Saturday, August 12, 2017

Love Kills: "68 Kill" barrels straight into pulpy depravity

68 Kill (2017)
93 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Without reading a single page, Trent Haaga (2011’s “Chop”) seems to have brought Bryan Smith’s 2013 novel of the same name to vividly sleazy life with “68 Kill,” a pulpy, blowsy, down-and-dirty ride of Southern-fried grindhouse depravity steaming with the stench of sex, cigarettes, and gunpowder. Directed with gleefully balls-out abandon, Haaga’s sophomore effort goes in enough surprising directions and has such an unapologetically crazy, nasty energy, but one comes away remembering and wanting more of one thing: AnnaLynne McCord (2012's "Excision" and 2016's "Trash Fire"). She kills it yet again.

Spineless, henpecked Chip (Matthew Gray Gubler) flushes septic systems for a living and has been dating and living with the sexy Liza (AnnaLynne McCord) for six months in their Louisiana trailer. Liza gets money by sleeping with her piggish sugar daddy Ken (David Maldonado), but when she hatches a scheme that could give both Chip and her $68,000, Chip reluctantly agrees. As the couple breaks into the loaded scum’s house, Liza already seems to have the endgame in mind without telling her other half, but she goes through with it anyway by killing Ken and his wife. What also isn’t part of the plan is finding a witness named Violet (Alisha Boe), whom Liza forces Chip to throw in the trunk and hand her off to Liza's pervy, homicidal brother Dwayne (Sam Eidson). Shellshocked, Chip ends up getting away from Liza, the hot little psycho that she is, in her red Mustang and making off with Viola, who turns out to be the down-to-earth girl that he needs. Along the way, Chip runs into gothic gas station clerk Monica (Sheila Vand) and her trailer-trash friends that turn his life even more upside down. 

As each woman is presented as a powerful, manipulative, money-grubbing, man-trapping sexpot, a sense of female control bleeds from every shift in the plotting of “68 Kill.” Like a puppy loyal to his owner or a fly stuck in honey (an image the film actually opens with), Chip is a patsy who needs to learn to stick up for himself but just becomes an accomplice to each crime a woman commits. Posited as our hapless protagonist, Matthew Gray Gubler (2014's "Suburban Gothic") has the biggest challenge of keeping Chip a sympathetic and appealing dim-bulb, but he mostly succeeds. With that confidently wicked glint in her eye that never goes out, AnnaLynne McCord relishes the role of Liza, turning in another demented, uninhibited, dangerous, inspired performance with zero fucks to give. Making Liza more obscene and interesting than a conventional femme fatale, McCord remains immensely watchable even as she gets sidelined in the middle section. As Violet and Monica, respectively, Alisha Boe (Netflix’s “13 Reasons Why”) makes a valiant impression, coming the closest to being the film's only sweetheart and bringing M's 1979 pop song "Pop Muzik" out of obscurity while driving into the night with Chip, and Sheila Vand (2014’s “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night”) shrewdly plays her part of a cold-blooded sadist whose blood only runs warm when she meets someone more psychotic than her.

Once Chip falls victim to a trailer full of crass, annoying Rob Zombie Movie refugees, "68 Kill" admittedly starts to spin its wheels, the film's pitch-black cheekiness giving way to torture that is no longer fun. Though Chip is inevitably the one who comes out on top in the end, the wish is that the film hadn’t left its two best assets—Liza and Violet—in the dust so much. The viewer might not want spend any more than 93 minutes with any of these people, but one ends up loving to hate Liza the most. The point of it all might be a bit problematic, but in this case, the wild, often darkly amusing journey is the destination. Never compromising its nihilistic worldview or its adherence to bad taste, “68 Kill” takes its grindhouse aspirations and takes them straight to the edge.

Grade: B - 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Badder Moms: "Fun Mom Dinner" never takes off to be that fun

Fun Mom Dinner (2017)
89 min., rated R. 

Female filmmakers need all the support they can get, but “Fun Mom Dinner” from debuting feature director Alethea Jones and screenwriter Julie Rudd (Paul Rudd’s wife) should be funnier and so much more fun than it gets to be. It has the dubious distinction of riding on the coattails of 2016’s crowd-pleasing “Bad Moms,” which deftly built honesty into a hilariously raunchy free-for-all, but there were so many possibilities for another film to fill the domain usually taken up by so many male-centric comedies. With only the smallest nuggets of truth and delivering no more than smiles, “Fun Mom Dinner” is inoffensive and flat most of the time.

