November 08, 2017

The Little Hours

The Little Hours, a happily deranged comedy from writer-director Jeff Baena, doesn’t always work, but you have to admire the movie’s exuberant madness. It is by turns a Monty Python-esque period spoof, an improv comedy wet dream (the dialogue is mostly extemporized, the setting deliberately anarchic), and a philosophical meditation on the nature of existence. (It’s based on two stories from The Decameron.) The film is set in a Medieval convent somewhere in the Italian countryside, where three nuns, named Sister Alessandra, Sister Fernanda, and Sister Genevra (Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, and Kate Micucci, respectively) experience a sexual awakening. These three nuns look out upon their drab, cloistered little world with a kind of yearning that they can barely put into words. Then along comes the hunky young serf Massetto, (Dave Franco), who’s on the run from his angry master, Lord Bruno (Nick Offerman) after sleeping with the man’s wife (the delightful, snarky Lauren Weedman, whose dialogue is the equivalent of an endless series of glaring eyerolls).  


The three sisters are all immediately drawn to Massetto, partly because he’s pretending to be deaf and mute, a ruse devised by the priest (John C. Reilly) who runs the convent. Massetto’s silence is for his own protection, against the volcanic temper of Sister Fernanda. Early in the movie, when she and the others are passing by the previous gardener, she unleashes her comic fury, hurling curse words and turnips at him because she dislikes the convent food. The allegedly deaf-mute Massetto, non-threatening yet smoldering, emboldens the women to act on long-repressed sexual desires.


Then again, what would you do if the puppy-eyed, svelte Dave Franco showed up at your doorstep? Genuflect by day, and carouse by night, of course. The sisters, it turns out, are far more evolved than perhaps even they realize. It’s as if they’ve been waiting for something to set their desires into motion. And Sister Fernanda, in particular, isn't content with washing garments and tending the garden and saying her morning prayers: When she whips up a love potion using belladonna weed, she has more on her mind than romance: Sister Fernanda is part of a coven of witches, and she has her eye on Massetto as a potential sacrifice for an upcoming fertility ritual (!).


Even though The Little Hours can be jarring in its tonal shifts (the movie may be guilty of trying to be too many things), it’s never boring, and the performances have an other-worldly quality, partly because the dialogue is all modern. This anachronistic touch works especially because Baena doesn’t rely on it too much. The fact that Plaza, Brie, and Micucci talk like women from 2017 who’ve been transported back to 1398 (they curse like sailors, or perhaps teenagers posting selfies on Instagram), is a gimmick, but not the film's only source of comedy. It’s just a device made to loosen things up, so that Baena and his cast can explore and make fun of the world they've created, including the ways that the characters (and by extension, most humans) compartmentalize their lives. For example: John C. Reilly's priest, who’s in love with the soft-spoken mother superior (Molly Shannon). Their love isn’t portrayed as sleazy or clandestine; it’s longing and tender, and almost tragic in the way the romance in Brokeback Mountain was tragic, because it’s arbitrarily forbidden by the culture in which they live. The performances alone make The Little Hours worth seeing. All three of the leads seem to be harboring little sticks of comic dynamite inside them, and you never know when the next explosion will happen. All you can do is wait for one of them to get that look in her eyes.

November 05, 2017

Notes from the Underground

Hello again. Excuse me as I begin to wipe the cobwebs off this little corner of the Internet. Today, I have at long last renewed my domain for Panned Review. When the domain lapsed in July, I was unable to renew it because Google’s process is deep and mysterious, like a Christopher Nolan movie. And like Nolan, I would try to explain it to you better, only I don’t fully understand it myself. At any rate, it was not a simple one-click solution. In the midst of this, my feelings about writing movie reviews were all a-flutter, partly due to personal reasons, partly because trying to write movie reviews for fun can be a challenge when you teach English full time, and there are papers to grade and books to read. On the other hand, I’ve gotten to contribute a few pieces to another blog, Filmview, run by my friend Konstantinos Pappis. So the question loomed: Should I continue this long-running blog or not? For now, the answer is yes. I’m also happy to say that a new project is in the works: a podcast. More information about that when it’s available. For now, I’m enclosing some mini-reviews of movies I’ve seen this year but never wrote about.

Atomic Blonde – Those who say a female James Bond is out of the question are quickly proved wrong by this fast-moving, neon-enameled comic book of a movie, in some ways a companion to John Wick. In both films, the action scenes are extremely well-choreographed and the tension is almost always punctuated by some little bit of humor. Atomic Blonde is ultimately a unique and fascinating movie all on its own, even if the premise (an American spy facing off with Russians in Germany during the end of the Cold War) has already been trod endlessly. Charlize Theron delivers a convincing performance as Lorraine, a mysterious woman whose allegiance is never clear to us. Theron’s performance is icy and sharp, yet vulnerable, a combination that few Bond actors have ever been able to master, and James McAvoy makes for a worthy love interest/villain. But what strikes me most about Atomic Blonde is that it’s one of the most visually interesting movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found myself tuning out the dialogue (some of which was too functional and technical at times) because I was so fascinated by the images. And of course, it’s awash in 80s references, from the music to the costumes, and resembles, in its most exciting moments, a music video right out of the the early days of MTV. Directed by David Leitch. Also starring John Goodman.

Kong: Skull IslandKong: Skull Island feels like it was made by people who obsessively watched Apocalypse Now, mining it for inspiration, but their commitment to showing the audience a good time is such a welcome thing that the film's ostentatious references to Vietnam movies hardly bothered me. Especially when so few movies like this (take note, Jurassic World) feel interesting or have any personality. Skull Island takes place in the 70s, so its strikingly ethnically diverse cast feels almost anachronistic. This motley group of scientists, soldiers, and other hangers-on embarks on a doomed expedition to the ends of the earth: Skull Island. The island is essentially concealed inside a dangerous hurricane-force atmosphere. And it's home to an ancient indigenous tribe and a variety of ghastly prehistoric monsters, not to mention the great King Kong. Kong once again feels like a lovable beast, one we truly care about, and while the film’s overstuffed Vietnam commentary may be somewhat forced and obvious, it sure does make for a colorful entertainment. Samuel L. Jackson plays a bomb-crazy colonel with the usual ideas about colonialism; Brie Larson is a war photographer, Tom Hiddleston a rogue adventurer, and John Goodman a government wonk. With John C. Reilly, who's genuinely touching as a WW2 soldier who's been stranded on Skull Island for 30 years, a godlike prize for the natives. It's a hodgepodge that works. Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Mother! – Darren Aronofksy is not a director after my own heart. I disliked Black Swan immensely, and I found Mother! pretty insufferable too. Jennifer Lawrence plays the young wife of a struggling poet, (Javier Bardem). This once happy couple lives in a beautiful country estate, the home Bardem’s character grew up in, apparently. They’re expecting a baby, and Lawrence’s character is wrapped up in redecorating the whole house, which is a bit of a fixer-upper. That’s when their domestic tranquility is shattered by the appearance of a strange couple, played by Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer. The movie descends into a kind of domestic nightmare as increasingly bizarre things happen and the wife feels alienated from her husband, whose commitment to hospitality borders on the pathological. It’s a surreal experience, one that may titillate some viewers with all its literary references (to the Bible, Dante’s Inferno, among others, and its more general pap about the artist’s struggle). But Jennifer Lawrence spends the entire film reacting in horror to the admittedly horrible things happening to her; I much prefer Lawrence when she’s strong or funny (like her deliciously arch performance in the otherwise middling American Hustle). Mother! is also a maddeningly ugly film, visually speaking, a far cry from the rapturous beauty of the film below.

Suspiria (1977) – I’ve already reviewed Suspiria, but I must take a moment to rave about the experience of seeing it this October on the big screen, at Jacksonville’s own Sun-Ray Cinema. Before the movie began, we were treated to a brief intro by star Jessica Harper herself, which she recorded as a little gift to the fans. I’ve never considered myself a devotee of Suspiria, because the film’s plot is so haphazard. But seeing its garish colors on that massive screen turned me into a believer. The point of Suspiria is that it’s a chaotic, nightmarish experience, a frenetic symphony of artistic terror. Dario Argento doesn’t have the time, the patience, or the desire to nail every detail of the plot together, and why should he when he’s capturing a film this beautiful and terrifying? The horrifying double murder, minutes after the opening credits, is one of the prime examples: We never know where the threat is coming from, or what the threat is capable of. And the unreal, dazzlingly ornate set designs, which are more like the acid trips of an art major than actual movie sets, reinforce the feeling of otherworldliness. Suspiria has energy and vitality and spookiness to spare, and I’m so happy I got to see it with an audience.

