Tuesday, October 30, 2012

KILL LIST (2012)

Director Ben Wheatley’s previous low budget feature, the comedic crime drama DOWN TERRACE, opens like a Mike Leigh working class film featuring low-level British thugs before it evolves into something more twisted and funny.  Wheatley opens his new film, which he co-wrote with Amy Jump, as suburbanites Jay (Neil Maskell) and Shel (MyAnna Buring) scream about money troubles within earshot of their young son Sam (Harry Simpson).  Jay has been out of work for eight months after an “incident” in Kiev.  What this incident was or what Jay does for a living is not yet clear.  During a small dinner party Jay tells Fiona (Emma Fryer), the new girlfriend of his best chum Gal (Michael Smiley), that he works in IT.  As it turns out both Jay and Gal are hired killers by profession, and Gal has received an intriguing offer from a man known only as The Client (Struan Rodger).  The two accept the blood contract and its accompanying kill list, and from the outset the job becomes increasingly bizarre as they progress through the list.  Their first target is a parish priest strangely accepting of his fate.  Their second target, a “librarian” of pornographic films, confesses to Jay in a private moment before death that he’s honored to have met him.  This sends the hired killer on a rampage that gives us a clue as to what the Kiev incident might have entailed.  As Jay rapidly descends into madness, the film accelerates from grisly crime thriller into hardcore horror film.  Time and again Wheatley plays into and then undermines audience expectations, and the effect is disorienting and terrifying.  This would feel like a cheat but for the pervasive sense of dread that accompanies each scene and for the fearless performance by Maskell, who is always compelling but rarely sympathetic.  Smiley gives strong support as the compassionate Gal, Buring makes for a resourceful wife, and Fryer unsettles as the girlfriend who’s more than she seems.  Wheatley’s film is not for the weak of heart or constitution and manages a rare achievement.  It is a movie that, like Jay, loses its mind and leaves audience members questioning their own sanity.

Friday, October 26, 2012

DAMSELS IN DISTRESS (2012)

Based on his first three films and the characters he wrote for each, you can easily surmise that Whit Stillman is an odd, though articulate, duck.  His latest writing and directing effort will do nothing to dissuade you.  The film opens with the arrival of Lily (Analeigh Tipton) at Seven Oaks College.  She is taken under the wing of Violet (Greta Gerwig), the leader of a clique of girls that includes Heather (Carrie MacLemore) and Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke).  The clique’s primary mission seems to be running a campus suicide prevention center and providing cultural enlightenment to the buffoonish fraternity boys they date out of pity.  But Lily has an unrequited crush on a longtime friend, the intellectual Xavier (Hugo Becker), and ignores the clique’s dating philosophy.  While helping Priss (Caitlin Fitzgerald) recover from a broken heart, Violet inadvertently leads the girl into the arms of her own thickheaded beau Frank (Ryan Metcalf), which causes the usually upbeat Violet to fall into what she calls a tailspin (she doesn’t like the word depressed).  After spending the night in a nearby motel she discovers the therapeutic power of its bar soap and returns to campus with renewed purpose.  Meanwhile, Xavier turns to Lily for non-platonic comfort after his live-in girlfriend leaves him.  Oh, yes, and Violet is determined to invent a new dance craze called the Sambola.  Stillman’s script is episodic to the point of distraction, and those hoping for narrative discipline will be disappointed.  Yet he has found a perfect muse in Gerwig, who gives Violet’s whimsical goals more substance than they deserve.  Every moment she’s on screen, you’re happy to be in her company.  Tipton has the film’s straight role and holds her own opposite Gerwig.  The remainder of the cast, however, is a mixed bag, with the exception of Echikunwoke, who acts like she wandered in from a different movie and refused to leave.  Stillman’s characters feel like they belong in a bygone era, and that conceit worked for his earlier films like METROPOLITAN and the superlative BARCELONA.  Here they are an anachronism in search of a good home.

Monday, October 22, 2012

FRANKENWEENIE (2012)

In his latest animated feature Tim Burton tells a very personal story.  Unlike most young boys growing up in suburban New Holland, Victor Frankenstein (Charlie Tahan) forgoes sports.  He prefers instead to make 8mm films in the back yard or to conduct science experiments in the attic.  His constant companion in these endeavors is his irrepressible dog and best friend, Sparky.  Concerned about their introverted son, Mr. and Mrs. Frankenstein (Martin Short and Catherine O’Hara) persuade a reluctant Victor to join the school baseball team.  During a game Sparky gets struck by a car while chasing a ball that Victor hit.  Lonely and guilt-ridden the bereft boy digs up his beloved dog and resurrects him during a lightning storm.  Victor tries to hide Sparky in the attic, but the impetuous fellow escapes the house and wreaks havoc in the neighborhood.  Weird classmate Edgar “E” Gore (Atticus Shaffer) confronts Victor about his experiment and enlists him as his partner in the school science fair competition.  But Edgar can’t keep a secret from the other competitors, and soon everyone is attempting to reanimate dead pets and other creatures.  Before you can say “It’s alive!” chaos reigns in sleepy New Holland, and only Victor and Sparky can save the town.  Based on Burton’s 1984 live-action short film, the screenplay by John August spends less time with the Frankenstein family and adds a cadre of eccentric, multi-ethnic classmates.  This gives Burton the opportunity to pay myriad homages to the James Whales’ FRANKENSTEIN pictures and other classic and not-so-classic monster movies, such as GODZILLA, THE MUMMY and GREMLINS, to name a few.  Rather than being weighed down by this overstuffed collection of film references, Burton’s film is buoyed by movie love and real affection for his characters.  The voice work is solid, with a particularly amusing cameo by Martin Landau as the voice of science teacher Mr. Rzykruski.  Parents should note that the film does have a few mildly scary moments.  And the death of Sparky could upset children with beloved pet dogs.

THE MASTER (2012)

Filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson is always ambitious, usually idiosyncratic, visually dynamic, occasionally obtuse, and endlessly fascinating.  His strongest films are BOOGIE NIGHTS, about the denizens of the ‘70s and ‘80s San Fernando Valley porn industry, and THERE WILL BE BLOOD, about a ruthless California oil baron during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Anderson excels at immersing viewers in the period while populating the screen with vibrant, tangible characters.  He also puzzles and perplexes (see the rain of frogs at the end of MAGNOLIA).  Here Anderson follows Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II vet suffering from alcoholism and post-traumatic stress syndrome.  After several attempts to fit into post-war society, Freddie stows away aboard a yacht chartered by charismatic guru Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman).  Drawn to the troubled young man, Dodd takes Freddie under his wing and initiates him into The Cause, a system of exercises that uncover past trauma by seeking out remembered lives.  Likewise Freddie clings to his new mentor and his program like a life raft.  Dodd’s wife Peggy (Amy Adams) mistrusts the new follower yet nevertheless assists her husband in the indoctrination.  But soon Dodd’s rote response to polite challenges turns hostile, fracturing the calm fa├žade of the organization.  The acting is exceptional.  Hoffman gives Dodd the outward veneer of fatherly charm, with startling fissures of petty childishness when questioned too closely.  Adams channels Lady Macbeth as Dodd’s most faithful believer.  Phoenix’s performance is fearless; however, he too often resembles an actor exploring a role rather than embodying it.  Writer/director Anderson loosely based Dodd on the late L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology, and his interests lie in exploring how rational and, in Freddie’s case, irrational people are swayed, and often let down, by charismatic, messianic figures.  Anderson refuses to provide pat answers or resolution, making this film less satisfying than his best, but the journey is still bracing and a must see for Anderson fans.