Friday, October 20, 2017

Let It Go: Hopelessly muddled "The Snowman" never thrills, coheres, or satisfies

The Snowman (2017)
119 min., rated R.

The first (and presumably last) adaptation of one best-selling novel in Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s crime series following policeman Harry Hole, “The Snowman” could have been, at worst, a standard-issue but watchable and reasonably involving investigative procedural and whodunit. Despite top-notch talent on both sides of the camera—Michael Fassbender and Rebecca Ferguson star, Tomas Alfredson (who made 2008’s sublime “Let the Right One In” and 2011’s less-than-sublime but still sturdily crafted “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) directs, and Martin Scorsese executive produces—the reality of it is actually a disaster unfit for release. No one sets out to make a bad movie, but this is an example of a film that has obviously been through extensive reshoots and cuts after a tight production schedule left 10-15% of the script unfilmed that the finished product resembles nothing short of a half-finished muddle. With results this shockingly calamitous, director Alfredson and screenwriters Peter Straughan (2015’s “Our Brand Is Crisis”), Hossein Amini (2011’s “Drive”) and Søren Sveistrup (TV’s “The Killing”) have instantly melted away any chance of turning the rest of Nesbø’s crime fiction into future cinematic projects. Something was definitely lost in translation because this final cut can’t possibly be the riveting cat-and-mouse thriller anyone signed up for, not even ticket-buyers.

Oslo police detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) is such a grizzled, tortured drunk that he wakes up hungover and shivering in park shelters and on benches. He wants to be in the lives of both ex-girlfriend Rakel (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who’s now dating Dr. Mathias (Jonas Karlsson), and her troubled teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates), but Harry is too unreliable to commit. After being under suspension, he is now ready to take on a new case, just as he receives a handwritten letter that addresses him as “Mister Police” and is signed with a childlike snowman drawing. Enter Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), a new recruit who’s transferred from Bergen and still seems to be holding onto a case that’s quite personal. Harry soon partners up with Katrine on a missing persons case that turns into a grisly murder investigation where the serial killer dismembers women’s heads with a wire and stacks them on top of a snowman. Can Harry and Katrine find the elusive Snowman killer before another head is found?

Dense and jerry-built with puzzle pieces that pile up but never cohere or satisfy, “The Snowman” is not only choppy, hopelessly convoluted and unfocused but awkwardly directed and dismayingly dull. If this snowbound “The Silence of the Lambs” wannabe wanted to thrill or chill, it fails. If it attempted to pull off a thematic throughline about fatherless children, it fails there, too. The idea of a serial killer stacking a severed head atop balls of snow is certainly unnerving, but director Tomas Alfredson squanders it and makes allegedly foreboding cutaways to the killer’s Frosty-like calling card look just plain silly. That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Following a promising prologue that clumsily spirals out of control, the first act that attempts to set everything up fails to create the urgency it should, and the next two acts never improve. The plot proper is continually rendered disjointed by sloppily inserted flashbacks, while subplots that don't matter are maximized and subplots that should matter are minimized. The film goes down so many blind alleys, one involving a naughty “pregnancy doctor” (David Dencik) who screams “red herring” because he paints his toenails red (don’t ask), that it's difficult to remain engaged in any of it and not feel infuriated when the whole enterprise never amounts to anything but lumpy storytelling.

Michael Fassbender chain-smokes and looks sleepy without ever making Harry Hole compellingly damaged or even accessible. The viewer is informed that he’s a brilliant gumshoe and an addict who can’t make room for a family, but discoveries just sort of fall into his lap and he only seems to be addicted to nicotine. Lest one think the mind has to be in the gutter to mention what is wrong with the character’s name, “Harry Hole” is hard to get past. Rebecca Ferguson seems stripped of her magnetic presence that was showcased in previous films, and though she does fine with what she’s given, the layers to Katrine Bratt are confined by the supposedly twisty script, and by the end, she doesn’t get the closure she deserves.

In negligible roles that were either trimmed in the editing process or just somehow drew overqualified performers, an impressively amassed roster of actors is criminally wasted. Chloë Sevigny appears as a set of twin sisters, one of whom is on screen long enough to chop off a chicken’s head and exit the film after having her own head sliced off, while the surviving one disappears too quickly. Toby Jones has a glorified cameo, showing up long enough for one to shout, “Hey, it’s Toby Jones!” as a Bergen policeman; James D’Arcy puts on his suspect face as the jilted spouse of one of the missing women; J.K. Simmons at least has shady fun with his Nordic accent as a lascivious politician hosting a gala for the Winter Sports World Cup and possibly running a human-trafficking ring; and Charlotte Gainsbourg really does look like she has no idea what she’s doing here as Henry's ex-lover, and the less said about her fully clothed “sex scene” with Fassbender, the better. Finally, in the wonkiest of turns, Val Kilmer shows up in flashbacks nine years earlier as another alcoholic detective who may be connected somehow in this jumble. Appearing with his face seemingly frozen and his voice so inexplicably redubbed that it becomes a jarring distraction, Kilmer might have been recovering from oral cancer and one wishes him well, but why wasn't the part just recast or why weren't his scenes just scrapped altogether?

“You can’t force the pieces to fit,” Harry says to Katrine at one point that viewers wouldn’t be blamed for thinking he was breaking the fourth wall and aptly commenting on the haphazard structure of the film itself. Veteran editors Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker seemed to have had their own mystery to solve, doing everything they could to piece scenes together like a jigsaw puzzle. Riddled with so many baffling choices and moments of misdirection, "The Snowman" struggles to find any direction at all. There are films that spoonfeed audiences and films that make audiences do the legwork, but this one doesn’t even drop any clues to allow one to become invested in the case or go along with Harry and Katrine in finding the killer. Once it’s time for the identity of the Snowman killer to come out and be presented as what Roger Ebert coined as "the talking killer" cliché, one has long stopped caring that the reveal prompts an unsurprised shrug rather than a shock. The climactic face-off then throws in the most inanely contrived deux ex machina on a frozen pond that would only work if the killer were blind, or if it happened by an act of God, or maybe the filmmakers knew they had a mess on their hands and were just desperate to get it over with. If there’s any credit to be given, Dion Beebe’s lensing of Norway's frigid landscapes is handsome. Unfortunately, not even a little visual competence can make “The Snowman” any less of an abominable slog. It is easily the worst studio release of 2017, thus far.

Grade: D - 

Monday, October 16, 2017

My Babysitter is a Satanist!: “The Babysitter” a fun, bloody sleepover romp

The Babysitter (2017) 
85 min., rated TV-MA (equivalent of an R).

If Elizabeth Shue’s Chris Parker of 1987’s “Adventures in Babysitting” turned out to be a Devil-worshipping sexpot, the result might look a little like “The Babysitter,” a spirited and insanely fun horror-comedy that could become a sleepover favorite for teenage boys and even adult men in their jammies. Not to be confused with the 1995 Alicia Silverstone vehicle of the same name, “The Babysitter” is, without insulting bubblegum or pre-pubescent boys, a bubblegum romp through the eyes of a pre-pubescent boy. Finding a balance between horror and comedy can be tough, but director McG (2014's "3 Days to Kill") and screenwriter Brian Duffield (2015’s “Insurgent”) mostly straddle it well. The horror is bloody and over-the-top, the comedy is broad and raunchy, and the violence rarely sours the cheeky ‘80s-style vibe of it all. It belongs in the same stratosphere as “Fright Night” and “Night of the Demons,” and that’s rather good company to be in.

Bullied 12-year-old Cole Johnson (Judah Lewis) is tired of being scared of everything. When his parents (Ken Marino, Leslie Bibb) need a weekend away at the Hyatt to work on their marriage, Cole gets excited to spend the night with his babysitter, Bee (Samara Weaving), who’s like every junior high boy’s dream — she’s cool, confident, sexy, and a sci-fi movie fan. When it comes time for bedtime, Cole decides to stay up and find out what babysitters do when their charges go to sleep. After the doorbell rings close to midnight, he watches as Bee plays a game of Spin the Bottle with a group of people, until one of them is stabbed in the head and the others drink his blood. Can Cole learn to be the man of the house and stand up to Bee and her cult of Satanists?

By sheer coincidence, “The Babysitter” shares similarities with the most recent “Better Watch Out,” a wicked Christmas horror-comedy. They both involve a pre-teen, a hot babysitter, and a progression into violence, and both feel a bit inspired by “Home Alone.” With that said, this one plays more as a coming-of-ager that then corkscrews into a pre-teen boy's nightmare with its tongue planted firmly in cheek. Besides being helmed with a good deal of hyperactive energy and becoming action-oriented in the end with pyrotechnics and stunts, it is hard to believe “The Babysitter” is from the same McG who directed the “Charlie’s Angels” movies and other action fare. Comparatively, this is his most micro-budget effort, most likely spending more money on music rights for pop songs. Too often, though, McG busies up his frame with graphics that fill the screen like a stylized wink but come off obvious and unnecessary, like the words “WHAT THE FUCK?” sprawling across Cole's face as he witnesses Bree’s sacrifice or “POCKET KNIFE” when Cole grabs his…pocket knife. It’s always appreciated when a film at least pays off its setups in the tradition of Chekhov’s Gun, and Brian Duffield’s script does just that with a knife being placed in the dishwasher, Bee teaching Cole how to defend himself with a move, and the protagonist’s fascination with aerodynamics.

Newcomer Judah Lewis (2016’s “Demolition”) makes Cole an endearing young hero, the kind of innocent who confuses “prostitute” with “Protestant,” and quite convincingly transforms into a big boy ready to save the day. Samara Weaving (2017’s “Monster Trucks”) is deliciously magnetic and scene-stealing as babysitter Bee. She is established as Cole’s badass guardian angel who also happened to make a deal with the devil for selfish reasons. It’s the fun relationship between Cee and Bee that does give the film a surprisingly sweet heart, as well as a youthful romance between Cole and the girl next door, Melanie (Emily Alyn Lind). Early on, there’s an odd but endearing moment where the babysitter and her charge watch 1971 western “Billy Jack” on a projector screen in Cole’s yard and act out a scene. The colorful supporting characters are also memorable. Robbie Amell and Bella Thorne (together again after locking lips in 2015’s “The DUFF”) stand out as perpetually shirtless jock Alex, who never explains why he doesn’t wear a shirt for most of the film, and dippy cheerleader Allison, who sobs in a corner after her boob deflates. Hana Mae Lee (speaking in a regular voice following the “Pitch Perfect” movies) and Andrew Bachelor round out Bee’s followers as the beret-wearing Sonya, who gets off on death, and token black guy John, who seems to be the target for every victim’s geyser of blood, and they, too, get room to shine and amuse within the horror-comedy tone. Ken Marino and Leslie Bibb are gone for a large part of the film, but they still make their scenes count in the beginning.

