The Scarlett Johansson Project — #6

In perhaps one of the more extreme examples of not knowing what you have until it’s gone, this month’s installment takes a look at a movie that begins with the absence of humanity and works backward, discovering in the process the aches and pains and consequences of being alive. More specifically, being human.

Unfolding as one of the most profoundly unique visual presentations you will ever see, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin tests the boundaries of narrative filmmaking in every scene. It’s not a conventional plot. It’s certainly not a crowd-pleaser. Its themes are many and sometimes murky. Is this movie even from this earth? From my review: “It’s distressing. It’s disturbing. It’s occasionally even disgusting.” What’s more is that you don’t often see movies that are so uncompromisingly experimental and strange with such a high-profile A-lister involved.

Somewhat disappointingly, I later learned Under the Skin is an adaptation of a 2000 novel by Michael Faber, albeit a loose one, proving that indeed, nothing is ever entirely unique. And on that note, as is true of all my SJP posts, there are a lot of details following so I highly recommend if you still wish to see this movie unspoiled you should avoid reading any further.

Scarlett Johansson as The Female in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin

Role Type: Lead

Premise: A mysterious young woman seduces lonely men in the evening hours in Scotland. However, events lead her to begin a process of self-discovery. (IMDb)

Character Background: Wow, this one’s a doozie. Let’s begin with calling her the opposite of a townie. Known only as “The Female” her modus operandi is cruising around the streets of Glasgow etc in a white van, pulling over and asking for directions to some place, then offering the poor sap a ride. Or a fun night back at her “apartment.” In Under the Skin, sexual roles and behaviors are reversed to powerful effect, with the Female as the Predator and the men the Prey. There’s nothing even approaching post-coital bliss here. The mating ritual is nightmarish, not sexy, with the Female damning her victims “to another dimension where they are nothing more than meat.”

But if you’re asking me about her origins, I’m flummoxed. That’s part of the whole deal. Maybe there are some things we are not meant to know, much less be able to catalogue as familiar, quantifiable. What’s made patently obvious in one early scene that takes place on a rocky beach, one of the coldest scenes you’ll see in a movie, is that our intrepid visitor here is as familiar with the concept of emotion as an infant is with the concept of drowning. As she/it begins to bear the burden of feeling, a change starts taking place that really becomes quite heartbreaking.

What she brings to the movie: a familiar face, and a ton of confidence. This is famously the first role she’s done where there is full-frontal nudity. The nude scenes are tastefully done, shot less with the intent of arousal as they are a matter-of-fact observation of the human form. Putting her trust in director Jonathan Glazer, Johansson uses her alluring curvature to carve out a character that is truly haunting and unique. It’s one of the best performances I have ever seen and the role had to have been daunting. She is challenged to act as a tourist in a human body, while shedding her fame as a rising actress to blend into this environment. The wardrobe and hairstyling helps, but her facial expressions are so masterfully subtle and nuanced. It’s those small details that make this performance what it is, and Under the Skin one of the best movies made this side of the new millennium.

In her own words: “I started having conversations [with Jonathan Glazer] a few years ago. Initially it was going to be a two-hander, more of a story that revolved around these two characters sort of assimilating to society and not being “found out.” There’s this story of the townspeople and this discovery of what was happening to them as they were being picked off, and then you’d see the couple and their relationship. As opposed to this film which is seeing this world through these alien eyes. I wasn’t really convinced I could do this until Jonathan was convinced that I could do it.”

Key Scene: Caution: I’m not sure how long this video will be up given YouTube’s propensity for pulling down videos that don’t meet their criteria for copyright protection. Double caution: This scene does not mess around. It’s incredibly disturbing. You will not be able to un-see this stuff. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work): 


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: IMDb; interview excerpt courtesy of David Poland and DP/30: The Oral History of Hollywood

Housebound

Housebound movie poster

Release: Friday, October 17, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Gerard Johnstone

Directed by: Gerard Johnstone

Housebound heralds the arrival of a creative new talent in Gerard Johnstone, and though not always the most confident, his feature film debut functions as a perfectly harmless distraction that adds a few amusing wrinkles in the fabric of haunted house horror.

It centers around a young, moody twentysomething — Kylie Bucknell (Morgana O’Reilly) — who gets caught in the act of trying to relieve an ATM of its contents. Because of her recidivistic tendencies she’s sentenced to eight months of house arrest, a light punishment all things considered. But this means she’ll have to put up with her irritating mother Miriam (Rima Te Wiata) and step-father Graeme (Ross Harper) — gasp, the horror! The former seems to think the house is possessed by spirits, while the latter utters nary a word as he’s never been a talkative fellow.

Added to Kylie’s suffering is the fact she’s been fitted with an anklet that will alert authorities, the seemingly lone wolf Amos (Glen-Paul Waru), if she tries to leave the premises. What’s a girl to do if she can’t go out every night and burglarize the shit out of everything with her wayward friends? I guess just sit there and pout.

Credit Johnstone for casting an atypical lead in his first film, and O’Reilly for selling her character’s detachment from society. Unfortunately she’s too good at it; it’s a little hard to root for her when she begins experiencing some of the things that has recently sent her mother into hysterics. Completely insensitive to the needs of others, Kylie isn’t someone who seems ready to change their ways and would rather mope around for the next few months until the shackles have been lifted. Or am I just overlooking the fact that perhaps her cloudy disposition is part of the comedic appeal?

One thing that’s more frustrating than Kylie’s selfish behavior is the dynamic between her and Amos. As she slowly comes into an understanding that the house she finds herself in has a dark history — it once served as a halfway house and was the site of a grisly murder — she has trouble convincing anyone else of what’s going on. But . . . wasn’t her mother the one phoning in to a radio show to publicize her paranoias? And why isn’t Amos believing her? He oscillates between being overly protective of the young woman and skeptical to the point of accusing her of lying about everything she’s going through.

Alas, Housebound becomes one of “those” movies — the kind where everything we witness apparently comes at the expense of our protagonist’s credibility. Her frustration becomes our frustration. That is, until things take a turn for the worse when Kylie and Amos together turn their attention toward a suspicious neighbor, whom they believe could be responsible for things going bump in the night. As we’ve expected all along there’s more to this scene than what meets the eye.

Johnstone’s debut is fascinated with the concept of seclusion and secrecy, applying it to elements both physical and conceptual. As I’m obligated to keep spoilers out of my reviews to keep my readers from turning on me in a quick and hostile manner, suffice it to say his technique is what sustains the entertainment rather than the actual, tangible elements themselves. Even if Housebound gets a little too overexcited in its grander reveals — people living inside walls notwithstanding — perhaps it’s best to resist the urge to overanalyze. Like Kylie, maybe it’s in our best interests to sit back and just let this phase run its course.

things get a bit messy for Morgana O'Reilly and Rima Te Wiata in 'Housebound'

Recommendation: Housebound serves as another welcomed entry into the steadily growing marriage between comedy and horror. It does enough to satisfy casual horror fans who like their stuff more on the light-hearted side though it features a few grisly scenes and enough blood to satiate more serious horror watchers. Not a perfect film but it’s solid enough to make me want to come back for more. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 107 mins.

Quoted: “I am not the only one who thought there was a ghost in this house, Kylie. In fact, you used to be so terrified you could not sleep.” / “Yeah, I also used to think the Moon was made of cheese. It is called childhood.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night

Release: Friday, November 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour

Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour 

In Iranian-American Ana Lily Amirpour’s first film only two things are certain: you will meet a girl, and you will see her walking home alone at night. Outside the realm of the obvious exists a strange and ominous atmosphere laden with unpredictability and breathtaking creativity, an environment that challenges viewers’ preconceived notions of what vampires can and cannot do or be.

In the film you’ll see a vampire skateboarding. You’ll also see her seeking out wayward men for their tasty blood supply. I think it’s clear which of the actions hew closer to traditional vampiric values; yet for all of its clever subversiveness this isn’t a movie aching with the pain of vampiric immortality, it’s the kind of love story mainstream Hollywood time and again harps on using beautiful looking people to sell the sensation of kissing born out of true love, but the catch is this one’s brilliantly disguised in layers of velvety texture and genre-blurring style. A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t really much without its own chador, but my goodness, what a stylish cover it is.

Perhaps it’s too dismissive paralleling Amirpour’s art with Tinseltown’s preference for Happily Ever After. The denouement left me wanting, but I now find myself overcome with the striking visual imagery and subdued performances that, when coalescing in earnest, recall an era of Hollywood production well before my time — a shot of the nameless girl (hello, Sheila Vand) applying make-up in her humble abode evokes a Middle Eastern Audrey Hepburn in all her ethereal beauty. But the longer I sat there, ever more entranced by the contrasts in the film’s gorgeous grayscale the more I realized the sum total of the production mattered less than its more memorable passages.

Girl is just as much about grappling with loneliness and/or failed romance — Bad City is one strange place, its population of night-prowling prostitutes reminds one of the inescapable hopelessness of Basin City — as it is concerned with identity. The titular girl more often than not manifests as a specter of death as she stalks a brutish thug who she witnesses abusing a hooker in a vehicle he has just stolen from the film’s second lead, Arash (Arash Marandi). Our introduction to the girl is foreboding, but in the aftermath of a forthcoming scene in which the thug assumes he is successful in seducing her, we get a glimpse of the vigilantism that is to come. Her physical appearance — one that is borderline iconic already — causes prejudice as we’re never fully certain what she is capable of. We pick up a pattern though. She seems to prey upon men, and not just any man she comes across.

Ostensibly Bad City’s guardian . . . vampire, she’s more interested in ridding the town of its evildoers — if you do see other people in the frame there’s a good chance they belong to the mass grave of bodies in a shallow ravine. It’s not until she comes across Arash, cloaked in a Dracula cape and false fanged teeth (who also happens to be tripping balls on ecstasy having just stumbled out of a Halloween party), that we get a better handle on how Amirpour means to go about depicting a less civilized society, one plagued by moral turpitude and antiquated views on gender roles. The long, flowing headdress manifests as traditional garb worn by Muslim women and phantasms alike, even if the association with the latter is more approximation than traditional visual manifestation (capes typically do not fully engulf a vampire’s body head-to-toe, yet that’s what’s demanded of most Middle Eastern women).

