Tuesday, June 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B +

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

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

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

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

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

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


Saturday, June 17, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Friday, June 16, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Thursday, June 15, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B - 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: C - 

Cabin Fever: "It Comes at Night" spare and unsettling but promises more than it delivers

It Comes at Night (2017)
97 min., rated R.

There is something to be said for a spare, minimalistic film that trusts in its audience enough to be able to take its time and not have to spell everything out. The portentously titled “It Comes at Night” is such a film, following up writer-director Trey Edward Shults’ knockout feature debut, 2016’s powerful, stunningly vivid family drama-cum-character study “Krisha.” Painstakingly crafted and often beautifully tense, this post-apocalyptic horror drama and chamber piece is also about a family, but it’s even more fatalistic. It makes you hold your breath a lot but simultaneously promises more than it delivers.

Beyond the woods, there is an unspecified contagion infecting the outside world. Paul (Joel Edgerton), the patriarch of his family, wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), have set up a safe cabin with all the doors and windows boarded up to avoid contact with infected interlopers. They have recently just lost one of their own in Sarah’s sick, boil-afflicted father (David Pendleton), who had to be quarantined and then put out of his misery outside by Paul himself while Travis watched. And then there were three. The family keeps a routine and follows proper precautions, like always wearing a gas mask outside and never going outside at night. One night, there is an intruder on the other side of the red door—the family’s only way out—in the form of a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott), who claims to have just stumbled upon the cabin to find food for his family. Playing it safe, Paul ties Will to a tree and bags his head, until he is convinced that the stranger actually has a family and then later helps Will pick up wife Kim (Riley Keough) and son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). When both families learn to live in the same space and then someone starts feeling ill, their “normative” life comes undone.

Wrapped in a pall of dread, “It Comes at Night” is a bleak, grim film where the paranoia and loss of lives are palpable. The stakes are clear and it actually means something when certain characters don’t survive. The decisions Paul, Sarah and Travis in particular make inform how they have gotten to where they are, and above all, their actions make sense. Though the form of “it” won’t be revealed, the main monster and threat are man and the fear of the unknown, and the red door, which must always remain locked, becomes as ominously forbidden as Room 237 in “The Shining.” Wasting nary a frame and letting everything unfold at a quiet, measured but merciless boil, filmmaker Trey Edward Shults should not be underestimated for what he does with only a little. It is what is not always seen that induces goosebumps, but even Travis' creepy dreams are startlingly blurred with reality and punctuate the languid tension, making his nightmares our nightmares. Thick with close-quarters atmosphere that could be cut with a knife, the film features so much mastery behind the camera, like what all can be done with natural lighting and Drew Daniels’ fluid cinematography; the camera lingering on a disturbing oil painting of the Black Death by Pieter Bruegel the Elder before wandering down a dark hall haunts the mind. 

The small cast is comprised of six principle characters and a dog. Joel Edgerton commands the screen with his subtle but bound-to-implode work as Paul, a former history teacher turned extremely cautious survivalist. With the film eventually seen through the eyes of Travis, Kelvin Harrison Jr. (2016's "The Birth of a Nation") is a discovery, navigating some tricky waters for a teenager, from grieving over the loss of his grandfather to feeling fearful and paranoid about the others being welcomed into their cabin to experiencing the start of his own sexual awakening, as he listens to the new couple from an attic crawlspace. As wives Sarah and Kim, Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough (2016's "American Honey") may receive short shrift by comparison, but they sell every emotional moment. An intense but understated Christopher Abbott (2015’s “James White”) keeps the viewer and Paul guessing as to Will’s actual motivations — is he just protecting his own or does he actually mean harm on Paul and his family?