John Hughesian with a Satanic cult added, “The Babysitter” rarely takes itself seriously and plays out most of the absurdly bloody mayhem with a guffaw, even when a fire poker is harpooned through an eye and a breast catches a bullet. As bloody and perverse as it gets, “The Babysitter” retains a sense of fun, and that a film like this can somehow slide past smarminess—Weaving and Thorne do give Sarah Michelle Gellar and Selma Blair from “Cruel Intentions” a run for their money with a lip-biting French kiss—and find a likable charm in itself is something of a minor accomplishment. Even if it is several scares and laughs short of being the next best horror-comedy of the 21st century, it nevertheless carves out a niche for itself as a good time on a Friday night.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Die and Repeat: "Happy Death Day" throws slasher fans for a fun time loop

Happy Death Day (2017)
96 min., rated PG-13.

Over the years, there have been more than a few takes on the time-loop premise of 1993’s “Groundhog Day” (most recently as a teen drama with 2017’s “Before I Fall”), but it’s hard to believe no one ever tried putting a slasher-pic spin on it until now. With an inspired (and marketable) high-concept conceit and a morbidly tongue-in-cheek title to match, “Happy Death Day” is just what one might expect if Bill Murray kept reliving the same day and being murdered on a loop of resets. It sounds like the pitch of an idea that could practically write itself, but director Christopher Landon (2015’s “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”) and screenwriter Scott Lobdell have a ton of fun tweaking the cycle of one character repeating the same day over and over until beating death, while abiding by tropes in both genres and then one-upping themselves just enough for the majority of a lean, pacey 96 minutes. “Happy Death Day” isn't a complete home run for Blumhouse Productions, but it is an enjoyably ambitious effort that successfully belies both its low budget and teen-friendly rating.

Bayfield University student Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) is having a rough morning on her birthday. After a night of partying, the hungover sorority sister wakes up bleary-eyed and in need of Tylenol in the dorm room of stranger Carter (Israel Broussard), just after she ignores a call from her father. Tree gets dressed and walks through the campus quad, bypassing an environmental activist with a clipboard and witnessing a sprinkler going off on a smooching couple and a car alarm blaring. When she gets to her Kappa Kappa Gamma house, Tree is approached by bitchy sorority sister Danielle (Rachel Matthews) on her walk of shame and then roommate Lori (Rubi Modine), who gives her a birthday cupcake that Tree throws in the garbage. She’s also late to class and then almost gets caught fooling around with her married professor (Charles Aitken). As the rest of her day comes to an end, she makes her way to her birthday celebration at a frat house, but before she makes it there, Tree is killed at the hands of someone in the cherubic Bayfield Babies mascot mask. Immediately, Tree wakes up in Carter’s dorm again, noticing the very familiar beats of a day she already lived through. It soon becomes apparent to her that she is going to keep reliving the same Monday and never see tomorrow until she unmasks who wants her dead. In the process of becoming determined to solve her own murder and take back her own life, Tree will begin to see what kind of person she is on the outside, but it’s one hell of a way to learn a lesson on her way to self-improvement.

Though a PG-13 slasher film is like the equivalent of sex with clothes on, “Happy Death Day” gets around that hurdle by being less of a straight-up slasher and more of a darkly comedic murder-mystery that just so happens to involve a temporal loop and a knife-wielding masked killer. Slickly crafted with an atmospheric flair and a Bear McCreary-composed score that adds an air of creepiness, the film offers several suspenseful, even thrilling set-pieces, including a sequence in Tree’s boarded-up bedroom where she tries outsmarting her killer, as well as a chase in a hospital parking garage. The use of a birthday candle igniting a trail of gasoline is also a shrewd little touch. Even more so, though, the film is a playful comedy, evidenced in none other than a montage, cued to Demi Lovato's "Confident," where Tree begins tailing those on her list of suspects but just keeps dying when she's not looking. Not unlike whodunit slashers “Scream,” “Urban Legend” and “Valentine” where the whole cast is a suspect, Scott Lobdell’s script toys with audience expectations in terms of who just might be a red herring and who is actually behind the mask, holding the knife/baseball bat/half-shattered bong.

Tree is a vapid, self-centered, eye-roll-ready heroine to follow, but the vivacious, charismatic Jessica Rothe (who played one of Emma Stone’s roommates in 2016’s “La La Land”) establishes herself as a breakout star. Utilizing her sharp comic timing and expressive face, she finds a way to charm the viewer even when she’s acting like one of Regina George’s “Plastics.” Once our protagonist realizes she’s experiencing more than just a mild case of déjà vu, Rothe gains sympathy in Tree and actualizes a fully earned arc, as the character takes on a badass, no-fucks-left-to-give attitude that’s fun to watch. Unlike any doomed nubile victim in a slasher flick (like, say, 1981’s “Happy Birthday to Me”), Tree gets so many chances that she eventually wises up and makes a different choice each do-over in hopes of changing her outcome. Audiences hoping to discover why Tree is experiencing a time loop will be barking up the wrong tree; she just is. Overexplaining and finding too much real-world logic in this scenario would have deflated all of the fun, and director Landon and writer Lobdell understand this well. They do, however, take moments out of the film’s tightly repetitious schedule for a sweet romance that develops between Tree and sole support system Carter, played with instant likability by Israel Broussard (2013’s “The Bling Ring”).

