The Gangster’s Daughter (Shaowu the Bad)


There’s nothing like a quiet dad-daughter meal.

(2017) Drama (Wild Dog Productions) Jack Kao, Ally Chiu, Ko Yu Luen, Stephanie Lin, Wu Min, Huang Jih Ping, Kao Meng Chieh, Ma Ru Feng. Directed by Mei-Juin Chen

We all lament lost opportunities. When those rare occasions come along that give us second chances, the smart thing to do is to grab them with both hands. The thing about second chances though is that they aren’t always easy.

Keigo (Kao) is a gangster in Taipei. It’s a life that garners him success and respect but costs him his marriage; eventually his wife and daughter Shaowu move to remote Kinmen Island, a county I Taiwan that is geographically closer to mainland China than it is to Taipei. The two women move in with Keigo’s former mother-in-law who has nothing but contempt for her ex son-in-law.

Years later Shaowu is a hard-to-handle teen. Her mother has passed away unexpectedly, leaving her with her grandmother as sole adult guardian. She has a brief meeting with her dad at her mom’s funeral but returns to school where bullies pull a mean prank on her best friend. Shaowu reacts by dumping a pail of manure on the head of her tormentor. Unfortunately, the boy is politically connected and grandma is forced to reluctantly call in Keigo to handle the situation. Realizing she can’t handle her granddaughter who has been expelled from school, she entreats Keigo to take her to Taipei.

Keigo mainly runs a karaoke club where his girlfriend Coco is hostess. At first, Shaowu has a hard time adjusting but soon she makes friends at her school and Keigo’s crew takes a liking to her, particularly Coco who acts like a surrogate mom. He begins to allow himself to dream that he can have a normal life with Shaowu, opening up a restaurant with her someday.However the idyllic family in the making is disturbed by two events; the return of Keigo’s boss from an extended trip to Thailand with plans on extending his interests into narcotics, and a feud between some of Keigo’s younger gang and a corrupt cop. When a shoot-out leaves two of his closest friends dead, Keigo knows he has to act, even if it will leave Shaowu an orphan. Shaowu for her part has strongly identified with her dad and yearns to take up his criminal career, something her dad definitely does not want for her. Something has to give.

This Taiwanese film was a big hit at the box office in Taiwan but has struggled to find an audience outside of where it was made, a troubling trend in Asian movies as of late. The movie recalls some of the great gangster movies of Hong Kong of the 90s with a certain reverence for the criminal lifestyle which many in Asia equate with true freedom. We rarely see Keigo doing anything criminal other than getting into an occasional bar fight and he takes a definite stand on selling drugs which most true gangsters wouldn’t hesitate to do.

Kao, who has been called “the Asian Al Pacino” has an engaging smile and a brooding demeanor. He’s not above losing his temper with his men or his daughter for that matter. He’s made a lot of mistakes in his life and he wears every one of them on his face. Most of all, he doesn’t want his daughter to follow in his footsteps and dissuades her at every opportunity. There is a soft side to him that comes out unexpectedly at times but when he need to be hard, he’s like iron.

Chiu and Kao have a very realistic relationship and the two have a chemistry that would be enviable in almost any film. The heart of the movie is the bond between the two and the veteran Kao and the ingénue Chiu bring it to life. Chiu is an expressive actress with a face that shows an array of emotions even when she isn’t doing much physically. She has a truly bright future as an actress and I hope more of her films make it to the States.

This isn’t what I’d call action-packed even though the title contains the word “gangster” but it isn’t typical of that genre. There are a few scenes that are violent but by and large the criminals are just chatting amongst themselves or chilling in the karaoke bar. There is the shoot-out we spoke about and a reckoning late in the movie but mostly, this is about a slice of life more than it is about a slice of death.

The acting can be a bit stiff for American tastes particularly early on in the film and the movie might be a little longer than American audiences can tolerate in a movie that is paced this slowly but it is certainly worth the patience to check out. The characters are richly drawn and there is a sweetness at the core of the film that I liked very much. This is certainly a film to hunt down and check out.

The New York Asian Film Festival is a wonderful event that exposes the cinema of Asia to an appreciative audience; I only wish that more non-Big Apple residents could experience some of these films, few of which will make it to neighborhood art houses let alone VOD. Hopefully a few of them will get some wider exposure somewhere down the line; otherwise interested viewers will have to do some digging to find an online service that specializes in streaming Asian films like Fandor and AsianCrush that might carry some of these fine films down the line.

REASONS TO GO: Kao and Chiu have a remarkable chemistry. Chiu is certainly a star in the making
REASONS TO STAY: The acting is a bit stiff in places. The film is drawn out a bit too much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mei-Juin Chen is best known for her documentaries; this is her first stab at a narrative feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Look & See:A Portrait of Wendell Berry

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Megan Leavey


Megan and Rex are on the job.

(2017) True Life War Drama (Bleecker Street) Kate Mara, Tom Felton, Bradley Whitford, Geraldine James, Common, Edie Falco, Will Patton, Ramon Rodriguez, Shannon Tarbet, Miguel Gomez, Jonathan Howard, George Webster, Corey Johnson, Sam Keeley, Catherine Dyer, Melina Matthews, Jonah Bowling, Parker Sawyers, Victoria Budkey. Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

 

We all know who man’s best friend is; the loyal and beloved canine. Dogs not only act as companions when we get home from work, they also work with us as service dogs, drug sniffing dogs and in the military, bomb-sniffing dogs. Their sensitive noses can detect things the human nose can’t.

If you told this to Megan Leavey (Mara) back in 2000, she likely wouldn’t have cared. Adrift in a fog of alcohol and grief for her childhood best friend who had recently passed away due to a drug overdose, she lives with her mother (Falco) who cheated on Megan’s dad Bob (Whitford) with his former best friend (Patton), a chronically unemployed drunk whom Megan is well on the way to emulating. Directionless, she decides to join the Marines mainly to get out of a town that she sees no future for herself in.

As anyone who has been in the military will tell you, your problems follow you into the armed forces after you enlist. Megan gets wasted while off-duty and does something unmentionable, getting her in hot water again. As punishment, she is sent to clean out the dog kennels where the dogs who are being trained to sniff out bombs are being trained with their handlers.

Megan has trouble relating to people but for some reason the relationship between the handlers and their dogs – personified by Andrew Dean (Felton), a legend in the Corps and an unusually compassionate guy who helps Megan find her way. After pestering Gunny (Common), the commander of the K9 training unit, to get accepted into the K9 unit, she is finally given a dog to train – Rex, a German Shepherd who has bitten his former trainer hard enough to break his arm. Rex is aggressive, impulsive and difficult to control; like Megan I suppose it could be said he has trouble relating to people. The two outsiders slowly bond and eventually get shipped out to Iraq.

Megan, a tiny woman, gets little respect from her fellow handlers and from the soldiers whose lives she is to protect; the Marines is about as patriarchal an organization as you’re likely to find but Megan and Rex become very proficient at what they do, saving hundreds of lives before one mission in which….well, you’re going to have to watch the movie to find out.

Some time passes and Megan has been discharged from the Corps, returning to civilian life and once again she’s having difficulty relating to people. However this time she is coping with PTSD, understandable considering the high-stress job she did for the Corps overseas. She has pushed just about everyone in her life away from her, including Matt Morales (Rodriguez), a fellow handler whom she had been developing a relationship with in the Corps. Only her dad Bob remains and when a cause she can believe in is given to her, with her dad’s gentle prodding Megan steps back into life and fights as hard as she did not only in Iraq but to get to Iraq.

In many ways, this is like a Hollywood movie – and of course, it is a Hollywood movie – but the story is based on actual events. There is a real Megan Leavey (she appears in pictures during the end credits) and a real Rex. I don’t know if Mara captured the real Megan Leavey but she delivers a well-rounded performance that while not exceptional is enough to carry the movie nicely. Mara sometimes gets overshadowed by her sister Rooney but she’s a very talented actress in her own right who just needs the right role to really break out into the next level. This isn’t it but hopefully it will lead her to roles that can get her there.

