Friday, December 9, 2016

Be Kind Rewind: “Beyond the Gates” a fun micro-budget horror "Jumanji"

Beyond the Gates (2016)
83 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

“Beyond the Gates” is like “Jumanji” or “Zathura,” albeit with nocturnal ghouls and gory exploding heads. Tipping his hat to all of the cheesy B-movie relics that he most likely devoured from one box cover to the next in the 1980s and early-‘90s, director Jackson Stewart uses a VHS board game as a springboard to make his feature debut, working from a script he wrote with Stephen Scarlata. For a loving, micro-budgeted tribute to the long-past days of the faded VHS format and mom-’n’-pop video rental stores, this genre geek was ready to love it unconditionally, sight unseen. While the finished product is far more inspired in its conceit and in moments than its overall delivery, “Beyond the Gates” is phantasmagoric, rich with retro atmosphere and feels like something Don Coscarelli might make today.

Estranged brothers Gordon (Graham Skipper) and John Hardesty (Chase Williamson) must reunite under unfortunate circumstances: their alcoholic father disappeared without a trace seven months ago. With Dad presumed dead, the brothers are in charge of packing up the contents of their family’s obsolete video store Mount RushMonster that opened back in the summer of 1992. Gordon brings along supportive girlfriend Margot (Brea Grant) to stay with him in the house where he grew up, while John still lives in the area and hangs around ex-con pal Hank (Justin Welborn, who looks like he came from the same gene pool as Larry Fessenden). Once John locates a missing key to their dad’s office in the store, the brothers find an old VCR board game called “Beyond the Gates” for which they have no nostalgia. Gordon, John and Margot decide to entertain themselves and play, but when they put in the tape and listen intently to the instructions of the game’s sinister hostess (Barbara Crampton), the trio gets weirded out when she says, “Only there can your father’s soul be saved.” It might just hold the key to their father’s absence and something from another dimension, but the cursed game has yet to have a winning soul.

Besides sneakily naming the Hardesty brothers after final girl Sally from a certain 1974 video nasty, “Beyond the Gates” is pretty loud and proud about its love of everything before DVD and Blu-ray. Though ample time must be dedicated to establish a little bit of the history between Gordon and John, the setup takes a long time to cook. Then about an hour in, our brotherly heroes finally enter the game reality, which is just a neon-infused version of their family home, and must obtain keys to unleash the game’s captured souls. Given the budgetary restrictions, director Jackson Stewart does his best to hide the seams with few locations and practical special and make-up effects, so points should be granted for the level of imagination with limited resources. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: B - 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Season to Party: “Office Christmas Party” merrily raucous and fitfully funny

Office Christmas Party (2016) 
105 min., rated R.

By the sound of “Office Christmas Party,” one suspects that the title was thought of first before a story was created around it. With that said, it isn’t always the most reassuring sign when a film is credited to three writers for script and three different writers for story. Luckily for audiences who are starving for laughs and like watching everyone in the enormous who’s-who cast of comedy talent hit their individual sweet spots, this free-wheeling and merrily raucous ensemble Christmas comedy aims to be a frivolous party romp and mostly has the courage of its convictions. Even as co-directors Josh Gordon and Will Speck (2010’s “The Switch”) and screenwriters Justin Malen & Laura Solon & Dan Mazer get caught up more in the “we-must-save-the-company!” plot and let the rowdy, anarchic party dwindle, “Office Christmas Party” makes sure that the game-for-anything enthusiasm of its cast never flags and the smiles and chuckles come with rapid-fire regularity.

The Chicago branch of tech firm Zenotech is struggling, either unbeknownst to or ignored by sociable company heir Clay Vanstone (T.J. Miller), who’s more worried about his co-workers having a good time for their annual office “holiday mixer.” When Clay’s ball-breaking sister, Zenotech’s interim CEO Carol (Jennifer Aniston), swoops into town, she cancels the party and then threatens to cut Christmas bonuses and lay off 40% of the staff. With the aid of freshly divorced chief technical officer Josh (Jason Bateman) and programmer Tracey (Olivia Munn), Clay promises he can land a client account with tech-buying suit Walter Davis (Courtney B. Vance) by pitching him the idea of an almost-cracked algorithm for an Internet server. If that doesn’t work, they can just show him a good time. Can Zenotech throw a kick-ass party and still save the company?

