Monday, April 28, 2014

Girls Just Wanna Get Even: Diaz and Mann try to smarten up "Other Woman"

The Other Woman (2014)
109 min., rated PG-13. 

For a while now, women's pictures have been reduced to being called "chick flicks," a term that must mean anything about women and for women should be dumbed-down, glossy and cutesy. 2011's female-centric "Bridesmaids" took care of slamming that term, and at first, "The Other Woman" is a bit smarter than most, being about two wronged women becoming the unlikeliest of friends when they intend to stick it to the same man. As the film goes along, though, tyro screenwriter Melissa K. Stack finds more use for over-exaggerated shtick and silly, grade school-level pranks of the "clean-the-toilet-with-the-enemy's-toothbrush" variety. Director Nick Cassavetes (2009's "My Sister's Keeper") also has never met a more obvious and more clichéd musical choice he didn't like (including "Love Is a Battlefield," the "Mission: Impossible" theme, "Girls Just Want to Have Fun," and Frank Sinatra's "New York, New York") to play over a montage or five. If only it weren't so dumb, but this featherweight, intermittently funny fluffball of escapism banks on its gamely affable stars, and Cameron Diaz and particularly Leslie Mann are just too hard to resist.

Tough N.Y.C. lawyer Carly (Cameron Diaz) thinks she's finally found the right guy to settle down with after hooking up with smooth Internet entrepreneur Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) for a few months. When he cancels dinner plans to meet her many-times-divorced father (Don Johnson) due to a plumbing problem at his Connecticut home, Carly shows up. Who else answers the door than Kate (Leslie Mann), Mark's wife, but Carly refuses to be a home-wrecker, so she ignores Mark's calls and stops seeing him. The next day, the manic Kate drops in at Carly's work and keeps stalking her, looking for answers and realizing she has no one else to turn to, except for the mistress to her cheating womanizer of a husband. Carly practices tough love with Kate before they start bonding over dinner, heavy drinking, and shoes. As the unlikely pair hatches a plan to get back at Mark in the Hamptons, it seems there is another "other woman." Enter blonde, busty 21-year-old tart Amber (Kate Upton). To make a long story short, the three of them form a yin-yang-boobs bond and turn the tables on Mark, slipping him laxatives, hair remover and estrogen tablets before framing him for his investment schemes.

As one can probably gather from the studio's marketing and that synopsis, "The Other Woman" is not operating as an authentic study in female behavior or women's lib. Billed as a female-bonding revenge comedy-fantasy, it is purely that and nothing more. However, the film's undemanding aspirations and how well they are executed are entirely different matters. For about the first 30 minutes, Carly and Kate feel like real women who could exist on planet Earth. Their burgeoning relationship might still be a screenwriting contrivance, but between the characters' exchanges and the stars themselves, it works surprisingly well. The subject of infidelity is treated seriously enough and carries a pleasant tone throughout with some recognizable humanity from these two women. Then, at some point, most of that good will drowns, as if the rest of the movie was seized by a pod person who binge-watched too many Adam Sandler movies and littered this one with wacky slapstick and lazy, pandering scatology. The few exceptions that earn the only big laughs include Kate having a panic attack and wanting to get some air from a high-rise window, as well as a scene where Carly and Kate are found by three landscapers in the bushes. Otherwise, it's apparent that a woman has to fall down from a broken heel or fall backwards out of a two-story window to desperately get a laugh. Or, a Great Dane is on hand for a poop and testicle joke. And much, much worse is one prolonged eye-roller of a "fecal incident," complete with explosive sound effects of relief. 

Cameron Diaz has toned down her wide smile from "Charlie's Angels" and "The Sweetest Thing" (two more fun girls-just-wanna-have-fun romps), but she is still a bright performer when it comes to handling zingy one-liners and broad physical comedy. Here, as the steely, grounded Carly, Diaz gets the chance to be the straight man in the situation and play an intelligent, independent working woman who sticks to her guns. It is Leslie Mann, however, who drives off with the movie with her ad-libbing skills and perfect comic timing. Because of Mann, the needy, talkative, meltdown-prone Kate is sympathetic and actually kind of lovable when she could have been stuck as a whiny, annoying martyr or delicate flower. The scene with Kate removing her wedding ring on the beach in the Bahamas is of particular worth; it's a sweet and much more touching moment than it should be, given the cheesy dramatic ballad on the soundtrack telling us how to feel. The odd one out is Sports Illustrated swimsuit model Kate Upton, who looks quite lovely bouncing along in a white bikini—in slow motion, no less. As nice bimbo Amber, or the Bo Derek/Brooklyn Decker role, Upton has a few throwaway moments to act disarmingly dim with a blank, deer-caught-in-the-headlights face, but she just looks in over her head with nothing going on beneath her sunny disposition. It's certainly not the 21-year-old model's fault, although someone equally gorgeous and daffy might have brought more to the egregiously underwritten role. Bringing a bit more scene-stealing snap is pop singer Nicki Minaj, in her acting debut, as Carly's sassy, bodacious secretary. Also, with his stubble and piercing eyes, Taylor Kinney (TV's "Chicago Fire") is a charming gentleman as Kate's contractor brother Phil, who's immediately taken by Carly.

