REVIEW: “Happy Death Day”

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If you’re like me it’s tempting to dismiss this movie because of its title alone. It sounds like the straight-to-video B-movie horror that often found its home on the back shelves of those 80s video rental stores. But in truth that’s part of the craftiness at the center of “Happy Death Day” – a playfully subversive horror film that has a field day toying with familiar tropes that have defined a genre.

Writer Scott Lobdell (known for his work in comic books) pens a script that may best be described as “Groundhog Day” meets “Scream”. This wacky genre blend plays out far better than it may sound and it makes “Happy Death Day” a hard movie to pigeonhole. Case in point, Lobdell and director Christopher Landon are mainly focused on making a horror-comedy, but you could also call it college campus satire, a romcom, and even a life-affirming morality tale. It’s far from revolutionary, but there is much more to this movie than you would expect.

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Jessica Rothe plays the snooty and loose-living ‘mean girl’ Theresa “Tree” Gelbman who wakes up in the unfamiliar dorm room of sweet, unassuming ‘nice guy’ Carter (Israel Broussard). Unable to remember anything from her previous night of partying, Tree storms out and begins her normal routine of berating or belittling the people in her life. But her day doesn’t have a happy ending. On her way to a party she is stalked and murdered by a killer in a black hoodie and a baby mask.

Now enter the “Groundhog Day” conceit. The moment of her death she suddenly wakes up in Carter’s room yet again. She’s met with the same response from him and everyone else she encounters. She quickly realizes she is replaying the same day. This happens again and again, with her dying at the end of each day regardless of her efforts to avoid it.

At a point during this time loop we see a transformation take place both in the story and in Tree. She turns from novice scream queen to super sleuth and the film becomes more of a murder mystery as she works to reveal her own killer. The list of suspects is long, filled with people Tree has mistreated or offended. She focuses each replayed day on a new potential suspect and as she goes down her list she begins to learn some not so flattering things about herself.

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Rothe (perhaps best known for her bit part as one of Emma Stone’s roommates in “La La Land”) may be the biggest reason to see this film. I’m pretty sure she is in every single scene and it’s not the easiest role to tackle. She’s asked to stretch herself out in several different directions. Perhaps the most surprising element to her performance is her sharp comedic chops. I can see this opening up some new doors for Rothe.

While the script is clever and the performances are good, I don’t want to oversell “Happy Death Day” or leave the impression that it is some kind of seminal groundbreaker for the horror genre. It definitely utilizes some of the same tropes it pokes fun at and the whole thing is unquestionably silly. But the tongue-in-cheek approach by the filmmakers and their willingness to laugh at themselves makes this a better experience than the title would have you believe.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

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REVIEW: “Hidden Figures”

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The inspiring true story at the center of “Hidden Figures” is one aching to be told. Three brilliant mathematicians struggle to get their due in the fledgling NASA program. Why do they struggle? Because they dare to be African-American and women. It’s a spirited account of the persecution these women faced and the barriers they boldly broke. At the same time it’s a film aiming at being a crowdpleaser and packaged with a glossy coat of Hollywood influence.

“Hidden Figures” is adapted from Margot Lee Shetterly’s biography of the same name. The story begins in 1961 fresh after the Soviet Union’s successful Sputnik space mission. In full Cold War mode, the United States government begins pressuring NASA to catch up with the Soviets and put an American in space. To accomplish that in the pre-computer era NASA relied on human computers to put together equations and calculations. Many of these ‘computers’ were African-American woman who worked behind the scenes and without much credit.

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The film focuses on three of these women, brilliant mathematicians working in a back room at the segregated Langley NASA complex. Taraji Henson gets the starring nod playing Katherine Johnson, a mathematics genius from birth. Octavia Spencer co-stars as Dorothy Vaughan, the eldest of the three friends and an aspiring supervisor. Janelle Monáe plays Mary Jackson, a fiery engineer who is consistently denied the promotion she deserves. One of the film’s true pleasures is watching these three actresses work. Henson, Spencer, and Monáe have spectacular chemistry but they also bring an immense amount of truth individually, even when their scenes are a bit on the nose.

Each of these brilliant women are in line for promotions yet they all meet some sort of racial or sexist hurdle at every turn. Most notable is Katherine’s assignment to the Space Task Group, a team of white male engineers tasked with getting their astronauts into space and back down safely. Kevin Costner plays Al Harrison, the director of the group under intense pressure by the paranoid government. Harrison is all about results. He doesn’t see male or female, black or white. At the same time he’s impervious to the obstacles Katherine faces and the abuse she takes particularly by the wormy Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons).

