Sunday, August 28, 2016

Review: "Don't Breathe"

Director: Fede Alvarez
Runtime: 84 minutes

The title of Fede Alvarez's Don't Breathe is a command, one heeded by the two protagonists of this horror thriller. Yet it also doubles as a challenge to the audience. Fair enough, Mr. Alvarez. The film is 84 minutes, but feels much longer. And that's not because it drags. Quite the contrary. It's because once the plot kicks into gear, you'll spend so much time holding your breath and clenching your armrests that you'll feel like the two leads: trapped in a nightmare that goes on and on, seemingly without end. That may be bad news for the characters, but it's something worth celebrating for viewers looking for extended sequences of knuckle-whitening tension.

Alvarez made a splash a few years ago when he remade Sam Raimi's Evil Dead. Though Don't Breathe has its share of R-rated violence, it's hardly covering similar ground or style. There's no campy, tongue-in-cheek excess here (well, relatively speaking). Don't Breathe may not reach the controlled, art-film highs of The Babadook, It Follows, or The Witch, it passes with flying colors as a tightly wound nerve-shredder. 

Like It Follows, Alvarez's film takes place in the ruins of modern-day Detroit. Many homes are abandoned, and those that aren't don't seem terribly inviting (or clean). The post financial collapse gloom that swamped the Motor City is at the root of why three young adults have turned to robbery to finance their eventual getaway to the West Coast. Rocky (Suburgatory's Jane Levy), wants to take her little sister away from her trailer trash mother and her sleazy live-in boyfriend. Less-than-stellar boyfriend Money (Daniel Zovatto) is ready to join her. And, reluctantly, so is Alex (Prisoners' Dylan Minnette), in part because he clearly has deeper feelings for Rocky. 

And so our three young malcontents decide to make their last heist the robbery of a reclusive Gulf War veteran (Avatar's Stephen Lang) rumored to be sitting on a $300K settlement from the death of his daughter. Two details only make the mark more appealing: every other house on his block is empty, and he's blind. Sure, his giant dog is a bit of a terror, but nothing could possibly get too out of- oh OK you know it does, otherwise there isn't a movie. The break-in gets off to a smooth start (windows stealthily broken, alarm system disabled)...and then the Blind Man walks in on them mid-ransack. The uncomfortable silence that follows is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Imagine the climactic showdown of The Silence of the Lambs (Buffalo Bill stalking Clarice in the dark, aided by night vision) stretched to feature-length, and you get the idea.

Victims revealing themselves as predators is hardly new territory, but Alvarez dives into his set up so smoothly that the standard horror tropes barely register. Making the most of the fantastic set-up, Alvarez and cinematographer Pedro Luque nimbly dart around the decrepit homestead, ensuring that every footstep and every creaky floorboard registers as a potential death sentence.  Roque Banos' score ratchets up the tension without overwhelming the impeccable sound work, sustaining an undercurrent of dread throughout each development. I spent most of Don't Breathe like Rocky at the outset: curled up in a ball, terrified to make a sound.

Performances of high caliber aren't required in this situation, though the cast come across well. Levy makes a spunky heroine (think Emma Stone with a more sardonic edge), and Minnette is grounded and sympathetic. Lang, outfitted with some milky white contact lenses, is compelling even when fast asleep. He gives the Blind Man the physicality of a wounded wolf: raw, unpredictable, and in possession of frighteningly quick (and brutal) reflexes. 

The work from all departments is so solid (and in cases, truly exemplary), and Alvarez doesn't drop the ball when steering the plot through its final passages. There are a few twists (one more surprising than the other), and a glaze of psychological depth painted on to juuuuuussst barely elevate this thing above "people scream and die" horror shenanigans. But given its nastier surprises and R-rated funhouse structure, what really seals the deal for Don't Breathe is that it never strains to be something "important." Its a magnificently twisty ride, perfectly content to leave you exhilarated, exhausted, and begging for more. That is, after you take a few hours to get the knots out of your insides.

Grade: B+

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review: "Hell or High Water"

Director: David Mackenzie
Runtime: 102 minutes

August, like January, is considered a dead zone for movies (albeit moreso for big studio releases). With such a dour summer movie season, August 2016 was being set up as a true wasteland. And yet, in this strange, topsy turvy year, the summer's final act is shaping up to be its redemption. August kicked with two delightful family-oriented outings (Disney's Pete's Dragon remake and Laika's stop-motion Kubo and the Two Strings), and is now beginning to deliver high end material for older audiences as well. Case in point, David Mackenzie's Hell or High Water, a modern western thriller that takes the cat-and-mouse plotting of No Country for Old Men and makes it more accessible, without being watered down. 

Set in the sun-baked small towns of west Texas, Hell subverts our expectations from its opening shot. After a fairly standard bank heist, the story immediately takes us to another one taking place only hours (minutes?) later. Rather than clue us in from the beginning, the script by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) drops us in the middle of a plan that's fully in motion. There are no montages of plans being made or tools being acquired. Like bank-robber brothers Tanner and Toby Howard (Ben Foster and Chris Pine), the whole movie just keeps on going. 

In retrospect, it makes Mackenzie look like an odd choice to sit in the director's chair. The UK-born helmer has never been afraid to jump genres. But nothing in the sci-fi romance Perfect Sense or prison drama Starred Up indicated that he'd be capable of delivering such a propulsive and distinctly American effort. But with Sheridan's deft, often humorous script as a foundation, Mackenzie is able to push himself into new territory and pull it off with the confidence of an old pro. Even when the characters throw out cliches (ranging from tired colloquialisms to "that's what she said" jokes), the actors carry it off so effortlessly that it feels perfectly natural amid the more natural, human moments. 

Mackenzie's strength has always been his ability to work with actors, even when guiding them through uneven material, and Hell or High Water is no exception. Pine and Foster are both excellent as the Howard brothers, convincingly passing as family while also intelligently illustrating their differences. Pine's role is lowkey compared to his swaggering, womanizing James Kirk, and it's refreshing to see him quietly nail such different material. Foster, meanwhile, is electrifying as the live wire of the two. Despite having the flashier role, he never plays to the camera, and maintains an unshakeable immersion in his role without self-consciously Acting. Jeff Bridges does fine work as well as the crotchety deputy on the brothers' trail. He also has a great deal of fun trading insults with his partner, the half-Native American, half-Mexican Alberto (Gil Birmingham, a dry-witted delight).

The supporting cast is stacked with solid performances as well. Everyone involved seems excited to be working on such a project, even when they're only given a few lines. Dale Dickey (Winter's Bone), Katy Mixon (TV's Mike and Molly), and Marin Ireland (as Pine's ex-wife) are all welcome presences (I assume the only reason Margo Martindale never showed up was because her schedule was just too crowded). The MVP of the supporting players, however, might have to go to the leathery waitress who tends to Bridges and Birmingham in a small-town steakhouse. She delivers a small rant with timing that many aspiring comedians would kill for.

And just as it seems the script might lose its way when forced to wrap things up, the film surprises yet again. Various family issues are sorted out and motivations are clarified, but Sheridan never goes overboard with the details. We know enough about the characters and what they want, and Sheridan doesn't break the spell with long-winded idealogical monologues, even when touching on issues like predatory lending. There's a rich treasure trove of ideas and emotions swirling underneath the surface, but the lush western visuals and delicate score keep things cinematic. What could have been a pretentious, tonally-erratic drama is, instead, a thoughtful story mixing finely honed character dynamics with elegantly-woven suspense. 

Grade: B+