Friday, April 21, 2017

TWO FILMS I LIKED BUT SHOULD’VE LOVED


Maybe my expectations were too high. I’d seen the trailer for FREE FIRE months ago and it peaked my curiosity. After all, I’m a sucker for crime capers, it stars Brie Larson and she's one of my favorite actresses, and director Ben Wheatley greatly impressed me with his 2015 psychological thriller HIGH-RISE. So why did I like this new film that just opened today, but not love it?  

Sometimes expectations can confound a filmgoer. I’ve been led astray many times before by word-of-mouth, publicity materials, or even celebrity interviews that seemed to paint a picture of one thing when the film is very much another. That’s not the case here. What happened here is simply that the film didn’t quite live up to its potential. It is very good, but it should’ve been great.

It starts off as such though setting up its dark comic tone and criminal characters with an efficiency and vividness that thrills. FREE FIRE takes place at a dilapidated and abandoned Boston factory in 1978 where IRA members Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley) have come to receive their order of arms they’ve bought to help fight the English back in Ireland. Frank is old and cynical, whereas Chris is idealistic. He wants things perfect in the deal, and he isn’t above even being romantic about her ideas of perfection. It’s certainly why he comes on to Justine (Larson), the comely American go-between who helped broker the deal. She’s smart, beautiful and doesn’t mind hanging out with low-life’s. What’s not for him to love? Then as he cements dinner plans with her for later, other vested parties show up for the deal. The suave and GQ-ready fixer Ord (Armie Hammer) strides in to ensure them all that the arms dealer he’s procured will deliver the goods and everyone will be happy. Famous last words, of course.

Such peace will be very short-lived as we will soon see due to the erratic nature of some of the other hoods who arrive to seal the deal. IRA henchmen and pals Stevo (Sam Riley) and Bernie (Enzo Cilenti) arrive with a truck to haul off the goods but they’re on edge due to the former’s fracas at a bar the night that left Stevo bloodied and bruised. His ego got the worst of the beating. Then Vernon (Sharlto Copley) arrives and his insecurity doesn’t help things either. He’s a clotheshorse dandy who doesn’t like everyone teasing him about his threads, plus his South African accent becomes a point of ridicule amongst the den of thieves and he feels like an outsider who’s not getting the respect he deserves.

His calm colleague Martin (Babou Ceesay) is low-key and cool, but he doesn’t rein his partner in and the babbling Vernon starts making everyone tense. It doesn’t help that he’s come with guns that don’t make Chris’s specs. It also doesn’t help that Vernon has two suspicious assistants Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor), and one of them is the guy who beat Stevo to a pulp the previous evening. Stevo instantly recognizes Harry, and soon their fight from the night before spills into the proceedings. Harry tells everyone that he beat up Stevo because the hoodlum came on to his sister. She refused and Stevo walloped her badly enough that it sent her to the hospital. So, what do you think happens to our boys after that revelation?

Brie Larson down but not out in FREE FIRE.
Indeed, tensions rise, fisticuffs ensue, friends try to keep friends from fighting, and soon enough Harry’s gun is drawn and he grazes his enemy in the shoulder. Then all hell breaks loose. Everyone ducks for cover, bullets start flying like popcorn exploding out of a popper, various hoods are tagged here and there, everyone starts yelling in pain, and Vernon’s expensive threads get shredded. That’s a lot of characters and scenario to set up and Wheatley aces it. Unfortunately, once the guns come out, these rich characters and their multiple storylines get lost in the fray. Rather than deepen their stories, the remaining film becomes repetitious, mostly consisting of shooting and a lot of characters crawling through debris for cover. There is a ton of crawling in this movie. Worms would be jealous for how much time folks in this film spend scurrying about on their bellies.

Sure, watching these previously prideful men, and one woman, all kidding themselves that there is honor among thieves, rummage around on the ground and get shot in their butts, shoulders and thighs is darkly hilarious, but their B stories are shot to hell as well. The set-up of the attraction between Chris and Justine grinds to a halt as do too many of the other relationships amongst the characters. There’s too much gunplay, everyone’s a terrible shot, death comes way too slowly for most, and our interest waivers. It mostly becomes a guessing game of who’ll die next, but even Agatha Christie knew that such a premise needed something more enticing. That’s why she had the “10 Little Indians” rhyme as her benchmark. Here, everyone’s as guilty as her island of baddies, but there’s little real surprise in this one about how anyone is going to be dispensed, at least until we’re down to the major stars.

Sharlto Copley plays Vernon, a comedic villain well-suited to his talents in FREE FIRE. 
Larson makes the most of her underwritten part, two-for-two now in conjuring 70’s era women perfectly. (She did the same earlier this month in the monster movie KONG: SKULL ISLAND.) In FREE FIRE, she rocks bell-bottomed pantsuit and Farrah wave, but I wish Wheatley and his co-screenwriter Amy Jump had given her just as good quips as flips. Larson is killer at delivering acidic barbs, as ROOM and TRAINWRECK proved, but mostly what’s she’s delivering here is the standard “girl” role one finds in actioners.

Wheatley misses more opportunities as well. He could’ve deepened some secondary characters like Gordon, especially when he’s cast noted character Noah Taylor, but instead gives the actor too little to play. The same goes for veteran actor Patrick Bergin. He shows up later in the story as a mysterious hit man sent to take out some of the players, but he doesn’t register much except for being a new body to get pierced. Wheatley didn’t have to go Quentin Tarantino deep here, but he could’ve at least continued to plumb the depths of his baddies the way Joe Corcoran did in 2006’s SMOKIN’ ACES. That similarly fun and nasty shoot ‘em up gave a dozen characters a lot of ripe dialogue and memorable scenes to play, and every actor shone from Ryan Reynolds to Tariji P. Henson to Nestor Carbonell. I really liked FREE FIRE, but Wheatley should’ve aimed a little higher.


