Sunday, October 30, 2016

Real News: Rebecca Hall captivates in compelling, empathetic "Christine"

Christine (2016)
115 min., rated R.

Not to be confused with the Stephen King adaptation about the possessed car, “Christine” is a devastatingly humane portrait of Christine Chubbuck, a TV field reporter who was barely noticed until her tragic on-air suicide on July 15, 1974 right before her 30th birthday. Director Antonio Campos (2008’s provocative, unflinching “Afterschool”) and writer Craig Shilowich not only say something about sensationalism in the media but depict a broken person. Refusing to fall into the trap of exploitation, the film is too sensitive and empathetic for that, gaining insight into what makes Christine tick. Rebecca Hall’s extraordinary performance deserves raves, and “Christine” itself is riveting and respectfully honest as a character study.

Moving to Sarasota, Florida, after an incident involving her battle with depression in Boston, local WZRB 30 investigative reporter Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hell) is under a lot of pressure in her life. She finds meaning in her work, editing her pieces late at night, and also finds time to perform puppet shows at a children's hospital. Christine's only real friend at work is camerawoman Jean Reed (Maria Dizzia). Her working mother, Peg (J. Smith-Cameron), lives with her and barely contributes to the rent. She’s been feeling pain in her abdomen but shrugs it off, until it's revealed that she has a cyst requiring the removal of one of her ovaries. At work, Christine is marginalized and stifled by her boss, Mike (Tracy Letts), who keeps bumping her stories and tells his news team that in order to get higher ratings they need juicier, grittier stories. When Christine has finally had enough—and life isn’t going her way—she decides to get bold and brave, following her boss’ sensationalistic catchphrase, “If it bleeds, it leads.” Even if she goes to fatally desperate lengths, Christine will make those watching sit up and take notice.

As dedicated as Christine herself, Rebecca Hall is captivating. Portraying an ambitious working woman troubled by her unstable psyche and black-and-white moods, she earns our sympathy and empathy. Though no archival footage can be found of the real Christine, Hall embodies this real-life person with a socially awkward, slightly unapproachable demeanor and speaks in a brusque, baritone voice. The character is not written as a victim, and Hall never plays Christine as a victim; she wants to make a point in the name of the channel's "policy of bringing you the latest in blood and guts." The supporting cast is excellent, too, including Michael C. Hall, as slick news anchor George Ryan; Tracy Letts, as Christine’s difficult boss Mike; a warm, lovely Maria Dizzia, as Christine’s friend and co-worker Jean; and J. Smith-Cameron, as Christine’s flaky but still-loving mother Peg.

Whether one knows the outcome or not, “Christine” is so closely observed and compelling in its own right that dramatic impact is never diminished. Audiences may forget that it still takes a filmmaker’s touch, great writing and performances to make a film based on a true story actually worthwhile; these things don’t just direct, write and act themselves. Telling a story that transcended the news medium and even went on to inspire 1976’s Sidney Lumet-directed “Network,” the film even flawlessly re-creates the time and place, just as the TV industry was transitioning from film to video. The final moments leading up to the inevitable but shocking event are startling and uncomfortably gut-wrenching. Instead of merely cutting to black and following up Christine's suicide with title cards, the note director Campos decides to end on is unexpectedly more understated and quietly heartbreaking that it packs even more of an emotional wallop. For those willing to be prepared for a difficult end, “Christine” is rewarding with the haunting imprint it leaves.

Grade: B +

Friday, October 28, 2016

Hanks Sees Hell: “Inferno” still loony, slightly more involving than predecessors

Inferno (2016)
121 min., rated PG-13.

Two films ago, director Ron Howard (2015’s “In the Heart of the Sea”) was unable to crack the code of bringing both of Dan Brown’s page-turning works of fiction to the screen. In theory, there was nothing wrong with either film selling airport-novel baloney or for being languidly paced summer entertainments that added religious debate and puzzle-solving to the shoot-outs and car chases found in most frantic, effects-driven blockbusters. Instead, what should have been engrossing thrillers were low-wattage, mostly plodding, and bereft of a sense of fun and discovery. Maybe these mysteries required a lot more patience, however, 2006’s “The Da Vinci Code” needed a heavy shot of adrenaline, and 2009’s “Angels & Demons” was vaguely more thrilling but not by much.

With “Inferno,” the third time is the charm. Well, somewhat. Just as loony, dizzyingly plotted but arguably more involving than its predecessors, this beat-the-clock thriller one-ups the Robert Langdon canon by jetting forward even through the scattered, arcane details and exposition. At the start, bioengineering billionaire Bertrand Zobrist (Ben Foster) plunges to his death after warning, TED Talk-style, that overpopulation would spell the end of humanity. From there, Harvard University symbologist Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory, but he is plagued by visions of Hell on Earth. Prodigy emergency room doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) tends to him, telling that he suffers from amnesia due to a bullet grazing his head. When they are ambushed by an assassin in a police uniform, he and Sienna flee from the hospital. Then, inside his jacket, Langdon finds a Faraday pointer that projects Botticelli’s mural of Dante’s Inferno, leading him and his new female companion on a scavenger hunt to find other clues pertaining to Zobrist’s viral plan.

