Disobedience

Traditions of faith, love and family are all on the table in Disobedience, in which New Yorker Ronnie Curtis, née Ronit Khruska (Rachel Weisz), returns after many years to her native London and an orthodox Jewish community that, frankly, doesn’t want her. The occasion is the passing of her father, an influential leader and Talmudic scholar — the Rav of the community — who drops dead, portentously, at the beginning of the film after delivering a tract on human beings and free will. Things don’t turn out especially well for Ronit, a struggling photographer who had hoped for an inheritance but finds that her father had written her out of his will. Barely allowed back into the family circle thanks mainly to the kindness of her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), she clashes, vocally, with the community’s elders; it’s as if she’s been itching, over all these years, just to give them another piece of her mind. And when she discovers that Esti (Rachel McAdams), her shy lover from many years ago, has joined the family as Ronit’s husband, it catches her by surprise, breaks her heart, and arouses some long-dormant feelings, all at once. Continue reading

Dirty Pictures: Blood Feast and Scum of the Earth

Sex and Death and Herschell Gordon Lewis

One among very few genuinely terrible films that are also justly famous, Blood Feast is the oft-cited progenitor of a certain strain of American cinema: the slasher film — or, more specifically, the splatter movie. Conceived by the briefly prolific, ultra-low-budget director Herschell Gordon Lewis (who will be forever known as the Godfather of Gore) — along with producer David F. Friedman — as an alternative to the commercially competitive genre of cheap-and-easy nudie flicks, the splatter movie was at […]

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Personal Shopper

Director Olivier Assayas’s latest features the now-requisite fine Kristen Stewart performance, typically absorbing Assayas mise-en-scène, and a way more explicit representation of the supernatural than I had expected, even from early on. Of course it defies genre — it’s not primarily a horror movie or a suspense thriller but simply a character study, with the delicacy that term typically implies but also with a freakishness it doesn’t usually portend. I’ll cheerfully admit that the story is underwritten, particularly the half-baked police procedural that threatens to swamp the third act (Assayas backs away from it before it becomes too, too much) but the sleepy nightmarishness of it all appeals to me. Stewart, too, seems forever in a somnolent state of dressing and undressing, her vulnerability on display; she’s lost in the world, laden with sadness, weary beyond her years. She gets at something about grief, yes, but also mortality — the pale fragility of the human body and perhaps, though she is loath to concede it, the delicate impermanence of the soul. Spooky, for real.

Liquid Sky

Say what you will about Liquid Sky, there’s no other movie like it. Shot largely in a nightclub that feels warmed to sweltering by big costumes and body heat and a crowded penthouse apartment with a killer view of the Empire State Building (and a UFO on the porch), it mashes up an annoyingly slack New Wave fashion show with a New York sci-fi story about aliens who crave heroin and/or human orgasms cooked up by frisky Russian immigrant writer, director and co-editor Slava Tsukerman.

Co-screenwriter Anne Carlisle, playing the dual roles of aspiring “Mayflower stock” starlet Margaret and drugged-up downtown asshole Jimmy, gets to act opposite herself in a few scenes (including one where she gives herself a blow job) and is generally considered the MVP on screen, but I’ve always preferred the big-eyed Paula E. Sheppard, who dominates the film’s midsection as Margaret’s erotically aggressive performance-artist girlfriend, Adrian. (Her salacious delivery of the film’s single best line — a response to the age-old question, “What’s in the box?” — never fails to leave me convulsing with laughter.)

The film seems to have been edited in a blender, which only adds to its cachet as outsider art, but it’s remarkably well photographed and, once the story takes hold, the nihilistic shenanigans on screen ascend to the status of bleak, hilarious auto-parody. Still, It’s hard not to feel for the verbally and sexually abused Margaret as Carlisle drops her punk posture and shifts into broken-hearted mode, donning a wedding dress and climbing onto the roof, completely junked up, in search of some kind of completion. It’s a wicked fairy tale set among sad, smacked-out freaks and outsiders, doling out cruelly unequal helpings of sweet and sour, bliss and despair. But there’s a beating heart at the center of it all and, sometimes, poetry.

mother!

Having narrowly survived his harrowing brush with mainstream Hollywood filmmaking, Darren Aronofsky is back in bonkers tortured-artist mode with this allegorical freak-out about poetry, celebrity, and the act of creation. More impressive than the density of metaphors running through this plainly Biblical yarn is the ferocity of Aronofsky’s execution. No matter what happens, he keeps the camera close to Jennifer Lawrence; for the bulk of the film, any shot she doesn’t actually appear in is a point-of-view shot. So we experience events as she does — her property trespassed upon, her authority disrespected, she remaining in good-wife mode longer than is healthy. And Aronofsky directs the hell out of the film’s third act, which unfolds with a disorienting kind of dream logic that belies the fundamental absurdity of events on screen. I don’t find the central metaphor(s) so compelling in itself, but I think the film works on an emotional level as long as it’s fundamentally Lawrence’s story. She is the dreamer, and this borderline surrealist frenzy is her nightmare, and it’s spooky and scary and richly suggestive and I’m completely on board. But then the film establishes its continuity with the Aronofsky Cinematic Universe, which is kind of a bummer. Once the creator presents his revelation — God’s love for humankind, eternal recurrence, etc. — it becomes clear it’s not really her story. It’s Aronofsky’s story. It’s always been Aronofsky’s story. And I just can’t relate.

Wonder Woman

In which the most iconic female comic book superhero finally gets a feature film to call her own. Much of this is delightful — Gal Gadot’s performance is magnetic, and Patty Jenkins gives the film’s engrossing midsection an authentic screwball savor, presenting Gadot’s Diana as more frankly sexy than I had been led to expect and keeping sweet, blue-eyed Chris Pine in exactly the right place throughout. It’s a shame she’s saddled with a typical superhero screenplay that eventually brings the whole endeavor crashing down. The reversed gender roles give Jenkins a fighting chance at making some hoary tropes feel new again, and she slips into a confident groove for most of the film’s running time, culminating in the second act’s bracing, triumphant, Diana-led sortie into No Man’s Land. Like her hero, Jenkins is the man who can. But she can’t do much with the gloomy, CG-addled third act, which resembles a PlayStation cut scene staged inside a vat of Dr. Pepper and stomps all over what should be the film’s emotional payload. (It says a lot that the real problem with Wonder Woman is that it shares too much DNA with the rest of DC’s cinematic endeavors.) Still, Jenkins has her own enthusiasm and Gadot’s wild, wide-eyed idealism on her side throughout. Together, they go a long way.

Life

If you’re going to steal, they say, steal from the best. It almost works out for Life, which borrows the fundamentals of its premise from Alien–hostile, shape-changing lifeform let loose in the confines of a spacecraft grows larger and more powerful as it eats its way through the crew–and rides that pony for a good forty-five nerve-jangling minutes before running out of oxygen. Alien‘s setting was an interstellar mining vessel that doubled as a haunted mansion, with long hallways, high vaulted ceilings, and other shadowy spaces where the boogeyman could wait for his prey. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick lose some of those gothic atmospherics by setting their story on board the International Space Station, since it imparts a more sterile, sci-fi feel. Moreover, in what’s arguably a more brazen case of cinematic larceny, director Daniel Espinosa, best-known for the 2012 thriller Safe House, swipes his anti-gravity stylistics from Alfonso Cuarón, opening the film with a single, very long, VFX-heavy take that sends the camera around in gentle swoops from character to floating character as the space station itself tumbles slowly around its axis. Continue reading

John Wick: Chapter 2

John Wick: Chapter 2 opens, perhaps incongruously, with shots from a Buster Keaton action sequence projected on the side of a midtown Manhattan office building. Make no mistake — that’s not homage. It’s a declaration of principles. Hell, it’s a boast. A master of stunts, sight gags and visual effects, Keaton was perhaps the most sophisticated silent filmmaker when it came to truly understanding and exploiting cinematic space — the magical Méliès, perhaps, to Chaplin’s more grounded Lumière. For much of film history, his influence was felt most vividly in movie musicals, where the influential athleticism of Gene Kelly, especially, seemed to call back directly to Keaton’s knockabout screen presence. In the 1970s, the most musical action on screen was happening in Hong Kong, as Bruce Lee’s lethal martial arts style laid the groundwork for Jackie Chan’s more broadly comic (but no less precisely conceived and executed) on-screen fighting style. Jackie Chan was no fan of guns, but John Woo developed a balletic, two-fisted style of gunplay while imagining rom-com mainstay Chow Yun-Fat as an action hero in the Clint Eastwood mold. That brings us more or less to John Wick, as director Chad Stahelski and the army of drivers, stunt coordinators, military veterans, tactical firearms consultants and Brazilian jiu-jitsu instructors who helped turn Keanu Reeves’ into a precision-tuned killing machine assert their legitimacy as heirs to a tradition that began in the days of hand-cranked cameras and nitrate stock.

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