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

In the Tall Grass

Release: Friday, October 4, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Vincenzo Natali

Directed by: Vincenzo Natali

Last year Netflix inadvertently triggered the Bird Box Challenge, which set a new standard for stupidity when it comes to audience interaction/reaction. This year it’s given us another curio ripe for parody in the form of Vincenzo Natali’s In the Tall Grass. A horror film based on a novella cowritten by father-and-son duo Stephen King and Joe Hill, it’s about people wandering into an endless field of grass and, uh, getting something a little worse than lost, their only hope for survival lying in a big chunk of stone planted smack dab in the middle. In the Tall Grass doesn’t quite have the meme potential as Bird Box but it certainly invites mockery in the same way.

There’s a caveat to all this cynicism of course. I have not read the short story upon which the movie is based. Judging by the reviews from those who have, I’m not sure if that’s actually good or bad news. I do know my lack of background changes this review substantially; I can’t decry it as “yet another botched Stephen King adaptation.” Instead I can only review In the Tall Grass for what it is — a slightly above-average Netflix offering whose completely confusing, “let’s make this stuff up as we go along” narrative may or may not be worth your headache.

It’s a Friday, so I’m leaning more towards “is headache worthy.” The premise is nuts, but mostly works if you just go with the flow — and if you bring some of your own grass to the show, too. That can’t possibly hurt. It could make things more confusing, but then this is a maze so whack you can easily get lost in it stone cold sober. The ridiculousness starts with a brother and sister, Becky (Laysla De Oliviera) and Cal (Avery Whitted), pulling off the road in the middle of corn belt USA. They’re en route to the west coast so Becky can find a family to adopt her yet-to-be-born baby. They then hear a cry for help coming from the nearby field, where grass grows high enough to conceal Shaquille O’Neal. A boy named Tobin (Will Buie Jr.) claims he has been stuck in there for some time. Another voice begs them not to come in.

Throwing caution to the wind the pair enter anyway and quickly find that some funny business is going on. Getting separated is not just easy, it seems inevitable and disorientation is taken to a whole other level. I suppose here’s as good a place as any to praise the film for its technical prowess. In the Tall Grass is surprisingly stylish, cinematographer Craig Wrobleski providing a number of effective and dizzying camera angles that make the fields look both beautiful and menacing. Sound designer David Rose is indispensable in providing ambience, the rustling of the blades in the breeze at once soothing and ominous — combined with an eerie score by Mark Korven it really creates an unsettling atmosphere out of very simple elements.

The field is apparently playing for keeps with other lost souls, including a man named Ross (Patrick Wilson) who is the boy’s father. Some time ago he and his wife Natalie (Rachel Wilson) became separated while chasing down their son. He now stumbles across an increasingly panicking Becky, whose pregnancy is causing a great deal of discomfort on its own. Ross attempts to calm her, extolling the virtues of parenthood and then telling her he believes he’s found a way out of this seemingly never-ending maze. Meanwhile an equally disconcerted Cal encounters Tobin, who imparts wisdom in a creepily omniscient manner while burying a dead crow: “The grass doesn’t move dead things.”

In what appears to be the next day, none other than the dude who ran out on Becky arrives at the same field. Guilt has landed Travis (Harrison Gilbertson) here — either that or stalker tendencies, I’m still not sure which. This is where the story gets really gooey, plummeting us into a labyrinth of strange time paradoxes, an ever more hostile environment in which the grass takes on a decidedly more villainous role, where the significance of the rock takes on supernatural overtones. Where people who were literally moments ago discovered as rotting corpses are now alive and well. Where Patrick Wilson transforms from a real estate agent with a fondness for CCR to a David Koresh type with an infatuation with a stone monolith.

It isn’t an exceptionally large cast and the whole game is really just about survival. Yet Natali’s approach does not go as the crow flies. There are so many detours within the brush it can be challenging to keep up with everyone and who’s looking after whom, where loyalties truly lie. It doesn’t help that when things take a turn for the truly nightmarish the literal darkness conceals and consumes identities, obscuring friend from foe and human from, uh, grass people. In the Tall Grass is ultimately that film where the less you think the more you gain. Questions arise at every ill-advised zig and zag, and if you feel so inclined to take notes on the film’s internal logic as events unfold perhaps all of those will be answered by the film’s abrupt conclusion. Sometimes it’s best to not fight against yourself or the fait accompli the movie presents. For the most part the descent into madness is rendered with enough creativity and provocative imagery to make you think twice about entering a corn maze this Halloween.

We’re all losing our heads out here!

Recommendation: I’ve got to think this movie goes down as a bitter pill for those coming in with expectations set by the short story. For me, I’m a big Patrick Wilson fan so that definitely elevated the experience. The acting around him isn’t quite as convincing, but it’s enough to hook you in. The premise in itself is a good hook. But then there are elements like “grass people” that kind of make this movie just as easy (and fun) to mock as it is to embrace as a chilling tale of survivalism. 

Rated: TV-MA

Running Time: 111 mins.

