Thursday, March 29, 2018

WES ANDERSON’S WHIMSICAL “ISLE OF DOGS” HAS PLENTY OF LAUGHS AND BITE


Wes Anderson has earned quite a reputation over the last 24 years for making films packed with whimsy, eccentricity, and gentle humor. He is a very funny filmmaker indeed, and yet if you look closer at his past eight movies, you will see work tinged with melancholy and malice. Gene Hackman’s ne’er-do-well dad was an emotionally abusive ass in THE ROYAL TENENBAUMS, Mr. Fox gets his tail shot off by irate farmers in THE FANTASTIC MR. FOX, and even if THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL was a pink-hued Valentine to a bygone era of luxury hotels, it was also a scathing indictment of fascism. (M. Gustave was killed by the gray-uniformed cadre at the end of the story after all.) Now, there is ISLE OF DOGS, his ninth film, and while its cast consists mostly of lovable dogs, it is easily the darkest of Anderson’s oeuvre. It’s animated, but it’s definitely not for the kiddies.

The poster, with its rows of canine characters all staring with deadpan expressions, may suggest that this outing is going to be cute as all get out, and some of it is, but most of it is a poisoned pen letter aimed at totalitarianism and all the ruin laid in the wake of such evil. And the beleaguered discriminated against group here are not Muslims or foreigners, but man’s best friend. Only here, the dogs in a futuristic version of Japan, are reviled for their overpopulating, their disease, and thus banned to an island until the brutal regime in charge of things can figure out what to do about the scourge of pooches.

Every dog in the fictional Japanese city of Megasaki gets shipped to the nearby island that happens to be where all of the city’s garbage gets dumped. (A bit on-the-nose, but effective symbolism for sure.) There, the canines are left to fend for themselves, and no care is given to them to help them eat, survive, or even fight the “dog flu” or “snout fever” that ails them all. Kobayashi (voiced by Kunichi Nomura), the mayor of Megasaki, gives lip service to the idea that they’ll all be welcome back once the scientists find a cure for all the doggie ailments, but he secretly is working to annihilate the entire pooch population.

Of course, Kobayashi is also a cat lover. As in any movie where the dogs are the heroes, filmmakers feel the need to portray felines as the enemy. It’s unsophisticated and beneath Anderson to represent such prejudices, but mercifully, he doesn’t belabor it. What he concentrates on instead are the politics on the island, as well as the rebels trying to save the dog population behind the mayor’s back. One of them is the evil mayor’s own ward and “distant nephew” Atari (Koyu Rankin). He manages to land a small plane he’s commandeered to “Trash Island” in hopes of finding Spots (Liev Schreiber), who not only is Atari’s companion and guardian, but he also was the first dog shipped over to Trash Island.

Atari meets the odd mix of dogs who’ve banded together on the island, and they become his friends and aids in the search for Spots. The pack consists of a self-described “pack of scary, indestructible alpha dogs” voiced by many of Anderson’s favorite actors. The leader of the group is Rex (Edward Norton), an earnest, if not befuddled by leadership, hound. His cohorts include Boss (Bill Murray), a former team mascot; King (Bob Balaban), a former dog food commercial star; and Duke (Jeff Goldblum), the gossipy busy-body. The newcomer is Chief (Bryan Cranston), a mangy stray who reluctantly joins them after protecting them from a pack of ruffians on the island. 


The actors all voice their characters with the droll, understated delivery that Anderson prefers, and almost every conversation they have yields big laughs. Of course, the point of talking animals in any entertainment is to create a sense of anthropomorphic relatability, but it plays well here as the pack plays like a bunch of ‘freaks and geeks’ that are eminently human in their vulnerabilities and banter.

Even with all those macho sounding dog names, the only genuine tough is Chief, and with Cranston’s baritone burr, he sounds as masculine as they come. Still, Anderson and Cranston find many shades to this mongrel, and he becomes the de facto centerpiece of the story. Chief not only wants to help his friends survive, and Atari locate his best friend, but he wants to be loved himself. He also turns the search for Spot into a journey of self-discovery. Chief’s own history is a blur to him, ensuring that the truest character arc will be his.

There are many charms to this film in both its story and animation style. The dialogue between the characters is a hoot and a half, the droll delivery of the lines makes every utterance even funnier. And the deadpan faces of the dogs throughout is worthy of Keaton or Groucho. Anderson's film has gravitas too as the filmmaker makes pointed political commentary throughout the story. He savagely indicts politics and megalomaniac leaders, which plays as incredibly timely given our world of dictators and dictator wannabes.
  
The filmmaker also pokes a lot of fun at Japanese culture, as well as the American obsession with aspects of the culture, particularly in the character of Tracy, a foreign-exchange student from Cincinnati voiced by Greta Gerwig. She not only loves the country and tries to fit in through her looks and manner, but she has a secret crush on Atari and is avidly working to undermine the corrupt mayor and all of his minions.

The voice cast alone is one of the most star-studded ever assembled, and Anderson finds vivid roles for all of the following: F. Murray Abraham, Scarlett Johansson, Harvey Keitel, Tilda Swinton, Ken Watanabe, Fisher Stevens, Courtney B. Vance, and Anjelica Huston. Particular praise goes to Frances McDormand as the harried interpreter who breathlessly fills in the blanks for the audience by translating much of the Japanese dialogue, as well as young actor Koyu Rankin who voices the brusque and determined young Atari. Composer Alexandre Desplat, an Anderson favorite, should also be given high praise for his bombastic and funny underscore filled with timpani, gongs, and chimes. It’s both funny and angry, like much of this movie.


Anderson also skewers the worst habits of our society and our tendency to ignore problems or enable them, be they ecological issues or political tomfoolery. All of the actual monsters here walk on two legs. Even the dangerous dogs are mechanical ones, invented by the mayor’s forces to replace the flesh and blood kind. It all makes for a fascinating mix of comedy, pathos, and laser-focused parody. Not since WALL-E has there been a movie that was so sweet, as well as savage. In fact, the whole disposable culture we live in gets trashed here just as viciously, and some theaters will likely make that Pixar masterpiece and this Anderson one a double bill sometime soon.

Occasionally, Anderson makes his film a bit difficult to enjoy. The fact that the Japanese characters don't get subtitled seems exclusionary, and some of the portrayals of the nation’s hierarchy verge on racial stereotypes. It’s also hard to laugh at dogs getting their ears bit off in fights, no matter how nonchalant the victims seem to be about losing an appendage. And watching fleas and rats move around the perimeters of the screen is not for the squeamish, even if presented in stop-motion animation. Still, these are minor quibbles for a film that is bold, hilarious and devastating in targeting its blows.

