Sunday, October 15, 2017

“FOUR HANDS” DOUBLES THE TENSION WITH TWO CREEPY SISTERS IN THIS GERMAN THRILLER


The new horror/thriller FOUR HANDS (“Die Vierhandige” in German) from writer/director Oliver Kienle made its Midwestern debut at the Chicago Film Festival this weekend and it’s an amazing addition to their “After Dark” series this year. The film is tense, riveting, and does what the best horror always does - it puts the emphasis on dread rather than blood. In fact, this film will have you on the edge of your seat from the first moments of the film until the final credits start to roll. It’s truly one of the most assured works in the genre, and may remind you of the best of David Fincher, as well as acclaimed thrillers like Ingmar Bergman’s PERSONA (1966) and Juan Jose Campanella’s THE SECRET IN THEIR EYES (2009). Remenber the name Oliver Kienle, because he is likely going to be the next big deal.

How assured is Kienle’s work here? Quite simply, there is not a wasted moment, line, gesture or expression in his film, with each moment connecting to the horrors at hand. Actually, make that four hands as it all connects to the strange and twisted bond between the two sister protagonists here. When they were younger they were forced to watch their mother killed by a home intruder, and 20 years after the fact, it still haunts their every waking moment, their relationship with each other, and their individual senses of identity. 

The movie starts with a ginormous and imposing 19th century house shown alone on a hill with an industrial plant right next door exuding smoke from its imposing chimney stacks. The sound of the clanking machinery serves almost as a metronome for two little girls playing a piano duet together inside the house's parlor. They are Jessica and Sophie, and their four-handed duet not only captures their sisterly bond but it shows an inherent tension between the two as well. Not long after, their lives are irreparably changed forever when their mother is attacked in the same room as the girls scrabble to hide and end up being witnesses to her stabbing murder mere seconds later.  

The killer is a man who only intended to rob the place with his girlfriend, but they didn't expect to find anyone at home. They try to eliminate the witnesses to their botched burglary but didn't realize that the two young girls were hiding behind the sofa. Only the older Jessica sees the horrible killing as she covers her sister Sophie’s eyes and ears to shield her from the horror. She even whispers to her  that it'll be alright and that she'll always protect her, but this being a horror movie and all, that will soon turn out to be a false promise. 


The murderers are caught, thrown in jail, and the movie moves forward 20 years hence with the adult sisters still together, still living in that huge house, and the industrial plant still chugging away next door. The murderers get parole too, and their release sends the girls into a panic. What will they do? How can they deal with the two ex-cons living in the same town? As the sisters argue about whether or not to move or seek revenge, the timid, brown-haired Sophie (Frida-Lovisa Hamann) rejects talks of murderous schemes from the intense, raven-haired Jessica (Friederike Becht).

The two fight, the way only close siblings can, and their hasty battle ends up getting them run over by an errant car in a parking garage. Jessica doesn't recover from her wounds and her sister's death spirals Sophie into a deep despair. Now she's lost a third family member to the drama of the home intruders, and it starts to make the budding concert pianist crack. She no longer wants to play, and she feels horrendous survivor's guilt. Now, she not only has to deal with the parolees but also her unresolved relationship with her deceased sis.

Whenever a film's story has a twin or close sibling die in the storyline, the remaining one invariably has a difficult time with self awareness and identity. This film is no exception as Sophie starts to feel like she must honor her sister’s vow to protect her by taking on the characteristics of Jessica. And sure enough, it isn't long before Sophie starts acting just like her sister. At least she's aware that she is suffering from dissociative identity disorder, but quicker than you can say "Jekyll & Hyde", Sophie lapses into behavior just like that of her sister, and worse yet, she blacks out during those times and cannot remember what happened. As she tries to identify her actions while 'being Jessica' Sophie will not only run in with the law, but she will discover bruises and wounds that come with no explanation. 

The way Kienle has Sophie turn into Jessica is not done in some cornball special effect way that we're used to seeing with Frederich March or even Jerry Lewis. Rather, Kienle just changes actresses mid-scene to convey that one or the other sister is now dominating.   It’s a fantastic trope, clever each time it’s used, and it helps us understand just who is who. Of course, the shifting identities become more and more difficult to track, and to share any additional spoilers would ruin the fun. Suffice it to say, the way the girls flip back and forth is both clever and exceedingly creepy.  
Filmmaker Oliver Kienle
Kienle is not only an exceptionally clever screenwriter, but he’s an excellent director of his cast too, particularly his two lead actresses. Both Hamann and Becht are superb in very physically demanding and complex roles. Christoph Letkowski is great too in his supporting role as a hospital worker who befriends Sophie during her journey. (One can imagine the American remake already - I can see Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and Chris Pine in the parts.) 

Kienle also knows how to add surprises to the tried and true tropes of horror. He ends scenes much quicker than you’d expect, and that adds instant tension to the start of the next scene. Kienle uses both Jessica’s voice and her image to screw with Sophie’s sense of self, and he creates menacing sound design out of the constant rhythm of the local factory noise. They seem to literally propel Sophie’s madness down that road even faster. And as the truth of what’s going on starts to become illuminated, Kienle wittily increases the shadows in Yoshi Heimrath’s cinematography.

Indeed, it says a lot about the brilliance of a psychological horror movie when the revenge angle becomes the clear B story to the A story’s superior thrills and chills. Kienle masterfully brings both of the two stories together seamlessly for his climax as well, and he keeps some of his best surprises for the final denouement. This is one of the year's best horror movies and might even figure into the best foreign language film balloting by critics groups in the remaining months of this year.

It's run is now done at the Chicago International Film Festival, but be sure to look for this superior horror film when it arrives at an arthouse near you for its regular run or makes its way onto VOD. Oh, and don’t be surprised if FOUR HANDS is voted one of the best of the Chicago fest at the end of next week. This one is a winner, ahem, hands down.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL? A DESTINATION NOT FOR THE FAINT OF HEART


Did the romantic inklings of the TWILIGHT vampire series propel horror filmmakers to run in the other direction? It seems that most new frighteners coming down the pike these days, especially vampire movies, are more and more violent and nihilistic. Thus, it is with the new horror film TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL. It’s one of the five major horror films being showcased in the “After Dark” program as part of this year’s Chicago Film Festival. It screens October 14 at 10:30 PM at the River East 21, as well as on October 16 at 1:30 PM and October 21 at 9 PM. If you choose to attend, be warned...this film is not one for the faint of heart.