I’d heard great things about THE LOVE WITCH but had missed its theatrical release last autumn. Many of my colleagues at the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle loved it so much that it figured in our year-end awards of 2016. So, with that kind of build-up, I was anxious to finally catch up with it when it became on VOD a week or so ago. I’m happy to say I was indeed impressed, though I found it to be another film that gets in its own way.

FREE FIRE eclipsed its fascinating characters by relegating them to become mostly just a line-up of casualties after the gun play begins. THE LOVE WITCH script, written by Anna Biller, is a timely tale with a strong feminist slant on gender politics and the sexuality of a strong woman, but director Anna Biller gets in the way with her stylized retro ways.

It’s easy to see why Biller chose to shoot her modern tale with a look that is a total throwback to the sexploitation B’s of the 1960’s. She’s using film to comment on how things are similar today as they were for women back then. They’re still discriminated by many factions of modern society for being too smart, too progressive, too sexual – and it can discombobulate men as much as it did back in the MAD MEN-esque 60’s. Biller is having her film look like that world to showcase the parallels. But it overtakes the film.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson), dressed devilishly in red, drives into a new town in THE LOVE WITCH.
Her story concerns Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful but deadly woman who happens to be a witch, and it informs both the men she picks to tryst with, as well as how she literally and figuratively casts her spells on them. This enchantress gets looks just by being a gorgeous brunette walking into the room with her sultry ways and inviting red lipstick. But as soon as men are drawn to her, they begin to have difficulty handling her. She’s simply too much for them. Too smart, too forward, too orgasmic. Men lose their sense of control, their sense of domination and soon, their hearts. Their hearts give out and to this wily Wicca and she moves onto the next lover/victim.

This is a sexual horror tale but it edges so close to satire at every turn because of Biller's obsessiveness with every detail of her on-the-nose retro design aesthetic. Because of that, it often seems like its a lost Meyers film or some sort of sequel to VALLEY OF THE DOLLS. (Quick question - was Robinson cast because of her uncanny resemblance to Barbara Parkins?) This film's look starts to swallow the film as every period frock, wig and prop becomes a distraction.  

Now, it’s one thing for Biller to make every detail of your film’s look scream “period piece” to underline her point about how struggles for women remain constant just as they did 50 years ago, but it’s a whole other thing to start directing your actors to deliver their lines as if they are in one of those cheaply made and stilted films from yesteryear. It adds an amateurish to the proceeding that enhance its shtick, but that also hurts the political diatribes written for Elaine and the other female characters onscreen. After a while, such a mannered and stiff delivery overwhelms the dialogue to the point where it could almost be interpreted as bad acting. I don’t believe that was Biller’s intent, but why not have the men speak that way and have the women sound more modern? Wouldn’t that kind of direction have helped her message?


Biller did practically everything on this picture, from the directing and writing to the production design, scoring, set decoration and costumes. She even edited her film personally and gives certain scenes abrupt cuts to create shocks in the same way that Hammer productions did during their cheesy British horror heyday. Such edits elicit laughs and contribute to the darkly comic hilarity here, but again, such techniques almost push it into parody the way that Michel Hazanavicius did with his French OSS 17 spy parodies starring Jean Dujardin back in 2006 and 2009.

Biller has complained how some critics concentrated too much on the kitsch in their reviews, but frankly, it’s there in every frame. I think it is a counter to her modern arguments, yes, but combined with the stilted acting it may have thrown off too many viewers. And her feminist lecturing becomes too on-the-nose too as well, sounding like a screenplay that's trying too hard, and it sounds mostly unconvincing from the less than stellar deliveries by some of her cast. One can see what Biller was going for here, but she isn't wholly successful. Did she get distracted by the many tasks she took on in making this movie? Just because she can do so many aspects of the film’s below-the-line requirements doesn’t mean she should have done them, especially when they form one overwhelming pastiche of a parody which robs some of its larger meaning. And that script needed another pass through the laptop to iron out some of its blatant lecturing.

Finally, one area that she whiffs wholly, and I’d criticize this no matter what period she was emulating, is in how she portrays sexuality. For a movie that wants to be so liberating about the female take on sexuality and carnal power, Biller's surprisingly prudish about showing nudity and truly honest representations of sex. This film plays coy with star Robinson’s body in the same way that SEX AND THE CITY refused to show Sarah Jessica Parker naked on that HBO series. It became ridiculous after a while seeing Carrie, the progressive woman and writer of a sex column, constantly wearing a bra while making love. Here, Biller goes out of her way to shield Robinson and it too becomes laughable. For a character like Elaine to have hair glued down to cover her boobs is just silly. My God, Katherine Turner showed more in BODY HEAT over 35 years ago. A movie about sex should be more open about showing sex. Elaine might as well drag the sheet from the bed to wrap around her when she gets up after coitus here, that's how many punches are pulled in that area. 
THE LOVE WITCH should be anything but modest.

