T2 Trainspotting

When we last left Scottish heroin addict-turned-peddler Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor), he was hightailing it out of London, away from cohorts Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson (Jonny Lee Miller), Daniel “Spud” Murphy (Ewen Bremner), and Francis “Franco” Begbie (Robert Carlyle). The amount of cash in his clutches (£12,000) only told half of the story of his double cross.

Both his duffel bag and conscience were lighter than intended, with £4,000 waiting in a locker for sweet, stupid Spud, and for the first time, a future in widescreen – not necessarily constrained by drugs or deadbeat friends or hometown blues. Renton’s three-quarter-assed duplicity could mean an honest life thereafter. Or it could mean a further two weeks of drug-fueled folly capped off by a toe tag. It was the ending “Trainspotting” required, not just for its antihero, but also for director Danny Boyle and screenwriter John Hodge to give audiences a chance to decompress, to make their own sense of the madness they’d just been a party to.

It also meant that a potential sequel would have to offer up a damn good reason to reunite Renton and his ex-friends – and us.

“T2 Trainspotting” never quite pinpoints that reason, never evokes any real pangs of nostalgia despite directly commenting on the very idea. Its primary function is as a vehicle for Danny Boyle to Danny Boyle all over the place. Frenzied editing, lurid imagery, and sharp narrative turns (all rightfully beloved hallmarks of the “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Steve Jobs” filmmaker) are too much here, overshadowing the reason anyone would be up for a “Trainspotting” sequel in the first place – the characters.

As the film opens, Renton is still running, running, running until he can’t anymore. The now forty-something literally falls off a treadmill, a laughably loud metaphor for what’s to follow. Although he’s clean and living a relatively normal life in the Netherlands, unseen domestic problems finally allow his past the jump on him. He returns to Edinburgh to repay Sick Boy, his erstwhile best friend who’s still understandably upset about Renton’s betrayal. This sets into motion some good (at long last clearing Spud of his druggie demons), some bad (a volatile friendship rekindled), and some very ugly (Franco, a prison fugitive, dreaming of Renton’s comeuppance).

About as loosely based on Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting follow-up Porno as the original film was based on the original novel, Boyle and Hodge imbue the picture with a familiar but far less graceful kind of tonal whiplash. As the duo trace their fearsome foursome through the turning over of new leaves and the return of some old ones, the film episodically, clumsily attempts to mirror its predecessor. What’s at first a bit of rambunctious fun reaches its nadir in the form of a groanworthy love story between Renton and Sick Boy’s prostitute girlfriend Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova).

The purpose of their dalliance on the part of Hodge’s screenplay is twofold: One, to lend an air of believability to Renton and Sick Boy’s plan to start a brothel. Two, to allow Renton a reprisal of his famous “Choose Life” monologue. The scene is the worst kind of nostalgia play, further marred by wonky dubbing and the sense that it was written at least five years ago. Every other word seems outdated as it rolls off McGregor’s tongue.

The characters’ respective stations in life mostly make sense (Spud’s difficulties provide the film with its emotional throughline; Sick Boy’s scummy professional life feels authentic), but Franco’s is a bust. With his storyline not connecting to Renton’s for over an hour, he often seems as though he’s not just in a different film, but a different universe. His relatively cozy life as a prison escapee suggests that Scottish fugitives live comfortable lives at home, where the authorities would never think to look. It’s this kind of narrative crosstalk that consistently belies the intelligence of the original film.

Fatefully, the picture’s best scene comes when Renton and Franco finally come together, sort of, in adjacent bathroom stalls. It’s a brilliantly funny, harrowing moment that serves as a perfect representation of how scattershot and less than the sum of its parts the whole enterprise is.

A film that was surely a joy to make is only intermittently one to watch, its ear-splitting soundtrack intrusive in a way the original’s never was. A surprisingly dark climax marked with hilariously overwrought lighting is everything to love and hate about “T2 Trainspotting” – and Danny Boyle – all at once. Twenty years on from the filmmaker and cast’s first big score, they try with all their might to recapture that old magic whilst saying something new. They do a little of both, but not nearly enough, likely cementing Boyle’s previous averseness to sequels.

Should life provide you two hours to spend with Renton and company, choose “Trainspotting.”

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017 (Limited)
Studio: TriStar Pictures (Sony)
Director: Danny Boyle
Screenwriter: John Hodge
Starring: Ewan McGregor, Jonny Lee Miller, Ewen Bremner, Robert Carlyle, Anjela Nedyalkova, Kelly Macdonald
MPAA Rating: R (for drug use, language throughout, strong sexual content, graphic nudity and some violence)

Ghost In The Shell

Warning: moderate “Ghost In The Shell” spoilers below.

The instant Scarlett Johansson (“Under The Skin”) was announced as the lead in Hollywood’s live-action adaptation of 1989 Japanese manga and 1995 anime feature “Ghost In The Shell,” the knives came out. Accusations of whitewashing clanged around the Internet, loudened by ultimately unfounded rumors that Johansson, a white actress, would be made to appear Asian in the film. For the first hour and change of the finished film, the casting controversy seems a blessing in disguise for any Asian actress that might have had to shoulder such a mewling dud. Director Rupert Sanders’ sci-fi actioner comes off like a pained imitation of genre jewels “RoboCop” and “Blade Runner,” unduly proud of its gamut of glitzy establishing shots, airtight in its disinclination to charisma.