Loose, unpretentious and blithely fun, “Office Christmas Party” knows exactly what it wants to be and goes just far enough with its emphatic R-rating. Swilling eggnog out of an ice sculpture’s penis? Photocopying naked body parts with a 3-D printer? Double check. The film doesn’t have a ton of  original gags—a baggy of cocaine getting mistaken for a baggy of fake snow for the party’s snow machine is as fresh as it gets—but for a strung-together all-star comedy, it’s solidly structured and moves along at a lively pace. There are other plot threads with various co-workers to speak of, but if one doesn’t amuse, another one will. Two major ones involve single-mom assistant Allison (Vanessa Bayer) having a hopeful but increasingly strange flirtation with accountant Fred (Randall Park), and Nate (Karan Soni) hiring an escort (Abbey Lee) after he’s been telling two colleagues that he has a girlfriend, only to get into deep with the pimp (Jillian Bell).

In this sprawling cast of funny people, there are so many dynamite standout players that one feels bad leaving anyone out. As Josh, Jason Bateman is certainly coasting here as the grounded one of the bunch but no less making it work, and he’s nicely paired with a comedically adroit Olivia Munn, who rarely gets to show much timing on the big screen as she does here. The part of Tracey isn’t much—we learn that she has no family and spends Christmas alone, a detail that could have used some exploration—but she is a smart, independent woman. Bateman and Munn’s silly dance in snowman sumo-wrestling suits is also cute and proves how game the two of them are. Getting the chance to be more of a co-lead rather than getting stuck with another comic-relief supporting role, T.J. Miller is endearing here as Clay, a well-meaning clown with a sweet compassion for his co-workers. 

Since 2011’s “Horrible Bosses,” Jennifer Aniston has proven to be fearlessly funny when given the chance. Playing another horrible boss as Carol Vanstone, she may not get as many daring shots to be as wickedly entertaining as she did as the sexually voracious Dr. Julia Harris, but Aniston sure comes close when talking down to a little girl at an airport gate. As uptight Human Resources department head Mary, a parrot-owning, multi-denominational holiday sweater-wearing “human pop-up ad,” Kate McKinnon is just a treasure. She has the special gift to turn nearly every loopy facial expression and line delivery into comic gold, and only she knows how to make a fart joke work. As mood-imbalanced, heat-packing pimp Trina, the go-for-broke Jillian Bell is her usual force-of-nature self, stealing every scene she’s in as her character shifts gears from nice and friendly to a dangerous and scary pistol never being at a loss for words. Also, around the margins, Vanessa Bayer uses her wide smile to her advantage; Rob Corddry scores some laughs as the angriest customer service representative; and Southern comic Fortune Feimster even has two hilarious bits as an overeager first-day Uber driver who goes on a tirade about the name “Carol.”

“Office Christmas Party” could always be funnier and more clever in places, indeed. There is, however, the quaint impression of a tightly scripted comedy and not one with too much interminable improv that slows the pacing to a dead halt, even if the end-credit outtakes is proof that there was riffing on set. Ignore the fact that contrivances are required to keep the plot wheels moving—and that this version of New York City has no police patrolling when photocopiers are thrown from a skyscraper window and crash to the ground below—and one will have a rollickingly debauched good time. Bound to get a bum rap, “Office Christmas Party” may not be brilliant, but as one of those comedies where you laugh fitfully just enough times, it’s like a Christmas miracle of spiked egg nog and naughty corruption without any boss supervision.

Grade: B - 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Iron Lady: Portman brings gravitas in well-observed snapshot of "Jackie"

Jackie (2016)
99 min., rated R.

The most effective kinds of biopics about famous people are those that take a specific moment in one’s life and explore it with cinema’s cardinal rule of showing over telling in mind. “Jackie,” as in Jacqueline Kennedy, is not a conventional soup-to-nuts biopic of the former First Lady but an intimately observed portrait of her trauma during and after the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, in Dallas on November 22, 1963. Written by Noah Oppenheim (2016’s “Allegiant”) and directed by Pablo Larraín (2013’s “NO”), the film movingly captures the immediate aftermath of Jackie holding her dead husband’s head in her lap but also illuminates the dichotomy of how she carried herself privately and publicly. Challenging herself yet again, Natalie Portman dons the pink Chanel dress and pillbox hat, while accurately channeling the breathy cadence and embodying the glamour of Jackie, but she goes one step further and makes her human.

