Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Bad, the Badder and the Talky: "Hateful Eight" delightfully appalling and expectedly indulgent

The Hateful Eight (2015)
187 min., rated R.

Quentin Tarantino (2012's "Django Unchained") has cornered the market on motion pictures that have become a thing of the past, whether it be blaxploitation or Spaghetti Westerns. With "The Hateful Eight"the director's eighth film—he resurrects the special "roadshow" engagement, three hours complete with an overture and a 15-minute intermission. Never one to temper his style of filmmaking in terms of shock value and Chatty Cathy dialogue, Tarantino takes his level of daring beyond a daunting, sprawling running time to the entire presentation in which one experiences a night out at the cinema, as well as transcending all expectations in which the narrative unfolds. A Western written and directed with Tarantino's auteurism is never going to be a traditionally panoramic Western. "The Hateful Eight," while not without its gunslinging character types and vista shots of the great outdoors, is more of a claustrophobic chamber piece. Shot in Ultra Panavision 70mm but mostly snowed-in, the film is a locked-room Agatha Christie whodunit-mystery delivered with verve and a gallows sense of humor. And, if one can expect anything from a Tarantino joint, it's that the dialogue will sing.

Divided into six chapters, the film sets up the frigid scene in post-Civil War Wyoming with a snowstorm approaching. Former union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) hitches a stagecoach ride to the town of Red Rock with bounty hunter John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and handcuffed criminal Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh). They also pick up Red Rock's cocky sheriff, Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), but when the blizzard begins to brew, the group stops halfway at Minnie's Haberdashery, a lodge temporarily run by Bob "Marco the Mexican" (Demián Bichir) and already occupied by racist Confederate General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), genteel hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), and quiet, mysterious cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). They want to stay cozy for the new few days, but someone is in cahoots and someone poisons the coffee. Whodunit?

A few too many of Quentin Tarantino's indulgent instincts keep "The Hateful Eight" from being one of his masterpieces. Then again, if the worst can be said that it's not quite a masterpiece, it's still damn good. Writing delicious, inimitable dialogue has always been the filmmaker's greatest strength, but tension is initially undermined by his unruly stretches before Major Warren, John Ruth, Daisy, Chris, and the stagecoach driver make it to Minnie's Haberdashery. Tarantino likes his characters loquacious and likes to hear them talk, although one wishes the pacing in the first half had a bit more giddy-up or that twenty minutes of conversation were tightened to twelve. After the intermission, the second half is even better. The brains-popping violence gets ratcheted up, the tone remains dangerous but grows more playful with a narration by Tarantino himself, and the situation becomes a genuine powder keg. 

With a title like "The Hateful Eight," the film doesn't ask the viewer to root for characters who are devious, despicable and capably violent outlaws. They're also vivid with color and nuances and the performances juicy as ever. Samuel L. Jackson is incendiary as Major Warren whose letter written to him by Abraham Lincoln causes a furor. As John Ruth, an excellent Kurt Russell pulls off every syllable of Tarantino's tricky dialogue as if he were John Wayne rocking some wild facial hair. It's a thrill to watch acting veteran Bruce Dern receiving direction from Tarantino, and Tim Roth, Walton Goggins, and (though not one of the eight) Channing Tatum are standouts in particular. In playing a prisoner who's as crass as the men, a frequently bloodied Jennifer Jason Leigh is a startling gem as Daisy Domergue. Her not-very-ladylike vulgarity and rampant use of the "N-word" balance out the many times she receives elbows and fists in the face.

Tarantino makes movies his signature way, and if audiences don't like that way, "The Hateful Eight" is not the film to start with. Once the film finds its footing, the mystery unfolds with a palpable disquiet and doom courtesy of Ennio Morricone's menacing orchestral score (coupled with anachronistic tracks) and Robert Richardson's cinematography that uses the expanded frame even when so much of the film takes place inside. The film is politically loaded and verbally erudite but also blackly comic. There is a particularly inspired running gag involving something so simple: anytime someone slams open the front door, coming out of the blustery cold and into Minnie's Haberdashery, they are forced to nail it shut with boards of wood and be yelled at by those already inside and keeping warm by the fire. A sojourn into the blackest, coldest, meanest of hearts, "The Hateful Eight" is a richly chatty, shockingly demented, and just plain unpredictable piece of work and as much of an event as any tentpole.

Grade: B +

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Mops of Life: Lawrence can't be improved upon in likably messy "Joy"

Joy (2015)
124 min., rated PG-13.

