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Last updateMon, 20 Apr 2020 1pm

Machismo and sanctioned violence get a sinister, satiric kick to the face in The Art of Self-Defense, the new dark comedy from writer-director Riley Stearns.

Meek accountant Casey (a totally on-point Jesse Eisenberg) is a nerdy wimp on all fronts. His co-workers can’t stand him, and French tourists mock him while he sits in a café—completely obliterating him in a foreign language. The exclamation point: He has just learned French via books on tape, so he understands all of the jabs being thrown his way … and he says nothing. Nerdy wimp personified.

Casey runs out of dog food for his adorable dachshund and must take a long, lonely walk to the local grocer in the dark of night. A motorcyclist with a second rider stops, asks if he has a gun, then rides away. On his way back from the store, that same motorcycle duo kicks the unholy shit out of him.

Seeking help, Casey visits a dojo where he encounters Sensei, played by Alessandro Nivola, in a star turn that might get him the sort of attention he’s always deserved. Sensei is at times helpful in Casey’s quest to become more self-assured—but Sensei also has an evil side. Be wary of the night classes, during which he has no problem breaking a man’s arm in two to demonstrate one of his twisted rules for the martial arts. He’s so self-assured in his toxic masculinity that he knows such an act will produce no lawsuits.

Speaking of that toxic masculinity: It starts to spread in Casey’s system like venom after a manly snake bite during a manly man hike. He’s changing—almost like a robot programmed to preach the Sensei’s doctrine of manly man behavior in all aspects of life. He even denounces the weak breed of dog sitting on his couch. Casey becomes so obsessed with karate that he has a yellow leather belt custom-made so that he can wear his yellow belt all the time, even when he’s not kicking people in the face.

Imogen Poots contributes to the nastiness as Anna, a should-be black belt being subjugated by the misogynistic Sensei. Her showdown with fellow student Thomas (Steve Terada) shows that a destructive streak runs through her as well. Poots is her usual strong self—as scary as anybody else in the movie. David Zellner will break your heart as the friendly Henry, perhaps the only nice person in the whole film. And nice people in this movie are really out of place.

The humor in Stearns’ script is drier than burnt toast left out in the middle of the desert with a magnifying glass perched over it. The actors don’t get laughs by telling jokes; they get laughs by being so hilariously awful that you can’t believe it, especially Nivola. Teeth getting knocked out of somebody’s face have never been this funny.

While Eisenberg can be a one-note performer, he plays that note well, and this is his most memorable character in a long time. Like his Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Casey is a total ass—a weaselly jerk that you love to hate. His progression—from a meek guy trying to make conversations at work into a strangely masculine guy doing push-ups in the breakroom—is a lot of fun to watch.

The movie has some mystery that isn’t all that surprising, but you won’t care. The payoff is satisfying, not to mention insane. The Art of Self-Defense is the funniest film of the summer so far, and Nivola’s work within it counts as his career best.

The Art of Self-Defense is now playing at the Century Theatres at The River and XD (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

After being banished from her Orthodox Jewish community due to a small scandal with a local girl, Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns to her London home years later upon hearing her father, a prestigious rabbi, has passed away.

With that, the stage is set for Disobedience, a stunner from Sebastián Lelio (A Fantastic Woman) and a showcase for Weisz and Rachel McAdams as Esti, the woman with whom Ronit had the affair. Esti is now married to Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), and has been repressing her true sexuality for years in Ronit’s absence. When Ronit returns … well, things happen.

Lelio explores not just repressed sexuality, but the influence (both good and bad) of religion in the small community. Weisz and McAdams are mighty convincing as lovers, while Nivola offers up a few big surprises as the husband who shouldn’t really be Esti’s husband. The three have moments together that count as some of the best performed scenes of the year.

Disobedience is available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and via online sources including iTunes and Amazon.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

After the misstep that was Only God Forgives, director Nicolas Winding Refn gets things back on track with The Neon Demon, perhaps the nastiest film ever made about the modeling industry.

Jesse (Elle Fanning) moves to Los Angeles to become a model. She’s underage, naïve and lost, but finds a helping hand in Ruby (Jena Malone), a makeup artist who knows what it’s like to be the new girl in town.

As her career begins to take off, Jesse begins to gain confidence—to a fault—and a couple of other models (Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee) develop sinister intentions along with their envy of Jesse’s spectacular looks.

Refn memorizes yet again (his Drive remains one of the best films of this decade), combining stunning visuals and an excellent soundtrack to go with the outstanding performances from Fanning, Malone, Heathcote and Lee.

Keanu Reeves has a small but memorable role as a sleazy hotel manager, while Alessandro Nivola is most memorable as a fashion designer who must have Jesse for his show.

Refn has produced a fine piece of dark, cynical satire here—with elements of horror mixed in for good measure. This establishes Fanning as one of this generation’s best actresses. Hers is one of the year’s best performances so far.

The Neon Demon is now playing at the Regal Rancho Mirage Stadium 16 (72777 Dinah Shore Drive, Rancho Mirage; 844-462-7342); and the Century Theatres at The River (71800 Highway 111, Rancho Mirage; 760-836-1940).

Published in Reviews

Atom Egoyan, an inconsistent but sometimes brilliant director (The Sweet Hereafter, Exotica), delivers his very worst film with Devil’s Knot. The film is a dramatic representation of the child murders that were the subject of four documentaries (the Paradise Lost films and the Peter Jackson-produced West of Memphis). Egoyan casts Oscar winners Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth in major roles, yet everybody seems lost in a film that feels truncated with no sense of direction.

The story of the three little boys murdered in Arkansas, and the resulting witch-hunt that resulted in the wrongful incarceration of three teenagers for two decades, is powerful. Even though the story has been told in the documentaries, it could be the subject of an amazing film. However, what Egoyan delivers is a standard courtroom drama, featuring a stilted, confused performance from Witherspoon as Pam Hobbs, mother of one of the murdered boys. Witherspoon’s approach to Hobbs is muted and dull. She captures none of Hobbs’ personality.

The casting of the West Memphis Three (Damien Echols, Jason Baldwin and Jessie Misskelley Jr.) is uninspired, and the characters barely factor in the film. Instead, the movie spends most of its time with Firth as Ron Lax, a private investigator who doesn’t do much here other than act mildly appalled.

This film is a sad, tragic mess. The movie feels like a made-for-TV effort that the producers decided to make R-rated at the last minute.

Echols himself has publicly decried the movie. He couldn’t be more right about this one.

Devil’s Knot is available via various online sources including iTunes and Amazon.com.

Published in DVDs/Home Viewing

In Ginger and Rosa, Elle Fanning delivers a stellar performance (with an excellent British accent!) as Ginger in this film about two teenagers in Cold War England in the 1960s.

Fanning runs the gamut, showing all of the joy, anguish and fears of a girl living in an age when the world seems to be falling apart. Alice Englert is also terrific as Rosa, Ginger’s more-depressed best friend, while Alessandro Nivola and Christina Hendricks are excellent as Ginger’s parents.

The film goes a little off the rails in its final scenes, but it’s solid and steady for most of its running time, with Fanning showing the world that she is an actress with whom to be reckoned. Written and directed by Sally Potter, Ginger and Rosa is a showcase for Fanning that should propel her into great future roles.

Ginger and Rosa opens Friday, April 5, at the Cinemas Palme d’Or, 72840 Highway 111 in Palm Desert; 779-0730; www.thepalme.com.

Published in Reviews