Thursday, August 11, 2022

‘Fall’ scales thrill-ride heights

  We go to some movies because of who’s in them. Other movies attract us because we’re fascinated by the stories they tell. Sometimes we're bored or just willing to take a chance. At other times, a favorite director draws attention.
   Then there are movies that, despite deficiencies, are built around an ingredient so compelling, they're difficult to to resist. I’d put Fall in this latter category. It’s a movie in which dumb behavior by two characters leads to sequences as riveting as anything you’ll see this summer. 
   It’s necessary at this point to say that those made uneasy by heights may find Fall excruciating — in a good way, I suppose.
   Here’s the deal: Distraught over her husband’s death in a climbing accident,  Becky (Grace Caroline Currey) tries to drown her grief with alcohol. 
   A year passes before Becky's climbing pal Hunter (Virginia Gardner) turns up. Hunter insists that if Becky doesn't climb again, she'll always be dominated by fear.
     Hunter proposes that the two tackle a decaying 2,000-foot TV tower that looks entirely misplaced in the middle of the California desert, a relic of another time. 
     Initially reluctant, Becky agrees to make the climb. When the ladder used in the ascent collapses, Becky and Hunter are stranded on top of the tower with no way down.
     The climbers try to use their ingenuity to figure out how they might summon help as the screenplay reveals a source of tension between the two women and adds splashes of backstory.
     Director Scott Mann and cinematographer MacGregor do the rest, creating one harrowing bit after another, all of them stomach-churning if heights aren’t your thing — and they’re definitely not mine.
     The two actresses are well cast. Currey conveys the fear that has stunted Becky's climbing career -- and her life, as well. Gardner imbues Hunter with a sense of bravado that pushes her toward extreme physical feats that she treats as fodder for her on-line presence.
     The movie concludes a bit summarily but the ending came as a relief — not because Fall disappoints but because I was happy to leave that damn tower to the vultures that sometimes circle it.

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Horror with a dose of satire in mind

  A group of privileged 20-somethings gathers at an estate-like home that belongs to one of their parents. A hurricane party is supposed to take place against the backdrop of a brewing storm.
  Sounds like the set-up for a zillion horror movies in which careless young people fall prey to a killer whose identity remains a mystery until the end.
   Working from a screenplay by Sarah DeLappe based on a story by Kristen Roupenian, Dutch director Halina Reijin subverts the formula. Reijin builds her movie around well-captured Gen Z dialogue and a final twist that gives the proceedings an ironic boost.
   Bodies Bodies Bodies begins by introducing Sophie (Amandla Stenberg) and Bee (Maria Bakalova) during a prolonged kiss. Still early in their relationship, Sophie and Bee are headed for the party. A hesitant Bee worries about being introduced to folks who already know one another.
    Sophie seems to have had a previous relationship with another partygoer, the demonstrative Jordan (Myha'la Herrold). Jordan is not happy to see Sophie with a new lover.
     The rest of the group includes Alice (Rachel Sennott) and her date (Lee Pace), a slightly older guy who's not part of the rich-parent club. Emma (Chase Sui Wonders) and the party's arrogant host, Pete Davidson's David round out the list.
      Once the hurricane arrives, Reijin mixes murder and tension with laughs, including one great scene in which the  women exchange insults at a pace that's as horrifying and funny as just about anything in the movie. Insults about podcasts, mental disorders, and faux sensitivity fly like thrown knives.
      The movie's title is based on a game played before the onset of a hurricane-induced blackout.  One person, selected via a drawing, assumes the role of murderer. The others are supposed to guess the murderer's identity. 
       As expected, the boisterous exuberance of the early scenes turns darker -- almost literally. Many of the scenes are shot in gloomy darkness with the characters trying for illumination with their cell phones and glow sticks.
        And, yes, deaths abound, some of them gruesome.
        I don't know if Bodies Bodies Bodies qualifies as the definitive Gen Z satire. Moreover, the movie's cleverness sometimes cancels its attempts at generating fear.
      Bodies Bodies Bodies can be fun, though, partly because  Reijin knows how little these characters understand themselves. Narcissism trumps realization. The characters care a great deal about how they’re perceived.
       In a way, Bodies Bodies Bodies, like its title, is little more than a cinematic game -- but its well-played by a strong young cast that gives the movie plenty of zing.