Not only is there a ton of vampiric bloodshed in this one, there are so many bullets shot into the heads of characters onscreen that I lost count of how many deaths there were just 20 minutes into it all. Cuddly Bella and Edward types are nowhere to be seen here. Instead, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL showcases only killers and victims. And the extravagant bloodletting is such that one wonders if the four quadrants for this film are cannibals, serial killers, Medieval surgeons, and the Manson clan.

When this film isn’t preoccupied with being as vicious as it can be, it loves being eccentric, almost to a fault. Yes, eccentricity and surprise tend to be two of the greatest characteristics of Japanese director Sion Sono, and there is a lot of hilarious craziness on display here. One of his main characters is an aging and decrepit  vampire queen presented laid out on a stretcher with a human head, and a cartoonishly fake torso that looks like a giant marionette. It's so over-the-top, one has to admire Sion Sono for much of his gonzo  sensibilities, but everything is that way here. From the violence to the oddball characterizations to the hyperkinetic camera work and editing, manic is a word that doesn't do it all justice. 

In fact, such excesses have become somewhat of a plague in the thriller and action picture genres these days. It seems every director working in those worlds wants to be the one that edits the fastest, moves the camera the craziest, and jolts the audiences the most. Is Paul Greengrass that much of a role model? Sono doesn’t just want to manipulate his medium, he wants to fold, spindle and mutilate it. But movies need to breathe too, and this one needs an oxygen mask.

Originally conceived and shot as a nine-episode vampire series for Japan Amazon.com, TOKYO VAMPIRE HOTEL has now been edited down to a 142-minute film for the festival circuit. Cutting a TV show down like that is never the best gambit, and indeed, the narrative here is rendered choppy, disjointed, and difficult to follow because of it. And it's fine for a TV show to have an ambitious storyline that includes two warring vampire families, the backstory of Count Dracula, the rise of a messianic female named Manami whom both sides are after, a chic hotel that serves as a metaphor for the elitist one-percent, as well as an apocalyptic plan to purge the world of all residents outside the hotel, but it's too much for a two-hour movie. (What, no werewolves? At least TWILIGHT had those.)

Sion Sono has some excellent instincts as a filmmaker. He strives to entertain certainly, knows how to film action, and culls great things from his production department and virtually all the crafts below the line. He has a game cast, and they all match his energy and commitment to the material. Sion Soon also knows how to wring maximum impact out of the shocks in his horror tale too. But this movie simply has too much going on - too many plots, too many characters, and maybe too much style for its own good. It often feels like the director is showing off more than showing things as cogently as possible. And it is quite evident that a lot of crucial exposition ended up on the cutting room floor. All to make room for the director's delight in setting off squibs? 

The hotel setting is sumptuous and striking in this, even breathtaking, but we barely get to see it when the story stuffs hundreds of extras in it to keep the hectic plot chugging along. It becomes all too apt a metaphor for the film - each frame is simply packed with too much. There are dozens of great ideas here, perfect for a TV series, less so for a film. 

And no matter the medium, the violence jars in ways that overwhelm the rest of its charms. Obviously, a film about vampires isn’t going to shy away from rivers of red, but why are there so many head shots from uzis and other automatic weapons here?  The necks being drained by fangs weren’t enough? Call it bad timing, but after the rampage in Las Vegas two weeks ago, it’s hard watch automatic weapons do so much damage with such blitheness onscreen. Granted, most horror fans don't want the cooing lovebirds that Mr. and Mrs. Cullen were, but do we need scores and scores of extras mowed down in their place instead? 

Thursday, October 12, 2017

“THE FLORIDA PROJECT” CHALLENGES CONVENTIONAL FILM NORMS AS WELL AS ITS AUDIENCE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Kimberly Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT.
(copyright 2017)
If Willem Dafoe didn’t star in it, you might think THE FLORIDA PROJECT was a documentary. That is how realistic this new movie plays. It seems like cinema verite - an improvisation with the use of the camera to unveil truth or highlight subjects hidden behind crude reality - but it is not. That may be the biggest compliment to filmmaker Sean Baker. He has managed to write (with Chris Bergoch) and direct a film that feels utterly observational, spontaneous, and even haphazard at times. The film captures the messiness of life, its randomness, and miraculously, most of it is done with child actors so natural you think you're watching a documentary.  

THE FLORIDA PROJECT is a daring work, filling its story with a people most Americans don't even know exist.  The focus of the film is on a precocious 6-year-old girl named Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) who lives with her welfare mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) in an extended-stay motel in Kissimmee, Florida, not far from Walt Disney World. The title of the movie is a play on what Disney and his minions called their plans to develop the world's largest theme park in Orlando back in the 1960's. It also may be intended to reference how those like Halley and Moonee survive in such an existence. For them, their Florida project is to make it through the day as best they can under such dire circumstances.

Could the title also suggest that their home is similar to that of a project or tenement? Perhaps, especially since most of the tenants of The Magic Castle Motel, a cartoonish mauve-painted tourist trap, are welfare mothers, transients, and others who are down on their luck. They are disenfranchised, yet Baker's film makes the argument that their stories are worthy and deserving of our empathy.  

That may be a tall order for audiences weaned on the current cinema of fantasies, futuristic worlds, superheroes, and CGI monsters, let alone an arthouse crowd used to period pieces and Oscar bait. If people keep an open mind, they will enter the theater and experience a unique movie experience, a film that is utterly unflinching in its portrayal of societal outcasts. The film may remind you of BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD, another movie about a precocious child trying to navigate her way through youth and poverty. Moonee is akin to the character of Hushpuppy (Quvenzhane Wallis) in that film, though not quite as heroic or likable. 