A viewer’s interest in the third and latest cinematic entry of Dan Brown’s literary series will be completely contingent upon whether or not they took to “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels & Demons,” and yet, “Inferno” has more of a pulse and doesn’t suffer from catatonia. Competently directed by Ron Howard and written by David Koepp (2014’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”), the film is rousing when it wants to be, and that’s usually when Robert Langdon and Sienna Brooks are on a wild goose chase around the very scenic Florence and Venice. As essentially one long chase scene, this should be fun, but once again, how the characters reach certain conclusions from the most rarefied of clues is too effortless to make us co-participants in solving the mystery. More than welcome, though, is some creepy infernal imagery, and the climax is strikingly staged in Istanbul’s subterranean chamber Basilica Cistern, the red underwater lighting making the still water look like a pool of blood.

Reprising the admittedly dull role of Robert Langdon for the third time—he doesn’t have as much personality as Dr. Indiana Jones, unfortunately—Tom Hanks actually gets to make a joke or two here, even while acting disoriented and groggy. The amnesia addition is a smart move, at least before it wears off and Langdon is able to remember blurry memories when the plot requires him to; for instance, it’s amusing how he can’t remember the word “coffee” for a hot morning drink, but only minutes later, he has no issue remembering his Gmail password. As Dr. Sienna Brooks, Langdon's third platonic partner this time around, Felicity Jones looks engaged. Beginning as a passenger to Langdon’s hunt, she is still Hanks’ plucky, intelligent equal with more layers to her as the film unfolds. While the previous films had estimable supporting casts that actually stole the show from Hanks, this one welcomes Irrfan Khan, who’s a hoot as the leader of a security agency in tailored suits. 

Enthralling in the moment and then as stable as a house of cards thereafter, “Inferno” thinks it has a bachelor’s degree in art history, but it really has a master’s degree in baloney. As an airport-novel popcorn entertainment, it consistently follows its own preposterous logic, and it seems like everyone involved is no longer treating the material as gospel. There are double crosses, revelations, and a forced romantic relationship that feels wedged-in and oddly doesn’t get introduced until the beginning of the third act. So, what is there really to take away in the end? Very little, in fact, but at least it’s not a total drag. “Inferno” is an adequate puzzle-solver and perhaps as good as any Robert Langdon saga is going to get on film from director Howard, but at this point, it might be time for the Harvard professor to stay home and stick to the crossword.

Grade: C +

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Dead for Real: "Fear, Inc." a clever meta lark before it gets greedy

Fear, Inc. (2016)
90 min., rated R.

“Fear, Inc.” could have been next-level stuff for its genre. A name-checking horror buff’s rewrite of “The Game” and “April Fool’s Day" with extra shout-outs to “The Shining,” “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” “Friday the 13th,” “Scream,” and “Saw,” director Vincent Masciale and writer Luke Barnett’s feature expansion of their 2014 short of the same name comes so close to fully working that you can almost taste it. The nods and affection for everything horror are fun to spot, but this is a meta horror-comedy that is never as funny or as scary as it wants to be.

A junkie of horror movies and narcotics, recently unemployed ne’er-do-well Joe Foster (Lucas Neff) somehow has a beautiful, affluent Australian girlfriend, Lindsey (Caitlin Stasey), whom he lives with in a luxurious home in the Hollywood Hills. On their date to a haunted house—Joe’s idea, not Lindsey’s—he is unimpressed and wants to be scared. A stranger (Patrick Renna, grown-up ’90s child star of “The Sandlot” and “The Big Green”) overhears and drops the couple a company card for Fear, Inc., a service that offers custom scares to its paying clients who want an intensely real night of terror. When childhood friend Ben (Chris Marquette) and wife Ashleigh (Stephanie Drake) come into town for Halloween, Joe ends up calling the number on the card for tickets. The voice on the other end makes it clear that they are sold out, but then the masked killers come out and Joe is in for a rush. Is Fear, Inc just a harmless interactive gimmick, or will Joe get way more than he signed up for?

Opening with a twentysomething professional (Abigail Breslin) getting chased through a parking garage as she struggles to cancel her custom-thrill service on the phone, “Fear, Inc.” gets some mileage out of the premise of a “custom-scare company” and the central “is-it-or-isn’t-it?” tension. The viewer cannot help but be in a panic right along with the characters, who feel as if they are thrown into an actual horror movie, while Joe at the same time keeps pointing out certain genre tropes and referencing certain movies. Director Masciale and writer Barnett do manage to get the balance between goofy slacker humor and prankish fear mostly right on occasion, and when they do, one gets a glimpse of the superior film this could have been. And, though Joe is an affable fool who can’t get enough of Fear, Inc.’s tricks and even makes it easy for the masked killers by leaving the back door of his house slightly ajar, Lucas Neff (TV’s “Raising Hope”), Caitlin Stasey (2014’s “All Cheerleaders Die”), Chris Marquette (2003’s “Freddy vs. Jason”), and Stephanie Drake (TV’s “Mad Men”) are all likable company.

“Fear, Inc.” is a clever lark with plenty of promise in its conception but too much of a first-draft feel in the execution. Amidst the horror flick ribbing, there is a dangerous undercurrent, but it soon deflates the greedier the film gets with one “just kidding” reveal too many. A few pesky questions also arise for those paying attention. As we later find out, the Abigail Breslin character in the first scene was Ben’s boss, but Ben is visiting Los Angeles from Maryland, so does the crew behind Fear, Inc. cover both coasts? Also, one of the contrived twists involving a self-defense strangulation doesn’t make any sense when looking back at what comes next. A film that can be self-referential and double as a solid representative of the genre it so clearly adores is always an exciting proposition. Audiences were spoiled with genre-busters like 1996's “Scream,” 2011's “Tucker & Dale vs. Evil,” 2012's “The Cabin in the Woods,” and 2015's "The Final Girls," but “Fear, Inc.” doesn’t stick the landing. Director Vincent Masciale and writer Luke Barnett try out so many different endings that the wickedly bleak note they conclude with feels more like a cruel joke.


Friday, October 21, 2016

Battle of the XXX Stars: "King Cobra" looks stylish but lacks insight

King Cobra (2016)
91 min., not rated (equivalent of an R, maybe).

If it weren’t inspired by a sordidly true story—the real-life murder of gay porn entrepreneur Bryan Kocis in 2007—“King Cobra” might have been mistaken for an adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel or any familiar true-crime potboiler. The characters are lost souls and every unhealthy or amoral action they make is a cog in their journey to total self-destruction. As a cautionary tale, the film is lip-smackingly lurid and hard-hitting enough, but it doesn’t poke any deeper point or make that provocative of a comment on the gay porn industry itself. Writer-director Justin Kelly makes his sophomore effort, and on the surface, “King Cobra” does ride a bracing wave of cool and titillation with a sleek atmosphere and propulsive synthesizer soundscape. All of the actors are even more than willing, but the script is less so in locating as much emotional depth for these characters. A compelling reason why we should care about any of these people is sort of a lost cause.

Hoping to get his foot in the door of the film industry, all-American 17-year-old Sean Lockhart (Garrett Clayton) leaves the San Diego suburbs for a “paid internship,” or so he tells mom Janette (Alicia Silverstone). Going by stage name “Brent Corrigan,” he is the latest find by Stephen (Christian Slater) of Cobra Video, shooting his brand of gay porn videos out of his own house in his conservative Pennsylvania neighborhood when he isn’t fronting as a family photographer. Soon, Sean finds himself moving in with Stephen, making $1,000 a video and becoming the go-to “twink” for gay porn, at least for a while. Under contract with his name trademarked, the new star is Stephen’s property, but when Sean wants out and looks for work elsewhere, no one wants a stud who can’t go by “Brent Corrigan.” Meanwhile, Viper Boyz hustler Joe (James Franco) and his dim, hunky boyfriend Harlow (Keegan Allen), who works as a porn star and male escort, want a piece of Brent. Then, as they lose control of their finances and have their car repossessed, the Viper Boyz become desperate and decide to strike up a murderous deal with the minor.

As a juicy exposé of murder in the gay porn industry next to the Wonderland Murders, “King Cobra” has a fascinating story to tell and plenty of style on its side, but there’s also a lack of dimension to everyone inside each frame. The performances are decidedly the main source of interest, especially those by Christian Slater and Garrett Clayton. Slater commits to the depiction of pornographer Bryan Kocis, named here as Stephen, and plays him as oily, controlling and pathetically lonely but honestly. As any former Disney star probably dies for, Clayton (TV’s “The Fosters”) branches out with a very adult role for his big-screen debut. The earnest 25-year-old golden boy, who almost looks like he could be the brother to either Zach Efron or Vanessa Hudgens, is pretty faultlessly cast as ingenue Sean Lockhart/Brent Corrigan, and he acquits himself well, coming across as a smoldering blank slate who’s easily corrupted in a role that calls for it. 

Recently showing interest in gay-themed projects (he recreated the lost footage of “Cruising” in 2014’s “Interior. Leather Bar.” and co-starred in director Kelly’s not-yet-released “I Am Michael”), James Franco goes big and rips the scenery a new one as jealous, smarmy and unhinged Viper Boyz leader Joe. As Harlow, Joe’s damaged boy toy who isn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but is just as capable to get what he wants, Keegan Allen (2013’s “Palo Alto”) manages to juggle vapidity and sympathy rather well. Also, Molly Ringwald and Alicia Silverstone are always great to see but are beyond wasted as Stephen’s sister Amy and Sean’s single mother Janette, respectively.

