Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The International

The International (2009)
Dir. Tom Tykwer
Starring Clive Owen, Naomi Watts, Armin Mueller-Stahl

I had sort of wanted to go see THE INTERNATIONAL when it was in theaters, but the poor word-of-mouth kind of bummed me out and I never did get out to do it. Then, when it came out on video I tried to download it, but --unbelievably-- couldn't find a torrent. I mean, there are almost a dozen torrents for PUMPKINHEAD 4: BLOOD FEUD, for fuck's sake. How disappointing does a film have to be before no one is even gonna go through the effort of stealing it?

I had another reason to be trepidacious about this one: It's directed by Tom Tykwer. You remember, Tom Tykwer, the guy who made the visionary, kinetic modern masterpiece RUN LOLA RUN, and apparently expended all his energy on that one because he then made a whole series of pretentious arty snoozefests like WINTER SLEEPERS (apparently he actually made this before LOLA, it just came out in America afterwords and I assumed it was a follow-up) PRINCESS AND THE WARRIOR, and HEAVEN. I was excited going into every one of those films and they ended up just boring the piss out of me, even when I could acknowledge the thought and artistry which obviously went into them. I'd forgotten that he recently directed the odd but excellent PERFUME, so the thought of him doing a 70's style paranoid thriller just seemed so awesome that I was certain he would bungle it into some kind of boring metaphor art project.

Turns out no, this one actually delivers. It's not the stylistic follow-up to LOLA that everyone would like to see, but it is an extremely classy and deftly made old-fashioned thriller about a topic which is both old-fashioned and torn from today's headlines: evil bankers (not so fast Mel Gibson, they're British and German).

Clive Owen plays an Ex-Scotland Yard INTERPOL guy who is has been trying for years to prove maleficent behavior on the part of the IBBC, a conglomerated European bank which barely bothers to hide their evil intent. They go about murdering one person after another, knowing they're entirely safe behind a thick wall of intragovernmental bureaucracy and callous extralegal skullduggery. And here's the cool part: they're absolutely right. They hold every ounce of power in this relationship. They're almost completely unconcerned that Owen's Louis Salinger is on their trail, because there's not a single god damn thing he can do about it. Every bit of evidence he collects will be undermined, every potential ally will be scared off, every good intention will be recontextualized as fanatical paranoia. Who is the world going to believe, scruffy, wild-eyed Clive Owen with his wild theories about bank assassins, or smooth-talking bank lawyer Michael White (Patrick Baladi) who represent the soothing forces of accepted reality.?

I never cease to be amazed how hostile middle America is to the idea that there are powerful forces in the world working in secret on things which will make them rich and make the world a worse place. I mean, I'm not a crazy person. I don't see much evidence to suggest that there's a secret society working to perpetuate Jesus' bloodline into a New World Order. On the other hand, both Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr, killed within a five year span, all by mentally unstable lone nuts for basically no reason? That doesn't sound suspicious to anyone? I mean, I feel crazy just saying it, but folks, if that shit doesn't set your alarm bells ringing, what in fuck's name is wrong with the world? Which is not to start claiming that I have secret proof that there was a third shooter at the grassy knoll, or that Dick Cheney shot a missile at the pentagon or whatever. I don't know. But I'll be damned if there aren't some things out there that seem mighty suspicious. With a conspiracy which is properly successful, you can't prove it. And even if you could, people don't want to believe it. Give them any possible way out, and they'll choose a comforting fiction. Some things just challenge people's perception of their world too much for them to allow.

It's not that all conspiracies are true (oh god, no.) It's that Americans are hostile to the very notion of conspiracies. Despite plenty of indisputable historical evidence of some fucking crazy ass shit, Americans reject the very notion of such activities as suspect. And that's after the Gunpowder Plot, CIA's MK-ULTRA experiments, the Tuskegee experiments, COINTELPRO, The General Motors Streetcar Conspiracy, Iran-Contra, Operation Ajax, and of course the true events which obviously are referenced in the film, the murder of Italian banker Roberto Calvi in 1982 and the assassination of dissident writer Georgi Markov in 1978 just to name a very few in which it's basically impossible to argue against a conspiracy. Most of these conspiracies were exposed only when the perpetrator were either caught red-handed or achieved their desired aims and felt no need to continue in secret.

It's not faith in the system that keeps people from believing, I think, but rather fear of what it might mean if we really started wondering about what forces are conspiring against us. And so Americans violently resist such notions and marginalize even the vaguest suggestion of such things. The American public does half the work of conspirators for them! We create a spiral of silence which ensures that it's the people who ask hard questions that will suffer, not the people they're asking those questions about. Hell, the argument has always been that keeping secrets between a group of people is too hard for conspiracies to be plausible. But if everyone's implicated and you keep it simple enough, exposing conspiracies is such a difficult task it's hard to believe there aren't more of them. Or maybe there are. I guess the point is that if they're done well you can have all the suspicions you want, and in the end it's just you that will seem crazy.

The genius of this film is that it successfully presents the enormity of the odds stacked against poor Clive Owen. The deeper he goes and the more outlandish the conspiracy gets, the more obvious it becomes that no one is ever going to believe it. The Sisyphean nature of his task becomes more and more obvious as his enemies get bolder and bolder. They shoot up the goddam Guggenheim and get away with it! There are bodies and machine gun rounds blanketing one of America's most famous and celebrated institutions, but one look from Owen and you realize that if he claims this is the work of a conspiracy of international banking assassins, he'll be the one locked up.

This is a powerful feeling to evoke in this crazy modern time. The system has gotten so out of control that it's gone beyond the bounds of what most people allow themselves to believe is possible. People violently defend the status quo because believing the alternative is just too horrific. The forces stacked against us are so overwhelming and so utterly devoted to furthering their own ends that stopping them is basically an absurd idea. Often, stopping them would essentially entail destroying most of the basic institutions of our government and economy. They have us at gunpoint -- if we fuck with them, they can completely destroy us and make it look like it was our fault all along. Tykwer emphasizes this point with his fixation on juxtaposing tiny humans with monolithic monuments to modernist architecture. Everything in the film is bordered by clean, neat lines and grids, and menaced by towering modernist citadels. They lurk above the horizon like predacious giants; like tombstones to ideals that don't yet know they're already dead. The Guggenheim itself, with its spiraling minimalism and austere spaciousness, is the perfect metaphor for the escalating violence against humanity wrought by the faceless powers represented by this disaffected monument to grandiosity.

All that works beautifully, and Tykwer drives the narrative along at a tense, kinetic clip, pausing for impeccably executed setpieces (of which the Guggenheim shootout is the most spectacular). That sequence in particular is so immaculately constructed in terms of acting, story, cinematography, editing, and score that it will probably be considered a classic film sequence somewhere down the line. The acting is excellent, even if both Owen and a needless Naomi Watts both fall a little short of being fully realized characters. So why didn't people like this thing?

The problem, it turns out, is that the film's greatest strength is also its greatest weakness. Tykwer masterfully convinces you of the hopelessness of the situation he's created, but then finds himself painted into a corner. He's so expertly crafted an impossible situation that there doesn't seem to be any good way out. In order to explain the unsatisfying result, I'm going to have to describe the conclusion, so the next bit is gonna be in my ever-popular Ulta-3-D- SPOIL-O-VISION!

So, after this long multinational chase to get evidence to bring down the bank, our heroes are left with exactly fuck all. An accusation as extraordinary as they're attempting to make is going to require extraordinary evidence to move on, and the people working against them are simply too good at obfuscating and confusing the picture to leave extraordinary evidence. Oh sure, they've got plenty of suspicious connections, plenty of innuendo, coincidences, odd happenings, evidence which contradicts the official explanations, and even a guy who's willing to go on record. But it's not ever going to be enough. The bank will be able to control their message, change the facts, and turn the whole thing into an incomprehensible jumble of international court hearings which will ultimately lead to some minor fine and no admission of guilt. Owen and Watts will die in some suspicious way which can't quite be proved to be the result of anything except happenstance, nothing will get any better, and anyone who thinks their deaths look like foul play will face instant ridicule and derision as a conspiracy nut.

With this setup, the director has two choices. Option A: Go the cynical route, follow the obvious logic of the film and aptly demonstrate that they're right, there's not a single damn thing you can do to make anything any better. Or, option B: Say fuck it and go for the Hollywood ending where somehow against all odds they succeed in bringing the bastards down, likely in a hail of gunfire in a secret volcano lair.

What Tykwer unwisely chooses to do is go with option C: Have Owen admit the system is untenable and take matters into his own hands, but then only do an OK job of it. Basically, Owen goes rogue and pits the mafia against the bank, so they send a dumpy middle aged guy to sort of easily shoot two of the bank's managers who for some reason don't have body guards or cell phones, and then that's it. So it kind of undermines the whole paranoia thing most of the film does so well, but also isn't a big enough win to give you the kind of payoff you'd want from an ending this unlikely. It's well put together just like everything in the film, but ends the film on kind of a shrug instead of a climax.

You can remove your SPOIL-O-VISION glasses now!

Still, the film is pretty good and bordering on great. It's a powerful, unique and exciting film which is a perfect vehicle to describe the major issues of our times, and indisputably the work of a supremely gifted and thoughtful filmmaker. It may well be the first great international thriller, that has at the very heart of its story a keen understanding of an increasingly post-national power structure juxtaposed against a stubbornly nationalist legal structure. That alone makes it a worthwhile use of your time, and a few great setpieces seal the deal. Tom Tykwer, it turns out you were already off my shit list because of PERFUME, but I'd forgotten that* so this time for sure, I'm officially excited for whatever it is you're doing next. Which, um, seems to be some kind of crazy religious epic with Tom Hanks and the Wachowski brothers? Sounds like exactly the kind of thing a cadre of evil international bankers might force on you. Call me crazy.

*Apparently this is why Santa always checks twice.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012


Parents (1989)
Dir. Bob Balaban
Starring Randy Quaid, Mary Beth Hurt, Sandy Dennis

Parents just don't understand. You know it, I know it, Will Smith knows it. It's the classic victimization of both childhood and politics; being under the unquestionable power of forces which don't understand what you wants and don't get why you do what you do. But a lesser-explored angle to that timeless axiom is its inverse: You don't understand parents. That may well be the key to understanding PARENTS. I wouldn't claim that I entirely understand PARENTS, but it's a damn fascinating film.

PARENTS, directed by perennial Christopher Guest supporting player Bob Balaban (who also, it turns out, directed the enjoyably dorky zombie rom-com MY BOYFRIENDS'S BACK) is a decidedly odd film. It concerns young Michael Laemie, a disturbed, withdrawn little kid who just moved to a new town with his all-American 1950's parents (played to the hilt for both menace and parody by Randy Quaid and Mary Beth Hurt). They're chipper and successful, but something seems a little off about them. Maybe it's their weird insistence on telling Michael vaguely menacing stories, maybe it's the surprisingly abundance of "choice cuts" on the grill, maybe it's their shifty evasions when Michael wonders what exactly all these "leftovers" were, originally. But they're doing fine; it's Michael who is not doing so well. He's plagued by bloody nightmares and hallucinations, and his pent-up horror is finding its way into disturbing violent drawing and assertions that his parents are dangerous.

The movie seems to be a weird kind of mix of 50's parody and surreal horror. There's not a lot of overt comedy, but the film plays up the 50's stereotypes pretty aggressively and sports a determinedly cheery cornball soundtrack which seems defiantly unaware of the dark intimations creeping in around the edges of the pristine 50s dreamhouse. But then again, there's not a lot of overt horror, either. The world is dripping with unspoken menace and lurking malice behind its bright suburban facade, but we never actually see anything unambiguously frightening happen. We see Michael's horrific dreams, we listen as Dad spins pointed parables, we draw connections when we see a dense blanket of prime cuts laying thick on the grill. But the film stubbornly refused to provide a smoking gun. Several times, it seems that Michael has stumbled upon grisly proof, only to have the film back away from endorsing his experience as concrete evidence.

Which slowly begs the question -- is Michael the only one who can see behind the mask of wholesome 50s nostalgia? Or is he actually the one who is disturbed, finding hideous hidden meaning in the absurdly banal? Is it more likely Mom and Dad are closeted cannibal killers, or that Michael is a troubled pre-teen who doesn't understand the world and is imposing his own warped sense of reality on things? The movie leans heavily in one direction, and then just as it seems to tip its hand it swings back and subtlety rescinds a lot of the certainly it just provided. The film is so resolutely from Michael's terrified perspective that the lines between reality and imagination blur to the point that no event can really be completely taken at face value. it's a nifty trick, and the film is confident enough to refuse to resolve itself or directly address the subjective nature of its perspective.

What does it all mean? I'm not sure I really know. It's focus on bland 50s archetypes juxtaposed with elements of horror (both real and imagined) seems to suggest it wants us to draw some kind of parallel, but I'm not certain exactly what. The fact that Dad works at a cheery chemical plant designing defoliants and (apparently) testing them on human subjects seems to parallel the film's central narrative of savagery lurking behind the veneer of vapid consumption, but doesn't Michael's warped perspective on life somewhat undermine that suggestion? Or is it Dad's detached, modernist workaday horror part of what is causing poor Michael to come unhinged? Are to to believe Michael is the only one who lacks the cognitive dissonance to compartmentalize chemical warfare and domestic bliss and hence is falling apart? Or is this actually a story of fear of the unknown turning a blissful reality into a nightmare? I'm sort of hedging towards the former, which I think makes more sense and explains more of the film's unique creative choices, but I like that there's plenty of room to argue other possibilities. There's also a strange undercurrent of animalistic sexuality running beneath everything, which may be the key to understanding the whole thing or may just be another layer of mystery. What's up with the aggressively sexual encounter between the parents that Michael observes (and is it even real?) and what does it have to do with the hellsprite little girl next door, who runs a savage burn worthy of FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS on the Laemie house while (at the very least) aping the rhythms of adult sexuality?

I've seen this film compared to Lynch's early work (BLUE VELVET, in particular) which is a fitting connection to draw in the two film's shared mix of suburban normalcy and surreal horror. But the film I found myself thinking about while watching is Mark Peploe's 1991 film AFRAID OF THE DARK, a similarly vicious nightmare of childhood subjectivity (interesting that the two were made only two years apart -- what the fuck was going on in the late 80s that made people think kids were living in a separate world of depraved horror? Oh right, Kriss Kross.) PARENTS and AFRAID... traffic in the ambiguities of childhood perception, and offer a glimpse into the isolation and terror this can engender. Both films have other interesting things to say, but their most interesting trick is this unusually bleak insight into what exactly it can mean that parents just don't understand. It's an old horror trope that kids (and pets, I guess) exist closer to the spirit world and are open to seeing and believing things that adults cannot. But these two films are a troubling reminder that seeing is not the same as understanding, and without understanding the consequences can be severe.

Balaban went on to direct four other films, and none of them seems to be anything even remotely like this, so figuring out exactly what the fuck he was up to with this one seems like a hopeless cause. Even so, its an astoundingly well-constructed film bolstered with a surprising about of visual prowess (there's an interesting technique here which seems to transform the live-action into a illustration as Michael dreams about running through the halls of his house. It's surreal and effective and I don't know that I've ever seen it used anywhere else). Neither Balaban nor anyone else I'm aware of would ever return to this kind of material again, but that's OK -- PARENTS is a rare perfect original. It's exactly what it needs to be, and hasn't been diluted with sequels and knockoffs. Even if we may never completely understand, you don't have to emulate PARENTS to love them.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

The Lost

The Lost (2006)
Dir. Chris Siverton
Starring Marc Senter, Shay Astar, Alex Frost.

