Thursday, March 22, 2018

Movie Review: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Roar Uthaug.
Written by: Geneva Robertson-Dworet & Alastair Siddons.
Starring: Alicia Vikander (Lara Croft), Dominic West (Lord Richard Croft), Walton Goggins (Mathias Vogel), Daniel Wu (Lu Ren), Kristin Scott Thomas (Ana Miller), Derek Jacobi (Mr. Yaffe), Hannah John-Kamen (Sophie), Nick Frost (Max).
A part of me admires the new Tomb Raider, which is, of course, a completely unnecessary and unasked for reboot of a movie franchise that died 15 years ago, and hasn’t once been brought up in a conversation since. All those years ago, it was Angelina Jolie as the ass-kicking, brilliant Lara Croft, who had to shoot people and solve puzzles in equal doses. Now it’s Alicia Vikander, who turns out to be shockingly perfect for the role, and carries the movie much farther than she should be able to. Throw in decent action direction by Roar Uthaug (getting his wish that was evident in his 2015 Norwegian film The Wave – which was to come to Hollywood to make big studio movies), who is refreshing more inspired by the likes of Spielberg than most current action directors, who seem to want to be Michael Bay for some reason (if you want to be generous, say Paul Greengrass instead). All this carries the movie farther than it should, considering how poorly plotted the film is, and how any character not named Lara Croft is basically one dimensional. Still, for this type of film, it’s better than it probably should be.
When the film opens, Lara isn’t the globe-trotting, ass-kicking, puzzle solver yet – but a young woman living in London, still angry at her father (Dominic West) for disappearing seven years previous. She could have him declared dead, and get a boatload of money out of the deal – he was very rich – but instead, she prefers to be poor – making her living as a bike courier (an early highlight is a terrific bike sequence with Lara as the fox in a fox hunt). But soon, Lara discovers a secret room of her fathers, full of research on Himiko – a Japanese queen, with secret, deadly powers. The video her dad left tells her to destroy everything about Himiko and move on with her life – so, of course, she does the exact opposite. She ends up teaming up with a drunken boat captain, Lu Ren (Daniel Wu), whose father also disappeared along with Lara’s, to travel to the remote, uninhabited Japanese island their fathers were travelling to all those years ago. What they find there is scary – not least because of Vogel (Walton Goggins), who has been stuck there for years, trying to find Himiko’s tomb, and whose bosses won’t let him leave until he does.
The film is basically a 1980s style action adventure film in the Indiana Jones vein, with Vikander proving herself to be a wonderful action star. Her chiseled body is admired throughout the film, but not in a creepy, leering sexual way. The same goes for her relationship with Wu’s Lu Ren – they have instant chemistry, but it’s not sexual – he’s not there to be a love interest, but their respect for each other is mutual. Throughout the sequences on the island, Vikander has to run, jump, swim, fight and shoot a bow and arrow, all of which she does so with style and grace. She even manages to sell the films more badly manipulative emotional moments, by not overplaying them. An Oscar winner for Ex Machina (what’s that you say, she won for The Danish Girl – sorry, you’re wrong), Vikander is proof that sometimes having a great actor in the lead role of an action movie can go a long way to saving it.
Basically though, the film eventually wears out its welcome. The film is rather obviously plotted, and really does drag to a halt whenever the characters have to sit around and talk about what’s happening, what just happened, or what will happen. Characters who are not Lara often get good introductions, but then the film doesn’t do much with them – witness the way they shunt Lu Ren to the side once they reach the island, in favor of Goggins’ villain – who makes a big impression in his opening scenes, and then not much afterwards.
Yet, when the film is basically Vikander and action sequences, it works just about as well as a film like this could. Yes, you can tell it’s based on a video game, because it kind of has that structure to it. But those moments work well enough that I’d look forward to another Vikander action vehicle – even a sequel to this – much more than I did for the second Lara Croft movie with Jolie all those years ago.

