March 30, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Company of Wolves (1984)

by Nick Schager

The Company of Wolves

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by another fantasy revamp of a storybook classic, Mirror Mirror.]

Red Riding Hood's signature shawl symbolizes the eroticism and menace at the heart of The Company of Wolves, Neil Jordan's sensuous reimagining of the iconic fairy tale. Jordan blends realities with the same dreaminess that characterizes his entire film, opening with a wolf's dash through a misty fantasyland forest that ends at a manor house and the arrival of a modern car, out of which appears the parents of Alice (Georgia Slowe) and, in an upstairs room behind a locked door, Red Riding Hood herself, Rosaleen (Sarah Patterson). Via a pan across her room, Rosaleen is discovered asleep in bed and apparently wracked by a feverish nightmare that seems to bleed into the real world—or does it actually become real?—once Jordan's camera reaches a window overlooking a mountain range, and we're transported back into an ancient forest. There, Alice flees a horde of wolves, along the way racing by life-size versions of the doll, teddy bear and doll house that exist in Rosaleen's room, with Alice eventually being eaten alive by her ferocious, glowing-eyed pursuers. The next morning, Alice is actually dead, and Rosaleen receives her sister's crucifix courtesy of Granny (Angela Lansbury), who on their subsequent stroll cautions Rosaleen to never trust a man with eyebrows that connect, and to never stray from the forest's path.

The Company of Wolves

That latter lesson is one that speaks directly to The Company of Wolves' portrait of budding femininity, as the path in question is not simply literal but—given that wolves, here cast as metaphorical embodiments of brutal male sexuality, exist outside it—a figurative representation of the straight-and-narrow course to which females must adhere lest they place themselves in grave masculine danger. That threat is encapsulated by Granny's fireplace tale to Rosaleen about a new groom (Stephen Rea) whose true lycanthropic nature materializes in the face of his abandoned wife (Kathryn Pogson) having remarried and had children. Jordan stages Rea's transformation from man to beast with close-ups of the man tearing flesh off his face and, then, with a morphing prosthetic puppet whose overt artificiality is indicative of the general not-quite-realistic atmosphere. An air of ambiguous storybook spookiness permeates the proceedings, so that the somewhat overdone set design and lavish costumes (highlighted by Lansbury's enormous sleeping bonnet) enhance a sense that this is a living, breathing fable.

The Company of Wolves

The Company of Wolves' use of narrated stories within its larger plot framework is Jordan's means of conveying how the act of verbally passing down fairy tales from generation to generation is fundamental to their character. Most central to Jordan's film, however, is an omnipresent ripe sensuality, so that Rea's snarling wolfen face (full of overheated desire) is severed and flies into a vat of milk (a symbol of purity) where it transforms back into serene human form, and Rosaleen's final confrontation with the Big Bad Wolf involves a mutation featuring an enormously elongated tongue, a heaving back, a head whipping back and forth, and agonized screaming—all images of charged, tortured carnality. Beastliness is equated with manliness throughout, although it's also linked with arrogant cruelty of a more basic sort (as in the story of a pregnant witch who turns her former lover and his wedding party into four-legged monsters), as well as universal sexuality, so that Rosaleen's final tale to the Big Bad Wolf, as well as her ensuing fate, proves Rosaleen's mother's earlier point that men may be abusive savages, but women aren't wholly immune from animalistic urges.

The Company of Wolves

Jordan's deep, dark forest, full of enormous mushrooms and slimy toads, is a wonderland of potent symbolism, and if his use of cracked mirrors and slow-motion (especially for Rosaleen's tears) push a bit too hard into over-stylization, his insinuation that everything taking place is a figment of Rosaleen's slumbering imagination lends the action an entrancing unreality. Similarly, though his cast's performances rarely rise above the functional—save for Lansbury, whose Granny has a watchful twinkle in her eye that borders on the unseemly—his constant visual focus on environmental details (Granny's glasses being put on a side table, a tracking shot across a shelf filled with knickknacks) gives his milieu an inviting, lived-in sumptuousness. Phallic rifles, smoldering torches and pointed fangs are merely a few of The Company of Wolves' myriad eroticized sights. Those include, as well, a fantastically bizarre sequence in which Rosaleen's would-be paramour (having already tried to steal kisses from the girl along their forest walks) is imagined by Rosaleen in a dream as meeting Terrence Stamp in a white car in the forest, receiving a potion ("Waste not, want not!"), and rubbing it on his chest—thus instigating a painful conversion into a werewolf and, it's subtly suggested, into an adult man.

Posted by ahillis at 11:19 AM

March 28, 2012

NEW DIRECTORS/NEW FILMS 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

Neighboring Sounds

Kleber Mendonça Filho's Neighboring Sounds opens with contextless black-and-white stills implying a history of subjugation: villagers interviewed by tailored officials, laborers hoeing a field. "Slavery is very much present in our everyday life in Brazil," Filho noted Saturday night after a New Directors/New Films screening. He's a critic and director making his fiction feature debut after a series of shorts and a feature mockumentary. Part of the inspiration, he said, came from a bad job where the boss treated workers like sugar cane plantation laborers. Unspoken but fraught class tensions are the subject, examined in an often oblique fashion.

The balcony view from the condo managed by João (Gustavo Jahn) is spectacular, all blue skies and massive buildings. It's not exactly Do the Right Thing, but João has Mookie's awkwardly hunched, walk-no-faster-than-required gait. When asked if he likes his job, he frankly replies "I hate it," and the reason's clear. Not just a broker but an temperature taker of neighborhood goodwill, João's daily routine accords equal importance to showing prospective residents apartments and roaming the block, maintaining good terms with remaining non-tower neighbors without pushing them too hard about who might be robbing his latest hook-up's car.

Neighboring Sounds

Cars regularly have their CD players jacked on this street (Filho's own). Early in the film, a two-person private security guard team shows up and offers to sit and watch the street all night for a reasonable fee. With the Trayvon Martin saga lingering in mind, this may seem like an invitation to vigilante violence, but rest assured Neighborhood Sounds' intentions are non-didactic and far less obvious. The closest anyone gets to overtly saying something horrible comes at a condo meeting, when the tenants' privileged expectations come into full ugly view. The night guard is sleeping on the job, and they have the surreptitiously captured video camera footage to prove it. João protests the doorman's been there for years, is three years from retirement and generally doesn't deserve unceremonious termination. Essentially, he's arguing that the new masters of a neighborhood that's been decimated to accommodate them should try a little harder to respect the remaining locals, but no dice.

Filho's cinephilic nods are the opposite of Quentin Tarantino's wholesale pillaging. He acknowledges restaging-as-homage with a Jackie Brown poster, but his own tributes are more oblique. After a leisurely immersion in condo life, a countryside sequence introduces the first scares, upending the usual cliché of rural life being more soothing than urban routine. João and his fiancé Sofia (Irma Brown) pass by a school named after "João Carpenterio" (aka John Carpenter, an admitted inspiration) and check out a former movie theater overrun with tall grass, soundtracked by screams from Plan 9 from Outer Space. This would-be idyll's capped off with a refreshing immersion under a waterfall, which turns blood red with no explanation. Later, visions of marauders stealing everything from an apartment complex are revealed as a dream, while a key killing isn't shown at all.

Like Nicolas Klotz's Low Life, horror tropes underpin this portrait of a deeply unequal society that can't openly articulate its divisions. But most of Neighboring Sounds is basically just hanging out with neighborhood residents going about their daily lives: glaring at barking dogs, going for nighttime swims in the nearby ocean, drinking coffee and swapping romantic tales. Over two hours, the shift from slow-paced, relaxed immersion in apartment life to something angrier is barely perceptible.

The Ambassador

I truly despised Mads Brügger's The Red Chapel. The footage of North Korea was neat, but all the reflexively self-questioning narration about whether Brügger was being an asshole in his numerous pretenses added up to "yes." Matters weren't helped by the grey-green visual ugliness, which couldn't be explained merely by the logistics of using concealed cameras. In The Ambassador, the inexplicably drab shades of The Red Chapel are gone. Director of photography Johan Stahl Winthereik has taken that putrid filter off and shoots in luscious color.

An hour of The Ambassador would suffice to demonstrate Brügger's unobjectionable thesis, that disorganized third world countries with no hierarchy act "as a magnet on white men with hidden agendas." Brügger proves this by paying for diplomatic status for the Central Republic of Africa—a barely functional state ruled by shifting dictatorial fiat—and trying to get his hands on some blood diamonds. Before that, he declares he's done with the world of penny-pinching journalism: from now on, he's going to "travel the world with a suitcase full of diamonds."

The Ambassador

Cynically, one might propose that Brügger’s documentary demonstrates how hard it is to get accredited as a representative by cash-strapped African states for the sole purpose of exploitation. (They need the lump-sum payment; the white men want the jewelry.) He spends most of the film trying to get shady functionary Willem Tijssen to hook him up with the appropriate paperwork, only to have his efforts frustrated time and again. While waiting for his diplomatic papers, Brügger puffs on his cigarette holder and spouts racist garbage against the Chinese to endear himself to his CAR negotiators, who fear their former European exploiters will be replaced by inscrutable Asians. He clearly enjoys his Sacha Baron Cohen moments of provocation, none more so than when he starts babbling to a gem merchant about how Hitler had many funny moments.

