The art of reflexive cinematic disquisition — in which an area of putative inquiry and the very arc of the filmmaker’s own artistic quest are commingled, and presented alongside one another — is a tricky feat. It can make for heady entertainment when the pretzel makers are whipsmart (witness Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze’s Adaptation, for instance), and even give extra layers of sociological heft and insight to nonfiction films, as in works like Capturing the Friedmans and Catfish. For Pamela Yates’ Granito: How To Nail a Dictator, however, which premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, it just doesn’t work, alas. Instead, it serves as a leaden weight on the well-meaning material, dragging it down into the depths of an inelegant bore. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (International Film Circuit, unrated, 103 minutes)
A surprisingly well known cast (fronted by Nicholas D’Agosto, of the underrated Fired Up!) headlines Mardi Gras: Spring Break, a dispiriting slice of purported comedy that provides little more than a thinly stitched together parade of nudity, and denigrates the current trend of Hollywood capital infusion into the city of New Orleans. Nothing about this loud, unsubtle and roundly unfunny stinker merits much attention or discussion; it’s the sort of film that no cast member would bring up freely of their own volition in any interview. Hell, I believe even Carmen Electra (who cameos as herself), a woman for whom the sentiment is mostly foreign, probably feels some shame about her participation in this. Nevertheless, for the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Samuel Goldwyn, R, 88 minutes)
One assumes that handsome paydays for all and possibly some sort of foreign tax shelter were the reasons for the birthing of Trespass, a massively retarded home invasion thriller directed by Joel Schumacher and starring Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman that otherwise exhibits no particular reason for existing.
Cage plays Kyle Miller, an unfashionably bespectacled diamond dealer whose wall-safe password is “diamond.” He lives in a well-appointed home in a gated community, with his wife Sarah (Kidman) and teenage daughter, Avery (Liana Liberato). On the surface everything is good, but there are ripples of marital and familial discord. These mere pebbles in the pond are put in perspective, however, when a group of thugs (Ben Mendelsohn, Cam Gigandet, Jordana Spiro and Dash Mihok) gain entry to his house posing as cops. They demand that he give them diamonds and cash. He refuses, but when Avery — who has snuck out to a party — returns home, Kyle loses the upper hand, and finds he and his family locked in a struggle of wills with these brutish interlopers. As their focus and allegiance to one another begins to crack, can Kyle exploit these problems to save his family?
Writer Karl Gajdusek, whose screen credits include The Mechanic and Unknown, also has many playwriting credits to his name, which is rather baffling given the many narrative set-ups that come to no greater fruition within Trespass. There are a couple smart physical details (the would-be burglars have tape affixed to the pads of their fingers), but the film cycles through so many ridiculous stories and motivations pegged to the criminals’ intent as to court outright boredom. And the dialogue that Gajdusek gives them invariably sounds pedantic or awkward coming out of their mouths (“Every minute we stay past the first 20 minutes ups our risk of being caught by 10 percent!”), as if cobbled together from a bunch of different newspaper articles about similar domestic robberies.
The idea of madly inept and/or fucked up intruders could be plumbed to delicious, ironic and/or subversive effect, but Trespass is played bewilderingly straight, even with Cage’s tinny, warbled accent flickering in and out. The performances seem to exist on different emotional planes, giving the film an uneven feeling, but the most damning thing about the movie is the fact that it so consistently introduces little plot twists and turns that portend intriguing wrinkles which never arrive. The result engenders a cyclical response through the stages of grief — first confusion, then denial, and finally anger. Trespass is fascinating, all right, but for none of the wrong reasons. (Millennium Entertainment, R, 90 minutes)
Because the phrase “hillbilly cannibals” really whets one’s appetite, Wrong Turn 4: Bloody Beginnings is offering up a “cannibal cookbook” via its Facebook page, just in time for Halloween. You know, in case peeled grapes in a paper bag long ago lost their thrill for you.
Nell this ain’t, that’s for sure. Adapted by director Lucky McKee
from a novel he co-wrote with Jack Ketchum, The Woman tells the
story of an antisocial, outright feral female who’s lived in the wild as
an animal, and what happens when she’s captured and held by a rural
family, in a perverted attempt to foist “civilized” behavior upon her.