This film is one of Anderson’s best, and the politics on display in his more and more of his work has become an elixir for our troubled times. He’s putting overt political commentary out there, and while he may crowd his stories with mostly male characters, just as writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson does, he is lambasting the macho bullshit of men that continues to plague the world. Man is always the worst monster in almost any horror movie, and Anderson applies that same principle to his dark comedy cartoon here as well.

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

THE MODERNITY OF "THE ALIENIST" MADE FOR A TIMELY PERIOD PIECE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Daniel Bruhl, Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans in TNT's THE ALIENIST  miniseries.
(copyright 2018)
Fans of Caleb Carr’s bestseller The Alienist waited 24 long years to see it finally visualized onscreen. The period thriller, published in 1994, and set in 1896, was novel in its time for being one of the first works of fiction to examine the serial killer mind, as well as blend history and fiction. At the time of its creation, The Alienist was mostly compared to E. L. Doctorow’s book Ragtime, a sprawling tome with much in common with Carr’s titular work. Similarly, Doctorow too wrote “historical faction,” set his story in the sprawling New York of the late 19th century, and described in vivid detail the characters and settings of the city.

But now, almost a quarter-century later, there have been so many movies and TV shows about serial killers and profilers, how would THE ALIENIST not seem redundant when it finally made it onscreen? Could it reclaim the mantle after so many other profiler stories made it into movie theaters or on television first? What did it need to do to stand out and not feel “after the fact,” especially when there have been so many serial killer whodunits glutting our pop culture for years now?

For starters, the makers of THE ALIENIST wisely decided upon the long form of television to tell their tale. In the early years after the book became a bestseller, many in Hollywood tried to turn it into a film for the big screen. People like producer Scott Rudin and director Curtis Hanson took their crack at it, but the novel’s density was intimidating and not readily shrunk to a typical two-hour movie. Many came and went with the project, but when the production company Anonymous Content got their hands on it, they took it to the TNT network to ensure it was told in the long form. 

The scope of the narrative was equally as daunting to those in the 90's trying to get it made, especially since Carr’s prose veered from such a vast range of settings. The story covered a lot of ground, from gorgeous opera houses to the working-class slums to the heights of the Williamsburg Bridge. Waiting all those years helped THE ALIENIST as the advances in technology over the decades meant that so many of the settings could be rendered with CGI. It also helped that shooting far from LA soundstages made everything more economically feasible as well. Shooting in Budapest meant that a full, four blocks of NYC could be built for a fraction of what it would have cost in Hollywood.  

Finally, there was the subject of the murders. Even though THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS showcased a cannibal with a penchant for turning his murders into artistic tableaus in 1991, the idea of visualizing 13-year-old boy whores in the story of THE ALIENIST was deemed too unseemly for many in those early pre-production days in the 90's. But now, almost anything goes on television, and horror violence has been mainstreamed so that the gruesome content of THE ALIENIST would not be regarded as unfilmable. The story's gouged-out eyes and severed genitals are still shocking 24 years later, but many mainstream tentpole projects have shown a lot worse. 

As Anonymous Content and TNT charged ahead with their production, fans of the book could sigh with relief. Now, the weighty and detailed novel would not have to be condensed into Cineplex length, and all of the book's glorious detail and production value could live and breathe in a generously budgeted, 10-hour show. 

And indeed, one of the most significant parts of the miniseries is how much of Carr's descriptions have made it intact onto our TV screens. So many of the sights, sounds, and smells seemed to come right off the screen in this evocative production. It was an incredibly visual show, one that often lingered on the details of the production design to showcase the elaborate world that Carr wrote about. From the gorgeous tapestries and decorations of the home of Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Bruhl) to the ruins of the New York farm where the killer forged his modus operandi, the series brought it all to meticulous life. 

Great care and attention were given to the costuming as well, in ways that may not have been possible 24 years ago. The clothing was researched with painstaking accuracy and not only was specific to the trends of the period, but the fashions said so much about each of the characters. John Moore (Luke Evans), the dashing man about town and artist, dressed in bold patterns and a broader color scheme. The more reserved Kreizler was given a wardrobe favoring dark grays and charcoal-colored suits to essay the proper authority of his profession. And the lesser-off Isaacson brothers (Douglas Smith and Matthew Shear) were dressed in more affordable fabrics, with a lot less dash than the likes of Moore, due to their modest forensic analyst salaries. It was all incredibly smart and on the money.

Most telling of all the costumes were those worn by Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning). Her trendy, puffy 'leg of mutton' sleeves helped the petite woman project a broader frame and strength to the world of pigheaded policemen she had to work with on a daily basis. And her daytime apparel contrasted significantly with her nighttime outfits. On the job, her color palette was all dark hues. Away from the office, Sara was able to indulge in more feminine fare like off-the-shoulder, cream-colored gowns that showed off décolletage.

Perhaps Sara’s best costume was the one she wore for her train trip to upper New York in episode eight. For that journey out of town, she dressed in an elaborate blue-striped ensemble with a matching, jaunty hat. It stood out as one of the few times Sara likely felt that she could choose to be more fashion-forward. She couldn't dare dress so provocatively in the testosterone-drenched halls of her employ.

Still, while THE ALIENIST on TV kept very close to Carr’s most minute details, as well as the specifics of his storytelling, it is the places where the series shifted in its telling that rendered it the most modern and relevant to our times. For starters, one of the ways this television adaptation separated itself nicely from similar types of stories that proceeded it was to change various specifics of the characters to make them more unexpected. In the book, Kreizler is a controversial figure just as he is here, but he's not as persnickety as the show made him. True, he's German in both, and strict in almost a cliche Teutonic way, but he's far less approachable in the television adaptation, and that made this lead as puzzling as the crimes he was investigating.

And, by casting the enigmatic Bruhl, an actor who wisely knows to hold back when needed, the series ensured that the character would never be too cuddly or lovable like so many sleuths on television. Bruhl played much of Kreizler either staring at his colleagues or facing away a bit from them. This illustrated both the doctor's relentless badgering of others, as well as his shame in noticing them eyeing his handicapped arm. It made him almost mercurial, hard to read from scene to scene, and that made for more unexpected and exciting television. Even at the end, when all of the secret sleuths were safe and together, the warmth Kreizler projected was at best a mid-boil.

It was also shrewd of the series to change John Moore from a New York Times crime reporter to a police sketch artist. For starters, making his occupation more of a visual one allowed for his illustrations to show what might have been too grisly for the camera to linger on. The horrifying mutilations of the young boys looked disgusting enough in his charcoal sketches. The change in Moore's profession also allowed for him to be more of an odd man out. Moore became the more naive eyes, the conduit of the audience.  And the ever-charming Evans made Moore relatable and likable even in his more befuddled moments.