Common is rapidly going from rapper slash actor to actor slash rapper; he channels Louis Gossett Jr. a little too much here (see An Officer and a Gentleman) but if I was going to have any actor channel Gossett, it would be Common. He has the military bearing to carry the role off; it surprises me somewhat that he didn’t have military experience himself or come from a military family. Just good acting I suppose but that tells me that the rapper is more than just a handsome guy who can rap; he is likely to have some terrific possibly Oscar-worthy performances in his future.

The best parts of the movie take place in Iraq; there is a great deal of tension throughout those sequences and even in the down time between missions we can see Megan opening up to Morales and letting him in. Before that however, the movie drags quite a bit; it feels like we’re waiting for something to happen but the filmmakers first have to go through the motion of getting us from point A to point B with stops at A.1, A.2, A.3 etc. etc. It’s a little too extended for my taste and I wish they could have condensed that part of the movie somewhat.

Cowperthwaite is best known for her documentary Blackfish which is also animal-centric. I’m a dog person so it was easy for me to get hooked on this movie; fellow dog lovers will also have the same ease in getting into the film. Film buffs might find this a bit overly sentimental but I suppose it can’t be helped; the subject matter revolves around the bond between Marine and dog and the reliance each has upon the other. It’s a strong message and while I don’t think that this movie necessarily presented it in the strongest light, it does a good enough job that make it worth seeking out among all the big budget summer blockbusters that dominate the cinematic landscape this time of year.

REASONS TO GO: The in-country sequences are the best in the film. The dogs are terrific.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is pure Hollywood (in a negative way). Too much time is spent waiting for things to happen; much of the training sequences could have been lopped off.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some war violence, profanity, a little bit of sensuality and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Mara and the real Megan Leavey grew up in the suburbs of New York City.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 65/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Max
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: The Most Hated Woman in America

Chuck (2017)


Liev Schreiber gets ready to take on the role of Chuck Wepner.

(2017) Sports Biography (IFC) Liev Schreiber, Elisabeth Moss, Naomi Watts, Ron Perlman, Michael Rapaport, Jim Gaffigan, Pooch Hall, Jason Jones, Morgan Spector, Sadie Sink, Zina Wilde, Catherine Corcoran, Wass Stevens, Angela Marie Ray, Liz Celeste, Ivan Martin, Joe Starr, Jen Ponton, William Hill, Mark Borkowski, Marell Miniutti, Leslie Lyles, Megan Sikora. Directed by Phillippe Falardeau

 

America loves an underdog and perhaps there’s been no bigger underdog in U.S. boxing history than Chuck Wepner. A journeyman heavyweight in the 1970s based in Bayonne, New Jersey, he’d had a decent enough career, winning the Jersey State Heavyweight Championship but had never really fought any of the big dogs of the era – until 1975.

Wepner (Schreiber) has a certain amount of local fame as he is treated like he’d won the heavyweight championship of the world. Of course, admiration doesn’t put food on the table so he runs a liquor route to make ends meet. His wife Phyliss (Moss) endures the boxing in which he takes terrible beatings but Chuck tends to have a wandering eye – and the other body parts unfortunately wander as well. The marriage is most definitely sailing through rough waters and while Chuck is devoted to his daughter Kimberly (Sink) his ego tends to get in the way of making smart choices.

After Ali (Hall) wins the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman, his manager Don King invites Wepner to fight for the championship against Ali, then just a little past his prime. The match is expected to be a joke but Wepner gives Ali everything he can handle, coming just 18 seconds away from going the distance until Ali, angered that Wepner had knocked him down, pummeled him into a technical knockout. Still, Wepner became a folk hero.

A young out-of-work actor named Sylvester Stallone (Spector) sees the fight and is inspired to write a character based on Wepner – Stallone names him Rocky Balboa. The rest is history and although Wepner has nothing to do with the movie itself, he feels a sense of accomplishment when the movie wins multiple Oscars as if he had been responsible. He starts billing himself as “The Real Rocky.”

But all the accolades and adulation get Chuck’s ego spiraling out of control and he spends the Disco Decade in debauchery, doing drugs, drinking heavily and partying with women. Having had enough, Phyliss leaves him for good and Chuck sinks into a deep depression fueled by drugs and alcohol. Standing by him is his estranged brother John (Rapaport), his best friend (Gaffigan), his longtime manager (Perlman) and a barmaid named Linda (Watts) who is unimpressed with Chuck’s fame. Will it be enough to get him back on the straight and narrow?

Because the stories are so similar, the first part of the film comes off as kind of a Rocky Lite which may or may not be what the filmmakers intended. Then, in a sense, it all goes off the rails as Wepner gets lost in the trappings of fame, 70s style – discos, tons of drugs, tons of sex. It turns into a cautionary tale at that point which is diametrically different to the underdog story that it began as.

One of the things that really caught my attention is that Falardeau accomplishes either digitally or by using film stock the look of era movies which helps keep you right in the 70s. The trappings of the time – the truly obnoxious hair, the boxy cars, the outlandish clothes and the pulse of disco – further set the tone.

Schreiber of late has gotten notoriety for playing the Hollywood fixer Ray Donovan on Showtime and I can’t help but notice that while both Donovan and Wepner are violent men, Donovan is clever and street smart while Wepner is easily swayed by praise. Wepner has an ego which makes some sense since he came from a background in which his ego along with his body took a pounding. When everybody loves you, it’s hard not to love yourself.

While there is some humor to the movie it falls flat in that regard a little more often than I would have liked. The humor is a bit heavy-handed and the movie would have benefited from a lighter tone overall. As for the story, some of you might be aware of Wepner’s history but most people won’t; still, the story is a bit predictable even though it is based on Wepner’s life. Hollywood has had lots of Wepners in its history.

As boxing movies go, this one isn’t going to make any grand changes to the genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. It’s entertaining enough and for those who are wary of the big summer blockbusters that are taking up most of the screens in the local multiplex, this makes a very entertaining counter option.

REASONS TO GO: The movie was shot to look like it was filmed in the 70s which enhances the sense of era.  Schreiber is appealing as Wepner in a Ray Donovan-esque way.
REASONS TO STAY: The filmmaker needed a lighter touch here. Overall the film is inoffensive but predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of profanity, plenty of drug use, some sexuality and nudity, a lot of boxing violence and a few bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled The Bleeder in reference to Wepner’s boxing nickname “The Bayonne Bleeder.” Wepner claims the title changed due to it sounding like a horror film but it is also well-known that he detested the nickname.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/26/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ali
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Power Rangers

Robert Klein Still Can’t Stop His Leg


Two giants of stand-up comedy reunited.

(2016) Documentary/Comedy (Weinstein) Robert Klein, Fred Willard, Mike Binder, Bill Maher, Jon Stewart, David Steinberg, Budd Friedman, Jerry Seinfeld, Richard Lewis, Larry Miller, Sheila Levine, Myrna Jacobson, Billy Crystal, Rick Overton, Lucie Arnaz, James Burrows, Allie Klein, Robert Mankoff, Jay Leno, Eric Bogosian, Michael Fuchs, Ray Romano, Bob Stein, Melanie Roy Friedman  Directed by Marshall Fine

 

When I was in high school (and I realize this dates me tremendously) there were three names that dominated stand-up comedy; George Carlin, Richard Pryor and Robert Klein. The first two became legends, cultural icons. The third became more of an influence on other stand-ups than he did a household name, although anyone who has seen any of his numerous HBO stand-up specials will attest to the man’s genius in the field.

