There’s a lot that shouldn’t be said about Piercing, Nicolas Pesce’s follow up to his glorious 2016 horror, Eyes of My Mother.
Because the film’s tension relies on power exchanges, surprises and averted climaxes, the less you know about how the story progresses, the better.
Suffice it to say that new father Reed (Christopher Abbott), fighting a serious urge to stab his infant with an ice pick, concocts a plan. It involves that ice pick, a “business trip” out of town, and a prostitute (Mia Wasikowska).
The amateur murderer works out the perfect crime, practicing conversations and actions (decorated by Pesce’s remarkable knack for unsettling sound effects), only for the cosmos—or the filmmaker—to wreck those plans.
Abbott’s flat yet sympathetic would-be murderer helps Pesce achieve a peculiar, semi-comic tone, but it’s Wasikowska, playing wildly against type, who carries this film. The two share a mad and maddening chemistry, and even during moments of somewhat forced dialog, their commitment and spark keep you enthralled and guessing.
The film is an exercise in thwarted expectations wrapped up in voyeurism and lurid imagery.
The influences here are dizzying. Ryu Murakami’s source material obviously evokes his own Audition (director Takashi Miike’s classic in power shifting and poor romantic choices). The opening act wades through more modern indie sensibilities, but Pesce quickly overwhelms that flat grit with grindhouse thriller flair before simply succumbing to giallo (Goblin tuneage and all).
This drunken meandering through styles fits the narrative that forever questions the reality or unreality of each situation. Like the cityscape miniatures Pesce uses as the adventure’s out-of-town backdrop, Reed’s whole experience could simply be cool -looking but pretend.
Are those flashbacks or nightmares? Does Reed have a haunted past leaking its way into his present, or is he simply a psychotic hoping to overcome his problem by submitting to it just this once?
Pesce toys with our commitment to Reed’s reality, questionable from the moment his infant halts a crying jag to tell his father, in a demonic voice, “You know what you have to do.”
It’s not a film that will satisfy a lot of viewers, it’s more of a fascinating and forgettable sketch. Still, at under 90 minutes, it’s a weirdly fun little indulgence won’t hurt you. Well, not too much.
Nicole Kidman got no Oscar love this year, which gives you some clue as to how many great performances we saw from women in 2018.
Her nuanced supporting turn in Boy Erased was certainly worthy, but Destroyer, released in select cities early enough for consideration, served up a menu that seemed more tailor-made for selection. She’s a major star playing way against type, she goes full anti-glamour and yep, she’s damn good.
Kidman is Erin Bell, a police detective who looks, and acts, like death warmed over. When Erin and her hangover crash the crime scene of a newly discovered dead body, the local cops can mask their condescension with only the thinnest veil of respect.
But Erin knows more than they do about how this guy got dead, and director Karyn Kusama plays a gritty hand juggling the shifting timelines that will lead to Erin’s connection with the stiff, and to the roots of her frayed psyche.
Fans of HBO’s True Detective will feel right at home. Screenwriters Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi, who both teamed with Kusama for The Invitation and Aeon Flux, alternate between past and present to slowly reveal the details of an old case that led to Erin’s breakdown. She and partner Chris (Sebastian Stan) were deep undercover with a gang of bank thieves led by the slimy Silas (Toby Kebbell), and as Erin and Chris mixed business with pleasure, the lines separating their realities began to blur.
Kusama keeps up a knowingly effective pace, dropping just enough breadcrumbs to keep you interested until the twist reveal she’s sitting on. Of course, she’s also got Kidman’s range to lean on, occasionally forgetting it doesn’t need that much help getting noticed.
Kidman, with help from extensive makeup artistry, takes Erin from fresh faced ambition to grizzled hopelessness. Scattershot attempts to reconcile with her reckless daughter (Jade Pettyjohn) add emotional layers, and it’s only when Kusama pushes the melodramatic envelope that Destroyer seems overly desperate for us to appreciate its anti-heroine.
She doesn’t need that push. The film delivers a satisfying payoff to its slow burn, and Oscar nomination or not, Kidman crafts a transformative character arc that’s worth your attention.
For those of us who haven’t experienced it, war is nearly impossible to fathom: the horror, terror, inhumanity and chaos of it. Filmmakers have been trying to make sense of it for audiences since film began.
Peter Jackson may bring us as close to comprehension as any director has, not by dramatizing war or by reenacting it, but by revisiting it.
The Oscar winning director and noted World War I fanatic sifted through hundreds of hours of decomposing footage, restoring the material with a craftsmanship and integrity almost as unfathomable as war.
He then recreated sound and audio, employing lip readers and researchers to guarantee the quality was a match for the beautiful restoration.
Over this he layered audio, pieces from BBC interviews with WWI veterans conducted in the 1960s and 70s—candid, moving and oh so British.
These he braids together into a cohesive whole, taking us from the wide-eyed patriotism that drew teenagers to volunteer, through their training and then—with a Wizard of Oz-esque moment of color, depth and clarity—into battle.
At about the 10-minute mark of They Shall Not Grow Old, the obsessive maestro differentiates this film from any war doc you’ve ever seen.
Quite unlike the disastrous 48 frame per second gimmick Jackson employed for The Hobbit, the restoration, colorization and even 3D here all serve a singular purpose: to immerse you in these moments, these lives, these battles.
The fact that this immersion pulls you 100 years into the past is beyond impressive, but the real achievement is in the intimacy and human connection it engenders.
The clarity of the faces, the tremor in the voices, the camaraderie and filth and death—all of it vivid as life. It’s as informative as it is enthralling, an equally amazing achievement in filmmaking and in education.
Watching Jackson’s Tolkien films betrays the filmmaker’s perfectionism, vision and—perhaps above all—deep respect and love of the source material. The same shines through the images of these young men. And though, as the storyteller here, his respect borders on awe, he never for a moment stoops to sentimentality or emotional manipulation. He is not trying to make you feel something. He is trying to tell a lost story, and one that has no business being lost.
The legendary inscription carved into Woody Guthrie’s guitar read, “This machine kills fascists.”
In the Oscar-nominated documentary Minding the Gap, a Sharpie-scrawled proclamation on a skateboard declares, “This device cures heartache.” And despite the free-flowing and exuberant skateboarding footage, it is the way first-time director Bing Liu chronicles those heartaches that enables the film to soar high above skatepunk stereotypes.
It’s anchored by footage Liu began filming over a decade ago, while still a restless teen in Rockford, Illinois. Liu and his friends Zack, Kiere and Nina forged early bonds through the joy they found in skateboarding and the escape it provided from their troubled home lives.
Spurred by the foresight of wisdom beyond his years, Liu began focusing his lens less on “big air” tricks at the local skate park and more on what he and his friends were experiencing on the way to adulthood. It results in a consistently touching ride.
Liu, who’s been working behind the scenes on various film and TV projects the last several years, displays remarkable instincts assembling his first feature. He weaves old and new footage deftly, drawing us into the lives of he and his friends with an amazing knack for knowing just when a shot needs to be held one beat longer, or when a quick cut to a Rockford billboard might subtly underscore the issues at hand.
And as the kids grow into young adults, their interviews sometimes reveal amazingly clear bits of self-assessment. Zack and Nina face a tough road as new parents, and when a troubling issue threatens their relationship, Liu frames it with skillful delicacy. Kiere has an enthusiastic spirit and a bright smile you won’t forget, even when you can’t ignore the pain hiding behind it. It is a pain that Liu shares, something he believes connects them all and inspired the direction of his film.
It’s instantly easy to care about these young people, about what they are going through and where they might end up. And it is through them that Liu is able to organically present a microcosm of America itself, beset as it is with issues of race, class, violence and opportunity.
Minding the Gap entertains as a testament to the love of skateboarding, but it transcends as an emotional statement on the fragile bonds of parenting and an earnest ode to the power of love.
Set against shifting political and musical environments and spanning at least four countries and 15 years, Pawel Pawlikowski’s Cold War is a gorgeous and mournful ode to star-crossed lovers that feels equally sweeping and intimate.
Zula (Joanna Kulig) and Wiktor (Tomasz Kot) share names and characteristics with Pawlikowski’s own parents, though their story certainly differs a bit. As the film begins in post-war Poland, Wiktor is recording the songs of the people—folk songs handed down by peasants, which will become part of a new arts program aimed at celebrating Poland’s authentic voice. Until, that is, the program is co-opted and the songs become tributes to Stalin and agricultural reform.
Zula is unphased. A pragmatist, a survivor and a bit of a con artist, she wiled her way into the company by enchanting Wiktor with a song she’d learned from a Russian movie—not exactly a peasant’s lament.
As the film follows this very different and yet somehow connected pair, Pawlikowski casts a spell—with an assist from Lukasz Zal, whose black and white cinematography here is as glorious as it was in his Oscar-nominated 2013 collaboration with the filmmaker, Ida.
Together they capture an evolving tone and changing rhythm as folk ballads become jazz tunes, as Poland becomes East Germany and then Paris. In everything, Pawlikowski holds those melancholy, wistful notes just an extra beat. It’s a melody Kulig and Kot dance to beautifully.
Kulig impresses most as the ingénue who is master of her own future. Her performance is unpredictable and unapologetic, emphasizing the will of a character who does what she feels she must do, although that is rarely what anybody else expects.
Kot’s gentle, smitten but equally tortured character offers a fascinating, sometimes frustrating counterpart. It makes sense that these two creatures are based at least somewhat on living people. It would have been far too easy for them to fall into stereotypes, but instead they are as authentically confounding and beautiful as any committed and self-destructive couple.
Pawlikowski uses music to inform a shifting relationship; he uses a relationship to illustrate changing global politics; he leans on an impossible political situation to articulate insurmountable challenges within a relationship. The result is poetry.
“Sometimes it’s better to choose your own family.”
A softly nuanced testament to home being where the heart is (and the Palme d’or winner at Cannes), Hirokazu Koreeda’s Shoplifters finds its considerable magic by letting small moments reveal big emotions.
On their way back from pilfering a few items at the local grocery, a Japanese father and son find a young girl named Yuri outside alone, shivering in the Tokyo chill.
They take Yuri home for the night, with a plan to help her return to her parents the next day. But Yuri endears herself to the extended family of small time crooks she’s introduced to, and as Yuri’s behavior points to a possibly abusive home life, it is decided that she should stay.
Writer/director Koreeda returns to the nature vs. nurture themes he has probed throughout his career, most notably in Nobody Knows (2004) and Like Father, Like Son (2013). What defines a family most: bloodlines or genuine love?
Yuri joins a house crowded with characters who may or may not be blood relatives. Slowly, we learn about their lives outside the home, and the part each plays in the network of cons and thefts that allow everyone to keep eating.
The cast is universally charming, and when Koreeda is content to ride the casually observational pace he introduces, Shoplifters works humanistic wonders with its sweet vignettes of love and mercy.
Doubts about the family business slowly creep into the house, though, and with them an unusually heavy weight is added to Koreeda’s hand. Interactions begin to carry pregnant dramatic pauses that only highlight the surprising obviousness of the dialog that follows.
The catch-22, of course, is that it is the subtle effectiveness of the film’s first two acts that makes the hurried nature of the final act seem more desperate than it actually is. Disturbed only momentarily, the spell cast by the memorable family in Shoplifters is still sturdy, and one not that easily broken.
It’s that time of year! The Academy celebrates the best work in the industry and we celebrate the early, mainly terrible work of those same nominees. It’s Skeletons in the Closet season, people!
We will let you know up front that, because Sam Rockwell and Bradley Cooper have already been subjects of the program, we will not be discussing Clown House (Rockwell’s feature debut) or Midnight Meat Train (or My Little Eye, for that matter, though Cooper appears in both).
And let us also congratulate nominee Willem Dafoe for managing to make several decent horror films, and garnering his first Oscar nomination for his work in one great one—Shadow of the Vampire.
But enough about good movies. Here are the stinkers.
Dial up the full podcast, co-hosted by Senior Aussie Correspondent (and host of Golden Spiral Media’s Rewatch podcast), Cory Metcalfe.
5. Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre Part III
Viggo Mortensen has been a working actor for more than 30 years, which means bones in that there closet. There was the questionable Psycho remake, and his version of Lucifer in Christopher Walken’s dark angel camp classic Prophesy (featured on the 2018 Skeleton’s episode).
Let’s focus on his place with the inbred cannibal clan the Sawyers in Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre III. Directed by Jeff Burr (From a Whisper to a Scream, Stepfather II, Puppet Master 4, 5 and Blitzkrieg Massacre), it’s a competently made if inspirationally dry episode.
Viggo plays Tex, and unquestionably outshines all the rest of the talent in the film. He’s sneaky, snaky, sexy, and he loves his mama.
4. Warlock (1989)
There is something to be said for this oh-so-Eighties adventure. Steve Miner (Friday 13th 2 & 3, H20, Lake Placid) directs from a screenplay by David Twohy (Critters 2, Pitch Black, The Perfect Getaway). The film follows witch Julian Sands 300 years into the future to 1989 USA, where he’s followed by witchhunter Redfern (Oscar nominee Richard E. Grant).
There’s nothing especially interesting about the film, and Lori Singer could not be more annoying in the lead, but both Sands and Grant elevate the material. The two veteran low-budget, crowd-pleasing horror filmmakers know how to give you something.
The flight sequences are too lame—in fact, all the FX promise to make you cringe—and much of the humor dates horrifically. But Grant commits to his character and Sands’s wicked grin makes up for a lot of plot holes.
3. Mary Reilly (1996)
Boy, there were high hopes for this bloated embarrassment when it came out back in ’96. Director Stephen Frears re-teamed with his Dangerous Liaisons screenwriter and stars John Malkovich and Glenn Close for a retelling of the old Jekyll and Hyde tale.
At the center, a plucky young housemaid named Mary (Julia Roberts).
Roberts’s career had begun its slide by this point, and this movie did not help things because she is just God awful. Oh my word, that accent.
Eight-time Oscar nominee Glenn Close plays Mrs. Farraday, proprietress of a brothel. Boasting gold tooth, smeared lipstick and sneer, Close camps it up with an accent a bit more bizarre even than Roberts’s.
There is so much wrong with this movie—its leaden pace, its inconsistent tone, its sense of self-importance, the fact that we’re supposed to believe no one realizes both guys are Malkovich, the idea of Malkovich in a sexy role, Roberts performance in literally every scene—it’s hard to know where to start.
Maybe just don’t.
2. Frogs (1972)
As the eco-terror flick from the Seventies opens, a handsome and manly brunette with no facial hair canoes through a swamp. He’s so manly!
Hey wait, that beardless brunette is Sam Elliott!
The manly Picket Smith (Elliott) ends up stranded on the vacation island of a wealthy family led by Ray Milland. He’s a dick. The frogs know it.
We get it, rich people who believe men are meant to rule the world will be the downfall of the planet. (If we didn’t know it in 1972, we know it now.) But couldn’t these scenes be briefer? Couldn’t there be any action at all?
1. Death Machine (1994)
Holy cow, this movie is bad.
And we had more than a few to choose from, because Rachel Weisz makes a lot of movies. The Mummy was not good. The Mummy Returns was worse. Constantine—yikes. Even Dream House, which had all the earmarks of a decent flick, chose not to be.
But Death Machine, which showcases the young thespian for maybe 45 seconds, sucks right out loud. Written and directed by Stephen Norrington (Blade, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), it follows a young executive (Ely Pouget) as she tries to end the evil inventing of a mad genius (Brad Dourif).
Weisz plays Junior Executive, and her scene is the one that doesn’t blow.
Dourif is so wildly miscast as the long haired, heavy metal misfit that you almost overlook the idiocy of every moment of screen time.
Old Hollywood is a theme this week, with head scratchers and surprise gems in the mix. Join us as we talk about Stan & Ollie, The Kid Who Would Be King, Serenity, The Great Buster, Genesis 2.0, Yours in Sisterhood plus new releases in home entertainment.
Back before I’d even seen the original Jurassic Park I read up on the premise. I’m no scientist but I clearly remember thinking, “Uh, that sounds plausible.”
Well, in the immortal words of Samuel L. Jackson, hold on to your butts, because Genesis 2.0 will show you how it’s now shockingly closer to science than fiction.
This fascinating documentary weaves footage from directors on different sides of the world. One, Maxim Arbugaev, embeds himself in Siberia with a team of hunters searching for valuable wooly mammoth tusks.
The other, director and writer Christian Frei, follows Chinese and American genealogists committed to bringing an entire mammoth back to life. That project took a big leap forward six years ago, when one of the film’s hunting teams discovered the first wooly mammoth carcass seen by man in 10,000 years.
By the way, if you’re thinking, “Does it taste like chicken?”, the hunters were way ahead of you.
The contrast between the lives of the hunters and those who profit from their finds is touching, and their fear of angering the spirits of the mammoths gives the film its natural shift to the moral and ethical questions of engineering life.
Cue Goldblum: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether of not they could….”
Genesis 2.o stops short of sermonizing, but with some truly amazing and insightful footage, uncovers plenty of sobering food for thought.