Moonee is a tough little kid, often brusque and noisy, even bratty. She's fiercely independent because she has to be as her mother is often too preoccupied to mother her. A girl of six shouldn't be out on her own walking the streets, exploring abandoned buildings, and panhandling for dollars to buy ice cream, but this is Moonee's daily existence. Amazingly, she handles most of the obstacles that cross her path with an upbeat, "can do" attitude.   

Like most little girls, she loves sweets, laughing with friends, and running around the neighborhood making playtime out of a tree, street or picnic table. Yet, there is danger lurking at almost every corner. On the strip where she lives, there is all kinds of drama a six-year-old should never run headlong into - drug deals going down, prostitutes turning tricks, and a collection of intruding vagrants and deviants. They're as much a part of her everyday life as the tourists and garish stores she frequents.

But Moonee manages, worldly beyond her years, and unwilling to  take any shit. She has a potty mouth that would make Andrew Dice Clay blush. And she plays the game too, panhandling for dollars to buy treats, and helping her mother sell various products to gullible visitors to the Sunshine State. Moonee even seems to delight in it, enjoying all the crazy people and buildings built to look like giant oranges or wizards. It's as if she's the star of her own cartoon show chock full of crazy characters and outrageous settings. 

Still, in this environment, Moonee hasn't just learned to survive, she's inherited all sorts of bad habits, mostly from her wayward mom. Hallee isa piece of work - half charmer, half trainwreck. She’s a welfare queen, only in her early twenties, yet tatted up and tarted up, on the lookout for easy drugs, easier money and dupable men. And the chip she carries on her shoulder is as big as some of those goofy stores along the strip. 

So how can we empathize with such an awful woman? Halley's rap sheet keeps her from gainful employment and she makes ends meet by hooking. She also smokes too much, drinks too much, and scores drugs, lying and cheating her way to the rent due at the end of each week. Yet, despite all that, she is relatable. She wants to help her daughter, even if her methods aren't always the best and include too much fast food and junkie toys. And Halley isn't going to win any Mother of the Year awards when she turns tricks in the motel room during Moonee's bath time. 

It's depressing to watch such bad behavior. At times, you want to scream at the screen. Still, Baker and Bergoch beckon us to stay with their story and these troubled people. Perhaps the filmmakers are making that most Christian of arguments in suggesting that there but for the grace of God go any of us. Still, this is an exceedingly cringe-inducing film and not for those merely desiring escapism.  

But despite all the awfulness, there is a sweet nobleness to Moonee that keeps us on her side. She is kind to her friends Jancy (Valeria Cotto) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), and they know enough to stay away from genuine trouble. And even when they start a fire in an abandoned motel just for kicks, thankfully none of them get hurt, and no one else in the neighborhood perishes in the flames. 

Some practical parental guidance does come to the kids from Bobby (Dafoe), the worldweary manager of the motel. He not only takes care of all the little problems from broken washing machines to donation drop-offs, but he keeps the children tenants on the straight and narrow where and when he can. Whether he wants it or not, he becomes a reluctant father figure to them.

Bobby's style is gruff but respectful. He has a strong moral sense and in one of the film’s best scenes, the motel manager prevents an aging pervert from getting his hands on the kids. Watching Dafoe play the emotions of the scene, from fearful to bullying in a matter of moments, is amazing to see. Dafoe seamlessly blends toughness with sensitivity, and it may be his best onscreen work to date. Expect him to figure strongly in awards season. 

Vinaite does marvelous work here too. Halley is the villain of the piece, but the actress manages to make her likable even when she's at her most loathsome. In fact, Baker ensures that all of his cast treat their characters with dignity, never condescending to them or overplaying their problems. 

In our age of growing economic disparity, with more and more of our nation's citizenry struggling merely to make ends meet, this film couldn't be timelier. Again, there but for the grace of God go any of us. THE FLORIDA PROJECT is truly a film of the moment, showing the struggles of the growing population of people who are on the outside looking it. It is a moviegoing experience that is  harrowing at times, inspiring at others, and unflinching in showcasing the background of poverty in these characters' lives. 

It's also daring in that it has no real plot, no big set pieces, and no normal character arcs. It plays out organically, showing moments of life being experienced moment by aching moment. It won't be everyone’s cup of tea, but for those who can handle extremely unconventional storytelling populated with fringe-dwelling characters, this uncompromising film is a must-see. It may be exceptionally hard to watch, but it’s even harder to get out of your head.

Friday, October 6, 2017

THE AFI PICKS GEORGE CLOONEY FOR THEIR LIFE ACHIEVEMENT AWARD...AT 56

Original caricature by Jeff York of George Clooney (copyright 2017)
Today, George Clooney was named the 46th recipient of the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award. In naming him, the AFI noted his versatility and movie star prowess. He truly is one of the greatest stars in the history of Hollywood, in addition to being a major force behind the camera as well. Clooney has been nominated for an Oscar in six different categories - Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, Best Producer, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Adapted Screenplay. Only Walt Disney matched such an accomplishment.

In the AFI’s public statement about their choice today, Board of Trustees Chair Howard Stringer had this to say, George Clooney is America’s leading man. Director, producer, writer, actor – a modern-day screen icon who combines the glamour of a time gone by with a ferocious passion for ensuring art’s impact echoes beyond the screen. AFI is proud to present him with its 46th Life Achievement Award.”

Stringer is entirely correct. Since starring in the film FROM DUSK TILL DAWN in 1996, Clooney has had a run that is one of the most stellar in the history of the medium. He’s won oodles of awards, including a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for SYRIANA. He’s received three Academy Award nominations for Best Actor as well for his leading roles in Best Picture nominees MICHAEL CLAYTON, UP IN THE AIR, and THE DESCENDANTS. He should have been nominated for O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU too, but at least he won the Golden Globe for his stellar comedic performance in that Coen Brothers masterpiece.

Clooney has starred in other ginormous films as well, both critical successes and box office hits. He was the leading man in THREE KINGS, OUT OF SIGHT, GRAVITY, BURN AFTER READING, and HAIL, CAESAR! Clooney also played the roguish con man Danny Ocean in the hugely popular OCEAN’S ELEVEN trilogy. He’s the incredibly accomplished director of CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK, and THE IDES OF MARCH too, not to mention a major producer. He won his second Academy Award as one of the producers of the Best Picture winner ARGO in 2012. In fact, Clooney is expected to figure strongly in this year’s awards consideration as well with deafening buzz surrounding his dark comedy SUBURBICON. (It opens October 27.)  

