Friday, September 22, 2017

Classic Movie Review: The Driller Killer (1979)

The Driller Killer (1979)
Directed by: Abel Ferrara.
Written by: Nicholas. St. John.
Starring: Abel Ferrara (Reno Miller), Carolyn Marz (Carol), Baybi Day (Pamela), Harry Schultz II (Dalton Briggs), Alan Wynroth (Landlord), D.A. Metrov (Tony Coca-Cola).
Abel Ferrara is a difficult director to get a handle on. On one hand, he has made his career making fairly sleazy, exploitation movies – and at the same time, there is a real artist inside there, that is looking to get out in those films. His best film is probably 1992’s Bad Lieutenant – a film that was rated NC-17 for all the sexuality, nudity and violence in it, but there is something beautiful in its ugliness – which is something you could say about most of his best films – from 1981’s Ms. 45 – where a mute seamstress goes on a killing spree after being raped twice in one day or Body Snatchers (1994) – where he took the infamous story and made it into an AIDS allegory or The Addiction (1995) a vampire-as-addict tale, or even his most recent film, Welcome to New York, in which Gerard Depardieu grunts like a pig in extended sequences in which he either has sex, or is raping someone (strangely, I’ve never seen King of New York – one of his best known films). I’m not sure you can realistically say it is there in his debut film – 1979’s The Driller Killer – and yet watching it, you can tell this isn’t an average exploitation, grindhouse film from the 1970s.
The film stars Ferrara himself as Reno Miller – a painter living in New York, with two female roommates – Carol (Carolyn Marz), who is loosely Reno’s girlfriend, and Pamela (Baybi Day), who is Carol’s lover. Neither of them have a job, nor is Reno making very much with his painting – although he does know a gallery owner (Dalton Briggs) – who has previously given him advances for his latest work. The rent is due though, the phone bill is high, the electric bill is high, and they have nothing left. To make matters worse, a band called The Roosters has moved into the building, and play day and night, which drives him crazy. We also meet his estranged father, a bum living on the street – who Reno denies knowing. All of these pressures build and build on Reno, until he snaps one day, and heads out into the streets with his drill, and becomes the title killer – murdering a series of homeless people in brutal fashions. Eventually, he is unable to hide his increasing violence – and those close to him become targets as well.
This plot outline, probably makes the film sound like an exploitation flick – and to be fair, in many ways it is. The violence in the film is bloody and extreme – in the way that 1970s movies are, meaning it’s tough to take most of it all that seriously, because it’s so over the top – although to be fair to Ferrara, he finds a lot of interesting ways to shoot a man killing bums with a drill. The movie pretty much stops all forward momentum at one point to have a sex scene in the shower between Carol and Pamela – for no other reason than because a movie like this needs to have a sex scene to help justify its existence – and if it’s a lesbian sex scene, all the better (you then may even be able to claim your movie is progressive, as it doesn’t judge this relationship – which is true – even if much of the rest of the movie borders of misogyny – also true – and if the depiction of a gay man – the art dealer – is downright offensive). The Driller Killer ended up being one of the so called “Video nasties” – films banned in England in the 1980s – which, of course, helped its notoriety.
Yet, one of the interesting things about The Driller Killer is even when Ferrara is making an exploitation film, he cannot fully commit to that – and finds various excuses to follow his characters into dark places, and various subcultures. He spends more time then you’d think with that band – The Roosters – and its various groupies and hangers on – literally just watching them rehearse. He seems to like to spend time on the streets of New York – the dirtier, the seedier, the better.
I’m not going to argue that The Driller Killer is a very good movie – it really isn’t (and apparently, if you were to listen to Ferrara’s DVD commentary, he makes fun of the film throughout). IF the film wasn’t directed by Ferrara – who went on to make several very interesting films, and wasn’t included in the Video Nasties banning in the UK, then the chances are The Driller Killer would be forgotten today. Yet, it’s an interesting little movie – one that shows that there was a real artist in there, struggling to get out. Sometimes, I still feel that Ferrara is a real artist, still struggling to get out of his nastier side, but even if that’s true, he’s had at the very least an interesting career – one that started here.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Movie Review: mother!

mother! **** ½ / *****
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky.
