Friday, March 17, 2017

On DVD/Blu-ray: ELLE (2016); THE EYES OF MY MOTHER (2016); and AMERICAN VIOLENCE (2017)

(France/Germany - 2016)

Discounting 2012's 55-minute experimental lark TRICKED, ELLE is Paul Verhoeven's first feature-length work since 2006's BLACK BOOK and it's immediately obvious from the opening scene that he hasn't lost his edge as a provocateur. Verhoeven, whose Dutch films SPETTERS and THE FOURTH MAN led to Hollywood hits like ROBOCOP, TOTAL RECALL, and BASIC INSTINCT, delivers a dazzling psychological thriller with ELLE, a complex and nasty exercise in misanthropy with a wicked pitch black streak. A legend in French cinema who's only sporadically worked in America (HEAVEN'S GATE, THE BEDROOM WINDOW, I HEART HUCKABEE'S), an Oscar-nominated Isabelle Huppert delivers the performance of her five-decade career as Michele Leblanc, the CEO of a video game software company who's being brutally raped on her dining room floor by a masked intruder as the film begins. Instead of calling the cops, she throws away her clothes, takes a bath, cleans up the mess and orders take-out sushi for dinner with her visiting son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet). Her company is months late delivering its latest product and most of her employees hate her except for her business partner and best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), who is completely unaware that Michele is having an affair with her husband Robert (Christian Berkel), who seems to be turned on by the fact that Michele was sexually assaulted. Michele is also jealous about her ex-husband Richard's (Charles Berling) blossoming relationship with younger yoga instructor Helene (Vimala Pons), going so far as to host a dinner party and plant a tiny piece of a toothpick inside an hors d'oeuvre in the hope that it jabs the roof of her mouth when she bites down (it does). Michele is openly contemptuous of her aging, Botoxed mother Irene (Judith Magre), who's shacked up with a decades-younger gigolo (Raphael Lenglet) in an apartment she pays for, and she's also helping support and is completely dismissive of dim Vincent, a former weed dealer who's in manager training at a fast food joint and whose girlfriend Josie (Alice Isaaz) has just given birth to a baby far too dark-complected to be Vincent's but looks a lot like Vincent's black friend Omar (Stephane Bak), a fact that's obvious to everyone except Vincent. Michele begins having violent revenge fantasies and is also being taunted by her rapist, who sends her texts like "You're pretty tight for a woman your age," and breaks into her house while she's away, leaving a copious amount of semen on her bed next to her laptop, the screen reading "I just couldn't stop myself."

As if that's not enough tumult, Michele's serial killer father is in the news again for his once-per-decade parole hearing after 40 years in prison for "The League Street Murders," a series of slayings that branded a ten-year-old Michele a potential accomplice, helping her father burn the bodies though it's argued that she wasn't fully aware of what she was doing. Her father's legacy is why she's reluctant to call the police after she's raped, and she still doesn't call when she's attacked a second time. She's also attempting to seduce Patrick (Laurent Lafitte), a nice-guy neighbor who lives across the street with his devoutly religious wife Rebecca (Virginie Efira). There's a lot of story and subplots in David Birke's script that are expertly balanced by Verhoeven. They don't all come together and they aren't supposed to, but every one of them is vital to influencing the increasingly sociopathic, scorched earth behavior of Michele. Verhoeven originally planned to set up ELLE--based on Philippe Djian's 2012 novel Oh...--with a Hollywood studio, but when he couldn't settle on an A-list actress and knew he'd have to compromise too much to make the film he wanted to make, he took it to France and had American Birke's (whose credits include DTV thrillers like DAHMER, GACY, and THE FREEWAY KILLER, none of which would indicate any of the thematic depth of ELLE) script translated to French. It ended up being a smart move, as Verhoeven gets a bold and brazenly fearless performance from Huppert, whose Michelle learns the identity of her rapist and instead opts to use it for continued psychosexual head games. That and a lot of ELLE just feels wrong, and you find yourself laughing at things you shouldn't find funny, like Vincent being completely oblivious to the fact that he's clearly not the father of Josie's baby, or Michele asking a drone at the office to "take out your dick" when she thinks he might be the rapist. Michele can be heartlessly cruel at times (when an enraged Vincent calls her a "cunt," it's not so much a response to what she's just said but rather the pent-up rage of a lifetime of snide condescension), and it's a ballsy move for a film to present a rape victim as an unsympathetic bitch. It's something that would instantly be labeled misogynistic if this was a major-studio American film, but Verhoeven handles the difficult and complex nature of this high-wire act in a way that can only be pulled off by a great and experienced filmmaker. A lot of ELLE is designed to shock, but it does so in a natural, non-sensational way, sometimes so subtly that it takes a few seconds to hit you (a perfect example would be a seemingly throwaway line from Rebecca near the end that's loaded with major implications). With a galvanizing performance by a never-better Huppert (no stranger at exploring characters with dark sides, having been in several Michael Haneke films), ELLE is a challenging, thought-provoking work from a director who's as vital as ever as he approaches 80. (R, 131 mins)

(US - 2016)

A minimalist, slow burn horror mood piece whose sole purpose is to get a reaction, THE EYES OF MY MOTHER suggests, more than anything else, HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER if remade by Bela Tarr. The debut of writer/director Nicolas Pesce, EYES' use of stark black & white helps establish the pervasive sense of melancholy and dread that dominates virtually every frame. An opening shot of a truck encountering a staggering, disheveled woman on a deserted country road would hint that Pesce is venturing into Tobe Hooper/Rob Zombie hicksploitation horror, but EYES has other things in mind. Told in three chapters, the film opens with "Mother," where young Francisca (Olivia Bond) lives in an isolated rural farmhouse with her Portuguese mother (Diana Agostini) and American father (Paul Nazar). Her mother was a surgeon in her homeland, and bonds with Francisca by showing her how to perform surgical procedures on severed heads of cattle. Her mother is killed by creepy stranger Charlie (Will Brill) who is in turn beaten and shackled in the barn by the father when he returns home to find Charlie killing his wife with a hammer while Francisca sits at the kitchen table. In the second chapter, "Father," years pass and Francisca has grown (now played by Kika Magalhaes). Charlie is still shackled in the garage, a virtual animal with his eyes removed, sockets sewn shut, and vocal cords severed. When her father dies, she keeps the body around the house, bathing it, talking to it, and sleeping beside it until she finally dismembers and disposes of it and invites the feral Charlie into her bed for sex. Francisca drives around in search of "friends" to bring home and keep prisoner in the barn, which leads to the third chapter, "Family."

There's no denying Pesce has a knack for shot composition and maintaining tension, even if EYES is as glacially paced as the slowest of the post-Ti West slow burners, clocking in at a brief 76 minutes and feeling a lot longer. But other than getting a response, there's really nothing of substance here. The film was met with equal amounts of applause and walkouts when it screened at Sundance a year ago, and that seems to what Pesce was after. The final scene is too conventional for all the arthouse transgression that preceded it, and it's too abrupt and ambiguous, and not the good kind of ambiguous. The whole thing could be written off as taking place in Francisca's deranged mind until the sudden normalcy in the climax, which ends up leaving more questions than answers--namely, how does she pay the bills? And why haven't the cops been looking for any of the missing people? Pesce's got talent and there's no shortage of unsettling sounds and images here (the gurgling noises made by the chained captives, accompanied by the visual of the sewn-shut eyes will haunt you for days), and Magalhaes is excellent, but when it's all over, it just feels like a film school stunt, no matter how sporadically effective it is at times. It's got all the hiccups and stumbles usually associated with a first-time filmmaker, but there's enough here to warrant keeping an eye on Pesce's next project. (R, 76 mins)

(US - 2017)

AMERICAN VIOLENCE wants to be a "message" movie taking a stance against the death penalty, but it quickly abandons its serious pretensions to become just another DTV-level crime thriller from prolific D-grade hack Timothy Woodward Jr. Woodward, whose films usually premiere on the new release shelf at Walmart, has made seven movies over the last two years, almost all of which co-star the likes of Michael Pare and Johnny Messner who, of course, are on hand in small roles here. Woodward managed to corral some unexpected names for AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but it's as cheap and inept as his other movies, demonstrating that no matter how high-minded and hard-hitting he thinks this is, Woodward still has a ways to go before he's even at the level of an Uwe Boll or an Albert Pyun. A film like this needs a strong performance at its core, and it doesn't get it from Kaiwi Lyman-Mersereau as Texas death row inmate Jackson Michael Shea. Shea's set to be executed by lethal injection in 72 hours, and psychologist/professor Dr. Amanda Tyler (Denise Richards) has been asked by the district attorney (Columbus Short) to interview him to see if the Governor should order a stay of execution. What follows is Shea telling his story to Dr. Tyler, one that begins with him melodramatically glowering "Tick...tock...tick...tock...the sand in my hourglass has just about run out," and it just gets more trite and heavy-handed from there. As a boy, Shea was molested by his uncle. After a stint in prison, he falls in with low-level mob flunky Marty Bigg (Pare, doing his best Ray Liotta) as they team up doing small-time safecracking jobs. One of the safes belongs to loan shark Belmonte (Nick Chinlund), who strings Marty up and slashes his throat as Woodward pans the camera to an illuminated crucifix on the wall. Subtlety is not a word in Woodward's vocabulary.

After avenging Marty's death, Shea falls in love with Olivia (Emma Rigby), the daughter of Texas crime lord Charlie Rose (Patrick Kilpatrick), for whom Shea begins working. Eventually, Shea ends up in prison again where he's gang-raped in the shower before being recruited as a hired gun for corrupt warden Morton (top-billed Bruce Dern, squandering any NEBRASKA/HATEFUL EIGHT renaissance he might've had). AMERICAN VIOLENCE stacks the deck against Shea from the start, excusing everything he does to make ham-fisted points. Of course, Dr. Tyler has her own traumatic backstory--she's a death penalty advocate and widow whose cop husband was killed in the line of duty but she naturally changes her tune after spending an afternoon with perpetual victim Shea. It would be one thing if AMERICAN VIOLENCE made any convincing arguments, but it just offers sanctimonious lip service about "breaking the cycle of violence" while wallowing in every cliche imaginable and offering irrefutable proof that the only cycle that needs breaking is that which provides funding for future Timothy Woodward Jr. movies. Al Lamanda's script is atrocious, whether it's Shea having flashbacks to things he couldn't possibly have witnessed or known about to the laughable dialogue (Shea to Tyler: "Don't you get it, Doc? We're all just caged animals with animal instincts;" Belmonte to Shea: "Untie me, you pissant fuck!;" Tyler, staring off after Shea confesses to killing Belmonte and seeing the path it paved for him: "The catalyst that launched you into Hell." Lyman-Merserau can't act and Richards isn't any more believable as a college professor than she was as a nuclear physicist nearly 20 years ago in THE WORLD IS NOT ENOUGH. Dern only has a few scenes and seems to be making it up as he goes, from bitching to his wife about the poor quality of her PB&J sandwiches to licking an ice cream cone while watching Shea strip, doing anything to keep himself amused while looking mildly disgruntled that no one's yet asked him to play Bernie Sanders. You expect to see guys like Pare, Chinlund, Messner, Short, and Kilpatrick ("The Sandman" in the early JCVD actioner DEATH WARRANT) in a piece of shit like AMERICAN VIOLENCE, but what is New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski doing here? Making his dramatic acting debut (he appeared as himself in ENTOURAGE) as one of Rose's strongarms, Gronk is prominently billed but has little to do after turning up about an hour in. He has a couple of scenes and is limited to dialogue like "Consider it done," and "We gotta get outta here!" and gets a slo-mo shot where he's diving sideways while firing two guns but then isn't seen again after driving Olivia off in a getaway car. Hey, Gronk--stick to clubbing in the offseason and hope Tom Brady and Bill Belichick never find out about this. (Unrated, 107 mins)

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