Tag Archives: B

THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE

Producer: Cody Ryder, Andrew Kortschak, Stephanie Whonsetler and Walter Kortschak
Director: Riley Stearns
Writer: Riley Stearns
Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, David Zellner, Phillip Andre Bottello, Jason Burkey, Mike Brooks and CJ Rush
Studio: Bleecker Street

B

Maybe the injunction to “Man up!” isn’t heard quite as frequently as it was a few years ago—except on the stages where “The Book of Mormon” is being performed, of course—but what might be the result if some poor soul took it seriously is treated in darkly humorous fashion in Riley Stearns’s “The Art of Self-Defense.” The film’s tone is audaciously quirky and surrealistic, but in addition to being wickedly funny, the movie is also genuinely disturbing.

The story is about Casey Davies, the quintessential dweeb played, in what most would consider perfect typecasting, by Jesse Eisenberg. He’s a wimpy accountant whose fellow workers, a trio of macho braggarts, look on him with contempt, though his boss seems pretty considerate. He lives alone, of course, and seems to have no friends, of either gender, except for his dog, a droopy dachshund. To put a little excitement into his drab existence he photocopies a naughty magazine he finds on a colleague’s desk and takes it home to masturbate to.

Then one night he has to go out to buy a bag of dog food, despite the fact that the neighborhood has been plagued by an outbreak of muggings. On the way home he’s badly beaten up by a bunch of black-clothed, helmeted thugs on motorcycles. It turns out to be a long recuperation.

The experience encourages him to look into buying a handgun for protection, but after putting in an application for one, he stumbles on a karate dojo, where an authoritarian owner who demands that everyone calls him Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) presides over a clutch of devoted acolytes—all men, except for Anna (Imogen Poots), whom Sensei allows to teach the children’s classes though he otherwise treats her as undeserving of being ranked with the men, though she’ a better fighter than any of them.

Casey decides to join the dojo, and after a rocky start is for some reason taken under his wing by the oddball Sensei, who dispenses the most horrendously macho bromides in a calm, authoritative fashion. Although viewers will certainly perceive him as a dangerous, creepy guy despite—or perhaps because of—his eerily unsettling demeanor (and his oft-stated reverence for his mentor, who—it’s revealed—died a ridiculous death in spite of his iconic prowess), Casey and the other disciples—save for Anna—accept his dicta unthinkingly, even when doing so results in their humiliation or physical harm.

While the picture shows how this sinister system affects some of the other students (most notably a pathetic, envious wannabe named Henry, played by David Zellner, who has the temerity to challenge things), the focus is on what it does to Casey, who becomes insanely devoted to Sensei’s teaching after being promoted; in order to enjoy the feeling of power his recently-won yellow belt gives him all the time, he has a regular belt made in that color for himself, as well as belts in other colors for his fellow students. He also quits his job to manage the dojo’s accounts, and—in a twist that some will consider going too far—he succumbs to the basest instinct that the supposed master’s pseudo-philosophy leads to.

It wouldn’t be fair to disclose how Casey’s faith in Sensei unravels, though it can be said that it involves both personal loss and the secrets he finds in Sensei’s inner sanctum, the “equipment room” that he forbids anyone to enter. There isn’t a great deal of surprise in the decisions Anna takes, but Stearns does have a trick up his sleeve when Casey finally has his inevitable confrontation with Sensei, although you might observe that both he and the character he’s created seem to have watched the first “Indiana Jones” movie.

With his fluttery, nervous air Eisenberg is a perfect Casey, and Potts actually manages to invest the unfortunate Anna with some real poignancy. But it’s Nivola who’s the real revelation. He’s had minor parts in some good movies before, but here he has a major one that he completely inhabits. He makes Sensei a genuinely chilling character, the complete anti-Miyagi.

In visual terms the film is a weird hybrid, with Charlotte Royer’s production design and Michael Ragen’s cinematography mingling what for the most part is a dingy sort of naturalism, complete with strangely empty streets, with splashes of oddball color and peculiar lighting. That, along with the lapidary pacing of Sarah Beth Shapiro’s editing, makes for a continuously off-kilter experience, like a hyped-up dream. Much of the picture does without a background score, making it all the more effective when Heather McIntosh’s brooding music kicks in.

