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The Lazarus Effect (2015)
In "The Lazarus Effect," a team of university researchers (Olivia Wilde, Mark Duplass, Donald Glover, Evan Peters and Sarah Bolger) comes up with a serum to bring dead creatures back to life. They start off with dogs but, when one of their own dies unexpectedly, they decide to try the formula out on humans. Needless to say, things - as is generally the case in these sorts of playing-God scenarios - don't go exactly as planned.
The makers of "The Lazarus Effect" (Luke Dawson and Jeremy Slater wrote it and David Gelb directed it) have taken a potentially promising premise and given it the standard horror movie treatment, overloaded with stock jump cuts, ear-splitting musical cues and typical science vs. the supernatural mumbo jumbo. It's good for an adrenaline rush or two (especially in the final scenes) but, all told, "The Lazarus Effect" is a fairly unimpressive and forgettable film.
Relatos salvajes (2014)
Creepily effective black comedy
If you've been feeling a mite cocky about where your life is headed of late, you might want to take a gander at "Wild Tales" for a much needed reality check. This omnibus Spanish feature, sharply written and directed by Damian Szifron, offers a series of very dark, very disturbing and sometimes very humorous vignettes, all centered on chance (and not so chance) encounters that go awry in unexpected and often tragic ways. The movie makes it clear that, while you may think you have control over your life, in the grand scheme of things, you're really just a pawn subject to the whims of other individuals, a soulless bureaucracy or, most chillingly, a cruel and mocking Fate. However, in two of the cases, the participants do manage to wrest control back from the outside forces and determine the course of their lives - to some extent, at least.
As is often the case with these kinds of morality tales, most of the scenarios rely heavily on situational irony to get their points across. I won't detail the various stories (you really need to experience them for yourself), but I will note that the first one, involving an airliner, comes uncomfortably close to an actual event that occurred after the movie was released. Segments one and three contain the most visceral impact, while others cut deeper psychologically. Even the tones vary from one storyline to another. For instance, the final story, about a wedding that turns into a surrealistic nightmare, is shot through with pitch-dark humor.
Replete with sharp performances from a talented cast, the movie touches on such universal human themes as revenge, road rage, class privilege, all tied to the sense of powerlessness one feels when confronted with forces bigger than oneself.
In its own subtle, quiet way, the movie has a remarkable ability to keep the audience on the edge of its seat, filled with a kind of gnawing dread as we await the catastrophe we sense is just over the horizon. As with all the best horror tales, Szifron understands that the anticipation is often more terrifying than the actual event when it finally arrives.
The movie as a whole has a way of unnerving us while it drives home some unpleasant and uncomfortable truths about what it means to be human.
The DUFF (2015)
A lack of originality does this one in
Fresh off five seasons of "Parenthood," Mae Whitman is the almost saving grace of "The DUFF," a teen romance, based on the novel by Kody Keplinger, whose attempts at pointed social commentary are undercut by a cut-and-paste screenplay by Josh A. Cagan and indifferent direction by Ari Sandel.
DUFF - short for Designated Ugly Fat Friend - is a derogatory term applied to the least attractive person in a group whose sole purpose is to make the others look even more attractive by comparison and to provide interested boys and girls easier access to the knockouts. When she is informed that she is the DUFF for her two super hot girlfriends, Bianca decides to spruce herself up in an effort to attract the sensitive songwriter she has a crush on. It doesn't take long before this Cinderella story has morphed into "Pygmalion," as Bianca turns to her lifelong best friend, Wesley ("The Tomorrow People"'s Robbie Arnell), the school's hunky "man whore" of a quarterback, for lessons on how to make the transformation from DUFF to hottie, from wallflower to full-on make-out artist. But can this Professor Henry Higgins keep his hands, let alone his lips, off this Eliza Doolittle? If you even have to ask that question, then this may actually be your first encounter with a romantic comedy.
Unfortunately, the movie fights against Whitman's naturalism and charm almost every step of the way, going so far as to include some really cheesy fantasy sequences as a means of filling up the time. It even has a trying-on-dresses montage sequence ripped straight out of every mainstream romantic comedy that's been green-lit since "Pretty Woman."
The one thing the movie does get right is showing how the ubiquitous nature of social media has intensified, by many forces of magnitude, the mean spiritedness, shallowness and appearance-centric nature of teen culture, with cyber-bullying as one of its uglier and more damaging manifestations.
The movie does have a salutary moral that it matters less what others think about us than what we think about ourselves, and I suppose that's a truth every generation must discover for itself. It's just too bad the movies on that subject all have to look and feel so much like one another - regardless of the era in which they're set.
McFarland, USA (2015)
Predictable but manages to hit most of the right notes
We all know the drill by now: a teacher, usually white (the one exception seems to be Sidney Poitier in "To Sir With Love"), is sent to teach in a tough, predominately minority high school, filled with troubled teens and burned-out faculty members. At first, the hapless newbie is met with bemusement and resistance from the recalcitrant students, but, eventually, said teacher ultimately earns the trust and respect of all, often leading the kids and their school onto victory and glory in some sort of high-stakes contest (sporting event or whiz-kid competition, preferably). The granddaddy of them all, 1955's "The Blackboard Jungle" established the blueprint that all the others that have come after it have felt obliged to follow. Indeed, the narrative arc is so familiar to us by now that only the names, places and specific details offer anything in the way of novelty.
Enter "McFarland, USA," the umpteenth version of the above scenario, this one featuring Kevin Costner as Jim White, a real life PE teacher/football coach who, out of desperation, takes a position at a high school in an impoverished farm community near Bakersfield, California circa 1987. The population of the town is composed almost exclusively of first and second generation Hispanic immigrants, mostly pickers, leaving White, his wife (Maria Bello) and their two young daughters ("Homeland's" Morgan Saylor and Elsie Fisher) feeling a bit like fish-out-of-water in their new home.
When he discovers that several young men in his PE class are phenomenal runners, Mr. White decides to start a cross country team at the school, bucking a skeptical principal, school board and rival teams every step of the way - not to mention straightening out the various personal and familial problems of the boys on his team (as well as coping with his own inadequacies as a father to his teenage daughter). Yet, after some early setbacks competing against a series of snooty white schools ah well, you get the picture. And, of course, there's the inevitable offer of a position at a "better" school, leaving White with the dilemma of either leaving his charges in the lurch or staying on for the long haul.
The thing is, though, that, while it would be easy to dismiss "McFarland USA" for its lack of freshness and originality, formulas are formulas for a reason, I suppose, and that is because they work. So, while you can resist it all you want, in the end you'll probably find yourself cheering on the boys as they cross the finish line, just as you'll be championing Mr. White for his ability to lead and inspire his charges both on the field and off. In short, though your brain may be looking for ways to reject "McFarland USA," your heart will be telling you to let it in. It's pretty easy to predict which will emerge victorious in that battle.
Nobody does the inspirational phoenix-rising-from-the-ashes bit better than Costner, and he is backed by a first-rate cast of young performers (Carlos Pratts, Johnny Ortiz, Rafael Martinez, Hector Duran, Sergio Avelar, Michael Aguero) who exude both naturalism and charm in their roles as disadvantaged youth who find meaning and pride in personal accomplishment and camaraderie. The movie also does a nice job showing how the bridges between various cultures are best built on the willingness to suspend preconceived judgments and to be open to new experiences.
What We Do in the Shadows (2014)
Clever vampire parody
Ever wonder how vampires always manage to look so spiffy and dapper in their appearance and attire even though they can't see themselves in a mirror? This and many similarly pressing ghoul-related questions are addressed in "What We Do in the Shadows," a macabre mockumentary about four roommates (Ben Fransham, Jemaine Clement, Taika Waititi, Jonathan Brugh), sharing a home in New Zealand, who just happen to be bloodsucking creatures-of-the-night. Eventually, they're joined by Nick (Cori-Gonzalez Maceur), an unsuspecting victim who comes over for "dinner" one night, then pals around with them after his transformation, and Stu (Stu Rutherford), Nick's human friend whose genuine likability keeps the foursome from turning him into one of them.
Written and directed by Clement and Waititi, "What We Do in the Shadows" is a fitfully amusing parody of all the conceits and tropes of a genre that has become a mainstay of popular culture in recent years - and that's putting it mildly. Some of those works have even been satirical in nature, but "Shadows" ups the ante by setting its spoofery in the context of one of those slice-of-life documentaries so dear to the hearts of reality-TV aficionados everywhere.
Like "The Addams Family" and "The Munsters," "Shadows" derives much of its humor from the domestication of our own bogeymen and fears, as well as the incongruity of a bunch of centuries-old (in one case, millenia-old) undead creatures living and relating in the modern world. Yet, while the humor is decidedly dark in nature - there is no stinting on graphic bloodletting being performed on innocent victims - it's also very clever, even though the movie does hit a point of diminishing returns after awhile, perhaps inevitably, given its somewhat self-restricting one-joke premise.
Ultimately, though, it's an original and fun celebration of male camaraderie and bonding - even in its most outlandish form.
Seventh Son (2014)
Low-grade action film
About the only really interesting thing about "Seventh Son," a decidedly low-grade sword-and-sorcery epic, is the fact that Kit Harington (Jon Snow from "Game of Thrones") didn't have to go through much of a wardrobe change to participate in this project. It's a good thing, however, that he didn't quit his day job, for Harington's character is done away with in no time flat (a positive outcome for the actor, as it turns out). But Harington isn't the only one who finds himself slumming it here. Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Olivia Williams and Djimon Hounsou are also mired in this CGI-heavy travesty.
Based on "The Spook's Apprentice" by Joseph Delaney, it's the oldie about the aging knight (Bridges) who's training a reluctant apprentice (Ben Barnes), a seventh son of a seventh son, in the fine art of killing witches, all in the name of protecting the weak and defending the innocent. There are also beasts to be slain, with the occasional timeout for lesson-learning and puppy love romance. But none of it really adds up to much in the end, and hopefully all involved will quickly move onto bigger and better things in the future.
Old Fashioned (2014)
Pretty darn insufferable
How do you make a movie about a young man who's so uptight around women that he won't even be alone in a room with one - and NOT make him come across as some sort of serial-killer-in-training? I don't know the answer to that question, and, apparently, neither do the people who made "Old Fashioned," a snail-paced, poorly acted, Hallmark Channel-level romantic drama that, intentionally or not, turns out to be an off-putting creep-fest.
Clay Walsh (Rik Swartzwelder, who also wrote and directed the film) is the moody antique shop owner who was once a lady-killer and frat boy in his youth, but who now spends most of his time over-thinking his life to the point where just about everyone around him - the audience included - has had it up to here with his borderline- psychotic sanctimoniousness. All, except Amber (Elizabeth Ann Roberts), that is, an attractive young woman who settles into this small Midwestern town with her cat and her dreams after her car runs out of gas there. Though she's supposedly out of money, we never see Amber actually looking for work since she's so busy trying to figure out what makes Clay tick - a full time job, in and of itself, apparently. Initially intrigued by this strange man with unorthodox ideas about love, sex and dating, Amber begins to see him less as a curiosity and more as a man of principle and honor the better she gets to know him (too bad the viewer never really comes to share that opinion of him).
About the best thing one can say about "Old Fashioned" is that its heart is in the right place and one feels almost guilty criticizing it, but, frankly, the movie is so slow-moving and talky that I could barely stay awake through large stretches of it (though there is one surprisingly thoughtful and effective scene involving a bachelor party, I will admit). Surely, there's got to be a better way of getting across the old I'm-saving-myself-for-marriage theme than this. For the problem is that, after being told what a fun, lively, energetic guy Clay was in college, then seeing what he's become now, the only conclusion we can come to is that Finding Jesus turned him into the Bore of the Century - or, at the very least, the ultimate wet-blanket, bringing down everybody's spirits along with his own. Somehow, I doubt that's what Mr. Swartzwelder had in mind when embarking on the project.