Repetitive by design but efficient with time and the rules that have been set up, “Happy Death Day” hits the ground running and rarely runs out of steam as an elevated genre entertainment played with gusto. Headed to its inevitable moralistic destination, the film may slow down a skosh to get heartfelt and shed some light on Tree grieving the death of her mother who shared the same birthday as her, but it adds a crucial core to a story that is essentially a one-joke gimmick. With a concept so enticing as the one here, there will be slight disappointment for slasher-film enthusiasts who will play out in their heads a different version of this script, one goosed with more screams and an R-rating that wouldn’t have restricted its makers from holding back. However, instead of dwelling on the route that wasn’t taken, the “Happy Death Day” that was made is a welcome addition to the horror hybrids that blend a sense of mirthful levity with the macabre. As a purely fun diversion for the Halloween season, it takes the cake.

Grade: B - 

DVD/Blu-ray: "The House" craps out, even with Ferrell and Poehler

The House (2017)
88 min., rated R.

“The House,” a comedy starring Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler, was not screened in advance for press and had a short time in theaters after underperforming commercially, and now having seen it, it’s easy to see why. A theoretical R-rated comedy that seemed to have been written as it went along, “The House” is that rare dud with funny people that proves magic doesn’t just materialize without a good script, an adept director guiding the ship, and sharp editors. Needless to say, it has none of the above. It’s just flimsy, slapdash and, worst of all, not that funny.

Loving married couple Scott (Ferrell) and Kate Johnansen (Poehler) have it all, but empty-nest syndrome is about to set in. Their teenage daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), has just been accepted to Bucknell University. Trouble is, the full-ride scholarship the town awarded to Alex is being taken away so the community can get a pool, and Scott and Kate didn’t seem to have a financial back-up plan to pay for Alex’s college tuition. After a Las Vegas trip where they gamble away all their money with recently separated, gambling-addicted friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), the two are convinced by Frank to run an illegal underground casino in his house since his wife (Michaela Watkins) took all of the furniture. In his pitch of this asinine scheme, he promises that they can make four years’ tuition in a month. As their casino grows into a debaucherous hangout and these mild-mannered suburbanites become the always-winning house—gangsters with no problem enforcing their neighbors who owe them money—comedy gold does not ensue.

Debuting director Andrew Jay Cohen, a writer on the first two “Neighbors” films and 2016’s “Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates” who co-wrote the script with Brendan O’Brien, doesn’t have a premise that inspires much confidence for a feature-length movie (a “Funny or Die” sketch, sure), and he just seems to be letting his cast strenuously shoot their comedically spontaneous wads at the wall and see what sticks. Perhaps the casting of Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler as a married couple seemed like it would be enough, but their characters of Scott and Kate are barely-there; neither one is ever seen working and Scott’s main personality trait is that he gets anxiety from math, even simple math. These comedians are talented improvisers, but even they can only do so much, and the same goes for Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Rob Huebel, Michaela Watkins, Lennon Parham, Allison Tolman, and Andrea Savage.

There are throwaway non-sequitur moments that exist in ‘The House” without a solid foundation holding those moments together, and they are just few and far between. The tone is also off, swinging from loose and goofy to mean-spirited and absurdly depraved, and the pacing from scene to scene is so lightning-fast without any progression that it wouldn’t take a former script supervisor to realize the film was botched and severely cut in the editing bay. The third act escalates to such a loopy and ridiculously contrived level, and yet has one laugh involving a crime boss (Jeremy Renner) being set on fire, but as even more violence happens, it seems to forget it’s supposed to be a comedy. Save for a precious few chuckles that sneak in, “The House” never wins as a woefully forgettable waste of time and talent.

Grade: D +

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Boy Who Knew Too Much: Missteps aside, "Book of Henry" earnest and more ambitious than any run-of-the-mill fare

The Book of Henry (2017)
105 min., rated PG-13. 

There is something atypical but earnest and uncynical about “The Book of Henry” that one can see why director Colin Trevorrow (who cut his teeth on small 2012 indie “Safety Not Guaranteed”) returned to making this passion project after making $150-million tentpole sequel “Jurassic World.” Even the first draft of this original screenplay by crime novelist-turned-screenwriter Gregg Hurwitz (TV’s “V”) was apparently written twenty years ago, so it’s a story that has been dying to be told. Up front, “The Book of Henry” is not a safe choice for mainstream entertainment, dealing with uncomfortable issues (child abuse, death, and premeditated murder, to name a few) that more run-of-the-mill fare wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole, but it is certainly an ambitious gamble and works as a fable that asks a lot from its audience. Even so, the performances meet the viewer’s suspension of disbelief more than halfway.

