Kong: Skull Island (2016)

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Who doesn’t love Brie Larson? (Other than Casey Affleck I mean.) She’s The Indie Girl Next Door, after all, America’s Dressed-Down Sweetheart—what’s not to love? I’ll tell you who does love Brie Larson: King Kong.
     Larson plays second banana to the monster monkey in Kong: Skull Island, the Fay Wray/Jessica Lange/Naomi Watts foil to a 100-foot gorilla courtesy Industrial Light & Magic. But despite having recently won an Oscar for Room, she cannot save this 100-foot turkey. When she’s not simply staring wide-eyed off camera at something big or gross or both, she’s spouting lines of banal dialogue like (paraphrased) “I’ve filmed enough mass graves to know one when I see one.” Actually, the giant simian skeletons and stench of death tipped us off.
     But Ms. Larson is not alone here. Nobody can save this film. Not John Goodman, as a shady government consultant who leads a team of explorers onto an uncharted island. Not Tom Hiddleston, as the perfectly-coiffed tracker he hires to run through the jungle (and not look back). Not even Samuel L. Jackson, whose team of vets provide the military escort. And especially not John C. Reilly, undoing a fine acting career in one fell sweep, as a whack job who’s been living on the island since WWII. This lot are an embarrassment.
     The biggest problem with the film though is its direction (credited to one Jordan Vogt-Roberts). Who entrusts a $200 million movie to someone with a single independent feature to his credit? The question is rhetorical but the answer is Legendary. Vogt-Roberts is in so much of a hurry to get to the island and deliver the goods—Kong is a pretty amazing creation—that he tosses pacing and logic and character development aside and we never see them again. Kong: Skull Island is not so much edited as slapped together, scene after incoherent scene with no transitions, no continuity in tone, no rationale for being, no fact checking in sight. The military sequences are all faux Michael Bay, helicopters in slo-mo, grunts kicking back, CCR flooding the soundtrack—the film is set in 1973, just post Vietnam, so why not.
     Throughout, Larson’s anti-war photographer clicks her camera, is awestruck, and smiles, awkwardly. Oh wait. She does notice that a massive water buffalo has been trapped by a fallen helicopter and tries to lift the entire smoking fuselage solo. Surprisingly, she is not strong enough. We love you Brie, but even you should have called a halt right there and questioned the senselessness of this undertaking.
     Numbskull Island, anyone?


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Raw (2016)

