Friday, April 27, 2018

6 Stones to Rule Them All: High-stakes "Avengers: Infinity War" leaves one wanting more and less

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
156 min., rated PG-13.

Marking the 10-year anniversary of Marvel Studios’ output since 2008’s “Iron Man,” “Avengers: Infinity War” is the apex that all 18 films have been leading toward. It is, indeed, the biggest crossover film from the studio, and the number-one reason to see it is witnessing no less than two-dozen established characters sharing the same cinematic space. Following the highs of 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and 2018’s ongoing juggernaut “Black Panther,” “Avengers: Infinity War” is decidedly bigger but comparatively a letdown, hindered by so much stuff and still being only half of the story. Palpably overlong at 156 minutes, it is overpacked and unwieldy, even if the stakes have never been higher. Not unlike all of the appetizers out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this 19th film still feels like a tease more concerned with what’s coming next than the entree at hand. It leaves you wanting more and less at the same time, if that’s possible.

Thanos (voice of Josh Brolin) and The Black Order are hell-bent on collecting all six Infinity Stones to wipe out half of the universe with the snap of his fingers to extinguish the overpopulation crisis. This leaves all of the heroes in the world to stop him, beginning with Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Dr. Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) who are the first to learn of the titan’s plan, but the Avengers have broken up and are not on speaking terms. In New York, as Thanos’ minions land to wreak havoc and find two of the stones on Earth, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) commingles with Dr. Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and then Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) drops in to help. Over in Scotland, Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are enjoying a vacation, ready to live a normal life together, before they are ambushed by Thanos’ other goons and meet up with Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Meanwhile, the Guardians of the Galaxy—Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Nebula (Karen Gillan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper), and rebellious teenager Groot (voice of Vin Diesel)—are floating through space, until they, too, learn of Gamora’s stepfather’s plans. And, then finally, the alliances, both old and new, make their way to Wakanda for help from T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), accompanied by warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira), his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan).

The fate of the universe hangs in the balance in “Avengers: Infinity War,” and with that, there will be loss. That risky, all-bets-are-off approach is what adds major dramatic weight to the proceedings, but in getting there (and getting the band back together), there is such a surplus of characters—a roll call, if there ever was one—and individual threads that seem like a series of bottle episodes strung together. The central story is simple—Thanos wants the remaining stones and the Avengers need to stop him—but if directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely deftly tackled a heavy plate with 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War,” they act like traffic guards here, juggling so many moving parts and proving that more is sometimes a little less. Inevitably, some characters will receive more screen time than others, while Scott Lang/Ant-Man and Clint Barton/Hawkeye are no-shows, but the ensemble is still a valuable asset, and the new team-ups become a large part of the fun in what becomes one of the darker MCU films.

There is little time for intimacy, however, when the film takes a breath from plot, character dynamics pop, namely any banter between the Guardians, Peter Quill’s quippy alpha one-upmanship with Thor, the ego clash between Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, and Wanda and Vision’s warm bond. There’s also a sense of knowing self-reflexivity to having Tom Holland’s enthusiastic Spider-Man apologizing for not remembering everyone’s names and for using his pop-culture knowledge in times of danger. Traces of character substance and sly, playful humor are more than welcome when sprinkled in between the fights and explosions, which are functional but often staged with a numbing sameness.

A great villain hasn’t always been Marvel’s strong suit, Loki and Killmonger aside, but Thanos is unexpectedly more formidable than a mauve-colored, square-jawed motion-capture creation with Josh Brolin’s voice might suggest. Brolin delivers such a calm evil and, luckily, Thanos is written with a little more complex shading and pathos, having been a father figure for Gamora, to what could have been an otherwise one-note heavy with genocidal plans he believes to be necessary to balance out the universe. 

Like every film released by Marvel, “Avengers: Infinity War” will be oversold as the best film in the MCU, but that would be overinflating the film’s worth. Despite its shortcomings, the film entertains those who have investment in all of these characters because, honestly, the valiant, cliff-hanging final moments depend on it. Stacking up the sky-high stakes, the film finally begins to pay off in the home stretch, and as one character states, there will be “no resurrections this time.” This may be the end for some and just a temporary mortality for others because, as we all know, only Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben are only dead forever, plus those stones are capable of takebacks, right? To tide over fans until next year in the last of Marvel’s Phase Three, “Avengers: Infinity War” is fine, but one would be best to temper those expectations accordingly, while still being diverted and coming away feeling slightly underwhelmed.

Grade: B - 

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Violated: Problematic "Traffik" wants to exploit and address serious subject

Traffik (2018)
96 min., rated R.

