Monday, November 9, 2015

MEDIAVORE REVIEW: VIDEO ~ BONE TOMAHAWK, AMERICAN MARY


BONE TOMOHAWK is a gift of a film; a master-class in stylistic blending that deftly combines the best of what frontier westerns and the cannibal horror genre have to offer. Despite a deliberate, careful pacing, momentum never lags as each passing moment is chock-a-block with wonderful, infinitely quotable dialogue and some truly fine performances by the uniformly superlative cast of veteran character actors.

Kurt Russell is at his best here as the dogged, stalwart Sheriff Franklin Hunt, of the tiny, isolated town of Bright Hope, which itself is populated by a collection of the usual suspects, including an ageing but resourceful deputy, a prideful, upper-class veteran of the Indian Wars, a timid barkeep, some hard-working, hard-drinking frontiersmen, their dutiful, inordinately attractive wives, and a colorful bad man or two. Sid Haig and David Arquette are particularly excellent in the opening scenes.

Fair warning: BONE TOMAHAWK starts off in a relatively conventional manner that gives precious little warning before erupting into a grim, horrific, gore-drenched struggle for survival. Featuring one of the most gruesome on-screen killings in recent memory, BONE TOMAHAWK is not for every taste. It is, however, destined to become a cherished and beloved cult classic for as long as people watch, and love, bold and innovative genre motion pictures.


As is often the case with films that cater to a particular element of contemporary fandom*, there are many cliches that apply to the Soska Sisters' aesthetically ambitious and ethically ambiguous sophomore effort, AMERICAN MARY.  Its reach exceeds its grasp, for one. However, if you have no problem suspending your disbelief for 90 minutes - and if you're either a member or curious observer of the "body modification" subculture - then perhaps this cinematic exercise in feminist revenge fantasy is just the thing to spice up your Sunday evening at home with the better half.

AMERICAN MARY tells the story of Mary Mason (portrayed by Katherine Isabelle), a promising and attractive young medical student from Seattle whose money woes force her to consider moonlighting as a stripper. After giving Billy (the bar's sleazy owner) the world's most unenthusiastic massage, a situation arises that leads to Mary being offered $5,000 cash if she can save the life of a double-crossing gangster, whom Billy's associates have been torturing in the basement. Mary's reluctant agreement to do this, and her success in the deed, are what lead to her subsequent decision to enter into the wonderful, whimsical, oh-so-90's-retro world of body modification.

For a movie that is a self-described reaction to the recent wave of cinematic "extremism" in both Europe (think MARTYRS) and Japan (think Takeshi Miike), I found AMERICAN MARY to be more silly than disturbing. A list of every character, line of dialogue, location, motivation, or decision made in this film that could fairly be described as "ridiculous" would stretch quite a long way, indeed. A few key examples should be enough to give you a general idea of what I'm referring to...

First and foremost, there's the film's oddly childish Riot-Grrrl-meets-torture-porn weltanschaung. You get the feeling that the Soska Sisters really believe that shit can go down the way they portray it going down in this movie, particularly at the 100% male-run "surgery school" that Mary attends... up until the moment when the professors all gather to assist the vilest among them - a character who's been twirling his mustache since we first laid eyes on him - to drug and rape Mary (and film it!) in order to ensure that the world of surgical practice remains an elitist, patriarchal cis-pit of unchecked male privilege... or something.

There are other, more basic believability issues here, too. Like, for instance, if her money troubles are so bad, why doesn't Mary just move out of that massive, cathedral-sized apartment of hers, and into a place more befitting her status as a student? And don't get me started on the idea of complex operations being performed successfully, solo, without any preparation whatsoever. Apparently, all it takes to make it big in the lucrative world of plastic surgery is a surgical mask, some gloves, a bag full of sharp blades, and raw surgical talent! No wonder the Old Boy's Club is trying to fortify that Glass Ceiling of theirs; if the truth ever got out about how easy their job is, it would totally derail their Gravy Train!

From the arguably objectionable to the merely annoying, we have Billy's weird, unrequited crush on Mary, which goes nowhere, story-wise. The character of Lance, one of Billy's hired thugs, is another annoyance; what is it with tough guys in Canadian movies all having long, greasy hair, wearing sunglasses, leather jackets and gloves, and secretly being soulful, supportive gentlemen? And then there's the Soskas' infamous Hitchcock moment, wherein they appear as the Demon Twins of Berlin, stereotypically "shocking", pseudo-incestuous Goth sisters who prattle away in ersatz German accents and wish to feel "more connected" by exchanging left arms with one another. Just like the detective who occasionally pops by to briefly question Mary about her instructor's mysterious disappearance, they come and go with neither consequence nor raison d'etre.

So... is AMERICAN MARY completely worthless? Not at all. At times it's enjoyable in an early Rob Zombie kind of way; like flipping through back issues of Fangoria Magazine while listening to Alice in Chains on an old CD Walkman. The practical effects are convincing, and the film looks pretty good, with a dark, rich color palate and some interesting shot compositions. There are also a couple of particularly enjoyable performances.

Katherine Isabelle has been Canada's best Scream Queen since her star-making turn in the excellent feminist werewolf movie GINGER SNAPS, and she does her best to make Mary into a believable, complex, and sympathetic character... no mean feat, considering some of the nasty business she gets up to. That Isabelle brings so much to the character that isn't, strictly speaking, "on the page" shouldn't come as a surprise, seeing as the Soskas wrote the screenplay with her in mind. The other notable performance in this film is Tristan Risk as the strange but compelling character of Beatress. Performing through an impressive latex approximation of Betty Boop, Risk conveys a paradoxically jaded innocence that stayed with me for days.

Of course, while good performances and decent cinematography can go a long way, they don't, in and of themselves, make for a successful film; especially one with the issues I've described. So, ultimately, I'd describe AMERICAN MARY as a failure... but an ambitious and intriguing one. And seeing as it's still early in the Soskas' film-making career, I will definitely continue to check out their work.

* AMERICAN MARY is literally dedicated to Eli Roth!

1 comment:

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