Happy Death Day


Isn’t reliving the same day over and over and over again a scream?

(2017) Horror (Blumhouse) Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Ruby Modine, Charles Aitken, Laura Clifton, Jason Boyle, Rob Mello, Rachel Matthews, Ramsey Anderson, Brady Lewis, Phi Vu, Tenea Intriago, Blaine Kern III, Cariella Smith, Jimmy Gonzales, Billy Slaughter, Donna Duplantier, GiGi Erneta, Lindsey Smith, Dane Rhodes, Caleb Spillyards, Missy Yager. Directed by Christopher Landon

We all have days that we’d rather forget. Days in which things don’t go the way they’re supposed to, days in which we do things we’re not proud of, days when we’re the victims of bad circumstances. Think about how awful it would be to relive those days over and over and over again; it would be enough to drive anyone insane.

Tree Gelbman (Rothe) is having that kind of day that nobody wants to relive. The Bayview College sorority sister wakes up after a night spent partying in a dorm room – a dorm room! – apparently having spent the night with a cute but nondescript guy named Carter (Broussard) whose name she has already forgotten. She makes her way across campus to the sorority house, encountering a global warming activist, a couple soaked by a sprinkler and a fainting frat pledge. Her dad keeps calling and she keeps on ignoring the calls.

He’s calling because it’s her birthday and she’s going to have an even worse day than she’s already had. That evening, on the way to a frat party, she is ambushed by someone wearing a mask of the college’s mascot (the Bayview Babies – really?) who shoves a knife into her – several times.

But then she wakes up, much to her surprise and then she relives the same day, the same events, only to meet the same fate. No matter how she changes things up, her killer always finds her. She realizes she’s going to have to find out the identity of her killer if she’s to escape his homicidal rage and bust out of this strange and terrible time loop.

This is a movie that borrows liberally from other movies, most notably Groundhog’s Day and Scream. I don’t think a movie has to reinvent the wheel every time out but there should be at least some originality and some effort put in to developing the characters so they aren’t just two-dimensional types but that doesn’t really happen here. And that’s okay so long as the movie remains entertaining and thankfully it does.

Rothe is the centerpiece here. Tree starts out the movie self-centered and shallow in what is pretty much a sorority stereotype but as you’d guess during the course of her many relived days she begins to discover what a bitch she’s been and  begins to actually grow. By the end of the movie she’s still not entirely likable – wisely the writers don’t go a complete 180 on us – but she’s more likable. Rothe, a veteran of young adult movies and the Mary + Jane TV show on MTV, shows a great deal of presence and camera-friendliness. I hope she’ll be able to break out of these teen stereotype roles and get some meatier parts at some point soon.

I do like the meta twist at the end – that was an unexpected delight – but discovering who the killer is isn’t going to take a lot of brain power for anyone who has seen more than one or two slasher movies in their time. I would have liked to see more of the self-awareness that the writers showed at the end as it would  have made the movie a lot more fun since the slasher aspect was so rote.

The movie has done pretty well at the box office especially considering it’s bargain basement production budget and I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a sequel or two on the horizon. There are some pretty fun aspects here and if your expectations aren’t too high you should get a kick out of the film, although I would tend to recommend it more for teens and young adults who haven’t seen a whole lot of slasher movies but like the ones that they’ve seen. On that basis what they see here will seem a lot more fresh and new than it does for older farts like this reviewer who has been there and seen that but was entertained nonetheless.

REASONS TO GO: Rothe has some potential as a lead actress. The Meta ending was much appreciated.
REASONS TO STAY: The film borrows too liberally from other movies. The plot twist is a little too easily figured out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and scenes of terror, some crude sexuality as well as brief partial nudity, profanity and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The producers couldn’t get the rights to use the ringtone in the trailer, 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” so they were forced to use an original tune as Tree’s ringtone in the movie.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Groundhog’s Day
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Light of the Moon

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He Named Me Malala


Malala Yousafzai reflective.

Malala Yousafzai reflective.

(2015) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Malala Yousafzai, Ziauddin Yousafzai, Toor Pekai Yousafzai, Khushal Yousafzai, Atal Yousafzai, Mobin Khan. Directed by Davis Guggenheim

Heroes are few and far-between in this age of self-centered me-first consumerism. We’re all so wrapped up in getting more likes on our posts, or having more YouTube followers that we lose track of the important things. These are First World problems admittedly, but when you think of the struggles of millions of young woman who are being prevented from receiving an education, our problems pale in significance.

Malala Yousafzai was named for Malalai of Pashtu, a folk hero who in 1880 at the Battle of Maiwand during the Second Anglo-Afghan War rallied fleeing Afghan troops back onto the battlefield and towards eventual victory at the cost of her own life. She was 17 (or in some accounts 18) years old when she died. Some relatives urged her father to change her name because it augured an early death for the child but Ziauddin was resolute.

As most people are aware, the then-14 year old Pakistani girl spoke out against the Taliban’s edict preventing any female from attending any school in the Swat Valley. She felt this to be unfair and ridiculous but on October 9, 2013 she was shot in the face by a Taliban gunman. Her condition was so severe that she was flown to England for medical treatment on a specially outfitted Saudi jet.

She eventually recovered from her wounds but was disfigured slightly and has issues moving certain muscles in her face, leaving her with a somewhat crooked smile which is actually quite endearing. And she has lost none of her fire or passion as she continues to crusade for the rights of young girls to be educated, from Nigeria to the Middle East and beyond.

Along the way she meets with dignitaries (like President Obama), cultural icons (like Bono of U2) and media stars (like Jon Stewart). Her message never flags and her voice never wavers. She is committed to her cause which in itself is a minor miracle; how many teens do you know that are committed to anything?

&And she is very much a teenage girl, giggling and blushing as she views pictures of Roger Federer and Brad Pitt online, bantering with her brothers and trying to continue to do well with her studies. Ziauddin moved the entire family to England as it was no longer safe for them in Swat Valley as the Taliban has affirmed that they will kill her Malala the moment she sets foot there. What big strong men these are to threaten a teenage girl. They are ideologically bankrupt.

Ideology is important in the story of Malala; when asked if he would like to see the man responsible for shooting his daughter brought to justice, Ziauddin says no. “It wasn’t a man that shot Malala, it was an ideology.” Powerful words indeed, cloaked in truth as they are.

Guggenheim, auteur of An Uncomfortable Truth and Waiting for ‘Superman,’ gets access to the Yousafzai in England and his sequences of Malala at home and relaxed are the best in the movie. The more we see her as a person and the less we see her as an icon, the more powerful her message becomes.

But it’s hard not to see her as an icon, because her courage is so extraordinary and her voice so powerful and clear. If Guggenheim is guilty of hero worship – and he is – it is understandable. The girl’s natural force is like a tsunami hitting the shore but instead of causing damage it is sweeping away intolerance.

Guggenheim uses pastel animations to show the stories of both Malala and her namesake (although there is film footage available – and it is used – much of her young life was not documented and so cracks need to be filled) which can be intrusive at times because they are so stylized, but the animation itself is beautiful. The use of animation in documentaries is rapidly becoming a cliche and great care should be taken in its use for at least awhile.

We do see very little of Malala’s mother and that is on purpose. She is a rather shy and retiring woman, having not received the education that Malala and her father value. Instead, she is more of a traditional Pakistani wife and mother and prefers not to labor under the intense glare of the international spotlight that her daughter must now embrace. It is in no way denigrating her or her values, nor women in general as some ignorant critics have suggested; it is simply that some people don’t want to become famous.

This is one of those movies where the story trumps the technique. Malala Yousafzai is a profile in courage and is worthy of all the praise my inadequate talents can heap upon her, but this documentary is a little bit too by-the-book and too surface-oriented to really be truly remarkable. It’s serviceable and tells you the basic about Malala, who she is and what she has to say. You will come away admiring her but no more than you would from reading her Wikipedia entry and that’s the tragedy of this movie – if it had been half as compelling as its subject, this would have been a powerful experience indeed.

REASONS TO GO: The relationship between Malala and Ziauddin is touching. Her story is one that everyone should know.
REASONS TO STAY: Guilty of a little bit of hero-worship (and so am I).
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images and some thematic material that might be upsetting to young children.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malala is the youngest person ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize (she shared it with Indian child rights advocate Kailash Satyarthi in 2014).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/13/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gandhi
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Winter on Fire

Carnage (2011)


The definition of awkward civility.

The definition of awkward civility.

(2011) Dramedy (Sony Classics) Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, Christoph Waltz, John C. Reilly, Elvis Polanski, Eliot Berger, Joe Rezwin (voice), Nathan Rippy (voice), Tanya Lopert (voice), Julie Adams (voice), Lexie Kendrick (voice). Directed by Roman Polanski

For a very long time, philosophers and psychologists have examined the thin veneer of civilization that masks humankind; the term used for it is “the ape in the velvet cloak.” It is uncomfortably easy to strip that cloak off to reveal the gorilla within it, and it happens all too often.

Two children have had a violent encounter in the park. Little Zachary Cowan (E. Polanski) has smacked little Ethan Longstreet (Berger) in the face with a stick, knocking out some teeth in the process. Now their parents are getting together to resolve the matter.

In the Brooklyn apartment of Michael (Reilly) and Penelope (Foster) Longstreet are Alan (Waltz) and Nancy (Winslet) Cowan. These are all four successful people, who are confident that they can resolve this incident in a civilized manner. They are constantly being interrupted however by business calls to Alan, who is a lawyer for a less-than-above-board pharmaceutical firm. Michael’s ill mother (Lopert) is also calling him, and as it turns out she’s using the prescription drug that is at the center of controversy for Alan’s client.

As the afternoon wears on and a convivial drink turns to several, the conversation becomes less civil and long-submerged grievances come to the surface. When they do, the behavior turns childish and petty, the marriages turn out to be less stable than they first appeared to be. Alliances between couples, between social classes dissolve and reform only to dissolve again. A conversation that appeared to have been resolved in the first 20 minutes has continued for an hour and a half and threatens to change the dynamic in the relationships and self-worth of all four “adults” involved.

To preface the rest of the review, I am fully aware of the name on the director’s chair and of the crime that he committed that forced him to flee this country and never return. There are those who will see that name and choose not to see this movie or even read further this review. Fair enough. I understand the sentiment and only wish you to know that by publishing this review I am neither condoning his actions of thirty years ago nor supporting him as a person. I am merely reviewing this movie and you can make of that what you will.

Polanski is incomparable at setting a mood and he manages to ratchet up the tension here to nearly unbearable levels. The anger is palpable, almost a fifth presence in the cramped apartment and the four walls that make up the setting of the movie (except for a brief prologue and epilogue) close in not only on the participants but on the audience as well.

The movie starts with pleasantness between the two couples, morphing into awkward civility before blowing up into downright hostility and the descent is a quick but logical one. It helps that you have four Oscar caliber actors – three winners and the fourth a nominee – who by themselves can carry a movie. Having four of them together makes this an experience no fan of great acting performances will want to miss.

Where the movie falls short actually is a fault of the original play that this is based on. The business at hand is actually concluded early on; there is no logical reason for the Nancy and Michael to remain in the Longstreets apartment and yet they do and it is quite frankly a bit of a contrivance. There’s also a subplot involving a hamster that in all honesty seems to be there to pad the film’s running time. The ending lacks punch and gives the effect of a movie that just fizzles out like a dud firecracker, not the way you want your audience to leave the auditorium.

There is definitely a stage-y quality to the movie that I believe that Polanski meant to do on purpose, to give the film audience the effect of being in a small locked room with the characters which further heightens the discomfort and awkwardness. I don’t think anyone wants to be in a room with a bunch of people acting childishly and maliciously, doing venal things to score psychological points and you may not choose to want to spend the full hour and a half with these people either, although quite frankly with a better ending it might have been worth the wait. Despite the great performances which I do recommend, there isn’t much of a reason to subject yourself to this at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Terrific actors giving strong performances.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Claustrophobic. Pointless.
FAMILY VALUES: There is enough profanity to warrant an R rating.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was shot in real time without breaks and, with the exception of the scenes in the park, in a single location.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a Q&A with Waltz and Reilly, as well as footage from the film’s gala premiere.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $27.6M on a $25M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, Flixster
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Entourage

Desert Flower


You can never get her goat.

You can never get her goat.

(2009) Biodrama (National Geographic) Liya Kebede, Sally Hawkins, Craig Parkinson, Meera Syal, Anthony Mackie, Juliet Stevenson, Timothy Spall, Soraya Omar-Scego, Matt Kaufman, Tim Seyfi, William de Coverly, Mahamed Mohamoud Egueh, Teresa Churcher. Directed by Sherry Horman

Africa has amazing vistas, incredible beauty that can’t be properly appreciated except in person. She also has her share of beautiful women, some who have gone on to international stardom as actresses and models. However, Africa has also had more than its share of shame in regards to how she treats her women.

Waris Dirie (Kebede) is a beautiful Somalian who lives in a nomadic tribe. Hers is a family of goat herders who live a simple lifestyle. However when she is a little girl she suffers a horrible tradition – female genital circumcision, in which her genitalia are cut so that she may not feel pleasure during the sexual act and her labia is then sewn together so that her husband may be assured that his new wife is a virgin until he cuts her cord, so to speak. It is a barbaric custom (not found in the Koran by the way) that certain African tribes adhere to. Many women die from infection and botched cuttings every year.

Waris however survives and is eventually promised in marriage as a third wife to a repulsive old man. Rather than accept this fate, she walks away, literally – traversing the desert to Mogadishu to find her grandmother, who sends her to London with an uncle who happens to be the Somali ambassador to England. When he returns home after the end of his term, she remains. She meets the ditzy shopgirl Marylin (Hawkins) who helps get her a job scrubbing floors at a local MacDonald’s. There she is discovered by fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Spall).

With the help of a rather grumpy agent named Lucinda (Stevenson) she soon rises to the top of the modeling world. Despite a few pitfalls (including some sexualized shoots which clearly make her uncomfortable), she becomes a superstar, developing a relationship with Harold Jackson (Mackie), a neighbor. However, during an interview when she talks frankly about her circumcision her life is changed forever as she moves from model to activist, becoming the face of female genital circumcision and in the process it’s leading advocate in the fight against it.

This is all very compelling on paper but sadly this movie doesn’t exist on paper but on celluloid and director Horman elects to waste a lot of time with non-essentials, particularly in regards to her pre-model time in London when it seems the story is moving in a certain direction but takes an excruciatingly long time to get there.

Kebede, a Nigerian supermodel herself, does a surprisingly solid turn as Waris. It is fortunate that she resembles her peer facially but she carries herself with a great deal of dignity and grace that African women seem to have in abundance. She also captures her character’s shame and embarrassment at having been mutilated.

Hawkins and Spall do well in their roles, as does Stevenson and Syal as an aunt. The Somalian sequences are beautifully desolate. It’s a pretty good-looking film. It’s just a shame the filmmakers fumbled the ball a bit when it comes to getting the power of their message across. In more capable hands this could have been a terrific film.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story and Kebede shows great promise in her debut.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfocused and muddled too often. Wastes time on trivial aspects and seems to relegate the central theme almost to the background at times.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a sex scene (although not graphic) and some modeling nudity. There’s also a little bit of violence but the theme may be rather rough to discuss with children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Waris Dirie had a small role in the James Bond film The Living Daylights with Timothy Dalton.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s an interview with lead actress Liya Kebede that is quite interesting.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $14.6M on an unknown production budget; I’d guess this was a big hit.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skin

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: Django Unchained