Monday, May 28, 2018

Movie Review: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Solo: A Star Wars Story *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ron Howard.
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan and Jon Kasdan based on characters created by George Lucas.
Starring: Alden Ehrenreich (Han Solo), Woody Harrelson (Tobias Beckett), Emilia Clarke (Qi'Ra), Donald Glover (Lando Calrissian), Thandie Newton (Val), Phoebe Waller-Bridge (L3-37), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Paul Bettany (Dryden Vos), Jon Favreau (Rio Durant), Linda Hunt (Lady Proxima).
When Disney purchased Lucasfilms, and along with it Star Wars, and announced that we would basically get a new Star Wars film every year, we knew eventually that sooner or later, the idea of a new Star Wars film would be less special than it once was. The Force Awakens was huge, The Last Jedi did very well, and even Rogue One – the first spinoff or so called “Star Wars Story” was also a hit. But even watching Rogue One – as good as it was (and it’s very good), I couldn’t help but get the impression that Star Wars was now just another blockbuster franchise. Like the Marvel films, some will be very good, some bad, many in between – and the box office would also fluctuate depending on people’s interest in the character – this is why Doctor Strange made $232 million, but Black Panther is still going at plus $600. You cannot expect your audience to feel the same excitement when you’re serving up a new one of these things every year (or in this case, just six months after The Last Jedi) then when they had to wait years in between installments.
Solo is the weakest Star Wars films since they came back – and one of the weaker ones altogether. In all honestly, it felt like just another fun but forgettable summer blockbuster, with some great action scenes and enough good performances and twists to keep you entertained for its entire runtime – but a year from now, you’ll likely have forgotten most of the details. This isn’t really a knock on the film – crafting a summer blockbuster this much fun isn’t an easy thing to do, and director Ron Howard makes it look easy. The only way you’re going to walk out of this film disappointed is if your expectations are too high – or you’re allergic to fan service, because this film has that in spades (which perhaps explains why they released it so close after The Last Jedi – which had very little fan service, angering a lot of fans who act like giant man babies when someone does something with the franchise they don’t like).
Solo is the origin story for Han Solo, answering all the questions that most of us never thought to ask. Where did the last name come from? How did he meet Chewie? What happened at that card game when he won the Millennium Falcon from Lando? What happened to turn him into the roguish lone wolf who only pretends he doesn’t have a conscience that we all so loved in the original trilogy? These questions didn’t need to be answered, but to be fair, neither did we really need to know how the rebels stole the plans for the Death Star – and Rogue One was still a very good film.
In the role of Han Solo is Alden Ehrenreich, who has the most unenviable task of any actor in this recent string on Star Wars movies – because he has to recreate a role that was played to perfection by Harrison Ford. Not only that, but Ehrenreich has to do more with the role than Ford did, because now he has to be the center of the movie, and not just the scene stealing supporting character – Han Solo here has to drive the action and the emotions of the story more than Ford ever did. Luckily, Ehrenreich is a fine actor (don’t @ me, but he’s a better actor than Ford – but Ford is a better movie star if that makes sense, and it does). Ehrenreich, smartly, doesn’t try too hard to do a Harrison Ford impression – he steals a facial expression once in a while, but mostly, he knows he isn’t a young Harrison Ford, and doesn’t try to fool you into thinking he is. Ehrenreich plays this role as well as it could be played – but everyone else in the cast has an easier job, and as a result, a few of them steal quite a few scenes.
The biggest example of that is clearly Donald Glover, who is having a blast playing Lando as pure arrogant swagger and charming sex appeal. The role doesn’t have much depth, but it doesn’t need it. Glover is a joy to watch in this role in every scene. If they actually do make a standalone Lando movie (and they should – at least if they’re going to keep churning these things out), he may well face the same challenges Ehrenreich does here – having to carry a movie (you cannot steal a movie when you’re the main character) – but here, he’s great fun. The biggest surprise is probably Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the voice of droid L3-37 – a “woke” droid wanting to inspire revolution. Her role is small, but comes just at the point in the film when the whole thing needs a kick – and she does it wonderfully. Woody Harrelson is in fine form as Tobias Becket – the crook who takes Han under his wing, but may never be fully trustworthy. Emilia Clarke is fine as Han’s first love – who he reunites with, but doesn’t quite understand how things have changed. Paul Bettany does what he can in a few scenes as a one dimensional villain.
Overall, Solo is a lot of fun. The stakes are lower in this Star Wars film than in any other of the series – it’s basically a Star Wars heist film, in which Solo and the team he falls in with have to steal a lot of fuel for reasons (seriously dudes, way TOO MANY reasons – we really do not need as much conversation about the fuel as this movie gives us). There is a terrific early action sequences trying to rob a moving train, which is exciting and fun, and the climaxes (yes, more than one) are well handled. This is why you hire someone like Ron Howard – he isn’t the guy you hire to take risks that will pay off big. He isn’t going to elevate material – but he can execute as well as anyone, and while we can always wonder just what the film would have looked like had Christopher Miller and Phil Lord had been given the chance to complete what they started, the end result is still fun. At some point, they’re going to have to decide what precisely they want to do with these films – if they’ll be content to just produce fun content like this, or whether they want to take more chances like The Last Jedi did. My hope is more of the latter – but if the stand alone films are fun as Solo, it’s hard to complain – even if Solo doesn’t have the impact of most Star Wars films – it’s still a good time at the movies.

