Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: Don't Breathe

Image courtesy of Sony Pictures.
Fede Alvarez's "Don't Breathe" is an intense and well made thriller that takes one giant misstep, but is overall an effective genre offering with great atmosphere and a vast improvement over the director's previous movie, the dreadful "Evil Dead" remake.

During the past few years, Detroit has been a popular backdrop for horror movies, from Jim Jarmusch's sardonic vampire tale "Only Lovers Left Alive" to David Robert Mitchell's extremely spooky "It Follows." Alvarez's film also makes great use of that town's dilapidated and burnt-out buildings and captures the essence of a city that never fully recovered from the economic downturn.

The film makes the interesting choice of asking us to sympathize with a group of characters who are not particularly likable. Rocky (Jane Levy) lives with her abusive mother in a trailer and is attempting to get money so that she and her young daughter can flee and ship off to California. Her mother - in front of Rocky's daughter no less - makes caustic remarks that indicate the possibility that Rocky has turned to prostitution at some point to feed her daughter.

Rocky's boyfriend, Money (Daniel Zovatto), is the typical thug asshole paramour, who has enlisted her and Alex (Dylan Minnette), who is smitten with Rocky, to take part in a robbery at the secluded house of a blind old Gulf War veteran who collected a large sum of money after his daughter was killed in a car accident and is apparently keeping the stash somewhere in the home.

I know what you're thinking - what a bunch of creeps to rip off a defenseless old man. And that's exactly what the filmmakers are expecting you to think as they turn the tables on both the thieves and the audience when it turns out that the old guy (Stephen Lang, very creepy) is not quite helpless.

For much of the film, the leads - or the ones who have made it past the first 30 minutes of the movie - crawl through the spaces of the vet's house, trying to avoid him and his ferocious dog. When they end up in his basement, they make a startling discovery that portrays the blind man in a significantly less sympathetic light.

And it's shortly after this that "Don't Breathe" makes its one near-fatal mistake by relying on one of the oldest - and still worst - plot contrivances in the book: creating suspense by making a female lead believe that she will be raped or, in the case of this movie, a variation thereof. Of course, rape - like any subject matter - can be touched upon in film and even in genre movies, but it's more often than not used immaturely as a means of entertainment, or, a cheap thrill.

One of the film's strongest elements is its sense of place, not only in the streets of Detroit, where the camera roams amid hauntingly abandoned neighborhoods, but also within the house itself. As the thieves make their way into the house, the camera roves from room too room, creating a sense of surrounding where the characters will all be battling for their lives during the next 90 minutes. Alvarez's previous picture - "Evil Dead" - was also stylish, but vacuous and grotesque for the sake of being so, whereas his latest is proof of a talent behind the camera. "Don't Breathe" isn't a perfect horror movie by any means, but it's a pretty decent one.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: The Sea of Trees

Image courtesy of A24.
Despite what you may have heard - including those boos from last year's Cannes Film Festival - Gus Van Sant's "The Sea of Trees" is not a complete disaster. Yes, it's uneven and surely among the filmmaker's lesser efforts, but it has its moments, some decent performances and gorgeous cinematography.

The picture is no less than the third movie this year to make use of Japan's notorious Aokigahara forest, which is the world's number one spot for suicide, as a backdrop and - call it faint praise if you will - it's the film that does the best job of capturing that locale's ambience. Trees sway beautifully - or is it menacingly? - in the breeze and the vast amount of space taken up by the forest's trees do indeed give the appearance of a sea.

As the film opens, widower Arthur Brennan (Matthew McConaughey), an adjunct science teacher, has arrived at the forest with the intention of ending his life after his wife (Naomi Watts) recently died. Unfortunately, while the visual beauty of the forest itself is entrancing, its introduction borders on the absurd as Arthur finds one corpse and several skeletal remains within the very short period of time he spends at the site. After arriving, he chooses a secluded spot and prepares to swallow a bottle of pills.

