THE GROUND BENEATH MY FEET. Country, Austria. Director, Marie Kreutzer. Screenwriter, Marie Kreutzer. Language, German, English. Cast: Valerie Pachner, Pia Hierzegger, Mavie Horbiger, Michelle Barthel, Marc Benjamin. Runtime, 108 minute. Venue: IFC Cinema. Mostly Indies: D
Here we have a movie that boasts a trailer that makes it look and feel like we are going to walk into a thriller filled with dread and portent. Marie Kreutzer’s The Ground Beneath my Feet announces itself as a story about a woman haunted by the almost omniscient presence of her sister who may be closer than she would like it, and points at this woman potentially losing her mind as a result. So imagine my surprise when expectations turned to disappointment when the movie failed to deliver on all accounts, settling on a tepid psychodrama so cold, so devoid of life, it may as well been stillborn.
This is what pains me when I see feature films like this. I respect the intent and the artistry behind the final product because it’s clear the director has something to say. I also respect a story that seems to point at something, only to unfold into something completely unexpected. The problem I have here is simple: movies that become festival darlings and then go on to get released all over the world, and film critics who throw caution to the wind and hail praise and accolades and announce a “strong new voice” when, frankly, and maybe I’m missing something, there isn’t.
The Ground Beneath My Feet is a massive disappointment at all levels. It tells the story of Lola Wegenstein (Valerie Pachner), a rising young business consultant who is so committed to her job, so stoic about her emotions, and so minimalist in her personal space she makes Diana Christensen from Network seem like an Earth mother you would gladly confide your darkest secrets to. Often framed maniacally jogging, often before dawn, or riding stationary bikes, pushing her body to the extreme, Lola is an example of the workaholic at the most extreme. Barely ever in her own apartment, she is often seen at work in hotels, her own office, and even airports, constantly discussing business with robotic zeal. The fact that we find out that she’s romantically involved with the company’s owner — her boss Elise (Mavie Horbiger) brings next to no warmth even when the couple exchange gestures of affection. Dressed in perpetual black and both looking like ice princesses, this is not a relationship borne out of love but mutual, financial interest.
The point of interest in the story occurs when Lola’s sister Conny (Pia Hirzegger) attempts suicide (off camera), and has to be committed to a mental hospital. Lola, who serves as her caregiver, continually expresses almost no affection towards her sister, and keeps this piece of information solely to herself. When Conny starts calling Lola at all times, complaining of staff mistreatment, Lola does not make this own to Elise who demands that personal affairs not intrude into the workforce.
So far, so good. This I could completely understand and buy into. However, for some unexplained reason, Marie Kreutzer veers the story into some strange territory. For almost the entire first half we are slowly and inexorably drawn into a feeling of uncertainty, where nothing seems to be what it is. Lola gets informed that her sister cannot be calling anyone as she doesn’t even have access to any phones. However, the calls continue, and in one scene, Conny appears to have followed Lola all the way to Rostock. In another sequence, an elevator malfunctions (in a more restrained fashion than the insane elevator sequence from Neil Jordan’s Greta). She spies Elise doing research on schizophrenia on her laptop upon learning her family secret (and getting bumped off a project). Lola has a confrontation with a homeless woman who accosts her at the airport and raises her own paranoia. At another point, Lola gets informed that she is supposed to be at a meeting, and had completely forgotten about what day it was.
What is happening here? Is Lola living a parallel life? Could this woman, who keeps everything bottled and under control, be on the verge of losing it? Could madness, then, be inherited? Will her sister’s illness, now that it’s been discovered, be the cause of her failure as a power exec?
Marie Kreutzer answers none of these questions since this thread gets dropped midway and the movie then turns into a more straightforward drama of a woman attempting to micromanage every aspect of her life and succeed at all costs while her sister collapses, mostly off-screen. In return from the initial suspense we get a half-baked story of sexual politics at work in which one colleague comes onto Lola at dinner (which could be in her head), and another exposes himself to “show her who’s in charge). Meetings with Conny become more typical of estranged sisters, and seem a bit repetitive and bring none of the pregnant tension from the movie’s promising start. It’s as if the movie had forgotten where to go, and decided to turn around and seek for the blandest resolution.
Most egregiously, is Lola’s own character development. For the most part she is supposed to be cold, restrained, but not inhuman. Her fears seem real, her need to succeed feel like filling the void left by her familial failure. So, when Lola encounters the same homeless woman and callously throws her a bill, what are we supposed to feel then for her? That she’s somehow better than the poor woman asking for money? It comes at odds when at a key moment, Lola faces her worst fear this is a well-crafted character study, and its inability to define itself as a psychological thriller or a psychodrama only accentuate its flaws. Because of this, The Ground Beneath my Feet comes as a colossal misfire at all angles.
Director: Taylor Sheridan
Runtime: 110 minutes
Midway through Wind River, a character roughly says, “This murder is practically solving itself,” and that, my dear friends, is a problem. Taylor Sheridan once again dives into the underbelly of society, but where his incursions redefined the Western in Hell or High Water and danced with horror in Sicario, both films which yielded memorable performances from its shady as heck characters (and a sympathetic one from Emily Blunt, a female FBI agent tossed in the middle of an increasing set of odds in Sicario), Wind River, while correct and serviceable as a crime thriller, never truly manages to find that dark tone that would have made it the standout sleeper of the late summer. It’s a shame because with an action taking place in the desolate mountains of Wyoming in the Indian Reservation of Wind River, there was plenty of material to convey an atmospheric sense of a larger corruption at hand, something truly unsettling.
The best scene is, as a matter of fact, its most disturbing. The film opens to a young woman dashing barefoot through the snow, escaping an unknown danger before she collapses to the elements and passes out of the story, in body. Enter Jeremy Renner, a game tracker separated from his Indian wife, who finds the dead woman’s body and has to team up with the nearest FBI agent sent all the way from Vegas to survey the crime scene, and with her report, justify the need to send out more agents or close the case. When she appears it’s under the form of Elizabeth Olsen, and at first, as it always is in these movies, her presence is, for the locals, meant to be merely perfunctory, a blip in a series of nothings in a place where nothing really happens. However, a correct assessment of the way rhe woman — Natalie — died doesn’t match up despite the coroner’s report. However, the coroner can’t justify homicide. Olsen can’t call for more agents, so it’s up to her and Renner to take matters into their own hands.
I’m going to say that perhaps this is what happens when someone who’s barely directed takes a film as ambitious as this into his own hands in the hopes of delivering a strong product and coming up just a shade short. Wind River is what you’d call a serviceable, above average procedural that takes you from start to end without delving too much in the horror of it all — even the necessary flashback scene that sets the plot in motion feels flat and done without style or any sense of suspense or even terror — but somehow it just didn’t quite go that extra mile to stay in my memory and thus, remains as just another good movie with solid performances by Renner, Olsen, Gil Birmingham, and Jon Bernthal in a small but pivotal role.
Director: David Leveaux
Runtime: 108 minutes
(4 / 5)
Dear God, is Jai Courtney gorgeous. The Exception opens with a scene that wouldn’t be amiss in soft-core gay porn, in which Courtney is shown shirtless, pecs to the wind, lying in the dark as if in wait. And my, does the camera love him! In these days in which men can now flaunt everything while doing a full frontal, Courtney reveals so much jaw-dropping masculine beauty I had to stop the movie for a moment and take a breath to recover. Yes, he’s that distracting. No, don’t look at me like that and then roll your eyes; the man is a gentler version of Tom Hardy. And wouldn’t I want to see the both of them–
Okay, getting ahead of myself, and this is a simple review of The Exception, a movie by a director unknown to me, David Leveaux, who adapted the story from an Adam Ladd novel The Kaiser’s Last Kiss –itself a title that screams ‘historical romance!’. So, we have Courtney, all clothed in military garb being whisked off to protect the Kaiser of Germany (Christopher Plummer, having the time of his life, and has an actor been associated more with films on or around Nazi Germany than he? It’s as if though producers, while throwing out potential actors for their movies, saw this one, a war movie set in Nazi Germany and immediately thought, “Ha! Well, well. there’s that actor, Plummer. He’s been doing this since Sound of Music. He can basically phone it in by now. Send him in. No need for an audition. But give him the good one, and leave the asshole role to Eddie Marsan. He already looks like he could kill your children without as much as batting an eye.”).
It seems the Kaiser might be surrounded by spies, and why wouldn’t he? This was war in Europe, and Europe was crawling with spies trolling for intel. But wouldn’t you know, as it happens in a historical romance, Courtney’s SS Captain Brandt crosses paths with an exotic little beauty Mieke (Lily James, fresh off of Downton Abbey) who’s a maid in service of the Kaiser’s household. The flirtation between these two is not something we can call subtle — you’d have to be dead or delusional to not see it happening between your own eyes — but yes, it happens, and why does the plot give so much time to a simple chambermaid if it doesn’t have something up its sleeve? Because it does, and if you see the picture you’ll catch it as subtle as a sledgehammer to the face, but it works perfectly well because, historical romance = potboiler. Meaning, don’t be looking for any historical accuracy here even when there actually was a Kaiser, and his wife (Janet McTeer, who’s good but doesn’t have much to do but act perpetually worried/harried), and Marsan’s Himmler. [However, look closely at Marsan’s chilling portrayal of Himmler during a dinner scene when he talks about experiments made to children. Even in fluff like this, it’s still completely nerve-wracking, that such things were actually done to innocents.]
So with that in mind, I will say that The Exception is a very, very old fashioned war movie. I could easily see actors from the actual time period who could have performed this piece of nonsense without batting an eye. Crawford did it a couple of times at the end of her MGM tenure, Bergman did it as well. Now, Courtney is no Bogart or MacMurray — there is a scene in which he looks so completely vulnerable and naked — did I mention he shows a lot of skin here? — in a way I haven’t seen movies treat their male leads, usually all self-composure and alpha-male tendencies. Courtney’s role is much different: he’s stoic when he needs to, but is incredible sensitive and disarming. No wonder Lily James takes control of what becomes their relationship and basically becomes its pilot, leaving him with the role of protector. So, there you have it, a total crowd-pleaser, the type of movie the characters of Their Finest would have created, and it all ends well. Because in romance, you can’t ever deliver a good story and not have the two romantic leads not end in each other’s arms, can you?
Director: Sofia Coppola
Runtime: 93 minutes
There’s a reason Sofia Coppola won Best Director at Cannes this year. Her newest movie, The Beguiled, featuring actors at the top of their game in an escalating battle of wits and female one-upmanship, is a muscular, minimal, bare-bones rendition of the 1966 novel by Thomas Cullinen. Coppola’s approach, however, differs greatly from the source in that it refuses to take the Southern Gothic route and strips away all of the excess material, reducing the story to that of its bare essentials: an enigmatic, handsome stranger, and the women who are dying for his attention.
You can practically feel the pages whizzing by in Coppola’s ultra-compact version: her Beguiled flies by at a solid pace. From the word go we’re introduced to the situation at hand: Amy (Oona Laurence), a student and resident at an all-girl’s school run by Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) and Miss Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), comes upon an injured Yankee soldier, an Irishman named John McBurney (Colin Farell) who is basically a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Not wanting to leave the man out in the elements to face certain death she brings him to the school where the reluctant teachers — but particularly Miss Martha — tend to his injuries and necessities and give him shelter until he is healthy enough to leave on his own.
While he recovers, McBurney, in a manner so subtle it could almost be missed, starts to affect the women as they gradually find themselves fawning over his presence that, albeit crippled, offers a masculine counterpoint, a chance of water in the middle of the desert. To Martha, he’s a possible partner; to Edwina, a means to an escape; to Alicia (Elle Fanning, wickedly good), a sexual awakening, and to the younger girls, an older friend who listens (although Ii will say I kept thinking there was a slight predatory nature to McBurney’s conversation with Amy.
However their fragile acquaintance can’t last too long, and Coppola manages to keep your eyes riveted onto the screen, waiting for something to happen. And reader, does Coppola deliver. When the carefully constructed facade of harmony gets shattered after a well-timed discovery, pretty much the bets are off, and The Beguiled reveals its fangs that had been up to them carefully hidden. Even then it maintains a drum-tight control over its story, carefully avoiding too much exposition (which works better in plays) and reaches a denouement that could be considered lyrical. This is an excellent, perfect thriller that keeps its passions under a tight management and the appearance of female decorum.
At the time of its release the concept that guides this South Korean horror movie was rather new, so it’s a problem for me to review this movie when its conceit has practically worn itself out. a Tale of Two Sisters is the story of Su-Mi and Su-Yeon Bae, two sisters who come to live with their father and their stepmother. Soon after their arrival, they begin experiencing paranormal visitations of vengeful ghosts unwilling to left bygones be bygones. An accident precipitates the mental deterioration of one of the sisters, and what transpires on film may not be what is exactly happening.
A Tale of Two Sisters is good in establishing its ghost-lore rather quickly — from the get-go, one of the sisters who has been institutionalized hints at horrible secrets yet to be revealed. Her and her sister’s arrival to the house is met with Gothic coldness; the stepmother, a porcelain beauty, has what seems the heart of a dead animal. Night scenes are almost impossible to appreciate directly without staring into the flat-screen. It’s as though director Jee-woon Kim wanted to portray a household whose very own darkness has been swallowed by petty passions and unresolved issues.
One sequence in A Tale of Two Sisters is a standout and it involves a guest a dinner party completely losing her mind at something she sees. We never truly get the glimpse of it (although we are made privy to it later), but the progression is frightening and once unleashed, it becomes impossible to control. However, Sisters loses a bit of its steam later on and its switcheroo — a device that by now has been done to death — while shedding light, brings little satisfaction, and as the final scenes approach one gets the feeling that a great horror movie sold itself short by execution and the use of an overused plot technique of an unreliable narrator.
(3.5 / 5)
Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs finds itself in this list because I saw it a month ago even though it was released in 2009. I just felt it was appropriate for me to see the original as it was released in lieu of renting the American remake that went straight to VOD a little under a year ago. Knowing the penchant we have for fucking up originals, I didn’t wish to take a chance and waste my own time.
Martyrs is a movie you’ll either like due to its visuals and ultra-violence or hate because your trained eye will catch a glaring plot holes that by proxy should have buried the plot before it took one final tumble down the rabbit hole. When Martyrs starts we see a young girl fleeing a run down warehouse, screaming in pain as she’s been tortured and has narrowly escaped a horror beyond all imagination. The young girl, Lucie, finds herself in an orphanage where she befriends a young girl named Anna. Anna becomes her only link to the outside world as she suffers from extreme bouts of PTSD following her ordeal and continues to see a horrific apparition that refuses to let her alone.
Years later, we come into a scene of domesticity: a family having dinner. [Catch a young Xavier Dolan, who would go on to direct I Killed My Mother, Laurence Anyways, Mommy, and most recently, Just the End of the World.] In bursts Lucie who swiftly dispatches them. She informs Anna that this is the family who kept her captive years ago and submitted her to unbearable torture. Anna, wanting to help, is a little freaked out by what just has happened, and you would think they would leave the place and start anew, but Laugier has other things in mind. Darker, more depraved.
Anna overhears the matriarch, still alive, and tries to save her from certain death to no avail: Lucie interferes with bloody results. At the same time, Lucie gets attacked by the spirit who’s been tormenting her since she was a girl. Anna realizes that something else is happening: Lucie is having hallucinations that she can’t seem to control. Becoming aware that this apparition will not leave her alone — having been a girl she was unable to save years ago, she does the unthinkable. Anna, now, has become our Final Girl.
From here on Martyrs takes a different turn that if you can stomach, you will probably like. Leave it to the French to commit to the art of delving into pure, creative sadomasochism that would make Sade a happy man. Martyrs takes one last turn into its own heart of darkness that takes the viewer into the limits of tolerance. It is a terrific incursion into complete cruelty into another human being, and that as a viewer I was still there, wanting to know where it would all lead, shows that this is either a good movie or I’m a potentially twisted individual with nothing better to do than watch the unwatchable.
Laugier seems to be onto something but his love for nihilism for the sake of it makes me refrain from recommending this level of horror to anyone but the die hard. If you do watch Martyrs, just be advised; it’s not an easy film to stomach once the carnage begins.
THE EYES OF MY MOTHER
(5 / 5)
You’ve probably never seen a movie quite like The Eyes of my Mother, and this is precisely why you need to see it immediately. If it’s playing in an art-house near you, go. If you can rent it on Amazon or DirecTV, do so. If you still would rather wait a while, that’s okay, but please see it. This is how horror should be — slow, devoid of a single jump scare, disjointing, and progressively shocking.
