Billy Gray

Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category

Minor Baumbach

In Uncategorized on April 13, 2010 at 11:10 am

Roger Greenberg (Ben Stiller) never wears scuba gear in Noah Baumbach’s Greenberg. No dense, well-meaning neighbor tells him to go into plastics. But Roger is like a 40-year old Ben Braddock. Marooned in a Los Angeles idyll, he’s selfish, self-destructive and dismissive of everyone around him. All he’s missing is Ben’s redeeming (if naïve) idealism and the undimmed potential of youth.

Greenberg doesn’t tiptoe around being an L.A. movie. And its depiction of the city is about as fresh as the smog that takes up the film’s opening wide shot of Los Angeles sprawl. Greenberg introduces Florence (Greta Gerwig) as she weaves her way through the town’s infamous gridlock—“Will this guy let me in?”

Florence is 26-years old (“It’s weird, I’ve been out of college for as long as I was in it”).  When she’s not singing in empty Silver Lake bars she daylights as Phil and Carol Greenberg’s assistant. They’re a fantastically bobo couple about to head off with the kids for a month in Vietnam. (These aren’t the Disney types.) While Phil’s away, his brother Roger will be crashing in his well-appointed home in the Hills. Florence’s employers give her vague, weary warnings about Roger, telling her he just got out of the hospital. “No, not that kind of hospital” Carol says when Florence asks if he was sick. Read the rest of this entry »

Trash Humpers and Antichrist

In Uncategorized on November 7, 2009 at 1:06 am

Is a movie a success if you’re still thinking about it days after viewing? This was the case with Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers and Lars Von Trier’s Antichrist, two entries in the New York Film Festival that I very nearly walked out on, whose endings could not arrive soon enough, that made me question the credibility, if not sanity, of the selection committee. But the imagery in both was indelible. These are flawed, irritating provocations. And both are worthwhile.

Korine shot Trash Humpers on VHS and wanted the no-budget movie to resemble “found footage” salvaged from a dumpster (likely assaulted by one of the film’s demented participants). You can’t accuse the man of taking himself too seriously. In a Q&A after the movie, he said he wanted to make the “shittiest looking movie possible.” Fair enough, but you might ask why often snooty festival selection committees the world over consistently fall for his half-baked experiments.

Trash Humpers is not a complete wash. As cheap as it looks, the VHS film lends a bleached, fuzzy feel to the movie that often heightens its beauty. Twilight and nighttime scenes are especially affective. In one early sequence, the camera focuses away from its horny subjects doing God knows what in a big box parking lot to linger on a magnificent magenta sunset. In a complimentary shot, Korine takes a break from the manic cuts for a long, soft-focus gaze at a streetlamp against the darkness. There’s also the time the lens sticks on the female humper as she sits forlornly on the curb and watches her cohorts screw some bushes. (It’s one of the only times where a characters recognizes, or at least wonders, what the hell is going on and hangs her head in shamed confusion.)

Moments like these don’t just impress because they’re surrounded by, well, garbage. They stand on their own. If only Trash Humpers had more of them. Instead, Korine assaults us with more and more of the titular visual gag (it gets old about 30 seconds into the movie).

There is also the matter of sound: Trash Humpers is the most aurally unpleasant movie I have ever seen. Its characters rarely speak; they bray, howl and guffaw. Think of a cross between South Park’s Mr. Hanky and Jim Carry’s “Most Annoying Sound in the World” in Dumb and Dumber for an idea of the torture your ears are about to endure.

Trash Humper’s sonic endurance test is all the more unsettling for being unexpected. The first few minutes are nearly silent. When dialogue arrives, the content is either self-consciously base (lots of gay jokes) or comically pretentious. There are two coherent monologues: a frilly contemplation delivered by a poet and a colloquial digression on modern ennui as the gang drives through a barren suburb (“I can smell their sadness in the trees,” says the driver.) They struck a chord with me, but bomb with the characters (who actually kill the poet, for kicks, after his screed). Funny enough, but the dismissal robs the audience of any sustained reprieve from the gutter.

With Trash Humpers, Korine reaches for a combination of David Lynch’s ironic absurdity (a few moments explicitly recall Elephant Man) and Jon Waters’ anarchic, white trash bonhomie. But he lacks Lynch’s coal-black humor and formal control and Waters’ madcap glee. As Trash Humpers grinded on, the audience was less given to courtesy laughs and started to seem perplexed more than anything else. But maybe they weren’t confused at all. They could have just realized Korine’s joke was on them.

Antichrist, unlike Trash Humpers, takes itself very seriously. And if Korine’s audience feigned laughter, Von Trier’s must have repressed it, because Antichrist often feels like a parody of art house pretension. Trash Humpers hints at redemption through children as one character cradles her new, albeit kidnapped, baby. Antichrist wallows in misery as a couple torture each other after the death of theirs.