Most importantly, the character of Sara took center stage on television much more than she did in the novel, easily equaling the importance of Kreizler and Moore onscreen. Benefiting from the lens of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements, her character ultimately becomes the de facto centerpiece this time out. Sara is the only character who each day had to venture into a career where she was not welcome by any of her colleagues except her boss, police commissioner Teddy Roosevelt (Brian Geraghty). Fighting against all those prejudices and 'male gazes' helped Sara become the central hero in the story. And Fanning did her best screen work to date in the role, worthy of an Emmy for playing Sara so strong, yet subtle. We knew everything the character was thinking, even if she had to maintain an implacable poker face around her male counterparts in the NYPD.

Finally, in many ways, the most authentic narrative at play here is the one written between the lines. At the beginning of the book, and at the start of each episode, the term alienist gets explained as such: In the 19th Century, persons suffering from mental illness were thought to be alienated from their own true natures. The alienated here are Kreizler's patients, indeed, and the boy victims as well, but main characters are alienated as well. Including Kreizler. 

The secret sleuths are alien to the murderer's world and have been ostracized by the regulars in the police department, outside of Roosevelt. Also, Kreizler is a German immigrant, handicapped with a bum arm, and a doctor not given the respect he deserves. All that makes him alien to the world around him, even if he is an entitled man on other levels. Moore, of course, is an artist, a step down from a crime reporter, and he's a bit of a cad, too. Even though he cuts quite the figure, he is hardly the conservative gentleman of means like most of his contemporaries in the one percent. Sara is alien to just about everything, due solely to her sex. Even the Isaacson’s are odd men out being Jewish, as well as scientists in an overtly masculine profession.

These themes of diversity were what made this miniseries so utterly contemporary and relevant, no matter if its serial killer story felt a bit old hat. As Roosevelt said in the show, “You can’t hold back the future.” The fact that America seems to be going backward today, what with the tin-eared machinations in D.C., helped underline the themes of THE ALIENIST and make the series incredibly relevant. 

And while it struck some as unsatisfactory that Kreizler et al. were not able to keep the murderer of all those young boys alive to ascertain more about his motivations, that ending is there to remind us that our society still had so much work to do then. And now. The story's thuggish cops get away with their transgressions in the book and the show because the white, male patriarchy controls the world. Isn't that still all too true today on so many levels? This message is what helped ensure that THE ALIENIST played with a vital immediacy, even 24 years after the book. The series made a blatant bid for the inclusion of all those on the outside looking in. And in doing so, the show could not have been timelier or more modern or wholly necessary.

Monday, March 26, 2018

CLAIRE FOY PLAYS SMARTER THAN THE REST OF STEVEN SODERBERGH'S "UNSANE"



Sometimes the right actor can make slight horror material work like gangbusters. Think how Vincent Price so often made lesser cuts of the genre seem like prime filet. Such is the case with Claire Foy and the new horror/thriller UNSANE. She elevates the clichés in this material that moviegoers have seen a thousand times before, that of the wronged woman incarcerated against her will. She’s a thousand miles away from her acclaimed portrayal as Queen Elizabeth on Netflix’s THE CROWN and this film should confirm that she is a talent who can play all kinds of material, even the lesser cuts.  

Much is being made out of the fact that the film’s director Steven Soderbergh shot this film on an iPhone. (Albeit a fancy 7 model.) He’s a director who serves as his own cinematographer, and it’s impressive to know that he’s doing such, in addition to calling all the shots on set, and coaxing the best performances out of his cast. Still, even though the camera’s fish-eyed angles and ‘in-your-face’ close-ups add effective creepiness to the proceedings, the iPhone use is mostly gimmickry. Perhaps Soderbergh is trying to suggest that filmmaking needn’t be more complicated than grabbing your own cell and telling your story, but the lack of a professional camera is more hindering than helpful. The picture is grainy, and the color is often dulled to the point of distraction. (The whites of the eyes all look incredibly gray.) The iPhone usage story here also cannot mask the film’s inferior narrative.

The script starts out well with Foy’s character of businesswoman Sawyer Valentini demonstrating her strength as a go-getter seemingly in control of her life. She’s remarkably shrewd at her job and has recently reconnected with her mom (Amy Irving) after years in the wilderness. Sawyer is a touch brittle, still struggling to overcome bouts of paranoia brought on by recent history with a stalker. The bearded and bespectacled wimp David Strine (Joshua Leonard) fell for her when she helped his invalid father during his last months’ alive and he fell head over heels for her during that time. Upon her rejection of his advances, he went after with such velocity that Sawyer not only had to invoke a restraining order, she had to move to another city as well.

When Sawyer worries that she is imagining David is in the new city with her, the young woman visits a psychiatric facility to polish off some of the edges driving her fears. Unfortunately, the institution commits her for observation, as if determining someone is a danger to themselves and others could be diagnosed so rapidly. She's incarcerated for a week, placed in a room with half a dozen other patients that even ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST didn’t traffic in some 40 years ago. And her lack of rights and options only get worse from there.

All films require suspensions of disbelief, especially horror, but in this day and age, such a mental institution rings irrevocably wrong. Even if Sawyer did check herself into an institution and signed an agreement that inexplicably imprisoned her, she’d still have plenty of rights and outs to her predicament. She most certainly would not be treated with such overt skullduggery by administrators and the entire staff.  

No one listens to her, the staff is belligerent and uncaring, and drugs are handed out like it’s milk at recess. These are hoary clichés from every incarcerated woman film from the past 50 plus years, be it Susan Hayward in 1958’s I WANT TO LIVE to Carol Lynley in 1965’s BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING. Yet, here are these older-than-the-hills tropes being shot with a cellphone to make it seem contemporary and modern. Sorry, but seeing every freckle in Foy’s face doesn’t make any of this clichéd portrayal of mental care seem even remotely realistic.

Arguably, the film never really recovers from here, yet Foy and Soderbergh do their damnedest to try and make this material work. Even when Sawyer is digging herself into a hole deeper and deeper, Foy still makes her sympathetic. And even though the film wants to play the “is she insane or not” ploy, Foy’s too smart to make us believe she’s crazy. Her large, expressive eyes may project abject vulnerability, but they do not convey anything close to insanity.

In fact, the script quickly does away with any question of her sanity by showing Sawyer exhibit shrewdness at every juncture. The story also showcases the return of David in the guise as a new orderly, and it's made abundantly clear almost instantly that Sawyer's fears are not in her head. Within a few scenes, the villain is whispering taunting asides at her, as well as tormenting the woman with stolen letters from her mom, and spiking her drugs. Wouldn’t there be at least a doctor around to control such matters and give Sawyer an opportunity to gain an audience? Instead, the film conveniently keeps any kind of authoritative presence other than cretin orderlies virtually offscreen.

