Films I Neglected To Review: "He Was Alive When I Buried Him!"
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 07/08/16 18:34:01
Please enjoy short reviews of "Blood Simple," "Director's Cut," "The Innocents," "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates" and "The Secret Life of Pets."
Still one of the most astonishingly assured big-screen debuts of our time, Blood Simple," the 1985 neo-noir thriller that introduced the world to the filmmaking duo of Joel & Ethan Coen, returns to theaters in a newly restored version (based off of the "director's cut" version that came out in 2000, apparently sans the facetious prologue featuring the blathering of a faux-film historian, and still blows away about 90% of the new movies to come out this year. If you have never seen it before, you will be instantly caught up in the twisty, brutal and darkly funny goings-on that occur when a jealous bar owner (Dan Hedaya) hires a sleazy private detective (M. Emmet Walsh, practically oozing maliciousness from his pores) to kill his wife (Frances McDormand in her first big role) and the bartender (John Getz) with whom she is having an affair. If you have seen it before, you can revisit it and once again bask in the sheer bravura cinematic skill that they demonstrated right from the start (The extended body disposal sequence - which runs over ten minutes without any dialogue - remains one of their great set pieces and the finale remains tense and squirm-inducing no matter how many times you have seen it) as well as pick up on the themes and filmmaking tropes that they would expand upon throughout their stellar subsequent career. Although "Blood Simple" may sometimes get overlooked by those exploring the filmography of the Coens, this really is one of the great ones and fully deserving of being on that top shelf with the likes of "Miller's Crossing," "Fargo," "The Big Lebowski" and "No Country for Old Men." Speaking of the Coen's spectacular oeuvre, Chicago's beloved Music Box Theatre, in conjunction with the "Blood Simple" revival, will be doing a mini-retrospective of their work that will include screenings of "Fargo," "Inside Llewyn Davis," "Barton Fink" and the sadly underrated "The Man Who Wasn't There," all of which are essential viewing.
The idea of a film that updates Martin Scorsese's grand "The King of Comedy" to a more media-savvy era in which technology has given the fanboy contingent an even greater sense of self-entitlement and delusions of ownership over their favorite pop culture items and the people that do the actual creating sounds like a sure thing but the meta-movie misfire Director's Cut takes a promising premise and an interesting approach and squanders them both on a film that never quite works. The conceit is that we are watching "Knocked Off," a cheesy "Seven" ripoff starring Harry Hamlin and Missi Pyle, with a commentary track supplied not by director Adam Rifkin but by Herbert Blount (Penn Jillette), a big goof who gained access to the set by donating a lot of money to the film's crowdfunding site. As the screening progresses, it becomes apparent that Blount has a creepy fascination with Pyle that leads him to kidnap her and force her to act in new scenes, with him as her hero and love interest, that he has awkwardly spliced into the film after stealing the footage.
Like I said, it is an interesting idea for a movie but it is quickly done in here by lame execution that makes it alternately too icky to work as a goof and too silly for its more serious-minded ideas to work. Another problem, oddly enough, is the idea to have Jillette portray Blount - since most of his performance is conveyed via the commentary voiceover, his instantly recognizable dulcet tones end up serving as a major distraction. All in all, "Director's Cut" just doesn't work but it does at least have one spectacularly funny moment going for it - the most hilarious deployment of the cop movie chestnut "You have the right to remain silent" that you will most likely see in this lifetime.
Although it may not be a genre piece by any stretch of the imagination, Anne Fontaine's "The Innocents" may well go down as one of the most horrifying films of the season. Set in Warsaw in 1945, the film opens as Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a doctor's assistant working for the Red Cross, is approached by someone to come back with her to a local convent to treat a sick nun. When she arrives, Mathilde is stunned to discover that virtually all the nuns in residence are in the very late stages of pregnancy that are the result of a gang rape that happened months earlier at the hands of Russian army intruders. With the nuns ready to give birth at virtually the same time, Mathilde is coaxed to secretly help them out in defiance of Red Cross rules and her work is made even more difficult when a number of the nuns refuse even the most cursory treatment, either because of their belief that simply being touched is a sin or because the whole thing has caused them to doubt their faith.
Easily the best thing that Fontaine has done in a while (not that grand of a statement considering that her recent efforts have included such duds as "Adore" and "Gemma Bovary"), the film never tries to trivialize the material by adding any sort of sentimental aspect to make it more palatable to the viewer - it offers viewers an unsparing look at crises of faith, the subjugation of women and how even the most seemingly pious of individuals are willing to commit the most unspeakable atrocities in order to preserve their own interests. This is dark and sad material to be sure but it is at the same time watchable thanks to Fontaine's delicate handling of the tricky material, the strong performances across the board and the oftentimes haunting visual style. You won't laugh much during "The Innocents," to be sure, but thoughtful viewers will certainly get more out of it than most of the movies out there these days.
I am fairly certain that if I were to propose that Anna Kendrick and Aubrey Plaza were two of funniest and most engaging young actresses working today, I would get little argument regarding that particular position. The only problem that they seem to have is a complete lack of judgement when it comes to picking scripts - the last couple of years alone have seen Kendrick wasted on the likes of "Rapture-Palooza," "Into the Woods," "Pitch Perfect 2," "Mr. Right" and "Get a Job" while Plaza has been slumming in "The To-Do List," "Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever," "Life After Beth" and the immortal "Dirty Grandpa." Now they have teamed up to squander their talents on "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates," a dismal slap-happy comedy in which they play a couple of sort-of bad girls who pretend to be prim and proper in order to convince a couple of dopey party-hearty brothers (Zac Efron and Adam Devine) to take them to Hawaii as dates for their sister's wedding - don't ask.
In news that will no doubt come as a shock to you, wackiness ensues as the bride takes an ATV wheel to the face, Plaza agrees to finger the nasty cousin of the two guys in exchange for Rhianna tickets, Kendrick gives the bride ecstasy (the pill kind) the night before her wedding and chaos generally reigns before the four finally learn to grow up and straighten out in the final reel. None of it is particularly funny or even amusingly outrageous - the whole thing feels like an extended trailer for a film that you will make certain not to see when it comes out - and it is a little depressing to see performers like Kendrick, Plaza and Efron (who can be funny in the right circumstances but certainly not here) stuck with the kind of low-grade material that should have outgrown, at least from a career perspective, years ago. The best thing that you can say about it is that as depressingly awful attempts at shock comedy featuring Zac Efron and Aubrey Plaza released in 2016 go, it is pretty than "Dirty Grandpa" but, sadly, it isn't that much better.
Have you ever wondered what your pets do when you are not at home? Well to judge by the evidence put forth in the new animated comedy "The Secret Life of Pets," they evidently spend a lot of time checking out your DVD collection since the film is constructed almost entirely from other movies ranging from the Pixar output (mostly the original "Toy Story," though there are pilferings from others, such as "Up" and "Finding Dory," though I concede that the latter may have been inadvertent) to the likes of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" and even the classic final line of "Some Like It Hot." Set in New York (cue "Welcome to New York" on the soundtrack), the film centers on a terrier named Max (voiced by Louis C.K.) whose comfortable existence is shattered when his owner brings home a big, sloppy dog (Eric Stonestreet) to stay with them as well. When their mutual antagonism lands them in the back of a truck headed for the pound, they must learn to work together in order to find their way back home on a journey that sees them being pursued by a group of angry abandoned animals (led by a pissed-off magician's rabbit voiced by Kevin Hart) hell-bent on overthrowing humankind and a rescue party of much friendlier animals including a Pomeranian (Jenny Slate) with a not-so-secret crush on Max, an ancient dog (Dana Carvey) who knows everybody, a bored cat (Lake Bell) and a hawk (Albert Brooks) who agrees to help out despite his biological urges to eat them all.
It sounds cute enough but even little kids may find the story to be a little too repetitive for its own good and parents may be aghast at the weirdly dark moments that it indulges in from time to time - a couple of animals cackle about how they killed their owners (they are just joking but still), the abandoned animals include a fearsome cobra and a crocodile among their ranks and the film even trucks in a sweet old man for no other reason other than to kill him off in an effort to inspire a tear-jerking moment without putting any real effort into it. The only real laughs to be had come from Albert Brooks - his lines are so sharp, especially in comparison to the rest of the film, that I suspect that he may have had a hand in writing them. Other than that, "The Secret Life of Pets" is kind of a waste of time and talent and the best thing about it is the fact that now that it is finally being released, we no longer have to sit through another goddamn trailer for it whenever we sit through an even vaguely family-oriented film. Huzzah to that.