Friday, June 30, 2017

Despicable Twins: "Despicable Me 3" likable enough but quite scattered

Despicable Me 3 (2017)
90 min., rated PG.

The world could always live without a third “Despicable Me,” but as long as it fills a niche for the family film market and rakes in satisfying box-office sales, Universal Pictures and Illumination Entertainment will keep making them. If 2013’s “Despicable Me 2” felt overstuffed but was still enjoyable, “Despicable Me 3” is a tacked-on sequel that’s amusing but ultimately disposable. The same directorial team, Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud, and screenwriters, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, remain faithful to the runaway-hit animated series but achieve even more scattershot diminishing returns. Speaking of “diminishing,” the yellow, pill-shaped, gibberish-speaking Minions, which were thought to be more effective in small, pill-sized doses, are actually missed with their reduced screen time, even after their inspiredly silly 2015 feature-length spin-off.

As Anti-Villain League agents, Gru (Steve Carell) and Lucy (Kristen Wiig)—or, as Lucy calls them, “Grucy”—are living happily together with his three adopted daughters. The reformed villain and his wife are soon both fired from the AVL after they fail to catch international supervillain Balthazar Bratt (Trey Parker), a washed-up 1980s child star who uses bubblegum as his most dangerous weapon. When Gru discovers he has a twin brother he never knew he had, he takes his family to meet his other half, the cheerfully rich Dru (Steve Carell again), sporting wavy blonde hair and living in the country of Freedonia. Meanwhile, Gru’s Minions end up in prison; Lucy wants to be a good mom and have mother-daughter time; Gru’s eldest daughter, Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), misinterprets a marriage proposal from a local boy her age; and the youngest, Agnes (Nev Scharrel), wants to find a unicorn. With the brothers reunited and bonding, Gru desires getting his villainous mojo back by stealing a diamond with the help of Dru from Balthazar Bratt.

While “Despicable Me 3” is still too likable to be unendurable, there is far too much going on. When Gru tells Dru to focus, he might as well have been talking about the film itself. The script makes sure almost every character has something to do with a subplot after subplot, but it is at the cost of finding a focal point and everything vying for attention. The creation of Dru comes off more as a marketing gimmick and the opportunity for Steve Carell to play double-duty. Outside of some cute slapstick antics with the spandex-clad Gru and Dru attempting to pull off their first caper together, the makers don’t quite know what to do with Dru and don’t earn the twin brothers’ relationship as the emotional center. Sure, the target audience—every child that giggled at the Minions’ fart joke during the studio logo—will lap him up because, honestly, kids are amused by everything, but adults should get more of a kick out of the ‘80s nostalgia of Balthazar Bratt, who has a fondness for Michael Jackson and “dance fighting” his enemy. Voiced by Trey Parker, the purple jumpsuit-wearing shoulder-padded, mulleted-yet-balding Bratt is the most fun and comically inspired villain this series has seen.

There are zany, mischievous pleasures scattered throughout, and anything with the Minions is a highlight, including their trespassing into an “American Idol”-esque TV show and opera performance of “The Pirates of Penzance” that gets them thrown into prison. For the third time, Steve Carell is comfortable without being perfunctory as the European-accented Gru and seems to be having double the fun, now voicing needle-nosed twin brother Dru. Kristen Wiig also remains engaged in her daffy vocal work as Lucy. Get rid of Dru and up the participation of the Minions, and “Despicable Me 3” might have been even better off. As frantically paced and splashily animated as its predecessors, it’s still not bad as amiable trifles go. Hopefully the flash of a fake movie billboard for “Onions”—clearly modeled after the Minions in tear-producing vegetable form—is a sneak peek at what the Illumination animators can do beyond a fourth “Despicable Me” installment.

Grade: C +

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Hot for Soldier: "The Beguiled" cunning, richly textured and simmering with carnal tension

The Beguiled (2017) 
93 min., rated R.

Throughout her entire career working behind the camera—1999’s “The Virgin Suicides,” 2003’s “Lost in Translation,” 2006’s “Marie Antoinette,” 2010’s “Somewhere” and 2013’s “The Bling Ring”—filmmaking auteur Sofia Coppola has forever displayed a command of tone and a rich mood with an observant eye, a fondness for languid pacing, and artistic choices that feel like the right ones. Her latest, “The Beguiled,” lends itself to her personal touch, and while it is the second adaptation of Thomas Cullinan’s 1966 novel, a female perspective behind this thematically loaded material makes a detectable difference and makes the film's existence necessary. Never the overheated melodrama that was Don Siegel’s more explicit 1971 potboiler of the same name with Clint Eastwood, writer-director Coppola’s handsomely shot, exquisitely acted and defiantly feminine version of “The Beguiled” more than lives up to the name with cunning restraint.

