Buster’s Mal Heart


Fear the beard.

(2016) Drama (Well Go USA) Rami Malek, DJ Qualls, Kate Lyn Sheil, Sukha Belle Potter, Toby Huss, Lin Shaye, Mark Kelly, Bruce Bundy, Teresa Yenque, Jared Larson, Sandra Ellis Lafferty, Nicholas Pryor, RJ Burns, Gabriel Clark, Lily Gladstone, Chris Toma, Shi Ne Nielson, Ricky Hartung, Tom Cordingley, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, Kate Berlant (voice), Jenny Leonhardt. Directed by Sarah Adina Smith

Florida-film-festival-2017

For most of us, there comes a time in our lives when we strongly suspect that there’s something terribly wrong with the system. I’m not talking about capitalism, communism or anything like that; I mean there’s something terribly wrong with the system of life. There’s a glitch in God’s software, in other words. A patch is sorely needed.

Jonah (Malek) is a concierge at a budget hotel in a Montana resort area. He works the graveyard shift, and although his title is fancy his job is not. He works the front desk and does all sorts of odd jobs around the hotel; throwing linens into an industrial laundry machine, putting dishes through a washer, fishing out slices of pizza from the hotel’s indoor swimming pool and vacuuming carpets endlessly. When he’s not doing these things, he’s bored almost to tears; religious programming plays on the TV set endlessly and on the hotel’s handball court he tosses a rubber ball in a desultory way at the wall.

At home, he plays with his daughter Roxy (Potter) and is affectionate with his wife Marty (Sheil) but is less friendly with her parents, particularly the venomous Pauline (Shaye) who is hypercritical of everything he does. It is, after all, her house they live in, Jonah pulling in a paltry sum from the hotel. He and Marty dream of one day owning their own parcel of land where they can bring up their daughter the way they want to. He has chronic insomnia, unable to sleep during the day.

One night a strange drifter (Qualls) comes into the hotel, looking for a room for the night. He has no identification and refuses to pay with anything but cash. Corporate policy requires ID and a credit card but Jonah lets him stay anyway. The two strike up a conversation and the drifter has some fairly interesting viewpoints. He is apparently a computer software engineer, trying to insure that Y2K won’t bring the world’s economy to a grinding halt. He also talks about an event called The Inversion, when life on Earth will be irrevocably changed and only a leap into the sphincter-like opening of a wormhole will save those who believe in the Inversion from annihilation. In Jonah’s sleep-deprived state, the ramblings of the drifter make a whole lot of sense; there is, after all, a bug in the system.

Buster (Malek) is the name locals use for a bearded mountain man who survives the harsh Montana winters by breaking into expensive vacation homes and living off the food stored therein. He makes incoherent calls to radio talk shows, babbling about an event called The Inversion. He is harmless, really; he meticulously cleans the homes he squats in and leaves them as he found them except for two quirky things; he turns the photographs hanging on the walls of the homes he stays in upside down and once in awhile, he takes a dump in a cooking pot and leaves it on the dining room table. He is clearly not operating with a full deck.

He is essentially harmless but the local Deputy Winston (Huss) has vowed to capture Buster despite the fact that he has never harmed a fly. However, when an elderly couple surprise Buster inside their home, he takes them hostage, treating them politely and even cooking them dinner but then locking them in a closet and refusing to speak to them. Things change rapidly after that.

A man (Malek) floats in a rowboat in the middle of a vast body of water There may or may not be another man with him; we can’t be sure. The man has a long and unkempt beard and hair. He gets his sustenance by fishing and from time to time rages at the heavens. He is tired of this life and of the pain and suffering and only wants to die.

These three – Jonah, Buster and the Man in the Boat – could all be the same man. Then again, they may not be although it is very likely that Jonah and Buster are indeed the same guy. If so, what happened to change Jonah from a rational, loving father and husband to a wild and unstable mountain man?

