Thursday, February 26, 2015

Burn, Hollywood, Burn: "Maps to the Stars" cynically bites into Tinseltown

Maps to the Stars (2015)
112 min., rated R.

With 2011's "A Dangerous Method" and 2012's "Cosmopolis" back to back in recent years, daring, bizarre and often clinically detached Canadian auteur David Cronenberg seemed to have lost his touch, changing his focus from the body to the mind, albeit in suffocatingly tedious and didactic ways that distanced the viewers to detrimental ends. He's mostly back on track with "Maps to the Stars," a scabrous, cynically drawn, at times caustically humorous critique of fame, wealth, nepotism, and even incest in Tinseltown. Usually working outside of the Hollywood system (and heretofore never shooting any of his films in the states), Cronenberg finds the savage ugliness and inbreeding inside the sunny shell of Hollywood and takes it down one character at a time. The film is more misanthropic than glamorous, and yet, it's impossible to look away as viewed through the filmmaker's disturbing prism.

Just off the bus from Jupiter (Florida, that is), fire-scarred Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Los Angeles to visit family and for a tour of Hollywood by limousine driver Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson), a struggling actor and screenwriter. She claims to be friends with Carrie Fisher, even though they only met on Twitter. Meanwhile, spoiled-rotten 13-year-old actor Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) is just out of rehab for substance abuse, and when he's not visiting his a fan in a hospital, he's demanding more money and angry about his young co-star stealing the show on the set of his sequel to hit movie "Bad Babysitter." His father, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a famed new-age guru for the stars, and Weiss' wife Christina (Olivia Williams) is their son's manager, on the verge of a nervous breakdown while negotiating Benjie's comeback contract. Also, one of Dr. Weiss' Reiki-massage patients is whiny, neurotic, overmedicated actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore). She's aging, fading, and haunted by the younger ghost of her deceased mother, Clarice Taggart (Sarah Gadon), but also dying to play her starlet mother's part in a remake of "Stolen Waters." The film starts to come together when Havana, looking for a new personal assistant after firing her last one, takes Carrie Fisher's suggestion and hires Agatha, who has a close connection with the Weiss family. 

Scathingly written with acidic snark by screenwriter Bruce Wagner (TV's State of the Union"), who takes from his 2013 novel "Dead Stars," "Maps to the Stars" is about people, as vacuous and narcissistic and privileged as they are, and never apologizes for them but surely invites the viewer to mock them. This is a nihilistic, ruthlessly satirical study of people whom no one will want to meet in real life, much like the awful species of human beings in any Bret Easton Ellis story, but meeting and watching them on the screen is fascinating. Aside from maybe chauffeur Jerome, all of the characters are haunted by their pasts or by some sort of hallucinatory, delusional disorder, and they have crossed the point of no return. Fame and celebrity cannot free them. While none of them are innately appealing, we aren't really asked to like these despicable creations in the first place. Like David Lynch's exploration into the dark, seedy underbelly of white-picket-fence small-town America in 1986's "Blue Velvet," "Maps to the Stars" doesn't say anything startlingly new or insightful about La-La Land. And, there has been no shortage of biting films with similarly satiric aims (David Lynch's "Mulholland Drive" and Christopher Guest's "For Your Consideration" were effective and Paul Schrader's "The Canyons" was not), but how it says it is startling and all Cronenberg. 

If there is a center in the film, Mia Wasikowska's enigmatic Agatha is it. She's surely the connective tissue to all of the other characters, and though Agatha is just from Jupiter, Florida, she does feel like an alien from another planet. Wasikowska, not far off from the darkness she shed in 2013's "Stoker," conceals a lot behind her odd-bird facade, much like the arm-length black gloves she wears to cover her burns from a fire. Like in every performance, Julianne Moore gives herself over to her character, here as an abrasive, pampered woman-child actress tormented inside from the abuse of her late mother. Forming a stitched-together person between Norma Desmond and the real Lindsay Lohan, Moore fashions a deliciously uninhibited performance as Havana, playing her loopily and honestly with pathetic sadness and insecurities without dipping into campiness or caricature. Now-14-year-old Evan Bird (TV's "The Killing") is scarily watchable, viciously turning his Justin Bieber-like send-up into a disturbed, unfeeling monster, particularly in one scene at a friend's house when he, under the influence of GHB, starts playing with a seemingly empty gun and pointing it around. When the petulant Benjie visits a hospitalized girl with Non-Hodgkin's lymphoma for publicity reasons, he mistakes her disease for AIDS. After leaving the hospital, he says to his agent, "What the fuck is Non-Hodgkin's? I mean, non. It either is or it isn't." It would almost be unthinkable if Bird weren't exactly like his character in real life. As Stafford and Cristina Weiss, John Cusack and Olivia Williams do well under characters that are mostly means to an end. Robert Pattinson is allotted the least screen time as Jerome, who gets off the hook of the film's indictment of characters, but he reveals an opportunistic side. It seems like Cronenberg mainly cast Pattinson to make the actor's participation of a piece with "Cosmopolis," where he was a wealthy passenger in a stretch limo.

It's hard to say what exactly we're supposed to make of it all, except to take the film as a Hollywood rant that should prevent anyone from desiring to be rich and famous if that lifestyle was granted to them. Save for a few trouble spots—Agatha is supposed to work a party at Havana's house that never happens, which could have led to some juicy "All About Eve"-ish drama between actress and assistant before their final squabble, and Cristina is handed a harshly abrupt exit—"Maps to the Stars" is, for what it examines, cruelly articulated and fiercely acted but decidedly a tough sit if one hopes for an optimistic outlook. Redemption is definitely not in the cards for anyone on screen, but there is for the puppet master behind the camera. There are times where director David Cronenberg and screenwriter Bruce Wagner get a bit off track with a few of their turns of the screw, but perhaps the lack of threshold is the point. Besides, no Greek tragedy would be unforgettable if it didn't crack a few eggs.

Grade:

Dead is Always Better: "Lazarus Effect" starts well, then wastes premise

The Lazarus Effect (2015)
83 min., rated PG-13.

The intriguing concept of bringing the dead back to life has stood the test of time, but the most recent example of that concept will not. The slickly produced but unhorrifying "The Lazarus Effect" just feels like wasted potential. A redux of "Re-Animator," "Pet Sematary" and "Flatliners" that breeds with "Carrie," "Hollow Man," and last year's "Lucy," this science-run-amok morality horror-thriller uncommonly begins with something on its mind and deceives those watching into thinking it will sustain its intelligence for the long haul. By the time the film goes the way of a basic slasher movie, and a dumb one at that, "The Lazarus Effect" has set the audience up with false hope and underestimates itself. It's no longer curious in asking anything of us besides jumping back in our seats when the lights go out and someone sneaks into the background of the frame.

At a university lab in Berkeley, California, Dr. Frank Walton (Mark Duplass) and his rosary-wearing, nightmare-having fiancée, Dr. Zoe McConnell (Olivia Wilde), head a grant-funded project with college grad researchers Niko (Donald Glover) and Clay (Evan Peters) and have recently taken on videographer Ava (Sarah Bolger) to shoot their progress. They have moved on from trials with coma patients to dead pigs, and with a serum and volts of electricity, they are able to reanimate a canine test subject named Rocky. His cataracts is now gone, but he has no appetite and his behavior is strange and aggressive (yes, there's a "Cujo" reference). Once the project gets shut down by a shady drug company, the team decides to sneak back into the lab after hours for a duplicate experiment that doesn't go as planned. Zoe gets electrocuted and dies, but Frank revives her, against the others' better judgment. What on God's green earth could go wrong when playing God? Her neural activity is operating on 100%, which accounts for her telekinesis, telepathy and deadly aggression, and no one else stands a chance getting out of the lab and getting out alive. Just because Zoe can be brought back doesn't mean she should have been.

Documentary director David Gelb (2012's "Jiro Dreams of Sushi") makes his fictional narrative debut with a script by Luke Dawson (2008's "Shutter") and Jeremy Slater, and "The Lazarus Effect" might have been a better film with a consistently smarter and less sloppy script. Kicking off with an icky, great-looking credit sequence of pulsating organic tissue, the first act is absorbing enough, introducing types who at least feel like real people and then seeming interested in posing religious and moral questions of death and resurrection. So far, not bad, despite two unnecessary jump scares before Zoe even flatlines. Once the fatal accident does happen and our characters cross the line, the film begins to feel rushed and the wheels proceed to come off. The viewer still hangs in, even if it never ventures into more daring, provocative, or unsettling territory, and then director Gelb starts pulling out the oldest tricks in the book. The power goes out and lights flicker, so characters can yell, "Where is she?! Where is she?!" Characters are separated, so one can be killed (and the underground lab isn't even that big). A set-piece in the morgue is disappointingly cut short. Most of the jumpy startles are timed on predictable editing beats, and the barely coherent finale brings out ineffective, fakey CGI that would look more appropriate in the "Silent Hill" movies. By the end, the filmmakers might have intended for the last shot to be a delightfully nasty reversal of "Bride of Frankenstein" and a sequel setup, but it's just lame.

Besides conceptual promise going for it, the film also boasts an appealing, qualified cast, but there's no visible reason why any of them signed on in the first place. Olivia Wilde plays creepy well enough and effectively gives cold, evil stares in the film's flashiest role, but then the black contact lenses go in once the soulless Zoe raises a little hell. Out of the indie scene, Mark Duplass is always a likable presence, uttering psychobabble convincingly here. Donald Glover and Evan Peters have diddly-squat to play, stranded with barely written characters who have names and one trait apiece (respectively, Niko has a crush on Zoe and Clay likes to smoke his electronic cigarette) but are just fodder for Zoe's eventual rampage. After having very few lines and only having to react in the first half as Ava, the fresh-faced Sarah Bolger later achieves "final girl" status but still has an underwhelming amount to do other than walk around with a flashlight.

A film doesn't direct itself, of course, so director Gelb and cinematographer Michael Fimognari ("Jessabelle") do pump up a few sequences with some creepily stylish lensing, particularly a sequence in a burning apartment building hallway that stems from Zoe's traumatic childhood memory. However, even that plot point feels too sketchily conceived to satisfactorily explore the mysteries of death and Zoe's version of Hell on a loop. There are clearly higher aims here, but designed out of the low-budget horror-centric Blumhouse Productions machine, the film ultimately reveals itself to be a vehicle out to make a quick buck, targeting teenage moviegoers who won't have to show their I.D. at the door. Unfortunately, it's more "Ouija" than "Insidious." At an efficiently paced but nevertheless undercooked 83 minutes, "The Lazarus Effect" isn't entirely bad, but it's cool for the ideas it initially flirts with rather than for what it ends up being. It's a B-movie that very rarely jolts itself to life.

Grade:

"Out of Sight"-lite: "Focus" a slick, glossy diversion that doesn't fool

Focus (2015)
104 min., rated R.

Without being more than it is, "Focus" is a decent diversion. It's not significant or substantive, but it's a pretty movie featuring pretty movie stars who make work look fun and effortless. You can take in the sights, think only a little, and then go home satisfied enough. Writer-directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa (the "Bad Santa" screenwriters who went on to make 2010's "I Love You Phillip Morris" and 2011's "Crazy, Stupid, Love.") don't patent anything extremely novel for the con-caper genre, but they aim for something sexy and cool, and they succeed most of the time from some occasionally fizzy writing and the playful chemistry between their two leads. The first half is considerably stronger than the last, but before overplaying its hand with a bait and switch and then explaining itself, "Focus" is slick, glossy, smarter-than-it-needs-to-be entertainment that doesn't take its audience for a fool in a bad way.

Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a seasoned, silky-smooth hustler who has made conning a lucrative trade for himself with a large staff. Then comes along a sexy but less-experienced con artist named Jess Barrett (Margot Robbie), who tries scamming Nicky in a hotel room with her partner posing as her husband. Nicky is way ahead of her, though. Addicted to stealing expensive watches, Jess becomes eager to be taken under Nicky's wing as his "intern." They also become romantically involved, but after she passes the test in New Orleans, Nicky breaks it off. Three years later, Nicky is in Buenos Aires, Argentina, working Grand Prix racing owner Garriga (Rodrigo Santoro). Just as Nicky goes in for a kill, he notices Jess hanging on to Garriga as his arm candy. Is Jess really with Garriga, or is she going to team back up with Nicky to conquer one more big score?

If "Focus" looks as shellacked as can be, the script is only semi-interested in exploring the backgrounds of Nicky and Jess. Nicky is a third-generation grifter nicknamed "Mellow," like a marshmallow, because he's such a softie, while Jess is a self-proclaimed "dyslexic orphan kid" who's been trying her hand at the art of conning. Whereas the con artists in David O. Russell's "American Hustle" needed to do what they did best to survive, there is little desperation felt in these characters, so we're just watching cool characters be cool. Then again, both Nicky and Jess still keep the viewer on his or her toes, as we are never quite sure if one is playing the other or if they're both really playing someone else. The film also has a few narrative cards to reveal, and writer-directors Ficarra and Requa deliver them stealthily with a sleight of hand but with less unbelievability than even 2013's magic-centric "Now You See Me"and that movie was all about sleight of hand. The couple of twists are clever enough, but they feel like a needless way for the film to outdo itself. Even so, "Focus" clicks into, um, focus when Nicky and Jess are doing the conning like pros. They have a terrific scene together in snowy New York, Nicky showing Jess the tricks of the trade in a few quick moves of stealing her jewelry, wallet, and Zumba membership card on her person. Another scene down New Orleans' crowded French Quarter, where Jess shows what she's made of as a pickpocket, is fluidly cut and fun to watch, as is the film's best set-piece in the Superdome football venue, where Nicky bets all of his and Jess' money away to a giddy gambler (B.D. Wong, who's a hoot). Mind you, these three standout scenes come in the first half. It should also be mentioned that there is a car crash in the final third that is more thrilling in its anticipation and payoff than most long-winded car chases.

Somewhere after 2007's "I Am Legend," Will Smith seemed to be coasting on a string of career choices that didn't exactly go anyone's way, like co-starring but letting his son Jaden lead the way in 2013's nepotistic project "After Earth" and then playing Lucifer in the 2014 disaster "Winter's Tale." Here, as boob-loving con artiste Nicky, he still seems to be taking it easy and not being entirely challenged by the material, but he gets to be charismatic as hell. As fast-learning Jess, Margot Robbie still exhibits more spark and talent than merely a flash-in-the-pan piece of eye candy and she's never just on the sidelines. With luminous beauty and intelligence, she resembles the star quality of Michelle Pfeiffer. If she used her looks, her body, and her smarts to play up against Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street," Robbie does it all over again with Smith, going toe to toe with him and nearly monopolizing the spotlight. Both stars flirt well and have clearly been to the gym, too, or just wake up each morning looking fit. Members of the supporting cast also add enough color to register. Gerald McRaney (2014's "The Best of Me") sharply makes the most of his role as Garriga's right-hand man Ownes who rants about technology, and Adrian Martinez is lucky enough to just show up and earn a laugh as vulgar con man Farhad.

Visually, the filmmakers seem to be channeling the style of Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh, particularly "Out of Sight," through the neon-lit con world of classy, high-priced clubs and hotels. The title of the film, "Focus," also figures into a few shots that go out of focus. Xavier Pérez Grobet's (HBO's "Looking") cinematography is chic and luscious in its own right and even more so, thanks to the on-location scenery in Buenos Aires, and Nick Urata's score is a sultry one. Also, The Rolling Stones' played-out "Sympathy for the Devil" actually has a memorable purpose here. With a few nips and tucks and a little more substance for something to simmer beneath the cosmetic surface, "Focus" probably could have been better than good. Still, as it stands as an end-of-winter escape that feels more like a summer release, "Focus" gets by on looks and gets the job done.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Light Murder: "Wild Canaries" a spry, likable cutie of an indie

Wild Canaries (2015)
102 min., not rated (but equivalent to PG-13).

The third collaboration between husband-and-wife filmmakers Lawrence Michael Levine and Sophia Takal (2010's "Gabi on the Roof in July"), "Wild Canaries" puts an indie spin on the classic screwball comedies and murder mysteries of yore, not unlike "Manhattan Murder Mystery," Woody Allen's 1993 highly enjoyable reunion with Diane Keaton. It's a loose, spry, agreeable lark, one part whodunit and another part relationship comedy, that makes cute, retro use of iris wipes, zoom lenses, and dun-dun-dun gumshoe music, as well as having the leads take in a Hitchcock movie one evening, but also gives enough breathing room to invest in these characters.

Financially strapped 36-year-old Noah (Lawrence Michael Levine) supports younger fiancée Barri (Sophia Takal) to live in their Brooklyn apartment, which the couple shares with lesbian roommate Jean (Alia Shawkat). He gambles and drinks a lot downstairs in landlord/pot-smoking artist Damien's (Jason Ritter) apartment once Barri goes to sleep, and she and Jean have developed a real friendship. While Noah works with his ex-girlfriend-turned-lesbian colleague, Eleanor (Annie Parisse), Barri has ideas with Jean to restore an abandoned resort. When Barri goes down for elderly neighbor Sylvia's (Marylouise Burke) chess lesson, she discovers the old woman has dropped dead. She's pronounced dead from a heart attack and, from Barri doing some snooping, has a $300,000 life insurance policy, but Barri smells foul play and believes Sylvia's son Anthony (Kevin Corrigan) murdered her. She is so adamant about her hunch, despite Noah's skepticism, that she's not going to stop until getting to the bottom of Sylvia's death.

Written and directed by actor Lawrence Matthew Levine, "Wild Canaries" is a breezily entertaining itty-bitty movie that hums along on its knowingly convoluted murder-mystery hypothesizing and character eccentricities. Wavering between cute and annoying, Sophia Takal brings a wide-eyed kookiness and enthusiasm to Barri, who's 90% certain Anthony has committed murder and might also be a bit bi-curious in her own friendship with Jean. As Noah, Levine is a killer comedian, making great sight gags out of not being able to answer calls from his "new-fangled" smart phone, wearing a neck brace (which is the entire last half of the film), and reclining in a driver's seat. At times, the real-life couple shares a crackling banter; other times, they are just broad and shrill that one wishes they would just end up with their other possible partners, both of whom are interested in women. Alia Shawkat exhibits her natural comic flair as Jean, Barri and Noah's roommate who partakes in Barri's sleuthing. As Noah's ex, Annie Parisse, who's spent most of her years thanklessly cast in the role of the sounding-board gal pal in romantic comedies, is awkwardly used at times—Eleanor's girlfriend somehow finds out about her too-close-for-friends encounter with Noah and kicks her out, only for Eleanor to move in temporarily with Noah, Barri and Jean—but then smartly figures into the proceedings.

There is sometimes a disparity in the kind of film "Wild Canaries" wants to be, nearly making its intentions muddled, but the whodunit is mildly involving, with a little tension when Barri breaks into apartments without being endangered too much, and the humor is amusing and comes organically from the characters. Also, as a small-sized production, it looks polished and appealing. For suckers of whodunits where a would-be detective dresses in a Columbo trench coat, sunglasses and a floppy hat, and ducks behind trees when trailing the suspect, "Wild Canaries" is entirely inconsequential but utterly likable.

Grade: B - 

Monday, February 23, 2015

DVD/Blu-ray: Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker sizzle in "Beyond the Lights"


Beyond the Lights (2014)
116 min., rated PG-13.

At first glance, "Beyond the Lights" seems like it would only pass as a glorified Lifetime movie lucky enough to receive a theatrical release, but it's a lot smarter, more dignified and more understated than that. Written and directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood (2008's "The Secret Life of Bees" and 2000's "Love & Basketball"), this romantic backstage-drama fine-tunes and breathes fresh life into shopworn clichés in this time of social media with a realistic insider-look at fame and a believable romantic angle that actually sizzles. "Beyond the Lights" has its melodramatic tendencies (for one, there's a mother-to-daughter slap), though there is thankfully no obsessive-fan thriller element like in the 1992 Whitney Houston-Kevin Costner vehicle "The Bodyguard." It also has a few endings too many, and the official one is conventional but satisfying. The whole package ends up being both sexy and affecting, courtesy of enormously appealing and charismatic lead stars Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker.

In South London, 1998, ten-year-old Noni (India Jean-Jacques) competed in a talent competition with a song, only to get a trophy for being a runner-up. Her single stage mother, Macy Jean (Minnie Driver), dragged her off the stage, and in the parking lot, she forced her daughter to leave the trophy, asking her, "Do you wanna be a runner-up, or do you wanna be a winner?" All grown up, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) is now a hot and racy Rihanna-esque R&B star whose album with white rapper Kid Culprit (Richard Colson Baker, better known as real-life rapper Machine Gun Kelly) is about to win a Billboard award in L.A. Tired of having her life and career in her record label and mother's hands, she is at a low point, crying for help from her own success. Perched on a hotel balcony in Beverly Hills, Noni is almost talked out of jumping by officer Kaz Nicol (Nate Parker), a security detail in charge. He calmly says, "I see you," before grabbing her hand. Being in the spotlight, where one wrong move or mistake can tarnish careers, Noni still hopes to be a "positive role model." Kaz is expected to go along with calling Noni's attempted suicide an accident from too much partying with a pay-off of $10,000. Though he's not pleased with lying for the cameras, Kaz keeps getting drawn back to Noni, who might also genuinely be into her law-enforcement hero. 

Full of swoon-worthy chemistry, the stunning Gugu Mbatha-Raw (2014's "Belle") and attractive Nate Parker are an ideal match. They're lovely together, and the camera loves them both so much and can't fake the organic heat between them. When the couple gets away to Mexico and hides out in a resort with karaoke, there is a special moment that plays to both of the stars' strengths; Parker isn't afraid to shed his swagger with a cringe-inducing solo that cheerfully earns boos, and then Mbatha-Raw, having taken her purple weave out, gets up to sing an emotionally raw a cappella version of Nina Simone's "Blackbird," the first song she ever sang at the talent show in the film's opener. The script has less time for supporting players, but Minnie Driver brings a little dimension to a stereotypical role as Macy Jean, Noni's controlling stage mother and manager. Her love and protection for her daughter has nearly vanished, as promoting Noni has consumed her life. First seen as a desperate single mum, she now okays her daughter to sex it up for a full-body photo shoot. Danny Glover has less to do as Kaz's father, also the LAPD captain, except for trying to talk sense into his son.

"I feel like I'm suffocating in the middle of the street, and no one can see me dying," Noni weepingly cries after damaging glass-framed posters of her as a centerfold in her home. The glamour and being under a microscope by the press is making Noni crack. She knows how to play her part, smiling for the cameras at press conferences, but Kaz allows Noni to see the goodness in herself and find her own voice. Kaz, himself, is willing to defend the pop star, even if that means putting his political aspirations as a political science major on the back burner. Writer-director Gina-Prince Bythewood is more interested in Noni and Kaz's backgrounds and hearing what they have to say than merely using their relationship as a fluffy product of a fantasy. Their getting-to-know-you interactions allow "Beyond the Lights" to have more honesty and layers than one might expect.

Grade:

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Monsters Exist: Playfully creepy "Digging Up the Marrow" worth finding through the footage


Digging Up the Marrow (2015)
98 min., not rated (equivalent to an R).

Monsters are "real" in "Digging Up the Marrow," an air-quotes documentary that doesn't completely reinvent the whole found-footage format but improves upon it. After deformed backwoods slice-and-dicer Victor Crowley and frost bite, horror filmmaker Adam Green (he of the gory, fun "Hatchet" movies, the 2010 ski-lift nightmare "Frozen," not the Disney fairy tale about the love between princess sisters, and FEARnet original series "Holliston") has devised his own kind of "found-footage" item—or, as he calls it at one point, "footage footage"—with a plethora of monsters. In the form of a documentary driven by monster fandom, the film begins with a slew of talking-head interviews by "Candyman" actor Tony Todd, "Phantasm" creator Don Coscarelli, and Troma co-founder Lloyd Kaufman, just to name a few, to prime up Green's monster-filled dreams that will soon come to life. Don't worry, though: it's only a movie, one part "The Blair Witch Project" and the other part "Night Breed" with a whole lot of Adam Green movie merchandising.

Green plays himelf, a horror/monster geek turned filmmaker—how meta!—with a new project opportunity before starting production on his show at ArieScope Pictures. With his longtime cinematographer, Will Barratt, he hooks up with retired Boston detective William Dekker (Ray Wise), who now resides in Chatsworth, California, and has been studying an underground society of monsters whom he insists really do exist. Dekker has researched over 40 different species for decades and sees monsters as misunderstood human beings born with physical deformities. Apparently, beneath the surface of the earth lies a metropolis, and the entrance of their hiding place is called "The Marrow." At a cemetery in the woods, Dekker takes Green and Barratt to the sightings. After a while of the filmmakers feeling a bit skeptical about Dekker and his research, they will get more than they bargained for, but isn't that how it always goes? To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade:

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Hot or Not: "The DUFF" sharper and sweeter than just another teen comedy

The DUFF (2015)
101 min., rated PG-13.

Standing for "Designated Ugly Fat Friend," female-fronted high school teen comedy "The DUFF" is a frisky, savvy representative of the genre that only comes along every five years or so. In what couldn't be further from a generic February throwaway with snark and of-the-moment social-media plugs (though both do exist), it's worth its salt in the same school, if not necessarily the same grade, as 2004's "Mean Girls" and 2010's "Easy A." Director Ari Sandel (the 2006 documentary "Vince Vaughn's Wild West Comedy Show") and screenwriter Josh A. Cagan (2009's "Bandslam"), having adapted then-19-year-old author Kody Keplinger's 2010 novel of the same name, the film is sharp, cleverly acerbic and often laugh-out-loud, keying into teenage anxieties that of self-esteem and how others perceive one's beauty. Next to snappy direction and a script with equal laughs, edge, and charm is the film's secret weapon: the adorable Mae Whitman, who is neither ugly nor fat.

If you've been a teenager or have just worn out your VHS tape of "The Breakfast Club," you know high school has always been unfortunately based on hierarchy and labels. Malloy High School senior Bianca Piper (Mae Whitman) is more known for having two hot best friends, kind fashionista Jess (Skyler Samuels) and tough hacker Casey (Bianca A. Santos), than being any guy's object of desire. At a party, Bianca's neighbor, popular, girl-chasing football captain Wesley Rush (Robbie Amell), accidentally refers to her as a "duff," which is news to her and only opens up a can of worms. Soon enough, Biance begins to realize that every social circle has its alleged "duff," someone who is approachable and can lead an interested guy to the hot friend. Cutting off Jess and Casey immediately, first by de-friending them all on all social media outlets, she gets desperate and agrees to scratch Wes' back (read: help him pass chemistry) if he scratches Bianca's (receive dateable advice). Bianca also wouldn't mind if she could go on a first date with her crush, guitar-strumming Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman) to whom she can never seem to get more than two words out. But, to make matters worse, Wesley's on-again, off-again girlfriend, catty queen bee Madison Morgan (Bella Thorne), gets hold of an embarrassing video of Bianca and makes sure it goes viral and gets around school like wild fire.

Like Emma Stone's Olive Penderghast in "Easy A," Bianca Piper is independent-minded, quick-witted and whip-smart. By the useless standards of high school labels, she is an outcast, but being like Bianca seems way cooler than running the halls by belittling anyone who has his or her own personality and unconventional interests. She likes her flannel shirts and "This Is My Party Shirt" tee without giving a damn, and her defiance against everyone who sees her as unattractive or weird is both entertaining and touching, just like when Olive embraced her infamous status as a high school Hester Prynne. (While we're making comparisons to "Easy A," it's also worth mentioning that "The DUFF" actually employs two of the same songs—Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" and Jessie J's "Sexy Silk"—on its soundtrack, for whatever reason, as that immortal pop-culture Emma Stone starrer.) Mae Whitman has been an actress since she was a child in the '90s between "When a Man Loves a Woman" and "One Fine Day," and she's always been a scene-stealer, whether it be in a supporting role in TV's "Arrested Development," "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World," "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" or TV's recently wrapped "Parenthood." This time, Whitman rightfully gets her own vehicle to show off her spot-on comedic timing, and she couldn't be more self-effacing, winningly offbeat and relatable. What's more, the 26-year-old actually passes for a high schooler. Her narration, not unlike Emma Stone's in "Easy A," is priceless ("Even my car is a duff!" she internally screams when parking her beat-up car in the school lot), and she can make a wardrobe-change montage seem fresh and funny (check out her moves with a few mannequins). Also, any teenage girl in the movies who's a self-proclaimed "cult movie fanatic" with posters of Lucio Fulci's "Zombie" and mad-slasher pic "Maniac" on her bedroom walls knows her way into this viewer's heart. 

Robbie Amell (TV's "The Flash") plays smarmy all too well at first, but he's magnetic, projecting so much charisma and surprising meathead humor as jock Wesley Rush that one can't help but like him. He and Whitman also share a sweet, naturally playful chemistry together as neighbors who used to bathe together as babies and could be something more now, no matter what the social hierarchy of high school says. The two of them also go for it in Bianca's imagined porno of Wes as the pool boy delivering a pizza. The one weak spot is Bella Thorne (2014's "Blended") as "pre-famous" mean girl Madison Morgan, who's so cruel and full of herself. It's no fault of the 17-year-old actress, who still shows some game comedic chops, but Madison is written on one note as the stereotype she is and remains that way, despite Bianca's homecoming dance-set comeback that offers Madison some self-examination. There isn't a rule that a teen comedy is only as good as its adult roles, but they have their memorable moments, too. Allison Janney is never not a comic delight, no matter how small the part, and makes every line delivery count as Bianca's divorced mom Dottie, a mantra-spouting, pantsuit-wearing self-help guru who tries applying her grief recovery phases to her daughter. Dottie might be trying to get back into the game, creating a profile on every dating website (including JDate.com to make herself seem more exotic) and carefully avoiding the "duck face" for her profile pictures. The mere sight of the sobbing Janney, with a glass of white wine in one hand and the other on the wheel of a riding lawnmower, running down her ex-husband's clothes to shreds is a hoot. Ken Jeong never trips up into annoyance and comes away with silly belly laughs playing Mr. Arthur, the trying-hard-to-be-cool journalism teacher. Romany Malco is underused as out-of-touch Principal Buchanon, even with a few catch phrases, but Chris Wylde is a sneaky zinger-slinger as teacher Mr. Filmore ("Back in my day, we didn't have emoticons! We had actual facial expressions!"). 

Peppily paced and never full of its own wit to shed some gravity on the high school experience, "The DUFF" carves out an individual spot for itself among its like-minded cousins with enough replay value. It's been said countless times before about other teen comedies, but it deserves to be said again: this one really does harken back to the spirit of John Hughes' observations, sense of humor, and wise nature. Lest one sees the film as somewhat irresponsible for having Bianca take tips from a 17-year-old womanizer as Wesley, like getting rid of her "uniboob" and dressing more like everyone else, the film doesn't make that misstep or send out mixed messages. Though a little "Pygmalion" (and for that matter, "She's All That" and "Drive Me Crazy") gets thrown in for good measure, Bianca still goes back to being her funky self and letting her freak flag fly (amen). And, dealt with in a more mature fashion than what would be expected, Jess and Casey do not see Bianca as their schluppy "duff," or at least that was never their intention. They just happen to be hot and genuine and not shallow. Even when it slides into a unsurprising pattern and spells out its life lessons when it didn't have to, the film is as satisfying when Lloyd Dobler won over Diane Court and Jake Ryan fell for Samantha Baker. "The DUFF" embraces the girl-gets-the-guy conclusion as much as it celebrates the so-called social misfit, but it isn't even close to being its own "duff" in the genre. 

Grade: B +

OK, Everybody Out: "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" drowns in its own unfunny laziness

Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2015) 
93 min., rated R.

A party can be fun, until it's not. It's not like 2010's "Hot Tub Time Machine" was an '80s-nostalgia documentary, nor was there anything deep and introspective to think about after its runtime. With an on-the-nose title that slapped together heated relaxation and time traveling, it was just a goofy, dopey comedy with enough clever, funny moments and a comedically strong cast to make it fun. Five years ago, it'd be hard to imagine anyone thinking there would be more to add, but here we are with a "Hot Tub Time Machine 2," a sorry sequel with none of the predecessor's appeal and an even sorrier excuse for a raucous R-rated comedy. Money might talk, but returning director Steve Pink (2014's "About Last Night") and Josh Heald, one of the original film's writers, shouldn't have bothered and just left the goofball farce alone. Obviously, director Pink just let his actors go for it and probably hoped for the best. This isn't their best.

If "Hot Tub Time Machine" was "Back to the Future," plot-wise mind you, then "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" is "Back to the Future Part II" with dick and gay-panic jokes, psychotropic humor, and a breaking of the fourth wall. The dreary, no-stakes story catches us up to speed after our heroes reset history. The obnoxious, substance-abusing Lou (Rob Corddry) is now a rock god and creator of search engine "Lougle," married to his sweetie, Kelly (Collette Wolf), and having son Jacob (Clark Duke) working as his butler. Nick (Craig Robinson) is a chart-topping musician, ripping off others' already-memorable songs to call his own but having marital troubles with his wife (Kellee Stewart). Adam (John Cusack, only seen in photos) is on an "experimental journey" and never to be heard from by his buddies. Right before Lou makes his grand speech at his mansion party, he is shot in the crotch. For convenience sake, Lou stole the hot tub time machine from the Silver Parks Lodge, so Jacob and Nick hurry and get his bleeding body into the tub and use a vile of nitro to whip it into time-traveling shape. Waking up in 2025, the trio walk into an alternate universe and try to find the man who tried to murder Lou.

Unfathomably, a movie simply titled "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" can't even do the simple job of keeping the laughs flying. As crass and juvenile as it gets, it's just not subjectively funny or ever sweet, two things "Hot Tub Time Machine" had no trouble being. It is, however, a desperate, depressing, mean-spirited 93-minute time-stealer that slows down time and overcompensates with movie references ("The Terminator" and "Looper" are just two). Problem: the clever-o-meter rarely comes close to the MGM lion's "hmm?" growl at the sound of a vibrating phone. The few comedic highlights in the actual film come early in a quick recap of some of the characters' present-day successes. Nick is a musical sensation, making hits like "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (by Nirvana) and "Let's Get It Started" (by The Black Eyed Peas), and then we're treated to a video of his latest, "Stay (I Kissed You)," while Lisa Loeb is stuck as the cat wrangler on set. And, while we're handing out positives, there are some amusing ideas in the 2025-set scenes, like "The Daily Show" correspondent Jessica Williams mentioning Neil Patrick Harris as the new POTUS, or a pug riding around on a hoverboard, but these are just vaguely clever details that remain details. Then the plot proper has to take over.

Besides time-capsule nods to '80s stars and frequent shots of leg warmers, the other fun part about the first "Hot Tub Time Machine" was how it coasted on the strength of its cast. Here, these guys are worse off. Now, Lou is even more coarse and grating and just so repellent compared to before, so the stakes in the story this time around couldn't be lower, much like the film's idea of wit. Rob Corddry can be a wickedly entertaining comedian, who's always to be counted on to let a one-liner rip, and he does some of that here, but Lou is such a toxic, unsympathetic jerk that it's hard to laugh with him and impossible to get behind him being unassassinated. There's even an emotions-driven Smart Car set on killing Lou. Craig Robinson and Clark Duke still have their moments, plus it helps that their characters aren't as despicable. Other times, the ad-libbing gets so out of control when they venture into the alternate universe and riff on Jacob's chic pad ("It's like a Scandinavian gay bar…it looks like a Miami IKEA"), so much in fact that Duke winkingly comments about the repetition needing to stop. The uninvited John Cusack sits this one out, and good for him, while Adam Scott picks up that loss as Cusack's character's son, Adam Yates Jr. He's actually too naïve and oblivious to be the straight-man replacement, so we're left with a group of morons vying for attention. The script also makes the biggest waste of Collette Wolfe and Gillian Jacobs, who's still a delight to see as Adam Jr.'s chipper wife-to-be in spite of the material, and Bianca Haase is never asked to be anything more than a pretty face with a nice rack in the thankless role of a coat-check girl at Lou's party who's also a love interest for Jacob. Oh, and Chevy Chase stops by for three minutes to cameo as the mystical ski lodge resort repairman who talks in riddles.

Way before a character starts foaming at the mouth after a hallucinatory high and two characters have semen sprayed onto their faces, the damage has already been done. There is one painful set-piece that is intended to be a laugh riot. Nick is elected to come on as a celebrity guest on 2025's hit TV show "Choozy Doozy," basically a televised game of "Would You Rather?" (and hosted by Christian Slater) but with the unsavory challenges being selected by the audience. In a nutshell, Nick ends up having to have sex with a man in a virtual-reality sense. Oh, how uproarious and shocking in 2015. Instead of the joke making fun of how television has degraded into a lowest-common-denominator conformity, not unlike Mike Judge's 2006 satire "Idiocracy," the joke merely hinges on homophobia and the implication of rape. Even CollegeHumor would be appalled at its offensively unfunny laziness. Slapdash, unctuous and wearying, "Hot Tub Time Machine 2" is just too much of a numbingly stupid thing. Once the transcendent sounds of Ellie Goulding's "Anything Can Happen" assure us that characters are going to get their happy endings (and no, that's not a double entendre), the film still hasn't found a reason to take another dip, nor has it created many laughs for one to remember it by. Maybe a hot tub should just stay as a hot tub.

Grade:

Love's a Happy/Sad Song: Kendrick and Jordan bring the house down in less-than-moving "The Last Five Years"

The Last Five Years (2015)
94 min., rated PG-13.

Seeing composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown's 2002 Off-Broadway cult musical "The Last Five Years" being adapted to the screen will only mean much to the most fervid musical enthusiast. Within a small budget, heart and sincerity have obviously been thrown into Richard LaGravenese's (2013's "Beautiful Creatures") special passion project, but enjoying and solely admiring this sung-through two-character musical becomes a tug-of-war experience that never fully reaches the former. That is disappointing, considering the skillfully matched Anna Kendrick and Jeremy Jordan are in charge of playing Cathy and Jamie, the twentysomething married couple at different stages of their artistic careers. Both are gifted performers in their own right with equal charisma and likability, and neither of them need an introduction as both of their belting voices, in chorus and individually, bring the house down. Quite a few of the tuneful set-pieces stir and come to life, but in transitioning from theater to film, "The Last Five Years" doesn't exactly resonate as a whole piece for some reason.

The evolution of Cathy and Jamie's five-year relationship begins at the end of it. Opening on a strong yet downbeat note with the achingly raw "Still Hurting," where Cathy sits in their New York apartment in pain after reading Jamie's parting note, the film is already heartbreaking without even knowing the full story. From there, "The Last Five Years" goes back to the beginning, telling the young lovers' story out of sequence from Jamie's point-of-view. Cathy Hiatt and Jamie Wellerstein fell hard in love, quickly moving in together and then getting married. He was an aspiring writer who had his manuscript picked up by Random House, and she bust her butt in audition after audition to become an actress on Broadway. Though Cathy is happy for Jamie's success in having his first work published, she strikes out at so many auditions until taking her talent to summer stock in Ohio. For the remaining years, they both try to fight through their temptations and resentments, but obviously, the relationship just wasn't meant to be.

To match its small budget, "The Last Five Years" has a rough-hewn, homegrown aesthetic, as director Richard LaGravenese's direction remains so intimate with this couple and the camera constantly on them. Between Jason Robert Brown's music and the two lead performances, the film often holds a spontaneity and joy, even when the bittersweet and relatable truths feel muffled by its exhausting duties to be a sung-through musical. Cathy and Jamie only have a few short conversations of real dialogue and their relationship problems border on masochism that it's hard to feel for them as real people. There's already little dramatic tension, so it's important to focus more on the musical numbers of which there are many. "Summer in Ohio" is a witty, irresistible ditty, sung by Kendrick at Cathy's summer stock with her chorus line of theater boys, as is "Climbing Uphill," where she speaks her inner mind during a New York audition ("Why is the director staring at his crotch? Why is that man staring at my resume? Don't stare at my resume . . . These are the people who cast Russell Crowe in a musical.") The only real bum note is "The Schmuel Song," Jamie's anecdote about a Jewish tailor to raise Cathy's spirits, which begins whimsically but then quickly turns grating and tiresome before it's over. Finally, "Goodbye Until Tomorrow" is a rewarding close for these two before they're over for good.

A Tony Award nominee at only 12 years old and since proving her multi-talented chops, the unfailingly charming Anna Kendrick can sing and do dramatic heavy lifting, building a lived-in history with her co-star. Likewise, stage actor Jeremy Jordan (2012's "Joyful Noise" and TV's "Smash") has such star quality that he deserves first dibs on any big-screen project. If anything, Kendrick and Jordan get to showcase their stuff, carrying the music and the emotional beats of their story with aplomb, while the film itself remains curiously insular and doesn't feel as emotionally gutting as it should for a sweeping romance. Intimate like theater but wonkily structured on film, "The Last Five Years" still emerges less than victorious over both mediums. Those with an appreciation for a sung-through musical about a soup-to-nuts relationship will want to seek it out, while others who are so inclined could just listen to the soundtrack on iTunes in short bursts.

Grade: C +

Friday, February 13, 2015

Red Room Diaries: Despite appealing Dakota Johnson, "Fifty Shades of Grey" can't bring the heat

Fifty Shades of Grey (2015) 
110 min., rated R.

"I don't make love. I fuck…hard," promises steely, alluring 27-year-old billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) to bookish, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson). That line of dialogue in "Fifty Shades of Grey" could actually encapsulate what is fundamentally problematic with E.J. James' 2011 erotic bodice-ripper. Taking the fetishistic subculture out of it, the unhealthy relationship between these two consenting adults eventually comes off more skeevy and disturbing than romantic or dangerously sexy in what is the strangest Valentine's Day-released fantasy ever. Now, of course, it would be great if the film were good. It would even be better if it were so-bad-it's-great, but English director Sam Taylor-Johnson (2010's "Nowhere Boy") brings more canniness than expected to the production and screenwriter Kelly Marcel (who's far, far away from 2013's "Saving Mr. Banks") has gone to great pains to adapt the source material as best as anyone probably could. As the hotly anticipated adaptation of the first novel in a trilogy that began as kinky "Twilight" fan fiction and then sold over 100 million copies nationwide, "Fifty Shades of Grey" is glossy and watchable for curiosity seekers, but it mostly leaves one cold and not in need of a cold shower.

For the uninitiated, it's the oldest story in the book: boy meets girl, boy seduces girl, boy introduces girl to his world of BDSM (Bondage & Discipline, Dominance & Submission, Sadism & Masochism). Demure, lip-biting English Lit major Anastasia "Just Ana" Steele does her journalism-major roommate a solid when she comes down with the flu. She fills in to interview one Christian Grey, an elusive business CEO in downtown Seattle and benefactor of Washington State University. Immediately, they are intoxicated with one another, but after a cut-short coffee date, Christian tells her to steer clear of him. Ana can't let go, though, and he's used to getting his way. Christian doesn't do romance, you see, so dinner and a movie aren't really his thing, but with Ana, he's willing to bend the rules a bit. Still, being a control freak, he gives her time to read through a non-disclosure agreement before finally introducing Ana to his torture-pleasure playroom, "The Red Room of Pain," full of floggers, peacock feather-ticklers, and a closet of perfectly folded ties. Will Ana sign the contract? Or…will she not? That question will be left to the toe-curling viewer.

In a time where there are so few films made by women and for women, "Fifty Shades of Grey" does have more of a feminist bent than the "Twilight" films. It should be given that much. As Bella Swan changed just to be with her sparkling vampire prince, the inexperienced Ana, who doesn't know what a "butt plug" entails, doesn't completely let go of her agency and isn't about to fully give her new partner the upper hand. She loves him for whatever reason, and not just because he buys her a new MacBook Pro laptop and a car. Ana is attracted to Christian and curious enough to sign his contract to become his "submissive" and he her "dominant." "It's the way I am," Christian flatly states. He has fixed ideas about what pleasures him and hopes she will grow into liking his lifestyle, and later on, Ana asks him outside of a dinner party at his parents' home, "Why are you trying to change me?" Maybe she's the one who's actually changing him. That kind of power dynamic is sometimes more interesting and heated than the sex. For instance, Ana takes charge as Christian's bottom in the film's sharpest scene, where she insists a negotiation over the fine print of Christian's contract and approaches it like a business meeting ("Genital clamps? Absolutely not.")

Though "Anastasia Steele" is only a name that should exist in fairy tales without bondage, Dakota Johnson (2014's "Date and Switch") makes for an appealing, sweet and relatable Ana. Charisma, a sense of humor, warmth, and modesty, the actress has it all, and she seems to understand the material she's working with is ridiculous. For a mousy young woman, she still has a spine, and that's refreshing to see. As for Jamie Dornan, an Irish Calvin Klein actor who surely is a magnetic, handsome specimen and distractingly looks like Anton Yelchin, he has Christian Grey's hard exterior down by glowering and throwing off fierce looks. The problem is Dornan's, ahem, one-shade performance. Johnson is able to operate on a playful level with the dialogue, while the occasional groaner gets away from Dornan. He can't quite sell lines, like "Laters, baby" or "I want to fuck you into next week," and he comes off more humorless than "intimidating," but the blame shouldn't be placed so much on the actor as on the writing of this cipher. Even after a superficially mentioned revelation concerning Christian's childhood abuse that seems to be an excuse for his "very singular" tastes and a line self-proclaiming himself to be "fifty shades of fucked-up," it's hard to get a reading on him. What's more, Dornan seems so stiff and emotionally closed-off even in the bedroom cracking the whip, which should induce some ounce of pleasure, right? Together, Johnson and Dornan seem fully engaged in trying to kindle a fire, but despite their fleshy scenes together, their chemistry is nothing combustible. The rest of the cast is just background to actualize Ana and Christian's friends and family, but only Eloise Mumford actually makes much of an impression as Ana's vivacious roommate Katherine. Jennifer Ehle is barely there as Ana's four-times-married mother living in Georgia, and Marcia Gay Harden is allowed no time to break free of her one-note role as Christian's doctor mother; at least she's rich but not vindictive.

"Fifty Shades of Grey" didn't have to be campy or even as necessarily graphic as Lars von Trier's "Nymphomaniac" twofer, but it needed more sexual tension. Isn't that the selling point after all? While Dakota Johnson does perform the full monty and Jamie Dornan bares his glutes a few times when he's not asked to keep on his ripped jeans, the sex scenes are sufficiently steamy and more intense than any mainstream release but almost too palatable and truncated to titillate. They're neither a turn-on nor a turn-off, and perhaps they could have been more effective by going for it in either category. Unlike 2002's James Spader-Maggie Gyllenhaal S&M romantic-comedy "Secretary" or even 1996's David Cronenberg-directed "Crash" about auto-erotica, this film doesn't delve deep enough into the psychology of Christian's proclivity for BDSM practices. Instead, the film is supposed to be a kinky aphrodisiac, but how can it be when it's too staid to take the plunge? It's also amusing how many times Ana is shot resting a pencil on her lip or a hardware-store price gun under her chin, as if we needed to be teased with more phallic imagery.

By the time Ana still hasn't signed the contract, the thin narrative hasn't gone much of anywhere, except for a few trips to Christian's playroom. Where the filmmakers choose to end this stand-alone film cleverly parallels the couple's first goodbye as the elevator doors close, but after 108 minutes, the last two minutes should build to something more satisfying than a cliffhanger. For now, it's hard to detect what was so enticing about E.L. James' trashy "mommy porn" to begin with. What director Sam Taylor-Johnson does get right is the artfully grey look of Seattle and Christian's sleek, sterile luxury penthouse and office, as well as sultry, atmospheric music choices such as Annie Lennox's cover of "I Put a Spell On You," Ellie Goulding's "Love Me Like You Do," and Beyoncé's "Haunted" and downtempo remix of "Crazy In Love." And, once again tooting the Dakota Johnson horn, she deserves to be a star. As with any adaptation of a book with a pre-sold audience, rabid fans are still going to stampede to theaters in droves. Will they get all hot and bothered? That answer is subjective. Is the film everything the hype has cracked it up to be? Not a chance. Without pushing the envelope as far as it should have to make a stronger impact, "Fifty Shades of Grey" just doesn't rise to the occasion. If you just giggled, you deserve a spanking.

Grade: C +