Tuesday, March 31, 2009

"Please. Help. Jean-Claude Van Damme is robbing a post office!"

What is surely the world’s first major meta-martial arts movie opens with a bravura tracking shot that forces Jean-Claude Van Damme, portrayed by Jean-Claude Van Damme, to kick, punch and jab his way through dozens of anonymous opponents to the sounds of some vintage Curtis Mayfield soul. The sequence just goes on and on, rather hilariously, until Van Damme begins to run out of steam, he misses a mark, and the whole thing literally collapses. “I’m 47!” he protests with affecting vulnerability to the frustrated crew. “Just because he brought John Woo to Hollywood doesn’t mean he can rub my dick with sandpaper,” the rather unforgiving punk of a director mumbles to his AD. A sort of companion piece to
The Wrestler, but way goofier, JCVD gives us a fading action star waxing reflective on his own anxieties over struggling to keep up with the action.

Reeling from divorce and child custody suits, amassing vast debt, tiring, both physically and spiritually, of headlining an endless string of actioners that are virtual remakes of the same thing over and over, the muscle from Brussels returns home to lick his wounds and settle some business. But life will soon imitate art, and weirdly. It starts, aptly enough, in a sleepy video club that will soon be crammed with cops, some of whom wear only their underpants. They’re responding to one of the most memorable radioed-in cries for help in recent memory: “Please. Hurry. Jean-Claude Van Damme is robbing a post office!”

It appears Van Damme’s gone postal, though the truth is more complicated, involving hostages, many layers of theatre, meditations on the social duties of celebrities, a really bad and quite annoying bad guy with John Cazale’s haircut from Dog Day Afternoon, and a humiliating courtroom scene where a prosecuting attorney slaps down DVDs and rattles off the countless ways Van Damme has meted out death upon fictive victims for the last two decades. As helmed by Mabrouk El Mechri, JCVD is pitched somewhere between Jean-Luc Godard, Charlie Kaufman, a midnight movie and a cartoon. He bathes the whole thing in this bizarre, ugly, sort of bronzing ethereal haze that’s perhaps meant to resemble what the world looks like after 18 consecutive hours in a tanning bed. Like the enjoyably throwback score, the Dutch angles, or the long takes which frequently fix solely on Van Damme’s face even during a conversation, it’s one of many choices that render JCVD stylishly stoned and indiscriminate. But it’s never less than watchable and utterly diverting.

What grounds all this at all is obviously Van Damme himself, who seems to be genuinely laying his heart bare, slumped in chairs complaining about shit scripts, signing autographs and posing for pics, doing a few high kicks, and flipping out when he can’t make a simply bank transaction. The movie’s key scene has Van Damme drift out of the action altogether for a few minutes, floating up to the ceiling like the hero of Donald Antrim’s The Verificationist, delivering this rambling, semi-coherent, Brando-esque monologue about fame, drugs, women and whatever else haunts the tired mind of a Belgian kickboxing movie star. In some parallel universe it just won him the Oscar.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Spanish stratagems: Timescrimes, King of the Hill

It is the province of smarter science fiction makers to invest as deep if not an even deeper sense of wonder in the simplest, most familiar apparatus as they would the monolithic machines of elaborate fantasy. In
Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímines), a pair of binoculars becomes just such a vessel of intrigue. When Héctor (Karra Elejalde), having recently moved into his country house with his wife Clara (Candela Fernández), begins to explore the peripheries of his property with his binoculars, it is as though the bizarre, mind-boggling journey he will soon set upon has already begun. And of course, it has already begun.

The mysterious phone call; the sight of a pretty girl undressing in the woods; the upturned dumpster and abandoned bike by the side of the road; the mute, scissors-wielding maniac whose face is obscured by a pink bandage: all of these items which pull us so deftly into this story are luring the curious, casually voyeuristic Héctor into a trap whose genesis will prove unusually elusive, even by the standards of more synapse-sparking sci-fi. The chain of causality in Héctor’s spiral into misfortune, injury and alienation from his own existence remains to the very end impossible to trace back—though god knows Héctor himself tries arduously to figure it out.

Before I confuse you too much, let me clarify that Timecrimes is, as you might guess, a movie about time travel. (And before you read on, I'll warn you that it's kinda hard to decide what a spoiler is in Timecrimes, so read as your own discretion.) But rather than hurl its protagonist centuries into the past or eons into some far-flung future, Spanish writer/director Nacho Vigalondo’s pretty ingenious and hugely sinister little feature debut tosses hapless Héctor a mere couple of hours back, which results in tremendous havoc. He catches sight of his own double doing everything he did two hours ago. He’s told by the mysterious lab technician (Vigalondo himself) who got him into this nightmare scenario, whose own motives are kept pretty obscure by the sweaty urgency of the story, not to interfere with what is, so to speak, deigned to pass. So Héctor, clumsy, middle-aged, overweight and easily exhausted, must run around frantically setting up reenactments of things that haven’t happened yet. Suffering from a persistent disconnect between seeing and being, he becomes tangled in a loop. The craziest part of it is that the avalanche of weird shit that got him into this mess is now rendered as echoes of their own internal continuum of events.

Newly out on DVD from Mongrel, Timecrimes is all action and often chillingly hilarious, a hybrid of an especially well-oiled The Twilight Zone episode and some especially physically taxing silent comedy. It manages to stay compelling even when you can see exactly where it’s going. Naysayers could make a case for it’s being a movie about little more than its own geometries. There’s talk of an American remake, and with the right talent—Cronenberg has been rumoured—I could certainly see how Vigalondo’s premise could be imbued with some darker layers of psychology. But you could just as easily laud the film for this very same sort of purity. It sets up an intricate network of activities that need to be fulfilled and deposits the utterly committed Elejalde into the thick of it like some poor, out-of-shape gerbil in some cosmically forbidding exercise wheel.

Like Héctor, Quim (Leonardo Sbaraglia) is an errant Spaniard who stumbles into the wrong place at the wrong time and winds up caught in a stratagem whose design or purpose is obscure. King of the Hill (El Rey de la montaña) begins with Quim getting robbed by some hot young babe (Maria Valverde) in the washroom of Spain’s most desolate gas station. At first it seems like he might be finding himself the antihero of some sexy, fatalistic rural neo-noir. He should be so lucky! By chasing after the girl and getting lost in some unpopulated mountain range, he’s actually slipping into a rethink of Deliverance or Duel, the randomly selected mark of some unseen maniac hunter with a rifle, scope, pooch and predilection for tormenting his prey.

King of the Hill is out on the Dimension Extreme DVD imprint, though I’m not sure what’s all that extreme about it save for a few particularly nasty looking wounds. Directed by Gonzalo López-Gallego from a script by Javier Gullón, the film shares Timecrimes’ unfussy, action-oriented rigour but lacks its wit and eye for odd detial. López-Gallego uses the bleak location well and cranks up tension with his insistence on tight shots that fragment the action and disorient the viewer at precisely those moments when we’re grasping for some visual context. But while its simplicity can be read as a virtue, the film is so miserly with exposition that it risks long stretches given over to not much more than scrambling around, panting and crying out in pain and desperation and not much else. We do eventually get some hints at what sort of twisted creature has fixed Quim in its sights, but the little we do learn winds up feeling rather trite. Maybe it would have helped if Quim could have gone back in time and wound up with Don Siegel, or maybe John Boorman or Walter Hill in their 1970s prime as his puppet master.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Make those pesky flights of inspiration disappear: Sunshine Cleaning

It’s indicative of the extent to which gallows humour has been absorbed, commoditized and made cozily “offbeat” by the movies when we see something as essentially unsullied by mortality as
Sunshine Cleaning open with a shotgun suicide in an Albuquerque hardware store and almost immediately cut to gags about brain fragments staining the merchandise. The gruesome aftermath of death is incorporated right into screenwriter Megan Holley’s premise, which finds two 30ish sisters entering the local crime scene clean-up industry. This idea of two women whose own lives seem a mess hurling themselves into the grunt work of eliminating the traces of others’ trauma, despair and resignation is a rich one, but don’t let it fool you into thinking that Little Miss Sunshine Cleaning—the film shares more than just producers, “sunshine” and Alan Arkin with that 2006 indie hit—is any sort of comic trailblazer. It’s got just enough quirk to seem an alternative to the most pedestrian mainstream fare, but the familiarity creeps in early, accumulating until the final act assumes the whiff of something cobbled directly from a screenwriting handbook.