Written by: Darren Aronofsky.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Mother), Javier Bardem (Him), Ed Harris (Man), Michelle Pfeiffer (Woman), Brian Gleeson (Younger Brother), Domhnall Gleeson (Oldest Son), Jovan Adepo (Cupbearer), Emily Hampshire (Fool), Stephen McHattie (Zealot), Kristen Wiig (Herald).
Director Darren Aronofsky doesn’t do things half way – when he goes for something, he goes all in. This approach doesn’t always work – his Biblical epic Noah was a little bit of a misfire for him, and as much as I liked The Fountain, I still don’t know if that film actually works on the level Aronofsky wanted it to. His latest film, mother!, has already become notorious with at least as many people hating the film as loving it – and that’s just among critics – the consensus among moviegoers seems to be that most weren’t interested at all, and those that were, hate the film. I completely and totally understand that as mother is wildly unconventional, and goes to some insane places, that most viewers just don’t want to go. The film is a biblical allegory of course (Aronofsky has really become one of the few directors so willing to directly engage religion in his films) – and it goes for broke from the beginning. If you want something more conventional, there is literally every other movie playing at your local multiplex right now. I am amazed and delighted this film got this wide of a release, even if most audiences seem to hate it. This is one of those films that you may love, you may hate – but you won’t forget. It will be talked about for years.
May I also say, good for Jennifer Lawrence – who is one of the biggest movie stars in the world right now, for throwing caution to the wind and starring in this film? I like Lawrence as an actress, although I’ve been starting to think that she needed something to break her out of the type of roles she was doing – which were starting to grow stale (there were diminishing returns to her performances in David O. Russell movies for example – despite the three Oscar noms she scored for them). This is a different type of role for her – one that at first seems rather passive, but eventually gets more unhinged. In the film, she plays the younger wife of a “greater writer” (Javier Bardem) – and the pair live in the secluded house where he’s lived his whole life. A fire destroyed the interior – and she’s doing the work to restore it (“I want to build a paradise” she says in one of the films more thudding obvious metaphor lines). They seem to be happy in their childless existence, even if he cannot write anymore. Then a man shows up on their doorstep (Ed Harris) – saying he thought it was a bed and breakfast. Bardem invites him to stay anyway, much to Lawrence’s chagrin. The next day, Harris’ wife (Michelle Pfeiffer) shows up. These uninvited guests make themselves too much at home, place themselves too much into their lives, ask invasive questions, and don’t listen to anything Lawrence says. Then they’re two bickering adult sons show up to argue about the will. Things turn violent, more people show up, etc. and things spiral downwards. Just when it seems everything has come to an end, the cycle repeats itself.
You can take the film on a literal level in that this is the life the younger wives or older, temperamental “genius” artists have to put up with – that they are never wholly yours, and you are subject to their whims (the fact that Lawrence – 27 – started dating Aronofsky – 48 – while making this film is more than a little weird). The Biblical parallels are also there, and pretty hard to miss unless you actively want to miss them (a lot of people seem to want that). It’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of God to show him this way – or to reframe the creation the way this film in its final act. But it’s a wild ride.
Aronofsky matches his outlandish material with outlandish style. There are a lot of close-ups in the film – which seems focused on Lawrence’s face throughout, often with long shots as she storms through the house. The sound design in the film is brilliantly over-the-top, as is pretty much everything else. It’s a testament to Lawrence that she keeps the film together – like everyone else in the film, she is playing less a character than a symbol, but she holds the center wonderfully. Bardem is great as the almost ever smiling center of attention – proclaiming his love for Lawrence, while unable to turn away his acolytes, ever. I loved Michelle Pfeiffer as well, showing up to ruin everything. There are smaller roles that are also well played – especially by Stephen McHattie and Kristen Wiig – who show late in the proceedings.
Listen, I know most people are going to hate mother! Most viewers want a cleaner narrative than this, and don’t really want one long metaphor to stand in for a narrative. They want something less weird than this – more linear, more conventional. I get that, and I don’t necessarily think there is anything wrong with wanting that from your movies – especially, when you head to the multiplex on a Saturday night, thinking you may see a horror movie like Rosemary’s Baby (an obvious touchstone for this film) – and get this instead. But for me, I admired every crazy moment of mother! – which starts out crazy, and just get weirder from there. You should see it if for no other reason than you’re unlikely to see anything like it ever again.