Quoted: “Here in the garden of forking paths, you didn’t make any one choice. You made every choice. And they all led back to me.”

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 

Hurricane

hurricane-movie-poster

Release: Wednesday, August 31, 2016 (Vimeo)

[Vimeo]

Written by: Christiano Dias

Directed by: Christiano Dias


This short film review is my latest contribution to Mr. Rumsey’s Film Related Musings. A tip of the hat to James, who runs the show over there.


Hurricane is the brand new film from Christiano Dias, an experienced short film director who has managed to fit 20 writer-director credits under his belt in the span of a decade. His latest puts a humorous spin on anti-Communist sentiments running rampant in 1950s America.

It tells a darkly comic tale of a couple, Oslo (Corey Page) and Eva Alduars (Lisa Roumain), experiencing some strange happenings during the course of dinner. A tense argument over the meal soon focuses on the radio they have playing in the background, which crackles in and out before eventually going silent. It reminds Oslo of a similar incident that apparently happened at a neighbor’s house, in which a man had discovered a wiretapping device inside his radio. Supposedly that same man had disappeared from the area not long after that. Oslo suspects the Commies got him.

Moments later, a knock at the door. A boy introduces himself as Benjamin Shaw (David Jay), and appears to be selling newspaper subscriptions. But something just doesn’t add up. Oslo begins to think the timing of these events is no coincidence. Meanwhile, a storm closes in on the house outside. Dias challenges us to consider all of the possibilities here, including what seems most unlikely.

What’s most apparent with Hurricane are the production values. Crisp colors and retro shapes and objects transport you back into the Cold War era, a physical sense of time and place conjured from wisely chosen props and set decor, not least of which is that pesky radio — virtually a character unto itself. Thick curtains drawn across large windows occupy considerable space within the frame, a not-so-subtle nod to the Red Scare.

It’s not just visual cues that tip us off, either. There’s a lot of strong eye-acting going on here, whether it’s an accusatory stare from over the top of Oslo’s glasses or the intense look of irritation, borderline anger, in Eva’s. Watch as the look turns from one of disgust to concern as she watches the man steadily come undone. The period details even is evident in the tones of voices used, the cadence with which the characters speak. Paying attention to these little nuances is more important than to the acting itself, which can be pretty shaky.

Those details add up to a unique and at times disconcerting experience that plays with notions of how paranoia and mistrust can lead us to make poor decisions and act irrationally. The set-up is simple but effective, making for a short film that I really kind of have to recommend.

Recommendation: An interesting take on the atmosphere of paranoia, fear and mistrust in the years leading up to and certainly including the Cold War. Juggles comedy with dramatic beats pretty effectively, even if the acting is at times a bit shaky. On the whole, though, these are 14 minutes very well spent. I enjoyed the strangeness of it all and this makes me really want to check out more of Dias’ work. An easy recommendation to make. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 14 mins.

[No trailer available, sorry everyone . . .]

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

Photo credits: http://www.screencritix.com; http://www.vimeo.com

High-Rise

high-rise-movie-poster

Release: Friday, May 13, 2016 (limited) 

[Netflix]

Written by: Amy Jump

Directed by: Ben Wheatley

Chaos reigns supreme in Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, an adaptation of the 1975 novel penned by British author J.G. Ballard who envisioned a microcosm of society confined within a 40-story-tall luxury apartment building. After nearly four decades and several failed attempts at adapting material many considered ‘un-filmable,’ Ballard’s anarchical dreams have finally found a home on the big screen in 2016.

Despite several familiar trends, the 1970s-London-set High-Rise manages to differentiate itself by presenting an atypical dystopian society. Rather than prisoners of a faceless, nameless system, people are more often than not victims of their own circumstances, organized within the building according to their financial standing: the wealthy live on the top floors while the poor occupy lower levels. This isn’t a prison, for tenants haven’t been forced to abandon the conveniences of modern living nor have they been brainwashed into disassociating with the outside world. Rather, disaffection has occurred naturally, the conveniences of the building allowing those inside to gradually lose interest in anything it doesn’t provide. Additionally, and although it certainly feels like it at times, this isn’t a post-apocalyptic environment; the people who fill the frame represent only a fraction of society, those who we can safely assume actually wanted to come live here.

High-Rise is a movie of striking visual design, at times to a fault. Indeed, the building is a character unto itself, a looming entity with its upper five or ten floors precariously off-set from the rest. One look at this feat of civil engineering and you’re smitten. Even though it’s precisely the kind of physics-defying curiosity that has become old hat in these sorts of movies, the tower looks and feels right at home in our world. The cold, metal-gray interior features all the amenities you could imagine: shopping markets, gyms, pool-and-spa areas; there’s even a primary school. Parties are regularly thrown, often spilling over between floors, necessarily suggesting different economic classes still have the freedom to associate with whomever they so choose.

Dr. Robert Laing (Tom Hiddleston) is our way into the building. A 25th-floor resident, Robert is a lecturer on physiology and commutes daily to and from the city. He allows himself some distance from other people until his upstairs neighbor, single mom Charlotte (Sienna Miller), makes her presence known. The two quickly fall into a romance that eventually allows Robert to get to know her young but strange son Toby (Louis Suc). The first third of the film establishes the world inside this place and sees him getting acquainted with a few other eccentrics, including the Wilders, a family whose station in life seems to be being stuck on the bottom floor. Richard (Luke Evans) is a documentarian with a screw loose and more than a few probing questions. His wife Helen (Elisabeth Moss) is heavily pregnant and wishes Richard weren’t always out getting himself into trouble.

Robert soon finds himself summoned to the penthouse, where high rise architect Anthony Royal (Jeremy Irons) and his socialite wife Ann (Keeley Hawes) live. Well, flourish really. He’s brought up for an opportunity to get to know some of the building’s more prestigious fellows, a networking opportunity if you want to call it that. In some ways Hiddleston’s place within the narrative, especially with regards to his association with such characters, feels reminiscent of Jonathan Pine and his fraternization with dangerous types in the brilliant TV mini-series The Night Manager, a John le Carré adaptation in which a former British soldier is recruited by MI6 to infiltrate the ranks of a notorious international arms dealer in order to bring him down.

While a sense of impending doom is distinctly lacking with regards to Robert’s situation, part of the crux of this story does concern an evolving perception of who the doctor really is, particularly as he begins currying favor with some of the elites. (He even gets to play a game of squash with Mr. Royal!) It’s no coincidence his apartment is almost smack-dab in the middle of the building. The metaphor is almost too overt: Robert’s not like the rest, he plays as though the rules don’t apply and thus finds himself in the precarious position of not caring whether or not he improves his current life. His physical location within this building, like it does everyone else, says a lot about the opportunities he has been afforded.

This puzzling drama is an exercise in random visual stimulation, so it’s fitting that the central conflict arises haphazardly as well. It takes three months from the day Robert moves in for the social infrastructure to fail. Specifically what triggers the collapse isn’t made clear, but basic necessities are the first to go: electricity, clean water, food supplies, proper garbage disposal. A man throwing himself from the 39th floor onto the hood of a car is the most apparent indicator of things starting to go awry. And later: complete pandemonium as the irascible Richard Wilder stages a revolution to take down Royal, who he believes is the one responsible for things falling apart. More perceptive viewers will notice that, while all of this is going on, police are nowhere to be seen.

Lang isn’t exactly immune to the insanity, and it’s in his slow slide into a state of acceptance that maybe . . . just maybe, Royal’s plans aren’t completely sinister, that in some weird way society itself is what has failed him and failed the building. Wheatley ensures our perspective on the matter aligns with Robert’s, a tactic that allows us to remain as close to impartial as possible. And it’s not like Robert isn’t flawed himself. As the level of chaos increases we see his behavior change as well. A scene in the grocery store is particularly memorable, exhibiting a side of the doctor we haven’t yet seen: angry, desperate, and violent. He’s become overwhelmed by the survival instinct, protecting what matters most to him — in this case, a bucket of paint. At this point we are well beyond rules. Society is now left to fend for itself as Royal and his cronies continue to look for a way to improve the facilities.

High-Rise is an intensely visual piece that doesn’t quite resonate as the profound sociopolitical allegory it was clearly set on becoming and that the book has been heralded as. Nonetheless, it approaches a familiar subject with a gusto that allows us to overlook the fraying edges, offering up a hallucinatory experience that is as unpredictable as it is entertaining and thought-provoking.

tom-hiddleston-with-a-load-on-his-face

Recommendation: Fans of the weird and the dystopian need apply. High-Rise gets carried away with itself every now and then, with some sequences beginning and ending so sporadically you want to believe many of the transitions were done this way to add to the disorientation (and maybe this really was the thinking). Well-performed and even better shot. Cinematography is a high point, while Tom Hiddleston’s performance reminds us why this is an actor who should have more work. He’s too good. So is Jeremy Irons, but this is really Hiddleston’s movie. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “There’s no food left. Only the dogs. And Mrs. Hillman is refusing to clean unless I pay her what I apparently owe her. Like all poor people, she’s obsessed with money.”

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

The Invitation

'The Invitation' movie poster

Release: Friday, April 8, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Phil Hay; Matt Manfredi

Directed by: Karyn Kusama

Dinner parties tend to get awkward when guests start dropping dead.

Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body; Aeon Flux) invites you inside the strange goings-on of what was supposed to be a casual get-together among longtime friends, friends reuniting after a traumatic event. Paranoia and mistrust run rampant in The Invitation as painful memories from the past are dredged up and inauspicious developments in the present combine to form one of the most tension-rich environments you’re likely to get in a mystery thriller of its ilk.

