Mini Reviews (February 2017)
Rings, Sleepless, Bleed, Trolls, The Salesman, XX
Rings (February 7/17)
An entirely needless followup to The Ring and The Ring Two, Rings follows perky coed Julia (Matilda Lutz) as she inexplicably watches the infamous cursed video and subsequently must solve its mysteries before her seven days are up - with the bulk of the movie oh-so-tediously detailing Julia's investigation into Samara's tragic past. The degree to which Rings ultimately crashes and burns is somewhat disappointing, surprisingly enough, given that the movie boasts an impressively captivating pre-credits sequence set aboard an airplane (where a soon-to-be-victim learns that there really is nowhere to hide from Samara). It's a solid opening that is in absolutely no way indicative of what's to come, as the movie, written by David Loucka, Jacob Estes, and Akiva Goldsman, segues into a midsection that's devoted almost entirely to Julia's aforementioned investigation - with the heavy, heavy emphasis on this ensuring that Rings predominantly comes off as a weak rehash of the 2002 original. There's little doubt, as well, that filmmaker F. Javier Gutiérrez's decision to bathe the proceedings in often impenetrable darkness contributes heavily to the nigh unwatchable vibe, while the hilariously misguided third act, which introduces an entirely pointless human villain, ensures that Rings ends on as negative a note as one could possibly envision. (This is despite a final few minutes that clearly should've been the starting point for the picture.)
Sleepless (February 7/17)
Based on 2011's Sleepless Night, Sleepless follows grizzled cop Vincent Downs (Jamie Foxx) as he embarks on a violent quest to save his son from the clutches of a sinister criminal (Scoot McNairy's Novak) - with the movie transpiring mostly within the confines of a typically expansive Las Vegas casino. Filmmaker Baran bo Odar, making his English-language debut here, delivers an opening stretch that doesn't exactly bode well for what's to come, as the narrative emphasizes the surprisingly complicated antics of a whole raft of scarcely-developed characters - including Dermot Mulroney's sketchy casino owner, Michelle Monaghan and David Harbour's dogged federal officers, and Gabrielle Union's concerned nurse. The ensuing multitude of subplots does prevent the viewer from wholeheartedly embracing the central protagonist's plight, and yet there does reach a point at which the various threads begin to converge and the plot appreciatively streamlines - which paves the way for an impressively propulsive midsection that's rife with tense, action-packed sequences. (There is, for example, an exciting hand-to-hand fight in a kitchen that ultimately stands as a highlight.) And although the film hits a lull in the buildup to its third act (ie the wheel-spinning is palpable), Sleepless concludes with a stirring, surprising climax that effectively cements its place as an uneven yet entertaining contemporary actioner (albeit one that's right in line with its equally erratic predecessor).
Bleed (February 13/17)
Almost entirely devoid of positive attributes, Bleed follows married couple Sarah (Chelsey Crisp) and Matt (Michael Steger) as they move to a small town in anticipation of the birth of their first child - with the narrative subsequently detailing the couple's ill-fated decision, alongside four less-than-developed periphery figures, to explore a nearby abandoned prison. It's clear right from the get-go that filmmaker Tripp Rhame is either unable to unwilling to draw the viewer into the proceedings, as the director, working from Ben Jacoby's thin screenplay, delivers a narrative that's almost entirely lacking in interesting, three-dimensional characters (ie these are all stock figures that could only exist in a horror movie). The less-than-involving atmosphere is compounded by a storyline that grows increasingly surreal as it stumbles along, with the emphasis on is-it-real-or-is-it-just-in-their-heads shenanigans exacerbating the picture's far-from-terrifying vibe and ensuring that one's patience is tested to a progressively palpable extent. By the time the predictably underwhelming climax rolls around, Bleed has long-since confirmed its place as a misguided and hopelessly nonsensical endeavor that's as close to the bottom of the barrel as one can easily recall.
no stars out of
Trolls (February 20/17)
Inspired by a decades-old line of toys, Trolls transpires within a magical land where the happy-go-lucky title creatures reside alongside much bigger, nastier monsters known as the Bergens - with the latter deriving their only happiness from eating the former. The Trolls, having spent 20 years hiding from the Bergens, decide to throw a big, loud bash that ultimately alerts one of the Bergens' most fearsome figures (Christine Baranski's Chef) to their whereabouts - which results in several Trolls being kidnapped by Baranski's hateful character. This forces protagonist Poppy (Anna Kendrick) and Justin Timberlake's less-than-optimistic Branch to embark on a quest to bring their abducted comrades home, with the journey, naturally, fraught with obstacles and complications along the way. It's perhaps not surprising to note, particularly given the origins of the eponymous creatures, that Trolls has been unapologetically geared towards very young viewers, as the movie, directed by Walt Dohrn and Mike Mitchell, boasts a bright, colorful, and ridiculously fast-paced sensibility that's sure to hold the attention of even the most twitchy of children - with the film's decidedly goofy atmosphere, at least, ensuring that it remains tolerable for the duration of its appropriately brisk runtime. The ongoing emphasis on charming musical numbers and oddball (yet funny) subplots effectively keeps things interesting, and yet it's worth noting that Trolls does begin to peter out once it passes the one-hour mark - with the movie eventually (and inevitably) progressing into a spinning-its-wheels third act that's rife with time-wasting elements (including an eye-rollingly ineffective melodramatic stretch). The larger-than-life, almost insanely upbeat finale ensures that Trolls ends on a positive note, at least, although it's ultimately difficult to imagine older viewers finding much here to get truly worked up over.
The Salesman (February 23/17)
A typically ineffective drama from Asghar Farhadi, The Salesman follows couple Emad (Shahab Hosseini) and Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) as a structural problem forces them to hastily track down a new apartment in which to live - with problems ensuing as the former owner of said apartment's less-than-savory lifestyle eventually comes back to haunt Emad and Rana. Writer/director Farhadi has infused The Salesman with an expectedly deliberate pace that prevents one from connecting with the material or the characters, with the far-than-engrossing atmosphere compounded by a repetitive midsection detailing Emad and Rana's attempts at overcoming a personal tragedy. It's clear, too, that the hands-off vibe is perpetuated by Farhadi's ongoing reliance on one-note, one-dimensional characters (ie everyone here is just so grim and depressed), which ultimately does ensure that it becomes more and more difficult to work up any real sympathy for the protagonists' exploits. And although Farhadi has peppered the proceedings with a handful of striking sequences - eg Emad confronts the man responsible for a transgression against his wife - The Salesman's pervasively erratic, meandering diminishes the potential impact of its third-act revelations and, in the end, confirms the movie's place as just another potentially intriguing premise squandered by Farhadi's less-than-focused modus operandi.
XX (February 23/17)
As is generally the case with horror anthologies, XX suffers from a wildly uneven feel that ultimately renders its positive attributes moot - which is a shame, really, given that the movie does boast a number of above-average elements. The film kicks off with Jovanka Vuckovic's adaptation of Jack Ketchum's The Box, with the narrative following a young boy (Peter DaCunha's Danny) who stops eating after glimpsing the contents of a random stranger's gift-wrapped box. It's an intriguing premise that's initially employed to striking effect by Vuckovic, with the slow-burn atmosphere proving an ideal complement to the progressively ominous material. (This is despite the ongoing ambivalence of Danny's parents towards his refusal to eat; ie shouldn't they be panicking more?) The short, unfortunately, squanders its good will by ending on an almost comically underwhelming note that leaves far too many questions unanswered. From there, XX progresses into a midsection containing a pair of equally less-than-impressive installments: Annie Clark's The Birthday Cake and Roxanne Benjamin's Don't Fall. (The former feels like a far-from-horrific, padded-out music video, while the latter falls prey to the various tropes one associates with creature-feature type tales). The movie closes with Karyn Kusama's Her Only Living Son and it's ultimately clear that this is the most effective effort in the bunch, with the short, which is eventually revealed as a sequel to a well-known horror property, boasting a compelling subject matter that builds and builds before reaching its appropriately grim finale - which ensures that XX does manage to end on a positive note that's nevertheless unable to compensate for the ineffectiveness of all that came before.