Tuesday, June 24, 2014


Gallowwalkers (2013)
Dir Andrew Goth
Written by Andrew Goth, Joanne Reay
Starring Wesley Snipes, Kevin Howarth, Riley Smith, Tanit Pheonix

So, with Wesley Snipes now out of jail and staging his big comeback by jumping on the already outrageously bloated bandwagon of check-cashing that is THE EXPENDABLES,* I thought it was time to take a look back at the last thing he did before the IRS unfairly stole from us a future filled with BLADE sequels. If it seems a little late for that, given that Snipes has been in the big house since 2010, well, at least it’s not my fault: they shot this thing back in 2006, but just put in out in December 2013. Maybe they should have just waited two more years and released it as a special 10-year anniversary edition, but oh well, I guess I really do have to think of everything myself. Instead, somebody over at Lionsgate apparently rediscovered the box with all the raw film they shot in it in some kind of RADIERS-style warehouse, gave it a few hard shakes, dumped it out on the floor, and then released it directly to DVD.

OK, so obviously there’s a few red flags in that description. But while the movie is a bit too incoherent to live up to the enormous potential any horror-western starring Wesley Snipes as a Namibian zombie-hunting cowboy inherently has, I gotta say this is much more unique and interesting than the usual DTV dreck. Though the writing is iffy, it's full of unique and polished visuals, utilizing the wide open spaces in its Namibian locations to evoke Leone, Mad Max, and --with the addition of bizarre stylized sets and villains-- Alejandro Jodorowsky. Seriously, this this is what would happen if EL TOPO was made as a DTV sequel to JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES. Kinda crappy, but too weird and ballsy to completely ignore.

Yes, that is Cthulu's vagina backing Wesley up.

Now, before I go on, I gotta admit that when I say “a bit too incoherent,” I mean that the movie is a complete and total mess, an absolutely incomprehensible jumble of scenes which appear to be playing in random order, sometimes with no discernable relationship to each other. And when I say “the writing is iffy,” I mean that there’s no way this thing was completed with a finished script, and much if not all the dialogue is utterly inscrutable babble or free-associative narration, and that Snipes really only says about 5 words the whole way through anyway.

Obviously, those are bad things. But if you can get past that, everything else here is awesome. I realize that to get past that, you have to be a person willing to ignore the entire structure and plot of a movie, but hey, you’re reading this, you must at the very least be tempted by the idea of seeing Wesley Snipes as detective John Gallowwalker, undead bounty hunting Namibia cowboy. Give in to the darkside, bud, I promise this won’t waste your time like so many DTV schlock knockoffs which promise greatness only to deliver tedious retreads of lame genre cliches. This one is gonna deliver a bunch of craziness like you ain’t never seen.

This guy has a lizard instead of hair, I think that's pretty self-explanatory.

The plot is this, as far as I can gather, and please don’t quote me on this, but I think at one point in the past (revealed by a flashback in the last third of the film, only none of this really makes sense so I didn’t realize it was a flashback at the time) I think Wesley’s wife or somebody was raped (and murdered?) by a bunch of guys, so he killed them, but then also died himself, and then for some reason was resurrected (magic?) but then so were they, and I think that every time he kills someone they come back as the undead and he has to re-kill them again**, only now they’re weird mutant freaks that wear other people’s skin. And there’s this guy Kasana, who decides to get the band back together and come after Wesley, but that was Wesley’s plan all along (?), and also he gets an arrogant young partner to help him. And I think there might be something supernatural about all this but I can’t say for sure. I definitely don’t know what a gallowwalker is, though. I guess either the mutants or Wesley probably. There are some gallows early on, but no one walks away from them so I dunno, your guess is as good as mine.

Even after typing that, I don’t really have any idea what any of it means, but that’s OK, mostly it’s just a convoluted excuse to shoehorn in a bunch of nutty imagery and bloody violence. Interestingly, I feel like it might be possible to re-edit this and save it from itself. If my interpretation of the plot is even remotely correct, at its heart there’s a pretty simple revenge story here, with Snipes cursed so that the people he revenge-kills come back and hunt him down. If they’d just laid out the characters and their motivations in a semi-chronological way I think we might have been able to get a better idea of what in god’s name was going on here; as it is, it seems like they’re trying to save Wesley’s backstory for a kind of third-act twist, but nothing makes sense without it so by the time it’s revealed you still have no idea what the hell is happening, and it completely disrupts any momentum the film has been able to build by that point.

Oh I'm sorry, did I break your concentration?

