Deadly Virtues: Love. Honour. Obey.


Megan Maczko is all tied up at the moment.

Megan Maczko is all tied up at the moment.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Megan Maczko, Edward Akrout, Matt Barber, Helen Bradbury, Sadie Frost, Nathan Gambrill, Adam Patel, Andy Davie, Paul Rogers. Directed by Ate de Jong

 

The true test of a marriage is what occurs behind closed doors. What a couple presents to the world – and it is almost always that of harmonious domestic bliss – isn’t necessarily what is going on when the two are alone.

It’s a Friday night in a quiet English suburb and Tom (Barber) and his wife Alison (Maczko) are doing what a lot of couples do on Friday night – indulge in some mildly kinky sex. They are interrupted by an intruder (Akrout) with a European accent who asks drolly if he can join in. He clubs Tom into unconsciousness and leaves Alison as she was – a little bit tied up.

Tom is left in the bathroom with an elaborate shibari-style series of knots leaving his fingers extended and the rest of him immobilized in the tub. Tom is gagged as is Alison who is in the kitchen in a very uncomfortable looking position hanging by her arms with one leg nearly bent double. Her discomfort is likely less pressing when she considers her situation; her and her husband are under the complete control of a stranger whose motives have yet to be determined.

As the weekend goes by, Tom is tortured by the stranger in increasingly violent ways, usually as punishment for something Alison did or failed to do. Also as Saturday becomes Sunday, we see an unexpectedly tender side to their tormentor and we find out that both Alison and Tom have secrets that give lie to their image as a happy loving couple and hint at darker things in their characters.

The movie is definitely very dark in tone and not for the squeamish; the torture scenes are certainly squirm-inducing and the sexuality of the characters are handled in a frank no-nonsense manner. The filmmakers don’t shy away from delicate subject matter in the slightest. But as home invasion movies go, this one isn’t quite Brand X. Things don’t happen in ways you would expect and just when you think this is going to be Torture Porn: The Home Edition, things change. That change might be a bit jarring for some but in all honesty I found that it came rather organically.

The performances are pretty solid, although I think Barber was a bit shrill at times although as his character is further revealed, maybe shrill was the way to go. Most of the movie revolves around the dynamic between the stranger and Alison and both Maczko and Akrout acquit themselves well, giving nuance to both characters. Maczko in particularly is impressive; Alison has deadened herself emotionally after years of life with Tom and as more of what that life entailed is revealed we find out why she seems so closed-off. It is masterfully done and when the climax comes, Alison’s actions while a bit startling are nonetheless understandable.

As a matter of fact, the third act of the movie is where most of my criticisms can be found; in a movie that had up to that point shown subtlety and restraint in the build-up in those crucial final scenes seems to lose complete control of itself, particularly in terms of length. I got a sense that there was a lot of padding added to the end as much of what happens is somewhat repetitious to what we’ve already discovered.

I’m not sure what to think of the musical score. It’s almost more suited to a romantic drama than a thriller but given what the stranger wants to create with Alison there is some merit to that approach. Still, my issue is that I was made aware of the score and that’s almost never a good thing but I think if I saw this movie a second time, I’d probably be more forgiving about that.

The movie has generated some controversy in England where there were complaints about its treatment of women as well as its portrayal of the BDSM element. I do think that there is an element of politically correct hysteria to the outrage but it also should be noted that this movie definitely has the ability to trigger sexual abuse survivors from all sorts of angles and those who are easily triggered should probably not see this and those who are not should be aware that the potential is there.

Otherwise this is a solid movie that examines domestic abuse from different aspects and it does so in a clever way that is thought-provoking and only a little bit prurient, although hardcore feminists might disagree with the latter. I think in many ways that we have way too many hang-ups in the discussion of sex that often interferes with our dealing with it in a rational and positive way. This is a movie that attempts to do that and it should be lauded for at least trying.

REASONS TO GO: A very sobering look at sexuality and domestic abuse within a marriage. Maczko and Akrout both give compelling performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Barber gets a little shrill at times. The third act feels a little bit padded.
FAMILY VALUES:  The violence on display here is sadistic and sometimes gruesome; there is also some brief nudity, sexual situations and plenty of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  De Jong is best known in America for his family film Drop Dead Fred which is about as far in tone as two films by the same filmmaker can get.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Funny Games
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Hidden Figures

Best and Most Beautiful Things


Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

Michelle Smith takes a dip into deep waters.

