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Films I Neglected To Review: Kootchie Kootchie Sue. .
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "Free State of Jones," "The Phenom," "Tickled" and "The Wailing"

"Free State of Jones" is a Civil War-era drama that is as insufferable as it is noble and holy crap, is it ever noble. Based on a true story (though how true may well depend on what side of the Mason-Dixon line one happens to reside in), the film stars Matthew McConaughey as Newton Knight, a battle-weary field nurse for the Confederates who sneaks away from the battlefield to bring a nephew who has died an inglorious death in battle home for a proper burial, sees Confederate troops taking virtually all of his neighbors supplies for themselves and stands up to them at last. After this confrontation, he winds up officially deserting the Army and winds up hiding in the nearby swamps with a few escaped slaves. Before long, he transforms these men, along with a number of former soldiers who join them over time, into a crack fighting force that begins to successfully battle the Confederates in a series of increasingly violent confrontations that do not stop once the war itself concludes as the South continues to find any number of ways of continuing their abhorrent policies under new and quasi-legal means. While all this is going on, Knight, despite still being technically married - though his wife (Keri Russell) and their son have fled the area - begins a relationship with comely slave Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) that doesn't seem to bother any of their fellow fighters in the slightest and which will end up have surprising repercussions a few decades in the future.

The film was written and directed by Gary Ross, whose previous efforts include "Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit" and the original "The Hunger Games" - all three of which were intelligently written and smartly constructed works of popular entertainment. As a result, the sheer clunkiness of this film is all the more surprising. With this type of story, one craves the little details that might help bring Knight and his efforts more fully to life but they are mysteriously absent here. Instead of making him into a believable person, Knight is presented as some kind of holy saint with all sorts of highly nuanced and suspiciously modern ideas about the real reasons behind the war (yes, he does complain about fighting for other people's cotton) and who never meets a dire situation that cannot be resolved by his endless speechifying. His rag-tag army is painted in a similarly bucolic manner - they are fully integrated, both racially and sexually, and completely devoid of tension outside of one brief incident that merely serves as a prelude for yet another speech. As things progress, it becomes apparent that even at nearly 2 1/2 hours, Ross has bitten off more than he can chew as important plot developments involving Reconstruction are conveyed entirely through title cards. In the most inexplicable and clumsy move in a film filled with them, Ross periodically and jarringly interrupts the action to cut to a 1950's-era court case involving the great-grandson of Knight and Rachel who has been accused of miscegenation, a story point that never quite jibes with the material at hand and which is eventually resolved in a manner that makes you wonder why Ross even bothered to include it. Like a history lesson taught by a substitute teacher with no real feel for the field, "Free State of Jones" has all the ingredients for a compelling narrative but no idea of how to convey them in an exciting or interesting manner.

Remember that painful scene in "The Bad News Bears" when Vic Morrow goes out onto the field in the middle of a game to violently berate his son in front of everyone? Take that scene, stretch it out to 90 minutes and toss in big chunks of "Good Will Hunting" and "The Great Santini" for good measure and you have the sports-themed psychodrama "The Phenom." Hopper Gibson (Johnny Simmons) is a hot young pitcher whose startling recent cold streak has landed him back in the minor leagues and in sessions with a sports therapist (Paul Giamatti) in the hopes of getting him straightened out in time for the playoffs. The film alternates between Johnny as he struggles to get a handle on his problems and flashbacks showing that most of his traumas can be traced back to his father (Ethan Hawke, cast way against type), a pitcher who never made it out of high school and who now spends his time cruelly belittling and mistreating his son while pretending that his outbursts are some form of truth-telling and not just simple emotional abuse. While it is sort of interesting to watch a sports film that does not require a big game to wrap things up - there is precious little athletic material on display - and Hawke is surprisingly effective in the way that he presents his loutish character in a way that inspires both intense loathing and a certain degree of sympathy, writer-director Noah Buschel puts a little too much emphasis on the daddy issues and not enough on the win-at-any-costs culture that permeates the modern sports world. Other problems include the odd decision to omit any concrete evidence that the shrink's advice is having any sort of effect on the field and the unfortunate fact that, as embodied by Simmons' alternately callow and shallow performance, Hopper really isn't that interesting or likable of a character (at one point, having heard some bad news about someone close to him, his first instinct is to ask how the incident may affect his advertising deals) and it therefore becomes difficult to care that much about what happens to him. "The Phenom" is a good idea for a movie, I suppose, but one that just remains frustratingly undeveloped.

There have been any number of documentaries in recent years in which filmmakers have trained their cameras on quirky subcultures and the people who populate them and the opening scenes of "Tickled," in which New Zealand journalist David Farrier comes across a video online offering money and trips to Los Angeles for young men agreeing to be filmed participating in the "sport" of competitive endurance tickling (pretty much exactly what it sounds like) and decides to look into it, make it seem as if it will be along those lines. Things shift radically, however, when his request for an interview touches off a litany of violently homophobic responses threatening legal action if he even thinks of reporting on it. Intrigued, Farrier and collaborator Dylan Reeve decide to go out to Los Angeles to investigate further and make some shocking discoveries - the one participant who agrees to talk to them tells how he was publicly threatened and harassed by the people in charge when he objected to how his video was being presented and another guy who used to procure young men to appear in the videos talks about the mistreatment he underwent at the hands of someone who had a similar operation a couple of decades earlier before mysteriously vanishing. Eventually Farrier and Reeve are led to the person who seems to be the top man in the tickling empire, someone rich enough to indulge in his particular fetish and nasty enough to destroy anyone who gets in the way of his indulgence.

I wouldn't dream of telling you how it all turns out but I will say that "Tickled" is easily one of the strangest and most unnerving documentaries that I have seen in years. Like the recent "Weiner," it tells a story so strange and outlandish that no respectable writer would have dared tried to convey it in purely fictional terms for fear of being seen as totally ridiculous. There are some amusing moments here and there, such as when Farrier and Reeve visit a different entrepreneur of fetish videos who is cheerfully upfront about what he is doing and who doesn't threaten his participants as a way of exercising power, but when the story focuses on them as they come closer and closer to the increasingly litigious and potentially dangerous person whose path they have crossed, the film generates a genuine level of tension and unease that is not easily shaken. "Tickled" might not exactly be an ideal date night film by any means but as an example of how to make a movie about a seamy and borderline perverse subject without becoming as exploitative as the shadowy figure at its center, it proves to be an undeniably effective work that may have you thinking twice the next time you go online.

As the new Korean horror film "The Wailing" opens, a small town is plagued by a series of violent incidents in which families are gruesomely butchered by loved ones who are now sporting crazed looks covered in welts, rashes and boils. When it is learned that a mysterious Japanese man (Jun Kunimura) arrived in town just before the killings began, rumors begin to circulate among the more superstitious locals that he is responsible. These accusations are pooh-poohed by Sgt. Jeon Jong-gu (Kwak Do-won), a second-rate policeman on the case (the kind who arrives late at a murder scene because his wife demanded that he have breakfast first) but when his own young daughter (Kim Hwan-hee) starts to develop the same sores as well as a spot-on impression of Linda Blair in "The Exorcist," he begins to take things more seriously, leading to a moment when he makes an exceptionally disconcerting discovery while inspecting the Japanese man's home. As the daughter grows worse and the killings continue, a shaman (Hwang Jung-min) comes to town to perform an exorcism ritual but even that may not be enough to save the day or the daughter.

At 156 minutes, "The Wailing" has a running time that may send its own kind of chill down the spines of moviegoers (that is 12 minutes longer than "The Shining," for example) but one of the most astonishing things about it is that writer-director Na Hong-jin manages to sustain a genuine sense of uneasiness and dread for pretty much the entire length of the film. I honestly cannot say that every element of the story fits together with absolute clarity - though I suppose some of the points of confusion may make more sense to Korean audiences - but this is not the kind of film that derives its power from narrative logic. No, it wants to unnerve you as much as it possibly can and in that regard, it succeeds mightily in sequences that run the gamut from straightforward suspense (the investigation of the Japanese man's house) to the purely supernatural (an exorcism sequence that begins at a borderline hysterical pitch and then goes from there) to those where you have no firm grasp on who or what is behind what is happening (best exemplified in a bravura climactic sequence in which the film bounces between no less than three increasingly scary plot developments without missing a single beat). All told, "The Wailing" is pretty much a knockout throughout - the kind of heavily hyped foreign genre experiment that actually manages to live up to all of its considerable hype in ways that will satisfy hardcore horror buffs and casual fans in equal measure.

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originally posted: 06/24/16 02:14:21
last updated: 06/24/16 09:17:31
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