September 26, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Game (1997)

by Vadim Rizov

The Game

Promoting The Game in Brussels in 1997, director David Fincher was aware not everyone loved his third feature, musing that "a couple of people here have said: 'So you made a really good movie last time. Why would you go and make a movie like this?'" "Last time" was 1995's Se7en, an unexpected smash whose eye-catching grotesquerie provided camouflage for a sub-Dogville exercise in moral determinism. The beautifully made thriller has Kevin Spacey's serial killer orchestrating a totally improbable series of events, anticipating detective Brad Pitt's every reaction in order to make a point about human nature's inevitable responses when pushed too far through a mental Rube Goldberg machine. At the climax, Pitt cracks, thereby theoretically proving something about human nature.

The Game much more entertainingly and productively pivots on unbelievably-airtight manipulation of a very stressed-out man. Millionaire Nicholas Van Orton (Michael Douglas) lives in a San Francisco mansion, moving from one suffocatingly toney interior to another. (Like Fincher's Fight Club and Panic Room, The Game's protagonist tries to make his life safer through materialism, an approach which proves utterly inadequate.) Housekeeper Ilsa (Carroll Baker) makes dinner and quietly worries about his health as Nicholas approaches his 48th birthday. His dad killed himself at that age, and the idea of a similar fall weighs on him. Ne'er-do-well brother Nicky (Sean Penn) gives him a present: a gift certificate to Consumer Recreation Services (CRS). Their well-appointed offices offer big promises about the fun to be in "the game" but no details. "Humor me with specifics," Nicholas seethes, channeling his famously controlling director, but signs a release form out of curiosity. After submitting to a half-day's worth of psych tests, he goes home with no idea what to expect.

The Game

Once "The Game" starts, Nicholas isn't sure if he's the subject of a sadistic prank that's supposed to jolt him into a few cheap kicks, the object of a more sinister cabal seeking to steal his considerable fortune, or if he's simply marked for death. CRS can predict his every response, a drastic parody of how Hollywood thrillers hope to manipulate their audiences. Any summary should stop here to preserve The Game's twist-every-five-minutes pace for first-timers. The reversals and surprises come from so many directions that surrender is pleasurable for the viewer, a delight compounded by watching audience stand-in/capitalist prick Van Orton freak out at rather than admire the ingenuity of his tormentors. (As with Gordon Gekko, the famously liberal Douglas seems to get a major kick out of attacking capitalism by exemplifying it at its vilest.)

Fincher grew up in San Francisco during the reign of the Zodiac serial killer, who threatened to off school buses of children. In Fincher's memory, he was "the kid on the bus, my dad going 'See you later.' And I was going, 'You work from home, couldn't you give us a ride?'" Even in broad daylight, San Francisco seems overcast with a morbid pallor, anticipating Fincher's career best Zodiac. But it's also a logical successor to Seven: Fincher loves cramped workspaces, and it's no coincidence that the swirling desert nightmare climax of Seven and the conclusion of The Game hinge upon open spaces where order can't be imposed—a worst-case scenario for such a famously detail-oriented director.

The Game

The Game's the apex of Fincher Phase One, which can roughly be said to deal with reactive characters forced to deal with situations instigated by others: Ripley in Alien 3, Pitt in Seven, Edward Norton in Fight Club (sort of), Jodie Foster in Panic Room. These are spiraling nightmares in which key pieces of information are withheld from viewers and protagonists as seemingly irrational events occur. A five year gap followed, and then (ignoring the sad-sack vision of lack of agency in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) Fincher began a series of films about people as task-driven and unrelenting as he is: Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac, Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network, Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

The Game's setting on Fincher's childhood turf points to how personal the film comes off, with Van Orton confronting the specters of his own adolescence, building to a deeply moving climax. For all its chilly game-playing and waspily amusing dialogue, it's the only Fincher film that could be deemed "warm." Receiving the Criterion treatment (including a newly restored digital transfer, supervised by cinematographer extraordinaire Harris Savides) on DVD and Blu-ray some fifteen years and a couple weeks after its theatrical release, The Game deserves respect not just as an undervalued Fincher work but an internally consistent key to his obsessions. As The Wire's Omar Little might've said: it's all in The Game.

Posted by ahillis at 12:51 PM

September 24, 2012

FANTASTIC FEST 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Holy Motors

Satan hates you. But, apparently, he loves Fantastic Fest. The forces of el cine demoniac gathered like a black storm of winged doom in Austin over the weekend, and I don't mean the beloved bats that haunt the bridges over Town Lake. Of course, over the past eight years, America's No. 1 genre film festival has won a reputation for showing great movies—period. The 2012 edition is no exception, with such out-of-the-box marvels as Leos Carax's magical mystery tour of the multitudes contained within Denis Lavant, Holy Motors, and Quentin Dupieux's likewise idiosyncratic Wrong, a comedy that turns one man's love for his lost pup into a mindbendingly dada exercise that's like Ionesco gone K-9.

Yet, when it comes to genre mania, the Alamo Drafthouse is the portal to its own hallucinatory dimension of cinematic extremes. Argentine director Adrián García Bogliano came blasting out of the gate with Here Comes the Devil: a pair of naked women, covered in sweat of a heavy sapphic grind, have their afternoon delight slashed to bits by a machete-wielding madman who collects the fingers of his victims. The intense cold open shifts to the more mundane scenario of a family on a day trip near a rocky expanse outside Tijuana. An otherwise ordinary afternoon is interrupted when teenage Sara (Michele Garcia) has her first period and Sol (Laura Caro) ushers her daughter into a gas station restroom to wash up—the camera glimpsing a shady middle-aged man spying on them from the street outside, eyes riveted in the blood-stained panties that lay atop the sink.

Here Comes the Devil

The dual themes of sexual awakening and looming menace are amplified as Sara and her younger brother Adolfo (Alex Martinez) are given permission to play for an hour on the adjacent hill, attracted to an odd formation of rocks that form a cave. With the kids gone, Sol slowly gives in to the sexual demands of her clearly hard-up husband Felix (Francisco Barreiro, the troublesome cannibal from We Are What We Are), who arouses her with a graphic confession of his first sexual encounter, whispered with a comic urgency. She responds in kind, but while they tease each other into a mutual state of intense horniness, they forget about the kids. And the kids have vanished. Bogliano (Cold Sweat, Penumbra) turns on the slow burn figuratively as well as literally here. He uses intensely bright exteriors to create a sense of fevered disorientation, paying explicit homage to the Nicolas Roeg of Don't Look Now with jolting flash-cuts to images whose meaning is not immediately clear but clearly loaded with ominous intent, much as the sudden zooms that punctuate the scenery, provoking a sense of psychic disorder. When the siblings are safely returned by the police the next day, narrative expectations are thrown for a loop. Appearances are deceiving. The devil's on his way.

Pusher

Rather than risk spoilers, let's leave the story there: Bogliano prefers to sever its limbs and rearrange them anyway, tapping his terrific leads for bold performances whose emotional and sensual dimension is a good deal more complex than what you might expect, and necessary for the film's severe dynamic to kick so forcefully—enhanced at every turn by lysergic sound design, emphasizing terror as an interior landscape--ot only a black secret hidden in the rocks. And even then, it's not quite over until it's over... a final jolt awaits.

For sheer manic thrills, the Nicolas Wending Refn-approved remake of his Pusher is hard to beat. Transported to London from the Copenhagen of the 1996 original (part one of a trilogy that launched the Drive director's career), the film sustains a sleaze-bag milieu of cocaine, fast cars, disco party sluts and the great Zlatko Burić—a lone holdover from the Danish films—as the Turkish drug kingpin who has the title character (Richard Coyle, as a burnt around the edges dealer named Frank) whirring in an increasingly desperate bid to keep his fingers and kneecaps intact. I was impressed by the film's wholehearted embrace of incessant drug use, excessive casual violence and sullen conversations with elegantly debauched Edie Sedgwick lookalikes (Agyness Deyn). Like its antihero, the movie makes no apologies and packs an exhilarating rush cut with brief episodes of unshaven despondence. Which is to say, it takes itself seriously enough not to take itself too seriously.

[Video footage from Pusher's Fantastic Fest premiere can be found here.]

Graceland

If the rampant hedonism on display in Pusher makes it hard to feel too badly for the jams Frank has to extricate himself from—he may be the world's stupidest drug dealer—the motives that drive the desperate protagonist in the Filipino thriller Graceland are more complex and disturbing, rooted in the nation's chronic political corruption and sharply divisive class system. First-time writer-director Ron Morales has made a gutsy thriller that delves with uncomfortable detail into Manila's child-sex underground, tying it to a complex web of woe that includes kidnap plots, domestic terrorism, scandalous cover-ups and the black market for body organs. At the center of the drama is Marlon Villar (Arnold Reyes), an all-too-fallible father who job as a limo driver for a powerful political figure leads to a chain of events that puts his own daughter in life-or-death peril. Unlike some Liam Neeson version of the story, though, Marlon exists to have his ass kicked and has to out-think everyone around him to save his child, while keeping hidden his own dangerous secrets. It's a stone-cold harrowing contemporary noir with the breaking news kick of a documentary expose.

Posted by ahillis at 3:20 PM

September 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Orgazmo (1997)

by Nick Schager

Orgazmo

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the James Franco-headlined porn drama About Cherry.]

Porn may be many things, but it's rarely very funny, a fact that's lost on Orgazmo, a 1997 comedy from South Park creator Trey Parker (who stars, writes and directs) that boasts no real joke other than the idea that a pent-up religious conservative making adult films is the height of contrasting-worlds hilarity. Parker's story concerns Joe Young (Parker), a sunny, simpleminded Mormon in California whose desire to return home to Utah and marry his sweetheart Lisa (Robyn Lynne) is stymied by his lack of money. While going door-to-door preaching the gospel to people who show disdain for his faith, Joe happens upon a porn shoot, and when he beats to a pulp the security detail attempting to evict him from the set, is selected by director Maxxx Orbison (Michael Dean Jacobs) to assume the lead role in "Orgazmo," a work of smut about a do-gooder who first saves, and then services, buxom beauties. This offer is anathema to Joe's beliefs, yet with $20,000 dangling in front of his big naïve eyes, it's one he soon takes, albeit with the understanding that he only has to act, and that all sexual feats will be handled by a "stunt cock"—which, in one of innumerable dead-on-arrival bits, eventually means that Joe is replaced during hot-and-heavy moments by an African-American man, to no one's concern.

Orgazmo-Book-of-Mormon.jpg

Joe's decision to take this gig is played for pure absurdity rather than as part of a larger satire of Mormonism—a frequent Stone target, as evidenced by his and partner-in-crime Matt Stone's Broadway smash The Book of Mormon—and as such, it just lies there, inert and unfunny. Despite its set-up, there's no real attention paid to Joe's Mormonism in Orgazmo, which treats its hero not as a member of a particular faith but, instead, as a more general uptight-virginal prude who loves God and finds physical intimacy icky. That bland conception of Joe—and attendant disinterest in him as a member of a specific faith deserving either celebration or ridicule—is in keeping with neutered proceedings that habitually feign outrageousness while assuming the most formulaic and clunky approach possible. When porn starlets are about to remove their tops, Parker has their male co-star walk in front of the camera to fill the screen with a nude ass, a wannabe-amusing tease that dovetails with the more overarching depiction of porn as a decidedly unsexy profession. That stance may be valid, but it's repeatedly forwarded in illogical ways, as when Joe is forced to simulate sex on camera with a monstrous obese woman in a bikini who has the weird manly voice of South Park's Timmy.

Orgazmo

As if Joe's new career weren't unbelievable enough, his maiden movie becomes a surprising crossover hit. Yet because Parker presents "Orgazmo" as merely a super-low-budget piece of trash—in which Joe co-stars alongside Ben (Dian Bachar), aka Choda Boy, a sidekick defined by his dildo headgear—the film winds up failing to provide a reason why mainstream audiences would embrace Joe's amateur-hour porn. By presenting this major plot development without ever making even a passing attempt to justify it, Orgazmo comes off as less absurd than merely sloppy and dense. That's also true with regards to a concurrent plot thread that finds Joe and Ben, in order to defend local hip-hoppy Japanese sushi chef G-Fresh (Masao Maki) from a trio of thugs, becoming real-life do-gooder versions of their porn characters, replete with an "Orgazmerator" ray gun whose blasts stimulate instant climaxes. It's not too long before someone's shooting a dog with this weapon, leading to furious leg-humping, which proves as depressingly lame as cameos by actual porn stars (Ron Jeremy, Juli Ashton, Chasey Lain), sight gags involving chaps and exploding dildo rockets, and blunt talk of filthy sex acts.

Orgazmo

Late developments have Joe coping with Lisa's disgust over his profession and Joe and Ben's battle against Maxxx, who turns out to be the baddie trying to take over G-Fresh's business. And like the rest of Orgazmo, these scenarios are dealt with in such a tossed-off and excruciatingly unfunny manner that it's hard to ignore the wholesale formal ineptitude on display, with Parker directing as if visual attractiveness and lively staging were plagues to be avoided at all costs. Consequently, what's left is an unintentional mess overflowing with lame martial arts battles, unearned jabs at Utah (people pity Joe when he confesses it's his home state), and a quick conversation between Lisa and Ron Jeremy about whether porn exploits men or women (or both) that, like the digs at Mormonism, is half-baked and set aside in favor of easy punchlines, including gay-panic ones from Stone's dim-witted photographer. It's a comedy so inept that, though it recognizes the pitiful amateurishness of porn acting, staging and directing, manages to duplicate those very qualities without ever making such mimicry its central joke.

Posted by ahillis at 10:22 AM

September 20, 2012

NYFF 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Vadim Rizov

PASSION's Brian De Palma

Passion is the first "Brian De Palma film" in ten years. He's made movies since 2002's career summary Femme Fatale, but neither 2006's The Black Dahlia or 2007's Redacted foregrounded his trademarks: comically lurid sex scenes, smoothly menacing gliding camera movements that can turn three feet of empty hallway into the world's longest walk or effortlessly blast through quarter-miles, split-screen showboating. In Passion, De Palma parties like it's 1984 and he's making Body Double again: there's a seemingly familiar scene of villainess Christine (Rachel McAdams) lounging in her pad at night in a yellow nightgown and frilly lingerie, pouting while Pino Donaggio's shamelessly retro score pours on bongos and soft sax solos. It's a remake of the late Alain Corneau's last film, 2010's Love Crime, a studiously sexless drama which depicted its past-plausibility events with straight-faced chilliness. De Palma keeps many scenes, changes the shots and adds a few complications of his own: the sex toys and lesbian make-out sessions, no one will be shocked to learn, are his very own contribution.

Christine is the Berlin manager of a PR firm, who's grooming assistant Isabelle (Noomi Rapace) to take her place. Christine and Isabelle's current project is a campaign for a Panasonic smartphone. (No such product exists: De Palma may be paying sardonic tribute to the longtime camera manufacturer in the age of digital cinema.) Isabelle makes a sample ad with the phone in the back pocket of her assistant Dani (Karoline Herfurth) walking with the lens pointed at the world behind her, recording a variety of men joyously ogling her. "I love how my ass looks," Dani responds. "Yeah, but what do you think about the rest of it?" Isabelle asks. "I think it's brilliant," Dani replies—the desired response to De Palma's trademark combo of unapologetic prurience recorded with the most elaborate shots possible.

Passion

The board (not a woman among them) loves the ad, smiling and chuckling, allowing De Palma to rack up his usual depiction of men openly indulging in voyeurism. Later, they'll change their mind and decide—in Dani's summary—it's "too long and experimental." (Another score settled, as De Palma gets even with the money men.) Worse, Christine swipes credit for her labor, beginning an escalating sexual and professional war. Isabelle sleeps with Christine's sometime-lover Dirk (Paul Anderson), upping the personal stakes as her boss turns into a workplace bully. There will be blood, gratuitous sex and people committing murder in masks.

Detractors have largely given up on accusing De Palma of just selling Hitchcock rip-offs: the more he repeats himself, the clearer it is what makes him distinct. A more useful comparison might be David Lynch. Both De Palma and Lynch adore Vertigo, and both make movies in which their characters also often seem to be moving in a trance state. De Palma literalized this in 1978's The Fury, where telekinetic tyros in training are hypnotized to release their powers, but he uses the same visual language—slow zooms in on inexplicably fixed faces, somnambulant people wandering streets and hallways with no evident purpose—consistently.

Passion

Visual language trumps actual dialogue for De Palma, who's never been afraid to foreground the ridiculousness of his scripts for laughs. There's an accordingly Lynchian vibe to Passion, which pushes the limits of artistic products that seem to be produced by mentally competent adults. (Exhibit A for the prosecution: "Do you think I don't see what's going on in that dyke brain of yours?") McAdams seems possessed by an inappropriately chipper spirit most of the running time, as if her unpleasant character and natural perkiness are at irreconcilable odds. When Dirk and Isabelle shy away from her, afraid of revealing their affair with a stray word, she blurts out "You're both so complicated!" like the world's most naïve high school debutante, a moment of human behavior so inexplicable and inappropriate you have to laugh.

There's moments like this in Lynch's work too, which—seen with large audiences—provoke constant tittering scattered across the crowd at different times. One came during a would-be serious monologue from Isabelle about a childhood accident that led to the death of her twin sister. "You have a twin sister?" Isabelle asks, propping sniggers from crowd members with memories of Raising Cain, De Palma's super-indulgent riff, sibling-/twin- on Psycho's last scene.

Passion

In Passion, De Palma invokes not Hitchcock but himself, especially 2002's Femme Fatale, which is as dialogue-free as possible, which makes it the purest way to enjoy the director's visual stunts. After a career jeopardizing innocent men and women, Fatale gave the title character antihero status, as Rebecca Romijn's career thief made her way to a life of ill-funded luxury. Passion's characters are equally irredeemable, surrounded by Femme Fatale's water-flowing-everywhere and blue light motifs. Early reactions suggested that it only became a fully De Palma-esque work after the first half had passed, but the sardonically brain-dead opening dialogue and foregrounded plot inanity of the first half are recognizably his. The knowingly ridiculous dialogue suggests that he has a sense of humor about his self-indulgence.

Passion's success will depend on the De Palma familiarity of viewers. It's a truly fans-only effort: loyalists will love it and haters will have their distaste confirmed. With every "De Palma-esque" film, the director moves further and further up his own artistic colon, riffing on himself and expecting you to love his effects as much as he does. And why shouldn't he? Passion, like most of his work, is deliriously in love with the possibility of turning even the most basic shot into an event. The twists keep coming, but they're irrelevant for the total product, a mixture of delirious giggling at the auditory and visual excess that never lets up.

Posted by ahillis at 3:33 PM

September 18, 2012

TORONTO 2012: Outro

by Steve Dollar

Paradise: Love

There is a paucity of acronyms to properly gauge the impression made by Ulrich Seidl's latest film. ZOMFGWTFBBQ seems, somehow, understated. Suffice it to say that there is no doubting Paradise: Love is Seidl's: The first minute or so, which I will refrain from describing, is a startling, in-your-face eruption (of sheer joy, actually) that immediately calls to question the filmmaker's intention. What's he after? Here's a checklist, pick a couple: Politically incorrect provocation. Sensational shock value. Existential absurdity. A dare to watch the train wreck. An unflinching gaze deep into the human condition.

Seidl applies a certain anthropological rigor to his films that makes his transgressive perspectives something much different than similar tendencies in work by, say, the Farrelly Brothers or Todd Solondz. Paradise: Love, the first installment in a trilogy about Austrians abroad, is about sex tourism. Margarethe Tiesel plays Teresa, a 50-something single mother of a bored teenage girl who has finally given in to a friend's insistence that she take a vacation at a Kenyan beach resort. It's a wonderland of post-colonial colonialism, with every bit of cringe-inducing racial frisson one might imagine and then some: A tour bus full of northern Europeans practicing their Swahili phrases—"Jambo!" "Hakuna matata"; the incessant smiles and servile persistence of the would-be studs who line the beach, just the other side of the rope from where the women sunbathe, their pale fleshy bodies in sharp contrast to the slender, limber young men who stand as patient as obelisks.

Paradise: Love

The narrative follows Teresa's transformation from a giggly newbie—encouraged by her uninhibited and insatiable best friend (Inge Maux)—who finds erotic renewal in her encounters with sweet-talking, dreadlocked Mungo (Peter Kazungu), into a jaded Jill, disheartened that it's all a hustle. Along the way, racial clichés are celebrated in exuberant and discomforting ways, as when a bartender's complexion is described to be "as shiny as bacon rind." But that gaze turns both ways, and what once seemed like a bit of giddy satire on cultural stereotypes (overweight, middle-aged sex tourists getting their groove back) turns into an intimate commentary on the ugliness of economic disparity. There's a parallel line, however, in Tiesel's performance, which often is fearlessly exposed. Photographed by the superstar team of Ed Lachman and Wolfgang Thaler, the film deploys the static tableaux that Seidl's likes to use as punctuation marks throughout the film. These seem to emphasize a detached, ironic perspective: all those fat asses in bikinis, for instance, could just equate a "People of Wal-Mart" meme gone Euro arthouse. But then what to make of a moment as elegant as Teresa's repose in the Kenyan love shack where she's shared an afternoon with Mungo, dozing as he arranges a transparent blue scrim around the bed? Seidl quotes Manet's Olympia, although the form is purely Rubenesque, displayed as an object of beauty.

Ginger and Rosa

I wish I'd seen more films that inspired the wholehearted enthusiasm I felt for Paradise: Love. But in a 26-title run over the course of 11 days at the Toronto International Film Festival, the fare was consistently solid if never really exceptional. Some standouts included Miguel Gomes' Tabu, a breakthrough third feature for the Portuguese director of Our Beloved Month of August that shifts gears twice, from ethnographic homage to Jarmuschian deadpan to comic-poetic evocation of memory and desire. It's a rather utterly different African love story, played out as an old man's account of a dangerous, obsessive affair on a colonial plantation in Mozambique, lensed in vintage black-and-white against a Portuguese garage band's cover version of "Be My Baby." Also: 14-year-old Elle Fanning's knockout performance in Sally Potter's Ginger and Rosa, as a budding radical in 1961 London, equally traumatized by the looming Cuban Missile Crisis and the dubious behavior of her iconoclastically bad-ass and morally disgusting father (Alessandro Nivola). And not entirely because Annette Bening has a small role, but the themes and plot points sometimes make the film feel like a superior companion to The Kids Are All Right. And: Brit wit Ben Wheatley's black comedy Sightseers, featuring the deadpan duo of Alice Lowe and Steve Oram as socially dysfunctional lovers on a caravan holiday through the English Midlands that turns into a killing spree. (MSN.com's James Rocchi nailed it in three words: Natural Born Campers).

The We and the I

Perhaps the biggest surprise was Michel Gondry's The We and the I, a collaboration with a group of Bronx high school kids who appear to be playing workshopped variations on themselves. The action takes place on the B66 MTA bus as it loads up with boisterous teenagers at the end of the last day of school. Composite narratives accrue between non-stop volleys of conversation, furtive glances, bullying, texting, poetry reading, chasing old white ladies off the bus, true confessions and, for this artistically inclined gang, a lot of sketch-pad illustrating. In its own multi-racial way, it's a bit like American Graffiti in a can, scored to a wall-to-wall soundtrack of old-school hip hop (Yo! Young MC!). An immersive experience takes gradual form as, one by one, the students hop off the bus, and the characters become more defined and refined, until the movie becomes a two-hander with a coda that's unexpectedly touching. If the production mimics some of the handheld self-absorption of mumblecore, it is also a rejoinder (and in the context of TIFF, the anti-Frances Ha) to movies about "white people problems." And all the more welcome.

Posted by ahillis at 2:49 PM

September 16, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Hot Rock (1972)

by Nick Schager

The Hot Rock

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Nicolas Cage thief thriller Stolen.]

Robbery is fun and games in The Hot Rock, and dramatized with suave grace by Peter Yates, who directs this adaptation of Donald E. Westlake's novel with an assuredness that enhances its funny-ha-ha hijinks. Yates' use of widescreen alternates between workmanlike efficiency and subtle artistry, highlighting interpersonal dynamics, enhancing suspense and creating tension through his deft alternation between close-ups and expansive master shots that position his protagonists as clownish mice attempting to navigate an enormous maze. That last impression is furthered by Yates' understated interplay between foreground-background images and diagonal visual lines—an early shot of Robert Redford walking away from George Segal alongside a park bench; another of Redford and Segal on a grassy path that stretches first toward, and then away from, the screen—that enhance the sense of characters attempting to operate in an inherently cockeyed world. Certainly, it's a world that provides no clear paths to success, as is soon learned by Dortmunder (Redford), a master thief who, after being released from prison, hooks up with his lock-picking brother-in-law Kelp (Segal) to procure for African dignitary Dr. Amusa (Moses Gunn) the museum-displayed Sahara Stone.

The Hot Rock

As befitting genre dictates, that plan requires the assembly of a team, which comes to feature getaway car driver Murch (Ron Leibman, introduced listening to recordings of roaring engines with future The Facts of Life headmistress Charlotte Rae) and explosives expert Greenberg (Paul Sand). It's a typically motley crew led by Redford's Dortmunder, who operates with the unruffled composure of an untouchable hero. He's basically Redford being Redford, replete with a bleeding heart that manifests itself when Dortmunder reveals his enlightened liberal outlook by chastising Kelp for characterizing Africans as using "blowguns and prison arrows." The most laughable aspect of The Hot Rock is its tossed-off asides about Dortmunder's gastritis (that may soon develop into an ulcer), which a doctor blames on Dortmunder being the "strong, silent type" who internalizes his stress, and which to Kelp calls into question Dortmunder's supposed "nerves of steel"—a weakness that feels like a feeble attempt to make the ultra-cool and poised Redford also seem vulnerable and damaged. Still operating in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid mode (aided by that film's screenwriter, William Goldman), Redford is in complete control of both his emotions and circumstances throughout these proceedings, operating as the dependably sturdy axis around which the film's wackiness revolves.

The Hot Rock

Dortmunder and his gang's initial museum heist, in which they pose as guards and utilize explosive outside distractions, is shot by Yates with a methodical detail and silence that gives the sequence its edge, culminating with typical things-fall-apart chaos that lands Greenberg in jail. Since Greenberg swallowed the Sahara Stone before being nabbed, Dortmunder and company are compelled to take on a second break-in to extricate their imprisoned comrade. That follow-up crime proves the most glaring example of The Hot Rock's datedness, as Dortmunder and Kelp sneak into a New York state prison by merely cutting through a chain-link fence, scaling a wall with a grappling hook, and then using more uniform disguises to make their way to Greenberg—a journey aided immeasurably by the fact that (as in the museum) there are no surveillance cameras to worry about, and alarms only sound once bumbling guards trigger them, usually after perps have completed fleeing the scene of their theft. It's an antiquated vision of breaking-and-entering whose simplicity negates a good deal of the material's excitement, but again, Yates' staging has a similar stripped-down quality that makes up for a lack of anxiety with inviting elegance.

The Hot Rock

Ultimately, The Hot Rock proves to be a heist film times four, with its ne'er-do-wells compelled to break back into prison once a liberated Greenberg confesses that he stashed the diamond in his cell, and then finally into a bank's safety deposit box owned by Greenberg's lawyer-father Abe (Zero Mostel), who, though pretending to be an ally, has his own greedy designs on the stone. These shenanigans eventually become more than a bit wearisome, in part because Yates' slow-and-steady approach, when paired with Quincy Jones' jazzy horn score, is too relaxed to drum up serious comedic verve, and also because there's never a compelling motivation for Dortmunder to continue pursuing his target—when he fumes about refusing to give up because of everything he's already gone through, culminating with "Either I get it, or it gets me," the sentiment comes off as being dictated solely by plot demands. Redford and Segal's barbed banter is light enough to keep the material from ever sinking into silliness, though for all its precisely composed aesthetics, it ultimately gets a bit too disorderly for its own good, be it a last ruse that involves the preposterous use of a hypnotist, or a concluding note that simply ignores the fact that equally as difficult as pilfering a famous jewel is fencing one.

Posted by ahillis at 9:42 AM

September 14, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Port of Shadows (1938)

by Vadim Rizov

Port of Shadows

The misty streets of Le Havre are home to cloudy minds and spirits all round in Marcel Carné's 1938 Port of Shadows. (The film premieres today in a new DCP restoration at NYC's Film Forum.) "There's no fog in here," bar owner Panama (Édouard Delmon) tells military deserter Jean (Jean Gabin) about his dilapidated shack. "It's always fair weather." Taking nighttime shelter, Jean meets Nelly (Michèle Morgan) in the back room. "One look at you, love at first sight," he'll tell her later. "Just like in the movies." A highly self-conscious film aware that well-trod conventions already exist for the progression of unlikely love affairs, Port of Shadows replaces the inevitability of romantic spark with the more banal inevitability of some "scum" or "swine" (Jean's most common words) coming along and screwing up anything nice in an already-difficult world.

Port of Shadows

Jean has no interest in anything but getting out of France. A dog follows him, and at first he tells it to go away, but he's no idiot about getting the girl: when Nelly asks if it's his, he says yes. Jean Gabin as "Jean" was already a huge star thanks to 1937's crime drama Pepe Le Moko. Port of Shadows was the first of three consecutively released films (from May 1938 to June 1939) that ranked among the ten highest grossing movies of the decade in France. Followed by Jean Renoir's La Bete Humaine and Gabin's reteaming with Carné in 1939, Daybreak, Port of Shadows makes up a downbeat succession of blockbusters in which (scholar Brett Bowles noted in 2005 in The Historical Journal) the actor is a "marginal, working-class protagonist [...] who fights against injustice but each time is killed by a fatalistic clockwork of forces beyond his control," movies acting as "collective spectacles of mourning" after the collapse of the Popular Front resistance movement.

In vaguely unpromising conditions (the politics of Jean's desertion are significantly unmentioned, as are international relations in any form), people cultivate hobbies to pass the time. Nelly's shopkeeper godfather Zabel (Michel Simon) is a classical music devotee who denounces the profanations of jazz, a snotty cultural signifier of his rottenness. Zabel's a master criminal who enters the film carrying a package containing (as faintly implied) a severed human head. Panama is obsessed with his former nautical career: his prized possession is a ship in a bottle, and he keeps rambling about his voyage of 1906. One of Panama's regulars is a painter (Robert Le Vigan), who commits suicide for theoretical reasons, the logical conclusion to his frustration with his inability to make an artistic breakthrough: he becomes the drowning man he's always painting.

Port of Shadows

Comically hyper-masculine and communicating in punches whenever possible, Jean (foregrounding the star as a version of his already recognized persona) establishes his principles by fighting two men on Nelly's behalf. Besides the vile, creepily possessive Zabel, there's local tough Lucien (Pierre Brasseur), who's relatively sharply-dressed but too pallid to glower menacingly. Jean literally slaps him around. "I'll prove I'm a man," Lucien swears when he decides to kill him, lacking Jean's (dubious) inner moral compass to regulate his violent outbursts.

Jean eventually finds release in art. Disguised in the dead painter's clothes, strolling by the docks with his supplies, Jean strikes up a conversation with a ship's doctor, who offers a berth on their voyage to Venezuela. "Don't tell me you're a cubist," the physician recoils in mock-horror when questioning Jean about his work. On the fringes of society, esoteric interests briefly provide hope for a better future. Port of Shadows is accordingly shrouded in terrifically cinematic mist, stylizing a dowdy, down-and-out series of functional sets (Panama's bar is lots of wood and almost nothing else). Alternately dreamy and depressive, mirroring Jean's own turbulence, Port of Shadows remains impressively strange, arriving at a gloomy end through sometimes goofy encounters with men whose relationship to the arts define their personalities, character sketches taking up more time than the ostensible plot.

Posted by ahillis at 10:27 AM

September 11, 2012

TORONTO 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Art of Killing

Something like an unimagined—or unimaginable—mash-up of Be Kind Rewind and The Redemption of General Butt Naked—the British/Danish documentary The Act of Killing presents a ruthless killer who is made to account for his sins: murdering hundreds of Communists and ethnic Chinese during the military takeover Indonesia's government in 1965. The catch here is, dapper old Anwar Congo, the movie's primary subject, its monster and master of ceremonies, is not being hauled before the world stage to atone for his crimes against humanity. He's going on TV to cheerfully recount his atrocities as his life's great accomplishment.

[Watch the trailer here.]

This would be a surreal enterprise on its surface, but director Joshua Oppenheimer (with the assistance of a local crew often identified in the credits as "Anonymous"), throws in a mind-blowing meta twist. He persuades Congo and a few members of his death squad to reenact some of their killings on camera, as actors in their own bloody-minded Indonesian thriller. The film's bizarre stroke of genius makes the essential connection between the acts carried out by these men and their all-consuming love of cinema. When they were young, they were movie-house gangsters, scalping tickets in flashy suits, striking poses inspired by John Wayne. Once they were recruited into the death squads, they brought their B-movie fantasies with them.

The Art of Killing

Again and again, Congo—who cuts the figure of a kindly grandpa, too gray and spindly to strike fear in anyone's heart—and his beer-bellied sidekick are given opportunities to reflect on what they did, but the closest they come to remorse is to suggest that strong drink and drugs take away any lingering anxieties. They'll never be punished, so the attitude is that expressed by a gag gift fish that echoes Bobby McFerrin. "Don't worry. Be happy." But Oppenheimer never lets up. Shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in a tighter cut than the 2-½ hour European version, the film fills in the details of the old horror with glimpses at its abiding shadow: The Pancasila Youth, a paramilitary group by which Congo is revered as a hero and role model. Though its never clear what exact movie is finally made by these aged executioners, the scenes become ever more gonzo: a Day-Glo musical with dancing girls emerging from the mouth of a giant fish (and one of the killers posing absurdly in drag), a supernatural gore-fest in which Congo is symbolically beheaded and turned into a ghost. The "Sweded" effect generates queasy laughs. Should we be treating the deaths of one million people as the occasion for these antics? And to what degree are these men being enabled in order to pull a sick-joke stunt? The tension is part of what makes Killing a compulsive experience. Stick around to the end, and then decide.

No

Chilean director Pablo Larrain (Post Mortem, Tony Manero) throws some "Swede" into his own historical reenactment, No. The film, based on a real TV campaign that helped defeat the Pinochet regime in a 1988 referendum, shot the whole thing on what appears to be an old VHS tape. He used a pair of vintage U-Matic video cameras, a clever notion that renders the film itself a product of what it depicts: the efforts of a hip young advertising producer (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) to create subversive political messages using the language of soft-drink commercials. Conceptually this is sort of brilliant, a form is function approach that also reminded me of watching documentary footage from the era. The blurred, blown-out effect doesn't transcend gimmick, though. I just kept wondering where my 3-D glasses were. Aside from that aesthetic misfire, No succeeds as a straightforward social satire, pitting Bernal against his right-wing boss (Alfredo Castro), who plays dirty tricks on him as the producer of the "Yes" campaign. The idea of a repressive military dictatorship brought low by mimes and jingles is a good one, and Bernal's performance as a single father who sticks to his guns despite ample disapproval and distractions (his revolutionary ex is continually getting hauled to jail amid police crackdowns) is graced with sly intelligence.

The Land of Hope

A lamentation for post-nuclear-meltdown Japan, The Land of Hope is Sion Sono (Love Exposure) in more conventional mode. The film isn't without its Sono-esque moments: a pregnant woman who obsessively dresses herself in hazmat gear; a kindly old farmer who must slaughter his entire dairy full of cows; his wife, whose mental faculties are a bit out of order, dancing in the toxic snow by the nuclear plant. It's just that instead of reading these scenes as "crazy," they're meant as an evocation of actual life, amid forced evacuations and bureaucratic re-assurances. The director's stock company fills the roles of a family torn apart when its oldest members refuse to abandon their home after a 3/11-type event, and while the dynamic can sometimes feel a bit like a made-for-TV drama, the emotional wind-up is a heartbreaker.

Greetings from Tim Buckley

Greetings from Tim Buckley, which stars Gossip Girl heartthrob Penn Badgley as the late singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, is surprising on at least two fronts: Badgely can really sing; and the film avoids rock star bio-pic excess, focusing on the events of a few short days when the 23-year-old Buckley comes to New York for a tribute to his 1960s cult-singer father. The music's glorious, and the narrative—which is most appealing in a middle stretch that finds Badgely/Buckley pulling a new-found romantic interest (Imogen Poots) into his orbit, while chasing (or running from) his father's ghost—remains judiciously underbaked.

Posted by ahillis at 8:09 AM

September 7, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Pet Sematary (1989)

by Nick Schager

Pet Sematary

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the resurrected-undead horror sequel [REC] 3: Genesis.]

For Stephen King, places often have hungers that can only be satiated by flesh, by death, and by souls, and none of those locations—The Shining's Overlook Hotel notwithstanding—has ever been quite as invitingly malevolent as the burial ground of Pet Sematary, where the deceased come back to life. Director Mary Lambert's 1989 adaption boasts a fidelity to her source material's signature moments and underlying themes that's due in large part due to a script by King himself, which through its main narrative and tangential asides deftly transposes his story's portrait of the way in which the dead haunt the living. That's most readily apparent via the titular cemetery, a remote and scraggly plot of wooded land dotted with aged, amateurish wooden crosses and scrawled inscriptions that lies hidden behind the new rural Maine home of the Creeds, which on its other side faces a street notorious for speeding semi trucks that have killed a healthy share of local animals and pets. As new resident doctor Louis Creed (Dale Midkiff) is told by neighbor Jud Crandall (The Munsters' Fred Gwynne), the cemetery and the street are related—one feeds the other—and the notion of the cemetery as actively engaged in sustaining itself through corpses runs throughout Lambert's film, which is predicated on an idea of death as a force of active ravenous evil.

Pet Sematary

Louis' wife Rachel (Denise Crosby) doesn't like her younger daughter Ellie (Blaze Berdahl) hearing about death, in part because she herself is still traumatized from watching, as a child, her disfigured, bedridden older sister Zelda (Andrew Hubatsek) die after years of suffering with spinal meningitis. That plot thread is given great creepiness by Lambert's use of a man in ghoulish make-up to play Zelda, but it also resonates as a disquieting example of the deceased's continuing grip on the present, which also comes to the fore—in a more positive light—courtesy of the ghost of Victor Pascow (Brad Greenquist), a student whom Louis fails to save from a traffic accident. For Pet Sematary, the dead never truly leave. And the afterlife void reaches out to consume the living through the stretch of Indian burial ground out past the cemetery, where Jud explains to Louis, after the Creed's family cat Church becomes the latest victim of a big rig, that those interred in the shallow soil soon return from the hereafter. The promise of resurrected loved ones is death's sinister trap, and it's one that Lambert makes clear will eventually ensnare Louis, both from the intro sight of a red semi racing down the street, and later of the Creeds' toddler son Gage (Miko Hughes) nearly running into the path of an oncoming vehicle.

Pet Sematary

Pet Sematary builds slowly to its fateful tragedy, first by detailing Louis' discovery that back-from-the-grave Church is a glowing-eyed feline devil not to be trusted, and also by forwarding the view—in conversations between Louis and both Ellie and Jud—that God is, if not wholly absent, then unfair and passive with regards to human misfortune and misery. That bleakness, amusingly poked fun at through a cameo by King as a funereal priest preaching about God's "peace," is matched by Lambert's focus on the physicality of death, be it Louis peeling a rigor mortis-afflicted Church from the frosty grass, images of knotty tree roots and bark wounds (sights that relate to the overarching depiction of nature as malevolent), or the climax's focus on sliced skin and gashed bodies. Adding to that atmosphere is the underlying suggestion that the cemetery thrives by specifically preying upon men's roles as protectors of their broods—a notion furthered by Jud's tale (told in flashback) of a post-WWII father who brought back his dearly departed son to great calamity, as well as by Victor and Jud's caution to Louis: "The soil of a man's heart is stonier."

Pet Sematary

With a methodical pace that creates a mood of mounting terror absent any shock-tactic scares, Pet Sematary occasionally drags, but such torpor doesn't detract from the sterling finale, in which Louis—having suffered through the untimely death of Gage, and the cruel reproach of his nasty father-in-law—ignores Jud's warnings and uses the cemetery to revive his son. Returning as a cherubic, creepily giggling monster, Gage finds dad's surgical scalpel and takes to playing a deadly game of hide and seek with Jud (ending in an unforgettable Achilles Heel wound) and then fatally welcoming home mom, who's made it back to the house after being confounded by one travel-related accident after another that ghostly Victor blames on the cemetery, which doesn't want its malevolent machinations interrupted. Lambert's staging of Gage's rampage is all the more startling for featuring the young Hughes in such graphic ways, the child (hair slicked back, scar across his forehead) snarling while brutally attacking his victims with a blade. A reverse-cinematography shot of Gage walking backwards and falling against a wall is particularly unnatural and unsettling, as is his cooing to his father about Rachel, "We had an awful good time. Now I want to play with youuuuuu"—moments that, like the despairing money shot, cement the film's belief that we have no greater weakness in the face of death than love.

Posted by ahillis at 7:54 AM

September 5, 2012

Autopocalypse Now

by Vadim Rizov

Detropia

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's state-of-Detroit portrait Detropia isn't a collage of stand-alone YouTube clips, though perhaps it should be. One lesser sequence has already been presented in The New York Times as an op-ed statement, and all of Detropia could be similarly scrapped into orderly, thesis-driven shorts. The Times-chosen segment follows young men dismantling metal from abandoned sites at night while speculating about where it'll go. China, they guess (correctly, title card statistics confirm). The images are vivid but predictable in their presentation of urban decay and nightmarish, seemingly unsolvable social disorder. Unsurprisingly given the titular riff on "dystopia," Detropia offers up the city as an example/casualty of the American Experiment gone wrong. Interviewee voices argue Detroit's decline isn't just a victim of a post-industrial sea change, but an example of the U.S.'s future if capitalism doesn't man up and reboot itself.

Three iconographic Detroit films focus on boomtime glory and attendant racial tensions. 1978's Blue Collar shows three auto plant workers turned against each other by cold-blooded management. In 2002's 8 Mile, Eminem struggles to be a rapper while slaving in a car parts factory alongside a multi-racial group of discontented drones (filmed in reality at a defunct GM building). Six years later, Gran Torino featured Clint Eastwood as a disenfranchised retiree staring down the "gooks" in his neighborhood, only to conclude they were more relatable than his more privileged, moved-away, ungrateful children. In all these films, quality of life frays in direct proportion to economic dysfunction and demographic change. (Tellingly, both Eminem and Eastwood have made car commercials touting the inseparability of optimistic patriotism and buying American.)

Detropia

Gran Torino's Walt Kowalski decides his neighbors are OK because the same punks bother them. Their solidarity stems from their abandonment by institutional forces: Eastwood's industrial Americana a distant memory, the Hmong immigrants adrift and terrorized in a barely policed area decimated by that loss. The old man is as outdated as his former blue-collar security, a narrative Detropia continues. Grady and Ewell record United Auto Workers meetings in which employee outrage at the wage cuts they're being forced to accept becomes a purely class issue, sans Kowalski's racial epithets. Race relations are a subliminal undercurrent never fully delved into.

Detropia's most revelatory moment follows Tommy Stevens, teacher-turned-bartender, as he attends a car expo, observing as his outrage crystallizes in real time. The hybrid electric Chevy Volt mildly impresses him, but then he crosses the floor to the booth of Chinese competitor BYD, which offers a more fuel efficient, lower-cost product. The promotional video is cheesy, but their pitch is literally unbeatable. Stevens walks back to confront the Chevy representative. Apples and oranges, says the rep: the Volt is more luxurious and pleasant, a natural default choice for the American consumer. "Can I just remind you of a little company called Honda?" Stevens fumes. "I was here in the seventies when you called Honda junk. You remember that?" Outraged that Chevy's car is laughably uncompetitive, he concludes the auto manufacturers can't be trusted to take effective steps to save themselves, and that Detroit is attendantly doomed.

Detropia

The UAW and car show sequences are the detail-heavy highlights of a movie which otherwise confirms the expected. Though Detropia opens with a conductor raising his baton and plunges into a dreamy city symphony, it soon settles down into fleshing out the backstory behind every initially unexplained image: the difficulties of funding Detroit opera, an incensed blogger's urban spelunking of left-behind buildings, performance artists new to the city understandably but tactlessly thrilled at the cheapness of the real estate. They come off a little doofus-y, but not as much as the tourists who announce, in a coffee shop, that they're thrilled to be in a place so visually exciting in its dilapidation. (The barista is not amused.)

There's a sense of outrage at the obliviousness of those tasked with managing the city. Mayor Dave Bing announces a plan to "downsize" Detroit, using tax breaks to force people to move out of their neighborhoods and consolidate themselves into large clusters. It's either that or discontinuing basic social services, he warns, but the residents in question give him an earful at municipal meetings. Behind their indignation about destroying local histories is disbelief that the city is now abandoning them as decisively as the car manufacturers already have. Ewing and Grady want to avoid urban-blight poverty porn but give in to the spectacular, gargantuan abandoned city structures and voices of sadly familiar complaints without delving deeply enough into either the lives or the institutions that (don't) govern them.

Posted by ahillis at 7:52 AM