But just then, a man (Ken Watanabe) stumbles into his line of vision and appears to be in distress. Arthur asks if the man needs help and discovers that he has botched a wrist-slitting attempt and is now trying to find his way back out of the forest, but has gotten lost. The instinct to help another in need overcomes Arthur's own malaise and he sets out to help the man, known as Takumi, find his way out of Aokigahara.

In between their numerous scenes of falling onto rocks and accidentally poking themselves with sharp objects - seriously, these two face more bodily abuse than anyone since Leonardo DiCaprio in "The Revenant" - we are privy to flashbacks in which Arthur's marriage falls apart. His wife is an alcoholic who resents his line of work and the fact that he'd had an affair years before and he has become fed up with her verbal abuse. But then she gets a cancer diagnosis and he decides to stick by her side.

The juxtaposition of these flashbacks with Arthur's walk through the woods is mostly jarring and the scenes between he and Watts's Joan are paint-by-number crumbling marriage and cancer sequences. However, as the film nears its final third, there are a few poignant moments that are involved in the story's twist ending, of sorts, which is both effective and silly. The finale manipulates, but it does so cleverly enough.

Van Sant tends to jump back and forth between studio films and the indie world and, during the course of his nearly 30-year career, he has been responsible for some terrific works: "Drugstore Cowboy," "My Own Private Idaho," "Good Will Hunting," "Milk" and "Elephant." As I said before, "The Sea of Trees" is one of his lesser works - somewhere in the same zone as his "Psycho" remake and "Even Cowgirls Get the Blues" - but it's not a complete bust. McConaughey provides some solid work - especially during a campfire monologue - and there's a fair amount of gorgeous scenery to help us forget some of the picture's sillier plot contrivances. It's a minor film from a major director.

Review: Southside with You

Image courtesy of Roadside Attractions.
Michelle Robinson (Tika Sumpter) preps for the day she plans to spend with a young man she describes as a smooth talking co-worker, but insists to her mother that it's not a date. Emphasizing that she is his supervisor at the law firm where she works and he interns, she doesn't think it would be appropriate if, on this summer day in 1989, romance had anything to do with it. Her date's name? Barack Obama. He's spending the summer in Chicago after having attended a few semesters at Harvard University.

If you're thinking that "Southside with You" sounds like a silly romantic comedy that just happens to chronicle the first date of the Obamas, you'd be wrong. Rather, the picture has a similar vibe to Richard Linklater's introspective "Before" films, in which its two leads mostly spend time walking and talking with each other about their hopes, dreams and fears. "Southside," which was directed by Richard Tanne and apparently closely adheres to what actually took place on the first date - or "non-date" as Michelle would have it - between the Obamas, is an interesting day in the life of two very well-known people that portrays how personalities can be formed and nurtured by specific events.

The film amusingly personalizes both characters as the film opens. Michelle is serious, determined, hard working and not about to put up with any nonsense from the guy with whom she'll spend the afternoon. In fact, she's only agreed to go along because he intends to speak to a congregation that is seeking to get a community center built in their Chicago neighborhood. Meanwhile, Barack, chain smoking and talking on the phone with his mother, immediately strikes us as a man who has a lot on his mind and more than a few plans. He's clearly interested in the woman with whom he'll be spending his afternoon and will not be deterred by her insistence on professionalism.

He pulls up to her house blasting Janet Jackson's "Miss You Much" and their "non-date" begins from there. During the course of the day, they drop by a gallery and view an Ernie Barnes exhibit of paintings depicting inner city life, stop for sandwiches and then finally make their way to the church where Barack will speak before the congregation. Parker Sawyers does a nice job of catching the cadences of how Obama speaks, giving an early indicator of the type of orator he'll one day be without banging us too much over the head about it.

