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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Tag Archives: Karyn Kusama

XX (2017)

Women be shoppin’. Except not really.

A mother (Natalie Brown) has no clue what to do with herself, now that her son refuses to eat anything, no matter what’s put in front of him; another mother (Melanie Lynskey) tries to throw the biggest and best party for her daughter, only to realize that it probably won’t happen due to unforeseeable circumstances; a bunch of young whipper-snappers head out into the mountains, expecting to have some fun and catch up some history, only to discover something horrifying and dark; and lastly, another mother (Christine Kirk), seems to be hiding something from her troubled 18-year-old son, but he, nor anyone else really knows what.

In case you couldn’t tell, XX is an anthology piece, done by four women, with four different stories, focusing on, above all else, women. It’s a nice angle to take on the horror-genre and shows that it still has some growing to do, in terms of its versatility as well as its acceptance. However, it does also show that it has some growing to do in terms of its quality.

Scared

See, one of the main issues with XX, and as is the case with most anthology pieces in its same vein, is that it’s way too brief for its own good. At nearly an-hour-20, each story has at least 20 minutes each to tell its story, characters, and most of all, give us the chills. But there’s something with the horror genre that, in order for the scares to be smart, effective, and most of all, scary, there has to be some sort of build-up to it all, and at nearly 20 minutes each, none of these tales really have that.

In a way, each one of them feel like they’re fully realized and fleshed-out, but are missing a few reels, either at the beginning, at the end, or somewhere in between. A part of me wonders what the exact want and reason for making these stories actually was, considering that it doesn’t seem to be any reason other than, “Oh, well, they’re kind of scary, I guess. Oh, and they star women, written and directed by women.” Once again, nothing with this approach, as it is definitely something that the horror genre as a whole could and definitely should, work on, but perhaps XX isn’t the brightest, most shiny example of why.

If anything, it proves to be an interesting and mildly entertaining diversion from what we’re used to seeing with horror anthologies, but yeah, it’s been done better before.

And to talk about the four pieces of story here, it’s best to go on about each one of them. First off, “the Box”, written and directed by Jovanka Vuckovic, plays with a lot of visual cues, but ultimately, isn’t about much. It’s about this family, going through a rough time when one of the children won’t eat, and has all the makings of a weird, almost surreal dark comedy, but it doesn’t go that way – instead, it plays itself very serious and dark, and sort of just ends on that note. It’s the perfect piece to start out on, because it literally won’t be remembered by the end.

Petrified

St. Vincent’s tale, “the Birthday Party”, works a little bit more because it does take a slightly comedic-edge to its story, but once again, doesn’t feel like it’s really built upon anything. It’s just sort of weird, wacky, and features a random cameo from Joe Swanberg. If anything is to be taken away from this part, it’s that St. Vincent is a competent enough director to show us that she knows what she’s doing behind the camera, so who knows? Maybe it will be nice to see more of her there.

Anyway, then there’s “Don’t Fall”, by Roxanne Benjamin, that started off promising, but ultimately, doesn’t know what to do with itself. Everything happens way too quick, we get the very smallest, slightest bit of character-detail to work with, and yeah, none of it really matters. The gore and the scares work, but they’re done in about five minutes anyway, so does it really matter at all?

And lastly, there’s Karyn Kusama’s “Her Only Living Son”, which may be the only one here that actually feels like a fully realized and written short movie about a mother, coping with whatever mystery is in her life. It helps here that Christina Kirk is a good actress and an inspired bit of casting for this dark role, but Kusama herself also shows some initiative, with enough mystery, development, and oddness to make it all work. The ending is stupid and doesn’t quite make sense, but hey, at least it is attempting at doing something.

Which, after all, is all I needed and/or could have ever wanted.

Consensus: Though not terrible, XX is more of a mixed-bag, showing why there should be more stories about women in horror, but also showing why they should be longer than 20 minutes each.

6 / 10

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Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire, Joblo

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The Invitation (2016)

Yeah, next time, steer clear of those dinner-party invites from exes.

Will (Logan Marshall-Green) drives with his girlfriend Kira (Emayatzy Corinealdi) to a home in Hollywood Hills where his ex-wife Eden (Tammy Blanchard), is hosting a dinner party with her new husband David (Michiel Huisman). Will hasn’t seen Eden in quite some time and hasn’t even met David yet, so already, he’s a bit tense. However, he knows that everything will be all fine and dandy once he gets there, enjoys the fine wine that’s being constantly handed to him all willy nilly, and relax for a change. After all, a good portion of his life has been covered in tension and anguish, so it’s nice that he’s at least going to his ex-wife’s place, hopefully to build back up some bridges, as well as creating new ones. When Will gets there, however, he can’t help but be a little spooked out. For some reason, Will starts seeing things that may or may not be there; a half-naked girl no one seems to know, some random, much older fella nobody else has a clue about, either, all show up and make Will, as well as others feel uneasy. However, Eden and David know this, so they decide to eventually tell everybody what this whole little shindig is about and made for, and needless to say, it shocks a lot of people, or most importantly, Will.

