San Andreas (2015)

TWO-STARS 200x50

Steely Dan saw it coming: “California, tumbles into the sea.” And honestly, that’s what I expected to see in the disaster movie San Andreas. But the famous fault line just opens up an inland crevice, topples a dam, and rocks L.A. before its rumblings head north. And in San Francisco, The Big One sends buildings, logic, and Mr. Fantastic (Ioan Gruffudd) sprawling into the San Francisco Bay. California itself hangs on. We all saw it coming, of course, including Paul Giamatti, who is atypically wooden as a CalTech seismologist who’s just learned to predict earthquakes about, oh… five minutes too late. Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays Ray Gaines, a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot who’s just been served divorce papers by his soon-to-be ex-wife, Emma (Carlo Gugino, the mom in Spy Kids). Nevertheless, Ray and Emma wind up taking every mode of transportation imaginable to retrieve their pushing-twenty teenaged daughter Blake (Percy Jackson‘s Alexandra Daddario), who’s visiting S.F. with Emma’s skeezy new boyfriend Daniel (Gruffudd) when the mother of all ‘quakes hits. But the plot is mostly immaterial. San Andreas is all about California tumbling into the sea (read: “bay”), and the state-of-the-art effects on display—skyscrapers toppling, cruise liners washing up on the Embarcadero, etc.—almost make up for the petty and predictable human shenanigans filling in the film’s multitudinous empty spaces. Almost. The Rock reassuring us that “we can rebuild” tends to undermine a lot of what the SFX wizards have tried so hard to simulate.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Gift (2015)

THREE-STARS 200x50

What is it about these brazen Hollywood upstarts that make them think that, just because they’re in the business, they can do the business, even behind the camera? Is writing and directing a movie so easy that anyone with zero experience can simply decide to Just Do It? Joel Edgerton makes it look that way with The Gift.
     Now, the Australian actor-turned-writer/director’s uneasy thriller isn’t in the same class as, say, Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, or Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, or Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent. But it’s competent and coherent, and there are both directors and screenwriters out there without a single acting lesson on their resume who haven’t produced a competent, coherent film in years (and not for sake of trying—e-mail me for a list of names if you’re interested).
     In his own creepy screenplay, Edgerton casts himself as a loser who attempts to insinuate his way into the beautiful, successful lives of a newly-relocated couple played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. “Gordo” (Edgerton) went to high school with Simon (Bateman) and reappears some twenty years later with a housewarming gift (make that several) for him and wife Robyn (Hall) and a score to settle—cue awkward midday drop-ins while hubby is at work.
     I guess newbie directors get a lot of help from the considerable talent on the set, but writing is a completely different animal. Edgerton should therefore be commended for keeping his screenplay tight, smart, and subversive throughout. Gordo isn’t a flashy character, nor is he a scenery-chewing psychotic, which he so easily could have been. He’s polite and self-deprecating and not really much of a threat. At least initially. And the slow unraveling of Simon and Robyn’s relationship works; the typically sound Bateman and Hall help immeasurably, of course.
     I liked The Gift; it was unnerving and believable. My biggest complaint would be with that bland and generic title. If nothing else, Edgerton should have insisted on accuracy: The Gifts (plural). I counted at least three—a bottle of wine, a baby carrier and, if you’ll pardon my French, a load of carp.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Citizenfour (2014)

THREE-STARS 200x50

In January of 2013, Edward Snowden, the soon-to-be world-renowned whistleblower, clandestinely contacted American documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and arranged to meet with her and The Guardian (UK) reporter Glenn Greenwald in Hong Kong’s Mira hotel. This was the first of many meetings that Poitras captured on film ahead of Snowden’s public revelations that the NSA, together with other international government bureaus, was responsible for a massive—and massively illegal—covert surveillance operation. Citizenfour is that record, captured as it happened, live, a literal historical artifact in the making. Snowden, bespectacled and charismatic, insists on more than one occasion that the story is not—should not be—about him, but it’s hard to think otherwise when Poitras’s camera is right up there in his face while he hangs about in a white terrycloth bathrobe in his luxury hotel room, waiting for the feds to bust the door down. It doesn’t come to that, of course—Snowden successfully fled to Moscow—but the debate over whether he was a traitor or a public servant continues. Citizenfour—the title refers to the handle Snowden used to contact Poitras—won 2014’s Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, and while there’s no question that this is a risky and revelatory one-for-the-archives document, it’ll appeal mostly to viewers who are fascinated by what governments do behind our backs. Hailing from the North of England as I do, I’m more likely to dismiss Citizenfour with a cheesy pun: it’s a film weakened only by its “awesome source.”


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Wild Tales (2014)

THREE-HALF-STARS 200x50

Ah, those Latin Americans. They’ve a reputation for hot-bloodedness at the best of times, so imagine what they’re like at their worst. Such as, when the loan shark who destroyed your family wanders into your restaurant on a dark and stormy night? Or some fool in a junker decides to spoil your afternoon drive? Or you learn that the man you just married has betrayed you with the comely brunette at table seven? These, and three other impassioned scenarios—a man embroiled in bureaucratic red tape, a hit-and-run cover-up, and an airplane passenger list filled with eerie coincidences—play out in Wild Tales (Relatos Salvajes), Damian Szifron’s frequently hilarious, often outrageous six-pack of revenge-tinged dramas that get wilder by the minute. It’s Falling Down for the art house set, a deliciously diabolical anthology that showcases volatile human beings being wronged, and how they (over) react. These kinds of films often have multiple directors, so consistency tends to be a problem. Not so here. Argentinian Szifron scripts and choreographs each of his short films spectacularly and the end result is… well, wild.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Tusk (2014)

THREE-STARS 200x50

“He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath—‘The horror! The horror!’” —Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
     One of the most disturbing scenes, arguably, in Tobe Hooper’s original ’Texas Chain Saw Massacre is when Sally Hardesty regains consciousness to find herself bound to a chair alongside the family of psychopaths who have recently and systematically eviscerated her four friends. She begins to scream, naturally, and her dinner companions, oddly surprised by her distress, ridicule her by mimicking her cries. That scene is sick and scary enough… until you notice they have actually set a place for her at table.
     Kevin Smith has clearly seen that film, and remembers that scene particularly, because he recreates it, in a way, in his unsettling comic horror yarn Tusk. Wallace Bryton regains consciousness to find himself secured in a wheelchair, clearly missing something. Across the way sits his host, Howard Howe, a seafaring man who explains to Wallace that his present predicament is due to having been bitten by a spider, a brown recluse, and that he needed to take drastic action before the poison reached Wallace’s spine. The scene is sick and scary enough… until Howe, who speaks in an oddly lyrical and fanciful tongue, recites “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” replete with childlike, exaggerated hand movements while Wallace screams, naturally, and struggles impotently.
     The horror! It’s right there in the evocative eyes of Justin Long (Live Free or Die Hard) who plays the unfortunate Wallace, an obnoxious guerilla podcaster who’s traveled to Canada to interview a viral YouTuber. Back in the States, Wallace and his fuzzy friend Teddy Craft produce a sophomoric show, the “Not-See Party” broadcast, but Wallace winds up party himself to a sick and twisted experiment he could “not see” coming.
     In fact, it’s all in the eyes—after Howe has worked his indelicate handiwork, Wallace is left to communicate almost solely through them, drooling like a baby and barking like a seal. But communicate he does. Those eyes say everything as Wallace blubbers away. Kudos to Long here. Wallace was unappealing, but we have nothing but sympathy for his reincarnation as Mr. Tusk. And veteran actor Michael Parks, who appeared in Smith’s previous production Red State and plays Howe here, is fed some simply delicious dialogue by Smith and delivers it in a performance that manages to evoke both laughter and terror, often in the same scene. “To solve a riddle older than the Sphinx. To answer the question which has plagued us since we first crawled from this Earth and stood erect in the sun. Is man, indeed, a walrus at heart?” Howe’s a nut job, yes indeedy.
     Haley Joel Osment plays fellow podcaster Teddy, Genesis Rodriguez is Wallace’s girlfriend Ally, and that’s a semi-recognizable Guy Lapointe, sort of, as the private investigator they team up with to find their missing-in-Manitoba friend. Filmmaker offspring Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Melody Depp almost steal the show as a pair of convenience store clerks who are entertained by Wallace’s fake-looking moustache, less so with his country of origin. No matter; Colleen and Colleen will be back as the leading ladies in Smith’s Yoga Hosers and Moose Jaws sometime next year to round out (it’s rumored) this demented trilogy of surgically-modified madness.
     Yes, Tusk is a stunt, a comedic dare, and a fake-looking one at times (which only seems to help, not hinder, its cause), but the darkness at the film’s heart is real and gross and truly disturbing.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Surrender Dorothy (1998)

THREE-STARS 200x50

Two theatrical films released in 1998 bore the title Surrender Dorothy—how weird is that?—and of the pair, the feature debut of Philadelphia filmmaker Kevin DiNovis is certainly the weirder; the second film is a dead-daughter drama starring Diane Keaton that nobody saw.
     DiNovis’s “dark comedy of gender manipulation” is a stark, no-budget affair, filmed in high-contrast black and white which serves to render its seedy goings-on even seedier. Mostly set in a spare, oddly-furnished basement, the film features DiNovis as a junkie named Lanh who, early in the film, makes off with his roommate’s stash and winds up on the doorstep of said roommate’s best friend, Trevor (sympathetically played by Peter Pryor). Trevor, who has difficulty associating with women, agrees to let Lanh hide out and to provide him with his daily heroin fix, on the condition that the addict submit to his creepy desires.
     Things start out kinkily enough, with Trevor manipulating Lanh in a master/slave dynamic, including dressing him up as the girl of his dreams and calling him “Dorothy.” But events eventually take a more macabre turn… about the time Lanh stumbles across a list of overdue library books sporting such gleeful titles as Gender Reclassification and Castration Rituals.
     DiNovis has a dead eye for detail, framing his shots carefully, and an excellent ear for deadpan humor. The Philadelphia-area locations are also fun to catch—that’s Camden’s former Riverfront State Prison at the base of the Ben Franklin bridge—as is Elizabeth Banks, credited as Elizabeth Casey in her bubbly screen debut, as the fetching blonde Lanh meets at a laundromat. But by the time this Surrender Dorothy reaches its dramatic, knife- (make that scissor-) edge finale, you might be wishing you’d opted for the Keaton flick instead.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Blue Caprice (2013)

THREE-STARS 200x50

Will a person with nothing do anything to feel something? Teenager Lee Boyd Malvo was living, barely, in Antigua when he fell in with John Allen Muhammad, who was vacationing with his three young children. Muhammad took the boy under his wing, eventually flew him home to Washington State, groomed him as a cold-blooded killer, and unleashed him on Washington, D.C. Blue Caprice tells the back story of the 2002 Beltway sniper shootings and has been dramatized with care and attention by first-time director Alexandre Moors. Moors spends almost all of the film’s running time documenting the developing relationship between the two men rather than focusing on the killings, refusing to settle for exploitation. The film is stylishly drawn, with excellent performances by Isaiah Washington as Muhammad and Tequan Richmond as his malleable prodigy. Attempting to understand what makes serial killers tick is a mug’s game and Moors doesn’t go there. Instead, he concentrates on the circumstances at play, laying out the game plan, detailing the doomed-from-the-outset father/son relationship until its inevitable yet strangely calm conclusion in a Maryland rest area. Blue Caprice is a bone-chilling experience that slowly unveils the corrupting power of evil on an impressionable young mind.


(c) 2015 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com