Former lawyer turned stay-at-home mom Emily (Katie Aselton) craves “me time” and more attention from her husband, Tom (Adam Scott), who barely touches her anymore. Emily’s friend, Kate (Toni Collette), tries to get away from her four kids any chance she gets, locking herself in the bathroom to get high. At the pre-school  both Emily and Kate's kids attend, perky but divorced single mom Jamie (Molly Shannon), who records her entire life on social media, invites Emily on one of her regular “fun mom dinners” with Melanie (Bridget Everett), a safety-first school volunteer who runs the student drop-off. Even though Kate wants nothing to do with them, Emily tricks her into coming to the dinner that promises, “lots of wine, no kids.” As these four moms let their hair down with a night out on the town on a school night (!), they come to find out that they have more in common than they thought.

Sapped of anything wise or acerbic, “Fun Mom Dinner” feels like it’s always just getting started. It’s tame and all sorts of lame, wavering between sincerity and rowdy antics with a very light “R” rating. There are amusing ideas that don’t really go anywhere, like what if the moms snuck a joint in a restaurant restroom, only to trigger the sprinklers and a dine and dash, and then made a late-night stop at Walgreens? The ladies singing karaoke, specifically “99 Luftballoons” in German, is also more humorous in theory than follow-through by just petering out. A late scene on a marina dock has some unrealistic blocking, as the women and their DD (Paul Rust) decide to stand at the start of the dock as they watch Melanie, dressed in a unicorn onesie, dive off the end of the dock to swim to a boat. Finally, the scenes with the dads—Tom and Kate’s husband Andrew (Rob Huebel) get locked out of Andrew’s house while watching the kids—never gain any momentum and just pad the already-short running time.

Katie Aselton, Toni Collette, Molly Shannon, and comedian Bridget Everett are fun to watch together, but one can’t help wish that the script gave them all more to do than clichéd character arcs. For instance, the tension between Collette’s Kate and Everett’s Melanie gets such an easy fix, and the viewer doesn’t really get a sense of the friction between them to begin with. Because any film like this needs a wild card, outrageously brash comedian Everett is up to the job, and she has a very specific comedic daring that earns a few mild laughs here. A lot of familiar faces put in favors to the filmmakers, too, including the co-writer’s husband, Paul Rudd, who serves as a producer and cameos as a Jewish marijuana connoisseur with his partner (David Wain). Even Adam Levine comes in as a handsome bar owner who flirts with Emily after showing her his “Moms” tattoo (he has two moms), but it’s mainly a thankless role that doesn’t give him a lot to work with, except be a potential “other man” to light a married woman’s fire.

At the end of this “fun mom dinner,” moms learn to stick together, sure, but the journey doesn’t even get to be the destination. The film culminates with three of the moms on the hunt to find Emily who went off with the hot bartender, and there’s the contrived misplacement of a cell phone and a wrong boat encounter. There is a Jake Ryan throughline, as in John Hughes’ “Sixteen Candles,” that’s cute but not earned in terms of Emily and Tom’s marital rough patch. The situations should have been crazier, the insights could have been more fresh, and the dialogue needed to be punched up. At least director Alethea Jones bought the rights for an ear-pleasing 1980s soundtrack that includes “Head Over Heels” by The Go-Go’s, “Town Called Malice” by The Jam, and “Whoa! The Cops” by Stupid Fresh. Slight and bland when it should be sharp and raucous, “Fun Mom Dinner” is benign viewing with a cast more than willing to cut loose but saddled with material that lets them down. It’s just sort of there rather than bad, so one can’t exactly find any glee in ripping it apart.


Saturday, August 5, 2017

King Flop: Brief but rushed "Dark Tower" doesn't shine so brightly

The Dark Tower (2017)
95 min., rated PG-13.

Stephen King’s eight-volume series, “The Dark Tower,” has been described as the author’s magnum opus, an amalgam of science fiction, fantasy, Western, and horror. This has been a long-gestating film project for a decade, and with such a dense mythology, it was deemed unadaptable, and apparently, it still is. As a condensed 95-minute feature film with a modest $60 million budget, “The Dark Tower” feels cobbled together, cut off at the knees with little room to breathe, and never epic in scope as it should be. There are traces of the film it could have been and should have been, but unfortunately, fans and the uninitiated are stuck with the film that it is. It may not be a complete disaster, but calling it not the worst King adaptation doesn’t make it any less mediocre.

