Saturday, September 22, 2018

THE REVENGE FILM “MANDY” MIXES GRINDHOUSE, ARTHOUSE AND FUNHOUSE

Nicolas Cage in MANDY.
The new horror/thriller MANDY is perhaps the most artistic B-movie ever made. Director Panos Cosmatos has given it an exquisite sense of craft, the kind usually reserved for A-list fare. MANDY may have buckets of blood, outrageous violence, and a Nicolas Cage baying at the moon, but damn, if it isn't gorgeous.  

The film's plot is fairly standard revenge fare. Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) is a humble lumberjack who's driven to vengeance after seeing his wife murdered by the crazies in a religious cult. It really just needed to be mean and violent and it would've satisfied the bloodlust of audiences who go in for this sort of thing. Yet, Cosmatos clearly wanted this one to be much, much more. This is grindhouse meets arthouse. 

Andrea Riseborough in MANDY.
Cosmatos, son of TOMBSTONE director George P. Cosmatos, fills every frame with gorgeous imagery and loves to show off his lens gels, morphing edits, and detailed compositions. Indeed, much of what he puts up on screen is memorable. A body writhes in poetic slow motion as it is burned alive in a suspended sack. Red's animated visions are haunting cartoons, like something out of 1981's animated feature HEAVY METAL. And when a church burns down, its destruction is utterly resplendent. 

Linus Roache in MANDY.
The director certainly makes every image count, although his work as an actor's director is more of a mixed bag. Cage is an actor who can chew the scenery like a starving dog and Cosmatos lets him chomp away. On the other hand, the director manages to get subtler work out of costars Andrea Riseborough and Linus Roache. There's also a terrific Bill Duke monologue late in the game that makes one wish he showed up in more features. 

Why all of them chose to do this film is anybody's guess, but at least Roache gets to play something miles away from the dignified suits he usually plays in movies and TV. Here, he's the villain, the cretinous cult leader Jeremiah Sand, and Roache revels it cutting loose. He's one part Brian Wilson, one part Charles Manson, both California sunny and demonically dark in the part.


Riseborough plays her part of Mandy more enigmatically. This odd, aging flower child is hard to pin down. She's sweet and loving towards Red, but quirky and stand-offish with others in the story. When Sand sees her walking along the road, he falls in love with the girl, even though she transmits a creepy Susan Atkins vibe. He has his minions kidnap her in the middle of the night to be his sexual slave, but she's not easily moved by his charms. When he dances naked in front of her in an attempt at seduction, she howls viciously at him. 


Sand punishes Mandy for her rejection in that burning bag, and even forces Red to watch. It drives him over the edge, and sadly, the film goes right along with it. After that, the film starts to become more and more silly, with Cage dominating the action with his hokey overacting. And no matter how beautiful Cosmatos makes it all, the film essentially turns into a parody with cuckoo dialogue and overwrought fight scenes. At one point, Red cuts a bad guy's throat and the blood gushes out all over Cage's face like it's a college plebe projectile vomiting. And it goes on for so long, you can't help but cackle. Now, the grindhouse/arthouse has become a carnival funhouse. 

Cage keeps adding to the humor. He paces, grimaces, pouts, yells, sobs...all dialed up to an 11. The scene where he binges a bottle of vodka in the bathroom has to be seen to be believed. The Oscar-winning actor courts serious Golden Raspberry consideration with his overwrought froth in this film. You half expect him to turn into one of the literal cartoons Cosmatos utilizes, but I guess a human caricature is close enough. 

Does trash like MANDY deserve all of the arthouse window-dressing applied to it? No, not if it's going to become a joke with a third of the film left. Its rich imagery may help it stand out in the cinema landscape, but such application is way too artsy-fartsy for what's going on here. At one point, while being stabbed in the chest, Red bellows at his tormentor, "Hey! That's my favorite shirt!!" With lines like that making it into the final edit, I'd hate to see what was left on the cutting room floor.

Let's just hope that for his next project, Cosmatos finds a worthier script for him to apply his considerable talents to. He may have polished MANDY to a high sheen, but no matter how bright and shimmering it may be, the thing is still a turd.

Friday, September 21, 2018

"LIZZIE" PAINTS A COMPELLING #MeToo PORTRAIT OF LIZZIE BORDEN IN 1892


The new period thriller LIZZIE is a fresh retelling of the infamous Lizzie Borden murder case and it benefits enormously from the timing of its release. The 1892 story about two women - Lizzie and the family maid Bridget Sullivan – being treated horribly by the male hierarchy and their ultimate revenge against it, can be seen anew through the lens of the contemporary #MeToo Movement. Additionally, the film’s opening date is in the week all the news broke about Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford. Clearly, the fight for the right to be heard and treated fairly remains the same for women, be it today or 126 years ago.

Telling Lizzie’s story has been a passion project of actress Chloe Sevigny for years. She famously posted pics online after visiting the Borden house, now a tourist attraction in Fall River, Massachusetts, and has talked to the press repeatedly about the subject. Sevigny is the star here playing the title role and one of the main producers as well. She hired her friend Bryce Kass to pen the script and worked hand-in-hand with director Craig William Macneill to bring this to the big screen. Her efforts were not for naught as LIZZIE is a not only a taut nail-biter but a vivid character study showcasing the actress’ best screen work to date. 

