The Key (2015)


Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

Bai Ling leads Nathan Keyes on.

(2012) Romance (Self-Released) David Arquette, Bai Ling, Nathan Keyes, Nathalie Love, Brian Wasiak. Directed by Jefery Levy

What happens within a marriage can be a delicate thing. We assume that the private life is a mirror of the lives they project to the public, but behind the bedroom doors of any couple can be any one of a million things – joy, kinkiness, exquisite sorrow, tragedy and yes, even love but love expressed in ways that you and I can’t even begin to fathom.

The Nobel laureate Japanese author Junichiro Tanizaki brought that onto the printed page with his 1955 novel The Key in which the husband deliberately leaves the key to the desk drawer where he keeps his diary within sight, almost daring his wife to turn the key and read the contents of his diary, which he has decided to make all about the sex life of the couple which has become rote and to him, insufferable. The couple has essentially ceased communicating with each other and this is the only way the husband knows to get his wife’s attention.

The husband, Jack, here is played by David Arquette, the wife Ida by Bai Ling and their home transplanted from Japan to Southern California. The structure of the film is that the two main characters read the contents of their journals while onscreen a series of images – some germane to the dialogue, some not – flash on the screen, generally oversaturated and scratched in order to approximate old movies which as it eventually turns out, they are somewhat like. One of the things I like about the movie is upon retrospect you realize that you are unstuck in time as you’re watching this; all of the events have already happened and you’re merely watching them unfold as in an old movie. I could be overthinking this, of course.

This is not a movie that is safe viewing. For one thing, sex is really a major part of the movie, or rather the obsession of sex. Ida is naked a lot of the time and she and Jack are often engaged in sex, not all of it consensual strictly speaking. Also in the cast is Kim (Keyes) whom Jack is trying to push into an affair with his wife, and Mia (Love), the couple’s adult daughter.

I’m all for movies that push the edge, but this one does so in a way that seems almost juvenile to my sensibilities. The readings of the journals is done in the breathless manner of 13-year-olds reading their father’s Letters to Penthouse out loud. In that sense, I suppose Levy might be doing that deliberately to give us a sense that the marriage between Jack and Ida has lost all its passion, but it goes on and on. The. Whole. Freaking. Movie.

A note about Bai Ling. She’s an actress who has always shown flashes of amazing potential but has never gotten a role that really allows her to achieve it. I keep hoping that each movie she’s in will be the one that really showcases her talents but she always seems destined to get roles that allow her to show that genius but never let it fly free. Here she is quite often touching in her various facets – Ida’s venality, her repressed sexuality, her regret – but the moments of genuine connection are abruptly severed by some absurd business that turns the movie into an hour and nineteen minutes of non-stop non-sequiturs.

Arquette is operating way outside the usual parameters that he is cast in and for that I tip my hat. He’s come a long way since the Scream franchise. This is definitely a more mature work for him, although again there’s that feeling that we should be titillated but instead we are tittering.

I haven’t read the book in 30 years so I’m a little bit rusty on the prose but to my ears it sounds like very little of it is Tanizaki. Perhaps the filmmakers are working off a different translation than the one I read, but this doesn’t sound like the way human beings write in their diaries about their sex lives. Perhaps I need to be reading more private journals but the prose is flowery here, and sometimes seems to use words for their own sake rather than to contribute to the viewers understanding of the story. There are some passages though that are dazzling, which is what I remember the book’s language to be, more simple but elegant.

The images are almost headache inducing, not unlike what you’d see projected on the walls of a nightclub circa 1995 and no, that’s not a good thing. After a short time it becomes almost annoying and I found myself looking down at my phone and reading e-mail while listening to the narration. That was something of a defense mechanism because my head was beginning to pound. Yes, some of the images here are beautiful and some out there but most of it is the visual equivalent of white noise, to be filtered out and ignored and is that really what you want in a visual medium?

Experimental cinema can be exhilarating, provocative or both. It can also be frustrating, pretentious or both. This is I suppose what passes for avant garde but either this is not the effect the filmmakers are going for or it’s way too avant for my garde.

Incidentally, the movie is on the festival circuit currently. If you’re interested, keep an eye out for it there. No word on a streaming release just yet but it’s likely to turn up in that format as well.