Later in the day, Barack, hoping to extend the day as long as possible, suggests they go to a movie and they catch a screening of Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," which is, perhaps, still the greatest movie ever made about race relations. At the end of the film, the pair spots an older white attorney and his wife from their firm who are also in attendance. The attorney was put off by the picture's ending - when Mookie throws a trash can through the pizzeria's window - and Obama assures the man that this occurred for reasons that are not wholly accurate. When they're alone again, Barack tells Michelle that he did so to make the man feel at ease and then goes on to expound what he really thought the final scene in Lee's film meant, providing "Southside" with its own thoughtful take on race relations.

"Southside with You" is a funny, charming and smart picture about two very famous people at a time when they were discovering who they are. It does a good job at covering subject matter - law, race, black culture, politics and ambition - that would later be important tenets of Obama's career without feeling as if they were unnecessarily interjected into the conversations that take place between the two characters. In other words, the conversation flows easily and never feels forced and the foreshadowing isn't preposterous or overbearing.

It's an enjoyable movie about an afternoon spent with two intelligent and contemplative people and it gives insights into how significant life events - such as the first date with your future spouse - can shape and form how you view the world and your own place in it. It may not end up being the Obama movie - I believe there is a movie in the works that focuses more on his political career - but it's certainly worth a look.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Review: Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World

Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
For more than 40 years, a favorite subject matter for the great filmmaker Werner Herzog has been the relationship between mankind - and especially the oddballs, dreamers and eccentrics that it has to offer - and the cruel, mysterious forces of nature, the world and universe. So, it should come as no surprise that the director's latest documentary - "Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World" - takes a similar approach to that world, often cruel and mysterious itself, known as the Internet that is slowly swallowing up the rest of civilization around it.

As always, Herzog's approach is one of fascination, bleak skepticism and wonder, which results in a film that is often funny, educational, occasionally disturbing and even frightening. The picture is arranged into chapters that cover everything from the birth of the Internet, which includes interviews with several men who first created the foundation for the web, to the dark side of Internet anonymity and what the future holds - namely, possible relocation to other planets and, in the nearer years to come, all of us being replaced by robots.

In some ways, the film is all over the place and, yet, Herzog, himself a celebrator of chaos, makes it all gel together. It also helps that the director, who has, perhaps, the most recognizable voice of any German alive today, narrates the picture in his trademark style, one in which it's often difficult to discern whether he's attempting to be funny or serious. My favorite two examples are when he asks a robot's designer, "do you love it?," and his description of the hallways of a prestigious university that appear fairly bland and prototypical as "repulsive." Another scene in which a woman describes the Internet as the "manifestation of all evil" would have been funnier had the reason for her doing so not been so tragic.

One of the strangest sequences - and you can depend on pretty much any Herzog movie for delivering a few strange moments - the director interviews a group of people who live in the wilds of West Virginia in an area not affected by cell phone towers. These people claim all types of physical reactions to living in a world dominated by the Internet and technology and it would seem easy to laugh them off, but Herzog doubles back to them at the very end of the film following a scientist's chilling prognostication and instead of the aforementioned people seeming like kooks, they display a type of human interaction that threatens to be lost in the years to come.

Herzog's body of work is divided into his terrific fiction films - the masterpieces "Aguirre: The Wrath of God" and "Stroszek," for example - and his fascinating documentaries that have explored the farthest regions of our world and some of its most offbeat characters. My favorite of his nonfiction work is "Grizzly Man," which I still believe to be the best documentary of the 21st century thus far.

"Lo and Behold" could, however, end up being one of his most prophetic. It's unsettling to see the degree to which rational people and experts - scientists, inventors and cyber security workers - discuss horrific concepts in "Lo and Behold" -  including everything from how the earth could effectively shut down if the Internet collapsed to questions of whether our species will survive - and Herzog is an effective narrator, posing questions that obviously interest him - such as whether the Internet can "dream" - and helping to navigate his audience through a series of complex concepts in the manner of a bemused, occasionally grandiose and thoughtful storyteller. As a glimpse into our uncertain future, the funny and unsettling "Lo and Behold" is certainly worth a look.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Review: War Dogs

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Todd Phillips' "War Dogs" is a well-enough made film about interesting subject matter, but is weighted down by the fatal flaw of attempting to mimic a particular style of movie, but disregarding its most important attributes.

Based on a true story, the picture tells the tale of David Packouz (Miles Teller) and Efram Diveroli (Jonah Hill), two sleazeballs who made a fortune off selling weapons to the Pentagon during the George W. Bush years when the U.S. military was fighting two wars in the Middle East. For starters, the film makes the mistake of making Packouz the lead character, while it's Diveroli who's the more interesting - and easily more awful - of the two.

Phillips, who is best known for the "Hangover" films, of which I'm not much of a fan, wants to make a comedic story about a couple of slimy characters who hit the big time in the style of a Martin Scorsese film, down to the freeze frames and voice over narration. While the picture does a good job of stylishly relaying the story of these two guys, who made a killing off people killing each other, it makes the mistake of asking us to sympathize with its two leads. While the film could have been asking us to ponder the consequences of this pair's actions, it instead tries to make us care when the bloom is off the rose of their bromance.

As the film opens, David is a masseuse in Miami and the fact that he provides massages to rich old men is a running joke that's never particularly funny, but is repeated throughout the entire picture as if it were the best joke Woody Allen ever told. At a funeral for an acquaintance, he runs into Efraim, his best pal from high school whom he hasn't seen for some years.

It turns out that Efraim is in the arms business and is gradually building up a client list that includes the U.S. military, which is happy to pay the lower rates that Efraim is charging, all the while still making him rich in the process. Efraim, who has an annoying giggle and virtually no scruples, enlists David - a guy whom we are supposed to like a little better because he feels bad about constantly lying to his wife (Ana de Armas, who mostly gets the thankless role of the wife who gets to nag her hubby about all the bad behavior in which he is partaking) about his line of work - into his business as a partner.

The two build a business that involves shady dealings with another arms dealer (Bradley Cooper) who is on the U.S.'s terrorist watch list and a bunch of Albanians who are trying to sell off their country's massive weapons supply as the nation gets close to becoming a part of NATO. Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street" is an obvious influence here, but the difference being that while the behavior of Di Caprio and his cronies in that much better film was fascinating - and often funny - there was also the movie's challenging its audience as to why it wanted those guys to get away with what they were doing.

In comparison, "War Dogs" gives off the vibe that its characters are just a couple of pals who got in over their heads and that we shouldn't judge them too harshly because David begins to feel bad about lying to his wife and for the work he is doing and Efraim and David's relationship begins to fray because it's hard out there for an arms dealer. Or something like that.

I would, perhaps, be even harder on the film if it weren't fairly well made. The performances are solid and, due to its fascinating storyline, the picture is often suspenseful and fast paced. It's a decently made movie that is merely missing the elements that could have resulted in it being a good movie.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Review: Florence Foster Jenkins

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures.
It'll likely surprise absolutely no one that Meryl Streep is pretty great in Stephen Frears' "Florence Foster Jenkins." In fact, a bigger surprise would be if Streep merely phoned in a performance, a phenomenon that is more difficult to find than Donald Trump's tax returns.

However, the woman whom Streep portrays in this biopic is not, in fact, particularly talented. And yet, I'd be willing to bet that anyone who doesn't have a heart of stone will, at some point during the film, soften toward the dowager, a woman who is courageous in the way that some folks whose enthusiasm for artistic creation outweighs actual talent still manage to put themselves out there.

