Out in Theaters: DARK PLACES

The charge for any movie based upon a popular novel is two-fold. First, they must remain  faithful to the source material. You can’t have a writer bandying critical alterations in plot or character, lest they invite the chagrin of a million swarming fanboys, ready with pitchforks and sub-reddit comments. Secondly, they must inject some modicum of vision into the material. To transform a novel into a film without tact or some place of purpose is to present an audience with a run-down of in-book events without much-needed personality or intent. Think James Franco adapting Faulkner or Angelina Jolie taking on “Unbroken”. They failed because they were “adaptations” and nothing more; they changed the medium, but lost the soul. Read More


Out in Theaters: LAGGIES

Take thematic elements of Joe Swanberg‘s Happy Christmas, distill it down, add paint-by-numbers rom-com structure, weed out the elements that distinguish mumblecore as such and replace the winning Anna Kendrick with the accent-jostling Keira Knightley and you have Laggies, a competently told but widely borrowed tale of arrested adolescence.

Knightley is Megan, a wanderer of the pathetic breed. In the years since her high school prom – which the movie unexplainably opens on – her besties have become more mannered, her boyfriend Anthony (Mark Webber) more tame. With her sign-spinning job, dependence on others, total lack of direction and joyless “drifting through life” attitude, Megan is the short end of the stick.

On the night of her best friend’s wedding, she discovers her father (Jeff Garlin) cheating on her mother and flees from the scene of the crime to encounter Annika (Chloe Grace Moretz), a young, fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants teen-rager who asks if she’ll buy her and her underaged posse some brewskis. Shortly thereafter, Anthony proposes to Megan, sending her into an existential spiral that lands her back in the company of the teenaged Annika and her suave, divorcee father Craig (Sam Rockwell).


As a film rummaging through underdeveloped ethos and aimless reckonings, Laggies seems like a freshman effort rather than the work of a seasoned pro. A marked improvement over director Lynn Shelton‘s last project, the wholeheartedly flat Touchy Feely, Laggies can’t help but feel like a director moving in the wrong director. After all, when everything is finally unpacked, there are no revelations we couldn’t see coming from minute 35, no statement that needed to explode out from the film.

All the asinine elements with which Shelton plays with have been done before and to greater effect. Look no further than the work of contemporary and mumblecore comrade Joe Swanberg to get not just one but many examples of this exact story done, quite frankly, far better. Both this year’s Happy Christmas and last year’s Drinking Buddies are perfect diagrams of how to make this brand of indie film. If Swanberg is dishing up fillets, Shelton seems content serving beef chuck. It’s the difference between medium rare and well done. Often less is more.


Having said that, one of the things that most annoys me about the film is how tidy everything is. In a film about chaos and confusion, characters on the brink of breaking down and frozen with fear of commitment, by the end of the film, have recovered miraculously. Shelton has put a nice little bow on everything as if to deem it appropriate viewing for a mom and her teenage daughter. It’s a scramble of odds and ends that shouldn’t fit so neatly together but ultimately do. The storybook ending is boring. Life is a mess. Real humans don’t get resolution. These are the platitudes that the mumblecore movement were founded on. To revert back to the stepping stones of the uninspired linear dramedy is to miss the point of the genre. It sounds harsh but I hate to see the potential squandered.

In the acting department, most of the crew is doing fine work. Knightley scrubs some of the char off her namesake that she’s earned with her most recent effort, offering a loafer of a character who, at the very least, comes with a few extra layers attached. Even if her perpetual indecisiveness is more noxious than pitiable, it’s nice to see Knightley changing up her game and bringing something wholly new to the table. Her accent coach must have retired though as her on-again-off-again accent flubs are nearly as noticeable here as they were in grizzly Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit.


Standing aside her, Sam Rockwell, as always, is a gift. And yet, again, his character seemed like a bit of a wasted opportunity on all fronts. I would have liked to see more to him; more comedy, more tragedy, more everything. If Laggies were from Sam Rockwell’s character’s perspective, it would have been twice as good. And not-so-little Chloe Grace Moretz holds her own as well, showcasing a skill for understatement that was sorely missing in her last endeavor, If I Stay.

