November 29, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Sleeping Beauty

by Vadim Rizov

Sleeping Beauty

Australian university student Lucy (Emily Browning) walks into a gleamingly white lab designed to visually sterilize the unpleasant biological realities under examination. A young doctor greets her, offers perfunctory thanks for agreeing to serve as a test subject, and carefully threads a tube down her throat; Lucy's gagging sounds don't evince so much as a glance of concern from a female scientist in the background. The connotations of forced fellatio in an immaculate setting serve as a shorthand summary of Sleeping Beauty: dispassionate experiments in sexual objectification.

Taking up the titular occupation involves Lucy knocking herself out for the night with unspecified herbs under madam Clara's (Rachael Blake) watchful eye, naked and unconscious while being manipulated in any way the male client pleases short of penetration. The sleeping beauty figure isn't a new one, spurring elderly male narrators to meditation in Yasunari Kawabata's thrice-filmed short story "House of the Sleeping Beauties" and Gabriel Garcia Marquez‘s novella A Memory of My Melancholy Whores; novelist Julia Leigh's task in her cinematic debut is to shift the focus from aging men to the young women they monologue and reclaim the narrative center, an admirable but less-than-visceral concern.

Sleeping Beauty

Leigh's groping for an oneiric mood: Lucy moves in a largely mute, would-be dream-state even when awake. Likewise, "dream logic" is a euphemistic way to describe the film's aggressively incomplete narrative, which deliberately makes it impossible to suss out key details. Her most only evident friendship is with cadaverous Birdmann (Ewen Leslie), seen taking his cereal with a vodka base in alcoholic, agoraphobic repose. They enjoy talking in parodic flurries of politeness, sardonically repeating "very nice to see you" back and forth; occasionally he makes a sexual advance and is politely dismissed. Family is even more obscure: Lucy gets a call from her mom at one of her jobs, claims the old lady is an addict running a psychic hotline and leaves it at that.

Lucy needs money, since her various jobs don't (seem to) add up to much; is her esoteric choice of occupation fearlessness, sexual indifference, oblique thrill-seeking or the ability to vacate her head whenever necessary? Leigh's not telling, though she provides indirect hints. During one particularly baffling bonding interlude, they watch a nature documentary on TV about a marsupial mouse; this moment is described in the script as a "long interlude of uncomplicated lifeforce"—i.e. something Lucy never manifests.

Sleeping Beauty

Initially, Clara places Lucy to work offering nude wine service for a group of fustian retirees looking to combine Edwardian-era table settings and after-dinner port with some mildly naughty jollies. Subsequently, Lucy agrees to serve as a sleeping booty, leading to three men who come in and offer various portraits of aberrant male sexuality. Man 1 (Peter Carroll) comes in with Clara, thanks her for the hook-up, turns to the camera and delivers an endless monologue synopsis of Ingeborg Bachmann's story "The 30th Year" in an oppressively "literary" moment allowing a frail old man to speak with hardly any metaphorical cover about confronting mortality and worrying about broken bones. Man 2 (Chris Haywood) comes in, unleashes a stream of vile misogynist epithets and literally leaves a mark on Lucy; the script specifies that this is to be "an excruciating scene of utter degradation," though the effect's theoretical. Man 3 (Hugh Keays-Byrne) comes in and resists verbal articulation altogether, instead throwing Lucy around like an ineffectual circus strongman. The scenes make sense overall: one is about an old man confronting his frailness with an inverse image (a woman trapped in her own body through unconsciousness rather than age), one's about a middle-aged man confronting his decaying frame by enacting violence on women, and the third man has physical vitality to spare but no way to relate to Lucy except as literally a body.

What's absent is the kind of more-than-words spell that would take this beyond an exercise into the truly unsettling. The best moment is a smash-cut that's both the only gesture towards expressionism the entire running time and a stunningly literal metaphor: even though Lucy needs to get some sleep to sleep even more tomorrow, she decides to pop a restaurant co-worker's random pills and party instead. Picking up a chair, she slams it onto the table she's cleaning, and the film cuts to Julia and co-worker in a lake at nighttime, popping up to the surface in step-printed slow motion. As a way of breaking up the film's climate-controlled, hermetic calm, it's a late-breaking unexpected shock with a sudden dash of Ben Frost's sparsely used, eerie post-rock score. As a metaphor though—coming right after Lucy's taken her sole proactive step to find out what's going on while she's knocked out—it's freshman-comp-level literal: she's breaking to the surface, a whole new level of consciousness, coming up for air, etc., in a gesture not that far off from Neo's gooey arrival in the real world in The Matrix.

Sleeping Beauty

David Lynch is one of the undisputed champions of translating subliminal sexual unease into phantasmic territory, which makes his fundamentally unpalatable fear of women and intercourse compelling; Leigh shoots for a much less heightened version of the same vibe, in which certain rooms seem indefinably menacing even when there's nothing overtly wrong, and she's got much more sophisticated thoughts about human sexuality. (The relationship between Lucy and nervous, fine-boned Birdmann recalls the weird charge between Lara Flynn Boyle's Donna Hayward and Lenny Van Dohlen's agoraphobic Harold Smith on Twin Peaks.) Theoretically (and it's all theory; this is a definite contender for least-arousing-movie-with-constant-full-frontal status), she's on solid ground, and there's something hypnotic about Leigh's perversely cool approach to the material. She has visionary weirdo ambitions, but offers up dream analysis without the dream itself.

Posted by ahillis at 4:55 PM

November 27, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Romeo is Bleeding (1993)

by Nick Schager

Romeo is Bleeding

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 Oren Moverman's corrupt-cop drama Rampart, this week it's Peter Medak's extreme neo-noir Romeo is Bleeding.

Film noir frequently feels on the precipice of going too far—its passions, its brutality, and its doom and gloom are often pitched with such frenzied intensity that one half-fears it will tip over into parody. Romeo is Bleeding was censured for doing just that upon its 1993 release, as director Peter Medak and writer Hilary Henkin's jet-black crime saga was dismissed for indulging in so many tropes and clichés that it played like something of a spoof—a denunciation that remains, 18 years later, to be only partially true. Unquestionably, this neo-noir about a corrupt cop's downward spiral is awash in formulaic elements, from extreme hardboiled voiceover to a nasty femme fatale (contrasted with not one, but two, visions of loving femininity), and enough tawdry elements ensnaring its knuckleheaded protagonist to make it a veritable catalog of conventions. Yet there's neither intentional nor unintentional caricature to Medak's underrated gem. Capturing a sense of terrifying futility in both shadowy spaces and brightly lit landscapes, and using a cornucopia of constricting and low-angled compositions, the film sidesteps making fun of its chosen cinematic milieu or itself. Driven by unabashed sincerity, it's a work that honestly sells its stock noir notion about the foolhardiness of attempting to either stay true to one's flawed self, or to escape one's preordained niche in search of greater things.

Romeo is Bleeding

The bleakness of that damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't scenario oozes from the sweaty pores of crooked sergeant Jack Grimaldi (Gary Oldman), who likes to dance in his row house backyard in the moonlight with angelic wife Natalie (Annabella Sciorra), and whose work is all violence and sex for which he has a not-so-secret taste. Jack wants more, or rather, he wants it all—hungrily, madly, recklessly—and so he makes money on the side by informing the mob of testifying witnesses' locations. That nets him $65,000 a gig, though as Medak conveys through shots of Jack's face framed by the mailbox walls that hold his cash payments, he's trapped by such gluttony. Stashing his supplementary income in a hole in his backyard—as Jack intones in the film's incessant, over-the-top third-person narration, "Pretty soon, all he could think about was feeding the hole"—Jack is prisoner to his avaricious urges, and soon a victim to them as well, after he's commissioned by the mob to pinpoint Russian black widow Mona Demarkov (Lena Olin). Introduced as a tangle of snarling hair led around in handcuffs by cops, and wearing a suit jacket that barely covers her negligee and thigh-high stockings, Mona is from first sight a wild beast, one of the "animals" that, according to Jack's mob informant (Michael Wincott), will soon fill the streets after the forthcoming "fall of Rome."

Romeo is Bleeding

During their first meeting, Mona wastes no time embarrassing Jack by mounting him (to his crazy-eyed delight) right before his colleagues enter the room, and shortly thereafter disappears, putting Jack in deep trouble with bigwig mobster Don Falcone (Roy Scheider), who demands that Jack kill Mona himself or find his loved ones in fatal peril. Believing himself to be in control of his destiny and yet played like a pawn from all sides, Jack proves to be at the mercy of Mona, who wants him to help her stage her own death/escape for a cool $325,000, and who's defined by always-revealed garters, dark red lips, and insanely eroticized cackling at moments of climax and cruelty. She's as femme fatale-ish as any in the genre, epitomized by the film's signature image of her wrapping her legs around Jack's neck as he drives a car (his face spied from below by the steering wheel). Olin is a whirlwind of ruthless malice, to the point that she'd destabilize the action were it not for Medak and Henkin's treatment, which finds a consistent way to meld Jack and Mona's overripe, borderline-comical lust and craving with Jack's competing, equally genuine sense of romantic yearning for an internal and external reality less conflicted and debased than his current one.

Romeo is Bleeding

As Jack's blonde-bimbo mistress, Juliette Lewis brings surprising empathy to a stock role, and the peripheral cast is peppered with pros, including Dennis Farina, James Cromwell and Ron Perlman. Still, Romeo is Bleeding is all about Oldman, who—front and maniacally center at virtually all times—is nothing short of an alternately jittery, placid, frantic, charming, lunatic force of nature. One can often feel the wiry Oldman acting, in the way he lights a smoke or holds it between his front teeth, or the way he dances with himself and the women in his life (all reflections of the various dream-guises Jack tries on). Yet at the same time that his performance revels in mannerisms, the actor's raw, clammy, pathetic ravenousness is palpable, and magnetic. His turn bookended by scenes set in a lonely desert diner where, as a man with another name, he waits like a ghost for a visitor who doesn't materialize, Oldman has a primal ferocity (finally let loose in a climactic denied bid for self-annihilation) that's borderline apocalyptic. Whether his Jack is going glassy-eyed with carnal desire, fleeing through the grungy graffiti-sprayed NYC night with his face and neck coated in blood, or simply, tearfully gazing at quixotic mirages, he beautifully and unforgettably captures that archetypal noir schism between dreamy romantic hopefulness and tragic greed and need.

Posted by ahillis at 9:22 AM

November 23, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Super 8

by Vadim Rizov

Super 8

J.J. Abrams prefers remodeling franchise fixer-uppers to building his own material. In his directorial feature debut, Abrams took advantage of the malleable Mission: Impossible franchise's friendliness towards idiosyncratic directorial stylings. Where Brian De Palma showed off ornate set pieces and John Woo delivered an enjoyably overblown melodrama awkwardly broken up with sporadic action, Abrams' Mission: Impossible III is start-to-finish tense, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as the series' first truly frightening villain and Tom Cruise plausibly frazzled rather than smugly in-control. Next Abrams resuscitated Star Trek, celebrating the source material while mildly mocking the creakier elements: crew member Chekov's absurd Russian accent (an anachronistic holdover from Gene Roddenberry's wish for a post-Cold War United Nations in space) became a running gag about the crew's consistent inability to understand what he's saying. Real emotion came from Leonard Nimoy's cameo as Spock, tapping into viewer awareness of watching someone embody his trademark of the last 40-plus years for almost certainly the last time, a heartfelt baton-passing in the middle of what could've been merely a cynical cash grab.

The source material for Super 8 (out on DVD this week, as well as Blu-ray) is producer Steven Spielberg's collected filmography as director and brand name, signaled by the opening Amblin Entertainment's E.T.-on-his-bike logo—once an annual presence branding everything from Back to the Future to Casper with Spielberg's seal of family-friendly approval, but only seen twice on-screen in the last five years. Super 8's 1979 setting strands it between 1977's Close Encounters of the Third Kind (swiping the lightshow UFO ending and alien-caused electrical blackouts) and 1982's aforementioned E.T. (echoed in its suburban kids freely roaming on bikes).

Super 8

Amblin's The Goonies is echoed in a less shrill cluster of young boys. De facto ringleader Joe Lamb's (Joel Courtney) mother has just died in a factory accident, a dark twist on Spielberg's ever-absent dads. Portly Charles Kaznyk (Riley Griffiths) is the self-proclaimed budding director of the local nerd pack, but Joe gets to coach classmate/leading lady Alice Dainard (Elle Fanning) on-set, instructing her on how to make a zombie face and suggests emotions to draw upon for her would-be-showstopping monologue of stilted noir clichés. Fanning's sudden transition from sullen teen to freaky flesh-muncher is awesomely unexpected, and she nails the speech, pumping dramatic heft in the low-grade production like a junior-grade version of Naomi Watts' audition in Mulholland Drive.

2005's post-9/11 destruction-fest War of the Worlds enters as a darker reference point when an apocalyptic train wreck and attendant debris (flying through the air like firebombs) literally blow up the delicate late-night moment. Put up with Super 8's mostly second-hand action for the recognizably gawky portrait of childhood, an inversion of most mediocre action movies in which half-hearted characterization is tolerated as a necessary evil before getting to the spectacle. The alien's inevitably a letdown: cost-conscious as he was while producing Cloverfield, Abrams keeps the monster briefly glimpsed in tail-swipes and shadows for as long as possible. When finally given extended full body shots in the slobberingly disgusting/suspenseful climax, the extraterrestrial's still frugally only half-shown in the dark of a mine. Here, Joey—a hurt abandoned child—empathetically/telepathically bonds with an alien that just wants to rebuild its ship and travel back home. The fact that, though it's lonely and in pain like a child of divorce, it has also eaten multiple townspeople is written off as unavoidable dietary need and never mentioned again.

SUPER 8 director J.J. Abrams

Joey grows from geek to man while saving his fictional Ohio town from a carnivorous alien—or, alternately, from the military men pursuing it. Suspicion of army forces torturing potentially innocent civilians and recklessly destroying small towns in reckless pursuit of an elusive, potentially misunderstood Other offers an allegorical talking point for modern liberals (the monster isn't particularly sympathetic, but addressed with compassionate pragmatism, he'll stop hunting people and go away; negotiation works!). Setting the film during a comparatively mild recession in a small factory town grafts nostalgia for a relatively benevolent, now-passed industrial era onto the Spielberg broken-family dynamics.

The end credits string together the kids' goofy, warmhearted production, shot by the cast in the increasingly rare title format. The overall movie's gloomy undercurrents and darker implications are perhaps underdeveloped, leaving no traumatic scar on the kids, whose resourcefulness and Bad News Bears-worthy naturalism close out the film in one blissfully uninterrupted five-minute blast straight out of Be Kind Rewind: Abrams always follows blockbuster convention, but once again he's sprinkled in small-scale human emotions that linger after the pastiches and plot holes fade.

Posted by ahillis at 1:13 PM

November 22, 2011

Я не понимаю

by Steve Dollar

Khodorkovsky

As Occupy Wall Street protests continue to fill the streets of New York City (and elsewhere), demanding among other things that leaders of financial institutions be held accountable for profiting on the 2008 economic collapse their policies helped to urge, things are very different in Russia. We don't usually jail CEOs in the United States for destroying the nation's well-being. Over there, though, the richest guy in the country gets thrown into solitary confinement in Siberia for challenging corruption and refusing to kowtow to Vladimir Putin (formerly president of the Russian Federation and current prime minister of Russia). Not only that, a hundred of his top-level executives were forced into exile, more or less permanently stuck in places like Tel Aviv and London, wanted by Interpol on various charges—including shaky allegations of murder.

Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who in 2002 was the wealthiest person in the world under the age of 40, has been in a cell for eight years now. He would have completed serving his sentence for trumped-up charges of tax evasion this year, but he was recently convicted a second time. The crime? Stealing 300 tons of oil from himself. Barring parole, he won't walk until 2016. The deposed oligarch, who once ran the madly prosperous Yukos oil company before Putin forcibly snatched it out from under him, is the least likely sort of political prisoner. As one of the subjects in Cyril Tuschi's new documentary Khodorkovsky (opening in NYC on Nov. 30) puts it, of those who rally for his freedom "one-third are human rights activists, one-third are Neo-Liberals and one-third think he's good looking." If one thing is true in America, it's that money changes everything, and Khodorkovsky thought he could change Russia. Instead, he fell prey to the same system that had given him his wealth and power, because he had the audacity and recklessness to challenge Putin over reforms. On a live national television broadcast, no less.