So here we have a very odd, dark little film about Ray Pye (Marc Senter), who --the pre-film intertitle informs us-- stuffs crushed beer cans in his boots to make himself appear taller. That's a fun little fact about Ray; another might be that he's a sociopathic maniac killer drug addict whose only joy in life is fucking as many high school girls as possible. Which I'm against, not to be too controversial.

THE LOST is adapted from a novel by Jack Ketchum, who is apparently a pretty big deal in horror literature circles, but its the guy who did the adapting that I was interested in here: Chris Siverton, who also directed the hilariously bad/intriguingly brilliant I KNOW WHO KILLED ME. That film was about as eye-rollingly idiotic as they come, but he made it a beguiling visual feast and overcame --maybe even elevated-- the sub-moronic script, evolving the whole thing into a weird Dario Argento-esque Gaillo nightmare/ camp classic. He didn't write that one (thank God) so I was curious to see if that was a fluke or the rocky start to a career of a truly great visual stylist.

After watching THE LOST, I'm coming down squarely in the second camp. The longer I think about it, the more I think this one's kinda brilliant, and a spectacular accomplishment for a first-time filmmaker working on what had to be almost no budget. It's a little creaky in places, but its also a truly unique, unsettling, provocative work anchored by an assured visual vocabulary and a stellar lead performance.

It's also a film which is very hard to describe. I don't know if it's exactly a horror film. In fact, in his commentary (the only one on the disc) Jack Ketchum seems almost apologetic about the lack of horror scenes. Ray kills one girl right at the start, and then there's basically no violence at all until the last 15 minutes or so. The rest of the time, its sort of a grotesque drama as we watch Ray and the people who orbit him go through their mundane daily dramas. See, Ray isn't the typical serial killer psychopath we see in most horror films. He's more like an unstable narcissist who is capable of extreme violence but doesn't actually go through with it very often. Right at the start of the film, he murders two camping girls in the woods for absolutely no reason, shocking his loyal hangers-on Jennifer and Tim, both with his out-of-the-blue murder and his completely unfazed reaction to it.

Is this a sign that he's been doing this kind of thing for a long time? Nope, it turns out that it was the first and only time. And he didn't really get off on it enough to be tempted to do it again. Ray's a sociopath, but more of a narcissistic coke fiend than a serial killer. So most of the film is about his life and his relationship with the cloud of worshipful high school girls who always seem to surround him. Actor Marc Senter does a stunning job of portraying Ray as a pathetic smalltown lowlife while nevertheless effortlessly conveying his power over people and the draw he has on these young, self-conscious women. He's handsome, older, capable of being incredibly charming and even warm when he needs to be. They don't understand that his odd gait is reflective of his intrinsic need to dominate people; they just see his power and completely melt in the intensity of his desire.

Siverton sets the story in what seems to be modern times, but the Lost of the title actually refers to the era that Ketchum set his novel -- 1969. The Lost is the Lost Generation stuck in small-town America while all their peers either went to Vietnam or College. The people remaining are the ones who washed out -- burn outs, drop-outs, runaways; the ones who couldn't cut it as fighters or thinkers or doers. Their complete self-disgust is written on their faces, and their hero worship of Ray (the only game in town who seems to have any idea what to do with life) is palpable. His closest groupies know all about his sadistic side, but stick with him anyway. What other choice do they have? His nominal best friend, Tim, undertakes little acts of rebellion against him and lusts after his fallback girl Jen, but still seems utterly unable to conceive of a life without Ray as an animating force. As much as they know he's trouble and hate being targets of his anger, everyone here is so personally ill-defined that they need him on a fundamental level. 

Senter's performance is textured enough that even the audience is kind of drawn in by him. We've seen what he's capable of too, but we also have to admit that he's charismatic and electric in exactly the way we like to see in film characters. When he calms down and acts kind or vulnerable, we're tempted to believe him just as the characters around him are. Since we never really learn anything about his history or motivations, it's impossible to ever really know exactly what's driving him and what he's thinking -- which both leaves us anxiously off-balance and allows for many possible readings of the situation.

Even up to the end, its possible to imagine a film which actually sides with him and mines his petty vulnerability for pathos instead of contempt. Halfway through the film he meets Katharine Wallace, a rich, pretty young high school girl who might be as disturbed and damaged as he himself is, and his reaction is intriguing. He's his usual smarmy self at first, but then shares odd moments of honesty and even sympathy with her. He seems genuinely transformed by someone who is probably closer to a kindred soul -- but then again, isn't that exactly the way a narcissistic sociopath would seem if it seemed like it would get him what he wants? We've seen how convincingly duplicitous he is, and yet here we are, still sort of buying that he could change for someone who he could be a bit more honest with. Senter's performance is good enough that we're compelled even as we're repulsed, and Siverton's direction is assured enough to leave things ambiguous.

The direction is not as overtly stylized as I KNOW WHO KILLED ME, but its still filled with visual verve. From the long tracking shot of Raye's bowlegged boots walking through the woods which opens the film, it's obvious Siverton has a keen eye for camera movement. There are some bits which don't work so well (a sex scene which alternates between violent and tender copulations with two different women is somewhat distracting film school show-off crap, but just barely survives because it also communicates interesting things about Ray's character). Some of the awkward ticks from I KNOW... are also in evidence here, especially in Siverton's weird desire to fade scenes entirely to black before bringing up the next scene. It can give the film a spacy, dreamy vibe -- which worked well in I KNOW...-- but doesn't work so well here. There's also a few stunningly bad ideas like the constantly farting lead detective (I know, right? What the fuck?) and a tiresome and unnecessary subplot about a minor character who is having an affair with a much, much older guy. This comes up every now and again, and its both indifferently staged and punishingly irrelevant to anything. The girl does figure into the violent finale, but the older guy is a pointless character and the whole thing really adds nothing to either the characters or the film. It absolutely needed to be cut from the final draft, so hopefully Siverton learned a lesson here (I'm sure it made more sense in the novel, but come on.) 

Still, those are forgivable sins in a first feature. It's not exactly a pleasant film experience, but its an entirely memorable and affecting one. Turns out it was produced by Lucky McKee, another guy who made two extremely strong films and even handles some brief super-8 footage on this one (Ketchum says McKee and Siverton were friends from way back, awesome).

I appreciate that Siverton was crazy enough to make what is essentially a long drama about an extremely unlikable bastard doing mostly fairly mundane things, and still managed to make it deeply compelling and horrifying even without much blood spilled. The violence which begins the film gives a tenebrous character which never really lifts, as we're trapped along with the characters in a spiral of hopelessness which must inevitably erupt in bloodshed again. Ray's final rampage is not one for the record books, but the film's final moments are. There's a caustic bleakness to their portrayal of undefined, utterly inhuman extreme emotion. "Why are they screaming?" The nice lady on the commentary track asks Ketchum "Oh, they're not screaming for him," he answers. "They're just screaming, you know. After all that, wouldn't you?" Hell yes, Jack, and that's the charm here. The horror comes from places you don't expect and manifests itself in ways which are hard to define. Which is a pretty strong endorsement for a guy who made a Lindsay Lohan film.

Apparently Siverton made a MMA film this year enticingly titled BRAWLER, which reviewers compared favorably to the more generically named FIGHTER and WARRIOR. If it's as confidently constructed as this one is, it could be the beginning of a career to watch (in the words of Senator Palpatine) "With great interest."This guy's got a great eye and the balls to do something seriously unique. Let's just hope he doesn't turn to the dark side.

ADDENDUM: Special thanks to Dan P, who lent me his copy of this otherwise difficult-to-obtain little oddity. You can find his excellent blog and read his review here: