The Anatomy of Monsters


A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

A tete-a-tete among sociopaths.

(2014) Thriller (Artsploitation) Tabitha Bastien, Jesse Lee Keeter, Conner Marx, Keiko Green, Satori Marill, Tori McDonough, Lauren Brooks-Wilson, Andrew Tribolini, Asher Vast, Natalie Miller, Nick Frank, Tammy Miller, Ken Miller, Andre Kirkman, Roxanne Nihiline, E. J. Bastien, Dave Shecter, Simone Leorin, Alex Upton, Meredith Binder. Directed by Byron C. Miller

 

How can you tell who the monsters are? They don’t come with fangs and claws, after all. That handsome, clean-cut guy on the blind date could be a sadistic rapist; the beautiful, sweet girl-next-door sort could take great pleasure in destroying the lives of others. You just never know who is going to turn out to be a sociopath.

Andrew (Keeter) looks like a frat guy at first glance, like the preppy from Connecticut slumming down in the city…or in Seattle, as the case is here. He gets dressed and heads out to the bars to find that just right girl. And it appears he’s found her in Sarah (T. Bastien) who is obviously interested and carries her sexual hunger like a Vera Wang handbag. She even has a pair of handcuffs, which she obligingly puts on in the hotel room she’s rented for the two of them. That’s when he pulls out a wicked-looking knife.

But Sarah has some secrets of her own, starting when she was just a kid who found her jollies in killing her pet kitties, moving through her teen years when she maimed a romantic rival right through when she was an adult when she discovered the joys of taking down bigger prey – the two legged variety. Which one of these two is the predator and which is the prey? Don’t think that the answer is a simple one.

I like this concept immensely and it could have made for a chilling, thrilling good time. Unfortunately, the filmmakers didn’t have the experience to pull this off effectively. The pacing is all over the board; some scenes feel like the writer just couldn’t wait to get to the end of the scene and move on to more weighty matters; other scenes are excruciatingly drawn out. While it’s possible the filmmakers were going for an effect of putting the viewer off-balance, it just came off to this viewer as undisciplined and poorly edited.

Also gaining some negative points is the score; quite frankly, the soundtrack is intrusive and ineffective at establishing a mood. It sounded like the composer was trying too hard to set a mood, using menacing organ riffs to establish tension, and a bouncy soft rock background when Sarah and her boyfriend Nick (Marx) are together. A good soundtrack doesn’t create the mood; it enhances it and that’s something composer Paul Morgan needs to learn.

Tabitha Bastien (not to be confused with E.J. who plays a one-night stand for Sarah) takes control of the movie early on as we realize that the original focus on Andrew has shifted to Sarah. That’s not altogether a bad thing; Tabitha certainly has the screen charisma to carry the film. Although at times she’s given some really florid dialogue to mouth, most of the time the dialogue is well-written and sounds the way people talk, or at least the way I’d think a pair of serial killers might talk if they were to have a conversation; ‘Hey Ted Bundy.’ ‘Hey Jeffrey Dahmer.’ ‘Rough day at the office?’ “It was murder.’

One of the biggest mood killers is that the murders themselves are unconvincing. At one point a baseball bat is taken to a sleeping father, but the blows look like bunts rather than grand slams. There’s no force behind them and it absolutely takes the viewer out of the picture. I get that the filmmakers were operating on a minuscule budget but at least they can get the actors to slam the bat into a pillow and add the sound effects in post. If you want to do a realistic look at serial killers, you had better make everything realistic or else it just won’t fly.

This was a movie that sounds better on the printed page then it unspools on the screen. It’s available free for Amazon Prime users and if you are a lover of all things slasher you might give it a try if you have that service available. Otherwise, you need to be a very patient and understanding viewer, knowing that this is the work of relatively new filmmakers. There is certainly room for improvement but if they can keep the good concepts coming their execution will catch up to their imagination eventually.

WHY RENT THIS: The concept is intriguing. Tabitha Bastien makes a compelling lead.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the murder sequences were unconvincing. The film felt a little bit rushed in places and overly drawn out in others.
FAMILY VALUES: You’ll find some gore, violence, adult themes, sexual content and some profanity here.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The working title of the film was The Witching Hour but was dropped in favor of its current title.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.
SITES TO SEE: Amazon Prime, Vimeo, YouTube
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: Not available.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Advertisements

Obvious Child


Life can be cold even for the very cute.

Life can be cold even for the very cute.

(2014) Comedy (A24) Jenny Slate, Jake Lacy, Gaby Hoffmann, David Cross, Richard Kind, Polly Draper, Gabe Liedman, Paul Briganti, Cindy Cheung, Stephen Singer, Cyrus McQueen, Emily Tremaine, Ramses Alexandre, Julie Zimmer, Ernest Mingione, Stacey Sargeant, Amy Novando, Crystal Lonneberg, Suzanne Lenz. Directed by Gillian Robespierre

One of the results of unprotected sex can be a pregnancy that is unplanned for and unwanted. Women have several options open to them, although not everyone wants it that way.

Donna Stern (Slate) is a budding standup comic who works in a used bookstore by day. She is a classic New York underachiever, one who has vague goals but is in no particular hurry to get to them. She’s been seeing Ryan (Briganti) for years now and is somewhat ambivalent towards marriage or at least, it’s not a subject that comes up.

Her standup routine is full of the juices of life. Lots of farting, the state of women’s panties at the end of the day, skid marks and the fluids of sex. It isn’t for the squeamish which might explain why she’s still in a somewhat rough and tumble Brooklyn bar providing free entertainment for Williamsburg hipsters who are too cheap to pay for it. When she talks about the sex life with her boyfriend as being somewhat routine and predictable while he watches her set, that’s the last straw. That and, oh, him having been sleeping with her friend Lacey (Tremaine) for several months. He dumps her in the unisex graffiti-covered bathroom that looks like something that veteran CDC doctors would run screaming into the night from which I suppose is as appropriate a place to get dumped as any – considering her act, getting dumped in a bathroom has no irony whatsoever.

She also finds out that the bookstore she has been working for has lost its lease and is going to close its doors forever in about six weeks. No job, no money, no boyfriend – things couldn’t be worse for Donna. She takes solace in her support system – her close friends Nellie (Hoffmann) and fellow comedian Joey (Liedman), as well as her Dad (Kind) who works as a Henson-like puppeteer for a successful TV show. Her cold fish Mom (Draper), divorced from her Dad and a very successful business school instructor, tries to motivate her daughter to find new work without much success.

Donna’s next standup gig is an utter train wreck as she ascends the stage completely off-her-ass drunk and proceeds to go into a drunken rant about her break-up that is as unfunny as it is awkward. The only plus of the evening is that she meets nice-guy Max (Lacy) at the bar, continues to get drunker and ends up at his apartment for a night of mindless, meaningless sex. She leaves the next morning without leaving a note.

Not long afterwards she discovers that mindless, meaningless sex can get you pregnant too, even though she was pretty sure they’d used protection in the form of a condom. She’s not really 100% sure on that point – not that it matters because a condom really isn’t 100% protection against pregnancy either. The thing is, she is preggers and the one thing she’s sure about is that she’s not ready to be a mom. She’s not ready to be pregnant either considering her uncertain future, her lack of funds and job and without a partner to help her out. An abortion seems to be the best choice for her given the circumstances.

Once this decision is made, she’s unsure that she wants to tell her mother about it, sure that her mom will see this as yet another failure in life by her disappointment of a daughter. Also, she keeps running into Max unexpectedly and he clearly likes her. A lot and she thinks she might like him too, even though he’s as gentile as a Christmas tree in Rockefeller plaza and she’s the menorah at the top that burns the whole damn tree down.

Some will see this as a movie about abortion but as film critic Mick LaSalle of the San Francisco Chronicle points out, the better movie would be about the woman having that abortion and Robespierre wisely realizes that. The decision for Donna is a simple one from a practical standpoint but emotionally she’s unsure of what to do, how to feel and she asks Nellie, who’s had one, whether she thinks about it (she does but she doesn’t think she made the wrong choice).

Slate, who was on Saturday Night Live for a season and famously dropped an F bomb in her first episode, does a star turn here in the role of Donna. Donna uses her sense of humor as something of a shield against her own vulnerability and has no filter whatsoever. That endears her to those willing to put the effort in to get to know her. She is far from perfect although she is cute as a button. To my mind, Slate has far more upside than a lot of actresses who have come from standpoint and should easily join the ranks of Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Kristen Wiig and Maya Rudolph as graduates of SNL to stardom, although I think the big screen would be far more appropriate than television as a medium for her talents.

She gets some good support from Liedman (her sketch partner in real life) and Hoffmann and Lacy, who was a regular on The Office makes a fine straight man. I like that Robespierre chose not to give us the glamorized indie version of New York where people work in creative jobs, live in amazing lofts they couldn’t possibly afford and eat out and hang out at hipster clubs every night while showing up to work fresh as a daisy the next day. The places Donna and her friends can afford to hang out in are mostly pretty dingy and Donna’s apartment is tiny and far from glitzy. This is the life someone in her situation would be leading for real.

Inevitably there is going to be some politicization of the film’s subject matter but be assured there’s none in the film whatsoever. The conservative religious right tend to portray abortions as something done by sluts without any sort of care or consequence but that’s not what happens here. Donna while vulnerable and impaired has unprotected sex which might be characterized as a foolish mistake but she is not someone who seems inclined to sleep around – in fact, she has a scene with veteran comic David Cross in which she turns him down for sex.

What really makes this film worth seeing are a pair of scene near the movie’s end. The first is when Donna is having her abortion and has been given a sedative to relax her. As the procedure begins, we see a tear rolling down from her eye. Even more powerful is the scene that follows when Donna and the other women who have just undergone the procedure sitting in the recovery room and exchanging glances. No dialogue is said but the looks on their faces say it all – this was not a decision entered into lightly and the consequences are absolutely on all of their minds.

In an era when a woman’s right to choose is under concerted attack from Tea Party politicians and where choices to have abortions are becoming much more scarce in Red States, a movie like this becomes much more necessary and meaningful. While I’m not sure this will change any Right to Lifers minds on the subject, it serves as a vivid reminder that for all the hysteria and noise generated by that group, women in general are not ignorant of the consequences of their ability to make that choice – and that it is a hard choice even if the practical side is easy. From that standpoint, this is an essential film and while I found the nature of Donna’s comedy unappealing, I loved the character in a big way because of her flaws and imperfections. Donna is the kind of woman you probably know already. If you don’t, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for you to find this movie either at your local art house or soon when it comes to home video and get to know her.

REASONS TO GO: A realistic look at the effects of unwanted pregnancies on real women and the choices they must face. Slate shows that she is ready to be the next great film comedienne.

REASONS TO STAY: Unnecessarily scatological. Too many awkward moments.

FAMILY VALUES:  Plenty of rough language and sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie’s title comes from the first track on the 1990 Paul Simon album The Rhythm of the Saints.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/9/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 87% positive reviews. Metacritic: 75/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Punchline

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Transformers: Age of Extinction

Don Jon


Can't take my eyes off of you.

Can’t take my eyes off of you.

(2013) Romantic Comedy (Relativity) Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Scarlett Johansson, Julianne Moore, Tony Danza, Glenne Headly, Brie Larson, Rob Brown, Jeremy Luke, Paul Ben-Victor, Italia Ricci, Lindsey Broad, Amanda Perez, Sarah Dumont, Sloane Avery, Loanne Bishop, Arin Babaian, Antoinette Kalaj, Arayna Eison, Becky O’Donohue. Directed by Joseph Gordon-Levitt

The nature of romance and sexuality largely remains a mystery for most of us. Men don’t understand the draw of the romantic fantasy to women and women have trouble understanding why men are so obsessed with pornography. Now, while it is true that there are some women who have a porn addiction and some men who are romantics at heart, largely the stereotypes hold.

Jon Martello Jr. (Gordon-Levitt) has a pretty good life. He’s a Jersey boy who knows what he likes and pretty much has things lined up; his apartment, his boys Bobby (Brown) and Danny (Luke), his family – Mom (Headly), Dad (Danza) and his sister Monica (Larson) who is too busy texting and rolling her eyes to get a word in – and his church, his car (a sweet Chevy from the golden age of metal) and girls. His buddies call him “The Don” because he scores a hot looking chick every time he goes out clubbing. Every time, an 8 or above.

But that isn’t enough for Jon. You see, sex is all well and good but what really satisfies him is masturbating to porn. He even has his own method – starting off slow, with still pictures and working his way up to video clips until he finds the right one he can lose himself in. When he gets off to porn, everything else goes away, not to mention that the actresses in the clips will do things for their partners that no real woman will do for Jon.

