Friday, August 28, 2015

Enemy Lines: Harrowing "No Escape" offers high tension, if not much nuance

No Escape (2015)
103 min., rated R.

There is a riveting type of audience manipulation and a cheap one, and xenophobic survival thriller "No Escape" mostly gets it right. Director John Erick Dowdle, who co-wrote the screenplay with screenwriter-producer brother Drew, has already proven his genre filmmaking chops with his highly respectable 2008 "[REC]" remake "Quarantine," 2010's potential-wasting "Devil," and 2014's unexpectedly decent found-footage horror film "As Above, So Below," and here, he pushes even more buttons in a more real-world milieu. "No Escape" might not have any hard-hitting sociological or political layers to share, but as a simple, visceral experience, it boasts impressively tense showmanship and unwavering urgency that will make one's stomach drop on more than one occasion.

Jack Dwyer (Owen Wilson) is relocating wife Annie (Lake Bell) and daughters Lucy (Sterling Jerins) and Beeze (Claire Geare) from Austin, Texas to somewhere in Southeast Asian for an engineering job transfer that he hopes will help provide the fourth-world country with clean water. When they reach the Imperial Lotus Hotel by the aid of friendly British expat Hammond (Pierce Brosnan), who may just come to their rescue later on, the electricity is faulty, and the TV and phone are out. The next morning when Jack goes out for a newspaper, he gets caught between a rebel army and military riot police. Once it becomes clear that American civilians are targets, including Jack's new multinational employer, Mr. and Mrs. Dwyer make it their mission to get their daughters to the U.S. Embassy, that is if the gun-waving, machete-wielding rebels don't get to them first. Can they get the hell out of dodge?

Before setting off the coup, "No Escape" opens with an effective bang of a tracking shot that glides down the halls of a palace in the unnamed Asian country to find the Prime Minister making an agreement and then being assassinated. The calm before the storm begins with economical setup, establishing the Dwyer family and a playful banter between tourist Hammond and his cab-driving sidekick, "Kenny Rogers" (Sahajak Boonthanakit). When the mob brutally attacks in the streets and executes an American man right in front of Jack's hotel, genuine panic sets in and primes Jack for a fight-or-flight response. High tension officially kicks in when Jack and Annie realize Lucy has snuck out of the room to go swimming on a lower-level pool deck, just as men are slaughtering tourists with machetes in a nearby room. It's a while before there's any letup when the family joins other survivors on the hotel roof, which proves to be a target zone rather than a safe area, and then Jack has no other option than to throw his two daughters over to Annie on an adjacent rooftop. This particular sequence exemplifies the fine line between preposterously Hollywood and engrossing. Director John Erick Dowdle, cinematographer Léo Hinstin, and editor Elliot Greenberg should have cooled it on the overuse of bombastic slow-motion, tempting viewers with a few unintended giggles, but otherwise, the film can be taken seriously most of the time. Not shy or gutless when it comes to the violence, the film is also very grim and unforgiving when need be with two concessions. There are but two scenes late in the film that reek of calculated, gratuitous cheap thrills, one in which Annie becomes the victim of an attempted rape and the other having one of the daughters being forced to hold a gun on her father, while another gun is placed at her temple. Fortunately exceptions rather than the rule, these perilous moments are ballsy but distasteful at the same time they lack the power director Dowdle is after.

Owen Wilson and Lake Bell would only seem miscast and out of their element because one is just used to seeing them in usually comedic fare and more physically capable actors in action pictures such as this one. It's smart casting; Wilson should not be underestimated, and for those in the know, Bell actually challenged herself once before as a woman on a camping trip with her two girlfriends who all refused to be victims in 2013's savagely tense indie thriller "Black Rock." They both carry their weight as loving, facetious but ordinary parents who, when the shit hits the fan in extraordinary circumstances, become resourceful and are quick to react. Primal instincts rear their head when violence against violence calls for it, but Jack and Annie Dwyer never make the unbelievable jump into trained-to-kill heroes who walk away without a scrape. As womanizing tourist Hammond, Pierce Brosnan brings rare, offbeat levity, especially when he gets to sing a drunken karaoke rendition of Huey Lewis' "Heart and Soul." Later, when Hammond becomes a savior to the Dwyers, he offers up the one line in the film that claims the western government is part of the problem and that Southeast Asian people are just trying to protect their families, too.

Admittedly, "No Escape" is slightly jingoistic, but it has garnered more criticism and controversy than it rightfully deserves for being less than politically correct. Director John Erick Dowdle set out to make a harrowing, effectively stressful white-knuckler and not a nuanced exploration of harsh geopolitical climate, and on that primal level, it works as a piece of knife-cutting tension. In its heart, this is really a horror film about a family's survival. The sides are depicted in black and white, figuratively and literally. Lest we have another "The Interview" situation on our hands, the exact country is never identified (though the film was shot in Thailand and it seems the country borders Vietnam, so one could guess and say Cambodia) and the rebels aren't given much of a point-of-viewthey're pissed, and that's itso they're relegated to movie villain status, killing anything they find. With that said, not every native is bad, as one even hides the family away in his garden. It's doubtful the Dowdle brothers had any intention of being exploitative or even racist, and where it really counts, "No Escape" will have audiences biting their nails and gripping their armrests until there's nothing left.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Boogie Woogie Bughuul: "Sinister 2" sucks mystery out of horror

Sinister 2 (2015)
97 min., rated R.

