Rapid Response: Abigail’s Party

AbigailsPartyPosterAt the beginning of “Abigail’s Party,” Beverly enters the living room of her home, opens a cabinet full of liquor, and pours herself a drink, her first of what will be many this evening. She’s wearing a low cut, salmon colored dress and a large, garish gold necklace beneath a frumpy Pageboy haircut that’s rounded perfectly above her eyes. In the course of this evening, she will turn out to be a real monster. And that’s saying nothing of her friends.

In Beverly we get one of the most grating, annoying characters ever put to film, her British accent almost cartoonish, her poise sloppy and her decorum atrocious. And yet she’s the star of a truly devastating and cringe-worthy character study. “Abigail’s Party” was an early film by British director Mike Leigh released in 1977. It’s a teleplay made for TV and based on a theater production. Louis C.K. was inspired by it to make “Horace and Pete,” firstly due to its live, three-camera, sitcom style filmmaking, and secondly for how this darkly funny story of alcoholism, etiquette and societal values add up to a dreary tragedy. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Abigail’s Party”

Ghostbusters (2016)

Ghostbusters Poster 2016Turns out all those misogynistic Internet trolls were really worrying for nothing. Paul Feig’s “Ghostbusters” hardly remakes the original comedy classic and instead invents new characters and themes to serve the same concept. The fan service may even be the film’s weakest aspect. And guess what nerds? The girls in this movie are pretty funny after all.

Rather than try and fail to recreate Dr. Peter Venkman and company with a younger cast or with women, gone are Venkman’s playboy charms, his slacker attitude and his sarcastic one-liners that only Bill Murray can do. Instead, Feig’s All-Female “Ghostbusters” finds ways for women to be funny in the way they do best. Feig plays to the strengths of Kirsten Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones. Wiig plays equal parts awkward, timid and crazy as she would on SNL. McCarthy has the aggressive boisterousness and physical comedy necessary for such a wacky story. Jones gives the film a much needed black presence and down to Earth, angry attitude. And McKinnon proves to be the true breakout, a real weirdo constantly wearing a fiendish smirk, raised eyebrows, hair gone awry and a sense of mystery in her voice. She honestly might be possessed by a ghost. Continue reading “Ghostbusters (2016)”

Rapid Response: Face/Off

FaceOffPosterOh, I miss movies like “Face/Off.” We still have “John Wick” and “Kingsman” and “Mad Max: Fury Road,” sure, but superheroes and perhaps the dark and gritty brand of Christopher Nolan movies have made the truly ridiculous action movie an endangered species and a thing of the past.

It was a different time, the ’90s. Pokemon may be back, but the superficially stupid and one-dimensional movies that un-ironically shoved explosions in our faces got replaced in favor of more serious fare. “Face/Off” was the most bananas of them all, and you could say that movies like “Face/Off” disappeared because everything was trying to be “Face/Off.” We have hordes of “Die Hard” copycats and directors pretending to be Quentin Tarantino, but people could only dream that their films could be as stylized as John Woo’s, and as insane as his stories.

Much of that success has to do with Nicolas Cage being on the best role of his life. After winning an Oscar for “Leaving Las Vegas,” he chose to follow that up by claiming the action hero belt away from the Stallones and Schwarzeneggers, starring in “The Rock,” “Con Air” and “Face/Off” within a little over a calendar year. All three were major blockbusters.

NicCage

Cage plays Castor Troy, who plants a bomb in the LA Convention Center dressed as a dancing terrorist minister. He waltzes over to a singing choir sporting a devilish grin and sneaks a squeeze of a choir girl’s butt, experiencing ecstasy as he does. “You know, I can eat a peach for hours,” he says with a menacing smile. He wields a pair of gold pistols, he flashes his teeth wildly, whips off his sunglasses to make eye contact with the camera.

And then after getting captured by his FBI rival Sean Archer (John Travolta), who seeks revenge after Troy killed Archer’s son, the two switch faces. I repeat: they exchange ‘effing faces.

“John Wick” and others may be stylish, brutal and simplistic, but 2000s movies lack that high concept absurdity that could make “Face/Off” a classic. It doesn’t matter if the dialogue is atrocious, if the pseudo-science doesn’t make a lick of sense or if the surrounding characters are so thick as to possibly think this plan, of surgically giving Archer Troy’s face so that he can infiltrate a prison and get information out of Troy’s brother, is a good idea.

The concept alone is juicy, but Nic Cage being in the role consequently enhances Travolta’s performance, who starts to channel Cage’s mannerisms, his slick and sleazy attitude and villainous posture. Cage doesn’t precisely act like Travolta, but you recognize that the two of them are both giving performances within performances, and you’d be forgiven for confusing the two, thinking Cage somehow inhabits Travolta and was playing the real Castor Troy all along.