REASONS TO GO: Mind-blowing ending. Some fascinating images.
REASONS TO STAY: Holy pretentiousness Batman! Intrusive score. Takes too long to get going.
FAMILY VALUES: A ton of nudity and sex. Adult themes as well as some smoking and a fair amount of expletives.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Levy received a law degree from Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/15: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eyes Wide Shut
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT: Deathgasm

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A Beautiful Life (2008)


A Beautiful Life

When Jesse Garcia tells Angela Sarafyan that he loves her for more than her body, her expression makes it clear she’s heard that one before.

(2008) Drama (New Films International) Debi Mazar, Dana Delaney, Bai Ling, Angela Sarafyan, Jesse Garcia, Jonathan LaPaglia, Walter Perez, Enrique Castillo, Ronnie Gene Blevins, Rena Owen, Meltem Cumbul, Bill Lithgow, Ho-Jung. Directed by Alejandro Chomski

 

Desperation leads people to doing things that they wouldn’t ordinarily think of doing. Sometimes, being driven to that state can be a very short trip indeed.

Maggie (Sarafyan) gets off the bus in Los Angeles underage, scared and alone. Seeing the population of hookers and junkies, she finds herself a dumpster to hide in and get some sleep. There she is found by David (Garcia), a dishwasher in a strip club. He marches her to see Esther (Ling), a stripper with an eye towards a singing career but also one with the proverbial heart of gold. She cajoles David into taking Maggie in until she can get back on her feet.

The two approach each other warily at first but Maggie eventually gets work at a Korean market while David makes steady cash at the club. However, a raid on the club leaves David without a job (did I mention he was here illegally?) and things begin to get desperate. Maggie isn’t making a lot of money at the grocery and soon is let go from that job too. Still, it is when you are in desperate straits that strong bonds are formed and Maggie and David begin to fall in love.

However, sex between them is odd. Maggie can’t do it unless David is hurting her – this stems from a trauma that caused her to run away in the first place (bet you can’t guess what it was) and this frustrates David who wants to express more tender feelings towards his girlfriend. The two, no longer able to afford rent, squat. And getting to the point where they can’t afford food, David takes to selling drugs which leads to problems of their own.

This is based on a play by Wendy Hammond called “Jersey City.” I haven’t seen the play or read it, so I must assume that based on the title the movie has been relocated on the opposite coast, perhaps to highlight an area where illegal immigration is much more of an immediate problem.

The characters here are living on the edge of society. For the most part, they are completely marginalized, although Mazar plays a sympathetic librarian who gets Maggie interested in learning and earning that G.E.D. while Delaney plays Maggie’s mom who lives conveniently nearby and comes through with timely assistance. Beyond that, this is about people who are as poor as the people in this country get, barely subsisting and never quite sure what the future holds.

The movie is mostly about Sarafyan and Garcia, and they do fairly well. Sarafyan’s character isn’t always sympathetic; she’s pretty messed up (and understandably so) but like many messed up people she lashes out at those who care about her and sometimes makes decision based on the maximum amount of harm that can befall her when she’s in a state of self-loathing. This isn’t a movie about role models necessarily, although you can make a case that their advanced survival instinct is admirable but then again most animals have a survival instinct.

The movie gets the grim reality of homelessness and poverty right but for some reason – whether scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, or because there is a lack of responsible continuity checking in the writing – characters drift in and out of the film without explanation. In fact, one of the main characters essentially disappears from the movie for the final third of it as the film focuses on David’s drug dealing. That final third almost seems like an entirely different movie.

This is one of those movies that drives me crazy. On the one hand, there are portions of it that are extremely well-written but then there are things that just seem like the screenwriters just weren’t paying attention or just didn’t care. There are moments here that shine and others that made me roll my eyes. I kind of want to recommend it – and I kind of don’t. If you do elect to see it, be prepared to be driven crazy by it – or to have it stick with you for a very long time. Maybe both.

WHY RENT THIS: Suitably grim and grimy. Reasonably well performed by the young leads.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot lacks direction and cohesion. Characters appear and disappear from the story without explanation.

FAMILY VALUES: The is some drug use, more than a little sexuality, nudity, depictions of masochistic sex, an attempted rape and a bunch of foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The original play this was based on, “Jersey City,” was first produced at the Second Stage Company in New York City in 1989.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Data not available..

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Saint of Fort Washington

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: White Material

Love Ranch


Love Ranch

Joe Pesci is thrilled to find out that Helen Mirren loves the smell of a good cigar.