2012's "Sinister" earned its title fair and square. As a horror film in which a struggling true-crime writer (Ethan Hawke) moved his family into a murder house in order to write his new book, filmmaker Scott Derrickson masterfully orchestrated a sense of dread so merciless and palpably stifling, while he was more careful and strategic with his jump scares. Before ending with an ingeniously twisted gut-punch, the film's patient mood was stressed with the eyes of Hawke's protagonist being our own as he watched one Super-8 "home movie" after another of the most terrifying variety and the introduction of a new boogeyman, the ritualistic Bughuul, into the annals of horror cinema. And, like most horror films, "Sinister" should have been left alone as a one-off, but there always needs to be a sequel to allegedly expound upon the predecessor's mythology (read: capitalize on the title to make money at the box office). 

All of the mystery is now out in the open for "Sinister 2" to pave the way for a new family. On the run from her abusive husband Clint (Lea Coco), Courtney Collins (Shannyn Sossamon) has relocated her two twin boys, Dylan (Robert Daniel Sloan) and Zach (Dartanian Sloan), to a farmhouse in Indiana. She's determined to not be found and retain full custody of her sons, so much in fact that she brushes off that the abandoned church, adjacent to their home and Courtney's makeshift studio to restore antique furniture, was the scene of ritualistic mass murders. Meanwhile, the impressionable Dylan is beginning to see the undead children, brainwashed by Bughuul, and forced to watch every filmstrip that documents each one of their family's fates. As luck would have it, Ex-Deputy So & So (James Ransone), who left the police force after the demise of Ethan Hawke's Ellison Oswalt and his family, is now a private investigator, making it his duty to torch each home where a murder already took place before a new family moves in and Bughuul and his children strike again. The deputy wants to help Courtney, but one of her sons is already being led to do Bughuul's ugly bidding.

Everything "Sinister 2" tries to do, "Sinister" did better. Appreciably working from a script by the first film's writer-director Scott Derrickson and co-writer C. Robert Cargill, director Ciarán Foy (2012's "Citadel") still clearly doesn't have the same subtle, confident touch or understated visual eye as Derrickson as this routine, disappointing sequel seems more concerned with pop-out scares. Even the most avid horror fan who knows better might still jump from sudden surprise, but Foy can't seem to pass up a glimpse of Bughuul or one of the young bad seeds, who become progressively corpsy with hokey CGI. The greatest fear is that of the unknown, so overexposing Bughuul makes him less of a nightmarish ghoul than a stand-in for "Where's Waldo?" It was at least a judicious move to invent a new set of "kill films," which are just as disturbing, twisted and doom-laden and still feel like forbidden snuff films that we shouldn't be seeing. Labeled with mundane titles"Fishing Trip," "Kitchen Remodel," etc.each home movie begins seemingly normal, even happy, before something goes wickedly askew. "Christmas Morning" might be the most unsettling, and "Sunday Service" could join the vicious, elaborate ranks of a "Saw" movie but also oddly echoes a scene of torture in 2002's "2 Fast 2 Furious."

In spite of some effectively unnerving imagery during the dead moppets' home movies, "Sinister 2" is less of a worthy companion piece when the villains are offered too much screen time and the horror dissipates. While this sequel does take a chance by changing its point-of-view to Bughuul's children, that also spells its undoing. The idea of these ghost children being proud of showing their "work" to Dylan is a frightening one, but when the kids are given more participation in the third act, they are better at acting like bratty twerps than posing a menacing threat. Tomandandy's composed work nicely replicates Christopher Young's distinctly chilling and discordant score from the first film, but genuine apprehension is few and far between when the 8mm movies aren't being shown to Dylan on the basement projector. 

James Ransone was just the quirky, twitchy comic relief in the first "Sinister," and this time being upgraded to the co-lead, he is given more to do even as the charming, still-unnamed Ex-Deputy So & So. As single mother Courtney, Shannyn Sossamon is strong (despite a distracting southern accent) and gets to actualize a little bit of a life outside of the plot. There's an advantage to casting real-life identical brothers Robert Daniel Sloan and Dartanian Sloan as Dylan and Zach, one of them more pure-hearted than the other who's more like a spawn of their wretched father. The main source of interest lies in the juggling of the deputy and Courtney's relationship, Bughuul's use of Dylan and Zach, and how it will all culminate in a cornfield, but even the resolution is less uncompromising. With nowhere else to go with Bughuul who apparently cannot be stopped but leaves a few survivors, the film finally ends with one final "boo!" that's not only a knockoff of its predecessor but still settles nothing. As much as this fan of "Sinister" would like to say the sequel is an exception to the rule that horror sequels are almost always inferior, "Sinister 2" just misses the mark too often.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Stoned Identity: Ultra-violent "American Ultra" a weirdly sweet and likable mishmash

American Ultra (2015)
95 min., rated R.

Juggling comedy and violence is a tricky tone to master, and by now, the premise of an everyman realizing he is special or extraordinary in some waylike being a superhuman CIA agentis nothing new if you've heard of anything with "Bourne" in the title. Part stoner relationship comedy, part ultra-violent action-thriller, and altogether a cult favorite in the making, "American Ultra" defies the odds of experimenting with whiplash-inducing tonal shifts that don't displace each other or become disingenuous but merely add off-the-wall personality to an enjoyably buzzy whole. Consider it a bit of a pleasant surprise, particularly at the end of August, when director Nima Nourizadeh (2012's "Project X") and screenwriter Max Landis (2012's "Chronicle") team up for a gleefully subversive mishmash that might not always be smooth sailing, but at least it's wildly different and never entirely foreseeable.

Amiable toker Mike Howell (Jesse Eisenberg) lives in a sleepy West Virginia town with patient girlfriend Phoebe (Kristen Stewart). When he's not hanging out with her, Mike is cartooning his space-monkey comic character when working at the local market that doesn't seem to bring in any customers, but his anxiety and panic attacks prevent him from proposing to Phoebe, so much in fact that he's forced to call off their trip to Hawaii. During his night shift at work, sunglasses-wearing CIA agent Victoria Lasseter (Connie Britton) comes to Mike at his register and speaks gibberish: "Cherry Progressive, listen. Mandelbrot set is in motion. Echo Choir has been breached." Mike has no idea what she's talking about, but as it turns out, he is a highly-trained CIA operative who call kill bad guys with a spoon and Victoria is activating Mike from an abandoned government program. Mike would rather just live his uneventful life with Phoebe, but they are both thrust into the middle of a conflict between Victoria and her rival superior, Adrian Yates (Topher Grace).

Fearlessly darting from goons being stabbed with a spoon and dustpan in the jugular, to our stoner protagonist never knowing the appropriate time to propose to his stoner girlfriend, "American Ultra" is undeniably schizophrenic in tone. However, because it feels like three movies stitched together, there is a sheer inspiration—and oddball charmto the inherent incompatibility of it all. It is appreciative that the pot-smoking humor never becomes a driving force. The two leads just happen to like getting high, but being dazed and confused is just one of their pastimes; it doesn't define them. From the first time Mike realizes he's been living stealthily as a killing machine, a sequence in the parking lot of his work is brutal and outrageous, as his weapon of choice is a spoon from the cup of noodles he's eating. Followed by that is an intense, no-holds-barred massacre inside a police station with the ironic use of a doo-wop soundtrack an inspired touch, but at the top of the skillfully mounted sequences is Mike taking out Yates' evil assets with a bag of frozen hamburger patties in a big-box store, a grindhouse pic-level fight played out in one extended take. Other cool, offbeat details include an attention-getting, frenetically cut rewind that opens the story and still doesn't drain the suspense in the outcome; the setting of a black-light basement in the pad of Mike's drug dealer Rose (John Leguizamo) that makes Mike and Phoebe almost look like zombies; and a bloody romantic proposal that ends in both lovers being tasered.

Prone to playing intelligent, neurotic types, Jesse Eisenberg gets to loosen up a bit, and he's really no less believable or endearing as an obtuse, unassuming stoner who's a self-confessed screw-up with the same physical abilities as amnesiac CIA operative Jason Bourne. Since she has come into her own and reinvented herself beyond the "Twilight" series with her impressive work in "Still Alice" and "Clouds of Sils Maria," Kristen Stewart is a sweet and edgy foil for Eisenberg, bringing humor as the voice of reason and palpable feeling to the girlfriend-with-a-secret role. With the two actors reuniting for the first time since 2009's "Adventureland," Mike and Phoebe's gentle relationship becomes the heart beneath the absurdly ridiculous story and extreme violence. Early on, while the couple gets high on top of their car hood, Mike spots a car accident in the distance and equates himself to the tree that stops the car, as if he is preventing Phoebe from living and she is too good for him. It's an unsuspectingly affecting moment, and really, it's no stretch that Eisenberg and Stewart's Mike and Phoebe are very much in love.

Taking itself seriously but still allowing the viewer to laugh like a hyena at the lunacy on display, "American Ultra" is fierce and darkly fun with a go-for-broke attitude. Eisenberg and Stewart's Mike and Phoebe create a genuine sweetness, too, that makes a film with blood splattering from all ends weirdly romantic and likable. If the film must meander from its focus at all, it's in the service of an enthusiastic supporting cast. Connie Britton is laudably game, equally warm and comedically prickly as Mike's rogue handler Victoria, while Topher Grace gets to play against his starry likability as her hateful foreman. As CIA desk jockey Petey, Tony Hale amuses, basically reprising his role of loyal assistant Gary in HBO's "Veep," and it's a nice touch to see his character in a same-sex relationship that doesn't become a punchline. John Leguizamo tries with all his might to add color and gusto to the stereotypical part of a drug dealer named Rose, and Walton Goggins is lunatic and a little more complicated than the cackling maniac he lets on as Laugher, one of the assets sent to kill Mike. "American Ultra" can't quite compare to "True Romance," but yours truly will take this demented oddity over "Pineapple Express" any day.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Kev, Where's Your Car?: Lean, mean "Cop Car" never gets out of first gear

Cop Car (2015)
86 min., rated R.

Already tapped to helm the next "Spider-Man" reboot for Marvel and Sony Pictures, director Jon Watts is only on his sophomore feature after his under-the-radar horror film "Clown" has yet to be released in the states. He showcases his clout with low-budget crime-thriller "Cop Car," a spare, cut-down genre exercise that starts off being a masterwork in lean, efficient visual storytelling. There is almost no fat on the bones of this thin yarn, beginning with a sense of innocent boyhood and discovery, not unlike 2013's "Mud," before treading the same bleak, savage, cold-blooded terrain as a Cormac McCarthy novel and ensuring that no one's safety is guaranteed. Writer-director Watts and co-writer Christopher D. Ford were on their way to make a raw, feel-it-in-the-gut throwback to nastily fun exploitation cinema, but their script never fully takes off and has a hard time getting out of first gear.

When 10-year-old friends Harrison (Hays Wellford) and Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) run away to the open fields of Colorado, they ration out a Slim Jim to eat and exchange swear words. What they don't expect to find is an abandoned cop car parked in a brush. At first, they dare each other to tag the car, but once realizing the driver is nowhere to be found, except for a beer bottle on the hood, the two boys hop in and pretend to be in hot pursuit. Travis then finds the keys and both he and Harrison go on a joy ride, unaware of just what they have done. The cruiser belongs to the crooked Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), who, minutes before leaving his vehicle, has dumped a body from his trunk.

