Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Happy Death Day Review (2017)

Grade: C

Going in I expected Christopher Landon’s “Happy Death Day” to be very silly.  It is, after all, a mixture of teen slasher horror and the Harold Ramis comedy “Groundhog Day.” On that front it certainly met my expectations. However, it wasn’t until about ten minutes into “Happy Death Day” that I realized the “Groundhog Day” gimmick (the hero has to relive the same day over and over) is better suited to the horror genre than I originally thought, in a non-silly way.

Before I expand on this point lets get the plot out of the way.  College student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday with a miserable hangover, in the dorm of an awkward college freshman Carter (Israel Broussard). After a cold interaction, she walks back across the university campus to her sorority, where she runs into the snotty Danielle (Rachel Matthews) and her quiet roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). Later that night, as she walks to an on campus party she is violently murdered by a masked maniac wearing a creepy baby facemask (the school’s mascot). She wakes up in Carter’s bed again and…well, you know.

The idea of having to relive the day of your violent murder again and again is legitimately terrifying. It’s like having the same nightmare over and over again with no “wake up” period. When you wake up, you're back in it.  And no matter what you try and do, your stuck in this horrifying loop, unable to avoid your grim fate. Hell, just typing out that sentence made me a little anxious. There is potential here for a good, serious horror movie, which we catch brief glimpses of early on in “Happy Death Day,” as when Tree (on her third ‘death day’) decides to skip the party and barricade herself in her room.

Yet, as I alluded to in the opening paragraph, “Happy Death Day” goes the silly route. Landon’s film is a remake of “Groundhog Day;” there are similar plot points and Tree’s character arc mirrors Bill Murray’s. At the same time, it’s a goofier, more self-aware version of “I Know What You Did Last Summer” and other horror films of that ilk.

As a young adult, college set “Groundhog Day,” “Death Day” is surprisingly solid, if a little predictable. Rothe gives a snarky, lovable performance and Scott Lobdell’s screenplay actually takes the character seriously--treating Tree’s transformation from cold and self-absorbed to warm and considerate with earnestness and humor. Broussard is good as the nice guy/romantic interest and Matthews is delectable as the snotty ‘mean girl.” The only glaring issue is the treatment of Tree’s troubled relationship with her mom and dad. Were this solely a “Groundhog Day” remake and not also a horror movie, the filmmakers might have been able to better develop the relationship but as it stands now the material is contrived.

As a horror-comedy, “Death Day” isn’t so successful. There’s fun to be had but by and large the humor is more miss than hit. And the film itself eventually goes off the rails, not in a fun way but in a grating, obnoxious one. I winced when Tree started delivering cheesy quips and strained one-liners. Meanwhile, the horror elements are mostly half-baked and uninspiring. While Tree’s initial interactions with the mysterious killer are tense, subsequent meetings are annoyingly disorienting and poorly shot. The inclusion of an escaped murderer late in the second act is a trite Red Haring and the final twist (wherein we discover the true identity of the murderer) is convoluted and underwhelming.

In the end, there are two potentially good movie concepts in “Happy Death Day:” a serious horror film that uses the “Groundhog Day” gimmick as a jumping off point as well as a young adult, female led “Groundhog Day” (with touches of “Mean Girls” and “Clueless” style social satire) remake. Unfortunately, the product being released this weekend is a mildly fun but thoroughly mediocre combination of said concepts.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

The Foreigner Review (2017)

Grade: B

With “The Foreigner, “ actor/director/stuntman/Martial arts icon Jackie Chan joins the cinematic ranks of Liam Neeson, Terence Stamp, Michael Caine and others by playing an aging man forced to carry out sweet vengeance and inflict punishing violence. It’s another entry in the Geriatric action/crime sub genre.  “The Foreigner” is Chan’s “Taken,” or “The Limey,” and the picture (helmed by “Casino Royal” director Martin Campbell, his first feature film in six years) is a brutal, giddy old school revenge flick.

Things get off to a quick start. Chan plays Quan, an immigrant currently residing in London who watches his daughter Fan (Katie Leung) get killed in a bombing. We learn very quickly that Quan’s past is steeped in devastating tragedy and hardship. Chan spends most of his early scenes paralyzed and shriveled up, resembling a corpse freshly delivered to the morgue. However, Quan’s depression is short lived, as his decision to track down the terrorists responsible and get his own justice seems to reinvigorate him. With an all-consuming rage, Quan loads up a nondescript green van with weapons and supplies (to make even more weapons) and gets to work, channeling his grief into nasty but oh so glorious violence.

