ellen’s friend, Daniella (Katie Sarife), stops over uninvited, bringing over a pair of roller skates to Judy as a birthday present. While Daniella encourages Mary Ellen to take Judy out to test them out, she promises to watch the birthday cake in the oven but also hurries to go snooping for the key to open the door to the Warrens’ forbidden artifact room. Daniella eventually finds the key, and once curiously wandering through and touching every cursed artifact, she opens Annabelle’s cabinet marked “Warning! Positively Do Not Open” that unleashes all of the other spirits from their tchotchke vessels. The three girls are in for a long, ghoulish night.

An ideal option to watch at a sleepover or in a theater inside of a sleeping bag, “Annabelle Comes Home” plays out like a fun haunted-house ride that might not be deeply horrifying but dishes out the creeps and levity in equal measure. Save for the attention-grabbing opening sequence that introduces how Ed and Lorraine get their hands on the trouble-making doll, the film is a spine-tingler in the most classical mode by taking its time working up to the tense set-pieces and giving optimal breathing room to the characters who are just carrying on with their day before Annabelle and friends come out to play. First-time director Gary Dauberman makes confident use of the camera for maximum mood and suspense, mischievously setting up would-be jump scares with anticipation and then twisting expectations of such predictable rhythms. Outside of milking the inanimate, yet still creepy, Raggedy Ann stand-in for all she’s worth, Dauberman unleashes a whole bag of tricks, including a killer wedding dress, Milton Bradley board game Feeley Meeley, a future-telling television set, and a coin-eyed soul collector called The Ferryman. While several jolts are of the jumpy variety and still effective, some of the more restrained chills include a dead priest following Judy around, calling to mind 2015’s “It Follows"; Daniela spotting her deceased father staring back at her from the Warrens' back door; and the striking use of Judy’s bedroom spinning lamp to illuminate a certain someone’s shadow. 

Recast as Judy Warren, Mckenna Grace (2017’s “I, Tonya”) is preternaturally assured, carrying herself with such a maturity and thoughtfulness that bely her young age. Like her mother, Judy has been gifted—nay, cursed—with a sixth sense, and what Judy’s parents do for a living has an effect on her life at school, particularly with her birthday party coming up and all of her classmates declining their invitation. Madison Iseman (2018’s “Goosebumps: Haunted Halloween”) is warm and likable as Mary Ellen, and Katie Sarife brings much more personality and unexpectedly moving layers to Daniela, whose desperate curiosity to enter the Warrens’ Artifact Room extends to her grief and desire to contact her late father since she has lived with guilt for his death. Together, Grace, Iseman, and Sarife all share a nice chemistry together that it’s easy to invest in them, and though Daniela is the one to open Pandora’s box, there is enough sympathy and traceable thought to her that she becomes more than just a dumb horror-movie stereotype. Newcomer Michael Cimino also makes a sweet impression as Bob, a wholesome grocery clerk with a mutual crush on Mary Ellen, even if his participation in the story suddenly stops until the end. Last but not least, Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson may only appear in the bookending scenes, but they should be commended for portraying Lorraine and Ed Warren as figures whom we trust and feel safe with, and their love and support for one another, as well as their daughter, still rings true.

As any well-crafted horror film does, “Annabelle Comes Home” begins and ends with the lives of its closely observed characters. Gary Dauberman makes the wise choice to not end on a cheap stinger but to close on how the supernatural goings-on have impacted the Warren family, as well as Mary Ellen and Daniella, and where they all go from there. Another bonus is that the early-‘70s production design is so lived-in and fastidiously detailed, from the shag carpeting of the Warrens’ homey split-level house, to Freda Payne’s “Band of Gold” playing on the car radio and Badfinger’s “Day After Day” on vinyl, and that dreaded artifact room. R-rated more for terror than explicit violence, “Annabelle Comes Home” makes one realize that they actually missed the porcelain beacon of evil after all, achieving the mission statement of the “Conjuring” canon by knowing how to rattle audiences with a welcome sense of macabre fun.