(2010) Drama (Entertainment One) Helen Mirren, Joe Pesci, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Gina Gershon, Taryn Manning, Scout Taylor-Compton, Bai Ling, Elise Neal, Bryan Cranston, Rick Gomez, M.C. Gainey, Gil Birmingham, Emily Rios, Melora Walters, Harve Presnell. Directed by Taylor Hackford

 

Some stories are just not destined to have happy endings. They are simply put, train wrecks just waiting to happen. Even those intimately involved know that things are going to end badly.

Charlie Bontempo (Pesci) has what most would call the good life. He owns one of the first legal brothels in the United States which gives him a lot of sexual outlets, as well as being married to Sally (Mirren) who runs the business end of things. However Charlie loves the flamboyant lifestyle of the bright lights of Reno – big cigars, expensive cars, imported champagne – a lifestyle not really supported by what he’s bringing in on the “ranch” which is really a bunch of trailers surrounding an old hotel-like building. It’s a bit flea-bitten, but it’s home.

Charlie needs to bring more income in and he thinks he has the way to do that; by managing a promising Argentine boxer named Armando Bruza (Peris-Mencheta). Unfortunately, Charlie can’t get a manager’s license in Nevada because he’s a convicted felon. Therefore he persuades Sally to take on the job of managing and training Armando.

Sally is initially less than enthusiastic about the prospects of being a boxing manager. She knows very little about the sport and she would much rather be tending to the family business. But as she gets to know Armando, she finds that he is falling hard for her. At first it’s amusing, then it’s annoying – she’s a goodly number of years older than he. However, he reawakens in her that has been killed by the years of Charlie’s philandering and taking her for granted and she falls hard for Armando.

This doesn’t sit well with Charlie, needless to say and he tries to reclaim the relationship with his wife but as she rightly reckons, it’s hard to tell if Charlie really wants her back because he loves her or more because he can’t stand losing what’s his. Things begin to spiral out of control and as we mentioned earlier, everyone knows this isn’t going to end well.

This is loosely based on the story of the Mustang Ranch, owned by Joe and Sally Conforte whose love triangle with Argentine boxer Oscar Bonavena ended as depicted here. Director Taylor Hackford is not one of my favorite directors; while some of his films have been passable (Against All Odds, Everybody’s All-American) most have been just plain awful with one exception – Ray.

This was his first movie since directing the Oscar-winning musical biopic and it only took six years for it to hit the multiplex – softly. There was definitely some interference in the making of the final product; more than hour of footage was left on the cutting room floor, much of it having to do with character development.  As a result beyond the ill-fated love triangle none of the characters have much personality going for them.

It goes without saying that Mirren is one of the finest living actresses; she can be icy cold or red hot or anywhere in between. Here she needs to be the former most of the time while showing signs of the latter. Her desperation and frustration clearly show through – she can more than hold her own with the flamboyant Charlie – but there is a very wounded, vulnerable core here and Mirren nails it. Whatever is wrong with this movie, it isn’t Helen Mirren.

It isn’t Joe Pesci either. Yeah, there are those who it could be said were breaking the balls of this movie because Pesci was playing a flamboyant Italian criminal as he did in Goodfellas and other movies he’s been in. Well, the guy who the part was based on was a flamboyant Italian criminal; I don’t blame the casting director one bit for going after the best in the world for that kind of role. In all honesty, it was marvelous seeing him back in the kind of part that he made famous. I am not ashamed to say that I’m one of the guy’s biggest fans and even though I tend to prefer him in comedies, I am happy to see him in anything.

Despite their chemistry and their talent, Pesci and Mirren aren’t enough to save a movie that plods through a plot that is remarkably un-sexy despite being set in a whorehouse. The emphasis is put on the love triangle which is fine – that is the crux of the story after all, but given the rich location and the possibilities for drama, why skimp on that side of it? Also some of the dialogue is a bit klunky. There are times the actors look a little embarrassed that they’re saying it…at least it appears that way to me.

I don’t know if Hackford had gotten his way that this would have been a better movie. It certainly would have been a longer one. The story would be a compelling one if only they had let it breathe a little bit. Unfortunately, it feels like there were too many fingers in the pie and when that happens, all you can taste in the pie is the fingers.