But you know what, it almost doesn’t matter. This would arguably be a technically better movie if I knew what the plot was after having watched it, but the best things about it don’t have anything to do with that anyway. Most of what’s great about the movie can’t really be described in words, because man’s language is not powerful enough to accurately articulate why it’s cool that Wesley Snipes is a cowboy who blows away these three guys with Dark Jedi eyes who wear identical Catholic cardinal’s robes and hang around the railroad tracks like a bunch of big shots. Or that there’s this guy Bucketskull who wears an oversized novelty helmet that makes him look like an evil bobblehead of the voodoo master from PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES. Also I’m looking at some images online right now, and there’s a bunch of pictures of this cool looking guy with no skin, I don’t even have any specific memories of him, that’s how much fun this movie is. In a normal movie, you’d definitely remember the no-skin guy; here, he’s lost in the shuffle of carnival masks and lizard-skin pony tails and so forth. Who can argue with this bountiful catalogue of wonder? I mean, look at these images below, does this look like stuff you could ordinarily find in some Wesley Snipes DTV knockoff?

Alas, Snipes himself is pretty inert as the stoic badass, mostly relying on his costume and poses to seem cool, but never offering any genuinely compelling characterization. I’m sure he had other things on his mind (i.e. that when the movie wrapped and he headed home it would be to a much smaller bedroom than he was used to, and there would be another guy already in it) but come on, if you’re gonna make a movie this weird you gotta loosen up a little, fellah. I’m not saying make it jokey, but have some fun, take a chance on a more unique performance. Anyway, Snipes does fine, but I’d have liked to see a little more hustle. Fortunately the remaining cast is full of colorful characters and weird, surreal visuals enough to mostly make up for it, and the sparse, desolate Namibian locations serve as a compelling character unto themselves.

With so many crappy-looking oversaturated but bland DTV action films on the market, it's really nice to see one which clearly aspires to a stylish and memorable iconography. Mexican Cinematographer Henner Hofmann*** takes fantastic advantage of the wide-open desert space and the stark, weathered minimalism of the primitive sets, creating a classic look and highlighting the excellent production design. The action is pretty good too, full of classic Western standoffs but also some pretty well-choreographed knock-down-drag-out fights. Yes, ultimately its fragmented and needlessly convoluted flashback structure kills most of the momentum the simple revenge narrative should have been able to build, and it kind of limps to the finish. But even so, those who are in the market for an offbeat action film with some genuine visual polish will find plenty to like here. And hey, how often do you get to see Wesley Snipes fight an all-albino cast of ghouls with a penchant for Baroque Vaudeville costuming in the deserts of Namibia? Not too often, I'm guessing. Take a chance on this one, and enjoy it for its imagination (if not always its execution).

* Along with, STALLONE. STATHAM, SCHWARZENEGGER. FORD. CREWES. COUTURE. BANDERAS. and… GRAMMER? What, are they gonna get David Hyde-Pierce for the next one?

**That’s what it says on the poster, anyway. Not sure that is borne out by the events of the movie.

***Mostly unknown-to-me Mexican films, but he did shoot the hilariously shitty Bon Jovi-starring VAMPIRES: LOS MUERTOS, so I guess my JOHN CARPENTER’S VAMPIRES comparison at the beginning of this review was apt.

Like celebrity deaths, zombie priest gunslingers always come in threes.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Dir. Joe and Anthony Russo
Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely
Starring Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford

“We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things."
-- Christopher Nolan, explaining that his BATMAN films don’t have any particular subtext or message.

"It's hard to make a political film that's not topical. That's what makes a political thriller different from just a thriller. ...we love topicality, so we kept pushing to [have] scenes that, fortunately or unfortunately, played out [during the time that] Snowden outed the NSA. That stuff was already in the zeitgeist. We were all reading the articles that were coming out questioning drone strikes, pre-emptive strikes, civil liberties — Obama talking about who they would kill... We wanted to put all of that into the film because it would be a contrast to [Captain America]'s greatest-generation [way of thinking]."
--Anthony Russo, co-director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

"The question is where do you stop? If there are 100 people we can kill to make us safer, do we do it? What if we find out there's 1,000? What if we find out there's 10,000? What if it's a million? At what point do you stop?"
--Joe Russo, co-director of Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Well friends, you know that I hate to say that I told you so, but as I am a gentleman, honor requires me to accept the credit when I’m proven correct. I’ve been on record supporting the Marvel films, which started off a little rocky but gradually seem to have managed to find the perfect tone for superhero movies, somewhere solidly in that sweet spot between the dour, self-consciously grown-up DC movies and the shiny, empty-headed nothing of THE FANTASTIC FOUR (a Marvel property, but not made through Marvel studios due to the movie rights being held by Fox, long story). Oh, there were doubts at first. There are those who called me mad, or unfair, or a variety of homophobic slurs, because I said that Nolan’s BATMAN films were ponderous and silly, and that at least Marvel remembered that superheroes were supposed to be fun. But I persevered. And now they’ve done it, they got where they were going.

There were hints of it happening early on; the first IRON MAN, for all its clunkiness, found the right tone and established a precedent for finding the absolute perfect actor to become the face of these larger-than-life characters. But then their HULK reboot with Ed Norton was just an utterly lifeless, dishwater-dull unmitigated failure, and IRON MAN 2 was a rambling bloated mess that totally squandered a great cast in a tangled junkyard of boring action and turgid plottiness. Those two were dire enough that I didn’t bother with the original THOR or CAPTAIN AMERICA PART ONE: THIS IS THE FIRST ONE while they were in theaters. But once I finally did get around to experiencing the one-two punch of those two movies and THE AVENGERS, I became a convert. This is how comic book movies were meant to be: colorful, imaginative, broad, and completely unashamed about their ridiculous premises while still treating them with respect.
With the new CAPTAIN AMERICA PART 2: THE SECOND ONE : WINTER SOLIDER RISING (presumably the third one will be subtitled YEAR OF THE PIG*) out, though, I may have to re-evaluate those other ones, because this is good enough to take it to the next level. It keeps everything we liked about the previous generation of Marvel films -- perfectly cast protagonist, a cheerful embrace of the cartoonish universe he inhabits, large-scale action balanced with charming character moments-- and adds something I never realized they were missing: a hint --but an unmistakable one-- of something to say about the world.

Hi kids. Captain America here, and I'd like to talk to you about an issue which is very close to my heart: Auto-erotic asphyxiation.

Now, I know, I know, that just makes you conjure images of all that postmodern deconstructionist mumbo jumbo from Zack Snyder’s Not Alan Moore’s flawed but enjoyable WATCHMEN or its subsequent hanger-ons (KICK-ASS, SUPER, etc), or, Nolan’s grimly ponderous BATMANS, or even worse, Snyder’s soul-deadening MAN OF STEEL. But fear not! It’s not like that at all; those movies are so dire because they fancy themselves important. This one doesn’t feel like that, it’s just that as it happens the comic book universe they’ve created lends itself rather gracefully to a few subtle but commendable allegories for the world we’re living in right now.

Which honestly is nothing revolutionary. Marvel has a long history of doing this sort of thing in comic form. They’ve been subtly commenting on all kinds of social issues for decades. Not in a “very special issue” kind of way, but rather just by incorporating little elements of reality into their fantasy world as a subtext. The fire-and-brimstone anti-mutant Preacher William Stryker from 1982’s God Loves, Man Kills comes to mind: he evokes the anger of right wing backlash embodied by guys like Jerry Falwell and asks us to imagine what it’s like to be the target of that anger, but without specifically being a one-to-one surrogate for any particular person or incident. It’s still a comic book, and it has heroes in costume fighting giant robots with superpowers. But there’s just something a little more resonant in the conflict, something a bit more relatable than fighting a guy made out of electricity who wants to destroy the world.

That’s what the movie is like; it reminds me of reading those old stories, how seriously the books take it all while still including a bunch of giant robots and stuff. That’s what great pulp is all about: superficially ridiculous trappings earnestly married with something which digs a little deeper. Comics are the opera of our time: the one medium which is completely unafraid to go over-the-top broad to capture the sometimes silly but also genuinely potent extremes of human experience. I mean, we remember how The Dark Phoenix Saga ends, right? On the moon, fighting in a gladiatorial battle against an army of Space superheroes (spoiler)? And yet, that final moment with Jean and Scott… these are characters with this long and fraught history together, broadly drawn but deeply felt. That ending, man, it’s the silliest thing in the world, but it cuts deep all the same. Maybe even deeper because of the utter earnestness in storytelling that is an absolute prerequisite to write a good moon-battle-with-space-gladiators tale with any conviction.

Second most emotionally moving moment in nerdom, after that time Optimus turned brown.

Anyway, this new Capn’ movie is spot-on in capturing that feel. It has all of comic books’ silliest conventions, but, like its protagonist, it's so earnest and committed to what it’s doing that you’ve almost got no choice but to just swallow your cynicism and go with it. And it’s a good thing too, because come on, Captain America? What could possibly be cornier than this half-century old icon of American militaristic nationalism? I mean, that’s a real tough sell after Vietnam, after Kent State, Gulf of Tonkin, Watergate, the Cold War, Iran-Contra, CIA drug trafficking, Partisanship, War on Terror, Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib, waterboarding, extraordinary rendition, targeted killings, NSA spying, James Clapper just flat out lying to Congress with no consequences whatsoever, just recently finding out the CIA actively subverted a congressional investigation about it by deleting evidence from investigators’ computers, just to name a few things off the top of my head. Pretty hard to be the guy wearing the flag on his chest, taking orders from these clowns, knowing all that.

And to the movie’s credit, that’s the whole point here. Cap’s main conflict this time is not with some volcano-lair supervillain that can be defeated by a good punching. It’s with the system itself, the one giving him orders. The conflict is not with the guy he’s got to punch, it’s over who to punch, and under what circumstances, and how hard, and why. And what it says about him when he does it.

See, back in Cap’s heyday, right and wrong seemed a lot simpler. Hitler was so unambiguously evil that you could just be a good solider, follow orders. You could ignore the politics of it, listen to your general when he told you who to kill, and then go kill them. But 75 years later, things aren’t so black-and-white. Suddenly, S.H.I.E.L.D. is getting Cap involved in a bunch of shady, cloak-and-dagger intrigue, going after morally ambiguous targets for morally ambiguous reasons. He can’t afford to simply follow orders anymore, can’t afford to simply be a soldier, a defender of abstract concepts like freedom and justice. He’s got to decide if the people giving the orders are worth following, and if they’re not, what to do instead.

To it's credit, the movie tactfully avoids ironic flag imagery. But, just in case you worried that it was gonna be soft on terrorism, it does begin with Cap beating the tar out of an uppity Frenchman.

Although the movie doesn’t dwell on it, there’s something very tragic about all this. Steve “Cap’n Ammurrica” Rodgers has arrived in the present so recently that he’s still adjusting to living in this alien world (he has a list of things he still need to learn about, which includes Disco, Star Wars/Trek, Thai food) and he’s been a real good sport about everyone he ever knew being dead or senile. He’s got no life here whatsoever, no roots, no social circle, and he’s been trying to fill that space with work (recall, he recently was involved re: an alien invasion destroying the world). But even his work has changed: he’s still an ass-kicker, but he can’t take for granted that he’s being told to kick the right asses anymore, and it’s all he’s good at, hell, all he’s got. I mean, he’s a lonely guy; even when he’s got a chance to connect with other people, he’s got very little in common with them. He’s missed nearly a century of American culture, he doesn’t get the twitters or enjoy the music of Girl Talk or get your Austin Powers references. When he’s not on missions, he’s hanging out with his nearly 100 year-old ex-girlfriend, who thought he was dead for the last 70 years. I’m guessing they never got to consummate that relationship, although the movie isn’t explicit about it.

But despite these setbacks, Steve wants to do the right thing. He’s considering leaving the profession after he learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. is building a fleet of gigantic death stars drone battleships to conquer/protect the world (built, no doubt, by Facebook’s war division), but before he can, it turns out that he’s got more immediate problems: someone from inside the organization is trying to kill him and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, COMING TO AMERICA) and he’s gotta go on the lam with adorable little Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, HOME ALONE 3) to find out who and why.

What follows is a pretty effective 70’s-style paranoid thriller. Who can he trust? What dastardly secrets are being kept behind the veil of honest legitimacy put forward by this secretive lawless multinational paramilitary outfit?

So... I see you've redecorated in here?

The answers are enjoyably comic-booky (an evil supercomputer that runs on punch cards can and will become involved) as are their solutions (big action sequences, explosions, running down hallways to escape from explosions, etc) but the questions give the whole enterprise an unexpected potency. I think a lot of Americans right now feel depressingly alienated from the forces in power, and extremely uncomfortable with what we’re being told needs to be done “for our protection.” The nice thing here is that questioning the morality of our actions doesn’t make Captain America any less American -- it means the American thing to do is to do the right thing, not to just follow orders and pat ourselves on the back. It has some strong parallels to the recent Marvel Civil War, where Captain America has to turn into a rebel against the government to protect the rights of the people. It’s shocking, in a way, to see such a strident symbol of American nationalism turn against the system, but in a strange way it’s also kind of inspiring: America isn’t about the structures of power, it’s about the things we do, the people we are. What it means to be American, or Captain America, hasn’t changed; it’s just that the world has changed, and in response we have to evolve a bit.

Given that, I got a few quibbles with the way things turn out (SPOILERS AHOY THERE FOLKS!) since after making a logical and effective case against the abuses of power by the government, they retreat a little by the end and excuse everything with a lame cop-out. Oh, I guess we can trust the government after all, it’s just an evil cabal of ex-Nazi infiltrators who are causing the problems. I guess maybe that could be an analogy for the Tea Party, but really it kinda soft-pedals the main issue: we shouldn’t have a death star drone armada because nobody should have that kind of power, not because someone should, but not Nazis. Similarly, it would be a lot more interesting if [[DOUBLE SECRET SPOILERS, EVEN MORE SPOILERY THAN BEFORE]] Cap’s old buddy Shaw had genuinely been convinced that the US was irredeemably corrupt and that he had to fight it, instead of the lame brainwashing thing which makes him kind of a non-character. I mean, it’s interesting to give Cap his own doubts about the morality of what he’s doing, how much better would it be to have a villain who was more like Magneto, who legitimately has a point but maybe takes it just a little further than our hero is comfortable with. As it is, Cap isn’t really asked to seriously consider if Shaw is right, since Shaw himself doesn’t even really know what he’s doing. And of course, if I may say so the solution Cap’n A comes up with isn’t necessarily feasible for every American. (END O’ SPOILERS) But you know, baby steps. It’s nice to just have a movie which acknowledges how we feel, even if it doesn’t quite offer a solution for those of us who haven’t been dosed with Super Solider Serum.