Worse yet, the film too often fails to match the intelligence that Foy projects. For instance, why doesn’t Sawyer walk or run out of the facility at night? Within her legal battles combatting a stalker, wouldn’t she have more acumen when it comes to navigating or negotiating her rights as a patient, let alone dealing with David? The institution has to be a haunted house in its way, but the lack of guards, doctors, or anyone for that matter other than the scant set of patients, seems dunderheaded and lazy on the screenplay’s part.

Despite these flaws, UNSANE does manage to be fun for a lot of this up and down ride. Comic Jay Pharaoh plays Nate Hoffman, the ‘too-good-to-be-true’ patient whom she bonds with, and he’s terrific in the role. Hoffman has not only snuck in a cellphone that he loans to Sawyer, but he is kind, warm, and explains a lot of the exposition while making it sound conversational.

Amy Irving lends some dignity and grit too when she shows up as Sawyer’s concerned mother. Unfortunately, she’s brought on as more sacrificial lamb than protective mama bear. If she received a call from Sawyer that she was being held against her will, wouldn’t mom show up with the authorities? Again, characters act less than bright because the script hasn’t found a way for them to be thwarted even when they’re acting smart.  

As David escalates his pursuit of Sawyer, the film spirals into something unseemly more than thrilling. The stalker turns into a supervillain, capable of outsmarting everyone in the institution, having access to anywhere he wants, and killing a number of people with too much ease. There is one long scene where Sawyer is being kept in a padded room when he comes to visit her. Her attempts at rational conversation seem utterly misplaced, but even when she finally finds a way to stab him later on, she doesn’t do an efficient job, and that enables him to rise from the dead like Jason Voorhees. Aren’t we past that cliché in horror? Isn’t it more than a little nutty to employ such a cornball trope, particularly from a filmmaker as sublime as Soderbergh?

UNSANE can be viewed as an economically shot, down and dirty chiller whose only desire is to provide some jumps and jolts at the Cineplex. Yet with such talent involved, more must be demanded. Foy and Soderbergh make a lot of it work, but the script needed an upgrade. Badly.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

THE NEW “TOMB RAIDER” FEELS OLD, BUT HAS A FRESH AND GAME LEAD LARA IN ALICIA VIKANDER

Original caricature by Jeff York of Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft in TOMB RAIDER. (copyright 2018)

Is this excavation necessary?

That’s the question regarding the new reboot of TOMB RAIDER starring Alicia Vikander. Previous leady lady Angelina Jolie’s two outings as the archeologist/adventurer Lara Croft in LARA CROFT: TOMB RAIDER from 2001 and LARA CROFT TOMB RAIDER: THE CRADLE OF LIFE in 2003 were reasonable successes, but never quite the blockbusters they strived to be. That was due in part to the fact that the franchise already felt so old hat by the time it premiered. Based on the 1996 video game, it was mostly a female version of Indiana Jones. And that character from the classic 1981 RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK had already spawned dozens of imitators in the movies, television, video games, and comic books.

Still, Jolie isn’t doing such movies anymore and anything off screen for a few years is ripe for a reboot as far as Hollywood is concerned, so now we have this new take starring the Oscar-winner from 2015's THE DANISH GIRL. Vikander trained for many months to get buff, and she does a ton of the stunt work here, inhabiting the role with an intensity that makes you perk up and pay attention. (For my money, Jolie played the part all wrong. She was continually purring and posing throughout as if she was auditioning for Catwoman instead of playing Croft.) It’s a shame that the rest of the movie isn’t nearly up to the spunk that Vikander delivers. It’s got some energetic fun, and some sharp action sequences, but too much of the story feels way too familiar. In fact, the narrative is almost as dusty as the archeological dig at the centerpiece of the movie.   

Once again, filmmakers doing a reboot felt the urge to make an origins story. Why didn't they take a page from the successful 2013 relaunch of the Tomb Raider video game which proved that you don't need to go home again with this character? In that game’s narrative, Lara’s dad is dead. Definitively. And she’s moving on with her life and onto new adventures. So, why not here? Instead, this movie is all about Lara’s search for her dad, similar to the plot of the first Jolie film, and it makes this feel redundant before it’s barely begun. 


In the all-too-familiar seeming story, Richard Croft (Dominic West) has been missing for some seven years, having disappeared near Hong Kong while searching for a buried queen from centuries ago. Legend has it that if she escapes her tomb, she will unleash hell and lay waste to all the planet. (Yes, that was the plot of the Tom Cruise reboot of THE MUMMY too.) So what happened to the senior Croft? No one knows, but Lara is too stubborn to believe that Dad is dead. She even refuses to sign the proper papers to inherit his estate, preferring to slum it as a bike courier. She's a crank, and that makes this heroine far fresher and fascinating.  

These scenes at least feel different from the first film where Jolie’s Lara wholly embraced her wealth. And Vikander plays the chip on her shoulder with vitality and spunk. She’s a pisser, and during a bike chase that’s the film’s first big set piece, she shows a tenacity to prevail and behave like a fearless daredevil. Her actions run afoul of the law, and her family trustee Ana Miller (a crisp and cryptic Kristen Scott Thomas) is called to bail her out. Then Ana forces Lara to come to terms with her father’s death and accept her inheritance of his wealth.

Lara soon discovers secret messages that her father left for her in case of his death hidden in his secret man cave. Here the plot starts to rely too heavily on the dad backstory, just as it did in the first Jolie film. As Lara finds more of his research, she becomes more convinced he's alive and that he's still out there searching for that vindictive mummy.   

Lara travels to Hong Kong, where she has a run-in with local teen thieves, but she manages to retrieve her bag and procure a vessel to take her out to sea in search of her kin. Her captain is a drunkard named Lu Wren (Daniel Wu, nicely underplaying) who also happened to lose his father to the waters around the island. Then the two, both dealing with their abandonment issues, are forced to abandon ship when a storm capsizes their boat. It's a well-done action scene as well, albeit a bit too familiar with the action genre. If there's a ship at sea in such films, there will be a storm, and everyone will plunge into the drink!

Both survive and wash ashore, only to discover that there are mercenaries on the island searching for the mummy too. Walton Goggins plays Vogel, the head baddie, and his heavily armed thugs have enslaved local fisherman to help them dig up the diva. Vogel brags to Lara that he killed her father too, leading her to escape and, surprise surprise, discover that her dad is alive on the island. Her reunion with Papa Croft is drenched in enough tears to give television's THIS IS US a run for its money, but soon they're both captured again and forced to join Vogel's dig. 

Throughout, Vikander is very physical: climbing, running, and surprisingly, taking a lot of brutal punishment from the elements and the thugs working for Vogel. Lara survives falling through trees, plummeting off of cliffs, and nearly drowning in raging rapids, but why do we need to see Vogel's thugs toss her about like a rag doll? It's unseemly and sexist, and at times comes close to ruining the spirit of the fun here. Screenwriters Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons do well with the tougher Lara character throughout, but the constant pummeling of her is too much. Arnold Schwarzenegger was treated far more hospitably by the PREDATOR in similar material.

