An exploitation thriller with feminist overtones — ala “I Spit on Your Grave,” but nowhere nearly as gutsy — “Black Rock” disappoints on various levels. Triple-threat director/co-writer/actor Katie Aselton sets up a fixed battle-of-the-sexes game that is foolhardy at best. Longtime chums Sarah (Kate Bosworth), Lou (Lake Bell), and Abby (Aselton) reunite for a weekend bonding vacation to a remote island off the coast of Maine. The three women once played a game of “Treasure Map” there as girls. Sarah is the cute mediator of the bunch. Lou and Abby need one. They don’t play nice since Lou — an archetypal slut — slept with Abby’s boyfriend some years ago, stealing him away before shedding him like a 24-hour cold. Resentments are cast aside when the trio meets up with three Iraq War vets fresh out of work on dishonorable discharges just 18-days ago. The three men are hunting illegally on the island.
True to her bad reputation married Lou invites the sketchy guys to hang out and share the girls’ plentiful supply of booze. Lou doesn’t just flirt, she launches into a full-press seduction of Henry (Will Bouvier). Once separating Henry from the group so she can make her move, Lou gets down and dirty before attempting to cut her intimate provocation short. Henry isn’t the kind of guy to stop after receiving such a confident invitation to a lay in the grass. Violence erupts. What follows is a thoroughly implausible game of cat and mouse between two grizzled war vets and a couple of glorified sorority chicks who put up a fight with poorly sharpened sticks — yes, really.
The great irony in “Black Rock” is that it fails (purposefully?) as any kind of screed regarding a weird fantasy date-rape scenario. All of the characters are bad animals in need of being put down. Mostly, they get what they deserve; the audience, however, does not.
Not Rated. 83 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
Newcomer director Alice Winocour drafts an erotically charged and socially complex telling of a controversial 19th century neurologist and his nubile patient. Set in 1885 France, the film eloquently questions feminist independence in a male-dominated medical system operating under repressive mores.
Based on a true story, the film opens with kitchen servant Augustine (tempestuously played by French pop star Soko) suffering an unexplained seizure in the presence of her employers and their houseguests during a dinner. The strange convulsion leaves her unable to open her left eye. Once placed in the prison-like environment of Paris’s Salpetriere psychiatric hospital, Augustine vies with other patients for the attention of Dr. Charcot (Vincent Lindon), whose charismatic bearing promises to cure Augustine.
Dr. Charcot employs hypnotism to treat Augustine, but her symptoms shift during another seizure. Her eye opens but she becomes partially paralyzed in one arm. The filmmaker leaves the film’s themes up for interpretation. One analysis suggests that Augustine reaches a subconsciously influenced psychological crisis regarding her initiation to womanhood through sexual experience. One thing is certain: “Augustine” is a confidently composed film certain to provoke much discussion for those audiences fortunate enough to experience its brilliance.
Not Rated. 102 mins. (B+) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Great Gatsby — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Widely trashed by a cabal of critics who didn’t know a good film when they saw it, Jack Clayton’s 1974 adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel beautifully captures its romantic essence and caustic social indictments. The film’s only misstep is in wearing out Irving Berlin’s repurposed ballad “What’ll I Do” to distracting effect as an over-repeated aural motif.
Roger Ebert’s review at the time of its release disparaged the film for being “faithful to the novel with a vengeance,” yet not staying true to the book’s “spirit.” You can’t have it both ways. The film is loyal to Fitzgerald’s complex story — as adapted by Francis Ford Coppola in screenwriting mode. Which is saying a lot.
“The Great Gatsby” is about a cataclysmic shift in American society, as well as in the mindsets of people unable to compensate for the shifting sociocultural ground occurring under their feet. Every character suffers from some form of self-delusion — Jay Gatsby being the worst offender. That the fragile female object of Gatsby’s deeply rooted desires isn’t worthy of his blind devotion is beside the point…well, his point, anyway. He just wants to recreate the past at all cost, regardless of how intrinsically impossible the endeavor.
Our reliable narrator Nick Carraway (wonderfully underplayed by Sam Waterson) is financially impotent, yet shares none of the greed that his well-off cousin Daisy Buchanan (Mia Farrow) imposes on her skewed value system. Nick lives in a cottage across the “lawn” from Gatsby’s mammoth estate on Long Island.
Late in the story Nick describes Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope – a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person.” Nick’s blind admiration for Jay Gatsby mirrors Gatsby’s conclusive attraction to Daisy. Having falling for Daisy when he was on leave during World War I, Gatsby quickly amassed a fortune “in the drugstore business” in order to land Daisy as his wife. Still, enough time passed for Daisy to be swept off her feet by Tom (Bruce Dern), a millionaire without an honorable bone in his body — much less a romantic one.
Gatsby’s waterfront mansion sits across the bay from Tom and Daisy’s home, which they share with their six-year-old daughter. At his own expense, Gatsby has installed a green beacon in the bay in front of Daisy’s home so he can draw a visual bead on her location. The film is rife with significant visual markers that Fitzgerald included to guide his readers. The attention to detail in the film is meticulous. The famous “shirt scene” from the book provides a galvanizing moment of romantic fulfillment in the movie. Adoration of opulence equals sex.