One other thing I like? There’s an interesting little exchange between Nick Fury and our hero where Fury talks a little bit about his grandfather, a elevator operator. He doesn’t explicitly say it, but here he is today, ordering death star drone armadas to control the world, while his granddad was living in a society where the best work he could get was pushing up and down buttons for rich people. What society was that, by the way? Why, the one Steve Rodgers spent most of his life living in! Guess that kind of shoots a hole in the ol’ “back in the day, things were a lot simpler” theory, don’t it? Maybe 1940’s Captain America should have thought a little harder about who was allowed to benefit from the freedom he was fighting for. This kind of horseshit is nothing new, it’s just that in modern times we don’t have the luxury of not thinking about it like they had back in the day. Or that white men had, anyway.

Good guys wear black. Bad guys wear suits.

Anyway, WINTER SOLIDER mostly isn’t about that stuff, but just having it as part of the text makes the whole film much more satisfying. You get all the action and comic book hijinks you would usually get, but just a little more meat there so it’s not quite as disposable. You don’t have to really focus on these themes if you don’t want to, I’m sure you can just go in and watch the explosions without thinking too seriously about American geopolitical strategy. But commendably, they’re not just some lightly suggestive subtext, either; these are the central conflicts of the movie, and the movie takes them as seriously and expects you to do so as well, at least as much as you do with the guy with bird wings or the hovercars. 

And that’s the key to the film’s success right there: take everything seriously in the context of the story, just don’t take yourself too seriously. I complained that Nolan’s BATMAN movies bring up a bunch of interesting question which they have no real intention of exploring, while also somehow managing to be enormously ponderous and self-important. So a movie that can bring up real legitimate issues, and integrate them organically into a story which is thoroughly entertaining, and do it without betraying the inherent good-hearted silliness of its universe… well, I think that’s what I’ve been waiting all these years to be able to say about a Superhero film.** Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN movies probably came the closest, but he always seemed to be fighting the studio to make those work properly. Here, Marvel seems like it’s comfortable with its own universe in a way which Sony wasn’t, and as a result these movies seem to be finding their footing more and more easily. This one was from the directors of YOU, ME, AND DUPREE, so there you go.

CAPTAIN AMERICA PART 2 THIS TIME THE WINTER SOLDIER doesn’t think it’s gonna change your mind about the issues, or reinvent the genre, or teach you something about what it means to be human. But it does think that if you’re going to make a comic book film, you ought to try and make a good one. If Marvel sticks to that philosophy, we’ll probably still have a bunch of questionable political bullshit going on. But at least we’ll have some solid superhero flicks to keep us from getting too depressed about it.

*Get it? They’re both classic black and white period documentaries about the Vietnam war. No, nobody?

**Since they were trying so hard to please me, I gotta also appreciate that this is the rare film which takes place mostly around Washington DC which generally speaking actually looks like Washington DC, plus a gigantic megalithic S.H.E.I.L.D. headquarters which is sitting right on top of Teddy Roosevelt island. Fucking S.H.E.I.L.D. always with the cloak-and-dagger shit, and now they done fucked with Teddy? This shit will not stand.

Does this guy seem a little Aspen-casual for a WINTER soldier? Let's get a parka on this fucker, jesus, you're screwing up the whole gimmick, dude. How are you gonna say "freeze" and shoot someone with a cold ray if you're not even wearing a ski cap?

Friday, June 13, 2014

A Certain Kind of Death

A Certain Kind of Death (2003)
Dir. Grover Babcock, Blue Hadaegh

I think you’ll have no choice but to agree with me when I state plainly that I’ve seen some pretty fucked up movies. Gory stuff, THE WIZARD OF GORE, BRAIN-DEAD, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, you know the type. Psychologically disturbing stuff; SALO, AUDITION, and so on. And just sleazy, sick filth with no redeeming intellectual qualities whatsoever (HUMAN CENTIPEDE, FACES OF DEATH, etc). I never watched A SERBIAN FILM, but not because of its sicko reputation, more like it just didn’t sound that interesting to me and I never got around to it. Maybe I will someday, maybe not, but I can’t really imagine there’s anything in there that would genuinely shake me.  I’ve been watching this crap since high school, there’s not really much I haven’t seen. I mean, you name the perversion, I’ve probably watched it. Sasquatch rape - check. Italian woman jerks off a bored horse named Pedro -- check. Sanctuary of 1000 testicles -- check. Alice Krige chainsawed apart with barbed wire -- check. Orson Welles voicing a Transformer -- check.  Sometimes it gets a little gross or unpleasant, but I mean, up til last year I couldn’t really remember a movie that had come along and genuinely intimidated me.*

But wow, did this one come out of the blue. Obviously, you don’t watch a documentary called A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH and expect a lighthearted romp, but holy fucking shit. There are things here which you will not be able to unsee. The film has a frankness about death which is so shocking that it may well change the very way you think about the concept. It shook me absolutely to my core. It’s gotta be among the most casually horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Why, you ask? You sure you want to know?

The film starts with coroners in an apartment with a dead body. The apartment is cramped and mundane; squat ceiling and white walls and cheap furniture, unexceptional in every way except that there’s a human corpse in it. The body is sitting on a toilet around a corner, obscured in an recessed alcove behind a wall. The coroners are taking pictures and picking up evidence; this is a daily occurrence to them. Then the camera lingers on a closeup of the corpse’s foot. It’s sticking around the corner and barely visible along with a part of the leg. It’s horrible -- a purple and frayed mess of partially decomposed flesh, a repulsive parody of life, with just enough human features remaining to be unmistakable. This is within the first 30 seconds of the movie.

Join the government, go depressing places, meet depressing people.

The workaday officials making notes as they walk around the apartment seem utterly unaware that they’re working in the middle of a nightmare. They’re professional, maybe even a little bored. It’s physically hard to look at the screen while that foot is there, but here they are, wandering around jotting things down in a notepad, somehow maintaining their calm while the presence --and good lord, the smell-- of that thing --that thing!-- hangs over everything like an ominous black cloud. How can they possibly do anything but run screaming out of this room and never look back? You’ll have just long enough to ponder this question before

They cut directly to a frontal view of the body.

The body is wearing a faded plaid shirt, but nothing else; it’s slouched back on the toilet seat, arms hanging resigned at its sides. Its eyes are gone, and the nose it barely in evidence, but the teeth shine white and sharp against the fetid purple flesh of the face. It’s impossible to tell it this was once a man or woman, but even as the features decay and liquify there’s no mistaking that this was once a human. Insects buzz around, flitting in and out through freshly carved holes in the flesh, mocking the inert hands to brush them away.

I gotta be honest with you, amigos, I was not prepared for this. My first, instinctive reaction was actually to reach over and attempt to cover the eyes of my filmgoing companion, to protect them from seeing what I had just seen. Never had that reaction before.

So yeah, this is a pretty brutal movie. But not because it has a particular desire for shock value; instead, it simply has a frankness about death which makes you realize just how squeamish most film are about the subject. This is a movie about death which is not going to cut away when things get uncomfortable, not going to tastefully edit anything out, not going to retreat to metaphor. It’s going to take a clear, steady look, and ask that if we’re genuinely interested in talking about this topic that we do the same. It’s not lurid. But this is reality. That death you see in the movies, where they get last words and slowly close their eyes? That’s a fiction. Death in real life is random and gross; its filled with fluids and bizarre, ambiguous details and when it’s over, you’re left with a pallid, meaty block of dead flesh that gradually becomes a habitat for the insects and microorganisms that will break it down into a brown goo. That’s what happens, that’s what’s gonna happen to us all, and if we’re serious about it we have to admit that it’s kind of rare that someone really forces us to confront that fact.

Don't be fooled by the yellow gloves, that's not Space Ghost.

Not that the movie is pushy about it; it’s just uncommonly clear-eyed about the world. You chose to watch this documentary about death, and this is what death is like. Honestly, it would be kind of ridiculous to watch a movie about this topic and not expect to see some images of real death, and yet, our media landscape has absolutely primed us to expect enormous discretion on the subject. Simply taking the romance out of death is kind of shocking in this culture. We’re so utterly horrified by death that we hide behind our poetry and polite language and mythmaking. We have euphemisms and visual metaphors; we say “the departed” or, “he’s no longer with us.” Yeah, well, maybe so, but a big chunk of him is sure still here. There’s no hiding allowed in this movie, no romanticizing. Death has happened to every living thing ever to exist, and it will happen to you. There’s almost nothing more banal, but facing it so bluntly after a lifetime of living in a culture so sensitive about the subject is utterly jarring, shattering even.

But of course, this is not a general documentary about death, it’s about a certain kind of death. The title does not lie. The kind of death in question is one wherein someone dies so utterly alone in the world that there is no one who is legally able or available to take custody of their estate and make necessary arrangements. People who die, and no one notices until someone complains about the smell or gets irritated that the rent hasn’t been paid in a while. This is a documentary about what happens next. You gotta feel for these poor souls. Even in death they’re so isolated from their fellow man that their remains go unclaimed, unwanted; something to be disposed of by disintered career bureaucrats because no one else wants to take responsibility for it. There’s a profound, almost unwatchable sense of loneliness and heartache that pervades this grim arrangement -- you so badly want these people to just have one last flash of genuine human contact, you want someone, somewhere to acknowledge that these were people with lives, with loves, worries, shames, successes. You want someone to acknowledge that they were unique, they were special -- they lived, it meant something. But no one really can, because no one really knew them; they’re like an ancient, forgotten civilization to us, leaving behind only worn artifacts as a testament to the fact that something once stood here.

In a way, the film shares a lot with fellow outrageously depressing documentary DREAMS OF A LIFE; both are, on some level, an exploration of the lonely lives of the people who somehow fell through the cracks, and died without seemingly any meaningful human connection left. But while DREAMS is focused on trying to understand the person at the center of its tragic mystery, A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH is more interested in the process. What happens when there’s no one else to make decisions after death?