Khodorkovsky

Of course, it's all rather more complicated than that. If the topic of shady economics and power struggles in post-Soviet Russia sounds like one of the reasons someone might happily avoid graduate school, Tuschi instead makes it thoroughly fascinating. In my blinkered perception of international affairs, I'd never even heard of Khodorkovsky. But that actually makes the documentary more fun to watch. In two hours, it delivers a succinct history of crazy-ass Russian economics and how its astronomical strata of super-rich came to exist. Rather than sell off state-owned industries to the West at market value, Boris Yeltsin auctioned (with prejudice) them to Russian businessmen at relative fire sale prices. After all, as the film makes evident with characteristic humor, good socialists wouldn't have enough money to pay full retail. And thus, Khodorkovsky, a chemical engineer who rose to influence through party circles and opened Russia's first bank in the wake of perestroika, was on his phenomenal road to destiny.

The German Tuschi, whose first-person words are spoken in an English narration by Jean-Marc Barr, outlines the story with a dramatic polish, organizing interviews with a score of key characters—family, former KGB agents turned opposition members, lawyers, journalists, former top executives and, finally, Khodorkovsky himself, through letters and a brief courtroom encounter—in a suspenseful web of international intrigue. Although the dynamic isn't what anyone would called amped-up (the soundtrack features the austere strings of Estonian composer Arvo Part), the array of often eccentric personalities and time-jumping montage of TV clips, animated sequences and anecdotal episodes set against a battle for the soul of empire and the fate of a single man... I'm seeing Soderbergh and Clooney. Of course, there's also the transformational theme. Khodorkovsky passes through distinct phases: loyal socialist, businessman, oligarch, ethically reformed oligarch, opposition force. And now, martyr—at least, the film suggests, until Putin leaves power.

KHODORKOVSKY director Cyril Tuschi Khodorkovsky's current status is the result of a personal choice. There was plenty of opportunity to leave Russia and take some loot with him. Instead, as a former advisor observes, he faced imprisonment in order to wash himself clean of the sin of being rich. "I am far from being an ideal person, but I am a person with an idea," he told the courtroom in his closing speech at his 2010 trial. "For me, as for anybody, it is hard to live in prison, and I do not want to die here. But if I have to, I will have no hesitation. What I believe in is worth dying for."

It's a stirring message, one that seems almost unimaginable in the West, where too many politicians are puppets of corporations and moral purpose is something to be manipulated like a shell game. Is this man a hero or a fool—or the key to making Russia a real democracy? As he says in parting words to the filmmaker, a wise man who finds himself in a tough situation may be clever enough to discover the way out. But perhaps the man who is really wise avoids such trouble in the first place. It seems like a perfectly Russian thing to say.

[Khodorkovsky opens at NYC's Film Forum on Nov. 30.]

Posted by ahillis at 2:13 PM

November 17, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Night of the Comet (1984)

by Nick Schager

Night of the CometWhat'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 Lars von Trier's planet-annihilating Melancholia, this week it's Thom Eberhardt's apocalyptic B-movie Night of the Comet.

Armageddon can't stop teen girls from shopping in Night of the Comet, an '80s relic that relishes dim-witted valley-girl attitude and rampant Reagan-era materialism. Thom Eberhardt's end-of-the-world comedy begins with the eagerly awaited appearance of a legendary comet—though not so legendary, it seems, to have an actual name. Revelers crowd Times Square, kids buy souvenir bouncy-comet headbands, and Cali suburbanites host street parties on the big night, a level of excitement not shared by sexy Regina (Catherine Mary Stewart), who'd rather schtup the projectionist at the movie theater where she works, or her blonde cheerleading younger sister Sam (Kelli Maroney), who's too busy sparring with her slutty stepmom (Sharon Farrell). Eberhardt introduces Regina playing an arcade game, her eyes alight with erotic intensity, thereby foreshadowing the character's apparent fondness for violently eradicating outer space-y villains. Such real-world opportunities soon present themselves once Regina and Sam wake up to find that the comet has turned just about everyone to red dust, a should-be horrifying scenario that the girls respond to with blasé lack of self-preservation that's almost as ludicrous as the convenient fact that Regina's dad is a special forces badass who conveniently schooled her in the ways of submachine guns.

Night of the Comet

Regina and Sam have survived because they slept in steel-lined enclosures (Regina the projection booth, Sam a storage shed), while others have inexplicably been transformed into flesh-eating zombies. That the comet has affected individuals differently is mystifying, but no more ridiculous than Regina and Sam's pathological refusal to think about stockpiling food, water or ammunition (in fact, they waste countless shells on target practice, despite their expert gun skills). Faced with sobering circumstances, the girls prove primarily interested in flirting with hunky Hector (Robert Beltran) and, when depression sets in about the annihilation of their friends, a stroll through a shopping mall described as "an absolute monument to consumerism." That spree leads them to a showdown with some crazed stock boys who strike up a firefight for no good reason except, perhaps, as a means of objecting to the embarrassingly giddy shopping-and-dancing montage that Eberhardt sets to Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Want to Have Fun." That egregiously cheesy sequence is in keeping with the tongue-in-cheek nature of the proceedings, which go out of their way to make sure that Regina and Sam are at once likeably cute and moronic caricatures, prone to blathering on about this new "freaked-out world" and, in Sam's case, opining that Hector's refusal to hit on Regina means that "the last man on Earth is either a gentleman or a fag."

Night of the Comet

The radio station in which Regina and Sam initially take shelter is a thing of laughable '80s monstrousness decorated with neon light strips and snake-like leather couches and recliners, a goofy set that's completely at odds with Eberhardt's evocative shots of silent, empty downtown L.A. streets shrouded by a blood-red sky. Those images, in which abandoned cars and clumps of clothes and shoes are illuminated in ominous crimson, presage similar ones from 28 Days Later, and establish an unsettling mood that the material then squanders in favor of like-oh-my-gawd silliness in which Sam worries more about Regina shacking up with Hector (she steals all the cute boys!) than their more immediate, dire Omega Man situation. That tunnel-vision idiocy is, of course, part of Eberhardt's joke, but Night of the Comet often delivers its central irony—namely, that the fate of humanity rests in the hands of two totally-radical nitwits—with an obviousness that negates some of its humor, and an above-it-all perspective that flirts with condescension, even as its cornucopia of cornball '80s soundtrack tunes unabashedly celebrate its protagonists' shallowness.

Night of the Comet

Regina and Sam are eventually targeted by a group of lab rats led by Dr. Carter (the great Geoffrey Lewis), who've survived the comet holocaust by living in an underground bunker where it turns out they're—spoiler alert!—harvesting people for blood to use for a potential cure. These scientific vampires are a hokey bunch easily felled by a computer keyboard conk to the head, though Eberhardt wrings decent comedy out of two physicians' attempts to trick a young boy and girl into inhaling noxious gases by telling them that, if they do it, they can live with Santa Claus forever. Night of the Comet posits eggheads as dangerous and intelligence as a bad thing—at one point, Sam tells a good doctor (Mary Woronov) that the "geniuses" at her school were "all wimps!"—while cinematographically drooling over bimbo Sam as she chews gum while decked out in a cheerleader uniform, negligees, or bra and panties. That idiots-are-awesome viewpoint aligns Eberhardt's film with its spiritual offspring Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. Nonetheless, that later film has nothing on Night of the Comet's semi-satiric evocation of narcissistic '80s excess, which peaks with a happily-ever-after, nuclear-family finale featuring Regina wearing a floral-printed, shoulder-padded triangular pink dress of truly apocalyptic hideousness.

Posted by ahillis at 2:27 PM

November 15, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Descendants

by Vadim Rizov

The Descendants

The Descendants' beginning and ending bookend the film with bad ideas. At its intro, Hawaiian lawyer Matt King (George Clooney) is throwing out obvious metaphors in ceaseless voice-over ("A family seems like an archipelago"); at the end, there's a scattering-the-ashes scene scored to Wyndham Hill-esque light guitars that practically scream how restrained writer-director Alexander Payne is being. But most of what comes in-between gets it right: The Descendants is a reminder that tearjerkers aren't always made with the notion of crudely wrenching heartstrings.

Alexander Payne, writer-director of THE DESCENDANTS

This is surprising, because it seemed Payne would never become a fully-fledged dramatist. Citizen Ruth and Election are impeccably ruthless satires, but—like the proverbial comedian who really wants to play Hamlet (e.g., the Robin Williams trajectory)—Payne couldn't leave well enough alone. 2002's About Schmidt strove to convey the poignancy of an elderly Midwesterner coming to grips with his mediocrity and mortality via brutal close-ups of Jack Nicholson's wrinkled face and Kathy Bates' equally unprepossessing ass. One was intended as tender, the other as grimly funny, but it came out all wrong, setting up a weird unintended equivalence between the two.

2004's Sideways was an improvement, with Paul Giamatti and Thomas Haden Church as opposites-attract comic foils for a road trip less mortality-suffused than Nicholson's. Finally leaving his native Nebraska entirely, Payne apparently instructed cinematographer Phedon Papamichael to over-light the California outdoors, as if that would force the director to literally lighten up. Still, an unintended sense of doom hung over the mostly comic proceedings in the knowledge that Giamatti would eventually have to Confront His Failings and Come To Peace With Himself. The ending was portentously understated in only the way a devoted admirer of Yasujiro Ozu can be; Payne (a serious cinephile) is on the record as a fan. There's nothing more dangerous than someone trying to imitate the famous climactic realization of 1953's Tokyo Story, where a smiling woman admits "Life is disappointing, isn't it?" Try to get the melancholy tone just right, and a self-congratulatory smugness creeps in. The finale of Sideways might as well have its own boasting commentary track: "See how much I've held back, what deep emotions I've refrained from turning into Oscar speeches?"

The Descendants

The Descendants doesn't strain so hard. Matt King is Payne's first protagonist who doesn't have the luxury of repeatedly doing the wrong thing; his wife Elizabeth's (Patricia Hastie) dying in the hospital after a waterskiing accident and there's no time for freaking out. Not only does King have to look after his daughters and inform friends and family they have only so many more days to pay their last respects, there's 25,000 acres of virgin Hawaii land to sell off to a developer. The Kings' claim to the territory is coming to an end, a hard deadline that can't be pushed back to accommodate personal grief. When he learns Elizabeth was having an affair, he's determined to track down her real-estate agent paramour Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard!); a trip to Kauai, where Speer's on vacation with his family, will also help get everyone out of the hospital, a recognizably real and claustrophobic environment soundtracked by the ambient beeping of heart monitors.

Matt's purpose is grim: find Brian, tell him he knows about the affair and that Elizabeth is dying if he wants to pay his final respects. The trip—the bulk of the running time—is an unexpected breeze; away from home and hospital, Matt and his daughters can slip out of their daily antagonisms. His youngest, Scottie (Amara Miller), has been sending horrific text messages to a girl in her class. Older sister Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) is introduced stumbling drunk on the beach at her boarding school and is an eye-rolling, dad-dismissing nightmare at home. Away from the house, Alexandra looks after Scottie—helping Matt to keep the awful truth from the young girl as long as possible—and helps him track down Brian. Accompanied by Alexandra's thick-as-a-brick boyfriend Sid (Nick Krause), the family comes together as a functional unit: long walks on the beach, non-quarrelsome evenings in the hotel, and a general consensus that Brian needs an ass-kicking. Nothing brings an angry family together quite like a common outside enemy.

The Descendants

With the shadow of Elizabeth's impending disconnection from life-support systems hanging over the family, every light-hearted bonding moment is earned rather than evasive, delaying grief as long as possible. What doesn't work at the end is the last-minute acknowledgment that the Kings (check that name out!) and other white residents are, arguably, the illegitimate heirs to a territory that was only annexed in 1898 for nakedly mercenary ends; having ignored this the entire film, history is hastily, obligatorily worked into Clooney's last-act speechifying about protecting the land and doing the right thing—which is rancidly self-serving and ignorant.

Wisely, however, most of The Descendants doesn't shoehorn in the Big Picture. Instead, it lets the father-daughter(s) relationship take center stage, a first for Payne. Even when Matt's obsessing over his wife's adultery, he never has more than five minutes to spazz before it's back to taking care of his kids and legal obligations. Accordingly, The Descendants is far more likely to go for a moment of goofy comedy (many courtesy of Sid, one of those kids who seems perpetually stoned even when he's straight) than a tragic breakdown; the tone shifts without warning, as fluidly responsive as Matt is forced to be. No longer prone to cruel, crude outbursts, Payne's now the mature filmmaker he wanted to be. He may yet make a tragedy as spot-on as his satires, as he's come awfully close here.

Posted by ahillis at 1:34 PM

November 13, 2011

INTERVIEW: Charlotte Gainsbourg

by Steve Dollar

MELANCHOLIA star Charlotte Gainsbourg

Some actresses have described working with Lars von Trier as a process akin to stage-diving into a meat grinder. Okay, no actresses actually said that, but in various turns of phrase such disparate stars as Bjork, Nicole Kidman and Emily Watson (among others) have described how making a movie with the Danish provocateur pushed them to their limits—or beyond. Sitting across a table in a SoHo cafe one recent afternoon, Charlotte Gainsbourg cheerfully said that she was only too happy to reunite with von Trier. Their first encounter won her the best actress prize at Cannes for a risk-taking (and co-star mutilating) performance in the 2009 Antichrist. "I said of course and waited on the script," she said, "but I didn't care what I would read. Anytime I would go."

In the new Melancholia, Gainsbourg plays Claire, the sober-minded older sister of Justine (Kirsten Dunst)—a glowing new bride whose chronic depression turns a grandiose wedding party into a decathlon of dysfunction and eccentric bad behavior. And if that's not bad enough, there's a giant planet called Melancholia that's on a collision course with Earth. All aboard for funtime. Now 40, Gainsbourg is soft-spoken with a lilting English accent, a relaxed sense of humor and a delicate, unfussy grace about her. She wasn't dressed for the cameras, as she often is in public, and after the interview she quickly rejoined her entourage: her three-month old daughter Joe, who she carried in her arms as she whirled outside on MacDougal Street. The scene wasn't unlike her first appearance in Melancholia, desperately cradling a child as she rushes, in paradoxical slow-motion, towards the apocalypse. Today, though, the planet was safe from destruction. Gainsbourg talked about von Trier—and the notorious Cannes press conference—why she turned down the offer to play her father (1960s rogue/icon Serge Gainsbourg), and what it's like to take the stage as a Beck-produced pop singer. Her new live album, Stage Whisper, is out on Dec. 13.

Melancholia

You played a very extreme character in Antichrist and in Melancholia you’re now the voice of reason.

Well, yes. But in the end, I collapse.

It's the end of the world, so the morbidly depressed character played by Kirsten Dunst is finally calm and in-tune with things. Of course. Did you enjoy playing the "straight man"?

Because the first one was such a great experience for me—I loved it—I was nervous that it wouldn't be as good. And it was very, very different. The fact was that the first one, with only Willem [Dafoe] and me, felt so intimate in this cabin in the woods. And suddenly we started this second film with a wedding with 100 extras and a crew that seemed so big. It was good that it was different but it was so much different. I couldn't reach out for Lars in the same way. And gradually we went into the more intimate scenes and then I found him again.

The wedding party sequence is quite something. How complicated was it to work with such a huge cast and a handheld camera flying around? It must have been difficult to play.

It's difficult when you don't know what you have to do. When it's written it's great because the camera moving gives you such energy. It's a wonderful way of working because you never reproduce the same take. There's a feeling of improving the scene all the time and just moving and you’re never bored. When you don't know what you're supposed to do in a big wedding scene where the dialogue goes on in one place, and you're supposed to be there but you have to invent what you want to do and he doesn't really care. You have such freedom that sometimes you're a bit taken aback. It's strange to be in control that much. But then Lars decides if he doesn't like what you do or if he needs you to do something he'll tell you and he decides what he wants. You can try whatever and then he'll tell you if it’s completely wrong and it often is.

Melancholia

Did you feel like you were at an actual wedding?

You know, I've never been to a wedding. No. [Reconsiders]. I've been to my first wedding not a long time ago.

How was it sharing the screen with Kirsten?

Lars asked me to watch Persona, Ingmar Bergman, because of that relationship—not between sisters but between the patient and the nurse. He really put the accent on that. Also, on the kindness a sister would have for a younger sister who was sick. He really wanted something very loving, with no judgment. That was the most indication I got for being the bigger sister. It was great to shoot with her. She's so easy. It was very easy also to have that loving feeling towards her. She's a sweet person. I know Lars was very reassured because she understood depression on a personal level, which was important but it's difficult to talk about her work without her.

And reuniting with Lars?

The relationship is very simple. There's something so obvious. He knows what I get from working with him. It's so exciting. The process is really gratifying. It's difficult at the same time. It's not something you do... It costs you. But I just love him also, him as a human being. And the more I know of him and his family. I find him very touching.

He said he's never talking to the press again.

Really?

Well, after the incident in Cannes.

Well, that's his fault. [small laugh]

How did it feel to be up there at the press conference [when von Trier made his infamous "Nazi" comments]?

It was embarrassing, really embarrassing. But I wasn't shocked by what he had said. It seemed like so much what he would do. In his own provocation—being stupid and going too far, deeper and deeper into his shit. That's the way he is, and um... sabotaging himself.