Movie Review: Veronica

Veronica ** / *****
Directed by: Paco Plaza.
Written by: Fernando Navarro and Paco Plaza.
Starring: Sandra Escacena (Verónica), Bruna González (Lucía), Claudia Placer (Irene), Iván Chavero (Antoñito), Ana Torrent (Ana), Consuelo Trujillo (Hermana Muerte), Ángela Fabián (Rosa), Carla Campra (Diana).
In horror films there is a difference between a slow burn and the downright bland – and while that difference can vary by viewer, I’d argue that the Spanish horror film Veronica is much more of the later. The film was released on Netflix earlier this month – after being on the festival circuit last fall – and after receiving some attention as a film Netflix claimed it was a film so scary that people couldn’t finish it. That, and the fact that I admired the first two [Rec] films co-directed by Paco Plaza who made this film, made me curious to check it out. Disappointingly though Veronica is basically a standard issue possession film, and one that hits basically every cliché imaginable during its runtime. The climax is pretty good – but it takes a long time to get there.
The film takes place in 1991 in Madrid (it is loosely based on a real case) and the title character, played by Sandra Escacena is a 15 year-old-girl, who basically has to act as a parent to her younger twin sisters, and much younger brother. Their father is dead, and their mother basically works non-stop at a local bar. It falls onto Veronica to get the kids up, feed them, get them to school, and then bring them home, feed them and put them to bed – all while going to school herself. One day, during an eclipse, she goes down to the basement of her school (spoiler alert – the basement is creepy) with her two friends and an Ouija board to try and contact her dad. She contacts something alright, as things go horribly awry, in a way that she basically does not remember. She spends the rest of the film is a mounting state of paranoia, as she starts having dark visions of a dark man in their apartment, threatening her siblings. Her mom doesn’t believe her and her best friend is creeped out by her because of what happened with the Ouija board. The only person who seems to give her any advice at all is an old, blind nun at the school – but she’s more on hand to provide some creepy moments during the long (long) hour between the Séance and the climax.
Basically, Veronica hits ever note you expect to see in a possession movie from the innocent girl introduction of Veronica, right up until the climax. As a movie like The Conjuring proved a few years ago, a gifted director can make those clichés feel fresh and scary again, but it takes some work. The best thing about Veronica is the lead performance by newcomer Sandra Escacena, who really does sell her mounting paranoia and terror, as well as her relationship with her siblings, that really is deeply felt and important to her. She’s a find for sure.
Other than a decent sense of place though, Plaza never really figures out to make much of the movie all that scary. I understand that he’s going for a slow burn here – gradually building up the tension before finally releasing it with the climax. But slow burns work when each scene builds on the last, and there are some genuinely unexpected moments in the film. That doesn’t really happen in Veronica, which has some okay individual scenes, but they don’t build on each other – and every moment is too neatly telegraphed in advance.
Yes, the climax mostly work – even if, like the rest of the movie, you know what’s coming before the film does. But other than that, Veronica is basically a dull, predictable horror film that plays out exactly how you expect it to. I suspect that some people turned it off on Netflix because they were bored.

Movie Review: Take Your Pills

Take Your Pills ** / *****
Directed by: Alison Klayman.
Alison Klayman’s Take Your Pills is an advocacy documentary that basically argues – not incorrectly – that as a society, we are over medicating our children – one drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, which is essentially speed. We get them hooked on the drugs, that help keep them alert and focused, with no real plan to ever get them off the drugs – and as a result, we have a society of children on the drugs, who grow into adults who are still on the drugs. The most striking moment in the film comes late, when a college senior says that when they get out into the world, they don’t think they’ll continue to use Adderall – that they’ll be able to leave work behind at work, not like in university where you have to stay up all night to study, and then immediately cuts to an adult who says he takes Adderall for work only, and if he didn’t have to work, he’d stop taking the drug. It’s a moment that rings true, because everyone is always coming up with excuses why they “need” something they want, but that at some point in the future, they will stop.
Had the film had more moments like that, it would probably work better than it ultimately does. My tolerance for this type of advocacy documentary usually is relatively low, and Take Your Pills is an example as to why they don’t work well for me. While director Alison Klayman at least gives people the opportunity to defend the use of these drugs – particularly doctors who don’t see a problem prescribing it, or in one ill-advised side story, a company who sells non-prescription versions of the drugs – it’s clear that Klayman doesn’t really agree with them, and rushes them off the screen rather quickly. She is, in effect, paying lip service to that side, while spending most of the rest of the time condemning the over prescription of the drugs. It’s a position that I happen to agree with – not every restless kid needs to be on the drug, and because so many kids are on it, it creates a culture where something as serious as giving your child a prescription drug on a permanent basis is seen as routine. Yet Klayman casts her net so wide in finding the stories of those effected, and the doctors and researchers who have something to say about it, the personal stories really do get lost. In the case of the trees getting lost for the forest.
That is a shame, because there are some interesting people in the documentary – the former NFL player, who started taking Adderall as a professional, and needed to get a doctor’s note, so it would be considered a performance enhancing drug for instance. Or the college artist who has been on it since third grade, and it bitter about it – and wants off of it, and his mother, who expressed at least some regret, while still defending that position. The movie has quick sequences dealing with use of the drug at university in general – where kids with prescriptions sell it to those who don’t or on Wall Street, where is has replaced cocaine as the stimulant of choice. All of these stories could be docs of their own – at least short ones – and perhaps would have been more interesting than Take Your Pills ends up being.
What we do get is a mountain of statistics thrown at us – and as much as Klayman tries to jazz up the style in those presentations, there is only so much you can do with, and a lot of doctors and researchers explaining the effects, the dangers, and how similar the drugs really are to meth. They even compare it to the opioid crisis in America.
The problem ultimately is though that Klayman doesn’t really find anything new here. This has been a well-documented problem for years now, so Klayman’s doc feels like it’s too little too late. There is some good stuff, but it’s buried under a mountain of good intentions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Movie Review: Wild Wild Country

Wild Wild Country **** / *****
Directed by: Maclain Way & Chapman Way.
The recent glut of documentary series that span multiple episodes and many hours telling a single story has mostly been a blessing – giving filmmakers a chance to more fully explore complex subjects that a two or even three hour runtime couldn’t adequately handle. At their best – like Ezra Edelman’s astounding O.J. Made in America, the result can be a masterpiece – one of the best documentaries ever made. There can be downsides of course (something like The Keepers doesn’t earn its runtime), but for the most part, I am glad of this recent development. The best new doc series in this vein has to be Maclain and Chapman Way’s Wild Wild Country – which as the title implies really is a wild ride, telling the complex and extremely entertaining story of what happened when an Indian Guru – known as Bhagwan and his followers – known as the Rajneeshees – bought an expansive plot of land in remote Oregon, and built a massive community there.
The film has a traditional documentary feel – with a host of archival footage and news reports from the time (the early to mid-1980s), and modern interviews with many of the participants. From the Rajneeshees point of view, this new area was paradise. It was a large, rocky plot of land that no one was using – they exerted great effort and spent a lot of resources turning it in a community full of homes, restaurants, a massive hall used for worship and everything else you could imagine. The Bhagwan was extremely wealthy – he owned many Rolls Royce’s for example. Most of the money likely came from his followers – mostly white Americans or Europeans, some with a lot of money. They all came willingly, and they all wore red. This was either a glorious new religious movement or a cult depending on the way you looked at it.
Problems arise though when the Rajneeshees start angering the locals in the nearest town – Antelope, which doesn’t even have 100 people, and most of them are older, retirees. They, and other, Oregonians, don’t like the way the Rajneeshees are using the land – and want to force them out. The Rajneeshees respond by getting involved in local politics. What follows is absolutely crazy – and will eventually include mass poisoning, arson, assassination plots and massive American government bureaucracy exerting its will on the Rajneeshees.
Throughout it all, the Way brothers never really express their opinion on things – never really lead the audience in what to think. Certainly, you can understand the point-of-view of the Oregonians, who thought they were living in a small, sleepy town – only to be invaded by a loud, red clad horde, who believed in (and practiced) free love, and eventually essentially took over their town – buying everything they could, including the local diner (who local recalls how they went from frying bacon on the grill to bananas – and never went back). But it’s hard to argue with the Rajneeshees either that a lot of it was motivated by bigotry, and they were just trying to practice their religion – which they have every right to do. The most fascinating character in the whole series is undeniably Ma Anand Sheela, the Bhagwan’s personal secretary, who pretty much ran the commune for years, as the Bhagwan remained silent. She reveled in all the media attention she received – and she kept on receiving it because she gave fiery, often profane interviews. She is a lot calmed in the modern interviews with her now, but you still feel that same passion from her. She is also the catalyst for much of what happens. One wonders what would have happened without her – would the Rajneeshees been run out sooner, or would eventually they have been allowed to go about their lives?
The film runs in six parts, each lasting just over an hour – and it really does earn that runtime (in fact, you could argue it could just a little bit longer – it does feel like some of what happens is rushed). The Way brothers know what they’re doing here – the pacing never flags, which is accomplishment when dealing with some stuffy government bureaucrats explaining in detail what they were doing, and each part ends with perhaps a little too explosive of a cliffhanger to make sure you’ll keep watching – and it works (I may well have watched all six in a row had I not started part one at 11pm one night). Most retellings of this story, understandably, concentrate on some of the more explosive details – the mass salmonella poisoning for example – but by taking so much time, Wild Wild Country puts everything in context, and tells an wildly entertaining, strange story – and really is one of the best docs you will see this year.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Movie Review: The Strangers: Prey at Night

The Strangers: Prey at Night *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Johannes Roberts.
Written by: Ben Ketai based on the screenplay by Bryan Bertino.
Starring: Christina Hendricks (Cindy), Bailee Madison (Kinsey), Martin Henderson (Mike), Lewis Pullman (Luke), Emma Bellomy (Dollface), Damian Maffei (Man in the Mask), Lea Enslin (Pin-Up Girl).
It felt rather lonely in 2008 thinking that Bryan Bertino’s The Strangers was one of the scariest films I had seen in years – most reviews dismissed it as another cheap horror movie, but it was a film that creeped me out to no end. To be fair, home invasion movies do that me more than most horror films do (I rarely get all that scared by movies featuring ghosts for example) – and having kids has only heightened that anxiety. Re-watching The Strangers in the lead up to the long awaited sequel, I was even more impressed by it now than I was then (and seeing how I hadn’t watched it in 10 years, the scares worked again). I’m glad that the film has become a new horror classic in that time. The Strangers: Prey at Night is now here – why it took 10 years to make it, I’ll never know (especially since it as announced right after the original was released), and while it isn’t quite as good as the original, it’s pretty damn close. For horror sequels, it’s tough to do better.
The original film was about a couple, who were already frayed when the film opened – thanks to a proposal gone awry – but for the sequel, the filmmakers have decided to expand that to a family, but has kept the fraying part. After a brief prologue that re-establishes the trio of masked killers – the film sketches this film in strokes that seem broad, but still get to the heart of who they are. Cindy and Mike (Christina Hendricks and Martin Henderson) are concerned about their teenage daughter Kinsey (Bailee Madison) – and have decided to ship her off to boarding school (her exact “crimes” are not spoken, but she wears a Ramones t-shirt, and smokes cigarettes). Kinsey is angry at her parents for sending her away, and resentful of her older brother Luke (Lewis Pullman), who she thinks her parents see as the golden child. The family is headed to a trailer park run by an older, drunk uncle for the night before dropping Kinsey off at boarding school. It’s off season, so no one else is going to be around. If you’ve seen the original film you know what will happen next – a knock on the door late at night, a young woman, faced obscured by darkness and long blonde hair asking for “Tamara”, and then escalating terror as that woman is joined by two others, another woman and a man – all wearing fake cheery masks, as they torment the family.
The Strangers: Prey at Night is smart enough to know that it cannot repeat everything from the first film. The original eventually does build to a bloody, bleak climax, but it takes almost its entire runtime to get there, so that for most of the runtime you don’t really know what the masked stranger’s intentions are – they could just be really committed to pulling off a perverse prank. You cannot get away with that twice, so this film doesn’t hide what those intentions are, and while the result is a fairly standard structure of the family members getting picked off one at a time, it also means that once the terror starts, it never really lets up.
Bertino is back as a screenwriter, but not as a director – that falling to Johannes Roberts this time, but improves greatly from last year’s surprise hit 47 Meters Down, starring Mandy Moore and Claire Holt as a pair of sisters, trapped underwater, with diminishing oxygen, as sharks circle above them (that film was effective, but not this effective). Roberts in many ways takes his cues from what Bertino did in the original film (at least when he’s not cribbing from John Carpenter – especially Christine) – there are a lot of shots of the potential horror in the background – we can see them, the characters cannot. Roberts makes great use of the confined spaces inside the trailers – but perhaps even better use of the dark fields around them – providing just enough light to see what’s happening. Sure, he may too heavily on the ironic use of 1980s pop songs against the killings – but that’s a cliché he fully embraces, and works wonderfully.
The result is another horror film that has haunted me for days since seeing it – a truly scary film that may not be original, and may not have quite the impact of the first film, which was one of a number at that time turning horror clichés on its head – but is ruthlessly effective at what it’s doing.

Movie Review: Jane

Jane *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Brett Morgen.
Written by: Brett Morgen.
The discovery, in 2013, of over 100 hours of footage of Jane Goodall during her time in Gombe in the 1960s – thought lost forever – is the basis for Brett Morgen’s documentary Jane. He was clearly the right director for the material – as he’s proven with The Kid Stays in the Picture (with Nanette Burstein) about Robert Evans, the best ever 30 for 30 Documentary June 17th, 1994 – about a very busy day in sports news, and no just because it was the day O.J. went on that chase in the white Bronco, and Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, Morgen is incredibly skilled at taking hours and hours of footage, and editing it together in a way that makes it all flow, given it broader resonance. Having Goodall herself still around to narrate the film helps too – it allows her to expand on the context of what we’re seeing, and why it was so groundbreaking. Add in Phillip Glass’ best score in years, and you really do have one of the year’s best looking and sounding docs. My only real complaint about the film – which does mar it somewhat – is that someone decided that the film had to be a fairly typical biopic about Goodall’s life as well – forcing the material into a direction that isn’t quite as interesting as the footage itself.
That footage was shot by Hugo Van Lawick – assigned by National Geographic to go out and film Goodall after she had already been in Gombe for a while – and was making remarkable discoveries. The footage is stunning and beautiful – and looks amazing, not something you really expect when it was shot more than 50 years ago, and has been “lost” for most of that time. The colors are glorious, and you understand by Van Lawick is considered one of the best nature photographers in history.
The film though is – and rightly so – mostly Goodall’s story. And it is remarkable when you consider that when she went into the jungle to try and observe chimps, she was a 26 year old secretary, with no scientific training, who was afraid of the chimps because she didn’t know she was supposed to be. Yet, she was able to observe them, in part because, she just didn’t go anywhere – they got used to her. Her journey from an untrained secretary to one of the most justly celebrated scientists of her era is remarkable. It is the stuff of Hollywood dreams of when they set about making a biopic.
And perhaps that’s why the material is ended up being shaped that way, especially as the film goes along. It’s odd no one has thought to make a fictionalized biopic of the woman – she’s certainly less controversial than Diann Fossey, who was the subject of Gorillas in the Mist (1988) with Sigourney Weaver (although, perhaps that project was greenlit because of Fossey’s murder a few years before, making her even more famous than she already was). The film is able to draw some fascinating observations from Goodall about her life – and how she learned a lot about herself from her time with the chimps – especially as it relates to be a mother (one wonders if a man would be asked this question, but Goodall seems comfortable with it, so whatever). The film foregrounds the budding romance between Goodall and Van Lawick, and later their son, Grub. Personally, I would have liked more on the chimps, and what was there – and less shots of the modern Goodall, who is clearly invaluable to the film, but also interrupts the visual flow of the film.
Still, it’s hard to complain about Jane – which features remarkable sights and sounds throughout, and really does tell a fascinating story – even if it’s one we’ve heard before, it’s not one we’ve seen quite this way.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Movie Review: Like Me

Like Me *** / *****

Directed by: Robert Mockler.

Written by: Robert Mockler.

Starring: Addison Timlin (Kiya), Larry Fessenden (Marshall), Ian Nelson (Burt), Jeremy Gardner (Freddie), Ana Asensio (Anna), Nicolette Pierini (Julia), Stuart Rudin (Henry). 


I’ve been sitting with Like Me – Robert Mockler’s debut film – for a few days now, trying to sort through just what I thought of the film. It isn’t a subtle film, and I’m not sure that the message of the film is any deeper than social media is a vile cesspool of human depravity, but I’m not sure it needs to me. While the concept and narrative are thin, Mockler goes over-the-top stylistically – this is a Natural Born Killers inspired fever dream visually. The lead performance by Addison Timlin – which is about the exact opposite of her work as the sweet, quiet Goth kid turned nun in Little Sister from a couple years ago, gets under the skin of this young woman, whose existence seems to hinge on getting likes.


The movie opens with Timlin’s Kiya – in a mask, holding a convenience store clerk at gunpoint, and filming the whole thing on her iPhone for upload to Youtube. She doesn’t say anything as she holds him up – and its amusing and creepy to watch him as he flails in front of the camera, not quite sure what to do or how to react even before she pulls out the gun, at which point, he pisses himself. The video draws a lot of attention on social media – of course – and soon Kiya is the talk of the internet. Most people find it funny – while, of course, stressing that they don’t really condone it per se, but it’s funny. One person who isn’t impressed is Burt (Ian Nelson) – an internet troll spewing out hateful misogyny in his response to Kiya’s video. Kiya is smart though – and sees how many “likes” she is getting, and knows she needs to up the ante. This is when she kidnaps a pervy motel owner – Marshall (Larry Fessenden, because if you need a creep in an ultra-low budget horror or horror adjacent film, you are legally required to hire Fessenden). The pair end up kind of, sort of bonding – and their drug fueled road trip gets stranger.


The film is obsessed with over-consumption – of all kinds. Mockler shows the audience, in graphic, sickening detail people eating junk food - nowhere worse than when, shortly after they meet, Kiya ties Marshall to a bed, and then force feeds junk of all kinds. The message is clear – this is sickening and disgusting, but so is everything being done online, which is over-consumption of a different sort.


Timlin really is terrific as Kiya – there is a blankness to her performance, as Kiya is someone who just doesn’t quite connect with people. She is an outsider, who wants to be a liked and loved (at least online), but cannot connect with people in any normal fashion. That is what ultimately connects her Marshall – an outsider of a different sort. Their connection makes up the dramatic heft of the movie, and it works, because Timlin and Fessenden work well together, and go to dark places as well. The biggest problem with the movie is probably the Burt character – who as played by Nelson is a one-dimensional, alt-right troglodyte – and not even an all that convincing one (sorry, but I don’t for a second buy that Burt would get THIS big on the internet). He is supposed to complete a sort of outsider triangle of the three characters – you need to have people like Kiya, like Marshall and like Burt, or else this sort of thing on the internet doesn’t work – it doesn’t get pushed this far. If you torment a store clerk on the internet, and no one is watching, did it even happen? But Burt as conceived and performed never really becomes anything deeper than a meme.


As a director, Mockler basically goes madly over-the-top, from pretty much the moment after the opening sequence in the convenience store, and doesn’t slow done. I bet the style will turn many off – or just give them massive headaches – but as someone who loved Oliver Stone in the 1990s, I quite liked the go-for-broke style here. Besides, indie movies have become fairly tame visually – they all look and feel the same. Mockler is showing even on a small budget, you can go mad visually.


Like Me is far from a perfect film – but it’s a fascinating one from beginning to end, shows that Timlin should be getting better roles, and marks Mockler as a director I want to see what he does next, You may up hating it – but it still deserves some attention.