Opening not long after JFK’s burial, “Jackie” is told through a framing device where the grieving 35th First Lady is being interviewed by a Life Magazine journalist (Billy Crudup) at the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts. As Jackie smokes and relays what happened that fateful day in Dallas, the film weaves back and forth from the present to planning her husband’s funeral procession and determination to honor his legacy. Director Larraín achieves an almost-dreamlike rhythm with this nonlinear storytelling and even seamlessly integrates archival footage into the production. A flashback to 1961 when Jackie gave a White House tour televised on CBS is an amusing re-enactment but also displays the woman’s elegant composure and knack for pageantry. The moments where she finds herself stumbling around the White House, refilling her rocks glass, changing her wardrobe and then quietly breaking down in the Oval Office are the most shattering. Richard Burton singing the title piece from the Broadway musical “Camelot” also becomes a significantly haunting throughline.

Any acting recreation of an icon takes the chance of coming off mannered. Admittedly, it takes some time to not be distracted by Natalie Portman’s surface mannerisms, but soon enough, any judgments that what she’s doing is just a thin impersonation give way for something more immersive. Although it must have seemed daunting at first, Portman goes beyond the look and sound of mimicry by finding shades and gravitas in the persona of Jacqueline Kennedy. Exuding class and grace, Jackie was engulfed by her own grief and tried coming to terms with being a widow of POTUS, but she was certainly strong-willed and had to find strength for her two children. The deep-bench supporting cast is uniformly solid, including Peter Sarsgaard, Jackie’s senator brother-in-law Bobby Kennedy; Greta Gerwig, as Jackie’s dedicated assistant Nancy Tuckerman; and John Hurt, as a priest. Madeline Fontaine’s costume design is impeccable and the foreboding, disorienting score is another mesmerizing piece of work by composer Mica Levi (her work for 2014's “Under the Skin” still stays with the viewer). It is not only in Portman’s vivid portrayal, but the marriage of Pablo Larraín’s filmmaking and other technical elements that help put the viewer into the same foggy and mournful headspace as Jackie. As long as a snapshot lends itself enough drama for the viewer, "Jackie" does more than what an episodic, superficial biopic might have done: it feels universal and bears Jackie Kennedy's soul.


Tuesday, December 6, 2016

She Won't Bite: “SiREN” never lives up to short-form counterpart

SiREN (2016) 
82 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

2012’s wickedly fun found-footage horror anthology “V/H/S” got off to a bang with David Bruckner’s segment “Amateur Night.” Three infantile fratboy types, one of them wearing a hidden eyeglass camera to record their sexcapades and comparably decent for being the token geek, hit up the bars to pick up girls and take them back to their hotel room. In a wallflower named Lily (Hannah Fierman), they think they have found an easy target, until she ends up turning the tables on them by revealing her true self: a winged, genital-ripping succubus. A thrillingly scary, bloody, quickly paced ride, Bruckner had accomplished surprises, jolts and ingenuity in less than 20 minutes, and the first-person conceit gave the story an effective immediacy. Four years later, director Gregg Bishop (2008’s “Dance of the Dead”) decided to expand “Amateur Night” into a feature with “SiREN” (a needlessly stylized title, by the way). The ethereal, Margaret Keane-eyed Hannah Fierman luckily reprises the role of Lily because she ends up being this spin-off’s constant asset.

En route to live up the underground party scene of Garden City, New Jersey, for his stag night, groom-to-be Jonah (Chase Williamson) learns the truth about the best-laid plans. With the bad influence of his brother and best man, Mac (Michael Aaron Milligan), Jonah and pals Rand (Hayes Mercure) and Elliot (Randy McDowell) end up getting pulled to a gentleman’s club unlike any other. It’s a remote mansion where the clientele and the strippers are quite unusual. Since it is Jonah’s night, the establishment’s proprietor Mr. Nyx (Justin Welborn) directs him to a private room with the mysterious Lily (Hannah Fierman). She instantly likes him and tempts him with a song that unleashes a spell on Jonah, who believes she might be a victim of sex trafficking and lets her out of her locked cell. Silly Jonah.

