Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Terribly Happy

Terribly Happy aka Frygtelig lykkelig (2008)
Dir. Henrik Ruben Genz
Starring Jakob Cedergren, Lene Maria Christensen, Danish Tom Sizmore

    TERRIBLY HAPPY is a Danish film about a tightly-wound Cop (Cedergren) who gets transferred to the boondocks of Denmark (the deep South, I guess it’s the same everywhere) for an initially unspecified fuckup in the city. It’s a close-knit community, and he’s an obvious outsider without enough context to quite be able to discern what the townsfolk are up to.  And they’re a colorful enough lot that they’re definitely up to something. There’s the town Tom Sizmore lookalike bully, his aggressively sexual wife, their creepy daughter, a Dennis Hopper lookalike with a big scar on his face, a manically grinning shopowner, the self-professed “town quack”. And then there are those people who recently disappeared but no one seems to be looking for. And that bog just on the outskirts of town with a truck parked in the center. Our boy plays it carefully, not really sure what’s going on but not oblivious to the fact that there’s more than meets the eye here. He’s not really sure what they’re capable of, and we’re not exactly sure what he’s capable of. But he keeps his wits about him and  tries to figure out what’s going on as the situation gets tenser and more potentially explosive. Then one day his cat tells him “Good morning”* and we realize this isn’t even close to the worst of it. 

    This is the first film I’ve seen in a very long time which can appropriately be called Hitchcockian (or Hitchcockionian, if you prefer) in the gleeful way it tightens the noose on its protagonist. Like Hitchcock’s best (but not like NORTH BY NORTHWEST. Fuck that one), it keeps tight control over its twisty, turny plot while at the same time maintaining a laser-like focus on keeping you entertained through a winning mix of imminent sexuality, boiling tension, and oblique black humor. It’s confidence in escalating the predicament of our lone cop is truly impressive, as it finds ever more devious ways of evolving into something different than you though it would be. Every time it seems like we’re getting the handle on the situation, some elegantly perfect new wrinkle emerges. It toys masterfully with our expectations and even our loyalties, shifting our sympathies between characters and gleefully setting up hidden moral trap for the unsuspecting viewer to walk into. It’s a wildly ambitious setup, but executed with such a diabolical confidence that it never seems pretentious or even arty -- just relentless.

    The style has been compared to the Coen Brothers, David Lynch, and I just compared it to Hitchcock. That may be overselling it slightly; for one thing, director Genz is not quite a visual master of that caliber, nor able to communicate as eloquently through pure cinema. But in terms of tone, those names are a good fit**. It successfully evokes the Coen Brothers’ sense of morbid fun mixed with dread, and Lynch’s ability to make the ordinary seem alien and horrific. It even has a little of Oliver Stone’s excellent U-TURN, with its protagonist trying only to get out of town but finding himself sucked inexorably in by his own flaws and the town’s grotesquely exaggerated denizens. No Indian Spirit guide, though. Maybe they’re saving that for the sequel? 

    The film is presented realistically, but there’s enough of a weird nightmarish quality to it that one might be tempted to speculate that there’s a metaphor of some kind lurking beneath the surface (or at the very least that it’s not meant to be taken entirely literally). At times its basically WAITING FOR GODOT with guns. The town is spartan almost to the point of absurdity, just a few bare buildings stuck in the center of a vast emptiness which stretches into the hazy distance as far as the eye can see in every direction. There’s a perpetually menacing steel gray sky lurking above them, listlessly oscillating between “about to rain” and “actually raining.” There’s a constant presence of the unseen outside world (the big city), always referred to but never actually seen, from which disruption can arrive with no warning and into which the elements of this closed world seem to mysteriously disappear. There’s obviously a plot brewing, but the more you see of it the more clear it becomes that it’s goals, and maybe even its composition, is more esoteric than criminal. Who the villains are and what exactly they want is always elusive without ever quite being outright inexplicable. Is it too much to wonder if maybe this is some sort of weird purgatory, a place where our hero is sent to test his moral fiber and perhaps to pay for his crimes? 

    To its credit, the film isn’t saying. Or even implying, really -- its willing to provide you a weird, creepy world and let you figure out what it means. It’s a little less confident about the plot, however -- occasionally it slips into the self-conscious habit of overexplaining to make sure you get all the details right. It’s all well-handled and it adds up rather nicely, but if there’s one thing that keeps it from being in the league of the Hitchcocks, Lynches, Coens, and Stones its that those directors would rather leave some questions unanswered than bring in a bunch of expository dialogue to muck up the simple elegance of an enduring riddle. The explanations are good, but the mystery is what we really savor. The true masters of tension understand that their job is to be in service to the mood, not to the specifics of plot. And the film is at its best when it does just that -- the classic sequence where two characters have a wordless duel of hard drinking, for example, needs no explanation other than the subtle changes of expression on the actors’ faces and the stylish but controlled aggression of the cinematography. What exactly are they thinking? We don’t know specifically, but we understand enough to fill in the gaps and appreciate exactly what the scene is going for. 

    I certainly appreciate what the film is going for. Its unique and ambitious, but even more importantly its simply a spectacularly efficient tension-building machine. Whatever it means, whoever you want to compare it to, I defy anyone to resist its looming mystery or fail to be drawn it at its relentless escalation. It’s a good reminder that a great story is all in the telling. What kind of world do we live in where the tribulations of a small-town Danish cop are a hundred times more gripping than 3 multi-million dollar films about giant fighting robots put together? In the words of another melancholy Dane (and TERRIBLY HAPPY is full of ‘em):' there's the respect that makes calamity of so long life'.

*Or “goodbye,” they point out that the colloquialism “mojn” can mean both.

