Friday, November 28, 2014

Girl of the Night: "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" like a gorgeous, hypnotic dream

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)
99 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

With Jim Jarmusch's groovy "Only Lovers Left Alive" proof positive that vampire films are actually very much alive and well this year, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" is more in a class of its own as a tantalizing chiaroscuro-styled tableaux that casts a haunting spell. Born in England and raised in America by her Iranian parents, writer-director Ana Lily Amirpour makes her feature debut, mixing and matching but not beholden to the mood, rhythm and style by the master likes of David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch and Quentin Tarantino, all of who are not bad company in which to be. Unprecedented as an "Iranian vampire western," the film is surely about mortality and gender politics, but it really feels like a melting pot of visual poetry that envelops and washes over the viewer like a victim succumbing to a bloodsucker's seduction. It feels like a modern classic that can't be tied down to one genre.

The story of "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" can be summed up in a couple of sentences, but it could also operate as a silent picture, telling the viewer everything he or she needs to know through imagery. In the hellish Iranian oil-refinery town of Bad City, Arash (Arash Marandi) takes in his drug-addict father, Hossein (Marshall Manesh). When Arash's most prized possession—a 1957 Thunderbirdgets taken from him by deplorable pimp-cum-drug dealer Saeed (Dominic Rains), who has "SEX" tattooed on his neck, for Hossein's debts, Saeed soon encounters The Girl (Sheila Vand) when he pushes a hooker (Mozhan Marnò) out of the stolen T-Bird. Prowling at night, The Girl, dressed in her hijab, seems to have a thirst for bad-seed blood and takes care of the scumbag. On Halloween night, the dressed-as-Dracula Arash runs into the female predator and they may just be right for one another.

Startling as a female-driven horror film, joyous and sensual as a love story, and intoxicatingly hypnotic as a piece of art, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" frightens, moves, and dazzles, ensuring the feeling of nirvana for cinephiles. Gorgeously photographed by Lyle Vincent in black and white with striking, painterly compositions, the imagery is artful and provocative, namely every shot of the titular girl dressed in her black hijab and mime-colored shirt drifting down a sidewalk; the pacing dreamy and hypnagogic; and the plotting is simple but craftily cyclical. There's a funny, creepy and beautiful scene, recalling the Marx Brothers' mirror gag, where The Girl mirrors every move that of Hossein from across the street. That same balanced tone is met in another on-the-street moment that has Arash, dressed as Dracula and lost in a neighborhood after leaving a Halloween party, running into The Girl who comes by on a skateboard she stole from a young boy. The film really works its magic during a euphoric moment, quiet and only set to the diegetic use of White Lies' "Death," where The Girl puts on a vinyl record in her music poster-covered bedroom with Arash. Barely anything happens, as Amirpour holds a shot on the space, and yet it is such an indelible moment of an unspoken attraction between a mortal and immortal. Following that standout sequence, there is also a surreal, lyrical bit with a drag queen dancing around with a balloon. 

A film so simultaneously exciting and languid, so full of life and yet standing still, Ana Lily Amirpour's "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" sprays fresh blood on a canvas and works on the level of a fantastical dream. Set in Iran and spoken in Farsi with English subtitles but shot in Taft, California, the film has a timeless feel that feels specific and yet feels like it could take place anytime. Almost like a monochrome, less-stylized noir-ish version of Frank Miller's Sin City by way of a spaghetti western, "Bad City" is a hellhole of a place, and yet the fanged girl might be making it better. Keeping his first name for the character he plays, Arash Marandi has a magnetic presence that reminds one of a James Dean type. As Arash, the actor conveys a decent type who's respectful, rebuffing the advances of a young woman he landscapes for, but he's also a lonely, vulnerable soul. Sheila Vand has an ethereal quality, perfect for the part of a vampire roaming the streets of Bad City. She applies punkish eyeliner before dancing alone in her bedroom, but then she can quickly make a switch to stalking unsavory men whom she believes deserve to be gone. Her exact motives are neither here nor there, but she spares an abused prostitute and a misbehaving child who deserves a good scare; in a way, she's doing good. The film also co-stars a heroic cat, Masuka, that makes its way from owner to owner. As any piece of art, "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" doesn't always make traditional sense, and if it did, it wouldn't feel as special.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, November 27, 2014

The Female Frontier: "The Homesman" a bleak but mostly rewarding journey

The Homesman (2014)
122 min., rated R.

The Western has surely faded, so any 21st-century variation plowing that old territory and still managing to engross a viewer with a story he or she wouldn't think to be interested in has performed a little miracle. A languorous but sturdy oater, "The Homesman" is Tommy Lee Jones' second feature, following 2006's "The Three Burials of Melquaides Estrada," in which he directs and stars (and this time co-adapts). Co-written by Jones & Kieran Fitzgerald & Wesley A. Oliver, this sparely told adaptation of Glendon Swarthout's novel dares to rattle the viewer's expectations two-thirds of the way, almost to the degree that it seems unsure of whose story it wants to tell or what it wants to do with its feminist leanings. And yet, even so, the harrowing lack of compromise and the strong performances make the long, difficult and dangerous journey a rewarding one, too.

