Post Date Sep 17 — Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials

Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials Movie ReviewThe teens from “The Maze Runner” are still running, but while they cover more ground in this second film in the series, they never really go anywhere. The sequel is bigger in scope, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. Plus, by this point, all these dystopian-future, sci-fi dramas based on Young Adult novels are essentially interchangeable. Which one has Kate Winslet as the icy government villain, and which has Patricia Clarkson? I try to sort it all out in my review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 15

Goodnight Mommy

Goodnight Mommy Movie ReviewRadius-TWC
Rated R for disturbing violent content and some nudity.
Running time: 99 minutes.
Four stars out of four.

You shouldn’t be reading this review. I shouldn’t even be writing it. Every time I’ve recommended “Goodnight Mommy” to someone, I’ve warned that person not to read anything about it beforehand — just to trust me, and see it, and be mesmerized.

Yet it’s so great, I feel it’s my duty to tell the world about it without giving away what makes it great. So this review might end up being really short. But here goes …

“Goodnight Mommy” is an Austrian thriller about two 9-year-old, identical twins named Lukas and Elias (played by Lukas and Elias Schwarz) living in an austere, minimalist house in the countryside. They’ve been by themselves for who knows how long, waiting for their mother to return from the hospital after undergoing some kind of plastic surgery. Once she arrives, bandaged-up and barely speaking, the twins increasingly suspect that this person isn’t their mother at all but an impostor.

The premise alone is enough to give you goosebumps. But it’s the execution that’s the real marvel from the writing-directing team of Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz, making their startlingly assured feature debut. “Goodnight Mommy” is intense and precise, from its big ideas to its smallest details. It consistently keeps you guessing, but it also dares to ask you to re-examine your feelings for and alliances with these characters. Nothing is simple or safe here, although the quiet purity of the film’s tone and aesthetic trappings might suggest otherwise.

It’s a horror movie in that horrific things happen, but it’s also a dramatic exploration of the bond between parent and child — specifically, between mother and son. A complicated dichotomy exists in our relationship with these little people we make; on the one hand, there’s a familiarity that’s infused within the fiber of our beings. I look at Nicolas sometimes and feel like I’ve known him my entire life. And yet they can also be baffling, maddening creatures whose actions shake us to our core and make us question everything we know. Or maybe that’s just what happens to me when Nic has a meltdown over sour gummy worms at the grocery store.

Being a parent makes “Goodnight Mommy” resonate on a whole different level, but it’s certainly not a necessity for being sucked into it. This is deft and daring storytelling that will grip anyone who’s willing to be a little uncomfortable — make that a lot uncomfortable — and who’s willing to follow it into some dark and twisted territory. There’s a brief respite of comic relief about halfway through when a pair of Red Cross workers knock on the door, then sit at the kitchen table waiting for someone to give them some sort of donation. It’s also a welcome reminder that an outside world does indeed exist, given the claustrophobic situation Fiala and Kranz have created. But that’s about it. “Goodnight Mommy” escalates, and it is relentless.

The tension is palpable from the start, though — long before the boys’ mother returns, and even during activities that would seem to radiate the wholesomeness of carefree, childhood fun. Lukas and Elias play hide and go seek in a cornfield, or chase each other across the lawn, or bounce up and down on the trampoline. But the use of natural sound attunes us to the hidden, dangerous rhythms of their games. There’s an underlying hum in the sound design — a buzz that grows — which tells you something isn’t quite right and provides an early, sinister tone.

Similarly, the house itself is a consistent source of the film’s atmosphere. Chilly, industrially chic and crammed with bizarre art, it reminded me of the house in “Ex Machina,” and I’d move into either of them tomorrow. (I’m not sure what this says about me.) Foreboding lurks around every sleek corner. It is simultaneously full of light and bereft of joy.

As for the performances, both Schwarz brothers and Wuest are in the tricky position of having to play it as understated as possible even while their characters go to extremes, and they consistently find that balance. Then again, “Goodnight Mommy” is full of such fascinating contradictions and surprises.

Just trust me. See it — and then we can really talk about it.

Post Date Sep 11 — The Perfect Guy

The Perfect Guy Movie Review“The Perfect Guy” is decent trash that could have been delicious trash with a bit more daring. David M. Rosenthal’s romantic thriller, starring Sanaa Lathan, Michael Ealy and Morris Chestnut in an increasingly dangerous triangle, tiptoes toward crazy but then backs away. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Sep 11

War Room

War Room Movie ReviewSony Pictures
Rated PG for thematic elements throughout.
Running time: 120 minutes.
One and a half stars out of four.

“War Room” is the most slickly made faith-based film I’ve seen yet in terms of production values, but that doesn’t make it quote-unquote good, per se.

It certainly looks better than, say, the Nicolas Cage version of “Left Behind,” a dull groaner about the end times. It’s not nearly as top-to-bottom atrocious as the hilariously inept “Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas” (although it’s just about as subtle). And it has more moments of emotional honesty than the overtly wacky “Moms’ Night Out,” although not many.

Despite its glossy visuals — including lean camerawork and smooth editing — it’s still stuck with a script that repeatedly hammers you over the head with its proselytizing. Which is strange given that it’s hard to imagine anyone seeing “War Room” who wasn’t already a true believer. And it’s a fervent audience, as evidenced by the movie’s No. 1 status at the box office this past weekend, beating out “Straight Outta Compton.” I had to see a matinee of it out of sheer curiosity, if nothing else.

And “War Room” is indeed a curiosity — a strange beast with sleek packaging and a silly script. It basically preaches that a woman can transform her lying, sneaking, stealing husband out of his evil ways through prayer. From the outset of the film from director and co-writer Alex Kendrick (whose previous faith-based efforts include “Fireproof” and “Courageous”), it’s clear that Tony Jordan (former pro football player T.C. Stallings) is not a good dude. A traveling pharmaceuticals salesman, he’s charismatic when he’s out on the road — especially with the foxy ladies who cross his path — but abrupt and dismissive once he returns to his expansive North Carolina home.

His wife, successful real estate agent Elizabeth (Priscilla C. Shirer, a preacher making a surprisingly confident acting debut), tries to stay strong and withstand his cruelty for the greater good of the family, but their sweet, bright daughter Danielle (Alena Pitts) has a hard time hiding how much her father’s distance hurts her. (Pitts gives the most authentic performance of the entire cast, by the way. The few decently moving scenes feature her in moment-of-truth conversations with each of the actors playing her parents. But then she gets stuck anchoring an awkward subplot involving competitive double-dutch rope-jumping, which apparently is a real thing.)

Just in time, though, Elizabeth takes on a new client: the elderly and pious Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), a widow who’s ready to sell her 100-year-old house. Miss Clara is such an egregious example of the Magical Negro figure — even in a film populated predominately by black actors — she’s borderline offensive and unintentionally hilarious. She’s pushy and outspoken but also clairvoyant, apparently, because within minutes of meeting Elizabeth, she senses that her marriage is in trouble. Clearly, going to church more is the answer. But Elizabeth must go further than that. She must do what Miss Clara has done, which is remove all the clothes, shoes and handbags from one of her closets and turn it exclusively into a room for prayer. This is the war room of the film’s title: the place to strategize with scripture. (Viewers who live in lofts — or anywhere in New York City, for that matter — will have trouble replicating this exercise at home.)

And magically, it works! In no time, Tony has opened his heart to Jesus and admitted the error of his wicked ways. First, he (almost) cheats on Elizabeth and loses his job when he gets caught selling samples on the side. But really, all her prayers are answered pretty quickly. Tony even gets in on Danielle’s double-dutch action, which held no interest for him previously. The Lord truly works in mysterious ways.

But “War Room” is also about Satan, as evidenced by Elizabeth’s bizarre monologue in which she walks around her house — and even steps outside into the yard — shouting at the devil to leave her family alone as overwhelming, inspirational music swells in the background. Kendrick (who co-wrote the script with his brother, Stephen) doesn’t even bother with the obvious cutaway shot of baffled neighbors reacting to this late-night rant for a quick laugh. This climactic moment is deadly serious. Such is the bubble of piety in which this film exists.

Miss Clara gets the last word, though. In increasingly passionate tones, she wails on and on about the need to create an army of prayer warriors throughout this land, once again perpetuating the notion of Christian persecution. As her booming narration continues — I mean, she’s actually shouting at this point — images of people all over the world and various walks of life flash across the screen. They’re all praying. They’re all united. I’m sure it’s a fortifying message for the faithful in the audience, but it’s unlikely to reach the people who’d rather use their closets for hanging clothes.

Post Date Sep 4 — Before We Go

Before We Go Movie ReviewWhen it came time for Chris Evans to direct his first film, he strayed far from the behemoth Marvel movies that made him a superstar. “Before We Go” is a walking-and-talking New York City romance in which Evans and Alice Eve co-star as strangers who connect in the middle of the night. Despite their individual charms, they’re stuck with a terrible script. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 28

We Are Your Friends

Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R for language throughout, drug use, sexual content and some nudity.
Running time: 96 minutes.
Three stars out of four.

Similar to “Paper Towns,” “We Are Your Friends” is a movie that I liked but I would have loved if I were 20 years younger. It’s about making mistakes in your 20s, about dancing all night and drinking too much and hooking up with random people, but also about yearning and striving to escape the trappings that have defined you throughout your life. It’s about the youthful, idealistic desire to be great. Like, right now.

Director and co-writer Max Joseph’s debut feature is also a straight-up blast to watch, with great energy, a joyous soundtrack, some clever visual tricks (as well as some that get annoying) and gorgeous actors running around a Los Angeles that’s both gritty and glamorous. Cinematographer Brett Pawlak, who also shot the intimate and insightful “Short Term 12,” really captures the hot sprawl of the San Fernando Valley: the soaring cypress trees, buzzing electrical lines and block after block of nondescript, mid-century tract houses.

That is where aspiring DJ Cole Carter (Zac Efron) is stuck alongside his childhood friends Mason (Jonny Weston), Ollie (Shiloh Fernandez) and Squirrel (Alex Shaffer). He shares a bedroom in Mason’s house where he sits in front of his laptop all day, headphones clamped to his ears, pressing various buttons that make various blippy sounds. (Your enjoyment — or even your tolerance — of electronic dance music will greatly influence your reaction to “We Are Your Friends,” which takes its title from a song by Justice.) Sometimes he helps Mason fix the roof. Sometimes he smokes a joint. Mostly he dreams of riches and stardom but doesn’t seem to work terribly hard to achieve them.

That is, until he meets one of his idols one night at a club: a longtime DJ named James Reed (Wes Bentley) who exemplifies the kind of jet-setting life he covets. In no time, James has taken Cole under his wing: bringing him to parties, welcoming him into his home and studio and helping him hone his sound. James is a wreck — a sellout and a functioning alcoholic — but he’s also charismatic as hell and the voice of reason. Bentley rides a tricky and fascinating line between charm and menace (although the facial hair alone suggests he’s not to be trusted) which makes “We Are Your Friends” more compelling and substantive than you might expect.

Efron, though, is easy to underestimate because he’s so damn pretty. He’s made eclectic choices in recent years (“Neighbors,” “The Paperboy”) which simultaneously showcase and subvert his looks. His character here isn’t so deeply drawn as others he’s played post-“High School Musical,” but Efron makes the arc believable. Both his cockiness and his comeuppance seem effortless.

Both characters are understandably drawn to Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), a Stanford dropout who’s as brainy as she is beautiful. She’s James’ personal assistant/live-in girlfriend, but she becomes Cole’s running buddy and, eventually, something more. At first, it seems as if Ratajkowski is merely playing a version of the role she played in the “Entourage” movie (which was a version of herself), but the script from Joseph and Meagan Oppenheimer eventually allows her to reveal some spine and some melancholy shadings, both of which are appealing.

Speaking of “Entourage,” the comparisons are inevitable. Cole and his pals come off initially as a douchey, “Muppet Babies” version of the dudes from that HBO series. There are even four of them, each of whom (sorta) jibes with those characters. But then it occurred to me afterward that perhaps that was the point — that they’re intentionally rendered as bro stereotypes as a commentary on the idiocy of their bravado, and to allow them to quote-unquote learn something throughout the course of the film, which they do through a couple of subplots that force them to grow up.

It’s nothing you haven’t seen before, this story of an aspiring artist/athlete/investment banker/fill in the blank who finds himself under the tutelage of a seductive but damaged mentor, whom he ultimately tries to usurp. But it’s done with great style: words popping up to accompany the narration, or an art-gallery drug trip rendered in rainbow-hued animation. And if you’ve ever wondered what the ideal tempo is to get the dance floor grindy and sweaty, it’s 128 bpm, which we learn through an amusing tutorial that fuses science and music.

The final performance scene before a packed crowd in downtown Los Angeles bursts off the screen, and Efron’s evident catharsis feels earned. It’s the perfect one-last-blast movie for the end of summer.

Post Date Aug 28 — Zipper

Zipper Movie ReviewThe unfortunately titled “Zipper” is the kind of tawdry sex drama you’d watch late at night on cable and hate yourself for in the morning. Patrick Wilson leads a strong cast as a political star on the rise whose obsession with high-priced escorts threatens to ruin his career ambitions. Sound familiar? My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 21

Straight Outta Compton

Straight Outta Compton Movie ReviewUniversal Pictures
Rated R for language throughout, strong sexuality/nudity, violence and drug use.
Running time: 147 minutes.
Three and a half stars out of four.

For a movie about a groundbreaking, risk-taking group like N.W.A., “Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly conventional in its adherence to music biopic tropes. The rise-fall-rise-again structure, the groupies and the drugs, the beefs over money and acclaim and the general mayhem that gets magnified when egos get in the way — it’s all there. You’ve seen it all a million times before (which is why the parody “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” which I love dearly, is so brilliantly spot-on).

But in its execution, “Straight Outta Compton” is so electrifying and so powerfully acted, you probably won’t mind.

Director F. Gary Gray starts strong by depicting the seminal rap group’s early days on the mean streets of L.A. with great intimacy and verve. (The great Matthew Libatique, Darren Aronofsky’s longtime cinematographer, bathes these mid-’80s scenes in a warm haze of late afternoon sunlight, pot smoke and nostalgia.) Seeing young, scrappy Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell) and Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) hustling to make a name for themselves is a visceral thrill, and all three of these key roles were expertly cast. It may sound like a gimmick to have Ice Cube’s son playing Ice Cube — and damned if he doesn’t look exactly like a younger, thinner version of his dad — but he’s also got the glare and the swagger down cold, and he more than rises to this formidable challenge in both the dramatic moments and the stage performances.

“Straight Outta Compton” is surprisingly funny off the top, though, as these guys and their pals (including Neil Brown Jr. as DJ Yella and Aldis Hodge as MC Ren) tool on each other mercilessly both in and out of the studio while recording their first tracks. Paul Giamatti is also beautifully brash as their decidedly uncool, white manager, Jerry Heller, the first person who ever believed in N.W.A. (and, later, a surprisingly moving source of ambiguity and poignancy).

But even through the good times and wild parties (where women dismayingly are depicted as little more than objects and playthings) as the group’s fame and influence are on the rise, there’s a constant, simmering undercurrent of tension. Between poverty and drugs, gang battles and police brutality — the very fiber of the rap group’s lyrics, er go we have a little ditty called “Fuck Tha Police” — there’s the pervasive threat that something terrible could happen at any point. And it often does.

Sometimes the highs and lows coexist in the same moment, as in the recreation of the notorious night in 1989 when N.W.A. performed “Fuck Tha Police” at a packed Detroit concert — which they’d explicitly been told not to do — sparking rioting and chaos. In contrast with the first part of the film, this segment is glossy, crisp and vibrant; it’s such a massive blast and it’s so immersive, it makes you feel like you’re a part of the audience, or at least wish you had been.

The pace slows, though, as the three begin mistrusting not only each other but also their manager. It’s no less significant in the group’s development — after all, these rifts led to Ice Cube and Dre forging formidable solo careers. But the film’s final third turns quieter, less flashy and more introspective, especially as the once-dynamic Eazy-E finds his health failing him. (He died of AIDS in 1995 at just 31.)

Yes, there is some revisionist history going on, as is so often the case in bringing a famous person’s life to the screen. As my friend and fellow critic Andrew Barker points out, this is glaringly true in the scene where Dre “comes up with” the synth riff for “Nuthin’ But a G Thang”; also, Dre’s history of violence against women has been omitted entirely. (He, Ice Cube and Eazy-E’s widow serve as producers on the film.) And if you’re a neophyte and don’t know the significance of Suge Knight (R. Marcos Taylor) or Tupac Shakur (Marcc Rose) in this whole twisted, hip-hop saga, the script from Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff isn’t about to go out of its way to enlighten you.

At the same time, the film unfortunately couldn’t be more relevant; the same bloody racial struggles with police Ice Cube wrote about nearly 30 years ago are still going on today in cities across the nation, which gives it an added a layer of pointed commentary.

None of that stops “Straight Outta Compton” from being entertaining as hell, though, from start to finish. And based on the screening I attended, it’s very easy to imagine sing-along showings cropping up for years to come.

Post Date Aug 20 — American Ultra

American Ultra Movie ReviewThe tricky combination of sweet, slacker romance and slick, super-violent action flick proves especially jarring in “American Ultra.” Blending such disparate genres requires a more deft touch than the one that’s on display here. My review.

Read the review here

Post Date Aug 14 — Fort Tilden

Fort Tilden Movie ReviewHarper and Allie are terrible people: selfish, clueless Brooklyn 20somethings who are so inept, they can’t go for an afternoon bike ride to the beach without turning it into a debacle. But by the end of this vicious indie comedy, you’ll surprisingly find yourself caring about whether they make it to their destination — and what happens if they get there. My review.

Read the review here