Because Biller grounds her film in the tapestry of the past, from the gowns to the wallpaper to the synth tracks, it often keeps her message from coming through. Her talent is obvious though, and her movie is a lot of fun in its weird, retro way. Biller’s political “Nonetheless, she persisted” message struggles to hold as strong a focus as it should, but in a modern world that still took a decade too long to oust the piggish Bill O’Reilly off the airwaves, any message of such a nature gets my applause. And it gets me excited to see just what this very talented filmmaker will attempt next.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

THE TRUE FIGHT IN “FEUD” IS THE BATTLE OF BETTE AND JOAN AGAINST SEXISM

Original caricature by Jeff York of Judy Davis, Alfred Molina, Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange in FEUD.
(copyright 2017) 
Despite a superb list of actresses nominated for the Best Actress Oscar in February of this year - Emma Stone, Natalie Portman, Isabelle Huppert, Ruth Negga, and Meryl Streep - and at least another eight on the short list - Amy Adams, Annette Bening, Tarija P. Henson, Hailee Steinfeld, Sandra Huller, Jessica Chastain, Emma Suarez and Adriana Ugarte - Hollywood is hardly a cake-walk for women onscreen. It’s worse behind the scenes if the Academy Awards nominations are any indication as female nominees were down 2% from the previous year.  

The continuing problems that women face in Hollywood are currently being portrayed on FX Network with its new miniseries FEUD. Its freshman season tells the story of the famous battle onscreen and off between classic movie stars Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, played by Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange respectively, with the focus on their time making WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? together back in 1962. They competed all their lives for the sparse good roles afforded women, even during the Golden Age of Hollywood when many stars had illustrious studio contracts, and their struggle to matter became even more frantic when they chose to make a darkly comic horror movie together. 

The fact that the script they chose was also about a rivalry between two aging actresses in Hollywood only added to the vividness of their daily battles. Of course, what they were really fighting against was a lot bigger than each other. They were taking aim at an industry that all but turned their backs on them once they turned 50. When director Robert Aldrich approached them with a starring vehicle, they both jumped at the chance because neither had been offered anything close to such a prominent role or project in some time.

Yet, this film was hardly GONE WITH THE WIND. It was not even close to a prestige picture. In reality, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? was a B picture, one that was placed in the low-class genre of horror no less. Granted, horror movies made a move towards the big time when top filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock plumbed the genre to make his smash film PSYCHO two years earlier, but by and large, horror remained the domain of secondary talents. It certainly wasn't the place for Oscar winning actresses like Davis and Crawford. Still, if they ever hoped to get back on the A list, they needed a hit, and even a successful B picture was better than no picture at all. 

The series focuses on the horrors of the project, but mostly during the backstage treachery. The two women came into the project with a frostiness towards each other, and as they competed for screen time, attention from director Aldrich (Alfred Molina), and good press, they turned into vicious and antagonists rivals. They fought, argued, carped at each other constantly, and helped stir up vicious gossip about each other during the entire filming. The truly scary things weren't onscreen, no matter how many rats were to be served as lunch by the lead character. They were in the desperation and duplicity behind the scenes.  

Yes indeed, “Baby Jane” Hudson, the protagonist of the piece, serves her sister Blanche a rat for lunch at one point in BABY JANE. That plot point is a reflection of her hate and animosity towards her sister. And it's based on the fact that Blanche became a bigger movie star than she was back in the day. Jane, once she reached adulthood, lost hold on the show biz community and interest in her by the studios dried up. The rejection turned her into a bitter woman who, slowly but surely, grew more insane with every passing year of being ignored. Then, well into her fifties, Jane had become a hard-drinking and delusional bully whose sole purpose in life now was to torment her unemployable star sister.

Blanche had been out of the game for decades due to an automobile  accident where Baby Jane ran her down back when they were both starlets in their 20's. Blanche was the toast of Tinsel Town, and Jane's resentment towards her sis's success drove her to act out. Or so Blanche would have us believe. Since that act, Blanche has been confined to a wheelchair, having lost the use of her legs. None of that creates any sympathy in Jane however as she still carries her toxic sibling resentment. The two has-beens are forced to live together and they live on the meager savings they have. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? is a tale of hatred and betrayal, but it's also about their strange co-dependency. No matter how many carping comments fly about, or rodents get served with spring vegetables, there is still a bond there that each need. 

Davis played the bipolar aspects of the Jane role to the hilt, sometimes sympathetic, sometimes despicable, and conjured an outrageous character who became an instant screen classic. Crawford, on the other hand, had a role that required more subtly and she rose to the occasion giving a nuanced and equally complex performance. Her Blanche was the more reasonable one of course, but it was different from most of the roles Crawford had played in the past. The star made her career essaying tough broads onscreen, but this performance was miles away from the usual strong and even strident roles on her resume. Davis got most of the attention what with playing the title character and all, but Crawford was equally superb. Blanche may have lost the use of her legs, but she was still a fighter, huffing and puffing, dragging herself up and down staircases to try to phone authorities to come and take away her crackpot sibling. It's a very physical performance that Crawford exhibited and it was just as horrific seeing this grande dame drag her keister around the set, as much as it was viewing Davis in Jane's child-like curls, overt pancake makeup and heart-shaped beauty mark.

Original caricature by Jeff York of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford in WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?  (copyright 2017)
Straddling the line between horror and dark comedy, the 1962 classic is really a chamber piece about the two women. Sure, an occasional interloper stops by, like Victor Buono's down-on-his-luck piano player character that Jane wants to employ to help her show biz comeback, but most of the two hour and 14 minute movie is the two women dominating the screen. Their scenes were consistently electric, both shocking in their acrimony and impressive in how committed the two actresses were to their roles, and audiences were mesmerized. 

