Sunday, September 27, 2015

Review: 99 Homes

Image courtesy of Broad Green Pictures.
Director Ramin Bahrani has, surprisingly, made a career of crafting serious message movies and morality plays - and I don't mean that pejoratively - for adults in an era when producers mostly want to throw their money behind YA adaptations and franchise films. And he's increasingly been able to draw name actors as his leads.

His latest, "99 Homes," is one of his best and certainly among his most intense and tightly wound. In the film, a struggling-for-jobs construction worker named Dennis Nash (Andrew Garfield) lives with in Orlando with his mother (Laura Dern) and young son (Noah Lomax). As the picture opens, he finds that he is losing his home during a visit by some particularly unpleasant police officers and a sleazy real estate broker, Rick Carver (Michael Shannon), who have come to evict the family.

Through a strange twist of fate and, mostly, desperation, Nash goes to work for Carver in an attempt to get his home back. He begins doing odd jobs, such as fixing up properties where families have been given the boot, but ultimately becomes Carver's underling, assisting in throwing out families similar to his own. In some ways, the relationship between Nash and Carver mirrors the one between Charlie Sheen and Michael Douglas in "Wall Street," but most of the characters in this film aren't successful day traders, but people whom the system has failed.

This all leads to some extremely intense moments, including one in which a homeowner brandishing a gun suggests that Nash step off his property and another in which a man Nash evicted spots him and his family at the hotel where they are staying until he is able to move back into his old home.

It's also interesting that while Carver is the obvious villain of the film, he reminded me a bit of Daniel Day Lewis' iconic Daniel Plainview from "There Will Be Blood." You recognize that he's a bad guy, but he occasionally has a good point about human nature and you understand that his greed was borne out of his own past struggles. In this case, Carver tells a story about how he intends to be different from his father, a lower class roofer whom the system also failed.

Bahrani's films - "Man Push Cart," "Chop Shop," "At Any Price" and, my personal favorite, "Goodbye Solo" as well as this new one - all depict characters at difficult points in their lives, struggling to make decisions by differentiating between the right thing to do and what's necessary. His films are very much set in the real world and one could rightfully call him a humanist.

Michael Shannon has long been an actor on the rise and his performance as Rick Carver is a particularly good one. While you could easily write him off as a crook and a villainous individual, you also can't deny the very human elements of his character. And Garfield's strong work here as Nash will quickly help you to forget his recent "Spider-man" follies. Dern is also very good as his mother, who is torn between finding a home for her grandchild and being upright.

"99 Homes" is a powerful drama that plays like a thriller and, at times, it is grueling. It depicts people who have slipped between the cracks and are having a seemingly impossible time getting a foothold again. And its depiction of real estate ownership as a measurement of belonging as well as the desperation involved in trying to hold onto what you have in a system that, as Carver puts it, "favors the winners" is especially harrowing.

Review: The Intern

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Let's get this out of the way first: no, Nancy Meyers' "The Intern" does not exist in a particularly realistic world and, yes, if Robert De Niro's character were any more upright, he'd be a lamppost. That being said, the film charmed me more than I'd expected it to, largely because of its good nature, but also due to De Niro's likability and screen presence.

In the film, De Niro plays Ben Whitaker, a retiree without many hobbies or friends and whose wife died a few years prior. Ben, who was previously an executive at a phonebook printing company, has a hole in his life and he decides to fill it by taking part in a senior citizen internship program at an up-and-coming online clothing retail company that is headed by Jules (Anne Hathaway), a workaholic with little time to suffer fools.

You can't quite call the film a rom com since romance has little to do with it, but how about a friend-com? And since this film is one of those, the story naturally involves De Niro's optimist becoming friends with his tightly wound boss, who, as it turns out, has a few struggles she needs to work through.

De Niro has been in comedies before and he's a funny guy (and, of course, a terrific actor), but I never remember him playing someone so, well, sweet before. Ben is the type of person who goes out of his way to help those in his immediate circle - in this case, his co-workers and boss.

As I'd mentioned before, his unfailing uprightness and willingness to help virtually anyone who asks at any given moment make his character border on the unbelievable. But this film has its heart in the right place and I can't fault it for that, especially considering that I saw the film in a double feature with "The Green Inferno."

Hathaway is also good here, playing a strong career woman whose work struggles (it's a long story, but she's searching for a CEO for her company) occasionally block out her problems at home - she has a young daughter and a husband, who, let's say, has some faults.