It’s an absolute joy to watch Quan creatively torment and stalk his targets with the upmost confidence. Here’s a chap who, after setting off a non lethal improvised explosive in a government building, immediately calls up his target telling them he means business. Chan has a history of playing clownish action heroes but here he’s locked in, relentless and dominant. He’s the seasoned professional who has command of every situation he’s in and the drop on every person he comes into contact with. The scene where Quan goes all John Rambo on a group of heavies (who’ve foolishly underestimated his skills) in a patch of forest is exhilarating and cringe inducing. Lets just say one of those heavies may need a tetanus shot.

The action in “The Foreigner” is non flashy and appropriately brutal. We feel every punch, gunshot and body hit with a wooden plank. Quan accumulates bruises and nasty cuts and occasionally can be seen limping away after a scuffle. He throws himself through windows and down staircases. Campbell infuses the action with a human dimension. Quan is an old man who isn’t immune to injury but he can still dismantle his targets with ease. He takes physical punishment with scrappiness and gracefulness. As a visceral, popcorn revenge flick “The Foreigner” is immensely satisfying.

But there’s more to this story. “The Foreigner” is also a twisty, politically tinged procedural. The bombing is politically motivated and Quan’s primary target is Liam, (Pierce Brosnan) an Irishman who works for the British government and may or may not have connections to the perpetrators. It’s an intriguing narrative that adds some complexity and moral grey area to the people Quan is pursuing without tainting our satisfaction in seeing him carry out his revenge to completion. That being said, the procedural plot can be uneven. It’s not necessarily convoluted but the execution can be downright dopey and even sloppy--especially when double crossings start happening near the end of the second act.

Brosan’s performance doesn't always hold together; some of his major dramatic scenes fall flat and I found his sing songy Irish accent to be distracting. Though he does have his moments, particularly when he’s forced to inflict physical torment of his own. Ultimately, Liam and Quan make for compelling rivals, in regards to their relationship to violence. Both men have a violent past but Liam wants to leave that life behind while Quan embraces it head on. Liam desperately wants to avoid violent confrontations and preserve his cushy life in politics while a lifetime of tragedy has left Quan with nothing but a vehement rage needing to be quenched.

There are other issues; the screenplay by David Marconi (Based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather) can be heavy handed when it comes to the politics surrounding the attack and Quan’s tragic backstory. Furthermore, the dialogue can be flat out terrible at times resulting in unintentional humor. But “The Foreigner” is still a fun melding of political procedural and straightforward, down and dirty revenge, further bolstered by Chan’s ferocious, determined energy. He’s been sorely missed in western cinema these past few years.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Blade Runner 2049 Review (2017)

Ridley Scott’s hypnotic futuristic thriller “Blade Runner” builds to an incredibly poignant and surprising moment of empathy. Up until then, the Replicants (artificial bio engineered androids meant to resemble humans and perform slave labor) are painted as the antagonists. After a series of violent rebellions, Replicant production is outlawed and any remaining Replicants are to be hunted down and killed by cops known as Blade Runners. But during the picture’s climax, atop a decrepit apartment building in dystopian Los Angeles, Scott flips the script. We come to see the Replicants not as robots gone awry but as na├»ve and tragically misunderstood beings that weren’t given a fair shake.

From this perspective, Replicants aren’t just machines created to be our servants but subjective beings with agency. Beings that are capable of feeling love and compassion. Beings that can express free will and have their own goals and individual aspirations. We come to empathize with them just as we would a human trapped in an oppressive situation. In fact, we care more about them than most of the human characters. In the film, humans are mostly cold and wasteful beings who caused the planet to fall into a state of dystopian chaos. They designed the Replicants to resemble themselves but outlawed them the minute they began acting too human. This earth shattering, emotionally touching shift in perspective and audience sympathy resonates throughout the sequel “Blade Runner 2049.”

Directed by Denis Villenueve and scripted by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, “Blade Runner 2049” expands upon the original film’s interests in the shaky ethical dimensions surrounding A.I. creation/use, oppression, agency and empathy. And it manages to take these themes in a fresh direction thick with theological allusions and thought provoking philosophical questions. Among other things, the picture explores the nuances of artifice. In this decaying, desolate future wherein synthetic organisms outnumber organic ones the film asks us to question traditional notions of what’s authentic and “real.” Can one machine be more human than another? Can a relationship between two man made machines be just as authentic as a relationship between two humans?

