|by Peter Sobczynski
Please enjoy short reviews of "Becky," "The Grey Fox," "Hammer," "Judy & Punch" and "Tomasso."
Chicago's Music Box Theatre and the Gene Siskel Film Center are continuing their virtual cinema partnerships with independent film distributors to bring the movies that they normally would have been screening into homes via streaming arrangements and collect a portion of the proceeds as a way of helping to keep them in business during these trying times. At the Music Box, the new offerings include the returns of Phillip Borsos's delightful 1982 Canadian western "The Grey Fox" (see below) and "Hail Satan?," the funny and provocative documentary of a group known as The Satanic Temple and how they use cleverness and media savvy to help battle restrictive legislation from religious groups under the guise of seemingly agreeing with them. Through the Siskel Center, you can view "Tomasso," the latest challenging work from the always provocative Abel Ferrara (see below), Hong Sangsoo's acclaimed 2016 Korean romantic comedy-drama "Yourself and Yours" and "Ursula Von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own," a documentary looking at the life and work of the acclaimed sculptress whose large-scale creations can be found in top museums, including Chicago's Art Institute.
To order the Music Box titles, go to musicboxtheatre.com For the offerings from the Siskel Center, go to siskelfilmcenter.org/filmcenterfromyoursofa
If you have ever sat through the obnoxiousness that is "Home Alone" and wondered what it might look like if the cartoonish carnage that the obnoxious little kid reigned upon the people invading his home was presented with all the blood and gore that might have resulted from such injuries, then "Becky" is the film that you have been waiting for and you are pretty much welcome to it. Still reeling from the death of her mother, emotionally troubled teenager (maybe 13-14 tops) Becky (Lulu Wilson) is off to spend a few days with her father (Joel McHale) at their remote summer lake house when he drops two bombs on her--not only is his new girlfriend Kayla (Amanda Brugel) and her young son joining them but he announces that the two of them plan to get married. This causes Becky to storm off to her fort in the woods behind the house, which means that she is conveniently absent when a group of recently escaped neo-Nazi convicts turn up to grab an all-important key that has been hidden there and which Becky has already unknowingly stumbled across and taken. The invaders decide to play tough but when things go sideways, Becky is pushed over the edge and devises a series of traps and improvised weapons as part of a plan to take them all out in the messiest ways imaginable.
In other words, "Becky" is pretty much just another home invasion thriller that tries to separate itself from other examples of the genre with two gimmicks--the conceit that the person killing off the bad guys in a young girl who does them in with things like art pencils and a broken ruler (though she eventually dispatches of one with an outboard motor in a clear homage to the infamous "I Spit on Your Grave") and by the stunt casting of funnyman Kevin James as the leader of the neo-Nazis. As it turns out, neither one of the gimmicks quite works as well as co-directors Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion clearly hoped they would. Although Wilson herself is pretty good in the title role, both the level of savagery she demonstrates and the ease in which she knocks off the group of allegedly ruthless vicious killers beggar belief after a while. As for James, he tries very hard and shows that he might indeed have the chops to take on material of a more serious nature than he usually tackles but he never disappears into the character enough to make us think of him as anything other than a comedian trying to stretch as an actor. Gorehounds may get a kick out of the high and exceedingly nasty levels of bloodshed on display but when all is said and done, "Becky" is little more than a one-joke film whose punchline wears out its welcome long before it comes to its blood-soaked finale.
Originally released in 1983 to much acclaim, the delightful Canadian western "The Grey Fox" is now being reissued in a newly restored edition and it proves to be just as wonderful and surprising as it did when it first hit theaters. The title refers to Bill Miner (Richard Farnsworth), a man who, as the film opens, has just been released from prison after serving 33 years for robbing stagecoaches. Trouble is, it is now 1901, stagecoaches have been replaced by trains and he is at a loss of what to do with his life now in a world that he no longer recognizes. After an unsuccessful stay with his sister, he hits the road for a couple of years until he happens upon a screening of the classic silent short film "The Great Train Robbery" and realizes that he is now meant to be a train robber after all. Not surprisingly, he proves to be a success at it and decides to lay low in a mining town, even contemplating settling down with a feminist photographer (Jackie Burroughs) whom he manages to charm along the way. At the same time, the lure of pulling one final job begins to consume him and he has to decide whether to risk it all or settle down for a peaceful and quiet life at last.
When the film came out, it introduced the film world to two big talents. The first was director Philip Borsos, who announced himself as a major talent with this debut feature, effortlessly blending together humor, action, drama, romance and historical detail into the kind of film that could appeal to all ages without ever coming across like the saccharine family film that it might have in less sure hands. Unfortunately, he only made a handful of films over the next decade--the best of which was the truly odd holiday item "One Magic Christmas," a film in which the role of a guardian angel is played by Harry Dean Stanton and that isn't the oddest aspect about it--before succumbing to leukemia in 1995 at the age of 41. The other discovery was Richard Farnsworth, though perhaps "discovery" isn't quite the right word. He began his screen career as one of the jockeys in the Marx Brothers film "A Day at the Races" and spent the next three decades working as a stuntman in such films as "Gunga Din," "Gone with the Wind," "The Wild One," "The Ten Commandments" and "Spartacus" before moving into straight acting parts, even earning a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination in 1978 for "Comes a Horseman." Bill Miner was his first lead role in a film and he performance was so striking and warm and wonderful that he came across more like a force of nature than anything else. His work could not be overlooked and indeed, he became a familiar screen presence over the next couple of decades with appearances in films like "The Natural," "Into the Night," "The Two Jakes," "Misery" and the remake of "The Getaway" before his equally acclaimed and Oscar-nominated lead performance in David Lynch's "The Straight Story" in 1999. (This was his last performance and he passed away the next year.) "The Grey Fox" serves as an ideal legacy to these two prodigious talents and also happens to still be a stupendously entertaining film in its own right as well.
"Hammer" is an utterly anonymous and perfectly forgettable crime drama that is enlivened only by the presence of always-reliable character actor Will Patton, who has been in dozens of movies over the years and almost always good in them, in a rare lead role. Here, he plays Stephen, a man who, along with his wife, elected to distance themselves from older son Chris (Mark O'Brien) when they discovered that he was involved in dealing drugs. That didn't stop Chris from dealing and when an attempt to pull a double-cross backfires, he gets away with the money and his mortally wounded accomplice Lori (Dayle McLeod), both of whom he hides away in a cornfield while fleeing from Adams (Ben Cotton), the guy he tried to rip off. By pure coincidence, Stephen and Chris cross paths and when Chris explains his predicament, Stephen agrees to help him in his attempts to evade Adams and locate both the money and Lori and finds his own long-buried dark side begin to reemerge over the course of one long day in his attempts to help the son that he had written off for so long. Patton is good as he charts his character's regression into habits that he has spent a lifetime trying to deny while wrestling with the guilt over his part in what became of his son. The problem is that nothing else in this film from writer-director Christian Sparkes quite clicks--the characters are not especially interesting, the storyline is equally one-dimensional and when the whole thing finally comes to an end, it will inspire little more than shrugs from most viewers. I am glad to see someone giving an actor as good as Patton a chance to shine in a lead role for once--it is just too bad that it couldn't have been in a better vehicle than this.
Once a live entertainment staple from a couple of centuries ago, Punch & Judy shows were super-violent puppet shows in which a marionette named Mr. Punch would encounter a number of individuals, ranging from his wife Judy to the devil himself, and savagely beat them to the delight of audiences of the time. "Judy & Punch" is a very odd revenge that centers on a married couple that not only perform such a show but are actually named Punch & Judy--Punch (Damon Herriman) is a drunken, obnoxious and egocentric lout while long-suffering wife Judy (Mia Wasikowska) is kept to the side of the spotlight even though she is by far the more talented puppeteer of the two. The two are performing in the loathsome little burg of Seaside (a place located near absolutely no known body of water) and waiting for the break that will allow them and their infant daughter to begin performing in more prestigious locations. Before that can happen, however, a boozed-up Punch commits a couple of unspeakable acts and uses his popularity among the townspeople to railroad a couple of innocent people to the gallows to pay for his crimes. The only person who knows the truth is Judy, who has finally been pushed too far and who begins to hatch a plot that will satisfy her desire for revenge and hopefully show off some of her performance skills at the same time.
When "Judy & Punch" hits blu-ray, it is my fervent hope that the bonus features include footage of the pitch meeting where debuting writer-director Mirrah Foulkes managed to secure funding for such an offbeat doozy of a project. Between its strange story and the wild mixture of tones, ranging from the whimsical to the satiric to the downright horrifying--including one moment so ghastly that some viewers may elect to check out right then and there--this is a film that should not work under any circumstances but somehow does. Foulkes does an excellent job of navigating the tonal shifts while keeping the potentially absurd story from flying completely off the rails. She also benefits from yet another in a string of strong and inspiring performances from Mia Wasikowska who is fierce and unrelenting, yet always sympathetic, as the driven and determined Judy and Herriman, perhaps fittingly for a guy who has played Charles Manson on multiple occasions, demonstrate a revolting charm as the repulsive Punch that makes him watchable even as you yearn for his inevitable comeuppance. "Judy & Punch" may indeed be an acquired taste that is simply be too odd for some people to fully embrace but anyone looking for a newer film of a sort that you have probably never seen before and with definite cult possibilities should give it a try.
Throughout his career, Abel Ferrara has made a lot of movies--some of which have been very good (such as the controversial crime dramas "King of New York" and "The Bad Lieutenant" and the underrated remake "Body Snatchers") and some of them not so much--but as far as I can recall, there is not a single title in his oeuvre that doesn't feel like a project that he needed to do to satisfy something deep within himself. That is certainly the case with his latest work, "Tomasso," an intimate drama that is almost literally a home movie in certain respects--much of the action was filmed in Ferrara's apartment in Rome, the cast includes his wife, Christina Chiriac, and young daughter, Anna Ferrara, in key roles, members of his AA recovery and yoga groups in smaller parts and his real-life next door neighbor, Willem Dafoe, in the title role. Tomasso is, not surprisingly, an American filmmaker in his late sixties who has relocated to Rome, where it is slightly easier to raise money for his projects (he burned his bridges in Hollywood years earlier in a haze of drugs), and lives a reasonably happy and tranquil life in which he fills the days doting on his much younger wife and daughter, teaching an acting class, studying yoga and Italian, sipping lots of espresso, attending AA meetings, where he has just completed six years of sobriety, and planning his next movie (which we discover is "Siberia," which is actually another already-completed Ferrara film). His life seems bucolic enough but as the film progresses, his constant activities begin to feel more like increasingly desperate attempts to keep his old demons at bay. Before long, they start bubbling to the surface--he begins picking fights with his wife over the most insignificant things, imagining his favorite barista and student naked and coming on to him, having nightmares in which he is arrested and persecuted by authorities and imagining that his wife has taken a lover. Considering that this is an Abel Ferrara film, you can probably venture a guess as to where it is all heading, though there is the challenge that we can never be certain whether what we are seeing is real or the manifestations of Tomasso's tortured soul and need to cloak every aspect of his current existence in layers of self-pity.
Many of Ferrara's past films have dealt with the hell of addiction--one of them was even called "The Addiction" (it was a vampire movie, but still. . . )--and so it is interesting to see him tackling the equally fraught subject of recovery for once. What is especially fascinating about his take is that he never once succumbs to the usual cliches that are normally found in such narratives--we never see him undergo a setback or two and immediately go back to drugs, for example. In fact, we are nearly 30 minutes into the film when it even announces, in a darkly witty manner, the notion of addiction recovery as one of its subjects. Instead, it suggests the continued recovery process through moments that do not call attention to themselves but which feel absolutely authentic--the way Tomasso pounds shots of espresso as if they were booze and his unspoken need to keep himself occupied lest he slip back into his bad habits. For his part, Dafoe does a brilliant job of suggesting the feeling of self-loathing that drove him to drugs in the first place and which has never quite gone away--even during his worst moments, and there are plenty of them, you always find yourself empathizing with him no matter what he does, if he actually does any of them. With its reliance on themes and ideas that Ferrara has been dealing with in one form or another throughout his career--specifically involving people trapped in downward spirals of personal, personal and spiritual destruction of their own making--"Tomasso" may not exactly be the ideal entry point for viewers unfamiliar with his filmography. For those who have been following and admiring his career for a while, however, this is a bracing, fascinating and occasionally frustrating work that is arguably the strongest thing that he has done in a while.
link directly to this feature at https://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=4247
originally posted: 06/05/20 04:50:36
last updated: 06/05/20 08:57:05