Based on a true story, the film opens with Florence and her husband - St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant), a doting partner who happens to also have a mistress and another apartment, but who is otherwise dedicated to his wife's vision - hosting events for an arts and music circle that Florence has founded. Florence takes vocal lessons - but, alas, without any success - and, one day, comes up with the notion that she'd like to give a public performance. Bayfield and Florence's handsomely paid vocal instructor have, thus far, led her to believe that her voice is just fine and, therefore, decide to play along with the idea of a concert.

Florence's first performance is a success, in that it is held among a group of friends, who stifle their giggles at her shrieking voice and cheer her for her courage. However, she then gets the idea of playing Carnegie Hall and giving out free tickets to soldiers who have returned from World War II and this throws a wrench in the works, namely because Bayfield won't be able to control a huge crowd of strangers.

As always, Streep completely inhabits her character, a woman who may not realize that her voice doesn't sound quite so good as she seems to think it does, but who is otherwise not fooled easily by others. At a point later in the picture, Florence has a vision of how she believes herself to sound and it's obvious that Streep is actually a good singer (she had some early training). And so it's even more impressive that the actress can do such a good job of recognizing what bad singing sounds like.

As Bayfield, Grant snags one of his best roles in some time and the supporting cast is also very good, especially Simon Helberg as Cosme McMoon, the young pianist whom Bayfield has hired to accompany Florence in concert, and Nina Arianda as a ditzy wife of a society patron of the arts who first laughs aloud at Florence during one of her performances and later, in one of the film's best scenes, becomes one of her defenders.

Frears's filmography has long been a diverse one that includes thrillers, comedies, British dramas and even the occasional genre film (a western and a horror movie). But his best works - "High Fidelity," "The Grifters" and "The Queen," for example - are pictures featuring flawed protagonists for whom we can't help but have affection. "Florence Foster Jenkins" fits into that category and although it's not one of the director's very best, it's still a very enjoyable character piece comedy with a great central performance and a lot of heart.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Review: Hell Or High Water

Image courtesy of CBS Films.
Part crime-western and part social drama set against the backdrop of an economically depressed American community that has been drained by financial institutions, "Hell or High Water" is an impressive thriller that could be described as a "regional picture" in much the same way that, say, "Winter's Bone" could be given that title - both movies aim for authenticity in capturing the communities in which they are set.

Occasionally, the film strains a little in this quest for authenticity - with several bit parts almost veering into self parody or an overkill of folksiness - but, mostly, this is a gritty, tense and well-acted drama about characters living on the edge of society.

In the picture, Chris Pine and Ben Foster play two brothers - Toby and Tanner, respectively - who stage robberies early in the morning at various branches of the same bank chain. There's a reason for this and I don't want to give away too much, but suffice it to say that the brothers' plan involves getting payback against the bank for having made their family suffer and to secure money for a purpose that's noble, despite its being obtained through violent means.

On their tail is the great Jeff Bridges as Marcus Hamilton, an ornery old ranger who is partnered with a Native American man whom he constantly torments, although there's a certain amount of affection in it, which we realize later in the picture. Hamilton thinks he has the brothers figured out in terms of where they'll strike next, even if he can't quite piece together why they are pulling the heists.

Director David Mackenzie, who is responsible for the superlative prison movie "Starred Up," does a great job of capturing the small West Texas towns where the action is set. The streets are filled with stores that have gone out of business, old diners where a few faithful sit mostly in silence, run-down gas stations, boarded up homes and, naturally, more than a few banks.

Pine's Toby is the brother with a plan and, of the two, the more normal, whereas Foster's Tanner is a violent man who has recently been released from prison and is assisting Toby in his plan simply because his brother asked him to do so. The robberies are particularly effective because, with the exception of one, they mostly take place early in the mornings and involve very few people - as opposed to the elaborately staged robberies to which we've become accustomed in the movies. During one particularly humorous one, they run up against an old codger who practices Texas's open carry laws and, during a later robbery, the consequences are more grave.

As I'd mentioned before, the filmmakers occasionally lay it on a little thick with the folksiness - one scene in which a grouchy old waitress attempts to take Bridges and his partner's order is at once funny and over-the-top - although this is often made right by the fact that Bridges' character, who is himself a stereotype of an aging Texas lawman, engages in an ongoing commentary on virtually everything and this keeps us engaged. It also helps that the character is inhabited by Bridges, a wonderful actor no matter the role.

"Hell or High Water" is, on the whole, a gripping crime drama that often plays like a western. There's a great showdown between two characters in the end that results not in bloodshed but some tough talk that could be seen as humorous or tragic, depending on where it eventually leads. The film flirts with prescient thematic material - economically depressed working class America and the financial institutions that have left them so - and even if it doesn't quite say anything we haven't already heard, it makes for compelling material. This is a solid little thriller that could be a summer sleeper.

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Review: Suicide Squad

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
In a summer full of expensive and mostly uninspired blockbusters, "Suicide Squad" is an exemplar of all that is wrong with the current Hollywood summer tentpole movie. It's littered with special effects and explosions, barely developed characters, too many crossovers to other comic book movies and plotlines pilfered from everything from action to science fiction movies. It's a hodgepodge that is clunkily assembled and its various tones are often at war with one another.

The picture's threadbare plot involves a shady government agent (Viola Davis) who is putting together a team of comic book villains - that is, to say, criminals so evil they are kept in underground vaults - in the hope that they can take on dangerous missions covertly and, in the process, get a shot at redemption.

We are first introduced to each of these characters as they act sinister in their various jail cells and this is where the picture makes its first major blunder. Each character is introduced via a classic pop or rock song - from "House of the Rising Sun" to "You Don't Own Me" - and the musical choices are so obvious that you might be able to guess them in advance. In fact, throughout the entire picture, great songs are used to minimum effect, popping up randomly not so much to comment on the action, but rather to give the film's heroes a melody to which they can blow shit up or smash opponents with various instruments.

Will Smith makes the most of his role as Deadshot, a hired assassin who never misses a target and has a young daughter, while Margot Robbie is merely required to vamp it up as much as possible as Harley Quinn, a protege and lover of The Joker (Jared Leto, more on that later), and Jay Hernandez mostly sulks around as Diablo, a former gangbanger who can set things on fire with his hands. And since this is a comic book movie, there's an obligatory cameo by Batman and another by The Flash that do little to inspire or excite.

Leto pops up now and then as The Joker, mostly to cause mayhem and to conflict Quinn, who is smitten with him. Jack Nicholson's portrayal of the iconic villain was mostly played for humorous effect, while Heath Ledger's Academy Award winning turn was a chilling monster for the ages. Here, Leto's Joker is meant to be a cross between the two and the result is mostly forgettable. I'm not sure this should be laid at Leto's doorstep, considering that the character was written as such, but whenever The Joker pops up, it's mostly just a distraction.

Most of the rest of the film involves Joel Kinnaman's Rick Flag, a top soldier, leading the motley crew of villains on a mission to stop The Enchantress (Cara Delevingne), who has taken possession of the body of Flag's girlfriend and brought back her evil brother from the dead.

The two supervillains are building some kind of weapon that will - just wait for it, you'll never guess - bring about the end of the world. Seriously, I think my mind would be blown if, for once, in a summer movie, the villains threatened a whole city block, rather than the entire world. It's getting monotonous. The scenes in which the Suicide Squad face off against The Enchantress are among the film's worst. For starters, she speaks in an absurd voice that Bill Murray's Peter Venkman would have had a blast ridiculing and she spends most of her time standing amidst light and electricity raining down from the sky, giving the scenes the appearance of a mid career AC/DC album cover.

The film is not completely without its merits. Smith brings some heart and conscience to his character and Robbie, although her character has been written to cause maximum annoyance, occasionally provides a few laughs. But on the whole, "Suicide Squad" is a weak summer movie in which there's entirely too much going on, although very little of it makes much impact.