The film wisely doesn’t overplay the luridness of the murders. (They’re gross enough even in concept.) Instead, the movie focuses on the motives that were behind those crimes. The bodies of Andrew and Abby Borden (Jamey Sheridan and Fiona Shaw) were discovered the morning of August 4, 1892, heads stove in by repeated ax blows. It looked to be the work of a madman, but the 90-minute downtime between killings as determined by the coroner’s report, pointed to the murderer being someone in the house. The only two there at the time were Lizzie (Sevigny) and Bridget (Kristen Stewart). Further implicating Lizzie was her well-known hatred of her father and stepmother throughout the community. 


Many others hated Andrew too, as he was a ruthless and corrupt businessman who ruled over all with an iron fist, but Lizzie was quickly became the prime suspect. She despised the fact that her father was a cheap S.O.B., one who forced his clan to penny-pinch at every turn even though they were one of the richest families in the state. She also hated his control of her and his sexist nature. Thus, Lizzie acted out towards him often in ways that were ahead of her time. She not only challenged his command but would often steal money from his bureau as well. 

Unlike previous screen adaptations of the story, including the terrific TV-movie from 1975 starring Elizabeth Montgomery, and the not-so-terrific Lifetime movie starring Christina Ricci from 2014, Lizzie is presented here as a more rational and sympathetic character. Sevigny plays the put-upon women with a world-weary fatigue that’s palpable. She’s a woman sickened by the male hierarchy oppressing her at every turn. Her father is a smug bully, and her snide uncle John (Denis O’Hare) impugns her at every turn. These are the facts that drive the story, not those from the investigative work done by the police or the courtroom theatrics that came with Lizzie’s trial. The film is all about Lizzie’s oppression and her inevitable moves against it. 


Bridget was treated just as horribly by the men around her. She was not only called “Maggie”, a dismissive Irish cliché, by both Andrew and Abby, but she was overworked by them to the point of exhaustion. Criminologists believe that Bridget may have been repeatedly raped by Andrew too, as he was known for adultery and using women in such a way. Some of the scariest scenes in the film are when Andrew preys upon Bridget at night, his feet on the creaking floorboards announcing his monstrous visits. 

Throughout all of the pain dispensed to both Lizzie and Bridget throughout the story, the camera stays intensely close to the two actress’ faces. We see how every slur and infraction wounds them up close in raw, vivid close-ups. The two characters are often filmed at the edges of the frame too as if to suggest their utter marginalization. The only fragments of joy they experience are quiet bonding moments with each other and the camera lingers on their affections. In fact, only when the two characters are together, do they ever hold the center of the frame.  

Cinematographer Noah Greenberg frames the film to give it a more contemporary flavor too. His lens’ enhance the claustrophobic feel of the rooms in the house, virtually closing in on the two women from all sides. Even the grooming works to give the film modernity, like the removing of Andrew’s beard. In real life, the old man wore one akin to Lincoln’s, but here he is clean-shaven. Sheridan’s mug could pass for that of any self-satisfied CEO adorning the cover of Fortune magazine. 


The script is deft and brief with its dialogue, preferring to let the two actresses fill in most of their performances in between the lines. That works especially well for Stewart who proves once again to be one of our most physical of actresses. Her eyes convey pools of pain and disappointment in every scene, and she stands in continual conflict, her body hunched and looking down subserviently, yet leaning forward as if to run away. 

The scenes between Lizzie and Bridget are both sweet and sensual. Borden teaches her maid how to read, and they share secrets together in the shed out back. One morning, as Bridget buttons Lizzie into her elaborate clothing, the maid’s fingers all but caress her mistress. Soon after, their affection for each other turns them into lovers. Yet, even here, the film shows remarkable restraint, not lingering on where their hands go, but rather, on the emancipation in their faces. 

Of course, the scenes where Lizzie and Bridget finally exact their revenge plays like gangbusters. It is both shocking and cathartic, for their characters, as well as the audience. The movie’s single greatest shot might very well be the camera pan across Abby’s bedroom to discover Lizzie waiting in the corner, ax in hand, ready to strike. How Lizzie is ‘dressed’ makes it all the more incredible. 

The film does miss some elements worth exploring. Lizzie’s older sister Emma (Kim Dickens) barely registers here despite being a key ally of Lizzie’s in reality. Abby, despite the great Shaw playing her, also doesn’t come off as strong as she should. Lizzie’s changing story could have been shown to show her caginess and heighten her vulnerability even after her tormentors were gone. And ignoring the trial altogether hinders the film from showcasing some vivid theatrical moments, like when the prosecutor struck the skulls with an ax in front of the jury and made the press go wild. Still, there’s plenty here to keep the audience enthralled.

In the end, LIZZIE doesn’t quite exonerate the two women, but it certainly creates more than enough sympathy and empathy for both of them. The film clearly suggests that if Lizzie Borden’s revenge was indeed murder, her striking back was a way of leveling the playing field. She stopped those who were slowly but surely killing her. For her persecutors, it was clearly #TimesUp.

Friday, September 14, 2018

VILLAINY LOOKS GOOD ON BLAKE LIVELY IN THE NEW THRILLER "A SIMPLE FAVOR"

Original caricature by Jeff York of Blake Lively in A SIMPLE FAVOR. (copyright 2018)
Back in the 90's, Jeremy Irons stopped trying to be a leading man and became a much more interesting actor by essaying villainy. Hugh Grant may have just reached a career zenith this year by playing two bad guys - one in PADDINGTON 2, the other in BBC One’s A VERY ENGLISH SCANDAL. Now, Blake Lively gives her best screen performance to date in A SIMPLE FAVOR by shaking off her California girl heroine cloak. She makes for one delicious scoundrel and elevates the uneven film every time she's on screen.

Lively is just that, as a matter of fact, full of brio in her performance as Emily Nelson, the vixen at the center of A SIMPLE FAVOR. Emily’s a Hitchcockian blonde in this potboiler that owes a lot to the Master of Suspense, not to mention Gillian Flynn and Agatha Christie. She’s brash, profane, a real man-eater; the kind of character that only exists in the movies. Emily throws back martinis, invites men to a have sex in public restrooms, and takes the piss out of anyone who gets in her way. It’s a tall order to play such a femme fatale, but Lively eschews all of her ‘girl next door’ aesthetic to completely fill the part. Even her fashionista wardrobe, one of the most memorable collections ever worn by an actress onscreen, can't overpower Lively’s brazen turn. Hers is one of the year’s best performances, and if there’s a God, should garner her a Best Supporting Actress nomination come Oscar time. 

In the story, Emily rules over her domain. She's a high-powered PR whiz for a fashion house, as well as one-half of a gorgeous power couple. Henry Golding, fresh off of his success in CRAZY RICH ASIANS, plays Sean Townsend, her famed author of a husband. They live in a home straight out of Architectural Digest and still ignite sexual electricity whenever they’re in a room together. Emily appears to have it all, but her husband’s written out, their lavish lifestyle is causing debt, and she’s not particularly good at mothering. When Emily shows up at school in the pouring rain to pick up her son Nicky (Ian Ho), she’s in four-inch heels and a customized suit that says, “Don’t touch.”. Her style and blunt demeanor both attract and repel super mom Stephanie Smothers (Anna Kendrick). Her son Miles (Joshua Satine) is Nicky’s best friend, and it forces her to deal with Emily.

Stephanie lives up to her last name as she’s a textbook case of the overbearing, ingratiating, do-it-all single mom. (Imagine Martha Stewart and Mr. Rogers had a love child.) The other mothers despise her perky manner, not to mention her weekly "mommy vlog" where she tells viewers exactly how to parent. Emily finds her a curiosity and invites her to her lush pad for drinks in the middle of the afternoon. 

They end up hitting it off, and soon the two are sharing all sorts of gossip and secrets. Emily brags of a recent threesome, and she cajoles Stephanie into confessing that she had sex with her stepbrother after her father’s funeral. Theirs is a strange friendship, one where Emily affectionately calls Stephanie, “Brother F**ker.”


Soon, Stephanie is thick as thieves with Emily, becoming a fixture in her life and home. But then, Emily disappears, and it turns everyone’s world upside down. Updates of her disappearance become a regular feature of Stephanie’s vlog, and she spends more time playing “Nancy Drew” as she tries to discover what happened to her new BFF. Suffice it to say, what Steph discovers about Emily is quite unsavory, but to tell more would be to give away too many of the outrageous twists and turns awaiting the second half of the story. 

Outrageous is indeed the word to describe A SIMPLE FAVOR as the longer it goes on, the more over-the-top it sails, to the point of becoming not only a dark comedy but almost, a satire of sexy thrillers from the 80’s and 90’s. (You can see the heavy influences of films like BODY HEAT and BASIC INSTINCT throughout.) Sure, the movie starts out playing Jean Paul Keller’s bombastic French take on “Music to Watch Girls By” over the frenetic credits, and Kendrick’s performance is pitched a number of notches above her neurotic comedy on display in the PITCH PERFECT trilogy, but there’s a seriousness to the film that supersedes it. 

But as the mystery deepens, much of the comedy becomes too strong. Director Paul Feig comes from that world, and Jessica Sharzer’s script, based on the novel by Darcey Bell, certainly pokes acidic fun at the suburbs, the fashion world, and even rubes in ‘burgs who always figure in the hidden pasts of guilty parties, but they let this pulp overcook.

There are a ton of farcical laughs, some that really have no place in a movie with disturbing themes of drug addiction, patricide, and arson. At one point, a character is hit by a speeding car, and it’s shot virtually in the same way that Regina George got plowed over by the bus in the comedy MEAN GIRLS. It seems ludicrous here. The tonal shifts are head-scratchers, as is the ever-increasing series of flamboyant twists and turns in the plotting. It’s fun, but some discretion would’ve served it all better.

The story of someone like Emily should disturb. The film starts to explore her sociopathic psyche and could’ve showcased how her deceit truly ruins all that she touches. Lively stays committed to that portrayal, even when the film starts to undermine her in the last 30 minutes. If only Feig had dialed it all down, keeping Kendrick’s mannerisms in check and pulling back on too many kitschy selections on the soundtrack. Then his film might’ve been a classic in the genre. Instead, it’s a bauble of a movie, just dark enough to be edgy, just frivolous enough to be weightless. But at least he’s got that marvelous performance from Lively anchoring it all. Her character is outrageous enough, it’s too bad the film felt the need to match her. 

Friday, August 31, 2018

“MADELINE’S MADELINE” PLUMBS THE DEPTHS OF ACTING AND COMING OF AGE


The new indie character study MADELINE’S MADELINE opens this weekend at The Music Box theater, as well as other arthouses throughout the nation, and it is not for the faint of heart. It’s an intense, intimate portrait of what it’s like to be a young and talented actress, as well as a teen caught between two passive-aggressive mother figures. The film is a snapshot of a few days in Madeline's life while she's taking an improvisational acting class. Her quest is to find the truth in her work as well as find out more about herself as well. As both actress and teen, Madeline is a girl on the brink, chock full of verve, and fraught with emotion. Madeline’s journey is both exhilarating and more than a bit disturbing. At times, it almost feels like psychological horror, and it makes this no run-of-the-mill coming of age film.

Madeline (Helena Howard) is not quite a high school senior in New York City, but she’s one with a maturity of talent that is already drawing the eye of the drama community. What makes her so exceptional? Madeline is one very open, intuitive and expressive performer. She’s strong in voice and almost dancer-like in her body movement and control. Trying to mold her into something truly remarkable is Evangeline (Mollie Parker), the director of her improv class. Evangeline’s methods are similar to Madeline’s talent. They’re big and bold too, grabbing onto the work with two fists. Evangeline is actually a bit too extroverted in her methods, regularly overstepping her bounds as both an instructor and mother figure. She wants to get under the skin of her pupils, becoming their friend, life coach, and even muse.  

Such attention is catnip to someone like Madeline who needs the petting and strokes that she’s not getting at home from her narcissist mother Regina (Miranda July). Instead, the high-strung woman badgers and bewilders her daughter with her insecure motherly style. She's so self-absorbed that when Madeline pulls a harmless prank, Regina makes her sit in the car and chew over in for a long and painful time-out. It's as excruciating for the audience to watch as it is for the young girl to sit idle in the car as her mother goes on and on with her bereavement.  

Both Evangeline and Regina are not only smothering in their manner, but they seem to be on a mission to manage Madeline's body, mind, and soul from her. Thus, who will truly lay claim to the teen? Will she be Madeline’s Madeline, or someone else's to push around and control? (Hence, the film's clever title.)

Helena Howard as Madeline.
Madeline does find a certain solace in her acting class, if only because everyone else there is a fellow traveler on a journey of self-discovery too. The young woman is able to express herself without editing there, and it emboldens her. Evangeline may push her hard but Madeline feeds off of it. Unfortunately, is ravaging her and the girl is starting to crack. 

Evangeline’s motives may be that of a teacher or a jealous has-been, and it’s to Parker’s credit as an actress that we don’t know exactly how to read her character. Madeline is unsure too, and it draws us closer into the struggles of the teen. We can see the effect all of the self-examination of acting is having on Madeline, and some of it is funny, other parts, horrifying. Watching the girl act like a cat in class, and at home, is both funny and frightening. There seems to be a very thin line between method acting and insanity within Madeline. 

In some respects, the movie could almost be interpreted as a dark comedy, a scathing indictment of the Stanislavski System of teaching acting as "emersion and using an actor’s conscious thought and will in order to activate other, less-controllable psychological processes like memory or subconscious behavior." The angst, pain, and sweat we see Evangeline pulling out of all of her actors may seem utterly ridiculous to the layman, comical in the class's deadly serious take on it all. Evangeline is the kind of earnest and dedicated teacher that the character Diana Morales from A CHORUS LINE wouldn’t like any better than Mr. Karp. 

But for anyone who thinks that acting is merely reciting lines and avoiding bumping into furniture, this film eradicates such naivete. Director Josephine Decker and co-screenwriter Donna Di Novelli have created a film that is as intense a workout for the audience as it is for those in Evangeline’s class. It’s raw and unblinking in its portrayal of the craft, at times playing like a fever dream that's chock full of hallucinatory images. 

The filmmakers put us in Madeline’s head so vividly, some in the movie theater may not be able to handle it. Her brain is a scary place. But then, who wouldn’t be a little off their rocker being forced to sleep and breathe the demands of such a teacher as Evangeline who wants her pupils to crawl on their bellies pantomiming animals, screaming vocal exercises at the top of their lungs, and extemporizing on the spot their most intimate and personal fears and histories. Acting, the film is telling in scene after painful scene, ain’t for sissies. Creation is always hard work, especially when you're working on creating yourself.

The actors all do intense and moving work, so real, so raw. Both Parker and July turn their flawed characters into people who are both repulsive and sympathetic. Their characters' fears of aging, losing relevance, and being unloved is present in all they say and do here. Each deserves Best Supporting Actress attention come awards time. 

Howard as the lead is something truly remarkable to behold. At times, her Madeline is so fierce and obnoxious, you want to look away. At other moments, she is as fragile as rice paper, and you want to reach into the screen and give her a hug. Howard's is a performance that paints in a vast palate of color, and she's not afraid of the darker ones. Rare is the young actress who can do all that she does here. It is a brave, uncompromising, and unforgettable performance. 

Helena Howard and Mollie Parker
As Evangeline works to break down all the walls around Madeline, the girl continues to get more than she bargained for. Digging so deep unleashes her darker and more dangerous impulses. Madeline starts to become volatile and moody, acting out ravaging moments of rage, sorrow, and even promiscuity. At a party at Evangeline's home, Madeline is forced to act in front of all the guests by the hostess. It shows her teacher's need to call the shots at each juncture, but is Madeline also acting when she brazenly comes onto Evangeline’s unsuspecting husband, or just trying to pay back Evangeline's bravado? The film doesn’t tell us for certain, and that makes the film all the more complex. Can we actually believe all that Madeline is doing, or is she just acting? Is she losing it, or is just being theatrical? Probably some of both.

Her terrors get dialed up when Evangeline inexplicably invites Regina to class. The envious mom delights in the limelight and it drives Madeline crazy. Is Evangeline pushing her to get her to share even more, or is she punishing her for being too talented and desperately attempting to bring her down a peg? No matter, as Madeline becomes more and more hideous in her acting out, one is reminded that Mary Shelley taught us that the true monster is always the creator, not its creation.  

