REVIEW: Buster’s Mal Heart

25 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

I don’t know why it took me over six months to connect Sarah Adina Smith’s headscratcher “Buster’s Mal Heart” to Richard Kelly’s cult classic “Donnie Darko,” but alas, the two have linked in my head. Both are films that it’s possible to show to a group of people, all of whom agree on the content shown yet diverge widely over whether it’s genius or madness. In such debates, I usually tend to fall somewhere in the middle – neither pole has a monopoly on good idea – and this instance is no different.

Smith puts star Rami Malek to chilling use as Buster, a soft-spoken family man who ends up working a “The Shining”-esque gig as the night desk man at a small hotel. The film does not just play on reserves of feeling carried over from his similarly reserved work in “Mr. Robot,” either. It’s a sensitive performance that reflects a quiet, shy man whose desire to please crosses paths with a grifting loon with an intent to deceive. Said shady figure, DJ Qualls’ Brown, spews apocalyptic rhetoric about a coming day of reckoning known as “The Inversion.” Whether out of boredom, politeness or curisoity, Buster never shuts down Brown’s babbling.

But eventually, tolerating Brown’s presence has consequences. While we witness his inability to rid himself of the negative influence, Smith intercuts glimpses of two other storylines involving Buster – or is it just Malek? One is a drifter making himself at home in the winter vacation houses of the rich during off-season. The other is a sunburned Jesus-looking fellow floating the open sea in a small boat. They’re connected, of course, but Smith never convincingly sells their tenuous linkage.

Standard linear, narrative cohesion is not the endgame, though even a more complex thematic relationship seems like a stretch. “Buster’s Mal Heart” stretches for cosmic, spiritual connections that I just couldn’t sense on the wavelength where I felt like the film operated. That does not mean they do not exist, nor does it discount the intriguing main section with Buster and Brown. B

F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 20, 2017)

20 04 2017

We’ve all seen our fair share of time travel movies ranging from the fantastic (“X-Men: Days of Future Past,” the “Terminator” series) to the comedic (“Hot Tub Time Machine“) and even the romantic (“About Time“). But there’s a special class of scrappier films, like Shane Carruth’s “Primer” and Rian Johnson’s “Looper,” who rely less on stars and visual effects for this particular blend of sci-fi. Instead, they involve us in story by putting a creative spin on the mechanics of their time manipulation.

Nacho Vigalondo’s 2008 debut feature, “Timecrimes,” is another welcome entry into this esteemed group. Admittedly, I avoided the film for quite some time because I judged the book by its cover. (The gauze-wrapped head on the poster made me feel some kind of way.) But after the rapturous acclaim Vigalondo’s latest film, “Colossal,” received, I thought it only right to go back to the beginning with the director. What I found was a sharp, succinct time travel tale that is deeply concerned with human agency and free will in a world where delineations between past, present and future cease to exist. It’s an obvious choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” and it’s certainly one I’ll be mulling over for weeks to come.

Going too deep into plot details would only inhibit full intellectual access to “Timecrimes,” so I’ll describe the experience as something close to “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” or “Edge of Tomorrow.” The outcome is certain in all these films, despite the ability to make directional shifts along a chronological timeline. For the characters making these journeys to the past, they slowly come to realize that their actions are not their own. Instead, they must play a predetermined role in maintaining reality.

For Héctor in “Timecrimes,” this involves piecing together the seemingly non-sensical relationship between a naked girl in the woods, a gauze-wrapped man wielding scissors and an invasion of his home. In order to make sense of it all, he must make several trips back to the past with the aid of a mysterious neighbor’s contraption. Though we might lose our footing in time, we never unlock ourselves from Héctor’s desire to return to normalcy and restore some order in life. It’s this connection that makes the film so memorable and distinctive among its peers.

REVIEW: King Cobra

19 04 2017

There’s plenty of “period” footage in Justin Kelly’s “King Cobra” to date the film back to the mid-2000s. Videos have that digital grain from the middling quality video camera available at the time. A character turns the lens of a digital camera to face him for a selfie, pre-front facing touchscreen.

Yet of all the things that locate the film in the time, there was one indelible image. Shockingly, in a movie set in the world of gay pornography, it was not something involving explicit sex. (And for those looking for that kind of thing, this isn’t some low-budget Skinemax flick.) It’s the news showing footage of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, summoning a cascade of memories of what it was like to be alive in 2005. The odd mix of malaise, shame and embarrassment provides a fitting backdrop for “King Cobra,” where gay characters of various comfort levels in their sexuality grapple with the era’s repression.

It’s too bad that the film doesn’t just borrow the mood of the Bush era. It also takes the stereotypes. Though based on a true story, every gay character in “King Cobra” fits into some kind of tired, lazy archetype: the young and nubile stud, the predatory porn producer, the aging diva, the jealous lover. The actors play them as clingy, feminine and sexually voracious. We’re talking pre-“Brokeback Mountain” style caricatures here.

If Kelly gave his characters the same texture he granted their milieu, the film might amount to something. Instead, it plays like a traditional show business tale of a young talent (Garrett Clayton’s Brent Corrigan) who allows himself to get sweet-talked by a lecherous Internet porn mogul (Christian Slater’s closeted creep Stephen). The film takes an interesting turn when a rival producer/star duo (James Franco and Keegan Allen’s Joe and Harlow) intervene, but by that point, it’s tough to get invested in anything that’s happening. C+

REVIEW: The Handmaiden

18 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

Park Chan-Wook’s “The Handmaiden” boasts absolutely stunning costumes, set design and cinematography – not to mention some truly devoted actors to make magic happen in the frame. This is all very necessary for a film that makes its audience watch the same story play out three separate times over the course of nearly two and a half hours. Every section adds perspective to the other, but getting to that enlightened place is equal parts exhausting and rewarding.

This Korean-set caper details the exploits of Sook-hee, a handmaiden who enters the home of the occupying Japanese heiress Lady Hideiko, as she attempts to guide her employer to marry a conman who will then commit her to an asylum and steal her family’s fortune. What ensues is something akin to a more erotic “Gone Girl” with stunning reversals. But wait, there’s more – “The Handmaiden” features some screwball comedy flourishes that make the proceedings even wilder! There’s also erotic fiction reading, kinky sex and some savagely violent beatdowns.

Park maintains a sharp feminist eye throughout, paying close attention to the female solidarity that emerges between Sook-hee and Hideiko as they realize how men attempt to play them off each other for selfish ends. Each section of the triptych adds more dimensionality and intrigue to their relationship. While “The Handmaiden” may occasionally drag in redundancy, it never gets boring to observe their unconventional power dynamic shift around.  B+

REVIEW: Free Fire

17 04 2017

SXSW Film Festival

Ben Wheatley is not the kind of director to slowly ease you into the milieu of the world he creates. He simply plunges you into the deep end with piranhas, primarily through the use of stylized and highly specific situational dialogue. “Free Fire” does not wait for you to catch up. The loquacious characters simply start spitting out Wheatley and co-writer Amy Jump’s words at a mile-a-minute pace, as they naturally would. You either start running or get left in its dust.

The only time Wheatley slows down is not for our sake. It’s to commemorate the first bullet fired of what must be thousands over the course of the film. In suspended animation, we watch it travel and have a moment to consider its impact. Then the full playground game breaks out between two rival Boston gangs in an arms deal, and it becomes absolute pandemonium.

Wheatley uses the film’s singular warehouse location to its absolute fullest, utilizing it like an adult jungle gym occupied by men (and Brie Larson’s Justine) who showed up in what looks like costumes for a trashy ’70s party. Every move to advance around the space requires at least four bullets, and the gunfire eventually immobilizes every participant one limb at a time. Towards the end, Justine relies on a firearm to serve as a combined cane and replacement appendage. Yes, “Free Fire” is that kind of movie.

It’s also a film that leaves behind little but empty bullet cases. Enjoyable though it may be to watch these bumbling gangsters unleash load after load on each other to period tunes (executive producer Martin Scorsese must have lent his personal jukebox), those pleasures prove fleeting. “Free Fire” unyokes the hysteria of Wheatley’s last film, “High-Rise,” from any form of social commentary. This is a very different movie with no pretensions of intellectual depth, yet even adjusting for the difference, it still fires a few blanks. B /

REVIEW: Silence

16 04 2017

Like I do with many great films, I approached reviewing Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” with a reverence tinged with trepidation. No matter how many seemingly objective angles I took to evaluating it, I could not find a path that did not somehow cross with my own experiences and beliefs as a person of faith. Though this underscores just about every review I write, rarely does it bubble up to the surface. But since today is Easter, I thought it made sense to craft a hybrid akin to Scorsese’s work: a personal statement and a prayer.

I’ve been grappling with the film for the past three months; as Matt Zoller Seitz astutely observed, “This is not the sort of film you ‘like’ or ‘don’t like.’ It’s a film that you experience and then live with.” Scorsese himself has wrestled with Shusaku Endo’s novel for longer than I have been alive. Christian thinkers themselves have wrestled with these issues since the religion began two millennia ago. To project any kind of intellectual authority or issue some kind of vast, sweeping statement about the ideology and thematics of “Silence” is naive and preposterous. In its searing specificity, the film gets beyond the simplistic discussions of religion that predominate our polite culture and delves headfirst into the questions that demarcate contemporary Christianity.

It goes without saying that Scorsese’s involvement in the film ensures “Silence” does not issue the kind of self-congratulatory pat on the back and reaffirmation of most religious films. He zooms past the “what” of faith and immediately wades into the murkier waters of the “how,” specifically as it pertains to evangelism and discipleship. 17th century Portuguese fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) set sail for Japan, where their mentor Ferreira (Liam Neeson) disappears and allegedly disavows the Catholic religion.

Their rescue mission brings them into contact with persecuted Japanese Christians practicing their faith in private, an experience that tugs the fathers’ beliefs at opposite directions with equal force. On the one hand, their torture at the hands of Japanese inquisitors makes the abstract concept of martyrdom painfully real, humbling them tremendously. Yet these supplicants also view the priests as direct conduits to God to the point that they take on a God-like status, inflating the latent self-righteousness undergirding many of their actions.

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REVIEW: Patriots Day

15 04 2017

The narrative elements of “Patriots Day” show Peter Berg at the top of his game. As a film that recreates the terror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search to catch the perpetrators, it’s every bit as taught and harrowing as “Lone Survivor.” Critique ideology all you want – and I had my fair share of issues with the comforting yet alarming deployment of the surveillance state – but objectively speaking, Berg and his technicians know how to edit for maximum tension around an event whose outcome we already know.

Now, you might have noticed that I specified “narrative elements.” That was intentional. “Patriots Day” ends on a lengthy postscript of talking-head style documentary footage with survivors of the bombing. It’s stirring, sure, but it left me wondering – why not just make a non-fiction film? The appetite for documentaries exists now thanks to platforms like Netflix and HBO.

In “Patriots Day,” fictionalization began to feel like trivialization. If the words of real people are powerful enough to end a film, they ought to be powerful enough to sustain a film. Why does Berg think we need Mark Wahlberg sermonizing from the back of a truck bed over sappy, inspiring music to care about the heroism of Boston’s finest? Why does he feel the need to compress the valiant actions of several police officers into one composite, Teddy Saunders, for Mark Wahlberg to play?

Berg tries to have it both ways in the film, leaning on both the authenticity of the survivors’ pain while also shoehorning reality into a convenient narrative device about one police officer who cracks open the case with a hobbled leg. (At times, his lickety-split reactions don’t even make logical sense!) If recent yanked from the headlines stories are going to continue to serve as fodder for cinema, we need to have a larger debate about how filmmakers can and cannot rely on actual participants. B+