“Blade Runner 2049” weaves together a complex mystery, at the center of which lies a massive conspiracy that threatens to dismantle the remnants of societal order. The narrative revolves around K, (Ryan Gosling) a Blade Runner as he embarks on his latest case. As K unravels said conspiracy, he begins to experience an identity crisis-- his identity and personal sense of reality is jarringly called into question. The film is intense and unpredictable. At multiple points during my viewing I thought I had figured out the mystery and every time Villenueve proved me wrong. At the same time “Blade Runner 2049” is deceptively dense. It’s a heavy philosophical drama wrapped in sleek, visually lush neo noir that requires your undivided attention. Important clues are scattered throughout every scene. Blink and you might miss something.

The picture moves at a glaciers pace. Villeneuve elegantly eases us back into gloomy, dread filled world of “Blade Runner” and proceeds to bask in every moment--every staggering shot of dreary overcrowded L.A., the vast junkyards or the desolate ruins of once grand metropolises. In his films (“Sicario,” “Arrival” to name a couple) Villenueve has never felt the need to rush through his stories and here he lets us soak up “Blade Runner’s” haunting, enigma rich atmosphere for (almost) three drawn out hours. Like its predecessor, “2049” has an overwhelming sense of place; its dystopian sets feel lived in and three-dimensional.  There’s a lot of ground to cover but Villeneuve takes his time the narrative never feels hurried or convoluted and K is given ample time to develop into a multidimensional character full of anxieties and burning questions.

I wish this review could be a little more specific but the studio has asked all members of the press to avoid any potential spoilers. As a writer and a critic it’s a little frustrating but at the same time a lot happens here. So, I’ll just leave it at this for now: “Blade Runner 2049” is a beautiful and challenging film that leads to a deeply touching and ambivalent conclusion.


Wednesday, September 27, 2017

American Made Review (2017)

Review Grade: C-

Doug Liman’s “American Made” is the latest project in recent years to tackle the turbulent Pablo Escobar/”War on Drugs” era of the late 70’s and 80’s, preceded by the Netflix TV show “Narcos” and the Bryan Cranston starring film “The Infiltrator” (and covered comprehensively in Billy Corben’s superb documentary “Cocaine Cowboys”). It's a fascinating chunk of American history complete with gang violence, shady US government doings, espionage, hypocrisy and moral grey area and of course the warped, nightmare vision of the American dream: ordinary people getting sucked into an exciting but dangerous life of crime and becoming flushed with cash overnight only to see that good life fall apart in epic (and often tragic) fashion. Ever since “Scarface,” it’s been fertile ground for TV and cinema.

“American Made” manages to check all those boxes in detailing the rise and fall of Barry Seal, (Tom Cruise) an ordinary American pilot who ends up working for the CIA, (flying weapons to South America for Ronald Reagan’s “secret war”) The Medellin Drug Cartel (smuggling drugs), the DEA and later the White House, all while trying to live a calm family life with his wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) and kids. This extraordinary, complex story would make a great mini series, documentary or dramatized.

Unfortunately it’s been mangled and crammed into one hundred and fifteen minutes. The picture might have even benefited from being two hours or more; these sprawling crime sagas and their multitude of characters and time periods need the cinematic space to unfurl if you’re going to tell them in full. But currently “American Made” feels like an abridged crime epic-- an occasionally fun but mostly surface level telling.

The film gets off to a quick start (a rapid fire, anxious pace that is maintained throughout) but at the expense of setting up its protagonist. Liman and screenwriter Gary Spinelli do a hasty and inadequate job of establishing Seal’s initial situation and why he would want to work for the CIA or the Medellin cartel in the first place. And as the film goes on they fail to flesh Seal out or dig into his psychology. There’s little in the way of a character ark beyond his realization that working for the cartel and the US government at the same time isn’t going to end for him.

The colorful cast of supporting characters, including Seal’s CIA contact Schafer, (Domhnall Gleeson) Lucy’s scuzzy weirdo/screw-up brother JB (Caleb Landry Jones, who just seems destined to play scuzzy weirdo/screw-ups in all his roles) and Seal’s Medellin contact Jorge Ochoa (Alejandro Edda) have a memorable scene or two but they get lost in the film’s comprehensive, messy biopic approach.

“American Made” races through its chronology like a bland presentation, stringing interesting and sometimes amusing episodes in Seals life together with little cohesion or dramatic kick. Despite the energetic pacing and frenzied editing the film feels like its on autopilot. There’s so much ground to cover (multiple players, four major narrative sections and the various plot strands within those sections to balance) that none of the material gets a chance to really settle and make a serious impact.

Making matters worse, “American Made” employs a jerky pseudo-documentary style that is mildly disorienting at best and flat out incoherent at worse. Uh, Doug…you directed “The Bourne Identity,” did you forget how to do shaky cam? Add to that, slick montages cut to 70’s/80’s music, cutaways, cheeky info graphics (a la “The Big Short”) and a contrived videotape confessional framing device in which Seal narrates the muddled events of the movie. In other words, the picture’s visual/formal style is just as unfocused as the rest of it.

