Thursday, February 22, 2018

Mystery Zone: Challenging "Annihilation" ventures into the unknown with no handholding

Annihilation (2018)
115 min., rated R.

On the surface, “Annihilation” is being promoted as a “Predator”-like sci-fi thriller with some stranger, experimental elements. It is that, however, as writer-director Alex Garland’s follow-up to 2015’s “Ex Machina,” which was heady, accomplished and mesmerizing with an auteur touch on the level of a Stanley Kubrick, one already knows the film will challenge and have no need for audience hand-holding. Based on the 2014 novel by Jeff VanderMeer, “Annihilation” is about venturing into the unknown and the beginning of something new, despite the title referring to the end of mankind. The thing about the unknown is that there are no tidily packaged answers, and Garland never pulls from that notion in what is a stunner of cinematic strangeness.

Johns Hopkins biology professor Lena (Natalie Portman), who served in the Army for seven years, still reels from her husband, Sgt. Kane (Oscar Isaac), being presumed dead after he left for a top-secret mission. When he suddenly returns home a year later, Lena notices a change in her husband, who doesn’t know how he got home or the details of his mission, and once Kane begins violently coughing up blood and experiencing internal bleeding in an ambulance, they get stopped by government officials. Having been drugged, Lena wakes up in a clandestine base known as Area X. According to psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a meteorite has crashed into a lighthouse on the coast of a swampy Florida state park and a mysterious barrier she calls “The Shimmer” has appeared close to the base; it’s an unexplainable biodome that could be extraterrestrial. Military teams have entered The Shimmer, never to return, except for Kane. Recruited by Ventress with her coterie of female specialists—paramedic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson) and geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny)—to discover the cause and nature of The Shimmer, Lena decides to embark on the mission to discover what happened to Kane, but will it be a suicide mission?

For the extent of “Annihilation,” the mystery of The Shimmer—and all that it is capable of—is the central focus, but the emotional turning point in Lena’s life is never left as a sidebar. Through the way writer-director Alex Garland structures the film between a present interrogation with Lena being the sole survivor, Lena’s memories with her alive-and-well husband, and Lena’s expedition with the others, the viewer gathers that the consequences are as micro as they are macro. One of five characters who are connected by self-destruction, Lena has tried going on with her life, thinking her husband would never return, only to embark on the same journey as him. Being able to use her knowledge of cells, Lena discovers within The Shimmer that DNA of all living things is being mutated and duplicated, like an alligator having teeth that are more shark-like and deer having their antlers decorated with flowers. The visual effects of flora and fauna appropriately enhances the dreamlike quality of this lush woodland environment within The Shimmer, an outer wall resembling a rainbow-colored oil slick that’s ever-changing and completely consuming. 

Those hoping for genre chills and thrills will still get their fill, from a disturbingly unsettling bit of footage involving Kane and his army, to Ventress and her unit’s mangled findings in the deep end of a drained pool, to a tensely terrifying set-piece in an abandoned home where the women must remain quiet as a mutated beast roars between them. The third act, in particular, becomes such a hypnotic humdinger of a nightmare that takes on an ethereal, avant-garde quality. It is absolutely spellbinding and not like anything seen in recent memory. Over the course of the film, the music score is mindfully layered with the folksy acoustics of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping” and then segues into composers Geoff Barrow & Ben Salisbury's droning, dissonant techno score that recalls the transfixing effect of Mica Levi’s otherworldly, seductively eerie score in 2014’s “Under the Skin.”

Natalie Portman is superb as Lena, playing her as a woman who has been devoted to both her work and her husband but has made regretful mistakes in the past and comes to terms with them in her survival. Her co-stars may be supporting players, but each one of them more than fulfills their efficiently characterized parts with lived-in qualities: Jennifer Jason Leigh, as Dr. Ventress, hides her mortality behind her icy, businesslike veneer; Tessa Thompson (2017’s “Thor: Ragnarok”), as Josie, conceals her physical scars under her sleeves; Gina Rodriguez (2016’s “Deepwater Horizon”), as Anya, may be tough but is just as human as anyone; and Tuva Novotny (2010’s “Eat Pray Love”), whose Cass has already experienced her own personal tragedy. Finally, there is Oscar Isaac, whose brief screen time as Lena's husband Kane still casts a poignant and ultimately chilling imprint on the rest of the film.

When Lena is interrogated in quarantine by a hazmat-suited team (led by Benedict Wong), she answers a lot of questions with, “I don’t know,” and that is an appropriate response for all that has happened to her. Even when what happens is clear, the viewer is as lost in the whys and hows of The Shimmer as Lena. Audiences will stumble out of the theater dazed and confused, questioning what it is exactly they have just seen. With that said, the trippy, thrillingly unpredictable and unsuspectingly ambitious “Annihilation” requires patience, full engagement and an open mind from an audience that does not need easily fed information meant to be beyond basic human understanding.

Grade: A - 

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Wakanda Forever: "Black Panther" a game-changer that stands apart from MCU

Black Panther (2018)
134 min., rated PG-13.

Black Panther might not be the first-ever black superhero, but the release of “Black Panther” is a proud watershed moment, representing an underserved culture in a commercial franchise movie. The 1966 comic-book character, co-created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and predating the revolutionary Black Panther Party, finally gets his breakthrough debut after an appearance in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” It’s the eighteenth-and-counting film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and yet hardly feels of a piece with the other cogs in the machine, as the action set-pieces and standard superhero stuff actually take a backseat most of the time. With the ensemble (and behind-the-scenes crew) predominantly made up of spectacular artists of color giving the film even more weight, it’s groundbreaking in that regard and makes for a big-screen celebration of African culture and pride. As comic-book movies go, “Black Panther” is not only terrifically entertaining but much more important and serious-minded, while still bearing a brisk sense of fun.

Prince and heir to the clandestine, technologically advanced African country of Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is about to take the throne following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), at the United Nations but not before he ingests a heart-shaped herb that helps him gain superhuman abilities. While T’Challa wants to continue Wakanda’s practice of isolationism by not revealing its power to the world, Afrikaner arms dealer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and American-raised Wakandan Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) are in cahoots to steal an artifact of vibranium—the key metal that Wakanda is built upon—from the Museum of Great Britain. When T’Challa, along with undercover spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and warrior general Okoye (Danai Gurira), go on a mission overseen by T’Challa’s tech genius sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) to capture Klaue in South Korea, they are later ambushed by Killmonger, who also has his eyes on the throne. 

With only two other feature films under his belt (2013’s tremendous “Fruitvale Station” and 2015’s fresh, stirring “Creed”), director Ryan Coogler brings his intimate, character-first indie roots and a singular identity to a $200-million-budgeted property that usually comes with jokey banter and a lot of box-checking for future installments. Apart from the reappearance of two supporting characters, a flashback to the assassination of T’Challa’s father from “Captain America: Civil War,” and the obligatory Stan Lee cameo, “Black Panther” completely stands on its own. It isn’t content with just functioning as a popcorn blockbuster under the Marvel banner; the screenplay by director Coogler and writer Joe Robert Cole is Shakespearean and more political than any of the other MCU entries, while really concentrating on the people involved. Themes of racial strife, colonization, and isolationism are seamlessly woven into the narrative without coming across preachy or heavy-handed.

“Black Panther” does not look or sound like any other Marvel offering. In terms of world-building, the film introduces a distinguished new world in Wakanda, a façade of a third-world territory that’s really a high-tech, Afro-centric utopia built on vibranium, with reverence to old African traditions. It’s undetected enough to not be found on a map (besides it being fictional), but it is the most technologically progressive. Cinematographer Rachel Morrison (the first woman to be nominated for an Oscar for 2017’s “Mudbound”) lushly captures the nation of Wakanda, as well as the dazzling celestial planes T’Challa enters after being buried in sand to speak with his father. The film achieves a vibrancy with Ruth E. Carter’s striking, meticulous costume design and Ludwig Göransson’s score with African percussion (aided by original hip-hop songs produced by Kendrick Lamar). The action set-pieces, of which there are surprisingly few, are solid when they’re not hypercut, darkly lit, or undercut by artificial, overcooked CGI. There is exactly one standout from the rest involving hand-to-hand combat in a South Korean casino that segues into a car chase, and it’s thrilling and staged with immense energy before ending with a laugh involving Nakia behind the wheel and Okoye with her spear. 

Chadwick Boseman is excellent, yet stoic and understated, as T’Challa/Black Panther, the kind of king Wakanda needs, but the four women in his life are every bit as prominent, strong, skilled and smart. Angela Bassett is royalty as mother Queen Ramonda; Lupita Nyong’o (2016’s “Queen of Katwe”) is lovely as Nakia, a spy and T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend; and the dynamite Danai Gurira (TV’s “The Walking Dead”) is fierce and dryly funny as Okoye, a badass warrior general who’s faithful to Wakanda. Letitia Wright is vivacious and a major source of humor as Shuri, T’Challa’s excitable younger sister and tech handler who makes her brother’s vibranium-made suit. Looking ahead, Shuri could give Tony Stark a run for his money. The charismatic Michael B. Jordan (who has been director Coogler’s muse since “Fruitvale Station”) is commanding and swaggering as Erik Killmonger, who isn’t just another stock villain mad with power; he might be the most noteworthy Marvel “villain” since Tom Hiddleston’s Loki. There is considerable nuance and understanding behind Killmonger’s motivations, beliefs and resentment for T’Challa in keeping Wakanda’s resources a secret, and his final words to T’Challa end on a graceful note. Also making marks with brief screen time is Sterling K. Brown (TV’s “This Is Us”) in the 1992-set prologue in Oakland, California, as T’Challa’s uncle N’Jobu; Daniel Kaluuya (2017’s “Get Out”), as Okoye’s partner who shifts his allegiances; and Forest Whitaker, as elder statesman and spiritual leader Zuri.

Like what 2017's “Wonder Woman” did in creating a quality blockbuster fronted by a female director and starting a female superhero, “Black Panther” deserves high praise for the specificity of an African culture that mainstream audiences don’t usually find in a studio movie. So, is it the Second Coming? Not quite, but that can be difficult to achieve, considering two to three three comic-book films are released each year in an ever-expanding universe that will not break its structural blueprint. What “Black Panther” achieves, though, cannot be slighted, as this is culturally significant and exciting game-changer without any portals or Infinity Stones.

Grade: B +

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

No One Can Hear You Snore: “Cloverfield Paradox” competently made but severely underwhelming

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018) 
102 min., not rated (equivalent of a PG-13).

Instantly available to watch after this year’s Super Bowl game, “The Cloverfield” Paradox” surreptitiously arrived on the scene with down-low marketing and even faster turnaround from advertisement to release than its precursors, 2008’s found-footage monster movie “Cloverfield” and 2016’s bunker-set thriller “10 Cloverfield Lane.” As a stealth companion piece, it intrigues fans of those aforementioned films—props to the marketing—but the final result is nothing short of a letdown. Director Julius Onah’s effort is technically meritable, and the exceptional cast cannot be blamed, but everything that works is rendered empty when it’s in the service of a severely underwhelming muddle.

Energy is depleting on Planet Earth in 2028. In space, the Cloverfield Station is preparing the Shepard particle accelerator to help provide the planet with infinite energy. Among the crew is civilian coordinator Ava Hamilton (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who has left her husband on Earth since the loss of their two children. As the crew experiences a power surge and tries repairing their navigation, strange occurrences begin to alter their mission. They find a mysterious woman, Jensen (Elizabeth Debicki), who claims to be a crew member when she finally comes to; one of them feels something crawling underneath their skin; and someone's arm vanishes through a wall. Has the Cloverfield crew opened a portal into a parallel universe that will threaten Earth?

Alternate dimensions aside, “The Cloverfield Paradox” recalls “Alien” and even 2017’s “Life” in terms of a mounting body count in space, and along the lines of those vastly superior films, this one does offer a few effective body-horror moments. There is also a level of paranoia that comes into play and a thrilling brawl between two of the surviving crew members, but otherwise, there’s a lot of head-scratching here. The film mostly coasts on the cast (including David Oyelowo, Daniel Brühl, John Ortiz, Zhang Ziyi) rather than how the characters are written, all of them paper-thin, in the screenplay by writer Oren Uziel (2014’s “22 Jump Street”). Gugu Mbatha-Raw is the film’s emotional center, and Chris O’Dowd offers a welcome sense of comic relief as Irish engineer Mundy without completely existing in a different movie.

As a self-contained film, “The Cloverfield Paradox” is a competently made space-age thriller, but with its connectivity to a “Cloverfield” film universe, there are too many paradoxes of its own in terms of its timeline to advance the world-building, and the final shot is more dutiful and tacked-on than satisfying. Never really scratching the itch that “Cloverfield” fans will crave, this entry is a deflating non-event that leads nowhere of note.


Saturday, February 10, 2018

Cerebral Rom-Com: "The Female Brain" pleasant and smart but also hit-and-miss

The Female Brain (2018)
100 min., not rated (equivalent of a PG-13).

Science doesn’t typically figure into a romantic comedy, but “The Female Brain” aims to climb inside the minds of both men and women, seeing how they relate to each other biologically based on their brain chemistry, and dismantle gender stereotypes. Stand-up comedian Whitney Cummings makes this her directorial debut, working from a script she co-wrote with fellow comic Neal Brennan, based on the 2006 book of the same name by neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine. What Cummings and Brennan bring to the table is smart and insightful, but only funny here and there, and very hit-and-miss in terms of all of the characters they want to juggle and the emotions they want to hit.

Cummings, the actress, stars as a fictionalized version of the book’s author, here named Julia Brizendine and working for a university to conduct research on the differences between both sexes’ brain stimuli. She is so analytical and such a workaholic that it’s forced her to resist being in a relationship; well, that, the fact that she believes brain-imaging results are the ultimate litmus test, and the fact that her husband left her, reminded constantly by her mother (Marlo Thomas). One of her test subjects is Kevin (Toby Kebbell), a scruffy charmer with an acerbic sense of humor and holds the power to make Julia flustered, but will she stop thinking with her brain and start thinking with her heart?

Framed as a TED Talk-like lecture, “The Female Brain” presents case studies of three other couples, tracking them through their relationship foibles, which seem to exist because both sexes’ brains are wired so differently. Lisa (Sofía Vergara) and Steven (Deon Cole) are a couple in their 40s with a son who have been married for 12 years and finally admit to themselves that their marriage has gone stale. (In voice-over, Julia asserts that there is less passion in their relationship because after about two years, their brains stop producing dopamine.) The neurotic, self-conscious Lexi (Lucy Punch) and her boyfriend, Adam (James Marsden), have been together for a couple years, but when she’s not primping herself to look perfect, Lexi can’t help trying to change Adam, and that’s a problem. And then there’s Zoe (Cecily Strong) and Greg (Blake Griffin). She works for a sexist marketing team and remains working because she refuses to sit around and rely on her husband, a pro basketball player whose salary pays for their sleek mansion. After an injury sidelines Greg, he insists that he can handle doing all the work around their house without any help.

