Monday, June 15, 2015

A Woman and Her Baby Substitute: "Gone Doggy Gone" (2015)

This funny riff on a couple's obsession with their Yorkshire Terrier sadly loses steam toward a disappointing, virtually nonexistent climax.

Abby (Kasi Brown) and Eliott (Brandon Walter) Harmon are a power couple who have little to do with each other after they get home at night, showering all of their attention on their dog, Laila. The Harmons have no children, and Abby seems to coddle the cute dog more, eventually rejecting her husband. Laila is babysat by Jill (Shaina Vorspan), a semi-neurotic with plenty of issues, and recently fired from a temp job (in the film's funniest scene). Jill runs off with Laila, and the Harmons are in full pursuit, along with Kat (Kate Connor), Abby's best friend who is trying to fight off middle age by sleeping with younger men and getting high and drunk all the time. Abby and Eliott also hire private investigator Dan (Jeff Sloniker), who finds himself falling for Jill, and a chase across the American Southwest is on.

Brown and Walter wrote and directed the film, giving themselves some fun parts but still letting the supporting characters play. Dan is a disgusting oaf, under the thumb of his father (the recognizable Richard Riehle, who seems to have appeared in everything ever). Jill is also under her own mother's (an underused Marsha Waterbury) thumb, and the two make an immediate connection. The casting is terrific, Brown and Walter are excellent in their roles, even taking chances that not many writers would do to themselves (I'm thinking of the robbery scene in particular).

The comedy is fun, and Brown is a gifted physical comedienne. Walter is laid back, letting the interplay between Abby and Kat take over. Kat is a fun, but not necessary character, the same with some mobster guy (Miles Stroh), who is introduced and dispatched before the viewer can get a real handle on him. I liked the trip to Kat's hippie friend's (a very funny Lizzie Peet) place, even if it was a little obvious, but suddenly in the climax of the story, the film makers back off and seem unsure of where to go with it. It's sloppily edited, unfunny, and it doesn't match the energy of the rest of the film. Technically, the film is flawless for a smaller budget. The sound is great, the picture is clear, and the cinematography and editing (up until the climax) is top notch.

"Gone Doggy Gone" reminded me of this new round of Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig comedies, letting a female lead really come into her own, and getting to do all the "fun" stuff normally reserved for the boys in films like "The Hangover." This film does a commendable job, and serves as a feature length introduction to what should be a long comedic screen career for the Brown/Walter team. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Of Course, Of Course: "Horsehead" (2015)

Despite some convenient plot points, Romain Basset's feature film debut is an astounding visual nightmare.

University student Jessica (Lilly-Fleur Pointeaux) is called home after her grandmother dies suddenly. Jessica has a cold-as-ice relationship with her mother (genre veteran Catriona MacColl), and gets along much better with her milquetoast stepfather Jim (Murray Head) and the handyman George (Vernon Dobtcheff). Lucky for you and I, and the screenwriters, Jessica studies the psychology of dreams and believes that what we dream at night can tell us a lot about our subconscious. When Jessica arrives at the house, she finds out her grandmother's body is still laying in the bedroom next door, and then the weird dreams begin.

Jessica dreams of her grandmother Rose as a much younger woman (Gala Besson), as well as a mysterious clawed figure who carries a circular sickle and has the head of a horse. Jessica comes down with an awful flu, giving her dreams that lovely feverish quality we all have had, and she begins inhaling ether in order to sleep more. The dream world begins crossing over into Jessica's reality, and huge family secrets begin to emerge.

As with his short films, Basset shows great judgement choosing his cinematographer. Vincent Vieillard-Baron's lighting is a masterwork, using simple contraptions and colors. Change in mood and lighting tell the viewer when Jessica is dreaming, and Basset doesn't go for the cheap "this is a dream...OR IS IT?" jump scare. Benjamin Shielden's musical score sets the mood very well. Basset and his co-screenwriter come up with many disturbing images, many of them uncomfortable (lesbian incest) and downright gory and frightening. There is an anti-Christian element, too, that might make some cringe. The "Horsehead" of the title is a striking figure, exhaling smoke and frightening character and viewer alike. This isn't a slasher movie, but not a cerebral horror film wrapped up in its own importance, either. There were two shoots put into the film, separated by a few months, but I did not notice any difference in scenes onscreen.

The cast is great, and Pointeaux is both beautiful and effective as Jessica. Her strained relationship with her mother is played out very well between the two actresses. MacColl and Head make for a believable couple, and Philippe Nahon has a good scene as a local priest. I wish more had been explained about some of the plot points, and having a student of dream psychology get to enter such a nightmarish environment seems a little too coincidental, but the script doesn't let up once it gets going, and some of the twists did surprise me.

"Horsehead" is a feast for the senses, every frame gives your eyes something to behold. Artsploitation Films keeps raiding foreign and domestic markets for some incredible filmmaking (try this on a double bill with "Der Samurai"), and I hope this winning streak continues. (* * * * *) out of five stars.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

A Tale of Two Remys: "Remy" (2009)

A young woman has just about had enough between her six year old son and his grandfather in this short and lovely film from France.

The elder Remy (Roger Trapp) and his namesake (Ugo Le Cornec) get into mischief plenty before being interrupted by young Remy's mother (Gaelle Billaut Danno). The older man likes to play hide and seek, tell stories, and when they sit down to dinner one night, get into a mashed potato fight. This is the final straw, and the family heads to a psychiatrist (Anna Langner) to see what can be done for Remy- either one of them.

This is another short film from Romain Basset, who directs with Christophe Berthemin, and it's simplicity and seven minute running time play very well. The camera is always moving, capturing a six year old boy's manic activity, and for such a short film, the entire cast turns in well-rounded performances (especially Danno). The color scheme here is full of soft yellows and beautiful, as is the music and subject matter (compared to Basset's other films, which are both surreal and nightmarish). The screenwriter this time around is Laurent Mizrahi, who almost tips his hand during the film until a very touching end.

Remy is one of four short films on the Artsploitation Films' Blu-ray release of Basset's "Horsehead," and I highly recommend it. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Exchange Great: "Bloody Current Exchange" (2008)

On the surface, this brief film shows us a tryst between a prostitute and her client, until the not so surprising ending, when the title seems to make more sense.

Vincent (well-known French actor Philippe Nahon) talks to an unseen person on the phone, ordering a prostitute (his seventh acquisition as of late). The beautiful Fanny (Emma Pick) arrives and the couple uncork some champagne, although Fanny refuses to drink since she has other clients to attend to. Vincent makes an off-the-cuff remark when they meet, saying he likes to remember the women he sleeps with, and the two get down to their business.

While the direction is fine, and the editing by helmer Romain Basset and Mathieu Berthon are top-notch, the film's biggest positive is it's cinematography. The brown color in the beginning of the films, maybe marking Vincent's dull existence, give way to blues and reds when the couple goes to bed. There is nudity here, but it is not very erotic when lit so darkly. The cast is good, I liked their pre-coital interplay- two prostitution veterans who don't have to try to impress each other. The final twist in the story feels a bit jokey, and if you are paying attention during the film's massive eleven minute running time, you might pick up on it. Why else would Basset show you this scene in these two people's lives?

"Bloody Current Exchange" is on the Blu-ray disc with Basset's feature film debut "Horsehead," and I recommend it based on style alone. (* * * *) out of five stars.

The Best Brazilian Zombie Movie You'll Ever See?: "Beyond the Grave" (2015)

A small film with big ambitions still manages to impress.

Officer (Rafael Tombini) cruises around "Mad Max"-style in a black muscle car looking for his mortal enemy- The Dark Rider, a mass killer able to take the form of any person it dies near. Officer keeps up with his police work, keeping files in his trunk and typing reports up on a manual typewriter. The countryside is inhabited by "returners," zombies who shuffle around and don't cause much threat unless you get cornered by them. The remaining humans find shelter wherever they can, and ammunition is a rare commodity as they fight the zombies and each other.

Officer picks up a couple of teen siblings, and eventually stumbles on a house inhabited by a man, a pregnant woman, and a creepy guy you know is going to be the cause of all the problems to come. The Dark Rider makes a surprise appearance, complete with murderous entourage, and Officer must deal with

Because the film is in Portuguese, I did have some problems following the story. De Oliveira Pinheiro does a nice job on very little. The gore effects are outstanding, the cinematography is crisply realized, and the framing is very good. Tombini reminded me of Peter Weller, he is bespectacled and dressed in black, but not a macho Road Warrior superhero. He gets hurt, too, and bleeds like the rest of us. You can see how the new group of people in his life are messing up his lone wolf persona through his reactions. The budget was obviously limited, you can only watch a car take an "abandoned" stretch of road before realizing he isn't going very far, just within the same one or two miles if that. I did like the disembodied voice on the radio, dropping clues about what happened, and an odd scene before the returners came, when we see Officer has been fighting The Dark Rider for longer than we thought.

This isn't scary per se, "Beyond the Grave" is more interesting than anything. It's not a bad film at all, and burgeoning horror film makers could probably learn a trick or two. I'd like to see what Davi de Oliveira Pinheiro is capable of with a blockbuster budget, he has the human interaction down cold. Recommended. (* * * *) out of five stars.

Monday, June 1, 2015

You're in Trouble When the Best Performance is Turned in By a Great Dane: "The Other Woman" (2014)

Three women take revenge on a bastard man in a film that is neither "9 to 5" or "The First Wives Club."

Carly (Cameron Diaz) is a Columbia Law School graduate (stop laughing) living in New York City. She is unlucky at love until she meets Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). He's seemingly perfect, but also mysteriously stand-offish, and one night cancels a dinner with Carly and her father (Don Johnson) because of plumbing issues at his house in Connecticut. Carly shows up uninvited at the house, dressed like Sexy Plumber, but instead meets Mark's ditzy wife Kate (Leslie Mann). Mark is always away on business, and clueless Kate has no idea he is screwing around on her. Kate forces herself into Carly's life, trying to get advice on what to do with her husband (all of her suburban friends are more concerned with keeping their husbands happy- the film seems to say if you are a stay-at-home wife or mother, you are an idiot). Eventually, Carly and Kate discover yet another mistress, Amber (Kate Upton...sigh...) and the trio band together to teach that jerk of theirs a lesson through hair removal cream in the shampoo, female hormones in his daily smoothies, and uncovering his prerequisite shady financial dealings.

At one point, while watching this movie, I turned to my fiancee and said something to the effect that if she was anything like Leslie Mann's character, I would cheat on her, too. Kate is not just ditzy, she is annoying and shrill and possibly has special mental needs, and the viewer shouldn't be watching this and agreeing with her jerk husband's treatment of her. Diaz isn't even given a character to play, her function is to deliver lines and move the story forward. Her role has a name, but I couldn't tell you one characteristic about Carly when this was done, except she is stuck with the awful Nicki Minaj as a sassy seen-it-all secretary who only exist in bad movies like this. Kate Upton shows up so late in the movie, I kept checking the DVD cover to make sure she really was third-billed. Upton isn't very good, either, but my aforementioned fiancee kept telling me to wipe the stupid grin off my face every time she was onscreen.

The story, written by a woman, borrows heavily from the superior "9 to 5" (right down to the "where are they now?" ending that will make you cringe), and the equally abysmal "The First Wives Club" (where women show their ex-husbands that they can go through their new lives independent and strong, with a little help from the poor bastards' checkbooks). I could have bought the trio as a little stronger, in "9 to 5" all three women were smart and funny, and took revenge on their boss over what he had done to their personal lives and careers. Here, Mark is an asshole, we never know why the three fell for him to begin with, unless surface charm is all it takes these days, and after a while I didn't care what they did to him, I just wanted Upton to put a bikini back on. There's a subplot about Amber and Carly discovering their "true loves," and I called that one as soon as their beau characters were introduced.

"The Other Woman" plays it safe, when there is so much potential here. It's lethally unfunny and totally forgettable. (*) out of five stars.