11-year-old Henry Carpenter (Jaeden Lieberher) is gifted and brilliant beyond his years. He is still very much a child but has taken on the financial onus for his divorced single mother, Susan (Naomi Watts), who works as a diner waitress to raise Henry and his 8-year-old brother, Peter (Jacob Tremblay), in upstate New York. Henry also has an eye out to protect those who can’t always do it themselves, not only Peter from a bully at school but girl-next-door Christina (Maggie Ziegler), who may or may not be suffering abuse at home from police-commissioner stepfather Glenn Sickleman (Dean Norris). Once Susan discovers a book by Henry with an elaborate machination that will change everyone’s lives, she must learn to be the independent adult again.

That coy plot summary does not do justice to the chances “The Book of Henry” takes. With similarities to 1993’s “Jack the Bear,” the film does not take a conventional or foreseeable path whatsoever. Seguing from an adorably leafy small-town family story, to a boy-genius detective yarn a la “Rear Window,” to a family grief drama, to an assassination thriller, this film walks a tonal tightrope throughout with director Colin Trevorrow’s delicate touch. Whether it succeeds or not in those chances fully depends on the audience choosing to either go with the drastic shifts in tone and genre or not, and if one does, it is largely due to the performances that never fail to ring true. 

If one never thought he or she would ever see a film in which characteristically risk-taking actress Naomi Watts looks behind the scope of a sniper rifle, it happens here. However, even before that in the early scenes between Susan and her two boys, Watts gives a free-spirited portrayal of a single mom who would rather play first-person shooter video games than open a bill. Through her sheer talent and grace, Naomi Watts makes it all work, her character at least acknowledging the insanity of the situation she later finds herself in, and allows Susan’s decisions, actions, and arc to feel more believable than not. Jaeden Lieberher (2014's "St. Vincent") has such wonderful instincts about him that he still makes the hyper-precocious Henry likable and sympathetic rather than just a writer's constructed collection of quirks, as does the assured Jacob Tremblay (2014’s “Room”), and both wunderkinds share several moving moments with Watts. Sia music video dancer Maddie Ziegler is saddled with the colorless girl-next-door role, although she expresses withdrawn melancholy just fine as Christina, and her key moment at the school’s talent show where Ziegler actually displays her bread and butter on stage is heart-tugging if totally manipulative. Also, Sarah Silverman makes her scenes count as Susan’s brassy best friend and co-worker Sheila, and Lee Pace exudes compassion without overplaying it as a doctor who takes a warm, non-creepy interest in Susan and her family.

“The Book of Henry” is bound to put off—or even gaslight—audiences expecting a heartwarming family film the whole way through and/or to be seen as misguided or even recklessly irresponsible, and yet in its ever-changing narrative trajectory, it does have a little of everything to appeal to everyone. On paper, leaps in plausibility and far-fetched plot contrivances should prevent the film from working at all and completely fly it off the rails into disaster, but much like Henry’s own Rube Goldberg-like contraptions in his treehouse, one might get taken in to see how all of the pieces come together. And, for the most part, they do. Alternately naïve and wise, messy and pat, “The Book of Henry” has missteps along the way, but it’s definitely worth a single look and not deserving of all the critical vitriol it faced—many unfairly deemed it as a WTF experience and lumped it into the same boat as the equally more confounding “Winter’s Tale” and “Collateral Beauty”—at the time of its theatrical release. Henry would probably handle that negativity with smarts and grace.

Grade: C +

Monday, October 9, 2017

The Kids Aren’t All Right: Vividly moody, harrowing “Super Dark Times” a remarkable debut

Super Dark Times (2017)
102 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

A remarkably haunting feature debut to be proud of, director Kevin Phillips’ “Super Dark Times” sets an unsettling mood and sustains it from there with the aftermath of a bloodied deer that has smashed its way through a school window and takes its last breaths. It’s disconnected from the plot proper, but it efficaciously casts a dark cloud over this coming-of-age tale in a pre-Columbine era that disturbingly and authentically dissolves into an earth-bound nightmare of innocence lost and the collapse of friendship. Not dissimilar to “River’s Edge” and “Stand by Me” (both released in 1986) and 2004’s “Mean Creek,” “Super Dark Times” is harrowing, excellently acted, sensitively observed and vividly moody, earning the right to be placed in the same sentence as those three films before it.

Zach (Owen Campbell) and Josh (Charlie Tahan) are best friends trying to navigate through high school in a grey New York town. One day after school, the two run into eighth grader Charlie (Sawyer Barth) and his obnoxious friend Daryl (Max Talisman). They hang outside a convenience store and buy gross food, daring each other to eat it until they throw up. Another day, the teens go through the bedroom of Josh’s older Marine brother, finding a samurai sword and a bag of weed, and take both findings to a field to try out the sword on milk cartons. One of them won’t be going home that afternoon when things get volatile, and after the irreversibly horrible accident that the boys react on impulse and frantically try covering up, those left standing are forced to grow up, while the tragedy takes Josh to the heart of darkness. No one involved will ever be the same again.