Robert Redford’s Gatsby is a self-made man who utilizes his romantic obsession to achieve his capitalist conquest though shady means. Once attained, he has little use for his riches except to secure Daisy’s validating love. Gatsby understands too well Daisy’s steadfast opinion that “rich girls don’t marry poor boys.” What Gatsby—a stand-in for the rising robber-baron capitalism of his time—and ours—refuses to realize is that Daisy’s attitude is a symptom of a corrupt value system that no amount of money or love can overcome.
Rated PG. 144 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Episode #270 — THE ICEMAN - KISS OF THE DAMNED
Bloody Sunday — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Although originally produced for British television in 2002, Paul Greengrass’s vivid depiction of a violent turning point in the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland was released in theaters in the States. The Sundance and Berlin film festivals showered awards on the docudrama for its persuasive vérité style, which depicts a January 30, 1972 attack by British army paratroopers against 10,000 Irish demonstrators in a civil rights protest march in Derry, Northern Ireland. Fourteen protestors were killed and 14 more were injured; British soldiers suffered no injuries or casualties. The 1998 Bloody Sunday Inquiry ordered by British Prime Minister Tony Blair was the most expensive investigation in British history.
Greengrass based his terse, episodic screenplay on Don Mullan’s acclaimed book “Eyewitness Bloody Sunday” (1997). Drawing on his early career spent directing episodes of the investigative British television program “World in Action,” Greengrass deploys an arsenal of shooting and editing techniques to place the audience in the flow of the film’s roughly 24-hour timeline.
Sound from radio transmissions between British military officers preparing for confrontation segues into a stream of hand-held camera sequences that expose the two sides in an infamous street battle. Loose camera pans and impulsive zooms capture the naturally lit action in a gloomy urban district where barbed-wire barricades and roadblocks were commonplace. A young Catholic couple kisses and parts ways by the light of military vehicle headlights. This is what military occupation feels like — brutal, dangerous, and mundane.
Each scene begins in mid-action and cuts away with a sustained blackout fade that keeps the audience off balance. The audience’s eyes are temporarily closed. Like the Irish, we don’t know where we will wake up next in the conflict. Our uneasy frame of reference is that of an itinerant bystander grasping at whatever semblance of reason we can read into the absurdist narrative of military oppression.
Ivan Cooper (James Nesbitt) is a charismatic Member of Parliament of Northern Ireland and civil rights leader charged with leading the march. Like the local priests, Ivan is on a first-name basis with many citizens, whom he treats as his own flock of “peaceful” protestors. However infectious his idealistic, and fearless, belief in the potential power of a demonstration to effect change, there are plenty of young men who think differently. An Irish Republican Army leader dispatches orders to his comrades from behind the wheel of his car while chatting with Cooper.
Major Steele (Chris Villiers), a British Army commander, instructs his war-painted Charlie Company troops to teach the locals a lesson. Picking up “200 hooligans” is their stated mission. Back at the Army’s headquarters Maj. Gen. Ford (Tim Pigott-Smith) focuses on “winning the propaganda war” when he isn’t modeling the aggressive attitude he expects from his crew of trigger-happy goons.
When all hell breaks out, as we know from history, the audience is thrust into the middle of an orgy violence against innocent civilians that makes clear why Bloody Sunday served as “a moment of truth and a moment of shame” that “destroyed the civil rights movement” and gave the IRA its “biggest victory.”
Rated R. 107 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
Blacker than the La Brea Tar Pits, director Ben Wheatley’s dark comedy about a couple of serial killer lovebirds is an exquisitely funny movie. Wheatley, the director of recent British crime dramas “Down Terrace” (2009) and “Kill List” (2011) proves to be well suited to farce, albeit of the pitch-black variety. Based on a well-polished script developed by the film’s leading actors (sketch comedians Alice Lowe and Steve Oram), “Sightseer’s” unconventional tone is charged with a dollop of budding romance. Tina (Lowe) lives at home in England’s Midlands region with her domineering mother Carol (Eileen Davis), who is still getting over the death of her beloved dog Poppy. Against mum’s wishes, Tina is eager to go on vacation with her new suitor Chris (Oram), a “ginger-haired” schlub with a camper trailer and a low threshold for minor injustices. Chris is all politeness and smiles around the sickly Carol, but mum isn’t buying his façade of niceness.
Chris has a laundry list of Northern England tourist attractions, such as the Crich Tramway Museum, for the couple to visit. While riding in a historic tram, Chris witnesses another passenger thoughtlessly tossing a wrapper on the floor. Not one to suffer such indignities lightly, Chris asks the offending man to pick up his trash. The man refuses. Within moments, karma strikes. While backing up the camper, Chris accidentally runs the guy over, killing him. Victory. Chris and Tina get a bonus in the guise of the man’s freshly orphaned dog Banjo — a carbon copy of Poppy.
Tina isn’t troubled much by the event; in fact she rather seems to cotton to the idea. Before long, the couple is taking turns at bumping off unpleasant people they come across on their journeys, which is to say just about everyone they meet. What started out as an “erotic odyssey,” digresses into an all-out killing spree with no end in sight.
