Friday, October 31, 2014

Dazed and Confused: "Before I Go to Sleep" involves and then slowly derails

Before I Go to Sleep (2014)
92 min., rated R.

Losing one's memory seems like it would be one of the most horrifying and frustrating situations a person could endure, next to losing his or her sight or hearing, so, of course, such a condition becomes ripe for a thriller in the cinematic world. Adapted from S.J. Watson's 2011 novel by writer-director Rowan Joffe (2010's "Brighton Rock"), "Before I Go to Sleep" uses anterograde amnesia as a gimmick for its amnesia-thriller plot mechanics, and before the shocking revelations even rear their head, it has the makings of a compelling corker, somewhat like the more intricately plotted "Memento." Writer-director Rowan Joffe brings a stodgy chilliness to the production, and for a while, it seems that his film might be classier and more psychological than some lurid, twisty trash. Alas, "Before I Go to Sleep" eventually goes off the rails as an exercise in manipulation with a "Sleeping with the Enemy"-like climax and a treacly, unearned epilogue out of a Lifetime movie.

Ten years ago, 40-year-old Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) was the victim in an accident that left her bloodied and bludgeoned to the head, leaving no traces of memory of the life she has lived. Now, she wakes up each morning, thinking she's still in her 20s and confused to whom the man sleeping next to her is but happens to be her loving, supportive husband, Ben (Colin Firth), who has put together a collage of photographs of them together and post-it notes of their relationship. The most recent morning, after Ben goes to work, Christine receives a call from helpful, understanding neuropsychiatrist Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong), who has been treating her without her husband's knowledge and encouraged her to make her own video diary entries on a camera she hides from Sam. As Christine starts to have recurring glimpses of her pastand the accident itself, which might have been an attack—she's unsure of whom she can trust.

"Before I Go to Sleep" is certainly classed up by its excellent performers who bring a human component and dress up this tawdry material into something more thought-provoking at first. No, Christine doesn't discover the horror of horrors that she used to be a secret government operative. The film is initially involving, too, as we are with Christine piecing together how she got to where she is now, but it ends up not doing much with its promising hook. Perhaps S.J. Watson's book answered such questions, but Joffe's adaptation completely dismisses reality to severely test our suspension of disbelief. Does Christine not have any extended family outside of Ben? How does it take her so many years to realize a pregnancy scar on her belly? From there, the structure jumps back two weeks earlier, and red herrings try to throw us off and sympathies constantly shift between Ben and Dr. Nasch. Also, as if to keep his story from falling into catatonia, director Joffe employs an audience jolt, in which Christine nearly walks into an oncoming vehicle or gets jumpy over an airplane flying overhead, and uses it three or four times.

For most of the film, Nicole Kidman conveys real, fragile emotion and empathy as Christine, who's an imprisoned victim in a plot that uses the character's amnesia all too conveniently to function. Then, when Christine grows more aware of the life that has been erased from her memory, she grows helpless before turning into one of those woman-in-peril heroines that, within an inch of her life, still manages to bash a lamp over her attacker's head and sneak a shard of glass to stab him in the arm. Colin Firth manages the possibility of being a loving husband or someone sinister as Ben, and the solid Mark Strong takes the bench as Dr. Nasch, who takes a chance on Christine and straddles the line between compassionate and unethical, and might as well be wearing a sign that reads "Red Herring" since he's always playing a handsome baddie. Though she only appears in one scene, Anne-Marie Duff (UK TV's "Shameless") makes a heartbreaking impression as Christine's long-lost friend Claire. Nearing its final third, the film muddies certain character motivations so they make little sense, and once we get a bigger picture of what is going on, plot holes surface through the whole convoluted structure. The film's idea of getting a thrill also seems a bit exploitative and off-putting in watching Kidman being beaten up numerous times, but then the convenient use of an iron might get a bad laugh as well. Those who criticized "Gone Girl" for being misogynistic will have a field day with this one. After "Before I Go to Sleep" reveals its hand, it invites audiences to leave the theater and forget about it before the lights even come up.


Thursday, October 30, 2014

Shadow of a Hunk: "The Guest" a violent, darkly playful '80s-flavored blast

The Guest (2014)
99 min., rated R.

For a "…From Hell" thriller of this time but steeped in 1980s reverence, "The Guest" is a skillful, efficient, invariably fun piece of work. One could call it a throwback of "'The Terminator' meets 'Halloween' meets 'The Stepfather'" with its own personality; even the generic-sounding title seems intentional like a retro homage. Filmmaker Adam Wingard and writing partner Simon Barrett seem to share a single brain with their follow-up project to 2013's "You're Next," an inspired dysfunctional family/home-invasion/slasher thriller, and slap their audiences' expectations in the face once again. Here, they lace good-time thrills and consciously playful humor with a fresh, muscular vision and establish a specific tone that's self-aware without being obvious. Though such a quote gets thrown around a lot, "The Guest" is dark, violent fun that is bound to become a cult classic.

Dan Stevens is a force to be reckoned with as David, a discharged soldier who served in the Middle East. Just as Laura Peterson (Sheila Kelley) is having a moment of mourning to herself, David knocks on the front door of her secluded New Mexico home, claiming to be buddies with her eldest son, Caleb, before he was killed in combat. With that connection and his ingratiating exterior, David is invited into the Petersons' home for a couple of days. Laura's drinking-after-work husband Spencer (Leland Orser) is a little wary at first, worried if David is suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but soon they're just a couple of guys bonding over brewskies. To their 20-year-old daughter Anna (Maika Monroe), who's saving up money for college by waitressing at a diner, David amuses her with his "Yes, ma'am/Thank you, ma'am" 'ol boy manners, and she swoons when he exits the bathroom with nothing but a towel (accompanied by a puff of shower steam). As for the youngest son, Luke (Brendan Meyer), who's experiencing bullying at school by a bunch of jocks, David wastes no time setting them straight. Beyond David's robotically polite, All-American facade that of a savior for the Peterson family, though, he might just be a trained killing machine with ice in his veins. What are you going to do?