Never has a sparkling, entertaining comedy so slowly derailed from squeezing in tacky, flat-footed bathroom humor since the 2001 Monica Potter-Freddie Prinze Jr. romantic-thriller-farce "Head Over Heels." Cheerfully estranged from reality and appealed down from an R rating, "The Other Woman" is not a great movie by any stretch; as for originality, this is all very "9 to 5" mixed with "The First Wives Club." For all its fickle tonal shifts, lurching from forced farce to dramatic pathos, it's still hard to get too angry about. There's something innocuously amusing about a 2014 comedy having its three women conduct a stakeout with binoculars on a wide-open pool deck in broad daylight and no one asking questions. If two funny, photogenic women have to pratfall and vomit in their purses, it might as well be Diaz and Mann, but they're clearly up to the task of participating in comedic and dramatic fare of equal intelligence to them.

Grade: C +

Friday, April 25, 2014

Come On Hear the Spooks: "Quiet Ones" more jumpy noise than scary fun

The Quiet Ones (2014)
98 min., rated PG-13.

The latest retro-horror pastiche from England's resurgent Hammer Films banner, "The Quiet Ones" is actually a misnomer. Though he holds the blood—or perhaps it was censored to appease the powers that be—director John Pogue  (the scribe of "The Skulls" and "Ghost Ship" who has only helmed 2011's "Quarantine 2: Terminal") seems to know little about gingerly unspooling disquiet and genuine frights without cranking up the loud noise and rapidly shaking the hell out of his camera. It no longer becomes a study in slow-boiling restraint as much as hokey hokum that exchanges tension and chills for frustration. Why did this movie need to fool us into thinking it was "inspired by actual events"? Why did the first draft of such a simple possession story, "based on a screenplay by Tom de Ville," have to be doctored by three writers (Craig Rosenberg, Oren Moverman and director Pogue)? Whatever the reasons, "The Quiet Ones" turns out to be less than worthwhile and manages to commit the cardinal sins of any horror film: it's just not very scary or that much fun. 

In 1974, at University of Oxford, paranormal researcher and professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) holds an on-campus experiment with two of his grad students, Harry (Rory Fleck-Byrne) and Krissi (Erin Richards), on a special patient he's studying and hopes to cure. Her name is Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), a mentally ill foster child who's been passed from family to family and could be possessed by a spirit named "Evie." Hired to shoot the entire experiment is naïve cameraman Brian McNeil (Sam Claflin). When the university funding is pulled by university authorities, Coupland and his team move Jane out to an old mansion on an isolated estate, as one does, and keeps her in a cell-like bedroom. As the experiment gets going, Coupland forces Jane to get "Evie" to manifest the ghost's negative energy into a doll and, faster than you can say "The Exorcist," the quiet ones start screaming.

From its second half and on, "The Quiet Ones" remains mostly set in and around one house in the countryside, and yet it gives into a pace full of stops and starts. For the experiment trials done on Jane, both narrative momentum and a level of dread are interrupted by a lot of wheel-spinning and an increasingly irritating onslaught of cheap jump scares. More than a handful of times, the music will get quiet, or a shot will get steady, and a sudden bang sounds to make both the characters and the audience flinch in a fright. Jane starts to burn during a séance and screams her head off before we cut to the next scene. Jane vomits up a "teleplasm" before we cut to the next scene. An occult marking scars Jane's skin and it's onto the next scene. Sometimes, a scene abruptly transitions to Brian clapping his hands as a film slate. The spooky stuff can still work like a charmlook at 2012's other Hammer-produced effort, "The Woman in Black," which never felt chopped at the knees by its PG-13 rating—but it's as if saying "gotcha" is about all "The Quiet Ones" has to offer.

Apart from the 1970s fashions, the blasting of Slade's glam rock hit "Cum On Feel the Noize," and the main Gothic location, Pogue doesn't re-create the look and feel of Hammer's past efforts so much as he brings the handheld found-footage technique to the '70s period. The footage is shot like scratchy film stock, but so be it. The cast is led by Jared Harris, as the smarmy, smoking-like-a-chimney Professor Coupland, with a face and demeanor perfect for this genre piece that might have been led by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee back in the day. He somehow even makes the line, "Take your hands out of his trousers now, please," less campy than it sounds. As the skeptical Brian, Sam Claflin ("The Hunger Games: Catching Fire") is rather bland, but Olivia Cooke (TV's "Bates Motel") emits a sad confusion, knowing power, and scared hysterics as supernatural conduit Jane. Though she amounts to fodder, the fetching, fresh-faced Erin Richards lends the most spark as cheeky sexpot Krissi. 

Given its pedigree, "The Quiet Ones" does possess a classy atmosphere and enough quality production design, not to mention a nifty sound design that aurally resembles a propeller, to keep it from being a total waste. A scene with a boiling bath is as creepy as it gets. Otherwise, it never feels like there is enough at stake and suddenly Brian needs to start caring about Jane. The film also underutilizes its introduced idea—that the supernatural is nothing more than telekinetic manifestations—and then never goes far enough in any direction, stringing us along to a secret that's been staring the characters in the face, as well as a confused, nothing-special climax. Despite a creepily amusing Lovecraftian ending that's open to "The Quiet Ones: Part II" because good never prevails in the face of evil, the majority of the film is too weak to elicit any serious shivers. One keeps hoping it will go left, but it's content to go right.


Wednesday, April 23, 2014

9 Months of Crazy: "Proxy" might overreach but still a disturbing genre-buster

Proxy (2014)
120 min., not rated (but equivalent to R).

Premiering at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival, ambitious, modestly budgeted indie "Proxy" was then picked up by IFC Midnight shortly after. The film does benefit from being screened cold and going in without any prior knowledge. Even horror fans expecting an ultra-bloody pregnancy horror show, à la 2007's "Inside" and 2009's "Grace," might be in for a rude awakening from the disturbingly real opening shock. Esther (Alexia Rasmussen), an introverted, ready-to-burst young woman, receives one last ultrasound at her OB appointment in Richmond, Indiana. Once she leaves, a red hooded figure knocks Esther unconscious and proceeds to hit her pregnant belly with a brick. This could have played out in an exploitative, gratuitous manner, but writer-director Zack Parker (2012's "Scalene") makes his first sequence bluntly effective and just upsetting enough to grab our attention.

Conceived from a screenplay by Parker and co-writer Kevin Donner, "Proxy" only begins as a purposefully horrific exploration of mourning before making the elegant switch into something else, as sympathies shift and several layers of crazy are peeled back. With her memory fragmented, the numb Esther wakes up in the hospital, where her only visitors are a detective and a grief counselor. She has no friends or family, except for her pet goldfish, who's found floating at the top of the tank when Esther returns home. Directed to go to a support group for her trauma, she attends and meets Melanie Michaels (Alexa Havins), a grieving mother who welcomes Esther to the group. The two soon grab coffee and meet for a chat near a playground, Melanie sharing with Esther that she lost her young son to a drunk driver. Later, however, while Esther applies for a job at a department store, she spots Melanie from afar, frantically searching for her son. Both women's traumatic stories will be called into question.

The pass-the-baton narrative structure is riveting and the pacing is deliberate but tightly wound. As a slow-cook horror drama that keeps evolving down no easily foreseeable path, "Proxy" has no problem tearing its characters apart from their psychological insides. We know Esther is cracking, but is it from the loss of her unborn child, or was it an unwanted pregnancy all along? What kind of secret is Melanie hiding from everyone, including her own husband Patrick (Joe Swanberg)? Even the presence of Esther's angry, out-of-jail lover, Anika (Kristina Klebe), and her ulterior motives throw a wrench into the plot. At the end of the first hour, there's a significant event that plays like a climax from "Fatal Attraction." Only in "Proxy," things are just getting started, changing points of view and becoming even more strange and deeply twisted. 

The two women in "Proxy" are broken and grappling with their respective losses and skeletons, but they're both more in control than they let on. Not unlike the mousy demeanor of Angela Bettis in "May" but vaguely more normal, Alexia Rasmussen is freakily muted as Esther, emitting an off-kilter mental state without reducing the character to an overtly crazy nut. On the flip, as Melanie, Alexa Havins is at once warm, charismatic and empathetic, and then raw and fractured of her own sanity. As the volatile but devoted Anika, Kristina Klebe is fully committed in the showiest role and about as unpredictable as the story itself. If there's any stiff (next to some of the amateur extras with speaking parts), it has to be Joe Swanberg. Called on to play a grieving father, he doesn't lack naturalism, but often seems out of his emotional range.

If anything, "Proxy" surely keeps one guessing as to where it's going and hardly feels like 120 minutes. Visually, this is a polished effort with plenty of cues to Brian De Palma, especially in a bracingly operatic slow-motion sequence in a bathroom that's equally heartbreaking and horrifying. The Newton Brothers' ("Oculus") score also has an undeniable mash-up vibe of Pino Donaggio and Bernard Herrmann with increasingly daunting piano keys. The finale doesn't pack the necessary power that one has been waiting for, but it's in the nebulous and pathological human behaviornot arbitrary plot twists from out of left fieldthat makes the film such a disturbing descent into the darkness of motherhood. It can't all be rationalized in one cohesive sitting, but thankfully, filmmaker Zack Parker still knows an ambiguous gray area smeared with a little crimson is more interesting than finite black and white.

Grade: B - 

Friday, April 18, 2014

Johnny in the Machine: Botched "Transcendence" never lives up to that title

Transcendence (2014)
119 min., rated PG-13.

Several decades ago, "Transcendence" may have been ahead of its time as an intentionally high-minded and zeitgeisty sci-fi thriller. As is, it's an ambitious failure that had megabytes of promise on its side. First and foremost, this marks the directorial debut of Wally Pfister, an ace cinematographer in his own right and filmmaker Christopher Nolan's go-to collaborator since "Memento," and there's a compelling germ of an idea about mankind's relationship with the digital machine and the moral implications science and technology have on society. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, the film loses its allure, squandering the substance of its "big ideas" and devolving into a muddy, derivative patchwork of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers," "The Lawnmower Man," and Skynet from "Terminator 2: Judgment Day." Either Pfister's vision was compromised or it was never fully realized before the execution stage.

Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) has become a magazine cover-famous expert in artificial intelligence, hoping to change the world with his wife, Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), in their efforts to create the first sentient, self-aware A.I. During the Casters' funding symposium, radical anti-tech terrorist group RIFT strikes computer labs across the country, while Will is shot by a suicidal RIFT member (Lukas Haas). It turns out the bullet was laced with radioactive polonium, so the scientist only has weeks to live. When the poison shuts his system down completely, Will passes away, but Evelyn urges friend and colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany) to upload Will's consciousness onto a neural network computer. If it worked on a monkey, it can work on a human, right? Max is wise enough to know that the disembodied voice and digitized copy of Will is not really Will, but Evelyn goes off the grid with Will in her ear. For two years, she and the machine version of her husband build a state-of-the-art underground lab in a dumpy California desert town, where they are able to rebuild human tissue and "cure" the disabled. Oh, what will Will do with all that God-like power?

Written by first-timer Jack Paglen, "Transcendence" begins where it ends, flashing forward five years before the Internet no longer exists in the world, and, thus, sucks out most of the suspense. This would be less of a sticking point had the film gone anywhere more interesting than the simplistic, pseudo-sinister direction it takes. Before then, the first act is as intriguing as it gets and musters up an emotional dilemma for Evelyn, who isn't just a cog in the plot and holds onto the ghost of her dead husband inside of a machine with no humanity. Trying as much as it wants to be a cautionary technology tale, a romantic tragedy, and an apocalyptic story all at once, the film winds up being a snooze-inducing, increasingly asinine muddle that leaves its ethical and scientific issues unfulfilled and gives us few characters, if any, to root for in the process. It even manages to be a lamentable waste of a rock-solid ensemble.

Rebecca Hall does all she can to be the film's heart and soul as Evelyn, but if any chemistry was created between her and Johnny Depp on set, none of that feeling was uploaded to the finished product. We should be able to care about the life and work partnership between Evelyn and Will, but the drama and any emotional connection are sorely lacking. If one is tired of the actor's eccentric sameness, Depp virtually FaceTimes in his disengaged, even dull, performance as a comparatively normal man with a God complex, and that's not just because he soon becomes a creepy face on a monitor. Paul Bettany comes off second best as Max, but getting lost in the time-jumping proceedings, there is no clear transition from when he is kidnapped by Neo-Luddites to when he eventually joins them. A bleached-blonde Kate Mara, as the extremist RIFT leader Bree, is given forearm tats and dark eye-liner to prove she may be "bad." That leaves Morgan Freeman, as lab associate Joseph Tagger, and Cillian Murphy, as FBI Agent Buchanan, begging for something of interest to do in their negligibly underwritten roles. 

The talented cast is not at fault, being weighed down by sloppy, two-dimensional storytelling and characters that are so flat and lifeless they might as well all be machines. Some of the dialogue is hokey enough to produce unintended giggles"You can protect me if you upload me!" and "Upload the virus now!"—and pacing, tension, and imagination leave much to be desired. Considering the director of photography was Jess Hall and not Pfister himself, the 35mm lensing is also pretty dreary, except for some striking imagery of slow-motion raindrops and particles raising from the ground. Even then, the "wow" factor is lessened by the assistance of CGI. On the way out, the viewer will ponder what Christopher Nolan could have done with the same material. Equivalent to the interminable time it takes for a webpage to load and then open up to an Error 404, "Transcendence" is a $100-million turkey that never comes close to living up to its name.

Grade: C - 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Outback Slaughterhouse: "Wolf Creek 2" less terrifying but visceral and brutal

Wolf Creek 2 (2014)
106 min., not rated (but equivalent to NC-17).

Back in 2005, there was an upgraded revival in down-and-dirty, hard-R horror thrillers that actually did the genre justice ("House of Wax" and "The Devil's Rejects"). The last of the bunch was a ferocious little Australian import called "Wolf Creek." Allegedly "based on true events," the unrelentingly tense, grimy and vicious nasty from Down Under most likely prevented real-life backpackers from ever setting foot in the Outback and made its proudest, most disturbingly grisly moment a "head on a stick." Discerning horror fans with trepidation about a sequel coming nine years after its predecessor should fear not, as "Wolf Creek 2," once again, aims for the jugular, the gut, and the spine. We learned what a real knife looked like, and now, this is a knife that's almost nearly as sharp.