Movie Review: Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451 ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Ramin Bahrani.
Written by: Amir Naderi and Ramin Bahrani based on the novel by Ray Bradbury.
Starring: Michael B. Jordan (Guy Montag), Michael Shannon (Captain Beatty),
Sofia Boutella (Clarisse McClellan), Lilly Singh (Raven), Raoul Bhaneja (Bobby Gosh), Lynne Griffin (Old Woman / Grapes of Wrath), Martin Donovan (Commissioner Nyari), Ted Whittall (Major Ron Curtis), Andy McQueen (Gustavo), Joe Pingue (Wayne Anderson), Khandi Alexander  (Toni Morrison), Saad Siddiqui (Fireman Stone), Dylan Taylor (Fireman Douglas), Cindy Katz (Yuxie).
The idea of doing a new version of Ray Bradbury’s classic Fahrenheit 451 in the era of Donald Trump and Fake News is a good one – and the idea updating it to account for the rise of the internet, which Bradbury could not have foreseen, is an even better one. There are any number of ways this could have and should worked – and yet, for some reason, the HBO film version of the story is just sort of flat. It was directed by Ramin Bahrani, the talented director behind films like Man Push Cart, Chop Shop, Goodbye Solo and 99 Homes – doing probably his most ambitious film to date. It has two great actors I the two pivotal roles in Michael B. Jordan and Michael Shannon (who should have won an Oscar for Bahrani’s 99 Homes), and yet after the film establishes its near future time and place – yet another film that basically uses Blade Runner as a visual template – it doesn’t really go anywhere with its story. It’s all just sort of bland and forgettable.
In the film, Jordan plays Guy Montag, a fireman, but in this future world firemen do not put out fires, but instead start them – burning what they call graffiti, which is what the rest of us would call books. Montag works for Captain Beatty (Shannon) – who is about to get promoted, and as a result, so is Montag – into Beatty’s current role. Montag has never questioned what it is they do, or why they do it. He doesn’t know what is in all those books – and doesn’t much care. But Beatty does – at least in some ways. He tells Montag that eventually every fireman gets curious about what it is they burn – and it’s clear that Beatty has more access to more of that graffiti than Montag does. But this has just made Beatty into a more dedicated true believer – at least publicly (he does things in private that would get in trouble – but he keeps it there, in private). Acting on a tip by Clarisse (Sofia Boutella), who really does believe in the books, but is trying to get her life back, they discover an old woman in a house full of books. Curious, Montag takes one – Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground – and tries to read it, but can make no sense of it. Returning to Clarisse, he begins to rethink what it is he never questioned before.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the new Fahrenheit 451 is that the film takes the charismatic Jordan, and completely misuses him. After the early scenes of Montag posturing for the crowds and the cameras, he doesn’t really do anything afterwards, and remains a dull, uninteresting character. Clarisse is even less fleshed out than Montag – and so when the film pushes them together in some sort of romance, it really doesn’t work. Only Shannon in really effective here – particularly in a scene right before they burn all those books, explaining a little background on how all this started – complete with a racial slur, which is proper to use in this context, but still needed to be explored further.
Because of all the updating that needed to be done for the story, there is a lot of additions and subtractions to Bradbury’s original novel in the film – those who are obsessed with fealty to the source material so therefore skip this one entirely. There is no reason why an adaptation needs to be an exact copy of the original – however, much of what is added to this version is either ill thought through, or just downright silly (the birds). I appreciate the effort, but the result doesn’t really work. Bradbury’s novel has survived for so long for a reason – so if you’re going to change it, make sure it works. This just doesn’t work.
I will say that I was never really bored by the film – I wanted to know where it was going, and no matter how silly the story got, I will say Bahrani does a fine job of directing it. The problem really is that the screenplay changes too much about the original novel, without replacing it with anything nearly as interesting. The intentions behind the project are good – the result, unfortunately, is not.

Friday, May 25, 2018

Movie Review: Cargo

Cargo *** / *****
Written by: Yolanda Ramke.
Starring: Martin Freeman (Andy), Anthony Hayes (Vic), Susie Porter (Kay), Caren Pistorius (Lorraine), Kris McQuade (Etta), Natasha Wanganeen (Josie), Bruce R. Carter (Willie), Simone Landers (Thoomi), David Gulpilil (Daku).
It is not easy to do something new with the zombie genre – which in the wake of the huge hit that is The Walking Dead – has become perhaps the most overplayed of all horror genres in recent years. Really, no one has done anything all that original since George A. Romero eventually invented the genre as we know with Night of the Living Dead (1968) and perfected it with Dawn of the Dead (1979). But many filmmakers have followed Romero’s lead in using the genre to comment on larger social issues and humanity in general. Yolanda Ramke and Ben Howling’s Cargo is an outback zombie film that, like most of the others, follows Romero’s playbook. For the most part though, what it lacks in originality, it makes up for with emotion. Yes, you can argue that using a baby in peril for the whole film is a cheap ploy – but it’s one that works.
The story in a nutshell is that Andy (Martin Freeman) and Kay (Susie Porter) and their baby daughter Rosie are cruising down a river on a houseboat, just trying to get away from whatever has happened on land – which is a zombie outbreak. When they come across a down yacht, first Andy and then later Kay go on board in search of supplies. Andy makes it out okay – Kay isn’t so lucky. We learn that in this world, if you’re infected you have 48 hours before you turn (but if you’re infected, and die, you turn right away). To try and save his wife’s life the family gets off the boat and heads out in a truck. Things go wrong – of course – and Kay ends up dead, and Andy infected. He now has 48 hours to find someone to take care of Rosie, or doom her to an early death.
The zombies in Cargo are the classic Romero zombies – slow and stupid, and for the most part, they seem not to gather in large groups – you can dodge them unless you’re dumb or unlucky. The movie doesn’t really try to scare you that much – there are no cheap scare moments (hardly any scare moments at all really) – and oddly, the filmmakers prefer to keep their action in the daytime, not the night. In Vic (Anthony Hayes) Cargo finds a classic Romero like human villain – a man who is using this outbreak as an excuse to become a vile, violent monster. The film’s other major character is Thoomi – a young indigenous girl trying to keep her family together. In its portrait of indigenous culture, Cargo has found its most original element – while the rest of society falls apart, because enough of them remember the “old ways” – they seem to have things more together than anyone else – more able to hold things together largely because they have a better sense of community. You could argue that its view is a little simple, perhaps even condescending – but I think the film’s heart is in the right place. I also quite liked the way the film portrayed the almost silent, passive racism of Freeman’s character – he doesn’t see himself as racist, yet he also does everything he can to get Rosie to a white family, even when it becomes clear what his best option is. The film doesn’t hit you over the head with it – it’s just something that Freeman’s character doesn’t really consider
In the lead role, Martin Freeman is quite good – he has a lot of time where he is by himself with the baby, and he is more than capable of carrying the film with his quiet presence. The rest of the performances are fine, but Freeman really does carry the film. Freeman has been quietly doing great work for a while now – he was great in season 1 of Fargo for example – and here, he’s doing some of his best film work.
While I appreciate the directors avoiding the kind of horror movie clichés of many zombie movies – avoiding too much blood and gore, and jump scares. The problem is they don’t really replace that with much else. They do a good job with the sun burnt outback, yet that also hurts them with building atmosphere. There are a few good scenes – particularly one inside a tunnel – but for the most part, the film doesn’t work as well as it could as horror movie. I liked how they had bigger issues on their mind – but the best horror movies work as horror and on the larger issues – not just one of them.
Overall, Cargo is a decent zombie film – one that doesn’t reinvent the genre, but does a few things I had not seen in the same way before in the genre. As a debut feature, it’s good. Now it’s time for Ramke and Howling to up the ante for their next film.