11-year-old Manhattan boy Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) dreams of an alternate dimension, but his mom (Katheryn Winnick) and his cold stepfather (Nicholas Pauling) think the death of his fireman father (Karl Thaning) has made him mentally unstable. When he evades a pair of psychiatrists who are actually monsters from this other world in human form, Jake escapes and finds an abandoned Brooklyn house that holds a portal, thrusting him into the post-apocalyptic Mid-World. He finds a guide in a gunslinger named Roland (Idris Elba), who lost his father (Dennis Haysbert) in trying to protect the tower from Walter (Matthew McConaughey), the Man in Black. As it turns out, Jake is really one of many gifted children with "the shine” (read: psychic power) who can bring down the tower positioned at the center of the universe.

Technically sturdy but grievously truncated and streamlined, “The Dark Tower” starts off well with promise in Keystone Earth a.k.a. New York City before Jake actually enters the portal into Mid-World. From there, everything else is a surface-level rush job. Writer-director Nikolaj Arcel (2012’s “A Royal Affair”) and screenwriters Akiva Goldsman & Jeff Pinkner and Anders Thomas Jensen have brevity on their side, but it actually hurts this particular cinematic treatment; the film alternately moves quickly and rushes through plot points and supporting characters. A presumably once-commanding vision of Stephen King’s saga is detracted by half-baked world-building, abridged beats, and generic action scenes with too much CGI. 

Jake Chambers is decidedly the protagonist of the story and the one with an arc, and newcomer Tom Taylor is a natural and confident choice. Idris Elba is a magnetic, charismatic presence, and while he is able to bring a quiet gravitas to even the taciturn Roland, the role is so one-note that it’s hard to tell if the actor’s heart is even in it. Even a few light moments of fish-out-of-water humor fall flat, like Roland not knowing what a hot dog is before taking a bite. As if he’s channelling Christopher Walken’s Gabriel in 1995's “The Prophecy,” Matthew McConaughey seems to be relishing the role of Walter/The Man in Black, cutting a potentially delicious villain with swagger and hamminess but little actual menace. 

With the rumors of reshoots and failed test screenings, there were plenty of red flags, and unfortunately, they were true. Having no stake in whether or not this is a faithful adaptation of the source material, that shouldn't make or break the success of a film because all that matters is what made it to the screen. Alas, "The Dark Tower" is irreparably unsatisfying, and if it doesn't properly introduce the initiated to this world and doesn’t faithfully adapt the book for purists, who is it for exactly? Little Easter Eggs to King’s multiverse are fun to spot here and there but don’t mean anything in a larger context. Someone walks a St. Bernard (“Cujo”); there’s a photo of the Overlook Hotel (“The Shining”), a toy 1958 Plymouth Fury (“Christine”) and an abandoned amusement park named Pennywise (“It”). It’s too bad that the finished product feels like a middle-of-the-road pilot to a TV series that won’t get picked up.


Friday, August 4, 2017

Tough Mama: Tight, no-nonsense "Kidnap" does what it says on the tin

Kidnap (2017)
94 min., rated R.

Can a movie still be fun and effective without being particularly good? In the case of “Kidnap,” the answer is yes. With 2013’s “The Call” and now “Kidnap,” Halle Berry seems to be trying to get her own subgenre off the ground in which she plays a character who doesn’t need the police and takes matters into her own hands to rescue someone. This on-the-road abduction thriller is not even close to masterful as something like 1971’s Steven Spielberg-directed “Duel,” but it’s tight, legitimately tense and unrelentingly propulsive. Whittled down to the bare essentials and the fierce eyes of an Oscar-winning actress, “Kidnap” is a guilty pleasure without the guilt, a meat-and-potatoes kind of B-movie made for audiences to get their heart rates up and talk back to the screen. Nothing more and nothing less, it does exactly what it says on the tin.

The plot is so lean and no-nonsense that it would fit as a clue on a crossword puzzle. Single Louisiana mom Karla Dyson (Halle Berry) works as a diner waitress to put food on the table for herself and 6-year-old son Frankie (Sage Correa), but her ex wants full custody. One day, she leaves work to take Frankie to the park. When she turns her back not far from her preoccupied son to take a call from her lawyer, Frankie is gone. As Karla frantically makes her way around the park, calling his name and asking if anyone has seen him, she spots her son being pushed into a conspicuous teal Ford Mustang leaving the parking lot. Immediately, Karla kicks into action and gives chase to the white-trash kidnappers, vowing never to stop until she has Frankie back in her arms.