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Co-writers Allison Schroeder and Theodore Melfi (Melfi also directed) tell a powerful story but do so with splashes of fiction. Often this works in the movie’s favor but not always. Their additions may occasional take away from the real story, but they also give an honest depiction of the oppressive rules and attitudes of the time. Then you have Parson’s completely fictional character who is a conduit for those prejudices. The performance is fine but the character is scripted so tightly that it’s hard to believe in him. Kirsten Dunst has a similar fictional character but one that is handled much better.

“Hidden Figures” is a polished Hollywood movie through and through, but the power and importance of its story along with the three central performances easily overshadow any hiccups. I would even toss in Kevin Costner who offers up some of my favorite supporting work of the year. There is simply an irresistible quality to these characters that makes spending time with them a joy. And regardless of how predictable it may be, this is still an empowering, inspirational story that needs to be told.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

3-5-stars

REVIEW: “Hell or High Water”

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Taylor Sheridan’s script for “Hell or High Water” didn’t have the easiest track to the big screen. It was finally purchased for production in 2012 after being highlighted as the Black List’s top script, but it would be another four years before it would finally hit theaters. But it’s hard to believe there has been a timelier moment for the movie to land than right now.

It has been accurately defined as a neo-western. It’s also a heist movie. It could be considered a comedy. Some may even call it an incisive bit of social commentary. Actually all of the above are fitting descriptions of this sensitive but slightly off-beat tale of two brothers burdened by their economic struggles. Director David Mackenzie takes this idea and visualizes it through the lens of tough small town living, something that the film rightly shows is slowly dying off.

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Those not close to or familiar with the rural challenges the movie depicts may not appreciate how accurately the film captures it. In the real America small working class towns are drying up. Many have economies dependent on one or two plants or factories and when those industries leave the communities suffer. Sheridan and Mackenzie capture this with such vivid and authentic detail through a powerful mix of camera, script, and setting.

It’s this world that brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) live in. Toby is recently divorced and struggling to keep his family’s ranch left to him by his deceased mother. A reverse mortgage has left him smothering in debt and trying to avoid a looming foreclosure. Tanner is a rambunctious sort, recently out of prison and with no real direction for his life. But he does love his brother and will help him any way he can. That means helping him with well thought out robberies of a series of small West Texas  banks.

The movie also tells the story of a retiring Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who along with his partner Alberto (Gil Birmingham) set out to find the men responsible for the series of bank robberies. Much of the film’s humor comes from their back-and-forth banter which features a slew of affectionate insults. Bridges is a hoot and is right in his comfort zone. You could say he’s channeling a variation of his Rooster Cogburn from “True Grit”. The movie doesn’t miss a beat when it switches to Hamilton’s story and his scenes add more suspense to the inevitable crossing of paths. 

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Sheridan and Mackenzie go to great lengths to keep this from being a ‘good guy vs bad guy’ tale. They try hard to keep the black hats off of Toby and Tanner and put them on the banks and the economic system that keeps people down even when they seem to be ahead. This is emphasized when we learn oil was found on the family’s ranch. But I’m not sure the movie does a good enough job keeping the brothers within the grey area it wants them to be in. There are moments when they do try and morally reckon with their crimes and their hardships clearly contribute to their reasoning. But as things intensify it’s hard to know how the movie wants us to feel about them.

There is a pretty significant plot-hole in the final act that I can’t quite shake, but otherwise “Hell or High Water” sticks its landing. The similarities to the Coen Brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” are obvious from the start and there even seems to be a nod to Humphrey Bogart’s “High Sierra”. Those influences add a lot to the film but its strength is in its camera and in its realization of a segment of the country slowly being smothered out. The characters are easy to latch onto and the timely authentic story, while not perfectly told, feels grounded in a very true current reality.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

4 Stars

REVIEW: “Hacksaw Ridge”

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You might say Hollywood’s selective forgiveness hasn’t fully extended to Mel Gibson. While the transgressions of many stars have been hypocritically swept under the rug, Gibson has remained a Hollywood pariah due to his vile alcohol-related incidents of nearly ten years ago. Despite apologies, treatments, and the support of close friends like Jodie Foster, Whoopi Goldberg, and Robert Downey, Jr., it has been tough road back into movies for Gibson. But the early responses to his new film “Hacksaw Ridge” may be a sign that Tinseltown is finally giving him a second chance.

Hollywood has tried to tell the incredible story of Desmond Doss for decades. Screen rights to the story have swapped hands numerous times and multiple producers have attempted to get the project off the ground. Mel Gibson was first approached to direct the film in 2004. He would turn down the offer twice before accepting some ten years later. “Hacksaw Ridge” would be Gibson’s first directed movie since 2006’s “Apocalypto”.

