Lava


Big trees invite big snakes.

(2019) Animated Feature (Rock Salt) Starring the voices of Janeane Garofalo, Martin Piroyaski, Daisy Hamilton-Risher. Directed by Ayar Blasco

 

Not everyone sees things the same way. For example, we can all look at a painting by Salvador Dali. We can be mesmerized by the image. We can be repulsed by the subject matter. But we will all see it and interpret it through our own lens, through our own experiences. And what we ourselves see isn’t necessarily what everyone else sees.

Debora (Garofalo) is a tattoo artist who is currently single, although her roommate – who is deliriously in love – wants to set her up with a friend, who is quite taken with her. Debora is less enthusiastic, but is open to the idea. The four of them settle down to watch a bootlegged version of the hit fantasy series – all of them being proud flag-waving nerds – Gain of Clones. That’s when things go weird. All their broadcast media – the TV, the radio, their phones, go haywire. Anything with a display is broadcasting strange images. One of them enters a trance-like state. Then as abruptly as it began, they regain their normal signals.

But nothing is normal. Giant cats prowl the rooftops. Giant snakes are eating people. A giant witch terrorizes the town. It’s an alien invasion, and the one person who can stop it might be Debora. If she wants to, that is.

The plot – such as it is – is deceptively simple, but I’m leaving a lot out; not just because it would spoil the viewing of it (although it might) but mainly because it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense when you put it down on paper…err, a digital screen. But the animation is definitely simplistic, a throwback to Nicktoons and Adult Swim animation. This isn’t anime by any stretch of the imagination.

But speaking of imagination, there’s plenty of that here. This movie is so far out of the box that the box has ceased to be a reference point. This movie just is and that’s really all it needs to be. There’s no real explaining it; it has to be experienced.

But that said, this isn’t for everybody. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s for a narrow range of film buffs who grew up in the 90s, have a certain simpatico for sci-fi and fantasy, don’t mind a little romance, and prefer their movies to be as completely whacko as they possibly can be – the less mainstream, the better. If 2020 had been a normal year, this might have done some serious damage on the festival circuit and perhaps it still will, but for those Jonesing for a virtual film festival of their own to curate might do well to add this to their list. But don’t say I didn’t warn you about the weird part.

REASONS TO SEE: Studiously weird, but imaginative.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story jumps around a bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, sexual references and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In the original Spanish-language version, acclaimed Argentine actress Sofia Gala Castiglione voices the role of Debora.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Fandango Now, MUBI, Vimeo, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: >em>No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Extraterrestrial
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Courier

Test Pattern


Hospital waiting rooms can be worse than what sent you there.

(2019) Drama (Kino Lorber) Brittany S. Hall, Will Brill, Gail Bean, Drew Fuller, Ben Levin, Amani Starnes, Caroline Bloom, Ronald Woodhead, Becki Hayes, Joseph Rene, Katy Erin Donna Morrell Gafford, Jason Michael Hawkins, George Oliver Hale, Kay Salem, Kally Khourshid, Melissa Jo Bailey, Molly O’Leary, Amanda Joy Erickson. Directed by Shatara Michelle Ford

Sexual assault has been a widespread issue in this country for some time, but it has come into more focus since the advent of the #MeToo movement that brought to the attention of how many women were affected by sexual assault on social media. I remember watching in shock, horror and near-tears as family members and friend after friend posted #MeToo on Facebook, Instagram and other platforms, indicating that they had survived this most personal and cowardly of attacks.

Part of the problem is that the media tends to be overly salacious of the crime, rarely giving it the sober, stark treatment it deserves. With the advent of more women settling into the director’s chair, the time seems right for that issue to be addressed.

Renesha (Hall) is a beautiful, successful African-American woman working for a large corporation in Austin. However, she feels some dissatisfaction with the corporate lifestyle in general. On a girl’s night out with her friend Amber (Bean) and others, she meets up with Evan (Brill), a slightly sh*tfaced white young man who works as a tattoo artist and has no ambition whatsoever, but taken by the beauty and intelligence of Renesha, he works up enough liquor-fueled courage to get her number and call it. The two end up going out together, and sparks fly.

They end up moving in together. Evan convinces Renesha to give up her corporate job and follow her passion; she takes a job with the Humane Society. He works at home, creating his own tattoo studio. Things seem to be going really well.

Then on another girl’s night out, Renesha and Amber meet up with a couple of young white men who ply the two with drinks. Renesha wants to go home, but Amber convinces her to stay and drink and consume cannabis-laced edibles. It becomes clear that the boys have added a different drug to the mix as both Amber and Renesha become nearly unconscious.

When Renesha wakes up, it is in the bed of one of the white boys in a hotel room. She is dropped off – dumped – unceremoniously in the middle of the road near her house. Evan, out of his mind with worry, insists on taking Renesha to the hospital and having a rape kit done. Renesha would much rather take a long hot bath and go to bed but Evan is adamant. And their long, painful journey continues.

Ford has a definite voice and a definite style here; she begins the film at the moment of the sexual assault, giving us the point of view of Renesha – very dreamlike and confusing, before cutting away to the night she and Evan met. It is a bit confusing at first – you wonder if she’s meeting up with the man who’s about to rape her, but soon it becomes clear that it is not. Ford tells the story without sexualizing it; she doesn’t linger on Renesha’s body or show much of what transpires. If I have an issue with the sequence, the lead-up is a bit lengthy, although I think Ford is trying to make a point that the two African-American women were being groomed for sexual assault by two sexual predators who probably had done something like this many times before without consequence. There are guys like that out there, who think that this is natural, okay behavior – the ends justify the means.

There is also the subtext of the relationship with Evan. His behavior before the sexual assault seems sweet, but there is something going on below the surface; Renesha changes everything from her hair to her body – she adds dozens of tattoos, all Evan’s work – as well as her job and her residence. It can be argued that Renesha wanted a change to begin with, but it feels somewhat like she’s being manipulated and as women tend to do, seems to be trying to please the man she’s with perhaps to an extent that might be crossing the line into abuse. Certainly, Evan’s behavior after the assault reflects that he has an abusive side and may have all along.

There is also an indictment of the healthcare system as Evan hauls the unwilling Renesha from hospital to clinic looking for a rape kit to be performed and meeting obstacles all along the way, from systemic failures to incompetence. One is also left to wonder if Renesha had been white would she have been treated differently. Ford leaves no doubt as to how SHE feels.

Ford has the luxury of a terrific actress in the lead role. This is definitely Hall’s film and she runs with it. She’s one of those actresses who can communicate as much with a single glance as she can with a page full of dialogue. She has a good foil in Brill who has a role that is a bit mercurial and perhaps thankless, but he’s not the perfect boyfriend – which is a good thing – but he’s not an absolute jerk – which is also a good thing.

The one thing that really holds this movie back is the ending. It is abrupt and unsatisfying, feeling almost like Ford had just had enough of the story and packed things up. I don’t think the movie would have worked with a neat, tied-with-a-bow ending that resolves everything – the subject matter is far too complex for that. Still, the ending was so disappointing for me that my rating came down a full point to a point and a half because of it. That’s a shame because up until the last few minutes of the movie this was a movie whose praises were worthy of being sung but while I still recommend that you see the film, be aware that there is a caveat involved.

REASONS TO SEE: Hall delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending kind of just peters out.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity, drug use, sexual content and rape.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the feature film debut for Ford.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Virtual Cinema
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: I May Destroy You
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Own the Room

Bullet to the Head


Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

Rambo and Conan get their axe together.

(2012) Action (Warner Brothers) Sylvester Stallone, Sung Kang, Jason Momoa, Sarah Shahi, Adwale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Christian Slater, Jon Seda, Holt McCallany, Brian Van Holt, Weronika Rosati, Dane Rhodes, Marcus Lyle Brown, Dominique DuVernay, Andrea Frankle. Directed by Walter Hill

Vengeance can make strange bedfellows of us all. Those who are wronged by the same party can become allies, regardless of their outlook on life. People who would never be friends are suddenly thrust together by circumstance, made close by common cause.

Jimmy “Bobo” Bonomo (Stallone), not mindful that his nickname in some quarters is slang for the derriere,  is a New Orleans hitman on a routine job to execute some high rolling lowlife (McCallany). The job is done but Jimmy spares a hooker (Rosati) who has a tattoo of a panther that seems to be reasonably significant. His partner Louis Blanchard (Seda) chides him for his softness. They go to a bar to meet Ronnie Earl (Van Holt) who is their contact but instead, Louis meets his maker and Jimmy barely escapes.

