The Woman, Lucky McKee (2011)

For those of you waiting for my 2011 Top Ten list, it’s going to be another week or so until I start rolling out the reviews.  I want it to be a final list, and there are a few films in theatres and on DVD (16, to be exact) I’m catching up on before I finalize my list.  I’m going to attempt to publish reviews for all of the films I’m now watching that don’t make the list.  The goal of this blog has always been to review whatever I see in the theatre, but I’ve decided to also include specific films on DVD/Blu-Ray as well.  All of this brings me to my first review of a film not still in theatres, The Woman.

I have to admit this if my first Lucy McKee film, though I do intend to go back and see all of his stuff, starting with his cult favorite, May.  I jumped ahead to this one in my Top Ten rush, since I’d been meaning to see it a few months ago but it escaped theatres before I could fit it into my busy schedule.  It’s co-written by Jack Ketchum, in what I believe to be his first original screenplay.  Other films he’s been involved with have been adaptations of his books, as to-date he’s been a novelist.  I’ve read a couple of Ketchum books, and I should preface this review with a note about how I feel about his work.  Ketchum is a very good writer.  There are many horror writers out there who are sub-par and sell books simply because the content of their writing appeals to a certain kind of genre fan.  Ketchum deserves full credit for the quality of his craft, and were he to step out of the genre and write something more mainstream-accessible his readership would be drastically different and he could have a very different career.  If he were to write a bit more poetically, he wouldn’t be far off from Cormac McCarthy.  But… I can’t really enjoy his books.  For me there is a fundamental problem with them being too dark and having nothing very redeeming about them.  And I am someone who loves dark books and films, media that can capture how we feel at our worst, and help shine a light to give us some hope and lead us back to humanity.  But Ketchum’s books present humanity at their worst, with little to no reedeming value, and with nothing redemptive.  You will witness horrible atrocities being commited, with the sole point seeming to be a statement of “this is how bad we really are.”  And I understand where Ketchum is coming from.  When you look at the world today, there is much to support that point-of-view.  And there is so little being done by so many, a seeming majority who wallow in this muck around us and seem to prefer it, whose morality and politics are aimed to keep us as a society in the muck.  But I know this.  I see it around me.  And to spend my free time ingesting something that continues to beat me over the head with what I already know is an omni-present problem without offering any kind of a solution or at least a shred of hope– it’s just not something I feel I have the time for in my limited days left on planet earth, or anything that is at all helpful or meaningful to my existence.

And that, ultimately, is the same problem I have with Lucky McKee’s The Woman.  I usually stay away from hashing through plot because I feel that it’s inconsequential.  If you’re reading a review, you already have some idea of what something is about, and you’re looking for more information.  And for something like Haywire, all you really need to know is that it’s a female spy thriller.  What’s more important to me in a review is discussing the film’s quality and its elements.  Then you can decide if you think that particular female spy thriller is worth your time, if you even like female spy thrillers to begin with.  But I’m going to assume not everyone knows what The Woman is.  In fact, even those who have heard of The Woman may not realize that it’s a de-facto sequel featuring a character from another Ketchum book that was adapated into the film Offspring, about a tribe of feral cannibals.  What’s interesting is that Lucky McKee and Ketchum decided to collaborate and make a sequel to that film directly, without Ketchum first penning a sequel novel.  So the original book spawned a film adaptation that spawned a sequel, with a different director but the same lead actress and the writer of both the original novel and subsequent adapted screenplay writing a new, original screenplay.  From a purely creative standpoint, that kind of synergy intrigues me.

The plot of The Woman finds Pollyana McIntosh, reprising her role as this feral cannibal, captured by local attorney Chris Cleek while hunting in the acreage around his property.  Cleek decides that his family should all pitch in and help to civilize this woman, who he keeps chained up in an outdoor storm basement.  And so the hypocrisy begins.  The performances by the adults are all quite good.  McIntosh is a force of nature as the woman, Angela Bettis is excellent as Cleek’s long-suffering and subservient wife, and Sean Bridgers (probably best know for playing Al Swearengen’s right-hand man Johnny Burns on Deadwood) finds a lot of shades to Cleek.  Cleek is the sort of well-educated small-town conservative who’s a big fish in a small pond and, as a result, has a secret God complex.  He doesn’t see anything wrong with smacking his wife around, and is very comfortable being the voice of authority, accustomed to everyone following his stated orders.  It’s probably part of the reason he chooses to remain in a small town where his success can only take him so far; he knows he won’t encounter much opposition, and he can easily rule the roost.  And when he’s not practicing law in a suit and tie, he’s home at backyard barbeques or riding his ATV around and hunting.  He’s a good ol’ boy and small-town conservative at heart.  And Bridgers plays him as genial and affable, with a certain amount of charm and charisma.  It’s a character choice that serves well to counterbalance what lies at Cleek’s heart, and that we come to see over the course of The Woman.  And ironically, his attitude towards the feral woman remains affable throughout, obviously it’s his defensive personality of choice: act sociable and gregarious and life will go your way.  But his darker persona and control issues are directed more and more at those closest to him as he loses control and the upper hand with what he sees as his latest project.

While Bridgers was good, I think he missed what would have made the role much richer and given the film a lot more meaning.  Instead of covering his darker nature with a visible affability and gregariousness, which I believe we’re intended to be able to see through, it would have been a much stronger choice for Bridgers to play a kind of moral rightness.  For him to be certain, unequivocally, of his actions and behavior.  Because of the transparency of his “social personality,” we know it’s simply a cover for an evil man.  But if the man were to be convinced in his heart that his flawed, human nature served a higher purpose and was in some way then divine, I think the film would open up with a lot more subtext.  Part of the reason The Woman starts to fall apart is simply the fact that Cleek decides to chain this woman in their basement and socialize her.  You can’t but help watch the film and wonder why no one’s calling the police.  As disturbed as some of the family members are, and as brow-beaten as the wife is, McKee still initially portrays them as socially-functioning suburbanites.  Were he to have shown a relatively normal family devolving around this circumstance, and to make that circumstance of deciding to keep the woman and socialize her themselves more realistic and believable, The Woman would have been a powerful and compelling film.


Again, I’m not usually a fan of revealing information about a film, but I can’t really explain what I didn’t like about this film without going there, so be forewarned.  The first part of my problem with The Woman, as mentioned above, is Bridgers’ performance and the way the setup with chaining the woman in the basment borders on the absurd.  But there are also problems with McIntosh’s character.  She’s pure force of nature.  Her victimization doesn’t even seem to bother her; it’s just another circumstance of the survival that is her life.  A little more humanity would have gone a long way to humanizing her.  But that was obviously not the intent.

When Cleek is chaining her up, and she bites off his finger, bloodily chews and swallows it whole while grinning at him, then spits his wedding ring onto the floor, The Woman is absolutely audacious.  And the way Cleek reacts, to not really be bothered by the loss of his finger but to simply take it as a minor setback in the pursuance of his latest goal, it’s character-defining, crazy, and quite brilliant in how it sets itself apart from other films.  And at the end of the film, watching the woman rip Cleek’s heart from his chest and take a bite out of it while he’s still alive and watching, well, I can’t think of a crazier way to die, and McKee certainly gets points for the holy-shit-wtf factor.  But again, all of this makes the character of the woman less a human being for us to sympathize with than an allegorical force of nature raining hellfire and brimstone down on Cleek’s rotting existence.

Yet, Cleek himself is no everyman.  Through the course of the film we learn that his daughter is pregnant, and though it’s never revealed who the father is, the probability is on the high side that it’s Cleek himself.  After all, he rapes the woman in the basement, so who’s to say he hasn’t done something similar to his daughter?  And finally, there is the carnivorous gimp bastard that the Cleeks keep chained in with the dobermans in the garage.  That just shoots the film into a whole other stratosphere.  We have to assume that this is some malformed child Cleek had with his wife.  And Cleek’s son seems not to be phased by it, which means that the entire family has been a party to this over a period of years, as well as whatever Cleek has been doing out in the garage with the dogs, which his wife mentions would get him arrested.  That likely has to do with breeding and training dogs for fighting, and we witness Cleek throwing his daughter’s school teacher in with the dogs to be ripped apart and eaten.  So let’s assume that he’s actually been training them to eat humans as well, and that the teacher isn’t an isolated incident.

The end of the film is more confusing than anything else.  The youngest Cleek daughter suckles the gore on the woman’s finger, not yet having developed society’s moral code and therefore not being scared of her, and appears to be accepted by the woman in turn; then she, the woman, and the gimp seemingly head off for a feral life in the forest together.  Peggy, the terrified older and pregnant daughter, is left behind as the family’s sole “surviving” member.  Peggy is perhaps the only character in the film who we can sympathize with.  Are we supposed to be glad she survived the destruction of her insane family?  Are Ketchum and McKee trying to make a statement that both the abused (the gimp) and the uncorrupted (the youngest daughter) are both better off in the amoral feral wild than in contemporary society, which is even more corrupt and markedly evil?  It’s not really clear, but such simplistic conclusions seem unlikely.  And if McKee was setting out to tell a story about a girl with a truly fucked-up family, whose destruction is brought about when the father finds a feral woman, and the family is supposed to represent society and the feral woman is supposed to represent nature, and the point of the film was to portray the confusion we feel at not being able to make a good choice between two bad choices, then he would have been much better off telling it from Peggy’s perspective and making it more deeply personal from that point-of-view.  What we’re left with is a thematic film-in-a-blender that doesn’t appear to know what it’s trying to say, except for the fact that humanity is pretty unredeemable, and that life is brutal.


So McKee does an about-face during the telling of The Woman.  What appears as though it may be a deconstruction of a typical dysfunctional family is thrown a wrench when the woman herself is never humanized.  That also prevents the movie from being a pure revenge fantasy.  But as the true nature of the family itself is revealed, which puts them more in line with the family from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre while wearing more socially acceptable pseudo-suburbanite sheep’s clothing, there’s really no one left to care about and no one to root for.  Again, this tale seems to exist solely to prove how reprehensible humanity is.  I can give McKee points for some of the sheer audaciousness and for not being afraid to go to some of the places he takes the film, but that’s really most of what the film has to recommend it.  A couple of the acting performances are bad and detract from the overall quality; the girl who plays Peggy is not very good, and the young woman playing her teacher is downright terrible.  Still, a couple of bad performances don’t matter either way when the larger problems are thematic schizophrenia and general purposelessness.


Published in: on January 29, 2012 at 10:08 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Haywire, Steven Soderbergh (2012)

I had my doubts going into Haywire, considering it’s been in production limbo as long as it has been.  There were rumors of multiple reshoots and a lengthy editing process to mask Gina Carano’s terrible acting.  Well, either Soderbergh achieved his goal, or the reshoots and editing were simply the result of a sporadic shooting schedule designed to accommodate his actors– Soderbergh has long used a process where he’ll shoot all of a supporting actor’s scenes in an ensemble film at one time, effectively shooting in chunks designed to grab his individual cast members when their schedules have openings between other projects.  A given actor might work for a week, and the larger film is shot almost as a series of short films with each of the supporting actors as the lead, with the true lead actors involved for the entire length of the shoot.

It’s true that Carano may not be the most skilled, versatile, or experienced actress, but for what she has to do here, she acquits herself quite well.  Soderbergh keeps her busy with physical business in the dramatic scenes, and it helps to give her such anchors.  It also certainly doesn’t hurt that she’s playing opposite some very good male actors, and she surely benefits from their experience.  And of course, during the action and fight scenes, Carano is completely in her element and shines quite brilliantly.  Soderbergh also had the foresight to write to her comfort level and tailor the script to her strengths– when she has to dress up for a formal event, there’s discussion about how Mallory isn’t completely comfortable in that kind of social setting.  Soderbergh effectively covers all bases so were Carano to seem slightly uncomfortable in some of these scenes, it would read as part of the character’s uncomfortability.  And it’s refreshing to see a female action lead who is definitely blue collar and comes from a military background.  Not every female spy should also be a leggy supermodel as at home at the cotillion as out in the field, or with the kind of ultra-thin limbs and frame that look as though she’d snap her own arms in half by landing a single punch.  No, Carano definitely has a believable athletic physique, and carries the kind of experience and weight in the role that seems much more realistic from what we’re used to getting on television and at the movies.

Lem Dobbs’ script is brisk and efficient, and between the way it skips along and also backtracks through some backstory, it’s well-paced and effective.  It may not be among Soderbergh’s best films, but it’s definitely worth a watch and much better than you’d expect from its January dumping-ground release date.  It’s worlds better than his last collaboration with a non-actress, The Girlfriend Experience, and for my money it’s a better film, and certainly more entertaining, than his lugubrious and unwieldy Che biopics; I’d also put it ahead of last year’s Contagion, which I ultimately found rather flat and uninvolving, and without a human protagonist to truly care about.  If Carano decides to stick with acting, she certainly appears to have the facility and potential to become a decent actress, particularly if she initially picks the right projects that play to her strengths and give her the room to grow.  This is a perfectly-placed first step, and she demonstrates enough charm and charisma to land her more roles.  The supporting cast all turn in solid work, but for me the standout was Bill Paxton as Mallory’s father.  Paxton is perfect as the kind of Clancy-esque novelist/writer who is likely a conservative Republican with a miltary background of his own and politics that helped lead his daughter to her given career choice.  Father and daughter are definitely two of a pair, even if he doesn’t always know the full extent of what she may have become or be capable of, and Carano and Paxton have an easy, shared chemistry with each other that hints at a lot of deep, complex history.  In fact, there’s enough there to support a relationship between the two across a series of films if Soderbergh were to decide to keep exploring Mallory’s world.

Haywire isn’t going to win any awards, but it’s an action/spy thriller with more intelligence and gritty realism than most of its peers.  Soderbergh makes the smart choice to use some choppy editing to capture street realism when it helps to build the world of the film, but also to pull the camera back and use longer takes when showing Carano in her more physical scenes.  Sometimes, as in the Batman and Bourne movies, the choppy editing can really punctuate the brutality of an action scene.  But too many directors have lazily adapted it to get away with less choreography, using a lot of quick cuts to cover a lack of technique or rehearsal time.  When you’ve got someone as skilled as Carano, the smart move is definitely to pull the cameras back, let the film roll, and showcase the strength of the work by actually letting the audience see the full range of the action.  It’s a breath of fresh air for Soderbergh to have made this choice in counterpoint to what has become a common and overused cinematic hook these days, and it sets the film apart enough that it becomes of the hallmarks of the overall look and texture of the piece.  Much of the other production elements, from the score to the cinematography to the overall production design, are also a bit of a throwback to the films of the 70’s, and help give Haywire a certain amount of naturalism without being artificially punched-up or over-the-top.


Back from the Dead!

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I’ve touched this blog, and that was after only a brief 4-month run of posting reviews where it quickly got away from me– the number of films I was seeing and wanting to post reviews about far exceeding what I could actually keep up with in terms of writing & publishing reviews.  But here I am, back from the dead, with a second attempt.

Seeing as how it’s a brand new year, I’m going to kick things off with a 2011 Top Ten list (although I’m going to publish each short review separately).  And then it will be on to the new slate of 2012 releases.

The first official 2012 film I’ll be reviewing will be Haywire.  I’ll likely also be doing a review for The Grey, which is really the only other January release I’m excited to check out.

Here’s what I’m excited to see coming in February (and for which you can probably expect reviews):

Feb 3rd
The Woman in Black
The Innkeepers

Feb 10th
Safe House
Perfect Sense

Feb 17th
Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
The Secret World of Arrietty
Thin Ice

Feb 24th

Now, I don’t think all of these will be spectacular films.  Ghost Rider, for instance, I’m interested in seeing simply because of the Neveldine/Taylor directing team and how they may take Nic Cage’s forever escalating train wreck of a career to new insane places much like last year’s Drive Angry.  And I still haven’t seen the first Nic Cage Ghost Rider film, but this one has me slightly intrigued simply because of the Crank directing team.  If I end up seeing something off the list, say This Means War, and have something to say about it beyond “Another lobotomized action movie in the vein of the lobotomized Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” perhaps there will be a few surprise reviews showing up.

Finally, as a tease for the 2011 Top Ten list, here are the honorable mentions:

Midnight in Paris, Woody Allen

A fun, whimsical tale, perhaps one of Woody’s best in recent years.  Though his previous You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger was underrated and under-seen and surprisingly solid.  Paris doesn’t really have the gravitas to make it into the top ten list, and it loses some of the wind from its sails by the end of the picture.  Much like Gil’s late-night wanderings, it’s a pleasant and entertaining diversion that finally doesn’t amount to much more than the joie de vivre of its own enjoyable musings.  But it is a lot of fun, and it’s supported by a very game cast making the most of their eclectic and inspired roles.  It’s also refreshing to see Wilson back at home in his comedic element after his personal travails of the last few years, yet in something that’s a bit more than simple, brainless mainstream pandering.  And he’s a surprisingly good fit as an Allen protagonist, capturing all of the requisite doubt, insecurity, and pathos, yet bringing a good-natured charm and zeal to the archetype that sets it apart and actually strengthens the film as a result.

Moneyball, Bennett Miller

There’s really no criticism you can make about Moneyball.  This was originally supposed to be directed by Steven Soderbergh, but he was let go after several years developing it when the studio didn’t like his plan to intersperse documentary footage throughout and to cast some of the real people as themselves in the adapted narrative.  It’s true that this choice probably would have made the film slightly less commercial, but it’s also sad that a director like Soderbergh who routinely delivers commercial success and works diligently with the studios to strike a balance between commercialism and artistry isn’t given any leeway these days.  It’s largely this development nightmare that’s responsible for him wanting to take a 5-year hiatus from film directing to submerge himself in painting, where he doesn’t have to constantly answer to a board of entertainment executives and bankers to justify every creative choice ad nauseum.  And so we’ve ended up with the “safer” Miller version of Moneyball.  Billy Beane is a role that Brad Pitt easily slides right into, but it’s not a part that demands anything of him besides him mumbling and spitting his tobacco juice into a styrofoam cup.  It’s even a little mind-boggling that he’s being mentioned in the Best Actor race; he’s asked to do so very little in this film that doing it well is certainly no career high.  But much like the story behind Moneyball, the film’s success isn’t a result of hitting it out of the park, it’s a measured victory of doing everything right and minimizing any potential errors.  The supporting cast, from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Robin Wright to Jonah Hill and Chris Pratt, are all aces.  And the fresh take on the sports film from a card-counting, number crunching perspective is certainly fresh enough to make Moneyball an engrossing watch, even if it doesn’t have a strong enough emotional center to take it from being involving to outright compelling.  Still, 2012 featured such a dearth of quality films, specifically wide releases, that Moneyball has little competition while making so few errors.  If most of your competition are stillborn remakes and sequels, movies about toy lines from the 80s, and stillborn sequels about toy lines from the 80s, then you don’t have to be great to be the best, you simply need to be solid and not drop the catch.  And in the end, Moneyball is an extremely well-crafted film for which Miller deserves much of the kudos, no doubt a welcome coup after having had a project or two of his own stuck in development hell over the last few years, making this his first release since the outstanding Capote.  And its success appears to have helped Miller finally get a greenlight for his next film, Foxcatcher, with Steve Carell playing the paranoid schizophrenic John du Pont who murdered Olympic wrestler David Schultz.

Published in: on January 23, 2012 at 8:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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