Opening with a series of home movies that show Frankie growing up from a baby, “Kidnap” is almost too cloyingly adorable at introducing the bond between mother and son. Once Frankie is abducted and plot contrivances lock into place—Karla’s phone dies and then falls out of her purse in the parking lot—the film slams its foot on the gas and rarely lets up. Director Luis Prieto (2012’s “Pusher”) works the audience to a fever pitch, getting high-stress elevating an admittedly cheap, exploitative parent’s-worst-nightmare premise and cheesy, derivative material with Halle Berry’s one-woman show. Playing Karla as a badass mama bear trying to get her cub back single-handedly, Berry gives a forceful performance, gritting her teeth and turning on the hysterics with a believable urgency that never becomes laughable. It helps, too, because the film is mostly Berry behind the wheel of her indestructible red minivan and trying to stay on the vehicular tail of her son’s kidnappers, even if that means putting others' lives in danger. She sells every traumatized look and talking to herself, as well as a prayer monologue and a kick-ass line, “You took the wrong kid!” As a bonus, the actors playing despicable kidnappers Margo (Chris McGinn) and Terry (Lew Temple) are so well-cast that one can’t wait when they finally get their just desserts.

For all of the problems it had in actually seeing the light of day—filming ended back in 2014, Relativity Media went bankrupt, and the film’s release date was pushed back more than three times—“Kidnap” actually works. Without much use for padding (and the police, apparently), screenwriter Knate Lee finds enough road blocks for Karla getting back her son to keep both her and the audience on their toes. Likewise, director Prieto gets a lot of mileage out of the high-panic situation of losing a child and builds it all to a routine climax, set in the creepy wetlands, that is nevertheless suspenseful. There is, however, a brawl in Karla’s minivan that muddles the action into overly cut bits, which is more noticeable now more than ever after just seeing a far superior vehicular brawl in “Atomic Blonde.” 

Even when the film takes such a tumble—there’s also some hand-holding with needless flashbacks to moments not that long ago, a few baffling choices in terms of editing and cinematography, and some hilariously clunky extras—it knows how to drive that line between ludicrous and gripping. “Kidnap” doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not, except a competent, crowd-pleasing genre quickie that amps up the anxiety throughout and gives its star plenty of facetime.

Grade: B - 

2017 Fantasia International Film Festival Review: "Tragedy Girls"

Tragedy Girls (2017)
94 min., not yet rated.

Ever since the self-aware stroke of genius that was Wes Craven’s "Scream"—a deconstruction of slasher movies that doubled as a great example of a slasher movie—there are haven’t been a ton of films that have come as close to turning the tropes of the genre inside out. With "Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon," "Tucker & Dale vs. Evil," "The Cabin in the Woods," and "The Final Girls" the only other exceptions, "Tragedy Girls" can now join the clique. Sharing a subversive wit that’s closest to "Heathers" and a hip, quick-witted language that tips its knife to Diablo Cody and perhaps even the wildly underappreciated and just-plain-wild "Detention," this vibrantly vicious high school horror-comedy is going to kill as a future cult favorite that can be enjoyed unironically, but it might be too darkly offbeat for the mainstream — that’s their loss.

Sadie Cunningham (Brianna Hildebrand) and McKayla Hooper (Alexandra Shipp) are two peas in a pod. They’re high school girls, both trying to fit in by joining the cheerleading squad and prom committee, but they really want to be prolific serial killers and social-media stars. When they finally catch Lowell Lehmann (Kevin Durand), the machete-wielding maniac who’s been racking up a high murder rate in their midwest town of Rosedale, Sadie and McKayla want him as their teacher, but he proves unwilling to cooperate, so they just keep him chained up as their pet. In the meantime, the girls keep their murder skills sharp by killing anyone whom they deem needs to go and use those killings as content for their true-crime blog, “Tragedy Girls,” before the press gets the scoop. In secret, they’re tired of their efforts always looking like freak accidents, so they up their game, while trying to keep attention off of them by blaming the police for nothing catching the perpetrator. 

"Tragedy Girls" sounds like it could be too tasteless or too cute for its own good, but it’s instead whip-smart and never lacking in wickedly clever gumption. Writer-director Tyler MacIntyre and co-writers Chris Lee Hill and Justin Olson have concocted a mean, potentially quotable script full of snarky attitude, constantly riding a very tricky tone between tongue-in-cheek lark with slit throats and a lovingly twisted portrait of two murderous besties. With something relevant to say about the world we’re living in where YouTube and Twitter spawn celebrities, the film is also just extremely entertaining. It races a mile a minute, dropping references to "Martyrs," Dario Argento, the "Final Destination" series, and Quento Tarantino’s "Death Proof" installment in "Grindhouse" and even a sneaky nod to "Cannibal Holocaust." The violence is broad enough to be splattery but not too sick, and imaginatively staged to be memorable, like a buzzsaw-happy kill in the school woodshop and another involving a piece of heavy gym equipment. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B +

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Broughton, Lorraine Broughton: “Atomic Blonde” a stylishly fun, hyper-cool kick

Atomic Blonde (2017) 
115 min., rated R.