When found in her apartment bathing in the throbbing pulses of some kind of new wave music (I’m not cool enough to be able to tell you exactly what or who it is), sans her enigmatic exterior, the girl becomes, in some ways, even more mysterious. She seems a perfectly ordinary teenaged girl, one with a fascination for pop culture and presumably a desire to be anywhere but where she currently is. Arash, the good boy, starts hanging out with her more often, intrigued by her aloofness. Though she barely speaks, even in the company of someone who actually seems to care about whether or not she’s freezing cold, mutual attraction is evident. Love, as it is portrayed in many a big-budget Hollywood production, is thick and syrupy yet it enables our principals to get over things they otherwise couldn’t. If there’s a flaw in Amirpour’s auspicious debut, it’s the realization that love apparently does conquer all. The conclusion is far less interesting than what has preceded it — minus Masuka the cat, that was great casting —  and feels too safe. Too routine for a production so firmly rooted in unorthodoxy.

Girl marks an exciting beginning for an up-and-coming director and effectively establishes yet another intriguing take on the vampire legend. Last year Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive struck a chord with audiences, providing an absorbing and amusing take on the curse of immortality. Highly atmospheric and memorably performed, that film invited audiences in to its obscure yet wholly believable world of hipster vampires. That audience clearly had Amirpour in attendance. Eerie, enigmatic and unforgettable, her painstakingly off-beat creation is superlative ‘style over substance’ filmmaking.

Recommendation: Unlike any film I’ve seen before, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is quite the experience, yet its methodical pace, limited dialogue (spoken in Farsi with English subtitles), and borderline erratic genre shifting could prove too much for some viewers. Girl is more an art form and less a story you can . . . uh, sink your teeth into; it’s eerie, haunting, mesmerizing and oh-so-slightly amusing all at once. I’d say it’s worth a look for those in search of something off the beaten path. And it’s right there for you on Netflix. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 101 mins.

Quoted: “Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Stretch

Release: Friday, March 21, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Joe Carnahan

Directed by: Joe Carnahan

Where this guy’s going, he’s definitely going to need roads . . . and a lot of luck.

Joe Carnahan’s Stretch is best enjoyed when your guard is down, when you’re in the mood for watching something that, taken scene by scene, makes little to no sense but is a perfectly harmless distraction when looked at as a whole. It’s messy and clunky and clichéd and occasionally poorly acted but the whole point of Stretch is embracing the ridiculous. If having fun in a movie is all that you require, jump in the backseat and buckle in for a wild ride.

Patrick Wilson and Chris Pine make the most out of a rather bizarre script that has the former playing a down-on-his-luck L.A. limo driver and the latter a bearded whack job with more secrets than the American government. The driver (a.k.a. ‘Stretch’) has recently been dumped by his gorgeous girl Candace (Brooklyn Decker, ouch) and, reeling in the aftermath, has allowed himself to spiral out of control again, though careful not to reignite his cocaine and gambling addictions from years past.

One afternoon Stretch is pulled aside by his boss who tells him that their main competitor is putting them quickly out of business by stealing their clients. Making matters worse is a $6,000 gambling debt he owes to a thug who promises some very bad things if he doesn’t pay up by midnight that night. Desperate, Stretch begs an employee named Charlie (Jessica Alba) to help steal clients from the competition — a mysterious entity known only as The Jovi — to help him keep his job and to raise the money needed to . . . um, keep his life.

Over the course of the evening Stretch contends with a litany of oddballs and lunatics, starting with a very unhappy David Hasselhoff who, lo and behold, is swept off his feet by The Jovi at the last second. In retaliation, Charlie directs him to a client The Jovi usually picks up, the one and only Ray Liotta. Neither of these dramatized cameos compare to the eccentric billionaire playboy/lunatic that is Chris Pine’s Roger Karos, whose outrageous physical appearance conceals the Hollywood hunk inside (save for the piercing blue eyes). Karos promises he will make Stretch’s efforts worthwhile if he commits to not only being his chauffeur, but to retrieving a briefcase from a certain someone.

Stretch is packed to the brim with absurdities, but they mostly exist in the visual presentation and a few chance encounters. Narratively — as a story of redemption — the film couldn’t be more pedestrian. Wilson clearly relishes the opportunity to cut loose, to become the “fire starter” Karos believes he can be. Wilson brings the fire in his performance, becoming the glue that holds together a lot of delicate pieces and thankfully he is quite the amiable fellow despite his history. As he journeys through the night, an eye on the clock as his midnight deadline rapidly approaches, Stretch receives a crash course in confidence-boosting. He transforms from a drunken pushover (or a fatalist, as Charlie describes him) to a man pushing over a lot of drunks to get to what matters most to him: delivering on his promises.

Carnahan certainly makes some trade-offs in his enthusiastic, over-the-top approach. There are a few moments where the goofiness is overbearing — do we really need the foreign subtitles placed beside a villain as he shouts his threats in perfectly understandable English? — and where the acting isn’t really acting, it’s shouting lines excitedly. It’s nonchalance. A good time to be a paid actor or actress. It may stretch credulity to the breaking point but ultimately the film manages to get to the end with minimal bumps and bruises.

Recommendation: If you’re looking for a quick Friday night jolt of entertainment, I suggest firing up Netflix and taking in all that Stretch has to offer: pure, unadulterated ridiculousness with fun cameos and an absolutely zany supporting role from Chris Pine. Fans of him and Patrick Wilson are sure to find them highly enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 94 mins.

Quoted: “If you like stories about chance and coincidence and fate, then here’s one you’d never heard. Boy meets girl. Girl almost kills boy by running a red light at rush hour. Boy is T-boned at over 60 miles an hour.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com  

Comet

Release: Friday, December 5, 2014

[Netflix]

Written by: Sam Esmail

Directed by: Sam Esmail

Comet can pretend it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event but the stars shone so much brighter in the universes it has been melded by, spectacular constructs like the intricate and heartrending Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and 500 Days of Summer.

Bearing the heartbreak of the former while resembling more of the latter’s narrative nonlinearity and sophistication, Comet isn’t exactly a bad film when comparisons to romantic dramas of that ilk occur so naturally. It’s just unfortunate there isn’t much beyond a different cast that distinguishes Sam Esmail’s work. Of course, the case could be made that his film pays homage but where exactly does one draw the line between dedication and duplication? A few colorful, creative scene transitions beautified by special effects don’t quite cut it for this cynic reviewer. Oh, and the film is supposed to be set within a parallel universe. Although a bit hokey, that angle is one I can work with.

Prior to what is purported to be a spectacular meteorological event, Dell (Justin Long) bumps into the beautiful Kimberly (Emmy Rossum) as they wait in a line to access a park that will provide the ideal vantage point. Caught up in one of his verbalized streams of consciousness stating his lack of faith in humanity, as only a character played by Long can, Dell is saved from being hit by a passing car by the new girl. He spends the remainder of this evening pining after her, lamenting the fact she’s already spoken for by some guy who happens to look good but quite clearly has no personality. He decides the meteor shower can wait until he’s finished his stalking.

Comet then jettisons us out of this present tense and into another, one somewhere in the near future (this film covers a six-year period), where the two are now an intimate couple. Times haven’t changed so much as the dynamic of Long and Rossum’s interactions. We’re privy to heated arguments, weird phone calls, insults stemming from two people slipping out of love and into something more akin to hostility. Resentment. Chain smoking cigarettes becomes a motif. And Long’s character doesn’t become much more likable, though he is certainly interesting. This is probably one of his better performances, though it’s veiled behind pretentiousness and petulance. Conversely Rossum magnetizes with her quick wit and hipster glasses.

Then the narrative shifts yet again, sending us back into a place where things were more romantic. The story constantly moves and changes, with almost every scene introducing a different phase in the relationship. And the process is far from chronological. That the film manages to maintain our interest at all stems from an incisive, brutally honest script that lays bare all the faults — some of which are all too apparent and others that are created through the simple but terrifying passage of time — of a relationship that seems to have been contrived from the very beginning. Who shakes hands to formally kick off a relationship? Who does that?

Apparently this couple. Comet would be a memorable picture but — at the risk of repeating myself — it’s far too reminiscent of Tom and Summer’s experiences together and the slide into their own private oblivion. Whereas 500 Days of Summer justified its experimentation with practical structure (“500 days” prepared us for the inevitable) Comet seems to just drag on and on, never seeming to settle on a pattern or even pretending like one would make any difference. It’s a shame because the performances are strong, the cinematography gorgeous and emotions do run high. Truly, it’s difficult at times to believe Rossum is in fact not in a real relationship with Long but the director himself. (I’m sorry, was that a spoiler?)

Comet has its moments of brilliance but it’s a true challenge shaking the feeling of déjà vu. Of course, there are worse fates for a film steeped in a generally predictable and melodramatic genre.

Recommendation: Visually dazzling and capably performed, it’s frustratingly difficult to ignore Comet‘s contrived nature. For great performances from its two stars, I do recommend a viewing. But be advised, you probably should have a high tolerance for Justin Long. He tested my patience at times and there’s a good chance he will yours. Emmy Rossum is a newcomer to me and she’s a delight. I’d recommend it more for what she puts forth actually.

Rated: R

Running Time: 91 mins.

Quoted: “Why does it feel so impossible to let you go? It’s an addiction, you know. That’s all it is. It’s a biochemical addiction. It’s so stupid. If you think about it relationships are totally narcissistic. Basically, you’re just looking for someone who’ll love you as much as you love yourself. That’s all it is.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Blue Ruin

Release: Friday, April 25, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jeremy Saulnier

Directed by: Jeremy Saulnier

From the opening shot silence dominates, ominously foreshadowing a journey fraught with tension and dread. It doesn’t take long to realize that something is wrong, to feel the disconnect between a vagabond and his surroundings. Macon Blair’s Dwight is floating through existence, living out of his car and presumably without a job. The comforts of our typical daily lives feel far out of reach even though they are quite literally right in front of him. Despite his disheveled appearance Dwight seems functional, making use of a few odds and ends to help him get through another day of living on the streets. But he’s clearly a broken man, a scruffy beard and unkempt hair and meals derived from what he can scrape out of trash cans being the most telling.

For at least the opening 20 minutes he remains enigmatic, inspiring an atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Possibly a bit of frustration too — who is this guy? Empathy towards the homeless isn’t a necessity — if you’re not empathetic I can’t say I blame you as it seems more often than not their plights are derived from a long series of poor life choices — but in this case the issue doesn’t seem to be a history of drug and alcohol abuse. Drama begins in earnest when Dwight receives the news that the man responsible for the murder of both his parents is being released from prison. A policewoman asks him to come into the station, insisting that it’d be better for him to hear this in a safe place rather than being alone on the streets and finding out in the local paper.

Unfortunately the catalyst for the blood-splattering that is to come is less dependent upon the way in which he receives the information as it does upon how he will choose to respond to it.

Given the thrill of the discovery, it’s difficult to talk plot without ruining much of the experience so I vote instead we talk about how good Blair is in the lead. Um, yeah. He’s good. Evoking an emotional instability that borders on madness, Dwight comes across as a surprisingly threatening man even though his ineptitude at handling violent situations may say otherwise. That he’s out of his depth on more than a few occasions is a brilliant manifestation of Blair’s physical performance. This is a role that, rather than relying on extensive dialogue, depends upon how his countenance reflects a steadily more desperate reality. Such change is more often than not subtle but by the end the disparity is noted. It’s an incredible performance, elevating Blue Ruin well above your average revenge tale.

As good as Blair is, however, Jeremy Saulnier might just outdo him. He isn’t just responsible for allowing his lead to flourish under intelligent writing and precise directing, he’s painting a gorgeous backdrop through crisp, colorful cinematography that ironically romanticizes the lush landscape of Virginia, particularly Dwight’s hometown, a sleepy hollow interrupted by violence. Thickly forested hills serve as creative conceals for confrontations that don’t necessarily play out the way you might expect. In this film, Virginia is not for lovers; it is for survivors. It is for men who stand very little to lose.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and in Saulnier’s minimalist portraiture of a life gone awry it arrives upon a frozen plate.

Recommendation: Blue Ruin is a great example of minimalist storytelling. Dialogue-lite, it’s far more concerned with body language and subtle visual clues to keep viewers constantly engaged. The violence it does feature is rather vivid but it, too, is limited to moments that tend to be extremely effective. I loved this film, but I can see others having a problem with its deliberate build-up. It’s not heavy on action but it is heavy on great acting and beautiful cinematography. Give it a shot sometime. E-hem. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “I would forgive you if you were crazy. But you’re not. You’re weak.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Frank

Release: Friday, September 5, 2014 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Jon Ronson; Peter Straughan

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Any film that strives to turn Domhnall Gleeson into a thoroughly unlikable character is one I’m uncomfortable watching. Frank is just such a film.

Focusing on an aspiring musician who stumbles upon an eccentric pop band with an unpronounceable name (they call themselves The Soronprfbs), this oddball comedy does its best to distance itself from an audience looking to make connections with key characters. Its best is more than enough.

After witnessing a drowning at a local beach, Jon (Gleeson) finds himself being ushered into the band. They have a show to play that night and they need his help filling in on keyboards as that was in fact their keyboardist trying to drown himself. Excited for the opportunity, he shows up for a bizarre display of nonconformist musicianship, the heir apparent to a suicidal keyboardist — what a great guy.

Jon initially assumes his role in the band would be that of a temporary hired-gun. His involvement soon extends to filling in on a more permanent basis as The Soronprfbs seclude themselves in an isolated cabin in the Irish countryside to record a full album. Jon bemoans the fact no one told him this would be more than a weekend gig, citing he has to return to work as soon as possible. His kidnappers don’t much care though, for they have a lot of work to do. Seemingly this is now his job, trying to find a way to fit in amongst a crew of ragtags who themselves don’t fit in elsewhere.

There’s the dude who first offers Jon the chance to play, Don (Scoot McNairy). His determination to become someone he’s not is simultaneously driving him mad. We’ve got the non-English speaking Baraque (François Civil) and Nana (Carla Azar), who don’t do much beyond moping about and remaining wary about Jon’s presence. Then, chief among the antagonists — I’m sure none of these people are meant to be perceived that way but let’s just say these are some talented actors here — is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Clara, a nutcase who takes an instant dislike to Jon and makes life in the band a living nightmare for him. Her role is akin to that of someone you come across in your early grade school years who constantly picks on you, but all along the bullying is that person’s way of saying they dig your vibe.

Unfortunately the only person’s vibe I can really dig in this oppressively odd film is Michael Fassbender and his papier-mâché head/mask. As Frank, Fassbender is simultaneously the leader of The Soronprfbs and the stand-out acting talent. He’s empathetic given the obviousness and severity of his mental condition. He’ll never remove the head/mask, a fact that yields all sorts of questions ranging from his ability to function in social settings to his general hygiene. Answers to a few of these are admittedly provided with a compelling, brutal honesty when Jon is able to convince the band to make an appearance at the SXSW festival, where he hopes their efforts to represent a very . . . different . . . music experience will finally provide them an audience willing to reciprocate their uniqueness. It’s an undertaking that does not at all go according to plan.

Despite few of the members being likable on any level, it’s clear there are sides to be taken in this awkward, personal tug-of-war. Jon’s main purpose is to become the wedge between Frank and the rest of the band. Amidst the hostility and intolerance that defines The Soronprfbs’ dysfunction there exists this competition to be ‘the next Frank.’ It’s a mentality that explains Clara’s treatment of Jon — she doesn’t believe he has any talent or originality whatsoever and is trying too hard to be like Frank; a mentality that also sums up the fates of other members who have stepped out of the band.

Abrahamson’s fourth directorial effort manifests as a sincere reflection of mental illness but sadly this is a production difficult to enjoy or even sympathize with. An hour-and-a-half featuring people arguing and making something akin to music. Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn about any of it.

Recommendation: If kinky films are what you dig, then maybe Frank will be something you might enjoy. With disagreeable characters, languid pacing and a band that makes no sense, it is a difficult one to recommend to anyone else. Even though the characters are largely detestable, my bigger issue is that it combined that with a theme of social anxiety that didn’t really work. Plus the film feels so much longer than 95 minutes would suggest. I was prepared for a different kind of watch, but maybe not one this repellent. It’s almost as if the film was actively trying not to be enjoyable.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “Stale beer. Fat f**ked, smoked out. Cowpoked. Sequined mountain ladies. I love your wall. Put your arms around me. Fiddly digits, itchy britches. I love you all.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Top Five

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Release: Friday, December 12, 2014

[Redbox]

Written by: Chris Rock

Directed by: Chris Rock

Dear Chris Rock,

I am writing this with the hope that I don’t come across as another James Nielson. Yes, I am an aspiring film critic. Over the few years since I started up my own blog I’ve bore witness to all manners of style, voice, attitude — many of them respectful, insightful, funny, informative. The range of emotion generated just from writing about the movies is something that’s often surprised me. Some tones are harsher than others, some pieces are more conversational; some points of view manifest as personal attacks on the film or the people who work hard to make them happen. (I plead the fifth on that last one.) I think one of the great joys I’ve discovered while contributing to the greater conversation is that no one is ever really wrong. And no one is 100% right.

I’m writing you because I’ve been impressed with your meta-comedy Top Five, a film that sees you tackling a different side of comedy and what makes not only comedians but celebrities tick. I figured you wouldn’t want yet another little bit of super-wordy criticism leveled at your film so here I figured I’d simply write and tell you that the tact you took with Top Five is highly appreciated. At least by me.

This is a film that I feel has taken much of your following by surprise, and maybe not necessarily for the better. I was expecting an overwhelmingly positive audience rating on major review aggregate sites like Rotten Tomatoes, not the tepid 66% it currently displays. But I’m not sure how much mind you pay sites like that. Personally I’m trying harder these days to not let these sites affect my own viewing experiences, so a lot of the time I won’t even go near them until after I’ve seen such-and-such movie. It’s a strategy that’s been paying off pretty well. But enough about me.

I’m writing you because I wanted to congratulate you on your effort to present some deep truths with your character, Andre Allen, who is himself a comedian enjoying fame and celebrity status with his performances in a series of comedies focusing on this character called Hammy the Bear. (You’ll have to excuse me for chuckling at that character, it’s a pretty funny creation.) If I may be so bold, I find Top Five‘s honesty a refreshing step away from your recent run of inconsistent entertainment. I sense that somewhere within the trials and tribulations of Andre Allen thrives a commentary on how you wish Grown Ups was never made. Or maybe that’s just me injecting my own concerns about your career. Not that it’s my business.

That’s one of several things Top Five opened my eyes to: the tension you (and when I say you I suppose I’m speaking to the plethora of people who choose the entertainment biz as their career) must feel in deciding whether to do something because the vast majority would approve, or do something that makes the most sense on a personal level. Each decision having its consequences, each path revealing their treacherousness that no doubt has led many astray. Compromise is the name of the game, and in playing this comedian who now wants to be taken more seriously going forward, you quite convincingly detail the struggle between impressing friends and family, giving the media what “they want,” and ultimately doing what satisfies you.

Here’s the part where I’m going to be a little self-centered. My experience with your new movie made me reflect on the last couple of years I’ve spent in the blogging community. It’s not quite like being in the limelight of superstardom and all that jazz (and woe as me, I’m sure not making millions doing this!!!), but there is always that little bit of peer pressure when one starts gaining a following — whether it be random people who do not blog or bloggers you have been following closely for some time — to maintain expectation levels and to hopefully not disappoint with each new post or idea one comes up with. The assumption that the longer one does something the easier that thing becomes is one hell of an easy one to make. Maybe for a lot of people it is true. I have found there is this challenge to always reinvent, separate one’s self out from the pack. That’s what I’ve been attempting (and a lot of the times failing) to do as of late. That’s what I see in you in Top Five. It’s actually pretty inspiring.

Anyway, at this point I’m pretty sure I’m rambling and you’ve probably even stopped reading. But I would just like to put it out there that I am one of those who appreciated your candidness and bravery for trying something new, even if it wasn’t met with an overwhelming response. (I have noticed that, in a great twist of irony, Top Five was met with much more enthusiasm from critics than the general moviegoing population.)

Or, is it ironic at all? Chris Rock, you sly dog. . . .

 

Your 17, 445th biggest fan,

 

Tom

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3-5Recommendation: Top Five represents one of Chris Rock’s finest big-screen performances as well as earnest directorial visions. It’s perhaps overhyped as one of the funniest films of 2014, but to say this film isn’t funny is an equal injustice. Looking for an honest film? Look no further than Top Five, which features a ton of great cameos and humorous anecdotes. Fans of Chris Rock can’t afford to miss his most recent effort.

Rated: R

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “No, everything does not mean something. Okay, sometimes a movie is just a movie. Sometimes a song is just a song. Sometimes a joke is just a joke. Remember those, jokes?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Babadook

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Release: Friday, November 28, 2014 (limited) 

[Redbox]

Written by: Jennifer Kent

Directed by: Jennifer Kent

It’s official. I’m in love with horror once again.

It’s some kind of feat the hype surrounding Jennifer Kent’s much-acclaimed horror film has gotten to the point where it feels like watching the ‘scariest film in years’ this far into 2015 is, yeah, a little like you showing up to a birthday party a few hours late and profusely apologizing. The apologies are accepted, but the fact is you’re still late.

The Babadook isn’t a particularly original film. It’s a tale of possession dressed in the decay of William Friedkin’s slow-burning and dread-inducing 1973 masterpiece, only this time the beast is somehow of an even more inexplicable nature. It’s about a woman named Amelia (Essie Davis) doing her best to cope with life after the shocking death of her husband Oskar several years ago and having to deal with the increasingly erratic behavior of her six-year-old son Samuel (a young and brilliant Noah Wiseman) who is convinced something is haunting their house. When the two come across a children’s book named Mister Babadook one evening, Amelia isn’t convinced it is appropriate bedtime material but Noah insists she read it to him. Strange occurrences ensue with steadily increasing frequency.

Of its many borrowings from memorable horror of the past, Kent’s nail-biter features creepy shadows, fragile and/or susceptible characters, tense atmosphere and an intimate setting that traps feelings of isolation and paranoia with remarkable precision. And the description ‘haunted house feature’ wouldn’t be too far off-base, either. Goodness knows there is more than a heaping helping of those kinds of horrors out there, and while not all are even close to being legitimate wastes of your time the catch-all term almost seems to automatically dismiss the hype surrounding this Australian phenomenon as overzealous. Even prefabricated.

On a performance basis alone, The Babadook soars above its contemporaries. Wiseman embodies a child with severe behavioral issues so as to confuse the strategy of casting with happening upon an actual child with these kinds of problems on the very streets of Adelaide. His character may well work on your every last nerve but you can be sure he takes a much bigger toll on his mother. And Davis is sublime in the role of a bereaved woman now sleepwalking through life as a middle-aged widow working as an orderly at a retirement home. Because the tandem are so convincing Kent never allows us the luxury of relaxation in her world. There’s no solace in this drab environment, even with kind neighbors like Barbara West’s Mrs. Roach, who suffers from Parkinson’s, or an empathetic colleague in Daniel Henshall’s Robbie.

But Kent isn’t content with settling with a performance-based thriller. Even if this is shot on a relatively minimalist budget you’d never know it because the environment compels — much like the power of Father Merrin’s exorcist rites compels you — to keep watching. Transitions featuring a sprawling tree outside the house reinforce the threat of something sinister lurking in the house; they also distract effectively from the fact that the physical disturbances may not be the worst things Amelia and Samuel have to deal with. Kent’s most impressive feat is the ability to ratchet up the tension in terms of the things we can actually trust in Amelia and Samuel’s surroundings. What is real and what isn’t? What is in their heads and what is actually in the house?

That oft-underutilized technique — the power of suggestion — is employed with devastating yet completely enthralling effect in the the film’s harrowing final twenty or so minutes. It is in this sequence of low light and high anxiety we are exposed not to what that ever-elusive beast really is but rather the stuff that Jennifer Kent is made of. She is a master of horror in the making, teasing imagery from the likes of The Exorcist and The Shining in a way that both elevates her film’s seriousness of purpose and honors the work of the legends of a tenebrous past. Buckets of blood aren’t necessary for creating one of the most chilling finales in recent memory (yes I am encompassing all genres in that remark, and yes I am talking about the moment all the way up until credits roll).

In a time where the genre has begun dabbling in grotesque torture, in animals-as-predatory villains, in real world disasters-as-backdrops in order to entertain increasingly niched audiences it’s becoming harder to find films that like to keep things simple. Stories that speak to our concerns with specific aspects of mundane existence — in this case, the challenge(s) of single parenthood — and slowly modifying that reality until it becomes something truly twisted. That’s the formula for really good horror: making the threat seem real. The Babadook is an unqualified success in that regard. It’s an instant classic.

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4-5Recommendation: Though I can understand that after awhile such lofty praise can become a bit intimidating or off-putting, and it sure seems that the above rave review won’t help quell the urge to disbelieve, I personally am in favor of it. I didn’t think I would be. With incredibly strong performances and a memorable, demented creature at the center of it all, The Babadook should prove to be at least an entertaining 90 minutes. However if you’re strictly anti-horror, there’s probably nothing it can do nor I can say to sway you. But as a former skeptic of horror myself, this has restored my faith in the genre for sure.

Rated: NR 

Running Time: 92 mins.

Quoted: “You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy. You can bring me the boy.”

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Photo credits: http://www.mattmulcahey.wordpress.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Hateship Loveship

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Release: Friday, April 11, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by:  Mark Jude Poirier

Directed by: Liza Johnson

At a certain point, restrained filmmaking can put a strain on its relationship with its audience. Liza Johnson’s thoughtful but underwhelming Hateship Loveship is a film that dares to be subtle, so much so that it has trouble balancing its thematic and entertainment responsibilities.

Despite the oddball title Johnson manages to skirt around pretentiousness but the end result might be something worse: Hateship Loveship is a boring outing. This despite arguably its star, the versatile Kristen Wiig’s finest performance to date. This despite a grab-bag of reliable performers playing second fiddle to Wiig’s painfully awkward Johanna Parry. Indeed there are many things to like about the picture and the characters are up there with the most memorable of all the elements, but they are stranded in a story that focuses too heavily on the mundanities of existence.

Live-in-maid Johanna has known no other life than cleaning houses and taking care of her clients, the most recent of which has just passed away in their own bed, causing Johanna to move out. She lands a job tidying up Mr. McCauley (Nick Nolte)’s lavish home and taking care of his granddaughter Sabitha (Hailee Steinfeld), daughter of alcoholic and absentee father Ken (Guy Pearce). Sabitha has a very bitchy friend whose uncanny resemblance to Justin Bieber may not be intentional but the convincingly spiteful performance by young actress Sami Gayle is. Moving on . . . Sabitha and Edith take an instant dislike to the quiet and uncomfortable new maid and when they learn of her receiving of a letter from Ken welcoming her to the job and giving her confidence they both use it as an opportunity to trick her into thinking he is romantically interested.

Through a series of well-written emails the pair of teens in effect cause Johanna to drop everything at the McCauley residence and make a hasty trip to Chicago, in search of Ken and a possible new start. When he is taken aback by her sudden appearance in his cluttered room within a ramshackle motel he owns (interestingly enough, this is the same motel/location used in Dallas Buyers Club) Johanna is — well, it’s pretty obvious what emotions she experiences. Er, no. Actually it isn’t. It ought to be, but the direction is understated to the point of being nonexistent. Wiig’s in a perpetual state of detachment so when this big moment happens the emotional fall-out barely registers as disappointment when it should be an all-out, visceral collapse into permanent introversion. The circumstances are ripe for heartbreak, but the moment passes rather quickly.

Of course, the film isn’t over. Hateship Loveship presents a relationship born out of uncertainty and despair. Okay, so it’s not exactly original storytelling but we needn’t ask for much here. We can get by on the rough charm of Pearce’s broken Ken and the profundity of Johanna’s social anxiety. They are quite obviously meant for one another the moment she begins scrubbing his hardwood floor with the determination to overcome her most recent betrayal while Ken stares blankly at her, a cigarette glued to his lips. Sadly there are no developments thereafter that spin the genre or can pick the audience up from what has become a collective, steady slump into their seats. The pacing is languid, the conversations rendered uninteresting by predictable human behavior; the drama is not to be found in a film described as part drama-part comedy.

And where, pray, is the comedic element? Barring a moment where Wiig slinks her way out of a door and mutters a “thank you” when Sabitha compliments her on her shoes, there is little of Wiig’s comedic self to be found. But that’s less important as she’s running a clinic on how to transform one’s self into a dramatic role. If there are meant to be bits of humor elsewhere they are overwhelmed (or underserved, depending on how you want to look at it) by the sobriety of this woman’s slow journey through time. Frankly her situation is anything but funny if you were to ask me . . . but I don’t think anyone is so let’s, again, move on.

Johnson’s movie is an adaptation of Alice Munro’s Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage, the title story in a collection of short stories. Though rich in characterization, the slow pace and ultimate inconsequence of virtually every plot strand leaves very much to be desired. Hateship Loveship frustrates and defies expectations in the worst ways in its plainness. Perhaps it does have a higher purpose elsewhere, and that is left on paper.

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2-5Recommendation: So frustratingly, Kristen Wiig is a marvel as a detached and lonely woman who comes into her own when she meets a kind but equally emotionally fragile man. Guy Pearce and Nick Nolte turn in warm performances as well but they too are done a disservice with predictable character arcs. Characters are what make this somewhat watchable but the story is something of a slog and that is almost enough for me to recommend you save yourself from this one. . .

Rated: R

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “You’re, like, with her now, aren’t you . . .?”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com