From a purely narcissistic angle, I appreciated the drizzly Seattle setting, which opened the doors to some of the finer establishments in the Emerald City, establishments that I have otherwise not stepped within. Steeped in the nonchalance of a Pacific Northwest rain shower, Laggies has a throbbing sense of place to it, one of the finer components in a film that really needs that kind of specificity. Though Benjamin Gibbard‘s musical score is entirely forgettable, other resident Benjamin, Bejamin Kasulke‘s subtle cinematography accomplishes its goal of keeping the characters in the forefront and the atmosphere appropriately Seattle. And though there are bits to like here and there, Laggies is a movie sorely missing a point.


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Out in Theaters: THE EQUALIZER

The Equalizer
is an action movie that thinks it’s dark drama  poking fun at an action movie. There’s genuine moments of close quartered self-reflection with Antoine Fuqua‘s camera jammed tight in Denzel Washington‘s expressive face followed up by explosions so absurd they’d look ridiculous in a Michael Bay joint. It’s tense, silly, righteous and totally too long.

As this actioner-that-wanted-to-be-more slogs on – slog being the only word that suits this two-plus hour standoff – it quickly loses credibility, but points to an even more blaring truth: it’s as utterly confused about it’s own identity as the late Michael Jackson. But like Jackson’s greatest, The Equalizer – in most part thanks to the ever reliable Denzel – is a certified “thriller” with plenty of high octane and thoroughly entertaining action to match the ludicrously over-the-top, teenager-pandering ‘splosiongasms. There’s greatness in fits and starts, preceded at every turn by some of the most ludicrous turns in recent cinema. For every two steps forward, it takes a step back, but at least that’s better than the opposite.


The man who needs nothing more than his first name, Denzel is Robert McCall, a Home Depot-lite worker who is quite clearly more than he appears. At first glance, he’s an ultra-tidy lost soul/coffee shop bookworm more interested in getting through his bucket list of novels than the carnal pleasures that occupy the minds of the cretins swarming around him. At his preferred tea sipping spot, Robert often rubs shoulders with the wig-swappin’ Teri, a young and supple prostitute played by Chloe Grace Moretz. He updates her on his progress in “The Old Man and the Sea” and she swoons. She weeps, “If only I didn’t have to polish so many knobs, I would have loved to learn to read,” or something along those lines. Her corrupt innocence is played for such sympathy it’s hard to relate. As Robert Rodriguez sought to remind us last month with Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, young + dumb + whore = not a great character.

After Teri gets roughed up by her Russian pimp, Robert puts on his badass shoes and confronts a room full of mob men about buying her off. You know, so she can read Hemmingway and stuff. The ten thousand cash he offers doesn’t cut it though, as her Eastern Slavic hustler can still sell her as a virgin. And therein lies the real stinger. Not only is the guy a chick-beating, steroid-blasting pimp but he’s also hocking fake virgins. Woo be unto him. A sympathy shudder of pity unto his clientele. With dollar signs still singing in the eyes, the Russian jerk-o learns the hard way that Denzel Washington…er Robert McCall ain’t to be messed with, beginning a mile long trail of body bags that leads all the way up to the peak of corruption. Cuz when Denzel pops, he just don’t stop.


Eventually squaring off against Denzel wearing a Robert name tag is Marton Csokas as Teddy, a ruthless, excessively tatted up member of the Russian crime syndicate flown from Vodkaville, Russia to Shmucktown, New York to deal with the recent calamity that is Dead Pimps R Us. Don’t be fooled though, Teddy is no snuggly bear. Teddy’s introduction sees him choking out a prostitute colleague of Terri’s to figure out what went down at his club, now bad guy corpse storage facility. He’s menacing without ever raising his voice, both a salient businessman and a rancorous murderer and as he squishes windpipes like Go Gurt tubes, he’s pretty chilling. He’s Dexter Morgan sans plastic wrap, John Doe without the sadism. Beneath his blanket of tattoos, Csokas is a genuine terror, his fatal eyes and sharp suits deadly in equal measure. It’s his straight-faced characterization locked against Denzel’s that keeps Fuqua’s knack for MORE! from descending into absolute lunacy.

As Robert and Teddy circle each other like a Jets v. Sharks knife fight, the stakes rise to absurd levels, allowing for some genuinely great action sequences as well as some so illogical and wacky you’d think it were inspired by an episode of The Looney Toons. Several moments stick out – the dock-side Rube Goldberg explosion most of all – that could have been easily omitted to make things more cognizant and pertinent to the gritty, grimy realism that director Fuqua seems to want in fits and starts. It’s as if he wanted to make Black Bourne” one minute and “Bad Boys 3” the next. That internal battle is The Equalizer. The mysterious “who dat now?” elements to Denzel’s character are so dragged out they resemble William Wallace‘s public execution by drawing and quartering. Had they been more fleet-footed and subtle, they could have actually been quite nice. But it’s Fuqua’s tendency to let the little fire-crusted flourishes fly fast and loose that really drag the whole thing down by its heels.


Coming in well over two hours, The Equalizer is a movie that would have greatly benefited from an extra session or ten in the editing room. The final tool-filled showdown has some genuinely thrilling moments – because what’s better than turning a Home Depot into a house of terrors? – but as the minutes drag on and on and on, we involuntarily lose interest in the next power tool-fueled assault. Nail gun to the face? Check. Barb wire noose? Double check. We don’t even get to see what he does with that sledge hammer. A tighter, faster edit would have brought so much more life to something that sorely needs more of exactly that.

But Fuqua never squanders his greatest asset, Denzel, showing that he knows how to milk every last drop out of his magnetic star power. Gone is the toothy, chatty Denzel we’ve seen more of in the last few years, his charisma tampered down to muted levels, allowing a darker, quieter, more dynamic side to rise free. His joyous moments are accented by pangs of regret. When he rages, it’s through a fog. Faced off against Csokas, there’s actually some serious acting that takes place. It’s that much more of a shame when Fuqua feels the need to throw a bucket of blood and a circus of explosions right in their faces.


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Out in Theaters: IF I STAY

Like Kurosawa armed with dueling loafs of cheesy bread, If I Stay takes out the cheese stick and beats everything to death with it. There’s tragiporn spilling from every nook, weepy-anguish souping from every cranny. It’s not enough for a family to die, they must be dealt with in one sorry, sappy blow after the next. Stretch that sadness as thin as pizza dough. Work those tear ducts like they’re 1800’s railroad laborers. Bathe it all in bathos, rinse and repeat. An exercise in wringing a stale conceit for all it’s worth, If I Stay is what happens when you turn one car crash into an entire movie.

One must presume that Gayle Forman‘s novel, on which this film is based, has captured something of the post-pubescent longing for one’s first bone sesh in ravishing detail. How else can you explain the teenybopper cult follower it’s earned? After all, Twilight has taught us by now that sexual angst, like beluga caviar, sells by the ounce. Assuming it’s similar to the film, Forman’s story throttles between two events: Mia (Chloe Grace Moretz) falling in love for the first time and all of her family bar none dying in a horrific car accident. Like pie and ice cream, this sappy romance comes with calamity a la mode.


The crash – revealed in the trailers – happens early on. So while I’m not quite laying out a major spoiler smackdown, I’ll spare you the hyper-lachrymose details and tell you that people be dying. As Mia and her stretcher-bound family speed off to the hospital director R.J. Cutler finds it the perfect time to introduce Mia’s on-again-off-again romance with Jonas Brother wanna-be Adam (Jamie Blackley). Their high school romance is spliced into the tale in long-winded, saccharine flashbacks. Because who doesn’t want their fledging romance served up with ambulance sirens and life support tubes?

Withdrawing from her physical body, Mia experiences an “out of body” trip where she watches over herself and her equally battered family members. Completely unnecessary from a narrative perspective, it allows Moretz to narrate at us in gushy, jejune “prose”. One by one, the fate dominoes fall the wrong way and she considers bailing on her own body and giving up to the great void of white light. It’s so hopelessly dramatic that I’m surprised she didn’t come down with a case of Million Dollar bedsores during her stay.

Offscreen, Cutler lathers up the melodrama like he’s hosting a Nicholas Spark car wash on a hot day. He wants so badly for you to cry, he’ll shoulder tap to remind you of just how sad everything is as often as he can. Throw up your arms and howl at the sky, Cutler’s coming fa ya tears!


But get them he shall not. In my theater, there was a grown woman weeping petulantly as the gimpy drama unfolded onscreen. When I encountered her a few days later, she admitted how cheap the shots were, how lame her tears ultimately had been. If I Stay is the amazingly bad weepy flick that’ll have people taking back their tears.

Regurgitating all the stops like from a Sparknote’s “How to Do Tragedy for Dummies”, If I Stay is a pathetically aimless attempt to weave sadness into a story. It’s so emotionally inept that it makes this year’s other tragic teenage love story – the one in which cancer-stricken 18-year olds make out in Anne Frank’s attic as tourist bystanders cheer them on – look like an Oscar contender.

I pity Mireille Enos (The Killing) who really does give it her all here, but everything about the flick is hammy past the point of pulled pork. She’s the only one who seems to try to reign in the supremely blood-and-thunder aspects of Forman’s tragiporn. Moretz goes for broke and breaks herself. Blackley is as helpless and hapless as Old Yeller. Someone put his pout down. Someone rip that earring out.


All in all, If I Stay is the feeble movie equivalent of dubstep. The only reason I can see it being worthwhile for a viewer familiar with the books is the wait for the drops. Lying in wait, accepting all the sappy mess sandwiched in between, is this what makes this heinous experiment in contrived hardship worthwhile? Does the same impulse that dictates people to thrash their head on a downbeat inspire them to want to yank their heartstrings and blubber at artificial woe? Everything is blanketed in oily snow with Heitor Pereira‘s musical score leaking sap like a maple tree.

If I Stay is the useless kind of movie for people who have nothing else to be bummed about. It invites you to wonder if people do sit around and revel in the slow reveal of dead characters? If I Stay thinks yes. I say no.


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Talking with Chloe Grace Moretz of IF I STAY

At the tender young age of 12, Chloe Grace Moretz suited up in purple spandex and dropped profanities like a pirate’s parrot. Offensive to some and provocative to all, her role as Hit-Girl exposed her to the world in a big way and it was a career moved that has since paid off ten-fold. She’s since starred in films such as Martin Scorsese‘s Hugo, the American horror remake of Let the Right One In, Let Me In, Marc Webb‘s beloved indie flick (500) Days of Summer, Kimberly Peirce‘s remake of Carrie, Tim Burton‘s Dark Shadows and just this year filmed Laggies under Lynn Shelton with Keira Knightley. I would invite you to find a younger actor alive today who’s worked with such big names, but it wouldn’t be worth you time. You simply couldn’t.


Unfortunately, Moretz’s latest effort, an adaptation of Gayle Forman‘s popular teenage trag-mance (tragic romance) If I Stay, is a total miff. Nevertheless, Chloe had a chance to talk through her career and how she’s gracefully transformed from a little vitriol-spitting hero into a talented young woman with a long career in front of her. 


First off, let’s start with the cello. Your characters plays the cello in the movie, it’s an “instrumental” part of her character. Obviously there’s a little bit of movie magic going on with you actually playing it, unless you’re really that killer at the cello….

Chloe Moretz: No.

So talk a little bit about that. Do you actually play any cello? Do you play any other instruments?

CM: Pretty much, I trained for about seven months on the cello, to kind of learn it, and understand it. The biggest part of it was the emotionality, because I couldn’t learn that intricate of an instrument that quickly, so the number one was always learning the emotionality of it.

