Mini Reviews (February 2016)
Rites of Spring, One Good Cop, Unfriended, Stella, Playing God, The 5th Wave, The Choice, How to Be Single, Deadpool, Kill Me Three Times, Casting By
Rites of Spring (February 4/16)
Rites of Spring follows a trio of kidnappers as they stumble upon a horrific secret at a remote farm, with the narrative also detailing the exploits of two women abducted by a crazy old coot with less-than-savory intentions. It's hard to argue that Rites of Spring fares best in its palpably riveting first half, as filmmaker Padraig Reynolds does an effective job of establishing an atmosphere of dread and suspense within the dual storylines - with the movie's rough-around-the-edges vibe (eg amateurish performances, slipshod production values, etc) relatively easy to overlook as a result of Reynolds' strong directorial choices. The impressively watchable vibe begins to evaporate in the meandering midsection, however, with the film's fairly abrupt shift from intriguing nailbiter to generic slasher accelerating its descent into irrelevance. Reynolds' increased emphasis on the run-and-hide exploits of the narrative's surviving characters grows tiresome almost immediately, and it seems, to more and more pronounced effect, as though the writer/director is following a template for movies of this ilk. The tedious final act only confirms Rites of Spring's complete transformation into a rather tedious piece of work, which is a shame, certainly, given the massive potential afforded by the movie's initial stretch.
One Good Cop
One Good Cop casts Michael Keaton as Artie Lewis, an NYPD Detective who's forced to become a father to three young girls after his partner (Anthony LaPaglia's Steve Diroma) is killed in the line of duty - with the arrangement compounded by Artie's ongoing investigation into the drug kingpin (Tony Plana's Beniamino) responsible for Steve's death. There's ultimately not a whole lot within One Good Cop for the viewer to enthusiastically embrace, as writer/director Heywood Gould employs an almost disastrously deliberate pace that prevents one from connecting to either the material or the characters - with the movie's less-than-engrossing vibe compounded by a lack of authenticity and a needless undercurrent of eye-rolling sentimentality. Gould's continued emphasis on the nitty-gritty of Artie's efforts at caring for his partner's kids is, to put it mildly, misguided, and it's clear, too, that the filmmaker's inability to effectively develop the narrative ensures that the slow atmosphere often borders on interminable. And although the movie does boast a handful of positive attributes, including a typically strong Keaton performance and a smattering of engaging sequences (eg Artie single-handedly robs a roomful of armed drug dealers), One Good Cop's movie-of-the-week approach ultimately prevents it from achieving anything even close to liftoff.
A surprisingly decent little horror film, Unfriended transpires entirely from the point of view of Blaire's (Shelley Hennig) laptop computer and follows the character as she and five Skyping friends slowly come to the realization that they're being haunted by a dead classmate. It's about as gimmicky a premise as one could envision and yet Unfriended, for the most part, comes off as a tight, fast-paced chiller, with filmmaker Levan Gabriadze effectively placing the movie's impressively well-developed characters into a scenario that grows more and more compelling as time progresses. It's clear, too, that the progressively engrossing atmosphere is heightened by the sporadic inclusion of creepy interludes, including a palpably tense segment in which a seemingly frozen screen turns out not to be quite so frozen after all. The computer-based POV does, however, ensure that Unfriended suffers from a handful of narrative lulls, with the less-than-consistent vibe compounded by relentlessly choppy Skype video that may be authentic but is also, from time to time, infuriating. The increasingly grim final stretch renders such deficiencies moot, however, and Unfriended ultimately is, silly final shot notwithstanding, one of the more impressive internet-based horror flicks to come around in some time.
Based on 1937's Stella Dallas, Stella follows Bette Midler's title character as she's forced to contend with single parenthood after the baby's father (Stephen Collins' Stephen) moves on - with the movie detailing the rocky relationship that eventually ensues between Stella and her daughter Jenny (played, as an older teenager, by Trini Alvarado). Midler's scenery-chewing turn as the brassy central character remains virtually the only worthwhile element within Stella's overlong running time, as the movie suffers from a fairly stale narrative that's compounded by an absence of compelling supporting figures and an often unreasonably deliberate pace. (It's difficult, in terms of the former, not to get a kick out of Ben Stiller's turn as Jenny's punk boyfriend, admittedly.) Scripter Robert Getchell's decision to employ an aggressively episodic narrative compounds the movie's interminable vibe, to be sure, and there's little doubt that Stella is rife with sequences and interludes that are either hackneyed beyond belief or hopelessly padded-out. It is, as such, not surprising to note that the film's sense of momentum is almost non-existent, which, in turn, ensures that the emotional revelations of Stella's final stretch simply aren't able to make the emotional impact one might've expected. And while the love/hate relationship between Midler and Alvarado's respective characters feels authentic, Stella is, in the end, foiled by a host of negative attributes that conspire to cement the movie's place as a seriously dull little drama.
The degree to which Playing God simply doesn't work is, quite frankly, astonishing, as the movie boasts a workable premise and a roster of undeniably talented performers - with the film's downfall due mostly to director Andy Wilson's often incompetent visuals and Mark Haskell Smith's erratic, less-than-coherent screenplay. The storyline follows disgraced doctor Eugene Sands (David Duchovny) as he agrees to provide private medical care for a local mobster's (Timothy Hutton's Raymond Blossom) friends and foes, with problems ensuing as Eugene finds himself targeted by an overzealous FBI agent (Michael Massee's Gage) desperate to take down Hutton's smarmy character. (It doesn't help, either, that Eugene begins falling for Raymond's very-much-off-limits girlfriend, played by Angelina Jolie.) The somewhat promising setup is squandered almost immediately by Wilson and Smith, as Playing God contains a surfeit of questionable elements that wreak havoc on its progressively tenuous momentum - with the movie's less-than-engrossing atmosphere taking, as improbable as it seems, a sharp turn downwards in its final stretch (ie the shift from an episodic drama to an on-the-run thriller is handled poorly, to put it mildly). Duchovny's typically charismatic work as the muddled protagonist remains a rare bright spot within the otherwise grim proceedings, and it's ultimately not difficult to see why the movie has been forgotten in the years since its theatrical release.
The 5th Wave
Based on the novel by Rick Yancey, The 5th Wave details the chaos that naturally ensues when malevolent aliens park their enormous ships over earth and subsequently begin exterminating the human population - with the narrative following Chloë Grace Moretz's Cassie Sullivan as she attempts to stay alive while also searching for her missing brother (Zackary Arthur's Sam). There's little doubt that The 5th Wave, before it devolves into total irrelevance, gets off to a decidedly fantastic start, as filmmaker J Blakeson does an effective job of depicting the unexpectedly frightening early stages of the aforementioned alien invasion (eg a plane falls out of the sky, entire cities are submerged in water, etc). It's distressing to note, then, that the movie, past a certain point, morphs into an all-too-typical post-apocalyptic teen thriller, with scripters Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldsman, and Jeff Pinkner placing an increased emphasis on elements of a decidedly hackneyed elements. (There's even a love triangle, for crying out loud!) The less-than-captivating atmosphere is compounded by a proliferation of almost comically bland and generic side characters, with the best/worst example of this a tough-as-nails goth chick with a penchant for one-liners and absurd amounts of black eyeliner. (Where is she getting all her makeup from, exactly?) And although an admittedly decent third-act twist injects some life into the pervasively tedious proceedings, The 5th Wave ultimately falls right in line with such by-the-numbers young-adult fare as the Hunger Games and Divergent series - with the movie's open conclusion sure to provoke groans and eye-rolls from even the hardiest of audience members.
Based on the novel by Nicolas Sparks, The Choice follows laid-back Southerner Travis Shaw (Benjamin Walker) as he finds himself falling for his next-door neighbor (Teresa Palmer's Gabby) - despite the fact that he's dating Alexandra Daddario's Monica and she's seeing Tom Welling's Ryan. There's little doubt that The Choice contains many of the elements generally associated with Sparks' endeavors, with the movie dwelling on the unabashedly idealized relationship between Walker and Palmer's respective characters to a degree that is, at times, oppressive and palpably padded-out (ie even the book didn't spend this much time on the will-they-or-won't-they question). It helps, then, that the two leads share a sense of genuine chemistry that ensures their scenes together are effective (and, occasionally, affecting), and it's clear, too, that the movie benefits substantially from an unusually strong supporting cast that includes, among others, Tom Welling, Alexandra Daddario, and Tom Wilkinson. (It goes without saying that the latter is typically superb.) The watchable vibe is heightened by the ongoing inclusion of unexpectedly poignant moments and sequences, with the final stretch certainly rife with interludes designed to elicit an emotional response from the viewer (including an unexpectedly moving graveside conversation). The Choice does, in the end, fall right in line with the various Sparks adaptations that have preceded it, which ultimately ensures that the film succeeds in its own far-from-ambitious way (ie there's nothing here that's going to win over detractors).