Walkouts supposedly overwhelmed the movie’s Sundance Film Festival
premiere presentation earlier this year, and it’s easy to understand
why, given the pattycake niceness of so many indie narratives,
especially in that venue. The Woman is at once grim and kind
of outlandish, but also extraordinarily well crafted — more than
enough to queasily pull an audience along, even somewhat against their
Real estate lawyer Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) lives a very traditional and seemingly simple life with his wife Belle (Angela Bettis) and family, which also includes teenage daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), pubescent son Brian (Zach Rand) and youngest daughter Darlin’ (Shyla Molhusen). One day he stumbles across a filthy, hunched over woman (Pollyanna McIntosh, above) bathing in a nearby creek; he later returns and captures her. Shackling her up in the family’s cellar, he presents her cultivation and betterment as a “family project.” Neither the woman (who communicates only in icy glares and pre-verbal grunts) chomping off a portion of Chris’ finger and certainly not the growing unease of his wife can dissuade him from this seemingly bizarre focus; no one else gets a vote in this very patriarchal hierarchy. Of course, bad things eventually happen.
In films like the striking May and Red, McKee has shown an unusual flair for summoning dread and horror from curious places and angles, and part of the sly genius of The Woman is that it is the exact opposite of gleefully deranged. Its concept may be peculiar and out-there, but McKee imbues it with a deep and disarming ordinariness, allowing depravity to kind of bleed into the picture on its own slow terms. This seems crazy, of course, but its snarling central subject aside, everyone else in The Woman is essentially acting as if they are in a family drama — which of course they are. Chris seems a punitive figure, but the full measure of his psychosis comes into focus slowly, like a Polaroid picture.
If there’s a strike against The Woman, it’s that its finale feels like a manifestation of Weezer’s “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Things unravel at such a quick, woolly clip, and its descent into gory comeuppance feels like something of a sop to genre audiences — more of a payoff for the investment of their time rather than something invested in character. Perhaps in the source material there is a deeper explication of the elicited themes that McKee and Ketchum are aiming to shine a spotlight on in twisted fashion, but these don’t convincingly pay off here, and are a huge disappointment relative to the rest of the movie. Still, this Woman is undeniably unforgettable, and in a world of measured entertainment that so often banks on an evocation of familiar feelings, that’s certainly saying something. For more information, visit www.TheWomanMovie.com. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, meanwhile, click here. (Bloody Disgusting Films, R, 103 minutes)
Professional jackass Johnny Knoxville and Patton Oswalt, widely regarded as one of the best and most transgressive stand-up comedians of the last decade, have signed on to co-star in The Catechism Cataclysm director Todd Rohal’s latest film, an outlandish yet poignant comedy about a pair of battling brothers who attempt to honor the memory of their ailing father by taking a troop of boys on a camping trip that goes wildly wrong.
The still untitled film from emerging comedic auteur Rohal is loosely based on his experiences growing up. Production began several weeks ago, during the last week of August, and Maura Tierney, The Daily Show correspondent Rob Riggle, and Patrice O’Neal are also on board for the ensemble comedy. Look for more on The Catechism Cataclysm, meanwhile, next week.
An energetic and curiously faithful remake of the 1984 film of the same name starring Kevin Bacon, writer-director Craig Brewer’s Footloose is a virtual cinematic poison pill to anyone irrevocably divorced from any trace memories of adolescent feeling, and further proof that in life but especially art feeling is stronger than thought. Transparently but for the most part effectively rousing, this modestly pitched movie breaks no new ground, but also evinces no ambition to do so. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Paramount, PG-13, 113 minutes)
Over at ShockYa, for my latest Blu-ray/DVD column, I take a gander at Tim Burton and Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, a bunch of horror flicks, a pair of documentaries on men that could scarcely be more different (New York Times society photographer Bill Cunningham and schlock-meister Herschell Gordon Lewis), and the film that inspired Austin Powers‘ machine-gun-breasted fembots. Again, it’s over at ShockYa, so for the full read, click here.
