Friday, April 20, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B - 

Monday, April 16, 2018

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


Marrowbone (2018)
110 min., rated R.

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

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

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

Grade:

Saturday, April 14, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

Grade:

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


Wildling (2018)
92 min., rated R.

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

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

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

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

Grade:

Friday, April 13, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: B - 

Thursday, April 12, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade: D +

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Grade:

Friday, April 6, 2018

Sound Off: "A Quiet Place" an emotional delivery system of primal, nerve-shredding tension


A Quiet Place (2018)
90 min., rated PG-13.

For a horror film completely dependent on silence, “A Quiet Place” is original in its conception and a master class in visual storytelling. With a concise, enticingly creepy hook for his third and most arresting directorial effort, writer-director-actor John Krasinski (2016’s “The Hollars”) and writers Bryan Woods & Scott Beck imagine a world with shades of 2003’s “Signs,” 2009’s “The Road” and 2017’s “It Comes at Night”—and maybe a pinch of 2016’s “Don’t Breathe”—where any false move of making sound could be fatal, and pares down this tale of survival to one family. Daringly quiet and patiently paced but urgent, the film is a tight study in minimalism with predominantly four characters and having no need for dialogue until the halfway mark. Holding the viewer in its grip from the very start, “A Quiet Place” has the power to hush chattery, popcorn-munching audience members the whole way through.

89 days in, the Abbott family is just trying to survive a post-apocalyptic wasteland, made dangerous by monsters who prowl the planet and attack when detecting sound. On their way back home on a path of sand from collecting supplies in an abandoned store, parents Lee (John Krasinski) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) are the protectors of their three children, Marcus (Noah Jupe), the deaf Regan (Millicent Simmonds) and Beau (Cade Woodward), but the youngest is gone forever when placing the batteries back into his noisy toy rocket. On Day 472, the Abbotts are short one member of their family but try making the best of their not-so-ideal life in their farmhouse. Can the family remain safe when Evelyn gets pregnant and must bring a crying baby into the silent world?

Streamlined and efficiently laying out all the basic information one needs with a few newspaper clippings, “A Quiet Place” sucks one in immediately. The context and the particulars of this post-apocalyptic world are never explained with a title card or the spoken word, and that is for the best; this is just how things are now. The threat is clear, as are the rules of the threat, and the stakes are high. The family’s way of life is so scrupulously planned by writer-director John Krasinski that they seem to have figured out every plan of attack and every way to not make a peep with their resources. Having a deaf child, the family has grown accustomed to communicating through sign language. For dinner, they eat off edible leaves instead of rattling dishes and silverware. A game of Monopoly is played with pieces made out wool. They have marked the wooden floorboards in their home to know where to step without creaking. A strand of red globe lights strung over the Abbots’ property signal an SOS when they turn red. How the parents anticipate a colicky baby is also handled pretty smartly. Holding up less to close scrutiny is how Evelyn and Lee were able to conceive a child in total silence, but that’s merely a nitpick. Even for a film that trusts pin-drop silence for a large chunk, the sound design is mighty effective, sometimes attuning the viewer to Regan’s hearing impairment. 

All committing to the silent nature of the film, John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Noah Jupe and Millicent Simmonds (who’s deaf in real life) make up a devoted family unit and convey more in their faces than any ham-fisted words could. The director shares a tender, understated moment with his real-life wife during a dance to Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” via shared ear buds before putting her in so much peril. Emotionally available and retaining her maternal nurturing in every heightened situation thrown her way, Blunt handles it all with aplomb, whether it be dealing with an exposed nail on a step to cowering in a bathtub while giving birth at the most inopportune time to realizing her safe haven is simultaneously flooding and being invaded by one of the monsters. Jupe (2017's "Wonder") is a natural at conveying terror in his face as Marcus, and the facially expressive Simmonds, following her breakout role in Todd Haynes’ “Wonderstruck” last year, continues to impress as Regan, feeling a sense of guilt for the loss of Beau that adds a major source of emotional weight.

Forcing the viewer to be in a stew and become an active, breath-holding participant in the quiet game, “A Quiet Place” is a well-oiled, shiver-inducing delivery system of stressful suspense that wouldn’t work as well without the emotional investment in the family at hand (even if their credited names are never actually uttered in the film). The family is resilient yet fallible, and yet, this is not a horror film where characters commit baffling or idiotic actions that viewers could never see themselves doing in such a situation. Valuing the storytelling art of showing rather than telling, director John Krasinski also takes the approach of “Jaws,” “Alien,” or, most recently, 2014’s “Godzilla,” by only gradually revealing the monsters and their arachnid-like limbs in quick glimpses. Once the monsters are shown in full digitally rendered view, some of the dread slackens a bit without breaking the spell; a set-piece in a silo even ups the ante with the quicksand of the grain as life-threatening as the creatures and slyly reminding of the T-rex jeep attack in “Jurassic Park.” Driven by primal, nerve-shredding tension, “A Quiet Place” does the horror genre so proud as smart, classy mainstream genre filmmaking that one will need an alcoholic beverage afterward to take the edge off.

Grade: B +

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Parents & Daughters Go Wild: "Blockers" raunchy but also smart and sweet


Blockers (2018)
102 min., rated R.

Indeed, parents stopping their daughters from following through on a sex pact on prom night sounds like a sleazy and/or ridiculous foundation for comedy, but “Blockers” (the image of a rooster stands in for the excised prefix) ends up being surprisingly smarter and sweeter than most R-rated studio comedies. Flipping the script on the horndog sex comedy by changing out boys for girls is no longer that revolutionary, and it is, thankfully, never as smutty as 1981’s “Porky’s” but more in the tradition of 1999’s “American Pie” and 2007’s “Superbad.” First and foremost, this is a riotously good time that delivers the comic goods, both of the gleefully crass and wildly physical variety, but amidst all of the ribald antics, there is a heart at its core in a story fundamentally about parents having to let go in order for their teenage children to experience a high school rite of passage. Helping matters a great deal is that Kay Cannon (screenwriter of all three “Pitch Perfect” movies) makes her directorial bow, bringing a much-needed feminist point-of-view to the material and making sure truth and charm are never missing in “Blockers.”

As prom night fast approaches, best-friends-since-elementary-school Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) make a pact to all lose their virginity when Julie announces that she’s going to have a special night with boyfriend Austin (Graham Phillips). When their parents, single mom Lisa (Leslie Mann), overprotective Mitchell (John Cena) and perpetual screw-up Hunter (Ike Barinholtz), get wind of their daughters’ #sexpact2018 from a left-open laptop of text messages and hard-to-decipher emojis, they will have to jump through a lot of hoops to find their girls and stop them before they get the chance to deflower themselves.

As written by Brian Kehoe and Jim Kehoe, “Blockers,” itself, never judges the teenage girls wanting to get laid and ultimately comes across sex-positive. This is as much the girls’ story as it is their parents’ story, and yet the film must hit its raunchy marks. The comedy is certainly crude, featuring a projectile vomit gag in a stretch limo and below-the-waist shots of Gary Cole that one can’t ever unsee, and luckily, there are more hits than misses here. Speaking of Gary Cole, he and Gina Gershon show up as Julie’s boyfriend’s kinky parents in a sequence that could count as a non-sequitur, and with the use of subtitles during a naughty sex game that the three blockers walk in on, it’s an inspiredly carried-out bit. The wacky shenanigans that the parents and daughters get themselves into are tonally at odds with the sensitive final moments that one can feel the gears grind a bit, but the level of pathos is so sneakily touching, particularly when Hunter and Sam have a heart to heart, without feeling overly forced.

As parents, Lisa, Mitchell and Hunter might be out of touch, going to great lengths to find their daughters’ whereabouts by breaking and entering someone’s home to find a phone, but their hearts are in the right spots. Leslie Mann is not only a wonderful comedian, but she also makes Lisa real and sympathetic, as she frets about her daughter leaving for college, even though she’s oblivious to Julie being accepted to UCLA, and doesn't want her to make the same mistakes she did. Building a cottage industry out of being the best in show in “Trainwreck” and “Sisters,” John Cena gets co-lead duties as Mitchell, and he’s game for anything, particularly when taking one for the team in a butt-chugging battle against a house-partying bro. Even if he shows his lack of experience as a dramatic actor during the more heartfelt moments, Cena still comes across as a muscle-bound sweetheart who struggles with seeing his tomboy daughter grow into a young woman with whom he can't do a chest bump now. As the divorced Hunter, Ike Barinholtz (2017’s “Snatched”) is the inevitable wild card, who may be an absentee parent but initially isn’t as up in arms about their daughters’ sex pact; his delivery can be exhausting but sly.

Kathryn Newton (HBO’s “Big Little Lies”) and relative newcomers Geraldine Viswanathan and Gideon Adlon (Pamela Adlon’s daughter) are all likable and distinctly drawn as Julie, Kayla and Sam, who seem to talk to each other like real teenage girls do and have a terrific chemistry together. Viswanathan is the clear standout as the saucy Kayla, who’s down to do the deed, too, with her date, drug-cooking, manbun-rocking lab partner Connor (Miles Robbins). She assures herself as someone who always commands a room and can score a laugh as bawdy as the guys, like a quote-worthy moment about equating penises to plungers. Then there’s Adlon, who has a warm and endearing quality about her as Sam, who says she’ll lose her V-card to her good-natured, fedora-wearing date, Chad (Jimmy Bellinger), but she really has her eyes set on the magical, out-and-proud Angelica (Ramona Young). Sam gets the most sizable and sensitively handled arc of the teenage trio as she comes to terms with her sexuality. 

If not a serious guide on how to give your teenage daughter wings to fly, “Blockers” does shed more insight than expected. When the parental trio reconnoiters at Mitchell’s house, his wife Marcie (Sarayu Blue) brings up great points about double standards—would they care as much if they all had sons wanting to lose their virginity?—and respecting their daughters’ time to explore their sexuality rather than seeing it as a loss of innocence or treating them as damsels in distress. There was most likely a lot of ad-libbing on the set, but there’s never a time where the film noticeably meanders or overstays its welcome to the point of a scene needing to wrap it up, like almost all of the comedies from Leslie Mann’s husband. Where the consistently funny “Blockers” ends marks the end of an era for not only the teens but also the parents, er, cock blockers.

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