Movie Review: Strong Island

Strong Island *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Yance Ford.
Documentaries made about a family, by a member of that family, aren’t often a mixed blessing. On one hand, you get access to material that no one else would ever have access to – and your family may be more candid, less on guard, when you interview them than if it’s someone they do not know as well – allowing greater insight. On the other, the filmmaker may be too close to the material to see it clearly – and ends up giving you a rather biased, or one side portrait. There is a little bit of both of those things in Strong Island – a very good documentary that bills itself as a true crime documentary – but is something more than that. Yance Ford has made the film to investigate the killing of his brother way back in the early 1990s – an unarmed, black man, who was shot and killed by a white 19 year old, who then claimed self- defense – and was never even indicted. While the film pulls back the veil on the type of story we still hear about all the time – it’s also a powerful story about grief, identity and family.
(Note: To avoid confusion, Yance Ford is a transgender man – although when the killing took place, he was a woman and identified as such. Ford never addresses being transgender in the doc – he does say that they are “queer” but that’s it. At the time the killing took place, he identified as a woman and a lesbian. This was confusing to me, as a few of the reviews I looked at referred to Ford as a “he” – and until I found out he was transgender, I was confused).
The details of the case are depressingly common. There was a traffic accident, and Ford’s brother William agreed not to go to the police if the wronged party simply took his car to their garage and fixed it themselves for free. The repairs took longer than they were supposed to – and one night, William goes down to the garage with his friends. Words are exchanged, and William is shot once, and dies right there. To both William’s family – and his friend who was on the scene that night – it appears like the cops and prosecutors always looked at the incident as self-defense – and never wanted it to be anything other than that. William Ford was just another dead, young black man. Throughout the film, Ford pieces together the crime – although it’s not much deeper than that – and a portrait of who William was leading up to his death, and the effect it had on William’s family.
If there is a flaw in the film, I think it’s that Ford withholds two rather critical pieces of information until fairly late in the film – one that makes her brother look bad – a previous, threatening incident at the garage, that although it never turned physically violent, lends at least some credence to the story that someone might be scared of him, and one that makes her brother look good – the courageous actions he takes to stop  a man who shot an Assistant District Attorney at an ATM, and was trying to flee the scene.
The film works best as a portrait of this family. After a short prologue of Ford on the phone with a former cop who investigated the death, the film heads back to the family before the killing – their lives growing up, their parents’ marriage and how they were raised – the closeness of this family. From there, it becomes a portrait of pain and grief – as the surviving family members feel ignored and pushed aside by the police – as if their feelings never did matter. How does a family pick up and pull themselves together after that? Can they?
The film may be a little too long for what it sets out to portray, and as mentioned, I wish it was slightly more upfront than it is. But those are minor quibbles to what I mainly thought was a powerful and timely documentary. William Ford was not killed by a police officer, but in many ways, his case resembles those we do hear about. Was it okay for the man who killed to be scared? Why was he scared – because William was black, or because of the previous incident? Did the cops really take this seriously? When Ford does get one of the investigators to talk to him, he is sympathetic, and says he did everything he could to find the truth – and he feels sincere. But what preconceived notions did he have when he started? Strong Island provides the type of glimpse into this family that we usually do not see. I have my quibbles with it, but mostly, it is a moving, deeply felt and valuable film.

Monday, September 18, 2017

My Mini TIFF 2017 Recap

Every year, a part of me wonders if it will be my last year attending TIFF. When my oldest daughter was born 6 years ago in mid-August, I skipped TIFF that year, and in the five years since, I’ve only attending two or three days – far from the week I used to spend, watching between 30 and 40 films. This year, it was 3 days and 14 movies – and I thought often that I have no idea how I used to do this for a week – especially considering in those days, I had to go back and forth on the train at the beginning and end of each day. I’m spoiled now springing for a cheap Toronto hotel – and I’m still exhausted my sometime on day 2. TIFF certainly has its share of problems – which I won’t really delve into here – but this year, like every year, I still loved it. Yes, I was tired – but it was also exhilarating. I liked or loved most of the films I saw this year – only hated 1 (we’ll get to that) – and it’s always a pleasure to be surrounded my so many film lovers and films for three days. So, as much of a headache (literal and figurative) it is to attend TIFF every year, I’ll be back, God willing, next year. As is my usual custom in my TIFF recap, I’ll start with the worst film I saw – and end with the best – although the rest is certainly not in order of preference, but just in an order that made sense. I even managed to see the People’s Choice Award winner at the fest for the first time since Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 – and two other prizewinners as well – the People’s Choice Documentary Winner and the Platform winner as well. Anyway, on with it.
First the film I hated - April's Daughter (Michael Franco) – which is a film that annoyed me to no end. Franco is clearly inspired by Michael Haneke (who, while being a great filmmaker, does have a lot to answer for in terms of the filmmakers he has inspired) – but the story he tells is nonsensical – a needless, thoughtless provocation about a woman (Almodovar favorite Emma Suarez – doing what she can with a horrible role) as a woman who has all but abandoned her two daughters – one in her early 20s, another who is 16 – and now seven months pregnant. Suarez eventually does return – saying she’ll be there to help raise her grand-daughter – but then basically kidnaps the baby, and seduces the kid’s 17 year old father. Why she does this – or the idiot teenager lover does it – is never explained, and no information is given. I’m all for ambiguity, but Franco is cheating here, as he gives you nothing to work with. How this scored a win at Cannes in the Un Certain Regard program is beyond me.
The only film I didn’t really like was The Insult (Ziad Doueiri) – his follow-up to The Attack. That film looked at all sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and saw victims and victimizers on all sides – and offered all humanity and sympathy. The Insult tries hard to do the same thing – this time in terms of the conflict between Christians in Lebanon, and the Palestinian refugees, who have been there for decades. I appreciate what the film is trying to do – but it withholds far too information from the audience, just so it can spring it on you to “shock” you – and after a while, it just feels like you’re getting jerked around. Still, until April’s Daughter which was frustrating and boring, The Insult is neither – it’s an entertaining bad movie – one with good performances, that fully embraces the contrivances of the courtroom drama. It’s a foreign film I could envision becoming a box office hit in North American (meaning it makes like $1 million here) – because it offers confront in more sense than one.
While I cannot really say I enjoyed Makala (Emmanuel Gras) – I admired it a great deal. This documentary follows a young man in the Congo who chops down a giant tree, chops it into smaller pieces, makes charcoal out of it, packs it all in bags, straps them to his old bicycle, and pushes it 50km into the closest town, where he has to try and sell it all. All that sounds about as entertaining as it plays – and yet, I couldn’t help, but be drawn into the film. Yes, it goes on a little long, and I’m not 100% sure what the extended church sequence at the end is supposed to mean. You also have to simply admire the filmmaking – and the dedication it took to make the film, and the young man’s journey. I know now more than I ever need to know about how you make charcoal in the Congo – but I’m glad I did.
For the second year in a row, I went to see the latest film by the most prolific Korean auteur The Day After (Hong Sang-soo). Like most of Hong’s films, it deals with the romantic dealings with a powerful middle aged man, and the younger women in his life. This time though – he’s not a film director (shock!) – but as the head of a publishing house and a writer – who spends most of the day with his new assistant (Hong favorite Kim Min-hee) – while he’s also juggling a wife and mistress, both of whom will show up during the course of the day. The film is undeniable minor Hong – it’s nowhere near as good as my favorites of his Right Now, Wrong Then or The Day He Arrives (although it shot in the same beautiful black and white as the later) – yet seeing it at the end of a long day of screenings was somehow very comforting. He repeats his themes most of the time anyway, but watching his variations on that theme are fascinating. I hardly loved the film – but I still quite liked it.
For filmmakers working (just) outside their comfort zone, we had Let the Corpses Tan (Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani). They team behind Amer and The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears apparently decided they had taken their barely narrative exploration of giallo films as far as they could – so they set their sights instead on spaghetti westerns and low-budget European exploitation crime films. For a feeling of what the film is like, just think of a Quentin Tarantino almost completely devoid of plot, character or dialogue – and add more leather than you could imagine. All that probably sounds like I didn’t like the movie – but I had a blast with it – as a group of criminals, hiding out at the secluded home of an artist – who is crazier than any of the criminals – are confronted by a pair a of cops, and then start double and triple crossing each other with such frequency that you couldn’t keep track if you wanted to. The film is a wickedly stylish blast – full of gunshot blast, creaking leather and blood galore. None of it makes sense, or is trying to – and I a lot of fun with it. It’s too bad most will not see it in a theater, where they will be deafened by each and every gunshot (there are a lot).
Another film that looked to the past for much of its style was the Platform section winner Sweet Country (Warwick Thornton) – who clearly watched some Sam Peckinpah before making this outback Western about an aboriginal man who kills a white man – with very good reason – and goes on the run from the law. The film is great on style, and has some fine performances – and it’s good to see a film like from the point of view of the aboriginal for once (and made by Thornton, who is aboriginal himself). The film runs out of steam for me in its last 30 minutes, when it goes from a tracking film a la The Searchers, into an outback courtroom drama – but overall, this is a solid film, and a welcome addition to the genre.
His first film, Lebanon, won the Venice Film Festival all the way back in 2009 – and second prize there last week for his long awaited follow-up - Foxtrot (Samuel Maoz). In many ways, Foxtrot is a companion piece to his first film – that documented his time during Israeli-Lebanon war, and this one is about a veteran of that war, who is told his son was just killed during his military service – and too paralyzed by inaction. The film takes some surreal twists from there – the highlight is the second act, set at a remote checkpoint in the middle of nowhere – and is funny, touching, and ultimately heartbreaking. It’s also a tough film that has angered some back in Israel – but Maoz is fine with that. Foxtrot will hopefully find the audience it deserves – it should be seen and discussed.
A couple of French directors made stunning debuts films here. The first Custody (Xavier Legrand) about a custody battle between the parents, that turns violent. The film starts with a lengthy, tense sequence in family court – and each scene after grows more and more intense from there. The final act of the movie is as terrifying as any horror movie you could imagine, and all the more so because it feels so real. It’s such a simple story in so many way – but just done really, really well. The second is an actual horror movie Revenge (Coralie Fargeat) – a rape-revenge movie from a female director for a change. This time neither the rape itself nor the gorgeous woman at the center are eroticized or fetishized – it’s harsh and unrelenting. From there, it really does go fairly bonkers and bloody, right up until its wonderful climax. This is a new horror classic – and I cannot wait to see what Coralie Fargeat does next.
From new French filmmakers to a French legend - Faces, Places (Agnes Varda & JR) – which won the People’s Choice documentary award was a pure delight from beginning to end – as the 88 year old Varda teams up with a photographer more than 50 years her junior, to travel around France talking to people, and putting up giant photos wherever they are able to. I’m not sure what else to say about it, other than to note that Varda is already winning an Oscar this year – a long overdue lifetime achievement award – and if she added a Best Documentary award to her mantle as well, I wouldn’t complain. The film is simple, yet perfect just as it is.
Now, let’s move onto the four larger films I saw at the festival – those that will be vying (or attempting to) anyway Oscars in a few months. You can certainly pencil in a Best Actor nomination (and possible win) for Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (Joe Wright). The film itself is a straight ahead prestige movie – albeit with some very impressive aspects (the cinematography and especially the score are great) that along with Oldman’s brilliant, blustery performance under layer upon layer of make-up, help make up for some of the screenplays missteps (no one is going to believe that sequence on the underground). The film itself makes an interesting companion piece to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk – this one concentrates on the first month of Churchill’s time in office, when he was getting pressured to make a peace deal with Hitler – and both films culminate with his famous speech in the wake of Dunkirk – in Nolan’s film delivered by a soldier reading it in the paper, here with Oldman screaming it brilliantly. Oldman has been one of the best actors in the world for decades now, and yet he only has one Oscar nomination (for his great turn in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy). The film should also get Joe Wright back on the career path he probably envisioned for himself after his first two films – Pride & Prejudice and Atonement – as he’s struggled since then. No one is going to call Darkest Hour innovative or original – but it works on precisely its own turns.
A better biopic for me was I, Tonya (Craig Gillespie) – the wonderfully funny film documenting the life and times of Tonya Harding – wonderfully played by Margot Robbie, with a killer supporting turn by Allison Janney as her mother, and fine work by Sebastian Stan as her ex-husband as well. The film knows its time period well – hell, this feels like a 1990s film in almost every way, which makes me as easy mark, as this was the era that made me fall in love with films as a teenager – and this is the type of film I loved then. The film is wickedly funny, and yet strangely sympathetic to all its characters – it would have been easier to mock them all, which this film stays just on this side of not doing. The film is also a reminder of just how miraculous Harding’s story almost was – if she hadn’t been involved in what everyone in the film calls “the incident”, and got a few different breaks, it would have been one of the greatest underdog sports stories in history. Instead it’s this wonderful mess of a thing – and the film fully embraces that mess.  Pure entertainment done well.
It was a surreal experience to watch The Shape of Water (Guillermo Del Toro) in the Elgin Theater, considering parts of it were shot in the Elgin Theater. In many ways, this feels like the film Del Toro has been warming up his entire career – this man who clearly loves monsters has crafted a rich fantasy about a mute woman (a wonderful Sally Hawkins) who quite literally loves a monster. Surrounded by a fine supporting cast – Richard Jenkins is a delight, Michael Shannon oozes menace, and both Octavia Spencer and Michal Stuhlberg do fine work as well – and containing Del Toro’s trademark eye for production design, cinematography, costumes, and a wonderful Alexandre Desplat score – this is Del Toro at his most whimsical and fantastical. It’s hard not to fall for this film.
But the best film at the festival that I saw, was also the film that won the People’s Choice Award - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh). McDonagh’s screenplay is the star here, in his film fully of snappy dialogue in which Frances McDormand plays the mother of a teenage girl who was raped and murdered, and whose killer has not been found – so she takes some drastic steps to put pressure on the police. You aren’t like to see a better ensemble cast this year – Woody Harrelson is great as the Sheriff, dying of cancer, who can dish out as well as take, Sam Rockwell, finds surprising levels to a violent deputy – and Peter Dinklage turns what I first thought was a nothing role into something quite great (his final scene in the film is I think perhaps the key one in the film – as you see things in a different way after that. The film starts out hilarious, but edges into darkness and tragedy – and ends on a note that I cannot quite describe. It’s a delicate balancing act, but one McDonagh pulls off effortlessly. This is one of the very best films of the year.
So that’s it for me for TIFF 2017. Here’s hoping I can attend next year as well.

Movie Review: My Scientology Movie

My Scientology Movie ** ½ / *****
Directed by: John Dower.
Written by: John Dower & Louis Theroux.
I think we’re passed the point now in which we need a documentary about Scientology to tell us about the problems with Scientology – the abuse allegations against its current leader, the role Tom Cruise and other celebrities play in the public face of the religion, and how ex-Scientologists regard it as either a scam, or else feel that it has perverted their real religion. I’m not sure we need another documentary about the religion, which documents how members of that religion try to harass the filmmaker out of making the film he is currently making. Going Clear – the documentary – was able to package up all that information in one film, and the book of the same name, apparently dives into far more detail. And even if you needed more information, there is no real shortage out there. The fundamental problem with My Scientology Movie directed by John Dower, and featuring Louis Theroux, is that it never quite solves the problem of why they needed to make this movie in the first place.
It’s no surprise that Theroux got his start working for Michael Moore on his short lived, but excellent, show – TV Nation in the mid-1990s. Theroux has in many ways, adopting Moore’s style of documentary filmmaking – essentially showing up with a camera in places where he’s pretty sure he’s not going to be welcome, and shooting until he is forced to leave, not getting the interview he wants – but getting the footage he really needs. There is something at least slightly disingenuous about Theroux in the film – he says early he wanted to see the good side of the religion – but he had to have known that he was never going to get current scientologists to talk about their faith – and most ex-Scientologists are understandably bitter about their experience in the religion for many reasons. Theroux’s main source of info for the film is Marty Rathburn – once a very high ranking member of the religion, who says he knows all the secrets, and that they are afraid of him. To Theroux’s credit, he can be hard of Rathburn throughout the film – trying to get the truth out of him – Rathburn himself are part of those abuse allegations – and he wonders if Rathburn really stopped believing, or didn’t like the role he was be given.
The film tries to wrap their exploration of Scientology up in an entertaining package. Theroux casts actors to play David Miscavige and Tom Cruise – among others – and gives the whole movie a clever, amusing running narration. There are some scenes that work quite well, and overall, the film is an easy sit. Yet, I kept waiting to learn something more about Scientology, or get a different perspective on it, that really makes the film necessary. Instead, we basically get an mildly entertaining gloss on the version of events we already know.
I suppose if you didn’t have any knowledge of Scientology – and wanted a lighter version of it than Going Clear, than My Scientology Movie would fit the bill. But given all the information we already know, I cannot say that the film is ever anything more than an amusing sidenote.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Classic Movie Review: Dawn of the Dead (1979)

Dawn of the Dead (1979)
Directed by: George A. Romero.
Written by: George A. Romero.
Starring: David Emge (Stephen "Flyboy" Andrews), Ken Foree (Peter Washington), Scott Reiniger (Roger "Trooper" DeMarco), Gaylen Ross (Francine Parker), Dave Crawford (Dr. James Foster), David Early (Mr. Sidney Berman), Richard France (Dr. Millard Rausch), Howard Smith (TV Commentator).
George A. Romero invented the modern zombie genre with 1968’s Night of the Living Dead – and he perfected it a decade later in Dawn of the Dead. Everyone who has made a zombie movie – or TV show – since 1979, has had to reckon in some way to Romero’s classic, and still no one has outdone him. It is one of the best horror films ever made, and the best zombie movie anyone has, or ever will, make. The movie was considered shockingly violent for 1979 audiences – reading over Roger Ebert’s review from the time now, he sounds like he’s describing an extreme Japanese (or French) horror film. Watching the film now, all that stylized violence doesn’t hit in quite the same way – the blood is clearly the too bright red of paint, and movies have consistently raised the bar on just how brutal and bloody and gruesome they are willing to become. Yet Dawn of the Dead lasts, and is still a great movie even if that shock value has faded a little bit. The reason being, of course, is that Romero has a bigger purpose in mind that just creative ways to kill zombies (though, he’s great at that as well).
Romero’s Night of the Living Dead is a smaller, more intimate film than Dawn of the Dead. He made that film on a shoestring budget, so having just a few characters, a field, a farmhouse and a lot of friends willing to dawn zombie makeup worked wonders. From the start of Dawn of the Dead, we know the film is going to have a larger canvas. In two wonderful sequence, Romero introduces us to a newsroom in the midst of reporting on the zombie outbreak (which has started before the movie, thank god, so he doesn’t have to explain it) – and in particular to helicopter pilot Stephen Andrews (David Emge) and his girlfriend Francine (Gaylen Ross). They are background players in the newsroom – and they’re getting out as soon as possible. He then plunges us into a 10-15 minute sequence of unrelenting violence as he follows a police SWAT team as they storm an apartment building in which the zombies have taken, as the cops try, in vain, to quell the zombie uprising there as well. Eventually, Romero settles on two of the cops – Peter (Ken Foree) and Roger (Scott Reiniger). They will, eventually, find their way into the helicopter alongside Stephen and Francine – flying above the countryside as it devolves into complete chaos. They have to keep stopping for supplies however, and eventually, they find a mall – and the hit upon an idea. A mall has everything you could ever ask for. If they could clear the mall of the undead, they’d have their pick of supplies, and be able to ride out, whatever the hell this is.
The setting of the mall gives Romero ample opportunities for both creative use of zombies, and his brand of social commentary. The idea that people are really zombies – rushing to the mall, buying the latest whatever, as if on autopilot – wasn’t a particularly original idea in 1979, or today – but Romero handles it effectively, and with many clever touches. Watching as the zombies get confused when the escalators come on – and some them try to walk up the down one – is brilliant physical comedy. Besides, Romero is only getting started with his commentary of the humans being consumerist zombies in the beginning – as the film goes on, he exposes humanity’s crass, cruel greed in ways that are more subtle than that. The four survivors – especially the three men – get obsessed with their stuff, their possessions, and their mall, their everything – until they lose sight of everything else. This comes into focus more in the finale – when a bike gang tries to infiltrate the mall to get their stuff. Both groups – those on the inside, and those on the outside – are more concerned with the stuff, than anything else – even survival. There’s more than enough to go around, but instead, they end up destroying everything. As with all of Romero’s films – it isn’t the zombies that are the real monsters in the film – they are, after all, only following their basic instincts, which is all they have – the humans in his films make the choice to be depraved.
It should also just be mentioned that Dawn of the Dead is incredibly fun to watch. The film goes over-the-top with the blood and gore, in that fun way that 1970s horror films could do. The film isn’t particularly scary in that gradually mounting suspense way, it’s more about the sick and depraved, and that it does remarkably well. Romero always finds interesting ways to kill zombies, and he does that here with great zeal.