Three years into the Civil War in 1864, Virginia, the orphaned young ladies of Farnsworth Seminary carry on with their French lesson and outdoor chores as young Amy (Oona Laurence) goes out to pick a basket of mushrooms in the woods but returns with a wounded Union soldier. The Yankee is Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell), an Irish immigrant in need of serious medical attention. Under the thumb of stern headmistress Miss Martha Farnsworth (Nicole Kidman), the girls are divided in their views on taking John in until he’s in good health or hanging a blue rag on their plantation’s gag to signal the presence of an enemy soldier to the Confederates. Harboring the soldier in the music room, Miss Martha decides to stitch up his wounds and bathe him in hopes that he will have a speedy recovery and departure. Not used to having a visitor, especially one that is a man, the girls are all affected by John, and for giggly teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) and repressed teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), pent-up feelings begin bubbling to the surface. When his leg heals, John doesn’t just leave yet but tends to the garden, while some of the ladies show him some “real Southern hospitality.” Does John mean any harm?

Stripped down to sexually charged inference, “The Beguiled” is tangibly soaked in longing and Deep South humidity but also peppered with a sly cheekiness. Although Sofia Coppola excised the flashbacks, the internal monologues of the women, and the existence of the seminary’s black slave—this time, Amy has a line that logically and efficiently explains that the slaves have left—she retains a lot of the same lines of dialogue and most of the same narrative beats, and yet, still makes the film her own without inviting the viewer to compare the 1971 and 2017 films as the latter plays out. Even with a bodice-ripping moment of passion and a close-up of a flesh wound, this period Southern Gothic tale suggests more than it shows, and it’s more impactful for it. Coppola still keeps the carnal tension and sense of jealousy simmering inside the school-turned-hotbed, adding more nuance this time around, so that none of the female characters feel boxed in as wicked harpies or undersexed spinsters.

Consistent with every one of her films, Coppola wrings sterling performances from her performers who all work on a level of naturalism. Leading the brood is Nicole Kidman, deliciously fierce but suggestive as Miss Martha Farnsworth, who does not mince words with an “unwanted visitor” in her house but might feel different with a man in the house since her husband died in the war. As buttoned-up Edwina, Kirsten Dunst is outstanding in her aching desire to be taken away by John, who could be her only chance. There’s always something particularly beguiling about Elle Fanning (who previously worked with Coppola on “Somewhere”), as the libidinous Alicia who can barely contain her recently discovered sexuality and flirtatious urges that could get her in trouble. This is an ensemble piece, each character in the all-girls seminary filled by young talent, including the wonderfully unaffected Oona Laurence (2015's "Southpaw"), as Amy who tries seeing the good in John; Angourie Rice, who held her own and stole scenes opposite Ryan Gosling in 2016’s “The Nice Guys," as the musically inclined Jane; Addison Riecke, as Marie; and Emma Howard, as Emily. As the seductive and potentially dangerous stranger, Colin Farrell is the one being objectified here and effectively keeps John McBurney’s true colors and motivations ambiguous to the very end. Like the casting of a ruggedly sexy 40-year-old Clint Eastwood in the ’71 version, one can certainly see what the women in this film see in the charming, easy-on-the-eyes Farrell.

“The Beguiled” is almost a touch too tasteful when it seems on the verge of growing darker and kinkier, but there is still a devilish sense of manipulation behind the polite smiles and serving of apple pie. Never have so many unspoken glances and the sight of a woman washing a man’s body felt so sensuous and forbidden. At the Farnsworth Seminary, which is like a prison away from the outside world, there hasn’t been a man around, so when one finally shows up, all of the women like having one around. Shooting in 35 mm, cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd breathes misty, mossy texture into each striking frame, whether it’s soft and pastel or bathed in duskiness like a moving chiaroscuro painting under candlelight; any single image is beautiful enough to be hung on a wall. Next to the sounds of the cicadas and the thunder-like cannons heard in the distance, the score by Phoenix (Coppola’s husband, Thomas Mars, is the band’s frontman) is also moody perfection. Even as an original take on this material already exists, Sofia Coppola’s admirably subtle vision trusts the dynamic of the characters and a gender power struggle for dramatic tension.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Getaway Track: "Baby Driver" an exhilarating, creatively fresh joyride

Baby Driver (2017)
113 min., rated R.

When so many studio movies come off as safe, assembly-line, personality-free products connected to a franchise, writer-director Edgar Wright’s “Baby Driver” is alive with bona fide flavor and energy, flooring it with an identity all its own. Wright, he of 2010’s “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World” and the Three Flavours Cornetto trilogy, never lets his vision turn too arch or self-indulgent when concocting a bracing tossed salad of a genre picture. It’s a heist caper, a love story, and a visual mixtape all thrillingly rolled into one crowd-pleasing joyride. When almost everything clicks in a movie, it is like a shot in the arm for cinephiles, and “Baby Driver” is a creatively fresh, criminally fun and awesome rush. If it isn’t the most thematically meaty film of the year, few others this year will match this one's infectious exhilaration.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young man of few words, but he’s great at his job as a getaway-driving prodigy in Atlanta. An ace behind the wheel, he works for Doc (Kevin Spacey), a filthy-rich kingpin who hires criminals to pull off different heists. Since he was in a car accident that took the lives of his parents and left him with tinnitus, the earbuds to his iPod never come out when he’s driving because the music drowns out the ringing in his ear and keeps him moving; he even stealthily records snippets of conversations to make mixtapes. Baby lives and takes care of his deaf foster parent, Joseph (CJ Jones), who wishes he would get out the criminal world, and that is a part of Baby’s plan, as he keeps a savings under a floorboard in his apartment. Before he’s straight with Doc, he accepts one more job: a post-office robbery with couple Buddy (Jon Hamm) and Darling (Eiza González) and the unhinged Bats (Jamie Foxx). In the midst of all this, Baby goes against Bats' advice (“The moment you catch feelings is the moment you catch a bullet”) when he meets a friendly waitress named Debora (Lily James), who has the singing voice of an angel, at the diner where his mother (Sky Ferreira) used to work, and their mutual love for music is what makes them fall in love with each other. Will Baby’s last job go off without a hitch? Can Baby and Debora follow through with their plan in hitting the road with their music and escaping their old lives?