Much of the absurdity comes from the way the Chris and Tina judge one another even while one-upping the other. The gawky chemistry that Alice Lowe and Steve Oram share is a hoot even without the added element of skullduggery in which their characters indulge. The gaudy sweaters they wear approach a mythic level of hideousness last seen in the Beatles' mocumentary "Help." They’re not attractive people, but the movie makes us root for their romance nonetheless.
A singular flashback which reveals Tina’s involvement in Poppy’s demise a year earlier fills in a crucial piece of backstory about Tina’s inelegant aptitude for murder. A question arises as to just which member of the homicidal couple is the leader in their killing binge.
“Sightseers” maintains a formal quality of gallows humor rooted in the style of such early Ealing Studio black comedies as “Kind Hearts and Coronets” (1949). For as reprehensible as their actions are, we get a charge out of seeing how and whom the couple will knock off next.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Venus and Serena
Watching this engaging sports documentary about two of the most daunting players in women’s tennis won’t necessarily help your ability to tell Venus and Serena Williams apart. It does, however, provide an intimate window into the background, lives, and challenges of two of tennis’s fiercest players.
Though they were born more than a year apart, Venus and Serena proved equally talented players from a young age, under the perceptive tutelage of their womanizing father Richard and supportive mother Oracene. Archival footage of Richard training his well-behaved daughters on courts in Compton, California speaks volumes about the heightened level of sportsmanship the girls achieved at a young age and the family’s determination to rise above their surroundings.
This efficient documentary gains emotional weight from specific sequences of tournament play during 2011. In the face of vocal and symbolic racism — from crowds and tennis officials alike — both women display a tenacity of sprit that is all composed energy and skill. Physical ailments take a toll on both women. Venus battles against an autoimmune disease. Serena suffers from a pulmonary embolism. Seeing the women work through their individual illnesses demonstrates their inner character in personal terms. Talking-head interview segments with such luminaries as John McEnroe, Anna Wintour, and President Bill Clinton provide social context.
“Venus and Serena” keeps a safe distance from its furtive subjects. Audiences hoping for a warts-and-all exposé will be disappointed. However, those hoping to gain insight into the physical and mental struggles that Serena and Venus Williams have gone through will be richly rewarded. It’s one thing to watch Venus or Serena play tennis in competition and wonder about their personalities. It’s gratifying in a different way to see how they express themselves and live their lives. Everything adds up: you start to understand their humanity and their mutual need for one another.
Rated PG-13. 99 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
A refreshing addition to the contract killer biopic genre, Ariel Vromen’s Friedkinesque dramatization of Richard Kuklinski’s rise and fall, via three decades of heinous crimes, is a doozy. Informed by Jim Thebaut’s HBO documentary series “The Iceman Interviews” — witness the “The Iceman’s” recreated bookend sequences — the film’s accomplishment rests squarely on Michael Shannon’s keen portrayal of Kuklinski as a pathologically divided individual. One-half devoted family man and one-half ruthless assassin; Richard Kuklinski occurs as a gift-wrapped bipolar subject for true-crime cinema. A qualified novice director and co-writer, Ariel Vromen tracks the film’s stylistic period references across generational shifts while keeping focus on Kuklinski's Jekyll-and-Hyde nature. Essential details of costume and production design fall neatly into place.
During the late ‘50s Kuklinski works a barroom pool table not far from his day (and night) job pirating pornographic tapes. He’s a pool shark with no patience for sore losers. An offended dupe who puts up a fuss after being defeated, gets his throat cut from ear to ear as he prepares to drive away in his car. For Kuklinski, the kill is a quick, quiet, and efficient way to reconcile his well-defended ego. He’s a walking definition of “paranoid personality disorder.”
An uncomfortable visit by the Gambino-connected Mafia kingpin Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta) to Kuklinski’s porn lab makes a lasting impression on DeMeo. When one of his lackeys tries to pistol-whip Kuklinski, the hulking brute fights back and stands his ground in the face of probable death in the guise of the pistol pointed at his face. Fear evidently is not in his constitution. DeMeo takes note. The next day DeMeo gives Kuklinski a chance to earn his trust by knocking off a bum in broad daylight. DeMeo insures Kuklinski’s loyalty by holding on to the pistol with the “Polack’s” fingerprints forever stuck on it.
Having charmed Deborah (wonderfully played the underrated Winona Ryder), a self-effacing waitress at a New Jersey diner, Richard Kuklinski sets up house with his adoring wife. Whether or not Deborah believes him when he tells her he dubs voices for “Disney” cartoons is beside the point. Kuklinski plays the gentleman around her. She knows better than to ask questions. Years pass before Deborah gets a glimpse of her devoted husband’s other side.
A dramatically layered car-chase, with Deborah and the couple’s two daughters in the back seat, reveals Richard’s hair-trigger temper after he distractedly runs into a car in traffic. The suspense-laden episode unmasks cracks in the couple’s marriage, fissures that Richard Kuklinski soon fills in with enormous amounts of cash when he goes into a thriving partnership with Mr. Freezy (played by an unrecognizable Chris Evans). Freezy is a fellow contract killer with his own arsenal of tricks for offing people and disposing of corpses. He conceals his activities by operating an ice cream truck whose freezer makes for a convenient hold to deposit fresh kills. Freezy introduces Kuklinski to using powered cyanide as a covert method for delivering death, and to his preferred practice of freezing bodies for several years before disposing of them as though they were wrapped-up leftovers. Scenes of chainsaw-enabled dismemberment are graphic, and yet kept in check by the film’s dramatic tone, lighting, and tightly edited compositions.
Tempting though it might seem, the filmmakers manage to avoid stepping into the trap of exploitation genre. The subject is horrifying, but “The Iceman” is not a horror movie. The film’s character-study aspect takes up most of the narrative space. A terse prison scene between Richard and his incarcerated brother — who raped a 12-year-old girl — affords a wealth of backstory in a resourceful way. The scriptural language is dense but clear.
With so many substantial performances under his belt, it’s not accurate to term Michael Shannon’s exemplary work here as a “breakthrough performance.” It is nonetheless Oscar-worthy. Michael Shannon would have made a much more book-accurate version of Jack Reacher than Tom Cruise. Here, he creates a credible version of a serial killer credited with murdering somewhere between 100 and 250 men, many of whom were never found or identified. The effect is chilling.
Rated R. 93 mins. (A-) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
The Sea Inside — CLASSIC FILM PICK
The true story of a quadriplegic on a mission of assissted suicide would seem to present an insurmountable challenge for any filmmaker. Most certainly, an average audience would run kicking and screaming before empathizing with Ramón Sampedro, an atheist narcissistic who displays more persistence of vision than the able-bodied people who surround him.
While spending a beautiful summer’s day at a Galician beach, the 26-year-old Ramón dove from a cliff into a cove just as the tide pulled out to sea. He struck his head on the ocean floor, injuring his spinal cord. Now 55, Ramon insists that death is preferable to “a life lived without dignity.”
Javier Bardem’s calmly poised Ramon tries to convince the Spanish court system to authorize assisted suicide on his behalf. Bardem’s half smiles adorn his troubled character with an air of composed insight. He uses his mouth to write his autobiography with a pencil attached to a stick.
Ramon’s request for his family and friends who “love” him is that they contribute to a meticulously orchestrated plan that will allow him to die, without any single person being legally culpable in his death.
Using an arsenal of meticulous filmmaking techniques co-writer/director Alejandro Amenábar modulates the narrative line between Ramon’s bedridden emotionality, and his family members and romantically driven visitors who alternately support him, or oppose his somber plea.
The film strikes a euphoric highpoint when Ramon listens to José Manuel Zapata singing Puccini’s “Nissun Dorma” on his bedside record player. The classical song animates Ramon’s imagination. His body comes gracefully to life. His bare feet slap onto the hardwood floor of his room-with-a-view. Ramon stands and pulls his bed away from the wall to allow for a running start toward the open window overlooking a rugged Spanish hillside. Alejandro Amenábar’s subjective camera flies through the window transporting the audience just above the ground, across miles of verdant countryside to the ocean. The outside world that escapes Ramon’s existence is briefly in his possession. His euphoric dream state exemplifies all the liberation that the mind's eye can bring. At the beach, Ramon meets his lawyer and would-be lover Julia (Belen Rueda). Their sun-blessed embrace and tender kiss ends as the needle lifts from the record in Ramon’s room.
Even with Alejandro Amenábar’s flawless sense of storytelling, it is unlikely that “The Sea Inside” would have succeeded with an actor other than Javier Bardem. The discreet but tortured humanity that Bardem embodies carries with it tremendous authenticity of personality. The wealth of character traits that Bardem effortlessly portrays speaks to religious, political, romantic, and personal elements with a selfless oath of intent. Alejandro Amenábar’s seamless depiction of Ramón Sampedro’s battle for his sense of self arrives in inspirational cinematic terms. Amazing.
Rated PG-13. 125 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
At Any Price
Zac Ephron stinks up every movie he appears in. That’s not to say however that casting a different actor — one who wouldn’t be better served doing toothpaste commercials — would improve substantially on co-writer/director Ramin Bahrani’s fatally flawed movie. Famous for immigrant dramas (“Man Push Cart,” “Chop Shop” and “Goodbye Solo,) Rami gets in over his head attempting to tell a tale of how American’s Corporate Industrial Complex impacts the lives of Midwest farmers. The film’s thematic lesson can be summed up as, “everybody cheats; some people get away with murder.”
Dean (Ephron) is the spoiled brat son to Iowa farmer Henry Whipple (well played by the reliable Dennis Quaid). Henry is an old school Midwest family man and corn farmer with a huckster side job distributing patented seeds for Monsanto — a company many people would like to see permanently shut down for its dubious monopolizing practices. Henry’s dream of passing the family farm down to his oldest son Grant is tempered by the distance Grant keeps from the family; he’s off climbing a tall mountain somewhere across the Atlantic. So it is that Henry turns his attentions to Dean (Ephron), an amateur stock-car driver with NASCAR ambitions. Dean spends his time banging his small town girlfriend Cadence (Maika Monroe) and driving two-hours to do a handgun-smash-and-grab at an auto supply store for a new part for his car.
Ethical duplicity runs in the family. Papa Henry cheats on his wife with a local tramp (Heather Graham). The film opens with Henry making post-funeral buying offers to families of the deceased, to swoop in on their land at pennies-on-the-dollar. If you’re looking for a reliable protagonist, you won’t find one in “At Any Price.” It's the ffinal nail in a film that wants to be “Promised Land” [about the shady dealings of fracking companies], but doesn’t know how to go about it. Yes, it’s a cutthroat world out there, and there isn’t a damn thing you can do about it, except hide the bodies well. That’s the takeaway from “At Any Price.”
