Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another Earth

Another Earth (2011)
Dir. Mike Cahill
Starring Brit Marling, William Mapother, Kumar Pallana

I actually got to see this one at the DC premier a few weeks back, and was thinking I’d write about it before the film came out to show you all how in the know I am. But I tried to write about it a few times, and just found I didn’t have much to say. It’s funny, I can ramble for 5,000 words about CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, but when it comes to this carefully made, sensitive, thoughtful, mysterious little film, I’m kind of tongue tied. But it’s real good and I figure I ought to spread the word now that it’s getting a bigger release, so here’s my attempt.

First off, ANOTHER EARTH is a slightly different film than it appears to be. It’s described as a sci-fi love story, but really it’s a fragile drama about regret which happens to have a central metaphor which is visualized a little more bluntly than most films would dare. If it has a genre, it’s not sci-fi but rather magical realism. Yes, there’s that other Earth hanging in the sky the whole time, but it’s not something the film really feels necessary to explain or even explore. It’s an idea, hanging up there – an idea which hangs over the whole film but seems both starker and more painful when it suddenly seems to force itself into the real world.

The story is a simple one; smart, gorgeous, up-and-coming college freshman Rhoda makes a mistake one night. She has a little too much to drink, and on her way home hears a story on the radio about a new planet which has just become visible in the night sky. She looks up at the sky out of her car window as she’s driving home, and slams into another car carrying a family of three. The wife and son are killed, and Rhoda spends the next four years in prison.

She emerges a withdrawn, ghostly wisp of her former self. Her ambitions and dreams are long gone, and her guilt has slowly taken over every minute of her waking life. She’s got nothing to live for, and doesn’t think she deserves to find anything anyway. Some people ask if she’s going to go back to school, pick up where she left off, but of course she can’t. She gets a janitorial job at her old high school, pulls her hood as far over her face as she can, sits alone in her empty old room. Unable to do anything else, she finally goes to apologize to the husband who survived the car crash (Tom Cruise cousin William Mapother), but loses her nerve and tells him she’s the cleaning lady instead. He doesn’t know who she is, and the two gradually begin a tender relationship which brings both of them out of their shells and, gingerly, back into the world. But hovering above their heads the whole time is the surreal sight of a doppelganger Earth, with all that implies about what might have been.

That’s pretty much the whole movie. There’s not a lot of plot to it – hell, there’s not even a lot of dialogue—but the film makes you feel the crushing weight nestled on poor Rhoda’s slender shoulders and the bottomless despair she and her victim feel about their lives and the world. Co-writer Marling gives a crushingly internalized performance, which is mirrored nicely by Mapother’s almost perversely externalized pain. It’s these two performances, and the subtle way they change as the characters emerge from their hazy nightmare, that sells the film. In a film in which the central metaphor is so unsubtle that it hangs from the sky, you can rightly expect some convenient plotting which may stretch your credulity to the breaking point –and for some, probably beyond. But there’s a profound emotional realism in the characters which the actors painfully draw out into the open. Their conflicts may feel a little manufactured, but their agony never does, and its weighty enough to make the film’s seriousness feel earned. Without those performances, the film would be a mess of plot mechanisms and overt symbolism. With them, those same plot mechanisms and overt symbolism seem absolutely necessary to describe the surreal emotional metaphysics of extreme human experience.

Any film can show you a guilt-ridden protagonist agonizing over the way things might have been different. But how many have the conviction to literally dangle it over her head the whole film, letting it grow gradually closer and closer like a gathering storm? It’s a stunning image, made all the more potent as you consider what it means for our ruined protagonist, and for us. Even if the film isn’t the least bit interested in the science of what’s happening, making it real gives it unexpected heft. It’s no longer hypothetical to imagine your life being different, imagining yourself making different choices. You might be able to meet that version of yourself, they’re out there ready to present you with all the painful might-have-beens that you might otherwise be able to dismiss through faith, fate, divine plan, or random chance. Another Earth. Another you. Maybe the you you always wished you were. Maybe the you you always feared you’d be. Maybe --maybe most horrifyingly-- the same you you inevitably are.

It’s not a perfect film, but it boldly and sometimes uncomfortably puts this infinite existential heartbreak under a microscope. And then fills the sky with it for good measure.

Friday, July 22, 2011

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money

From Dusk Till Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999)
Dir. Scott Spiegel
Starring Robert Patrick. Bo Hopkins, Duane Whitaker, Muse Watson, Raymond Cruz with Bruce Campbell and Danny Trejo

Everyone likes FROM DUSK TILL DAWN, right? Of course they do. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable piece of trash; a kinetic, freewheeling, sleazy B-movie from back before Robert Rodriguez discovered irony. It even sports a making-of documentary which is almost as entertaining as the film itself, 1997’s FULL TILT BOOGIE which is up there with HEARTS OF DARKNESS in my pantheon of great filmmaking documentaries. But I was never sure the concept (“There are Vampires at this bar you can go to in Mexico”) was really strong enough to turn into a compelling series, so I never bothered with the straight-to-video sequels, despite the lure of both Robert Patrick and Bruce Campbell.

That is, until now. Now I have bothered with them. Or one, anyway. And I’m glad I did, because this turkey is thoroughly entertaining and even a little good. At the very least, it’s trying really hard to show you the craziest possible time with the resources available, so you can’t fault its enthusiasm.

