February 29, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Salt of Life

by Vadim Rizov

The Salt of Life

In the 1970 comedy Where's Poppa?, George Segal's every attempt to find a romantic partner is sabotaged with senile maliciousness by his screen mom Ruth Gordon, whose needs preclude finding a romantic partner. It's cinema's ultimate Jewish mother joke about a son whose sexual instincts are incestuously redirected back into the family. Late bloomer Gianni di Gregorio repressed all such lusty urges in his directorial debut Mid-August Lunch, re-enacting his years of maternal care for a woman not ashamed to wheedle to get the care she needs.

The Salt of Life dreams of the future rather than brooding over the past, with all those previously unmentioned desires gushing out. Once again, "Gianni" (di Gregorio himself) is front and center and his mother (Valeria de Franciscis) is still a financial and emotional black hole. She lives in a big house, casually paying 800 Euros for roses while her son scrapes together pension money for his rent. This is an alternate-universe scenario, since at some point this version of Gianni managed to get married and have a daughter (Teresa di Gregorio). His wife (Elisabetta Piccolomini) sleeps in a separate room, presenting him with day-long errand schedules in the morning: a post office run, a toaster repair, picking up curtains at IKEA. "What else do you have to do?" she asks. Gianni sits in the kitchen as street sirens sound a time-honored cue of brewing rebellion, stoked by Ratchev e Carratello's score, in which pizzicato strings urge mischief.

The Salt of Life

On Gianni's block, three men wile away each day in folding chairs like Do the Right Thing's street corner philosophers with nothing substantive to say. One of them, he learns, has a relationship with the younger, more attractive woman who runs a small store on the block. Spurred by this seemingly inexplicable coupling and the goading of his lawyer friend Alfonso (Alfonso Santagata), Gianni decides to find a mistress of his own. His many rebuffs constitute the plot.

Where Mid-August Lunch was clear-eyed and unsentimental about the toll of familial ties, The Salt of Life is too cute in presenting sexual fantasies that wander into dirty-old-man territory. Gianni's exploits starts small, walking his wife's small dog and downstairs neighbor Valeria's (Valeria Cavalli) lumbering St. Bernard. Two dogs should be better than one for picking up women, and Gianni's eyes light up when he strolls through a gaggle of high school girls. None take the bait, so he tries hitting on his mother's nurse Cristina (Kristina Cepraga). She said she's dreamt of him, but the Borscht Belt punchline is that she saw him as her grandfather. Eventually, Gianni enters all situations with the wolfish grin of a salesman desperately trying to unload faulty merchandise, with his aging body a metaphorical Ford Pinto.

The Salt of Life

Some of the allegedly comical situations would fit all-too-perfectly in bad American studio product (there will be Viagra and ill-timed erections). As a sexagenarian director, di Gregorio is still finding his voice. The visual jokes are occasionally inspired, as when Gianni gazes down from his balcony and watches two old men passing each other on the sidewalk. One is a skinny hunchback, the other upright and obese, their twin abnormalities funhouse reflections of the other. Subtle and funny, as well as a catalyst for Gianni's concern later when he gets so depressed he can't leave the house, is his explanation that he doesn't want to be just another elderly retiree shuffling down the sidewalk.

The smaller moments like this play better than the ungainly big gags. Nearly every scene of Gianni cluelessly blundering his way through failed flirtations is more irritating than empathy-generating. The portrait of his female relatives as the jailkeepers of a sexless, castrating prison doesn't help. Every single woman Gianni meets turns out to be a false hope, but since he's a husk of a man—all desperation and no personality—that doesn't seem unjust. The film's tone shows a crippling lack of self-awareness: asking audiences to sympathize with a man in his quest for younger tail isn't entirely a stretch, but if the quest for a mistress is the central narrative, there should be some acknowledgment of why that's an dishonorable aspiration. Perhaps Di Gregorio doesn't understand his strength is in depicting mundane compromises that calcify into an unbreakable mold. Both as a character and director, trying to crack that shell can lead to seriously misguided decisions.

Posted by ahillis at 10:05 AM

February 24, 2012

Porn Stars' Oscar Picks 2

by Steve Dollar

Porn Stars at AVN pick the Oscars!

As all Hollywood anxiously awaits the ceremonial presentation of a bunch of gilded statuettes at Sunday's Academy Awards, the members of that parallel acting profession—the adult film industry—also will be looking on, anticipating the glory and the heartbreak they recently experienced themselves at January's Adult Video News awards in Las Vegas.

For the second year in a row, GreenCine Daily took an informal poll, asking a few porn stars to talk about their favorite films and performances of the year.

Asa Akira Asa Akira

[2012 AVN awards: Seven including best anal sex scene, best three-way and best group sex scene.]

Best Actor/Actress picks: Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, Shame

I thought it was good. There were a lot of relatable things about a sex addict. It was definitely very graphic. They did a little bit too much of the shock value stuff. All of his nude scenes were unnecessary.

Did you really mind that though?

No. But I'm really aware of it. I don't like when they try to trick us, or dumb down for the audience.

How about his co-star?

I love her, Carey Mulligan, she's one of my favorite actresses right now. She's so good. They did a really good job of portraying a sex addict. It was really dark. It left a lot up to the viewer. There's this possible incestuous relationship going on, but you don't really know. I totally thought they had this incestuous past, but my best friend didn't. We went home and Wikipedia-ed it. They didn't really say anything about it but I'm still sticking to my guns. I don't know if I'm projecting because that's like my fantasy.

So they both deserved nominations?

Yes, definitely. Carey Mulligan, there was something else I saw her in she was so good in...


I went to see Drive twice. A lot of people didn't like it.

I loved it.

I loved it! Oh my god, the director did such a good job of making the audience feel exactly how he wanted to make them feel, but with silence. The part where they're driving and she says something about her husband coming back and they were so quiet and you can just feel his heart dropping.

What else was on your radar?

I just saw I Saw the Devil. My favorite guy was the cannibal guy, when he was laughing hysterically eating the flesh it was so scary.

Why are Korean movies so fucked up?

I don’t know. I've never seen a Korean movie that wasn’t fucked up.

Skin Diamond (photo by Steve Dollar) Skin Diamond

[2012 AVN award nominee: Best new starlet]

Scariest Film: Paranormal Activity 3

I love horror movies because I like to be scared. I really am a masochist. I get so scared that I can't sleep. Like, I just watched Insidious and Paranormal Activity 3. Even though Paranormal Activity 3 isn't technically that good of a movie, it freaked me out so much that the night I watched it I couldn't sleep all night. I was so afraid of a ghost coming to get me.

So if someone really wanted to torture you, they'd lock you up in a dungeon with ghosts, and have shadows come after you.

That would be the most horrible thing ever. I'd be calling my safe word on that one.

Jesse Andrews Jessie Andrews

2012 AVN award: Best Actress (for Portrait of a Call Girl)

Best Picture pick: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Do you go to a lot of movies?

No [laughs]. I don't watch TV. But I saw The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. It was good. It was weird because it had a rape scene. She was getting anally raped, and it was just disturbing. I was like, I just want to beat this guy up. And then she did, so it was cool.

Were you a fan of the book?

I didn't read the book, but I heard that the [original Swedish] movie was really good. Everyone was saying good things about it, even if it was three hours long.

What did you think of Rooney Mara?

She kind of reminded me of Sasha Grey. She was very, like, monotone. But just in that way. Not like the aggressive part.

Tim Von Swine Tim Von Swine

[2012 AVN award nominee: Unsung Male Performer of the Year, Best P.O.V. Scene (for Teenage Spermaholics 7 and four others)]

Best Supporting Actress pick: Andy San Dimas (popular porn star with a speaking part as a stripper in Drive).

So Martin Scorsese's Hugo is definitely not your pick for best picture?

I sat down to see Hugo under the belief that it was a stand-alone biopic of the character Hugo Stiglitz from Inglourious Basterds but since it was not, and I was fairly disappointed, I left immediately. That would have been fantastic. Drive was great because three words: Andy San Dimas. Where is the love? It all comes full circle when a girl you've POV'd twice makes the big screen. And then, The Thing, unfortunately, if you're going to remake a John Carpenter film and not take it all that serious, remake Big Trouble in Little China. Don't waste your time with The Thing.

So those are all the movies you saw last year? Any thoughts on the actual nominees?

George Clooney doesn't need any recognition. How good is George Clooney at being average? He's great at that. So we don't need to give him any awards. I would say anything about 9/11, like that Loud and Close thing, it's wrong to do a 9/11 movie by the generation that went though it. That's not fair. Let someone else 30 years from now do a 9/11. The silent film The Artist, let something that vague and stylish win. Give it to The Artist, or Woody Allen. Who cares? Woody Allen makes his best movie and nobody cares.

It was his biggest box-office success ever.

That's just because when he was making movies in the '60s and early '70s, there were only three billion people on the planet. Now there's six-and-a-half or seven billion people on the planet. That's why it made more money. Just by default.

Did you see it?

No. I didn't. I'll admit it.

So all you saw was Drive, The Thing and the opening credits of Hugo?

I saw something else that I can't remember. I saw The Ides of March. Once again, my comments about Clooney. How good is that dude at being average in a role? He's great at it, so let's just move along. I didn't hate it. I'd give it a 7 or something like that. When you've seen one political thriller, you've seen them all. Someone's going to get killed or kill themselves or get gonorrhea, and it ruins everything for somebody, and you have to lie about it and yet you make it to the top and that's politics. What are you going to do? Unfortunately, someone's going to get fired or fucked or a dirty test or eat the wrong food that has the poison in it when it's supposed to be for someone else, and the guy still wins the election and makes millions of dollars.

Any other winners?

Moneyball? I mean, what, are we making Jerry Maguire all over again? Jonah Hill? What, he's supposed to be a serious actor now? Please, give me a break. The dude saw that if he didn't take acting serious he was going to be the next Jack Black doing Kung Fu Panda in five years. He's going to be like Zach Galifianakis. He saw that being the fat guy in movies doesn't get you laid as much as the Brad Pitt movies. But now that he lost the weight his face is still fat so he's still not going to get laid. Look, Babe Ruth and Fatty Arbuckle are two of my heroes. Those guys knew how to live it up. They didn't care if they were carrying some extra pounds. Jonah Hill, don't try and be something you're not. You're just putting perfume on a pig, bro. Stay fat! You're still going to get sucked off. You're still going to make a lot more money than we are. And you're still going to live forever because you made a few movies. Don't change up the program. Otherwise, you're going to eat too much sushi like Jeremy Piven and get mercury poisoning.

Posted by ahillis at 1:55 PM

February 22, 2012

FILM COMMENT SELECTS 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov


Alps begins with a rhythmic gymnast (Ariane Lebed) facing off against her coach (Johnny Berkis). She wants Euro-trashy club music to soundtrack her ribbon-twirling; he insists on the deadly backing of Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana” (its opening movement, "O Fortuna," is a staple of movie trailers). The bulky trainer threatens to break her arm the next time he questions her musical judgment. "You aren't ready for pop," he tonelessly declares.

Is writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos ready for pop? [Listen to our podcast.] Alps, his follow-up to the extreme dark comedy of 2009's Dogtooth, shares several quasi-joke touchstones with its predecessor: violence against women, incest and psychological terrorization, all committed with blank disaffection. Both films take place in a budgetary universe far from Hollywood, but that doesn't mean Alps' characters or creator disdain it. "Who's your favorite actor?" a paramedic asks a girl who has been badly injured. "Jude Law?" Celebrity names can be near-perfectly pronounced in any culture: the quartet of aspirational thespians of "Alps" have more modest ambitions. The paramedic is the self-dubbed Mont Blanc (Aris Servetalis), who moonlights as the director of a motley troupe who offers their services to grieving families by sitting in for dead people two or three times a week, reciting line-for-line remembered conversations. Their uninflected, memorized-speech interactions with survivors sometimes rise in volume with each repetition, but there's no intensity.


Despite the pretense of creating a meaningful connection, these morbid stand-ins are equally denied global stardom and a more intimate relationship with grieving families. What they're asked to do has little to do with acting like the deceased: their renditions of old arguments allow survivors to savor every rebuttal and point scored along the way to a fixed outcome. As Lanthimos himself has pointed out, this is an inversion of Dogtooth's depiction of parents brainwashing their captive children with a nonsense vocabulary: the Alps forge temporary, equally arbitrarily governed external families that similarly fail to fulfill their emotional needs.

In their version of acting exercises, the Alps try out their impersonations of dead celebrities. The gymnast does an epileptic take on Prince, only to be told he's alive. "Prince is alive?" she echoes in disbelief. This may be a joke about the Alps' morbid fixation on coming to life only as bad incarnations of dead people, but it plays like the edgy, absurdist comedy of Adult Swim. Confining Dogtooth almost entirely to one house helped Lanthimos establish a fixed number of rules and creating clear cause-effect relationships. Alps has more sets and less focus, pursuing goofy one-offs for their own sake. That wouldn't be a problem if these didn't sit side-by-side with ferocious acts that feel like gratuitous, already-familiar elements of the Lanthimos playbook, shock tactics for their own sake rather than logical elements of the narrative. Dogtooth's patriarch is a sadist the film clearly kept its distance from. Here, the gap between the violence perpetrated by the director and his male characters grows uncomfortably close.


Rainer Werner Fassbinder's 1978 Despair—the first of his three English-language films—stars Euro arthouse stalwart Dirk Bogarde as Hermann Hermann, a pompous Russian émigré managing a German chocolate factory in 1930. His relationship with airhead wife Lydia (Andréa Ferréol) is admittedly condescending. "She needs a patronizing type like I need a patronizable type," he lectures bohemian painter cousin Adalion (Volker Spengler), fully aware his control over Lydia is a transparent lie: he's walked in on her and Adalion in various states of undress one too many times.

Hermann's a creep from the first scene, where he rhapsodizes about a long-ago Russian evening when a sleigh ride left him and Lydia lost in the slow with the wolves howling—until the bells of the Kremlin signaled they'd soon be home. This reverence for brute power extends to his sexual fantasies, with Hermann imagining Lydia kissing him in full soldier's dress (echoing Bogarde's 1974 turn in The Night Porter as a Nazi who reignites his World War II romance with a concentration camp survivor, turning his disgraced uniform into an aphrodisiac).

The reason for the authority fetish is pat, as he's a coward who ducked military service. But half-Jewish Hermann's respect for people who can get the smothering control he lacks doesn't extend to the rising Nazis. Increasingly disorienting hallucinations in which he sees himself outside of his body—first sitting in a chair in the hallway watching himself have sex—make Hermann (and the audience) lose track of whether he's in his mind or the real world. There are no trustworthy indicators; outrageous behavior is becoming the norm around Hermann. His witnessing of the sudden eruption of anti-Semitic violence is filmed like a moment from The Third Man: sitting in an outdoor cafe, quietly reading the newspaper, he watches Nazis chuck rocks through the windows of Jewish businesses expressionlessly, with the camera tilted like the off-center world. Walking away, he looks back to check if this was just another vision, but no, there's still broken glass being cleaned from the sidewalk.


Despair is about a man whose worst persecution nightmares come to life. The results surely qualify as one of the most lysergic takes, however oblique, on the Holocaust. Hermann comes undone at least in part as a response to an environment in which people he imagines are sinisterly following him could quite reasonably be suspected of that. The film's total unpredictability makes viewers equally unsure what they're watching. At one point, Fassbinder stutter-cuts a gunshot, violently chopping seconds like a damaged DVD before suddenly slamming into a long shot revealing the entire preceding 10 minutes have been a dream sequence.

Bogarde's egocentric, Russian-inflected ravings take on a particularly surreal tone when coming filtered through three layers of interpretation. The source material is an early Vladimir Nabokov novel adapted by British, Czech-born playwright Tom Stoppard (Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Shakespeare in Love). In Fassbinder's treatment, this foreigner's perspective, however valuable, allows for a savage parade of 1930 Germany embracing Nazism, directing frustration over inflation and industrial decline against “stab in the back” politicians and wistfully longing for a strong leader. The sins of the marginal characters are infinitely greater than anything poor Hermann's up to.

[Alps and Despair screen as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Film Comment Selects," ongoing through March 1st.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:41 PM

February 20, 2012

INTERVIEW: Michael Roskam

by Steve Dollar

BULLHEAD writer-director Michael Roskam

Perhaps the most dapper dude bouncing around last year's Fantastic Fest, Belgian filmmaker Michael Roskam made a huge impression with his debut feature Bullhead. The film won Best Picture, Actor and Director in the fest's "Next Wave" section, anticipating greater triumphs to come: it's one of five contenders for best foreign film at Sunday's Academy Awards. As I wrote last year:

"Bullhead 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."

The film's evolution from low-life in the Lowlands crime drama to near-operatic tragedy has an undeniable, forceful sweep, commanded by Schoenaerts' astonishing performance. While in Los Angeles last week to promote the film, Roskam spoke about its origins, his unique bond with Schoenaerts and what it feels like to have your first film nominated for an Oscar.


This has the feeling of a real-life crime saga, but it can't all be true. What inspired the story?

The whole story is completely fiction. The background, the whole hormone mafia thing—and even, to some extent, the cop that gets murdered, that's based on reality. I used it because you couldn't imagine it better. In the '90s, you get a veterinary inspector who works for the food and drug administration in Belgium. They inspect the meat in the slaughterhouses and take samples out to see if there are illegal growth hormones in it. This guy, he was an Elliott Ness kind of character. All his colleagues were either part of organized crime, they were corrupted completely, or—if they were honest, good people—they were no match for the tough hormone mafia who would intimidate them.

If you find a little something in one cow or bull, you have to destroy the whole livestock of that farmer. So they didn't dare do their jobs. He was one guy who decided, "Listen, this is the law, and I'm not intimidated." They killed the guy at the end, execution-style. The country woke up: "Do we have farmers and meat-traders who are like gangsters?"

The whole subject is pretty esoteric for an American audience. But it's framed by familiar genre elements.

A couple of years ago, I was convinced it had to be this neo-noir kind of movie. I was also convinced it needed to be a story that was grounded in my society, in my soil. It was clear that the hormone mafia, farmers and gangsters in one, was an ideal and exotic crime scene for a neo-noir, even with some Western stuff in it. Then I just needed a good story.

I wasn't interested in a reconstruction of the murder. I wanted to make a real tragedy with an allegorical power. I did some research in the meat industry and found out about how pigs are treated. It's pretty brutal, and is related in my imagination to what happened to Jacky. When I did more research I found out about the hormones that could play a great role in his life, a double life, because now he wasn't just a farmer using illegal growth hormones for his bulls. He was now going to inject himself also with all kinds of nasty stuff, becoming a bull himself. This was a product of my imagination, but it’s kind of based on all those things.


It's almost like a Flemish Sopranos. But there are elements that Americans might not pick up that a Belgian audience would notice right away.

Especially the subtleties in the language. The farmers in my country and the guys in the meat industry, they don't speak proper Dutch. It's a nasty dialect that you do not understand if you're not from the region. I even had to subtitle it for my own audience. Then you have the Walloon side, which is French-speaking.

You have two communities separated by language. One is the Flemish people who live in Flanders in the north, and they speak Dutch like in Holland only there’s an accent difference. In the south, you have the French-speaking region called Wallonia, and that's why we call them the Walloons. A hundred years ago, Dutch-speaking was more a social identity than it was a regional identity or a nationalist ideal. It's very complex. I'm not going to explain it to you because then we will end up doing a master class in Belgian politics and your audience is going, "What kind of boring article is this?"

It comes across without any footnotes, especially whenever the buffoonish mechanics show up.

I'm playing with it. The [French-speaking] mechanics are the comic relief, a bit like in Shakespeare. Kurosawa was very strong in using those kind of tools that I was directly inspired by. It's a bit of a tone difference with the rest of the story, but I enjoyed doing that. They're based on a couple of garage people I know and they are caricatures of themselves.

It's interesting to see those elements of comedy within something that's so incredibly dark.

Mr. Orson Welles taught me that.


Where did you find your lead? That's such an insanely committed performance. Who the hell is that guy?

I cast Matthias for a short in 2005, and that was the time I came up with the idea for Bullhead. I was writing a first version of the script and told him about the story. I just felt he was this great actor, that he has the DNA of the great guys. It was a bad script at the beginning, he knew and I knew. But he said, "I love the character, I love the whole allegory. I want to do this."

He's more skinny in real life. I told him, "You have to get bigger. We need to believe your weight and mass is artificial." He said, "Yeah, watch me." He gained 60 pounds in total, and I realized it was the right thing to do. Because I trusted him, he gave me the confidence to develop the character and feel no boundaries. Imagine this movie with a crappy actor, and my career would be over. It was a beautiful thing.

He prepared for several years?

Yes. He played [in] another movie before he did this. One director thought he had a Hollywood complex, building up the body, but he was just preparing. We had to finance this movie but it's very hard to know when you have the financing. Then when we got it, we had to wait for him to get the whole mass on his shoulders. That was hard. He had to stand by. The last year before the shooting was when the real transformation took place.

Was he also using steroids to buik up?

I have no idea. I think he didn't. That's what he says. But it might be a good secret.

Has he gone back to normal or did he like being that hulk?

No, he didn't like that. He was losing weight, but then he got cast [as] the lead next to Marion Cotillard in Jacques Audiard's new movie Rust & Bone. His casting director saw Bullhead and she loved the movie. He has to play a free fighter, like cage fighting, so he had regain the pounds he lost. He plays a completely different character. It's a beautiful thing for him. But now he's going to start losing weight because we're going to do a new movie together. He wants to. He's tired of it.


Does it surprise you when people constantly bring up Raging Bull and Robert De Niro?

There are some of those legendary performances where people transform themselves. I hear guys refer to Tom Hardy in Bronson. The other way around is Christian Bale, who transforms many times. Brilliant actor. I love that guy. When it works, it works, and people love to see that.

Congratulations on the Oscar nomination. I bet you were knocked out by that.

It was one big surprise trip all the way. I thought the Dardenne brothers with The Kid with the Bike would be the Belgian entry. They had the pedigree.

If the Dardennes buy a cup of coffee, it gets nominated.

Yeah, we were like, "Why bother?" Although we were a huge box-office hit in Belgium. I hoped, in a way. It would be a great honor. I want to make the best movie, that's all. The whole thing started at Fantastic Fest. We won those three awards. Tim [League] took the movie and started to work very hard. We went to AFI Fest and won awards there. We went to Palm Springs. More and more people started to see the film and it worked with an American audience. Do not underestimate Bullhead.

Has your research into the Belgian meat industry affected your diet? Is it strictly veggie burgers for you?

Not really. Growth hormones are illegal in Belgium, and there are five types of hormones that are legal in the U.S. to beef up the animals. I would prefer not to have them, but I'd rather know which ones are than not knowing what's in it. I still eat meat. I had a good steak yesterday.

[Bullhead is now playing in New York, Los Angeles and Austin, pending wider release.]

Posted by ahillis at 5:20 PM

February 17, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: After Dark, My Sweet (1990)

by Nick Schager

After Dark, My Sweet

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the regional indie neo-noir Thin Ice.]

After Dark, My Sweet operates in a fugue state of despair, desire and doom from its opening moments, in which images from a boxing match jut up against the sight of pugilist Kevin "Kid" Collins (Jason Patric) emerging from a rocky mountain cave to wander through an anonymous Southwestern locale, his narration a bewildering stew of context-free lamentations. With hunched shoulders, dangling arms, and a head cocked low and a little to the side in a way that—like his distant, alternately cloudy and sharp eyes—indicates something's slightly off, he drifts into a bar for a cold beer. There, he strikes up a conversation with Fay (Rachel Ward), who mocks his story about being on the lookout for a missing friend and yet, after he viciously punches out the antagonistic bartender (Rocky Giordani), is impressed enough to offer him a ride to her home, where she lives alone after the death of her husband. "Now there's a good boy," she coos while motioning him into her car, treating him like a pet dog (as with the nickname she gives him, Collie), and he complies, mainly because he's a man in search of a role to play, but also because he's already fallen hard for Fay, a tough, sarcastic alcoholic in a fetching straw hat and skimpy jean shorts.

After Dark, My Sweet

Like everything else in James Foley's (At Close Range) mesmerizing adaptation of pulp maestro Jim Thompson's novel, Collie's amorous feelings for Fay are destined to lead to tragedy, as beautifully foreshadowed by Fay's entrance, in which Foley's camera revolves around Collie in a manner that should end with it settling on Fay, but stops just short, as if denying him (and us) a view of his object of desire. A kindred spirit to Collie, boozy Fay is a directionless mess, and so too is the third figure in this triptych of failure, Fay's acquaintance Uncle Bud (Bruce Dern), a shady former cop who's concocted a dicey scheme to kidnap a wealthy family's son. All the plan requires is a patsy like Collie, and Collie—who it turns out has been in and out of mental hospitals, after having killed a man in the ring—agrees to participate less out of a criminal impulse than a need to "keep going" no matter the course, his decisions clouded by a fatalism that infests every bright, sunshiny corner of Foley's exacting frame. The director substitutes typical noir shadows for glaring desert daylight whose beauty seems to mock the characters' misery, as well as exposes their true, pitiful natures. When coupled with Foley depicting his players as tiny ants against exterior landscapes, and then capturing them in constricting interior close-ups and medium-shots that speak to their inflated passions, that visual brilliance casts a long atmospheric shadow of stagnation and desolation.

After Dark, My Sweet

After Dark, My Sweet is charged with oppressive sexual longing, but even when Collie and Fay consummate their carnal impulses, the film repeatedly fades to black amidst their lovemaking, as if to intimate that true pleasure is unattainable. Foley's characters proceed with reckless confusion, albeit not total cluelessness, as Collie's assertions that he's smarter than he looks are subtly bolstered by his vocabulary (he casually drops the phrase "erroneous impression" in conversation), his keenly insightful narration, and his constant suspicion that he's in fact being set up as the fall guy for the kidnapping once, after receiving the ransom, Uncle Bud plays savior by safely returning the boy. The involvement of a doctor (George Dickerson) who befriends Collie out of professional altruism as well as barely hinted at romantic interest contributes to the story's panorama of desperate people flailing about in need. Yet throughout, the film is told specifically via Collie's fractured POV, regularly bursting into lightning and thunder-accompanied flashbacks to his brutal dispatching of his pugilistic opponent. As expressed by Foley repeatedly circling his camera around a stationary Collie, the boxer is trapped within his tortured self (as are so many Thompson protagonists), though his motivations are, like Fay's—whose femme fatale role is continually complicated by suggestions of genuine compassion and innocence—difficult to pin down.

After Dark, My Sweet

Despite Foley employing almost no clichéd stylistic tropes, After Dark, My Sweet may be the finest neo-noir of its era, its portrait of pathetic outcasts barreling toward disaster as pitch-black and still empathetic toward its gaggle of fated strangers as any the genre has offered. Its edgy tension is aided by performances that seethe with quiet anguish, as Ward straddles a fine line between sultry and sloppy, and Dern underplays Uncle Bud's conniving evil to imply that, underneath his placid façade, he's just barely keeping himself together. It's Patric, however, in what should have been a career-defining role, who embodies the proceedings' bleak volatility. Patrick matches his Neanderthal gait and gestures (as when he scoops pie into his mouth with two fingers) with blunt, impulsive physicality (his many punch-outs, or the way he swipes aside a drink placed on the counter by Bud) and, deep in his glazed stares, also a knowing depression over his inevitable self-destruction. That finally materializes in After Dark, My Sweet's deft climax, in which Collie's search for purpose finally dovetails with his love for Fay in an act of selfless sacrifice—one that provides a glimmer of hope amidst encompassing hopelessness, and yet also proves to be one that, true to noir's black heart, alienates, torments, and is ultimately unrecognized as such by, the very loved one it saves.

Posted by ahillis at 10:43 AM

February 14, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: How to Die in Oregon

by Vadim Rizov

How to Die in Oregon

The opening of How to Die in Oregon is unadulterated documentation (minus a few unobtrusive cuts) of the final moments of Roger Sagner. He didn't just take advantage of the titular state's law, in place since 1994, that allows the terminally ill and suffering to kill themselves. Sagner wanted to ensure that the impact of watching someone die on camera could be used as an argument for others wishing to do the same. He thanks the voters of Oregon; his last words are "It was easy, folks."

Director Peter B. Richardson uses this found footage as a literally killer opener; the rest of his film spins variations on this scene. The main throughline is Cody Curtis: middle-aged mother, hiking lover, liver cancer sufferer. Other terminal patients appear, but Cody gets the most screen time as she experiences spasms of pain during interviews, watches her body swell with fluids, and gazes with morbid wonder at the bile that's extracted from her. She doesn't want to die, but she also doesn't want to suffer and burden her family.

How to Die in Oregon

How to Die in Oregon is a polemical documentary. The DVD carefully notes that Richardson "examines both sides of this complex, emotionally charged issue." The filmmaker himself has been equally scrupulous about saying things in interviews like "It was a very conscious choice to tell a very personal story, and not a political one." This isn't terribly convincing considering one-fourth of the film focuses on Nancy Ziadzielski's struggle, after her husband's excruciating death, to follow through on his dying wish to get a referendum for legalized, doctor-advised suicide on Washington state's ballot.

‪Richardson's attention is split between people trying to legalize euthanasia and those who benefit from their efforts. This is, by definition, political filmmaking: advocating for direct action through the ballot box.‬ After spending extending time observing people whose bodies have turned against them, it's hard to advance the slippery-slope argument that if you allow people to have "death with dignity" (the usual legalese), then all of a sudden, eugenics-crazed doctors will be running around killing off the lesser of the herd. We presumably respond better to human faces than blunt polemics: if Richardson explicitly stated his intent, he'd be as much at risk of jeopardizing its effectiveness as Asghar Farhadi might've been if he admitted that A Separation wasn't just about one couple's divorce, but sneakily addressed its broader implications for Iranian culture.

How to Die in Oregon

Such an agenda makes clear why this documentary isn't full of dissenting voices. The only serious counter-statements come from U.S. veteran Randy Stroud, who's justifiably furious to learn that his health insurance company has denied his request claim for more advanced chemotherapy. He dies off-screen after humiliating his company (via media attention) into approving aggressive treatment that only buys him another four weeks. Their letter to him reads like an offer to put an unprofitable subscriber down, and he's not wrong to fume that he went to jail for less. But insurance companies are notoriously indifferent to the health of their policyholders. That doesn't mean the right-to-die law is terrible, just that corporations shouldn't be so greedy.

A passer-by tells Ziadzelski he wishes he had the time to debate her (he means he disagrees and, judging by his body language, wishes for Jehovah to pass a death sentence on her). There's a brief montage of AM-radio voices, including Rush Limbaugh, who per usual threatens that anything against his views for how America should be run will lead to Americans marrying elephants while godless sodomites try to steal your children. This is not a balanced portrait, nor should it be.

How to Die in Oregon

It's a serious shame Max Richter's score is brandished like a sledgehammer: it's enough to make you wish documentary DVDs came with a music-optional audio track. We don't need spare, string-heavy cues for emphasis after a man dies before us IN THE OPENING SEQUENCE. Regardless, How to Die in Oregon is important, even if that may not be immediately obvious when the world seems to be on fire. The film gains clarity as we experience the suffering of others in complicity with a documentarian, providing a living example of why laws need to change across the country. Spend 107 minutes with the sick, angry and frustrated, those who want to shuffle off without suffering further disgrace or financially burdening their families. Then try to say that these people, if given the right to down Seconol (after paying their premium!), will lead to widespread exterminations of the elderly. I hope even those ambivalent about this issue—especially in any state where it might appear in their voting booths—sees this potent movie.

Posted by ahillis at 3:06 PM

February 13, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Ninth Configuration (1980)

by Nick Schager

The Ninth Configuration [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Liza Johnson's vet-home-from-duty drama Return.]

Infused with an atonality that's responsible for both its uneasy power as well as considerable pretentiousness, 1980's The Ninth Configuration finds Exorcist author William Peter Blatty following up his horror classic with something decidedly more "serious": an adaptation of his own novel "Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane," which he wrote in 1966 and then rewrote in 1978 under this film's title. Here directing as well as scripting, Blatty jaggedly melds atmospheres with his tale of a remote Pacific Northwest castle that secretly houses army vets who've gone insane due to combat (or combat-anticipation) stress, delivering a mood that's part Catch-22 farcical, part haunted-house spooky. That latter mode is dominant early, as Blatty introduces his mist-enshrouded locale through aerial shots scored to the mismatched sound of Barry Devorzon's sweet "San Antone," and then delivers the haunting sight of a docked U.S. spaceship being dwarfed on the horizon by the ominously rising moon. "There's nothing up there!" screams terrified astronaut Captain Billy Cutshaw (Scott Wilson) as he's restrained by guards, a sentiment that will color the story's remainder, in which a collection of inmates rant and ramble about the castle with mannered Cuckoo's Nest-style craziness.

The Ninth Configuration

The asylum's traditional power-paradigm shifts upon the arrival of Col. Vincent Kane (Stacy Keach), a psychiatrist determined to investigate whether the inhabitants are faking their maladies. With haunted eyes and deliberate speech that implies buried psychological traumas, Kane is a question mark from the start, and one whose true nature is—cue every post-Sixth Sense thriller, including the remarkably similar Shutter Island—not difficult to ascertain, especially given that even Cutshaw wastes no time accusing the new doctor of being a loon. With Kane tricked into thinking a patient is the facility's clinician, and then real psychiatrist Col. Richard Fell (Ed Flanders) going about his daily business without pants, issues of reality and sanity prove immediately omnipresent, though The Ninth Configuration is initially less concerned with what-is-real conundrums than with reveling in its characters' pathological loopiness. That madness is augmented by Kane's desire to treat his charges via uninhibited role-playing, and extends from Reno (The Exorcist's Jason Miller), who's staging Julius Caesar with dogs, to Bennish (Robert Loggia), who wanders around in a spacesuit, to Nammack (Moses Gunn), who dons red-and-blue cape and tights in an effort to alter Bennish's Shakespeare production by assuming the role of Caesar's new savior, Superman.

The Ninth Configuration

Blatty's visual style is flat and pedestrian throughout, but his writing in these early passages has an off-the-wall gonzo spirit (as when Cutshaw randomly screams at Fell, "He treats crocodiles for acne!") that's intermittently bracing. The filmmaker, however, lets this zaniness slowly recede into the background as Kane becomes more integrated into the castle's operations, with humorless gravity soon becoming the overriding mood once Kane and Cutshaw engage in the film's centerpiece theological discussion over whether God exists and whether man is capable—as Kane believes and Cutshaw scoffs at—of pure self-sacrifice. Alongside flashbacks instigated by a run-in with a former platoon mate and traumatic dreams that Kane describes as those of "another man," this chat thrusts The Ninth Configuration into a new, less rewarding realm of self-seriousness. Before long, it's clear that [spoiler warning] Kane—who claims to have a notoriously murderous 'Nam vet brother known as Killer Kane—is in fact Killer Kane himself, having suppressed these wartime memories as a coping mechanism in a manner similar to Reno's interpretation of Hamlet, which is delivered in one of many moments in which Blatty italicizes his weighty interests with frustrating bluntness.

The Ninth Configuration

This revelation, amusingly foreshadowed by Reno's suspicious remark, "I'm telling you, he's Gregory Peck in Spellbound!", is so telegraphed from the start that it resounds with little impact. Still, Keach's performance has a disturbed intensity that turns Kane into something more than a gimmicky plot device—his far-off eyes (as if dreaming of things he can't quite remember) and deliberate, sleepwalky voice and comportment convey an internal and external disorientation that's far more evocative than the film's overt promotion of Christian benevolence and altruism. Whereas Blatty originally commingles space, science and spirituality in a stunning image of an astronaut discovering a giant crucifix on the moon's surface, his story finally answers its questions about God's existence via a gloppy coda that undercuts Kane's preceding, climactic act of sacrifice. The writer/director's graceless handling of his characters' crises, however, can't overshadow the magnetism of Keach's suppressed-torment turn, which like The Ninth Configuration as a whole, reaches its apex during a bar room scene in which Kane, determined to save Cutshaw from a gang of cartoonishly sadistic bikers, snaps—and snaps limbs—in a borderline-Incredible Hulk burst of murderous violence that doubles as a psychologically cleansing confrontation of his true self.

Posted by ahillis at 1:30 PM

February 10, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

by Vadim Rizov

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

Hayden Schlossberg and Jon Hurwitz have written all three of the Harold and Kumar movies, maintaining an inexplicably inconsistent quality control throughout. Notwithstanding the really horrific/gross "Battleshits" sequence of Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, the first installment was largely smart post-racial comedy about minorities united by nothing other than white people’s inability to perceive them beyond a grossly stereotyped form. But the scatological jokes seemed to hypnotize Schlossburg and Hurwitz: given the chance to write and direct Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, their topical jokes were mere sound bites—George W. Bush! North Korea! The War on Terror!—and made less impact than the canned farting sounds heard every time someone got kicked in the stomach or groin.

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas benefits from a higher hit-to-miss ratio, bolder and better gross-out gags, and built-in goodwill for this oddball franchise's ability to last seven years. At the time of its release, stars John Cho and Kal Penn were both semi-famous to a rowdy teen demographic: Cho coined the term "MILF" in American Pie and Penn co-starred in frathouse favorite Van Wilder. Now, they share an unforced chemistry: Penn's the upbeat nihilist gleefully trying to figure out how to accelerate his self-destruction, Cho's the relatively dutiful straight man with a mounting irritability toward his demanding best friend and his equally annoying social constraints. When the night runs them ragged, they meet in the middle.

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

Harold's now a financial sector mid-tier champ with a fawning aide, Kenneth (Bobby Lee), who presents him with a 3D TV as a Christmas present; he promises it'll make Avatar even more "Avatarded." This is a cheerfully brazen, self-mocking plug for expensive adopter technology: though the film screened in theaters in 3D, it still plays well at home in 2D. What you'll miss is a throw-anything, grosser-the-better attitude towards the glasses gimmick that literally shoves a dick in our faces, an upping-the-ante tribute to A Christmas Story's tongue-on-the-pole bit.

Debuting director Todd Strauss-Schulson cut his teeth on CollegeHumor.com shorts. In interviews, he self-describes as the "Christopher Nolan of the Harold & Kumar franchise" and says growing up he wanted to make "David Fincher/Michael Bay/Jean-Pierre Jeunet movies." This Harold & Kumar doesn't at all measure up to those goals, but it's paced like a screwball comedy that's smoother than the stop-start first two films. Now unmotivated by current events or social inequalities, an internet-friendly, anything-for-a-laugh methodology follows: There's a stop-motion number in which Harold & Kumar get trapped inside a Rankin & Bass nightmare, an unexpected hallucinogenic moment that transforms them into Claymation men on the run from 50-foot killer Frosty snowmen. Another musical highlight finds Neil Patrick Harris leading a Broadway company through dress rehearsal, an epically choreographed Busby Berkeley homage whose obscene moments aren't that more leering than the real thing.

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

The main attraction is watching a group of marginal players making good and redeeming themselves after a ghastly sequel. NPH's public popularity resurge—as an openly gay theater/sitcom star—coincided with the perseverance of the Harold & Kumar series. He's predictably game to play himself as the most repellent heterosexual, using his cuddly gay image to lure chorus girls back to his room for a quick spit rubdown. Jewish stoners Rosenberg (Eddie Kaye Thomas) and Goldstein (David Krumholtz), who were introduced in the first film waiting for a cable broadcast of The Gift to ogle Katie Holmes' breasts, are now respectable married men with kids. They again provide blustery breathing room in the middle of frenetic action.

The interpersonal dilemmas—Harold learning to stand up to and win over his father-in-law (Danny Trejo), Kumar learning to commit to long-suffering girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris)—aren't terribly convincing. (Harold's relationship with his new Mexican in-laws is about as convincing as Rob Schneider's take on multi-culti family life in his new sitcom Rob, except that that show's Cheech Marin isn't as menacing, nor as funny as Trejo.) Seeing Cho and Penn play their characters without mugging or overemphasizing for laughs is worth more than the baby-on-cocaine gags (between this and the knife-throwing infant Ryan Reynolds has to pacify in Change-Up, 2011 was a big year for innocently-havoc-wreaking CGI babies).

A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas

Penn's other most acclaimed film role was as earnest young first-generation Indian Gogal Ganguli in The Namesake, who struggles to reconcile his heritage with his Americanized nature. That movie frequently veers maudlin, but Penn's timing and prickly responsiveness hewed close to Kumar: like latter-day Robert Downey Jr., the line between amusingly quick-quip reflexes and sublimated anger is nearly invisible. It's a tribute to Penn and Cho—who's similarly convincing as a deliberately self-repressing malcontent—that their camaraderie and rage convince even as the material urging them to give into family life by way of a sappy Nancy Meyers rom-com (on purpose, says Strauss-Schulson) seems rote.

Posted by ahillis at 1:27 PM

February 7, 2012

INTERVIEW: Ben Wheatley

by Steve Dollar

KILL LIST writer-director Ben Wheatley

Reaching back to the collective subconscious to give audiences the willies, the vivid primal intensity of childhood nightmares underpins Kill List and animates its almost primordial sense of creeping dread. Down Terrace director Ben Wheatley's suspense thriller turned black-hearted horror film shows off his knack for a slow burn fed by head-spinning narrative twists. Neil Maskell and Michael Smiley play ex-military specialists, living in an isolated town in northeast Lincolnshire, turned contract killers. Times are hard, so they sign up for a new job, paid for by a mysterious and eccentric client. The story initially emphasizes the everyday boredom of the characters' lives as if they're just another pair of working stiffs, more disturbed by the stress of dealing with their significant others than carrying out murder for hire. But as the story progresses, its irreversible shifts in tone take a downward spiral into a violent abyss, foreshadowed from the opening title sequence, that won't easily be shaken.

I met up with Wheatley during his recent promotional visit to New York, where he started the conversation by noting the film's critical reception, which with a few exceptions has been highly favorable.

Kill List

When I saw Kill List at its SXSW premiere last spring, it really seemed to connect with the audience. There were a lot of spines tingling.

Apart from maybe the financer screening, that was seeing it in its purest form. No one could spoil it. No one knew what had happened.

Besides that, it follows Down Terrace, which was as un-violent a mob film as I can imagine. So despite the title, people may have been surprised.

I read loads of reviews about Down Terrace saying that it's brutally violent. You just kind of go, "What do they watch that isn't violent?" Because that film is pretty gentle, really.

So did you decide after Down Terrace: "Now let's do something really violent?"

Down Terrace was meant to be really violent but we didn't have any money, so we couldn't put the violent bits in. There's a hammer murder in that, but it's very light. If we had any cash, it would have been really brutal. There was a plan to have a pre-credit sequence with the Uncle Eric character chopping someone's head off with a samurai sword. I'm kind of glad we didn't do that.

Did you decide early on that the film would divide into sections, moving from one genre into another?

I wouldn't say we sat down and planned it out, we want to go from here to here. We definitely wanted it to be a horror film, so that would always going to be the destination. The middle bit of it being a hit man film on the road wasn't as conscious. It just seemed to developed that way. It makes me laugh when people say, "He used title cards, he's obviously seen a lot of Quentin Tarantino films." No, I've seen the fucking Shining. That's where that comes from.

Kill List

I liked the notion of starting out as more of a kitchen sink domestic drama, like Who's Afraid of Virgina Woolf.

It's like horse trading. You give a bit of reality, and the more reality you give will pay for the unreality later on. But if you start off unreal then it's safe. There's nothing you can do after that. It might be a traditional horror film, but it will never be scary. With this, you go: "These are real people this is happening to." When bad things happen to people you care about, you're invested more. That's the theory.

You've said that the whole thing is seeded by nightmares you had as a child.

General anxieties. I've got a son and the worst thing that can happen to a parent is something happening to their kid. And things about claustrophobia, more specifically the stuff with the woodlands, is all from a dream about following cults into the woods and them seeing me and chasing after me.

How old were you when you dreamt that?

Five or six.

You were aware of cults at that age?

Well yeah, kind of religious-y groups, and we lived near the woods as well. I always had a lot of nightmares in that house we lived in, which kind of stopped when we moved to London. That's always the weird thing when people go, "It's The Wicker Man." Have you seen The Wicker Man? Not everything has to be a film reference. It can just be a reference to stuff that actually happened. That is a reality.

There are standing stones that are 3,000 years old in Britain. People have been fucking knocking each other over the head there since Celtic times. These things are rooted in the culture. Some five-year-old can't have a dream about that rather than some fucker who's just watched a movie and then writing about it. That's more where I was coming from. There are elements of Wicker Man in there as well. It would be churlish to deny it.

Kill List

And a lot of pre-Christian mythological influences.

I love that Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table are waiting to return to save Albion when the time is right, and that may be what's happening. He's being reawakened. Or he may just be fucking nuts.

I love the idea that are these tough guy killers who discover there's nothing more terrifying than a dinner party.

I think that's so. And the general thing of your parents shouting. You don't want to hear it. It reminds you of being little, which is scary. The priest being shot in the head carries no emotional weight whatsoever. Meh. I've watched this on TV at 8 o'clock in the evening. There's something in that, though, with the hammer stuff. You know what it's like to be hit with a hammer because you've hit your thumb with a hammer. So you really feel hammer blows.

You don't feel shooting because unless you're really unlucky, you've never been shot. So you have no perception. I've heard this thing about being shot, right? I don't know if it's true or not but it sounds brilliant, this whole thing of people falling on the ground when they're shot is something from films. The pushing power of a bullet is not much. It's like being hit with a baseball bat. But when people see they've been shot, they immediately throw themselves the ground because they've seen loads of cowboy movies. If you're shot in the back and you don't know, you don't fall down.

What about when Werner Herzog got shot?

He just goes "Oooh." That's an air rifle though. When you see stuff in Afghanistan, they're like puppets with their strings cut off.

Did you train people to die properly in the movie?

We had a lot of trouble because none of the squibs worked. If you look at the movie, not many people get shot at all. It was all done very quickly in the editing. A lot of the time, they didn't fall violently enough so we cut frames out. These are the joys of low-budget filmmaking.

Kill List

One of the scariest aspects of the movie is the soundtrack. What the hell is that?

There's a lot of crossover, what is soundtrack and what is ambient. One of the scariest soundtracks for me is the Lalo Shifrin Dirty Harry soundtrack. Rob Hill and I, when we did the edit, we built a soundtrack out of Morton Feldman music but all slowed down to five percent speed. We had this other noise, which was a guillotine going backwards, but really slow so you could hear all the rumbling. That's all over the movie. And we gave that to [composer] Jim [Williams] and he composed his music using those kinds of tones. We had some Ligeti in there, and some other bibs and bobs around that weird atonal stuff.

There's also pig noise?

Yeah, man. There's all sorts of horrible shit in there. The best sound in there is—you know whale song? "Awwwrrrr, awwwrrr..." Well, we found shark song. Sharks singing underwater. It's all over the tunnel stuff. That bit of your brain that used to be a fish hears that and goes "Sharks, no. I don't want to die." Scary. It's fight or flee, isn't it? And if you can't flee, you're fucked.

I was talking to someone the other day about the Neil Marshall film The Descent. I'm just scared of going in caves. There didn't need to be any monsters. You could have just called the film Potholing and I'd be full of fear. I wanted to get some of that in that sequence.

I feel that terror every time I try to squeeze into a cab. That's what it's all about isn’t it? Scaring people with what could potentially happen to them in an ordinary day?

You look at something like Texas Chain Saw Massacre and that's just a plague of phobias. Right at the beginning, they go into the house, he looks around and there are loads of spiders around. That's just one for the people who are afraid of spiders, isn't it? Thanks, Tobe Hooper. The whole art design of that movie is all about fear. Skulls. Chicken feathers.

The scariest thing is that silver door that Leatherface pulls. He squeals like a pig, hits [his victim] who falls not like a stunt man. He falls like someone who's just been killed, and then he's dragged into the thing. [Shudders]. That's shot from miles away as well. A lot of modern horror needs to have a think about itself. That moment is terrifying and you don't see anything. I don't think there's any blood in that scene.

Posted by ahillis at 10:09 AM

February 4, 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

by Steve Dollar

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Exploding gators, swamp water mojo and a lowly wise six-year-old heroine named Hushpuppy seemed to be almost all that anyone really wanted to talk about at the Sundance Film Festival this year. Behn Zeitlin's audacious feature debut Beasts of the Southern Wild, shot on 16mm in a bayou neverland near New Orleans, felt like the cinematic arrival occasions such as Sundance exist to announce. Two weeks after watching it (in a sleep-deprived state, literally fresh off an airport shuttle bus) at its festival premiere, the film resonates with a beguiling mix of hardscrabble folk mythology and jaw-dropping, how-the-frick-did-they-shoot-that imagery, animated by vivid and remarkable performances from an amateur cast and a pint-sized star named Quvenzhané Wallis.

It's too easy to fall into the rave/backlash/backlash-to-the-backlash cycle that often defines the Sundance experience. Suffice to say that the auteur bravado that evoked comparisons to Terrence Malick, Terry Gilliam and Werner Herzog is the real deal, and that there's a fuzzy regard to narrative cohesion that will aggravate some parties who want linear structure with their eye-popping Southern cinematic lyricism. But, as a post-Katrina meditation on the binding and transformative power of magic and community illuminated through the memory-prism of childhood, the film is all heart.

Here are some other winners (and a few losers):

The Raid

PICK HIT: Asian mixed martial arts action throwdowns are a staple on the international film market, but few of them are as relentlessly ass-kicking as The Raid. Indonesian director Gareth Evans (Merantau) serves up a simple premise: a SWAT team assaults a grungy, mob-run high-rise apartment building, and bites off more than it can chew. There’s a good guy who’s really bad, and a bad guy who’s really good, and a hero whose actions are complicated by family ties that transcend his badge. Mostly, though, it’s an insane battle royale with one barreling action sequence after another in which the violence looks (and sounds) really, really, really painful. It’s getting a major commercial release this spring. It’s also the most unlikely movie anyone would ever expect to see at Sundance.

BEST CAMEO: Vincent Gallo. But if I tell you which movie he's in, it would count as a spoiler.

Young & Wild

BEST FOREIGN-LANGUAGE MOVIE ABOUT THE TEENAGE FEMALE LIBIDO SINCE TURN ME ON, GODAMMIT: Young & Wild, a Chilean comedy about a young sex blogger's coming-of-age struggle to reconcile the pressure to conform to her family's evangelical Christian morality with her budding desire to enjoy both "tofu and bacon" (girls and boys). The witty screenplay is inspired by the real-life blogger, whose family probably won't be happy to see this movie, either.

BEST ONE-MAN SHOW: Paul Dano's performance in So Yong Kim's For Ellen is an expansive turn, even as it burrows down into one character's vulnerabilities and motivations. As Joby, a hard-rock singer with the requisite wiry frame and tribal tattoos, Dano makes a totally convincing bad-ass (or guy who thinks of himself as such) who's clinging to an image, an ideal, that may not be there anymore. Faced with the prospect of losing the daughter he's never really seen, Joby suddenly faces up to the manly question—exposing every fragile nerve. At once painfully intimate and full of shots composed from a static distance, the film achieves a poetic state of grace with a quietly devastating third act. Although, what I really like about Kim's screenplay is how it also makes room for moments like a bar scene where Dano lip-synchs to Whitesnake blaring from a jukebox while performing a slinky, narcissistic stripper-esque dance for a slack-jawed Jon Heder (playing his small-town divorce lawyer).


BEST ONE-WOMAN SHOW: It fizzles dramatically after the promise of its opening scenes, but Smashed wins huge cred for actress Mary Elizabeth Winstead. (I had no idea who she was until I IMDB'd her and she's the multi-color-haired Scott Pilgrim girl). As an elementary school teacher who's also a raging alcoholic (married to another raging alcoholic, played by Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul), Winstead humanizes a cliché by being exactly the funny, vibrant, sexy person we all recognize in our lives, the one who's... got a problem. She also makes it look fun—especially the crack-smoking—until it's not. In illustrating the complexities of experiencing that not-fun and trying to fix things, she brings a ton of realism to an overworn story.

BEST HOME MOVIE: Dustin Guy Defa's 10-minute documentary Family Nightmare. But if I say much more about it, it would count as a spoiler.

John Dies at the End

BEST MONSTER: The giant, menacing charcuterie assemblage that attacks the dimension-leaping, time-traveling bro-tagonists of John Dies at the End, a movie I saw way too late at night to cogently follow with its endless expositions and hallucinated pretzel plot, but really enjoyed anyway.

THE DUDS: Remaking The Most Dangerous Game as a chick flick seems like a really clever idea, but Black Rock, indie multi-hyphenate Katie Aselton's venture into the action genre, needed either to be a notch smarter or a whole hell of a lot dumber to be memorable. The hotly anticipated Red Lights had stealth blockbuster potential, with Cillian Murphy and Sigourney Weaver as scientists out to debunk a notorious psychic, played with scenery chewing grandeur by Robert De Niro. Spanish director Rodrigo Cortes' follow-up to Buried nails the jump scares only to fumble in the third act, with a loopy coda that left audiences in need of psychic powers to answer the burning question: WTF?

Posted by ahillis at 1:16 PM

February 3, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Sentinel (1977)

by Nick Schager

The Sentinel 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 Ti West's haunted-house tale The Innkeepers, this week it's Michael Winner's 1977 religious-supernatural thriller The Sentinel.

Women's lib leads straight to the gates of Hell in The Sentinel, though trying to read Michael Winner's 1977 film as a thematically and theologically coherent work is futile, since the only thought behind this woman-in-a-haunted-apartment tale is to sponge off the success of Rosemary's Baby, The Exorcist and The Omen. Overflowing with former and future stars, Winner's saga (based on Jeffrey Konvtiz's novel) posits female independence as the first step to trouble for Alison (Cristina Raines), a model introduced via a montage of photo shoots and magazine covers (which present her as simultaneously empowered and objectified) as well as happy-go-lucky snapshots of her frolicking around Manhattan with lawyer boyfriend Michael (Chris Sarandon). Still traumatized by her attempted suicide two years earlier—spurred by the discovery of her gaunt, elderly father (Fred Stuthman) having a three-way (and voraciously eating cake!) in bed with a hefty and slender woman—Alison isn't ready to marry Michael, and thus chooses to move into her own place. That new abode proves to be a Brooklyn Heights apartment fully furnished with creepy old furniture and pictures, in a building notable for its top-floor occupant—a blind priest, Father Halloran (John Carradine), who never stops staring out of his front-facing window.

The Sentinel

Alison seems unperturbed about the fact that Michael was accused (and successfully acquitted himself in court) of murdering his first wife, who—like his subsequent girlfriend, and now Alison—exhibited suicidal impulses. She is, however, unsettled by her new neighbors, which include dandy Charles Chazen (Burgess Meredith), who shows up with his parakeet Mortimer and cat Jezebel, as well as leotard-wearing lesbians Gerde (Sylvia Miles) and Sandra (Beverly D'Angelo). In their living room, Alison is confronted by the mute Sandra openly and aggressively masturbating in front of her on the couch, with Winner's camera fixating on D'Angelo's frantic hand and devilishly grinning face. It's a scene that reconfirms the film's negative stance toward women living without men, and proves all the more bizarre for Raines' unbelievably understated reaction to this incident and Gerde responding to a question about her and Sandra's profession with, "We fondle each other." Compounding her discomfort, Alison is awakened nightly by clanking noises and footsteps from the supposedly empty apartment above hers, and then (in the film's loopiest sequence) by a raucous birthday party thrown by Chazen for feline Jezebel, which quickly devolves into a grotesquerie of cackling, weird faces and cryptic phrases. That becomes even more disturbing when, the next day, Alison's realtor (Ava Gardner) informs her that, other than her and Father Halloran, the building is—Duh-duh-duh-DUH!—completely unoccupied.

The Sentinel

Alison's daddy issues soon come to the fore via a dreamlike confrontation in which she stabs her nude father in the arm and eye before slicing off his nose, as well as through the paternal Michael's problems with detective Gatz (Eli Wallach) and his silent partner Rizzo (Christopher Walken, given next to nothing to do), who can't make heads or tails of Alison's supposed encounter with her deceased pop but eventually decides that a nearby corpse might be the work of either her or Michael. The entire subplot about Michael's potentially murderous character is a go-nowhere red herring, but it does provide the film with its few moments of genuine levity courtesy of Wallach's playful performance. Otherwise, The Sentinel is just a sluggish waiting game for climactic revelations that Alison's apartment building is, in fact, the doorway to Hades, that this portal is protected by Father Halloran—the latest in a long line of suicidal individuals chosen by the church (here embodied by Arthur Kennedy's papal emissary) to protect the earthly realm from demonic ghouls. Poor Alison is Halloran's destined successor.

The Sentinel

Alison's selection for ominous religious duties, and her ultimate confrontation with the apartment building's evil tenants, is blatantly borrowed from Rosemary's Baby, albeit with less originality or taste, since Winner exploitatively uses actual deformed actors for his invading-undead finale. Nonetheless, The Sentinel is sabotaged less by these shortcomings, or by Winner's incessant and ungainly camera zooms and Gil Melle's in-your-face orchestral score, than by a tangled perspective on its material—the priesthood is good (saving humanity from Satan!) and bad (the Sentinel position is a pretty lousy, static gig forced upon others), just as Alison's careerism and independence are positive (modeling and celebrity are fun!) and negative (if only she'd married Michael, none of this would have happened!). Such confusion doesn't lend the action ambiguity so much as reveal its true nature as a collection of stitched-together elements—sexualized violence, crucifixes, young females in hellish peril, depictions of the church as virtuous and powerful—borrowed from contemporary hits. Yet in its weirdness-quotient favor, The Sentinel can at least lay claim to featuring a young Jeff Goldblum as a fashion photographer, his inimitable voice awkwardly dubbed an octave or two too low.

Posted by ahillis at 12:37 PM