Category: Movie Reviews

Life is Cheap … But Toilet Paper is Expensive 0

Life is Cheap … But Toilet Paper is Expensive

Director Wayne Wang’s versatility has never failed to impress. From his debut film, the low-budget mystery-comedy “Chan is Missing,” to the ensemble family dramas “Eat a Bowl of Tea” and “The Joy Luck Club” and “Maid in Manhattan” to the psychosexual drama “The Center of the World” and the indie ensembles “Smoke” and “Blue in the Face,” he seems to be comfortable doing everything. His fluidity evokes the sorts of craftsmen who moved from project to project during the heyday of Old Hollywood studios, when the same director might helm a Western, a tragic romance, and a detective movie during the same year.

Wang’s 1989 film “Life is Cheap … but Toilet Paper is Expensive”—which is getting a brief, limited theatrical release to celebrate its 4K restoration by the filmmaker—is kind of a mystery thriller, in the way that Jean Luck-Godard’s debut “Breathless” is kind of the story of two lovers on the run. The story follows a quiet, intense, handsome young man (Spencer Nagasaki) in a black cowboy hat who has been hired to transport a silver briefcase of unknown contents from the United States to Hong Kong and give it to its intended recipient. It’s a variation on a hardboiled crime drama plot featured in the likes of “Kiss Me Deadly,” “Repo Man,” and “Pulp Fiction.” It’s also Wang’s own version of “Breathless” or a 1970s/’80s American New Wave directorial statement by someone like Martin Scorsese or David Lynch who looked at Godard and saw total creative freedom (there are characters in the film named Taxi Driver and Blue Velvet).

But Wang is no more interested in plot for its own sake than Godard was. The architecture of this film is obsessively fragmented. The movie less often evokes mid-century arthouse classics (such as Godard’s sci-fi detective pastiche “Alphaville”) than the sorts of brilliant but difficult films Godard made deep in his career, when he’d lost most of his original audience by going abstract and political (and often borderline-impenetrable) but didn’t care because he was immersed in the art that only he could make. 

“Life is Cheap” became briefly notorious after it received an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, for bloody violence and intense sexuality (including a scene where the hero visits another character in a recording studio where a scene of pornographic sex between a man and a woman is being dubbed by two men, one of whom attempts a “girlish” falsetto). Shaken but unfazed, Wang’s distributor released the film with an invented rating, “A” for adult, two years before the MPAA created the NC-17, which was meant to indicate the more artistic kinds of “extreme” mainstream cinema that would appear very briefly in the ’90s. The movie is somehow hardcore-edgy and playful at the same time. Sometimes these tendencies cancel each other, but most of the time they amplify each other. 

We often hear the hero of “Life is Cheap” narrating in hardboiled voice-over. He describes his mission, the people he meets, and his observations about life in the neon dream city in the years before the British handed it over to China. He wonders what’s in the briefcase and why its intended recipient behaved in such an odd fashion. 

But then the movie will go long stretches without any narration, or without even seeing the hero. What story there is gets interrupted (from the very beginning of the movie!) by disruptive flash-cuts. Some are barely visually legible: a flash of red; a glimpse of what might be the leader on a reel of film. Others are disturbing. Many sequences let supporting characters address the camera, which represents the hero, and Wang stays on them for so long that they turn into little documentary-style character portraits of eccentrics and possibly dangerous individuals, from the man who offers tutorials on “sexy dancing” to the porno producer who is casually accused of an awful crime. There’s a recurring close-up image of a man’s hand being cut off with a meat cleaver at the wrist, its chopped bones and oozing veins visible to the camera, as well as a long shot of a severed hand on a pristine white hospital bed and a white ceramic bowl full of watered-down blood nearby. Are we seeing the hero’s fate? Is the entire movie a deathbed recollection—or a premonition? 

For the re-release, Wang has also added never-before-seen, low-resolution video footage he shot on location in Hong Kong during production. The material appears mainly in a long, unheralded and unexplained block of footage roughly a third of the way through. We see actors that we encountered in character previously, on location. They seem to be rehearsing. There’s also footage of ordinary Hong Kong street life, including a butcher at work, and a man on a gurney being loaded into the back of an ambulance by paramedics. You could say this material ruins any concept or proper commercial pacing if there were any indication that Wang prized such things. To be specific, he does care about an audience-pleasing pace, very much—in his other films. Not so much in this one, which adheres to its own internal metronome, and in some ways feels like an inversion of some of his concerns in “Chan is Missing,” a classic indie about then-modern-day Chinese-Americans and a meditation on assimilation.

This is a difficult movie to watch at times—and for decades it has been hard to see, period. It’s not the sort of film one can fairly judge by any conventional criteria. It has a punk rock sensibility that links it to other notable films by major new indie directors who came up in the ’80s and ’90s, like Gus Van Sant (“My Own Private Idaho“), Alex Cox (“Repo Man”), Jane Campion (“Sweetie“), and Gregg Araki (“The Doom Generation“), as well as high-profile studio ringers like Scorsese and Oliver Stone (including the latter’s “Natural Born Killers” and “U-Turn“). It seems to be a completely uncompromised movie, with all the qualities that phrase suggests.

Now playing at BAM. 

The Good House 0

The Good House

Wine doesn’t really count as drinking, Sigourney Weaver’s character insists in “The Good House.” She’s not really drinking alone, because the dogs are with her in the kitchen as she pours merlot from her secret stash into a coffee mug. And she’ll be extra careful this time, she promises, so she’s fine to drive into town after downing a few glasses.

These are among the many lies Weaver’s Hildy Good tells herself—and tells us in frequent, fourth wall-breaking confessions—to keep the reality of her alcoholism at bay. Based on the novel by Ann Leary, the romantic dramedy “The Good House” touches on some piercing and deeply relatable truths about drinking, and about women’s drinking in particular: that it gives us swagger, that it helps us hang with the big boys, that it lets us present the best version of ourselves to the world. Even when the film falters, Weaver consistently finds room to explore the many fascinating flaws revealed by her character’s addiction. Her performance, and her effortless connection with frequent co-star Kevin Kline, remain engaging even after the direction from Maya Forbes and Wally Wolodarsky grows unfocused.

Hildy’s narration is wry and wise, sometimes conspiratorial and increasingly contradictory, as she shows us around the charming (and fictional) New England town of Wendover. She’s been the queen bee realtor for decades in this insular hamlet, but all that’s changing as nouveau riche families barge in from nearby Boston. Hildy’s proud of the fact that her family’s been a fixture in Wendover for centuries—dating to the time of the Salem witches, one of whom is her ancestor. (Cue the on-the-nose use of “Season of the Witch,” among the movie’s many perky music choices.) Now divorced (since her husband left her for a man) and infrequently in touch with her grown daughters, Hildy is struggling to determine who she is. And although she’s freshly out of rehab—after an intervention that’s played for laughs in the script from the husband-and-wife directing duo and Thomas Bezucha—being sober is not part of her new identity.

Watching Hildy try to keep all the balls in the air is both a source of humor and tension, as the disparity between who she is and who she pretends to be steadily widens. She’s losing clients and dodging phone calls from the Range Rover dealership, asking for her lease payment. And in no time, she’s switching from wine to vodka to help her cope. That’s all human and true, and Weaver plays it with subtlety and great comic timing.

But the one source of stability in her life comes from Kline’s Frank Getchell, her high school flame and first love. He’s the town’s cantankerous contractor/handyman, and his disheveled appearance and down-to-Earth demeanor would never suggest he’s the richest guy around. Their hesitant fumblings toward rekindling their romance are amusing and sweet—the kind of relationship older audiences don’t get to see often enough in the movies anymore. After co-starring opposite each other in the ‘90s in “Dave” and “The Ice Storm” Weaver and Kline have a warm, easy comfort in each other’s company, as well as a prickly, teasing affection. It’s like pulling on a favorite, old cardigan you forgot you had.

So much works so well for so long in “The Good House” that it’s frustrating when the film casts its eye elsewhere and begins paying way too much attention to the town’s peripheral figures. Rob Delaney co-stars as the therapist whose office is upstairs from Hildy’s; he’s obviously going through some kind of personal and professional flux of his own. Morena Baccarin is a newcomer, the beautiful wife in a wealthy couple that’s just bought a giant waterfront estate, but everything in her life isn’t as perfect as it appears. Kathryn Erbe is the former protégé of Hildy’s who stole all her clients when she formed her own agency; there’s not much to her beyond icy glances and snobbery. And Beverly D’Angelo breezes in and out as Hildy’s childhood best friend and longtime drinking buddy.

None of these characters is nearly as richly drawn or interesting as Hildy and Frank, but increasingly, the story turns toward them and others. They feel like contrivances and plot devices, especially in some third-act melodrama that comes out of nowhere and whips the story up into an empty frenzy. It’s so wild, you’ll wonder what’s really happening and what she’s hallucinating. The film clearly seeks deep emotions from us that it never earns. If anything, you’re more likely to feel annoyed by all these distractions.

But there are worse ways to spend an afternoon than on a lobster boat in the shimmering sunshine with Sigourney Weaver and Kevin Kline. Dressed in a barn jacket and a knit Patriots hat, getting messy out on the water, Hildy finally appears to be where she belongs. And she doesn’t have a drink in her hand.

Now playing in theaters. 

Hocus Pocus 2 0

Hocus Pocus 2

The 1993 Disney movie “Hocus Pocus,” the story of three witch sisters who were executed in Salem in 1693 and returned to create havoc 300 years later on Halloween. It is more than a classic; it is a cultural touchstone. Moderately successful on its first release, it became a phenomenon on home video and cable and is now an annual tradition for many families, with parents who loved it in the ’90s sharing it with the next generation. Disney hit just the right spot between spooky and silly, with Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy as a sort of witchy three stooges, with Midler as Winnifred, the Moe-like short-tempered ringleader, Parker as a fluttery, Curly-like scatterbrain named Sarah, and Najimy as Mary, the Larry of the trio, never quite making anything work, but sure that she’s nailing it.

Nearly 30 years later, “Hocus Pocus 2” should make fans of all generations happy, paying tribute to the original and adding some gentle updating and some welcome diversity, subtracting some violence. It is also a little bit sweeter. In addition to the adult cast from the first movie, including the always-terrific Doug Jones, the brilliant motion capture actor behind the creature in “The Shape of Water” and Abe in “Hellboy,” as the hapless zombie Billy Butcherson. Welcome new additions include comic powerhouses Tony Hale and Sam Richardson and all-around powerhouse “Ted Lasso’s” Hannah Waddington. 

The first movie was about the relationships between brothers and sisters (with a little teen romance); this one is about friendship. And we get a bit of an origin story. After an aerial opening shot referring back to the original film, we see the Sanderson sisters as young girls. First, we see the Pilgrim community scurrying out of the way as Winnie stomps furiously through the town. Young Winnie is played by Taylor Henderson, complete with wild red hair and buck teeth. Her witty rendition of Midler’s alpha witch is sharp and funny. The local clergyman, Reverend Traske (Tony Hale) has decided that since the Sanderson parents are dead, Winnie must marry a young man from the village and the younger girls will be sent to live with another family. Winnie refuses, and the girls run away to the forbidden forest, where they meet a very glamorous witch (Waddington) who gives them one of the key props from the first movie, the book of spells with a human eyeball on the cover that really opens, and, I guess, sees.

