Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How the West Became Lonely: "Certain Women" requires patience but it's unforced and beautifully acted

Certain Women (2016)
107 min., rated R.

If there has ever been a more respected indie filmmaker with a more distinct voice and knack for capturing truth on screen, it is writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt. Her films—2008’s “Wendy and Lucy,” 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff” and 2013’s “Night Moves,” to name a few—flow at an unhurried tempo and soak up every pause and small beat between human beings, but they completely reflect the time and place of the stories being told. Some find her cinematic approach fascinating and others find it to be the filmic equivalent of watching paint dry, as if still waiting for a structured story to be told. This being her sixth feature and the fifth in the same milieu, “Certain Women” is purely attuned to Reichardt’s muted, minimalist, more meditative sensibilities. A paean to the American West and everyday living with all of its rhythms and fine details, the film is quiet, languid, and beautifully acted, but there is also an unevenness to the overall storytelling and not as much payoff as there could have been. Then again, that lack of clean closure seems to always be a deliberate choice with an auteur like Reichardt.

Told with grace and careful observation in lieu of plot-driven momentum, “Certain Women” is a triptych about the female experience in Montana, adapted from a collection of short stories by author Maile Meloy. The characters aren't all directly connected but share a malaise and fatigue of always feeling underestimated. The first one introduced is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), an injury lawyer struggling with disabled client Fuller (Jared Harris). When he will not listen to her advice that she has been telling him for months, Fuller hears the same from a male lawyer that he can’t sue his company after he had already settled. In a rage, Fuller takes desperate measures, and Laura’s work is still not done. 

Then there’s Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), stuck in a stale marriage with husband Ryan (James Le Gros) with whom Laura is ending her affair. Currently living at a campsite with their teenage daughter while their new home is built, Gina and Ryan stop by the property of their senile family friend Albert (Rene Auberjonois). Gina persuades him to sell them a pile of sandstone for their new house, and while they do eventually get it, Albert consistently dismisses Gina and directs his attention to Ryan. Finally, there is Jamie (Lily Gladstone), an introverted winter ranch hand finding unexpected human connection with young lawyer Beth (Kristen Stewart), who drives four hours two days a week to the town of Belfry to teach a night class. Will each of these women find what they want, or are their desires out of reach?

To get something out of “Certain Women”—or, frankly, anything from Kelly Reichardt—the viewer is required to have patience with the dawdling pacing and long takes and encouraged to take each snapshot as an authentic, unforced slice of life rather than trying to detect any deeper purpose. There are no sweeping, event-filled incidents, just emotions that ring true and motivations that are more allusive. Fortunately, none of the stories follow traditional narrative guidelines. And as always, Reichardt is able to get exquisite performances out of her actors. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart all turn in diverse but very understated and lived-in work, as does newcomer Lily Gladstone who’s internal but fragile and heartbreaking. Aiding the lovely performances is the stunningly stark but frame-worthy cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt, the director's frequent collaborator who can find beauty in the vastness and isolation of Montana. Individually, the third story resonates more than the first two, as there is actual tension in seeing whether or not Beth will requite Jamie’s company, and it’s the only one that might have held up as a stand-alone film. As a cohesive tapestry of lives, “Certain Women” is low-key yet affecting and deeply human for as much as what is not said and what is actually said. For those keeping tally, it even passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test with flying colors.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Retro Love Potion: "The Love Witch" a fun, affectionately detailed kitsch throwback

The Love Witch (2016) 
120 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Much like Ti West’s 1980s-set “The House of the Devil” (2009), “The Love Witch” is wholly committed to invoking a very specific time and genre, only this time the melodramatic occult sexploitation pics of yore. Thanks to writer/producer/director/composer/editor/set and costume designer Anna Biller (2007's "Viva"), the film is a loving, fastidious throwback to a Technicolored bygone era, and unless one knew otherwise, it could have come straight out of a time capsule from the late-1960s and early-‘70s with cues to Italian horror and gothic Hammer Films. The overall experience might be a studied stylistic exercise and a gateway drug to play catch-up on the movies it is so affectionately saluting, but it’s an irresistible brew and should not be underestimated. "The Love Witch" needs to be devoured.

Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) has been reborn as a witch. Moving away from San Francisco after her ex-husband Jerry “left” her (read: she murdered him), she starts anew in a small California town by renting out her coven friend’s upstairs apartment of a Victorian mansion. Elaine craves love and has now honed a formula to lure men: give them what they want. New in town, she makes men turn their heads and do whatever she wants. The first man weakened by her sexuality is a professor named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and her love potion works on him, until he becomes more of an emotional baby than the real man she needs. Pretty soon, Elaine is burying Wayne in his backyard and then off to the next man. When the handsome Detective Griff (Gian Keys) gets on Wayne’s murder case, he is immediately bewitched by Elaine, as is Richard (Robert Seeley), the husband of realtor friend Trish (Laura Waddell). Can poor Elaine just find love without being burned for her black magic?

