Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Parents Just Don't Understand: MOM AND DAD

It doesn’t come together with the sick jangled joy of writer-director Brian Taylor’s best films (grubby, manically entertaining action efforts Crank and Gamer, which he made as half of Neveldine/Taylor), but his first solo effort, sloppy, nervy horror film Mom and Dad, packs a perverse punch. It’s a novel take on the zombie subgenre, exploding suburbia not with a metaphor for materialism or racism, but a gross inversion of the helicopter parent. Now the folks aren’t invested all-consumingly in their children’s every move, but are activated through mysterious signals in snowy TV channels to want to kill them. This leads to several bracing, darkly comic set-pieces, starting with a twisted pick-up at the local high school, middle-aged suburbanites rioting at the bus line to attack their kids. They climb fences, and chase the fleeing teens across the football field, bewildered police launching tear gas to no effect as backpacks are flung and apple-cheeked youngsters are tackled by suddenly-malevolent paternal bulk. Worst (but also best, in its way) is a sequence set in a maternity ward. The screaming, crying, gasping, blood-curdling, darkly funny stretch, shot in quick cuts of queasy shaking shots and scored to Roxette’s “It Must Have Been Love,” is the only horror movie scene in ages to have me looking away from the screen, wiggling my knees, and whispering “no, no, no” under my breath for the duration.

Rather than indulge in the concept’s epic potential, Taylor keeps the focus narrow on one particular family. A teen bad girl (Anne Winters) and her innocent younger brother (Zackary Arthur) find their usual days of ducking their parents’ mid-life crises upended by the sudden murderous intent. Granted, Dad (Nicolas Cage) had already sledgehammered a pool table while singing “The Hokey Poky” three weeks prior, so they weren’t exactly a picture of normalcy to begin with. (An early scene of Cage playfully tickling his kid is shot with wiggly intensity despite the benign intent.) Still, when Mom (Selma Blair) joins in on the homicidal gleefulness, it’s hard not to feel the kids’ panic while they’re huddling together, at a loss for what to do in the face of this insanity. The performances are all perfectly committed, but none more so than Cage and Blair who sink in with convincingly unhinged violent persistence. Taylor’s manic pace and uneven whirlwind tone never quite hooks into the dread of the concept – outside the hospital scenes – and ramps up the intensity so quickly that it’s not until the climax kicks the whole thing into a next-level dark comic scramble that it really becomes something extra special. At 83 minutes, it somehow still feels too long. Perhaps a film tighter and more clever could’ve done more, but what’s here is cheap, grimy, bloody, occasionally funny, often upsetting, and always wonderfully demented. It’s just the right amount of interestingly bad and almost good to make a fine minor cult classic someday.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Fire and Ice: I, TONYA

Yes, I, Tonya, Craig Gillespie's rollicking whiplash darkly comic recreation of Tonya Harding's ice skating career, is a sports movie with an arc of scandal and tragedy. It would have to be, following the inevitable unlikely rise and tabloid-violence fall of an Olympic hopeful. But what the movie is about underneath these grabby trappings is digging into the psychology of a woman in an abusive relationship. She (Margot Robbie) is used to getting hit. Her prickly, chain-smoking, boozy mother (a tough, biting Allison Janney) chips away at her for years with mean-spirited jabs and frequent smacks. When she escapes, as a late teen, into the arms of her first real boyfriend (Sebastian Stan, with a shyly dangerous charisma unseen in his Marvel pictures), he hits her too. "I told myself, my mom hits me and she loves me," Harding tells us with a honey-drip affection in her voice. It's harrowing and sad, a film intermingling the glowing romance she feels with the bruised eyes and raw scrapes of a battered woman. All the while her skating career is taking off, the thrill of her graceful athleticism sitting next to her hard-scrabble poverty as she has to fight classism and snobbery at every step of the way. She sews her own costumes, which are pretty but not quite the pageant-level shine of the fussy rich girls who dominate the sport. It's not just about talent; it's about image. 

By the time Tonya’s handsome dope of an abusive beau -- now her on-again-off-again husband -- gets it in his head, with prompting from a buddy of enormous, stupidly delusional self-confidence (Paul Walter Hauser, with a convincing bovine look), to intimidate Harding's closest rival, the ensuing chaos threatens to snuff out Tonya's life-long dream. By this point Gillespie -- providing a booming jukebox score, overlapping voice over perspectives, and an active, swirling camera with insistent, pushing editing (a very David O. Russell approach for this usually more restrained journeyman) -- has made it clear the whole incident will be no less than the final parting smack of this abusive husband. Steven Rogers’ screenplay skips around between characters’ competing, overlapping versions of events, sometimes even stopping the action to have another character in the scene turn to the camera and say “I never did this.” It creates a swirling triple-axle of tone, allowing Tonya’s pain to be centered in every telling. This neither excuses her complicity, nor lays all blame at her feet. The film overemphatically pushes and prods at the real complexity under the tabloid sensationalism while using it to raucous effect.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Art Attack: THE SQUARE

Ruben Östlund makes thesis movies, films laying out clinical observations about human interactions and then slowly working out a variety of scenarios in response that serve to bolster the central argument. It worked so well in his prickly, icily perceptive Force Majeure – a mercilessly contained film about a ski trip that turns sour when the dopey dad flees an avalanche and leaves his wife and kids to fend for themselves, an act of cowardice that’s even more pathetic when the disaster doesn’t strike – that there’s little wonder The Square can’t compete in focused anxiety. It drifts and wanders where the earlier film bored down with unflinching examination. But Östlund remains an expert dramatist of exceptional awkward encounters, scenes squirming with discomfort. It makes for a compelling watch. Here the plot precariously teeters (wobbling on the line between too-obvious and too-obtuse) on a Stockholm museum of contemporary art where good progressive values and high-minded boundary pushing are all well and good until they’re put to the test in the lives of the curator (Claes Bang) and his staff. This is heightened by Östlund’s stubborn camera, locked down in such a way that often leaves a confrontation bifurcated, half playing out off screen. It’s about reactions, about the complications stirring up distress despite and because of our inability to completely understand what’s going on.

Contained in a gallery – piles of ashen gravel; a wall-sized video portrait of a growling man; a pile of chairs with a scraping soundtrack – it’s fine, even noble, to see provocations. But then a pickpocket’s convoluted scheme interrupts a morning commute, a patron with Tourette’s constantly and profanely interrupts an artist (Dominic West) during a serious Q&A session, a journalist (Elisabeth Moss) interrogates her one-night-stand while a docent peers around the corner to eavesdrop, callow young ad men propose a nasty viral video to promote a peaceful installation, or a performance artist (Terry Notary) monkeying around escalates anxiety in a posh fundraising dinner. Well, that’s another thing entirely. Here’s a world of big money donors and thoughtful artists while beggers sit ignored on the street outside before them. How productive is an interest in being provoked if it’s only to be easily digested and safely squared away? Early in the film, the curator explains a conundrum: will anything become art if placed in an art museum? What, then, about the opposite? Is a provocation only fruitful when safely walled-off? What is a boundary of good taste, of free speech, of proper behavior? This is a fussily meandering movie, slowly interrogating the ideas by knocking the characters out of their comfort zones and then pulling them back, leaving them frazzled. The movie slowly accrues, and ultimately peters out, but moment by fascinatingly uncomfortable moment it’s hilariously sharp. Painstakingly dissected encounters, pulled off with fine deadpan slightly-heightened realism, become, at their best, sustained tremors of pleasurable suspenseful disruption.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...