I don’t want to talk too much about this movie because this is the kind that you have to go in with only a thread of information in order to experience its enveloping layers of horror firsthand. We get introduced to a quiet household in rural America. A little girl lives with her elderly parents in what seems a suspended paradise. One day — because that is how every basic story begins — a stranger arrives, and despite his googly smile, he’s not one to trust. His visit, as it turns out, comes with the heaviness of fate and impending doom, and doom does happen . . . but the story is less interested in this aspect. It’s interested in the little girl and how she grapples with the ultimate horror — loneliness — which invades her perfect world and tears it apart, only to permutate itself into something even more gruesome and perverse.
The Eyes of my Mother, a movie whose title can be interpreted several different ways, uses black and white to striking, nightmarish effect. One early sequence shows a woman running for her life in a deserted road as a truck looms behind her. Shots done overhead, from a distance, or in near darkness give the movie a sense of rising discomfort and dread and often recalls Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but more importantly, Georges Franju’s Eves Without a Face (to which this film does owe a little its own title). Then the sound — one murder sequence is mostly heard but never seen, and then there’s a disturbing sequence involving a man in chains eating food from a plate that is frightening in its own context.
Nicolas Pesce has created a horror movie drenched in poetic imagery that begs to be seen and experienced in its austerity. You will almost regret how short it is.
(2 / 5)
Lights Out exists as a cheap imitation of other horror movies reviewed here — like Martyrs and A Tale of Two Sisters. That it does have a couple of good visuals doesn’t make it exactly anything remotely watchable. However, I’m pretty sure that ghosts do not behave like the living; and could we please — please! — stop with the floor dragging already? What are people, stand-ins for Swiffers? Jesus on a stick. Oh that Paranormal Activity had never been made. Ever! Now every ghost we see is outlined in black and can, it seems, drag people under a bed, through doors, and act as through they were completely alive. Let it go already. Surely there are other ways to present haunts as actual scares.
Also, the jump scares again. When a movie can’t offer any plausible reason for an action to go on without something scary to see, in waltzes the fucking jump scare complete with the loud, shrieking violins and the boom. I’m so sick of it. Kill it already. There has to be something better than having them on cue, every ten to twelve minutes because the director can’t trust his or her audience enough to feel scared — or at least, very uneasy — without going “BOO!” If a movie does this, reader, just get up, count your losses, and sneak into the next theater to watch a potentially better film. Or call it a day and move onto something truly horrifying, such as watching our “president elect” deliver some speech and attempting composure.
Also, what’s with ghosts looking like featureless, ashy humanoids? This one is in dire need of Vitamin D, stat.
I think this is all I have to say about this movie. It’s garbage. It stinks. It wastes the talent of Teresa Palmer who should be doing better. It really, really, REALLY under uses Maria Bello, and that in itself is a crime. Just stay away. There’s nothing to see here.
(3.8 / 5)
Someone must have read Stephen King’s Cujo and thought that rather than film a remake, better, do a reconfiguration. If any of you read the book (I did) or saw the movie (did that, too), you’ll remember that much of the book’s conflict takes place in a lonely stretch of rural America where a woman and a child huddle inside a car that won’t start while a rabid dog stalks them. Bryan Bertino’s latest movie The Monster seems to have borrowed snippets from Cujo down to the backstory that interrupts the story in flashback sequences. It tells the story of Kathy (Zoe Kazan), a train wreck addict who just can’t get it together. She has, it seems, custody of her daughter Lizzy (Ella Ballentina). However, from the looks of how badly she treats Lizzy, both in the present and in flashbacks, how awful, how completely, irredeemably dysfunctional their relationship is, fractured to the point of no return, it becomes clear that Lizzy needs to be with her absentee father. This is Mommie Dearest, played straight and with a bite. Kathy is basically a monster-mother.
On the night that Kathy has to drive Lizzy off to give her up to Lizzy’s father, they take a dark and lonely road. Nothing out of the ordinary; there are many roads like this in the country. When they hit an animal, an event that causes their car to break down and force an injured Kathy to call for roadside assistance and an ambulance, Kathy, selfless mother that she is, tells Lizzy to go out and inspect. It’s a wolf, all right . . . but there are teeth embedded in its fur that don’t belong to any animal Lizzy knows. Something just out of visual reach is out in the woods. Something large, bestial, and hungry.
Sure enough, the mother-daughter tension that had been brewing like a pot of water blows wide open when havoc breaks loose and the two of them now have to come together to defend themselves against this horrifying new attacker. I found it rather interesting that here we have yet another film that uses symbolism to perhaps narrate the real story of a woman fighting the monster within her — the beast of her own addiction. It’s been done before, so well, in movies like The Shining, Under the Shadow, Goodbye Mommy, and The Babadook. If you think of it, the apparently unrelated flashbacks, who at first seemed to be filler for a movie, clearly telegraph who the monster of the story really is, but in horror, you can always alter the perception of reality and use other techniques in order to get the point across. And so, here we have an actual beast and a woman who is largely unsympathetic diving headfirst into motherhood at its most violent, committed to seeing her daughter doesn’t get killed. It’s probably not going to win any awards but who cares: this is a very good movie from a first-time director and it delivers the shocks in spades
NEXT TIME I’LL AIM FOR THE HEART
(4 / 5)
It is said truth can be stranger than fiction and there is no better example than Cedric Anger’s 2014 movie that was an official selection for Rendezvous with French Cinema and officially released earlier this year for a very limited run.
During the winter of 1978, the Oise Killer terrorized the region. Several women were found murdered at gunpoint, their bodies abandoned on the roads. What no one knew was that the gendarme in charge of the investigation, Alain Lamarre, was also the same person doing the murders.
Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart is dark and slick, never deviating from a rather drab blue-grey palette that fills the story with a sense of dread right around the corner. It doesn’t over-glamorize Lamarre — here renamed Franck — and doesn’t go into overkill during some of the more salient murder sequences, particularly its shocking opening sequence and another sequence where Franck picks up a hitchhiker. Even so, these are handled with great delicacy and remain a tough act to watch. Of course, being that this is based on a notorious case, it’s somewhat predictable only because much like its companion movie that also was a part of 2014’s Rendezvous with French Cinema, SK-1, it has a well-known ending. Even so, the pace never lags, there is one surreal sequence involving a case of Franck seeking a woman for company and arriving at a rather hilarious surprise. One of the better surprises from France, a country that continues to turn out surprising features that have long since left the sunnier French New Wave in the dust for good.
(4 / 5)
The ghost of Ingmar Bergman’s Persona looms large in this well-executed, tense psychodrama about two actresses on the rise who find themselves circling each other like lionesses about to engage in a fight to the death. Sophia Takal’s second feature following her 2011 little-seen film Green follows the story of Beth (Caitlyn FitzGerald) and Anna (Mackenzie Davis) as they plan and execute what seems to be a weekend getaway at a distant lodge cabin in Big Sur. Already before the movie’s plot’s wheels are beginning to spin we’re given cues of what might be trouble underneath: Beth comes first, facing the camera, crying, hair disheveled, clearly uncomfortable, begging an unseen person she’ll do anything to win him back. It’s revealed to be a mere audition for a part, and it presents her in a passive, almost simpering feminine role not unlike Shelly DuVall’s Wendy in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. Anna comes next, also facing the camera before a white background. However, her face is more androgynous — bordering on soft masculine. She’s also angry and spews out line after line in a furious tirade. Her introduction, however, turns out to be Anna herself living this moment in real life as she complains about a bill for her car repair.
We later learn that Anna is having trouble getting film parts while Beth has been luckier, landing parts here and there with extreme ease. Anna’s resentment rings loud and clear — particularly in a sequence that starts with Anna making a discovery about Beth. In this sequence, Anna finds out Beth has landed a plum part in a commercial that is giving her loads of exposure. Anna feigns happiness, but it rings shrill. Anna, however continues to make a point to state how much she’s happy that Beth is making it. A later reading of Beth’s lines starts to morph slowly into something completely disturbing once Anna encourages Beth to play the other part so she can show her how Beth’s part should be played. Here is where Sophia Takal’s camera draws you into the unseen tension building within the two women: a slow, creeping zoom-in shows Beth growing increasingly uncomfortable as Anna, as the antagonistic character, rips right into her, a mass of what Addison DeWitt called “fire and music.” Anna clearly could be playing it too well . . . but there are layers and layers of subtext hidden right on the surface of her delivery — how she seems to strike out at Beth with every hurtful word, wanting to push Beth, make a point.
Beth, of course grows increasingly cautious of Anna’s increasing anger. I felt my breath getting tighter and tighter during the movie. While not a lot happens that may register as a plot per se, the noose between the two women continues to grow tenser with each frame. It’s almost a rule that in a movie in which two people engage in continuous conversation pregnant with the unsaid and rife with emotions bubbling under the surface calls for a moment where the lid will essentially, blow, and Sophia Takal directs her movie with a sure hand, escalating each scene into something bigger. And midway through, the film starts fucking with you.
This is a sharply made psychological thriller that also dares to push the boundaries of film, identity, and reality — at one point cleverly inserting a shooting clapper that again is reminiscent of the scene in Persona where Bibi Andersson discovers Liv Ullman has been using her and the film per se breaks apart, only to reform again. It’s an important little insert because while it still ensures you that you are watching a filmed story, it still brings a wink in tow telling you this is merely a film within a film, meta-narration, maybe even just a state of mind.
As a female-centric movie, Always Shine boasts a critical look at how women can be as ruthless as men in outperforming the other when it comes to landing plum parts in film or commercials, but also, a way that we see them — sometimes with clearly distinct personalities, sometimes interchangeable.
Nothing makes me more uncomfortable than seeing rape on camera, depicted or suggested (or both). There’s just something gut-wrenching and horrifying about seeing a woman demoralized and debased on camera that also, somehow, by voyeurism, makes me, the watching eye, complicit. Watching even a brief glimpse — or, as in the case of that unwatchable, ten-minute scene from Irreversible, an apparent eternity and right onto the camera–is stomach-churning, it’s a cry of outrage, one that demands some kind of retribution, be it legal as in 1988’s The Accused or something much darker as in Ms, 45 and a slew of rape-revenge films.
Craig Zobel’s 2012 indie Compliance falls under a different category altogether. Rape isn’t an isolated event that befalls the heroine and disgraced her; oh, no. The entire film is a relentless progression towards the debasement and utter humiliation of a young woman working at a fast-food restaurant. The chain’s manager, Sandra, played by the excellent Ann Dowd (she’ll show up next in the made for TV Big Driver), has received news that her staff is using too much bacon on their burgers. There’s the possibility some may be eating them off camera. Whatever the case, she’s already in a frazzled state when she gets a call from a man purporting to be a police officer asking her questions about her employees stealing from customers. Somehow, Sandra can’t shake the call off, and the probing officer continues to grill her on her employees, particularly Becky (Dreama Walker). Once the officer starts making demands that they isolate Becky for questioning in the back room, things start to slowly spiral out of control. Once Becky herself is on the phone with the officer who claims to know everything about her, Compliance takes a vicious left turn and never looks back.
The events that unfold start to feel almost hazy and as an viewer I had to often step back and distance myself from the sheer nastiness that Becky is subjected to by a voice on the phone. When you see it you will feel deeply complicit as well as outraged how is it possible that a store mananger couldn’t be more proactive? You might be surprised. Shades of the Stanford Prison experiment and Stanley Milgram’s own research on the behavior of people caught in a tense situation where one is in control and one is not — master and servant — tint the movie. People can go from being mild mannered to evil in a switch when the voice of authority calls. Compliance makes accomplices into what Hannah Arendt calls the banality of evil “I was just following orders.”
The kicker? It actually happened. [A+]
One story that looks like it could have partially been based on fact is the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novella Big Driver, a story you can find in his Full Dark, No Stars compilation which came out several years ago. [A Perfect Marriage, also in that compilation and an equally compelling story, is also featured there.] Big Driver isn’t a bad movie — it has several good parts — but it suffers from the same curse that most adaptations of Stephen King’s work do: bad direction and an overall sense of a failed project, a story that looks and reads great on paper but feels like something you’ve seen countless times before. [I think its association as being a Lifetime movie didn’t help.] It’s too bad, because Big Driver is dark as they come. Maria Bello plays Tessa Thorne, a famous author of “cozy mysteries” that has garnered her a following with older ladies. Tessa gets an invitation from Ramona Norville (Ann Dowd, again) to come speak and do a Q & A in Chicopee, Massachussetts. Once the event is over, Ramona casually advises Tessa to avoid the Interstate and instead take a back road that is much safer. Tessa follows her advice. That advice turns out to be the biggest mistake she’s ever made.
She encounters vehicle problems when her car runs over some nail-studded planks of wood and she blows a tire. Needing help, she meets a tall bear of a truck driver who instead of helping her, soon turns violent, rapes the shit out of her, beats her unconscious, and throws her body into a culvert. Once there, Tessa, in shock but also in survival mode, makes her way into the darker recesses of the culvert and makes a horrifying discovery. Even so, she escapes, bloody and battered, and somehow makes her way back to her hotel where she assesses the level of physical damage to her body and surprisingly, decides against reporting him to avoid the scandal of being a rape victim.
What comes next should be tense filled, but even for an 85 minute movie, doesn’t take the movie any other place than the requisite revenge that is broadly advertised in the trailer. I personally don’t have a problem with such a predictable route. The problem lies that it’s so transparent. Tessa displays next to no soul-searching (Curiously, Isabelle Huppert’s character in Paul Verhoeven’s Elle faces a similar dilemma of not reporting the rape, but also carrying on, but more on that one next.) Tessa has made the decision to take justice into her own hands, go back to the scene of the crime, and pay her rapist a visit.
Mikael Salomon isn’t a director I am familiar with (he’s mostly done television and was a cinematographer in the 80s and 90s) but Big Driver is serviceable without rising above the material. Also, keeping the narrative so faithful not only to the source material but also the author’s quirks rob the film of any emotional impact once the inevitable confrontations take place. Had Salomon and his screenwriter Richard C Matheson (son of the famed author of the same name) taken a different approach to the material perhaps the supporting pieces to the whole that is Big Driver would have worked. Instead, they’re a distraction. [B]
Here we are at the third and final film that tackles rape in a unusual way. Paul Verhoeven isn’t shy to press buttons when it comes to provoking the audience with shock. His latest feature, Elle, which may very well be his crowning achievement, will not fail to disappoint even when its topic is as difficult and borderline lurid. That he cast renowned French actress, Isabelle Huppert, as his brilliantly complex heroine/anti-heroine, is a coup de grace. This is a role that actresses would kill for and I’m surprised of the amount of rejections it went through before landing on Huppert’s hands; however, I’m glad she got it. It’s as if Verhoeven had already thought of Huppert well before the movie was even completed–she’s that obsessively good.
If you can believe it, Elle is a black comedy about rape. Yes, you read that correctly: the horrible R word no woman ever wants to experience. From the get-go Verhoeven plunges us into its black desire and all we hear ar the painful, horrified shrieks of Michele LeBlanc (Huppert) as she attempts to shield herself from her attacker. When the camera’s eye opens we see a black cat observing the horror show with a bored look on its face. And then, no sooner than it happened, it’s over. The assailant, a man with a ski mask and track suit, leaves the premises. Here is where Elle starts to go sideways into the unknown. Instead of predictably calling the police and making a report (she has a rather contentious history with the authorities for reasons having to do with her father, an infamous serial killer now serving a life sentence), Michele gets up, cleans the mess, takes a bath, and proceeds to move on with her life. She dismisses her attack to her son as a tumble she took, but makes the rather casual remark at dinner that freezes them all: “I guess I was raped.”
We will return to this awful scene not once, but several times. I’ve come to the conclusion that Michele is perhaps in a perverse way atoning for the sins of her father, but her character is much too complex to leave it at that. This is not the first time Verhoeven has created females who don’t obey the rules of what a woman should do in certain situations — indeed, in society — and with Michele, he has by far outdone himself. Her character makes snide comments at her own mother who is having an affair with a gigolo, she berates her own employees who question her use of violence in video games, has an affair with her best friend’s husband in her own office, and masturbates to the neighbor next door whom she invites to a dinner with her entire family — one that transpires with a lot of heavy petting under the table and verbal innuendo. And all the time, we can’t seem to not like her. Perhaps her cries of help at the beginning have already established a subliminal link in our minds from the get-go. Perhaps we all would like to be this detached. It all rests on the magnificent performance Isabelle Huppert conveys of what is essentially an amoral sociopath walking a tightrope between life and death.
There is a lot to be said about Elle that even the Q & A with Verhoeven at the opening night at the Alice Tully last October didn’t manage to answer. I also don’t want to venture into talking more about it because to do so would be to reveal aspects of this thriller that are best left to the viewer. I will say, however, that Elle is a highly original and unusual character study that is all over the place in tones — it moves from violence to comedy to drama with incredible ease, and one can find them all sitting side by side in the same scene. One could call it an extreme version of female empowerment. After all, Michele gets to do things that goes completely left of what is considered moral. As a matter of fact, nothing in Michele suggests she herself is moral, but that she lives on her own terms. So it’s appropriate that her progressive delving into this flirtation with danger with the man who raped her is almost perfect for her type of character. Michele understands the culture of violence that she now profits from. It what makes her so deliciously good when she not only embraces it, but does so with perverse abandon. [A+]
French cinema has long since separated itself from the sunny, colorful effervescence of New Wave and is riding high on not just its New Intensity, bringing forth some truly twisted stories, but also its reconfiguration of films deemed “American”; i. e. action, crime, and complex thrillers. In 2015 alone they released three films via Rendezvous with French Cinema that later were released earlier this year on VOD: SK-1 (a.k.a. Serial Killer 1), La French, a.k.a. The Connection (their own take on The French Connection), and the profoundly disturbing Next Time I’ll Aim for the Heart, barely seen here, and a complete must-watch for lovers of dark crime stories.
In a previous post I mentioned that no less than five movies were playing in New York City at the same time — something I haven’t seen in a long time, and I pay attention to releases — and reviewed three of them: Cosmos, by Andrzej Zulawski; Diary of a Chambermaid by Benoit Jacquot, and finally, Michel Gondry’s coming-of-age movie Microbe et Gasoil.
Les Cowboys is Thomas Bidegain’s first directorial effort, and it’s a darn good one. [He wrote A Prophet, Rust and Bone, parts of Saint Laurent, the upcoming Neither Heaven Nor Earth (screened at New Directors / New Films earlier this year, releasing next month), and the superb Dheepan, a film still playing in the nation, and a must-watch.] Borrowing from the concept that made John Ford’s 1956 masterpiece The Searchers such a compulsive watch and transposing it to modern times, he places a regular French family in an American setting: the rodeo. Of course, this is not a true rodeo per se but more of the likes of a dude ranch where people can play dress up and speak in truly awful Western accents while looking cool. Francois Damiens, the versatile actor I’ve seen in Playing Dead, Suzanne, and Tip-Top (of which the last only had an actual release in the US) plays Alain Ballard, the head of the family who attends such an event whose daughter, who’d been dating a Muslim boy that may have become radicalized, disappears from plain sight, never to be seen again.
Alain’s search to find his daughter (despite her letters that she does not want to be found and is happy to be where she is) takes an extreme left turn that no one paying attention will see coming. It’s such a shock that when I saw this film last October at the New York Film Festival the audience audibly gasped. From there on, the story continues on, bringing a shift of perspective and introducing some tangential characters, such as John C Reilly’s appearance as an American who may be of some help to Alain’s son Kid (Finnegan Oldfield, of Bang Gang, A Modern Love Story), and a Muslim woman who finds herself in a strange land being scrutinized by others who see her as little more than subhuman.
Les Cowboys is a complicated mystery. It stands out because it seems of the zeitgeist as people experience the ugliness of Islamophobia. It’s an intricately woven narrative that doesn’t overstay its welcome, and through clever twists and turns, peels away at the onion until we finally reach its center and find the lost pearl. And no — I haven’t spoiled a single frame of this marvelous movie.
It’s hard to believe it’s been twenty-five years since Curtis Hanson released his (can we call it a classic?) excellent movie The Hand that Rocks the Cradle, a film that pretty much chilled America to the bone with the prospect of psycho-nannies wanting a little more than the meager pay they get for watching over unruly kids while Mom and Dad are out having A Night Out. Michael Thelin’s debut picture Emelie owes quite a bit to that film, and I say that in a good way. This is a slow-burn pressure cooker of a movie that doesn’t spell its cards immediately; instead, it opts for scenes of domestic playfulness that slowly peel back a rather disturbing character study of a young woman who isn’t just insane, but dangerous.
Much of the movie’s intro is rather tame, involving playful family banter as Mom and Dad prepare themselves for an evening dinner while Anna, the substitute babysitter gets the lowdown on the kids. Once the parents are gone, the tone does a subtle shift, and in almost imperceptible ways, Anna starts to disclose that she has other things in mind than taking care of three children. Things start to get a little uncomfortable when Anna, after a game of hide and seek, calls oldest son Jacob into the bathroom and reveals herself to be sitting on the toilet, having her period, and asking for tampons. [A quick shot of blood on the toilet nails the uneasiness of these scene.] Thelin ratchets up the creep factor even more when Anna forces the daughter to watch her pet hamster get eaten by Jacob’s pet snake, and if you thought this was bad enough, wait until she gathers the kids for a special video. It’s horrifying, more so because of the whole domesticity of the scene where it takes place — and that the parents are completely oblivious.
Michael Thelin delivers a smart thriller that always manages to keep the focus on a family about to experience terror at the hands of a random person who isn’t right in the head. Sarah Bolger, an Irish actress with a striking resemblance to Saoirse Ronan, is quite the stand out here, with her cold blue eyes and cool, detached yet friendly demeanor until the gloves are off. Even then, she doesn’t overplay her character’s psychopathy as other movies with a psycho-nanny tend to do — which I appreciated. Then there is the house: it becomes a character all its own, a trap full of shadows. Some genre tropes make their way into the movie, but that’s to be expected. Falling inches away from pure horror (perhaps due to its running time, a quick 80 minutes including credits), Emelie is an uneasy penny dreadful with atmosphere and suspense to spare.
Having been seen in period dramas (and art-house heavies, female crowd-pleasers) like Far from the Madding Crowd and A Little Chaos last year it’s a return for Matthias Schoenaerts to the more brooding characters such as the ones he essayed in Rust and Bone. In Alice Winocour’s newest movie, a drama turned thriller about a man suffereing from PTSD, Schoenaerts plays his Vincent, an ex-soldier, as a man who’s all reaction and little communication, hyper alert and ready for even the slightest attack, but also in pain from his own inner torment. This is a man who, because of having fought to protect his country, has been rendered so damaged he might as well be untrustworthy. So the fact that he moonlights as a security guy is an odd choice, but not uncommon for men accustomed to protect. The problem then becomes, can they be trusted with the well-being of those in charge when he himself suffers from moments of crippling panic attacks and loss of judgement?
Disorder opens to a series of scenes that showcase the brutality of discipline, followed by finding himself not just abandoned by that life, but now, thanklessly serving as a security guy for a party hosted by a Lebanese magnate in a luxurious mansion where he is all but invisible. After walking into a meeting not meant for his ears, he’s asked by the Lebanese to go in search of the host’s wife Jessica (Diane Kruger). At first meeting, there is a palpable animosity between Jessica and Vincent, but as fate would have it, Denis has to bow out of a weekend assignment to guard her and the household while her husband is out on business. Vincent steps in . . . and starts to see danger at every turn.
Winocour plays her cards somewhat close to her chest during a large portion of the movie. We’re not totally sure that Vincent may be unraveling — he’s too quick to spot danger even in the most innocuous details — but a drive to the beach terminates all that. It’s here that Disorder changes gears and becomes a high-intensity thriller where no one is safe at any moment and threats are lying in wait in the shadows as the mansion becomes a battleground of heart-thumping, escalating violence. Even moments of stillness where Jessica and Vincent start to get to know each other doesn’t offer much respite. It just shows that true to its title, while VIncent may have PTSD, it’s actually Jessica who living a life of bliss and, aware of it or not, reaping the benefits of illegal dealings, at the center of a much different chaos: the chaos of the ugliness tucked under the carpet in order to preserve status.
Disorder will most likely get a release proper in the US later this year. I suggest to go see it: this is a powerful thriller with a thumping, masculine score set to techno music that starts out strong and becomes nearly unbearable towards its explosive finale. Winocour is a director to take notice of. I wouldn’t be surprised the day she crosses over and lets her talent loose this side of the pond.
The cold, empty void that follows prestige and Oscar picture overload — a season that typically ends at the end of January, when I’m usually caught up with whatever I haven’t seen already — brings a sort of lethargy. If it weren’t for the sheer level of art-house and independent theaters in NYC who open the year with a handful of new releases and smaller festivals — New York Jewish Film Festival, Dance on Camera, and Film Comments Selects, to name three — there would be precious little for me to watch.
Fortunately, having friends who also watch foreign and indies on VOD or iTunes helps, and as of late I’ve been introduced to a plethora of Bollywood movies that I’d like to share with you.
The first of the trio is Sujoy Ghosh’s Kahaani (2012), a film that is as near as perfect as a thriller as I’ve come across. To put it mildly, Hitchcock himself would be proud of this accomplished, fascinating, richly plotted movie. Kahaani opens with a masterful sequence pregnant with pure suspense that starts in a lab where a scientist employs a lethal gas to kill mice and cuts to a scene in a subway train in Kolkata where people meet the same fate in a terrorist attack that recalls the Tokyo sarin gas attack of 1995.
Kahaani fast-forwards to two years later. Vidya Bagchi, an IT consultant and wife of an IT Specialist, Arnab Bagchi, who was contracted by the National Data Center and of whom she has not heard of, has arrived from London with the intent to find him. Despite her inquiries, the Kolkata police seems rather inept or passive to help, but a rookie cop, Satyoshi Sinya (Parambrata Chatterjee), sympathizes with her situation and agrees to assist her. Soon enough, Vidya and Rana learn that no one has heard of Vidya’s husband at the NDC, nor the hotel where he claimed to stay via photos sent to her phone. In the meantime, the head of the HR department makes a discovery and informs Vidya that Arnab resembled Milan Damji, an NDC employee who now has a restricted file. Parallel to this, a shlubby man who works at a claims department gets a text to eliminate someone. That someone is the very head of the NDC HR department.
Hitchcock once (loosely, in a sequence of quotes) expressed that he didn’t care if his story didn’t exactly tie in perfectly but managed to keep the audience glued to the screen. Kahaani offers a riveting conspiracy story in which a pregnant woman is at the center, inside a circle of danger that draws closer and closer and in a key scene, leads to an intermission literally on a breathtaking cliffhanger that had me screaming. I can’t imagine any thriller as of late that has managed to cause this effect on me in since the shocking revelation of Gone Girl and then its blood drenched sex scene.
One of the many surprises I discovered in watching Kahaani was that it offered me the opportunity to witness the city as a living participant other than as a postcard. Ghosh clearly mapped his locations out well and used them and the city’s religious festivities to the story’s advantage: early in the movie Vidya admires some women in startling red and white saris. These saris are used for the Durga Puja celebration; later on, she will herself wear one in a nail-biting sequence filled with vivid red symbolism.
Vidya Balan acquits herself in the role of Hitchcock blonde/woman in peril, but who is also as astute as the men around her, able to hack computers and outsmart bandits. She’s given solid support by Parambrata Chatterjee as the young cop who has a crush on her, and especially by the compelling, super-creepy performance of Saswatta Chatterjee as a man no one should ever want to cross paths with. Again, I know I said it before, but this is a superb thriller with many twists and turns, and with a monster of a denouement that will make you think for days.