Miranda July
To that point, Decker may have indeed pushed her character story into a horrifying cautionary tale about the limits of molding clay into art. It is an edgy work, full of artistry and passion, raw and unrefined, just like Madeline. It's strange, scary, funny, and moving, and perhaps the year's most fascinating mind-f**k of a film. A lot like Evangeline's class in actuality. Tread cautiously.  

Thursday, August 30, 2018

THE SCI-FI ADVENTURE "KIN" JUMBLES GENRES AND TONES INTO ONE MESSY MIX


The new film KIN wants to be many things: a sci-fi fantasy, a road trip comedy, a coming-of-age story, and a brutal actioner. At times, it succeeds in individually essaying all of them, but taken as a whole, the film is quite a mess. One minute it wants its audience to mourn the violent murder of a main character, and a few minutes later, laugh at how another one ineptly lies to cover up that death. The movie wants us to flinch at gang brutality, but cheer when a 14-year-old incinerates criminals with his interstellar firearm. It veers from one genre to the next, failing to find a consistent tone throughout. Painting too many colors together always achieves mud. The same goes for filmmaking. 

It’s a shame really because much of KIN is done with a sure hand. There’s a taut feeling of dread built up in the first half hour as the dynamics are established between the main characters. Blue collar dad Hal Solinsky (Dennis Quaid) has his hands full with his adopted African-American teen Eli (Myles Truitt). Eli gets into fights at school with his harassers, and he sneaks off at odd hours to collect scrap from an abandoned building to earn walking-around money. Their relationship is so strained that the child doesn’t even share the news of the alien massacre he’s discovered in the old warehouse, let alone the space man’s weapon he lifted from the carnage.

Things get worse in the house when Hal’s adult son Jimmy (Jack Reynor) returns home from a lengthy stint in prison. Before he even finishes his first home-cooked meal in over five years, the ex-con is rushing off to meet with gang leader Taylor Balik (James Franco). He owes the heavily tatted thug 60K and is coerced into robbing his old man’s work safe to settle the debt. Of course, Hal walks in on the in-progress robbery and is shot dead for his snooping. In the fracas, Jimmy takes out Balik’s brother and wounds a few of his other men and becomes a fugitive all over again. 

That first act suggests that KIN is going to be a crackling crime thriller with sci-fi overtones, but the movie quickly veers off the rails, never to fully recover. Jimmy grabs Eli, and they hit the road on the run from Balik and his gang. The older brother lies to his step-sibling, telling him they’re going to Tahoe to meet up with dad for a family vacation, and the youngster buys it all too quickly. Soon after, Jimmy is glibly serving as Eli’s tour guide through the teen’s rites of passage. They yak it up in a diner, bond overnight at a cheap motel, urinate on the side of the road together, and stop to get their jollies at a strip club.

It's been less than 2 days since Jimmy saw his dad gunned down, and he took a life himself, but it seems all that washed off his back with the morning shower. Jimmy may look like a pretty-boy hood, almost too angelic with his baby blues, but he must have hardened something fierce in jail. What other reason could there possibly be for him to tow a 14-year-old into a sleazy strip club and pay stripper Milly (Zoe Kravitz) gobs of money to flirt with both of them? That scene's tin-eared tone belies all the seriousness that has gone before it and plays as little more than a crass attempt to elicit laughs or to sex up the plot for an older audience. 

Soon, the boys' shenanigans become almost unwatchable. Not only does Eli stop the brawl Jimmy’s started in the club by hauling out his space gun and blasting away, but soon they’re off to the races with Milly as they stop to rob an underground poker game with the weapon. These hijinks are played for laughs, and the utter inappropriateness of Eli wielding such a firearm turns this into unintentional farce. The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with an intergalactic laser cannon.

Filmmaker twins Jonathan Baker and Josh Baker elicit excellent performances from Truitt and Kravitz, and she wisely underplays her “hooker with a heart of gold” cliché, but Quaid and Franco are both allowed to chew the scenery. The brothers certainly know how to create nifty special effects with the two aliens tracking Eli on hyper-speed motorcycles while using a heat-imaging alien GPS do-dad. Unfortunately, the Baker’s story takes a Baker’s dozen of ideas from a lot of obvious source material with very mixed results. There are nods to STRANGER THINGS, THE TERMINATOR, STARMAN, and MIDNIGHT RUN, not to mention a slew of other road movies in the telling, but the story never finds a singular tone to stick with. 

Studios long for quadrant films - productions that appeal to men and women, aged over and under 25 - but this movie tries to appeal to all of them by mixing up too many genres and far too many tones. KIN is much too “kiddie” for adults and way too violent to qualify as family fare. It’s flippant and smarmy, not helped by Reynor’s playing cute throughout. By the end, it even tries to become a cautionary tale as one of the aliens, played by a surprise big-name cameo, lectures Eli about destiny and honor. The ending even cynically sets up an obvious path to a sequel, but what film doesn’t want to be a franchise these days? KIN could have been a serious-minded sci-fi adventure with an emphasis on the limits of a lawless life. Instead, its most persuasive argument seems to be that crime and murder are pretty cool if you’re the one wielding the ray-gun.

Monday, August 27, 2018

"OPERATION FINALE" NOBLY BUT TEPIDLY TELLS OF THE CAPTURE OF ESCAPED NAZI ADOLF EICHMANN

Original caricature by Jeff York of Ben Kingsley and Oscar Isaac in OPERATION FINALE (copyright 2018).
The story of the capture of famed Nazi Adolf Eichmann is an inherently dramatic one. The architect of “The Final Solution,” the Third Reich plan to exterminate all the Jews during WWII, managed to escape an American prison camp after the war and migrate to Argentina. There, the fugitive thrived under the name “Ricardo Klement” for years until Jewish intelligence officers nabbed him in 1960 and took him back to Israel to stand trial for his war crimes. The moniker for that mission was “Operation Finale,” and so is the name of this new major motion picture based on those events. Like the operation itself, the film is incredibly noble, even if it fails to cut as deeply as it could.