“The Art of Self-Defense” is hardly a movie for everyone. But for those who think it might be a weirdly enjoyable to see “The Karate Kid” turned perversely upside-down in order to investigate the dark underbelly of what it means to be “manly,” here’s your chance.

WILD ROSE

Producer: Fay Ward
Director: Tom Harper
Writer: Nicole Taylor
Stars: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, James Harkness, Jamie Sives, Adam Mitchell, Daisy Littlefield, Ashley Shelton, Gemma McIlhinney, Daniel Campbell and Bob Harris
Studio: Neon

B

At its root “Wild Rose” is a formula movie about a young singer with a dream, but it throws enough curves to keep it from falling into the cookie-cutter category. It also spotlights a star-making turn from Jessie Buckley in the title role.

When we first meet Rose-Lynn Harlan (Buckley), she’s just being released from jail after serving a stint on drug charges which, she’ll later claim, were a mistake. Wearing an ankle monitor under her high cowgirl boots, she saunters out jovially as guards and fellow prisoners cheer on her hope of success as a country-western singer. One might expect the sequence to be set in Texas or Arizona; the twist is that the locale is Glasgow, Scotland.

Rose-Lynn is not exactly a model. Her enthusiasm is obvious, but so is her recklessness. When she visits her long-time boyfriend Elliot (James Harkness), it doesn’t take them long to have sex in the park. And she’ll get into a fight when she goes back to her old haunt, the Grand Old Opry—Glasgow, hoping to perform there again.

Out of necessity, given her straitened circumstances, she shows up at the apartment of her mother Marion (Julie Walters), and tries to reconnect with her children Wynonna (Daisy Littlefield) and Lyle (Adam Mitchell), who are decidedly cool toward her. At her mother’s insistence she gets a job—as a housecleaner to Susannah (Sophie Okonedo), who’s astonished by the quality of her vocalism as she sings while doing the floors. (Director Tom Harper and Buckley stage the scene with infectious glee.)

Among other things, Susannah encourages Rose-Lynn to go to court to lift the restriction placed on her by her ankle monitor, specifying that she not leave her domicile at night. That limitation, her wary lawyer argues, prevents her from practicing her real profession as a singer, and, though the moment isn’t played in a triumphal way, the judge agrees.

Rose-Lynn then approaches Susannah, in her usual blunt way, about making it possible for her to fulfill her ultimate goal: to go to Nashville and become a luminary in the field she loves. Susannah demurs at funding the trip on her own, but devises a canny means of raising the money, and Rose-Lynn makes her way to the U.S., even though it means leaving her children behind at a particularly difficult moment.

In Tennessee, Rose-Lynn, as you might expect, visits the auditorium where the Opry performed for years, and she detaches herself from the tour to ascend the stage and begin singing. When other musicians join her, it appears that the film has reached its “Star Is Born” apogee, and you might think that its final act is preordained.

But in a final, satisfying twist, Rose-Lynn chooses another path, which one can read as redemptive in an unexpected way.

So the secret behind the success of “Wild Rose,” which easily have succumbed to the feel-good fantasy formula so familiar from past pictures, is, first, a script (by Nicole Taylor) that rejoices in upending expectations and direction that skirts the invitation to pander to the audience. The result is a movie that, despite a plot that is hardly innovative, is refreshingly unpredictable because it avoids hitting the normal narrative beats on the head.

None of it would work, however, without an outstanding performance at the center, and Buckley provides it. She sings strongly, and makes you believe that Rose-Lynn could really succeed in the music business. But while showing the character’s drive and talent, she is also unafraid to portray the woman warts and all; she is willing to show Rose-Lynn’s serious flaws, and to present her as unlikable in many respects, particularly in terms of her treatment of Wynnona and Lyle. Buckley, quite simply, makes Rose-Lynn credibly imperfect.

Happily, however, she does not have to carry the film entirely on her own. Walters, so good in comedy, demonstrates her dramatic chops here, while Littlefield and Mitchell aren’t typically adorable kids—Harper entices layered performances from them as well. And Okonedo makes Susannah supportive, but no pushover. The technical side of the film—Lucy Spink’s production design, Mark Eckersley’s editing, George Steel’s cinematography—is fine, but it’s the musical supervision of Jack Arnold that plays the largest role in putting everything across.

“Wild Rose” is definitely a crowd-pleaser, but one that doesn’t follow all the rules—just like its titular character.