**Funny enough, the film it probably most closely resembles in structure is HOT FUZZ. Uptight policeman gets transferred to small rural town to calm him down, only to find evidence of a creepy unspoken conspiracy amongst the townsfolk? FUZZ is so on the ball with its cop movie parodies that it actually beat the film it most closely mimics to the theaters by a full year.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

The Subtlety Guide to Shit You Should Have Seen in 2011

I’ve been hesitant to post a “top 10” this year. Usually I keep a good diary of the films I’ve seen to reflect back on, but this year my hard drive got a big glass of wine spilled on it and, um. I did as much research as I could to try and figure out what came out in 2011, but I’m sure I’m forgetting something. Also due to circumstances beyond my control I missed a bunch of biggies this year, including but not limited to IN TIME, YOUNG ADULT, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, HAROLD AND KUMAR 3, IMMORTALS, HUGO, THE MUPPETS (to my eternal shame), TINTIN, MISSION IMPOSSIBLE PRESENTS GHOST PROTOCOL, SOURCE CODE, UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES, BELLFLOWER, QUATTRO VOLTE, A SEPARATION, INTO THE ABYSS, RANGO, THE ARTIST, THE MILL AND THE CROSS, MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE, RED TAILS, TAKE SHELTER, EVERYDAY SUNSHINE, A DANGEROUS METHOD, 50/50 and THE INTERRUPTERs. People seem to be digging on all of those, so who knows what I would have thought.

Anyway, that stuff notwithstanding, it's fucking February already so here are my favorites from 2011 in no particular order. I’m not sure I’d necessarily call these the best films; in fact, I have some on here which have some pretty obvious flaws. But these are the ones I ended up respecting the most, for my own esoteric reasons. Consider them recommendations at your own risk

The Big Winners

DRIVE: OK, so everyone and their Uncle Boonme knows this one is amazing, but that doesn’t make it less so. Hypnotic yet gripping, familiar yet unexpected, mysterious yet satisfying. Exactly perfect at being exactly what it is.

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY: Ok, no surprise here either. Who am I to argue with an impeccably constructed, impeccably acted, thoroughly entertaining Gary Oldman vehicle? And he finally gets to use his British accent!

ATTACK THE BLOCK: This one got so hyped up that I feel like the backlash of disappointment had started almost before it even made it to most movie screens. Was it worth the hype? Not sure, but it was definitely worth the praise. Another small miracle of meticulously tight construction and execution, with a few unique twists and some light social commentary to make it a little more than a sum of its parts.

MELANCHOLIA: Who knew Lars Von Triers was capable of making such a gorgeous film? Here, everything he’s been perfecting throughout his career comes to a head: dense psychological realism, extreme emotional states, apocalyptic surrealism, and an insanely dark streak of humor make this a potent, deeply affecting concoction. No talking fox this time, either.

ANONYMOUS: Here’s where things get interesting. I seriously doubt anyone shares the same affliction I have which causes me to love Emmerich’s movies, but I can’t deny it anymore. There’s something completely sublime about this film’s utterly grim ludicrousness. Everything about it is heroically, ponderously epic, which just makes its’ stone-faced preposterousness all the more endearing. And say what you will about him, Emmerich knows how to hold his camera still and build something which is as visually dramatic as he seems to think the narrative is. An absolutely stellar cast of British actors (including a fantastic Vanessa Redgrave) complete this bizarrely entertaining mix of class and crass.

HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN: Another one I think only I could really love. Like DRIVE, this one uses the trappings of a bygone time period to create something unflinchingly bizarre and imaginatively twisted. It’s a fever dream of surreal violence powered by a Rutger Hauer performance strong enough to melt steel. It’s a completely outrageous experience which is also savvy enough to channel the insanity into a sleek, electrifying cinematic ride.  

RED STATE: It’s hard to imagine anyone exactly liking this vicious little piece of nihilistic misanthropy from Kevin Smith, but the more I think about it the more impressed I am with it. Smith begins with the surprisingly effective trappings of a standard horror-porn film, and then thrashes about in every direction laying waste to the poisonously divided US cultural landscape in ways which are sometimes subtle, sometimes overt, but always surprising. Fiercely good performances by John Goodman and especially Michael Parks tip the scales resoundingly into greatness, even when the film making doesn’t back them up.

THE FUTURE: Miranda July takes the hipster leanings of her debut and pushes them to unexpectedly melancholy, surreal places. The film can still be a little precious at times, but its heartache and loneliness ring painfully true. The world isn’t exactly hurting for films about angsty young adults trying to find their purpose, but here July manages to find new ways of expressing our fears and insecurities which are both poetic and resonant.  

TABLOID: I find it hard to imagine a world in which an Errol Morris film wouldn’t crack my top ten any given year one came out. TABLOID returns to his favorite theme of the subjective nature of experience and reality, but in a completely different way than earlier work like THE THIN BLUE LINE and THE FOG OF WAR did. Way more kinky sex, for one thing. Morris tells a story you can hardly believe (and maybe you shouldn’t believe) with a breathless sense of fun, a sly sense of humor, and a forgiving affection that keeps things from feeling too mean-spirited. Riveting, hilarious, and oddly moving.

CAVE OF FORGOTTEN DREAMS: Werner Herzog turns a nice, polite National Geographic type documentary into a poetic meditation on art, humanity, and the soul. A triumph of genuine historical interest mixed with spectacular film making, and a masterful use use of 3-D technology to boot. The long sequence which simply depicts the cave drawings at the center of the film -- first in silence, and then gradually building with the film’s excellent score-- highlights what a master of his craft Herzog is and probably ranks as the single greatest sequence I saw this year. A unique classic.  

Runner ups:

PAGE ONE: Interesting rumination on the tumultuously changing art of journalism, anchored by acid-tongued wit of editor David Carr, probably the greatest film character of the year.

KILL THE IRISHMAN: An expansive crime saga with a different kind of badass at its center, in the vein of GOODFELLAS and MESRINE. Not quite as good as those, but wholly immersive, deeply satisfying, and featuring a dynamite cast.

BEGINNERS: Overcomes being saddled with literally every rom com cliche in the book through virtue of its good nature, keen eye for human drama, and an utterly adorable performance from Christopher Plummer.

TREE OF LIFE: Reaches astonishing heights with its hazy central narrative, only to wear out its welcome by overreaching for a meaning which was already there. Still a phenomenal, stunning work by a true master.

I SAW THE DEVIL: I remain convinced that Jee-Woon Kim is among the most gifted, effortlessly cinematic filmmaker alive today. The story here is a little loose, but in the hands of a master like Kim you’d hardly notice. Brutal and well-realized.  

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: Complete movie buff fluff from Woody Allen, but with a subtly winning charm. Wilson may be the best Woody Allen since John Cusack, but appropriately no one is a match for Corey Stoll as Hemingway.