Movie Review: The Party

The Party *** / *****
Directed by: Sally Potter.
Written by: Sally Potter.
Starring: Timothy Spall (Bill), Kristin Scott Thomas (Janet), Patricia Clarkson (April), Bruno Ganz (Gottfried), Cherry Jones (Martha), Emily Mortimer (Jinny), Cillian Murphy (Tom). 
Director Sally Potter has made some wildly ambitious films in her career – the centuries spanning Orlando with Tilda Swinton as a young nobleman who stays young for centuries for example, or the romance Yes, a modern day film with dialogue in iambic pentameter for example. On that level, The Party feels like Potter taking it easy – tossing off a fun, yet inconsequential bauble of a film, that runs barely 70 minutes, set in one location, and basically lets its talented cast just have fun. That’s disappointing because of what we know Potter is capable of – yet the film remains fun and engaging throughout, so you get over that disappointment. Yes, Potter can do more – but in terms of its limited ambition, The Party works just fine.
In the film, Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas) has just been elected to serve as the shadow Minister of Health in Britain – and is holding a party for her best friends to celebrate. We know something is off about her husband, Bill (Timothy Spall) from the beginning – because he just sits in a chair, drinking, playing music and staring off into space. But Janet is too busy to notice – not only has her career gone the way she wants, but she’s also texting with someone she is obviously having an affair with. Gradually though, the guests start arriving. Her best friend April (Patricia Clarkson), who doesn’t believe in politics and is an incurable cynic – but a supportive one – arrives with her boyfriend Gottfried (Bruno Ganz), whose every line is basically new age mumbo gumbo. Then there is Martha (Cherry Jones), an old friend of Bill’s and a fellow professor, and her younger wife Jinny (Emily Mortimer) – who just learned her IVF procedure was successful, and she’ll be having triplets. Finally there is Tom (Cillian Murphy), who is supposed to be with his wife Marianne – an underling of Janet’s, and a former student of Bill’s – but she has been delayed. He shows up in an expensive suit, with a lot of cocaine and a gun – he’s obviously made about something, but it takes a while to figure out what.
From there, everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and secrets and lies come spilling out one after another. The film is basically a one act play with a comic tone, even as heavy as some of the things the film deals with are, the whole thing is pitched as a farce. The film is shot in black and white – I am a sucker for black and white in general, and it works here. The whole cast throws themselves into their roles with gusto, and basically just goes for it. The performances are wildly different – Murphy is going over the top, Jones is going more understated, Ganz’s calmness is disturbing, Clarkson’s every line is designed to get a laugh, and Thomas is harried. Spall is good as a man who is essentially resigned to his fate. Mortimer probably has the most underwritten role, but she’s good enough to make her interesting anyway.
They all work together well, and the film maintains a fun tone from beginning to end and floats along effortlessly. You can certainly argue that with this much talent on display, the result should be better that just a fun, tossed off bauble. But as far as fun, tossed off baubles go, you can do a lot worse than The Party.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Movie Review: Deadpool 2

Deadpool 2 *** ½ / *****
Directed by: David Leitch.
Written by: Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and Ryan Reynolds based on characacters created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld.
Starring: Ryan Reynolds (Wade / Deadpool), Morena Baccarin (Vanessa), T.J. Miller (Weasel), Josh Brolin (Nathan Summers / Cable), Brianna Hildebrand (Negasonic Teenage Warhead), Zazie Beetz (Neena Thurman/Domino), Julian Dennison (Russell Collins/Firefist), Karan Soni (Dopinder), Leslie Uggams (Blind Al), Shioli Kutsuna (Yukio), Rob Delaney (Peter), Jack Kesy (Black Tom Cassidy), Eddie Marsan (Headmaster), Bill Skarsgård (Zeitgeist), Terry Crews (Bedlam), Lewis Tan (Shatterstar), Stefan Kapicic (Colossus - voice), Sean Gislingham (Sammy).
I’m honestly not sure if you could describe the Deadpool movies as good – but they sure do feel somewhat refreshing, even necessary, in the current superhero obsessed Hollywood landscape. The DC Universe is currently in shambles – a lumbering giant of self-seriousness and overstuffed movies that are just lucky everyone loved Wonder Woman so much or it would a colossal misfire. The Marvel movies have generally been quite good – but even when they bring in talented filmmakers like Taika Waititi or Ryan Coogler to add some degree of freshness to the proceedings, they still feel very much the same – very much a part of something bigger and more serious than perhaps it should be. The Deadpool films then act as a kind of counterweight, as it mocks everything the other superhero films take so seriously. This isn’t good for things such as character or narrative in the two Deadpool films we have seen so far, but it does make them a hell of a lot of fun – especially since Ryan Reynolds is so suited for the role, and the movie so gleefully embraces the violence, profanity and pretty much total nihilism at its core. In 2016 when the original came out, I really did wonder if we were witnessing the beginning of the end of the comic book movie era (it will end, every era does) – because if audiences were so ready to laugh along at something that mocked everything the studios were offering them, then perhaps it had peaked, and we were just waiting for the fall. That clearly didn’t happen – but I cannot help but wonder how the Deadpool film will play after the era does end, and audiences see it outside of an era when we soaked in this superhero stuff constantly. But for now, I’m glad they’re around.
In many ways, you could describe Deadpool 2 as being just like Deadpool – but with a bigger budget. Deadpool was a risky move for Fox, so they didn’t spend what they typically would on an X-Men film in an effort to hedge their bets. Because that was a huge hit, they poured more money into the sequel – hired a proven action director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) when the original left over “creative differences”. And you can tell. The action in this movie is cleaner than the original, better staged but still juiced for maximum carnage. You kind of have to take your hat off to the Deadpool movies because in the real world, if there were superheroes, a hell of a lot of people would die every time they fight. This film doesn’t avoid that fact, nor does it have its hero mourn their loss – it just gleefully cackles as Deadpool shoots people in the head, or chops off their arms. Even a huge action sequence in the middle of the film – which features the newly formed X-Force has been pumped for maximum cruelty and laughs.
The basic story involves Deadpool being depressed (I won’t spoil why, although it’s in the first few scenes) but determining he needs to care about something more than himself. So he decides that what he’s going to do is saved Russell aka Firefist (Julian Dennison), a teenage mutant with fire hands who is stuck in basically the mutant version of one of those gay conversion camps. Russell and Deadpool are carted off to a prison for mutants – and that’s when they first meet Cable (Josh Brolin) a time travelling part man part robot from the future hell-bent on killing Russell for something he will do decades from now.
Brolin is the big new addition to the cast – and to be fair to him, he is well cast here, playing off his own image, and he gives a least some humanity to what could very well be a Terminator clone. The best new addition though is clearly Zazie Beetz as Domino – whose mutant power is extreme luck, which Deadpool questions, but really shouldn’t. Out of all the new additions in this movie, she’s really the only one I would be sad never to see again – she’s absolute blast.
This remains Ryan Reynolds show though – and he basically carries the whole thing. He also co-wrote the script, so he knows precisely how to play to his own strengths, which he does so shamelessly throughout, while constantly pointing out how shamelessly he is doing it. The movie breaks the fourth whale more often than it keeps it intact, and basically pokes you in the ribs over and over again for two hours with how clever it is, while mocking itself for not being as clever as it thinks it is. This could become insufferable (see Family Guy) – but for now, it works for this character, poking fun of this genre, at this particular time. The shelf life for these movies may be short, but for now, they are pure fun.

Movie Review: Show Dogs

Show Dogs * ½ / *****
Directed by: Raja Gosnell.
Written by: Max Botkin and Marc Hyman.
Starring: Will Arnett (Frank), Ludacris (Max - voice), Stanley Tucci (Philippe -voice), Natasha Lyonne (Mattie), Jordin Sparks (Daisy – voice), Alan Cumming (Dante – voice), RuPaul (Persephone), Shaquille O'Neal (Karma - voice), Gabriel Iglesias (Sprinkles - voice), Omar Chaparro (Señor Gabriel), Andy Beckwith (Berne).
Show Dogs is probably precisely the movie you think it will be when you hear it’s about a talking NYPD dog who goes undercover at a dog show to uncover smugglers, and who has to team up with a FBI agent played by Will Arnett who at first cannot stand him. The bar for ambition on these films is low, and this one basically plays like the writers half saw Miss Congeniality on cable and said what if that but with a dog, and churned out a screenplay that afternoon. You know the studio didn’t think this would make a lot of money – they certainly didn’t spend much on advertising the thing – but they really don’t need to. This is the type of movie that will live for years on Netflix and cable reruns on channels devoted to kids, who will watch the movie and laugh at the talking dogs and fart jokes. There is a reason why there was more than one Beverly Hills Chihuahua movie (there were 3!) and why they have churned out three Pup Star movies in the last three years. The answer is simple – kids love talking dog movies.
If you’re not a parent, you probably don’t know about Pup Star – and you are probably in no way ever going to watch Show Dogs – and to be fair to you, there is no reason for you to do either of those things. Show Dogs is a lame comedy that is oddly fixated on the police dogs private parts. Needless to say, my 6 and 4 year olds quite enjoyed it. And good for them, I suppose. I continue to take them to these movies, even knowing how bad they will be, in the hope that they will get into the habit of going to the movies, and love it – so this institution I love survives. And also because it gives us something to do on a Monday of a long weekend when everything else is closed and we’ve already been to the park, and they keep complaining about how bored they are.
Will Arnett plays the FBI agent who has to team up with Max, a NYPD Rottweiler with the voice of Ludacris, which of course Arnett cannot understand, but all the other dogs do. Give Arnett credit for not entirely sleepwalking through the movie, and agreeing to show his face on camera – which the host of celebrity voices for the dogs - including Stanley Tucci as an aging, effeminate former champion, Jordin Sparks as Max’s love interest, Alan Cumming as a somehow even more effeminate than Tucci current champion, RuPaul as an dog with a weird costume or Gabriel Iglesias as a hyper active dog named Sprinkles do not do. You know you’re in trouble when the best vocal work in the film may well be Shaquille O’Neal as a philosophy spouting dog. Arnett even agreeably appears in a version of the Dirty Dancing sequence with Max that my kids found hilarious, despite never having seen Dirty Dancing. Natasha Lyonne also shows up as Arnett’s love interest, and that’s strange after years of seeing her in Orange is the New Black, now all put together and prim and proper – it’s just strange.
Listen, everyone involved with Show Dogs knew what they were getting into when they made it – and if you watch the film, you know as well. There’s a reason it’s coming out now – because we’re more than a month since the last animated kids movie, and about a month before the next one, Incredibles 2, so they slipped it in here to try and make a few bucks, before the film lives on Netflix and cable forever. The film is what it is – and while that is very (very) bad, I do have a tough time getting angry about it. I mean, what really did I expect when I went to see it?

Movie Review: Paterno

Paterno *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Barry Levinson.
Written by: Debora Cahn and John C. Richards.
Starring: Al Pacino (Joe Paterno), Riley Keough (Sara Ganim), Kathy Baker (Sue Paterno), Greg Grunberg (Scott Paterno), Annie Parisse (Mary Kay Paterno), Ben Cook (Aaron Fisher), Jim Johnson (Jerry Sandusky), Peter Jacobson (David Newhouse), Larry Mitchell (Jay Paterno), Darren Goldstein (Mike McQueary), Kristen Bush (Dawn Fisher), Sean Cullen (Dan McGinn), Steve Coulter (Tim Curley), Tom Kemp (Graham Spanier), William Hill (Tom Bradley), Michael Mastro (Guido D'Elia), Josh Mowrey (Ron Vanderlinden).
Al Pacino gives another of his great late career performances as disgraced former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. The film is basically a study in denial, as it documents a few months in the life of Paterno following the indictment of his former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky on multiple charges of child molestation. It was a scandal that rocked Penn State, and as it unfolded, and more and more information came out, and it became clear that so many – including Paterno himself – knew something, and did nothing, it just became bigger. Paterno dedicated his life to coaching at Penn State – he spent decades there, refusing other job offers for more money, and was basically treated as a God on campus. People didn’t just see him as a great football coach, but as a great educator, a great humanitarian, and a great man. But how could Paterno not do more than he did with the information he had?
As a movie, Paterno would probably work best as part of a double bill with Amir Bar-Lev’s great documentary Happy Valley (2014), was chronicled the Sandusky scandal, but more really the fallout on campus afterwards – where it seemed more people were upset with how Paterno was treated than they were about the Sandusky scandal. You could also read some of the great, Pulitzer Prize winning work done by Sara Ganim, the Patriot-News reporter, who broke the story months before the indictments – which was ignored – but kept on pushing, and pursuing more and more leads and survivors as the story finally did break nationally. Ganim is played, in a very good performance here by Riley Keough – who is quickly becoming a favorite actress of mine with her work in films like American Honey, It Comes at Night and Logan Lucky. Either of those will give you a bigger, more complete picture of what happened.
What Paterno does is take you behind the closed door of the Paterno home during that time. When it comes out that Paterno had known about at least one allegation a decade before – because another assistant coach reported to Paterno that he had seen Sandusky raping a boy in the shower, and Paterno did nothing except report it to his superiors – the next day, as to not spoil their weekend – the media attention on Paterno heated up. His weekly press conference was cancelled, a weak statement followed, and soon the legend had announced his retirement at the end of the season – and after that, was fired outright. Since Paterno died of cancer a few months later, he never really did publicly address anything.
What the film does then is show Paterno as he it’s behind closed doors, with his family, still actively refusing to engage with what is happening outside – and trying to convince everyone that it had nothing to do with him. He’s there to coach football – and he has a game to prepare for. He doesn’t read the indictments that come down, doesn’t want to talk about them, pushes aside any suggestion that perhaps he could have and should have, done more. He reported it to his superiors, what else was he supposed to do? This is all just a distraction from the important thing – football. Can’t he just get back to doing that?
Pacino is great in the film, especially when he is quiet. He has done a few of these HBO biopics movies in the last few years – he won an Emmy for playing Jack Kevorkian for Paterno director Barry Levinson in You Don’t Know Jack, and like in that film, he has an opportunity to go big here, but instead goes quieter – and it’s more effective (he didn’t have that chance in David Mamet’s Phil Spector, the other HBO project – which is perhaps why it’s clearly the weakest). Pacino doesn’t really try and do a Paterno impression here – but instead goes for something deeper – something that was perhaps missing in Paterno that allowed him to compartmentalize everything.
What’s most impressive about the movie is how it basically shows Paterno is pain from beginning to end – and yet doesn’t encourage or engender any sympathy for the man. Everything he goes through in the film he brings on himself. The movie made the choice to essentially be an interior study of Paterno, and thus, not give the full dimension of what happened – and that has its positives and negatives – but for Pacino, this is a triumph.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Movie Review: Disgraced

