Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Macdonald shines as against type wanna-be rapper in "Cake$"



As Patricia "Dumbo" Dumbrowski, Australian newcomer Danielle Macdonald is the physical antithesis to the world of hip-hop and rap: she's overweight, white and above all, a woman.  Cruising around desolate and depressing suburban New Jersey with her loyal pharmacist friend - and part-time rapper himself - Jheri (Siddharth Dhananjay), she writes and raps some truly amazing lyrics, despite the many doubters she faces, including her own boozing mother (Bridget Everett).  But once Patti meet a strange, lonely recluse (Mamoudou Athie) who owns some low-rent recording equipment, they realize their ideas into actual tracks, and begin to capture the imagination of many a naysayer.

Director Geremy Jasper has fused some old ideas from Hustle & Flow and 8 Mile to make a movie that, although familiar at times, still manages to vibrate with true emotion - and some original and catchy music.  The final showdown, in which Patti and her team get to perform in front of a wild audience, is both exciting and moving, and gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "It ain't over 'till the fat lady sings."  Patti Cake$ is an effective independent drama about a long-shot's journey to overcome all odds, and it successfully ends not with a whimper, but with one hell of a bang.
B+

Friday, December 8, 2017

Racial tension & police brutality at forefront of "Detroit"



I suppose 2017 is as good time as any for a movie like Detroit, an intensely gripping, true account of the riots that took place in the now distant 1967 Americana Motown city.  Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker, Zero Dark Thirty) directs an excellent script from Mark Boal, which focuses on a specific incident at the Algiers Motel in the summer of the aforementioned year, when three African Americans were brutally murdered by the police in a scandal that didn't shy away from corruption and major violation of human rights.

Will Poulter is particularly effective as the trigger happy crooked police officer Philip Krauss, and John Boyega - so memorable as Fin in the new revamped Star Wars saga - gives his Melvin Dismukes a subtle humanity that is beautifully understated in its simplicity.  The controversial incident at Algiers, which is at the center of Detroit's narrative, is a dark chapter in America's civil rights history, and watched through Bigelow's eyes, it contains an audacity and tension like few American movies this year.  It is a simultaneously gut wrenching and revelatory examination of a crime that never should have been, if not for the incompetence for a few police officers - a societal issue that still resonates in that same society today.

Detroit is epic-like in its scope of characters, setting and topic timeliness, and, possessing a less-than-happy ending (a major trial does not get the verdict that we all want), it's bound to create discussions both far and wide. It's just such a shame that a movie this good did not find a bigger audience; here's hoping it gets a second life on Bluray and digital streaming.
A-

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Religiously allegorical "mother!" pushes the boundaries



Darren Aronofsky's mother! is a nightmarish vision of a post-modern "God" and his muse of a spouse.  Played by Jennifer Lawrence, she is a neglected wife of a famous poet/writer (Javier Bardem) whose strange and unwanted visitors seem to gather at their country home door unannounced, much to her dismay.  Lawrence does an amazing job as a psychologically tortured spouse whose husband seems to give in too easily to his faithful fans, even to the point of sacrificing their newborn son to his followers (the scene in question is not for the squeamish, just like most of the final act).

The movie could best be described as Polanski-esque, with Lawrence playing the part that was once reserved for Catherine Deneuve.  mother! is definitely not a mainstream crowd pleaser, but it's dazzling filmmaking nonetheless, and further proof that Aronofsky is still one of the most daringly original directors in America today.
B+

Thursday, November 30, 2017

"The Babysitter" radiates with boisterously clever gore




Who would've thought that McG, the once-upon-a-time hack behind such mediocre efforts as Charlie's Angels and Terminator: Salvation, was ever capable of making a movie that is as bloodily entertaining as The Babysitter?  Certainly not me. Working from a witty screenplay by Brian Duffield, McG re-creates the nostalgic suburbia feel of teenagers hopelessly fighting otherworldly evil in their small town Americana, a la Halloween and Fright Night, to name just a few apparent influences.

Australian Samara Weaving is sexy, charming and mysteriously eerie as the titular vixen who watches over a needle-phobic youngster (Judah Lewis) while his parents take a much needed sex-vacation.  The teenager both admires and lusts after his easygoing sitter, but when he witnesses her commit an unspeakable crime during a twisted game of "spin-the-bottle" with her friends, he realizes that all is not well with her initial cheerful, sunny persona.  The movie takes a complete 180-degree turn at that point, taking its young, bullied protagonist on a wild ride, and us along with him.

The Babysitter is a rare modern movie that successfully fuses over-the-top campy gore with clever, comedic social commentary (a teenager covered in blood from two different victims nervously exclaims, "This probably means that I now have AIDS!"), and does it all in under 90 minutes, without a superfluous moment in it. McG is clearly in solid form here, but credit should also be given to screenwriter Duffield, whose writing is reminiscent of some of the most memorable horror-comedies of the last 30-plus years.
A

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Branagh's "Orient Express" trudges like a little engine that couldn't



Spectacular from a visual perspective - its production design and CGI dazzle the viewer's eyes instantly - Kenneth Branagh's latest remake of Murder on the Orient Express is a movie that feels about 40 years or so late to the modern-murder mystery party.  The cast is as vast and starry as the landscape and richly black skies of the mountainous nights through which the titular trains zooms during the cold European winter.  After a rich businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Johnny Depp), is murdered during the night, the shadow of suspicion falls on every passenger who held a grudge against the deceased.

Agatha Christie, a well known mystery writer whose reputation depended on wowing her readers with many a whodunit in her heyday, has had better movies made based on her original works, and most notable of all is the Sidney Lumet 1974 adaptation of this very story, with Albert Finney in the lead role. The energy and elegance of what we see  never once replicates in what we feel.  This is most true of the protagonist, the genial French detective, Hercules Poirot.  Branagh plays him as a man only too concerned with the upkeep of his peculiar mustaches, and hardly as a detective of flesh and blood whose quest we should relate to at all.  But the movie is also incredibly humorless, a flaw that keeps it trudging like an overlong freight train instead of the magnificent locomotive it claims to be.

Murder on the Orient Express continues Hollywood's twenty-first century quest to remake classic cinema of the past to a whimpering effect.  Seldom has a Branagh movie felt this unnecessary and redundant, and I doubt that even Poirot himself could figure out the purpose of its existence.
C-

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Demented "Ingrid" radiates with unfunny creepiness



Not even a month after I wrote about Aubrey Plaza's last movie (The Little Hours) and her inability to appear in a worthwhile feature - despite her good looks and charisma - she goes on and stars as the titular (anti)heroine in the tonally confused Ingrid Goes West.  Playing a slightly disturbed woman who has recently assaulted another due to a social media faux pas, Ingrid befriends Taylor Sloan (Elizabeth Olsen), an internet socialite who is everything Ingrid wants in a friend.  As Ingrid's past resurfaces in all its ugly glory, the movie quickly turns from an up-to-then quirky character study into a poor-man's copy of Fatal Attraction crossed with Single White Female (a movie which is cleverly referenced by O'Shea Jackson Jr's Batman loving Dan Pinto, the movie's sole source of humor and witty one-liners).

When Ingrid Goes West reaches its preposterous third act, you may find yourself wondering how a movie that was so likable for so long could sink so quickly and unashamedly by surrendering itself to cliched blackmail and violence typically seen in a straight-to-cable late night Cinemax stinker.  The final scene would suggest that Ingrid has finally found her peace and comfort, and thusly won our hearts at long last, but it isn't so.  She's still a despicable psycho, and just because she's finally happy doesn't mean that the movie's confused and misled audience should share her sentiments. It's also never a good thing when the best thing about a movie is its poster, but alas, that's precisely the case here.
C- 


Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"Happy Death" recycles old gimmick w/out new vision





Slasher movies (anything in the horror or the sub-horror genre) are generally rated R - at least, they oughta be.  There's something depraved and joyful about watching blood being splashed and throats cut in an apologetically profane and uncompromising manner (Hatchet, Inside, Dead-Alive). Now, that kind of gore should keep the children away, even if the absence of adolescents means lower ticket sales for the pockets of the film's producers, as some things should not just not be compromised for the sake of financial gain.  This is exactly the problem with Happy Death Day, a new movie that only pretends to be a bold, bloody new take on Groundhog Day (and even the more recent and superior sci-fi action flick, Edge of Tomorrow), but never quite ventures where none have gone before.

When Tree (Jessica Rothe), a college student with a few moral issues, keeps reliving the same day (which happens to be her birthday) after being murdered by a masked maniac, her conundrum is less entertaining and enthralling than previously seen in the cyclical time loop formula.  It's a bloodless, profanity-and-nudity free "slasher" movie that feels strangely out of place: like a WB network episode stretched to feature length. It's perhaps slightly too cinematic for TV, but way too derivative and unimaginative for cinema.  There isn't much here that's scary, funny or clever in the least: it's all been done before.  Twice.  And better.  Way better.
C-