For her first film, Whitney Cummings does get lucky with amassing so many talented actors on screen. Cummings is sharp herself as Julia, but her best moments involve the snappy rapport with her inquisitive assistant Abby, played by Beanie Feldstein, who’s just as appealing here as she was in 2017's “Lady Bird.” She may be Jonah Hill’s younger sister, but she’s funny and charming in her own right, and should have a long career ahead of her. With Cummings’ Julia obligated to end up with a man in her lap because the script tells her to do so, Julia finally letting go and falling for Kevin is a complete contrivance. And yet, Toby Kebbell does everything he can with the one-note role with his funny, endearing presence, going as far enough to make one want to see him cast in more film roles with this kind of levity. As for the other couples, Sofía Vergara and Deon Cole make due with their clichéd storyline, as they experiment with the drug Molly as a source of comedy for the audience, and Lucy Punch and James Marsden exhibit no chemistry as Lexi and Adam. Jane Seymour at least injects some energy into her one scene as Lexi’s caricatured mother, which signals why Lexi is the way she is. Finally, Cecily Strong and Blake Griffin are given the most amusing moments, and continuing the trend of professional athletes trying their hand at comedy following LeBron James in 2015's “Trainwreck,” NBA player Griffin showcases such unexpected comic chops that acting could maybe turn into a side gig for him.

“The Female Brain” is pleasant to watch, but with any episodic narrative structure, some of the couplings work better than others. Since the film wants to focus on all of them, this leaves few characters to actually care about. This is a fair first time out for Whitney Cummings behind and in front of the camera, and the use of stop-action graphics with superimposed brains onto the heads of the characters, coupled with notes and Julia’s voice-over, is a consistently witty and surprisingly not-irritating device that at least brings a fresh perspective. For once, a romantic comedy nails the matters of the brain, but the matters of the heart don’t really register here.

Grade: C +

Friday, February 9, 2018

Laters, Baby: Johnson still most appealing part of insipid "Fifty Shades Freed"

Fifty Shades Freed (2018)
105 min., rated R.

The big-screen adaptations of E.L. James’ erotic literary trilogy are a frustrating bunch. 2015’s “Fifty Shades of Grey,” as directed and written by women, seemed to acknowledge the absurdity of James’ prose, while still trying to take the dom-sub relationship between Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele seriously, and made a star out of Dakota Johnson. 2017’s “Fifty Shades Darker,” with directing reigns given to director James Foley and writing duties to James’ husband Niall Leonard, was slightly sexier but soapier and more episodic, and it never went dark enough. Now, 2018’s “Fifty Shades Freed,” again directed by Foley and written by Leonard, is the interminable climax, so to speak, but not much actually matters because nothing can come in between Ana and Christian’s playtime cued to a Shazam-worthy pop soundtrack. Excluding the sexual fantasy of the S&M angle, this third and final film is just an insipid soap so bankrupt of conflict and tension that it has to throw in a car chase, arson, blackmail, a kidnapping, and a ransom. It just goes to show that this series was too thin and vanilla to ever warrant a trilogy.

As “Fifty Shades Darker” kept ending with coda after coda, it finally concluded with Ana’s handsy, disgraced ex-boss Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson) standing at the edge of a lake from Christian’s family home as fireworks ignite the sky, burning a cigarette through Christian’s face of a family photo. Now, BDSM-practicing billionaire Christian (Jamie Dornan) and the once-mousy Anastasia (Dakota Johnson) are officiated as Mr. and Mrs. Grey (like the fourth “Twilight” saga, this film commences with the wedding). After their honeymoon, Ana returns to work, being promoted to fiction editor at the publishing house Christian owns. When the kinky couple isn’t vacationing to Aspen, talking about having a child, and playing slap and tickle in the Red Room of Pain, a wrench in their lavish life comes in the form of Jack Hyde, who slinks around, with an incognito female as his accomplice, bent-on destroying the Greys’ lives.

What “Fifty Shades Freed” sees as drama, rational human beings will see as the fundamentally problematic relationship between a smart, independent, career-driven woman and her needy, unreasonable, possessive yet affluent and hunky husband. While Christian still has control issues (and can’t even cook on his own), Ana is now fully in charge this time, even as a submissive. She is direct and full of moxie. Understandably, she hasn’t yet changed her last name on her e-mail address from Steele to Grey, so Christian irrationally barges in on a meeting Ana is having with an author (Tyler Hoechlin). It is a satisfying moment when Ana even puts flirty architect Gia Matteo (Arielle Kebbel), who’s designing their home, in her place by firmly telling Gia to address her as Mrs. Grey and to keep her hands to herself. Ana also finally gets a scene with her friend and former roommate, Kate (Eloise Mumford), when they meet for martinis, but she gets punished for that by Christian, who has hired her a bodyguard, Sawyer (Brant Daugherty), and wants her protected at all times. Ana’s best moment, though, comes when she gives Christian the silent treatment and hurriedly gets ready for work but takes the time, while topless on putting on pantyhose, to tell her husband, “You are not a kid anymore, you need to grow the fuck up.”

