Monday, May 21, 2018

Movie Review: Disgraced

Disgraced (2017) **** / *****
Directed by: Pat Kondelis.
Disgraced is a documentary about the 2003 scandal that rocked Baylor University in Waco, Texas – where one basketball player murdered another, and the fallout that followed that discovery, when it turned out head Coach Dave Bliss wasn’t following the rules. What’s odd is that this really should be a scandal of greater proportions – something talked about as much as Penn State and Joe Paterno, but it really isn’t. It’s likely that many don’t know anything about the story at all. In part, this is because as the movie tells us at the beginning, it’s something the people of Waco don’t talk about – at all. They don’t like to. But it’s a fascinating and troubling documentary, mainly because it gives Bliss so much rope to hang himself with.
When Bliss was hired as head coach of Baylor’s basketball team, he already had a successful NCAA coaching career under his belt – but he was taking over a team that wasn’t very good. To help make the team better, he recruited Patrick Dennehy to follow Baylor from New Mexico to Baylor, where he was promised a scholarship and playing time. He also recruited other players – including Carlton Dotson, who would become Dennehy’s friend and roommate – and eventually, his killer – and Harvey Thomas, who according to some harassed and threatened Dennehy and Dotson alongside his cousin, Larry Johnson – so much that the pair of friends went out and purchased guns. It was when they were practicing with those guns out in the desert that Dotson eventually killed Dennehy. A motive has never been established – Dotson has mental health issues – some psychiatrists at first deemed him unfit to stand trial – but his side of the story has never really been established. In a surprise move, five days before trial, he changed his plea to guilty in the hopes of getting a lesser sentence. It was a move that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, since even the prosecution admits that he could have argued self-defense and had a decent change or winning.
If that were the whole story, it would be a sad and tragic one. We’ve never seen a story is sports where one teammate murders another one – certainly not at the level of the NCAA in basketball. But that’s all it would be – another tragedy of young men killing each other for reasons we cannot comprehend. But the scandal goes deeper than that. That is because after the murder, the police naturally started digging around. Apparently, Dennehy wasn’t really at Baylor on a scholarship. So who paid his tuition? Who bought him his Chevy Tahoe?
As it all threatens to come crashing down, Bliss started scrambling – and wanted to get everyone in line, to lie to the police and the administration to cover his ass. This didn’t sit well with assistant coach Abar Rouse, who started recording his meetings with Bliss. What he gets on those tapes is shocking. Bliss essentially wants to tell everyone that was a drug dealer – and that’s how he paid for his own tuition. Because of those tapes (and bank records) that lie didn’t stick. Since then, Bliss has tried to sell his story of one of regret and redemption – that he did bad things, but learned from them and moved on. Then, in the documentary’s most shocking moment, when he thinks the camera is off, he goes on a rant essentially blaming Dennehy for his own death – and bringing up all the crap he had previously tried to paint Dennehy with. Its clear Bliss is the same piece of shit he was when this all went down.
This scandal really should be bigger than it was – it should have rocked the NCAA system more than it did. What’s odd is that other NCAA coaches sided with Bliss, not Rose – essentially saying that what Rouse did by recording Bliss was disloyal, and they would never have an assistant like that. 10 years later, Bliss found another coaching job (he couldn’t before that, because he was suspended). Rouse never did.
There are a few reasons it didn’t blow up bigger. For one, Baylor and the NCAA have reasons for wanting to keep this out of the spotlight – and they succeeded. For another, almost no one involved wants to talk about. The list of people involved in the scandal, the murder, the cover-up, etc. who refused to be interviews for the film is long. We still don’t know the truth about what happened in that desert and why – or what led to it. What we do know, as the documentary makes clear, is just what kind of person Dave Bliss is.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Classic Movie Review: The Exorcist III (1990)

The Exorcist III (1990) 
Directed by: William Peter Blatty.
Written by: William Peter Blatty based on his novel.
