Friday, July 29, 2016

Goodnight Mommy (Ich seh ich sech)

GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH) (Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, 2014)

During lazy summer days twin brothers Elias and Lukas (Elias Schwarz and Lukas Schwarz) keep busy in the usual ways young boys do. They explore the woods behind their glamorous and remote country home, go swimming, collect bugs, and generally enjoy the freedom that comes from having no obligations. Aside from the conspicuous absence of any adults, it seems like a pleasant situation. Things change when their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns in GOODNIGHT MOMMY (ICH SEH ICH SEH). She has undergone an operation, presumably cosmetic surgery, that has resulted in her head being heavily bandaged while she recovers.

At first the boys are happy that their mother is back, but it doesn’t take long for them to sense something different about her. In fact, they suspect that she is not actually their mother. She’s sterner than the woman they last saw. She insists that the blinds be closed at all times. The twins are not to bother her, and if they must, they need to knock on her bedroom door. She demands that they stay quiet while playing in or close to the house and are not to have anyone over. The more time passes, the more Elias and Lukas look for ways to test if this woman is who she is presenting herself to be.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY thrives on a dread-filled atmosphere. Common sounds, like the scratchy static of a walkie-talkie, the roar of a vacuum, and the sharp snap of closed blinds, are violent interruptions in a sleek, spacious home already tense with silence and suspicions. The artwork and photographs on the walls do nothing to ease the impression that something is off-kilter about this place. Paintings that seem to resemble the mother have blurred her face. A grouping of family pictures have empty spots where some have clearly been removed. Snapshots have clearly been purged from a photo album, as if their physical absence might erase the existence of whatever was captured in them.

Co-writer/directors Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala build GOODNIGHT MOMMY around the terror of living with someone who behaves in a way no longer familiar to you. Although physical violence is a comparatively lesser portion of the horror, the bloodletting and torture are felt more acutely because of who performs these deeds and the tactile nature of them. The film draws its unsettling power from the psychic disturbance of coexisting in an environment where two oppositional realities compete in the minds of the inhabitants. If one side in a home perceives the fundamental truth of a relationship unlike the other, then trust and security are under a constant strain.

GOODNIGHT MOMMY provides a good example of how the approach to material can matter more than what the story is. Franz and Fiala take a boilerplate scenario and minimize plot details and the characters’ backgrounds. Such ambiguity heightens the stakes as the viewer’s perspective on the situation is charged with uncertainty. GOODNIGHT MOMMY stokes the anxious ambience and seems to be unconcerned with a secret hiding in plain sight because the goal is to chill, not to make a mystery worthy of Sherlock Holmes.

Grade: B+

Thursday, July 28, 2016

River of Grass

RIVER OF GRASS (Kelly Reichardt, 1994)

In depicting the Everglades as populated by dumb criminals and cloddish cops, writer-director Kelly Reichardt’s first feature, RIVER OF GRASS, resembles an arty, low budget Elmore Leonard adaptation. The deadpan comedy flows from the stark difference between the reality of the situation and the bumbling duo self-misperception that they are menaces to society with the fuzz hot on their trail of lawless behavior. They envision themselves as dangerous outlaws akin to Bonnie and Clyde when they’re really more like latch-key kids who freak out believing they broke mom’s favorite vase and decide the best course of action is to run away by going to the neighborhood park before anyone gets home. They don’t have a well-reasoned plan and don’t have the means to venture far from where they started.

If her policeman father Jimmy (Dick Russell) hadn’t lost his gun, Cozy (Lisa Bowman) would likely never meet the man who changes her life. Having misplaced his weapon, Jimmy is unable to detain Lee Ray Harold (Larry Fessenden), a petty thief with the Aristotelian ideal of a southern man’s name. Cozy is a bored housewife seeking relief from the mundane grind of raising three kids and maintaining her Broward County home. From the minimal effort she puts into her domestic duties, Cozy’s restlessness doesn’t appear to be rooted in being overwhelmed so much as being disinterested in what’s expected of her as a mother and spouse.

Lee, who is pushing thirty and has been booted out of his grandmother’s house one county over in Dade, isn’t exactly a model of ambition or success either. Still, when he meets Cozy at a bar and persuades her to sneak into someone’s backyard pool, he provides more excitement than she would get otherwise on a Friday night. Lee is carrying a gun a friend of his found--ironically, it’s her father’s missing piece--and hands it to Cozy shortly before they are interrupted by the homeowner whose property they’re trespassing on. She panics and accidentally pulls the trigger. Believing they are complicit in a crime, they go on the run and plan to flee the state.

