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Out in Theaters: ‘PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES’

In Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, we find the infamous Captain Jack Sparrow in a drunken stupor. Washed up and officially deadbeat, even the price on Jack’s head has sunk to a paltry pound. It’s a strange parallel to Johnny Depp’s public persona of late, having slipped from the good grace of the hoi polloi  after reports of his abusing wife Amber Heard made waves, followed by news of widespread financial woes and a slew of middling to poor films floundering at the box office. With Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, both Sparrow and Depp pray for a comeback.    Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM’

A pleasant but slight distraction from the wickedness of 2016, J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them turns back the clocks on the Harry Potter Universe to 1928 where the pesky Newt Scamander and his suitcase full of fantastic beasts have just entered New York City. Beasts earns points distinguishing itself from its predecessor by taking on a new time period, centering on an older (if still largely charming) cast and moving the action to America where new rules, regulations and verbiage (“muggles” are no more, “no-maj” being the US equivalent) prevail.  There’s hints of magic peppered throughout – James Newton Howard’s electrifying score, sharp visual tricks up the sleeve, Eddie Redmayne’s recklessly crooked smile – but as a standalone installment, Fantastic Beasts certainly stops short living up to its titular adjective. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘YOGA HOSERS’

Yoga Hosers, the second feature in the proposed True North trilogy, refers to the fact that the two main characters, both named Collen, like yoga (or at least writer/director Kevin Smith‘s grossly ignorant appropriation of yoga) and are hosers (Canada’s way of saying fool or dolt.) Convenient store clerks and high school students, the Colleens are frequently buried up to their eyeballs in their smartphones, snapping selfies, posting to the ‘gram and generally disengaging from the physical world around them. When an ancient army of foot-long Nazi sausage clones, called Bratzis, begins to attack their small Canadian town, the girls must put down their iPhones to save the day. Read More

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Sundance ’16 Review: ‘YOGA HOSERS’

Yoga Hosers, the second feature in the proposed True North trilogy, refers to the fact that the two main characters, both named Collen, like yoga (or at least writer/director Kevin Smith‘s grossly ignorant appropriation of yoga) and are hosers (Canada’s way of saying fool or dolt.) Convenient store clerks and high school students, the Colleens are frequently buried up to their eyeballs in their smartphones, snapping selfies, posting to the ‘gram and generally disengaging from the physical world around them. When an ancient army of foot-long Nazi sausage clones, called Bratzis, begins to attack their small Canadian town, the girls must put down their iPhones to save the day. Read More

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Out in Theaters: ‘BLACK MASS’

Black Mass is a stage upon which Johnny Depp has revived his career, and little more. As the film’s malevolent heavy and famed criminal overlord “Whitey” Bulger, Deep is borderline excellent, brooding and prowling around the screen like a silverback gorilla. On the streets, he’s equally guerrilla, taking down his enemies as well as former-confidantes-turned-rat in maelstroms of cold-shelled slugs. And though Deeps is admirable as the callous and cold Jimmy Bulger, the film itself overwhelmingly replicates its star’s unenviable personality traits in its cinematic aura, resulting in a film that’s even more callous and cold than the iconic gangster at its center. Read More

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Out in Theaters: INTO THE WOODS

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Last year, Telltale Games released a video game called “The Wolf Among Us.” The interactive story re-imagined fairy tales of lore – from Snow White to Georgie Porgie – as a community of troubled New Yorkers caught up in a multiple homicide investigation. You play as Bigby Wolf, a detective with a past as coarse as his beard hair, now a man doing his best to pay penance for the huffing and puffing of his past.

Rob Marshall‘s Into the Woods has its own Big, Bad Wolf – Johnny Depp with a crumpled mustache and a rapey solo track. He bays at the moon while singing about how badly he wants to gobble up Red Riding Hood. It’s weird, off-putting and noxious – essential Depp 101. Where Telltale was able to take familiar characters and weave a story around them that benefits from our understanding of their respective fables, Into the Woods relies entirely on mimicking the collective conscious of lore, spoon-feeding  back a narrative that’s more anecdotal smorgasbord than anything refined and singular. It’s one big inside joke that’s sure to tickle musical fans pink while leaving those on the other side of the fence howling for respite.