Dakota Johnson, yet again, brings her charm and tip-top comic timing to a film that doesn’t deserve it. When Ana’s bodyguards tackle Jack Hyde, who breaks into her and Christian’s apartment and threatens her with a knife, neither one has handcuffs on their person to restrain him, until Ana chimes in that her and Christian might have some handy. As the stoic Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan seems a little more life-like this go-round, being directed to loosen up somewhat, but he is still all abs and no substance, as the script has given up on trying to make sense of him or enlighten the viewer on his psychological issues. Oh, but Christian does get to sing Paul McCartney’s “Maybe I’m Amazed” at the piano, so maybe he is sensitive after all. The overqualified supporting cast gets even less to do than before: Marcia Gay Harden congratulates her son and daughter-in-law at the beginning and then comes back for a few words of wisdom, while Jennifer Ehle still gets a credit for playing Ana’s mother but only gets a wordless cameo.

“Fifty Shades Freed” is good-looking without being any good. For what it’s worth, the sex scenes are vaguely steamier than before, particularly on a kitchen table where Ana and Christian have a ménage à trois with a pint of ice cream. When the film strays from the matters of the heart, sexual trysts, and lavish vacations, it feels like padding on padding, not unlike a feature on Cinemax After Dark. So inconsequential and laughably tacked-on, the thriller plot with Jack Hyde (and a female partner whose identity is never a mystery) is about as forced as a fake orgasm and then peters out pretty quickly. Also, before the film says, “Laters, baby,” and closes on its calling-card song (Ellie Goulding’s “Love Me Like You Do”) and a montage of Ana and Christian’s evolving love story from the previous films, information about Christian’s past comes so late that it’s treated as a footnote. Now that Dakota Johnson is freed of her "Fifty Shades" contract, she can continue using her lovely presence in better movies. As for Ana, she is better off saying her safe word, “red,” and then filing for divorce and focusing on her career.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

Silly Rabbit: "Peter Rabbit" an agreeable update with charm and cheeky wit

Peter Rabbit (2018)
93 min., rated PG.

Writer and illustrator Beatrix Potter once refused to give Walt Disney the rights to making a feature film about her creation of the blue jacket-wearing, anthropomorphic Peter Rabbit. Now, after a history of storybooks published in 1902 and an iconography still existing through the merchandise of plush toys, Peter Rabbit gets his first theatrical film in 2018. It’s hard to say how Potter would take this live-action/animation adaptation of her beloved children's books if she were still alive, considering how times have changed since the dawn of the 20th century and how there seems to be an obligation to please the very young target audience with short attention spans. Using Miss Potter's classic story as a hopping-off point, “Peter Rabbit” might not be perfect in blending the pure with a modern sensibility, but it is agreeable, pertly humored and undeniably sweet-natured.

Braver than all of the woodland animals, the mischievous Peter Rabbit (voice of James Corden) routinely leads his family—sisters Flopsy (Margot Robbie), Mopsy (Elizabeth Debicki), and Cotton-tail (Daisy Ridley), along with cousin Benji (Colin Moody)—into raiding the vegetable garden of crotchety farmer Mr. McGregor (an unrecognizable Sam Neill), who once caught Peter and the girls’ father and cooked him into a pie. After the mean farmer drops dead from a heart attack while trapping Peter, McGregor’s great-nephew, Thomas (Domhnall Gleeson), leaves his manager position at department store Harrods in London to prepare the Windermere country home for sale. McGregor’s kind neighbor, artist Bea (Rose Byrne), has always defended the animals, but once Thomas moves in, Peter and his new human nemesis will not only fight over the garden but also Bea’s affections.

From the get-go, writer-director Will Gluck (2014’s “Annie”) and co-writer Rob Lieber (2014’s “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”) make it known that “Peter Rabbit” is a slightly fractured update of the genteel, traditional tale Beatrix Potter introduced to the world. As harmonizing sparrows open the film and land on a meadow, Peter interrupts, bowling over them and scampering by after a quick apology. The whimsical narration by Margot Robbie (who pulls double duty as Flopsy) notes that this is not the original storybook we all know, and she isn’t lying. Early on, Peter debates sticking a carrot into Mr. McGregor’s plumber’s crack, and the word “nipples” is uttered once, but beyond those exceptions, things never get too crass. The war between Thomas and the rabbits is played on the silly, over-the-top level of a Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon with Thomas becoming injured with traps, rakes and his own electrical fence (in fact, it gets used on two snobby homecoming hopefuls as well); Peter even celebrates his own scheme, calling it “a perfectly crafted sequence.”

James Corden’s cheeky, endearing voicing of the fluffy Peter Rabbit, a seamless and tactile CG creation, makes this feature-length film more than just tolerable; he is arrogant and has a little Ferris Bueller in him without ever coming off obnoxiously snarky. As triplets Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton-tail, who argue about who’s technically the oldest by seconds, Margot Robbie, Elizabeth Debicki, and Daisy Ridley are somewhat interchangeable, but all fire off their one-liners with enjoyable gusto and seem to be having fun with their voice performances. Colin Moody is also amusing as hefty cousin Benji, who misinterprets putting his dressing on his side when he eats lettuce. It would seem thankless for the human actors to act their scenes opposite invisible creatures added in post-production, but they are game players. Rose Byrne is beyond charming and brings screen appeal as always to the part of Bea, who may be nice and flaw-free considering her character is based on illustrator Beatrix Potter. Bea leads an easy, simple life in her little countryside cottage, talking to the bunnies, who don’t talk back to her, and painting illustrations of Peter and his family when she’s not painting her abstract/awful works of art. Playing Thomas McGregor, the affable Domhnall Gleeson amuses when mugging for the camera, but he also has the difficult task of being as grumpy and ruthless as his great-uncle and then redeeming himself enough to make nice with the rabbits and make his garden-variety romance with Bea play.

Based on its trailers—which came off shrill and seemed to distill all of the frantic slapstick bits from the final product—“Peter Rabbit” will undoubtedly be pre-judged, but that shouldn’t be. Amidst the charming dynamic between Peter, his siblings, his cousin and Bea, the film is chock-full of cleverly self-aware wordplay, visual gags and well-executed slapstick. There’s a “Babe” reference aimed at Pigling Bland (Ewen Leslie); a radicchio joke that Benji tells Peter not to explain; a literal deer in the headlights; a running joke involving a crowing rooster being shocked each morning; a three-card-monte trick with flower pots; and a fox making an amusing walk of shame after the party Peter and the animals throw at the McGregor home. The soundtrack is also listenable, mixing it up with Len’s 1999 hit “Steal My Sunshine,” The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” and a slow cover of Clean Bandit and Jess Glynne’s “Rather Be,” and then using today’s pop songs, like Portugal. The Man’s popular “Feel It Still.” The witty, wonderful “Paddington 2” might still be playing just a few hops over, but “Peter Rabbit” deserves to be an option for family entertainment.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Swamp Thing: "Victor Crowley" delivers all the humor and red stuff of the series

Victor Crowley (2017)
93 min., not rated (equivalent to an NC-17).

Writer-director Adam Green has created such a formidable slasher-movie boogeyman in the deformed, hatchet-wielding Victor Crowley that he seems to be on a roll to make as many “Hatchet” sequels as there were for Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger. 2007 wasn’t that long ago, but before spawning later installments, “Hatchet” was a fresh and purely fun throwback to the slasher flicks of the 1980s, where heads were ripped from their bodies and blood squirted like a hot spring of crimson in the name of shocking laughs. Having a modern cult classic on his hands, Green went on to direct 2010’s lesser “Hatchet II” and chose to write but not direct 2013’s more-on-par-with-the-original “Hatchet III,” which put a satisfying bow on a trilogy if it were truly the end. Four years later, as Green gathered audiences for a 10th Anniversary screening of the original “Hatchet” at the FrightFest Film Festival, it turned out to be a surprise screening of the furtively shot “Victor Crowley,” the fourth installment in the deathless series. It's exactly what it says on the box, but more lovingly made than lazy and always eager to please those awaiting another reliable Crowley hackfest.

Former paramedic Andrew Yong (Parry Shen) has written a book on surviving the massacre of the “Bayou Butcher,” capitalizing on the tragedy. When his book signing in Louisiana is cut short, his agent Kathleen (Felissa Rose) persuades him with $600,000 to go back to the crime scene, New Orleans’ Honey Swamp Island, with a TV host, Andrew’s ex-wife Sabrina (Krystal Joy Brown), and camera crew. Meanwhile, girlfriend-and-boyfriend director Chloe (Katie Booth) and Alex (Chase Williamson), along with Chloe’s best friend and makeup-effects artist Rose (Laura Ortiz), are already at the swamp, ready to make their movie based on the 2007 Victor Crowley murders, but as they get their equipment ready and find acting talent in Honey Swamp Island tour guide Dillon (Dave Sheridan), Yong’s plane crashes nearby. Once everyone who survived the crash comes to, they hear the sounds of Victor Crowley’s ghost (Kane Hodder) being reborn, and he’s ready to slaughter those trespassing his home.

Alongside “Hatchet III” paramedic Andrew Yong (Parry Shen, who has played three different characters in the series), “Victor Crowley” introduces a new batch of characters, all of them fair game for Crowley’s handy tools and bare hands. The plot itself sticks to the basic formula that not even “Hatchet” invented, but like the previous entries, there is a sense of humor to all of it. Next to the insane level of gore, the cast on hand is a major highlight, delivering a lot of the laughs. While Parry Shen is welcomed back to be the main protagonist as Andrew, the film does seem to missing a tough heroine like Danielle Harris’ Marybeth this time. The supporting players, however, make up for it. Felissa Rose (1983’s “Sleepaway Camp”) is hilarious as Andrew’s outspoken, overmedicated, New Jersey-accented agent Kathleen, and Laura Ortiz (2006’s “The Hills Have Eyes”) is a hoot and a standout as comfortable-in-the-nude makeup-effects artist Rose; when Rose gets hit on by the Honey Swamp Island’s tour guide and aspiring actor (Dave Sheridan), she shoots back, “I have a dick,” and she gives it right back to Sabrina who puts down Andrew in the sinking plane. Dave Sheridan (2000’s “Scary Movie”) also makes most of his comic-relief shtick land as goofy wannabe-actor Dillon, and even Brian Quinn (“Q” from TV’s “Impractical Jokers”) has some moments as sound producer Austin.

Getting even more mileage out of Crowley-created carnage, “Victor Crowley” gushes so many outrageous decapitations and tendon-ripping geysers of blood that one can just imagine the buckets of corn syrup making up most of the budget. There is an amusing callback to Victor’s trusty electric sander, which seems to be right where he left it, and director Green uses a motion-censor light outside of a shed to startling effect. Always more fun than frightening, the film is still not always predictable; who will be left standing by the end is never made obvious. Like any sequel in a stalk-and-kill series, “Victor Crowley” won’t convert anyone, but it shouldn’t disappoint any Crowley fans who will get what they paid for.

Grade: B - 

Friday, February 2, 2018

House of 1,000 Rooms: “Winchester” wastes great location and Dame Helen Mirren

Winchester (2018)
109 min., rated PG-13.

Rich in detail and history, San Jose, California's Winchester Mystery House (now a popular tourist haunt) is prime real estate for a grandly spooky Gothic haunted house tale. Its owner, Sarah Winchester—the widow of a firearm manufacturer and heiress to the Winchester Repeating Arms Company—turned her residence into a Victorian mansion of sprawling, labyrinthine architectural wonder with more than a hundred rooms, secret passageways, and doors and staircases that lead to nowhere. Naturally, the house is claimed to be haunted by the tortured souls of those killed by the Winchester rifles, so Sarah spent years adding additions to her estate, reconstructing the rooms the spirits died in, and then containing them in each room with every door sealed off with thirteen nails. If that sounds like a doozy of a premise with an excellent location and a classy Oscar-winning actress playing Sarah Winchester, then why is “Winchester” so dull and hokey?

It’s 1906 when a San Francisco psychologist, the grieving, opium-addicted Dr. Eric Price (Jason Clarke), is employed by the board of directors of the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, who feel Sarah Winchester (Helen Mirren) needs a psychological assessment in order for her to keep the fortune she has inherited. Arriving to the estate, Eric is introduced to the unusually designed house by Sarah’s niece, Marion (Sarah Snook), who lives there with her young son Henry (Finn Scicluna O’Prey) and asks Eric to respect her aunt's rules by remaining in his wing of the house. After meeting Sarah at dinner, he gets down to business, examining her in hopes of giving her a clean bill of health. The loss of both her husband and daughter has taken quite a toll on her, but has it pushed Sarah into madness and into believing that her house is cohabited by the ghosts of men whose lives were taken by her namesake rifle? As Eric begins snooping around the house at night as Sarah’s workers expand and renovate around the clock, he begins to realize that Sarah is not insane.

Opening with a retro title card that promises something in the Hammer Film vein, “Winchester” has two star attractions—Dame Helen Mirren and that house—and never uses either one to even half of their respective potential. Sarah Winchester is oddly more of a supporting character here, as the story is told more from the point-of-view of Dr. Eric Price, who harbors some demons of his own and cannot be sure if the strange entities he sees are real or just hallucinations from his altered state, and the house never becomes more than a decorative setting with little time afforded to satisfactorily marvel at every nook and cranny. The screenplay by Tom Vaughan and directors Michael and Peter Spierig (2017’s “Jigsaw”) comes off perfunctory, using the personal demons of both Sarah and Eric as surface-level shading for an achingly overfamiliar paranormal story. And despite having the capable Spierig Brothers at the helm, the film commits the cardinal sin of any movie, let alone a horror movie: it’s boring. 

Now checking the horror genre off her filmography, the fabulous Helen Mirren is incapable of not bringing gravitas to a role, even one that gives her vastly less to do than Lin Shaye in the “Insidious” films and mostly has her walking around with a black veil and convincing Dr. Price that ghosts exist. It’s a minor point, but there are several close-ups of Mirren that were distractingly shot in soft-focus for no good reason. Meanwhile, Jason Clarke has to carry the story and does what he can with the material as Eric Price, who has lost his wife to suicide and numbs his emotional pain with alcohol and opium, but his emotional arc isn’t imbued with the proper amount of interest or impact that’s needed. As Sarah's niece Marion, Sarah Snook (who was such a spellbinding find in the Spierig Brothers' 2015 time-traveling sci-fi yarn "Predestination") gets a final moment to assert herself as a mother, but she is mostly relegated to look for her missing son in the middle of the night with an oil lamp.

Handsomely produced with the house itself a triumph of textured, atmospheric production design, “Winchester” still relentlessly suffers from a lack of inspiration and chills. The level of dread is curiously low, and a scene where Sarah must evade her possessed, rifle-wielding great-nephew from behind her narrow, low-rise switchback stairs is the only one that registers anything resembling tension and threat. The jack-in-the-box scares, most of them heavy-handed false alarms, are so calculated that the payoffs are easy to time one’s watch to and, thus, ineffective, save for maybe one crafty jump moment involving a rotating mirror. Genre clichés can be refreshed if an inventive spin is taken, but here, the possession of a red-haired moppet is more silly than creepy, and each time another corpsy specter reveals itself by popping into frame, it isn't so much fearsome as it's just an actor in make-up performing a parlor trick. By the time the finale brings out the special effects and ramps up the noise, the film has already petered out. Standing in the shadows of other supernatural horror films of this ilk, “Winchester” is a creaky misfire with little going for it beyond window dressing. Taking in a tour of the Winchester Mystery House or just reading up on it would be more fun and fascinating.

Grade: C - 

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Shock Girl: Aesthetically flashy "Like Me" doesn't make a clear point

Like Me (2018) 
80 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

An edgy visual scorcher with social-commentary aims, “Like Me” is just like its lead character: it seeks your attention but doesn’t have much to say. Speaking a similar visual language to films by Gregg Araki and Harmony Korine, and maybe a bit of Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers,” the film is writer-director-producer-editor Robert Mockler’s stylistically flashy directorial debut. “Like Me” certainly has a hypnotic, psychedelic quality from its neon-hued aesthetic and seems to have provocative ideas for the viewer to ruminate, but what it wants to say exactly about desire for connection and validation in a desensitized social-media age is never entirely clear. There is a statement to make about the 21st century’s fixation on a desperate pursuit of mass approval and fame, or just infamy, but so many other films have left viewers with more to take away than this one ever does.

17-year-old Kiya (Addison Timlin) is an attention-starved loner who commits crimes for online views. Wearing a mask and wielding a gun, she holds up a drive-thru convenience store, making the clerk plead for his life and urinate all over himself, and records it all on her phone. Kiya posts the video online and it goes viral, garnering vehement response, particular by one video blogger, Burt (Ian Nelson), who condemns her and her content. She then picks up a homeless man and takes him to a diner to eat pancakes and plates of other messy food. Kiya then checks into a motel and seduces the owner Marshall (Larry Fessenden) into coming to her room, only to force-feed him junk food until he regurgitates it, all while uploading the footage to her site. Marshall becomes her hostage of sorts, as the two of them embark hit the road, but how far will Kiya go to gain more than a million page views?

Indebted to experimental cinema, “Like Me” is unconcerned with being a traditionally plot-driven narrative, but it doesn’t really work as a fascinatingly harsh character study in alienation. Disturbing in not only what it shows but what it suggests about an extreme representative of the millennial generation, the film mostly amounts to 80 minutes of video performance art that becomes an abrasive endurance test before the halfway mark. With her sweet face masking her character’s delusional, disturbed psyche and evasive intentions, Addison Timlin (2014’s “The Town That Dreaded Sundown”) pushes herself to dark, weird and daring places as Kiya and exercises power over every person she comes in contact with. She doesn’t have to be a warm, likable and morally just protagonist to be compelling to watch, but it does become a problem when there aren’t any other layers to reveal about the sociopathic Kiya, who remains a blank if capably dangerous cipher rather than an aloof character worth our concern. She aims to shock and that is about it. Even when Marshall (played by a vulnerable Larry Fessenden, who looks like Jack Nicholson here more than ever) asks if she has any family, Kiya replies, “Everybody dies,” and then changes the subject.

As Kiya and Marshall go on the road, filmmaker Robert Mockler would seem to be heading his story in directions that might surprise, startle, or shed insight into these characters, but “Like Me” dwindles to nothing but the only kind of catharsis Kiya can inevitably attain after all of her transgressions. If the film impresses in any way, it is Mockler’s technical eye. Following the opening gun-point robbery, Mockler stages a dizzying, discordant montage of fast-paced, twitchily edited images on a loop, focusing on Kiya doing push-ups as her entire bedroom is stuck in a state of constant rotation and then cutting to her mouth chewing on candy that oozes through her teeth, until she eventually vomits on the camera lens. It’s arresting and repellent all at once, with a quick nod to David Cronenberg's "Videodrome," and the squishy sound design of eating and slurping food is effectively disgusting that those who are so inclined will definitely not want to view this on a full stomach. Then again, once the film proves to have little else to recommend it, even those disorienting visual flourishes turn tiresome, indulgently artsy and seizure-inducing after a while. Mockler still stands as a filmmaker to watch, but “Like Me” feels like a lot of empty, assaultive style with ideas that are left unexplored.