Friday, September 13, 2013

FEMALE TROUBLE: Jug Face; Last Exorcism II; The English Teacher

Lauren Ashley Carter in Jug Face
Chad Crawford Kinkle's Jug Face is so self-consciously weird that it's never quite as scary as it intends to be.  There's Ada (Lauren Ashley Carter) , a young girl impregnated by her brother; there's  Dawai (Sean Bridgers), who lives in a shack and makes jugs with faces carved into them; there's some mysterious creature in a pit; there's a borderline comatose grandfather who sleeps all day; and there's a blue-tinged ghost boy who appears now and then to torment Ada.

There's a plot of some kind -- Ada is being married off to a local boy, but she's pregnant, and apparently that will displease the creature in the pit. The locals - I could never gather if this was one big incestuous family, or just a camp of folks living in the woods - make sacrifices to the creature, which involve a lot of throat cutting and blood-letting. There's some weird stuff where Ada goes into a trance state and her eyeballs turn white. The acting is middling; the "country" accents used by the cast sound like what you'd hear in a community theater production of Oklahoma. Despite the woodsy setting, none of this feels authentic.

Hey, I am all for pit creatures and sacrifices, but Jug Face wants to be too many things to too many people. It wants to be a "small indy" flick,  but  it also wants to fulfill a particular blood quota for horror's less bright fans. As the film lurches between art house horror and bloodbath, it never finds its footing. Oh, Sean Young is in it, too. Remember her? She plays Ada's foul-mouthed mother. She uses some rough language and burns the girl with a cigarette while inspecting her vagina. See? Aren't you glad this movie was made?

 The Last Exorcism Part II is another weak offering about demonic possession, this time directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly. If you recall the first movie, it used  a "found footage" gimmick as an evangelical minister ventured into the Louisiana woods where a girl named Nell (Ashley Bell) was allegedly possessed. There was much screaming, and the girl was quite disturbing, and at the end the minister was killed. Someone found the camera that was documenting the exorcism and, instead of turning it over to the police, gave it to various pay cable services, where I saw it. The film grossed around 70-million, major moolah for a little horror flick, so naturally it bore a sequel.

This time, Nell has turned up at a New Orleans rooming house where she tries to live a normal life. She gets a job cleaning hotel rooms, does her best to fit in with her housemates, and even meets a boy she likes. She starts having sexy dreams, too. Unfortunately, Nell's old demonic tormentor,  Abalam, is still after her. There's some mumbo jumbo about Abalam wanting Nell to help him take over the world, and some covert group of demon fighters are trying to prevent it from happening. The story ends with Nell embracing her inner devil and wreaking havoc.

There have been more devil possession movies in the past few years than at any other time in film history, except for the 1970s. They rarely work because most of them are simply Exorcist knockoffs, filmed quickly and without much thought. The Last Exorcism was an energetic, reasonably smart entry into the genre, but this tired sequel almost destroys its memory. Gass-Donnelly wrings as much as he can out of the New Orleans scenery, and there are some interesting scenes involving strange voices coming out of an old radio, but he relies on so many cheap scares - people unexpectedly tapping Nell on the shoulder, dogs appearing out of nowhere and barking loudly -  that the movie starts to feel  like the Scary Movie series.

Ashley Bell is a good actress. She reminds me of Julie Harris, a fine actress from the 1950s and '60s who passed away recently. I imagine Bell could have a career similar to the one Harris enjoyed. But it's time for her to leave the devil movies behind and pursue better things.

There are scenes in The English Teacher where Julianne Moore seems to be channeling Diane Keaton. This isn’t a bad thing, since we haven’t had an heir to the kind of neurotic but lovable women that Keaton used to play. It’s just that we never figured Moore would be the one to pick up the torch.

Moore plays Linda Sinclair, a middle-aged English teacher in a small Pennsylvania town who takes it upon herself to produce a play by one of her former students. Jason (Michael Angarano) has returned to their town after failing to make it in New York as a playwright. He’s the sort of self-absorbed idiot who never shaves, can’t take criticism, and fills his Facebook page with quotes from Jack Kerouac. He’s just the sort of pseudo bohemian that a small town teacher like Linda might romanticize into something he isn’t. When she learns that Jason’s father (Greg Kinnear) wants him to forget writing and go to law school, Linda decides to save Jason’s career.

She involves the high school drama teacher (Nathan Lane) in directing Jason’s play for the senior class production. She even digs out her checkbook to help finance the production, until she’s nearly $5,000 in the hole for a play that looks like pretentious crap. From what we see of it, there are lots of suicides, a woman turns into a butterfly, and of course, Lane dresses the cast like characters from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The world of amateur theatricals hasn’t taken such a beating since Waiting for Guffman.

Linda gets so caught up in Jason’s phony act  - he even lies about his mother’s death to make himself seem like more of a tortured artist – that she ends up having sex with him. She tells Jason they can’t continue, but when she sees him getting involved with one of the actresses in the production, she reveals a nasty jealous streak. A lover’s quarrel between Linda and Jason is caught on camera by the school’s smart ass (Charlie Saxton) which leads to Linda being fired from her job.  The traumatic event leads to Linda crashing her car and landing in the hospital, where her doctor happens to be Jason’s father. Then comes an epic scene of stammering and the crying, and Moore is suddenly navigating through Keaton land.

The film was directed by Craig Zisk, a television veteran who has directed everything from The Larry Sanders Show to Parks and Recreation. Not surprisingly, The English Teacher feels like a television show. There are some minor subplots involving the school authorities trying to quash the production, and at one point Lane’s character is hospitalized with exhaustion, but the tensions created by screenwriters Dan and Stacy Charitan don’t amount to much. They intended this to be a sardonic, lighthearted comedy, and that’s what it is.

The English Teacher is funniest when Linda cuts loose – she pepper sprays Jason twice, and her efforts to keep the school’s lead actress (Lilly Collins) away from Jason are very funny. There should be more comedies in her future.

As good as Moore is, the unsung heroes of The English Teacher are Jessica Hecht and Norbert Leo Butz as the school’s principal and vice principal. They’re a funny pair, in sync the way certain co-workers can be. They yearn for the days when schools did Our Town every year. They may be a couple of narrow-minded boobs, but they have a point.

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