Friday, July 22, 2016

@FantasiaFest sleeper "The Love Witch"

The first thing that you notice about Anna Biller's "The Love Witch" is how strikingly beautiful a movie it is.  Shot on 35mm its look is inspired by 1960s sexploitation and Technicolor melodramas. It is sumptuous in its eye-popping photography filled with relentless color and incredibly impressive and precise costume design.

Its plot of a modern-day witch named Elaine (a very spicy hot Samantha Robinson) that relentlessly, but good-hardheartedly, concocts magical spells to get men to fall in love with her, can seem like a throwaway compared to the actual, eye-candy imagery Biller has created. You wouldn't be wrong, but what Biller is trying to create is a cinematic treatise very much akin to what Todd Haynes did with his Douglas Sirk inspired melodrama "Far From Heaven." The beautiful, luscious coilers are deceiving enough to make an audience believe that what they are seeing is total pastiche, but the underlying themes and resonances that lurk beneath tell a very different tale.

Elaine's Gothic, Victorian-inspired apartment is an over-the-top inspired treat. There are spell books and love potions being created all around the place. It makes for a hilariously messy environment, but one which subtly indicates the deranged mind of its titular character. She makes over-the-top potions, sprinkles them with absurd spells and then goes out to find the next victim in her deadly web. We never truly know if the spells actually work or if she just picks up all these hapless male souls because, well, she's quite easy on the eyes.

Most of the men Elaine meets are weak-minded fools that cannot handle the heavy, and proudly feminist image, that comes with dating this kooky witch. Her aim is to get the perfect man, but not without getting what she truly wants. She will use sex, just like Scarlett Johnanson's toxic UFO vixen all too easily did in "Under the Skin," to seduce her male partners and get to her ubiquitous goals. The sex scenes are ugly, misguided and completely awkward, purposely so, but they also end up revealing the true nature of many of its male characters. The sex brings out the hidden truths that the plasticized men she encounters have kept hidden until that very moment from her.

Newcomer Robinson is unusually impressive. She not only is perfect for the role with her provocatively good looks, but brings erotic, provocative, and never mean-spirited vibes to her character. She might be responsible for a few deaths, but Biller somehow finds a way to make Elaine likeable and not entirely responsible for the murders she has committed.

Robinson certainly looks the part with her great outfits and provocative blue eye make-up. Her performance is veers between the erotic and the outrageous.

It is no coincidence that "The Love Witch" feels like it was made in another era, in fact it is such a technical accomplishment that at times I truly thought I was watching something that was actually shot in the late 60s.  Much of the visual palette stems from the technicolor thriller genre made popular back in the late 60's early 70s. From the acting to the lighting to the compositions, Biller has pulled out quite the effort to authenticate her film and make it look, sound and feel like it was made in 1971. She even directly uses music from older Ennio Morricone's Italin giallo soundtracks such as "The Fifth Cord" and "A Lizard in a Woman's Skin."  The fact that Biller has stated that the film is supposed to be set in modern times, and we do happen to catch a few people talking in cell phones, is an accomplishment in itself because never does it feel like your in present time when 3watching the film.

And so, with all these technical accomplishments, "The Love Witch" does retain its feminist themes throughout. Biller explores female fantasy in the most diabolical of ways imaginable and gender politics are dissected in such an honest, but stinging way that it could infuriate some feminists with its truthful observations.  Biller proves to be the an auteur in the truest sense of the word: She directed, wrote, produced, edited the film and created many of the spectacular costumes and set decorations. She also, quite possibly, created a new cult classic. B

“Lights Out” finds genuine scares in the dark

Teresa Palmer in Lights Out (2016)
As kids, most of us will go through a stage in which we are afraid of the dark. It’s part of human DNA, seemingly hardwired in our subconscious: stay away from the dark, because there could be danger.David F. Sandberg‘s “Lights Out” plays with a fear of the dark. The director surely knows that innumerable prior horror films have used this trope indiscriminately to scare audiences. But the difference between “Lights Out” and any other mainstream horror movie is that it actually uses the dark as the center of its plot, organically drawing out the majority of its jump scares in the process.
In “Lights Out,” a fearsome entity starts haunting a family, but the fact that this wholly evil spirit can only attack if the lights go out is a way for Sandberg to think of creatively different ways for his heroes to find the light. Whether it might be unlocking the car door, using a phone’s flashlight or lighting candles, the film’s protagonist family needs to survive, and to do so they have to steer away from any darkness.
Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) and her little brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) realize that their mother Sophie, thought to be mentally ill for many years, was actually not insane at all. The moments they thought she was talking to herself turned out to be conversations with an evil entity named Diana. The problem is that Rebecca and Martin have now angered the entity and are being chased by it.
The plot is not the film’s strong point, which Sandberg likely recognizes. That’s why, when the narrative eventually plays out and concludes in the film’s finale, it turns out to be by far the weakest moment of “Lights Out.” But beforehand, Sandberg delights in finding new, twisted ways to use our fear of the dark to pull us into his web of scares.
Palmer and Bateman make a formidable team in the picture and are served well by Sandberg’s concerted effort to develop his characters in the film. Rebecca and Martin might be estranged siblings, but when they do finally bond and try to save their mother (Maria Bello), it’s a strikingly poignant moment.
The remarkably accomplished Bello brings out the torment and frustration within Sophie. Her best performances, in “A History of Violence” and “The Cooler,” defined her career in the aughts with intelligence, restraint and eroticism. Although her role here is somewhat underwritten, Bello makes the best of it, bringing out the terror of a person trapped in a place she’s given up escaping from.
“Lights Out” is not only about what goes bump in the night, but is also a modest look at clinical depression. Sophie has been battling demons throughout her life, due to a refusal to take her medication. The fact that the devilish entity would disappear if she only took her antidepressants is metaphorical enough to create an abundance of fan theories by film’s end. It’s not bad for a film that is wrapped in the fabric of a B-movie.
At 81 minutes, “Lights Out” feels a touch overlong, but it doesn’t overstay its welcome. A highlight is the opening scene which introduces Diana and the film’s harrowing use of the dark. The horror genre is known for having terrifying openings, but the one in “Lights Out” is one of the very best in recent years, setting up the main antagonist where she is frightened the most: a constrained, subterranean facility, but more importantly, in one that has no windows for the light to shine through. In “Lights Out,” the sun rarely shines in, but when it does, it feels like a momentary pause from the horror creeping in the dark. [B]

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

"The Unknown Girl" a Dardennes misfire

From IMDB:
"A doctor attempts to uncover the identity of a patient who died after she refused her treatment."

I remember being dead-tired at some point during my stay at Cannes, must have been mid-way, mostly due to the fact that my roommate over there would show up at 4am every morning drunk as a skunk and then proceed to be the loudest snorer I've ever encountered. Suffice to say that when it came the time for the 8:30am screening of the new Dardennes brothers opus "The Unknown Girl" I completely slept through the morning and woke up in panic that I missed the screening. I tried to not listen or hear any opinions of the film until I finally got a chance to see it on the last day of the fest, but suffice to say I couldn't avoid the disappointment that came out of post-screening from critics and bloggers alike. I ended up catching the film on the last day of the fest, when the programmers re-screen the entire competition, I wasn't impressed.

The Dardennes pretty much had a perfect track record until "The Unknown Girl". Their brand of cinema verite isn't groundbreaking, but it's forcefully powerful. They are experts at creating tension in the most minimalist of situations. "The Unknown Girl" felt like a greatest hits package instead of a new tale. This is the Dardennes in an almost redux paradox. Everything that happens in the film feels foreshadowed by their past movies. Sundance Selects has the U.S. distribution rights, but have opted for a 2017 release. The 113 minute cut I saw of the film at Cannes has now been shortened to a 106 minute cut. That says everything you need to know about this movie.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fantasia review: "Rupture"

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If Steven Shainberg’s career as a director was helped by his Sundance breakthrough “Secretary,” it hasn’t been easy coasting since then. Shainberg followed that film up with the Nicole Kidman– and Robert Downey Jr.-starring “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus,” which, just like “Secretary,” has built up a loyal cult fanbase over the years.

Even so, it has taken 10 years for Shainberg to release his next film. “Rupture,” unlike his last two films, follows genre tropes a little more closely. It stars Noomi Rapace as Renee, a single, Montreal-born mother who gets abducted for a reason unbeknownst to her and undergoes severe and traumatic experimentation in a hidden lab, with the goal to make her ultimately defeat her worst fears, all for a nefarious purpose. But Renee doesn’t submit easily to her captors, and almost as soon as she’s strapped down to a gurney, she begins to plot her escape. But it won’t be easy.

The medical laboratory is creepily thought-out, with some sly, subtle details mixed into its labyrinth-like contour. Even if one escapes from his/her room, finding a way out of the place is frustrating and almost impossible to achieve. The ventilation system leads to nowhere, ditto the elevator which just leads Renee to another floor filled with immaculate maze-like detail. It’s a nightmare location fully fleshed out by Shainberg and his co-screenwriter Brian Nelson.

The halls are roamed by experimental doctors checking up on their “patients” one door at a time. Michael Chiklis plays the unnamed leader of the gang in a not-so-subtle, underwritten role; ditto Lesley Manville playing his assistant, Dr. Nyman, a woman that always seems to have a hypodermic needle in her hand. There’s also Kerry Bishé as another unnervingly cold nurse, and Peter Stormare in a small but no less creepy role. The relentless action passes by so swiftly that Shainberg doesn’t get to build up his villains in a way for us to despise them enough. Chiklis and Manville are given one-sentence lines, which they deliver in the best manner they can, but which don’t really add up or bring authenticity to their characters. The same could be said of Rapace’s Renee, whose background story we barely know except for a brief five-minute introduction at the beginning of the film showcasing her as a frustrated single mother who doesn’t like her ex-husband and is struggling with the challenges of raising a pubescent son with emotional issues.


Sacrificing character for action, Shainberg’s film does hold onto to its luridly devilish pace until its final third when the director decides to add the supernatural into the mix. The conflicting mixture of the real and the surreal ends up being a decidedly failed opportunity to accentuate Renee’s horrific psyche. All this time we were in her head and ready to go anywhere to taste that final bit of freedom with her. What Shainberg does is add an unnecessary and uninvolving twist to the story that, instead of feeling fresh and original, becomes frustratingly distant and cold.

The Swedish-born Rapace, has been slowly but surely building up a career in American movies and making a real mark. The 36-year-old actress has also done sci-fi/horror before, starring as Dr. Elizabeth Shaw in Ridley Scott’s “Alien” prequel “Prometheus” and in the currently filming sequel, “Alien: Covenant.” Her facial gestures and looks can sometimes be filled up with an innumerable amount of emotions, and her physical prowess — she’s no slouch in the muscle department — builds considerable heroism to a story that needs it.

Premiering at Montreal’s Fantasia Film Festival, “Rupture” places a gripping hold on its audience for nearly two-thirds of its 102-minute running time before stumbling slight in the final act. It might not be as risk-taking as previous Shainberg gems, but his knack for expertly crafted drama remains. [C+]

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Summer Movie Season since 1998-

The rule is pretty simple, it has to be a big studio film. I decided to do this mini-project by looking back at every summer movie season since 1998. I picked the great, artful films that came out between May and August. The films had to a) be financed by a big studio system b) critically acclaimed or up for awards consideration.

1998: Bullworth, The Truman Show, Out of Sight, There`s Something About Mary, Saving Private Ryan

1999: South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut, The Blair Witch Project, Eyes Wide Shut, The Iron Giant, The Sixth Sense

2000: Gladiator and Chicken Run

2001: Moulin Rouge, Shrek, Artificial Intelligence: AI, The Others

2002: About A Boy, Spiderman, Insomnia, Road to Perdition, Minority Report, The Bourne Identity

2003: Finding Nemo, Seabiscuit

2004: Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Spiderman 2, The Bourne Supremacy, Collateral, The Manchurian Candidate

2005: Cinderella Man, Batman Begins, War of the Worlds, The 40 Year-old Virgin, The Constant Gardener, Red Eye


: Ratatouille, The Bourne Ultimatum, Superbad,The Simpsons Movie, Hairspray

2008: Iron Man, WALL-E, The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder, Vicki Cristina Barcelona, Hellboy II

2009: Up, Star Trek, Distrct 9, Public Enemies, Inglourious Basterds, Drag Me To Hell

2010: Toy Story 3, Inception

2011: Bridesmaids, Midnight in Paris, The Tree of Life, Super 8, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, The Help

2012: The Dark Knight Rises



2015: Mad Max: Fury Road, Inside Out, Straight Outta Compton

2016 is the big question mark right now as we have not really had anything of artistic value since the summer movie began. There will be those that say "Captain America: Civil War" is worthy and I will somewhat agree with that, but is that really art? Are we now in the phase where we consider a superhero movie that is meant as a major product placement as art?

With the surprising news that "The Founder" has been moved to December and "Star Trek Beyond" being an average movie, we have skimp options to save this terrible summer we are having, maybe the worst, most uninspiring summer movie season yet.

1) Jason Bourne
2) Pete's Dragon
3) Kubo and the Third String
4) War Dogs

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