January 30, 2013

DVD OF THE WEEK: Seven Psychopaths

by Vadim Rizov

Seven Psychopaths

It begins with a Shih Tzu. Actor Billy Bickle (Sam Rockwell) isn't landing work, so instead he's taken to snatching canines while their owners' heads are turned, then mock-innocently returning them after a suitably panic-inducing period and collecting a healthy reward. Billy doesn't know his latest acquisition belongs to Charlie Costello (Woody Harrelson), the kind of gloweringly charismatic, fearsome mobster who'll expend Scarface-level mayhem to retrieve his beloved pet. There's something equally off about Billy, as his last name implies and both he and Charlie seem like expertly played only-in-the-movies types.

Seven Psychopaths

Martin McDonaugh's Seven Psychopaths expands its scope to the real world when various weirdoes respond to an ad Billy places seeking psychos' stories. He's trying to help his creatively blocked alcoholic screenwriter friend Marty Faranan (Colin Farrell, allowed to use his natural Irish accent), who's struggling to write Seven Psychopaths, a script about... guess. Though understandably freaked out about being cold-called by confirmed murderers, Marty listens to tales of gruesomely titanic violence, often precipitated by or in response to racists. Exhausted, he dreams about writing a second half in which assorted killers head out to the desert, sit around, talk, learn about each other and avoid the seemingly inevitable violent finale. "What are we making, French movies now?" Billy scoffs, later responding with his own proposed final confrontation, an insanely over-the-top gunfire melee in which nearly everyone gets gory slow-mo ends. "Peace is for queers," Charlie screams in Billy's vision, one of the most purely American formulations in recent cinema. Film violence and national bloody-mindedness become interchangeable, (too) pointedly so in the final shot (barring a post-credits bit): the Hollywood sign again, now with an American flag, three-quarters burnt yet still flapping in the wind.

A screenwriter named Marty in a movie written by a Martin, working on a movie of the same name as the one we're watching: in summary, Seven Psychopaths sounds too meta to tolerate. McDonagh lets us know how he feels about Hollywood right off the bat, zooming out from the sign as Hank Williams sings about the angel of death. If the anti-company-town vibes are familiar, the subject is tightly focused and more pungent than the usual jokey whining about the difficulties of filmmaking by committee.

Seven Psychopaths

Consider Bonny the abducted dog. Her abduction leads to violence, just as in Samuel Fuller's 1982 White Dog, the story of a German shepherd trained to attack black people on sight. That film's Hollywood setting is far from incidental: actress Kristy MacNichol's investment in retraining the animal is commendable but pointless against the backdrop of an industry which, for much of its history, has trafficked in insensitive-to-downright-hateful stereotypes. It wouldn't be surprising to learn Seven Psychopaths' use of its own white canine as an incitement to violence was inspired by Fuller's film. Full of anachronistic (and sadly not so much) racial epithets and lots of white-on-black violence and vice-versa, Seven Psychopaths conflates real-world racism, arguing that unconscious hatred and the promulgation of stereotypes still lies at the industry's heart. (Its use of one epithet in particular has earned McDonagh comparisons to Tarantino, though they really have nothing in common: the former's an outraged outsider, while the latter's a Hollywood termite.)

Generically, Seven Psychopaths is supposed to be dark comedy. It's often quite funny, thanks to its central trio: feckless drunk Marty (lots of easy but fun jokes about how the Irish and writers in general are confirmed boozers), oddball Billy (Sam Rockwell at his most Rockwell-y) and their mutual friend Hans Kieslowski (Christopher Walken, in his least phoned-in, rote eccentric performance in years). Much of the second half is indeed a "French movie": languid fireside chat and amiably bickering discourse. But as in McDonagh's first feature In Bruges, the good times can't last. Retributive violence with heavily Catholic overtones is inevitable, disconnected totally from the racial thematics. Rent it for the goofy camaraderie, chew on its righteously angry take on "contemporary" race relations at their least reconstructed in reality and on screen, and be prepared to be punished for enjoying yourself.

Posted by ahillis at 8:52 AM

January 28, 2013

SUNDANCE 2013: Outro

by Steve Dollar

Magic Magic

Another Sundance Film Festival concluded this weekend, and if this year there was no phenomenon as compelling or, well, phenomenal, as Beasts of the Southern Wild, I'd wager that it was a stronger line-up overall: More consistent, with a good number of indie filmmakers turning their focus to tougher themes executed with greater ambition and risk. I'm still processing, quite honestly, and catching up with screeners to supplement the 20 or so titles I caught in Park City last week. Here's a capsule perspective of several that impressed.

Charlie Victor Romeo

BEST MOVIE I NEVER WANT TO SEE AGAIN: Charlie Victor Romeo. Adapted from the stage production by Collective: Unconscious, the film recreates six plane crashes from the perspective of the pilots, using verbatim transcripts recovered from black box recordings at the crash sites. It was one of the most grueling moviegoing experiences of my life. Though occasionally buoyed by unexpected moments of humor, the piece is so effectively performed that it turns knuckles white. But I exaggerate a bit: I'd love to see a movie this raw and uncompromised again, even though it never really transcends its source as a stage production. Presumably, the film is to be shown in 3D, adding texture to a static concept. Unfortunately there was some sort of technical failure at the world premiere, so only the 2D version was screened that night. Ironic?

Crystal Fairy

WEIRDEST DOUBLE-BARRELED STAR VEHICLES: The Sebastián Silva two-fer of Magic, Magic and Crystal Fairy. Both feature the young Canadian actor Michael Cera, who appears liberated by spending several months in Chile, hanging with the Silva clan, to take on the role of "freakish gringo asshole," in not one but two features. The former is a putative genre effort, an ensemble piece about a bunch of kids (including Juno Temple, Emily Browning, Catalina Sandino Moreno and Agustín Silva, the director's brother) spending a few days at a cabin in some remote island woods where things go from weird to bad to worse. But in subtle and unexpected ways, with nimble tonal shifts that keep the audience guessing what sort of movie they are watching. The latter is an improvised road movie in which Cera and the Brothers Silva (three of them) head to the beach, where they plan to ingest tea made from a hallucinogenic cactus. Their manly idyll is made co-ed by the presence of Crystal Fairy (the wonderful, scene-stealing Gaby Hoffman, bringing back '70s bush in several nude scenes), a free-spirited American hippie chick with secrets whom Cera's coke-snorting Yankee abroad forgot he invited from last night's party. The film's ambling spirit shares the casually profound discoveries common to Jim Jarmusch's shaggier comedies. Both lead the childish archetypes Cera plays to instances of grotesque and sob-wracked self-discovery. Only in one case it's sort of funny and in the other case it's really tragic.

Upstream Color

BEST FILM I CAN'T TALK ABOUT, BECAUSE THEN I'D HAVE TO KILL YOU: Upstream Color. Any review you read about this movie before you see it will be useless. I would even warn that advance knowledge of what happens in Upstream Color would diminish the experience, but on reflection it's clear that not even the most explicit spoiler could prepare anyone for this. Shane Carruth's first film since his garage-concocted 2004 debut Primer (the greatest sci-fi flick ever made for $7,000) is, likewise, a mind-bender. It's also mysterious and lyrical, with moments of sheer abject horror and a transcendent beauty beyond words. I think it's all about the concept of immanence and the nature of the soul, the evanescent tissue of memory and the inexplicably cellular ways in which we are all connected, which we would notice if a sudden shock compelled us to use sensitivity to light the way out of communal confusion. And, it's fucking gorgeous filmmaking. Also: botany, animal husbandry, embezzlement, ambient soundscapes, fugue states, Henry David Thoreau, water sports, bacon and Amy Seimetz.

'The Dardennes Shot'

BEST SHOT I WISH DIRECTORS WOULD GIVE A REST: "The Dardennes Shot." It's become a cliché. That thing where the camera follows a character from behind, which Darren Aronofsky made explicit use of in The Wrestler, perhaps popularizing it even for the non-Dardennes-savvy. Last week it was never a question of if but when the shot would materialize. And hard to think of an indie film that didn't use it. Sure, it's just part of the arsenal, but enough already.

The East

BEST DOUBLE FEATURE: The East and 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film (or, We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, or ...) – Back from her double-fisted triumph/debut at Sundance 2011, Brit Marling takes the lead in The East, which she co-wrote with director (and partner) Zal Batmanglij. The kids are playing with a real budget and bona fide movie stars (Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård this go-round), effectively simulating an off-the-shelf Angelina Jolie thriller rewired for emotional and philosophical impact rather than chase scenes and stuntwork. Marling's an operative for a private security firm assigned to penetrate a cult of eco-terrorists on behalf of a nervous corporate client. She succeeds, but then begins to fall under the sway of the group's dogmatic-yet-soulful leader (Skarsgård). If that strikes you as a parallel to Marling/Batmanglij's Sound of My Voice, it's also a smartly crafted advance in every regard—from its evocations of dumpster diving freegans to Page's excitably ruthless toxic avenger. One thing struck me as curious, however, is the filmmakers' obsession with regurgitation scenes, which recur here as they did in a central scene from SOMV.

99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film

The system finds a mighty purgative in 99%: The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film, and a batch of other new documentaries that attempt to corral the seismic upheavals across the world in the wake of the 2008 stock market crash. Those also include Alex Gibney (and company's) We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks, with its fascinating deep-focus account of both the rise and fall of hacker-provocateur-hero-shithead Julian Assange and the scapegoating of U.S. Army PFC Bradley Manning for the massive leak of classified Afghan and Iraq war documents that shocked the world in 2010. Much as Gibney's film shows how one man became the symbol of a global information shakedown, the team of filmmakers led by Audrey Ewell and Aaron Aites locate within the massive Occupy Wall Street movement an assortment of passionate individuals who give the amorphous revolution a sanguine and idiosyncratic presence.

Posted by ahillis at 5:42 PM

January 25, 2013

RETRO ACTIVE: Amazon Women on the Moon (1987)

by Nick Schager

Amazon Women on the Moon [This week's "Retro Active" pick was inspired by the large-ensemble sketch comedy Movie 43.]

If ever a movie was made for the small screen, it was Amazon Women on the Moon. A sketch-comedy compilation spearheaded by John Landis and directed by not only him but also Joe Dante, Carl Gottlieb, Peter Horton and Robert K. Weiss, the 1987 film is a loving ode to the cinema's main rival, television, which it mocks with ribald affection. As a parody, it's a scattershot effort, lurching between its 21 skits, and yet courtesy of its connective tissue—a spoof of a 1950s sci-fi movie—it manages to capture an overarching sense of the silliness of so much late-night television. Be it infomercials, true-life reality TV shows, romantic dramas, or soft-core porn, no subject is safe, though it's a late sketch directed by Weiss dubbed "Video Pirates" that truly encapsulates the anarchic spirit of the endeavor. Focused on a band of buccaneers who overtake a ship so as to confiscate its booty of VHS and Betamax tapes, laser discs, and illegally copied movies—which appear as gold cassettes, and whose FBI warnings are laughed at by the scalawags—it's a loving tribute to the burgeoning phenomenon of home video as a veritable cinematic bounty, one to be reveled in with wild, gleeful abandon.

Amazon Women on the Moon

The notion of television as inextricably intertwined with reality is most directly suggested by a running gag in which an older gentleman (Lou Jacobi) in his underwear winds up accidentally transported into his TV, and is forced to wander through the various programs presented by Amazon Women, crying out to his wife for help. That sort of intimate connection with television runs through many of the film's sketches, largely via the various ways in which they play off of viewers' knowledge of late-night TV viewing experiences. Thus, the main joke of "Bullshit or Not?", an Unsolved Mysteries/Ripley's Believe It Or Not hybrid hosted by Henry Silva in which it's posited that Jack the Ripper's true identity might have been the Loch Ness Monster (replete with dramatic recreation), is numskull absurdity that riffs on the overly dramatic make-believe mystery suggestions made by programs of its ilk. And a clip from the black-and-white horror drama "Son of the Invisible Man," in which Ed Begley Jr. believes himself to be invisible when he's not, and thus gallivants around a bar in the nude while patrons glumly humor his cluelessness, is a sweet and stupid ode to the types of old-school Universal monster movies that populated post-midnight TV.

Amazon Women on the Moon

Porn also gets its comeuppance via two unrelated sketches. In the first, Monique Gabrielle delivers bimbo narration about her daily life as she's seen wandering about her California neighborhood naked, with absolutely no one paying her lack of clothes any attention—goofiness that also allows Amazon Women to provide the very sort of gratuitous nudity at which it's poking fun. The second digs even deeper into the relationship between TV and spectator via the story of Ray (Marc McClure), a lonely guy who rents a personalized video tape that turns out to be POV smut in which the actress moans and screams his name while in the throes of passion. Pressing his excited face almost clear against the TV tube, Ray finds himself in bliss until the woman's boyfriend (Andrew Dice Clay) barges in, screams at the woman for her infidelity, and then shoots her and himself, though not before blaming Ray for the whole catastrophe. As the police arrive on the TV and then, also, in his living room to arrest him, the boundaries between real and fiction—as in another sketch in which a Siskel and Ebert-style film critic duo brutally critique a viewer's life—fall away in ridiculous fashion.

Amazon Women on the Moon

As with Landis' prior sketch-comedy effort Kentucky Fried Movie, Amazon Women has its lulls, including the central sci-fi film, which is a cornball dud, and also an early sequence in which Michelle Pfeiffer and Peter Horton attempt to retrieve their newborn baby from Griffin Dunne's hospital doctor, who—having lost the infant—instead brings them a Mr. Potato Head. Fortunately, however, the pace is so fleet that the proceedings rarely find themselves in a rut. And occasionally, they so perfectly nail a bit of parodic insanity that the low moments are easily forgotten, as with recurring commercials involving singer Don Simmons (David Alan Grier), a cheesy, crazily smiling square whom B.B. King presents in a public service sketch as an example of that sorry condition known as "Blacks Without Soul." Enthusiastically singing tunes like "Tie a Yellow Ribbon Round the Ole Oak Tree" and "Close to You"—in not only that initial sketch but also a later one for his own "non-offensive and unthreatening" albums—Grier, exhibiting less coolness with each successive number, embodies the dim-bulb charm of Amazon Women, a film that loves TV for its awesomeness and idiocy in equal measure.

Posted by ahillis at 8:47 AM

January 22, 2013

DVD OF THE WEEK: Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

by Vadim Rizov

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Internationally known for his disdain for quality control, propensity for making three to five features every year in all conceivable genres and bizarre, YouTube ready non-sequitur sequences, Japanese auteur Takashi Miike made his first Cannes competition appearance with Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai, in turn the fest's first premiere of a 3D film. Flattened to two dimensions for DVD and Blu-ray, Hara-Kiri looks just fine; depending on who you believe (I haven't seen it in 3D), it may even benefit from regaining the light normally lost with 3D. A stately samurai drama closely following the plot of Masaki Kobayashi's essential 1962 original, Hara-Kiri totally suppresses Miike's usual ADD doodles and digressions at the narrative margins. This straight face suits him well.

In December 1632, Hanshiro (Ebizo Ichikawa) arrives at the House of Ii, whose courtyard is available to impoverished samurai who wish to commit hara-kiri (formalized suicide via self-disemboweling) rather than suffer in undignified poverty. Of late, the country's been swamped with supplicants who have no intention of killing themselves. Instead, they arrive at a clan's stronghold proclaiming their urge to die honorably but leave when they're offered work or a small sum of money. When Motome (Eita) arrives, Ii strongman Hikokuro (Munetaka Aoki) says he must be made an example of to warn off further fake applicants. Surrounded by swords-drawn samurai and forced to go through with a death he had no idea of completing, civilian Motome repeatedly punctures his stomach with a bamboo sword. "Twist it!" Hikokuro yells, demanding that the standardized movements of self-annihilation be completed before Motome's head can be chopped off, increasing up the already-gory original scene's length.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

Hanshiro has told this story when he arrives two months later to warn him off, but avers he's not bluffing. "I am going to commit a most worthy suicide," he solemnly intones. "Fine," the exasperated clan squire snaps. An 11th-generation kabuki actor, Ichikawa's every movement conveys heightened awareness of physical motion's social and etiquette implications in a highly structured society. An hour-long flashback fleshes out the exact relationship between adoptive father Hanshiro and dead best friend's son Motome.

This middle sequence is devoted to sentimental pleasures, offered with seeming sincerity. Hanshiro and his soon-to-die friend look at their respective children. "I think we two widowers have done a pretty good job of raising our kids alone," one says in a sentence that almost certainly never came out of the mouth of a 1632 samurai. The two fathers gaze directly at their children, and hence directly at the audience; later, the shot's reversed, with the kids staring at Hanshiro making umbrellas. The third-wall disrupting gaze is narratively justifiable but is serviceably disorienting as well, charging the many scenes of warm father-children interaction with the mute stares of innocents unaware of the fatal misery in store.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

The middle hour—about Hanshiro and Motome—offers a visceral sidetrack in which a father can't help his daughter or adopted son economically as much as he'd like, with a recurring emphasis on starvation. In a devastating example of spoilage, Motome buys three eggs after selling some of his last books, but passing kids waving sticks knock two into oblivion. He bends down and sucks the fluid off the sidewalk stones. Motome's white cat has matted patches of fur and looks visibly underfed, while the monastery's Blofeld-friendly feline is silkily sated. A grotesque image of Miike's own underlines the food gap between classes when one of the samurai sucks a roasted sea snail straight out of the shell.

Hara-Kiri's emphasis on hunger has national resonance for Japanese audiences. In 2012, it was reported over 700 deaths spread out over the past decade were attributed to a lack of food. One particularly headline-making 2007 case was that of a 52-year-old twice rejected for welfare benefits. Found two months after his death, his diary recorded cravings for cheap rice balls that couldn't be fulfilled. One former case worker recalled being told by his supervisor about welfare applicants, "Don't you think someone like that is better off dead?" American viewers will find their own resonance in the emphasis on unaffordable medical care. All Motome seeks is money for a doctor demanding payment up front to treat his sick wife and child. Japan has had universal health care since 1961, leading to the longest life expectancy from birth of any country. American health care, as is widely known, is a far more venal and inefficient beast.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

After 13 Assassins, this is Miike's second remake of a Shochiku studios samurai classic. When promoting the first film, he claimed a primary interest in recapturing "the sheer energy the Japanese film industry possessed in its heyday," a perverse way to sum up a movie which spends two-thirds of its running time staging clan meetings. Hara-Kiri's even more etiquette-conscious, forming a kind of double-feature in which the melodramatic second film, free of mannered movements, interrupts the first.

Writer Jeremy Heilman's cleverly posited that this remake's plotline fidelity to the original is, in many respects, purposeful: "the notion that the nation's deeply rooted formality and obsessive rituals are empty is intensified by the very fact that this is a remake [...] Miike suggests that the forty years since this tale was last filmed have not shaken the nation's core values." Hara-Kiri still derives pleasure from going through the standardized motions of its genre but changes the emphasis from adherence to obsolescent notions of saving face to an angry tract on social inequality. Last year, describing his plans for further 3D, Miike hoped he could secure financing "to have things that shouldn't come out of our bodies be hurled at the audience." In the meantime, this particular Miike one-off solemnly builds to a satisfyingly bloody climax, busting through the mannerisms to turn, recognizably, into a Takashi Miike film.

Posted by ahillis at 1:42 PM

January 18, 2013

Retro Active: FRIGHTMARE (1974)

by Nick Schager

Frightmare

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the Jessica Chastain-headlined scary- mother thriller Mama.]

Psychosis is inherited in Frightmare, as is a hunger for human flesh. Pete Walker's under-sung 1974 gem (also known as Cover Up) is a Hammer Horror-ish like- mother/like-daughter tale of madness and murder, detailing the strange case of Edmund (Rupert Davies) and Dorothy Yates (Sheila Keith), a couple who in 1957 London is sentenced by a judge to a mental hospital for six killings. The ruling is that they shall remain locked up until they're fit to re-enter society—which they supposedly are fifteen years later, thanks to a mental health system that appears to have absolutely no ability to differentiate sanity from insanity. Free to roam again, they hole up in a remote cottage, where they're regularly visited by grown daughter Jackie (Deborah Fairfax), who brings Dorothy strange parcels that leak on the table, and who covertly discusses with Edmund whether mother has caught onto the ruse they're apparently perpetrating on her. Dorothy's wacko eyes make clear that, whatever subterfuge is underfoot, she's more aware than she lets on, but Jackie doesn't initially notice, too busy is she dealing with younger sister Debbie (Kim Butcher), a rabble-rousing teen delinquent who believes that their parents are dead, and who spends her evenings causing trouble like tricking biker beau Alec (Edward Kalinski) into beating the living pulp out of a local barman.

Frightmare

All of this greatly interferes with Jackie's attempt to begin a romance with Graham (Paul Greenwood), a good-natured psychiatrist who becomes increasingly interested in investigating Jackie's family's past. If there's a giant plot hole to Frightmare, it's that Jackie's interest in caring for Dorothy makes no sense, given that the woman is so clearly out of her gourd, not to mention incapable of being successfully rehabilitated. Yet setting aside that bit of nonsensicality, Walker's film is otherwise a chilling piece of efficient horror, wielding close-ups and color to potently unnerving effect. Walker's preference for tight shots of his characters' uniformly interesting and creepy faces creates a sense of dawning terror, as in a dream sequence in which Jackie imagines being accosted by her mother in a train compartment, blood dripping out of her parcel and her mouth until Jackie screams and the camera rotates upside-down to suggest spiraling fear and madness. Meanwhile, his use of crimson reds create an atmosphere of pervasive danger, though Walker's color scheme is also subtly sly, misdirecting viewers by coating certain characters in hues that imply innocence and harmlessness.

Frightmare At the heart of Frightmare is a surprise that, for the alert viewer, will hardly come as much of one, and yet Walker's stewardship—which also involves handheld shots that exude jangly energy—keeps the action taut and lively. Looking into the real story behind Jackie's parents, Graham discovers that they were put away not just for homicide, but also because Dorothy was eating her victims, and Edmund was less a stab-happy sidekick than a devoted husband enabling his wife in order to protect her. Graham's snooping makes him strangely interested in helping Debbie, which immediately marks him as a dupe who's bad at his job, because one glance at the fifteen-year-old's face is enough to make clear that she's off her own rocker—a fact confirmed early on, when she zealously joins Alec and his mates in viciously beating the barman. Debbie's petulant outbursts to Jackie, however, strike everyone as just average acting-out misbehavior, and thus Jackie turns most of her attention to Dorothy, who—in secret—has begun luring victims to her cottage via tarot card reading advertisements, and then dumping their bodies in the barn, where it's easier for her to power drill them to pieces, cackling and licking blood splatter off her face as she works.

Frightmare

That image is one of Frightmare's finest, thanks in part to the magnificent Sheila Keith, who warps her little-old-lady features to express lethal sadism. Keith makes Dorothy's sickness seem like both an irresistible compulsion ("I had to do it. I had to, I had to, I had to!" she tells Edmund after being caught relapsing) and a pastime she has no interest in discarding. Her turn meshes nicely with that of Butcher, a pretty blonde with a Satanic glint in her eye, and though Fairfax and Davies are only adequate in their respective less-than-lunatic roles, they don't interfere with the film's slow, inexorable descent into craziness, which peaks once it becomes clear that Debbie knows that mum and dad are still alive and kicking, and Graham decides to interject himself into this warped family drama. The final kicker may make less sense from a logical standpoint than simply from a B-movie-twist one, but in its final moments, full of ominous staircases and cuts to empty, mutilated eye sockets, Walker's film does convey, with delicious malevolence, that a cannibalistic appetite isn't just hard to sate—it's hard not to pass down to your kids as well.

Posted by ahillis at 8:54 AM

January 16, 2013

FILM OF THE WEEK: Outside Satan

by Vadim Rizov

Outside Satan (Hors Satan)

Bruno Dumont's sixth feature Outside Satan (Hors Satan) premiered at Cannes in 2011 but only now arrives for a weeklong New York engagement. That's typical lag time for Dumont, whose divisive, unmarketable movies generally enter theaters slowly but surely a year or so after their premieres. "The deeper meaning and social commentary of [Life of Jesus] has been deflected by focussing on a handful of graphic sex scenes, sadly," an admirer defensively writes on the Wikipedia page for Dumont's 1997 debut, a claim broadly true of all his work. Life of Jesus established the standard components of A Film By Bruno Dumont: non-professional actors standing or walking blankly, committing acts of debased violence (often in muddy rural terrain) with little or no provocation, sometimes indulging in unpleasant consensual intercourse when not raping people, with ambiguously intended, heavily religious overtones.

The use of non-pros who evince little normal human emotion as they slog through "extreme" plots recalls Robert Bresson, whose similar use of amateur "models" produces an odd charge. Around these emotionless subjects, strange, deadly and dangerous events occur, and their non-expressiveness begins to seem like taciturn heroism, but Dumont's first-timers seem sullen or maybe lobotomized. His fifth feature Hadewijch was a notable change of pace: relocating to an urban area, favoring a 1.85:1 ratio instead of his then-standard widescreen, and featuring actual jokes. As if in better spirits because shooting in Paris rather than the grim rural hellholes he favors, Dumont made a surprisingly perky movie about a nun whose fervor is so great it earns her expulsion, leading to redirection of her holy urges into jihadist terrorism. In a spiritual vacuum, the purest of souls will embrace the most ardent option available regardless of its moral questionability; the idea is something like that, but leavened by expressive teenagers doing something like frolicking in the city.

Outside Satan

Outside Satan then represents a "return to form," quite literally in Dumont's re-embrace of widescreen. We're back in the French countryside, in Dumont's home area the Côte d'Opale. In the untilled field surrounding an unused lighthouse, a (naturally) unnamed man (David Dewaele) camps out, building himself fires and living off sandwiches from the small local community. To earn his keep, from time to time the man appears to perform something like exorcisms. His constant companion is an unnamed young girl (Alexandra Lemâtre). She keeps trying to make out with him, but he refuses her advances, saying "that's the way it is."

At one point, she observes "It's a nice day." Indeed it is: clear, sunny and blue, the country roads dry and easily navigable rather than the usual muddy squelch. If Outside Satan is a return to Dumont 1.0, it's not as oppressive as before. Atmospherically, the film retains at least a little of Hadewijch's tonal brightness despite the usual, casual killings, repellent intercourse, and rape (offscreen for once). The man conducts lengthy outdoor devotional prayers, kneeling at sunrise and staying put until midday. Few movies have devoted so much time to depicting silent religious devotion. The obscurity of the man's true status—fallen angel? tempting demon?—charges some of these shots with the desire to seek out clues, but Dumont is typically withholding.

Outside Satan At the climax (described here cryptically to avoid spoilers), Dewaele saves a young woman by a body of water. Bresson's Mouchette ends with the titular girl rolling down a slope and drowning herself out of sheer misery. In Hadewijch, a similarly dispirited teen is dragged out by Dewaele, unexpectedly restoring hope to a film that had seemingly run to its usual nihilistic end, subverting the allusion. A variant of this happens in Outside Satan, allowing Dumont to also quote Bresson twice in a row, but also himself. (He denies deliberately referencing Bresson, claiming "I only discovered Bresson late in my life and I really don’t care about him that much." (This seems implausible, however, since Dumont admits he's very interested in the work of Mouchette novelist Georges Bernanos.)

With its reshuffling of standard Dumont tropes, Outside Satan is very much a film for his disciples, which I'm decidedly not. His next film Camille Claudel 1915—which will premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival next month—will be his first period film, his first biopic, and his first film starring not just a professional thespian but, in Juliette Binoche, a star. Is Outside Satan a farewell to his most-overworked motifs or just a placeholder until he can retreat back, away from convention? Stay tuned.

Posted by ahillis at 9:02 AM

January 12, 2013

SUNDANCE 2013: Prologue

by Steve Dollar

Sundance 2013: STOKER

Off to the land of the ice and snow, where the free midnight booze and the hot tubs flow. I'm talking about Park City, Utah, where the 2013 Sundance Film Festival starts on Thursday. Here are dreams made and shattered, where deals are brokered and careers are ignited, and despite everything you see on Entertainment Tonight!, anyone there who is really doing business will be too exhausted for the party scene. Based on my experience last year, you can count yourself lucky (and grateful) to get four hours of sleep a night. It's a slog. Although, if you've handicapped the screenings wisely, an exciting slog.

Here are a few items that will be grabbing attention this year:

Sundance 2013: AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS

Ain't Them Bodies Saints. Produced by Brooklyn's Parts and Labor (The Exploding Girl, Beginners, The Loneliest Planet, Keep the Lights On), the latest feature from micro-indie MVP David Lowery comes front-loaded with a killer cast of bankable movie stars (Rooney Mara, Ben Foster, Casey Affleck) and further down the credits roll filmmaker buds like Kentucker Audley, David Zellner, Turner Ross, and the great Robert Longstreet. The story imagines something like the afterlife of Bonnie and Clyde, the latter catching up with the former after a prison stint to find that they won't be picking up where they left off. Lowery's a brilliant editor and cinematographer whose previous film, 2009's St. Nick, starred a couple of unknown kids. This is a major step into the big leagues, and a likely breakout hit. Lowery's also got a hand in two other films by fellow Texans this year: Yen Tan's Pit Stop (writer), and Shane Carruth's much-anticipated follow-up to Primer, Upstream Color (editor).

Sundance 2013: KILL YOUR DARLINGS

Beatniks... As usual, you can take your pick of biopics. There are two distinct slants this year, and they pretty much add up to a lot of sex, drugs, heavy drinking and epic acts of felony—all the good stuff. Big Sur, from Astronaut Farmer director Michael Polish, follows last year's On the Road with another Kerouac-inspired drama, this time focused on the Beat Generation icon's thinly fictionalized breakdown amid the natural splendor of the Pacific Coast south of San Francisco. French movie star Jean-Marc Barr is the novelist, who at least shares a native language with the actual Kerouac. Even Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, is hopping on the beat wagon, portraying the young Allen Ginsberg in Kill Your Darlings, which revisits the fabled 1944 David Kammerer murder case in which Lucien Carr, a Columbia student who became part of Ginsberg's circle (with Kerouac and William S. Burroughs), served two years in prison on a charge of first-degree manslaughter, having claimed self-defense against an obsessive stalker. With everyone implicated, to varying degrees, in the incident's aftermath, it's like a literary version of a Law and Order episode, with a significant gay subtext.

Sundance 2013: LOVELACE

...and Porn Stars. The adult film industry also rears its, ahem, head at Sundance this week: Lovelace, the long-in-progress dramatization of the sensational life and (sorry!) hard times of 1970s adult movie sensation Linda Lovelace is one of the fest's hottest tickets. Amanda Seyfried takes the lead, opposite Peter Sarsgaard as Chuck Traynor, the performer's historically despised sleazebag husband and manager. To no one's surprise, James Franco is part of the cast, too, turning up elsewhere as the producer of Interior. Leather Bar., a reenactment of the presumably gnarly scenes shot in a hardcore gay bar and cut from William Friedkin's Cruising, and Kink, a documentary peek behind the walls of the San Francisco Armory, which has been transformed into the world's largest pornographic production studio by Kink.com, the BDSM-themed web empire. British director Michael Winterbottom, who featured scenes of professional actors having sex in his (really dull) 9 Songs, takes what is likely to be a highly colorful look at the career of London smut czar Paul Raymond in The Look of Love, reuniting with frequent go-to star Steve Coogan.

Sundance 2013: S-VHS

They're b-a-a-a-a-c-k. Indiewood superheroes like Richard Linklater (Before Midnight), David Gordon Green (Prince Avalanche) and Lynn Shelton (Touchy Feely) will yet again stalk Main Street, with attendant casts of familiar folks (Paul Rudd! Ellen Page! Ethan Hawke! Julie Delpy!). Brit Marling, the breakout face of 2011 Sundance, is back with The East, once again co-written and directed by Sound of My Voice's Zal Batmanglij, and once again an examination—in part—of a cult structure. This time, Marling is the outsider (an ex-FBI agent) who infiltrates a terrorist cell only to become swayed by their agenda. But let's not get all lofty about this. Other returnees include guys like Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun), on hand as part of the team of filmmakers behind S-VHS, the inevitable sequel to last year's puke-rific horror anthology V/H/S. They traded in the slashes for a dash, and got a mostly new roster of directors in the bargain (including Eisener, The Raid's Gareth Evans and, appropriately enough, the O.G. of the found footage genre, Eduardo Sanchez).

Sundance 2013: STOKER

Park! Chan! Wook! The Korean genre director whose Oldboy (subject of a Spike Lee remake) is one of the all-time cult favorites of Asian cinema, makes his Hollywood debut in Stoker, a twisted family saga starring Nicole Kidman and Mia Wasikowska. It's a wild card, but succeed or fail it is likely to do so spectacularly.

Posted by ahillis at 4:15 PM

January 10, 2013

RETRO ACTIVE: Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood (1996)

by Nick Schager

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

[This week's "Retro Active" is inspired by Marlon Wayans' Paranormal Activity-spoofing A Haunted House.]

Paving the way for 2000's Scary Movie and the attendant spoof-current-cinema fad it ushered in, Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood remains the best of Shawn and Marlon Wayans' parodic collaborations, even as it reveals the inherent limits of such comedy. The target of the Wayans' goofiness is "hood cinema," the class of '90s inner city dramas that included Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, Juice and New Jack City, all of which—along with the era's hip-hop videos—receive more shout-outs than need to be specifically detailed here. The particular way in which the Wayans poke fun at those influential African-American-centric stories may have been the prime selling point for its target audience at the time of its theatrical release. However, Don't Be a Menace was, and remains, less interesting as a compendium of allusions than as a ridiculous snapshot of cultural attitudes and stereotypes that are pricked with an amusingly blunt hand by the filmmakers. To be sure, there's more dated material here than in ten other comedies combined from the same year. And yet in its mockery of hot-button sociological issues, the film also remains surprisingly insightful, albeit in an unabashedly dim-bulb manner.

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

If defending Don't Be A Menace on the grounds that it's actually astute sounds like a dubious proposition, let me be clear in admitting that the plethora of fart jokes, cheap sight gags, and gross-out nonsense (including a bit featuring Shawn sucking on nasty hairy toes coated in hot sauce that always stimulates the gag reflex) situates the film firmly on the side of juvenile stupidity. Still, the Wayans' movie manages to revel in, while simultaneously deflating through absurdity, the various gangsta poses and cornball moralizing that characterized discussions about race, poverty and inequity in '90s movies. Following Boyz's general template, the story concerns Ashtray (Shawn Wayans), a namby-pamby teen who returns to the ghetto to live with his father (Lahmard J. Tate), whom his well-adjusted mom (Vivica A. Fox) thinks can teach her son how to be a man. Back in his old South Central stomping ground, Ashtray reunites with his crazy gun-toting thug cousin Loc Dog (Marlon), who speaks in cartoonish slang and sports braids held together by a pacifier and dice, as well as Preach (Chris Spencer), an Africa-loving blowhard who hypocritically loves white women, and Crazy Legs (Suli McCullough), the nominal child-like idiot destined to suffer tragedy so others can learn valuable lessons.

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

The notion that hood cinema glorified macho-idiot behavior while also proffering hoary platitudes in the most bald-faced manner receives hilarious ridicule via Wayans patriarch Keenen Ivory (creator and star of Fox's seminal In Living Color) repeatedly popping up after pedantic soliloquies to scream "Message!" As befitting such a project, jokes fly so fast and furiously that, even though the hit-to-miss ratio is unimpressive, there's enough ludicrousness to keep the proceedings lively long after they should have grown stale. That's largely thanks to the Wayans siblings, who feel no compunction about making themselves look like idiots while indulging in lame-brained lunacy like having Loc Dog profess his love for bunny slippers, or having white cops force the African-American protagonists to "Vogue." That later gag is one of countless moments in which Don't Be a Menace mires itself too heavily in the immediate pop-culture moment, thereby dooming it to feel out-of-date. But even in its cheesier moments—as when Ashtray's slutty paramour Dashiki (Tracey Cherelle Jones) introduces him to her litter of kids, all boasting different nationalities, and the tykes immediately ask, "Are you our daddy?"—the film at once brazenly owns up to, and makes fun of, clichés about inner city life.

Don't Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood

Ultimately, the film's main satirical focus is the type of egomaniacal masculine bluster glorified by Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, and 2Pac. That's most tellingly realized in a homophobia-slamming bit in which Loc Dog, confronted by a homeless crazy person whose refrain is "I'll suck your dick, man!", stares the creep down as if about to blast him for this come-on, and then—after a deft cut—emerges from behind a truck buckling his pants, having obviously agreed to the proposition. Amidst its screamy Korean convenience store owners, pot-smoking grandma (227's Helen Martin), and general scatological silliness, the film turns macho bluster and substandard African-American parental role models into a source of constant off-the-wall humor. That occurs most potently through the antics of Ashtray's father, who's presented as a teenager no older than his son—in fact, Ashtray reads him (filthy) bedtime stories, and in the past apparently changed his diapers—and who, on separate occasions, cautions his son to not use a condom ("They take away all the feeling!") and to enjoy drinking and driving ("That shit is fun, man!"). In their parent-child dynamic, Don't Be a Menace manages pointed sociological censure without sacrificing its anything-goes comedic spirit—a feat that, its otherwise stale material notwithstanding, marks the film as a cut above its subgenre brethren.

Posted by ahillis at 5:44 PM

January 8, 2013

DVD OF THE WEEK: Whores' Glory

by Vadim Rizov

Whores' Glory

At this moment, Michael Glawogger is cinema's most talented exploitation artist. "Exploitation" doesn't mean taking advantage of subjects who don't understand what he's filming, at least in the usual sense: to make Whores' Glory—a self-proclaimed "triptych" on prostitution in Thailand, India and Mexico—Glawogger made sure to visit his subjects "10 times and hang out with them and stuff." This means Whores' Glory's subjects got familiar with Glawogger and what he was proposing to do (which included promising not to widely distribute the film in their country). Nonetheless, it's a strong, questionable, queasy-making movie, as should be the case with a portrait of prostitution.

Whores' Glory

The subtitle for the first part is "The Fish Tank," the name of a Bangkok brothel's outside area in which prostitutes sit behind glass, giggling and chatting. Clients scan the prospects, then point to the girl they want; she's called by number and steps inside. All the men in this sequence (both locals and Joe Don Baker types) act like nightmare visions of straight male privilege. On the way to the room, the customer pays a clerk first, then the pair go to do whatever it is they're doing off-camera. It's all very systematic and as antiseptic as the business of bodily fluids could be. (The actual name of the establishment is "Hi-Class," and according to an article on "The 5 Best Thailand Brothels," "the women who work at this parlor are medium to larger size, so for those men that enjoy the touch of a young woman with soft hands who is not petite in size this is the place to do business.") Off duty, the women pray and chat about overly-clingy boyfriends while making dinner.

Opinions will differ widely (to understate) on how credible this no-damage portrait of happy hookers is. With no desire to wade into this, let me simply note that this sequence (as with all of Glawogger's documentaries) features many overtly staged moments. Thai critic Kong Rithdee was irked that at least two recognizable local actors "pose as customers who visit the fish bowl, and they say lines that sound forced and banal." Glawgogger's documentary aesthetics are the same as deployed in his narratives. He's an unrepentant stager comfortable with hybridization.

Whores' Glory

The film's second segment focuses on the "City of Joy," a heavy-handed name for a Bangladesh brothel. Here, prostitutes refuse to give oral sex, because they need their mouths to remain clean for prayer—an odd place to draw the line, given that much of this segment is given to a crying teen girl being sold off by her mother. If Whores' Glory is constructed on a straight Heaven/Purgatory/Hell schema, the descent accelerates too fast here: misery is prevalent, though sex isn't shown yet. Part three, "The Grid," begins with a Mexican hooker speaking about how happy and free she is and ends with a vision of absolute abasement: a prostitute implicitly trading cunnilingus for crack, exhaling smoke into another woman's crotch while her head's held down. Glawogger wasn't even there: he left the sound and camera guys to do their work, then skipped down the street for a drink.

Why watch something so awful the director didn't even have the guts to film directly? The most obvious reason is that Whores' Glory is, if not great, at least very good, attuned to the specifics of its three different locations and the many different types of misery and misogyny in the world. (Your humble reviewer doesn't believe prostitution should be outlawed, but he does believe that e.g. the men in the Mexico segment interviewed in their truck talking about all the anal sex they want to inflict on whores who may not be consenting before heading home to their madonna girlfriends are going directly to hell.)

Whores' Glory

Glawogger is equally proficient as a straight "narrative" and documentary director, though only the latter have been distributed in the U.S. That's a shame: his narrative features include the stoner comedy 2006's Contact High, whose acid freakouts make Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas look restrained, and 2009's Kill Daddy Goodnight, one of the few interesting and ethically complex movies about the Holocaust. Glawogger's documentaries are closest in spirit to his 2006 narrative Slumming, in which two terrible Austrian men take an equally awful, sleeping bum off a park bench and drive him over the border to the Czech Republic, leaving him confused and undocumented in a foreign land. The film's subject is what happens when the abuse of others is enabled on a globalized scale, the theme of two of Glawogger's other related docs, 1998's Megacities (misery in four cities with no other connective tie other than suffocating, indifferent urban environments) and 2005's Workingman's Death (five awful jobs around the world). All are partly staged and gorgeous, pushing back against degradation through aestheticization. Megacities is the first film in which Glawogger examines Mexico's semi-illicit ladies of the night (strippers rather than hookers); his recurring emphasis on sexual humiliation is a little suspicious. At a certain point, it's hard not to suspect he's getting off on it a bit.

Troubling as his films are in execution and intent, Glawogger's style and subject matter both deserve attention. Like all his films, Whores' Glory is almost over-shot, full of hazy neon light and stylized. (His one flaw is a very heavy hand with strenuously hip song choices: PJ Harvey doesn't need to be singing "the whores hustle and the hustlers whore" over footage of actual whores and hustlers.) Why watch this film? To find aesthetically pleasurable ways to scar your psyche in empathetic solidarity with the dispossessed.

Posted by ahillis at 4:51 PM

January 5, 2013

BEST OF 2012: Underrated Supporting Performances

by Steve Dollar

STARLET's Dree Hemingway and Besedka Johnson

Thursday's the big day: Oscar Day, when the nominations for the 85th Academy Awards will be announced. Pundits seem to agree on the obvious picks. What about the actors who are likely to slide under the radar of the voting body's notoriously square tastes? If any category shows a tendency to flexibility, it's Best Performance by an Actor or Actress in a Supporting Role. I mean, an 11-year-old (Anna Paquin) won it once, as have non-actors, like the late Haing S. Ngor (for The Killing Fields). Some obvious contenders this year include Amy Adams (The Master), Sally Field (Lincoln), Robert De Niro (Silver Linings Playbook), Anne Hathaway (Les Miserables) and, if the Academy has a since of humor, Javier Bardem (Skyfall) for his fey and twisted turn as one of the greatest Bond villains in the half-century of the franchise's existence. If Ann Dowd (Compliance) scores even a nomination, for her complex performance as the fast-food manager in Craig Zobel's meticulous, based-on-a-true-story drama of a phone prank taken to horrifying extremes, it would be a beautiful thing. Although, in my book, she was the film's lead.

One thing is nearly guaranteed, you won't be hearing any of these names called out when the envelopes are unsealed this upcoming week.

KLOWN's Marcuz Jess Petersen

Marcuz Jess Petersen, Klown
Good kid actors are hard to come by, because they usually register not as kids but as painfully precocious mini-professionals—thespians, if you will—who already are too polished to register as actual kids. There's no innocence left, or else it's been shellacked by agents, coaches, accountants and stage moms. Let me tell you, though, Macaulay Culkin nearly died for somebody's sins but not Marcuz Jess Petersen. Who, you ask? He's the little boy in Klown. The Danish "men behaving badly" comedy boasts gutbuster riffs on male hysteria, which abounds as 11-year-old Bo (Petersen) is kidnapped by his mother's boyfriend Frank (Frank Hvam) to prove a point and save his relationship: That the hapless Frank can be a worthy father and husband. So, of course, the best way to display that is to take a minor on a debauched canoe adventure with your chronic sleaze of a best friend Casper (Casper Christensen), a journey described as the "Tour de Pussy" because its ultimate destination is a fabled riverside whorehouse. But Bo is no sexually curious junior horndog. He's been de-masculinized by his feminist mother. And puberty has definitely not set in, which, along with his pudgeball physique and blinkered naïveté about the ways of the world, makes him the butt of many jokes. The brilliance of the film, which pivots on Petersen's performance, is that his aching sincerity really isn't a joke. By the end of the film, the character displays his newfound maturity by turning his mentors' truly childish (and hilariously transgressive) act of humiliation against him, using it as sabotage. He was never the one who needed to grow up, obviously. This young actor plays it off perfectly.

THE LONELIEST PLANET's Bidzina Gujabidze

Bidzina Gujabidze, The Loneliest Planet
Director Julia Loktev: "We basically took Georgia's most accomplished, most famous mountain climber—he's climbed Mt. Everest and all these 8,000-meter peaks—and made him play this very ordinary village trekking guide who takes tourists out into the hills, which for him wouldn't even be considered hiking. It was quite a makeover. He has the coolest Facebook pictures of anyone I know. He's always hanging off some mountain with an ice axe." As Dato, the guide that backpacking lovebirds Hani Furstenberg and Gael Garcia Bernal hire to show them around the Caucasus Mountains on a most fateful hike, Gujabidze is an enigmatic figure onto whom is projected everything from fear of the other to the besotted intimacy of a drinking buddy. There's hardly any dialogue—Loktev never explains what's going on inside her characters' heads, you have to sort that out for yourself—and the guide commands only comically broken English. He's a stoic presence through so much of the film, until the very end when he reveals a tragic secret. Even if you could say that Gujabidze's acting is all in his bear-like physique, that's he's found object, he'd be great. But Loktev really discovers a wellspring underneath his stony regard.

STARLET's Besedka Johnson

Besedka Johnson, Starlet
She's 87. They discovered her at the Hollywood YMCA. It's her first movie. Ever. And she plays opposite the very definition of fresh young thing: Dree Hemingway, great-granddaughter of Papa, child of Mariel, who grew up on movie sets. Sean Baker's stealthy indie was one of 2012's best sleepers, a sensitively observational film about the little wonders of human nature, life in the San Ferndando Valley and the secrets that everyone stores inside themselves—or, perhaps, an old Thermos bottle someone buys for a buck at a yard sale. That's what brings Johnson's cranky, lonely retiree Sadie together with Hemingway's college-age Jane, who's arrived in town from wherever and now does what "wherever" girls do when they come to the 818 area code, although one of the movie's charms is how Baker pushes the details of Jane's 9-to-5 off to the side, where they're just a matter of fact. Johnson's an immovable object up against Hemingway's irresistible force. Rarely have you seen an elderly person portrayed quite so spikily, then start to peel away layers to reveal something else entirely. Hemingway: "I loved her from the minute I met her. She was quite cute. There was one thing she had difficulty with in the beginning. She said, "I can't be mean to you, you're so nice!" I was like, "You have to be mean to me." And then she got it down. The minute she had that meanness down she was so forthright. I'm like, "OK, now calm down, woman!"

KILLER JOE's Gina Gershon

Gina Gershon, Killer Joe It ain't no thing but a chicken wing. The fast-food fellatio scene from William Friedkin's film version of the Tracy Letts' trailer-park noir that forever burns itself into your consciousness requires an incredibly strong performer without a shred of trepidation. Gershon nailed it. Unfortunately for her, the material will probably be considered too far out there for a nomination. Even Matthew McConaughey, who is likewise, yes, "killer," in the lead, will wind up with a supporting actor nod for Magic Mike. Friedkin: "I didn't treat that scene any different from any other. Like a lot of chase scenes I've done, you do it one shot at a time. She did it once and I covered it with a couple of cameras. Gina understood what was going on there and so did Matthew."

HOLY MOTORS' Denis Lavant

Denis Lavant, Holy Motors
In those year-end polls, I wish I could have voted for Lavant, the man-of-a-million-faces (well, 10 or 11) in Leos Carax's delicious fever-dream ode to—you name it—as "best ensemble performance." He's in my Top 3 for Best Actor. But what the heck? He's also best supporting actor. Props as well to Kylie Minogue, whose brief moment onscreen gives the movie its melancholy heart, and Edith Scob, who brings to her performance an elegance, knowing and sense of humor that zings like a dry martini.

Posted by ahillis at 11:56 AM

January 3, 2013

Natural Gus

by Vadim Rizov

Promised Land

A third of the way through director Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, natural gas company representative Steve Butler (Matt Damon) stands in front of a gigantic American flag and tells the residents of McKinley (fictional flyover country in an unnamed state) that fracking is basically safe and signing over all their land for drilling is the only plausible fiscal stop-gap to the end of agrarian America. Butler's a true believer in what he's selling: growing up in Eldridge, Iowa, he saw how a community's "delusional self mythologizing" as a strong, Real America of "football Fridays, tractor pulls, cow tipping" collapsed when the Caterpillar manufacturing plant closed. Steve knows that these kinds of communities haven't got long to live and sincerely believes any anti-fracking information is just so much stoner hippie propaganda.

What's this shot of Damon and flag supposed to signify, precisely? The most obvious meaning is that the flag's a symbol of a tarnished nation unable to live up to its goals (prompting the overwrought to write "Amerika" instead) and the fracking pitch is built on an equally flawed foundation. Or it could imply the oft-expressed idea that (per Calvin Coolidge's famous formulation) "the business of America is business"—surely a double-edged sword. Or it could mean that we've put business before country, literally, making it impossible to see the greater national good because of the constant hustle taking place front and center. The problem with all of these possibilities is that they're equally facile variants on various liberal talking points. So too this film.

Promised Land

Steve's come to town to get the citizens to sign over all of their land; between the first and second town meetings, he slowly sees the environmentalist light. His activist opponent is named Dustin Noble (John Krasinski), because it's that kind of movie; his other antagonist is Frank Yates (Hal Holbrook, trembling bravely for his Oscar). Steve's back-up is Sue Thomason (Frances McDormand), and his romantic interest is Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt, doing her Cheshire Cat grin thing). Aside from Dustin, all these characters serve the same function: to constantly reassure Steve that he's a good guy regardless of who he works for. When they aren't repeating the sentiment, he's saying it himself pre-emptively, as if his Good Will Hunting costar Robin Williams were still on hand to tell him it's not his fault over and over; it makes you wish someone would lose their temper and call him an asshole.

Promised Land's overall premise isn't just to demonstrate a corporate pawn's crisis of conscience as he realizes the case against fracking is more extreme than he'd been led to believe. The thesis is effectively the same as the question motivating political best-seller What's the Matter with Kansas?: why do the rural, disenfranchised and impoverished often vote against their own best interests (i.e., for the Republican party), thereby making life harder for themselves and everyone else? It's a legitimate question to ask on a macro level, but more than a bit insulting when asked during face-to-face interactions. Though largely shot in Avonmore—a West Pennsylvania community numbering 820 souls during the last census—the state in which McKinley's located remains unnamed, a presumably irrelevant piece of specificity. There's little sense of genuine empathy and more than a little condescension and conflation.

PROMISED LAND's Krasinski, Van Sant, Damon

For an hour, Promised Land entertains while threatening to turn into an unbearable lecture at any minute. Damon and Krasinski's screenplay plays to their familiar strengths: Damon does his irritable, smartest-guy-in-the-room Will Hunting act again, and it remains very entertaining, while Krasinski oozes smarmy but undeniable charm. There's a scene where he wins over the townsfolk by singing Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," complete with pulling a Courtney Cox equivalent out of the crowd; it's a crowd-pleaser, and it's impossible not to suspect that the real Krasinski's been doing this in real life for years.

Van Sant showboats when enabled. The second shot is a choreographic marvel: the camera's planted in the middle of a dining room, panning left to right as it follows Damon returning to his business lunch table. At one point, a tablecloth is flung up and out, taking up the left side of the screen just as the camera's moving away, pointless but pleasing virtuosity. During rote conversations, the camera will distractedly drift between two faces, lingering in the space between—a Van Sant tic, as is another typically well-composed view of Damon and McDormand in a car, viewed from the outside, with mud splatters forming interesting patterns on the windshield. If one definition of auteurism is the practice of separating a directorial signature from the noise generated by subpar material, Promised Land is a dream test case: a Van Sant movie that could be visually identified as such within five shots that's nonetheless pretty largely worthless in the end, collapsing under the weight of its strenuous good intentions.

Posted by ahillis at 3:38 PM

January 2, 2013

RETRO ACTIVE: Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! (1967)

by Nick Schager

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Quentin Tarantino's slavery-themed revisionist Spaghetti Western Django Unchained.]

Unrelated to Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) save for its title, which was tacked on at the last second for marketing purposes, Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! takes the Spaghetti Western into the realm of the grotesque and surreal—and, in the process, proves to be one of the genre's all-time unsung gems. Giulio Questi's saga is a mishmash of the biblical, the Shakespearean, and the outright peculiar, tracking an unnamed Stranger (Tomas Milian)—ostensibly the story's Django, though he never drags around a coffin—as he rises from the dead to chase down the bandit comrades who double-crossed him out of his share of gold and then shot him and his Mexican mates. The Stranger's Christ-like resurrection will be followed much later by his crucifixion at the hands of a crime boss named Sorrow (Roberto Camardiel). Such continuity screwiness, however, is part and parcel of the hodgepodge nature of the film, which will soon introduce a saloon singer named Flory (Marilù Tolo) who doubles as a desert town Lady Macbeth, as well as a woman (Patrizia Valturri) locked away in a room by her wacko religious husband Alderman (Francisco Sanz) for daring to love another.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

After being saved by two Native Americans, who crave knowledge of what the "other side" is like, Django finds his betrayer Oaks (Piero Lulli) in a small town on the edge of the desert that his Native American saviors call "The Unhappy Place." In truth, it's more like "The Insane Place," given that an intro pan through the street reveals a naked child, a young girl strangling a boy, a woman crazily biting someone's hand, and another boy's face underneath the boot of a smiling man. The Stranger's arrival as a vengeful spirit in this hellish settlement recalls High Plains Drifter, though director Giulio Questi and screenwriter Franco Arcalli's tale deals with greed—and the violence and misery it entails—in a manner far more loony than Clint Eastwood's daring revisionist Western. Discovering that Oaks and his men have been killed and hung for their gold, the Stranger quickly winds up in the midst of a battle for the precious loot between saloon owner Templer (Milo Quesada), the God-fearing Alderman, and kingpin Sorrow. These cretins are all gripped with an avarice that leads them to betray and murder at a moment's notice, while the Stranger himself participates in their machinations with an attitude that's pitched somewhere between existential anguish and laid-back disinterest.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

The Stranger's ambiguous attitude toward the events ensnaring him enhances the overriding vagueness of Django Kill, which vacillates between strangeness, goriness and sociopolitical commentary at random. Fully restored to its nasty original form after years of censorship, the film is outright gruesome in its depiction of both the scalping of one of the Stranger's Native American sidekicks—an act that, witnessed by white men smiling and licking their lips, is part of the film's censure of the treatment of America's indigenous population—and in the sight of Oaks being literally torn apart by the townsfolk, who covet the gold bullets lodged in his body. Meanwhile, sexual obsession comes in the form of Templer's son Evan (Ray Lovelock), whose lust for dad's nefarious paramour Flory leads him to slice up her clothes in a fit of unbridled erotic violence. The fact that Evan later commits suicide after being kidnapped by Sorrow and, via a shot of his shirt being removed, apparently raped by the villain's homosexual henchmen, only further transforms the proceedings into a surreal hothouse stew of brutality, gluttony and desire.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

Such madness is clearly meant to convey the destructiveness of greed, and yet Django Kill feels driven less by moralistic intent than passionate manias, which bubble to the surface in unexpected and explosive ways. Shot in endlessly tight, sweaty close-ups by regular Sergio Leone collaborator Franco Delli Colli, and visually bolstered by rapidly edited sequences that lead to hallucinatory horror, Questi's film has no dramatic cohesion, and Milian—routinely sporting a headband and a vest that reveals his naked chest—alternates between hysterical overacting and confused underacting. That unevenness, however, is indicative of the omnipresent craziness that defines the action and peaks during a finale that involves Sorrow joking around with his parrot—which demands, and then receives, an alcoholic beverage—and Alderman and his wife, whom The Stranger had previously wooed, going up in flames, albeit not before Alderman has his head drenched in molten gold. It's a striking vision of man being mutated beyond repair by his own ravenous materialistic hunger, and one that's aptly followed up by the final image of the Stranger riding off toward the horizon—a clichéd moment turned bonkers by two foreground children holding string over their eyes and crowing "I don't believe in you!", as if to challenge the existence of the Stranger and, by extension, this bizarre film itself.

Posted by ahillis at 7:00 PM