Like the original DUSK TILL DAWN, this one starts out by hinting it’s going to be a different movie than you know it actually is. As a sequel, it gamely ups the ante by doing this twice. First we get Bruce Campbell and Tiffani Amber-Thiessen as sleazy lawyers who get eaten by bats. Then we find out that was (I guess?) just something Robert Patrick was watching on TV. Fair enough, we got our Bruce Campbell cameo, now on to the real red herring. We get introduced to Mr. Patrick’s character Buck as he’s finding out his friend and partner-in-crime Luther (Duane Whittaker, also co-writer) has escaped from prison. Sheriff Bo Hopkins (and his deputy James Parks, more on him later) have a feeling Luther’s going to try and hook up with his old partner and make a run for it, even though Patrick insists (somewhat convincingly, too – he had me fooled) he’s gone clean. Fortunately for all of us, you should never trust Robert Patrick, and the sheriff is hardly out the door before he’s off putting together a team for a Mexican bank robbery.

So you got your men-on-a-mission angle, your heist angle, your escaped fugitive angle, and (as if you had to ask) your one-last-job-and-then-I’m-going-clean-for-real angle. But it being a DUSK TILL DAWN sequel, you know that none of that is going to matter because it’s going to turn into a vampire movie halfway through. Sure enough, poor Luther is hardly across the border into Mexico before his car hits a giant bat and breaks down. As luck would have it, he seeks assistance at a familiar strip bar, where Danny Trejo’s bartender character Razor Eddie (Mexico’s Woody Harrelson, I bet) offers to give him a lift. Trejo actually gets a decent bit of screen time in this, and he makes the most of it with his trademark cocktail of stone-faced charisma and menace (that’s a metaphorical cocktail. We don’t get to find out what his trademark cocktail at work is, so I’m going to just assume it’s a Mint Julep. Feels right).

Funny thing is, ol Razor Eddie seems kind of like a nice guy right up until he hears that Luther hit a bat. I honestly think he was legitimately offering a ride out of the goodness of his heart until the inevitable collision between the two uneasily symbiotic cultures of vampires and ex-pat American banditos turned everything ugly (see, CRASH? We all already knew everything you’re rambling on about because we all watched this DTV sequel to a 90’s vampire western. You don’t remember when we watched that? I dunno, man, maybe you passed out already, but yeah, the rest of us all watched it).

This is the first scene which surprised me with its unexpected greatness, because Luther isn’t exactly an idiot but also can’t quite figure out what’s going on. He can tell the encounter has suddenly turned hostile but can’t possibly understand why. His confusion and mistaken belief that he’s still talking with a minor character in a heist movie creates a different layer of tension than you’d expect for this kind of scenario. It’s still a cheesy DTV horror sequel, but it’s got a little something extra.  

Of course, Luther ends up turning vampire, and heads back to the hotel where his colleagues are waiting (sadly, Trejo just turns into a bat and flies away. They could get Robert Patrick but couldn’t afford Danny Trejo for more than two scenes?). And here again the movie has a neat little twist, but there’s no way to describe it to you without spoiling it, so please direct your attention to the

SPOILER WARNING before proceeding.
So what happens is, Luther comes back to the hotel where he finds team member Jesus (Raymond Cruz) engaged in extremely unconvincing awkward sex with a very cute gal who spends 90% of her screen time here extremely convincingly naked. Jesus ends up bit too, and now it seems like we’re going to get into the standard vampire siege story in this run-down motel. But here’s where things get awesome. Luther and Jesus don’t try to kill everyone – they go about the robbery as originally intended, except now they’re vampires! So it is a heist/siege movie after all, but with an ever-increasing ratio of vampires to humans. They tricked me into thinking they were planning on tricking me into thinking this would be an abrupt genre shift like the first one, and then turned my expectations of having my expectations turned on their head on their head. That’s just the kind of absurd overthinking which makes this one fun, and you can see it constantly on display in the direction and style of the film.

Director Scott Spiegel, it turns out, is more closely related filmatically to Sam Raimi than Robert Rodriguez (Wikipedia says he went to the same high school as Raimi and Campbell, I guess that explains it, there’s something in the water there) and this film plays almost like a parody of EVIL DEAD’s inventively goofy visuals. I count no less than 15 outrageously unnecessary point-of-view shots in this thing, including but not limited to:

POV from Tiffani-Amber Theissen, observing a bat between her boobs
POV from a cooler, opened to take beer out
POV from a water dish, as a dog drinks
POV from a rotating fan, going back and forth
POV from the hood of a car with bull horns on the front
POV from an actual bull
POV from a bat, flying around
POV from a TV of the people watching it
POV from a guy doing push-ups (up and down – hoping they’d bring this back during the sex scene, but no dice)
POV of map, looking at the ceiling
POV from a bag, as things are put into it
POV from the dial on a safe, spinning around
POV from inside a vampire’s mouth (twice)
POV from inside a skull (regular)
POV from inside a skull (on fire)

                                         A whole fucking lot of the movie looks like this.

And those are just the ones I remember, two weeks later. Spiegel is no Raimi, and most of the rest of the film is shot about as cheap and ugly as you might expect from a 1999 DTV horror sequel. There’s a few other attempts at creative visual shots (one which works shoots Robert Patrick through the spiral telephone cord, --remember those?—which turns the shot into an abstract spiral going towards his face) but nothing that would really be worth reporting on were it not for the escalating craziness of the POV stuff. But the POV shots are so numerous and so egregiously unnecessary that they’ll either make the whole film worthwhile or they’ll cause you to turn it off in a blind fury by minute 20. At the very least, they make this one memorably unique, and how many of its peers can say that?