Film critic and historian Marshall Fine has put together this loving tribute to Klein who quite frankly deserves to be feted. The documentary is very loosely structured with a number of chapters looking at aspects of Klein’s career and comedy. This does have the effect of leaping around chronologically which is fine but it also feels at times like there is no flow to what’s going on, which may well be an appropriate measure. He talks about his history somewhat; growing up in the Bronx (as in most retrospectives Klein visits his childhood home on Decatur Avenue), his time honing his craft in both Second City and at the Improv in Los Angeles, spending time being mentored by Rodney Dangerfield, his marriage to opera singer Belinda  Boozer and so on and so forth.

He also talks about why Jews seem to dominate the stand-up market, the use of profanity in his act and adjusting to the times. He imparts some of his experience to students at Binghamton University and endures squealing little girls who see the camera and exult in being in a movie – without having a clue of who Klein is (some of him recognize him from How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days).

Fine obviously feels a great affection for his subject and we don’t get a sense that Klein is anything but a nice guy. His divorce is given little coverage and although it appears that there was some acrimony between them, the causes and effects of the split on the couple are given little play. Boozer is conspicuously not interviewed for the film.

Of course, I’m a warts and all kind of guy and I want to get to know the man behind the laughs but that isn’t what this film is after and if you’re okay with that, you’ll be okay with this. There are a lot of wonderful clips here, including some of Klein’s signature songs like “The Colonoscopy Song” and “I Can’t Stop My Leg” from which the title of the documentary is taken. This is a pleasant diversion, a career retrospective for a performer who is as sharp at 75 as he was at 25 and continues to make us laugh today. There are fewer summations of a career that could possibly be better than that.

REASONS TO GO: The film makes a good case for Klein’s place in comedy history.
REASONS TO STAY: The film is a bit of a mishmash.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Klein was nominated for a Tony award for his role in the musical They’re Playing Our Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Starz
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/2/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lenny Bruce: Swear to Tell the Truth
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: From War to Wisdom

Elle


Michelle takes her solace where she can find it.

Michelle takes her solace where she can find it.

(2016) Thriller (Sony Classics) Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Charles Berling, Virginie Efira, Judith Magre, Christian Berkel, Jonas Bloquet, Alice Isaaz, Vimala Pons, Raphaél Lenglet, Arthur Mazet, Lucas Prisor, Hugo Ponzelmann, Stéphane Bak, Hugues Martel, Anne Loiret, Nicolas Beaucaire, David Colombo-Léotard, Loic Legendre, Eric Savin, Olivia Gotanégre. Directed by Paul Verhoeven

 

There are traumatic events in our life that shape us as people – sometimes making us stronger, sometimes making us more vulnerable. If there is something that truly defines us, it is how we react to those kinds of traumas.

As the movie begins, we witness the brutal and savage rape of Michelle (Huppert), the often prickly co-owner of a videogame company in France. When the masked assailant is done, he leaves her to literally pick up the pieces (of broken glass) and wash away (literally) the stains of her ordeal. She seems numb to it all, then goes about life as if nothing had happened – indeed until she mentions that she was raped almost casually at a dinner party, she tells nobody about the event, not even her son (Bloquet) who has a pregnant girlfriend (Isaaz) who is shrewish and almost psychotic.

Michelle begins to suspect that the person who raped her is someone employed by her, so she has one of the few people she trusts quietly hack into her male employees’ home computers to see what they’re up to. In the meantime we discover that Michelle has let her ex-husband Richard (Berling) know that she disapproves of his new choice of wives and her mother (Magre) her choice of boyfriends. As she is being judgmental she is carrying on an extramarital affair with Robert (Berkel), husband of her best friend (Consigny) and the company’s co-owner. She is also attracted to Patrick (Lafitte), the very married new neighbor across the street.

But she is receiving menacing texts apparently from the man who raped her and when he returns for a follow-up visit, she is strangely aroused. Now it has become a full-blown obsession – but who is the man responsible? And as Michelle begins to grow colder to those who work with her and who are her friends and family, inevitably something is going to have to give.

Huppert’s performance has already netted her a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Drama as well as an Oscar nomination for Best Actress and let me tell you right off the bat that she has earned all of that. This is a searing performance that can be hard to watch – Michelle has all sorts of issues and not all of them are pretty – but at the same time one you can’t look away from. Huppert, a French sex symbol for decades has in her 60s become one of the Grand Dames of French cinema and this is perhaps her best performance ever. It is layered almost in ways that make her seem like she has multiple personalities; sometimes vulnerable, sometimes cold as ice, sometimes hot as lava, sometimes aggressive, sometimes bitchy and sometimes tender but always fascinating.

The veteran cast behind her excels particular Consigny (who I think is one of the most underrated actresses in France) and Lafitte whose character is not all he appears to be. Most of the characters here share that quality.

As thrillers go, there are moments here that are absolutely wrenching but this is by no means an “edge of the seat” affair and in many ways this is more of a slow burn than an intense flame. There are some twists as you might expect and as you also might expect they are not what you’d get from a Hollywood thriller which is quite pleasant particularly for veteran cinemaphiles who rarely get surprised with the genre anymore.

The rape sequences spare nothing as those who have followed Verhoeven’s career might expect. Verhoeven has a history of sexual explicitness in his films and the rape scenes here are no different. They are graphic and brutal and those who have survived sexual assaults or are sensitive to them in any other way should think really hard before seeing this as it might prove to be a trigger. Seriously, it is not for the faint of heart and not for those who are thin of skin. Take that warning seriously.

This is definitely Huppert’s show however and the big reason to see it is her. It is a triumphant performance for a woman who has had a distinguished career although here in the States she has not received the recognition she is due. Although she is up against some strong competition, she does have a strong chance at winning the statuette and that can only be justice for a career that deserves more attention that has been received from American audiences.

REASONS TO GO: An intense and riveting performance by Huppert. Several twists and turns that are unexpected and welcome.
REASONS TO STAY: The sexual assault scenes may be too disturbing, particular for survivors of sexual assault.
FAMILY VALUES: There are several graphic sexual assaults, some disturbing sexual scenes, gruesome images, nudity and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film was originally to be an American production, but Verhoeven was unable to find a lead actress willing to do the role. Huppert got a hold of the script and contacted the producers expressing her interest and even suggested that Verhoeven direct the film, unaware that he was already attached to it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/4/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews. Metacritic: 89/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Accused
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: The Autopsy of Jane Doe

Vacancy


This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

This is not the kind of room service you want in a motel.

(2007) Horror (Screen Gems) Kate Beckinsale, Luke Wilson, Frank Whaley, Ethan Embry, Scott G. Anderson, Mark Casella, David Doty, Caryn Mower, Meegan E. Godfrey, Kym Stys, Andrew Fiscella, Norm Compton, Ernie Misko, Bryan Ross, Chevron Hicks, Kevin Dunigan, Chuck Lamb, Richie Varga, Cary Wayne Moore, Dale Waddington Horowitz. Directed by Nimrod Atal

 

We take hotels for granted. We check in and go to sleep, completely vulnerable. We don’t know who is at the front desk, or what sort of people they are. They have access to our rooms, could enter while we’re sleeping and do God knows what to us and we wouldn’t know it was happening until it was too late.

David (Wilson) and Amy (Beckinsale) Fox are already having a bad night. Their marriage is already sinking into a morass of self-recrimination, self-medication and naked hostility following the tragic death of their son. On their way to a family function, David decides to take a shortcut off the interstate and is soon hopelessly loss. His navigator Amy is in a Xanax-induced snooze bordering on a coma, awakening to find one more reason to bicker.

A raccoon in the middle of the road causes David to swerve and crash. Nobody is hurt, not even the raccoon, but the car is barely drivable. They limp into a gas station that is anything but all-night. A friendly mechanic (Embry) tries to help them, telling them there might be a mechanic on duty in a town down the road, but their car has other ideas. They only make a few miles before their car expires of plot contrivance.

The bickering couple hoofs it back to the gas station, but the friendly mechanic is gone for the night. However, the fleabag hotel next door is open for business. The smarmy night clerk (Whaley) gives them a room with a view – of the parking lot. Hey, it’s the honeymoon suite. At first, David and Amy are not thrilled about spending a night in the same bed. After seeing the stains on the bed and the bugs in the bathroom, they aren’t thrilled about spending a night in THIS bed. Resigned to a terrible night, David puts on a videotape in the high-tech VCR on the TV which you half-expect to find rabbit ears on.

They see what appears to be a cheap horror movie of half-nude women being raped and slashed to pieces by masked killers. Then David notices something familiar about the scene. The bedspread looks an awful lot like the one in the flea-bitten room they are staying in. So do the curtains. Disquieted, David puts another cassette in and discovers it to be much the same thing – a couple being horribly murdered in a room not unlike their own. That’s when Amy makes the startling realization that it is their room. Their every move is being watched through a series of hidden cameras placed throughout the room. The sound of insistent knocking on their door signals the beginning of a night of terror in which the odds are stacked against them as a trio of killers comes after them to make the next episode in their snuff film series. Will David and Amy be able to survive the night, or will some other unfortunate traveler see their tape in that broken-down motel room?

Luke Wilson has been charming in a great number of better movies, but he is a bit flat as a slasher film hero. It’s not for lack of effort, however; he just seems a bit stifled. Beckinsale, from the Underworld movies, is gorgeous and resourceful. She makes the perfect heroine for this kind of movie, although her character’s bitchy moments make it difficult to root for her survival. Whaley is appropriately creepy, and most of the other characters are either meat for the grinder, or the ones doing the grinding.

Director Atal made his English language debut. He made the impressive Kontroll a few years back and his visual style seems tailor made for Hollywood. His seedy hotel is really seedy and claustrophobic. Paul Haslinger’s score is Horror Film Music 101, but at least it isn’t intrusive. Beckinsale is very pleasing to look at, and there are a few genuine scares. There is almost a Jim Thompson quality to the motel and the night clerk working there. The action sequences are pulled off nicely.

The stranded travelers are a hoary old premise for terror flicks going back to the earliest days of the movies and Vacancy doesn’t contribute anything particularly new or exciting to the genre. Wilson isn’t a terribly convincing hero; you keep waiting for a punchline that is never delivered.

As horror movies go, this one is about average. Beckinsale is easy on the eyes and as mentioned above, there are some pretty decent scare sequences. However, I wound up with a feeling I’d seen it all before, and better. If you haven’t seen a lot of horror movies and you want to see this one, you might not mind the clichés that are thrown at you like a water buffalo to the face, but otherwise this is merely a diversion.

WHY RENT THIS: Some pretty good scares can be found here. Beckinsale is a resourceful slasher film heroine.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The plot is pretty mundane. Wilson is a bit lackluster as the slasher film hero.
FAMILY MATTERS: The snuff film sequences are graphic and disturbing. There is also a great deal of violence, and a fair amount of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was shot on the same soundstage as The Wizard of Oz was.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The DVD edition has an alternate ending; the Blu-Ray contains this and an alternate opening as well as a compilation of all the snuff footage in one feature if you’re of a mind to watch that.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $35.3M on a $19M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD/Blu-Ray only), iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, Google Play, Fandango Now, Crackle, YouTube
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Strangers
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Moana

Nocturnal Animals


It isn't always ghosts that haunt us.

It isn’t always ghosts that haunt us.

(2016) Thriller (Focus) Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Karl Glusman, Robert Aramayo, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, India Menuez, Imogen Waterhouse, Franco Vega, Zawe Ashton, Evie Pree, Beth Ditto, Graham Beckel, Neil Jackson, Jena Malone. Directed by Tom Ford

 

Regret follows us through life like the shadow of a hawk paces a wounded groundhog. The road not taken sometimes is the road we should have taken – but once we make that turn, that off-ramp is gone for good.

Susan Morrow (Adams) is the curator of an art gallery who has just opened a new installation, involving overweight, middle-aged naked women dancing suggestively in pom-pom and drum majorette outfits. It has brought out all of the shallow, self-involved, condescending L.A. art whores. In other words, it’s a great big success.

Not so successful is her current marriage to Hutton Morrow (Hammer), a venture capitalist whose venture has overwhelmed his capital. The failing business has put an intense strain on the marriage, for which hubby compensates for by fooling around. Men!

Out of the blue, Susan gets a manuscript from her first husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal) whom she had surmised was teaching college and had given up on the writing career that had attracted her to him in the first place. Their break-up was about as brutal as the end of a relationship can get. Now he has written a novel and dedicated to her, claiming in a note that she inspired him to write this – even though their marriage ended nearly twenty years earlier and they hadn’t spoken since.

As she reads the manuscript, she is oddly affected by it. It is a brutal story of a somewhat mousy man named Tony Hastings (Gyllenhaal) driving down a dark deserted Texas road with his wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) when a quartet of Texas rednecks run them off the road. They finagle the wife and daughter into his car after repairing the flat tire on it and drive off with her; Lou (Glusman) drives Tony off into the desert and leaves him there. Later on Lou returns with the gang’s leader Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson) who try to entice Tony back but he hides in terror. They drive away.

Tony makes it back to civilization and calls the cops. The laconic Texas Ranger-type detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) takes over the case. Eventually they find the nude corpses of his wife and daughter, dumped near where they had dropped off Tony. Andes promises that they will get the guys who did this.

As the years go on, the dogged Andes eventually figures out who done it but Andes has a bit of a time sensitivity going on – he is dying of cancer. It is unlikely that based on the fairly flimsy evidence that they have that Ray Marcus and his gang will ever be brought to justice. That leaves revenge, but does the weak Tony have the stomach for it?

There are three distinct stories here – the novel, which takes up most of the movie and is a kind of Texas noir; Susan’s current story in which her life is filled with disappointment, regret and sadness, and the back story of Edward and Susan – how they met and how they broke up. All three tales are put together into a cohesive whole and show that Ford, who is better known as a fashion icon, is also a marvelous storyteller.

This is not an easy role for Amy Adams, who is so lacquered up with make-up that she almost looks like art herself. It isn’t one of the most emotionally forthcoming performances of her career, which makes it all the more impressive; she does an awful lot with an awful little here. Gyllenhaal continues to make a case for himself as being one of the most distinguished actors of our time. There is a great deal of nuance in his performance; his character is perceived as weak but he isn’t in the traditional sense. There is a strength that comes through particularly later in the film.

There are also some stellar supporting performances. Shannon as the crusty detective is all tumbleweeds and BBQ brisket as the Southwestern law man, while Laura Linney is virtually unrecognizable as Susan’s patrician snob of a mom. Both of them dominate the screen when they are on, Linney unfortunately for merely a single scene.

The ending is deliberately vague and will leave you with a WTF expression on your face. My wife and I had decidedly different reactions; she loved it and thought it perfectly suited the movie. I felt that it was inconsistent with how the character behaved and felt petty and vindictive. I also had problems with the opening credits that played lovingly on the nude women; it felt exploitative to me.

Ford, who made his Oscar-winning debut with A Single Man may need to dust off his tux again come February but this is less of a slam dunk than his first film. I think that there is a possibility that there will be some Oscar consideration here, but there is some heavy competition coming its way despite this having been a fairly down year for Oscar-quality films. How the Academy reacts remains to be seen, but this is definitely a must-see for those who want to make sure they get an opportunity to see every film that is likely to get a nomination.

REASONS TO GO: Ford deftly weaves three different stories together. The film boasts fine performances from top to bottom.
REASONS TO STAY: The opening scene and ending are absolute deal-killers.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, graphic nudity, a pair of offscreen rape-murders, menace and salty language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Focus paid $20 million for the distribution rights for the film at Cannes, the highest ever paid for any film at any festival to date.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Words
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Stagecoach: The Story of Texas Jack