Cutting his teeth on making features with "Wolf Creek," writer-director Greg McLean returns without losing his cutthroat urgency for building a dusty, humid air of dread and then setting the ground with deadly mouse traps. Nearly nine years later, we are back with jaunty but deeply sociopathic pig shooter Mick Taylor (John Jarratt). He's exposed from the very start since we already know he's a crazed Crocodile Dundee who has something to do with both films' statistic that "30,000 people go missing in the Australian Outback each year. 90% are found within a month. Some are never seen again." When German backpacking couple Rutger (Phillipe Klaus) and Katarina (Shannon Ashlyn) hitch rides to the Wolf Creek Crater walking trail, no one else will pick them up, so they decide to set up their tent. At night, Mick pulls his truck up to their tent and gives Rutger a hard time for not putting out their campfire. They're trespassers in Mick's country, so they'll have to go. When a hand-tied Katarina runs into British passerby Paul (Ryan Corr), the poor lad unwittingly finds himself at the hands of the sadistic Mick. Will he survive or end up in a pool of his own blood?

With a slightly longer running time but a tighter, more efficient pace, "Wolf Creek 2" still doesn't give enough time to flesh out its victims-to-be, who are clearly unaware of the events from the first film and just sympathetic by default. We were invested in the plight of the three protagonists the first time around because we spent the first forty minutes with them before the screaming and running started. Out of anyone, Paul more organically gains our rooting interest and puts the viewer into a lather, as he is a twentysomething Brit clearly passing through and just happening upon the wrong place at the wrong time. When it's just Paul and Mick, the film is like a rattling ride of terror that bears favorable resemblance to "Duel" and "The Hitcher," particularly with a thrillingly executed sequence involving a jeep and a semi each going down a steep hill. Director McLean and co-writer Aaron Sterns are far from reinventing the wheelor, as the case may be here, the knife—but expectations are averted from the first half to the second. In a pre-titles opening that does not temper the tension or the gore, two highway patrol officers learn the hard way that they went messing with the wrong Aussie. After undeservedly receiving a speeding ticket, Mick, in pig-hunter fashion, tells one of the pigs, "That'll do, pig." Touched with some of the grimmest humor is a car chase, where "The Lion Sleeps Tonight (Wimba Way)" sounds and Mick and Paul are both bombarded by a troop of hopping kangaroos. Viewers who think both the hunter and huntee will stop and wait for the marsupials to cross need not apply.

An angry, barbaric, and loathsome but also charismatic mate, John Jaratt imbues so much personality into every utterance before showing his xenophobia and stark depravity. Mick sees it as his mission to exterminate "foreign vermin" out of his country: "It's up to my kind to wipe your kind out." As he certified nine years ago, Jaratt reaffirms Mick Taylor as one of the more threatening and memorable human monsters in horror cinema. Played by an appealing Ryan Corr, who bravely and credibly gets dragged through some emotionally high stress, Paul eventually outwits Mick, if only for a short time, by getting him to laugh his butt off, singing "Tie Me Kangaroo Down, Sport" together and then impressing his hunter in a trivia history game. 

Under the conditions that not a single soul is safe or off-limits, "Wolf Creek 2" is brutally violent as it is uncompromising, yet never without a visceral blow. Cinematographer Toby Oliver palpably captures the dirt and heat of the gorgeous but unforgiving terrain, while McLean mostly keeps the tension as taut as the skin on your face. No thanks to an anticlimactic and rather dishonest ending, this sequel doesn't quite up the ante of its more genuinely terrifying precursor. No matter, though, because it's as foolproof as Mick making steak tartare with his trusty weapon. And it will surely upset the squeamish, the faint-hearted, and the pregnant; if it didn't, then it wouldn't be doing its job.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Gross, Deadly Game: Blackly amusing "13 Sins" speedy but slowly falls apart

13 Sins (2014)
92 min., rated R.

After proving the horror found-footage subgenre was still a bottomless bag of tricks in 2010's spookily effective "The Last Exorcism," director Daniel Stamm takes a jump into extreme-thriller territory with "13 Sins." It is a remake of the 2006 Thai import "13: Game of Death," but also draws comparison to "Cheap Thrills," released just one month ago. Though both films share a similar "what if?" scenario and stakes, that dementedly entertaining black comedy confined the rising shenanigans to one private location, ridding its desperate protagonists of any seen consequences, and built to a memorably impactful final shot. As a dark and twisted, occasionally tense and cringe-worthy morality-cum-conspiracy ride, "13 Sins" holds one's interest throughout. Alas, writer-director Stamm and co-writer David Birke push their gimmick so far, while softening the blow in their resolution, that the film jumps the rails.

Up to his eyeballs in student loans and credit card debt, namby-pamby New Orleans salesman Elliot Brindle (Mark Webber) has to provide for his lovely, super-understanding fiancée, Shelby (Rutina Wesley), and a baby on the way. The day he goes into work to sit down with his asshole boss (Richard Burgi), he's fired and a heavy deck is stacked against him. Everyone relies upon him, including his racist father (Tom Bower), who's about to be evicted from an assisted living facility, and his mentally disabled brother, Michael (Devon Graye), who gets by on Elliot's insurance. Later that night, a glum Elliot drives up to a red light and receives a cryptic phone call. A man with a cheerful game-show host voice congratulates him for being selected to compete in a "one-of-a-kind game show" with financial need as the cash prize. As if the caller is watching him at that very moment, Elliot is asked to swat a fly that's buzzing around in his car. $1,000 will be credited to his bank account immediately after completing the challenge. With such a challenge as simple as that and the reward quite enticing, he swats the fly and he's in the game. Next: Elliot must eat the fly for $3,000! Sounds gross, but the eleven challenges escalate from there and become even more complicated, amoral and violent, like making a child cry, committing arson at a church, and worse. Every time he successfully completes a challenge, Elliot receives a text message that the promised sum of money has been deposited into his account. If he fails or refuses to complete any of the tasks, it will act as a forfeit of all his winnings. A part of a larger conspiracy, "The Game" is like a double-edged sword, filling the player's bank account but making him perform criminal acts. Trying to set the moral high ground aside, Elliot must make desperate choices as if a gun were pointed to his head. 

After Elliot has committed six felonies, "13 Sins" has already grown absurd and nutty enough with entertainment value still intact, but there comes a point where things become even more frustratingly contrived, ridiculous and underthought. Piling on more arbitrary reveals than it truly needed that one almost hopes Elliot will wake up from a bad dream, the film dares viewers to throw their hands up and check their brain out entirely. The elaborate game is fun for a while, especially when Elliot has to drag a corpse to a diner, prop him up in a booth and then order him a cup of coffee, but eventually, a number of Elliot's crimes are just left dangling and the logistics of the game unsatisfactorily leave us with too many question marks. Think a less soundly executed "The Cabin in the Woods," but who is pulling all of the strings? How is Big Brother capable of overseeing a certain president's assassination? How can others so easily do the puppet masters' bidding? How can the game masters possibly keep tabs on Elliot's every move? A minor thought by comparison, but not bringing Elliot's heartless boss into the game also seems like a missed opportunity. 

Used to playing nice-guy types, Mark Webber acquits himself quite strongly as Elliot, selling the highly emotional notes and arc of self-confidence and assertiveness, while soon questioning the morality of the too-good-to-be-true bribing game he's caught in. Rutina Wesley (TV's "True Blood") lends the most heart as Elliot's wife Shelby, but she disappears too frequently, her character somehow kept entirely in the dark of her soon-to-be-husband's get-rich dilemma. In addition, genre favorite Ron Perlman surprisingly hasn't much to do as a gruff detective, except growl as if he were still Hellboy without make-up, while Pruitt Taylor Vince sneaks around as a mysterious former contestant in charge of the exposition dump. Starting out as lean, wicked amusement, "13 Sins" barrels its improbable premise along at a kinetic pace and then, unfortunately, ends as a dumb, forgettable folly. There's nothing wrong with a folly, but the filmmakers seemed capable of keeping the ball rolling instead of dropping it so early.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Double Trouble: "Enemy" a mood-laden, hauntingly strange riddle

Enemy (2014)
90 min., rated R.

Twisty, moody, and surreal, "Enemy" is a metaphysical thinker about a man's crisis of existence, identity, and infidelity. As fascinatingly layered and tantalizingly strange as anything in the realm of David Lynch and David Cronenberg, evoking the former's "Mulholland Drive," as well as the casting of Isabella Rossellini, and the latter's "Dead Ringers," as well as the presence of recent muse Sarah Gadon and Canadian filming locations, the film would get a thumbs-up from both Davids or any auteur, for that matter. Director Denis Villeneuve (2013's pitilessly unsettling and comparatively streamlined "Prisoners") continues to be on the watch list as a methodical, forward-thinking filmmaker with an excitingly unique voice, showing even more of what he is capable of with "Enemy," a purposefully enigmatic and deviously crafted mind-screw that won't feed everyone's tastes. Cinephiles are sure to be wowed, and for those willing to take the extra mile in a movie theater, it will challenge like any addictive puzzle box.

In smoggy Toronto, morose college history professor Adam Bell (Jake Gyllenhaal) spends his days and nights going through the motions. He will lecture about control, dictatorships and repetition in class and then go to bed with his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent), and then get up and do it all over again. When a movie-buff colleague recommends a cheery movie called "Where There's a Will, There's a Way," he thinks nothing of it and then has a dream about one of the movie's bit players. This leads Adam to fast-forward the movie and pausing on the actor playing Bellhop #3 who looks exactly like him. After searching and finding Anthony Claire (Gyllenhaal), who goes by his stage name Daniel Saint Claire and also lives in Toronto, Adam does his own investigation, finding the actor's phone number from a package at his talent agency and calling his house. Anthony's jealous pregnant wife, Helen (Sarah Gadon), picks up the phone, alarmed that the man sounds exactly like her husband but claims to be someone else. Finally, when the doppelgängers get in touch and agree to meet in a hotel room, it will change everything. Adam and Anthony are physically and aurally identical, but Adam's mother (Isabella Rossellini) gives him no clarity.

Based on the 2002 novel "The Double" by Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago and written by Javier Gullón, "Enemy" is the epitome of a slow burn. It propulsively lures the viewer under its spell, thick with portentous dread and an oppressive, nothing-is-what-it-seems mood, all accompanied by a daunting, quivering string score by composers Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. When you think you have all the layers peeled away, the film strings one along even further, having something else in mind and making sure you feel edgy. The way Nicolas Bolduc's substantially haunting cinematography captures the gray, muted palette of the Toronto skyline and then takes on a yellow, jaundiced tint for the interiors also factors into the riveting hold the film has on those watching. In dual roles, Jake Gyllenhaal effectively creates two distinct characters in the neurotic, stammering Adam and the confident, uninhibited Anthony. It's a testament to the actor that one is never unsure of who is who. As played by Mélanie Laurent and Sarah Gadon, the women in both men's lives are etched with more depth than they could have been.

