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Review: Piercing Is a Leap Forward for Director Nicolas Pesce

If Piercing is mildly disappointing, it’s because it doesn’t go far enough.

2.5

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Universal Pictures Content Group
Photo: Universal Pictures Content Group

Like Takashi Miike’s Audition, Nicolas Pesce’s Piercing is based on a novel by Ryû Murakami and follows a man who lures a woman into his orbit under false pretenses, only to find that he’s more than met his match. Stylistically, however, the films are quite different. Audition is a slow burn in the key of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, as both gradually morph from domestic dramas into ferociously subjective horror films. On the other hand, Piercing is a blow-out from the start, particularly emulating Italian gialli.

Some of Pesce’s homages are subtle, such as the emphases on brightly colored rotary phones that will be familiar to fans of Dario Argento’s cinema, while other references are bolder, like the use of miniatures to create a deliberately fantastical cityscape, and the sampling, on the soundtrack, of the scores of Deep Red and Tenebre. Which is to say that Piercing is as deliberate and self-conscious as Pesce’s prior The Eyes of My Mother, but the former’s aesthetic is warmer and more playful, allowing the characters to come to life.

Piercing opens with a startlingly off-putting image, as Reed (Christopher Abbott) holds an icepick up close to his baby son’s face. Reed is wrestling with a blossoming madness, and is planning on going into the city so he can murder a prostitute. In the film’s most unsettling scenes, Pesce lingers on Reed as the man chloroforms himself and pantomimes various methods of stabbing and beheading victims, which are accompanied by lurid gurgling sounds on the soundtrack that suggest the materiality of Reed’s fantasies, spurring his need to realize them. These sequences, however, are also darkly comic, as Pesce and Abbott understand the ludicrousness of Reed’s play-acting, which also embodies a pitiful man’s need to assert a power that evaporates in the presence of other people.

Reed settles on Jackie (Mia Wasikowska) as his first murder victim, but she’s as unhinged as he is, as well as more formidable. Piercing is essentially a chamber drama between these characters, set in a hotel room and later in Jackie’s apartment. And both of these habitats are also highly stylized, suggesting the dark and womb-like domiciles of many David Lynch productions. As in Audition, violence here is a metaphor for finding someone who can understand and share your special kind of eccentricity, and Abbott and Wasikowska give that potentially stale concept a sense of sexual combustion. Pesce allows the actors to establish a vivid physical rapport, lingering on touches that could signify violence, love, or both. With her insinuating voice, short blond hair, and leather undergarments, Jackie is simultaneously a den mother and a dominatrix, which is precisely what the neurotic Reed wants.

This film is a significant leap forward for Pesce after The Eyes of My Mother, which was calcified by its fealty to other horror films, with actors who appeared to be trapped in amber. If Piercing is mildly disappointing, it’s because it doesn’t go far enough. The film ends with two masochists on the verge of plunging into the deep recesses of their obsessions, perhaps upsetting the apple cart of Pesce’s beautiful and still somewhat precious slasher-movie compositions. Piercing confidently prepares us for a frenzy that never quite materializes.

Cast: Christopher Abbott, Mia Wasikowska, Laia Costa, Maria Dizzia, Marin Ireland, Wendell Pierce Director: Nicolas Pesce Screenwriter: Nicolas Pesce Distributor: Universal Pictures Content Group Running Time: 82 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Interview: Mary Kay Place on the Emotional Journey of Kent Jones’s Diane

The actress speaks at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character.

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Mary Kay Place
Photo: IFC Films

Diane, the eponymous character of film critic, programmer, and documentarian
Kent Jones’s narrative directorial debut, provides Mary Kay Place with a rare leading role that the character actress inhabits with customary nuance. Diane is a woman grappling with countless burdens, none bigger than her struggle to bridge the gap between herself and her son, Brian (Jake Lacy), who’s battling addiction. Place is in every scene of the film, and she’s mesmerizing in each one, for showing how Diane’s routines, from volunteering at a soup kitchen to caring for a dying cousin, takes some kind of toll on her mind.

Place has delivered many memorable performances throughout her long career, most notably in The Big Chill and Manny & Lo. She became reliable for playing folksy, no-nonsense women—often mothers—who’re predisposed to putting others first and leading from the heart. Maybe that’s why Diane felt like a perfect fit for the actress. Throughout Jones’s film, Diane drops by houses and hospital rooms, looking to stay “only but for a minute.” But her business masks a deeper pain and loneliness, and the film allows Kay to bring to the surface certain rhythms that she hasn’t often been allowed to channel in her previous work.

In a recent conversation with Place about Diane, the actress spoke to me at length about the little pieces of herself that she sees in her character, how she expresses her own anger, and why she considers herself a “kitchen dancer.”

Diane is selfless, lonely, ashamed, tough. Do you see yourself in her?

Yes, because she lives in a small community, and my parents came from small towns in Texas, and because I went to these towns my whole life to visit my grandparents with my family. The casserole exchange, and the experiences that take place in small communities—they resonated with me. Many of us in our families have addiction issues; we can all relate to that aspect of Diane. And many of us have said things we regret or feel ashamed about and hold on to, though maybe not for as long as Diane does. As members of her family pass away, that family loss is an initiation into a new dimension of your life. I could relate to that as well. She takes a turn into a deeper exploration of her own needs and wants because she has time to reflect.

Diane’s well-meaning is an attempt to compensate for her failures. Why do you think Diane is the way she is, so hard on herself?

Because some people just are. She’s a sensitive person. She busies herself with lists to distract her from thinking about the things she carries around as a burden. But as the film moves on, she has more time for reflection and goes through a transformation in small, tiny ways.

Much of your performance as Diane is internal. Can you describe your process in playing those moments?

It flowed naturally because of the script. There was an inner dialogue going on and that was reflected on my face. I was aware of subtext. Even though it wasn’t written, my imagination found the rhythm and flow that occurred. Once you get into shooting, being in every scene helped that development. There was an inner and outer dialogue. We go through this whole time period and as she has more time alone and once her son gets sober—that’s a huge weight off her shoulders—she doesn’t know what to do with herself.

Diane’s relationship with her son is interesting. He lies to her, he bullies her, and at times she stands up to him. She’s no-nonsense in dealing with him. I’m curious to know your personal thoughts about this dynamic of their relationship?

She’s definitely codependent and enabling her son by doing his laundry. She doesn’t know how to let go. Maybe she’s never been to an Al-Anon meeting—or has and rejected it. So, they have this dynamic, and they feed off each other. They’re hooked in. She’s not able to break free of it.

How do you personally cope with the ups and downs of life?

Well, I do centering prayer, and mindful meditation, exercise. I think the prayer and meditation have always been important coping mechanisms.

There’s a scene in a bar where Diane goes drinking, puts on the jukebox and dances. It made me remember your dancing in the kitchen to “Handyman” in Smooth Talk.

I’m a big kitchen dancer—with other people or by myself. I have all kinds of playlists and I love to dance. I really wanted to do that bar scene. I picked the song—Leon Russell’s “Out in the Woods”—because it’s fun to dance to, and the lyrics were appropriate for Diane. Kent was game for that. It showed another side of Diane that we hadn’t seen. It was from when she was at a simpler time in her life and didn’t have shameful thoughts and was just out having fun.

We see what makes Diane come undone. So I guess I’m also curious to know what makes you lose your temper or patience?

I come from a family that doesn’t hold things in. We let the freak flag fly and then it’s totally over and done with. Explosions and then we’re through! I lose patience with people being oblivious to the feeling of others, and I have no tolerance for meanness. None. I might lash out, depend on the circumstances—and I can if called upon—but I generally don’t.

Diane appears to be a creature of habit, living a life that consists of routine. Are you in that mold, or more peripatetic or free-spirited?

I’m “both/and” instead of “either/or.” I get real orderly and then I get real spontaneous and have to start all over again. Diane’s driving connects the scenes and shows that monotony that she experiences. Oh my God, we’re back in that car again driving to someone’s house! It’s not a walking community. And it’s a different rhythm driving on country roads than in L.A.

We also see how patient Diane can be. Where do you think she gets that quality, and do you share it?