The story starts out in precious sing-song with a baker and his wife wailing their woes of a womb left barren, a pernicious Little Red (Lilla Crawford) embarking to grandma’s with a basket brimming with baked goods, Jack (Daniel Huttlestone) unwittingly off to trade his milky white cow for some magic beans and a spindly witch played by Meryl Streep hemming and hawing about an aged curse and popping in and out of frames in daffy gusts of smoke. Their paths, for one reason or another, have all been pointed into the woods. And so we embark with ballad after ballad, lungs brimming with gusto.

It’s within said woods that The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) must gather a cow as white as milk, hair as yellow as corn and a slipper as gold as…gold? in order to break the curse that Steep’s witch placed on their house many years ago. Many songs follow.

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For those turned off by musical numbers, Into the Woods is an auditory onslaught that fails to break from the repertoire of singing, singing and more singing long enough to develop a story beyond the patchwork of colliding fairy tales. Chris Pine steals the show with in-film brother Billy Magnussen in a number called “Agony” but clever moments of tongue-in-cheek nods to the adults in the audience like this are woefully sparse.

The cast is admittedly stellar – Anna Kendrick, Corden, Blunt, Pine and, to a lesser degree, Streep all own their numbers, even if I personally found some of those numbers grating. But such is the nature of the musical. You’re either in it or you aren’t. It’s just not my cup of tea. What I completely fail to understand is any Oscar buzz surrounding the film as the mere idea of Streep with a nomination frustrates me beyond belief (in a year stuffed with excellent, unsung female performances.) She’s played the Academy Darling card too many times recently, earning a nod nearly every time she puts her face to celluoid. The Iron Lady doth protest too much, methinks.

C

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Out in Theaters: TUSK

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With Tusk, it’s easy to note that Kevin Smith has a sense of humor like a kid roasting ants with a magnifying glass. From the years since he entered the stage with Clerks, he’s morphed his convenience store potty mouth into something more sick and politically sharp. As he tries out his new bags, his brand of black humor has become more veiled, indelicate and urgent. It’s become something far more sinister. Something far grosser. Such being the case, Tusk is sick, sharp, sinister, indelicate, and totally fucking gross.

Since the great Smith vs. Critics Cop Out bout of 2010, Smith has changed irreversibly. The infinitely superior Red State – a film I found massively interesting and one of the man’s finest works – was easy evidence of that. His newfound union with frequent Quentin Tarantino collaborator Michael Parks has seemed to spur within his writing something almost unpalatably dark and twisted but also dementedly funny, embroidered with low-boiling real world commentary. Tusk is the natural progress of taking that menacing, almost humorless comedy and no-holds-barred horror to the edge of full blown psychosis and hanging there until we can hang no more.  

Our entrance to Smith’s beautiful dark twisted fantasy that is Tusk is through Wallace (Justin Long), a loony podcaster who “made 100 grand last year” at the expense of others. Having emerged from the cocoon of a loser nobody, Wallace is a changed man. He’s rich, he’s popular; he’s finally a cool kid. To rightfully jealous girlfriend Ally (Genesis Rodriguez) he soliloquizes – in sonnets of fart jokes and curse words – about how he likes the “new” Wallace. With the foreboding ratcheted up to cabin in the woods levels, Smith unleashes the red herrings like doves at a funeral.

After Wallace’s trip to the Canadian providence of Manitoba to interview an accidentally self-mutilating YouTube star – deemed “The Kill Bill Kid” – results in a dead end, he becomes serendipitously wrapped up in a jackpot of a story and a walrus of a storyteller in Howard Howe (Parks). At his reclusive Bifrost mansion filled with treasures and trophies of adventures past, Howe waxes prosaically on his exploits at sea before getting to the proverbial gold of his story – one that brings a shipwrecked Howe into the loving bosom of a full grown walrus nicknamed Mr. Tusk. Never has such a respectful, tender relationship existed between humans, Howe contends. After so many years, Howe just wants his friend back and it appears that Wallace arrived just in time to help make it happen.
 