Meyers has made a career of crafting genial comedies about relationships and the differences between men and women - sometimes successfully ("What Women Want" and "Something's Gotta Give") and other times less so ("The Holiday"). "The Intern" is a charming film and a good natured one. It may require some occasional suspension of disbelief, but the picture is so polished and cheerful, that it's difficult not to oblige.

Review: The Green Inferno

Image courtesy of BH Tilt.
It's a good thing that Pope Francis didn't catch a screening of Eli Roth's "The Green Inferno" during his trip to the U.S. Aside from his likely being offended at the relentlessly grotesque images of human bodies being dismembered, disemboweled and torn to pieces, he might have been taken aback at the picture's endless criticisms of activists or people who get involved with crises in order to make the world a better place.

Don't get me wrong - the activists in Roth's film are naive, almost unbelievably so, but the degree to which he makes them suffer shows a worldview of apathy and disgust at people with causes. If you think I'm reading too much into a movie that is a throwback to the notorious Italian cannibal films of the 1970s and early 1980s, then take this quote straight from the horse's mouth - or, in this case, from the mouth of Sky Ferreira, playing the lead character's roommate in "Inferno," when she spouts off that "activism is so fucking gay."

In Roth's previous films, "Hostel" for example, the story has focused on ugly Americans abroad getting their comeuppance and, in his latest, it's so-called do gooders. Similar to his previous works, the nicest characters are the ones who suffer most and longest and the one thing that his latest film has in common with the rest of his oeuvre is the concept that Americans shouldn't travel abroad because foreigners are only interested in torturing or, in this case, eating them.

I've digressed quite a bit here. As I'd mentioned before, "The Green Inferno" is an homage to the mostly disreputable cannibal film sub-genre that included such nauseating cult classics as "Cannibal Ferox" and "Cannibal Holocaust," the latter of which also had sociopolitical themes tucked away between its barrage of real animal killings and dismemberment sequences. In fact, the documentary being shot by the film crew in "Holocaust" was titled "The Green Inferno."

But while "Holocaust" was entirely too troubling (mixed messages and repellent animal killings) to be called a good film, it was much more artistically sound than "Inferno." Ruggero Deodato's film had some merits - occasionally gorgeous cinematography, a few unforgettable shots and a surprisingly lovely score by Riz Ortolani - whereas Roth's is merely content to lay on the gore.

And lay it on he does. Although I'll give the filmmakers credit for some great set design (the cannibals' village), what follows after Justine (Lorenza Izzo, Roth's wife) and her activist pals are captured by the cannibal tribe and are brought to their village is not for the feint of heart. Technically, yes, the eye gouging, tongue ripping, limb chopping, decapitation, skin flaying and flesh eating sequence in which the group's nicest character is tortured to death is well-handled in terms of realism. But did I need to see that?

And the rest of the film attempts to juggle humor with the horrific violence, mostly unsuccessfully. The scene in which the activists attempt to get the natives high by sticking a large bag of weed in the throat of their dead compatriot who is next to be cooked was sorta funny. But the sequence in which a young woman is conflicted with diarrhea and another in which the over-the-top activist villain masturbates after another character's throat is slashed - well, not so much.

I'm still convinced that Roth could have a great horror movie in him. He knows his stuff and I've found him to be clever in small doses (enjoyed his work in "Inglourious Basterds" and his "Thanksgiving" trailer in "Grind House" was pretty brilliant), but his features have mostly turned me off. Roth has seemingly long been imitating Lucio Fulci, the gore-master whose films emphasized closeups of explicit violence, when a better role model might be Dario Argento, whose pictures are just as violent but with more style, actual frights and atmosphere.

There are a few moments when I can appreciate "The Green Inferno" for its technical prowess (you can say many things, but you can't argue that Roth isn't fully committed to this particular genre, animal killings thankfully excluded), but there are not enough of them for me to overlook the film's gleeful sadism and jaded worldview.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Guest Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Review by Ulysses de la Torre

For American moviegoers of a certain age, "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." poses a unique challenge in managing expectations. First, there is whatever memory still exists of the original TV series. Personally, I have fading memories of watching the reruns in the early 1980s and generally recall it as the less impressive cousin to "Mission Impossible" and "The Saint" among the era's few shows serializing Cold War intrigue. Second, there is what we have come to expect of the spy thriller genre as a whole in modern cinema. Finally, there is what we have come to expect of Guy Ritchie.