With Wingard directing the hell out of this with slick, ruthless precision, "The Guest" is so no-frills and streamlined that it doesn't even bother with credits after the loud entrance of the title card, illustrated in a John Carpenter-esque font and cued to a sinister score. Set days before Halloween, the film manages to bleed fall foliage and the festive spirit of the holiday through its wall-to-wall decorations of carved pumpkins and fake cobwebs, neon colors and autumnal atmosphere even in a small, quaint southwestern town. Aiding the cause is Robby Baumgartner's stylish, methodical cinematography, which wears its influential heart on its sleeve through the framing of shots. Steve Moore's crafty, propulsive score of '80s-flavored goth electronica and synth beats also owes a debt to Carpenter with selections by Love and Rockets, Survive, and Clan of Xymox that recall 2011's "Drive" (which is always a good thing). Such a soundtrack is essential that one almost cannot think of the film existing with a modern music score; it just gives it a cool, weird, hypnotic vibe.

The centerpiece atop the cake is the lead's badass, star-making performance. The dashing Dan Stevens (TV's "Downton Abbey") is so fiercely effective as David. Upfront, he's a magnetic charmer who can seduce with his cold, piercingly blue eyes and sly grin, but he has such an effortlessly confident and mysterious presence, too. From charismatic to menacingly rattling, the actor can always make a seamless switch, or maintain both tones at the same time, and ultimately makes an unstoppable killer interesting again. With his chiseled handsomeness, efficiency and cheeky humor, one can't imagine anyone else besides Stevens in the part. The casting of the Peterson family is also ideal. As the parents, Sheila Kelley is affectingly sad-eyed as grieving mother Laura, while Leland Orser is hilariously jittery as father Spencer who likes sharing a beer with David, as well as the stress of not making enough money, until his regional manager is mysteriously killed. Maika Monroe is eye-catching and sweetly edgy as daughter Anna, who sports a retro waitress uniform. She is thankfully handled as a proactive heroine; Anna is no dummy, quickly realizing that the all-too-charming and very mysterious David is the common denominator when her friend is killed and her boyfriend gets charged for the murder. Brendan Meyer is also identifiable as son Luke, who sees David as an avenging angel, a switchblade-wielding role model, and a reminder of his older brother.

For much of its lean 99 minutes, "The Guest" is a slow burn before it reveals its hand and turns into a knowing, brazenly over-the-top actioner that's all tonally by design. Its shift isn't unlike "The Cabin in the Woods," transitioning from Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford's characters at a corporate work facility to five college kids getting ready to go to the cabin, and like that 2012 piece of genre perfection, it still feels like the same movie. When the screenplay takes away the mystique of who David is and what he wants (which is pretty clear) and a military leader (Lance Reddick) enters, the film quickly explains itself without dumping on too much exposition. A key bar sequence, where David takes out Luke's school bullies who are drinking underage, is entertaining as hell in its bone-crunching brutality and attention to taut editing. Finally, there's a haunted-house maze at the school entrance of the Halloween Dance, which is amusingly convenient for a tense funhouse-like climax that does the opposite of tapering off. Without ever trying to be anything more than it is, "The Guest" is a blast of an adult crowd-pleaser that blows the doors off of idiotic, junky, self-serious studio thrillers. Sometimes, a cigar is just a cigar—or a body-count thriller is just a body-count thriller—but Hitchcock might have approved of this indelible slice of cake.

Grade: A - 

News Vulture: Jake Gyllenhaal gets skin crawling in unnerving "Nightcrawler"

Nightcrawler (2014)
117 min., rated R.

It is primitive human nature to be fascinated by something we shouldn't be seeing. Have you ever rubbernecked while driving past an auto accident? Ever watch the news and wanted to know more about a specific story? Or, have you wondered how grisly footage on the news is obtained? Everyone has been curious enough, despite the morality of respecting others' misfortunes, and if you say you haven't, you are probably lying. That compulsion is pushed to sick heights in "Nightcrawler," screenwriter Dan Gilroy's directorial debut, and comes to life in the form of Jake Gyllenhaal's strange, depraved, scarily committed performance. The film profits as a fascinating, disturbing character piece of an interestingly repellent creep who, from his twisted point-of-view, sees himself as a "hero" and makes no apologies. The lack of ethics in the dog-eat-dog business of local news is less startling than how good this "hero" is at his job.

This gets said a lot about actors, but Jake Gyllenhaal is definitely one of the most consistently dedicated and offbeat actors working today, willing to push himself into dark, challenging roles and make sure that we don't forget about him. Looking gaunt, wiry and unblinkingly wired with greasy hair that often slicks back into a ponytail, a thirty-pounds-lighter Gyllenhaal is tremendously chilling and fascinating as Louis Bloom, an oddball, pathetic petty thief of manhole covers and wire fences who decides to keep his options open, career-wise, in Los Angeles. When he pulls over to the side of the expressway for a couple of police officers rescuing a woman out of a burning vehicle, Lou watches a couple of "nightcrawlers" pull up to the accident, camera-ready and shooting it for all it's worth. "If it bleeds, it leads," one of the ambulance chasers (Bill Paxton) drops to Lou as his mantra.