Wind River – A surprisingly effective mystery-thriller, set in a desolate, snow-encased town in the Wyoming wilderness. Elizabeth Olsen plays a hotshot FBI agent who teams up with a somber, intuitive tracker (Jeremy Renner) to investigate a very cold case – the rape and gruesome murder of a young Native American woman, whose body was found deep in the mountains. Wind River becomes less about whodunit and more about the ways a place can be so hard and harsh that its conditions wear on your very soul. And yet, Wind River never feels like an inhuman film. The characters that populate it are interesting and all too human, only they’ve been living in isolation too long. The film takes a surprising turn at the end, revealing to us everything that happened, via flashback. It feels jarring at first, but director Taylor Sheridan’s focus is on the people, not the scintillating, pulpy surface story. That’s what makes Wind River such a satisfying movie. The standoff scene, between Olsen, several other agents, and a handful of methy bad guys, is tense and well-constructed. And Jeremy Renner, as always, lends a certain anchor-like presence. I can never not enjoy him in a movie.

July 08, 2017

"The House" goes too far, which is exactly what comedies should be doing.

In The House, straight-laced suburban couple Kate (Amy Poehler) and Scott (Will Ferrell) Johansen, strapped for their daughter’s college tuition, go into the casino business with their self-destructive friend Frank (Jason Mantzoukas), whose wife is leaving him and whose house is about to go into foreclosure. Their venue: Frank’s nearly empty house (the wife took all the furniture except for some chairs and a TV), which looks a little bit like the one from The Brady Bunch. Their clientele: all of their friends and neighbors in the sleepy little community of Fox Meadow. Fox Meadow, a perfectly manicured hamlet of square houses and square people, feels utterly boringly real, and the movie quickly recasts both the people and the place in a new, delightfully alarming alternate universe. The House envisions suburban America as a prison in which “keeping up with the Joneses” is really just a form of self-imprisonment. The movie’s mission? Parole, for very bad behavior.


The House, though an imperfect comedy, has a delightfully dark and looney sensibility. The director, Andrew J. Cohen, co-wrote Neighbors (2014) with Brendan O’Brien, and they reunited for the screenplay on The House. Both Neighbors and The House have something that most other recent comedies lack: a willingness to descend into madness and never return. There’s no big attempt at reforming the protagonists once they delve into their bizarre business endeavor.

And this trio, Poehler, Ferrell, and Mantzoukas, is weird in all the right ways. They embrace their glamorous life of crime just as you would expect suburban people to do so: to them, it’s as if they’ve somehow traveled into an episode of The Sopranos. Their homegrown casino suggests a lurid, grown-up fairy tale, and also the adult equivalent of a Looney Toons short.


Frank is the self-destructive one, and the catalyst for Kate and Scott’s own descent into transgressive behavior. But they’ve always had this urge in them. They’re weirdos at heart who’ve been in suburbia for too long. We get hints of this by their interactions with their daughter, Alex (Ryan Simpkins), like when they try to inform her about date rape with an improvised “scenario” that goes horribly wrong.

The turning point is the scene in which Will Ferrell accidentally chops off a customer’s middle finger with an axe in Jason Mantzoukas’s garage. They have just caught the man counting cards, and in a hasty decision, they strong-arm him out of the casino with plans to scare him. But he’s a legit criminal who works for some tough crime boss (Jeremy Renner, who figures in a hilarious cameo in the third act), not at all intimidated by these three “soccer moms” as he calls them. Scott, who has so much repressed rage (or is it merely repressed passion from the dullness of his very normal life?) strikes, intending to scare the man, but instead hacks off his finger. And then, in full-on Italian splatter movie style, blood spurts everywhere, dousing Ferrell’s face as he screams in horror at his actions. That’s when people start calling him “The Butcher,” and acquires a new degree of fear-based respect from his neighbors.

But it’s not just Ferrell’s character who’s transformed by their foray into illegal gambling. The casino brings out the Id in everybody: two men engage in a knock-down-drag-out fight, but before they can commence, the other customers turn it into a betting war, and the “house” begins to host fights between neighbors; two women, who have fired passive aggressive shots at each other in town hall meetings past, take their aggressions to the ring, in an amazingly brutal, uncomfortable scene.


So few comedies have the courage of their convictions. They want to shake things up temporarily but then restore normalcy. (This is the Judd Apotow syndrome, and it has had a deadly effect on the genre.) But The House wants to tear “normal” to shreds. The new identity that Scott and Kate have formed for themselves reignites their passion for each other, their sense of being alive. The House goes too far, which is exactly what comedies should be doing. We’ll figure out the boundaries later.


With Nick Kroll (as the tyrannical town council chairman), Michaela Watkins, Cedric Yarbrough, Rob Huebel, and Lennon Parham.