Saturday, December 9, 2017

"The Disaster Artist"


You know the awkward feeling when you go to a party where everyone knows everyone except you? Everyone's out there laughing about stories you don't remember and people you've never met.  Before you give in and just enjoy the frivolity, it's awkward.

That's the sensation that comes with watching The Disaster Artist.  The movie it's based on is called The Room, and it's about how a real man named Tommy Wiseau made it with a bizarre, single-minded determination that is simultaneously ridiculed and admired by everyone who sees The Room, which is often considered one of the worst movies ever made.

The Room really is an awful movie, though the truth is it's less of a legitimate attempt to make a film than the result of an amateur who had a lot of money but very little talent and even less experience.

The Disaster Artist is the host of the party for The Room -- and it assumes that if you've RSVP'd, you're good friends with everyone who's showing up.  There's a bouncy, insouciant attitude toward the proceedings, which begin with celebrities talking about their love of The Room and the affectionate respect (or is that disrespect?) they have for Wiseau, who has become an object of ironic worship.  The on-camera celebrities are names like Kristen Bell, Keegan-Michael Key, Adam Scott and J.J. Abrams, and if those names are of only hazy awareness, that may be your first cue that The Disaster Artist is going to be a little too insiderish for your taste.

I've seen The Room once -- and for the most part, it really is a once-is-enough film, a kind of experience that somehow sears itself into your memory and consciousness, though it is genuinely not good, not interesting and funny only because it is so transcendently bad.

The people who made The Disaster Artist, especially director and star James Franco, have seen it way more than once, and they largely revel in their ability to recreate the film and its multi-hyphenate creator with uncanny perfection.

James Franco and his brother Dave are the two leads of The Disaster Artist, and it's the younger Franco who registers best even though his older brother has the far showier role.  James Franco embodies the role of this weird, hulking, disturbing man with both precision and glee.  But as the film goes out of its way to say over and over again, Wiseau is a cipher: No one knows who he is, where he's from, why he's rich, how old he is, or whether he's mentally deranged.  They just know he exists, and that's all the film seems to know, too.

The Disaster Artist fully expects (as was the case with the people sitting next to me) that his mere presence will elicit chuckles.  In Wiseau-speak: He crazy person. He funny and he so weird. But The Disaster Artist doesn't take it much further than that.  James Franco is insanely good in the role, but in the way a drag queen is insanely good: The very point is not to know the performer or the character.  From a narrative standpoint, that leaves The Disaster Artist a little slack.  Tommy Wiseau is Tommy Wiseau, he allows no insight into what moves him and the film offers none.

That's where Dave Franco does the heavy lifting.  He plays actor Greg Sestero as a loyal friend, a fool who buys into Wiseau's bizarre dreams, a willing accomplice who enables every bad behavior and lousy idea Wiseau has, at least in part because he's not too smart himself, and in part because he really does admire the way Wiseau can't see his own sheer lack of talent.  Dave Franco brings more complexity and nuance to the role than maybe it deserves.

Beyond Dave Franco, the rest of the movie is not too far removed from the other Hollywood in-joke silliness that the Franco Brothers and actor/producers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg have brought to their other bawdy, ironic industry satires like This Is the End and The Interview.  The Disaster Artist is a more wholly conceived and fulfilling movie than those, but only slightly.

That's because despite James Franco's surface level impersonation of Wiseau, there is something weirdly admirable about what he accomplished even with something as stupefyingly awful as The Room: He got his movie made. People saw it. They turned it into a cult classic that has (as The Disaster Artist points out) turned a profit. And now someone's made a movie about him.

That's an astonishing degree of success for a failure, and The Disaster Artist knows it.  If you're not friends with everyone in the room, you may find this party an insufferable bore -- it's not far different from the Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham comedies of the 1970s when everyone cracked up at each others' jokes and seemed to be having way more fun than the audience.  But if you stick it out, you may find that once you figure out who's who and what's what, The Disaster Artist offers you a pretty good time.  No one is having a bigger laugh or enjoying themselves more than the host, but there's fun to be had nonetheless.

Viewed Dec. 8, 2017 -- AMC Sunset 5


Friday, December 8, 2017

"The Shape of Water"


Guillermo del Toro has made a genuinely heartfelt, impeccably and lavishly constructed romantic fantasy with The Shape of Water.  The look of the film and its presentation of its fantastic world are unassailable; but when the movie heads into romantic territory, which is frequently, it has a hard time accurately conveying the emotional states of its two unusual main characters.

Elisa Espinosa (Sally Hawkins) is a janitor working in the top-secret laboratory area of a super-secret, national-security building.  When there's an experimental rocket that needs dusting or a lab that needs to be cleaned up after an accident, Elisa and her motherly co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) go take care of things, even the pee-stained bathrooms.

At night (or rather during the day, since they work the graveyard shift), they all lead lonely lives: Zelda has a husband who never speaks, while Elisa is a mute whose only friend is her closeted next-door neighbor, Giles (Richard Jenkins).  Gloomy, yes, but their worlds are quiet and well-ordered, and they'll be changed by the arrival at the lab of a strange, humanoid aquatic creature.  As soon as Elisa sees the Creature she is mesmerized.

And while the Creature brutally attacks Strickland, the quasi-military security specialist assigned to look after it (he's played, as intensely and disturbingly as ever by Michael Shannon), it is gentle and tender with Elisa, who visits it at night. They develop a connection, and when Elisa overhears one of the doctors (Michael Stuhlbarg) implying that the Creature is going to be killed, she makes up her mind to save this gentle, fascinating specimen.

After a tremendously well-orchestrated and edited set piece detailing just how she gets the creature home, Shannon's security head begins a take-no-prisoners approach to questioning everyone who works there about what they saw that evening.  Elisa, Zelda, Giles and the shifty, possibly untrustworthy Dr. Hoffstetler fall into an alliance of protection, not just for Elisa, but for the sad and lonely Creature itself.

Played by limber-limbed actor (not politician) Doug Jones, the Creature, named the Amphibian Man in the credits, is from somewhere deep in the Amazon, just like his cinematic forebearer the Creature from the Black Lagoon.  The Shape of Water is that movie played from the opposite view, taking the approach that the classic image of the Creature holding a screaming woman could be a much different story if the woman were looking at him tenderly and locked in an embrace.

In its native environment, the Creature is revered as a god, and may indeed harness a bevy of untold powers, not the least of which is to make Elisa fall madly in love with it.  As much as it tries, though, The Shape of Water can never -- for me, at least -- quite get over that hurdle of interspecies romance.  There's a fine line between a giggle and a swoon, and though luscious to look at and listen to (thanks to Alexandre Desplat's score) and a marvel to behold as a technical achievement, The Shape of Water keeps landing on the side of the giggle.  (This romantic monster movie can be made -- just look at 1986's creepy-yet-lovestruck The Fly.)

Small subplots with Elisa's neighbor Giles and Shannon's security chief never really go anywhere or add much substance (though they amp up the weirdness, sometimes distractingly), and while thoroughly wonderful in her role Spencer can never seem to move much beyond playing the sidekick.

These are not insignificant hurdles for the movie, which pops with moments of seemingly unnecessary violence and gore, but still ... there is so much to recommend here.  The romance may not be as vivid or aching as the movie hopes it to be, but it is sweet and captivating nonetheless, and the movie goes overboard to place us in a highly stylized, glamorized version of its quite-specific setting: Baltimore, 1962.  The optimistic over-confidence in militarized science and corporate branding, underscored by a bright and bouncy mentality of super-consumerism, is everywhere.  It's deliciously undercut by a pessimistic self-awareness of what all of that Space Age sprightliness would lead to, and the ugly racial and social tensions beneath it all.

The Shape of Water may be more satisfying as a visual experience than an emotional one, though the real passion that del Toro and his cast try valiantly to bring to the romance will almost certainly feel genuine to many, especially with an ending that is undeniably gorgeous and affecting.  If The Shape of Water doesn't quite float for me, that doesn't mean the cinematic ocean in which it swims isn't worth diving into and seeing for yourself.  It's quite a beautiful thing.

Viewed December 7, 2017 -- Cinerama Dome


Wednesday, December 6, 2017

"The Post"


Maybe I'm just a sucker for this story.  I mean, I still get the newspaper delivered at home, and one or the other of us still trudges out to the driveway in all kinds of weather to pick it up, unfold it and, it's true these days I fear, not read it.  There's no denying newspapers lack vitality and relevance, but there was a time ... oh, there was a time.

And what Steven Spielberg's intensely satisfying movie The Post reminds us of most urgently is that there is no more important time than now.  The thrum and pulse of the printing press may not be as vibrant, there is no hot lead, there are no ashtrays lining endless desks of newsrooms with ink-stained thumbs clack-clack-clacking on typewriter keys.  No, those days are over, and The Post treats them almost as legend, as days about which we can do little more than marvel because they will never return.

But the spirit of those days ... ah.  That spirit is what lives on most mightily, and is what we need to protect. The ability of people who do think, argue, talk, inquire and write is treated here as mythical and heroic, and who can argue that these people, whose feats are not physical and whose names are not household words, do things that move the world?

That's what Ben Bradlee, Katharine Graham and Ben Bagdikian did.  Bagdikian -- there's a name most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, and yet he as much as Woodward and Bernstein brought down an entire government.  "Never forget," Bagdikian said later, "that your obligation is to the people. It is not, at heart, to those who pay you, or to your editor, or to your sources, or to your friends, or to the advancement of your career. It is to the public."

Those words, more than any others, inform the yearning, beating heart of The Post, a movie that wrings suspense and excitement out of a story whose ending everyone in the audience knows, a story about people who don't do a whole lot more than discuss finer points of journalistic ethics.  So, how is it that The Post is so damned ... rousing?

Credit goes, of course, to Spielberg, who for a number of years now has been hit and miss, but who found his stylistic way back with Bridge of Spies and now seems to have resumed top-of-his-game status with The Post.

But huge credit goes to the screenplay by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer, and I think, too, to the seemingly rash decision to make The Post.  The movie was just announced in March, and here it is on the screen in December, all the better for the kind of let's-just-do-this-thing mentality that pervades the movie.

And, of course, there are those huge names that dominate the poster: Streep and Hanks.  There is no way to overstate what these actors bring to the roles -- how is it they can be so visibly Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep and yet allow us to so fully buy into their characters?

In The Post, Streep plays Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham with an unexpected timidity; it's natural to expect a replay of, say, Streep-as-Margaret Thatcher or maybe a toned-down Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada, so its something of a shock to see the indomitable Katharine Graham come across as someone who's easily intimidated, not sure of her own role or its importance, aware only that she is frequently the only woman in the room, and when she's not the women are expected to go into another room to talk among themselves.

Then there's Hanks, who has the unenviable task of trying to make us forget that Ben Bradlee was played to perfection by Jason Robards Jr. in All the President's Men, which he might not do completely but maybe that's because no one, not even Tom Hanks, could erase the memory of Robards.  Here, Hanks finally manages to transcend his persistent on-screen affability; his Bradlee is not particularly well-mannered nor does he care to be -- he is tough where Katharine Graham is perceived as weak, and the way the characters (and actors) play off of each other is remarkable.

The whole cast is stellar, with Odenkirk taking a bit of an underwritten role as Bagdikian and turning it into a memorable portrait of persistence, while other actors like Sarah Paulson as Bradlee's wife, Jesse Plemmons as the Post's attorney, and Tracy Letts as one of Graham's key advisers prove that there are no small parts -- even ones that feel like something of an afterthought are given some vibrancy here.

The story, of course, turns around the Post's decision in 1971 to publish a series of articles about the "Pentagon Papers" report ordered by Robert McNamara (played eerily by Bruce Greenwood) and leaked by Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys).  The Post wasn't the first newspaper to publish the Papers, but its role turned out to be pivotal -- picking up the story after Richard Nixon attempted to prevent The New York Times from finishing what it had started.

While there's a lot of attention given to just how both newspapers came to get the Pentagon Papers and how they put the story together (co-screenwriter Josh Singer not surprisingly wrote Spotlight), what makes The Post stand so tall is that it realizes the story is only partly about the paper and even only partly about the ultra-timely and mesmerizingly relevant idea of a news organization's responsibility to investigate and reveal the truth behind the government's actions and motives.

The Post works so effectively because it's about the individual courage of both Bradlee and, mostly, Graham to take the stand.  And in that, it hits the same sort of underdog note as, say, Rocky -- it's about people who don't know if they can do what they need to do, and aren't even sure that they should, but feel a burning urgency to do it anyway.

Part historical drama, part political commentary (keep in mind, the script was written while Obama was still in office and Clinton was largely presumed the next president), and a large part personal drama, The Post is fantastic entertainment.  It's a return to form for Spielberg, a reminder of why he remains one of the most potent and accomplished of filmmakers, blending his visual style with narrative thrust in ways most filmmakers can only hope to emulate.

And it has a hell of an ending, to boot.  Go see it and you'll know what I mean.  Those last 45 seconds are sly, sleek, provocative, funny, disarming -- just like everything in The Post.  Like I said, I'm a sucker for newspaper movies, but The Post goes way beyond that; subject-matter aside, it's one of the best movies of the year.

Viewed Dec. 5, 2017 -- DGA Theater


Sunday, December 3, 2017



Wonder is a sweet, kind, gentle, tender little movie, a crowdpleaser, a tearjerker, an inspiration, and never once does it get messy or ugly or angry, which is what prevents it from being more than absolutely lovely.  There's nothing at all wrong with Wonder -- and that's sort of its problem.

The movie is based on a young-adult novel about a little boy who was born with a horrible disfigurement that has left his face scarred and mangled to the point that he never goes out in public without wearing a toy astronaut helmet.

His name is August Pullman, or "Auggie," and he's also really, really smart, maybe because he has been home-schooled and kept under the constant watch of his family.  But now they've decided he should go to school with other kids, and Wonder is about how he gets through that horrible first year.

Jacob Tremblay plays Auggie, and he's absolutely perfect in the role.  Shy, tremulous, his big eyes always searching for the next source of emotional pain, Auggie knows what's going to happen when other kids see him, but has learned how to protect himself from the inevitable ridicule and bullying.

His mother (Julia Roberts) is a perfectly angelic sort of mother who has raised her child alongside her quiet husband (Owen Wilson) and beautiful sister (Izabela Vidovic), all of whom have put their lives on hold to bring up Auggie.  That has led to some simmering tension, but otherwise things are perfect in their rambling and tastefully decorated Brooklyn brownstone.

It's the home life that's the most troubling aspect of Wonder. Not a thing is out of place in this splendid home, where everyone is always on his or her best behavior, where evenings are spent in a sort of suburban dream straight out of a catalog or an HGTV special.  The actors are all fine, and it's particularly nice to see Roberts in a role that deliberately keeps her in the back seat, but ... a sense of anger, hostility, tension or disharmony would have gone a long way toward bring some interest to this otherwise almost painfully dull existence.

There are efforts to make Auggie's sister, Via, into a well-rounded person, and some parts of that subplot works better than others.  One key indication Wonder is having trouble is its tendency to turn the focus off of Auggie and onto its secondary characters; Via and her friend Miranda get an awful lot of screen time, at the expense of digging deeper into Auggie's woes.

One of Auggie's biggest difficulties revolves around his friend Jack Will (Noah Jupe), who at first is pushed into a false friendship but soon finds himself drawn into Auggie's splendid view of the world. Because the movie ambles about a bit, this friendship loses some of its focus -- had it been the film's singular focus, Wonder could have been something really special, as both Tremblay and Jupe are enormously appealing.

But that would have required Wonder to be more emotionally risky than it is, to be messier and even a little bit bitter about Auggie's place in the world.  It's not.  It's a super-sweet, sugar-coated view.  And that doesn't mean it's not enjoyable -- it is.  But somewhere under that sweet visage is something more curious and intriguing.  It's hard not to imagine what Wonder might have been if, like Auggie, it had taken off its helmet and let us peer into its heart.

Viewed December 2, 2017 -- AMC Burbank 6


Friday, November 24, 2017

"Call Me By Your Name"


Eroticism and sensuality are qualities that elude filmmakers with embarrassing frequency, but whether you're gay or straight, Call Me By Your Name is bound to make you feel the heat of the passion it portrays and the frank and unabashed way it approaches sex.

Strikingly sultry but never lurid, Call Me By Your Name is also an emotional stunner. Its story is about first love between two men, but it hits such rare notes of longing, discovery and joy that it seems unfair to categorize Call Me By Your Name as a "gay" movie, though it most certainly is a movie about the singular challenges that two men have when they find love with each other.

Some of the challenges, the earliest ones presented in the movie, are the same for everyone: When they meet, neither 17-year-old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) nor Oliver (Armie Hammer) knows what to do, or whether the other feels the same. Their flirtation is at once overt and subtle; they kid each other, they dismiss each other, they compliment each other, waiting for a response.

Elio lives with his father (Michael Stuhlbarg), an American professor of archaeology, and his French mother in a ravishingly gorgeous Italian countryside villa, and each summer the family is visited by a student for six weeks.  Oliver is this year's student, and he's both impossibly gorgeous and intensely confident.  Elio tries Oliver as a vulgar American, but it's clear there's a fascination there, one that turns out to be mutual.

Elio moves effortlessly between speaking Italian, American English and French, and his sexuality seems equally fluid -- or, at least, uncommitted. Sex is on his mind in a big way, and what he can't try with Oliver he'll try with one of the local girls, Marzia (Esther Garrel), who's more than a little sweet on him.

If Elio is just discovering his sexuality in all its complexity, Oliver seems more adept at knowing -- and hiding -- his.  He's comfortable openly flirting with one of Marzia's friends, but it's impossible not to sense that he might have feelings for Elio, whose dazzling intelligence and classical beauty attract him.

Director Luca Guadagnino lets the story amble along, quiet and calm as one of the perfect summer days it depicts, until a bicycle ride through the countryside leads Elio and Oliver to a bucolic spot in which they are able to drop their guarded, tentative airs.  They fall in love, and Call Me By Your Name is a genuine rarity in the way it takes their romance seriously and brings to it an air of melancholy familiarity; their relationship is intense, sweet, fraught and sincere.

And sensual. While Call Me By Your Name does blush a little at portraying gay sex with the same forthrightness as its straight sex scenes, it's impossible to deny the intense magnetism on display between Hammer and Chalamet.  (They're both straight in real life, a fact that hardly seems relevant except for the convincingness with which they play their scenes.)  One scene in particular, in which Chalamet vents his sexual frustration on a peach, is going to have audiences buzzing, but the movie finds steaming sensuality in langorous shots of ultra-masculine Hammer and the more graceful Chalamet doing little but lying in the sun.

For all of its quivering, provocative physicality, though, Call Me By Your Name achieves its most breathtaking potency with the emotional intensity of the affair.  The inevitable scene of their departure is heartbreaking, but that pales in comparison to an astonishingly touching scene in which Elio's father opens up to his son about the transience of youth and the importance of love.  It all leads up to a final couple of minutes that opens the waterworks with as much ruthless efficiency as the last scene of The Way We Were.

And Call Me By Your Name earns and deserves comparison to great "straight" cinematic romances.  Sexual identity aside, no one who sees the movie is going to be unaffected by its portrayal of young romance, which is almost by definition doomed and impossible.  And few movies have as emotionally wrenching a final shot as this one.

But sexual identity can't be put aside.  Call Me By Your Name by its very nature is rueful about the way gay love was so long spoken about in hushed tones (and, let's be honest, often still is), the way that repression means young people aren't allowed to explore themselves openly and fully.  But it's also one of the most joyous movies about love you'll ever see, especially in one moonlit scene in which Elio and Oliver reflect back on how many days they wasted before letting themselves be in love.  That one moment is about as close to romantic perfection as you're likely to get in a movie; it's a scene, and a film, to be cherished.

Viewed November 24, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood


Thursday, November 23, 2017

Catching Up: "Colossal"


With her bushy hair, long bangs, enormous eyes and too-wide smile, Anne Hathaway seems perpetually to be apologizing and in a mild state of distress, which has always served her harried comic characters well, and does so again in Colossal.

Gloria is a screw-up of, well, colossal proportions, far too old for the drunken shenanigans she pulls, far too self-absorbed to be aware of them, and so far past the point of help that she can't see that the handsome man (Dan Stevens) she lives with is a controlling bully. When it comes to her drinking and her lying, though, we sense his anger may have a point, but he's another in a long line of mistakes Gloria has made. When he finally kicks her out of the New York City apartment they share, she retreats to her now-empty childhood home.

She hasn't been back in town a day when she runs into her childhood sweetheart, the sweet-talking, aw-shucks opposite of the man who dumped her.  Oscar (Jason Sudeikis) also happens to own the town's only bar, and decides that alcoholic, desperate Gloria would make a perfect waitress, and his best friends Joel (Austin Stowell) and Garth (Tim Blake Nelson) agree.

But there's a monster lurking in this charming rom-com setup -- Gloria is a full-scale alcoholic who can't accept responsibility for her behavior. And, oddly, the sweet and handsome Oscar thinks that hiring a known drunk is a good idea. He seems like a nice guy, but a nice guy wouldn't do that.  It's not long before the monster finally rears its ugly head, and in a most unexpected way.

Waking up from a drunken stupor, Gloria is shocked to hear that clear on the other side of the world, a giant, Godzilla-like monster is rampaging its way through Seoul, South Korea.  The monster is an oddity, but the damage it inflicts is real: people have died and parts of the city have been leveled.  Think back to 9/11.  A lot of people felt a strange sense of responsibility and personal investment into a disaster that was happening somewhere else. It's the same way for Gloria. She hears the news and the level of anxiety she feels seems out of proportion, but maybe it's just a human response.

Or, maybe not.

Gloria begins to suspect that maybe she is somehow responsible for this inexplicable turn of world history.  And, in fact, she is.

Gloria controls the monster.  And if that sounds like a metaphor, guess what?  Are you saying Frankenstein and the Wolfman aren't metaphors, too?  That the aliens Ripley faced weren't symbolic?  Gloria's monster may not be of her own making, but what's happening in Seoul is certainly her doing.  Her discovery of her rampaging superpower takes place during Colossal's relatively lighthearted first half -- as lighthearted as you can get with a borderline sociopathic alcoholic and the deaths of hundreds of people.

But Colossal manages a jaunty tone, and before long Gloria is sharing her revelation with Joel, Garth and Oscar -- who, it turns out, is a considerably accomplished alcoholic himself.

Gloria learns the secrets of when the monster appears and how, standing on playground in her little New England town, whatever she does the monster does, too.  Now Gloria, while deeply troubled and emotionally scarred, is not a bad person, so she learns to control her monster, and pretty soon the people of Seoul are enjoying the monster's funny hand gestures and silly little dances, along with a poetic apology -- the kind of apology the drunk leaves her husband on the dining table after she's done something awful.

But it's still a monster.  And the people Gloria has shared her secret with aren't really the most trustworthy and empathetic sort, and one of them even has a monster of his own.  This is where Colossal gets really interesting.

The script by director Nacho Vigalondo revels in the obviousness of its metaphors -- and in using them to explore a story that otherwise might be too painful to watch.  As Gloria realizes just what she and her fifty-story-tall giant monster avatar can do (most of the time, she watches it on TV), she grasps the complexity of the problem and, in a pretty terrific female-centric plot, realizes the men aren't going to be any help -- she's got to figure this out on her own.

Gloria's monster bestows upon her a power that is both frighteningly overwhelming and intensely self-empowering, and it's the latter realization that sees the film through to its unusually satisfying climax.

Colossus happens to come along at a time when women are finding their own inner giant robots and finally taking a stand against the unrelievedly lousy way they've been silenced, and though Colossus was made long before the latest revelations of sexual harassment and molestation came to light, it couldn't be better timed.  But it's not purely a story of feminine self-awareness -- Colossus works so well for the way Gloria's increasing awareness of her own power could relate to anyone who's trying to become someone other than who they are.

Yet, Colossus doesn't shy away from some pretty pointed, angry observations about men in general.  The one who seems best suited to her is meek and demure, he boyfriend is angry and controlling, while the nicest of all possible guys, Sudeikis's Oscar, turns out to be quite a monster himself. Sudeikis plays against his nice-guy image to uncover some grotesque anger, and doesn't shy away from Oscar's increasingly unsavory side, while Hathaway brings a giddiness to her character's growing determination to change.

Yet, this is above all a screen fantasy, and genre fans won't leave disappointed: there is a monster-on-monster smackdown that overcomes its lower-budget effects to be every bit as worthwhile as something in a Marvel film -- maybe even more, because the giant creatures mean something more than their digital bits.

Overlooked on its initial release, Colossal is available now on streaming services including Hulu, and to miss it this time around would be a Colossal mistake.

Viewed 11/22/27 -- Hulu

Friday, November 17, 2017

"The Killing of a Sacred Deer"


The Killing of a Sacred Deer confidently dares you to hate it, and frequently succeeds.  It's not a movie I would necessarily recommend, but it's one I'm not going to be able to forget.  If you thought Yorgos Lanthimos created a weird and unsettling film in The Lobster, you don't know the half of it until you've seen The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

In the hands of another director, The Killing of a Sacred Deer might have turned into the kind of low-budget supernatural horror-thriller that you might find released by Blumhouse Productions.  Give it just a twist, and it would be a different film indeed.  Lanthimos does give it a twist, a big one, in exactly the opposite direction, and turns it into a Kubrick-inspired nightmare of controlled madness.  It's shot with such a careful, detached, artistic style that it must mean something -- but maybe not; maybe it's just its own perverse, unsettling thing.

Colin Farrell leads a tight ensemble as a quiet, vaguely depressed cardiology surgeon named Steven living in anonymous, antiseptic Midwest comfort with his opthalmologist wife Anna, played by Nicole Kidman, and handsome children Kim and Bob (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic, both uncommonly good).  But Dad has something of a secret.  Well, a lot of them, actually, with the most obvious being that he's become uncomfortably close with a teenage boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan).  There's something going on here, but in its long, languid opening scenes it's not at all clear what it might be.

Martin insinuates himself into the doctor's family with the same sort of arch and stilted politeness that everyone in the film possesses.  In The Killing of a Sacred Deer, everyone seems to be walking around in a mannered daze, like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  They talk with awkwardness, even the children.  Even sex becomes a detached ritual that is as disturbing as it is fascinating.

Barry's father, it is eventually revealed, died while our good doctor was operating on him, and both Martin and his intensely unhinged mother (Alicia Silverstone in a crazed cameo) put the blame squarely on Steven.

Things are already weird, but get a whole lot weirder when Steven's son Bob wakes up one morning unable to walk.  That's when Martin tells Steven that the horrors are just beginning.  His whole family is going to suffer until Steven sets life in balance -- just as Steven killed Martin's father, Martin is going to require Steven to kill a member of his own family as just payment.  If not, some really, really screwed up stuff is going to happen to them.

Sounds like the stuff of blood-soaked Greek tragedy?  It's that and more, a theatrical, well-rehearsed drama that takes its time to unfold but becomes so off-the-wall bonkers that you're helpless to do anything other than keep watching.   Lanthimos, his co-screenwriter Efthymis Filippou, and the exemplary cast are so damned committed to the concept here that it's downright impressive.

Kidman, in particular, impresses with the sort of fearlessness she brought to her small-screen role in "Big Little Lies," and Keoghan is an off-balance presence both physically and emotionally that it's impossible to have any idea of where The Killing of a Sacred Deer is going even though it is so sure of its own way.  The final 15 minutes genuinely border on ridiculousness, but somehow the entire film avoids the hysterical theatrics that turned mother! into such a bore.

Calm and steady, The Killing of a Sacred Deer commits itself to the expression of its particular ideas with an almost awesome force.  It's a movie that requires a tremendous amount of effort from the audience, with a climax that is staggeringly disturbing.  (The film contains relatively little overt violence, but it still requires a force of effort to watch some of its key scenes.)

It wouldn't have taken too much for The Killing of a Sacred Deer to be a more run-of-the-mill sort of thriller, but then it wouldn't have been the film it is, for better and for worse.

Viewed November 17, 2017 -- Pacific Sherman Oaks 5