Yes indeed, Clooney is one of show business’ greatest. He’s a major force in front of the camera, behind the camera, and out in the private sector too. He has been an important political activist for over 20 years, striving to make a difference in international economics, human rights, global warming, and many other social issues at home and abroad. The United Nations named Clooney their 'messenger of peace' in 2008 on behalf of his work fighting to save Darfur. He’s an American institution really, and one that many want to run for POTUS.

With all that, can anyone argue with his selection for the AFI award? Still, he is a bit young for it, no? I ask because George Clooney is only 56. He’s a decade from the standard retirement age, let alone when actors start slowing down. And age is often just a number for such accomplished talents. Look at Christopher Plummer who is still starring in major motion pictures at 87. Clooney could easily have that long a run as a leading man. So, couldn’t the AFI have waited another decade?

Perhaps he was chosen now because it helps the AFI with their fundraising, as well as their publicity. Fair enough. And God knows everyone will turn up for the dinner to honor him and it will get strong ratings on television. All good. But that doesn’t erase the fact that 56 seems a bit early for a lifetime achievement award, especially since Clooney has only been making movies as a leading man since 1996.  

Indeed, if you’ve followed my movie blog The Establishing Shot these past six years, you know that I am less than pleased when the AFI, of which I am a member, doles out its award to younger candidates while overlooking older ones. When the AFI chose Tom Hanks as their recipient in 2002, he was only 46. They were lambasted left and right for that premature choice. I was so taken aback by their decision then, I called the president of the AFI to discuss the matter. Make no mistake, Hanks was and is incredible, but he was too young for such an award then. Some suggested the AFI choose him to create controversy and get oodles of press for it. They did indeed get a lot of ink, but they lost a lot of credibility too. It's had a lasting effect, and the damage still plagues them some 15 years later. 

Some of the more senior candidates who were not the AFI recipients in the years since that notorious choice include Robert Redford, Michael Caine, Robert Duvall, Gene Hackman, Woody Allen, Francis Ford Coppola, Blake Edwards, Peter O’Toole, Mickey Rooney, Jerry Goldsmith, Ernest Lehman, and Sidney Lumet.  Sadly, Lehman, Goldsmith, O’Toole, Rooney, Lumet and Edwards have all died since 2002 so their AFI career capper is never to be. 

Because of such oversights, I have continued to make it part of my mission as a critic to write letters, make phone calls, and write blog posts on behalf of these older candidates. In 2011, I pushed the AFI to choose from the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton and John Williams, and in the past six years they have all been honored. Whether or not I helped isn't necessarily known, though I can tell you that in 2016, after years of advocating composer John Williams for the award, the AFI finally did choose him. And they wrote me thanking me for my advocacy all those years. I was deeply touched by that. Some times the squeaky wheel does get some grease, right?  

In the final analysis, I truly admire the AFI's selection of George Clooney. Now, in the next few years, they need to refocus their gaze upon older candidates like Redford, Caine, Duvall and Coppola. The likes of Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington, and Julia Roberts should be honored for their spectacular lifetimes of achievement. Absolutely. 

Just not yet. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

FILMMAKER NOAH BAUMBACH DRAMATICALLY PLUMBS THE DEPTHS OF FAMILY DYSFUNCTION

For those who loathe the prevalence of big, noisy and CGI-laden tentpoles churned out by Hollywood, Noah Baumbach’s films always make for a perfect antidote. They’re small, intimate character studies and the only explosions they contain are people blowing up at each other in anger. His newest film, THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES, is another of his complex examinations of family and how they boil over with dysfunction. This one, like his 2005 dramedy THE SQUID AND THE WHALE, paints a portrait of family dynamics that is often hilarious, but mostly it's an excruciatingly painful look at just how atrocious kin can be. And despite a heavy Jewish and New York City slant to it all, this is a universal story. Every family has their drama and we cringe while watching the events here because Baumbach is showing us it's all relative.

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES is perhaps Baumbach’s darkest and most complex work to date. The film premieres Oct. 13 in theaters, as well as on Netflix, and it’s a warts-and-all portrayal of a dysfunctional family struggling to connect with each other during a few months bogged down by the waning health of Harold Meyerowitz (Dustin Hoffman), the family patriarch. His oldest son Danny (Adam Sandler) has enough worries already before his dad's health crisis as he's dealing with a busted marriage, an independent daughter moving out and heading to college, and no hirable skills or employment possibilities since he's always been a stay-at-home dad. His step-sister Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) is very troubled too. She's mousy, dull and inert, often staring unblinkingly at events around here while she all but blends into the scenery. She seems to be asexual, and in a family of oddities, Jane may be the oddest.


For decades, their father has fueled their blatant insecurities and inability to cope. He's an artist with the mentality of an utter narcissist. His ego has sucked all the oxygen out of the room for years, and his vanity shows no signs of ebbing even as he enters his late 70's. Harold is an endlessly cantankerous old fart and grows increasingly embittered as the world passes him by. His levels of neediness are only matched by his constant passive/aggressive needling of his children. 

He was once a promising sculptor but now he's living on the memories of his past laurels, still bending everyone's ear to his never-ending boasts. Danny and Jean try to please him, but he’s a tough nut to impress. He keeps them close, but is stingy with affection, using them mostly to feel superior. His treatment of them veers close to that of hired help. Even Harold's fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thompson) makes it through the day by ignoring him. She even vacations alone and has developed a drinking problem as she excessively 'medicates' to numb her pain being in the family. 

Danny and Jean are each from a different mother too, which tells you how successful Harold was as a husband. He has another child, Matthew (Ben Stiller), from a third wife, but at least he's truly successful in his career. Matthew is the go-getter that his step-siblings can only dream of being, a financial whiz living in Los Angeles. But even with all his moolah, Matthew is not well adjusted. The persistent bullying of his distant dad still plagues him, and thus, Matthew walks on eggshells around everyone, even his clients.  


In fact, the only Meyerowitz who seems to have her head on totally straight is Danny’s daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten). She's confident, calm, and breezily mature. Still, she has some overt neediness too. Eliza's student films are filled with outrageous sexual posturing and her in-your-face nudity. It would seem that everyone in the Meyerowitz family needs attention and affection after being starved of it for so long. 

The first hour of the film lays the groundwork for all these family dynamics and it's painfully funny. When they're all together, everyone in the family talks a lot, but precious little is heard. They all talk over each other or past each other. All the better, one supposes, to avoid hearing Harold brag endlessly. He name drops, relives his former glories, and turns every conversation around to focus on him. He even expects his offspring to hightail it to a restaurant 45 minutes early because he got there almost an hour before the set reservation. Harold's profession may be building sculptures, but his true talent is in tearing down his family.

One of Baumbach's strongest themes throughout THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES is how everyone in the family feels compelled to be artistic to follow in their father's footsteps. Between Eliza's short films, Danny's piano playing, and even repeated references about Matthew's ability to mimic, artistry drives a lot of the self-worth in this family. Even Jane brags about the funny videos she makes for coworkers' birthday parties at the office. The fact that none of the Meyerowitz' display exceptional talent, including Harold, is one of the slyer jokes of the film. And it underscores just how misplaced Harold's bravado is. 

Then, cresting into the second hour of the movie, Harold has a brain seizure and lands in the hospital. To reduce the potential infections and bleeding, the doctors place him in an induced coma. Now, with their dad mute in their lives, the three step-siblings must come to terms with their father's potential mortality, not to mention his lasting affect on them.


In the course of the second half of the film, Danny, Jean and Matthew truly bond, for the first time in their lives together, and they discover oodles about each other and themselves. And even while they learn a lot, Baumbach never overdoes the hugging and learning. The self-discoveries of these three occur in baby steps. This clan will never be a Norman Rockwell painting, and this is not a movie that yearns to be ooey and gooey. 

Director Baumbach brings out superb work from everyone in his cast, and he may have even coaxed career bests out of Sandler and Stiller. They're crackerjack comics, of course, but this film is mostly a drama and both actors ace their demanding parts. The aching vulnerability that Sandler brings to every scene is palpable. As good as he is at being a goof onscreen, it's ironic that his three best performances have been in dramas. (PUNCH DRUNK LOVE and FUNNY PEOPLE are the other two.) Frankly, his stellar performance here should be enough evidence to convince him never to make another film with Kevin James or David Spade again. 

Stiller plays the sensitivities of Matthew exceedingly well in a performance as nuanced as anything he's ever done. Still, he manages to get huge laughs throughout, especially when he's forced to speak on his absent father's behalf at an art opening. Matthew and Danny have just been brawling outside and then must attend the gala, disheveled and dirty from rolling around on the ground. Inside, Matthew hoists a champagne glass and tries to act normal while everyone stares at his bloodied nose, sweaty brow and messy clothes. It's hilarious, the best laugh in the film, yet Stiller really shines by turning that comedy into pathos as the scene goes on and Matthew breaks down crying. 


There are many such serious moments that are just as affecting: a fragile Danny finally snaps and viciously takes out his anger on his loving daughter; Harold's third wife Julia (Candice Bergen) apologizes with great deliberation for her shortcomings as a stepmother; Harold's new nurse (Michael Chernus) clearly is hurt and more than a little stunned by Matthew's insults about his performance. If you thought Baumbach's MISTRESS AMERICA could slyly sneak up on you and break your heart, this film does it even more so.

The director is in total control of his craft here and may have even gotten an award-worthy performance out of Hoffman. The veteran actor showcases all the nuances and layers of Harold's extravagant vanity, yet still sprinkles his character with enough roguish charm to explain why such an old man would still have such sway over everyone. Hoffman could have a real shot at winning his third Oscar in March if the studio promotes him in the supporting actor category. 

Towards the end, Baumbach makes some weird editing decisions as he relies on some heavy-handed blackouts to explain the passage of time. (Strange too, as the director's use of jump cuts that abruptly end scenes earlier in the film earn some of the film's biggest guffaws.) And I’m not sure why Baumbach has Danny wear a heavy leather jacket indoors so much, even when he's pairing the coat with summery cargo shorts. But no matter, this is one of the filmmaker's most moving works. It’s a film that is difficult to watch at times, but it remains a wholly rewarding examination of family, forgiveness and the need to matter. And who can't relate to that?

Friday, September 22, 2017

“BATTLE OF THE SEXES” PROVES THE MORE THINGS CHANGE, THE MORE THEY STAY THE SAME

Original caricature by Jeff York of Emma Stone as Billie Jean King in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. (copyright 2017)
All period pieces are commentaries on our modern world. Is it because things don’t change that much from decade to decade, or century to century? Perhaps, but the essential makeup of mankind isn’t altered nearly as much as we’d think it would be by progress or time. Instead, many of our instincts, from the basest of urges to the most intellectual rigors, remain consistent no matter what period. Thus, the fight for sexual equality today isn’t all that different from the one waged in 1973 as proven by the savvy new movie BATTLE OF THE SEXES.

In fact, as you watch this clever take on how tennis player Billie Jean King battled both sexism at large, and specifically, male chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, you realize the struggle hasn't gone away. It certainly exists all too blatantly in today's politics, economy, and issues of civil rights. White patriarchy is still trying to thwart those unlike them. Thus, this film is as timely as it is entertaining.

In the 1970's, King was the top ranked female tennis player in the world, but she tried to lift the boats for all of the women on the tour. She fought valiantly for years to raise tournament pay, striving to make it equal to that of men. And she not only helped changed the game of tennis for the better in doing so, King became a feminist icon who helped advance women's liberation far beyond her sport. Unfortunately, her achievements seems to be falling backwards today as rampant sexism is returning with a vengeance to the world in the workplace, on campuses, currently on social media. Indeed, male patriarchy remains in power, women and minorities are marginalized far too often, and that makes this movie's relevance importance. Truly, it's suggesting that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

BATTLE OF THE SEXES is not just a detailed and vivid portrait of tennis history, it's a stinging rebuke of a nation that should know better how to behave by now. Interestingly, in the previews, this film was sold as a comedy. Sure, casting Steve Carell as the aging tennis hustler Riggs and Emma Stone as the cool and confidant King ensured its comic pedigree. And indeed, the film has a lot of big, boisterous laughs. However, most of the ones heard in the audience I saw it with, came at the outrageous sexist behavior that existed in every corner of the tennis world at that time. The humor in BATTLE OF THE SEXES is pointedly dark as it showcases the idiotic and casual sexism that characterized the period, such as Riggs' blatant public declarations that a woman's place was in the bedroom and the kitchen, not the tennis court, full stop.

And even though tennis and the women's tour become a sensation that decade, with female athletes like King, Margaret Court, Evonne Goolagong, Rosie Casals, and teenager Chris Evert helping the sport reach unparalleled popularity, too many men were still unwilling to give them proper credit for it. Instead, the powers that be all but went out of their way to insult and demean the female players consistently. Men like Jack Kramer, a former pro turned United States Tennis Association big wig, ensured that the women were paid significantly less, treated as afterthoughts, and dismissed as "good for girls" athletes who could never challenge male prowess.

King didn't suffer such fools and stood up to Kramer, leaving the USTA and taking the whole of the female game with her. King was instrumental in establishing a league of their own, the Virginia Slims Tour, and it became a progressive and galvanizing 'work place' for the female stars. The tour took care of its players significantly better than Kramer, et al. did, raised the prize money, increased public relations, and filled the stadiums with avid fans.  
Original caricature by Jeff York of Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs in BATTLE OF THE SEXES. (copyright 2017)
Kramer is, in fact, the villain of this piece here, not Riggs, and he's played with a slimy smile by veteran actor Bill Pullman. Riggs may have been just as sexist as Kramer, but the script's viewpoint is that it was more of an act for him. Riggs barked a lot about male prowess, but most of it was to raise his PR profile. Casting a utterly lovable star like Carell cements that take, and most of his outrageous lines aimed at the fairer sex are practically delivered with a wink. The fact is, and the film gets this totally right, Riggs was far more interested in making a buck than besting the fairer sex. He was a hustler who'd play all sorts of tennis exhibitions to remain in the limelight and make a fast buck. He dressed in zany costumes, like Little Bo Peep, or played with handicaps, like a frying pan for a racket, all to showcase his chutzpah. Riggs was less of a male chauvinist and much more of a craven opportunist.

In many ways, Riggs was trying to fit into a world that displayed rampant discrimination against him too. At 55, twenty-five years past his athletic prime, Riggs felt obsolete. He was reduced to trading upon his past prowess with pals and hangers on to make a buck, and never fit into the stiff corporate world that his patrician wife got him employment in. One of the funniest moments in the movie shows Riggs bat a crumpled piece of paper into his office waste basket with his tennis racket, showing that old habits die hard. Bobby loved his wife Priscilla (Elisabeth Shue, strong, tan and gorgeous in the role) but didn't fit in her world. He thrived in the world of hustlers, gamblers, and card players. And he challenged King to an exposition match to hopefully score a big payday. King was wise to decline, as she took the game serious, but top female player Margaret Court (Jessica McNamee) liked the idea of a quick purse and big PR so she agreed to Riggs' challenge when he called upon her, his second choice. 

The match between Riggs and Court took place on Mother’s Day in 1973, and it became known as the "Mother's Day Massacre." The film treats it almost as if it's public hanging, with the ramifications of such a top player like Court, so young at 29, losing so definitively to the old man Riggs. He trounced her in straight sets, and as King watched it on TV, she knew she had to rise next to address Riggs' challenge to the women's game. If she didn't, she'd forfeit all the strides about equality that she had argued. And if she lost the match to Riggs, she'd lose the argument about expectation regarding equal pay.

Yet, the superstar had other issues to contend with as well at the time. The 29-year-old wife of promoter Larry King (not that Larry King) found herself falling for a comely hairdresser named Marilyn Barnett (Andrea Riseborough). Suddenly, the tennis ace started questioning her sexual identity as well as her marriage vows. King worried that the truth of her affair would come out and hurt her career and cause as well. These are the scenes where Stone's performance is at its strongest. She captures the simultaneous joy and angst of coming to terms with her bisexuality, aching to be understood and loved, but uncertain of her footing in the heterosexual or gay world, let alone the public light of celebrity. 

There was a lot at stake for King, and in its way, as much for Riggs. And the movie treats it all seriously. Both King and Riggs were trying to figure out where they stood in the world, one battling sexism, the other ageism. Their exhibition match was thought of as a circus at the time, but that take is rejected here. This film wisely plays it as important as it was, focusing more on the tense match than the bread and circuses surrounding it.

Playing all the different nuances of their characters, Carell and Stone give two of the year's best performances. Riggs is a clown in many ways, and Carell makes him endlessly funny, but he finds the tragedy in the man as well. And Stone continues to amaze with each new step in her young career. Here, she not only captures all the interiors of King, but she also does a tremendous job duplicating her voice, gait, and definitive playing style.


Giving sharp support to these two vivid star turns are the aforementioned Riseborough, Shue and Pullman, as well as Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the promoter and manager of the Slims tournament, Natalie Morales as the no-nonsense Casals, and Alan Cumming as Ted Tingling, King’s friend, designer, and confidante. He cautioned her to not expect too much too soon in the battle against societal norms. It was still a tumultuous time, he argued, but progress would come. These words couldn't ring more true today what with many of those in power willing to vote for a new healthcare bill that would not ensure maternity coverage for all women and set back other civil rights achievements as well. The battle goes on and on and on.

The film recreates the 1970's period perfectly too, particularly through the stellar Linus Sandren cinematography. His lensing employs that ubiquitous soft focus that was paramount then, and his work here should be remembered when the Oscar nominations come out early next year. Mary Zophres’ costuming is award-worthy as well. The clothes are amusing without edging into parody. And hair stylist Alyson Black-Barrie was wise to not overdo the sideburns and bangs of Riggs here as his trendy bowl cut made him look silly. 