Fortunately, “King Cobra” isn’t made dishonestly palatable for straight audiences. Filmmaker Justin Kelly seems to have gotten away with making the movie he wanted to make and get distributed, pushing the explicit subject matter as far as he can without diving straight into pornography. It’s teasing without being sexy, and Kelly certainly gets the cheaply made, badly acted porn videos right. It’s also tragic as to where the story leads, but there really isn’t any penetrating insight into the characters involved, so the opportunity to be poignant is missed. What "King Cobra" boils down to, then, is a star being born and how not to get away with murder.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Doris is Not All Right: "Ouija" prequel smarter, scarier and more stylish than its predecessor

Ouija: Origin of Evil (2016)
99 min., rated PG-13. 

An occult parlor board game used to contact the dead at slumber parties was an ominous idea not satisfactorily fulfilled in 2014’s slick, harmlessly hokey but wholly forgettable “Ouija.” With indie writer-director Mike Flanagan, one of the horror genre’s top filmmakers to watch after 2016’s sensational “Hush,” now at the helm, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is able to right a lot of the wrongs of the first film. It was tamed by its PG-13 rating and only employed the most tepid-to-cut-rate frights to scare 13-year-olds into their sleeping bags. This prequel still retains a seemingly wimpy PG-13, but making a difference is that it is actually unsettling without relying on gore and has been expertly directed without the air of a work-for-hire effort. With this fresh start marrying the innocent with the horrifically wicked, all signs point to an improvement for the Hasbro-branded “mystifying oracle” and the reputation of horror follow-ups.

It’s Los Angeles, 1967. After the death of her husband, widowed mother Alice Zander (Elizabeth Reaser) has had to raise her two girls, high school sophomore Lina (Annalise Basso) and 9-year-old Doris (Lulu Wilson). She runs a business out of her home—some might call it a scam—as a fortune teller, welcoming paying clients who want to communicate with their late loved ones and hopefully giving them peace. Lina and Doris assist their mother in making sure the séance readings go off without a hitch, until Lina opines that their tricks are getting a bit stale. Once Alice brings a Ouija board into the house as a new prop, Doris begins playing with the planchette to talk to Daddy. As Alice learns her youngest can act as a conduit to the spirit world, she keeps Doris from school, which alerts Principal Father Hogan (Henry Thomas). Pretty soon, Doris is channeling the powers of something far more evil.

Both a period piece and a possession chiller, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” is also something of an origin story, set almost 50 years before the 2014 teenybopper flick which introduced Paulina Zander, played by the overqualified Lin Shaye. By filling in the backstory of the Zander family and their “wonderful talking board" and remaining consistent with the series, writer-director Mike Flanagan and co-writer Jeff Howard (2013’s “Oculus”) can’t completely disregard the Stiles White-directed first film. Without comparing the two films too much, the filmmaking is far from lazy and generic and with a clearly singular vision on display. There is a much greater concentration on character this time around instead of watching boringly pretty teenagers get picked off in one-by-one fashion. The scare tactics are rarely of the false variety with bombastic musical stings (only one nightmare sequence was counted and no character sneaks up on another). Even working on a brand within the studio system, director Flanagan actually knows how to toy with an audience’s expectations on occasion, resisting the predictable jolt when it’s expected. And, rather than noticeably cutting corners to appease a wider crowd, he demonstrates restraint when needed.

If it weren’t for characters we gave a hoot about and were written with lives outside of the narrative, the horror would hold less impact and suspense would be nil. Filmmaker Flanagan knows this and gives his actors more meat to work with. Before now, Elizabeth Reaser has never been given the major screen role that she deserves. A beacon of warmth and sympathy, Reaser is wonderful as Alice Zander; she will do anything for her two girls and does truly believe that her fortune-telling work could do some good for other people in grief. The stakes are also high when the family receives a foreclosure notice on their doorstep. As Lina, Annalise Basso (who previously worked with the director on “Oculus”) is just as strong, and then there’s Lulu Wilson (2014’s “Deliver Us from Evil”) as Doris. Incredibly effective once the precocious girl becomes a vessel for evil, Wilson sells it as creepily well as any acting veteran could; her monologue to Lina's unsuspecting senior crush (Parker Mack), telling him how it feels to be strangled, is seriously chilling. Finally, Henry Thomas provides more emotional depth than most post-“Exorcist” priest roles as Father Tom Hogan, the principal of the girls’ Catholic school who has lost his spouse, too.