Proclaiming to be a freelance crime-scene videographer, Lou quickly invests in a dinky digital camera and a police scanner. When he gets his first piece of footage by burrowing his way right into the bloody aftermath of a fatal carjacking, he takes it to local morning news station KWLA News and sparks the interest of ratings-starved producer Nina Romina (Rene Russo). After Lou collects his check, Nina tells him what they're looking for graphic crimes with white, well-off victims. The thing about Lou is that he learns fast, speaking to everyone like an encyclopedia robot, and picks up on the cutthroat business, taking on homeless twentysomething Rick (Riz Ahmed) as an intern to prowl around L.A. during the vampire shift and soon piling up the checks as he seeks out each crime story. Another thing about Lou is that he will do anything to get the footage—and be the first to get it—and make the most sensationalistic story.

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy, "Nightcrawler" fits Louis Bloom into this incisive, appallingly dead-on indictment of the bottom-feeding local news. There are creeps like Lou who probably do exist. He plays mind games with anyone to get what he wants and breaks the law, whether that's going beyond the yellow tape and manipulating a crime scene to get a great shot or withholding information from a stone-faced detective (Michael Hyatt), and just aspiring to live his own distorted version of the American Dream. Jake Gyllenhaal is simply spectacular, conveying so much to a soulless, unethical character who is hard to pin down. Lou is delusional, opportunistic and sociopathic, intensely self-sufficient and slick in his own way but not socially competent, and even as he makes your skin crawl, your nervous giggle is in his power. After being wasted playing another TV producer in that forgettable 2002 Robert De Niro-Eddie Murphy vehicle "Showtime," taking a six-year hiatus from acting, and then playing Thor's mother in two "Thor" movies, Rene Russo (wife to Gilroy) is back and on fire in her juiciest role to date as Nina. She is terrific, essaying an intelligent woman so desperate for ratings (she describes the spirit of their newscast as "a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut") and then loses most of her power once Lou comes into the picture. The handling of her character could have easily gone out of the realm of believability when Lou tries coercing her to do something his way, but it does not; her final line about Lou being an "inspiration" works because of its heightened satirical bent, not too different from "Taxi Driver." Though he's mostly along for the ride with us, British rap artist Riz Ahmed is likable and the film's only moral conscience as Rick.

The film is just sleazy enough without becoming exploitative somehow, even as it chronicles a supremely sleazy, exploitative line of work that we've never seen so centrally depicted on screen before. Although it's certainly a horror film in the non-traditional sense, "Nightcrawler" also makes for a dynamic thriller. From Lou entering a mansion in Grenada Hills after a supposed home invasion before the police even arrive, to a stakeout outside a Mexican restaurant that dovetails into an exhilarating car chase, these tense set-pieces hold the viewer and keep them completely edgy. Sturdily paced with brother John Gilroy's editing and crisply lensed by director of photographer Robert Elswit (Gyllenhaal's godfather who won as Oscar for his gorgeous work on 2007's "There Will Be Blood"), the film offers an alluringly sleek, mood-drenched noir version of Los Angeles, a place that makes crime statistics seem wholly possible. Another crime is always just moments away from happening and Lou has the scoop. Like a horrible, fatal accident you cannot turn away from, the film has such a power over the viewer, but it is a lot more than that. It is forceful filmmaking that shines a light on a nocturnal underworld of oily videographers who go to great lengths to complete their risky, morally sticky line of work. Disconcerting, unnerving, and darkly humorous, "Nightcrawler" unsettles and wriggles under your skin, and it's your best bet for a ghoulish last day of October at the movies.

Grade: A - 

Monday, October 27, 2014

Times Need to Change: "Dear White People" wittily confronts race

Dear White People (2014)
100 min., rated R.

Have we moved on from racism in the Obama Era? Is shoving "blackness" down people's throats preachy or freedom of speech? Is a "Big Momma's House 3" the best a black moviegoing audience deserves? Making it a hit at this year's Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Justin Simien intends to tell you what he thinks with his feature-debut brainchild, "Dear White People," a distilled cross-over between the works of Spike Lee, specifically 1988's "School Daze" and 1989's "Do the Right Thing," and anything by Whit Stillman. If 2013's "12 Years a Slave" shed horrifying light on the dark chapters of racism in early America, this satirical comedy sheds insight into today's culture where racism still lurks and does it with great wit and bite. Provocative, searing, and whip-smart in how it breaks down stereotypes, "Dear White People" still has a few hallmarks of a first-time effort, but when it takes aim, it is an enlightening reactionary piece fueled with acrimony and articulateness.

On the fictional Ivy League-like campus of the prestigious Winchester University, cynical biracial media-arts student Samantha White (Tessa Thompson) has started a race war. She hosts a radio show, "Dear White People," where she gives the white student body an education in black culture through a daily white-guilt memo. For instance, "Dear White People: The minimum requirement of black friends to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count." Though the confrontational Sam leads a posse of radical black students, she secretly dates her film class T.A., Gabe (Justin Dobies), who happens to be white. She used to date poli-sci major Troy Fairbanks (Brand P Bell), the preppy son of Dean Fairbanks (Dennis Haysbert) who's now dating a white girl, Sofia (Brittany Curran), coincidentally the daughter of Winchester's president. Both Sam and Troy are competing for election in the head of Armstrong Parker House. 