The animosity that Davis and Crawford had for each other only intensified their onscreen fighting and the gossip surrounding the production greatly helped the film became even more of buzz worthy hit. The film, despite its B origins, was also expertly directed by Aldrich, shot by Ernest Haller, edited by Michael Luciano and scored by Frank De Vol. Norma Koch's memorably macabre costumes even won the Oscar that year for a black and white film. Mostly, the script was utterly superb in its complex examination of dementia, sibling rivalry, and the disposability of actresses in a town that eats them up young and spits them out at 40. WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? could easily stand with SUNSET BOULEVARD and ALL ABOUT EVE as a triptych about sexism in show business. That is the true horror at play in the film.   

The parallels couldn’t be more apparent to what both Davis and Crawford were dealing with as well, and the FEUD series is a bittersweet look at what it was like for these two superstars to be scrambling for crumbs in a town that had all but forgotten them. Creator Ryan Murphy and his team keep that the focus on that throughout and its mortifying to see how much abuse the two legends received from the studio and the trades. 

The two true villains of FEUD are Warner Bros. chief Jack Warner (Stanley Tucci) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Judy Davis). Every scene of theirs showcases one venal attempt after another to stir the pot. They promoted rancor and hostility between the two actresses at every turn. Warner calls Davis a c**t, and it's amazing that such words are now allowed on basic cable, but even more shocking is how the studio bigwig regards the two-time Academy Award winner. And Hopper was one of the first women in power to work actively against other women in the business as she played them off each other merely to create juice for her column.  

Of course, the two vulnerable actresses fall victim to the bait laid out for them and turned the shooting of BABY JANE into a true nightmare for all involved, mostly Aldrich. (The world-weary director is the other big victim in this story.) With all of Davis' and Crawford's on-set tantrums, delays and tensions, it's astounding that their film turned out to be so great. The film went on to break Warner Bros. box office records and even scored five Oscar nominations. Davis was nominated by the Academy, but Crawford was passed over. And Joan just couldn’t let it go. Ultimately, she worked behind the scenes with Hopper to sabotage Davis’ chances at the prize and even showed up on behalf of absent winner Anne Bancroft (THE MIRACLE WORKER) to accept the trophy. Again, nothing is quite as ugly as women with power using it to oppress other women.

FEUD could have ended its story there with Davis' humiliation at the Oscar ceremony but Murphy, et al. had more in mind. There is more to the story and the episode after that,“Hagsploitation”, may be the best in the bunch so far. It focuses on the projects the actresses were offered after their ginormous success in BABY JANE, and sadly, what they were offered was mostly shit. Hollywood now not only viewed them as old, but as hags worthy of contempt and malice. The roles they were offered post-JANE were not A list vehicles, but more B pictures asking them to play hags, kooks, and spinsters. 

Crawford got stuck playing an ax murderer in an exploitation flick in STRAIGHT-JACKET. Davis was so turned off by the film scripts she was offered, she started looking at work in television series, which was not done by legitimate movie stars in those days. Why, she was so beside herself, she was even willing to take on supporting roles in weekly series. Warner didn't do particularly well by Aldrich either as he was instructed by Warner to develop and direct more B's, including a virtual sequel to his biggest success called WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO COUSIN CHARLOTTE? Of course, Jack Warner wanted both actresses to play in it, as he proudly boasted of creating the new "hagsploitation" genre, and he wanted them as his poster children. 

Warner even brags to Aldrich in the FEUD series about how it's great to see the once glamorous and accomplished actresses taken down and humiliated. He has no real use for women who've lost their shelf life of ingenue attractiveness and it shows in every word he utters about the two. The film would eventually come to be called HUSH, HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, but not before losing Crawford as costar, due to the degradation of it all. The film ended up cementing a new type for Davis to be cast as, that of the overwrought harpie, and she would play that role again and again in lesser films and TV appearances for the remainder of her acting years. (At least she had a worthy, big screen role as a murder suspect in the Agatha Christie thriller DEATH ON THE NILE in 1978.)

While Sarandon's performance as Davis could have stood to capture more of the legend's smoky crag, and the sing-song qualities in her delivery, she does captures the steeliness of the maverick woman. Lange, on the other hand, may have never given as great a performance as she does here. While not closely resembling Crawford in appearance - Lange is rounder and less brittle looking - she captures both her fragile ego and outsized vulnerability with a vividness that is heartbreaking. With each episode, Lange's Crawford becomes more and more of her own worst enemy. The MILDRED PIERCE Oscar winner couldn't get past the slights the biz forwarded her for over 30 years, and she let it ruin even her victories like BABY JANE. It's understandable especially, when in her 50's, she had to battle to keep youthful nude photos from hitting the gossip pages. 

Ultimately, Murphy has really hit on a big idea with FEUD, as it can easily tell the stories of famous public fights for a dozen seasons. And, as with all of his productions, the set direction, costumes, scoring, and performances are all top-notch. It should clean up at the Emmys come September, and Kyle Cooper can probably write his acceptance speech now for his sublime title sequence. Murphy is at his most disciplined here with the themes of Hollywood sexism fully in focus throughout each episode. Still, some critics have called his latest efforts here high camp, but that itself is an egregiously sexist critique. Yes, it’s a genuine howl at times, but the sadness is always there as well. This story is not a joke. It's actually a various serious work, despite its huge entertainment appeal.

And it serves as a scathing commentary about how little has changed today. Look no further than the recent interview Emma Thompson gave and she told stories about being intimidated into weight loss by a town that values youthful bodies over talent or brains. At least a backlash is starting against such outdated thinking. There's been quite an outcry in the past years about how studios and production company's still offer young actresses roles that are meant for older actresses. Case in point - despite winning an Oscar for her efforts, Jennifer Lawrence was still a decade too young to be playing the female lead in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK. And she was 20 years too young to be playing the role she took in AMERICAN HUSTLE. Yes, she was great in both roles, but that doesn't change the fact that she was still miscast. The parts should've gone to women in their 30's or 40's.  