Before any of the serious chills, “Ouija: Origin of Evil” taps into the playful giddiness one might actually feel when pushing the Ouija planchette around with a group of pals. Lina is first introduced to the spirit board at a friend’s house, against the wishes of one of them who is very easily spooked, making for some quite funny results. As actual horror is concerned, there is plenty that unnerves, whether it be a look through the planchette, to a disturbing school-recess incident aimed at Doris’ bully with a slingshot. Also, the sight of the supernatural entity taking over Doris’ body, starting with widening her mouth like putty, is hair-raisingly sinister. The cherry on top of a horror film that is both smart and scary is when it is this classily constructed with loving late-’60s period detail and elegant camera techniques; an era-appropriate Universal Pictures logo and a scratchy title card with a copyright at the bottom that kick off the film are nice touches. This being a contemporary horror film, the film isn’t completely free of jump scares, which take a certain timing and finesse to really work. When there are too many, the surprise trick of the jump scare can be laughable and even exasperating, but in this case, Flanagan uses them sparingly and places them with proper care and timing that even a handful of them are real doozies. If only every supernatural horror film with a colon and subtitle could prosper like “Ouija: Origin of Evil” when it’s handled with style and jittery, devilishly fun inspiration.


Monday, October 17, 2016

Doing Math and Taking Names: Sluggish, convoluted execution at odds with amusing premise in "The Accountant"

The Accountant (2016)
128 min., rated R.

It’s a shame how one’s evaluation of a film can shift almost halfway from interest to frustration and disappointment over the course of two hours. Set up as a slow-burn thriller, “The Accountant” is compelling as a bizarre genre-bender until it’s not. The film attempts to be convincing and an amusing hoot almost simultaneously, the low-key, sluggish approach by director Gavin O’Connor (2011's "Warrior") at odds with the plate-spinning, needlessly convoluted script by Bill Dubuque (2014’s “The Judge”). Imagine if John Nash from “A Beautiful Mind” somehow procured a particular set of skills that of a Jason Bourne or John Wick.

Fronting himself as an antisocial accountant near Chicago, Christian “Chris” Wolff (Ben Affleck) is a savant mathematician who was diagnosed with high-functioning autism as a young boy. Oh, and he’s a crack shot and can crunch more than just numbers. After signing a contract with robotics company CEO Lamar Black (John Lithgow) and CFO sister Rita (Jean Smart) when more than $60 million goes missing from the books, Chris is paired up with chipper junior accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick), employed by Black. When he works alone and uncovers a series of illegal transactions overnight, Dana is intrigued by this man and becomes the one person in Chris’s life with whom he makes a connection. Meanwhile, soon-to-be-retired Treasury Department director Ray King (J.K. Simmons) blackmails analyst Marybeth Medina (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), forcing her to find a certain accountant whom Ray has tracked in surveillance. And, let's not forget, a mysterious hitman (Jon Bernthal) is also targeting Chris and Dana.

“The Accountant” works best when it’s tracking Chris through his unique upbringing and his precise, albeit unexceptional, way of life. When their mother (Mary Kraft) couldn’t handle taking care of an autistic child, young Chris (Seth Lee) and his brother (Jake Presley) were raised and trained in combat by their strict military father (Robert C. Treveiler). As a result, now as an adult, Chris completes a ritual of myofascial release therapy every night where he cranks the heavy-metal music and turns on a strobe light while rolling a wooden dowel over his shins. With a quiet, more reserved demeanor, Ben Affleck is surprisingly well-suited to the role of Christian Wolff, and somehow, his portrayal of autism is hardly ever mannered. Also helping are the quirky interactions between Chris and Dana; Anna Kendrick cannot help but be luminous by just showing up, and her charming work as Dana makes for a likely partner. Nearly everything else gets in the way.

There is a welcome deadpan sense of humor trickling through "The Accountant," which, given its silly premise could have been titled “Accounting Sniper." Otherwise, it is somber and a little all over the place, ultimately unsure about what it wants to do and how to go about it. The film tantalizes at first in watching the pieces of the so-called puzzle come together. Then, as the viewer connects the dots even before characters explain their motivations, major plot turns are revealed to be either shrug-worthy or forgone conclusions, adding to the film’s protracted length. How a hired gun (Jon Bernthal) and his assassination operation fits into the proceedings counts as both. Also, the extraneous “B” plot involving the Treasury Department investigation is absorbing until it’s anticlimactic. Even as a muddle, "The Accountant" is watchable and half of a good movie, but less definitely would have equaled more. When the viewer tries to reach for something at the end, his or her hand just closes on air. 

Grade: C +

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Like Old Times: Duplass and Paulson make lovely conversation in "Blue Jay"

Blue Jay (2016)
80 min., not rated.

Like kissing cousins with Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise/“Before Sunset”/“Before Midnight” trilogy, “Blue Jay” is a walker-and-talker of an indie about a former couple reuniting as friends. Working from a script by Mark Duplass (who stars as one-half of the on-screen couple), director Alex Lehmann makes his feature debut and, as he should, invests a lot of trust in the naturalistic connection between Duplass and Sarah Paulson. Mature and intimately staged, “Blue Jay” is a little two-hander that almost feels like it effortlessly could have been made in less than two weeks. It’s not an action-packed night out at the movies, but to viewers who don’t have Attention Deficit Disorder, more than enough happens to make it a pleasure being in the company of two endlessly engaging actors. 

Out of touch for more than two decades, former high school sweethearts Jim (Mark Duplass) and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) run into each other at a grocery store in their California hometown. He is back to fix up his mother’s house to put it on the market after her recent death, and she is in town visiting her pregnant sister. He is married to his work, and she is married to an older man with stepchildren. Once they get to talking, Jim and Amanda grab coffee at a cafe, The Blue Jay, and make up for lost time later at Jim’s old house. As if nothing has changed between them, Jim and Amanda fall back into the past. 

Gently observant and exquisitely performed, “Blue Jay” plays out like a lovely 80-minute conversation. The film is reliant on the momentum of Jim and Amanda catching up and reopening their past, not on a long-winded plot of forced incidents and misunderstandings. As Jim, Mark Duplass (HBO’s “Togetherness”) poignantly essays the part of a lost man like Jim who doesn’t know what he’s doing in his life; the role here isn’t far removed from his character work in 2012’s “Your Sister’s Sister” and 2014’s “The One I Loved.” In a way she only knows how to be, Sarah Paulson (FX’s “American Horror Story”) is exceptional, finding a vivacious spirit and so much nuance as Amanda, who isn’t opposed to relive the same chemistry she had with an old boyfriend, even if it’s just for one night. As a pair, these two bring major context to what these characters had without the crutch of flashbacks. When they re-enter Jim’s untouched bedroom and press play on his old cassette-tape player, their listening to an old recording of the former couple pretending to be married gains insight into the history of Jim and Amanda’s then-relationship. The use of Annie Lennox’s “No More I Love You's” also manages to get one’s heart fluttering. 

Within the budgetary parameters of the formerly called mumblecore aesthetic, “Blue Jay” is refreshingly stripped-down filmmaking. It’s strikingly shot in nostalgic black and white and captures a sense of wistfulness with a few snapshots of small-town Americana. In stepping away from the film, it might not all dramatically stick, but at the same time, it is full of achingly bittersweet feeling in the smallest of moments that can’t help but be relatable. Even when wounds are opened and regrets are felt, it feels organic to Jim and Amanda's day-long interaction, and then there is a cathartic sense of closure or maybe even a vital, hopeful step toward another shot. The viewer is ultimately rewarded by just watching Mark Duplass and Sarah Paulson carry the film with help from the words of Duplass’ script and the subtle dance of Lehmann’s camera.


It Follows War: Sociopolitical climate and ghostly horror partner up in chilling "Under the Shadow"

Under the Shadow (2016)
84 min., rated PG-13.

Many who steer clear of the horror genre might forget or fail to even realize that it's often used to express real-life anxieties and more kinds of evil than just masked killers stalking and slicing up sex-starved teens. Beneath the scares, George A. Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” commented on 1968’s racism and 1974’s “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre” was Tobe Hooper’s response to government lies during the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. Now, take “Under the Shadow,” an Iranian horror film about the culture’s sociopolitical climate and female subjugation that marks the feature directorial debut of Iranian-born filmmaker Babak Anvari. Before the supernatural element of an Islamic spirit even creeps in, the setting in war-torn Tehran is frightening enough to make one worried for the safety of a mother and daughter. “Under the Shadow” admirably makes the claim that war and ghostly entities can work together to evoke terror in a horror film.

During the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988, Shideh (Narges Rashidi) is a wife and mother living in a Tehran apartment building. Returning home after being forced to quit medical school for her political protests over the revolution, she is frustrated to have to give up her career goals. When her doctor husband, Iraj (Bobby Naderi), is soon drafted to a military post, Shideh is relegated to a routine of working out with Jane Fonda on prohibited VHS and taking care of their young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) on her own. Each day, the people of Tehran are in alert with air raids and threatened by missile attacks, Shideh and Dorsa taking refuge with the neighbors in the basement of the building. Unlike other families in the complex, Shideh refuses to leave the city or their home, despite Iraj urging her to take Dorsa to stay with his parents. When a missile does hit on the top floor, it brings something with the wind — the wrath of a djinn.

Patiently directed by Babak Anvari, “Under the Shadow” is never turned into a dumbed-down box of scares. This is a welcome slow-burn, as the genre moments come gradually as an extension of the film’s already-horrific milieu. After Iraj is gone, the relationship between Shideh and Dorsa runs hot and cold. Before the djinn even makes its presence known, Dorsa’s favorite doll goes missing and then she comes down with a fever, and Shideh becomes very irritable after finding her workout video unspooled in the trash bin. Playing a woman stripped of her passion in the medical field and now restricted to her gender-based role, Narges Rashidi is excellent, remaining sympathetic even when her character hardens. When she has the chance to flee the home with Dorsa, Shideh doesn’t get too far, as she is stopped by police in the otherwise empty streets and taken to the station to be accused of being indecent for not wearing her hijab in public. Maybe she is better off staying put and defending herself from the malevolent imp.

A film as ambitious as “Under the Shadow” wants to have its horror both ways and, for the most part, earns it. Writer-director Anvari deftly suggests the notion that one evil spurs on another, and he doesn’t let one overshadow the other. Metaphorical or not, the presence of the djinn is alarming, particularly in a few instances. When Shideh wakes up to someone in bed next to her, it definitely isn’t her husband. The sight of the djinn wrapped in a printed fabric sheet is also used to jolting effect. Cinematographer Kit Fraser effectively creates a sense of claustrophobia, the windows in Shideh’s home all marked with tape in an X-shape never an option to escape. If it’s not quite as suffocatingly atmospheric or an unparalleled standout in the horror genre, “Under the Shadow” still packs a chilling punch, no matter where the audience lives.


Saturday, October 8, 2016

She's So Gone: "Girl on the Train" absorbing but not much more than well-acted potboiler

The Girl on the Train (2016)
112 min., rated R.

There is enough good over the duration of “The Girl on the Train” to keep this adaptation of Paula Hawkins’ 2015 novel on the rails, but with one caveat: expect less than meets the eye. As this twisty page-turner has been likened to “Gone Girl” and the supremely crafted 2014 film adaptation, there are thematic similarities but even more significant differences. Whereas director David Fincher’s verve, precision and wicked wit gave Gillian Flynn’s best-seller a delectable kick, director Tate Taylor (2011’s “The Help”) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (2014’s “Men, Women & Children”), who transplants the story’s setting from London to New York, don’t quite find the same success with Hawkins’ book. Part character study, part soapy melodrama, and part domestic whodunit, the film nevertheless lives up to the allure of the paperback pulp in the way everything unfolds to the strength of the performances of a uniformly attractive cast. When you get right down to it, “The Girl on the Train” winds up being a skillfully acted Lifetime potboiler without turning campy.

Twice a day, Rachel Watson (Emily Blunt) commutes from the suburbs to Manhattan for work by train. Each time, she looks at the houses adjacent to the tracks, particularly one that belongs to a seemingly perfect married couple whom she has never met. Being divorced and an alcoholic, Rachel loses herself when gazing from afar, wondering what their lives are like and wanting what they have. Said couple is pretty blonde Megan Hipwell (Haley Bennett) and husband Scott (Luke Evans), who look like they couldn’t be any more in love. Megan is a nanny two doors down to the baby of Rachel’s ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), and his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), with whom he was having an affair when still married. One of those mornings, Rachel sees Megan on her balcony kissing another man who isn’t Scott but maybe Megan’s therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Édgar Ramírez), but what happens later that day becomes fuzzy by her memory lapses when Rachel experiences another drunken blackout. It turns out that Megan has gone missing when Rachel is questioned by hard-nosed Detective Riley (Allison Janney). What's a girl on a train to do?

In its setup, “The Girl on the Train” gives the impression that it will play throughout as an emotionally rich character triptych with three unreliable narrators in the form of Rachel, Megan, and Anna. When it stays on this path and we follow Rachel's shaky perception of the other women, it is awfully intriguing. None of them are perfect, and all of them have either had a child, wanted a child but could not conceive, or never wished to have a child. And as for the men, all of them are red herrings, whether they are controlling or just suspicious, while there’s a real misandrist treatment of one of them. Above all (even the central murder mystery), Rachel’s journey toward psychological clarity is plenty absorbing. Over the course of the film, the details of Rachel’s tragedy are gradually revealed and allow her to be more empathetic. Like “Gone Girl,” part of the enticing thrill and fun here is peeling away the layers with its “Rashomon”-quality narrative structure that keeps weaving between time and perspectives to reveal each character’s salacious or tragic truth.

Bleary-eyed and admirably unglamorous, a well-cast Emily Blunt retains her British accent that only makes her Rachel even more of an outsider. Diving right in to play such a broken, pathetic, and flawed protagonist who may or may not be trusted, Emily Blunt is riveting, her raw and vivid work as a blackout drunk being the most noteworthy asset the film has to offer. Haley Bennett (2016’s “The Magnificent Seven”) gets to add shades of vulnerability to Megan, who could have just remained an objectified sexpot but holds far more complexity and insecurity. Anna isn’t nearly as fully drawn, but Rebecca Ferguson (2015’s “Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation”) brings some sympathy to an underwritten role that of a cold “other woman.” Luke Evans, Justin Theroux, and Édgar Ramírez all do what they can, while Laura Prepon, as Rachel’s roommate Cathy, acts as a voice of reason and then disappears halfway through for no reason.