Thank goodness for Amy Adams, whose frustrated single mom Rose offers the actress a welcome step toward playing a somewhat less innocent character. I say somewhat because Rose, the high school cheerleader who once dated Steve Zahn’s football captain, now married with children and meeting for quickies in some fleabag called, I kid you not, the Crossroads Motel, is at times forced to behave naïvely just to help grease the gears of
Sunshine Cleaning’s wrote trajectories of self discovery. Still, Adams is pretty delightful doing dirty things and her desperation is at times truly touching.

Emily Blunt, who played the reluctant pal to Anne Hathaway in The Devil Wears Prada, gets to transgress more interestingly as Rose’s sister Norah, who can’t hold down a job, seems stuck in a pattern of adolescent rebelliousness, and, in the movie’s most intriguing subplot, stalks a woman, marvelously underplayed by Mary Lynn Rajskub, whose photos she finds stashed amidst the belongings of a suicide. But it’s in this storyline that Sunshine Cleaning really reveals its limitations. The consequences of Norah’s genuinely creepy perusal of a friendship—and perhaps more—with this introverted woman nearly approach something resonant, yet Norah ends the movie by suddenly announcing she’s going on a road trip, which reads as lazy screenwriter shorthand for “I’m going to find myself.”

Arkin, charming as always, plays the kooky dad; there’s a tyke that licks things; there’s a requisite absent parent everyone’s still grieving; there’s an almost interesting one-armed man played by Clifton Collins Jr. who really could have spiced things up if given a chance to become a real character. (And I really wanted to know how he braided his hair.) Director Christine Jeffs, who made the not uninteresting Sylvia, seems above all to be trying to remain anonymous, but the result is mostly just further emphasis on the movie’s most un-engagingly generic qualities (not to mention some pretty awkward camerawork just to steer clear of Collins' supposedly absent arm). None of this is to say you won’t have a few laughs, wonder about some of the more potentially interesting subtexts, or feel a little empathy for Sunshine Cleaning’s characters, but neither with their stories stick with you once the scouring is through.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

I see dead movie: The Haunting in Connecticut

“Why do bad things happen to good people?” durable Christian matriarch Sarah Campbell asks during the baffling, pointless and ultimately shelved faux-documentary framing device o
f The Haunting in Connecticut. A better question might have been why good actors wind up in bad movies. Why, for the love of god, is Virginia Madsen playing Sarah, a one-note protagonist required above all to cough up countless variations on hysterical worry? Why is Martin Donovan, so deft with deadpan comedy in Hal Hartley films, playing Peter Campbell, a dopey workin’ dad in baggy plaid shirts whose one big, very silly scene finds him smashing his guitar in melodramatic despair? Above all, why the hell is the woefully underused Elias Koteas playing an overly reverential reverend in this mostly limpid, paralyzingly generic haunted house horror (see Amityville, Poltergeist et al)? Perhaps the scariest thing in The Haunting in Connecticut is the implications it poses to any non-megastar yet talented actor over the age of 40.

To be sure, there are sources of potential freshness, or at least variation on cliché, in this “based on true story” creeper written by Adam Simon and Tim Metcalfe and largely dictated by the mechanical escalation of numbingly telegraphed boo moments. The tormented son of Sarah and Peter is receiving excruciating treatments for his cancer and has been warned that he may experience hallucinations. Are the many shadowy figures lurking in the mirrors and his peripheral vision actually ghosts or merely figments of the afflicted imagination of a tragically ill and sheltered teen? There is a cocktail of religiosity, mental illness and youthful vulnerability here that draws a certain kinship with the often laughable but not uninteresting
The Exorcism of Emily Rose. Of course the ambiguity lasts about five minutes, and it’s a shame, because it might have held your interest a bit longer had the film kept us in a state of uncertainty and unease.

There is also the film’s attempt at referencing the ectoplasmic imagery of 19th century spirit photography, something I can’t recall ever seeing addressed so explicitly in any other ghosty movie. But the digital renderings of weird stuff flowing up and out of mediums’ mouths under Peter Cornwell’s direction only remind us why those images from the past still fascinate us. They possess an enigmatic, tactile quality that can only translate pitifully into the visual lexicon of painstakingly overworked modern special effects.