Sometimes she’s not patient. I strive to be more patient. I can be patient and sometimes I can be very impatient. Once again, it’s a “both/and” kind of thing.

Your career has been as an in-demand character actress. This is a rare leading role for you. Watching Diane, I kept thinking: “It’s long overdue that you were the star!”

Thank you for saying it’s long overdue. I enjoy every minute of it, but I love ensemble work. It’s interesting to find a rhythm and exchange words and movement with other people. It’s fun. It’s been interesting to have this leading part, but I love the other work as well.

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Review: A Vigilante Is a Revenge Film with Delusions of Grandeur

It conspicuously tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess.

1.5

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A Vigilante
Photo: Saban Films

Sarah Daggar-Nickson’s A Vigilante tries to distance itself from the revenge film’s propensity toward florid excess, operating less as an action thriller than as a kitchen-sink character study. Sadie (Olivia Wilde) is a young woman who’s clearly been wronged, judging by the scars on her back and crying fits that suggest someone in the throes of PTSD. In what almost appears to be a form of therapy, Sadie helps women and children escape domestic abuse, running husbands and negligent mothers off with physical action, sometimes after forcing the predators to sign much of their net worth over to the aggrieved parties. In other words, Sadie is an Equalizer. However, Daggar-Nickson’s violent scenes are pointedly leached of the nightmarish snap of the set pieces of Antoine Fuqua’s Equalizer films.

The Equalizer and its sequel are less concerned with notions of justice than with providing the narcotic thrill of violence as wrought by an intensely charismatic actor. By contrast, A Vigilante foregrounds the pain of victims who’re usually reduced by revenge movies to inciting incidents. This film’s violence occurs in sharp, unpleasant bursts, and offers neither Sadie nor the audience relief. Daggar-Nickson lingers instead on the faces of battered women, particularly those in the support group that Sadie attends. The women are poignant, often whispering as if they’re still locked in the terrifying vice of their tormentors.

In case viewers miss the intensity of A Vigilante’s virtuousness, Daggar-Nickson also favors close-ups with hard lightning and landscapes that are rife with snow, sterile highways, and dead trees. Any sign of pleasure or life would compromise the filmmaker’s earnest devotion to hopelessness and trauma. Sadie isn’t even allowed to fleetingly enjoy the first sip of a bourbon that she orders in a bar that is, of course, sleazy and uninviting.

A Vigilante’s women and children may not be utilized as pawns for an action scenario, but it’s reductive how the film’s victims here are defined only by how they’ve been violated. Sadie is no exception to this rule, and we’re meant to unquestioningly champion her exploits in a manner that’s ultimately familiar of the manipulations of less self-conscious genre cinema, which usually offers at least the nominal value of disreputable excitement. A Vigilante sucks all the thrills out of a thriller, and offers nothing else to fill the void.

The irony of the film is that Wilde may have had a better role if she’d been allowed to indulge her inner bloodlust, as Denzel Washington did in the Equalizer films. In the end, Daggar-Nickson’s sermonizing becomes a kind of straitjacket. Wilde is a terrific actor, and it’s perverse to watch her whittle down her expressiveness so that Daggar-Nickson may make a theoretically “realist” genre flick. Wilde has one startling moment in A Vigilante, in which Sadie, after putting on makeup as she prepares for one of her equalizing campaigns, smiles with a manic quality that suggests both glee and madness. This brief scene evinces an originality, and a curiosity about Sadie’s inner life, that’s otherwise missing from the film.

Cast: Olivia Wilde, Morgan Spector, Tonye Patano, Betsy Aidem, C.J. Wilson, Judy Marte, Kyle Catlett, Olivia Gilliatt, Cheryse Dyllan Director: Sarah Daggar-Nickson Screenwriter: Sarah Daggar-Nickson Distributor: Saban Films Running Time: 91 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Brink Sees Steve Bannon As a Nitwit’s Idea of an Intellectual

Alison Klayman’s fly-on-the-wall documentary cuts Trump’s Rasputin down to size but doesn’t completely dismiss his power.