Meanwhile, there is Colandrea Conners (Teyonah Parris), who shortened her name to 'Coco.' She was raised in the hood, but aspires to be a reality-show star and socialite by straightening her hair, wearing "Real Housewives…" dresses and fraternizing with the rich, white campus house, led by the president's vaguely racist and homophobic son, Kurt (Kyle Gallner). To increase her views on her video-blog, Coco starts an online war with Sam, confessing how incensed she is that a white girl would ask if her hair is "weaved" and labeling Sam as a "Lisa Bonet wannabe." The unlikely hero of "Dear White People," though, is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams), a bespectacled black sophomore who gets locked out of his dorm hall and goes through a series of halls, one being all-white, like a lost puppy looking for a home. He aspires to be a journalist by signing on to the campus newspaper staff and writing a piece on Sam's shenanigans. He is also gay, but seems the most confident with his racial and sexual identity out of anyone, rocking a touchable Afro.

Tessa Thompson (2010's "For Colored Girls"), Tyler James Williams (TV's "Everybody Hates Chris"), Brandon P Bell (TV's "Hollywood Heights"), and Teyonah Parris (TV's "Mad Men") all have equal room to each be considered a lead, and they all make the arch, didactic, if ever so sharp dialogue work. As Sam White (get it?), Thompson ferociously commands the screen as she carries herself with poise and agency. Sam might be a fearless non-shrinking violet who stands up for what she believes should be heard and shows confidence in her own identity, but she also has a vulnerable, human side in developments about her sick white father and her romance with a white man. As the shyly sweet Lionel, Williams is the unassuming emotional center as Lionel and his facial reactions never not earn a laugh. Parris is truly captivating, not only from being incredibly gorgeous, but in the way she fleshes out a character who is really insecure and full of contradictions.

Writer-director Justin Simien's feature debut often feels like a first film, with a precious overload of chapter headings; a faint, jazzy score that can always be heard in the background and might as well be elevator music; and often flat framing (it becomes a distraction when so many actors are shot from the side) and an awful lot of whip pans ("Whiplash" did this with more motivation). All of that aside, Simien sorts through all of these characters quite well, and he has a lot to say and captures most of his commentary in forward-thinking, clear-eyed observations. There is also a startling power to what goes down at the "Pastiche" party, where white students appallingly dress up in blackface, namely when Lionel first shows up. Even more appalling, there is a collage over the end credits that shows stills of real-life "blackface parties" being held at universities over the last few years. Its confrontational pointedness has a tendency of being a self-congratulatory protest anthem, but "Dear White People" is a true conversation starter that has no fear discussing race in an uncomfortable but constructive way.


Sunday, October 26, 2014

Wrongfully Deviled: "Horns" a wickedly entertaining kitchen-sink stew

Horns (2014)
120 min., rated R.

Based on the 2010 book by Joe Hill (Stephen King's son), "Horns" could have easily been turned into a piece of muddled schlock not to be believed for a second. And yet, with the confident direction of Alexandre Aja (who can be grim and horrific, as shown in 2005's "High Tension" and 2006's remake of "The Hills Have Eyes," and then have tons of bloody fun with 2010's "Piranha 3D") and Keith Bunin's often witty, surprisingly thoughtful script, it turns out to be a wildly inventive genre stew. A tonally unusual free-for-all spanning horror, fantasy, black comedy, murder mystery, and relationship drama, "Horns" doesn't always jibe, but there's an excitingly weird kick to watching all of these disparate elements being stuffed together into one devilish pot.

26-year-old Ignatius "Ig" Perrish (Daniel Radcliffe) has been deep in love with girlfriend Merrin Williams (Juno Temple) since they were kids. That is before she was killed and the citizens of their Seattle logging hometown named him the killer, particularly Merrin's grieving father Dale (David Morse). His junkie older brother, Terry (Joe Anderson), and loyal friend Lee (Max Minghella) have his back, while his parents (James Remar, Kathleen Quinlan) voice their doubts. After he drowns his sorrows and sleeps with bartender Glenna (Kelli Garner), who's held a touch for him since childhood, Ig wakes up the next morning to sprouting horns out of his temples. Next thing he knows, everyone around him starts confessing the cutting truth and asking for his permission — Glenna asks if she can stuff her face with an entire box of donuts, a doctor's office receptionist asks if she can flip out at an annoying child in the waiting room, etc. Aside from one person, everyone can see his horns, and then a horde of serpents starts slithering in Ig's direction as if he is the Devil himself. Is the horned town pariah a sinner or a saint?

In a peculiar beast like "Horns," a half-tragic, half-surreal story about love, loss and forgiveness competes with a rather comic tone. At the heart of this fable, Ig and Merrin share a longtime friendship and a mutual love. What we begin to realize is that Merrin, before she is killed, was beginning to have second thoughts, and it's in her maturity that this on-screen relationship is nothing like another "Twilight" love triangle (yes, there is another party pining after Merrin all this time). The whodunit surrounding Merrin's death almost comes as a sidebar since it's not really a shock who has killed her, but at least it's satisfying in how it never feels like the murderer was just selected out of a hat. Even with all of the satanic symbolism and relationship dynamics, there is a lot of fun in Ig having control of others, like when he makes a crowd of media journalists punch each other in order to get their exclusive on him. Other truth-telling secrets are even rueful and taken seriously: Ig's mom wishes her son would just go away, so she and his father could live in peace. 

Determined to not be defined by Harry Potter (and the sight of the horned actor drinking, smoking, having sex, and then wielding a pitchfork and a snake hanging around his neck like a scarf should make sure of that), Daniel Radcliffe (2014's "What If") tackles the role of Ig with relish and pulls it off. The character isn't outright appealing, so it's not an easy feat when we still root for him to survive his loss and defeat Merrin's killer. The sweetly offbeat Juno Temple runs deep in her flashback scenes, making sure that Merrin's very grim death hangs over the proceedings. The extent of the ensemble is impressive, with David Morse making a lasting mark as Merrin's devastated father, but Heather Graham is strangely campy as a waitress/aspiring actress who witnesses Ig and Merrin's final couple spat go down and then viciously gets her just desserts.

Through many of the convoluted plot machinations, the film gets darker and darker, until arriving at an over-the-top, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink finale at the scene of Merrin's murder. In a deliciously grotesque touch, the real killer meets his maker with one of Ig's hissing protectors. The special effects of Ig's serpent friends aren't bad, and luckily, many look like the real thing. A forced drug overdose is made vividly frightening and hallucinogenic, with cigarettes turning into maggots and a carpeted floor transforming into a grave in the ground. The production looks great, namely in the "Stand by Me"-esque flashbacks of Ig completing a dare by his friends in their Pacific Northwest logging town; the use of David Bowie's "Heroes" and The Pixies' "Where's My Mind?" are evocative; and Frederick Elmes' (2009's "Brothers") lush cinematography lends a helpful hand to the majestic, moss-covered Edenic forest where Ig and Merrin find a secret treehouse. Though "Horns" isn't perfect or always polished in its storytelling, there is a wickedly entertaining Grimm Brothers-like beauty and underlying heart to all of the horror.


Saturday, October 25, 2014

Reign of Terror Remade: "Town That Dreaded Sundown" a scary, cleverly meta sequel/remake

The Town That Dreaded Sundown (2014)
87 min., rated R.

A sequel-cum-remake of the 1976 film of the same name, "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is as meta and affectionate to its 38-year-old predecessor as Wes Craven's "Scream" movies were to their own canon. (A little fun trivia: 1996's "Scream" happened to name-drop the original film.) This redo doesn't merely reference the film from another era, it uses it as a major plot point and takes it in a clever direction. As there are exceptions to the rule, this is one of the most recent examples of a horror remake doing more than just being a by-the-numbers, made-by-committee carbon copy. It might not be as raw as the cinéma vérité-style original, but 2014's "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is ruthlessly effective in getting the pulse racing with expertly crafted, genuinely startling moments of terror and retains an imaginative amount of style culled from an earlier time.

67 years ago in 1946, the small town of Texarkana, bordering Texas and Arkansas, was rocked by a tragic string of murders in which the so-called "Phantom Killer" terrorized and butchered teenage couples. Based upon those horrifying "Moonlight Murders," Charles B. Pierce's 1976 horror film "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" would become the town's infamous claim to fame. Now, on Halloween night in 2013, Texarkana high school senior Jami (Addison Timlin) and her respectful date, Corey (Spencer Treat Clark), leave the drive-in showing of the violent picture. When they park in a wooded Lovers' Lane-like cul-de-sac, they are soon attacked by a gun-wielding man with a bag over his head. The man tells Jami to turn around as he stabs Corey to death on the ground. Left as the sole survivor, Jami is shaken, not only by the death of Corey but by the instructions of her perpetrator to spread his message to her town to "never forget." Will Texarkana ever find peace?

From its attention-getting opener, one thing is certainly clear — 2014's "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is not just average horror fare cynically pumped out to make the teenyboppers jump and squeal. With director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's (TV's "American Horror Story") acumen behind the camera and cinematographer Michael Goi's slick flair for methodical tracking shots, canted angles, kaledoscopic filters, and creepy push-ins, the film couldn't have possibly flourished with a better visual stamp. The Lovers' Lane sequence not only toys with the '76 picture, but chillingly brings to mind the grisly real-life crimes committed by the Zodiac Killer and the Son of Sam (both indelibly captured in David Fincher's "Zodiac" and Spike Lee's "Summer of Sam"). Other set-pieces, the dispatching of a home soldier and his girlfriend in a hotel and then a chase through a wheat field, are so assuredly executed with a heightened sense of dread and tense, bloody sensation that can only be felt in a horror film made by those who know what they're doing.

Closely resembling the murders-mirroring-a-movie model of "New Nightmare" and "Scream," Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's screenplay is still ambitious on its own. Like in Wes Craven's universe but without the humor, the "Phantom Killer" recreates the murders from the film (take the vicious "trombone" kill for instance), and shots from the original film are even spliced to blur the line between fiction and reality. When Lone Wolf Morales (Anthony Anderson, a link to "Scream 4") shows up to help Texarkana's police force, he refers to a copy of "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" in hopes of knowing the murderer's next move. In the sea of red herrings, character actor Denis O'Hare also plays Charles B. Pierce, Jr., the son of the 1976 original's director still living in town in his trailer full of his daddy's movie memorabilia, the killer's sack mask included. Proving to carry a film, even with help, Addison Timlin is not only appealingly sweet-as-pie as Jami, but she also makes for an intelligent, intuitive and emotionally available heroine. As the two boys who have had their eye on Jami, Travis Tope, as mysterious but sweet archivist Nick, and Spencer Treat Clark, as the victimized Corey, both make their own impressions. The rest of the ensemble, including Veronica Cartwright as Jami's grandmother Lillian, Joshua Leonard and Gary Cole as Deputy Foster and Deputy Tillman, and Edward Herrmann as Reverend Cartwright, dots every character with more nuance than what is usually expected in this type of film.