WHY RENT THIS: Pesci and Mirren make for a good team.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: For a film set at a brothel there is remarkably little about the hookers who live there.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sexuality, a lot of foul language and a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mirren and Hackford are married in real life; they previously collaborated on the dance film White Nights.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: While deleted scenes are pretty standard on any home video release, there are more than an hour’s worth here which Hackford had to trim in order to get the movie to a place the distributors felt comfortable with. Many of them have to do with the hookers who are nearly completely absent  from the final release version. You can watch them all here with or without commentary from Hackford.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $137,885 on a $25M production budget; not the kind of numbers a film wants to have in its theatrical run.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT:As Good As Dead

Crank: High Voltage


Crank: High Voltage

You can't say that Jason Statham doesn't get a charge out of life.

(Lionsgate) Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Dwight Yoakam, Efren Ramirez, Clifton Collins Jr., Bai Ling, David Carradine, Art Hsu, Corey Haim, Gerri Halliwell, John de Lancie. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

Some action movies are high octane. Others, nuclear meltdowns. The first Crank was one of the latter. Would this one measure up?

You wouldn’t think so, given that the hero of the first movie (SPOILER ALERT) falls from a helicopter to his apparent death on the city street below. (CONTINUE READING) But in the universe of Crank: High Voltage, Asian gangsters come along with a snow shovel to scoop up the wide-awake Chev Chelios (Statham) with a snow shovel to bring him to a back room operating room, where his seemingly indestructible heart has been removed for transplant into an aged Chinese mobster (a nearly unrecognizable Carradine).

He has been given a cut-rate artificial heart powered by a car battery to keep his body alive before other organs (including his, ummm, manliest) can be harvested as well. Instead, Chelios awakes to wreak mayhem, havoc and otherwise kick the crap out of things. He goes on yet another rampage around the Los Angeles area to find his heart so that he might get it back, stopping periodically to recharge his dying battery. He rescues his girlfriend Eve (Smart) from a life of exotic dancing, gets together with his incredulous doctor (Yoakam) and picks up Venus (Ramirez), the effeminate twin brother of Kaylo (also played by Ramirez) from the first movie (and Venus has a rather unusual affliction by the way), and Ria (Ling), a goofy prostitute who becomes smitten with Chelios.

Further explanation is unnecessary, redundant and superfluous. If you loved the cinematic video game that was the first movie, this will be right up your alley. Neveldine/Taylor, the directing team responsible for the first one, has amped things up a notch, shooting the improbability factor to 10 and letting loose their guerilla filmmakers onto an unsuspecting city.

This is the kind of movie not meant to be taken seriously, yet most of the reviews I read of it seemed downright huffy. Look guys, this was never meant to be a Merchant/Ivory production. This is going to appeal to the crowd that plays Grand Theft Auto for 36 hours straight, hyped out on Mountain Dew, Hot Pockets and testosterone. The heavy metal soundtrack should tell you that this is meant expressly for young males.

Yes, Virginia, there is some stereotyping, nudity, sexuality and a whole lot of violence, but so what? The stereotyping is done so broadly that it’s fairly obvious it’s meant as satire. The nudity and violence are so over-the-top that it’s impossible to take it too seriously, and the script so ludicrous that it becomes understood that this is meant to be Jackass on steroids high on angel dust.

Statham makes Chelios as fun as it is possible for a hit man to be, poking fun at his own image in the process. He is a masterful action hero, looking convincing in all the fight sequences and running around with a perpetual scowl on his face that invites the good citizens of Los Angeles to stay the frack out of his way if they know what’s good for them.

There are constant little homages to B-movies of the past, from The Brain that Would Not Die to El Mariachi as well as to the pop culture of the digital age – videogames and things like Red Versus Blue. Again, this moves at dizzying speed, so much so that you feel like you’ve sprinted through a marathon by the time the movie comes to an end.

This isn’t Shakespeare folks; it’s just a good time, and Crank: High Voltage succeeds wildly at that. This is the kind of movie that you put on, turn off your brain and let the energy drinks flow as you pound your chest and shout an occasional ”WHOAAAA!” at the screen. You’ll need to go through detox after seeing this one.

WHY RENT THIS: If you liked the first movie, you’re gonna love this one – all the frenetic oddball action, only amped up another notch.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The nudity, the violence, the ludicrous plot…if those things bother you, you’re better off watching the next edition of Masterpiece Theater.

FAMILY VALUES: Oh, c’mon…you’re not honestly thinking of letting your kids see this are you? If you are, your kids are going to need therapy, man.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The home video edition is entitled Crank 2: High Voltage although the theatrical release didn’t have a number in the title.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Blu-Ray has a Crank’d Out Bonus View mode featuring the cast and crew, as well as a featurette on the wrap party for the movie, something we rarely get to see.  

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Drag Me to Hell