Grade: B +

Friday, June 21, 2019

Chatty Chucky: "Child's Play" a clever, playfully malevolent update that justifies its existence

Child’s Play (2019)
90 min.
Release Date: June 21, 2019 (Wide)

It might never be necessary to re-imagine a highly regarded horror film, particularly one that has spawned six sequels and still continues to thrive by its original creator with a TV series on the way, but 2019’s “Child’s Play” figures out a way to be fresh. One can keep their fondness for 1988’s Tom Holland-directed, Don Mancini-written “Child’s Play”—and its sequels—and not dismiss this clever update on its own merits. Dropping the voodoo angle of the original mythos, where the soul of serial strangler Charles Lee Ray (Brad Douriff) was transferred into a Good Guy doll, director Lars Klevberg and first-time screenwriter Tyler Burton Smith take a more current, high-tech approach that’s not far off from a “Black Mirror” episode about artificial intelligence run amok. As such, “Child’s Play” is refreshingly playful with a demented glee.

The Kaslan Corporation specializes in making life a whole lot easier with its innovative technology, pushing out a line of toy products, particularly a popular “Buddi” doll that can control and connect to other smart household devices. After a disgruntled sweatshop worker in Vietnam disables all of the safety firewalls on one of the dolls and then kills himself, the defective animatronic toy gets dumped into U.S. department store Zed Mart and falls into the hands of customer service employee and single mom Karen Barclay (Aubrey Plaza). Her 13-year-old son, Andy (Gabriel Bateman), is having a tough time acclimating to their fresh start and making new friends. Even though the “Buddi 2” model is fast approaching, Karen wraps up the doll as an early birthday gift and gives it to Andy. Not too impressed at first, Andy then imprints himself on the doll and makes buddies with his new pal who calls himself Chucky. All is going well, until the computer inside Chucky becomes too self-aware and starts to take out those who hurt Andy, like Karen’s jerk of a boyfriend (David Lewis). As Chucky leaves a trail of bodies, Detective Mike Norris (Brian Tyree Henry) investigates. 

Besides carrying over the title, the names of the main characters, and the overall premise of a murderous doll named Chucky, 2019’s “Child’s Play” goes its own way instead of being a note-for-note retread, thus making a case for its own existence. The film has the decency to be aware of its own silliness and how creepy the doll looks even before it goes violent. When Andy makes friends with a pair of siblings, Falyn (Beatrice Kitsos) and Pugg (Ty Consiglio), who live in his apartment building, they sit around and watch “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2,” laughing at the over-the-top carnage on TV. Chucky, meanwhile, mistakes the violence for being hilarious and grabs a knife, as if his behavior is learned through his environment. Thankfully, “Child’s Play” does not go soft on its targeted new generation by being as gory and gnarly as it wants to be, even if children are involved. Chucky is still up to his stab-a-thon, but he also makes use of a rototiller, a self-driving smart car, and a thermostat paired with a circular saw. The film is never particularly scary, although a quick game of peekaboo in a car is tense and creepy, and a piece of murder evidence attached to a watermelon is one of the film’s most morbidly amusing gags. The climax, set at Zed Mart’s “Buddi 2.0” doll unveiling, does crank the carnage up to eleven, but it’s almost as hurried as it is ultimately satisfying.

Aubrey Plaza playing a cool single mom is certainly out-of-the-box casting, and while she does convince and gets a few chances to enliven the role with snarky wit, it approaches thankless status by giving her far less to do than Catherine Hicks’ Karen Barclay in the original film. Brian Tyree Henry is likable as Detective Mike, whose mom Doreen (Carlease Burke) lives down the hall from the Barclays, but he is fairly underutilized as well. Gabriel Bateman (2016’s “Lights Out”), on the other hand, is terrific as Andy and carries most of the film on his shoulders. And how is Chucky? Brad Douriff is so synonymous with Chucky, having voiced the one-liner-spewing killer doll for all seven films in Don Mancini’s series, and while he cannot be matched, it is a rather inspired choice to cast Mark Hamill (whom one might forget has done lot of voice work over the course of his career) as the sweetly menacing voice of this newly designed Chucky. 