But then, the movie does something remarkable. It hands off its own whitewashing – its own insistence on having a bankable white actress on its one-sheet – onto the narrative itself. Johansson isn’t just playing anti-terrorist super-cop Major Mira Killian, human brain in a cybernetic body. She’s playing a Japanese girl whose brain has been non-consensually placed in a white cybernetic body. In passing the whitewashing buck onto the text, Rupert Sanders and screenwriters Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, and Ehren Kruger pull off the triple Lutz of cynical studio filmmaking. It would be astounding if it weren’t so shameful.

Once past the racial overtones and some admittedly impressive imagery that, like a gumball, loses its flavor within minutes, the film is only noteworthy in that it’s Johansson’s fourth to take on the same subject matter: What it means to be human. Accordingly, the actress seems kind of over it. She lurches through the movie like a robot might lurch if robots starred in movies and were capable of being uninterested in the movies they were making. And she delivers her wooden dialogue with the same kind of indifference. But as a genuine movie star with built-in appeal, she’s a relative bright spot among the cast, the rest an abyss of charisma.

The worst transgressor is Danish actor Pilou Asbæk who co-stars as Batou, Major’s right hand. His resemblance to a young Stephen Lang is the only discernible skill he brings to the table, yielding a performance that could have only been improved by the likes of the oft-maligned Jai Courtney or his ilk. Michael Pitt (“Last Days”) turns in an appropriately confused performance as would-be villain and fellow Asian-turned-Caucasian cybernetic organism Hideo Kuze. And then there are Takeshi Kitano as Chief Aramaki and Juliette Binoche as the doctor responsible for Major’s transformation, two excellent actors tasked with carrying scenes dead before arrival.

It’s with good fortune that the producers secured the talents of composer Clint Mansell. He teams up with Lorne Balfe to lift the movie out of the narrative doldrums on musical ability alone, their synth-based score threatening to convince us that we’re watching something vital, something with something to say. Eventually, though, the screenplay and acting and nonstop visual trickery can’t be processed as anything more than digital noise, revealing the true form of “Ghost In The Shell” 2017: a two-hour flatline, best experienced in the form of its trailers or its soundtrack or anything but the film itself.

Instead of the movie’s creative team owning their desire for a white actress to headline a Japanese property, they got cute – or convinced themselves that they were being cute – expecting moviegoers to swallow their race-based twist as a clever bit of subverted expectations; to use their public relations nightmare to prop up a resolutely dull screenplay. They wanted to have their cake and eat it, too. And they have. The trouble is, it’s a really shitty, offensive cake.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 31, 2017
Studio: Dreamworks Pictures, Paramount Pictures
Director: Rupert Sanders
Screenwriter: Jamie Moss, William Wheeler, Ehren Kruger
Starring: Scarlett Johansson, Pilou Asbæk, Takeshi Kitano, Juliette Binoche, Kaori Momoi, Chin Han, Danusia Samal, Yutaka Izumihara, Tuwanda Manyimo, Rila Fukushima
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence, suggestive content and some disturbing images)

Power Rangers

With all the freshness of a discarded 7-Eleven tuna salad sandwich, “Power Rangers” spills into theaters a mess of soggy ingredients, its assembly line roots scarcely concealed. Even for a film based on a longtime merchandising juggernaut, it’s an especially crass bit of 90s revivalism. There’s the incessant product placement, sure. (Doughnut chain Krispy Kreme figures heavily into the narrative – “I just ate dinner at Krisy Kreme” heavy.) But it’s the rote superhero origin storytelling and wan visuals that all but staple the movie to the ground.

The pic’s ancestry dates back to the 1993 debut of television’s “Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers,” but another franchise and another era hang heavy.

Friday, May 3, 2002: Sam Raimi’s “Spider-Man” debuts in theaters across North America. By Sunday, the web-slinger has netted a then mind-exploding $115 million opening frame. The superhero floodgates are open in Tinseltown and studio executives begin a long, torrid love affair with superhero world building. Ten years later Sony needlessly rebuilds Spidey from the ground up, and fifteen years later, here we are, stuck with a Power Rangers movie that doesn’t get its heroes in their suits until 90 minutes in – suits that make them look like bionic Sleestaks.

A juvenile live action superhero franchise turned brooding origin tale (think “Chronicle”) is bad news for everyone; it’s especially bad news for “Project Almanac” filmmaker Dean Israelite. “Power Rangers” sees him directing with execs looming over his shoulder, leading his every move. Together they’ve puked up a lumpy paste of brooding teen drama based entirely on coincidence and action scenes edited so rashly that it’d be tough to know if shots from other movies slipped in. There are flashes of the resolutely silly original series, but they’re only flashes, clashing loudly with a long-winded screenplay and chromatically challenged visuals. The Saban Entertainment property has long been thoughtless in both its plotting and level of violence, but it was always colorful and its five leads reliably served up a surprising amount of personality.

Here the five leads only offer different shades of disappointment. Jason the Red Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), Zack the Black Ranger (Ludi Lin), and Trini the Yellow Ranger (Becky G.) make almost no impact at all, stifled by dull or altogether absent backstories, while Billy the Blue Ranger (RJ Cyler) and Kimberly the Pink Ranger (Naomi Scott) imbue a bit of personality into otherwise bewildering characters. Billy, clearly drawn as autistic by screenwriter John Gatins, is uncomfortably played as comic relief, while Kimberly, originated by the lively Amy Jo Johnson, seems to be missing crucial scenes that likely hit the cutting room floor.

The supporting cast is even more of a puzzle. The presence of Bryan Cranston (“Breaking Bad”) and Bill Hader (“Trainwreck”) is always welcome, even if they’re mostly constrained to secondary animated parts (Zordon and Alpha 5, respectively). Meanwhile, Elizabeth Banks (“The Hunger Games”) as villain Rita Replusa comes closest to recapturing the campiness of the original series but mostly just embarrasses herself with consistently Razzie-ready line readings.

A new Power Rangers film with less exposition and a better grip on the appeal of its source material might have been a welcome addition to the blockbuster landscape. This iteration, however, is a giant question mark of resources and intentions. Who, exactly, was looking for a moody, overlong retelling of how the Power Rangers came into existence? Even 2014’s “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” had the sense to embrace its source material’s color and zip. “Power Rangers” 2017 sees the property drained of what made it popular in the first place, its only upside being that we won’t have to suffer through another Power Rangers origin tale – for a few years, at least.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Lionsgate
Director: Dean Israelite
Screenwriter: John Gatins
Starring: Dacre Montgomery, RJ Cyler, Naomi Scott, Becky G., Ludi Lin, Elizabeth Banks, Bryan Cranston, Bill Hader
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sequences of sci-fi violence, action and destruction, language, and for some crude humor)

Life

How do you pay tribute to Ridley Scott’s sci-fi horror classic “Alien” while breathing fresh air into a long-collapsed narrative lung? In the case of Daniel Espinosa’s “Life,” you don’t. The “Safe House” director and “Deadpool” writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have merely aped “Alien” beat for beat, yielding a subpar creature feature with delusions of grandeur and a cheat of a twist ending. Graphic violence enacted by an E.T. has rarely been so boring.

Starring Jake Gyllenhaal (“Nightcrawler”), Rebecca Ferguson (“Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation”), and Ryan Reynolds (“Self/less”), the picture follows a sextet of astronauts aboard the International Space Station as they capture and examine a returning Martian soil sample. It turns out that the sample contains extraterrestrial life: a viscous glob that, at the provocation of a crew member, mutates into a phallic, bloodthirsty monster.

The cosmonauts are virtually interchangeable, little more than antipasti served up for the alien (named Calvin by earthbound schoolchildren when it was but a wee lump). Erudite chatter among the crew turns into stupid risk-taking (Why not give this obviously volatile organism a jolt of electricity?), which turns into several bloody deaths. The first fatality might come as a surprise to audience members until they realize just how calculated of a surprise it is, done to give an air of unpredictability to an otherwise staunchly predictable piece of sci-fi.

Of the visibly apathetic cast, Gyllenhaal is most out of his element. Known for his impeccable taste in projects and consistently bullish performances, the actor’s involvement here is baffling. Why this project? Why this cipher of a character? His senior medical officer Dr. Jordan proves a lifeless proxy for the audience, spending large chunks of time off screen in favor of Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada as engineer Sho Murakami and black British actor Ariyon Bakare as biologist Hugh Derry, each doing much more to push the narrative forward than the trio of white faces on the film’s one-sheet.

Ferguson’s Dr. Miranda North might be the biggest blank of all, given to literally floating in and out of scenes in avoidance of Calvin – and not much else. To Ferguson’s credit, she’s able keep a straight face through Gyllenhaal’s climactic, deadly serious reading of children’s picture book Goodnight Moon, from which the solution to their potentially apocalyptic predicament is derived.

This all adds up to a monster movie reminiscent of poorly received Stephen King adaptation “Dreamcatcher,” only not as endearingly convoluted and not half as fun; a redo of “Alien” with a mean reductive streak. In kicking their film off with the kind of stateliness that suggests prestige sci-fi (“2001: A Space Odyssey”), Espinosa and his writers’ eventual creature feature stands no chance. Such a graceless segue between the two, without so much as a wink at the audience, absolutely murders any chance the movie might have had with fans of either genre.

Fans of the red stuff might go home happy – if they can stay awake between kills – but surely $60 million could have bought more than a few neat death scenes.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Columbia Pictures (Sony)
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenwriters: Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare, Olga Dihovichnaya
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout, some sci-fi violence and terror)

Beauty And The Beast

It’s been a quarter-century since Walt Disney Pictures released instant classic “Beauty And The Beast” into the wild, netting the first-ever Best Picture nomination for an animated film – not to mention generations of obsessed fans. Not three years later, the studio began spinning their backlog of animated hits into live-action fare. 1994’s “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” and 1996’s “101 Dalmatians” would end up early test runs for the full-on blitz that began in 2014 with “Maleficent.” A “Cinderella,” another “Jungle Book,” and a “Pete’s Dragon” later, Disney was ready to stare creative dubiousness in the face. It was written: needless live-action versions of their very best animated films were worth the all but guaranteed billion-dollar profit margins.

Led by “Dreamgirls” director Bill Condon, the new “Beauty And The Beast” sees the spirit of the late artist Andy Warhol and his famous Campbell’s Soup Cans alive and well. Large swaths of the film are all naked reproduction, leaning hard on composer Alan Menken’s incredible original songs and the 1991 film’s now-ubiquitous imagery. In particular, “Be Our Guest” and the pic’s title track remain ideals of film songcraft, of matrimony between music and visuals. (The late Howard Ashman’s lyrics on the eponymous tune were almost singlehandedly responsible for making the awkward Stockholm syndrome bent of narrative at all palatable. People can change!)

Accordingly, Menken’s songs were and are good enough to levitate any picture lucky enough to bear their cascading melodies and acrobatic wordplay. Lucky for “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 – the mostly mechanical film needs them badly.

The titular tale as old as time, based on the 18th century French fairy tale of the same name, is immediately familiar, albeit filled out. The original’s 84-minute running time has ballooned to 129. You know the drill: A bookish, restless young woman named Belle (Emma Watson, the “Harry Potter” film series) resides in a small village with her widowed father, Maurice (Oscar-winner Kevin Kline, “A Fish Called Wanda”). On a horse-drawn trip to sell his music boxes, Maurice is attacked by wolves and forced to seek refuge in a dark, cavernous castle.

His innocent picking of a rose turns the castle’s inhabitant, a glowering man-beast (Dan Stevens, “The Guest”), against him. Maurice is taken as a prisoner, only released when Belle tracks down her father and trades her life for his. Thus begins a most unlikely love story, hastened by the castle’s assortment of anthropomorphic housewares; a cursed prince who must find love in order to steal back human form for him and his servants is given a fighting chance.

Dan Stevens’ mostly motion-capture performance as the Beast is merely adequate, hampered by the unreality of the CGI (the character’s famous hand-in-hand walk with Belle down the castle stairs is noticeably weightless) and a co-star even less convincing. Emma Watson, an able performer, is totally wrong for the role; too young to replicate the vocal presence of Paige O’Hara (who was well into her 30s when she originated the role) and too old to pass as a repressed teenager. It doesn’t help that her shaky singing voice has been pitch corrected to hell, as if to italicize her shortcomings as a vocalist.

The supporting cast fares better.

With more screen time, Luke Evans (“The Girl On The Train”) might have galloped away with the picture. His Gaston, a boastful, belligerent suitor of Belle’s (and the film’s human villain), is an improbably canny translation of the character’s cartoonish buffoonery into real life. Josh Gad (“Frozen”) fares similarly as Gaston’s right hand man LeFou, given welcome depth here as more than just a platonic admirer. Their big musical number, appropriately titled “Gaston,” is a gas, matched only in energy and color by the movie’s musical centerpiece.

When Ewan MacGregor’s anthropomorphic candle Lumiere breaks into those famous words, “Be…. our…. guest,” it’s impossible not to crack a smile, much less suppress the urge to sing along. Lumiere and his fellow housewares’ big shining moment (MacGregor is joined by Emma Thompson as Mrs. Potts, Ian McKellen as Cogsworth, Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Plumette, and more) marks the pinnacle of the film’s lavish production design and intermittently dazzling special effects. For a few minutes at least, it’s immaterial that MacGregor is no Jerry Orbach, that Thompson is no Angela Lansbury, that “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 is no “Beauty And The Beast” 1991. It’s purely a joy to be taking in “Be Our Guest” in any form, even if performed by a supergroup-cum-cover band.

The screenplay, co-written by Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos, increases its diversions from the original as it chugs along, dotted with a couple middling new songs provided by Menken and some tedious backstory for Belle. The increased running time means more momentum lost between songs, and it eventually leads to a film off the rails. A torturously overlong finale pushes the film into “world’s most elaborate tribute act” territory, finally, fully breaking off from the breakneck pace of the original. By the time the Beast and his domestics are turned back into human beings, Ian McKellen’s bedraggled, grumpy appearance will speak for many.

Since “Beauty And The Beast” 2017 lives in a purgatory that grants no hope of living up to its predecessor, it’s tough to know what kind of curve to grade it on. Not a soul alive wouldn’t be better served by a return trip to the 1991 film. (Then there’s the added benefit of having an extra forty minutes to spare.) But take Emma Watson out of the equation and forgive the integrally more difficult suspension of disbelief (animation is a great lens for fantasy; at this remove this particular story is a little harder to take) and Condon’s film is just about what it should be: A fevered, overblown love letter to a classic. To heights it knows it couldn’t hope to reach.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: Bill Condon
Screenwriter: Stephen Chbosky, Evan Spiliotopoulos
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen, Emma Thompson, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Audra McDonald, Stanley Tucci
MPAA Rating: PG (for some action violence, peril and frightening images)

CHIPS

In 2012, actor Dax Shepard (“Idiocracy”) added writer and director to his résumé with sneakily charming action-comedy “Hit And Run.” His follow-up, “CHIPS,” based on the featherweight television series that ran on NBC from 1977 to 1983 and somehow still lives on in syndication, sees Shepard take a flamethrower to any goodwill left over from his debut. There is nothing funny, fun, or likable about his sophomore effort; nothing enjoyable about the way it flushes a $25 million budget and a typically game Michael Peña (“Ant-Man”) down the toilet in the name of pointless raunch. “CHIPS” is very, very bad.

Cue a laborious buddy-cop setup and score that sounds like it was recorded by an Audioslave cover band and we’re off on two wrong feet.