Aubrey Plaza excels as a budding criminal


 It's time that we saw women as capable of playing characters facing stark moral challenges as they're pushed into illegal activity by financial strain, an unforgiving employment market, and no small amount of personal rage. Aubrey Plaza hits the target with just such a character in Emily the Criminal, a drama about an aspiring artist whose felony record locks her out of the job market. To keep herself afloat, Emily delivers food for a caterer, a gig-economy job that barely helps reduce her lingering student debt load. Director John Patton Ford, who also wrote the screenplay, engineers a crime story that makes Emily part of a credit-card fraud scheme. She works for Youcef (a fine Theo Rossi), a guy who plans to use his ill-gotten gains to buy his way into the legit  economy. Plaza gives Emily the kind of furious strength that keeps her from being pushed around. Ford captures Los Angeles's low-rent side while carefully detailing Emily's criminal activity. Plaza's performance burns through some late-picture improbabilities, not to mention the fact that she gives Emily -- an East Coast transplant to Los Angeles --a great Jersey accent. Always an achievement. (Yes, I grew up in New Jersey).

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

'Bullet Train' runs on blood and attitude


   A big-screen adaptation of a 2010 Kotaro Isaka novel,  Bullet Train makes no bones about feeling familiar. With Brad Pitt headlining, director David Leitch (Deadpool 2 and Hobbs & Shaw) evokes thoughts of Quentin Tarantino and Guy Ritchie, to name only two directors who have made predecessor movies.
     The movie also has a clang/bang quality that recalls the work of premiere cartoonist Chuck Jones. Perhaps that reference is more apt  because Bullet Train can be viewed as a 126-minute cartoon that seldom tempers its slash/dash editing with anything resembling emotion or complex character development.
      Normally that would be a drawback, but it's clear from the outset that Leitch's adaptation of a Japanese hitman novel plans to say close to the surface, building interest with sight gags, physical comedy, action, and enough flippant attitude to stock a freight train.
       Does it work?
       Pitt plays an assassin code-named Ladybug. Shaggy-haired and possibly careless, Ladybug believes he's cursed by bad luck. He's sent on a mission by his handler,  a woman who communicates with him via an earpiece as he boards a bullet train that leaves Tokyo for Kyoto.
       Once on board, Ladybug encounters a stream of characters with whom he fights. 
      Notable among them are Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry) and Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) who present themselves as twins. Lemon, by the way, maintains an obsessive interest in Thomas The Tank Engine, presumably one of his childhood favorites and another example of a screenplay that spews quirkiness like a car speeding through a puddle.
       Also onboard: Prince (Joey King), a vicious assassin who sheds little-girl tears on demand and generally poses as an innocent. She's called The Prince because she was supposed to carry on a male lineage. Oops.
      Wolf (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio) and The Hornet (Zazie Beetz) join the battle, each with motives to kill.
      A whisper of a plot blows through a story that hiccups flashbacks to shuffle the deck of time and provide background on the movie's parade of characters. The story centers on a suitcase full of money that's supposed to be used to pay ransom for the kidnapped son of the movie's major evil figure, White Death. 
     Best to find out who plays White Death in a theater, but know that the actor gives the movie a big lift toward the end.
     The story begins when a six-year-old boy is pushed off a Tokyo roof. The boy's grandfather (Hiroyuki Sanada) blames the boy's father (Andrew Koji) for not protecting the kid. Duly chastened,  Kogi's Kimora boards the bullet train with vengeance in mind.
      Did I mention that at a poisonous boomslang snake gets loose on the train, adding one more reason for characters to shed blood, this time from eyes that bleed like tiny waterfalls?
      Pitt totally commits to a role that makes him a kind of ringmaster for a circus that includes plenty of free-flowing plasma.
      There's talk of fate, luck, destiny, and a conclusion that speeds its way over the top.  I guess that makes sense, considering that we're  watching a mega-cartoon. 
      Look, keeping movie like this on track isn't easy. I'd say Leitch gets more than half way to his destination, not a disaster but less than a triumph for a movie that seems to have big-time summer box-office ambitions.