With that said, the opening sequence of "U.N.C.L.E." is as good as any from each of those templates. Whatever you're looking for in a spy thriller's first scene, it's all there. And from there, it depends on what you're looking for next.

Those trained to look for the puppet strings will find them all too easily, beginning in the very next scene, in which Jared Harris, playing Henry Cavill's boss, convenes a meeting whose only purpose is to shove the premise of the movie down the audience's throat. Exposition is always a tricky business and how a movie script handles it tends to be the strongest signal of how adept the rest of the film will be in its execution.

In this case, the exposition scene accurately telegraphs what is to come: a story that lumbers through clunky dialogue, made clunkier by actors struggling to establish chemistry amid enough extraneous plot gimmickry to raise the question of who doesn't trust the audience to pay attention. Meanwhile, a contrived romantic tension between Armie Hammer and Alicia Vikander raises the question of who doesn't trust the actors to do their jobs.

Unlike the ongoing "Mission Impossible" or James Bond franchises, "U.N.C.L.E" has not rebooted to set its story in the modern era, but rather sticks to its original 1960s setting. This is neither objectively good or bad, but does pose certain limitations to how action sequences proceed. Technological gadgetry, for example, is nothing like what we see in espionage fare with more contemporary settings, but then it shouldn't be. Other scenes - escapes from a high-security shipping yard and the villain's compound, for example - are impressive for what they achieve given their restrictive setup.

Now we come to expectations of director Guy Ritchie, whose involvement was the single reason I made an effort to see this in a theater. And I came out of it remembering two things: 1. I respect any artist's attempt to expand his or her repertoire and 2. expanding one's repertoire necessarily requires confronting new challenges whose outcome may be difficult to accept for those with preconceived expectations.

The Ritchie brand of action-oriented dynamism defined by "Snatch," "RocknRolla," "Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" and even "Sherlock Holmes" is without a doubt on display. But there is something about it in a spy thriller construct - or maybe just this particular spy thriller construct, with this particular script - that falls short of what he did when English gangsters and English detectives were at his disposal.

The closing sequence of "U.N.C.L.E." leaves open the possibility of this being the first of a new franchise. If there is a sequel, I'll give it one more try, with or without Ritchie in the director's chair. But I will definitely go in with lower expectations.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Review: Sicario

Image courtesy of Lionsgate.
The year's most nerve wracking movie isn't a horror film, but Denis Villeneuve's "Sicario," a deeply disturbing and intense drama that focuses on a battle between federal agents and cartels along the U.S.-Mexico border. There's a sense of unease that is first felt as a group of agents are seen descending on a home in the film's opening sequence that lasts through to the end when the film's lead character doesn't feel safe in her own home following an unsettling visit.

In the picture, Emily Blunt plays Kate, an idealistic federal agent whose specialty is kidnappings related to Mexican drug cartels. In the movie's first scene, she and her team find a house where one of the cartels has stored the decomposing bodies of numerous enemies or people who got in the way of its business.

Shortly thereafter, Kate is recruited to work with an elite - but shadowy - government task force led by an operative known only as Matt (Josh Brolin) and his cohort - a quiet, but frighteningly intense man, Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who has more than a few unpleasant methods of getting people to talk to him.

"Sicario" is the type of thriller in which we watch a character with good intentions - in this case, Kate - getting in way over her head. She joins Matt and Alejandro's squad because she wants to get a shot at nabbing the men who murdered the people found in the house at the film's beginning, but she begins to question whether her squad's methods are legal or morally sound.

There's a particularly horrifying sequence toward the film's end when Alejandro, who has his own dark history with the cartels, catches up with a kingpin who wronged him in the past. And although Alejandro is technically supposed to be the good guy in the scene, his actions give Kate good reason to question what she has gotten herself into.

This is a very well-made film and the type of picture that was once referred to as a white knuckle thriller. And it works so well because Villeneuve, who directed the vastly underrated 2013 thriller "Prisoners" and the creepy "Enemy," is such a sure hand behind the camera. This is a filmmaker with talent to spare and his latest is very effective at creating a sense of unease.

The performances are also very worthy of praise, especially Blunt, whose work here represents a career best, as well as Brolin's portrayal of Matt, who appears to take a light approach to his work, but can get heavy when necessary. And as the mysterious and ruthless Alejandro, Del Toro creates a character nearly as scary as Javier Bardem's sinister Anton Chigurh in "No Country for Old Men."

I'm not sure how accurately "Sicario" actually represents the war on drugs battling it out in the borders of U.S. and Mexico, but the picture is more of a thriller with topical themes than a - for lack of a better phrase - social problem film. It's grim, powerful and tense as well as further evidence that Villeneuve continues to distinguish himself among his generation of filmmakers.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Review: Black Mass

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Let's get this out of the way first - "Black Mass" is not a great gangster movie, but it's a pretty good one and Johnny Depp gives his best performance in a while as the notorious James "Whitey" Bulger, although my favorite Depp mob movie remains the underrated "Donnie Brasco."

Bulger led a long and prosperous criminal career and was once listed as one of the FBI's most wanted, evading the bureau as a fugitive from justice for nearly 17 years. Those seeking an in-depth view at the life or personality of Bulger will want to look elsewhere as the mobster is more of a supporting player in his own story and Depp's portrayal, although quite good, emphasizes the myth over the man.

One of the elements that drags "Black Mass" down a bit is that it is missing a lead character or narrator. The picture occasionally focuses on Bulger and includes a few sequences in which he communicates with his wife/girlfriend (never quite clear) and young son to humanize him, but the story is mostly told through his cohorts.

As the film opens, we are led to believe that the character who will navigate us through Bulger's world is Kevin Weeks (Jesse Plemons, of "Breaking Bad"), a bouncer who becomes a de facto bodyguard for the gangster. And then, the narrative viewpoint occasionally switches over to Steve Flemming (Rory Cochrane), another cohort.

Most often, the story is told from the perspective of John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent whose assignment is to investigate Boston's mob scene but, since he knows Bulger from his youth, he comes up with an idea to bring Whitey in as an informant. However, this ends up resulting in Connolly shielding Bulger from investigation in return for measly tidbits of information that incriminates Bulger's competition - the Italian mob. It also helps that Bulger's brother (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a state senator.

Although Edgerton's character is a tad bit underwritten, he's a good foil for Bulger. He's the weasel to Depp's stone cold killer. Much of the film involves other characters reacting in shock to Bulger's behavior as if he's the boogeyman himself, which is likely another reason why Depp plays the character at a remove. It's a solid performance, certainly Depp's best in a while.

"Black Mass" is violent and gloomy and while the screenplay occasionally lacks focus, the subject matter itself and Depp's unnerving performance keeps us hooked. There's a particularly unsettling scene in which Bulger torments Connolly's wife (Julianne Nicholson), who gets out of a dinner with the mobster and his pals by pretending she's sick due to the fact that he creeps her out. And it's easy to see why.

The film marks a departure for director Scott Cooper, whose previous two films - the very good "Crazy Heart" and the decent "Out of the Furnace" - were dramas set in the heartland and southwest. He's able to mimic the mean street settings and characters who inhabit them in the films of Martin Scorsese well enough, even if his picture never rises to the level of a classic mob movie.

The gangster story has been explored to death in both film ("Goodfellas" to "The Godfather" series) and television ("The Sopranos" and "Boardwalk Empire"), but it's a genre that continues to fascinate because the lives of its characters are so far removed from our own. "Black Mass" doesn't add much new to the genre, but it's a well-made crime drama with a very good lead performance and an air of dread that lingers after the picture has ended.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Review: The Visit

Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.
M. Night Shyamalan goes back to the well - but with fewer resources - with this low budget horror movie that relies on the type of twist that made his "The Sixth Sense" such a success. But, sadly, this return is middling at best.

The director's trio of twisty thrillers - the solid "Sixth Sense," much better "Unbreakable" and extremely creepy "Signs" - still hold up, but Shyamalan's work since those three has been spotty - "The Village" was conceptually interesting, but a failure in execution. "Lady in the Water" was, well, God knows what. "The Happening" was ridiculous, but at least kind of fun. And "The Last Airbender" and "After Earth" were virtually unwatchable.

"The Visit" is a modestly scaled attempt at a comeback for the filmmaker and while it has a few creepy moments, it's mostly just a tiresome series of jump scares and found footage cliches.

