Thursday, December 29, 2016

10 Worst Films of 2016

At some point between now and the time the Oscars air on February 26th, I will have my complete list of my 50 favorite films of 2016 posted. So many various best of lists are already out because they come from critics and publications that are able to see every film either prior to their release or immediately after, and I am just not able to. Being that this is merely a passionate hobby for me while working full time elsewhere, finding time to go see every major award contender released late in the year isn't plausible, at least by the time the calendar flips. That extra month or two though, that's when I will see things like La La Land, Moonlight, Manchester by the Sea and Silence.

For now, as it stands, I have seen just under 150 films released in 2016 and I wouldn't be surprised if I get up to around 175 by the time I wrap it up. While it is possible that one of those remaining to be seen pictures ends up being a massive disappointment to the point of being among the worst movies of the year, it certainly isn't probable. If La La Land finds its way to the bottom ten...I can't even wrap my mind around that concept enough to finish the thought. So, I feel pretty safe in my ability to declare the following ten movies as the worst of 2016.

As always, it is important to remember that these rankings are solely based on my opinion and I truly never mean to insult anyone who may have enjoyed some of them. I hope you did. I never root for others to share my dismay towards something that doesn't work for me, so if you see one here that simply entertained you or even something you connected with on an emotional level, that's awesome. For me though, these movies range from painfully dumb to having to witness a legend stoop to an insufferable level I can't even comprehend.

10. Zoolander 2

Many would say, but the original Zoolander was stupid too so what would you expect? I genuinely enjoy the hell out of the first movie though. Sure it is stupid, but that word can sometimes be applied vaguely without giving proper credit to the execution of the stupidity. Zoolander was so dumb it succeeded at making me laugh over and over and over again thanks to absurd characters and set pieces and ideas. What makes the sequel such a failure is its inability to walk any new ground at all, instead trying to retrace the footsteps of the original by duplicating jokes. It's so lazy it doesn't even deserve to be remembered, and honestly I barely do remember it. 

9. The Sea of Trees

Maybe Zoolander 2 did have a little bit of a I should have known better feeling to it, since when they announced a sequel I could already sort of smell the stench of failure. The Sea of Trees, however, is just an epic disappointment from acclaimed director Gus Van Sant with a talented cast featuring Matthew McConaughey, Ken Watanabe and Naomi Watts. The worst part is they could have done something special with the basic concept of a suicidal man finding another man in need of help in the forest of Mt. Fuji, kept it grounded to their circumstances and conveyed emotional depth through their storytelling only. The decision to flash back to show what brought one man to the brink of suicide and the laughable absurdity that we witness during those flashbacks, just awful, and the very end of the film is a disaster that made me laugh hard enough to shed a tear or two, but it's not meant to be funny. 

8. The Choice

I have seen a few of the films adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels. The Choice has to be the worst. It's formulaic, boring, poorly acted nonsense from start to finish. I am not immune to the charm of a romance, even a melodramatic, predictable one. I have probably seen A Walk to Remember 5 times and would watch it again if given the chance. The Choice is terrible and I barely could sit through it once. 

7. The Boy


I can't. I have nothing else I could possibly say about this movie. Next.


I get it, I am not exactly the target audience of this one, but yeesh. 

XOXO contains the most unintentionally hilarious sequence in a movie this year, when a young DJ has his big chance to perform in front of a massive crowd, and he is so nervous about whether he can do it, and his friend gives him a motivational speech so he finds the courage to walk out on that stage, and they do a close up of a bead of sweat on his brow, and then a close up of a deep breath, and then...he plugs in a USB drive and his music starts playing. It's so perfect.

5. The 5th Wave

Fan of The Hunger Games franchise, find the Divergent movies to be at best mediocre, but the young adult shit really hit the fan this year with The 5th Wave. It has been a long time since I saw this one very early in 2016, but I recall it failing for me on basically every level. 

4. The Brothers Grimsby

I couldn't find a single laugh in The Brothers Grimsby no matter how hard I looked. Nothing. It was just a cold, gross, slog of a "comedy" that I couldn't wait to end, and honestly I think I did turn it off with a few minutes to spare. Perhaps the ending was so amazing it would have saved the movie from being ranked on this list. I doubt it.

3. The Do-Over

I was tempted to write about how silly Netflix was to pay Adam Sandler roughly 20 million dollars a movie for a four movie contract, but then I realized I watched the movie. So what the hell do I know, right? 

The Do-Over is dreadful.

2. The Boss

So much bad comedy in 2016, and unfortunately there is even more to come after The Boss. So much time spent not laughing at material designed to elicit laughter. Putting this list together is forcing me to relive some of these movies, and it's quite painful.

1. Dirty Grandpa

Goodness, this movie. The absolute worst of the worst. Just an atrocious hellscape of comedic misfirings and pathetic attempts to equate crudeness with laughter. Don't get me wrong, crude material can work when it is good crude material. Watching Robert De Niro navigate these waters, this legend of acting who was in films like The Deer Hunter, The Godfather Part II, Raging Bull, Taxi Driver and so was a difficult pill to swallow. It isn't as if he is a victim here, he took the role and I assume he read some portion of the script before doing so. I just can't wrap my mind around it. Dirty Grandpa is, without a doubt, the worst film of 2016. It's almost not fair to associate the other 9 films with it because it is so much worse than them. The Boss is a Best Picture candidate compared to Dirty Grandpa

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Arrival Review

I remember a time growing up when science fiction almost felt like shameful, dirty words, with any interest in them reflecting a person's level of uncool. Of course this was at a time when wearing a shirt with a superhero on it would have gotten someone beat up or mercilessly mocked, and these days the trendy stores with an adolescent target audience can't keep them on the shelves, so things change. When I was 15 years old a friend and I skipped school to wait outside all day for tickets to see Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace, and it was a day I may never forget, yet when I returned to class the following morning I lied about what I had done the day prior. Had to. After all, the cute girls were sitting nearby and I wouldn't want to kill my (nonexistent) chances with them drowning in my nerd truth. I can't help but wonder if kids are lying about their interest in Star Wars now. I doubt it.

The funny thing about growing up embarrassed to be a fan of science fiction is just how broad of a genre it is and never having the balls to point this out. Only nerds like Sci-Fi, says the bully who went to see The Matrix four times in theaters. From fun, silly escapism to deep space travel to intensely personal, human stories, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Jurassic Park to The Hunger Games, the odds are strong at some point all of you have fallen in love with science fiction storytelling. For me, when the genre is at its absolute best, it taps into something deeper inside the audience, something moving and profound and perhaps even thematically polarizing. Alfonso Cuaron's Gravity is considered a science fiction film, but in reality it's a rich metaphor for coping with overwhelming, crippling grief. I can't even think about certain scenes in that picture without feeling the sudden urge to weep, but tears are not required for a Sci-Fi movie to resonate. Make me angry, make me hurt, inspire me or scare the living shit out of me, I don't care. I just want to feel something.

Why does it not surprise me that the best of the genre from 2016 would come from Denis Villeneuve, a filmmaker who has consistently delivered incredible cinema on a nearly annual basis since 2009 when Polytechnique was released, his dramatization of the massacre that took place at a school in Montreal in 1989. After that it was Incendies, the story of two twins honoring their mother's final wishes to travel to the Middle East to discover the roots of their ancestry. Next was the bone chilling child kidnapping story Prisoners, probably my favorite of all his extraordinary work, followed by Enemy, a surreal mystery thriller about a man trying to find his exact double that he spots in the background of a movie frame. Last year Villeneuve unleashed Sicario, a gritty and brutal look at the violence along the U.S. - Mexico border involving the drug cartels as the FBI tries to bring them down.

This brings us to his 2016 Oscar contender Arrival, written by Eric Heisserer and based on the short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang. The film is smart, gorgeous, intimate and fascinating, with a screenplay that never allows itself to be dumbed-down in order to sort itself out with simplicity for the audience. Villeneuve and crew, notably Heisserer, director of photography Bradford Young and composer Jóhann Jóhannson, have created something that simultaneously feels current and important for today and yet a work that could have found its audience decades ago, a movie that should be celebrated for its originality while still demonstrating that it found inspiration in the work of Tarkovsky, Kubrick and more recently Zemekis with Contact, which was of course based on the writing of Carl Sagan.

Arrival tells the story of linguist Louise Banks, played brilliantly by the outstanding and perfectly cast Amy Adams, and the opening shots of the movie tread in some familiar and some would say fatigued trope territory, but fear not, for this film has quite the surprise in store for the audience in the end. We see Louise and her daughter Hannah, a short montage of images of their relationship ending in Hannah's death from cancer while still in adolescence. Next we see Louise arriving to give a college lecture with everyone around her distracted by television sets broadcasting images of the incredible breaking news, the sudden arrival of twelve extraterrestrial spacecraft spread out randomly across the world. At this point I fully admit I was one of those concerned about the tired nature of where this would inevitably end, immediately questioning if the aliens would provide her some sort of afterlife connection to her daughter as a less than shocking emotional conclusion. I should have trusted the talent involved here to dig deeper and give me more, and they certainly did.

Louise finds herself involved in making first contact with the alien visitors after Colonel GT Weber (Forest Whitaker) asks her to join the team in order to try to understand their form of language in hopes for answers as to why they have come. Working alongside Louise is physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), and the sequences involving their direct communication with the two seven-limbed creatures, or "heptapods", instantly feel like top-tier cinema thanks to a pitch-perfect performance from Adams and stunning imagery. If you are waiting for violence, explosions and war, for revelations of weapon technology that the aliens plan to use for human annihilation, you have come to the wrong place with Arrival. Sure, the concept of defense due to the unknown motivations of these creatures is always in play, as well it should be when the military is involved in protecting humanity against a threat, but the point of this story is far more cerebral and heavy and essential than it devolving into such obvious and redundant territory.

Arrival serves as a reminder of the importance of intellect, communication and kindness at a time when it feels like our world wants to shoot first and ask questions later. There is a scene during the film when the different countries from around the globe decide to stop cooperating with each other, to break contact and instead focus on the threat solely directed at their own land and I couldn't help but think of numerous issues currently making headlines, from refugees needing a place to go for safety yet facing threats of closed borders to a universal pact on trying to reverse the negative effects of climate change while a newly elected ignoramus threatens to turn his back on the deal. We need intelligence. We need to communicate. We need to speak to each other with understanding and compassion in order to see the whole picture through clear eyes.

I cannot and would not go into detail regarding the end of this film, as I try to always remain spoiler free, but it is certainly something that will spark a lot of internal and external questioning while exiting the theater. Arrival is utterly spellbinding science fiction, one of the best films of 2016.


Friday, December 16, 2016

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story Review

"Save the rebellion! Save the dream!"

It took a long time for me to admit to myself that I was never going to be able to judge a Star Wars film with a completely clear, critical mind. At a time when nostalgia is thriving because so many people want that warm and welcoming blanket wrapped around them, there are few things that take me back to my childhood in a way that is so fresh and vivid that it almost feels like 25 years ago could have been yesterday. Star Wars is one of them. Now, I am not going to wax poetic in somber tones and ask that you hear sympathetic violins over my words as if I had a rough upbringing. I didn't. I have lived a blessed life from the moment I was born, but like anyone there were good and bad moments sprinkled throughout the adolescent years that shaped me into the person I am today. No matter what was happening, no matter how seemingly dark it got, I could count on the VHS tapes of my favorite trilogy waiting for me anytime I needed them. Some will roll their eyes at people like me and say it's just a movie, and in a sense they are right, but it's not that simple. The memories of my life are soaked in the frames of the original trilogy, and I will be seeing them play over those iconic cinematic images for as long as I am lucky enough to be able to. 

While some were turned off by the way The Force Awakens followed the blueprint of A New Hope, choosing to win the audience back with the familiarity of a winning formula, I fell deeply in love with that film when it was released a year ago and absolutely none of that magic has tapered off. Sure, all of those callbacks to the original films and hearing John Williams return to put some new twists on an established and brilliant musical score put a smile on my face and even the occasional tear in my eye, but the deeper reason why The Force Awakens worked wonders for me was on a character level. Both old and new, the characters across the board felt special and formed a uniquely fascinating bond quickly. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and Harrison Ford, all working together along with supporting players and a terrific script to bring what always made Star Wars great to a new generation.