Director Lars Klevberg’s direction is surprisingly stylish, coupled by cinematographer Brendan Uegama bringing a colorful slickness and Bear McCreary’s perfect score of malevolent whimsy, and there are a couple of sly visual nods to “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” as well as an overt reference to “Han Solo” (“Luke Skywalker” would have been too obvious). This 2019 redux will divide the most protective Chucky fans, but it does dare to separate itself enough from original “Child’s Play” creator Don Mancini’s still-active series that audiences should be pretty entertained and pleased with an alternative version of their favorite ginger-haired, denim overall-wearing bad guy. It’s okay to like both.

Grade: B -

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Couple Who Knew Too Little: "Murder Mystery" an amicable lark helped by Sandler and Aniston's chemistry

Murder Mystery (2019)
97 min.
Release Date: June 14, 2019 (Netflix)

Of all the recent Adam Sandler joint ventures under the Happy Madison-Netflix banner, “Murder Mystery” is a pleasant-enough lark that, for once, resists the Sandman's crass, puerile, often mean-spirited variety of comedy. For one, it’s a frothy riff on an Agatha Christie whodunit, and for two, there is a likable, playful chemistry between Sandler and Jennifer Aniston, much like when he co-stars with Drew Barrymore. Director Kyle Newacheck (2018’s “Game Over, Man!”) and screenwriter James Vanderbilt (2016’s “Independence Day: Resurgence”) have all the pieces for a madcap farce, but the result is more easy-going than side-splitting with more smiles than laughs, which could be counted on one hand.

Frugal NYC police detective Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) finally surprises his wife, hairdresser Audrey (Jennifer Aniston), for their fifteenth wedding anniversary with a vacation to Europe. When Audrey sneaks into the first-class section on their flight, she meets wealthy and handsome viscount Charles (Luke Evans), and he invites the couple on the yacht of his billionaire uncle, Malcolm (Terence Stamp), who’s marrying Charles’ former lover Suzi (Shioli Kutsuna). Instead of celebrating his nuptials, Malcolm announces that he’s cutting everyone off—including a glamorous movie star (Gemma Arterton), a loud Maharajah (Adeel Akhtar), and a Formula 1 driver (Luis Gerardo Mendez)—from his $70 million fortune, until the lights go out and someone stabs the curmudgeon. Among them is a murderer, and Nick is the detective who knows what to do and Audrey just happens to be a fan of mystery novels, but since they are American strangers, French Inspector Laurent Delacroix (Dany Doon) claims the Spitzes to be the prime suspects. 

Even as a diverting romp, “Murder Mystery” is neither as involving as an everyone’s-a-suspect whodunit should be, nor is it ever as funny as one would like it to be, but it’s an amicable time-killer. Matched together after 2011’s spotty, albeit not-terrible, “Just Go With It,” Adam Sandler and the effervescent, comedically nimble Jennifer Aniston do have a workable give-and-take as a working-class married couple in a rut. It is still a shameless vacation to Europe for all involved, but the production values are a step up, thanks to the scenery, and a Ferrari chase through the streets of Italy is capably staged that one gets the sense this could have actually been something more. Faint praise, sure, but “Murder Mystery” gets the job done as something palatable to watch on an airplane without wanting to jump out of the emergency exit. 

