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Tribeca 2017 Reviews: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief

Tribeca 2017 Glimpse: What to See and Skip: Helen Highly Brief

by HelenHighly

I am working on some of my typically long, in-depth essays about several of the films that are being screened at Tribeca Film Festival 2017, but I thought I’d post a short and sweet overview / glimpse that might be of use to people in New York who may actually be choosing which films to see. At the least, here’s a brief taste of mini reviews of several of this year’s flicks:

Favorites So Far:

A film still from CITY OF GHOSTS. Courtesy of Amazon Studios.

City of Ghosts. “There is a death threat against me on a social media channel… that belongs to ISIS.” — spoken by the actual guy who is in this film even as he is still fearing for his life and mourning the murders of his forced-into-activism comrades. A feature documentary directed by Matthew Heineman. The fearless citizen-journalists of “Raqqua is Being Slaughtered Silently” (RBSS) risk their lives on a daily basis to document and expose the atrocities of the Islamic State in their home city of Raqqa, Syria.

I think this may be the best film of the festival. It features the actual young men in the middle of this story – no re-enactments. This is the real thing. It’s both a powerful story and a tremendously well-made film. It shows you first-hand how “whoever holds the camera is strongest,” and the real war against ISIS is being fought online. This is what a documentary should be – important and captivating and thought-provoking and shocking and inspiring. It will leave you breathless, and less horrified at how low humans can go than you are proud of how great humans can be in the face of adversity. There are many films coming out now from or about the Middle East, but City of Ghosts is a Must-See.

Abdi (Barkhad Abdi) and Jay (Evan Peters) waiting to interview a pirate in DABKA. Photographer: Jasyn Howes.

Dabka. A feature narrative, based on a true story, directed by Bryan Buckley. This tells the story of rookie journalist, Jay Bahadur (played beautifully by Evan Peters), who has an inspiring chance-encounter with his journalist idol (played by Al Pacino, in a smart performance that is a refreshing reminder of what an excellent actor he is). There are many reasons to admire this film, but one personal point of appreciation is the emphatic way that Al Pacino yells, “Fuck Harvard!” (just saying) Anyway: This young, crazy-ambitious wanna-be-journalist uproots his life and moves to Somalia looking for the story of a lifetime. Hooking up with a local fixer, he attempts to embed himself with the local Somali pirates, only to find himself quickly over his head. Yet his risk-taking adventure ultimately brought the world an unprecedented first-person account of the pirates of Somalia (that the major news outlets were literally afraid to cover) and influenced international politics with its genuine insight into real life in Somalia.

It’s the kind of film I love – about being a writer, and also about living a daring life. Plus, it reinforces the belief that I have long held – that people should not be judged by their governments, or by the radical extremists that terrorize them into submission (before going on to terrorize others).

Ittetsu Nemoto in Nagoya, Japan. Film still from THE DEPARTURE, directed by Lana Wilson, 2017. Photo credit: Emily Topper.

The Departure. A feature documentary directed by Lana Wilson. The film offers an intimate portrait of one quietly extraordinary man – a modern-day Buddhist priest renowned for counseling and saving the lives of suicidal people. But this priest, suffering from heart disease and supporting his wife and young son, risks his life carrying the heavy emotional load needed to support those who no longer want to live. Not the least bit maudlin or depressing, this film poetically explores what it means to be human and to be alive. One of my favorite lines from the film: When confronted with a woman who feels her life has no meaning, he says “Does a river have a meaning?”

These You Can Skip:

Dog Years, with Burt Reynolds, playing an aging movie star unable to accept his increasing irrelevance, who is forced to confront… blah blah blah. The only thing interesting about this movie is that Burt Reynolds is “playing” a role and pretending to be someone other than himself. Otherwise, painfully cliched and horrifically adorable. Dear Burt: Two words – Sunset Boulevard. Unless you can deliver a dead guy floating in a swimming pool (rather than a chubby, tattooed hipster chick who needs boyfriend advice more than Gloria Swanson needs her close-up) … give us a break.

Take Me and Hounds of Love. See my other article about two films-to-miss that feature blondes bound in basements.

Vic Edwards (Burt Reynolds) and Ariel Winter (Lil) share a moment at McDougal’s Pub in DOG YEARS. Photo by Bob Franklin.

Sweet Virgina, a Cohen-Brothers-wanna-be thriller, with just-plain-bad lighting and a lethargic pace, that has not-even-close-to-Tarantino blood-soaked violence that is too boring to even be gruesome. Christopher Abbott is no Javier Bardem. And… do I really need to say more about beautiful blondes (not yet bound in basement, but certainly at risk)? I will say that the one bit I enjoyed is the Lyle-Lovett-ish ugly/sexy rodeo-rider history of the male hero. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

Super Dark Times: No

More Quick Yeses:

Aardvark: Yes

The Dinner: Yes (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

When God Sleeps: Yes

AlphaGO: Yes

Chuck: Surprisingly, yes!

Buster’s Mal Heart: Oddly, yes.

A Gray State: A deeply, darkly, disturbing YES. (A longer review in part of my “Violent-Young-Men Movies” article.)

Take Me

“Take Me” and “Hounds of Love” Film Reviews: Blondes-Bound-in-Basement Movies

Take Me and Hounds of Love:
Blondes-Bound-in-Basement Movies

by Helen Kaplow, writing as HelenHighly
Take Me
Blonde Bound in Basement, in Take Me

There are two films I’ve seen so far at TribecaFilm Festival 2017 that have very significant similarities – they both center around a pretty blonde woman getting kidnapped, tied up, stuffed into someone’s basement, and abused. Both are also directorial debuts, btw. One is called Hounds of Love, an Australian drama written and directed by Ben Young. The other is called Take Me, an American film written by Mike Makowsky and directed by Pat Healy (who also plays the leading role). That movie lets the audience figure out if it is a crime thriller or a slapstick farce.

Sorry, but I walked out on Hounds of Love after the first scene (blonde bound in basement), thinking I could just as easily go home and watch an episode of Law & Order SVU (which I loathe). It started with some nubile young women playing tennis at an outdoor tennis court, with a couple parked in a car nearby lasciviously watching, while creepy music played.  Couple offers naive girl a ride home on such a hot day, which she hesitantly accepts, and cut to terrified and brutalized blonde bound in basement.  That’s where I cut out. Okay, so that’s a totally biased non-review based on only one scene. But… go watch it at your peril.  Variety insists that “brave audiences will be rewarded,” although I also see the word “harrowing” in the first paragraph, along with “serial killer.” Apologies again, but I cannot even bear to read the full review.

From Hounds of Love: She looked better in her tennis outfit.

But I will write a review of the other blonde-bound-in-basement film, Take Me. I will start by saying that I’ve always hated stories (usually comedies) that are based entirely on one simple misunderstanding or single sentence that goes unsaid. All the ensuing anguish and supposed hilarity is based on someone not saying or doing the obvious thing at the obvious time. Usually this takes the form of overstretched “irony” – when the audience knows something that the characters don’t. And then we must wait and watch as they stumble around and figure out what they really should have known from the start.

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Well, Take Me manages to do the same annoying thing, but with suspense instead of irony – leaving the audience waiting to find out something that, in the end, we realize was something that never would have happened, even in the “comical” world that the movie is presenting. Helen Highly objects to this type of cheap trick. If you’re going to withhold information in order to create suspense, then it should be something of substance, or at least something that makes sense.

And SPOLIER ALERT: There is no such thing as a spoiler alert when the story is already rotten. But still, I will not tell how the movie ends. I will only tell where it falls apart (which is pretty much at the start).

So, I’m going to say the magic words that would have made this story impossible, and as a result rendered this awkward and distasteful tale completely impotent. We know everything we need to know from the first scene, and if the writer/director would have used the least amount of common sense in allowing that scene (and its related ones) to play out as they reasonably would have, these two words would have spared us all from a frustrating and grossly unpleasant 84 minutes. Are you ready?

Here are the unspoken and unwritten words: Notarized Signature.

The first scene takes place in a bank, where Ray Moody (Pat Healy) is trying to get a business loan for his “wacky” (hideous) business of abduction-for-hire. Yes, he kidnaps people upon their request for therapy and/or amusement – whatever the customer wants. For example, we later see Ray brutally kidnap a fat guy, tie him up and berate him as Ray force feeds the willing abductee twelve giant sloppy cheeseburgers. This is a “therapy” scenario where, in theory, the horror and disgust of the experience will scare the fat guy thin and make him never want to eat a juicy cheeseburger again.

But back to the very first scene – the bank scene. The very reasonable and not-at-all slapstick loan officer conducts a logical interview with Ray Moody, including asking about a lawsuit against him in another state in which there was some terrible misunderstanding between Ray and one of his kidnapped clients. Ray assures her that his business practices are now entirely professional, fully legal,  and carefully regulated, and that would never happen again.

Cut to his new client who wants Ray to break protocol and kidnap and then physically hurt her – just for fun, we guess. She wants to be slapped. (Aaaah, I guess that then qualifies this movie as slapstick comedy?) Ray objects, because that could be misconstrued as illegal. He insists, with a false sense of integrity, that he does not do physical harm (only psychological torture). But she entices him by offering him lots of money, which we know he needs because he did not get the bank loan. Thus, Ray reluctantly agrees to kidnap and hold this woman for nine times longer than his normal limit (3 days vs 8 hrs) and to hurt her physically (very dangerous territory). One would assume — having just watched that bank scene — that Ray would prepare with not only due-diligence but extreme-diligence in vetting this client, protecting himself, and keeping everything lawsuit-free.

And yet…. the big point of suspense that drives this entire movie is whether or not this woman (Taylor Schilling) truly wanted to be kidnapped and slapped around or if she and Ray have been tricked, which would make her a true victim and him a true criminal. Is she brilliantly playing her designated part when she begs for mercy and insists that she never invited this incident? Or is she sincere when she pleads with Ray to investigate the supposed client, which she swears is not her? Ray calls her phone number, but it’s been disconnected. Uh-oh. Ray shows her the contract that she signed and faxed to him. She responds by writing out her true signature, which looks nothing like the signature on the contract. Oops! Has Ray been punked? Or is she a mastermind wanna-be victim?

Take Me: Is he an idiot or an idiot?
Take Me: Is he an idiot or an idiot?

Well… honestly, this film was so unfunny and uninteresting that I couldn’t care less. But still… how could I not think to myself that this whole quandary would never have existed if Ray had only asked for a notarized signature on his contract?  Then he’d know for sure who was hiring him. And, after all, his practices had been challenged before, and he had learned his lesson and assured the bank’s loan officer that now he took every precaution — every precaution except the most obvious and simple one, apparently. Sigh.emojiSigh

Ray is hapless but not stupid. (We know he is hapless because he wears a bad wig with no embarrassment. Just one example of how painfully not funny this movie is.) But he clearly is educated and comes from a good family with a lovely suburban house. He puts an awful lot of effort and apparent expertise into executing his kidnappings (and has even done psychological research), as well as advertising them on his own self-designed website, and in his attempted funding of his business, which included an oddly practical and professional presentation at the bank.

Why wouldn’t he put the bare minimum of effort into the “paperwork” of this especially risky and lucrative project? It’s the internet age. He doesn’t do a background check on his kidnapping client? But forget that; why wouldn’t he at least get an assurance of a legitimate siemojiArghgnature from his client on the contract that would be the one thing that defines him as a businessman and not a violent criminal? The supposed “comedy” of this movie is that he is actually a businessman who only seems like a criminal. And no, that’s not a spoiler; that’s the premise. So… he should do business like a businessman! Get a friggin authorized signature on your contract for your authorized kidnapping!

Here is my point: Ray would know to get a notarized signature. He definitely would know that. I can only assume that it’s the young and inexperienced writer of this movie, Mike Makowsky, who does not know about such things, and he lets his ignorance be the vehicle for driving this movie. Not good.

I could easily object to the offensive nature of the subject matter of this movie. But I’m not even gonna go there, because first it needs to be a movie, and it’s not. Helen Highly takes offense at the faulty execution of a self-proclaimed thriller that does not understand how suspense should operate.

But, if you doubt me… you go ahead and watch this movie to find out iemojiNof this blonde chick really wanted to be tortured or if someone else wanted to have her tortured. The press release asks the audience to wonder: Is this a crime thriller or a slapstick comedy? Helen Highly declares it is neither; it is just a waste of time (and a poor excuse for having a beautiful blonde bound in the basement).

Follow-Up Advice:

  • When making important contracts with strangers, always have the signature notarized.
  • Just on general principle, stay away from films that center around some pretty blonde woman being beat up.
  • And please please you film PR companies: Stop calling every would-be psycho-thriller “Hitchcockian.” Just casting a blonde lead does not make a director Hitchcock. And using cheesy, weak “suspense” also does not make a director Hitchcock. Have a little respect.