Reichardt’s style in RIVER OF GRASS favors little camera movement and functional close-ups and medium shots. The boxy frame conveys a sense of being confined or stuck, that the marshy regional landscape doesn’t give sufficient footing to allow forward movement. Thematically, the film reinforces the frustration of not being able to progress. Whether trying to sell Lee’s grandmother’s record collection or exploring payphones’ coin returns, Cozy and Lee can’t scrounge up the money to keep the tank full to wherever they might want to go or even get on the toll road. The gleaming highway ramps stretching into the sky are so close yet inaccessible. Cozy’s newfound freedom on the lam keeps her hiding in a motel room or waiting in the car while Lee attends to matters. Her embrace of being a fugitive still comes with restricted motion.

The feeling of being trapped north of Miami allows RIVER OF GRASS to capture another side of Florida than what gets splashed across tourist brochures and billboards. The palm trees and blue sky are still there but stand in contrast to the seediness.  Reichardt establishes a firm sense of place, the one where people grind out their days than visit for a dose of sun.

Grade: B+

Monday, July 18, 2016


GHOSTBUSTERS (Paul Feig, 2016)

There’s something strange in the neighborhood, namely the matter of the GHOSTBUSTERS remake (or reboot or however this film is positioned as brand extension) becoming a cultural flashpoint, at least in the online realm where all sorts of unpleasant things become manifest. Apparently for some the 1984 Ivan Reitman film has taken on the status of sacred writ such that making a version with women in the main roles is likened to heresy. Maybe demons are real if a special effects comedy bolstered by a flippant Bill Murray represents the last line of defense, a cinematic Alamo to rally around. The original GHOSTBUSTERS is funny but hardly the pinnacle of film as an art. Reworking it with a women as the heroes is surely not a bellwether of men or male-driven entertainment becoming maligned in Hollywood.

The 2016 iteration of GHOSTBUSTERS written by Katie Dippold and director Paul Feig unfolds roughly in the same way as its source but with a few variations. Physicist Erin Gilbert (Kristen Wiig) has buried her past in paranormal research as she seeks tenure at Columbia University. The ill-timed online availability of the book she wrote about ghosts and the like with Abby Yates (Melissa McCarthy) prompts her to visit her formerly close friend with the hope of getting it pulled to preserve her reputation. In the intervening years Abby has continued to investigate the supernatural with engineer Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon). Abby agrees to take the book out of circulation if Erin will tag along to check out a nearby historical site reporting some ghostly activity.

The field work reawakens Erin’s once deeply-held beliefs in the metaphysical, but online video of the trio’s celebration after spotting an evil spirit leads to their professional ruination. They decide to use their unemployment as an opportunity to expand upon their research and go into business. They hire Kevin (Chris Hemsworth), a handsome but exceedingly dumb receptionist, and take on another partner in Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), a Metro Transit Authority worker who has seen other ghosts in the subway system and can provide a car for hauling their bulky equipment. Even when they obtain seemingly incontrovertible proof of paranormal activity, skeptics continue to doubt them.

Having rewatched the original GHOSTBUSTERS within the last two years, it’s abundantly clear that Murray runs away with that film and doesn’t leave much for his other proton pack-carrying pals to do. This new GHOSTBUSTERS has standout performances, but overall there is more balance among the members of the team. Wiig doubles down on Erin’s awkward and relatively unassuming nature to get laughs. McCarthy brings child-like enthusiasm as a scientist who is thrilled at how cool it is to have her theories validated and test new, amazing technology. Jones adds the common perspective as she funnily and sensibly reacts to the unbelievable things she encounters. These Ghostbusters aren’t just Murray and a bunch of hangers-on.

Nevertheless, McKinnon and Hemsworth are implicated in stealing scenes in GHOSTBUSTERS. McKinnon’s dry performance suggests that Holtzmann may have spent too much time working in isolation and exposed to radiation. She is the embodiment of the weird last sketch on SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, like a singer trying to perform a piece in a key or that exists only in her head. Hemsworth builds up the hilarity of Kevin’s blithe idiocy by playing it straight and with unwavering directness. Like McKinnon’s Holtzmann, his character seems to mentally occupy another plane of existence.

GHOSTBUSTERS gets bound up too much in plot development and drags when all hell literally breaks loose in Manhattan. The big special effects moments really are secondary to letting the funny women run with the material. It’s a solid, amiable mainstream comedy, which, in the end, is all that its inspiration was too.

Grade: B

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates


The Stangle brothers know how to have a good time at family gatherings, which is exactly why the rest of their family insists they bring stabilizing guests with them to their sister’s impending nuptials in MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES. Mike (Adam Devine) and Dave (Zac Efron) tend to wind one another up and indiscriminately hit on women at family functions, so the hope is that requiring them to bring dates when Jeanie (Sugar Lyn Beard) marries Eric (Sam Richardson) will keep them from ruining the big day.

Mike and Dave love their sister and want to do right by her. They place an ad on Craigslist that goes viral and appear on a television talk show with the aim of finding the perfect women to accompany them to the destination wedding. A free trip to Hawaii attracts all sorts of eager applicants, although the brothers manage to have the good sense to realize that these particular women are probably bad choices. Tatiana (Aubrey Plaza) and Alice (Anna Kendrick) are wild partiers looking for an adventure and thus not the nice, steady types who are supposed to be picked. Nevertheless, they get selected after conspiring to bump into Mike and Dave under the pretense of being sweet, responsible professionals who are unaware of the island vacation that awaits those who make the best impression on the brothers.

The tables are turned on the Stangle boys, as they gradually become aware that they have brought the female versions of themselves to the wedding. While some humor is found in observing the wreckage Tatiana and Alice create in MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES, this comedy tends to equate funniness with the volume at which people are speaking. The operating principle seems to be that nearly everything is more amusing if it is being yelled. (For the record, it isn’t.)

MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES tries mightily to trade on the energy and appeal of its cast. Despite their willingness to go for broke, the film has little to offer beyond a lot of overly familiar or borrowed gags, one of which is essentially copped to on screen as being lifted from WEDDING CRASHERS. I don’t know how much was scripted and how much was improvised on set, but the recurring use of montages hint at an effort to patch together something from ad libs. MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES consists mostly of concept. The rest is dog-paddling to last long enough to capture sufficient footage to assemble.

The general laziness aside, the lack of definition to the core characters stands out as a clear weakness. The performances by the main four show the strain of trying to compensate for little to work with. Plaza emerges most unscathed, perhaps because her apathetic screen persona comes across almost like a knowing dismissal of the film from within. Kendrick is woefully underserved, in part because the film doesn’t really know who her altar-jilted party girl is. The flimsily-conceived Mike and Dave leave Devine trying to fill the void by sheer force of will while Efron gets the thankless task of playing the one learning life lessons. MIKE AND DAVE NEED WEDDING DATES coasts on fleet pacing and residual appreciation for the primary cast, which is another way of saying it’s running on fumes.

Grade: C

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

Dressed to Kill

DRESSED TO KILL (Brian De Palma, 1980)

Bringing up Alfred Hitchcock as an influence on Brian De Palma’s films is the most obvious way to start the discussion, yet in the case of DRESSED TO KILL it is virtually impossible to consider the thriller outside the context of a major shaping element. The film works on a fundamental level as lurid entertainment in which sex and murder intersect, yet the writer-director’s referencing of and conversation with Hitchcock’s films, one most significantly, is so intertwined in DRESSED TO KILL that to ignore it is like discounting DNA evidence. There may be another way to analyze what is presented, but the process is going to be far more difficult and suffer some inaccuracies.

To get specific about the plot is to spoil the surprises De Palma has in store for the audience. Suffice it to say that the film revolves around five characters in New York City. Housewife Kate Miller (Angie Dickinson) seeks counsel from psychiatrist Dr. Robert Elliott (Michael Caine) for a solution to her unsatisfactory sex life with her husband. Her clever son Peter (Keith Gordon) puts his technological ingenuity to work to try and solve a homicide. Hooker Liz Blake (Nancy Allen) happens upon a murder scene in which she accidentally touches the razor used to butcher the victim, potentially implicating her in the crime and making her another target for the killer. Dr. Elliott is also linked to the killing when he learns his transsexual patient Bobbi, for whom he refuses to approve a sex change operation, stole his razor and used it as the murder weapon.

Hitchcock’s FRENZY provides an idea of how the content of his films might have become more graphic under a more permissive ratings system. With the shocking nature of the sex and violence in DRESSED TO KILL, particularly in the director’s preferred unrated cut, De Palma presents what such a hypothetical film might look like. Doubles and reflections figure prominently in De Palma’s visual strategy in his mirror version of a Hitchcock movie. For the characters in DRESSED TO KILL it is not enough just to see; they must be able to comprehend what is being seen. As the same applies to the audience, De Palma is being rather confrontational with the essence of cinema itself, requiring a voyeuristic look at the erotic and horrific and expecting them to be understood beyond prurient and savage curiosity.

Plot peevers will have a field day with the logical gaps in DRESSED TO KILL, but fantasy sequences, Pino Donaggio’s lush score, and the general air of unreality clearly point toward De Palma’s intention for the film to be enjoyed as amplified drama. It thrives on the excitement of flirting with the illicit, such as the bravura scene at the art museum when Kate follows a handsome stranger, pauses to rethink her actions, and then resumes her pursuit of him. Although the scene is nearly wordless, the passion driving it requires no dialogue. DRESSED TO KILL operates on the intuitive knowledge of acting on impulse.

As unnerving as parts of it can be, a wicked sense of humor runs through DRESSED TO KILL. A moan of pleasure mingles with a car horn. (There’s another tip of the hat to Hitchcock.) A frank description of a surgical procedure is overheard by a woman in the background, who displays a variety of appalled expressions as those in the foreground carry on as if it’s ordinary dinner banter. One of the biggest laughs comes from the close-up of a letter from the Department of Health. Especially as it becomes more apparent what film De Palma has essentially remade, the sheer audacity of the entire enterprise tickles.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Swiss Army Man

(Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2016)

Alone and stranded on an island somewhere in the Pacific, Hank (Paul Dano) has lost all hope and is about to kill himself when a body washes up on the shore in SWISS ARMY MAN. The corpse is especially flatulent and thus can serve as a makeshift jet ski for Hank to ride back to the continent. The journey is just partially complete, though. Hank still has to make his way through California’s coastal wilderness to civilization, assuming he can muster the will to press on. Lucky for him, the dead body he totes with him functions as a multi-tool and, when Manny (Daniel Radcliffe) starts to talk, a companion.

Manny hasn’t retained any knowledge, so he relies on Hank for an education about the world. Manny also has no frame of reference for social cues, so he encourages Hank to stop bottling up the feelings and embarrassing bodily expulsions. Hank talks about his own past as though he left behind a life filled with loneliness and heartbreak. Based on flashbacks and the picture on his smart phone’s lock screen, a woman (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) plays a major factor in his sadness and his desire to go home. Manny mistakes the phone for his, and when he sees her photo and is told about love, he believes that it is his purpose to return to her.

With its decidedly quaint style and sensitive protagonist, SWISS ARMY MAN risks twee overload, but the offbeat humor and the actors help to keep the affectations from making the film into something overly precious. The scatological jokes keep Hank’s painful sincerity in check, as does Manny’s innocent bluntness. Writer-directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert empathize with Hank and want the character to be more at ease with his weirdness, but to their credit, they don’t treat the odd aspects of him as being immune from distancing others. SWISS ARMY MAN accepts Hank for who he is and wants him to do the same, with the understanding others won’t always validate his unusual qualities. He’s special in his own way, but he can’t expect everyone to like it.

Dano does fine work in showing Hank’s vulnerability, particularly with how he lets down his guard with Manny. Belief is suspended in this absurd scenario because Dano opens up so tenderly to this talking corpse and becomes reliant on Manny as if he’s an imaginary friend who has taken physical form. In explaining to Manny how feelings and relationships work, Hank is better able to comprehend how he has failed at dealing with these things. Dano’s performance is touching when, through Manny, he can reflect how he observes and wants to be seen. Radcliffe’s acting as Manny produces a glorious mix of physical comedy and deadpan line delivery. The pure, matter-of-fact way he asks awkward questions and offers uncomfortable suggestions softens the crudity and makes such things all the funnier. Radcliffe comports himself like a ventriloquist’s dummy, which also heightens the comedy in his reactions and statements.

Although SWISS ARMY MAN is undeniably strange, it isn’t perhaps as original as it might sound from the description. Kwan and Scheinert are working in a similar domain as Michel Gondry, who, like them, also transitioned from music videos to feature films. Like Gondry’s ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND and THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, Kwan and Scheinert use unconventional means, not to mention all the handcrafted items, to look at self-doubt and romantic frustration. Even if SWISS ARMY MAN doesn’t blaze a new trail, the filmmakers have succeeded at making something distinct, funny, and curiously affecting.

Grade: B