|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "1 BR," "Porno," "Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time--Vol. 1 Midnight Madness," "To the Stars," "The True History of the Kelly Gang" and additional assorted arthouse offerings.
Chicago's Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are continuing their partnerships with independent film distributors to bring the movies that they normally would have been screening into homes via streaming arrangements that will give them a portion of the proceeds as a way of helping to keep them in business during these trying times. Via the Music Box, you can now stream "Someone, Somewhere," Cedric Klapisch's inversion of the typical romantic comedy template in which two people (Francois Civil and Ana Girardot) seemingly destined to be together keep missing each other, the wildly over-the-top horror-comedy gross out "Porno" (discussed at more length below) and the documentary "What She Said: The Art of Pauline Kael." Through the Siskel Center, you can watch "Eating Up Easter," Sergio Mata'u Rapu's documentary about his home of Easter Island and the threat being posed by its expanding tourism industry, a reissue of "A Thousand Pieces of Gold," a 1990 dramatic Western about a Chinese woman (Rosalind Chao) who is trafficked to an Idaho mining town and won in a poker game by a man (Chris Cooper) who proves to be more than he initially seems. "Vitalina Varela" is the latest work from celebrated Portuguese filmmaker Pedro Costa in which Vitalina Varela, the co-star of his previous film, "Horse Money," returns to Lisbon to reunite with her husband after a long absence only to discover that he has passed away, leaving traces of a mysterious life she is compelled to follow up on. Rounding out the lineup is a pair of films released earlier this year--the eye-opening anti-gerrymandering documentary "Slay the Dragon" and "Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and the Band," a look at the rise and fall of the seminal rock band as seen through the eyes of primary songwriter and lead guitarist Robertson and commentators such as Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Martin Scorsese and Eric Clapton.
To order the Music Box titles, go to musicboxtheatre.com For the offerings from the Siskel Center, go to siskelfilmcenter.org/filmcenterfromyoursofa
As "1 BR" opens, shy and retiring Sarah (Nicole Brydon Bloom) has just relocated to Los Angeles to begin a new life and pursue her dreams of being a costume designer. While searching for an apartment for her and her beloved cat, she comes across a seemingly perfect place--reasonably priced and filled with nice, neighborly tenants--that she naturally assumes she will never get. Amazingly, she does and even though she needs to smuggle her cat in because of the no pets clause, she seems ready to begin her new life. Strange things begin happening, however--there are bizarre noises that keep her up at night that only she seems to hear and one of her neighbors takes it upon themselves to enforce the no pets rule in an especially hideous manner. It turns out that the entire building is under the control of a strange cult--one reminiscent of Scientology and NXIVM--and they have elected to indoctrinate Sarah into their twisted notion of community and are perfectly willing to use physical and psychological torture in order to completely break her down into accepting their way of thinking.
"1 BR," which marks the debut of writer-director David Marmor, is a film where viewers may find themselves getting frustrated with its unevenness as some parts hit home with real force while others wind up missing the mark. The deliberately paced setup that follows Sarah as she sweats out the application process and then settles in to her new place will resonate strongly with anyone who has been forced to look for an apartment completely on their own and the point where the true nature of her neighbors is handled in an effective manner. Likewise, the climactic moments of the film are staged in a strong and sure manner and end with a sly and provocative final twist that is both amusing and shudder-inducing. The performances are also good as well, especially Bloom as Sarah and Taylor Nichols as the manager of the building and so much more. The problem, and it is one that seems to be afflicting a lot of genre movies these days, is that it takes a story that would have made for a powerful one-hour episode of an anthology show like "The Twilight Zone" or "Black Mirror" and tries to stretch it out for an extra half-hour to achieve a conventional feature length. As a result, there is a certain slackness to the material that not even the sheer unpleasantness of some of the cruelties inflicted can quite overcome. Despite that, "1 BR" is still an intriguing, if undeniably uneven variation on standard horror movie trope--imagine "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" in which all the terrors are locally sourced--and I am now officially curious as to what Marmor comes up with next.
Set in 1992, "Porno" is set almost entirely within the walls of a small-town movie theatre (the current fare being "A League Of Their Own" and "Encino Man") that is staffed entirely by devout Christians--manager Mr. Pike (Bill Phillips), best pals Abe (Evan Daves) and Todd (Larry Saperstein), newly appointed assistant manager Chastity (Jillian Mueller), Ricky (Glenn Stott), who has just returned from a secret summer camp and talking at length about his new and unseen girlfriend, and projectionist/ college dropout/onetime cigarette addict Heavy Metal Jeff (Robbie Tann). One night, after the screenings have finished and Mr Pike has left, the others plan on cleaning up and then watching a movie on their own. Before they can start, a series of odd events leads them to discover a hidden doorway to a secret basement, where they find a mysteriously intact reel of film amidst the junk. When they watch the film, it appears to be a weird, violent and sexy work that they mistake for a porno film but in fact, it turns out to be the resting place of a naked succubus (Katelyn Pearce) who, now freed, starts preying on the gang by tantalizing them with fantasies and then ripping off their genitalia. Over the course of the long and very gory night (there is a reason why the film is being presented under the aegis of Fangoria magazine), the five struggle to remain alive and intact while trying to figure out a way to contain the creature before it kills them all.
So at this point, I suspect that many of you have already written off the idea of ever watching "Porno" and I concur that if this doesn't already sound like your cup of tea, there is virtually no chance that there is anything in it that is going to win you over. For the rest of you, the real question is whether or not the film, essentially an amped-up mashup of Lamberto Bava's "Demons" and Woody Allen's "The Purple Rose of Cairo," actually delivers on the lurid and grotesque promise of its premise. Those looking for straight-up scares will probably want to search elsewhere because while the film is definitely a horror-comedy, it clearly leans towards the second part of that combination and when it does move into more horrific territory, it is more interested in grossing viewers out with its decidedly over-the-top visuals than in scaring them by more conventional means. The grossest scenes are appropriately disgusting but the repeated focus on mutilated penises gets a little tiresome after a while. The young actors populating the cast are entertaining enough to watch and there are just enough clever and funny moments on hand to make you stick it out until the end in the hopes that it might actually become the grisly genre classic that it is clearly striving to be. At its best, "Porno" is a reasonably entertaining way in which to kill 90 minutes, not to mention numerous brain cells, and even if it never quite manages to become the horror-comedy classic that it is striving, at least it keeps trying until the bitter and bloody end.
Many years ago, when I was a barefoot boy in his beardless youth, I was gifted with a copy of "Cult Movies," Danny Peary's seminal 1981 volume of essays (the first of three) focusing not on the most famous or celebrated movies ever made but the ones that have continued to evoke passionate responses among moviegoers years, sometimes decades, after their initial releases--titles covering the gamut from "The Wizard of Oz" to "Eraserhead" and including the king (or is it queen) of them all, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Needless to say, this book kicked off a lifelong fascination with these and other odd ducks of the cinema, most of which have proven to be infinitely more interesting in the long run than the films that cleaned up at the box-office and at the awards. "Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time" is an ambitious attempt to update Peary's work for a new generation of cineastes via a three-part documentary covering different aspects of the cult movie phenomenon co-hosted by Joe Dante, John Waters, Illeana Douglas and Kevin Pollak and featuring commentary from a wide variety of filmmakers, actors and critics (including Jeff Goldblum, Jeff Bridges, Gary Busey, Michael McKean, Pam Grier and John Turturro) mixed in with tantalizing clips from the films being examined. This focus of this installment is on the biggest names in the history of cult cinema and includes looks at the likes of "Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!," "This is Spinal Tap," "Reefer Madness," "The Big Lebowski," "Pink Flamingos" and, of course, "Rocky Horror," to name just a few.
Those viewers who already have a working knowledge of cult cinema probably will not get too much new information here--this is essentially an intro class--but it is fun to watch Bridges and Turturro discussing the endless array of fascination surrounding "Lebowski," David Lynch (in an old interview) trying to discuss "Eraserhead," and Penelope Spheeris talking about the tumultuous premiere of her controversial punk rock documentary "The Decline of Western Civilization." The only real hiccup to the film is the use of the co-hosts--aside from the moments when Waters discusses "Pink Flamingos" and his well-documented love for "Faster Pussycat!," they are used so infrequently that they end up coming across like an afterthought than anything else. (This is especially dispiriting because they are knowledgable enough about screen history that you really want to hear what they have to say.) Nevertheless, "Time Warp" is still an entertaining look at the crazier corners of screen history and it couldn't come at a better time--all you will want to do after watching it is watch (or rewatch) all the films under discussion and lord knows that most of you have plenty of time to do that right now. (Volume 2, focusing on horror and science-fiction titles, will be arriving on May 19 while volume 3, which looks at comedies and camp offerings, will premiere on June 23.)
"To the Stars" is a film that contains a number of strong and interesting elements but just not enough of them to keep it from descending into an overwrought and increasingly tedious melodrama. Set in a small Oklahoma town around 1960, the film first introduces us to Iris (Kara Hayward), a painfully shy and awkward teenager with a withdrawn father (Shea Wigham), a mother (Jordana Spiro) who wants to use her as a way of vicariously reliving her own wild teen years, and a bladder condition that has made her a target of cruel scorn among all her classmates. One day, she is rescued from another round of harassment by Maggie (Liana Liberto), the new girl in town. Although the news that Maggie’s father is a photographer for Life could give her entree to the popular set, she instead elects to hang with Iris and the two become fast friends--she even encourages Iris to undergo a makeover and realize that the cute boy (Lucas Jade Zumann) working on her family's farm really likes her. Alas, it seems as if Maggie’s stories about her father and her life are not quite accurate and that she is holding a secret that was the reason behind why her family moved to the middle of nowhere in the first place and which threatens to resurface once again with potentially tragic results.
What works in "To the Stars" are the performances. Hayward and Liberato both turn in strong and sure performances as the two girls and they are backed up by an equally strong supporting cast that also includes Tony Hale, cast way against type as Maggie’s cruel father, and Adelaide Clemens as a self-proclaimed "war widow" who works as a hairdresser while maintaining a secret of her own that winds up having a number of unanticipated repercussions. These are all good actors who do the best with what they have to work with but cannot quite overcome the triteness of ShannonBradley-Colleary's screenplay. The story clearly wants to present itself as a slice of life but it ends up coming across as both wildly overcooked and sadly underdone. The various plot developments come across as contrivances and it too often presents a modern-day sensibility towards some of the developments that simply do not convincingly jibe with the time period it is halfheartedly trying to establish. Director Martha Stephens, who previously co-directed the not-uninteresting Icelandic road film "Land Ho!," is adequate without ever really being inspiring and she has also made the odd decision of presenting the film in color instead of the black-and-white that it was originally presented in and which the material fairly cries out to be seen in. That said, even if it had been presented as it was initially conceived, "To the Stars" still would have been little more than a somewhat misfired coming-of-age drama that squanders a good cast on less-than-inspired material--it just would have been a better-looking one.
The story of Ned Kelly, the 19th-century Australian outlaw who became one of the continent's most enduring folk heroes as the result of his exploits, has served as the basis for any number of cinematic treatments over the years--one of the world's first feature-length films was a 1906 version of his story and he later was the focus of biopics where he was played by the likes of Mick Jagger and Heath Ledger. However, the latest incarnation of his story, Justin Kurzel's "The True History of the Kelly Gang," is almost certainly the strangest of them all. Based, apparently very loosely, on the award-winning Peter Carey novel of the same name, the film does cover, at least in the broadest strokes, the basic points of how the son of an Irishman who had been sent to Australia as a convict grew up and staged a rebellion that eventually led to him and his followers going into battle against British soldiers in 1880 wearing homemade bulletproof armor as a form of protection. (Kelly was the only survivor and was hung later that year.) The difference is that this particular take is less interested in Kelly's criminal exploits (which are usually shown only in the most fleeting of terms) than in focusing on the influences that helped make the child Ned (Orlando Schwerdt) who he would become, such as his angry mother (Essie Davis) and the violent thief (Russell Crowe) who would serve as a surrogate father and teach him his criminal ways. In the second half, the adult Ned (George McKay) returns home, only to be pushed too far by the British, represented by the depraved Constable Fitzpatrick (Nicholas Hoult), who blackmails Kelly’s family into letting him woo Ned younger sister (Josephine Blazier).
Needless to say, the film is very odd and for the first hour or so, it is a relatively interesting approach to what is fairly familiar material. The decision to focus this section on Kelly's early influences--sort of his origin story--offer up a new perspective that is further underscored by strong performances from Schwerdt, Davis, Crowe (in a too-brief role) and Charlie Hunnam as another British soldier who bedevils Ned's family, and a striking visual style. While the visuals continue to hold up throughout (the climactic standoff between Ned's gang and the British is a knockout), the second half proves to be much less interesting. Part of this is that the part is inevitably covering more familiar territory and no amount of psychosexual swagger (including portraying Kelly and his gang in overtly homoerotic terms that go so far as to have them riding into action while wearing women’s dresses) or deliberate anachronisms can overcome the narrative cliches as they begin to pile up. A bigger problem is that McKay is just way too bland and formless to be believable as someone as presumably charismatic as the real Kelly must have been—there was a reason that Jagger was cast in the role once upon a time and it was not because of his pure acting chops. This is a shame because there are stretches of "The True History of the Kelly Gang," especially in the first half, that are undeniably compelling but as it goes on and on, it just feels more like a missed opportunity than anything else.
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4235
originally posted: 04/24/20 09:50:36
last updated: 04/24/20 12:41:42