Smaller details emphasize the breadth of Woo’s mastery over the form. Inside the prison, where all the guards are one-dimensional monsters, the prisoners wear magnetic boots that lock them to the floor and track their movements, a detail so silly and outrageous that you remember it even though it has no bearing on the story.

Although you could see why Woo’s style would eventually go out of fashion. When a movie is this populated with people diving through glass windows away from explosions in slow motion at domineering low angles, it can get a little old. It’s when he pitches these set pieces at such a high degree of insanity, like the biggest Mexican standoff at the film’s climax, or when “Over the Rainbow” plays over a bullet-ridden bloodbath that would lay the groundwork for “The Matrix.” And don’t forget the doves!

The style and tone that “Face/Off” portrays has become nothing but cliches and has aged poorly, but the film itself hasn’t aged a day. It’s as fresh, exciting and fun as it was in 1997.

Rapid Response: Ghostbusters (1984)

GBPosterThe thing about Bill Murray movies is, they often don’t work without him. “Groundhog Day” would be a horrible Adam Sandler comedy if anyone but him played the part, and the same is true of “Ghostbusters.” Aside from all the ugly misogyny that’s being thrown at the movie sight unseen, no wonder everyone is freaking out over a remake of “Ghostbusters.”

If there’s so much controversy about whether women can play the Ghostbusters, it’s because even from its opening moments, Dr. Peter Venkman (Murray) channels a distinct brand of ’80s masculinity. He’s a smug playboy, a sarcastic goofball, an apathetic regular Joe, and yet he’s hilarious, confident, charming and likable. Take the opening scene after the credits, in which Venkman flirts with a cute student while tormenting another nerdy one with some electroshock therapy. Watch how he grins in a way that telegraphs to the camera he’s full of it but confounds his two test subjects. Continue reading “Rapid Response: Ghostbusters (1984)”

Finding Dory

FINDING_DORY_PosterDoes Pixar have a sequel problem? I doubt it. We can debate the quality of “Cars 2” and “Monsters University,” but “Finding Dory” succeeds because it takes one of the more iconic and unique characters within the Pixar canon and gives her meaningful depth and a story of her own. To me, that’s not Pixar trying to cash in on a few more toys.

“I’m Dory, and I have short term memory loss.” When Dory says this to open “Finding Dory,” she’s just a toddler, a tiny blue bubble of joy with bulging purple eyes that make up almost her entire body. But to hear her say it now, we realize that every quirky and bizarre thing Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) said in 2003’s “Finding Nemo” was actually something far more serious. Dory has a mental illness, and she’s lost. She’s always been lost. As a child, she got separated from her parents and spent her teenage years swimming and searching, asking for help to anyone who would listen, until increasingly, she forgot who or what she was looking for, only that they were missing. Then she bumps into Marlin (Albert Brooks), and the events of “Finding Nemo” take place, interrupting her search for her family until a new memory triggers her old quest. Continue reading “Finding Dory”

Swiss Army Man

swiss-army-man-posterIf you’re feeling down, if everything seems to be at its lowest, don’t worry. Life isn’t so bad. After all, we have farts! Farts are magical. They spray from our butts, they smell and make a funny sound. How wonderful is that? Why don’t we recognize this every day of our lives and use farts to discover all the other amazing things human beings are capable of. Shout to the heavens! We have farts!

If that sounds horribly juvenile and pedestrian masquerading as something profound, it is, and so is “Swiss Army Man,” an initially creative, quirky and screwball indie with a frenetic, liberating spirit that ultimately comes across as infantile and confused. First time feature directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (billed as The Daniels) want you to celebrate farts, and cheese puffs, and boobs, and magical boners. And there’s nothing wrong with these things (technically). But when they’re used in service of a message that’s basically a rom-com, a manic pixie dream girl fantasy that treats asking out a girl like a miracle, then you have a problem.

Good or bad, “Swiss Army Man” will live in Sundance infamy as the deeply polarizing Daniel Radcliffe-farting corpse movie. In it, Paul Dano plays a man named Hank stranded on a desert island (an island that even looks something like two butt cheeks protruding from the ocean) who finds Radcliffe’s corpse, or Manny, as he comes to call him, just as he’s about to hang himself and commit suicide. Instead he’s spared, and all before the film’s title card, Hank mounts Manny and rides his farting body across the ocean like a jet ski. All the while, a chorus of percussive voices sounding like part of the most twee Arcade Fire cover band ever make the moment an inspiring anthem. Continue reading “Swiss Army Man”

Our Little Sister

Our-Little-Sister-PosterThe films of Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda all border on schmaltz and insignificance. But his deft hand and simple storytelling consistently reveal deep truths about life and family with delicate nuance. His latest film, “Our Little Sister,” offers the same tender spirit and warm glow with a perceptive look at the ups and downs that face the modern young woman.

The Kôda sisters, Sachi, Yoshino and Chika, all live together in a house on the hill just outside the city, and “Our Little Sister” concerns how this close-knit group comes to add one more sister to their family. Upon their father’s death, the sisters travel to visit their stepmom and come to learn they have a teenage sister named Suzu (Suzu Hirose). It was Suzu, not their stepmom, who cared for their father when he was ill, and in an act of kindness, they invite Suzu to live with them. Continue reading “Our Little Sister”

Harlan County, U.S.A. (1976)

Harlan_county_usaIf Barbara Kopple were making “Harlan County U.S.A.” today it would be focused on environmental ramifications of coal mining and the broader corruption of big business and Wall Street over the little guy, and only then would it look at the health and safety conditions provided to the common working man. And yet it’s remarkable how relevant Kopple’s pinnacle documentary, 40 years after its initial release, still feels today.

“Harlan County U.S.A” came out in the period of Maysles Brothers, fly on the wall documentaries and shares its style, but it set the stage for advocacy documentaries of all stripes. It proved that if you’re in the right place at the right time and turn your camera on, you can tell a story and change the world.

Kopple was able to do so because she and her crew quickly earned the trust of the striking coal miners on the front lines. They needed bodies to be there blocking the roads and holding the pickets, and they did it. So while Kopple doesn’t take the time to introduce many of these people with lower thirds or voiceover, we feel we know them intimately, each with thick accents and tender, passionate expressions as they debate at length about their problems and how to make a difference. The way they’re filmed, gritty and closely, these faces can all adorn LIFE Magazine covers. They are the symbols of depression, poverty and American values.

And “Harlan County” establishes such a beautiful sense of place. Although this is a very political and humanist movie, Kopple’s instinct is to open the film riding the conveyer belts in the narrow two-foot passageways under the coal mountains. The surreal, otherworldly lighting, pitch black waterfalls of coal and dark, grimy visages on the workers all speak volumes.

There’s no ambiguity in Kopple’s film, even going as far as to find a wonderfully compelling and menacing villain. But while Kopple herself doesn’t aim for the movie to feel revolutionary or righteous in the way so many slick, advocacy docs vying for Oscars would today, it boldly asserts that viewers have to choose a side. Hazel Dickens sings, “Which side are you on,” a terrific proletariat anthem, and Kopple is very clear that supporting the miners is strictly a human issue, not one of politics or business more generally.

When the miners take their cause to New York, a cop takes the time to ask what they’re fighting for. He’s astonished by how little they make, how dangerous their job can be, and the light scene stands apart from the rest of the heavier political discourse. Then there’s the villainous strike breaker who demands Kopple’s press pass. To this day when she says, like him, she must’ve misplaced it, the line still gets applause.

Memorable human moments like this are the reason this documentary, above other advocacy docs, demands a second viewing. It’s timeless and innovative even still, and yet few films have captured a time, a place and a moment so well.

Wiener-Dog

Todd Solondz’s latest morose comedy and ensemble piece follows four owners of the same dachshund.

Wiener-DogPoster2Always get the name of the dog. That’s a reporting tip to find that extra detail that your audience will remember. In Todd Solondz’s latest film “Wiener-Dog,” this little brown dachshund goes from being named Doody to Cancer between four separate owners, and each name seems to reflect something different about the quirky, strange people behind it.

“Wiener-Dog” is an ensemble piece, much in the tradition of one of Solondz’s morose and squirm-inducing comedies such as “Happiness,” but Solondz drops the connecting threads that explain how this dog got from owner to owner pretty quick. He even includes a cute intermission of the dog walking in front of a green screen displaying locations across the country. It instead plays like four short films, and the varying tones between them give “Wiener-Dog” equal feelings of yearning and failure, satire and gross-out humor, and above all highs and lows.

The dog’s first owner is a young boy (Charlie Tahan) who names it simply Wiener-Dog. His wealthy parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts) want him to be happy, but keep Wiener-Dog in a cage in the garage and talk about training it as a bleak way of breaking its will. Delpy delivers a hilariously tender talk to her son about spaying and neutering, in which one stray dog who went without getting spayed ended up getting raped, contracting AIDS and dying. It’s gleefully disturbing imagery, that is until at least Solondz quite literally drags our nose in shit, or more accurately, doggie diarrhea.

Whether you’ll enjoy Solondz’s sensibility to blend gratuitous humor and striking, deadpan cinematic style, in this case slow motion and classical music as he pans across the stained floors and carpets, is entirely subjective. Sometimes he holds these visuals just long enough to make it laughably uncomfortable, and other times his awkward distance gets the better of him, including a fairly ugly joke at the end that’s simply in bad taste.

But some of “Wiener-Dog’s” high points have little to do with the dog. Greta Gerwig, who’s perfectly perky and pathetic, plays Dawn Wiener, a veterinary assistant who runs off with the animal and names it Doody. She then agrees to leave her life and travel with a stoic, handsome drifter (Kieran Culkin) she knew from high school. This chapter has surprising depth, and even finds in Dawn some hope for a new beginning. Solondz killed off Dawn Wiener in one of his earlier films, “Palindromes,” and here he accomplishes an optimistic rewrite.

Then there’s Danny DeVito as the nebbish, no talent loser Dave Schmerz, a film school professor at NYU who can’t get someone to even look at his screenplay and doesn’t get any respect from his students. Solondz could’ve made a whole film about these snobby film students you’ll just love to hate. But DeVito’s solemn performance, him constantly straining for words and conviction, brings the film back to its themes of atrophy, depression and loneliness.

As for the film’s final chapter, a meeting between the elderly Nana (Ellen Burstyn) sporting gigantic black visors and a DGAF attitude and her granddaughter Zoe (Zosia Mamet) and artist boyfriend Fantasy (Michael James Shaw), it’s hard to know what to make of a scene so bizarre. These people may belong to another universe entirely, but it’s the ideal culmination to a film so amusingly erratic.

Where you stand on “Wiener-Dog’s” final gag may just determine how you feel about Solondz’s entire filmography. And while this isn’t Solondz’s best or worst, the film’s irreverence is made meaningful and special because of his awkward charms. If Solondz were going to make any movie about a dog, it’d be hard to imagine it working as well with anything other than this dog.

3 stars

The Neon Demon

Elle Fanning stars in a horror movie about beauty and the fashion industry by the director of “Drive.”

neondemonsmall“Am I staring?” In these first few lines of “The Neon Demon,” Director Nicolas Winding Refn’s invitation to stare gives his latest film both its perverse pleasure and questionable subtext. With “Drive” and “Only God Forgives,” Refn’s films have long been a combination of the violent and tantalizing. So it’s natural that the Danish director would make “The Neon Demon,” a psycho-horror art house drama about beauty and the grotesque pursuit of perfection. And while it works as stunning exploitation cinema, it’s perhaps less so as a comment on the fashion world it’s depicting.

Elle Fanning plays Jesse, an all-natural 16-year-old model from the Midwest with that “deer in the headlights look” because it’s exactly what they’re looking for. In her first photo shoot, she’s sprawled on a chair in a luxurious gown with fake blood dripping from around her neck and torso. Immediately there’s a sexual quality to the way she wipes away the blood to reveal her youth, and of course the rival models she meets in dark, neon-lit night club bathrooms certainly have a blood-sucking, vampire quality.

The older models ask her what kind of lipstick she wears. One wears “Redrum,” while another’s is called “Fuck Off,” but for Jesse, she gets one named after a dessert, “because she’s so sweet.” But Jesse’s vice is her own perfection. Whereas all the other models have already had work done to keep them looking immaculate, the cold, calculating eyes of one woman within the modeling agency (Christina Hendricks) or the blank stare of the top photographer (Alessandro Nivola) all see right past them.

Of course the judging doesn’t stop at lipstick. One girl comments that whenever another beautiful woman enters the room, the first question that pops into mind is, “Who is she fucking, and can she climb higher than me?” Feminists may seriously raise an eyebrow at that statement, and for good reason. Is Refn critiquing this intense superficiality, does he believe it exists among women of this world, or is this a commonality? It’s hard to tell in a movie so lush and specifically enraptured by style, color and sexuality.

“Drive” and “Only God Forgives” have dazzling cinematography, but “The Neon Demon” in particular makes every frame look like a photograph. Refn places Fanning in a soft blue gown in front of a white infinity backdrop and in the next moment will bathe the room in lens flares and garish patterns. It’s equal parts Gothic Horror, Neo-Noir and Sci-Fi whenever it sees fit.

Although “The Neon Demon” in part feels fun because it is so inconsistent and wild. “Only God Forgives” was plain lifeless, and this film by comparison has a bizarre sense of humor. Keanu Reeves plays Hank, the motel clerk where Jesse lives, and he can alternatively get some laughs and screams trying to capture a cougar that found its way into Jesse’s room. Refn even goes all out on the sexuality front, with Jena Malone as a jealous makeup artist bravely putting herself in the most compromising situation imaginable.

Refn though may still have crossed a line. “The Neon Demon” gets more sickening and disturbing as the other women slowly devour Jesse’s beauty, figuratively and literally, and that shock value quickly goes out of fashion.

3 stars