Saturday, August 27, 2016

horror triple feature: devil, plus one, enter nowhere

Devil: (2010, dir: John Erick Dowdle) This is an M. Night Shyamalan story from beginning to twist-end, just directed by someone else, and it fucks up and loses me in the exact same way that Signs did: with the cut-and-dried theophany, the indisputably straightforward workings of God in the lives of men.

Divine Grace is never cut-and-dried, never indisputable, not to the eyes of humans. It may be that His works make all kinds of perfect, symmetrical sense from the god's eye-view, but we can only see the limited pieces set in front of us, and from the vantage-point of the groundlings, Divine Grace always looks partial, or sloppy, or half-baked, or maybe like an accident. One human might have an epiphany, might, for one short moment, be able to encompass the fullness of a Divine Act, but it will rub so contrary to the grain of everyday human existence that even keeping hold of the memory of it will require a stubborn contrivance of faith and courage.

And that's why M. Night bugs me. Theodicy is not simple, and this guy tries to tell us it is, and that the evil which God "allows" is all for our own good.

Plus One: (2013. dir: Dennis Iliades) A meteorite strike causes a wrinkle effect in time and a Harmony Korine party of hedonist kids find themselves partying with their doppelgangers from moments prior. What might have been an interesting idea turns out to be a post-adolescent masturbatory power-fantasy when the main guy uses the anomaly to win back the girl who dumped him and then murder her other self. The girls shed their clothes at the drop of a hat and the smartest of them spends the evening making out with herself. Too bad.

Enter Nowhere: (2011. dir: Jack Heller) It begins as "No Exit" for three lost souls trapped in a cabin in the middle of an unfamiliar forest, then turns into something more interesting before the end. When it all comes out in the wash, it’s a moral fable about how the secret to living a good and healthy life is to be raised by the woman who gave birth to you: accept no substitutes! The acting is solid enough, including Scott Eastwood (yes, he looks just like his dad only handsome) as the audience surrogate. No gore, no chills, just a strange, twisty storyline that, although ultimately unsatisfying, is enough to keep you watching.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

the female gaze: the invitation and strangerland

the Invitation: (2015. dir: Karyn Kusama) An extraordinary film which, if you look at the plot, might be classed as a psychological thriller, but it dredges up the kind of heavy loathing and dread that the best horror does. The acting is first-class (including excellent use of my two favorite actors from Carnivale, Toby Huss and John Carroll Lynch). A group of old friends gathers for a dinner party after a few years apart instigated by a tragedy, and these actors really do feel like old friends. It's set in a mansion in the Hollywood hills, and although the house itself doesn't feel like a character as in your haunted house films, the view from the terrace and the winding road up and away from the hoi-polloi makes L.A. feel like an integral, living part of the story. Kusama knows just when to take us up close into our main character's haunted head (Logan Marshall-Green, revealing a star talent) and when to come back into the world of tense laughter and conversation. This is a director who knows exactly what she's doing.

The ending gave me shivers, down my spine and along my arms.

Seriously, it's such a good movie it works on your mind for days after.

Strangerland (2015. dir: Kim Farrant) Bleak, fascinating movie about a disconsolate emotional winter fallen across a family (husband and wife sleep in separate rooms, the son walks all night and never sleeps) as the teenaged daughter's powerful onslaught of sexuality wreaks havoc. When both kids go missing during a dust-storm, Catherine (Nicole Kidman) begins to feel the weight of her own long-lost sexual power during the frantic search. Hugo Weaving is lovely as a small-town cop, and there's something about the Australian outback, something more than bleak or wild, something that feels mythical. Characters refer to the Rainbow Serpent, the water-bringer associated with menstruation and so with the protection of women. When Catherine asks an aboriginal elder-woman about it, the woman says, "Children go lost here. It's something in the land."

Since Farrant's interest lies with the sexuality of the girl and the woman, the shape of the story goes awry of our usual expectations. It looks like it's set to be a mystery, then a thriller, and a strong sense of dread builds, but all the mysteries (as in life!) are not solved, and it's Catherine's internal journey that is followed to a point of catharsis. It's a movie more akin to Picnic at Hanging Rock in that sense, a movie unconcerned with cut-and-dried answers.

