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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The Last Mistress (Une vieille maîtresse)


The Last Mistress

Asia Argento gets her Spanish on.

(2007) Drama (IFC) Asia Argento, Fu’ad Ait Aattou, Roxanne Mesquida, Claude Sarraute, Yolande Moreau, Michael Lonsdale, Anne Parillaud, Jean-Philippe Tesse, Sarah Pratt, Amira Casar, Lio, Isabelle Renauld, Lea Seydoux, Nicholas Hawtrey, Caroline Ducey. Directed by Catherine Breillat

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again; the human heart is a tricky thing. Not everything is easy to assess, quantify and analyze when it comes to human emotions. Not everything makes logical sense; we can only follow our feelings and hope they lead us on some sensible course that will arrive at our eventual happiness. It doesn’t always turn out that way though.

Ryno de Marigny (Aattou) is about to get married to the beautiful Hermangarde (Mesquida), granddaughter of the Marquise de Flers (Sarraute). It is 1835, during the reign of the last French King. Ryno has been a bit of a libertine so it turns more than a few heads and gets some tongues to wagging when the Marquise allows the engagement of her beloved granddaughter to such a notorious rake as Ryno, who is a son of a noble house but has fallen on hard times. The marriage to the wealthy Hermangarde is extremely advantageous to him.

The Marquise is fully aware of Ryno’s reputation however and invites him (more of a command actually) over one night to talk. She has heard of his most scandalous affair and wants to know if he has given the relationship up before he marries. She demands he tell her about the relationship in detail and so he does.

Ryno met La Vellini (Argento) at a party. By then she was married to the ineffectual Sir Reginald (Hawtrey) and was already an accomplished courtesan. At first they don’t take to each other; he calls her a mongrel for her Spanish-Italian heritage and she thinks of him as a haughty little boy. Then in fine romantic fashion the two who despise each other so much find themselves attracted as two lovers have never been. This leads to a duel between Ryno and Sir Reginald in which Ryno is gravely wounded. Of course, La Vellini flies to his side and nurses him to health, even sucking the blood from his wound so great is her passion for him.

This leads to a torrid affair that has all of Paris talking, particularly a pair of gossipers (Lonsdale and Moreau) who have a certain French flair for seeing the ridiculousness in their passion. Still Ryno knows that he must end the affair with La Vellini. However, La Vellini is the sort of woman who ends things on her terms – and at the moment her terms are far from having been met.

Based on what was at the time a scandalous novel by the French writer Jules-Amédée Barbey d’Aurevilly written in 1851, noted French director Breillat has put together what is unusual for her, a period piece. Breillat is noted for her films that ooze sexuality but show sex in a more realistic fashion; there is sweat and not moisture, grunting and not moaning, bodies contorted into awkward shape and little grace. It is more like the act itself without the sentimentality that Hollywood (and yes, French films as well) depict the act with.

She also has a penchant for using non-professional actors and she’s spotted a good one in Aattou. His boyish looks are perfect for the role physically and his performance nicely recalls the actions and sentiments of a down-on-his-heel noble, mid-19th century style. As is not uncommon with European films, there is far more dialogue than in their American cousins and that is true particularly here with much of the action taking place in drawing rooms and Aattou handles the conversations well; they don’t seem forced.

Argento has been criticized for not being a great actress but I have found her to be a solid actress. I have yet to see a great performance from her true, but it is rare to see a truly bad performance from her either and she is quite good here. I honestly can’t fault her performance which is very sexually charged; even in the mannered environment of that time and that place, she comes off as highly sexual which is rare for movies which tend to make the people of that time kind of sexless. La Vellini would be a hot, sexy woman in any era.

The movie, like many European films, is paced at a rather slower pace than American audiences are used to so be aware of that. There are certainly some frenetic moments but for the most part younger audiences might not have the patience to sit through this.

Sarraute, who has been a journalist for some 50 years although was quite an accomplished actress at one time, makes a rare screen appearance of late and makes the most of it. I really enjoyed the warmth and depth she brought to the Marquise; as Roger Ebert so perceptively put it, she’s the kind of movie character whose salon you’d love to hang out in with her, just having conversations about the indignities of life.

Overall I really loved this movie a lot. It’s sexy but not pornographic – a movie about sexual obsession has to have some sex in it after all. But it’s the rich characterization of the main participants in the drama that held my attention; the plot is a bit on the soapy side but no matter. This is wonderful drawing room filmmaking at its very best.

WHY RENT THIS: Very sexy. Nice period piece. Sarraute, Argento and Aattou are mesmerizing.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A very leisurely pace.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of sexuality and some brief nudity as well as a bit of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The director discovered Aattou in a Parisian cafe; up until that point he had no professional acting experience.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.8M on a $6M production budget; the movie didn’t make back its production costs during its theatrical run.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Dangerous Liaisons

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Conan O’Brien Can’t Stop

Splice


Splice

Adrien Brody has a thing for exotic chicks.

(2009) Science Fiction Horror (Warner Brothers) Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac, Brandon McGibbon, Simona Maicanescu, David Hewlett, Abigail Chu, Jonathan Payne.  Directed by Vincenzo Natali

If man is able to create life, what separates men from God? Perhaps that would be hubris, one of man’s great sins but if one is like God, would then there be hubris naturally?

Clive Nicoli (Brody) and Elsa Kast (Polley) are both genetic engineers working for Nucleic Exchange Research and Development (N.E.R.D. – hahaha) as well as a romantic couple. At work they are trying to splice together the DNA of different animals to create unique new species for medical use. When they manage to create a female version of the new creature, the two become eager to add human DNA to an animal DNA in order to revolutionize both science and medicine but their employers, concerned about the P.R. implications of that kind of research, forbid it.

Instead, as all good mad scientists will, the two decide to carry on their research in secret and are able to successfully splice human DNA with animal DNA. They all the resulting organism Dren (Nerd spelled backwards) since Elsa refuses to refer to it as a specimen. She is in fact developing an almost maternal attitude towards the creature, which we eventually learn has Elsa’s DNA within it. The creature begins to learn and grow at an astonishing rate, maturing from child Dren (Chu) to young woman Dren (Chaneac) in weeks. After Dren attacks a lab technician who happens to be Clive’s brother Gavin (McGibon) Clive and Elsa decide to move their creation to the farm that belonged to Elsa’s late mother.

There things go from bad to worse. Dren is continuing to evolve, adding a lethal stinger and wings into her arsenal. She also has shown a tendency towards petulant violence, as well as signs of sexual awakening – and her sexual obsession is turned towards Clive. In the meantime, the previous experiment has ended in catastrophe as the two genetically spliced beings turn on each other in a violent fight that ends in both of the creatures tearing each other apart in front of a shocked audience. Have the two scientists created something beautiful – or a monster?

Director Natali is best known for The Cube (1997), one of the smartest science fiction films of the last decade. This one is no less intelligent, asking questions about scientific hubris and the process of creation as well as the morality of science as we stand on the cusp of human cloning and stem cell research.

He has a couple of fine actors to work with as well. Polley is a tremendously underrated actress who shines here as she usually does. She gives Elsa a certain amount of humanity and although Elsa has a dark past that eventually comes to light (and explains much of her actions), this is a character that could easily have been off-putting. Instead, Polley gives us a rooting interest in her.

One of the irritants of the film is that Clive’s actions become somewhat spineless as the film goes on; that isn’t Brody’s doing, but nonetheless he gives a decent enough performance. Brody always gives his characters a certain amount of intelligence, and while he hasn’t yet gotten a role equal to the part he played in The Pianist (for which he became the youngest Best Actor Oscar winner ever) he still insures a quality performance just about every time out.

Some are going to note the similarities between this film and Species and that has to be acknowledged. However, this movie takes it much further with graphic sexual elements that might disturb some. There is a bit of violence as well, but not as gory as your typical horror film.

The Dren creature is interesting, a cross between a human, a bat and a scorpion. This isn’t necessarily going to haunt to dreams, but the movie might well get under your skin. It asks some tough, provocative questions for which there are few easy answers. Even though the last reel is a bit of a disappointment (with an ending that sets up a potential sequel), the movie is still pretty solid throughout. Maybe it is a bit too smart for its own good; the American movie-going public is not particularly forgiving of movies that might make them think.

WHY RENT THIS: Much smarter than the average sci-fi or horror film. Polley and Brody give impressive performances.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: A few too many similarities to Species. Ludicrous final act.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some very strong sexuality and nudity, some violence and language and some disturbing themes and images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are references to classic Hollywood duos throughout the film. The two spliced organisms shown at the film’s beginning are named Fred and Ginger in reference to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. A vodka bottle in the lab is labeled to have specimens named Bogie and Bacall, named for Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Finally, the main characters are named in honor of Colin Clive (who played Dr. Frankenstein) and Elsa Lanchester (who played the Bride) from Bride of Frankenstein.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $26.9M on a $30M production budget; the movie was a flop.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Cats and Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore