Rob Harmon’s Picks 3/17/15

Rob_photo_031715_WebTHE GUEST (dir. Adam Wingard, 2014)

Low-budget genre films — in general — do not get much credit: they are proven money-makers but critics ignore them, audiences look down upon them. As for awards, well, don’t hold your breath.

This is unfortunate because while genre films — horror, science fiction, westerns, gangster, action, martial arts, etc. — have a long history of seeming virtually indistinguishable from one another, some filmmakers, like Edgar G. Ulmer in DETOUR, Don Siegel in INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS, or John Carpenter in ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13, have wrought minor miracles tweaking well-worn formulae. Operating well below the radar of society’s taste-makers, the low-budget aesthetic is to strip a film down to the bone. A great low-budget genre film can succeed wildly and in ways which other, more respectable counterparts are unable: all technique, no bombast; a solid reminder of the essence of what makes movies so pleasurable in the first place.

Unfortunately, though, the heyday of the genre film (which lasted well into to the 80’s) seems to have passed us by. Many of the programmatic concepts and stories which once would have found their way onto a grindhouse or drive-in screen have now been co-opted by the Hollywood blockbuster (“Aliens controlling human beings from behind the scenes and making us think that everything is hunky dory? Nah, that’s big budget now; that’s THE MATRIX!”), the straight-to-video market, the made-for-Lifetime movie (teenagers and/or housewives dabbling in sex/drugs/prostitution/murder-for-hire, etc.), and the SciFi Channel movie (humans vs. sharks/gorillas/piranhas/monsters/aliens, etc.). It causes one to wonder: those shabby artistic margins once exploited so sensationally by the likes of Ulmer, Siegel, and Carpenter, what has become of them?

Luckily, though, these types of films are not extinct, if less numerous than before, reminding you just how fun it can be to “check your brain at the door,” as the saying goes, while still having that grey matter stimulated in some wholly unexpected ways.

A story treatment for Adam Wingard’s THE GUEST could probably be printed on the label of a very small tin can. It might go something like this: family living in the heartland of America grieves for their dead son, killed in action oversees; handsome, chiseled stranger (Dan Stevens) shows up at door claiming to be close friend of dead son, just released from duty; handsome, chiseled stranger decides to stay with family for a few days and quickly becomes everyone’s best friend and protector; handsome, chiseled stranger also quickly becomes over-protective and is soon revealed to be a bit of a wackadoodle, the subject of some undisclosed top secret military super-soldier experiment gone awry; people die (lots of them, actually).

The_Guest_DVDTruthfully, it is a bit more complicated than that, but not by much, the story being told from the point-of-view of the family’s plucky daughter (Maika Monroe), who first distrusts, then lusts for said stranger, before she and her picked-upon younger brother must hold on for dear life in a hugely entertaining final set-piece in the local high school, which is decked out for… yup, the annual Halloween party!

THE GUEST is a wholly enjoyable roller-coaster ride of a movie: little or no plot development, lots of momentum. The film, in fact, has a sleek and lean widescreen look that resembles part-Euro art cinema, part-Carpenter’s Halloween. This heritage seems to be underscored, literally, by its astonishingly well-assembled electronic score, at times throbbing and muscular like a killer Teutonic dance beat, at others minimal and eerie like a classic synth-y Carpenter score. The film really should be understood as a musical journey or progression, more than anything else, a series of moods building steadily, one after another, to a destination which is familiar, yet ultimately satisfying.

New Releases 3/17/15

Top Hits
Top Five (comedy/romance, Chris Rock. Rotten Tomatoes: 88%. Metacritic: 81. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. “[Actor/director Chris] Rock has far more on his mind than a catfight. In ‘Top Five,’ he sifts through — with on-point jokes, boisterous slapstick, affecting honesty and a sharply honed and earned sense of history — issues of artificiality and authenticity, the spectacle of black celebrity and the imperative of personal meaning. Andre has become famous by playing Hammy the Bear, a character that completely obscures his blackness and his maleness. Both Hammy and the Haitian revolutionary represent two familiar — and Mr. Rock seems to suggest — permitted modes of black expression: clowning and suffering. In setting Andre on his search for self, Mr. Rock has carved out a third way, in the process creating a black character who’s fully human and a comedy that’s wholly a blast.” Read more…)

The Humbling (drama, Al Pacino. Rotten Tomatoes: 51%. Metacritic: 59. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “In [actor Al] Pacino’s tempered wild-man performance — one of his strongest in over a decade — Simon rages at the dying of the light with a zany ferocity, largely avoiding self-pity. A scene in which he picks up a shotgun and prepares to shoot himself like Ernest Hemingway, then bungles it, is played for comedy. Were it made by a different team, the movie might have been conceived as a shrill farce and been much the worse for it.” Read more…)

Annie (musical, Quvenzhane Wallis. Rotten Tomatoes: 28%. Metacritic: 33. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: :”Quvenzhané Wallis is a born movie star, with charisma to burn and a rare ability to magnetize an audience’s attention. She showed as much in ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild,’ filmed when she was just 6. In ‘Annie’ she is older and taller, less pixieish and closer to the awkwardness of adolescence, but, if anything, her ability to charm has only increased. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough.” Read more…)

Exodus: Gods and Kings (action adventure, Christian Bale. Rotten Tomatoes: 28%. Metacritic: 52. From A.O. Scott’s New York Times review: “‘Noah,’ with its stone giants and Emma Watson, may have been too strange for some viewers. ‘Exodus,’ by contrast, crowded with well-known actors, is nowhere near strange enough. More than anything else, it recalls the wide-screen, Technicolor biblical pageants of the 1950s and early ’60s, bland and solemn spectacles that invited moviegoers to marvel at their favorite stars in sandals and robes.” Read more…)

Son of a Gun (action, Ewan McGregor. Rotten Tomatoes: 60%. Metacritic: 48. From Stephen Holden’s New York Times review: “‘Son of a Gun’ adds to the mystique that Australian crime films are meaner, nastier and more brutish than their American counterparts. But it changes style roughly every half-hour.” Read more…)

Low Down (drama, Elle Fanning. Rotten Tomatoes: 51%. Metacritic: 58. From Nicolas Rapold’s New York Times review: “Look and feel express more than the wavering story of ‘Low Down.’ based on Amy-Jo Albany’s memoir about growing up as the daughter of the bebop pianist Joe Albany. Adapted by Ms. Albany and Topper Lilien, this movie from Jeff Preiss is a stream of recollections, but the late-afternoon-light grain of its Super 16-millimeter camerawork and the gestures of warmth between its characters perhaps say more than any rise-and-fall might.” Read more…)

Veronika Decides to Die (drama/romance, Sarah Michelle Gellar)

New Foreign
The Way He Looks (Brazil, coming-of-age drama/romance, Ghilherme Lobo. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 72. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Andy Webster’s Times review: “This winning movie — directed by Daniel Ribeiro, making his feature debut — dexterously weaves the social challenges of adolescence into a story of broader self-discovery. The film is Brazil’s foreign-language entry to the Academy Awards. That’s no surprise.” Read more…)

New Gay & Lesbian
The Way He Looks (Brazil, coming-of-age drama/romance, Ghilherme Lobo. Rotten Tomatoes: 91%. Metacritic: 72. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Andy Webster’s Times review: “This winning movie — directed by Daniel Ribeiro, making his feature debut — dexterously weaves the social challenges of adolescence into a story of broader self-discovery. The film is Brazil’s foreign-language entry to the Academy Awards. That’s no surprise.” Read more…)

New Children’s DVDs
Song of the Sea (animated feature, Brendan Gleeson [voice]. Rotten Tomatoes: 98%. Metacritic: 85. A New York Times Critic’s Pick. From Jeannette Catsoulis’ Times review: “Inspired by the myth of the selkie — which, as fans of John Sayles’s 1994 jewel, ‘The Secret of Roan Inish,’ know, is a seal-like creature that can shed its skin and live for a time as a human — ‘Song of the Sea’ moves delicately but purposefully from pain to contentment and from anger to love. On land and underwater, the siblings’ adventures unfold in hand-drawn, painterly frames of misty pastels, sometimes encircled by cobwebby borders that give them the look of pictures in a locket.” Read more…)

Penguins of Madagascar: The Movie (animated feature, Benedict Cumberbatch [voice]. Rotten Tomatoes: 72%. Metacritic: 53. From Ben Kenigsberg’s New York Times review: “‘Penguins of Madagascar’ promises a reasonable share of wit the minute it opens with a voice-over by Werner Herzog, in a sendup of his documentary on Antarctica, ‘Encoumters at the End of the World.’ That film posed the question of whether penguins could exhibit insanity. In the case of this spirited animated movie, the answer is assuredly yes.” Read more…)