Friday, August 30, 2013

Slow And Beautiful: Thérèse

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Audrey Tautou, who will forever be known for Amélie, and identified with that film's happy pixie female lead, is a beautiful woman. But in the film Thérèse, she does something rather amazing: she gets un-beautiful. And not via a bad haircut, fake nose, or unflattering make-up. She's unattractive because she plays a character who's miserable, and as such, rarely smiles. She is fighting against a life that gives her no joy, and Tautou, through the sheer act of, well, acting, transforms her face into something sad and homely. It's, frankly, kind of amazing.

It's too bad the movie itself isn't really worthy of such a great performance.

Based on the 1927 novel Thérèse Desqueyroux, Thérèse is set in 1920s France, in a coastal area surrounded by pines, home to two wealthy families. As a teen, Thérèse () develops a close friendship with Anne, (), the daughter of the neighboring family, and is told at a young age that she will eventually marry Anne's brother Bernard, (, thus joining the two wealthy families--and their acres of pine-filled lands--together.

When the time for marriage comes, Thérèse goes into it with little objection--but no real passion for it either. A cerebral woman, she doesn't much believe in romantic or passionate love--and her wedding night does nothing to change her mind. Resigned to a life of boring comfort, Thérèse finds little joy in anything--not in her marriage and not in the child she eventually bears. But when Anne falls madly in love with a boy the family doesn't approve of--and writes Thérèse incessantly about her new-found passion-- this brings up something in Thérèse. And she starts to react in a very dangerous way.

The movie is a bit frustrating. Because Thérèse is SO filled with ennui, it's a little hard to truly understand why she gets so worked up about her friend's happiness. Jealously is the obvious reasoning, but there's also the hint of something more. She's attracted to Anne's lover, Jean (), but more to his freedom than to his looks. If Thérèse had found love in her marriage, would she have been satisfied with her stiff, upper-class life? Or is freedom from all of it the only thing she wants?

Not a lot happens in Thérèse, and is certainly not the movie for people who don't like foreign films. It's slow. But it's also beautiful. This is director Claude Miller's final film--he died in 2012--and if you have no desire to visit coastal France after seeing the stunning cinematography in this picture, you may want to get your eyes checked.

But, again, the truly stunning aspect of the movie is how Miller and Tautou are able to create the opposite of something beautiful, in the character of Thérèse.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Sparkly But Standard: Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

If you saw the 1994 movie The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, liked the costumes, but felt the actual drag performances were kind of stiff, well, you're probably why this Broadway musical adaptation exists.

Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which plays the Orpheum Theater through Sunday, is based on the movie, and follows the film's basic plot. A drag performer named Mitzi Mitosis (Wade McCollum), recruits two fellow performers--the aging Bernadette (Scott Willis), and the young Felicia (Bryan West), to join him on a bus trip through the Australian outback. The final destination is Alice Springs, where they will be the entertainment in a local casino.

What Mitzi's friends don't know is Mitzi--aka "Tick"--has a wife and young son in Alice Springs, and seeing his son for the first time in years is the real impetus for the trip. (This differs from the film, as the existence of this son isn't revealed until the end.) Along the way, they meet some friendly and not-so friendly, but always colorful, locals, finding opportunities to perform every chance they get.

Priscilla is a jukebox musical, meaning none of the musical numbers are original, and are instead pre-existing songs, most of them pretty standard drag show fare, like "It's Raining Men," "I Will Survive," and numerous Madonna numbers. When the characters sing, it's often because they are performing a show within the show, although occasionally there will be songs here and there just for the sake of it, like the elaborate number performed to "MacArthur Park," sung merely because someone left a cake out (though not in the rain).

Most of the performers sing the songs themselves, so there's not the usual lip-syncing found at most drag shows. And, in fact, there is comment made by the eldest performer, Bernadette, regarding the dying art of the drag show lip sync.

But all of the the singing is impressive, especially the vocals coming from the three women who hover, literally, above the stage, as a kind of Greek chorus. What's slightly less impressive are the "Australian" accents, which go from passable (Mitzi), to cringe-worthy (his wife), to oh, let's not even try (his son).

Also less than stellar is the drama placed on top of the fun. Whenever Mitzi's son Benji is on stage, the show grinds to a halt. When they go for heart, it turns maudlin, and at times, just plain dumb.

But really, the main reason to see the show is the spectacle of it. Dancing cupcakes and paintbrushes. A dress made out of flip-flops. Cheerleader outfits with pompons that also serve as wigs. It's all amazing to behold. The original movie won an Oscar for Best Costume Design, and the show has taken some of those original concepts, and multiplied them by 100. (It earned a Tony award for best costumes as well.)

Also impressive is Priscilla, the bus at the center of the action. It revolves around the stage, showing the interior from one angle, then spinning around to show its shiny chrome exterior, an exterior that also gets its fair share of drag adornments, glowing pink at times, and at other times providing a video backdrop to the dancing and singing taking place in front of it.

Basically, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is the most elaborate, shiny, sparkly, and expensive drag show you're likely to ever see.

Friday, August 23, 2013

You Want Kick-Ass? THIS Is Kick-Ass: You're Next

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

I first saw You're Next at the San Francisco International Film Festival back in April, and loved it. I knew I wanted to experience it again, to see if it holds up to a second viewing, after knowing ahead of time its twists and turns.

I'm happy to say, it does.

Back in April, the film had, almost two years after it was completed, finally gotten a distributor. It's hard to believe a horror movie this good would have such a struggle getting released, but I suppose one major factor is the lack of big name stars, both in front of and behind the camera. It comes from director Adam Wingard, who has experience in the "mumblecore" film movement as well as in its sub-genre, "mumblegore." (He directed segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2.)

The premise is pretty simple, and on the surface doesn't look like it will be much different from any number of home-invasion horror movies released of late. Four siblings and their respective significant others gather at their parents' country mansion, (the parents are, thanks to dad's job with a major defense contractor, very rich), for their 35th wedding anniversary. But unbeknownst to them, their closest neighbors were murdered the night before by masked invaders who are still on the loose.

At the center of story is son Crispian, (AJ Bowen), who is bringing home his girlfriend Erin, (Sharni Vinson), to meet his parents for the first time. She's Australian, pretty, and was once his TA. He's an all-around struggling kind of guy: a professor who hasn't published in a long time, and the chubby brother who still gets called fat and picked on by his douchey sibling.

It doesn't take long for night to settle in, the guests to gather around a celebratory dinner table, and all hell to break loose. In true slasher movie fashion, the guests are picked off one-by-one, Ten Little Indians style. And also in true slasher movie fashion, there's one girl who decides to put up a fight.

And this is where the movie distinguishes itself, giving us perhaps the ultimate Final Girl in Erin, played with perfect intensity by Vinson. You want kick-ass? THIS is kick-ass. Vinson's Erin isn't the kind of girl who will stab a villain once, drop the knife, and then run away crying. She will...well, I don't want to give anything away. But let's just say she makes sure the bad guy is really down before moving on. She's a heroine that had audience members yelling "I LOVE YOU!" followed by "WHO DOESN'T!?"

Thankfully, this isn't an overly serious horror. It's not Funny Games. There's wicked humor throughout, and much of the dialogue has an improvised feel (another mumblecore staple). The low-budget helps to make the everything feel a little off-center, adding to the tension. And while there is some annoying shaky-cam cinematography here and there, for the most part, Wingard uses the widescreen well, revealing things in subtle shadows, and utilizing close-ups to build up suspense.

As mentioned before, there aren't any big stars here, and perhaps the most recognizable face is that of mother Aubrey, played by Barbara Crampton, who starred in the classic 1980's horror film Re-Animator. That bit of casting is a big tip off that the filmmakers know and love their horror movies, and there are many more homages and references to horror movies past to be found, including Halloween, Carrie, Night of the Living Dead, The Shining, Rear Window, and Spirits of the Dead.

Ultimately, You're Next is the best horror movie I've seen in years, and has everything you want out of the genre--and then some. The film offers up some twists that, on first viewing, did take me by surprise, which was refreshing. And while I think the ending has the potential to disappoint some viewers, all I can say is, pay close attention to those first ending credits. That ending may not be what you think it is.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Passing Witness: Lee Daniels' The Butler

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

Lee Daniels' The Butler (which from here on out, shall merely be called The Butler because seriously Warner Bros. how petty can you be?) is one of those movies you appreciate, and are entertained by, but just wish was a little bit better.

The Butler is based, very loosely, on the true story of Eugene Allen, a butler who worked at the White House for several decades. In the film he's Cecil Gaines. Working on a cotton plantation in Georgia, he witnesses the rape of his mother, and the murder of his father. The plantation matriarch, (Vanessa Redgrave), decides to extend some kindness his way, and moves him into the home, training him to be a "house nigger." (And yes, the irony that granting anyone the status of house nigger could be considered a kindness is not lost in the film.)

Eventually he takes his experience as a domestic away from the plantation, and into a series of hotels, eventually landing a spot in Washington D.C. It's here that he's noticed by the head of the White House's serving staff, and is hired on as a butler. (And it's from this point on that he's played by Forest Whitaker, in a very, very subdued performance.)

At times, the movie comes close to becoming an African-American Forrest Gump, as Cecil serves a series of presidents, from Truman to Reagan, all played by very recognizable actors. Meanwhile, his eldest son, Louis, (David Oyelowo), resents his father's adherence to the status quo, rebels, and joins the civil rights movement in almost all of its incarnations, from lunch counter sit-ins, to freedom buses, to Martin Luther King Jr. marches, to the Black Panthers.

Director Daniels doesn't shy away from the brutal history of the civil rights movement, although having Louis go through so much of its horrors--without ever losing his faith or conviction--makes him come across, at times, as more of a passing witness than fierce advocate.

Which is kind of the problem with this sort of movie as a whole. Because of its epic nature, spanning many, many years, not a lot of time can be spent during any one historic era, or on one historic event. Elections; losses; assignations; incarcerations; retribution. It's all there, but it feels more like flipping through a history book than it does actually absorbing one family's true experience in that history.

Still, there's a certain amount of entertainment to be had in seeing things like John Cusack as Richard Nixon, sweating as always, or Liev Schreiber as LBJ, barking orders from the toilet. (Best is probably Jane Fonda as Nancy Reagan. Don't think there isn't some commentary in THAT bit of casting.)

Of course, you can't discuss the movie without discussing Oprah Winfrey, as her bigger-than-life persona is helping to fuel the film's publicity, and at times, almost threatens to derail the movie. She play's Cecil's hard-drinking, not always faithful wife, Gloria.

She's good. But she's Oprah Winfrey. Watching her act is almost as hard, at this point in her life, as it would be watching the Queen of England take on a gritty role in a kitchen sink drama. You just can't ever really get past the fact that that's Oprah up there, in a series of changing hairdos and increasingly unfortunate wardrobe changes. (Though seeing her dance around in a Lurex disco jumpsuit is quite possibly worth the price of admission.)

The film ends with the first election of Barack Obama, something one could argue happened in large part because of Oprah Winfrey. And I walked away from the movie not thinking so much about it, as I was thinking how great it would have been to see Oprah actually sit down and talk to that real butler during that very momentousness year, and how an interview like that might have been a much better historical record than The Butler.