Thursday, July 28, 2022

A trip to Texas that’s not afraid of detours

      Send a self-centered New Yorker to Texas and he's bound to arrive with baggage, say a suitcase full of inflated superiority.
     That's Ben Manalowitz, a New Yorker writer who thinks that every story must point to themes large enough to justify his decision to write about it.
     Ben's always looking for definitive statements, an ambition that blinds him to the people who are right in front of him.
     Fortunately, BJ Novak, who wrote and directed Vengeance, the story of Ben's Texas trip, doesn't share the same limitation. Novak has made an entertaining culture-clash comedy full of characters who are more than they seem. 
     Ben (Novak) also writes for a podcast produced by an editor (Issa Rae) who encourages him to dig deeply into a Texas story he discovers when he's drawn into a mystery involving Abby, a woman that he casually hooked up with in Manhattan.
     As it happens, soon after Abby returned to her small Texas backwater home, she turned up dead.
     Abby's family believes that Ben and Abby were more than a one-night fling. That's why her brother Ty (Boyd Holbrook) insists that Ben attend Abby's funeral, where he’s even asked to speak. 
      Ty believes that his sister was murdered. No way she died of an opiate overdose, says Ty, who doesn't accept the coroner's report. Tye wants Ben to help him find the murderer and avenge Abby's death.
    Isn’t that what any significant other would do? And why doesn't Ben just take up residence with Abby's hospitable family while the vengeance plot brews?
     As the movie progresses, Ben's inquiries lead him to Quentin Sellers (a terrific Ashton Kutcher). A music producer who worked with the dead girl, Sellers quickly upends Ben's expectations by delivering a surprisingly astute monologue. 
       Novak creates a main character who isn't instantly likable. Ben thinks he knows more than he does. He can't see beyond the story he thinks he’s telling. Maybe it's just a story he's telling himself
       Vengeance may strike you as talk heavy. It is, but some of the conversations are pointed and the so-called rube characters prove more perceptive than Ben initially suspects. 
       Without straining for effect, Novak toys with red-state cliches -- not only for blue-state Ben's edification but for ours. Don't panic, though; he's not singing Kumbaya, either.
        I won't reveal the movie's ending but honesty forces me to tell you that I'm still trying to come to grips with it. 
        But, hey, I also need to say that Vengeance wisely sidesteps being the kind of movie its suggestive title implies. 
       One last thing: Don’t be surprised if the movie leaves you hungry for a Whataburger.

'Not Okay' turns out to be okay


   Not Okay takes aim at the ravenous need some young people have for on-line fame. It's not exactly fresh territory. We already know that hollow on-line ambition inspires shameless searches for notoriety. Besides, the selfie joke pile pretty much had been exhausted.
    But director Quinn Shepherd, with help from a cast headlined by Zoey Deutsch, gets something out of an obvious premise by flooding the screen with upbeat style and maximizing her lead actress's ability to balance glibness with hints of genuine emotion.
   Deutch’s Danni is an aspiring writer who works for a Manhattan-based website named Depravity.  Using rudimentary computer skills, Danni fakes a trip to Paris so that she can claim to have attended a prestigious writers' workshop. She wants to impress her boss (Negin Farsad) and maybe become a full-time writer.
   Danni's timing turns out to be rotten. She posts a fake picture of herself in front of the Eiffel Tower shortly before a terrorist bombing rocks Paris. Danni now has a problem. She either must confess to never having left New York or concoct a story about the difficulties of dealing with a traumatic brush with death. 
   She chooses the latter course and becomes an on-line celebrity as well as leader of a movement that encourage people to admit that they've been ravaged by trauma.
   Enter Rowan (Mia Isaac), a young woman who lost her sister in a school shooting and who since has become a highly recognizable  anti-gun voice. Rowan and Danni meet at a support group.
   Recently seen in Don’t Make Me Go, Isaac again proves a standout. As a character who's personable but burdened by badly frayed nerves and grief, Isaac rescues the movie from its own clever striving. 
    Of course, Danni's bubble must burst and when it does, Shepherd  tempers the movie's playful tone. 
    As a movie about shallow people, Not Okay sometimes seems shallow itself. I could have done without chapter headings and other self-consciously playful ploys. And somewhere in the back of my mind, I wondered whether a comedy involving deadly terrorism might not be at odds the movie's mostly bouncy beat.
   By the end, though, Shepherd leaves us with a slightly sour taste. She's right to do so. Danni's fraudulent ways teach her a lesson but, to the movie's credit, her shallow appetites are not without consequence. 

‘Paradise Highway’ wastes two great actors

A movie that features Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman in prominent roles is bound to tempt viewers who otherwise might not care about a pulpy story in which a long-distance truck driver (Binoche) tries to rescue a girl (Hala Finley) from a ring of sex-traffickers. Freeman plays a former lawman who steps out of retirement to aid in the search for Binoche's Sally and the girl, who take to the road in Sally’s semi. The cast also includes Frank Grillo as Sally's imprisoned brother. On the eve of his release, he asks Sally to transport some illicit cargo so that he can square himself with a gang that's threatening his life. Shocked and unsettled, Sally learns that the cargo is a girl who’s bound for sex slavery. Reluctantly, Sally opts to save the girl. I'll say no more except to note that I found it painful to watch two terrific actors saddled with lame dialogue. Moreover, Binoche is miscast as a foul-mouthed, tough-minded long haul driver, a role deprives of her of the ambiguous allure that has drawn us closer in so many movies. Too often, Freeman is stuck bantering with his younger partner (Cameron Monaghan) as they try to save the girl. I think you can guess the girl’s fate but neither Binoche nor Freeman can save the movie.

Wednesday, July 27, 2022

Strong cast but the movie self-destructs


   What happens when a director assembles a strong cast and has clear command over a movie's imagery but still can't cross the finish line unscathed.
  The answer can be found in director Andrew Semans's Resurrection, a psychological thriller that's big on creating ambiguity.
 About the cast: Rebecca Hall plays Margaret, a single mom and businesswoman living in New York State. Confident in the business world, Margaret harbors a deep, unsettling secret.
  Margaret's seemingly solid world begins to crumble when she sees a man (Tim Roth) from her past at a biotech conference. The appearance of Roth's David shakes Margaret to the core.
 The performances given by Hall and Roth blend perfectly with the uneasy mood that Semans creates. 
  We're mean to wonder whether Margaret is really in danger from Roth's character or whether we're being immersed in her paranoia.
  Roth wisely underplays the menace that David represents, only  occasionally flashing a toothy grin that borders on the demonic.
 Semans makes good use of Wyatt Garfield's cinematography, which implies a populated world while at the same time pushing us deeper into Margaret's isolating point of view. 
  Margaret operates like a woman possessed. We often see her  running. She runs hard and even seems to be working during the sexual interludes she shares with a married co-worker (Michael Esper). 
   Margaret isn't running toward anything; she's running from a part of her past she wants to suppress. The effort leaves her drenched with sweat.
 Overprotective of her teenage daughter (Grace Kaufman) and eager to play mentor to an intern at work (Angela Wong Carbone), Margaret is one more character burdened by her personal history.
  All of this builds toward a violent finale and a conclusion that, on a literal level, makes no sense and which presumably Semans wants to fill with metaphoric charge. 
  Still, the movie's conclusion struck me as an unearned volley of gore and mystery that made me regard Margaret's crazed journey with more skepticism than I might initially have had.

'Thirteen Lives' tells an amazing story


   Ron Howard's Thirteen Lives can be regarded as a procedural; i.e.,  a straightforward account of a story in which 12 boys and their soccer coach were stranded in a flooded cave in Thailand. 
   The event -- which happened in 2018 -- captured the world's attention as a team of divers combatted monsoon rains while trying to locate the boys and figure out how to extricate them from the cave.
   So, a procedural, yes, but one that tells an incredible story about a team of international divers and Thai Navy Seals who, after 18 days guided the boys to safety. 
   Difficult to begin with, the task became nearly impossible because the boys had to be equipped with diving gear that would enable them to breathe as the divers navigated treacherous waters and narrow passageways. 
   Howard introduces five divers played by Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Joel Edgerton, Tom Bateman, and Paul Gleeson
 Mortensen and Farrell receive the most attention as divers who don't always agree. The story also deals with tensions between Thai authorities, the Thai military, and the foreigners who arrived to help. 
  The Thai characters aren't especially well-developed but neither are the principal divers, who are given sketchy backgrounds. 
    The characters spend little time interacting with one another in ways unrelated to the rescue mission, so it's up to the actors to suggest deeper character traits. Credit Mortensen, Farrell, and Edgerton with doing as much as they can in this regard.
    Howard and cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom up the dramatic ante with rescue sequences that involve a decision that's best discovered in a theater, presuming you don't already know it. 
   The movie's underwater scenes must have been difficult to film but they tend to become slightly repetitive as divers make multiple trips through tunnels of the cave to save the boys.
    I expected an emotionally richer film from Howard whose filmography includes the gripping Apollo 13. He's working with a subject that seems firmly located in his wheelhouse but Thirteen Lives proves more resolute than inspiring.
   I don't think it's a spoiler to say that we know the outcome of such a well-known story from the outset. Aside from becoming international news, the rainy season rescue also is the subject of Rescue, a well-regarded 2021 documentary. But whatever its limitations, Thirteen Lives still has an amazing story to tell.