October 31, 2011

Naked Lunch

by Steve Dollar

Zombie

Vampires have held pop culture's center stage long enough. The zombies are lurching back! True Blood and Twilight and Let Me/the Right One In have cast their spell over the zeitgeist in recent years, notably playing up themes of teen angst and subversive sexuality to tap a perennial romantic vein. With rare exceptions, there isn't much romance in a zombie. If fangdom clings to a certain gothic giddiness, a fantasy of eternal love or jugular abandon, the undead are simply a problem that won't go away. Ravenous and ragged, they are the perfect metaphor for a failed economy, a stagnant government, the retrograde rhetoric of the GOP presidential field, the all too real apocalypse of abandoned mortgages and unemployment lines. Brother, can you spare some brains?

Everything runs in a cycle, of course. So fresh meat like AMC's hit series The Walking Dead, which uses the zombie apocalypse as an excuse for a latter-day Western, or Colson Whitehead's compulsively readable Zone One, which lyrically surveys a depopulated Manhattan whose high-rises are "cleaned" by zombie-busting ragtag military crews, may turn out to be passing fascinations. But they are relentless, and numberless, these creatures. Underestimate them at your peril.

Zombie Bill Lustig, the grindhouse guru of Blue Underground, couldn't have picked a better time to reissue Lucio Fulci's 1979 face-chomper Zombie in a lovingly restored, double-disc Blu-Ray edition. (Also newly released is the Blu-Ray of the director's 1981 The House by the Cemetery). You don't have to be a zombie scholar to know that after George A. Romero, who all but fathered the archetype of the modern zombie, the Italian gore maestro (b.1927 – d.1996) lent his own distinctive touch. Night of the Living Dead got by on pancake makeup and what I'm guessing was chocolate syrup, which its grainy, Xerox-copy, black-and-white palette somehow translated into unfettered terror through its sheer cheapness. The mere idea was scary enough, and with the nightly news broadcasting live from Vietnam's killing fields, the real-life analogies were blatantly felt. Fulci's zombies, arriving a decade later, seem to have no subtext of their own that I can detect, but they are the nastiest ambulatory corpses in the movies. They put the dead in undead: typically rotted down to the skull, with worm-eaten eye sockets and flesh scraped away to reveal moldy choppers, these festering shitbags were so unsettling to witness, it finally almost made sense that their idiotic victims would freeze in numb, wordless terror as they twisted and limped, gimp-like, and made ready to chow down. (The film's tagline: "WE ARE GOING TO EAT YOU!"). I've never seen anything freakier, unless it was the line-up for the breakfast buffet at the Imperial Palace casino in Biloxi, Miss.

Zombie

Zombie (1979) is, among other things: a Mystery Science Theater 3000-ready Olympiad of histrionic bad acting—aggravated by dubbed-in dialogue; an effectively spooky bit of slumming into Caribbean voodoo exotica, returning the zombie myth to the West Indies that spawned it; and a formidable catalog of dread-laden kills orchestrated for maximum squirm factor (in one of the film's agonizingly detailed zombie attack sequences, a wooden door splinter perforates the eyeball of actress Olga Karlatos—Prince's mom in Purple Rain!—as if it were an egg yolk). The story is laced with familiar trappings of spook lore.

Spirited young urbanite Anne Bowles (Tisa Farrow, Mia's kid sister) and cynical tabloid reporter Peter West (Ian McCulloch) make their way from Manhattan to a remote island after they meet cute while poking around on a ghost ship floating in the East River. The vessel belongs to her scientist father, who has gone missing while researching a strange disease afflicting the natives on the obscure isle of Mantool. What they don't know is that the island already is being overrun by the mysteriously risen dead. There, a surviving Westerner with a sense of grandeur common to the medical profession, Dr. Menard (Richard Johnson), is racing to uncover the secret lurking in the zombie blood, but it may be too late. Before the New Yorkers even arrive, the undead come to greet them. When the companion (Auretta Gay) of a pleasure boater they've paid to deliver them to the island goes in for some topless diving, she gets a big surprise. First, a shark! And then, a zombie! After fending off both, she watches in shock as the two predators go jaw to jaw in a kind of deep-sea pas de deux that would do Ivan Tors proud. The scene, at once ridiculous and utter B-movie genius, was recently appropriated to add geek appeal to an ironic Windows 7 commercial, Madison Avenue ratifying Fulci's bravura absurdity. "And I am proud to say, that zombie is a Mexican," Guillermo Del Toro informs us in a bonus disc interview, in which he recounts his adolescent love affair with Zombie and the life-changing impression made by its director, whom he admiringly calls a "madman."

Zombie

After this begins the excruciating, inevitable game of attrition. Silly mortals in over their heads make bad decisions as Jeeps break down, night falls and someone has the bright idea to cool their weary heels in the middle of a 17th century graveyard churning with reanimated Spanish conquistadors. Indefatigable, Anne and Peter somehow escape death, set fire to the village and make their way to the boat with its owner Brian (Al Cliver, aka Fulci regular Pierluigi Conti), who has now been bitten by his zombie girlfriend and is trembling with a fever. Yet, one zombie you know is easier to handle than hundreds of stranger zombies. As the couple, now full-blown lovebirds, sail into the new day, we exhale a sigh of relief and wonder: What will happen now?

Best not to spoil the ending, because it's worth every minute of the preceding hour-and-a-half. Let's just say it's one of the best uses of an iconic American landmark in a film since Planet of the Apes and lends a whole new meaning to the phrase "bridge and tunnel crowd."

Posted by ahillis at 7:49 AM

October 27, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Hipsters

by Vadim Rizov

Hipsters (Stilyagi)

For the past six weeks, at least 10 million Americans have been turning to CBS Monday nights to hear hipster jokes. "I wear knit hats when it's cold out," Kat Dennings nonsensically told a "hipster" in the pilot episode of hit sitcom 2 Broke Girls. "You wear knit hats because of Coldplay." It's unclear what a band that's sold over 50 million records worldwide has to do with self-conscious pursuers of the obscure and impractical, but the animating impulse is clear: Dennings is struggling to get by on a lousy diner waitress job, and all these jobless brats are getting in her face. This is apparently a message American TV watchers can relate to.

2 Broke Girls takes place in the badly remembered "Brooklyn" of exponentially more dangerous past years, with subway segments shot on a subway car out of The Warriors; Hipsters, the very real title of Russia's 11th-highest grossing film of 2008, also addresses everyday workers' hatred of impractically dressed layabouts, glancing back a little further to 1955. "Hipsters" is the closest translation of stilyagi, a temporally specific movement of (essentially) rockabilly-fetishizing Russians existing in a cultural bubble. The USSR would never be a totally safe place, but the mild, post-Stalin, Khruschev-era cultural thaw allowed for non-conformist clothing that was, in reality, still baggier and less neon-shocked than those of this film's characters, who dress in outsized jackets and tasteless color palettes like '80s video refugees. Their parents scream at them about the sartorial affront to all their hard work and a potentially life-threatening provocation of the regime; tram cars of weary proles, young and old, begin angrily cross-talking at a traveling hipster. Little kids kick rubber balls at the youths' backs while chanting "Hipster!"

Hipsters (Stilyagi)

Faithful Komsomol youth Mels (Anton Shagin) falls for rebellious Polly (Oksana Akinshina). Mels' union of youth communists like to raid hipster gatherings with large pairs of scissors: they don't just trim off aberrant hairstyles but snip girls' pantyhose and grope their asses. Mels chases Polly only to have her throw him in the lake; from this baptismal imagery, he emerges a fully reborn "stilyaga" (singular form), inflating his hair into an impressively puffy make-do pompadour, strutting around with one less letter in his first name in what's effectively a leisure suit. Courting Polly with a sax solo leads to a magical night in a bedroom tucked away in a communal apartment ("don't use the bathroom," he's told).

These 1955 Soviet rockers indulge a funhouse image of American rockabilly, swiveling their hips to sax solos closer to AM sleaze than the explicitly name-checked jazz/early rock reference points (most notably a neon billboard reading "Sarah Vaughn" during a dream sequence). The music is often tasteless, but director Valery Todorovsky's visual imagination is undeniable. Hipsters arrives in Los Angeles this weekend, just a few months after the 30th anniversary of MTV's first broadcasts, and its ideas of visual sophistication owe a lot to anachronistic Music Video Greatest Hits tropes: Polly changes out of work clothes and zips her colorful skirt in a slutty take on video softcore. (With lots of gratuitous nudity, the movie's cheerfully oversexed.) Mels' expulsion from the Komsomol takes on surely deliberately echoes of "Another Brick in the Wall," with grey-coated indistinguishable youth screaming in a school auditorium about moving forward as one chain in unity, etc. Constant excesses make monochromatic socialist realism the starting points for over-the-top imagery: an MGM-style musical number in which men shop for Communist-era versions of grey flannel shots in only slightly differing shades of grey and black gets the period color palette exactly right, with elaborately choreographed dances dispelling the drabness.

Hipsters (Stilyagi)

In Karen Shakhnazarov's 2009 The Unexamined Empire, there's an early '70s scene where nervous young men walk through a Moscow park in broad daylight, asking men in trenchcoats for Pink Floyd albums and scattering when the police arrive. Such low-key scenes are hyperbolized in Hipsters, where the trenchcoated men now stand in dark alleyways (often in the rainy night) and serve as black market conduits to instrument bootleggers, tie-mongers and hoarders of 45" records. One minute Mels is on the street, the next in a pub where beer swillers (their Adam's apples swallowing in synchronized foley'd unison) dance as a sax dealer sings "Jazz is seen in this country as an enemy force/I'd keep on filling her tanks up with wine and vodka." Hipsters is as bizarrely constrained in its lyrics as any of the weird, officially sanctioned Communist musicals excerpted in the 1997 documentary East Side Story. Where once chirpy Youth Brigade members sang about meeting their production quota and searching for the housing superintendent, here history (not censorship) dictates the lyrical subject matter and guides it along the same channels: for perhaps the first time, a youth Communist party meeting expels a member in song.

Over two lengthy hours, the film rises and falls on the strength of its musical numbers, which occasionally rise to tour-de-force status, culminating in a dreamy, non-literal shot of Mel triumphantly striding down Moscow's present-day streets, jumping 40 years of history as a crowd of mohawked punks, slovenly ravers and other future hipsters cheer him down the street. It's a foolishly jolly leap from one sanitized past to an even more sugar-coated present. An instant kitsch classic, Hipsters layers schlock on top of painful history to often disorienting effect.

Posted by ahillis at 12:23 PM

October 25, 2011

SITGES 2011: Outro

by Steve Dollar

Guilty of Romance

One of the attractions of a film festival is the chance to join a vital, engaged audience that can't wait to debate the merits of a movie seconds after the credits roll. As the day or week passes, you keep running into other fans and industry folks with strong opinions, often sharply opposed to your own, which only makes it more fun to argue about—even when things get a tad explosive.

One of my favorites at the 44th annual Sitges Film Festival was Japanese provocateur Sion Sono's Guilty of Romance. Along with Cold Fish and Love Exposure, it completes his so-called "Hate Trilogy," and shares with both films characters who are maniacally obsessive, oppressed by their circumstances, and capable of dangerous extremes of behavior. Purportedly based on a true story, Romance is framed by a police investigation of a grisly discovery at a love hotel. The body of a prostitute has been hacked apart, various limbs and organs reassembled with a matching head and torso of a mannequin. The story (at least in the two-hour "international" cut screened in Sitges) focuses on the spiral into depravity and/or sexual liberation of a submissive and sexually frustrated housewife Izumi (Megumi Kagurazaka, of Cold Fish and a Google image search best enjoyed in privacy) who falls in love with Mitsuko (Makoto Togashi), a literature professor who spends her nights having anonymous sex for money in the sleazy Shibuya district. There's a lot of screwball absurdity and cultural satire nailing down a twisty plot, which is a lot more complicated than you'd expect from a movie with so much nudity and noisy bonking. There is also a lot of sublime, beatific poetry recited (endlessly, in fact) as strings shimmer against the day and the women struggle to articulate a passion that is sweeping, destructive and out of control. Since it's Sono, the exalted blooms from the scuzzy underbelly, so these moments occur amid episodes of oppressively casual violence and hysterical kink that always push the envelope. According to one of the better festival rumors, juror Ashley Laurence (who played Kirsty in the Hellraiser films) was so appalled by Romance that she packed her bags and fled the festival, compelling an emergency search for a new jury member. (Enter Richard Stanley, the Australian director of Dust Devil and one of several filmmakers featured in the new Theatre Bizarre anthology film).

Himizu

Watching Romance in tandem with the heartbroken Himizu—Sono's other new film—is also to appreciate the sheer volume of tenderness his stories evoke after any number of bruising beatdowns and humiliations. Adapted from the manga, Himizu ("mole") was shot in the wake of the March 11 tsunami and subsequent nuclear crisis in Japan, and for all its immediacy it still looks like a rough cut, long-winded and not entirely coherent. The saga of a high school student abused and abandoned by his parents, harassed by the yakuza and stalked by an obsessed schoolgirl admirer, the film details the making of a would-be psychopath at the same time it serves as a kind of elegy for the lives destroyed by the tsunami and shouts, as loudly as possible, a testimony to the transforming power of love. Leaving the theater, I felt like I'd been whacked in the head by a steel bar, but I was also stirred up inside. Sono's messiness is a method.

Livid (Livide)

And, at least, it doesn't lend itself to the connect-the-dots reduction that can pass for serious criticism of an ambitious project like Livid (Livide). The sophomore effort from French filmmakers Alexandre Bustillo and Julian Maury (Inside) got a damning assessment from a blogger within my earshot after a screening at Fantastic Fest, who delighted in picking out all the other horror movies from which the directors steal (and/or to which they pay homage). That's such a cynical and dismissive way of thinking about a work of art. The spooky old house gothic is a conceptual mechanism, for sure, an art director's movie that has (for me, at least) a distinct kinship with the clockwork machinery of Guillermo del Toro's films and the terpsichore-on-acid weirdness of Dario Argento's Suspiria. On Halloween, three kids burglar a comatose invalid's mansion and make discoveries they wish they hadn't, falling prey to all manner of meticulously choreographed supernatural menace. As the convoluted and not particularly logical plot turns, it becomes clear that teenage Lucie (Chloé Coulloud)—a novice home healthcare aide whose knowledge of the house's hidden "treasure" inspires her boyfriend to lead the clumsy robbery—has actually been led to the haunted mansion for a special purpose. The third act is a tour-de-force, unleashing a rush of poetic and terrifying images that aspires to be at once tragic and transcendent as tormented souls fly free and a mystery materializes into flesh and blood.

Hard Labor (Trabajo Cansa)

A Couple to Watch: The Brazilian directors Juliana Rojas and Marco Dutra were back in Sitges after first showing their short animation Rojo Red in 2009. Their feature debut Hard Labor (Trabajo Cansa) is very much of a piece with other recent South American genre-fest faves in that it roots so much of the character's anxieties in the mundane situations of domestic life and regular Joe struggle. There's a weird piece of real estate: an abandoned grocery store that the plucky Helena (Helena Albergaria) reopens, even though the place is haunted by some unexplained something. Black goo oozes up through the tile. A mysterious stain covers a rear wall. And at night, the bulldogs across the street howl bloody murder. Yet, what's more unhinging is the ordinary fear triggered by a crap economy. Though some kind of monster exists, Helena's really scared of losing the live-in housekeeper who works for almost nothing, while her husband faces daily humiliation looking for work. The slow burn is an excuse for a class anatomy, those ominous curved claws lurking behind the bread rack more symbolic than Satanic.

The Island

Turkey Shoot: It's a toss up. First, there's The Island, a Bulgarian-made suspenser that actually deserves some mad credit (or head-shaking derision) for deploying the single most unexpected third act plot twist of any film I've seen all year. It's unexpected because it seems to arrive from an entirely different film, and while the what-the-huh?-inducing hairpin turn offers some perverse hindsight on the preceding hour of soul-haunted brooding—accompanied by languid interludes of supermodel Laeticia Casta swimming naked off the gorgeously rugged coast of the Black Sea—it's also pranks the audience's investment in a mysterious psychodrama about rediscovered identity. And the dialogue! Danish actor Thure Lindhardt is Daneel, whose stylish Parisian girlfriend Sophie (Casta) has taken him on a surprise vacation to Bulgaria, where she doesn't yet know he'd been raised in an orphanage after being abandoned on a remote island. He leads them there, where through a series of slow reveals, flashbacks and freakouts, Daneel melts down and torpedoes the relationship. Meanwhile, the horny proles from a roughneck work crew peep on Casta, Porky's-style, taking a shower and fail to reenact Straw Dogs. But first, there's this:

DANEEL (in Bulgarian, to grizzled Bulgarian innkeeper): Where are you from?
INNKEEPER: Sofia.
SOPHIE: What did you ask him?
DANEEL: Where he is from.
SOPHIE: And...?
DANEEL: He said "Sofia."