“Super Dark Times” fully captures what it feels like to be a youth in the 1990s when times were simpler before cell phones and social media. These adolescent boys play video games, try watching porn through the white noise of a TV in one of their basements, debate between Silver Surfer and The Punisher, flip through their yearbook and compare girls, spend time outside riding their bikes, gratuitously revel in profanity as if it's a "word of the day" and makes them seem cool, and share their pleasure stories of masturbation over Jamie Lee Curtis’ stripping scene in “True Lies.” Suffice it to say, these kids aren’t involved in student council or intramural sports and have a lot of time on their hands. Director Kevin Phillips and writers Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski find levity in these early stretches of boys-being-boys behavior before the inciting incident that changes the course of the film. The tragedy that distances two friends and tests their trust with each other is startlingly staged without feeling exploitative, like a punch to the gut that had this viewer’s hand on his mouth.

Not an ounce of precociousness is found in the naturalistic performances of the young actors playing teenage boys, right down to their facial acne. Owen Campbell (TV’s “The Americans”) is phenomenal at the center as the relatable Zach, engulfed by a human sense of guilt and the weight of the world on his shoulders but trying to put on a brave face and internalize all of his emotions. He then approaches every new discovery about the best friend he thought he knew with a devastating honesty. Even without the scenes of violence, Charlie Tahan (2014’s “Love Is Strange”) is chilling and completely without affectation as the shaggy-haired Josh who crosses the point of no return, a difficult arc that the 19-year-old actor handles with alarming subtlety. From top to bottom, the cast is exceptional, including Elizabeth Cappuccino, a breath of fresh air who exhibits a lovely, instantly likable presence as Allison Bannister, the studious, popular but cool girl Zach and Josh both pine after; and Amy Hargreaves makes her few scenes truly affecting as Zach’s loving, concerned mother after playing a different motherly role on Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why.”

Reminding audiences that independent cinema can be personal, powerful works of art rather than esoteric or “artsy,” “Super Dark Times” deserves to be sought out, even if it’s only being released in select cities and on digital platforms. The accomplished level of filmmaking on display here is a total testament to first-time director Kevin Phillips’ lack of fear in using silence and stillness. With a mastery of mood in a look at ‘90s Americana sometime between fall and winter, Eli Born’s cinematography is stunningly evocative, with an attention to silhouettes quite striking, and even nightmarish, particularly in a perversely psychosexual dream sequence that recalls Lars von Trier's "Antichrist"; the editing is scrupulous and often intense; and the piercing, nerve-jangling music score by Ben Frost unsettles and adds to the suffocating sense of dread. For a film not classed as a horror film, though just as bleak, visceral and frightening, “Super Dark Times” still tests the viewer’s handling of stress, intensity and paranoia. Though the film’s final shot leaves a shred of hope and regained innocence for one of its scarred characters, it leaves the viewer shaken to the core with a lingering emotional resonance.

Grade: A - 

Good Guys Finish Them All Off: "Cult" takes Chucky series down an inventive avenue

Cult of Chucky (2017)
91 min., rated R.

“Child’s Play” series creator Don Mancini can’t seem to let go of the Chuckster, now on to his seventh film, “Cult of Chucky,” and why should he? Like Chucky’s bride Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly) once said, “a true classic never goes out of style." It is a surprise there hasn’t been a “Chucky in Space” yet, but Mancini (who has faithfully written all previous six films and directed 2004’s “Seed of Chucky” and 2013’s “Curse of Chucky”) brings surprising creative inspiration, stylish visual sense, and such an irresistible bug-nuttiness to this entry when it could have very easily fallen into desperate self-parody (and not the fun, meta kind like in “Seed”). Yes, one could not be more surprised that the seventh Chucky movie is actually as good as it is, but here we are, and "Cult of Chucky" leads to so much potential for more installments. 

The last survivor of Chucky’s killing rampage, paraplegic Nica (Fiona Dourif) was charged for the murders of her family and admitted to an institution for the criminally insane. She has been diagnosed with schizophrenia and has accepted the fact that Chucky was a mask for her own psychosis. When she is released from a psychiatric ward and transferred to an isolated, medium-security facility, Nica finds a little compassion in one of the nurses and a few of the patients, even if all of them have their own issues. During a patient session, Dr. Foley (Michael Therriault) pulls out a "Good Guy" doll also named Chucky—he purchased it from Hot Topic—as a way for Nica to confront her disease head-on. When a special guest delivers terrible news to Nica and brings along another Chucky doll to help Nica deal with her loss, things don’t go so well when that doll (voiced, as always, by Brad Dourif) perks to life and finds a scalpel. Will Nica’s fellow patients start dropping like flies? Um, does a bear shit in the woods? 

Whereas 1998’s “Bride of Chucky” launched a distinct tonal departure for the series with outrageously broad, self-aware humor and then “Curse of Chucky” returned to the dark, serious roots of 1988’s “Child’s Play,” “Cult of Chucky” melds both tones into a gleefully R-rated and ruthlessly entertaining blast for fans. It embraces Chucky’s demented sense of humor and goes down an inventive avenue, ensuring that writer-director Don Mancini is actually trying to up the ante and refuses to repeat himself. Since this is still part of the Chucky canon and must deliver its bread-and-butter kills, the red-headed, malevolently wisecracking terror is never done playing once he gets his hands on a drawer of “sharps.” The death scenes are memorably ghastly enough to add to the killer doll’s pantheon, many of them head-related and one in particular that calls back the honeymoon hotel mirror murder in “Bride” (still the best of the sequels). 

Fiona Dourif is very good with all she has to do as Nica, bound to a wheelchair again, and gets to go for it in a way that brings her closer to her father, Brad Dourif, who will forever be known as the voice of Chucky. The animatronic effects are as seamless as ever, and Chucky’s one-liners are on-point, almost always clever without being overly shoehorned-in, like a nod to Hannibal Lecter and NBC’s canceled-too-soon TV series “Hannibal” (which Mancini worked on as a writer for a couple of episodes). Also, back to the fold, Jennifer Tilly once again gets to cheekily play with her real-life image as Tiffany Valentine by way of Jennifer Tilly and retains her m.o. of slitting throats and licking the blood off of her nail-filing knife, and Andy Vincent returns as Andy Barclay, who’s still having trouble living a life of normalcy from the traumatic discovery of his 6th birthday present holding the soul of a serial killer.

What awaits Chucky's rabid fans in the third act will surely take even them for a spin. And, like the coda and post-credits stinger of “Curse” that brought back Tiffany doing her man's bidding and a gun-toting Andy as an adult, this one tacks on another fun cameo, post end credits. Writer-director Mancini's affection for the two-foot-sized killer still never tires and, while keeping with the continuity of the mythology of Charles Lee Ray (his friends call him "Chucky") that he has built for nearly three decades, he dares to put a fresh spin on what has come before. Unlike fellow horror slasher icons Michael, Freddy and Jason, Chucky has not yet been retooled (read: plasticized and bastardized), so in its own demented way, “Cult of Chucky” is the purest “Child’s Play” sequel to date and yet carves out a new direction for the series to endure.

Grade: B - 

Friday, October 6, 2017

A Christmas Invasion: Wickedly fun "Better Watch Out" defies expectations

Better Watch Out (2017) 
85 min., rated R.

The holidays come early this year for spirited horror fans with “Better Watch Out" (formerly titled "Safe Neighborhood" during its festival run), an impishly fun, cleverly imagined Christmastime horror-comedy that turns the routine home-invasion formula inside out. Writer-director Chris Peckover (2010’s “Undocumented”) is unafraid to turn the wholesome backdrop of a Christmas-decorated suburban home into a house of death traps and squirt a little red crimson on snow. With unexpectedly wicked glee and a sense of humor as black as coal, “Better Watch Out” doesn’t always play nice, but it plays fair with its audience and its characters, and that’s part of what makes its thrillingly unpredictable plot turn as foolproof as a shotgun to the stomach. This is sure to make one re-evaluate Kevin McCallister's psyche and his sadistic torture games with Harry and Marv.

As his parents (Virginia Madsen, Patrick Warburton) prepare for a night out at a Christmas party and leave him pizza money, 12-year-old Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) tells best friend Garrett (Ed Oxenbould) he cannot wait to stay in with his pretty 17-year-old babysitter, Ashley (Olivia DeJonge). He has harbored a long-time crush, and now that she’s moving to Pittsburgh for college, he decides to finally make a move. Unfortunately, his clumsy attempts to hold her hand while watching a horror movie don’t work on the mature young lady who keeps receiving calls from her boyfriend (Aleks Mikic) and are further interrupted when an uninvited guest lurks outside, armed and dangerous. Ashley takes action, making sure her charge is safe, but by that time, the killers might already be in the house. And that is all the plot one should know. 

One should avoid the trailer of “Better Watch Out,” even though the way it is cut together doesn’t ruin all of the surprises, but this is certainly a film that rewards audiences knowing as little as possible. The first half spends time setting up Luke’s puppy love toward the cool but responsible Ashley and planting little details like Luke’s sleepwalking habits and Ashley’s arachnophobia. Then, around the half-hour mark, writer-director Chris Peckover and co-writer Zack Kahn change gears with one deviously twisted curveball and laugh in our faces, completely upending expectations and then strangling those expectations with twinkle lights. As the carnage gets turned up, director Peckover knows exactly what to show and what to cut away from. 

Australian star-in-the-making Olivia DeJonge is engaging, bright, relatable, resourceful and tough as Ashley, and she and fellow Aussie Ed Oxenbould (quite the hoot as bespectacled pal Garrett who wastes no time rummaging through Luke’s parents’ medicine cabinet for OxyContin and offering Luke his brother’s weed) work together again after playing siblings in M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Visit.” Directed to act precocious with a false swagger that still intentionally rings boyish, the angelic-faced Levi Miller (also Australian) toys with his role as “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up” in 2015’s “Pan” and commands attention as Luke. Without getting into the weeds about his character, it is alarming how much Miller is up to the task, selling every line and difficult act that's asked of a 15-year-old actor with only one other major film under his belt. Rounding out the cast, Patrick Warburton and Virginia Madsen are hilariously acerbic in their five minutes’ worth of screen time.

If the home invaders ended up in body bags and not with a measly blowtorch to the head or a falling iron to the face, "Better Watch Out" might resemble 1990's "Home Alone" with a tinge of Joe Dante's playful malevolence. In fact, that John Hughes-scripted holiday staple gets name-checked and has one of its booby traps debunked by being put to the gruesome test. Though shot on a Fox Studios soundstage in the dead of summer in Sydney, Australia (except for the opening scenes’ snowy exterior shots being filmed in the U.S.), the Christmas setting is convincingly presented and, along with the use of Brenda Lee’s “Christmas Will Be Just Another Lonely Day,” makes for a cheerful counterpoint to all of the bloody violence that ensues. Go in cold and “Better Watch Out” offers a delightfully nasty treat for those who like their horror movies darkly funny and their Yuletide movies with a body count.