After the war ended, Peter Malkin (Oscar Isaac) was a Mossad officer whose mission was to hunt down escaped Nazi’s and exterminate them with extreme prejudice. In the opening moments of the movie, he and his men find one Nazi who’s evaded capture and kill him, even though he’s not the precise culprit they were looking for. Malkin is haunted by such mistakes, not to mention the death of his sister Fruma (Rita Pauls) and her three children and the hands of SS officers during the war, and it makes him a more moral crusader. 

Despite Malkin’s aversion to all the killing as part of his job, his vocation excites him when given the opportunity to fly to Argentina to help apprehend the fugitive Eichmann. Intel reports indicate the former Nazi is hiding there in plain sight, working as a foreman at a Mercedes Benz plants. (German cars, of course.) The intel comes from an unusual source, a teen who’s dating Eichmann’s son. Sylvia Hermann (Haley Lu Richardson) is living in Argentina with her blind German Jew father Lothar (Peter Strauss) when she realizes that her handsome suitor Klaus (Joe Alwyn) is not only a closeted Nazi but also the son of the Nazi legend Eichmann. She bravely contacts the Israel embassy, and soon a Massad team is assembled to carry out a seize and capture mission.

Malkin joins a handful of other elite agents and even persuades his ex-girlfriend Dr. Hanna Elian (Melanie Laurent) to join them. She too is more than a little gun-shy about such kidnapping missions as her previous one turned into a debacle when her hypodermic failed to keep the prisoner sedated. Still, this is a chance to get Eichmann, so she reluctantly joins the crew despite her misgivings. Other key members of the ensuing raid include intelligence officer Rafi Eitan (Nick Kroll) and lead interrogator Zvi Aharoni (Michael Aronov).

As the team arrives in Argentina, screenwriter Matthew Orton and director Chris Weitz ensure the mission starts with crackling tension and verve. The intelligence officers make a brazenly bold move in employing Sylvia to help them positively ID Eichmann, and the young woman bravely walks into the lion’s den. She visits the home of Klaus while agents wait outside, cameras ready, hoping to get a glimpse of Eichmann. She manages to lure both her boyfriend and his father out of the house, and you fear for her discovery every second of the best scene in the film. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t a scene that comes close to matching it afterward. The tension percolates along at a decent boil, but the actions never seem to genuinely touch the hem of danger again. Even worse, what appeared to be the climax of the film in the trailer – the moment they snatch Eichmann – plays out smack dab in the middle of the narrative. Malkin and his team grab the bespectacled man on the road upon his return home from work, but the scene gets wholly rushed. Before they barely make eye contact, Malkin is wrestling Eichmann to the ground. They roll around in the ditch as Malkin tries to keep Eichmann from screaming for help, but the fight doesn’t seem nearly visceral enough. Then eyeglasses are lost, syringes are dropped (Again, Hanna?), and scuffle noises arouse the suspicions of Eichmann’s wife Vera (Greta Scacchi). Yet, it’s all gone in a flash, and it becomes the first of the film’s significant miscalculations. 

A director like Brian De Palma would’ve utilized ultra-slow-motion in such a scene, maximizing every blink of the eyes as Malkin calmly approached Eichmann on that road before his attack. One like Martin Scorsese would’ve made that fight in the ditch so vicious that both men would be wholly shaken by it, not to mention the trembling audience in the Cineplex. But Weitz, he shoots it all far too matter-of-fact, almost as if it’s an 80’s TV-movie. His direction is competent, but never truly elevates the material.

Once the intelligence agents have Eichmann in their safehouse, the drama merely putters along. The team has to sit and wait while Israel and El Al Airlines (the Israel carrier) piddle around with the politics of timing to get them out of Argentina. That means the officers have a lot of time to get to know their prisoner, but not enough comes of it. Malkin is portrayed as an earnest social justice warrior, willing to try new things to extract a signature needed from Eichmann on documentation, but the rest of the agents are ciphers.

Nick Kroll brought a wry sense to every scene he had in a similar role in the moving LOVING two years ago, but the script never makes hay of his comic skills. Even stranger is that Weitz, the director of the modern comedy classic AMERICAN PIE, would let such an opportunity slip. Laurent’s character does little except fulfilling “the girl role,” as she stands around with precious little to do. There’s not even any heat exhibited between her and the equally attractive Isaac. Even Aronov gets only a few scant lines to convey his wily interrogator and seems mostly distinguished by the fact that the actor looks too much like Kingsley.

As for Sir Ben, he brings all the haughty dignity to his devil as you’d expect, making the most of the few times he gets to actually speak. When he expresses sympathy to Malkin about the history of Fruma, Kingsley subtly lets us see the machinations of his evil mind as he stores it to be used later to his advantage. When that moment arrives, with Eichmann taunting Malkin, the cat and mouse way this whole movie could’ve gone becomes readily apparent, but Orton’s script is too reverential to history and also arms’ length from creating such necessary onscreen dramatics. 