Besides the funny expectation-doublecrossing premise and the suitably manic style, the film also has a surprisingly effective cast of mostly unknowns. Duane Whittaker, Muse Watson, and Raymond Cruz all have done tons of tiny roles in other films, but here they actually get to be front and center and make the most of it. They chew through the scenery like gypsy moths, adding flavor and weight to their roles without forgetting to have a little fun. Raymond Cruz is especially dynamite as Jesus, who can be forgiven the stereotypical nature of his character by the intensity which he brings it. He’s way over the top but absolutely dedicated to seeming like a macho psychopath constantly ready to snap. The fact that the characters seem serious enough to pay attention to makes the film’s jokier bits work way better. Finding Jesus preparing his dog “Jaws 2” (really) for a dogfight, Buck comments, “You’re pumping steroids into a pooch? Damn Jesus, that’s immoral.” And Jesus responds by looking him square in the eyes and intoning without even a hint of a smile, “This ain’t the fuckin’ Olympics, Buck.” He’s great as a human, and even better as a vampire where he gets to bring a smirking menace to the role, as if he’s just barely bothering to conceal his contempt for anyone who thinks they can stop him. There’s a unique bravado to his role which really ought to have led to some bigger and better parts.

Unfortunately, the fifth guy was obviously someone’s friend or something and gives a truly awful performance in an ill-defined character who seems set up to have an arc which never happens. So that’s a shame.

But other than that, this is a small but worthwhile pleasure. My one beef is the subtitle. Although the film does start in Texas, all the action and the blood money (Oh my god, I just realized that’s a vampire pun. Maybe this movie is too smart for me) are down in Mexico, which is played here somewhat believably by South Africa. So I don’t know how that one slipped past them, but that title is factually inaccurate. Why not just call it Mexico Blood Money? Why we gotta drag Texas into this? Is Texas really that much more marketable? Are they trying to suggest this is a chainsaw massacre sequel of some kind?

I’d have happily traded the map POV shot for a subtitle that makes a lick of god damn sense. Not the oscillating fan POV shot, though – that’s one for the ages.  

Friday, July 15, 2011

Piranha (2010 version)

PIRANHA [3-D?] (2010)
Dir. Alexandre Aja
Starring Steven R. McQueen, Elizabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Jerry O’Connell, and Ving Rhames (with Christopher Lloyd and Richard Dreyfuss for a combined 3 minutes).

I think most serious horror buffs have high hopes for Alexandre Aja. Not because of what he’s done, exactly, but because of the obvious potential for what he seems destined to do someday. He’s really only made one good movie out of four now, but his talent, imagination, and audacity are so readily on display that it seems like it has to be only a matter of time til he makes that great one. This ain’t it, but it’s fun and generally does what it’s trying to do.  Which is be a parodic remake of a parody of JAWS. So it’s cute but not really striving for greatness exactly. Which is kind of a shame because in some ways it could have been a legitimately great B-movie instead of a parody of one if they had tried a little harder.

There are actually some really inspired scenes of mayhem and gore here, and to his credit Aja knows to have his leads play it pretty straight. The setup about a single-mother sheriff and her older son and younger kids is positively Spielbergian in its commitment to earnestly corny familial relations. But Spielberg would have known that setup is not enough, you actually have to give them some arc, and Aja either doesn’t know that yet or doesn’t think it’s important in a movie like this. But of course it is.

In college, I took a few courses with Dr. Neal King, a professor of Sociology I guess but his interests were mostly in pop culture (he taught a class called “Action Cinema” and now has one simply called “Masculinity.” College is awesome.) Anyway, he claimed that nearly all successful films have an identifiable four-act structure, and as such follow a certain dramatic structure which reveals to the audience what the important narrative arcs are (it’s developments in the major thematic arcs which serve to structure the acts). As a guy who tends to be skeptical of that kind of generalization, I somewhat resisted the theory, but the more movies I see the more I realize not only that he was pretty much right, but that there’s a damn good reason most movies are set up this way. PIRANHA has a bunch of fun scenes and even some fun characters, but there’s no structure at all. It’s just a bunch of shit that happens and then it’s over. The characters seem to have a little personality but they have no arcs whatsoever, no one learns or grows or changes except that some of them are reduced to awesomely bloody tattered skeletons. There’s literally no story at all, just a bunch of scenes that happen to some people.

This makes it a curiously unsatisfying experience. Not that the pieces aren’t fun, but so little is attempted to make you care about what’s happening that it ends up feeling so slight it might float away. And it’s kind of a shame too, because Aja gets the tone pretty right. He knows it’s a comedy but he treats it in kind of an amiably serious fun way. He’s got a great little cast of fun performers who all seem more than game for the tone he’s trying for, but then none of them really get to do anything. They get introduced and then it’s straight to the feeding frenzy for all of them. So as fun as it is to watch those cartoony piranhas devastate the fleshy bodies of their victims, the added fun of caring about who is being eaten is mostly absent. There’s virtually no drama in a single death here – no hero gets a tragic or noble death, no villain really gets a satisfying piranha-assisted comeuppance. Half the fun of these films is the schadenfreude of watching some despicable character endanger everyone and get what’s coming to him – this one doesn’t really get much out of that dynamic because none of the characters are around long enough to have much impact, good or bad.

You might ague Jerry O’Connell’s Michael-Bay-filming-Girls-Gone-Wild* character is meant to be unlikable, but I don’t buy that he works on that level. He’s kind of an ass, but not so much that you’re really rooting for him to bite it (or, uh, get it bit, I guess). In fact, in a movie this broad a big cartoony performance like that kind of makes him annoyingly endearing instead of hateable (Aja does harness the immediate and overwhelming unlikability of Eli Roth to get one satisfying kill). But the true villain of the film is this douchebag frat boy who gets out of harm’s way by climbing into a motor boat and mowing down his peers as they get in his way. Now that’s a hateable bastard. What happens to him? We don’t even get to see! He falls into the water and the film cuts away without even showing him get bit. See, that’s exactly where I want to see you get creative with some horrible piranha gore!

On the other end of the spectrum, the heroes don’t get a lot of payoff either. A couple of the apparent main characters do die, but it’s dealt with completely indifferently. Someone who’s been, well, if not important, at least around since the beginning of the film will suddenly die this cruel, gruesome death in the middle of a scene and no one seems to comment on it or be much affected by it. The actors are likeable enough that you feel bad when they’re reduced to fish food, even with funny gimmicks like the stripper who gets completely eaten except for her skeleton and her floating silicone implants. That’s a funny concept, but it’s not as fun when you like the characters and are denied even a hint of pathos about their passing. Aja clearly want his characters to come across as sympathetic, but for some reason he completely misses every opportunity to create even the barest of drama.

This failure to take advantage of narrative arc applies to the structure of the story too, which has the distinct and odd feeling of a movie which is missing the final act. It’s all setup and a few teasers for the first hour, then all hell breaks loose with the admirable epic and memorable spring break massacre, then there’s one other smaller-scale setpiece which finally includes the apparent protagonist (played by Steve McQueen’s grandson, no shit!) and then just when it seems like it’s finally built some momentum it suddenly ends (OK, the joke they go out on is a thoroughly winning one, but still). Why spend all that time setting up the characters if they never go anywhere?

Now of course, I don’t need to remind you of the PIRANAHA series’ directorial legacy, and I’ll take it as a sign of Aja’s ambition that he’s associating his name with the series. But as of now, this is just one more example of his ability to tease us by coming frustrating close to greatness, only to fumble a few key aspects and sabotage all his good work.

Still, it delivers about all the piranha-themed carnage you could possibly desire, and even if it’s a little unsatisfying it’s got a good sense of puckish fun. I do wish I had seen it in 3-D. Oh well, that’s three more dollars for cheap hooch which arguably makes for an equally enjoyable augmentation.    

*Look at that haircut, that open shirt, that awkward manic overconfidence and fucking try to tell me he’s not playing Michael Bay.

Monday, July 11, 2011

God Told Me To

God Told Me To aka God Told Me to Kill (1976)
Dir. Larry Cohen
Starring Tony Lo Bianco, Sandy Dennis, Richard Lynch

Man, you gotta hand it to Larry Cohen. The guy is just endlessly ambitious, never satisfied that it's enough, even when maybe he ought to be. It's not enough to make a police procedural/horror flick, it's also got to be a sci-fi, AND a serial killer flick, AND a secret-identity story, AND a domestic drama, AND challenge everything you take for granted about religion. So yeah, God Told Me To is an overstuffed film, but it kind of works. It's so wild and ambitious that you forgive its occasional awkward bits and simply sit back and wonder where in God's name Cohen is going with this.

Cohen's MO, as you are no doubt aware, is taking schlocky genre stuff (THE-BLOB-Meets-SOYLENT-GREEN in THE STUFF, WOLFEN-from-above in Q: THE WINGED SERPENT) and stubbornly cramming that framework full of interesting ideas, detail, and performances. He has fun with his genre conventions, but absolutely never treats them as jokes, even when its something as inherently hilarious as the evil killer baby in IT'S ALIVE! Treating the subject seriously means that it's even funnier, but can also win you over into legitimately invested territory with his inventive horror sequences and solid cinematic construction. GOD TOLD ME TO is less of a fun ride than some of his other fare, but that's due to its intentionally serious subject matter. Not everyone is going to be able to accept something this crazy as a serious philosophical horror film, but to the film's credit it strives for and generally earns a heavier tone for anyone who can suspend disbelief enough to follow it where it wants to go.

Tony Lo Bianco (THE FRENCH CONNECTION, THE SEVEN-UPS) stars as detective Peter Nicholas, who arrives on the scene of several apparently unmotivated random killings to hear the perpetrator explain that "God told me to." The cops try to surpress this information because they (rightly, as it turns out) think releasing it to the public will create a crisis of faith which leads to widespread anarchy, but Nicholas thinks it may be the only way to figure out what's really happening. Turns out, all the killers had come into contact with a mysterious young man (Richard Lynch, who would also portray a scary messianic figure in BAD DREAMS) who holds the key to the mystery and may just be the return of Jesus Christ. Into this respectably ballsy premise enter a secret society, a mysterious virgin birth, an inexplicable subplot about Nicholas' wife and girlfriend, another inexplicable subplot about a corrupt coworker, and a whole bunch of crazy twists that you have to see for yourself.

As wild as the thing gets, Cohen deserves credit for keeping things serious and surprisingly emotionally weighty. Lo Bianco gives a painful and nuanced performance as the Catholic Nicholas, who finds himself pushed to the brink of his beliefs as it appears that a returned Jesus is engaged in mass killings. He's believable as a tough, skeptical detective, but allows the horror of his shattered worldview to simmer just below the surface. It's unusual to see a guy who is so emotionally destroyed but can still get on with his job, but Lo Bianco sells it beautifully and as such adds real depth to Nicholas' journey down the rabbit hole. Even when things get pulpy, Cohen forces us to see the emotional damage it's doing to the people involved and as such never gets swept away in the pulpier aspects of the story. There's an old lady (Sylvia Sidney) who appears in the final act to tell this absurd story (complemented by some not-so-fantastic special effects) which strains credulity even in this movie -- and then, just as you're about to be forced to transition into ironic enjoyment, she breaks down and starts crying pitiably. The more Lo Bianco tries to comfort her, the more hysterical she gets. This could turn into a complete disaster, but the two actors sell it with such conviction that its genuinely upsetting. They make stock footage of a rubber-legged lady getting sucked into the sky believable as a genuinely traumatic experience which left deep emotional scars.

The horror is surprisingly effective too. As fun as IT'S ALIVE is, I don't know that its ever genuinely scary. GOD TOLD ME TO is only intermittently a horror film, but its moments of horror are unique and genuinely spooky. There's a knife attack early on as frighteningly savage and shocking as anything comparable I've seem, and a great sequence with one of the secret society guys which takes place in a creepy apartment which would not look out of place in a David Lynch film. And who can fault a film which makes Jesus into a genuinely unsettling apparition without cheating and changing his appearance? And as well as those sequences and images work, the film's concepts are in themselves fraught with dread which lingers over everything. Even when the film lurches into exposition or melodrama, there's an unsettling feeling that random violence could erupt at any moment. Unfathomable and merciless forces are always lurking just below the surface of the ordinary, and Cohen makes you feel that tension even when he's not drowning you in blood.

Not all of it works, of course; the film was shot for cheap and it frequently looks cheap, the sound is poorly recorded (even on the DVD its quite difficult to hear the dialogue at times), the shifts between genres are sometimes a little clunky, and unless I missed some key dialogue I'm not 100% the film entirely explains everything it raises. A mystery this wild can almost never have a satisfying explanation -- this one makes a valiant and fascinating attempt, but of course the mystery is always going to be more enjoyable. The truth isn't exactly a letdown, it just changes the tone of the film somewhat (it has a pretty great climax, though).

As a side note, I know that Cohen is deeply concerned with civil rights and makes a special effort to include good roles for African-Americans in his films (in fact, he started his career with some classic blaxploitation with strong black heroes) -- but its hard not to notice in this one that all the black characters are villainous criminals. There's a sequence near the end which is a little uncomfortable as major protagonist murders a bunch of admittedly assholish Black gangsters basically to test a theory. I think at the time he was trying to actively include roles for black actors but in hindsight their incorporation into this film might not be quite as progressive as one might hope (I'm not implying Cohen is a racist, just that this film and its idea of roles for black actors are products of its time).  

Those complaints aside, however, this is a devilishly impressive and bold creation which may well represent Cohen's definitive vision of marrying genre exploitation with serious philosophical musings. This cheapie horror film asks no less than what our responsibility to the divine is. If Jesus returns and he's an asshole, are we still morally obligated to commit murder for him? Can a balance of power as great as  the one between the creator of the universe and his myriad of mortal children ever resist the potential for abuse? And if Jesus became mortal as a reflection of our mortal fallibilities, could he also come to represent our darkest follies as well as our loftiest aspirations? Power is the basis of God's ability to represent the ultimate moral authority -- if we can become powerful enough to rival God, does that authority erode? Do we perhaps even have a responsibility to challenge him(/her)?

These are powerful questions, and Cohen asks them firmly but with subtlety. Even when the film doesn't quite live up to its lofty goals, you've got to be kind of awed at his steadfast belief that these things are worthy of inclusion in an exploitation film, as well as his faith in an audience which can appreciate both. Cohen hasn't directed much in the past decade, and although he continues to write sharp, enjoyable genre stuff like 2002's PHONE BOOTH, this one may represent the peak of his ambition to merge pulp thrills with genuine substance. I'd love to see him try something this ambitious again (he did return to the director's chair with a Master of Horror episode in 2006) but even if he doesn't, this stands as a landmark of his particular vision which I doubt anyone else will top anytime soon.

PS: Oh yeah, watch for Andy Fucking Kaufman in his first film role as one of the killers. IMBD says he antagonized the St. Patrick's Day crowd in his police costume and Cohen had to physically restrain the crowd. Awesome. Also Bernard Herrmann was going to score it (as he did with ITS ALIVE) but died hours after watching it. They should have played that up, promoted it as "The Film That Killed Bernard Herrmann!" or something. Opportunity missed, but not as cheekily as the opportunity missed by the second composer Cohen approached, who quipped "God told me not to."

Friday, July 8, 2011

Umberto D

Umberto D (1952)
Dir. Vittorio De Sica
Starring Carlo Battisi, Maria-Pia Casilio, Lena Genneri.

So, I had a pretty bad few weeks for personal reasons. I've been trying, like we all are, to get myself to a healthier, happier place, make something of myself, connect with people. Love more. Live more. But it's not easy for a guy like me who spent most of his life hiding from the world and watching movies. I work at it, but it's so tenuous that its easy to get discouraged when things go poorly. And last week a whole lot of things I'd been meticulously setting up kind of came crashing down. Enough so that it appears some major life changes are in order, which is scary enough when you're doing them for yourself and even more so when they'e forced on you. I didn't have any clue what to do or where to go, I wasn't sure what tomorrow was going to bring (turns out, two speed-trap camera tickets from DC totaling 250 bucks, thank you very much you fuckers) and so I decided to drown my sorrows in cheap booze and Italian neorealism. I searched a long time til I found the description for UMBERTO D on Netflix:

Bankrupt and lonely, an old man (Carlo Battisti) considers committing suicide. Since he has only a devoted dog and a maid (Lina Genneri)* as his companions, things look bleak -- until one day when the old man's luck changes, giving him new hope. Director Vittorio De Sica's touching portrait of one man's effort to retain his pride in the face of adversity is a treasure of Italian post-war cinema.

