October 27, 2012

Deviled Egg

by Steve Dollar

Rosemary's Baby

A camera with a bird's eye view of Central Park West hovers above the Gothic spires of the Dakota to cue a lilting guitar and lachrymose strings as a woman's voice lightly coos a wordless 12-syllable melody: "La la la la la la ..." Krzysztof Komeda's theme, which recurs throughout in a variety of instrumentations (including a parodic-sinister analog synth version), sets the tone for Rosemary's Baby: a lullaby that conjures up a little knot in the stomach, even as its air of innocence shadowed by dread is knowingly devised as a tongue-in-cheek tweak for an audience primed to anticipate the unspeakable.

Roman Polanski's 1968 chiller has become so much a part of cinematic language and lore that watching it afresh—on a newly released Criterion Blu-ray and DVD—is to savor the pervasive influence of the film as a pop-cultural standard. A box-office sensation that brought Paramount Studios back from the grave, it's not as though the movie ever lacked for appreciation. It racked up $33 million, the eighth highest-grossing title in a year ruled by 2001: A Space Odyssey, just a few mil ahead of Planet of the Apes and Night of the Living Dead.

Rosemary's Baby

But in decades since, its demon seedlings dropped far and wide across a fertile terrain of often less artful supernatural psychodramas, presaging various Omens and It's Alives—with their sagas of Satanic spawnings—while Polanski's expert staging of a fancy old apartment complex as a portal to hell anticipated everything from The Shining to Ghostbusters to the current ABC series 666 Park Avenue, which transposes Faustian themes to a post-Bloomberg New York where people will literally sign over their souls to keep their apartment. Mutandi mutandis!

Guy and Rosemary Woodhouse (John Cassavettes, Mia Farrow) do no less when they take the lease on a spacious rental in The Bramford, an 1880s-vintage building whose mysterious history is dotted with tales of black magic, infanticide and sudden death—such as that of Mrs. Gardenia, the elderly occupant whose departure created a vacancy for the young marrieds: She, an almost giddy housewife eager to start a family; he, an aspiring actor with more drive than talent, looking to make it from motorcycle commercials into the major leagues. Everyone knows the rest. Not least among those details, of course, is Ruth Gordon's Oscar-winning turn as next door neighbor Minnie Castavets, a/k/a Beezlebub's Busybody, whose motor-mouthed delivery is at once disarming comic relief and the hallmark of a New York archetype, and the climactic reveal that's not a reveal, with one of the great, one-line zings in movie history: "He has his father's eyes."

Rosemary's Baby

The film's devilish pleasures abound, even more delicious in this extraordinarily vivid new edition, which captures everything from the varying tints of Farrow's pixie-cut hairdo (and the pasty awfulness of the potion Minnie concocts each day for the pregnant Rosemary) to the sinister oaken shadings of the Castavets abode. Depending how many times you've watched it, or how familiar you are with the film's incredibly strange history (Jason Zinoman's 2011 account of the New Horror, Shock Value, includes a chapter chock-full of particulars), a new viewing can make your spine tingle in so many different ways.

For me, it's a reminder of Polanski's mastery of interior spaces. He's a poet of hallucinatory paranoia, the dean of domestic intranquility, for whom the apartment building is a site of mental illness/social disease/death-urge. Coming so closely after Catherine Deneuve's king-hell meltdown in Repulsion (and looking ahead to The Tenant and even more recent slam-dunks like The Ghost Writer and Carnage), Rosemary's Baby is also very much Rosemary's Gilded Upper West Side Prison, where the all-too-malleable Ro seems too fragile to fend off her oppressors. "In every dream home, a heartache," lamented Brian Ferry once. Working from the galleys of Ira (The Stepford Wives) Levin's then-unpublished novel, which practically read like a screenplay already,Polanski turns what should be, for any Mad Men-era wife, an ideal for living, into a claustrophobic cell. His use of unusual angles, framed from ceiling or ankle-level perspectives, and lingering over odd details, throws everything askew. There are times when the camera itself seems like a dark spirit, at the very least a bat flapping at 24 frames per second, suggesting, too, many J-Horror hauntings to come. Obvious are conscious rhymes with Repulsion, such as Rosemary's frantic consumption of nearly raw meat (Deneuve preferred to let a dead rabbit rot, but it's close enough), and a hallway similar to the one that sprouted menacing hands in the earlier film. Instead of a gropers' gauntlet, though, the corridor suggests a narrow birth canal. It can't be a happy accident that Rosemary finally learns the truth about her maternity only after breaking through a secret closet entrance into the Castavets' apartment, where the devil's son cries for mama in a cradle draped in black silk and decorated with a dangling, inverted cross.

Rosemary's Baby

Given the Republican party's so-called "war on women" in the current election cycle, Rosemary's plight takes on an unintended relevance. Drugged by her controlling husband, who rents her womb for personal gain to a gang of elderly devil-worshippers who call up Satan to rape her as she writhes in half-conscious delirium, Rosemary might as well be an electoral metaphor. Is this where women will wind up under a Romney-Ryan administration? Farrow rather famously went on to mother a total of 15 children (11 adoptive), and as Rosemary is fiercely protective of her unborn child, even as her access to proper medical care and contact with anyone outside the Castavets' cabal is restricted. At one point, her gynecologist Dr. Sapirstein (part of the coven) admonishes her not to read any guidebooks about pregnancy, asserting the film's bossy patriarchy. Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock made punchlines this week by declaring pregnancy caused by rape "a gift from God." He seems like a fervent Christian, which means he also believes in the existence of a literal Devil. One wonders what he'd make of Rosemary's baby?

Posted by ahillis at 11:37 AM

October 25, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Magic Mike

by Vadim Rizov

Magic Mike

The anomalous smash of the year, Magic Mike's transgressions are mild but—in the context of a summer Hollywood piece of counter-programming—bold. The main selling point is naked male bodies: not, notably, of muscled heroes in various poses of violence, but in dance numbers only slightly raunchier than the average Step Up number. Beefcake bro Channing Tatum strips down in a role based on his experiences as a 19-year-old male stripper, a spectacle with the potential to make heterosexual American men nervous.

The opening weekend audience was 73% female, and it's more than likely that much of the audience throughout its run consisted of straight women and gay men. I saw the film twice: once in Manhattan, and a few months later in Omaha, Nebraska, with a friend and his girlfriend. There, the young lady taking our ticket noticed that we were one female short of an excuse to be attending and giggled in our faces. For the next few days, my pal argued with multiple Midwestern males that they effectively needed to get over it. The typical response was that, given by someone who had no problem with his mom and sister seeing it—but couldn't fathom why a straight man would voluntarily sit through it.

Magic Mike

Ironically, much of director Steven Soderbergh's latest is effectively a hetero male fantasy. Mike (Tatum) works alongside a crew of guys who party like minor '80s MTV deities (albeit as relegated to life in Tampa), drinking hard and picking up their adoring audiences after the show with no consequences. The trade-off is exposing their flesh in excitingly choreographed, expertly slick numbers, which cause none of them discomfort. The camera's locked down and undercranked, giving every pop-and-lock a shiny, near-3D gloss. Mike views his stripping, delusionally, as just one income stream that doesn't define him (he also runs a detailing business, though we only see the truck, and he works in construction on the side). The plan is to conserve his funds to start a custom furniture enterprise, but in the film's tensest scene, his application for a supporting loan is turned down. Instead, the teller offers to help him enroll in a program for people with "distressed" credit. "I read the news, lady," Mike snaps, "and the only thing that's distressed is y'all." Like Julia Roberts and her cleavage in Erin Brockovich and Sasha Grey's upscale prostitution in The Girlfriend Experience, Tatum responds to economic marginalization by exploiting his only pre-existing asset: his body.

Mike is instantly recognizable as Soderbergh's work. Per usual acting as his own cinematographer, Soderbergh again employs heavy color correction to give every daylight frame a uniform golden hue, and cuts are kept to a bare minimum. When the camera moves, it's with dazzling purpose. The most impressive gesture comes on the beach. It's July 4th, and Mike is lightly partying with his fellow strippers, including newly-adopted protégé Alex (Alex Pettyfer) and his primly disapproving sister Brooke (Cody Horn). Up until this point, Mike and Brooke's relationship has been ambiguously feuding. Mike's a hedonist who apparently never sleeps, Brooke a responsible nurse's assistant. Their first extended tête-à-tête is a walk around the tiny cove's shore. The camera's locked down at the center, following them with a slow 360-degree pan, imperceptibly moving closer and further. One conversation, one shot: what could be banal is inconspicuously hypnotic.