Glimpse into life under a caliphate
A young couple is stoned to death for adultery. Several youngsters are publicly flogged for singing and playing music. A young girl is sold against her will into marriage to a much older man. These shocking events are not part of a movie set in Biblical times but rather one that takes place in the present-day Middle East. And they are just a few of the dismaying plot points that make up "Timbuktu," a pertinent and topical French-Mauritanian film that offers a glimpse into what life is like for a group of ordinary people being forced to live under the iron-fisted rule of an Islamic caliphate.
In style and form, "Timbuktu" is about as far from a Hollywood production as any movie on this subject could possibly be. There are no over-the-top action sequences, no phony heroics, no contrived rescue missions or breakneck escapes. Despite the horrors of what it is showing us, Abderrahmane Sissako's film is understated almost to the point of inertia. There is no real "story" per se, just a series of loosely connected vignettes chronicling the daily struggles of the people who call this part of the world home, a place where the presence of modern technology such as cell phones provides an incongruous contrast to the primitive quality of the setting and the unenlightened and decidedly un-modern nature of the caliphate's moral strictures.
What one is most struck by while watching "Timbuktu" is the extraordinary quiet bravery of the people who are persecuted and often killed for the most mind-bogglingly petty of offences. For, make no mistake, the caliphate leaders are little more than schoolyard bullies who have managed, mainly through the acquisition of firepower and the seductive power of religious dogma, to become a genuine threat to those who are their targets.
Also striking is the way in which death in the film occurs in an almost off-hand, matter-of-fact way, underlining the tenuous quality of life in that corner of the world. And the story ends on an inconclusive, life-goes-on note that will have many in the audience tearing their hair out in frustration. Yet, the movie is all the more admirable and heartbreaking for it.
The Loft (2014)
Tolerable, though often overwrought, whodunit
A cautionary tale for all the would-be lotharios among us, "The Loft" features Karl Urban as a renowned architect who entices his four married buddies (Wentworth Miller, James Marsden, Eric Stonestreet, Mathias Schoenaerts) into becoming co-owners of a luxury high-rise condo where they can carry on their marital infidelities free from the prying eyes of their unsuspecting spouses. Trouble starts when, one fine morning, a beautiful young woman is found murdered there, killed possibly by an intruder but more likely by one of the five.
Though the movie becomes a bit undisciplined and even overwrought over the course of its running time (and that includes some of the performances), "The Loft" scores as a fairly engaging and effective whodunit, one that manages to incorporate some relevant and timely reflections on how the over-privileged 1% spend their time and money. The surprise twist ending goes a long way towards mitigating some of the sturm-un-drang excesses that have come before it, though the denouement is a bit flat-footed and heavy-handed when it finally arrives.
All in all, a mixed bag when it comes to storytelling and acting, "The Loft" is, nonetheless, good for a relaxing, two-hour-long escape - if you're in the market for that sort of thing, that is.
Strange Magic (2015)
Substandard animated musical
There's been such a glut of animated features in recent years that it has become virtually impossible for any particular one of them to break through and become the kind of must-see movie "event" that we used to get in the days when Disney alone ruled the roost. A case in point is "Strange Magic," a decidedly low-grade entry in the genre that is as leaden as it is uninvolving, as earthbound as it is unmemorable.
The story is loosely based on Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream," a tale of two lands - one good, one evil - filled with fairies and imps and all sorts of other fantastic creatures falling in love and doing battle with one another.
Probably the most distinctive aspect of the movie is that, rather than spending money on a score of its own, the makers of "Strange Magic" have instead opted to fork out the royalty fees for a dozen or so recognizable pop tunes from the 1950s to the present day (including, of course, ELO's "Strange Magic"). In fact, I would estimate that about 80-90% of the movie consists of musical sequences, a high ratio for even the most music-centric of musicals, putting it practically in operetta territory.
Thus your appreciation of the movie may be predicated largely on how much you enjoy the playlist they've brought together for the occasion. Beyond the score, the mise-en-scene is dark, dank and claustrophobic, and the screenplay, based on an idea by none other than George Lucas himself, is strangely lacking in originality and humor.
The heavy emphasis on the love aspects of the tale, as well as the aforementioned over-abundance of musical sequences, will likely make the movie's target audience both listless and fidgety throughout.