Stylish, exciting and wearing its beating heart on its sleeve with a soundtrack to go with it, “Baby Driver” moves like a high-wire act, gliding when it could fall at any moment. The film crackles with wit (there is a great Michael Myers/Mike Myers joke), and though no one breaks out into song, the film has the precisely timed tempo of a musical. Each cut is synchronized with the beat of a song, evident in none other than the slick opening car chase, cued up to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion's "Bellbottoms," in which Baby, Buddy, Darling and Griff (Jon Bernthal) in a red Subaru WRX are pursued through downtown Atlanta, down a tight alleyway, and on the freeway by cop cars and helicopters. It's wholly riveting to watch and impressively choreographed, and that's just the first scene. Another early sequence is joyously orchestrated in an unbroken tracking shot where Baby simply takes a walk to get coffee for himself and his criminal passengers, and the third act’s breathless on-foot chase is a masterful study in how to shoot and pace an on-foot chase. Similar to 2014’s “Guardians of the Galaxy,” the soundtrack is germane to the story, rooting back to the protagonist’s relationship with his mother, and it is chock-full of '70s funk, like The Commodores’ “Easy," Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle,” Carla Thomas' "B-A-B-Y," and The Champs' "Tequila," that are less obvious, more deep-cut choices. In the case of the film’s love story, there is a true sweetness and spark between Baby and Debora, who form a couple deserving of our concern because they feel like soul mates, based on common interests and not because the script demands that they be.

Familiar to the world mostly for his work in YA book adaptations, first the now-defunct “Divergent” series” and then 2014’s “The Fault in Our Stars,” Ansel Elgort is already a star that it’s a surprise his career is just now taking off. As Baby, though, this is Elgort's true breakthrough performance, as he gets to be cool, charismatic as hell, yet good-hearted and vulnerable. Fresh-faced and instantly sympathetic, the lovely Lily James (2016's "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies") brings much more to Debora than just “the love interest,” and her scenes with Elgort alone are enchanting, particularly one where they listen to a song in a laundromat. Not every character receives deep exploration because all of them (except for couple Buddy and Darling) are strangers working a job, but every actor is well-cast and makes an impression. Jon Hamm and Eiza González (TV's "From Dusk Till Dawn") are memorable and unpredictable as a Bonnie and Clyde-type couple who seem to get off on their crimes, and Jamie Foxx effectively walks the tricky tightrope between funny and threatening as Bats; his scene in a diner booth where he tries to predict Buddy and Darling’s backstories is written, acted and shot with chilling tension. Finally, Kevin Spacey is slimy and deadpan as mastermind Doc, managing to not just chew up the scenery but work in a “Monsters, Inc.” joke and even garner a sliver of sympathy.

Style and attitude might be prioritized by design here, but they're not everything. Not unlike Ryan Gosling’s Driver, also a getaway driver and a man of few words, in 2011’s “Drive,” one genuinely cares what happens to Baby and the good people in his life. With the heavy output of so many mediocre action films that try palming off noise and Cuisinart editing as high-octane excitement, it’s truly a miracle to find a film that executes those moments with controlled shots, longer takes and tight, beautifully rhythmic editing (hats off to cinematographer Bill Pope and editors Jonathan Amos and Paul Machliss) but also gives us a reason to care about the outcome and the characters. Despite the film seeming like it could have ended a few moments sooner, Edgar Wright finds the right ending, and even if he didn’t, he had already pulled out all the stops and hit the sweet spot for movie lovers again and again. A blast of cinematic ecstasy, “Baby Driver” is exactly as cool as it strives to be, affirming that they still do make quality summer movies like they used to.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Chained Love: Assured, unnerving "Hounds of Love" resists exploitation

Hounds of Love (2017)
108 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

In many ways, Australian kidnapping drama “Hounds of Love” could have easily been off-putting and distasteful, wanting to repel and titillate at the same time, but that’s not the case. Unpleasant, unnerving and sharply constructed, writer-director Ben Young’s assured feature debut cuts deeper than it initially lets on for a story about the suffering of a victim and her captor and actually taps into domestic abuse and the relationship between mothers and daughters. This is accomplished genre filmmaking that isn't so basic and wants to achieve more than churned stomachs.

