Piercing

58/100

As Piercing opens, Reed (Christopher Abbott) is a man with murder on his mind. About 30, nondescript, slightly schlubby even, with a receding hairline, five-o-clock shadow, and a troubled, unsure demeanor, Reed is first seen hovering over his infant daughter with an ice pick in hand. He’s not making a cocktail. Riddled with anxiety and insomnia, Reed is a wreck. His work isn’t fulfilling him. His wife can’t calm him. And then at one point, as he gazes down into the dark pools that are his daughter’s eyes, the infant speaks to him: “You know what you have to do, right?” The moment is chilling, yet absurd. In a very dark way, it’s hilarious. And with that, Piercing is off to the races. Continue reading

The Spy Who Dumped Me

59/100
Kate McKinnon and Mila Kunis

The Spy Who Dumped Me is a lot — femme-centric rom-com, violent action-thriller, dopey spy farce, and genial paean to friendship in the face of adversity–and director Susanna Fogel revels in the tonal disparities from its opening sequence, which intercuts an enthusiastically mounted, bullet-riddled chase scene set in Vilnius, Lithuania, with scenes from a birthday party for Audrey Stockman (Mila Kunis), a 30-year-old grocery clerk who’s just been blindsided by a break-up text from Drew Thayer (Justin Theroux), her boyfriend of one year. The party’s been organized by Audrey’s devoted pal Morgan (Kate McKinnon), an aspiring actress whose ceaseless shenanigans help blunt Audrey’s sadness. It quickly becomes clear that, somehow, the guy hiding out from Lithuanian thugs in the gloomy, desaturated espionage thriller is Drew himself. When Morgan grabs Audrey’s phone and sends a text calling him a “worthless nutsack” and promising to “set his shit on fire,” Audrey gets a returned phone call from that other movie, in which Drew beseeches her to reconsider. Fogel keeps this up for a solid 10 minutes before the film’s title appears on screen, and it’s an intriguing overture.

The idea of a female-fronted, R-rated spy movie isn’t especially novel in the aftermath of Atomic Blonde and Red Sparrow, but there is something delicious about the notion of a couple of completely ordinary millennials boasting and bluffing their way through a multinational conspiracy plot. The funny business isn’t as funny as it should be — too many gags don’t land, and some of the scenes have a choppy quality, suggesting they never quite came together in the cutting room. But Fogel cuts no corners getting her spy-movie pastiche on screen, which helps propel things forward. Second-unit director Gary Powell is a veteran of Jason Bourne, James Bond, and more, and with his assistance Fogel pulls off stunts and executes camera moves that shouldn’t really be possible in a romantic comedy–including a great shot that begins inside an apartment, then follows closely behind and beside Theroux as he takes a running jump off a balcony, rolls off the back of a panel truck, commandeers a motorcycle, and rides off. Scenes shot in Vienna have the sophisticated gloss of a Mission: Impossible movie, and the large-scale modernist architecture of Budapest provides some especially imposing locations as the film’s mood grows darker near its midpoint, when Audrey and Morgan are taken hostage and briefly threatened with torture. That’s when we meet Ivanna Sakhno, who gives an intensely deadpan performance as Nadedja, a round-eyed, tightly strung Olympic-gymnast-turned-assassin with a sadistic streak and a probably unhealthy attachment to her balance beam.

00278.m2ts_snapshot_00.02.49_[2018.10.28_17.28.32]

Before long, the picture springs back into a more broadly comic mode, even developing a second, more devastatingly handsome spy, Sebastian (Sam Heughan of Outlander), as a love interest for Audrey. More than anything else, though, The Spy Who Dumped Me builds a showcase for Kate McKinnon, who first appears high-stepping her way into the frame as she sings “Happy Birthday” like the love child of Liza Minnelli and John Cleese. And she swings, struts, and sashays her way through the increasingly violent proceedings with brio as Kunis plays straight woman to her lanky, savvy jester. Her outfit for the first third of the movie is a black-and-white tank-top, suspenders, and capris combo that suggests a knockabout lineage dating back to vaudeville and silent movies. It is possible Fogel is so smitten with McKinnon that she allows her to overplay this shtick–the extended climax has Morgan fulfilling her longtime dream of performing on stage in a Cirque du Soleil-style trapeze act. (“Remember your training from the New Jersey Circus Center,” she tells herself.) This bit of business is meant, I think, as a triumphant sally into surrealistic lunacy — and there’s something so spectacularly unflattering about McKinnon’s outfit, as well as the way the harsh stage lights hit her face, that you have to admire her commitment–but it seems to go on forever and, worse, separates Morgan from Audrey.

If McKinnon’s constant mugging threatens to deprive her co-stars of oxygen, she nevertheless brightens the film considerably and even gives it a measure of poignancy. The love life described by the title belongs only to Audrey; Morgan is single when the movie begins and single when it ends, and there’s the faintest hint that her surface outrageousness hides a loneliness and insecurity underneath. (She’s stunned into silence when Drew responds to one of her jokes by calling her “a little much.”) But she’s not bitter about it–far from it, she plays Cupid. In one scene, the pay-off to a long-running gag, she’s delighted to learn that Audrey has the film’s MacGuffin hidden inside her vagina. When Audrey retrieves it and hands it to a nonplussed Sebastian, the look on McKinnon’s face is, well, not lascivious, exactly, but kind of wicked. She’s watching a connection being made, and she’s excited for her friend — though not sappy about it. It’s a broad moment, yet well-observed and almost precious in context. The Spy Who Dumped Me isn’t totally successful, but with character beats like this in her wheelhouse, Fogel deserves another shot.

