Sunday, January 21, 2018

Review: Mom And Dad

Image courtesy of Momentum Pictures.
As far as farces go, "Mom and Dad" isn't quite as clever as it thinks it is, nor as subversive as it purports to be. That being said, it's often pretty amusing, mostly due to a completely unhinged performance by Nicolas Cage, the master of such things.

The film's last line best summarizes Brian Taylor's comedic horror movie, "We love you kids, but sometimes we want to..." In the tradition of such films as "28 Days Later" or the numerous "Living Dead" pictures, "Mom and Dad" features some sort of outbreak - in this case, it's one that turns parents against their children. Some talking heads on news channels make the case that it could be a biological attack that causes the species to eliminate its young, therefore terminating its future, but "Mom and Dad" is not particularly interested in fleshing out the particulars.

In some suburb somewhere, Carly (Anne Winters) and Josh (Zackary Arthur) live with their parents, Brent (Cage) and Kendall (Selma Blair). None of the clan - except, perhaps, Josh - is functioning normally, even before the outbreak. Carly steals from her mother's wallet and has a "who cares?" attitude toward school and life in general. Brent is fantasizing about his formative years when he drove around in a muscle car with a topless girl and becomes frustrated after the construction of his man cave, pool table included, goes awry. Kendall takes aerobics classes to stay in shape and is generally bored now that her children have lives of their own.

An early series of scenes is both creepy and good for a laugh after the outbreak begins and teens look quizzically at the gates of their school, where their parents are lined up, perhaps, a little too eagerly to pick them up. A bloodbath then commences. Carly and Josh do their best to survive, along with the help of Carly's secret boyfriend, Damon (Robert T. Cunningham), who continuously takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

If "Mom and Dad" isn't as sharp of a satire as it might think, its selling points are Blair and Cage, both of whom get some good scenes. In recent years, Cage has frequently appeared in lower budget films, providing dialed up performances that often border on insanity - most notably, Werner Herzog's wonderfully weird "Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans." The actor gets a few particularly bonkers sequences here - the destruction of his pool table and his enthusiasm for a drill, particularly - and they are fun to watch.

While my overall enthusiasm for "Mom and Dad" is somewhat tepid - it aims to be a satire, but never really pays off as one - it is a movie made up of interesting moments that, unfortunately, never cohere into a fully realized vision. In other words, it's not bad, especially for those who seek out midnight movie material - this is one that might fit that bill.

Review: Den Of Thieves

Image courtesy of STX Entertainment.
Christian Gudegast's "Den of Thieves" is a moderately entertaining heist drama, albeit an unoriginal one. While the picture moves along pretty swiftly - despite its two-hour-20-minute running time - and features a few well-handled action sequences, the biggest takeaway from the film is that its director has been watching a lot of Michael Mann movies.

Not only does the tension between lead cop Nick Flanagan (Gerard Butler) and top crook Merrimen (Pablo Schreiber) feel noticeably similar to that of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Mann's "Heat," but its shootouts and storylines - especially one involving Butler's crumbling marriage, which resembles that of Pacino in "Heat" - feel directly pinched from that superior 1995 movie. Plus, the ending of "Den of Thieves" appears to steal from yet another movie - "The Usual Suspects."

But for a film that not-so-subtly borrows from others, you could do worse than "Den of Thieves," which is often intense and makes great use of Los Angeles as a backdrop. In the film, Flanagan is a rogue cop who describes himself as the "bad guy." It's hard to argue with him. He dabbles in police brutality, cheats on his wife and is of the school of shoot first, ask questions later.

The gang - or den, rather - of thieves that he is pursuing is led by Merrimen, who is no saint himself. In an early scene, he and his crew shoot up a group of security officers who are transferring money in an armored truck and he makes no qualms about letting loose a barrage of gunfire during a crowded traffic jam. One of the film's great frustrations is Merrimen's motivation. At one point, one of the cops investigating him points out his military service and asks what his deal is - in other words, what made him take the crooked path. We never find out.

Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson is Merrimen's top lieutenant, but his character is given little to do than act tough, although there is a modestly amusing scene during which he scares his daughter's prom date. O'Shea Jackson Jr. is given more to do as Merrimen's getaway driver and his character might be the most interesting of the entire film. I can't elaborate too much, but suffice it to say that Jackson gets the meatiest role here. In terms of plot, "Den of Thieves" is one in a long line of pictures about an impossible heist - in this case, the seemingly impenetrable Los Angeles Federal Reserve Bank.

"Den of Thieves" is a decent enough action thriller. Whether it's recommendable would depend, in part, on a viewer's tolerance for watching recycled material. In this case, much has been borrowed. That being said,  the picture is skillfully made. Narratively, you won't see anything you haven't already seen dozens of times, but Gudegast has the ability to squeeze some exciting and well-shot sequences out of tired material. Let's just hope that his next effort is a little more original.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Review: Proud Mary

Image courtesy of Screen Gems.
"Proud Mary" has its moments and Taraji P. Henson provides evidence here that she is leading lady material, but the actress also deserves a better showcase for her talents. The picture is an occasionally amusing, but overly familiar batch of cliches in a story about a criminal hoping to go on the straight and narrow. In most films of this sort, the protagonist aims to change their ways as the result of a love interest - in this case, it's a kid.

Rather than wasting any time with back story - that comes later - the picture jumps right in with the titular character, a top figure in and assassin for a Boston-based crime syndicate (although we never quite figure out the line of business here - drugs maybe?), killing a man in his kitchen and then having a crisis of conscience after noticing a young boy playing video games in another room.

One year later, Mary is following the boy, Danny (Jahi Di Allo Winston), around and keeping an eye on him. As it turns out, he is working for her syndicate's rival crime organization - which is run by Russians - and being abused by a nasty boss. Mary steps in, whacks the boss, saves the boy and takes him in. He, of course, is unaware that Mary is responsible for his being an orphan.

Much of the picture follows the increasing tension between the two crime factions - Mary's is led by a steely Danny Glover - as well as her trying to keep the secret that her killing of the young boy's boss is what set off the tension in the first place. It also doesn't help that Mary's former lover, Tom (Billy Brown), who is also Glover's son, is nosing around and doesn't appear to be pleased that Mary is sheltering the kid.

Typically, my complaint with most American action films is that they are loaded with nonstop violence and provide little in the way of characterization. In other words, it's difficult to care what is taking place because the people at the center of such movies are lacking in personality. "Proud Mary" has the opposite problem. Its action scenes are skillfully handled - albeit relying on cliches of the genre and often a little preposterous - but the scenes in which characters talk to one another do little to make the story more interesting.

Henson is a fine actress with great screen presence, but the story surrounding her character is like nearly every other story of a killer attempting to quit a life of crime. The back stories of her involvement with Glover's crime boss and Tom are too vague to be compelling and the scenes with Danny mostly involve her snapping at the kid to watch his mouth and mind his manners.

From the film's opening titles to the use of classic tunes by The Temptations and Ike and Tina Turner (guess which one), "Proud Mary" aims to capture the aura of blaxploitation crime dramas from the 1970s. But those films - at least some of the better ones, such as the Pam Grier pictures that this one appears to emulate - were grittier and frequently offered a layer of subtext that is missing here. "Proud Mary" may keep on turnin', but I doubt it will have you rollin' on the river.

Review: The Commuter

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
It's winter, which means that it's about that time for another thriller directed by Jaume Collet-Sera and featuring Liam Neeson as an unlikely action star and everyman with a past caught up in dangerous circumstances.

Nearly every winter for the past however many years has seen entries into the Neeson action hero saga, starting with "Taken" and including two sequels to that film, 2011's "Unknown," 2014's "Non-Stop" and 2015's "Run All Night."

In this latest entry, Neeson plays Michael McCauley, a former cop turned businessman who is having one of those days. McCauley is laid off from the life insurance firm at which he works at the film's beginning and within moments of getting onto a New York City subway, he is pickpocketed - for the record, I've lived in New York for 15 years and have never known anyone who has been pickpocketed, at least, not in the melodramatic fashion in which it occurs in this film.

Once he is onboard a Long Island Rail Road train and headed for home, McCauley is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga), who pretends to be some sort of psychologist and poses what appears to be a rhetorical question as to whether McCauley would accept money in exchange for "one small thing," a seemingly easy task that could affect the life of another person on the train.

When McCauley realizes that the question is not rhetorical and has accepted the money, he finds himself involved in a labyrinthine, Hitchcockian scenario in which he must locate someone onboard the train who is holding onto a piece of valuable information on which some very bad people want to get their hands. McCauley must decide whether he wants to remain involved in the scenario - of course, his son is about to start college and he could really use the money. As time goes on, he realizes that he has no choice, but to remain involved (I mean, seriously, how many films can there be in which Liam Neeson's family is threatened?).

"The Commuter" is fairly entertaining as McCauley begins to put the pieces together regarding the film's central mystery. It is also completely preposterous, bordering on ludicrous. Neeson, as always, is pretty game and appears always to be on the verge of cracking a knowing smile that the material with which he is working is that of a B-grade thriller. But there are a few set pieces that are fairly well handled and the picture moves along at a brisk pace. In other words, it's entertaining enough, but pretty silly. Whether you'll consider this an endorsement is on you.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Review: Insidious: The Last Key

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Unless your name is George Romero, horror movie series rarely pay off the longer they go on. There have been numerous great horror pictures that have been bogged down with lousy, unnecessary sequels. "Insidious" has long since run out of inspiration. The first film in the series - directed by James Wan - was frightening and inventive. The three films that have followed in its wake, not so much.

That being said, "The Last Key" isn't as much of a slog as the second and third entries in this series, and this is mostly due to the fact that Lin Shaye - portraying, once again, psychic Elise Rainier - is the lead in the film. This is a wise choice. Shaye has long been one of the more interesting elements of the "Insidious" series, although I'm not sure this necessitated a backstory for her character.

The movie opens in New Mexico in the early 1950s as Elise is a young girl living in a very haunted house with her younger brother, kindhearted mother and nasty, abusive father, who constantly punishes Elise for her extrasensory talents. In her teens, Elise runs away from home, leaving behind her young brother.

Most of the film is set in 2010 slightly before the events of the original "Insidious" film. Elise and her two cohorts - Specs (played by screenwriter Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) - are called to investigate Elise's childhood home, where a new owner - who's a little fishy himself - is complaining of poltergeists. Once there, she runs into her long estranged brother and his two daughters, and some familial drama is blended with the various jump scares that the picture liberally employs.

I'll say this for director Adam Robitel - there are a few spooky scenes here, especially an early one involving two kids in a dark room and a whistle. Many of the film's scenes take place in the dark and the filmmakers make good use of it. Unfortunately, they also - as I previously mentioned - fall back on the generic horror trope of the jump scare. This is, of course, when a camera wanders seemingly aimlessly around a room, at first spotting nothing, and then throwing something (a creepy face, a flash of a quickly moving ghost) into the frame. It's a cheap tactic that occasionally elicits the response for which it is seeking, but it doesn't make it any cheaper or less imaginative.

The picture mostly belongs to Shaye, who appears to be having a good time in this series. She's often a delight to watch and Whannell and Sampson make for decent sidekicks - although a joke they continuously repeat regarding this becomes tired quickly. "The Last Key" is mostly a generic horror sequel. It has a few scares and a laugh or two, but the most promising element of the entire endeavor is the use of the word "last" in the title.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

The Best Movies Of 2017

"The Florida Project," image courtesy of A24.
Although I wouldn't go as far as some film writers who have proclaimed 2017 a banner year for filmmaking, it ended up being a pretty decent one after all. My top three films were all ones from the heart - occasionally heartwarming, but just as often heartbreaking - and by filmmakers who had never cracked my top 10 before.

A few directors who I would consider old favorites made appearances on my list as well as a couple of pictures that were great examples of genre filmmaking. At least one film in my top 10 could cause you to have fall-outs with family and friends should you recommend it to them.

Review: Happy End

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Austria's Michael Haneke has been one of Europe's most reliably interesting filmmakers in recent years, so it's a disappointment that "Happy End" - a sequel, of sorts, to 2012's masterful "Amour" - doesn't quite work. Similar to some of his earlier works, Haneke's latest is another of the type of European art film that, popular in the 1960s and 1970s, attacked the values and lifestyles of the bourgeoisie. "Happy End" doesn't take a satirical approach to this type of material - as Luis Bunuel or Pier Paolo Pasolini might have done - but is more in line with Haneke's bleak films from the 1980s and 1990s.

The picture centers around the Laurent family, which is led by paterfamilias Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), whose character was one of the two leads in "Amour," and includes daughter Anne (Isabelle Huppert), who runs the family's construction business, as well as surgeon son Thomas (Matthieu Kassovitz), his second wife, Anais (Laura Verlinden), and Pierre (Franz Rogowski), Anne's seemingly troubled son. Eve (Fantine Harduin), Thomas' 13-year-old daughter from his first marriage, comes to live with the family after her mother has put herself into a coma via an overdose of sedatives.

Haneke frequently uses gadgets - such as cell phones and online chatting - to portray communication between the characters or present their worldview. For example, Eve records various depressing visual anecdotes, such as the time she fed her hamster sedatives or a final sequence - which happens to be one of the film's most memorable images - during which the possibly senile Georges makes his own attempt at suicide. And Thomas carries on an online love affair with a cellist that is mostly portrayed through their various kinky texts and emails.

And therein lies one of the film's problems. Using technology to move a story forward is a tricky thing. Take Olivier Assayas' marvelous "Personal Shopper" as an example of a picture that utilizes this to its full potential, during a scene in which two characters have a creepy conversation via texting. In "Happy End," the use of texts, emails, iPhone footage and other gadgetry is overdone and it takes some time to figure out who is contacting whom.

Also, the various storylines are not filled out enough to make much of an impact. The picture opens with an impressively shocking collapse of a work construction site. Much of Anne's problems in the film revolve around a potential lawsuit from that accident and whether her wayward son can get involved in the family business and remain reliable during the crisis. Trintignant is given the most to do and the film's most impactful sequence involves his talking to his granddaughter about her morbid habits.

Haneke is a great filmmaker. Three of his past five films - "Cache," "The White Ribbon" and "Amour" - have been remarkable and his filmography also includes the powerful "Time of the Wolf" and engrossing "Code Unknown." "Happy End" is not a bad film - it certainly didn't turn me off in the way that "Funny Games" and its remake did - but merely a misfire with a handful of interesting scenes and a solid late performance by Trintignant. Haneke has made better films and I expect he'll make others that are better than this one.