Simon Beaufoy’s screenplay is fast-moving, smart, and hits all the best highlights from the true story, though one does wish there were more scenes between King and Riggs. Some more substantive talk between King and her girlfriend could've deepened their moments together as well. Riseborough does as much as she can with her part, but it's still the one that is underwritten. Co-directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a superb job of bringing all the characters to life, as well as handling all the period details. They're especially adept at seamlessly blending the King and Riggs stunt doubles into the action scenes with the performances by Stone and Carell, not to mention their discreet inclusion of historical footage into the editing. 

At the end of BATTLE OF THE SEXES, audiences will walk out of the theater satisfied by one of the better films this year. They'll also realize that the fight continues for equality, as much an issue today as it was back then. We've come a long way, baby, but not far enough. Women are still fighting for equal pay, members of the LGBTQ community are still fighting for basic civil rights, and presidential administrations still have far too many Jack Kramer-types in their service undermining the majority of Americans. The game of tennis uses the term love, and God knows the world could use more of it as this film cleverly points out.

Friday, September 15, 2017

THIS WEEKEND'S ACTION: THE GOOD & THE BAD


THE VILLAINESS

There have been many filmmakers who have significantly raised the bar of action movies. In the early 80’s, Australian George Miller gave audiences THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the sequel topped its predecessor MAD MAX with its over-the-top approach to fast edits, arched camera angles, and eye-popping stunt work during its climactic car chase scene. Then in 2002, Luc Besson pushed the action motif even further with THE TRANSPORTER and its 90-minute narrative serving as one extended car chase. In 2003’s OLD BOY, director Chan-wook Park mesmerized moviegoers with action sequences shot in long takes so we could see all the intricately choreographed stunt work happening in real time. And now, we have Jung Byung-gil dazzling us further with POV camera work in THE VILLAINESS that turns his action sequences into a real life first person shooter game.   

Byung-gil’s incredibly kinetic actioner starts with one of the most audacious openers ever filmed. It’s as if the Goldeneye or Call of Duty video game has replaced its computer-generated imagery with real actors. In the sequence, the film’s femme fatale Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) bursts into the bad guy’s lair and kills everything in her sight. It’s done mostly in hand-to-hand combat style, and just how it was shot is one of the pleasures awaiting the VOD extras when it’s released. We see all that is happening from Sook-hee’s POV. And unlike in HARDCORE HENRY from two years ago, which told its entire storyline from his POV, this one is never nauseating or hard to follow. Instead, we experience her rage and skill up close and personal. And the icing on this juggernaut of a cake? Byung-gil has her enter different rooms where more henchmen await just like in the various levels once faces in a video game. It’s both ridiculously on-the-nose in its satire and yet hilarious in being so cheeky.  

Throughout the film when the action scenes arise, Byung-gil will employ this first-person trope, putting us directly in the head of his heroine. Still, he does so much more that is clever here. He tells an intricate story. He develops his characters with nuance. And he ensures that we are wholly invested in the plight of his female lead.  This really could've gotten away with just being a superb actioner, shot impeccably with gonzo cinematography, biting visual wit, and deft editing. It is that, but it's also an emotionally moving story. When Sook-hee isn’t fighting, she’s trying to be a mother, girlfriend and human being and it was wise for Byung-gil to spend as much time and skill in nailing such calm as well as all the storm.

It helps that he has such a terrific actress in Ok-bin. She has big, soulful eyes that could give Margaret Keane a run for her money, and an expressiveness in language and movement that makes her a first-rate ingĂ©nue as well as an expert stunt woman. Her character of Sook-hee isn’t really a villainess, but she is a definite bad-ass. She’s that way, angered and embittered, because she watched her father be murdered by a paid assassin when she was a child. Now, vengeance is what she's living for. Yet, even though Sook-hee becomes a trained killer to fulfill her destiny, she still strives for more. There is still a little girl needing love inside her hardened exterior. 

The killing machine that she will become comes courtesy of a secret training program, much like that found in Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA (1990). You wouldn't think she'd need any more training after taking out the hundreds of henchmen in that opening sequence but when she's captured, her skills are put to use by a government operation that turns delinquents into assassins. And just like that facility in Luc Besson’s film, this is not only a school to learn such things, it's also a finishing school for girls. The lovely young students are taught how to dress, eat, and act. If you're going to be Mata Hari, you have to know how to play the vamp, right?

And one of the very first things that the cold, stern, and chain-smoking head mistress Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong) does to help Sook-hee along those lines is she has her go under the knife to enhance her cheekbones and whittle away her nose. She was lovely already, but perhaps this film is commenting on the standards of beauty demanded by a patriarchal Asian society, let alone the exacting demands of actresses in Tinsel Town. This is one smart and smart-aleck film.

Soon, Sook-hee establishes herself as the best student among the recruits, willing to chop, kick, and punch all comers with brutal abandon. She does manage to make one friend in all this - the forlorn, weaker student Min-joo (Son Min-je). And she makes an enemy too when she provides too much competition for the equally talented and ambitious Kim Seon (Jo Euin-ji). Sook-hee's talents and looks also attract the attention of the various male handlers working behind the scenes in operations. As they watch her from one of the secret monitoring rooms, the very handsome, very sensitive Hyun-soo (Sung Jun) starts to fall in love. Complicating matters are Sook-hee's pregnancy, used as an opportunity by Kwon to control her all the more. She promises Sook-hee that when her little girl reaches 10, then her mom's contract with the organization will end. But up until then, Sook-hee's ass is Kwon's. 

From there, Sook-hee has her baby, starts life with the young girl, and begins her career as an assassin. She’s set up in an apartment complex and Hyun-soo is placed in the unit next to her to spy on her. She doesn't know he's essentially there to be her handler, and when they fall for each other, it will complicate everything demonstrably. In many ways it is obvious where the story goes from there - it probably won't end well for Hyun-soo - and Sook-hee’s professional and personal lives start blurring and causing all sorts of damage. She and Hyun-soo fall in love and even get married, and that is the kiss of death always in a movie like this.

