Review by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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Killer Joe

Director: William Friedkin
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Juno Temple, Thomas Haden Church, Juno Temple

The power of a thunderous movie ending should never be underestimated. Even if everything that precedes a film’s closing scenes underwhelms, the last shot can send audiences out on a high that’ll make them forgive all of the inadequacies. Yet, what makes acclaimed director William Friedkin’s (The French Connection, The Exorcist) extremely pulpy and grimy, though unfairly NC-17-rated, Killer Joe such a complete success is that, yes, it has one of the craziest, entertainingly off-the-rails endings in recent years, but the film as a whole is a victory.

In screenwriter Tracy Letts’ adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Matthew McConaughey serves a smoldering, combustible turn as a seedy Dallas cop, nicknamed Killer Joe whose side hustle involves killing folks for cash; his target of the moment is the good-for-nothing mother of a young, in-debt deadbeat (Emile Hirsch) from a dysfunctional trailer park family. Unable to pay Joe, Hirsch begrudgingly gives his cute space cadet of a little sister (Juno Temple) up as a “retainer.”

From there, Killer Joe fires on all trashy cylinders, gleefully offering up sex with a minor, corpses, brutal misogyny, and the most perverted use of a fried chicken leg imaginable. And the best part of it all: It’s a black comedy. One that’s funny as hell, in fact.
Grade: A

V/H/S

Directors: Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Joe Swanberg, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence
Stars: Calvin Reeder, Lane Hughes, Joe Swanberg, Sophia Takal, Kate Lyn Sheil, Joe Sykes, Hannah Fierman, Mike Donlan, Drew Sawyer, Drew Moerlein, Jason Yachanin, Helen Rogers

The horror anthology is a tricky beast to wrangle. Comprised of multiple short films, all rolled into one something-for-everyone package, the genre omnibus inherently brings with the risk of over-indulgence; if you’ve got three or four mini-movies in one package, there’s a strong chance of one or two inferior segments.

V/H/S, the new found-footage anthology backed by some of horror’s most exciting young filmmakers, has five stories, plus a wraparound framing narrative, and not all of them are entirely successful. Touching on various subgenres, the free-spirited and crowd-pleasing V/H/Sfinds the most success in classic tropes, particularly the haunted house (YouTube collective Radio Silence’s totallyinsane closing segment, the no-holds barred funhouse ride “10/31/98”) and the slasher (Glenn McQuaid’s inventive killer-in-the-woods chiller “Tuesday The 17th”) conventions.

Far less successful is “Tape 56,” the Adam Wingard-directed wraparound that’s initially intriguing but goes nowhere. Even in “Tape 56,” though, which follows four douchebag pranksters as they break into an empty home and watch old videotapes next to a dead body, V/H/Sexhibits the reckless merriment of daring filmmakers all having a blast, not “working,” per se. It’s in the ambitious visual devices that freshen up the found-footage conceit (i.e., video-glasses and ghosts seen via laptops’ Skype cameras), and it’s in the outbursts of extreme gore and exposed female breasts that frequently appear. Flaws or not, V/H/S reminds us how wicked horror can be when it’s just about fun.
Grade: A-

Safety Not Guaranteed

Director: Colin Trevorrow
Stars: Aubrey Plaza, Mark Duplass, Jake M. Johnson, Karan Soni, Mary Lynn, Rajskub, Jenica Bergere, Jeff Garlin, Kristen Bell

Safety Not Guaranteed is a testament to the fact that, when you’ve got a fine cast and a smart screenwriter, the most overdone of concepts can work like gangbusters. The subject of time travel isn’t revolutionary, nor is the Amblin-esque theme of “dream big,” but first-time director Colin Trevorrow’s quirky and heartfelt comedy breezes through its scant 85-minute duration with a delightful freshness.

Aubrey Plaza, adding subtle complexities to her usual awkward demeanor, plays a Seattle-based magazine intern who, along with an arrogant reporter (New Girl’s Jake M. Johnson, whose comedic timing is impeccable here) and a nerdy fellow intern (Karan Soni, who’s also spot-on with his one-liners), track down an eccentric grocery store worker (Mark Duplass) after he requests a partner for time travel through the classifieds.

The expected beats are all hit upon: There’s an obvious love connection, the geek caps off his first drunken night with some sex, and the self-centered prick betters himself. Fortunately, screenwriter Derek Connolly’s characters are well developed, and the actors uniformly sell every quieter moment and sillier, punchline-dependent gag. A real actor’s showcase, Safety Not Guaranteed charms more than enough to allow you to overlook any minor qualms.
Grade: A-

Jeff

Director: Chris James Thompson

It never feels good to fault someone for being too ambitious, but that’s what needs to be done with filmmaker Chris James Thompson when it comes to Jeff, his fascinating yet notably flawed documentary about the arrest of Jeffrey Dahmer back in the summer of 1991.

Wholly haunting and replete with intimate, all-access insight into the heinous murder/dismemberment/cannibalism, Jeff gets to the heart of the heartless through interviews with the then-rookie homicide detective who interrogated Dahmer (Pat Kennedy), one of the serial killer’s Milwaukee apartment building neighbors (Pamela Bass), and the forensic pathologist (Jeffrey Jentzen) who had to examine the victims. And whenever Thompson focuses on their interviews and on-the-scene archival footage, the somberly chilly Jeff mesmerizes, with Bass’ painful anecdotes, Jentzen’s gruesome medical details, and Kennedy’s natural charisma.

It’s just too bad that the candid one-on-ones are frequently interrupted by dull, unnecessary reenactments, featuring actor Andrew Swant as Dahmer in mundane sequences that don’t pull off anything that wasn’t already done—and better, at that—in the 2002 biopic Dahmer (starring Jeremy Renner). Had Thompson dropped the lifeless fictionalizations and provided longer interview chunks, Jeff could’ve been a masterwork; as it stands, though, it’s a frustrating success, but a success nonetheless.
Grade: B

Keyhole

Director: Guy Maddin
Stars: Isabella Rossellini, Jason Patric, Udo Kier, Kevin McDonald, Tattiawna Jones, David Wontner, Darcy Fehr, Brooke Palsson, Tyhr Trubiak, Louis Negin

Canadian writer-director Guy Maddin has earned a reputation as a gifted throwback, opting to emulate the look and ambiance of old black-and-white cinema rather than dabble in today’s more advanced formulas. And with Keyhole, his tenth feature (which made its world premiere at SXSW), Maddin combines two vintage movie types—the James Cagney-esque gangster films and the haunted house set-up—into an unusual, experimental, and beautifully shot mood piece that, unfortunately, feels like an incoherent student film, rather than something William Castle would’ve made back in the late 1950s. Unless Castle was on shrooms.

Jason Patric, mostly sleepwalking through his performance, plays a the leader of a criminal outfit that retreats into his old home after some shoot-’em-up outdoor danger; in the house, he slowly pieces together his family’s tragic history, through the assistance of whiny ghosts, random montages that are at times laughably strained, and a secret passageway housing a keyhole with a dusty penis poking out of it—no joke. In brief stretches, Maddin sets an effectively trippy vibe, but, in the end, Keyhole befuddles more than it engages.
Grade: C

Beast

Director: Christoffer Boe
Stars: Nicolas Bro, Marijana Jankovic, Nikolaj Lie Kaas

When you’re taking in a flick at a prestigious film festival, such as SXSW, it’s customary to offer applause at the end of a screening, whether you dug the movie or loathed it. By the time writer-director Christoffer Boe’s heavy relationship freak-show Beast concluded, however, there was only silence, a fitting reaction to a dense, ambiguous, and sexually graphic drama that starts off in heartbreak and ends in brutal homicide. Or does it?

Danish filmmaker Boe does a fine job of translating one couple’s deteriorating romance, and, subsequently, the husband’s (Nicolas Bro) crumbling psyche, into a mesmerizing display of infidelity and gruesome visual suggestion. Starting with main character Bruno’s (Bro) spontaneous slicing of his wife’s (Marijana Jankovic) breast to suck the leaking blood, Beast conveys the traumatic effects of shattered love through male pregnancy, black-ink-like liquid seeping out of a woman’s privates, and dark bruises that vanish in plain sight.

Quietly explosive, Beastis the kind of multilayered character study that demands additional viewings, even if it’s about as pleasant to watch as a forensic examination. Those absent audience claps? Something tells us the ovation would be heard after the second time.
Grade: B+

Reviews by Matt Barone (@MBarone)

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