But in a show biz world that is still slow to change, and has taken  forever to call out the likes of serial predators like Bill Cosby and Bill O’Reilly, at least the tide is starting to shift. Cosby is reviled now, and Bill-O may not return to his show after his sudden "vacation announcement" following the story about he and Fox paying off women he's harassed. Also, A list stars are sharing their stories, and the sexual abuse testimony of those like Gwyneth Paltrow, Charlize Theron, Helen Mirren, Lady Gaga, Ashley Judd and Megyn Kelly at the hands of powerful entertainment execs, is getting a lot of ink. The white-hot lights of justice are finally being shone on the continuing plague and it seems that there is now a more urgent sense of propriety and moral obligation in Tinsel Town. It’s a tragedy that Hollywood treated Davis and Crawford so shabbily, but perhaps by telling their story in FEUD it will help fuel more to join the battle. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

DELICIOUS DREAD PERVADES EVERY MOMENT OF “THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER”


Hard to believe, but I'm writing about horror again, for the fourth blog post in a row. Horror seems to always be in vogue this time of year. Why? Perhaps it's an antidote to all the sweetness of the holiday season. Or maybe it's that chilling stories seem so perfect in the frosty months of winter. No matter, there is a lot of horror out there right now, and it's some of the most sublime we've seen in such a run in some time.

For five and a half years, I was the Chicago Horror Movie Examiner online, writing film reviews for the Examiner until it shuttered last spring. And after seeing so many entries in the genre, it became my cause celebre to highlight that horror is always better when it spends more time drawing out dread rather than throwing around buckets of blood. The fear that something bad could  happen is always more palpable, especially because it can take its time. Comparatively, death usually comes quite fast in film. THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER understands the power of dread, and serves it up deliciously throughout its entire 93 minutes. 

There is blood and death in THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER, but its true terror lies in the time it takes for such events to occur. And the film is so calm in its waiting for the proverbial shit to hit the fan. There are no fake scares, or stray boisterous noises to make the audience jump. Instead, this film is really very quiet, subtly playing with us like a cat toying with a mouse in its grasp. 

And palpable, exquisite dread is there from the very start of the film, as the setting is identified as an all-girl Catholic school in the dead of winter. The behemoth is presented as a stark, cold, dark, and isolated 'haunted house.' The students are clearing out for winter's break, and its emptiness is chilling. This horror film doesn't attempt to create a normal world that will soon be compromised by evil. Instead, it showcases a setting that is already eerie, and the proceedings in it will soon dial it all up to a heightened level of terror. 

Doing so helps set up every shot in the place to be dripping with a sense of dread. Nothing can be taken at face value when the place already gives you the creeps. In fact, THE BLACKCOAT’S DAUGHTER instills its setting, not to mention its dialogue and action, with an innate sense of danger, foreboding and yes, dread. You’ll feel on edge just watching the establishing shot of each new location!

Keirnan Shipka in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER.
Not only is the school creepy, but frankly, so are the two students at the core of the story. They are a couple of girls who are stuck overnight in the school and its housing, unable to get away on break due to miscommunication with their parents on what day to pick them up. Kat (Kiernan Shipka) is a 15-year-old freshman who’s na├»ve and needy, and Rose (Lucy Boynton), is a smug and mean upperclassman who has just found out she’s pregnant from her teen boyfriend Rick (Peter J. Gray). Rose told her parents to come a day later so she could hash out plans on how to deal with her unwanted pregnancy with her beau. The delay in Kat's parents is more of a mystery, as is she. 

Played by Kiernan Shipka, Kat is a beautiful but morose girl who can’t help but give off a bit of a Wednesday Addams vibe. Shipka always conveyed a similar dark sensibility in her portrayal of Sally Draper on MAD MEN, and here again, the 17-year-old actress conveys trouble lurking beneath the surface of teen indifference. When she finds out that her mentor Father Brien will miss her recital the day before the school break, it could be sadness washing over her face or perhaps it's more like bitter disappointment. And is that gullibility we see in her eyes when Rose glibly lies to her about all the female faculty members being devil worshipers, or is it a sly sense of irony as Kat seems to sense something more within the creepy corridors?  

Lucy Boynton in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER.
Speaking of ol’ Beelzebub, the demon does show up in a hallucinatory sort of way, but is it real or is it all in Kat’s head? One of the delights of the movie is that it doesn't tell us too much too soon. Instead, the film takes its time, spooling out its dread bit by bit, scene by scene. As the girls wait, the school turns into a vast, horror house, creaking with ominous echoes, endless shadows, and whistling winds. While the girls are waiting, we too are waiting, and the tension turns killer. 

A good 30 minutes into the story, a new character and storyline shows up, seemingly disconnected from the two girls. At first the appearance of Joan (Emma Roberts), a recent escapee from a mental ward, seems to suggest she will be the villain of the piece, someone who's being brought in to raise the stakes. But then her story takes up a great deal of screen time and seems perfectly content to resist dovetailing into the other narrative. Soon, the underdressed Joan is being picked up by a kindly, good Samaritan sort named Bill. He's played by James Remar who sometimes is heroic onscreen, and other times villainous. Here, he seems to be in DEXTER dad mode, as he kindly offers to drive her where she needs to go. It just so happens it's the same town where the school is, and that's where Bill and his cranky wife  Linda are headed. She's played by an almost unrecognizable Lauren Holly, about a million miles away from the kind and bubbly ingenue from the 90's PICKET FENCES and DUMB AND DUMBER. 