The passion behind it.

CM: Yeah, the passion behind it, and how it kind of takes over your entire body, as you play the cello. You become one.

So, are there any complete pieces that you can play?

CM: No. I had it in my hands, and I learned a couple of Bach pieces, and stuff like that, but as I was saying, I could get down the physicality of it, but the sound that was coming out of it was pretty horrific.

Fake it until you make it, if you will. It definitely looks like you’re ripping on it, so that’s good.

CM: That’s because they did a little bit of digital face replacement. My double’s sick!

You’ve worked with some great directors, so far. You’re only seventeen years old and you’ve worked with Scorsese, Tim Burton, Matt Reeves, Matthew Vaugh, Marc Webb etc. Has there ever been a moment when you’re going to one of those meetings, and you meet a movie legend like Martin Scorsese, and you are starstruck and taken aback?

CM: I think, I kind of look at it now where I’m kind of sad that I did that, that I did ‘Hugo’ when I was thirteen, because I had no clue. I had no idea what it meant to work with Martin Scorsese. It wasn’t like that, I understood it, but I didn’t UNDERSTAND it, you know what I mean? I look at him now, and I see him again, and I’m like “Oh my god! You’re in front of me, and I’m talking to you!” And then I remember, we made a movie together for like ten months. I know you really well. It’s funny, I just wish that I had done it when I was a little bit older, so I could comprehend what it meant.

Speaking of being a little bit older, rather a little bit younger, your vulgar introduction to the world was in “Hit Girl” in Kick Ass. I’m wondering, what did that do to the trajectory of your career, starting off in such a controversial way?

CM: Honestly, I think it helped me, because I didn’t start off playing the little sister, I didn’t start off playing the little kid. So no one ever had, in their mind’s eye, things like, “Little Baby Chloe”, it was more like adult Chloe. My transition into being more of an adult actor hasn’t been as hard for me as some, who do Disney and everything else. It’s a bit more intricate for them to have to try to make that swift change from child to adult.

And what kind of personal impact has this had on you, compared to some of your peers and contemporaries, around your same age?

CM: I mean, no personal impact, I think it’s just kind of helped my career a little bit. Personally, I’m the same kid. Maybe I’m a little bit less sheltered than probably a little bit more normal kid…

Right, because you don’t have to make that shiny, glimmery transition to adulthood.

CM: I don’t have to lie, yeah.

At this point in your career, you’ve done a lot of strong work, but you haven’t been in any big franchises, as of yet.

CM: No, not until Fifth Wave starts! I’m actually starting my next franchise on September 20th, called The Fifth Wave.

The Fifth Wave, can you tell me a little bit about that?

CM: It’s Rick Yancey’s new trilogy. Basically, it’s based on this alien invasion, and there’s this girl who’s trying to find her brother, to rekindle her life.

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Out in Theaters: CARRIE

Directed by Kimberly Peirce
Starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Julianne Moore, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Alex Russell, Zoë Belkin, Ansel Elgort, Judy Greer
Drama, Horror
99 Mins

We all know the delightful bedtime story of Carrie and the Pig’s Blood Prom: strange, loner girl experiences first bloodbath period (literally and figuratively) at school and becomes the target of tampon-slinging ridicule from her merciless peers. Charitable popularite Sue repents and urges hot-stuff boyfriend, Tommy, to bring Carrie to the prom, where she receives an unexpected swine viscus shower and promptly employs telekinesis to exact a wrecking ball of bloody revenge. It’s squarely within the horror genre, but it’s never really been a scary movie. The subject is far more unsettling and grotesque, a step back from jumpy frights and into demented psychology. Kimberly Peirce attempts to navigate the open can of worms within that tender, twisted psyche but stops short, pursuing the studio-brandished sheen of an American Hollywood horror remake.

As the film opens, Peirce provides a new introduction to Carrie. We meet her as a slimy head emerging from her mother’s womb, met with all the warmth and motherly love of a trembling butcher knife clutched by Julianne Moore‘s Margaret – a woman convinced her child is the product of sin and, accordingly, born of the devil. This new scene solidifies the weapon-wielding, love-hate relationship between mother and daughter that will go on to become a through line of Peirce’s retelling of the story while also playing at our natural guardian sensibilities that no baby should be inches from a razor sharp blade. It invites the right type of winches and cringes from an uneasy audience desiring something fresh.

Securing Moore as Margaret is a move of inspired casting. Moore’s usual warmth is gone, replaced with jitterish paranoia and a penchant for closet-rearing corporal punishment. The real irony though is that in spite of all of her bible-thumping madness, she is pretty much right on the money all along. Carrie’s abilities may not necessarily be born of the devil but a very easy utilitarian argument could be made that if Margaret pulled the trigger on her infanticide instinct, she would have saved the town a lot of grief and a lot of lives. But tricky debates of this nature are tabled and left wholly unexamined.

Skirting around these deeper philosophical questions that would have made for a much more interesting movie (more of a reinvention than an outright remake) Peirce’s Carrie settles with being largely a paint-by-numbers remake, doused in a blanket of digital makeup from all the wonders of current CGI technology.

Hunched like a troll, the teenage version of Carrie is awkward like a platypus. Corner-standing and slinking seem to be her main primary hobbies around the high school she attends, so it’s no wonder she doesn’t have a Facebook full of friends. In fact, she doesn’t really seem to have a Facebook at all (gasp). 

Following her unsettling shower scene though, Carrie seems to somehow become more confident than she was before, as if her virginal menstration opened up a new chapter in the book de Carrie’s mind. But that probably has less to do with that nasty pool of time-of-the-month blood and more to do with the telekinetic powers that seem to accompany her corporeal transformation into an adult. I don’t know if Carrie’s physical coming into womanhood is supposed to be linked to the emergence of her powers but they definitely both seem to start their flow around the same moment.

At any rate, Carrie goes about wielding her new found powers with the sneakiness of a jitterbug-thumbed high-schooler texting a storm in the midst of Spanish class. That is – how the hell is no one noticing?! She screams and tampons flutter away from her, she’s visibly upset and water coolers crumble like piñatas. While this version really ratchets up the degree of foreboding in the escalation of Carrie’s powers, it fails to take into account the reactions of those around her. It’s as if they’re all used to telekinesis, like it ain’t no thang.

Conceivably, their ignorance could be a side effect of the fact that everyone at this untitled Maine school is pretty much the worst person in the world. Even the English teacher mocks Carrie between takes eye-banging his female students. While I’m sure that opening the floor to debate about the relative ease or difficulty of people’s high school experiences is another can of worms entirely, I’m a homegrown Mainer and I don’t think you could pinpoint any school, Maine or otherwise, where every single person would burst out laughing at you in the midst of the most unfortunate moment of your life. Surely, they’re the next level of “tough crowd”. I’m fully aware that this is a work of fiction and as such everything is amped up a notch for effect but this “everyone is the worst” reality really stood out to me in this version as disingenuous and irritating. 

As Hollywood’s go-to girl for teenage risqué, Chloë Grace Moretz works well as Carrie and is far easier to empathize with than the otherworldly pale Sissy Spacek from Brian De Palma‘s version. She’s more of an ordinary girl under extraordinary circumstances than a full-blown weirdo –  someone who could have been perfectly normal if she wasn’t subject to the manipulation of her Looney-Toon mama.

It’s clear to me that the main issue with this film and with the story, is that it only works if everyone, save for Carrie, is the worst. Otherwise, we’re rooting for a serial killer. Dexter may have proved that that formula can work, but only if it’s done right. I understand that we’re supposed to sympathize with poor Carrie and the ghastly deeds brought down on her but the world in her reality is just so plastic, so invented, and so aggravating. Couple that with the fact that you’re probably going into Carrie already knowing the conclusion and it’s hard to imagine that what Peirce has cooked up will satisfy those who are looking for more than mere updated special effects.


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