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Wildly Surreal, but Too Disjointed for Its Own Good
I've seen director Lucio Fulci's City of the Living Dead several times over the years. Perhaps strangely, this pecking persistence doesn't reflect any deep affection on my part. Though Gino De Rossi's infamously grisly gore effects carved lasting scars into my teenage cortex, I've always found it a rather dull film, overall. Absent the esteem in which so many veteran genre fans hold City of the Living Dead, I'd probably have written it off long ago.
I know, of course, that one shouldn't expect brisk pacing or narrative cohesion of Italian horror films. Even allowing for that, Fulci here pushes turgid incoherence well past the breaking point. Things happen on screen because, well... Just because they do. Because the Maestro apparently thought the shot would look kind of cool that way. Which is fine. There's nothing necessarily wrong with cinematic dream logic (or even nonsense for its own sake), and while Fulci's work is hardly above criticism, only a fool would question his mastery of the atmospheric and grotesque.
Basically, I'd come to view City of the Living Dead the lazy, off-day hackwork of an erratic and occasionally brilliant horror auteur. The progress of images, for instance, frequently seems all but literally random, as though the final cut had been assembled in a last-minute panic by a drunken editor with no clue as to the intended storyline. While The Beyond (1981) can be accused of similar faults - it's arbitrary in construction and the action is often risibly absurd - that film somehow sustains a captivating tone of morbid dread throughout, and Sergio Salvati's gorgeous cinematography helps smooth the narrative's more baffling contortions. Even its silliest and most clichéd moments feel of a satisfying piece, and the animating breath of Fulci's artistic inspiration never flags. City, in comparison, is a lurching, disconnected mess. The tone swings erratically from goofy camp (see Christopher George's ineradicable smirk) to knockout shock with stray chunks of meandering dead space wedged awkwardly in between. Worse yet, the images that carry us through are generic as often as they are arresting.*
Or so I thought. An enthusiastic Horror Board regular recently convinced me that, despite my reservations, I owed the film one last look. To that end, I picked up Blue Underground's widely-praised 2010 restoration on Blu-Ray, settled in on a long dark night, and tried my level best to keep an open mind. Much to my surprise, I enjoyed it! Though I'll probably never call City of the Living Dead a personal favorite even where Fulci's work is concerned, it's far more engaging, creative and artistically interesting than most of the "so bad it's good" cult oddities treasured by die-hard horror fans. The splattery set-pieces are dazzling and nauseating in equal measure, Fabio Frizzi's score is a seductively psychedelic gem, and a convincingly apocalyptic final act manages to wrap things up on a relatively energetic note. If I'm not careful, I just might wind up watching it again...
* While regular Fulci collaborator Sergio Salvati shot both films, The Beyond and the criminally under-appreciated Seven Notes in Black (AKA The Psychic, 1977) provide a far better showcase for his considerable gifts.
Riaru onigokko (2015)
Lunatic Splatter with a Subversive Edge
If nothing else, Sion Sono possesses an admirable work ethic. Depending on how one counts such things (and despite the often sprawling length of his films), he's averaged at least one major theatrical release per year since catching the attention of international cinephiles and horror nerds with 2001's Suicide Club. That's on top of an ambitious schedule of television shows, short films and little-seen mystery projects. Even so, 2015 was a banner year. Over a twelve-month period, the director cranked out five full-length features in a bewildering variety of genres and styles, finally rivaling the mad profligacy of Takashi Miike, Sono's countryman and peer in overcranked eccentricity.
Tag, the first of these films semi-available to Western viewers, is an ambitious if modestly budgeted exercise in surrealist dream-horror. Sono's film takes inspiration and its Japanese title, "Riaru Onigokko" ("Real Tag"), from a popular science fiction thriller by teen-lit superstar Yusuke Yamada. Given that the novel in question recently spawned not only a successful screen adaptation but an entire, ongoing film franchise, it might seem strange that a celebrated art-house iconoclast would so soon choose to pay it another visit. In scripting his own version, however, Sono deviates significantly from Yamada's text, twisting the straightforward tale of a young man hunted by mysterious forces into a fragmentary, gore-soaked and frequently comical deconstruction of female identity in contemporary media and society.
The story concerns a teenager named Mitsuko (Reina Triendl) and her attempts to navigate the inconstant landscape of what I hesitate to call her reality. We're given little opportunity to know Mitsuko, as Tag provides us no access to her past or inner life. Instead she's a blank and rather sleepy slate, and we drop into her ordinary schoolgirl's day in stereotypical media res. When the relative calm of a brief opening idyll explodes in grisly mayhem, we understand no more than Mitsuko herself, and from there we tumble with her, bouncing repeatedly from confusion to carnage and back again. Nothing we encounter coheres for more than a moment or two, not even Mitsuko's paper-thin sense of self.