Second-time director Smith who also wrote the movie has come up with an interesting and somewhat cerebral quasi-science fiction outing that doesn’t always state its case clearly. Much of what is happening onscreen defies explanation and the audience is left to come up with their own answers which is a highly dangerous endeavor these days; most audiences would much rather have the answers handed to them.

Malek, the Emmy-winning star of Mr. Robot, takes on his first feature lead role and shows that he is not only capable of handling it but of shining while doing it. He reminds me strongly of a young John Malkovich both physically and in his performance. While the movie bounces around from time to time, Malek truly holds it together. He is never anything less than mesmerizing.

The movie is long on ideas but a bit short on developing them. There is a kind of vagueness although some things seem pretty clear; it’s just you need to connect the dots somewhat and that can be a bit tiring for those not used to it. The sense of things being not quite right is prevalent throughout the movie; it leads you to mistrust what you’re seeing onscreen and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Smith clearly takes the old saw of “the road not taken” literally to heart and we are left to wonder if the high road was necessarily the right one in this case. The grief of Buster doesn’t necessarily come to the forefront but it’s there and although we may not realize it at the time, we are watching the actions of a man in unimaginable pain. Whether or not that man is still sane – or even still human – is up to you to decide.

REASONS TO GO: You are definitely going to need your brain in full gear for this one. Malek is a natural lead actor.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be a bit too confusing for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are adult thematic elements, some violence and some foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Malek was already cast while the film was still in development before breaking out in Mr. Robot.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/21/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 72% positive reviews. Metacritic: 63/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Ghost in the Shell

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The Little Death


Pillow talk.

Pillow talk.

(2015) Romantic Comedy (Magnolia) Bojana Novakovic, Josh Lawson, Damon Herriman, Patrick Brammall, Ben Lawson, Tasmeen Roc, Erin James, Stephanie May, Lachy Hulme, T.J. Power, Lisa McCune, Kate Box, Kate Mulvany, Hiroshi Kasuga, Zoe Carides, Matt James, Darren Gallagher, Paul Gleeson, Kim Gyngell, Stephen James King, Alan Dukes, Genevieve Hegney. Directed by Josh Lawson

Florida Film Festival 2015

Romantic relationships are tricky, complicated things. There is so much going on, so many layers in play that it’s remarkable that any can survive. Intimacy is by nature an element of a romantic relationship, and there are so many different types of intimacy that mastering all of them is a feat that requires commitment and hard work.

This pleasant Aussie film features five couples in suburban Sydney dealing with a variety of relationship problems and sexual fetishes. Paul (J. Lawson) and Maeve (Novakovic) live together and seem happy enough, although there are those who frown in disapproval that the two seem to have no plans whatsoever to get married. One night, Maeve tells Paul that she would like him to rape her. Not as in, take her unwillingly but to make her think she’s getting raped – not tell her in advance when he was going to do it, wear a mask so that there could be some element of doubt .

Paul is somewhat taken aback but he truly loves Maeve and wants to make her happy. He makes a pretty decent attempt to rape her but she falls out of the mood when she smells his cologne. Eventually, he makes an elaborate attempt which goes quite wrong – although in the end she gets that he would do anything to make her happy, even that which goes outside his comfort zone. That one’s a keeper in case you were wondering, Maeve.

Dan (Herriman) and Evie (Mulvany) are having intimacy problems and are seeing a relationship counselor. He advises them to do a little role playing; get out of themselves and become other people. At first, it’s kind of a giggle but the two end up consummating and in a big way. Dan is inspired to do further role playing, even taking up acting classes. Soon, to Evie’s dismay, the role becomes more important to Dan than the play.

Rowena (Box) is trying to get pregnant and her husband Richard (Brammall) is giving it his all but after three years they’re still trying. The failure is beginning to get under Rowena’s skin and she sees a doctor about it, who advises her that orgasms can actually help with fertility. Shortly after that, Richard’s father has a heart attack and dies unexpectedly and her manly husband breaks down in tears for the first time in front of his wife. Rowena is quite moved by this – and quite aroused, to her surprise and delight. She finds that she can orgasm only with the use of tears but getting her husband to cry can be quite the challenge.

