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Wednesday, April 13, 2016

SXSW Film Reviews: 'Jack Goes Home' and 'My Father Die'


Rory Culkin in Jack Goes Home

Jack Goes Home

Written and directed by Thomas Dekker
Starring Rory Culkin, Lin Shaye, Daveigh Chase and Louis Hunter

Actor Thomas Dekker’s directorial debut (if you don’t count 2008’s little-seen Whore) is a puzzle box of a psychological thriller that evokes the works of Bergman and Polanski with its deliberate pacing, symbolic imagery and deceptive plotting.

When young writer Jack (Rory Culkin) gets the news that his parents have been involved in a terrible automobile accident that killed his beloved father and left his mother, Teresa (Lin Shaye) seriously injured, he rushes home to help take care of things. What he finds when he gets there is a woman unable to express her grief except by unleashing fits of verbal fury on him.

Driven from the house, Jack finds solace in the company of his childhood friend, Shanda (Daveigh Chase), with whom his emotional ties run deep, but he is also intrigued by a new neighbor, teenage Duncan (Louis Hunter), who claims to have become acquainted with his parents while the erstwhile Jack maintained a separate life in the city.

Then, in the attic, he discovers a cache of videotapes and audiocassettes that were recorded by his late father and left for him. They provide clues to a long-buried family secret, but no one can enlighten him on just what that secret is. Are they lying? And if so, who are they trying to protect?

Culkin is quite watchable as the title character, whose grief curdles into suspicion as the tension in the household increases and he feels like he’s losing control. Shaye, recognized for her performances in genre films (There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin, Insidious), has a field day here playing the mother from hell, and Chase provides a welcome spot of warmth in an otherwise chilly film.

Although it has much to recommend it, Jack Goes Home could have been reined in some. There’s a bit too much florid dialogue and a few too many twists, resulting in the feeling that the whole doesn’t necessarily add up to the sum of its parts.

That said, I’d much rather invest my time in a challenging (if flawed) work that comes from an auteur’s heart than in a soulless, multi-million dollar epic assembled by committee at a major studio.

Joe Anderson in My Father Die

My Father Die

Written and directed by Sean Brosnan
Starring Joe Anderson, John Schneider, Gary Stretch, Candace Smith and Susan McPhail

A strange throwback to the backwoods revenge dramas of the 1970s, Brosnan’s feature debut has all the elements one expects to find in said genre — lots of action, car chases and explosions — along with characters and situations so irredeemably sleazy you want to take a shower after watching them. But it’s also surprisingly literate, with moments of reflection and scenes of bizarre beauty that stick in the memory.

The film opens with teenage Chester bringing his younger brother, Asher, to the home of his girlfriend, Nana, for the express purpose of allowing him to watch them have sex. They are interrupted by the boys’ ultraviolent father, Ivan (Gary Stretch), who has already claimed Nana as his property and intends on teaching his sons a lesson. Pummeling Asher until he can no longer hear, he then literally beats Chester to death, and is rightfully sent to prison for his crimes.

Ten years later, the now adult Asher (Joe Anderson) is living with his bedridden mother (Susan McPhail) when they receive the news that Ivan is to going be released immediately due to overcrowding. Mom is sent into a panic, but Asher coolly pulls it all together to prepare for what he’s wanted to do all these years — get revenge.

Combining balls-to-the-wall exploitation action with moments of artful reflection, My Father Die is an odd duck indeed. The childlike inner voice with which Asher communicates his thoughts to viewers is eloquent and nigh on philosophical, but mere moments after such introspection, blood or fire will suddenly blast across the screen as Brosnan jerks us back into the depraved and violent world his characters inhabit.

Wildly hitting notes all over the cinematic scale, the film reminded me of Robert Martin Carroll’s bizarre 1989 actioner Sonny Boy, with its equally strange marriage of grace and bloodshed. It also featured a mute, feral title character.

Anderson is all raw nerves as Asher, whose wordless performance expresses various degrees of fear, fury, compassion and downright psychosis. Candace Smith, as the adult Nana, provides a center of calm in an otherwise explosive scenario, and their scenes together are the only indications of humanity to be found in this living hell. Stretch is a wonderfully menacing monster: over-the-top, cold-blooded and seemingly indestructible, he views other humans as just so much detritus to be wiped off of his shoe.

In press materials, Brosnan said that the story was inspired by the famed Irish writer John Millington Synge’s 1907 play, “The Playboy of the Western World,” about a poor farm boy who kills his father. To utilize such a piece of literature as a kicking-off point for a violent actioner is audacious, and I look forward to experiencing more of this filmmaker’s distinctive voice in the future.

Monday, April 4, 2016

SXSW Interview: Behind the Scenes of 'Pee-wee's Big Holiday'

NOTE: This interview contains spoilers, in case you haven’t seen the film yet. And if you haven’t, what’s keeping you?

With the Netflix release of Pee-wee’s Big Holiday this past March, fans of Paul Reubens’ ageless character have reason to rejoice. The film, directed by John Lee and co-written by Reubens and Paul Rust, puts Pee-wee back on the road, this time taking a cross-country trip to the Big Apple.

Along the way, he meets the anticipated collection of oddball characters, including a gang of female crooks (modeled after the buxom group in Russ Meyers’ Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill), some helpful Amish folk, and a friendly RV full of hairstylists. Best of all, erstwhile werewolf Joe Manganiello shows off his comic chops in the film as Pee-wee’s new BFF — and it’s hilarious.

On the day after its SXSW premiere, Reubens, Manganiello, Lee, and Rust, along with two of the gang girls, Alia Shawkat and Jessica Pohly, answered some pressing questions about the film and the welcome return of Pee-wee Herman.

Paul Rust


Co-scripter Rust, who co-created and stars in the Netflix series Love, says he had a blast working with Reubens on the screenplay. Of the many off-kilter characters Pee-wee encounters on the road, among the most delightfully bizarre is a group of extremely happy hairstylists (played by Darryl Stephens, Dionne Gipson, Anthony Alabi and Sonya Eddy) who give him a lift in their RV — and a makeover.

I asked where the idea for this flamboyantly friendly crew came from, and Rust told me they were inspired by the drag documentary Paris is Burning as well as John Waters’ ouevre, Hairspray in particular. As Pee-wee himself remarks, “Who doesn’t like giant hair?”

Rust explained that since there’s a rather long segment involving a farmer and his marriage-hungry daughters preceding this sequence, they felt like they needed to quickly add some more unusual characters. It’s a brief but memorable side-trip.

John Lee

Lee, who co-created the cult MTV series Wonder Showzen, made his feature directorial debut with Big Holiday. He admitted to being a longtime Pee-wee fan, having first seen him in the 1981 HBO recording of Reubens’ original stage production of Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Working with cinematographer Tim Orr, Lee provides the look and feel required of a Pee-wee Herman film: bright colors, bizarre characters, and an overall childlike innocence.

There’s an ambitious, Gershwin-flavored musical number that spontaneously occurs when Pee-wee finally makes it to Manhattan, and I asked Lee about the logistics of managing all of those moving parts. He said it was done in two days, with himself and Orr pulling out all the stops to make it happen. Even though New York is a very permit-friendly town, that’s still an impressive achievement, and it gives Big Holiday a “big movie” moment.

Alia Shawkat and Jessica Pohly

As Bella, one of the gang girls who hijacks Pee-wee’s Fiat 600 and takes him hostage, Shawkat is irresistibly drawn to the manchild. It doesn’t hurt that her character’s nickname also happens to be Pee-wee, and she becomes his protector. Shawkat said that Bella, like so many others who come into his orbit, sees an innocent beauty in his character and wants to preserve it.

Pohly, who plays the tough-as-nails Pepper, provided this insight: in the world Pee-wee inhabits, the viewer gets the opportunity to bring whatever interpretation he or she wants to it. That’s quite true, and it’s the reason Reubens’ creation has such universal appeal.

Joe Manganiello

Manganiello, who has been friends with Reubens for several years, jumped at the chance to participate in Pee-wee’s Big Holiday. He was a fan even before they met, confessing that he grew up as “a weird kid in a not-weird neighborhood,” and Big Adventure was his entrée into the concept of weirdness in the mainstream.

I asked him how the film’s Joe aligns with the real Joe, and he revealed that his character was originally intended to be a fictional action star named Joe Mancuso, but they decided at the last minute to have him play a version of himself. It was a good call.

Since we’re working in Pee-wee’s alternate universe, our star is blithely ignorant of who Joe Manganiello even is and is utterly incapable of pronouncing his last name: “Mangalalala?”

Nevertheless, the two quickly realize how much they have in common (root beer barrels top the list). Pee-wee views Joe as the very definition of cool, while Pee-wee brings out the 10-year-old kid in Joe, so he invites his new pal to come to New York to attend his birthday party — and that’s how the new adventure begins.

As Pee-wee encounters various setbacks en route to Manhattan, what keeps him motivated are happy dreams about the fun that he and Joe are going to have once he gets to the party. For some unspecified reason, these dreams are all in slow-motion – and in Spanish. Manganiello confessed to not knowing why they’re in that language, but they were a source of great amusement to both him and his wife, Sofia Vergara, when they previewed the film.

Paul Reubens

Reubens was delighted by the response the premiere received at the Paramount Theatre on March 18. The audience was laughing so heartily that many of the jokes were drowned out. He was also gratified that viewers found the plot, such as it is, absurdly funny. He said, “I love that you get that far into the movie, and [Joe] goes, ‘I want you to come to my birthday party,’ and you say, ‘That’s the plot?'”

Hey, where else are you going to get to see Joe Manganiello dressed in a Pee-wee Herman suit, jumping up and down in slow motion and shouting “Es perfecto!”?

Certainly what makes the film work is this: instead of trying to bring Pee-wee into today’s grimly social-media-driven, 24-hour news cycle world, the filmmakers decided to ignore it all entirely. Rather, we’re transported back into the character’s nostalgically optimistic, candy-colored ouevre, and everyone gets the opportunity to be a kid again – if only for 90 minutes.

But Reubens says he has more scripts and series ideas making their way through the production process, so we can look forward to hopefully spending more quality time with Pee-wee in the near future.

In the meantime, check out Pee-wee’s Big Holiday on Netflix now.

(Production photo courtesy Netflix. Photos of Manganiello and Reubens by the author.)

Monday, December 28, 2015

Movie Review: Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' Starring Leonardo DiCaprio -- Big Struggle, Small Gain

Leonardo DiCaprio in 'The Revenant.' Photos: Twentieth Century Fox.
In The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio goes for broke playing Hugh Glass, a real-life 19th-century frontiersman who survived a vicious grizzly attack and a painful, prolonged trek across a frozen frontier in order to exact revenge on the men who’d left him for dead. The actor’s dedication to this arduous role is eminently clear — but will it bring him the gold statuette that’s so clearly overdue?

Director Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu immediately plunges his audience into a beautiful but unforgiving landscape with a brutal Arikari attack on a band of fur trappers, arrows raining down and puncturing flesh everywhere.

Before we can catch our breath, the scene is followed almost immediately by the jaw-droppingly realistic bear attack that everyone is talking about (albeit for the wrong reason). Thereafter, and for more than two hours, DiCaprio drags his torn carcass across the frozen tundra, surviving other extreme challenges and demonstrating handy survivalist techniques along the way.

Tom Hardy plays the villainous Fitzgerald with an accent so thick that his many proclamations are rendered unintelligible, save for the oddly anachronistic pronunciation of “Aight?”. Domhnall Gleeson is the more virtuous Captain Henry, who pays Fitzgerald and a young trapper, Jim Bridger (Will Poulter), to stay with the gravely wounded Glass until he dies.

It’s an odd thing for Henry to place his trust in Fitzgerald, who is such a textbook baddie — and quick to prove it, right in front of Glass’s vengeful eyes. Forrest Goodluck plays Hawk, Glass’s half-breed son, whose mother was murdered in a prior massacre, but as delineated by Iñárritu and co-scripter Mark L. Smith, the father-son relationship isn’t very convincing, and the boy’s character is soon sacrificed as further fuel for Glass’s burning vengeance.

Rustic realism in Alejandro Gonzáles Iñárritu's 'The Revenant.' 
Indeed, the writers seem rushed to offer quick sketches of character “types” in order to carry on with the business at hand: throwing physical challenges at the game DiCaprio, who revealed in interviews that it was one of the most difficult productions he’d ever been involved in. The payoff is a remarkably realistic film that nevertheless maintains an emotional distance where one really longs for catharsis.

Working again with Birdman’s director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki, Iñárritu offers up scene after scene of breathtaking outdoor imagery, some of it looking positively 3D, but a constant onslaught of immaculately composed shots can also become tiring, as if he’s repeatedly shouting, “Look at this masterpiece! And what about this shot?” Furthermore, gimmicks like bringing actors so close to the camera that their breath actually seems to fog the lens breaks the fourth wall in a way that actually works against the absolute realism Iñárritu wanted to achieve.

The Revenant is also filled with symbols and mysticism intended to give it a Terence Malick level of depth, but these sequences feel like inauthentic crutches thrown in whenever something extra was needed to juice up the rather slow-going narrative. They also become rather silly, as when Glass has a vision of his late wife floating above his supine body as if she’s planking him from beyond the grave.

As far as Academy Awards go, expect a nomination and possibly a win for Lubezki. Whether Leo’s bloody, tortured trek is enough to turn the heads of voters is another story.

The Revenant opens nationwide on January 8, 2016.

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