When Disney laid out their plans to not only create new installments of the episodic series of films but also standalone features based on side stories previously referenced, I was excited because frankly, life is too short to complain about too much Star Wars, but I also had a question lingering in my head that cast just a bit of doubt over the success of their plan: would it work without the characters that mean so much to people? This especially applied to the first of these films, released this weekend titled Rogue One, because two years from now we will be watching the origin story of Han Solo and going forward after that I have heard other concepts rumored involving established characters. Rogue One, directed by Gareth Edwards who made the wonderful Monsters with limited resources and a terrific piece of blockbuster filmmaking with the new Godzilla, focuses on the rebel team that steal the plans for the Death Star that reveal the weakness utilized in A New Hope to destroy it, and thus beyond a few cameos and the return of a familiar, iconic villain, this is a Star Wars film that would rely almost entirely on a new cast and one that we would only know for a single movie.

That last part, the fact that it was a one-off that was certain to not receive the sequel treatment given that its sequel is, well, A New Hope, presented the most difficulty in making Rogue One work and sure enough that factor played a role in the biggest and for me only real flaw in the film. Trying to establish a team of characters that work together for such an important mission in only two hours, with the final (and amazing) battle sequence taking up 45 minutes of screen time made it pretty much impossible to develop these characters and provide the necessary depth to make their relationships blossom on screen. I have come across a fair amount of people complaining that the first hour plus of the film is "boring" when I didn't find that to be the case at all. If anything what Rogue One needs is more of this, 20-30 minutes more of character depth and relationship explaining/building because then, when the battle is raging and the bodies are falling to the ground in agony, the emotional impact of what we are seeing would be so much stronger.

I decided to sleep on Rogue One rather than start writing immediately when I got home last night, mostly because of what I addressed at the start of this review; my inability to properly critique films from a franchise that means so much to me. I am glad I did, not because I could sort out a growing pile of issues I had with it but rather so I could let everything that worked so wonderfully seep into my consciousness and dance around in there, like the incredible photography of Greig Fraser that created instantly indelible imagery that will prove to be unforgettable, like Vader's castle on Mustafar or his scene at the end of the film that is sublime, or the vast scope of the Death Star on screen that demonstrated the sheer daunting scale of such a weapon in a way we have never seen before. The fact that we get to visit new worlds and expand on this universe I love so much, with even just a brief visit to a planet called Eadu creating such an essential and gorgeous sequence taking place in the darkness during a driving rain. The performances, even if they weren't allowed to flourish properly, are still all on point, from Felicity Jones as the strong Jyn Erso, daughter of Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), the man personally put in charge of constructing the Death Star, Diego Luna as Cassian, Donnie Yen as Chirrut, Forest Whitaker as Saw Gerrera, Riz Ahmed as Bodhi and the supremely talented Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial Officer Orson Krennic. Also, Alan Tudyk shines as the newest droid to steal scenes in the universe, K-2SO. The cast is outstanding, and if given more time to breathe I truly think they would have proved to be a special new piece of the Star Wars universe. A solid musical score from composer Michael Giacchino that may not feature any one piece quite as brilliant as "Rey's Theme" that Williams introduced in The Force Awakens, but his arrangements balance the old and new well and the notes that haunt over various moments involving the Empire during the earlier portions of the movie stood out to me.

Rogue One is a thrilling film, terrific entertainment that is worth the price to go with family or friends and enjoy a spectacle on the big screen. Your kids may not ask you to rush out and buy the toys from this one at the same level as I'm sure they did with The Force Awakens (lord knows my kid wanted them all), but I would imagine Jyn will be a popular character for a lot of young girls out there that should feel proud that Disney has now gone back to back with Star Wars films featuring a female lead that demonstrates her power and bravery without needing to be saved by a knight in shining armor. Now if only they could go ahead and hire one of the many incredible female directors out there for a project, rather than give the massive gig of Episode IX to someone like Colin Trevorrow, but I digress. The point is, what does work during Rogue One outweighs what doesn't spectacularly, likely leaving most people in the audience walking out of the theater not picking apart the flaws but rather glowing in the adventure and action set pieces that are big, bold and beautiful.

I'm going to take my daughter to see it this weekend and I can't wait to experience it again. I can't stop smiling, even just writing this review as I play my favorite moments back in my head over and over. That's what Star Wars does to me. I can't help it.


Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Snowden Review

The most fascinating thing about Edward Snowden was how ordinary he was. This person, this seemingly very run-of-the-mill guy was suddenly the biggest public figure on the planet because he proved that all it takes is one individual willing to risk their own well-being for what they deem to be "the greater good" to shake the landscape of the country and the way people view it. Sure, it was always implied that he was a very smart man because he wouldn't have acquired his position with the CIA without being qualified, but that's really all we needed: implications. Conclusions we could form on our own about this man that sparked a nationwide debate and made any person out there holding onto confidential information wonder to themselves, would I ever be a whistle blower if I felt I was doing the right thing? Would I be brave enough to be the next Edward Snowden?

Laura Poitras' documentary from 2014 titled Citizenfour handled Edward Snowden and the gravity of his situation wonderfully. Just a guy, closing the blinds of his hotel room and keeping the "Do Not Disturb" sign hanging from his room door thanks to totally justifiable paranoia. The most powerful country in the world was looking to shut him up and bring him in, and yet documentarian Poitras and journalists Glenn Greenwald and Ewan MacAskill holed up with him and filmed the interview, talking face to face with the man that would tell the world just how comprehensive and invasive the United States surveillance programs truly are.

Perhaps the new film Snowden from Oliver Stone would have been more successful had it been released prior to Citizenfour (and I believe I read that Stone tried to stop the release of Poitras' documentary for this very reason), but I'm not sure if timing would have changed much. The story itself isn't any less fascinating today, and when I think of Citizenfour I get excited all over again regarding just how covert and secluded and essential the entire experience felt, yet while I was watching Snowden I was quickly disinterested by the way Stone framed the hero/villain, depending on which side of the aisle you fall on the subject, and his story.

When the film first started I was optimistic, but in a matter of minutes I literally asked myself this question: do I really want or need an Edward Snowden origin story? It didn't take long for me to tell myself the answer was no, watching Stone take an extraordinary subject and turn it into a poor excuse for Good Will Hunting meets The Bourne Identity, as no matter how many Rubik's cubes Snowden solved all I wanted to do was go back to a time when I thought of him as an everyman trying to change the world. Some would say, but it's the truth, and maybe it is, but do we always need a person's full truth? Haven't we all liked the idea of someone more than their reality?

Poor casting of talented people only make the light shining on the flaws of Snowden that much brighter, creating a film that feels like actors trying way too hard to play roles. This picture isn't a disaster, it has its riveting moments and the talent involved is undeniable, but the whole of it all is far more conventional and uninteresting than such a story ever deserves to be. Go watch Citizenfour instead.


Saturday, December 10, 2016

Swiss Army Man Review

"Maybe everyone's a little bit ugly. Yeah, maybe we're all just ugly, dying sacks of shit and maybe all it'll take is one person to just be okay with that."

I have never been the most agreeable person when confronted with a social situation. I'm not, can't get the words to come out and start sweating before running away bad, but I just never feel like I am in my element when surrounded by new people in a new environment. Every minute feels like a tiny struggle rather than the warm breeze I welcome when I am soaking in my comfort zone, with friends or family or when I am alone. Gosh I love being alone, the couple of hours late at night when the lights are low, the world is still and I am completely free to not say a single word but rather digest those written by screenwriters and spoken by the actors on screen. This isn't a slight to those friends or family, and those closest to me understand that by now. I simply need that time each night to let my banal daily concerns melt away, focusing instead on stories told by and about others.

It wasn't always this easy though. It was never can't get the words to come out and start sweating before running away bad, but that doesn't mean the words ever came out naturally, I'm certain there was some sweating and I constantly had to fight the temptation to run away. Growing up is never easy for anyone, except for maybe one of those teenage Kardashian's and the Trump son who looks like he would have tried to date Rory Gilmore at Yale, and as a teenager I felt like I was putting on a costume every single day. I'm sure this is quite common, I know that now, but at the time all I could be certain of was what I saw in the mirror looking back at me. The expensive clothes I bought and the obsessive and unhealthy weight loss, all so I could play a character that would get the girl, and the thing is I did. I got a girl. I felt like Gene Kelly swinging on a lamppost in the rain. I got a girl.

It was never going to amount to anything, and looking back on it, all of the joy of that first relationship has been rendered meaningless. I wore the expensive clothes, I stayed in perfect shape, and I ended up resenting the girl because I was never allowed to be me.

Swiss Army Man opens up with Hank (Paul Dano) on the beach of a deserted island preparing to hang himself. He has been stranded for some time and has lost any hope of being found, but then suddenly a dead body washes ashore. He tries to resuscitate the man but is greeted by little success and a steady wave of flatulence, which quickly becomes an unlikely source of hope when the body begins to propel itself through the water thanks to its farts. Hank quite literally rides the corpse across the ocean much like a jet ski, reaching the land he thought he would never see again thanks to the help of his new deceased friend.

Yes, this is the real premise to a real film, and a great one at that. I remember the first time I saw the trailer for Swiss Army Man in the theater, and the murmurs that filled the room after it ended were likely not positive nor truly negative but more in the realm of astonishment that such a story would be told in the first place. It's exactly these reactions that truly shine a light at how wonderful the screenplay for this film is, written and directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (whom go by "Daniels"), because it completely subverts expectations by taking such crude, juvenile humor and elevating it into something thoughtful, meaningful and at times even profound. Early on in the film after he first discovers the body and rides around on it, I didn't think there was a chance in hell I would be able to take the picture seriously and yet there I was later on as Hank is having conversations with a dead man named Manny, teaching him about how joyful the minutiae of life can be, and I was moved.

Notice I said Hank had conversations with a dead man. That's because the corpse in the film talks, and the man doing the talking is Daniel Radcliffe, and what a terrific performance it is. Once you peel back the curtain that initially blocks your view, one made of farts and erections, you see the beauty in this whole thing so creatively put together by the Daniels. You see the passion and love they have for a film that is built on a foundation of low brow material and yet they are able to make an audience feel high with exuberance when they see the touching moments between Hank and Manny, and it helps a lot that Dano and Radcliffe have such excellent chemistry.

Swiss Army Man is so imaginative and fascinating, and discovering the deeper meaning to everything you might initially deem shallow is a real treat. Sure, a dead guy farts a lot, but for Hank it is symbolic for feeling free, for being comfortable enough around another person to not hold back who you are. Accompanied by a musical score by Manchester Orchestra that is flat out perfect for this strange, wonderful journey, this film certainly isn't for everyone but those that find its heart will fall in love with the bond between a man and a corpse. It's unbelievable that this whole things works, a reminder that originality is alive and well as long as such interesting projects continue to get funded and supported by studios that believe in innovative storytellers.

The driving force behind Hank's desire to get back home is a girl named Sarah, played by the beautiful and supremely talented Mary Elizabeth Winstead whom still has delivered one of the better performances of the year in 10 Cloverfield Lane. For much of the film her character is relegated to being simply a photo on the lock screen of Hank's phone, but she delivers the final three words of the movie that perfectly encapsulate exactly how everyone watching this movie feels at some point. I know I said them once or twice, but I had a smile on my face when I did.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Elle Review

I will admit, I was taken aback by it. It's hard enough when a film includes any rape scene at all, to stomach what we are seeing, but typically the audience has had time to settle into their seats. Digest some of their popcorn before that awful feeling creeps into their stomach while they watch such a heinous and unthinkable crime. Paul Verhoeven doesn't deal with typical and the least of his concerns in regards to Elle is how your stomach feels. Opening a film mid-rape feels like a new level of perversion, the ultimate fly on the wall situation in which no sane person would hope to be said fly. It's a shocking and uncomfortable way to start a film, but what follows soon after the assault is perhaps more shocking. It's the way normalcy overwhelms the victim's movements so quickly, as if what just occurred isn't that big of a deal, but thanks to an Oscar worthy performance from Isabelle Huppert, we know that at least some part of her is both physically and emotionally scarred. Like so many rape victims, she buries it. Verhoeven said that he initially pursued an American actress to play the lead but no one would go near the role due to the content, and knowing that, bless Huppert for not only taking it but utilizing the material to perfection. The screenplay is so layered that there is almost too much to try to unpack in one viewing, and it was essential that the right actress lead the way.

