Reviewed by Mike Ireland
The low budget horror flick Lights Out, Swedish director David F. Sandberg's feature debut, is built around a single gimmick: a nasty paranormal antagonist that can only materialize in the dark. The premise lends itself to a rather singular visual effect: When lights are extinguished, a barely perceptible silhouette appears, thin and angular, with talon-like fingernails; when the lights are switched back on, nothing's there. Another flip of the switch, though, and the shadowy figure has abruptly closed the distance.
The effect is unnerving. So much so that a brief 2 1/2-minute short film uploaded to the web a few years ago secured Sandberg this directing gig (courtesy of horror impresario James Wan, creator of the lucrative Saw, Insidious, and Conjuring franchises). Stretching the 2-minute clip to feature length primarily provides a variety of set-ups for this single trick, but damned if it doesn't work every time, making Lights Out a lot of scary fun.
At the core of the film is a family in crisis. Living on her own, with no interest in long-term attachments, urban twenty-something Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) finds herself pulled back into old fractured family dynamics when 10-year-old half-brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) begins exhibiting signs of emotional problems in the wake of his father's death. He isn't sleeping, falls asleep in class, and lives in fear of the dark. It seems that mom Sophie (Maria Bello) is off her depression meds and spends her nights commiserating with someone named Diana, who seems to be living in the closet.
Recognizing their mom's behavior from the aftermath of her own dad's mysterious disappearance years earlier, Rebecca springs into action, not as a hero, but as a sister. Removing Martin from the family home, however, doesn't stop Diana. After all, there are shadows everywhere. Eventually, Rebecca, and Martin realize that their only hope is to return and face the creature on its own turf.
The screenplay by co-producer Eric Heisserer (Final Destination 5, 2011's The Thing) both explains too little and too much. The film posits Diana's presence as a manifestation of mental illness, a shadowy presence that originates with the mother, but attaches itself to the children. At one point, Martin asks Rebecca is they will go crazy too. It's an intriguing notion, but is promptly undermined by very concrete, heavy-handed exposition regarding Diana's preposterous medical history (courtesy of the well-timed discovery of a box of files, photos, and a mini-cassette player — still operational after decades and helpfully cued to the relevant passage).
What really matters, however, is that the humans are more than ghost-bait. Palmer, Bateman, and Bello all provide compelling performances, and Alexander DiPersia's portrayal of Rebecca's long-suffering boyfriend Bret rises far beyond the hipster caricature it easily could have been.
Over its tightly-edited 81-minute running time, Sandberg and Heisserer manage to unearth about every light source imaginable, resulting in a creative and effective series of jumps, cries, even laughs as this family tries to find its way back to the light. (PG-13) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/25/16)
The Secret Life of Pets
Reviewed by Dan Lybarger
The Secret Life of Pets is at its most imaginative and entertaining when it delivers what its title implies, a look at domestic animals when their owners are out of the home. While the Toy Story movies explored what happened when inanimate objects weren't so inanimate, there's still plenty of fresh material from putting viewers into the heads of dogs and cats.
Directors Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney start off well by casting standup master Louis C.K. as an emotionally needy dog. C.K.'s voice may not be instantly recognizable, but he perfectly capture's Max's feelings of separation anxiety every time his master Katie (KC's Ellie Kemper) leaves. C.K. describes Max's longings as if he's recounting a breakup with a human female and is astonishingly moving as a result. We know that Katie has to work in order to feed herself and Max, but C.K. delivers Max's laments without a hint of irony or detachment, making Max's loneliness seem sadly and amusingly real.
Max's solitude ends abruptly when Katie adopts another, larger pooch named Duke (KC's Eric Stonestreet). Duke and Max compete fiercely for food, Katie's affection and even sleeping space. In one of the film's more satisfying sequences Max expresses his displeasure to Katie. While the audience hears his complaints in English, Katie hears nothing but barks.
Katie rents an apartment in a New York building full of colorful creatures that engage in all sorts of bizarre behavior when the humans leave. The soap opera addicted Gidget (Jenny Slate) has a debilitating crush on the indifferent Max, and Chloe the Cat (Lake Bell) views all the other animals in the building with contempt.
Max and Duke end up shedding both some fur and their mutual animosity when they find themselves outside of the building and pursued by violent alley cats. They need each other to figure out how to get back inside, and they also make the mistake of getting involved with a now-feral bunny named Snowball (Kevin Hart). Having been abandoned by humans, the cuddly Snowball now wants them dead and is eager to enlist Max and Duke in his homicidal pursuits.
All of this leads to a series of chases that are more exhausting than exhilarating. Hart's volcanic energy is well used here, and there's something inherently funny about watching a cute, seemingly innocuous character spewing so much bile. While Hart's tantrums are often hysterically funny, the film loses momentum as the characters scamper all over the Big Apple trying to find their way back home.
I caught the movie in a 2D screening with a crowd of grownups, so I'm wondering if I missed something by not messing with the glasses. The studio behind this film, Illumination Entertainment, has used 3D (and the delightfully bungling Minions) in remarkably creative ways, and many of their gags depend on the viewer being able to see objects in perspective.
Regardless, most of the action seems more frantic than thrilling. Much of Snowball's pursuit seems more of an excuse for spectacle than a part of the story. Some of these scenes seem grafted in from another movie and feel more like a distraction.
It's a shame the filmmakers couldn't have done more with Lake Bell, who is a scream as the icy-hearted Chloe, or the hilarious Dana Carvey as an aging dog who dominates the neighborhood despite the fact that he needs wheels to get around.
If only the storyline had been thought out as cleverly as the voice recordings, The Secret Life of Pets would have been more enlightening to reveal. (PG) Rating: 3 (Posted on 07/25/16)
The Secret Life of Pets
Louis C.K.'s whines
are even funnier when
a dog's mouth says them.
Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
Brothers Dave and Mike Stangle needed dates for their cousin’s wedding in Saratoga, NY, so they did what any two red-blooded American males would do in 2013 — they put an ad on Craigslist. The ad went viral, as they say, and the two were briefly the flavor of the month on the morning talk show circuit. The result was probably more than they could have imagined, or, if you’re cynical, was exactly what the two imagined: a book deal, followed by a reported seven-figure script offer. No dates materialized; the two went to the wedding with friends.
What material the Stangle dudes added to stretch a Craigslist ad into 244 pages of brother-bro adventures can only be known by those who actually read it, meaning those who read American Psycho for inspiration, or anyone who enjoys a good hate-read. Apparently, very little of what the two Tucker Max wannabes had to say made it into the feature film, which didn’t improve the film as much as it should have.
Written by Andrew J. Cohen and Brendan O'Brien and directed by television and Web series helmer Jake Szymanski, the story hinges on the notorious Craigslist ad but is stretched out in order to reach a completely different outcome. In a misplaced attempt at equal opportunity through nondiscriminatory amped-up crassness — an increasingly unfortunate trend in comedy — Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) are matched by Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick), who, having seen the Stangle brothers on The Wendy Williams Show, dupe the two into believing they’re decent women deserving of a free vacation to a destination wedding in Hawaii.
From a change in perception in the opening credits, there’s a glimmer of hope that this comedy could have been made with a surprising, self-reflexive tone. First, the brothers’ antics are shown from a heroic perspective; epic is how they’d be described. Surprisingly, the point of view widens, revealing their behavior as clumsy and destructive. It’s all the more unfortunate then when what remains of the movie contains none of this irony. Instead, the movie stumbles from one implausible scenario to the next, distracted from barreling toward the inevitable paired-off ending only by drawn-out physical stunts and bad behavior in broad strokes.
Character actors Stephen Root, Sam Richardson and Sugar Lyn Beard, whose squeaky voice was probably put to better use as Wish Bear in the straight-to-video Care Bears, are hammy props, relegated to supporting Devine’s foolish lead. Efron is a remarkably able straight man. But the biggest disappointments are Plaza and Kendrick. (It’s anyone’s best guess what accent Aubrey Plaza has assumed for the New York scenes.) Better to have been written as the heroines of screwball comedy, their roles lack the nuance needed to pull off the needed deceit or even the patience to keep up the ruse. Lessons can be learned from the greats: Hepburn, Russell, Lombard, Dunne and especially Lemmon and Curtis. (R) Rating: 0 (Posted on 07/13/16)
The Legend of Tarzan
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers
American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote 80 novels but the one he’s most known for is Tarzan of the Apes, published in 1912. Much like Superman, who came later, Tarzan became a cultural phenomenon and gave Burroughs a comfortable life. Though Tarzan never quite disappeared as a popular icon, his land of Africa did, transformed from one of mystery to one of misery associated with resource exploitation, political ideology and war.
Still the executives at Warner Bros. Pictures must have felt that Tarzan and the African Congo of the past had appeal. What young boy seeking adventure wouldn’t dream of being raised by kindly apes, develop a physique that allowed him run like an antelope, swing through the trees like . . . er . . . gorillas (though in real life gorillas are mainly ground dwellers and only climb trees at night to sleep) and communicate with and command all the animals of the jungle. Then win the heart of a beautiful young maiden and battle the bad guys to protect her and their home.
That storyline pretty much repeats itself in The Legend of Tarzan, a film directed by David Yates of Harry Potter fame and starring Alexander Skarsgård as Tarzan and Margot Robbie as Jane.
Yates does bring to the story factors of exploitation and cruelty though, despite a superb period feel, detailed sets and dominate CGI, the film feels artificial and never rises high enough in thrills and dramatics to give Tarzan a real heroic standing. Skarsgård underplays his action-driven role in such a quiet and brooding manner that Tarzan comes across at times as being put-upon.
It doesn’t help that feisty Jane never really seems in danger despite playing against Christoph Waltz as Captain Léon Rom, sent by King Leopold of Belgium to rescue the crown from bankruptcy. Waltz, who long ago got his evil-guy routine so perfected his menacing persona now seems standardized, acts without any urgency, even his final appeal to Tarzan to save him from being eaten by a crocodile is devoid of any impending terror.
Even the casting of Samuel L. Jackson as George Washington Williams doesn’t lift the film much. It’s Williams who convinces Tarzan as John Clayton III, Lord Greystoke to leave England and return to Africa. Williams needs Tarzan to confirm the use of slavery by the Belgium king in order to deny him continued “ownership” of the Congo.
Williams follows Tarzan and Jane to Africa and becomes a comic foil in the film. It’s a near embarrassing role for Jackson, almost reminisce of his Capital One TV commercials in tone, and one that conjures up racial stereotypes as in white man saves black men from bad white man while sidekick black man looks clueless but comes through in the end though not really needed.
Another wasted talent is Djimon Hounsou as Chief Mbonga who makes a pact with Rom to help him with gathering slaves to mine for diamonds in return of bringing Tarzan to him. The chief wants to avenge his son’s death, killed by Tarzan because the young man killed Tarzan’s ape mother.
By putting aside all the current social and environmental challenges facing Africa, The Legend of Tarzan could be enjoyed — if only the computer-generated images were better. The animals don’t seem real with the possible exception of the gorillas, carrying names such as Kala and Akut.
Where Tarzan is dour and methodical in his saving of Jane, when the gorillas pound their chests, bare their teeth and charge now that moves one to recoil back and press against the seat while the heart rate rises. (PG-13) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 07/07/16)
The Purge: Election Year
Reviewed by Mike Ireland
The concept of the Purge films — in the near-future, a cadre of reactionary one-percenters (The New Founding Fathers of America) have instituted an annual Purge Night during which all crime is legal as a means of economic revival through the ritual extermination of America's underclass — has always seemed like a great premise in search of someone who could really exploit its potent cultural and political undercurrents.
After three attempts, however, it's beginning to look like series creator, writer-director James DeMonaco, is not that person.
Like George A. Romero's “Dead” trilogy, the scope of the Purge world has expanded with each film, from the home invasion scenario of the first installment to the urban streets of 2014's The Purge: Anarchy, and now to seat of the government responsible for it all, Washington D.C. In an election year, no less. And with each installment, the series has more clearly alluded to the real-life discontent and resentment that has surfaced in post-Bush America in the form of the Tea Party movement, the sub-prime mortgage crisis, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and increasingly hostile debates over immigration.
This time around, the socio-political subtext is made explicit: We are introduced to U.S. Senator Charlie Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell), who lost her family on the inaugural Purge Night and is now running for president on an anti-Purge platform. Predictably dirty political dealings have ended the immunity formerly granted government officials, but the populist Roan refuses the offer of protection in a government-appointed shelter.
As Roan settles in for the night under the watchful eye of Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo), former cop (in Anarchy) and now head of her Secret Service security detail, the TV runs stories about insurance companies cashing in on the event and the rise in "murder tourism" foreigners visiting on Purge Night to partake in the festivities. Activist Dante Bishop (Edwin Hodge) appears on camera calling the annual event "legalized murder" of the poor and people of color.
Soon enough, however, Charlie and Leo are out on the street, predictably running and hiding from their marauding fellow citizens and, as with both previous installments, any potential allegory or satire is lost amid a series of violent tableaux: a French Revolution-style guillotining; thugs decked out as Uncle Sam and the Statue of Liberty; Honest Abe wielding a baseball bat. Unexplained in all three films is how the event morphed into this sort of ultra-violent Halloween.
As the stars make their way across this bloody landscape they are aided by a rainbow coalition of sorts: local mom-and-pop deli owner Joe Dixon (Mykelti Williamson), his assistant Marcos (Joseph Julian Soria) and former miscreant Laney (Betty Gabriel), who has taken to running a makeshift ambulance service on Purge Nights.
It seems that DeMonaco wants to redeem this mess by espousing the need for community and tolerance as a tonic to such unbridled violence yet everything on the screen contradicts the sentiment. In scene after scene, the violence is lovingly depicted, sexualized and fetishized. Perhaps the most screen time is devoted to a pair of schoolgirls who arrive in vehicles wrapped in Christmas lights, then proceed to prance and gyrate in skimpy outfits (in slo-mo, of course) as they brag of killing their parents and brandish AR-15s.
A better filmmaker might take the opportunity to implicate his viewers in the Purgers' bloodlust. But after three installments, it's clear that DeMonaco prefers to revel in this violence, not reflect on it. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 07/07/16)
Swiss Army Man
Reviewed by Beck Ireland
In the feature film debut from DANIELS, the music video and commercial directorial team of Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, another Daniel — Daniel Radcliffe — plays the title character. This third Daniel, known to the entire world as Harry Potter, is now called Manny, named, with the same juvenile sardonicism that almost christened a British polar research ship Boaty McBoatface, in the script written by DANIELS. The in-joke is that Manny isn’t a man, exactly, but a former man; a corpse whose utility now supersedes his humanity.
To whom is Manny’s lifeless body useful? His new best friend Hank (Paul Dano), a lonely, suicidal castaway, finds Manny’s body washed up on the shore of the presumably deserted island. The film never discloses how long Hank has been in this remote location or how he got there. He’s unkempt with a scraggly beard, but his phone still has some battery power left. Later, Hank admits to running away from a life so unsatisfying and disappointing that what flashes before him as he attempts to bring about an early demise is a ride on a city bus.
As unthinkingly selfish as the little boy in Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree,” the original tale of indoctrination to male entitlement, Hank projects his needs, both physical and emotional, onto Manny, who is gradually regaining sentience and motility, though severely diminished. Still, Manny’s talents are largely corporeal and involuntary, and Hank exploits them unrelentingly, offering in exchange lessons in a developmentally stunted worldview. If Manny, dressed in a suit, asks childishly naïve questions, in his answers Hank reveals he’s the one stuck in a state of permanent adolescence.
The current darlings of the music video world, DANIELS have the potential to visually transform film. But not in the way they’re going about it in this feature-length debut. For all the startling winsomeness of some of the movie’s visual effects, the majority divulge an immaturity in DANIELS’s ability to tell a story. Every uplifting, sunlit fantasy is countered by at least three coarse or obscene sequences. This exhibits either a stubborn and bold indifference to what most viewers find repulsive in hopes of lowering the bar Judd Apatow style, or an unconscious filtering of the puerile minds belonging to a couple of man-children.
Let’s hope it’s the latter, and that DANIELS won’t waste their talents by entrenching their storytelling in mere defiance against etiquette. If anything demonstrates their talents, it’s their inclusion of the oddball score by Manchester Orchestra members Andy Hull and Robert McDowell, a phonic collage that combines diegetic sound with swelling orchestration. It’s beautiful and deserving of better subject matter than a farting corpse. After all, if we know everyone poops, why do they have to make a movie about it? (R) Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 07/06/16)
Reviewed by Bruce Rodgers
Few American filmmakers can capture for audiences the magic and wonder of childhood, together with the fear and delight new experiences can bring to the young, like Steven Spielberg.
The BFG (an acronym for “The Big Friendly Giant”), Spielberg’s newest film, is destined to become a classic in cinema much like E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, his earlier collaboration with screenwriter Melissa Mathison. The Oscar-nominated Mathison, who also wrote The Black Stallion and The Indian in the Cupboard, unfortunately died in late 2015 but her creative skills will live on. With The BFG, Mathison adapted Roald Dahl’s book about a kind, elderly giant who kidnaps an orphan girl.
Sophie, played by Ruby Barnhill, keeps to herself late at night, anxious and curious to see what the witching hour will bring, its precise time in dispute.
“It was the witching hour when the boogie man comes out,” she narrates at the beginning of The BFG. “The girls say the witching hour arrives at midnight, I think it comes at three in the morning when I’m the only one left awake.”
In bed, under her covers, reading by flashlight, Sophie is taken by the BFG (Mark Rylance), and hustled off to “giant country.” When Sophie’s asks why she was taken, the BFG answers, “Because I hears your lonely heart.”
Thus begins an unusual friendship, perfected to touch the young and young at heart no matter the age. Aided by an impeccable technical prowess in motion-capture, Rylance and his performance as the BFG comes alive — his face, his expressions, from worry to puzzlement to joy — give this film a special quality that helps transport us to a place away from skepticism and doubt, and into a story that reaffirms the possibilities that we can overcome our dark impulses by keeping to the creative optimism we held when young.
Rylance never overplays the part, giving it just the right amount of exaggerated and false menace, and tender, genuine concern for Sophie’s well being. Pitted against the much larger giants and picked upon as the “runt,” The BFG must protect Sophie from the human-eating tyrants with names like Fleshlumpeater and Bloodbottler, descriptions faithful to Dahl’s novel in a dialect known as gobblefunk.
Thankfully, the BFG is a vegetarian, subsisting mostly on a gross tubular vegetable called a snozzcumber, which can produce whizzpoppers, an expulsion of sound and smell we’ve all experience after eating certain foods. And the BFG catches dreams, calling them “whispers of the world” of which he delivers to sleeping children instead of eating them like his much-larger brethren.
As the giants torment the BFG in their pursuit to find Sophie, she devises a plan. They will see The Queen (Penelope Wilton) and ask for help. In a segment of the story that could have easily dragged the film down under a farcical anchor of total nonsense instead becomes a logical extension of Sophie’s thinking and resolution to the BFG’s problem with the other giants. Plus, the scene with the BFG dining with The Queen and Sophie is hilarious.
In the end, the bad giants are banished, not killed, the BFG goes back to his dream-delivering early morning work and Sophie forever has a story that — as the BFG describes — when “times will be hard, times will be soft,” a relatable statement be one human or giant. (PG) Rating: 4.5 (Posted 07/01/16)