Monday, March 30, 2015

Review: It Follows (2015; Rated R)

*NOTE: This review nixes most story details in order to minimize spoilers and consequently maximize viewing pleasure. Enjoy!

David Robert Mitchell's stalker film It Follows is a deliberately crafted, disturbingly potent pastiche of suburban horror. Don't let the reviews fool you, it isn't the scariest film in years nor does it break any new ground for the genre, but what it does is effectively make the familiar feel grossly unnerving in a way that will linger with you long after the lights flicker on.

From the opening shot, It Follows establishes a menacing sense of nostalgia: Midwestern suburbia, fall. A high heel studded teenager bolts out of her house and down the street, chased by an unknown entity nobody else can see. Nearby adults look on, dumbfounded by this girl as she runs around. Sound familiar? That's because It Follows owes a huge debt of its bone-chilling success to the classic suburban horror flicks of the 70s and 80s: A Nightmare On Elm Street among the most obvious.

Like those movies, and most horror movies since, It Follows centers itself around a posy of young, hormone-enraged teenagers growing up in the middle-class bowls of America. Unlike most horror movies though, each of the kids have just enough personality and sense to make your emotional investment worthwhile once It starts to follow.

At the film's heart is a jaded love story starring Paul, played timidly by Keir Gilchrist, who you may or may not recognize from 2010's It's Kind of a Funny Story; and Jay, portrayed by the up-and-coming Maika Monroe, of last year's The Guest, starring Dan Stevens. These two share an awkward, though endearing long-lasting bond that grounds this otherwise Twilight Zone of a story. Credit to Mitchell and these fine, young actors for realizing a painfully truthful interpretation of the complex teenage love life.

As endearing as their apprehensive relationship may be, this film is about Jay and Maika Monroe's beautifully authentic performance. Not since Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween has a young lead given such a subtle, sincere portrayal in a horror movie. And although Curtis and Monroe play two different characters from much different eras, the retro influence on Mitchell's film is omnipresent.

This includes the evocative, eerie synth riffs that compose much of the dread-inducing score by Disasterpeace. The soundtrack here is crucial not only to the effectiveness of the frights, but to the identity of the film in general; reminiscent of the likes of Halloween or Psycho, composed by John Carpenter and Bernard Hermann respectively. Fans of the genre should definitely check this music out.

From the slow moving camera pans to its lead-footed antagonist, It Follows is deliberately crafted in the vein of an old school slow burn. Rather than rely on booming jump scares, the film draws its tension from Jay's vulnerability. She's not safe anywhere. Even if she gets in a car and drives far away, It is always walking straight for her. This realization slowly kills Jay's soul, which in turn will kill yours. It's all part of this film's brilliant uneasiness, which sets in during the prologue and steadily perturbs towards a hauntingly pensive conclusion.

If you can, see this movie in theaters. You'll thank me afterwards.

Grade: A

Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: Run All Night

Typecasting can (and usually does) spell the kiss of death for an actor's career. But not Liam Neeson's. His mainstream success has taken off in recent years as he has become the go-to man for an action-laden script. Sadly, Liam recently promised he will be giving up guns in the next couple of years. But until then, Liam leaves behind a string of mostly digestible, popcorn-munchin' fun. His latest, Run All Night, blends the mindless entertainment value of Taken with the dark, gritty tone of his recent A Walk Among the Tombstones. The result is, like many Action Neeson flicks, entertaining enough to warrant a once-thru.

What stands out about Run All Night is its interesting character work. Neeson does a wonderful job as Jimmy Conlon. Jimmy's done deplorable things as a hit-man working for his mobster best friend, Shawn, portrayed by the great Ed Harris, who now spends his life trying to drink away his demons.

After Jimmy's son Mike, played Joel Kinnaman (of The Killing and last year's Robocop remake), witnesses Shawn's son, Danny, played by Boyd Holbrook (also in A Walk Among the Tombstones), murder somebody, Mike finds himself as Danny's next target. You still with me?

Jimmy bloodies his hands yet again (speaking both metaphorically and literally here) by offing Danny in order to protect Mike. This sets in motion a tragic series of events that dismantles the life-long, brotherly bond between Jimmy and Shawn. As the body count piles up, so does the burden on their once flourishing friendship. It's a beautiful disaster to behold and both Neeson and Harris play it pitch perfect.

As far as taking away anything from this film, Jimmy and Shawn's crumbling friendship is it. The rest of the film plays out as you would expect, with little to no deviation from the classic noir, anti-hero narrative, with the talented Vincent D'Onofrio (Law & Order: C.I.)  getting a few lines as the last wholesome cop in New York who holds a moral grudge against Jimmy because of the people he's killed. Disappointingly, and predictably, that subplot never leads anywhere satisfying and probably could have been dropped.

As for the action, it's well-paced throughout and never feels hyper-extended, with the exception of the one car chase towards the beginning. There's enough here that you won't get bored.

Content. That's how I felt as the credits rolled and the lights went up. I didn't feel cheated nor was I aching for more. Like most of Liam Neeson's recent pow-bang endeavors, you get what you pay for.

Grade: B-

Monday, March 9, 2015

Circle Time: Predestination review

Predestination is the strangest, most unique sci-fi flick in recent memory and I mean that in a good way. After my initial screening, I immediately wanted to watch it again. It's that enticing. 

What was originally a short story by science fiction writer Robert A. Heinlein has been diligently adapted to the big screen by Spierig Brothers (the same duo behind the disappointing sci-fi vampire flick Daybreakers). Their craftsmanship gives Predestination  its beautifully minimalist look, which allows its two core performances to take center stage.  

Recent Oscar Nominee Ethan Hawke gives an understated noir performance as The Barkeeper. He's a one of eleven temporal agents who can travel through time in order to prevent crimes before they happen; however, one terrorist has eluded The Barkeeper all throughout his career-- the notorious Fizzle Bomber. 

Finally, in 1970s New York, The Barkeeper corners the Fizzle Bomber, only to be horribly disfigured by one of the terrorist's titular explosives. Fast forward a decade and The Barkeeper finds himself on one, last mission, wherein he earns his credited title tending a young man who goes by the pen name The Unmarried Mother (Sarah Snook). The two hit it off, so to speak, and once the young man divulges his unusual back story, The Barkeep offers him the chance to go back and change history. 

The more the story unfolds, the crazier and more remarkable it becomes. It all builds to one of the most memorable movie endings you'll ever see. What's great is that even if you see it coming, you'll still be blown away. 

The Spierig Brothers give Predestination a sleek and simple visual style through a beautiful, "less is more" approach to the cinematography. Varying cool colors accent the different time periods and the sharp costume designs visually pop on these meticulously constructed sets.

Ethan Hawke suavely downplays the severity of his character's predicaments, which leaves open to interpretation his motives. This brings an edge to the Barkeeper, as his motives are never crystal clear. Opposite Hawke is Sarah Snook, who gives a breakout performance. She completely disappears into the many shades of her character and her performance is wholly genuine. We're sure to see more from this talented, young actor.

Grade: A

Friday, March 6, 2015

A shell of a robot: 'Chappie' review

From the beginning, it is obvious that Chappie has District 9-level aspirations. However, poor writing and an overwhelming sense that we've seen this all before crushes those aspirations and leaves Chappie feeling like an empty vessel.

Dev Patel, who has done great work in films such as Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, but isn't given a whole lot to do here, plays Deon Wilson. He's a robotics genius who's brought the city of Johannesburg the world's first autonomous police force, called Scouts. After spending a night drinking Red Bull and yelling at his discount WALL-E robot, Deon develops the code for artificial intelligence and steals the busted body of a broken Scout to test it out on. To nobody's surprise, the code works and Chappie becomes the world's first thinking, feeling robot. O brave new world!

Before Deon even gets started with Chappie, he's kidnapped by a band of thugs and seemingly has no option but to build Chappie for these unlikable losers who, for some reason, need a robot partner to help pull of some heist. The big problem here is, up to this point, we have not spent enough time with Deon to grow to like him and now Chappie is being raised by a group of unredeemable, gun-toting miscreants who do things like leave Chappie to be tortured by Scout-hating citizens of Johannesburg, shoot human policemen, and throw innocent people from their vehicles during an overstayed carjacking montage. As a result, Chappie grows to be a shallow jerk (that's putting it lightly), which leaves nobody for the audience to root for. Any sense of endearment that should exist watching Chappie learn his first words or paint his first picture is quickly overshadowed by how unpleasant he becomes.

Even the terrific supporting cast is underutilized here. The great Hugh Jackman plays Vincent Moore, a soldier turned engineer who despises and distrusts artificial intelligence. Jackman's ugly side shines in a few, brief moments, but sadly Jackman's talent is suffocated by an overall lax script that reduces him to mostly scowling angrily from the shadows as he eavesdrops on Chappie and Deon. Sigourney Weaver, who made her name in sci-fi, hams up a few lines as the president of the robotics company that both Vincent and Deon work for. Her character exists merely to give Vincent the go-ahead to utilize the Moose, Blomkamp's version of the ED-209, after everything goes "tits up." She is so trivial that you can hear the "cha-ching" as she's cashing in her paycheck.

Visually speaking, Chappie is ripe with spectacle, as we have come to expect from Blomkamp's work. The motion capture animation on the Chappie character is splendidly detailed and the minimalistic approach to smoothly blending practical and top notch special effects still makes for an aesthetically satisfying experience. Unfortunately, visuals can only carry a film so far on their own.

As for substance, Chappie is pretty soulless for a film about having a soul. Instead of fleshed out, meaningful characters, Neil Blomkamp's latest South African sci-fi flick is full of irritable idiots who seem to lack any sense of decency or depth. It's near impossible to root for or even care about anyone in this movie. At this point we can only hang tight, wait for Chappie to blow over, and hope that Blomkamp's Aliens sequel does not suffer the same disappointing fate.

Grade: D