A feminist reflection with love potions, gender-equal nudity and kaleidoscopic fantasies, “The Love Witch” isn’t so much ersatz camp as it is a vivid recreation or a recently discovered artifact of its time. From the actors’ period-appropriate faces to their kitschy clothes to the style in which they speak, the film is a spot-on homage with a ruby-red lipsticked kiss on each frame. Having a clear eye for what she’s going for and knowing how to do it, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Anna Biller gets a whole lot of mileage out of such a small budget (she even stitched together Elaine’s pentagram rug). The stylish cinematography by M. David Mullen makes sure every color pops; even the camera zooms are nice touches and one transition from a bloody wrist to a strawberry cake at a Victorian tea room is a hoot. Aside from a few knowingly amusing anachronisms—there are a few street shots that clearly attempt to frame above contemporary cars, and at one point a character pulls out a cell phone—it gets away with posing as a film made in the ‘60s or ‘70s. 

The cast is a little green, but the performances are perfection in their stiffness and earnestness. With her black-as-ebony hair, blue eyeshadow and false eyelashes, Samantha Robinson is alluring and bewitching with a cheekily self-aware voice-over as Elaine, the epitome of a man’s fantasy who just wants to be loved. If one wants to nitpick at all, the film is a bit overlong at a full two hours. A tighter edit was probably somewhere in Biller—a sequence during Elaine’s coven’s Renaissance Faire in which she and Griff have a mock wedding goes on much too long—but when it is so transparent that every nook and cranny was made with care and love by a dedicated filmmaker, it would be hard to know where to trim something. One with a more extensive knowledge of the kind of cinema “The Love Witch” is tipping its hat to may get more out of it—Russ Meyer fans, raise your hands—but rabid cinephiles won’t be able to deny it as an erotic, dreamy curio. Does anyone else smell a cult classic in the making?

Grade: B +

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Strange Instinct: Isabelle Huppert spectacular in daring "Elle"

Elle (2016)
130 min., rated R.

Coming from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who has actually advanced with more arthouse fare after his long stream of Hollywood pictures—1987’s “Robocop,” 1992’s “Basic Instinct,” 1995’s “Showgirls” and 1997’s “Starship Troopers”—“Elle” is not a lurid, trashily entertaining rape-revenge thriller as one might expect. With Verhoeven attached, it was bound to push the envelope, but it is more daring, provocative and French than that. Even for a film that confronts such serious subject matter as rape, it is also darkly funny through Verhoeven’s perversely playful prism. Viewers will already know if “Elle” isn’t for them, and while it has uncomfortable ideas that only a provocateur would want to ponder, it’s more challenging than it is exploitative.

When a ski-masked male intruder rapes divorced mother Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), she reacts unusually. With blood running down her leg, she gets up, cleans up the broken glass, throws away her dress, and takes a bath. Rather than call the police and report the incident, Michèle just goes on about the rest of her night, having dinner with her adult son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who asks his mother for three months rent for an apartment with his awful, pregnant fiancee Josie (Alice Isaaz). The next day at work, where she’s a successful co-founder of a male-dominated video game company with best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), Michèle has a criticism when looking at a sample of a new video game in which a woman is violated: “the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid.” Later on, at dinner with Anna, Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) with whom Michèle is having an affair, and Michèle’s ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), Michèle tells her friends nonchalantly that she was assaulted like it’s regular dinner conversation. Eventually, she starts receiving text messages that imply her rapist isn’t too far and might strike again. This time, Michèle will be ready.

Before a single frame has even been glimpsed, the sounds of glass breaking, a woman screaming and a man grunting grabs the viewer’s attention. The first image is a black cat, as it indifferently watches its owner being brutally attacked and raped. Based on the novel by Philippe Djian and written by David Birke (2014’s “13 Sins”), “Elle” is a darkly absorbing character study that questions how one might respond differently to a personal sexual assault and almost invite back that trauma again. Michèle is self-sufficient and refuses to be a victim, taking the appropriate measures by getting the locks changed, sleeping with a hammer, learning how to shoot, and buying some pepper spray. As anyone might, she also replays the rape in her head, and sometimes, the outcome is different.

Isabelle Huppert is brilliant, making a numb, steely enigma like Michèle fascinating to watch and not unsympathetic. She is complicated, multifaceted and even contradictory, playing with her power of consent and proving her tremendous mettle. Her tortured backstory goes deeper, too; her father, a serial killer, has been in prison for thirty-nine years. Michèle refuses to get the police involved with her assault because there’s the fear that she will stir up the circus from her past and the infamy that has followed her entire life. The reveal of who forced himself upon Michèle isn’t that important. It’s even revealed surprisingly early on, proving that director Verhoeven has no interest in purely making a whodunit or a standard revenge thriller about a woman evening the score with her rapist. A true conversation starter, “Elle” is bold, brave and unpredictable, just like Isabelle Huppert.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Badder is Right: Unnecessary “Bad Santa 2” smells like dried-up vomit with fewer laughs

Bad Santa 2 (2016)
92 min., rated R.