In the picture, two siblings - Becca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) - pay a visit to the grandparents they've never met. Their mother (Kathryn Hahn) had a falling out with them years before, but never reconnected. Becca, an aspiring filmmaker, wants to make a documentary about their week-long visit with their grandparents, who live in - what else? - an isolated farmhouse in Pennsylvania.

Shyamalan makes the most out of the scenery, which is creepy in the way that many houses in the middle of nowhere surrounded by woods and sparse scenery tend to be. Shortly after their arrival, Becca and Tyler begin to notice strange goings-on - grandma (Deanna Dunagan) has a proclivity for crawling around on all fours late at night and quite often semi-nude. Grandpa (Peter McRobbie) takes frequent trips to the barn, where he stores bloodied diapers and can occasionally be spotted with a shotgun in his mouth.

There are some unsettling scenes to be had during all of this, especially one in which the siblings play hide and seek under the creaky old house only to find that they have a third member playing the game. Most of the rest of the scares primarily involve the old folks popping up when you least expect them to in front of the camera, which apparently is always turned on.

Even more unsettling than the film's numerous jump scares are the script choices. The level of Becca's precociousness is a little too difficult to swallow and would her brother really know the meaning of mise en scene? Worse, Tyler's character has a tendency to break out in random rap lyrics of his own inventing that would make even the 90's worst white rapper (choose your own artist and insert here) cringe. Someone must have found these scenes funny, but I'm not sure who that someone was. Certainly no one in the theater where I watched "The Visit."

On the other hand, there's a pretty funny running joke in which virtually every adult who crosses Becca's path used to be an actor and, therefore, feels compelled to show off their thespian credentials. Also, Tyler's decision to replace curse words with the names of female pop stars is occasionally amusing. But only occasionally.

Shyamalan can make a good thriller ("The Sixth Sense") and he knows how to frighten people (see "Signs" for evidence). And "Unbreakable" is not only a tense thriller, but it's also philosophically adept. So, it's unfortunate that the picture in his oeuvre to which I'd compare "The Visit" is "The Village," which is another film with an interesting concept that never quite materializes onscreen.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Review: Goodnight Mommy

Image courtesy of Radius TWC.
Having just returned from a trip to Austria, I can attest that most of that nation's people are quite friendly and not the severe and - occasionally - violent individuals they are portrayed as by films from their native country.

Although I'm a great admirer of the work of Michael Haneke, the filmmaker's most notorious movie - "Funny Games" - is among my least favorite of his pictures. The oeuvre of another Austrian director Ulrich Seidl, is more of a mixed bag in my opinion. What both filmmakers' bodies of work have in common is that they are stark, bleak and often disturbing.

So, imagine a horror film utilizing those attributes, especially "Funny Games," and you sort of have an idea of what to expect from "Goodnight Mommy," a picture that starts out creepy before becoming unpleasantly nasty. It also doesn't help that the film's twist can be spotted a mile away. If you've seen a movie or two before, you'll likely figure it out within the first 10 minutes.

The movie, which is directed by Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, is effective enough, but it left me cold and its casual sadism became too much as it increasingly takes over the proceedings during the final half-hour.

In the film, two boys are left alone at an isolated house during the summer. Suddenly, their mother returns following some sort of operation that has left her with bandages wrapped entirely around her head, obscuring her face. The two boys think that something is off about their mom and increasingly begin to smell an impostor. But are they correct or just paranoid?

The film's best moments are near the beginning as the twins wander around the vast expanse surrounding their home, playing in corn fields and walking through creepy wooded areas. "Goodnight Mommy" is rich on atmosphere and if the filmmakers had relied on this attribute alone, it could have resulted in something richer than what we ultimately get.

But as the boys begin to become more and more disturbed by their mother's presence - especially after she takes off the bandages - things take a grim turn. The twins decide to try to torture the woman they do not believe is their mother into some sort of confession as to where their actual mother happens to be. As the film progresses, the mother figure becomes less sinister and the boys more so.

This is the type of film where I can sort of see where the filmmakers are heading and what they're aiming for, even when the picture eventually falls apart. Fiara and Franz display some talent behind the camera, so it's a pity that the film devolves into gory cliches as it reaches its denouement.

"Goodnight Mommy" is not a bad film, but it's also not the type that I can particularly recommend, especially since there have been some truly unique horror movies - such as "It Follows" and "A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night" - during the past year.