Phil (Dukes) is having problems sleeping. He wants some tenderness from his wife Maureen (McCune) but while she is a beautiful woman, she’s also a shrew and tends to belittle him every chance she gets. As for intimacy? Forget it! She’d rather get some sleep, so Phil doesn’t. He falls asleep at work and his boss (Hulme) warns him that if this continues, he will have no choice but to fire him. He gives his employee some not-strictly-legal sleeping aids. Phil often gets aroused at the sight of his sleeping wife; when she accidentally drinks a cup of tea in which he’d put the sleeping powder, he finds that he can make of her the perfect wife; cuddly, loving and affectionate. He is happy for the first time in a long time.

Finally, Monica (James) works as the interpreter at a video center which allows her to sign for deaf people who can’t hear the people on the other end of the phone. Ironically, she wears a hearing aid which has a nasty habit of going on the fritz at inopportune moments. In any case, one night she gets the assignment to translate a phone sex call for Sam (Power), a lonely insomniac graphic artist. Although Monica is uncomfortable with the graphic talk, she and Sam strike up a conversation afterwards and find that they have a good deal in common.

A thread running through the movie is Steve (Gyngell), a new neighbor in the same Sydney suburb who introduces himself with baked goods that are racially insensitive and are generally frowned upon in Australia these days although it does set off a sense of nostalgia in most of those who receive them. Steve then tells them that he is required by federal law to inform his neighbors that he is a convicted sex offender. The running joke is that nobody is paying attention to him when he says this, being either wrapped up in their own problems or in the hazy glow of nostalgia that comes from the golliwogs.

While sexual fetishism is used as kind of a linking device to each vignette, the truth is that this isn’t about sex so much as it is about relationships. Josh Lawson, a veteran Aussie actor, not only directed the movie – his first go-round in the director’s chair by the way – he also wrote it as well. One gets the sense that Lawson has a liking for irony because there’s a lot of it here; the couple that communicates the best is the deaf one, for example, while the most “normal” of the couples is the one trying to enact a rape role play.

Most of the couples have some sort of issue in their relationship, be it the aforementioned communication with each other (or lack thereof), or truthfulness within the relationship (or lack thereof). We watch at least one of the couples drift apart; we see another one, in which one member takes the other for granted, end up in a situation in which that won’t be an issue anymore.

The movie is funny in a breezy sort of way and while there is some uncomfortable sexuality, it isn’t necessarily raunchy in the way American sex comedies can be. Even though some might look upon this as a celebration of deviant behavior (and some critics have), what it really is at least to me is an expression of what it takes to make relationships work and how difficult that can be. The sex only appears to be the be-all and end-all to the movie; it is at the end of the day the relationship that is important, more so than the sex which is merely a component. Just as in life.

REASONS TO GO: Believable relationships. Some genuinely funny vignettes. Insightful.
REASONS TO STAY: Might make the prudish uncomfortable.
FAMILY VALUES: A good deal of sexual content and graphic language, some partial nudity and a few disturbing scenes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title comes from a 19th century French euphemism for orgasm, le petite morte.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/29/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 59% positive reviews. Metacritic: 46/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: What to Expect When You’re Expecting
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Pixels

The Equalizer


Martin Csokas looks forward to his next movie  My Dinner with Denzel.

Martin Csokas looks forward to his next movie My Dinner with Denzel.

(2014) Action (Columbia) Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Grace Moretz, Melissa Leo, Bill Pullman, David Harbour, Haley Bennett, David Meunier, Johnny Skourtis, Alex Veadov, Vladimir Kulich, E. Roger Mitchell, James Wilcox, Mike O’Dea, Anastasia Mousis, Allen Maldonado, Chris Lemieux, Matt Lasky, Shawn Fitzgibbon, Luz Sanchez. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

We go through our lives essentially just hoping to mind our own business. We don’t want to get involved nor do we get involved with anybody else. However, sometimes there comes a time when a situation demands our action.

