Friday, August 26, 2016

'Don't Breathe' Goes Where Most Modern Horror Movies Won't

This review originally appeared on

In a scene near the beginning of Don't Breathe, our three teenage antiheroes are sitting in a car, casing the next house they're going to rob. It's owned by a recluse who won a large settlement after his daughter was killed by a wealthy drunk driver, and the presumption is the money is in his house, which is the only occupied residence in a completely desolate and crumbling Detroit neighborhood. The recluse is also a war veteran, and blind. As they're watching, the blind man walks out of this house to take his giant Rottweiler for a walk.

Smart robbers would take that opportunity — the one time they know the guy isn't home — to enter and rob the house. Instead, the teenager named Money (Daniel Zovatto) says, "Let's do it tonight."

For all its twists, masterful suspense, and flipping of genre conventions, Don't Breathe still deals with horror movie characters, and a horror movie just can't get very far unless its characters do stupid things — like deciding to rob a house when they're positive the homeowner is actually in it.

Which isn't to say these kids don't have a plan. Nice guy Zack (Dylan Minnette) has a father who works for a security company, and thus has easy access to house keys and security codes; Rocky (Janey Levy) is handy because she's a tiny girl who can fit through small spaces; and Money? Well, he's the tattooed bad boy who brings a gun to a robbery, thus giving a homeowner perfectly legal recourse to shoot them all in self defense. Whoops!

The movie tests the audience's alliances well at the beginning. You can kind of side with the kids because they're stuck in Detroit, and, at least in the case of Rocky, have terrible (to the point of cliché) home lives. They just want one more score so they can get out of Michigan and start over in California! On the other hand, they're robbing a blind war veteran who lost his only child to a tragedy!

Director Fede Alvarez, probably best known for his 2013 remake of The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi also returns as producer), steps back from the ultra gore of that film, sticking primarily with pure suspense. There's a great scene when the kids first enter the house that feels like an endless take, as the camera follows them in and out of rooms, and up and down stairs; it's a great way to ground the audience in what will be the movie's primary setting.

Stephen Lang, as the nameless Blind Man, is genius casting. At first he appears pretty feeble — he's got gray hair and stubble, and those ghostly, milky eyes. But then, as he's stumbling around in the dark, you notice this old guy is! (Seriously. Stephen Lang is 64 years old and is in better shape than either of the younger guys in the movie.)

While Alvarez doesn't completely avoid the genre's love for loud jump scares (they usually happen in the form of that aforementioned Rottweiler), I did appreciate how much of the film's suspense relied on quiet and darkness. The need for both the intruders and the Blind Man to remain totally quiet to avoid detection means a lot of the film's biggest scares come from the Blind Man suddenly appearing in the background, thiiiiiiis close to one of the kids, neither of them aware of the other's proximity.

Don't Breathe isn't perfect. It has one too many endings and a scene that probably goes too far into the realm of the disgusting. (I still haven't decided if I hated that moment, or appreciated its audacity). But those are small criticisms for a movie that made me hold my breath more than once, and managed to take suspense to heights most modern horror movies don't even bother with anymore.

Friday, August 19, 2016

War Dogs Is A Derivative Pack Of One-Note Antiheroes

This review originally appeared on

Imagine you're a guy who became somewhat famous, or perhaps even infamous, and you've just found out a major motion picture is going to be made based on that part of your life. Exciting!

"This is amazing!" you say to the producer. "Who's going to play me? Oooh. Let me guess. George Clooney? Leonardo DiCaprio?....Brad Pitt?!...No? OK, who then?"

"Close!" says the producer, "He's a huge star. I know you're going to be pleased. It's...JONAH HILL!"


You hang up the phone.

This is a conversation I like to imagine has happened four times in the last five years, as Jonah Hill has played four characters inspired by real people, in the films Moneyball, The Wolf of Wall Street, True Story, and now War Dogs. And while none of those real men resemble Clooney, Pitt, or, DiCaprio, they also don't look much like Jonah Hill.

It's not just the looks thing, though. Everyone loves a good character actor, including me! It's just that Hill has built such a career on playing really, really unlikable guys, that I imagine anyone learning he was going to be bringing their story to the screen would have to stifle a feeling of dread that for the rest of their lives, their name will be associated with another repulsive Jonah Hill character.

And he's pretty repulsive in War Dogs. He stars as Efraim Diveroli, a not so-nice Jewish boy from Miami who has figured out how to make millions via the U.S. government by bidding on contracts posted on FedBizOps, a government-run website where anyone can bid on government jobs, some of which include arms procurement. (It's actually a pretty fascinating site to peruse. I'm thinking of making a bid for this Removal of Accumulated Sludge job, who's with me?!)

Efraim takes advantage of the "gray market," which is basically the government saying, "We need a shit ton of weapons and ammo, and we don't care where you get it, as long as it's cheap. Also, don't let us know about it if it's not exactly legally acquired."

Efraim recruits his childhood friend David Packouz (Miles Teller), and it's David who is supposed to be the moral center of the film. He narrates the action, and is presented as a good guy who, after years working as a masseur and a failed venture to sell bed sheets to rest homes, is quickly seduced by Efraim and his wads of cash. As an added "nice guy" bonus he's also got a girlfriend (Ana de Armas) and child, although that girlfriend role isn't much more than her saying, "David, I trust you" and then "David, how COULD YOU?" over and over again.

But David and Efraim aren't really good guys. They make money off wars they both claim they're against, ripping off poor working stiffs in battle-beaten countries in the process. They hold meetings at strip clubs because of course they do. Efraim spends most of his earnings on hookers and blow.

And sure, antiheroes usually aren't nice guys. All you need to do is watch the movies director Todd Phillips constantly references over and over (particularly Scarface and GoodFellas) to know that. But when presented well, antiheroes are also complex, and David and Efraim are anything but. The closest thing to a moral dilemma David comes to is asking if what they're doing is legal, and then shrugging after Efraim says, "Well, it's not illegal." And Efraim? Well, he's just a flat out scumbag who thinks he's a lot funnier than he actually is.

Director Todd Phillips, best known for the Hangover films, really wants War Dogs to be as good as the movies that are his very clear influences. But his incessant use of freeze-frames, voiceovers, and classic rock songs is instead just a reminder that this has all been done before, with much more finesse and nuance, in much better films.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins Is More Than Just Hilariously Bad Singing

This review originally appeared on

Remember when Meryl Streep was the queen of drama? When any movie in which she shed a tear was guaranteed to garner her an Oscar nomination, and often the prize itself? (A running joke in my family come Oscar time has always been, "Why was Meryl Streep nominated again? Oh yeah. Because she was in a movie.")

But lately her career has changed course, in much the same way her equally lauded male contemporary Robert DeNiro's has: They're both starring in a lot of comedies. Of course that's where the similarity basically ends, since Streep's comedies have been consistently better than DeNiro's — although I will defend The Intern until my dying day.

Florence Foster Jenkins is the latest Meryl Streep summer comedy, and it's a pleasant, and at times touching little gem based on a true story. Streep is the titular Florence, a very rich patron of the arts with an undying passion for music. Once a child prodigy pianist, after an illness left her with nerve damage, her piano playing was replaced with singing, for which she had considerably less talent.

With nothing but time, money, and a love for music that drives every aspect of her life, Florence decides to perform a concert, and hires aspiring composer Cosme McMoon (Simon Helberg) as her piano accompanist. Helberg is best known for his role on TV's The Big Bang Theory, but I think his talents shine brighter here. Much of the movie's comedy depends on his reactions to Florence and her voice, which he states "defies medical science," and he manages to get a laugh every time.

Hugh Grant costars as St. Clair Bayfield, Florence's husband. He's the perfect counterpoint to Helberg's incredulous pianist, a husband who is both completely supportive of Florence's aspirations, and fiercely protective. There's more to their marriage than first appears, and director Stephen Frears does a good job of balancing the sadness inherent in their story with the very simple comedy that comes from hearing someone singing badly. (If there was an Oscar for Best Bad Singing By Someone Who Can Actually Sing Well, Streep would get it, and you can learn more about her preparation for the role in her recent interview on Fresh Air.)

Of course it's not Florence's talent that gets her a night at Carnegie Hall, it's her money, and the movie's closest thing to a villain comes in the form of a theater critic who refuses to lie about her lack of talent. And in many ways, his criticism is absolutely right — her show is a gross display of privilege.

But there's also art that, because of the sheer optimism, devotion, and blind belief of the artist, is immune to any kind of criticism, and in fact defies it. The films of Ed Wood come to mind, or the music of Daniel Johnston. And Florence Foster Jenkins certainly deserves a place among those artists, whose love for their craft outshines their abilities, and results in a type of human production that people come to love anyway, blemishes and all.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Suicide Squad Is A Huge Swirling Vortex Of Trash

This review originally appeared on

Warner Bros. wants to make their DC comic book movies as popular as Disney's Marvel movies have been, with a plan that includes reboots, new standalone hero movies, and a Justice League film, released every year through 2020. The first step in that plan was Batman Vs. Superman, which was released earlier this summer.

We all know how that turned out.

Having survived that disaster, I can't say I was exactly excited to see Suicide Squad. The good news is, it's better than BvS. The bad news is, that's about the best that can be said about it.

The film takes place soon after the events of Batman Vs. Superman, with the government once again pondering what they can do to protect the world from the next attack — be it from another alien threat, or a "meta-human" fight gone wrong.

Agent Waller (Viola Davis) decides to put together a team of mega-bad guys because....why not? The idea is, they have nothing to lose fighting for the good guys, except some years off their sentences, but, come on, how would any of them not have life sentences?

The first 20 minutes of the movie is pure exposition, with a classic rock soundtrack, (before the credits even roll, we get to hear the Stones, the Animals, AND Lesley Gore). Every bad guy gets an introduction, a little back story, and a look at their current situation down in Belle Reve, a Louisiana maximum security prison. There's a lot of them, but the only ones the movie really wants you to care about are Deadshot (Will Smith), the world's deadliest assassin-for-hire, who's actually not that bad a guy because he reaaaallly loves his daughter, and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), the insane girlfriend of the Joker, (Jared Leto).

Let's get Leto's Joker out of the way first. While he got the majority of the film's pre-release buzz and publicity, he's hardly in it at all. Which I suppose is a relief, since he's a total snooze. He's supposed to be a mega-gangster, but really just resembles that creepy guy who's always in the roped-off section of a nightclub, tossing money around and making threats at anyone who looks at his girlfriend...who's dancing on a pole in the middle of the club (STOP LOOKING!).

But he doesn't seem psychopathic, or capable of any kind of master crimes. He's more like a twitchy meth head with a silver grill that makes it sound like he's drooling when he talks. Harley Quinn could do soooo much better.

But, alas, Harley Quinn's sole purpose in life is to love her "Puddin," and joins the Suicide Squad as a means of running back into the Joker's skinny little arms. Margot Robbie's version of Harley has evolved since the character's introduction in the Batman animated series, and by "evolved" I mean she's now wearing less clothing. A lot less. Gone is the original "Harlequin" themed catsuit, replaced by hot pants, a tight t-shirt, and...that's about it.

What does remain is an exaggerated "New York" accent that makes her sound like a 1930's mafia moll, and the basic backstory that she was once the Joker's psychiatrist, until she fell under his spell and went crazy (with the help of some electroshock to the brain), and is now hopelessly in love with him. (Which, yes, comes off as gross as it sounds.)

Robbie's Quinn is the highlight of the movie, but really, that's not saying much. She's at least a different kind of villain, and has an anarchic energy that is, at times, engaging. It's just too bad her dialogue is terrible and her jokes fall flat. Too often she reminded me of every annoying drunk girl in a "Sexy [blank]" costume anyone's ever had to deal with on Halloween (and who this year will probably be dressed up as Harley Quinn).

Once the Squad is, finally, all assembled, the movie turns into Escape From New York. They get microbombs injected into their necks — just like Snake Plisken did! — that will explode if they attempt to escape. Then they're airdropped into the ruins of a city and have to fight their way to the top of a building to help rescue a Very Important Person. (Seriously, how did John Carpenter not get a story credit for this?!)

Oh, but of course, that's not enough plot for a movie that has TEN villains. There's also a Big Bad that has to be brought down, and here's where the stupidity of the movie's plot really comes into play. The villain is the Enchantress, an ancient witch who has possessed the body of archaeologist June Moone (Cara Delevingne). This super witch is also one of the villains Agent Waller recruited into her Suicide Squad. So, basically, the hypothetical supervillain the Squad was put together as a defense against wouldn't have come to be if the Squad hadn't been put together in the first place.

A smarter movie would recognize the humor in that, or at least work some comment into the story about, I don't know, the circular nature of war? Something; anything! Instead, we just get scene after scene showing the Enchantress's ridiculous army of pustule-faced rock monsters, and her huge swirling vortex of trash.

Though, come to think of it, maybe that's the commentary I was looking for. "Please enjoy this Huge Swirling Vortex of Trash. See you again next summer!"