Michèle cleans up the broken dishes and throws them away. She takes a bath, and even when blood begins to surface as a result of the attack she merely moves the bubbles around to hide it. She orders takeout. Despite being assaulted in her own home, a place that one should feel safe in rather than vulnerable, the police are never called. Michèle just carries on with life, and continues to despite what becomes clear soon after: the attacker isn't done with her yet. Text messages and other threats that not only make it known the first assault wasn't random, but that he is someone close to her. Close enough to know her current location and exactly what she is wearing. Nevertheless, life goes on, but every window or empty room in Michèle's home feels dangerous and far too accessible.

Elle is a mystery in a sense, but Verhoeven isn't all that interested in that aspect of the storytelling. Initially I thought that the cat and mouse game being played involving unsettling threats from a man in a ski mask would last the duration of the film, that the big final confrontation would reveal the identity of the assailant, but it's a pretty safe assumption that like me, you will guess exactly who it is without too much of a struggle. The film isn't about who, but rather the psychology of the victim, illustrating that there is no standard response the world should expect from someone who goes through something so tragic.

One of the most fascinating themes under Verhoeven's microscope is power and the way different people respond to it, and how gender roles factor into sex. The intercourse shown during the film ranges from horrifically violent to rather mundane, at least in the way Michèle behaves during it, showing little to no interest in her partner beyond the general desire to "get laid". Towards the end of the film after consensual sex with Robert (Christian Berkal), the husband of her business partner Anna (Anne Consigny), he compliments her regarding how great it was that she pretended to be a corpse. This is not a reflection of Michèle's libido as we see quite clearly her desires during a scene in which she masturbates while watching the handsome neighbor (Laurent Lafitte) whom lives across the way, but merely her lackluster response to traditional lovemaking in which the man takes control. At one point she finds herself in a situation that is bound to result in intimacy when that neighbor is inside her home, but when she demonstrates power over the situation and makes it clear what she wants, he's the one to push away and leave.

Those who are familiar with the work of Paul Verhoeven, with films that were initially misunderstood only to garner critical acclaim and find their audience years later like Robocop and Starship Troopers (I know Showgirls is also viewed in this light, but I am yet to see the film), will hopefully understand and appreciate that what might seem controversial on the surface is meant to push buttons and disturb viewers in order to make people think and lead to discussions as to what point he was trying to make as a storyteller. From his examination of power and even the way he illustrates this away from sexual intimacy, like flipping gender roles and having Michèle and Anna run a video game company while all the men in the office report to them, some pleasantly and others with resentment, to the way he presents rape with a sense of honesty that others won't by avoiding cliches that only demonstrate the way the world assumes one copes with such pain. What angers me quite often is when assumptions are made in regards to a crime based on a general observation of behavior from the victim or the accused, that a rape couldn't have occurred because the victim "seemed fine" or that one is guilty because they didn't grieve exactly the way you would imagine, ignoring that people express emotion or bury their sadness in different ways. So many victims of sexual assault will continue to see the person who hurt them, sometimes even romantically. Not all stories end with someone stumbling into a police station in tears, looking to file a report.

Many will be troubled after seeing Elle because they will exit the theater believing it is an apologist's view of sexual assault, that portraying a strong, female lead character who seems to relinquish that strength due to her acceptance and perhaps even what some perceive as enjoyment of the attacks happening to her is problematic. If that's your take, fine, but it's misguided and unfair to the careful construction of this excellent picture from a director who has made a mighty fine living delivering satire that is missed and thus misunderstood. The rape scenes in the film are not erotic or sexy in even the slightest way. It almost physically hurts to watch them, but while sex can be beautiful and violence is ugly, Verhoeven wants to drag the audience into the grey area that is considered taboo to many despite being a rather commonplace fantasy, when those two worlds come together. The result is an engrossing, bizarre, and unique cinematic experience, one of the very best of 2016.