Robert McCall (Washington) lives a quiet life as a clerk at a home improvement store (think Home Depot with a different color scheme). He is helping his buddy Ralphie (Skourtis) lose weight and prepare to apply for a security guard job, a definite upgrade in pay.

But he is reluctant to talk about what he used to do. He has insomnia and spends a lot of nights at an all-night diner, drinking tea from tea bags he brings himself and reading novels off the list of 100 books you must read before you die (he’s up to 91). He compulsively rearranges the silverware on the table and always sits at the same one – yes, he’s OCD.

He also strikes up a conversation with Teri (Moretz), a prostitute from Russia who aspires to greater things. He encourages her and provides a welcome breath of fresh air from all the men who just want to use her for sex – or profit by her. He witnesses her pimp Slavi (Meunier) slapping her around but doesn’t intervene when she asks him not to. Slavi’s muscle (Veadov) gives McCall a card so that he can come and collect a more amenable girl.

When Teri ends up in the hospital, McCall pays Slavi a visit. You see, McCall isn’t just a guy that works at a hardware store. He’s got skills. Some big bad ones. And he puts them to good use. This doesn’t sit well with Slavi’s bosses who happen to be the Russian mob and they send a fixer of their own (Csokas) to deal with him and quite frankly, he’s got mad skills himself.

The film is based on an 80s TV show that some critics characterize as forgotten although I remember it quite well – if for nothing else for its catchy Stewart Copeland theme song which sadly isn’t in the movie. There are those who will remember that English actor Edward Woodward starred in the title role as a former British spy who turns his talents to helping the powerless surmount impossible odds. It also reunites Fuqua and Denzel who teamed together so well for Training Day.

This is a good fit for Denzel, who has the best dead eye look in Hollywood. He has mastered the technique of using his good looks as a facade, hiding something deeper – sometimes sorrow or pain, sometimes rage or evil. McCall has plenty of history behind him and it shows in Denzel’s eyes – but there is also a coldness there when Denzel switches it on, the coldness of a trained killer.

He will be 60 later this year and joins the trend of sexagenarians invigorating their careers and becoming action stars (see Neeson, Liam) and let’s be frank; he looks damn good doing it. A couple more roles like this and Sly Stallone is going to be putting him on speed dial for The Expendables 6. The fight scene in Slavi’s office is as good as many action film climaxes and the climax here in the Home Depot clone is frankly incredible. While McCall leaves a few traps, mostly he uses the various power (and non-power) tools to great effect so this doesn’t sink into a Home Alone parody. No, the scene is gritty, violent and occasionally gory.

This is essentially entertainment for its own sake. There are really no deeper meanings here – everything is visceral. You don’t have to interpret different levels, just sit back, turn off your mind and enjoy the carnage. While I enjoyed the action sequences themselves, they don’t really blaze any new trails but they take existing ones and pretty them up a bit. If you’re looking for mindless fun, this is your ride.

REASONS TO GO: Denzel still has it. Terrific climax.
REASONS TO STAY: Kinda formulaic.
FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of violence, some of it rather bloody. Also plenty of foul language and some sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: With almost no backstory for the character of McCall, Washington came up with some of the items including the character’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/6/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 61% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The A-Team
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: This is Where I Leave You

All the Light in the Sky


As any good surfer will tell you, the surf's up even when you're down.

As any good surfer will tell you, the surf’s up even when you’re down.

(2012) Drama (Swanberry) Jane Adams, Sophia Takal, Kent Osborne, Larry Fessenden, David Siskind, Lawrence Michael Levine, Ti West, Susan Traylor, Lindsay Burge, Simon Barrett, Allison Baar. Directed by Joe Swanberg

 Florida Film Festival 2013

I’ve heard mumblecore defined as “a bunch of dialogue in search of a plot.” That’s not entirely accurate but it isn’t without some merit. The mumblecore movement, whose adherents include directors like the Duplass Brothers, Andrew Bujalsky and Lynn Shelton,  have had a champion in Joe Swanberg as well.