There have been many fine zombie movies made in the years since Dawn of the Dead. Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later is probably the best (its sequel is great too) – and even Zack Snyder’s remake of this film is pretty damn good (it isn’t a deep film by any means, but it kills zombies real good, even if we all know that zombies are slow, not fast). Shaun of the Dead is good as well – a clever take on the genre, using the clichĂ©s for comedy, but then actually making a fine horror film. Romero himself has returned the genre four times – Day of the Dead, Land of the Dead, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, all of which are worthy in some ways (Survival, not so much, but the others are fine). But he hasn’t topped Dawn of the Dead yet – and no one else has either. And I don’t think they ever will.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Movie Review: Beatriz at Dinner

Beatriz at Dinner *** / ****
Directed by: Miguel Arteta
Written by: Mike White.
Starring: Salma Hayek (Beatriz), John Lithgow (Doug), Connie Britton (Kathy), Jay Duplass (Alex), Amy Landecker (Jeana), Chloe Sevigny (Shannon), David Warshofsky (Grant), John Early (Evan).
The filmmakers behind Beatriz at the Dinner – the talented writer/director duo of Mike White and Miguel Arteta – could not possibly have known just how relevant Beatriz at Dinner would be when they made the film. It premiered at Sundance after all, just a few months after Donald Trump won the election, but before he was sworn in. They knew, of course, that the national discourse was devolving, but they couldn’t possibly know it would go this far down. That timeliness works in Beatriz at Dinner’s favor, particularly because the film is rather thin in other respects, and needs that to give it a boost. I do wish that they had gone a little more biting here in their condemnation, because as it stands, I think it lets some people off the hook too easily. Still, it’s a fine film, with two standout performances.
The film stars Salma Hayek as the title character – a (legal) Mexican immigrant, working in L.A. as a “healer” of sorts – she does massages, but also more than that. She is at the expansive home of Kathy (Connie Britton) and Grant (David Warshofsky) – to give Kathy a massage before their big dinner party. The previous year, Beatriz had worked with the couple’s daughter – who then had cancer, but is now in remission – and Kathy is still grateful to her. Grant, not so much. When Beatriz’s car breaks down, and it will take a while for her friend to show up and help her with it, Kathy invites her to stay for the fancy dinner party. The other party guests are two other coupes – spineless, entitled corporate lawyer Alex (Jay Duplass) and his wife Shannon (Chloe Sevigny) and a Donald Trump-like land developer, Doug (John Lithgow) and his third wife, Jeana (Amy Landecker). As the dinner moves along, Beatriz finds it harder and harder to hold her tongue and the bile that Doug is spurting out – and eventually the dinner party devolves into a parade of awkwardness.
Hayek is great here – as she does every so often when given the right role, she shows what a great actress she can be if given the chance. Sure, she’s able to spew out the word motherfucker as good as anyone – as she showed in The Hitman’s Bodyguard – but there is more nuance to her work when given the right role. Here, she is more dressed down than I think I’ve ever seen her – playing almost a Mexican hippie, at one with the earth, and others around her. Of course, she hates Doug and everything he stands for – his hotels hurt the earth, and often those who live close by. Doug is an entitled, asshole – he takes responsibility for nothing, and doesn’t care. Yes, there is a degree of Donald Trump in him – but Lithgow makes him more charming than Trump could ever hope to be. He’s an asshole, knows it, and doesn’t much care. The only sympathetic character in the film other than Beatriz is Britton’s Kathy – who really is trying her best to walk the tight rope between these two sides, and is put in an impossible situation. The two other men are too busy kissing up to Doug to care if he’s an asshole – and their wives don’t either (I do wish the film had given something, anything to do for the talented Sevigny and Landecker – who are basically playing caricatures out of a Real Housewives show).
The show is, of course, a metaphor for the larger discourse in America – and it’s not exactly a subtle one either. I do wish the film had more bite to it in some regards – I think it lets us lefties off the hook too much, and allows us to feel superior to Doug and his kind. The film also kind of peters out, and the end strikes me as if the filmmakers had no idea how to end it, so how about we try this? The film could have been great had it gone a little harder at all its targets – but as it stands, it’s still impressive – and makes me want to see someone give Hayek another great role.