By Roger Costa
Far distant from any conventional Valentines romantic comedy made for a perfect date night, Zelda Williams’ feature debut will most likely turn the lovebirds cold. The weird, utterly dark, silly, sometimes funny, and very macabre love and rage story, centers on the coming of age of high school student Lisa, the outcast and very Gothic heroine seeking identity and ways of understanding her sexuality. She is underestimated by her classmates, while facing problems at home as well: her mother was axe-murdered, leaving her father to marry a woman she totally dislikes. One night, she wishes a dead corpse would come back to life, and a lightning storm just makes her wish a reality. She bonds with the century-old, stinking corpse, and suddenly things turn bloody volent and gore, as he defends her from some circumstances, leading to murder. Oscar winner writer Diablo Cody, became notorious for getting such prize right on her first shot at screenwriting with “Juno”. That seemed very promising, but it turns out Cody didn’t fly as high as expected. She did write a couple of good flicks that brilliantly reflected the obstacles faced by the younger female generation, (“Tully”, “Young Adult”, “Ricki and the Flash”) but here, as the story revisits the past, the writing seems to be fading into mainstream control room- everything must follow a coordination to satisfy the great crowds, leaving little room for imagination or daring. Despite the lack of originality, the story manages to do a good representation in the feminist field, as Lisa starts to realize she must stand up for herself, and fights back some abusive patriarchal behavior from her colleagues. It also feels good to see the gossip/defamatory issue mirrored into an 80’s gothic love story, while the stylish visuals, sinister costumes and pop soundtrack bring a little energy to the screen. Actress Kathryn Newton is also fantastic and very convincing, especially when her character goes on a serial killer-like rampant. Liza Soberano who plays her clueless half-sister is responsible for some of the best jokes in the film, such as when she describes her mother over the phone, or when she is about to lose her virginity and turns into a bloody nightmare. I personally find the PG-13 rating so disorienting, compared to other films with graphic scenes of violence or sexuality. For instance, body parts are chopped up and exposed, including a male genital. Aren’t those enough cruelty for grown-ups instead of teens? Blending elements from John Waters and Robert Zemeckys, and obviously influenced by Sam Raimi and Tim Burton, this is a mild spooky romance, with a few brutally sick laughs, that will leave you and your date halfway entertained, and fully disgusted.
(Focus Features. 2/8. Regal Union Square, AMC Jersey Gardens).
Bas Devos’ utterly sensitive, deeply immersive and contemplative immigrant study, follows Stefan a Romanian construction worker living in Brussels and experiencing the hurdles, longing, insecurities and challenges of living abroad. Demonstrating complete command of the material, Devos implies a subtle commentary on human rights and the meaning of belonging, whether to a place, a moment, a nation, or to someone. As he goes on with his daily activities, while preparing to reunite with his mother in Romania, he meets up with his nurse sister during her break at the Hospital (reflecting on the lack of family/social time immigrants must endure), cooks up a large amount of soup (economical struggle) which he offers to his acquaintances, and develops an unexpected relationship to Shuxiu, a young bryologist, whom he meets while she is studying the local moss around the green areas of the city. Observed with candid eyes, honesty and empathy, working with convincing non-professional actors, blending reality, poetry, and fiction, this is Devos’ best film yet, a delightful and humane look at connections, urban life, nature, family values and genuine love. This certainly makes him a natural, sudden auteur.
(Cinema Guild. 2/9. Film at Lincoln Center).
German master Win Wenders has made two acclaimed films last year, both praised for their different approach and fusion into another art medium. In the 3-D documentary “Anselm”, the director observed the creative process of a renowned and eccentric large-scale sculptor. In this Oscar nominated dramedy he follows the daily routine of a city janitor using a vintage, popular soundtrack, while he manages what seems to be the worse job in the world: cleaning public toilets. And he does with such a grand smile on his face, no matter how dirty or complicated the situation may be. Japanese actor Koji Yakusho deservedly won the Best Actor prize at last year’s Cannes. He is the heart and soul here, delivering a silent, minimalist character study that transcends perfection. It is a moving, heartbreaking turn as a lonely man, spending his days photographing and communicating with the nature world, especially trees, while diligently fulfilling his janitor duties. Wenders is on top of his game, conducting the story with good humor, sensibility and precise notes on aging, solitude and economic challenges. But at one point, the story feels hollow, as we have not enough information about our protagonist’s past, feelings or battles. It feels a little dragging at points. He is on a constant state of bliss and joy, hooked to his headphones spinning classic progressive rock, while the world is changing around him. Maybe that’s a lesson, and good reason to avoid the world, and keep up the smile even at hard situations.
(NEON. 2/9. Angelika Film Center, AMC Lincoln Square).