It’s Christmastime in 1987, Perth, Western Australia. Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), the teenage daughter of separated parents, sneaks out one night to go to a party while staying at her mother Maggie's (Susie Porter) house. All dolled-up, she’s on foot to catch a taxi closer to the highway but gets picked up by a friendly couple in a car. They are Evelyn (Emma Booth) and John White (Stephen Curry), who offer her some pot at their house. She reluctantly accepts, but after the couple won’t let her leave, Vicki is chained to a bed. To survive, the teen tries to drive a wedge between Evelyn and John by getting inside Evelyn's head when they're alone. Meanwhile, Vicki's parents, Maggie and Trevor (Damian de Montemas), are worried but not quite convinced that their daughter is just a runaway.

Given its subject matter and true-crime trappings, the film gives one the impression that it teeters on torture porn, but “Hounds of Love” is really a horror drama without compromise. Filmmaker Ben Young is careful about what he shows, trusting the relative restraint and suggestion of his imagery, not to mention the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks, as not to sensationalize or revel in the rape and torture of Vicki for cheap exploitation’s sake. He has a graceful eye for visual composition, too, opening his film through an artfully voyeuristic gaze as a class of nubiles play volleyball and slowing down the motion to striking effect with cinematographer Michael McDermott. There are also mundane snapshots of young girls running through a sprinkler and a man mowing his lawn, made all the more disturbing by the fact that an unsuspecting young woman could be shackled and gagged in the house right down the street or even next door.

With a buzzing sound design aiding the tension, not to mention an uneasy use of Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin” at one point, “Hounds of Love” is chilling to watch as Vicki keeps getting backed into a corner. Ashleigh Cummings (2012's "Tomorrow, When the War Began") spends a lot of time tied to a bed, bleary-eyed and screaming as Vicki, but she fearlessly sells every helpless, panicked moment and her sense of cunning with subtlety. Stephen Curry is effectively unsavory and skin-crawling as the monstrously manipulative John, but it’s the excellent Emma Booth as Evelyn who gets the meatiest and most interesting part. She is fascinating to watch in conveying underlying insecurities, jealousy and pain that go a long way toward almost making Evelyn sympathetic—almost—as she’s quite troubled and a prisoner herself. Her relationship with John is a complex one, being with him since she was thirteen years old, and she is a mother but has lost custody of her children with another man. Whether or not hope ultimately prevails will be left up to the viewer's own experience, but the last ten minutes are agonizingly tense with the mere focus on Vicky and a knife-wielding Evelyn in the kitchen and then unexpectedly resonant with the choice of Joy Division’s “Atmosphere.” While some horror films can be momentarily effective, "Hounds of Love" stuns, disturbs, and haunts for the long haul.

Grade: B +

Killer Photo: "Camera Obscura" has a creepy gimmick but botches outcome

Camera Obscura (2017)
95 min., not rated (equivalent of an R). 

“Camera Obscura” could be summed up as, in the words of one character, “a weird episode of ‘Goosebumps’” mixed with a little “Jacob’s Ladder.” There is an interesting subtext in this Chiller Films release linked to a tortured post-war psyche that the film never fully explores through the humdinger premise it sets up. Graduating from shorts, debuting writer-director Aaron B. Koontz makes sure his plotting escalates, but it never takes off the way it should in feature-length form. Before losing all control and curtailing into a sub-“Maniac,” the final result feels like a special extended episode of a TV anthology series that isn't really worth finding out where it will go next. It needed a stronger script to go with its creepy gimmick.

Almost a year after shooting coverage in the Middle East for six months, war photographer Jack Zeller (Christopher Denham) suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and blackouts. He’s still unemployed but seeing a psychiatrist and making progress, and supportive realtor fiancée Claire (Nadja Bobyleva) doesn’t mind giving him a little push. As an early anniversary gift, Claire also gives him a vintage camera and gets him a gig taking photos of real estate. When Jack has rolls of film developed, all of his photos come back in black and white and each one reveals an imminent death, like a dead little boy in a playground or a dead construction worker near a site. The bodies obviously weren’t there when Jack took the pictures, but as soon as he goes back to the location of each, he tries to stop the crimes. While he becomes a mystery hero in one case and saves someone, Claire then shows up dead in one of the photos. Even if Jack can save her once, a new bloodied fate may materialize. What’s a loving husband to do? 

Heavy-handed when it should have been a little more subtle, “Camera Obscura” at least starts off craftily absorbing before botching the outcome. Despite Jack's investigation into a serial killer, writer-director Aaron B. Koontz and co-writer Cameron Burns admirably leave out a lot of explanation for what is causing Jack to see dead bodies in his photos and provoke the idea that PTSD could be driving him cuckoo. As Jack, Christopher Denham is a credible entry point into this strange scenario that holds him culpable and then turns him into an unreliable protagonist who keeps lying to his wife. Jack never once tries to get rid of the camera once he realizes the consequences, nor does he confide in Claire, but he does tell a homeless man. As much as he cares about saving his wife, the decision Jack makes to replace Claire with other dead bodies stretches credulity to the breaking point. Decent tension is at least generated through scenes of Jack killing someone, positioning their bodies in the same way as the photos, and then covering his tracks, only having to kill someone else.

“Camera Obscura” definitely has its effective moments—a scene of passion transforms into something that Elizabeth Bathory would get off to—and finds a little gallows humor when Jack fumbles to keep a man dead. The in medias res opening, set 11 days later, is also unnecessary and misguided, not adding anything but taking out the suspense of the protagonist’s trajectory. After beginning with a nugget of promise, though, it frustratingly leads to a pointless dead end and goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.


Saturday, June 17, 2017

Hide the Body: Eclectic female cast and ribald laughs carry "Rough Night"

Rough Night (2017)
101 min., rated R.

Rarely do very good things happen at bachelor or bachelorette parties in the movies, and so it goes with the female-centric “Rough Night,” a ribald, if admittedly uneven, farce that flips the script on 1998’s lung-black comedy “Very Bad Things” with a dash of “Weekend at Bernie’s.” It doesn’t go as far as Peter Berg’s film—and that’s a relief—but women do have the same rights as men to get raunchy and R-rated, kill a stripper, and have fun doing it. TV's “Broad City” writer-director Lucia Aniello, making her directorial feature debut, and co-writer Paul W. Downs (Aniello’s real-life boyfriend who also co-stars and has written for “Broad City”) approach their film as an up-all-night romp with several big laughs and a consistently crowd-pleasing vibe. A second pass at the script definitely wouldn’t have hurt to tighten things up, but there are more than enough one-liners and visual gags that hit, and the eclectic cast has such an up-for-anything energy that carries the proceedings along for the night.

Ten years after college, bride-to-be Jess (Scarlett Johansson) is running for state senate and getting married to fiancée Peter (Paul W. Downs). Freshman year roommate Alice (Jillian Bell) has planned Jess’ bachelorette party for the weekend in Miami, but she seems to need a break from her job as a schoolteacher even more than Jess does, with plenty of penis-themed party favors to go around. The two reunite with activist Frankie (Ilana Glazer) and posh Blair (Zoë Kravitz), who’s now separated from her husband and in the middle of a custody battle for her son. Also invited is Pippa (Kate McKinnon), Jess’ Australian friend from her semester abroad. The festivities begin at dinner where Frankie buys some coke from a busboy for the group, then continue to a club where the college foursome down shots and then perform a college-days dance routine to Khia's naughty "My Neck, My Back." Back at the glass beach house Jess has rented, the girls order her a stripper (Ryan Cooper) on Craigslist, and then to match their buzz, he is accidentally killed, too. It may have been an accident, but with their high minds still racing, they move the body before they think to call the police. Will they turn themselves in, or can they make the body disappear?

Not unlike the admirably twisted but increasingly shrill and ugly “Very Bad Things,” five friends have to dispose of a dead stripper’s body after a coked-up night of debauchery. Fortunately, in “Rough Night,” the execution of a similar premise maintains a raucous, more farcical tone that doesn’t kill the laughs, despite the involvement of a corpse. The plot certainly grows very contrived by the end, and some of the situational comedy could have escalated even more and doubled down on the wildly uncomfortable factor. And yet, director Lucia Aniello does delight in taking a few outrageously weird and kinky directions — for one, Blair uses herself as an object for a swinging couple (Demi Moore, Ty Burrell) to snatch some evidence that could incriminate her and her girlfriends. Individually, there isn’t much to these characters, all of them types, but the actors operate with such comfortable chemistry as if they have been friends for years rather than just meeting a month before the cameras rolled. Luckily, these ladies breathe enough life into their slim roles where they can. 

In the straight woman role of Jess, Scarlett Johansson gets the rare opportunity to cut loose but still makes a fine foil for the more live-wire performers. A standout supporting player in “22 Jump Street,” “The Night Before,” “Office Christmas Party,” and “Fist Fight” from earlier this year, Jillian Bell is hilariously acerbic, given carte blanche with her zingy line deliveries as the needy but well-meaning Alice who sees Pippa as competition to be Jess’ other best friend. As Frankie and Blair, respectively, "Broad City” creator and star Ilana Glazer makes sure she doesn’t get lost in the shuffle as a comedic dynamo herself (her “performance” when answering the door for a cop had yours truly in stitches), and Zoë Kravitz, while more known for her dramatic work, has presence for days and showcases a sly comic timing. On that note, it's refreshing to find a studio comedy where two female characters, like Frankie and Blair, who used to be lovers in college and aren't treated as punchlines for it. Knowing her way around stealing an entire movie, the indomitable Kate McKinnon—with an Aussie accent that’s wonderfully daffy in itself—is irresistibly loopy as the Vegemite-eating, jet ski-mounting Pippa, thanks to her effortless gift to wring comedic inspiration out of nothing. As the randy swinger neighbors to the house Jess and her friends are renting, Demi Moore and Ty Burrell are game but gone too soon.

Predominantly a broad comedy that doesn’t masquerade itself as anything too serious, "Rough Night" still rings true in its relatable throughline about friends living in the past. Expectations are subverted the most during the scenes that juxtapose Jess’ coke-snorting, stripper-killing party with Paul’s bachelor party, calm and proper by comparison at a wine tasting with his buddies (Patrick Carlyle, Bo Burnham, Hasan Minhaj, Eric André). This funny bit evolves into an outlandish B story involving an adult-diapered Peter’s misadventure-filled drive to Miami, which his friends call the “sad astronaut,” inspired by astronaut Lisa Nowak. That subplot does have its moments, like a very likable (and physically nimble) Paul W. Downs window-washing a semi-truck, but if it had been trimmed or excised altogether, the finished product would’ve felt a little less scattered at times. If laughter really is the best medicine, “Rough Night” is exactly what one needs in a summer of sequels and mega-budgeted tentpoles.


Friday, June 16, 2017

The Depths: Despite clunky dialogue sneaking in, "47 Meters Down" an effective thrill machine

47 Meters Down (2017)
89 min., rated PG-13.

Leave it to armrest-clencher “47 Meters Down,” which received a late theatrical distribution by the hilariously named Entertainment Studios instead of going straight to VOD as originally planned, to be one of the more satisfying summer releases that holds up its end of the bargain. In the minimalist vein of 2004’s “Open Water” and 2016’s “The Shallows”—just far, far below the surface this time—this skillfully lean and mean isolation thriller that proves all you really need sometimes are a few characters and a few great white sharks. Director Johannes Roberts (2016’s “The Other Side of the Door”) must be made of confidence, enough to get his film’s title on the screen to read, “Johannes Roberts’ ’47 Meters Down,’” but for the most part, he earns his clout, milking no-nonsense, hand-wringing tension out of a trapped scenario for all it's worth. The high-concept premise actually isn’t patently ridiculous, nor does it struggle to fill a compact 89-minute running time in the execution, either. Direct and harrowing, “47 Meters Down” does what it does pretty effectively, jangling an audience’s nerves and making them squeal.

Vacationing in Mexico with younger and more spontaneous sister Kate (Claire Holt), Lisa (Mandy Moore) remains vulnerable after being dumped by her longtime boyfriend. When the two women meet a couple of charming local guys (Yani Gellman, Santiago Segura), Kate talks Lisa into going with them on a boat and cage diving with sharks. Based on the rickety cage and her inexperience with scuba diving, Lisa is a little hesitant at first, until the boat’s captain Taylor (Matthew Modine) reassures her and she feels safe once she’s in the cage, even as buckets of chum attract 20-foot great white sharks. The sisters enjoy the ocean sights for a short time in the shallows, but then the winch of the cage snaps and they drop 47 meters to the ocean floor. Once Lisa and Kate regain consciousness, they have to remain calm, but they don’t have much time. Their air supply is running low. They’re out of range from reaching anyone above with their radio communication within their scuba masks. Oh, and those vicious creatures of the deep are lurking somewhere in the dark abyss. Are the sisters SOL?

The opening credits sequence of “47 Meters Down” is the first time director Johannes Roberts really toys with audience expectations by shooting in the ocean from what appears to be a shark’s point-of-view eyeing someone on a raft. The rest of the film lives or dies on whether we care about its two characters making it to the surface with all four limbs still attached, and until it’s ready to pounce, the first half does an efficient job of setting up Lisa and Kate. Lisa, who wants to prove to her ex that she can be fun and adventurous, avoids all the proverbial canaries in the coal mine and agrees to get in the cage, while Kate is more open to taking risks and has experience scuba diving. The salt-and-peppered Captain Taylor chooses some amusingly poor words with, “Once you’re down there, you’re not going to want to come back up.” Roberts then wastes no time putting Lisa and Kate in danger and makes sure there's little downtime thereafter for apologies and regrets. The threat level remains high, and then the film keeps upping the ante and keeps audiences on pins and needles throughout with the help of a jitter-inducing score by tomandandy, only to end in a way that pleasingly goes against the grain.

Without cluttering the structure with any extraneous subplots, writer-director Johannes Roberts and cinematographer Mark Silk never pull the focus off Lisa and Kate. There are no human villains here, not even third-biller Matthew Modine, just the dangers of mother nature and the lack of oxygen in the deep blue sea. Only so many story beats can happen with two characters trapped underwater, but Roberts and co-writer Ernest Riera come up with enough practical reasons for the two young women to keep leaving the cage. They can’t just stay put and wait for help to arrive because their oxygen tanks are dwindling and their radio communication with the boat captain is only within range if they swim closer to the surface; if they venture above the bottom of the ocean, they risk rubbing up against the sharks, and if they swim up to the surface too quickly without being attacked, they could die from nitrogen narcosis or the bends. As the human chum with names, Mandy Moore and Claire Holt (TV’s “The Originals”) are solid, deserving credit for hyperventilating and acting inside scuba masks and spending so much consecutive time underwater. 

If it’s three-dimensional writing you seek in your sharkexploitation pic, don’t hold your breath. The script has its share of clunky, overly matter-of-fact dialogue, which isn’t the stuff of Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, or even Roland Emmerich on a good day, however, it probably sounds as close to what any person would say if caught in the same dangerous predicament. The characters tell the audience a lot, like when the girls say, “I’m so scared,” or “The shark almost got me,” even if their feelings and close calls speak for themselves. Where it counts, “47 Meters Down” delivers legitimately hairy thrills, a palpable sense of underwater claustrophobia and asphyxiation, and a couple of well-timed jump scares. On those grounds, it’s recommendable for doing exactly what it sets out to do. If swimming in the ocean with sharks didn’t already prove to be a bad idea, it is now completely out of the question.


