Monday, January 26, 2015

The Duke of Burgundy, Son of a Gun, Red Army, Mortdecai, The Boy Next Door

The Duke of Burgundy
Son of a Gun

Red Army (my rating)

Red Army (Scruffies' rating)

The Boy Next Door

OK, who's down for some sadomasochistic lesbian lepidoptery?

It's on the menu in Peter Strickland's stylishly surreal "The Duke of Burgundy," about Cynthia (Sidse Babett Knudsen), an entomologist who lectures on butterfly species identification to all-female audiences (that include a few mannequins); and her younger lover, Evelyn (Chiara D'Anna), whom Cynthia puts to work polishing her boots and hand-washing her delicates, and locks up in a box overnight. What's great about "The Duke of Burgundy" is both its fearless envelope-pushing (an S&M saleswoman proposes to construct a "human toilet" for Evelyn's birthday) and its understanding of the dom/sub dynamic, how often it is the nominally submissive partner who conceives and directs the sexual scenarios. A few too many montages of butterfly diagrams and dioramas pad the runtime, but there's enough special stuff here to merit a recommendation.

You'll have to look hard to find "Son of a Gun" - or settle for catching it on the tube - but it's worth it, a gripping Aussie crime thriller with Ewan McGregor as Brendan, a cell-block big shot with twenty years left to serve, and the seriously sexy Brenton Thwaites as JR, a young short-timer whom Brendan takes under his wing. When JR gets out, he goes to work for Brendan, eventually hijacking a helicopter to spring him and three cronies. On the outside, Brendan and a gangster named Sam (Jacek Koman) plot a major heist at a gold processing plant that could make them all rich, while JR and Tasha (Alicia Vikander), one of Sam's trophy girls, imagine a new kind of life that may not be possible. Writer-director Julius Avery makes strong use of his settings and shows us some things we haven't seen before (besides the hijacking/escape sequence, he sets a truck on fire and sends it over a cliff from an incredible height).

Another recommendation for the Soviet Union hockey documentary "Red Army," by Gabe Polsky, who a couple years ago directed (with brother Alan) the terrific Emile Hirsch-Stephen Dorff flick "The Motel Life." Polsky tells the story of the juggernaut Red Army team through its captain and star defenseman, Vyacheslav ("Slava") Fetisov, who went on to lead the Detroit Red Wings to a mini-dynasty in the late 90's. While most Americans thought of the Russians in clich├ęd terms - as machines, not people - the movie gives them a face and voice, tinged with pride, disappointment (Fetisov goes mute watching videotape of the "Miracle on Ice" game), wry humor and regret. The movie discredits famed coach Viktor Tikhonov as a mere apparatchik, attributing the team's balletic choreography to his predecessor, Anatoli Tarasov. (The Scruffies loved "Red Army," which rekindled their pride and made them homesick for Mother Russia.)

The mortifying "Mortdecai" may sound the final death knell for Johnny Depp's career as a movie star. When's the last time he opened a not-"Pirates" picture? Here, as a third-tier art world crook named Charlie Mortdecai, he sports a vomit-inducing moustache and talks like Peter Sellers going through puberty. The plot involves Russian mobsters (gee, that's fresh), an Mi5 agent in love with Charlie's wife (Gwyneth Paltrow), a "lost Goya," and a self-proclaimed terrorist who looks like the only person he'd take out with an explosive is himself. Each of half a dozen running themes (including the unlikely Paul Bettany as Charlie's studhorse manservant) produced only stony silence from my audience. As with Depp's historic bomb "The Lone Ranger," I watched this movie with my mouth agape with incredulity. It is aggressively, excruciatingly unfunny.

I enjoyed the first half of the TV movie-ish "The Boy Next Door," with JLo as Claire Peterson, a high school classics teacher (now why are you laughing?) recently divorced from philandering hubby Garrett (John Corbett) and raising hyper-allergic son Kevin (Ian Nelson) on her own. Hunky Noah Sandborn (Ryan Guzman) moves in next door to care for his ailing grandfather, and before you know it Garrett and Kevin have left for a fishing weekend and Claire's eyeing the stripped-to-shower Noah from across the way. The directing, the innuendo-filled writing, the performances, the presence of Kristin Chenoweth as Claire's vice-principal - it all screams campy fun. And that first scene of voyeurism and the long night of lovemaking that follows are sexually stimulating. But the second half takes a hairpin turn into horror and extreme violence, with Noah's motivations completely unconvincing. It becomes much less fun than it should have been.

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