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The story of Desmond Doss is astonishing. In April of 1942 Doss enlisted in the Army but refused to carry a weapon due to his deeply held religious convictions. Despite early criticisms and persecution, Doss worked his way up to Corporal and was a field medic during the bloody Battle of Okinawa. He became the first conscientious objector to receive the Medal of Honor.

Andrew Garfield plays Doss and is tasked with carrying the bulk of the film on his shoulders. Garfield is an actor who has always flown a bit under the radar despite some strong performances. In “Hacksaw Ridge” he brings the audience through several portions of Doss’s life. We see his early life at home and his tumultuous relationship with his war-scarred, alcoholic father (played with bruising realism by Hugo Weaving in some of the year’s best supporting work). We watch his courtship with a local nurse named Dorothy (played by a radiant and warm Teresa Palmer). The next stop is boot camp where Doss’s convictions raises the ire of his unit especially his superiors Sgt. Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Capt. Glover (Sam Worthington).

And then there is the final act which is dedicated to Doss’s heroism at Okinawa where some of the most ferocious fighting of World War 2 took place. From the first shot fired, the film presents the battlefield violence vividly and in a manner reminiscent of the D-Day sequence in “Saving Private Ryan”. Mel Gibson is no stranger to depicting the brutal nature of combat and it is especially effective here considering the harsh reality it’s based on. Make no mistake, it’s bloody, unflinching, and harrowing.

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Some have found Gibson’s intense war violence at odds with his story of a pacifist. I couldn’t disagree more. Yes, the battle scenes are brutal and graphic but not without reason. You see, in the middle of the blood, the bullets, and the dizzying madness of war is Desmond Doss who personifies grace in the face of violence, life in a sea of death. Gibson contrasts the horrors of war with the heroism of Doss in such a way as to make his protagonist’s light shine even brighter. There is no glorification of war. These soldiers are in a picture of hell. The only light for them and the audience is Desmond Doss. It’s all incredibly effective.

“Hacksaw Ridge” was made with a fairly modest $40 million budget (quite modest compared to the $165 million price tag for the week’s other big release, Marvel’s second tier “Doctor Strange”). But as you would expect from Gibson, the movie looks like a billion bucks. The superbly shot battle scenes aside, Gibson’s traditionalist sensibilities show up in how he shoots everything else which is a perfect fit for this particular film. It’s easy to get lost in the period he visualizes.

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But I have to get back to Garfield whose work in this film should catch a few eyes. His accent may require an adjustment, but he fully commits to his character and his performance is full of authenticity and earnestness. The movie simply wouldn’t work without him. And it certainly helps to have great supporting work especially from Hugo Weaving (Oscar nomination perhaps). I also loved Palmer who at times seems plucked right out of a 1940’s movie. Worthington is solid and Vaughan surprised me. There are also nice performances from Luke Bracey as the unit’s alpha male and Rachel Griffiths as Doss’s mother.

The story of Desmond Doss is both incredible and inspirational. “Hacksaw Ridge” tells the story well and never wavers from its central theme of believing in and staying true to your convictions even in the face of intense adversity. It’s never preachy in its presentations of one man’s beliefs, but it also never wavers in portraying them for what they are. And that’s what you expect from Mel Gibson  – a filmmaker of great vision and conviction who may have finally found the forgiveness he deserves. I hope so. “Hacksaw Ridge” shows he still has an amazing gift and an insight into filmmaking that many in the business simply do not possess.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The House of the Devil”

house-posterTi West has a clear grasp of the guiding principle for many classic horror films – the anticipation can be just as satisfying as the payoff. He takes that thought to heart in his 2009 film “The House of the Devil”. It’s a slow-boiling horror picture focused on building the audience’s dread and prodding their imaginations. West is deliberate with what he feeds us which is just fine since he creates a boatload of suspense in the process.

The main character is cash-strapped college sophomore named Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) who needs money for a new apartment. She responds to a flyer requesting a babysitter on the night of a rare lunar eclipse. Samantha’s best friend Megan (played by the always lively and true Greta Gerwig) drops her off at the large Victorian home of Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov). It so happens that the home is down an isolated wooded road AND next to a cemetery. Warning signs aglow.

The gentle voiced but creepy Mr. Ulman springs a surprise on Samantha – something he failed to mention in the flyer. I’ll let you find out what it is for yourself, but she only agrees to stay after he quadruples her pay. The Ulman’s head off to their eclipse-watching gathering leaving Samantha in charge, along with her intense curiosity and active imagination.