Joseph Fiennes is probably miscast as the strong but befuddled father. His hugely expressive eyes, a boon in many roles, play against him here, and someone more quintessentially Australian might have been a better fit. Think of a young Bryan Brown, that jagged chunk of Aussie masculinity, and how devastating it would have been at the end to see him break down in cathartic tears with his wife. Whereas Fiennes always kind of looks like he's about to cry, doesn't he?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

the female gaze: by the sea and the private lives of pippa lee

By the Sea: (2015. dir: Angelina Jolie Pitt) In what appears vaguely to be the 1970s, two beautiful people, married 14 years, languish at a secluded Maltese resort by the sea. She (Jolie) wilts gracefully across divans and sloths around on deck chairs; he goes down to the local, chats up the folks, tries to write, drinks himself into sloppy rudeness only to be forgiven by the generous old man who runs the joint. We can see their marriage is dissolving in icy distance, and there is some allusion to a past crisis which cannot be discussed. One of the great strengths of the piece, in fact, is that we don't know the nature of the crisis until late in the day. The film would have been all the better had it been left a mystery indefinitely, since the instigating event is not, ultimately, important, just the emotional and psychological fall-out from it, and naming it makes commonplace and simple what might have remained a tentacled monster of vast and Lovecraftian proportion.

Jolie captures well the strangeness of marriage, and how cataclysmic abysses can open between two people who know one another too well, an estrangement seemingly against both partner's wills, seeming to have an avalanche life of its own, gaining weight and matter as it gains speed. Mostly, though, the pace here is so unfailingly languid, and the clinching moment, the fulcrum upon which the climax turns, depends on so second-perfect an accidental encounter, that it feels forced and writerly.

*SPOILER ALERT*: In the end, we are told that her "tragedy" is that she is barren, but it is simple for us to see, although the characters never do, that her true tragedy is a lack of vocation. She thinks herself into dire maelstroms because she has no purposive action, no direction for her energies. We are told she was once a dancer. When asked why she stopped, she acidly says, "I got old." When he (Pitt) holds forth about the good old times to the tavern-keeper, he recalls himself having been once a great writer, and she a dancer with a great body; whether she had talent is not of value enough to mention. Like Scott with Zelda, he will own all the genius in the family, and she, like Zelda, finds herself a dancer whose access to the stage has been stripped away by the prejudice of the world against a woman aging.

Mostly, though, it's beautiful to look at, with great cars and perfect, groovy songs, reminiscent of a certain mid-20th-c. European ouevre.

the Private Lives of Pippa Lee: (2009. dir: Rebecca Miller) Miller directs her own script, and communicates truths about womanhood and the subtleties of the roles we play: how much of it is chosen, how much decreed for us? Maria Bello is startlingly good as the speed-freak mom, Robin Wright shines in the lead, a tougher, subtler role, as a woman whose tamped-down energies are pushing volcanically to the surface without her permission. Alan Arkin does that wonderful Alan Arkin thing, bringing his ever-spry intelligence to every line. Winona Ryder takes some furious glee in milking her own crazy-girl image, and Keanu Reeves shows up as the magical animus figure who cannot lie, and will save the day in the end.

It's a good movie, don't get me wrong. The characters are shifting and complex, Miller's interest in the main character, a rich, New York housewife, is true and unflagging and keeps our own interest piqued. Here's an idea, though: how about a movie in which a woman busts out of her old life, and DOESN'T have Keanu Reeves waiting to drive her away into the Mojave? Where's the movie about the woman who loses or gives up everything, then faces a life of solitude and the challenge of living it creatively? Where's the updated version of the Ellen Burstyn character in Grand Isle? And remember My Brilliant Career? Female audiences were unsettled by the Judy Davis character's decision to choose creative solitude over domestic servitude in marriage to the man she loved -- this was set at the turn of the twentieth century, mind, so there was no birth control. Had she married her man, she'd have given up her writing to launder nappies and, yes, have some glorious sex, but she would be giving over the tiller, surrendering her autonomy, and STILL the women of 1979 were threatened by her decision. Here it is, thirty years later, and Pippa Lee still can't just drive off into the desert by herself; even today, it's considered too hard and selfish a choice for a woman to make.

But, really, how difficult would it be to drive off into the desert with Keanu freaking Reeves? Does she really need a stockpile of courage to make that choice? In a sense, unless he is just symbolic of her own internal masculine side, how is it not its own cop-out, switching dependence on one man for another?

Monday, July 4, 2016

recent russell crowe double feature: the water diviner and a winter's tale

the Water Diviner: (2014. dir: Russell Crowe) Directing yourself is never easy, and Crowe does his best to avoid problems by keeping his performance simple and straightforward. The story is mixed: the interesting part tells the flip-side of the Gallipoli story, a deep scar in Australian history, an ill-conceived WWI campaign in which 36,000 ANZAC troops were lost or wounded. If you're American, you learned about it from the Peter Weir movie. If you're Australian, I assume it's ingrained in you as cultural heritage from earliest youth. This story looks at it from the Turkish angle, beginning in a trench where soldiers are preparing to die, but it's a trick, a mirror image of Weir's trench in which the Australians are pinning their photographs and final letters to the shorings before they run to their deaths: this time, it's the Turks doing the same thing, but when they reach the crest of the hill, they find the enemy has retreated.

It's the story of a farmer, a sensitive autodidact and preternaturally gifted water-dowser, who has lost all three sons on the Turkish peninsula and his wife as a later casualty of the same battle. In deference to her last wishes, he travels to Turkey to find the bodies of his sons and bring them home.

The story incorporates magical realism, as when he "intuits" the final moments of his boys as he walks across the ground which drank their blood, this without the film actually committing to a vision of reality in which there is an invisible dimension. The suggestion is, rather disturbingly, that this farmer loves his children more fully and successfully than us mere mortals do, and that's why he's able to follow their long-buried traces, while the rest of us are plagued by unanswered questions when we lose our own loved ones. The visuals are heightened into hyper-reality, as well: when he reaches Istanbul, the scarlets and yellows are saturated to an extreme, as if everything has been carved out of saffron and turmeric.

Most of the movie's flaws and saccharine sentimentality (there's an adorable Turkish urchin who has two jobs: to provide a conduit through which his ridiculously gorgeous mother falls in love with our aging, unprepossessing hero, and to administer the emotional blackmail that underhandedly plucks at our heartstrings) might be forgiven when weighed against the good (the bits about war feel fully and well done), except for the unforgivable love story. There is good acting in this movie (Yilmaz Erdogan, particularly, as the Turkish officer, and Ryan Corr as the eldest son), but not, alas, by Olga Kurylenko, whose character, in her defense, may be unplayable as written.

She is a Turkish war-widow who accepts that her dead husband's brother has the right to wallop her, and yet is a Strong and Independent Woman, as trademarked by Hollywood. There is probably a bridge between the two extremes, but Kurylenko and Crowe either could not find it, or failed to communicate it if they did. Crowe takes cliched shortcuts in mapping the Woody Allen-flavored romance (Crowe was 5O at the time, Kurylenko 34, and she looks younger than that, upping the ick-factor): syrupy music over a candlelit supper, at which my boyfriend wryly pointed out that if she were really a widow at the close of World War I, she wouldn't waste a hundred candles on a single supper, even if she had a hundred candles. The amorous brother-in-law who begins as an obstacle magically vanishes by the end, and with him any cultural obstacles, like, say, that the Turkish men, who are still at war against Britain, would kill our hero and probably her as well for sleeping with the enemy rather than allow the romance. You have to figure that even if our hero managed to spirit his lady-love and her absurdly cuddlesome son back to Australia, the union would still be villified by his own people in their postbellum xenophobia, and is this Strong and Independent(TM) Muslim woman going to be happy in the Australian bush? Yikes. Not likely. A happy ending, as someone wise once pointed out, is a story that's not finished yet. This one, though, just feels forced and false.

a Winter's Tale: (2014. dir: Akiva Goldsman) Ah, true love, true love. Always predestined, immediately recognizable, instantly cleansing away the flaws and sins of those who find it. The altar at which Hollywood worships.

This is a New Age fairy tale, lifted soggily above a slough of saccharine hogwash and held there, barely, by good performances and some lush photography. Its theology is dunderheaded, because in Hollywood, the only way to experience God is through true romance or parental love. The only third option is disinterested samaritanism, but Hollywood is uncomfortable with it and tends to make those folks into angelic figures.

It's long and slow, but Russell Crowe has some fun finding the tics and nuances of his villainous demon, and the only performance that falls flat, interestingly, is from Will Smith, who is an entirely unconvincing Lucifer, possibly because he can't help exuding so powerful a nice-guy charisma.

I do dig it at the end, when the bad guy turns into ice. Nice effect.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

1971 australian double feature: wake in fright and walkabout

Wake in Fright: (1971. dir: Ted Kotcheff) As much a classic of Aussie cinema as Picnic at Hanging Rock or Breaker Morant, Wake in Fright chronicles the Christmas holiday of a school-teacher trapped in the bleakest part of the outback in a sort of indentured servitude. En route to Sydney to visit his surfer-girlfriend, he becomes trapped by circumstance, peer pressure, and bad choices in a mining town ("the Yabba!" the locals call it with enthusiasm), and undergoes a mounting nightmare made of drink, sweat, dirt, blood, and vomit. It's infamous for the gruesome and protracted, real-life footage of a kangaroo massacre at its center, fully as disturbing as it sounds, which is further grotesquified by a mano-a-mano between a badly wounded 'roo and a drunk-as-fuck muscleman. The whole thing, the whole movie, the word "disturbing" doesn't begin to cover it. Kotcheff is an American who went on to direct First Blood, among others, and it may be the outsider's look at a foreign culture that heightens the weirdness into a sort of barely controlled hysteria.

It's like one of Polanski's early psychological horror films, the Tenant or Repulsion, in which you feel like you're standing too close to someone, watching while they go insane. This school-teacher (Gary Bond) starts out the day a proper fellow, complete with posh BBC accent and Carnaby Street good looks, who dreams of shipping out to England and cultivates artsy pretensions. Once he's trapped in The Yabba (and it is one of the most nightmarish moments I can remember, when he steps out the back of the lorry to realize that he is, indeed, trapped, as in a sort of Purgatory, just as the driver hands him a rifle), the movie maps a descent into alcohol-frenzy. Watching these men at their berserk, rampaging play is a high-pitched nightmare, one without end, a sort of tornado skipping across the landscape and demolishing everything it touches, some things immediately, others more slowly, like the women trapped amongst them.

*SPOILER ALERT* Here's the clincher, though: it's not a horror film, because of the ending. You watch this guy go all the way down into madness, through suicide and out the other side, and, in the end, he walks back to the same school-house, dressed in the same clothes, and when his landlord asks how his holiday was, he says, through gritted teeth but with some gusto, "The best." And that's when you realize what you've been watching: an Englishman suffering a gruesome transmogrification into an Australian. You've been watching a sort of shamanic initiation, in which he's ritually eviscerated in a frenzy of bacchic idiocy, and when he's strong enough to survive it, he returns to walk the earth as a roo-killing, two-fisted Aussie, disburdened of his previous dreams and pretensions.

Walkabout: (1971. dir: Nicolas Roeg) ...and this, the darling of international arthouses at the end of the swingingest decade, bears odd similarity to its more provocative brother of the same year. It's another outsider's view of the outback, Roeg's vision evoking an incandescent beauty and vibrant thrum of life from within the apparent wasteland. Its instigating incident involves an Englishman driven mad by the same landscape, trying to murder his children before turning his gun on himself, and the children embark on an initiatory "walkabout", saved by an aboriginal boy who takes them under his wing. In this one, however, the transformation is resisted in the end, the children returning to the suffocating harness of "Englishness" (which Roeg points up as grotesque through use of radio broadcasts and cross-cut juxtapositioning of "natural" vs "white" ways of life), only to think back on it wistfully as a transient moment of freedom.

Partly because of Roeg's extreme stylings, it's a film much more trapped in the moment of its making than Wake in Fright, whose nightmare traverses boundaries. This is, at heart, a hippie vision, part of the Rousseau, back-to-nature movement of the time, embodied, perhaps a little leeringly, in retrospect, in Jenny Agutter's 17-year-old nakedness. The film's most striking scenes involve the Aborigines: the boy's final courtship dance, or when a nomadic community comes across the burnt-out car and uses it as a plaything, the white man's decaying body stretched gruesomely in the trees nearby, ignored.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

the female gaze: proof and good dick

Proof: (1991. dir: Jocelyn Moorhouse) It's a strange movie, and well worth watching. A blind man (Hugo Weaving) deifies truth, photographing his world so others will verify through their eyes what he has experienced through his other senses. He endures a dysfunctional (like, Eugene O'Neill levels of dysfunction) relationship with his housekeeper (Genevieve Picot), who is in love with him and spurned at every show of vulnerability. "I know she wants me," he explains, "and as long as she can't have me, she won't pity me." In punishment, she silently leaves ashtrays and coat-stands where he will trip over them and uses his beloved dog as a pawn in their power-games. Their lives are bounded in circles of longing, fear, and cruelty, until he meets an amiable and ingenuous dishwasher (Russell Crowe), whose friendship catalyzes growth, disruption, and endgame.

If it's the nineties, it barely is. Everything except the digital camera looks like the eighties, including an ill-judged musical montage of photographs and perky music designed to communicate to us the first night our two heroes bond. Mostly, it's an interesting portrait of how spurned love can lead to petty cruelties and power trips, and how impossible it is to learn trust, except to relax into it as a necessary part of existing amongst other humans. Moorhouse communicates beautifully the sensual experience that is the blind man's world, the acting is very good, and Russell Crowe is impossibly young and charismatic.

photo courtesy of Fanzone50 (

Good Dick: (2008. dir: Marianna Palka) This movie reminds me of two things: first, the Ballad of Tam Lin, in which a woman whose lover has fallen under a fair-folk enchantment must cling fast to him as he turns into all manner of creature and thing, and, in succeeding, the enchantment is broken and he is again hers. The second is a dream I had in my twenties, in which the guy I was seeing at the time tried to walk across a room and touch me, and I had to execute a complex series of dance-steps to freeze him. It worked, but each time I did it he'd be frozen for a shorter period, and the dance-steps took just as long, so it was inevitable that soon enough he was going to succeed in his approach. I woke up in a cold sweat before he did.

