Saturday, April 21, 2018

Review: The Rider

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
Coupled with the recent "Lean On Pete" - which also told a story about a boy who loved horses - Chloe Zhao's "The Rider," a measuredly paced drama about a rodeo rider attempting to overcome an injury in South Dakota, proves that foreign-born filmmakers can often provide unique takes on the western, that most American of film genres.

Set against stunning backdrops, Zhao's film takes a near documentary approach as it follows Brady Blackburn, a rodeo rider and horse trainer who is played by Brady Jandreau - who is now an actor, but was formerly a rodeo rider and horse trainer. There's a scene in the picture during which Brady trains a wild horse and the scene plays out in real time. From what I understand, this was not a scripted moment, but rather Zhao capturing Jandreau actually training a horse that ended up becoming a scene in the film

In other words, this is a fictional story, but more than a few moments are grounded in the real lives of the mostly nonprofessional actors portraying the characters. Brady - Blackburn, that is - has recently suffered a serious injury from rodeo riding, and has large staples - and, apparently, a metal plate - in his head to show for it. His doctors, father and sister, Lilly - who is autistic and played by Lilly Jandreau - advise him against riding again, but we know that advice will go unheeded.

Brady's closest friend is a guy named Lane (Lane Scott), a former rodeo rider who had a catastrophic accident that left him severely paralyzed and unable to speak. Brady sees the dangers of his passion in the state in which Lane has been left, but also can't tear himself away from it. As he waits for his wounds to heal, he trains two horses - Gus and a wild stallion named Apollo - and helps out a young man who wants to follow in Brady's footsteps.

Story is minimal in "The Rider" and characterization mostly takes place on faces. Jandreau is the silent, stoic type, although he does a great job of getting us inside the head of his character, despite his propensity for remaining quiet. Brady's life is one that has been filled with disappointment and tragedy. While his head bear the scars of his accident, he spends a quiet moment early in the film at his mother's grave. We don't hear the story of her death, but don't particularly need to. The film is also filled with devastatingly sad moments during which Brady sits in an assisted care facility with Lane as the two of them watch the latter's old rodeo videos.

This is a visually stunning movie. Zhao trains her camera on gorgeous vistas at sunrise, the magic hour and the nighttime - and the result is often breathtaking. "The Rider" is a slowly paced drama that mostly observes, rather than relies heavily on storytelling - and this goes a long way in creating the film's somber, dirge-like tone. Patient moviegoers who are interested seeing a story told in a corner of the United States that is mostly ignored by the movies will be duly rewarded.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Review: Truth Or Dare

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Until a terrifying film chronicling a deadly game of Spin the Bottle makes its way into theaters, Blumhouse's "Truth or Dare" is the most ridiculous game in town. With the recent success of "A Quiet Place" and the laudatory reception with which the upcoming "Hereditary" was met at Sundance, horror movies are once again making the case that they can be financially successfully works of artistic merit.

But not "Truth or Dare." This is one of the goofiest horror pictures I've seen in some time. The film opens in Mexico, where a young woman is hearing voices inside of a convenience store that tell her to light someone on fire. Shortly thereafter, a group of college students take a road trip to Mexico. Their group includes the brainy do gooder (Lucy Hale's Olivia), her bestie (Violett Beane's Markie), her pal's boyfriend (Tyler Posey's Lucas), a horndog (Sam Lerner's Ronnie), a gay pal (Hayden Szeto's Brad), a jerky medical school student (Nolan Gerard Funky's Tyson) and his girlfriend (Sophia Ali's Penelope). It's like "The Breakfast Club," but a version in which no one seemingly learns anything about each other or dances around a library.

At a bar, Lucy meets a mysterious guy named Carter (Landon Liboiron), who lures the group to a secluded and abandoned church, where they play Truth or Dare. As it turns out, a deadly round of the game had taken place formerly at the spot and - similar to the setup of "Final Destination," but minus the gore or thematically sound scenario - Carter must bring other people into the game to ward off his being chosen for another round.