The movie begins with the gorgeous cinematography (by Anthony Dod Mantle) that sustains the rest of the film. A couple, unnamed beyond He (Willem Dafoe) and She (Charlotte Gainsbourg), ravage each other over every conceivable surface of their well-appointed home. (There’s a penetration shot thrown in, presumably to ruffle MPAA feathers.) While husband and wife are in heat, their baby boy escapes from his crib, catches a glimpse of the action and falls out an open window to his death. (He falls alongside a teddybear he clutches; the bear’s plunge is shown in extended slow-mo.)

He is a psychotherapist of some kind, and misguidedly dedicates himself to curing his wrecked wife with obtuse psychobabble. She takes to smashing her head repeatedly against a toilet bowl. In a sign of things to come (and few people watching Antichrist’s are unaware of what’s to come), she initiates sex, he demurs and she bites his nipple until the skin breaks.

What better time to go on a country retreat? And so they head up to their wood cabin, subtly called Eden, arriving only after She complains that the ground burns her feet and He spots a deer bloodily carrying a stillborn (or maybe half-born) fawn.

For all its heavy-handed foreboding and willfully dull shrink talk, the first two-thirds of Antichrist is intriguing to watch. Dafoe excels once again at playing an insufferable ass; if there’s one voice you don’t mind hearing in monotone, it’s his. And his off-kilter features are softened here—he actually looks classically handsome in certain scenes—which tempers the storm clouds Von Trier hangs over the rest of the film. Gainsbourg nails every conceivable shade of distress, treating viewers to something resembling the Kubler-Ross model on meth. As impressive as the two leads (in fact, the movie’s only two actors) are individually, they never betray much chemistry (actually, they don’t appear in the same frame that often). But I guess that’s the point.

Antichrist’s main asset is Mantle’s camerawork. From the pristine black and white of the prologue to the abstract flourishes (a beating pulse, a slow-motion silhouetted walk through the woods) to the slate-toned nature scenes, this is a great looking movie.

Unfortunately, Von Trier wants viewers to avert their eyes. After building to a slow burn (the woman in front of me was out cold after 15 minutes), Antichrist explodes first into a ludicrous jumble of mystical/psychological/astrological/paranormalsociological/feminist phooey. Then, I guess to relieve the actors’ and the audience’s confusion, She smashes a wood log into His balls. (This is when the lady in front of me woke up.)

What follows is a flat-out slasher movie, with some talking animals thrown in for good measure. (“Chaos Reigns,” as uttered by a disemboweled fox, has become the movie’s catchphrase, though I’m not sure how Von Trier would take the cackling that swept the audience following its delivery). The denouement of Antichrist sees a horde of faceless women climbing up a hill toward Him. It’s Von Trier’s last attempt to hammer home a thesis, but the bludgeoning on display throughout will leave most people searching for an exit rather than a resolution.

Arthouse films often pride themselves on the sort of subtlety that withholds graphic details, sexual and violent, from their supposedly evolved audiences. But surprisingly it is the cerebral, stylized Antichrist and not the subversively lowbrow Trash Humpers that threatens to become a cynical exploitation flick. Von Trier’s expensive therapy session—he couldn’t hold the camera during film because his “hands shook with depression”—shabbily deconstructs little more than a marriage. Risqué sex and violence aside, Antichrist sticks to genre conventions; Trash Humpers discards genre altogether.

Both directors sought visceral reactions with these incendiary movies. They’re masturbatory works. And despite their merits, it’s the audience that ultimately gets jerked around.

The Hurt Locker

In Uncategorized on July 11, 2009 at 10:54 pm

The Hurt Locker is the greatest video game movie ever made. This is not a slight. It’s an acknowledgment of how director Katherine Bigelow’s film distills the action movie to its pulsing, suspenseful basics.

Bigelow deposits the viewer right in the middle of the action. A US Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal team patrols a deserted street in downtown Baghdad. There’s no exposition, but the roles are clear. The levelheaded Sergeant JT Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) calmly gives orders to the cocksure Sergeant Matt Thompson (Guy Pearce) as he approaches a bomb in need of diffusing. Specialist Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) nervously eyes the streets, each scattered civilian a cause for potentially fatal concern.

The tense opening sequence only lasts a few minutes. So it gives little away to reveal that the mission fails, with a passerby detonating the bomb via cell phone. Thompson is killed, despite the heavy, almost astronautic protective armor he wears.

This is an unsentimental movie; Sanborn and Eldridge’s reaction to Thompson’s death consists only of muted anger. Thompson is replaced by Staff Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner) and the soldiers have no choice but to wearily welcome him into the fold.

