Friday, January 29, 2016

Turn Tables: “Intruders” tautly devised with a subversive streak

Intruders (2016)
90 min., rated R.

First titled “Shut In” (the name of a Naomi Watts thriller opening in July) and then named “Intruders” (not to be confused with the 2012 Clive Owen thriller), “Intruders” is as familiar as its moniker but only in its logline. As a home-invasion suspenser, the film still doesn’t much care about reinventing the wheel completely, but it is a nasty piece of work, that you can be sure of. Once debuting director Adam Schindler and writers T.J. Cimfel and David White (who wrote the “Vicious Circles” segment in 2014’s “V/H/S Viral”) do show their hand, the film averts expectations by bucking the rote path with the use of misdirection. Without cheating or telegraphing its pivotal narrative turn too much before it makes the switch, “Intruders” is unabated with a savage, subversive streak.

Anna (Beth Riesgraf) is an agoraphobic who hasn’t left her Louisiana family home in a decade. She lives to take care of her brother, Conrad (Timothy T. McKinney), who’s dying of pancreatic cancer. When her crippling condition prevents Anna from getting out the door the same day as Conrad’s funeral, she is soon startled by three men coming into her house. Before this intruder situation, Anna tried to give a portion of her family’s jackpot fortune as a way to start anew to Dan (Rory Culkin), the friendly deliveryman who always brought her brother’s daily meals, but he couldn’t accept it. The men, brothers J.P. (Jack Kesy) and Vance (Joshua Mikel) and loose cannon Perry (Martin Starr), didn’t expect Anna to be home but a whistling tea kettle gives away her presence, not that she could leave anyway. It’s obvious the intruders are looking to steal the young woman’s hidden fortune, and it’s not long before Dan shows up, but aside from her agoraphobia being one weakness, Anna isn’t as fragile as she looks.

Whether or not it be the corner-cutting result of budget constraints, “Intruders” is a savvy example of small-scale storytelling. With a plausible reason for Anna to not leave the house, the film gets away with staying in one location and milks it for tension and claustrophobia, making everyone a shut-in. The labyrinthine structure of Anna’s house itself also plays a big part, more than one staircase leading to other areas of the house and secret passages opening. When push comes to shove, Anna does use her resources (not to mention her seemingly meek disposition) to her advantage. Read the rest of the review here at Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Men Pruning at Sea: "Finest Hours" a well-intentioned but less-than-rousing yarn

The Finest Hours (2016)
117 min., rated PG-13.

There is a ripping seafaring disaster yarn to be made about “the greatest small boat rescue in Coast Guard history,” but “The Finest Hours” isn’t quite it. Though it’s based on a true story—and an incredible one, yes—the film rarely tries to dig beneath the shallow characters and doesn't impress much with the glossiness of the wave effects. As squarely directed by Craig Gillespie (2014’s “Million Dollar Arm”) from a screenplay written by Scott Silver and Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (2010’s “The Fighter”), based on Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman’s 2009 book, this old-fashioned maritime drama isn’t anything more than competently rousing as a cinematic vessel for spectacle and nautical thrills. It’s not that it is a bad film but any memory of it will be blown away in less than a month.

On February 18, 1952, a nor’easter hit off the coast of New England, ripping in half two T-2 oil tankers at sea. The SS Pendleton would begin to sink rapidly and take its 32 men down with it. With a contrarian member trying to sway the rest of the crew to drop the lifeboats, which would be crushed by the treacherous waves, it would be up to engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) to take charge and run the ship aground while waiting for help to come. When word of the SS Pendleton’s situation reaches the U.S. Coast Guard station in Chatham, Massachusetts, Chief Warrant Officer Daniel Cluff (Eric Bana) orders a rescue mission, sending out by-the-book Coast Guard Captain Bernie Webber (Chris Pine) and three other seamen—Richard Livesey (Ben Foster), Andrew Fitzgerald (Kyle Gallner) and Ervin Maske (John Magaro)—in a 36-foot wooden lifeboat. Meanwhile, Bernie’s switchboard-operating fiancée Miriam (Holliday Grainger) waits back home at Wellfleet, hoping her boatswain returns after his operation. As they say in the Coast Guard, “you got to go out, but you don’t have to come back in.”

What should be even more dramatically grabby, “The Finest Hours” is only ever a safe outline of a movie. The film actually begins a year before the storm, tracking Bernie’s courtship with Miriam on a blind date. She’s scared of the water, especially at night, but he takes her out on a boat. Once they’re in love, Miriam is the one to propose to Bernie, but as a formality, he still has to get his commanding officer’s permission to marry. Though the film didn’t need any extra drama, director Craig Gillespie eventually cuts back and forth between the Pendleton, Bernie's “suicide mission,” and Miriam fretting on land. As for the leading up to the rescue and the rescue itself, it’s harrowing enough, but everything following it is very quickly anticlimactic. Wading into cornball schmaltz that’s laid on thick like clam chowder, the conclusion reaches for audience applause but doesn’t quite grasp the sort of affecting emotional pull it needs. 

The cast is still solid—it’s Character Actor Central—and everyone seems to bring dignity and conviction, as well as on-par accents that won’t embarrass the actors’ accent coaches. Chris Pine initially doesn’t seem comfortable in an aw-shucks mode as Bernie Wedder, but he is still a likable anchor (no pun intended). Casey Affleck is also a standout as Ray Sybert, a loner with no family back home who has to make the executive decisions. As for other members of the cast, the script affords them few opportunities to develop their characters with more than a single broad stroke. Miriam actually comes out being the one compelling character that brings the most human touch a film like this calls for, and she's on dry land for all of it. She is assertive and has real moxie for the time, and British actress Holliday Grainger (who looks like a younger Gretchen Mol crossed with a glamorous starlet of the ‘50s) brings a lovely spark to the role.

By the standards of a dramatization of a tough story produced by the Mouse House, “The Finest Hours” does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s a predictable, well-intentioned based-on-a-true-story offering that’s watchable but not overwhelming. The costumes and production design, steeped in the look and feel of the period, are perfectly fine across the board. Then again, the digital visual effects of the ferocious waves aren’t entirely seamless, sometimes too slick to be convincing or arouse nail-biting excitement, especially when Bernie’s lifeboat takes a tumble under the water as if it were a submarine. Let’s just say the spectacular effects in “The Perfect Storm” run circles around these. Indifference was probably not the intended feeling in the end, and when one tries recalling if he or she saw “The Finest Hours” in a couple of months, the answer will probably be something like, “That was the boat movie, right?”

Grade: C +

Sunday, January 24, 2016

No YA Left Behind: Moretz gives derivative "5th Wave" a lift

The 5th Wave (2016)
112 min., rated PG-13.

Another year, another adaptation of a YA sci-fi novel that’s only the first of a trilogy. It’s a problem when so many films of this ilk come out so close together that every new adaptation has a homogenized, been-there-done-that air about it. Case in point: ”The 5th Wave," based on Rick Yancey's 2013 novel, starts with enough promise before it goes by way of every other (post)-apocalyptic story about that one teenage girl who can save mankind but must also choose wisely between two hunky teenage boys. Life is tough enough when the world is coming to an end, isn't it? Director J Blakeson (2010’s impressive kidnap-thriller “The Disappearance of Alice Creed”) and writers Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner—three screenwriters is rarely ever a good sign—don’t offer too many novel ideas to this generally derivative blueprint, but it is sufficiently entertaining in a mixed-bag sort of way and the dependable Chloë Grace Moretz does her best to fireman's-carry the proceedings.

Cassiopeia Sullivan (Chloë Grace Moretz)—don’t worry, she goes by “Cassie”—was an ordinary 16-year-old girl in Ohio, attending soccer practice, going to keggers with her best friend and crushing on football player Ben Parish (Nick Robinson). That all changed when it became evident that an object was hovering over Earth. Aliens known as “The Others” don’t invade all in one fell swoop but in five waves. First, this alien species kills the planet’s engines and electricity, as well as its supply of running water. During the second wave, they take out every coastal city with literal waves from tsunamis and floods. Next comes the third wave, the spreading of the avian flu. By the fourth wave, those “Others” inhabit humans as their hosts. When Cassie is sent to a refugee camp with her father (Ron Livingston) and little brother Sam (Zackary Arthur), the military soon comes in and splits the parents up from their kids who get placed on a bus. Cassie gets separated from Sam, but she has a gun and she’s not afraid to use it. Along her journey, though, she becomes rescued by a helpful but mysterious stranger named Evan Walker (Alex Roe) and patches her up in his farmhouse. Meanwhile, Sam, now codenamed “Nugget," and Cassie’s crush Ben, now “Zombie,” have both been drafted in the government’s army of child soldiers at the Wright-Patterson Army Base. Will Cassie and Sam reunite? Can the military be trusted? Will the aliens win?

"The 5th Wave" opens with an arresting gut-punch, even without too much context via our heroine's eventual exposition-dumping voice-over. In medias res, Cassie must stock up her survival pack from what’s left in an abandoned convenience store, only to make a decision: does she kill a fellow survivor who could be a guarded human or a dangerous host? From there, the film goes back to when “the Others” invaded and paints a grimly fatalistic status quo. As Cassie is on her way to find her brother, her survival story gets less compelling when she meets lumberjack Evan Walker. Bifurcated into two narratives—Cassie and Evan versus Ben and the military kids—the film eventually forgoes the “I-need-to-find-my-brother” strand for a shallow romance and other silly developments. Whether or not this is a faithful adaptation to the source material, why does every YA movie now have to force a requisite love triangle? Pieces of dialogue between Cassie and Evan are overly clunky and will induce unintentional titters this side of “Twilight” and “The Host,” as will a gratuitous bit where Cassie spies on her paramour bathing in a river and revealing his cut torso.

As is to be expected from an 18-year-old actress of her caliber, Chloë Grace Moretz brings weight and pathos to Cassie. On the page, this character is a prototypically strong heroine, but Moretz is such an instinctive actress that she makes Cassie’s arc into an instinctive fighter more believable. Nick Robinson is up to the physical challenges, but he’s slightly underserved by the script, giving him few character traits as Ben Parish. As the resourceful third-wheel-with-a-backstory, Alex Roe is handsome to look at, but what seems to be between Cassie and Evan is derived by obligation rather than a natural connection or chemistry. Despite a jet-black hair dye job and goth eye make-up, Maika Monroe (who was excellent in “The Guest” and “It Follows”) can’t always sell the badass toughness of Ringer, but she sure is cool to watch. In the untrustworthy adults-in-control roles, following Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman in “The Hunger Games,” Kate Winslet in “Divergent” and Patrick Clarkson in “The Maze Runner,” Liev Schrieber and an unrecognizable Maria Bello almost class up the joint as Colonel Vosch and Sergeant Reznik, respectively, but can only do so much.

A grab-bag of other, better movies—“Starship Troopers,” “Divergent,” “Ender’s Game,” just to name a few—“The 5th Wave” falls into the trap of so many dystopian YA book-to-movie adaptations and pieces of the Marvel Cinematic Universe puzzle. Instead of it worrying about its own game plan, the film proper isn’t so much self-contained as it is a place-holder, like everything else these days, for what will follow. The setup is unsettling enough in how an outside force takes everything humans take for granted, but where the story goes is much less satisfying. It’s saying something when a quirkily random detail like spotting a one-sheet of Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” in a character’s bedroom becomes more interesting than a pivotal third-act revelation. Finding a temporary stopping point to keep the doors open for its inevitable sequel (“The Infinite Sea”), “The 5th Wave” is just an average start. When the fifth wave finally gets underway, it’s questionable whether or not anyone will still care.

Grade: C +

Saturday, January 23, 2016

A Real Boy: "The Boy" too tepid to give even Chucky the willies

The Boy (2016)
97 min., rated PG-13.

There is a pantheon of “creepy doll” entries in the horror subgenre, but “The Boy” isn’t good enough to join the ranks. For what it’s worth, it might even make one reassess how fairly effective “Dead Silence” and “Annabelle” actually were. No relation to the 2015 indie of the same name, the film is a decent “Baby's First Horror Movie” but it’s a tepid PG-13 exercise in rudimentary scare tactics that will only startle those who aren’t acclimated to how a horror movie works by now. Director William Brent Bell, responsible for horror schlock like 2012’s “The Devil Inside” and 2006’s “Stay Alive,” and first-time screenwriter Stacey Menear have a creepy hook, but up until a bonkers 11th-hour plot twist, the film is plenty dim and so very dull, jumpy dream sequences and smart-as-a-peach character decisions becoming its fallbacks.

Leaving behind an unhealthy romantic life in Montana, Greta Evans (Lauren Cohan) takes a temporary nannying position at a stately manor in rural England. Her employers, the Heelshires (acting veterans Jim Norton and Diana Hardcastle), are older but have a son named Brahms, who looks like Mad Magazine cover boy Alfred E. Neuman in a family painting. The situation is quite unique: Brahms is really a boy-sized doll to whom Mr. and Mrs. Heelshire dote as if he actually had a pulse. According to charming grocery deliveryman Malcolm (Rupert Evans) who pays a visit to the Heelshire household once a week, Brahms died in a fire two decades ago on his 8th birthday and the doll has been the Heelshires’ way of coping ever since. When the parents must be off on holiday, they give Greta a set of rules that she must abide by for Brahms each day (i.e. read to him, let him listen to his music, kiss him goodnight, etc.). Is Brahms an up-to-no-good doll or is something stranger afoot?

If anything, “The Boy” is a comparatively watchable improvement over the rest of director William Brent Bell’s unimpressive horror-centric filmography. The setup is more old-fashioned and unhurriedly paced. The $10-million production is slick—maybe too slick to capitalize on some gothic atmosphere—and cost-effective, being set in one location. Director Bell does get mileage out of the “is-the-doll-alive-or-not?” suspense before it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere special. The most danger Greta gets into before the climactic chase is having articles of clothing stolen and then getting locked in the attic while wearing only a wet towel (she could have caught her death). Lauren Cohan (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) has an identifiable presence and does all she can in carrying a feature film while acting with a doll most of the time. Beginning as one movie and ending as something else, “The Boy” toys with expectations a little, but it’s too little, too late. The big revelation is unpredictable, but upon later and closer inspection, it only causes frustration since the “hows” and “whys” don’t exactly check out. Logic was apparently never a priority, nor were genuine scares. Not to mention, “The Boy” is about as original as its title, so at least it’s consistent.


Friday, January 22, 2016

Randy Focker: De Niro goes for it but "Dirty Grandpa" smarmy, smutty and stupid

Dirty Grandpa (2016)
102 min., rated R.

Surely the blueprint for “Dirty Grandpa” must have sounded like uninhibited fun for a hard-R road comedy. For better or for worse—all right, definitely worse—this is a raunchy, unprecedented opportunity for 72-year-old Robert De Niro to play a perverted lout of a widower making it his goal to have sex with a college girl and revel in general inappropriateness. Hopefully the paycheck was worth it. The theoretic pairing of De Niro and Zac Efron is actually pretty inspired, but it’s too bad these two and everyone else in the capable cast had to sink to the icky, mean-spirited levels of John Phillips’ first feature script. Directed with the relentless determination to be as shocking and outrageously vulgar as ever by Dan Mazer (2013’s overlooked pleasant surprise “I Give It a Year”), “Dirty Grandpa” resorts to being smarmy, smutty and stupid. Let us just pretend this never happened.

Preppy, uptight Atlanta corporate lawyer Jason Kelly (Zac Efron) wanted to be a photographer, but he settled to work for his father’s law firm and to be engaged to the henpecking Meredith (Julianne Hough). After his grandmother’s funeral and only a week before Jason’s wedding rehearsal brunch, Jason’s estranged ex-Green Beret grandfather Dick (Robert De Niro) asks him to drive them to his summer home in Boca Raton, Florida. It’s apparently what Dick’s wife would have wanted. When grandfather and grandson make a pit stop at a diner, they run into Jason’s nice former classmate Shadia (Zoey Deutch), aggressively lusty Lenore (Aubrey Plaza), and their gay black friend Bradley (Jeffrey Bowyer-Chapman). Shadia invites the unlikely duo to Daytona Beach for spring break festivities and Lenore has a freaky fetish for older men. Of course, Jason gets close to Shadia but fails to mention he’s getting married and the sex-starved Dick poses as a professor because he wants to get down with the easy Lenore. Oh, the wacky hilarity that ensues.

"Dirty Grandpa" starts off on a high note with Matt and Kim's catchy-as-all-get-out "Daylight" playing over the opening credits' poorly photoshopped montage of Robert De Niro and Zac Efron’s characters over the years. Then the embarrassment and misery begin. It’s a one-joke movie, hinging on a premise that thinks it is hilarious but is actually creepy and rarely gets more amusing with repetition. Bad taste is the name of the game throughout, but there’s raunch and then there’s sleaze. If audiences want to see screen legend Robert De Niro as they have never seen him before—imagine this movie’s “for your consideration” clip being the actor “taking a number three,” or masturbating to porn in a recliner—there is a perverse amusement early on before his incorrigible Dick Kelly becomes overly offensive and unpleasant. The actor really goes for it and must be taking filthy delight in the freedom of playing such a rotten caricature, but it’s more depressing than enjoyable to watch De Niro stoop this low.

When he’s not taking his clothes off, dancing almost nude to the Macarena after smoking crack, or competing in a flex-off with his grandpa, Zac Efron gets fewer chances to be funny as the straight man than he did with his standout frat-boy turn in “Neighbors.” Dressed as a Ken doll, the buff pretty-boy actor is left adrift to be the butt of jokes, which seem more like hazing. 1) He gets told he looks like a lesbian more than twice and 2) De Niro repeatedly sticks his thumb up Efron’s butt, and 3) at one point when sharing a bed with his naked older co-star, Efron gets a penis in his face. And that is to say nothing about the laborious visual gag where Jason wakes up naked on a beach with an inked swastika made of penises on his face and a stuffed bumblebee covering his groin, while taking a FaceTime call from his fiancée, his parents, his cousin and the officiating rabbi. If that setup weren’t annoying and appallingly unfunny enough, a little boy on the beach sneaks up on Jason and starts grabbing the bumblebee, a sight that looks like pedophilia to the boy’s father from afar. Har, har.

As hippie photographer Shadia, Zoey Deutch (2014's "Vampire Academy") has the natural talent and charisma to be the real deal, just like real-life mama Lea Thompson. She is the only likable person in sight and comes the closest to being an actual character, but Deutch can only be game with a script this lousy. Giving her grossly one-note role more commitment than it's worth, a scene-stealing Aubrey Plaza gets to be wildly foul-mouthed as Lenore, a slutty co-ed who wants to complete her trifecta of sleeping with a freshman, an alumnus, and now a professor. Before Lenore and Dick even consummate—“I want you to tear open my bra like it’s a social security check” is admittedly a hoot of a line—one just begins to feel humiliated for Plaza who probably doesn’t care that she has to act like a fool to get laughs. Also, aside from Plaza, the few laughs that there are can be attributed to Adam Pally (so lovable on TV’s “Happy Endings”), as Jason’s inappropriate cousin Nick, and Mo Collins and Henry Zebrowski as a pair of cops who always bend the law for Daytona's surf-shop owner/drug dealer/emcee Pam (Jason Mantzoukas). Nobody else emerges unscathed, including Julianne Hough, who gets to be the shrill, whiny, type-A bridezilla in a totally thankless cliché of a role, and Dermot Mulroney, as Jason’s lawyer father, who gets to have cocks drawn on his face.

Pandering, groan-worthy, and an insult against immature humor, “Dirty Grandpa” hasn’t a lick of wit, edge, or charm when a bluntly crass barrage of sex jokes will apparently do. Whereas a deft brand of R-rated comedy is able to smooth out the crudeness with a sweetness and get away with it, this junk takes a 180 that feels like a disingenuous sell-out. As hypocritical as the racist, homophobic Grandpa Dick, the film suddenly pretends to be a heart-filled, lesson-teaching story about reliving one’s youth and following your genuine passion at its core. Perhaps "Dirty Grandpa" does what it sets out to do by making one feel dirty; if so, congratulations. It’s only January and this is already one of the most off-putting motion pictures of the year.


Thursday, January 21, 2016

Devil with a Gold Tooth: "Mojave" has tension but it's full of hot air

Mojave (2016)
93 min., rated R.

Oscar-winning screenwriter William Monahan ("The Departed," "Body of Lies," "The Gambler") makes his writing-directing follow-up to 2011's "London Boulevard" with "Mojave," a black-hearted yarn about the duality of man, or maybe that's being too generous. Monahan must have thought he was making something high-minded, as he seems to be a lover of erudite dialogue like Quentin Tarantino. Wordy indulgence is one thing, but this comes out to be overwritten, underdeveloped and emotionally lacking twaddle. As a mano-a-mano two-hander, there is some friction and tension from the onset but little driving force and no rhyme or reason.

Following the wreck of his jeep in the Mojave Desert, Hollywood screenwriter Thomas (Garrett Hedlund) has a late-night encounter by his fire with a gold-toothed drifter named Jack (Oscar Isaac). The stranger doesn't hide that he could be a serial killer and then waxes philosophical, literary and biblical until Thomas knocks him out and steals his lever-action rifle. On his way out of the desert, Thomas commits an accidental crime that Jack witnesses and holds against him. While Thomas gets back to Los Angeles and stays with his French actress mistress Milly (Louise Bourgoin), Jack secretly makes his way into the screenwriter's life, breaking into his Hollywood Hills mansion and eventually making him look like the sociopath.

Like a serious, more violent Road Runner & Coyote cartoon, "Mojave" is a wannabe thinking man's thriller that adds up to nil. It could have gone in a number of interesting directions, whether it be by way of "The Hitcher" as a desert-set power play or "Fight Club" with a similar alter-ego dynamic. There is some nourish fun in waiting to see these two men confront one another, but Thomas and Jack are too thin as characters and feel more like voice boxes for writer-director William Monahan's literary pretensions. The story barely sets up stakes with Thomas having a wife and daughter in England, but it does picks up steam once Jack actually gets to Hollywood and pretends to "be" Thomas.

Though there is more to the actor than just scruffy James Dean looks, Garett Hedlund broods and spends most of the film smoking, making it a chore to muster up too much empathy for his Thomas, who has the gall to compare himself to Lord Byron and Ernest Hemingway. Oscar Isaac chews up the scenery, basically playing Robert De Niro's Max Cady in "Cape Fear" as the shiftless, unpredictable Jack who calls everyone "brother." It's Isaac's showiest performance, but the enigmatic role ultimately seems like a total waste of his abilities. Walton Goggins and Mark Wahlberg phone in amusingly colorful but pretty one-dimensional day-player roles, sometimes literally, as Thomas' agent Jim and producer Norman, respectively. With the talent attached, "Mojave" probably should have been a wider release than it is, but there's not too much more to say about this low-wattage misfire when one can't even come up with a point for any of it.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Act of Valor: "13 Hours" lacks complexity but buzzes with tension

13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016) 
144 min., rated R.

The only politicizing going on in "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is that director Michael Bay (2013’s “Pain & Gain”) deems it "a true story." Apolitical otherwise, the attitude isn't one of jingoistic U-S-A chanting, nor does it play the blame game and drop Hillary Clinton's name. Written by Chuck Hogan, based on the book "13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi" by Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex security team, the film is more of an effectively streamlined this-is-what-happened (or close-to-this-is-what-happened) account of the events leading up to the siege on two U.S. compounds on African soil. For all of Michael Bay's overblown tendencies, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" buzzes with sociopolitical tension and pyrotechnics that are actually germane to the story being told. It doesn't conclude anything new or ask anything deeper on the fog of war, but as a tough and harrowing war drama, it knows what it's doing. 

With the threat level deemed "critical" in Benghazi, Libya in 2012, ex-Navy SEAL Jack Da Silva (John Krasinski) takes his twelfth mission as a CIA contractor. No sooner has he landed in Libya and picked up by old pal Tyrone 'Rone' Woods (James Badge Dale) than they are caught in an ambush by locals on their way to their outpost. They are denied support by CIA Chief of Base Bob (David Costabile), who insists on keeping a low profile, and his team of Ivy League-educated analysts. Five weeks later on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, the temporary diplomatic post protecting U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens (Matt Letscher) becomes anything but a "safe haven" when a mob of heavily armed extremists strikes. It's then and there that Jack, Rone, and their team, consisting of ex-military soldiers Kris 'Tanto' Paronto (Pablo Schreiber), Dave 'Boon' Benton (David Denman), John 'Tig' Tiegen (Dominic Fumusa) and Mark 'Oz' Geist (Max Martini), must step up and do what they were brought to do. Though the team is told to stand down by their chief in case the secrecy of their American base is uncovered, they have to do what's necessary for the next thirteen hours. 

Without an asteroid or Transformer in sight, "13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi" is automatically director Michael Bay's most important effort, even if you should probably take the "fact-based" claim with a grain of salt. Based on its own merits, it's unwavering in "you-are-there" urgency and straightforward in terms of who are "the good guys" and who are the "bad guys," who are sometimes hard to tell apart since some of them are "friendlies." At its core, this is somewhat of a real-world horror film, to the point that the characters even call the battlefield "zombieland" (and we can't really disagree as the bad guys covertly shuffle toward the CIA compound and hide behind shredded plastic that eerily moves in the wind). As it should be, the aftermath is inevitably gruesome and devastating, as not everyone will be going back home after their mission. 

Before all of the violent mayhem, character introductions are broad but solidly get the job done. All of the soldiers are buff and bearded, as if they're gearing up for a bear calendar. When they're not working out or sitting around talking bro-speak during their downtime, they're Skyping with their families. Jack is the only one to receive a flashback to his daughters and wife, and it's earnest without being cringe-inducingly sappy. Performances are all on the same skillful level, and each of the core actors have clearly been to the gym, but John Krasinski and John Badge Dale are tasked with the most gravitas and share the most camaraderie as Jack and Rone. 

"13 Hours" isn't above excess, the shooting style for combat sequences attention-getting and spatially chaotic and editing veering on haphazard but hardly ever indecipherable. Bay surely sticks to what he knows and what he can do well, which is choreograph intensely visceral action, but his critics cannot deny his strengths here. Besides, a film can't direct itself. The script does fall the way of clichés, antagonizing Bob and having some of the military contractors tell French female analyst Sona (Alexia Barlier) to use her eyes and ears but keep her mouth shut. It's not nuanced or ever as artfully made as something by Kathryn Bigelow, namely "The Hurt Locker" and "Zero Dark Thirty," but "13 Hours" doesn't really have any need to deal in subtlety. 

Grade: B - 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Best Movies of 2015

10. 99 Homes - Thrillingly urgent and plausible as a Faustian morality thriller, "99 Homes" is a tough-minded human story of today's economy and unfortunate housing crisis.  Sadly, this is a devastating situation many families have experienced, but the film illuminates without exploiting the picture of ordinary working-class Americans' pride getting thrown down the drain. If you can't beat the 1%, do you join them if you're offered the chance? Andrew Garfield is superb in a performance so emotionally open and stirring that it might be his best work so far in his still-rising career. As the soulless, opportunistic real estate shark who has grown numb to evicting homeowners, Michael Shannon is intensely frightening. 

9. I Smile Back - Unflinching and poignant, "I Smile Back" understands that the immeasurably messy road to recovery does not happen overnight. 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 in quite a while. 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. Her performance as a housewife and mother who numbs her depression with addictions to drugs, alcohol, and extramarital sex is shattering and soul-baring.

8. Ex Machina - "28 Days Later"/"Never Let Me Go" screenwriter Alex Garland graduates with his auspicious debut, "Ex Machina," and what makes it even more stunning is that it's too confident to ever feel like one's first hand behind the camera. A coolly stimulating, thematically provocative and heady piece of science fiction, this is a thinking man's sci-fi without being too technical, a slick visual feast without being empty, and a slow-burn thriller without being rote, plodding and dumbed-down. Thinking highly of its audience and respecting their intelligence, the unsettling, accomplished "Ex Machina" wraps one up in its wave of paranoia and manipulation, as well as its ideas of God-playing science, human sexuality and male domination.

7. Mad Max: Fury Road - A revamped, amped-up-for-2015 but stand-alone reboot of the 1979 ozploitation original, "Mad Max: Fury Road" breathes vitality into the franchise and the way we look at action-genre filmmaking. Though the movie is called Mad Max, this is Charlize Theron's movie as much as it is Tom Hardy's. As tough, resilient rebel Furiosa, she easily forms herself a spot next to Sigourney Weaver's Ellen Ripley and Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor. "Mad Max: Fury Road" isn't something we see every day, especially in a big, muscular summer picture from a big studio. It's breathtakingly bleak and grim yet anarchic, visceral, strange, eye-popping and exhilarating, a dystopian action-western knockout fueled by breathless adrenaline and spectacularly badass spectacle.

6. Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens - 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. In terms of energy and spectacle, danger and stakes, and characters and dialogue, J.J. Abrams' vision is everything a "Star Wars" sequel thirty-two years in the making should be. Able to stir up chills, laughter, tears, and a childlike giddiness, this is that rare kind of crowd-pleasing blockbuster.

5. Mommy - Only 25 years old and not about to pace himself with five films already under his belt in five years, French-Canadian writer-director Xavier Dolan's smashing "Mommy" continues the enfant terrible filmmaker's themes about resentment in mother-son relationships. As human drama between a broke widow, her troubled 15-year-old son and their painfully shy neighbor, it's wild and alive but controlled and intimate, and as pure filmmaking, it's bravura. Rough, heartbreaking, heady, and everything in between, "Mommy" undoubtedly leaves one stunned, exhilarated and moved. This is bracing cinema to behold. 

4. It Follows - Evocative in its teenage milieu and nerve-shredding in the urban-legend horror yarn it spins, "It Follows" is an unshakable creepshow that proves how far more effective a movie can be with elegant simplicity, a singular vision, and a measured, less-is-more approach. Separating the more auspicious filmmakers from the wannabes, writer-director David Robert Mitchell pays major attention to the crafty framing of his camera and Disasterpiece's chillingly ominous synthesizer score. Deservedly finding a place in the upper echelon of the horror genre for anyone jaded by the PG-13-level fare of late, "It Follows" is a little near-masterpiece that could be the splendidly creepy poster child for either eternal abstinence or not keeping it in your pants if you want to live.

3. Carol - A luscious adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's groundbreaking 1952 novel "The Price of Salt," "Carol" casts a captivating spell, pulsating elegantly with longing and loneliness. Rooney Mara does revelatory work and is arguably the lead here as a compliant young woman blossoming and coming into her own, and Cate Blanchett is enticingly magnetic in the titular role. This '50s-set lesbian romance is impeccably made and transportive by director Todd Haynes, but also intimate and deeply moving. 

2. The Revenant - Inspired by true events and based in part on Michael Punke's 2002 book "The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge," "The Revenant is staggering, immersive, haunting, visceral, savage and life-affirming, an epic about survival and vengeance that's breathtaking in its filmmaking prowess. Leonardo DiCaprio is put through the physical wringer and puts every fiber of his soul into his performance as fur-trapping frontiersman Hugh Glass. Grim savagery and great beauty go hand in hand here in this harrowing, cathartic, often jaw-dropping odyssey. 

1. Room - A film of both tough honesty and unsentimental empathy, "Room" understands the healing process takes time but isn't without hope and resilience, and in the best ways, the film takes a piece out of you and leaves you to process it for days on end. Brie Larson, always beyond reproach, is stunningly and achingly true as a single mom whose life was taken from her and must be strong for her 5-year-old son who's never seen the outside world. Jacob Tremblay is extraordinary, too. Sensitive, thoughtful and powerful, "Room" is the best film of 2015.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Into the Woods: Unscary "Forest" delivers more tedium than horror

The Forest (2016)
95 min., rated PG-13.

Generally speaking, January is a month of mediocrity that usually commences with a horror movie. A sleepy PG-13 horror effort like "The Forest" at least looks auspiciously creepy in conception, Japan's Aokigahara Forest at the base of Mount Fuiji—a real place where people get lost in to commit suicide—being prime real estate for the genre. It's unfortunate, then, that the payoff is far inferior to the setup, perhaps as a result of debuting director Jason Zada (a marketeer who developed viral holiday card campaign "Elf Yourself") being too untested of a filmmaker. "The Forest" is not inept, but it's not a very scary place to visit.

Sara Price (Natalie Dormer) just has a feeling something is wrong when she doesn't hear from her twin sister Jess (Dormer), a teacher in Japan. When she learns that Jess was last seen going into the Aokigahara Forest, known as the spot where people go to commit suicide, Sara immediately travels to Tokyo, as intuition tells her that her sister is still alive. Accompanying her into the forest is flirtatious American travel writer Aiden (Taylor Kinney), who's intrigued to write her story, and a guide named Michi (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), who knows the forest and warns them never to leave the path. The three of them end up finding Jess' tent, and against Michi's advice, Sara and Aiden decide to stay the night in case Jess comes back. Instead, Sara starts seeing things that aren't there, including a sad past that is about to catch up with her. 

Making a horror film about the Aokigahara Forest could have come off insensitive or exploitative. It does not, and even if it did, that would be the least of the film's problems. "The Forest" has deeper intentions to be a horror film about something else but never quite commits to them. It's an ineffective attempt at being psychological, and even on a primal level, it's pretty unscary. The specificity of Japan's "Suicide Forest" is undermined by director Jason Zada's desperate over-reliance on dream sequences and false-alarm scares (which begin as soon as Sara lands in Tokyo). Ghost faces and ghostly whisperings can only go so far. An overly literal script by Nick Antosca, Sarah Cornwell and Ben Ketai probably doesn't do anyone any favors, either; when you see three names attached to a script, it's usually a red flag.

In her first lead performance as Sara Price (and the dual role of Jess), Natalie Dormer (TV's "Game of Thrones") is capable, showing investment and adding a little nuance to a character too thin on the page. Though Jess went to Japan to be a teacher, she is considered to be the wayward (and brunette) sister who always cries for help. So besides having a husband, Rob (Eoin Macken), back in America, what does Sara do? If she has a job, it's never clear. There's very little characterization in Sara to care enough about her plight, and the sisterly dynamic isn't allotted enough screen time to help the cause. Taylor Kinney (TV's "Chicago Fire") is fine, never overdoing the enigmatic nature of Aiden who may or may not be trusted.

Beyond the setup of the premise, "The Forest" never delivers the tension, dread, atmosphere, or frights expected in a film about depression and repressed childhood trauma, just wasted potential and tedium. Sequences where Sara is spooked in the middle of the night by something outside of her sister's tent and then later gets lost in a hole in the ground with a Japanese schoolgirl are as creepy as it gets, but Sara's hallucinations in the forest should be more disorienting than they are. The traumatic root of Sara and Jess' differences as twin sisters is relived through a View-Master toy, the film's one unsettling trick that ends up being used for a cheap jump scare anyway. The narrative outcome is a bit unanticipated in how black-hearted it dares to be, but how it gets there is muddled, rushed, and unconvincing. The final-framed jolt is also schlocky as ever. As a theatrical film, it's competent. As a theatrical horror film, it's terribly lackluster.

Grade: C -