Monday, February 29, 2016

Dirty and Dirtier: "Triple 9" pulpy but too familiar to engage

Triple 9 (2016)
115 min., rated R.

“Triple 9” is a mean but not-so-lean cops-and-robbers thriller wallowing in the savage tastes of Australian director John Hillcoat (“The Road” and “Lawless”), although it feels much more like a David Ayer movie. It’s gritty, hard-edged and sordid, but allowing the viewer to remain invested in characters who are criminals is a crucial missing ingredient. While director Hillcoat keeps things buzzing along okay, all of it is a little too familiar and humdrum to be involving enough, not helped by poorly developed characters. Aiming to be a pulpy, cynical potboiler with grainy, underlit aesthetics, “Triple 9” isn’t anything terribly special, a drearily mediocre misfire, despite being stacked with top-notch talent on both sides of the camera.

In Atlanta, Georgia, United States, ex-Special Forces cop Michael (Chiwetel Ejiofor) pulls off a bank heist with his gang of trained professionals who are either, like him, dirty cops or former cops. By the orders of Russian-Jewish mob wife Irina (Kate Winslet), the job is to retrieve a safe deposit box, containing information that could release her imprisoned mafioso husband, and the payday extends to hothead Marcus (Anthony Mackie), crackhead ex-cop Gabe (Aaron Paul), getaway driver Russell (Norman Reedus), and Jorge (Clifton Collins, Jr.). Irina’s sister Elena (Gal Gadot) also happens to the mother of Michael’s child Felix (Blake McLennan), whom Irina uses to persuade Michael to perform one last job that involves breaking into a Department of Homeland Security facility. The crew reasons that they can only pull it off with a “999,” code for “officer down.” Enter upstanding cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck), who’s just been transferred from another division and partnered up with Marcus. All the while, the one investigating the first robbery is Sgt. Detective Jeffrey Allen (Woody Harrelson), Chris’ uncle.

“Triple 9” seems to be marking time. At the start, the film delivers in-your-face intensity with an opening bank heist sequence. There’s also a raid on an apartment complex in a memorable set-piece bubbling with tension as Chris leads his team with a riot shield. Unfortunately, as the film plays out, screenwriter Matt Cook makes no effort to provide context and history between his thinly drawn characters, let alone a basic reason to care about them. That they aren’t warm, squeaky-clean people isn’t the problem here; it’s that they are treated as pawns to serve the plot and nothing else. (They might as well be named “Dirty Cop #1” and so on.) Once everything begins coming to an inevitable head, the picture gets as twisty in its double-crossings and high in its body count as “The Departed.”

The actors don’t show any lack in valiant commitment but can only be as good as what’s been written for them. Yes, Chris Allen is the one virtuous, salt-of-the-earth character in the film with any sense of humanity, and while Casey Affleck is fine and sympathetic enough in the role, the only heavy demands for the actor is to consistently chew his gum as if he’s a cow chewing its cud. The magnetic Anthony Mackie gets a few moments to shine as the corrupt Marcus, and Chiwetel Ejiofor at least gets something to lose as Michael, who will do anything to keep seeing his son, while Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul are wasted. Woody Harrelson gets to play the Woody Harrelson role of Chris’ uncle Jeffrey, a boozy, drug-snorting detective, and he’s more than capable in it. In one scene, an unrecognizable Michael Kenneth Williams is entirely convincing as Sweet Pea, a transgender prostitute and informant. With big hair and a delicious Russian accent, an infrequently used Kate Winslet gives her best go at a potentially juicy part that never allows her to move beyond single dimension. The idea of the actress playing a Russian-Jewish mob wife is more fun than what actually transpires.

There is no shortage of films involving corrupt law enforcement and, of course, not all of them can be as effective as the last. Problematic on a storytelling level, "Triple 9" at least brings the grit and forgoes the Boston milieu for once. Nicolas Karakatsanis’ on-location shooting in Atlanta, Georgia lends a grimily lived-in sense of place and the music score by Bobby Krlic, Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross and Claudia Sarne is moody and propulsive. Had the narrative and pacing been more airtight, it would have been easier to not dwell on everything it does wrong. Right down to a rushed, unsatisfying coda, “Triple 9” leaves the audience empty on reasons why they should give a rip about the outcome. The further one gets away from it, the more one will forget that it ever existed at all.


Friday, February 26, 2016

Macho Cheese: “Gods of Egypt” overblown silliness that gives one nothing to care about

Gods of Egypt (2016)
127 min., rated PG-13.

“Silly” and “over-the-top” are often unfairly equated with “terrible,” but in this case, “Gods of Egypt” is actually all of the above. There is always room for another enjoyably hokey sword-and-sandals spectacle, and for further proof that it must be an art to get right this particular genre picture, look no further. Gloriously cheesy but hardly worth the viewer’s cares, this vacuous Hollywood schlock is all post-production processing and shiny CG fakery, costing $140 million to make but somehow saddled with the cheapest-looking special effects. “Gods of Egypt” may be silly and overblown, but the real deal-breaker is that it becomes more mind-numbing and bloated than fun or awesomely bad, or else there might be an iota of a reason to recommend it. Even the controversial (and yet not uncommon) casting of white actors as Egyptians is really the least of its problems.

In Ancient Egypt, Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), the God of the Air, is about to be crowned king by his father, Osiris (Bryan Brown). Set (Gerard Butler), Osiris’ brother, crashes the coronation, killing Osiris and blinding Horus. He plans to hinder the powers of every god and claim Egypt for himself. Standing in Set’s way is mortal thief Bek (Brenton Thwaites), who manages to retrieve one of Horus’ eyes guarded in Set’s boobytrapped temple and set free Horus himself. As the two go on adventures, it all falls on Horus to not only end the God of Darkness' reign but to save Bek’s beloved Zaya (Courtney Eaton) from the afterlife. 

Inspired by Egyptian mythology without clinging to any historical accuracy, “Gods of Egypt” finds once-visionary director Alex Proyas (such a long way from “The Crow” and “Dark City”) and screenwriters Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless (“The Last Witch Hunter”) screwing the pooch. There are specks of equal visual imagination and dopey amusement that can be stumbled upon: the muscle-bulging Set steers an airborne chariot drawn by oversized beetles; Horus and Set transform into metallic robots when they fight; and it's a glossed-over detail that gods bleed gold. Also, if there is anything halfway-memorable or close to raising a pulse, it is a single set-piece involving two hissing, fire-breathing serpents chasing down Horus and Bek. Otherwise, how many of the laughs are actually intended is left for audiences to decide, as the rest is just a crap heap. The characters are undercooked archetypes. The storytelling isn’t very engaging and made worse by a cop-out conclusion that nullifies its mythological rules. The pacing is uneven, constantly lagging in momentum. The sword fights are choreographed in dime-a-dozen fashion and fall back on speed ramping. The welcome passes at one-liners are, alas, corny and lame. 

Due more to the writing and direction than his talent, the facially angelic Brenton Thwaites is a boring blank as Bek, the human hero of the piece. As Horus and Set—mind you, they are supposed to be nephew and uncle—a dull Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is rendered hilariously oversized in relation to mortals, while Gerard Butler looks good in his kilt and chews up the green-screened scenery as much as possible. As it goes with most big-budget fantasy-adventure tentpoles that usually have at least one Oscar-winning veteran actor of caliber, this one has Geoffrey Rush as sun god Ra, spending most of his screen time bursting into flames with a French braid mohawk. Courtney Eaton and Elodie Yung, the only actresses on hand with more than a few lines, mostly show their cleavage as the doe-eyed Zaya and Hathor, the Goddess of Love, Set’s current mistress and Horus’ former flame. Lastly, as Thoth the God of Wisdom who’s so wise that he gets cloned, Chadwick Boseman striking effeminate poses in a shimmering gold-and-green gown lends a smidgen of camp value.

Initially verging on diverting mediocrity with B-movie charm but rapidly going downhill as a forgettable, interminable chore, “Gods of Egypt” finally results in 127 minutes of suspense-free indifference. Whether seen in 2-D or 3-D, the film will still remain empty and soulless when there is nothing to care about, get terribly excited about, or even remember. One final question remains: was anyone involved in the making of “Gods of Egypt” actually passionate about bringing this project to fruition? If so, everything of interest was left on the cutting-room floor.

Grade: D +

Friday, February 19, 2016

Just a Little Hocus Pocus: "The Witch" an unsettling Puritan nightmare not to be forgotten

The Witch (2016)
92 min., rated R.

The toast of the festival circuit, “The Witch” is so masterfully crafted that it is even being endorsed by the Satanic Temple. Set in 1630, New England before the Salem Witch Trials and subtitled as “A New England Folktale,” the film is unsettling and transfixing as one watches forbidding evil encroach upon a pastoral family of faith and the suspicion of the innocent escalating. Deservedly winning the Directing Award at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, writer-director Robert Eggers confidently makes his pièce de résistance of a directorial debut, transporting the viewer to the early 17th century with uncanny verisimilitude and chilling foreboding. Ominous, deeply unnerving and beautifully spare, “The Witch” requires patience but has the potency of haunting long after the credits roll. That's the sign of one unforgettable folktale.

Exiled from their village for practicing their Puritan Christianity, stern English patriarch William (Ralph Ineson) moves wife Katherine (Kate Dickie) and their five children to the edge of the woods. William and eldest son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw) build a new farm and search for dinner, while Katherine and teenage daughter Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy) tend the home and twins Jonas (Lucas Dawson) and Mercy (Ellie Grainger) play. When Thomasin plays peek-a-boo with infant Samuel one morning, he gets snatched up as soon as his sister uncovers her eyes. Was it a wolf? Or does “the witch of the wood” that Thomasin teased her youngest siblings about really exist? It become mighty clear once the family’s crops begin to fail and their goat, Black Philip, turns aggressive, but then the parents start pointing fingers at Thomasin.

A slow-burn mood piece rich in portent, dread and ambience, “The Witch” is meticulously mounted with the measured pulse and sobering tone of a harsher, much earlier time. Writer-director Robert Eggers sets up a family dynamic, only to ask the viewer to watch it crumble after paranoia sinks in. His screenplay is thematically rooted in religious extremism, doubt, corruption, temptation and the universal fear of the unknown, and Thomasin being suspected of being a witch by her family is smartly linked to the young woman’s burgeoning sexuality. Besides provoking actual thought, the film just plain disturbs both in horrific imagery and effective suggestion, aided by Mark Korven’s sinister, skin-crawling violin-heavy score and Jarin Blaschke’s gray, austere cinematography. Eggers doesn’t solely rely on shocks, but when those shocking payoffs do come, everyone’s longstanding fear for witches will extend to hares, crows and goats, which get turned into vessels of malevolence. Immediately following the disappearance of Samuel, there are also glimpses of an old crone, naked and rubbing blood over herself. When the film arrives at a conclusion eerie, unsparing, mystical and orgiastic all at once, how it gets there can best be left up to a few different interpretations.