Cruise is predictably in top form; his goofy and nervous energy is always watchable but the movie around him doesn’t cut deep enough. A great true story, ripe with big screen and small screen potential is adapted into a banal commercial studio product.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle Review (2017)

There should be some form of punishment for a director that manages to waste Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry and Julianne Moore in a single movie. Matthew Vaughn is the culprit and “Kingsman: The Golden Circle” is the film.

At its best, “The Golden Circle” (a sequel to “Kingsman: The Secret Service”) is a goofy, kinetic spy action/comedy that pokes fun at and gives the middle finger to the “Bond” franchise. It’s gleefully violent and vulgar, sometimes unnecessarily so. There are a bevy of nifty high tech gadgets to get the characters out of just about every tight situation, and the costuming is exquisite.  “Kingsman” can be fun and delightfully eccentric but like a lot of sequels it falls into the trap of redundancy and tedium, among other issues.  Vaughn and co writer Jane Goldman try to expand the “Kingsman” universe and introduce new characters in the process but fail to do anything substantial with them; hence my suggestion in the first paragraph.  Jail time might be a little harsh, perhaps a fine?

Events pick up pretty much where the first “Kingsman” left off. Young Eggsy (Taron Edgerton, charming and sincere) is enjoying his life as a secret agent as well as his relationship with Swedish Princess Tilde (Hanna Alstrom). However, things go immediately wrong when all the Kingsman headquarters in London are bombed by a drug lord named Poppy (Julianne Moore). With nowhere else to turn, Eggsy and fellow agent Merlin (Mark Strong) head to America to join forces with The Statesman, an American spy organization. Here, Eggsy also encounters his old friend and mentor Harry (Colin Firth) who he thought had died.

Operating out of Kentucky and using a whisky distillery as its front, The Statesman are like the Kingsman except that they wear cowboy hats and boots, and drink whisky instead of scotch or martinis. The organization is run by Champ, (Bridges) along with under agents Whisky, (Pedro Pascal) Tequila (Tatum) and Ginger (Berry). In theory, this seems like a fun way to expand on the “Kingsman” mythology but Vaughn lets it go to waste.

The scenes that take place in Kentucky at The Statesman headquarters often play out like a stilted product placement for a fictional brand of whisky. * Meanwhile our new southern fried agents are given very little to do. What’s the point in having Tatum play a cowboy spy named Tequila if he’s only going to be in a few scenes? The lovely, molasses mouth Bridges is reduced to thankless cameo status and Berry’s part as an agent frustrated with her role in the organization is even more thankless. There are large stretches of the picture were Berry and Bridges are absent for unexplained reasons. The Statesman material is occasionally funny but we’re just not given enough and therefore it doesn’t really cohere with the rest of the picture.

Ultimately, “The Golden Circle” pivots into a tedious and overlong rehash of the first film, with Eggsy, Harry and Merlin having to infiltrate Poppy’s layer and save all of humanity. Edgerton, Firth and Strong have a great onscreen repartee like they did the first time around and the surrogate father-son bond between Eggsy and Harry can be poignant but what’s the point in introducing this new spy organization if you’re just going to treat it like a one dimensional narrative detour and then fall back on what you already did?

Moore is given a little more to do and for a while her eccentric outcast CEO turned drug dealer is compelling. Poppy lives in undiscovered ancient ruins in Cambodia that she’s outfitted with a 1950’s American aesthetic—an authentic 50’s diner, a bowling alley etc. She has a superficially cheerful, high voiced demeanor that masks a psychopathic interior. Poppy can be downright terrifying but even she fails to meet her full super villainess potential as Vaughn curiously throws her under a figurative bus, having her meet a frustratingly anticlimactic fate.

I could go on. Vaughn tries to balance spy action/comedy with a heated but half-baked critique of America’s ongoing war on drugs (and the layers of hypocrisy that go along with it) with mixed results. The political commentary is intriguing yet unfocused and like The Statesman stuff it doesn’t always jell with the rest of the film. There’s a reoccurring Elton John gag that’s funny until it’s beaten into the ground. The romantic subplot involving Eggsy and Tilde is consistently tepid and is resolved via the underwhelming damsel-in-distress device. You can probably sense the reoccurring theme of female characters being given the short end of the stick in this film. There are good elements to be found in “The Golden Circle” but by and large it contains a lot of missed potential.


*Turns out it’s a real whisky; a spinoff of Old Forester produced in partnership with the film. More here in this New York Times article: