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Child of God (2013)
Vignettes of Feral Insanity
I sat still after the United States premiere of James Franco's "Child of God" at the New York Film Festival, not as much contemplating whether or not it was good as I was considering whether or not I liked it. Mostly true to the Cormac McCarthy novel on which it was based, the film follows the cloistered and violent existence of Lester Ballard (Scott Haze) who lives isolated in the woods of Tennessee committing crimes of the most grotesque caliber. I won't say much more about the plot other than the fact that the sadistic actions shown on screen evoke an uneasy humor, a disturbing essence of comical brutality. To say the least, this movie is not for the queasy or the fainthearted. You will squirm.
James Franco decided to organize the film into three acts, clearly distinguished from one another by title cards. While the producer argued this was done to manifest the passage of time, I felt it had no such effect. To add to this distortion of time and space, scenes are executed as vignettes. There's a constant transition fading in and out of the action, not only prompting confusion as to how much time passes between each scene, but also distracting the audience from the plot by means of excessive filmmaking. Some scenes exist solely for the purpose of character development while others seem to have no function at all. The relevant vignettes are strung together by a consistently distressed brain. While this structure may detract from the linear storyline, it instead leaves more up to interpretation and imagination. No number of scenes can embody the true insanity of Lester Ballard, we can only imagine what madness must be going on between the fades.
Scott Haze's performance as Lester Ballard is probably the most memorable and noteworthy aspect of the film. Haze, who lived alone in caves and lost 45 pounds to prepare for this dynamic and challenging role, brilliantly expresses the complex lunacy of Ballard. He adjusted his voice to a barely comprehensible Tennessee accent and habitually licks his lips and bares his teeth, similar to Heath Ledger's Joker. Admitting that he channeled troubles from his own past when confronting the character, Haze often appears ignorant and childlike, constantly screaming and salivating, a repulsive portrait of a man bore from nature's womb. While sometimes funny, his interactions with his victims are unsettling yet strangely amorous. Just like in the writing of Cormac McCarthy, the audience lacks any sympathy for Ballard, for it's nearly impossible to relate to him. Franco isn't looking for your sympathy, he wants nothing more than your intrigue and attention. To witness Haze is to observe an animal, wild, vicious, and savage. The only other notable performance is that of Tim Blake Nelson playing Sheriff Fate. He conducted the role with a mediated honesty, constructing as realistic a character as possible and standing out within the frame, even with minimal screen time.
All things considered, the technical aspects of the film are quite impressive. Funded out of James Franco's own pocket, the movie looks and sounds great considering its modest budget. The cinematography of the rural Tennessee landscape is eerily beautiful, shot hand-held on a handful of Canon 5Ds. The desaturated and gritty colors add an appropriate rustic feel to the film, further enhancing the forest terrain. The original music, although not particularly memorable, suits the setting well. Furthermore, the nameless narration was true to McCarthy's technique and certainly added to the tone of the film, keeping the audience attentive all the same. Overall, the movie's unsensational filmmaking is entirely fitting, ensuring the horrors on screen are ever more explicit, ever more real.
You can tame the land, but you can't tame a man. "Child of God" is a commentary about the dispossessed in an incestuous homeland. Littered with existential imagery and dialogue, the film offers a respectful and honest rendering of the novel. While I may not agree with some storytelling elements and approaches, Franco still manages to get the point across and deliver a message, a testament to rejection, violence, and humanity. The film is definitely worth a watch if you can stomach it and works as a cogent visual supplement to the novel. I look forward to seeing more James Franco adaptations in the future.
Not Fade Away (2012)
Rock is Rooted in the Blues
The Sopranos' creator David Chase's directorial debut, "Not Fade Away", is, at its core, a sad movie, masked by the comedy and music that barricade my empathy. The fictional story of a 1960s teenage drummer (John Magaro) who creates a rock band with a few of his friends, "Not Fade Away" is a very character driven film, focusing primarily on the social life of the protagonist, specifically his relationship with his girlfriend (Bella Heathcorte), his band mates, and his family. I won't spoil the plot, but it is a coming-of-age tale, not as much about learning and growing as it is about doing and living. James Gandolfini is an on screen pleasure as the main character's father, while the rest of the cast, mostly lesser known actors, gratifyingly embody the 1960s rock and roll personality.
Gloriously filmed by Chase's cinematographer Eigil Bryld, the film succeeds in emitting a rock and roll cluttered vibe when the music is playing, contrasted by a dark, Godfatheresque undertone that is signature of David Chase during more dramatic scenes. While the art direction and costume design were spot on, in the end it was the music that was transporting me through time. Repeatedly watching, with the characters, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Buddy Holly perform on a small black and white TV, I was sent back into the age of drugs, sex, and rock and roll. The band's original songs were probably the highlight of the film. Under the supervision of Steve Van Zandt, the music department took advantage of the actors' talented musical backgrounds and were able to conjure up some extremely enjoyable tracks that very well could've been written during the era.
My main problem with the film is the fact that it is littered with unnecessary scenes, scenes that are probably meant to indicate character development, but ultimately convey little to nothing. It also fails to establish Heathcote, the supporting actress, as an interesting or particularly likable character. Not much is ever learned about her through the course of the film while notably less significant characters remain better developed and ultimately more interesting.
When walking into the theater at the New York Film Festival, I thought I was in for another "Almost Famous". What I got was a very different movie. "Not Fade Away" is a simple picture. With a basic plot structure and relatable characters, the film is practically spoon-fed to its audiences. It is the end of the film, the final scenes, that sum up not only the movie, but the era. You must think before you proclaim a lack of closure, consider the times and the lifestyle. Rock spawned from the blues and, in the sad actuality of this movie, can't ever separate from its source. Success is 10% inspiration and 90% perspiration and in the end we often can't keep up. I recommend this vicarious joyride to all music, drama, and comedy movie lovers, as well as anyone who is looking for a party, a party that is shut down by reality. 8/10 stars.
Zobel Will Make You Cringe
"Compliance" is a shockingly terrifying film. As I watched the events unfold on the screen, knowing that they were tightly based off a true story, I had difficulty maintaining my breathing. With a sinister visual style from the start, filled with tight macro shots and a simply greasy aura, as well as powerful performances from all of the cast members, most exceptionally Ann Dowd, "Compliance" transcends from its fast-food setting into something much darker, and much more haunting. The abuse of the young cashier is repulsive. "How could you do that?!" you will continually wonder, wishing the words would escape your head in the form of a scream. This film is frustrating, vexing, and equally engrossing, almost as if the story itself doesn't satisfy man's need for vicarious horror. "Compliance" forces me to question my fate in humanity and the limits of the 7 billion people with whom I share this Earth. Ultimately this film is a sickening narrative, a narrative I might as well wish I had never seen. Must you watch this? No. Is this a vital piece of cinema? No. Is "Compliance" paralyzing, appalling, thought provoking, and, most brutally, true? More than you could ever imagine.