Womb

Yet Still the Most Annoying Movie at the Festival: Womb. This stagnant slab of fog-bound introspection stars Eva Green, which would seem to be a plus, and revolves around a deeply obsessive romance that transcends mortal tragedy through the agency of avant-garde science. Yes, she gives birth to the clone of her childhood sweetheart, who has been suddenly killed just as they'd reunited. They hadn't even had sex yet! Underneath all the torturted romantic airs and long soulful silent gazing out to the windswept sea, what seems intended as poetic melancholy is just plain ridiculous. She has the kid. He grows up. He finds out he's really a clone. Goes apeshit. And then they fuck. Roll credits. There's a creepy-icky factor that's always enjoyable in a movie that takes itself so seriously, but right down to its final twist it's too studiously glum to buy into for more than a reel.

Posted by ahillis at 1:32 PM

October 21, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Ticket to Heaven (1981)

by Nick Schager

Ticket to Heaven What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Sean Durkin's Cannes and New York Film Festival-heralded cult-life drama, Martha Marcy May Marlene, this week it's Ralph L. Thomas' 1981 drama Ticket to Heaven.

Indoctrination, entanglement, and escape prove the three steps of religious cult experience addressed by Ticket to Heaven, Ralph L. Thomas' 1981 Canadian indie about a man recruited into a bonkers spiritual outfit. Adapted from Josh Freed's novel Moonwebs, Thomas' film opens with a credit sequence in which the camera tracks a white van crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and traversing San Francisco's streets, gradually increasing proximity until it enters the vehicle, where a group of young people are chanting and cheering for "Father." That celebration is interrupted when David (Nick Mancuso) is found to have fallen asleep, a no-no given the outfit's mantra "Bring in the money, stay awake, smash out Satan!" The fervor is palpable, though the story quickly diffuses that mood by jumping three months back in time to find disaffected school teacher David attending a Toronto comedy show by friend Larry (Saul Rubinek), whose stand-up routine is performed in a nun outfit (and, later, food costumes). David is reeling from a break-up with Sarah (Dixie Seatle), and despite Larry stating that this development is for the best, he can't dissuade David from traveling to California to visit Karl (Stephen Markle), who promptly takes him to the "Liberty City" commune, a supposedly self-sustaining outfit (via drug rehab and other social service operations) whose members eat stew, frolic in nature, and smile with wacko glee.

Ticket to Heaven David is initially creeped out by the ultra-emotional sincerity and good cheer of the residents, including boisterous Ruthie (a vibrant Kim Cattrall), be it during a woman's acoustic-guitar performance of "Blowing in the Wind" or daytime exercise routines that amount to holding hands and chanting in open fields. In these and other instances—such as when David is asked to candidly share his feelings around a campfire, or compelled to rapturously sing arm-in-arm with others—Thomas' camera spins and pans in harmony with the cultists, aesthetically expressing their crazed zealotry. From sitting in circles and playing dodgeball to running and playing with kid-like glee, the group's various pastimes carry a distinct childhood vibe, subtly suggesting that its methods of inculcating new members is rooted in tapping into a subconscious sense of youthful peace, innocence and togetherness. Still, especially with regards to a bizarre preacher's sermons about Christ, the environment's sheer weirdness leads David to at first crave alone time (which is thwarted at every turn), ask Karl to help facilitate his departure, and eventually try to flee the church.

Ticket to Heaven Persistence and repetition, however, prove successful brainwashing techniques on David—who, after his break-up, is desperate for affection and acceptance—and Ticket to Heaven is canniest in its portrait of how cults get their hooks into people not through overt intimidation but tenacious reiteration of mantras and routines. Once David succumbs to the collective, whose leader "Father" is an Asian businessman never seen in person, Thomas' film segues to the far darker side of the coin, depicting David cutting off all communication with his family on the orders of Ingrid (Meg Foster), even as he comes to see (via a cohort lying to people on the street) the dubious logic governing the group's dogma. Alas, Thomas' TV movie-grade direction rarely elevates these sequences, and it somewhat bogs down the later action concerning Larry's enlistment of David's parents and friends to kidnap him from the commune. Even with Mancuso evocatively expressing the docile blankness that overtakes cult members' personalities, and a young Rubinek balancing sarcastic wise-cracking with profound sadness and fear, Ticket to Heaven can't muster much in the way of dramatic urgency during its prolonged snatch-and-grab centerpiece, its camerawork too pedestrian and flat to heighten suspense.

Ticket to Heaven Such formal shortcomings, however, can't obscure the overriding acuity of Thomas' tale, which eventually details—through the abducted David's treatment sessions with a former cult member—a de-programming process involving aggressive, unyielding refutation of cult doctrine hypocrisies and nonsensicalities. As with its dramatization of David's early attempts to reject the cult in favor of his old life (epitomized by a frowned-upon visit to a diner for a burger), Ticket to Heaven addresses its protagonist's recovery with minimal preachiness and intense attention to his tangled, warring psychological dynamics. That shrewdness extends to the closing shot, in which a rehabilitated David, lovingly embraced by his relatives and acquaintances, gazes across a city street at his former cult family members, his eyes initially triumphant, and yet—in the final freeze frame—also exhibiting a severity that captures the film's uncertainty about cultists' potential, ultimately, for achieving true liberation from the forces that once ensnared them.

Posted by ahillis at 1:18 PM

October 18, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Aki Kaurismäki's Leningrad Cowboys

by Vadim Rizov

Leningrad Cowboys Go America

Criterion's DVD box-set release (on their Eclipse label) of Aki Kaurismäki's loose-knit Leningrad Cowboys trilogy chronicles eight years in the group's history, from their ramshackle fictional roots to becoming a bona fide crowd-pleaser for 70,000 real Finns. A fake Siberian cover band that rarely performs original material, they're actually versatile performers. And aside from their idiosyncratic attire (lengthy pompadours extend and hang like diving boards from their foreheads, mirrored by outrageously long and pointy elf shoes), they're typical Kaurismäki characters who enjoy diligent beer drinking whenever possible, staring to deadpan effect—and furthermore, showing no visible facial reactions to anything. The members of Sleepy Sleepers first teamed up with Kaurismäki for 1986’s eight-minute, faux-MTV epic "Rocky VI," a fictional rock pastiche that rewrites Rocky IV’s triumphant ending, an early sign of Kaurismäki’s interest in toying with Cold War imagery.

Leningrad Cowboys Go America

In 1989's Leningrad Cowboys Go America, the band flees their indeterminate tundra for America, where they wander down from New York City and head south, driving West to Texas until they finally slink into Mexico. The country they tour isn't the clichéd Sad But Beautiful America so many foreign directors wish to find in the U.S. (think Paris, Texas or My Blueberry Nights) but an atomized, disconnected series of dingy bars, chemical plants and rural urban decay. Under the direction of abusive manager Vladimir (Matti Pellonpää)—who mostly tosses beer cans at the backseat band members and denies them food—the Cowboys deliver ripping versions of "Tequila," "Born to Be Wild" and other rock chestnuts. The joke is that these Finns-pretending-to-be-dispossessed-Soviets are a terrific act whose accordion and stand-up bass are totally serviceable replacements for the usual bar-rock accoutrement. Whether in run-down New Orleans, Houston or anonymous Oaxaca, the obviously non-actor audiences seem to like them just fine. The comedy is loose and goofy, seemingly barely written more than five minutes before every shot.

The competence of the 1989 band curdles into the output of the world's "worst band," as the title cards of 1994's slouchy Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses announce. A band that could rip out surf-guitar solos and biker staples with equal competence has grown to include tacky Soviet pop and other specialized genres—which are funnier to watch fail in front of crowds than they are to enjoy on their own. The boys now have heavy Mexican accents, and the jokes are of the leaden broad-accent/bad-English variety ("You are coward"). Other jokes flatly reveal predictable hypocrisies: Vladimir, now a self-styled religious prophet, declines the offer of a gig: "We are in a hurry, and besides,” only to shut up at the sight of money slapped down on a table. "Vhen do we start?"

Leningrad Cowboys Meet Moses

Even when irritating, Meet Moses is nonetheless prescient in touring Europe from west to east, a continent drawn rejoined in the middle without ideological reconciliation. When the Cowboys pop up in a Paris bingo hall to inappropriately serenade the elderly with Soviet schlock between number calling, their audience is deathly silent, polite but unreceptive. Such chilly meetings between previously irreconcilable political neighbors will become more common: an emblematic scene has Vladimir reading from the Old Testament while a heretic trades quotes with him from The Communist Manifesto on the other side, an ice-cream-eating indifferent positioned between them. (He dismisses both as jingoists and walks off.)

A mostly flat burlesque on the decline of Communism, Moses anticipates more substantive, far-off endeavors like Ulrich Seidl's 2007 Austria-vs.-Ukraine Import/Export [ed: our Seidl interview here], which spends 135 minutes investigating the two countries' invisible economic ties, or the more superficially modest films of Mia Hansen-Løve, whose dramas unfold over a minimum of two countries each. The Cowboys wander through strange lands soon to be a lot closer than anyone will be comfortable with, anticipating greatly fluidity in constructing a "European" identity.

Total Balalaika Show

For a shorter, punchier and genuinely subversive meditation on the end of the Soviet Union, turn to the Total Balalaika Show, an alternately wearying and mind-blowing concert movie, which begins with nothing less than a glowering portrait of Lenin before proceeding to essentially straightforward performance footage. Rumbling choral back-up from dozens of deep-voiced men comes courtesy of the Alexandrov Ensemble (a/k/a the Red Army Choir), in existence since 1928 and smoothly transitioning from the Cold War to a post-Soviet era by singing the "Volga Boatman" song behind a group of no-larger-than-life dudes with foot-long awnings of hair over their faces.

The highlight is a rendition of "Happy Together," with a Finnish cowboy and a real Russian military singer transforming a duet about generic romantic love into a metaphor for East and West's reconciliation. Kaurismäki routinely returns to the rows and rows of trumpet players behind the Cowboys waiting for their cue, their skills now applied to knowing kitsch for a gleeful hometown crowd—an uneasy but hilarious image of change. As for the Leningrad Cowboys, they've outlasted Kaurismaki’s conception: this year, they released a new album entitled Buena Vodka Social Club. Some jokes never get old.

Posted by ahillis at 12:09 PM

October 16, 2011

SITGES 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Woman

Experienced as an American visitor, at least, an annual autumn visit to the Sitges Film Festival offers pleasures you really don't find anywhere else. Also known by the more cumbersome official name of Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya, the 11-day genre marathon sprawls across the resort town on the Balearic Sea. It's not simply convened in a particular focal point—the 1,200-seat auditorium housed inside a onetime 1992 Olympics compound that is now the Hotel Melia—but takes over the entire town: from the nude beaches to the old cathedral to the narrow, winding streets where a pair of vintage moviehouses also offer screenings, including all-night themed programs. Magically, it seems, you can stumble out of, say, Karate-Robo Zaborgar at 3 a.m. and still find a slew of rowdies consorting at a dockside, open-air bar. Maybe after a few whiskeys, including the one you spilled on local hero and karaoke assassin Nacho Vigalondo, or one of the ubiquitous models from Cinemax's Femme Fatales (who curiously moved in a pack to every social event here for nights on end), you'd remember an 8:30 a.m. press screening that couldn't be missed and begin the long climb back to the hotel. But first to conquer the 100 Steps of Death, more dreaded—to a blind drunk festival maven at 5 a.m.—than any zombie hayride, up, up, up the hillside stairway to the hotel, where breathlessly you can collapse into jet-lagged dreams of chainsaws and colliding planets and naked killer cyborg babes.

The Woman

The relatively exotic locale, which for 44 years has hosted the world's first and foremost fantastic fest, lends panoramic splendor to even the most depraved acts of cinematic provocation. And in that spirit, a film like The Woman is granted the same esteem as potential Oscar bait like The Artist. Indeed, a movie about an avenging cannibal wolf-girl slave is probably given more regard, because in this milieu an avenging cannibal wolf-girl slave isn't just a genre archetype, it's the whole enchilada, the habanero sauce, and the mouth that consumes it. Oklahoma indie filmmaker Lucky McKee's collaboration with New York cult novelist Jack Ketchum, a covert sequel to the 2009 Offspring, is the perfect film to see in Sitges. Maybe it's superficial to blame it on an indelible cultural imprint made by The Inquisition or some DNA-level ancient Moorish hoodoo, but Spanish audiences really relate to the visceral. They do so in a way that makes the exultant, blood-thirsty vibe of the old 42nd Street grindhouses or the drive-ins of the deep South not a relic of the cinemaniacal past but something like a soul-possessing demon that has, at last, found an abiding host to inhabit.

The funny thing about The Woman is that it's much more a twisted satire of suburban normalcy than a gut-ripping gorefest—although, eventually, it is that, too. The exquisite slow burn begins with a jaw-dropping proposition. Country lawyer, well-to-do paterfamilias and George W. Bush lookalike Chris Cleek (Sean Bridgers) spies the feral title creature (Scottish model Pollyanna McIntosh) in a nearby forest while on a hunting jaunt, and decides to bag the most dangerous game. Subdued and then chained up in the family storm cellar, the Woman is part sideshow freak, part social conditioning experiment. The smug, matter-of-fact Cleek, a parody of 1950s-style manhood that might have been drawn by John Waters or Daniel Clowes, brings the whole family in on the project as if they were constructing a Go Kart rather than breaking a captive human. There's the horny, sadist-in-training son Brian (Zach Reed), long-suffering wife Belle (Angela Bettis), youngest daughter Darlin' (Shyla Molhusen), and deeply troubled adolescent daughter Peggy (Lauren Ashley Carter), whose antisocial behavior hints at something very dark and wrong in the uneasily spotless and orderly Cleek household.

The Woman

The Woman's reaction is rage, and then submission—she first bites off the tip of Cleek's finger after he's got her in chains—as she becomes a focal point for each family members' desires and anxieties, and the script's outrageous slow burn lets the suspense build as we wait, patiently, for all shit to break loose. The seething hatred in McIntosh's laser-like eyes, sunk low in their sockets like a wraith from a J-Horror flick, is all the telegram required on that front. Washed down and spruced up, she reminds Cleek of "a polygamist wife." Soon enough, he's sneaking out of bed in the middle of the night to rape her while his son watches through a peephole.

The sensational aspects of the film jostle between the musky transgression of short fiction from some vintage men's magazine (Ketchum honed his skills writing for the likes of Cavalier and Oui, in the days when scrapping authors could actually make a living concocting such lurid misadventures) and straight-up BDSM porn you can find on the Internet for $40 a month. The use of chewy strip-club rock anthems and a camera given to reckless eyeballing of the juicy bits is ironic enough to frame it all as tongue-in-cheek, although apparently the images have been enough to provoke cries of disgust on YouTube. But it ain't no thing for a woman who runs with the wolves. As the story veers into I Spit on Your Grave payback time, the face-eating, sinew-snapping, blood-drinking party is zestfully brutal, with a sweet, cuddly coda that suggests primitive flesheaters are just as family-oriented as anyone else.

Sleeping Beauty

The feminist theme may lack a subtext you can take too seriously, as if anyone is inclined to, but it's a lot more convincing than Sleeping Beauty. Australian novelist Julia Leigh's debut feature, to which Ozzie auteur Jane Campion has lent her name, is at least as much an exploitation flick. Much discussed on the web following its Cannes premiere this spring, the chilly post-feminist fable has a mostly naked Emily Browning as Lucy, a collegiate sylph whose odd-job roulette and sexual promiscuity lead her into the employ of the world's strangest brothel—much more unusual than the strip club/lost waifs home where she played a kinderwhore Salome in Sucker Punch. Here, with her pale skin, pre-Raphaelite locks and perky nipples at full salute, the actress is an object of desire for wealthy elderly male clients who obsess over her unconscious form. If the movie were called Roofied by Grandpa it wouldn't play so well as an arthouse product, as the drugged pleasure doll is unknowingly subjected to—not penetration, since that's off-limits—but all kinds of other things, icky or merely pathetic. Meanwhile, the excellent cinematography of Geoffrey Simpson (Shine, Little Women) is graced by acres of wrinkly man-ass. To be sure, such a kinky mise-en-scene has its moments. An introductory scenario, as Lucy "auditions" at a very special dinner party, has the playfully decadent Euro vibe of something Helmut Newton may have lensed at a chateau, over cocaine and caviar. When the newcomer is instructed to paint her lips "the exact same color as your labia," a certain narrative suspense is, er, aroused. What's next, one wonders? Well, not much—save some sketchy observations that don't add up to anything within the film's detached, "conceptual" framework. The third act pivots on Lucy's decision to secretly videotape what happens while she sleeps, but after all the foreplay the big reveal is anticlimactic—even if Browning's sporting performance holds interest through all the pretentiousness.

Posted by ahillis at 2:01 PM

October 14, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: The House on the Edge of the Park (1980)

by Nick Schager

The House on the Edge of the Park What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of the Nicolas Cage-Nicole Kidman home invasion thriller Trespass, this week it's Ruggero Deodato's 1980 skeezy The House on the Edge of the Park.

How do you follow-up a work as controversial and instantly career-defining as Cannibal Holocaust? For Ruggero Deodato, the answer was to ape recent grindhouse attention-grabbers—most notably Wes Craven's 1972 The Last House on the Left—with The House on the Edge of the Park, a home invasion thriller that sought to align itself with Craven's debut via both its general subject matter and its shared star, David Hess. Never a master of subtlety (to put it lightly), Deodato's leaden mimicry goes a long way toward explaining why his film never made much noise at the box office or with genre aficionados, this despite the fact that it did eventually receive some notoriety in the UK, where its release was banned courtesy of a dreaded "video nasties" designation. A lack of originality, however, turns out to be a relatively minor shortcoming when compared to its litany of misguided conceptual convictions: that there's value in shocking for shocking's sake; that gratuitous T&A is enough to placate adolescent gore-hounds; and that giving niche audiences exactly what they want, when they want it, and without regard to creating any interest in the characters involved, is the surest way to elicit intense engagement.

The House on the Edge of the Park

Reportedly shot in only three weeks, boasting lousy ADR typical of the era's myriad Italian B-movies, and bestowed with a title that—since a park never factors into the story—makes little sense except to create connections with Craven's film, The House on the Edge of the Park wastes no time getting to its prime concerns: glorifying monstrous villain Alex (Hess). Deodato's opening scene depicts Alex forcing a woman to stop her car so he can rape and strangle her, the camera drooling over her nude body and then stopping to admire her corpse strewn across the backseat. That pro-Alex perspective continues after he and his giddily cackling best friend Ricky (Giovanni Lombardo), while working at a Manhattan parking garage, help fix WASPy couple Tom (Cristian Borromeo) and Lisa's (Annie Belle) car, and are rewarded by being invited to a shindig at a ritzy New Jersey home, where the rich guests (including a bald black beauty whose top winds up being repeatedly removed) laugh at dim Ricky's sensual dancing and take advantage of him at the poker table. Wiser to this class-based condescension, which extends to Lisa repeatedly coming on to him (on a kitchen counter, in the shower) only to then refuse his advances, psycho Alex responds by slicing Tom's face, beating and tying up arrogant Howard (Gabriele Di Giulio), and throwing around misogynistic and homophobic taunts while engaging in whatever sexualized mayhem strikes his fancy.

The House on the Edge of the Park

Deodato lingers on his "extreme" material in a vain attempt to court moral outrage, though truly offensive is the softcore-porn lameness of the eroticized proceedings, which sabotage any suspense by making its victims as repugnant as its victimizers. A scene in which Alex forces himself upon Lisa (whose short hair and stark lipstick make her look like the prototype for the women in Robert Palmer's "Simply Irresistible" music video) and she turns out to like it proves a strained stab at Straw Dogs complexity. That sequence is indicative of The House on the Edge of the Park's political interests, which, as in Cannibal Holocaust, come across as tacked-on gestures aimed at elevating schlock to the realm of sociopolitical commentary. Given the general immaturity on display, the fact that the performances are lousy almost makes sense, though there's still something uniquely ridiculous about Hess' turn, which is often so garishly blunt and over-the-top that the film seems poised to tip into comedy. Certainly, veering into parodic territory would have benefited the action, which in its final incarnation—replete with leather-jacketed Ricky finding laughable true love with wealthy fashionista Gloria (Lorraine de Selle)—plays like the extremely protracted rape-and-murder fantasies of a working-class fourteen-year-old burning with resentment toward snooty yuppies.

Posted by ahillis at 1:16 PM

October 11, 2011

NYFF 2011: Critic's Notebook III

by Vadim Rizov

Martha Marcy May Marlene

Sean Durkin's Martha Marcy May Marlene starts in media res and hops between Before and After for the rest of the film. Before, Martha (Elizabeth Olsen) is a fresh-faced cult inductee in thrall to wiry creep Patrick (John Hawkes), whose high-toned rhetoric about communal living and folksy acoustic guitar performances are a cover for sexual abuse and worse. After, Martha's taken refuge with her sister Lisa (Sarah Paulson) somewhere upstate, but she keeps lapsing back to before: a jump in the lake behind her sister's house plunges the camera into a river close to the cult, and the glass car window Martha smashes on the compound is juxtaposed with her polishing the large smooth windows of Lisa's summer rental.

Martha Marcy May Marlene When Martha shows up at her sister's, she acts like a schizophrenic: her spazzing seems unprovoked, and her behavior crosses the line from immature to worryingly unsocialized. Durkin and ace DP Jody Lee Lipes emphasize her disconnection from the "real world" in every way possible: the opening introduction of her laboring in a kitchen without electricity could be from anytime in the last 150 years of American rural living. Though the film's present-day setting is soon established, it takes Martha time to tune back in to the world outside the compound, and for a while the film keeps her isolated in the frame or in shallow focus, with the indistinct background and all other people seeming further away than they are.

The obvious question is what made Martha leave; if the answer isn't very surprising, her sisterly interactions are. Martha condescendingly lectures Lucy's husband Ted (Hugh Dancy) with stale bromides about how money's unimportant and what's necessary is just "space to be." Lucy—a thoroughgoing materialist who offers her sister a kale-ginseng smoothie first thing in the morning as a matter of course—isn't just upset with her sister about disappearing without a word for two years and scaring the hell out of her; she's also peeved Martha's apparently none the worse for the wear despite having made all the wrong, non-kale-juice-drinking decisions in life. "You're very beautiful," she tells her after having Martha try on one of her dresses. "It's really rather irritating."

Martha Marcy May Marlene Despite their ostensibly at-odds opinions on money, Martha and Lucy have more in common than either would admit: they've both dropped out of the working world because they can, rurally isolated from urban problems or real social context. All those parallel edits and associations help keep the viewer up to speed with Martha's subjective associations, helping explain why she freaks out when her behavior otherwise seems inexplicable, but they also underline the point. White people retreating to the countryside for isolation are similar but different, whether self-congratulatorily affluent or composed of girls who use the compound's only landline to hit up their parents up for money to finance their equally self-congratulatory "simple," disconnected lifestyle. All those parallels aren't just ironic contrasts between two similar objects in radically different settings: they're the same object in the same kind of setting.

Pitting heartless materialism vs. brainless (and even more predatory) cult behavior, Martha Marcy May Marlene equates two things it equally disapproves of with detached intensity, with Marcy's merciless criticisms of her sister's superficiality emerging so suddenly from Alzheimer's-like lucid patches that they're funny just for being so unexpected. Martha and Lucy may be cartoon stand-ins individually, but together they're two sides of a film that works both as an understatedly terrifying portrait of a communal cult and a portrait of the vapid world its members escaped from.

Two Years at Sea

A true retreat is staged by an amusingly gnarly hippie in Ben Rivers' Two Years at Sea, which is more like 86 Minutes with a Guy Who Lives by Himself in the Woods; he could be anywhere, though you might as well know that his name's Jake, he banked his chance to live far away from people by saving wages (from two years at sea), and he's in Scotland.

Knowing these facts adds almost nothing to this film experience, which offers two distinct pleasures. One is the texture of the worked-over, black-and-white widescreen 16mm, blown up to 35mm after being hand-processed by Rivers into a quavering field of large, extremely unstable pixels. The B&W's sometimes warm in its fuzziness, and other times merely blotchy. Either way, it's a self-contained visual universe that never stops offering fresh sights. The highlight is arguably Jake taking a rubber raft onto a lake, sitting motionless on the water and drifting for a good seven minutes; the concentric circles emerging from his smallest motions are charcoal lines against a smudgy gray-white background as the small ripples hypnotize.