And despite some good thrills and chills, all filmed cleanly by director Roar Uthaugh, and cut together well by the editing team headed up by the veteran Stuart Baird, most of what happens as the archeologists close in on the tomb turns very predictable. It would have been terrific if the talented Goggins had more of a character to play instead of just an archetype. The actor is so talented, yet he's not given one witty line to say throughout the entire last third. Even more unfortunate is the overdone gooey sentimentality between Lara and her dad throughout the climax. West is a terrific actor, with one of the best voices in the business, but by the umpteenth time he called his daughter “Sprout” I was hoping that the Mummy might entomb his tongue.

TOMB RAIDER has genuine suspense, some hair-raising cliffhangers, and a lead actress giving 100%. But as they move forward with the inevitable sequels, the filmmakers need to raise the game and come up with different plots for Lara. If they can do that, they'll have something genuine we can all dig. 

Thursday, March 15, 2018

“THE DEATH OF STALIN” PRESENTS RUSSIAN HISTORY THROUGH THE LENS OF FARCE




How absurd is our current political climate these days? So ridiculous that a porn star pay-off feels like just another day at the Oval Office? Increasingly crazy, enough so that the HBO comedy series VEEP now plays like a documentary? Risible to the point that watching cable news is almost sadomasochistic? Well, if so…boy, have I got a movie for you! It’s called THE DEATH OF STALIN, and indeed, it concerns the death of the most murderous dictator in the 20th Century. It's not played as drama, however, but as a farce. And its resemblance to the insanity in our own nation's capital these days is intentional and renders the material all the more provocative. Just watch and tell me this doesn't suggest a cautionary tale.

After the brilliant UK comedy writer/director Armando Iannucci hit pay dirt in 2005 with his political spoof THE THICK OF IT for the BBC, and his comedy film hit IN THE LOOP four years later, he turned his lens to the White House and created the award-winning VEEP for HBO in 2012. He recognized that modern politics had moved to just this side of farce, so he dialed up the absurdity of his tale a touch and created these contemporary takes on the crazy quests for power in the 21st century. After the preposterousness of the 2016 political campaign in the USA, VEEP struggled a bit to keep up. The pettiness, stupidity, and craven ambitions that Iannucci and his writers wrote for President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) almost paled in comparison to the daily crassness of Donald J. Trump. So, where to go from there? How could Iannucci still make hay out of modern politics and ensure our laughter? 

The answer, it turns out, was to look to history, specifically Russia of 1953, and to treat it as almost a political version of A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD. In THE DEATH OF STALIN, the only grave part is the title. The rest, with the story concerning Stalin’s warring cabinet chasing power in his aftermath, is played as the darkest of black comedy. And it is one of the absolute best of its kind in the history of film.

As THE DEATH OF STALIN starts, a "Radio Moscow" broadcast of a Mozart concert is finishing going out across the airwaves. Then Joseph Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) orders a recording of it, but the producers panic as they failed to tape the performance. The station manager Andreyev (played as a quivering bundle of nerves by Paddy Considine) thinks quickly, if not rashly, and brings back all the musicians, and some of the audience to listen to it all over again while it's being recorded for the dictator. 

Knowing full well that the irrational leader could have him killed if he doesn't deliver, Andreyev pulls off the miraculous. The disc is made and sent off to Stalin, albeit with a stinging note inside the sleeve, courtesy of strident activist and concert pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko). Her note savages the fearless leader and his killing of over 20 million political enemies and ‘undesirables.’  The scribbles have their intended effect and sting Stalin. He then suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and falls to his office floor. In the wee hours of the AM, he will finally be discovered, but as he lies comatose, there is little anyone can do to bring him back to life.

From there, all of the “king’s men” spring into action, selfishly maneuvering for power, blatantly trying to usurp competitors, and lying through their rotting, vodka-stained teeth to anyone in shouting distance to keep in the quest for power. The body isn’t even cold yet as these loyal supporters clomping about it, metaphorically and physically, jockeying for power.

Amongst the cretins are real Russian political hacks, rendered here as comic characters. Director Iannucci, his fellow writers David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows (basing their screenplay off of the French graphic novel of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin), and a sterling cast of farceurs bring all of the terrible men to hilarious life. Chief among the exquisitely manic cast are Steve Buscemi as a flustered Nikita Khrushchev, Simon Russell Beale as the ruthless NKVD head Laventiy Beria, Jeffrey Tambor as the limp noodle of a Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov, and Michael Palin as the stodgy Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov.

Each of them is presented as a scheming shit, devious in every way as they barely wait for Stalin to kick the bucket before claiming dibs on his power. Amongst the outrageous acts perpetrated by the cabinet are the stealing of files, looting the coffers, shooting witnesses, threatening soldiers, and conning Stalin’s troubled children to use them to their advantage. Vasily (Rubert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough) add even more to the mess as Stalin's son is little more than a drunken fool, and his daughter is a nervous Nellie whose paranoia is as unattractive as her rat's nest hair. 

The rest of the film chronicles the ups and downs of each of the players as they struggle for dominance, and the hysterical contortions each of these old men will go through to prevail. Based on the actual events, Iannucci pushes the history to comical lengths to underline how insane it all was. Still, such machinations don’t seem as out of bounds today given the daily clown show of American politics these past few years. 

THE DEATH OF STALIN plays like a scathing editorial about our political system as well as the current POTUS and his absurd cabinet. Even the Russian angle seems almost too on-the-nose appropriate given what we know about all of their meddlings in our elections and their hold on our Commander-in-Chief. It's both pants-wettingly funny, but more than a little chilling too. 

One expects expert comic actors like Buscemi, Tambor, and Palin to thrive in material like this, but who knew that Friend and Riseborough could be so hilarious? (Friend couldn’t be farther here from his somber role on Showtime’s HOMELAND for all those seasons.) Riseborough has proven to be one of the best young actresses working today, and once again she demonstrates an ability to play anything asked of her, be it drama, romance, or farce. Hers is also a vanity-free performance as the beleaguered Svetlana is nothing if not a hag. But then everyone here looks unattractive with their ridiculous facial hair, unflattering Soviet uniforms, or ill-fitting suits. Such dress makes all the clowns appear even more ludicrous.

Everyone plays it reasonably straight, even Jason Isaacs, who truly excels as a farceur in his role here as a flabbergasted general. No one attempts to speak in a thick Russian accent either. Instead, they talk in their normal voices. It makes for purer performances and adds a contemporary quality to these shenanigans. If anything, Iannucci and his writers go out of their way to add more contemporary touches to the material, all the better to remind us of the parallels to our modern world. Chest bumps, overt cursing, and contemporary euphemisms are sprinkled throughout as well. Such an approach makes for one incredibly contemporary period piece.