Bigelow replaces any pathos the audience expects from these characters with a tireless regard for routine. The film is little more than a series of vignettes that observe the bomb squad at work. These sequences veer from hushed and clinical to suspenseful and adrenalized, but, like the men they showcase, never lose their finesse.

And the movie audience does not watch them alone. Iraqi citizens are always on the periphery of the crew. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd’s handheld camera frequently cuts to their street level or birds eye view. This technique alternately humanizes the locals and makes them suspect. Ironically, it’s the civilians outfitted with the most Western accessories that stir alarm among the Americans. A cell phone prompts a raised gun. A camcorder results in crosshairs. (“What’s this guy doing, putting me on YouTube?” screams Eldridge.)

The framing device implicates the viewer as well. The Hurt Locker has no political agenda and refuses to glamorize what little violence it shows. But the audience I saw it with hooted and applauded at the conclusion of one lengthy sequence when the squad, reduced to sitting ducks under fire in the middle of the desert, shot and killed its last enemy at long range. It was odd—a very blockbuster reaction to such a smart, clinical and topical film. The blood and killings and explosions in The Hurt Locker are muted relative to standard summer fare. But brought back down to earth, they resonate.

Subtlety extends to the lead performances. Renner resembles a young, downhome  Russell Crowe and, like Crowe, possesses a simmering intensity that tempers James’s battlefield bravado. Mackie makes exasperation a fine art as the cerebral Sanborn attempts to constrict, and then just tolerate, James’s swagger.  And the babyfaced Geraghty nails Eldridge’s rage and constant panic—he seems on the verge of a breakdown for the entire film.  

James’s bluster cracks twice in the movie, both times when he is in domestic situations far from IEDs. The first finds him in the home of an Iraqi family whose son he fears dead. His glimpse into their familiar home life—modest furniture clustered around the TV, a courteous host insisting James makes himself comfortable—provokes his sole jolt of terrified outsider alienation.

The other finds him stateside with his own wife and son, lost in a gleaming supermarket with miles of neon cereal boxes. Grocery shopping is a routine that is far more disorienting for James than bomb-diffusion. “War is a drug,” says the movie’s opening quote. And James is hooked, unable to extract himself from the rush of battle and enjoy the freedoms he ostensibly fights for.

The Hurt Locker is a restrained, human-scale action movie in a season of Transformers-style CGI bombast. For once, the prevention of loud explosions is more thrilling than their wanton detonation.

The Girlfriend Experience

In Uncategorized on May 12, 2009 at 11:11 pm

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A few months after releasing Che, his four-and-a-half hour Che Guevera biopic, Steven Soderbergh returns with The Girlfriend Experience, a 77-minute long take on five days in the life of Chelsea (porn star Sasha Grey), a high-end Manhattan escort. The director is fond of mixing it up; his resume includes big-budget blockbusters (the Ocean’s series), Oscar-baiting star vehicles (Erin Brockovich) and indie fare (The Limey, Full Frontal, Bubble). 


As Soderbergh said at a Tribeca Film Festival panel following his latest, “movies need to have either absolute perspective or none at all.” He called The Girlfriend Experience “a myopic movie” about a very narrow breed of New Yorkers doing very specific things in October of 2008. And while The Girlfriend Experience represents a downsizing of budget, scope and star power for the director, his ambition is undiminished.  


The movie’s pinpoint topicality comes not only from its protagonist’s resemblance to a certain governor-toppling working girl, but from its production coinciding with last fall’s Wall Street meltdown. Pillow talk between Chelsea and her clients revolves around crumbling portfolios, bailouts and cautious investment strategies.


But fiscal panic hasn’t hurt her client’s willingness to shell out. Dates occur in swank downtown lounges and hotels, the camera lingering on their facades in establishing shots. Chelsea name drops designers and upscale restaurants, Patrick Bateman-style. “I met with Philip on October 5th and 6th. I wore a Michael Kors dress and shoes with La Perla lingerie underneath and diamond stud earrings.”


Grey’s deadpan delivery is coolly appealing. “During lunch he talked about the financial crisis. And when we got back to the room, he immediately got on the phone and ordered some Macallan 25. I put on a Kiki de Montparnasse corset, panties and gloves. After he got off the phone, we made out for awhile,” Chelsea’s voiceover narration tells us as she commits a tryst to paper. (A businessman suggests she write a memoir: “There’s a huge market out there for that these days.”) 


Soderbergh called The Girlfriend Experience “a movie about transactions,” with the film’s Great Recession backdrop exposing their fragility. Chelsea sleeps with “the hobbyist”, an escort connoisseur, in hopes of a favorable, profit-boosting review on his website. Her real boyfriend, Chris (Chris Santos), is a personal trainer often seen haggling with clients looking for their own form of physical wish-fulfillment.  Everything and everyone is for sale. “If they wanted you to be yourself, they wouldn’t be paying you,” Chelsea explains to a journalist (in a whole different sort of transaction).