Yet, the two things that keep all of this fresh and involving are the inventive action set-pieces that Byung-gil places Sook-hee in, as well as those scenes that slow down and let us see her beyond her profession. And the dialogue scenes are very compelling, if not quite as amazing as the action scenes. This film has the bravura opener as well as two other ginormous set-pieces that explode off the screen. One is a motorcycle chase that again puts us in the POV of Sook-hee as she drives down the road and fights with a couple of assassins on her tail, and the other is the climax aboard a rollicking bus that serves as a deathtrap for almost all involved. 

The romantic scenes between Ok-bin and Jun have almost as much spark as Byung-gil knows that all the great camera work, editing and energy in an action sequence don’t matter if we don’t care for those involved in it. Thus, we have a female character who registers as strongly with her man in her bed, as she does with her daughter in her arms, as she does with a sub-machine gun in her hands.

There is nary a false move in any of the editing, particularly in the superbly realized action sequences place. However, Byung-gil does let his film get a bit 'cutty' when he cuts back and forth between the present day and Sook-hee's history. There are a lot of flashbacks, and some are confusing as they withhold important information until later in the film. It's a small criticism, but one wonders if the backstory could've been simplified so it wouldn't occasionally upend the momentum that the main story gets going. 

Such winner as this one help make action the most exportable genre since the form translates easily across nations as it relies upon visuals and not dialogue that might not always translate. This one does come with subtitles, but the words are worth reading just as much as the action is worth watching. It's a clever story, with meaningful characters and words, as well as an energy that grabs you from the opening second and never really lets go.  This is an amazingly accomplished actioner that can stand with those classics mentioned in the first paragraph. Indeed, this one feels like an instant classic.


AMERICAN ASSASSIN

In many respects, it's unfair to compare AMERICAN ASSASSIN, which also opens this weekend, to THE VILLAINESS, but one cannot help such things what with its timing. Granted, this one comes with a strong pedigree, yet not much of it helps here. Yes, it's from CBS Films, known for doing good work across a number of genres, and one of the film's stars is Michael Keaton, who starred in back-to-back Best Picture winners two years ago. AMERICAN ASSASSIN can also boast that two of its screenwriters are veteran scribes Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Still, none of it helps within the framework of this film that is wrought with cliches and misjudgments. 

It does start off well with a grabber of an opener where the lanky Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) films his marriage proposal to his comely girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on his cellphone while standing in the waters of a vacation paradise. Soon, their joy will be ruined forever by vicious Middle East terrorists shooting up tourist season with their automatic weapons. They end up badly wounding Rapp and killing Kat with a shot to the heart. (A bit on the nose, but still...) From there, Rapp will start his journey towards vengeance as he turns from a charming, young man into a trained, cold-eyed killer. It's too bad that his arc couldn't be more like that of Sook-hee in THE VILLAINESS, full of warm moments to counter the cold ones. Instead, his journey is one-track, and it's all too expected and rather dull because of it. 

Yet, like in THE VILLAINESS, Rapp is being monitored by a secret government operation, this one within the black op's of the CIA, and he too is recruited to be one of their elite assassins. And both films have bosses, Chief Kwon and Keaton's assassin trainer Stan Hurley, respectively, who are no-nonsense veterans who will display more humanity as the story unfolds. But after that, THE VILLAINESS raises the bar of the genre while AMERICAN ASSASSIN trolls in the tried and true that have become cliched. 

It also lacks a necessary element of fun. It doesn't help that Rapp is such a dull lead character, a real dead-eyed cipher. O'Brien has demonstrated charm and acting acumen in the past with the likes of TEEN WOLF on the small screen and THE MAZE RUNNER on the big screen, but here he seems to be doing a Xerox copy of an imitation of a riff on Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s stern bravado. It doesn’t work because he’s too young, too thin, and too callow looking. 

Maybe his director Michael Cuesta pushed him to act so inert, but Rapp isn't a black op, he's a black hole sucking up all the energy in every scene with his stone face. Couldn't such insolence have at least been slightly witty? You know, give him some silly one-liners to show he's having a little bit of fun. And the patchy, scruffy beard that O’Brien wears throughout in an attempt to give him some machismo ends up making the young actor look like he’s playing Charlie Manson for Halloween dress-up who unfortunately ran out of spirit gum.

In fact, even without the hoary puns, this film has a real 80’s action picture vibe to it, right down to its poster. Unfortunately, it looks like one of those straight-to-video thrillers, not an esteemed work from CBS. (Dolph Lundgren, anyone?) The movie may think it's being timely with its terrorist storyline, but in almost every other aspect, this one feels as "been there, done that" as all the tired actioners Steven Seagal made after the god-awful ON DEADLY GROUND killed his career. Of course, Hurley is crusty and uncompromising, just like all such roles were written back in the 80's and 90's. Of course, the meticulously planned mission falls apart instantly because of a rookie recruit. Haven't we seen that play out a hundred times? And of course, all the good guys get repeatedly pummeled, beaten and even burned, yet they act like all those wounds are mere scratches.

The silliness gets worse when more and more cliches are ticked off during the run of the film, like when the CIA boss Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) repeatedly exclaims that Rapp is worth keeping around though he can't follow a single order. It gets even worse then when the team stakes out a town in  Rome and continually stares at their mark with a conspicuousness that would tip off a blind man. And by the time, the bloodied team members are walking through the city, looking like battered meat, and stealing cars willy nilly, the whole thing has gone laughably off the rails. Of course, the double agent Iranian Annika (Shiva Negar) is actually a hero. Of course, the bad guy spy Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) has multiple opportunities to off Hurley, yet he doesn’t. (Gotta have Keaton around for the sequel if this thing takes off!) 


Sure, this movie has a Saturday Redbox rental “Oh, what the hell, why not?” aura to it that may turn it into a cheesy hit on VOD. But as a big screen tentpole, attempting to launch a new franchise, a fresh action hero, and make a statement about the state of terrorism, it just blows it at almost every level. I love Michael Keaton but please tell me Hollywood is offering him better roles than this. Where the hell is that BEETLEJUICE sequel already?