ANOTHER EARTH: A little forced, but a lot beautiful. Its bold surrealism and excellent cast make a combination potent enough to sell a somewhat strained story.

FIGHT NIGHT: Colin Ferrall continues his inexplicable SHOGUN-esque mission to walk the Earth turning in astoundingly great performances in movies no one could really be expected to see. Nice supporting work, likeable characters, and some effective set pieces make this a film which has some reason to exist.

WARRIOR: Predictable drama, but solid fundamentals and great performances make for a satisfying experience. Believable fights and a committed cast, especially Nick Nolte, help a lot.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES: Dumb as a dufflebag full of colobus monkies, which somehow doesn’t stop if from being great. For some fool reason it seems to think its job is to entertain us, and just won’t stop doing that. Great apes indeed.

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: Also pretty dumb, but with Michael Fassbender’s charisma turned up so loud you can’t really hear anything else. And Kevin Bacon wears a maroon leisure suite. And Michael Ironside is in there somewhere, too. 

13 ASSASSINS: Didn't really stick with me like you might want it to, but you can't argue that it delivers the goods. 

RUM DIARY: Depp disappointingly coasts through his second try at playing Hunter Thompson, the script removes a key character from the book who’s basically the whole point of telling the story, and it has an awful ending which undermines everything good about everything else about it. But other than those minor complaints, Director Bruce Robinson fashions a meandering story full of fun characters, great period and local detail, and a few scenes of genuinely sublime depravity. Worth it for Giovanni Ribisi’s glorious human trainwreck Moberg, if nothing else.  

ADDENDUM 2/22: MISSION IMPOSSIBLE GHOST PROTOCOL: The most assured, inventive, and breathless action film I saw all year, with the best actual action sequences by miles. Yet somehow feels a little disposable. Maybe it's the vaguely drawn villain, maybe its just that Cruise is such a cypher, maybe it's that the whole thing seems a little too eager to please. Worth the time to watch, but I hope Brad Bird moves on to directing action movies this good which have a little more character to them.  

ADDENDUM 3/6: RANGO: A gorgeous, unique, kinetic and gripping take on Westerns which is postmodern enough to fly in this day and age, but actually best when it embraces it's authentically Western spirit. Depp, who -lets face it- has been coasting lately, comes wonderfully to weirdo life when freed of his own body. Definitely one of my favorites of the year.

ADDENDUM 4/1: HUGO: Martin Scorcese creates some beautiful images and gets some great mileage out of his 3-D, but doesn't seem to know what to do with the sense of whimsy he's trying so aggressively to cultivate. His passion for the early days of cinema the film's narrative explores here is evident, but his obvious disinterest in the kid's story at the center of the film is a somewhat surprising drawback. Seeing 3D-ized Melies is a real treat, but the rest of the film tends towards the sterile and maudlin. However, anyone besides me think its weird that both Gandhi and Jinnah are finally in a film together and nobody made a big deal about it? 

ADDENDUM 4/19: MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE: Near pitch-perfect depiction of subtle psychological violence, portraying the complete breakdown of the protagonist --and the ensuing lingering damage -- with chilling authenticity. Director Sean Durkin expertly reshapes two linear narratives into a twisting mess until we can't help but feel poor Martha Marcy's rudderless confusion. Arresting and deeply disturbing, but feels a little unresolved (although I suppose that's part of the point).  

ADDENDUM 4/20: SOURCE CODE: Duncan Jones' follow up to MOON is a much more conventional action/sci-fi film, but it passes the time nicely as a twisty, compelling GROUNDHOG DAY-on-a-train scenario. Jake Gyllenhaal works surprisingly well as a somewhat badass character, and it's nice to see comedian Russel Peters in there, too. Not quite as mind-bendy as it seems to think it is, but you gotta admit it's a meticulously well-built entertainment machine. 

ADDENDUM 5/17: THE MUPPETS: Jason Segel's attempt to revive one of my most beloved franchises has some issues, but mostly works thanks to its old-fashioned corny sweetness melded with its very lightly sly humor. The jokes and setup are good, but watching it I can't help but shake the feeling that by writing Segel himself and his muppet "brother" as the main characters foolishly steals time and attention from our beloved favorites and makes the film feel overcrowded. Still, the last act in particular (where they return to their original theater) is sublime, the guest stars are fun, the songs are good, and that old Muppets magic is in stronger effect than it's been since MUPPET TREASURE ISLAND back in 1897 or whatever when Tim Curry was still skinny. 

ADDENDUM 5/30: A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR 3D CHRISTMAS: The film lacks a suitable climax and ditches most of the clever racial commentary which made the first two so unique and refreshing, but that's OK because it makes up for it by being delightfully hilarious and surprisingly heartfelt. The series may have started as a way to make fun of all the fratty white boy comedies of the early 2000s, but since then its two leads have kinda wormed their way into our hearts and it's a nice reward to have a film which treats their drama with some respect. It doesn't hurt that Cho and Penn are both spectacularly entertaining actors with an easy rapport which is stronger than ever. Also expect more NPH action, a charming claymation sequence, and a series of jokes about a toddler getting high on cocaine. Guaranteed to jingle your bells (although should be seen in 3-D to really get the full experience).

ADDENDUM 12/10: TINTIN: Kinetic, freewheeling slapstick from Spielberg, who makes great use of his animated world to try some jaw-dropping sequences. The sensory overload of the wildly detailed animation sometimes threatens the simpler charms of Herge's characters, but there's enough honest life in them to (barely) come out on top, particularly once Andy Serkis's hilarious drunken Scotsman Captain Haddock enters the fray.

ADDENDUM 12/17/2013: 50/50: An very emotionally honest performance by Joseph Gordon "Robin" Levitt is at the center of this cancer dramedy, but only Seth Rogan has many funny moments and he's mostly a side character. Not terrible as this sort of thing goes, and I appreciate it's genuine earnestness about the subject matter, but I'm baffled by people who called it one of the year's best. 

That's it, Sports Fans. What did I miss, what was I wrong about, what do you suspect I saw breathtakingly stoned?

Friday, February 10, 2012

Emanuelle Around the World

Emanuelle Around the World (1977)
Dir. Joe D’Amato
Starring Laura Gemser and.... ?