The hobbyist criticizes Chelsea for her “flat affect.” But Grey’s dry monotone and vacant stare only strengthen the actor’s performance; they bring the character’s odd girlish giggle and flash of life behind the eyes into sharp relief. Soderbergh praised Grey for the “Zen” she brought to Chelsea. (He knew a porn star “in command of sexual situations” would fit the part.) But it’s the almost-reluctant emotions that manage to break through Chelsea’s cool façade (all of them outside of the bedroom) that keep you watching.


Domestic scenes between Chelsea and Chris are bathed in warm amber hues, but offer no more emotional warmth than the many hotel flings, here tinted a clinical blue. The pair’s selfish indifference to one another suggests that the emotional toll of “the real thing” is just as taxing as paid simulations and truncated “experiences.”


Character anomie aside, The Girlfriend Experience is too funny to be cynical and too broad an indictment of consumer culture to be a didactic slam on the world’s oldest profession. For Soderbergh, prostitution is no different than investment banking, which is no different than filmmaking. (Moderator Caryn James asked Soderbergh if he felt he’d prostituted himself with the Ocean’s movies; he diffused the awkwardness by saying all of his movies required him to sell his time and ideas to executives.)


The Girlfriend Experience might not rake it in like Soderbergh’s mainstream efforts. But the hordes who queued up for the three Tribeca screenings indicate a collective interest in the gilded underbelly of Wall Street’s good old days, when, as the director said “money became a national fetish.”


Porn is another national pastime (Soderbergh noted that Utah has the highest porn traffic rate in America) and Grey’s stature in that industry will likely draw many one-handed keyboard tappers to the arthouse.


Will they be disappointed with the lack of onscreen sex in the movie? “I excel at undercutting expectations,” Soderbergh shrugged. He hoped that people desensitized by Grey’s graphic pornography would be jolted by the inverse, saying that “fantasy is what you can’t have.”


With money dried up and the elicit thrill of sex dimmed by accessibility, the confluence of the two in The Girlfriend Experience make it the ultimate post-crash fantasy.

Blank City

In Uncategorized on May 5, 2009 at 8:04 pm

As downtown New York seems to teeter on the brink of a fresh set of “bad old days,” Celine Danhier’s compelling documentary, Blank City, reminds audiences that they might stand to gain as much from fiscal ruin as they do to lose.

Blank City played at a Tribeca Film Festival screening in the now-trendified East Village. But the young, French Danhier’s examination of New York’s No Wave cinema movement of the ‘70s and ‘80s conjures the neighborhood in burned-out tatters. Rents for floor-through lofts peaked at $300. Neighborhood streets were so desolate that movie shoots took place in broad daylight without permits or distracting passersby. Such alienation and constant fear (“Walking home at night felt like going to war,” is a constant refrain) produced a frenetic creative hotbed that prospered in since-shuttered outposts like Max’s Kansas City, CBGB’s and the New Cinema on St. Mark’s.

No Wave filmmakers defied mainstream categorization (director Lydia Lunch: “I’m fine with the No Wave label, because the word ‘no’ is in it”). But they strived to elevate cheap 8mm and 16mm film stock above the esoteric film school ghetto to which those grainy formats had been confined. These were no-budget art films, but traditional narrative was key. Influences included Godard, Fellini, Antonioni and Cassavettes, brilliant filmmakers who, while outside the Hollywood mainstream, attracted the New Yorker raves and subsequent uptown crowds that the No Wave misfits ostensibly shunned.

Blank City showcases a dizzying array of avant-garde filmmakers. And while it’s gratifying to see so many underground artists gain exposure, the movie’s purview is almost too encyclopedic. The impression is of a splinter group of artists who lived in the East Village in the late ‘70s, all made edgy movies and all hated each other. There are petty squabbles and romantic soap operas (“I respect his talent, his art and his intelligence, but he didn’t even have to say anything for people to despise him” Lunch says of former flame Nick Zedd) but scant camaraderie. And the film’s segue from late-‘70s/early-‘80s No Wave (highlighting Amos Poe, Jim Jarmusch, Charlie Ahearn, Beth and Scott B, Eric Mitchell and others) to the shock-heavy Cinema of Transgression (Zedd, Richard Kern, Casandra Stark) of the Reagan years is flimsy.

Outward misanthropy be damned (Steve Buscemi, something of a No Wave muse, remembers his giddiness whenever he witnessed a reluctant half-smile from Zedd), many subjects (including, yes, Zedd) emphasized that humor was key to the subgenre. No Wave was born of the desperation that living in a bombed out East Village (“It looked like postwar Dresden!”) inspired. But it also rebelled against the self-important high art scene that was about to explode onto already-sanitized SoHo galleries and, God forbid, Park Avenue living rooms—at least until growing recognition inevitably diluted the genre’s scrappy charm.