Eschewing the expectation that he perhaps stick to cranking out hand-wringing dramas of uptight manners, Atonement and Pride & Prejudice director Joe Wright veers in a surprising new direction with the revenge thriller Hanna, which courses with an unflagging, forward-leaning vigor. The engaging results, which feel like a bold, purposeful step toward modernity on his part, show he has a good instinct for melding the dynamics of a more conventional piece of pop action entertainment with something a bit offbeat and barbed.
The film opens in the snowy wilds of Finland, where 16-year-old Hanna Heller (Saoirse Ronan) has the strength, stamina, smarts and lethal combat skill set of a soldier twice her age, thanks to the intense training of her father Erik (Eric Bana), an ex-CIA agent. The reasons for their curious, extreme isolation come into focus when Hanna indicates her readiness to finally accept a long-planned quest of revenge against a seemingly ruthless government operative from Erik’s past, Marissa Wiegler (Cate Blanchett). As Hanna tries to carry out her solo mission and then reunite with Erik, darker secrets about both her past and her father’s relationship with Marissa color the wild, life-and-death struggle for which she’s been preparing her entire life.
Hanna starts with a bang, like a thoroughbred horse out of the starting gate, and though on rare occasion it feels like it suffers from a case of slight stylistic overreach, a narrative significance and reasoning for this tack develops, and so Wright plugs into a punkish energy arguably not as convincingly attached to a female action protagonist since Run Lola Run. Since Hanna is constantly learning more about her past, too, the movie is gripping as a quasi-amnesiac thriller, a la The Bourne Identity. The little-girl-assassin underpinnings make the film sound vaguely like Kick-Ass, but Hanna‘s human contours make it more rooted in character, and reminiscent of something like The Professional, albeit with a few booster supplements.
Cinematographer Alwin Küchler luxurious widescreen framing, combined with frequently long takes, nicely showcases Sarah Greenwood’s fabulous production design. Wright and his collaborators also seed their work with various fairytale allusions. With her severe makeup, ruby-red lipstick and stalking demeanor, Marissa echoes a wicked witch, and Erik is an earthy woodcutter in the vein of Rapunzel’s father. Various settings are similarly informed by fairytale archetypes. An undeniably strong selling point of Hanna is also found in its bristling, innovative score from the Chemical Brothers, which alternately gurgles, throbs and pulsates, sounding at times like a Madhatter’s rave. It’s an exceptionally imaginative soundtrack that expands upon staid notions of film scoring.
Blanchett’s steeliness gives Hanna a welcome edge and depth, since one hypothesizes her inflexibility is rooted in some moral reasoning. Wright, meanwhile, obviously has a good rapport with his Atonement collaborator Ronan, and it is the latter’s preternatural maturity that powers this ride. She imbues her character with depth, and also handles the considerable physical demands with aplomb.
Housed in a standard plastic case in turn stored in a cardboard slipcover, Hanna comes to Blu-ray presented in a stunning 1080p high-definition 2.40:1 widescreen transfer, and anchored by an English language DTS-HD master audio 5.1 track. (DVS 2.0, as well as Spanish and French DTS surround 5.1 tracks are also available.) In addition to BD-Live content and a digital copy, a nice slate of bonus features consist of four minutes of deleted scenes, an audio commentary track with Wright, a two-minute look at the movie’s expansive location filming, a six-minute look at Ed and Tom Rowlands’ approach to writing the score, a breakout featurette examining the film’s stunning “Camp G” escape sequence, and a 13-minute featurette with plenty of behind-the-scenes footage and fight training material showcasing Ronan’s work with stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. This is a great movie, and a right proper home video release that invites multiple viewings. To purchase the Blu-ray via Amazon, click here. A- (Movie) A- (Disc)
A big talent in a little package, singer and actress Mya has made her name in a variety of fields, from platinum albums to placing second on the ninth season of the hit show Dancing With the Stars. I recently had a chance to talk one-on-one to the 32-year-old multi-hyphenate, about the new-to-DVD romantic comedy The Heart Specialist, her thoughts on sex tapes (celebrity and otherwise), her view of changes to the music industry over the past decade, and what she’s doing with her free time. The conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here for the read.
In his new documentary Sarah Palin: You Betcha!, director Nick Broomfield indulges in some of his characteristically bumbling, nice-guy provocation, learning more about Palin’s background and hometown while engaging in what seemingly becomes an increasingly futile attempt to secure an interview with her. Fortunately, the British-born filmmaker isn’t as difficult to pin down as his most recent subject. I had a chance to speak to Broomfield one-on-one recently, and although the conversation occurred just days before Palin officially announced that she is not seeking the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, the light that he sheds on her upbringing and early political career via the nearly three months he spent in Wasilla, Alaska, during his film’s production is still eye-opening and quite illuminating as to her mettle. The conversation is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here for the read.
For all their amazing feats, athletes, even those of ferocious competitiveness and incredible and finely honed individual skill, sometimes evince a lack of joy, perhaps because their profession is dictated to some degree by body shape and size, pedigree, or simply the fact that it was drummed into their head long ago that their self-worth was entirely tied to this game or that. For me, that’s why amateur sports — particularly something like college basketball, where rivalries often span generations — possess such a special allure. There’s an innately human joy in bearing witness to someone doing something they truly and deeply love, no matter the money, and also do it well — especially if they’re a youngster. And that joy is on ample display in Make Believe: The Battle to Become the World’s Best Teen Magician, a superlative new documentary that radiates an absolutely positive energy.
Of a piece with 2003’s Spellbound and 2007’s The Kong of King: A Fistful of Quarters (no surprise, since it’s executive produced by Seth Gordon, the man behind that hit documentary), Make Believe puts a death grip on one’s attention not because of any grand understanding about the allure of magic that it imparts, but because these are bright if somewhat differently focused kids with a depth of insight and a remarkable amount of self-awareness. Ergo, it’s rewarding to listen to them talk about their interest in magic, and how it makes them feel.
As with any number of other comfortable, more conventional teen narrative features, the dramatic arc here tracks a few months of practice leading up to the teen-classification finals of the prestigious World Magic Seminar in Las Vegas, sponsored and endorsed by various organizational bodies and world-famous magician Lance Burton. Of the five subjects on which the film focuses (one is actually a pair, from South Africa), there’s not a rotten apple in the bunch. Hiroki Hara, from a small village in Japan, has a strong affinity for nature, and utilizes rocks and leaves in his act. Seventeen-year-old rings expert and Magic Castle Junior Club member Krystyn Lambert, from Malibu, is one of those preternatural teens who seems to excel at everything. Chicago native Bill Koch, on a year’s sabbatical from college, manufactures many of his own props, including for a complex illusion involving mock iPods. The youngest interviewee, Derek McKee (above), may also be the most touchingly unguarded and eloquent — which is saying something, since all of the participants are quite candid, including a few bewildered siblings or adult caretakers.
The winner of the Best Documentary Prize at last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival, Make Believe could be more comprehensive and detailed with regards to its putative subject of inquiry, certainly. There’s really only one sort of behind-the-curtain tidbit, in which the ins and outs of “split fans” (also seen above) are explained, using a deck of cards. More about some of the certain tricks would have only increased an appreciation for the skill (and in particular finger dexterity) required to pull them off. Unspoken or more deeply explored, too, is the interesting fact that a good number (though not all) of the participants seem to come from broken or single parent homes. While understandably no kid would necessarily be keen to discuss the details of a messy home life, investigating this a bit, along with other surface similarities, would have provided a greater illumination of the type of personalities that find themselves drawn to magic.
Still, watching Make Believe, one’s heart sings, caught up as it is in the dreams and aspirations of these talented kids. It’s a reminder, too — removed from the harsh glare of peer judgment — that all the kids with the quirkier interests and hobbies in high school were probably the coolest, and stand a better chance today of making their own unique way in the world.
Housed in a plastic EcoTech Amaray case made from 100 percent recycled material that doesn’t sacrifice any sturdiness, Make Believe comes to DVD presented in 16×9 widescreen, with a Dolby digital 5.1 surround sound audio track. Its supplemental features are an interesting mixed bag. Character profiles give a bit more biography on the movie’s interviewees and subjects, but 90 seconds of material from Make Believe‘s Los Angeles Film Festival presentation (billed as a Q&A) is a yawn, and waste of space. Four minutes of extra interview material spotlighting Lance Burton and other professionals talking up their livelihood is revealing, again, insofar as the articulate nature of many of these gents.
There’s also a six-and-a-half-minute performance from Kyle Eschen, a sardonic youngster, and three-and-a-half minutes of deleted scenes stowed away as an Easter egg (toggle right after scrolling through all the other options on the extras menu), in which Neil Patrick Harris and a curious cat each make striking impressions. Far and away the best bonus feature, though, are the 10 magic tutorials the disc offers up, set to three different skill sets. To purchase the movie from its web site, click here. B+ (Movie) B- (Disc)
A forced, unconvincingly zany dramedy about a solitary adult orphan (Jackson Hurst), a woman (Rachel Nichols) in grossly idealized romantic pursuit, and the talking parrot that helps bring them together, would-be screwball dramedy A Bird of the Air serves as an ample reminder that originality isn’t necessarily synonymous with quality or engagement. It also represents an unexpected boon to the judgment of Matthew McConaughey. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Paladin, PG-13, 98 minutes)
When its lead character speaks of “a jumbled mass of conflicting impulses,” she easily could be talking about writer-director Kenneth Lonergan’s sophomore effort, a lurching drama in which various coming-of-age incidents and more conventional familial friction get pressed up against an ethical dilemma that spawns an unusual wrongful death civil suit. More than a bit manic, Margaret is a film with as much distinct, wide-eyed personality as it has little focus. Not built for traditional catharsis or even really emotional engagement, it plays out as a string of thematically related acting scene exercises, and as such is a movie likely to be misunderstood by the few that don’t dismiss it outright. For the full, original review, from Screen International, click here. (Fox Searchlight, R, 149 minutes)
One needn’t be a fan of Mike Leigh to know that secrets and lies offer up rich narrative possibilities for filmmakers. So, too, do the allure of nonfiction tales. But not all true stories are created equal, as Berlin ’36 amply demonstrates. A German period piece embellishing of the nonfiction story of a transsexual Olympic athlete who stood the chance of greatly embarrassing the Nazi regime during the country’s hosting of the quadrennial games, the movie unfolds with such a singular lack of dramatic heft as to almost defy logic. For the full review, from ShockYa, click here. (Corinth Films, unrated, 100 minutes)
I’m Glad My Mother Is Alive, which played at the 2010 City of Lights City of Angels Festival, is a stirring familial drama of simmering resentment, anchored by a searing performance from young Vincent Rottiers, whose piercing blue eyes and quiet intensity are enough to make one ruminate about a possible fraternal collaboration with Daniel Craig. The American version of these sorts of damaged-kid stories typically cedes all ambiguity in favor of pat cathartic redemption, but this gripping French import keeps an edge of violence and uncertainty about it, making for an engaging and unnerving treat for arthouse audiences. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Strand, unrated, 91 minutes)
Another nationalist, feuding-warlord Chinese martial arts import, historic epic Shaolin delivers moderately on the expectations its core demographic might likely have, but otherwise does little else to distinguish itself for a broader audience. Ambitiously staged set pieces fall victim to portentous technique, creating an ultimately irreconcilable chasm between how much one wants to like this movie and how much they actually do. For the full, original review, from ShockYa, click here. (Variance, unrated, 131 minutes)
Uninspired erotica of a certain rough breed seems to always possess a title comprised of some combination of the same 14 words pulled in random order from a hat. Such is the case with Nelio Rossati’s Erotic Escape, an Italian import from the mid-1980s.
Set in South America, the film centers on Manuel (Rodrigo Obregon), a fugitive political prisoner who escapes from a high security penitentiary and takes as his hostage Amparo (Eleonora Vallone), the gorgeous daughter of a wealthy businessman. With law enforcement and Amparo’s father on their trail, Manuel resorts to drastic measures to keep his freedom. Rape and “Stockholm Syndrome” identification ensue, with no sort of psychological perspicacity.
There’s nothing particularly erotic about this movie, though it certainly wouldn’t be the first time that a foreign sexploitation flick suffered from ridiculous retitling. But the settings are drab and the acting uninspired, and Rossati (The Sensuous Nurse) does little to shade or make worthwhile anything having to do with the fact that Manuel is a political prisoner. There’s plenty of nudity, but this over-the-top genre entry is a wince-inducing yawner.
Presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen with a Dolby digital 2.0 mono audio track, Erotic Escape comes to DVD on a region-free disc housed in a regular plastic Amaray case. Does it contain supplemental bonus features, you ask? No, no it does not. C- (Movie) C- (Disc)
If babies need more sleep for their developing brains, as studies have confirmed, then do our ever-increasing reliance on email and text messaging have some unforeseen consequences for human evolution? Filmmaker Tiffany Shlain tackles these and other questions at the intersection of technology and humanity in Connected, a sort of investigative documentary and canted memoir which bowed at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, and stands poised to release both in theaters and across various multimedia platforms. This isn’t a new topic of interest for Shlain, who years ago launched the honorific Webby Awards, casting a spotlight on some of the best creativity on the Internet. Recently, I had a chance to speak one-on-one to her, about her movie, her legacy with the Webby Awards, and more. The Q&A chat is excerpted over at ShockYa, so click here, and maybe I’ll post some more tidbits next week. For even more about the film, meanwhile, click here.
In my latest Blu-ray/DVD column, over at ShockYa, I take a gander at How I Met Your Mother (the television show… zing!), The Mentalist, Ghost Hunters, Breaking the Press, the film with summer’s best, most hilariously engaging sound effect, and more. Again, it’s over at ShockYa, so click here for the full, fun read.
Director Creep Creepersin’s Corporate Cutthroat Massacre — which bills itself as The Office meets American Psycho — is a slapdash piece of genre entertainment which elicits absolutely no slapdash, whiz-bang, cathartic thrills, be they of the comedic, gore or genre-tweaking satiric variety.
It simply exists because presumably there are shlock-genre fans who so hate mainstream Hollywood tripe that they still make rental and purchase decisions purely on outrageousness of title. So… it’s a bouillabaisse of references (one could actually throw Glengarry Glen Ross into the mix as well, since there’s a competitive sales element to the proceedings), but none are particularly inspired or deftly interwoven, and the whole thing is variously over-acted and poorly shot, to the point that it makes you want to start flicking yourself in the eye, just to feel something real. Making matters worse is the fact that the camerawork shifts to lurking hand-held mode without ever clearly establishing an outside menace.
Expanded from a short film, Late Shift, from star-producer Elina Madison, Creepersin’s movie centers on Brandi Babcock (Madison), a shrill, high-strung manager at some anonymous white collar office environment. With an edict from above to fire folks by the end of the day, Babcock puts the screws to her minions, in a none-too-polite fashion. Bodies start turning up not long after a creepy janitor surfaces, so… you know, there’s that.
Corporate Cutthroat Massacre comes to DVD in a white plastic Amaray case with a nice, deep-set spindle — the type which helps avoid disc pop-out and damage (hey, I’m not above giving credit where credit is due). Presented on a region-free disc in 1.78:1 widescreen with a simple stereo audio track, the movie includes a few bonus featurettes, anchored by Creepersin’s audio commentary track. I scratched out a few notes on this movie while watching it, but they’ve since disappeared. I do remember, however, Creepersin rather freely admitting all sorts of screw-ups and technical faux pas over the course of the rushed two-day (!) shoot, which was sort of charming at first, and then less so by increasing degrees.
There’s also a 10-minute behind-the-scenes featurette with interview material, seven minutes in which the interview subjects discuss the worsts jobs they’ve ever had, and a copy of the original, 16-minute short that “inspired” this feature. The interesting thing there is how much better that short film looks. The material is still basically dreck, but it’s at least somewhat moody and evocative in bits and pieces; the feature version, on the other hand, actually evinces less production value (offices consist of almost entirely empty desks). Nevertheless, to purchase the DVD via Amazon, click here. Or if Half is more your speed/budget, click here. F+ (Movie) C- (Disc)