Black comedy is a hard sell for Hollywood, and we shall see if such edgy material as this can reach the audience it rightfully deserves. For those who love VEEP, and can’t get enough of MSNBC or CNN, this is required viewing at the Cineplex. It may be cringe-worthy at times, what with its propensity for showing the Soviet world of violence, torture, and bloodletting, but for those who like their parables to be challenging and salty, do not miss this exceptional film.

Friday, March 9, 2018

"THOROUGHBREDS" TELLS A DARK AND TWISTED TALE OF FRIENDSHIP, PRIVILEGE & MURDER

Original caricature by Jeff York of Anya Taylor-Joy and Olivia Cooke in THOROUGHBREDS (copyright 2018)
Disney's A WRINKLE IN TIME got all the big-time attention this week, but the film to see this weekend is Cory Finley's THOROUGHBREDS. This new thriller that the first-time filmmaker wrote and directed is sly, sleek, and dark, delicious fun. It also gives two of the best young actresses working today - Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy -  a chance to shine in a two-hander that conjures up the spirit of classics like STRANGERS ON A TRAIN and HEAVENLY CREATURES. 

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) used to be BFF's while growing up rich and privileged in Connecticut. One of their passions was horseback riding, but those days are long gone now. As the film starts, Amanda is no longer allowed near stables since she committed a gruesome mercy killing of a horse. That act landed her on a psychiatrist's couch and far afield of Lily's social calendar. Meanwhile, Lily has had her own problems. Since her mother remarried, the teen has not gotten along with self-absorbed stepdad Mark (Paul Sparks) one single day. Lily also has some issues with her schooling and seems to be unhappy with the rest of her pampered existence. 

Amanda's mom thinks her daughter could benefit from reconnecting with Lily and decides to pay Lily to tutor her daughter hoping they can be friends again, as well as get her back on track for school. But despite all the head-shrinking, Amanda is hardly ready to return to the posh, East Coast lifestyle. She's down-in-the-mouth cynical, brutally honest, and brazenly aware that she's practically a sociopath. Yet, that doesn't turn off Lily. In fact, it jazzes her because it's like a hot knife cutting through the cold butter of her daily existence.



The more time they spend together, the more their friendship does blossom again, but not in the loving and socialite way that Amanda's mom hopes for. Lily realizes that she's just as antisocial as Amanda is, and welcomes her friend as the match to light her fuse. Soon, the two misanthropic teens are talking trash about all in their lives that is hollow and unsatisfying, as well as those they hate. At the top of the list for Lily is Mark, of course, and reading between the lines, Amanda suggests that their lives would be better if they killed him.


From there, the two begin determining just how they could make that happen. The girls contact a local miscreant named Tim (the late Anton Yelchin's final screen appearance). He's a shady punk selling drugs to high school kids and more than happy to taste other wares there too. When they put forth their proposition of payment for a fake robbery and real murder, the wormy Tim wiggles off the hook. He's all talk and leaves them high and dry. After that, the two girls must find other means of accomplishing their goals and ensuring that Tim doesn't blab about their nefarious plot.

Sure, Finley creates an intriguing game of "will they or won't they" here, but he's more interested in exploring the intricacies of these twisted girls and their friendship. As the story progresses, we discover, along with Amanda, that Lily is really the one who's the most deviant and dangerous. And Finley persuades that if the two had never gotten back together, they might have been able to be moral and upstanding individually. But together, they are a lethal combination, doomed to help destroy the other.  It may take a village to raise a child, but one errant friend will help you burn it all down.

Olivia Cooke, Cory Finley, and Anya Taylor-Joy
Taylor-Joy has impressed with stand-out performances in one quirky film after another, excelling in indie hits like THE WITCH and SPLIT. She's especially good at playing her emotions close to the vest, but here she's expressing more prominent feelings. Her Lily wants to be what is expected of her, but deep down, she cannot. Lily is angry, brittle and seething with rage, albeit impeccably tailored with all the proper accessories. (She'd make the perfect trophy wife for Patrick Bateman!)

Cooke has gotten trapped in some less than stellar horror films lately, most likely due to her five seasons on BATES MOTEL, but she deserves far juicier roles. (BTW...she played the sweet as pie ingenue on that series!) That's why it's so fantastic to see her getting to stretch so here, playing droll comedy as the oddball Amanda. Cooke barely blinks and keeps a blasé expression on her face almost the entire film as a character who has trouble feeling empathy, or anything for that matter. Yet, within such confinement, Cooke finds lovely nuances of humanity. Her Amanda may be homicidal, but the girl is still a rollicking good time. 

Still, the majority of praise here must go to Finley. He comes from the world of the playwright, and that accounts for his sharp dialogue and vivid characterizations. Yet he's a natural filmmaker too. His camerawork, sound design, editing, and underscoring are equal to directors with three times his experience. His camera set-ups are unique and often askew to add to the tension. And sometimes he even places his camera a smidge too close to his actors, all the better to ensure we're made uncomfortable so up close and personal with the characters' evil. Other times, Finley frames the exquisite settings to look like expensive prisons - stodgy and sterile. He is a superb artist and showman, suggesting a bright future in the movies if he wants. Indeed, as talent goes, this artist is already a thoroughbred.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

“THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT” IS HORROR SO LOATHSOME, IT’S ALMOST LAUGHABLE


In 2008, THE STRANGERS, written and directed by Bryan Bertino, was a modest horror movie that managed to conjure up post 9/11 anxiety and memories of the Manson family with its story of a young couple being terrorized in their house by three complete strangers. The trio of killers wore masks to hide their identity, and that, along with the film’s “they’re already in the house” jump-scares, resonated enough with audiences worldwide to gross $82 million on a mere $9 million budget.

Arguably, that movie, along with 2007’s PARANORMAL ACTIVITY, helped foster the current template for the cinematic horror of simple frighteners being shot for very little and promoted heavily for a big opening weekend, even if the films are merely so-so. The worst side effect of this trend is that such successes spawn sequels, and almost all of them are worse than the previous outing.

For some reason, it took THE STRANGERS a decade to return with its sequel. Perhaps it’s nothing more than a cynical attempt to reboot the idea that had a certain cachet and success 10 long years ago, but its tardiness is not a good sign. Nonetheless, here it is, entitled THE STRANGERS: PREY AT NIGHT and that uninspiring moniker is the second sign this isn’t going to be a satisfying time for horror fans. In fact, this film has so many dumb characters and makes so many dunderheaded errors in storytelling, you can practically envision the inevitable “Everything Wrong With” video that will be done by CinemaSins of it for YouTube while watching it. 