It’s possible that No Wave was a victim of its own success. Jean-Michel Basquiat, an emblem of the ‘80s New York art scene is eviscerated by his peers for, as Poe says “making money cool. I still hate him for that.” And Buschemi recounts his ambivalence about attending one friend’s film premiere uptown in Chelsea, “outside the art ghetto.”

Parties weren’t made to last, of course, and Blank City attributes the death of scrappy No Wave cinema to all the usual external suspects: drugs, AIDS, gentrification, Reaganism and the recently deceased money culture it inspired.

But Blank City is no elegy. Several interviews were shot after the economic meltdown, and Poe for one is optimistic about the “power of ideas” finally fighting back against the “lying, murdering thugs” selling wars in the desert from Washington and intangible derivatives from Wall Street. Jarmusch echoes that thought with the documentary’s closing line: “Forget about the past; bring on the future!”


In Uncategorized on March 26, 2009 at 8:45 pm

Hunger is about the body, its waste and torments. Excrement smears the IRA inmates’ walls in director Steve McQueen’s debut film about the 1981 Irish hunger strike led by Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender). Piss is funneled under cellblock doors to flood the hall. Nightsticks rain down on naked flesh. Food is refused to the point of fatal emaciation.

But McQueen bristled when an audience member at a recent IFC Center Q& A called it violent. “Show me a summer blockbuster whose death toll and wasted bullets don’t outnumber 

Hunger‘s,” he reasoned. But Hunger‘s unflinching portrayal of corporal punishment, self-inflicted or not, sears the retinas more than any comic book adaptation’s could. It’s a testament to McQueen that his debut film will likely force you to avert your eyes.

Such an aversion might make viewers complicit with the British government that McQueen renders through a grave, dismissive Margaret Thatcher voiceover. It’s a fitting decision for the director who said the movie is “about the power of the mouth more than anything else. When nothing was going in, volumes were coming out,” he explained. Thatcher’s interjections are the only times Hunger refers to the ethnic and religious struggles behind the IRA impriso

nments and hunger strike.

Shying away from the political, conflict initially revolves around guards and prisoners in Her Majesty’s Prison Maze, and brutally so. Inmates are pushed, dragged and clubbed down the block’s narrow halls, dunked in ice-cold water and anally probed during contraband searches. It’s in one of these sequences that we first meet Sands. Beaten to a pulp, lying naked and supine with his glazed eyes staring at the camera, the audience wonders what further debasement could possibly await him.

Physical abuse gives way to intellectual and spiritual debate in the film’s crackling centerpiece. Sands summons a priest to announce his plans for the strike. Over twenty minutes (interrupted by only two cuts) the pair veers between the mundane (“Better than smoking the Bible, ay,” the priest asks while Sands enjoys a rare tobacco cigarette instead of his usual substitute, a shredded page from the Book of Lamentations) and the profound. Father Moran points out the futility of the plan and the damage, including Sands’ son, it will leave in its wake, but stubborn Irish resolve prevails. “I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again, Bobby,” he concedes.

McQueen saves his most devastating work for the film’s final third, which witnesses Bobby’s prolonged disintegration. The director said he envisioned Hunger as a silent movie; this act is largely free of dialogue. Instead the viewer observes Bobby’s oozing sores, protruding ribs and bloody bowel movements in blue-toned, almost clinical close-up. The intimate, sustained portrayal of Bobby’s decline (he died after 66 days; ten fellow strikers followed) avoids fetishism only because of the profound context of dehumanization the films has established—witness a split screen shot of a lone guard sobbing as his peers partake in savage beatings for proof that degradation extends beyond the prisoners.

Hunger‘s bleak themes and solemn imagery, coupled with the director’s video-artist background, distinguish it from standard cinematic fare. But McQueen corrected an audience member at a recent IFC Center Q&A who called it “a work of art.” “I want everyone to look at this as a feature film,” he said. Veering between lyrical beauty (flashbacks of a young Bobby running through a meadow punctuate his deathbed scenes) and stark decay, Hunger qualifies as both.

Redux Reflux

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2009 at 3:29 am

“To avoid fainting, keep repeating to yourself, ‘It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie…It’s only a movie.'” Such was The Last House on the Left‘s marketing slogan upon its 1972 release. It wasn’t much of an exaggeration. The British Board of Film Classification deemed the movie so disturbing that it did not allow its release until March of 2008. Critics were torn. The movie was borderline exploitation: two teenage girls head into the city for a rock concert and are abducted, raped and murdered by a Manson-like gang whose members coincidentally spend the night at the home of one victim’s parents. Murders revealed, mom and dad enact a revenge so violent (famously including a castration at the hands, or rather mouth, of the mother) it would be comical were it not for the film’s low-budget grit and potent exploration of loss.

A remake of Last House on the Left was released last weekend. It is the latest in a long line of slasher remakes including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Amityville Horror, The Hitcher, Prom Night and last month’s Friday the 13th. All of these movies retain the basic plots of their sources. But gone is the endearing rawness—sometimes edgy (Texas Chainsaw…_), sometimes campy (Friday the 13th)—that made them cult classics. In its place is a numbing big studio gloss even miniscule budgets can afford these days. These facsimiles also shy away from the nihilism that made the originals shocking. Leatherhead’s killing sprees in the updated TCM stem from being called a retard. One of the teen victims in Last House redux springs miraculously back to life at the end.

No matter how watered down these remakes are, Hollywood churns them out because for all the red onscreen, they bring out the green. With the family friendly exception of Pixar movies, horror might be Hollywood’s most consistently bankable genre. Budgets are razor-thin; the intended audiences indifferent to the critical lashings most slasher movies (deservedly) receive. The foolproof equation breeds laziness. Not all horror movies scrape the bottom of the barrel and continue to burrow through the floor beneath it. But the worthwhile entries are poorly and tirelessly imitated to within an inch of the genre’s life.

The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Halloween ushered in the teen slasher genre in the ’70s. Both are classics, the former for its bleached, cinema-verite photography, gallows humor and Vietnam allegories and the latter for its elegantly composed shots, restrained pacing and chillingly effective score. (Neither shows much blood.) But the bargain basement knockoffs (Prom Night, The Hills have Eyes, Friday the 13th, the so-bad-it’s-almost-good Sleepaway Camp) and infernal sequels that followed made horror movies a laughing stock for all but the schlock-happiest Fangoria subscriber.

With the exception of 1984’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street (featuring Freddy Krueger before he became a disfigured, utensil-handed Borscht Belt comic) mainstream horror did not regain respectability until Scream in 1996. That Wes Craven smash deftly mixed comedy and horror with a winking self-awareness of genre conventions. A slasher revival followed, but the post-modern irony shtick got old fast. Scream exposed, though hardly subverted, all the rules. By mimicking Scream, its sequels and too-clever-by-half imitators (the largely forgotten I Know What You Did Last Summer and Urban Legend series) became just as formulaic as the hackwork their predecessor mocked.

Torture porn, critically maligned as it is, at least introduced a fresh slasher milieu. The rusty, industrial ascetic of the Saw and Hostel movies compliment their anonymous brutality. The victims are harshly unsympathetic, their sad fates even more transparent than in previous horror films. Sex always equals death in a slasher movie, but torture porn’s methodical killings are more tactilely retributive than usual. Hostel‘s louts pay for hedonistic romps through depressed Eastern European backwaters with exacting amputations, their limbs and organs to be sold on the black market. The junkies whose halfway house becomes a deathtrap obstacle course in Saw II choose between instant death and a dip in a tub of hypodermic needles. And therein lies the problem with joyless, self-important torture porn: in punishing its victims for having fun, it doesn’t let the audience have any.

Horror is in a rut. Queasy, embarassed nostalgia aside, there is little worthwhile about the recent rush of slasher remakes. The best horror movies are the unheralded ones. They introduce new villains and mythologies, fresh techniques (The Blair Witch Project’s Dramamine-requiring handheld camera) and surprises (the zombies of 28 Days Later who run rather than hobble). Slasher fans are genuflecting at the altar of genre icons for now. But like Michael Meyers lurking in the shadows, there’s got to be a new face of horror waiting to deliver audiences from the current spate of lazy retreads and into a fresh form of evil.

Every Upcoming Movie Will Now Be About the Recession

In Uncategorized on March 10, 2009 at 3:57 am

Hollywood never needs excuses to revel in an imagined apocalypse. From The Invasion of the Body Snatchers to Night of the Living Dead to Escape from New York to 28 Days Later to I Am Legend, few scenarios are mined more frequently than impending human eradication. And critics and audiences alike frequently impose deeper meanings on movies dealing with Earthly destruction, whether such allegories are intended by the filmmakers or not. The alien invasion flicks of the Cold War ’50s represent pinko infiltration/insurrection and nuclear dread. George Romero’s zombie movies comment on the civil rights struggles of the ’60s (the original Night of the Living Dead) and the mad consumerism that blossomed post-Vietnam (in the mall-set Dawn of the Dead). Other entries in the genre are viewed as time capsule parables about subsequent zeitgeist panics: the crack epidemic and urban decay (Escape…), HIV/AIDS (28 Days Later) and 9/11 (28 Days Later, again).

With America in the midst of another mass anxiety attack, prepare for a slew of reviews and Sunday Arts & Leisure feature pieces devoted to what will now be the theme of every successful movie released in the next nine months: The Great Recession of 2008- God Knows When.

This year has already seen the release of three suddenly prescient movies. Confessions of a Shopaholic, initially sold as a tween Sex and the City (with Marc Jacobs and Ralph Lauren getting plum exposure in the trailer), rebranded itself as a movie about a shallow material girl who realizes the folly of her spendthrift ways (by working at a finance firm, no less). The International, a Clive Owen dud, is about a nefarious bank wiping out investor portfolios and dallying in political assassinations. And Watchmen recreates the grimy New York of 1985 at the precise moment New Yorkers (or at least the city’s journalists) are alternately dreading and exulting in the possible return of squeegee men and Times Square porn palaces.

Public Enemies is the upcoming release best custom-fitted for the economic meltdown. Set in the Depression, it tells the story of bank robber John Dillinger (Johnny Depp) and the FBI agent (Christian Bale) hot on his trail. Just as 1968’s Bonnie and Clyde is a Great Depression period piece that nonetheless became emblematic of the ’60s counterculture, expect Public Enemies to acquire topical resonance, with many rooting for the assumed villain as he fights the good fight. Amelia, an Amelia Earhart biopic starring Hilary Swank, is another Depression-era movie coming out this year. The taglines (“Just as the markets crashed, Amelia took flight”) and Captain Sully parallels will nauseate. (On the bright side, Hilary Swank, after a few disastrous turns as a sexpot, is back on fertile Oscar ground as a woman fighting her way into a man’s world.)

Two annihilation epics tread on more familiar, bombed out blockbuster territory this summer: Michael Bay’s 2012 and McG’s Terminator Salvation. The Mayans and Nostradamus marked December 2012 as the date of end times–sure to be rendered deafeningly by Bay’s CGI and sound editing. Inverting the not-too-distant future destruction scenario are Ice Age 3: The Age of the Dinosaurs and Year One. Both movies are set in prehistoric olden times and offer a glimpse into the sort of hunter-gatherer lifestyle that the more pessimistic (and press hungry) economic doomsayers see as a logical endpoint to our societal regression.

The flaw in declaring many of these imminent releases timely, or at least purposefully so, is the source material they grew out of. The Road follows a father and son on a despairing, perilous journey through a landscape made barren by an unnamed cataclysm. Their experience might mirror that of people currently reviewing their 401K statements, but the movie is an adaptation of a Cormac McCarthy novel from the frothy days of 2006. And of course, Terminator Salvation emerges from an enduring blockbuster franchise that has spanned nearly four decades.

Topicality is usually achieved by accident. It is possible to make a movie for the times in which it’s released, but more likely that the times will make the movie. Maybe there’s no collective psychic pull among moviegoers to flock to certain films at certain times after all. When Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings did gangbusters in the months following 9/11, some critics said audiences facing murky real world conflicts had responded to those neatly delineated cinematic battles between good and evil. Certain journalists viewed The Dark Knight, with its themes of moral ambiguity, tough justice and invasive surveillance techniques, as a cathartic response to, if not defense of, the senescent Bush administration.

But maybe in these cases viewers were simply responding to engaging movies sown from already iconic entertainment sagas.

It’s tempting to declare a zeitgeist when one might not exist. Entertainment grows more fragmented by the day. When 10% of Americans see The Dark Knight on the big screen in the film’s opening seventy-two hours, there is reason to cheer. Maybe Johnny Depp beats out mortgage woes and latent bank heist fantasies as the biggest draw of Public Enemies. Maybe not. What’s certain is that at a time when a $10 movie ticket is the costliest entertainment many people can afford, these movies will be packed, regardless of audience motive.

2 or 3 Things I Know About her

In Uncategorized on March 3, 2009 at 2:02 am

Freud argues that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, but Jean-Luc Godard would disagree when it comes to a lit cigarette. How else to explain the prolonged close-up of a burning smoke in the director’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her? Like the movie’s other famed close shot—a cup of coffee reminiscent of the cosmos—the sequence turns the mundane into the profound.

Godard’s nominal plot follows a day in the life of Juliette (Marina Vlady), a Parisian housewife who moonlights as a prostitute. But by 1967 when this movie was released, the director was not concerned with narrative. This movie is about the dynamic between style and substance. “One might say that living in society today is almost like living in a vast comic strip,” says the narrator (voiced by Godard). While the film’s lush Technicolor photography recalls a comic book, the weighty, occasionally soporific interior monologues (covering the Vietnam war, laundry detergent advertisements and everything in between) it frames will not be serialized by Marvel anytime soon.

