Thursday, March 15, 2018

Bye, Closet: "Love, Simon" a sensitive, sweet, lovable miracle

Love, Simon (2018)
109 min., rated PG-13.

Remarkably, “Love, Simon” is the first of its kind: a gay coming-of-age dramedy being distributed by a major studio and hitting mainstream multiplexes. Shattering the glass ceiling and representing the LGBTQ community on 2,400 screens, the film is unprecedented but also happens to be wonderful, wearing its tender, open heart on its sleeve for the world to see. Based upon Becky Albertalli’s novel “Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda,” “Love, Simon” is intimate and deeply felt both as a slice-of-high-school-life and a portrait of a closeted teenage boy ready to expose his true self to his family and friends. It’s sensitive and sincere without ever coming off corny, beautifully written and unforced without ever reaching for the violins or turning into a Freeform Original Movie, and if he were still alive today, John Hughes probably would have written and directed it.

A senior at Creekwood High School, affable 17-year-old Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is tired of living a double life: he feels like a normal teenager who just happens to be gay. It shouldn’t change the way anyone perceives him, but Simon isn’t quite ready to unveil his secret to his loving family—parents Emily (Jennifer Garner) and Jack (Josh Duhamel) and younger aspiring-chef sister Nora (Talitha Bateman)—and close group of supportive friends—bestie Leah (Katherine Langford), new girl Abby (Alexandra Shipp) and soccer player Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.)—and confront the pressure and fear that it could change his relationships with them. When an anonymous fellow Creekwood student, under the moniker “Blue,” posts on a Post Secret-like blog that he is gay, Simon jumps at the opportunity to respond via email and they begin a correspondence and a penpal friendship that could help each other and perhaps blossom into something more. At school, Simon looks at everyone, wondering who could possibly be “Blue,” but when he accidentally leaves his email account open on a library computer, confident social outcast classmate Martin (Logan Miller) discovers Simon’s secret. This begins a blackmailing scheme, as Martin threatens to out Simon if he doesn’t help him woo Abby. 

Identifiable, wise, affecting and just plain sweet, "Love Simon" manages to charm and entertain as a crowd-pleaser and not sacrifice truth. As written by Isaac Aptaker & Elizabeth Berger (TV’s “This Is Us”) and directed by Greg Berlanti (2010’s “Life as We Know It”), the film never feels less than passionately made, effortlessly balancing touching pathos and quick-witted humor. It may not recreate every person’s coming-out experience, but the details are all authentic and relatable. The film normalizes Simon as a teenager who is just like anyone else and deserves love just as much as the next person. As Simon begins picturing who “Blue” might be, the film envisions each “suspect” in front of the computer, and there is also a sharply funny scene where Simon imagines all of his straight friends coming out to their families. When Martin’s blackmailing scheme could have threatened the film into manipulative, predictable developments, that is never the case. Though he threatens to take away Simon’s free will to reveal his secret on his own terms, Martin is too oddly likable to ever become a one-note antagonist (he even cleverly dresses as a Freudian slip at a Halloween party). Always key in a high school film, the soundtrack is complimentary of a young person’s life, including Bleachers’ “Rollercoaster” and 1975’s “Love Me.” There’s even a flight-of-fancy musical number to Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me”) on a college campus that is smile-inducing in its exuberance. Like a lot of romantic comedies, the film culminates in a grand, public declaration of love, as the viewer is waiting to exhale right along with Simon before he meets "Blue" in person and has his giddy Jake Ryan Moment on a carnival ferris wheel.

Nick Robinson (2017’s “Everything, Everything”) is so darn likable and sympathetic as Simon Spier, who deserves to be the hero anyone afraid to come out of the closet can look up to and learn from. Simon has known that he was gay since he was a preteen infatuated with Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, but his resistance to coming out isn’t because he’s ashamed of it; he just doesn’t want to change the way his two major support systems see him. This is Robinson’s show, but everyone in the sprawling ensemble gets time to shine. Rounding out Simon’s close group of friends who are all winning and share natural chemistry with each other, Katherine Langford (Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”) is warm and supportive, as Simon’s best friend Leah, who harbors a secret of her own; Alexandra Shipp (2017’s “Tragedy Girls”), so charismatic and eye-catching as the down-to-earth Abby that one completely understands why a few classmates have a crush on her; and Jorge Lendeborg Jr. (2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming”) lends gregarious personality to Nick.

Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel are lovely as Simon’s open-minded parents Emily and Jack, each of their individual moments with Simon resonating with tenderness and honesty. Even if they were given a few more scenes, Garner and Duhamel are likely the the most lovable and progressive movie parents since Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson in “Easy A.” Tony Hale’s goofy shtick, as trying-hard-to-be-hip vice principal Mr. Worth with a penchant for oversharing with his students, gets laid on a bit too thick, but Natasha Rothwell (HBO’s “Insecure”) is much funnier and better used as Ms. Albright, the exasperated theater teacher who never minces words during rehearsals of “Cabaret” and even calls out a couple of jocks in the cafeteria when they mock Simon and another out-and-proud classmate, Ethan (Clark Moore, who’s a sharp-tongued scene-stealer).

Stories about gay characters coming out and/or falling in love have been told on the indie, arthouse, and foreign circuit for quite a while now. While a handful have made more progress coming into the mainstream—2005’s “Brokeback Mountain,” 2015’s “Carol,” 2016’s “Moonlight” and 2017’s “Call Me by Your Name” were all awards contenders—and are comparatively less upbeat, “Love, Simon” marks a turning point. A joyous, celebratory poster child for love and acceptance, the film remains true to itself. It’s the kind of special cinematic treasure one will wish he or she had to turn to when figuring themselves out at 17, and that a LGBTQ story is getting a mainstream release, “Love, Simon” is a miracle and a major step forward.

Grade: A - 

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Time Warriors: "A Wrinkle in Time" has its faults but also ambition, imagination and personality

A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
109 min., rated PG.

Ava DuVernay gets the chance of a lifetime to stretch herself as a filmmaker, having directed 2014’s Martin Luther King, Jr. portrait “Selma” and then 2016 racial-inequality documentary “13th,” and not only helm a big-budget Disney fantasy blockbuster but an adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s beloved 1962 novel (which was previously made into a chintzy 2003 made-for-TV film). Many have claimed the source material to be unfilmable, but DuVernay and screenwriters Jennifer Lee (2013’s “Frozen”) and John Stockwell (2007’s “Bridge to Terabithia”) come as close to nailing a screen treatment of L'Engle's novel as anyone probably ever will. Wildly ambitious as it is flawed, “A Wrinkle in Time” is bursting with an imaginative vision and balances lightness and darkness, like the kind of whimsical, offbeat live-action fantasy entertainment that rarely gets made anymore and that everyone’s young self would have watched in a bygone era back to back with 1984’s “The Neverending Story.”

It has been four years since bright, science-minded middle schooler Meg Murry (Storm Reid) has seen her father, Alex (Chris Pine), a scientist who wanted to shake hands with the universe and then disappeared after proving his theory of traveling through the galaxy with only one’s mind. Meg’s scientist mother, Kate (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), hasn’t lost hope yet, but it’s hard for both Meg and her prodigious 6-year-old adopted brother, Charles Wallace (Deric McCabe), when they’re being bullied at school. One evening, an unfazed Charles Wallace lets an ethereal, chipper woman named Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) into their family home, but before Mrs. Murry can call the police, Mrs. Whatsit mentions a “tesseract,” a fifth dimension that Alex was hoping to find before he disappeared. Not long after, Meg and Charles Wallace, along with smitten classmate Calvin (Levi Miller), are visited by Mrs. Whatsit and two other celestial guardians, Mrs. Who (Mindy Khaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey). They want to help her find her father on the dark planet of Camazotz, but Meg will have to find it in herself to make it happen before an evil darkness falls upon the universe.

As Meg’s emotional and dimension-hopping journey unfolds, “A Wrinkle in Time” imparts a wise and powerful message about self-worth, although it’s often delivered heavy-handedly through the words of wisdom by Mrs. Which. Along with that, Jennifer Lee and John Stockwell’s script sprinkles in a little more inelegant exposition than necessary, like when Charles Wallace conveniently overhears two teachers talking about the anniversary of Alex Murry, but at least Mrs. Which’s explanation of “The It,” a toxic evil that could wipe out all good on Earth and the rest of the universe, is handled with ample showing over telling. Once the three astral guides are dismissed and Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin are on their own, the film picks up steam and leads to some strange, vividly conceived through-the-looking-glass set pieces that are easy to get swept up in. From a nightmarishly cookie-cutter, 1950s-style suburban cul-de-sac with Stepfordized mothers, to a crowded beach welcomed by the creepily cheery Red (Michael Peña), our heroes head down an even more abstract and dangerous rabbit hole.

Storm Reid (2016’s “Sleight”) is a wonderful find with an accessible presence as Meg Murry, who’s worth following as a heroine little girls of color will imagine as themselves on screen. It’s refreshing to find a heroine who must embrace her “faults” and use her light goodness to overcome the darkness. With less screen time than everyone else, Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw convey real warmth and parental love that ground the story as Dr. Alex and Kate Murry. When Meg finally reunites with her father, the actors create such a touching embrace that the viewer can feel a lump in his or her throat. 9-year-old newcomer Deric McCabe is almost too cutesy and precocious as brother Charles Wallace (whose full name is always uttered), but that precociousness gets a dark, sinister bent in the second half. In the role of “The Boy,” Levi Miller (2017’s “Better Watch Out”) is likable and wide-eyed as Calvin, who experiences a verbally abusive father at home, so it makes sense that he tags along with Meg on an adventure.

Major star power comes in the form of the three ethereal Missus, who all look on point, thanks to the suitably gaudy costume design by Paco Delgado and make-up by LaLette Litterjohn. As the Glinda-like Mrs. Whatsit, who continually speaks her mind that she has little faith in Meg, Reese Witherspoon is chirpy and daffy, and as Mrs. Who, Mindy Kaling is beatific if mainly there to spout quotes credited to everyone from Shakespeare and Gandhi to Outkast and Chris Tucker. And then there’s Oprah Winfrey. Seeing Winfrey standing thirty feet tall is admittedly goofy, but she commits all the way and has such a regal presence with her glittery lips and eyebrows, even if Mrs. Which gives the same brand of inspirational sermonizing as Winfrey’s real-life TV persona. Zach Galifianakis also shows up as the man-bunned Happy Medium, thankfully restraining his typical shtick a bit.

Ava DuVernay being the first woman of color to direct a live-action film with a production budget over $100 million is a celebration in itself, and “A Wrinkle in Time” earns points for being a family film with ideas and ambitions without pandering or playing things safe. For the sake of a feature-length film, the storytelling is often compressed and ungainly, but it’s not a deal-breaker. The small, quiet moments are intimate and affecting, and the big, wondrous moments are vibrant and dazzling most of the time; maybe some of the more overcooked CGI and green screen work is just better imagined in the reader’s mind than on screen. As a film that encourages one to embrace his and her faults, “A Wrinkle in Time” is young at heart but abundant in psychedelic, idiosyncratic charm, in spite of—or perhaps because of—its own faults. It’s more admirable when a film takes chances and shoots for the stars anyway.


Monday, March 12, 2018

Pretty Little Sociopaths: Cooke and Taylor-Joy are frighteningly impressive in wry, black-hearted "Thoroughbreds"

Thoroughbreds (2018)
92 min., rated R.

The bite of “Heathers,” the noirish friends-hatch-a-murder-scheme story of “Heavenly Creatures,” and the darkly deadpan tone of any Yorgos Lanthimos film commingle to breed “Thoroughbreds,” an extremely confident writing-directing debut from 28-year-old playwright Cory Finley. While it’s evident that the material was originally written as a play—and a razor-sharp one at that—Finley brings plenty of strikingly austere cinematic technique within the interiors of a sprawling McMansion to offset the staginess and gets a couple of killer lead performances out of Olivia Cooke (2015’s “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl”) and Anya Taylor-Joy (2017’s “Split”) that will make all up-and-coming actors green with envy. “Thoroughbreds” is wryly unsettling and restrained in its wicked worldview of human nature drained of empathy but not entitlement and sociopathy. It might be as cold and black-hearted as its characters, but that is surely the point.

Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is wired like a human being, but she is incapable of feeling anything — not anger, not love, not sadness, even after putting her sick horse out of its misery. She even feels very emotion when reuniting in an upper-crust Connecticut manse for a SATS tutoring session with Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy), who used to be best friends with Amanda in sixth grade. Finishing boarding school early, Lily is ahead of the game and has accepted payment by Amanda’s mother, to boot, but she’s not quite comfortable with her old friend’s emotionless demeanor. On the flip side, Lily feels pressured and keeps in check the resentment she feels toward her obscenely rich, aggressively can-do jerk of a stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks), who belittles Lily’s widowed mother (Kaili Vernoff), installing a tanning booth because he says she could use some color, and spends his life exercising and juice-cleansing. As Amanda begins hanging out with Lily like old times, she sees how Mark treats Lily and asks her if she’s ever considered killing him; Lily scoffs at the idea. When Lily discovers that Mark has already paid full tuition to a school for troubled girls, killing her stepfather is no longer just a wishful possibility in her mind. To carry out their plan, Lily and Amanda have to hire help in confident drug dealer Tim (Anton Yelchin), who has big dreams but still lives at home and moonlights as a dishwasher at a nursing home. The girls decide to blackmail Tim, paying him off do their dirty work with a gun while they keep airtight alibis, but to paraphrase Robert Burns, the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry.

“Thoroughbreds” simmers with measured, ice-cold yet exacting and hypnotic precision when concentrating on Amanda and Lily’s one-on-one power play and malice. Writer-director Cory Finley’s dialogue is deliciously cutting without being too clever for its own good, and his performers make every word in the script roll off the tongue as if it’s second nature for these privileged characters. Eerie unease and mounting tension are underscored throughout by composer Erik Friedlander’s discordant, atonal score, infusing cello and drums. There’s even shrewd use of the reverberating sounds of Mark using his rowing machine upstairs. The fact that Finley always chooses suggestion over showing anything explicit is the true sign of a patient, assured auteur behind the camera. With cinematographer Lyle Vincent (2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”), he’s never afraid of stillness and radio silence, elegant tracking shots through Lily’s opulent home, or holding a shot, particularly in an unblinking long take with a slow zoom during the crucial climax that keeps the bloody deed offscreen and relies all on sound and the exit and re-entrance of a character.

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy are frighteningly impressive and ideal foils for one another. Cooke is sensational as the affectless but direct Amanda, who has always had to try a little harder than others to feel something, as seen through her practiced smile in a mirror and her demonstration of “the technique” to cry crocodile tears on cue. In playing a detached character who can’t easily produce a smile or tears without effort, Cooke is funny, sad, and chilling all at once. “The only thing worse than being incompetent or being unkind or being evil is being indecisive,” Amanda coolly says to validate her plan with Lily; her logic might be cockeyed, but one can't really disagree. The compellingly expressive Taylor-Joy is her equal match as Lily, subtly communicating a nervous breakdown and then fierce determination behind posh composure. In his final film role before his untimely death in 2016, the late Anton Yelchin lends some much-needed humanity and class difference as Tim, who may be pathetic, delusional and desperate but still hangs on to a moral compass, and it’s a heartbreaking reminder of what a talent he was and how much he will be missed. 

“Thoroughbreds” is juicy, twisted, and spectacularly acted, but regrettably, it doesn’t end on the controlled, perfectly cathartic punctuation of horror, tragedy and poignancy that holds one in bated breath. Instead, Cory Finley keeps going with an epilogue that seems to be there for conventionally satisfying closure to spell out where characters are now. Despite that minor misstep, Finley still announces himself right out of the gate as an exciting talent to watch, and maybe he can bring Cooke and Taylor-Joy with him. As Heather Chandler would say, it would be so very.

Grade: B +

Friday, March 9, 2018

Screaming to the '80s: "The Strangers: Prey at Night" lean, atmospheric and relentlessly tense

The Strangers: Prey at Night (2018)
85 min., rated R.

Fear may be subjective, but murderous trespassers stripping a person's home of its safety should frighten the daylights out of anyone with a pulse. Tapping into the fear of a home invasion, writer-director Bryan Bertino's “The Strangers” deserves more praise than what it received in 2008 for being a no-frills, elegantly simple, immensely creepy and nerve-jangling horror suspenser. Considering “The Strangers: Prey at Night”—more of a companion piece than a direct sequel—is coming out a decade after its predecessor, it’s a relief that the finished piece is so much more effective than it has a right to be. With couple Kristen McKay (Liv Tyler) and James Hoyt (Scott Speedman) meeting a tragically grim demise because they were home, the only connective tissue this time are the three masked strangers, only credited as “Dollface,” “Pin-Up Girl,” and “Man in the Mask,” going on to terrorize a new batch of defenseless people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Anything but a lazy redux, "The Strangers: Prey at Night" is a crackerjack exercise in atmosphere, rising tension, and sustained terror with command of character, location, and ample retro filmmaking panache.

Before sending angsty teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) off to boarding school, parents Cindy (Christina Hendricks) and Mike (Martin Henderson) drag along their eldest, golden boy Luke (Lewis Pullman), for the weekend to Cindy’s aunt and uncle's trailer community on Gatlin Lake. When they arrive late at night, they seem to be the only ones there. Cindy and Mike want to spend quality time with their kids, but Kinsey runs off to get some air and Luke goes after her. Meanwhile, Mom and Dad answer a knock on their trailer to a young woman (Emma Bellomy), standing in the shadows, asking, “Is Tamara home?” They chalk it up to her probably being lost, but once Kinsey and Luke find a couple of dead bodies in another trailer, the unsuspecting family must survive the night as the young woman remerges in a mask, along with two other masked strangers (Damian Maffei, Lea Enslin), to menace the familial unit with knives and axes.

Mounting and mounting with forthright force, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is a visceral workout with no actual release until the credits roll. The sense of foreboding and portent is hair-raising and atmospheric from the opening frame, focusing on a dark, foggy, lonesome road after Kim Wilde’s synth-pop hit “Kids in America” abruptly ends and then starts up again as a truck with the titular trio comes around the bend. Even if one has not seen “The Strangers,” director Johannes Roberts (2017’s “47 Meters Down”) foreshadows what’s in store when the strangers make their first knock at the door of an old couple’s trailer. From there, writers Bryan Bertino and Ben Ketai (2016’s “The Forest”) economically develop lives in progress for the main family of four instead of cutting right to the literal chase.

The characters are drawn as an ordinary family and not horror-movie fodder. While it’s always going to be less frustrating when characters in horror movies behave like intelligent, attack mode-ready superhumans and can turn the tables on their terrorizers, Kinsey and her family all react as realistically as one would and with believable fallibility when thrown into a horrific situation they weren’t ready for, and it’s worthy of applause when some of them find it in themselves to fight back. The performers are all given enough time to flesh out their roles and evoke sympathy even before they find their fates on the line. Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson are likable and emotionally true in every way, respectively, as Cindy, a mother who’s at the end of her rope trying to help her daughter but wants the best for her, and Mike, a good cop-type parent who knows how to get on his kids’ good sides. The fact that they would sacrifice their own lives for their children is palpable on screen. Lewis Pullman (Bill’s son) is also quite good as Luke, who loves his sister, even if she hasn’t been making anyone in her family proud, and must later protect her as best as he knows how.

Chief among them, though, is Bailee Madison (2011’s “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark”). In her second R-rated horror film, she gives it everything she has, physically and emotionally, as Kinsey. Emotionally drained and paralyzed with fear, yet eventually giving in to the former of the fight-or-flight response, the young actress sells every emotion and action. Letting down her tough exterior to be vulnerable and understanding that her teenage rebellion no longer matters now, Madison makes Kinsey’s arc clear and complete from a single-minded teenager to a fighter and a hopeful survivor.

Widening the hunting ground and hiding spots beyond a ranch home in the middle of nowhere, the film is inspired in its use of open space within a desolate mobile-home community. A set-piece in the trailer park’s swimming pool, surrounded by neon-lighted palm trees, while Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” blares, is a particularly virtuoso marriage of image and sound, as Luke takes on one of the ax-wielding assailants on the pool deck and underwater. Cinematographer Ryan Samul (2014’s “Cold in July”) holds a shot for maximum dread, whether it's on the smiley face spray-painted on a mailbox or the swing of a swing set, but also pleasingly employs technical flourishes, like zooms, that help differentiate it from the jittery style and often subtle framing in Bryan Bertino's original film. Whereas “The Strangers” used country records on a turntable to disquieting effect, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” makes it evident that these strangers have a penchant for ‘80s pop music, playing everything from the aforementioned “Kids in America” to Kim Wilde’s “Cambodia” and Air Supply’s “Making Love Out of Nothing at All.” Complementing Adrian Johnston’s John Carpenter-inspired score, these upbeat music choices make for a playful counterpoint to the carnage on display.

Achieving its goal to rattle and unnerve, “The Strangers: Prey at Night” is lean and breathlessly intense, calling back the spareness and ambiguity of its predecessor, while embracing conventions from slasher movies of yore. The scariest element of both “Strangers” films is that these menacing masked psychopaths have no real motive; they pick people at random and force them to be victims as if it’s a game. When Liv Tyler’s character asked why they were doing this to her and her boyfriend, the best answer she received was, “Because you were home.” This time, when Kinsey asks the same question, one of them chillingly replies, “Why not?” There are knowing nods to “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” “Christine,” and “Scream,” all of which point out director Johannes Roberts’ love and respect for the horror genre without coming off as mere pastiche. Moving like a shark with encroaching doom, this is an expert example of how to keep an audience on edge almost relentlessly and give them a reason to care about the people put in harm’s way.

Grade: B +

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Dr. Vigilante: "Death Wish" a watchable, no-fuss revenge thriller without making one feel too unclean

Death Wish (2018)
107 min., rated R.

A 2018 update of “Death Wish” is probably not a film we need, particularly right now when gun control has become a major issue up for debate, but unfortunate timing of release doesn't determine the quality of the product itself. Like the 1974 Charles Bronson-starring exploitationer—which spawned four diminishing sequels—the film is another loose adaptation of Brian Garfield’s 1972 novel, but director Eli Roth (2015’s “The Green Inferno”) and screenwriter Joe Carnahan (2012’s “The Grey”) fashion a more ruthlessly motivated tale of vengeance, while transplanting the story from New York to Chicago and changing the protagonist’s occupation from architect to trauma surgeon. It, once again, broaches thorny questions about the morality of vigilante justice, but really, this is just a pulpy, no-fuss, down-and-dirty revenge thriller that doesn't get hung up on highbrow substance.

Chicago surgeon Dr. Paul Kersey (Bruce Willis) has a loving, wonderful wife, Lucy (Elisabeth Shue), and a bright, athletic 17-year-old daughter, Jordan (Camila Morrone), who just got accepted into NYU. When Dad gets called in for surgery on his birthday, Lucy and Jordan are besieged by armed home invaders who rob them, put a bullet in Lucy, and put Jordan in a coma. Paul is devastated to find his wife and daughter brought into his hospital, and after putting his wife in the ground, he has lost everything. Struggling with the fact that he was unable to protect his family and frustrated that the police assigned to his case, Detectives Kevin Raines (Dean Norris) and Leonore Jackson (Kimberly Elise), have no leads, Paul begins to take matters into his own hands and seek justice on the streets of the Windy City. Getting a feel for firing a gun in the name of protecting the innocent, a hooded Paul is recorded by a witness whose video goes viral, his act of vigilantism marking him “The Grim Reaper,” but that won’t stop the good doctor from playing judge, jury and executioner on the men who have taken out his family.

Staying within Eli Roth’s violent wheelhouse, “Death Wish” isn’t deep or any more tasteless than any other vigilante thrillers. The film doesn't seem self-aware enough or pointed enough in its stance on warranting violence, but when it is being squarely about revenge, it delivers pretty well. Interesting, how Roth (who put himself on the map with “Cabin Fever” and the “Hostel” films) helms this remake after James Wan (who cut his teeth on “Saw”) made his third film with 2007’s “Death Sentence,” itself based on another one of Garfield’s novels and a searing, more devastating “Death Wish” variation with Kevin Bacon. The film is most absorbing in its first act, setting up Paul Kersey as a Hippocratic Oath-abiding man who saves people for a living and is such a pacifist that he won’t deck an obnoxious, foul-mouthed father at his daughter’s soccer game. Enough rooting interest is invested in the Kersey family, introduced so happily with the use of The Beach Boys’ “Don’t Worry Baby” playing on the soundtrack, that the viewer really hopes nothing bad happens to them.

Set today, the film fixes some of the inherent problems of the original film. If one forgets, Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey never actually found the three men who raped his daughter and killed his wife, but he instead cleaned up the city of New York, which was littered with muggers on every block before Rudy Giuliani made improvements. His grief was merely a catalyst for taking the law into his own hands. Here, Bruce Willis' Paul is responsible for taking a number of lives, a few casualties that feel extraneous, but it’s not a tough request to stand behind Paul in hunting down the animals guilty of killing his wife and putting his daughter in critical condition. When he takes that power to the next level, gunning down carjackers and drug dealers and partaking in a shoot-out in a heavily populated nightclub, it edges closer to a morally dubious crowd-pleaser that seemingly condones Paul’s decisions than a cautionary tale. There is, however, a Greek chorus of sorts with Sirius Radio’s Sway Calloway and Mancow Muller, debating on whether the actions of “The Grim Reaper” are heroic or villainous. The film also ridicules how someone can easily buy a gun without much paperwork when Paul walks into firearms store Jolly Roger’s and gets the rundown by super-perky owner Bethany (Kirby Bliss Blanton).

As the film’s appointed hero, Bruce Willis is in fine form without too much smug smirking; in fact, he effectively brings more understatement than expected to Paul Kersey, particularly in the way he grieves over his wife, before packing heat and emulating Charles Bronson’s trigger-finger gesture in the last frame. Elisabeth Shue is lovely as usual as Lucy Kersey and brings heartbreaking tragedy and dignity to her abbreviated screen time, while Camila Morrone, as daughter Jordan, has a sweet, eye-catching presence about her without becoming an afterthought when she’s not yet awake in a hospital bed. Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise make an odd pair of detective partners with a comfortable chemistry, and Vincent D’Onofrio provides strong sounding-board support as Paul’s deadbeat brother Frank.

2018’s “Death Wish” is slickly made, with the pivotal home-invasion harrowing and thankfully less exploitative than the 1974 version, and moves at a tighter, more focused clip. There are contrivances, to be sure, to move the narrative along, like Paul collecting a gun that falls out of a flatlining patient’s jacket and later stumbling upon a carjacking, but the standard final showdown in the Kersey home is satisfying and tautly staged with a gleeful buzz. Also, a couple of the gore gags are decidedly of the don’t-try-this-at-home variety with Roth’s splatterific trademarks all over them, like a conveniently falling bowling ball on a baddie’s head, brake fluid on a freshly sliced-open limb, and a car jack in an auto-body shop crashing down on a lowlife. Though the idea of getting revenge as a form of catharsis without solving anything has been handled with more power and thematic complexity in other films before it, “Death Wish” still fulfills its B-movie aims, remaining watchable without making one feel too unclean.

Grade: C +

Friday, March 2, 2018

Hit and Scramble: "Midnighters" an involving, tautly mounted morality thriller

Midnighters (2018)
94 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Ordinary people facing an extraordinary moral dilemma is always a grabby, thriller-ready premise, and that’s exactly what director Julius Ramsay has in making his feature debut with “Midnighters," working from a script by brother Alston Ramsay. Immediately recalling the premise of Stuart Gordon’s 2008 gallows-humored morality thriller “Stuck,” where an inebriated Mena Suvari hit Stephen Rea with her car, driving home with his body still lodged in her windshield, the film also begins with a drunk-driving accident involving a dead body but pivots thereon. Ramsay’s more serious film evolves as messily as it might in real life and concentrates on the not-so-sturdy relationships in ways that make the eventual plot twists more plausible than not. As the simplicity of the plotting keeps changing, “Midnighters” remains an involving, tautly mounted little morality noir thriller.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and after a work party, type-A loan officer Lindsey Pittman (Alex Essoe) and her out-of-work husband Jeff (Dylan McTee) drive home buzzed. Along a dark, winding New England forest road, Jeff hits a man standing in the road. There is no cell phone service to call for help, so they carry him into their backseat. As Lindsey takes the wheel, headed for the nearest hospital, the bleeding stranger ends up dying in Jeff’s arms. The couple decides to sober up before they figure out what to do and leave the body in their garage, but plans change when Jeff finds a gun on the body, as well as their address on a piece of paper. When Lindsey’s freeloading younger sister, Hannah (Perla Haney-Jardine), comes home, things really go to hell. How far will the Pittmans go to keep their records clean?

The question of what a person would do in a cover-up situation is at the core of “Midnighters,” and the whole “what-would-you-do?” factor is the most interesting element in a minimalist setup. Before Lindsey and Jeff have a body on their hands, their marriage is already strained; she is sick of carrying the brunt of their financial responsibilities, while Jeff seems to be coasting and waiting for a job to come to him. Accidentally killing a man and not alerting the authorities could be their final undoing, and it sure is, but the fun of this type of morality tale is in watching Lindsey and Jeff dig themselves a deeper hole. When two police officers find Lindsey and Jeff’s license plate at the scene of the crime, they knock on their door in the morning to which Lindsey acts calm but can’t keep her story straight. It’s a low-key scene but directed with enough squirmy tension that the viewer hopes Lindsey doesn’t slip in her lies (did the couple allegedly hit a doe or a buck?). As the twisty plot mechanics kick things up a notch during the proceedings, the tables turn, shady motives rear their ugly heads, and it’s every “man” for “himself.”

Having gone to deep, dark places in 2014’s ballsy, emotionally gutting “Starry Eyes,” Alex Essoe is terrific here as Lindsey, emotionally available and fully capable of making a believable arc from decent to ruthless. Even if she gradually loses sympathy (like everyone else in the film), the choices Lindsey makes are out of self-preservation, going so far as to inflict a little fingernail torture on a key player who means her harm. Dylan McTee and Perla Haney-Jardine are solid, too, as Lindsey’s husband and sister, the latter having to answer for her sins in the past, but the other obvious standout, next to Essoe, is Ward Horton (2014’s “Annabelle”). Handsome and charismatic with a sinister smile, Horton adds to the fire, knocking on Lindsey’s door while Jeff and Hannah are out. He introduces himself as a detective and asks for a cup of coffee, but he cannot be trusted.

Director Julius Ramsay achieves tight and devious control of a narrative that spins out of control, and a lot of that has to do with confining most of the action inside the lead characters’ home over a 24-hour period. While some of the early scenes in the garage might be too dimly lit to make out what’s actually happening, the compulsively watchable “Midnighters” ultimately maximizes suspense and dread with a small scope and a low budget. It's a smartly spun thriller about characters who aren't as smart as they think they are.


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

High-Stakes Game: Stylish, smartly funny, tightly scripted, brightly acted "Game Night" a winner across the board

Game Night (2018)
100 min., rated R.

“Game Night” is a high-concept action-comedy that takes full advantage of its concept, and it might be one of the most technically stylish studio comedies in recent memory. With attention to performance, a command of tone, and plenty of filmmaking style, directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein (2015’s “Vacation”) compile a cast of game comic performers to work from a tight, clever, sharp-as-cheddar script by Mark Perez (2006’s “Accepted”) that finds humor in a straight thriller scenario. Unlike so many R-rated comedies that are either dumb, raunchy, heavily improvised, or all of the above, “Game Night” is thankfully none of those things, almost like a throwback to when farces were written with true care and intelligence. Who would have thunk it?

Married couple Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are such competitive game enthusiasts that they fell in love over their mutual pastime during pub trivia. Now, they host weekly game nights with close friends, lovely couple-since-middle-school Kevin (Lamorne Morris) and Michelle (Kylie Bunbury), and slightly moronic Ryan (Billy Magnussen), who always brings a new interchangeable blonde bimbo. One week, Max’s slick, rivalrous brother, investment banker Brooks (Kyle Chandler), whom Max hasn’t seen in a year, invites the gang, this time Ryan inviting along smart co-worker Sarah (Sharon Horgan), over to his bachelor pad for a “game night to remember.” Instead of playing Charades, Pictionary, or any of their go-to board games, he’s signed them up for an interactive “murder mystery," where one of them will be kidnapped and the winner who finds the missing person will get the keys to his Corvette Stingray. When the game commences, two goons storm into Brooks’ house, beat him up, and take him away, however, Max, Annie, and their friends go on, following the clues around town without realizing that the danger is real.

Consistently funny with killer dialogue and outrageous situations, “Game Night” is a rarity in that the jokes keep firing without letting plot structure and characters fall by the wayside. It nails a tone between danger and farce, so that even when the violence gets a little bloody, the comedy doesn’t get mean or ever stop being funny. As the stakes escalate, Mark Perez’s script still organically makes time for the characters’ realities, like Max and Annie having trouble conceiving a child, without such story points feeling too forced, and plays on the expectations of thriller plot twists more than once. In terms of the hilarious hijinks that ensue, Annie uses what she’s only heard in movies to get some bad guys to the ground with a gun she doesn’t think is real and later cares for a bullet wound with improvised drug-store items; Max makes a mess of a white dog and a shrine of photos inside a neighbor’s home; and during the climactic showdown on an airplane tarmac, there is a very funny sight gag involving a very slow conveyor belt. Jokes that are set up early on pay off later and one-liners regarding Edward Norton, sturdy glass tables, and a movie mash-up reference to “Eyes Wide Fight Club” always hit.

Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams are each other’s equals; they’re funny in their own right, he with his affable straight-man sarcasm and her with her radiant smile and upbeat charm, and they actually feel like a real couple who react believably in dangerous circumstances. Always a bright spot no matter the project, McAdams particularly reminds that she has perfect timing when given the chance to perform comedy. Beyond the A-list co-leads, the winning ensemble gets enough time to shine, all playing fun, distinct and memorable characters whom the viewer likes hanging out with for two hours. Lamorne Morris (TV's "New Girl") and Kylie Bunbury (TV's "Pitch") are charismatic as Kevin and Michelle, who squabble throughout after Michelle admits during a game of “Never Have I Ever” to sleeping with a celebrity in the past when the couple was on a break; this allows Morris to do a dead-on impression of that celebrity. Billy Magnussen (2017's "Ingrid Goes West") is a secret weapon as Ryan, playing his dumb-blonde shtick in a way that is often sly and inspired; watch what he does when bribing someone with $17 for information. As new-to-the-circle Sarah, Ryan’s co-worker, Sharon Horgan (TV’s “Catastrophe”) brings her own dry wit and Irish charm to the front numerous times, establishing herself as a fabulous find. In another supporting turn, a committedly creepy Jesse Plemons never blinks with Michael Shannon-esque dead eyes and a fluffy white dog to pet as Max and Annie’s weird neighbor Gary, a lonely and socially awkward police officer who’s always in uniform and doesn’t get invited to game night anymore after his wife left him.

Coupled with a moody, edgy, propulsive synth score by Cliff Martinez, the film proves John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s flair behind the camera with cinematographer Barry Peterson, along with the same snappy editing reminiscient of Edgar Wright’s “Three Flavours Cornetto” trilogy. Going in step with the film’s game vs. reality plot, several establishing shots have a tilt-shift effect, as if beginning as miniature diorama models on a game board, and a continuous shot of the group of friends playing a game of keepaway with a black-market Fabrege egg—a McGuffin—through every room of a mansion is a tense, energetic, elaborately choreographed bit of showing off. Sustaining energy in a comedy can be a tricky feat, but there’s no time to lag here, especially when everyone, including the viewer, is having such a ball. It might only be late February, but as one of the year’s inaugural comedic surprises, “Game Night” is a beguiling, side-splitting winner across the board.

Grade: B +

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, just a lot to debate and ponder, 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 an 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 -