As the film goes on, the game holds higher stakes - deep dark secrets are unleashed and dares become deadly. Those who opt out end up checking out, but in a bloodless manner because, hey, this is a PG-13 movie. The film is never particularly scary, especially when demonic forces take over the characters and give their face an annoyingly elastic look.

There's a particularly ludicrous moment in which the gang tracks down an elderly Mexican woman who once took part in a game with the demon that is tormenting the youths. For reasons I won't divulge, she can no longer speak, so there's an entire scene in which she is frantically writing down clues for the protagonists as they ponder ways to beat the game.

As ridiculous as the film's central concept is, "Truth or Dare" could have possibly been fun. But it's mostly a dreary entry into a long assembly line of movies about teenagers being picked off one by one by supernatural forces beyond their control. The truth is: you could do much better, considering the current and upcoming crop of horror movies.

Review: Zama

Image courtesy of Strand Releasing.
Don Diego de Zama is first seen standing - staring straight ahead - and striking a pose on the shore of a beach in a manner in which he likely believes that Christopher Columbus or some other famed explorer of the New World once struck. We can tell from the first shot of Lucrecia Martel's visually gorgeous and downright peculiar new film - her first in nine years - that the picture's titular character takes himself seriously. Unfortunately for him, no one else appears to.

In the film, Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is a bureaucrat who is stuck on an island somewhere in the New World in the late 18th century. He has been waiting in vain for a transfer from the governor that will enable him to move from the godforsaken place where he has been living and reunite with his family. Although Zama likely views his circumstances as veering toward tragic, they are presented as absurd.

Early in the film, Zama is busted while sneaking a glance at some native women who are nude on the beach. Shortly after being chased off by the women, he must deal with a native, who has been tied up by the authorities for reasons unknown. Upon finally deciding to free the man, the native runs headfirst into a door and tells Zama of a fish that swam in a body of water that wanted to expel it. This is the closest thing in the film to Martel actually spelling out her intentions, but the man's parable is an apt description of colonialism.

Zama's problems go from bad to worse. During the film's most absurdly funny moment, Zama's request for a transfer gets a major setback during a visit to a local government figure, who ridicules our hero as a llama prowls behind him and makes noises. Then, Zama's attempts to woo a noblewoman falls flat. Finally, he is sent off on a mission to track down a notorious criminal, only to be held captive by the man after first being kidnapped by a group of Indians covered in red paint.

I've often had mixed reactions to Martel's work, despite the critical acclaim that her pictures tend to draw. I liked "La Cienega," but "The Holy Girl" didn't quite work for me and "The Headless Woman" was, in my opinion, opaque in all the wrong ways. "Zama" is probably her best film to date. That doesn't mean I found it to be flawless, but it's certainly worthy of praise and likely to stick around in your head for a while after the fact.

The film is filled with memorable - and memorably strange - imagery: the aforesaid scene with the llama, a gorgeous sequence in which Zama and his men travel via horseback through a bright green swampy area and a final boat ride following a grim act of violence. Gimenez Cacho nails a tricky role - Zama is, for all extents and purposes, a figure of ridicule, but the actor plays the role with the requisite seriousness that allows for Zama to be the butt of visual gags. The film's odd twangs and jangly guitars on the soundtrack are jarring and add to the movie's overall strange ambiance.

This is not a film for everyone, but those who enjoy offbeat - yet substantive - cinema will no doubt want to miss "Zama." Although the picture shares some of the stylistic traits of Martel's previous works, it is more accessible than her most recent works and, in my opinion, more engaging.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Review: Lean On Pete

Image courtesy of A24.
For his past two films, director Andrew Haigh has explored characters with complicated pasts that are hinted at rather than shown as they find themselves taking on new challenges or revelations. In his previous film, "45 Years," a wife comes to terms with a secret from her husband's past. In Haigh's latest picture, the coming of age drama "Lean On Pete," a young man named Charlie (Charlie Plummer) finds himself adrift and on the run with a stolen horse.

We learn that Charlie's mother had run off years before and his deadbeat father, Ray (Travis Fimmel) - with whom Charlie now lives - had gotten into a fight with Charlie's aunt that led to an estrangement. Often left home alone by his womanizing father, Charlie spends his time jogging or milling about Portland, Oregon, where he and Ray have recently moved. He doesn't appear to be in school, but it is unclear at what season of the year the film is set.

One day while running, Charlie is summoned by a cantankerous man named Del (Steve Buscemi), who asks the boy to help him load up his truck. Del races horses and Charlie instantly becomes interested in the animals, especially one named Lean on Pete that takes a shine to the boy. Soon, Charlie finds himself working as an assistant to Del and traveling - along with a jockey named Bonnie (Chloe Sevigny) - to races.

But Charlie becomes nervous about Lean on Pete's future after he realizes that Del sells off horses once they begin losing races and that they are sent to be slaughtered in Mexico. This tension is doubled when Charlie's father is hospitalized after being gravely injured by a man with whose wife Ray was sneaking around. Upon failing to convince Del to spare Lean on Pete and Ray succumbing to his injury, the boy and horse flee on a cross-country odyssey, with the intention of seeking out Charlie's estranged aunt.

While the film's first half is an often moving, occasionally inspiring hard-luck story, its second half becomes increasingly heavy as Charlie's money begins to dwindle and he finds himself homeless. He is taken in by a seemingly friendly man (Steve Zahn), who becomes violent when drunk, and depends on the kindness of several strangers for food and shelter.

The film's greatest strength is its lived-in performances by the cast. Buscemi's character is gruff, but obviously has affection for Charlie - that is, until the boy threatens his bottom line. Sevigny's Bonnie is also a tough character, but mostly due to her own education in the school of hard knocks. A scene during which she rattles off the various injuries she has suffered as a jockey is particularly grueling. Even minor characters - such as one of Ray's flings, who cooks Charlie breakfast - are given enough characterization to make them feel like real people.

The story details of "Lean on Pete" feel familiar - a hard-knock upbringing story, a road trip storyline, characters skirting the poverty line and various coming of age elements that have been explored on film more times than I could count - but the execution is effective, and the writing and performances are strong - plus, the film makes great use of Oregon's gorgeous vistas. Haigh has a knack for capturing the way people speak, interact and withhold, and "Lean on Pete" exemplifies this.

Review: You Were Never Really Here

Image courtesy of Amazon Studios.
When it comes to portraying characters in states of emotional distress, few filmmakers do so as convincingly as Scottland's Lynne Ramsay. The director - who has only made four films in 18 years - frequently focuses on individuals who are tormented by bleak existences or tragedy, such as the young boy in "Ratcatcher," the girlfriend of a man who committed suicide in the haunting "Morvern Callar" or the parents of a school shooter in "We Need to Talk About Kevin."

In "You Were Never Really Here," Joaquin Phoenix loses himself in the role of Joe, who is easily the most disturbed individual to appear in a Ramsay film to date. As the picture opens, Joe is carrying out some form of self punishment as he nearly suffocates himself with a plastic bag over his head. During a later moment, he drops a knife toward his feet, moving it out of the way in the knick of time, while talking to his aging mother (Judith Roberts) through the bathroom door.

"You Were Never Really Here" has drawn some comparisons to Martin Scorsese's iconic "Taxi Driver" since its lead character is an avenging angel in New York City. In Ramsay's film, her protagonist is a victim of childhood abuse and former soldier with PTSD who works as a hired hand to a detective (played by John Doman of "The Wire"). Joe's jobs tend to involve rescuing young girls from abuse - namely, sex trafficking rings - and his weapon of choice is a ball peen hammer. Upon being hired by a senator whose daughter has been kidnapped by a pedophiliac prostitution ring, Joe is told by his new employer that he has been chosen due to his known penchant for being "brutal."