Not unlike Kirsten at the wedding.

No. It wasn't a big surprise, but it made such a fuss afterwards. During the conference thing, well it was embarrassing but it wasn't dramatic. Then it became dramatic afterwards. He felt terrible, but like a child would feel terrible after a big mistake. [laughs] It's not to say that what he said was not really... it's not "worse," very bad. Stupid. He's always trying to make fun or be very cynical. He's always putting on an act. So that was a bad act.

Melancholia

That's a good way to put it. It's said that Lars channels himself into his female characters. What's it like to be on the other side of that equation?

In Antichrist I was really playing him and Willem was playing the nurse. This time, Kirsten was playing him—as the sick one—and I was playing the nurse. And it's funny because his wife told me that one of the scenes where she was the most touched was the scene in the bathroom when I try and give her a bath, because she saw herself in us. That tells you how close he is to his characters. I really needed him on the first film, because I had to deal with all those anxiety attacks and I never had one. He was very helpful. He shared everything. You think you're going to die, there's nothing worse, but on the outside it's not as if you're going wild. It's very subtle. I don't know if I was subtle. [laughs].

Well, not with the drill! That was such a funny film, because people were repulsed by it, but at Fantastic Fest in Austin, they printed up T-shirts with a "Chaos Reigns" slogan.

[laughs]. People who love Lars' films say they can't even try and watch it. I didn't think it was spectacular in a bad way. I don't know. I thought the beginning was much more disturbing. The emotions. I know a lot of mothers who didn't want to go because of that.

It was really poetic and genuinely haunting. Much as Melancholia, and especially the opening. Was there a lot of technical process going on for the actors?

I'm only in one of those shots. It was only technical and it took hours to set up. Kirsten went through hours of lighting and set up and putting it all together. It was very staged and controlled, the opposite of the rest of the film. But it's a great contradiction also. With faces and people, he doesn't want any effort made on the make-up or all the nice things. He doesn’t want us to look good. But as for the other visuals, he's very caring about how it will all be like. Even in post-production, he was working a lot on that.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, with her father Serge

I was surprised to learn that you'd been asked to play your father, in the rather fanciful French biographical film Gainsbourg: A Heroic Life?

It was after I'm Not There and I thought, well, it is possible to play a man, why not? I refused to see any footage of my father since he died. I mean, not refused, like a big thing. But if I can avoid it I feel better. So I thought if I was able to play him maybe I’d finally be able to see him and watch him and copy him. I thought about it for one month and then turned it down. I couldn't. And then I had my accident [a 2007 cerebral hemorrhage], which meant anyway I was on another planet.

Which then inspired your album IRM, right? I loved the sound of the MRI machine on the title track.

People thought it was weird to have something positive to say. I love the sounds. I think they are very energizing. It's not a bad memory for me at all.

You mention chickening out on your first plan to tour. Were you afraid of getting onstage?

It's very different. You have no shield. I've done theater once, but even that is different. You don't look at the public. You're still in your bubble. You have to play a character. This time, I didn't want to show up with a character. I wanted to be myself. But I thought it wouldn't be enough, because I'm not such a singer, I don’t have an incredible voice, I'm not a performer. At the beginning, I thought I didn't have what it takes. And gradually I took such pleasure doing it and then saw that the people who were coming were not mean people ready to punish me.

Posted by ahillis at 10:49 AM

November 10, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Conquest

by Vadim Rizov

The Conquest

Before The Conquest's May premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, a trailer promised a scathing rendition of French president Nicolas Sarkozy's rise, highlighting actor Denis Podalydès' impersonation while spitting out the lines "I am a Ferrari. You open up the hood with gloves on." Sarkozy's actress wife, Carla Bruni, had a small part in the fest's opening night film, Midnight In Paris; said to be worried about The Conquest, she skipped the red carpet. At that point, Sarkozy's domestic approval rating had hit a new low of 21%. This week, in time for The Conquest's U.S. release, it's hanging at around 30%, and—a convenient irony—Sarkozy just finished another stint in Cannes last week, this week for a G20 conference that was overshadowed by Greece's near-default and ended with the embattled president literally getting rained on.

The Conquest isn't so much satire as a potentially bewildering 105-minute interpretation of Sarkozy's path from Minister of the Interior in 2002 to his 2007 ascent to the presidency. In Podalydès' rendition, Sarkozy’s a swarthy Andy Serkis-type often referred to as "the midget," who walks like Mr. Bean (an undignified comparison German Prime Minister Angela Merkel's made (the physical impersonation, as with everyone cast, is uncanny), scarfs chocolates like crazy and—America-lover that he is—scarfs a sub-elementary-school-cafeteria burger behind his desk. His recurring lack of dignity is the one joke The Conquest has to offer: rather than real satire, director Xavier Durringer offers up a disconnected series of power plays, strategy sessions and barely civil dinner-table negotiations from inside a political bubble, expecting homeland viewers (not unreasonably) to provide context.

The Conquest

The most potent example: when riots broke out in 2005 in the banlieues (read: “suburbs”/projects) and continued for 20 nights, Sarkozy declared an intolerance for “scum” and broke out the fire hoses. Condemnations from the left ensued (you can read a particularly indignant one from La Haine director Mathieu Kassovitz here), and Sarkozy was accused of throwing quite literal fuel on the fire, stoking discontent over the death of young Muslim men on the alleged run from police into real public violence. You only get trace images of those events here: Sarkozy riding past cars on fire with the sheerest indifference, cackling over the hit his statements made with the press on a plane ("What I said last night has tongues wagging") and receiving a brief tongue-lashing from then-President Jacques Chirac (Bernard Le Coq) for his potentially irresponsible act. Durringer doesn't even bother to include Sarkozy's statements in full: for a French audience well-schooled in the recent events, it'd be overkill, a reenactment of a recent TV memory.

The Conquest is, more or less, a condemnation, with the title framing Sarkozy’s rise in martial terms. Unlike Oliver Stone's wishy-washy W.—its nearest point of reference—it rejects empathy, showing Sarkozy in shark-like motion from one cynically calculated decision to the next. In W., Stone had President Bush trip over a corn-cob during a picnic early in his career, presumably a metaphor for how a well-meaning-but-dim populist stumbled over trashy, cornpone sentimentality and mistook it for solid policy. Here, the most important (and sole humanizing) factor is the break-up of Sarkozy's marriage to model/advisor Cecilia Ciganer-Albanez (Florence Albernel), the genuinely distraught politician nearly hits (and gets uncomfortably grabby with) his spouse when she leaves him for another man. Since the film opens on election night with Sarkozy twirling his wedding ring and repeatedly calling Cecilia, you don't need to know that anyone talking about "his friend Bill" (Clinton! those Americans!) while Cecilia looks up admiringly is going to be bad news. Chirac tells him as much in the bluntest possible way: beware of omnipresent advisors, for they'll steal your wife while you're on-stage. Lo and behold.

The Conquest

Cecilia comes and goes; a more consistent rivalry is with Minister of Foreign Affairs and Chirac protégé Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), and the knives come out early. Literally: during a would-be peace-making dinner, Sarkozy holds up his steak knife and says "Time to sharpen your blade." A series of equally unsuccessful tête-a-têtes follow, the funniest of which is a seaside for-the-cameras meeting. The camera sardonically pans from a wrapped-up Sarkozy consuming his morning coffee in seeming solitude to the press corps dutifully photographing him. "It's Villepin!" the cry goes up, and suddenly the reporters fly down the beach, leaving Sarkozy alone. Cut to the pair making uneasy small talk at the table: Sarkozy congratulates Villepin on emerging from the sea like Ursula Andress, and Villepin equally venomously congratulates Sarkozy on his mastery of the classics. Sarkozy suggests Villepin's ascent from the sea also reminded him of one of those Greek gods. Apollo, Villepin mischievously suggests? Yes, Apollo, Sarkozy quickly agrees, quite unaware he's actually thinking of Venus. This is a uniquely snarky way of calling someone out for intellectual shortcomings.

The Conquest benefits from director of photography Gilles Porte's glossy widescreen. Italian composer Nicola Piovani's score conjures up a Fellini-esque carnival vibe routinely (Piovani scored his Ginger & Fred and Intervista), but that spryness isn't otherwise evident in this poker-faced account. That the film stops at exactly the moment Sarkozy's took over the republic is curious, suggesting either the pragmatic self-censorship of making a movie against the president or a deeper cynicism about how much it really matters who's in office. Rarely does the film's Sarkozy indicate any interest in actual policy issues, and his explicitly manifested disgust for the electorate covers the entire economic spectrum, from factory workers who ask rude questions at stump speeches to businessmen who want access to his meetings after making large contributions. Abstractly fascinating as a rare attempt to mount a critique of a sitting executive, The Conquest is a series of sketches for an attack that stay away from wondering about his ultimate impact. The film's fascination with means of acquiring power is second only to its subject's.

Posted by ahillis at 9:15 AM

November 8, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Hercules in the Haunted World (1961)

by Nick Schager

Hercules in the Haunted World

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 swords-and-sandals epic Immortals, this week it's Mario Bava's nightmarish 1961 Hercules in the Haunted World.

Mario Bava's cinema immerses one in the otherworldly, so it's fitting that Hercules in the Haunted World, the legendary horror maestro's contribution to the '60s-'70s Greek mythology subgenre, opens with a credit sequence boasting a blood-red spiral into which the viewer seemingly plummets. His maiden effort in color, and produced a year after his iconic Black Sunday, Bava's 1961 film is narratively goofy but aesthetically rapturous, delivering myriad magnificent spectacles and an enveloping supernatural atmosphere that speak to Bava's preoccupation with the untrustworthiness of sensory experience and the tenuousness of reality. Shot with a minimal budget that Bava maximized through clever re-use of sets and props (as elucidated by Tim Lucas' excellent liner notes to the 2002 Fantoma DVD release), the director's saga is a thing of misty monstrousness and blood-red beauty. Awash in lurid hues and a smoky haze that lend ominous splendor to its action, his tale is one of loyalty, sacrifice and the dangerous allure of illusions, themes addressed through the efforts of Hercules (two-time Mr. Olympia Reg Park) to travel to Hades to recover the magical Stone of Forgetfulness in order to revive his entranced love Deianira (Leonora Ruffo), who has fallen under the spell of her uncle, newly self-crowned King Lico (Christopher Lee).

Hercules in the Haunted World

Accompanied by his ladies-man comrade Theseus (George Ardisson) and insufferable buffoon Telemachus (Franco Giacobini), Hercules sets about his task after consulting a masked oracle sitting cross-legged in a dark, empty room whom Bava shoots from behind glittering jewels. His first stop is the Land of the Hesperides, where he must obtain a golden apple that will grant him entrance to the underworld. Sailing there through a crimson night shrouded in inky shadows that herald a storm that runs their vessel aground, Hercules and company awaken in Hesperides, the first of many moments that posit their quest as, if not an actual dream, than at least fundamentally dreamlike. That mood continues throughout Hercules in the Haunted World, and not simply because the script is a confused muddle of abrupt character behavior and nonsensical plotting. As when the camera zooms into the foggy cavern that leads to Hades and the filmmaker employs a beautiful dissolve to segue to Hercules and Theseus making their way through a red cavern passageway, Bava's direction imbues what is often silly material with a hallucinatory quality, regularly creating a sense of descending into irrationality through evocative widescreen framing and entrancing editorial transitions.

Hercules in the Haunted World

Bava's action set pieces are a bland, conceptually one-note lot, as Hercules in the Haunted World's signature feats-of-strength incidents all feature Hercules triumphing by tossing some sort of enormous stone—twice it's a boulder tethered to a rope or vine, and during the climax, it's a series of towering pillars. The end result of this recurring motif is unintentional comedy, a situation not aided by performances that are either wooden to the point of petrification (see: every female cast member) or hyperactive to the point of aggravation, with the exception of Park (who proves a passable Herc, if not in Steve Reeves' class) and Lee. The latter exudes his usual towering spawn-of-Satan malevolence, which is all the more admirable for the fact that his dialogue is dubbed by another actor, thereby depriving the film of its most charismatic star’s inimitable baritone. Still, Lee isn't given much to do other than stalk the beatific blonde Deianira around an underground lair that, with its pagan decorations and spooky coffins (including one from which Deianira initially rises), recalls similar locations in Black Sunday.

Hercules in the Haunted World

Despite its considerable shortcomings in the plot and acting departments, Hercules in the Haunted World nonetheless serves up a raft of memorable mythological moments, from Hercules and Theseus traversing a demon-lava canyon via rope—the two dwarfed by towering mountains and whipped by wind in wide shots, before one of them falls and sinks into the bubbling, steaming sludge below—to a final skirmish in which Hercules is attacked by an army of soaring, clawing specters that culminates with a striking shot of a skeletal hand protruding from between two granite slabs. So arresting are these visions that they largely obscure the pointlessness of the haphazard story's ins and outs involving the playboy Theseus' foolhardy relationship with Persephone and the resultant wrath wreaked on Earth by her angry (and never-seen) father Pluto. Moreover, even in that perfunctory doomed-romance dynamic, Bava captures a sense of images (be they of a beloved paramour, or a seemingly bottomless chasm) as powerful and potentially illusory—a notion that’s subtly, and evocatively, conveyed by his film’s bounty of unforgettably unreal sights.

Posted by ahillis at 9:51 AM

November 6, 2011

Another Girl, Another Planet

by Steve Dollar

Melancholia

Everyone, it seems, wants to hate him, but I could only laugh along with the rest of the audience at Fantastic Fest last month when Lars von Trier described the introductory flourish of his new film: "It borders on kitsch, it's almost unbearable." Von Trier says and does a lot of crazy stuff, which can lead to compulsive disasters (getting canned at Cannes), tattoos on his knuckles that spell out the word "Fuck," or add to a perverse appreciation for his artistic process. And he's right about the eight-minute introduction to Melancholia. The surreal fugue, shot by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro, pivots around Kirsten Dunst in a wedding dress, running in slow motion as gray tendrils float up from the ground to tangle her up. The prelude to Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, which the film returns to again and again, serves as a rapturous soundtrack with its unsettling opening passage, as a series of images evoke either transcendence or cataclysm in a style akin to the stagey suburban tableaux of photographer Gregory Crewdson (himself inspired by the movies) and the uncanny visions of David Lynch.

If von Trier is sheepish about the slickness and its consonance with, say, some high-end promotional video for a fashion designer, he's also a long, long way from the Dogme 95 provocations of films like The Idiots. Maybe he’s cringing on the inside, but in a mere eight minutes he creates something of a spellbinding beauty—a flash-forward of sorts, which concludes, of course, with an apocalyptic collision of planets—that can nail a viewer to their seat for the next two hours, thinking about Dunst in that luminous aura, conducting electromagnetic waves through her fingertips.

Melancholia

Where can a movie go from there? Well, to a grandiose wedding reception at the same seaside golf resort that provided the lush, Marienbad-esque landscape for the previous scenes. Dunst is Justine, a bride stripped bare by her impossible depression, whose destructive gravitational pull will cause her to sabotage everything on this night of nights. Shot with a bracing use of handheld camera, this segment of the film is a kind of throwback to vintage von Trier, navigating through a gallery of eccentric characters, each representing a fragment of Justine's life: the randy old father (John Hurt), the ice-queen mother who disapproves of marriage on principle (Charlotte Rampling), her boss from the ad agency (and her new husband's best man) who's still trying to pin her down on a tagline (Stellan Skarsgard), her thoroughly smitten and totally clueless groom (Alexander Skarsgard), the stiff-collared and filthy rich brother-in-law who's hosting the whole shebang at his castle-like estate (Kiefer Sutherland), their fastidious factotum "Little Father" (Jesper Christensen), the gravely offended wedding planner who won't look her in the face (Udo Kier), and so on, but most essentially her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg), whose role as caregiver/puppet-master becomes clear from the outset as Justine spirals through an endless evening of forced smiles and lapses into a fathomless psychic funk.

The superb cast keeps threatening to turn the affair into a comedy of manners, a social anatomy lesson, in which we will learn the unique way that this particular family is unhappy, but the levity is repeatedly punctured by Justine's desolate interludes. In one of them, she stands out by a sand trap gazing up at the sky through a telescope, marveling at a strange new blue star. It haunts her, even as she begins to fall apart, and rearranges the art books in her sister's reading room, putting away the images of modern abstraction and opening the pages to scenes of Brueghelesque horror.

Melancholia

It's no wonder Justine's little nephew calls her, with impossible innocence and affection, "Auntie Dealbreaker." This first hour or so displays a virtuoso at work, and Dunst showing the audience resources that no one's ever asked her to tap into, having to portray a sort of radiant blank, sinking into a whirlpool while everyone around her is soaring high. Unlike those trendy Hollywood comedies about the Tao of screwing up (Bad Teacher, The Hangover or—heh—Bridesmaids) that finally supply soft landings for their hopeless loser protagonists, this one shoots with real bullets. But there are bigger things to worry about.

One catastrophe forecasts another. In part two of the film, that twinkling blue star now has a name: Melancholia, a planet 12 times the size of Earth which is on course for an imminent "fly by," although the widespread suspicion is that the worlds are going to smack together like a pair of billiard balls. It's the end of the world as we know it, but Justine feels fine. For once, her doom and gloom is in sync with everyone else, and after a period of near-catatonia back at the manse, she is roused by the protective Claire through the miracle of homemade meat loaf, long hot baths and galloping horse-rides through the bucolic grounds as the camera floats, omniscient, in the clouds above them. In one of the film's indelible moments, Claire comes upon Justine laying against a riverbank, nude in the moonlight, resplendent as a Pre-Raphaelite virgin—a touch of primal scenery that echoes the mythic feminine in the same way that Gainsbourg's bewitched character did in Antichrist. It's a more complicated portion of the film because that camera hovers almost exclusively around the sisters, giving Claire's anxieties more play, and characterizes her relationship to Justine with allusions to Bergman, while subtly evoking a sense of dread mixed with wonder as Melancholia looms ever larger in the sky. (Von Trier even has the little boy concoct a device, resembling some shamanic tool, out of sticks and twigs that acts as a gauge, measuring the planet's approach). Much as in Lynch's films, the sound design is crucial: An incessant, trebly whooshing noise simmers like the rush of steam out of a stove pot, charging the atmosphere as if heralding a storm. The effect works so well it prompted sense memories of my own childhood, taping up the windows before a hurricane arrived (and making a jailbreak to run around in the yard during the "eye," when the winds briefly subside).

Melancholia director Lars von Trier

As the situation goes from bad to worse, Justine is finally justified. Claire wants to cling to normalcy and greet the eternal with a glass of wine and some candlelight. "You know what I think of your plan?" Justine says, in a line that sounds piped in direct from the director's nervous system. "It's a piece of shit... Why don't we meet on the fucking toilet." No longer the turd in the punchbowl, Justine finally describes the world as it actually is and no one's going to argue with her. She's von Trier's surrogate, and perhaps it’s a colossal act of hubris to conflate one's depression with a literal earth-shattering event, but if that's going to happen then don't pull any punches. Ultimately, von Trier turns cosmic obliteration into something magical and terrifying, turning the unspeakable and even absurd into the mesmerizing and majestic. Uncle Fuck Knuckle strikes again.

[Melancholia is now available on demand, and begins a limited theatrical release on November 11. For playdates and more info, visit the Magnolia Pictures website.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:00 AM

November 4, 2011

RETRO ACTIVE: Charley Varrick (1973)

by Nick Schager

Charley Varrick

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 all-star Tower Heist, this week it's Don Siegel's Walter Matthau-headlined 1973 crime saga Charley Varrick.

"The Last of the Independents" is the tagline for Charley Varrick's (Walter Matthau) failed crop-dusting business—which was driven into the ground by big combine competition—and it's a description that aptly applies to the protagonist of Don Siegel's 1973 heist film Charley Varrick. Varrick is a man for whom the archaic ways—as both an entrepreneur and a stick-up artist—are threatened by a burgeoning corporate America defined by corruption and criminality. Based on John H. Reese's novel The Looters, Siegel's first post-Dirty Harry effort is a white-knuckle thriller equally indebted to film noir (in its fatalistic mood) and Westerns (in its depiction of the past being obliterated by the future), charting the efforts of Varrick to avoid an early grave after he robs a small-time New Mexico bank. That job opens Siegel's film, and is shot with a deliberateness that's downright nerve-jangling, as Varrick, in old-man make-up and an ankle cast, pulls up to the bank in a car driven by wife Nadine (Jacqueline Scott), briefly fools a pair of inquisitive cops, and winds up blasting an escape route through two officers once things go wrong. One of his two masked cohorts is gunned down, Nadine is fatally shot, but he nonetheless manages to nab three-quarters of a million dollars—a suspiciously large haul from such a tiny establishment that leads to an unavoidable, unpleasant revelation: Varrick has inadvertently pilfered soon-to-be-laundered Mafia money.

Charley Varrick

This development doesn't bother Varrick's hotheaded partner Harman (Dirty Harry's Scorpio killer Andy Robinson), who's giddy at the thought of indulging his big-spender dreams. For Charlie, however, there's nothing but potential misery to be bought with this stash, which he realizes will—on top of the law enforcement hordes looking to nail him for murder—compel mobsters to mercilessly try to recover. Those thugs are represented by bank bigwig Doyle (John Vernon) and his hired assassin Molly (Joe Don Baker), two men who represent everything Varrick is not. Doyle is a corporate cretin interested in doing whatever it takes to cover his own ass before his Las Vegas superiors begin suspecting he was involved in the heist (he wasn't), making him the cold-hearted corporate scumbag to Varrick's working-class sensitive soul (a persona conveyed by his farewell kisses to the deceased Nadine, and his mournful gazes at old photos of the once-happy couple). Still, while Vernon is reasonably menacing, it's Baker who's truly unforgettable as a sadistic hitman with a calm, inviting smile, such as when he pushes a wheelchair-bound gun salesman up against a wall (shades of Richard Widmark's Kiss of Death psycho Tommy Udo), or when he becomes the embodiment of unrepentant white racism during a confrontation with an African-American man that ends with a car stolen and a child crying.

Charley Varrick

Whereas Molly kills without remorse, Varrick tosses his guns in a stream lest he use them, and while Molly turns down sex with employees of the whorehouse where he briefly stays—and entices another hottie to have sex by slapping her in the face—Varrick is an unassuming ladies' man whose cool-cat demeanor effortlessly seduces Doyle's secretary even as he holds her hostage. Despite his iconic droopy-dog face, Matthau exudes such poise and confidence that even Varrick's aforementioned sexual conquest seems semi-believable, though it doesn't distract attention from the fact that Siegel's film envisions women as easy lays, masochistic whores or angelic corpses. That '70s-era sexism is part of Charley Varrick's masculine worldview, in which hardness reigns supreme, and yet what makes its atmosphere so consistently charged is Matthau's ability to seem simultaneously as tough as his adversaries, and yet more level-headed, compassionate and shrewd as well. His Varrick isn't overwhelmed by his against-the-odds circumstances—which inevitably require him to acquire passports so he and Harman can flee to Mexico by plane—but he is disheartened by them, less because they put him in mortal danger than because they speak to fate's apparent desire to confound all his legal and illegal attempts to make a living.

Charley Varrick

Matthau's laid-back demeanor is invigorating and amusing, as when a man, after selling Varrick dynamite, says, "May I ask what that's for?" and Varrick replies, "You certainly may" as he walks out the door. Matching that attitude is Siegel's easygoing yet rugged direction, which has a clean, sharp conciseness that conveys emotion and theme with minimal fuss. From a close-up in which wild-eyed Harman's face is framed by the walls of a safe (a visualization of how greed entraps him), to auto chase sequences that exhibit blunt muscularity, Siegel treats his material with a no-nonsense brusqueness that nonetheless often affords room for moments of introspective character contemplation. A prolonged climactic showdown between Varrick's plane and Molly's car goes on so long that suspension of disbelief soon becomes an issue. Yet an awesome aircraft-flipping stunt, as well as the subsequent final ruse perpetrated by Varrick in order to escape execution, boasts, like so much of this tonally assured film, a compelling attention to aesthetic and narrative detail—a quality that ultimately helps make Charley Varrick a work of expert genre craftsmanship.

Posted by ahillis at 1:44 PM

November 2, 2011

DOC NYC 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

Undefeated

[DOC NYC begins tonight at the IFC Center in Manhattan, and continues through Nov. 10.]

Undefeated follows a North Memphis high school's 2009-10 football team overcoming years of losses, a lack of funding and general institutional disregard. We see a player break down in tears after learning an anonymous local millionaire he's never met will bankroll his higher education: no matter where he's accepted or if injuries destroy his athletic career, he has four guaranteed, paid-up years to get a degree. That's a logical echo of the earlier intervention of volunteer coach Bill Courtney, the white, relatively patrician owner of a lumber firm who got involved with Manassas High's barely maintained football program through the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Courtney figured out how to raise $15,000 in necessary supplies, coaching and expenditures for free, this in a country where the sport is big business even on the collegiate level. For many young black men, going pro is a concrete aspiration within reach, though the odds are stacked against them: the Southeastern Conference (merely one division of NCAA college football) broke a billion dollars for the 2009-10 fiscal year, while the NFL reported $8.5 billion in revenue for 2009. Leaping from one to the other is unlikely; a 2001 NCAA report concluded only 2% of college players go pro. Still, it's startling that in a sports-crazed nation, the North Memphis school district can't scrape together funding for its football-loving youth.

Undefeated

"Interesting fact about recessions: they end," a local billboard reads, but the area looks boarded-up and left for dead regardless of the wider economic climate. Businessman Courtney's voluntary intervention would gladden the heart of Texas Republican Ron Paul, who declared in a September debate that he missed "the early 1960s," when "the churches" took care of the sickly poor. "We've given up on this whole concept that we might take care of ourselves and assume responsibility for ourselves. Our neighbors, our friends, our churches would do it." Another way of putting it: not only are public schools grievously underfunded, but they can't even offer functioning athletic programs to kids depending on them, (foolishly or not). Ron Paul would love Courtney's work.

Similarly, anyone despairing over the lack of religion in public schools should be heartened by the coach's pre-game prayers (a staple of high school athletics in the south, separation of church and state or no). Courtney's a believin' man with an unquestionably sincere investment in his team, who opened his house to player O.C. Brown for part of every week to make sure his star tackle player got properly tutored; the parallels to The Blind Side (and attendant accusations of unconscious racial paternalism or worse) are obvious. Directors Daniel Lindsay and T.J. Martin don't shy away from raising the question of whether Courtney solely cares about Brown's raw-meat potential as a player, though it's not as blunt as the man himself, who recently told Memphis newspaper Commercial Appeal that the students "accepted me with more love than they ever would have been accepted in my peer group." (Sadly, the documentary omits the players' awesome nickname for him: "Big Daddy Snowflake.")

Undefeated

One of many post-Hoop Dreams docs, Undefeated uses sports drama as a pretext for examining young men counting on professional athletics to save their lives. To that end, it marginalizes the game itself, and what little on-the-field footage there is telegraphs the outcome: generically upbeat when winning, pensive and Friday Night Lights-y when losing. "Football doesn't build character, football reveals character" Courtney tells his squad (quoting NFL Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy), not referencing the sport so much as the discipline necessary to sit through a lengthy session of game footage analysis without disgustedly yelling "You gay!" and starting a fight with another player who has jokily hogged an armrest. The pugilist in question has just come back from 15 months in juvenile prison, the angriest on a team of dispossessed young men.

As a documentary clearly built from hours of gained trust, no access seems barred. The Memphis soul organs help build atmosphere before a third act that tries too hard to prolong suspense (given that most of the season's games are outright skipped, it's too late to try to stretch out The Big Championship Game without stopping the film dead). But sometimes reductive and pushy presentation doesn’t wipe out thorny complexities: when coach Courtney tells the aforementioned player that his college education has unexpectedly been taken care of, he can't just deliver the life-changing news. He first delivers an off-putting, ill-timed lecture about diligence, past conversations about character building, and the necessity of righteous living—all before finally letting him know about the money. The area's primary mover-and-shaker for delivering up more grist for the athletic mill, Bill Courtney proves a good man who effectively got this kid a free education, but does that give him the right to be smug about it?

Into the Abyss

More than an advocacy documentary but less than a fully-formed Werner Herzog film, Into The Abyss relies on the director's eccentric persona to lure viewers in for a grim examination of triple homicide and capital punishment. In deference to such seriousness, Herzog's face doesn't appear in Into the Abyss. Nonetheless, his ghostly impression's seen on the glass wall separating prisoner and visitor, his voice and interrogatory methods impossible to confuse for anyone else's, and who else would give chapter divisions titles like "Time and Emptiness"? Abyss wants to eliminate the automatic giggles the director's stentorian voice and penchant for affected statements about Life and Nature can raise, but removing his head from the frame can't stop Herzog from being Herzog. Why did he bother?

In 2001, Michael Perry and Jason Burkett of Conroe, Texas were arrested for killing three people; they were trying to steal Sandra Stotler's Camaro. Perry got the death sentence, while Burkett was given life in jail, parole only possible after 40 years. Aside from mundane/eerie police video of the crime scene—ranging from an blood-stained garage to a dark forest at night where the bodies were dumped, with title cards and ominous, codeine-slowed, minor-chord synths—the bulk of the film is made up of interviews. Despite conflicting testimonies about what happened (Perry claimed innocence), Herzog's less interested in the specifics of the case than spending time in the company of all concerned. Having unambiguously declared his opposition to the death penalty at the start, the director allows the prisoners, family members of those killed, death-row priests and police officers their say, their testimony largely and generously uncut.

Into the Abyss

It's worth noting that at film's end, Herzog (normally a fantastically empathetic interviewer) commits an astonishing, rare gaffe. He's interviewing Burkett's wife, who fell for him while working on his appeal and—despite not being allowed to have any more contact than a brief kiss at the start of visits—is now pregnant. What must have happened is obvious, but Herzog just won't let it go: in a misguided attempt at levity, he keeps prodding her as to how this happened exactly ("You always hear about people smuggling contraband, but how do you smuggle contraband out of it?") while she squirms in visible discomfort.

Avoiding those kinds of lapses of taste (an ever-present peril caused by the gap between Herzog's usual working methods and the literally deadly seriousness of the subject) means letting all the testimony play at length, but despite the obviously powerful emotions involved, not every single minute rivets. The trade-off is that Into the Abyss succeeds at being more than just another expression of Herzog's personality; when he shuts up, remarkable things can come out of his subjects' mouths. The climactic testimony of Fred Allen—a corrections officer who panicked and quit after presiding over the controversial execution of Karla Faye Tucker—is as powerful as a personal appeal gets. It's hard to argue with a man who, after witnessing over 125 deaths, was suddenly hit with such visceral repugnance that he forfeited his pension midway through his working life. His testimony is sober, direct and free of flourishes (or rather, free of Herzogiana). During such moments, the Teutonic iconoclast successfully keeps his giant personality at a distance before it pops up again, mostly amusingly (the florid chapter divisions help compartmentalize) and only troublingly towards the end. Despite trying to disappear, Herzog remains the unavoidable subject.

Charlotte Rampling: The Look

Angela Maccarone's Charlotte Rampling: The Look begins with a zoom into the British actress' face, her turning visage growing closer in step-printed slow motion. It's a hackneyed gesture, but the effect works: STARE INTO THE REMORSELESS EYES OF ONE OF OUR MOST INTIMIDATING ACTRESSES AND QUIVER. Rampling's best known for her sexually intense roles, at least one landmark per decade. In 1966's Georgy Girl, bratty pretty-young-thing flirtatiousness gives way to premature pregnancy, 1974's The Night Porter cast her as a shorn-haired Holocaust survivor playing S&M games with her guard, and 1986's Max Mon Amour had her sleeping with a chimpanzee (Rampling: "a perfect non-speaking relationship").

For Rampling, striking looks were an advantage she consciously used to break into acting, candidly discussed here. There's no getting around how hyper-sexualized her career has been, which dominates most discussions about her. The Look broadens Rampling's public dimensions: she discusses poetry, critic Pauline Kael and whatever else crosses her mind, insisting on a more nuanced persona. Eschewing straight footage of the actress talking about her parts, Maccarone pairs her with nine conversational partners to discuss a set topic. Not everyone's up to the challenge: a discussion about "age" with Paul Auster has the novelist thuddingly observing that despite his appreciation for more mature women, "it's not like looking at a 17-year-old girl." Noted.

Charlotte Rampling: The Look

Generally, these friends, family members and distinguished acquaintances offer a welcome catalyst. When interviewed alone, Rampling falls into a thespian's typically fuzzy thoughts on Acting, Being, Emotion and all the rest. Bantering with others, Rampling's charisma and presence assert themselves. Chatting with photographer Peter Lindbergh, she forces him to become the subject for once and watches him wilt before submitting to his camera, effortlessly switching on that titular Look. ("Get out of the eyeline," she politely commands the crew.) With director Barnaby Southcombe, she runs through a series of acting exercises—the two repeating the same banal phrases back and forth with microadjusted inflections—before curtly admitting she never liked this kind of work.

The Look fails to note that Southcombe's not just a director but also her son (irritatingly, it doesn't identify anyone onscreen until the end credits). Despite the affectation of openness, this is an actress examining her public and professional life while rigorously walling off her interior. In some ways, it's her "authorized" biography, the officially approved counter-balance to an ex-friend's controversial book about her gossip-fodder relationships, discreetly omitted here. Always comfortable and in control, Rampling is as hypnotic on her own terms as in her movies.

Posted by ahillis at 2:30 PM