Two Years at Sea The other big appeal is watching a man doing absolutely whatever he likes. Monastic silence isn't Jake's speed, who mutters to himself like a lesser Muppet while sorting laundry, and blasts folk music from a megaphone while sorting rubbish in the yard. In one shot, his cabin appears to levitate from the ground to the top of a tree, where it sits perched for the rest of the film, giving Jake an awesome view whenever he wants to retreat from ground-level life entirely, a tiny magical intervention.

Jake's at peace to sit, watch and listen exclusively to nature and noise of his own making, and the film does the same. The house cat's ears twitch while staring at the dryers, and it's the most peaceful scene in all of this year's New York Film Festival. The whole movie's on the same vibe. Fans of Uncle Boonmee and similar arthouse nature retreats will know the feeling of slipping into a deceptively modest natural reverie. Here, it's so modest in its narrative demands that it's even more ridiculously atmospheric and enveloping.

The Kid with a Bike

Because Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne's work prior to their 1996 breakthrough La Promesse never made much of a splash on these shores (or, indeed, anywhere far outside of Belgian Marxist TV circles), some viewers may find their latest, The Kid with a Bike, to be business as usual—aside from the relative novelty of music. (The piece is the same every time: 22 bars from the "Adagio" in Beethoven's "Emperor Concerto," repeated thrice, then allowed to expand for the end credits, which is three more uses of music than in their last feature, 2008's Lorna's Silence—which had an ill-advised final-minute cue that came out of nowhere. That, in turn, was an increase of 100% over their previous three features, which had absolutely no non-diagetic music. But I digress.)

This isn't so much a concession to audiences as a return to the brothers' little-known second feature, 1992's You're on My Mind, where a recently fired industrial worker descends into alcoholism and sexual jealousy in a fairly conventional three-act arc (fall, fall, further semi-redemption) set to an overbearing score. The Kid with a Bike isn't that strident about labor's toxic effects on its workers, or hamhanded about its melodrama. Nonetheless, the brothers are feeling confident enough to add some music, have a psychological blank as a main character, and use an overtly familiar structure. This is their self-described riff on a "fairy tale," and there's an appropriately light-hearted feel that's new.

The Kid with a Bike Act One: horrific teen Cyril (Thomas Doret), unable to accept that his father has abandoned him, runs away from children's home workers, biting his way to freedom as need be. As awfully as he acts, he has a point: there's no excuse for a dad who just up and leaves with no notification because he wants to start over. With the help of hairdresser Samantha (Cecile de France), who intervenes for no particular reason, Cyril accepts his abandonment. Act Two: now Samantha's foster ward, Cyril (as if recognizing he longer has justification for his projections of rage) calms down, but promptly gets sucked into the small-scale criminal enterprises of local dealer Wes (Egon di Mateo), who lures Cyril with his PlayStation and knowledge of "Resident Evil." Errors of judgment follow. Act Three: having reconciled with both Samantha and the justice system, Cyril atones morally.

Most of the Dardennes' films showcase characters who make a mistake of one kind or another, and spend the rest of the film pursuing redemption. There's the son keeping a promise to an illegal immigrant fatally taken advantage of by his father in La Promesse; the father who carelessly sells his baby, then chases him back in 2005's L'Enfant; Lorna's poorly-thought-out scheme (which leads to someone else's death), and her subsequent attempts to rectify the ethical balance. This kid's more sinned-against than sinner, and his perpetual running aligns him with the Dardennes' 1999 heroine Rosetta, an equally obnoxious, inexhaustible character with a legitimate if poorly expressed grievance.

The Dardenne brothers Far from business as usual, The Kid with a Bike sees the Belgian bros deliberately making a simplified, psychologically opaque, feel-good-ish movie; a career first. The generic contours (wild child, saint-like adoptive parent, slow-motion socialization) are as plausible as they need to be thanks to the lived-in atmosphere. It doesn't seem to have much more of a social message than "Fathers, if you abandon your sons, you really suck," which is easy to get behind. A soothing extract of Beethoven early on reassures viewers all will turn out well: the Dardennes aren't ironists or sadists. The suburbs of Seraing—the brothers' hometown and constant staging ground, typically shown for its drab, industrial qualities—are captured for once in bright summer. It just feels warmer.

In Cyril's harsh universe, all cruelty and indifference is acutely depicted. Samantha's mystifying, impossible-to-explain goodness drags the film away from both miserabilism and hokey happy-go-luckiness. Like 2002's The Son, a criminal who has paid his legal debt faces an angry victim contemplating going full Chuck Bronson, but the moral question that took up almost all of the earlier film is dealt with in an unbelievably speedy third act—perhaps eight minutes? Despite its occasional grimness (and two gasp-worthy bouts of violence presented with an unnerving lack of warning), Bike hints early at a happier ending, allowing viewers to relax and enjoy the crisply moving camera's views in and of themselves. The Dardennes' tonally mastered style gives minor robberies and scurrying children the charge of entire Bourne action set-pieces. In their way, the directors are as dedicated to kinetic thrills as any car-chase mongers. It's as if they were reveling in their own skill and trying not to dampen the mood, but they've certainly earned it. If not the richest film of their career, Kid is the most effortlessly enjoyable.

Posted by ahillis at 3:16 PM

October 8, 2011

NYFF 2011: Critic's Notebook II

by Steve Dollar

Retaliation

One year ahead of its 50th anniversary, the New York Film Festival inaugurated a new era this month. The Film Society of Lincoln Center's new megabucks Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center—and what's the shorthand for this joint? The Ellie? The "FC"?—added two theaters and a video amphitheater to the mix, allowing for a leisurely expansion. Actual screenings were bumped up 50 percent, to more than 300 during the fest's 17-day run, with sidebars and revivals and special events out the yin-yang and a fresh panel discussion any time you paused in the lobby between shows.

It's a nice burst of energy for a festival that can seem pretty staid if you've just dropped in from, say, Fantastic Fest (as I did). The cultural underpinnings of the Upper West Side are stupendously funkless, even if the Ellie's new cafe serves up a delicious $12 tuna sandwich. So programs like the 37-title Nikkatsu retrospective—evocatively billed as "Velvet Bullets and Steel Kisses"—can feel practically revolutionary, especially while reclining in theater seats fashioned from rare Bolivian rosewood (or something). The series, which celebrates the Japanese movie factory's centennial, runs through Oct. 16 and boasts a ton of classics. Many of these you can now see on DVD. The Criterion Collection finally capitalized on resurgent interest in 1960s genre rarities, stoked by obsessed programmers for Japan Society and the New York Asian Film Festval, in its Nikkatsu Noir and Eclipse Series 28: The Warped World of Koreyoshi Kurahara box sets.

A Diary of Chuji's Travels

The sidebar is peppered with nearly impossible to see rediscoveries: early silent films like 1927's A Diary of Chuji's Travels and harshly realistic World War II dramas like Mud and Soldiers. Shot on location in China in 1939, the latter film blends the actual wartime landscape with fictional scenarios of personal heroism among a group of soldiers whose performances make the film feel close to documentary. It's practically an Eastern version of The Big Red One. Nikkatsu shifted into independent production in 1954, leaving behind such propaganda to reflect the influence of Western pop culture, allowing its directors an extraordinary range of creative freedom to manufacture taboo-busting eye candy. The studio fostered the enigmatic Seijun Suzuki, of Tokyo Drifter and Gate of Flesh infamy, and its consuming indulgence of underground culture has not diminished. The series reaches the 1980s with some latter-day "roman pornos": softcore flicks like Shinji Somai's Love Hotel, a melancholy tale about the crisscrossing of two lost souls that begins—as, strangely enough, so many of these films do—with a savage sexual assault that miraculously plants the seeds of a twisted romance, framed in lyrical long takes and a lurid neon afterglow. It's a valuable selection, as you can always pop Pigs and Battleships or The Burmese Harp into the DVD player. But not this.

You also don't see Joe Shishido every day. The elegant 77-year-old leading man in more than 50 Nikkatsu productions, best known as "Joe the Ace," was holding up very well indeed during a visit last weekend. As he sipped from a bottle of Stella Artois in a festival green room, he happily talked about something most American actors try to avoid mention of: His plastic surgery.