As a slasher horror film, "The Town That Dreaded Sundown" is a very well-made one, delivering on what the best kind do and even surpassing its forefather in this regard, but it actually has characters rather than cardboard archetypes to knock off. If the film ever fumbles, it's in the occasional logic lapses characters have when walking out at night, despite there being a curfew and, oh, a killer on the loose. After Jami's gripping chase with the "Phantom Killer," the reveal of its assailant is certainly unanticipated, although the motivations for killing each particular victim aren't so clearly defined. What really works, though, besides the horror stuff is the portrait of small-town America losing its innocence and the use of the local fear-spreading preacher and two mayors on both the Texas and Arizona side. As if the town were frozen in 1976, there's an anachronistic side to the characters driving around in classic model cars and wearing '70s-popular clothing styles in 2013. Against all trepidation that inevitably comes with a horror film named after a classic—or in this case, a minor classic—"The Town That Dreaded Sundown" feels like both a throwback and a revitalization, and above all else, it's actually scary. That's not common.

Grade: B +

Friday, October 24, 2014

Get Jazzed: "Whiplash" keeps one on edge, leaves one bruised and elated

Whiplash (2014) 
106 min., rated R.

Never would one expect a film like "Whiplash" about discipline and raw talent in the world of jazz music to be as brutal and emotionally distressing as a blood sport. Somehow, sophomore writer-director Damien Chazelle (who wrote 2014's music-centric thriller "Grand Piano") certainly has what it takes to do much more than just trot out the "follow-your-dreams" formula. In fact, this is a hard-hitting, unromantic psychological study in brinkmanship to achieve greatness, the flip side of "Mr. Holland's Opus" with no interest in feel-goodery, going easy on its protagonist, or softening its, for all intents and purposes, antagonist. Expanding upon his 2013 short (which also starred J.K. Simmons), Chazelle showcases motivated directorial flair, a laser-focused script with minimal subplots, and two nuanced, fiercely riveting performances. Premiering at this year's Sundance Film Festival, "Whiplash" won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award, and one can legitimately see why.

Starting his fall semester at New York's Shaffer Music Conservatory, introverted 19-year-old Andrew Neyman (Miles Teller) aspires to be a core drummer. He idolizes Charlie Parker and hopes to reach that prodigious caliber one day. That day might come sooner than he thinks when teacher Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) discovers Andrew drumming one night in a practice room and later on invites him in to play with his top jazz ensemble as an alternate to turn the pages for the core drummer. Giving himself a pat on the back, Andrew gets confident a bit too early before Fletcher reveals his unconventional methods (read: sadistic psychological terrorism). A cruel hardass akin to an Army drill sergeant, Fletcher pushes his students hard with verbal and, in some cases, physical abuse. Meanwhile, Andrew works up the courage to ask out Nicole (Melissa Benoist), the girl who works at the classic movie house, but as Andrew becomes discouraged and made self-destructive by his new teacher, he might have let go of anything else holding him back. "You want the part? Then earn it," Fletcher taunts Andrew, who might get pushed to the brink to become one of the greats.

When you are a member of a sports team, a coach's one-track mentality tends to rub off on his or her players, and everything else in the player's life can become a last priority. Same goes for band, apparently. The central question writer-director Damien Chazelle seems to ask with "Whiplash" is this: There are huge, dangerous risks to achieving perfection in the area of one's passion, but is all the pain worth it? Terence Fletcher seems to think so, his advice to Andrew being, "There are no two words in the English language more harmful than 'Good Job.'" As counterpoints to both Andrew and Fletcher, the homesick Nicole hasn't yet declared a major at her school and Andrew's single father (Paul Reiser) is now a high school English teacher after failing as a novelist. In a key detail for the latter, Andrew and his dad take in a classic movie as their father-son ritual, and while Dad likes to sprinkle Raisinets atop the popcorn, Andrew eats around them. In a way, Mr. Neyman stands as who Andrew could be if he fails as a drummer, but Andrew wants to be better.

Miles Teller is no longer playing to type, the smartest guy in the room, but challenges himself from "Rabbit Hole" to his teen-comedy phase to here. Identifiable and completely root-worthy as Andrew, Teller seems all in to committing to the blood and sweat of Andrew's perserverence, and it helps the actor actually does 70% of his own drumming. Before Fletcher gets to him, he holds an unassuming confidence, and one still feels and pulls for Andrew, even when he alienates himself from everyone, including Nicole and his father. More akin to the Teller of "The Spectacular Now," "21 & Over" and "That Awkward Moment," the actor does have a quippy, cathartic moment at a dinner table, where he puts down unimpressed family friends who would rather talk about football and Model UN. While the 27-year-old actor more than holds his own, veteran character actor J.K. Simmons is nothing short of electrifying and unforgettable, finally getting the chance to really eat up a juicy part that of a volatile, profane S.O.B. With his hilariously caustic putdowns, he might be as close to a prime-to-explode cartoon without being too cartoony, with the mentality of R. Lee Ermey from "Full Metal Jacket," but keeps one glued to the screen. Fletcher has no problem throwing a cymbal at Andrew, using personal information about his father against him, or spitting out words of vitriol, but even he is guilty of human vulnerability when a tragedy occurs. Fletcher isn't as clearly established as he could have been (Does he have a family? Has he always been like this?), but Simmons dials the character down just enough to make him a wholly believable human monster. Kept in the margins but still integral to Andrew's arc to success, Melissa Benoist (of "Glee" fame) is an appealing, fresh-faced natural as Nicole, and Paul Reiser does a nice job as Andrew's father.

