August 31, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Burnt Offerings (1976)

by Nick Schager

Burnt Offerings
[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Sam Raimi-produced demonic-possession thriller The Possession.]

There's nothing more dangerous than a malevolent swimming pool in Burnt Offerings, a hoary haunted-house thriller that, among its many missteps, features no offerings that are actually burnt. In the case of the evil pool, however, writer/director Dan Curtis (creator of TV's 1960s vampire soap opera Dark Shadows) does find a way to make watery horseplay seem downright unnerving, via a scene in which Ben Rolf (Oliver Reed)—spending the summer at a Victorian mansion in the California countryside with his wife Marian (Karen Black), son Davey (Lee Montgomery), and aunt Elizabeth (Bette Davis)—takes an afternoon dip with the boy. Beginning harmlessly enough, the father and son's goofing off takes a sharp, dark turn when Ben unexpectedly begins dunking and thrashing Davey with a violence that's disquieting, with the crazed look on Ben's face merely further heightening the sense of harmless fun turning terrifying at a moment's notice. Culminating with Davey halting his father's sudden abuse with a swift smack to the face that bloodies Ben's nose, it's a sequence of alarming vigor, and all the more notable for its deviation from the film's otherwise stolid, sluggish manner.

Burnt Offerings

Based on Robert Marasco's 1973 novel, Burnt Offerings trots out a scenario as old as the hills: the Rolfs wend their way from the city to the country to the aged home of Roz Allardyce (Eileen Heckart) and her wheelchair-bound brother Arnold (Burgess Meredith), which they rent from July 1 to Labor Day despite the fact that the proprietors are obvious creeps. Offering up their turf at a curiously low rate, the siblings require the Rolfs to care for their 85-year-old mother Mrs. Allardyce, who resides, and never leaves, an upstairs bedroom. Ben is immediately suspicious, but Marian is so taken with the residence that they're soon ensconced: Ben works on fixing up the place and his wife becomes obsessed with bringing food trays to Mrs. Allardyce's door and spending an inordinate amount of time listening to a music box while cleaning and gazing at old framed portrait photos. If you're already suspecting that Marian might be possessed by the vine-covered house—which has a habit of mysteriously renovating its spaces—and that something might be fishy about the hermit-like Mrs. Allardyce, then you've probably seen Psycho, or The Exorcist, or The Haunting, not to mention subsequent, similar efforts like The Shining and The Amityville Horror, all of which trade in this sort of spookiness to superior effect.

Burnt Offerings

Compounding the film's derivation is a pace that mistakes methodical for menacing, when in reality it proves only monotonous—Burnt Offerings never drums up suitable suspense because it's so slowly paced that every move is telegraphed two scenes beforehand. Curtis wraps his images in a haze of soft lighting that does occasionally lend the action a disorienting dreaminess, but mostly it just enhances the self-seriousness of the script, which is so deadly earnest and somber that no humor or believable humanity—except for a few offhand moments of levity between Ben and Davey—ever materializes. A constant array of zooms into close-up, often triggering transitional dissolves, also contribute to the ethereal, otherworldly atmosphere. A score of deep, ominous tones, alas, winds up being a leaden means of adding gloom to a narrative that's short on disturbing developments, save for a recurring bit involving Ben's flashback-visions of a limo driver from his mother's wedding who wore dark, round glasses and flashed a legitimately insane, unsettling smile. Nothing much happens in Burnt Offerings, and when something does, it generally comes off as hackneyed—especially with regards to the secret about Mrs. Allardyce, which is actually given away midway through the film for anyone paying even the slightest attention.

Burnt Offerings

The scant traces of engaging drama come courtesy of a cast that's just hammy enough to make up for the persistent dearth of excitement. Reed in particular digs into his role with ferocity: sweating and trembling with bonkers intensity, he delivers a coherent portrait of mounting guilt, trauma, fear and fury, even if the story never does anything of interest with his recurring visions of funereal specters. The incomparable Davis seems similarly adrift in a part that asks her to be first quaintly colorful (wearing clothes with bright, busy prints and a round-rimmed hat, strutting about with a cigarette, cackling alongside Reed), and later unhinged and incapacitated. It's a turn that's not unbecoming so much as simply unmemorable, a squandered opportunity given that Davis' trademark feisty flair is exactly what the enervating proceedings require. Alas, a spark only arrives at tale's conclusion, courtesy of Black and her crazy-kooky eyes, which after a film's-worth of attention from Curtis' infatuated camera, receive a magnificent close-up that—far more than the rest of this second-rate Shining—oozes legitimate Kubrickian malice.

Posted by ahillis at 1:42 PM

August 29, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Lawless

by Vadim Rizov

Lawless

"Ungh." Every time Tom Hardy grunts in Lawless, it's a Rick Ross-level event, a laconic warning from a hard man not to be messed with on any account. It's 1931, and Forrest Bondurant (Hardy) is a bootlegger prospering in Franklin County, Virginia. Affluence is relative: in the middle of gross poverty, the obdurate Bondurant brothers are a few cuts above because they own a roadside diner/bar and drive long distances to sell moonshine, paying the police as they must. The arrival of "lawman" Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce) poses a problem, since the Chicago transplant wants a bigger cut than proud Forrest will agree to. Proud rural brothers vs. corrupt urban cop, game on.

Gorgeously shot by Benoît Delhomme, Lawless nails time and place. Smoke rises everywhere: from Forrest's cigars, from stills hidden deep in the forest, from cups of coffee poured by Chicago-dancer-on-the-run Maggie Beauford (Jessica Chastain, wasted in this super-masculine testosterone fest). As in director John Hillcoat's last two movies The Proposition and The Road, cusp-of-modernity interactions with nature determine the plot, with the Bondurants impoverished rulers of their dusty Dust Bowl existence. Forrest is a hilariously macho cipher, but he's positively 4D next to sibling Howard (Jason Clarke), who's effectively a walking punchline that likes to get drunk for days and punch people in the face ("Have you met Howard?" are words you never want to hear). The other brother is Jack (Shia LaBeouf), the ostensible dramatic center of focus, though he never does anything to justify his status besides acting annoying. The German word "backpfeifengesicht" means, more or less, "a face badly in need of a fist," and the widely reviled LaBeouf fits that description. Correlation doesn't equal causation, but for the time being, it has been decided that millions of people showed up to see Transformers to bask in his charms. LaBeouf wants actorly cred, and Hillcoat needs his bankability. The mutually amenable solution is constant hazing: face, meet fist, over and over.

Lawless

More notably, this is the second pairing of Aussies Hillcoat and legendary musician/cult idol Nick Cave with his screenwriter hat on. Their first collaboration was 2006's The Proposition, a brutally violent but deeply felt/thought-through take on Australia's violent colonial, Aborigine-slaughtering past. The grotesquerie was earned and given intellectual heft, putting Kipling-esque civilizers through their savage paces. Aside from contributing a score, Cave sat out Hillcoat's wan 2009 take on Cormac McCarthy's The Road, but Lawless picks up right where they left off: hard men, savage violence, vaguely Old Testament mutterings, incongruously articulate soundbites on The Nature of Man (a rare non-grunting Hardy moment: "It's not violence that sets men apart, it's the distance they're willing to go").

But where The Proposition strained—perhaps even a bit too much—to justify its violence with a coherent thesis, Lawless finds the foreigners taking American gangster-movie mythology for a fast, stupid ride. The Weinstein Company's marketing this as a thoughtful, important film, but don't be fooled. This is the kind of big, dumb action movie that climaxes with Rakes screaming "Kill those sons of bitches!" before approximately 150 shots are fired in five seconds. There are suggestions of wider context in pointed shots of Whites-Only drinking fountains and nighttime vistas of Franklin County's streets lit only by homeless bums' fires. Jack courts local preacher's daughter Bertha Minnix (Mia Wasikowska) with new dresses and takes photos of her posing in her dress. "That's how them movie stars do it in California," she says, presumably making some kind of ironic point about criminal/celebrity culture (Bonnie and Clyde: They're Just Like Us!).

Lawless

None of this matters. The first half of Lawless features lots of violence punctured with pastoral interludes, while the second half features lots and lots of inventively deranged violence with no let-up. Hillcoat's spoken repeatedly about how the movie's portrait of Prohibition two years away from its end, with all the attendant needless violence, is supposed to strongly parallel the contemporary war on drugs. But until DEA agents are tarred and feathered and left for dead on the border, the parallel won't wash with any kind of credibility. This is violence for its own kinetic sake, most exhilaratingly in a good old-fashioned '80s style montage. Jack kicks his car into gear, and the belch the exhaust it gives off is robust enough to propel the camera backwards in response, the kickoff to prolonged mayhem with no distracting plot points. It's a higher-class affair than usual, to be sure, with Ralph Stanley singing "White Light/White Heat," but it's still a rowdy assembly of speeding jalopies and flying bullets.

The center of the film is mush, somehow never settling upon a single character or cluster of interests. The brothers' relationship is summed up in a single shot which cuts from Shia getting his hair messed-up to a cockfight in their driveway. That's about as deep as characterization goes, but the (incongruously) gorgeously shot violence is a great deal of fun. There will be massive, gratuitous gasoline-fueled explosions and an eyebrow-less Pearce howling "It's time for me to take out the trash." Forget The Expandables 2: this is the revivalist action movie of the summer.

Posted by ahillis at 10:15 AM

August 27, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Quadrophenia (1979)

by Steve Dollar

Quadrophenia

Against all expectations—only half of them died before they got old—The Who are invading America again this fall, with a 37-city tour of their 1973 rock opera Quadrophenia. Announcing the news, Pete Townshend, his hearing diminished if not his troublemaking tongue, complemented Mick Jagger on his 'huge and extremely tasty' penis and taunted Bruce Springsteen for playing hillbilly music, although I'm sure no one has lost any sleep over it.

Though it's arguably the stronger work, at once more visceral and majestic, Quadrophenia has always been overshadowed by the symphonic and psychedelic Tommy—in vinyl and on screen, where Ann-Margret writhed in orgasmic excess amid a flood of baked beans, courtesy of the never-sedate Ken Russell. But 40 years later, the story of a speed-addled, socially maladjusted, rampaging Mod named Jimmy—his personality splintered four ways (just like the Who!)—sustains its relevance: It's rock'n'roll's great angry young man saga, from rock'n'roll's greatest poet of the angry young men.

Quadrophenia

In 1979, The Who released a movie version, directed by Franc Roddam with the full cooperation of the band. At the time, I recall the film coming and going without much fuss. This was the heyday of Saturday Night Fever, and also the year of The Who's discontent: Drummer Keith Moon died during the production, and in late 1979, at a concert in Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum, 11 fans died in a stampede—a far greater tragedy than the shooting at Altamont. It would have been easy at the time to consider Quadrophenia, and its companion documentary The Kids Are Alright, as the band's unintended epitaphs. And, surely, although Townshend would continue to record compelling solo projects, The Who might as well have stopped recording after Moon's death.

So, as a fan, it's thrilling to discover that Quadrophenia—the movie, now out on Criterion (with a spanky 5.1 surround mix, even)—has aged so remarkably well it feels timeless. Odd praise, perhaps, for a dead-solid-perfect period piece, one so relentlessly attentive to its skinny ties, motorbikes and dance moves that it could serve as a primer: How to Mod. For all its flash, though, the movie's charms also lie in its modesty. In 1986, Julien Temple would go new wave Busby Berkeley with Absolute Beginners, which reimagined the birth of the British teenager in the late 1950s chronicle by Colin MacInnes. But Roddam's approach is calibrated to recognizable social facts and workaday realities, his vision of London in 1964/65 keyed to brash, insecure kids shredding the drab chrysalis of post-war England to flaunt Italian suits as they raced through the streets on their Vespas, ready to invent The Sixties.

Quadrophenia

Jimmy (Phil Daniels) seems like the last person alive to potentially ignite a cultural revolution, which is surely part of the point. This gawky, adenoidal Townshend manqué/surrogate runs with a pack of like-minded style merchants, kids who spend anything they make from entry-level jobs or petty crime to accessorize their scooters and buy "French Blues" to pop, dancing all night, chasing birds and clashing with the Rockers—the leather-and-sideburns counterpoint to the clean-cut Mods, what with their Elvis hair and their burly manner. Everything in the first half of the film is a vector towards a climatic battle after the tribes converge on Brighton beach for a weekend riot, but Roddam adroitly situates the dynamic in a close-quarters scene between Jimmy and an old friend Kevin (Ray Winstone, in one of his early performances) on opposite sides of a wall in a bathhouse. The a capella refrain of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-a-Lula" alerts Jimmy to the presence of a Rocker, and soon a vocal war is on (Jimmy chooses The Kinks' "You Really Got Me"). When they finally come face to face there's the shock of recognition, and a brief truce... but the friendship won't stay rekindled for long.

Yet, that's true of all Jimmy's relationships. Although he's presented as a deeply troubled cipher of manic-depression, Jimmy is driven—self-destructively—to be the center of attention. This, even if it means being alone in a huge crowd. Mostly, it seems, he wants the affections of Steph (Leslie Ash, otherwise unknown to American audiences but a recurrent tabloid celebrity in the UK), the cute, promiscuous blonde on the scene, a precursor to the Jean Shrimptons and Jane Birkins who would, just a year or two later, begin to define the look of 1960s London. In my favorite scene, set at a Brighton dance hall the Mods have taken over for the night, Roddam and his cinematographer, Brian Tufano, make masterful use of fluid tracking shots to triangulate Jimmy, Steph and Ace Face (Sting, in his motion picture debut, exhibiting immaculate, speechless and near-Aryan cool as the Most Mod of All Mods), establishing a geometry of attraction, envy and mania. The scene begins with clean, choreographed high heels stepping in rhythm to "Green Onions" and ends with Jimmy, using a balcony overhang as a dance floor, wigging out in a primal boogaloo as The Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" rattles the rafters. It's a showstopper, capped by a stage dive that Roddam copped from some punk-rock shows he'd seen.

Quadrophenia

Even though the riot footage is breathtaking, this preceding sequence is the keeper: a skillful, nuanced revelation of character executed amid scores of extras in motion, without a hint of showiness. That sensibility extends to the film's use of the The Who's original music, which arrives mostly as psychic telegrams to cue key plot or character moments: a verse or two, like an echo in the characters' heads. The teenage kicks can't carry Jimmy far, and while his mates go their merry way he sinks deeper in depression. His parents kick him out. He wrecks his bike. His quits his job. He loses the girl to his best friend. In the film's most bitter reversal, a return to Brighton reveals Ace Face to be a complete conformist: He's a "Bell Boy." What's left? A last ride along the Newhaven cliffs, while Roger Daltrey declares that "I've had enough of dancehalls / I've had enough of pills / I've had enough of streetfights / I've seen my share of kills," in the album-closing Zen hoedown.

The ambiguous, downbeat ending would never pass muster these days. In Purple Rain, released only five years later, that no-less-petulant rebel dandy Prince rides off with the girl, not an existential crisis. Though it's got style to burn, Quadrophenia owes a lot to the realist tradition in British television and drama, which is where most of its principals would make their careers. That's part of what makes it such a well-traveled time capsule, not only the pinstriped details but the tempered tone of vérité moments. The grandiosity is all locked inside Jimmy's head.

Posted by ahillis at 4:30 PM

August 23, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Premium Rush

by Vadim Rizov

Premium Rush

David Koepp is currently ranked fifth on the list of screenwriters who've made the most money for their employers. Seemingly as a kind of thank you for laying the blueprint for Spider-Man, Jurassic Park and other blockbuster behemoths and staples, Koepp is allowed to direct a flop of his own from time to time. Adding to a record solidly devoid of directorial hits (Stir of Echoes, Secret Window, and most recently the Ricky Gervais bomb Ghost Town), Premium Rush is a nifty, streamlined chaser to another summer of the CGI-overloaded bloat Koepp helped birth into existence.

The bike messenger hero's name, Wilee (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is an early indicator Koepp's not taking anything too seriously. "Like the coyote?" bad cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon) snarls. Sometimes, approaching a particularly tricky intersection, Wilee visualizes what'll happen in three different routes, and the resulting hypothetical disasters have a Wile-squished-flat quality. Resiliently flippant, Wilee's a law-school dropout who wants to avoid professional stultification. Not that Koepp really cares: there's a dull, token three minutes spent obligatorily establishing that he's a heterosexual male who (surprise!) is on the outs with his girlfriend, thereby meaning they'll be all good by film's end after some feats of derring-do. (Die Hard dies hard.) Otherwise, it's all bicycle chases and tossed-off dialogue.

Premium Rush

There are no visible digital effects and only one gunshot fired: a boy, a bike, a bad guy and a MacGuffin are more than enough for an unpretentious B-movie. (Don't even ask what the motivating incident is: just know that it involves Wilee riding while Bobby chases. It really is that simple.) It's a movie physically out of time, actually set in New York City rather than a tax-break-friendly anonymous metropolis, with Wilee speeding from Columbia University to Chinatown. Cinematographer Mitchell Amundsen's frames are crisp and filled with natural light, blessedly free of the obsessive color correction and tinting that makes so much recent Hollywood product a super-saturated pain to watch.

Gordon-Levitt's a self-described master of "running reds, killing peds," though he's mostly an energetic placeholder for a fully-formed hero. His nemesis Shannon gets a chance to chew any and all available scenery. A specialist in deranged types, he's having an obvious blast, at one point going into a eye-twitching, unmotivated rant about his rage hearing someone say "Suck it!" on primetime TV at 8:30pm, when kids could be watching. He's the year's most genuinely eccentric bad guy, and hence funny, not least when screaming "delinquent scum!" at passing kids.

Premium Rush

Most scenes end with punchlines from bit players, none of which would scan as comical on the page, but on-screen they work pacing wonders. Premium Rush isn't exactly, say, The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3, but it has similar instincts in depicting a Manhattan full of frazzled people taking every disaster in stride and finding time to joke about it. There's a bit where Wilee bikes through a deli, not even raising his voice as he tells customers to get out of the way. They all do without even getting angry, busy New Yorkers unsurprised and unfazed by the dozens of daily oddities that require their cooperation. It's an anachronistic fantasy (Mayor Bloomberg's Manhattan is effectively a playground for the stupidly wealthy, and anyone who did that would get clobbered rather than smiled at), but a nice one.

To remind people he's a skilled screenwriter capable of something besides pounding tentpole material into filmable shape, Koepp gets the movie done in more or less real time (91 minutes covering 5:30 to 7 PM), showily jumping backwards to tease out key details about the MacGuffin without losing pace. As a director, he nails the spatially coherent, exhilaratingly speedy bicycling scenes, racing along in parallel lanes or from behind to keep up. Devoid of subtext, Premium Rush is slight but as free and fast as Wilee's fixed-gear rides.

Posted by ahillis at 7:44 AM

August 18, 2012

Drive, He Said

by Steve Dollar

Cosmopolis

One afternoon in the late '00s, when I was sitting in Tom & Jerry's bar on Elizabeth Street waiting to talk to a director about his apocalyptic rat-zombie movie, the bartender brought up the subject of Robert Pattinson. The Twilight star had been in New York City, just trying to take it easy, and wandered in for a few beers one day. Tom & Jerry's isn't exactly on the Twihard radar, after all. It's a place where directors of apocalyptic rat-zombie movies hang out. Therefore, a safe haven for the actor, who could hardly go anywhere without being recognized. "He's a good guy," the bartender said, then lamented that his customer was only good for a couple of pints. It wasn't long before the phone rang. Someone had tweeted a Pattinson sighting at Tom & Jerry's. "I told him he better make a run for it."

That story was amusing to me at the time, but it acquires an unexpected resonance in Cosmopolis. Pundits debated David Cronenberg's casting of the 26-year-old teen heartthrob in his new film. It's the first to be scripted by the director himself since 1999's Existenz, and given the "unfilmable" pedigree of the literary source material (Don DeLillo's slim 2003 novel), aligned with two of his more outre adaptatons: Naked Lunch (1991) and Crash (1996). Yet, it makes perfect sense. As billionaire investment genius Eric Packer, Pattinson is asked to play a pretty-boy master of the universe who spends most of the movie conducting business from the hermetic repose of his stretch limousine. Unsafe at any speed, Packer is attended by a sanguine bodyguard Torval (Kevin Durand, looking like the bastard offspring of Mr. Smith from The Matrix and Christopher Walken), as a death threat looms—and not necessarily for the President of the United States, whose arrival in Manhattan has slowed traffic to a trawl. What better time to get a haircut?

Cosmopolis

Cronenberg makes the most of Pattinson's ability to appear bloodless and somehow post-human: He's a paranoid android, entertaining the merely mortal in the luxury of his limo as it nudges through the city streets (a Toronto soundstage and a green screen standing in for Gotham). It's a parody of that scene in every rockumentary, beginning with Don't Look Back and Richard Lester's Beatles comedies: the icon in a back seat, buffeted from the roaring, adoring crowd as the wheels crunch along. The journey is populated by various minions: boy hackers, a freon-veined wife, a libidinous French art dealer (Juliette Binoche) who chastises Packer for his insistence on buying Rothko Chapel, after a romp in reverse cowgirl. Mathieu Almaric has a riotous cameo as a whipped cream pie terrorist, although the most prolonged assault on this Wall Street scion's dignity is a six-minute rectal exam. Not everything is perfect, it seems: "I have an asymmetrical prostate," a fretful Packer declares, to almost everyone who will listen.

COSMOPOLIS' David Cronenberg shoots Robert Pattinson

The post-9/11 vibe of the novel has been transposed to the Occupy Wall Street era, with the vague, skittery surface noise of something more cyberpunkish. Much as Existenz, the film has the strangely palpable air of something hyper-real—like a 3D video game—in which the sudden flash to each new encounter triggers a new possibility for action. The linear motion is occasionally broken so that Packer can visit a low-rent diner (no Tom & Jerry's on this route, alas) or, the movie's high point, engage in an existential conversation in a remote barbershop. The structure lends itself to a lot of deadpan riffs, made by Packer's guests at the expense of his dry, detached sensibility. The jokes break the mood of suspended animation, but they also underscore the mannered, theatrical dialogue. At a Walter Reade theater screening on Friday night, Cronenberg expressed admiration for DeLillo's language, likening it in its distinction to that of David Mamet or Harold Pinter. The director also claimed that the screenplay was written in six days, more or less transcribing lines from the book to the screen. The problem is that the effect, as staged for the most part in a tightly enclosed space, becomes highly static, even academic. It's a movie about ideas, but not about feelings, and while its conceptual abstractions make for some lively mind games they fail to deeply engage as cinema. By the time Paul Giamatti shows up as an aggrieved former employee/star-fucker/would-be assassin and the movie turns into a 22-minute pas de deux therapy session out of Fight Club, it's too late: the movie is just spinning its wheels.

Posted by ahillis at 11:29 AM

August 15, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Compliance

by Vadim Rizov

Compliance

In April, ten Portland youths performed a quick hit-and-run clothing raid on a Nordstrom's, collaring six jackets in under two minutes. One employee's comment board response (recorded, unfortunately, by racist website WND.com, but of note despite the source) spoke volumes about minimum-wage morale. "I have to wonder why you think that we care?" wrote Nordstorm's employee Jacob Handleman. "Things like this make work more interesting and I hold no ill-will toward anyone in this group. Our security personnel spend more time concerned with employees than clientele."

Craig Zobel's second feature Compliance considers a particularly dire case of employees turning on each other in a quest for status. It's a scrupulously fact-based dramatization of the infamous "strip search prank call," the 2004 climax (an arrest followed shortly) to over 70 such incidents. A male impersonating a police officer called a small-town McDonald's and convinced the assistant manager a cashier had stolen money from a customer. What exactly was said to convince the manager to strip search the blameless employee, then leave her naked and shivering for three and a half hours (under the supervision of males directed to perform acts of sexual humiliation and assault) is not on public record.

Compliance

Zobel's dialogue suggests some possible motivations. Manager Sandra (Ann Dowd) has more responsibility than her largely teenaged crew, but presumably not much more compensation. Since there's no credible way to motivate them, she addresses them like underperforming elementary school kids ("Kevin, get off the counter"). When "Officer Daniels" (Pat Healy, a Ghostface-ish voice offscreen eventually shown at home) calls in with a description (blond, female, about 19) that could find a match in almost any fast food joint, Sandra matches the amorphous prompt with Becky (Dreama Walker).

Daniels offer the illusion of choice: Becky can submit to a strip-search while his men search her house, or she can come downtown and presumably spend the night in jail. "Ma'am? Ma'am?" Daniels says with scrupulous faux-politeness when Sandra demurs. "I need you to do me a favor and calm down, OK?" He verbally rewards Sandra's zombie amenability with his strip-search instructions, praising her as "very professional." (In contrast, he asks if Kevin is "disobedient and unprofessional," as if the two were synonyms.)

Compliance

Making his requests plausible isn't hard: cooperative Sandra understands that anything's justified when (other people's) money is involved. With legal authority added to her formerly figurehead position, Sandra feels free to be nasty to Becky, who mocked her earlier for using the term "sexting" in an ill-advised attempt at manager-underling bonding. She condescendingly explains the obvious ("We can't have employees stealing from a customer, you know?") and snaps "Why are you talking to me? Can't you see I'm on the phone?" when Becky asks, after a few hours have passed, if she can have her clothes back. Daniels is building up to getting some sexual kicks, but he equally enjoys bringing the petty tyrant worst out of Sandra.

Zobel's first feature Great World of Sound examined how businesses treat both workers and customers poorly, focusing on two debt-ridden salesman (Healy again and real-life preacher Kene Holliday) whose best job option was fleecing credulous aspiring musicians by forcing them to pay to have their unreleasable songs "professionally recorded" and brought to market. Compliance removes customers from the dynamic, leaving powerless employees to turn on each other, no upper management presence required.

COMPLIANCE director Craig ZobelSandra's the narrative focus, while Becky's mostly a martyr: a massive, Passion of Joan of Arc close-up focuses on her near-tears face against the blinding light through a mirror. But Sandra feels she was the real victim, telling a TV interviewer she felt she did "what anybody would do." Filmed largely in dispiriting widescreen close-ups by Adam Stone (DP on Take Shelter and Shotgun Stories), there's one heartbreaking visual highlight when Sandra's ordered to take Becky's clothes out to her car for "safekeeping." Like a Gerry outtake, she marches to her grimy, dust-covered 2000 Subaru, leaves the clothes and throws out a dirty disposable cup sitting on the seat. She's trying to impress someone who isn't even visible, and the camera follows her every mournful trudge. At this moment, Sandra's the victim of a total theft of self-respect: how and why she becomes, however briefly, the oppressor is convincingly argued by Zobel's vital dissection of the near-lowest rung of the American service industry ladder.

Posted by ahillis at 10:36 AM

August 14, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Blaze (1989)

by Nick Schager

Blaze

[This week's "Retro Active" piece is inspired by the Will Ferrell-Zach Galifianakis political comedy The Campaign.]

Paul Newman struts through Blaze with disheveled hair and a crazed glint in his eye, looking like a man who's just awakened from a nap still half-drunk. Booze, however, isn't the problem for Newman's Earl Long, the notorious 1950s governor of Louisiana; accusations about insanity are, courtesy of his staunch belief in voting legislation aimed at helping African-Americans, as well as his fondness for carousing with the ladies of New Orleans' hot night spots. "Looks like a fine night for prowling around," opines Long as he exits his car in front of the ShowBar, and it turns out he's right, as that particular evening brings him into contact with Blaze Starr (Lolita Davidovich), a busty redheaded beauty who entrances Long from the moment go. As the intro of Ron Shelton's film (based on Starr's memoir) lays out with hokey conventionality, Starr is a country girl whose dreams of making it big in the city as a singer were dashed by a shady burlesque club owner (Robert Wuhl) who convinced her to take up a stripping career, and by the time she meets Long, she's transformed herself into an empowered unclothed individualist—a process that Shelton visualizes via a montage in which she comes into her own by perfecting the application of sexy stage make-up.

Blaze

For the follow-up to his debut Bull Durham, Shelton sloppily mythologizes both his protagonists, whose subsequent May-December relationship involves Blaze simultaneously rejuvenating and hindering the larger-than-life Long. Blaze is a firecracker who has Long buy her a panther for her stage show, and whose overpowering sexuality—despite her backwoods religious upbringing in a rickety cabin where kids run about like stray dogs—blossoms so quickly and fully that it comes to seem elemental. Shelton imagines Blaze as the embodiment of you-go-girl sensual power as well as a woman of down-home values, as her loyalty and love for Long are genuine, and lead to eventual sacrifices for Long's career and her own life. It's a portrait so faultless that it doesn't quite hold, as Blaze saunters through the film with an unimpeachable strength and nobility that seems like fantasy, and a belief in Long that's so staunch and unwavering that it comes off as a screenwriting device. Beating Julia Roberts and Pretty Woman to the punch by a year, she's the epitome of a working girl with a heart of gold, a comforting cartoon figure who's more downy-soft teddy bear than carnal tornado, and who's eventually defined less by her sexuality (or her skeezy profession) than her girl-next-door loyalty, kindness and independence.

Blaze

That sort of rose-tinted view is indicative of Blaze, which portrays Long with a similar lack of complication. Emboldened by the legacy of his slain brother Huey as well as his own considerable ego, Long is an uninhibited boor whose lack of restraint makes his supporters nervous and his enemies fume, especially given his desire to support African-American voting rights on the eve of his re-election campaign. Given his taste for women, and his eventual relationship with Blaze, Long is soon slandered as a madman, but Shelton is so fully on Long's side as a fiery iconoclast doing what's right regardless of the consequences that there's no complexity to the character, merely a "colorful" symbol stripped of the very nuance that might make him more than just a charismatic caricature. That is Blaze's biggest failing, especially in light of the fact that Newman so vociferously takes to the role, chewing scenery with a gusto that intermittently sustains the film's verve. Flashing a dreamy-kooky gaze that can harden at a moment into righteous inflexibility, and marching about the frame with a physical creakiness that can't stymie his relentless intensity, Newman personifies Long as a whirlwind of no-nonsense passion and intensity—a depiction that, as when he beds Blaze while wearing his boots (for "greater traction"), is also bolstered by a wily, idiosyncratic sense of humor.

Blaze Shelton, alas, wastes Newman's and Davidovich's performances in a film that has absolutely nothing to say about mid-century politics—since triumph comes to those who simply stick to their guns, and have the support of their friends and lovers—and no more to impart about its particular characters' unconventional affair. Shelton would like Blaze to be the spark that reignites the crumbling Long's confidence and power (i.e. his manliness). But even that thread is undercut by the fact that Long seems, from the outset, to be a lion rather than a mouse, thus turning the stripper less into a vehicle for his rebirth than merely an angelic companion who sticks by him through thick and thin. Shelton's writing is full of amusing southern-friend bon mots (upon finding his below-the-belt equipment unresponsive during lovemaking, Long quips "I'd fire the damn freeloader if I could"). Yet his fondness for sentimentalizing Louisiana through vistas of misty mountaintops and rolling streams is almost as one-note as his racist villains and his dramatic scripting, which adheres to an unadventurous formula of good triumphing over adversity and evil. The result is an occasionally rollicking film, but one that mainly feels toothless and cowardly, so closely hewing to its autobiographical source material that it merely prints the unbelievable storybook legend rather than any emotional or psychological truth.

Posted by ahillis at 6:28 AM

August 10, 2012

INTERVIEW: Paco Plaza

by Steve Dollar

[REC] 3 director Paco Plaza

Zombies are everywhere these days, as are found-footage horror flicks. When Paco Plaza and Jaume Balagueró unleashed [REC] in 2007, though, the combination was a bit fresher and intensely frightening. The Spanish filmmaking duo went on to make a sequel in 2009 and witness the launch of Quarantine, an American version of the franchise. The duo's religio-horror premise, as well as the found-footage aesthetic, takes a sharp detour for the new [REC] 3: Genesis, which is much lighter in tone, set amid a grandiose wedding that happens on the same day that things go savage at the Barcelona apartment building that is ground zero for the zombie plague. Spanish movie stars Leticia Dolera and Diego Martin play the young marrieds who discover that, contrary to Joy Division, it's not love that will tear them apart (again), but zombies.

I chatted with Plaza, who directed this outing on his own, at the Driskill Hotel in Austin, Texas, the morning after his film's premiere at the South by Southwest film festival last March.

[REC] 3: GENESIS

I was surprised that this episode isn't so much part of a trilogy as a parallel story from the same day that the outbreak begins.

The three films in fact happen the same day. There is a moment in the monitor where you see the actor from [REC] 2 going into that building.

There was more of a comic element this time.

Yes. Well, what we wanted, our will, was to make something unexpected, something very different from what you are supposed to see. The feeling I wanted people to have watching the film is the feeling I have watching Army of Darkness or watching Big Trouble in Little China, which are the most important references for me, for this film. I remember going to the theater and not knowing a word about the film. I think that seldom happens today. Normally, you already know exactly what's going to happen in front of your eyes. That was something we wanted to play around with. Why don't we use the franchise to make something they don't expect. We didn’t want to make the same film all over again. Maybe the audience doesn't want to see the same film all over again. This is a romantic comedy with zombies.

This is a major franchise in Spain. Is it designed more specifically for the Spanish audiences? It certainly worked for the audience at SXSW, but I sensed a lot of jokes and cultural references that would only make sense for the home crowd.

It is true that the 100 percent experience is for the Spanish audience. They know the songs. They know the actors. They are very popular actors in Spain, but they are doing what they are not famous for. The lead girl, Letecia, always plays this really delicate character in period pieces, like Merchant-Ivory things. Now putting her with a chainsaw it's really fun. It happens all the time. I went to see Moneyball but I didn't understand anything about it. I don't know baseball. I enjoyed the film, but I could feel I was missing something. That happens when a film is rooted in a particular culture.

You can pick up the context. Sometimes it's fine just to know the spirit of something. One new thing I noticed: The zombies are much faster and more athletic this time.

Because they've been training for a year. They are faster and stronger.

That first assault is so unexpected.

I think the speed of a zombie is directly proportional to the need of the scene. We have zombies like a European car. Depending on your needs he can speed up or slow down.

[REC] 3: GENESIS

There was a lot of choreography. The zombies are more exposed and physically expressive.

One of things we wanted to enforce, in order to have this '80s flavor I wanted the film to have—one of the things I love about horror films in the '80s is that even when it's at night you can always see clearly everything. It gave a kind of fake flavor that is really cool for the tone of this film. On the other hand, you have to be much more careful with the make-up for the zombies. In the first two films, you barely see them. We have to be really picky. It was a challenge that now we're going to have daylight and neon light.

You had a lot more range. Old zombies, young zombies, varying degrees of decay. How detailed was the preparation?

We had flying zombies. Did you see that? I didn't know when I began this film what is called "parkour." They run into the walls—it's amazing. We had a couple of them. We put in the background. It was really cool to see a flying zombie.

There's a whole subplot with a medieval church and a saint's armor, which incorporated the religious theme in a different way than before.

For me, it was part of this fairy tale touch I wanted to add to this film. I wanted to have a knight in shining armor and a princess bride in white.

The film also leaves the mystery open, at least enough for the next film. I thought everything was going to be explained because the film is titled "Genesis," but it wasn't.

It's coming out in Spain as a comic book. And the comic book gives clues to the things that are missing. But it will all be in the fourth one.

Do you fear this will become too predictable for your career, that audiences will only want zombie movies from you?

I think it's only natural. Everyone in the business is always willing to repeat success. Producers are like alchemists, trying to find the formula to turn everything into gold. And so far no one has it. I wish I could find it out.

[REC] 3: GENESIS

Everything gothic has its roots in medieval Spain, but this 21st century horror movement among Spanish filmmakers feels like something very specific, like it's in the drinking water. Can you explain it?

I have an explanation, and I think it's accurate. Back in the '70s—you know Narciso Ibáñez Serrador, the director of Who Can Kill a Child?—this guy hosted a show, a kind of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, where each Wednesday he would introduce a horror classic. Universal, Hammer, Evil Dead, any film. At that time, there was only one channel in Spain. Everyone my age watched horror films. You would go to school the following day and discuss Dracula and Frankenstein. I think this is why my generation has this taste for horror. As kids, we received the same education.

Do you have a favorite?

It is very difficult to choose. I guess The Exorcist is my favorite film ever. Or maybe Halloween. No, They Live. They Live is my favorite Carpenter film.

Well, maybe that tips me off to my next question. How did you and Jaume Balagueró decide to give the film a dark religious theme?

As a horror fan when you go to a classic monster—zombies, vampires, werewolves, whatever—when you make a film in that tradition, you have to be very respectful but you have to give something new to it. You have to break a little rule. We were willing to find something that hadn't been explored in the zombie mythology. And that was demonic possession. No they are not zombies, this girl in Portugal was possessed by demons and part of her blood began to spread through a building. It's very funny to have a spiritual explanation for a zombie.

Will you circle back to the beginning in the final episode?

No. It will strictly follow the timeline. I won't spoil it, but it will give a lot of explanation.

[REC] 3: Genesis is now available from Magnet Releasing on VOD, and will be released in theaters on September 9. For more info, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 3:37 PM

August 8, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Red Hook Summer

by Vadim Rizov

Red Hook Summer

"Gentrification done reared its ugly face and now we in the belly of the beast," Bishop Enoch Rouse (Clarke Peters) roars at his tiny Brooklyn congregation. Jesus can help with real estate turbulence, Enoch asserts, just as he can be the air conditioner of your soul during record summer heat. The link is pure faith unsupported by any kind of practical plan. Spike Lee's Red Hook Summer interrogates the seeming unassailability of the church in black cultural life, an institution flatly enshrined by Tyler Perry's tediously pious reminders to keep the faith. "My man don't have the domain on religion," Lee told GQ earlier this year. "He's kind of bogarted it now, but it's not his private domain."

13-year-old vegan atheist grandson Flik (Jules Brown) is staying with Enoch for the summer. Raised in sheltered suburban Atlanta ("I don't talk white, I just go to private school"), Flik's naive to the unbelievable extent of never having heard of the Bloods or understanding why to stay away from them. Chazz (Toni Lysaith) is his summer puppy love companion, who nags at Flik to get right with the lord, or at least to unbend enough to make his grandfather happy during Sunday service. Both teens are unbelievably stiff when dutifully reciting dialogue, which takes on a weirdly distancing quality: they're the thematic center of gravity, but thankfully displaced by the more experienced actors around them.

Red Hook Summer

Arguing with Chazz's mom Sharon (Heather Alicia Simms), Enoch makes the case for unwavering patriarchal authority derived from Christian conviction, while his romantic/conversational foil preaches a more flexible, pragmatic mentoring approach. Hashing out big issues (the myth of eroded moral standards that must be recaptured in order to advance the race, Obama's failure to single-handedly bring young black men back into productive society) in talking-points clumps, Lee pits unwavering evangelical rigidity against comparatively secular humanism. Flik and Chazz mirror this battle: "Boy, you got some deep roots," she tells him while picking out his hair, but Lee doesn't just mean follicles. Along with serving as an enforcer for Sunday prayer, Chazz's asthma makes her a symbolic casualty of unchecked real estate/commercial development, a more potent function than suggested by her performance.

Red Hook Summer takes place in a neighborhood where even criminal ex-attenders effortlessly quote chapter and verse. Enoch smiles approvingly at Jehovah's Witness Mother Darling (Tracy Camilla Johns): better some religion, he tells Flik, than none at all. Black atheism is a charged topic, and 13-year-old Flik's stance goes mildly largely because of his youth. Enoch tries to bully Flik into accepting Jesus during Sunday sermons, standing directly in front of him while sweatily extolling whoever needs the lord in their life to step forward. Flik's peevish, kneejerk aversion seems eminently justifiable.

Red Hook Summer

Tackling both gentrification and black religious life in a single movie is a steep agenda. Lee mostly turns the latter into a bad joke: one of two white people in the film is an incredibly unpleasant white harridan who shrieks at Flik and Chazz as they repeatedly deface a concrete sidewalk slab drying in front of her stoop. "Go back to your home and stay there!," she screams, a nightmare of oblivious white privilege run amuck. Enoch's response—trust in Jesus—is inadequate as a pragmatic way of organizing a marginalized community towards action regarding a serious issue the film only barely articulates. Long past a civil rights movement it helped catalyze, the church can no longer clarify the issues nor serve as an effective rallying ground. An alcoholic deacon's extemporaneous denunciation of the links between docked cruise ships blanketing the neighborhood with exhaust fumes and local child asthma rates is righteous but useless.

Enoch's adamant piety raises inevitable questions about what dark secret is behind his fervor. The big third-act twist calls Enoch's kindly authority into serious question. Confronted by a vengeful figure from the past before his congregation, the preacher directly screams into the camera about wolves appearing in sheep's clothing. Never one to shun brash expressionistic gestures, Lee applies Bruce Hornsby's already bombastic score and Judith Hill's arrangements of gospel standards with typical relentlessness to mundane interactions and fiery confrontations alike. Red Hook Summer brings potentially lurid twists to a hotly-colored climax.

RED HOOK SUMMER's Spike Lee (center)

At age 55, despite his recent difficulties getting studio films greenlit, Lee's probably not ready to begin hammily recapitulating his greatest hits for nostalgia's sake, complete with the cameo returns of Do the Right Thing's Mookie and She's Gotta Have It's Nola Darling, as well as a time-out to salute—once again—Lee's beloved Knicks. (He only steals from the best otherwise: the "White Jesus" bit from The Boondocks is reenacted in live-action format, and The Wire's Isiah Whitlock Jr. cameos, reuniting with co-star Peters to say "Sheeeeeeit" one more time.) Dramatically inconsistent and prone to undigested sermonizing, Red Hook Summer coagulates as it focuses a single institution and quietly makes the case against it.

Posted by ahillis at 1:11 PM

August 4, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Seconds (1966)

by Nick Schager

Seconds

[This week’s "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Len Wiseman’s who-am-I? sci-fi action remake Total Recall.]

Freedom is both a coveted dream and a terrifying trap in Seconds, John Frankenheimer's superlative sci-fi drama about the double-edged sword of escape and reinvention. Based on David Ely's novel, Frankenheimer's 1966 film plays like a prolonged Twilight Zone episode except with even greater narrative tension and aesthetic dexterity, detailing with almost overpowering intimacy of emotion the sorry plight of Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph). One of the myriad suit-and-tie commuters who trudge into NYC from their suburban homes each day via the Metro North rail line, Hamilton has a cushy job at a bank where he soon hopes to become manager, and an upper-middle-class home in Scarsdale with his wife Emily (Days of our Lives legend Frances Reid). That cozy life, however, is a prison to Hamilton, whom Frankenheimer introduces being stalked through Grand Central in a series of tight close-ups of the man’s sweaty countenance that will become the film’s visual hallmark, and immediately convey a sense of consuming discontent and panic that only amplifies once the pursuing stranger gives him a piece of paper with an address—a mysterious incident that, in a later conversation with Emily, turns out to be related to a phone call he received the night before from a supposedly dead old friend.

Seconds

Frankenheimer drums up urgent suspense from his Saul Bass-created opening credit sequence of facial features (eyes, nose, mouth) warping and distorting with fisheye lens creepiness—which evocatively conveys the danger of shifting identity—as well as through cinematographer James Wong Howe's masterful use of close-ups, often at low-angles or with the camera affixed to his subject's body, and edgy compositional framing that suggests isolation and fear. That mood continues unabated the next day as Hamilton goes to the address, a dry cleaner, and is referred to a meat packing plant (a telling shift in venue from one where clothes are changed, to one where flesh is chopped up). From there, he's transported to an office building where he's given a stunning offer: for $30,000, a clandestine firm will fake his death (via a Cadaver Procurement Service) and, through the magic of plastic surgery, give him a new life as Tony Wilson, a painter (the profession revealed as his true dream via drug-induced hypnosis) living the bachelor's life in Malibu. As Hamilton signs on the dotted line, Frankenheimer cuts to his skin being cut by a scalpel, thus beginning the process that will turn him into Rock Hudson's Wilson, with Hamilton first seeing his new visage in a three-way mirror, his cheeks and forehead lined with Frankenstein-ian scars.

Seconds

“Rebirth is painful” admits the firm's southern gentleman owner (Will Geer) to Hamilton when convincing him to accept their proposal, and once in Malibu, Wilson discovers that he wasn't kidding; lost and confused in an environment, profession and body/face that aren't truly his, Wilson alienates himself from the world until a chance encounter with beauty Nora (Salome Jens). Taken to a bacchanalian earth-spirit festival, which Frankenheimer shoots as a grotesque cornucopia of naked bodies, guzzling mouths and dancing feet, Tony is reluctantly baptized in wine—blessed, finally, in a new hedonistic life that, like the firm's Davalo (Khigh Dhiegh) had previously said to him, is one in which "You are alone in the world. Absolved of all responsibility, except to your own interest." Wilson is thus born again as a creature defined by his flesh (not his true, interior self) and by a decadent hunger for the pleasures of the flesh. That state of being, however, is one that proves unsustainable almost as soon as it commences, since at a cocktail party, Wilson drinks himself into a stupor, begins blabbing about his (past life's) affiliation to Harvard, and arouses the ire of his guests, who in another stunning fisheye lens shot, sternly hold him down on the bed while Hamilton's butler John (Wesley Addy) informs him "They know. They're like you. Reborns."

Seconds

Struck, conclusively, by the fact that his new identity is a façade and, worse still, a shackle that—like his last, suburban father/husband/breadwinner conformist life—has been created out of other people's ideas about what might make him happy, Wilson rebels, first visiting Emily and, then, returning to the company to request a new identity based on his own input. Alas, if choice is important, it's something Wilson has by that point lost his chance to obtain, and Frankenheimer's climactic use of master shots (sometimes from the upper corners of rooms) hauntingly conveys the tragedy of his protagonist, a figure who learns too late that true contentment and independence can't be achieved without honest self-reflection and confrontation of one's needs and wants. Discovering his own true vision of happiness at the very moment he can no longer attain it, Wilson becomes a pitiable figure of misplaced dependence and self-destructive cowardice whose story—Its lingering mood of regret and desperation given anxious energy by Jerry Goldsmith's magnificent organ-and-orchestral score—resonates long after the final image distorts into black oblivion.

Posted by ahillis at 10:49 AM

August 2, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

by Steve Dollar

Sons of Norway

[GreenCine Daily's first dispatch from Montreal can be found here.]

True and tear-inducing coming of age stories are about the last thing anyone who comes to a fantastic film festival comes to see. Where are the aliens and zombies, man? The title Sons of Norway at least evokes a skull-crushing, mead-guzzling, Thor-worshipping Viking epic. It is not that, although thankfully there is a heap of ruckus, largely committed upon the unsuspecting world by young Åsmund Høeg, playing a sweet kid named Nikolaj. As the film opens, the young'un—garbed in full, Sex Pistols-inspired regalia, complete with a scary, large safety pin through the cheek—hurls a beer bottle at a stuffy, grey-haired local functionary at a pompous "founder's day" like event, and the race is on. First, the story tracks backward to reveal the roots of Niko's non-conformity: Dad's an atheist who celebrates Christmas with an all-banana feast and quotations from Nietzsche; when he catches the kids peeking in on a conjugal lovemaking session, he invites them to stay and watch. Mom is gorgeous and all-understanding. When she notes his interest in punk rock, she buys the boy his first Iggy Pop record.

A life-altering traumatic event changes all that, though, and soon pubescent rebellion takes on a more volatile edge as Nikolaj chases teenage kicks and tries on a new identity, joining a band with his best friend and becoming a full-blown delinquent. Unlike their American counterparts, Scandinavian filmmakers hold a much less precious notion about childhood. One need only reference Klown and Turn Me On, Dammit! as recent evidence. The result, of course, is that all those pivotal moments on the road to adulthood feel far more honest and resonant. Nikolaj's lost but eternally game father (a full-throttle and occasionally full-frontal performance by Sven Nordin) ranks as one of the great crazy dads in movie history, generating as much jaw-dropping comic relief as stark emotional trembling.

Videoboy

Fantasia's programmers paired Sons of Norway with a short called Videoboy, probably my favorite thing at the festival: the story of two virginal high school boys who find themselves invited into the mysterious lair of a creepy kid who leaves in a creepy house at the far side of their Norwegian town. The enticement is their host's encyclopedic collection of VHS sleaze, screened in ritual viewing sessions accompanied by copious amounts of soda and terrifying groans emitting from a room upstairs, beyond a forbidden corridor.

Multiple horror movie tropes are evoked, and expertly toyed with, in this adaptation from the original short novel by Tore Renberg, directed by Stian Kristiansen. But the greatest pleasure is the twinned sense of wonder and dread animate in the eyes of the young actors as their brains spin amid hormonal surges of WTF.

Resolution

Themes of male-bonding amid foreboding immanence make for a surprising Resolution, the freshest debut of 2012 and a terrifically clever riff on genre expectations. The title carries multiple meanings, both of pixels and persistence, as Michael (Peter Cilella) determines to salvage his old buddy Chris (Vinny Curran), a drug addict who has opted for slow death and meth psychosis in a rural shack in some apparently mythic natural expanse of the American West. But the birds that taunt Chris are not what they seem. As a dark buddy comedy arises out of efforts at a forced detox, strange things occur: A woman's face peers through a window; a pair of pissed-off tweakers show up, demanding their drug stash; a surly Native American warns the boys to get the fuck off the property. None of this is especially disturbing, but when Michael discovers a bizarre cache of obsolete media in a shed, it seems to open a door to the uncanny. Super-8 films and old scratchy records reveal horrifying scenarios. Soon enough, ghostly dramas materialize on slide shows and laptop screens, eventually giving the guys a glimpse of themselves, as if caught in some twisted game of surveillance out of a Michael Haneke film. Co-directors Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead have a blast with the mixed-media mindgames, which filter into the ongoing philosophical discussion that turns much of the film into a two-hander as if penned by a Samuel Beckett gone bro. The comic tone not only prevails but is heightened by the growing vibe of uneasiness, which peaks during Michael's conversation with a wan, mystical Frenchman (Bill Oberst Jr.), a societal dropout who recounts the one-demon-fits-all paranormal history of the area before getting stoned and freaky.

The movie belongs to the slow-burn school of recent genre fare. You'll miss a lot if your initial viewing is accompanied by several martinis (as mine was when I first previewed a screener), although disorientation is a big part of the deal. It also goes well with a crowd, which amplifies the comic elements—a prime component of the filmmakers' uniquely offbeat sensibility. Just to give you an idea, you can see one of several clips produced by the duo (and producer David Lawson) here.

Toad Road

Props, too, to cinematographer-turned-director Jason Banker (Richard's Wedding, Teenage Paparazzo), whose debut feature Toad Road may prove to be the festival's sleeper. Served up as an "urban legend" saga, the film will need some careful marketing, since it really isn't a horror flick or even especially scary. The premise spins around the misadventures of a drugged up crew of college-age kids who spend most of their time getting fucked up and fucking with each other: an early party sequence turns into a sub-Bellflower exploration of the pleasures of igniting pubic hair with a disposable lighter. The handheld realism, derived from the Larry Clark/Gus Van Sant/Matt Porterfield lineage of documentary-like verite, is highly impressive. As the film tilts toward hallucinogenic freakout, temporal shifts and ambiguous sequencing foster a growing sense of psychic dislocation that evokes the true and inescapable horror of the fragmented self.

My Amityville Horror

More of that, indeed, is supplied by My Amityville Horror, a documentary that sits with Daniel Lutz, the eldest child of the Lutz family, owners of the infamous house at 112 Ocean Avenue in the Long Island suburb, an alleged demonic Disneyland so terrifying and unspeakable that the Lutzes fled after 28 days in late 1975. True or imagined, the events spawned endless movie and book franchises, and left at least one lost soul in their wake. Lutz, who has lived quietly in California after an unhappy childhood as a troubled, often homeless teenager, tells his story for filmmaker Eric Walter. It's way too much to unpack in a blurb, but the real-life saga is way more disturbing than the fictional one, and for reasons that have nothing to do with paranormal activity.

Posted by ahillis at 1:31 AM