Starring: George C. Scott (Kinderman), Ed Flanders (Father Dyer), Brad Dourif (The Gemini Killer), Jason Miller (Patient X), Nicol Williamson (Father Morning), Scott Wilson (Dr. Temple), Nancy Fish (Nurse Allerton), George DiCenzo (Stedman), Don Gordon (Ryan), Lee Richardson (University President), Grand L. Bush (Sergeant Atkins), Mary Jackson (Mrs. Clelia), Viveca Lindfors (Nurse X), Ken Lerner (Dr. Freedman), Tracy Thorne (Nurse Keating), Barbara Baxley (Shirley), Zohra Lampert (Mary Kinderman), Harry Carey Jr. (Father Kanavan), Sherrie Wills (Julie Kinderman), Edward Lynch (Patient A), Clifford David (Dr. Bruno). 
I’m not quite sure why everyone decided in 1990 that it was time to make long awaited sequels to 1970s classics. This was the year Coppola made The Godfather Part III, Jack Nicholson made his Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes and Bogdanovich made his Last Picture Show follow-up Texasville. All of those films have their charms, but none of them come close to matching their famous predecessors. The same can be said of The Exorcist III – in which the original writer, William Peter Blatty ignored 1976’s The Exorcist II, and just adapted his own follow-up novel for the film. The studio mandated some reshoots and an exorcism finale, wondering (perhaps not incorrectly) how they could have an Exoricst film without an Exorcism. They clearly wanted something that Blatty didn’t want to provide – which was more of the same from the franchise that had some name brand recognition. It’s too bad, because so much The Exorcist III really is quite good, which is why it’s reputation has grown over the years.
The film stars George C. Scott, stepping in for the late Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman – the veteran detective from the first film. He’s still a cop 15 years after the events of the original – and he’s still haunted by the death of his friend Father Karras (Jason Miller). Currently, his best friend is another Priest – Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) – and the pair of them bicker with and needle each other as they discuss faith and God, and other questions big and small (like the magazines Dyer loves). Recently, a string of murders have happened, that look like they may have a supernatural element – that, or they could be the work of The Gemini Killer – although he’s been dead for 15 years as well. As Kinderman digs, he discovers with friend Karras is perhaps not dead afterall – there is a mysterious Patient X (played by Miller) who has been locked away in a psyche ward all these years. He has been catatonic most of that time, but has just started talking again – and claims to be The Gemini Killer.
The Exorcist III is a horror movie to be sure – but it has more in common with something like The Silence of the Lambs (which would come out the year after) than the original Exorcist film. This really is more of a horror tinged police procedural, with Kinderman having to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The films second hour has long stretches of Kinderman talking with The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) in the psyche ward – scenes that allow Dourif to do what he does best, and go over-the-top with his insanity. Scott, never the most subtle of actors himself, is capable of matching Dourif when need be, but wisely doesn’t. He’s playing Kinderman as more tired and world weary than anything.
As a director Blatty only made two film – his previous one, The Ninth Configuration (1980) is even better than this (if my memory is accurate – it has been a while since I saw it, so a revisit is necessary). That’s a shame, because he was a fine director. Sure, the writer part of him overtakes the film for long stretches – the early talking scenes between Kinderman and Dyer, and the later ones between Kinderman and the killer – but he’s also able to stage some incredible scenes. A scare where Kinderman walks through the hospital, and we can see someone crawling on the roof above him would normally be the visual highlight of a film like this. In this case, it isn’t, because of a masterful long take looking down a hospital corridor, where Blatty takes his time allowing everything to play out, resulting in a masterful, scary moment.
What Blatty didn’t want to do is repeat what Friedkin did in the original film – why try and outdo a film that many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made? Instead, Blatty wanted to do something different, and when he gets his way, The Exoricst III is its own beast – a fine film in its own right, and not just because of the original. The studio demanded too much change from Blatty, so the result is a compromise – but a fascinating one.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Movie Review: The Rider

The Rider **** / *****
Directed by: Chloé Zhao.
Written by: Chloé Zhao. 
Starring: Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn), Tim Jandreau (Wayne Blackburn), Lilly Jandreau (Lilly Blackburn), Cat Clifford (Cat Clifford), Terri Dawn Pourier (Terri Dawn Pourier), Lane Scott (Lane Scott), Tanner Langdeau (Tanner Langdeau), James Calhoon (James Calhoon), Derrick Janis (Victor Chasing Hawk).
The Rider is a deeply humanistic, empathetic film about the kind of people we don’t see too much on movie screens. Director Chloe Zhao has made one of the best neo-realist films in recent years, shooting her film on location in South Dakota, and using real life people to play versions of themselves. It is a portrait of lower class America that doesn’t condescend to its characters, not exploits them. It is a beautiful film, recalling the work of Terrence Malick, without being beholden to its influences. It is a quietly moving film.
The film opens with Brady (Brady Jandreau) removing staples from his head. He is Lakota Sioux, and makes his living as a cowboy – training horses, but also riding in the rodeo. He has recently taken a nasty fall, and has ended up with a metal plate in his head – and doctors telling him to stop riding. He cannot afford another head injury – and he’s not even over this one, as sometimes his right hand will not open, a result of mini-seizures. Brady knows all too well what could happen – his best friend Lane Scott also rode in the rodeo, and is now stuck permanently in a rehab facility – unable to speak, and barely move, he speaks using sign language – another injury because of the rodeo. But what is Brady supposed to do? He’s about 20 years old, has no real education, and doesn’t know how to do anything except ride. He lives with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau), a rather quiet man, who has drinking and gambling problems that put their trailer at risk, and his sister Lily (Lily Jandreau) who has developmental issues. He ends up working at DakotaMart (which I guess is what you have when your area is too remote for a Walmart) – and training horses when he can.
Zhao met Jandreau before his injury, and was already planning on making a movie with him – but the injury took the film in a different way, and in many ways gave it its shape. It’s clear that although the movie is scripted by Zhao, it comes out of her being there with Jandreau, his family and friends, and getting to them on a deeper level than most filmmakers do. There isn’t a false note hit in the film, which is not always the case when real people play versions of themselves (I’m looking at you, The 15:17 to Paris). Part of the advantage of casting someone like Jandreau to play himself is that he is so comfortable with the horses – some of the best scenes in the movie are simply him training them, slowing building up trust with them, and eventually riding them. You can train actors to look the part, but they never get this genuine. Jandreau and the other non-professionals also do a great job with the more dramatic scenes as well though – this isn’t a movie with a lot of fake fights or yelling, the conflicts are lower key than that, and feel genuine. The great cinematography by Joshua James Richards is beautiful when it captures the wide open spaces the movie takes place in, but it’s just as good as it observes Brady himself, getting inside his head a little bit.
The Rider is not a film that you can really spoil – it isn’t a plot heavy film, and at times it’s fair to say that the film meanders, although it does so in a mostly pleasurable way. Zhao and company also (mostly) sidestep some dialogue and metaphors that border on being too obvious and clunky. It is a quietly beautiful and touching film – having moments that can bring you to tears, although it is not an overly sad or manipulative movie. It’s a film that marks Zhao as one of the best, most interesting young filmmakers working. I cannot wait to see what she makes next.

Review: Evil Genius

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist **** / *****
Directed by: Barbara Schroeder.
Co-director: Trey Borzillieri.
The new, nearly four hour documentary series Evil Genius from Netflix is undeniably fascinating – the kind of story that has to be real, because if you wrote it as a fiction, no one would believe it. The film takes twists and turns as it documents one of the most bizarre bank robberies imaginable, and the decade plus after when people tried to put all the pieces together, and never quite succeeding. The film certainly raises some ethical question along the way that it never truly deals with – but even that is part of its weird draw.
The crime, in a nutshell, was crazy. Brian Wells was a middle aged pizza delivery man who was called to a remote area where he says a group of black men attacked him, strapped a bomb to his neck, gave him an improvised “cane gun” and a list of bizarrely detailed instructions telling him to rob a bank. If he didn’t do so in a specified time period, the bomb would go off and he would be killed. The robbery itself doesn’t go quite as planned – sure, he walks out with the money, but only $8,000, not the $250,000 he was supposed to get, and the cops descend on him rather quickly and place him under arrest. But there is a matter of that bomb around his neck. Is that real or fake? Is Wells lying about the black men? Is he in on it, or an unwitting victim? As he sits handcuffed in the street, wanting help, the bomb squad isn’t able to get there on time – and he dies. But who was behind the crime?
From there, things get even stranger. One of Brian’s co-workers – another pizza delivery man – dies a few days later, but they don’t really know why. Then there is Bill Rothstein, who will call the cops a month after the robbery to report that he has a body in his freezer of his garage – but he didn’t kill him. Who did? That would be Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein’s ex-girlfriend, and the girlfriend on the man in the freezer. How this relates to the pizza bomber case is a tangled web that only gradually gets unwound – and then only partially. But it is true that Diehl-Armstrong is the Evil Genius of the title.
Diehl-Armstrong is the most fascinating person in the film. She is both clearly mentally ill and clearly intelligent. Her paranoid rantings sound crazy, but the way also be part of her act to gain sympathy and leniency in the courts. These aren’t the first deaths she is connected to, although it’s the first time she’s being charged with them. Diehl-Armstrong didn’t give many interviews with the media – no sit down ones anyone, except with Trey Borzillieri, credited as a co-director here. He was fascinated with the case, and started to try and make a documentary about it. For some reason, Diehl-Armstrong chose to talk to him – in massive amounts of phone calls and letters, and for even an on camera interview. Borzillieri becomes an interesting figure in the documentary itself – he acts as the narrator, but for half the series, we don’t really know who he is, or why he’s the one talking. The first two hours try and lay everything out that we can objectively know – relying on news reports and interviews with the officers involved in the investigation. The second half is when we really delve into Diehl-Armstrong, and Borzillieri’s obsession with the case. It’s probably a good thing that the film was directed by Barbara Schroeder, with Borzillieri getting co-director credit. This allows for at least some distance between the subject and the filmmakers to be there – although, arguably, not enough.
Evil Genius is an uncomfortable film to watch in some ways - truly, we didn’t need to see Brian Wells’ death on screen once, let alone twice – even if they did blur it out. Given how his family feels about this whole thing, they could have left that part out (it provides no additional information). But it’s a series that really does dig deep and come up with a disturbing portrait of the people involved – many of whom were brilliant, but lived like they should be on Hoarders. The series doesn’t – because it cannot – answer all the questions in the case. Too many people decided to take secrets to the grave for us to get a complete answer on any of it. But it’s not a film you will forget.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Movie Review: Outside In

Outside In *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Lynn Shelton.
Written by: Jay Duplass and Lynn Shelton.
Starring: Edie Falco (Carol), Jay Duplass (Chris), Kaitlyn Dever (Hildy), Ben Schwartz (Ted), Aaron Blakely (Shane), Alycia Delmore (Tara), Stephen Grenley (Phil), Louis Hobson (Matt), Charles Leggett (Tom), Matt Malloy (Russell).
Lynn Shelton’s Outside In is a very quiet film about two people who share a deep connection which is destined to be broken. When Chris (Jay Duplass) was a teenager, he was involved in a crime – it wasn’t necessarily his fault, but he was caught – unlike the others involved – and for that, he has spent 20 years in prison. His former high school teacher, Carol (Edie Falco) has worked throughout that time trying to get him released, which is finally happening as the film opens. Carol and Chris have spent a lot of time during the past years talking on the phone to each other – but its one thing to have that sort of bond – a bond that can only go so far, and has definite boundaries that are impossible to cross. It’s another now that’s he’s out in the real world. You immediately understand the seismic shift for someone like Chris – out of jail for the first time in 20 years, and seeing that your world has moved on in many ways. But the shift for Carol is just as great, in ways she doesn’t fully realize.
Strangely, the film seems to work best when Carol and Chris are apart, not together. Now that Chris is out, Carol isn’t quite sure what to do with herself – all the work she did to help Chris is now over, so how will she spend her time? She has a teenage daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) – but she doesn’t quite know how to relate to her, perhaps because she has spent so much time with Chris’ case that there relationship is strained, or maybe just because Hildy is a teenage girl, and their relationships with their mothers is often strained. She reaches out to try and reconnect with her husband Tom (Charles Leggett) – but he doesn’t much seem interested. He’s used to his routines, and is dismissive of Carol and her work (she refers to what she did for Chris as a “hobby”). Tom’s goal seems to be to ride out the clock until retirement – then, perhaps, he can reconnect with his wife.
For Chris, he isn’t sure what to do. He’s living with his brother, Ted (Ben Schwartz), who is trying to mask his own guilt with big shows of affection and alcohol. There is a party at the beginning where everyone seems so supportive of Chris – who assure him that whatever he needs, they’ll be there for him. But when he does reach out, it’s not quite the reaction he wants. He has no job – no real skills – and is behind everyone else his age. He and Hildy become friends – and not in a creepy way, really. In some strange way, they are both facing the same dilemmas – and both want some sort of connection with Carol that they don’t have. It’s as if they both think if they get to know each other, than perhaps they’ll get to know Carol.
The movie hits many of the beats you expect it to, and ends up in the place you probably think it’s going to when you start the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film is so attuned to its characters – especially Carol – that it makes the most of the smaller moments. Falco has been a great actress for a while now, but she doesn’t get the film roles to show it. She does here, even if you think you don’t need to see another movie about a middle age woman asserting her independence, the film gets there subtly, and the revelations feel earned. Duplass isn’t quite as good – the role isn’t as good – but he is very good at showing Chris’ mixture of relief and nervousness about being out. He’s at his best when he’s simply riding with bike down lonely streets. Dever – who was so good in Short Term 12 – is very good as Hildy as well. And the normally comedic Schwartz has a few nice dramatic moments.
Outside In has modest ambitions to be sure, but for the most part fulfills them. Unlike much of Shelton’s work, the film doesn’t really have any comedy in it (the characters barely crack a smile) – but like those other films (the best of which is probably Your Sister’s Sister), it is attuned to everyday life, and the emotions feel genuine.

Movie Review: Still/Born

Still/Born ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Brandon Christensen.
Written by: Brandon Christensen and Colin Minihan.
Starring: Christie Burke (Mary), Jesse Moss (Jack), Rebecca Olson (Rachel), Jenn Griffin (Jane), Sheila McCarthy (Sheila), Sean Rogerson (Tim), Dylan Playfair (Robbie), Grace Christensen (Adam), Michael Ironside (Dr. Neilson).
I cannot help but wonder if I would have like Still/Born a little more had I not watched the film a little less than a week after Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody’s Tully. I mentioned in my review of Tully that there is certainly a history of movies using pregnancy and motherhood as a jumping off point for horror films, but that Tully played with those tropes without the comfort of the genre trappings. Still/Born is what it looks like when you do embrace those genre trappings. It’s not a bad film by any means – first time director Brandon Christensen hits all the right notes (if a little too obviously) and the lead performance by Christie Burke is quite good. It’s just that everything about the film feels a little too pat and predictable – and the horror never gets under your skin.
The film opens with the birth of Mary and Jack’s (Burke and Jesse Moss) son, Adam. They were supposed to be having twins, but one of their sons was still born. Still, the couple is trying to make the best of things with their new son – and really do seem happy. Gradually though, Mary goes from the normal tired of a new mother, to something else. She swears she is hearing things over the baby monitor – and when Jack replaces it with a video monitor, she is convinced she sees some sort of demon trying to get her baby. Is this normal post-partum depression – as a not very helpful doctor (Michael Ironside) suggests? Or something darker? This is a slow burn of a horror movie in which Mary devolves scene-by-scene into a complete, raving mess. But is she wrong?
As a director, Christensen knows his horror movie tropes, and isn’t afraid to exploit them – Jack has a nasty habit of coming up silently behind his wife for example in order to supply the audience with needless jump scares. Mostly, though, he is effective at building the tension, and then breaking it when needed. The plot continues the way you expect it to – Jack will, of course, be called away on a business trip, and things will get worse while he is away (he doesn’t believe his wife naturally). Another mother – who lives next door – is introduced, with a baby of her own. And while she and Mary are friends – as Mary devolves downward, she cannot help but wonder if the demon would be willing to take another baby. There will be Google searches, and a trip to another mother who went through the same thing, etc.
In short, in terms of story, Still/Born doesn’t break new ground – it basically follows the formula you expect it to, right up until the end. As a director, Christensen shows talent, but as with the story, I’d rather him take a few chances at some point along the way (if this is basically an indie horror audition tape for a bigger film, he did a good job though). Burke is probably the reason to see the film – it’s a very good performance – not Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, or Essie Davis in The Babadook or Charlize Theron in Tully great – but very good just the same. And the film does tap into that fear all new parents have about their new children.
Ultimately, I just wanted Still/Born to be something a little more. The raw materials are here for something genuinely scary, but the filmmakers ultimately settle on the path of least resistance. They do what they do well – I just wanted the film to feel a little more inspired than it ultimately is.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Movie Review: Revenge

Revenge **** / *****
Directed by: Coralie Fargeat.
Written by: Coralie Fargeat.
Starring: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Jen), Kevin Janssens (Richard), Vicent Colombe (Stan), Guillaume Bouchede (Dimitri).
Is there a more problematic subgenre of horror films than the Rape/Revenge film? More often than not, the genre is used as an excuse to revel in sexual violence directed at women in the opening half – and then uses the second half, where she exacts her revenge on those who raped her, as a way of saying “We are endorsing, rape – they get punished for it”. Even some of the good movies (like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left) that take this structure leave you feeling in need of a shower afterwards. In 2016, Paul Verhoeven made Elle – which in broad outlines is a rape/revenge film – and made a great film out of it – painting a complex portrait of why this one woman dealt with her rape in that specific way. Still, what has been lacking is a female take on the genre – and that is what Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge really is.
In the film, Matilda Lutz stars as Jen, who when we first see her, looks like she just won a Sue Lyon in Lolita look-a-like contest – stepping off a helicopter, sucking a lollipop, with heart shaped sunglasses. She is the mistress of a rich man (Kevin Janssens) who has brought her to his remote “hunting cabin” (bigger, and fancier than anyone’s house you’ve ever been to) for a couple of days of eating, drinking and sex. Things go according to plan, until two hunting buddies show up a day early. Another long night of drinking ensues – as Jen flirts with Richard’s friends – especially Stan (Vincent Colombe) – as she dances with him, and grinds up against him. The next day, as Richard is way for the morning, Stan comes onto Jen, who in the sober light of day, isn’t interested in Stan – and is incredibly uncomfortable with the creepy way he looks at her. He keeps pressuring – and while Dmitri (Guillaume Bouchede) walks in on them, with more than enough time to intercede with what is clearly happening, he decides it better to simply walk away. The rape itself is barely seen, completely not graphic, and made to look appropriately ugly. When Richard doesn’t returns, he doesn’t respond the way Jen hopes he would – a sequence that ends with her impaled on a tree. She’s just getting warmed up though – her transformation from blonde, Lolita to dark haired warrior is just beginning.
What makes Revenge work as a take on the rape/revenge genre is how very closely it resembles one. Had another director worked with Fargeat’s screenplay, they easily could have made the kind of offensive, exploitive film this film actively works against. The subversion is all in the direction. The opening scenes make it look like a more typical film of this sort. Jen’s introduction however is as close as the film is going to get in terms of aping the male gaze that is common in these films. We do not get the typical close-ups of Jen’s body parts, or the obligatory sex scene in early that reducing her to a sex object – although we do get enough to know that Richard, and his friends, see her as little other than just that. The rape itself is ugly – but brief. It’s almost more disturbing in the sequence leading up to the rape, where Stan delivers what is a classic “nice guy” speech to her – you know the type of speech I mean, the one where they complain that women never want a nice guy like them, but are only delivered my people are adamantly not nice guys.
The second half of the film, as Jen transforms into a warrior goddess is in many ways more typical than the first half. It’s bloody as hell, and expertly choreographed by Fargeat for maximum effect, but it’s harder to subvert that half of the rape/revenge scenario. It does make all three of the men more pathetic than normal – underneath, they are all weak little babies.
Revenge isn’t a perfect film. It goes on too long at nearly two hours (a film like this should be in and out in 90 minutes – anything longer, and it’s harder to sustain the tension, and you run the risk of repeating yourself). I don’t think the whole peyote interlude was really necessary, and it does kind of drag the film to a halt. But overall, this is a great horror film – a fascinating take on a genre that has always claimed to be feminist, but never really was.