In the Nebraska Territory circa the 1850s, it's not only hard being a human being in the tough living conditions, but it's hard being a woman. Pioneer woman Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank) lives uncommonly alone as a 31-year-old spinster, hoping for marriage from a man for whom she cooks and plays music, but he rejects her for being "plain" and "bossy." She's so no-nonsense and capably self-sufficient that the local minister (John Lithgow) draws her from his parish when two men refuse to take three women (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter), who have lost their minds, across the river to Iowa. When Cuddy sets off in her two-horse wagon, she happens upon George Briggs (Tommy Lee Jones), a crusty claim jumper whom she saves from being hanged. In agreeing to save his life, Briggs must follow her orders and accompany her on the journey. Cuddy and Briggs will not only have to brave the disturbed women, but all of the dangers that come with the harsh plains.

If two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank could devastatingly disappear into the skin of a woman with a sexual identity crisis in 1999's "Boys Don't Cry" and a damaged but determined pro boxer in 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," her choosiness of projects pays off with her work as an intrepid spinster in a sunbonnet. As the pious Mary Bee Cuddy, Swank has the gravitas to not only convey the character's tough know-how and selflessness but a deep sadness. On screen, Tommy Lee Jones can play an irascible rascal in his sleep, and it's not always easy to get a handle on George Briggs, but he manages to color the character with an irreverence and empathy once Cuddy makes an imprint on him. As the three madwomen, Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, and Sonja Richter are collectively asked to go to a dark headspace of mental illness and stay there, whether it's staring blankly while being tied to a wagon, clinging to a ragdoll, or acting so hysterically feral to be in much need of an exorcism. Winter-set flashbacks of these women are startlingly disturbing—Arabella (Gummer) lost her three children to diphtheria, Theoline (Otto) threw her baby down the toilet of an outhouse, and Gro (Richter) was raped by her own husband and began harming herself after her mother's death—but after those earlier scenes, they only add up to one insane woman on the road.

From a production standpoint, one musn't take Merideth Boswell's production design, Lahly Poore's costume design, Wendy Ozols-Barnes' set decoration, and Guy Barnes' art direction for granted. Everything is created for the period with unerring authenticity and detail. Rodrigo Prieto's cinematography is also evocative and starkly beautiful, allowing us to view the flat, vast vistas as far as the eye can see. Also standing out in the cast, if only in brief supporting roles, are James Spader, as a swanky hotelier who regrets to accomodate Briggs and his cargo; Meryl Streep, as the Iowa pastor's wife who hopes to care for the three women; and Hailee Steinfeld who's at home in her "True Grit" apparel as a hard-working Iowa teen. Before a wonky, musically folksy final scene that elicits more of a "huh?" than an emotional slam, "The Homesman" solidifies itself as a tragic, emotionally wrought piece of melancholy as bleak and harshly unforgiving as the Old West must have been.


Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Night Terrors: "The Babadook" a chill-inducing, heartbreaking horror fable

The Babadook (2014)
94 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent's masterful feature debut (based on her 2005 short entitled "Monster"), "The Babadook" tingles one's spine just in the mere conception of its titular under-the-bed monster. At feature length, Kent goes beyond that by conceiving a fully realized children's fable in a horror tale's skin that will have legs in the annals of horror cinema. Directed with patience and an elegantly mounting sense of unease, the film is as powerfully scary as it is powerfully cathartic. For a psychological horror thriller, it's deliciously tingly and deeply heartbreaking in equal measure, much like 2008's Spanish horror fable "The Orphanage," and respects its audience's intelligence by avoiding cheap, hollow scares. If the viewer is hoping to jump out of their seats from nonsensical jolts that merely deflate the tension, check theater times for "Ouija.

For almost seven years, Amelia (Essie Davis) is still trying to cope with the death of her husband who died in a car accident as she was in labor with their son. Overstressed and sleep-deprived, the single mother must contend with her 6-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), who misbehaves in school from his obsession with nighttime monsters and creating weapons from scratch. When bedtime rolls around, Amelia reads a strange children's pop-up book, "Mister Babadook," off his bedroom shelf. As the story goes, the boogeyman known as The Babadook knocks three times on one's door and invites himself in ("If it's in a word, or it's in a look, you can't get rid of the Babadook!"). At first, Amelia is alarmed by the horrific nature of the book, but doesn't think much of its existence and hides it on top of a wardrobe. Soon enough, mother and son are being haunted by the monster in the book, which gets destroyed and keeps popping up. As the nights go by and Amelia can't seem to get much sleep, Samuel starts acting out even more and frustrating his poor mom, and the two-person family becomes alienated by everyone around them, including Amelia's own uppity sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney). Insanity is inevitable, and the unwelcome visitor may already be in the house.