As a byproduct of being inspired by a superior anthological segment, “SiREN” just comes across as a competent but no-great-shakes creature feature. Without the exhilarating hook of the found-footage aesthetic, the result more closely resembles a traditionally shot narrative hodgepodge of “Species,” “Splice” and “Jeepers Creepers” (the last couple of shots particularly feel derived from the latter). There is a playfully forbidding tone laid, and similar to the shifts in “From Dusk Till Dawn” and “Hostel,” the ingestion of drugs and pleasure-seeking eventually morph into a total nightmare where limbs could potentially be lost. Director Gregg Bishopp (who did contribute a story to 2014’s “V/H/S: Viral”) and screenwriters Ben Collins and Luke Piotrowski do open up a would-be mythology with a twisted underground world in which clients are branded and pay with their memories, which are extracted by a leech in the back of their necks. This padding is a nice try, but it asks more questions than it answers and doesn’t really add much in the long run. Visually and aurally, the craftiest set-piece occurs in a diner where Jonah prevents succumbing to Lily’s song by blocking it out with a pair of earbuds and then proceeds to crawl around and hide behind booths and counters as the bodies of patrons and policemen keep getting thrown his way. 

Rather than exploring Lily’s origin, “SiREN” begins in a church with Mr. Nyx first meeting a young, bloody-mouthed Lily as the result of an occult ceremony gone wrong. From there, this feature-length expansion already puts the viewer steps ahead of the dunderheaded Jonah and his chums and mostly repeats its short-form counterpart to which it never lives up. The male friends do get a little more characterization, and Chase Williamson and Hayes Mecure are likable enough as Jonah and best friend Rand, respectively. Justin Wellborn also works time-and-a-half in the mustache-twirling and scenery-chewing departments to tiresome degrees, but he does make Lily's keeper, Mr. Nyx, detestable. The standout of the piece, though, remains Hannah Fierman. As the angelic but deadly Lily, she fills out the supremely creepy make-up again, gets to deliver her creepily amusing line (“I like you!”) a few times and spends most of the film without any clothes. The compact running time surely helps, too, but if it’s a otherworldly horror romance you seek, 2015’s “Spring” was an overlooked gem, or just go back to the source. If only Lily’s favorite catchphrase could be applied here.


Saturday, December 3, 2016

Trainwreck: "White Girl" a wild, cautionary snapshot of youthful abandon

White Girl (2016) 
88 min., not rated (equivalent of an NC-17).

What a memorably crazy summer Elizabeth Wood must have had in her early twenties. A wild whirlwind of sex, drugs and other ill-advised life decisions, “White Girl” (an obvious title that is also a brand of cocaine) is writer-director Wood’s semi-autobiographical narrative feature debut, and she pulls no punches. It's unrated for good reason. In a fearless breakthrough performance that should push her into the big time, 21-year-old Morgan Saylor (2014’s “Jamie Marks Is Dead”) seizes her role without any false attempts to be likable or virtuous as a reckless bleach-blonde "white girl." Two weeks before her fall semester in college, Leah moves into an apartment in Queens with best friend Katie (India Menuez). She isn’t quite an innocent, getting high morning, day and night, but then gets worse with the people she surrounds herself. She has an unpaid internship at a hip magazine, run by coke-snorting Kelly (Justin Bartha), who offers her a line and then has his way with her in his office the first time they meet. Then once Leah becomes involved with a Puerto Rican drug dealer named Blue (Brian Marc), who hangs out on the sidewalk below her apartment window, she watches her sort-of boyfriend get busted by an undercover cop and locked up. In need of $13,000, Leah will do anything to get Blue back. Anything.

A cautionary snapshot of raw, youthful abandon, “White Girl” will find its closest marker of comparison to both Larry Clark’s “Kids” and Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers.” There is more than shock value here, or at least a purpose and a scathing statement about young white privilege and entitlement. Leah may be naïve in her decision-making but knows how to use her body for personal gain and finds a pro bono lawyer (Chris Noth) specializing in defending drug dealers. What’s almost as alarming as Leah’s instantly gratifying ways is the fact that she may just get away with it all and not be arrested herself. Even at 88 minutes that keep a tight focus, the viewer eventually becomes as numb as Leah does to her repetitive addictive lifestyle, until the only catharsis a film like “White Girl” can ever reach. One has to wonder if the world needed another wild-oats story like this to be told, but Morgan Saylor makes her high-fueled journey of desperation compelling, and as a piece of a filmmaking, this is a daring, sometimes electrifying effort from Elizabeth Wood.

Grade: B - 

Retreat Into Rage: "Always Shine" an incisive, confidently acted nightmare

Always Shine (2016)
85 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Antiquated gender norms and a suppressed female voice are enough to fume those trying to make a mark or just get noticed in the entertainment industry. Sometimes, they can take a psychological toll on someone. With the deliciously prickly, increasingly tense, confidently acted indie horror-drama “Always Shine,” director Sophia Takal (making her sophomore effort behind the camera) responds to such notions, along with the cutthroat competition among friends in the biz. Rather than standing on a soapbox as an on-the-nose statement, Takal and screenwriter Lawrence Michael Levine (2015’s “Wild Canaries”), also her husband, articulate their themes and story with simmering control, blurred lines between friends and enemies or colleagues and rivals, and as much bitter honesty and composure-cracking as 2015’s startling woman-on-the-verge chamber piece “Queen of Earth.”

Beth (Caitlin FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) are friends who haven’t been as close as they used to be. They are both Los Angeles-based actresses, albeit with different degrees of success, perhaps due to their night-and-day demeanors. One is soft, submissive and attention-getting, and the other is hard, vituperative and insecure. One keeps quiet and plays in to the male-topped hierarchy of just knowing her place, and the other isn’t afraid to speak her mind and break the system. A girls’ weekend at Anna’s aunt’s house in Big Sur is their plan to reconnect. While things start off calm, as the two catch up and reminisce, there is an underlying jealousy in Anna, who’s tense and often argumentative. Their time grows even more contentious, and passive-aggression soon erupts into genuine aggression.

The off-center tone of “Always Shine” is precisely set, as a primal female scream and the sounds of running in the woods shift imperceptibly into Beth crying, pleading for her life and asking what she needs to do to live. The single take reveals to be Beth in a casting call for a horror movie, which might as well be a reality since her voice is confined by what her agent thinks is best for her career, even if “extensive nudity” calls for the project at hand. (It should be noted that for a film with an actress character who has gotten nude in about ten consecutive horror films, there is no actual nudity to be found, even during shower and love scenes.) The juxtaposition of that is Anna in a heated argument about her refusal to pay an inflated bill at an auto-body shop. Like Beth’s first scene, Anna is speaking to the camera, as if breaking the fourth wall, with a blank wall behind her. As Anna raises her voice and begins to curse, the male voice in the room calls her the opposite of “lady-like,” and what seemingly began as an audition for Anna reveals itself to be an aggravating reality. To read the rest of the review, go to Diabolique Magazine.

Grade: A - 

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Eyes Wide Shut: Grimly beautiful "Eyes of My Mother" shocks, impresses and haunts

The Eyes of My Mother (2016)
77 min., rated R.

Death and pleasure collide from childhood to adulthood in “The Eyes of My Mother,” a nightmarish tone poem into the dark, sick recesses of the mind after a traumatic catalyst. Making his assured and striking feature debut, 26-year-old writer-director Nicolas Pesce is an artist behind the camera. He is never gratuitous with what he shows in the monochromatic frame but quite patient and detached, approaching shockingly grisly acts from afar without in-your-face splatter. That isn’t to say that the film is tame or less violent because it is deeply disturbing, unforgiving and even upsettingly difficult to watch, but there is a grim beauty and melancholy to the macabre. Melding a psychological horror film into a hypnotic piece of art, “The Eyes of My Mother” holds a disconcerting chill that uncomfortably hangs around.

As a little girl living on her family's farm, Francisca (Olivia Bond) was raised by her mother (Diana Agostini), who used to be a surgeon in Portugal. She was taught to be fascinated by anatomy, as dissecting a cow's eyeballs was as normal as picking wildflowers. One peaceful day, Francisca is approached by a friendly man named Charlie (Will Brill) in their yard; after her mother tries to get her daughter inside, Charlie asks to use the bathroom. When Francisca’s father (Paul Nazak) comes home, his wife is dead. Instead of going to the police, he buries his wife and holds his wife’s killer prisoner in the barn. When young Francisca cares for her "friend" Charlie, she asks why he kills people. In hushed ecstasy, he responds, “It feels amazing.” Her childhood proclivities—keeping the prisoner chained up, severing his tongue, taking out his eyes to store them in a freezer bag and visiting him for feeding time—would later carry over into adulthood, and Francisca (taken over by Kika Magalhaes) gets to experience that “amazing” feeling herself. She is a lonely woman, still living where she grew up, but tries to make friends the only way she knows how.

Singularly for those with a high threshold for bleak character studies about deviant people unlike ourselves, “The Eyes of My Mother” is close to a horror masterpiece that one might not want to watch more than once. Portuguese newcomer Kika Magalhaes captivates, ostensibly playing just a warped, impassive and codependent vessel but belying her commitment of terrible acts is a beguiling grace and unfazed nonchalance. There is no understanding or empathizing with Francisca because being raised on violence is beyond social mores, but her struggle with human connection and the way she goes about rectifying it is not only unsettling but equally sad. Olivia Bond should not go unmentioned, either, as she lays the groundwork for Francisca as a young girl. 

Right out of the gate, filmmaker Nicolas Pesce exhibits an auteur touch in every frame and holds up his end of the bargain by being horrific with merciless nerve. With a deliberate European sensibility, his pacing is so still and spellbinding. Shot in starkly gorgeous black and white by cinematographer Zach Kuperstein, the film has a painterly eye with surgically precise compositions—for instance, the overhead shot of Francisca’s father in a milky bathtub—that also happen to be impossible to shake. The sound design is on point, too, perhaps too much with the aggressive chewing and pig-like grunting of Francisca’s friend in the barn. More chilling for what is suggested and happens off-screen, “The Eyes of My Mother” is still a wincingly unpleasant and ultimately despairing portrait of humanity in which a catharsis never comes, so it’s pretty likely that it will not be everyone’s cup of tea. Even if this can be fully appreciated as a first film crafted with extreme care, it is no less of a challenge to fully describe one’s feelings toward it. See with caution.

Grade: B +

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

How the West Became Lonely: "Certain Women" requires patience but it's unforced and beautifully acted

Certain Women (2016)
107 min., rated R.

If there has ever been a more respected indie filmmaker with a more distinct voice and knack for capturing truth on screen, it is writer-director-editor Kelly Reichardt. Her films—2008’s “Wendy and Lucy,” 2010’s “Meek’s Cutoff” and 2013’s “Night Moves,” to name a few—flow at an unhurried tempo and soak up every pause and small beat between human beings, but they completely reflect the time and place of the stories being told. Some find her cinematic approach fascinating and others find it to be the filmic equivalent of watching paint dry, as if still waiting for a structured story to be told. This being her sixth feature and the fifth in the same milieu, “Certain Women” is purely attuned to Reichardt’s muted, minimalist, more meditative sensibilities. A paean to the American West and everyday living with all of its rhythms and fine details, the film is quiet, languid, and beautifully acted, but there is also an unevenness to the overall storytelling and not as much payoff as there could have been. Then again, that lack of clean closure seems to always be a deliberate choice with an auteur like Reichardt.

Told with grace and careful observation in lieu of plot-driven momentum, “Certain Women” is a triptych about the female experience in Montana, adapted from a collection of short stories by author Maile Meloy. The characters aren't all directly connected but share a malaise and fatigue of always feeling underestimated. The first one introduced is Laura Wells (Laura Dern), an injury lawyer struggling with disabled client Fuller (Jared Harris). When he will not listen to her advice that she has been telling him for months, Fuller hears the same from a male lawyer that he can’t sue his company after he had already settled. In a rage, Fuller takes desperate measures, and Laura’s work is still not done. 