I have no clear memories of this film at all, but I’m told there’s a part where a German Shepard has sex with someone, so that’s fun.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Emanuelle in America

Emanuelle in America (1977)
Dir. Joe D’Amato
Starring Laura Gemser, various Italians, one memorable horse

    So what we have here is something which I think can be accurately described as an Italian softcore-cum-hardcore-cum-horrifying journey into Eli Roth’s subconscious-cum-wacky globetrotting adventure-cum-sleazy Italian porno nightmare party kinda movie. You know the type. I think in Italy, they’re just called “films.” Here in Puritan Land, it seems a little stunning that such a thing was ever loosed on the world, but let’s be honest, Lucio Fulci reads this kind of thing to his kids as a bedtime story. Hell, MONDO CANE and LA DONNA DEL MONDO are basically a real-life version of this same scenario, and they’re from the early 60s. So sure, sometimes a nude woman is going to jerk off a horse, you don’t have to get judgemental about it. Don’t be so fucking bourgeois. How is this world ever going to achieve peace and understanding if we can’t just accept that some cultures make THE SEVENTH SEAL and some cultures make EMANUELLE IN AMERICA and that there’s room in out hearts/pants for both?

    So the deal here is, Emanuelle is an intrepid/promiscuous reporter with severe ADD (not specifically mentioned, but you’ll notices she never actually finishes any reports or sex scenes) who hops around the globe uncovering things, for instances plots, evildoing, and her tits. One of the places she does not globe hop to is America, which must mean that the title is a metaphor or something, but I’m not sure I get it. Maybe there’s a zodiac hooker ranch within the heart of all Americans? That sounds right but I wouldn’t swear to it. Oh yeah, she goes to a zodiac themed hooker ranch I guess.

    One of the first things I noticed about this movie is that it makes no sense whatsoever. At first I blamed myself, or more specifically the half bottle of fine Dewar’s scotch I consumed (see? I’m all about bridging cultures) as well as a mysterious and possibly evil alcoholic beverage called “Alize” which apparently rappers drink (come to think of it, it might well explain Lil Wayne). But then I decided that no, I could follow SYRIANA drunk, so it’s probably fair to at least share the blame with the film itself. It’s not that it has no plot, its more that it has something like five or six plots which keep interrupting each other before the last one is finished.*
First, Emanuelle infiltrates said zodiac-themed hooker ranch, where she has off-screen sex with the head of security, has a lesbian pool scene with two other zodiac hookers inasmuch as it is possible to have a lesbian pool scene without ever specifically touching any genitals, and sees the infamous scene of a lady somewhat nervously jerking off a bored horse, which I believe doesn’t stop eating hay during the encounter, that’s how routine this shit is for him. I like that one of the reviews on IMBD describes this incident as, “a voyeuristic "peep" at a chick graphically jerking off a horse named Pedro!!!” -- as if to say, “What kind of ridiculous movie thinks we’d buy that anyone would name a horse ‘Pedro?!”

Then she’s off to Italy to learn about a highbrow dinner party/orgy racket. Wait, what? What happened to the Zodiac Brothel? Still there, I guess. I wonder if that horse ever did get off? Or if the lesbians ever made it past tentatively caressing each others’ thighs, which is not even first base in my opinion. I’d have guessed they were saving it for the sequel, but as luck would have it I’ve seen the sequel and although my memory is pretty fuzzy I’m pretty sure it’s not in there. Joke’s on you, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, long buildups abruptly dispensing with any payoff are old news to Emanuelle (and, appropriately, to single people the world over).

Anyway, that sort of thing would be irritating in any other kind of movie, but here it just adds to the charm. Emanuelle keeps arriving at places, taking her top off and having off-screen sex with someone which apparently results in her solving mysteries, and then it’s off to the next assignment/topless encounter. Hope you weren’t too invested in those characters from before. About halfway through, the first actual genitals appear out of the blue (well, actually out of the pants) and you go, “oh yeah, I forgot, sex!” The first half is almost nothing but sex scenes without any actual, uh, sex. So it gets a little abstract after awhile and you start to wonder if maybe you’re reading these scenes incorrectly, like maybe you’re just a pervy weirdo who’s putting your own sexual spin on this innocent tale of a nudist reporter and the many body-positive 70s Italians she encounters. So it was a good artistic decision to bring the penises out, if you ask me.

Which reminds me, how can you go on living in a world where no one has ever made a porno parody of ENTER THE DRAGON? The thing basically writes itself (yes, right down to the end with Han’s detachable hands). Is the problem that there doesn’t seem to be a good enough pun with the same cadence as “Dragon?” Surely with the benefits of modern science, this hurdle can be overcome.

Anyway, I’m stalling for time because I’m not sure how to approach this topic. The gal who plays Emmanuelle is cute (at least, her torso is, she never does seem to take her pants off) and has a genuine plucky charm to her, even if she’s not likely to win that Nobel prize for acting in a porno film. And there’s that horse part which is pretty weird, and the whole thing has a goofball 70s free love vibe which is always appealing. But were it just for those things, people probably wouldn’t remember this film, all these years later. See, things take a.... somewhat unexpected turn. The kind of turn that involves unnecessary breast reduction surgery with perhaps undue expedience.

Basically what I’m saying is that after an hour and some change of breezy 70s softcore, it suddenly turns into fucking CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, except more convincing. I’m told by reliable source Andy Prestwich that this section was David Cronenberg’s inspiration for VIDEODROME, and I believe it (thank God there are no car crashes in this one, although now that I think about it there is some road head at the very start). I’m not sure if director D’Amato was getting off on this stuff, or expected us to get off on it, or just got caught up in the plot and forgot that this film only existed because it was the most expedient way to get boobs to needy teenagers before the invention of the internet, or what, but the effect is that it makes DEMONLOVER look like BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’s, only less racist.