Drumming with an intense vitality, the film rises into a feverish climax on the stage of Carnegie Hall with tension and adrenaline that one cannot help but hold his or her breath or let their jaw drop to the floor. In tandem with its passion for jazz, the film is dynamically shot with a rapid, percussive rhythm in cinematographer Sharone Meir's ("Mean Creek") kinetic, albeit controlled, camera movements, including a lot of whip pans, and Tom Cross' tight, propulsive editing, measure by measure without rushing or dragging. "Whiplash" is potent, unflashy filmmaking, daring to place its audience in an uncomfortable place and put us through the wringer. With Andrew, we feel the blood on our hands. It's a film that earns every moment, particularly its powerful, exhaustingly stressful finale. It will be interesting to see Damien Chazelle push himself even more, but "more" than this might give audiences a heart attack. Who knew a film about music could be so thrilling? 

Grade: A - 

You Kill His Dog, You Die: "John Wick" loads of cool, ultra-violent fun

John Wick (2014)
96 min., rated R.

Massively, giddily entertaining pulp in a mindless, balls-out sort of way, "John Wick" leaves dimension and subtext to the Oscar bait, and it doesn't give a damn. Without transcending or playing with the clichés of the revenge-fueled action subgenre at all, the directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski (both having choreographed, coordinated, performed and directed stunts in movies for a couple decades) at least upends expectations in how far it goes with its zealously executed carnage. Not counting Indonesia's "The Raid: Redemption" and "The Raid 2," this might be the first Hollywood action film in recent memory to approach violence like ballet. Trashy, ridiculous and stylishly cool, "John Wick" is just fun as a ruthless, thrillingly brutal crowd-pleaser that burns with the fiery anger the titular John Wick feels, aims for gut-level thrills, and indulges in the just desserts of those who deserve it. Quite simply, it's a badass blast.

Mourning over the death of his ill wife (Bridget Moynahan), New Jersey man John Wick (Keanu Reeves) soon after receives an adorable beagle puppy, arranged to be delivered by his wife before she died. While fueling up his '69 Mustang with the pup he names Daisy, John has a run-in with some Russian thugs, particularly the young and spoiled Iosef (Alfie Allen), who would like to buy the not-for-sale muscle car. Later that night, Iosef and his gang of two break into John's house, beat him with a bat, kill Daisy, and steal his car. Big mistake by Iosef, who thinks John is just a nobody. That's way too personal to not get John Wick, a retired hit man known as "The Boogeyman," back into the game, dispatching Russian thugs left and right, right and left. When Iosef learns of what's coming to him by his Russian mob boss father, Viggo (Michael Nyqvist), he and everyone that's out to kill John Wick might as well put a gun to their own heads.

Straightforward, bare-bones stuff as the plot goes, with a screenplay by Derek Kolstad, "John Wick" embraces the basic, stalk-and-kill structure of a hit list with a knowing sense of humor, full-tilt pacing, and efficient, no-frills plotting. After an economic (and upsettingly grim) setup that earns our emotional investment almost by default, the film swings into body-count mode and rarely lets up. In fact, "John Wick" might serve up as many casualties in one fell swoop of its 96-minute run time as one whole horror series. Its gallows sense of humor also allows the viewer to enjoy the film as a graphic novel, first rearing its head when a policeman arrives at John's door due to a noise complaint, sees a dead body and says, "Leave you to it, then." In a couple of amusing details that imply a self-contained crime underworld, there's a 24-hour clean-up crew, led by Winston (Ian McShane), who show up at John's door to wrap up the dead bodies and clean the blood off the walls, as well as a ritzy hotel mecca for mobsters with its own currency. Every scene with the hospitable front-desk manager (a deadpan Lance Reddick) never not gets a laugh.

After much criticism for having as much emotional range as a tree branch throughout his career, Keanu Reeves is still not the most charismatic or expressive leading man. Here, as John Wick, he first palpably conveys a broken frame of mind after losing his wife and the dog his wife left him, and then he gets to play up such a brooding, mysterious cipher as a swift, vicious killer who still isn't immune to pain and injuries. As lead villain Viggo, Michael Nyqvist really registers in the evil department, and he's unexpectedly funny, earning a laugh with the simple utterance of "Oh," while Alfie Allen portrays Iosef as such a loathsome, Eurotrashy punk with a face one would like to smash. Even Dean Winters (best known for his role on HBO's now-defunct "Oz" and all of those Allstate Insurance commercials) grabs attention with his exasperated expressions as Viggo's right-hand guy Avi, and Adrianne Palicki has more fun here than she did in "G.I. Joe: Retaliation" as contract hitwoman Perkins. Willem Dafoe also figures into the plot as one of John Wick's allies, but his key thread has such an anticipated outcome that, in hindsight, just takes up time and becomes a convenience.

Soaked in underground color and bullet-riddled bodies with a pulsating rave soundtrack, the film is dynamically edited and stupendously crafted wholesale in its impressive fight choreography and clean visual coherence. For optimal effect, there is never too tight or shaky of a shot to take away from the thrill. When a genre flick comes along and stylistically punches up a rehashed plot as old as the first gun, it's a pleasure to see one this unapologetic about what it wants to do and be, though last month's "The Equalizer" still has a leg up in terms of more creative paybacks. Had the film been longer than 96 minutes, the crazy fun of the shoot-'em-up action might have drained out and become numbingly repetitive, but it hardly ever does. Not doing more than what it has to accomplish, "John Wick" satisfies as lean, mean ultra-violence and makes the perfect use of Keanu Reeves by giving him spare dialogue, dressing him in a black suit, and letting him fire away.

