REVIEW: The Bad Batch

21 06 2017

Fantastic Fest

I watched Ana Lily Amirpour’s “The Bad Batch” late at night as the fifth movie in a single day at Fantastic Fest – and there was still one after it – so my grasp on its granular details is admittedly not as strong as usual. Yet experiencing the film in a state of altered consciousness where I had to fight against my body’s impulses to understand what was happening in front of my eyes feels oddly fitting.

“The Bad Batch” unfolds in a richly textured dystopian Texan wasteland where even the crows do battle. The authorities leave the condemned Arlen (Suki Waterhouse) to fend herself in this wasteland where she almost immediately becomes aware of its perils after a group of cannibals take her arm. Talk about initiation by fire!

From there, the film follows Arlen’s search for revenge and answers in the unforgiving territory. But Amirpour’s interests do not lie in mere plot progression. She’s all about exploring textures, details and atmospheres – far more than in the flat, staged tableaus of her debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” The film amounts to more than just a series of thematically interconnected music videos. “The Bad Batch” is a sustained two-hour trip, wildly unpredictable, utterly gonzo yet completely controlled. I’ll have to revisit it in a more composed state of mind, although a part of me does wonder if that will tinker with its delicate chemistry. B+ /

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 25, 2016)

25 08 2016

ThumbsuckerMuch of Mike Mills’ “Thumbsucker” treads fairly standard young adult coming of age territory. Lou Pucci’s Justin Cobb, the protagonist whose titular habit serves an effective metaphor for his juvenility, must undergo familiar trials that provide him confidence and self-worth. He has to learn public speaking skills and romantic graces with a decidedly modern twist – Justin has just added medication for his recently diagnosed ADHD that totally transforms his personality.

But there’s something more to “Thumbsucker” that makes it my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” Mills, working from a novel by Walter Kirn, does not stop the coming of age with Justin. As it turns out, his emotionally stilted parents have plenty of growing up to do in their own right. The film is just as much about their own slow maturation process as their son’s.

Vincent D’Onofrio’s Mike insists that Justin refer to his parents by their first names since the terms “mom and dad” make him feel old. He serves as the manager of a large sporting goods store while still nursing bitterness and resentment over a knee injury that thwarted his football career. His family serves as a daily reminder of what his life is not.

Meanwhile, his wife, Tilda Swinton’s Audrey, handles all the love and affection for their two kids. She’s genuinely curious and attuned to Justin’s issues. But Audrey cannot shake a girlish fascination with a soap opera actor Matt Schramm. The infatuation reaches levels that embarrass her children; they do not think she would literally cheat on their father, though she is not exactly quick to dismiss the possibility of her fantasy.

“Thumbsucker” shows everyone fumbling through this thing called life together in their own way, and that even includes Justin’s zany, hypnosis obsessed dentist Perry Lyman (played by none other than Keanu Reeves). With over a decade of distance since release, it feels very reflective of a mid-2000s suburban malaise that already feels like a time capsule. Mills is earnest in his explorations of what causes people’s unshakeable, throbbing sensation of vague discontent with their current situation. The sincerity goes a long way in making these unsatisfied characters ones that are worth spending time with to probe their pain.





REVIEW: The Neon Demon

26 06 2016

Many working directors can lay claim to being a “man’s director,” but few own it quite like Danish pornographer of violence (his words, not mine) and general provocateur Nicolas Winding Refn. The films that have thrust him into mainstream attention on the stage of global cinema have all centered around tough, masculine men exerting their dominance over other people and their environment. Seriously, the narrative throughline is practically flowing with testosterone.

Women, meanwhile, take backseat to these public displays of machismo. In “Drive,” Carey Mulligan’s Irene fulfills the classic archetype of damsel in distress, and Christina Hendricks’ brief appearance in the film as Blanche is far more memorable for her character’s bloody exit than anything she does. Was there a woman in “Valhalla Rising?” Honest question. “Bronson” gets a slight pass since it takes place in a single-sex prison, though the same cannot be said for “Only God Forgives,” which grants Kristin Scott Thomas’ Crystal only a mere foul-mouthed scenery chewing bit amidst a marathon of close-ups on emotionless Ryan Gosling.

In Refn’s latest film, “The Neon Demon,” women move front and center as he peers into the nasty, competitive void where one might expect to find a heart in the fashion industry. But after witnessing Refn’s misogynistic, insulting views of the opposite sex, it’s safe to say they might be better left on the sidelines in his films.

In the aforementioned Refn films, he conveys the idea of masculinity as a renewable resource. One can earn their stripes through hard work and a strong exhibition of power. As time goes by, the essence of one’s manhood can grow in size. “The Neon Demon” shows that he believes the exact opposite about women. Their chief currency, that of beauty, is finite and withering away with each passing moment. To maintain their status, women have to either cheat, steal or lie. Some can buy time for themselves by trading sexual favors with men, but what takes those girls to the top is what will also ultimately make them drop.