Panicked by Wallace’s untimely disappearance, Ally and Wallace’s podcast co-host Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) seek out the help of drunken discredited detective Guy Lapointe – played by none other than the wacky Johnny Depp under the pseudonym Guy LaPointe– to get to the bottom of what is really going on. Depp, per usual, is the most unbound performer on set and his oddball antics get so extreme as to take us out of the moment and cuts through the tension like a magician farting in the midst of his act.

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From a douchey megalomaniac to a scrambling captive, Long offers up ample evidence of why he was made for horror movies. Restricted in his later portions to just communicating with his eyes, Long is the embodiment of fear and he displays a range of emotions through his hazelnut baby blues. Lording over him, Parks is just as revelatory. His twisted gumption and rhetorical acrobatics prove there’s nothing more frightening than a well-learned mad man on a rant that would be rather lowly ranked on the sanity pole. Though the compassion is mostly meant for hyperbole’s sake, Smith seems to have found his Christopher Waltz in Parks. The two work together like blood and bones.

There to make it all happen, makeup supervisor Robert Kurtzman – not to be confused with The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman –  has sewn together what may be the most disturbing practical effects showcase that I can possibly think of, offering up pure, untarnished nightmare fuel in the form of the the new born Mr. Tusk. Kurtzman’s handicrafts are a patchwork of OMG, a sickening stitch of new age body horror. To coin a phrase, it’s as disturbing as watching a man eat through his own hip.

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As much a deranged freak show as any episode of American Horror Story, Tusk seeks to define that age old question: is man really a walrus? And though Smith’s walrus opus could use sharper editing, a greater emphasis on somberness and even more Michael Parks musings, good god has had made a true haunter.

As effective as any high dosage caffeine pill, Tusk is a wildly original, tonally inconsistent, totally appalling smorgasbord of nightmare fuel that won’t soon stop haunting me. Smith and Kurtzman’s inhuman union presents nothing short of disturbing imagery, doomed to forever rattle around my brain. With Tusk, Smith performs his own Kafkaesque lobotomy. It’s “Metamorphosis” a la The Human Centipede. It’s The Fly meets Hostel. For those weak of stomach and mind, it might be advisable to bring a barf bag.

B

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Out in Theaters: TRANSCENDENCE

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Every once in a blue moon an unsung talent breaks out of their wheelhouse to extraordinary results.  Quentin Tarantino famously emerged from a video store, learning his craft at the film school of VHS rentals. Ron Howard was a can-kicking child actor before stepping in to direct acclaimed films like Apollo 13, Rush and Academy Award winner A Beautiful Mind. Even Japanese auteur and samurai-lordship himself Akira Kurosawa trained as a painter before ever stepping behind a camera. The lesson is: great directors can come from pretty much anywhere. Wally Pfister, longtime cinematographer for Christopher Nolan (another cinebuff who did not receive formal film school education) and head hancho of Transcendence, has spent the better part of two decades behind a camera. But this is the first time he’s sat in the black foldout chair etched with the word “director.” In this 100 million dollar dry run of his, he’s all but sullied the name.

Pfister directs Transcendence with the style of a National Geographic cinematographer. He looms on intimate nature shots – drops of water claim close ups like they’re signing off Sunset Boulevard – before casting panoramic crane shots of jumbled mountains cloaked in forest or tumbleweed-kicking stretch of desert lit up by solar panels as far as the eye can see. Pfister’s settings are beautifully lighted and wonderfully scenic but they still feel like the work of a DP showing off in full masturbatory fashion. Any certifiable director would have slashed wasted minutes lingering on Kodak moments without blinking.

While Pfister flexes his eye for topography, the story beats from screenwriter Jack Paglen quickly become the biggest point of contention. Paglen’s plot follows Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp), a brilliant scientist on the verge of breaking new ground on AI technology that will forever change the world. Talked into a presentation to secure grant money by wife and partner Evelyn (Rebecca Hall), Will (Paglen’s cipher) brings up some interesting questions about our relationship to technology. Since SkyNet, we’ve had a general distrust of technology overtaking their human creators. The threat lies in supremacy. While human minds are capped by biological limitations, machines face no such boundaries (a theme that Spike Jonze‘s Her explored in much simpler and yet more compelling and grandiose terms). This goes on to become the central theme of the movie: can we trust technology that outgrows us?

As one might expect, not everyone in Paglen’s tale thinks an all-powerful machine is a good thing so anti-technology, terrorist network Rift, lead by an inexcusably bleach blonde Kate Mara, are willing to do whatever it takes to prevent a future that involves Terminators, the Matrix, and whatnot. Cue an assassination attempt on Will that proves slowly successful (radiation poisoning FTW!). Will’s ticking clock leads Evelyn to take the next step in their research by “uploading” Will’s consciousness into the existing model of AI, code name PIMM. While his body withers and dies, his “self” is transferred into a super computer. Colleague and trusted friend of the Crasters, Max Waters (Paul Bettany), says that the thing in the computer ain’t Will no more but Evelyn just won’t hear it. Like Joaquin Phoenix, she’s seduced by Depp’s Him.

And speaking of Depp, can we all just finally own up to the fact that he’s just not a good actor? He depends on hairdos to express his emotional status (also, why does every movie scientist need at least one scene with frazzled bedhead?) and not caked in makeup or prancing around a Tim Burton set, he’s just dull to watch. Even without the weird, he’s still oppressively meh. It doesn’t help that his lines and those of his co-stars sound like they were scrawled into a napkin hours before shooting. Some of Paglen’s philosophy masks itself as high concept but with dialogue this trawling, Paglen reveals his cupboard isn’t filled with China. Pfister, likewise, proves inept at directing his actors, a cast that by all means ought to bring more to the table than they do. As things are, they’re like the guests who all cheaped out and brought baguettes to a wine party.

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Pfister’s begged and borrowed a cast from cohort Nolan only to have nothing to do with them. Morgan Freeman only seems here to give a brief voice over (that adds nothing to the film). Otherwise, he looks confused and is always a few minutes behind the other characters. He looked more engaged in his infamous Now You See Me interview than he is here. Cillian Murphy, on the other hand, just has absolutely nothing to do. He might be an under-appreciated talent but not so much that he would sign off for such a flat and lifeless role ad nauseum. Are production re-writes to blame or was Pfister cashing in favors across the board? I guess we’ll never know.

Act one and two have their issues but are by-in-large competently compelling bites of fiction, especially in the context of the ghastly third act. When Pfister, Depp and Co. round the bases and start the journey to home plate, everything gets totally sacked. Rome wasn’t build in a day but it sure could burn in one. Like Will’s late stage admission that “There’s not enough power!”, the internal logic of the film goes haywire in a thoughtless ending that I still can’t make heads or tails of. Instead of offering up an earned and earnest conclusion, Pfister and Paglen eschew explanation like a student who’s “dog ate their homework”. It’s as unsatisfying as one pringle, as tasteless as a whole wheat bun.

Plot mechanics are omnipresent and omnipotent until the script demands it not so, characters unfold incompatible reveals without satisfying explanation, and by the end… well it’s hard to even say how the thing even ended but I’m pretty sure the Apes won? It’s like if Inception had forgone the spinning top for a closing shot of a grinning Leo clone. Keep the WTFs in the can of worms please. Pfister’s shown he can replicate Nolan in broad strokes but, like an AI’s inability to prove its self-awareness, he misses the inexplicable piece that makes a story feel human… oh, and good.

C-

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