Friday, September 14, 2018

'Don't Leave Home' And The Creepy Tiny

Image: Cranked Up Films
Are we all just puppets in a giant dollhouse?

I saw director Michael Tully's indie horror film Don't Leave Home the same weekend I was dazzled by the elaborate circus dioramas at the now defunct Bay Area museum Playland-Not-at-the Beach (the dioramas, and almost everything else from the museum, will be up for auction Saturday!), so it was a plate-o-shrimp moment when the film's opening credits began to roll over close-ups of spooky dioramas.

Don't Leave Home is actually the second horror movie this year (Hereditary being the first) to center on artists who work with miniature dioramas, and I'm not quite sure why tiny reproductions of real things lends itself so well to the creepy. Is it the association with childhood and dollhouses? Or the idea that we might just be tiny puppets manipulated but some creator's larger hand?

Ann Margaret Hollyman stars as Melanie Thomas, an artist working on the opening of a solo exhibition which centers on depictions of mysterious Irish legends and disappearances. One of those events involves Father Burke (Lalor Roddy) an Irish priest who, in 1986, was commissioned to paint a portrait of a young girl praying before a statue of the Virgin Mary. Shortly thereafter, the girl went missing, seemingly vanishing into thin air. At the same time, her image disappeared from the priest's painting. While the priest was ultimately absolved of any wrongdoing, the event was deemed an "evil miracle," and he was forced to go into hiding.

When Melanie gets an unexpected art commission from the same reclusive Father Burke, via his "assistant," Shelly (Helena Bereen) she impulsively accepts the invitation to Ireland, and takes up residence in the former priest's creepy and remote mansion, where she is instantly warned that she might see some...things, but not to trust her eyes.

While what follows too often depends on the "is it a dream or reality?" trope, the film does manage to produce some scares, and several very eerie images, culminating in a party scene and art auction that rivals Get Out on the "white people be hella creepy" scale.

Along with Get Out, Don't Leave Home brought to mind Rosemary's Baby, Robert Altman's Images, and the aforementioned Hereditary. But unlike Hereditary, which I felt was done in by an unsatisfying ending, Don't Leave Home ends on an almost perfect note, with a final line that haunted me for days.

Don't Leave Home opens today at San Francisco's Alamo Drafthouse.

Friday, September 7, 2018

'Peppermint' Will Leave A Bad Taste In Your Mouth

She's mastered the arts of combat and DIY hair highlighting

As a fan of Alias, the TV show that launched Jennifer Garner to stardom, I was looking forward to seeing her kick some ass again in Peppermint, knowing it may be the closest thing to an Alias movie we might ever get. And kick ass she does, along with some throat slitting, arm and leg cracking, face punching, and nut kicking. And that's all before she whips out her arsenal of military grade firearms. 

Most Alias fans would say that all sounds pretty promising. Alas, if Peppermint were a good movie, it wouldn't be opening in September

Garner stars as Riley North, working mom to Carly (Cailey Fleming) and wife to Chris (Jeff Hephner). Chris briefly considers partaking in a shady "driving" job with a friend but backs out before it happens. That decision never reaches the bad guys, who take their revenge out on him and his family.

Riley survives the massacre, but thanks to a corrupt police department, D.A.'s office, and judge, the three easily identifiable killers (pro tip: if you want to enter a life of crime, reconsider those distinguishing face tattoos; or at least consider a mask) are set free. Thus is born Riley North, avenging angel.

Five years after the murders, Riley has returned to Los Angeles after falling off the grid. Those years allowed her plenty of time to travel the world to learn the fine arts of cage fighting, bomb making, and gun slinging. She wants to kill the men who murdered her family, as well as everyone associated with them.

That's where the whole thing gets problematic. The killers are Hispanic. The drug cartel they work for are Hispanic. Almost all of the bad guys are Hispanic, and every Hispanic is a bad guy, (aside from one cop who the film wants you to think may be a bad guy). If that's too subtle for you, a shoot-out even happens in party supply warehouse filled with pinatas. Peppermint is so obviously playing into current conservative fears over illegal immigrants and MS-13, it could be used as a wall-building propaganda film.

Now, it's not like I'm looking to a violent vengeance film from the director of Taken and The Transporter to provide some subtle commentary on race, poverty, and the circle of violence (though it would be nice), but it does make me question the ultimate intent here. I could think of no worse a time for a director and star to release a movie like this if they aren't people who believe Mexico is only sending us rapists and killers.

In other words, what's a nice girl like Jennifer Garner doing in racist trash like this?

Wednesday, August 29, 2018

'The Bookshop': Keep Calm And Smile Along

Reading is fundamental  

One of my greatest pleasures is going on vacation and finding a local bookstore; hunting down something appropriate to read, maybe from the store's curated "local reads" section. You can learn a lot of about a place via its bookstores--or lack thereof.

Isabel Coixet's The Bookshop, based on the novel by Penelope Fitzgerald, centers on just such a bookshop in the small English seaside town of Hardborough, Suffolk, in 1959. Florence Green (Emily Mortimer) is a war widow who decides to buy an old house that has been sitting empty in the town for years, to live in and open a bookshop, partly in tribute to her husband, who shared her intense love of reading.

It's a simple enough dream, but the small town has its objections, particularly from wealthy matriarch Violet Gamart (Patrica Clarkson), who, once that old house is no longer available, decides is the perfect place for a town "art center."

Florence's most devoted customer turns out to be the town's aging recluse, Mr. Brundish (Bill Nighy) who spends most of his days sitting in his drafty mansion, reading "biographies about good people, and novels about nasty people." He detests most of the town, but takes a liking to Florence, especially after she introduces him to the works of Ray Bradbury, as well as a controversial new novel called Lolita.

Mortimer's Florence appears mousy and bookish, but she's no wallflower, fighting, as best she can, for what she wants. Nighy's Mr. Brandish is an odd bird, intense and averse to eye contact, but also blunt. Their scenes together vibrate with what goes unsaid.

The Bookshop is classically British, from its salty seaside characters, to its fireplaces and knit shawls, and especially to how the central conflict between Florence and Violet simmers under the surface, behind polite words and smiles. The two only meet one face-to-face once, so their feud is inflamed through the aid of lawyers, bankers, and neighbors.

While that conflict provides the film's drama, the film's small joys come in seeing Florence open that shop, and, with after-school help from young neighbor Christine (Honor Kneafsey), stocking the shelves with classics and new discoveries, relishing the smells of old books and the colorful covers of new releases.

I recently watched four seasons of The Great British Baking Show in the course of two weeks, and at first was perplexed by my addiction to it, since I don't like cooking shows, and am in no way an Anglophile. But then I realized I was hooked because it was so soothing, with its peaceful, English countryside setting, band of Brits who support each other while also competing, and occasional shots of young lambs eating ivy.

The Bookshop broke that fantasy, reminding me there's no such thing as a country filled with nothing but nice people doing nice things for each other, and that vengeful bitterness can simmer under the most sincere of smiles.

The Bookshop is currently playing the Bay Area at San Francisco's Clay, the Albany Twin and the Smith Rafael Film Center.

Friday, August 24, 2018

'The Happytime Murders' Felt Dirty

No puppet. No puppet! She's the puppet!

When I first saw the trailer for The Happytime Murders, I feared it might be a movie that could ruin my childhood. Adult versions of kids entertainment, and seeing G-rated characters doing X-rated things is a something that will always make my inner child wince a little.

Luckily, The Happytime Murders is too far removed from the Muppets of my youth to cause any lasting damage. It doesn't live in the land of the Muppets, instead giving us a world that's a cross between the classic Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and the regrettable 1978 porno Let My Puppets Come, with way too much emulation of the dirtiness of the latter and not enough of the screwy humor of the former.

Like Roger Rabbit, the story is a Los Angeles mystery set in a world where humans and the improbable co-exist. In this case, it's puppets. They can do everything humans do, but are marginalized in society for being different. They're OK as entertainers, but don't let them share a cab with you.

The film's attempts to equate the puppets' mistreatment with actual racism are clumsy at best, and it's best not to think too hard about just how puppets are able to live, eat, have sex, and die. To delve down that hole is to face madness.

Our hero is Phil Phillips (Bill Barretta), a private detective who was once the first puppet cop, but was kicked out of the force after a deadly shooting. When the cast members of a popular 90's puppet sitcom called The Happytime Gang start turning up dead, Phil is forced join forces with his estranged partner Connie Edwards (Melissa McCarthy) to help find the killer.

McCarthy is perfect casting for this kind of role as she's always at her funniest when she's allowed to play it broad and let the expletives fly, which they most certainly do in this very, very R-rated movie. Indeed, the majority of the film's humor centers on seeing puppets doing lewd and illegal things. Sometimes I laughed because I couldn't believe what I was seeing. I knew going in there was going to be a puppet sex scene to sit through, and I knew we'd see a puppet..."finish." But I didn't know it was going to last for five minutes and require the use of dozens of cans of white silly string. I had to laugh at the audacity.

But the film's biggest laughs actually come from in its smaller jokes, like Phillip's mutterings ("Looks like this mystery was brought to you by the letter P"), and its weirder moments, like Edwards discovering the inbred progeny of some first cousin puppets.

Maya Rudolph is also very funny as Phillips' human secretary Bubbles. She shares some screen time with Melissa McCarthy, and they garner more laughs in their ten minutes together than they did in the entirety of Life of the Party.

Director Brian Henson, the son of Jim Henson, has directed some good Muppet movies in the past, including The Muppet Christmas Carol, and he's been trying to make The Happytime Murders for almost a decade. (The behind-the-scenes moments during the end credits show just how much work was involved.) Maybe the delayed timing will work in his favor, with current audiences being too young to remember movies like Meet the Feebles and Team America: World Police that did the dirty puppet thing earlier and better.

Just as long as that new audience isn't too young. Because while The Happytime Murders didn't retroactively ruin my childhood, god bless the child who accidentally stumbles upon it while flipping cable channels. I hope their parents can afford the therapy.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

'Crazy Rich Asians,' That's What I Want

Is that a ring on your finger, or are you just happy to see me?

Crazy Rich Asians is the kind of movie I was convinced I'd be annoyed by. I blame Sex and the City 2, and its ugly Americans set loose on foreign soil to both conspicuously consume and offend. That film managed to end what had always been an unrealistic yet enjoyable fairy tale about romance and implausible personal budgets on a sour note.

But it's next to impossible not to be charmed by Crazy Rich Asians and its version of a similar modern fairy tale, especially since there's nary a single ugly American to be seen in the entire film. In fact, aside from some very racist British characters who are part of the film's flashback opening, the cast is entirely Asian, the first major studio film to center on an Asian cast since 1993's The Joy Luck Club.

Constance Wu stars as Rachel Chu, an "ABC" (American Born Chinese) who is a professor of economics at NYU. She's dating Nick Young (Henry Golding, making an impressive acting debut after a career of TV hosting), who is also a professor (blink and you might miss that fact). Though they've been dating for over a year, Rachel hasn't met most of his family, and Nick decides to change that by inviting her to Singapore to attend his best friend's wedding.

Now, it might seem a tad unbelievable that a professor of economics with access to a smart phone wouldn't know that her boyfriend is from one of the richest families in Asia, even if he's never actually told her anything about them. Let's just say, she's a far better person than I, who would have been Googling the shit out of his name after our first date. But it's a scenario that works best for the film's story, so that we get to discover all of Nick's secrets through Rachel's awe-struck eyes.

Wu's Rachel is both smart and slightly naive. She's also funny, providing sardonic commentary about her new surroundings, (when they land in Singapore, she's astounded by the plethora of offerings in the airport alone, lamenting that all JFK has to offer is "salmonella and despair"), and not afraid to tease her man about his ridiculous good looks. Too often romantic comedies assume a couple being attractive is enough reason for them to be together. Screenwriters Adele Lim and Peter Chiarelli know that's never enough, giving Rachel and Nick (but mainly Rachel) endearing personalities and smarts as well.

Once they arrive in Singapore, it can be a little hard to keep track of just who all the characters are without the help of a handy family tree (something the book wisely provides), but the majority are cousins (Nick is an only child), aunties, mothers, or grandmothers. The patriarchs in Nick's family are, oddly, nowhere to be seen, but that's probably a wise choice. It gives more screen time and gravitas to the excellent Michelle Yeoh as Nick's possessive and steely mother, Eleanor.

Eleanor is the first barrier Rachel bumps up against in what appears, at first, to be an otherwise welcoming collection of family and friends, but she's more than a stereotypical "tiger mom." You can understand why she would be frustrated with Nick's wishy-washiness when it comes to their family dynasty, and her fears for his choice in life partner are not entirely unfounded, especially when we learn the rough road she had on the way to becoming the ultimate matriarch.

The film centers primarily on Rachel, Nick, and Eleanor, though some time is given to side-plots involving Nick's cousins, particularly Astrid (Gemma Chan) and her troubled marriage. That storyline ultimately feels a little thin, as if a good chunk of it was left on the cutting room floor. Frankly, I could have done without it, especially if it meant more time for Awkwafina as Rachel's college buddy, Peik Lin, who is also rich, but not crazy rich, and Nico Santos as cousin Oliver, who is the story's version of a fairy godmother.

Director John M. Chu has some experience with musicals, having directed several of the Step Up films, and he approaches much of Crazy Rich Asians as though it were an luscious musical, which is perfect for a film centered on opulence. It's not enough to know these people are crazy rich, we have to be able feel the luxury. Sure, sometimes it's all a bit eye-rolling. And yet, seeing synchronized swimmers pop up in the background of a party scene somehow feels...appropriate. He also films food almost as lovingly as he films his characters (don't go to the movie hungry).

A lot will be written about Crazy Rich Asians' importance in the annals of popular culture, and how it proves that, once again, white people don't own these popular Hollywood genres. And that's certainly true. But don't let that importance overshadow the fact that it's also one of the most enjoyable films of the year.