Emma Roberts in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER.
Even such secondary characters seem chock full of the possibility of being evil. Who is this couple? Why was Joan in that mental ward? Is Bill a child predator? Will they all run headlong into whatever atrocities are going on in that school? The film sets up a lot of shoes to drop and draws out the tension with relish until something has to give and an explosion is imminent. 

The filmmaker creating such exquisite thrills and chills here is writer/director Oz Perkins. He used to appear onscreen, making notable appearances as a character actor in the likes of films such as LEGALLY BLONDE and SECRETARY, but now he’s behind the scenes demonstrating a wonderful sense of the macabre in this, his feature debut. Perkins also happens to be the son of the late, great Anthony Perkins and indeed he’s learned how to essay chills in remaining calm, just like his father did as he played Norman Bates, the greatest baddie in the history of horror, in the Hitchcock classic PSYCHO back in 1960.

Filmmaker Oz Perkins.
The elder Perkins instilled every moment of his performance with an eccentricity that suggested something was a little off-kilter in Norman. The world may have seen him as an aging momma's boy but Perkins' tics and quirks subtly laid the groundwork for the bizarre split personality that would be revealed in the final reel. And Perkins played it with a disquieting eeriness. Even his smallest and seemingly inconsequential actions displayed subtle menace. Take the way Norman nibbled nervously on that candy corn in the motel's office. It was more than just a 'tell' of Norman's guilt, it was a way that the actor foreshadowed his 'devouring' of those who crossed his path. Perkins's son invests the characters he’s written in THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER with similar 'tells' and warnings, and his thoughtful investment in them and the genre makes his film truly stellar. I think it's one that critics and fans will revisit again and again over the years. 

Oz Perkins devilishly infuses his film with a lot of details that one could easily miss too, but they cleverly foreshadow upcoming events. For example, why do Kat and Joan have hairstyles with such similar dark roots? And whose name was on that ID which Joan swiped? Is it just a coincidence that the couple trekking into town has a story about their daughter at the school? Oh, and did you notice that scar on Joan's shoulder? Is it from a bullet hole? Hmm.... 

Knowing such details will not spoil a thing. This film is a mood piece really, where the journey is more important than a plot slavishly connecting all the dots. This movie understands that horror doesn’t always need a big “A-ha!” moment or a labyrinth of a mystery to figure out to keep us involved. Instead, Perkins and his expert colleagues understand that things that go bump in the night are made tangible by the noise of such bumps and the darkness of such nights. This frightener might not be as socially relevant as GET OUT or RAW were, what with their respective commentaries about racism and sexism. It may not be as metaphorical as PERSONAL SHOPPER with its layered character study of a young woman suffocating from her aimless job and despair. Nonetheless, THE BLACKCOAT'S DAUGHTER stands on its own unique merits, particularly its flair for creating an overwhelming sense of dread like few other films have from first frame to last, and thus it shrewdly takes its place as the fourth in a series of superb genre pieces out this season. Horror usually doesn't get it this good in a year, let alone just three months into 2017. 

Friday, March 24, 2017

THE MANY MONSTERS IN MARCH


Often the best monster movies declare that man is the truest beast. The shark in JAWS may have been feeding in the wrong waters, but it was the selfishness of the mayor that rang the dinner bell when he should’ve closed the beaches. Kurt Russell’s character kills a scientific outpost colleague in cold blood while trying to root out who’s being inhabited by THE THING. And even in ALIEN, the corporation sponsoring the Nostromo is willing to sacrifice its entire crew to ensure the safe return of the lethal creature they want to employ in warfare. As screenwriter Blake Snyder said in his “Monster in the House” description applicable to the horror and thriller genre, whatever the ‘monster’ is, it is always encouraged by man to do the utmost damage humanly possible.

Thus, it is with no fewer than six films about monsters currently in cinemas. The runaway hit of the winter season of course was Jordan Peele’s GET OUT, a film concerning a black man running afoul of a group of affluent suburban white supremacists who use young black bodies as vessels for the transplanting of aging white brains. In France’s RAW, the savagery of the collegiate hazing system at a veterinarian college stimulates the inhumane nature of one of its students and she develops a taste for human flesh. Since I’ve already reviewed those two superb films here and here,  respectively, I won’t dwell on them, but suffice it to say that they reinforce Snyder’s credo that man is the most dangerous animal of all.

For this post, I’m going to concentrate on three other monster movies currently playing in cinemas across the land and how they tell their ‘horror’ story. The first is LIFE, and its beast isn’t a man, but an alien life form that is determined to rob the human crew aboard a space station of their lives. The six members of the multi-racial cast include Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds, and they were likely lured by the notion of doing a film that has an ALIEN-like vibe, one with auspices to be a horror classic such as that. This, unfortunately, never rises to the sublime skill and scares of Ridley Scott’s 1979 breakthrough, but this one, directed with gusto by Daniel Espinosa, is a decent enough imitation of it. Still, this is all very familiar territory, as there have been many imitators of ALIEN in the past 30 plus years. To make matters even more difficult with this one, the monster here is a little too shrewd for its own good, or for the interest of the audience. Its ability to counter every human measure makes for too perfect of an opponent, and in doing so, the beast quickly becomes a bore. 

The story starts with the space station crew rescuing a probe from Mars that has a sample inside that turns out to be the first proof of extraterrestrial life. They, and the world back home, celebrate the find via cameras aboard the ship, and one lucky child even gets to name the alien. She dubs it “Calvin.” But assigning it such humanity turns out to be a ginormous mistake. As the little bastard starts to grow, it becomes increasingly hungry and wouldn’t you know it, all the plasma and cell sources that he needs to consume to survive happen to be those that human beings carry around in their bodies. Soon Calvin is growing and acting like a superior intellect, constantly a few steps ahead of his earthling counterparts, and in doing so, he is able to turn one crew member after another into his lunch.

What started as an organism, shapeless and resembling a mere amoeba, continues to grow into a bigger and uglier creature. It looks like a cross between a stingray and the alien from PREDATOR. And indeed, prey it does. And like ALIEN, there is some surprise in who bites the big one when and how, but none of the characters have the moxie that Nostromo's crew did. And outside of the main stars, the rest of the cast is mostly defined by their accents. Ryan Reynolds registers, as he always does, because he knows how to be a compelling actor and a movie star, but then the film has him claimed as Calvin's first victim. It becomes a bit more about stunt casting than anything else, but no matter, losing Reynolds an hour into the film cripples it. His character's prolonged and brutal death doesn't help either. It would seem that Espinosa doesn't have a lot to play with here, so he overplays what drama there is. 

Then, to add insult to injury immediately following the Reynolds' character's death, the still famished alien devours the pet lab rat and turns him inside out while doing so. Watching that play out all too vividly onscreen as well is a buzz kill. No matter how the alien is killed now, and you know it's not going to as the studio would love a sequel, it won't be justice for those first two horrible deaths. From there on, the film becomes a mere guessing game of who will die next. 

There remains one twist at the end that frankly, I saw coming because I've seen too many of these kinds of movies, and the conceit is actually quite a cheat. It is a good scare, so that can be said about it, but it leaves as bad an aftertaste as all the previous deaths, including those first unfortunate two. If only the film was half as clever as Calvin turns out to be. Instead, his abilities are wasted on nothing more than a so-so sci-fi adventure that is little more than one long funeral dirge. 


Another monster movie still playing in the cineplexes and raking in the dough is the current reboot of the King Kong franchise entitled KONG: SKULL ISLAND. It too sends a crew of naifs into a confined setting where they’re picked off one by one by monsters, but this one has so much fun building its body count that it's really quite a hoot from start to finish. There’s nothing dour or serious about what they're attempting here. Unlike LIFE, which wants to have the gravitas of GRAVITY around its edges, this one only wants to a clever popcorn movie, and indeed it is. In fact, it might be the most enjoyable B-movie I’ve seen in decades. And I mean that as the highest of compliments. It’s what JURASSIC WORLD should have been, but couldn’t possibly be with Bryce Dallas Howard doomed to run around in those ridiculous white pumps for the better part of  two hours.

KONG: SKULL ISLAND thrills you with its chills, but also with its laughs. It doesn't take itself so seriously like Peter Jackson’s overlong and over-indulgent remake of KING KONG back in 2005. This one has an energy and verve to it. The action scenes are sharp and deft, never dragging out, and surprisingly, there aren't that many big set pieces. Most of the time is spent with the characters trying to avoid being casualties in the jungle. It also wisely lets Kong play the hero over and over again. Kong isn't really the monster here, it's those pesky humans invading his backyard, don't you know?

The human avarice that encourages the monsters, to Snyder's point in his Save the Cat screenwriting books, comes in the form of government intervention, circa 1973. John Goodman plays a special op who wants to investigate rumors of fantastical life amidst the unchartered Skull Island in the South Pacific. And his entourage is accompanied by a military man played by Samuel L. Jackson, who brings along his unit of soldiers fresh from defeat in Viet Nam. He's still smarting over that failure and would love a shot at redemption, particularly if he could bring down those he'll find in this jungle setting.

The rest of the entourage include Tom Hiddleston playing the ex-British intelligence officer who’ll serve as their jungle guide, and Brie Larson as a crack war photographer employed to capture images of what they find. (Did she pack her panoramic lens? I don't believe so.) Of course, the screenwriters make her a pacifist too so they can get in some fun digs at the war machine, anti-environmentalists, and perhaps even the macho western hemisphere sensibility about might always making right. Remember, every period piece is always designed to comment on our current world. 

The 20 odd characters here will start to be whittled down as soon as they fly their choppers into the jungle. The encounter the gigantic Kong right off the bat, all 10 stories of him, and he bats their threats  away like they’re pesky birds. He’s got enough problems on the island, staving off the threats from various oversized creatures that would like to eat his monkey brains, and soon enough, the humans will run afoul of these other beasts too.

Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who comes from the land of character-centric comedy on television, keeps his focus on his human players at all times, even during the big action set pieces. He keeps us invested in their fate, and he surprises us with who dies when and how. In fact, Vogt-Roberts is so adept with his cast too that he makes the unknowns register as well as the stars. He also wisely directs Goodman and Jackson to be less duplicitous then there characters are written. They are still the bad guys here, but at least these two accomplished thespians know how to add charm and nuance to their roles to keep them from becoming monstrous cliches. 

And God love him for casting John C. Reilly. The veteran character actor plays a WWII pilot who's been stranded on the island for 30 years, and he steals every scene he's in. Reilly knows how to play up the comedy and the pathos too. His character and Kong walk away from the film live and well, and if the denouement is any indicator, it looks like the big ape will be back to fight Godzilla or Mothra. The producers of that inevitable sequel would be wise to bring back Vogt-Roberts to keep the emphasis on the fun and the human cast. 


Finally, there is a monster in the new Terrence Malick film SONG TO SONG, but it’s merely an awful man. He's vain, ruthless, selfish, and treats everyone around him as disposable playthings. What's his job? Of course, he's an entertainment exec. Man oh man, Malick must hate the guys in the suits!  

The high-powered exec here is a music producer in Austin, Texas and he's played by Michael Fassbender, an actor known for playing such coldhearted snakes. Sure enough, most of the scenes he's in show him seducing others, like a spider inviting a fly into its web, or as a prowling figure with overt carnality. We get almost no indication of what he does as an actual music producer. Perhaps if we saw how terrific he was at that job, and how he emboldens great artists, it would add more dimension to this monster. Instead, Malick is only interested in painting him as a prick. Fassbender could do this role in his sleep, as he hoods his eyes, and serpentines as he makes his way towards the women he wants to screw. We long for some sense of him as a maker of music, for any music in this film, but little comes. For a town that has revolutionized the industry and does every genre from country to rock, it would have been nice to get a real sense of such things here, but they never really come.

Instead, the devil here seems to have an awful lot of time on his hand to do all kinds of things that have nothing to do with him going in a recording studio and lay down some killer tracks. The baddie frequent diners, easily picking up the white trash help. He zips across the border in his personal jet to goof around with his friends. For a home he confesses to hate, he sure spends a lot of time roaming around from room to room, chasing women, and in particular Rooney Mara's singer character. In fact, he's constantly getting on his knees to be at eye level with her taut tummy and worship her Pilates preened stomach muscles. Is this what the character really is passionate about? Shouldn't it be the music he's getting her to make?   

It becomes laughable after awhile how shallow Malick dips his toe into the industry backdrop here. Does his main character do anything in the industry other than hobnob with Flea and Iggy Pop backstage? Where is the hours and hours of work that producers, artists and musicians put into making an album? None of that is onscreen here. But we sure get a lot of shots of minutiae like Fassbender tracing his fingers across a wall, or Mara playing peekaboo behind his curtains.

Malick wastes a lot of other terrific actors in equally one-dimensional or underwritten roles as well. Ryan Gosling, Cate Blanchett, Natalie Portman, and Holly Hunter also have significant screen time without really registering as anything more than conceits of a character rather than flesh and blood individuals. And Malick gives them precious little to say to each other. Instead, most of their dialogue is voice-over narration as the main characters regale the listener with their thoughts about life, love and the pursuit of happiness in the Texas town. All the pontificating doesn't sound like different characters, it sounds like a screenwriter getting off on a philosophical jag. And an overly pretentious one at that. 

Emmanuel Lubeski’s cinematography is as gorgeous as ever here, and God knows the man can make anything look stunning, even the graffiti on an Austin underpass. But overall, the technical aspects that Malick applies to SONG TO SONG feel too reminiscent to his acclaimed THE TREE OF LIFE. The floating camera, the editing jumps through time and place, the meandering narration – they all worked well in that 2011 film because it was a memory play, the memories and recollections of a man (Sean Penn) as he looked back on his 1950’s childhood. But here, it seems like Malick is trotting out the same techniques for the sake of art rather than there inherent value to the story. This one should've been grittier, blunter...and filled with music. But it isn't and it comes off as a shallower work.

My final issue with SONG TO SONG is its unfortunate vein of sexism throughout. Some may have faulted THE TREE OF LIFE for its Jessica Chastain character who often seemed like an ethereal angel as much as an earth mother, but here Malick veers in the other direction. Mara voiceover early on exclaims that she is a woman who sought out dangerous sex to feel something.  And indeed, the character's sexual issues plague her throughout as she cheats on lover Gosling repeatedly, returning back to the mogul's bed, even when he's married. If it was just that one character whose sexual peccadilloes were so sadly prevalent, that's one thing, but Portman's waitress who becomes the producer's bride turns out to be an even more tragic and sexually abused character. Her husband ignores her, becomes abusive in the bedroom, and even bullies her into engaging sexually with the with prostitutes he brings home for four-way trysts. 

For some reason, in this examination of love amongst the world of artists, it would seem that Malick chose to portray his female characters as tramps, weaklings or victims. Where is the Mara’s character’s art, her singing, her talent? Something is wildly amiss when we in the audience get a better bead on Patty Smythe playing herself as she pontificates about love and life and loss better than the main characters whose motivations, actions and arcs seem as difficult to pin down as Lubeski’s constantly moving camera.

Perhaps the most disappointing element to SONG TO SONG is that after decades in show biz, Malick has nothing particularly profound to say about the industry. Powerful men abuse susceptible women and those same monsters never can be satiated. Wouldn’t it have been more interesting if Fassbender’s record exec lost interest in Mara because her talent couldn't hold his attention? Or what if he  took her on because he thought she could be great but then she was  never able to live up to her potential or even his standards? That could’ve served as his rejection of the Gosling songwriter character too. If his standards were that high, wouldn't that have been a more interesting villain? 

This monster just isn't complex enough. But a youngish exec (Fassbender is only 39) who's that successful with the big house, the wide-ranging influence, and the demonstrable bank account should make for a more interesting center of a film. Instead, he's just another dick thinking with his dick. I think the alien from LIFE would've eaten him first just to get such an asshat out of the way. 


By the way, there is another movie with a monster theme currently scoring at the box office as it did with critics, and that is BEAUTY AND THE BEAST. I'll write about that soon, and do a caricature too. It honors the classic 1991 Disney cartoon, yet also forges its own way too. Plus, it honors Snyder's theory about monsters too. There's a monster on the prowl here, but it isn't in the house, or even the castle for that matter. It's in the village and as you probably realize the true beast of the story is the one who uses antlers in all of his decorating. 

To be continued…