Conceptually, it’s hilarious to have such a stunning boner-killer right at the climax of a freewheeling globetrotting 70s porn. In execution, its actually kind of horrifying. Emanuelle wanders around this vaguely-defined open-room sex mansion (you know the kind I mean), only to discover people are watching some really depraved snuff films while they fuck. Maybe D’Amato thought it would be less disturbing because you only see it on film and never in the “real” world, but it actually just makes it all the more perverse because you have the added weirdness of these sick knuckleheads getting off on some very seriously not OK (predictably) man-on-woman sexual violence. Lisbeth Salander does not approve. And I’m thinking the guy composing the score was just as horrified, because he suddenly stops dead in his tracks too, leaving skinny little Emanuelle to wander around, bug-eyed, probably topless, bereft of funky porno music, taking hidden photos of these murderous sociopaths, putting her life and libido on the line in a desperate attempt to shine a spotlight on these atrocities and maybe save the lives of these poor female sex slaves. It’s so completely surreal and horrifying that the large and boisterous audience I saw it with suddenly became completely and conspicuously silent.

So this goes on only for about 15 minutes or so, and Emanuelle rushes the evidence the fuck out of there and back to her editor in New York (see? America!). And he tells her forget about it, there’s no way we can print this shit. So she forgets about it, takes off her top, and flies off to Africa to become the wife of a tribal chief. Problem solved! Sorry girls, hope the whole human fishhook thing works out as a career path. Emanuelle understands a thing or two about work-life balance.

Or so it seems, until the morning after the big tribal orgy (off-screen, of course. Wouldn’t want to offend anyone.) There’s a camera crew outside, which everyone finds very amusing for reasons I couldn’t quite parse out. So wait, is this some kind of twist meta ending, then, acknowledging that the whole thing was actually a film? Is it questioning the ethics of our voyeuristic journey by allowing the characters to actually confront us as voyeurs within the framework of the narrative? Emanuelle herself is something of a voyeur, recording images of seedy sexual escapades, but then she’s also being recorded in her own sexual adventures by the camera the audience is behind. Does her laughter indicate she appreciates the irony now that her place in the chain of voyeurs has been made clear? Or is she laughing at us, thinking we’re the only ones no one is watching? Is it a positive counterpoint to the evil use of film by those murderous snuff producers no one seems all that concerned about? Or did they just figure, “Hell, we paid to rent this film equipment, might as well get some footage of it”?

We’ll never know for sure. But one thing is certain: we watched it. And we can’t unwatch it. All we can do is take a cue from Emanuelle herself: put the whole experience behind us and move on to more topless adventures. Well played, Italy. 

NOTE: This review is dedicated to the Prestwiches, and especially Andy, for providing an evening of fine Scotch and salacious hardcore porn.  

*Note that I tastefully avoided making this into a sex pun in a preemptive move towards silencing the critics who will question my sensitivity later in this review when I use the phrase "human fishhook." 

Friday, February 3, 2012

Nowhere to Run

Nowhere to Run (1993)
Dir. Robert Harmon
Starring Jean-Claude Van Damme, Rosanna Arquette, Joss Ackland, Kieran Culkin, Ted Levine

A perfectly serviceable little action picture from 1993, which again confirms that there was a time when “action” movies were not required to explode a giant robot every few minutes to keep you entertained, and were actually more like dramas with an absurdly overmuscled goofball cast in the lead part. This one has a little more legit action in it than PENTATHLON --including a pretty excellent prison bus breakout at the start and an impressively absurd offroad motorcycle chase at the end -- but is mostly the story of a quiet ex-con finding a simple country family and doing what it takes to put his past behind him and protect them. It kind of reminded me of Seagal’s underrated and poorly named FIRE DOWN BELOW in that if you had cast anyone other than a ridiculous action icon in the lead, people might have reason to take the film seriously.

    Honestly, if you cast Viggo Mortenssen, or, hell, even Liam “Action” Neeson in the Van Damme role, it would probably be called a drama, or at least a thriller. You can even keep the motorcycle chase, and people would just assume it’s a metaphor for his inner conflict about escaping from him past. But with two separate scenes of Van Damme’s nude, spectacularly ripped and completely hairless body emerging from a lake, you’ve got no choice but to call it an action movie. Maybe even an action flick.

    Still, they treat it pretty much like a drama, and most of the tension comes from the narrative drama and not the fights. There’s a pretty good cast. A young Rosanna Arquette (who’s not going to be outdone by Van Damme in the nudity department) a very young Kieran Culkin, LETHAL WEAPON 2’s Joss Ackland, and Buffalo Bill himself, Ted Levine. They’re all around to have drama with things, and do a pretty good job emoting around Van Damme’s flexing.

    Basically, Van Damme is an escaped prisoner (wrongly convicted, though) who falls in with a pretty cattle-farming widow (who it is, exactly, that actually farms the cattle is unclear, since she seems to spend most of her time undressing in front of open windows, being a feisty do-gooder for the neighbors, and reminiscing with her adorable kids about their dead dad). The family is being pressured to sell off their land so evil Joss Ackland can build his evil golf course and ruin their simple country ways. Arquette won’t sell, so Ackland brings in outside muscle in the form of Ted Levine to intimidate her into getting out.

    Levine is an actor who’s been in a ton of stuff, but I never really noticed in a non-woman-suit kind of situation. But he’s great here, taking the intimidating henchman role in a different direction than I’ve seen. He’s got a kind of aw-shucks country charm to him, and it seems kinda genuine. Some of his scenes seem to be the usual veiled-menace threatening scenes, but he’s nothing but bright and charming. Like Albert Brooks in DRIVE, he really seems to want to be your friend, even though he knows he’ll have to get ugly if the situation requires it. This is actually a great tactic to cause tension because it makes you unsure exactly how far he’ll go (although less so here, because it’s an action movie. Come on, is he really going to kill Kieran Culkin?)

Van Damme is pretty good too, in his cartoonish, mulleted way. He doesn’t exactly have to do any hard acting, but he does a good job of at first seeming reserved and on-edge, and then gradually warming up. It’s a simple transition, but one which he sells effectively. Plus he religiously eats only steaks for every meal, which counts as character development on his final scorecard I bet. Holy shit, maybe he’s just in it because she’s some sort of cattle farmer and he thinks if he can get in with her he’ll have easy access to all the steak he wants from now on. I ain’t saying he’s a gold digger... but he ain’t messing with no turnip farmers.   

Anyway, its pretty much a quiet tale of escalating pressure on small-town American by evil corporate interests (or, if you’re Mitt Romney, a tale of class warfare perpetrated against the job creators by illegal foreigners) where sometimes Van Damme kicks some people or jumps a motorcycle over a truck. Given the realities of today’s world, its sort of a nice fantasy to imagine a helpful kickboxing musclebound stranger will come along and give the little guy the power to stand up to the Joss Acklands of the world. But then again, even this film surprisingly acknowledges that fighting them isn’t necessarily going to make your life easy, either. The villains are annoyed at Van Damme and keep reminding him that they’re only escalating things because he stepped in and changed the balance of power. Isn’t that just what they always do, blame you for their bad behavior just because you didn’t immediately give them exactly what they want. Same everywhere, man. But in the Van Dammaverse, you can actually win. Yeah, it may be a little ridiculous, but these days we need a little action to make the drama go down easier.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


Pentathlon (1994)
Dir. Bruce Malmuth
Starring Dolph Lundgren, David Soul, Roger E. Mosely

I hesitate to call this 1994 time capsule featuring Dolph Lundgren as a Down-On-His-Luck-East-German-Pentathlon-Gold-Medalist-Defector/Fry-Cook an action movie, for one reason and one reason only. There’s virtually no action in it. There’s one chase scene at the very beginning of the film, a short sword fight halfway through, and a small explosion near the end, but that’s all you get. I’m betting the real Dolph Lundgren sees more action before breakfast than he does in the entire runtime of this thing. But that’s OK, because it’s kind of a nice reminder that one year before Michael Bay landed on the American movie scene like a albatross bowel movement from 1000 feet, there was a place for action movies that were actually pretty much dramas about macho men. I vividly remember being extremely confused by all the crying and talking the first time I watched FIRST BLOOD in my youth. Why are they telling us a story when they should be exploding?

    The answer is --gather round, boys and girls, ol’ grandpa Subtlety is gonna tell you a story -- that long, long ago, people were actually entertained by stories which are interesting. I understand that now a youtube video which doesn’t demonstrate the cruel depths of human suffering or cats doing funny things within the first nanosecond qualifies as a crime against humanity, worthy of writing an impassioned, strongly worded 100 characters. But back in the time of the dinosaurs, sometimes you could get your brain to focus for a period of many minutes in a row on Dolph Lundgren’s quest to get his life back together with the help of his tough but zany former Fry Cook Manager (Roger E. Mosely, who played Leadbelly in LEADBELLY).

    Basically, Dolph is an East German kid, coached to Olympic greatness by his brutal neo-Nazi coach Muller* (David Soul, who I guess was Hutch from “Starksy and Hutch.” Turns out Mosely was a guest star on that show, too, so happy birthday to you Starsky and Hutch reunion fans**). Fed up with the win-at-all-costs tactics of his team (his coach is furious at him for refusing to take steroids), Dolph defects to America right after his gold metal win, but gets himself shot in the leg in the process. Also his best friend gets shot and his ex-coach goes crazy and beats his father to death. But then a gorgeous American Olympian takes him in and presumably fucks him into next week (it's called loving freedom. Deal with it, fascists!). So, a real roller coaster of a day.

    Anyway, Dolph is flaunting his cartoonish teutonic charm all over the Free World (just like Neil Young would do), when suddenly he happens to glance at the TV and, holy shit, the Berlin wall is down. He could have waited two fucking months and been out anyway! That fucks him up pretty bad, and he goes on a downward spiral for a few off-screen years until we catch up with him as a fuckup irresponsible alchoholic loner doing a shitty job as a cook at a dive diner in LA (in other words, he bottomed out with a setup that pretty much describes the pinnacle of my life so far).

In order to emphasize this character transition, Dolph underwent a startling physical transformation. He lived the part off-stage, eating poorly, getting drunk, sitting on the couch, growing a beard, and gaining 60 pounds of pure gut. Just kidding, he’s still Dolph so even with a dirty apron on he looks like such a hilariously exaggerated ubermensch that even Nietzche would have to laugh. When his manager (Dolph’s, not Neitzche’s) discovers that his surly, unreliable employee is an ex-Olympic gold medalist, he resolved to pull his German ass out of its current funk and get him back to the top of his game. But little does he realize that Muller is now in America, ostensibly to do some kind of neo-Nazi chicanery, but possibly also to settle a personal score with his old pupil.

  The film would be pretty forgettable were it not for the surprisingly strong performances by Dolph and David Soul. There’s not a lot of action here, so the tension has to come from the characters themselves, and whaddayaknow, they actually deliver. Dolph isn’t going to win an Olympic gold (maybe a bronze) for his acting, but he has a certain disarming charm which makes us root for him. It’s not exactly a layered performance, but then again, it’s not exactly a layered character anyway -- he’s a big chiseled lunkhead who happens to have some weird drama happen to him and always tries to do the right thing. Opposite that is David Soul as the psychotic obsessed Nazi coach. Would you believe that it’s a great fucking performance? As twisted as he is, Muller considers himself a father to Dolph’s Eric, and feels both deeply betrayed and fiercely proud of him. Soul somehow manages to convey all that with his performance, making you sort of feel for Muller even as you are repulsed by him. Soul’s manic, conflicted intensity makes him a pretty compelling screen villain and ups the tension considerably. And putting him at odds with Dolph’s simplistic nice-guy hunk makes him seem all the more perverse. It’s a seriously good performance and dynamic which decisively elevates an OK film to a pretty good one.

Director Bruce Malmuth (who directed one of Seagal’s more entertaining joints, HARD TO KILL, and the classic Sylvester Stallone cross-dressing terrorist epic NIGHTHAWKS) doesn’t do anything too special here, but the whole thing is professionally assembled. It’s a silly film, but he shoots it like a real movie and, with the help of the actors, finds the right tone of somewhat cartoonish earnestness. It may be a sports movie with almost no sports and an action movie with almost no action, but it sort of has heart. And for this old luddite, that counts for a lot.

*That’s actually Mu:ller with an umlaut, just in case you had any doubts that he was evil. Not sure how to format that, so use your imagination, and maybe even throw in an extra umlaut or two just to really drive the point home. 

**Wouldn't it be great if they also got Starsky as Dolph's murdered father? I'd definitely buy a special edition where they went back and put him in there, kind of a setting-history-right thing. Inventor of the time machine, do this before you worry about stopping Hitler (besides, if you stopped Hitler Soul wouldn't be able to play a psychotic Neo-Nazi here, and then this movie wouldn't be as great. So let's just fix this casting Starsky thing and then leave causality to the pros).