Disgraced (2017) **** / *****
Directed by: Pat Kondelis.
Disgraced is a documentary about the 2003 scandal that rocked Baylor University in Waco, Texas – where one basketball player murdered another, and the fallout that followed that discovery, when it turned out head Coach Dave Bliss wasn’t following the rules. What’s odd is that this really should be a scandal of greater proportions – something talked about as much as Penn State and Joe Paterno, but it really isn’t. It’s likely that many don’t know anything about the story at all. In part, this is because as the movie tells us at the beginning, it’s something the people of Waco don’t talk about – at all. They don’t like to. But it’s a fascinating and troubling documentary, mainly because it gives Bliss so much rope to hang himself with.
When Bliss was hired as head coach of Baylor’s basketball team, he already had a successful NCAA coaching career under his belt – but he was taking over a team that wasn’t very good. To help make the team better, he recruited Patrick Dennehy to follow Baylor from New Mexico to Baylor, where he was promised a scholarship and playing time. He also recruited other players – including Carlton Dotson, who would become Dennehy’s friend and roommate – and eventually, his killer – and Harvey Thomas, who according to some harassed and threatened Dennehy and Dotson alongside his cousin, Larry Johnson – so much that the pair of friends went out and purchased guns. It was when they were practicing with those guns out in the desert that Dotson eventually killed Dennehy. A motive has never been established – Dotson has mental health issues – some psychiatrists at first deemed him unfit to stand trial – but his side of the story has never really been established. In a surprise move, five days before trial, he changed his plea to guilty in the hopes of getting a lesser sentence. It was a move that didn’t make a whole lot of sense, since even the prosecution admits that he could have argued self-defense and had a decent change or winning.
If that were the whole story, it would be a sad and tragic one. We’ve never seen a story is sports where one teammate murders another one – certainly not at the level of the NCAA in basketball. But that’s all it would be – another tragedy of young men killing each other for reasons we cannot comprehend. But the scandal goes deeper than that. That is because after the murder, the police naturally started digging around. Apparently, Dennehy wasn’t really at Baylor on a scholarship. So who paid his tuition? Who bought him his Chevy Tahoe?
As it all threatens to come crashing down, Bliss started scrambling – and wanted to get everyone in line, to lie to the police and the administration to cover his ass. This didn’t sit well with assistant coach Abar Rouse, who started recording his meetings with Bliss. What he gets on those tapes is shocking. Bliss essentially wants to tell everyone that was a drug dealer – and that’s how he paid for his own tuition. Because of those tapes (and bank records) that lie didn’t stick. Since then, Bliss has tried to sell his story of one of regret and redemption – that he did bad things, but learned from them and moved on. Then, in the documentary’s most shocking moment, when he thinks the camera is off, he goes on a rant essentially blaming Dennehy for his own death – and bringing up all the crap he had previously tried to paint Dennehy with. Its clear Bliss is the same piece of shit he was when this all went down.
This scandal really should be bigger than it was – it should have rocked the NCAA system more than it did. What’s odd is that other NCAA coaches sided with Bliss, not Rose – essentially saying that what Rouse did by recording Bliss was disloyal, and they would never have an assistant like that. 10 years later, Bliss found another coaching job (he couldn’t before that, because he was suspended). Rouse never did.
There are a few reasons it didn’t blow up bigger. For one, Baylor and the NCAA have reasons for wanting to keep this out of the spotlight – and they succeeded. For another, almost no one involved wants to talk about. The list of people involved in the scandal, the murder, the cover-up, etc. who refused to be interviews for the film is long. We still don’t know the truth about what happened in that desert and why – or what led to it. What we do know, as the documentary makes clear, is just what kind of person Dave Bliss is.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Classic Movie Review: The Exorcist III (1990)

The Exorcist III (1990) 
Directed by: William Peter Blatty.
Written by: William Peter Blatty based on his novel.
Starring: George C. Scott (Kinderman), Ed Flanders (Father Dyer), Brad Dourif (The Gemini Killer), Jason Miller (Patient X), Nicol Williamson (Father Morning), Scott Wilson (Dr. Temple), Nancy Fish (Nurse Allerton), George DiCenzo (Stedman), Don Gordon (Ryan), Lee Richardson (University President), Grand L. Bush (Sergeant Atkins), Mary Jackson (Mrs. Clelia), Viveca Lindfors (Nurse X), Ken Lerner (Dr. Freedman), Tracy Thorne (Nurse Keating), Barbara Baxley (Shirley), Zohra Lampert (Mary Kinderman), Harry Carey Jr. (Father Kanavan), Sherrie Wills (Julie Kinderman), Edward Lynch (Patient A), Clifford David (Dr. Bruno). 
I’m not quite sure why everyone decided in 1990 that it was time to make long awaited sequels to 1970s classics. This was the year Coppola made The Godfather Part III, Jack Nicholson made his Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes and Bogdanovich made his Last Picture Show follow-up Texasville. All of those films have their charms, but none of them come close to matching their famous predecessors. The same can be said of The Exorcist III – in which the original writer, William Peter Blatty ignored 1976’s The Exorcist II, and just adapted his own follow-up novel for the film. The studio mandated some reshoots and an exorcism finale, wondering (perhaps not incorrectly) how they could have an Exoricst film without an Exorcism. They clearly wanted something that Blatty didn’t want to provide – which was more of the same from the franchise that had some name brand recognition. It’s too bad, because so much The Exorcist III really is quite good, which is why it’s reputation has grown over the years.
The film stars George C. Scott, stepping in for the late Lee J. Cobb as Kinderman – the veteran detective from the first film. He’s still a cop 15 years after the events of the original – and he’s still haunted by the death of his friend Father Karras (Jason Miller). Currently, his best friend is another Priest – Father Dyer (Ed Flanders) – and the pair of them bicker with and needle each other as they discuss faith and God, and other questions big and small (like the magazines Dyer loves). Recently, a string of murders have happened, that look like they may have a supernatural element – that, or they could be the work of The Gemini Killer – although he’s been dead for 15 years as well. As Kinderman digs, he discovers with friend Karras is perhaps not dead afterall – there is a mysterious Patient X (played by Miller) who has been locked away in a psyche ward all these years. He has been catatonic most of that time, but has just started talking again – and claims to be The Gemini Killer.
The Exorcist III is a horror movie to be sure – but it has more in common with something like The Silence of the Lambs (which would come out the year after) than the original Exorcist film. This really is more of a horror tinged police procedural, with Kinderman having to put together the pieces of the puzzle. The films second hour has long stretches of Kinderman talking with The Gemini Killer (Brad Dourif) in the psyche ward – scenes that allow Dourif to do what he does best, and go over-the-top with his insanity. Scott, never the most subtle of actors himself, is capable of matching Dourif when need be, but wisely doesn’t. He’s playing Kinderman as more tired and world weary than anything.
As a director Blatty only made two film – his previous one, The Ninth Configuration (1980) is even better than this (if my memory is accurate – it has been a while since I saw it, so a revisit is necessary). That’s a shame, because he was a fine director. Sure, the writer part of him overtakes the film for long stretches – the early talking scenes between Kinderman and Dyer, and the later ones between Kinderman and the killer – but he’s also able to stage some incredible scenes. A scare where Kinderman walks through the hospital, and we can see someone crawling on the roof above him would normally be the visual highlight of a film like this. In this case, it isn’t, because of a masterful long take looking down a hospital corridor, where Blatty takes his time allowing everything to play out, resulting in a masterful, scary moment.
What Blatty didn’t want to do is repeat what Friedkin did in the original film – why try and outdo a film that many consider to be the greatest horror film ever made? Instead, Blatty wanted to do something different, and when he gets his way, The Exoricst III is its own beast – a fine film in its own right, and not just because of the original. The studio demanded too much change from Blatty, so the result is a compromise – but a fascinating one.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Movie Review: The Rider

The Rider **** / *****
Directed by: Chloé Zhao.
Written by: Chloé Zhao. 
Starring: Brady Jandreau (Brady Blackburn), Tim Jandreau (Wayne Blackburn), Lilly Jandreau (Lilly Blackburn), Cat Clifford (Cat Clifford), Terri Dawn Pourier (Terri Dawn Pourier), Lane Scott (Lane Scott), Tanner Langdeau (Tanner Langdeau), James Calhoon (James Calhoon), Derrick Janis (Victor Chasing Hawk).
The Rider is a deeply humanistic, empathetic film about the kind of people we don’t see too much on movie screens. Director Chloe Zhao has made one of the best neo-realist films in recent years, shooting her film on location in South Dakota, and using real life people to play versions of themselves. It is a portrait of lower class America that doesn’t condescend to its characters, not exploits them. It is a beautiful film, recalling the work of Terrence Malick, without being beholden to its influences. It is a quietly moving film.
The film opens with Brady (Brady Jandreau) removing staples from his head. He is Lakota Sioux, and makes his living as a cowboy – training horses, but also riding in the rodeo. He has recently taken a nasty fall, and has ended up with a metal plate in his head – and doctors telling him to stop riding. He cannot afford another head injury – and he’s not even over this one, as sometimes his right hand will not open, a result of mini-seizures. Brady knows all too well what could happen – his best friend Lane Scott also rode in the rodeo, and is now stuck permanently in a rehab facility – unable to speak, and barely move, he speaks using sign language – another injury because of the rodeo. But what is Brady supposed to do? He’s about 20 years old, has no real education, and doesn’t know how to do anything except ride. He lives with his father Wayne (Tim Jandreau), a rather quiet man, who has drinking and gambling problems that put their trailer at risk, and his sister Lily (Lily Jandreau) who has developmental issues. He ends up working at DakotaMart (which I guess is what you have when your area is too remote for a Walmart) – and training horses when he can.
Zhao met Jandreau before his injury, and was already planning on making a movie with him – but the injury took the film in a different way, and in many ways gave it its shape. It’s clear that although the movie is scripted by Zhao, it comes out of her being there with Jandreau, his family and friends, and getting to them on a deeper level than most filmmakers do. There isn’t a false note hit in the film, which is not always the case when real people play versions of themselves (I’m looking at you, The 15:17 to Paris). Part of the advantage of casting someone like Jandreau to play himself is that he is so comfortable with the horses – some of the best scenes in the movie are simply him training them, slowing building up trust with them, and eventually riding them. You can train actors to look the part, but they never get this genuine. Jandreau and the other non-professionals also do a great job with the more dramatic scenes as well though – this isn’t a movie with a lot of fake fights or yelling, the conflicts are lower key than that, and feel genuine. The great cinematography by Joshua James Richards is beautiful when it captures the wide open spaces the movie takes place in, but it’s just as good as it observes Brady himself, getting inside his head a little bit.
The Rider is not a film that you can really spoil – it isn’t a plot heavy film, and at times it’s fair to say that the film meanders, although it does so in a mostly pleasurable way. Zhao and company also (mostly) sidestep some dialogue and metaphors that border on being too obvious and clunky. It is a quietly beautiful and touching film – having moments that can bring you to tears, although it is not an overly sad or manipulative movie. It’s a film that marks Zhao as one of the best, most interesting young filmmakers working. I cannot wait to see what she makes next.

Review: Evil Genius

Evil Genius: The True Story of America’s Most Diabolical Bank Heist **** / *****
Directed by: Barbara Schroeder.
Co-director: Trey Borzillieri.
The new, nearly four hour documentary series Evil Genius from Netflix is undeniably fascinating – the kind of story that has to be real, because if you wrote it as a fiction, no one would believe it. The film takes twists and turns as it documents one of the most bizarre bank robberies imaginable, and the decade plus after when people tried to put all the pieces together, and never quite succeeding. The film certainly raises some ethical question along the way that it never truly deals with – but even that is part of its weird draw.
The crime, in a nutshell, was crazy. Brian Wells was a middle aged pizza delivery man who was called to a remote area where he says a group of black men attacked him, strapped a bomb to his neck, gave him an improvised “cane gun” and a list of bizarrely detailed instructions telling him to rob a bank. If he didn’t do so in a specified time period, the bomb would go off and he would be killed. The robbery itself doesn’t go quite as planned – sure, he walks out with the money, but only $8,000, not the $250,000 he was supposed to get, and the cops descend on him rather quickly and place him under arrest. But there is a matter of that bomb around his neck. Is that real or fake? Is Wells lying about the black men? Is he in on it, or an unwitting victim? As he sits handcuffed in the street, wanting help, the bomb squad isn’t able to get there on time – and he dies. But who was behind the crime?
From there, things get even stranger. One of Brian’s co-workers – another pizza delivery man – dies a few days later, but they don’t really know why. Then there is Bill Rothstein, who will call the cops a month after the robbery to report that he has a body in his freezer of his garage – but he didn’t kill him. Who did? That would be Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, Rothstein’s ex-girlfriend, and the girlfriend on the man in the freezer. How this relates to the pizza bomber case is a tangled web that only gradually gets unwound – and then only partially. But it is true that Diehl-Armstrong is the Evil Genius of the title.
Diehl-Armstrong is the most fascinating person in the film. She is both clearly mentally ill and clearly intelligent. Her paranoid rantings sound crazy, but the way also be part of her act to gain sympathy and leniency in the courts. These aren’t the first deaths she is connected to, although it’s the first time she’s being charged with them. Diehl-Armstrong didn’t give many interviews with the media – no sit down ones anyone, except with Trey Borzillieri, credited as a co-director here. He was fascinated with the case, and started to try and make a documentary about it. For some reason, Diehl-Armstrong chose to talk to him – in massive amounts of phone calls and letters, and for even an on camera interview. Borzillieri becomes an interesting figure in the documentary itself – he acts as the narrator, but for half the series, we don’t really know who he is, or why he’s the one talking. The first two hours try and lay everything out that we can objectively know – relying on news reports and interviews with the officers involved in the investigation. The second half is when we really delve into Diehl-Armstrong, and Borzillieri’s obsession with the case. It’s probably a good thing that the film was directed by Barbara Schroeder, with Borzillieri getting co-director credit. This allows for at least some distance between the subject and the filmmakers to be there – although, arguably, not enough.
Evil Genius is an uncomfortable film to watch in some ways - truly, we didn’t need to see Brian Wells’ death on screen once, let alone twice – even if they did blur it out. Given how his family feels about this whole thing, they could have left that part out (it provides no additional information). But it’s a series that really does dig deep and come up with a disturbing portrait of the people involved – many of whom were brilliant, but lived like they should be on Hoarders. The series doesn’t – because it cannot – answer all the questions in the case. Too many people decided to take secrets to the grave for us to get a complete answer on any of it. But it’s not a film you will forget.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Movie Review: Outside In

Outside In *** ½ / *****
Directed by: Lynn Shelton.
Written by: Jay Duplass and Lynn Shelton.
Starring: Edie Falco (Carol), Jay Duplass (Chris), Kaitlyn Dever (Hildy), Ben Schwartz (Ted), Aaron Blakely (Shane), Alycia Delmore (Tara), Stephen Grenley (Phil), Louis Hobson (Matt), Charles Leggett (Tom), Matt Malloy (Russell).
Lynn Shelton’s Outside In is a very quiet film about two people who share a deep connection which is destined to be broken. When Chris (Jay Duplass) was a teenager, he was involved in a crime – it wasn’t necessarily his fault, but he was caught – unlike the others involved – and for that, he has spent 20 years in prison. His former high school teacher, Carol (Edie Falco) has worked throughout that time trying to get him released, which is finally happening as the film opens. Carol and Chris have spent a lot of time during the past years talking on the phone to each other – but its one thing to have that sort of bond – a bond that can only go so far, and has definite boundaries that are impossible to cross. It’s another now that’s he’s out in the real world. You immediately understand the seismic shift for someone like Chris – out of jail for the first time in 20 years, and seeing that your world has moved on in many ways. But the shift for Carol is just as great, in ways she doesn’t fully realize.
Strangely, the film seems to work best when Carol and Chris are apart, not together. Now that Chris is out, Carol isn’t quite sure what to do with herself – all the work she did to help Chris is now over, so how will she spend her time? She has a teenage daughter, Hildy (Kaitlyn Dever) – but she doesn’t quite know how to relate to her, perhaps because she has spent so much time with Chris’ case that there relationship is strained, or maybe just because Hildy is a teenage girl, and their relationships with their mothers is often strained. She reaches out to try and reconnect with her husband Tom (Charles Leggett) – but he doesn’t much seem interested. He’s used to his routines, and is dismissive of Carol and her work (she refers to what she did for Chris as a “hobby”). Tom’s goal seems to be to ride out the clock until retirement – then, perhaps, he can reconnect with his wife.
For Chris, he isn’t sure what to do. He’s living with his brother, Ted (Ben Schwartz), who is trying to mask his own guilt with big shows of affection and alcohol. There is a party at the beginning where everyone seems so supportive of Chris – who assure him that whatever he needs, they’ll be there for him. But when he does reach out, it’s not quite the reaction he wants. He has no job – no real skills – and is behind everyone else his age. He and Hildy become friends – and not in a creepy way, really. In some strange way, they are both facing the same dilemmas – and both want some sort of connection with Carol that they don’t have. It’s as if they both think if they get to know each other, than perhaps they’ll get to know Carol.
The movie hits many of the beats you expect it to, and ends up in the place you probably think it’s going to when you start the film. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The film is so attuned to its characters – especially Carol – that it makes the most of the smaller moments. Falco has been a great actress for a while now, but she doesn’t get the film roles to show it. She does here, even if you think you don’t need to see another movie about a middle age woman asserting her independence, the film gets there subtly, and the revelations feel earned. Duplass isn’t quite as good – the role isn’t as good – but he is very good at showing Chris’ mixture of relief and nervousness about being out. He’s at his best when he’s simply riding with bike down lonely streets. Dever – who was so good in Short Term 12 – is very good as Hildy as well. And the normally comedic Schwartz has a few nice dramatic moments.
Outside In has modest ambitions to be sure, but for the most part fulfills them. Unlike much of Shelton’s work, the film doesn’t really have any comedy in it (the characters barely crack a smile) – but like those other films (the best of which is probably Your Sister’s Sister), it is attuned to everyday life, and the emotions feel genuine.

Movie Review: Still/Born

Still/Born ** ½ / *****
Directed by: Brandon Christensen.
Written by: Brandon Christensen and Colin Minihan.
Starring: Christie Burke (Mary), Jesse Moss (Jack), Rebecca Olson (Rachel), Jenn Griffin (Jane), Sheila McCarthy (Sheila), Sean Rogerson (Tim), Dylan Playfair (Robbie), Grace Christensen (Adam), Michael Ironside (Dr. Neilson).
I cannot help but wonder if I would have like Still/Born a little more had I not watched the film a little less than a week after Jason Reitman/Diablo Cody’s Tully. I mentioned in my review of Tully that there is certainly a history of movies using pregnancy and motherhood as a jumping off point for horror films, but that Tully played with those tropes without the comfort of the genre trappings. Still/Born is what it looks like when you do embrace those genre trappings. It’s not a bad film by any means – first time director Brandon Christensen hits all the right notes (if a little too obviously) and the lead performance by Christie Burke is quite good. It’s just that everything about the film feels a little too pat and predictable – and the horror never gets under your skin.
The film opens with the birth of Mary and Jack’s (Burke and Jesse Moss) son, Adam. They were supposed to be having twins, but one of their sons was still born. Still, the couple is trying to make the best of things with their new son – and really do seem happy. Gradually though, Mary goes from the normal tired of a new mother, to something else. She swears she is hearing things over the baby monitor – and when Jack replaces it with a video monitor, she is convinced she sees some sort of demon trying to get her baby. Is this normal post-partum depression – as a not very helpful doctor (Michael Ironside) suggests? Or something darker? This is a slow burn of a horror movie in which Mary devolves scene-by-scene into a complete, raving mess. But is she wrong?
As a director, Christensen knows his horror movie tropes, and isn’t afraid to exploit them – Jack has a nasty habit of coming up silently behind his wife for example in order to supply the audience with needless jump scares. Mostly, though, he is effective at building the tension, and then breaking it when needed. The plot continues the way you expect it to – Jack will, of course, be called away on a business trip, and things will get worse while he is away (he doesn’t believe his wife naturally). Another mother – who lives next door – is introduced, with a baby of her own. And while she and Mary are friends – as Mary devolves downward, she cannot help but wonder if the demon would be willing to take another baby. There will be Google searches, and a trip to another mother who went through the same thing, etc.
In short, in terms of story, Still/Born doesn’t break new ground – it basically follows the formula you expect it to, right up until the end. As a director, Christensen shows talent, but as with the story, I’d rather him take a few chances at some point along the way (if this is basically an indie horror audition tape for a bigger film, he did a good job though). Burke is probably the reason to see the film – it’s a very good performance – not Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, or Essie Davis in The Babadook or Charlize Theron in Tully great – but very good just the same. And the film does tap into that fear all new parents have about their new children.
Ultimately, I just wanted Still/Born to be something a little more. The raw materials are here for something genuinely scary, but the filmmakers ultimately settle on the path of least resistance. They do what they do well – I just wanted the film to feel a little more inspired than it ultimately is.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Movie Review: Revenge

Revenge **** / *****
Directed by: Coralie Fargeat.
Written by: Coralie Fargeat.
Starring: Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz (Jen), Kevin Janssens (Richard), Vicent Colombe (Stan), Guillaume Bouchede (Dimitri).
Is there a more problematic subgenre of horror films than the Rape/Revenge film? More often than not, the genre is used as an excuse to revel in sexual violence directed at women in the opening half – and then uses the second half, where she exacts her revenge on those who raped her, as a way of saying “We are endorsing, rape – they get punished for it”. Even some of the good movies (like Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left) that take this structure leave you feeling in need of a shower afterwards. In 2016, Paul Verhoeven made Elle – which in broad outlines is a rape/revenge film – and made a great film out of it – painting a complex portrait of why this one woman dealt with her rape in that specific way. Still, what has been lacking is a female take on the genre – and that is what Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge really is.
In the film, Matilda Lutz stars as Jen, who when we first see her, looks like she just won a Sue Lyon in Lolita look-a-like contest – stepping off a helicopter, sucking a lollipop, with heart shaped sunglasses. She is the mistress of a rich man (Kevin Janssens) who has brought her to his remote “hunting cabin” (bigger, and fancier than anyone’s house you’ve ever been to) for a couple of days of eating, drinking and sex. Things go according to plan, until two hunting buddies show up a day early. Another long night of drinking ensues – as Jen flirts with Richard’s friends – especially Stan (Vincent Colombe) – as she dances with him, and grinds up against him. The next day, as Richard is way for the morning, Stan comes onto Jen, who in the sober light of day, isn’t interested in Stan – and is incredibly uncomfortable with the creepy way he looks at her. He keeps pressuring – and while Dmitri (Guillaume Bouchede) walks in on them, with more than enough time to intercede with what is clearly happening, he decides it better to simply walk away. The rape itself is barely seen, completely not graphic, and made to look appropriately ugly. When Richard doesn’t returns, he doesn’t respond the way Jen hopes he would – a sequence that ends with her impaled on a tree. She’s just getting warmed up though – her transformation from blonde, Lolita to dark haired warrior is just beginning.
What makes Revenge work as a take on the rape/revenge genre is how very closely it resembles one. Had another director worked with Fargeat’s screenplay, they easily could have made the kind of offensive, exploitive film this film actively works against. The subversion is all in the direction. The opening scenes make it look like a more typical film of this sort. Jen’s introduction however is as close as the film is going to get in terms of aping the male gaze that is common in these films. We do not get the typical close-ups of Jen’s body parts, or the obligatory sex scene in early that reducing her to a sex object – although we do get enough to know that Richard, and his friends, see her as little other than just that. The rape itself is ugly – but brief. It’s almost more disturbing in the sequence leading up to the rape, where Stan delivers what is a classic “nice guy” speech to her – you know the type of speech I mean, the one where they complain that women never want a nice guy like them, but are only delivered my people are adamantly not nice guys.
The second half of the film, as Jen transforms into a warrior goddess is in many ways more typical than the first half. It’s bloody as hell, and expertly choreographed by Fargeat for maximum effect, but it’s harder to subvert that half of the rape/revenge scenario. It does make all three of the men more pathetic than normal – underneath, they are all weak little babies.
Revenge isn’t a perfect film. It goes on too long at nearly two hours (a film like this should be in and out in 90 minutes – anything longer, and it’s harder to sustain the tension, and you run the risk of repeating yourself). I don’t think the whole peyote interlude was really necessary, and it does kind of drag the film to a halt. But overall, this is a great horror film – a fascinating take on a genre that has always claimed to be feminist, but never really was.