Bad Times at the El Royale

34/100
Photo Credit: Kimberley French.

At least Cabin in the Woods had the sense to call it a day after misrepresenting the horror genre for 95 minutes. Bad Times at the El Royale misunderstands Quentin Tarantino for two hours and 20 and doesn’t stop fêting its own cleverness until the moment the credits roll. Writer-director Drew Goddard brings on the bursts of unexpected violence, ostentatious tracking shots, nonlinear narrative elements, and heavy-handed allusions to faith and salvation, sets them all to a soundtrack peppered with period soul and R&B and some ostensibly sassy dialogue, mixes it up, and strains it into a cocktail glass instead of serving it up in the red Solo cup it deserves.


Continue reading

Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters

80/100
Ken Okada in Mishima

A little more than halfway through Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, a fragmented, multifaceted cinematic biography of Japanese writer Yukio Mishima, Mishima expresses nostalgia for an afterlife that existed only in the distant past. “The average age for men in the Bronze Age was 18 and, in the Roman era, 22,” Mishima reckons aloud, in voiceover. “Heaven must have been beautiful then. Today it must look dreadful.” Like the rest of the film’s narration, the passage is quoted from Mishima’s published work, in this case an article he wrote in 1962, eight years before his death at the age of 45 by seppuku. “When a man reaches 40, he has no chance to die beautifully,” Mishima continues. “No matter how he tries, he will die of decay. He must compel himself to live.” In 1984, when he made this film, Paul Schrader was 38 years old. He had just come off the commercial misfire that was 1982’s Cat People, a straightforward studio assignment he tailored to address his signature concerns about sex and death, putting them in the context of a dark fairytale with intimations of incest and bestiality. It wasn’t a good experience. Coked out of his mind for much of the shoot, Schrader fell into a dead-end affair with Nastassja Kinski that he hoped was something more; she wanted nothing to do with him after the movie wrapped, and Cat People‘s disappointing box-office receipts closed the door on his Hollywood career. He thought of suicide. He scurried away from Hollywood, heading first to New York and then to Japan, in search of a life change. That’s where Mishima came in.


Continue reading

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

74/100

I remember the summer of 1991, when Terminator 2: Judgment Day landed in movie theatres with all the fuck-you noise, power, and momentum of a Ford Freightliner crashing from an L.A. thoroughfare overpass into a concrete spillway below. It was the year of Operation Desert Storm and the ending of the Cold War, the year LAPD officers were videotaped beating Rodney King. With the release of “Smells Like Teen Spirit” still a few months away, latter-day cock-rocker Axl Rose still led the most popular band in America. It had been a pretty good year for women in film, even if the material was grim — Jodie Foster helped open The Silence of the Lambs at #1 in February and Davis/Sarandon kick-started a thousand feminist (and anti-feminist) thinkpieces when Thelma & Louise arrived in May. But the main movie event of the summer was the testosterone-laden sequel to The Terminator. Serenaded by a hit single from Axl’s Guns N’ Roses, heralded as the most expensive movie ever made, and stuffed with apocalyptic imagery, T2 roared onto screens, smacked you upside the head, and stole your lunch money, then smirked about it as it strolled away.


Continue reading

The Hurricane Heist

62/100

The Hurricane Heist gets down to business from the moment the opening credits appear on a dark screen and we hear the rumble of thunder on the soundtrack. It’s 1992, and Hurricane Andrew is slamming the fictional town of Gulfport, Alabama, making orphans of two young boys named (no kidding) Will and Breeze, who watch helplessly through the windows of a farmhouse as their papa is flattened by debris. As the storm clouds recede they clearly resolve the features of a demonic face, laughing at the children from the heavens. (I think I said this out loud in my living room: “Wow.”) Fast-forward to the present day, where a guilt-racked Breeze (Ryan Kwanten) is sleeping his way through days and nights as a handyman (and ladies’ man) while semi-estranged brother Will (Toby Kebbell) has earned himself a job as a synoptic meteorologist–that is, he drives around in a weather-nerd Batmobile, analyzing storm fronts and predicting their impact, determined that the skies will mock him no more. Bringing the high concept to this pity party is new-in-town treasury agent Casey Corbyn (Maggie Grace), who happens to be charged with protecting $600 million of U.S. currency earmarked for destruction at a government facility. Unfortunately for her, the paper shredder is temporarily offline and there are villains about who plan to use cover provided by an incoming hurricane to make off with the cash before it can be destroyed. It gets a little complicated–the money ends up locked in an impenetrable vault inside the compound and Casey ends up outside, tooling around with Will. Together, they need to foil the robbery and rescue the hapless Breeze, who is being held hostage inside as the winds grow stronger and stronger.


Continue reading

Disobedience

58/100
Rachel Weisz (left) and Rachel McAdams in 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

All the Sins of Sodom

78/100

Sex and cinema have a complicated relationship, and sex-film director Joe Sarno understood this better than most. In the U.S., nudity and simulated sex are generally understood as appeals to prurience–and, often, commercially exploitative gestures–but they can be more than that. They have to be, if they are part of a serious film. A filmed sex scene may be arousing, sure, but it’s also a vehicle to express character. Depending on performance and visual approach, screen sex can demonstrate frustration and restlessness as easily as romantic contentment; an actor can convey self-loathing instead of, or in addition to, satisfaction. That dicey territory–the sex film that turns you on while treating the action as problematic–was Sarno’s turf.


Continue reading