Thrillers exploiting serious subject matter for cheap thrills and entertainment value isn’t anything new to filmmaking, but with “Traffik” (not based on the 1989 British miniseries that inspired Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film), the seams show. It wants to gratuitously put attractive star Paula Patton in skimpy bathing suits, but it also wants to be “inspired by true events,” addressing that sex trafficking is still, in fact, prevalent and then concluding with statistics. This isn’t to say that writer-director Deon Taylor (2016’s “Meet the Blacks”) doesn’t hold attention with certain thriller tropes, but how he tries shining a light on sex trafficking doesn’t seem so much unflinching as it does disingenuous and hypocritical. “Traffik” isn’t particularly eye-opening, either.

Brea (Paula Patton) is a Sacramento Post journalist with integrity, but when a fellow reporter scoops her story on government corruption, she is let go by her editor (William Fichtner). Later that night on her birthday, mechanic boyfriend John (Omar Epps) plans to take Brea on a romantic getaway in a plush glass house in the mountains, owned by the company of John’s sport-agent friend Darren (Laz Alonso). Brea knows that John wants to propose, but first he surprises her with a muscle car he built back up for her. Before the couple reaches their getaway home, they stop at a gas station, where Brea encounters a strung-out, victimized woman (Dawn Olivieri) in the restroom. Brea has the feeling this woman is asking for help but stays out of it, and on their way out of the gas station, she and John evade a troupe of leering, menacing bikers. Once Brea and John begin their weekend with a little canoodling in the pool, Darren and long-suffering wife Malia (Roselyn Sanchez) show up unannounced. A ringing phone interrupts them, but it seems to be coming from a satellite phone that the woman at the gas station put in Brea’s purse. Things go from bad to worse when Brea unlocks the passcode on the phone, making a shocking discovery with incriminating evidence of women being sold, and the owner of the phone shows up to reclaim it.

A grimy, nasty, exploitative B-movie uncomfortably blended with loftier aspirations, “Traffik” wants to have it both ways, simultaneously hoping to thrill and pretending to have something more socially woke on its mind, but does neither very convincingly. First things first, director Deon Taylor does effectively set up a tense situation, even if the first 30 minutes is a long setup—the lengthy romantic montages between Brea and John in an infinity pool look like soft-core Cinemax leftovers—until it gets there. Being shot by cinematographer Dante Spinotti, the film does look a lot better than it has any right to be, and there is a decent cat-and-mouse game in the woods, followed by Brea hiding out in a car that inevitably won’t start. As a VOD-level thriller, it’s still pretty standard stuff that even the least trained moviegoers will be paces ahead of the characters.

Paula Patton is able to make the proceedings more watchable than not as the tenacious Brea, and it’s appreciative that when her and John’s lives are on the line, she doesn’t just stand back and cower. Everyone else is just cannon fodder for the one-dimensional traffickers, including Laz Alonso, who’s so obnoxious as Brea and John’s alpha, coke-snorting friend Darren that one actively roots for his demise. Usually associated with comedies, Missi Pyle also turns up in a key role as the local sheriff. In an early scene when Brea’s boss calls her article a puff piece masquerading as a hard-hitting exposé, it might as well be a meta commentary of the film itself. It didn’t even have to be thematically deep or important, but “Traffik” didn’t have to come off so self-righteous, either.


Friday, April 20, 2018

Tales from the Brain: "Ghost Stories" less than the sum of its parts but a tricky twist makes it all worthwhile

Ghost Stories (2018)
98 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Ostensibly, British import “Ghost Stories” is packaged as a horror anthology from across the pond, but it might stand as the first one that actually relies on the connective tissue more than the three segments within. Adapting their own 2010 West End stage play to the screen, writer-directors Jeremy Dyston & Andy Nyman skillfully construct a triptych of horror tales based on three individual paranormal accounts that have more in common with each other than the film’s protagonist and the viewer initially expect. “Ghost Stories” can be a spookily good time with goosebumpy frights, but it also wants to be about something even more macabre and existentially affecting than bumps in the night. In pulling the rug out in the final stretch, it mostly succeeds.

“Psychic Cheats” TV host and professional skeptic Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) devotes his life to debunking the paranormal, taking down fraudulent psychics. When he is contacted by his hero, the long-disappeared Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne), and finds him terminally ill and living in a trailer, Goodman goes on to investigate three of Cameron’s unsolvable cases by meeting with people who each share their unexplainable encounters. Case 1: Tony Matthews (Paul Whitehouse) was working his last shift as a night watchman at an asylum for female patients when he witnessed the spirit of a little girl in a yellow dress. Case 2: High-strung teen Simon Rifkind (Alex Lawther) is paranoid and full of tics after one night when driving in the dark along a woodsy road, only to hit something. Case 3: Rich, pompous suit Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman) waited at home as his wife had just given birth to their child and experienced a poltergeist in the nursery of his mansion. How these three cases relate to each other will hit closer to home than Goodman could ever predict.