Thursday, June 15, 2017

Aging Wheels: "Cars 3" safe but wistful, charming, and not "Cars 2"

Cars 3 (2017)
109 min., rated G.

With Pixar’s otherwise speckless track record, the “Cars” films have been like a roller coaster in quality outside of it helping kids get their parents to buy Lightning McQueen backpacks and beach towels. 2006’s “Cars,” though comparatively lesser Pixar, was still a delight conceived with heart, charm and clever detail to set up a world populated by anthropomorphic automobiles. The studio severely dropped the ball in 2011 with the sequel, “Cars 2,” a shiny but manic and phoned-in clunker that wanted to appeal to everyone but ended up appealing to no one, except single-digit viewers, and also tried being an action caper and a James Bond spoof. Any second follow-up could have been out of focus and still lapped the first sequel. Like a slight rebound for this particular series, “Cars 3” plays like a sports movie about the protagonist’s comeback, but it’s also about aging and retirement. That begs the question: are these movies more for adults than kids?

Racing champ Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is reaching his sell-by date, as he finds a competitor in the next generation of racers, primarily sleek but arrogant rookie Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer). After an accident on the track that leaves him defeated and out of commission for four months, Lightning is plucked into a more technologically advanced world and receives a new sponsor, Sterling (Nathan Fillion), who sees big opportunities for him to up his brand. First, he’ll need to get back to training with the help of go-getter Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), who’s always dreamed of being a racer herself, and need a little guidance from late mentor Doc Hudson’s legendary coach Smokey (Chris Cooper). Even if Lightning McQueen’s racing days are close to over, maybe he can learn to give someone else a chance and teach Cruz to get her wheels dirty. 

In the case of “Cars 3,” the car puns basically write themselves — the film stays on track at first, spins its wheels in the middle, and then finishes off strong in the third act. Taking over for John Lasseter, animation storyboard artist Brian Fee makes his directorial debut and works from a script by Kiel Murray (2006’s “Cars”), Bob Peterson (2009’s “Up”) and Mike Rich (2010’s “Secretariat”) that pretends “Cars 2” never happened, and that’s a smart move. It might never be laugh-out-loud funny, either, but still holds an emotional center. After Lightning McQueen’s impactful, devastatingly rendered crash that does give the proceedings a bittersweet heft, the film itself enters a hole, turning the midsection into a pretty perfunctory comeback story. A detour to a muddy demolition derby and run-in with trashy, hell-on-wheels school bus Miss Fritter (Lea DeLaria) is at least an amusing highlight, but some fine-tuning could have improved the occasional tedium. Making up for it, though, is the script’s adherence to stakes that are favorably personal rather than global. And, then, the finale set at the Florida International Speedway is quite stirring and satisfying, shaking up the formula and the “believe-in-yourself” message a little bit, as well as just delivering a cheer-worthy moment.

Owen Wilson’s Lightning McQueen is welcomed back to lead-role status and his character’s arc is followed closely and completed. Flashbacks to the original “Cars” employ Doc Hudson (the late Paul Newman) and serve Lightning’s evolution in a pivotal and special way. There is also just enough of buck-toothed, aw-shucks tow truck Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, who can be endearing when used sparingly and not as irritatingly shticky overkill in “Cars 2.” As the engaging newcomer this series needed, stand-up comedian Cristela Alonzo makes Cruz Ramirez adorable, soulful, and worth caring about that it makes one wish the whole film had been about her the whole time; her enthusiasm is as infectious as Ellen DeGeneres’ Dory. Radiator Springs and its lovable populace, including Lightning’s attorney girlfriend Sally (Bonnie Hunt), don’t have a main involvement in the story but are still revisited briefly.

As one expects from any Pixar production, the film is wonderful to look at with the level of care and detail transparent. In fact, there was a moment with an abandoned race track that looked so photorealistic it doesn't even look animated. There isn't much of a new paint job to narrative structure or beats, but pockets of cleverness still reside in lines and visual details. For instance, one character’s line, “Life’s a beach and then you drive,” is a memorable one that will right go over the little ones’ heads. Proof positive that no matter how it stacks up next to the rest of Pixar’s output, even the safe but wistful and sufficiently charming “Cars 3” is more for patient adults than restless tykes. There’s enough heart left, but if Pixar wants to maintain their very high standards for animation, it might be time for Lightning McQueen and even the new gang to just leave well-enough alone.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Monster Cinematic Universe: Despite a couple thrills, "The Mummy" just a generic, creatively messy product

The Mummy (2017)
120 min., rated PG-13.

Beyond bearing the name and the premise of an Egyptian corpse (now a female) being resurrected, 2017’s “The Mummy” has nothing to do with the 1932 classic with Boris Karloff or the likably fun 1999 comedy-horror-adventure yarn and its sequels. While that first Brendan Fraser-Rachel Weisz starrer was a summery popcorn movie and matinee-serial throwback that modeled its half-ghoulish, half-cheeky tone after the “Indiana Jones” films, this rebranding is dumbed-down, made-by-committee corporate filmmaking through and through. It never needed to make the illusion that it had bigger, deeper fish to fry than to give audiences two hours of fun with a mummified villainess and Tom Cruise doing a lot of meme-ready, open-handed running, but it’s not even successful enough at that. “The Mummy” works as a competent, disposably diverting snack here and there on the most basic level, but as the inaugural launchpad of Universal Pictures’ movie-monster Dark Universe, it’s a pretty blah product overly concerned with franchise-building and layers of none-too-interesting exposition that goes around in circles.

Rogue in Iraq, decorated soldier and looter Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) and his partner in crime, Chris (Jake Johnson), hope to discover antiquities that they can sell on the black market. By accident, they unearth an ancient Egyptian tomb under the sand, leading them to a sarcophagus that holds 5,000-year-old princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella), who was condemned to eternal darkness after killing her family and selling her soul to the god known as Set for immortality. Nick’s one-time lover, archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis), comes in on the scene and wants to study their find, but Ahmanet has other plans once she is awakened and imprints Nick as her “chosen one.” After the mummy’s sarcophagus is brought on board the military’s plane with Nick, Chris and Jenny, her curse is unleashed. The plane goes down and crashes just outside of London. Possessed by Ahmanet, Nick wakes up without a scratch but with a tag on his toe in the morgue. As mummified evil incarnate sucks the life out of anyone she can to build an army of minions, Nick must locate a dagger from a European tomb to bury Ahmanet forever.

Because all the “cool kids” are doing it—Marvel, DC, and Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ MonsterVerse—“The Mummy” has to be a piece of Universal's planned shared universe. Did the studio already forget about the mediocre non-starter that was 2014’s “Dracula Untold”? If the film had been allowed to just stick to the thrills and delivered on its own terms, it might not have felt like such a drag. Credited to an army of screenwriters (David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie and Dylan Kussman) and three others (Jon Spaihts, Alex Kurtzman and Jenny Lumet) credited for story, the resulting hodgepodge makes one wonder what ideas were actually preserved from the page and what eventually just became a studio exec’s checklist instead of one filmmaker's vision. Time is padded with needlessly recycled scenes, like Ahmanet’s backstory, and so many go-nowhere hallucinations with Nick transporting with Ahmanet to the desert. And, did we really need help from a voice-over narration, stating that a character is redeemed when he finds redemption? With only one previous feature under his directing belt—it being 2012’s character-driven drama “People Like Us”—director Alex Kurtzman struggles to blend an agreeable mongrel of tones, throwing together clangy, misplaced one-liners, predictably timed jump scares, and Tom Cruise vehicle derring-do. It’s hard to gauge the misjudged tone when the mummy hops on top of Nick and rubs his torso down, only to put Nick into a giggling frenzy as if she’s tickling him.

Still not looking a day over 35, A-list movie star Tom Cruise is never about to phone in a project, not even here. He might be miscast, and yet, Cruise reliably breathes some humor into this quintessential Tom Cruise character — a cocksure, devil-may-care adventurer who can make even a seemingly smart woman (and a dead one) fall for him. He and the lovely Annabelle Wallis (2014’s “Annabelle”) as damsel-in-distress Jenny often seem to be doing their own running and stunts, but they can only manage tepid chemistry out of their obligatory, awkwardly inserted romance. When the viewer first meets Jenny, she disparages Nick for being a thief and only lasting 15 seconds in the sack by knowing from personal experience. Then, when the script requires her to, she has a heart-to-heart with Nick and suddenly sees a good man in him because he gave her a parachute during the plane crash. Sofia Boutella (2016's "Star Trek Beyond") has presence and brings everything she has to the title character as Ahmanet, but she has such little to do and she’s oddly sexualized even as a tatted, double-irised “chick in the box.” Jake Johnson is the quip-ready sidekick as Chris, Nick’s buddy who’s always dragged in for adventure against his will, and then later, at the cost of spoilers, gets the undead Griffin Dunne role in 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London.” When he’s not saddled with expository voice-over, Russell Crowe gets the rare opportunity to get his hambone on in the showy role of Dr. Henry Jekyll, the head of an organization who has other plans for the mummy.

“The Mummy” gets its most skillful and sufficiently palm-sweating action set-piece out of the way early; shot in a zero-gravity “vomit comet,” the sequence is set inside a pressurized airplane once Ahmanet unleashes hell upon Nick, Jenny, and others in the air, followed by a spectacular crash. Later on, there’s also a thrillingly staged ambulance escape with severed zombie-cop limbs thrown into the mix. Back to back, these two sequences would make a cool-looking effects reel, but the rest of the film is never as fun as director Alex Kurtzman wants it to be. How can a film squander the use of underwater mummies? Rendered nothing-special outside of its two spectacle-centric highlights, this generic, creatively messy summer tentpole has everything money can buy but not much else. Bringing together classic movie monsters after several false starts might have sounded promising on paper, but if “The Mummy” is what one has to base the future on, it does very little to warrant one wanting to see an entire franchise built around it. Even though this is just the beginning for the Dark Universe, it already feels like the end.

Grade: C -