Shepard stars as rookie California Highway Patrol Jon Baker (role originated by Larry Wilcox), a former professional motorcyclist with the scars, opiate addiction, and trophy wife (Kristen Bell) to prove it. Peña co-stars a Miami-based FBI agent tasked with going undercover as California High Patrol, assuming the identity of Frank “Ponch” Poncherello (role originated by Erik Estrada). Baker’s painkiller problem and Ponch’s seemingly debilitating sex addiction are the movie’s only streams of would-be laughs, as if the past four years saw Shepard develop an allergy to humor.

It’s not just that the movie isn’t funny. It’s that it barely keeps up the appearance of trying to be funny, lazily tossing out sex references like an elderly magician biding his time throwing playing cards at a dusty top hat.

As the new partners set out to unravel a conspiracy within their ranks, Vincent D’Onofrio labors as the pic’s generic baddie. The mystery at the center of the movie is no mystery at all, letting us and just about everyone but Jon and Ponch in on it, failing to generate even the most basic kind of suspense. A modestly compelling story might have covered over the movie’s listless juvenilia and lack of chemistry between its stars. Alas, narrative might be the cellar for “CHIPS.”

There are, of course, vehicular chase scenes, none of them as crisply shot as those in “Hit And Run,” all of them rife with unconcern for geography and poor continuity editing. Even 2005’s comparable “The Dukes Of Hazzard” had the sense to dole out a handful of gnarly car chases. Here, the action is just as sloppy as everything else, ever so often punctuated with a dash cam shot as if to unconvincingly scream, “This is exciting!”

Dax Shepard has unwittingly made the Comic Sans of TV adaptations, only without the chance of future underdog status. Comic Sans, the oft-ridiculed sans-serif typeface, has cultivated a small but enthusiastic following on the Internet. “CHIPS” will cultivate no such following. It is as boring as it is awful, rolling in misogyny and homophobia like a pig in mud, sailing past the 90-minute mark with not a single laugh on the books, careening into its end credits with one last reference to analingus.

At least in its pointlessness, “CHIPS” is fervently committed to fulfilling its name.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Bad)

Release Date: March 24, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Dax Shepard
Screenwriter: Dax Shepard
Starring: Dax Shepard, Michael Peña, Rosa Salazar, Adam Brody, Kristen Bell, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jessica McNamee, Justin Chatwin
MPAA Rating: R (for crude sexual content, graphic nudity, pervasive language, some violence and drug use)

The Belko Experiment

The number of films, novels, and pop culture touchstones from which horror-thriller “The Belko Experiment” cribs requires double digits; it’s a list long enough to fill out an entire review. But for its appreciable nods to “The Cabin In The Woods,” “Office Space,” and both the “Saw” and “Purge” series, the movie is probably best distilled as the Stanford prison experiment (a famously nasty psychological trial itself made into a film in 2015) on amphetamines; a disturbing look at the evil human beings are capable of, only frenzied instead of measured – and soaked in blood.

Penned by “Guardians Of The Galaxy” mastermind James Gunn, “Belko” is firmly rooted in the filmmaker’s exploitation roots. (He got his start in the 1990s with notorious B-movie outfit Troma Entertainment.) As such, the film’s general trashiness is much more in line with Gunn’s career trajectory than the feel-good “Guardians” was. Mainstream audiences beware.

The corporate horror pic sees eighty employees of a dubious company named Belko Industries unceremoniously locked inside their Bogotá, Colombia office building and forced to fight to the death. A sinister voice informs them via intercom of various body count markers that must be met within certain time frames, lest even more people die.

Worst lock-in ever.

None of Gunn’s exclusively white-collar characters, led by average guy Mike Milch (John Gallagher Jr.), are especially well drawn, leaving their inevitable factions of good and evil to arise predictably. Belko COO Barry Norris (Tony Goldwyn) and a ghoulish executive named Wendell (John C. McGinley) prove middling foils for Mike as he and his co-worker and girlfriend Leandra (Adria Arjona) try to survive. Luckily, there’s good fun to be had with new employee Dany (Melonie Diaz). Diaz somehow steals the film with almost no dialogue, bringing some much needed humanity – and a couple of big laughs – to the proceedings.

Although the characters are a mostly unmemorable bunch, Gunn’s knack for mayhem and director Greg McLean’s blunt force direction make for a significant one-two punch, one that’s enough to accomplish what the movie sets out to do: Give viewers alternating adrenaline spikes and darkly sourced laughs. The violence isn’t as weighty as it should be, but it means something, and it’s carried out with energy and panache. When one particular character gets his just desserts, the moment’s incredible mixture of practical and digital effects is sure to evoke fist pumps from genre fans.

Gunn’s screenplay might not be as thematically or psychologically rich as it might have been, nor his players as compelling, but the pic’s eagerness to unlock something primordial in horror nuts is undeniable. In all its blood-spattered glory, this one is proudly for Gunn, by Gunn, a passion project that strikes an often startling balance between real and unreal, tomfoolery and terror. It’s no masterwork, but his ride-or-die fans would be remiss to miss this freakish fruit of his Marvel Studios labor.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: March 17, 2017
Studio: Orion Pictures, BH Tilt
Director: Greg McLean
Screenwriter: James Gunn
Starring: John Gallagher Jr., Adria Arjona, Melonie Diaz, Tony Goldwyn, John C. McGinley, Michael Rooker, David Dastmalchian, Josh Brener
MPAA Rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, language including sexual references, and some drug use)

Kong: Skull Island

All of cinema’s greatest monster mashes have one counterintuitive thing in common: Dynamic human performances. It’s difficult to imagine “Jaws” without Robert Shaw, “Jurassic Park” without Jeff Goldblum,” or “King Kong” without Fay Wray. They and their human co-stars served as crucial counterpoints to the beasts on screen, bringing out the humanity – or lack thereof – in their monstrous foils. Even 2014’s divisive “Godzilla” featured one of the world’s most irresistible actors, even if the film gave his character the heave-ho far too soon.

Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures’ “Kong: Skull Island,” captained by indie writer-director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, has the large animal part down cold. Although the movie’s title character is inexplicably as tall as the skyscrapers he’s known to scale, he is nevertheless a gorgeous CGI creation crafted with love and reverence. The big ape is front and center early and often, seemingly in response to the coolly received slow burn of “Godzilla” 2014. (The two films are set in the same cinematic universe.)

The picture’s logline is equally no-nonsense. It is 1973 and a motley team of Americans and Britons assemble to chopper off to a mysterious island in search of adventure.

Shifty government official Bill Randa (John Goodman) and geologist friend Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are in search of something supernatural. War photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) is after her next paradigm-shifting image. Ex-British Special Services captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) is along for the ride as a hired gun. Rounding out the crew are Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and his squadron (Jason Mitchell, Shea Wigham, Thomas Mann, Toby Kebbell, and more), on board as a heavily-armed military escort.

Bad news, part I: These characters are dreadful. You’ve just learned almost as much information about them as the movie imparts over the course of two hours. (Almost. One of them ends up the film’s human villain.) They don’t even qualify as loose sketches, let alone plausible human beings, with the film awkwardly paying off character bits it never even set up. (Allusions to quirks on the part of Wigham’s looseleaf-thin gunner is the most egregious example.)

Hiddleston and Larson in particular contribute a gaping void of charisma to the proceedings. The indifference with which 2015 Oscar-winner Larson delivers a handful of spectacularly clunky one-liners is enough to wonder if post-Oscar dumpster diving has reached a new low. Hiddleston is every bit as boring, though, as if dead set on shouldering the lion’s share of the blame for such an afterthought of a character. For an actor who hit the scene as a devilish charmer in another cinematic universe (Marvel’s), it feels like a huge fall.

Bad news, part II: The movie brings to mind rumors of Warner Bros. hiring a movie trailer company to edit last year’s “Suicide Squad.” The studio just might be at it again. “Skull Island” is a whirling dervish of suboptimal needle drops, unintelligible editing, and total disregard for pacing. Some will credit “Kong: Skull Island” for being fast-paced, juggling its many creatures with a methamphetamine-inspired editing style. In fact, it is not paced so much as it is thrown at us, seemingly cut with a Cuisinart. Vogt-Roberts and his credited editor Richard Pearson indiscriminately wallop us with action, darting from character to character and scene to scene, none of it making any impact at all.

There’s an exception. John C. Reilly’s turn as a World War II veteran Hank Marlow, long marooned on Skull Island, is a fun one. He commits to the goofy quirks of his grizzled character full stop. It’s as if he’s putting on an impromptu clinic for his fellow actors, all of them unaware as to how much fun they could be having despite the limitations of their respective roles. Marlow isn’t much better drawn than any of them but Reilly reinvents the part from the inside out, nearly wresting the entire movie from its utterly blitzed creative team.

Bad news, part III: Cinematographer Larry Fong. Poor Larry Fong. Last year’s “Batman V Superman” cemented the lenser as one of Hollywood’s go-tos for making total bullshit look undeniably stylish. “Skull Island” is no different, dotted with dozens of dazzling shots that mean absolutely nothing, calling to mind a banana stand full of better movies. (The marketing team’s crush on “Apocalypse Now” is entirely unearned.) Fong’s work, aided by an expert colorist, combined with Industrial Light & Magic’s wonderful Kong makes for nice spectacle. But spectacle is not enough when our human proxies are so devoid of anything approaching personality that they’re not even worthy cannon fodder. As a zombie-like Hiddleston faces off against wiry, bloodthirsty beasts known as skullcrawlers, it’s tough to even muster a yawn.

After all, the most wit the movie can muster is a flatly delivered “Is that a monkey?” at the first sight of its giant antihero, muttered by “Fantastic Four” star Toby Kebbell as if held at gunpoint.

Some directors have made the increasingly common leap from indie to blockbuster look feasible. Jordan-Vogt Roberts is not one. His only other film to date, “The Kings Of Summer,” remains everything “Skull Island” is not: Warm, character-driven, lucid. His crack at King Kong makes Peter Jackson’s grossly overlong 2005 attempt look like a dynamo of personality by comparison, setting the bar for future attempts so low that even a newborn Kong might clear it. He might still be king, but something stinks in Skull Island.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Bad)

Release Date: March 10, 2017
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures, Legendary Pictures
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Screenwriters: Max Borenstein, Dan Gilroy, Derek Connolly
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, John Ortiz, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Shea Whigham, Thomas Mann, Jing Tian
MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action, and for brief strong language)

Logan

Shame on the procession of parents that shepherded their 6 and 7-year-olds into this writer’s IMAX showing of “Logan.” Shame on them for subjecting their young ones to such an unnecessarily cruel bloodbath of a movie. But, also, shame on those parents for not taking their children to a better bloodbath. “John Wick: Chapter 2” was playing right next door.

Writer-director James Mangold’s second Wolverine movie is both a conspicuous baton-taking from last year’s adult-oriented megahit “Deadpool” (also a 20th Century Fox production) and a calculated mea culpa for 2013’s dishwater-dull “The Wolverine.” The result is a vortex of f-words and severed limbs and oh-so-weighty dramaturgy that isn’t just a disingenuous mutation for a once family-friendly franchise. It’s also a crummy way to crown Hugh Jackman’s seventeen mostly thankless years playing the most easily identifiable, crowd-pleasing X-Man.

The film is, above all, a love letter to Jackman. Often laboriously so. It assumes bottomless emotional attachment to both James “Logan” Howlett and Patrick Stewart’s Charles Xavier (Professor X) on the part of us viewers – a not unreasonable ask considering how many bad X-Men movies we’ve suffered through together – and proceeds to loop us through the emotional wringer. The movie is nothing if not committed to swinging out of its shoes in procurement of twinged heartstrings and many man tears.

And yet, the movie brings with it an enormously bleak story whose efficacy requires a storyteller – not to mention an audience – not too fond of its characters. Thusly, such pervasive, grisly violence carried out by a hero who toes the line of serial murderer is a mighty awkward fit for what ultimately amounts to a Hallmark greeting card to its leading man, signed everyone.

Things start out promisingly enough.

It’s 2029 and mutants are more personae non gratae than ever. Logan resides in a dusty, dystopian version of the American Southwest. His indestructability has begun to betray him. The metal alloy (Adamantium) inside his body – the same compound responsible for his claw-wielding, regenerative superpowers – is eating him alive, reducing the once unbreakable “Weapon X” to a graying, depressive shell. His nights are spent chauffeuring people around El Paso, his days across the Mexican border tending to a similarly deteriorating Charles Xavier. Xavier’s particular neurodegenerative disorder results in catastrophic, Earth-shaking seizures if not properly medicated.

In a shrewd bit of casting, British comedian Stephen Merchant plays Xavier’s albino mutant caregiver Caliban. The actor lends a sense of volatility and at least the possibility of levity to early scenes. As the action begins to ramp up, we can’t help but be invested in this oddball trio; not necessarily out of deep-seated affection, but because the odds seem so stacked against them.

The first few action beats are pleasantly intense, significantly but not egregiously upping the series’ ante. But soon the magnitude of the bloodshed sets in. That a child is at the center of it. That Mangold and his co-writers have barely nicked the surface.

From here on in, the broad strokes of “Logan” follow those of last year’s sci-fi drama “Midnight Special” (itself not an especially innovative film), centered on a few adults on the run with a supernaturally gifted youngster. Here, those adults are Logan and Charles, the child a pre-teen Mexican orphan named Laura (Dafne Keen), code name X-23. She is the result of especially cruel multinational genetic experimentation. She is also a clone daughter of Logan, every bit as mistreated by the world, every bit as capable of decapitating bad guys with her retractable claws.

Boyd Holbrook (“A Walk Among The Tombstones”) co-stars as the leader of the beheaded-to-be. He delivers his dialogue with a southern drawl as to underline the movie’s pained, self-made parallels to 1953 western “Shane,” his character never rising above generic mercenary. The screenplay’s real conflict is, after all, inside of Logan, with our protagonist battling old age and mortality and thoughts of suicide. For one last act of act of relative heroism, he’ll attempt to save a sliver of himself (X-23) by transporting her to a mutant safe haven that may or may not exist.

You might be thinking, “Inner conflict sounds terribly low key for a superhero movie,” and you would be right. At a loss for how to string out Logan’s internal torment to feature length, Mangold’s creative team seemingly asked themselves, “What’s the most senseless way to translate internal conflict to the external world?” They find their answer in a literal copy of Wolverine, slightly de-aged, dropping him into their story to murder hordes of innocents and then fight Logan to the death.

The picture’s final stretch makes a dedicated crack at topping the stupidity of the climax of “The Wolverine.” Mutant children run feebly through a forest doing magical computer-generated things (like using their super-powered breath on heavily-armed thugs) that animators have made only slightly more convincing. Meanwhile, Logan fights the aforementioned copy of himself, grunting and slashing his way to a denouement so darkly sentimental as to ensure theaters full of tear-streaked beards.

All of this gloom and doom makes the universally mocked “Batman V Superman” seem absolutely rosy by comparison. For so much deadly serious bloodletting, there is strikingly little talk of what it means. Logan tells X-23 she must learn to live with the killing, but leaves it there, as if his mid-movie slaughtering of incapacitated thugs was justified by saving an old man on the verge of death.

As the author of conventional genre fare like “Walk The Line” and “3:10 To Yuma,” James Mangold has made his living in the middle of the road. As such, the one-noted-ness of “Logan” should come as no surprise. What comes as an enormous surprise is how highly a second-rate road movie and slasher hybrid seems to regard itself. The same thing was efforted ten times more effectively by video game developer Naughty Dog just four years ago. Their masterpiece “The Last Of Us” (yet another better thing that “Logan” cribs from) stands tall above everything else in the subgenre, no matter the medium. Over “Logan,” it towers.

This particular iteration of Marvel Comics’ Wolverine and his movie exist purely to engage in masturbatory violence and then make viewers weepy – and not even through any invention of Mangold and his writers. There is nothing noteworthy about anyone’s work here, except for the geysers of crimson and four-letter words, each hastily ladled on as transparent fan wish fulfillment.

Marvel fans that moonlight as undiscerning gorehounds just might find Valhalla in “Logan,” but the project goes out of its way to give everyone else the cold, dead shoulder.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★ out of ★★★★★ (Not So Good)

Release Date: March 3, 2017
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Director: James Mangold
Screenwriter: James Mangold, Scott Frank, Michael Green
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Stephen Merchant, Boyd Holbrook, Dafne Keen
MPAA Rating: R (for strong brutal violence and language throughout, and for brief nudity)

Get Out

Horror might seem an unlikely space for a career comedian to make his directorial debut, but race-based chiller “Get Out” sees Jordan Peele (“Keanu”) ably exploit the reflexive commonalities between fear and laughter – for a spell.

The movie peaks almost immediately, leading off with an unforgettable bit of musical juxtaposition. First, there’s 1939 British tune “Run Rabbit Run” by comedy duo Flanagan and Allen. The scene at hand reconfigures the song’s bouncy melody and crackly production: It’s the dead of the night. A young black man named Andre (Lakeith Stanfield) is lost in the suburbs, anxiously wandering its poorly lit sidewalks, looking for a sign of life. A white sports car creeps up behind him. Music bleeds from the vehicle. “Run rabbit, run rabbit, run run run! Bang bang bang bang goes the farmer’s gun!”

Andre’s bad night has only just begun.

Then it’s on to psych-funk opus “Redbone” by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover), neatly laid over the film’s opening titles. Here we’re introduced to our protagonist Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), black American and photographer, with the song’s refrain of “stay woke” functioning as a prophecy. A warning. As if Peele’s masterful prologue wasn’t clear enough, Glover’s falsettoed plea for social and political awareness finishes framing the movie. Racism is here. It’s everywhere. There is no escape.

Chris is prepping for a road trip; the time has come to meet the parents of his white girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). The Armitages don’t know their daughter’s beau is black, but Rose confidently informs Chris that they’re proud Democrats. Still, the horror of small talk with potential in-laws – made twofold for Chris by the realities of racism in America – hangs heavy. His friend Rod (Lil Rel Howery), the picture’s most reliable source of comic relief, begs him not to go. Chris and Rose hit the road anyway, a journey nearly cut short by a deer hit that seems to jostle something loose in Chris. Nevertheless, the couple arrives at their destination intact.

At first Rose’s parents come off like garden-variety self-congratulatory liberals. “I would’ve voted for Obama a third time if I could,” squawks Dean Armitage (Bradley Whitford), waxing narcissistically about his own progressiveness. Meanwhile, Missy Armitage (Catherine Keener) jaws about Chris’ smoking habit, insisting on helping him break it via hypnosis. Our protagonist does his best to brush off their nonsense, but before long it becomes obvious that something more sinister is afoot; precisely, when Dean refers to Chris and Rose’s romance as a “thang.” With but a few verbal cues, the film begins to bring its ingredients to a simmer.

Peele’s story is, after all, a stew of 1967’s “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” and 1973’s “The Wicker Man,” among other classics; a novel fusion of two underrepresented subgenres (interracial romance and cult horror). Dean, Missy, and Rose’s man-bunned brother Jeremy (Caleb Landry Jones) turn out to be even more of a nightmare than Chris could have imagined. Their politics barely conceal a nexus of ingrained whiteness, cultural appropriation, and black objectification. Chris is vexed, disturbed, and then physically threatened by the Armitages’ titanically creepy brand of racism, his paranoia accelerated by the family’s seemingly brainwashed black houseworkers.

When the conflict between our lead and his hosts eventually explodes into violence, the film clumsily shifts gears from exaggerated to absurd. On the back of character actor Stephen Root (“Office Space”) as a mysterious blind man, “Get Out” dives gracelessly into half-baked body horror that devalues the movie’s thematics.

In the Jordan Peele’s defense, his increasingly over-the-top screenplay is an unfortunate side effect of the same ingrained whiteness he’s excoriating. To approximate the alienation and prejudice that black Americans live with every day, Peele has little choice but to go with an amplified, blown-out vision of it. Luckily, Kaluuya – best known from “Black Mirror” episode Fifteen Million Merits – is so naturally endearing that he balances out the craziness around him. It’s because of Kaluuya that Peele’s commentary remains intelligible throughout, even as the movie leaps over logical chasms and loads up on hammy supporting performances.

Divorced from its racial politics, the picture is a modestly effective fright flick. But it’s those same politics that make it unique, meaning the final product is necessarily something of a hodgepodge. Despite a handful of unsettling scares, “Get Out” loses considerable steam as it moves toward its craven B-movie finale. The further it drifts from realism, the more it becomes an untenable mix of silly and serious.

To this end, Peele’s debut is a noteworthy, substantial one that leaves plenty of room for improvement.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Okay)

Release Date: February 24, 2017
Studio: Universal Pictures
Director: Jordan Peele
Screenwriter: Jordan Peele
Starring: Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Richard Herd
MPAA Rating: R (for violence, bloody images, and language including sexual references)

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