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My friend Joshua Tanzer passed out during the screening of a movie once. Don’t worry; I’m not publicly humiliating him here—he already made the papers, so his weak constitution is out there for all to read (see page six!). The movie was Ki-duk Kim’s raw yet beautiful The Isle and the scene which put Josh over the edge involved the consumption of fishhooks. What happened was, he stepped out for some air following the sequence in question and collapsed in the doorway on the way out of the theater.  The New York Post was there to give him his fifteen minutes of dubious fame though: “Being a movie critic isn’t as easy as you might think,” they wagged.
     A word of advice for the founder and editor of OffOffOff.com, “The guide to alternative New York,” who admitted to the ‘Post he has a low threshold for gore: you might want to give Raw a miss.
     Julia Ducournau’s queasy little shocker is the latest Gallic envelope pusher to wash up on these distant shores in viscera-red waves aplenty. Raw has a lot more in common with the we-are-what-we-eat ethos of Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day (aka Cannibal Love) than the torture porn of Pascal Laugier’s brutal Martyrs, but for some reason torture porn carries more cred than cannibalism.
     “Until now….”
     Unlike The Isle, for which there appears to be only one documented incident of a viewer requiring medical attention, Raw has had patrons dropping like flies, including at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival where paramedics were called in to treat multiple milksops who had fainted during a midnight screening of the sexy cannibal horror film.
     To the credit of the French, they do make some meaty splatterfests, especially lately—the aforementioned Trouble Every Day and Martyrs, as well as Inside, High Tension (aka Switchblade Romance), and the oddly-punctuated Frontier(s). Artforum‘s James Quandt has labeled this recent phenom the New French Extremity and describes it this way: “Bava as much as Bataille, Salo no less than Sade seem the determinants of a cinema suddenly determined to break every taboo, to wade in rivers of viscera and spumes of sperm, to fill each frame with flesh, nubile or gnarled, and subject it to all manner of penetration, mutilation, and defilement.”
     And this was before Raw bowed its bloody head late last year.
     Justine’s family are vegetarians. And veterinarians. Vegetarian veterinarians. Now it’s time for her to enter the prestigious vet school her parents attended, and where her older sister Alexia is currently enrolled. Only we don’t understand that right away. It’s not clear what this place is, exactly. A hospital? A sanitarium? A military academy or prison? An educational institution of some sort? Probably the last of these, since the minute Justine flops down in her dorm room, the door bursts open and the hazing rituals begin.  Hazing, it appears, is big on campus. The first-year students–rookies they’re called–are subjected to all manner of unpleasant initiations: buckets of blood dumped on their heads, Carrie-style; trotted around on all fours, Salo-style; and forced to consume raw rabbit sweetbreads. It’s actually Alexia who goads her sister into breaking her no-meat vow, but falling off the vegetable wagon has a profound and disturbing effect on Justine. She develops an insatiable appetite for flesh—a raw chicken breast straight from the refrigerator, a kebab from a mini mart, a hamburger pocketed from the cafeteria. And then, following a Brazilian waxing accident, delicacies of a more familial nature (finger food never tasted so good!). In addition to the hazing, there’s the anarchic partying, raves upon drunken raves with little evidence of academic rigor. What kind of professional school is this anyway? Anyway, as expected, things go from liver to wurst and by the film’s conclusion Justine has learned her family’s deepest, darkest secret.
     While Ducournau’s film is darkly atmospheric and features a singularly-committed lead performance from Garance Marillier, the newbie director’s modus is clearly shock first, tell a sympathetic story later. Both the setup and the setting are more than a little fuzzy and the characters’ motivations rarely make sense. I myself did not drop like a fly, because I found the whole thing a little too calculated to generate any personal distress. In fact, I thought it was stupid and preposterous and I have a pretty high tolerance for absurdity in the genre. But in order to identify with full-on cannibalism the screenplay’s got to have a little more meat on its bones.
     “What are you hungry for?” questions the film’s publicity art. I think I’ll go with the fishhooks. Raw, I’m sorry to say, is just offal.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Rat (2000)