Despite its title declaration of familiarity, 2 or 3 Things... asks questions. What is language? “Language is the house man lives in,” says Juliette. That is not a decent definition of language in a film that practically drowns in it. Then again, the many words in this wordy film are circuitous; they pose rhetorical questions and offer vague declarations (“I was the world; the world was me,” Maria recalls feeling during a recent trick) but seldom resolution. What of modernity? 2 or 3 Things… does not tackle that subject in its dialogue, but it’s a postmodern work that serves as a commentary on modernity’s destabilizing influence.

Dubious progress is why the characters question language and art. It’s why traditional family structures have collapsed to the point where a comfortable housewife drops her children off at a brothel’s daycare center as she looks for johns. And it’s why Godard’s characters, despite retaining their own chic glamour, live far away from the quaint Rues of postcard Paris in monolithic apartment towers abutting construction cranes and freeways.

2 or 3 Things… is a distillation of Godard’s favorite themes: nationality, self, advertising, color. A travel agency fronts as a whorehouse, its walls lined with splashy posters peddling a whole different sort of exotic product. Bangkok, India and Spain are sold through the sort of reductive imagery (a Buddhist temple, the Taj Mahal, a bullfighter) that promotes travel to this day. This is no less crude than the packaging of sex and flesh. A buffoonish American client wears a white t-shirt with the American flag emblazoned across it. He has his two hookers wear TWA and Pan Am luggage over their heads to avoid eye contact. Maria was mistaken in her earlier sexual reverie: people are products; products are people.

With art, Godard says, “the style is the man; therefore art is the humanizing of forms.” It’s the human touches in this movie—the brief swelling of classical music, Juliette reading a bedtime story to her son—that make 2 or 3 Things... more than a philosophy essay or advertisement itself. It’s in these moments that the viewer remembers what Godard is defending.

The Class

In Uncategorized on February 10, 2009 at 10:47 pm

In Laurent Cantet’s The Class, high school teacher Francois Marin (Francois Begaudeau) is shocked to learn that his students routinely leave the lower-class fringe environs of the 20th Arrondissement for the more glamorous precincts of central Paris. The movie does not follow them on these excursions, containing itself within the struggling public school it documents. This initially jars. Faculty introductions and rote grammar lessons dominate the first hour of The Class, which opens on the first day back from summer vacation. Francois teaches French to a group of “nice, but tough,” mostly immigrant students. He’s a delicate wisp of a man (and thus the froggiest of the bunch) perpetually struggling for control of his classroom. But the movie diffuses the tension inherent to the ghetto-high-school-in-peril genre with lessons on the imperfect subjunctive. Miraculously the audience does not stampede the box office for a refund, and instead settles into the rhythms of this affecting film.

Here is the rare Issue movie that doesn’t feel like a public service announcement. To use a venerable maxim of high school writing classes it shows rather than tells. And what it shows is a mélange of diverse adolescent faces united only by their blemishes. These are teenagers rarely seen in American movies outside of Gus Van Sant’s inter-Oscar bait experimental offerings. The kids are roundly excellent, but sisters-in-sass Esmeralda (Esmerelda Quertani) and Khoumba (Rachel Regulier) stand out alongside sullen Souleyman (Frank Keita), shy Louise (Louise Grinberg) and ambitious Nassim (Nassim Amrabt). These descriptors sound reductive but The Class eschews the nerd-jock-princess-goth paradigms that have defined the best and worst high school movies since John Hughes established the template. Its characters are not two-dimensional ambassadors of their racial or ethnic backgrounds either, a pitfall of the multiculti genre. The students are empathetic because they cannot be distilled to a single ingredient. Insolent and indifferent one moment and reverentially engaged the next, The Class’ teens prove that an inconsistent character (particularly one suffering daily trig quizzes) is not necessarily a weak one.

The most compelling scenes avoid schmaltz but still open tear ducts. A boy named Carl reads an essay on his likes (“helping my mom around the house”) and dislikes (“visiting my brother in jail”). An intelligent student’s parents beam when Francois praises their son despite a limited understanding of the French he speaks. Inarticulate Souleyman excels at a photo collage of his reticent mother, earning a rare commendation from Francois that leaves him in gleeful disbelief. Heartrending, perceptive scenes make The Class an anomaly: too grounded in reality too feel like typical entertainment and too emotionally potent to register as a documentary.

If The Class makes one slight stumble it’s in the glacial exposition of the second hour’s dramatic conflict. Maybe the movie needed the sort of structure and suspense this dilemma provides (it involves a student’s potential expulsion) but it does not entirely jive with the first half’s freeform pleasures.

While Cantet’s import is about messy, xenophobic modern-day France, its take on education and growing up will resonate with most viewers. And its optimistic theme of immigrant ambition overcoming the odds is uniquely American.