Swanberg, based in the Chicago area (he attended film school at Southern Illinois University) has been as prolific a director as anyone in the business. He’s not quantity over quality either – some of his films have included Hannah Takes the Stairs, Silver Bullets, Autoerotic and Kissing on the Mouth, all very fine films. Actress Jane Adams, who also starred in Autoerotic and made a name for herself in Todd Solondz’ film Happiness, co-wrote this new film with Swanberg which would seem to have at least some autobiographical elements.

Marie (Adams) is a respected film actress who at 45 is hitting the brick wall that actresses get as roles for middle aged women dry up. She lives in a beach house with a gorgeous view of the Pacific into which she paddleboards every morning. She lives a healthy lifestyle, making herself smoothies for nearly every occasion, and has no romantic entanglements.

Her niece Faye (Takal), who intends to follow in her footsteps as an actress but has been working mostly on the East Coast, comes for a visit. This delights Marie, who one suspects is a little bit lonely but also adores her niece to begin with. Marie shows her around town and gives her some advice on navigating the treacherous waters of Hollywood.

Marie knows those waters well. After losing a desirable role to Kristen Wiig, she accepts a part in a micro-budgeted indie as a solar scientist and does extensive research with one to prepare for the role. She also begins a relationship with Dan (Swanberg regular Osborne) who does a lot of pot and is handy around the house, but as Marie looks past the sex doesn’t really see a lot more there- and that may well be just fine by her.

Faye for her part has a boyfriend (Levine) at home with whom she Skypes almost nightly with. Some innocent flirtations trouble her; she seems tempted at times with some of the boys she hangs out with at parties and such but quickly learns that their interest in her mainly ends when her clothes stay on. That’s not uncommon in L.A. or anywhere else for that matter.

Marie’s friend Rusty (Fessenden) paddleboards with her every morning. He’s a bit of a player although he prefers partners who are younger. They have a fairly comfortable relationship but after having a few drinks with dinner, things get a bit awkward.

The story really revolves around Faye’s visit and a few days on each side of it. This isn’t a movie in which things happen, which some viewers might find infuriating. Rather, things get discussed – everything from women’s breasts to the need for solar energy to the advantages of marriage and the price for independence. Some of these conversations are interesting indeed.

For my part, I have this issue with movies that are essentially people talking about life – it’s a very passive endeavor. I need a little more interaction. When I see an interesting conversation onscreen, I want very much to be part of it and it can be quite frustrating to be a mute onlooker. Sure, you can carry on some of the conversations afterward (and Da Queen and I did) but it isn’t the same – you’re never as brilliant afterwards are you are in the moment and the value of your insights can get lost.

I like Swanberg as a filmmaker and Adams as an actress. They both respect their audiences and don’t talk down to them. Simply put, I just didn’t connect with this movie the way I would have liked to. Perhaps I wasn’t in the frame of mind to enjoy it properly and needed a bit more space on either side of the film than you can typically get in a busy film festival schedule. That said, do take my final rating with a grain of salt – it isn’t meant to judge the quality of the movie, which is significant, only my recommendation on seeing it. It’s a very acquired taste, but those willing to put some effort and focus into it should find ample rewards. Unfortunately, I honestly didn’t but the fault may well have been mine rather than the filmmakers.

REASONS TO GO: Smart and topical. The dialogue sounds like real people talking. Very slice of life, L.A.-style.

REASONS TO STAY: Very talky. Lacks action and a traditional story.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is some rough language, adult situations and graphic nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Swanberg directed six films that were filmed in 2010 (and co-directed a seventh), one of the busiest years for a single director since the silent era.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Baghead

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: SOMM and further coverage of the films of the 2013 Florida Film Festival!