Doesn't that sound exactly perfect? De Sica knows how to make the world feel like a crushing, brutal, hopeless place from which there is no escape save death (see: his other films. Or the ones I've seen anyway) and the fact that this one promises a happy ending right there in the description meant that I'd get the catharsis of that bleakness along with the happy ending I so desperately wanted to believe was out there for me.

Well, if you've seen this, you already know that that description is bullshit. Oh, the first sentence is right, and the second is accurate right exactly up to that last hyphen. Netflix, you bastard, watch this shit first all the way through before you describe it to us. So not really the pick-me-up one might hope for.

Anyway, its OK because its a pretty great film. As with many neorealist films, its cast is apparently all non-actors who somehow manage to be vastly more endearing and believable than most films featuring real actors. Our protagonist, Umberto, is an old man unable to get by on his paltry pension (in what was surely a hot-button issue at the time) and trying desperately to hold onto his dignity and his home as he becomes increasingly desperate for cash. Carlo Battisti plays him in a way which perhaps only a non-actor could – I think an actor would overthink it and try to give Umberto too much backstory and pathos and make him too relateable and sympathetic. Old people in movies are always full of wisdom and regret and scenery-chewing thoughtfulness.

Umberto seems more real – he's stubborn and a bit selfish, a bit foolhardy. He's suffered plenty but he hasn't exactly gained a lot of wisdom or empathy. Which is not to say he's a horrible asshole either, he's just a human -- and just as confused, myopic, and sad as any person at any age in this complicated world. The fact that he's not some victimized saint actually makes him more painfully real and makes you pull for him a little more. It makes you appreciate it more when he does the right thing and hurt more deeply for him when he can't quite make things work. His maid friend (Maria-Pia Casilio, in her first film role) is a young girl with big problems (she's 16, pregnant with nowhere to go and not sure who the father is – hey, did De Sica make the first ever episode of the oh-dear-god-please-don't-let-the-children-be-our-future series “16 and Pregnant”?). Like Umberto, she is sweet but utterly believable as someone na├»ve enough to get into this mess and young enough to not quite grasp the full implications of her sorry state in life. She's living one day to the next, doing other people's chores and constantly putting off til tomorrow any kind of plan, because fuck, when you're 16 what the hell do you do with that? A 16-year-old can't solve that kind of problem, it's just beyond their ability to imagine. You keep hoping Umberto will step in and help her with his wisdom and perspective, but he never does – he'd rather have her take care of him. And of course he would, he's got too many problems of his own to see past his own shit. She's got too many problems to know to ask him to.

Don't we all. The true sadness of the story is that despite being the only people in each others' lives, these two never quite come together. I think the story may well be about how our own problems enslave us in a way we don't often think about. Not only do they dominate the day-to-day of our lives, they keep us from looking up and seeing the people we should be paying the most attention to. What's more important, keeping your apartment so you can feel accomplished, or truly connecting with someone in this lonely world? And yet no one can get their attention on the big picture quite enough to see what they may be missing in their fellow humans. Poverty is dehumanizing, perhaps, not in that it robs us of our dignity, but in that it robs us of the luxury of being generous with others. It cordons us off, keeps us focused on the next meal, the long term fix. It makes us scared, stubborn animals, fighting with each other to stay above water.

Or maybe not, De Sica definitely seems to think this apartment thing is important and it definitely sucks a lot. Umberto is clinging to it because it's all that remains of his accomplishments, the only tangible thing he has to show that he lived his life (he has no wife or children). Which is plenty understandable, and heartbreaking in itself. But I think in the big picture this is probably representative of why he's left so alone at the end of his life. Too much time spent building, not enough loving. His one love is his little dog Flike, and after losing everything else the film's greatest conflict is if it will cause him to give up his one true companion as well. So I think De Sica and I may actually be on the same page about this, which means it has a somewhat more subtle subtext than most of these neorealist films seem to. It also means that there's quite a bit of possibly unnecessary wheedling about this and that detail of trying to pay the rent, some of it a little repetitive. But the noose tightens slowly and the film works up quite a bit of desperation and, yes, crushing, bleak resignation by the end.

The photography is, as benefits this sort of thing, unflashy but beautiful, capturing the contrast of worlds of wealth and poverty in 1950s' Rome, and lingering on the earthy details like the ants along the wall above the sink and the lined faces of the old men protesting their dwindling pensions. Interestingly, the final scene takes place in a garden and features a suddenly deep focus stretching into the distance. It still fits nicely with the realism of the rest of the photography but has something endless and surreal about it which almost invites some interpretation as to the possible poetic readings of what we're seeing. Is it a happy ending, after all?

I'd like to think so. Even with nothing much resolved, maybe the point is that resolving issues is a minor detail compared to loving life and the people in it. The answer to your problems is that there isn't one, and maybe there's enough worthwhile in life to go on anyway.

So thanks Netflix you lying sack of deceptive plot descriptions. You managed to inspire me anyway.

*No, Lena Genneri is his bitch landlady godDAMN it Netflix, get your act together. And while we're down here I have to say she's the only one in the movie who seems like a movie actress instead of a real person, and sure enough, she has a filmography going all the way back to 1933. It's a pretty one-dimentional character, but I feel like he should have stuck with someone who seemed more like an awful person in a more naturalistic way.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

The Troll Hunter

The Troll Hunter (2010)
Dir Andre Ovredal (except with that slash through the "O")
Starring Otto Jespersen, Glenn Erland Tosterud, Hans Morten Hansen.