Magic Mike

Virtuosity is needed, because the plot hews perilously close to standard fall-into-decadence-and-rise-into-responsibility moralism. Until Mike ditches his skeezy occupation, he doesn't stand a chance with Brooke. The movie's sleaziest scenes are its most fun, especially as overseen by strip club boss Dallas, played by Matthew McConaughey as a variant on Dazed and Confused's Wooderson. McConaughey opens the movie by intoning "Alright, alright, alright" and extols the virtues of having nothing but a good time throughout. At one point, he plays the bongos nearly-naked, much as in McConaughey's relatively famous 1999 bust for the same crime. Likewise, Tatum's role is effectively meta, since he plays a guy seen as a largely talentless brick who happens to look good with his shirt off, recalling the reviews greeting many of his first movies.

A lightweight good time inevitably comes crashing down, but the movie doesn't fall apart. The message doesn't seem to be so much "male stripping is demeaning" (a moral this movie couldn't deliver with a straight face in any case) as "don't sell drugs, and definitely don't party with a girl who walks around with a guinea pig." Alex does both of the latter, and his subsequent downfall means Mike has to bail him out. Monstrously ungrateful, Alex serves as one of the year's most despicable supporting characters, an argument for leaving an industry whose participants can't be trusted. What begins as a bromantic comedy ends, conventionally but satisfyingly, as a nicely low-key romantic drama. It's a movie that affirms heterosexual hegemony while making a large chunk of the audience predisposed to espouse those values—all while remaining great fun—is a rare specimen. Magic Mike succeeds on all counts.

Posted by ahillis at 4:39 PM

October 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Pusher (1996)

by Nick Schager

Pusher[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Luis Prieto's remake Pusher.]

Frank (Kim Bodnia) is headed for disaster from the outset of Pusher, as evidenced by his introduction via a tracking shot from behind his left shoulder as he moves from the bright exterior of a Copenhagen street into the deep, dark confines of a local establishment. A low-level drug dealer working alongside Tonny (Mads Mikkelsen), a wild partner with "Respect" tattooed across the back of his shaved skull, Frank figures himself a big shot, and in that mistaken assumption, he functions as something of a noir antihero, doomed by his own hubris. The first (and, arguably, weakest) chapter of Nicolas Winding Refn's superbly sleazy trilogy is a blistering descent into dire desperation, one that wears its Goodfellas and Pulp Fiction influences on its sleeve—the former via shots like the aforementioned opening one; the latter via Frank and Tonny's criminal repartee—and yet boasts its own, unique brand of bleakness and volatility. Favoring long takes and whipping back and forth between conversational speakers, Refn's handheld camera exudes edgy explosiveness, as does his soundtrack, intermittently blasting into screamy noise or White Zombie riffage.

Pusher

Its an aesthetic to match its protagonists, who in Frank giving whore pseudo-girlfriend Vic (Laura Drasbaek) a stuffed gorilla, and then in Tonny discussing his love of anal sex by retorting "I hear apes do it a lot," expose themselves as brutish animals. And stupid animals to boot, engaged in inanely profane chitchat about sex and characterized by incompetent behavior, which first rears its head moments before Frank pulls off a big heroin deal with a Swede (Peter Andersson), when Tonny injures his foot, and thus negates his usefulness at the transaction, by showing off his clumsy roundhouse kick skills. Such ineptitude is, unfortunately for Frank, matched by bad luck when said deal goes sour thanks to the appearance of the cops, forcing Frank to flee and then dump the drugs in a lake, thereby placing him in even greater debt to Serbian supplier Milo (Zlatko Buric), who gave Frank the junk as a rush-job favor even though Frank already owed him $50,000. Liable for sums he doesn't have, and given little time to make good before Milo's right-hand man Radovan (Slavko Labovic) quits being friendly and starts getting vicious, Frank soon finds himself scurrying for cash, a quest that Refn and co-screenwriter Jens Dahl lay out with a meticulousness that makes plain how Frank is at once undone by circumstance and yet, fundamentally, a victim only of his own stupidity, having bitten off more than he can chew without accounting for potential problems in his scheme.

Pusher

Frank's lack of a backup plan is fitting for a character driven by only base impulses—a scene of Frank and Tonny drunkenly pretending to stab each other at a bar, set to heavy metal, reveals his true nature—though unlike Tonny, Frank's refusal to have sex with Vic (because he has an issue with paying for it) also indicates that, deep down, he's far more neutered than he initially lets on. That suggestion becomes more apparent the further he sinks into trouble, given that Frank's robbing and bullying comes off as second-rate when contrasted with Radovan, a legitimately terrifying presence comfortable yucking it up mere moments after describing how he compelled his last target to pay up by using a blade to cut out his knee caps. In other words, for all his badass posturing, Frank is a born loser blind to his own loser-dom. And that fact clashes excitingly with Refn's more epic ambitions for his film—which opens with shadowy intro portraits and title cards for his story's players—and with the director's depiction of his urban milieu and his characters' lifestyles, which exudes drab realism in offhand scenes like Frank being forced to listen to Milo go on about his latest culinary concoction (some drippy-looking cake) and moving a fridge (with a freezer!) for Milo bought for his daughter.

Pusher

Unlike Vic, who holds delusions of being more than a prostitute ("I'm not a whore. I'm a champagne girl"), Frank recognizes and embraces his own low-life criminal station, but Pusher is canny enough to allow him this honest self-assessment while also casting him as a buffoon doomed by his own inner failings and amorality. Eventually turning on Tonny after he supposedly spills his guts to the cops, and then going on the run once he can't reimburse Milo on time, Frank proves an increasingly pathetic center of attention, and one that—when contrasted with Tonny (the star of Pusher II) and Milo (the focus of Pusher III)—is an occasionally dull one at that. Still, Refn's direction and plotting have an electricity that keeps tension constantly escalating as the action moves into darker territory, full of bloody suicides and lamp cord-enabled torture, as well as betrayals that confirm Frank as a cold scumbag clueless about the ruthless world in which he's chosen to operate—and which ultimately leave him trapped in a no-way-out purgatory where every option leads only to doom.

Posted by ahillis at 2:26 PM

October 20, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Memories of Murder (2003)

by Nick Schager

Memories of Murder

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the new serial-killer thriller Alex Cross.]

Memories of Murder is peppered with close-ups of its characters looking at the camera, their gaze searching and inquisitive, and finding nothing. A precursor of sorts to David Fincher's Zodiac that laces its police procedural with subtle and deep socio-political undercurrents, Bong Joon-ho's second feature is a masterful depiction of men, and of a country, incapable of observing basic truths as well as hidden ones. Founded on what's believed to be South Korea's first-ever serial killer case, Bong's story concerns local cop Park (Song Kang-ho) and Seoul detective Seo's (Kim Sang-kyung) 1986 investigation into rural village murders of women, all of them having been bound, raped, killed and left in storm drains or the reed fields that surround dirt roads. They're the crimes of a methodical fiend who leaves no evidence, and they prove baffling to local law enforcement, who as epitomized by Park and his dim, torture-loving partner Cho (Kim Roe-ha), are a thuggish bunch prone to ineptitude, as shown in a masterful prolonged early tracking shot at a crime scene—in which evidence is trampled by tractors and press, as cops hopelessly flail about—that eerily conveys how systemic incompetence runs wild.

Memories of Murder

Rural-urban tensions initially dominate Park and Seo's rapport, as the former's casual indifference to careful procedure and fondness for literally drop-kicking suspects is contrasted with Seo's dedication to following the rules and using his mind—a conflict that boils over in a comical scene that finds the duo's argument-cum-scuffle at the end of a night of boozing halted by their Chief (Song Jae-ho) vomiting into a bucket. Park and Cho spend the film's first half rounding up suspects and then beating confessions out of two of them, a "retarded" boy (Park No-sik) and a public-masturbation pervert (Ryoo Tae-ho), while Seo (with the help of a female officer) deduces that the killer strikes on nights when it rains and after he's requested a favored pop song from the local radio station. Those latter clues seem promising, and yet Memories of Murder is a film in which the truth is always just out of sight. Thus, even when the police know exactly when their target is next set to strike, they're incapable of stopping him, with phone calls to the radio station to retrieve the killer's request-form card (which would have his address) unsuccessful, and attempts to follow a suspicious factory office worker (Park Hae-ill) stymied by a police car that won't start.