Then there’s Gina Lewis (Michelle Williams), stuck in a stale marriage with husband Ryan (James Le Gros) with whom Laura is ending her affair. Currently living at a campsite with their teenage daughter while their new home is built, Gina and Ryan stop by the property of their senile family friend Albert (Rene Auberjonois). Gina persuades him to sell them a pile of sandstone for their new house, and while they do eventually get it, Albert consistently dismisses Gina and directs his attention to Ryan. Finally, there is Jamie (Lily Gladstone), an introverted winter ranch hand finding unexpected human connection with young lawyer Beth (Kristen Stewart), who drives four hours two days a week to the town of Belfry to teach a night class. Will each of these women find what they want, or are their desires out of reach?

To get something out of “Certain Women”—or, frankly, anything from Kelly Reichardt—the viewer is required to have patience with the dawdling pacing and long takes and encouraged to take each snapshot as an authentic, unforced slice of life rather than trying to detect any deeper purpose. There are no sweeping, event-filled incidents, just emotions that ring true and motivations that are more allusive. Fortunately, none of the stories follow traditional narrative guidelines. And as always, Reichardt is able to get exquisite performances out of her actors. Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and Kristen Stewart all turn in diverse but very understated and lived-in work, as does newcomer Lily Gladstone who’s internal but fragile and heartbreaking. Aiding the lovely performances is the stunningly stark but frame-worthy cinematography by Christopher Blauvelt, the director's frequent collaborator who can find beauty in the vastness and isolation of Montana. Individually, the third story resonates more than the first two, as there is actual tension in seeing whether or not Beth will requite Jamie’s company, and it’s the only one that might have held up as a stand-alone film. As a cohesive tapestry of lives, “Certain Women” is low-key yet affecting and deeply human for as much as what is not said and what is actually said. For those keeping tally, it even passes the Bechdel-Wallace Test with flying colors.


Saturday, November 26, 2016

Retro Love Potion: "The Love Witch" a fun, affectionately detailed kitsch throwback

The Love Witch (2016) 
120 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Much like Ti West’s 1980s-set “The House of the Devil” (2009), “The Love Witch” is wholly committed to invoking a very specific time and genre, only this time the melodramatic occult sexploitation pics of yore. Thanks to writer/producer/director/composer/editor/set and costume designer Anna Biller (2007's "Viva"), the film is a loving, meticulously detailed throwback to a Technicolored bygone era, and unless one knew otherwise, it could have come straight out of a time capsule from the late-1960s and early-‘70s with cues to Italian horror and gothic Hammer Films. The overall experience might be a studied stylistic exercise and a gateway drug to play catch-up on the movies it is so affectionately saluting, but it’s an irresistible brew and should not be underestimated. "The Love Witch" needs to be devoured.

Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) has been reborn as a witch. Moving away from San Francisco after her ex-husband Jerry “left” her (read: she murdered him), she starts anew in a small California town by renting out her coven friend’s upstairs apartment of a Victorian mansion. Elaine craves love and has now honed a formula to lure men: give them what they want. New in town, she makes men turn their heads and do whatever she wants. The first man weakened by her sexuality is a professor named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and her love potion works on him, until he becomes more of an emotional baby than the real man she needs. Pretty soon, Elaine is burying Wayne in his backyard and then off to the next man. When the handsome Detective Griff (Gian Keys) gets on Wayne’s murder case, he is immediately bewitched by Elaine, as is Richard (Robert Seeley), the husband of realtor friend Trish (Laura Waddell). Can poor Elaine just find love without being burned for her black magic?

A feminist reflection with love potions, gender-equal nudity and kaleidoscopic fantasies, “The Love Witch” isn’t so much ersatz camp as it is a vivid recreation or a recently discovered artifact of its time. From the actors’ period-appropriate faces to their kitschy clothes to the style in which they speak, the film is a spot-on homage with a ruby-red lipsticked kiss on each frame. Having a clear eye for what she’s going for and knowing how to do it, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Anna Biller gets a whole lot of mileage out of such a small budget (she even stitched together Elaine’s pentagram rug). The stylish cinematography by M. David Mullen makes sure every color pops; even the camera zooms are nice touches and one transition from a bloody wrist to a strawberry cake at a Victorian tea room is a hoot. Aside from a few knowingly amusing anachronisms—there are a few street shots that clearly attempt to frame above contemporary cars, and at one point a character pulls out a cell phone—it gets away with posing as a film made in the ‘60s or ‘70s. 