19-year-old newcomer Anya Taylor-Joy is excellent as Thomasin, the film’s emotional center. She has a graceful, bewitching Fanning sister quality, all angelic innocence and comely virginity, but Taylor-Joy is also challenged by the path Thomasin will take that is scarier than becoming a woman. As parents William and Katherine, Ralph Ineson and Kate Dickie have such a period specificity, as if they were both brought back from 1630. Ineson is formidable but moving as a father who's just trying his best to start a new life with his family, and Dickie is heartbreakingly tragic as a mother who feels like she has nothing left. Another newcomer, Harvey Scrimshaw impresses as second eldest child Caleb, conveying uncertainty and faux-confidence before becoming lured by curiosity and teenage lust. In a startling key scene that never turns campy, the young actor also masters possession. Finally, Lucas Dawson and Ellie Grainger bring unpredictable mischief to the roles of twins Jonas and Mercy.

Clearly a detail-oriented stickler who studied religious texts and diaries from the period, Robert Eggers has done his exhaustive homework. Everything in the frame seems so precise, authentic and naturalistic, right down to every actor speaking the Olde English language. Many have griped that the dialect renders the dialogue nearly indecipherable, but remaining quiet and attentive might make a difference. Even if one counted out the film's horror aspect, the production alone is a spellbinding achievement. With numerous production design credits, writer-director Robert Eggers has surrounded himself with exceptional talent behind the camera, starting with Craig Lathrop’s painstaking production design and Linda Muir’s costuming. By reliable distributor A24 opening it theatrically in the mainstream market, “The Witch” hopefully doesn’t get ignored by those who only like their horror movies with jump scares or loads of gore. It’s not scary by conventional boo-machine standards, but it creeps under one’s skin and is the first truly accomplished horror film of 2016 thus far.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Don't Get Sick Again: “Cabin Fever” an inferior scene-for-scene do-over

Cabin Fever (2016)
99 min., not rated (but equivalent to an R).

Dooming five college kids in the woods with a flesh-eating virus, 2003’s gnarly, proudly blood-drenched and delightfully oddball “Cabin Fever” put director Eli Roth on the map. That film only came out thirteen years ago, which evidently means it’s time for someone to remake it, even after two non-theatrical sequels tried to capitalize on the first film with little success. Surprisingly, Roth gave his blessing and even executive produced, but did we really need a do-over that was already a homage to the backwoods splatter pics of the ‘70s and ‘80s? It’s something of a curiosity piece, primarily to see how close this one clings to the original and how different actors approach the material, but whether it’s worth the while of anyone who already got a kick out of Roth’s vision is another matter. Despite a few slight variations from Roth and Randy Pearlstein’s 2003 script, director Travis Zariwny (credited as Travis Z) hits all the same plot beats, scene for scene, like some road-company version. It’s still nasty, all right, but 2016’s “Cabin Fever” has to be one of the most unnecessary remakes to come down the pike in a while. At least Gus Van Sant’s “Psycho” (1998) felt like an ambitious experiment rather than a straight-up Xerox copy.

Perhaps you remember the story. Off to the Oregon woods for a little R&R without any phone service or even pot, five college dingbats first have a not-so-friendly encounter with the redneck general store owner and his “pancake!”-shouting son Dennis, who now wears a bunny mask out of a paper plate. Nice guy Paul (Samuel Davis) gets his hand bitten by Dennis and then Bert (Dustin Ingram), the beer-crushing doofus of the group, shop-lifts a Snickers bar. Once the group arrives to their rented cabin, the cruelly handsome Jeff (Matthew Daddario) and beautiful but edgy girlfriend Marcy (Nadine Crocker) get busy in the bedroom, while Paul tries to put the moves on longtime friend Karen (Gage Golightly) in the lake. Meanwhile, Bert replaces his gaming withdrawals with a rifle in the woods and comes across a local hermit who’s bleeding severely and infected with a virus. It’s not long before the sick man comes knocking at the cabin, asking for help but instead spreading his sickness to all five of the young things. Let the rotting begin, again. Read the rest of the review at Diabolique Magazine.


Sunday, February 14, 2016

So 15 Years Ago: Smartly stupid moments are too widely spaced in “Zoolander 2”

Zoolander 2 (2016)
102 min., rated PG-13.

Fifteen years ago, “Zoolander” had a moment, but it didn’t find a cult audience until hitting home video. There was novelty in the existence of empty-headed but “ridiculously good-looking” male model Derek Zoolander, a character whom Ben Stiller originally created for the 1996 VH1 Fashion Awards, and the film itself offered an inspired mix of satirical absurdity and broad, silly lunacy. The idea of making a “Zoolander 2” had been bouncing around in development since 2008, but according to co-writer and director Ben Stiller, he wanted the sequel to be fresh and worthy of the quotable 2001 original. As for “Zoolander 2,” it produces more than a few belly laughs, proving a stoopid, anything-goes attitude isn’t yet out of fashion in 2016, but it’s also pretty disposable with less rewatchability. One keeps assuming the best jokes are on their way, although they never really take the runway.

Time has been cruel to Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), as he is no longer a world-class model but still that level of idiot and narcissist. He’s survived by wife Matilda (Christine Taylor), who was crushed by the collapse of Manhattan’s Derek Zoolander Center for Kids Who Can’t Read Good and Who Wanna Learn to Do Other Stuff Good Too, and considered an unfit parent to his son Derek Jr. (Cyrus Arnold), who’s now in an orphanage in Rome. In the interim, Derek has gone into seclusion, living life as a “hermit crab,” and his former model rival/friend, Hansel (Owen Wilson), suffered a facial injury that ended his career and sent him into hiding with his married orgy. When both are invited by fashionista Alexanya Atoz (Kristen Wiig) to Rome to strut on the runway again, Derek and Hansel reunite and experience what it feels like to be obsolete as washed-up models. Meanwhile, Interpol’s Fashion Police division, Valentina (Penélope Cruz), comes in to investigate a series of pop-star murders that involves Derek’s most proudly patented “blue steel” facial expression from his once-legendary career. If that weren’t enough, Derek intends to reunite with Derek Jr., and arch-nemesis Mugatu (Will Ferrell) is ready to escape from prison.

In a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth—the script is credited to Justin Theroux & Ben Stiller and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg—“Zoolander 2” is a predominantly spotty follow-up that makes the first film look like it was written with clockwork precision. For this brand of comedy to work, the dumb humor has to be smartly handled, or else it is just dumb. Luckily, director and co-writer Ben Stiller and his band of screenwriters (Justin Theroux, Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg) try upping the ante with a plot so knowingly overstuffed, preposterous and even convoluted that, by design, it emulates an espionage action blockbuster. And, any movie that begins with the celebrity assassination of Justin Bieber (played by a self-deprecating Justin Bieber) earns points, and the length of time his death goes on for is ballsy and darkly funny. From there, Derek and Hansel’s “where they are now” scenes are amusing; for one, “extreme Northern New Jersey,” where Derek has been hiding, is presented as the mountainous arctic.  

“Zoolander 2” also has plenty of callbacks to its predecessor—there’s a musical cue to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax,” and then Derek goes for an orange mocha frappuccino alternative to the beat of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go”—and, once again, a plethora of star cameos. Some are random enough to carry some sort of loopy unpredictability—Billy Zane, of all people, shows up—and others are appropriate within the fashion world but just not that clever. Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson are still game, but the two clear standouts are the villains. Will Ferrell, reprising his campy Mugatu, gets to comment on the stupidity of our heroes and takes deliciously mean shots at several famous fashion designers. A nearly unrecognizable Kristen Wiig is a hoot without saying a word (which is hilariously incomprehensible most of the time) as floating, flamboyantly dressed plastic-surgery nightmare Alexanya Atoz. Penélope Cruz looks striking as ever and is game to be in on the joke, but she isn’t really given the chance to make much of an impression as Valentina, a va-va-voomy Interpol agent who failed as a swimsuit model because of her buxomness.

The laughs are occasionally there, but they don’t come regularly enough. When the comedic bits don’t land, they really don’t land. Anything with SNL's Kyle Mooney as an ironic hipster-thug designer is nails-on-the-chalkboard obnoxious. The sight of Benedict Cumberbatch as a gender-ambiguous, monotone-speaking model named “All” is amusing, primarily from seeing the dignified actor posing without eyebrows and sporting long, straight, dark hair, but who exactly is the joke targeting? A sight strange enough to earn a chuckle, Fred Armisen shows up as an 11-year-old named Vip—or at least his face is superimposed on an 11-year-old’s body—but he’s never heard from again like a setup without a punchline. A running gag concerning Hansel and his commitment to an orgy gets stale quickly, but there is a sly reference to “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” in there. Some general goofiness sometimes hits, too, like Kiefer Sutherland popping up as one of Hansel’s baby mamas and Mugatu’s easy prison escape. Like other long-gestating, belated comedy sequels (i.e. 2013’s “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues” and 2014’s “Dumb and Dumber To”), “Zoolander 2” is almost better than what you’re expecting but not the return engagement that’s worth such a wait. 

Grade: C +

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Real Joker: Reynolds, a hard R rating and a blade-sharp script make "Deadpool" a blast

Deadpool (2016)
108 min., rated R. 

For hardcore Marvel fans, there was giddy anticipation for a “Deadpool” movie since the early stages of development but equal trepidation that it wouldn’t be R-rated enough. For the uninitiated (myself included), there was the worry that a “Deadpool” movie would be too cute, too mean-spirited and too juvenile, based on early teaser trailers of the anti-hero who would probably tell Spider-Man to go shove his responsibility. Besides, jokey sadism can be a hard balance to walk. Well, it is pleasing to say first-time feature director Tim Miller and “Zombieland” screenwriting team Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick hit the bull’s-eye with the finished product proper. Irreverent and exceedingly entertaining, this is a refreshing change of pace that has more fun subverting the weary, by-the-numbers direction of the superhero formula and commenting on itself rather than fitting itself into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Crank up the personality of "Guardians of the Galaxy" and “Ant-Man” to 100, add a hundred-plus obscenities and trigger-happy killings, and you have this blast of a superhero movie for adults.

The sardonic, fourth-wall-breaking Deadpool fits the wisenheimer persona of Ryan Reynolds like a glove fetish spandex suit. Before earning his anti-hero moniker, he’s Wade Wilson, a flippant military-assassin-turned-mercenary-for-hire in New York City. When Wade meets beautiful escort Vanessa (Morena Baccarin), it’s all over; they’re compatible in the bedroom and in an actual relationship. It’s not until the couple moves in together a year later that Wade gets diagnosed with terminal cancer. He soon gets a chance to live, or so he’s told, when recruited by a secret agency who offers him an experimental cure. Once Wade leaves Vanessa in the middle of the night, he finds himself in a torture chamber, being injected with a serum by Francis Freeman (Ed Skrein) and the super-strong Angel Dust (Gina Carano) to trigger a mutation in him. Wade ends up facially disfigured but far from dead, making Francis first on his long shit list.

Rated R for a reason and definitely not for those who still play with action figures, “Deadpool” is unapologetic in everything it wants to do, whether it’s being profane and smart-assy or super-violent and very bloody. That’s just how this snarky, katana-swiping character rolls, so bravo to 20th Century Fox for learning from their mistakes (ahem, 2015’s “Fantastic Four”) and letting the filmmakers make the film they wanted to make and never betraying artistic integrity in the name of commercialism and accessibility. Based on the Marvel comic-book character created by writers Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld, the film opens in medias res, introducing Wade Wilson already in the red suit as Deadpool. It is decidedly a gamble, trusting that the viewer will eventually care about a self-proclaimed bad guy who takes care of worse guys in over-the-top fashion. It does help that the first stylized action set-piece, a highway collision, is slickly staged, fleet-paced, genuinely exciting, and funny as hell. Then, when the film goes into flashback mode to show how Wade Wilson came to be Deadpool, it’s an “origin story” made compelling again. As the plot gets underway, it might actually remind one somewhat of Sam Raimi’s “Darkman,” a 1990 revenge/superhero/horror film that found Liam Neeson’s title antihero disfigured and going into hiding from his girlfriend and the men who left him for dead.

Ever since his too-brief appearance as the character in 2009’s “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” Ryan Reynolds was seemingly put on this planet to play Deadpool. He not only embodies the tongue-in-cheek attitude of the “Merc with a Mouth” but manages ample empathy in order for the viewer to root for a foul-mouthed killing machine. When sharing a scene with Reynolds, the eye-catching Morena Baccarin (TV's "Gotham") gets to be his equal as Wade’s tough-chick girlfriend Vanessa, and their chemistry could light a torch. Later on when she’s kidnapped by Francis/Ajax, Vanessa is still no damsel-in-distress, as she’s more than competent enough to take care of herself when need be. Deadpool also gets a fun fivesome of foils in T.J. Miller, as Wade’s repartee-ready bartender buddy Weasel; Karan Soni, as nerdy cabbie Dopinder; Brianna Hildebrand, as moody mutant trainee Negasonic Teenage Warhead, and Stefan Kapicic (or his voice at least), as the literally steely but compassionate mutant Colossus; and Leslie Uggams, a wonderful standout as Deadpool’s blind roommate Blind Al. Last but still not least, in the “British Villain” role, Ed Skrein (2015’s “The Transporter Refueled”) is fierce and detestable, as he should be.

Helmed with a rapid-fire glee and paced like a bat out of hell by Tim Miller, the film promises the wisecracks and pop culture riffs come fast and furiously. Placed over a freeze-framed tableau of blood-squirting, limbs-splitting mayhem while cued to Juice Newton’s ‘80s pop hit “Angel of the Morning,” the ultra-meta opening credits are so inspired and laugh-out-loud funny it would be a crime to spoil any of it. Let’s just say no one in the cast and crew is credited by the names on their birth certificates. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick put forth their maximum efforts with a playful, razor-sharp script that never loses their crime-fighting protagonist’s sense of humor or his ability to do what is right. The jokes of the verbal, self-referential and visual varieties almost always land, whether it’s a goof on the studio affordability for only two X-Men from the Mutant Academy, the name-checking of Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy, or an all-in-good-fun jab at Liam Neeson and his interminable “Taken” series. Deadpool also breaks the fourth wall a lot, but it’s a device used cleverly and sparingly that it never becomes obnoxious. There is the slow-motion walk with Deadpool and his two companions, but even director Miller finds a way to make that stylistic trope fresh. He’s also supplied the film with terrific song choices to match Deadpool’s loose and unpredictable personality, from Salt-N-Pepa’s “Shoop” to Wham!’s “Careless Whisper.” And, of course, there is a post-credits stinger, but it’s the best one yet, simultaneously making fun of us for waiting until the end and paying homage to a certain ‘80s classic. “Deadpool” is unlike anything else born out of the Marvel Universe, which needed this kind of kick in the pants.

Grade: B +

Friday, February 12, 2016

All the Single Ladies: "How to Be Single" gets by on good will of bright cast and shame-free message

How to Be Single (2016)
109 min., rated R.

Of the two film adaptations of a Liz Tuccillo novel—the first being 2009’s smarter, more perceptive “He’s Just Not That Into You”—“How to Be Single” is never as insightful as it could be about the dating world in the 21st century. It’s also uneven, structurally and tonally, and doesn’t add anything that wasn’t already gleaned from six seasons of “Sex and the City,” but for a female-fronted studio comedy, it shows no shame in the progressive notion that not all women need to be in a committed relationship to be happy. What it does have next to some occasionally sparking dialogue, a wise and productive final message, and several big laughs is a bright, gregarious cast, generating so much good will that deficiencies in the script can be brushed off. Without them, it probably wouldn’t work as well, but more often than not and in the end, “How to Be Single” winds up a pleasant surprise.

Having never been unattached, sweet, innocent Alice (Dakota Johnson) decides to take a break after four years with her Wesleyan University boyfriend Josh (Nicholas Braun) once making the big move to New York City. Once landing a job as a paralegal at a law firm, she learns the ropes of singledom from her uninhibited co-worker Robin (Rebel Wilson), who parties hard and never wants to settle down. Meanwhile, Alice’s older sister Meg (Leslie Mann) is a career-driven obstetrician who likes her independence too much to find a man or have a baby, until she suddenly gets baby fever and meets Ken (Jake Lacy), a cute, funny eligible bachelor. Also in New York City—and closer than you think but never actually connecting with the other characters’ threads—type-A Lucy (Alison Brie) has her own dating algorithms and uses the bar below her apartment for free Wi-Fi and a meeting place for her many blind dates. The bar owner, Tom (Anders Holm), is a womanizer with his own theories. As all of these single ladies (and gentlemen) try their best to navigate sex, love, babies, and marriage, perhaps being single is the best option for all of them.

Director Christian Ditter (2015’s “Love, Rosie”) and writers Dana Fox (2009’s “Couples Retreat”), Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (2009’s “He’s Just Not That Into You”) have a lot to juggle, but for the most part, they create a crowd-pleaser that’s bawdy without being a crass gag-fest and still forms a group of characters that are pretty enjoyable company. In her second lead role after being the shining takeaway in “Fifty Shades of Grey,” Dakota Johnson is decidedly the real deal. As Alice, she is just lovely with an adorably sly comic timing and self-deprecation. Her impression of Rebel Wilson’s Robin is a hoot, too. With any luck, Johnson will soon find a project that’s as good as her; whenever she is on screen, you pay attention. An acquired taste for some viewers—an opinion that is completely lost on me—Rebel Wilson is certainly typecast as the confident, free-wheeling life of the party with the most sexual agency, but she's never not entertaining as an all-in comic player and rarely hogs the others’ spotlight, either. Here, her Robin is such a vaguely drawn character that asking questions about some final revelations concerning her way of life shouldn’t be paid much mind. Leslie Mann’s Meg is a little frustrating in the nonsensical decision to not tell Ken, with whom she’s already romantically involved at this point, that she is already pregnant after in vitro. Then again, Mann radiates a believable and tender sisterly bond with Johnson, and she shares a touching moment with a baby she delivers, warming her up to the idea of having one of her own. She also earns hearty laughs; a scene where Meg not so subtly tries to stifle a yawn and makes a stroke-having face in the middle of meeting Ken at Alice’s office Christmas party is just one example of Mann’s distinct comic timing put to use here. 

Kind of like the Drew Barrymore character in “He’s Just Not That Into You,” Alison Brie’s Lucy is never smoothly integrated into the story and rendered a bit of an afterthought. Who is she? Less than a real person, Lucy is one of those annoying stereotypes that of a desperate, marriage-hungry drip. She lives to carry around bridal magazines, design dating algorithms, be signed up on ten different dating sites, and volunteer for children’s storytime at a bookstore, where she meets George (Jason Mantzoukas), but is never actually seen working a job. Lucy never officially meets Alice, Robin, or Meg but somehow ends up at Alice’s rooftop birthday party; sure, it’s a wildly populated party and friends bring friends of friends, but come on. Aside from talking her way out of a lie in front of a bride-to-be acquaintance and her bachelorette-party gal pals or having a meltdown in front of a room of kids, Brie is too funny, appealing and spry of a presence to be this misused. The men in the cast lend solid support, including Anders Holm (2015’s “The Intern”), charming and convincing as womanizing bar owner Tom; the delightfully ubiquitous Jake Lacy, always likable as Meg’s romantic interest Ken; and a sweet and surprisingly understated Damon Wayans, Jr. comes almost out of another movie as successful developer David, a widower and single father who shows an interest in Alice.

In exchange for excising some of the more extraneous characters that meander the interwoven narrative, “How to Be Single” could have let some of the core relationships breathe a little more in a sharper rewrite. However, where the writing slips, the core actresses and ensemble pick up the slack. Director Ditter gets right the feeling of being in the big city, particularly the fluid illusion he creates when Alice moves into her own apartment and transforms it into what looks like home. Clearly after this reviewer's own affections, he also shoots New York City as a romantic winter land and makes dreamy use of the Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center. The eclectic, still-approvable mix of songs on the soundtrack seem to have been chosen out of a hat—Heart’s “Magic Man,” Charli XCX’s “SuperLove,” Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” and Fifth Harmony’s “Worth It”—but Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” stands out the most for its moving use in a scene between a supporting character and his child. A subversive romantic-comedy for the ages? Get real, but as a fun girls’-night-out diversion, “How to Be Single” goes down lighter than an Irish Car Bomb, and it’s refreshing to see a movie about women that doesn’t hate them.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Are You Afraid of the Desert?: "Southbound" a solid if not consistently memorable omnibus

Southbound (2016)
89 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

The genre anthology format has seen a resurgence in the art of short-form filmmaking, and luckily there have been more hits than misses. For every “Trick ‘r Treat,” “V/H/S,” “V/H/S 2” and “Tales of Halloween,” there is an “ABCs of Death,” “V/H/S Viral” and “A Christmas Horror Story.” Somewhere in the middle but more in the positive column stands “Southbound,” a five-segment horror omnibus that’s scrappy and skillfully conceived but still inherently hit-and-miss as these things go. Particularly impressive is how a new wave of cool, edgy, talented indie filmmakers—most of them having contributed to “V/H/S”—have combined their efforts in a thematically cohesive package with cleverly smooth transitions between each tale. If not every short-lived yarn has a memorable payoff, at least it’s momentarily entertaining and then bleeds into the next one in no time. In “Southbound,” the desolate, pentagram-shaped road often leads to nowhere but hellish pitstops.

In the wraparound segment, “The Way Out” from Radio Silence (that filmmaking quartet from “V/H/S”), a blood-covered Jack (Matt Bettinelli-Olpin) and Mitch (Chad Villella) drive on down a desert stretch of road away from some sort of crime they committed but get caught in a nightmarish loop and can’t seem to rid themselves from a slew of flying Grim Reapers. This tone-setting taste for what’s to come certainly grabs one’s attention as an inescapable “Twilight Zone” episode in the scorching heat, making way for an unpredictable, tightly constructed tapestry. The second and third shorts are the most effective of the five. Writer-director Roxanne Benjamin’s freaky, uncomfortably amusing “Siren” begins the chain, finding a tour van full of girl bandmates Sadie (Fabianne Therese), Ava (Hannah Marks) and Kim (Nathalie Love) getting a flat tire in the middle of the desert. When a chipper couple, Betty (Susan Burke) and Raymond (Dana Gould), comes by and offers the girls a ride, Sadie is initially a little wary, while the other two accept. As a part of the couple’s kindness, they let the girls stay in a spare room and invite them to the dinner table for a “Sunday roast” with their neighbors. Something is off about the couple, the neighbors, and the roast.

What happens next segues into “The Accident,” written and directed by David Bruckner (the impressively shot “Amateur Night” segment in “V/H/S”). Driving at night and distracted with talking on the phone to his wife, a man named Lucas (Mather Zickel) looks up at the road right before hitting one of the female survivors from “Siren.” Instead of running, the driver sees that the woman is severely injured with a limb hanging by a thread and quickly calls 911. The female dispatcher tells him to find the nearest hospital. Once Lucas finds the only hospital, it’s completely abandoned. With no one else to turn to except the voice in his ear, as well as an EMT on the line, the poor schmuck gets walked through a surgery that might save the woman’s life. Intense, brutal, engrossing and even mordantly humored, “The Accident” is easily the ghastly highlight.

Unfortunately, writer-director Patrick Horvath and co-writer Dallas Hallam’s (2012’s “Entrance”) “Jailbreak” has to follow “The Accident,” and it’s the weakest link, hands down. Wielding a shotgun, Danny (David Yow) crashes into a seedy watering hole of questionable clientele in search of his long-lost younger sister (Tipper Newton), but he will find out the hard way that she was probably better off not being found. Lastly, the film circles back to the beginning with Radio Silence’s “The Way In,” a closing bookend to the opening “The Way Out,” in which a married couple (Gerald Downey, Kate Beahan) spends the night with their daughter (Hassie Harrison) at an Airbnb before she’s off to college. Once a trio of masked intruders come knocking to torment the family, this becomes a satisfying, efficiently executed shocker in a short burst, while featuring some of the creepiest masks since “The Strangers."

Cumulatively twisted and seamlessly interwoven, “Southbound” certainly leaves you wanting more for a binge of horror quickies. Even if by definition that genre anthologies aren’t always consistent in quality, the film has a grubby drive-in style across the board and a solid analog-synth score composed by The Gifted. Moreover, the clearest throughline is that of travelers atoning for their sins and then being punished, thanks to Larry Fessenden’s guiding voice on the radio as “The D.J.,” and there’s enough connective tissue for the film to form a whole without ever feeling disjointed. All of the stories have their own unique, vicious allure that even the schlockiest one still can’t be called an outright stinker, and most of them are willing to be mysterious and not hand out clear answers or resolutions on a silver platter. Another horror anthology exploring a different regional landscape would not be out of the question down the road.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Re-skinning: Gutless “Martyrs” can’t justify its existence

Martyrs (2016)
81 min., not rated (but equivalent of an R).

To box in 2008’s “Martyrs” as a slice of “torture porn” or an endurance test would be too reductive, as it is a brave, disturbing, unrelentingly gripping French-Canadian horror film about human trauma, suffering and … existentialism. It’s the benchmark in the annals of extreme, transgressive horror cinema, but it wouldn’t be long before it went through the American remake grinder (with producer Jason Blum’s stamp of approval). Now, when any film that was already effective the first time around must be regurgitated, one should have a scintilla of open-mindedness in case the new version offers something on its own merits or a fresh, individual voice. Eight years later, this “Martyrs” stakes less of an impact and, alas, cannot justify a reason to exist. What the filmmakers come up with here is no less punishing but feels less earned, being stripped of devastating emotional power. 

A decade after escaping from the warehouse where she was imprisoned and abused, a still-scarred Lucie (Troian Bellisario) tracks down the man and woman responsible for torturing her, killing them and their children with a shotgun. Lucie calls and informs her one and only friend Anna (Bailey Noble), who formed an inseparable friendship with Lucie in an orphanage, that she has found her captors. Arriving to the suburban bloodbath, Anna is horrified to see what her seemingly unhinged childhood friend has done and helps her dispose of the bodies. She’s not too convinced that Lucie killed the right people, until Anna comes across a hidden underground facility and a cult obsessed with martyrdom.

Pascal Laugier’s “Martyrs” was unpleasant and unflinchingly brutal, sure, but it was a captivating, unforgettably horrific, even thought-provoking experience. For this subtitle-free U.S. iteration, directors Kevin Goetz & Michael Goetz (2013's "Scenic Route") and screenwriter Mark L. Smith—who gets a pass because he also wrote spectacular revenge-cum-survival epic “The Revenant”—do at least make a few alterations in the film’s second half, like the addition of a character and the fate of someone. However, said alterations aren’t respectable improvements, just examples of cutting corners and missing the point. The transplanted setting to a modest farmhouse in Northern California instead of an industrial-chic home is one of the savvier choices, considering it’s an idyllic cover for something far more sinister. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: C - 

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Not-So-Serious Men: “Hail, Caesar!” starry, wonky, Coen-y fun

Hail, Caesar! (2016)
106 min., rated PG-13.

Those in charge of the advertising campaign for “Hail, Caesar!” must have been at a loss. It’s the latest offering from the Coen brothers but not the knuckleheaded slapstick farce being sold. There is a specifically Coen-y screwball panache at work here, genre-busting writer-directors Joel Coen and Ethan Coen (2013's "Inside Llewyn Davis") embracing their love for movies in this valentine to Hollywood’s Golden Age and the studio system in the 1950s. A light but clever picture whose parts are greater than the whole—and what parts!—“Hail, Caesar!” is not a major in the original filmmakers’ oeuvre. It’s more lark than full meal, but there is no denying that this is one of the Coens’ most plainly enjoyable and could probably end up being their most misunderstood and divisive.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a studio head for Capitol Pictures and their top “fixer,” and he is about to have a full day with his clients. While taking a break in his trailer while shooting Roman-Biblical epic “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” on the lot, movie star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) goes missing. Everyone thinks he is just on a bender, but Baird has actually been kidnapped and held for a $100,000 ransom by a mysterious group in a Malibu mansion. Meanwhile, swimming starlet DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) has become pregnant, but her reputation has to be protected; good-natured cowboy matinee star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) has his public image altered by being cast as the lead in a costume drama with incompetent results; and finally Eddie has to continually fend off twin sisters Thora and Thessaly Thacker (Tilda Swinton), who live on gossip for their own columns. All in a day. 

Loosely structured as a day-in-the-life caper with Eddie Mannix at the center, the film takes enough trips around the studio to feel like a collection of vignettes — and that’s a large chunk of the fun. Eddie has a meeting over the religious-sensitive issues with the movie-within-a-movie “Hail, Caesar!” with a rabbi, priest, reverend and padre, and it’s as chuckle-worthy as it sounds. A sequence from an “aquamusical” starring DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) as a mermaid and her water-ballet dancers is a magical marvel. A song-and-dance number, “No Dames,” is a high-spirited, sublimely choreographed delight as dreamy movie star Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) leads a bar full of sailors. It’s great fun to watch and a little homoerotic subtext is not lost on the Coens. Another highlight involves the direction given to Hobie by pretentious director Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes, killer) on the soundstage set of a period drama called “Merrily We Dance.” The jokes regarding a “mirthless chuckle,” a flubbed line and the director’s name actually get funnier with repetition.

Watching the picture is like touring a studio lot, as everyone in the starry ensemble is playing some Old Hollywood type. Josh Brolin is given ample time to develop some personal drama as Eddie Mannix, whose more-than-once daily trips to the confessional prove to be troubling for him but amusing to the audience. Very adept at playing a dunce in Coen-helmed comedies, George Clooney has a ball mugging and preening as Baird Whitlock, who remains in his swords-and-sandals costume even as a hostage. No matter how small, all of the supporting performances are game. Channing Tatum is a well-used hoot in his sailor dance number, standing in for Gene Kelly; Alden Ehrenreich is an endearing stitch, turning up the aw-shucks attitude as singing cowboy Hobie Doyle and making lasso artistry out of spaghetti noodles; and Scarlett Johansson is right on the money as an Esther Williams type. And there’s even more where they came from. Frances McDormand (married to Joel Coen) makes her one hilarious scene count as chain-smoking, scarf-wearing film editor C.C. Calhoun; Tilda Swinton is doubly droll as twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker; and Jonah Hill, barely saying much, has a role as the studio surety that’s funny in itself.

Straight-faced about its own artifice, “Hail, Caesar!” is a gentle, playful Tinseltown satire but also just an offbeat, entertainingly wonky homage to the simpler, good ol’ days of of making motion pictures. Nearly every genre, from westerns to musicals, is affectionately recreated without parody (kudos to Roger Deakins’ sparkling cinematography), which will be a treat for movie lovers, particularly those who regularly tune into Turner Classic Movies. Potentially more layered on a repeat viewing, this prankish diversion still adds up to little and doesn't seem to have a great deal on its mind, and that’s just fine. Come to think of it, though, Paul Thomas Anderson’s head-scratcher “Inherent Vice” would make quite the companion piece in a way. Like Joel and Ethan Coen’s “The Big Lebowski,” the narrative is an episodic and ultimately trifling shaggy-dog tale, but they sure know how to make a plot thread involving Communist screenwriters and a submarine an inspired piece of absurdism. Even if there’s not a whole lot of soul, sometimes just plain old fun is enough.