Forty minutes of increasing tedium come after that, repeating the same futile negotiations over and over. Still, it's hard to entirely condemn a project clearly undertaken at great personal risk. It's worth noting that Brügger has seriously angered Tijssen, whose LinkedIn is about as overtly corrupt as they come, and who's spent a great deal of time and trouble going around the internet proclaiming The Ambassador to be a "f*ckumnetary" (his asterisk). That’s not really the case. No matter how pokey his film can get, Brügger meets the reporting standard recently articulated by Teju Cole in his much-circulated essay on "The White Savior-Industrial Complex," looking beyond the obvious pathos-laden problems of conflict diamonds to detail problems "of governance, of infrastructure, of democracy, and of law and order."

Posted by ahillis at 10:18 AM

March 26, 2012

Stay Hungry

by Steve Dollar

The Hunger Games

As much a spectacle for Halftime in America as the GOP primary circus, if vastly more sober-minded, The Hunger Games serves itself up as an Orwellian reality show in which a future parallel USA has ceded democracy to the totalitarian rule of the 1%, made recognizable by their goofy Ziggy Stardust costumes with hair by Edward Scissorhands. Nothing if not cross-reference-able, this adaptation of the Suzanne Collins' young-adult blockbuster is far too many movies in one to merely merit accusations of ripping off Battle Royale. Unfortunately, that's one of the more entertaining things about it.

A pop-culture phenomenon that's had Hollywood salivating for years, apparently, to get a sure-fire film franchise in front of the Twittering masses, the movie is itself much of what it describes: a grandiose and ballyhooed display designed to turn an unvarnished performer (Jennifer Lawrence/Katniss Everdeen) into a digital superstar—an inspiration, an icon, an ideal. That it succeeds, in spades, doesn't really mean that it's a success. The dystopian landscape and defiant, starving-class teen heroine would have been pure brain candy for my 14-year-old self, although in the 1970s, we fed our warped imaginations on Soylent Green, The Omega Man and A Boy and His Dog—way weirder and racier fare with the unapologetic zest of exploitation. This squeaky-clean episode feels antiseptic in comparison: though the story pivots on a stage-managed romance, sexuality surfaces only in a symbolic rubbing of miracle salve on an open wound.

The Hunger Games

As such, good old fashioned virgin sacrifice is the concept that underpins the drama, only the kids will slaughter themselves. The story begins in the Walker Evans landscape of some mythical West Virginia coal country, just around the holler from Winter's Bone, a hardscrabble place called District 12. Here, Lawrence, once again, seems to be the only useful member of her family, bow-hunting in the woods for random wildlife and, when the awful moment comes, offering herself up as game when her baby sister is picked in the annual lottery to represent the district in the Hunger Games—a throwback to gladiator rituals meant to keep the proletarians in check, rooting for their own to survive a nationally broadcast killing spree.

Although he seems to have been replaced by a cyborg sometime in the past decade, director Gary Ross was adept at the alternate-reality theme in Pleasantville, the 1998 film that also plopped a pair of teenage heroes (Reese Witherspoon and Tobey Maguire, back when their careers weren't even as far along as Lawrence's is now) into a repressive realm: a world without color! That's not the case here. Once Katniss and her male counterpart Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are swept away to the capitol of Panem, under the nattering watch of one Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, impersonating Marie Antoinette on nitrous oxide), the movie is riot of extravagant hues. This pseudo future-world feels largely imagined as a riff on the perversion of media (see Network) and poodle-like hairdos. After the apocalypse, everyone will dress like they're backing up Prince in Purple Rain. But, in fact, it's Lenny Kravitz, playing fey, who shows up as costume designer for Katniss, conceiving a "girl on fire" theme aimed at making her a hit with the demographic.

The Hunger Games

The adroit casting also lassos Stanley Tucci as an emcee with cynical flourish and Donald Sutherland as the perpetually constipated President Snow, but it's Woody Harrelson who carries the film's first half. He plays Haymitch Abernathy, a onetime Hunger Games champion who now mentors fresh aspirants when he's not drowning in a Falstaffian excess of whiskey and turkey legs. The performance seems modeled on some sort of 19th century riverboat gambler crosswired with, say, a once-formidable Heisman trophy winner gone to seed, and its nuances cut through the forced, plastic qualities that shape everything else.

OK, almost everything. Once the games begin, Lawrence consumes every frame: She might as well be Xena: Warrior Princess. With her character's survival a foregone conclusion (there are still two sequels in the franchise), the dramatic engine is not "if" but "how." And since the screenplay neglects to develop any other juvenile characters beyond superficial traits—even Hutcherson only exists as a plot device—there's really nothing much at stake. Everything rides on fetishizing Lawrence as an avenging angel, yet one whose compassion prevents her from making a direct kill unless she's defending someone weaker than herself. The love scenes, in fact, are her communions with her weapon of choice, a taut string biting into her lip, whose furrows rhyme with the tiny notches on the metal arrow. Coal miner's daughter as brave new Athena, Katniss resonates as the perfect older sister, as self-reliant feminist, as "a teacher and a leader." Beneath the foofery and the CGI-haunted forest arena where death comes from all directions, the film is concerned with the importance of honor and integrity—much like any samurai epic or Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. It's just too bad that the movie takes itself so, so seriously (even the jokey stuff feels stale and heavy handed). Lawrence holds it all together, joining the new pantheon of female ass-kickers (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and so forth), but I wish her movie had as much taste for authentic flesh and blood as it does neo-fascist architecture and day-glo pompadours.

Posted by ahillis at 4:25 PM

March 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Battle Royale (2000)

by Nick Schager

Battle Royale

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the battle royale within the new franchise du jour The Hunger Games.]

Generational conflict takes on gory dimensions in Battle Royale, Kinji Fukasaku's 2000 cult classic about a dystopian future where unruly kids are dealt with via death sport. Released to widespread controversy in its native Japan—and never given a proper American theatrical release, in part because of post-Columbine fears about its focus on murderous kids—Fukasaku's sci-fi actioner sets itself in a Japan overrun by unemployment and teen delinquency, a problem that the government combats by holding lotteries in which a random middle school class is selected to participate in a fight to the death. That's the unfortunate fate handed to Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara), Noriko (Aki Maeda) and the rest of their classmates, who—believing they're on a school trip—are secretly drugged, awakening to find that their substitute teacher Kitano (a menacingly placid Takeshi Kitano) is in fact a government agent overseeing their participation in Battle Royale, a three-day competition on a remote island in which each student is given an explosive collar, a bag full of supplies (replete with one weapon), and a simple directive: murder your fellow classmates to become the last kid standing, and thereby achieve your freedom.

Battle Royale

How the BR Act (as the Battle Royale's official decree is dubbed) is supposed to dissuade adolescent disobedience is never quite clear—those who aren't selected don't seem to have been scared straight yet (Shuya's classmates are a wild bunch, even though an intro shows that the last BR winner was televised by sensationalistic news media), and the few who survive are surely too traumatized to be functioning members of society. Rather than rehabilitative, the Battle Royale just seems punitive, a distinction that’s central to Fukasaku's true intentions, which are less to posit a convincing or plausible means of societal anti-crime measures than to imagine a world in which the battle between young and old is turned into a literal bloodbath. In that regard, it's Kitano's character who holds the key to understanding Battle Royale. Whether in his brief phone calls from a relative (his wife?) with whom things have gone terribly sour, his suppressed fury at students apt to simply ditch class en masse, or his creepy paternal-romantic fondness for good girl Noriko, he conveys the adult resentments about loss of control and authority that have truly given rise to this Lord of the Flies-style program, which affords adults with a means of paying back their progeny for refusing to adhere to ideals of respect, modesty and decency.

Battle Royale

More than a decade later, Battle Royale's notorious violence remains jarring less because of its extremeness than because it taps into the film's portrait of children as capable of (if not fueled by) cruel self-interest. Popular girl Mitsuko's (Kô Shibasaki) ruthlessness and transfer student Kiriyama's (Masanobu Andô) sadism aren't presented as mutations of normal behavior so much as facets of societal adolescence, as common as the compassion, jealousy, love, insecurity and anger that drives the class's diverse student body. Fukasaku's conception of his chosen teens is multifaceted not just on a large scale but an individual one too, so that Mitsuko's mercilessness is at once explained, and yet not fully justified, by a flashback to her mom pimping her out as a young child to a deviant older man—an incident that's depicted less as giving birth to Mitsuko's meanness as much as one that tapped into her already existing brutality. That complexity is what sustains Battle Royale even when its action becomes a tad too rote—a problem exacerbated by the fact that Shuya and Noriko, alongside former BR winner Kawada (Tarô Tamamoto), are destined to reach the end of the "game"—as the film consistently manages to condemn kids for their adolescent failings while also respecting their hormonally charged passions, anxieties and hang-ups as natural.