In present day, high school students Becca (Whitney Peak) and Izzy (Belissa Escobedo) are getting ready for their Halloween tradition, Becca’s birthday sleepover. This year it will have to be without their other friend Cassie (Lilia Buckingham), who has not been a part of the group lately because she’s been spending all her time with her boyfriend. Becca and Izzy like to experiment with magic and spend a lot of time at the local magic store run by Gilbert (Richardson). He gives them the other key prop from the first movie, a black candle, and, just like the first movie, even though they are well aware of the Sanderson sisters legend, they light it. (The virginity requirement to activate the candle’s power to bring back the witches is joked about but not explained.)

And so, the Sandersons return on Halloween night, as costumed partygoers and trick-or-treaters are out celebrating, led by the town’s jolly mayor, who is also Cassie’s very strict father. He is a descendant of Reverend Traske and again played by Hale. The witches want revenge on Traske, and, as in the first film, they want to inhale the essence of children so they can have eternal youth.

The challenge for the sequel to a beloved film is maintaining enough of the original to make the fans happy without being too repetitive or confusing newcomers, and “Hocus Pocus 2” gets that just right. The highlights of the first film are celebrated (there’s a delightful musical number) and there are some very funny moments, including a Sanderson sisters costume competition. It is not a spoiler to say that smart, brave, and loyal teenagers get more comic treats than tricks. So does the audience. NOTE: Watch all the way to the end of the credits for an extra scene.

Available on Disney+ on September 30th.

The Munsters 0

The Munsters

Rob Zombie’s childhood was not unlike thousands of young Americans. Growing up in Haverhill, Massachusetts there wasn’t much to do, so he’d watch TV like all the kids on his block. It is important always to remember that when thinking about the past in America as a very specific lived experience and not an abstract series of symbols and images that there really only were three channels on TV. Zombie likely saw “The Munsters,” a series that had been passed from hand to hand until finally it was written by “Rocky and Bullwinkle” creators Allan Burns and Chris Hayward, several times a week. “The Munsters” had been intended to be a kind of riff on “Leave it to Beaver” (whose producers were also running the show at “The Munsters”) but with character designs borrowed from NBC’s parent company Universal, so they wouldn’t have to worry about rights issues. The Munster family would just try to get by week after week; deal with trifling problems like first dates or larger ones like intolerance, and like “The Brady Bunch” after them, have short-lived brushes with fame. When you grow up in Haverhill and there are but three TV channels, you will have likely seen every single episode of “The Munsters” after school and this thing that was intended as a lark may indeed take on a greater importance than perhaps even its creators could have understood. Zombie discovered gore films when he was a teenager, but he never forgot “The Munsters.”

The sense of humor of the sitcom, with its bigger-than-life performances from Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis, its cartoon sound effects pulled from the same closet where “Bullwinkle”s editors had left them, the sight of Universal monsters keeping up with the joneses in the suburbs of Mockingbird Lane—all of that infected everything that Zombie made thereafter. From his music videos to his cartoon and concert films, from his forgotten Tom Papa stand-up special to his infamous horror movies, there has always been an undercurrent of late-night sitcom rerun style, almost naive jokiness, frequently as an ironic counterpart to the murder and mayhem of his art. His newest movie, a tonally straight-forward and shockingly faithful-in-spirit adaptation of the show, simply titled “The Munsters” (technically the sixth movie made with these characters) is like a missing piece from his directorial work, a completely innocent, at times screamingly funny movie that’s mostly about an idealized world made of ’60s cultural icons, a slicing of reality’s fabric so we might step directly into Zombie’s visions of his past sitting in front of the TV.

We open on Dr. Henry Augustus Wolfgang (the always great Richard Brake, lately of “Barbarian”) and his half-wit assistant Floop (Jorge Garcia), who are in the midst of preparing the doctor’s greatest experiment yet: creating the perfect man out of the dead flesh of geniuses from the past century. The doctor is theoretically in luck this day because Shelly Von Rathbone (Laurent Winkler), one of the great philosophers of the age, has just expired. Unfortunately, his twin brother Shecky (Jeff Daniel Phillips), a bad stand-up comic, has also died and is lying in the same funeral parlor. Floop collects the wrong brother’s brain and when Henry debuts his creature on live TV, he finds he has not an impossible genius capable of playing Brahms or speaking perfect French but a big dumb goon (also Phillips) who loves laughing at his own jokes. Though Henry is mortified by the display, someone else is watching who is enthralled. Unmarried and undead Lily (Sheri Moon Zombie), also living in the same neighborhood in Transylvania as the doctor and his creature, has been enduring a string of dreadful first dates trying to find the one. When she sees the creature, whom Floop names Herman Munster, she’s instantly smitten. She finds him and they begin a hurried courtship, all the while her father the Count (Daniel Roebuck) looks on with disdain and tries to break them up. He sees Herman as an uncouth ape unworthy of his gorgeous daughter. Of course, they come together when Herman accidentally sells the family estate to one of the Count’s vengeful ex-girlfriends Zoya Krupp (Catherine Schell). They’ve got to move to America and if the Count doesn’t want to get left behind, he’d better become a more loving father-in-law in a hurry.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about “The Munsters” is that it manages such impressive, engrossing mise-en-scène while committing to the kind of pre-teen friendly aesthetic of Halloween shops and commercials from the ’90s. Zombie’s color scheme seems to at once borrow from the few instances that The Munsters would appear in color (as in 1966’s movie “Munster Go Home,” which features an appearance by the Munsters’ hotrod Dragula, the name of Zombie’s most famous song) and from advertisements for make-at-home toy bugs. It should prove unwieldy (especially as it’s the envelope in which sitcom humor is delivered) and to some it may, but few movies this year have as much color in every composition, nor as much care put into navigating the beautifully-silly-but-expertly-crafted sets. Zombie and director of photography Zoran Popovic use every trick in the book, both guilelessly iconoclastic (stab zooms for punchlines, shaky, handheld dutch tilts during scenes of chaos) and tightly assured (the camera practically floats around corridors and down stairs). It’s a preposterously pretty movie, laying its every impulse on the table like a hand of cards. The score by Zeuss is right out of the sitcom library, making sure every comic beat gets the proper horn sting. It’s like some magnificent cross between the must-see-TV line-up and a softcore Euro horror-comedy circa-1977.

Naturally, this attitude applies to the performances, too. Everyone here commits with every inch of their body to this wisp of a conceit. Sheri Moon Zombie imbues Lily with a batty good nature, never one to let a situation, no matter how dire, get her down. Phillips has been Zombie’s neurotic utility infielder for years, able to play the conniving and the hopelessly narcissistic with equal zest. His Herman Munster is a more modern and slightly more petulant take on the character than Fred Gwynne delivered (with respect to Phillips, no one was ever going to best Gwynne’s take on the character that made him a legend), but the core of churlish self-infatuation remains. Phillips does seem to be having a ball playing a creature at once all nervous desperation for approval and delight with his own every joke and insult. 

Daniel Roebuck makes for a perfect stand-in for Al Lewis, the magnificent old codger who once ran for mayor of New York as the delegate from the Green Party. Supporting players Schell, Garcia, Sylvester McCoy, Cassandra Peters (who you might know as Elvira, Mistress of the Dark), and Tomas Boykin all bite right into the overt comic tone, unafraid of the enormous volume their director is asking of them. Richard Brake, as usual, is the MVP, living it up in a dual role as both the effete mad doctor and the Nosferatu-styled vampire Lily takes on a date. Zombie always lets Brake have more fun than his other directors and these are both delicious parts for Brake to carefully yet greedily devour. The film also has small turns from original “Munsters” cast members from Pat Priest (Cousin Marilyn) and Butch Patrick (Eddie Munster).

Where the film enters conspicuously into the line of Zombie’s other movies (beyond its magnificent unselfconsciousness) is in its mingling with aged signifiers, much the same way the Munsters themselves are happy to find dead bodies buried on the front yard of their home on Mockingbird Lane. The film’s script is stitched together from various “Munsters” plotlines, and its reference points are almost all double entendres. Take the musical number where Herman and Lily sing Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe.” Sure, it’s a reference to the kind of performance you’d watch on TV between reruns of “The Munsters” and “I Dream of Jeannie,” but it’s also a little nod to Bill Moseley’s performance in “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre Part 2.” Moseley plays spree killer Otis Firefly in Zombie’s “Devil’s Rejects” trilogy and in the earlier film by his friend Tobe Hooper, he played a sadistic vet covering the metal plate in his head with a Sonny Bono wig. This isn’t any different from the way Zombie usually works except that instead of there being an element of comfort for the indoctrinated to temper the relentless bad vibes of his horror movies, here it’s in line with the mission of the piece: remembering something while making it new. 

In my review of “3 From Hell,” I compared Zombie to Howard Hawks, who by the end of his career was deliberately retreading ideas because it was clear that milieu most pleased him. “The Munsters” plays like one of Hawks’ disreputable comedies, “A Song is Born” or “Man’s Favorite Sport?,” where the seemingly inconsequential plot allowed the director to revel in situations that revealed the most about human nature to him. Molly Haskell related Hawks’ characters to Adam and Eve, people discovering how much they will and won’t tolerate of each other, searching mismatched sensibilities until they find openings to understand one another. Zombie’s “Munsters” movie is about Adam and Eve figures of a different kind, and in playing their story like an old-fashioned romance and the comedic bits like the funniest jokes ever told, a purity of intention emerges. Every idea is given exactly the attention it needs, because Zombie is trying to do justice to so many things at once: his cast of beloved regulars, his obsessions as a creator and consumer, the original TV show he’s adapting, and the time his younger self spent glued to the TV set forming his personality (not for nothing does TV play such a crucial function in this movie’s plot), unconsciously planning a life that has looped back around to this moment. 

On Blu-ray, DVD, and VOD today, September 27th.

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales 0

The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales

Abigail Disney is the granddaughter of Walt Disney and one of a seeming handful of well-off Americans who can regularly be seen on social media and television saying that people like her should be taxed more. Disney also thinks the executives at the company founded by her grandfather (Walt Disney’s brother Roy) should be taxed more. She thinks corporate executives make too much money, and that the money they make is at the expense of workers like the ones at the theme parks that the Disney corporation is known for. 

“The American Dream and Other Fairy Tales” is a documentary by Abigail Disney, co-directed with “Armor of Light” co-director Kathleen Hughes. Like a lot of documentaries made in the last three decades, it has a bit of a Michael Moore feeling, with the filmmaker doubling as questing hero, standing up for the little guy and taking the fight to the suits. Disney, of course, benefited mightily from the economic success of the company her father and uncle co-founded together, but has spent the past few decades becoming increasingly alarmed at the widening gap between the haves and have-nots. As she points out here, the presidents of major corporations once made anywhere from a hundred to five hundred times as much as their lowest-paid employees. Now we see executives making hundreds of millions or even billions of dollars from salaries, stock deals, and other arrangements, while some of their employees are just scraping by.

In her quest to illuminate the income gap, Disney visits a group of Disney World employees who sit in a circle (it looks like a recovery group meeting in the basement of a church) and tell their stories. She asks them to raise their hands if they or any fellow Disney employee they know has ever gone without necessary medical care because they couldn’t afford the out-of-pocket expense. Hands go up. Then she asks them to raise their hands if they or anyone they know has ever lived out of their car. More hands. No matter what disturbing scenario she envisions, hands always go up. Some Disney theme park employees have to work two jobs just to afford rent: one woman works a shift at Disneyland and another one at Knotts Berry Farm, and the family still can’t make ends meet.

As a host and camera subject, the filmmaker is affable enough and makes her case well but isn’t dynamic enough to carry the film; it might’ve been better to concentrate on her interview subjects and on illustrating the problems she’s concerned with, as there are points where the movie edges a little bit too close to feeling like a long episode of a broadcast network newsmagazine. Still, this is a compelling story about persistent problems that affect the majority of Americans, even though you don’t hear about them very often in mainstream media. The blunt title says it all.

Now available on VOD.

Smile 0

Smile

When the horror histories of the 2010s are written, the decade will be associated with trauma metaphors the way the ‘80s are with slasher movies. And although it comes on the cusp of a new decade, the new Paramount wide-release horror movie “Smile” fits right in with its PTSD-induced kin. The difference here is that the monster is barely a metaphor at all: The demon, or evil spirit, or whatever it is—the movie is vague on this point—literally feeds on, and is spread by, trauma.

Specifically, the vague something that dogs Dr. Rose Cotter (Sosie Bacon) throughout “Smile” likes the taste of people who have witnessed someone else dying by suicide—gruesome, painful, bloody suicide, by garden shears and oncoming trains and the shattered fragments of a ceramic vase in a hospital intake room. That’s where Rose briefly meets Laura (Caitlin Stasey), a PhD student who’s brought to the psychiatric emergency ward where Rose works, shaking and terrified that something is out to get her. “It looks like people, but it’s not a person,” Laura explains, saying that this thing has been following her ever since she witnessed one of her professors bludgeoning himself to death with a hammer four days earlier. At the end of the extended dialogue scene that opens the film, Laura turns to Rose with a psychotic grin on her face and proceeds to slit her own throat.

This would unsettle anyone, but it especially bothers Rose given that Rose’s own mother died by suicide many years earlier. That lingering trauma, and the fears and stigma that surround it, form the film’s most intelligent thematic thread: Rose’s fiance Trevor (Jessie T. Usher) admits that he’s researched inherited mental illness online, and harsh terms like “nutjobs,” “crazies,” and “head cases” are used to describe mentally ill people throughout the film. The idea that she might not actually be plagued by the same entity that killed Laura, and that her hallucinations, lost time, and emotional volatility might have an internal cause, seems to bother Rose more than the concept of being cursed. The people around Rose, including Trevor, her therapist Dr. Northcott (Robin Weigert), her boss Dr. Desai (Kal Penn), and her sister Holly (Gillian Zinzer), certainly seem to think the problem is more neurochemical than supernatural—that is, until it’s way too late. 

The only one who believes Rose is her ex, Joel (Kyle Gallner), a cop who’s been assigned to Laura’s case. Their tentative reunion opens the door to the film’s mystery element, which makes up much of “Smile’s” long, but not overly long, 115-minute run time. The film’s storyline follows many of your typical beats of a supernatural horror-mystery, escalating from a quick Google (the internet-age equivalent of a good old-fashioned library scene) to an in-person interview with a traumatized, incarcerated survivor of whatever this malevolent entity actually is. Brief reference is made to a cluster of similar events in Brazil, opening up the door to a sequel.

“Smile’s” greatest asset is its relentless, oppressive grimness: This is a film where children and pets are as vulnerable as adults, and the horror elements are bloody and disturbing to match the dark themes. This unsparing sensibility is enhanced by Bacon’s shaky, vulnerable performance as Rose: At one point, she screams at Trevor, “I am not crazy!,” then mumbles an apology and looks down at her shoes in shame. At another, her wan smile at her nephew’s birthday party stands as both a bleak counterpoint to the sick grin the entity’s victims see before they die (thus the film’s title), as well as a relatable moment for viewers who have reluctantly muddled their way through similar gatherings in the midst of a depressive episode. 

Sadly, despite a compelling lead and strong craft behind the camera—the color palette, in shades of lavender, pink, teal, and gray, is capably chosen and very of the moment—“Smile” is diminished by the sheer fact that it’s not as fresh a concept as it might seem. This is director Parker Finn’s debut feature as a writer and director, based on a short film that won a jury award at SXSW 2020. To spin that into a non-franchise wide-release movie from a major studio like Paramount within two years—in a pandemic, no less!—is an impressive achievement, to be sure. 

But in padding out the concept from an 11-minute short into a nearly two-hour movie, “Smile” leans too heavily not only on formulaic mystery plotting, but also on horror themes and imagery lifted from popular hits like “The Ring” and “It Follows.” David Robert Mitchell’s 2014 film is an especially prominent, let’s say, influence on “Smile,” which, combined with its placement on the “it’s really about trauma” continuum, make this a less bracing movie experience than it might have been had it broken the mold more aggressively. It does introduce Finn as a capable horror helmer, one with a talent for an elegantly crafted jump scare and a knack for making a viewer feel uneasy and upset as they exit the theater—both advantages for a film like this one. But fans excited to see an “original” horror film hitting theaters should temper those expectations. 

This review was filed from the premiere at Fantastic Fest. It opens on September 30th.

Athena 0

Athena

You aren’t likely to see a more rightfully angry film this year than “Athena,” a non-stop opus examining the racism, inequality, and police violence that wreak havoc on France’s banlieue communities of color. That palpable fury rages through the film’s opening sequence, one that director Romain Gavras shoots in a pronounced single take that emphasizes its impressive craftsmanship; perhaps a little too loudly.

But mostly for good reason, as this sequence is simply one of the most challenging single takes we’ve seen in cinema recently, even when the technique is more accessible to filmmakers of all stripes these days (and emerged in mainstream TV discussions as of late, thanks to that crazy one-shot episode seven of the wildly popular “The Bear”). So let’s break it down, shall we? First, there’s the murmur of the news reports in the background, helping us pick up on the fact that police violence has been on the rise. Then we see the defiant face of Abdel (Dali Benssalah), a French soldier freshly returned from serving in Mali, and brother of the 13-year-old Idir who had just fallen victim to one such senseless instance of cop killing. There is undeniable grief in Abdel’s stance, and he does want justice. But the military officer keeps it cool all the same, inviting his community surrounding a police station to follow his example.

The camera doesn’t interrupt the movement and finds in the crowd Abdel’s brother Karim (Sami Slimane, a searing presence in his screen debut). His eyes burning with wrath, and his posture impatient, he lights up and throws a Molotov cocktail towards the door, starting a well-planned riot amid a rampaging crowd. Through that—and an overwhelming action sequence of smoke-filled chaos that follows—Karim and the protesters take control of the location as well as a hefty supply of guns, with cinematographer Matias Boucard’s unflinching and agile camera following them to their housing project, Athena: a place these revolutionaries proudly revere above all else, standing tall on its edges.

Truth be told, Surkin’s pulsating score that spreads itself over this sequence (and many other similarly impressive ones thereafter) is big and exhausting. The dynamic between the music and visuals is one that brings to mind Hans Zimmer’s occasional overindulgence when composing for Christopher Nolan—competing against the magnitude of the filmmaker’s already grand images, instead of amplifying them. But apart from that, “Athena”—a Greek tragedy constructed by the son of Costa-Gavras with recognizable hints of “Z”—immensely satisfies as a fast-moving political thriller and urban drama that feels genuinely cinematic, with technical finesse to spare.

Still, the film that essentially follows the late Idir’s three disparate brothers is more emotionally gripping in its rare moments that focus on small and quiet gestures and undercurrents. A realistically rendered (and recited) Islamic funeral prayer comes to mind, one that simmers with pain and familial grudges. Elsewhere, the third brother, Moktar (Ouassini Embarek), gives “Athena” one of its more challenging and narratively tricky storylines, being the sibling who’s found a way to line his pockets in the midst of all the injustice his people are subjected to. Running a drug operation out of Athena, Moktar’s primary interest happens to be his own survival and he’s not afraid to go to dubious lengths for it.

The astute and immersive script—written by Gavras, Elias Belkeddar, and Ladj Ly of the similarly themed “Les Misérables”—sees the brothers as representative pillars of the different ways immigrants and marginalized communities take on systems of power that are not designed for them to succeed. Abdel is something closer to a both-sides-ist, believing that there could be a harmonious way for the opposing ends to come together. Moktar is the opportunist, one who can look at a broken whole, see its cracks and muscle his way into those fault lines for financial gain and clout. Karim, on the other hand, is a young and scorching all-or-nothing radical, one who believes the system can’t be fair for anyone until it’s made to collapse and radically rebuilt.

While some of these struggles are specific to the French communities the film follows, they are also universal, with recent echoes deeply familiar here in the US. And despite a morally ambiguous parting note, “Athena” incisively engages with these battles despite a brassy style that at times overpowers them.

On Netflix today.

The Justice of Bunny King 0

The Justice of Bunny King

Bunny King (Essie Davis) walks home after a long day squeegeeing car windshields at a busy intersection. She’s made a couple of bucks. She puts the money into a big glass jar of coins and hides it in her closet. Then she gets undressed, taking off her bra. The bra’s underwire has pierced through the frayed fabric. That underwire would have been cutting into her skin all day. But look at the jar of coins. You could get a second-hand bra for less than 20 bucks, but Bunny King doesn’t even have that. A new bra is a luxury she cannot afford.

Effective storytelling is usually grounded in detail. “The Justice of Bunny King,” an amazing directorial debut from Gaysorn Thavat, is full of details like the bra. Details bypass condescension, and so many films about what is referred to as “the working class” stink with condescension. The recent “Holler” was a notable exception, as are the films of Eliza Hittman. It’s refreshing when you don’t sense the actors are only in the location for six weeks, with Los Angeles on speed dial right offscreen. Everything in “The Justice of Bunny King”—the clothes, the car, the decor, Bunny’s sharpened eyeliner pencil, the plastic cake box, the worn-out bra—hasn’t been carefully placed in the frame. They were there before the camera started rolling, and they will be thereafter.

Bunny’s kids, Ruben (Angus Stevens) and Shannon (Amelie Baynes), have been taken away from her, for reasons not revealed in full until near the film’s end. The kids are in foster care, and Bunny is allowed short visits, all while a social worker hovers on the sidelines. Ruben is a teenager, and wary of his mother. Shannon is a small disabled child, clinging to Bunny, but young enough to call her foster mom “Mommy” too. Bunny cannot regain custody of her kids until she has a job and adequate housing, but how can she find adequate housing with just a jar of coins? In the meantime, she crashes with her sister Sylvia (Darien Takle), Sylvia’s husband Bevan (Erroll Shand), and Bunny’s niece Tonya (Thomasin McKenzie). There’s tension. Bunny cooks and cleans, feeling like she is imposing on the family. There’s a limit to her sister’s generosity. Then, one day, Bunny witnesses something, something terrible. She calls it out, shattering the already fragile family dynamic. Bunny is tossed out of the house, her stuff (except for the coin jar) dumped out the window.

It’s obvious from Bunny’s face that she is running on fumes: there’s hysteria at play, an urgent and off-putting energy. People recoil from her. She can be a little bit scary, especially when she is angry or desperate. But her life is desperate. Even having time to think is a luxury. The social worker sets her up with a “dress for success” consultant, crucial to making a good impression when looking for an apartment or a job. Bunny staggers down the sidewalk in white platform sandals and a tailored blue suit, trying on a competent and confident personality. But people eventually see through it to the raw need underneath. When cornered or frustrated, Bunny makes big bold choices, and many of these choices are beyond the pale, putting her into a state from which she cannot retreat. Eventually, Tonya runs away from home to join up with her outlaw aunt, trailing along as Bunny barges into social workers’ offices, filling out forms with impatience bordering on fury. Tonya has her own trauma but being with Bunny is better than being at home.

Sophie Henderson (“Fantail,” “Baby Done”) wrote the screenplay, which is somehow taut and chaotic at the same time. Bunny’s frantic energy is woven into the DNA of the script. There’s a dedication to realism: a sequence where Bunny stays with the big boisterous family of her squeegee pal Semu (Lively Nili) is particularly well-observed: the elasticity of the family, their calm acceptance of her presence, but then, awfully, the moment Bunny realizes it’s time to move on. A long sequence at the end involving Bunny, Tonya and a social worker (the excellent Tanea Heke) catapults the film into an almost “Dog Day Afternoon” arena.

The aural texture of this world has been given pride of place by sound designer Bruno Barrett-Garnier. It’s not pumped up artificially, but great care has been given to sounds: Venetian blinds snapping shut, the violent scratch of Scotch tape pulled off the dispenser, a gas-guzzling car roaring to life, even the agonizing sound of the phone ringing. Phone calls are never good in “The Justice of Bunny King.” A couple of well-placed songs by The Mess Hall and 4 Non Blondes provide the only respite in the film’s emotionally fraught atmosphere.

The storyline, of a desperate working-class woman trying to pull herself up by her bootstraps, never giving up, even against tremendous odds, is well-worn and familiar. These stories are usually built to be inspirational. Cue swelling strings. “The Justice of Bunny King” allows for ambivalence and complexity, and, in fact, wouldn’t be the movie it is without those things. It’s not that Bunny is a bad person, it’s that you can see the social worker’s hesitation to allow visitation, you can understand why Ruben keeps his distance from his mother. He’s been burned too many times. 

Bunny is unpredictable, and she is capable of great violence, you know that just by looking at her. As the social worker reminds her repeatedly, it is their job to keep her children “safe.” Bunny crumbles, setting off sparks of rage: “You mean safe from me.” Well, yes. That is what they mean. In a cruel irony, she did try to “keep them safe,” and that’s why she’s in this predicament in the first place. Her commitment to Tonya is not just a replacement for her kids. Tonya is in danger and must be saved. Bunny was the only one brave enough to confront this.

Thomasin McKenzie showed an eerie calm maturity in Debra Granik’s 2018 film “Leave No Trace,” where McKenzie played a role similar to that of Tonya: she trails along after her father, fearful of what will happen to him, because she loves him but also because she is a child, she has nowhere else to go. Tonya is trapped. Her wild aunt Bunny offers her a lawless escape. Tonya can perceive Bunny’s issues, but at least Bunny isn’t tricky and duplicitous. McKenzie is such a centered young actress, easily tapping into Tonya’s fear and trauma, but also her hunger for survival. In her own quiet way, she’s as bold as Bunny. If anyone is going to come out of this with at least a shot at making a good life, it’s Tonya.

Essie Davis embraces complexity, as seen in her towering performance as the insomniac mother in “The Babadook” or the weird wealthy Helen in last year’s “Nitram.” Even her performance as the mother of a dying teenager in “Babyteeth” is complex, Davis emanating a deadpan (and very funny) resignation to the absurdity of life. In “The Justice of Bunny King,” Davis’ face, at times, looks like it’s being flayed alive, pared down to the bone, her emotions quivering on the surface of her skin. Davis does not play Bunny as an inspirational figure. What she does play, with everything she’s got, is Bunny’s objective: to throw a birthday party for Shannon. Bunny may not be able to find a house or get a job, and she can’t get her kids back, but she can throw a party for Shannon, and no one can stop her. By the end of the film, Bunny has been put through the wringer, and so have we. Davis outdoes herself.

Now playing in theaters. 

A Jazzman’s Blues 0

A Jazzman’s Blues

The films of Tyler Perry have been proving themselves critic-proof since his 2005 debut feature “Diary of a Mad Black Woman.” And yet outlets such as this one keep assigning writers to review them. Partially because it’s what they do. But he has always been a creator who demands critical interest. The populist appeal of the work, its sometimes-strident quasi-evangelical moralism, its occasional theatricality (which illuminates Perry’s artistic roots); it’s all worth considering. Even when the work doesn’t satisfy certain expectations.

Perry’s canny moves into the Hollywood mainstream via acting roles in newsworthy pictures ranging from “Gone Girl” to “Don’t Look Up” may have expanded the audience for his directorial work. And with his recent deal with Netflix, that directorial work has gone into new territory. His new picture, “A Jazzman’s Blues,” in which Perry does not appear, is from a script he says he wrote 27 years ago. On a recent appearance on “The Today Show,” Perry said, “I had to be strategic in what I was doing before, so I had to make sure I had a hit after a hit after a hit, so this one I just wanted to take my time and do it at the right moment.” Telling this story now, he says, became imperative as Perry witnessed contemporary book banning, distortion of Black history, “the homogenizing of slavery and Jim Crow” being one aspect of that which troubles him particularly.

From its very opening shots “A Jazzman’s Blues” shows that Perry has developed a genuine fluency as a filmmaker. The story’s setup is a frame, something right out of John Grisham maybe: sometime in the not-too-distant past, a Black woman watches a political pitch on television from the current Attorney General of Hopewell, Georgia, disdaining his racist views. Nonetheless, this old woman soon turns up at the man’s office, bearing a sheaf of letters and making a request. “You want me to look into a murder that happened over 40 years ago,” says the bureaucrat in disbelief. (As it happens the woman knows everything but intends the query as a lesson.) We flashback to 1937, and a rural Black community, and a lot of unhappiness.

The sensitive, tentative young man nicknamed Bayou (Joshua Boone) comes from a family of itinerant musicians. Including a father who huffs “Boy got to learn to get tough at some point.” The fact that Boone can sing but can’t play makes him an object of contempt for that father and for Boone’s brother Willie Earl (Austin Scott); with the latter there’s a real Cain and Abel vibe going on. Good fortune smiles on Boone in the form of LeAnne (Solea Pfeiffer), an outcast of a different sort. “I can still smell the lavender and the moonshine,” Boone avers in one of his letters. For a short time the two share a secret love. She teaches him how to read. But she’s snatched away by her avaricious mother who takes her up North and marries the girl, who can pass for white, to a well-off-Caucasian. 1947 brings an unfortuitous reunion of Bayou and LeAnne. “What is wrong with these negroes down here?” asks a member of LeAnne’s new people when Bayou is so forward as to take a seat in a white family’s kitchen. “Oh, we keep ‘em in line,” responds a representative of local law enforcement.

After a few twists and turns, and a not-secret-enough return to amorous activities between Bayou and Leanne, Leanne’s mom actively tries to get Bayou lynched. The issue thus forced, Bayou flees to the North. (He had actually been doing okay at the roadhouse founded by mom Hattie.) And as time goes on Bayou’s singing starts paying off. He is the jazzman of the title, but his success as a singer doesn’t compensate for the pain of losing his love. The tensions between him and trumpet-playing Willie Earl increase, especially as Willie Earl turns to heroin. And then there’s the matter of a baby. And of an ill-fated visit back home.

While the direction maintains a smooth and often tense tone (while sometimes serving up peculiar juxtapositions, like a childbirth intercut with a “jungle”-themed nightclub dance), Perry’s script hits a lot of notes right on the nose (there’s a white jazz booker who’s a Jew who escaped the Holocaust), and why not. It also has a lot of astute observations on the psychology of racism. A scene in which LeAnne, living the life of a white woman, upbraids a dark-skinned “domestic,” is genuinely jarring. The star-crossed lovers of the movie are caught in a loop of American racism, and their existences are defined by a desire for escape. Escape is a romantic notion, and this movie has its romantic side, for sure. But underneath the trappings, including a lush score by Aaron Zigman and the near-dreamy cinematography of Brett Pawlak, there’s a genuine anger about the utter senselessness of the hate that’s defined our history.

Some critics have compared Perry to Douglas Sirk. This is a fallacious analogy that, ultimately, is a kind of insult to both filmmakers. Each of these storytellers exercise social consciousness in styles that are entirely distinct from each other. And “A Jazzman’s Blues” proves that when Perry applies himself in a particular fashion, his work can stand entirely on its own. 

On Netflix today.

Petrov’s Flu 0

Petrov’s Flu

To call something “a real Russian movie” might be a peculiar kind of honorific in these times. But the dank, mordantly funny, thoroughly saturated, well, Russian-ness of the remarkable “Petrov’s Flu,” written and directed by Kirill Serebrennikov from an as-yet-to-be-Englished novel by Alexei Salnikov, is one of its signature qualities.

It begins ordinarily enough: on a bus, in not-quite present-day Russia, a man named Petrov is sniffling and sneezing. The image is a very wide widescreen, the 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio some of you may recall from Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev.” (Yes, I know the ratio was not unique to that film but indulge me.) The bus is very crowded and the man’s coughing and sneezing does not endear him to his fellow passengers. Someone among them starts complaining about how Gorbachev sent the country to hell. Soon a mentally disturbed older woman, in the remnants of a festive costume that included a blonde braided wig, starts yelling about how everyone needs to cough up their fare. Poor Petrov seems to be only trying to get home, wherever that is.

In a bit, a van cuts off the bus, and stops it. The back door opens and an animated man with a bald pate beckons Petrov to disembark from the bus and join him in the van, the back part of which has a coffin in it and is heavily decorated with roses. Once Petrov’s inside he’s shown the fancy lighting system for this not-quite hearse. His host, Igor, wants to take him visiting. Where?

Well, that’s the question. Lest you take my four-star review as high praise intended for a general audience, I need to clarify. This very Russian movie is wholly phantasmagoric and non-linear, which is to say hard to follow. The experience is more like an interactive jigsaw puzzle than anything else, if you can imagine such a thing, and by the end you’ll not be sure whether all the pieces were finally put into place anyway. 

In one synopsis of the movie I’ve read, Petrov is described as an auto mechanic. In another, as a comic book artist. I believe in the reality of the film he’s the latter, but I can understand why people might be confused. This is one hallucinatory flu, the extent of which you may not fully appreciate until the end credits when you see that each of the amazing actors in this, all unknown quantities in the States, plays multiple roles in this undulating, expansive universe.

As Petrov (Semyon Serzin) wanders through his interiority, his estranged wife Petrova (Chulpan Khamatova) experiences her own endless stress. Working as a librarian, she’s obliged to stay late on Poetry Night, and when one of the participants blows a fuse, Petrova’s eyes go black, like Ray Milland’s at the end of “X: The Man with X-Ray Eyes,” and she develops superpowers that allow her to bloodily wallop the offender. In the meantime, their son has a very real fever that causes them great concern. But the son is hell bent on going to a New Year’s Dance, and Petrov is determined to bring him. In a 1.37 frame, Petrov remembers his own experience of a New Year’s Dance, and how the young woman portraying a Snow Maiden, wearing a wig with blonde plaits, took his fevered hand and told him how hot it was, while he now remembers the snow maiden’s hand as icy. 

In the movie’s final third, the format moves to a beautiful widescreen black and white, telling the story of a young actress, who wears a sweater from the same pattern that an older work colleague of Petrova’s is knitting in the present day. Her tale is of love, unwanted pregnancy, and being coerced into portraying the Snow Maiden at a New Year’s Dance.

There’s also bloody assisted suicide, squelched literary ambition, sublimated and not sublimated homosexuality, arson, and a lot of drinking. All of it staged and shot with conscientiousness and ingenuity rarely seen in films from any country anymore. It is indeed a phantasmagoria, and perhaps an overload. The esteemed critic Todd McCarthy compared the experience of watching it to “having a load of garbage jammed down your throat and piled on top of you until you just can’t take it anymore.” I suppose that’s one way of looking at it. The garbage is cultural detritus, memory, nostalgia, hopelessness, a system that never worked and never will work. The characters here don’t really have a choice insofar as “taking it” is concerned. At the film’s finale, Petrov, still ill but finally alone, simply opts to go on. 

Now playing in select theaters.