Unfolding as flashbacks, the three horror-tinged anecdotes have their moments, although each of them feel frustratingly unfinished, cutting short as they seem to just be getting started. Rather, the wraparound framework with Professor Goodman is actually what matters here and how his actions in his past have gotten him to where he is now. There is a tricky plot twist in the last twenty minutes that changes everything, and as Goodman learns, nothing is what it appears. Once the film gets there, it reinvents itself and rips apart our expectations in devilish, surprising, and imaginatively surreal ways. Less than the sum of its parts, “Ghost Stories” has enough spine-tingling parts (particularly that second case) to recommend, and in a cheeky final touch, the filmmakers delightfully end their film with Bobby Pickett’s “Monster Mash” over the credits.

Grade: B - 

Love Yourself: Schumer owns it in sweetly amusing, if imperfect, "I Feel Pretty"

I Feel Pretty (2018)
110 min., rated PG-13.

A wish-fulfillment fantasy-comedy that reflects the real-life anxieties produced by a culture that says women need to look a certain way and be a certain shape to feel worthy or be considered beautiful, “I Feel Pretty” is less hilarious than it is sweetly likable and amusing. Longtime writing team Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein (who wrote 2016’s “How to Be Single,” 2009’s “He’s Just Not That into You,” and 1999’s “Never Been Kissed”) make their directorial debuts with this third starring vehicle for Amy Schumer, the first to go more for the heart than edge or envelope-pushing, pearl-clutching humor. With Schumer having established herself as a smart, confident, fiercely hilarious comedian who has no limits in getting a laugh, she is, fortunately, never the subject of ridicule or a walking punchline. As a comedy, it isn’t without a few jokes that fall flat, but Schumer and the supporting cast bring such a joie de vivre that allows one to be won over by the perfectly adequate “I Feel Pretty.”

Renee Bennett (Amy Schumer) is a capable, decent, independent Manhattan woman with close-knit friends (Busy Phillips, Aidy Bryant), but her low self-esteem often gets the best of her. Working in the unglamorous tech division in a Chinatown basement satellite office for cosmetics line Lily LeClaire has warped her notions of how people perceive beauty. One stormy night out of frustration, she tosses a coin into a fountain, wishing to be beautiful. Come the next day during an intense spin class at SoulCycle, Renee falls off her bike and bonks her head, and when she comes to, she is amazed at what she sees in the mirror and doesn’t even recognize herself. Externally, and to the rest of the world, Renee looks exactly the same, but to her, she looks like a gorgeous, physically fit supermodel and radiates flirty, fearless confidence. Feeling as good as she does, Renee decides to finally get out of her dingy office and apply for the receptionist position at the 5th Avenue headquarters for company heiress Avery LeClaire (Michelle Williams), the granddaughter to founder Lily LeClaire (Lauren Hutton). Then, she gets a boyfriend, Ethan (Rory Scovel), whom she picks up at a dry cleaners and is immediately attracted to her for loving herself. Naturally, all of this confidence goes to the new Renee’s head, potentially jeopardizing her relationships with the friends who liked her for her.

With a similarly magical setup to 1988’s “Big”—which Renee watches before giving her the idea to toss a coin into a fountain—“I Feel Pretty” is not about a shallow makeover, nor does it take the "Shallow Hal" route. It's about loving oneself inside and outside with a little confidence boost, which sounds simplistic on the surface, and yet everyone can relate to Renee's self-doubt. When Renee has undergone her self-image change, strangers coming off the elevator to Lily LeClaire immediately think they have entered the wrong floor when they see Renee at the reception desk. It’s played for laughs, although the viewer isn’t laughing at Renee, who holds her head high, but rather at everyone’s reactions. How directors Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein use music and the camera during Renee’s swaggering strut into the HQ of Lily LeClaire is sly, and Renee subverting expectations when she enters a bikini contest on the Coney Island boardwalk is an exuberant highlight. In a lesser film, Renee would have been the butt of every joke, thinking she looks like someone she's not, but she's more of a celebratory figure.