Battle Royale

Working at odds with its jet-black humor—epitomized by reality TV-style textual IDs of the dead, and a cheerful BR Act instructional video hosted by a boisterous J-Pop-style pixie—the elegiac basketball flashbacks that frame Battle Royale's special edition impede momentum and push the film's pro-kid sympathies too bluntly. Still, the final line of the film's third epilogue (aka "requiem"), in which Kitano asks Noriko in a dream, "What do you think a grown-up should say to a kid now?", is shrewdly left hanging in the air, unanswered. Communication breakdown between adults and kids, as well as between peers, constantly leads to lethal hostility, with misunderstandings, paranoia and erroneous assumptions about oneself and others compelling characters to do things either terrible or—in the case of those who believe they can avoid killing by appealing to people’s better nature—foolish. The tension between nobility and savagery may be amplified by the Battle Royale competition, which forces Shuya, Noriko and their school-uniformed compatriots to decide whether self-preservation trumps morality, but as Fukasaku's bloody, blistering genre work makes plain, that conflict is ultimately fundamental to the thorny process of growing up.

Posted by ahillis at 10:45 AM

March 22, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Deep Blue Sea

by Vadim Rizov

The Deep Blue Sea

Terence Rattigan's 1952 play The Deep Blue Sea has been filmed before, but all director Terence Davies remembers of the 1955 incarnation (which he saw during childhood with his mother) is a shot of Kenneth More walking down a staircase. It makes sense that his version is less an adaptation than a hallucinatory recollection, a mostly wordless rendition of a wordy drama. Rachel Weisz is Hester Collyer, her most tightly coiled and miserable screen character since 2005's The Constant Gardener. The ostensible source of Hester's unhappiness is her adultery, which at the film's beginning has led to a suicide attempt. As she slips deeper into a death-spiral reverie, we see a compressed version of her affair with ex-RAF pilot Freddie Page (Tom Hiddleston), until she's slapped awake, a brutal return to the real world after a failed escape.

In honor of her Scarlet Letter namesake, Hester's literally a woman in red, her bright dresses accentuating her rebellion against the gray landscape of Davies' 1950s childhood. ("It was drab," he recently noted. "You rarely saw primary colours.") Husband William (Simon Russell Beale) means well but cowers before his maliciously/piously class-standard-bearing mother (Barbara Jefford). "Beware of passion, Hester," she says over dinner, suggesting instead "a guarded enthusiasm. It's much safer."

The Deep Blue Sea

William is middle-aged and oval-shaped, while ex-pilot Freddie Page looks like Leslie Howard and bubbles with enthusiasm left over from the war. His pick-up line—"I really think you're the most attractive girl I've ever met"—is followed by a pub session where he agitatedly describes his wartime feats ("We were doing something important for dear old Blighty"). The combined romantic and nationalistic ardor's enough to get Hester into bed. Davies and cinematographer Florian Hoffmeister's camera spins disinterestedly over copulation, turning slo-mo lovemaking into doom-laden writhing.

Freddie turns out to be a heavy drinker whose binges are triggered by Hester’s neediness. He bridles over what he perceives as her intellectual condescension, screaming without self-awareness "There's nothing wrong with my mind." William refuses to consent to a divorce, and Hester's difficulty in finding a place for herself in the world is as much legal as emotional: she's living in sin with Freddie under a false name, opening herself to charges of adultery, and even her attempted suicide is finable. Interviewing Davies in November, The Guardian's Stuart Jeffries posited that Davies' sympathy for Hester comes from his longstanding devotion to his abused mother, dramatized in his first feature Distant Voices, Still Lives. Of her decision to stay with abusive husband with ten children, he noted "If you had a bad marriage, that was it." Hester's choice to actively decimate her marriage is one Davies' mother never could have made, but her options are still remarkably constricted.

The Deep Blue Sea

In Davies' on-record reasoning, Weisz discovers sex late and the ensuing fallout nearly kills her. This is a plausible interpretation of material that's nonetheless opaque: what aspect of sex, precisely, drives her crazy? It could just be guilt over giving in urges proscribed by her husband's class or unhappiness over how little autonomy she has. Weisz is a Jewish actress among prototypical non-ethnic Brits, and there's a hint of something more than mere class-based friction when she tears up at her fiance's mother’s jibes. One possibly apocryphal rumor states the drama began as the story of a gay man's suicide over a socially ruinous affair in which the lead was transformed at the last second, Lars von Trier-style, into a woman. These resonances suggest Hester's despair is a stand-in for broader social unease experienced by a variety of marginalized British citizens.

Davies' post-wartime romance is extensively cross-referenced. When Weisz and Hiddleston lean in for an outdoor kiss, they're standing in front of a telephone booth. He's wearing Trevor Howard's hat from Brief Encounter, the classic 1945 David Lean almost-affair that takes root in a train station. A train whistle blows rudely in the background, its lights underlining the two leads' blazing attraction to each other. Later, Hiddleston flatly declares "It's over," and a much fainter whistle subliminally reinforces the statement.

THE DEEP BLUE SEA director Terence Davies

Davies has acknowledged that the most striking sequence is stolen directly from Lean's unfairly neglected 1949 romantic drama The Passionate Friends. There, a adulterous woman in a despairing stupor is saved from jumping under a subway car by the last-minute emergence of her forgiving husband. What rescues Hester here is, oddly, a memory of the same train station as a bomb shelter during a WWII raid. The recollection of standing there, singing alongside her fellow Londoners, pulls her back from the platform edge. She may not have had the proverbial "good war," but this flashback helps her sympathize with tormented Freddie’s seeming wish the war was still on.

Fetishizing every detail of the past regardless of its narrative function is an uncomfortable basis for nostalgia. The hissing gas during Hester’s suicide attempt has a seductive analogue purr, and the fact that a memory of a bombing blitz heartens her is unnerving. The Deep Blue Sea is gorgeous, but it's emotionally sealed-off. Hiddleston and Weisz are both realistically unpleasant throughout, abrasively contradicting Davies' loving recreation of a time driving his heroine to despair, an often trying combination.

Posted by ahillis at 10:11 AM

March 21, 2012

SXSW 2012: Critic's Notebook #3

by Steve Dollar

Sun Don't Shine

Inspired by a recurring nightmare, the lovers-on-the-lam psychodrama Sun Don't Shine has the vivid evanescence of a fever dream. The movie opens with a gasp and a shout, as Kate Lyn Sheil's face, lensed in extreme close-up, snaps back across the screen against a bright blue sky. Before you can process anything, the camera shoves into a wrestling match between Sheil's volatile, hyper-aware Crystal and Leo (Kentucker Audley), who's trying to shake her into settling down as the mud flies. Something is happening here and you don't know what it is, but whatever it is you can feel the emotional torrents spilling over like the South Florida heat, flaring in every dancing grain of the Super 16mm stock.

Written and directed by Amy Seimetz, a prolific actor in dozens of indies who was a no-budge MVP before no-budge was cool, the film was a standout at this year's South by Southwest film festival, an edition that felt more soft-spoken and less buzzy than 2011's cricket-chomping Bellflower version. Sun Don't Shine Evoking Terrence Malick's Badlands as a Suncoast eruption of l'amour fou—that glockenspiel chime on the soundtrack an affectionate homage—the story is as much an experience of sensation and memory as forward action, suspended in small observances as the actors' voices float over the breeze as their car races south. The atmospheric style snaps into visceral engagement as the couple negotiates their situation, which becomes apparent soon enough, and the audience begins to sort out their place in a cinematic cosmos of getaway episodes (from They Live By Night through Pierrot le Fou to Kelly Reichardt's early, Everglades-set River of Grass).

The performances hold the frame, faces looming big as the sun. Audley, often seen as a jittery hemmer and haw-er in his own freewheeling films, bottles up his neurotic tendencies as a handsome, if suggestible handyman—Kentucker Studly?—who wants to do right by a vexing woman who's seen too much trouble. Sheil, studied so intently that the blush in her skin becomes a key element of the cinematographic palette, goes full tilt even when she's brooding, the rising up and rising down of her passions palpably attenuated in every pore. Seimetz's consuming interest in the actor's moment strips away much of the conventional narrative framework, the dramatic flux a function of a push-pull tension between the leads that feels as closely monitored as blood pressure.

Tchoupitoulas

Life on the margins was a lingering theme at SXSW 2012. In the documentary Tchoupitoulas, brothers Bill and Turner Ross continue their exploration of American cities begun in 45365, heading downriver from Ohio to New Orleans. There, over the course of nine months, they shot nightly rambles through the French Quarter and Faubourg-Marigny, often in the company of three young African-American boys from Algiers, where the brothers had a house. The plunge into the city's legendary lower depths has all the nocturnal lyricism you could imagine and then some, spliced together as a seamless journey in which every doorway conceals its own fantastic novel. The concept falls together with the narration of the kids (brothers William, Kentrell and Bryan), who riff on what they see and engage—from pretty ladies in varying states of undress, flashing their wares under flickering neon to street evangelists with bullhorns, beseeching the booze-soaked tourists to come to Jesus. The filmmakers celebrate a vision of things that seem as if they could hardly exist anymore, and yet continue to abide. If you've never heard a dressing room full of (transvestite?) burlesque performers harmonize on the Mardi Gras anthem "Iko Iko," then Tchoupitoulas will simultaneously expose and cure your cultural deficiency.

