Film Review: LIZZIE (USA 2017) ***1/2

Lizzie Poster

A psychological thriller based on the infamous 1892 murders of the Borden family.


Bryce Kass

The name LIZZIE will sound familiar to many.  Even to kids, LIZZIE is a well-repeated nursery rhythm containing more sinister connotations.  LIZZIE is also the first name of Lizzie Borden who was accused but acquitted of the vicious hatchet murders of her stepmother and father.  The incident occurred in Fall River, Massachusetts in 1892.

Why would this dated biography be of interest to today’s audiences?  For one, Lizzie is alleged to be a lesbian and the script by Bryce Kass re-imagines Lizzie to be guilty of the heinous crime.  Lizzie is also highly abused by the male gender in a time where gay relationships were disallowed.  One scene has her uncle grabbing her by the throat threatening her. 

The film is bookended with the ghastly murder of a man hacked to death.  The guilt falls on the daughter Lizzie which the film sets to prove committed the deed despite her acquittal.

The film goes back 6 months with the arrival of a female at a three story house, obviously owned by a wealthy family.  The female is revealed to be Brigitte Sullivan (Kristen Stewart), a single Irish woman, who has come to live with the family and work as a live-in maid.  Lizzie, of the film title, is living with her wealthy father (Jamey Sheridan), stepmother (Fiona Shaw) and sister (Kim Dickens).  Her father is up to no good, while her stepmother silently enables.  Worst still, it seems that her uncle (Denis O’Hare) may end up controlling her inheritance.  Socially isolated, with her comings and goings strictly monitored, Lizzie finds solace in her pet pigeons. 

Brigitte works hard.  The patriarch of the family recognizes Brigitte’s hard work but his visits to her room prove him to be a sex abuser.  At the same time, Lizzie and Brigitte start an affair.

The script ups the angst with the father becoming more abusive towards Lizzie.  Lizzie also suffers from fits.

The film benefits from the creation of claustrophobia of the prison of the family home.  Lizzie is discouraged from going out and if allowed, must return by midnight.  The camera is quick to always show the high walls as if acting like imprisoning barriers.  When Lizzie does get to go out, she is attacked by society as the Borden family are cheap and disliked large house renters, still using candle light instead of the new electricity of the times.  The audience is made to feel that Lizzie has no way to escape psychically and emotionally.  Which drives her towards the act.

Whereas in real life Lizzie was acquitted for the fact that the jury could not imagine a woman performing such a violent act, the film shows otherwise with Lizzie hacking her father to death with repeated blows, and in the nude with blood splattered all over her body.  This shows director Macneill over-confident that he has convinced his audience believe that Lizzie is so desperate that she has nothing to lose (she would otherwise lose her inheritance as well as love for Brigitte) but to commit gruesome murder.

Performances are top-notch with Stewart getting away with her Irish accent. But the main star of the film is Noah Greenberg lush cinematography that captures the period atmosphere of the times and the claustrophobic imprisonment of the girls.


Film Review: LEAN ON PETE (UK 2017) ***1/2

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Lean on Pete Poster

A teenager gets a summer job working for a horse trainer and befriends the fading racehorse, Lean on Pete.


Andrew Haigh


Andrew HaighWilly Vlautin (novel)

LEAN ON PETE is British drama film written for the screen and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 YEARS), based upon the novel of the same name by Willy Vlautin.  LEAN ON PETE is also the name of the horse that both changes and challenges the life of 16-year old Charlie (Charlie Plummer). 

The film is about a boy and a horse, but not for the whole duration of the movie.  When the film opens, the audience sees Charlie with his father and new girlfriend.  Being dependent on his father for a limited amount of money, Charlie befriends horse owner Del (Steve Buschemi) for a job.  He is introduced to a horse called LEAN ON PETE.  When the horse loses a race, coming in last, the horse is to be sold off to die.

The film benefits from the performance of its young lead, Charlie Plummer who has already proven himself in the role of the millionaire Paul Getty’s nephew in ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD, playing opposite Oscar Winner Christopher Plummer.  Charlie is no relation to Christopher Plummer despite the identical surnames.  Charlie Plummer captures the pain and desperation of a teen unwanted by both parents.  He has still the look of innocence that will have the audience on his side no matter the bad deed he commits.  In one scene, he suspects that he might go to jail, but heaven forbid if he does!  When the film screened in the main competition section of the 74th Venice International Film Festival, Plummer won the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Best Young Actor or Actress. Besides Plummer, Buscemi and Zahn both stand out in their supporting performances.  Both actors reprise their quirky character roles, though their character are very different.