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REVIEW: 21 Years: Richard Linklater

5 04 2016

21 Years Richard LinklaterWhen the folks assembling the Criterion Collection edition of “Boyhood” go scouting for bonus features (and apparently this is happening), I hope they include Michael Dunaway and Tara Wood’s documentary “21 Years: Richard Linklater.” Such is really the best location for an anecdotal and borderline hagiographic tribute to the perennially underappreciated director.

The directors do not necessarily cast his work in a new light or uncover latent themes running through his filmography. “21 Years” is simply a magnificent feting of Linklater as told by the people who love him the most, both collaborators and contemporaries. Linklater is noticeably absent from the proceedings, talked about but never speaking for himself.

But even without a particularly revelatory angle, Dunaway and Wood still find ways to delight, amuse and enlighten with “21 Years.” Want to know how Linklater gets such natural sounding dialogue while also maintaining a high degree of precision? Let his actors tell you an amusing story about how they got cooly chided for veering off script. Curious about Linklater’s casting instincts? Listen to Anthony Rapp or Zac Efron recount how the director believed in them when they did not necessarily believe in themselves.

The portrait sketched is one of a gentle, unassuming yet visionary artist. So maybe with a little more vision, “21 Years: Richard Linklater” would be the celebratory toast he deserves. But even absent that, it’s a worthy explainer and salute that would be all too perfect directly before or after one of the director’s masterpieces. B2halfstars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (March 3, 2016)

3 03 2016

The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Robin Wright has become an iconic ice queen thanks to her role as Claire Underwood on “House of Cards;” if looks could kill, a glance from her character would bring down Elsa’s entire crystal castle on someone. Wright has been in the industry for over three decades now, enchanting audiences in films from “The Princess Bride” to “Forrest Gump,” yet her talents only now feel sufficiently realized as she nears 50.

But away from her projects that capture the public imagination, Wright quietly turns in great performances on much smaller scales. One such film is Rebecca Miller’s “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee,” a gentle yet stirring feminist drama that showcases the full range of Wright’s talents. She shines as a wife coming to the realization of the many ways in which she is held hostage by domesticity. While Miller’s might not bring the aesthetic rigor of Todd Haynes to the so-called “women’s picture,” her keen understanding of how societal roles constrain female freedoms more than earns it the honor of my “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

In many ways, Wright’s titular Pippa Lee is a very similar character to Claire Underwood. Both are women defined by ambition that we can sense but never see, and their faces will never truly express their deepest desires. The key difference comes from what goes on underneath those belying facades. Claire looks to seize power at all cost. Pippa just wants to know freedom outside the titles of “daughter,” “wife” and “mother” in which she has dwelled her entire life.

“The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” begins with Wright’s character coming to the realization that she no longer wishes to maintain all the charades to keep the plates spinning in her life. With an aging older husband (Alan Arkin) settling into a senior living facility, she finally has some breathing room to evaluate what she wants in life – not just what she needs. Miller also traces back her history, showing how the young Pippa (Blake Lively) learned the limited avenues available to women in American society. The primary influence, of course, was her mother Suky (Maria Bello), a flighty housewife always pretending to star in an idyllic commercial.

To watch Miller’s film is to be moved by Pippa’s journey towards self-actualization, yet pure emotional outpouring is not the entire modus operandi. Miller also illuminates the narrow categorizations into which we sort women by demonstrating the judgment they face for daring to step outside of them. Empathy is part of the equation. A broadened worldview is the larger takeaway.





REVIEW: John Wick

21 02 2015

John WickDirector Chad Stahelski and writer Derek Kolstad made it abundantly clear to star Keanu Reeves what kind of action movie “John Wick” should be.  This was not a philosophical puzzle like “The Matrix” or a thrilling cat-and-mouse adventure like “Speed.”  It was just fun, stupid entertainment that was fully aware of its own ridiculousness.

These unabashedly silly popcorn flicks can serve as fun antidotes to movies dripping in self-seriousness or an inflated sense of importance.  And, on paper, the seemingly washed-up Reeves makes for the perfect casting choice.  His presence also lends the film a meta narrative to accompany its actual one.  Reeves’ John Wick reawakens from retirement to unleash a can of whoop-ass on some people who did him wrong, just as it appears the actor himself wants to prove some value past his supposed expiration date.

While Reeves enables “John Wick” to reach its goal of being a campy, kitschy action film, he never does anything to help the movie differentiate itself.  If someone is in the mood for what the kind of adrenaline rush it hopes to offer, nothing stands out about this particular film.  Many other movies do it better (just in 2014, “Lucy” easily outdid it – and is rare for actually caring about women).

The only real highlight of “John Wick” is watching a B-list “The Expendables” form among the supporting cast.  Stahelski must have hired one great casting director if they could get all these notable character actors in one film.  Most just have one random scene, but when Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Michael Nyqvist (from the Swedish “Dragon Tattoo” and “Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol“) all show up, it is only natural to wonder who will pop up from behind the next door.  C+2stars