Memories of Murder

At every turn, powerlessness reigns and carnage abounds, both symptoms of a country corrupted by its ruling Chun dictatorship. Bong colors his action's periphery with air raid siren warnings and glimpses (and talk) of hostile political protests in order to subtly suggest that the brutality of both the killer and Park and Cho—and the Chief who, in response to Cho's rough methods, kicks him down a flight of stairs before firing him, which later leads to a vicious restaurant brawl instigated by Cho—have been spawned by a nation damaged by a nasty and cruel government. Memories of Murder is consequently a film about state as much as individual violence. And Park and Seo's slow transformation into the other—with Park coming to see that skirting regulations and manufacturing proof is a fool's game, and Seo increasingly gripped with a desire to engage in unlawful behavior—casts the proceedings as a portrait of countrywide futility, since both detectives' tacks are rendered useless in the face of unsolvable crimes. Regardless of Park's oft-confessed ability to be able to deduce guilt simply from looking at suspects, or Seo's logical reasoning, blindness plagues everyone, and enlightenment remains unattainable.

Memories of Murder

Without condescension, Bong treats his characters with a mixture of comedy and severity epitomized by the performance of Song, whose simultaneous goofiness and gravity lend the material an absurdity that's often heartbreaking. Culminating at the edge of a black tunnel that seems to stretch into infinity like a maw, Memories of Murder finds its characters dwarfed by ignorance and beset by darkness, and consequently it's no surprise that, faced with having to figure out on their own whether their would-be suspect is in fact the killer (after DNA lab results from America have exonerated him), Park can only look intently at him and conclude "Fuck, I don't know." There is no knowing in Bong's film, except about one's own weakness and helplessness, so that when Park revisits the scene of the first crime during the film's years-later coda and hears from a local girl that another man—obviously the killer—had also recently been there to reminisce about his past work, the only response he can muster is a silent stare at the audience that exposes, with chilling tragedy, his impotence.

Posted by ahillis at 1:14 PM

October 18, 2012

SITGES 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Sitges 2012

If I could only go to one film festival each year, it would be Sitges. Now in its 45th year, the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic de Catalunya is the Cannes of the Uncanny. As genre cinema makes inroads into more mainstream fests such as Sundance, Tribeca, Toronto and even the once-sacrosanct New York Film Festival, a trip to this resort village 30 minutes south of Barcelona seems less essential for the well-traveled festival hound, but as a one-stop shop nothing touches it.

Big galas this year included Looper, Rob Zombie's Lords of Salem, and The ABCs of Death, represented by a murderer's row of genre bad boys including Noboru Iguchi, Simon Rumley, Nacho Vigalondo, Adrián García Bogliano, Thomas Malling and Jake West. Due for January release, the alphabetical death-march to the plasmatic frontiers of oblivion merits a full column of its own—it's a provocative conversation-starter on the aesthetics of the short film, surprisingly avant-garde and often totally fucked up, if usually in a good way. Critics will probably nitpick to, um, death, but there's much here that deserves a deeper read.

Vanishing Waves

Léos Carax's Holy Motors got a lot of love from the juries, as well it should. So did the much lesser-known Vanishing Waves, which scored a Golden Melies prize for the best film to play at Europe's fantastic festivals this year. The Lithuanian-French production film (shown in Europe under the title Aurora) evoked plenty of cinematic cues as well: It's a lyrical thriller about romantic obsession in a cyber-age setting that spins an original story out of the top-secret laboratory experiment gone wrong genre of Inception, The Cell, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Minority Report and, way back when, Dreamscape. In some near-future environment not too far removed from our own world, a neuro-scientist Lukas (Marius Jampolskis) is connected to a young coma victim named Aurora (Jura Jutaie) via the familiar electrodes-and-flotation-tank method. While colleagues in white lab jackets watch on 3D monitors, Lukas enters the woman's unconscious mind, looking for clues that might trigger a release from her coma. Instead, he meets her face to face: beautiful, lithe and very naked, a dream lover materializing from fantasy terrains in which erotic encounters only generate more mystery. The scientists can't see what Lukas sees, and he obscures his findings after each journey, becoming more unhealthily fixated as the experiment progresses. Written and directed by Kristina Buožytė, with co-writer and visual designer by Bruno Samper, the film wisely uses the sci-fi trappings as a platform for an intimate love story, one in which each new episodic revelation pulls the viewer deeper toward an enigmatic core. That the production can suffuse this with a poetic ambience and not slather on the cheese is pretty damn remarkable for the genre, owing a lot to both the striking production design and the expressive use of the actors' faces and bodies in scenes that often are wordless. One sequence near the end is especially powerful—a perfect metaphor for the relationship between the lover and his ideal, between men and women, between science and discovery, between desire—as T.S. Eliot once wrote—and the spasm. The movie could stop there, in eloquent ellipsis, but the filmmakers insist on a firm resolution. Rest assured, it's no Hollywood ending.

Eurocrime!

Eurocrime! The Italian Cop and Gangster Films That Ruled the '70s raids a deep archive of film footage and resurrects many a lost icon from the dark and wild years of post-Godfather/Dirty Harry exploitation cinema that the Italian movie industry cranked out non-stop throughout the 1970s. Written and directed by Mike Malloy, it's an exhaustive labor of love whose encyclopedic approach only gets more consuming as the story progresses, lit up by many an outrageous saga and egocentric aside from actors like Franco Nero, Antonio Sabato, Fred Williamson, John Saxon, Henry Silva, Richard Harrison, Joe Dallesandro, and the great director Enzo Castellari. Watching the film at the Prado, one of the festival's vintage bijous, I was struck that half these guys had served on a festival jury or walked off with one of its improbably designed honorary trophies at one time or another in the last decade. The film's myriad revelations about the so-called poliziotteschi are not only hilarious but illuminate a deep cultural meaning, suggesting that films such as Napoli violenta (1971), The Violent Professionals (1973), and Live Like a Cop, Die Like a Man (1976) weren't mere rip-offs of more popular Hollywood thrillers but acutely contextualized dramas about the volatility and corruption of contemporary Italy. The textbook presentation and heavy use of type to reiterate statements and themes oversells the message, but the astounding array of film clips and colorful, interviews make that easy to overlook.

With its examination of the significance of dubbing in the Eurocrime genre—apparently the sets were as noisy as a parade—the film makes an ideal prelude to Berberian Sound Studio. British director Peter Strickland's psychodrama isn't a giallo, per se, or even so much giallo-Jello, like Amer, but a penumbral thriller about, yep, making a movie soundtrack. Toby Jones is the doughy garden-shed recording engineer summoned from England to the Italian audio laboratory of the title where a would-be giallo maestro named Santini (Antonio Mancino) is struggling to finish the audio effects for his new shocker, The Equestrian Vortex. Amid ambient dread and absurdity in the perpetually darkened room, Jones' Gilderoy transforms from doormat to something more clearly diabolical, as melons are repeatedly smashed to simulate the caving-in of skulls by the hammer-toting duo of Foley goons called "Massimo y Massimo," and the eldritch spells of the film's screenplay seem to take form in real life—or perhaps only in Gilderoy's imagination. As in identity transference films like Polanski's The Tenant and Lynch's Lost Highway, the mysteriousness is what matters—heightened to a sometimes unbearable pitch of sensory overload.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

3-DO IT TO ME: Tsui Hark's The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate 3D. I have no idea what happened or who did what to whom in this flabbergasting wuxia blowout. I just know it's the craziest use of 3D I've ever seen. It's derived from the 1992 classic New Dragon Gate Inn, but that's not as important as the rollicking pace, berserk special effects, nonstop battle sequences and in-your-face treatment of everything from drops of blood to whisking blades to a decorative scarf that almost feels like it's wrapped itself around your own neck. Ass-kicking Godhead.

BEST SURPRISE: Miss Lovely, a drama of fraternal rivalry set in the Indian porno-horror underground, a sub-Bollywood world of sex and exploitation where the filmmakers are painfully not at the top of the food chain. The film's hard-boiled narrative veers away from the Boogie Nights of Mumbai scenario towards something more heartbreaking, although its strongest moments also are the most pungent of sin and rampant sleazebaggery.

Despite the Gods

MOST POINTLESS DOCUMENTARY: Speaking of Indian cinema and exploitation, there was Despite the Gods. I sympathized with filmmaker and single mom Jennifer Lynch's mid-life crisis for about 20 minutes of this behind-the-scenes doc about the director's misadventure making an Indian-financed horror film about a snake goddess in the shadow of Bollywood. But unless something shocking happened after I hit eject in the screening room, the movie only confirms that her experiences are no more or less mundane than anyone else's.