LEAN ON PETE moves at a slow pace during its first two thirds of running time before switching gear with a story twist.  Haigh’s camera loves to linger on the actors.  On the few action scenes, the two punch up scenes and the one where an accident occurs with Pete (the details not to be mentioned in the review as to avoid a major spoiler) are executed with quick edits as to create a shock effect.  This succeeds as the audience is clearly jolted out of their seats the three times.

Haigh’s film suffers from a suitable ending.  He opts for the Charlie running off into the horizon (no sunset here), reminiscent of the famous French classic of youth, Francois Truffaut’s LES QUATRE CENTS COUPS (400 BLOWS) where Truffaut ended his film with young Jean-Pierre Laud running on the beach.

Despite the film’s slow pace and other minor flaws, LEAN ON PETE comes off as a sincere film about a boy’s coming of age .  The story shows that life does not always hands one everything on a silver platter.  Some are born into riches and royalty.  Others like Charlie are less fortunate, born into a broken family.  He learns from his race horse, looking after Pete, the horse reflecting the same poor demise, Charlie the human is going through.  Charlie struggles and makes it at the end.  Haigh’s shows that it is a long and hard journey, but one that is necessary to take.  On these grounds, LEAN ON PETE is a successful film,  evoking the audience’s emotions and sympathy.



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1997 Movie Review: GUMMO, 1997

GUMMO, 1997
1990s Drama Movie Review
Directed by Harmony Korine
Starring Jacob Reynolds, Chloe Sevigny
Review by Alex Haight


Lonely residents of a tornado-stricken Ohio town wander the deserted landscape trying to fulfill their boring, nihilistic lives.


“When I sit down to eat, I get sexy! When I go to bed, I get hungry! I saw a man lying in the street, and I said, “Can I help you?” He said, “No. I just found a parking space. Now I’m waiting for my wife to go buy a car!” – Tummler (played by Nick Sutton)

There is no preparation possible before viewing the directorial debut of Harmony Korine’s follow up to “KIDS” (which he wrote it at the age of 19). With the latter he provided an honest and abrasive script about the affect of underage sex and drug use in America- and the spawn such acts breed.

His follow-up seems like a De Sade horror show.

By way of “Gummo”, Korine instead offers a nightmare-fairytale of nihilism and faithlessness set against the desolate backdrop of Xenia,Ohio. Set between a mirage of sideshow characters, non-actors, and troubled underage youth’ (this stuff would make John Waters shutter) it plays out like vignettes hand made to disrupt most sensibilities. Anyone who relies on a strong moral fiber, should be warned…this is hard stuff to swallow. There are images here that will be burned into your mind for days, weeks, dare I say-years later.

It’ll be that film that you compare to every other “shocking” one made to.

It sets the bar…then sets it again…then makes a new bar…only to set it. He goes about crafting this voyeuristic sophomore effort by stitching together absurd images and storylines, ie. bacon on the wall, clogging in a mirror, dead cats, homosexual midgets, mentally handicapped prostitutes etc…to subject the viewer to answer the same questions he asked in KIDS-the nature of good and evil and the persuaded path life leads you on towards each one.

This time around however, he tips that thesis on its ear and adds a large heaping spoonful of broken glass disguised as sugar. That is his method…to wash the audience with frames of intense subject to the point of nausea , then bring you down with careful intent.

He himself has even said that the movie was about jokes sans the punch lines.

Try and keep that fact in mind and see how far that gets you.

Film Review: ANTIBIRTH (USA/Canada 2016) ***1/2

antibirth_movie_posterDirected by Danny Perez

Starring: Natasha Lyonne, Chloë Sevigny, Meg Tilly

Review by Gilbert Seah

As nasty pictures go, ANTIBIRTH is one hell of a nasty piece. Halfway throughout the film, the lead character, Lou (Natasha Lyonne) remarks: “I am not pregnant. I am infected!” But writer/director Danny Perez infuses an accurate stoner humour into the proceedings. Unlike films like SAW and HOSTEL, which are nasty beyond watchable, ANTIBIRTH is very watchable and entertaining in a nasty way. In the words of director Perez, “I wanted to show the other side of pregnancy besides the feel-good and the glow; i.e. the more gruesome aspects of pregnancy and what it does to the body.” He ties the film with UFO Youtube conspiracy theories, which does not always work. Needless to say, the film should be avoided by any woman in the expectancy period.

In a small Michigan town, hard-partying stoner Lou (Lyonne) awakens one morning and finds herself experiencing bizarre symptoms. Her friend, Sadie (Oscar nominee Chloë Sevigny from BOYS DON’T CRY) believes she is pregnant and not telling her about it, despite Lou’s claims that she has not had sex with anyone in nearly a year. A mysterious stranger, Lorna (Meg Tilly), however, believes Lou. As conspiracies and stories of bizarre kidnappings around town begin to spread, Lou’s visions and grip on reality become more distorted.

Perez wrote his film with lead actress Lyonne in mind. It shows! Lyonne is perfect for the part as the stoner do-not-want-to-be-mother. “I cannot be pregnant. It is not my style.” She says. Her character, Lou smokes from a bong with the mouthpiece so large that it fits her entire mouth. She survives on donuts and cigarettes. Meg Tilly, not seen for a while on screen returns in a role as a frumpy weirdo who sees flashes of light and visions, like someone switching on and off a TV channel.

Be warned that Perez is fond of including very gross scenes. One has Lou peeling off a scar tissue at the back of her neck before extracting one of her molars with her fingers, blood and all. But the best (grossest) scene has her using a knife to break open a huge blister on the sole of one foot, followed by all the blood and pus running out. She then wobbles around with a cane, limping around until she delivers. One can appreciate if not feel her pain during the pregnancy – or infection, if one wants to call it that.

The winter setting with the ice and snow as well as the dirty mud aids in the film’s gloomy atmosphere. Her trailer home looks even more dismal in the wintry setting.
The best scene? Meg Tilly’s face covered in blood smiling after delivery of the monster baby remarking: “Oh my goodness!”

ANTIBIRTH works as a horror film with major stoner attitude. One of the best horror films of the year! See it with caution!


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Movie Review: LOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Ireland/France/Netherlands 2015) ***1/2

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love_and_friendship.jpgLOVE & FRIENDSHIP (Ireland/France/Netherlands 2015) ***1/2
Directed by Whit Stillman

Starring: Kate Beckinsale, Chloë Sevigny, Xavier Samuel, Emma Greenwell, Justin Edwards, Stephen Fry

Review by Gilbert Seah

Whit Stillman is a Harvard educated American writer/director famous for his trilogy METROPOLITAN (this one winning him an Oscar nomination for Best Screenplay), BARCELONA and THE LAST DAYS OF DISCO. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is his fifth film after DAMSELS IN DISTRESS, his favourite (and mine too). All films share the common theme of young adults embroiled in a social class structure. DISCO and DAMSELS featured female protagonists, the former with stars Kate Beckinsale and Chloë Sevigny. Stillman uses them again in LOVE & FRIENDSHIP.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is based on the Jane Austen epistolary (a series of documents such as letters, diary entries, and newspaper clippings) novel “Lady Susan”. So, most of film’s dialogue, really funny and written in the English spoken in the Austen novels is written by Stillman himself. He moulded the main character of Lady Susan with his star Beckinsale in mind, often writing into the early hours of the morning to suit the different actors in their roles.

Set in the 1790s, the widowed Lady Susan Vernon (Beckinsale) seeks refuge with her in-laws as rumours about her private life circulate through society. While staying at the estate in Churchill, Lady Susan decides to find herself and her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark), a husband. As Lady Susan embarks on a controversial relationship with a married man, seduction, deception, broken hearts, and gossip all ensue. She also pursues a romance with handsome Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) while pushing her daughter to marry the wealthy and extremely talkative Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett, stealing every scene he is in). Frederica is opposed as Sir Martin is (as in the words of the script) a bit of a rattle.

Stillman’s Lady Susan is a likeable one. Stillman does not judge her deeds but lets her manipulate those around her in a comedic fashion. Her victims are looked upon as weaker characters whose existence in life is primarily to be taken advantaged of. Even her pregnancy and husband stealing is given a light look, given the period of the story. The result is a light film which stresses a comedy of manners rather than a tale of morality.

The film contains a large number of characters, related, married or related by marriage They hold titles. To familiarize the audience quickly, each character is introduced, at the start of the film with a picture portrait followed by cute titles below such as: “he’s a bit of a rattle”, or “wealthy but not well liked”. The tactic works, and the audience is soon familiarized with all the story’s characters and their relations, though it requires a bit of attention.

As the film is an Austen period piece, the costumes, props and sets are important in setting the mood and atmosphere of the film. The film was stunningly shot in Ireland by Dutch cinematographer Richard Van Oosterhout. The costumes were designed by Eimer Ni Mhaoldomhnaigh in which her massive use of green (for example in the footmen uniforms) explains her Irish heritage. Lady Susan’s dresses can be seen morphing from black to purple to red as she changes moods from mourning her late husband to finding a new suitor.

LOVE & FRIENDSHIP will definitely delight Jane Austen fans who have seen their favourite Austen adaptations like PERSUASION, SENSE & SENSIBILITY, EMMA etc on the screen. LOVE & FRIENDSHIP is Austen with a naughtier, more mischievous female character, not a prim and proper one as in her famous novels, with the additional bonus of a Whit Stillman’s imprint.


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