Terry Zwigoff’s 2003 outrageously vulgar, wickedly dark comedy “Bad Santa” was a matter of taste, especially if one’s taste aligned more with the Grinch and his aversion to schmaltzy holiday cheer. It had perfectly tuned performances and there was a seedy, dementedly lighthearted charm about it. Thirteen years later, the distinctly inferior sequel “Bad Santa 2” instead seems half-hearted and almost completely charmless, taking a piss on what the first film managed so deftly. It’s about as rude, dirty-minded, and politically incorrect as its predecessor, but no longer bracing and not even half as funny. If 2016 is the year of belated sequels—“Zoolander 2,” “My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2,” "Finding Dory," “Independence Day: Resurgence” and “Bridget Jones’s Baby”—then “Bad Santa 2” might be the most unnecessary and worst of the lot. Plain and simple: this should have never been made.

A little over a decade later and staying out of jail even without "Mrs. Santa's sister" now out of the picture, the alcoholic, sex-obsessed, misanthropic Willie Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) still hasn’t changed his ways much. He’s living in Arizona and having trouble keeping a job without hitting the bottle. Right before putting his head in the oven and even attempting to hang himself, Willie agrees to a truce and one more score with released former partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox). This time, they are going to Chicago to steal from a charity organization, owned by married couple Diane (Christina Hendricks) and Regent Hastings (Ryan Hansen). Willie and Marcus will have to pretend to be volunteers and it’s Christmastime, so that means getting back into their Santa and Little Helper suits. There’s one more catch, though: Willie’s estranged mother, Sunny (Kathy Bates), is in on the heist; she’s as foul-mouthed and as much of a safe-cracking criminal as her son. To add even more traffic, good-hearted dimwit Thurman Murman (Brett Kelly), now a 21-year-old sandwich artist and still a virgin, shows up in the Windy City to be with Willie, his only family.

A sequel that nobody asked for and has no reason for being, “Bad Santa 2” is more of the same but very much less. As directed by Mark Waters (who has seen brighter days with 1997’s “The House of Yes,” the 2003 “Freaky Friday” remake and 2004’s “Mean Girls”) and scripted by Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross (2014’s “If I Stay”), the finished product proves that rehashing the same brand of shock humor will not make lightning strike twice. Everything feels regifted and perfunctory. There was clearly no more story to tell, and whose bright idea was it to separate Willie and Thurman for such a large chunk of the film? Strangely enough, the characters haven’t evolved or learned anything at all, and that’s fine, but they are much less amusing and root-worthy, just mean and unpleasant to hang out with. Some of the filthy insults by Willie and Sunny provide zing, but spouting off the F-word a half-dozen different ways just isn't the same as constructing a joke. Most of the gags are flat and threadbare, leaving room after every intended punchline for a laugh track that never comes. 

Watching Billy Bob Thornton reprise his role as miserable boozehound Willie Soke, it is a challenge to decide whether he’s so in tune to his character or just bored and not having any of it. Thirteen years ago, Willie was still an asshole who just looked like he hadn’t showered in weeks and reeked of Jack Daniels, cigarettes and his own urine, but he was an interesting and unapologetic asshole, both pathetic and with glimmers of humanity. Thornton is just going through the motions here, and ditto for Tony Cox. The only major difference here is that Willie and Marcus fight over a naughty, plus-sized security guard (Jenny Zigrino). No longer nine years old with a runny nose, Brett Kelly’s pudgy, unstoppably inquisitive Thurman Murman is just as endearingly sweet but even more clueless and maybe residing somewhere on the spectrum. Save for one nice moment where Thurman gets the opportunity to sing at the charity’s Christmas pageant, there is something depressing this time around about a character being older and even dimmer (he still wants Willie to pop his cherry, even though Willie explains that he can't directly help him with that).

Without the involvement of director Terry Zwigoff and screenwriters John Requa & Glenn Ficarra, it would have been wise to leave “Bad Santa” as a one-off. And yet, here we are with a sloppy, faded knockoff that tragically has little to recommend it. Not even the end credits' series of "tea-bagging" photos can turn a frown upside down. As if it needs to be said, this is not anyone's proudest work. Kathy Bates is game to play crass as Willie’s tattooed, invective mother, who lives to give her mistake of a son a verbal bruising, but even she can’t elevate the lame material; she gets to talk about anal sex and handle a vibrator, so the actress can finally cross those off her bucket list. With Lauren Graham long gone as the bartender who saw some good in Willie and liked screwing him in his Santa suit, Christina Hendricks is a luminous, impressively buxom presence but so ill-used in a thankless love-interest role. After it is revealed that she is a recovering alcoholic herself and extremely sex-starved, Diane becomes nothing more than a self-loathing body for Willie to bump and grind with next to an alleyway dumpster. A hopeless shadow of its former self where everyone should have known better, “Bad Santa 2” won’t be making anyone’s yearly Christmas movie rotation, but perhaps it will be a contender on another list at the end of the year.

Grade: D +

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Teenage Woes: "Edge of Seventeen" a genre breakthrough with smart script and Steinfeld's appealingly acerbic turn

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
104 min., rated R.

Teenage angst is hardly a beacon of originality in the annals of high school cinema, but most paramount is in how it is executed. Like what 1995’s “Clueless” did for Alicia Silverstone, 2010’s “Easy A” for Emma Stone and, most recently, 2015’s “The DUFF” for Mae Whitman, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a delightful showcase for Hailee Steinfeld, who hasn’t had a role this rich and appealing since her Oscar-nominated screen debut in 2010’s “True Grit.” Beyond just a mere vehicle to watch the teenage actress shine in a lead role, the film breaks ground by pinpointing exactly how it feels to be a teenager, from first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig’s script that observes and crackles with wit, edge and wisdom. Far from being just another trite, generic teen movie, “The Edge of Seventeen” deserves to be seen by anyone who has ever been a teenager, whether that ship has sailed twelve years or forty years ago.

A self-loathing self-proclaimed “old soul,” 17-year-old Nadine Byrd (Hailee Steinfeld) has never had it easy, and she has never been one to mince words. Since the 2nd grade, she has only really had her best friend, Krista (Haley Lu Richardson), and her supportive, fun-loving father (Eric Keenleyside) as her two lifelines. Five years after being a witness to her father’s fatal heart attack, Nadine grew up but realizes life as a teenager only gets worse from there. She still lives in the shadow of her popular, good-looking jock of a brother, Darian (Blake Jenner), not helped by her mother (Kyra Sedgwick) always doting the golden sibling and playing favorite. When Nadine discovers that Krista has hooked up with Darian and actually starts dating him, her world suddenly implodes and she feels alone.

Honest, affecting and whip-smart, “The Edge of Seventeen” is a breath of fresh air that flips the script of the coming-of-age dramedy majority. From the growing pains, to the awkwardness in social situations, to everything feeling important and magnified when things don’t go one’s way, the film gets the teenage experience right and captures the minor little details that some teen comedies might forget. Though all of that makes it sound very banal and full of bittersweet emotion, it is also very funny from how snappily acerbic yet authentic the dialogue reads when spoken by a hyper-verbal species of characters. Any of these people on screen could have played as types, too, but there is compassion for all, and it’s a testament to the cast being granted wonderful writing that allows each of them time and nuanced beats to fully form their characters. 

As a movie character, Nadine is a true original with a voice and style all her own. In charge of bringing life to the lead role, Hailee Steinfeld is disarming and completely sympathetic, naturally likable and yet so game to let Nadine’s angsty flaws hang out. Even though our protagonist is a relatable outsider, the film allows Nadine to be petty, selfish, uninhibited, complicated and even self-absorbed. Besides, we don't go to the movies to see characters do the right thing or act like an angel all the time. As she later evolves on her own time, the viewer never stops caring and rooting for her to regain her footing. Woody Harrelson is a terrifically lovable foil for Steinfeld’s Nadine, taking it and dishing it out and just being a good listener as sardonic, cooler-than-most history teacher Mr. Bruner. The two of them have such an effortless teacher-student back-and-forth together that one has no problem buying the time Nadine tries using her father’s five-years-too-late death as an excuse to why she was absent in class to which Mr. Bruner responds with a smart-ass quip that somehow doesn’t come off mean-spirited or insensitive. Same goes for Nadine coming to him for advice after mistakenly sending a dirty text message to her bad-boy crush, Nick (Alexander Calvert), that describes in detail what she wants to do to him and what she wants him to do to her in his pet-store workplace.

No one is a villain here, not even Nadine’s mother Mona or brother Darian, nicely played by Kyra Sedgwick and Blake Jenner (2016’s “Everybody Wants Some!!”), respectively, who are drawn with more depth than at first meets the eye. Haley Lu Richardson (2016’s “The Bronze”) also has a radiant spark about her as Krista, who doesn’t intentionally betray Nadine but merely follows her own passion. Like nearly every character, we see where Krista is coming from. Finally but surely not least, relative newcomer Hayden Szeto is a major find as Erwin Kim, an artistically talented but awkwardly flirtatious classmate who has always held a torch for Nadine. Adorably quirky and exceedingly charismatic, Szeto holds the viewer in a grinning frenzy with every line or facial expression he owns. Erwin happens to be Asian, and yet, his ethnicity is never stereotyped or commented on, and never forces the character into a broad, cartoonish box; he isn't Long Duk Dong all over again.

“The Edge of Seventeen” ends with the perfect balance of sweetness and tidiness, hitting the necessary beats without ever turning maudlin. Writer-director Kelly Fremon Craig packs in lovely final notes between Nadine, her mother, her brother and best friend, but the one between her and Erwin is the most blissful as a counterpoint to Nadine feeling left out at a party when she tags along with Darian and Krista. There is no bet, no prom, and no world-stopping speech in front of a crowd that demands a slow clap. It is a special film, the kind that could certainly define a generation and gain instant rewatchability because it most definitely makes the viewer laugh and feel moved in a single sitting. It may be about a 17-year-old girl, but the close-minded notion that “The Edge of Seventeen” looks like nothing more than a light, snarky diversion couldn’t be further from the truth.

Grade: A - 

Friday, November 18, 2016

Sturdy Neck: Teller sells it in familiar but solid “Bleed for This”

Bleed for This (2016)
116 min., rated R.

Boxing dramas seem to be biannual offerings now, what with Roberto Duran biopic “Hands of Stone” earlier this year and 2015’s one-two punch of “Southpaw” and “Creed.” “Bleed for This” can now be added to the list, it being the untold true story of World Champion Boxer Vinny Pazienza. There is the nagging feeling of déjà vu, but writer-director Ben Younger (2005’s “Prime”) gives Miles Teller a showy opportunity to be brash and scrappy. As much as we don’t really need the ninety-sixth movie—okay, that’s hyperbole—about a boxing underdog taken down by hard times and then beating the odds, “Bleed for This” makes up for its hardly remarkable narrative outline by being well-told and solidly acted. 

In 1988, too-big-for-his-britches Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), known as “the Pazmanian Devil,” was still struggling to make a name for himself as a boxer from Providence, Rhode Island. His father, Angelo (Ciarán Hinds), has his back, but manager Lou Dova (Ted Levine) is ready to call it quits on Vinny. Three years later, Vinny finds former Mike Tyson trainer Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart), who helps him make rank in the junior middleweight division. Shortly after winning two bouts that earned him the lightweight and middleweight champion belts, he becomes severely injured in a car accident, fracturing his neck. With a spinal fusion procedure, the doctor tells Vinny that he might never walk again, let alone fight. He is forced to wear a halo brace screwed into his skull, for six months, but during this time, Vinny goes against the doctor’s orders and starts up his old workout regime with Kevin’s help. Through his physical adversities, the Pazmanian Devil keeps his eyes on the prize.

For its first 45 minutes or so, “Bleed for This” feels like a rote, too-familiar rehash, learning everything it knows from past genre entries and barely warranting a reason why Vinny Pazienza should matter as a figure in the boxing arena. Change the names and locations, and the film virtually ticks all the boxes akin to so many movies before it. And then, the story actually begins at the end of the first act with Vinnie’s comeback and gets more compelling and a little more distinctive. As Vinny is burdened by wearing a halo, he still goes out in public and wants to train and lift again, but his strength just isn’t what it used to be. Once the halo comes off, nobody in his gym wants to spar with him, afraid that they could put him back in the hospital. Cocky and stubborn, Vinny doesn’t want to do anything else but fight. Without meeting him, it seems like Miles Teller’s first nature to be a live-wire. Ever since his sensitive, empathetic work in 2010’s “Rabbit Hole,” the 29-year-old actor has proven himself to be a tremendous find, always bringing a great deal of range, complexity and charisma to every role he’s taken on. In the non-fictional role of Vinny Pazienza, Teller brings a lot of bravado, apart from the fact that he bulked-up at the gym and grew a wispy mustache. (It seems worth noting that Teller, whose facial scars that have always been noticeable, was in an auto accident in 2007, prior to his career taking off, and now four of his films have all involved his character being in one.) 

In the way Miles Teller depicts him, Vinny is refreshingly never painted as a one-dimensional saint. He is a hard guy to keep down, brass-balled as he is willful with a gambling vice. Even as the script doesn’t provide anyone else with quite enough depth, all the supporting actors actualize their roles with just enough color and little artifice. They include a very notable Aaron Eckhart, balding and beer-bellied as Vinny’s perpetually sozzled coach Kevin Rooney; Katey Sagal as Louise, Vinny’s worried mother and a devout Catholic who prays in her holy alcove to avoid seeing her son get hurt on TV; Ciarán Hinds, mostly tiptoeing around broad cartoonishness as Vinny’s father Angelo; and Ted Levine, who’s even more unrecognizable than Eckhart until one recognizes that distinctly deep voice as Vinny’s manager. As for all of the attractive young women in Pazienza’s life, they are too disposable and interchangeable to be active participants in the story; after a snappy Christine Evangelista as the gum-chewing Ashley seems like she might matter later on, she disappears altogether without mention and replaced by new arm candy who, in turn, becomes replaced.

Without doing any pre-viewing research to see what was glossed over, writer-director Ben Younger still gets more right than wrong. Unlike the well-acted but dreary slog that was “Southpaw,” there are welcome spurts of humor here. Even when the scenes in the ring are never as dynamically captured as they were in 2015’s “Creed” or as brutally violent in “Southpaw,” the last bout in particular packs punch. The car accident itself is startlingly executed, happening as quickly as most crashes, and the scenes around the dinner table of a loud Italian working-class family are very convincing, The period of the late-1980s and early-‘90s is also vivid, from the cars to the acid-washed jeans to the musical choices. Regardless of this being based on a true story, “Bleed for This” doesn’t redefine the filmic form. It does, however, deliver the goods, particularly for boxing-drama completists.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Before Potter: "Fantastic Beasts" casts a whimsical, transportive spell

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
132 min., rated PG-13.

After the “Harry Potter” films, adapted from J.K. Rowling’s seven books, came to an end with “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2” in 2011, Warner Bros. was quick to announce a project with the adaptation of Rowling’s 2001 book, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.” A spin-off taking place in the same wizard universe—“Potterverse,” right?—but set earlier in America during 1926, the film is pretty fantastic, indeed, even as the first installment and inevitable placeholder of a planned five-film franchise. Harry, Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley have not even been enrolled at Hogwarts, let alone been born, just yet, but despite an initially uneven handling of characters and story, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” is a rapturous and whimsical fantasy-adventure full of magic and charm to spare.

In Europe, Gellert Grindelwald—one of the most dangerous wizards second to Lord Voldemort—is wreaking havoc. As for British Ministry of Magic magizoologist Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), he is traveling the globe in search of all kinds of magical creatures. He sets foot in New York City, carrying a suitcase full of them that are dying to get out. At the local bank, he runs into Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), a war vet and factory worker hoping to get a loan to open his bakery, and they inadvertently switch suitcases. Following Newt is Tina “Porpentina” Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror working for the Magical Congress of the United States of America in the office. When Jacob opens the case and unleashes the creatures, he must set off on a wild goose chase with Newt, Tina, and Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sudol). Meanwhile, head Auror Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) is trying to track down the culprit who’s turned his or her dark magic on the city and turns to Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), the adopted son of abusive anti-witch group leader Mary Lou (Samantha Morton).

A warm sense of comfort and excitement should fall over audiences as the music score announces familiarity to “Harry Potter,” while being accompanied by the Warner Bros. Pictures logo coming toward the screen. Considering the basis for the film claimed to be a textbook authored by one Newt Scamander, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” has been wondrously conceived and executed as written for the screen by J.K. Rowling herself and directed by David Yates. As packed as Newt’s suitcase, the film doesn’t always have quite the same balance as the “Harry Potter” films, which, granted, grew better in quality over ten years. There is a wide array of characters to keep track of, most of them coming to life, but some do leave more development to be desired and others need not exist for this chapter (Jon Voight's Henry Shaw, Sr. and his two sons have no real bearing on anything). Having steered the final four of the “Harry Potter” movies, director Yates runs into no issues carrying over the same kind of wonder and an alternately lighthearted and foreboding tone, while moving the several plot strands along with lively pacing. The viewer easily picks up on new glossary terms, similar to those from J.K. Rowling’s “other” story (i.e. “No-Majs” are the American version of “Muggles,” or non-wizard folk), and there are numerous beasts of all shapes, sizes, and colors to meet (one cute platypus-looking critter called a “niffler” likes seeking anything shiny and expensive).

Taking a rest from playing real-life figures in prestige pictures, Eddie Redmayne is nonetheless secure in the skin of a character as wide-eyed, eccentric and introverted as Newt Scamander. As take-charge Tina Goldstein, Katherine Waterston is no-nonsense but charming; she’s a less conventional choice but the right one. There is a vague attempt to wedge in a romance between Newt and Tina, but it doesn’t quite get there, and that’s a relief. Though he has worked since, Dan Fogler has come such a long way since his boisterous—nay, obnoxious—turn in 2007’s ping-pong comedy “Balls of Fury” that one can’t believe it is the same person. Here, as “No-Maj” Jacob Kowalski who can’t stop looking at everything in disbelief, Fogler isn’t just very funny with wonderful timing for Charlie Chaplin-era comedy but sweet, endearing and lovable. The new discovery in the cast is Alison Sudol (Amazon’s “Transparent”), who’s a fetching delight with a sensual giggle like Marilyn Monroe as Queenie, Tina’s bubbly psychic sister and roommate who takes up a flirtatious liking to Jacob. When they are given the chance, Fogler and Sudol have the most spark and steal their scenes right from under Redmayne and Waterston, who are ostensibly the leads. In no-less-pivotal roles, Colin Farrell is suavely mysterious as the possibly distrustful Percival Graves, and Ezra Miller is darkly intriguing as the troubled Credence Barebone.

If any quibbles befall the overall success of “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” the climactic scenes go on a hair too long with too much exposure of the swirling darkness that is taking over New York, not much different from the city destruction in any Marvel movie. Otherwise, the film puts its $225 million budget to complete use, but none of that would matter were the casting not this peerless and the storytelling not this engagingly interwoven. From there, the visual effects are as top-notch as one has come to expect in the fantasy genre, and the set-pieces are robust and thrillingly immersive; the interior of Newt’s suitcase is a particular marvel to behold. James Newton Howard’s music score is also a rousing one, combining not only strains of John Williams but occasionally feeling Danny Elfmanesque. Whether one is already well-versed in everything Rowling has created or not, “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” casts a very enchanting spell and transports one to a world they aren’t ready to leave when it’s over.

Grade: B +

Monday, November 14, 2016

Love Thy Monster: Strongly acted "The Monster" more tense as drama than horror-show

The Monster (2016)
91 min., rated R.

Under the guise of a “Cujo”-like monster movie, “The Monster” is a hard-hitting, bleakly life-affirming drama about a mother and daughter testing their relationship. Skillfully made and deceptively simple, the film was written and directed by Bryan Bertino (2014’s “Mockingbird"), who clearly had more on his mind than just making a basic, violent horror-show. Back in 2008, Bertino made the unnerving, effectively minimalist home-invasion suspenser “The Strangers.” That was a scarier, more realistic effort, but similar to that film, two characters are already in a tense place with each other before they are terrorized, so forget the calm before the storm. Here, however, the emotional wounds within a contentious mother-daughter relationship overshadow the terror with the monster in the woods. 

Making the decision to give up custody of her own child, single alcoholic mother Kathy (Zoe Kazan) is making the drive to drop off daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentine) to live with the father (Scott Speedman). They’re running late, and as it grows darker, it begins to rain. When a wolf races out into the middle of the road, Kathy swerves and gets them into a wreck. Aside from Lizzy being shaken up and Kathy hurting her wrist, the car will not start, so Kathy makes her daughter call an ambulance. Help first arrives in the form of a mechanic, but the wolf carcass has disappeared from the road. Something toothy and hungry awaits them in the darkness — and when it rains, it pours.

Through a flashback structure, “The Monster” capably fleshes out the pain and love in this strained, toxic relationship. It is pretty clear who is really the mother and who is the child. Even before facing the monster in the woods, Lizzy’s growth and responsibility have already accelerated, based on her upbringing. If any good has come of Kathy’s tough love, it makes Lizzy stronger and shapes who she is now. Mindfully placed against the present scenes in the woods, the scenes in the past are frightening on a more human level and bring the proper context that the viewer needs. A particular spat between the two that turns into a vicious screaming match is, believe it or not, more disturbing than a monster ripping off someone's limbs.

Marking a major against-type role, Zoe Kazan (2014’s “What If”) is fierce but still human, playing Kathy truthfully and unflinchingly. This selfish, volatile young woman seems to have always put being a warm and supportive parent last, but when coming to face with something extraordinarily dangerous, Kathy cannot help but return to being maternal. Mature beyond her years and reminding of a young Reese Witherspoon, Ella Ballentine is exceptional as the strong-willed Lizzy. The 15-year-old actress is an immense find, more than up to the task of carrying her weight alongside her more experienced screen mother. Since there has to be a body count, there are doomed characters who come in to potentially save Kathy and Lizzy—like tow truck driver Jesse (Aaron Douglas) and two paramedics—and Scott Speedman appears in flashback as Lizzy’s father. Largely, though, this is a showpiece for Kazan and Ballentine, who bounce between loathing and loving like a real mother and daughter.

“The Monster” is fairly standard but still not-bad when our characters must confront the literal monster. Writer-director Bryan Bertino is smart about not tacking on exposition about the shadowy creature and its origins. It is real but clearly a device, acting as a metaphor for Kathy’s addiction that has wedged itself between her and Lizzy; this isn’t unlike 2014’s “The Babadook,” which—spoiler alert!—used its title boogeyman as a manifestation of a mother’s grief and trauma used against her son. Helping the cause, too, is that the mini-Godzilla-like beast isn’t a CG creation but executed with practical effects. Bertino certainly has a way with mood and atmosphere in the rain, working with cinematographer Julie Kirkwood (2016’s “I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House”) to slowly crank the tension as the viewer waits with Kathy and Lizzy until the monster pounces. Actually, though, “The Monster” is unexpectedly moving—and better—when focusing on Kathy and Lizzy, and Kathy and Lizzy alone. 

Grade: B - 

Friday, November 11, 2016

First Contact: Poignant, entrancingly mounted "Arrival" moves and challenges

Arrival (2016)
116 min., rated PG-13.

Made evident by his excellent and distinctly different last three films (2013’s “Prisoners,” 2014’s “Enemy” and 2015’s “Sicario”), Denis Villeneuve has the vision of a filmmaker who knows exactly what he is doing and never talks down to his audience. He always goes the route of retaining his artistic integrity rather than giving in to commercial convention. Adapted from Ted Chiang’s 1998 short story “Story of Your Life” by screenwriter Eric Heisserer (2016’s “Lights Out”), “Arrival” is ambitious and entrancingly mounted, an event of thinking-person’s science fiction that’s as much of an existential and language study as it is about the human condition. Not attempted often enough in the Hollywood studio system, it has so much in its heart but also far more on its mind than most genre offerings about an alien invasion without being coolly detached and merely cerebral.

Following the untimely death of her 12-year-old daughter, linguistics professor Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) walks through a proverbial fog. On a seemingly ordinary day, she goes into her lecture hall to teach, but as her students’ cell phones start blowing up with breaking news, Louise finally turns on the TV to discover the world in a state of emergency. Twelve objects are seen hovering all over the world. When she is approached by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Louise is asked translate a recorded message from an alien species, but that’s only the beginning. Before long, Louise is picked up in the middle of the night from her lakeside home in a helicopter. Along with mathematician Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), they land at a military camp in Montana. Communicating with the alien heptapods that reside in those UFOs will first mean decoding their language and then discovering the purpose of the invaders’ visit. Why are they here? Do they even understand a question?

“Arrival” synthesizes its emotions and philosophical ideas with an elegiac, artistically restrained mood and every cinematic accomplishment working to the highest order. Insisting on never dumbing things down and really respecting his audience’s intelligence, the film can be as fascinatingly cagey as anything in Denis Villeneuve’s oeuvre, but he excels at telling a story that works on multiple levels, affecting the heart next to challenging the brain. The storytelling is not 100% linear, blurring the divisions between time and memory, beginnings and endings, and yet, it’s circular and smartly handled. What comes at the end initially feels jarring and almost rushed, ready to make an emotional impact, however, on second thought, it is so much more fluidly constructed, thoughtfully considered and surprising than the equivalent of a magic trick. The film might lose viewers who reject paying attention or doing any of the legwork—there is a lot of scientific process without any of it coming across as unnatural exposition—but Villeneuve assures that all will be clarified, or at least suggested, and still leave something to ponder and evaluate with repeat viewings.

Eloquently composed from the first frame by DP Bradford Young (2013’s “Ain’t Them Body Saints”), the film is rich with palpable portent and hope. The early scenes of Louise and her students watching live coverage of what’s going on outside is eerie, evoking the feeling of confusion and panic in a closed classroom during 9/11. There is an alluring, stunningly ominous stillness to the sight of the oval-shaped vessels hovering just above the ground. The first time Louise, Ian, Colonel Weber, and the rest of their team enter the extraterrestrial ship, leaping upward with a shift in gravity and walking down a long hallway to a glass window full of light and smoke, is breathlessly tense and does truly inspire awe and wonder. There’s also an underwater effect in the heptapods’ ship that is unlike anything else. Guiding Villeneuve’s own cinematic language further are the superb technical merits and a chillingly ethereal music score composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, as well as the mournful, incredibly moving use of Max Richter’s composition “On the Nature of Daylight.”

Never one to strike a false beat, Amy Adams is understated and powerful as Dr. Louise Banks, layering a lonely woman who’s recovering from her personal loss and doing the best she can. When she is one of the few people who can help in a global emergency, Louise must use her expertise and open-mindedness. Fatigued and overworked, she also keeps slipping in between the present and her memories, hearing and seeing her daughter. It’s a mesmerizingly internal performance to which Adams brings warmth and compassion, tender vulnerability, laser-focused passion, and commanding gravitas. Jeremy Renner provides much-needed levity and a calming magnetism as Ian. As Louise and Ian work closely together, it becomes their common goal to learn the alien beings’ Rorschach inkblot-like language and even take enjoyment in their work by dubbing the two creatures “Abbott and Costello.” As it were, their discoveries are ours. 

Thematically more in step with “Contact,” Signs,” and “Interstellar” than “Independence Day” or “War of the Worlds,” “Arrival” is a tingly rarity in science fiction that doesn’t come around every year. To those predisposed to expecting a sci-fi film with fast thrills and alien slime, it could be seen as ponderous or maybe even head-scratching. Instead, one should open their mind to what Villeneuve does differently with a methodic build and lofty ambition that reward with stimulating payoff. Patient and ruminative, poignant and achingly human, “Arrival” stands tall as another lingering achievement from a thrillingly original filmmaker.

Grade: A -