Palka has written and directed a bold character study in which an unassuming and well-intentioned video-store clerk stalks, lies to, and manipulates a woman who rents porn at his store until he insinuates himself into her life, then loves her in subservience, withstanding her violent torrents of abuse, until she takes charge of fixing her damaged life and in doing so finds the power to love him back. You've got to admire the guts of it: Palka doesn't so much defy the (sometimes, let's be honest, increasingly fascistic) boundaries of Political Correctness, she ignores them completely in her search for emotional truth, crossing over and back without seeming to notice.

It looks and feels exactly like what you think "quirky indie film" should look and feel like: short scenes, indeterminate time passages, indie-rock transitions, pauses and medium-shot to emphasize emotional distance, eccentric conversation between a group of male friends. It's hard to believe this is her first film, and that she directed herself in the lead. She avoids that fall into loss of perspective and vanity to which 99% of novice self-directors succumb. And, somehow, despite the dark subject matter, Palka and her co-star Jason Ritter manage to infuse the piece with a sweetness which prevails in the end.

Thursday, June 2, 2016

exodus gods and kings: a superfluity of crocodiles, and not enough snakes

(2014. dir: Ridley Scott) You know what I miss about Biblical epics? Technicolor. That immersive, saturated, ultra-bright color of the Ten Commandments that made the blues and reds of Pharoah's palace so sumptuous you could feel the silk against your own skin. When the Nile ran red with the blood of the Hebrew God's plague, it was red like fire-trucks, like finger-paints. When the Plague of the Firstborn crept down from the sky in a green haze, it was greener than seaweed, greener than Kermit the Frog, and the thing itself, with its eerie, distant screams, its smears of lamb's-blood, it was the most eldritch night-scene ever.

In Ridley Scott's version, we begin with a mediocre script, filmed largely in earth-tones, and we get bumped along from one mediocre set-piece to the next without ever growing to care about any of the humans involved. There's a long Hollywood tradition, sure, of jumbling American and English accents together (Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Dame Judith Anderson opposite Edward G. Robinson and Vincent Price? Seriously? But, in retrospect, how do you not love it?), sticking in one "exotic" actor (Yul Brynner amongst the Wonder Bread), and calling it Egypt. Scott sticks with that (Christian Bale, Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro, Tara Fitzgerald), and hopes that Joel Edgerton manages to look exotic enough to obscure his Aussie origins. (He doesn't. A blue-eyed pharaoh?)

The night scenes are teal and orange. The most interesting one involves the burning bush, which is all very blue, very LED, and Moses himself is buried in mud with only his face emerging, a fascinating idea, but then Scott brings God out in the figure of a little boy, and again we're lost. In the old days, they knew when to respect the source material. Yeah, MGM gave God a cheesy, pretentious voice, but they stuck with His original lines, which a lot of folks know by heart because they read the Book. And when you're writing lines for God, you better by gum have a vast talent, my friend. This God-Child just sounds like a Hollywood hack scribbled some things down on a napkin.

My own biggest disappointment in this failure involves the dearth of snake-life. Where are the serpents? That's one of my favorite things in the Bible, when Moses turns a staff into a serpent then Pharoah's thaumaturges replicate the "trick". I always thought it said something particular that was never again so particularly addressed, something about the ascension of man's cleverness obscuring the world's numinous nature. Scott just leaves it out. And, in this version, the Nile turns red because crocodiles run mad and kill everything? Well, alright, but isn't the point kind of that God turns it red because He can turn it red? In other words, shouldn't we be addressing questions of Faith?

Walter Chaw has written such a brilliant review of Hail, Caesar! over at Film Freak Central that it may be the last word on its subject, and it's relevant here in that he points to it being a movie about Faith. How is it that the Coen Brothers manage to explore the issue of Faith more compellingly in a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood than anyone else can with an actual Biblical epic? It may have something to do with our current problems with zealotry and terrorism, or there may be another factor at play. Michael Gebert addresses the idea in his Encyclopedia of Movie Awards while speaking of Hammer Films: "There's a nice Ph.D. thesis to be written on the subject of why horror films hint more effectively at the mystery of faith than Hollywood's lumbering Bible soaps... Why Peter Cushing's faith is so much more convincing than Charlton Heston's."