Grade: C +

Friday, June 14, 2019

You've Been Neuralyzed: Thompson and Hemsworth can't prop up flat, mediocre "Men in Black: International"

Men in Black: International (2019)
114 min.
Release Date: June 14, 2019 (Wide)

After 2012’s “Men in Black III” felt ten years too late but at least circled back to the spirit of the fresh, entertaining 1997 original about a super-secret government agency fighting alien scum, this long-delayed fourth entry is a day late and a dollar short. Positioned as a reboot spin-off, “Men in Black: International” feels like it was made out of obligation and spit out of a computer. Without wisecracking Will Smith and perpetually grumpy Tommy Lee Jones around, there’s a new duo of Men in Black agents in the form of Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth, but even they can’t do much to prop up this bare-minimum summer tentpole with their charisma and talent. Replacing creative force Barry Sonnenfeld, director F. Gary Gray (2017’s “The Fate of the Furious”) has brought energy to past films, and yet, this sci-fi comedy just goes through the motions with a perfunctory script by screenwriters Matt Holloway & Art Marcum (2017’s “Transformers: The Last Knight”) that makes one realize star likability can’t fully replace smart writing. It’s not that “Men in Black: International” had to change the world or make one think too hard; it’s silly and amiable enough but lacking the personality of even 2002’s much-maligned “Men in Black II” and never particularly funny or clever.

Ever since she was a child and encountered an alien creature in her bedroom while her parents had their memories neuralyzed by two MIB agents, Molly (Tessa Thompson) believes in aliens and wants to search for the truth of the universe. When Molly follows a couple of agents and sneaks into their New York City headquarters, she comes face to face with Agent O (Emma Thompson), who sees her passion and pretty quickly suits her up and offers her a probationary assignment in London. Now “Agent M,” Molly tags along with dashing Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), who once conquered alien species The Hive with partner Agent High T (Liam Neeson) in Paris three years earlier, and as their mission begins with the assassination of alien royalty by The Hive, it turns out there might be a mole within the Men in Black. 

Consistent with all of the “Men in Black” movies in one way, “Men in Black: International” begins with the singularly impish score by Danny Elfman and Chris Bacon. Otherwise, the film is just an example of a studio dusting off a recognizable property without anyone involved bringing any fresh spin to it besides putting together a new cast and putting a woman in the black suit. That might count as the only type of progress this film offers, and Tessa Thompson is winning as the wide-eyed and pragmatic Molly/Agent M. However, while it’s nice to follow Molly on her journey to achieving her dream, the stakes never feel high enough to matter and Molly’s arc seems nonexistent. Chris Hemsworth is always charming with no fear of coming off goofy, but his role as Agent H mainly asks him to coast on his magnetic golden-boy persona and even make one self-referential joke about an undersized hammer that proves how viewers would rather watch Hemsworth play Thor again. Though Thompson and Hemsworth had energetic interplay in 2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok” and then again in 2019’s “Avengers: Endgame,” they don’t quite click here, unable to carry over their chemistry or achieve worthwhile banter with this material. 

If there is any source of entertainment, it is in Kumail Nanjiani’s riffy voice performance as an alien chess pawn named Pawny, who actually comes off too cutesy at first as the obvious comic relief but grows on one like an adorable puppy and becomes a sweet hoot. Emma Thompson, the only returning player from any of the previous films, sparkles in her all-too-brief screen time as Agent O, while Liam Neeson just looks indifferent to be here as Agent High T and his partnership with Agent H feels too undercooked to register. Rebecca Ferguson finally shows up and squeaks out a few laughs even in a thankless role as arms dealer Riza, Agent H’s former flame, who looks like Sia with an extra arm. Otherwise, the stars’ platonic chemistry is tamped down into blandness, the action is quickly edited and not very exciting, the alien villains are dull, the plot is convoluted with a shrug-worthy twist, and the special effects are no more than fine and never as spectacularly disgusting as Rick Baker’s make-up effects in the previous movies. As a summer blockbuster, “Men in Black: International” is a flat, underwhelming mediocrity that doesn’t reinvigorate the franchise at all and just neuralyzes its audience’s memory as it plays out. More like “Meh in Black.”

Grade: C