(2016) Documentary (First Run) Michelle Smith, Julie Smith, Mike Smith, Jeff Migliozzi, Michael Roche, Jaimi Lard, Carolyn Assa, Lois Spencer, Marilyn Rea Beyer, Noell Dorsey, Bill Appel, Carmen Harris, Michael Smith, Rachel Wetschensky, Christina Alexandra Varos, Kori Feener, Seth Horowitz, Keiran Watson Bonnice, Marina Bedny, Jan Seymour-Ford, Cara Pelletier, Pamela Ryan. Directed by Garrett Zevgetis

Florida Film Festival 2016

What is normal? We all think we have kind of a take on it but the truth is normal is whatever you decide it is. “Normal” is a word that has a nearly infinite range and hides a variety of sins – unless, of course, you think that sinning is normal. And who said that it’s a sin anyway?

Michelle Smith lives in Bangor, Maine and she was given a pretty stacked deck against her. She is legally blind; she can see but only essentially when she’s nose-to-nose with the subject, and she also has Asperger’s syndrome, a high-functioning variety of autism. Her mind can lock on a subject and fixate on it to almost the exclusion of all else. It can also make her a bit of a handful from time to time, over and above most teens.

Although she’s presently in her 20s, the documentary covers a period from her senior year at the Perkins School for the Blind, a high school in Watertown, MA until shortly after graduation. Michelle is a bright and outgoing sort who has like most Asperger’s sufferers difficulties with social interactions. She also knows that unemployment amongst the blind is right around 75%. With school and its structured environment coming to a close, she yearns to be independent, free to develop as an individual and as a woman. That’s hard to do when you live with your mom.

Her mom, Julie, is divorced from Michelle’s dad, Mike. The two seem cordial enough to one another but on-camera there’s a fair amount of bitterness and the divorce is described as “contentious.” There is also a tragedy in the family’s past that no doubt put additional strain on the marriage. Julie and Mike are both supportive – Julie also has a boyfriend who is a bit stricter than Mike was – but both are worried about their daughter who sometimes can’t see the big picture.

An offer for an internship with someone who worked on the Rugrats show in Los Angeles sends Michelle spinning to the moon; it would be perfect if it worked out. Maybe she could become a famous voice actress! The expectations are dialed up to eleven which happens to all of us in such situations, particularly when we lack the life experiences to take a narrow-eyed view of such things. We tend to take for granted that we can make things work no matter what the opportunity; that’s not always the case for the disabled. It’s heartbreaking to watch her dream fall apart, even though she handles it strikingly well on-camera.

Michelle is a bit of a nerd; she’s into anime and Darla and collects dolls. She flies her flag proudly as she displays her dolls in her room in a certain order. It almost seems like a logical progression when she gets into the BDSM scene (which stands for Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for those unfamiliar with the term) and finds a boyfriend who is also part of that kink. They adopt a dominant/submissive relationship as well as a Daddy/Little Girl relationship may come off a bit odd since they are both so young but it is a thing. Like most young dominants the boyfriend comes off as a bit self-aggrandizing but they seem genuinely fond of each other and Michelle is delighted when she receives a flogger as a Christmas gift. However, her new sexual activities lead to some awkward moments for her parents as well as the audience.

Zevgetis makes an effort to give us an idea of what Michelle sees by focusing the camera in an almost super near-sighted setting from time to time; he does it a little too often for my taste as I was actually nauseous after the third time he went to that setting. However, the snowflakes falling down from the sky at the camera were admittedly a pretty cool shot.

One question that should confront the viewer of any documentary is “Why was this documentary necessary?” It’s a very good question; documentaries are flourishing these days and while there are many that are informative and/or provocative, sometimes the answer is “It isn’t.” I’m not 100% certain that Michelle Smith has a life that is required viewing, but she’s compelling a subject enough that you may be captivated (as when she proclaims at her graduation “The world will be my burrito!”) and perhaps even find some insight into your own life.  Good documentaries will do that. I’m just not sure that every life will benefit from a glimpse at Michelle Smith’s life to help define their own normal. Yours might; results will vary, but whatever the outcome, it surely isn’t a bad thing to see life through another person’s eyes.

REASONS TO GO: Michelle Smith is a fascinating personality. This isn’t just a look at one girl but a look at what surrounds her.
REASONS TO STAY: The audience becomes more voyeurs than observers. Some of the camera work, intending to show how Michelle sees the world, is unwelcome.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The Perkins School of the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts which Michelle attended also counts Helen Keller among their alumni.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aspie Seeks Love
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Inferno (2016)

The Brass Teapot


You ain't never had a friend like meeeeeeee!

You ain’t never had a friend like meeeeeeee!