BEST SCENE NOT IN A MOVIE: A heavy thunderstorm forced the cancellation of the festival's annual Zombie Walk, a parade of hundreds of made-up horror film fans through the village. They all got stuck inside the lobby of the Hotel Melia, which serves as festival headquarters. As a friend Tweeted: "It's like the fall of Saigon... with zombies."

Posted by ahillis at 9:23 PM

October 16, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Moonrise Kingdom

by Vadim Rizov

Moonrise Kingdom

Every new Wes Anderson movie is accused of overfamiliarity and being somehow too "Wes Anderson-y." This has happened with the writer-director's every release since 2001's The Royal Tenenbaums, which left the recognizable Texas of Bottle Rocket and Rushmore for a mythical New York of Anderson's own devising. His movies rely on his specific visual tics rather than geography for their continuity, especially his taste for exquisite/fussy clothing and tastefully designed interiors. In the wake of the catastrophically received Elizabethtown, The Onion ran a 2005 piece to mock Cameron Crowe with the self-explanatory headline "Cameron Crowe to Release Only Soundtracks." Similarly, Anderson's been accused (along with Crowe and Sofia Coppola) of curating visual mixtapes rather than full-blooded movies with characters who can be empathized with. In the spirit of public service, here's a breakdown of how Anderson's new film Moonrise Kingdom (on DVD and Blu-ray today) takes his familiar preoccupations and, as usual, finds a reinvigorated form for them:

Moonrise Kingdom

Dollhouse interiors: The Royal Tenenbaums is the most suffocating movie of Anderson's career and the only one to which charges of narrative death by production design can stick. The emblematic moment is a confrontation between son Ben Stiller and father Gene Hackman in a closet whose boardgame titles ("Operation," "Risk" and other nostalgia-evoking mainstays) have greater visual impact and presence than the human performers. Compare this with the opening of Moonrise Kingdom, leisurely rainy day pans through a large New England house. In one room, board games are visible but at the back of the fuzzy 16mm frame, present but not screaming about how carefully they've been chosen.

Moonrise Kingdom

Absent fathers: Familiar elements in Moonrise Kingdom begin with the precociously troubled children at its center: picked-on orphan Sam (Jared Gilman) and sporadically violent Suzy (Kara Hayward), descendants of every Anderson film's protagonists, whose troubles always stem from their relationship to family or lack thereof and manifest themselves in adolescent acting-out. Total control over every grain in the frame is rendered impossible by the format (especially when blown up to super-grainy 35mm), as Anderson deliberately allows room for visual error. In every film, Anderson places new physical obstacles to complicate his usual themes: shooting on destabilizing water in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the constraints of a train and on-the-fly on-location shots in The Darjeeling Limited, the stop-motion total control of Fantastic Mr. Fox.

Moonrise Kingdom

Violence: Suzy sometimes blacks out and goes into violent fits of rage. She has a real problem, shown both in expository flashback and in the present. Sam and Suzy run away from their troubles, and she stabs a kid with a pair of scissors to get away from a search-and-rescue party. Explosions of physical rage and moments of uncontrollable violence disrupt many Anderson movies, hanging heavy over the rest of the often seemingly lightweight material: Luke Wilson's suicide attempt in Tenenbaums (and brother Owen's implied attempt in The Darjeeling Limited), Mrs. Fantastic Fox clawing her husband. Suzy's adolescent rage threatens her and others, a grave teen crisis presented sympathetically rather than a twee problem of the privileged middle class.

Moonrise Kingdom

Ensemble casts: Anderson's mascot Bill Murray is present, along with regular collaborator Jason Schwartzman. But Moonrise Kingdom welcomes many new players to Anderson's world, most notably Bruce Willis, a genuine matinee star. Occasionally, Willis likes to make a left-field appearance in relatively low-budget terrain (Fast Food Nation, Breakfast of Champions). Willis fits perfectly into Anderson's world, playing benevolent police captain Sharp. Tasked with looking after Sam until a child services worker comes to place him in foster care, he cheerfully admits he's probably dumber than his charge and benevolently takes a largely hands-off approach. That makes him—along with Seymour Cassel in Rushmore—a model father figure, and it's one of Willis' most endearing performances.

Moonrise Kingdom

Depression: Moonrise Kingdom climaxes with a messy, prolonged setpiece of physical disaster, as a hurricane leads to flash flooding. Following the cider flood displacing the animals in Fantastic Mr. Fox and forcing them to relocate to the sewers, this is the second literal and symbolic Anderson storm. Messy, excessive and a little endless, it's a strong attempt to push the movie outside of the Wes Anderson box through an action sequence. It also conceals the melancholy lurking at the movie's center. The title is only explained in the last shot, a shared memory of a place that's been physically destroyed by the rising waters, making for an affecting movie about tangible loss shot on a dying format.

Posted by ahillis at 3:28 PM

October 14, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Diggstown (1992)

by Nick Schager

Diggstown [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Kevin James' UFC comedy Here Comes the Boom.]

It's hustler versus hustler in the main event of Diggtsown, Michael Ritchie's underrated 1992 boxing comedy (based on Leonard Wise's novel) about the ever-entertaining art of the con. In a small Georgia enclave known as Diggstown, due to its being home to legendary fighter Charles Macum Diggs (Wilhelm von Homburg), virtually everything is owned by John Gillon (Bruce Dern), a businessman in a light blue suit and flashing a giant, cocky smile who intends to soon hand the reigns of his empire over to son Robby (Thomas Wilson Brown). That plan, however, is rudely interrupted by the arrival of professional con man Gabriel Caine (James Woods), recently paroled and motivated by inside information about Gillon from a Diggstown-hailing inmate known as Wolf (Randall "Tex" Cobb) to visit the area in order to pull off a grand scheme. Caine's release from jail after helping another pal break out, and arrival in Diggstown with sweaty right-hand man Fitz (Oliver Platt), is dramatized by Ritchie with a whip-smart verve that forces intense audience attention just to keep up with the story's particulars, which only slowly come into clear focus. Having had Fritz fleece Robby and his pals of their cash and cars, Caine ropes Gillon into his ruse: for a purse of escalating value, Caine wagers that his fighter, 48-year-old "Honey" Roy Palmer (Louis Gossett Jr.), can knock out any ten men, in immediate succession, in the county.

Diggstown

Predicated on a feat previously performed by Diggs, who's now a wheelchair-bound shell of a man who sits on his porch staring off into the distance, that bet affords both men the opportunity to scheme and swindle to their black hearts' content. And in turn, it allows both Woods and Dern to chew scenery with shit-eating grins permanently affixed to their faces. Diggstown revolves around Woods' smarmy machismo, which it firmly establishes in an early, hilarious sight gag in which his Caine exits the big house and into a car driven by a beauty, ignores her so that an on-looking guard exclaims, "Not even a kiss on the cheek? What a stud!", and then salutes said guard and drives away as the woman bends over to orally service him. Caine is the epitome of calm, composed manliness, always in control and one step ahead of the game, and thus part of the beauty of Ritchie's film is its use of myriad plot threads to mask the fact that triumph is ultimately preordained. Those include Caine's relationship with Wolf's fetching sister Emily (Heather Graham), the numerous contenders whom Caine and Fitz attempt to bribe and/or sabotage ahead of the big fight, and Caine's relationship with Palmer, dragged out of grifter retirement after Caine cannily plays off the pugilist's love of the scam.

Diggstown

That Caine is in the South trying to screw a wealthy white businessman out of his fortune through a plan involving a black man certainly lends Diggstown racial undercurrents, albeit ones that Ritchie addresses with a light touch. Overt racism only manifests itself when one adversary calls Palmer the "n" word, which lands him a brutal gut punch and then some mocking spanking in front of a cheering audience. Otherwise, suggestions of racial discord come from the sight of nooses, of minority fighters being bullied (and worse) by Gillon, and a bit of goofy nonsense between Caine and Palmer in the ring. Needing to give Palmer a boost while he goes toe-to-toe with a 283-pound behemoth known as Tank, Caine quips "Remember—you're black!", and after Palmer expresses annoyed confusion over how that'll help him, Caine justifies his inane motivational speech with, "I don't know. I'm trying to inspire you. It's a Roots kinda thing"—levity that speaks to the film's canny desire to address its obvious black-white dynamics not via leaden drama but, rather, through ridiculous comedy.

Diggstown

The last film Ritchie (The Bad News Bears, Fletch) helmed before 1994's Chevy Chase-Jack Palance disaster Cops and Robbersons sent his career into an unrecoverable nosedive, Diggstown has an overarching spryness that makes up for its clunkier moments, like a Rocky-esque training montage, anything to do with the fighters whom Gillon entices to take a shot at Palmer, and a finale in which everyone eventually gets a turn sticking it to Gillon. The director is immeasurably aided by a trio of ace lead performances, with Dern oozing sly kingpin evil, Gossett Jr. exuding working-class grit and honesty, and Woods cracking wise with an egotism that's all-consuming. His Caine is an archetype through and through, and yet in the actor's hands, he remains a hilariously devious character working toward simultaneously selfish and selfless ends—as well as a believable figure of lifelong criminality, as epitomized by his frustrated been-here, done-that exclamation, after narrowly avoiding death by noose, "I hate being hung. I just HATE it."

Posted by ahillis at 8:35 AM

October 12, 2012

INTERVIEW: Ted Kotcheff

by Steve Dollar

WAKE IN FRIGHT's Ted Kotcheff

Redeemed from a Pittsburgh warehouse days before it was to be incinerated, the negatives of Ted Kotcheff's 1971 beer-soaked Outback misadventure Wake in Fright were painstakingly restored in 2009, marking the return of a long-lost classic. A bare-knuckled saga of madness and mayhem in a land without women but lots of kangaroos, the film details the humiliating transformation of uptight, city-slicker schoolteacher John Grant (Gary Bond) when his holiday trip home from the boondocks gets sidetracked during a stopover in "The Yabba"–a frontier town where, after losing all his money in a frenzied gambling game called "Two Up," he falls in with a crew of local rowdies, including an amazing Donald Pleasance as an alcoholic doctor given to existential pronouncements and bouts of sodomy. Admirers of the movie, whose number include the rocker Nick Cave and director Martin Scorsese, consider it the great lost Australian film, even though it was made by a Canadian. Along with Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, which was being produced around the same time, the film has been acknowledged as a starting point for the Australian New Wave, which redefined antipodal cinema and the nation's historical identity in the 1970s and '80s.

The director, now 81, went on to make such impressively disparate films as North Dallas Forty, First Blood, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and Weekend at Bernie's, but remains proudest of his fourth film. He visited Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, recently, where Wake in Fright played to packed houses, all of them entertained by the filmmaker's often wild anecdotes about the making the film—which brought him into close contact with the men of Broken Hill, a mining town where characters like Kotcheff were greeted with suspicion. Especially guys like Kotcheff, who with his handlebar moustache and "hair down to my ass" registered as the worst sort of outsider: a damn hippie.

"There was this old adage when I was a kid," he said, chatting during a day of promotional interviews for the film, which has just been released by Drafthouse Films. "You know how you win a fight? Start it. The guy who throws the first punch, 80% of the time he wins the fight. But these guys were going like this: 'Come on, ya shit bag! I'll fight ya!' This guy could knock me into the middle of next week."

I spoke to Kotcheff about some of his experiences making the film, which could easily serve a really insane "making-of" chronicle.

Wake in Fright

Aside from the film's dramatic elements, it really is a kind of anthropological exploration of manhood in its most untempered form—and you're coming into this strange place as a civilized fellow, then living in London at its swinging 1960s peak. That must have been something to wrap your head around.

I had some extraordinary experiences there. I was in Broken Hill for three or four months. I was apprehensive about dealing with a world I knew nothing about, but when I got there, I didn't think it was that problematic. The values and attitudes are right there, served up on a silver plate. The men stated who they were, what they wanted. I came to admire those men. I know the picture is critical of some of things that they do. But the world out there it is so inhospitable. It is so difficult to live let alone to work. I came to admire their courage and their fortitude in surviving out there.

After watching the film projected on a big screen, I felt much more sympathetic. Maybe it was because you can see their expressions more vividly. The psychology comes across.

You know the two 'roo hunters—Peter Whittle and Jack Thompson, who became a major Australian film star, and that was his first role—I had a scene I wrote. I went down into the zinc mines and it was like Dante's Inferno. I'm sorry I cut that scene. I really felt for them. Also, the shortage of women.

Some of the most intense parts of the film are when women do appear. First, the bizarre cashier at the hotel where John Grant stays for the night, cooling herself salaciously with ice water, in a peculiar, creepy manner, and then the actress (Sylvia Kay), who plays the sex-starved daughter of Tim Hynes (Al Thomas), who "rescues" Grant after his gambling debacle.

That was my ex-wife. The crew was scandalized. 'Ted, you had your wife take all her clothing off and lay naked and he was pouring beer from his mouth into her mouth.' I said, "It's acting!"

Wake in Fright

There was something about her mouth, half-open, with this indecipherable mix of emotions, not necessarily good ones.

No! Films are made to be seen on a 40-foot screen. The detailing. I think William Blake said that "art does not consist of abstract generalizations but of minute particulars." First, I forbade any cool colors. No greens. No blues. It had to be hot colors. Yellows, reds, burnt sienna, browns. Secondly, I got one of those things that you squirt. And I got red dust from the Outback and before every take I'd spray it in their air and it hung there. And the other thing I did, you won't believe, is I got sterilized flies from the University of Sydney for the interiors. I'd release them. On the outside, you didn't have to do anything. But on the inside I'd release them. Sometimes you'd see them. Sometimes you didn't. They were there subliminally, and they gave you the feeling of total uncomfortableness.

I really loved the freakout sequences, paced by rapid edits and grotesque, violent imagery.

It's enough to drive a man crazy out there. The conditions, with no women. I told one of the guys, I've been out here for four weeks and if I don't talk to something soft soon I'm going to lose my mind.

For the women who were there, did they ever have sex with their men?

They seemed to be non-existent. They do allow women in the RSO Club (Returning Servicemen Organization) at Christmas. But otherwise it's totally masculine. You don't see any women.

The film has a harsh, glaring realism and then slides into a more surreal tone, with looming faces and a constant state of dread. How did you get those elements?

I wanted to have that feeling of something dreadful impending on the character. When you face yourself honestly, sometimes it's hard to bear. He feels somehow things are not going to turn out well in this situation.

The friendly offer of a beer becomes a threat.

Aggressive hospitality. That was always true there.

Wake in Fright

And the funny cut in a few scenes of Grant resisting, to drunkenly hopping down the rabbit hole.

You know, we men are strange creatures. I remember being up in northern Canada and they had brought in some wild horses and they were all getting on and riding them. They said, "Hey Ted, you want to get on?" This competitive manhood thing. I said, "Yeah, sure, I'll get on." "Don't be fucking crazy, you'll break your neck. You're not used to this." It's that impulse within men to compete in terms of macho. Part of it is about where that character is, and he gets sucked into it.

He's the city slicker who falls in with the rednecks and gets his ass kicked. But that period of time in film produced movies like Straw Dogs. I wonder about the way in which your movie belongs to those years, coming out of the '60s—out of "peace and love" and maybe a more sensitive idea about masculinity—and into the disillusionment of the post-Vietnam era.

When I made that film I was in a very, very despairing frame of mind. I guess you can't miss it. That silly war. I was despairing of human beings and society. Remember when he tosses out that book Plato Today? Plato's nothing in this man's world, nothing's any use. That emotion permeated the movie.

Yet you have Donald Pleasance philosophizing amid a bar fight. Although you've said that all but one of the actors drank fake beer, for this one bit Pleasance was actually hammered.

In the scene where he's calling Grant Socrates, he said, "Ted, I don't think I can do this without getting really drunk." I said, "Come on, Donald, you're a great actor. You don't need alcohol to do this performance." He said, "But it's awfully difficult. Okay, I'll do it without alcohol." And he did it. I looked at the dailies the next day and realized, "Donald's right. He needs alcohol." So we went back and redid that scene with him getting drunk. It has that mad, manic quality that he couldn't manufacture it. How can I manufacture demonic possession when I'm relaxed? Yes, he did that scene drunk. That was part of the spirit of the time.

[Wake in Fright opens in Boston and Austin today with more cities to follow. For more info, visit the website.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:37 PM

October 10, 2012

NYFF 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

by Vadim Rizov

Something in the Air

A recent cluster of films tackle directors' memories of non-American revolutionary student movements of the late '60s and their curdled '70s dissolution into the realm of insular myth. Regarding France, titles include Bernardo Bertolucci's amusing, silly and self-regarding 2003 The Dreamers, which beatified its subjects as gorgeously doomed cineastes, and Philippe Garrel's tougher-minded and more ambivalent (but still PYT-besotted) 2005 Regular Lovers. From Japan, Koji Wakamatsu's insanely violent 2007 United Red Army recreated the activist/terrorist movement of the same name, whose tear-it-down-and-start-again inclinations ended in self-inflicted death, the logical culmination of a movement so obsessed with self-criticism there wasn't even a chance to attack the outside world.

Olivier Assayas' Something in the Air lies somewhere in the center of the three. It's romantic about pretty young people blathering about their desire to paint and make art (but it's not unamused about their pretensions), and it has violence committed by callow youth who don't understand the fallout (but without fatal consequences). Ostensibly it's a story about Gilles (Clément Métayer), a French high schooler who moves from committed revolutionary to confused film world aspirant, the witness to a loss of political momentum. The original title is Apres Mai, or After May, as in May 1968, the peak date for the French student movement. Something begins three years later with high schoolers arguing about revolutionary strategies and having angry meetings about their ideological underpinnings, a parodic echo of a confused moment during which they were teenagers.

Something in the Air

After a nighttime unscheduled conflict with school guards ends with one of the authorities in a concussion, Gilles and friends skip town for summer vacation, spreading out across the continent. Meeting more people doesn't make Gilles feel more plugged into a sub-culture. Just the opposite: the more fellow travelers he meets, the less he wants to be involved with any of them. "Boring films," he sneers. "Primitive politics." Nearly equal time is granted to Gilles' fellow travelers: first love Laure (Carole Combes), replacement girlfriend Christine (Lola Créton), sullen aspiring painter Alain (Félix Armand) and his American squeeze Leslie (India Salvor Menuez). Their travails are familiar at this point, if not from memory then to viewers of the films mentioned above, where po-faced discussions about finding revolutionary syntax for revolutionary cinema and so on are faithfully recreated.

"It's very hard to be nostalgic about the '70s because I was so happy when they were over," Assayas said during his New York Film Festival press conference. Gilles' path closely mirrors his own, forming one steady retreat from politics into the film industry. Unlike many recaps of the era, sex and radical activism are decidedly severed. There's a party sequence halfway through that explicitly summons memories of Assayas' previous '70s-childhood-recap, 1994's Cold Water, but the good drug vibes of that film's bonfires and records gathering have curdled into a pit of unpleasant, jabbering faces. Gilles leaves in a sulk; it's no longer his scene, and the house is shortly consumed by flames thereafter, confirming his wisdom in moving on.

Something in the Air

"Don't balk at the phrasing," a high school teacher tells his class before declaiming Blaise Pascal. "It's from another era." The same idea applies to viewers: embrace and understand the past as a foreign country, don't worry about words, names and factional splits you don't grasp. The overall thematics move beyond such specifics, as signaled in the opening classroom scene. While the teacher declaims Pascal, the students stare with expressions ranging from blank disengagement to open hostility. Pascal's words—"Between us and heaven and hell there is only life, which is the frailest thing in the world"—seem painfully irrelevant to kids planning to storm the streets after class.

That broad, somewhat unspecific humanism (Assayas' own, from his middle-aged perspective) places Something closer in spirit to the last film by Assayas' wife Mia Hansen-Løve, Goodbye First Love. Assayas swipes actress Créton and British songwriter Johnny Flynn, here promoted from soundtrack duties to singing a Phil Ochs song onscreen. Like Goodbye, Something is overtly autobiographical ("It's a lot of me in this film, including the worst" Assayas not-quite-joked during the conference) and likewise barrels through months and years with minimal signposting. Assayas seems far more preoccupied by the index's worth of album covers, literary citations and his usual music cues than the politics, mirroring Gilles' own withdrawal as he withdraws from his over-familiar circles to consider how he can turn his cinematic ambitions into a reality he can live with. He ends up at England's Pinewood Studios as a production assistant, watching in disbelief on the set of a shoddy monster movie combining German military men, a submarine, a shrieking starlet in distress who keeps flubbing her blocking and dinosaurs. The revolution settles into schlock parody of history, firm proof that his movement's labors—at least for the moment—haven't made a dent.

Downpour

NYFF coverage concentrates largely on screenings of new films, so a few words on one of the festival's more remarkable sidebar screenings are in order. Bahram Bayzai's 1972 Downpour was suppressed by Iranian authorities after the fall of the Shah. The restoration shown by NYFF was made from the sole known surviving print (Bayzai's own), whose English subtitles are sometimes inadequate, splotchy, and provide a constant reminder of how lucky we are to have a copy at all.

The push-pull tension driving Downpour is what can and can't be articulated about gender and class tensions. Protagonist Hekmati (Parviz Fanizadah) is the new teacher in town. His young male charges are first-day nightmares. When he asks if they have any questions, they explode with malicious glee into a barrage of unanswerable queries: "Which existed first, the hen or the egg?" "Which is bigger, a rectangle or an octagon?" "What happened to the earth yesterday?" Hekmati kicks out one of the worst offenders, only to bring his beautiful sister Atiyeh (Parvaneh Massoumi) in protest.

Downpour

Left alone in the principal's office, their meeting's far from scandalous, but leads to rumor. Fellow teachers snicker, Atiyeh's little brother glowers in fury at ensuing playground taunts, and Hekmati nearly loses his mind trying to find the right balance between respecting proprieties that hadn't occurred to him and pursuing the lovely lady. Atiyeh isn't sure how to feel, torn between feelings for Hekmati and her obligations to her bratty brother and obdurate mother, who refuses to utter a word the entire movie. If she marries Hekmati, she'll have to move away. "What'll happen to us?" her brother asks. "No one asks what's going to happen to me," she muses in response.

Atiyeh's muted despair is one element of a raucous movie whose tone most resembles Arnaud Desplechin's work in films like 2008's A Christmas Tale and 1996's My Sex Life... or How I Got Into an Argument, where frenzied Mathieu Amalric swings way beyond bipolar extremes and the narrative flexes and meanders with him. At a sprawling two-plus hours, Downpour encompasses drunk bonding sessions with Hakmati's romantic nemesis, the teacher's frenzied attempts to clean up a would-be auditorium so overwhelmingly covered with overturned desks and chairs it's like looking at a post-combat still life battle scene, and many more disparate sequences. Shots are sometimes cut dazzlingly fast, juggling romantic frissons with unspoken class and social tensions, and story elements are added up to the last second. A major restoration, Downpour switches narrative gears so fast it's exhilarating to keep up, another recapturing of a '70s past more obscure to Western viewers: a pre-Revolution Iran whose tension between intellectuals and religious fundamentalists is already evident, with women the greatest casualty of combat.

Posted by ahillis at 4:39 PM

October 8, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Re-Animator (1985)

by Nick Schager

Re-Animator

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Tim Burton's resurrected-dog saga Frankenweenie.]

Reviving the old through careful and colorful synthesis, Re-Animator creates something new and unique through its combination of parts borrowed from Frankenstein, Hitchcock, and zombie cinema. Stuart Gordon's 1985 adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's serialized tale of a doctor who discovers the key to "reanimating" the dead is a work that thrives not on originality but on tone, as its elements are, taken at face value, old hat. Setting Lovecraft's tale in the present day, Gordon's film concerns Dr. Herbert West (Jeffrey Combs), introduced trying to subdue his Swiss mentor Dr. Gruber (Al Berry), who's frothing blood at the mouth after having been given a glowing reanimation agent that's turned him into a raving monster. Cut to Massachusetts' Miskatonic University, where West later comes to study, renting a room in the house of colleague Dan Cain (Bruce Abbott)—who's shagging Dean Halsey's (Robert Sampson) daughter Megan (Barbara Crampton)—and sparring with Dr. Carl Hill (David Gale), whom West claims stole Gruber's ideas about "brain death." West believes resurrection is possible via his serum, and sets about experimenting first on Dan's dead cat and, later, on morgue corpses, a process that leads to hosts of rampaging undead creatures and is scored by Richard Band with piercing strings that more than slightly recall Bernard Hermann's iconic Psycho themes.

Re-Animator

Nods aside, Gordon's aim isn't plagiarism, but cheekily nodding to past predecessors' influence on his hybrid horror effort, whose pitch-perfect balance of gore and goofiness later inspired countless B-movies. Working from a script co-written by Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris, Gordon manages to stage his most gruesome moments—eyes exploding, skin being pulled back off skulls, cranial drilling, decapitations—with a grotesqueness that borders on the ludicrous, thereby revolting audiences without truly alienating them. It's a not-inconsiderable feat that Re-Animator can make one squirm and laugh at the same time, and is achieved in part by Gordon's directorial style, which uses exaggerated angles and zooms, creepy shadows, and humorous reaction shots to straddle the line between the spooky and the cartoonish. That approach is matched by the performance of Combs, who has a weasely intensity that's disturbing and comical—his face waxy and his eyes beady, he's a mad scientist whose lunacy becomes more apparent and extreme as his dreams seem closer to being realized, with West eventually doing away with any pretense about morality and committing murder without batting an eyelash in order to protect, and further, his research.

Re-Animator

Combs is Re-Animator's trump card, and the primary reason for the film's two sequels, but he's not the cast's only standout. As Dr. Hill, Gale has a regal malevolence that somewhat recalls Christopher Lee, and his professional disdain for, and jealousy over, West's accomplishment has a potency that's colored, in playfully deviant ways, by his lusting after Megan, a blonde whom Gordon presents as both a wholesome schoolgirl (all bouncy hair and cute sweaters) and a sex kitten (all bedroom screaming and gratuitous topless shots). Gale's evil and Megan's eroticism climax in the film's signature perverted scene, in which Hill—having had his head cut off, and then both his noggin and headless body reanimated, by West—licks Megan's ear and breasts as she lies, screaming, on a surgical table. It's a sight of delirious carnal nastiness that epitomizes the film's general fixation on bodily arousal and dismemberment, opposing states of being that are in constant conflict, especially once West convinces Dan to grant him access to the morgue and begins injecting cadavers with his agent.

Re-Animator

From the opening brain-diagram credit sequence to repeated shots of exploding orbitals, Gordon laces the proceedings with a persistent eye motif that speaks to his characters' almost uniform inability to perceive the errors of their ways, but Re-Animator doesn't greatly bother with subtext, content to be just a squishy, silly genre work steeped in Frankenstein-ian horror. Thus, the focus remains on West using a bone saw to cut through the torso of a reanimated ghoul, on Hill's body knocking West out by conking his head against a table, and, during the hectic finale, on Hill's body, shot full of a potentially lethal dose of West's magic serum, bursting open to reveal a mutated tentacle that ensnares West, prompting the seemingly doomed doc to cry out to Dan to continue his work. Given Combs' iconic turn, it's no surprise that, despite his cliffhanger fate here, West returns to reanimate more stiffs in subsequent efforts. Nonetheless, it's this initial Gordon foray that remains the series' standard-bearer, one that culminates with Dan following West's advice once Megan dies, leading to a final bloodcurdling scream from the reanimated beauty that concludes the action on a decidedly ominous Pet Sematary note.

Posted by ahillis at 2:57 PM

October 6, 2012

Megaton Bomb*

by Vadim Rizov

Taken 2

[* In honor of the Fake Gene Shalit Twitter account.]

Olivier Megaton's Taken 2 is his second mediocre sequel to a surprise global hit produced by the ever-industrious Luc Besson. His flat feature debut Transporter 3 followed the unapologetically cartoonish excesses of Louis Letterier's 2005 Transporter 2 with one good car chase, one brief fight involving Jason Statham using his impeccable jacket as a weapon, and copious ill-advised "comic" flirtation between The Transporter and his Ukrainian model transport Valentina (Natalya Rudakova), in sequences making the bad assumption audiences came to watch Statham talk.

Not all of the blame can be assigned to Megaton. According to Besson's regular collaborator—Robert Mark Kamen, an ex-Warner Brothers contract writer turned overseas blockbuster consultant—Besson will "literally storyboard these things with the angles and with all his cinematic vision, and he'll take [...] these young directors, like Louis Letterier or [Taken director] Pierre Morel, and he says, 'Look, this is how it is. This is the cinematic language we're gonna use." The scripts come ready-to-film, but not always with the same level of care in crafting set pieces or producing listenable dialogue, and luck of the draw seems essential.

Taken 2

Extenuating circumstances aside, there's no concealing that Megaton's Taken 2 is woefully inferior to the original. The original's main selling point (which grossed nearly 10 times' its budget worldwide) was watching once respectable actor Liam Neeson apply his formidable 6'4" frame to relentlessly beating his way up the chain of command in possession of his kidnapped daughter. Discovery led to violence, violence to more discoveries, and so on. The trail ended with an Albanian sex slave ring acting to procure girls for, among others, Sheikh Rahman—a glowering oil money ghoul and the final Big Boss in Neeson's path. These definitely Other villains are, if not outright racist, certainly unconcerned with deploying stereotypes to move the story along, and have a hard to deny/brutal energy, like watching a European Death Wish that's actually been directed.

As if in apology, Neeson's Bryan Mills is seen briefly acting as a three-day bodyguard at an Istanbul hotel for another wealthy Muslim in Taken 2. "You made my stay feel very safe," the anonymous potentate tells Bryan. Up to this point, peacetimes Bryan has been making a pest of himself. Finding out daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) has a boyfriend, he immediately tails her to the lad's house (her car is GPS-bugged); learning ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is upset, he holds her hand and asks repeatedly if there's anything he can do. Smotheringly obsessive towards Kim and inhumanly saintly towards Lenore, Bryan is on a mission to passive-aggressively worm his way back into his family's hearts.

Taken 2

In a parodically similar recap of the first film, trouble comes for Bryan's family from Albanian patriarch Murad Krasniqi (Rade Serbedzija), father of one of the first film's kills. "He slaughtered our men," he seethes before the combined-casualty funeral crowd. "Our brothers. Our sons." With a crew of toughs, Murad drives over the border into Turkey. As the muezzin gives the call to morning prayer, Murad's posse of black Mercedes cruise ominously through Turkey. (If Taken 2 is trying to renounce the original's racist imagery, this isn't the way to do it.) Mayhem ensues, and Bryan calls Kim: "Your mother and I are going to be taken," he announces, and Kim—hardened by the first film—understands exactly what this ad hoc verb means.

There are two so-dumb-they're-enjoyable scenes in Taken 2. Both involve something like father-daughter bonding. Initially, Bryan wants Kim to seek immediate shelter while he works his way out of captivity. "I want you to go to the US Embassy," he says. "You'll be safe there." (In light of current geopolitical turmoil, the inadvertent laughter provoked is unnerving.) But Kim offers to help. Over the phone, Bryan directs his daughter through a full reconnaissance-and-rescue mission that begins with her constructing a compass from a shoe string and a Sharpie and ends with her tossing grenades onto deserted rooftops to act as a sounding device. ("Be casual," Bryan helpfully advises. "Try to blend in.") Later, she serves as the driver during an extravagantly destruction-heavy drive to the embassy whose repeated exchanges go like this:

Taken 2

Bryan: "Faster, Kim!"
Kim: "Dad!"
Bryan: "You can do it!"
Kim: "I can't!"
Bryan: "Do it!”

And so on for five breathlessly stupid minutes. But much of the film settles into a monotonous groove: Neeson walks down a hallway or ambles down the street, horror movie strings build, sounds drops out for a while, then shots and music resume as Bryan drops the (firepower) bass. The rhythm resembles an especially pokey first-person shooter. At 91 minutes including credits, Taken 2 is a barely-there wisp of a sequel. Taken was disreputable but fun, with any inadvertent laughs were prompted by its bloodthirsty excesses. Here, the most memorable moment isn't Neeson setting up an improvised electro-shock torture chamber or promising to kill people within 72 minutes. Instead, it's a brief non sequitur during a hotel chase. Two bad guys burst into two rooms to find Kim. One finds nothing, the other opens the door on an elderly white-haired white man and shoots him out of reflex. And what does he say in subtitled Albanian to his companion? "I shot some guy," a howler encapsulating the film's shoddy manufacture and generic qualities.

Posted by ahillis at 2:09 PM

October 4, 2012

FANTASTIC FEST 2012: Outro

by Steve Dollar

Fantastic Fest Debates 2012: Faraci vs. Swanberg

Let them drink deer blood. It's not every film festival where a filmmaker guest is flown in purely to jump in a boxing ring with his blogger nemesis, or a closing night celebrates a (needless) Red Dawn remake with a theme party featuring free prison tattoos and muscle-spasm-inducing rounds of "torture"-oke. But, as they say, "That's Fantastic!" Fantastic Fest 2012 nearly outdid itself with the big titles this year: Dredd 3D, Frankenweenie, Looper—the latter inspiring a series of time-travel bumpers—and a secret screening of the phantasmagorical Cloud Atlas.

But, as ever, it's also one of the most entertaining discovery festivals going, guided by unpredictable perspectives that shine a solitary flashlight flickering at the odd corners of human behavior.

The Final Member

Strangely touching given the subject matter, The Final Member was a word-of-mouth favorite. The documentary opens with stately tableaux of handsomely displayed body parts floating in infinite black space. Whose bodies and what parts? Sigurdur Hjartarson appears soon to explain. He's the founder and curator of the Icelandic Phallological Museum, the world's only repository of penis. Located in Reykjavík, the site has corralled every kind of penis out there—280 varieties—a veritable Noah's Ark of disembodied cock. He's even got some big ol' whale wang, but this gentleman obsessive's Moby Dick, as it were, is ever elusive: a human specimen.

Hjartarson's getting on in years and fears he will die without having completed his quest. As the movie unfolds, it becomes a suspenseful race against time. The curator's most likely donor, a 95-year-old ladies man named Páll Arason, has proudly offered his junk, but as he continues to age a fear abounds: Will his once-mighty sword shrink too much? Meanwhile, another volunteer appears: a bold, 60-year-old American named Tom who is willing to undergo surgery and deliver the package while still alive. He's seemingly motivated by some weird combination of patriotism and ego, but also appears somehow deeply wounded by failure at love. The more directors Jonah Bekhor and Zach Math reveal, the weirder it gets.

Working in a mode that recalls Errol Morris in his pre-Interrotron era (see Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida), the film treats wacky individuals and their wacky compulsions as not wacky at all, underscoring every deadpan giggle with the tone of something more profound and substantial. Given the topic, the filmmakers could have just made 75 minutes of dirty jokes and probably gotten away with it. Instead, they've made a compelling cultural commentary paced like a thriller—and it's educational, too! They aren't dicking around.

The American Scream

Obsessive behavior also occupies the subjects of The American Scream. Michael Stephenson's follow-up to 2009's Troll 2 opus, Best Worst Movie, takes us to the quaint seaside village of Fairhaven, Mass., where Halloween isn't merely a once-a-year romp. It's a 24/7/365 state of mind. Much as his previous film, the focus is on the manufacture of horror as an all-American folk art, a hobby gone nuclear where—like punk rock and poetry slams—enthusiasm is what counts. In this case, it's not a Grade Z monster movie being produced, but haunted houses. Being a "haunter" is everything for Victor Bariteau. The middle-aged family man has a steady-if-boring desk job but spends most of his time in the garage, constructing ghouls and inventing contraptions to scare the piss out of the neighborhood kids each Halloween when they come to his house—transformed into a hellish dimension of doom and gloom. Victor's sweet wife indulges him because he never got to have Halloween growing up (watch the movie for the surprising revelation as to why), and at least one daughter—his eldest—embraces his passion wholeheartedly, relishing the prospect of terrorizing her classmates in spooky costume each year and proudly mangling boxloads of Barbies as haunted house props. Her younger sibling is less impressed by the family avocation, but every household of Munsters needs its Marilyn. And as Stephenson introduces us to other neighborhood haunters, each sweetly eccentric in their own way, it's clear that the Bariteau's unconventional family life is abundantly functional. If his kids grow up to be the next Sam Raimi or George A. Romero, you'll know who to thank.

Everybody in Our Family

Domestic life is never so huggable in Everybody in Our Family. The Eastern European entry at Fantastic Fest fell into this year's counter-programming slot: The film that doesn't really seem to fit, and therefore fits perfectly. Radu Jude's tense-as-fuck drama has the rambling gait and handheld verisimilitude we now immediately associate with contemporary Romanian films, qualities that the director uses to keep an audience up on a high wire as a day-long crisis develops from an incident that might easily have been sorted out with some patience and maturity into a situation that might turn lethal at any second. That's almost all I want to tell you (which was the common refrain from anyone encouraging fellow festers to not miss the movie), except that the performances are terrific from the top down: Serban Paviu, as a stressed-out divorced father with grudges and a bruised ego that won't let him go, turns one man's meltdown into a full-tilt display of vein-bulging virtuosity.

Posted by ahillis at 8:17 AM

October 1, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Timecop (1994)

by Nick Schager

Timecop

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Rian Johnson's time-travel actioner Looper.]

Were director Peter Hyams a literalist, he might have renamed Timecop, his 1994 action-adventure starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, as Time Travel Kicks to the Face, as even more than its past-present flip-flopping, the defining characteristic of this relic is its obsession with the foot assaults perpetrated by its lead. The "Muscles From Brussels" kicks so many people in the face during the course of the film's 99 minutes that Mark Verheiden's screenplay is actually forced to eventually acknowledge this foot-to-face fixation, with Ron Silver's evil Senator McComb, during the climax, quipping to Van Damme's cop Walker that he's an idiot because he never learned that his kicking skills were best suited for Broadway. That's not the only moment of self-conscious levity in Hyams' saga, since at the outset Walker's wife Melissa (Mia Sara) cracks wise about Walker's lousy English. That dig at Van Damme's heavily accented line deliveries is in keeping with the generally lighthearted spirit of these proceedings, which concern a 2004 in which the United States, having developed the ability to travel back in time (but not forward, because the future hasn't yet occurred), must now police it, lest criminals exploit the technology to make money and, worse still, alter events in ways that will have terrible ramifications for the present.

Timecop

Walker is one of the officers tasked with stopping baddies from using time travel for personal profit, a task made even more difficult by the fact that—as seen in an intro passage—twenty years earlier in 1994, his wife Melissa was murdered, and he was left for dead, by mysterious thugs. And, unbeknownst to him, this tragedy occurred right at the moment Melissa was going to reveal that she was pregnant, news that, per cliché, is interrupted by a phone call from work that she begs Walker to ignore, to no avail. Hyams doesn't hide the fact that McComb is behind that homicide, nor that he's determined to use time travel for nefarious purposes, which in this case involves investing in the stock market right after the 1929 crash, and convincing himself to not pass up a business deal in 1994, all in order to raise enough funds to guarantee himself the U.S. presidency. Why out-campaigning rivals on TV assures one the Oval Office in 2004 is unclear. Then again, it's also unclear why car manufactures have opted to turn all vehicles into ugly, clunky pseudo-space ships, or, for that matter, how time travel actually works, though it involves another space shuttle-style contraption that rides on rails and zaps people into the past, literally dropping them into environments without rhyme or reason.

Timecop

Illogicality guides much of Timecop, especially with regards to the fact that McComb, after failing to kill Walker during his initial attempt thanks to the cop's trusty bulletproof vest, doesn't correct his mistake by simply traveling back in time and trying again by shooting him in the head. Then again, part of the film's charm is its breezy disinterest in the paradoxical complications that inevitably arise from its central conceit; rather, it's a film that's mostly interested in Van Damme, and his foot strikes, which are prodigious. The only time Timecop truly lags, action-wise, are the moments when Van Damme is forced to merely run about firing futuristic firearms. But courtesy of Hyams' clean direction, which allows constantly coherent views of the material's many fights, Van Damme's one-against-many scuffles are uniformly excellent—less brutal than the star's earlier battles in Bloodsport and Lionheart, to be sure, but bolstered by the actor's goofy desire to show off his flexibility at every turn, culminating with the sight of him avoiding electrocution-by-spilled-water by leaping and suspending himself on his kitchen counters while doing a split.

Timecop

Aside from a Civil War prologue and a 1929 sequence that features Van Damme nabbing his former partner-turned-crook by jumping out of a high-rise building to prevent the guy from committing suicide (he's needed for testimony), Hyams doesn't go overboard with period detail, instead cutting corners by having most of his "past" action take place in 1994 (i.e. the "present" of the film's production). None of that detracts from the B-movie pleasures of this nonsense, courtesy of a fleet pace, silly-but-still-strong fisticuffs, and the cornball ridiculousness of Van Damme's one-liners, the best of which features Walker, after freezing a guy's arm off and merely uttering "Have a nice day," immediately correcting himself with "I guess I should have said 'Freeze." If any one element makes Timecop truly memorable, however, it's Van Damme's magnificent head of hair. Poofy on top, slicked back on the sides, and long in the back, it's an immobile work of art, barely swaying except at its very bottom and capable of maintaining its perfect helmet-head shape even in the rain. It's a European Mullet par excellence, and its cheesy awesomeness is, put simply, timeless.

Posted by ahillis at 4:04 PM