Post Date Mar 19

It Follows

It Follows Movie ReviewRadius-TWC
Rated R for disturbing violent and sexual content including graphic nudity, and language.
Running time: 94 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

Back in 2011, David Robert Mitchell wrote and directed a beautiful little indie called “The Myth of the American Sleepover,” which not nearly enough people saw. It was an intimate, lovingly observed and meticulously detailed coming-of-age drama. It could have taken place at nearly any point in time in nearly any place in the country, and it was an exciting debut from a promising filmmaker.

Mitchell makes good on that promise with “It Follows,” which once again reveals his mastery of creating a restrained tone. Yet the story itself couldn’t be more different. Mitchell’s skills in crafting mood and building tension result in one of the most mesmerizing and suspenseful horror movies to come along in a long time. It’s a film that, like “Myth,” is quiet and deliberate — almost dreamlike — with a refreshing lack of gimmicky jumps and screechy scares.

Yet the sense of dread is undeniable, and it’s palpable from the very start. Working with cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, Mitchell uses some virtuoso camerawork to set the scene: one long, 360-degree take of a scared, young woman running out the front door of her suburban home, trying to flee some unknown, menacing force, then returning to her home, hopping in her car and driving away. It’s wordless, and we’re hooked.

Next, he focuses on another young woman: the pretty, blonde Jay (Maika Monroe, star of last year’s unsettling “The Guest”) as she enjoys an afternoon swim in the backyard of her suburban Detroit home. One thing that’s so cool about Mitchell’s films is the intentionally fuzzy time in which they’re set. Both could take place in the ’70s or they could take place now, from the wood-paneled interiors and outdated appliances to the plain cars and lack of pop-culture references. This aesthetic choice makes his stories feel universally relatable.

Jay has just started dating a new guy (Jake Weary) she thinks she really likes, and after a dinner date, she has sex with him for the first time in the backseat of his car in the parking lot of an abandoned warehouse. But as she’s basking in the afterglow in her bra and panties, he drugs her and drags her to a wheelchair, then ties her to it. Then he calmly explains what’s about to happen to her: She’s going to start seeing things. People, actually. And they’re going to come after her. They may take the form of strangers or people she knows and loves. They may move slowly, but they’re persistent. And the only way to get rid of them is to have sex with someone else. That’s how he got it, and that’s why he gave it to her.

Now, this may sound like an allegory for sexually transmitted diseases. Mitchell himself has said that wasn’t his intention — that you can interpret this tale however you’d like. While that may sound cryptic, one thing that’s clear is that he isn’t judging Jay for the sexual choices she makes. On the contrary: She’s a confident, decisive woman — she’s in control, and she’s never the target of shame. The few sexual scenarios that exist here are actually rather brief and perfunctory. They are a means to an end.

What follows in “It Follows” isn’t scary in the traditional horror sense, per se, but it is often graphic and definitely unsettling. We can’t always see what Jay sees, but when we do, the lumbering images are eerily disheveled — reminiscent of Romero-style zombies. But Mitchell balances his languid tone with an electronic, screechy score from Rich Vreeland that’s intentionally a little off-putting and constantly sets us on edge.

The feeling that we’re watching an urban legend come to life also contributes to the film’s recognizable feeling of unease. The rules may be arbitrary but they’re clearly defined and everyone adheres to them. That includes Jay and the people closest to her who surround and protect her: her younger sister (Lili Sepe), their longtime friend (Olivia Luccardi), the childhood pal who’s always had a crush on her (a heartbreaking Keir Gilchrist) and the cool kid across the street who’d previously kept his distance (Daniel Zovatto).

No one knows where this thing started or how it might end. The insularity of this clique, this town, makes the feeling of dread seem suffocating. There’s no apocalyptic news footage detailing the plight of Patient Zero; there are barely even parents. The outside world might not even exist as far as these people are concerned. It’s the narcissism of youth — and there’s no way out.

Post Date Mar 15

Cinderella

Walt Disney Pictures
Rated PG for mild thematic elements.
Running time: 105 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

The Cinderella of Kenneth Branagh’s “Cinderella” never wields a samurai sword or a snarky, well-timed quip. She doesn’t transform herself into a warrior princess, nor does she wallow in too-hip pop culture references. She is decent and honest. She dotes on furry woodland creatures. And she holds tight to her mother’s mantra: “Have courage, and be kind.”

But the fact that this “Cinderella” is so straightforward when the trend of late has been to revolutionize the Disney princess image in films like “Brave” and “Frozen” makes it subversive in its own way. The earnestness of it all has its own appeal.

But while Branagh and screenwriter Chris Weitz stick to the basics in terms of content in bringing a live-action version of the 1950 animated classic “Cinderella” to the screen, the film as a whole is mind-blowingly elaborate from a technical perspective. The visual effects, production design, costumes, editing and score all combine for a thrilling experience. And the colors — good lord. They’re like nothing you could experience in the real world. Cinderella’s behemoth of a ball gown alone is 50 shades of blue.

Branagh made his name with the stately prestige of Shakespeare, both as an actor and director, but he’s dabbled in this kind of splashy, effects-laden spectacle before with 2011’s “Thor” and last year’s “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.” Drawing from both of those worlds, he seems to relish the innate theatricality of this kind of beloved fairy tale. Weitz might not initially make sense here, given that he started out with raunchy, testosterone-driven material with the original “American Pie.” But keep in mind that he also co-wrote and co-directed “About a Boy,” so there’s a sensitive side there, too.

None of that will matter to the little girls who are the target audience for this — or their moms, who won’t mind indulging in a bit of youthful nostalgia. They will fall in love with Lily James, who radiates purity and likability in the title role and finds just the right tone. (For the record, I brought my 5-year-old son with me, and he insisted it was “boring,” but the 4-year-old girl from his school who joined us at the screening was completely entranced.) But this Cinderella also has more of a spine and a spark than I’d recalled in previous incarnations of the story, as well as more of an arc. Maybe it’s because I’m approaching this now as a grown woman myself, but I sensed a stronger coming-of-age underpinning here as Cinderella goes from being an innocent child who suffers cruel abuse to a strong young woman who finds her voice.

In the beginning — as is so often the case in these classic Disney tales — there is a death: that of her beautiful and beloved mother (Hayley Atwell), who left a powerful impression on the young girl and remained a guiding force on the young woman she’d become. Cinderella’s father (Ben Chaplin) was just as instrumental in shaping her world view and encouraging her sense of wonder. But all that positive energy goes out the window when he brings home a new wife, the elegant but evil Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and her garish daughters, Anastasia (Holliday Grainger) and Drisella (Sophie McShera). And upon her father’s death, they promptly force her into a life of toil and misery.

Blanchett being Blanchett, she’s a formidable force, with a performance that’s equal parts camp and ice. But she finds shading to the archetypal figure of the wicked stepmother, and the script provides her with a back story to explain the origin of her cruelty. She also benefits from the most dazzling costumes of all in the film — the work of the great Sandy Powell — a richly hued, form-fitting array of outfits inspired by the great ’40s screen sirens.

From here, you’re familiar with the tale, correct? Cinderella meets and has an instant connection with a handsome gentleman (Richard Madden) in the woods who might just be an eligible prince. A fairy godmother (Helena Bonham Carter, in an amusing bit of casting, given her previous connection to Branagh) works her magic to turn her into a glittering vision for the ball. Mice become horses, a pumpkin becomes a coach, etc. And a pair of glass slippers provides a glittering final touch to Cinderella’s ensemble.

The fact that we know all these details and beats so well — and that Branagh and Weitz haven’t reinvented the wheel here — might make this version of “Cinderella” sound a little boring. But here’s where the technical wizardry plays such a crucial role. Branagh’s camera swoops and soars, and the mad dash at midnight to make it home before the magic wears off is just heart-pounding — a fast-paced, vividly detailed sequence that actually might make you want to applaud when it’s all over.

Yes, this is still fundamentally a story about love at first sight and a man rescuing a woman — traditionally romantic notions that still resonate despite their archaic nature and ordinarily would make me want to gag. Someplace in the back of my mind, I’m wondering while I’m watching this: Is this the standard to set for impressionable little girls? Is this the right kind of expectation to place before them? But the purity of vision and Cinderella’s abiding goodhearted nature — as well as her willingness to speak up for what’s right — are certainly worthwhile. She has courage, and she is kind. There are worse things to be in this world.

Post Date Mar 13

RogerEbert.com — The Wrecking Crew

The Wrecking Crew Movie ReviewThis affectionate and respectful documentary shines a spotlight on a group of studio musicians who performed on many of the biggest and most enduring hits of the 1960s and early ’70s. There’s a ton of great music in here, but the movie as a whole can get a little scattered and repetitive. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here

Post Date Mar 10

Chappie

Columbia Pictures
Rated R for violence, language and brief nudity.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

Do you know who Die Antwoord are? I didn’t before walking into “Chappie.” Not really. In retrospect, I’d vaguely heard of the South African rave-rap group because a fellow school mom mentioned to me about a year ago that she was seeing them in concert, and that they were terrible, but they were also a blast live. (Here’s a link to their best-known song, a catchy little ditty called “I Fink U Freeky,” which has over 61 million YouTube views as of this writing. You’re welcome.)

As you can see, Die Antwoord are a singular artistic force. They’re also the real stars of “Chappie” — or at least, two of the three members, Ninja and Yo-Landi, are. They are not actors, nor are they truly “acting” per se, but rather playing a version of themselves in all their tatted, grungy glory. Director Neill Blomkamp, who made a splash in 2009 with his bad-ass sci-fi debut “District 9,” said he listened to a lot of Die Antwoord while working on his 2013 follow-up, the disappointing “Elysium.” So, voila! Ninja and Yo-Landi are the stars of “Chappie.” Not Dev Patel. Not Hugh Jackman. Not even Hugh Jackman’s mullet.

Ninja and Yo-Landi are the ones who propel the narrative — although the script, which Blomkamp co-wrote with his wife, Terri Tatchell, doesn’t go in any directions you haven’t been many times before. “Chappie” is essentially a mash-up of “RoboCop,” “Short Circuit” and “Transcendence.” It raises all the questions about artificial intelligence and the nebulous relationship between man and machine which we’ve pondered in superior films from “2001: A Space Odyssey” to “WarGames” to “A.I. Artificial Intelligence” to “Her.” But it provides no novel answers, no fresh insight. While the visual effects are spectacularly seamless, they’re in the service of a movie which devolves from vaguely funny to just-plain silly to numbingly gory.

In the beginning, it’s the near future: 2016, to be exact. Things have gone to hell pretty quickly, it appears from fake news footage, but especially in Blomkamp’s hometown of Johannesburg. The government has put a robot police force in place to keep the peace, the brainchild of mild-mannered engineer Deon Wilson (Patel). His boss at the private defense firm is the icily ambitious American Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver); his office rival is ex-military, the devious Vincent Moore, played by Jackman as a collection of bad Australian stereotypes (mullet, khaki shorts, hiking boots, weaponry on his hip).

But Deon has dreams of using the technology to create something greater, more sophisticated. After many sleepless nights, he finally devises a method of artificial intelligence, which he wants to place inside one of these robot police officers to see how much better they can work when they think and feel for themselves. Naturally, his project doesn’t go nearly as well as planned when the test robot falls into the criminal hands of Ninja, Yo-Landi and their sidekick, Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo), who only want to use the creation to pull off a big heist.

The thing with Ninja and Yo-Landi is, it’s difficult to tell whether we’re supposed to take them seriously or think they’re ridiculous. Ninja is an overconfident, trash-talking buffoon, but he’s also an expert shot and he can be legitimately dangerous. Yo-Landi seems vapid and soulless, but functioning as an ersatz mother to the robot — whom she names Chappie — brings out a softer and warmer side which makes her strangely relatable. While they’re initially off-putting, they admittedly become fascinating; but a little of them goes a long way, especially in an overlong film.

Chappie himself, meanwhile, is annoying from start to finish. Blomkamp regular Sharlto Copley portrays the robot through motion capture and voice work. While the physicality of the performance is impressive as he evolves from skittish child to swaggering gangster, the consistently hyperactive, one-note way Copley delivers his dialogue remains grating throughout. Unfortunately, comparisons to Jar Jar Binks are all too apt.

The fight for Chappie’s survival becomes a fight for the survival of the entire city, when Vincent sabotages the robot police squad in order to unleash his own behemoth, military-inspired crime-fighting force. Blomkamp essentially abandons the intellectual and moral themes he’d presented earlier in favor of sheer brute strength. “Chappie” gets overloaded with noisy, repetitive carnage as it reaches its climax, then shifts jarringly into empty uplift.

The movie itself may not stay with you for very long after it’s over, but Die Antwoord’s music does — for better or worse.

Post Date Mar 6

RogerEbert.com — The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel Movie ReviewThe original “Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” was not exactly great cinema, but it was sweet and safe. It was also a surprise box office hit. Hence, we have a sequel, which feels like as much of a shameless cash grab as “Grown Ups 2.” But these are really, really grown ups. My RogerEbert.com review.

Read the review here