Then one night in the clubs he meets Barbara Sugarman (Johansson), a blonde Jersey queen who takes most of her cues from Snooki (except for the horrid orange spray tan look). She’s so hot that Jon’s got to have her except she doesn’t put out so easily. So, as Bobby tells him, he needs to get out his long game. Wine and dine her, romance her. Do the kind of things that boyfriends do for their girlfriends.

The problem is that Jon doesn’t just want to get into her pants; he thinks she might just be The One. To show her his commitment, he agrees to take night classes so that he can move up the service industry ladder. Unfortunately, Barbara catches Jon at his obsession one night and makes him agree to not watch porn which she finds disgusting.

At first Jon does his best but he needs the release so he starts doing his porn on the side, even on his smart phone during lectures in class which attracts the notice of Esther (Moore), an older lady that Jon sees crying in the parking lot one night. Soon she seems to be making a move on him which Jon isn’t really interested in – he’s got Barbara after all and she’s at last giving it up for him – but there are cracks in the foundation of paradise and soon Jon will either have to give up his porn or Barbara.

The crux of the movie has to do with expectations and need. Sure there’s a lot of nudity, brief glimpses of porn stars humping and a whole lot of sexuality but that’s not really the point of the film, although quite frankly there are those who won’t be able to get past all that, either in a positive or negative way. All some will see is the sex and they will react to it according to their own morality either as a prurient interest or with prudish disgust. It’s simply an occupational hazard for a film like this.

That said if you look beyond the boobs and the moans you’ll actually find a thoughtful movie that looks at the nature of men and women and the differences between them, as typified by Jon. I think there are a lot of women out there who genuinely cannot understand the fascination that porn has for men and this movie might go a long way towards explaining it. Porn is a fantasy the same way a romantic movie is a fantasy for Barbara. The happy ending for her is a prince of a man who will sacrifice everything for her, be completely devoted to her and adore her 24/7. Jon’s happy ending is, well, a happy ending.

Actually that’s not quite fair. As Jon explains it, he fantasizes about the sexual acts that most women won’t even consider granting him (i.e. oral sex, doggie style) because for the most part they want the missionary position. To him, a woman who is willing to do those things for him is the equivalent of Barbara’s prince. In both cases, the egos of each of them are being catered to by their partner. In some ways both of them are children of our time – completely self-absorbed without a thought of what they are giving to their partner, only receiving from them.

Gordon-Levitt, who also wrote and directed this, looks like he watched a lot of Jersey Shore to get his character down – The Situation, anyone? – and shows as much promise behind the camera as he does confidence in front of it. He wrote the part of Barbara with Johansson specifically in mind and she loses herself into it, becoming a Jersey Shore princess in all her gum-snapping bleached blonde glory. Barbara and Jon are both full to overflowing with that Jersey attitude – Jon screaming in road rage while he drives to church, Barbara telling Jon that he won’t do housework when they’re living together because that kind of thing is beneath her and thus, as an extension of her, beneath him as well.

In many ways Moore steals the picture. She is the conscience of the film and her character Esther is the one that introduces the sense of giving into the film. Certainly she’s one messed-up broad and we only get a glimmer into her personal tragedy. She’s not glammed up for this role; there’s wear and tear on her face but more importantly in her eyes. She ends up teaching Jon – and by extension the audience – the difference between having sex and making love.

It’s nice to see Danza and Headly, both industry veterans, on the big screen again and personally I wouldn’t mind seeing the two of them more often. The rest of the supporting cast is pretty solid with Larson making the most of her single scene of dialogue.

I wouldn’t have minded about ten more minutes of exposition fleshing out some of the main characters a bit and when you leave a film wishing it had been longer you know the filmmakers are doing something right. While those who are offended by depictions and discussion of sex are urged to give this one a wide berth, the rest of you get an enthusiastic recommendation. This is a movie that honestly and with some humor examines sex and love and how easy it is to forget that the sum of those two things is far greater than the total of their parts.

REASONS TO GO: Funny, charming and thought-provoking. Gordon-Levitt, Johansson, Moore, Danza and Headly all have strong performances.

REASONS TO STAY: The porn and sexuality might be off-putting to those sensitive to such things.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of sexual content including graphic nudity and simulated sex (as well as simulated porn), plenty of foul language and a bit of drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Gordon-Levitt and Danza previously worked together in Angels in the Outfield when Gordon-Levitt was just 12 years old.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/14/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 82% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Moonstruck

FINAL RATING: 8/10

NEXT: Enough Said