"Joy" is inspired by the true stories of daring women, particularly one Joy Mangano who invented the Miracle Mop and would go on to build her own empire. It's the third collaboration between writer-director David O. Russell and Jennifer Lawrence (as well as Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro) after 2012's "Silver Linings Playbook" and 2013's "American Hustle" but can't really be compared to those other films. While not a complete success, the film is a winning, offbeat mess of sorts. Based on a story he wrote with Annie Mumolo (2011's "Bridesmaids"), Russell's screenplay is a semi-fictionalized biopic, playing fast and loose with the truth, but more of an unusual Cinderella story with her mop rather than a prince. Putting another feather in her cap, Lawrence's solidly mature performance holds together the shambling parts of "Joy."

Bright and full of ideas since she was a child, Joy (Lawrence) has put her dreams on hold to take care of everyone else in her life. She lives at home with her two children, grandmother Mimi (Diane Ladd), and mother Terry (Virginia Madsen), who wastes away watching soap operas on TV in bed. Her Brazilian ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez), has moved to the basement and soon joined by Joy's temperamental father, Rudy (Robert De Niro), who's been kicked out by his second wife. Taking care of the in-house plumbing and doing the books for her dad's auto body business with her bitter half-sister Peggy (Elizabeth Röhm), Joy finally comes up with a manufacturing idea after plans of patenting her inventions have all turned into non-starters. She comes up with a prototype for a self-wringing mop, and with the financial support of Rudy's loaded new girlfriend Trudy (Isabella Rossellini) and Tony's connections, she gets an interview at home shopping network QVC with slick manager Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper). Successful sales won't happen overnight, but Joy's mop could take her to the top.

As director David O. Russell's films tend to be high-wire acts that could collapse any minute in tone or structure but rarely do, "Joy" might have a few too many screws loose on the onset to really gel. It's rather apropos that the film opens with a sequence from a tacky "Dynasty"-esque soap opera (starring Susan Lucci, Maurice Benard and Laura Wright)—and a very spot-on one at that—because, thereafter, the film's rocky first twenty minutes is so forcefully broad and madcap all at once to take in Joy's wacky dysfunctional life. Once Joy writes up the plans for the mop in crayon and later pitches it to the men at QVC, the film finds its footing. The scenes at QVC are amusing to watch, with a gussied-up Joy sticking to her guns when it comes to how she's dressed on-camera and Melissa Rivers providing a startlingly canny appearance as her late mother Joan, a recurring on-air celebrity spokesperson. There's also a dreamy, whimsical flashback where Joy and Tony sing a duet of Frank and Nancy Sinatra's "Something Stupid" on stage.

Per usual, 25-year-0ld Jennifer Lawrence is wise beyond her years and sells the role of 35-year-old Joy with enough moxie and charisma for the whole cast. As strong and scrappy as Joy is written, Lawrence has no problem commanding every scene with resolve and personality, while traversing so many different notes to an arc from hapless divorced single mother to successful business woman. None of the supporting performances are poor, but many of the actors don't have much to do. Robert De Niro gets to be more manic than dynamic as Rudy; Edgar Ramirez is terrific as Tony, Joy's ex who still believes in her and ends up being the most supportive; and Isabella Rossellini is comically sharp in her scenes as Trudy. Also, Virginia Madsen is tragic and eventually endearing as Terry, Joy's housebound mother; Dascha Polanco (Netflix's "Orange Is the New Black") has delightful moments as Joy's supportive childhood friend Jackie; and Diane Ladd is a warm presence, but her part as Mimi relegates her fully to narrator duties. Finally, Bradley Cooper is his magnetic self as Neil Walker, whose partnership with Joy stays refreshingly professional. If one wants to see one film this year with Lawrence and the third-billed Cooper, make it "Joy" rather than "Serena," even if they're on screen together throughout in the latter.

If it hasn't already been figured out, the chief reason to see "Joy" is Jennifer Lawrence. Her performance resonates and enough memorable moments help smooth out some heavy-handedness—Joy giving herself a haircut is too much of a shorthand for growth and a cicada metaphor is very on-the-nose—and meandering detours in the unpolished script. Lawrence can't be improved, and "Joy" might improve upon more than one viewing. It's too wayward and disarming to dislike, and it certainly isn't ordinary, so that's a joy to see.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Dad Wars: Ferrell and Wahlberg go to war but "Daddy's Home" loses

Daddy's Home (2015)
96 min., rated PG-13.

"Daddy's Home" upholds the tired tradition of silly comedies that pit two disparate people against one another. You know the premise: petty adults who should know better wage a war. There were glimmers of hope and possibility here for a subversive black comedy or some light, wacky fun, but it uncomfortably lands somewhere in between family-friendly slapstick and an R-rated raunchfest with heartwarming hugs in the end. It's as if the film was intended to be rude with a capital R but then had to fill a Christmas release slot for families. Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg still do carry over some of the comedic chemistry they shared in 2010's buddy-cop action comedy "The Other Guys," but all writer-director Sean Anders (2014's "Horrible Bosses 2") and co-scribes Brian Burns and John Morris (2013's "We're the Millers" and 2014's "Dumb and Dumber To") come up with is a tolerable but tame and inconsequential time-waster.

Optimistic, mild-mannered smooth-jazz radio executive Brad Whitaker (Ferrell) tries his best to be a loving stepfather to the two children of wife Sara (Linda Cardellini). He can't have his own children due to an accident with a dental X-ray machine, but after finally making progress with Megan (Scarlett Estevez) and Dylan (Owen Vaccaro), Brad feels threatened when black-ops bad boy Dusty Mayron (Wahlberg), Sara's ex-husband and the biological father of her kids, comes to town. He's muscular and handy but not domestically responsible, one of the reasons Sara left him and needed a man like Brad, and the war between Dusty and Brad is immediately on. Dusty tries to pick up where he left off, being the "cool dad," but Brad isn't about to back down so easily. Can they learn to be co-dads? 

The high-concept premise to "Daddy's Home" isn't automatically doomed to fail, but the jokes are very hit-and-miss. A broad slapstick gag involving a mishap with Brad steering Dusty's motorcycle is almost surreal in its over-the-top absurdity that one can't help but cackle. On the other side of the coin, there is an entire subplot devoted to Brad's fertility, along with a payoff involving the comparison between Brad and Dusty's testicles by a fertility doctor (Bobby Cannavale), and a whole sequence at an NBA basketball game where Brad gets drunk and makes a complete fool of himself falls flat. Acting as if erections, racial prejudice, and dogs humping are jokes unto themselves, the film seems content to keep playing to the lowest-common-denominator and has a tendency to ridicule certain characters and then pull back to apologize.

"Daddy's Home" is not laugh-free, but it might have stood more of a chance with a smarter, funnier script to go with its stars. Will Ferrell is actually less likable when playing meek and squeaky-clean, but here, as the low-testosterone Brad, he's at his best when trying to upstage his paternal opponent and getting angry in the process ("I am a hot habanero pepper right now!"). As the macho Dusty, Mark Wahlberg is comedically game as usual. He ribs on his own hunkiness, his constant shirtlessness still good for a running joke even after it ran in "Date Night." As Brad's wife and Dusty's ex Sara, the appealing Linda Cardellini plays the character as smarter than expected, if nothing else, but she's mostly a prop. Stand-up comedian Hannibal Buress is the biggest scene-stealer as handyman Griff who becomes Dusty's freeloading buddy and the kids' makeshift uncle. The final scene with a star cameo is a hoot, but more laughs should have been at home in the dumb, strained "Daddy's Home."


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Sure Bet: "The Big Short" informative, enraging and darkly funny

The Big Short (2015)
130 min., rated R.

Being familiar with mortgage bonds, subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, and synthetic collateralized debt obligation isn't a prerequisite for "The Big Short." In fact, the film knows how to simultaneously inform, entertain and enrage, so that's no mean feat. What Michael Lewis achieved with his non-fiction book about the 2008 global financial crisis was upturning audience expectations from what could have read as a dry, tedious reference book. In adapting Lewis' book with co-scribe Charles Randolph, writer-director Adam McKay—yes, Will Ferrell's main man who directed him in the "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," "Step Brothers," "The Other Guys" and "Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues"—pays even more dividends by daring to use the visual medium and goose up the material with a darkly funny script and an energetic, kitchen-sink visual style.

Leading up to the 2008 collapse, "The Big Short" follows different financial figures who spotted the housing bubble. Founder and manager of hedge fund company Scion Capital, glass-eyed, socially awkward Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale) notices a pattern where the big banks were issuing subprime mortgages. In the meantime, he realizes betting the big banks and stock brokerages would make him a lot of money before the housing market would collapse. When slick Deutsche Bank broker Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling) catches wind of Burry's prediction, he tips off stock trader Mark Baum (Steve Carell) and his team, Danny Moses (Rafe Spall), Porter Collins (Hamish Linklater) and Vinnie Daniel (Jeremy Strong). Meanwhile, two greenhorn investors, Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock), come to Wall Street and try working a hedge fund business out of their garage, and then seek help from retired trader Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt).

"The Big Short" is vital as a real-world tragedy but also scathingly funny as a snarky, damnatory black comedy. With Ryan Gosling's Jared Vennett as the narrator who breaks the fourth wall, the film does not dumb down the financial terminology so much as it breaks things down into layman's terms. The game Jenga is used as a visual aid and characters address the camera, including celebrities; there's Margot Robbie in a bathtub, Anthony Bourdain in the kitchen, and Selena Gomez at a casino blackjack table. Director Adam McKay would seem to be an odd choice for the film, but the seed of this project was germinated during the end credits of 2010 Will Ferrell-Mark Wahlberg comedy "The Other Guys" with a Goldman Sachs diagram. Unexpectedly, McKay brings a lot of filmmaking flash, lending personality and narrative momentum to the proceedings with pop cultural clips and music videos (i.e. Ludacris' "Money Maker" and Gorillaz's "Feel Good Inc.").

There is a wide tapestry of characters here, all of their names being changed (save for Michael Burry), and there are no out-and-out heroes or villains. As Dr. Michael Burry, who works barefoot and turns up the heavy metal in his office, Christian Bale fully embodies the social trainwreck's fidgety mannerisms without the performance coming off self-conscious or too actory. Steve Carell finds humanity in Mark Baum, a man who begins as an abrasive hotshot but then feels angry, morally tainted and isn't without a conscience. The film tries to humanize Mark the most with the loss of his brother. Ryan Gosling is effective at playing a slickster who paints the picture for the rest of us, while big leaguer Brad Pitt is kept more on the sidelines but nonetheless solid as a banker turned world-weary hippie. Not to be ignored, Rafe Spall, Hamish Linklater, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, John Magaro, Marisa Tomei, and Melissa Leo fill out the excellent ensemble.

More than a tad dense and scattered but a very breezy and snappily paced 130 minutes, "The Big Short" could be a hard sell, despite the appeal of the marquee names, but it doesn't alienate audiences. As an apt companion piece to this year's emotionally riveting "99 Homes"a more human and devastating story about families being forced out of their homes by big banks—the film lacks in relatability but makes up for it with outrage and entertainment value. Not unlike 2011's "Moneyball," also an adaptation of a Michael Lewis book about baseball statistics, "The Big Short" takes an esoteric subject that has very little interest to this viewer and makes it a more palatable, even lively experience to process. The particulars of the plot fade a bit from the memory bank (even after two viewings), but the big picture is clear. The viewer already knows the outcome, but like any true story translated into a movie, one still can't believe it. One also can't believe how a humorless, unsexy topic can be the complete opposite.

Grade: B +

Friday, December 18, 2015

New Generation: "Star Wars: Episode VII" far and away this year's most satisfying Big Release

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)
135 min., rated PG-13.

Since George Lucas' 1977 space opera "Star Wars," it has not only become a pop cultural phenomenon but has provoked such strong fandom that it's practically a religion now. Coming with a freakish amount of drooling hype, "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is the most highly anticipated movie of the year, and if one is able to separate the fanfare and how well-made the film itself is, the genuine article fulfills audience expectations and then some. George Lucas passed the baton and delegated writer-director J.J. Abramsalong with co-writers Lawrence Kasdan (the scribe for 1980's "Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back" and 1983's "Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi") and Michael Arndtfor this seventh saga, the canon seems to now be in great hands. In terms of energy and spectacle, danger and stakes, and characters and dialogue, the film is everything a "Star Wars" sequel thirty-two years in the making should be. Spoilers will be kept under lock and key, but it can be said that "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is an exciting, wondrous, perfectly cast, wholly satisfying gush of consistent entertainment.

An approximate thirty years after the destruction of the second Death Star, last Jedi knight Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished. X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) has been sent on a secret mission to find him by Luke's twin sister General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), who leads the Resistance against the First Order, a military-political organization influenced by the Galactic Empire and lorded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). When Poe is captured by the Dark Side's apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who seeks information to find Luke, and rescued by stormtrooper-with-a-conscience Finn (John Boyega), they crash-land on the desert planet of Jakku. There, Poe and Finn team up with a scrappy, skilled scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and droid BB-8, and later Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), to stand up against the First Order and possibly awaken the light side of the Force.

As was the case with "Mad Max: Fury Road," "Jurassic World" and "Creed," "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" doesn't deviate far from the original story but goes back to what made the classics work in the first place. It's comfortably reverent but full of verve and heart instead of resorting to shameless fan service or getting into the weeds with exposition. Unlike most of the derided prequels—and to be honest, none of them are outright bad—this sequel to "Return of the Jedi" genuinely feels like a "Star Wars" movie. If one recalls George Lucas' writing being the chief failure behind the prequels, those didn't exactly leave the biggest of shoes to fill. The first words heard in this film couldn't be more correct: "This will begin to make things right." Throughout, J.J. Abrams keeps a sincere tone that injects humor in all the right places and manages to juggle several balls in the air without over-explaining or clogging the simple storytelling. John Williams' wonderful score swells and soars from the word go, as the iconic crawl with the yellow text tells us all we need to know, and Abrams even includes the old wipes for screen transitions.

23-year-old British newcomers to the space saga, Daisy Ridley is a fresh face (despite her resemblance to a younger Keira Knightley) and an excellent find as the awesomely resourceful Rey, and John Boyega (2011's "Attack the Block") gets to balance charisma and vulnerability as Finn, the first stormtrooper to reveal any humanity. Both characters are wonderfully developed through their actions and it's terrific to see a young woman at the center who's actually resistant to have her hand held when running for their lives. The versatile Oscar Isaac is his charming self and brings an undeniable Han Solo vibe to Poe Dameron, while a chilling Adam Driver provides shading and internal conflict as Kylo Ren, whose black cape and helmet might ring a bell. Like C-3PO and R2-D2 before him, new droid BB-8 is a character, too, with a warmth and an adorable personality. Lupita Nyong'o is also soulful and expressive in her motion-capture performance as wise cantina owner Maz Kanata. If every new character doesn't get a fully fleshed-out treatment, more will be revealed throughout the rest of the trilogy. This is to say nothing of Harrison Ford's Han Solo, Peter Mayhew's Chewie, and Carrie Fisher's Leia. Seeing them all back on the screen is such a welcome sight, like revisiting old friends, and their interplay with one another is affecting and disarming as ever. 

J.J. Abrams tackled the "other" popular space-set property and brought a vitality to the "Star Trek" reboots. With "Star Wars," technology has surely advanced in nearly four decades for special effects, so it's refreshing to find that the film makes more use of time-tested practical effects, which are more tactile and vibrant than polished, too-slick CGI. The action set-pieces are even some of the most thrilling in the entire series, an aerial chase in the Millennium Falcon to Rey outsmarting the octopus-like rathtars aboard a freighter to an arrestingly staged lightsaber battle in a snow-covered forest. Though there are already detractors who see this sequel as a slavishly faithful rehash, the past and the future of the people in a galaxy far, far away fold over here, time is spent with both characters old and new, and what seems to be coming in "Episode VIII" is highly anticipated. Able to stir up chills, laughter, tears, and a childlike giddiness, "Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens" is that rare kind of crowd-pleasing blockbuster, and we have Abrams to thank for salvaging everyone's childhood. The Force is stronger than ever with this one, and that's no hyperbole.


Thursday, December 17, 2015

Sismance: Fey and Poehler are just enough in passable "Sisters"

Sisters (2015)
118 min., rated R.

It's a proven fact that Tina Fey and Amy Poehler make everything better. They hosted the Golden Globes three years in a row for a reason, making an awards show more than watchable but actually unmissable. The same goes for "Sisters," a passable, just-for-shits-and-giggles house-party comedy that allows the two irrepressible comedy queens a chance to cut loose playing polar-opposite siblings and brighten an admittedly lame premise where they can. Longtime "Saturday Night Live" scribe Paula Pell and director Jason Moore (2012's "Pitch Perfect") could be more to blame when the jokes tend to be slapdash and the film runs out of steam early because it is in Fey and Poehler's delivery and interplay when the comedy stays afloat. 

Being a divorced nurse who always puts other people first, Maura Ellis (Poehler) could be mistaken for the older sister, but she's actually just the more responsible younger sister. Kate (Fey), on the other hand, is a brash, carefree single mom who's an out-of-work hairdresser and now has no place to live, and what's more, her teenage daughter Haley (Madison Davenport) is sick of not being able to count on her. Their parents, Bucky (James Brolin) and Deana (Dianne Wiest), give Maura a heads-up that they've put their Orlando childhood house on the market and moving to an adult community. They also want Maura to be the one to tell Kate the news, but when both sisters arrive at the house together, it's already been sold. When the girls are left to clean out their old bedroom, they come to an agreement that they need to throw one last party. Will it be as wild as their high school days? Will the house still be standing by morning?

Rollicking and proudly R-rated compared to the ladies' first vehicle together (2008's slightly preferable "Baby Mama"), "Sisters" is still incredibly slight and doesn't try anything daring for the post-"Bridesmaids" renaissance of women playing in the bawdy sandbox. The film has a sitcom way about it, but to go along with the laughs that work, there are slivers of truthful insight in how one's regression can begin once being back in your old bedroom and surrounding yourself with nostalgia. There is also something just undeniably amusing about two women in their 40s sleeping again in their shared childhood bedroom that remains stuck in timecomplete with stuffed animals and movie posters of "Xanadu," "Jaws" and "Out of Africa"—and was never turned into a guest room or office. The hackneyed trying-on-clothes montage gets a funny spin twofold when Maura and Kate, well, try on clothes in a fitting room: 1) they keep being told, "That looks amazing on you," by an indifferent clothing store associate named Brayla (Emily Tarver) and 2) Maura's realization that they should wear clothes more their age comes with the line, "We need a little less Forever 21 and a little more Suddenly 42." When director Jason Moore and screenwriter Paula Pell don't try so hard for laughs, as in an outrageous gross-out where Maura's ballerina music box gets stuck inside of neighborly love interest James (Ike Barinholtz), the film is better for it.

In a role reversal, Tina Fey is broader and cast against-type as a foul-mouthed party-goer who needs to learn to be more maternal rather than the bookish straight gal and Poehler is playing more of a goody two-shoes who needs to put herself out there. Because of their established bond, these two already make a dynamite pair, completely at ease with each other and game to go for it. They're having so much fun making a movie that it's hard not to feel the same way. Only they can make rambling, improv-heavy bits funnier the longer they go on, such as Poehler's Maura trying to pronounce "Hae-Won," the name of a Korean manicurist (Greta Lee). In supporting roles, Ike Barinholtz (whose face makes him look like a long-lost Wahlberg brother but last name says otherwise) has an easy charm as James, whom Maura tries to awkwardly seduce, and Maya Rudolph has a ball as Kate's high school frenemy Brinda who enunciates everything and prides herself on being successful.

Frequently silly and tartly humored, "Sisters" still doesn't always live up to the talents of its leading ladies. Even with the jokes' occasional misfire and the film getting bogged down in story conflicts that hinge on characters lying to one another, Fey and Poehler are the party and they have effortless chemistry. The film also casts a wide net of comedic back-up from "SNL," both past and present, and other sketch-comedy pros. Bobby Moynihan, as a desperately unfunny classmate who tries making people laugh even when he sniffs a quarter of coke, strains and bombs, but Rachel Dratch is a dependable hoot as a party guest who gets sad about time passing her by the more drunk she gets. And, once again this year after his scene-stealing turn in "Trainwreck," wrestling star John Cena proves to be the Breakout Comedy Star of 2015, this time as a no-smiles drug dealer. It's a wonder Fey and Poehler don't just put their smart, funny heads together and write their own stuff, but when they do, their next project together will be just as smart and funny as them. In all of 118 minutes of "Sisters," these two at least make it a more diverting time than it probably has any reason to be.

Grade: B - 

Friday, December 11, 2015

Damaged Goods: Sarah Silverman a knockout in unflinching "I Smile Back"

I Smile Back (2015)  
85 min., rated R.

Heavy addiction dramas are sometimes the most resistible kind of films to watch, but perhaps the fact that there are so many makes something special like "I Smile Back" stand out rather than be a mere Debbie Downer. Like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in "Smashed," Jennifer Aniston in "Cake," and many more before them, the words "brave" and "vanity-free" get thrown around a lot when describing an on-screen performer playing a trainwreck of a character who debases him or herself and/or shocks with a nude scene. This time, stand-up comedian turned serious thespian Sarah Silverman deserves much respect for stretching her talents and undauntedly willing herself to go to some unsparingly dark places. This is a stunning, soul-baring performance and the film itself is a startling piece of work.

Privileged housewife and mom Laney Brooks (Silverman) would seem to have it all, living in a suburban mansion with loving, successful husband Bruce (Josh Charles) and two children, son Eli (Shayne Coleman) and daughter Janey (Skylar Gaertner). She also seems to be keeping it together, hiding her struggles with depression with drugs, alcohol and sex. Each day, Laney makes her kids' lunches, coloring their paper bags with crayons, and drops them off at school, ignoring the regulations of a parking guard. After that, she goes off to have a coked-up sexual rendezvous with her husband's best friend Donny (Thomas Sadoski). One fateful night after a bender that leaves her calling for Bruce's help, Laney reaches her lowest point and gets checked into rehab. The darkest hour is just before the dawn, but Laney will have to finish her downward spiral before she finds clarity.

Astutely directed by Adam Salky (2009's "Dare") and incisively written by Paige Dylan & Amy Koppelman (based on Koppelman's 2008 book), "I Smile Back" understands that the immeasurably messy road to recovery does not happen overnight. It questions if Laney's condition could be hereditary, not only from issues stemming back to the estranged relationship with her father (Chris Sarandon) but also with her own child who seems to be inheriting his mother's anxiety, but never comes to any clear-cut conclusions of the causes nor the final consequences. The film will sound like an unrelentingly dreary, one-note wallow in misery and hopelessness to someand sure, it's a tough sit that won't leave you smilingbut this is one of the rawest, most harrowing studies of self-destruction and desperation seen in quite a while. 

It's been said that humor always comes from a place of pain and darkness, so it only makes sense for Sarah Silverman to be another smart, funny performer who brings piercing insight into the human condition. Known more for her sharp wit and commitment to shock, she erased all doubts of her dramatic abilities with the first dipping of her toes in 2012's "Take This Waltz," where she impressively played a recovering alcoholic. Here, Silverman dives head-fist into the role of Laney, and her work couldn't be more frighteningly authentic or shattering. Right behind her, Josh Charles brings plenty of subtlety and shadings to the role of Laney's husband Bruce, who could have just been either a clichéd support system or a mere jerk. Rather, Bruce is portrayed as a man who would marry his wife again and again, and yet, even he has a breaking point.

When we first meet Laney, she is snorting lines of coke in the bathroom, while her husband shoots hoops with their children. As a wife and mother, she loves her family, but underneath every forced smile, she is a mess, cracking the controlled facade for her lack of self-control. A clearer context of who Laney was before she became an addict might have strengthened the devastation, but the stinging final shot is enough to chill one to the bone. Throughout, director Adam Salky's film has a low-key but assured and intimate style, balancing the intimacy of a tête-à-tête between Laney and her husband and the ruin of her own making. "I Smile Back" is unflinching and poignant in its own right, but it doubly acts as a completely eye-opening showcase for Silverman and an auspicious bellwether for her growth as an actor who's going places.

Grade: A - 

Pretty Little Liars: "Body" a tight, wicked little thriller

Body (2015)
75 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Disposing of a body can open up a real bad can of worms. "Body" isn't the first word in that sort of situational thriller 1948's Alfred Hitchcock-directed "Rope" and 1955's "The Trouble with Harry," 1985's Milton Bradley game adaptation "Clue," 1991's "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead," 1998's star-studded "Very Bad Things," 2015's underseen "Let's Kill Ward's Wife" and many more have all used this kind of concept with absurd or dark comedy in mind. Writer-directors Dan Berk and Robert Olsen's feature debut, on the other hand, is a minimalist thriller that has a terrific hook and milks it for all it is worth. Running a trimmer-than-trim 75 minutes, the film never has time to feel slack or protracted and it has so many mean bones in its body. "Body" goes straight down like a genre lover's tonic with extra bitters.

Staying in for a girls' night, college-aged best friends Holly (Helen Rogers), Mel (Lauren Molina), and Cali (Alexandra Turshen) spend their Christmas Eve playing Scrabble, smoking some pot, and then eating leftovers. A bored Cali eventually rounds up her girlfriends in her car and takes them to her loaded uncle's mansion to play games and drink a little. After being in awe of the house, Holly starts looking around the house to look for the bathroom and stumbles upon family photos on the walls. This isn't Cali's uncle's house. When the girls get ready to call it a night, a stranger (Larry Fessenden) comes into the house, but as the female trespassers try rushing past him, Holly accidentally knocks the man down the stairs. There's no going back on their actions and the night snowballs from there.

Written and directed by Dan Berk & Robert Olsen, "Body" effectively uses simplicity as a secret weapon and creates a palpable sense of panic. Instead of throwing out the moral quandary for a slasher pic, a la "I Know What You Did Last Summer," this is a skillfully crafted, wickedly provocative indie morality thriller that hinges on the common movie question, "What would you do?" The film fortunately takes a little time to get to know the girls, who have more dimension than just mere types, and the scenes of them just hanging out together ring quite true. Without this wind-up, it would be impossible to care about the outcome or believe their behavior. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.


Thursday, December 10, 2015

Pretty Boy: "The Danish Girl" impeccably made, exquisitely acted, but also a bit too perfect for full dramatic impact

The Danish Girl (2015)
120 min., rated R.

The true story behind "The Danish Girl" is a brave and inspiring one for the transgender movement, given how relevant it is today with 2014 being a banner year for the community's activism. Set nearly 90 years ago, the film, based on David Ebershoff's fictionalized biography, plots the marriage between real-life Danish painters Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne), the first recorded person to undergo sexual reassignment surgery, and Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander). In dramatizing this then-rare but more-timely-than-ever story about love and identity, director Tom Hooper (2010's "The King's Speech" and 2012's "Les Misérables") and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon approach it with such a respectful delicacy and the utmost grace that whereas the film as a whole is almost decorously fussy and just-so to a fault, the two soul-stirring lead performances are more dramatically lasting than anything else.

Copenhagen, 1926. Einar Wegener has had early success with his landscape paintings, while his wife Gerda lives in his shadow and still tries to find appreciation for her portraits. When Gerda's regular ballerina model is not present to pose, she volunteers her husband, who comfortably slips on stockings and rests a dress against his body, and late convinces Einar to pose as his own cousin Lili at an artists' ball. It begins as a playful game of dress-up until Gerda discovers her husband dressing up as Lili is not a phase but an expression of his true self. Einar begins wearing lingerie under his suits, seeing a man named Henrik (Ben Whishaw) who kissed Lili at the ball, and posing as Girda's painting muse. Career opportunities eventually open up for Gerda, but she has trouble coming to terms with the fact that her husband will no longer be her husband. Dressing up as Lili is not enough for Einar, then, as he tries finding a doctor to go through with the surgery that will allow his anatomical parts match his inner identity. He is diagnosed as certifiably insane or schizophrenic before Gerda and her husband meet trustful, forward-thinking doctor Warnekros (Sebastian Koch). The risks of the new procedure are potentially dangerous, but Einar will be much closer to feeling like himself as Lili Elbe.

As a study in empathy, "The Danish Girl" is even-handed and smartly avoids taking sides of either Einar/Lili or Gerda. The film valiantly tells a story that needed to be told, but it disappointingly gets more into the head of Girda rather than Lili. Einar's transformation into Lili lacks the sort of deeper understanding to make her a more fleshed-out figure, but it's a testament to the versatile Eddie Redmayne for bringing more layers than he's afforded by the script. After his extraordinary, Oscar-winning turn as Stephen Hawkings in "The Theory of Everything," Redmayne takes on another acting challenge that calls upon him to physically transform. He's impassioned but understated as Einar and Lili, making a demure but lovely woman with his androgynous features and feminine mannerisms. In one of the film's most indelible scenes, Einar pays for a peep show to watch a woman strip behind glass, trying to duplicate the gestures of her arms, and the two mirror one another in a sort of dance. Starting her breakout year with sci-fi thriller "Ex Machina," Alicia Vikander should not be undervalued for her work in what actually counts as a co-lead performance perhaps the title should have been "The Danish Girls." Actualizing within Gerda the honoring of her husband's wishes, the self-blame, and the disappointment, Vikander actually has the trickier and meatier role that allows for more nuance. The script refreshingly doesn't keep Gerda at one note; she gives her husband unconditional support but has to let go of him, and once the film is over, her loneliness is lingering. In supporting parts, Matthias Schoenaerts ("Far from the Madding Crowd") is enticingly virile as the open-minded Hans Axgil, one of Einar's childhood friends who becomes fond of the abandoned Gerda; Ben Whishaw brings an intriguing sensitivity as Henrik, who gives Lili her first kiss; and Amber Heard adds a splash of energy as free-spirited ballerine Oola, Gerda and Einar's close friend.

Besides being exquisitely performed, "The Danish Girl" is gorgeously photographed and impeccably made all around. Danny Cohen's (Hooper's usual collaborator) cinematography is lush and painterly but brings less attention to itself without the overly precise asymmetry found in "The King's Speech" and far fewer tight close-ups and show-stopping shots than "Les Misérables." Paco Delgado's lovely costuming is also key. It's a soft, polite, often too-mannered stepping stone for mainstream acceptance, a prestige period drama that will be right up Oscar voters' alleys. Though the film ends on a poetic metaphorical image that should feel more devastating than it is, Redmayne and Vikander's deeply felt performances will endure.