The answer is as fascinating as it is mundane: there are government people whose job it is to gather available evidence, try to find anyone who could take responsibility for making decisions for the deceased, and, that failing, to make them themselves as best they can based on the information available. Sometimes that information is in short supply: one man has died in a motel room, with little more than the clothes on his back (in fact, at the time of death he was stepping out of the shower and didn’t even have those). Apparently a drifter, there’s virtually nothing to suggest where this man came from, what he was like, what he would have wanted. So they wrap him in a plastic bag, throw away his few possessions, cremate the body in an enormous government kiln (which burns up to three bodies at a time, apparently sometimes dozens per night) and dump the ashes in a mass grave marked only by the year. In one of the movie’s most sobering scenes (which in this movie is really saying something), we watch as mortuary workers crush the cremated bones to dust with hammers, pour the ashes into a box, and dump the boxes --by hand-- one by one, into an otherwise ordinary grave. There are hundreds of boxes. Maybe thousands more briefly glimpsed back at their warehouse.

See that dust? Yeah, that used to be people.

It’s beyond shocking to see something like that, and writing it out makes it almost seem like this is supposed to be some kind of muckraking expose. But really, I don’t think it’s like that at all; I think the filmmakers actually have a lot of respect and compassion for both the dead and the living who spend their lives cleaning up after them. The government workers who do these jobs seem bright, dedicated, trying to do their best to honor the life of someone they never even met, someone who isn’t even survived by a memory. And they’re like you and I -- they’re naturally curious about these people, they want on some deep level to pull some little thread of genuine human contact out of the ashes, even as they take responsibility for picking up the pieces and solving practical matters. The movie is interested in both -- the practical decisions as to who is responsible for cleaning up an apartment after a body has rotted into an unrecognizable liquid or what happens to all that cheap furniture, and the emotional decisions about where a body is ultimately remembered and who and what the person was while they were alive.

The most interesting story which emerges as various agencies pursue different aspects of the case revolves around an elderly man found dead in his apartment in just horrible circumstances. He did not go quietly. He’s naked and seems to have WARNING GRANDMA DO NOT FINISH THIS SENTENCE, IT’S NICE THAT YOU LIKE TO CHECK IN ON ME BUT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW I SAW THIS shit out most of his blood and internal organs in an unsuccessful attempt to make it to the bathroom. The room is splattered with a caked brown layer of blood and feces, and in the middle of it is the pale, emaciated, naked body of a very old man. A bad death. The apartment is dingy and out of date, weird, framed oil paintings cover nearly every inch of wall.

This all adds up to a situation just as grim as you might expect; it's easy to imagine this lonely old man, no social skills, no friends left if he ever had any. A recluse, a failure, someone hiding out from a life which was too taxing for him. But there are little details which are odd: on his table is literally everything the coroners need to identify what he wanted done in the event of his death; he has made fastidious plans for his burial arrangements, even photographing the location he wants to be buried in. He must have known he was dying and tried to prepare for it. But wait -- as they pursue the case further, they’re surprised to find that someone else is already buried in the cemetery plot he picked out for himself, near his parents. Did someone steal his grave? No, it seems he gave it up to a friend a couple years ago. What the heck is going on here?

Gradually, these odd details start to resolve themselves a little bit: This is not just a tragic, lonely old man who never amounted to anything. His “friend” was his partner since the early 70s; this was an out-and-proud gay man, living with the love of his life until AIDS claimed him a few years back. In pictures, he’s handsome, youthful; his partner, now buried in the grave he was planning to use himself, looks like the life of the party. If his circumstances ended up so grim, its only in contrast to the happiness he must have once known. It all starts to make a little more sense (especially those otherwise inexplicable oil paintings of muscular nude men) and this frail, pallid corpse lying in filth in a dingy apartment starts to become someone, not something.

Imagine if someone, by law, had to tag and remove every object from your home. What would they think, carrying your weird novelty sized silver cup out of the apartment you died in?
But of course, he’s also still a thing, and a thing that needs to be put somewhere. They all are. And a lot of the film is simply about the people who have to fill out the paperwork, make the phone calls, push the gurney. There’s an absolutely jaw-dropping sequence where a no-nonsense coroner takes a phone call from her kid while struggling to coax a bloated corpse into a mylar body bag. “Just wrapping up a body,” she explains as she grunts, lifting the dead weight. When she first glimpses the body, her professional enthusiasm is stirred: “Have you seen bridging like this before? It's beautiful! Textbook blunt-force trauma.”** These people do the best they can, and they really seem to be making an effort with each case. But when you’ve seen this much death, it’s hard to treat it with the same reverence those with the luxury of being far removed from it can afford. If you let it get to you, you could never do the job, you’d burn out. Hell, the reason this has even come to them is that no one else cares even a little. As one coroner points out,  "I can just imagine if we do find a relative, the response is going to be probably non-emotional: 'Oh, okay. Well, we always wondered what happened to him.' "

