Friday, January 19, 2018

THE NEW HORROR FILM “MOM AND DAD” ELICITS SO MANY LAUGHS, IT’S SCARY


One of the clichés of parenting is the phrase “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it’ll hurt you.” It’s said by those who feel guilty about spanking their unruly tots. In the new movie MOM AND DAD, those words could be the motto of a pair of harried parents who want to kill their bratty kids. Only here, it’s not their parental guilt that will hurt them more, it is their offspring who shrewdly defend themselves better than anyone could have imagined. It’s all part of the outrageous new horror-comedy that just opened, an obvious antidote to the gooey holiday excesses of last month.  

Writer/director Brian Taylor knows how to go over-the-top. He did the CRANK action movies with star Jason Statham in 2006 and 2009, putting his star through a juggernaut of craziness as a professional assassin who is injected with a poison that will kill him if his heart rate drops. Taylor applies a lot of the same manic energy and stylized violence here, incorporating all kinds of off-kilter camera angles, kinetic edits, and grinding metal music to keep things pulsing with verve. It makes this the fastest-moving horror movie in many a moon. And it works as an imaginative counter to the most generic of middle-class neighborhoods that Taylor has set his story in. It’s a sleepy burg, with blocks of houses that all look the same, and everyone driving similar SUV's, but boy oh boy, is this sleepy suburb about to awaken to a new day. Before you can say, parent-teacher conference, the cadre of adults will be hunting down and butchering their offspring.  

No one in the story knows quite why this sudden burst of carnage happens in such an unexpected place. Is it some sort of virus, as the news asks, or perhaps some buried form of psychosis? Taylor doesn’t explain its cause, and it makes it all the more unsettling. Eventually, the horrors will hit the home of the Ryan family, the story's main characters. And their tract house will become an ersatz battlefield between parent and child. 

Carly (Anne Winters) is a surly teen who has little respect for anyone and brazenly steals money from her mother’s wallet. Her younger brother Joshua (Zackary Arthur) is no prize either. He’s loud and obnoxious, a careless brat who tends to leave his toys all over the place. Dad Brent (Nicholas Cage) is overworked, underappreciated, and frazzled. Meanwhile, mom Kendall (Selma Blair) is ignored by all of them. Such dynamics aren’t uncommon in many a family, only here these dynamics set up a powder keg about to blow.

After a tense morning together, all go their separate ways for the day. The kids head to school, Dad goes to work, and Mom attends an aerobics class. But then at school, news of parents murdering their children starts to spread through the school. Then, during the pick-up time at the end of the school day, parents go apeshit and start climbing over the gates to get at their children, chase them onto the football field and start pummeling them to death. 

Carly escapes and rushes home as she's worried about Joshua's chances as he is at home for the day. She doesn't know if her parents have gone bonkers yet, but she doesn't want to take any chances. And indeed, her parents are not having a good day, and each starts to get more pent up and ready to burst. 

Soon, these parents and their kids will meet at home and face off in a vicious fight to the finish. Here, Taylor satirizes family issues as well as "psycho in the house" tropes in the horror genre. And his visuals will become more and more savage and silly, as the fighting veers into the blackest of black comedy

Characters will trip on toys, topple down the stairs,  be sliced, diced, burned, stabbed, and even poked through the cheek with wire hangers. The nuclear family unit explodes all too quickly in the Ryan home, devolving into a dysfunction that would make the Jose Menendez family look like THE WALTONS. Taylor slyly suggests that there was very little love in the Ryan home before things go to hell in a handbasket. He seems to be suggesting that the carnage is inevitable, the natural outcome of this family's hateful dynamics. Indeed, Taylor never makes it clear that this mom and dad were affected by any virus at all. Instead, he insinuates that this battle to the death was a long time coming organically.

Both Winters and Arthur play their kid roles straight and mean, without any pleas for sympathy. Their canniness in how the two war with their parents is one of the film’s better jokes, suggesting that these physical battles aren't that far off the daily skirmishes. Cage, who’s been known to go big and broad in his career, verges on self-parody here with his shrieking line readings and flailing body, but he is utterly hilarious. This is a dad who completely loses his shit and bays at the moon, and Cage excels at playing such a cartoonish nutjob.

The one performance you sympathize with is Selma Blair’s mom character.  Kendall is still concerned with her family’s welfare and tries desperately to connect with them. Unfortunately, their self-absorption only makes her feel more dehumanized.  It’s easy to see why she’d crack and you almost root for her to triumph in her murderous schemes. Blair underplays the vengeance, giving the film’s best and truest performance. 

In addition to satirizing the tension in families and how trying parenting can be, Taylor indicts casual racism as well. One of the secondary storylines is Dad's dislike of Carly’s black boyfriend Damon (Robert T. Cunningham), a smart and plucky kid who will turn out to be quite the ally to his girlfriend during the drama. Taylor also teases America’s war mentality and macho male posturing, as gruff Viet Nam vet Grandpa (Lance Henriksen) turns up late in the game ready to knife whatever opponent gets in his way. 

And even though Taylor keeps the adrenaline pumping throughout, the filmmaker cleverly breaks up a lot of the intensity with humorous flashbacks that explain the backstory of the family dynamics. It turns out that all the elements were there for such havoc, virus or not. I do wish that he wouldn't have relied so heavily on irritating metal music to underscore his violence though. It's plenty tense and energetic without such underlining. 

January tends to be a junkyard for new releases, as audiences concentrate on the recent Christmas releases from December, as well as all those films in the hunt for Oscars. Horror filmmakers have wisely realized for a few years now, however, that such a month is a great time to open films that go against the grain. Frights and fun are a great counter to the season, and a movie like MOM AND DAD excels vividly. It's mean, vicious and funny as hell. In fact, it contains so many belly laughs, it’s scary.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

DEAR MOTION PICTURE ACADEMY MEMBERS : BE BOLD AND NOMINATE THESE CHOICES


There are only a smattering of hours left for members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to fill out their nomination ballots. Most every film critic, industry prognosticator, and movie blogger has made their picks, predictions, or hopes for the Oscars. And the frontrunners in each category seem more and more like inevitable choices at this stage. No matter, there are some underdogs still fighting to get on the list of five in each Oscar category and I want those who've not sent in their ballots to take some of those into consideration as they get out their pens. Be bold, procrastinators! Change the trajectory the season and choose these worthy contenders for nominations even if the odds are not exactly in their favor: 

BEST PICTURE
In 2009, in an attempt to find room for hit films on the Best Picture list, the Motion Picture Academy expanded  the number of possible nominees in the top category from five, up to ten. Since then, a number of tent poles and box office blockbusters have found their way onto the esteemed lists in their year. Audience favorites and genre films like UP, TOY STORY 3, DJANGO UNCHAINED, THE MARTIAN, and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD might not have made the Best Picture list if it weren’t for the Academy's expanded rules, but with the more comes the merrier. Thus, it should be easy for the Academy to recognize a similar type of crowd pleaser - WONDER WOMAN.

First of all, it's a terrific film, a favorite of so many this year, and a movie that continues to stand strong at a 92% certified fresh rating over at RottenTomatoes.com. Second, WONDER WOMAN was not only the third biggest money-maker of the year domestically with a $413 million gross, but it made $822 million worldwide. And third, in the year of all the women's protests, the calling out of Hollywood predators, as well as the #MeToo and "Time's Up" movements, this movie could not be any more timely. 

So, why is it considered a long shot for a Best Picture nomination? Quite simply, because it’s a comic book movie. The Academy generally gravitates towards Best Picture nominees with a more “serious art” feel to them. Perhaps this DC comic adaptation doesn’t seem to be, but it actually is. After all, no film has really captured the zeitgeist quite as wondrously, has it?  It's inspired audiences all over the world, particularly young girls desperate for portrayals of women on the big screen that they can look up to. And it's feminine sensibilities from director Patty Jenkins made it stand out in the world of macho, glib male superheroes that have permeated other comic book films for decades. The Academy will likely honor LADY BIRD, THE SHAPE OF WATER, or THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI with its actual award, and they all are great films about strong women this year, but WONDER WOMAN deserves a nomination for Best Picture alongside of them.


BEST DIRECTOR
The Chicago Independent Critics Circle gave our "Impact Award" this year to Patty Jenkins for her miraculous direction of WONDER WOMAN. Our reasoning? In a year where women everywhere found the courage to stand up for themselves, this director helmed a tentpole in a category dominated by men, saved DC’s tattered film reputation, changed the trajectory of DC superheroes which had been in decline on film for decades, and drew audiences en masse to her vision. Her artistry and sensitivity is evident in every frame, and never does Jenkin’s camera ogle the Wonder Woman character with up skirt shots like Zack Snyder employed in both BATMAN V. SUPERMAN and JUSTICE LEAGUE. She saw Diana as a hero, a woman and a humanist, not a sex object. And that made all the difference in the world. Thus, for excelling and changing the game of tentpoles and the world of superheroes, Jenkins should be on the shortlist of five.



BEST ACTRESS
Quite simply, there are too many extraordinary lead female performances this year to choose from for the top five Oscar nominees. That select list could easily accommodate ten worthy nominees, if not more. Those likely to fall short include Jessica Chastain for MOLLY’S GAME, Michelle Williams for ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, Judi Dench for VICTORIA & ABDUL, and Emma Stone for BATTLE OF THE SEXES, just to name four. Still, there’s one actress on the shortlist who arguably gave the most iconic performance this year and that’s Gal Gadot. The characterization of the superhero could’ve gone south in so many ways, but Gadot never faltered. She made every right choice to give us a three-dimensional hero that everyone could cheer. Gadot made earnestness enthralling, rendered sensitivity as WW's greatest strength, and cajoled us to laugh along with Diana as she struggled during her fish-out-of-water arc. The Academy screwed up 40 years ago by failing to nominate Christopher Reeve for his landmark performance as SUPERMAN, let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake this year with Gadot.


BEST ACTOR
Is Kamail Nanjiani not really in the running for Best Actor for THE BIG SICK because too many critics and pundits think he was merely playing himself? Indeed, he is, just as his script is his story, but such things shouldn’t be disqualifying. Thankfully, THE BIG SICK is a genuine contender in categories like Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay and Best Supporting Actress (Holly Hunter), but Nanjiani should be in the top five called for the Best Actor category too. It’s certainly a more nuanced and affecting performance than James Franco’s comedically accurate but shallow imitation of Tommy Wiseau in THE DISASTER ARTIST. It’s unbelievable how many critics groups have missed the opportunity to honor Nanjiani’s stellar lead work in their year end awards and nominations. Wouldn't it be the nicest surprise when the Oscar nominations are announced on the morning of January 23rd to hear Nanjiani's name called for Best Actor as well as Best Original Screenplay? 


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR
He saved the picture. That’s why Christopher Plummer should be nominated for Best Supporting Actor in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD. He was unequivocally brilliant in the role of J. Paul Getty too, making a multi-dimensional villain - charming, vile, and always, utterly captivating. You could barely look at anyone else in his scenes. But at the end of the day, Plummer saved the film from being dismissed due to Kevin Spacey's scandals. That’s how commanding a presence and force Plummer is as an actor. He deserves to be in the top five. (And frankly, IMHO, he deserves to win.)


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS
Tiffany Haddish in GIRLS TRIP was good enough for the New York Film Critics Circle to award her Best Supporting Actress, so why is she considered such a long shot for an Oscar nomination? Is it because she’s black, or in a dirty comedy, and because her most famous scene showcases her demonstration of a sex technique involving a banana and orange? Of course, all of the above. The hoity-toity Academy may not deign to honor her, but they should. Hers was the breakthrough performance of the year and she was hilarious. She was also sweet, sexy, and real. Too often the Academy misses acknowledging such breakthrough performances in raucous comedies. They ignored John Belushi in ANIMAL HOUSE, Eugene Levy in AMERICAN PIE, and Zach Galifianakis in THE HANGOVER, but they shouldn't overlook Haddish. The supporting race for actresses isn’t that deep this year and her sterling performance needs to be in the top five.


BEST ORIGINAL SCORE
Why isn’t Clint Mansell’s moody and moving score for LOVING VINCENT getting any traction? It’s one of his best ever. And it perfectly captures the melancholy of the animated film's subject - Vincent van Gogh. Mansell's haunting score, once heard, will stay with you long after you've gotten over Hans Zimmer's monotonous ticking clock motif in DUNKIRK. Honor Mansell with a nomination, please. 


BEST COSTUME DESIGN
It sure would be nice if a contemporary film made the Oscar shortlist this year, but too often the category doesn’t make room for anything not period. Granted, I would award this year’s Costume Design Oscar to PHANTOM THREAD, which takes place in the 1950’s, but the Academy should at least nominate Jennifer Johnson’s more contemporary white trash renderings in I, TONYA. The last time an Oscar went to something considered contemporary was way back in 1994 when the gold went to THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT. It’s an uphill climb for I, TONYA here, but the film should be recognized for its marvelously trashy clothes that said so much about each character. 

Those are my last minute pleas. I hope that a few Academy members read this blog and if they haven't marked their ballots yet, they hoist their pens for these standouts that deserve to be on Oscar's shortlist.  

Monday, January 8, 2018

PAUL THOMAS ANDERSON'S "PHANTOM THREAD" DRESSES DOWN THE MALE EGO


Paul Thomas Anderson is a filmmaker who has been critiquing the male ego throughout his career. In BOOGIE NIGHTS (1997), Anderson’s object of ridicule was main character Dirk Diggler (Mark Wahlberg), an insecure boob whose only asset was his large porn-ready appendage. In PUNCH-DRUNK-LOVE (2002), the milquetoast Barry Egan (Adam Sander) had such huge anger issues that his rage almost got him killed. In THERE WILL BE BLOOD (2007), the quest for power that drives Daniel Plainview (Daniel Day-Lewis) leads him to dismiss everything and everyone else in his life. And now in PHANTOM THREAD, Anderson’s main character is Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis again), an inflexible fashion designer whose regard for women barely edges past playing dress-up with dolls. Anderson's focus may be men, but his sensibilities are feminine. There is little he admires in the pigheadedness of the men at the helm of the world.

Yet, Anderson's ego-driven main character in this film will find his meticulously crafted world turned upside by a woman when she enters his life. She will become his latest model and muse, but Alma (Vicky Krieps) will become something much more. She will be the first girlfriend to refuse to kowtow to Woodcock's ridiculous patriarchal rules. And while the story takes place in the 1950’s, it is a fitting feminist narrative for our times, one that is right in line with what Oprah Winfrey said last night at the Golden Globes. The time of petty men holding the reins is over. Alma will make sure of it here.

Anderson's latest has received far too much press covering the fact that Day-Lewis has stated that this will be is last film since he's retiring from acting. Too many critiques have also been spent on this film as a metaphor for the ego of a film director - something perhaps biographical to Anderson in a way. That's all window dressing. The theme driving PHANTOM THREAD is its utterly searing indictment of the insecurities of men and how they use and abuse power. The film is a stinging indictment of monsters ruling the catwalk, or any other walk of life.   

Anderson drives his point home all the more by showcasing a couture fashion designer in a sliver of an industry that barely touches the masses. Yet, even within that infinitesimal world, a designer like Woodcock is not only the king of couture but also expert at the art of bullying. It’s rather fitting that his name is Woodcock. That moniker may be a bit on the nose, but the character is as rigid as a tree and one unholy prick. Woodcock may be elegant and handsome, speaking in a halting and sensitive manner, but he is still a petulant child. In the age of Weinstein and Trump, Anderson has concocted a film that is both prescient and coincidental. It's not only a terrific film, it's a period piece that couldn't be more timely.

As the story opens, Woodcock is in the process of discarding his current model and muse Johanna (Camilla Rutherford). She is young, beautiful, well-spoken and poised, but none of that matters to Woodcock anymore. Now, she's become an irritant. Johanna, easily a decade or two younger than her lover, now annoys him with her demands for attention and desire to take the relationship to a deeper level. The fact that she brings up such topics at breakfast is the last straw for this controlling cad who demands quiet to sketch while sipping his coffee.  

Woodcock, however, is too weak to break up with her properly on his own. That duty falls upon his long-suffering sister and business manager Cyril (Lesley Manville). She's used to doing all his dirty work, as well as his random tasks, all so he's not distracted from his art. She too is cool and controlling, tending towards an all-business attitude even in matters of the heart such as disposing of her brother's lover. The best she can offer Johanna as a parting gift is a gown of Woodcock's - one of his older ones. As Heidi Klum says on PROJECT RUNWAY, "One day you're in, the next day, you're out." 

After Johanna's exit, Woodcock decides to spend a weekend on his own rejuvenating at his cottage in the country. He's so insecure however, the neediest of men immediately starts his quest for a new girl. As he sits down for dinner at a local inn, he can't help but be smitten with Alma, the beautiful and breezy server waiting on him. Woodcock is so taken by her effortless charms that he immediately asks her to dinner. She accepts and soon he is wining and dining her all over London, impressing upon the impressionable both his talent and tony lifestyle. 

Meanwhile, Cyril is skeptical. She's seen this story play out all too often, so she keeps her distance, refusing to warm to Alma. Soon, Cyril will discover that Alma is far from her brother's typical paramour. Alma will upend everything in the Woodcock world. She'll even change the dynamic between brother and sister, as Cyril will start standing up for herself more, led by the example of the interloper.

Alma loves much about Woodcock, but the refuses to be his doormat. She challenges his selfishness, his inertia, and even laughs openly at some of his most egregious behavior. Buttering toast more quietly? Please. She scoffs and it drives Woodcock into quite a tizzy. At times, he threatens to end it all, yet despite the drama, he keeps her around, rather dazzled by her defiance. 

At times, the story seems destined to become a riff on BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, with Alma finding the inner humanity within her lover's beastly behavior. True, she does succeed at bursting much of the bubble Woodcock lives in, but her methods are a lot darker than Belle's generous bonding over books. Alma will become surprisingly adept at head games herself.  

As the story goes on, what seemed like a flamboyant melodrama turns into dark comedy. Day-Lewis, never exactly the funniest of actors outside of his wondrous turn as the silly twit pursuing Helena Bonham Carter in A ROOM WITH A VIEW three decades ago, mines his character's comeuppance and earns big laughs. As much as I'd like to say this is his film, it's really belongs to Krieps. She enthralls those in the audience as much as Alma enthralls Woodcock. 

At times, watching these two people fight and claw for control in their relationship takes on elements of George and Martha's codependency in Edward Albee's WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF. There is also a similar quality in this film to that of the television series MAD MEN. Both Matthew Weiner's show and Anderson's film comment brutally on the diminishing power base of obstinate white men in the context of a glamorous profession. Don Draper, and the clients he wrote ad campaigns for, were forced to reckon with the shifting of traditional patriarchal values towards other audiences, most notably the growing voice of independent women. Woodcock too traffics in the world of glamour and aspiration, and he too is a man slow on the uptake in realizing that women no longer will let mere fashion speak for them.

This film never fails to be gorgeous, even at its most vicious. Anderson shoots it like Vogue magazine spreads from the period,  letting his wide-framed lensing appear both beautiful and a touch remote. It's fitting as a visual metaphor of Woodcock's whole existence. The sumptuous costumes by Mark Bridges and the rich score by Jonny Greenwood stun throughout and are career highs for both artists. (Look for them to take the Oscars in March, in their respective categories.) 

Anderson's film stands brilliantly within the watershed 13-month period of the woman’s march in January, the impact of Patty Jenkins' take on WONDER WOMAN worldwide, the “Time’s Up” manifesto launched just a week ago, and Winfrey’s searing speech at the Globes last night. He too is contributing to the toppling of the outdated male hierarchy and his PHANTOM THREAD is gloriously in fashion.

Friday, January 5, 2018

“HOSTILES” IS A COMPELLING DRAMA FOR DISCERNING ADULTS


HOSTILES, just opening in Chicago today, is the last of the mainstream Oscar contenders. Written and directed by Scott Cooper (CRAZT HEART, BLACK MASS), it’s a prestige western, revisionist in its take on the hostility between the American army and the American Indian of 1892. No one in this film is easily classified as a good guy or bad guy. Everyone is much more complicated than to be assigned such easy labeling, and it makes for a compelling adventure as well as complex character study.

The main character in the film, adapted from Donald E. Stewart’s original story, is army captain Joseph Blocker, a lifelong Calvary man who has little use for his enemy. He bitterly complains of the slaughter he’s seen firsthand done by the indigenous tribes and he loathes being ordered by his superior Colonel Biggs (Stephen Lang) to accompany a dying chief back to his Indian territory. The cancer-stricken Chief Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) has been imprisoned for spearheading many attacks on the army and yet he will be allowed to return to his land to die as to restore some honor and peace amongst these warring factions.  

Their rivalry would seem to be set up as the main conflict in the story, but filmmaker Cooper is more interested in defying obvious expectations. In fact, he turns a dozen or so western tropes on their ears as he spools out a more surprising narrative. Most of what we observe is not exactly as it seems, including the hatred between these two sworn combatants. Blocker may seem like an unyielding bigot at first, but he's more thoughtful. And the reticent chief is not a wily 'wolf in sheep’s clothing', waiting for his opportunity to strike and take a few scalps, but rather someone who has evolved past his hate. Each man will come to see the truer man inside as they face the elements and the wilderness together. 

Cooper surprises us with how he handles a host of other stock characters too. Rosamund Pike plays Rosalie Quaid, an innocent ‘school marm’ type who is rescued after her family is butchered by a band of rogue warriors, but she isn’t some weak ninny out in the brush. Instead, she's adaptive, shrewd, and soon becomes a trusted ally to Blocker. Meanwhile, certain supporting players act differently than we'd expect. Certain stars die earlier too. And others survive much longer than we'd assume.

Timothee Chalamat, having quite a big year onscreen what with this film as well as starring turns in CALL ME BY YOUR NAME and LADY BIRD, shows up too. He plays Private DeJardin and seemingly is set up as the classic boy who becomes a soldier in these sorts of stories, but his arc is short-lived and keeps up Cooper's narrative surprises at every turn. 

More confounding of expectations occur with Master Sergeant Metz (Rory Cochran), the close friend and loyal second to Blocker. He's not quite the staunch and by-the-book soldier we assume at first. Similarly, the Chief’s son Black Hawk (Adam Beach) isn’t quite the hothead we expect him to be, even after his wife is raped in the story. Even Ben Foster’s Sgt. Wills is more complex than just being a new villain introduced halfway through the picture.  

Bale isn’t getting much awards buzz but he gives one of his most affecting performances in his long and distinguished career here. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue, and the majority of his performance is reactionary, but his face conveys more than most actors do with pages of dialogue. And Pike is revelatory, running the gamut from hysteria to nurturing, and it’s one of the best supporting performances on film in 2017. It's a shame she isn't getting much awards buzz either.

All the actors make strong impressions, including Bill Camp as a badgering reporter, Jesse Plemons as a sensitive lieutenant, and late in the game, Scott Wilson as a crusty land owner. Studi and the rest of the actors who make up his Indian family – Beach, Q'orianka Kilcher, Tanaya Beatty and Xavier Horsechief – play dignity and soulfulness brilliantly, but their characters remain a touch two-dimensional. Perhaps the intent was to keep them mysterious throughout, never quite knowing what they’re thinking or about to do, but they're underdeveloped. It’s especially confounding given that the story’s aim is to look at all the hostile parties involved with better clarity.

Despite many violent set pieces and a sense of dread throughout, HOSTILES is rather inspiring in its final analysis. The more the characters in HOSTILES are forced to be together, to rely on each other as they struggle through the terrain and the treachery around them, the more they learn to rely on each other. It’s a fitting and timely lesson to those in power in this country today who would marginalize or forbid a people from their rights or ability to enter this country simply because of their race or religion. If Captain Blocker can learn to unblock, perhaps there is hope for those in D.C. too often displaying an utter blockheadedness in their thoughts, words and deeds. 

Sunday, December 31, 2017

BRYCE HIRSCHBERG’S “COUNTERFEITERS” IS AN INDIE FILM THAT'S RIGHT ON THE MONEY


One of the best parts of my five years as a film critic at the Examiner online, before it folded, was discovering indie gems released under the radar. There were many small horror films that, despite not having huge budgets or a big studio’s distribution, scared the hell out of me, and impressed the hell out of me too. Such discoveries still excite me today, horror or other genres. VOD, iTunes, Netflix, Vimeo - these are some of the places you can find such films. More and more, they are chock full of exceptional entries that are giving Hollywood studios a run for their money. They are movies made by very talented filmmakers with few dollars, but plenty of gumption. 

Bryce Hirschberg is one such artist, and his first feature film COUNTERFEITERS is one auspicious debut. Shot for next to nothing, Hirschberg is the writer/star/director of this indie feature and he clearly demonstrates what a triple threat he is. (Watch out, Woody Allen and Warren Beatty!) He also must be quite the bookkeeper too because the film doesn’t look like one that cost a mere $8000. It looks sharp, polished and professional at all production levels. 

The story centers around Bridger (Hirschberg), a counterfeiter who thinks he can bridge the gulf between his normal life and a career in crime. He’s almost a cockeyed optimist about it. He takes an easygoing, casual approach to his less than admirable career choice and it's charming in its way, as well as unnerving. Shrewdly, Hirschberg has his cinematographer David Klassen shoot this thriller with almost the same breeziness that Bridger has. We're sucked into a world that doesn't seem all that dangerous from its appearances, just like Bridger, but we should all know better. After all, in any crime drama, the piper will have to be paid.  

Bridger has chosen this profession of funny money to help pay for his mother’s medical bills once her cancer returns. His normal job will not cover her extensive treatment, and he needs to raise a lot of cash quickly. Thus, he decides to not only make phony bills to pay for her care, but soon the temptation to use the counterfeit dough for more will start bogging down his mind and his morality. He will discover that being such a good criminal rather excites him. He likes living on the edge, especially when he feels as if he's got it all under control.

Such hubris gives him his confidence, his strut. At one point in the film, Hirschberg spends the good amount of a minute just showcasing Bridger walking on his way to his yacht where he makes his product. As he casually and cooly saunters, sometimes on the phone, sometimes just admiring his world,  Bridger appears as if he's a collegiate BMOC. He's almost ridiculously masculine, assured, even jaunty. His face is wide-eyed and open, smiling at his success. This is a man who would never act like a skulking criminal hiding his face from the world.

But his confidence is actually an unfortunate sort of naiveté. Sure, Bridger is great at counterfeiting, and he’s incredibly shrewd to insist on keeping the denominations only in 5’s, 10’s and 20’s as to not draw undue attention to their product, but he brings in his college buddies Rob (Robert McEveety), Preston (Taylor Lockwood) and Jimmy (Shawn Rolph) to help his charade and they are simply not the dependable sort. They’re ambitious, as Shakespeare described Cassius in JULIUS CAESAR, and we all know how that turned out, don’t we? “Who checks a $10?” Bridger tries to reason with his cronies at one point, arguing on why a lower product profile is best, but his guys don't see eye-to-eye with him. They want to make bigger bills and bigger profits. And of course, that will mean bigger risks for everyone involved.

But risk is all around Bridger, and he should see it, yet because he manages his way around it with great aplomb, he tends to not regard it as much of a threat. When he does a favor for a drug lord by dropping off some coke, he is tempted sexually by the zonked-out model at the customer’s address, but he escapes just before succumbing to her charms and her hair-trigger temper. At a local bar, Bridger unwittingly hands an obviously counterfeit $100 to a waitress, but manages to bluff his way out of hot water by distracting her with an invite to a party. No wonder Bridger has a 'cock of the walk' gait, he's got quite a guardian angel on his shoulder.


But soon enough,  his reckless, greedy friends will not only put the business at great risk, but everything else will build to a head as well. There are problems with his mother's bills so the hospital is threatening to throw her out on the street. His girlfriend discovers what he's up to on that yacht and she's furious. Even worse, a cop and a hidden gun will soon appear and all hell will break loose. Hirschberg tightens the screws here, creating delicious tension as Bridger must finally face all of it and the inherent dangers that come with his craft. 

To tell more about where the plot goes would destroy too many of the joys to be found in the viewing of this taut 75-minute film. Suffice it to say, blood will be spilled, lives will be taken, and Bridger will have to contend with his sins. Some of the narrative is inevitable, as it must be in the genre, but so much of this film's fun lies in how Hirschberg gets us there. He mines a lot of laughs out of his dangerous characters and surroundings, and also manages to bend the cliches of the genre with mischievous relish. For example, these types of stories always have a lot of bloodletting, but few show how difficult it is to wash blood off one's face and the upholstery. The clean-ups scenes are both scary and knee-slappingly funny. 

And through it all, Hirschberg holds our complete attention as a leading man too. He’s incredibly assured in front of the camera as he is behind it, and neither his performance or his helming of the film seems to have slipped in any way due to pulling double duty. Most of Hirschberg’s cast are friends of his, and while they aren’t as talented as he is, they lend their out-of-their-depth characters an appropriate guilelessness whether intended or not. Wisely, Hirschberg directs most of them to underplay even the bigger scenes, letting the violent acts speak the loudest.

COUNTERFEITERS has been making the festival route throughout the world, from Marina del Rey to Lithuania to Wales, and it’s won a batch of awards along the way. At Filmchella, in the USA, Hirshberg’s film was awarded the "Gorilla Award" as "the most innovative filmmaking; independent in spirit, often times against all odds with no budget" As more and more Hollywood studios have all but eliminated funding modest films, choosing instead to put all of their money behind multimillion dollar CGI tentpoles, it’s nice to come across a talented and tenacious filmmaker like Hirschberg who's created a film where the greatest effects are its story and characters. COUNTERFEITERS may have been bereft of a decent budget, but its many rewards are hardly phony.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

THE CHICAGO INDEPENDENT FILM CRITICS CIRCLE ANNOUNCES ITS 2017 FILM AWARDS


Hello, friends and followers! As many of you are aware, I am a proud member of the Chicago Independent Film Critics Circle and have been for the two years since its founding. We've just announced our film awards for 2017, and you can read our terrific selections in 22 categories here: http://bit.ly/2lxrRZ0

I am particularly proud of the fact that we gave our Impact Award to Patty Jenkins for her incredibly accomplished direction of WONDER WOMAN, one of the year's biggest and critical hits, not to mention a game-changer for DC Comics, as well as a veritable call to arms for persistent women.

Jenkins not only showed the misbegotten men directing for DC how to do it with flair, humanity, and superb storytelling instincts, she also did it without the sexist "male gaze" which has become quite a problem in Hollywood these days. Bravo, Ms. Jenkins. And thank you.

Also, I'm more than a bit tickled to say that we gave our award for Best Independent Feature to the wondrous LADY BIRD. That was also my pick for Best Film of 2017, and we awarded Best Actress to Saoirse Ronan for her performance in the title role too. (She was also my pick as you can read here: http://bit.ly/2zOdg0H.) 

All in all, there were so many terrific films out this past year that it was hard for all of the critics at the CIFCC to narrow the field. Still, we did just that, and I believe you'll find our final roster of winners to be an incredibly smart group of select honorees.

Friday, December 29, 2017

MY PICKS FOR THE 10 BEST FILMS OF 2017

Original caricature by Jeff York of Saoirse Ronan as LADY BIRD (copyright 2017)
As the year 2017 draws to a close, movie critics, pundits and bloggers make their lists of the top films that they liked best. Thus, it's time for me to publish my list too. 

Despite all the consternation in American politics this year, not to mention problems internationally, 2017 was a great and inspiring year at the movies. It was difficult honing down my list of all the impressive movies I saw to just 10. Some of the terrific films that didn't make it include the following (in no particular order) :

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2
PERSONAL SHOPPER
BABY DRIVER
DARKEST HOUR
THOR: RAGNAROK
MUDBOUND
I, TONYA
WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
FOUR HANDS
THE SQUARE
HOSTILES
JANE
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI
THE SHAPE OF WATER
RAW
VICTORIA & ABDUL
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
THE POST
THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES
THE TRIP TO SPAIN
BEAUTY & THE BEAST
MANSFIELD 66/67
A GHOST STORY

Whew! And there were many other good ones too. Still, here are the 10 that did make my list of the absolute best, along with the links to my previous reviews of them.

1.) LADY BIRD (http://bit.ly/2iRw7BD)
2.) THE BIG SICK (http://bit.ly/2q09Vf4)
3.) WONDER WOMAN (http://bit.ly/2pZcSN8)
4.) LOVING VINCENT (http://bit.ly/2BmDSba)
5.) ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD (http://bit.ly/2Cd11xC)
6.) MOLLY'S GAME (http://bit.ly/2DfAVJx)
7.) PHANTOM THREAD
8.) GET OUT (http://bit.ly/2Cmstvm)
9.) THE FLORIDA PROJECT (http://bit.ly/2zO5xQj)
10.) CALL ME BY YOUR NAME (http://bit.ly/2DJePQs)

(NOTE: PHANTOM THREAD has yet to be reviewed due to an embargo on Chicago critics' reviews until after January 1. )

Oh, and if I was handing out the Oscars in the major categories, here's what I would choose:

Best Director                Greta Gerwig LADY BIRD
Best Actor                    Kumail Nanjiani THE BIG SICK
Best Actress                 Saoirse Ronan LADY BIRD
Best Supp. Actor          Christopher Plummer ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD
Best Supp. Actress       Tiffany Haddish GIRLS TRIP
Best Original Script     THE BIG SICK
Best Adapted Script     CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Best Cinematography  THE SHAPE OF WATER
Best Prod. Design        BLADE RUNNER 2049
Best Costume Design  PHANTOM THREAD
Best Sound Mixing      BABY DRIVER
Best Sound Editing      DUNKIRK
Best Visual Effects       WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES
Best Original Score      PHANTOM THREAD
Best Original Song       "I Get Overwhelmed" (A GHOST STORY)
Best Makeup                 DARKEST HOUR

Those are my picks. What did you like best?