Gate of Flesh

The actor, who signed with Nikkatsu as a contract player in 1954, only became popular in gangster roles after he went under the knife and dramatically changed his appearance. It was an extremely unusual move at the time. "I thought being skinny was more handsome and stylish but people said that skinny was no good," he said through a translator, taking an index finger and slicing it down a cheek to illustrate the solution. "Okay. So if I want to look fat I'll make my cheeks bigger." After his surgical augmentation in 1957, some viewers compared him to a chipmunk, but his career blew up. (Shishido removed the implants in 2000, videotaping the surgery for a documentary he may never release.) Though he appears in films like 1964's Gate of Flesh—as a killer who takes refuge in a brothel—and Yasuharu Hasebe's visually ambitious gangster saga Retaliation, Takashi Nomura's A Colt Is My Passport (1967) remains Shishido's favorite. His performance as a doomed hitman caught between warring Yakuza factions is as defining for the genre as Clint Eastwood's Dirty Harry remains for the urban cops-gone-wild drama—even though the actor said he aspired more to the profile of a Burt Lancaster, whose manly build convinced Shishido and his friends that he must have worked in the circus.

The film's jazzy editing and bravura set-pieces, which bustle between go-go bars and empty factory landscapes, were shot in dynamic black-and-white. "I told them it had to be that way," Shishido said, still radiating screen presence in an elegant black suit. His involvement with the production also extended to the film's pyrotechnics. Dissatisfied that Nomura had only detonated a custom rigged Mercedes-Benz, the actor suggested a scene that would be even more spectacular.

A Colt Is My Passport

"We shot in February and it was cold," he recalled. "I dug a hole and my idea was to put dynamite in the hole and I wanted a fly to come land on the dynamite. But in February there are no flies flying around. So I told the people who prepare the set to find a fly for the scene. They said, 'Of course, we'll find as many flies as you want. If we go to the Nikkatsu commissary, we will find them easily.' Without those flies this movie would not have been successful!"

Posted by ahillis at 12:26 PM

October 7, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 (1986)

by Nick Schager

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of the self-reflexive The Human Centipede 2, this week it's Tobe Hooper's 1986 sequel The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 exists because Tobe Hooper fancied his original as a joke that no one seemed to get. Having assumed that his 1974 classic was rife with jet-black humor that most ignored—and certainly played little part in its notorious-rep popularity—Hooper set about rectifying that misconception by crafting a 1986 follow-up that deliberately eschewed the low-budget gnarliness of his directorial debut for more gonzo carnivalesque madness. It's a shift that, like the film's polished blockbuster patina, is not just a deliberate attempt to go in a different direction, but a self-conscious means of creating an active dialogue with its precursor. From casting legend Dennis Hopper in a lead role, to its traditional camera set-ups and excessive gore, to its front-and-center humorousness (epitomized by its The Breakfast Club-mimicking theatrical poster), Hooper deliberately and aggressively rebuffs the first Chainsaw Massacre and, in turn, his audience's expectations. And it's that refusal to conform to widespread audience desires for simply more of the same—not initially accepted by fans, but eventually responsible for its home-video cult-classic status—which makes this second, campier helping of carnage as nasty and subversive as its more heralded predecessor.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Texas Chainsaw 2 (penned by L.M. Kit Carson) proffers a similar not-so-subtle critique of those societal strains Hooper deems contemptible. Those groups once again include hippies—who are mercilessly mocked by Leatherface's 'Nam vet brother Chop Top (Bill Moseley)—but now also extend to middle-class Texans in general, be it the goofy rubes who cheer as Leatherface's big bro Drayton Sawyer (Jim Siedow) wins a chili contest with his made-from-humans recipe, or the two preppie creeps (including the aptly named Nick the Prick) whose deaths by buzzsaw are recorded by local DJ Stretch (Caroline Williams) during a prank phone call. That tape proves crucial to Lieutenant "Lefty" Enright (Hopper), the uncle of two of Leatherface's earlier victims, who's spent the past thirteen years hunting the chainsawing clan. Lefty compels Stretch to play the murderous audio on the air so he can use her as bait to draw out the killers, a crew that, despite absurdly sloppy homicidal handiwork and thoroughly demented demeanor, boast the magical ability to elude law enforcement.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Lefty's plan works to perfection, leading to Texas Chainsaw 2's signature sequence, in which Chop Top and Leatherface (a strangely sensitive Bill Johnson, replacing Gunnar Hansen) confront and menace Stretch at her station. Donning a Sonny Bono wig, round tinted glasses, and a vest littered with buttons, Chop Top is a dirty-toothed figure of cackling monstrousness, one whom Moseley embodies with a pogo-sticking anxiousness of bloodthirsty intent. Scratching under his wig with a clothes hanger he heats with a lighter, and then—after Leatherface accidentally buzzes his scalp, leaving his cranial metal plate exposed—picking at his wound and then snacking on his own bits of blood and skin, Mosley's character is, from his first appearance, the action's true maniacal menace, proving more intimidating with each outburst of hyperactive laughing lunacy. Chop Top thrillingly embodies the film's intertwined blend of horror and humor, whereas Hooper reimagines Leatherface as a perverted variation of King Kong who finds in Stretch his own Ann Darrow. That love-or-kill conflicted dynamic manifests itself during their hilarious first encounter, in which Leatherface makes his weapon's phallic nature overt by first using it to demolish a cooler full of A&W root beer cans situated between Stretch's open thighs (thus drenching her in liquid), and then by caressing Stretch's inner thigh and crotch with the turned-off blade.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2

If this sequel's atmosphere is itself a direct rejection of its more hardcore ancestor, Texas Chainsaw 2 also slyly shouts out to it, from the opening text crawl to Stretch's radio station office door (a sliding slab of metal like the one in its villain's prior mansion), to the continued focus on family as a twisted reflection of the world's dreadfulness. Those allusions, however, never interfere with the overriding air of Funhouse-style bizarreness, especially once the proceedings segue to the cannibals' Christmas lights- and human skeletons-decorated subterranean abode at an abandoned amusement park. There, Leatherface woos Stretch by having her don a dead-skin mask (making them kindred monsters) and then creepily dancing with her, while the religiously devout Lefty—having now given into his own madness—assaults their home, culminating with a chainsaw duel against Leatherface that's as ridiculous as Lefty's clichéd transformation into the very type of monster which he hunts. Hooper offers this scenario with tongue firmly in cheek, and yet also with a sincere desire to immerse the material in legitimately off-putting insanity, which naturally results in a return to the family's dinner table, where Stretch is offered by Drayton as a sacrifice to feeble, freaky 137-year-old Grandpa.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 Despite its bigger budget and more traditional aesthetics, Texas Chainsaw 2 sets itself apart from its genre brethren by declining to conform to the era's slasher-film conventions. Rather than providing a group of innocents whose purpose is to be predictably picked off one by one, Hooper—after his intro slaughters, and the early bludgeoning death of Stretch's colleague LG (Lou Perryman)—offers no actual murder; rather, his story's latter half is one long, nightmarish sequence of chases, torture, and chainsaw combat rife with psychosexual imagery involving deep caverns and protruding weaponry. Hooper's wit is of a mental-ward variety, full of uncontrollable shrieking, horrible puns, and a macabre fondness for pain and suffering. That wacko attitude infests every nook and cranny of his superbly strange sequel, which—from the sight of a chainsaw salesman becoming giddy at the sight of Lefty fanatically trying out the merchandise on an outside log, to its final shot of Stretch embracing her inner arms-waving Leatherface—ultimately, cheekily posits chainsaw craziness as not just a backwoods aberration but an inherent animalistic impulse lurking within us all. Or as Chop Shop so succinctly puts it, "Dog will hunt!"

Posted by ahillis at 1:25 PM

October 4, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Scream 4

by Vadim Rizov

Scream 4

Fifteen years ago, it would've been hard to imagine that one day Courteney Cox would come across as something of a sage, or David Arquette a veteran comic actor who'd gotten his timing down to a science. The original Scream trilogy was something like SNL, with the Ghostface killer bringing together then-marginal players, mostly from TV; the murders drove the plot, but the jokes almost always proved more memorable than the kills. After Scream 3, most of the cast members returned to their TV homeland; as for director Wes Craven, his bare-bones action B-movie Red Eye was well-received, but his twin subsequent stabs (heh) at the horror genre (Cursed, My Soul To Take) received the worst reviews of his career, with no box office upside.

So here's Scream 4, the 11-years-later sequel no one particularly asked for, offering one last curtain call for performers ostensibly past their cinematic prime. Had it come out a few years after the third film, it might be seen merely as a cynical last-ditch attempt getting those last dollars out while the cast was still relatively young. As it is, there's inherent novelty in a horror movie anchored by a trio whose average age is nearly 42, made by a 71-year-old director: a serious change of pace from the usual pack of faux-teens to the slaughter. Nostalgia has a tug, offering a chance to catch up with the central trio of journalist Gale Weathers (Cox), her sparring partner/significant other Dewey Riley (Arquette) and ever-pained-looking victim Sidney Prescott (Neve Campbell). They are, at this point, indestructible, which is unexpectedly reassuring: they certainly earned it.