If Keanu Reeves gets his own action vehicle to kick ass, so should Charlize Theron, and that she does with “Atomic Blonde,” a stylishly fun, hyper-cool action film with so much electric verve and energy that there’s no time for character depth or substance. Director David Leitch, one of the stuntmen turned directors behind 2014’s “John Wick,” has such a way with fight choreography and knows the importance of staging an action sequence in a clean fashion where the meticulous choreography doesn’t get lost in a million cuts. Watching the statuesque Theron doing a lot of punching, kicking, and shooting and taking it all as well, cued up to a nonstop, consistently pleasurable ‘80s Europop soundtrack, is all one really needs. Who knew these tastes could go so well together?

Based on the graphic novel “The Coldest City” by Anthony Johnston and Sam Hart, “Atomic Blonde” takes place in 1989, Berlin, just before the wall comes down. MI6 Agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is sent to Germany’s capital to recover “the list,” which contains information on every undercover Allied operative, including sought-after double agent “Satchel” whose identity still hasn’t been exposed. She joins forces with local agent David Percival (James McAvoy), of whom she grows suspicious, to meet up with Spyglass (Eddie Marsan) and get him (and his family) out of East Berlin safely. Lorraine will just have crack a few skulls along the way.

Missing the tiniest bit of an emotional core to crank it up a notch, “Atomic Blonde” is everything it promises and needs to be. Told with a framework involving the black-eyed Lorraine being debriefed in London by MI6 superior Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and CIA agent Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman), the cloak-and-dagger story is labyrinthine in its flashback structure but still isn’t remarkable or even as engaging as it could be. No one will really remember the writing by screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (2014’s “300: Rise of an Empire”), despite a twisty reveal in the last minute. It’s all merely an excuse to see our female star kick ass—she smokes and struts a lot, too—and not unlike any mission in any other spy thriller, the story finds a McGuffin in “the list,” which might as well be a briefcase, or microfilm, or codes. Likewise, the film doesn’t have interest in the Cold War setting’s sociopolitical climate, and Lorraine’s relationships are merely a means to an end, but it does have a sexy lesbian scene between Lorraine and naïve French photographer Delphine (Sofia Boutella).

Continuing her repertoire of playing strong women who don’t need a man’s help, Charlize Theron is in top form as Lorraine Broughton. The actress is awesome all by herself, and in playing a formidable badass, she gets to be spectacular by performing 98% of her own stunts, even if Lorraine has little meat to her. The film's dynamic action prowess is key, too, as director David Leitch lets the action play out to relentless, exhilarating effect. Without front-loading any of their big guns, Leitch and Theron pull off no less than four standout action set-pieces that are all inventively contained and brutal with a rhythm that makes one’s jaw drop every time. Setting foot in Berlin, Lorraine improvises with one red stiletto heel to fight a driver and his passenger in the backseat of a Mercedes before flipping it. Lorraine takes on around six Berlin policemen in an apartment with a hose and other handy kitchen supplies before jumping off the balcony, all while George Michael’s “Father Figure” blares on a tape deck, and later shares bruises with the KGB while doing hand-to-hand combat behind an East Berlin cinema screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker.” There is also a staggering extended sequence in another apartment that begins in the stairwell and goes on from there, all staged to look as if it was shot in a single take. 

Fueled by ‘80s mood that’s hard to resist, from the neon spray-painted font of the opening credits, to the use of music, “Atomic Blonde” will not be accused of having no style. The soundtrack is killer, sampling everything from New Order’s “Blue Monday,” Nena’s “99 Luftballoons,” The Clash’s “London Calling,” 'Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry,” Depreche Mode’s “Behind the Wheel,” to David Bowie & Queen’s “Under Pressure.” Nitpickers will complain that some of the music choices are too on the nose, but they’d have something to complain about if the songs were random. Like a response to the tedium of joyless, overly cut action films, “Atomic Blonde” is the real deal, and the prospect of Lorraine Broughton trotting the globe on more missions is actually exciting. Bring on “Atomic Blonde 2: Down Under."