One of the films I often find myself telling people they absolutely need to see is INCIDENT AT LOCH NESS, the weird deadpan (comedy?) horror mockumentary about Werner Herzog and the guy who wrote X-MEN 2: X-MEN UNITED getting menaced by a hump and a shaky camera. Conversationally, and to divert attention from the fact that they have no intention at all of doing so, they’ll usually respond, “Oh yeah, is that good?” and I have to pause and say I honestly don’t know, but it’s definitely something.

TROLL HUNTER is almost a sequel to that one, at least in tone. It’s a completely deadpan found-footage kind of deal which is hilarious without being especially funny and oddly compelling without exactly being interesting. It concerns a couple of Norwegian college kid film students who end up making an impromptu documentary about Hans, a troll hunter hired by the Norwegian government to keep the troll population under control and keep the whole thing under wraps from the public. Hans is a pretty great character, grizzled and badass but with a certain world-weariness to him and an endearing dusting of grumpy old man dorkiness (he’s the kind of guy who can face down a thirty-foot-tall troll but also eat breakfast at a diner wearing that sweater that your grandma sent you when you were a kid). The leader of the college kids (played with a winning gleeful enthusiasm by Glenn Tosterud) can hardly believe their luck at stumbling onto this story. He points out the likely monetary rewards of the footage he’s collecting and also cites the people’s right to know about trolls, but his expression says that he’s in it because this is just so fucking cool. He can't help but sneak looks back at the camera with a great Can you believe this? look on his face, and his interest is infectious.

Which is good, because most of the film is details about trolls, their life habits, the politics of troll hunting, and the daily tricks of a troll hunter’s trade. Hans insists trolls are non-magical mammalian predators no different –and maybe even a little less intelligent—than bears, and scoffs at the notion that they’re anything like their portrayal in fairy tales even as he enumerates some rather curious aspects of troll biology (for instance, they eat rocks, grow as big as mountains, live under bridges, and can smell the blood of Christians). “Do they all have three heads?” Thomas asks? “Not all of them.” Hans assures him. Actually they’re not real heads at all, Hans explains, they’re protrusions which grow as the troll ages to intimidate other males and –with the slightest shadow of a smile—to impress females. The particulars of trolls' behavioral quirks lead to some inspired weirdo comedy moments which I won't spoil.

Still looks better in night vision than Paris Hilton.
The charm of the film is mostly in the dryly absurd details presented nonchalantly with a hint of professional pride by Otto Jespersen’s Hans. It’s too cheekily ridiculous to honestly believe it’s meant to be taken seriously as a horror film, but it actually does manage to at least create some effectively fun suspense scenes. The mockumentary style forces the viewer to stay trapped in a single perspective (they have only one camera) which actually manages to heighten the tension by not offering the customary perspective escape. Yes, there’s a lot of shaky camera, but the film is thankfully more interested in showing you what’s going on than convincing you of its authenticity. The mockumentary format is not strictly necessary to tell this story (especially since its completely unconvincing) and may irritate folks who are getting tired of this gimmick, but to me works for the film by making things seem all the more commonplace and grounded in reality, which just emphasizes the absurdity. The Trolls look completely ridiculous (in the best possible way), but the effects are good enough that they seem believable most of the time, and the found-footage angle probably does a little to heighten this effect, which is key to the film’s humor.

Anyway, by no means a masterpiece, but an enjoyable romp with a cheerful playfulness and an odd kind of inexplicable charm. As you might imagine, Chris Columbus’ production company immediately recognized that this is a pleasant experience because of its unique cadence, low-key leads and commitment to being unexpected, defiantly indefinable pulp and immediately bought the rights to remake it as a big-budget Hollywood monster epic. There seems like there should be a joke to be made here, because of course Columbus directed the tepid first HARRY POTTER film, which did in fact feature a troll, and also there’s that movie TROLL (now sadly best known as being the one which isn’t TROLL 2) which features a character named Harry Potter (two, actually). So there’s a troll and Potter connection and now this one, obviously that means something but I can’t quite figure out what. Maybe Columbus is planning to adapt this one into some kind of TROLL / HARRY POTTER crossover thing, I think I’d pay to see that (maybe even in 3-D) as long as they keep that awesome TROLL Song (maybe they can get John Williams to do a version of it?)

I’ll keep you informed as this story progresses.     

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Black Death

Black Death (2010)
Dir. Christopher Smith
Starring Sean Bean, Eddie Redmayne, Clarice Van Houten

BLACK DEATH begins unpromisingly, with a dorky font and the grimly tinted blue film stock which might conjure images of a Sci-fi (Sy-Fy? Really?) Channel original movie. It looks cheap and unmemorable, but even from the start there's something elusively dismal about it, an odd kind of morbid fatalism which throws you off and neatly deflects the ho-hum convention of the opening. Stick with this thing; it gets more interesting the longer it runs. Eddie Redmayne plays Osmund, a young monk living in a monastery as the Black Plague decimates the population around him. The atmosphere is dire, as tumbrels fill the streets, and every face seems to hint that it brings death with it. Believing in a caring God at a time like this requires a creative interpretation of the divine motives, and the monks seems split over the meaning of the darkness that has consumed their world. Their alternative explanations for what God is doing (maybe God has nothing to do with this, maybe he's punishing sinners, maybe he's teaching a lesson in faith, maybe this is the work of the devil) subtly hints that people create their own explanation to meet their own worldview, but also neatly demonstrates how cognitive dissonance can allow people to hold strong but apparently contradictory beliefs. Further illustrating this, man of God Osmund turns out to be living a double life, as an earnestly devout monk but also as a caring consort to local babe Averill (Kimberly Nixon) who he persuades to flee the city before the plague can touch her.

This conflict of belief leads Osmund to hope for some kind of sign from above as to what it all means, which appears to come, as these things tend to, in the form of Sean Bean. Bean plays Ulric, leader of a group of knights in service of the local Bishop, who are tasked with rooting out infidels with, uh, extreme religious prejudice. Ulric is a hardcore believer, who genuinely considers himself saddled with God's predilection for butchery, but his crew consists of some truly scary medieval motherfuckers who have their own varied reasons for following him, ranging from money to pure sadism. Ulric and his crew are interesting characters, because the film is quite frank about their brutality but also refuses to entirely make them into monsters. When they encounter a lynch mob about to burn an extremely dubious witch, we watch in horror as Ulric callously stabs her in the heart with a knife. When confronted by Osmund, however, Ulric simply explains that she was dead from the moment the murderous mob caught her, and that all he could do to help was to make her suffering as brief as possible. In a world as brutal and random as the one they inhabit, that may just count as humanism – or is it merely a rationalization for detached savagery disguised as realism? The film doesn't have an easy explanation, and it only gets more complicated from here.

                                                  I want this poster in black velvet.

You see, Osmund suspects that God has sent Ulric and his crew to the monastery to help answer his questions, and so he joins them in their current mission: travelling to a remote village where rumor has it a practicing necromancer resides in defiance of God's will. Along the way, the group encounters signs of the cruelty and instability of the times, watching people turn against each other as they seek to explain the ugly reality of their situation using the only moral tools available to them through Christianity. Somewhere along the line, Osmund discovers that poor Averill has vanished, leaving behind a good portion of her blood and belongings. It's a devastating loss for the young man, but he deals with it the same way everyone else seems to: by trying to explain it as God's will. She and he were living immorally, so it makes perfect sense that God would have her brutally murdered and probably horrifically raped in some remote wilderness. That seems to be how God rolls these days.

When they finally reach their destination, however, things become stranger. The village, as rumor suggested, seems suspiciously untouched by the plague. In fact, things seem suspiciously clean, functional, and – uh oh -- progressive. The soldiers decide to play it cool and pretend they're just simple visitors while they souse out the infidel, but no one is really buying it. The villagers are superficially friendly, but there's an undercurrent of hostility and suspicion. Maybe there's really something to this rumor that they're satanic monsters. But then again, we also know these soldiers are bloodthirsty zealots ravenous for infidel blood, so their suspicion seems pretty justifiable. Are the villagers innocent victims of radial religious nutcases, or do these particular infidels have something truly sinister going on?

The genius of the film is that it's slow to reveal the whole story. Both sides seem to have a believable enough motivation that you're not sure which one you should side with. Each time a potentially damming bit of information is revealed about one side, it's countered with something else which makes their perspective seem understandable, if not exactly relatable.

I don't think it's exactly a stretch to imagine that this film is intended as a metaphor for the rocky religious issues which dominate many of the world's current conflicts. In the film, both sides are depicted doing awful things, but the film resolutely refuses to allow you to entirely villainize either one. If the villagers seem hostile and vaguely blasphemous, it’s easy to understand why that might be given the bloodthirsty, inflexible morality of the soldiers who have come to kill them. On the other hand, it's easy to admire the stalwart idealism of Ulric and understand his suspicions about this hostile, creepy enclave he's trapped in. The further both sides go, the more impossible it is to deescalate the tensions, and the more each side is convinced of their own moral rectitude. Both sides cross lines that you can't really come back from, and things come to an appropriately bloody head.

Most movies would end there, but this one has a little coda which makes it of particular interest. Having already shown us the bloody results of this cultural clash, the film takes an unexpected interest in what happens next. It’s one of the very few horror films I’ve ever seen which takes an interest in how the psychological damage from the cultural clash affects the survivors, warping their beliefs and concerns into something hard and ugly. If it’s not exactly subtle, it is at least thoughtful, which could probably be said about the whole film.

Director Chris Smith (who also directed SEVERANCE and TRIANGLE, which I’ve heard good things about but haven’t seen) wisely plays it pretty straight and realistic. Things are bad, but the details feel honest and Smith shoots things matter-of-factly, letting the subject matter speak for itself. The music, editing, and photography are restrained and never call attention to themselves, and although the film is quite frank about its violence and traffics in plenty of images of plague ravaged corpses, it calmly resists dealing in shock tactics (blessedly, there’s not a single jump-scare in the whole thing). Smith is making a horror film, but he trusts the grim details of the subject to be horrifying enough that they don’t need a lot of showy staging and loud noises (town leader Clarice Van Houten may overdo it just a tad, but not enough to derail the effect).

Perhaps the closest comparison is the similarly frank but stylistically unadorned medieval horror/drama WITCHFINDER GENERAL, which likewise milks horror out of its unblinking approach to the horrific facts of life at this time. That one, however, at least offered clearly drawn heroes and villains. Here, there’s no such certainty – just the unblinking assurance that instability and superstition breed brutality in an ever-escalating cycle. It’s a philosophical kind horror more than a visceral one, but its matter-of-fact approach to an all-too-believable human cruelty and pettiness gives it the kind of heft that horror films which hide their monsters in the shadows can’t quite muster. The result is a unique, thoughtful film which may be a little too on-the-nose at times but ultimately casts a dark spell which sticks with you.