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Oscar Contender and Wild Indies in Theaters and Streaming

George Wolf George Wolf Oscar Contender and Wild Indies in Theaters and StreamingThe Eyes of Tammy Faye - Photo via IMDb
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There’s no question Jessica Chastain will be in the Oscar conversation this year for her latest release. Anything else coming out worth mentioning? What about Nic Cage in a samurai ghost town? Lynchian mock-rock-doc? Anthology of horror shorts for Spooky Season? Read on and find out.

The Eyes of Tammy Faye

In theaters

by George Wolf

Some facial prosthetics and a crap ton of makeup give Jessica Chastain the physical features of Tammy Faye Bakker, but it’s the way Chastain embodies Bakker’s sympathetic garishness that ultimately keeps your eyes on The Eyes of Tammy Faye.

Tammy Faye LaValley met Jim Bakker (Andrew Garfield) at Minnesota’s North Central Bible College in the early 1960s, but both had to drop out when they got married. Taking their endlessly upbeat sermonizing on the road, they developed a mix of song, scripture and puppet shows that was a perfect fit for television.

After launching The 700 Club for Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network, Jim and Tammy set out to build their own empire in 1974 with the PTL (Praise the Lord) Club. The show’s massive success led to an entire PTL TV network and then to Heritage USA, a Christian-themed theme park and retreat in South Carolina.

And then, of course, it all crashed in the late 1980s, under a wave of sex scandal, bankruptcy, and Jim’s conviction on fraud and conspiracy charges.

Taking inspiration from the 2000 documentary also titled The Eyes of Tammy Faye, director Michael Showalter (The Big Sick, Hello My Name Is Doris) and writer Abe Sylvia (TV’s Nurse Jackie and The Affair) make this an unabashedly sympathetic portrait. And while capitalizing on Chastain’s excellence is entirely understandable, it comes at the expense of developing some other major players (Garfield’s Bakker, Vincent D’Onofrio as Jerry Falwell) that could have deepened the overall context.

Only the great Cherry Jones, as Tammy Faye’s mother Rachel, is given the space for nuance, and it is this mother-daughter dynamic that gives the film its heart.

Though the Tammy Faye persona is outwardly cartoonish, Chastain shows us a woman driven to make others feel the love that she did not; a wife unafraid to fight for her seat at the table; and a Christian committed to loving, helping and forgiving. An advocate for the gay community in the early days of the AIDS epidemic, Tammy Faye also championed social programs for the poor and even brought the subject of penile implants to Christian TV.

And all of those revelations make the moments when Showalter’s tone flirts with patronization all the more curious. Late in the film, Tammy Faye admits to “loving the camera” and a producer simply asks, “Why?” Though it lands as the moment Showalter and Sylvia have been building toward, they ultimately move past it as a frustrating afterthought.

If the goal here was to spotlight an award-worthy lead performance in an entertaining hat tip to Tammy Faye, well then mission accomplished.

But the frequent use of real news broadcasts and headlines – paired with an early look at the strategy behind Republican Jesus – make us eager for a broader context, one that The Eyes of Tammy Faye misses by a false eyelash.

Grade: B-

Copshop

In theaters

by George Wolf

Man, did I hear about it last week when I argued that the first two acts of Malignant weren’t nearly strong enough to support the all out lunacy of the finale. I stand by that, but moving on…

Copshop also delivers a balls-out third act, but the self-aware setup by director/co-writer Joe Carnahan ensures we’re plenty ready to surrender to the shoot-em-up fun.

Mob “fixer” Teddy Murretto (Frank Grillo) punches Nevada rookie cop Valerie Young (Alexis Louder) on purpose, looking for the safety of a jail cell. He gets one, but he’s soon followed by hitman Bob Viddick (Gerard Butler, also a producer), who wants to get close enough to Teddy to take him out.

Plenty more bad guys get involved – including a scene-stealing Toby Huss (Seinfeld‘s “The Wiz”) as a psycho who likes to spray bullets and sing soul classics – and before long it seems Val’s only chance of getting out of work alive is deciding which one of these locked up bad guys is worth trusting.

Grillo and Butler are both on tough-guy autopilot, charismatic and menacing with a smidge of possible empathy. But Louder (TV’s Watchmen) is the standout, finding the layers of a character that’s real, smart and savvy enough to holster this movie and claim it for her own.

The dialog often snaps with wit, the banter touching on everything from Chris Hemsworth’s beach getaway to the benefits of cole slaw. But this is an action flick first, and Carnahan (Boss Level, The Grey, Smokin’ Aces) rolls out well-staged and satisfying set pieces that strike a nice balance between tense and preposterous.

The grindhouse Western opening not only introduces us to the setting of Gun Creek, Nevada (subtle!), but also a playful and purposeful tone that Carnahan steers with impressive craftsmanship.

Are you gonna remember Copshop much past closing time? Probably not, but you’re gonna have a bloody good time before you clock out.

Grade: B+

Prisoners of the Ghostland

At Gateway Film Center

by Hope Madden

Nicolas Cage referred to Sion Sono’s Prisoners of the Ghostland as possibly the wildest film he’s ever been in.

Wilder than Wild at Heart?

Wilder than Mandy?

Wilder than – I mean, it’s a long list. We’re talking about Nicolas Cage here. But Sono (Suicide Club, Antiporno, Tokyo Vampire Hotel, Why Don’t You Play in Hell, among others) is no slouch in the wild department. So, it would seem that he and Cage make a suitable match.

Sono’s tale pits dastardly bank thief and all around nogoodnik Hero (Cage) against the clock, testicular bombs, and marauding trucker ghosts. Why? To return The Mayor’s (Bill Moseley) beloved granddaughter Bernice (Sofia Boutella) back to him.

If that sounds simple enough —and it probably does not— the film’s even more unusual than the synopsis suggests. Prisoners of the Ghostland delivers a samurai cyberpunk musical Western dystopian neo-noir with flourishes reminiscent of Mad Max and Mulan Rouge.

I wish that mashup worked better.

The Mayor rules Samurai Town, a garish den of debauchery, color and indulgence. Here Sono delivers bold and bizarre visuals. He runs with the idea that the samurai and the cowboy are essentially, cinematically, the same beast.

Bernice is held in Ghostland, all ash and cinder populated as much by mannequins as humans. Haunting imagery here as well, though less of it unique, marrying Western to dystopic fantasy. Plus the Greek chorus.

Compared to Sono’s madcap antics, Cage is almost subdued. Does he ride naked on a child’s bike? Grapple with toxic mutant monsters? Sing? He does! It’s just that Sono’s vision is wilder still.

The filmmaker’s aesthetic is jarring, disjointed, overwhelming, frenetic, sometimes stupid, other times glorious, and never less than mad. The fact that he tries to tie it all together neatly at the end may be Prisoners of the Ghostland’s biggest drawback.

The underlying story is of trafficked women taking control of their lives and bodies, though the fact that Boutella is essentially voiceless and in need of saving speaks louder about the film’s themes. She does a solid job in a thankless role, as does everyone in the densely populated ensemble.

It’s bananas. It doesn’t entirely work – sometimes it doesn’t work at all — but it is a bold mess that commands attention.

Grade: B-

The Nowhere Inn

At Gateway Film Center

by Christie Robb

Ever wondered what a mock music documentary directed by David Lynch would feel like?

Bill Benz’s The Nowhere Inn is a hybrid of St. Vincent tour footage and a deconstruction of the concept of identity, written by real-life friends Annie Clark (St. Vincent) and Carrie Brownstein (PortlandiaSleater-Kinney).

Ostensibly a music documentary of a St. Vincent tour put together by Annie and her best friend/director Carrie, the goal of the project is to show fans who Annie Clark really is and give Carrie a chance to dig herself out of a career rut.

Quickly, Carrie tires of Annie’s life off stage, which consists of Pilates, playing scrabble with bandmates on the bus, and searching around tour locations for farmers’ markets to purchase healthy road snacks. Carrie asks Annie to zhuzh it up a bit to make the film more interesting.

And the offended Annie delivers.

As Annie’s behind-the-scenes self merges with that of her stage persona, the film takes on a more ominous tone. It combines elements of a music video with comedy and thriller/horror. (And even amateur pornography in a fun little scene with Dakota Johnson playing an expensive lingerie-wearing fictional Dakota Johnson.) Ultimately, the movie becomes surrealist as it grapples with the nature of identity, friendship and authenticity.

The cinematography is often painterly with vibrant colors contrasted against velvety blacks. This is mixed with somewhat grainy “archival” footage, filmed St. Vincent performances, and reality TV-style confessional interview footage. The fact that we don’t get lost in all this is a win for the editing department.

Clark shows an impressive acting range, from nerdy awkwardness to lonely vulnerability, aloof artist to menacing narcissist. She’s also got a sense of comedic timing that can keep up with the bone-dry Brownstein.

Although the thesis is somewhat belabored and some of the subplots don’t particularly go anywhere, The Nowhere Inn is an interesting place to find yourself.

Grade: A-

Hellarious

On Prime and Tubi

by Hope Madden

Short films rarely get their due, and getting an audience is rarer still. Any opportunity to sit down with a set of shorts that made a splash in the festival circuit is an opportunity worth taking. If arterial spray and laughter are your thing, Hellarious is a chance worth taking.

The compilation contains seven short films, each a horror comedy. There’s no framing device or theme, simply a collection of sometimes bawdy, once in a long while sweet, mostly viscous horror. There are a lot of fluids here.

Like an automatic door to hell, James Feeney’s Killer Kart opens things. His creeping camera sets a fun tone for an absurd “ordinary item” monster movie (a la Rubber). An inspired score by Daniel Hildreth, Christine Rodriguez and Ray Bouchard matches the mayhem nicely.

Robert Boocheck’s charming Horrific—a tale of mutant varmints, hula hoop porn and besotted tidy whities—lands laughs thanks to Mike Nelson’s semi-heroic central performance. Likewise the Deathgasm-esque Death Metal offers a highly enjoyable and sometimes morally questionable bloodbath with the most delightful practical effects.

A sweet authenticity drives Bitten, Sarah K. Reimers’ romantic, dog-loving upending of the werewolf tale. (Who’s a good boy? Iggy is! Iggy’s a good boy!) If you can take your eyes off that adorable dog, you’ll notice two tenderly funny performances by Francine Torres and Michael Curran.

Director Jason Tostevin, who also compiled the films, helms two of the shorts in the program, both co-written with Randall Greenland. ‘Til Death offers a post-mortem comeuppance tale boasting several strong performances. Born Again, though, is one of the compilation’s two highest points.

Six and a half minutes with the worst Satanists ever exposes you to a really beautifully filmed subversion of expectations. Slyly comical performances top to bottom entertain, but Greenland is a laugh riot in a starring role.

The collections second high peak comes thanks to Clarissa Jacobson and J.M. Logan’s sloppy concoction, Lunch Ladies. This is a delirious fantasy about underdogs rising to the challenge and making their dreams come true—becoming personal chefs to “the Depper,” Johnny Depp. Donna Pieroni and Mary Manofsky deliver consistent laughs in a film that almost makes a person want to love Johnny Depp again.

Variety, laughs, mayhem, blood spatter, romance, cheerleader pot pie—Hellarious is a tasty treat of bite sized horror.

Grade: A-

What She Said

On VOD

by Rachel Willis

Hidden away at a family cabin, Sam (Jenny Lester) has plans to work on her dissertation when she’s interrupted by her brother, Eli (Britt Michael Gordon), who shows up to check on her. It’s obvious from the beginning Sam is using her dissertation as an excuse to hide. In the midst of a rape trial, Sam mentions to Eli she might have dropped the charges against her rapist. Eli’s reaction is to call Sam’s group of friends to the cabin to stage an intervention disguised as a Friendsgiving celebration.

Written by Lester, and directed by Amy Northup, What She Said takes a hard look at the far-reaching devastation of rape.

Sam’s life is in chaos following her assault and the ongoing trial. When her friends, including sister (Paige Berkovitz) and sister-in-law (Juliana Jurenas), show up to help convince her to go through with the trail, Sam is angry and reluctant to accept their interference. Into the midst of this chaotic situation, friend Ruthy (Lucas Calzada) arrives, surprised to find the cabin full of people.

The friend relationships play the biggest role in the movie. Each character has their own way of dealing with what happened to Sam. Some of these characters are more fleshed out than others, but even the characters with more depth at times fall into stereotype. 

Because he’s an outsider to the group, Ruthy asks questions that help us understand the character dynamic within Sam’s group. These scenes provide heavy-handed context rather than letting the character interactions speak to the larger relationships.

Ruthy also advocates for Sam when her friends and family don’t, or can’t, understand her choices. This is where the character is best utilized, reminding those who want to help Sam that the best way they can to that is to let her make her own decisions. However, his quips at the end of arguments make you wonder why the others don’t throw him out.

What She Said is not a perfect film, but it tackles a serious issue in both unexpected and important ways. How a family reacts can often leave a woman feeling further disempowered (this is best exemplified in a scene with Sam’s mom), but it also highlights the importance of a support group free of judgment. Sam opens up to Ruthy because he provides that kind of support. It’s a lesson worth learning.   

Grade: B-

Lady of the Manor

On VOD

by Hope Madden

Flatulence, Judy Greer and historical reenactments? I don’t think we see enough of these in independent film.

Neither do brothers Justin and Christian Long, presumably, because they have written and directed Lady of the Manor to encourage us to spend some time with all three. And since the flatulence is cinematic rather than aromatic, what’s the harm?

There is none. The film is, in a word, harmless.

Greer plays Civil War-era Lady Wadsworth. As the film opens, we see her behaving properly, sporting proper posture and manners, quarreling politely with her husband, and tumbling fatally down a flight of stairs.

The Longs intercut this scene with the audio from a true-crime program being viewed by modern-day ne’er-do-well Hannah (Melanie Lynskey). After a series of drug and alcohol-related shenanigans, the down-on-her-luck Hannah accepts a position as tour guide of Wadsworth Manor.

Hannah’s clear, almost criminal weaknesses in the areas of ladylikeness bring the ghost of Lady Wadsworth back to the manor to teach Hannah some etiquette. Or is there another reason for her spectral return?

The Longs plump up their very slight script with plenty of silliness. Justin portrays Hannah’s bashful history professor suitor Max, while Ryan Phillippe lampoons his early career roles with a funny entitled douchebag performance as Wadsworth heir, Tanner.

There’s also a fun Luis Guzmán cameo and a rare Patrick Duffy sighting.

But the film is at its best when Lynskey and Greer turn My Fair Lady into The Odd Couple. These veteran character actors riff off each other like old vaudeville partners, bringing joy to even the most superficial scenes.

There are plenty of those. Lady of the Manor often plays like an extended episode of Drunk History, only maybe not quite as funny. Everybody seems to be enjoying themselves, no one is challenged by the material, and an entirely pleasant if fairly predictable and only modestly funny time is had by all, viewers included.

Grade: C+

Follow George and Hope on Twitter @maddwolf and listen to their weekly movie review podcast, THE SCREENING ROOM.

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