The main setup for "Cop Car" arouses interest right away and holds the viewer for almost the full hour. Although two others turn up not for long, there are three core characters. As Harrison and Travis, Newcomers Hays Wellford and James Freedson-Jackson act how real troubled, ignorant kids their own age really would act in such a dangerous daredevil situation, whether it be neither of them knowing how to put the car into drive at first before all of their Mario Kart practice kicks in. Sporting a sleazy mustache, an effectively ropey Kevin Bacon menaces around with purpose—those meddling kids stole his ride and he needs it back—but it's Shea Whigham, as a bloodied and beaten but still-living man the boys find in the sheriff's trunk, who stomps off with the single most chillingly evil monologue in which he describes in detail what he will do to both Harrison and Travis' loved ones. Camryn Manheim also stops in (again, not for long) as busybody passerby Bev who will regret seeing the two boys recklessly speed by her in the cop car; her participation is little more than a plot device (and collateral damage), but what co-writers Watts and Ford decide to do with Bev is startlingly unforgivable.

Jon Watts' direction is taut and concise. He knows how to wring tension out of a scene in spite ofor maybe because ofthe lack of a music score. For example, when Kretzer has to steal another car in a trailer park by using his shoelace to unlock the door, Watts shoots the scene in real time, allowing the viewer to see him fail and then eventually succeed. When there is a music score, the synthesizer beats by Phil Mossman are appropriately off-putting. Just as it becomes more disconcerting the way the sight of two boys playing around with a loaded gun and bullet-proof vest would be, "Cop Car" builds to a violent western-like showdown along an open, empty desert road where the sound of a windmill gets drowned out by gunfire. It's tense, but the particulars of the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer and a deal gone wrong must be beside the point because they never remotely come to the surface. Simplicity is good, and so is a script that doesn't spell everything out, but one that just sort of peters out is a different story. With each new turn of the screw, it's not so easy to guess where it will go next, but the unfussy, bare-bones plotting of "Cop Car" just isn't enough.

Grade: C +

Swinging Shindig: "Man from U.N.C.L.E." light, breezy, snazzy fun

The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Re-imagining a TV show from the 1960s on the big screen can be a real siren call, having nostalgia on its side but also exemplifying the lack of creativity in Hollywood. With respect to the iconic 1964-1968 spy series "The Man from U.N.C.L.E.," filmmaker Guy Ritchie (2011's "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows") puts a fresh spin on the material with his affinity for cinematic style and snappy word patter, two paramount ingredients in a spy caper. Apart from the successful "Mission: Impossible" series, no other screen adaptation of a '60s spy show from the bygone days has really gotten it right (1998's "The Avengers" and 2002's "I Spy" were flat duds). Toning down the hyperactive, eventually tiresome energy from his last "Sherlock Holmes" film, Ritchie finds a consciously cheeky tone that avoids camp and delivers a bit of late-summer escapist f.u.n. where old-school style wins.

Billed as an origin story but transpiring during the Cold War in 1963, like its small-screen counterpart, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." (an acronym for United Network Command for Law and Enforcement) introduces two highly trained men from opposite sides tasked with the same mission. Entering East Berlin, American art-thief-turned-CIA-agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) smuggles out mechanically inclined Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), the estranged daughter of a Nazi rocket scientist taken by a global terrorist organization. After they are pursued and shot at right out of East Germany by no-nonsense KGB agent Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), Napoleon and Gabby begrudgingly join forces with Ilya to locate Gabby's father and infiltrate the team who's using him to build an atomic bomb. As Gaby and Ilya must go undercover as an engaged couple in Rome, Napoleon will have to use his charm to tempt the brains of the deadly operation, gorgeous but dangerous Italian aristocrat Victoria Vinciguerra (Elizabeth Debicki). The two men will also have to set aside their superiority complexes if they don't want to blow their cover.

Stylish and knowing about how stylish it all is, and playful but never too cool for the room, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." is a good deal of fun when it's being light and breezy and looking ultra-snazzy with its period-appropriate clothing. Writer-director Guy Ritchie and co-writer Lionel Wigram make sure there's a solid enough foundation for our characters to trot the globe, but let's be real. The plot is a paper-thin mission, involving enough but not containing much in the way of substance. It's the exceedingly good-looking cast's charisma and snappy interplay, as well as an irresistible retro-chic look, that really matter here. While no one is seen hanging off the side of a plane taking off into the air like Tom Cruise's Ethan Hunt, director Ritchie kicks off everything in Checkpoint Charlie with an intricately choreographed car chase and escape over the Berlin Wall that manages to both amuse and excite. Coming from Ritchie, the rest of the action is refreshingly low-key, like when Napoleon takes a breather to inadvertently sit back and enjoy a sandwich in a truck on shore, looking on as Ilya outraces baddies on a speedboat. There's even a darkly funny, drolly framed sight gag as a sadistic villain gets his grisly comeuppance in the background.