(2012) Fantasy (Magnolia) Juno Temple, Michael Angarano, Alexis Bledel, Billy Magnussen, Alia Shawkat, Bobby Moynihan, Stephen Park, Debra Monk, Ben Rappaport, Lucy Walters, Jack McBrayer, Michael Delaney, Tara Copeland, Thomas Middleditch, Bob McClure, Rebecca Drake, Claudia Mason. Directed by Ramaa Mosley   

I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t had a wish-fulfillment dream – a dream where their most fondly imagined wishes are made to come true. Sometimes it comes in the form of a Lottery win, or of an inheritance – most of our actual real world dreams generally come with real world fulfillments. But then again, would anyone turn down a magic lamp….or teapot?

Alice (Temple) and John (Angarano) are a couple with more love than money. Alice is recently unemployed and John works at a crap job that he can’t stand – one in which he is hoping for a promotion from a boss who spouts meaningless aphorisms that motivate John not even a little bit.

They live hand to mouth and whenever the rent is late, which it is often, Alice must put up with the brutish come-ons of landlord Arnie (Magnussen). While driving to visit Alice’s parents, the two are involved in a car accident when they are t-boned at a rural intersection. While John sorts things out, Alice wanders into a neighboring antiques store and finds hidden away a teapot. Impulsively she decides to take it and as it turns out, their car was drivable so they drive away.

When John discovers what Alice has done, he is disgusted; “We’re already two steps above white trash as it is.” He doesn’t ask her to take it back however and the continue on to dinner where they get put down by both Alice’s parents, her sister (Monk) and brother-in-law (McBrayer) who are those smug conservative Christians that drive most liberals crazy.

The next day, John is back at work but not for long – he’s being laid off. Fortunately for him, Alice is finding out something about the teapot – anytime pain is experienced anywhere near it, the pot produces hundred dollar bills. Lots of them depending on the severity of the pain. She spends much of the afternoon beating herself up – literally – until John arrives. At first incredulous, he is soon motivated to join the party.

John knows they need the cash but he is concerned about the price to be paid and makes Alice agree that they won’t let this brass teapot take over their lives and when they’ve made enough, they’ll stop. She readily agrees.

They’re able to start buying new things but before long they receive a visit from a pair of Hassidic Jews who beat the crap out of John and steal the proceeds from the teapot. Apparently it was their mother whom Alice stole the teapot to and she’d recently passed away. Not long after that the two get a visit from Dr. Li Ling (Park), a patient Chinese expert on the teapot who warns them that the teapot can destroy them and that the only way to save themselves is to give it to them.

They have no intention of doing that however and continue to discover new things about the brass teapot, including that mental and emotional pain can trigger cash as can the pain of others. Soon they have enough to buy a mansion near new neighbor and former high school rival Payton (Bledel). However, things begin to take a turn for the worse. Arnie finds out about the Teapot. John becomes increasingly worried that Alice has become obsessed with it and won’t be able to give it up when the time comes. It sure looks like Dr. Ling’s worst prognostications are coming true.

This is Mosley’s first feature after a sterling music video career and it’s pretty solid. Writer Tim Macy has developed a pretty solid mythology behind the teapot which gives it a solid footing. I like the imaginative concept although the execution of it really didn’t utilize it properly. The equation of pain and wealth sounds on the surface like a commentary on our materialistic society.

Macy and Mosley don’t really do that though. Mostly this is a comedy of creative ways to hurt yourself which wears a little thin by the end of the movie. Fortunately, there’s a pretty solid cast to keep your attention even when the vignettes lose their luster. Temple, one of the most engaging up-and-coming actresses today, has a good comic timing, something I wasn’t aware she was known for. Angarano has made some missteps in his career but is slowly emerging as a talent of his own.

The important thing is that the chemistry between Temple and Angarano is genuine. The movie doesn’t work if you don’t sense the love between John and Alice but that emotion is clearly there. Even when they appear to be drifting apart there is still that connection – that’s why you continue to root for them even though they’ve done such disagreeable things. You also get that these are people made desperate by an economy that failed them.

The denouement is pretty interesting and doesn’t particularly come out of left field. I would have liked to have left this film with a bit more thought regarding the value of the pursuit of wealth and its effect on the human soul. The Brass Teapot doesn’t particularly add anything to that particular conversation, which is a bit of a shame but then again it doesn’t necessarily have to. As entertainment, the movie delivers which is really all you can truly ask of it but a little something extra would have been nice.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky sense of humor. Nice fantasy environment without a lot of special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit mean-spirited. Some of the self-inflicted pain is bit squirm inducing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Tim Macy also wrote the short story that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100; critics clearly didn’t like this film a whole lot.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aladdin

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Oblivion