Grade: B +

Thursday, October 23, 2014

It's Always More Than a Game, Kiddos: Safe "Ouija" only scary if you're 13

Ouija (2014) 
88 min., rated PG-13.

The first horror property from Hasbro and likely the last, "Ouija" starts with a neat nugget of an idea that a spooky slumber party-ready game board can be used to contact the dead. Not since 1986's cheesy-great "Witchboard" has there been a film tapping into the superstitious tomfoolery revolving around the spirit board, so one hoped for the best. Now, as everyone knows, a PG-13 horror film is like sex without nudity, and while not every genre pic getting a bum rap from the MPAA ratings system spinelessly belongs in a vacuum for being literally bloodless, there have been far more duds2005's "Boogeyman," 2005's "White Noise," 2006's "Pulse," 2008's "One Missed Call," 2008's "Prom Night," 2009's "The Unborn," 2009's "The Stepfather," just to name a fewthan slam dunks2002's "The Ring," 2009's "Drag Me to Hell," 2011's "Insidious," 2012's "The Woman in Black"—to count. Just in time for Halloween, one could probably do a whole lot worse than "Ouija," a not-so-bad but discouragingly tame horror effort that is clearly aimed at an under-17 demo, but seasoned moviegoers will need more than a textbook jump scare from a gas stove burner turning on by itself.

After teenager Debbie (Shelley Hennig) is found dead in her family home in what appears to be a suicide, grief-stricken Laine (Olivia Cooke) just can't wrap her head around why her best friend would take her life. When Debbie's parents ask Laine to housesit, she finds the Ouija board from their childhood in Debbie's bedroom. In hopes of contacting their best friend, Laine convinces boyfriend Trevor (Daren Kagasoff), rebellious sister Sarah (Ana Coto), diner-waitress pal Isabelle (Bianca Santos), and Debbie's boyfriend Pete (Douglas Smith) to gather in Debbie's house and hold a séance by using the witchboard. Naturally, the spirit that starts moving the planchette to different letters on the board is not their friend, despite the spelling of "Hi Friend." One by one, Laine and her pals are most likely on their way out, too.

Debuting director Stiles White and wife/co-writer Juliet Snowden (2012's "The Possession") set things off on a decent start, suggestively building up to the first kill before framing it in a stylish fashion (we'll just say it involves a long strand of twinkle lights). At a certain point, though, White starts resorting to anything to keep teenyboppers jumping out of their seats, like half-hearted false-alarm scares where characters enter a room, walking on cat's feet, only to scare the living bejesus out of another character and, hopefully by proxy, the audience. A few times, this tactic is benign and fun in how it keeps the reflexes alive, but it's just indicative of the general laziness in mainstream studio horror releases from filmmakers trying to get their foot in the door. While White and Snowden's screenplay does establish the rules of the Ouija board (you can never play alone, you cannot play in a graveyard, and you must always say goodbye), the wishy-washy ending ensures a sequel, or just a lack of imagination, by not settling on how to actually destroy the all-powerful board. Other writing issues? Convenient for the plot, Laine and Sarah's father (Matthew Settle) is gone on a business trip for the remainder of the film, never to return, and Debbie's parents have left town immediately after their daughter's funeral, leaving Laine to check on the house every so often and use the dining room table for the setting of the séance. Also, Laine and Sarah's Hispanic grandmother Nona (Vivis Colombetti, "Paranormal Activity 2") then suddenly has a degree in everything with the paranormal. 

Olivia Cooke (TV's "Bates Motel" and this year's "The Quiet Ones") gives her role of Laine some concern and more layers than what were probably written. Shelley Hennig (TV's "Teen Wolf") is on hand to kick the plot off as the Ouija board's first victim and shows off her charisma in footage from a computer flash drive Laine finds. The pressing question is, why would anyone record themselves doing chores and using a Ouija board? Exactly. No one. As for the rest of the pretty, right-out-of-Central-Casting actors, including Douglas Smith, Daren Kagasoff (TV's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager"), Bianca Santos (TV's "The Fosters"), and newcomer Ana Coto, they take Debbie's death in stride and aren't given enough time to fill out their insipid, underdeveloped characters beyond props. Both "A Nightmare on Elm Street" and "Scream" handled a circle of high school friends dropping like flies much better. Only the dependably kooky and very welcome Lin Shaye, turning up as a woman in a psychiatric hospital, comes close to making this whole enterprise more fun. Casting directors might have figured you can't keep a wacky medium down; Shaye's character was killed in "Insidious," only to return in "Insidious: Chapter 2" and the upcoming "Insidious: Chapter 3."

Professionally packaged and atmospherically lit, "Ouija" pulls out a modicum of effective moments, one involving a rolling flashlight in an attic, a nighttime attack with a hungry pool cover, and then some ghostly imagery in the film's total of two climaxes existing in the basement of Debbie's home. On the other hand, why do so many contemporary supernatural horror movies mine the jolt of a shrieking specter opening its mouth and running toward the camera? Though it doesn't say much for the actual film itself, the fact that it exists might resurrect popularity in Ouija boards and be the cause of a decline in teenagers flossing (that pre-bedtime regimen gets turned into a nightmare here). Unless ticket buyers are horror-movie virgins, no one will be made a chicken of through much of this temporarily startling, though never-chilling "boo" exercise. Raise the dead somewhere else.