Sleekly photographed (though Tate Taylor’s editorial choices are often questionable) and earning a boost from Danny Elfman’s uncharacteristic but fittingly haunting score, "The Girl on the Train" initially seems weighty before it settles for tawdry. Without the element of surprise, the film would not work at all. That isn’t to say that the final reveal of who was involved with Megan’s disappearance will come as a jaw-dropping shock—through the process of elimination, it might become clear to some more quickly than others—but the screenplay does a fair job of throwing the viewer off-balance beforehand and wringing tension out of how Rachel fits into the crime. While “The Girl on the Train” might not be the water-cooler thriller of 2016, it is most certainly pretty juicy guilty-pleasure trash. No matter the quality of the destination, the ride there is still worthwhile.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Don't Die: Nasty "31" an alternately numbing and rattling Rob Zombie freakshow

31 (2016)
102 min., rated R.

Having shown some maturation with 2013’s creepy, more artistically disciplined “The Lords of Salem,” auteur Rob Zombie harkens back to 2003's “House of 1000 Corpses” and 2005's "The Devil's Rejects." His latest effort blessedly doesn't feel as assaultive and thrown-together as the former, a shrill, unpleasant mess, nor is it on the same scripting level as the latter, the filmmaker's magnum opus. Rest assured, his crowd-funded and low-budgeted “31” is grimy, nasty and down-and-dirty but as pure and blunt as a grindhouse B-movie should be. Zombie leaves all hope and polish for dead, never playing it safe and caking his film in ugly grime yet again. The idea behind this one comes from Zombie reading a statistic that Halloween is the top day of the year where people go missing, so as a result, “31” is like “The Most Dangerous Game” with murderous clowns.

On Halloween 1976, a van of carnival workers headed to their next venue in the dusty Southwest is ambushed and kidnapped. When they come to, they become the victimized attractions for Father Murder (Malcolm McDowell), Sister Dragon (Judy Geeson), and Sister Serpent (Jane Carr), three wealthy Satanists in powdered wigs who wage bets on who can survive 12 hours in a labyrinthine factory. The name of the game is “31,” and once one sadistic clown is unleashed upon the remaining group at a time, all Charly (Sheri Moon Zombie), Venus (Meg Foster), Roscoe (Jeff Daniel Phillips), Panda (Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs), and Levon (Kevin Jackson) can do is pick their defensive weapon and not get cut into ribbons. It's kill or be killed, but the odds are not in their favor.

As uncomplicated plot loglines go, “31” is pretty much death-for-death’s-sake carnage with one goal for the protagonists: stay alive. The carnie “contestants” are thinly drawn but more appealingly colorful than most archetypal “Rob Zombie Movie” characters who usually just spout off oh-so-adorably crass things, however, we really only care by default whether they live or die. Luckily, Meg Foster’s earthy matriarch type Venus and a fierce Sheri Moon Zombie (the director’s wife, muse and lucky charm) as Charly get to be the main badasses.

The antagonists, though, are a more interesting lot. Where else are you going to find a Spanish-speaking midget Nazi named Sick-Head? E.G. Daily (best known for playing Dottie back in 1985’s “Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” and her endless voice credits, including Tommy Pickles from Nickelodeon’s “Rugrats”) gets to make 55 look like just a number and puts her own demented sexpot spin on Sex-Head, a dollfaced, lollipop-licking killer. Then, with his whole face smeared in white make-up and his shit-eating grin stained by his own blood, Richard Brake is the unsettling face of “31.” Established from the black-and-white pre-credit monologue where he blathers like a juicy Quentin Tarantino psychopath character before killing a priest, Brake’s work as talkative evil incarnate Doom-Head is scarily committed and disturbingly fascinating. Dressed as French aristocrats, Malcolm McDowell, Judy Geeson and Jane Carr are having a twisted ball as the game’s puppet masters but feel disconnected from the rest of the film, especially since they somehow have the ability to be omniscient spectators.

A visual mixed bag with enough striking, atmospheric imagery (for one, Rob Zombie knows how to light the hell out of a graffitied bathroom), “31” does not look like it could have been made by anyone else. As a horror filmmaker, he is skilled at injecting no-holds-barred danger and urgency in a cramped industrial space, not sparing anyone if he can help it and almost doing for Steven Tyler’s “Dream On” what he did with Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird” and its powerful usage in “The Devil’s Rejects.” Like in all of his films, except maybe “The Lords of Salem,” there is a trashy stridency that can be off-putting here, even if that's the point. The impact of some of the kills is also occasionally bungled by wildly spasmodic handheld camerawork and rapid-fire editing—two simultaneous fights with chainsaw-wielding clown brothers Schizo-Head (David Ury) and Psycho-Head (Lew Temple) barely hang by a coherent thread—but director Zombie has a recognizable artistic style and he’s sticking to it. Alternately numbing and rattling, “31” is a balls-to-the-wall, carnivalesque killing spree that doesn’t merely settle for in-your-face and goes for bludgeon-to-the-head. In other words, it’s probably exactly what Zombie fans will crave.

Grade: B -