Of course something like this gives Jimmy a mad on. He knows that Ronnie alone knows who hired him and he needs to know who the man is and why he and Louis were set up. In the meantime Taylor Kwan (Kang), a detective for the Washington DC police force arrives in town to investigate the death of the high rolling lowlife who turns out to have been his ex-partner, drummed out of the DCPD in disgrace. Detective Kwan meets up with Lt. Lebreton (Rhodes) and Detective Towne (Brown) of the New Orleans Police and they investigate Greely’s body at the morgue. There they discover Blanchard’s body as well and Kwan deduces that Blanchard and his partner Bobo were responsible for the death of his former partner.

Detective Kwan is, like Bobo, more interested in who hired him and set him up then in taking Bobo down. The two men meet but Bobo is extremely distrustful of cops and refuses to work with him. However when Kwan is attacked by a pair of corrupt cops outside the bar, Bobo rescues him. The enemy of my enemy and all that.

Detective Kwan is shot in the attack and Bobo takes him to his daughter Lisa’s (Shahi) tattoo parlor where she fixes him up. The two know they need to find Ronnie Earl, and a visit to a massage parlor locates him. Earl tells him that he worked through Marcus Baptiste (Slater), a sleazy lawyer. The two crash a costume party and kidnap him, taking him to a boat house on the bayou that serves as Bobo’s safe house. They are tracked by Keegan (Momoa), the thug who murdered Blanchard and a team of mercenaries. Baptiste confesses that the man behind all this is Robert Nkomo Morel (Akinnuoye-Agbaje), a deposed African warlord who aims to build condos in a low-income area. Just then Keegan’s mercenaries interrupt the party but Bobo and Kwan escape with Bobo blowing up the boathouse with the men in it. Only Keegan escapes and now he wants Bobo’s head on a stick in front of the Superdome if necessary.

This is based on a French graphic novel that has been transplanted to American soil which I suppose is appropriate enough. Certainly the gritty tone of the original works well in an American setting, although I can’t help but wonder how this would have fared in the capable hands of a Luc Besson or a Louis Letterier or even an Olivier Megaton, capable action directors all.

Stallone, closer to 70 than he is to 60, is terribly miscast here. The role is really meant for a lithe hand-to-hand combat expert. Someone along the lines of a Jet Li or a Jean-Claude van Damme would have been more suitable; Stallone is much more believable in a thug-like role, at least for me. However, he gets an excellent foil in Momoa who is clearly an emerging action star. His performance in the first season of Game of Thrones was incandescent and here that same charisma surfaces. I would love to see more of Momoa better films. Hey Sly, got room for him in your next Expendables flick?

Hill, one of the most respected action directors in Hollywood history (48 Hrs., Hard Times, Streets of Fire) , knows how to create a rough-edged mood, perfect for framing an action film. This is not going to stand among the best of his career; this doesn’t have the smooth flow or the chemistry of his previous pictures. Kang and Stallone are awkward together. Kang’s earnest by-the-book Taylor Kwan has no real charisma; he feels more like an archetype than a real person. I never got emotionally invested in him.

Stallone fares slightly better but as I said earlier the role is all wrong for him. That’s not to say that Stallone is a terrible actor; it’s just his physical fighting skills lend themselves more to someone a little more along the lines of a Mafiosi thug than a lethal assassin. Still, at least I wound up having an interest in the character.

2013 has started out with a rash of mediocre action movies, none of which has really stood out as especially memorable. Most of them have had brief theatrical runs and have disappeared into bomb status, no doubt to resurface quickly on home video and cable. With a particularly full schedule of action flicks scheduled for this year, it’s an inauspicious start. Hopefully we’ll get some better ones as the year goes on.

REASONS TO GO: Momoa is an excellent villain. Some of the fight sequences are nicely staged (but not all). Shahi makes excellent eye candy.

REASONS TO STAY: Stallone miscast. Lacks chemistry.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, a fair amount of bad language, an even more fair amount of bare breasts and a little drug use.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Walter Hill’s first feature film in ten years, and Slater’s first theatrically released feature film in eight.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews. Metacritic: 48/100. The reviews are about as mixed as you can get.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Expendables

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: Identity Thief