Constantly tantalizing until the anticlimactic final shot that chills and abandons all hope, the film still might have benefited from more character exploration to deepen the intended gut-punch impact and tragic sense of bereavement. Nevertheless, writer-director Trey Edward Shults pulls off such an eerily plausible concept, free of overexplaining the context of the story, and takes it to unsettling, uncompromising, if somewhat inevitable, degrees. Misrepresented by its marketing campaign as a bump-in-the-night horror film with a mystery at its core and bound to be divisive between critics and casual moviegoers, “It Comes at Night” won’t have mainstream audiences screaming out of the theater, but it could underwhelm them. It will, however, reward those on one side of the fence with patience and an appreciation for ambiguity. The last glimmer of hope that Shults leaves us with at the end of his sophomore effort is that this new and exciting filmmaker is just getting started. 


Tuesday, June 6, 2017

DVD/Blu-ray: “Before I Fall” an affecting “Groundhog Day” for age 17 and up

Before I Fall (2017)
99 min., rated PG-13.

Based on a 2010 YA novel by Lauren Oliver, “Before I Wall” was made for a certain demographic—primarily 17-year-old girls with more on their mind than Snapchat—and yet it doesn’t underserve or talk down to that demo. This is, in essence, a “Mean Girls”/“Groundhog Day” hybrid, a dramatically sound teen-angst melodrama about facing one’s mortality that works on account of sensitive direction by Ry Russo-Young (2012’s “Nobody Walks”) and a strong lead performance by Zoey Deutch (2016’s “Why Him?”). It doesn’t exactly sidestep cliché but does make those clichés feel more fresh than not and actually pulls no punches when it reaches its moving resolution.

17-year-old Sam Kingston (Zoey Deutch) has her whole life ahead of her, until everything changes one day. She wakes up, excited for it to be Cupid Day at school. She gets ready and goes downstairs without giving her parents (Jennifer Beals, Nicholas Lea) or little sister (Erica Tremblay) the time of day. Best friend Lindsay (Halston Sage) picks her up and they’re off to scoop up friends Ally (Cynthy Wu) and Elody (Medalion Rahimi). At school, Sam not only gets a rose from her boyfriend, Rob (Kian Lawley), but also Kent (Logan Miller), who sits near her in class and invites her to a house party that night. She and her girlfriends end up going to the party, where Sam has planned to lose her virginity to Rob, but that all changes when social outcast Juliet (Elena Kampouris) shows up uninvited and begins taunting Lindsay who regularly calls Juliet a “psycho” and other cruel names, until Lindsay rallies everyone to throw beer at Juliet and get her to leave. On Sam and her friends’ way home down a rainy forest road, their car flips. Somehow, when Sam wakes up, it’s the same day. Though she doesn’t realize it yet (the last 24 hours could just be a dream), she really is trapped in a time loop and sleepwalks through the first repeated day, realizing that it’s déjà vu all over again. As the day progresses and ends the same way with Lindsay’s vehicle flipping after the party at the dreaded time of 12:39 am, Sam tries to tweak each moment and might become a better person because of it. Can she undo it?

As long as one can hold on to waiting for character layers to be revealed and for Sam to begin righting her wrongs, “Before I Fall” is much wiser and more affecting than the Annoying, Snapchatting Millennial introductions of Sam and her three girlfriends would suggest from the outset. They call each other “bae” and casually bully other girls who are different from them, but such is the life of being a teenage girl in this day and age. Aside from a few overly on-the-nose lines of foreshadowing dialogue—for instance, “Tonight, everything changes!”—screenwriter Maria Maggenti (2011’s “Monte Carlo”) gets to the heart of more empathetic concerns beyond the metaphysical plot gimmick. Though it’s a hell of a way to soul-search and learn a lesson, Sam finally wakes up and realizes that her friends and her have been needlessly cruel and petty to Juliet, as well as lesbian Anna (Liv Hewson), and that she’s taken her family for granted for far too long.

The cute Zoey Deutch tends to turn up in projects that don’t really deserve her, particularly the nadir of 2016 (“Dirty Grandpa”), but the material here is a better fit for this vibrant, naturally appealing talent. In her second lead role following 2014’s “Vampire Academy,” Deutch makes Sam’s shift believable from a vaguely likable but navel-gazing follower to a more compassionate and selfish leader. The rest of “Before I Fall” is solidly acted across the board, with Halston Sage getting the second-most to work with as Lindsay, the de facto leader of Sam’s friends who may harbor more pain than one can see underneath her cruel charisma. Jennifer Beals almost doesn’t register at all as Sam’s mother, until a late, albeit well-earned, heart-to-heart with her daughter at a restaurant when Sam asks Mom if she thinks she’s a good person.

The repetitious nature of the narrative is part of the blueprint—in lieu of waking up to Sonny & Cher’s “I Got You Babe” on a clock radio, Sam wakes up to Big Data and Joywave’s “Dangerous” on her iPhone—but similar to how Sam tries to change the course of her days, director Russo-Young finds ways to shake up the repetition. Even when Sam relives the same events, the camera often lingers on just her, as if waiting for her to react differently compared to the first time. The film is also moodily shot in the Pacific Northwest by Michael Fimognari and pleases the ears with a recognizable alt-rock soundtrack. Though it will only seem more groundbreaking than it is to minors or those who have never seen a movie before—2004’s Ashton Kutcher-starring “The Butterfly Effect” is another underrated notch on this genre belt—“Before I Fall” still registers on its own quite well as a thoughtful teen drama with more urgency than checking one’s newsfeed on every social-media account.


Sunday, June 4, 2017

Hate Song: Pungency and poignancy make good music in “Band Aid”

Band Aid (2017)
91 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Caustically funny and emotionally true, “Band Aid” is a small gem of an indie dramedy about failure and expressing oneself through those failures. As pedigrees go, it has a solid one that breaks the glass ceiling — co-lead and writer-director-producer Zoe Lister-Jones makes her directorial debut, even though she’s collaborated closely with real-life and filmmaking partner Daryl Wein on 2010’s “Breaking Upwards” and 2012’s “Lola Versus” (their production company is called Mister Lister Films), and she has put together an all-female crew, including her co-producer, cinematographer, costume and production designer, and editor. How exciting, then, that “Band Aid” is also a good film with a smart, intimate, dagger-edged script that is never cookie-cutter and almost never whiny.

Los Angeles married couple Anna (Zoe Lister-Jones) and Ben (Adam Pally) are in a rut, professionally and personally. After a failed book deal, she works as an Uber driver, and he designs logos but rarely gets off the couch from playing video games. They argue over the pettiest matters, like dishes piling up in the sink. At the birthday party of one of their friends’ kids, Anna and Ben pick up musical instruments and start playing around in their happily stoned state. Then they realize they like writing songs about their own fights, so they dig out an old electric guitar and bass from their garage and begin jamming out with oddball neighbor Dave (Fred Armisen), whom they recruit to be their drummer. Anna and Ben sing through their pain and it is cathartic, but is it just a short-lived band-aid for their own personal failures and mutual resentments?

Playing real characters this time rather than sounding-board side pieces or just familiar types, Zoe Lister-Jones—a scream in “Lola Versus”—and Adam Pally—such a delight on TV’s cancelled-too-soon “Happy Endings”—reveal their inherent dramatic chops and create genuine pathos amidst their biting interactions. They’re evenly matched and believable as a contentious couple who no longer see eye to eye but still deeply love one another. Scenes with Fred Armisen as creepy but friendly neighbor Dave, a recovering sex addict with a “lotion in the basket vibe,” spring from a goofier, SNL-born movie when Anna and Ben’s story feels so rooted in honesty, but they are amusingly likable nonetheless. Heard over the phone a few times, Susie Essman comes off like a stereotypical Jewish mother to Ben, but she has one late, great scene that’s smart and insightfully written without coming off preachy. The songs, too, which Lister-Jones co-wrote with Kyle Forester, are actually catchy. Anna and Ben’s barbed bickering has been penned with a tasty pungency—Anna’s analogy to a closed shop for not being in the mood to have sex is cackle-inducing—but there is also a poignancy and an insight that anyone in a relationship will find painfully relatable. In fact, watching "Band Aid" with someone you love and often fight with might be its own sort of couples therapy.