Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Review: "It Follows"

Director: David Robert Mitchell
Runtime: 100 minutes

The opening shot of David Robert Mitchell's It Follows is simple in execution, but immensely demonstrative of what makes this moody horror piece work so well. A pretty teenage girl, the sort we expect to see run and scream and die in these sorts of stories, runs up and down her street, alarming her neighbors and her parents. After retreating to the sanctuary of her home, she sprints back out and takes off in her car. The camera is still, merely panning left and right to follow her movements. No one is chasing her. The suburban street couldn't be more tranquil, aside from one teenager's inexplicable freakout. And yet the shot, which is not the last we see of this girl, is increasingly unnerving. Without a flash of gore or an obvious antagonist on screen, the first two minutes of It Follows are more tense than some horror movies are in their entire duration. And there's still 98 minutes left.

Too often, horror films mistake visual and stylistic chaos as a means of creating either scares or sustained sequences of dread. Mr. Mitchell, however, has crafted a film that at once feels like a throwback (a la The Guest) and a step forward. In a sense, you've seen It Follows, with its screaming teens not always making the smartest decisions for their survival. Yet, simultaneously, you likely haven't seen anything quite like how It Follows twists and refashions hoary horror tricks into something flooded with atmosphere, with as few bells and whistles as possible. On the heels of a recent string of successful horror entries (The Babadook, The Guest, You're Next, The Conjuring), It Follows has raised the bar for the genre yet again. 

Mitchell's premise (he also wrote the script) alone is dynamite. After the obligatory opening death, the story proper begins with Detroit teenager Jay (The Guest's Maika Monroe) sleeping with her college boyfriend Hugh. Yet after the wholly consensual encounter is over, Jay is knocked unconscious. When she wakes up, Hugh has tired her to a chair and is rambling on about something that he has "passed on" to her. Shortly, Jay will find herself pursued by an entity, albeit one that takes a different form every time it appears. The creature, first seen as a naked woman, merely walks in a straight line toward its victim, until said victim has sex with someone else. 

Whatever the malevolent force in It Follows is, it's not an idea that instantly registers on a visual level. Sometimes the creature manifests itself as someone scary, but other times it takes the form of an ordinary civilian. And yet despite the often mundane appearance of the monster, It Follows is an extraordinarily accomplished piece on a visual level. Mitchell's shots are often quite long, and forgo any hectic transitions or edits. Some of the most intense stretches in the film are built upon the camera's gentle movements left and right, or forward and backward. Meanwhile, Rich Vreeland, also known by the stage name Disasterpeace, supplies a thudding electronic score that would make John Carpenter proud. The combination creates a sense of paranoia that is at once over-the-top and deeply nerve-wracking. 

Even when Mitchell sets up a scene as innocent, the possibility of the titular "it" is always there, and that's where It Follows' staying power stems from. Rather than try and drag the viewer through endless jump scares, Mitchell invests considerable effort in creating an atmosphere that takes hold early, and keeps the intensity and an unwavering, at times unbearable, white-knuckle simmer. This is a horror film designed to hold your attention, and it does so with mostly spectacular results.

And even though It Follows is not designed as a character-driven freak-out like The Babadook, the cast deserves mention for solid work across the board. The standout, of course, is Monroe, who's quickly making a name for herself as a true 21st century scream queen. Though often bewildered by what's going on, Monroe never turns Jay into a total dope. Suspension of disbelief is a given with It Follows' sexually-charged premise, but Monroe helps ground Jay's terror and make her actions believable, even if they aren't always the smartest (Hugh tells her to never hide in a place with only one exit, and the advice is blatantly ignored multiple times).

Mitchell maintains It Follows' intensity effortlessly, even sticking the landing in the finale, an area where many horror movies start to lose their footing. Since we see the monster so often, and understand its capabilities, there's no twist incorporated for the sake of upping the ante for sheer spectacle. The monster (ghost...demon...whatever) is a constant, and therefore it's constantly menacing. At once a self-aware B-movie and a straight-faced screamer, It Follows is an exhilarating work that uses simplicity to consistently create some of the most intense horror moments in years, and all because it opts to walk where so many similar films would rather run.