It wouldn’t be unreasonable to call Kusama’s latest film fairly predictable stuff. Even if you’re only half paying attention you’re likely going to make a good assumption as to how everything wraps up. The disastrous dinner party scenario isn’t played out per se but it is formulaic and there are certain limitations not even the likes of Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who share writing duties here, can overcome. Still, writing within limitations doesn’t mean you have to restrict your creativity — if anything it means just the opposite — and this deliciously suspenseful, utterly engaging and nerve-racking story is proof these writers enjoy embracing that challenge. The main beats you can feel coming well in advance but there’s a wealth of material in between that make The Invitation a plump cherry to savor.

The story is about a man returning to his former residence after he’s accepted an invitation to a dinner being thrown by his ex-wife and her new husband. Will (Logan Marshall-Green) is on the way over with his new girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) when his distracted driving results in striking an animal in the middle of the road. So yeah, okay, maybe it’s not the subtlest way of foreshadowing what comes later but the moment succeeds in preempting tension that will rarely excuse itself from the narrative going forward.

That tension sets in in earnest when Will and Kira arrive and are greeted by friends they haven’t seen in some time. Things are definitely awkward, everyone needs a first drink. But everyone also seems a little . . . odd. Maybe that’s just the way Will is perceiving things. Bobby Shore’s camera sticks close by his side as he reacquaints himself with the house he once lived in. He’s quiet and stand-offish, resulting in a number of instances where friends come up to him and ask how he’s doing. Telling him they love him. Maybe it’s just the hosts that are off-putting. After all it can’t be easy listening to your ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard) vehemently declaring how intent she is on living a life free of pain and grief now; how she wants a troubled past with Will to be forgotten and moved beyond.

Her husband David (Michiel Huisman) spouts the same gibberish, passionately reciting some bullshit philosophical utterances touted by a “grief support group” the two have recently joined. David even goes so far as to show everyone a video of what goes on during their “sessions.” (Yes, everything is now going to be in mystery quotes.) The contents are “fairly disturbing” to say the least. We continue to ride the night out from Will’s point of view, his mounting discomfort shedding the thin veil of subtlety it had earlier. He’s very suspicious of this David fella and not because he’s the guy his ex is now seeing.

To get everyone’s minds off of the weirdness he just subjected them to, David suggests they participate in an ice-breaking game called ‘I Want,’ a variation on ‘I Have Never,’ and the evening takes another interesting turn when Eden wants to kiss Ben (Jay Larson), the same guy she briefly became hostile towards for making a harmless joke moments ago. This is just one example of the woman’s erratic behavior. At this point we wish we could be Claire, a guest who has become so uncomfortable she just wants to leave, despite the hosts’ protests. Somewhere along the way an unexpected guest has arrived, an imposingly large man named Pruitt (John Carroll Lynch). He’s from the same support group. Meanwhile, the partiers are still awaiting the arrival of Choi (Karl Yune), a friend who promised to show up early.

A talented cast and crew help Kusama realize the potential in her cult-themed thriller. Marshall-Green brings a quiet intensity to his part as a conflicted Will but aside from him there are no particular standouts; rather, the ensemble of relative unknowns fails to register a false note in their emotional responses. Major spoiler-related actions notwithstanding, people behave in The Invitation as you would expect them to in real life. These aren’t people you ever really like, something that actually works in the film’s favor as it merely compounds the stress. The characters are each their own oddball, constantly demonstrating behavior that could prove to be their own undoing. Best of all, no one character is defined by a singular emotional outburst; they have names, not labels.

Throughout, Kusama’s direction remains disciplined and keenly focused on the biased perception of an unreliable protagonist. (Or is Will the only sane one in the room?) Kusama employs flashbacks that occasionally feel heavy-handed but contrasted against the vagaries of Will’s shifty demeanor they become vital. They help us appreciate why this get-together was never going to feel normal. It’s her work behind the camera that ensures The Invitation remains a consistently rewarding watch, and despite the third act gut-punch losing a bit of its edge due to some blatant foreshadowing earlier, everything winds up in a snap that’s just too good to resist.

Recommendation: Despite its predictability, The Invitation is simply too well-acted and executed to ignore. It’s claustrophobic and intimate and awkward and tense and pretty much everything that makes the formulaic dinner-party mystery thriller great. An able cast helps convince while strong work from behind the camera marks this as a project clearly everyone believed in. A very fun and rewarding watch, highly recommended. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “Forgiveness doesn’t have to wait. I’m free to forgive myself and so are you. It’s a beautiful thing. It really 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

Swiss Army Man

'Swiss Army Man' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

Directed by: Dan Kwan; Daniel Sheinert

There are some movies that just simply take your breath away. Ones where you’ll remember what theater you saw it in, where you were sitting, how many people were in there with you when you experienced THIS movie. Swiss Army Man is that kind of movie. It’s not even really a movie, it’s a religious experience . . .

. . . for those who appreciate a good arthouse picture.

I say that not with the slightest bit of remorse but rather with an air of caution. There’s a caveat to enjoying what writer-directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Sheinert (collectively known as ‘Daniels,’ the duo behind DJ Snake and Lil Jon’s 2013 hit music video ‘Turn Down For What’) have conjured here. I say that because the warning label should be clearly on display. When early word pegged their debut feature as the most surreal, offbeat adventure audiences are likely to ever experience it was hardly a hoax. Here is a narrative quite literally powered by flatulence and guided by erections. Absurdity. Madness. Despair. Love. Weird, sweet, de-sexified love.