Vern reviewed this one awhile back, and as usual puts all other reviews to shame -- Read it here

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Red State

Red State (2011)
Dir. Kevin Smith
Starring John Goodman, Michael Parks, Melissa Leo, various others

Most of my heroes are not the most technically gifted artists in their particular medium. I’m moderately appreciative of folks who can sing a huge range, or who can completely shred the guitar, or who can paint a picture that looks absolutely lifelike. That’s cool and all, but honestly not of much more interest to me than, say, the World’s best shot putter or the World’s most convincing ventriloquist. The point of art in my mind is not to master the technique, but to express something unique. Now, you need some technique to express anything. But an overemphasis on technique can be alienating, too. Technique is universal – voice is personal. And I’m in it for the voice, for the person on the other end of the line. I want my art to be something a computer could never have come up with. A computer can synthesize technique and write a pretty convincing concerto or pop song. It could probably write a pretty convincing AC/DC song. It can write things which are satisfying and predictable, but it can’t write things that are weird, that are raw, that are contradictory and misshapen. It could write a Zack Wylde solo, but never a Niel Young solo. It could not write a Tom Waits song. It could not make a David Lynch film. And it couldn’t write a Kevin Smith film.

I’m not trying to say that Smith is as masterful an artist in his medium as those other guys. His lack of technique often undermines his efforts and diminishes the effectiveness of his ideas. But you can always feel him under there, and he’s always up to something uniquely Kevin Smith. Always wrestling with his own conflicted and tortured notions of religion, sexuality, friendship, success. His buddy Ben Affleck has only made two films, and they’re both more accomplished in almost every way than any of Smith’s ten feature films. They’re better shot, better edited, more consistently acted, more realistically written, more entertaining. But they’re the work of someone who’s a good craftsman*. Smith’s films are the work of a truly unique person.

A big part of his uniqueness is that Smith has to be the most chronic oversharer in history. He can’t help himself. He absolutely has to blurt out every single thought that crosses through his mind every second he can get someone’s attention. Now, that can get extremely irritating and can lead him to say some unfortunate things. It can wind up in embarrassing debacles which end up overshadowing his art. But it also means that when he makes any film besides COP OUT he’s doing it because he’s got a bunch of stuff bouncing around his head that absolutely needs to get out. It doesn’t always happen eloquently, it doesn’t always fit together nicely, it doesn’t always add up to anything that might be called a conclusion. There is, though, a sort of charm to his complete lack of filter, his earnest compulsion to get all this stuff out into the world. It’s pretty rare to find an artist that eager to spill out the often humiliating contradictions of his thought process. If it’s technically primitive, it reflects the lack of calculation in his thought, too. He may never be a great filmmaker, but I suspect he’ll always be an interesting one, if you can set aside his various personal shenanigans and filmatically inarticulate style.

So when he makes a film like RED STATE, you gotta be a bit curious what he’s gonna do with it. He’s been selling it for ages as a horror film based on the Westboro Baptist Church (finally, the WBC has found someone who is exactly as shameless a spotlight whore as they are) and I honestly couldn’t imagine what the fuck it would be like. Actually, I did sort of assumed I knew what it would look like (all his other movies), I just couldn’t figure out how he was gonna get his usual jumbled ball of darkly prickly ideas jammed in there. Turns out he, like the movie itself, was selling a bait-and-switch. It’s not a horror movie, and its not about the WBC. But it also isn’t anything you could have expected from Smith, and I like that.

For one thing, it feels more like a horror movie than I would have ever guessed Smith was capable of. Yes, you still got all these characters speaking Smithese (which means they never fucking shut up) and --like all his films-- there’s a real wit in the dialogue, even if it’s a bit labored sometimes. It’s different, though, in that they inhabit a world he’s never explored before; it’s a grey, desolate place full of decay and despair. It’s nothing stylistically radical, and looks like any number of grim cheapie DTV survival horror flicks with its digital hand-held photography and muted gray palette. But placing Smith’s words in such a universe is a little shocking. When three horny high school kids banter about meeting up with a woman they found on the internet who wants to have sex with the three of them (at the same time!) – everything plays out exactly the way you’d expect from a Smith movie, until the exact minute things get really fucking serious. Suddenly the quips take on a new context – it’s the same writing but suddenly it has a nightmarish juxtaposition with horrific, unflinching brutality and a near-nihilistic despair.

Smith has always had a slightly darker side than people tend to remember (the necrophilia-induced shock of CLERKS and its bleak original ending, the sporadic bloody brutality of DOGMA) but its usually tempered by his cornball sentimentalism and his obvious fondness for his characters. Not here. This is a film with no heroes, no humanism, no hope. It’s a world filled with delusional, suicidal, vicious, selfish, loathsome human beings who are only too happy to turn on each other given an excuse to do so.

On one hand, we have the obvious villains of the movie, the Five Points Church led by Michael Parks as Pastor Abin Cooper. They’re obsessed with the evils of homosexuality, and have been kidnapping and murdering gays in their fortified church compound (including the three kids the film begins with). There’s an obvious way to deal with these characters, and any other horror movie would just have given us a HILLS HAVE EYES cast of menacing redneck freaks. But Smith sadistically makes the Church Members the most appealing characters in the whole film.

Hollywood films are full of depraved religious psychos, from Robert Mitchum in NIGHT OF THE PREACHER to Donald Pleasance in WILL PENNY and Jake Busey in CONTACT. Michael Parks plays it completely differently. You’re introduced to him from the perspective of kids tied up in a cage next to a shroud-covered body – you’re ready to hate and fear him, and then he comes across as nothing but warm and charming. With his feathered white hair, thick glasses, and working-man’s button-down shirt, he seems more like someone’s weathered, wily old grandpa than a murderous zealot. Michael Parks is absolutely fucking stunning in this role. He’s an actor who has been doing solid work forever, (and got a few showy parts recently as Sherrif McGraw and Estaban in the KILL BILLS), but I would never have guessed he could be this good. While those are colorful cartoons, this is a textured, nuanced performance which is all the more terrifying for how warm and real it seems. He’s a horrific monster, but he’s also someone’s dad, someone’s grandpa, and he cares deeply about them. He doesn’t shout, denounce, or even quote scripture – he coos, he jokes, he plays sweet little games with the kids, and he’s completely genuine. The families in his church are the same – they beam at the kids, laugh at the jokes, present an image of congenial warmth.

