Sunday, September 30, 2018

Underachievers: "Night School" lets down energetic Hart and Haddish with merely passable material

Night School (2018)
111 min., rated PG-13.

“Night School” is a comedy that has its preliminary work down because it matches Kevin Hart (2017’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle”) with Tiffany Haddish (2018’s “Uncle Drew”) and practically banks on the laughs to just flow through sheer osmosis. Both stars get to do what they do best, but this is no one’s finest hour, and director Malcolm D. Lee (2017’s “Girls Trip”) and a half-dozen screenwriters (Kevin Hart & Harry Ratchford & Joey Wells & Matthew Kellard and Nicholas Stoller and John Hamburg) can’t even punch up merely passable material. What has shown up on the screen in the form of the good-natured but middle-of-the-road “Night School” simply misses the mark of being as hilarious as its two dynamite stars.

Always one to freeze up when taking an exam, high school dropout and Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) has made a successful life without a diploma seventeen years later by being set to take over the business of a BBQ grill and patio store and ready to propose to his smart, gorgeous girlfriend Lisa (Megalyn Echikunwoke). When he pops the question to Lisa in an elaborate proposal in the store, Teddy accidentally blows up the store, leaving him to figure out a Plan B: become a financial analyst underneath his best friend Marvin (Ben Schwartz). The only catch is that (1) the position requires a GED; (2) the only night class being held locally is in his former high school where Teddy’s former enemy (Taran Killam) is now the school’s principal; and (3) the no-nonsense night school teacher, Carrie (Tiffany Haddish), is someone he got into a verbal squabble with at a red light. Too embarrassed to tell his fiancée where he’s really going at night and that he finds temporary employment at a Christian Chicken fast-food joint, Teddy will do what he has to do to face his undiagnosed learning disabilities and finally pass his GED exam to graduate.

“Night School” has two robust comedic performers in its pocket, but the ways in which it uses them is more wearisome than laugh-out-loud funny. Kevin Hart can be fun to watch when he goes off the mediocre script and just lets his frantic motormouth screen persona run loose. As Teddy, Hart doesn’t get to stretch too far from his other big-screen roles, but as much of a dumbed-down contrivance as it is to have Teddy lie to his fiancée, he does fine with establishing Teddy’s familiar arc as a born bullshit artist getting a second chance. Breaking into the big time with her rib-ticklingly uninhibited personality turned up to eleven in “Girls Trip,” Tiffany Haddish varies her shtick a little bit here as Carrie, underplaying as much as a force of nature like her can. Even though she functions as the straight woman in the comic pairing, Haddish still forges an amusing give-and-take with Hart when given the chance to dish it out; her powers really deserved a better follow-up vehicle, though.

“Night School” is too low-stakes and scant on laughs and narrative flow to warrant its long-winded length. Playing like a practice test itself, the film seems to have cobbled together the weakest takes, with the occasional line dubbing to snag a more commercial PG-13 rating, and the laziest impulses of its six writers. Smack dab in the middle of the film is an interminable caper Teddy spearheads with his adult peers to steal the practice GED exam, ending with a broad bit of physical comedy and a vomit gag that both fall flat. The side players of Teddy’s fellow night-school classmates are still affably oddball company, including an almost-unrecognizable Romany Malco, as a tech-phobic conspiracy theorist; Mary Lynn Rajskub, a hoot as a positive but put-upon wife and mother; Rob Riggle, as an oafish dad; Fat Joe, as a convict joining in via Skype from prison; Anne Winters, as a dropout who wants to go to college; and Al Madrigal, as a Mexican immigrant waiter who lost his job after Teddy planted pubic hairs in his dessert (don’t ask). Like their own version of “The Breakfast Club” or “Summer School,” this bunch brings a refreshing jolt of weirdness to the margins. Hart and Haddish are enjoyable balls of energy and could find laughs in reading from the phone book, but with "Night School," it's a shame the script they’re working with in tandem is regrettably only average at best.