Ramsay makes a number of fascinating stylistic choices in the film, including her decision to rarely show Joe's acts of violence. Rather, the camera often cuts away from him as he raises his hammer to strike an adversary, or we see the bloody aftermath of his work. Another noteworthy stylistic trait of the picture is its use of flashbacks. There is very little characterization - and Joe rarely says much - and Ramsay lets the images tell the story. We see brief shots - obviously set in the past - of a dead soldier's feet (perhaps a fellow soldier who served with Joe?), a young boy hiding in a closet (obviously Joe) and a woman cowering under a table, while a man walks by carrying a hammer (an explanation for Joe's weapon of choice?).

Phoenix gives an incredible performance here, especially since he has so little dialogue. During one sequence, he observes a green jellybean and slowly crushes it - and the scene tells us more about his character than dialogue might in a lesser film. It's also interesting to see how Joe, although brutal in his work, can be compassionate. He cares for his aging mother, rubbing her feet in one scene and doting on her throughout the course of the picture. Joe also appears to view himself as a protector of the young girls whom he tracks down.

In one of the film's most oddly effective moments, Joe shoots an intruder who has been sent to his house after he has become entangled in a conspiracy as a result of saving the senator's daughter. While the man is dying, Joe doesn't pump him for information. Instead, he gives the man a painkiller and the two end up singing along to Charlene's "I've Never Been to Me," which plays on the radio in Joe's kitchen.

Clocking in just under 90 minutes, "You Were Never Really Here" is a lean, brutal, often visually stunning and powerful film about a disturbed individual. I'm not sure it's a masterpiece, as some critics have hailed it, but it's impressive nonetheless. Ramsay typically waits years between films - nine years between her second and third film and seven between her third and this one - so "YouWere Never Really Here" is also a welcome opportunity to watch a distinctive, if often inactive, talent at work. And Phoenix, who is one of the best actors working right now, provides a mesmerizing and challenging performance. Ramsay's film is not always easy to watch due to its grim content, but I have no doubt that it'll leave a mark on those who view it.

Review: Blockers

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
Much like 2011's "Bridesmaids," the raunchy new "Blockers" turns the sex comedy on its ear. The film has two sets of protagonists - three girls who have been best friends since childhood and are now planning to carry out a pact to lose their virginity on prom night during their senior year, and the three overprotective parents who learn of the pact and do everything in their power to prevent it from coming to fruition. In comedies of years past, the parents' foibles might have been the butt of the jokes, but ultimately the daughters' would learn that their parents meant well and, most likely, all decide to hold off on the sex.

In this picture, however, the parents - played adeptly by John Cena, Leslie Mann and Ike Barinholtz - are the butt of nearly all the jokes, and the daughters are viewed as being more balanced and sane. The picture was directed by Kay Cannon - whose previous work included "30 Rock" and the "Pitch Perfect" movies - and she wisely incorporates a running theme throughout "Blockers" that the three teenage girls are not damsels in distress. Or, as one of them tells their hovering parent, she doesn't need to be saved.

Also, in the era of #MeToo and women confronting abuse in Hollywood, it is refreshing for a movie to treat young women's sexuality as something that does not need to be approved of or decided by men. During one of the film's better scenes, the three snooping parents are busted by one of their spouses (played by Sarayu Blue), who poses a good question: Why is it no big deal when young men lose their virginity, whereas parents often freak out when a young woman decides to lose hers?

It also helps that the three young women - Julie (Kathryn Newton), Kayla (Geraldine Viswanathan) and Sam (Gideon Adlon) - playing the daughters are also great comediennes and have well developed characters. Julie plans to lose her virginity to a longtime boyfriend, while Kayla - who is the best character of the bunch - has decided that she wants to get it over with, and plans to sleep with her man-bun wearing prom date, who seemingly has an endless supply of drugs and rubs Cena's father the wrong way. Sam also joins in on the pact, but is secretly a lesbian who is harboring a crush on a girl named Angelica (Ramona Young).

While the humor involving the daughters stems from the concept that women can be just as vulgarly funny as men, the jokes involving the parents are more broad, but equally humorous. Cena - a pro wrestler who has a knack for comedy - is Mitchell, a proud parent who gets overly emotional regarding anything involving his daughter. Mann's single mom Lisa has become emotionally clingy toward Julie, realizing that she will soon leave for college. Barinholtz gets a number of laughs as deadbeat dad Hunter, who wants to have a better relationship with his child.

One of the film's most outrageous gags involves Cena getting roped into a beer chugging competition that involves sticking the hose in his rectum. That was funny, but I laughed even harder at the recurring gag involving Gina Gershon and Gary Cole as two other parents with a penchant for role playing.

"Blockers" is, for the most part, a very funny movie. There are a lot of gags thrown at the audience. Some work more than others, but it is on the whole funnier than your average Hollywood comedy. It also helps that the film's characters require some emotional investment, and the writer and directors make the liberation of young women a central theme. Too often, the sexual appetites of women are either frowned upon or the butt of jokes in films such as this one - but in this case, it's the ones who fear liberated women at whom we laugh. "Blockers" takes the worn-out horny teenagers genre and gives it a clever spin.

Review: A Quiet Place

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
Making great use of both sound and the lack of it, actor-director John Krasinski makes a surprisingly strong bid to become one of the new voices of horror with "A Quiet Place," a nerve shredding exercise that manages to tell a wonderfully hair raising story with virtually no dialogue.

The film is yet another in a long line of post-apocalyptic films in which the survivors of some type of fallout - in this case, the takeover of Earth by large, monstrous creatures that are blind, but have advanced hearing and, therefore, hunt by sound - attempt to survive. But while the setup is cliched, the execution is anything but.

Krasinski plays the patriarch of a family hiding out in a somewhat sound-proofed house in the middle of nowhere. Only one other human is seeing during the entire course of the picture other than the family. The picture opens with a tragedy. Krasinski's Lee and his wife, Evelyn (played by his actual wife, Emily Blunt), are making a trip to an abandoned supermarket with their three children - Marcus (Noah Jupe), Beau (Cade Woodward) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who is mostly deaf.

Beau wants to take a toy airplane from the shop, but once his parents recognize that it is battery operated and, therefore, prone to make sound, they gently tell him no. But Regan feels sympathy for her brother, snatches the toy and gives it to him. On their trek back home, Beau turns on the airplane and is quickly snatched away by one of the film's creatures.

Months later, the family is going about its routine, but Evelyn is once again pregnant. This was my one bone to pick with the film. If the family's survival is incumbent upon their remaining quiet, why would Lee and Evelyn decide to bring another child - whose noise levels cannot likely be contained - into their home? It would seem that this plot thread was included in the film for the purpose of creating tension once the baby is born - which it does.

The most remarkable aspect of "A Quiet Place" is how well it utilizes silence and the occasional sound. By the picture's midway point, the audience has become so accustomed to the silence that whenever a sound is made - especially by the film's human characters - it is jarring and causes the heart to pound. Every time a noise sneaks in, we have to wonder whether it will draw the attention of the creatures.

For a movie in which dialogue is so scarce, it's also a wonder that the film's characters feel so fleshed out and that we can relate to them. Regan feels guilt over her brother's death and sees herself as the family's outcast. Marcus wants to be more courageous, while Evelyn and Lee wrestle with the fact that they might not be able to adequately protect their children. There was at least one sequence late in the film that drew an emotional response from the audience with which I saw the movie. This speaks to Krasinski's skills as a director and the cast's talents.

"A Quiet Place" struck me as a film that could become a sleeper hit - and it would be warranted. This is a clever, very well made, often excruciatingly intense and emotionally resonant horror movie. It also has one of the best final shots in a horror film in recent memory. Krasinki's previous work behind the camera would not have suggested that he'd be an adept horror filmmaker, so "A Quiet Place" is a genuine surprise and an indicator that the actor-director can be added to the roster of filmmakers who make smart, thoughtful movies that transcend their genres. For a film that often borders on being a silent movie, "A Quiet Place" is a scream.