Grade: B +

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Time to Blade Run Again: "Blade Runner 2049" a visually arresting and dramatically satisfying sequel

Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
164 min., rated R.

In an attempt to safeguard all key plot points and reveals, publicists read aloud a letter from Warner Bros. and the director asking press to be as oblique as possible in their review coverage of “Blade Runner 2049.” Even if that leaves little to actually discuss in detail, it is exciting that the marketing campaign of a film as breathlessly anticipated as this one can leave more than enough mystery for the audience to discover on their own. Believe it or not, Ridley Scott’s now-seminal 1982 science-film neo-noir “Blade Runner” was misunderstood and not well-received upon its first release, even though it planted the seed for the sci-fi genre, forcing every film that followed its lead look familiar by comparison. It garnered such a major cult following after the film was re-released and revised in multiple cuts on home video, and no matter the version really, what the film explored visually and thematically was visionary for its time. As a direct sequel thirty-five years in the making, “Blade Runner 2049” does something that is almost unheard-of — it is arguably the more fully realized and dramatically satisfying picture of the two, building upon the world Scott created and deepening its dystopian themes. It isn’t a mere replica of an original model with such an influential reputation, nor is it a soulless cash-grab to reboot a franchise, but another dazzling and more emotionally enriched puzzle piece to the story, carried out with a grand, arresting vision by filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (2016’s “Arrival”). 

The year is now 2049 and “replicants” (bioengineered humans) have long since been integrated into society since 2019 in the bleak, grimy metropolis of Los Angeles. LAPD blade runner K (Ryan Gosling) is tasked with hunting down and “retiring” (terminating) the remaining set of older model replicants. After meeting with one “skin job” (Dave Bautista), who lives a solitary life as a farmer, K finds a clue that might lead him to struggle with his own destiny and memories from his childhood, and things get even more complicated when he comes across a former Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford). Meanwhile, the Tyrell Corporation has been taken over by creepy manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who churns out new replicants and sends his right-hand woman Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) into the field keep an eye on K.

Commanding in vision and consistent in tone by filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, “Blade Runner 2049” honors Ridley Scott’s original film and Philip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” and never conforms to noisy, stake-free action sequences when taking in the vibe of the film is so much more spellbinding. The screenplay by Hampton Fancher (back from the original film) and Michael Green (2017’s “Logan”) is constructed as a procedural, possibly convoluted in the moment but still enthralling and purposefully vague. While all of Denis Villeneuve’s films are languid and methodical, the pacing here is occasionally uneven, and that might even be more pronounced with the film’s demanding running time of two hours and forty-four minutes. Above all, Villeneuve is an excellent choice for this material, working within his own wheelhouse of ambiguity and extending the thoughtful questions that the first “Blade Runner” posed. Are replicants capable of having a soul, or are they just programmed that way? If replicants live too long, will they rebel against their controller? And, finally, who is a replicant and who is human?

Ryan Gosling is superb as K, a strong, silent guide without remaining one-note and allowing the viewer to become invested in his assignment. As layers to K are peeled away the deeper he gets into his mission, one identifies with him more and more. In this stage of his career, Harrison Ford finds himself reprising iconic characters that put him on the map, and this time it is Rick Deckard. He slips right back into the role with not only even more world-weariness but a deep humanity that Ford handles with poignancy, given where Deckard is now at this point in his life. Dutch actress Sylvia Hoeks is magnetic and conveys real threat as ruthless badass Luv, and there is an intensely chilling scene between her and a fierce, slicked-back-haired Robin Wright as K’s boss, the steely Lieutenant Joshi. Ana De Armas emanates innocence and warmth as K’s dutiful companion Joi, and Mackenzie Davis lends memorable support as sex worker Mariette.

As soon as the opening studio logo and production companies play out, the propulsive, ultra-cool electronic score by composer Hans Zimmer rumbles, overwhelms and immediately transports one back to the world of “Blade Runner” before even a single frame. There isn't a single moment that's not an aural and visual triumph. Dennis Gassner’s awe-inspiringly top-notch production design of the half-futuristic, half-retro metropolis is slick and gleaming in neon lights yet chilly and permeating with fog, all captured by staggeringly beautiful and textured lensing by indefatigable cinematographer Roger Deakins, while the visual effects are all flawlessly imagined. If the original introduced nifty hair dryers, this one offers up the sight of a replicant's high-tech version of a manicure and an interesting ménage à trois of sorts that reminds one of a scene in Spike Jonze’s “Her."

Not unlike 2015’s “Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens,” “Blade Runner 2049” repurposes its predecessor’s themes, ideas, and characters but blazes a new trail for itself. As mysteries unfold for its central characters, there is more  detectable feeling and less of a coldness that Ridley's Scott's "Blade Runner" ultimately possessed. An astoundingly designed and intellectually stimulating continuation of a film that still defines its genre, this one surely does what any great sci-fi film should do — it’s transportive and starts animated discussion among audience members afterwards. 

Grade: B +