Classically composed, chill-inducing, and challenging, "The Babadook" is much more than a bump-in-the-night tale with the writer-director's thematic metaphors gnawing under the surface, reminding one most of Roman Polanski's "Repulsion." Like that 1965 masterpiece and many films of its type, this film blends reality and nightmare into the horrific hallucinations Amelia is experiencing. Is Mister Babadook real? Or is the creature just something Amelia manifested from her mixture of grief, sleep deprivation, and stress from rearing a child who's acting out? It will be best left to find out on the viewer's own experience and interpretation, and the smart, more mature route is taken. Kent has a terrific touch for light and darkness, sound, and space, but "The Babadook" also just speaks for itself. The horror is the by-product of these emotionally invested characters. Without the through-line of loss and trauma, the fragility of motherhood, and the presence of Amelia and Samuel, the film would only be a literal monster movie and not have as much of an emotional impact as a durable horror film about the human condition.

A superb Essie Davis devastates in the emotionally exhausting role of Amelia, calling for her to be appealing and vulnerable and even frightening. The viewer's heart goes out to her, even when Amelia's sanity goes crumbling. She can only really help herself. In the pantheon of child actors, Noah Wiseman is entirely credible and affecting without any affect in a performance that runs the gamut of emotions and demands a lot from such a young newcomer. Samuel can be a whiny, bratty terror at times, but that is certainly the point, and Wiseman sells it just enough. Inspired by German expressionism, the monochromatic, sharp-edged illustrations of the pop-up book are wonderfully, hair-raisingly creepy, courtesy of illustrator Alexander Juhasz. Sporting a top hat and long, sharp hands, the titular Babadook is an unsettling boogeyman whose effectively shadowy entrance is refreshingly not always accompanied by a musical sting. Radek Ladczuk's strikingly overcast cinematography also expertly using shadows, so we only see just enough of what might be lurking in Amelia's home. The fantastic sound work of scratching and growling deserves kudos as well.

It would be very easy to show the title monster at every turn, but Jennifer Kent ensures that she believes in the unknown and how much more frightening such a supernatural concept can be when more is left to the imagination. It takes a filmmaker's uncompromising vision, too, to use spare parts from other movies that could form into a derivative whole, but "The Babadook" never feels generic or impersonal. Kent puts her individual spin on certain horror tropes, while keeping the emotional fragility of Amelia and Samuel well intact and in the foreground. She keeps her story at a satisfying pitch, never overcranking or losing her less-is-more approach for over-the-top scare tactics. A great future is foreseen for Kent, and you can forget about getting a good night's sleep. For any discerning horror enthusiast out there, this is a must.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Not Like a Boss: "Horrible Bosses 2" coasts on cast to get laughs, then fizzles out

Horrible Bosses 2 (2014) 
108 min., rated R.

A sloppy, funny comedy is one thing, but what about a more-of-the-same sequel with no reason for being? 2011's "Horrible Bosses" wasn't the sicko dark comedy it often teased to be and could have been, but it was a gleefully silly and bawdy wish-fulfillment farce punched up by a likable, comedically skilled cast. What's more, it was made even more memorable for giving Colin Farrell and Jennifer Aniston the opportunity to outrageously mix it up. "Horrible Bosses 2," a sequel existing to skate by on the popularity of the first film, gets another chance to murder good taste in the glory of being a blue R-rated comedy. After it gets a number of laughs in its first half solely from the three leads' delivery of their shtick, the film gradually fizzles out as a feature-length film, ultimately feeling like an uninspired, uncalled-for comedy sequel that, in all good conscience, wasn't really worth the effort. It's hard to sustain laughter when so much common sense is thrown out of the workplace.

After trying to kill their three despicable higher-ups in "Horrible Bosses" and indirectly having success with one murder, Nick (Jason Bateman), Kurt (Jason Sudeikis), and Dale (Charlie Day) are now their own bosses, marketing a prototype for a shampoo-conditioner dispenser called the "Shower Buddy" under their company name, "Nick-Kurt-Dale," that sounds like a racial slur when spoken quickly. When retailing company Boulder Stream gives them a call, they are offered a partnership to distribute their product by the boss' entitled son Rex (Chris Pine), whom they reject, but then comes in head-honcho investor Bert Hanson (Christoph Waltz) who gives them a price they can't refuse. Business seems headed in the right direction before Bert doubles back on them and decides not to launch the "Shower Buddy," leaving Nick, Kurt, and Dale to consult Motherfucker Jones (Jamie Foxx) again and hatch a plan involving the "kidnaping" of Rex. In a twist to their scheme, Rex doesn't mind being kidnapped.

Taking over for Seth Gordon and the three writers, Sean Anders (2012's inane-as-all-get-out "That's My Boy") directs a script he co-wrote with John Morris (2014's "Dumb and Dumber To"). Killing to be equal-opportunity in who it mocks and offends, "Horrible Bosses 2" does come out swinging and keeps the pacing up for a long while but then steadily wears out its welcome and just irritates. As long as one dials their IQ way down, there's a priceless (if obvious) sexual-innuendo sight gag in a shower stall out of the "Austin Powers" movies in the film's opening scene on a live morning talk show with Rachel (Kelly Stables) and Mike (Keegan-Michael Key), à 'la Live! with Kelly and Michael. There's an infectious giggle-inducer involving the three buddies hiding in Rex's closet and getting high off of nitrous oxide, and it is pretty hilarious when they all take a crack at faking exaggerated Southern accents over the phone with Rex's father. Even the trio's "supercool slo-mo walk," already seen in the trailer, is choice. Everything else that doesn't feel off-the-cuff is lame and unknowingly moronic, making the latest "Dumb and Dumber To" look wise by comparison.

Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis, and Charlie Day proved the first time around that three heads are better than one, and once again, they more than carry the comedy to the finish line. Bateman is a smart straight-man foil to Sudeikis and Day's dim-and-dimmer bulbs, but at the same time, they all seem to be winging it with weaker material and yammering a lot. Additional support goes to Christoph Waltz, as disgustingly rich Bert Hanson, but while he's thanklessly not given many funny things to do or say, it's Chris Pine who benefits and gets to be the manic live-wire here as cocky, albeit put-upon, son Rex. There's something weird and volatile inside of Pine, who has more going on than a handsome face. As nymphomaniac Dr. Julia Harris, Jennifer Aniston also pops in from time to time, coming back to play and gamely say more dirty things. Her character still exists as a sexually ravenous punchline who excitably drops the word "cock" a lot and, this time, doesn't even mind coprophilia when Nick has to run with being mistaken for a gay sex addict at one of her meetings held in her dentistry office after hours. With Colin Farrell gone, Kevin Spacey relishes to turn up for two brief scenes behind a glass partition in prison as Nick's former horrible boss. Finally, Jamie Foxx, as "murder consultant" Motherfucker Jones who has seemingly never left that same bar booth, doesn't have the surprise he once had, but he reliably sells every moment he can, particularly in a car chase with the long passing of a train, the sharing of a Twizzler, and a cat tree in his truck bed.

108 minutes is a rather long chunk of time for jokes to land and land with a thud, but once the narrative starts focusing on the bland caper at hand and actually envisions a stylish sequence of how the whole kidnapping scheme could go down, it becomes tedious when the sloppy, madcap scheme actually plays out for real. Individual throwaway moments, as do a couple of setups and payoffs, provoke the smiles and laughs they aim for, but it all starts to head downhill. If "Strangers on a Train" and "Throw Momma from the Train" were both name-checked in the first "Horrible Bosses," this one calls out "9 to 5" and makes Bateman the "Jane Fonda" of the trio. So, there's that, and Katy Perry's empowering pop hit "Roar," believe it or not, becomes a plot point. Like the mostly unfunny outtakes, "Horrible Bosses 2" is one big goof, amusing in spots for the audience to watch the ab-libbing troupe hit the mark much of the time and even more amusing for those shooting it. In the end, the cast and the makers win out more than the little people watching.

Grade: C +

Monday, November 24, 2014

Pain in the Rump: Jason Schwartzman embodies acid tongue in less-than-satisfying "Listen Up Philip"

Listen Up Philip (2014)
109 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

The prospect of spending time with a frustrating, unlikable but identifiable character is not always a cinch. It can be a challenge to both endure as an audience member and execute as a filmmaker, but it can be done take anyone in a Woody Allen, Whit Stillman or Noah Baumbach movie for instance. Or, Charlize Theron's delusional Mavis Gary in Jason Reitman's "Young Adult." Writer-director Alex Ross Perry (2011's "The Color Wheel") is not interested in making anyone fall in love with his protagonist in "Listen Up Philip," an acidic, occasionally savagely funny character study that was well in reach of being fascinating but never quite gets there. That the titular Philip is an unpleasant human being could be seen from space. He's such an insufferable, unapproachable prick, and if one crossed paths with him, you would risk getting hit by a truck just to get away from him. What makes "Listen Up Philip" try one's patience rather than be an incendiary success is that everyone else is way more interesting than the leading pompous bore. Perhaps that's filmmaker Perry's point, but it doesn't make for an entirely satisfying experience, especially cinematically.

After the release of his second book, abrasive, braggadocious author Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) is all alone and it's easy to see why. His successno, noteworthinesshas gotten him too in touch with his selfish instincts. He has severed ties with his closest friends, telling off old girlfriends and friends whom he feels have betrayed him, and puts his needs before those of live-in photographer girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss). Upon refusing to do any promotion for his new book and then meeting for lunch prolific novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) who admires his work, Philip is offered the chance to get some work done at Zimmerman's country home away from the hustle and bustle of Brooklyn. Ashley is less than thrilled and goes on with her life. During Philip's stay, he also meets the old man's daughter Melanie (Krysten Ritter), who can hardly deal with her father being even more narcissistic and self-loathing than Philip.

Jason Schwartzman could characteristically be playing Max Fischer of Wes Anderson's "Rushmore" as an adult, and he's excellent at playing a caustic twerp begging to be hated. It is nasty fun to watch Philip dishing it out, taking it, and then dishing it out some more. His misery isn't contextualized until the very end, but even if a certain revelation in his past doesn't tenderize Philip or make him any more appealing, it makes him a little more human. Philip cannot change and will not change. In playing Philip's older self in essence, Jonathan Pryce is superb, finding colors in a definitive narcissist. Well served by Perry's script, Elisabeth Moss' performance is a study in empathy, as the emotionally wounded Ashley is the most understandable character in the film and one can't help but root for her to move on past Philip. As Melanie Zimmerman, a young woman who sees Philip quite clearly and deals with her father seeing her and her mother as disappointments, Krysten Ritter showcases an emotional richness that hitherto had been untapped. 