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Rat is a complete and utter shaggy dog story set in Ireland, only the shaggy dog is a rat. And it’s a real rat at that, rattus norvegicus, not some poorly-designed animatronic rodent that pops up from out of a tin of biscuits—”Cream Crackers? Digestives? Ryvita?”—despite the production being financed by the Jim Henson Company. Steve Barron’s film is a boisterous, PG-rated family affair, populated with wonderfully colorful characters and driven by wall-to-wall zaniness. Family-friendly, I suppose, even though Pete Postlethwaite does appear buck naked, covering his unmentionables with a duck. Unfortunately, it all goes on a bit too long.
     But shorter than 90 minutes would have meant a lot less of Imelda Staunton (vile Professor Umbridge in the Harry Potter films) who, as usual, is magnificent. Staunton plays Conchita Flynn, a Dublin housewife whose husband Hubert (Postlethwaite) returns from the pub one evening and promptly turns into a rat—poof!—like it’s the most natural thing in the world. As Conchita describes the tabloid-worthy event, “He was just in from the pub, lyin’ down with a paper, as was his wont, pickin’ out the horses for tomorrow. And I was goin’ ’round the room, and collectin’ up the dirty clothes, and makin’ a few gentle remarks on the subject of personal hygiene. And he was lyin’ there, lettin’ on like he didn’t hear me. So I was quietly rippin’ the newspaper out of his hands, in order to gain his attention, when…”
     We don’t witness the transformation (ala An American Werewolf in London) per se. There’s just a rat sat on Hubert’s chair five minutes in, faced with a full Irish breakfast and Conchita’s complainin’ about him leavin’ droppings all over the good doilies.
     The odd family caught up in all this straight-faced silliness include daughter Marietta (Kerry Condon), always snogging; son Pious (Andrew Lovern), studying for the priesthood; and pompous Uncle Frank (Frank Kelly), who’s constantly spewing dubious factoids—”What you’ve got to appreciate is that turnin’ into a rat causes severe contraction of the ecephalogical muscles and blockage of the nuerolaptical tubes.” There’s also a sketchy earring-wearing reporter, Phelim Spratt (David Wilmot), who wants to capture the whole Kafka-esque shenanigans in a book (rhymes with nuke). Writer Wesley Burrowes is clearly having fun.
     With an eclectic soundtrack that works in songs by Doris Day, Alan Dee & The Chessmen, Coast to Coast, and Rosemary Clooney alongside familiar standards by von Tilzer (“A Bird in a Gilded Cage”) and Orff (“O Fortuna”), Rat is a terrific showcase for the wonderfully versatile Staunton, although even she can’t prevent the film from running out of steam before (SPOILER!) Hubert’s reappearance in the altogether slash fridge.
     Perhaps the film’s tagline sums things up best: “He might eat maggots and live in a cage but he’s still our Dad.”


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

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What a thoroughly fabulous actress Hailee Steinfeld is. She’s the heart and soul of The Edge of Seventeen, a coming-of-teen-age drama about a nerdy high schooler who, well… comes of age, a little too hurriedly in the film’s closing moments perhaps but not enough to spoil the experience. We still come away feeling good and happy for this young woman who has been struggling with her older, more popular brother hooking up with her best and only friend. Watching Steinfeld is like watching Emma Stone in the similarly-schooled Easy A and she’s as good as Stone was in that film: front and center, focused, and very funny. Steinfeld is amazingly confident on screen, whether going head to head with the (seasoned) likes of Woody Harrelson—refreshingly low-key—and Kyra Sedgwick—typically harried—or alongside up-and-coming peers Haley Lu Richardson (currently on show in the schizoid psycho thriller Split) and Glee’s Blake Jenner. None of this should come as any surprise to anybody who has followed Steinfeld’s career since her feature-film debut in the Coen Brothers’ True Grit. After all, the young actress—she was just fourteen at the time that remake was released in 2010—received a Best Supporting Actress for her work in the film and she sure showed her fellow performers Jeff Bridges, Josh Brolin, and Matt Damon a thing or two. In ‘Seventeen, for which she received a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress, Steinfeld applies just the right balance of sober smarts, teen angst, irreverent humor, and pugnacious likability to the role of Nadine and first-time director Kelly Fremon Craig (who also penned the marvelously pithy dialogue) gives her a wide enough berth to strut her stuff. And fantastic stuff it is too. Look for this one to go far.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Don’t Think Twice (2016)

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Improvisational comedy has three very simple rules: No. 1, Say yes; No. 2, It’s all about the group; and No. 3, Don’t think. In comic Mike Birbiglia’s engaging ensemble piece, Don’t Think Twice, rule number two is severely put to the test when a member of an improv group is given a rare chance at stardom, the opportunity to audition for an SNL-style sketch comedy show. All of a sudden, rule number two is instantly rewritten as every man for himself! The likable actors who make up the extemporaneous theatrical troupe are a sextet of familiar faces, mostly from the small screen. Key & Peele‘s Keegan-Michael Key plays Jack, the talented funnyman who lands the holy grail of gigs, Weekend Live, and slowly begins to alienate his fellow thesps (one can’t help but wonder how Key is handling Jordan Peele’s staggering success with the big-screen Get Out).Gillian Jacobs (Britta Perry on NBC’s Community) is The Commune’s front face, Samantha, although Miles (Birbiglia) considers himself the troupe’s spiritual leader, having taught several of them “everything they know.” Also on board are the saucer-eyed Kate Micucci (Raj’s odd girlfriend on The Big Bang Theory), nerdy Chris Gethard (Todd of Broad City), and writer-performer Tami Sagher, best known for MadTV. It’s fascinating learning the ins and outs—and ups and downs—of improv work while witnessing the familiar story of how fame, often fleeting, can cut to the quick, cultivating bitter jealousies along the way. As Birbiglia’s real-life wife remarked after one of his live performances, “Everyone is equally talented in this show, and yet this one person is on Saturday Night Live and this one person is a movie star and this one person lives on an air mattress in Queens.” Don’t Think Twice was inspired by that astute observation, milking the comic and tragicomic disparities in fine and finely-tuned style.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

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“Though it is a painful fact that most Negroes are hopelessly docile, many of them are filled with fury, and the unctuous coating of flattery which surrounds and encases that fury is but a form of self-preservation.” —William Styron, “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” 1967

     Overshadowed, to its severe detriment, by the 1999 rape case involving its director Nate Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, The Birth of a Nation arrives bruised and bloodied, but not without its merits, especially the film’s many fine performances. There’s Parker himself, as the literate slave preacher Nat Turner (the real-life revolutionary on whom Styron’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel was also based), Aja Naomi King (TV’s How to Get Away with Murder) as Turner’s wife Cherry, and Little Children’s Jackie Earle Haley as the evil bigot Raymond Cobb. Armie Hammer is, perhaps, a strange choice to play Samuel Turner, the Antebellum plantation owner who strikes up a deal with the local bigwigs to use Turner’s preaching to put restless slaves in their place; he doesn’t quite have the acting chops required of the role, but Penelope Ann Miller, who plays his pallid wife Elizabeth, does.
     Winner of last year’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival, The Birth of a Nation (the title echoes D.W. Griffith’s racist melodrama from 1915) is a surprisingly competent production from a first-time director. The film’s size and scope is significant, chronicling the 1831 uprising of enslaved and free African Americans in Southampton County, Virginia, yet the subtle (and not so subtle) shifts in time keep the film’s pace mostly even. Of course, the theme of man’s inhumanity is often painful to watch. Parker might well be the breakout filmmaker to watch looking forward… if he’s ever given the opportunity to work in this town again.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com

Tourist Trap (1979)

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The 1970s was the primo decade for horror movies, ripe with unquestionable classics such as The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie, The ExorcistJaws, Alien, Suspiria, Halloween, Dawn of the Dead, and Last House on the Left, to name a few.  The limp 1979 mannequin horror Tourist Trap was a late addition to the genre but despite its emphasis on atmospheric—rather than visceral—horror, it really can’t compete.  The film’s lack of gore, coupled with even less skin (despite an early skinny-dipping sequence), will leave genre fans feeling cheated.  In addition, the scares aren’t particularly shocking, just creepy.  Chuck Connors (The Rifleman) slums it as the backwoods proprietor of Slausen’s Lost Oasis, a wax museum that nobody visits anymore now that they went and built that gosh darned interstate an’ all.  When a gaggle of comely comrades (among them Tanya Roberts, who still can’t act) stumble upon the place after their car dies, Slausen uses his telekinesis-controlled mannequins to knock off the poor unfortunates rather than enjoying the unexpected business (one wonders if his telekinetic demonstrations might have sold more tickets than the waxworks themselves).  The first death scene is easily the best, insanely loud and overedited to the point of nausea, with projectiles flying, doors and windows slamming, and pinhead dummy’s mouths flapping down to emit hideous cackles and wails. Pino Donaggio’s score is a disappointment though.


(c) 2017 David N. Butterworth
butterworthdavidn@gmail.com