The cast is a little green, but the performances are perfection in their stiffness and earnestness. With her black-as-ebony hair, blue eyeshadow and false eyelashes, Samantha Robinson is alluring and bewitching with a cheekily self-aware voice-over as Elaine, the epitome of a man’s fantasy who just wants to be loved. If one wants to nitpick at all, the film is a bit overlong at a full two hours. A tighter edit was probably somewhere in Biller—a sequence during Elaine’s coven’s Renaissance Faire in which she and Griff have a mock wedding goes on much too long—but when it is so transparent that every nook and cranny was made with care and love by a dedicated filmmaker, it would be hard to know where to trim something. One with a more extensive knowledge of the kind of cinema “The Love Witch” is tipping its hat to may get more out of it—Russ Meyer fans, raise your hands—but rabid cinephiles won’t be able to deny it as an erotic, dreamy curio. Does anyone else smell a cult classic in the making?

Grade: B +

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Strange Instinct: Isabelle Huppert spectacular in daring "Elle"

Elle (2016)
130 min., rated R.

Coming from Dutch director Paul Verhoeven, who has actually advanced with more arthouse fare after his long stream of Hollywood pictures—1987’s “Robocop,” 1992’s “Basic Instinct,” 1995’s “Showgirls” and 1997’s “Starship Troopers”—“Elle” is not a lurid, trashily entertaining rape-revenge thriller as one might expect. With Verhoeven attached, it was bound to push the envelope, but it is more daring, provocative and French than that. Even for a film that confronts such serious subject matter as rape, it is also darkly funny through Verhoeven’s perversely playful prism. Viewers will already know if “Elle” isn’t for them, and while it has uncomfortable ideas that only a provocateur would want to ponder, it’s more challenging than it is exploitative.

When a ski-masked male intruder rapes divorced mother Michèle Leblanc (Isabelle Huppert), she reacts unusually. With blood running down her leg, she gets up, cleans up the broken glass, throws away her dress, and takes a bath. Rather than call the police and report the incident, Michèle just goes on about the rest of her night, having dinner with her adult son, Vincent (Jonas Bloquet), who asks his mother for three months rent for an apartment with his awful, pregnant fiancee Josie (Alice Isaaz). The next day at work, where she’s a successful co-founder of a male-dominated video game company with best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), Michèle has a criticism when looking at a sample of a new video game in which a woman is violated: “the orgasmic convulsions are way too timid.” Later on, at dinner with Anna, Anna’s husband Robert (Christian Berkel) with whom Michèle is having an affair, and Michèle’s ex-husband Richard (Charles Berling), Michèle tells her friends nonchalantly that she was assaulted like it’s regular dinner conversation. Eventually, she starts receiving text messages that imply her rapist isn’t too far and might strike again. This time, Michèle will be ready.

Before a single frame has even been glimpsed, the sounds of glass breaking, a woman screaming and a man grunting grabs the viewer’s attention. The first image is a black cat, as it indifferently watches its owner being brutally attacked and raped. Based on the novel by Philippe Djian and written by David Birke (2014’s “13 Sins”), “Elle” is a darkly absorbing character study that questions how one might respond differently to a personal sexual assault and almost invite back that trauma again. Michèle is self-sufficient and refuses to be a victim, taking the appropriate measures by getting the locks changed, sleeping with a hammer, learning how to shoot, and buying some pepper spray. As anyone might, she also replays the rape in her head, and sometimes, the outcome is different.

Isabelle Huppert is brilliant, making a numb, steely enigma like Michèle fascinating to watch and not unsympathetic. She is complicated, multifaceted and even contradictory, playing with her power of consent and proving her tremendous mettle. Her tortured backstory goes deeper, too; her father, a serial killer, has been in prison for thirty-nine years. Michèle refuses to get the police involved with her assault because there’s the fear that she will stir up the circus from her past and the infamy that has followed her entire life. The reveal of who forced himself upon Michèle isn’t that important. It’s even revealed surprisingly early on, proving that director Verhoeven has no interest in purely making a whodunit or a standard revenge thriller about a woman evening the score with her rapist. A true conversation starter, “Elle” is bold, brave and unpredictable, just like Isabelle Huppert.

Grade: B +