As it turns out, Henry Cavill (who could emerge into more than just the "Man of Steel") is more charismatic here as Napoleon Solo than he's ever been when getting to play a suave, dapper man's man. Numerous A-list actors who are bigger box-office draws were reportedly considered for the role, but Cavill is perfectly tailored for Solo, finding the right approach between slightly winking Bond clone and a classically charming leading man. Last appearing in box-office flop "The Lone Ranger" (another property that spawned a hit TV show, go figure), Armie Hammer shapes up to be a delightfully deadpan comedian and a skilled, roguish action hero with an inner rage all in one, while putting on a Russian accent. Hammer's accent is an amusing affect, but it's not of the cartoonish "Boris and Natasha" variety, either. Cavill and Hammer's chemistry smooths out as the film goes along, but Hammer is even better with a saucy Alicia Vikander (2015's "Ex Machina"), who more than holds her own as Gabby. One can feel the flirtatious heat without the two ever actually getting to make a move as every would-be kiss or hand gesture is interrupted. As impeccably coiffed villainess Victoria Vinciguerra, Elizabeth Debicki (a major standout in Baz Luhrmann's "The Great Gatsby") makes for a timelessly alluring and deliciously icy femme fatale. Hugh Grant doesn't get nearly enough to do in his in-and-out moments as U.N.C.L.E. head Alexander Waverly, but it's a treat to see him back on screen again nonetheless.

The film isn't free of dead air in between the livelier sections, but Ritchie keeps things running at a brisk pace more often than not, whipping out his super-cool bag of tricks without treading on bombast, and gives his fashionably costumed actors plenty of frisky wordplay that somehow never feels forced. With "Kingsman: The Secret Service," "Spy," and "Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation" being the other three spy movies this year (and "Spectre," the next 007 outing, on its way), "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." might be more of a modest sleeper when recalled at the end of 2015, but it fulfills its mission to have fun. What's more, it ends with potential for another installment, sending the characters out with the title's acronym, and that's not such a bad idea if the winning combination of Ritchie and his appealing cast remain on board.


Sunday, August 16, 2015

Eye for an Eye: Deliciously effective "The Gift" subverts "...From Hell" thriller formula

The Gift (2015) 
108 min., rated R.

Unlike this year's indefensibly dumb but admittedly entertaining Jennifer Lopez-starrer "The Boy Next Door"—another production out of the horror-centric Blumhouse factory—"The Gift" is more than just another tally mark in the interminable list of straightforward, mothballed "Fill-in-the-Blank From Hell" thrillers. The setup may lead the viewer to assume otherwise, but viewers who think they will be able to predict every character action and plot turn will end up eating their words. The devil really is in the details, as debuting Australian writer-director Joel Edgerton concerns himself with character shadings, intelligent use of ambiguity, and provocative writing, often missing in quickie genre pictures, for this astutely crafted, deceptively fascinating slow-cooker of a psychological thriller. It's also a big late-summer surprise that cries out to be seen by a wide audience.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callem (Rebecca Hall) have just left Chicago to move back to Simon's hometown of California into a mid-century glass house in the hills. He landed a good job, while she works as a freelance interior designer, but they also just needed a change of pace from a setback in Chicago. While home shopping, Simon notices a man staring at him, and it's an old high school classmate named Gordon 'Gordo' Mosley (Joel Edgerton). Simon can't quite place him at first. When Gordo drops in at the couple's doorstep unannounced with an expensive bottle of wine, Robyn sees him as a generous, harmless man who's just socially awkward, so she invites him to stay for dinner. The gifts continue. Simon isn't so keen on the idea with Gordo repeatedly visiting his house when his wife is alone and reveals to Robyn how he was picked on in school and cruelly nicknamed "Gordo the Weirdo." It's not until Simon receives another letter from Gordo—"After all these years, I was willing to let bygones be bygones"—that Robyn begins to realize her husband might be hiding something from twenty-five years ago.

As it begins, "The Gift" moves patiently but isn't quick to deliver anything against type. Once it goes off the beaten path of a formula thriller about a one-sided friendship, particularly 1990's "Pacific Heights" and 1992's "Unlawful Entry," and tells its story from the vulnerable perspective of Robyn, the film becomes sneakily wicked and less routine than it lets on. Written and directed by triple-threat Joel Edgerton, the script is compact and without a moment to waste, and never waters down character nuances, making the three central ones three-dimensional rather than pawns. It toys with the "nothing is what it seems" tropes, shifting audience allegiances, and then reinvents itself from one scene to the next and actually skewers audience expectations. Edgerton, the director, manages to get a lot of mileage out of the Callems' sleek home when Robyn becomes convinced someone is in the house with her. Aided by the simplicity of Eduard Grau's atmospheric, serenely ominous cinematography, the glass house turns the couple into fish in a bowl, which doesn't bode well when Gordo surprises Simon and Robyn by filling their entry-way pond with koi fish, who end up belly up. 

In a film that continues to sidestep cliché, Jason Bateman even gets to subvert his own star likability. Having honed the lovably smug type, he gets to use that side of him to display a fair amount of rage as Simon. How well does Robyn actually know the man with whom she shares her life? Rebecca Hall, a wonderful actress in her own right, gets to do so much more than stand by her husband, get spooked in the shower, and go on her own investigation to get to the bottom of Simon and Gordo's past. Excellent in every scene, she is an immediately warm presence who credibly invites Gordo into her and Simon's home more than she should, although her Robyn has some skeletons of her own that are subtly hinted throughout and never come out of left field. When he's not directing his co-stars, Edgerton is unforgettably effective in the enigmatic part of Gordo that still makes him more than a goatee-twirling villain. Imbuing the character with a seemingly misunderstood social incompetence, he is so good, in fact, that the viewer feels bad for Gordo; his actions could very well be warranted, or he's just a master manipulator at calculating sweet revenge. Ultimately, Edgerton can add himself to the top of the list of "Fatal Attraction" stalkers. The supporting cast is also strong, including but not limited to Allison Tolman (TV's "Fargo"), a natural delight as the Callems' stay-at-home-mom neighbor Lucy; Katie Aselton (2012's "Black Rock"), as Simon's sister; and the always-watchable Busy Philips, as one of Simon's co-workers' wives. In a lesser, more predictable film, all of these peripheral characters would purely exist to have targets on their backs.

Without any blood or exploitative violence, "The Gift" is an absorbing, rather mature and unconventional example of how to sustain high tension and unpredictable storytelling right out of a page-turner. It relies all on unease and perception, and yet there are two exceptions of jump scares, which at least succeed in being freak-outs. Edgerton doesn't dare reveal all the cards he's playing with at once, and when secrets are unveiled and sympathies flip again and again, the final result is like a stab in the gut. How he sets the pieces, draws information out of the characters, and tightens the screws is deliciously effective. A slyly vicious fox when it could have been a Captain Obvious, and scarily plausible when it could have been preposterous, "The Gift" never cheats but decidedly fools the viewer when he or she thinks they have it all figured out. By the uncompromising resolutionif you even dare to call it thatwhat we end up not knowing is actually more unsettling and disturbing than a clear-cut answer; it's even a little insidious on Edgerton's part.

Grade: A - 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Mock Prison Trial: "Stanford Prison Experiment" a gripping chamber piece based on truth

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)
122 min., rated R.

A gripping, chillingly provocative study in dehumanization and the abuse of authority, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" is a docudrama of an actual experiment. On August 14, 1971, Stanford University psychology professor Dr. Philip Zimbardo (Billy Crudup) and his research team began a study, funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, on the cause and effect between prison guards and inmates. They hired twenty-four college students for $15 a day and selected them to play either prisoners or guards in a simulated prison environment in the Stanford psychology building's basement for a two-week period. The guards quickly adapted to their roles, remaining in character with sunglasses on and abusing their power, and the prisoners in numbered gowns and stocking stops forced to address the guards as "Mr. Correctional Officer." Once on "the inside," 8612 (Ezra Miller) refuses to be obedient and begins to lash out at the punishment of the guards, who make it their duty to break the prisoners. Everything would soon escalate out of control, and the experiment was terminated early on August 20th, only lasting six days.

Director Kyle Patrick Alvarez (2013's "C.O.G.") and screenwriter Tim Talbott bring a documentary-like approach to the real-life experiment. The tone is straight. The scope is contained and claustrophobic as it should be. The characters on the prisoner side are more well-drawn than those playing the guards, although there are little nuances all around. In the tradition of 1992's "School Ties" and 1996's "White Squall," there is a dynamite who's-who ensemble of young rising male actors from this generation, many of whom have acted together before, with the major standouts being Ezra Miller ("The Perks of Being a Wallflower") as Daniel Culp/Prisoner 8612, the first inmate to be placed in the "the hole" (a closet) and to grow hysterical and rebellious; Tye Sheridan ("Mud"), as Peter/Prisoner 819; and Michael Angarano, as Christopher Archer, who assumed the role of an evil guard with a drawl he modeled after Strother Martin in "Cool Hand Luke." With their smoking and sporting of '70s haircuts and facial hair, other familiar faces fill out the roles of guards and prisoners, including Nicholas Braun ("Date and Switch"), Keir Gilchrist ("It Follows"), Moises Arias ("The Kings of Summer"), James Frecheville ("Animal Kingdom"), Thomas Mann ("Me and Earl and the Dying Girl"), Johnny Simmons ("The To Do List"), Logan Miller ("+1"), and Jack Kilmer ("Palto Alto"). There isn't a weak link among them. Billy Crudup is strong, putting himself into the shoes of Dr. Philip Zimbardo who stopped seeing his hired subjects as human beings, and the lone female in the cast, Olivia Thirlby, does what is required of her as Zimbardo's future wife Dr. Christina Maslach, who demanded he stop the experiment.

Building a pall of visceral unease from the perspective of the prisoners, director Alvarez allows the depths of human depravity to unfold as a chamber piece for two hours. The film isn't that interested in who these boys are outside of the experiment, but that's not really its intent, either. Seeing how both the boys playing the prisoners and the guards change and what they take away from the experiment is also quite telling. On the other side, the dynamic between Zimbardo and one of his consultants, hard-ass real-life prisoner Jesse Fletcher (Nelsan Ellis), is a fascinating one. Not much more than a clinical but convincing and strongly acted dramatization of a shockingly true story, "The Stanford Prison Experiment" still effectively calls into question the methods of the experiment and the power of role-playing without pretending to answer every question it raises. What's more, it seems to adhere more to the veracity of the recorded data and memories of the real Professor Zimbardo than a phony Hollywoodization. That's most unsettling in itself.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Rockin' Mama: "Ricki and the Flash" joyfully pushes good vibes with an effervescent Streep

Ricki and the Flash (2015)
102 min., rated PG-13.

In a way, "Ricki and the Flash" sounds like a bummer of a story about an unapologetic mother who abandoned her family to pursue her dream in music and to this day is still chasing that dream. Instead, the pairing of director Jonathan Demme (who won an Oscar for 1991's "The Silence of the Lambs") and screenwriter Diablo Cody (2013's "Paradise"), a go-to girl for the hip and acerbic, forms a warmly humanistic, blissfully entertaining comedy-drama out of such a story that eases up on plot contrivances and just lets its characters breathe. There are also just enough musical moments that mostly arise naturally and play out entirely without the film losing its heart and soul. "Ricki and the Flash" isn't particularly memorable, but it is a disarming joy to watch just the same as an end-of-the-summer entertainment for grown-ups.

Formerly Linda Brummell, Ricki Rendazzo (Meryl Streep) is broke but rewarded by performing with her beloved cover band The Flash in a Tarzana, California, watering hole for loyal barflies. She can barely afford her small one-bedroom apartment as a cashier at a Total Foods, but she grins and bears it. Then Ricki gets a phone call from ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) in Indianapolis. Their daughter, Julie (Mamie Gummer), is in a deep depression after an abrupt separation from her husband who left her for someone else. It's not going to be a welcome reunion, but Ricki uses all the cash she has for a flight to console her daughter and reunite with her family whom she left to pursue her rock 'n roll dreams. Once there, Pete lets his ex stay in the guest bedroom, having plenty of room. Ricki tries getting the bitter and seemingly inconsolable Julie out of her funk and then reunites at dinner with her other children; son Josh (Sebastian Stan) is glad to see his mother but failed to share the news with her that he's getting married to bourgeois fianceé Emily (Hailey Gates), and now-openly gay son Adam (Nick Westrate) still holds resentment. Things become harder for Ricki when Maureen (Audra McDonald), the woman Pete remarried, returns from visiting her ailing father since she is the one who filled the maternal void for Ricki's children.

A comparably warm-blooded cousin to director Jonathan Demme's own 2008 dysfunctional-family drama/character study "Rachel Getting Married," "Ricki and the Flash" is still low-key where it counts. Once Ricki flies to Indianapolis and walks into her ex-husband Pete's McMansion, the film never turns into an inane, clichéd, out-of-touch fish-out-of-water comedy, even with the use of Pete's standard poodle. Screenwriter Diablo Cody based the character of Ricki on her own mother-in-law, and she pens a script without any of her trademark snark from "Juno" and "Jennifer's Body," or her uncompromising tanginess in "Young Adult." "Ricki and the Flash" is the least edgy of Cody's writing efforts, but it's still a refreshing change of pace. As a character, Ricki is far from perfect. She left her family and put herself first, which could be seen as selfish or just free-spirited, but also acknowledges societal double standards that musician fathers, like Mick Jagger, are let off the hook when leaving home. She's also a woman of contradictions, being a hippie but sharing conservative political views (i.e. she voted for George W. Bush and doesn't care too much for Barack Obama), despite mostly accepting her gay son. How everything plays out with a ring of truth is a major testament to Cody, who gives her characters lives off the page without constraining them to narrative contours and really listens to them without demonization or complete admiration. 

It should become tedious at some point to keep seeing an actress who can do anything and never take a false step, but Meryl Streep really can do anything. As Ricki, she is effervescent, lived-in, and all around wonderful, letting loose in her rocker-girl leather pants and braided hair but also processing mixed emotions in her face without uttering a word. Even if Streep doesn't steal an Oscar nomination for her character work as Ricki Rendazzo—it's much less flashy than her outspoken, pill-popping, chain-smoking Violet Weston in 2013's "August: Osage County"—the role is tailor-made for her, and the fun she's having rocking on is readily apparent. Watching Streep and her real-life daughter, Mamie Gummer, is a real treat. Gummer's uncanny resemblance to her mother makes their strained, uncontentious relationship that much more resonant. Gummer, herself, is terrific as Julie, a young woman at an early point in her life where the rug is taken out from under her; it's heartbreaking what she's going through but the seriocomic use of her blunt, unfettered mouth and pajama-wearing, wildly disheveled-haired appearance also make Julie quite the scene-stealer. Streep and Kevin Kline also share lovely moments in a "Sophie's Choice" reunion of sorts; their civil relationship dares to not go the melodramatic route that one might expect. When Ricki snoops through Pete's fridge, she notices a bag of marijuana, and as soon as the two of them indulge a little, the scene luckily doesn't go for the obvious with two exes having a hazy-headed moment. As The Flash's guitarist Greg and Ricki's salt-of-the-earth sort-of boyfriend who later becomes the real thing, '80s rocker Rick Springfield sells a few heartfelt speeches about second chances, so who knew? Stan Sebastian and newcomer Nick Westrate, as sons Josh and Adam, are fine with what they are given, particularly in a dinner scene that fluctuates between funny and uncomfortable as they needle their mother, but Audra McDonald, the "Meryl Streep of Broadway," is superb in only a few scenes as Pete's new wife Maureen, her big one being a confrontation with Ricki. In an inferior script, Maureen's characterization would be that of a saint or an one-dimensional harpy whom we are supposed to hate over Ricki, but that isn't the case here, as Diablo Cody observes her with a sympathetic eye.

"Ricki and the Flash" probably won't be remembered as the deepest or even always the most subtle of films—notice all of the reaction shots from WASPy guests shooting Ricki disapproving looks for performing at Josh's wedding reception—but that's never a crime when the film in question is such a pure crowd-pleaser without stooping to cheap manipulation to tug the heartstrings. Much of the film works more than it has a right to, given Diablo Cody's alternately warm and acerbic writing and performances that help convey more depth in these people. A few additional scenes with the underwritten son characters wouldn't have hurt, given how easily they come around by the end, but the surprising way in which Maureen is handled is a major plus. Aurally, the film also hits a pleasurable sweet spot with Streep singing covers of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers' "American Girl," Edgar Winter's "Keep Playin' that Rock 'n' Roll," Dobie Gray's "Drift Away," Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance," as well as a Jenny Lewis and Johnathan Rice-written original, "Cold One." By the end, Ricki still has her regrets but she has her own gift to give to her family. If the big concert at the wedding is a little pat and contrived, so what? The emotions always feel authentic and unguarded, and the good vibes the entire film carries throughout are irresistible.


Friday, August 7, 2015

Fourth Reboot: Dull, choppy "Fantastic Four" ends just as it's getting started

Fantastic Four (2015)
106 min., rated PG-13.

If any property was in need of hitting the reset button, it is a big-screen treatment of "Fantastic Four," Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's comic-book superhero team coming with a most checkered past. Since Roger Corman's 1994 production of these comic-book superheroes never saw a release, director-for-hire Tim Story brought forth a jokey, dopey 2005 incarnation of the same name, as well as a slightly better 2007 sequel, "Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer." Now, 20th Century Fox takes a second crack at restarting the series with this corporately mandated re-monkeying that had a chance to deliver, but in reality, the best they have done is assemble a strong cast and an auspicious filmmaker. Looking back though, those two movies with Ioan Gruffudd, Michael Chiklis, Jessica Alba, and a pre-"Captain America" Chris Evans were what they were: cheesy and unpretentious without an ounce of pomposity. This new "Fantastic Four" has its own problems to contend with; it's not as much of a marked improvement as it is a tonal departure from pandering and pun-heavy to grounded and more straight-faced. What begins with promise plummets into a dull non-starter that ends up in limbo.

Since the fifth grade, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) has tried cracking the code for "interdimensional travel" with a prototype he and underprivileged best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) invented for the science fair. Now a high school senior in Oyster Bay, he grabs the attention of Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey), who offers him a free scholarship at Baxter Institute to assist in a portal project spearheaded by sulky shut-in Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell). Reed wants his work to make a difference, so in going against facility director Dr. Allen's (Tim Blake Nelson) wait-for-NASA orders, he goes on a rogue mission to parallel dimension "Planet Zero" that ends disastrously. Reed, Ben and Storm's children, daughter Sue (Kate Mara) and son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), survive, but they come back infected with superhuman abilities. As the group is transported to the classified Area 54 and exploited as government weapons, they can either search for a way to reverse their powers or use them to change the course of history.

Entrusted to turn this Marvel brand around, writer-director Josh Trank (2012's "Chronicle") and co-screenwriters Simon Kinberg (2014's "X-Men: Days of Future Past") & Jeremy Slater (2015's "The Lazarus Effect") certainly had their work cut out for them. Sight unseen, fanboys sharpened their knives for this new "Fantastic Four" reboot, foolishly reacting to casting decisions that went against the source material (yes, Johnny Storm is now black and Sue is his white, adopted sister, so get over it). Maybe they should have waited to react after seeing the film that made its way to the screen because one gets the nagging suspicion that the completed result 20th Century Fox is releasing into theaters everywhere is not the same one with director Trank's intended vision. Yet another origin story that goes back to square one, "Fantastic Four" plays like 106 minutes of setup for a sequel or a pilot to a TV show that's dead on arrival, but let's start with the few positives. Up until a one-year-later shift in the narrative that has the characters dealing with their powers, there is a workable one-third of a film. The early sections with a ten-year-old Reed (Owen Judge) and Ben (Evan Hannemann), who lives on a salvage yard with an abusive family, have a true Amblin sensibility with a sense of wonder when the two of them make progress with Reed's machine in his parents' garage and take out the entire town's electricity. The character relationships are also economically developed: Reed is a bespectacled nerd with a crush on Sue, who works better with earbuds playing Portishead; Johnny quits drag-racing to fulfill his potential and work in his father's lab; and Ben is later brought in by best friend Reed. Each of their newfound powers—Reed can stretch like elastic; Sue can go invisible on a dime and create force fields; Johnny becomes a human torch; and Ben is all rock—are less cartoonish and more impressively rendered as darkly nightmarish body-horror here. After that, it's all downhill and the viewer is left with a compressed, half-cocked botch job.

What about the Fantastic Four themselves? Reed, Sue, Johnny, and Ben are thinly drawn and only as interesting as the talented, charismatic actors playing them, and as the film goes on, it renders them all lifeless. They each only get a single personality trait apiece (Ben might get half) and every relationship is too undercooked to make a dramatic mark, and unfortunately, there is nothing memorable about any of the performances by Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell, who are blameless. That leaves Victor von Doom. Toby Kebbell has a sinister intensity inside of him—it showed in 2014's "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes" and that was all through motion-capture—but once Dr. Doom comes back so late into the game, the script's feeble motivations for the character don't help him any. Finally, the one cast member to approach any gravitas isn't even apart of the so-called Fantastic Four and that is Reg E. Cathey as Dr. Franklin Storm, an emotional rock for his own children and his students.

Whether or not director Josh Trank's vision was actually lost in rumored reshoots, the whole of "Fantastic Four" feels fatally unfinished, bereft of a third act. Everything the film hints at or seems to be building toward is thrown away for disjointed editing, perfunctory plotting, clunky go-team dialogue ("We opened this door, we're gonna close it!"), and overall by-committee filmmaking. Outside of the intense inciting incident taking place on the primordial Planet Zero, the film regrettably has but one major action sequence on that same damn green-screened planet, and it's half-hearted at best. The scope feels small, limited to research labs and remote government labs but never the real world, leading to a rushed, anticlimactic confrontation with Dr. Doom that stinks of studio interference. It should be assumed that more drama and excitement are yet to come, but they never do, closing out with a "is-that-really-all-there-is?" last shot when the adventure is just revving up. Knowing the depressing cycle of Hollywood, the "Fantastic Four" will be recast and take down another director with it in about five years, but let's just face it, these characters probably just aren't destined to leave the comic-book panels. Looking for a better superhero movie by director Josh Trank? Try his superior $12-million-budgeted debut, "Chronicle," rather than this $120-million-budgeted genre footnote. That film turns the superhero origin story on its head and it's actually fantastic.

Grade: C -