To keep this funeral brief before it’s buried, here are just five of the film’s most laughably awful moments:

The teen girl Kinsey (Bailee Madison) is supposed to be edgy. How do we know that?  She wears black nail polish and a Ramones T-shirt.  Oh, and for good measure, she wears that T off the shoulder. Ah, kids these days…

The dysfunctional family in the story (Madison, along with Christina Hendricks, Martin Henderson, and Lewis Pullman) decides to take a weekend vacation to…wait for it…a trailer park. It's a rundown one at that, too, and because they're visiting during the 'off-season', they're the only guests. That cannot be good for the park's Yelp rating.

After the mom is killed (Hendricks, taking her paycheck and waving bye-bye after 30 minutes), her two children are given an opportunity to shoot her killer. They don’t of course because they're fraidy-cats, and the masked teenage maniac gets away to wreak more havoc. (Where is the POTUS when you need him? I bet he'd run in their even if he didn't have a gun.)

Later in the film, Kinsey is stuck in a sheriff's truck with the teenage maniac and she finally shoots her point blank with the lawman's shotgun. The wound is to the stomach and sends the brat flying out the door onto the pavement, but the teenage maniac survives, is still able to speak, and even throw some serious shade at Kinsey before a second shot silences her.

The four tourists never see the Strangers coming, even though they have 360-degree sight, while their tormentors all wear masks with limited peripheral vision. At night. 

One could go on about how no one in the family hears the other’s screaming, or the Strangers’ roaring trucks crashing into homes, or the various gunshots, but that would be asking the filmmakers to apply some basic logic to the proceedings. They can’t even fill the film with enough story to last 85 minutes, and that’s with the end credits. Sure, there are a few genuine jump-scares that work, but they’re cheap. And some of the killing and suffering is dragged out so long, especially one in a truck, you wonder if this is less an exercise in cinema and more of one in sadism.

All you really have to know is that the preview audience I saw it with not only screamed “Get outta there!” to the idiotic characters in the story multiple times but also yelled things like, “Man, that is dumb!” and “You stupid fool, shoot her!” Any horror filmmaker wants visceral audience reactions, but not the kind that demonstrates utter contempt for those we should be rooting for. Is that what returning screenwriter Bertino and Ben Ketai, along with director Johannes Roberts, wanted out of this?

At least the dog in this horror film doesn’t get killed. He runs away 30 minutes in. Lucky pooch.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

THE 2018 ACADEMY AWARDS TELECAST TOOK ON THE SHAPE OF SERIOUSNESS


In conclusion to a movie awards season that had become incredibly repetitious, this year’s Oscars barely deviated from what had gone before it. Most of the same winners were called. Diversity was highlighted over and over again in both the awards and the speeches. And the tone was more somber than raucous from years past. Host Jimmy Kimmel was somewhat subdued through most of the show, and other than a goofy visit to a sneak preview of the new movie A WRINKLE IN TIME in a nearby theater, most of his comedy was droll and fitting for a more sober year and time.

Too often in the past, the Oscars have strained to appeal to the lowest common denominators, but not tonight, give or take a hot dog cannon or two. Most of the banter was brief and on-point, and some of it was very clever. Particular kudos to Lupita Nyong’o and Kumail Nanjiani for their time onstage together. And whatever pep talk or warning the producers gave to the nominees about keeping their words short and meaningful, it managed to do the trick. Very few droned on by listing their team of talent agents or lawyers. How refreshingly human almost everyone seemed. (Stars, they’re just like us!)

Perhaps the Oscars were too political this year, but then again, so was the whole year that preceded the telecast. Still, it’s hard to knock all the mentions of diversity and activism in a year where so much of it made major news worldwide and was reflected in a lot of what the Academy nominated. It was sad to see Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD go home empty-handed, but she was lauded emphatically throughout the night onstage and in clip packages, so at least she was given her due.  

It was an Oscars that didn’t do anything cringe-worthy, but nothing, in particular, was inspiring either. Still, any show that is as tight and cogent as this one should be applauded. I’ll take one like this over something unwieldy and amateurish any year. Some may have delighted in the Best Picture screw-up last year, but not me. That blunder was humiliating for the producers of LA LA LAND and robbed the makers of MOONLIGHT of their proper celebration onstage.

Some of the best moments of the show were these: 

Sam Rockwell’s wit and call-out to Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Eva Marie Saint’s poignant memories of costumes and Edith Head.

The unique tuxedo colors of Timothee Chalamet and Daniel Kaluuya.

The beautiful blue gowns of Nicole Kidman and Jennifer Garner.

Gal Gadot’s infectious smile as she offered snacks to the audience at A WRINKLE IN TIME.

Ashley Judd and Salma Hayek flanking the away-too-long Anabella Sciorra.

Rita Moreno presenting in the same dress she wore when she won her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for WEST SIDE STORY.

The acknowledgment of Daniela Vega when A FANTASTIC WOMAN won Best Foreign Language Film, as well as her presence onstage introducing the Best Song nominee from CALL ME BY YOUR NAME.

 Roger Deakins finally winning a cinematography Oscar after 14 nominations.

Tiffany Haddish and Maya Rudolph were utterly hilarious together. Perhaps they should host together next year. (NOTE: I didn't include this in my original write-up because I missed it during its original airing. I was out of the room on the phone. Oops!) 

James Ivory’s eloquence during his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay for CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and his Timothee Chalamet T-shirt underneath his tux.

The GET OUT victory for Best Original Screenplay and the standing ovation the audience gave to writer Jordan Peele.

Gary Oldman finally getting some Academy due.

The inspiring words about immigrants from Guillermo del Toro when he won Best Director and Best Picture.

Frances McDormand’s exuberant and eccentric speech, both comic and serious.

The redemption for Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty after last year’s debacle.

By the way, for those who don’t know what McDormand meant by “inclusion rider” at the end of her acceptance speech, it is a clause in a contract requiring specific levels of diversity that may include pay equity/parity. (e.g., "If I do your movie, you will make sure that the crew is 50% women and/or minorities.”) 

Here are the winners, in order, as they were presented on the telecast. 

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR – Sam Rockwell “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, MO”
BEST HAIR & MAKEUP – “Darkest Hour”
BEST COSTUME DESIGN – “Phantom Thread”
BEST DOCUMENTARY – “Icarus”
BEST SOUND EDITING – “Dunkirk”
BEST SOUND MIXING – “Dunkirk
BEST PRODUCTION DESIGN – “The Shape of Water”
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE FILM – “A Fantastic Woman”
BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS – Allison Janney “I, Tonya”
BEST ANIMATED SHORT – “Dear Basketball”
BEST ANIMATED FILM – “Coco”
BEST VISUAL EFFECTS – “Blade Runner 2049”
BEST EDITING – “Dunkirk”
BEST DOCUMENTARY SHORT – “Heaven is a Traffic Jam on the 405”
BEST LIVE ACTION SHORT – “Silent Child”
BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY – “Call Me by Your Name”
BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY – “Get Out”
BEST ORIGINAL SCORE – “The Shape of Water”
BEST ORIGINAL SONG – “Remember Me” (Coco)
BEST DIRECTOR – Guillermo del Toro “The Shape of Water”
BEST ACTOR – Gary Oldman “Darkest Hour”
BEST ACTRESS – Frances McDormand “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”
BEST PICTURE – “The Shape of Water”

Those are my thoughts on this year’s Oscars. What did you think of this year’s show? Oh, and I’m sure the POTUS will weigh in with his opinion in the wee hours of the morning. Expect his tweet to be full of derision and miss precisely the point of this year's show.

