Friday, September 25, 2015

Goodnight Mommy

This review originally appeared on

Twin boys enjoying summer explore the corn fields, lake, and caves that surround their remote house. Then they hear a car in their driveway. Mother's home.

Or is she?

That's the basic set-up of this unnerving and ultimately disturbing bit of psychological horror out of Austria. The boys, named Lucas and Elias, are perturbed by their mother's appearance, as well they should be. Her head and face are covered in bandages, and bruises line her eyes. Soon, they begin to realize mother doesn't just look different and scary. She's acting it too, not speaking to one of the boys, insisting on quiet and a dark home, and is so short tempered it borders on abusive. They want to know where their real mother is, and they'll go to extreme lengths to figure it out.

Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh, Ich Seh, or, I See, I See in the original German) could, at first look, be a simple metaphor: Mommy gets a face lift, is cranky — who wouldn't be after that kind of surgery — and her boys simply don't recognize her, since she does, in fact look different. But everything about the house, the countryside, and the boys themselves is creepy. The house is all angles, with stark, white interiors, and large but blurry paintings; the brothers explore a cave filled with bones; one of the boys collects giant roaches in a fish tank. The film unsettles you at every turn.

Eventually, things turn violent, and the movie becomes a variation on the "home invasion" horror movie, a genre whose most disturbing entry, Funny Games, is also from Austria. (Remind me never to Airbnb a house in Austria). Ultimately, what begins as something genuinely creepy and mysterious turns into something a little too visceral and nauseating. (I'll look at Krazy Glue with fear from now on.) When the movie ends, there's a genuine desire to watch it again, to look for those clues you missed the first time. I'm just not sure I could stomach a second viewing.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Enemy Of My Enemy Is My Friend: Black Mass, Reviewed

This review originally appeared on

Black Mass tells the true story of James "Whitey" Bulger (Johnny Depp), who lead a crime ring in Boston in the 1970s and 80s; his brother Billy Bulger (Benedict Cumberbatch), a Massachusetts state senator; and John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), an FBI agent who was childhood friends with the Bulger boys. It's a tale tailor-made for the movies: FBI agent convinces the gangster to help gather information about the Mafia, promising to keep the law off the gangster's back, while the senator brother does what all corrupt politicians do best: lies.

The main appeal of Black Mass is likely seeing Johnny Depp step away from his series of extravagant wacko roles to take on an evil real-life wacko role. Alas, Depp is still playing a character that's way too dependent on make-up. Instead of, say, dreadlocks, or baby smooth skin, we have a bald cap, a thinning white wig, creepy icy blue contacts, and a dead tooth, all on a pale, mottled face. All that, and he still doesn't look much like the real Whitey Bulger, who was always a strapping Irishman, and not the relatively dainty guy Depp is. Instead, Depp looks more like Gary Oldman in the first act of Dracula.


Which isn't to say Depp is terrible in the role. He's does a pretty good job with the Southie accent, and has a few moments that are genuinely evil and creepy. I just couldn't help thinking how any number of other actors could have done it better.

Which is kind of the problem with director Scott Cooper's film in general. You can't make a movie about gangsters, informants, and Whitey Bulger and not be compared to Martin Scorsese, who tackled both subjects in the far batter movies Goodfellas and The Departed.

Like Goodfellas, the movie starts out with narration. It comes from a former Bulger gang member (Jesse Plemons) who has turned state's witness, and is talking about how he met Whitey in the 70's. The narrative is set up like it's going to be told by the informants, then immediately veers away from that conceit by showing us stuff the person supposedly revealing the events would never know. This happens with two more former gang members-turned witnesses. What we're seeing is not through their eyes, and the movie would work the same without it, so why bother?

Needless to say, women don't play much of a role in this boys' club. And, really, I don't have a problem with that; the story is primarily about the three men, and their dealings with each other. But, I'd almost rather have no women in the movie, than what we're given: the usual "Your job means more to you than me!" whining wife (Julianne Nicholson, as Marianne Connelly) and a doomed hooker (Juno Temple), which, aside from a brief appearance by Dakota Johnson as the mother of Bulger's only child, is all we get.

Since the ground covered in Black Mass has been covered before, many, many times, and often much better, I think a moratorium should be placed on stories centered on the rise and and fall of gangsters. Instead, gives us some movies about gangsters after they've made their getaways. I'd love to see Henry Hill ordering those egg noodles with ketchup and then getting into a fight with the delivery boy. And I'd especially love to see a movie about Whitey Bulger, aging fugitive, taking a trip to his former home of Alcatraz with his girlfriend, balls still big enough to pose for this classic tourist photo.


Sleeping With Other People

This review originally appeared on

When does an homage/tribute turn into a copy? Granted, Sleeping With Other People isn't hiding the fact that it owes much to When Harry Met Sally, but I was amazed by just how much.

Jason Sudekis and Allison Brie star as college students who lose their virginity to each other during a one night stand, go their separate ways, and then meet again years later in New York. Brie's Lainey is a grade school teacher with a serious love addiction to an unavailable man (played Adam Scott). Sudekis's Jake is a self-professed womanizer who just sold an app or something for a ton of cash. After they re-meet they decide any kind of romantic involvement with each other would be bad for both of them, but they still end up spending all their free time together platonically, shopping for Christmas presents, walking through the park, going to parties, and running into exes. The only thing missing is a soundtrack full of old standards. (Instead we get some forgettable modern tunes and one David Bowie classic.)

What Sleeping With Other People has that When Harry Met Sally doesn't have is the sleeping with people part. There's a lot of sex in this movie, and a lot of talk about sex. Where Harry and Sally have a fake orgasm moment in a deli, we instead get Jake explaining female masturbation to Lainey, who has apparently never done it (!?). First, please. And second, let me just say that the way he demonstrates how to do it? Makes no sense since he's showing her from an angle that only another person, not a solo wanker, would be able to use. I'll just leave it at that.

Allison Brie, who deserves to make the break from TV (Community; Mad Men) to big screen stardom is lovely, funny, and sad in the role of Lainey. She's probably the best thing about the movie. And while I know I should like Jason Sudekis — he's also funny and is a fine actor — there's still something about him that continues to rub me the wrong way.

Sleeping With Other People isn't terrible, it's just unnecessary. Which, come to think of it, probably often applies in real life as well.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Visit

This review originally appeared on

The good news is, M. Night Shyamalan has made his best movie in years. The bad news is, it's another damned found footage horror movie.

The divorced mother (Kathryn Hahn) of Rebecca (Olivia DeJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) had a falling out with her parents when she left home at 19, and hasn't seen them since. But after receiving a phone call from them wishing to meet their grandchildren, mom has a change of heart and allows a week-long visit. (This time apart also allows her to take an extended cruise with her boyfriend.)

Rebecca is an aspiring filmmaker, and decides to film the entire event and turn it into a documentary — hence the found footage conceit. I will grant Rebecca this: She has the presence of mind to set her cameras up on tripods and other solid surfaces much of the time, so the movie has a little less of the shaky, vomit-inducing camera work of the majority of the genre. As a teenage filmmaker, Rebecca is also pleasantly pretentious as she narrates her footage, (but the less said of brother Tyler's rapping, the better).

At first, Nana (Deanna Dunagan) and Pop Pop (Peter McRobbie) seem nice, if a little distracted. Nana loves to cook, and Pop Pop putters around their farm, chopping wood and trekking out to the shed. A lot. But then, bed time arrives, (at 9:30 p.m. which is simply appalling to the wifi-less kids), and things start to get weird.

The first real scare of the movie is genuinely startling, because it's so weird. But as the movie progresses, Shyamalan tends to rely too much on conventional frights: faces suddenly appearing on screen and images of a long-haired woman crawling across the floor straight out of numerous Japanese and now, too many American, horror movies.

As the visit, and The Visit progresses, it's clear there's something seriously wrong with the grandparents. The film plays up on fears many people have of the elderly, from dementia to incontinence (and hoo boy, does that bit have a disgusting payoff) that, unfortunately, at times borders on a distasteful prejudice. That the kids have some genuine mental issues of their own to deal with adds to the feeling that this is one fucked up family line, and anything could happen.

The twist — this is M. Night Shyamalan, of course there's a twist — isn't as ridiculous as Shyamalan at his worst, and works perfectly well for the story, even if it's hammered home more than it needs to be. While both actors playing the grandparents are great, I have to single out Deanna Dugan's portrayal of the grandmother. She does some really spooky and...revealing stuff in the movie, and doesn't hold back.

This Sunday is, probably no coincidence, Grandparents Day. If you plan on seeing yours to celebrate it, maybe do yourself a favor, and save a viewing of The Visit for some time afterwards. That way you won't get freaked out if grandma asks you to help clean the oven after dinner.

Friday, September 4, 2015

A Walk In the Woods

This review originally appeared on

I read Bill Bryson's A Walk In the Woods right after I read Cheryl Strayed's Wild, and it was the perfect counterpoint: fewer dying moms, more funny moments communing with nature. It's such a funny book it seems like it would be a pretty easy job to translate to the screen, which is something star Robert Redford has been trying to do for about 10 years, originally hoping to team up with his best loved co-star Paul Newman.

Obviously, that didn't pan out. Instead we have Redford paired with Nick Nolte in a movie that is supposed to be a comedy, but fails completely and utterly to be funny.

Maybe the first problem is that the Bryson who originally attempted to walk the over 2,000 miles of the Appalachian Trail was a middle-aged guy in his 40's. Redford and Nolte are in their 70's. Even if they're supposed to be, say, 15 years younger in the movie (ha, nice try, if so), it still changes the tone from "This idea is folly! You aren't in your 20's anymore you know," to "Oh god you're both gonna die." Pratfalls lose their comedic edge when all you can think about is broken hips.

I'll grant that in some ways the casting of Nick Nolte as Katz seems perfect; I can think of few actors who you can take one look at and instantly think: This guy is in no condition to walk across the street let alone two thousand miles. The problem is, it's uncomfortable to watch. Nolte's face is perpetually crimson; he doesn't walk, he stumbles; and his gravelly voice has gotten so rough that at times it's impossible to understand what he's saying. It's like watching a heart attack personified.

Both Redford and Nolte have been in comedies — some good ones! — before. But they have no comedic chemistry at all, and throughout the film, they come off like actors who have zero understanding of comedic timing. Perhaps this is the fault of the director Ken Kwapis, or screenwriters Rick Kerb and Bill Holderman. All I know is two hours of Redford just sitting on screen reading the book out loud would yield more laughs than this movie does.