The film's title refers to one's self being his own worst enemy and how it splinters one's psyche. Adam/Anthony's loss of freedom and reluctant acceptance of their lives become the driving force for the film's central mystery and all-encompassing goals. Upon repeat viewings, director Villeneuve and screenwriter Gullón have laid out the groundwork from the opening title card, a quote from Saramago's story "Chaos is order yet undeciphered." In the film's darkly dreamlike opening set in an underground fetish club, women perform sexual acts on a stage surrounded by leering men, one of whom is Anthony. A serving tray is brought to the stage and once the lid is lifted, it's revealed to be a tarantula crawling away before a woman's stiletto heel hovers over its hairy body. Adam is then heard speaking in class about a pattern that repeats itself. Going beyond the opening scene in the club, spiders and spider webs figure in as recurring visual motifs that link to the film's themes. Clues are dropped through musical and visual cues, but there are no concrete answers, an approach that could be frustrating and confusing but is clearly the filmmakers' modus operandi to intrigue and eventually reward viewers with the desire to ponder its symbolism and meaning.

The sort of film that euphemistically makes you work and initially might even make you feel unintelligent or bewildered, "Enemy" never cheats or insults one's IQ. There is so much going on underneath the surface that one viewing will be needed to take in the mood, letting it wash over you, and another to "get"—or subjectively interpretits thematically loaded subtext and philosophical ideas. At a taut 90 minutes, the film never once runs the risk of taking Adam's lectures literally and repeating itself, as every scene is integral to its ambitious design. And that ending? Villeneuve seems to have a way with endings if you've seen the ambiguous ending of "Prisoners," this one being a gloriously perplexing and unforgettably startling Rorschach test. From start to finish, "Enemy" unsettles and then nestles in the mind like a spider laying an egg.

Grade: A - 

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Lonely Help: "Hateship Loveship" a modestly dramatic vehicle for Wiig

Hateship Loveship (2014)
101 min., rated R.

Small and scaled back, "Hateship Loveship" is a film of modesty and genuine feeling, as written by Mark Poirier (2008's "Smart People") and finely directed by Liza Johnson with an observant, very low-key style. The story could have easily condescended and judged all of its characters, but as told with Johnson's humane approach, we grow to understand each of them. Based on the 2001 short story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage" by Alice Munro, the film (with an abbreviated title) is a more dramatic vehicle for Kristen Wiig after "Bridesmaids" and "Friends with Kids" to showcase its star as the full package. It's not only deserving of her talents and more successful than her last, 2013's disappointingly flat "Girl Most Likely," where she overcame mediocre material, but a sensitive and moving delayed-coming-of-age story about the longing to be loved and losing sight of one's own happiness to take care of others.

In the central role, Wiig plays a mousy, selfless caregiver named Johanna Parry who cares for an elderly lady. Once the woman passes away, she grants her wishes, putting the deceased in her favorite blue dress, and then reports her death. Johanna is then onto her next job in Iowa—maintaining the lives of Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha  (Hailee Steinfeld), who's been a challenge to raise since she lost her mother in a speedboat accident. After briefly meeting Sabitha's father, Ken (Guy Pearce), an addict trying to move on with his life and renovate a motel by a Chicago freeway, she receives a letter from him thanking her for watching after his daughter. She writes him a card, but Sabitha's best friend, Edith (Sami Gayle), offers to mail it without doing so and decides to email Johanna back, pretending to be Ken as part of a cruel prank. As their online conversation grows more open and intimate, Johanna is oblivious of the charade and takes a chance with plans to move to Chicago and be with Ken.

Johanna isn't a complete drip without flaws, as she puts everyone else before herself but is deserving of long-overdue happiness that doesn't involve a scrub brush and a flowered apron. We don't learn a great deal about Johanna, but we do know that she's been caring for others for too long. Being frumped up as a laconic old maid would seem to be an uncomfortable fit for Wiig, but it's a comparatively reserved and beautiful change of pace for her. Rather than going the route of a circumspect comedian, the actress is a chameleon, proving to be more than capable of pathos with her turn being full of subtlety and aching sadness. A moment in which Johanna practices making out with a bathroom mirror could have been played squarely for quirky, deadpan laughs or come off as pathetic, but it's endearing as it is heartbreaking. Wiig carries the film, but she's not alone, either. Guy Pearce finds a goodness and certain charm in no-account lost soul Ken without excusing his faults, as he initially takes advantage of Johanna. Hailee Steinfeld is a natural in conveying teenage rebellion without turning Sabitha into a brat you want to throttle. Nick Nolte brings more to the table than his same-old gruffness as Mr. McCauley, and Sami Gayle is both fetching and spiteful as Sabitha's insecure friend Edith. Even the smallest of parts are delicately handled and generously performed by Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Ken's junkie girlfriend Chloe, and Christine Lahti, as friendly bank teller Eileen, who both make the most of their time without seeming thankless. 

As the story tries to resolve everything, "Hateship Loveship" ends up moving past its perfect end point and finishing a bit too conventionally. Up until then, the film is gentle, yet never too much to a fault, and emotionally involving. Instead of the film painting Johanna as a submissive spinster, Ken as an addict who has no hope of recovering, and Sabitha who will keep acting out, they are all humanized beyond types so we can actually hope the best for them. There will be naysayers who won't buy into Wiig putting on a long face, but it's refreshing to see what else she can do outside of her comedic skills. Even better, she pulls it off with understated grace and soul.


Saturday, April 12, 2014

Muddy Lives: Nicolas Cage returns to form in grim, deeply felt "Joe"

Joe (2014)
117 min., rated R.

Nicolas Cage may have one of the stranger career trajectories of any actor. He was at the top of his game in "Leaving Las Vegas," "Adaptation," "Matchstick Men," and "The Weather Man" and then really went for it in Werner Herzog's "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans," but then cashed it all in with a slew of dopey paycheck movies ("The Wicker Man" and two "Ghost Rider" movies and "Season of the Witch" and…). Still chugging along, Cage must not care what the world thinks of him, which is a perfect way to describe the attitude of the namesake in "Joe." Along with Cage, director David Gordon Green (2013's "Prince Avalanche") has wonkily hopped around from commercial comedies to indie projects, and his latest goes more in line with what he made his name on.

Joe Ransom (Cage) is a world-weary ex-con living in a rural, podunk Texas town, where he manages a crew of hard-working men to poison already-dying trees and clear the land for new ones. When respectful 15-year-old Gary Jones (Tye Sheridan) comes looking for a job, Joe gives the kid a chance, especially when he learns that Gary's wretched, always-intoxicated, deadbeat father Wade (Gary Poulter) beats him. Though gainfully employed, Joe has his own problems, like drinking, smoking and making frequent visits to the local brothel. Seeing that Gary is willing to work and works hard, he gives Gary's father a job, too, but the drunkard spells trouble, doing nothing but drink out of the other works' water jugs. As Joe begins to take Gary under his wing, he can't mind his business for too much longer. 

Based on Larry Brown's 1991 novel and from a screenplay by Gary Hawkins, "Joe" is, all at once, a gritty slice-of-life in the Texas backcountry and a redemption yarn, much like 2013's superior "Mud" with Matthew McConaughey and this film's Tye Sheridan whose character gains an unorthodox father figure. Working with his usual cinematographer Tim Orr, director Green captures a blue-collar tapesty with lived-in authenticity and texture, as well as an extra verisimilitude from casting a few real folks. Everyone seems to actually inhabit this seedy town of messy convenience stores, pink-neon lit whorehouses, and chained-up pitbulls. Peppering metaphors that aren't too heavy-handed (a poison-releasing ax and a poisonous snake are not unlike some of the toxic people), he mainly focuses on his characters and the interconnectedness of their hardscrabble lives. 

Finally returning to form, Cage turns in his most controlled and tender performance to date, and that's a revelatory statement. That's not to say he doesn't have a few cageless freak-out moments, but they completely fit for the hot-tempered character written on the page. Shaded with humanity and inner demons by Cage, his Joe has made mistakes in the past and is still far from being an angel—he teaches Gary how to drive with a beer in his hand—but he remains a decent, mostly likable man who also packs some heat when violence comes his way. Hopefully he won't be typecast as white-trash lads with "Mud" and now this, but Sheridan continues riding on his wave of promise as a young actor without an ounce of affectation. Gary can certainly hold his own, having lived in a shack with his despicable father, drugged-out mother and mute sister, but all of his strength will soon wear out. Gary Poulter, a real homeless man who died two months after shooting completed, is remarkably monstrous as Gary's father Wade, or "G-Daawg" (the name printed on the jacket he wears). Early on, there is a glimpse of humanity that's now long gone, but Wade is a lazy, abusive drunkward who's willing to sell his daughter and kill another bum for a bottle of wine.

Frequently grim but ultimately hopeful, "Joe" takes a while to find its footing, but the film is driven by its titular character after all. With Green getting the rough-hewn milieu spot-on, Hawkins' screenplay grounds the central characters, but the cops do more harassing than protecting and some of the peripheral yokels are undefined. Also, it might be a real small town, but how convenient that the angry Willie-Russell (Ronnie Gene Blevins) shoots Joe in the shoulder one day, then runs into Gary on the bridge. Inevitably, Joe's past will catch up with him and later collide with Gary and his father. Even if you know what is coming and won't be surprised how things end up, it's all in how we get there and it gets there with  a stream of tension and ugly violence. Because of Joe standing in as a makeshift father figure to Gary, "Joe" holds a deeply felt impact. This might be familiar Southern Gothic stuff, but it's well-told, well-directed, and well-acted. It also doesn't hurt that Cage redeems himself, reminding us that when he feels like challenging himself there's still some nuance and subtlety left in him.