That’s a tough thing to hear, but their concerns are mostly practical: someone has to get in there and clean the carpets, someone has to deal with any remaining bank accounts, someone has auction off the furniture. As with anytime you deal with real-life stories, things aren’t always as clear-cut as you might imagine; ambiguities abound just as much as suggestive details do. When a coroner traces down the cemetery plot owned by one of the deceased, it turns out there’s already someone buried there, and no one seems to know who or why (this is a different one than the other story above. How often does this happen!?). The city officials don’t have enough information to press the case, and the cemetery managers just seem relieved that no one is going to sue them over their fuck up, they compromise and bury the guy somewhere else. Another corpse is found strangled, a noose made of wire hanger around its neck, which the corner inexplicably rules is accidental, the tragic result of the deceased trying to adjust his TV antenna --wha? That can’t possibly be a random accident, can it? And beyond that, what was this guy doing here anyway? He’s living in a rat-infested shithole, but his apartment is full of receipts; he doesn’t seem to have a steady job, but he’s been donating $200 a month to a local church. As a person, you’ve got to be desperate to know the answers, to try and find some kind of truth and meaning in the mess. But as a worker, you’ve just have to accept that most of this stuff is beyond our ability to know, but somebody is still going to have to clean up all this rat shit. And, sadly, no one will ever ask again.

The great equalizer.
This would be a stunning look into a world most of us will never see (while alive) regardless of its artistic merits; to my knowledge, there’s nothing else even remotely this exhaustive and full of detail ever put to celluloid on this subject. But unlike DREAMS OF A LIFE, which got bogged down in reenactments and shmaltzy editing, A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH employs an impressive artistry worthy of its weighty subject matter. Directors Babcock and Hadaegh apparently spent all their money and more than a year hanging around the scene to find footage they could use, and they are confident enough in that footage to let it speak for itself. There’s no music except for a brief rendition of “Greensleeves” over the credits. No talking heads. Neither Slash nor Neil Gaiman appear at all, obviously a rarity for documentaries. It’s very Maysles-inspired, no narration and no cutesy editing to tell you how to feel. They favor long, static shots, often employing an almost Kubrickian symmetrical framing technique that subtly transforms their grim subjects into coldly beautiful --even iconic-- portraits. Sometimes, they’ll simply let the screen fade to black, just to leave the last image lingering in your mind. It works. Their careful craftsmanship makes this the rare documentary which features both a fascinating subject matter and a genuine sense of cinematic artistry.

The end result is that his is an absolutely riveting documentary both about the people involved in and, in a subterranean way, about the very subject of death itself. And it’s made with the care and cinematic eye of truly masterful craftsmen. That puts me in a difficult situation, because this is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen which I can’t in good conscience really recommend to anybody. Should you see this film? No, you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But if you are in the market to have your night (and maybe your whole week) ruined by a truly great work of cinema, this is the one. You’re unlikely to see another film this or any year as searing and wrenching as this one, and especially unlikely to see one which cuts so deep while still maintaining an unwavering honesty and avoiding the usual manipulations of artists less confident that the world as it is has plenty of its own ability to change you. Babcock and Hadaegh actually have a new movie out now, their first in nearly a decade after A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH: it’s called SCENES OF A CRIME and it focuses on the 10-hour interrogation of a man accused of murdering his infant son. The New York Times called it a “disturbing picture of courtroom justice.” If it’s anywhere near as brilliant as this one, it’ll be required viewing for a guy like me, but, uh, maybe don’t judge me if I take a little time to recover from this one first, OK?*** Turns out real life is a lot more upsetting than the movies, even for a guy who assumed he’d seen it all.

*Then THE ACT OF KILLING came along. And out of the blue, for the first time in a long time, I remembered what it was like to be scared of movies. To really watch a trailer and think, “Jesus, I don’t know if I need that in my life. That looks like it might just show me some things that I genuinely do not want to see, and will honestly be happier remaining ignorant about.” I was genuinely nervous going in, and --it turned out-- rightly so. That movie is absolutely harrowing, bristling with a raw pain about the horrors humans are capable of on a level that I have never experienced in the cinema. I walked out thoroughly shaken to my core, profoundly disquieted by what I’d seen. But, I also walked out with something else, small at first but gradually growing: that sense of giddy joy you can only get having taken in a genuine work of artistic brilliance. I called THE ACT OF KILLING one of the best films in years, and I stand by that; if anything, its esteem has only grown in my mind as I’ve had time to mull it over and parse through the complex emotions it stirs. It was a very difficult film to watch, but not only am I glad I watched it, I’m almost excited to revisit it. This one, I don’t know if I’d be able to come back to, even as much as I admire it.

**Memo to TV people: this lady needs her own show.

***Worth noting: The DVD has an excellent FAQ section which addresses a lot of the questions you may have about how in the hell this was accomplished. Required reading to get the full story.