Grade: B+

Friday, March 6, 2015

Review: "Chappie"

Director: Neill Blomkamp
Runtime: 120 minutes

Hollywood loves the comfort of formula over the perils of risk. While there's nothing inherently malicious about this mindset, it can, over time, stifle more ambitious ideas and projects. The industry's current state makes a movie like Chappie, the third film from District 9 director Neill Blomkamp, all the more remarkable. Chappie is a film full of knowingly weird elements, from its mix of tones to its casting choices. Yet even though Blomkamp's risks remain admirable, and the film has more of Blomkamp's voice than sophomore effort Elysium, Chappie is an unfortunate instance where almost none of the risks have paid off. Ambition and execution are vastly different things, and, despite a few promising steps in the right direction, Blomkamp is unable to translate the former into the latter.

The world of Chappie, set only a few years in the future, is a return to Blomkamp's District 9 roots. The setting is Johannesburg, and technological advances are few and far between. This time, however, the sci-fi pieces of the story stem not from alien refugees, but from man-made devices. Seeking to cut down on crime rates (as well as officer fatalities), South Africa implements the world's first robotic police force, courtesy of the Tetra Vaal corporation, headed by Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver). Lead programmer Deon Wilson (Dev Patel) is the true star of the company, and is doing his best to push the robots even further: he wants to create a truly sentient robot, capable of emotions and opinions. He even has a malfunctioning police robot that would be perfect to test his new program on. Bradley is dismissive of the idea, as is co-worker (and former soldier) Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), who has a near-religious fear of AI. With its corporate overlords and security state parallels, Chappie lays out a basic foundation that one expects of this sort of sci-fi adventure. And then the rappers step in. 

Though one of the film's eventual protagonists is the titular robot (created via motion capture with actor Sharlto Copley), the biggest casting risk found in Chappie is the use of South African rap-rave duo Die Antwoord. Members Yolandi Visser and Ninja play fictionalized (and gangsta-ized) versions of their stage personas, and they represent Chappie biggest gamble (yes, moreso than forcing Jackman to sport a mullet from hell). Everything about them is attention-grabbing, from their speaking voices to their decorative instincts (the duo's lair appears to have been marked up with a mix of chalk and highlighters). In essence, they look like extras from a Mad Max film by way of an episode of Wacky Races. The pair hijacks Deon's truck (with the future Chappie in tow), and steal the droid in an attempt to hack the system (the "off switch" for the police bots is kept in a heavily-guarded vault). Given the nature of Deon's program, Chappie starts out with the robot equivalent of a toddler's capabilities. 

Chappie's childlike personality informs the central conflict of the story, which sees Deon, Yolandi, and Ninja all trying to raise the droid in different ways. While Deon and (surprisingly) Yolandi are gentle, Ninja has no patience for the creature's infantile first phases. Had Blomkamp and co-writer Teri Tatchell honed in on the story's family of freaky outsiders, Chappie might have built to something genuinely resonant. Instead, the scattershot script is constantly interrupting Chappie's growth with not one, but two completely separate villains. In addition to Jackman's increasingly unhinged Vincent, Blomkamp also insists on holding onto local gang lord Hippo (Brandon Auret), to whom Yolandi and Ninja owe millions of dollars.

With so much crammed in, Chappie is narratively overstuffed, even at two hours. Just as Yolandi and Ninja clash when it comes to how to raise their titanium-coated child, Blomkamp and Tatchell struggle to streamline the various pieces of the story into a coherent final product. There's little change in the filmmaking when Blomkamp tries to inject some odd-ball black comedy, and then switch to what should be a more introspective moment. The pacing is monotonous, leaving the smaller moments - such as a damaged and heart-broken Chappie finding companionship with a stray dog - without room to take hold. With sharper scripting and more varied direction, Chappie could have conjured up some moments of WALL-E-type grace, albeit with a bizarro, R-rated edge. Instead, these potentially affecting moments move along as if they're being rolled off of an assembly line, just like the rest of the film.

Mr. Copley, who has had a major role in all of Blomkamp's work to date, is hurt most of all by the film's failings. The heart and soul of the character never has a fighting chance against the suffocating, increasingly stupid escalation of the plot. As is to be expected, Blomkamp's ability to come up with designs for robots, weapons, vehicles, but his filmmaking robs Chappie and Copley of the opportunity to create something on the same level as Andy Serkis' creations in The Lord of the Rings or Planet of the Apes. Copley has turned in a few truly bad performances since District 9, but when working with Blomkamp, the actor is in his element. If only the director had given him the attention he deserved here.

Other performances unremarkable, and, like Copley, are let down by both the writing and direction. Patel comes closest to giving a legitimately good performance. In his interactions with Chappie, Patel brings a lot of heart to Deon, the only person who has the robot's best interests in mind from the very start. Jackman has fun playing a villain, but all of his scenes are reliant on the same one-note menace. Weaver, no stranger to making her mark in science fiction, is utterly wasted in what basically amounts to a glorified cameo. 

Yet even though Chappie is the would-be heart of the story, nothing better encapsulates the experience of Chappie the film like Die Antwoord. Though neither have acting experience, the duo's freaky, theatrical performance styles aren't an entirely bad match for the screen. But, in keeping with everyone else, Yolandi and Ninja are flat, one-note characters (that Ninja is nothing but a jackass until the final minutes doesn't help at all). Their top-to-bottom weirdness is curious and refreshing at first, and lends the film a distinctly South African stamp. But in the context of Blomkamp's repetitive, at times incoherent, filmmaking, even the allure of their unique identities feels worn out by the end. Weirdness for the sake of weirdness can produce arresting results (e.g. the best work of David Lynch), but when said weirdness is filtered through increasingly routine blockbuster chaos, it winds up as intellectually and emotionally hollow as most of the robots on screen.

Grade: C-

Monday, March 2, 2015

Review: "Serena"

Director: Susanne Bier
Runtime: 109 minutes

Even the brightest super-star duos stumble once and a while. That's exactly the case with Susanne Bier's long-delayed Serena, which strands A-listers/frequent co-stars Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence in a jumbled, albeit sincerely made, attempt at old-school melodrama. Even fans of the two leads would be advised to steer clear of Bier's latest attempt to find success outside of her native Denmark. 

What's instantly clear about Serena is that, despite the strong credentials, just about everything rings hollow. Characters are established via stray lines of dialogue rather than meaningful conversations or actions, and the actors trudge through their material while sounding like they've never spoken a word of English until now. Set in Depression-era North Carolina, Serena is a romance and a tragedy set among the state's struggling timber industry. George Pemberton (Cooper) is doing his best to grow his business into an empire, while his new wife Serena (Lawrence) is coping with her inability to produce an heir. It's a set-up rich with dramatic potential, with Serena's quest for a male heir instantly calling to mind the not-so-merry wives of Henry VIII. Unfortunately, the beautifully shot trees are the least wooden subjects on display.

Cooper and Lawrence have proven themselves as talented, charismatic performers, but in Serena they are distressingly out of sync with their material and each other. George's first line of dialogue to Serena is an out-of-the-blue marriage proposal, and it's all downhill from there. For a while, Serena is more focused on George's battle against officials who want to stop his deforestation efforts to create a national park. Despite the grim faces and appropriately dusty period attire, the plot thread never takes hold. Parks and Recreation traversed similar narrative ground with greater heft, even with Leslie Knope's undeterred, sunny optimism. So, after about 45 minutes and one murder, Christopher Kyle's script (based on Ron Rash's novel) gets cold feet and shifts to the pregnancy drama. 

The traumas and tragedies that follow over the remaining hour are a mish-mash of cliches that aren't done any favors by Bier's handling of the tone, which switches between disinterested and dour at the tip of George's wide-brimmed hat. Cooper is stuck trying to pull off an unconvincing accent, while Lawrence conveys the poise required for the role while still being distractingly underage. As with American Hustle, there are pieces of a solid performance in Lawrence's work, but they require a level of maturity that can only come with time. Sometimes, screen presence just isn't enough.

As the dueling story lines awkwardly slug it out for dominance, Serena unravels at a tedious pace. Photography, costumes, and sets all hit their marks, capturing the period and setting without creating false glamor. But with an unwieldy plot barely propped up by the wet blanket chemistry of the leads, even the visuals start to seem phony by the end. Given the rumored re-shoots and re-edits of the film, perhaps there's a version of Serena that actually passes muster as a noble failure, or even a minor success. Yet, in it's current form, the romance lacks heat, and the tragedy lacks even an ounce of genuine pathos. Some movies, no matter how much sense they make on paper, just never find the spark required to create compelling drama. Here's hoping the next Cooper/Lawrence vehicle (David O. Russell's Joy, due by year's end) gets these two A-listers back on the right track.

Grade: D