As our hapless heroine's trip down the razor-lined rabbit hole progresses, even her name and face become subject to revision. Though Triendl's Mitsuko remains central, three actresses eventually step in and out of the lead role. Mariko Shinoda plays the character as bride- to-be "Keiko", while Erina Mano appears as a determined young athlete named "Izumi", each quite strong and distinct in her portrayal. It's worth noting here that much of Tag's runtime is populated exclusively by women. This lends a distinctly political edge to the film's constant threat of apocalyptic violence, especially when combined with the polymorphous protagonist's adaptive blankness. For those who might need a bit more prompting, a hilariously bizarre third-act reversal makes Sono's intentions crystal clear.
I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for bugged-out existential thrillers in which the fundamental nature of reality is called into question, so I found Tag's shifting, looping, self-sabotaging storyline quite intriguing. Better yet, Sono corrals his penchant for long-winded digression this time out, confining himself to a careening, 85-minute sprint. This allows the film's disruptions and mysteries to retain their charge from beginning to end, despite the fact that "making sense" isn't high on the agenda. Many will doubtless feel cheated by the elliptical resolution, but as far as I'm concerned, the thrill of the ride more than justifies the price of admission.
Cannibal Holocaust (1980)
Not for the Faint of Heart...
So, I watched Cannibal Holocaust (that title!) last night - my third viewing over 20-odd years and the first I even half enjoyed. The revelatory restoration currently available on region A Blu-Ray courtesy of Grindhouse Releasing has a lot to do with that, especially when measured against the dubiously sourced, pan-n-scan VHS that introduced me to this infamous sleaze epic way back when. Where I once saw only a turgid and poorly-framed mass of washed-out browns and yellows, I now fully understand why so many praise Cannibal Holocaust for its visual qualities. Sergio D'Offizi's lush yet gritty cinematography gives Ruggero Deodato's film a sweat- soaked, jungle-vibrant eye candy appeal that I was never before able to properly appreciate.
And the gore is spectacular. Let's get that out of the way right up front, as it's undoubtedly a huge part of this film's lasting cult appeal. Even with thirty-some years of horror fandom beneath my belt, the unforgettable (and much-reproduced) image of the impaled native woman remains one of the most astonishing practical effects shots I've ever seen. It's as brilliantly simple as it is brutally effective. That said, I'll probably never become comfortable with the film's ghoulish displays of real-life animal abuse. While even its most upsetting moments do have thematic relevance in context, I'd have been far happier to go through life without ever having seen a living monkey's tiny face chopped off. In moments such as this, Grindhouse's otherwise glorious high-definition restoration is no blessing at all.
Cannibal Holocaust is often celebrated for its social criticism. With all due respect to the film's many erudite admirers, I personally feel that it's too obvious and hypocritical to make a truly meaningful statement. While Deodato clearly condemns the ignorance and exploitative cruelty of the "civilized" interlopers who view Brazilian rainforest tribespeople and their customs as "savage", he milks a shockingly ignorant, flatly racist cartoon of the latter's culture for cheap shock value. And though he seems to implicate his audience's bloodlust in the carnage we witness on screen, he uses this potentially intriguing critical vantage primarily as an excuse to wallow in lurid atrocity (much like Paul Verhoeven in Robocop and Starship Trooppers). Despite all that, I'm not inclined to condemn the film or its makers. Racism aside, there's nothing so terribly wrong with the sort of cinematic hypocrisy on display. And though Cannibal Holocaust's ethical incoherence sabotages its claim to moral authority, it fuels the feral, leering intensity of a true exploitation classic.
Amid the carnage, it's interesting to note the seldom-mentioned inclusion of (appparently?) real human execution footage in an early, context- & character-establishing flashback sequence. This documentary-styled section of the film seems to comment, if indirectly, on Jacopetti and Prosperi's Africa Addio and the ensuing murder trial. Perhaps one could describe Cannibal Holocaust as a "what if?" exercise imagining a documentary crew even more monstrously cynical than Jacopetti & Prosperi were alleged to have been by overzealous Italian prosecutors. With that in mind, there's a certain bitter irony in the fact that Deodato and his crew were themselves brought up on (and ultimately cleared of) murder charges following the release of their film. Plus ca change...
What else? Wonderful music!!! I desperately want a copy of Riz Ortolani's perversely beguiling score on vinyl. And I'm glad to have finally understood - and to some extent appreciated - a celebrated/reviled horror "masterpiece" that long eluded me.
Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)
Valhalla, My War Boys!
I've seen the overstuffed toybox of my childhood pillaged for cinematic "inspiration" so many times now that the prospect rarely offends or entices me. Star Trek, Star Wars, every cruddy horror movie ever to have graced a rented VHS tape. Take it all, you greedy bastards. Melt my cherished memories down for pocket change, see if I care.
After the heartbreaking artistic faceplant that was Ridley Scott's misbegotten Prometheus, I'd pretty much given up on these sorts of refried treats. O, me of little faith! If anyone can tool up a bloody-knuckle, road-raging death machine out of junked parts, it's George 'Mad Max' Miller. Fresh from the theater, I feel like an overstressed carburetor into which some baldhead lunatic just spat a mouthful of pure nitro. The pitiless desert sun is blazing nova bright above, and it's a lovely, lovely day indeed.
I caught Fury Road in 3-D, which was cool...mostly because I now get to go back and see it without the unnecessary dimensional enhancement. And again gaze vacantly into that stupendous vortex of crazy-ass, nonstop, man-machine mayhem like the sweaty, crack-brained adolescent I once was (and of course always will be). I don't know that I've EVER in my screen-staring LIFE seen a vehicular action flick half so relentlessly thrilling. And certainly not this side of The Road Warrior. The bug-splattered, silver-glossed, ear-to-ear grin Miller & Co. smacked across my idiot mug in the film's opening moments is still fixed in place several hours later. Turns out mom was right: my face is stuck this way.
One minor quibble: Fury Road would be improved significantly were some sensible soul simply to take a small red pen to each scripted instance of the words "hope" and "redemption". For a filmmaker whose visual storytelling has received such widespread praise, Miller sure lays on the thematic underlining with a hefty trowel. Some may accept Max and Furiosa's portentous small talk as appropriate to the tale's mythic ambitions. Me, I just found it kind of annoying, with the clunky sentimentalism tipping stoic gravitas into po-faced camp.
But why fret over details? I mean, somebody who worked on this once- in-a-lifetime nightmare monsterpiece gets a screen credit for "Wheels and Skulls". How many other movies can you say that about?
I Would Have Liked to Have Liked It More...
La Charme Discret de la Bourgeoisie is a celebrated film by a well-regarded surrealist auteur. Given that, and given my taste for such things, I went in with high hopes. But I rarely found it more than mildly amusing.
It's undeniably clever. Bunuel's dry humor sparkles, and his gentle social critique hits its marks more often than not. The penultimate shot of Fernando Rey with a slice of ham stuffed in his mouth is one of the funniest and most memorable cinematic images I've encountered in quite a while. And Delphine Seyrig breezes through her scenes with hilariously blithe detachment. But the parts don't quite add up to a greater whole.
The film reaches its peak about halfway through, once a pattern has been established (dinner parties will be attended, but dining will be teasingly withheld) and the central narrative has begun to digress and fragment. As the surreal intrudes upon the quotidian, a delicious sort of suspense sets in. Pity, then, that the last forty-five minutes squander this tension, retreating to tepid farce and a rather obvious critique of upper-crust social mores.
Someone on the film's board once quoted the director as saying, "the bourgeois moral is the immoral thing for me, that which should be combated; the moral founded in our unjust social institutions as the religion, the homeland, the family, the culture, in short, the so-called pillars of the society." Thematically, the film consists of variations on this familiar counter-cultural conceit, and such thinking was certainly voguish in the late 60s and early 70s. It's an interesting and potentially valid argument, but I found the film's handling of the idea superficial, even clichéd.
The same could be said, I suppose, of El Topo or Sweet Movie, but those films transcend glib adherence to fashionable ideologies and period style. I don't think La Charme Discret does that. Of course, it's more an urbane, low-key comedy of manners than a flaming art-bomb thrown through the window of middlebrow complacency, so perhaps the comparison is unfair. As a comedy, it is appealing, in a mild sort of way.
Finally, I was disappointed by the film's look. I understand that the bland stage-set dining rooms are a device, and a successful one. But surreal detours aside, there isn't much to look at. The camera placements and movements are almost ploddingly ordinary, and while they capture the events adequately, they don't do anything interesting with them.
I'm being unkind, of course, and terribly unfair. By stressing these complaints, I'm giving short shrift the wonderful performances and amusingly understated comic dialog. I'm overlooking the fabulously eerie dream sequences and Bunuel's masterful control of tone. I gave La Charme Discret a 7/10 because it IS charming, funny and somewhat intellectually intriguing. But I still came out of the experience feeling a bit let down...
Turistas is a genuinely terrible movie: soulless, vapid and derivative on every level. Now, I'm not saying it's inept. In fact, Turistas is a very professional-looking piece of work. But that slick, commercial surface is really just a matter of money. It can be bought, and as far as I'm concerned, has very little to do with the actual quality of a film. Turistas has all the integrity and personality of an Audi commercial. Worse, it shamelessly exploits American xenophobia to a near-racist degree.
Basically what you have is yet another a by-the-numbers Hostel rip-off. American (and English and Australian and Swedish) tourists are lured with the promise of endless partying and ripe, available, "native" flesh to a deathtrap where they're butchered for their organs simply for the crime of being "gringos". From the opening credits (a montage of passports and "scary foreign horrors", scored to upbeat Brazilian dance pop) the movie makes no bones about its agenda: foreigners are weird and scary, and if you don't watch your back, they'll kill you.