3

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The Brink
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

To paraphrase Fran Lebowitz on Donald Trump, conservative firebrand Steve Bannon is a nitwit’s idea of an intellectual. A semi-book-smart gadfly with a decent sense of humor, the vainglorious Bannon thinks in century-spanning terms that always involve him and his cohorts standing heroically at the barricades defending Western civilization. This portrait of Bannon comes through with sharp clarity in Alison Klayman’s immersive documentary on the Republican party’s new Lee Atwater—or maybe their Sun-Tzu, as Bannon would likely prefer. In some ways, The Brink serves as a visual addendum to Devil’s Bargain, Joshua Green’s electric and somewhat terrifying 2017 book describing Bannon’s “storming of the presidency” and his battle plan for the nation-changing “populist” revolt whose opening salvo was the election of Trump to the presidency of the United States.

Starting in the fall of 2017, Klayman tagged along after Bannon while he launched into his post-Trump career. Red-eyed, snaggle-haired, and powered by Red Bull and a river of Citizens United-cloaked funding from the people he proudly terms “deplorables,” Bannon doesn’t seem to be letting anything get to him. This, even though that August he had been pushed out as Trump’s chief strategist—possibly in part because Devil’s Bargain’s take on him as the brains behind the operation upset the president. The Bannon we see on film isn’t holding grudges. He’s charging forward, pushing the same nativist message that he funneled through Trump, carrying water for every paleo-conservative candidate he can find at the Conservative Political Action Conference, and even still hanging out and happily joshing with Green.

For much of the documentary’s fast-paced and verbally clangorous running time, Klayman shows Bannon in his preferred state of happy malcontent as he tries to extend his brand outside of the United States. Styling himself as the strategist for the “global revolt,” Bannon flits around Europe through late 2017 into 2018, helping to stoke the fires lit by proto-fascists like Hungary’s Viktor Orban, France’s Marine Le Pen, and the U.K.’s Nigel Farage. The meetings Klayman records with Bannon and his white European anti-immigrant confederates, all of them high on Trump and Brexit as they hash out a way to unite their message as “The Movement,” could serve as a helpful rogues’ gallery for historians looking back at this hinge moment decades from now. Back in America, Bannon puts together a stable of candidates he thinks best equipped to carry forward the Trumpian message of Muslim bans, tariffs, and America First-ness. His first choice? Judge Roy Moore.

The results are mostly a disaster, with Bannon’s American candidates being resoundingly defeated and the Euro populists hitting what looks in the movie to be a peak. Throughout it all, Bannon keeps his stubbled chin high, even after being defenestrated from Breitbart and losing his Mercer family funding in early 2018 after Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury showed him exhibiting insufficient fealty to the glory of Trump. (Though Bannon clearly thinks of Trump as, at best, a useful idiot, Klayman doesn’t have the journalistic chops to get him to cop to it on camera; hers is a more insinuative and less confrontational style of political documentary.) The Brink suggests somewhat strongly that the fight is maybe more important than victory for Bannon. One especially effective segment intercuts footage of chaotic unrest in Europe, including images of Germans chasing down refugees in a kind of impromptu purge, while one of the architects of that chaos zooms high above in his private jet.

Like the most successful trolls, Bannon has mastered the art of turning a face of pure sincerity to those he considers less sophisticated and delivering his fire-and-fury sermons with a wink to the writers he so loves being interviewed by. Klayman stitches together a montage of Bannon in a series of MAGA hat-filled conference rooms declaring “divine providence” was responsible for Trump’s election. To Klayman, or around his crew of Breitbart editors or Politico writers, Bannon is more prone to wry sarcasm, such as his pondering semi-seriously about a pro-Trump film he’s just made, “How would Leni Riefenstahl cut that scene?”

But when he’s on the spot, Bannon can’t always wiggle out of it. When a Guardian reporter tries to pin him down on his “globalist” George Soros commentary being an anti-Semitic dog whistle, Bannon manages an uncharacteristically weak defense, leading the reporter to snap, “You need to stop smirking.” But he can’t. This fight is the game of Bannon’s life. He’s putting everything he has in to it, to the point of musing to Klayman at one point about whether there’s even a purpose for having a “personal life.” But it’s still a game.

Director: Alison Klayman Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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