Francine

Documentarians Brian M. Cassidy and Melissa Shatzky root their debut fiction feature Francine in as strong a sense of place: the Hudson River Valley, a lush upstate locale that nonetheless has its own fringe. It's where the title character, played by Melissa Leo, has returned to live after being released from prison. With minimal dialogue and an often static frame that divulges sparing details, the film tells most of its story through Francine's rudimentary activities in a failed attempt to reconnect with the outside world. Rather than deal with people, Francine hoards cats and dogs, collected as she passes through a series of short-lived jobs (at pet shops, horse stables and veterinary clinics, natch) and sexual encounters. The directors' judicious minimalism, thoughtful compositions and use of non-professional performers (aside from their Oscar-winning star) creates a kind of abstract realism punctuated with perfect moments: as when the largely silent Leo emerges from her shack to witness a metal band playing in an open field, a crowd of fans dancing in eccentric, zombie-like tremors. If only for a moment, Francine fits right in.

The Imposter

The cultural outsider becomes the center of attention in The Imposter, a jaw-dropping true story that should have won more attention at Sundance this year but felt just right for SXSW. Set in small-town Texas, the documentary outlines the case of Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old French-Algerian convict who in 1997 impersonated a missing boy who would have been 17 at the time. Despite bearing almost no resemblance, he was warmly embraced by a family that had him "brought home" from Spain, where Bourdin haphazardly concocted a scheme that never should have gotten past the Spanish officials, who also took him for a teenage runaway—not a scam artist. Bart Layton's film introduces more and more twists, using the mix of re-enactments and first-person accounts, as well as the mystery novel structure, patented by Errol Morris. Even though the episode was long ago covered by network news outlets and magazines, and was even fictionalized in last year's film The Chameleon, this is one saga that's not really over until its over—and even then, you can't be sure.

Gimme the Loot

Best indie flashback: Even though it's set in contemporary Manhattan, Gimme the Loot—which won the Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature—has the run-and-gun mobility and funky vibe of a 1980s downtown comedy, evoking in various ways a kinship with the likes of Susan Seidelman, Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee and Jim Jarmusch. Its story, which more immediately calls to mind something like Raising Victor Vargas, follows a pair of teenage graffiti artists from the Bronx, Malcolm and Sophia (played by newcomers Tysheeb Hickson and Tashiana R. Washington) over the course of 48 hours of misadventures as they plot a daring escapade. Alive to the visual poetry of the city streets and the energetic flow of adolescent enthusiasm, director Adam Leon captures the essence of the city.

The Source

Best beards: The Source, a well-told history of Los Angeles cult The Source Family and its founder, Jim Baker—aka Father Yod—who turned a health food restaurant on the Sunset Strip into a would-be cultural revolution as he led a clan of 200 on a quest for utopia in the Hollywood Hills. And, also happened to take on many of his comely followers as brides while recording some 65 albums of visionary psychedelic rock as the Ya Ho Wha 13.

Best high concept: The Home Alone-meets-Rambo scenario of The Aggression Scale.

Gayby

Best neglected genre: The indie ensemble comedy, as realized with often giddy eloquence in Bob Byington's Somebody Up There Likes Me and Jonathan Lisecki's Gayby.

Worst word-of-mouth: Iron Sky, the Nazis-on-the-moon spoof starring Udo Kier.

Most disturbing trend: The "man-gina," demonstrated by characters in The Comedy and King Kelly, and thankfully away from the camera by Ron Perlman's cigar-chomping transsexual in frankie go boom.

Movies I really hate myself for missing: Pavilion, Los Chidos, Starlet, The Sheik and I, ¡Vivan Las Antipodas!

Posted by ahillis at 1:15 PM

March 20, 2012

SXSW 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

by Maian Tran

Kid-Thing

My first visit to Austin—and, therefore, my first South by Southwest film festival experience—was like falling down a rabbit hole into an intoxicating new world. I witnessed the clash between the city and the fest, the idiosyncrasies between the laid-back natives versus the three, wild-eyed, visiting breeds of SXSW-goer (interactive / film / music), a month's worth of rain poured over three days, the New Orleans-style craziness of 6th Street at night, and transcendentally good BBQ. Fortunately, the films were also a fantastic escape into self-contained explorations of adolescent turmoil, memory, community spaces, and how to take down thirty floors' worth of goons in the most badass martial-arts epic in years.

Credited as sole director, Austin-based filmmaker David Zellner—who co-created Goliath and numerous shorts with his brother Nathan, credited here as producer and cinematographer—incorporates the duo's dark, quirky brand of comedy to their beautifully shot Southern Gothic fairy tale Kid-Thing. Present in nearly every frame is prepubescent Annie, played by first-time actress and Zellner family friend Sydney Aguirre. Gorgeous magic-hour tracking shots imply her POV, and tightly held close-ups of her face might have the audience thinking they're being lead deep into Annie's psyche, but we're left to figure out what to make of her with few cues. The daughter of dull-headed goat farmer Marvin (Nathan Zellner), whose only fatherly advice is how to hypnotize a chicken, Annie spends her days outside of school (there's been "a gas leak") aimlessly wandering in nearby forests, farms and playgrounds. Mostly, she sways toward violent, wicked bursts of compulsion or resigned apathy. Her eyes glitter with a mixture of delight and evil as she pegs cows and convenience store clerks alike with her paintball gun, hurtles toilets down a hill, and takes a baseball bat to a poor, disabled kid's birthday cake. When she's not up to no-good, she passively watches demolition derbies, looks on as her dad and equally idiotic pal (a hilariously incoherent redneck played by the director) scratch lotto tickets, and plays video games late into evening.

Kid-Thing

During one of her solo forest jaunts, she stumbles across a woman moaning for help (skillfully voiced by Susan Tyrell, sounding alternately like a helpless innocent or a warbling, wicked witch) from deep inside a well. Suddenly left in a unique position of power, Annie doesn't tell any adult but instead insists she "doesn't have to listen to nobody!" and negotiates the terms of the lady's fate via a walkie-talkie dropped into the abyss. The film's eerie, brooding sound design, drawing on psychological horror tropes, surrounds the well with a mystique of its own, as if it were a figment of Annie's imagination—or more fable-friendly, a manifestation of her need for companionship, agency, and escape from her mundane life.

A complex relationship develops between Annie and the woman in the well, with Annie first showing sympathy, but later anger and resentment towards her insistence that she find an adult ("How do I know you're not a demon?" Annie questions). Ultimately, the stakes never feel quite high enough, and the Zellners' trademark absurdism detracts from a fluid narrative, making the film feel like a disjointed series of vignettes. Still, the young rabble-rouser begs interpretation: is Annie a demon-child wandering a rural purgatory, or an innocent girl who was sadly never taught about morality and happiness? Kid-Thing is at its most potent in the moments when Annie embodies the hopefulness and vulnerability of childhood itself.

Keyhole

The characters in Guy Maddin's Keyhole inhabit their own sort of otherworldly limbo as well, but the protagonist Ulysses' (Jason Patric) psyche manifests an entire labyrinth of a house, filled with ghosts and painful memories. The film is a whirling, disorienting, psychedelic odyssey that feels like a '60s avant-garde film with '40s gangster-noir flourishes. Though beautiful to behold, the film's emotional impact hovers over each scene like the spirits that inhabit it. The stilted, offbeat dialogue comes off as far too allegorical, as are the myriad sketches involving secondary characters that don't tie tightly enough to the narrative to engage with deeply.

Still, Keyhole's creative ambitions never fail to impress, and there are wonderful moments that express the complexity of memory and the emotional scars that come from addressing the past. Ulysses is a dashing, intelligent, egomaniacal leader who has lead his gang back to a home he once inhabited with wife Hyacinth (Isabella Rosselini) and their kids. Cops surround the house, both betrayal and deception lie at every turn, but Ulysses' end goal is to reach the room inhabited by the spectral remains of his neurotic missus, who has imprisoned her father and taken on a new lover. At the start of his hero's journey (an odd-yssey?), an unsure Ulysses takes on a blind, psychic guide (a luminous Brook Palsson) and a bound, gagged captive (David Wontner) to assist him. Repressed memories flood back to him: his perpetually masturbating young son hiding in a closet; a daughter with a star-crossed lover; his wife—crying, clutching a bowl, always just out of reach.

It's been said that every time a memory is recalled, you get further from the truth of the original remembrance. Ulysses peers through a keyhole, pulls out a hair, and calls for Hyacinth. "I'm going to pretend you're not there,” she says, to which he responds: “I am, too." Like finding an ex-lover's hair on a pillow when you tried your best to obliterate those memories, Keyhole reminds us that our emotional baggage keeps a permanent residence in the deep, murky, phantasmagoric labyrinths of our minds.

Wildness

A different type of house is given voice in the celebratory LGBT-friendly doc Wildness, which follows the creation of a youthful performance-art community within the confines of The Silver Platter, a transgendered club situated in the primarily Latino community of L.A.'s East Side since 1963. The film attends to a broad swath of social issues: immigration, modern urbanism, "safe spaces," group politics and equality, all while incorporating elements of magical realism: the bar itself is given an ephemeral voice and narrates, and first time director Wu Tsang injects himself as the bar's disciple. Tsang details the trials and tribulations of not only developing the titular event, but creating a free legal clinic to assist transgendered persons—ultimately dabbling in club owners' family politics that leads to Wildness' demise.

The film's best and funniest moments portray stark contrasts. An elderly Mexican lady hobbles over to put dollar bills in the bust of a hot-pink blur, all flamenco dancing and ruffles. Silver Lake hipsters hit on scantily clad, heavily lip-lined ladies; those same ladies look on with quixotic interest at those same hipsters' odd performance pieces (droning looped synths to faux blood-drenched naked bodies dancing under strobes). These scenes—brought to life through the bright transgendered stars and Tsang's loving gaze of them—reveal the wonderful potential of places like the Silver Platter and Los Angeles as a whole, where repressed communities are given a home to express their creativity and shared exhilaration.

The Raid: Redemption

Though I regret not ever being part of the real-life Wildness cult (the unique L.A. club night ended in 2008; Tsang and fellow organizers have moved on to other projects), I was grateful to become part of a cult materializing before my eyes. At least, that's what it felt like watching The Raid: Redemption, a mind-blowing Indonesian action flick that played like gangbusters in the packed 1,200-seat capacity of the majestic Paramount Theater.

The setup is simple enough: a young officer (with pregnant wifey at home) is part of a SWAT team assigned to take down a drug lord in the slums of Jakarta, a villain who owns a 30-story building heavily fortified with loyal brutes. Once the team blows their cover and loses most of their men, our young hero near single-handedly kicks hyperkinetic ass all the way upstairs through the acrobatic beauty of silat, an indigenously unique martial-arts fighting style like nothing seen in American fare. The kills are as gory as any Mortal Kombat fatality, as cringe inducing as it is electrifying when blown up on Austin's biggest screen.

The script doesn't try to push any cinematic envelopes, but who cares? The film delivers exactly the punch (and joint-manipulating grapples) you'd want from an actioner, including an amazingly charismatic performance by lead Iko Uwais, who almost makes Tony Jaa's Ong Bak look like a pansy. Between Uwais, colorful supporting players (especially a fantastic, ultra-crazy "Mad Dog" who relishes in the hand-to-hand destruction of others, and a seemingly endless list of 100+ extras) and some unbelievable hand-to-hand-to-head-to-wall thrills, The Raid: Redemption is a must-see spectacle.

Posted by ahillis at 5:24 PM

March 18, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: City on Fire (1987)

by Nick Schager

City on Fire

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the undercover-cop action of the 21 Jump Street remake.]

Women factor into City on Fire but Ringo Lam's 1987 crime saga is a strictly masculine affair awash in male love. An influence on Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs—with which it shares similarities both in terms of narrative (heists, undercover cops, gun standoffs, torture) and themes (shifting allegiances, loyalty, the boundary between nobility and criminality)—Lam's film pivots around Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat), a brash Hong Kong police officer intent on retiring. Chow is introduced instigating an incident at a nightclub where his girlfriend Hung (Carrie Ng) is spending time with another man, until his colleagues show up to arrest him in order to bring him to Inspector Lau (Yeuh Sun), who wants him to assume a mission that led to the murder of another cop: to go undercover to break up a gang of deadly jewelry thieves. It's the first of two times that Chow is interrupted from trying to make things right with Hung (the later occasion takes place in a shower, on the eve of sex) by work—moments that, when coupled with scenes of the men joking around and caring for each other set to romantic piano twinkling, tellingly indicate how professional duty, and specifically Chow's relationship with Lau, take precedence over female concerns.

City on Fire

That Chow values brotherhood above everything else is further underlined by what transpires once he's undercover, as the cop's infiltration of the thieves' gang brings him into close contact, and friendship, with daring crook Fu (Danny Lee). Fu is a killer who, during a botched robbery of a jewelry factory, murders a cop in bullet-to-the-head cold blood, and then—in a street-shootout escape that faintly recalls Michael Mann's subsequent Heat—blasts a cop car so expertly (and implausibly) that it flips and explodes. Despite such villainy, he and Chow become increasingly close, which Chow knows can only lead to trouble, given his destiny to betray Fu in the same manner that he did during a prior undercover stint that still haunts him in tortured dreams. "I fulfill my duties. But I betray my friends!" Chow tells Lau in an early attempt to avoid his assignment, articulating City on Fire's central dramatic conflict, in which Chow is pitted between his devotion to Fu and Lau. That tension seeps into Lam's direction, with his pans through crowded nighttime city streets oozing restless energy, and a close-up of a gun having its chambers spun and a climactic shot of firearms pointed at (and visually boxing in) Chow's face all energized by stylish volatility.

City on Fire

Lam's camera is rarely still, and there's electricity to his depiction of Hong Kong's nocturnal scene, full of bustling crowds, neon lights and an overriding sense that violence lurks around every corner and in every dark alley, just waiting to burst into the light. So pervasive is this atmosphere that Chow's more tender interactions with Hung feel illusory—an impression that comes to the fore late in the film, when Chow and Fu bond over shared stories of being abandoned by women, and Chow clings to an implausible dream of reuniting with Hung in Hawaii and living happily ever after. In City on Fire, real romance springs forth from male camaraderie, epitomized by Chow and Fu hanging out of car windows and staring at passing women while truly concentrating on playfully smashing food into each other's faces. Consequently, it's fierce, masculine energy that dominates the proceedings, whose action often involves Chow furiously running through the streets—and, in a signature image, madly sliding down the partition that separates subway escalator rails—to avoid arrest by the men of Inspector John Chan (Roy Cheung), a young upstart intent on busting Chow for providing guns to the crooks, regardless of his undercover-agent status.

City on Fire

Lam's saxophone-punctuated, wannabe-noir portrait of macho affection and the blurred line between good and bad wouldn't fly without Chow Yun-Fat, whose manic energy, lighthearted goofiness, and soulful sensitivity define the film's tone. It's no surprise that City on Fire helped pave the way for Chow's ascension into a Hong Kong icon (a status fully achieved with 1989's The Killer), as he dominates virtually every frame despite being asked to vacillate between being a hard-as-nails badass, a tortured loner, and a childish jokester. Chow synthesizes those competing attitudes with a charismatic naturalness that does much to sell the story's contrived, underdeveloped depiction of its hero's angst-ridden dilemma over whether to protect or arrest Fu, which comes to a head during a finale illuminated by light shining through bullet holes in a wall that finds Chow forced to choose between personal safety and faithfulness to comrades. His performance is ultimately defined, however, by the earlier sight (repeated at film's end) of him attempting to pick up a woman's fallen bag and, when halted from completing that act, breaking into a smiling, spinning dance, his confident cool as magnetic as it is effortless.

Posted by ahillis at 1:54 PM

March 17, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Adventures of Tintin

by Vadim Rizov

The Adventures of Tintin

Steven Spielberg still insists on shooting in 35mm, making The Adventures of Tintin a presumably unrepeatable one-off, an all-digital 3D showcase for the little-loved motion-capture process. Robert Zemeckis embraced the medium's inherent dead-eyed creepiness with his remarkably morbid Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, but that dark mood doesn't suit Spielberg.

2008's unfairly despised Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull opened with a sunny day car ride unexpectedly turning into a race for no real reason other than the pleasure of an unscheduled adrenaline boost. Tintin is equally upbeat and willing to plunge into complicated action at the slightest provocation, but the logistical skill is less impressive when it's so easy to stage. It's most dazzling when the impossible rather than the merely difficult is casually achieved and unreal shots come to plausible life. A minor example comes early, when reporter Tintin's (Jamie Bell) spunkily adorable canine sidekick Snowy runs underneath a bunch of cars while trying to keep up with his master. Spielberg already whipped a camera back-and-forth between rapidly speeding highway vehicles in War of the Worlds. This time he goes under the wheels, a stunning tossed-off effect.

The Adventures of Tintin

The content is standard: boy finds map, boy seeks lost treasure, boy dispatches random baddies. As early as the '80s, the one-line pitch was "Indiana Jones for kids"—an interesting comment, implying there's something terribly adult about Harrison Ford's globetrotting adventures. Tintin is Indy literally without gravitas and with a goofy, aerodynamic haircut. Frankly, he's a bit of a Boy Scout bore: to this American viewer, who never read Hergé's beloved French-language comics, there's clearly some vital character essence that has been omitted. Supporting players make up the personality deficit. Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes' Caesar, King Kong's ape) joked that he was worried he'd have to play Snowy, but instead he gets to assay Captain Haddock, the kind of amiable loyal supporting drunkard character rarely seen in contemporary family fare.

In deference to over-parenting fears about unseemly role models, Haddock is eventually forced to give up the boozing. As he sobers up in a Moroccan fortress, withdrawal triggers the memory of his family's naval history. Recalling his ancestor's exploits and an epic pirate battle, Haddock's waved empty bottle becomes a 17th-century sword and the fort a pirate ship, with swarms of brigands storming the deck. The transitions between the 1930s action-serial of the main storyline and 300 years past are more impressive than the revelations of what's motivating the plot.

The Adventures of Tintin

Like Spielberg's other 2011 genre re-working War Horse, Tintin's mere existence is charmingly archaic. Besides Captain Haddock's drunken ravings, there's Simon Pegg and Nick Frost as two balloonishly swollen British police with impeccable Edwardian manners and absolutely no clue what's going on. Pegg and Frost's blundering combination of etiquette and unearned self-assurance is a stock tradition of British adventure and mystery all the way back to the pompously preening incompetents who frustrated Sherlock Holmes. The new technology makes old gears grind faster.

The only sustained sequence in which Tintin fully embraces unreality is its best. Two vehicles are chasing each other while a falcon flies away with the loot. The cliffside road is full of turns, and the camera alternately races between cars or takes off with the bird, whose aerial path triangulates the action. You literally can't stage this, or at least you'd need a CGI fowl to follow, and even so you'd have to cheat so much of the passing ground underneath it'd be close to animation. This setpiece is a thrillingly brief, genuinely new demonstration of motion-capture's possibilities, justifying the film's very making.

Posted by ahillis at 10:34 AM

March 15, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Savage Streets (1984)

by Nick Schager

Savage Streets [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Nicolas Cage-starring revenge thriller Seeking Justice.]

Born in an era of Charles Bronson death wishes and Chuck Norris invasions, Savage Streets remains a preeminent example of vigilante pulp, awash in gaudy 1980s fashion and attitude while also delivering female empowerment of a decidedly broad, silly, Slumber Party Massacre sort. A vehicle for Linda Blair to further distance herself from her iconic head-spinning, pea soup-vomiting Exorcist past, Danny Steinmann's film is pure, unadulterated exploitation, trading in violence and T&A with brazen gusto. That profane-and-loving-it posture does wonders to prop up what is, in effect, merely a cheap women-centric version of Death Wish, one in which men are—save for John Vernon's foul-mouthed high school principal—all scumbags (either actively or passively), and women are either bitches or badass angels. Brenda (Blair) fits into that last category, strutting about L.A.'s nighttime streets with her gang in tow, her low-cut top and big sunglasses immediately defining her as a take-no-shit Queen Bee, although as befitting a story as ludicrous as this, that toughness is offset by her fiercely protective love of sister Heather (Linnea Quigley), a deaf-mute whom Brenda makes sure isn't corrupted by the gang's loose talk of sex and fondness for hard alcohol.

Savage Streets

Brenda and her crew have a running feud with a foursome of psychopathic male punks led by Jake (Robert Dryer), whose convertible the girls trash and whose uninhibited sadism soon proves the catalyst for mayhem after they rape and beat Heather to within an inch of her life. Heather's silent shriek at the moment in which Jake forces wimpy cohort Vince (Johnny Venocur) to penetrate her is one of many indelible scene-closing close-ups of screaming faces, which is the only real flourish director Steinman brings to the table. Or, rather, it's the only flourish other than his ogling of nude females. That comes in the form of a prolonged pan up a busty woman's leg and through a shower filled with soaping-and-sudsing "high-schoolers" (all of whom are clearly over 18 years-old in real life), as well as the second of Brenda's two catfights with catty cheerleader Cindy (Rebecca Perle)—the first being a soaking wet bra-and-panties affair in a locker room—which ends with Brenda stripping her adversary of her shirt and throwing the girl into a stunned science teacher. This leads to Vernon's principal suspending Brenda, albeit not before she tells him "Fuck. You" and he accepts it, a bit of nonsense only believable because in a previous meeting he's already told her, with skeezy inappropriateness, that "You're a bright girl. You've got a pretty face. A good figure."

Savage Streets

Cindy's boyfriend confesses to Brenda that he likes her because she always seems primed to explode, and that goes double for Savage Streets, which is an erupting orgy of bad taste, from numerous characters tossing around the word "faggot" and two separate cretins calling Heather a "retard" to drawn-out rape sequences and other assorted misogynistic behavior on Jake's part, culminating with one of Brenda's friends getting tossed off an overpass to her death because, in an earlier skirmish, she'd dared to slash Jake with a knife. Sporting a leather jacket and a razorblade earring, Jake is a lunatic whose neck veins are constantly in danger of bursting, with Dryer’s performance as goofily over-the-top as is the film's soundtrack, highlighted by John Farnham's "Justice for One," which during the climax delivers the oh-so-subtle lyrics "There's a time for revenge, and your time is now!" Then again, subtlety is the last thing director Steinman is after, and there's a disreputable charm to his frank embrace of one-dimensional titillation and bloodlust, all of it foreshadowed (à la "Chekhov's gun" principle) by Brenda and her gals' intro-sequence look at a storefront window display of a hunting crossbow and a bear trap ("Weekend Special!" screams the sign).

Savage Streets

As with the aforementioned Slumber Party Massacre, Savage Streets' game is to indulge in rampant anti-female torment before having said ladies turn the tables on their tormentors—a victim-becomes-victimizer switcharoo that's juvenile but also effective in a bluntly shallow sort of way. Brenda's moment of enlightening empowerment (i.e. that she'll slaughter Jake and his pals) comes via a zoom into close-up while she lays nude in a bathtub, cigarette in dangling hand, which is fitting for a film that features a high school English teacher transforming a poetry lesson into a discussion of giving "head" so she can address the relationship between sex and death. Through it all, Blair's curse-spewing brashness comes off like an obvious joke about which only the actress seems unaware. Yet as with so many B-movies, that lack of self-consciousness is what makes the material's over-the-topness feel not like a pose but a genuine expression of seedy passions and impulses—which include the laugh-out-loud position that the only thing that makes a woman more vulnerable to male predators than being a deaf-mute is, ultimately, a desire to get married and escape the big, bad city for a quiet domesticated life on the farm.

Posted by ahillis at 3:16 PM

March 12, 2012

SXSW 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

King Kelly

It's King Kelly's world. We just live in it. In Andrew Neel's hectic feature, a teenage sexpot—played by Louisa Krause, in a radical (and rad!) gear-shift from her role as Lizzie Olsen's docile indoctrinator in Martha Marcy May Marlene—riots through the world as the director and star of her own 24-hour reality event: Her life is a performance is an unending digital stream, piped from her cell phone to an audience of pervs with screen names like Poo Bare and a laughing chorus of YouTube commenters. The film, which premiered at the 2012 edition of the South by Southwest Film Festival, might have been tailored specifically for the event's mushrooming interactive component (now reported to be a bigger draw than the film and music portions combined). Kelly is, to paraphrase the theme song from Drive, "a real human being," but she's also a construct, a phenomenon, a symptom, a trainwreck, a superstar.

Neel, whose live-action gamer documentary Darkon won a 2006 audience award at SXSW, has some background in meta-reality filmmaking. His 2008 film The Feature, co-directed with French artist and Warhol scenester Michel Auder, framed footage sourced from its subject's autobiographical video archives with new material that played around with Auder's contemporary persona. In Auder's 1960s heyday, of course, video was a kind of avant-garde form, an art project that became inseparable from the artist's life. King-Kelly-SXSW-wet-t-shirt.jpg For Kelly, a blonde Narcissus in American flag panties, booty-shaking and motor-mouthing her way to glory from her suburban bedroom, life without POV video isn't living. Yet, in a way, she's still an ongoing performance art project—it's actual people who then pose tactical and strategic problems.

The project, which is shot entirely on a cell phone and a cheap Canon digital camera—pretty much as you see it onscreen—quickly takes the form of a sex comedy-cum-thriller as a stolen car, a cache of missing drugs, a ridiculously out-of-hand Fourth of July party and a rogue New Jersey state trooper send the movie crashing into a series of catastrophes, forecast by Kelly's aside to her "biffle" Jordan (Libby Woodbridge) as she snorts up a baggie of ketamine: "Oh, it's going to be one of those nights."

Indeed it is. Propelled by Krause's charismatic performance, the film intends to be a commentary on what it presents, but that never keeps it from being absurdly entertaining, even as it illustrates how life in middle-class America has become a degraded digital fantasy.

God Bless America

Bobcat Goldthwait would see this as pure documentary. The neurotic comedian turned auteur was back with another savage satire in God Bless America. Like King Kelly, it takes significant inspiration from Natural Born Killers, although much more directly: Joel Murray (Mad Men) plays a corporate office drone stuck in middle-aged limbo who decides he's suffered enough from the erosion of common decency. After losing his job and discovering his bratty daughter doesn't want to visit him anymore, a visit to the doctor reveals he has an inoperable brain tumor. Years of fantasizing the assassination of shrill reality TV show stars and American Idol judges, not to mention his shithead neighbors raging banal on the other side of his thin duplex wall, suddenly become tantalizingly real. And it's off to the races, with a cheery, psycho accomplice—Tara Lynne Barr's apple-cheeked schoolgirl—providing moral support, tactical advice and creeping him out with come-hither eyelash batting. The film's best moments are not so much its speechifying about the decline in American behavior and surging tide of general douche-baggery. Idiocracy got there first and best. It's the sad-sack everyman gravitas that Murray brings to his scenes, coupled with a gleeful appropriation of Kardashianized contemporary crap culture that, as the director noted at a post-premiere Q&A, required no imagination to recreate. He just changed the names of the real programs he spoofs. This "violent movie about kindness" offers a Swiftian mandate to be nice to your neighbor.

REC 3: Genesis

Reality TV also was part of the once-clever concept driving the Spanish [REC] series: new-wave zombie movies in which the outbreak of a virus turns the residents of a Barcelona apartment building into a bunch of flesh-eating freaks, all captured on camera by the very surprised crew of a local documentary news team. The POV/found footage format is its own genre these days, so it was probably wise for filmmakers Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró to change up the program with their third installment in the franchise, [REC] 3: Genesis. Set on the same day, the story follows the glamorous wedding party of a stunning couple, Clara (Leticia Dolera) and Koldo (Diego Martin), surrounded by loving family at a romantic estate in the countryside. The celebration is going full swing but there are hints of trouble: an uncle has been doddering about with a strange look in his eyes, nursing an unexplained wound on his arm. And who are those guys in the yellow hazmat suits poking through the gardens? The film's tongue-in-cheek tone serves a slow build-up, as the wedding videographer (a Guillermo Del Toro look-alike) mentors a young cousin with a handicam on the art of cinema as their POV shots fill the screen. By the time the party's crashed by some remarkably athletic zombies executing dashing parkour moves, the movie's signature video conceit is tossed aside for more traditional form. Even without the handheld hijinks, the movie succeeds as a bracing thriller with plenty of jump scares, some religious mumbo-jumbo to keep the zombies frozen in their tracks quivering to some weird mambo rhythms in their undead mental jukeboxes, and, more so than its predecessors, a social comedy about Spanish family dynamics that offers its home audience a ton of inside jokes.

Posted by ahillis at 4:44 PM

March 9, 2012

RENDEZ-VOUS WITH FRENCH CINEMA 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

Low Life

Nicolas Klotz and Elizabeth Percival's Low Life is a hybrid horror film about illegal immigration laced with academic dialogue, scored by a thumpingly contemporary dubstep/witch-house soundtrack. The subjects are students and squatters, who gather nightly to applaud tango dancing in small bars, party in converted lofts, and face off against the police on ideological grounds. While police try to raid a building full of illegal immigrants, the kids form a line of resistance and start chanting insults comparing the police to the Nazi-collaborator Vichy regime. Someone throws a Molotov cocktail, a cop's leg catches on fire, and hostilities cease as he's dragged inside to receive aid from the aliens he's there to arrest.

The long nursing aftermath rounds off 20 minutes that make a much more filled-out argument against French policing practices than the hilariously abrupt moment in Philippe Garrel's 2011 That Summer, in which two friends' nighttime walk is interrupted by running immigrants and cops. "Fucking Sarko," one snarls, and the film jerkily moves on. Low Life's vibe is a digital update of Garrel's similar 1968-and-beyond drama Regular Lovers, with pretty young activists similarly hanging out in pleasantly decaying apartments, finding relief from ideological despair on the dance-floor and in occasionally purple declarations.

Low Life

In the kitchen watching the cop getting his wound tended to, student Carmen (Camille Rutherford) meets Afghan poet Hussain (Arash Naimian). After some shy flirting, they begin flirting in earnest at a party under the jealous gaze of Carmen's on-/mostly off- boyfriend Charles (Luc Chessel). Depressed by Carmen's rejection, he sits by a fountain with his headphones on for a while, then tries to drown himself. Hearing Carmen's voice, he thinks better of it and goes back to the squat. "Where were you?" Carmen asks. "I was dead, I came back and here I am," Charles smolders. "Right, I'm going to bed," Carmen uninterestedly replies.

Charles' all-or-nothing statements are too much for Carmen. "Stop being provocative and we'll communicate," she says, but Charles is more inclined to drink and sulk. "She's my sole horizon," Charles tells Hussain, aware he's talking to Carmen's new partner. "Isn't that a bit hard on her?" Hussain asks. The diminishing horizon is an image used by two professorial types at the party discussing immigration, though the question of human rights disappears as they dicker over the theoretical implications of the metaphor. More simply, one activist muses that his generation was born into a world of destruction.

Low Life

During the police raid, a deportation order is found covered in burns with a scrawled curse of death upon whoever possesses it. The first officer to carry it dies quickly, a sickly funny literalization of the fears of xenophobic paranoiacs: these immigrants really are trying to kill off the white devil, using a J-horror-esque revenge that isn't unprovoked or incomprehensible. The after-dark digital imagery is close to fright-film terrain before the supernatural is introduced.

Viewers need a certain tolerance/affection for statements like the beginning of Hussein's graduate presentation: "Let us speak of Holderlin's silence. We still have words for that." (The other characters aren't always amused by the constant bluster. One gets out of the apartment for a while because, as she dismissively notes, "Carmen thinks she's Antigone.") The romance between asylum-denied Hussein and fugitive-harboring Carmen turns into noir, with the couple's love making them domestic fugitives from the law living in a permanent closed-window nighttime. In the finale, Carmen's summoned to a police station for an interrogation composed of CCTV footage of her from throughout the film. The cops turn out to have almost as much coverage of her as the director, the grainy darkness of an earlier slow-motion raid revealed as the mundane eye of the law.

Smuggler's Songs

Rabah Ameur-Zaïmeche's Smugglers' Songs also ambivalently romanticizes a group of young, mixed-race law-breakers. In 1755, a gang of smugglers struggles to publish the song-poetry of their just-executed leader Louis Mandrin. "The foundations of a republic," they claim, and hence the volumes make the criminals a seditious target for the army, which find and burn some of the pamphlets. "Is it poetry? I can't read," one soldier asks. "Good for you," his amused superior replies, commending the ignorance that makes abuses of power possible.

Porter Jean Seratin (Christian Milian-Derazin) becomes a back and forth for brigand Belissard (Ameur-Zaïmeche) and his men. At one point, he's captured by soldiers and threatened with a repeat of Mandrin's real-life death of being publicly broken on the wheel. Pointedly depicted excessive force often places obviously "non-native" robbers at the hands of white soldiers.

Smuggler's Songs

Though Smugglers' Songs is a mistranslation of the title Les Chants du Mandrin ("Mandrin's Songs"), it’s not misleading. There's more singing than smuggling: the first musical number has two of the outlaws breaking into a flute-and-percussion jam session that has more to do with hip-hop than the 18th century. The desultory publishing plot can be interrupted for a few minutes' instructional speech on period papermaking processes or build to unironically swashbuckling action sequences (there’s even a close-up of an honest-to-goodness heaving bosom).

Smugglers' broad concerns are obvious but its methods commendably oddball. The anachronisms never become predictably consistent, and the film concludes with the smallest possible leap into the present. After a long speech about how the smugglers must be virtuous outlaws spreading the revolutionary word without lapsing into the brutality of their rulers, the film follows their patron outside. Car lights travel through the background of an amusingly anti-climactic final shot, challenging audiences to take up the outlaws' historical (but not out-of-date) dissidence.

Posted by ahillis at 2:30 PM

March 6, 2012

MIAMI 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Mariachi Gringo

Ah, Miami! City of Jackie Gleason and Tony Montana. Lost frontier of the cocaine cowboys and the city where Charles Willeford, America's greatest hardboiled novelist, wrote Cockfighter. Palm trees, art deco, Cuban coffee and models everywhere. And a film festival, too, for 27 years now. The 2012 edition of the Miami International Film Festival runs through Sunday at various locations amid the ocean-sprayed sprawl, including the historic 1926 Olympia Theatre, whose soaring ceilings and exotic Moorish architecture now resonate with live organ performances before each night's big feature.

Mariachi Gringo

The former Vaudeville palace elevates anything that gets shown there, a stunning reminder of that old-time "movie magic" the Academy Awards effused over with such strain a few weeks ago. You will never simulate this experience on an iPhone. Perhaps to make the most of the opportunity, the festival's opening weekend boasted its most performance-driven premieres at the theater. This wasn't just on the screen. Mexican singer-songwriter Lila Downs was joined onstage by her band to introduce Mariachi Gringo, a promising title for a familiar quarter-life crisis scenario in which a young Middle American white dude (Shawn Ashmore) loses himself to find himself as an aspiring mariachi musician in Guadalajara. The culture clash divisions (Kansas, bland and conservative; Mexico, colorful and tequila-soaked) are obvious, but the film—from first-time director Tom Gustafson—travels a long, long way on personality, and a seasoned Mexican cast that includes Downs playing a version of herself as a downhome diva/earth goddess. Ashmore's would-be Mexican folk hero falls in with the charismatic Lilia (Martha Higareda), the gorgeous daughter of the local restaurant family who struggles with her own desire to return to America and pursue her dreams. There's a subplot: She's gay. Which opens up potential for exploring something deeper that unfortunately is left undeveloped. The music is everywhere, though, and a final scene (with Downs, again, on vocals, serenading an elderly village woman at a surprise birthday party) cuts straight to an emotional core with a few words in Spanish that the script's been reaching for all along.

Musical Chairs

In a similarly showy and inspirational flourish, Susan Seidelman gets back to the polyglottal, polyrhythmic bustle of New York City in Musical Chairs, her first feature film since 2006, and an unabashed shot at an old-fashioned crowd pleaser. [Listen to our podcast with Seidelman.] It's not much of a spoiler to reveal that it's about the challenge of Armando (E.J. Bonilla), a Puerto Rican dancer from the Bronx (son of the local restaurant family), to win the heart of Mia (Leah Pipes), another dancer who happens to be a leggy blonde from the Upper West Side. She's also paralyzed from the waist down, in a twist forecast by the movie's title and its promotional materials, which point to a climactic ballroom dance competition featuring wheelchair-bound performers. The screenplay, which serves up a sprawling ensemble cast of Armando's crazy family and the crazy patients in Mia's hospital therapy ward, is a mash-up of dance movies (Strictly Ballroom), madcap ethnic family comedies (My Big Fat Greek Wedding), star-crossed urban romance (Moonstruck) and gonna-fly-now saga that swings for the fences in its effort to generate emotion. It's not a critic's film, but even in crafting big, broad date-night entertainment, Seidelman finds ways to infuse the story with some signature traces of glam-punk anarchy.

Choked

Those feel-good moments were less characteristic of the foreign-language premieres, which at a regional festival such as Miami's tends to be where the breaking news happens. Though booking premieres when you're hammocked between Sundance and SXSW can't be easy, the festival serves as a point of entry for a substantial number of Spanish-language films, with several making their New York debuts at the New Directors/New Films program later this month. Yet, "international" at MIFF doesn't always mean internacional. Choked, from first-time Korean director Kim Joong-hyun, may not have gone to the visceral extremes often associated with festival entries from the land of Oldboy, but that doesn't make it any less psychologically grueling. The moral calculus that determines who the audience might ultimately want to root for is made relentlessly complex, as a disastrous get-rich-quick scheme leaves an ambitious but unwitting Kwon Youn-ho (Um Tae-goo) holding the bag after his brain-addled mother Hee-su (Kil Hae-yeon, who does "pathetic" with an unsettling humanity) vanishes, and creditors come knocking. Prodded by a materialistic girlfriend, hounded by desperate relatives and compelled, in one sinister episode, to sign over the rights to his internal organs to a bullying loan shark, Youn-ho becomes part of the food chain: He embraces a career in reconstruction (read: forced evictions), a booming industry in the midst of a recession. Meanwhile, his mother resurfaces and goes to prison, prompting a more complex assessment of her character, as family ties unravel into something like a moment of forgiveness—even as the callow Youn-ho finds himself lying in an alley with a nasty head wound that may have him thinking twice.

The Porcelain Horse

There's never a question that Choked is designed as a waking horror story, in which the characters remain so self-centered that they can never see past their own flaws or conceive of them as indivisible from what it is to be Korean. Down in Ecuador, the vibe is a lot funkier but even more screwed-up: Javier Andrade's The Porcelain Horse revolves around the misadventures of two brothers—Paco (Francisco Savinovich) and Luis (Victor Arauz)—whose addiction to freebasing cocaine inhaled through cigarettes governs their behavior and relationships. Paco is ostensibly on the path to white-collar success, although most of his energy is consumed by getting high and carrying on an affair with his longtime lover Lucía (Leovanna Orlandini) behind her bureaucrat husband's back. Luis, meanwhile, is a proud dirtbag who fronts a punk-rock band. Paco's reflective narration has enough melancholy in its past-tense tone that suspense lingers and builds as everyone makes a series of terrifically bad decisions, a kind of domino effect triggered by Luis's theft of his father's cherished porcelain horse. The narrative leaps, crackhead recklessness and seemingly matter-of-fact perspective make the film feel like a comedy—in the way Drugstore Cowboy was a comedy. It's lent gravity, though, by the flashback framework, which has the same literary effect as in other contemporary Latin American films (let's namedrop Y Tu Mama Tambien here, with which the film also shares a certain polymorphous attitude toward sexuality). Andrade, who also has a documentary on the Venezuelan rock band Los Amigos Invisibles at the festival, invests this bunch of losers with an affection that makes the inevitable tragedy even more dreadful. The film feels more sure of itself as a poetic and boisterous ensemble character study than as a bigger statement about the disillusioning ills of Ecuadoran society, but its bittersweet textures abide.

Posted by ahillis at 9:13 AM

March 2, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Run Ronnie Run (2002)

by Nick Schager

Run Ronnie Run

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the TV sketch-comedy-goes-full-feature (sorta) Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie.]

The perils of transporting cult TV comedy to the big screen has few case studies more glaring than Run Ronnie Run, Bob Odenkirk and David Cross' sole, failed attempt to cross their '90s sketch-comedy sensation Mr. Show over to theaters. Plagued by studio interference and conflict with director Troy Miller, Odenkirk and Cross' film—a satire about fame and the burgeoning reality-TV craze focused on redneck idiot Ronnie Dobbs (Cross)—met an ignominious fate, with its release shuttled altogether in favor of a direct-to-DVD fate that, it turned out, was a deserving outcome for a work that even its makers eventually admitted wasn't very good. That subversive small-screen comedians floundered in transposing free-flowing comedic insanity to a more structured three-act movie isn't a particularly unique development (see also: The Kids in the Hall's Brain Candy). Yet more frustrating about Run Ronnie Run isn't that it fails to generate a high-wire, anything-goes spirit but that it seems almost disinterested in even trying to do so—after an animated faux-theater-advertisement in which a box of candy uses a lips-licking toilet, and then a segment in which a "Film Valedictorian of Hollywood" addresses the audience by encouraging kids to find forthcoming swear words, the random absurdity almost completely grinds to a halt, replaced by a narrative that seems sluggish at best, indifferent at worse.

Run Ronnie Run

Refusing to discard standard conventions, Run Ronnie Run instead gently mocks them while, in reality, not-so-subtly embracing them. The story proper concerns Ronnie, "a true man of Southern distinction" according to his hillbilly friend and narrator Clay (David Koechner), who becomes a media sensation via regular appearances fleeing the police after drunken mishaps on a Cops-style TV show called Fuzz. A low-class idiot with no ambition except wreaking havoc and getting wasted with his friends (who entertain themselves by encouraging a dog to eat vomit in a convenience store parking lot), Ronnie nonetheless becomes a Hollywood star when British TV producer Terry Twilstein (Odenkirk) gives him his own show and it turns into an instant hit. That turn of events is intended to skewer celebrity as asinine and reality TV as lowest common denominator-courting crap, but Run Ronnie Run's critique is undercut by its decision to make Ronnie a dim-witted sweetie at heart—he may be a degenerate, but he truly loves his trailer-park baby mama Tammy (Jill Talley)—and by failing to directly censure audiences as complicit in making such tabloidy televised garbage so popular. Rather, it merely ridicules with gentle jabs, slamming infomercials (Terry's Food-errator product kills its cohost) and Survivor (contestants are actually murderous cannibals) with a toothlessness that's compounded by such gags' datedness.

Run Ronnie Run

As Ronnie makes his way to Tinseltown, Odenkirk and Cross' tale takes occasionally loopy detours that hint at what a real Mr. Show film should have been. An R&-B music video (related to Ronnie's affair with Nikki Cox's beer model) that features the inspired lyric "I stuck my penis in your thoughtful vagina," an out-of-left-field interlude about the secret multi-billion-dollar gay conspiracy apparatus, and a Mary Poppins-ish musical number featuring Jack Black singing with a cartoon squirrel all boast the very comedic abandon that should have been center stage throughout Run Ronnie Run, rather than punctuation marks scattered amidst an otherwise straightforward rise-fall-rise saga. If these sequences suggest a free-form lunacy that never fully materializes, however, they also, more depressingly, prove not all that funny. And as for the rest of the material, it flounders about in search of an occasional one-liner that will energize its mundane action, occasionally hitting upon something inspired—as when a fat kid beats the crap out of kidnappers using moves learned from videogames (not funny) scored to a background heavy metal song with on-the-nose lyrics (mildly funny)—but generally wasting time on rebel-vs.-establishment nonsense (involving Ronnie's conflict with M.C. Gainey's local sheriff) that barely elicits a half-hearted chuckle.

Run Ronnie Run

Terry and Ronnie's first encounter, in which the idiotically accented Terry inadvertently propositions Ronnie with a series of gay double-entendres, is indicative of the lameness that permeates the proceedings, which are too often obvious and milquetoast even when they strive to be daring. Despite Odenkirk and Cross' post-production battles to save the film from what they viewed as shameful mishandling and bastardization, Run Ronnie Run's issues have far less to do with sloppy technical construction than a sheer lack of imagination and confidence, both of which are problems that it's hard to imagine would have been rectified by any sought-after re-edit by its makers. The unavoidable reality is that the material is simply, woefully light on the smart, unruly madness that made Mr. Show such a hit and helped launch its cast (which also included Black, Sarah Silverman and Patton Oswalt) to more high-profile subsequent careers. "Y'all are brutalizing me!" may be Ronnie's empty-headed catchphrase, but Odenkirk and Cross' film is less an unjustly mistreated work than, ultimately, just a convention-embracing creative misfire without the courage to operate without a safety net.

Posted by ahillis at 10:06 AM