How to Be Single
How to Be Single details the exploits of several New York City-based single ladies and their ongoing efforts to find happiness in both their professional and personal lives, with a particular emphasis on the comings and goings of Dakota Johnson's Alice, Rebel Wilson's Robin, Leslie Mann's Meg, and Alison Brie's Lucy. Filmmaker Christian Ditter has infused How to Be Single with a bright, vibrant, and thoroughly fast-paced feel that proves effective at instantly capturing one's interest, with the early part of the proceedings faring especially well due mostly to the often laugh-out-loud screenplay and plethora of affable performances. (In addition to the aforementioned stars, the picture also boasts appearances by charismatic figures as Jake Lacy, Damon Wayans Jr, Jason Mantzoukas, and Anders Holm.) It's clear, then, that the script's sitcom-level approach to the subject matter fares much better than one might've anticipated, although there's no denying that, at a ludicrously overlong running time of 110 minutes, How to Be Single does peter out to an increasingly palpable degree as it progresses - with, especially, the movie's final third relying far too heavily on hackneyed sequences that are either egregiously padded-out or completely needless (eg a character frantically races to the hospital). The film does, at least, recover for a sweet and satisfying final stretch that ensures one leaves the proceedings on a decidedly positive note, and it's ultimately clear that How to Be Single stands as a fairly run-of-the-mill romantic comedy that's elevated by an appreciatively energetic approach.
Undoubtedly one of the new century's few effective comic-book adaptations, Deadpool follows Ryan Reynolds' Wade Wilson as he's forcefully transformed into the superpowered title character by a vicious underworld figure named Ajax (Ed Skrein) - with the movie, surprisingly enough, emphasizing Wade's efforts to reunite with his former girlfriend, Morena Baccarin's Vanessa. It's that latter aspect of the proceedings that ultimately elevates Deadpool above its big-budget brethren, as the movie possesses a comparatively down-to-earth feel that generally proves impossible to resist - with this vibe certainly heightened by Reynolds' perpetually affable turn as both Wade Wilson and Deadpool. (It's interesting to note, however, that the movie is at its best when focused on the former, as the latter comes off as a rather over-the-top figure that works best in small doses.) There's little doubt, as well, that Deadpool benefits from an impressively (and appreciatively) pared-down narrative, as the film, in stark comparison to most bloated comic-book movies, primarily concerns itself with the exploits of a small handful of characters and isn't bogged down with a myriad of subplots involving one-dimensional, underdeveloped figures (eg the Avengers series). It's disappointing to note, then, that director Tim Miller can't help but indulge in genre conventions during the movie's overblown, CGI-heavy climax, which ultimately does ensure that Deadpool concludes on a decidedly less-than-enthralling note - and yet Miller's inability to stick the landing can't entirely diminish what is mostly a solid big-budget extravaganza.
Kill Me Three Times
Kill Me Three Times follows professional assassin Charlie Wolfe (Simon Pegg) as he finds himself tied up in the double-crossing antics of several oddball characters, including a mild-mannered dentist (Sullivan Stapleton's Nathan) and his scheming wife (Teresa Palmer's Lucy), a vicious, crooked police officer (Bryan Brown's Bruce), and an adulterous couple (Alice Braga's Alice and Luke Hemsworth's Dylan) on the run from her abusive husband (Callan Mulvey's Jack). It's a busy storyline that's perpetuated by a time-shifting, non-linear narrative, and it's clear that director Kriv Stenders' initial efforts at luring the viewer into the decidedly familiar proceedings fall somewhat flat (ie the movie's first half is just slow-paced and forgettable). Scripter James McFarland's less-than-innovative approach to the material ensures that Kill Me Three Times takes an awfully long time to get going, although, to be fair, the film does benefit from an assortment of affable performances and a smattering of better-than-expected sequences. There's little doubt, as well, that the movie improves immeasurably as it progresses into its everything-goes-south third act, with the increasingly frantic atmosphere paving the way for a violent final stretch that's as ludicrous as it is entertaining - which ensures that Kill Me Three Times, at the very least, ends on an almost impressively positive note.
An entertaining, informative documentary, Casting By details the invaluable and surprisingly intricate role that casting directors play in the production of movies and television shows - with the movie placing a specific emphasis on the life and career of one such individual, Marion Dougherty. Filmmaker Tom Donahue offers up an all-encompassing look at the casting process and its evolution from the earliest days of cinema to the 21st century, which the director accomplishes through a series of fascinating clips and interviews. In terms of the latter, Casting By features appearances by a number of well-known figures in the casting profession - including, in addition to Dougherty, Ellen Lewis, John Papsidera, Ellen Chenoweth, and Lynn Stalmaster. (This is in addition to the myriad of sound bites from familiar faces like Woody Allen, Jeff Bridges, Glenn Close, and Clint Eastwood.) It's clear, too, that the proliferation of interesting (and often funny) anecdotes plays a key role in perpetuating the movie's engrossing atmosphere, with two notable examples a story of Jon Voight almost losing his Midnight Cowboy role to Michael Sarrazin and Jeff Bridges' tale of his very first on-screen role. The film even boasts a "bad guy" in the guise of filmmaker Taylor Hackford, as the director offers up a series of sound bites downplaying the efforts of casting directors (and even their right to call themselves casting directors!) Really, though, Casting By's success is due primarily to the inherently compelling nature of Dougherty's story - with the unexpectedly poignant final stretch confirming the film's place as a superior documentary.