Lumberjack-looking bro #1.

Lumberjack-looking bro #1.

The Invitation is the the perfect definition of a “taut thriller”. Director Karyn Kusama doesn’t allow for things to get off too fast or too crazy early on – instead, she just takes her time, slowly meandering from one place to another, giving us a little something to hold onto, and slowly, but most surely, building up more and more tension as she runs along. The movie itself, you could argue, does take an awful long enough time to get going, to the point of where it almost feels manipulative, but there’s something oddly spooky and chilly in the air about the Invitation that makes it worth watching, even in its sillier, more boring moments.

For instance, there’s never the slightest clue of what’s going to be revealed, or what’s going to happen at the end of the movie.

Okay, that’s a lie. Watching the Invitation, I myself couldn’t help but feel like I knew where the story was going about halfway through, and while I wasn’t necessarily proven wrong, I still can’t say that I was ticked-off about it, either. The movie already did a fine enough job of getting me involved with this little dinner-party, even if I didn’t know a single thing about any of these characters or why they matter, however, it’s such a slow-burn, and an interesting one at that, that sometimes, it almost doesn’t matter how goofy the reveal can be. Sometimes, all you need is a little intrigue to keep things guiding along and all can practically can be forgiven.

And hell, you could make the same argument about Kusama as a director. After the tremendous Girlfight, sadly, she got stuck in a bit of Hollywood limbo as most fresh, young and ambitious directors who want to take on the world tend to be stuck in. Aeon Flux wanted to be bad-ass and cool, but instead, was just boring, and Jennifer’s Body, despite being a whole lot like everything else that Diablo Cody’s ever done, with a darker spin, still didn’t fully work as a horror-comedy. Now, however, Kusama has found her sweet spot, working with a story that’s both mysterious, dark and oddly enough, just weird enough to make it seem like she’s playing back to her old friends that put her on the map in the first place.

Of course, the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi is also pretty damn good, too, but it’s Kusama who is able to translate this all and make it appear as suspenseful as you can get, when all you really have is people talking, that really surprised me. Small, single-location, almost character-driven thrillers such as this work for me, when they’re done especially right. While I wouldn’t necessarily say that the Invitation is “character-driven” per se, it still deals with a good handful of characters that you can at least identify with and get a good feel for, even if you don’t care for them, or know that they’re up to no good.

Basically, it’s any dinner-party, ever, where some people you like, and others, you don’t.

And, lumberjack-looking bro #2.

And, lumberjack-looking bro #2.

We’ve all been to one of them, right?

Anyway, the cast here is fine. Logan Marshall-Green’s Will was a tad bit boring, but he still shows himself to be an interesting enough protagonist to make sense of why he’s our eyes and ears for this story; Emayatzy Corinealdi is sweet and smart as Kira; Tammy Blanchard is very strange and off-putting as Eden, although perfectly so; Michiel Huisman is both every bit of charming and sinister as you expect him to be as David, although it could be a tad difficult to tell him and Marshall-Green apart (although, I guess the joke here is that Eden sure as hell has a “type” in that she likes dudes with huge beards and an interesting, if slightly pretentious personality); and John Carroll Lynch, who seems to come out of nowhere just to be “the creepy guy”, is, well, perfect at it and need I say more?

In fact, the Invitation plays out in such a way that I won’t spoil it for you here. It’s both freaky, fun and interesting, if also a tad bit silly. Movies like this that take themselves so seriously always seem to set themselves up for scrutiny when they let their freak flag fly and let loose. Surely, there’s nothing wrong with this when it’s a bit of fun, but when your movie starts off as an interesting, conversation-sparking tale about death, grief, sadness and failed marriages, it’s hard not to wonder what happened when everything all of a sudden turns into a grind house flick.

Then again, maybe this is just how L.A. dinner parties are.

Damn, I need to move out of Philly and fast.

Consensus: By elevating the tension as it runs along, the Invitation is both a suspenseful, but fun bit of dark-thriller that may not have a whole lot to say, but does a fine enough job with what it’s got to make an impression.

7 / 10

When somebody stands up and starts to give a speech at a dinner-party, that's when you know it's time to call the Uber. Or just run the hell out.

When somebody stands up and starts to give a speech at a dinner-party, that’s when you know it’s time to call the Uber. Or just run the hell out.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Girlfight (2000)

Girls can do anything as good as boys. Including kicking butt.

Diana Guzman (Michelle Rodriguez) is a no-nonsense, take-no-crap teenager who has a bit of issues. For one, her mother’s dead, so she’s forced to live with her disapproving father (Paul Calderon), and her rather meek brother (Ray Santiago). Needless to say, Diana is very angry with the life she has, and her only way of actually getting any bit of intensity out, is through boxing at her local gym. While her father would not allow for Diana to box, he still pays for her brother to box and train at the gym – funds that she uses in her favor, while he goes off and does his own thing. Eventually, Diana starts to get better and channel her anger in a way that’s a lot less hectic, but more controlled. This leads Diana to start boxing in actual, small-time matches, but because she’s a girl in a very male-populated sport, she’s never taken nearly as seriously as she should be. Looking through this all is fellow boxer Adrian (Santiago Douglas), who takes a liking to Diana right away. However, their love for the sport of boxing eventually comes between them and their left with thinking of whether or not they should go on further together, or separate and allow for their own boxing-careers to play out.

Watch what you say about the third season of Lost!

Watch what you say about the third season of Lost!

Everything about Girlfight just screams “cliché”. Angry, young adolescent finds a way to channel her anger through boxing; father disapproves; nobody else takes her seriously; eventually, she starts to train more and get better; and, oh yeah, she then finds herself a love-interest. If anything, people will probably see Girlfight as the female-version of Rocky, however, they would be totally wrong; though the movies aren’t wholly different, they still differ in terms of their perspective, as well as their heartfelt take on a subject we’ve seen one too many times before.

And they’re also both pretty great movies in their own right, without ever being too showy or flashy about it.

Where Girlfight gains most of my respect is through the way in how writer/director Karyn Kusama uses a lot of her very limited resources to her advantage. From what I’ve read, the budget was around $1 million and because of that, it leaves Kusama dealing with a lot of low-budget issues. Certain shots seem too grainy, or poorly-choreographed, and yeah, certain scenes go on a lot longer than they probably should because it’s too expensive to take a scene elsewhere, but for some reason, it all works. You can feel the bleeding heart and love Kusama has for this story, these characters, and, surprisingly, this sport, that all of the raw emotions you get, feel and see, all come together so perfectly.

It’s also worth mentioning that even if the story does seem to be a bit conventional, Kusama defies all of the predictable aspects that we’ve come to expect with stories of this same nature. Not every fight is an absolute, balls-out, gory slobber-knocker like we’re used to seeing movies portray them, just like Diana herself isn’t an unstoppable, can’t-be-tame beast; sometimes, she loses, and other times, she loses her cool. But she will, on some occasions, win a fight, if not in the most spectacular way imaginable. While, for some, this may not be the most exciting bit of action, it still provides a nice layer of realism that makes us feel closer and closer to this world than ever before; Kusama could have easily lost her head and just made the movie all about the ass-kicking, the bloody faces, and the crushed-souls, but instead, she uses boxing as a way for Diana to channel her emotions and make herself something of a better person.

It also helps that Diana is a great character from the very start and Michelle Rodriguez, in her debut role, is spectacular.

What works so well about Diana is that she isn’t asking for our love, our sympathy, or our hearts. If anything, she just wants us to shut the hell up, let her do her thing, and lead us to make up our own conclusions about her. While the movie may make it seem like she’s going to be a typical, moody and angsty teenager (with a dead mother and daddy issues, no less), the movie instead shows that she’s got a lot more to her. Sure, she uses boxing as a way for her to vent out all of her frustration with the world she lives in and the life she’s been given, but at the same time, she also wants something a tad bit more out of life than just kicking ass, taking names, and getting fit. If anything, she wants a better life, to feel loved, to feel needed, and above all else, to be respected.

Boys?!?! Ew!

Boys?!?! Ew!

After all, the boxing-world in which she moves around in isn’t so accepting of her in the first place. While they don’t necessarily push her to the side and show her the way to the kitchen, nobody also takes her all that seriously. Kusama isn’t trying to make some sort of feminist-heavy statement, but at the same time, she’s also showing just how much this adversity can lead to someone wanting to prove themselves a whole lot more. Yes, this all sounds so very corny, especially for a sports movie, but I trust you, it’s very far from.

And yeah, it goes without saying that Michelle Rodriguez is amazing here. While in recent years, Rodriguez has become something of a “type” (the bad-ass, take-no-names female supporting character), it’s nice to see where she got her start and why she’s become known for that kind of role. As Diana, Rodriguez shows a very rough and tough side to a character who you’re clearly scared of, but also want to know more about. Through Rodriguez, we get to see more of a vulnerable and sweet side to this character than we ever expected; some of the best scenes are between just her and the love-interest, where instead of trying to be all cutesy, they’re just two kids, feeling one another out and figuring out whether or not they want to make a go of this thing that they’ve got going together. Rodriguez allows us to see all sides to this character and it’s a shame that she doesn’t really get nearly as many juicy roles in today’s day and age.

But I’ll forever and ever continue to hold out hope that she one day reaches the same great acting-heights that she did with Diana Guzman.

Aka, my kind of lady.

Consensus: On paper, Girlfight may seem like every other sports movie ever made, but with attentive and smart attention to details, characters, a sheer avoidance of clichés and conventions, and a star-making performance from Michelle Rodriguez, it’s anything but, and then some.

9 / 10

Corn-rows are enough to make any opposing male-figure squeal.

Cornrows are enough to make any opposing male-figure squeal.

Photos Courtesy of: IMDB, Indiewire, Cineplex