Amy Schumer proves here that she can play different kinds of women besides the bawdy persona of 2015’s “Trainwreck.” When we first meet Renee, she feels identifiably invisible and insecure, obsessively comparing herself to women around her, and in a poignant early moment of truth, she strips down to her bra and Spanx, surveying her body and disappointed at what she sees in the mirror. Post-head injury, her mental and physical change is a delight to watch, and Schumer owns every moment with her just-right timing and fearless presence. Comedian Rory Scovel, as Renee’s love interest Ethan, is adorable, providing spark and charm while sharing a lovely chemistry with Schumer; he is the counterpoint to Tom Hopper, Avery’s conventionally hunky model brother Grant LeClair. In a wonderfully bizarre and committed performance, Michelle Williams is great fun to watch (and hear) as Lily LeClaire’s airy, baby doll-voiced CEO Avery LeClaire, a rare comic role since 1999 gem “Dick” as a reminder that she can do anything. Avery could have been played as a villain, even with that itty-bitty squeaker and her ethereal physical movements, but she, too, has her own insecurities that undermine her power and ability to be taken seriously. Busy Phillips and Aidy Bryant have their moments as Renee’s steadfast friends Jane and Vivian, who sign up Renee for a Grouper date, and Emily Ratajkowski is another extension of the film’s message as attractive but not dumb SoulCycle acquaintance Mallory, who also struggles with self-worth.

Good on “I Feel Pretty” for promoting such an optimistic, well-meaning message of empowerment, though one does wish the script could have found a less preachy and formulaic way to wrap everything up than in a public speech that pours on the square feel-goodery and the you-go-girl messaging, while also selling a diffusion line at Target. With that said, the film is a softer, tamer side of Amy Schumer that won’t offend anyone who actually sees it instead of being quick to judge, but her tart, self-deprecating brand of humor is still here and it’s what keeps “I Feel Pretty” feeling buoyant.

Grade: B - 

Monday, April 16, 2018

Secrets in the Attic: "Marrowbone" atmospheric and chilling with a mystery that stands up to scrutiny

Marrowbone (2018)
110 min., rated R.

Sergio G. Sánchez, screenwriter of 2007’s “The Orphanage” and 2012’s “The Impossible,” makes his English-language debut with “Marrowbone,” a richly atmospheric 1969-set family drama with the bones of a spooky Gothic supernatural chiller. The film is evocative and handsomely shot, with an isolated location that is a character unto itself, caging its four characters like birds that experience trauma and loss early on and may never live a normal life among society. There is a secret at the core of “Marrowbone” that one waits in anticipation to be revealed, but it’s not treated merely as a gimmick so much as an emotionally and psychologically loaded progression that Sánchez has set up all along.

On the run from her murderous husband in England, Rose Fairbairn (Nicola Harrison) takes her four children to her desolate childhood home in New York with a shot at a safe, happy new life. When their mother falls ill and passes away before the eldest turns 21, Jack (George Mackay) must care for his brothers, Billy (Charlie Heaton) and little Sam (Matthew Stagg), and sister, Jane (Mia Goth), and protect them from something in the mirrors, which they cover with sheets, and the attic, which they have sealed up. After spending their happiest of days with the sweet and kind Allie (Anya Taylor-Joy), their closest neighbor who works as a librarian in town, Jack begins sneaking away to see her. Trouble arises, though, when a lawyer, Tom Porter (Kyle Soller), who rivals Jack for Allie's affections, needs Jack’s mother’s signature for estate affairs or else the siblings will lose the house and could potentially be separated. Trying to keep his family together will be more than Jack can handle as the secrets in the Marrowbone house refuse to be buried.

Truly suspenseful and chilling in spots, “Marrowbone” conjures up an eerie sense of mystery that gradually reveals itself to be about the horrors of the unknown and the mind. The breadcrumbs are subtly laid, playing fair with the viewer in what lies at the center. In the meantime, there is more than enough moody apprehension and jolts to induce goosebumps, from Jane sticking her hand in a hole in the ceiling to feed a friendly raccoon, to Sam having the guts to enter a forbidden room as the sheet on a mirror slowly comes off, to the cheer of The Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" on a record player soothing the siblings as they sense a presence outside their safe-space tent, to Billy’s retrieval of a money box down the chimney. The performances are strong across the board, George MacKay (2016’s “Captain Fantastic”) leading the way as Jack, who has a shot at an even newer life with Allie, played by the always-watchable Anya Taylor-Joy (2018’s “Thoroughbreds”), who’s like a vibrant getaway from Jack’s simple life but acts as more than just a symbol. Rounding out the members of the Marrowbone siblings quite well are Charlie Heaton (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), Mia Goth (2017’s “A Cure for Wellness”), and Matthew Stagg. One might say the third act flies off the rails, but the familiar twist that’s in store mostly stands up to scrutiny. Even if it doesn’t work in others’ eyes, “Marrowbone” has more in its heart than just a twist.


Saturday, April 14, 2018

Why'd It Have to Be Clowns?: Art the Clown is the stuff of nightmares in endlessly tense "Terrifier"

Terrifier (2018)
82 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“Terrifier” sets pretty high expectations for itself with that moniker, but without trying to do more than terrify a niche audience, writer-director Damien Leone succeeds in delivering a low-budget slasher shocker. Leone’s effective, not-so-secret weapon is David Howard Thornton behind that clown-make-up, turning Art the Clown into a freaky and unnerving horror-movie icon in the making, from his creepy physical jesting to his bloodied, shit-eating grin. Art first appeared (though played by a different actor) in the filmmaker’s cleverly spun 2013 horror anthology “All Hallows Eve,” as well as Leone's 2011 short film titled "Terrifier," but Thornton’s unforgettable turn as this human psychopath is the entire show here. Pennywise, who?

After an opening sequence with one of Art’s facially scarred survivors (Monica Brown), the plot is pure formula, but it works in terms of tight pacing and structure. As their Halloween night on the town comes to an end, Tara (Jenna Kanell) and outspoken friend Dawn (Catherine Corcoran) decide to sober up with some pizza before driving home. Sitting in a booth, they encounter Art (David Howard Thornton), who gives Tara the creeps but gives Dawn an opportunity for Instagram photos. On their way back to Dawn’s car, the tire has been punctured, so Tara calls her sister, Victoria (Samantha Scaffidi), who’s busy studying for an exam but agrees to pick them up. Waiting for their ride, Tara decides she has to use the restroom and gets a maintenance man to let her into a building. Unbeknownst to Tara, Dawn and Victoria, what Art has planned for them is no laughing matter.

Taut, nightmarishly unsafe, mercilessly brutal, and at times pretty stylish for a grindhouse throwback, “Terrifier” quickly grows into an endlessly tense experience for the viewer. The characters may not do everything right, like hiding behind cars and inside closets, but their decisions make for hairy situations that one can’t get enough of, as well as one of the most gruesome demises involving a saw seen in a long time. While it decidedly won't help coulrophobics conquer their fear, “Terrifier” will surely satiate the bloodlust of fans who don’t mind some gore with their thrills.


The Beastess Within: Bel Powley compels but “Wildling” loses its way

Wildling (2018)
92 min., rated R.

“Wildling,” the feature debut from director Fritz Böhm (who wrote the script with Florian Eder), begins well as a dark fairy tale and a hairy coming-of-age metaphor for a young woman’s transformative sexual awakening. Many other films in the realm of horror have covered this territory before, most recently 2017’s bold “Raw,” and while Böhm finds atmosphere in some of the visuals and sets up some interesting ideas to give his first film its own distinguished voice, “Wildling” gradually loses interest in its provocative subtext and seems to go on autopilot. “Ginger Snaps,” this is decidedly not.

Living in a cell is all introverted teenager Anna (Bel Powley) has ever known. According to Daddy (Brad Dourif), she has had to stay inside since she is one of the last children being sought out by the “wildling,” a toothy monster. In reality, the man has arrested her maturity, giving her daily injections and building a fantasy mythology for her to protect her from herself. When her father figure attempts to take his own life and go to “The Better Place” (Heaven, to you), the gunshot is heard. Anna is brought to a hospital, and when Sheriff Ellen Cooper (Liv Tyler) gathers that the young woman is new to the outside world, she takes it upon herself to foster Anna, until a permanent home turns up. Experiencing the real world (and the taste of a juicy hamburger) for the first time, the strange Anna tries to lead a normal life with the help of Ellen and her teenage brother Ray (Collin Kelly-Sordelet), until changes in her body take over.

There is an enticing, visually evocative fairy-tale sensibility throughout “Wildling,” particularly in the opening sections where young Anna (played by both Arlo Mertz and Aviva Winick) is in bed with her father spinning his yarn about the nasty “wildling” outside. The film still remains compelling and affecting as Bel Powley (coming off her breakout role in 2015’s “The Diary of a Teenage Girl”) navigates a different kind of path toward womanhood; if anything, Powley is the reason the film works for as long as it does, her round, soulful blue eyes giving her an ethereal softness to the otherwise feral Anna. Brad Dourif is also genuinely unsettling with that recognizable “Chucky” voice in his scenes as Daddy, and Liv Tyler lends a much-needed source of humanity as Ellen, a woman who uses her skills of protecting people for a living to care for Anna and offer her a maternal figure that she never had.

The payoff of “Wildling” becomes less about Anna discovering who or what she is and more about a standard, visually muddy, darkly lit showdown in the woods and caves. There is also the use of The Wolf Man (James Le Gros), a country bumpkin living off the land in the woods and wearing wolf skins, which could have added an interesting element but only functions as a deux ex machina when he’s finally needed. When the film doubles back by resurrecting a thought-dead character and then goes nowhere special or otherwise surprising, it is safe to say that it has lost its way. It’s well-made for the most part, and Bel Powley gives it her all, but “Wildling” falls short of its greater potential of exploring female sexuality through the guise of a monster origin story.


Friday, April 13, 2018

Ape-quake: "Rampage" dumb as a box of rocks but a lot of monsters-run-amok fun

Rampage (2018) 
107 min., rated PG-13.

Based on the 1986 arcade game of the same name, “Rampage” is a no-brainer, big and dumb as a box of rocks but executed with an unapologetic sense of fun that it delivers exactly what audiences came for. Director Brad Peyton (2015’s “San Andreas”) and star Dwayne Johnson are on-brand here, as the former helmed the latter in saving his family from an earthquake and now throws him into an amped-up “Mighty Joe Young” monsters-run-amok picture. The downright silly plot doesn’t really warrant the screenplay being written by four scribes (Ryan Engle and Carlton Cuse & Ryan J. Condal and Adam Sztykiel), but of the video-game adaptations starring Dwayne Johnson, “Rampage” is leaps and bounds better than 2005’s “Doom,” earning more smiles than groans. It counts as a guilty pleasure, but why feel guilty about something so pleasurable?

San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary primatologist Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson), an ex-Special Forces ranger, prefers animals over humans so much that his best friend is George, an albino silverback gorilla, whom he signs with to communicate and even fist-bumps. After a DNA-weaponizing canister pathogen falls from space and lands in the San Diego gorilla habitat (natch), George is exposed to it and grows vastly in size and aggressive to the point that he attacks and kills the grizzly bears. Enter Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), a geneticist who left Energyne, the company behind the canisters, when DNA was being used for the wrong reasons and then incarcerated, and she knows there is an antidote that could help George. Meanwhile, over in Chicago, Energyne CEOs and siblings Claire (Malin Akerman) and Brett Wyden (Jake Lacey) are the ones who have used their CRISPR genetic-editing  technology, under Operation Rampage, to solve incurable diseases. They send in military to locate where two other canisters have landed, but a wolf in a Wyoming forest and a crocodile in the Everglades have already mutated. What could possibly go wrong?

In a jolting opening sequence, an astronaut (Marley Shelton) floats in a panic to safety in a space station, littered with her dead crew and a mutant rodent on the loose, but she ends up meeting her maker anyway. “Rampage” doesn’t get much less absurd from there, but it’s never boring, and that’s surely something. Director Brad Peyton competently stages most of the action, from George breaking out of his sanctuary, to a canister retrieval in Wyoming, led by scarred mercenary Burke (a briefly used Joe Manganiello), that turns awry, to the film culminating in mass destruction of Chicago as the three animals, well, rampage to get to the sonar signal at the top of the Wydens' skyscraper headquarters and Davis safely crashes a helicopter.

Playing to type as the macho but good-hearted and poacher-hating Davis Okoye, Dwayne Johnson leads the charge and secures a surprisingly engaging (and even sweet) dynamic with his computer-generated pal George (a motion-captured Jason Liles). There isn’t a lot for Johnson to delve into as Davis, besides his characteristic of getting along with animals more than humans and a backstory to why he specifically despises poachers, but the actor is a movie star and embraces the material with charisma and humor, and who hasn’t wanted to finally see a movie where he’s friends with an animal nearly as brawny as he is? Naomie Harris, who gets to have fun after putting in such raw, wrenching work in 2016's “Moonlight,” shows her lighter side as Dr. Kate Caldwell, even though her character comes with a sad backstory involving her ailing brother. As the initial antagonist, a colorfully hammy Jeffrey Dean Morgan relishes in the part and Southern accent of enemy-turned-ally Agent Harvey Russell—“When science shits the bed, I’m the one they call to change the sheets,” he says—and delivers it with cowboy charm and swagger. It is debatable whether Malin Akerman and Jake Lacey as powerful, impeccably dressed Claire and cowardly, dimwitted Brett Wyden are on the same page in giving cartoonish or just awful performances, but rest assured, one cannot wait for these cardboard baddies to get their just desserts.

Besides a montage of crying civilians in the Windy City following the film's raison d'être of genetically oversized animals doing damage, “Rampage” doesn’t take itself seriously, mostly sustaining a jokey, knowingly goofy tone without turning into a so-bad-it's-great creature feature that regularly premieres on the Syfy Channel. Not a bastion of great or even plausible storytelling, nor are the effects on the realistic, state-of-the-art level of 2017’s “War for the Planet of the Apes” and its two predecessors, “Rampage” knows what kind of movie it is and makes sure audiences just have a rollicking good time without totally insulting their intelligence. It’s pretty clear what the makers were going for when an ape gives the middle finger and slides his finger in and out of his fist.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Hard Pass: "Truth or Dare" a toothless, scare-free misfire from usually reliable Blumhouse

Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare (2018)
100 min., rated PG-13.

Blumhouse Productions has built a reliable (and profitable) brand out of elevated horror projects on small budgets. By now, the production company has proudly earned the right to put their name before the on-screen title for the first time, but regrettably, “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” is their first major misfire that looks more like a generic Asylum Entertainment release and actually makes one long to watch Blumhouse's own “Ouija” instead. The premise is silly if not without potential, like a variation on the “Final Destination” formula coupled with 2015’s genuinely chilling “It Follows.” There is a supernatural curse, this time in the form of a once-harmless party game, where passing something on like a chain letter can lessen one’s chances toward doom. Watching characters forced to play a game and then die in bloodless ways, one gets the nagging feeling that this film was edited down to a toothless PG-13 rating to appease a teen demo. While last year’s surprise “Happy Death Day” didn’t need an R-rating to be fresh and fun, the bottom-feeding “Blumhouse's Truth or Dare” actually aims to be scary, but there isn’t a solitary scare to its name and, most frustrating of all, it’s thoroughly sanitized. 

Southern California college senior Olivia (Lucy Hale) plans to work for Habitat for Humanity over spring break but gets roped into going with bestie roommate Markie (Violett Beane) and their group of pals—Markie’s boyfriend Lucas (Tyler Posey); day-drinking Penelope (Sophia Taylor Ali) and her asshole boyfriend, prescription-selling med student Tyson (Nolan Gerard Funk); and gay friend Brad (Hayden Szeto)—on a debauchery-filled trip in Tijuana, Mexico. On their last night, Olivia meets Carter (Landon Liboiron), a nice guy at a bar, who invites her and her friends, along with douchey tag-along Ronnie (Sam Lerner), to an abandoned mission church to continue partying. They end up playing Truth or Dare, but before Carter leaves, he picks “truth” and reveals his intentions: he saw Olivia as an easy target and sees no problem with strangers dying if he gets to live. Once they return to school after their trip, Olivia is the first to discover that the game of Truth or Dare is haunting her and her friends, taking each of them down based on the order of a photo they took. If they don’t share their truth, they die, or if they don’t complete their dare, they die. How do they beat it?

Writer-director Jeff Wadlow (2013’s “Kick-Ass 2”) and screenwriters Jillian Jacobs, Michael Reisz and Christopher Roach (2014’s “Non-Stop”) could have turned this just-go-with-it premise into ghoulish fun, but at every turn, “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” seems to tame itself down and dodge the punchy payoffs audiences are coming to see in the first place. Besides the handcuffed MPAA rating, which allows a throat to be slit as long as no blood is shown, there are other problems. This being director Jeff Wadlow’s first horror film, none of the scares work. All of them are jump scares, to boot, and so predictably telegraphed on the expected beats and always involving characters sneaking up on one another. The film also has one gimmick to play and it has every principal actor (plus those around them) getting his and her chance to be possessed by the game's demon and have their face morphed into “a messed-up Snapchat filter” with a wide Joker grin, asking one of the players in a demonic voice, “Truth or dare?” It’s somewhat freaky at first and then laughable thereon. The characters’ predicament is reasonably involving at first to see how it revolves itself, especially when they realize their number of “truths” is limited and are forced to choose “dare.” By that point, though, so many soapy revelations have taken over that it’s hard to care who lives and who dies, and the ever-changing rules of the game that the characters conveniently sort out have become convoluted at best and asinine at worst.

Even by the standards of attractive, one-note horror-movie fodder, most of these characters are too disposable to really earn much concern. Lucy Hale (TV’s “Pretty Little Liars”) is an appealing talent, but she can only do so much with the insipid dialogue and tacked-on character layers as morally just do-gooder Olivia, who might just have an unforgivable secret she’s keeping from Markie and not that she has feelings for Lucas. Violett Beane (TV’s “The Flash”) at least has a feisty spark as perpetual cheater Markie, still reeling from her father’s suicide. Hayden Szeto, who made such a heart-melting impression in 2016’s “The Edge of Seventeen,” has the most scene-stealing charisma even here as Brad, who’s nervous about coming out to his police-officer father, but the script does a disservice to him. When Brad must tell his secretive truth to his father off-screen, the viewer curiously only sees the aftermath, a relieved Brad telling his friends what he had to do and Lucas asking, “Your dad didn’t know you were gay? Your ringtone is Beyoncé!” Szeto sells the response, but after the release of “Love, Simon,” the film treats Brad's subplot as an unprogressive taboo and sends him out on a note that is more appallingly distasteful than daringly cynical.

Rather than just upping the ante with wild dares and unpleasant truths, “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” has to send its remaining survivors back to Mexico to do some sleuthing and find a mute former nun who writes down the mythology of the curse. Of the dares, only Penelope’s dare to walk around the roof of their house for the time it takes to finish a bottle of liquor is tense and plays with expectations, as her friends follow her movements below with a mattress. In the end, characters must make ethical decisions to save their own skin and foolishly unleash the game on the rest of the world, forcing the film to, despite a cruel, mildly clever bit of irony on Olivia's part, solve nothing but actually dare itself to set up a sequel no one will be clamoring for. Truth? “Blumhouse’s Truth or Dare” is a waste of time that will whet a horror buff’s appetite for something more devilish and satisfying that never comes. Next, can we get "Blumhouse's Apples to Apples?"

Grade: D +

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Island of Misfit Dogs: Emotionally distant or not, "Isle of Dogs" still a marvel of wit and detail

Isle of Dogs (2018)
101 min., rated PG-13.

After a four-year hiatus of not releasing a film, writer-director Wes Anderson (2014’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) presents his second foray into stop-motion animation, following 2009’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox,” where he reshapes and heightens reality to his specific dollhouse aesthetic. Outside of his live-action efforts, which post-“Rushmore” sometimes came off as smug, stilted artifice with all arch, quirky art direction and no beating heart, “Isle of Dogs” stands as Anderson’s purest vision. Unmistakably emblazoned by the auteur’s signature tone and form, the film is so painstakingly designed and full of witty details by the second that it’s worth recommending (even to cat lovers) as a marvel of impressively studied craft and puppetry. 

In Japan’s Megasaki City, the cat-loving Mayor Kobayashi (voiced by Kunchi Nomura) has set off an alarm of fear about a potential outbreak of “dog flu” and “snout fever,” exiling all dogs to the wasteland of Trash Island. One of the first banished canines, Spots (Liev Schreiber), happens to be owned by Kobayashi’s nephew, 12-year-old Atari (Koyu Rankin). Five years later, Atari takes a plane and crash-lands on Trash Island to search for his beloved pooch. The little pilot finds a gang of dogs—Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum)—who scavenge for scraps and fend off aboriginal cannibal dogs, along with wary stray Chief (Bryan Cranston), who all agree to help Atari in his quest. Meanwhile, on the mainland, Kobayashi declares Atari dead and plans to exterminate all dogs on Trash Island, but blonde-Afroed American exchange student Tracy Walker (Greta Gerwig) sets in motion a resistance against Kobayashi's law.

During the opening credit sequence with composer Alexandre Desplat’s excellent score expressed through stop-motion animated kitano drummers, “Isle of Dogs” informs with a title card that “all barks have been rendered into English,” while all Japanese characters speak their own languge without subtitles but are sometimes translated by Interpreter Nelson (Frances McDormand). Wes Anderson’s clear attempt at cultural appropriation will have a mixed response, but one hopes his approach comes more from a place of love and sensitivity. From a story Wes Anderson wrote with Roman Coppola, Jason Schwartzman and Kunichi Nomura, the film is certainly an immigration parable—and not really one for children—with a fear-mongering dictator deporting all caged dogs to a concentration camp-like island. Being the filmmaker’s most political film since, well, ever, there is a conversation to be had on how Anderson handles cultural differences.

Again, what everyone can agree on about “Isle of Dogs” is the visual meticulousness. Like watching a pop-up book unfold, the amount of rough-hewn texture and detail brought to each frame is astounding, from a graphic sushi-making sequence, to canine rumbles obscured by mushroom clouds, to a trip through an incinerator. Bringing an amusingly deadpan energy to those images is the top-notch vocal cast, filled with Wes Anderson regulars and newbies and all of them exchanging the kind of rhythmic banter heard in anything with the Anderson stamp. Some of the most quiet yet offbeat moments involve Chief’s meet-cute and meet-again with comely former show dog Nutweg (Scarlett Johansson), who reinacts her tricks but asks Chief to picture the fiery bowling pins that she’s pretending to juggle. 

It probably isn’t a coincidence that, if spoken quickly, the title, “Isle of Dogs,” sounds like “I love dogs,” because on the surface and at its core, this is a story about a boy and his dog, the loyalty of man’s best friend, and how pet owners rightfully humanize their animals. Animated films are more than capable of being emotionally stirring—Pixar has that department covered—but for some reason, this one mostly keeps the viewer at a distance. Although tears roll down the faces of many of the glassy-eyed characters—both canine and human—that same level of emotion doesn’t quite translate to the viewer as much as it should. It’s not that “Isle of Dogs” is unfeeling, but it is much easier to be enamored with the artistry and obsessive care on display than to be moved by the storytelling. Though not as perfect as its aesthetics, this is very much a delight that will make dog owners everywhere give their tail-wagger a big hug when they get home.