The climax attempts to turn the team’s escape to the airport with the Nazi’s in hot pursuit into a breathless chase like that in ARGO, but it feels like a rip-off. If the filmmakers here were going to borrow a page from any other film's playbook, they should’ve taken a look at 70’s Nazi-themed potboilers like MARATHON MAN and THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL. The themes of WWII were never treated casually there, but those movies popped with verve and vitriol. (Alexandre Desplat’s score tries to emulate that feel, but his hyperbolic score doesn’t match the rest of the soft material here.) OPERATION FINALE may be admirable and noble, but so are the documentaries on A & E. This one needed to be more than just a good history lesson. It needed to be a great thriller.  

Monday, August 20, 2018

BACK TO SCHOOL WITH TWO FILMS ABOUT EDUCATION TRYING TO MAKE THE GRADE

Original caricature by Jeff York of Chloe Grace Moretz in THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST.
(copyright 2018)

It’s back-to-school time and, not surprisingly, there are a couple of new movies in theaters that deal with the theme of education. One passes assuredly, while the other utterly fails. Of course, neither can hold a candle to the sublime achievement that Bo Burnham’s film EIGHTH GRADE is, and it’s still playing in theaters. However, here's the report card on these two new ones with similar themes. 

THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST

There are two big releases about the dangers of “gay convergence” therapy due this year. Director Joel Edgerton’s BOY ERASED comes out this fall and boasts the star power of Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe. Director Desiree Akhavan's film THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, written with Cecilia Fruegiuele, opened on August 3rd with little fanfare, but it did manage to pull off a surprise win of the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival this past winter. It stars Chloe Grace Moretz in a subtle and calculating performance that will likely be forgotten come awards-time, but it may be her finest performance to date, this side of "Hit Girl" in 2010's KICK-ASS.

Moretz plays the title character, and Cameron's story takes place in Montana, circa 1993. As the film starts, the comely teen is bored with her boyfriend Jamie (Dalton Harrod). They're all but sleepwalking through the rituals and forced machinations of their high school prom. During a dance with her friend Coley (Quinn Shepherd), it's clear that Cameron's romantic leanings lie with her. Soon, they’re trysting in Jamie’s car, when he discovers them, and it turns into a community scandal for Cameron.

Her religious aunt Ruth (Kerry Butler), who has taken over her parenting, completely freaks out and soon is packing Cameron away to a remote gay conversion therapy center called God’s Promise. There, the teen will join other kids with similar stories, and they'll all be schooled by Reverend Rick (John Gallagher, Jr.) and Dr. Lydia Marsh (Jennifer Ehle). Rick used to be a homosexual himself and urges them to give it to God's righteous plan for men to be men and women to be women. Marsh's motivations aren't spelled out, and it's a wise choice for the filmmakers to keep this tough cookie so enigmatic.

Akhavan and Fruegiule’s script surrounds Cameron with a small group of teens, each of whom has their own approach to surviving the camp. Helen (Melanie Ehrlich) earnestly gives the conversion therapy her all, feeling great shame for lusting after a fellow soprano in her church choir back home. Mark (Owen Campbell) is nervous about each move he makes at the camp, fearing his strict father's instructions to "be more masculine." Jane (Sasha Lane) is too-cool-for-school and regards all of it in her arms' length manner. Adam (Forrest Goodluck) sticks close by, breaking the rules where he can. He keeps his hair bushy, much to the irritation of the controlling Marsh, and sneaks away with Jane to smoke marijuana. 

Chloe Grace Moretz, Sasha Lane and Forrest Goodluck in the film.
Cameron’s roommate Erin (Emily Skeggs), a Vikings football-obsessed lesbian, tries too hard to fit in, but it's a strain on her. As soon as she meets Cam, she is all but smitten with her. Erin is boyish and is apparently attracted to the lush feminity of the new girl. Kudos to the filmmakers here for reckoning that Moretz conveys sexuality readily on-camera and running with it. This is not one of the virginal characters Moretz has often played, but a knowing young woman. 

In the prom scene in the car with Coley, and in a flashback showing how she first made love with her friend, Cameron is thrilled with the feelings she's having and doesn't shirt away from exuding her passions. No shrinking violet is she, and part of the intrigue of the film is in how Cameron will skirt around the conversion exercises to be true to herself. The savvy young lady plays along with the counselors just enough to escape their ire, all the while angling for ways to get out from under their oppressive thumbs. 

If anything, Cameron may be too crafty for the good of the story. She seems to be two steps ahead of most everyone throughout, be they student or teacher. Cameron's wise too, never becoming too chatty or wearing her emotions blatantly on her sleeve. Instead, most everything she does is played close to the vest as she is definitely the smartest person in the room. Moretz seems to relish in taking her time to react to those whom the actress is playing off too. She and Akhavan let Cameron tell the audience with her eyes what she thinks before she speaks, and often her true feelings don't match her calculating words. It’s particularly useful when the teen goes toe-to-toe with the commanding Marsh. Marsh thinks she's the master chess player but is almost always outmatched.

Emily Skeggs.
Cameron may be a smart cookie, but she’s not arrogant. Instead, the girl exudes empathy to friend and foe alike. After a lustful Erin wiles her way into Cameron’s bed and immediately pulls away after they orgasm together, the more experienced girl doesn’t put her down. Instead, Cameron expresses compassion for the guilty Erin. The same happens after a catastrophe at school shakes the core beliefs of Reverend Rick. Cameron shrewdly points out that he’s as lost as those he’s trying to convert, “making it up as they go along,” but she’s not vicious about it. She comforts him more than he was supposed to for her.

Throughout THE MISEDUCATION OF CAMERON POST, the story zigs where most would zag. The teens, by and large, aren't all that lost, and those like Cam and Jane act mature and crafty at every turn. The film never shouts, is deliberately paced, and confidently lobbies for the LGBTQ community without ever sermonizing. If there is any fault in the movie, it’s that Cameron, Jane and a few of the others exhibit too much control in their comings and goings. The film may have missed an opportunity to remind us of the caste system where children don't have the rights as adults, and could not come and go nearly as smoothly as they do here. Kids gain access to all parts of the complex, Cameron jogs alone everywhere and even exercises with Erin without adult supervision. They feed themselves in the mess hall too. Would they genuinely have that much access and independence? 

Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to show that these kids are not a mess and do not need to be trifled with on any level. That’s an understandable choice to show the audience that being gay is far from a sin, but at times, such conviction undercuts the drama. Cameron never seems to be backed into a corner, and her loneliest moments are of the kind that most teens would feel away from home. Cameron walks into the camp knowing exactly who she is and determines rather quickly that no one is going to screw with that awareness. It may not be the best for character arcs, but it sure gives a hearty middle finger to those who try to use Christianity to suffer the children.


DOWN A DARK HALL 

Horror movies that place surly teen girls in suspect schools are as old as the genre itself.  Rodrigo Cortes’ DOWN A DARK HALL doesn’t even try to live up to classics like Dario Argento’s SUSPIRIA (1977) or cult classics like Graeme Revell’s THE CRAFT (1996). Hell, it barely can hold a flickering candle to the 1973 TV-movie SATAN’S SCHOOL FOR GIRLS. What exactly it’s trying to do remains a mystery even after seeing it. Its story is incoherent. Accomplished stars like Uma Thurman, AnnaSophia Robb, and Isabelle Fuhrman have thinly written characters to play. And despite a lot of money being sunk into a ginormous, Gothic mansion setting, most of the film fails to bring any of its interiors to genuinely terrifying life. Instead, the whole movie is shot so darkly, it begs the question if the production was limited in such sets. The less light, the less we see of how little is really there. Sadly, that could be a metaphor for the entire venture.

The film starts, as these films always do, with the heroine being introduced as a misunderstood troublemaker. Kit Gordy (Robb) may have started an errant fire, but she’s no arsonist, as she pleads to the authorities. Still, to avoid jail time, she’s carted off to a unique educational institution that will straighten out her penchant for mischief. 

Soon, her parents are driving Kit to this new school and once there, they all discover that it looks like Wayne Manor crossed with Disney's Haunted Mansion. Kit, with her bright, strawberry blonde hair meets the raven-do'ed Madame Duret (Uma Thurman) and her truculent assistant Mrs. Olonsky (Rebecca Front). Thurman's headmistress struggles with a haughty,  unconvincing European accent throughout, but she's trying to have fun at least. Thurman's performance is just this side of camp, and one wonders if she took the role as a chance to stretch or maybe it was the best thing she was offered last year. 

Kit also meets the rest of the teaching staff and takes an instant shine to Jules (Noah Silver), Duret's hunky son. He's the private school's music teacher, and before you could play four bars of Rachmaninoff, he's giving Kit the bedroom eyes as her soon-to-be love interest.

Uma Thurman in the film.
The next day, the rest of the bad girls arrive, and they're accompanied by more attitude than luggage. Veronica (Victoria Moroles) is all surly lines and furrowed brow, but at least she has some personality. Ashley, Sierra, and Izzy (played respectively by Taylor Russell, Rosie Day, and Fuhrman) seem mostly distinguishable by their hair color. It’s a real shame that the film couldn’t make better use out of Fuhrman. She was incredible in the 2009 horror film ESTHER and deserves shrewder offerings than such an under-baked role as here. Even her character’s name suggests little thought - it’s her own name! 

As the girls start their studies, Madame Duret espouses gobbledygook about one's purpose and claiming your talent, but it’s malarky. Soon, each of the girls will excel in just one of their classes - Izzy shows brilliance in math, Ashley is a whiz at prose, and  Kit displays the talent of a piano virtuoso. Not too shabby for a girl who gave it up after only a couple years' worth of lesson as a child. 

The fervor in which the students quickly became A students in their chosen fields is shot with energy and panache by cinematographer Jarin Blaschke. His camera swirls around them, tracking left and right as they show off their talents. It’s an apt metaphor for their unbridled enthusiasm at discovering something that gives them purpose, but soon it seems that the script doesn't really know what to do with these girls. Their characters go from distinguishable by hair color to only identifiable by their individual talents.  

Before the reveal as to how these girls suddenly are such prodigies, the film wastes a lot of time chasing down dark hallways and false scares and other distractions. There’s some sort of demon creature haunting the place, but what is he and what's his motivation? The film could've used such time to build characters, but everyone is two-dimensional at best, and we never become genuinely invested in anyone. 

Even when students and teachers eat together each night, there's precious little dialogue that would illuminate any of those in the school. Instead, what little chattiness present is covered by Madame Duret as he jabbers on cryptically about commitment to craft. She sounds like a dull, college pamphlet at times, not someone who should be threatening and terrifying, as the evil woman running this awful place. Thurman barely suggests the menace that one of her eyebrows arching did in her two KILL BILL films. Maybe she realized the script is a dog, no matter how much she was paid to do it.

By the last 30 minutes, director Cortez pulls out all the stops, clogging his frame with scores of ghosts, a hellacious fire, and more blathering by the desperate Duret. Yet dark halls, Gothic mansions, and ghosts milling about do not a horror movie make. They are window dressing. Where's the cogent, meaningful story? There isn't one, and unfortunately, this one flunks out quite spectacularly.