Being shot on 16mm film stock, Sean Price Williams' zoom-happy handheld camerawork has a grainy '70s underground vibe, but a little of it goes a long way, as if every actor had to have his or her own literal close-up. An omniscient narration by Eric Bogosian is a novelistic crutch that sometimes drowns out dialogue when we could understand characters' emotions without being told. With bite and just a little humanity for good measure, "Listen Up Philip" is decidedly not for every taste, but it takes the piss out of pretentious writers and never makes any apologies for their actions. It can be literate and smartly acerbic, with sharply played characters that feel authentic and lived-in, but it's a question of how much the viewer can stand Philip to see it worth the hassle to get some bitter laughs and glimpses of great fake book covers. It all comes down to this: Philip better listen up, but does that mean we have to listen to him?

Grade: C +

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Waiting Games: "Mockingjay - Part 1" a compelling but unspectacular first-half finale

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 (2014)
125 min., rated PG-13.

"The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" is the final installment in the big-screen adaptations of Suzanne Collins' series, but it's only half of a movie. Since it must be an unwritten Hollywood rule that YA film-to-book properties can't stand on their own anymore and the last entry must be split into two, this is a place-holder for commercial purposes rather than for the sake of art. Like 2012's "The Hunger Games" and 2013's "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire," this film's setup does bode well for a great conclusion; it just needs to get there. With returning director Francis Lawrence here to stay for the long haul and screenwriters Peter Craig (2010's "The Town") and Danny Strong (2013's "Lee Daniels' The Butler") now in, the picture is still anticlimactic filler, but it has enough meat on its bones to be worth recommending to those devoted to seeing Katniss Everdeen's journey to the end.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is having a hard time after surviving two fights to the death, outwitting the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland), and causing uprisings in seven of the districts. Panem's District 12 has been destroyed and left as a wasteland of rubble and skulls. She is devastated and confused to discover her fellow tribute victor and love, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), has been finangled into speaking for the Capitol and declaring a ceasefire. Katniss has been rescued and now holes up in District 13's underground bunker, run by Madam President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who aspire to make her the face of the revolution, their symbolic Mockingjay. She gives in, but only if her requests to President Coin are granted. Even as she has to be camera-ready, saving Peeta is her main concern.

Whereas the first two films were given a scope to roam emotionally, narratively, and visually, "Mockingjay - Part 1" occasionally edges on the maudlin and monotone, but Jennifer Lawrence and her top-of-the-line support manage to keep mopiness in check. The production values are still faultless, but there is only so much awe to be drawn from dreary, claustrophobic underground bunkers with the gaudy Capitol mostly out of the picture. Ashy, skull-strewn landscapes, however, are emblematic of there being a despairing, downbeat vision on the screen. The stretched-thin proceedings often plod along, but this is a far more quiet film than the first two, focusing more on the tributes' trauma after the Hunger Games and political propaganda. Politics has always been an integral part of this story's world, and it's interesting to point out that screenwriter Danny Strong wrote two politically charged TV movies, 2008's "Recount" and 2012's "Game Change." Katniss being the mockingjay for the revolution resonates the most. For instance, she must effectively deliver a rally speech in front of a green screen as part of a "propo" piece and then pay a visit to other districts, including District 8's makeshift morgue and hospital, with rebellion leader Cressida (Natalie Dormer), mute AVOX/cameraman Pollux (Elden Henson), and her crew. Also, more so than the first two films, Katniss gets to spend time with her mother (Paul Malcomson) and sister Prim (Willow Shields), who are at least given some purpose in District 13.

Jennifer Lawrence is still a dynamic, tireless force, owning the role of Katniss and making her personal arc as riveting as ever without just going through the paces. Josh Hutcherson, though sidelined, gets to reveal sad emotional shadings as Peta, whose character arc might be the second most affecting in the series, and Liam Hemsworth's Gale isn't so much a romantic third-wheel as much as Katniss' friend with different opinions. A newcomer to the series, Julianne Moore brings her innate class and gravitas to the underwritten role of President Coin that calls for her to do a lot of serious posturing in a long, gray wig, and she does it well. She also shares a "Boogie Nights" reunion with the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (to whom the film is dedicated), who brings some heft after Plutarch Heavensbee had a turn-around at the end of "Catching Fire." De-glammed without her flamboyant drag-queen costumes and wigs, Elizabeth Banks' series favorite Effie Trinket is turning out to be an even more intriguing and charming character here as she feels like a political refugee in a drab jumpsuit. Also, Woody Harrelson still has his shining, albeit brief, moments as Haymitch, Katniss' newly sober mentor.

Though "Mockingjay - Part I" still exists under the title of "The Hunger Games," there is no fighting in an arena here. There aren't even any eventful action set-pieces, aside from a rescue mission that recalls "Zero Dark Thirty" and Katniss shooting down a plane, that many by the film's end might ask, "Is that all you got?" That this first half of the franchise's finale feels like such a business decision is a nagging but inevitable issue, but for a warm-up, there is just enough appetizing interest here and a potent final shot to get over the greed of a studio. Compelling but unspectacular, "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1" doesn't take off as expected for a franchise that started off high and got better from there. Instead, it ends as another cliff-hanging serial that forces one to wait in bated breath for a year. We're raring to go for "Part 2."

Grade: B - 

Friday, November 21, 2014

An American Werewolf in an Old-Age Home: "Late Phases" a werewolf flick grounded by its grumpy lead

Late Phases (2014)
95 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Apparently, they do still make werewolf movies like they used to, and while "Late Phases" might be no "An American Werewolf in London" or "Ginger Snaps," it is a capably effective horror film of two sides. In the one corner of the film, there is a werewolf on the loose, and in the other, a man who has seen it all is uncomfortably comfortable with death and making sacrifices by moving into a community where many go to die. Director Adrián García Bogliano (2012's "Here Comes the Devil" and his "B Is for Bigfoot" segment in 2012's "The ABCs of Death") and writer Eric Stolze (2012's "Under the Bed") don't invent the lycanthropic cycle, nor do they need to, as long as more is pulled off well rather than not. With enough of a pedigree for horror aficionados ("Manhunter's" Tom Noonan has a key role, and one Larry Fessenden is on hand in a peripheral role and has an executive producing credit), "Late Phases" infuses a very simple story with a complex protagonist and a rueful streak.

Picking out headstones, blind Vietnam war vet Ambrose McKinley (Nick Damici), with loyal guide German shepherd Shadow, gets dropped off at the secluded retirement community of Crescent Bay by his adult son Will (Ethan Embry). On his first night of being all moved in, he hears something howling and hulking around on the other side of the wall and breaking into the house of neighbor Delores (Karen Lynn Gorney), and then that same thing fatally wounds Ambrose's canine companion. The police don't seem that surprised, considering Crescent Bay is positioned between town and the woods — that and this isn't the first "animal attack" in the community with a gate that doesn't seem to be much use. From then on, Ambrose holds off on burying his dog but starts using the shovel he plans to use as a walking stick. While the old ladies of Crescent Bay see him as a disruption of their peaceful community, Ambrose is the first to sense a beastly killer afoot during the full moon and he will have his silver bullets ready to go. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

We Need to Talk About John: "Foxcatcher" strongly acted, well-told Oscar bait

Foxcatcher (2014)
134 min., rated R.

It is not really the film's fault, but "Foxcatcher" is very much Oscar bait. On the prospects of the film being based on a true story and the actors donning make-up, the Academy will go gaga over it. Getting past its calculated hopes of impressing and begging "for your consideration" come awards season, the film is good—sometimes very good—and it's handsomely made and strongly acted with a story that's inherently dramatic and well-told. In 1996, after paranoid-schizophrenic millionaire wrestling coach John du Pont took 1984 Olympic Gold medalist Mark Schultz under his wing, he murdered the other Schultz brother, Olympic Gold medalist Dave. On screen, "Foxcatcher" withholds more than it shares about its characters, but director Bennett Miller (2011's "Moneyball") and screenwriters E. Max Frye (1986's "Something Wild") and Dan Futterman (2005's "Capote") have something disturbing to say about wealth, dedication, and control and go about it in glacial, quietly bleak form. It's also worthwhile to see a trio of actors as we have never seen them before.

Broke, keeping to himself, and living in the shadow of his older brother in 1987, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) is invited by ornithologist/philatelist/philanthropist John du Pont (Steve Carell) to his old-money Valley Forge, PA, estate, Foxcatcher Farms, and to be a part of Team Foxcatcher. After Mark packs up his car and leaves Wisconsin behind him, Du Pont becomes the father Mark never really had, while promising him $25 million a year and a different outlet to train for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. He is pretty eccentric, patriotic, and not all there, but he wants to be a benefactor to Mark. Initially, du Pont gives the older and wiser Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) the same offer, but he turns him down, refusing to uproot his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, and wonders what du Pont gets out of relocating his brother. For a while, Mark enjoys living the wealthy lifestyle of the du Pont dynasty, until the father-like du Pont gets him hooked on cocaine and starts showing his passive-aggressive animosity. Eventually, Mark is persuaded again to join Team Foxcatcher, with his family in tow, and he starts coaching the team, while Mark has begun slacking on his training and losing all confidence. This surely cannot end well.

Taking a page out of Sofia Coppola's book, director Bennett Miller doesn't get fancy with the camerawork or the storytelling, but he persuasively tells a fascinating human story, mostly from the point-of-view of Mark Schultz. We see these men go throughout their day and just live their lives, and the static camera catches it all that the film might as well be a documentary eavesdropping on the characters without any narration. Through Miller's observational storytelling and deliberate yet absorbing pacing, this psychological sports drama draws the viewer in and provides a muted power, even before the inevitable conclusion comes, through the dynamics of the brothers' relationship and the surrogate father relationship with du Pont. Screenwriters E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman only offer hints of what makes John du Pont tick and no clear-cut answers, holding us at a distance, while actor Steve Carell's reading of the real-life man is what compels anyone to watch. Hints are all the viewer really needs, though, because the unknowable is truer to life and more frightening than a spelled-out pathological explanation for du Pont's psychotic break. His hobbies, which include stamp collections, bird-watching, and guns, point to Norman Bates-ish psychosis, and he surely has Mommy Issues. He is so stinking rich that he buys a tank, but he throws a fit when his order doesn't come with machine guns. These character details are subtly handled without turning du Pont into a stock villain. In fact, no one in the film is broadly vilified, creepy make-up and all, and a homoerotic subtext is merely implicated.

Like when Robin Williams played a disturbed photo guy in "One Hour Photo," it is now funnyman Steve Carell's turn to try out the dark side and doggone it if he doesn't knock off the viewer's socks. Losing himself completely into the role of John du Pont, he is understated and unnerving because of it. His eyes are cold and dead. His gait is slow and almost elderly. He seems so uncomfortable in his own skin that he lives through Mark. In playing this pathetic, entitled monster of a man who prefers Mark to call him "Eagle" or "Golden Eagle," it is revelatory that Carell had it in him. It's truly a chilling, transformative piece of acting that goes well beyond an eagle-like prosthetic nose and lightly shaved eyebrows, and could change the course of his career; his Oscar nomination is obviously in the bag. Not to be outdone, Channing Tatum outstandingly rises to the challenge of playing a character stripped of the charisma we usually expect from the actor on whom the jury is now in. As the lonely, lunkheaded Mark, he has the beefed-up physicality and swagger of a wrestler (with a jutting jaw and what appears to be marbles in his mouth, making his face resemble a bulldog), not to mention the mentality of one, too, and there's a stoic sadness that Tatum fulfills in the part. Matching his co-stars with more screen time, Mark Ruffalo is quite exceptional, too, in the least showy and most open of the three roles; it's particularly telling how good he is when Dave is asked to describe du Pont as a mentor for a TV interview and he loses all ability to articulate. Vanessa Redgrave, as John's disapproving mother Jean who sees through her son, doesn't have many scenes, but she makes an impact, and a de-glammed Sienna Miller appears in mom jeans as Dave's wife, Nancy.

"Foxcatcher" is smothered in a chilly, haunting mood, courtesy of cinematographer Greig Fraser (2012's "Zero Dark Thirty"), and makes great use of detached, artfully crafted space to keep one very uneasy. The music score by Rob Simonsen is extremely spare and unobtrusive, while the rest of the sound work consists of sneakers squeaking during the wrestling practices in the gym and bodies slapping each other. In an intensely self-destructive scene following Mark's defeat in a hotel room, there is also potent use of silence. Overall, the period of the time is expertly captured, too, with boxy TV sets and VHS tapes of wrestling matches. Director Miller's approach to the fundamental story and the screenplay is notably daring in its mundane, austere simplicity that a viewer's patience is a necessity, but it all pays off to ominous effect. Given a push by its three vanity-free performances, "Foxcatcher" is definitely an actor's film and will rattle some cages nevertheless.

Grade: B +

Monday, November 17, 2014

Katie's Got a Gun: "Miss Meadows" goes down with a spoonful of perky squickiness

Miss Meadows (2014)
88 min., not rated (but equivalent to a PG-13).

My, what a curiosity "Miss Meadows" turns out to be and not in a good way. With Katie Holmes as a chirpy, well-mannered schoolmarm who also happens to be a sociopath trying to make a difference in the world, or "rotting cesspool and decay and mediocrity," it's a weird film to place and to exist in this world. That sounds like a wickedly amusing idea for satire or a smashed-to-pieces fairy tale, but John Waters' hilariously demented 1994 black comedy "Serial Mom" did it better and 2013's chickish vigilante-comedy "Violet & Daisy" was a valiant try. The annoyingly affected and oh-so-cute "Miss Meadows" aims to be 1981's cult exploitationer "Ms. 45," albeit with less context, and one just keeps scratching his or her head on what screenwriter Karen Leigh Hopkins (1998's "Stepmom," 2007's "Because I Said So") was actually going for in her directorial feature debut, and what Katie Holmes even saw in the project.

The prim, proper and perpetually optimistic Miss Meadows (Holmes) is a Cleveland substitute teacher for a first-grade class. She loves children, and on her days off, she knits, gardens, and participates in the church choir. "Toodle-oo" is her choice way of saying goodbye and she's a stickler for grammar. Like a sweet-as-pie old maid who exists in an older time and drives a classic Nah Metropolitan, Miss Meadows is friends with the birds, squirrels and deer, wears floral print dresses and white gloves, and she enjoys tap dancing and reading poetry when going for walks. Oh, and she also packs a pistol in her purse, taking out convicts, child molesters, and creepy, lecherous men who try soliticiting her in hopes of making the world a better, happier place. Somehow, she catches the attention of the romantic town sheriff (James Badge Dale), who invites her for a spin in his pick-up truck and a snack by the meadow. On the day of a field trip, Miss Meadows goes to order sixteen hot dogs at a fast-food restaurant, only to discover all of the customers dead and the shooter before she guns him down. The police realize it is a vigilante-style crime done by a "'Pulp Fiction' Mary Poppins." How long will it take for the sheriff to realize his love is popping a cap in every bad man she encounters?

Credited as an executive producer, Katie Holmes must have really believed in this film, and she surely commits to the cheerily unhinged part with earnestness and, at times, empathetic human emotion. At a certain point, "Miss Meadows" wants to be a moving character study, but Mary Meadows is underwritten, besides being a chip off the old block (her mother, whom we only see on the phone with her daughter and being played by Jean Smart, tells her that they must right the wrongs of this world). Meadows is harboring a secret that certainly makes sense of why she acts the way she does, but it's treated as an afterthought when revealed in the last twenty minutes and muddles the tone even more. When she knocks on the door of facially scarred ex-convict Skylar (Callan Mulvey) for tea and crumpets (yes, literally), Miss Meadows threatensno, promisesto kill him if he brings any harm to her peaceful neighborhood. It's the film's one disquieting moment, as "Over the Meadow" is creepily whispered over the scene. The excellent James Badge Dale is the film's conscience as the no-name sheriff, and Mary Kay Place pops up and then disappears as a neighbor who's appreciative but also very suspect of Miss Meadows' naive way of dress. Largely tone-deaf and just strange to be strange, "Miss Meadows" would be more startling if weren't so complacent with its own off-kilter cuteness, which becomes irritating in ten minutes. You can say toodle-oo to this odd bird.

Grade: C - 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Sell Out: "Starry Eyes" a ballsy, black-hearted journey to stardom

Starry Eyes (2014)
98 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

People tend to go to Hollywood to pursue their dream and make it big, but dreams require sacrifice in such a big, cutthroat town. There's always a price, and dignity is the first sacrificial lamb, says the ballsy, diabolically disturbing horror indie "Starry Eyes," if an actress wants to attain stardom. Writer-directors Kevin Kolsch and Dennis Widmyer find the pitch-black, hopelessly cruel underbelly of Los Angeles and the pure ugliness in an ingenue. Marked with the tragic, creepy-as-hell power only the horror genre can offer when it's done supremely well as it is here, the film is so insanely watchable and emotionally gutting that the viewer won't know what hit them. Kolsch and Widmyer have such a brave and intelligent handle on their satirically bleak horror story that, given its ambiguous occult angle and final slasher vibe, "Starry Eyes" still works on a much darker, deeper and sadder level. 

Like any struggling actor living in Los Angeles, Sarah Walker (Alexandra Essoe) still waits for her big break. With no other credits to her name, she is modest but will do whatever it takes to become noticed as an actress. Waiting for callbacks from every audition is her priority, while she works at cheesy Hooters-like restaurant "Big Taters" (Pat Healy plays her boss) to pay the bills for an apartment she rents with roommate Tracy (Amanda Fuller) and barely tolerates the lack of support from her circle of friends, primarily the passive-aggressive Erin (Fabianna Therese). When she finds a casting call for the lead role in production company Astraeus Pictures' upcoming horror movie, 'The Silver Scream," Sarah jumps at the chance to try out and show them her chops. Trying out in front of a snarky assistant (Marc Senter) and a stern casting director (Maria Olsen), she fears her first audition went poorly, so she goes to the restroom and has one of her hair-pulling fits. When exiting the stall, Sarah runs into the stern casting director, who asks her to repeat just that in front of them. This is just the beginning, but what follows, like getting her foot in the door and meeting the lascivious older film producer (Louis Dezseran) who tries propositioning her, seals the deal that Sarah is the one Astraeus Pictures has been looking for all along.

"If you can't fully let yourself go, how can you ever transform into something else?" asks the casting director. It is a chilling question, and once it's posed, the old Sarah is officially gone. Before Sarah is reborn, she deteriorates, not only mentally but physically, and she's not about to let her unsupportive friends get in the way. Everyone else in Sarah's life, including a young film director Danny (Noah Segan) who lives out of his dead van, is a counterpoint to the older producer, who's actually spot-on in saying that people spend too much time talking about doing what they want instead of just doing it. You have to do the work, and self-respect be damned, Sarah does the work. It helps that Sarah is established with having genuine talent, which is obviously from the strength of Alexandra Essoe's performance, and how poorly she takes rejection from the get-go (her masochistic hair-pulling is akin to someone biting their nails). Looking like a taller Anna Kendrick, Essoe tackles the emotionally and physically complex role and reaches for the desperation in herself to make Sarah's crumbling psyche believable, devastating, and unsettling before the person she once was is lost forever.

Free of compromise, "Starry Eyes" is a grotesque, black-hearted indictment on Hollywood, as well as the perfect companion piece to both 2012's small masterpiece "Entrance" and 2013's STD horror indie "Contracted." The film appreciably takes its time before its sucker punch of a payoff, with Jonathan Snipes' music score hauntingly mixing synth beats and an almost-childlike twinkliness. Once the monstrous Sarah begins her bloody rampage, it's startlingly visceral and effectively repulsive, though with more motivated intent behind it rather than just gore-for-gore's-sake exploitation. There are many shocks, but one involving a dumbbell made this viewer's mouth drop, and when a film can still shock (and not in a senseless, amateurish, "I'm-going-to-gross-you-out" sort of way), it's a shock to one's entire system. "Starry Eyes" is bound to stick in the viewer's mind for days and then some. If this is what selling your soul for a gateway acting part looks like, then writing about acting will just have to do.

Grade: A -