Shifting the likes of Wes Anderson and Michel Gondry several feet closer to neutral on the Scale of Quirkiness, Swiss Army Man wastes no time as it opens with the striking image of a young man, Hank (Paul Dano), preparing to hang himself on a desolate island. Perched atop a small cooler with the fraying rope running to the top of the small cliff, he’s all but ready to commit to his decision when he suddenly spots a body (Daniel Radcliffe) washed up on shore. It looks lifeless but Hank’s curiosity is piqued when he hears it farting. A lot.

Approaching the body with caution he notices, unsure if he’s hallucinating, that the gastric releases are only intensifying. He’s not hallucinating; this thing is literally sputtering to life like an old car. That’s when Hank discovers he can actually use this to his advantage, converting the bloated corpse into a kind of water vessel that will allow him to get back to the mainland. But it turns out methane-powered human jet-ski is only one of the ‘corpse”s many functions. He can also produce clean drinking water, and his seemingly jointless limbs come in handy for slicing and dicing things. He can also be used as a rocket and a grappling gun, and his erection functions as a compass, too — how fun!

Dismissing Swiss Army Man as little more than crass comedy is going to be too easy but that’s the same sword wielded by those who view the indie/arthouse crowd as nothing but hipsters. Or those who presumed everyone who went to see the Harry Potter movies were all bookworms. Despite frequent trips into puerile territory, this movie politely and perhaps all too quietly requests to be taken a little more seriously than the average Adam Sandler fudge pile. (In reality I’d compare this more to Rob Reiner’s timeless buddy-adventure Stand By Me.) Underpinning all this crudeness lies an aching despair to return to normalcy, to reconnect with what most of us would consider civilized society, to feel alive again after inexplicable bouts of being marooned delete you from existence.

The journey to get back home will be fairly easy in physical, practical terms given the endless supply of miracles “Manny” (as he apparently self-identifies) seems to provide. Even though he propelled them both back to shore with his ass, they’re still a far cry from home, and there are more complicated ideologies and dynamics to contend with as well. It doesn’t take long for Manny to question whether Hank is just using him for his own personal gain or if he actually cares about him, and for us to ponder just whether the two are fated for a really awkward fairytale ending, or something . . . darker.

Swiss Army Man is a movie in pain. Dialogue is sparse but it often delivers hard blows from which we take some time to recover. Conversation is often confronting and unnatural, yet it’s this entrenchment in brutal honesty that saves us from pretense. Primitive discussions about why people masturbate eventually find their place in the greater narrative. While conversations may start trending intellectual a little too prematurely for those who view proceedings as a more cut-and-dry buddy adventure, those conversations open up endless avenues for discussions of our own.

Hank is worried he’ll never have the confidence to make an impression on the woman he sees every day on the bus. Manny doesn’t understand why he is so pathetic, but then again, why would he? After all he’s just an undead, farting, bloated, water-logged dummy who washed up on shore, probably on accident. He once had a life too, but he can’t remember it. Presumably it too was filled with glorious tales of how he once masturbated.

As the adventure evolves we’re pulled further into a strikingly intimate world by a pair of mesmerizing performances. Dano is again in top form here but Radcliffe truly soars, creating a character for the ages. It doesn’t exactly announce itself as such, but Manny represents an achievement in acting and the Brit deserves to be considered in the discussion of best performances of the year. Never mind the fact Radcliffe had a stunt dummy doing most of the heavy lifting. The psychological and emotional components far outweigh the physical, and it’s in the quieter moments — around a campfire, up in a tree, face-down near a pile of animal feces — where we see a soul (and the occasional butt-cheek) exposed.

Dano is reliably weird, though his greatness is more expected as the actor continues defining his niche as an off-kilter, often unlikable enigma plagued by social outcastism. For his peculiar acting sensibilities Hank is, in a word, perfect. Much like this gloriously, obstinately, unabashedly strange little film. The farting corpse movie you’ll be telling your children all about years down the road.

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Recommendation: An absolute must-see movie! Thematically Swiss Army Man isn’t a movie you haven’t seen before, but in execution, I feel pretty confident saying you won’t find a thing like it this or any other year. It’s simply a marvel and a joy to watch unfold, offering up one of the finest performances of the year in Daniel Radcliffe, the poor lad who just can’t ever get away from having to make some comment on his latest role’s relation to his days in Hogwarts. This oddity, however, just might do the trick. For now. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “If you don’t know Jurassic Park, you don’t know shit.” 

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

The Neon Demon

'The Neon Demon' movie poster

Release: Friday, June 24, 2016 

[Theater]

Written by: Nicolas Winding Refn; Mary Laws; Polly Stenham

Directed by: Nicolas Winding Refn

Elephant in the room: there are more lines of dialogue in Nicolas Winding Refn’s new film than there were in his last. That wasn’t enough to stop The Neon Demon from scoring Refn his second-straight booing at the Cannes Film Festival. The film is still delicate as fine china when it comes to plot but this is Refn as I like him: at least somewhat accessible. Booing him this time seems more like a ritualistic exercise than a just reaction.

Cautionary tale about a teen who puts her high school career on hold to take modeling gigs in Los Angeles epitomizes the Refn-ian vision: lots of bright, pretty colors colliding and compensating for the stark lack of light elsewhere on screen (i.e. each time there’s an alley, a corner or anything capable of throwing shadows); a heightened sexuality that frequently veers into the perverse before fully tipping over into depravation. Most characters stare more than they speak, their inactivity designed to draw attention to form, not function. A psychosexual soundtrack courtesy of regular collaborator Cliff Martinez.

Yeah, so . . . about that staring obsession. Unlike in Only God Forgives it actually serves a purpose here. The pulpiest bits of the story concern the danger young Jesse (Elle Fanning, who celebrated her 17th birthday during filming) finds herself in when she becomes the object of a make-up artist named Ruby (Jena Malone)’s affections. Jesse’s natural beauty starts posing a major threat to other models, specifically Sarah (model-turned-actress Abbey Lee) and Gigi (Bella Heathcote), women terrified that their time in the spotlight is quickly coming to an end with the arrival of such an angelic, naive presence. Long, lustful stares carry a tension that’s more palpable than it is logical: are we really supposed to believe one of these women is better looking than the other?

Passing glances evolve into death stares as Jesse catches the eye of Alessandro Nivola’s brutally cold fashionista. If haughtiness is an indication of expertise, this guy has had all the experience. Refn, self-described as a pornographer, remains steadfastly committed to the physique: cameras ogle over Jesse’s long legs and Rapunzelian hair constantly. As we transform from viewers to voyeurs, we become haunted by this combination of wanting to stop watching but being physically unable to do so. There’s just something so watchable about The Neon Demon, an obsession to know more that gave me flashbacks of the 2011 haunting beauty that was Drive.

Refn may still be a few challenging movies shy of earning comparisons to contemporary provocateurs like Gaspar Noé and Lars Von Trier (a fellow Dane), but here he is, persisting anyway. Once again the world as he sees it is a brutal, cruel construct, a jagged jumble of broken hearts and heinous acts carried out in the name of self preservation. Malone’s necrophiliac tendencies demonstrate the depths to which these women will sink to obtain whatever it is they perceive Jesse having over them. (What that was was never clear to me but then again, it’s been awhile since I last thumbed through an issue of Vogue.)

The Neon Demon doesn’t break much, if any, new ground in its exploration of the vacuum of happiness that is the fashion industry. It’s neither a history lesson nor a revelation. Perhaps the movie is best when we consider the specifics of the clichés, like how Keanu Reeves takes a stock character and turns him into something we come to fear or the metaphorical beauty of Jesse’s fall from grace landing her at the bottom of an empty pool. Or how uncertain we are that her fellow models are even human. Given the potency of this hallucinogenic trip, it’s safe to say that in 2016 Refn is found reaching for his 2011 highs rather than stooping to his 2013 lows. Thank the neon demons for that.

Recommendation: The Neon Demon represents Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn’s most female-driven film so far. Some have dismissed this as a sexist, sadistic bit of pretense but that’s overly harsh. It may not be the most original film, nor one where we get all the answers to life’s problems but on the basis of its twisted, mesmeric visuals, The Neon Demon is further proof that Refn is a director to keep an eye on going forward. A great leap forward for the young Elle Fanning, as well. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “She’s a diamond among a sea of glass.”

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

New Cops

'New Cops' movie poster

Release: Monday, February 15, 2016 (online)

[YouTube]

Directed by: Timothy Morton

Timothy Morton’s New Cops has a cozy home-made feel to it and while the low overhead is certainly noticeable it doesn’t stop us from having a little bit of fun with these guys.

Morton’s latest, a project six years in the making, premiered on February 15 on NoBudge.com, a screening venue for independent film where a new short or feature film is added every Tuesday. The brainchild of independent actor and filmmaker Kentucker Audley, who has been running the show since 2011, NoBudge has become testament to what can be accomplished on practically zero-dollar budgets (hence the site title).

New Cops finds Morton playing a man in a funk, someone sleepwalking through his every day existence while experiencing bizarre yet fulfilling dreams every time he goes to sleep, where he enjoys the power and prestige that comes with being the President (of what exactly, I was never sure. Of the nation? Of a company? Does it matter?) One afternoon his friend Chet (Jimmy Kustes) shows up asking for a couch to crash on for a couple of days while a storm blows over at his house.

Soon enough Chet proves to be quite the nuisance as he tries to rope Tim into various schemes such as passing off neighborhood junk as usable on Craig’s List, and scamming fast food joints with expired coupons. If that wasn’t enough, it’s been several days since Tim has seen his girlfriend and he has not a clue as to her whereabouts, though he suspects she’s with another man. As his real world problems start to seep into his idealized existence, Tim is forced to take action in the only way he knows how: hire a private detective (David Maloney) to do the President’s dirty work.

New Cops, a title derived from a TV show Tim likes to watch, struggles to make a lot of sense. Given that its protagonist seems to spend more time in a dreamlike trance than out of one, I can let the lapses in logic and unexplained (or poorly conceived) developments slide. There is a lot of charm to the awkwardness and dialogue is largely improvised, giving conversations a natural flow, even if that flow is interrupted regularly by some jumpy editing.

Morton’s latest is a fun, creative slice of mumblecore cinema that explores the frustration of a man desperate to overcome self-esteem issues and it often does so to comic effect. It’s a strange adventure that interrogates the very nature and significance of our dreams.

Recommendation: While there are many issues I have with the film on a technical level, overall I think this is a fairly successful experiment that I have no trouble recommending to others who appreciate and actively support micro-budget independent cinema. 

Rated: NR

Running Time: 52 mins.

[No trailer available; sorry everyone.]

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Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com 

Decades Blogathon — Labyrinth (1986)

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Greetings, and welcome back around to another edition of the Decades Blogathon! It is my pleasure getting to co-host this great event with Three Rows Back — a site if you are finding out about for the first time right now (or if it’s been awhile . . .) you must absolutely drop by. Mark is the reason this blogathon exists! 

Anywho, today I’d like to welcome Filmscorehunter, who’s the pen behind The Cinematic Frontier, a very user-friendly and diverse site featuring everything from reviews of films both new and old, to Blu-Ray recommendations to blogathon posts (just like this one!). Go on and pop around there if you like what you read here. Now let me step aside and let him take over . . . 


'Labyrinth' movie poster

Jim Henson brought joy and education to children and adults through TV programs such as Sesame Street, The Muppet Show, and Fraggle Rock.  He eventually became involved in feature filmmaking as well (such as the first three Muppet movies; he made his directorial debut with 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper).  After co-directing 1982’s The Dark Crystal with Frank Oz, Henson next focused on another fantasy film that would require technical challenges that pushed the limits of special effects technology at the time (and would also be a musical).  I was fortunate enough to catch a midnight screening of Labyrinth three years ago on the big screen at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema during a visit to Atlanta, Georgia.  It was fun seeing it again after having seen it many years before on cable.  I was finally able to catch a midnight screening of the film a few months ago at the Landmark Sunshine Cinema in New York City, and it was a joy to see it once more on the big screen.  This review of Labyrinth is my entry in the Decades Blogathon hosted by Three Rows Back & Digital Shortbread.

1986’s Labyrinth follows a teenage girl who embarks on a quest to save her baby brother, who’s being held hostage by the Goblin King in his castle after she had originally wished for him to take her half-brother away.  Henson gathered together an impressive ensemble that includes Jennifer Connelly (as Sarah Williams), David Bowie (as Jareth the Goblin King), Toby Froud (as Toby Williams), Christopher Malcolm (as Robert Williams), Shelley Thompson (as Irene Williams), Brian Henson (as the voice of Hoggle), Ron Mueck (as the voice of Ludo), David Shaughnessy (as the voices of Sir Didymus and the Wiseman’s bird hat), Percy Edwards (as the voice of Ambrosius), Timothy Bateson (as the voice of the Worm), Michael Hordern (as the voice of the Wiseman), Denise Bryer (as the voice of the Junk Lady), David Healy (as the voice of the Right Door Knocker), Robert Beatty (as the voice of the Left Door Knocker), and Kevin Clash (as the voice of Firey #1).  Connelly gives an engaging performance as the young Sarah, who must undertake a physical and emotional journey through a labyrinth in order to get to the Goblin King’s castle.  Bowie is simultaneously cruel, seductive, and otherworldly as the Goblin King in a mesmerizing performance.

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The screenplay by Terry Jones explores a coming-of-age story influenced by The Wizard of Oz, Alice In Wonderland, Outside Over There, and Where the Wild Things Are.  Alex Thomson’s cinematography is beautiful, and Elliot Scott’s production design creates a diverse number of locations, including swamps, villages, and castle interiors (I especially loved the M.C. Escher-esque stairs and the Bog of Eternal Stench).  The costume designs by Brian Froud and Ellis Flyte are stunning (especially the ones featured in the ballroom sequence), and John Grover’s editing moves the film at a good pace.  The spectacular special effects are a seamless blend of practical effects, puppetry, and blue screen compositing.  Trevor Jones delivers an eclectic score that complements the songs contributed by Bowie (As the World Falls Down is my favorite song of the bunch).  Henson’s Labyrinth is a remarkable achievement that showcases an entertaining coming-of-age story as well as his boundless imagination.  Although not a box office success, it has developed a cult following over the last 30 years and is now a classic fantasy film.


Photo credits: http://www.brandedinthe80s.com; http://www.avclub.com

Band of Robbers

'Band of Robbers' movie poster

Release: Friday, January 15, 2016 (limited)

[Netflix]

Written by: Aaron & Adam Nee

Directed by: Aaron & Adam Nee

‘Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.’

Mark Twain’s preemptive words of caution to readers about to embark on the Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn here become the Nee brothers’ own insurance against critics tempted to blast their movie for any perceived eroding of the fabric of classic Twain. Purists: you’ve been warned. This isn’t exactly Baz Luhrmann reimagining one of the greatest of the great Bard tragedies as a contemporary, bitter war between rival New York gangs of the mid-90s, but we’re in that ballpark. Band of Robbers is far sillier, far more absurd, far less concerned with narrative cohesion and artistic merit.

Still, the translation of 19th Century text into 21st Century living is as intriguing as it is amusing. Who knew this pair would lend themselves so naturally to the underground mumblecore movement? Tom Sawyer (Adam Nee), ever the grand storyteller and fearless explorer, is reinterpreted here as someone who hasn’t been able to graduate from the kinds of small-town hijinks people who never leave these places ultimately get caught up in. Ever since childhood, Tom’s been obsessed with unearthing what has been rumored to be a fortune in cash — a modern-day treasure chest that he sees as his ticket to a better life — while his best friend Huckleberry Finn (Kyle Gallner) has always been looking for reasons to avoid his abusive alcoholic father.

Huck vows to change his ways when he’s finally let out of prison following a trespassing incident many years ago. He’s taken in by the Widow Douglas (Beth Grant) who is adamant that Huck embrace a more pious way of life and act more “civilized.” He’s hairier and scragglier after years behind bars, appearing older than he rightfully should. Tom is now an underachieving cop with a perv ‘stache more eager to show off the shiny badge and gun than his experience as a member of law enforcement; he can’t wait to drive Huck home in his newly acquired squad car. But, as we learn, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Tom hasn’t stopped pursuing his dreams of fame and fortune. He envisions himself as something more than a lowly ticket writer; becoming a detective would be pretty cool. However, rather than pursuing the normal course of trying to impress his superiors and earning that promotion, he proposes the formation of a ‘Band of Robbers,’ recruiting the likes of Joe Harper (Matthew Grey Gubler), who is in this life a quasi-hippie/drifter, and Ben Rogers (Hannibal Buress), a car mechanic. They’ll rob a local pawn shop run by a man named Dobbins (Creed Bratton) for the contents of its relatively unprotected safe (or so they thought). Naturally they bungle the job and instead of life-changingly generous stacks of gold doubloons, they find a measly sum of wrinkled bills in some plastic bags.

The mission — even the film as a whole — is fueled almost entirely by Wes Andersonian absurdism. The premise is 85% idealistic — robbing from those who deserve to be robbed, à la Robin Hood, actually makes the boys heroes, not thieves — and 15% experience, with Tom pitching this as the next evolution in their misadventures. But when it comes right down to it, conditions are far from ideal: love interest Becky Thatcher (Melissa Benoist) is reincarnated in the form of a rookie cop who is assigned to Officer Tom Sawyer on the very day he plans to pull off the heist. Tom and Huck’s ‘experience’ also tends to fail them when they brush shoulders with bona fide criminals — friends of the mysterious Muff Potter (Cooper Huckabee) — who also have their hearts set on this theoretical treasure chest.

Band of Robbers isn’t executed with the flamboyance synonymous with Luhrmann and his crazy box office receipts, nor the confidence that makes the bizarreness of Anderson’s world-building somehow not only acceptable but uniquely entertaining. Its closest cousin is without a doubt Bottle Rocket, but this isn’t even that sophisticated. The affair is primitive from a storytelling perspective, one that relies more on the camaraderie of four friends to get us through to the invariably silly and contrived conclusion rather than the legitimacy of the action. But given the way it makes you feel come the end, Band of Robbers is something of an unpolished gem.

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Recommendation: Band of Robbers, the second feature from the brothers Nee, explores contemporary ramifications of the Mark Twain cautionary tale, with a mix of solid comedy and iffy dramatic tension. It’s a consistently weird movie, one that has a better chance of rewarding viewers with fewer expectations and less criteria to be met.

Rated: R

Running Time: 95 mins.

Quoted: “. . .I guess just, uh, dig a hole, and drop me inside of it. Throw some gasoline on it, throw some fire on it, throw a grenade on it and kill me. I don’t want to live a life like that. Just, going with the flow, ya know? Never doing anything, just hoping you’d get by okay. When I die, I want there to be a parade. I want there to be a newsman to say, ‘We just lost the Number #1 Best Guy, Tom Sawyer — child prodigy, adult genius, American hero.’ We look over at the weather girl, she’s crying. We look over at the sports guy, he’s crying. He doesn’t even cry! He’s a sports guy, but he’s crying because Tom Sawyer died; because he did something with his life. Ya know, a lot of people don’t care what happens in life, they just want ham on their pizza, they want to watch teenagers get voted off of contests on television. But you and me, we’re not like that. You and I are the types of people that other people tell stories about, we’re the types of people who are going to be remembered.”

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