Then they pull the shroud of the body and shoot him point-blank in the head with a pistol.

At first, it’s seems like a dirty trick, a cheap way to shock you – and maybe it is, but then we get to the second, less obvious villains.

You see, by pure chance the local sheriff’s office (headed by closeted, self-hating gay Stephen Root, who’s introduced pulled over on the side of the road getting head from an anonymous stranger) has stumbled across the situation, and called in the ATF squad headed by what remains of John Goodman (which it turns out is mostly skin and acting chops). And suddenly we switch from a kidnapping/torture porn movie to a siege procedural film, as the ATF squad surrounds the house, the film’s perspective shifts to them, and a long shootout begins. Goodman, like Parks, seems like a nice guy, and Smith’s sardonic dialogue makes him all the more endearing. But when he gets a call from his superiors telling him that the media is far away and not to leave any embarrassing survivors, he unhappily but dutifully passes the orders to his men.

This is both the film’s greatest strength and its greatest weakness. Because, you see, we now have two villains in a horror film which should only have one. It almost lost me here, because who the fuck wants to root against the guys who are here to bust ass, save the kids, and kill the shit out of a bunch of murderous homophobe theist zombies? Part of the problem is that the siege aspect is not staged as well as the first half of the film, with Parks in the church. But the other half of the problem is that it’s obvious we should be siding with the FBI, but Smith sure isn’t making that easy. They’re not as bloodthirsty, but they’re exactly as callously murderous as the Church members (in fact, they end up with a higher body count of innocent civilians). But they’re the good guys. I mean, of course we should side with them. Right?

The answer is no, it turns out. Because what Smith has actually done is diabolically make a film which promises to confirm everything us nice, college-educated, godless elitist East Coast liberals fear about Middle America (the “Red State”)  and then switches perspectives to show exactly what they fear in us. It’s a Left-wing paranoid fantasy about psychotic murderous religious zealots which suddenly turns into a Right-wing paranoid fantasy about amoral, dispassionately murderous government hit squads. And you’ll find yourself scratching your head and thinking the whole premise about the government hit squad is kinda ludicrous, that this doesn’t make sense, they wouldn’t just kill everyone. And you’re right, of course they wouldn’t. But the truth is that there is no Five Points Church either. The Westboro assholes are just calculating charlatans leeching a seedy living off of suing the people they offend, the nutters at Waco and Jonestown were a greater danger to themselves than anyone else. The whole thing is a fantasy. But you buy one fantasy way easier than the other.

And that’s the film’s real zinger. You’ve already taken the hook just by enjoying the excellent first half of the film, and now you have to admit your bias. Well thanks Kevin, now I feel like an asshole, but what the fuck is the point? The point, it turns out, comes in a surprisingly poetic little parable at the very end of the film.** Goodman survives, and, facing a panel of detached, jokey FBI superiors, tells them a story about two dogs, raises the same, which suddenly turned on each other one day. It’s America, duh. And if you think you’re not part of the problem, why does the cartoonish villainy of the Church seem more satisfying and cinematic than the cartoonish villainy of the ATF guys? We’re at each others’ throats “like we don’t know each other” in Goodman’s words. We buy into the idea that the other side is made up of monsters, but of course we’re all just people trying to do the right thing. Parks and Goodman’s affectionate portrayals of their deeply flawed characters are case in point. They’re both good people, in some respects, but their inability to see those aspects in each other has led them to a  really ugly kind of evil. And as long as we’re looking at each other as irredeemable villains, it’s just going to get uglier and uglier. The film is called “Red State” not because it’s a depiction of a conservative-leaning state in Middle America, but because the American State itself is awash in hate and mistrust – exemplified by the way we so easily accept the stereotypical designation of “Red” and “Blue” cultures. It’s kind of brilliant, in an evil way.

It’s not a perfect film, obviously. Smith still lacks the discipline to avoid piling on awkward expository dialogue, and his editing is still sometimes weak. Despite his good intentions, I think its pretty obvious that Smith doesn’t buy his evil utilitarian government hit squad as much as he does his evil religious cult, and the film suffers somewhat from his unintentional favoritism. And for a film about evil homophobes, I think it sucks that the film’s only gay character is treated with nothing but contempt by the script and everyone he meets (SPOILER: his off-handed death while crying in his car strikes me as unappealingly mean-spirited even for this movie). Add to that the fact that the film stubbornly and intentionally denies you any kind of narrative satisfaction, and you have a film which is in some ways hard to really recommend to anyone. It’s ugly, awkward, unpleasant, and unsatisfying. But its also ballsy as hell, completely unique, and smattered with elements of real genius that only Kevin Smith could have imagined. He may never be the best director in the world, but as long as he’s so compulsively driven to get his thoughts out in the world, I’m always going to look forward to watching them

*by the way, apparently Affleck was so (correctly) impressed with RED STATE’S cast that he imported most of them (plus Alan Arkin and Bryan Cranston) for his next film, a historical/action film about the Iranian hostage crisis called ARGO, which sounds pretty cool.

** Wikipedia says:

During various interactive Q&As for the film, Smith has stated that the original ending actually continued through with the trumpets signaling the Rapture. After Cooper tells Keenan to shoot him, Cooper's chest explodes, followed by the remaining family members' chests exploding one by one, and then the remaining agents' chests exploding one by one. During these deaths, the ground shakes and splits, and Keenan curls up on the ground and closes his eyes. When he opens his eyes he sees the last agent killed with a giant sword coming out of his chest, which is being wielded by an enormous armored angel. The angel looks at Keenan, puts a finger to his lips, and says "shhhhh". The angel then flies off into the sky, and as the angel banks out of the picture the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse descend.

That would have been pretty cool, but I’m actually glad Smith didn’t go through with it. Funny as it sounds, that’s kind of a cop-out ending (no pun or reference intended) which sort of confirms that Cooper is right (at least on some level) and doesn’t meaningfully address any of the issues the film raises. The final ending is odd and seems to retreat from the “holy shit” moment that precedes it, but I think ultimately has more to say about what we’re to make of all this.