Scream 4

Ghostface is a mask and robe that can be filled by anyone, a concept rather than a monster. The real villains this time around are the youth and their social media-fixated vapidity; at one point, a rude publicist asks Gale what she's doing to "revitalize" her "tarnished brand." "I'm about to revitalize your face with my tarnished brand," Gale snaps back, then grins "I've still got it" as she walks away. This is pandering to people who just can't stand the kids these days with their iPhones and buzzwords; if you're remotely sympathetic to that viewpoint, it's also very satisfying. At least Scream 4 has the honesty of its cranky-old-man convictions; unlike George Romero's invocations of "blogging" over and over in Diary of the Dead, there's no sense here of anyone trying desperately to get hip with the youth. No one involved with this movie likes the youth.

Once more, poor Sidney is stalked by a butcher with lousy punchlines; with his crudely-expressed fixation on killing everyone in sight, Ghostface has to be one of the least charismatic boogeymen ever. Campbell's still gamely looking tormented at every turn; meanwhile, Cox and Arquette's real-life marital problems have been written into the screenplay. The central trio plays opposite a group of bratty teenagers anchored by Hayden Panetierre in her first worthwhile performance. There's a plot—another Ghostface, more carnage—but it's an excuse to let everyone onscreen indulge in snappy patter.

Scream 4

The previous films were all stabbings and gallons of blood; to keep up with changing times, Scream 4 gets far more graphic, most memorably with a ghastly shot of a corpse's entrails sprawling on a bed, presented in a grim, "FINE KIDS, TAKE THIS" spirit. So why does it feel so sweet-tempered as a whole? There are scares aplenty, but the Scream films are mostly about jokes, and Scream 4 delivers on both counts. Like its predecessors' formula, it offers up a pre-credits murder, only this time there's three, moving from one fake-film-within-a-film to another. In the theater, audible reactions ranged from delight to exasperated sighing; this kind of juvenile snottiness isn't everyone's cup of tea. But nothing's changed: the Scream films always preferred self-conscious cleverness to undiluted visceral tug.

Aside from that refreshing degree of continuity, what's new? With Sidney less a desperate victim than ever and more a seasoned expert on outwitting psychos, the deaths become punchlines. The funniest features generally mediocre comic Anthony Anderson and The O.C. star Adam Brody as cops in a car. It's clear from the scene's start that they both have to die, but first they talk about movie cops surviving insurmountable horrors (John McClane!). Anderson's dying words? "Fuck Bruce Willis." It's a well-timed goof that wasn't in the script, which underlines the unlikely strength of this body-count-heavy franchise: taking limited TV players and giving them room to shine in surprising ways. Scream 4? Scream for more!

Posted by ahillis at 5:10 PM

October 2, 2011

FANTASTIC FEST '11: Outro

by Steve Dollar

Bullhead

Already a big winner at summer's Fantasia film festival in Montreal, the Belgian-made Bullhead inspired drunken cries of "Fuck the Dardennes!" at Fantastic Fest, at least among those cheered to witness a definitive new cinematic voice from the northern European Lowlands. The film, which won Best Picture, Actor and Director in the festival's "next wave" section and is Belgium's official entry for the 2012 Academy Awards (not, as many predicted, the Dardenne brothers' latest), packs a genuinely tragic wallop whose surprising, emotional impact is hard to gauge from the generous—if somewhat misleading—word of mouth that has made the drama an instant festival favorite. The story pivots around the indeed bull-like Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts), a steroid-shooting giant muscle on two legs who works for his family cattle farm. This also means that he's on intimate terms with the local "hormone mafia," who sell illegal growth hormones to bulk up the livestock. When a cop investigating the bovine underworld is assassinated by the local mob boss, Jacky begins to question his deepening involvement, while an encounter with a childhood friend triggers flashbacks to a life-changing trauma whose repercussions have yet to fully play out.

Yep, I'm dancing around spoilers here, but even a more detailed synopsis doesn't really set up the film's sweeping dynamic or gritty grazing among the Flemish lowlife. Director Michael Roskam could have stuck with a basic gangster-film design, shot through with oddball characters poised to double-cross each other and twisted humor involving cultural tensions between the French and the Flemish—with Jacky as a kind of sideshow freak/loose cannon—but he goes for something deeper and much more troubling. Schoenaerts' astonishing performance stirs compassion for a character who has made himself into an animal because, in a crucial way, he has been denied what he needs to be a man. And when he finally confronts that, he knows as well as anyone that there's no way for anything to end happily. That tense dynamic elevates the film above conventional genre into a kind of passion play.

Michael

Queasiest New Austrian Film Not Made by Michael Haneke or Ulrich Seidl: Michael. This low-key portrait of a pedophile and the 10-year-old boy he keeps locked in his basement was shown twice in the early morning slot at the festival, suggesting someone there has a sick sense of humor. The feel-bad movie of the year? Quietly observant, director (and regular Haneke casting director) Markus Schleinzer dwells on the quotidian aspects of the relationship between the titular child rapist and his captive, evoking a kind of aggravated faux-normalcy while subtly monitoring the cracks in the facade. Bonus points for uncorking the old Bobby Hebb AM radio sing-along "Sunny," which you will never be able to hear in the same way again.

New Kids Turbo

Best Wildly Popular European Comedy No One in the US Has Heard Of: New Kids Turbo. What do you call these guys, the hapless, beer-sodden, track-suited, '90s techno-obsessed losers who are very nearly too dumb to breathe? The trailer trash of the Netherlands? The inevitable movie version of a highly successful television series might loosely equate to Wayne's World thrown in a blender with Die Antwoord, in a stretch, if far riffier and so culturally specific it should come with a decoder ring—but is so outrageously daft it doesn't matter. The 2010 release was a smash hit overseas, and one of the real surprises at the festival, which hasn't previously been known for its comedy selections. The dumb and dumberer antics, which revolve around the misfits' refusal to take jobs or pay money for anything in response to a faltering economy, triggers an escalating series of catastrophes that somehow make them into national heroes. If it could only happen here!

You're Next

Best Film I Didn't See: Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett's You're Next. Distributor Lionsgate, which paid a reported $1.4 million for the indie horror flick after its Toronto Film Festival premiere (where it won its Midnight Madness section), yanked it from Fantastic Fest after only one screening, and only sanctioned that one after much kicking and screaming. The family reunion slaughter-a-rama is slated to open in October 2012. [Editor's note: The film is a tongue-in-cheek hoot and, indeed, the best film Steve did not see.]

Melancholia

Best Masterpiece: Lars von Trier's Melancholia. Lars calls it kitsch, but I beg to differ. More to come when the film opens theatrically next month.

Eternal Evil of Asia

Best Black Magic Sex Scene: The Eternal Evil of Asia. Shown as part of Grady Hendrix's mystery sidebar "Movies on Fire: Hong Kong Action Classics," this 1995 obscurity features perhaps the most outrageous sex scene in the history of cinema. A Thai wizard, hellbent on revenge for a murder, opens a can of supernatural whoop-ass on a circle of friends who have crossed his path—including a comely beauty salon stylist who, in the film's dizzying penultimate moment, is ravaged by the wizard's invisible ghost penis, complete with climactic fireworks.

A Stoker

Biggest Letdown: A Stoker. Two years ago, Alexei Balabanov's absurdly slept-on period drama Morphia was a festival highlight. But the Russian director's latest was mostly confounding. Its commitment to some archetypal, regionally specific humor equates to what one festival goer called "two hours of people walking back and forth in the snow." A downcast moral fable about a shell-shocked army major who now stokes fires in a boiler room, and the mobsters (his former soldiers) who dispose of dead bodies in his furnace, the story consists of subdued gags and cultural caricatures tied together with an ironic air of weary resignation (trudge, trudge, trudge). When the Stoker's sexpot daughter (the gazelle-like Aida Tumatova) gets caught up in a love triangle with a stolid, musclebound hitman named Bison and the daughter of a mob boss, the old man is shaken from his complacency and forced to go back into battle, but by then you're left wondering: what's the point?

[For further reading, see Steve Dollar's first notebook entry on Fantastic Fest 2011.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:41 AM