Saturday, September 29, 2018

Carnival of Terror: Frightfully fun "Hell Fest" scratches a slasher horror fan's itch

Hell Fest (2018)
89 min., rated R.

A slash-o-rama set inside a horror-themed amusement park, “Hell Fest” scratches a horror fan’s itch to see a straight-up, R-rated throwback to the slasher pics of yore with a killer backdrop. Sharing a bare framework with 2014’s found-footage excursion “The Houses October Built” and the carnivalesque setting with Tobe Hooper’s underseen 1981 gem “The Funhouse,” the film seems like it could practically write itself but is resourcefully directed by Gregory Plotkin (2015’s “Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension”) and mixes a good-times vibe with taut, edgy tension. “Hell Fest” delivers exactly what it promises.

Reuniting with best friend Brooke (Reign Edwards) and roommate Taylor (Bex Taylor-Klaus), college student Natalie (Amy Forsyth) gets dragged to a traveling horror-themed haunt called Hell Fest on Halloween night. Joining them are Brooke’s boyfriend Quinn (Christian James), Taylor’s boyfriend Asher (Matt Mercurio), and Gavin (Roby Attal), Natalie’s crush who’s scored the group VIP wristbands to skip to the front of the lines. Even though horror isn’t Natalie’s cup of tea, she has fun getting spooked with Gavin and her friends. It’s all fun and games at first, until a man in a creepy flesh mask, who fits right in with the paid employees in the park, targets Natalie and begins following her around through each maze. 

Playing by the slasher subgenre’s rules without attempting to reinvent them, “Hell Fest” still takes full advantage of its optimally creepy premise. As the viewer vicariously enters the funhouse atmosphere of Hell Fest with the characters, one is lulled into a false sense of security, as some of the dead bodies among the props could be real and one of the masked killers might be more than just a professional scarer taking his job seriously. The screenplay by Seth M. Sherwood (2017’s “Leatherface”), Blair Butler, and Akela Cooper is quite basic in terms of plot and victim-to-be character development, although the film moves at a good clip and the cast imbue their bare-bones roles with enough likable personality.

Amy Forsyth (Syfy's "Channel Zero: No-End House") makes for an appealing, relatable heroine as Nat, who figures out how to brave the mazes full of mannequins and real actors by looking at their hands and then later realizes the pattern of each maze and uses it to her advantage. She also shares a sweet, naturally awkward chemistry with Roby Attal as crush Gavin. Reign Edwards (FX’s “Snowfall”) lends spark and charisma as tough but quickly vulnerable Brooke, and Bex Taylor-Klaus (MTV’s “Scream”) makes a big impression, popping in every scene with a rambunctious energy as horror-obsessed Taylor. And Tony Todd, Candyman himself, is fun to spot in a cameo as Hell Fest’s carnival barker.

When it comes to a slasher movie, it’s a feature, not a bug, to watch a series of scenes with characters being stalked and killed. There are nasty, wince-inducing kills with a high-striker mallet and a non-prop syringe; a sequence involving a guillotine ratchets up the dread; and the climactic chase between the killer, Nat, and Brooke in the ultimate maze, known as Hell, makes clever use of each room, ending with one full of black-robed figures donning white masks. That the psychopath at hand comes with no true identity or motive is just as well because the truly unsettling final scene makes up for it, and there’s a leitmotif of the killer humming “Pop Goes the Weasel.” Atmospheric with a neon-colored aesthetic, the film oozes deliciously vibrant production design and creepy inspiration when the characters wander through each different maze. With the “Saw” and “Paranormal Activity” franchises fading away as the horror genre’s Halloween-released mainstays, “Hell Fest” offers a frightfully fun Halloween fix for fans of horror and amusement parks.


Friday, September 21, 2018

Boy Witch: Eli Roth taps into his inner child with weird, spooky, whimsical "House with a Clock in Its Walls"

The House with a Clock in Its Walls (2018)
104 min., rated PG.

Director Eli Roth—yes, the same Eli Roth who has built a niche career on making ultra-violent films like “Cabin Fever,” “Hostel,” “Hostel: Part II,” “The Green Inferno,” and the recent “Death Wish” update—makes his foray into the family-friendly, PG-rated horror-fantasy realm with “The House with a Clock in Its Walls,” an adaptation of John Bellairs’ 1973 book. Harkening back to fellow Amblin Entertainment productions, the film is a welcome blend of the spooky, goofy, and weird on the order of children’s films from the ‘80s and ‘90s that differentiated themselves from the pack by rarely playing things safe and often placing child protagonists in grave danger. Ghoulish when it needs to be but whimsical and impish in spirit, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” works as a kid’s Horror-Lite, and that’s meant in the best of ways.

Orphaned after losing his parents in a car accident, goggle-wearing, encyclopedia-packing 10-year-old Lewis Barnavelt (Owen Vaccaro) hops on a bus to live with his kooky, kimono-sporting Uncle Jonathan (Jack Black), whom he’s never met before, in New Zebedee, Michigan, in 1955. Around every nook and cranny of Jonathan’s gothic Victorian mansion is something strange—a stained glass window that animates when Owen isn’t looking, a living armchair, and a giant purple snake with wriggling tentacles locked away—and in the middle of the night, Lewis wakes up to his uncle listening to something in the walls. As he is quickly branded the outcast at school for marching to the beat of his own drummer and living in “Slaughter House,” which is the stuff of an axe-murder legend, Lewis comes to discover that Uncle Jonathan is actually a warlock (don't call him a "boy witch"!) and his uncle’s close friend and neighbor, Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett), is a good witch. Hoping to be groomed into a warlock himself, Lewis first learns the dark history of the house he’s living in: Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan), the late former homeowner and Jonathan’s magic-act partner, has hidden a ticking clock somewhere in the house that could lead to doomsday if it is not found and destroyed. When Lewis tries impressing Tarby (Sunny Suljic), the only classmate who gives him the time of day, he disobeys his uncle’s one rule—do not open the cabinet in the library—and accidentally raises Isaac Izard from the dead.

Venturing into the dark, macabre, and otherworldly, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” incorporates blood rituals, a zombified Dale Cooper, and a gnarly, bone-cracking body transformation, while nevertheless sustaining a mischievous comedic tone and locating a heart at its center without coming off saccharine. The pacing is initially uneven, taking off and then slowing right back down, but director Eli Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke (2005’s “Boogeyman”) respect their audience’s intelligence by taking their time to tell the story and capturing our attention with the offbeat characters’ banter and every household oddity. Even as the plot machinations start to pad a pretty simple story, the film springs to life the most in its gleefully unrestrained final act when a roomful of creepy life-sized automatons comes out to play, as well as a bevy of marauding pumpkins that spew their guts, aided by a healthy budget supporting Roth’s twisted imagination.

Sympathetic and appealing, Owen Vaccaro (2017’s “Daddy’s Home 2”) is just right with an earnest get-up-and-go as warlock-in-training Lewis. Immediately endearing the viewer with his gawky lack of athletic ability, mature love for words, and penchant for wearing goggles at all times like his TV adventure hero, not to mention the void he feels without his parents, Lewis may be a kid, but he’s an old soul who eventually finds common ground with his uncle when they agree that they both are the “black swans” of the family. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett are joys to watch on screen together, affectionately slinging barbed insults at each other. Never looking above it all or phoning in material that is targeted more for children, the two of them make such a spirited witchy duo as platonic couple Jonathan Barnavelt and Florence Zimmerman. On their own, Black is endearingly oddball and right in his wheelhouse after playing a version of R.L. Stine in 2015’s “Goosebumps,” and Blanchett has a warm eccentricity about her and brings a crucial amount of pathos once the details of her tragic past are divulged to Lewis.