Saturday, July 22, 2017

Sitting Ducks: "Dunkirk" vividly harrowing and excellent in technical prowess

Dunkirk (2017)
106 min., rated PG-13.

“Dunkirk” is the right departure for cerebrally inclined writer-director Christopher Nolan, counting as his first historically grounded film without any caped crusaders or mind-bending dreamscapes. Laconic yet gripping, this World War II drama plunges audiences right into the events leading up to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Trapped by the Germans, 400,000 Allied soldiers attempted to evacuate the beaches of Dunkirk, France, in late May of 1940, and now, the rest is history. Nolan has figured out a structure that’s elegantly presented for the most part, as the events play out simultaneously, jumping across three perspectives on land, sea, and air during three timeframes (one week, one day, and one hour). Slackless in its intensity and excellent in its technical prowess, “Dunkirk” is as vividly harrowing as it needs to be, but as there tends to be in Nolan’s work, an emotional aloofness holds back a very good film from being a great one.

During a week on land, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) is the lone British soldier to escape the sniper fire on the streets of Dunkirk. He soon finds himself on the beach with other Allied soldiers and Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh), who are all like sitting ducks waiting on the dock for help to arrive. Meanwhile on the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) volunteers to take his yacht across the English Channel with his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), along with Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan), and pick up soldiers. Once they rescue the shellshocked survivor (Cillian Murphy) of a torpedoed ship, tension mounts when the soldier discovers the yacht is headed toward Dunkirk rather than away from it. In the air, Supermarine Spitfire pilots Farrier (Tom Hardy, again wearing a face-covering mask for his director) and Collins (Jack Lowden) make their way to Dunkirk.

As a technical accomplishment and a war picture, “Dunkirk” is immersive and momentous. It’s a pressure cooker painstakingly mounted with you-are-there immediacy and minimal relief and dialogue, forcing the viewer to feel as defenseless as the soldiers. It’s more by design than an oversight that there isn’t one character to identify with or much characterization for the sprawling ensemble to dig into. There is no one star headlining the film; instead, every face, no matter how recognizable like One Direction’s Harry Styles, blends into the wartime setting. The film holds the viewer at a distance from its human subjects sometimes, as Nolan doesn’t see much benefit in relaying the personal backstories of our heroes. Inversely, Nolan wisely avoids audience manipulation in the form of any hokey, tacked-on drama, a 'la Michael Bay's "Pearl Harbor."

Deceptively simple for a film from Christopher Nolan, "Dunkirk" nevertheless finds use for the filmmaker's signature to tell his story with a time-shifting structure. Where each timeline comes into the other might be cleared up with a second viewing, but Nolan and editor Lee Smith keep the story building beautifully. Technically aces across the board, the film is masterfully shot by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema (2014’s “Interstellar”) with the use of 65mm and IMAX cameras, and the sections spent in the air offer some of the most impressively breathless aerial dogfights seen on film. A set-piece involving a flooded ship intercut with another potential drowning in a crashed plane is also asphyxiatingly tense. Seamlessly one with the sound design, the music score by Hans Zimmer is distinctive and propulsive yet more chillingly subtle than his past work with the use of a ticking watch that enhances the overwhelming apprehension of the situation. “Dunkirk” is an enthralling primal experience that gets the heart pumping, even if it doesn’t ultimately move it.

Grade: B +

Friday, July 21, 2017

Gonzo Planet: "Valerian" makes your eyes pop but can't make you care enough

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017)
137 min., rated PG-13.

Like Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s undeniably goofy but universally panned 2015 space opera “Jupiter Ascending” before it, Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” will likely become a cult classic when more audiences are willing to accept it in, oh, maybe the year 2030. Right now, though, this independently financed, $180-million-budgeted sci-fi fantasy adventure is a hot mess of gobbledygook that’s gorgeous to look at and sometimes fun to watch but empty where its heart should be. Adapted from a pre-existing property—“Valérian and Laureline,” the long-running 1967 series of French comic books by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières—that was said to have influenced “Star Wars,” it’s clearly an ambitious passion project for writer-director Besson to swing for the fences and invite audiences to be tourists through each computerized environment in his new, exciting world with extravagant, innovative razzle-dazzle. A shame, then, that lead characters Valerian and Laureline are one-note duds, especially the first half of the couple, and the storytelling occasionally takes a dense, convoluted, expository page out of “John Carter.” It quite frequently dazzles and makes your eyes pop, but it won’t make you care enough.

In 2740, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are intergalactic government agents at a space station in Alpha, the city of a thousand planets. They’re partners, and they happen to be dating and talking about their future. Having their blissful vacation interrupted, Valerian and Laureline are tasked with their next mission to retrieve and protect a “converter,” the last-living species of the planet Mül that replicates anything it is fed. When they return with the hot commodity in hand, Commander Filitt (Clive Owen) then alerts them that Alpha has become threatened by contamination, only for Valerian and Laureline to each be separated and rescue one another. Can these partners finally figure out who’s behind the genocidal war that dwindled the pearl-harveting civilization of Mül, and will Laureline stop resisting Valerian’s proposal?

Loaded with an unrestricted vision that borrows from “Total Recall,” “Blade Runner,” anything by Terry Gilliam, and even Luc Besson’s very own “The Fifth Element,” “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is so visually imaginative and gloriously bananas in ways that all summer blockbusters should strive to be. One can just see all 154 euros up there on the screen. The film’s opening-credits prologue might be its best and, then, its most breathtaking and immersive. First, a montage set to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” tracks the evolution of space exploration with humans from Alpha shaking hands with different alien species. Shooting 400 years later, the film grants time to admire and drink in the sprawling splendor of the harmonious Mül, a dreamy, idyllic beach planet, and its lanky, airless, androgynous race of inhabitants before a genocidal war nearly wipes all of them out. From there, the viewer is dropped into the middle of Valerian and Laureline enjoying the simulated beach setting and then instantly bantering like a couple arguing over who gets to be on top. They have a cheeky push-pull, but the majority of their one-liners are cornball clunkers and never especially funny. Both Valerian and Laureline have driver personalities, but he wants to marry her and she doesn’t think he’s ready to commit; their flirtatious sparring over a marriage proposal almost seems like an eye-rolling joke because we never get to know them.

Everything that doesn’t concern the actual plot is a thrilling technical achievement. When it comes to Valerian and Laureline’s mission, the stakes are never clear or palpable enough, and when it comes to their relationship, the intended drama and emotion just aren’t there. Luckily, there’s more than enough to delight the eyeballs to almost forgive the inadequacies of the script and its less-than-dynamic duo, but it’s ironic that the weak link of “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” happens to be Valerian himself and his self-inflicted drama. Beyond a quick line about the loss of his mother that is addressed by a supporting character and then immediately dropped, nothing is learned about him. If this is the introduction of a franchise, or even if a sequel doesn’t ever see the light of day, shouldn’t the viewer know how Valerian became a federal agent in order to connect with him on his mission? Secondly, Dane DeHaan, one of the more magnetic and talented actors of his generation, is wildly miscast as Valerian. Smoldering and arrogant, we can believe, but DeHaan does not scream “ladykiller” with a rolodex of conquests, even though the script keeps insisting on it. He underplays so much that his delivery of would-be jokes feels more stilted than fun, and Valerian’s supposed arc comes out of nowhere. The capable yet headstrong Laureline isn’t written much better, but Cara Delevingne actually fares better than her fellow co-star and sells the playful repartee with the right amount of likability, confidence and feisty attitude. When the characters don’t have to keep talking about their relationship, one can more easily accept them as work partners who take turns saving each other.

For all of its flaws, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is too giddily overcrammed to ever be dull and will surely in no time find its passionate fans who see too-muchness as a big selling point. Writer-director Luc Besson still offers up so many dizzyingly weird and kaleidoscopic sights that it’s hard to dismiss the film too much. The aforementioned “converter” is an adorable armadillo-like creature that defecates pearls because, well, it can. Forced by a chatty trio of the platypus-like Doghan Daguis, Laureline sticks her head up the arse of a magical jellyfish to have her memory read. The desert Planet Kyrian transforms into a bazaar with the use of a virtual-reality helmet. Rihanna is her own special effect and delivers “wow” moments as shape-shifting “glamapod” named Bubble who spends her days doing cabaret acts in a red-light district and then finally finds a life-saving purpose for them when she helps Valerian, while Ethan Hawke gets to sport eye-liner and a nose ring chain as Bubble’s carnival-barking pimp. If Valerian and Laureline live to see another day and a sequel, they should either just let their eye-candy surroundings do the talking or actually have something more clever and interesting to say.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Don't Fear the Ghost Sheet: “A Ghost Story” casts a poetic, profoundly moving spell

A Ghost Story (2017) 
87 min., rated R.

What happens after we die and leave those we love? Does the memory of us vanish or remain in our house? Do we leave behind anything? “A Ghost Story” is certainly not a conventional haunted-house film or even a horror film for that matter, but it ponders such questions of loss and leaving behind one’s legacy, as well as the mysteries of the hereafter. An elliptical, cosmically linked journey through the history of one house, spanning time and space, the film is a work of art that can't be spoiled because it's meant to be felt and experienced. Should anyone dismiss “A Ghost Story” for being soporific or not be taken with it will be missing out on writer-director-editor David Lowery’s  (2016’s “Pete’s Dragon”) poetic meditation of life, death and grief unlike any other, leaving the most open and willing viewers unprepared for its cumulative power and reflecting on his or her own life.

C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) are a couple living in a ranch home in Texas. They argue over moving; M wants to move closer to the city and C does not. One morning, C does not survive a fatal car accident when backing out of his driveway. As soon as M says goodbye to him at the hospital morgue, C rises up as a ghost, with the white sheet from the slab covering his whole body, and returns home. C has some unfinished business, acting as an observer of his wife, but like the note M leaves in the wall of any house she leaves behind, he is bound to the house, even after she leaves to move on with her life. Time passes and a new family moves in, but not even newly painted walls can discourage the ghost of C from finding his wife’s note hidden inside a crack in the wall. It’s the only piece of her left.

“A Ghost Story” is seemingly simple but emotionally and philosophically profound. The scope of the story starts small but widens as C soon exists on a supernatural plane, looking in at the world that pushed him out too early. As the ghost of C crosses over time as his house takes in new occupants, he is initially enraged, haunting a family and then later observing a party of soused hipsters. The film takes a little time from C to listen to one particular boozy guest (singer-songwriter Will Oldham), who waxes philosophical and, while feeling no pain, goes on a nihilistic rant about mankind’s artistic gifts to the world being all for nothing after the world ends. This scene, the most dialogue-heavy of them all, essentially sums up the bulk of filmmaker David Lowery’s existential aims. It’s not until C’s ghost enters a wormhole that takes him through the circle of life, finding himself traipsing through the future, the past, and then back to his life before death.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara reunite with director David Lowery after their work on 2013’s striking, Malick-y “Ain’t Them Bodies Saint.” Together, they re-establish their bond that feels nothing short of lived-in and never acted, and with their respective constraints (he’s underneath a white sheet and she has little dialogue), both actors individually cast such devastating imprints. Upending the childish perspective of a ghost in a sheet, Affleck communicates despair and loneliness with just a head tilt. Even when C comes across a fellow ghost, their exchanges are communicated through subtitles. As for Mara, there is a five-minute-long scene of M eating her feelings with a whole pie on the kitchen floor and then slowly erupting into tears, as the ghost of her husband watches her from the other room. It might be one of those scenes that gets everyone talking about, merely for Lowery’s gamble to shoot such a mundane activity in real time, but there is a deeply felt range of emotions that can be all found on Mara's face and conveys more than any dialogue could. One of the couple’s final moments together, too, is so authentic in its intimacy and how long Lowery and his DP holds the shot on them; in the wee hours of the morning after C and M are startled by a noise coming from their piano, they crawl back into bed and kiss and embrace one another before falling back asleep.

Imagining an actor walking around as the child’s idea of what an apparition looks like—cut-out eye holes, to boot—sounds almost too hokey and amusing to work, but that stark image, too, lends itself to a melancholic feeling. Given Lowery’s affinity for long takes and a languid rhythm, the film is fully handled with utter grace and poignancy. There is such a stillness to every frame that one can’t help but have their attention held in watching the bold execution of such a premise play out. Contributing to the film’s elegiac tone and hypnotic spell is the elegant lensing by cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (2013’s “You’re Next”), all shot in the square 1.33:1 aspect ratio resembling faded photographs. Another key ingredient is the music score by Daniel Hart, a frequent collaborator of Lowery’s, and it’s a superbly delicate piece of work that acts as the finishing touch on Lowery’s singular vision. Posing as one of C’s written and recorded songs, the immensely stirring “I Get Overwhelmed” by Hart’s band Dark Rooms also serves as the aching sadness felt by M, who’s transported back to the memory of her husband first sharing the song with her. Indefinable as an elevator pitch though it may be, “A Ghost Story” lingers and resonates as pure cinema that never dies. It’s forlorn and tender, beautiful and strange, quiet and lyrical, and challenging and evocative, and if one goes in with an open mind, it's an experiential tour de force that makes you feel alive.