Friday, March 2, 2018

ELI ROTH’S “DEATH WISH” REMAKE IS JUST ANOTHER BRUCE WILLIS ACTIONER, AND A TONE-DEAF ONE AT THAT


Before the DEATH WISH franchise turned into an exploitative, crass, and inept film franchise, the 1974 film that started it all was a sometimes sensitive thriller about a law-abiding man driven to rule-breaking extremes. Charles Bronson played Paul Kersey, a Manhattan architect, who becomes a vigilante after his family is attacked by three home invaders. Grieving over his wife’s murder and daughter’s rape and subsequent coma, he channels his rage into an avenger role, walking the dangerous streets of New York looking for a fight. Director Michael Winner’s film wasn’t as demonstrative in condemning vigilantism as Brian Garfield's novel was, but the movie nonetheless critiqued citizens taking the law into their own hands.  

It’s a shame that Eli Roth’s remake misses so many of the smarter and nuanced aspects of the original book or film. Instead, his updates simplify most of the political and societal arguments, and because it stars Bruce Willis, it quickly becomes just another actioner on the superstar’s increasingly dull and bullet-riddled IMDB profile. (Is Willis utterly disinterested in playing anything unique or different like he once did in NOBODY’S FOOL or DEATH BECOMES HER?) Roth is almost craven in how he sets this remake in Chicago, a city besieged with weekly gangland violence, and exploits it for his pulp purposes. It’s all too on-the-nose, and the inclusion of local celebs like radio DJ “Mancow” Muller, Robin Robinson, and Bob Sirott do little to cushion the blows.

The story here starts with Dr. Paul Kersey (he’s now a near north emergency room surgeon) and his loving wife and daughter enjoying tony lives in their Evanston home. Elisabeth Shue plays Lucy, his radiant and smart wife, and Camilla Morone plays his feisty, college-bound daughter Jordan. Lucy buys Paul an expensive watch for his birthday, and the three are about to head out to dinner when he gets a call from the hospital. That allows three thieves to target his home while he’s away and rob it. However, the break-in goes awry with the women fighting back and it results in the murder of the mom and the near-death of the daughter.

Kersey is wracked with guilt, as he watches Jordan waste away in a coma, and this is the one sensitive and moving part of the hero’s arc. Roth allows plenty of time to showcase Willis’ genuine talents as he cries and appears more vulnerable onscreen since THE SIXTH SENSE almost 20 years ago. The scenes where Willis plays off Vincent D’Onofrio as his rascally brother come through as the best acted in the film and let both of these macho men plumb depths of pain and anguish. That’s the last of such complexity, unfortunately, as the remaining 90 minutes becomes increasingly savage, grim, and even glib.

It seems what Roth is most interested in is showcasing is how demonstratively Kersey blows away the scum out there and coaxing his audience to wildly cheer the avenger. The filmmaker has always loved lingering on extreme violence onscreen, and he’s been credited as one of the filmmakers who started the current horror trend of torture porn with his HOSTEL series. I thought he had turned a corner with THE GREEN INFERNO in 2013, a film that condemned senseless violence and demonstrated savvy discretion in how murders were presented onscreen. But now, Roth seems to be back to his old ways, inviting the audience to cheer, if not outright howl with laughter, at Kersey’s bloodletting.  

On top of that ridiculous tone in this day and age, considering the rampant shootings all over America, Roth and his screenwriter Joe Carnahan make a ton of blunders in the plotting and presentation of their story as well. For starters, they dress Kersey up in a hoodie to hide his identity, but it makes him look like a 60-year-old going on 12, and it conjures up images of the Unabomber. Then, during his very first time out avenging, Kersey is filmed stopping two carjackers on a witness’ cellphone. That clip goes viral, and Kersey gets the moniker “The Grim Reaper” because of it. Still, Kersey goes out everywhere dressed the same after that, even when he ventures into a packed nightclub to hunt prey. Would Kersey be that obvious? And would the public pay such little attention to that kind of older person trolling around the club?  It’s ludicrous.

To make matters worse, Roth and Carnahan have the film’s two detectives (Dean Norris and Kimberly Elise) show up at every crime scene, whether the Grim Reaper has been ID’ed or not as the potential shooter. These cops are alternatingly intuitive and idiotic, whatever the plot demands at the time. At one point in the story, they finger Kersey’s brother as the killer even though D’Onofrio is 6’4”, a good four inches taller than Willis, and the cell video clearly shows a shooter who’s not nearly as lumbering or gigantic. 

Worst of all is the bluntly edited killings by Kersey that practically beg for laughs. His savage mowing down of the drug dealer called “The Candy Man” is so shocking it’s almost cartoonish. So are many of Kersey’s other murders, and it starts to resemble something more like the RED franchise starring Willis rather than something new and different for him and his audience. The audience is encouraged to whoop and holler at every shooting, straining to be entertaining, but it’s asinine as it completely betrays the horrific set-up in the first half hour.

By the time the last of the original perps walk out of the hospital and virtually announces he’s coming to Kersey’s home to finish what he started, the film has completely gone south. Kersey tells his daughter to hide in a clutch while he prepares traps in his seven-figure home to slaughter the intruders. The fact that Kersey would allow his daughter to remain in the house, let alone appear in any potential line of fire after just getting out of the hospital from a months’ long coma, shows how Roth et al. have zero interest in anything smart or sophisticated. Despite lip service to the arguments of gun control and lawlessness, this is a popcorn movie that wants to be enjoyable froth like JOHN WICK. But that franchise is over-the-top at every turn, unlike this one which strives to be realistic when it wants to be.

The original October 2017 release date of this remake was moved back to show sensitivity to the concert shooting that occurred in Las Vegas that month. Now, it's opening today, just a matter of days after the horrible Florida school shooting. It is utterly the wrong movie at the wrong time. After showing the limits and anguish of violence in THE GREEN INFERNO, Roth chooses here to go for easy laughs by photograph Kersey’s gun prepping to the strains of “Back in Black” by AC/DC. That would be egregious at any time in our modern society, but it’s especially unforgivable after the recent events at Stoneman Douglas High School.