Monday, September 23, 2013

Blue Caprice

Blue Caprice (2013)
Dir. Alexandre Moors

3.5 out of 5

Blue Caprice, Alexandre Moors' debut feature inspired by the 2002 Beltway sniper attacks, begins with a montage of news clips reporting on the random slayings of innocent people by an unidentified gunman (or gunmen) with a high-powered rifle.  However, Moors' interest is not history.  It's banality, a hallmark of this back-to-basics character study of the perpetrators, former Army mechanic John Muhammad (Isaiah Washington) and his teenage accomplice, Lee Malvo (Tequan Richmond).  And although the film has the guts to suggest certain ways in which these men were victimized before the killings started - as a story about an unstable vet who' s rejected by society and spends a lot of time in the woods, Blue Caprice could almost be the parallel universe First Blood - it's not as provocative as it's intended to be.  You feel you've heard this story coming out of Aurora, or Sandy Hook, or the D.C. Navy Yard.  It is not shocking.  It is sadly familiar.

Yet while the real world encroaches too much upon Blue Caprice, it also makes the film feel more urgent.  Moors' convention-bucking premise is solid: this is Lee's story, beginning with his life as a fatherless teen in Antigua, where he meets John, a middle-aged man who strikes the posture of a father figure: charismatic, funny, dispenser of discipline and knowledge about the ways of the world.  Their relationship evolves into a nightmarish ballad of toxic family values over the next 90 minutes, with Lee's wounded stoicism making him especially susceptible to John's sadistic combination of parenting and brainwashing.  There's also an ultimately meaningless forensic side of the story, which comes into play briefly in the form of John's scraggly Army buddy, played by Tim Blake Nelson, who starts to question the duo's enthusiasm for target practice at the behest of his wife (Joey Lauren Adams, in full-on trailer trash mode) and, perhaps, on behalf of the audience.  Both actors do fine work, but such characters aren't really necessary in a film that's so fundamentally voyeuristic.

Then again, maybe it only feels that way because of how brilliant Washington and Richmond are, each of them nailing the complexities of the monsters they portray.  Washington has the flashier performance - rambling, bitter, and paranoid but also calculating, harping on the need to eradicate "vampires" like the people who testified against him in a child custody case - but Richmond wrestles the spotlight away by the end, conveying Lee's transformation into a facsimile of his seducer in less than 50 lines of dialogue.  Directing from a script by fellow first-timer R.F.I. Porto, Moors ultimately structures Blue Caprice as a tale of lost innocence, something he attempts to equate with the frighteningly casual nature of the current epoch in American violence, from the bar TVs blaring dispatches from the Afghan war to John and Lee's cavalier selection of murder targets to the chilling shots of the titular vehicle silently cruising the Beltway for more victims.  In the end, Blue Caprice takes a few steps beyond its sensational set-up to say something meaningful about the informality of evil (neither Muhammad's nor Malvo's last name is ever mentioned), even if its conclusions, like the subject matter, seem all too common.

Monday, September 16, 2013

A Single Shot

A Single Shot (2013)
Dir. David M. Rosenthal

3.5 out of 5

A deadly mistake begets even more bloodshed in A Single Shot, a twisty rural gothic thriller that begins with a mostly wordless 12-minute sequence of impoverished hunter John Moon (Sam Rockwell) stalking deer through the woods of upstate New York when he accidentally shoots and kills a young woman.  It’s a fatal miscalculation that sends John’s life ricocheting out of control as he discovers a massive wad of cash at the woman’s hidden campsite.  Believing that the money will convince his estranged wife (Kelly Reilly) to reunite their family, John decides to embrace this sudden windfall while covering up the accident.  However, his sudden fortune immediately arouses suspicion in his small town and attracts the attention of the vicious criminals searching for their missing loot. 

A Single Shot is based on the book of the same name by Matthew F. Jones, who also wrote the screenplay, preserving a rigidly effective dramatic structure that director David M. Rosenthal rarely finds reason to deviate from.  That sense of restraint keeps the film grounded even as it threatens to tread into more hackneyed territory: the ordinary man forced to play vigilante detective; the hunter becoming the hunted.  Instead, Jones and Rosenthal focus on the tension between John’s kinder aspirations and the legitimate character defects that prevent him from achieving his goals.  In some ways, John is just as greedy and venal as any henchman of the backwoods kingpin (Jason Isaacs) calling for his blood, running the movie into a morally gray area as it unfurls the full consequences of his actions.

Still, there are times when the filmmakers fail to make these actions a compelling conduit for drama, settling for characters who mostly serve to provide insight into John’s obvious inner turmoil.  (The flirty farmer’s daughter serves who acts as a catalyst for his “good” side might just as wear a sign that reads “damsel in distress.”)  And Rosenthal can’t resist underlining his thesis, particularly when the town’s folksy lawyer (a wonderful William H. Macy) notes that it’s better for a man to be upfront about his misdeeds rather than find himself backed into a corner.  Luckily, Rockwell gives a transcendent performance that requires him to deviate from his slippery, motor-mouthed persona.  Quiet and relentless and direct to a fault, he embodies a kind of justice that A Single Shot suggests is beyond the boundaries of man’s law, instead located in the immutable laws of nature that judge even the penitent harshly.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

You're Next

You're Next (2013)
Dir. Adam Wingard

4 out of 5

For a good portion of the breezy new horror flick You’re Next, the biggest threat to domestic tranquility seems to be lurking within the film’s only location, a cavernous country mansion, not just from one of the masked home invaders who’s managed to stow away inside the house, but from the emotional games played by the warring siblings (and significant others) of an affluent Middle American clan.  Their petty rivalries snap into focus as the Davison family gathers at their tranquil estate for a big family get-together that, for reasons kept secret until the movie’s third act, devolves into murderous chaos at the hands of several masked home invaders.

There’s parents Paul (Rob Moran) and Aubrey (Barbara Crampton), who have retired comfortably after Paul's long career in the defense industry.  Eldest son Drake (mumblecore icon Joe Swanberg), a douchey charmer with a prickly wife (Margaret Laney), still gets his kicks by bullying his bookish brother Crispian (A.J. Bowen), now a college professor who’s shacked up with Erin (Sharni Vinson), a fetching former student.  And it turns out to be quite the weekend for introductions: their bubbly sister Aimee (UpstreamColor’s Amy Seimetz) shows up with her new boyfriend, filmmaker Tariq (horror wunderkind Ti West), and baby brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) brings his latest squeeze, a wan hipster-goth girl named Zee (Wendy Glenn).

Does that sound like a lot of characters?  Don’t worry, not all of them will make it to the end.  Taking a page from last year’s The Cabin in the Woods, director Adam Wingard uses the familiar tropes of an overexposed horror subgenre – the home invasion thriller – to comment on the manipulative methods necessary to tell an effectively frightening story.  The fun is in the deception.  Wingard has a blast at playing a gruesome version of Clue, forcing the audience to guess along with the characters as to who will soon join the rapidly mounting body count (and who is ultimately responsible for all those corpses).

And all that family feuding?  It’s critical to setting up the big payoffs of You’re Next’s latter half, which admittedly follows the exhausting, bloody beats of a typical horror finale.  But this time, the perspective has shifted to one of the movie’s “outsider” characters, a person whose development from sideline distraction to rooting interest is impeccably executed.  It’s too bad that this one seems to be slipping by unnoticed:  a rousing, inventive, and fiercely efficient film, You’re Next is a clever antidote to the brainless studio bloodbaths with twice the promotional budget.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Hell Baby

Hell Baby (2013)
Dir. Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant

3 out of 5

"I am so sick of being startled!” shouts an exasperated Rob Corddry in Hell Baby, a genuinely funny farce that lampoons the recent deluge of cookie-cutter demonic possession and haunted house movies.  From writing and directing team Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant (Reno 911!), Hell Baby attempts to take its ribbing a step further than the surface-level parody of the Scary Movie franchise, tapping into the grey matter of horror clich├ęs that, as the movie points out, aren’t so much scary as they are jarring and lazy.  Aside from the aforementioned jab at endless jump scares, there’s Corddry’s vacant wife, Vanessa (Leslie Bibb), who inexplicably begins to exhibit disturbing behavior as soon as the couple moves into a 
spooky New Orleans fixer-upper; a pair of dunderheaded cops (Rob Huebel and Paul Scheer) who have every reason to investigate the strange goings-on, but don’t; and a daffy local squatter named F’Resnel (Keegan Michael Key), who is well-versed in the house’s bloody history but whose only mystical knowledge is where to find the best po-boys in town.

The basic plot concerns two badass, chain-smoking Vatican operatives (Thomas and Garant) investigating “ver-uh wei-urd” religious phenomena around the globe.  They have reason to believe that the pregnant Vanessa is about to give birth to a hellspawn, and try their best to impress the gravity of the situation upon the father-to-be, who’s much too distracted by ancillary threats (like a possibly immortal and completely naked crone running amok through the neighborhood) to focus on more important matters.  That also could describe the movie itself.  Though its loose, lackadaisical structure allows for a greater variety of comic vignettes, it’s padded out with material that dilutes its satirical venom - at a certain point, the recurring “boo!” moments transform from clever meta-joke to the annoying dramatic crutch they are in serious horror films.

The lowbrow humor of Hell Baby is not for everyone, but its comedic reference points will certainly be comforting to its target audience.  The potential of its Adult Swim-meets-Scary Movie hijinks is realized thanks to its sharp cast, from veterans Lennon and Garant generating big laughs with mellifluous monologues equating the history of New Orleans with naked breasts, to the more absurdist Key nearly stealing the movie with his off-kilter line readings and aura of amiable menace.  After a saggy middle portion that often relies on the same tropes it’s lampooning - the less said about Riki Lindhome’s gratuitous nudity, the better - Hell Baby perks up with a finale featuring the long-awaited appearance of the titular bundle of terror.  Here the film finds the energy that’s been missing from of the preceding action: a little bit of inspired silliness and visceral catharsis that goes a long way in satisfying expectations that most parodies - and many horror films, for that matter - fail to meet.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine (2013)
Dir. Woody Allen

3.5 out of 5

Jasmine Francis (Cate Blanchett) is depressed.  She's a long way from the world of wealth and privilege she enjoyed as the wife of Hal Francis (Alec Baldwin), a New York financial scion whose crooked dealings land him in jail.  She's lost her money and most of her possessions to the Feds.  She'd lost Hal to his philandering during their marriage and loses him permanently when he hangs himself in prison.  And, in her mind, she's lost her dignity the day she moves in with her sister Ginger (Sally Hawkins) and her two young boys in their working-class San Francisco flat.  You can see the trainwreck coming from the opening scene, as Jasmine unloads the detailed shambles of her life to a stranger on an airplane in the same chatty tone she used to reserve for her tony Manhattan brunch dates.

Blue Jasmine could have been just another Woody Allen fish-out-of-water dramedy about a suffering intellectual.  Instead, Allen creates a character of fascinating complexity in Jasmine, helped in large part by Blanchett's tour de force performance.  Jasmine initially engenders a sort of face-palming pity as we watch her pretentious bubble burst by the setbacks of day to day life as a vulgar, clock-punching plebeian.  Then, as her story is fleshed out by flashbacks to her pampered past, we see her self-delusion in context.  Her patrician facade masks a deep pain that's visible in the taut lines of her face, as well as a simmering resentment hidden in the breaths she takes before delivering her condescending remarks.   As such, Blanchett delivers one of the more subtle onscreen representations of mental illness.  It's assumed by the other characters to be a symptom of her previous lifestyle, not a pattern of avoidance behavior cultivated over many years of "looking the other way."

Blanchett's performance almost feels too big for the movie it's in.  Allen tries to parallel Jasmine's troubles in Ginger's own problems with men, revolving around the trifecta of her doltish boyfriend (Bobby Cannavale), an awkwardly charming new suitor (Louis C.K.), and her prideful ex-husband (Andrew Dice Clay).  The fact that the subplot doesn't play out quite as you'd expect - in addition to the melancholy tone of Jasmine's story - invites the "Serious Woody" label upon the film.  That said, even Serious Woody enjoys plot contrivances and a general sense of flakiness that sometimes undercuts Blanchett's tremendous work: a scene where Jasmine repels the sexual advances of a creepy dentist (Michael Stuhlbarg) is played for ill-advised, uncomfortable laughs.  Still, Blue Jasmine is not unlike Francis Ha in its honest and mostly sympathetic portrait of a conventionally "difficult" female, torn apart by a world that won't acknowledge a woman's right to be as much of a troubled fuckup as the somesuch men making her life even harder.