Rated R. 105 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)
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Slap Shot — CLASSIC FILM PICK
Rooted in America’s downturned economic reality of the late ‘70s, “Slap Shot” (1977) was the brainchild of screenwriter Nancy Dowd, the sister of minor league hockey player Ned Dowd of the Johnstown Jets. Dowd’s ferociously comic script plays on behind-the-scenes aspects of how a ‘70s-era minor league hockey team conducts business. Cursing, alcoholism, sex, silly promotional stunts, sarcastic radio interviews, arrests, and brutal violence are all part of a sports team that helps sustain an urban population. Misogyny meets its match in Dowd’s tough female characters that stand their ground as well as their macho counterparts. For every sexist jibe, an effective riposte follows.
Director George Roy Hill advanced the box office successes he enjoyed with “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” and “The Sting” by casting Paul Newman in the lead role as Reg Dunlop, an aging hockey player and coach for the fictional Charleston Chiefs. Newman’s prodigious gift for chewing scenery takes flight when he puts on skates during comical hockey games that become more bloodbaths than sporting events.
News that the town’s local mill is shutting down puts a dark cloud over the losing Chiefs hockey team. Newman’s optimistic character takes charge, turning the team into a squad of goons more concerned with throwing punches than scoring goals. The plan works; more blood on the ice means more butts in seats. Reg plants a bogus story in the local newspaper that an unnamed investor from a Florida retirement community is interested in buying the Chiefs. The ploy temporarily animates the Chiefs into a winning team even as Reg’s personal relationships falter.
“Slap Shot” is a sports movie that revels in details of milieu, plot and character. Smokestacks billow white plumes from a perpetually overcast industrial skyline. Everything is old and weather-beaten. Every victory is tainted. A trio of brothers (the Hansons) — hired more for their ability to fight than to score goals — provide a wealth of character tics — from the toys they take with them on the road to the Coke-bottle glasses that they audaciously wear like science-geeks-turned-jocks. Michael Ontkean’s Ned Braden stands up for integrity in the game of hockey, and yet has none when it comes to his girlfriend Lily (Lindsay Crouse). The couple’s relationship of confused sexuality contributes significantly to the film’s one-of-a-kind conclusion.
Playing “dirty” proves more lucrative than playing fair. It’s a defective principle that coincidentally took over in corporate and political philosophy around the same time that “Slap Shot” identified an embarrassing truth surrounding hockey. If viewed as a harbinger of social realities to come, “Slap Shot” is more than a little perceptive. The mill is closed; entire cities lost their livelihoods, and the goons took over. At least you can still laugh out loud at “Slap Shot.”
Rated R. 123 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
In the House
François Ozon’s slow-burn comic thriller is a sensitive observation of a global race-to-the-bottom that is devaluing culture in all of its varied forms. Set in France, Germain (wonderfully played by Fabrice Luchini) teaches literature and writing to an ever dumber group of students at a private school where uniforms insure conformity. Germain’s waning enthusiasm for teaching is lifted when Claude (Ernst Umhauer), a promising new student, delivers the first installment in a serial essay about his experiences gaining access inside the bourgeoisie home of his classmate Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto).
Outlier Claude is obsessed with getting “in the house” of a “perfect family.” He’s been working on executing his plan for more than a year. Claude tutors the sports-loving Rapha in math in exchange for entrée into the Artole household. Ozon makes Claude’s curiosity palpable. We too, are led to desire the physical and incalculable emotional properties hiding behind the home’s closed doors. We become polarized on Claude’s behalf via a combination of Ernst Umhaure’s mannered performance and Ozon’s fetishized portrayal of an idealized middle class existence.
Germain is so enthralled with Calude’s abundant wealth of cataloged details and sexually charged subtext that that he can barely contain himself from influencing the interloper’s actions. In fact, he can’t. He gives Claude overheated technical criticisms about his essays, along with personal copies of his favorite novels, to camouflage his manipulation of his student’s exploits. The inspired professor can’t resist goading Claude to create more conflict in the interest of improving his essays. Germain goes so far as to commit a misdeed involving obtaining the answers to an upcoming math test that might insure Claude’s access into the Artole household. At home, Germain shares Claude’s stories with his art-dealer wife Jeanne (Kristen Scott Thomas).
Ozon’s tightly woven narrative flips neatly between recreations of Claude’s essays and the forward-moving action of the story. Dramatic lines are blurred.
Emmanuelle Seigner’s “middle-class” housewife Esther is Claude’s object of desire. Her provocative “scent” and magazine-lifestyle intoxicates Claude, and de facto Germain who experiences Claude’s activities vicariously.
Ultimately, a question regarding who is teaching who takes on increasing significance in Ozon’s movie, loosely based on Juan Mayorga’s stage play “The Boy in the Last Row.” Issues of class, social responsibility, and human nature’s insatiable appetite for scandal roil through “In the House” with an appropriately ironic tone. The audience is complicit in egging on unreliable characters whose destructive deeds must surly catch up with them. As with François Ozon’s other films (witness “See the Sea,” “Swimming Pool,” “Hideaway”), “In the House” is a slippery genre-blended concoction full of suspense and social commentary that invites its audience to interact with it. Such unique delight is a treat for any filmgoer.
Rated R. 105 mins. (B+) (Four Stars - out of five/no halves)
Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay
Few documentaries achieve the degree of thoroughness and compulsive kicks of euphoric enjoyment that documentarian Molly Bernstein delivers with an ease comparable to that of her worthy subject, Ricky Jay — magician, actor, writer, and a veritable walking encyclopedia. If you don’t consciously know who Ricky Jay is, don’t worry you’ll recognize him immediately from his many supporting acting roles in films such as “Boogie Nights,” “The Prestige” or ‘The Brothers Bloom.”
However, the role that fits Ricky Jay best is the one he grew up perfecting since the age of four, that of a highly skilled magician. The filmmakers give loving attention in providing incredibly rare archive footage and photos of the magicians who mentored Jay over his long career. Legendary magicians such as Al Flosso, Slydini, Cardini, Dai Vernon, and Charlie Miller all figure prominently in Ray’s retelling of his time spent meeting and studying at the feet of his masters. Black-and-white footage of a seven-year-old Ricky Jay performing his act, involving an unlikely pair of small animals, is pretty magical indeed. A plethora of truly mind-blowing tricks follow. Turning a tiny piece of paper into a live moth with his fingertips is one you’ll not soon forget.
Ricky Jay is most comfortable sitting at his practice table with a deck of cards — something he has spent many thousands of hours doing for nearly everyday of his life. His sleight-of-hand artistry is mesmerizing. Like a precious thematic touchstone, the film reliably returns to Ray’s hands as he shuffles and manipulates the cards he uses to blow the minds of audiences with seamless “effects.” Jay talks about misdirection but no matter how closely you study his moves, you can’t catch him.
“Deceptive Practice: The Mysteries and Mentors of Ricky Jay” has an addictive quality about it. There’s a good chance you’ll want to see it again as soon as it’s over. The film speaks to the elusive craft of magic, and to the staggering dedication of its most ardent practitioners. As a consequence, it also speaks to the nature of many types of physical skills that have been devalued to the point of extinction. A few brief clips of Vaudeville performers executing various acts of remarkable precision demonstrate an undervalued kind of human ingenuity.
The film makes its deepest mark with story told by a BBC reporter for whom Ricky performed a specific effect involving a block of ice. Tears come to her eyes as she reveals the tidal wave of emotion that swept over her in a restaurant where the even took place. They don’t call it “magic” for nothing. This movie has plenty of enchantment to spare. Here is the best documentary of 2013, so far. Don’t miss it.
Not Rated. 88 mins. (A+) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
It’s a Disaster
A recurring couples’ Sunday brunch-party of would-be hipsters is the setting for Todd Berger’s amusing end-of-the-world satire. Whether you’re the kind of survivor who would cannibalize your best friend or merely roast marshmallow’s on his or her burning flesh, “It’s a Disaster” shows you’re a hypocrite either way.
Four couples congregate at the color-coordinated home of Emma (Erinn Hayes) and Pete (Blaise Miller). Their marriage is on the rocks. Tracy (Julia Stiles) hopes to impress her latest romantic interest Glen (David Cross). Pete is more concerned with taking Glen’s intellectual inventory with hypothetical questions about things like ripping off Band-Aids or passing along good or bad news. Indeed, the news that surrounds their get-together is bad. Meanwhile, downtown a series of dirty bombs goes off. Sealed inside the house together, the group reveals personal foibles that include an affinity for swinging, sing-alongs, and the proper pronunciation of “duct” tape. “It’s a Disaster” wouldn’t be a bad choice for the last movie you see before life on Earth comes to a crashing halt.
Rated R. 88 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Liana Liberato is amazing. The child actor who gave a breakout performance in “Trust” (2010) has blossomed into an actress of tremendous range. Director Philipp Stölzl’s standard-issue thriller — about Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart), an ex-CIA kill-squad agent on the run with his teenage daughter in Europe — gives Liberato ample opportunity to show what she can do. If her career proceeds as it should Liana Liberato will bypass any cumbersome “It-Girl” status and go straight to Hollywood’s A-List. Liberato’s recently acquired tallness enables her to match Eckhart’s physicality in a movie that demands plenty. Together on-screen, Eckhart and Liberato make for an impressive father-and-daughter team.
Ben lives in Belgium with his daughter Amy (Liberato). He works for a security company devising ways to protect safe devices against break-ins. When the company vanishes overnight, and his co-workers are all killed, Ben has some thick detective work cut out for him. As a spy thriller, “Erased” isn’t anything special. It’s one big chase-movie with a couple of underdeveloped subplots thrown in courtesy of first-time screenwriter Arash Amel. Still, Philipp Stölzl’s direction is solid. The violence tilts toward shocking cold-blooded brutality. However, the reason you should see the movie is to absorb the work a fine young film actress who savors the scenery she chews like caviar and creme fraiche.
Rated R. 104 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Benefiting from a cast that includes Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepherd, and Michael Shannon, “Mud” is an engaging coming-of-age tale whose gaping plot holes barely matter. Writer-director Jeff Nichols (“Take Shelter”) cobbles together the story of Mud (McCanaughey), a loner fugitive hiding out on a tiny deserted island in the Mississippi Delta. Fourteen-year-old Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and his best friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) venture into the Delta to visit the island, where a flood has deposited a 20-foot boat into the upper branches of a tree. Planning to turn the boat into a treehouse of sorts, the adventurous boys are shocked to discover that someone else has beaten them to the punch — Mud. An uneasy friendship develops between the boys and the hopeless romantic who carries a handgun stuffed into the back of his jeans.
A compulsive liar, Mud tells the boys a convincing story about his lifelong pursuit of Juniper (Reese Witherspoon), his high school sweetheart. Juniper waits in a nearby motel for Mud to arrange for their escape together. Mud claims he killed Juniper’s previous boyfriend because he abused her. The man’s gangster relatives — led by Joe Don Baker’s patriarchal character King — are more motivated than the local police to track down Mud. That Juniper’s connection to Mud is barely plausible hardly prevents the movie from gliding off the wind of its idyllic youthful characters.
Nichols’s self-declared inspiration from Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” is readily apparent. The fearless boys agree to help Mud on his mission to salvage the marooned tree-boat so he can get the girl of his dreams. Ellis and Neck make trips back and forth to the island with provisions and supplies to fix the boat. Tye Sheridan steals the movie with a stoic adolescent charm; this actor is lightening in a bottle. Romantically spurred on by Mud’s quest for emotional fulfillment, Ellis — a sophomore — courts May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant), a high school senior whom most would agree is out of his class. Quite the opposite is true.
Sam Shepard coaxes the story along from yet another implausible character’s perspective. Tom Blankenship (Shepard) lives in a boathouse across the river from the waterfront home that Ellis shares with his divorcing parents. Tom, we’re told, is the closest thing to a father that Mud has ever had. Comically, old Snaggletooth (Shepard) has gotten his famously gnarled teeth repaired into a neat set of uppers, while McConaughey’s character sports a chipped tooth that fits Mud like a glove. “Mud” is a boys adventure movie with its heart in the right place.
Rated PG-13. 130 mins. (B) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)Tweet
Unmade in China
Director Gil Kofman (“The Memory Thief” - 2007) martyrs himself on the altar of China’s modern industrial filmmaking system, which cranks out movies for a typical budget of $300,000 per feature. Armed with the script for a distinctively American psychological thriller entitled “Case Sensitive,” the quirky Kofman — think Woody Allen’s younger cousin — endures non-payment while attempting to make a movie with an all-Chinese crew. Our determined protagonist exhibits the patience of Job while making joking asides about the willful incompetence that surrounds him. Kofman loses his strongest link in Rain, the film’s director of photography, to the sexist practices on the set. Endless script translation/revisions occur as promises go unfulfilled regarding locations, costumes, and every other aspect of production. Examples of Chinese cultural phenomena, such as its tone-deaf bootlegging of gay sexual identity, provide windows into a society that differs drastically from that of the West. Kofman’s distinctly Jewish sense of humor lends the artistic ordeal some buffering perspective by way of his hyper articulate personality. “Unmade in China” is an entertaining, personalized account of a director’s hardships attempting to work in China’s hostile filmmaking climate. A question that hovers over the movie is why either side would ever want to work together in the first place.
Not Rated. 90 mins. (B-) (Three Stars - out of five/no halves)
Far From Heaven — Classic Film Pick
“Far From Heaven” (2002) is Todd Haynes’s virtuosic homage to the cinema of Douglas Sirk (famous for “All That Heaven Allows” (1955) and “Imitation of Life” (1959). The movie is a politicized melodrama brimming with detailed social commentary. Haynes’s dynamic range of socially informed filmic storytelling is exquisite. The context-rich narrative observes upper class mannerisms — private and public — native to the Eastern seaboard circa 1957. In Hartford, Connecticut children call their moms, “Mothers.” Ladies lunch. Men work in lavishly modern wood-paneled offices of companies with names like “Magnatech.” The upper class views itself as “middle-class.”
Dennis Quaid delivers a wonderfully understated reading as corporate family man Frank Whitaker. A closet homosexual, Frank engages in after-work trysts with other men. Frank’s doting wife Cathy (Julianne Moore) is a perfectly coiffed vision of ‘50s era motherly and wifely perfection. Arrested for “loitering” in a movie theater, Frank’s secret life starts to unravel. Later, a spur-of-the-moment evening visit by Cathy to Frank’s corporate office — to deliver a homemade dinner — results in a shocking discovery. Regular visits to a psychiatrist promise to break Frank of his sexual addiction to other men.
Meanwhile, Cathy plays out her part as one of Hartford’s leading socialites. Her stylish well kept home, and her kindness toward “negroes,” becomes public record via a local magazine featuring the camera-friendly Cathy Whitaker.
Hayne’s perceptive scrutiny of an idyllic ‘50s era Right Wing American Dream draws a link between racism and anti-gay views, as well as between Hartford's wealthy white suburbs and its black ghettos. The Whitakers have a black maid (Viola Davis) whose token status is lessened somewhat by the home’s mild gardener, Raymond Deagan (Dennis Haysbert). A mutual attraction between Cathy and Raymond leads to an afternoon spent visiting a black restaurant in Raymond’s neighborhood. Witnessed together by one of the ladies-who-lunch, rumors about Cathy spread through her social circles. While Frank gets time off with a paid vacation for the family due to his crisis of personality, Cathy is forced to side with the racist status quo of her community. Even Cathy’s self-proclaimed best friend Ellle (Patricia Clarkson) shows her unreliable colors when Cathy speaks longingly of Raymond.
Douglas Sirk’s striking palate of saturated primary colors populates every frame of Haynes’s perpetually autumnal setting. The contrast of gritty dramatic material against an idealized — read fascistic — social atmosphere, makes for an enthralling movie experience. Cathy, Frank, and Raymond are socially repressed characters yearning for an earthy human connection different from what society deems acceptable. The complex dramatic tapestry that Haynes crafts is as informative as the romantic tragedy is devastating. “Far From Heaven” is masterpiece of LGBT activist cinema. That it adheres to a classic cinematic model designed by one of the 20th century’s most visionary directors, allows for a special variety of dramatic transcendence for its audience. Heaven is not what it pretends.
Rated PG-13. 108 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
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Pablo Croce’s filmic portrait of master fighter Anderson Silva presents an incomparable perspective of a gifted but humble athlete working past the height of his powers. Athlete audiences of all stripes can learn much from this candid documentary that captures the philosophy and mind of a warrior master. Silva’s comfortable home life in Brazil with his wife and children sets the climate of familial support for one of the most capable athletes on the planet. “Like Water” follows middleweight Ultimate Fighter Silva’s preparation and execution of a fight that marks his four-year run as the title-holder in the sport. The film takes its title from an interview with Bruce Lee wherein Lee extrapolates in philosophical terms water’s ability to conform or crash against surfaces. Indeed, Anderson Silva embodies the same aspects of studious and physical diligence that Bruce Lee inhabited. There is only one Anderson Silva. He represents all of the humanity, humility, and courage of a Jackie Robinson. And you can quote me on that.
Not Rated. 76 mins. (A) (Five Stars - out of five/no halves)
This debut feature from Brandon Cronenberg — son of revered director David Cronenberg — is all concept and little substance. Trapped beneath the bleached-out glare of a monochromatic minimalist future — courtesy of cinematographer Karim Hussain — Syd March (Caleb Landry Jones) toils in a chic clinic that dispenses celebrity diseases at a premium. If you want the strain of herpes simplex that a Lady Gaga-equivalent might possess, you can pay for the privilege. If Cronenberg’s attempt at canny social satire sounds provocative, think again - it’s not. Sophie Barthes’s “Cold Souls” (2009) — about the availability of rentable souls — makes “Antiviral” seem rudimentary by comparison, and it wasn’t even a particularly impressive movie.
Brandon Cronenberg has two significant strikes against him. He isn’t an effective screenwriter and he lacks the directorial experience to know how to mask it. As has become a trend among hipster filmmakers, “Antiviral” is completely lacking in humor. The effect is suffocating.
Creepy Syd is like a drug dealer who constantly delves into his own stash. His addiction to the viruses of his celebrity idols takes its toll. He resembles a punk rock junkie of the ‘80s era in Lower East Side Manhattan, who believes he’ll be the next Johnny Thunders if he just shoots the same kind of Chinese rock that Thunders famously sang about.
Syd makes extra money by stealing diseases from the company he works for by smuggling them out inside his body. No one said Syd was much of an empathetic protagonist. “Antiviral” is interesting for the first ten or fifteen minutes before it digresses into a slog. Boredom is the death of any movie, and this one will bore you to tears.
Not Rated. 106 mins. (D) (One Star - out of five/no halves)
The most shocking aspect of this homage horror movie based on Sam Raimi’s campy 1981 cult classic is its utter lack of wit or humor for which the original is famous. For a movie that’s nothing if not a bloodbath, “Evil Dead” is as dry as the Sahara. That Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell share producing credits seems to speak more to economic concerns rather than any regard for artistic merit. "The Evil Dead" felt like a well thought-out prank for its audience to share in; "Evil Dead" feels like an eversion therapy punishment for some undeclared sin against the State — drug use perhaps? Written as is — by Fede Alvarez and Rodo Sayagues — there is no place for the iconic B-movie sensibilities that Bruce Campbell brought to his character in the 1981 version.
Although it stays fairly true to the skeleton plot outline of the original, “Evil Dead” lacks panache. Where the imaginative special effects of Raimi's movie elicited smiles, there is no such pleasure to be had here. Gone is any remnant of the slapstick humor that filled the film's far superior inspiration. There's no character to root for. You just keep looking at your watch, waiting for everyone to finally die, die, die.
The irony is that “Evil Dead” adheres to modern day horror clichés adhered to by the likes of hipsters such as Rob Zombie. It's as unoriginal as they come. Sure, there are plenty of gory displays of dismemberment and flesh-puncturing episodes, but without a sense of fun and excitement “Evil Dead” is a morose throwaway exploitation flick. A few Exorcist-inspired lines of twisted demonic dialogue is as close as “Evil Dead” comes to delivering the cheap and goofy thrills that fans of the first movie will come to see. Don't come looking here for fun; you won't have any.
Rated R. 91 mins. (C-) (Two Stars - out of five/no halves)