From the initial set-up, we go through a predictable build-up to the half-way point, where the nasty stuff really kicks in. There's a halfhearted attempt made here to excuse the basic xenophobia of the storyline by suggesting that the villains are simply trying to combat American exploitation. But it's far too little, far too late. It doesn't change the fact that we're being asked to side with the basically innocent white folks in their battle against a bunch of dark-skinned maniacs. Remember who the "good guys" are in this situation: conspicuously white Americans, Britishes and even a couple Swedes thrown in for measure.
Now I might be willing to excuse the film's cynical exploitation of post 9-11 anxiety if it were actually, you know, smart, or scary, or unique, or ... anything, really. But it isn't. Turistas is about as brave and intelligent as an episode of Mama's Family. One for the trash heap of history.
Oddly Charming Nonsense
First of all, this is a low, low budget film. A basement film. A film clearly made by a gang of enthusiastic amateurs rather than a Hollywood production studio. The acting is basically what you'd expect from a movie starring your stoner friends. The sets are what you might find around town, or what a relative might lend you for the weekend. The camera-work, editing and cinematography, while occasionally inventive, are far from professional. Hell, even the special effects are rudimentary (when they're not flat-out laughable).
But I kinda liked it. I didn't love it, and I'm not even really recommending it, but it's definitely the most unique and troo-kvlt horror flick I've seen in quite a while. Basically, what you have is a bifurcated storyline in which two distinct threads unfold and eventually merge. In the first, a young girl struggles to understand her relationship to her spooky parents and the creepy old house she's seemingly trapped in. In the second thread, an escaped gang of teenage rehab patients finds themselves drawn into the same spooky house. Presiding over all this is the young girl's grandfather, a mysterious figure named Reverend Salo (played, for no good reason, by The Amazing Kreskin).
The plot of this movie, however, is inconsequential. Horror is almost entirely senseless. Like Suspiria (which it resembles but can't begin to compete with), Horror cares more about building atmosphere and presenting disturbing visuals than about telling any kind of coherent story. While one might hazard a theory this way or that about why the events of the film unfold the way they do, it hardly matters. I listened to enough to DVD commentary to realize that director Danta Thomaselli's explanation is far less enlightening than what the average viewer might come up with on their own. "This is a movie that challenges all reality," he says. Uhhhhh, yeah. Take it to the man, Dante.
Again, in spite of all that, I did like this movie. Its heart is in the right place, even if it doesn't have a brain in its head. The visuals are imaginative, unsettling and clearly tied to a personal sense of what horror is all about. And, at 77 minutes, it never gets a chance to wear out its welcome.
6/10 (though I get the feeling I'm being waaaaay too generous)
The Mist (2007)
Barely Adequate Sci-Fi Horror
What you have here is an old-fashioned survival horror movie in which ordinary citizens are pitted against giant squishy things from who knows where. A spooky mist rolls into town on an otherwise pleasant afternoon, and from it emerge tentacled horrors, trapping about 20 Mainers and vacationing summer people in a small supermarket. From there, they struggle, and that's the plot in a nutshell.
Because it's based rather faithfully on a Stephen King novella, at least as much emphasis is placed on interpersonal character dynamics as on the bug nasties from dimension 7. Unfortunately, however, none of it rings true. Everything about the film feels stagy and two-dimensional. This is probably the fault of director Frank Darabont, who never met a treacly character cliché he couldn't embrace fully. Meanwhile the invading beasties, while reasonably cool, aren't ever particularly frightening. Darabont is more concerned with mildly thrilling sci-fi action than with building suspense or delivering raw horror. Only in the film's final moments, when the true, Lovecraftian scale of the threat is finally revealed, do we really get a taste of anything genuinely dreadful.
Overall, The Mist feels, more than anything else, like a better-than-average Sci-Fi channel production. You get the same blocky staging, unconvincing sets and obvious exposition. The same cardboard characters running through their cardboard histrionics. The same hokey digital monsters (though, admittedly, executed on a bigger budget than cable TV could ever manage). The only really interesting thing about the movie was the amount of time spent on a subplot involving a messianic crazy woman and her destabilizing effect on our intrepid little band of would-be survivors. This subplot, unfortunately, plays out in just as ham-fisted and obvious a manner as the rest of the film, so what might have been a neat little philosophical puzzle is flattened into a shrill, anti-Christian tirade.
Despite it's many failings, The Mist's ending is its greatest sin. I'd have been perfectly happy if it had ended where King's story did, with our doomed heroes simply riding off into an unknown but unpromising future. Darabont, however, decided to wrap things up in a decidedly grim and Serling-esquire manner. I found the "shocking" conclusion insultingly overstated, out of character and borderline senseless.
1/10, but there is one fantastic effects shot towards the end (you'll know it when you see it).
Admirable, but Not Very Good
I very much wanted to like Shortbus. In spirit, it's an important, even a beautiful film. But only in spirit. As an actual movie you actually have to actually sit through, it's fairly bad. The principal characters are shallow, the performances decent at best*, and the writing offers little beyond sitcom-level inanities.
Nevertheless, I do sincerely admire the film's approach to sex, life and love. In Shortbus, sex is universal and universally positive while sexual pleasure is essential to the experience of a meaningful human life. The plentiful and quite explicit sexual activity on screen is, for the most part, unashamed, happy, generous and life-affirming. While prudes are certain to be offended, writer/director John Cameron Mitchell's film never never presents consensual sex as immoral, shameful, dirty or wrong. This generous, sex-positive attitude distinguishes the carnal intimacy we see so much of in Shortbus from the "hardcore" content of commercial pornography: the appeal of such porn often depends on the idea that it offers something illicit, perhaps even something unclean. Shortbus, on the other hand, is easily the most celebratory, wholesome and affectionate portrait of human sexuality I've ever seen on screen. And that's fantastic.
But it doesn't save the film. It doesn't save the stock characters from the hackneyed plotting. It doesn't make the cornball soul- searching and unfunny slapstick any more interesting. And it doesn't make the lead performances any less one-dimensional. I wish the movie were half as good as it is brave and honorable. Take out all the explicit boinking, and what you're left with would barely cut muster as an episode of Sex and the City. And that's a shame.
* Except for Justin Bond. Justin Bond is God, and can do no wrong. Every moment Justin Bond is on screen, Shortbus is the best movie in the universe. (And "the Mayor" is pretty awesome too.)
Peau d'homme coeur de bête (1999)
The earliest reviews in this list baffle me. While this film does deal with violence towards women (that's the whole point, really), it hardly "celebrates" it. Very little violence is actually shown on- screen, and much of it is male-on-male.
Threat is certainly present throughout the film. An oppressive sense of impending danger suffuses nearly every frame. We're made constantly aware that certain male characters are teetering on the brink, and that the women and girls around them are likely to suffer the consequences. This threat, once invoked, serves the film so well that very little on-screen violence is required to keep the audience in a state of anxious, horrified dread.
For example, we learn early on that a police officer is being sent on a forced vacation due to his drinking and unruly behavior. We also learn that his marital difficulties have resulted in his wife's hospitalization. When asked about an injury to his hand, he jokes about someone hitting herself on it. Though he's obviously beaten his wife into the hospital, we're not shown the incident as we would be in an exploitation film.
We later see the same character cavorting with two prostitutes in a brothel. The scene isn't at all violent, but we learn that the brothel owner is angry because the man has harmed one of his employees and "likes to make women bleed". Tellingly, this is seen primarily as a property crime by the odious brothel owner.
I can see why aggrieved antifeminists might object to the film's portrayal of masculine brutality, but the filmmakers hardly seem to endorse the horrors they depict. Nor do I read the final scene as a "hopeful" sign of better things to come. The closing scream is one of rage.
Weird, Cheap and Disturbingly Personal (contains spoilers)
Like most online reviews, the Synapse DVD packaging describes Stacy as a comical splatter-fest in the vein of "Evil Dead 2" an "Brain Dead": a basically good-natured belt of ghoulish bad taste delivered on a dollar- store budget. Zombie schoolgirls vs. chainsaws, what's not to like?
While that description is generally accurate, it misses some crucial subtext, normalizing and underselling a remarkably strange film. Stacy may trade in the mechanics and visuals of a traditional zombie flick, but its primary goal seems to be a disturbing sort of social satire. Director Naoyuki Tomomatsu uses his zom-com framework to explore the fetishized image of the "schoolgirl" in Japanese popular culture, ultimately seeming to suggest that there's little distance between pedophilic adoration and murder.
In Stacy's world, all teenage girls have become infected with a mysterious disease. This condition initially manifests itself in "Near Death Happiness", a honeymoon period which causes the afflicted to behave in a deliriously happy, seemingly love-struck fashion. After a short time, however, she suddenly dies, only to rise again as a flesh- hungry, undead "Stacy".
Near Death Happiness (or "NDH") is our first clue that Stacy is not quite so one-dimensional a film as the crude horror comedy trappings suggest. To put it simply, NDH makes young women behave like representations of the "magical girl" character type in Japanese manga and anime. Those exhibiting the condition laugh and giggle constantly, twirling their skirts and flirting with childish naivete. Their skins exude a "Butterfly Sparkle Powder" that makes them glisten in the sun and glow in the dark. They wear ridiculous lolita-fetish finery and carry supernatural totem objects symbolizing their innocence. In other words, Near Death Happiness transforms ordinary teenage girls into mindless reflections of mediated desire.
Around this core, the filmmakers string intersecting riffs on girl-love, transgression and murder. Although Stacy is organized in the scattershot manner of a sketch comedy program, every plot thread eventually becomes a love story. Every character is motivated by a desperate hunger for affection, and this hunger typically resolves in murder - murder either of or by the beloved. Much of this is funny, some of it oddly touching, and certain moments (such as a scene wherein a heartbroken mass murderer of little girls is forgiven by the ghosts of his still-devoted victims) are deeply disturbing.
At the heart of the film, separate from all the bloody zombie action, is a stand-alone narrative arc that traces the growing fondness between an older man and a 16-year-old girl. This story functions as a sort of framing device, providing structure to an otherwise digressive collection of asides. In this mini-film, we follow a clearly pedophilic - yet chastely platonic - relationship from its inception to the moment where the man can no longer hide his forbidden feelings. At this point, he takes the girl into a public garden (at night) to "tell her" the secret. His climactic revelation is presented as a an absurdly overstated act of heroism and triumph: beautiful, soaring and oddly tragic.
In the morning, however, the little girl is (somehow) dead, and her would-be lover is left to tidy the mess of his failure. Stacy presents all this as a polemic of sorts, an impassioned commentary on the destructive consequences of repression - with the corollary suggestion that confession permits positive change and transformation. Within this ostensibly inspiring moral, however, lies the revolting suggestion that pedophilic desire necessitates murder, and that this isn't such a bad thing, really. Though any film so slapdash and deliberately perverse will always remain open to interpretation, Stacy seems to imply that homicide is the most authentic form of love-transaction that can exist between older men and little girls.
Sort of... The filmmakers toy with a number of interesting (and unnerving) ideas, but the end result is a complete mess: a ramshackle assemblage of juvenile jokes, lurid shocks and cheap provocations. Stacy's tongue is always firmly in cheek. As a result, any attempt at "serious" interpretation is probably doomed from the start. Which is fine. I prefer that my examinations of cultures and dreams remain a bit inconclusive. Seems more humane that way.
Anyway, I dig it. Funny, gross, clever, stupid, surreal and even strangely moving. Stacy is creepy in ways that most movies (hell, most art forms) wouldn't dare touch with a ten-foot pole. The final moments blatantly suggest that a happy utopia could be achieved if only men were allowed to love "Stacys" (i.e., teenage schoolgirls) in peace, without harassment or shame. Then they wouldn't need to murder in order hide their affections. How's that for a f**ked-up "moral" in a zombie- splatter-comedy?
La bûche (1999)
It's a goddam Christmas tradition over here...
Saw "La Buche" last night. It's somewhat dull but pleasant and well-acted throughout. I enjoy the French tendency to feature artists and philosophically inclined persons as cinematic main characters (while we Americans get cops and the pugilistically inclined), and "La Buche" rewards on that level: the characters are lovely, intelligent, articulate and well dressed.
Underneath the surface trappings, however, the movie doesn't have much to say. It's a tribute to emotional cowardice dolled up as a celebration of familial devotion - all in the guise of a Christmas movie. Which would be genuinely funny if "La Buche" were at all cynical about its own motives. As far as I could tell, it isn't. I gather that we're supposed to buy bad decision-making redeemed by absurd coincidence as evidence that true love will out in the end.
P.S. I am beyond tired of the suggestion in French films that infidelity is the one true badge of masculine identity. Didn't this idea become boring in, oh, like, 1965?
Y tu mamá también (2001)
I love this movie. I might agree with those who complain that writer/director Alfonso Cuarón's film isn't especially challenging or groundbreaking, but I see its relative simplicity as a virtue. Y Tu Mamá También presents a charming, honest and bittersweet tale of youth's fleeting folly, and its straightforward narrative suits the material.
Nor is this so one-dimensional a story as it might at first seem. Though his manner is oblique, Cuarón deftly grounds his characters' small-scale joys and sorrows in an incisively observed larger world. Y Tu Mamá También's wealthy young protagonists are both liberated and shielded by their position in life, drifting idly through a landscape that for others threatens much more serious consequences. It's a subtle but effective strategy, and I found the film's concluding scenes quite poignant.
Oh, and Brian Eno's "By This River" appears on the well-selected soundtrack. It's an impossibly lovely little nothing of a song that everyone should hear at least once.
Loud Philosophy is Not Better Than a Good Story
Djordje Milosavljevic's Mehanizam is a brutal cat-and-mouse thriller set in the grim, wintry countryside of contemporary Yugoslavia. It follows the paths three unrelated characters (a taxi driver, a schoolteacher and an assassin) and charts the terrible fallout of their chance meeting. In its basic workings, it resembles certain "torture-porn" genre pictures, such as Ruggereo Deodato's The House at the Edge of the Park: innocents are trapped by a vicious maniac and ruthlessly abused. Mehanizam, however, never stoops to the voyeuristic titillation in which such films usually wallow. It is, in fact, a message picture, a moral parable dressed up in the wolves' clothing of psychological horror.
Basically, the entire film consists of a debate between the assassin, Mak, and his captives. As played by Nikola Kojo, Mak is a gleeful nihilist who proudly and loudly embodies "The Mechanism," his coldly Darwinian vision of social morality. In order to emphasize his bloated self-importance and to clarify his function within the film's didactic scheme, Mak dresses in a snazzy, Hollywood-gangster pimp suit and spouts an absurdly convoluted and articulate stream of philosophical drivel for most of the movie's running time. Kojo's performance is the film's thematic centerpiece, and he's mesmerizing. Alternately clownish, terrifying and insufferable, Mak provides the film with most of its desperate, compulsive tension.
Mak's nemesis is the cabdriver, a nearly mute ex-soldier named Janko (Andrej Sepetkovski) who simply refuses to cooperate with anything going on around him. Although the cabbie never articulates a position in opposition to Mak's, he becomes the de-facto stand-in for "the other side". In Janko's refusal to engage with the world's evil, Mak sees something tantamount to treason: a denial and a diminishment of Mak's own worldly power. So, Mak decides to teach Janko the futility of opposition. The Mechanism, you see, doesn't permit escape.
Once this set-up is established, Mak and Janko "battle" back and forth. Their struggle consists of Mak talking and beating while Janko contemplates his navel. Ivana Mihic's young schoolteacher, Snezana, is caught in the middle. Although she seems to play a secondary role in the film's philosophical architecture, she is the closest thing we get to a heroic protagonist and the only character with whom we are permitted to identify. The movie, however, isn't interested in Snezana as a human being. Instead, it seems that we are meant to see her as the classic sheep, completing the triangle defined by Mak's wolf and Janko's Christlike shepherd. Snezana's superficial frailty conceals extraordinary strength, and she is therefore Mak's logical prey, an "unawakened" version of Janko, Mak's natural enemy.
The film's action follows these three around across a barren patch of dismal farm country as Snezana tries to outwit Mak, and Mak tries to get Janko to do something. In the process, Mak does bad stuff. He threatens and abuses his captives. He tortures and murders random strangers. Janko, meanwhile, refuses to engage with the situation. This refusal and the filmmaker's interest in it eventually sabotage the film.
In the film's earliest scenes, we empathize equally with Janko and with Snezana. We feel for them as they struggle to cope with the hell into which they're so unjustly plunged. We watch for any sign of hope, any slip in Mak's control of the situation. This is when the film really works, modulating suspense masterfully, so that we dangle helpless on the slimmest chance of escape, then yanking us back into agonized captivity, over and over again. Eventually, though, we see that Snezana is doing all the heavy lifting. And soon after that, we realize that the filmmaker's aren't interested in her plight. Snezana isn't permitted to accomplish anything so long as Janko remains inactive, and Janko remains resolutely inactive no matter what. At this point, we give up hope, and the suspense dissolves.
At things progressed, or rather failed to, I became angry at the film and its makers. I was bothered not by the violent bleakness of story, but by the film's disrespect for its own characters and its pretentious moral high-handedness. If the central argument had been a little more intellectually challenging, I might have been willing to go along for the ride, but the script never rises above a basic presentation of its points. As philosophy, it isn't so much an exploratory debate as a simplistic series of oppositions and restatements, with a lot of baroque filigree courtesy of Mak along the way.
For what it's worth, the central performances are very strong (with the possible exception of Septkovski's Janko, and he did the best he could, under the circumstances). Kojo's Mak is entertaining as hell, and Ivana Mihic is so astounding that I might be willing to recommend the film for her performance alone. What's more, the photography and cinematography are gorgeous, taking full advantage of the wide vistas and bleached-out colors of the wintry Yugoslavian countryside. The tension never flags and the slow, methodical pacing nicely matches Mak's muscular stride. In spite of my vitriol, I can't deny that there's a lot to admire here. By any measure, Mehanizam is a tough and crafty little horror-thriller. If the filmmakers had a bit more faith in their characters, it might have been something great.
Requiem for a Dream (2000)
Beautiful, brilliant and kinda boring
I really wanted to like this movie. I loved Pi and had been looking forward to see what (writer/director) Darren Aronofsky would come up with next. And for a while I was completely blown away by "Requiem". The acting was wonderful and the cinematography and editing were absolutely incredible - kinetic, musical and truly unique. Given it's stunning first hour, it should have been a great film. But a thread of truly puritanical preachiness runs through "Requiem" and after a while it comes to dominate the whole movie.
Basically, this is a film about addiction, addiction to love, addiction to food, to habit, to memory, hope, approval, the future and of course addiction to drugs both legal and illegal. The film doesn't distinguish much between these addictions, instead it layers them atop one another and allows them to reflect off of and inform one another. We watch the central characters struggle with and against their consumptive, redemptive and addictive impulses and we witness the terrible toll these interlinked impulses exact upon their never more than pitiful lives.
All four central characters are drawn in broad, bleak strokes: the gorgeous yet naive art-school girl, her equally naive street-rat boyfriend, the junkie boyfriend's junkie partner in crime and the boyfriend's diet-pill-popping, food and television obsessed mom. Although the performances are uniformly excellent, the characters are thin shells who exist only to demonstrate their internal failings. I admit they're exquisitely rendered shells, with far more detail and nuance than one usually sees in such cautionary tales, but in the end each character is a simple straw man, designed with only his or her own destruction in mind.
That's the problem. The central point ("addiction is bad") is simplistic, and its delivery is staggeringly ham-fisted. Up to a point, I was willing to go along for the ride, led willingly by the truly spectacular eye-candy filling the screen and the exceptionally fine performances that drive the story forward, but after a while I just gave up. I could see the end coming; I could see the Moral Message written in huge, black letters all over it, and I just didn't care any more. Life is not a lesson. Film can be, but don't we as an audience deserve a little more intellectual credit than that?
What could have been an accessible yet experimental observation of the addict's life, presenting both the ups and downs, the good and bad with an eye toward observational truth (with a small t), instead sinks under the weight of it's embarrassingly fatuous and self-important missionary zeal (every single letter in boldface caps). It's like one of those cautionary splatter movies from driver's ed or an after school special about the maladjusted girl who starts slipping a little of mom's vodka into her O.J. at lunch time. Given the money, the talent and the effort expended, such reductive hectoring seems like a terrible waste.
Watch it for the cinematography, the editing, the soundtrack, the very pretty young people with nice hair, and watch it for the performances, especially Ellen Burstyn as Sara Goldfarb, but be prepared to be pummeled instructively for what feels like days. (And the "controversial" material in the unrated director's cut is so goddam silly and cheesy you might as well just watch the R-rated version.)
Batoru rowaiaru (2000)
Effective and Bracingly Nasty Action Thriller
I saw Battle Royale during the 2001 Seattle International Film Festival, and, considering the pre-release hype, I have to admit that I expected something a bit more substantial. That isn't really the film's fault, though. Kinju Fukasaki's kill thriller has modest ambitions and, within their constraints, it succeeds marvelously. The filmmaking is efficient and slickly kinetic; the screenplay delivers a nicely balanced mix of suspense, action, comedy and horror; and the whole is enlivened by a welcome dose of satirical social commentary
Battle Royale takes place in an only slightly futuristic Japan that seems to have degenerated into apathy and decay. The old order is collapsing, with youth in open revolt. While we never see much of this fallen world, a doomy bit of introductory exposition lets us know that things have gone from bad to worse. In response, and for reasons that remain unclear, the Japanese government has instituted the "Battle Royale Act". This law stipulates that each year a single high school class will be chosen to participate in a bloody fight to the single- victor finish. And so we follow one such group of unsuspecting lambs down to the killing floor.
Whil the filmmakers whip us through this high-concept variation on The Lord of the Flies with verve and aplomb, Battle Royale is not what I'd call a "character-driven" film. Fukasaki's style is one of detached observation, and the emphasis on open-throttle intensity tends to flatten character development to a functional shorthand. This student is sadistic, while that one is kindhearted. As it turns out, this strategy works quite well. The attractive young cast portrays a simple but engaging set of high school types, and their desperate fight for survival is rendered both gut wrenching and blackly comedic, often at the same time. Certain characters do remain central from start to finish, but the film generally takes a broad and rather clinical view of the nearly constant carnage that ensues once the fight gets under way.
I was somewhat bothered by the flimsiness and irrationality of the backstory. Early in the film, we see footage of a BR survivor meeting the press and fans as she returns victorious to society. The tone suggests public excitement and celebration, comparable to what might greet the winner of a reality program like "Survivor". Therefore, we might assume that the BR Act simply provides a decadent society with a bit of bloodthirsty diversion. But, as we later learn, the contest itself isn't broadcast, and the film intimates that the battle serves some higher purpose. This makes little sense, and the few vague clues we receive all issue from a clearly insane ex-schoolteacher, portrayed by Takeshi Kitano.
Kitano's presence contributes a jolt of unstable energy to an otherwise somewhat predictable film. His performance, while unsurprising within the context of his career (the character is stoic, deadpan and quizzical, but given to outbursts of perfectly controlled violence), destabilizes the proceedings and transmits a loopy, surreal buzz. While I enjoyed the film overall, I did find myself wishing for a more sustained dose of the intelligence and bleak, elliptical humor Kitano brings his scenes.
The story doesn't always make sense. The BR Act is supposed to be extremely important to the society as a whole, but the kids we see in the film hardly seem to know what it is. Realistically, every high- school class in the nation should have been dreading the call, but these kids fail to recognize even the most obvious clues. They're abducted and whisked away to a top-secret military compound where the BR Act in general and their situation in particular are explained to them in laborious detail. They STILL don't understand what's going on.
Ultimately, though, realism and logic aren't crucial here. To worry about the world-building is to miss the point. All Battle Royale asks of us is that we care what happens to a bunch of good kids stuck in a terrible situation, and that's easy enough to do. The story works best when taken as a metaphorical exaggeration of current society, where children are trained to coexist peacefully with and love their neighbors, then sent out into a brutal hell where only darwinian success is rewarded. If Battle Royale fails as a reasonable "what if" scenario, it succeeds as an examination of the malice with which embittered age views innocent youth.