Unsuspecting families will most likely have no knowledge of Eli Roth’s prior cinematic offerings of backwoods flesh-eating viruses, Slovakian torture chambers, and cannibalistic Amazon tribes, but for those who do will happily discover that Roth is an oddly perfect choice for a children’s horror film. He is, after all, a kid at heart, and "The House with a Clock in Its Walls" gives him the opportunity to recharge his creativity outside of his gory, hardcore impulses and even tap into his sweeter side. Roth can’t always resist his juvenile side, though, as he revisits a pandering gag involving a topiary lion defecating wet leaves three times too many. With that kiddified exception, adults will get a kick out of seeing Cate Blanchett head-butt an evil pumpkin and fend it off with a purple umbrella laser blaster, and the amusing yet unsettling sight of Jack Black morphing into a baby. As a mirthful gateway into horror for kids to eat up, “The House with a Clock in Its Walls” is a fun pre-Halloween treat that effortlessly takes delight in the whimsy but also isn’t unafraid of going dark.

Grade: B - 

Friday, September 14, 2018

The Mommy Vanishes: "A Simple Favor" a deliciously stylish comedy stirred into a twisty mystery

A Simple Favor (2018)
117 min., rated R.

Based upon the 2017 novel by Darcey Bell, “A Simple Favor” is a wickedly sharp and stylish female-driven comedy stirred into a twisty suburban mystery that makes for a deliciously entertaining page-turner in film form. Director Paul Feig (2016’s “Ghostbusters”) knows exactly what he’s doing, confidently helming a sparkling script by Jessica Sharzer (2016’s “Nerve”) with slick, chic flair and juicy, bewitching performances delivered by Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively. For a film built on a mystery that inevitably switches course, “Gone Girl”-style, it still manages to surprise in how it gets there. Despite the cosmetic similarities to David Fincher’s much darker and more twisted adaptation of a novel about a missing woman, “A Simple Favor” offers its own tone and pleasures as an enthralling, deftly funny, snazzy-looking treat.

Perky and task-oriented, widowed single mother Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick) is a mommy vlogger with a web series on making baked goods and crafts, while raising first-grader son Miles (Joshua Satine) in Warfield, Connecticut, and so involved in his school that she volunteers for everything. When Stephanie picks Miles up from school and meets his friend Nicky’s (Ian Ho) mother, Emily Nelson (Blake Lively), the fashionable but brash and edgy mother invites them both over for a playdate. As Emily starts happy hour early in the day by serving up a few cold martinis, both moms drink, swap their innermost secrets, and instantly form an unlikely friendship. One day, Emily calls up Stephanie, asking for “a simple favor,” to pick Nicky up from school, while she has a fashion PR “work crisis” in Miami and her husband, Sean (Henry Golding), is in London to visit his mother in the hospital. Days go by and Stephanie cannot reach Emily, and when Sean returns to the states, he finally files a missing person’s report. Is Emily’s disappearance just another one of Emily’s impulsive runaways from her life, or is she gone for good? Stephanie is on the case.

As cunningly conceived as the storytelling is, “A Simple Favor” remains zingy and fizzy like a Paul Feig-directed comedy does, only with ‘60s French pop songs and a lot more visual panache. Once Emily goes missing, the film becomes a noir story of deception, infidelity, and murder in the most classic sense, albeit with a trickier tonal balance to go with its deviously constructed plotting. There is not only more to Emily than meets the eye, as Stephanie's sleuthing blows the lid off who her drinking buddy and fellow secret-sharer really was, but there is more to Stephanie as well. How the film goes about solving its puzzle-like mystery is far from simple, and with every peeled layer of the proverbial onion, the amount of twists becomes knotty and disorienting, almost in the vein of “Wild Things,” but that’s all part of the fun.

Anna Kendrick and Blake Lively make potent, dynamic co-leads as Stephanie and Emily, polar opposites but so distinctly drawn as individuals who shan't be underestimated. Kendrick is a delight, as she is wont to be, bringing not only a go-getter effervescence but also enough layers to make Stephanie an interesting and sympathetic conduit into this mystery. From pre-missing Emily pulling candid emotions out of her (not to mention a big shameful secret) and telling her to stop apologizing all the time, Stephanie seems to take on her new friend’s unapologetic attitude and uses it in her favor when she goes hunting for clues that could help her solve Emily’s disappearance. For instance, when Stephanie takes a trip to Emily’s workplace, Kendrick uses her ace, rapid-fire comic delivery in an indirect back-and-forth with a front-desk receptionist and when putting Emily’s Tom Ford-wannabe boss (Rupert Friend) in his place. As disparate as their characters are, Lively is Kendrick’s perfect equal, stretching her talents with an acerbic, take-no-prisoners wit that comes naturally in her repartee with Stephanie. As Emily, she is private, enigmatic yet open and racy with a zero-fucks-to-give attitude, and it's fun to watch Lively relish such a multilayered role. There are several supporting turns that pop, like Henry Golding (2018’s “Crazy Rich Asians”), as Emily’s college professor husband Sean; Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack and Aparna Nancherla, as the gossipy trio of parents at Stephanie and Emily’s kids’ school; Bashir Salahuddin (2017’s “Snatched”), as the suspicious Detective Summervile; Linda Cardellini, as edgy artist Diana from Emily’s past; and Jean Smart, as Emily’s mother, but it is clearly Kendrick and Lively who own the film.

“Are you trying to ‘Diabolique’ me?” Stephanie asks at one point, paranoid that she is being gaslighted, and it’s one of many savvy touches in the knowing noir make-up of “A Simple Favor.” Even take the amusing sight of an umbrella blowing across a parking lot as the statuesque Emily makes her dramatic slow-motion entrance that tips off the heightened tone director Paul Feig nails and keeps embracing. Along with that, Feig proves to be quite the visual stylist here with the aid of cinematographer John Schwartzman and costume designer Renee Ehrlich Kalfus, whose contrasting choices for both Stephanie and Emily say a lot about their characters. Enjoying “A Simple Favor” is as simple as drinking a gin martini with a lot of twists.

Grade: B +

Soldiers vs. Predator: "The Predator" sometimes diverting but mostly a mess

The Predator (2018)
107 min., rated R.

The “Predator” franchise seemed defunct after cross-pollinating with another certain face-hugger’s franchise in 2004’s potentially cool but pretty boring “Alien vs. Predator” and 2007’s gory if fun-free “Aliens vs. Predator: Requiem.” With the prospect of writer-director Shane Black (2016’s “The Nice Guys”) and co-writer Fred Dekker (1987’s “The Monster Squad”) rebooting 1987’s taut jungle-set sci-fi thriller “Predator,” fans of the Arnold Schwarzenegger-starring original had a right to expect an exciting revitalization and an ideal match of material with this filmmaker’s sensibilities. What they get instead is a sometimes diverting mess with a haphazard script, glaringly underwritten stick-figure characters, one-liners that land 50% of the time, and a flubbed attempt to make the dreadlocked, camouflaging, heat-detecting “space aliens” frightening again. It’s fun in spurts and has the vibe of something made back in the late-'80s or early-'90s, but give us 2010’s moody, tense, exciting sequel “Predators” any day.

On a mission in Mexico, Army sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook) has a close encounter with a Predator ripping apart the rest of his platoon when the space aliens’ ship crashes nearby. He gets his hands on their alien tech and sends them to a P.O. box as proof that the government has been covering up these extraterrestrial sport hunters. Unfortunately, the package gets rerouted to McKenna’s home instead and his estranged autistic son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), opens the box and plays with the Predator’s helmet and wrist gauntlet, unwittingly activating a distress signal to the aliens. Meanwhile, evolutionary biologist Dr. Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is called in by shady government agent Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown) to study the Predator that has been captured to be weaponized for Project Stargazer, but naturally, the alien wakes up and goes on the hunt. At the same time, McKenna is rendered mentally ill after being interrogated and taken from the VA to a bus headed for lobotomization with a ragtag group of fellow PTSD-suffering soldiers, dubbing themselves “The Loonies”—among them, the suicidal Gaylord “Nebraska” Williams (Trevante Rhodes), “your mom” joke-spouting Coyle (Keegan-Michael Key), Tourette Syndrome-diagnosed Baxley (Thomas Jane), Bible-banger Nettles (Augusto Aguilera), and Irish Marine Lynch (Alfie Allen). When Casey runs into the soldiers, they head to McKenna’s home to save Rory, while trying not to become hunted themselves by the Predators.

With a breakneck pace, “The Predator” doesn’t waste a second having a predator ship crash-land on Earth or waste any time setting up its characters properly. What writer-director Shane Black (who had a feature-debuting role and a nasty demise in the 1987 film) does bring to this property is what Black does well, retaining his ear for flippant, politically incorrect banter of the macho variety and certain scripting trademarks, including the involvement of a precocious youngster (this time, the child is somewhere on the autism spectrum) and setting his story during a holiday (Halloween instead of Christmas). Despite Black’s jokey specialties on full display (even the sport hunter giving the thumbs up with a severed arm is good for a mordantly goofy gag), the film introduces the Predators’ new goal for hybridization when it comes to the human species they hunt. Misguided ideas, like Rory becoming a prize because autism is the next phase in human evolution, and creative choices, like tossing in a much bigger Predator 2.0 and silly-looking Predator Dogs, were better off being cut before principal photography. Instead, certain character beats seemed to have been whittled down or hacked completely in the editing process, making for a speedy but noticeably choppy final edit deemed ready for theatrical release.

The eclectic cast is solidly colorful, even if the characters they're given to play are never substantially defined to genuinely care about their fates and the majority of them are just there to be joke machines. Looking more and more like Devon Sawa, Boyd Holbrook (2017's "Logan") is eminently watchable as decorated sniper Quinn McKenna. Olivia Munn (2016's "Office Christmas Party") is credible and gets to handle herself capably in the thick of the action in the slimly conceived role of Dr. Casey Bracket; the way in which the character hooks up with “The Loonies” has a fun, almost slapsticky choreography to it, as Casey lands on their bus, accidentally shoots herself with a tranquilizer dart and jumps off the roof of the bus with the hope that one of them will catch her. There’s also something oddly endearing rather than creepy when Casey awakens, like Snow White, on a bed in a hotel room, surrounded by trinkets and confused by the sight of five soldiers politely standing on the other side of the room as if they’ve never seen a woman before.

With the most engaging, charismatic presence and given the most hints of an actual backstory out of "The Loonies," Trevante Rhodes (2016’s “Moonlight”) makes the strongest impression as the chain-smoking Nebraska, while Keegan-Michael Key (2016's "Why Him?") and Thomas Jane (2016's "Before I Wake") trade vulgar, smart-ass quips that alternately hit and clang as Coyle and Baxley. Wildly magnetic and full of gusto even without a meaty role, Sterling K. Brown (2018’s “Hotel Artemis”) seems to be having a grand time being bad as the cold-as-ice Traeger, chewing scenery like it’s Trident gum, which seems to be in his mouth the entire time. Jacob Tremblay (2017's "Wonder") is likable as the brilliant Rory McKenna, but his obligatory kid role becomes more of a prop as the film goes along, and one will notice that he is sensitive to noise during an early scene when two bullies pull the fire alarm but nothing triggers him when everyone is firing at the Predators. As the second resident woman with a speaking part in the film, Yvonne Strahovski (2017's "All I See Is You"), as McKenna’s ex-wife Emily, looks like she will figure into the proceedings somehow, but once she escapes her basement from a sneak attack by the big, bad Predator, she is never heard from again.

Palpable thrills and tension are sorely fleeting, and none of the human confrontations with the Predators are staged as true set-pieces with much imagination or suspense. The action is variable, gory when it needs to be but rather rote and not particularly exciting, as full as it is of shooting and explosions. It’s often edited so frenetically that spatial geography and coherence go through the chopper, particularly in the film’s poorly lit final showdown in a forest that muddles the unceremonious death of one of the main baddies. There is fan service, like a sly glimpse of Lawrence A. Gordon Middle School (Gordon was a producer on the first two “Predator” films and this one), not-too-distracting nods to the 1987 original and the 1997 setting of the 1990 sequel, a direct callback to one of Arnie's famous lines, and Henry Jackman’s rousing score has tinges of Alan Silvestri’s original score. Despite the preceding article, “The Predator” is not a definitive addition to the series. It’s appreciably R-rated, as one expects from this kind of genre effort, and not castrated with the dreaded, sterilized PG-13 like “Alien vs. Predator.” While that film was a joke itself, the written jokes are so front and center here that the menacing threat of the Predators is gone. The asinine setup for a sequel might be the biggest threat of all.


Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Ghoul Town: "Slice" isn't without weird, anything-goes charms but doesn't cut it

Slice (2018)
82 min., rated R.

Any genre film that throws ghosts, a werewolf, a coven of witches, and pizza delivery drivers into the mix is easy to root for and clearly deserves creativity points, but debuting writer-director Austin Vesely’s promise for a hip, larky wannabe cult item is only partially fulfilled with gleefully performed horror-comedy “Slice.” He injects a lot of unpolished, anything-goes energy into this low-budget production that proves to be infectiously playful at first, and while the film isn’t without its amiably weird charms and an ‘80s-retro vibe, it’s hard not to be let down by the scattershot, mostly forgettable delivery. The spirited, lovingly rendered animated opening credits sequence hints at an experience that will be a blast, but as the rest of the film plays out, “Slice” feels half-baked, dashed-off, and always right on the edge of taking off.

In the spooky town of Kingfisher, the overpopulation of 40,000 ghosts walking among the living has been decreased by the crooked mayor (Chris Parnell), who has relegated the specters to a nearby borough known as Ghost Town. When pizza-delivery stoner Sean Hammerschmidt (Austin Vesely) is slain, the murder puts the townsfolk into a frenzy, particularly owner Jack (Paul Scheer) and the employees of local pizza joint Perfect Pizza, which is based on a haunted burial ground. This spurs on Sean’s ex Astrid (Zazie Beetz) to return to her job of delivering ‘za and hunt down the slasher herself with her switchblade. Meanwhile, newspaper journalist Sadie Sheridan (Rae Gray) is determined to get to the bottom of the murder and see if there is any spectral involvement; a group of middle-aged women spend their time protesting Perfect Pizza; and two bumbling cops have their own hunch when moped-riding werewolf/former Chinese food delivery driver Dax Lycander (Chance Bennett) has recently returned to town. Could there be a bigger curse at work here? Might Perfect Pizza be built above the gateway to Hell?

“Slice” throws so much excess at the wall for a fun supernatural slasher-mystery mishmash with a cheeky, macabre sense of humor, but it hasn’t quite figured out what to do with all of its spare parts, striking as a busy, messy rough draft in need of punchier jokes and a sharper focus. An intentionally stiff pizza commercial right before the end credits is funnier than any would-be chuckle in the film. The magnetic Zazie Beetz (2018’s “Deadpool 2”) is a badass force, and Chance Bennett/Chance the Rapper, though a little green, shows natural charisma in his big acting break as a self-proclaimed attractive werewolf. Otherwise, the promising ensemble, including Joe Keery (Netflix’s “Stranger Things”), Hannibal Buress, and Y’Lan Noel (2018’s “The First Purge”) who each get a scene or two apiece, seems to have been shaved down in the film’s finished form. “Slice” is oddly likable for a spell, but all over the place, like a pizza pie that's been sloppily piled high in toppings. There might even be a kitchen sink in there somewhere.


Friday, September 7, 2018

Bad Habit: "The Nun" has atmosphere but no memorable scares or reason to exist

The Nun (2018)
96 min., rated R.

The habit-wearing, shape-shifting banshee known as Valak was first introduced as a painting that sprung to life and scared the bejesus out of Lorraine Warren (Vera Farming) in “The Conjuring 2” and then hinted at in a photograph, as well as a post-credits stinger, in “Annabelle: Creation.” As the next installment in “The Conjuring Universe,” “The Nun” attempts to retrofit itself into the series by circling back to the beginning in 1952 and devote an entire spin-off to a ghoul that fueled more nightmares as a painting or a creepy figure at the end of a hall. Director Corin Hardy (2015’s “The Hallow”) has chops for setting atmosphere and shrouding everything in shadows, and writer Gary Dauberman (2017’s “It”) knows how to focus on character, but what they don't have here what the previous films had were well-drawn characters, memorable scares, and an involving narrative. Alas, “The Nun” is like the cinematic equivalent of a fidget spinner, holding one’s attention until it keeps spinning its wheels and fails to go to any place of actual consequence.

After Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope) is found with a noose around her neck outside the Abbey of St. Carta in Romania, miracle-hunting Catholic priest Father Burke (Demián Bichir) is called upon by the Vatican to investigate the alleged suicide. Accompanying him on his journey are London-based novitiate Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga), who has yet to take her vows, and guide Frenchie (Jonas Bloquet), a French-Canadian villager who was making a delivery when he discovered the nun’s body. When they arrive in Romania, nothing about the grounds of the convent seem holy. Frenchie encounters something in the nearby graveyard, Sister Irene keeps seeing a ghastly nun, known as Valak (Bonnie Aarons), who haunts the abbey, and Father Burke is further plagued by a possessed young boy who died during a failed exorcism. Can these three banish this demonic presence back to Hell?

“The Nun” begins with a gripping prologue, relying more on encroaching doom and shuddersome mood than jumpy frights. Director Corin Hardy does know how to saturate candlelit stone passageways with atmosphere and invoke a spooky vibe with gothic, droning chants. There is a fairly creepy attempt to ape the crafty build-up to the basement mirror and painting scenes in “The Conjuring 2,” as Sister Irene watches the moving silhouette of the nun on the walls make its way behind her. A sequence shot overhead as the white-habited Irene is surrounded by other nuns in their black habits hastily kneeling in prayer is also striking, as is the image of the titular nun emerging from a flooded chamber. With due credit out of the way, the film is ineffectual from a dramatic level and mostly preoccupied with characters, sometimes for no good reason, following robed figures until something pounces out at them in the dark, like an extra in a haunted house walk-through.

Taissa Farmiga (2015’s “The Final Girls”), sister of Vera Farmiga, is well-cast, but the fact that Sister Irene has no relation to Lorraine Warren feels like a missed opportunity, considering Irene is also a seer. All the more disappointing is that both Farmiga and Demián Bichir (2017’s “Alien: Covenant”), as Father Burke, never receive any meaningful layers beyond their thin character sketches, like Irene’s gift of visions not getting the chance to develop and flourish. They become reduced to stiff pawns, wandering around to explore dark spaces with candles and oil lamps and splitting up in the abbey’s catacombs. Jonas Bloquet (2016's "Elle"), however, does bring flirtatious charm and a lively levity to Frenchie. Bonnie Aarons in her pale-faced make-up and yellow contact lenses as Valak is enough to keep one up at night, but for her origin story, nothing more is learned about the unholy demon invading that habit besides some expository hokum that is more goofy and murky than sinister and interesting.

“The darkest chapter,” this is not. 2013’s “The Conjuring” and 2016’s “The Conjuring 2” (and to a certain extent, 2014’s “Annabelle” and 2017’s “Annabelle: Creation”) have specialized in a classy, meticulously crafted realm of R-rated horror that frightens and thrives without favoring gore over tingling, visceral tension. Drenched in mood though it may be, “The Nun” frustratingly takes a step back, settling for empty mediocrity and repeatedly calling attention to how inferior it is to its predecessors in terms of high style, playfully creepy inspiration, and masterstroke for misdirecting the scares. The capper that makes even more of a connection to “The Conjuring” is vaguely clever but feels like a cheat. This fruitless offshoot’s sins far outweigh the workable jolts that it’s enough to already lose interest and faith in this shared cinematic universe. Valak, be gone.