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West plants here for a bit allowing the tension to build and then slowly simmer. As Samantha begins exploring the house we gain an ominous feeling of dread. We watch knowing all along something is going to happen. Even when Samantha pops on her headphones and playfully dances around to The Fixx’s “One Thing Leads to Another” (an amusingly appropriate title) we still are waiting for something terrible to occur. That’s something the good horror pictures of the 70s and 80s did well.

West has that same knack. Even though he is often playing with familiar ideas within the horror genre, he clearly knows what makes these films work. Some examples: He spends time developing the central character. Samantha isn’t a flimsy, disposable protagonist. He also understands the effectiveness of well-managed music. Jeff Grace’s Carpenter-esque score is a perfect complement and West knows how to employ it. And then there is his selective use of gore. The corn syrup does eventually flow, but this is far from some splatter-a-minute gorefest. Again, the focus is more on getting to the payoff. But that doesn’t mean the payoff isn’t a nostalgic bit of old-school fun.

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Another treat is the 80s setting. My wife and I had such fun seeing who could notice the most references to the decade. Feathered hair, high-waist blue jeans, friendship bracelets, and of course a Sony Walkman as big as a brick. West even shoots with 16mm film which makes it seem even more of a movie of that time.

“The House of the Devil” features an old-fashioned quality that I love, but it’s much more than just a nostalgic piece. It’s a genuinely tense throwback to the classic horror idea of doing the basic things really well. It also plays around with several subgenres and shakes them up just enough to add a unique flavor to the movie. All of these good ingredients mix well with West’s undeniable craft making this a real treat for horror fans.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”

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Taika Waititi has had his hand in many unique projects, but it was his hysterical vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” that made me a fan. The film’s wacky mix of absurd and subtle humor was refreshing especially within its formulaic and gimmick-ridden genre.

His follow up is the equally hysterical and equally refreshing “Hunt for the Wilderpeople”. Much like his previous film, Waititi writes, co-produces, and directs this odd couple adventure comedy that so beautifully walks the line between silly absurdity and thoughtful, tender humor. Contrary to many modern comedy norms, “Wilderpeople” delicately explores several deeper themes underneath its unashamedly goofy exterior. Most importantly it does it all very well.

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The film tells the story of two very different but equally isolated people. Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) is a troubled 13 year-old who has been shipped from home to home by child welfare services. After several incidents in the city Ricky is given one more chance at a home life. He is sent to the countryside and new foster parents the quirky but loving Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and the burly, gruff Hec (Sam Neill).

Through circumstances that I’ll let you discover for yourself Ricky runs away into the dense bush but is eventually found by Hec. Child Services, led by the dogged, overzealous Agent Paula (Rachel House), absurdly determine that Hec kidnapped Ricky and therefore set out on a manhunt to find the two. This feeds the film’s main focus – the peculiar relationship between a young boy and an elderly man both with huge needs in their lives.

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To say Waititi has fun with the whole “opposites attract” idea is an understatement. The clashing of these two drastically different personalities allow for some truly hilarious moments. Ricky’s youthful exuberance against Hec’s grumpy desire to be left alone. Ricky’s street gangster ambitions against Hec’s bushland survivalist skills. Yet they come together through one lone emotional similarity and we get to enjoy the zaniness this unlikely pairing brings.

Much should be said about the performances which are very much essential pieces. This is young Dennison’s third project and he is such a treat delivering a fabulous multi-layered character. We see it in his spontaneous pop culture references, his penchant for writing haiku, and his random child psychology quotes. Dennison exudes a certain sweetness and naïveté that melds so well with the tone Waitiki is going for.

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Sam Neill is equally vital. He could have easily been your run-of-the-mill surly old-timer, but his performance doesn’t allow for that. He, along with Waititi’s script, blow apart any surface level perceptions we may have of his character. Hec may appear familiar, but Neill takes him in several unexpected directions. In fact the same could be said for much of Waititi’s film. It’s constantly defying expectations.

Waititi’s star is clearly shining brighter and his next film should be a challenge (Marvel’s third Thor film). But “Wilderpeople” is him making movies in his comfort zone. It is a film so clearly and perfectly attuned to his humor and sensibilities. This fun little odyssey pulls from so many directions but always maintains its balance. It’s genuinely tender and sweet but never overly sentimental. The humor ranges from subtle deadpan to big broad comedy but it always works together. All of this testifies to Waititi’s brilliance as a filmmaker and storyteller. The guy knows how to make a movie, and you won’t find a 2016 comedy much funnier than this one.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

4.5 STARS