In one of the film’s many sepia-toned flashbacks we see a mortician slicing the eyelid off of a corpse. It’s one of the more effective moments, at least on a purely guttural, squirm-inducing level. And it’s a nudge to the audience, a way of saying You Must Watch, invoking the naïve appeal of haunted houses of old, playing with our desire to witness something awful while placing our fingers over our eyes as a pretence of disgust, dismay or dismissal. If only
The Haunting in Connecticut could come anywhere near such basic slithery delights. On the contrary, it is precisely the sort of contemporary wrote horror movie that makes you wonder if nearly everyone in the field has simply forgotten how.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Is This Desire?: Daniel Bergner takes readers for four illuminating walks on the wild side

There’s a school of ostensible common sense that tells us our sexuality is among the most banal aspects of our identities, but a modicum of experience tells us the particularities of individual desire can form the threshold of mystery, and of deeper understanding. You meet someone, you go to bed, you discover, to use a fairly common example, that they like it a little rough. Maybe a lot. How far do you follow their lead? Spanking? Choking? Bondage? Elaborately constructed rape scenarios? How dynamically does your desire tangle with theirs? Where does play end and perversion begin? How much of this is experimentation? How much is base need? What exactly is it that this person is chasing?

Daniel Bergner’s The Other Side of Desire: Four Journeys Into the Far Realms of Lust and Longing (Ecco, $32.99) penetrates the labyrinth of human desire not with the intention of carefully mapping it out so as to make future travels through its terrain safer. This slim, engrossing collection of four essays is concerned rather with the varying ways we cope or even thrive with the strange desires that drive us, that sometimes compel us to feel guilt or keep secrets, that separate us from the comfort of social norms. Hard conclusions are few, but the book brims with insight and compassion. However, unless you share some of the unusual proclivities reported, I can’t promise you’ll find it sexy. In fact, some of it is positively alarming.

Jacob Miller is the most harmless and, sadly, most traumatized by conformity of all Bergner’s subjects. Jacob has his quirks. An American, he really, really likes Toronto, which he considers some utopia of social harmony. And Jacob really likes feet. I know, the Toronto thing seems weirder, but it’s the foot thing that messes him up. He can’t even listen to a weather report promising however many “feet” of snow without going orgasmic. And he feels ashamed of it. Bergner’s relentlessly inquisitive but also respectful of Jacob’s fetish and his difficulty in accepting it—something certain readers may lose their patience with. (Bergner also uses this first essay to lubricate things tonally. Within the first few pages we know we’re not in for anything overly clinical, not after Bergner’s casual use of terms like cock, fuck, and, my personal favourite, one that Bergner perhaps coined: “footcunt.”)

Baroness is the presumably self-designated moniker of Bergner’s second subject, a female sadist—apparently a real rarity—and successful clothing designer, though her recent work has been tailored exclusively for latex. She maintains a happy marriage to a guy with a ponytail and zero interest in getting a brutal beating while getting off. Her other life is rife with activities that many might have a hard time defining as sex at all. She recounts the time she had a guy slathered in honey and roasted on a spit. “I feel like God,” says Baroness. “There is a stillness when I’m about to use the bullwhip, or my wand if I’m about to set someone on fire. Have you ever watched an animal that is scared, caught in headlights or conscious of your presence... you can feel time stopping.” Baroness can be hard to take, but Bergner’s open-minded immersion into her populous milieu is fascinating.

The book’s longest essay, one which originated in The New York Times Magazine, for which Bergner is a staff writer, concerns Roy, a man convicted for molesting his stepdaughter. It is the book’s most controversial and troubling foray into abnormal sex, and in some regards its most vital. Roy is sympathetic. His actual crimes were relatively minimal. He’s nothing if not regretful, seeks therapy for his urges and is engaged to an adult woman with whom he’s open about his past. But Bergner, who has two children, questions how much he can trust Roy, while asking equally difficult questions about memory and innocence and how the nature of our sexual experiences change as we reflect on them. This essay ends with the book’s most eloquent and haunting image, one of Roy literally trapped on a fence as he attempts to flee a scenario that threatens to mirror the one that he claims first drew him into his longing for preadolescent flesh.

The fourth and final of Bergner’s essays is so good it’s worth the asking price alone—it even has a happy ending. It’s a love story, about Laura, a young woman who loses her legs in a car accident, and Ron, an older photographer resolved to the fact that he’s attracted to the disabled. Laura is Ron’s perfect woman: smart, cute and legless. The mind reels at the conclusions one can draw from such a kink—I immediately thought of something I read years ago about the inherent misogyny of Gauguin’s Polynesian women, with their absent/incomplete limbs. But Bergner addresses these concerns shrewdly and concisely, all the while stressing the polemical value of Ron’s erotic photographs of disabled women.

In each of Bergner’s essays, he shifts dexterously between the narratives of his central subjects and, just as interestingly, those working to better understand and treat their cases. Most often, Bergner finds the available theories to be in direct conflict, and a consistent debate concerning nature versus nurture lies at the heart of the matter. Bergner also draws upon art and literature to elucidate the stories he tells. He discusses Nabokov’s Lolita, of course, with regards to Roy, but also the life and work of Surrealist sculptor/photographer Hans Bellmer (author of the lead-off image) and German writer/artist Unica Zürn in relation to Ron. (I found myself wishing Bergner would also discuss J.G. Ballard’s infamous novel Crash, made into the equally infamous David Cronenberg film, which has often been criticized as absurdly grotesque for its proposed equation between accident and injury and eros—a proposal which resonates intensely with Ron and Laura’s story.) Through it all there is much to learn about things like gender difference, genetics and cultural conditioning, yet there’s also a subtextual analysis of something more fluid and elusive: the psyche’s unwillingness to go with the program. When it comes to our intimate lives, The Other Side of Desire proves that each of us is stubbornly unique, and yet none of us are beyond some contact with the sublime.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Over the border and into the bathos

Crossing Over features a cross-section of characters figuratively situated on either side of the US border, people who either want in, want to stay, or want to determine who makes the cut. You’ve got your Mexican mom illegally cranking out textiles for a few bucks to fund a better life for her little boy. You’ve got your affluent Iranian family with its soon-to-be naturalized patriarch and daughter turned black sheep on account of assimilating too fully into the Western model of feminine independence. You’ve got your Chinese family, the parents humbly coveting citizenship while their punk kid scoffs at such a legit entrée into an American dream he’s figured is available only to the Tony Montanas of the world. You’ve got your naïve Islamic teen apologist for the 9/11 hijackers persecuted for exercising her freedom of speech. You’ve got just about everything you could think to throw into a movie about the overwhelming morass surrounding US immigration. Everything except a rounded character, a single plausible scene or even a coherent polemic.

Hopping around Los Angeles to follow several characters as they cross paths and slide into detours, Crossing Over is earnest as all hell, ostensibly muckraking, dramaturgically strangled, and deeply mawkish. In other words, it’s the new Crash—there’s even an actual car crash that brings together, wouldn’t you know it, someone trying to get a green card with someone who approves green cards! So lovely young would-be Aussie starlet Alice Eve winds up screwing shameless old bureaucrat Ray Liotta in a motel room, but at least she cries in the shower afterwards. Meanwhile senior migra Harrison Ford goes on a private crusade to protect an abandoned child and immigration lawyer Ashley Judd has to deal with aggressively moronic feds who go ballistic over militant Islamic chat rooms found on annoyingly self-righteous Summer Bishil’s computer. The pervading dumbness reaches its spectacular nadir in a convenience store robbery gone wrong where, after splattering three kids brains all over the walls, Cliff Curtis, in a scene he’s surely praying future-employers will soon forget, delivers a monologue about how becoming an American constituted the greatest moment of his life to a crybaby twit pressing a loaded gun into a terrified innocent’s woman’s skull. It’s so unintentionally funny it’s not even funny.

Writer/director Wayne Kramer (The Cooler), a South African who doubtlessly has some first-hand knowledge of the issue at hand, apparently wants to tell a story about the masks we wear and compromises we make to get by. Perhaps the fundamental problem with Crossing Over is that for so much of the film masks are about all we see. Despite the efforts of a few of the better actors, these characters are crude types, overwrought mouthpieces for a grossly over-calculated scheme. Nothing feels natural, so nothing resonates. Images of crying kids are milked to death. Bizarrely, given the context, the sex and violence feels gratuitous. Bishil’s one victimized facial expression grates. Good intentions only make the whole thing more frustrating to sit through. I’ll say this for Kramer: at least his ambitions are to provoke viewers to reconsider what it means to be a patriotic American. Still, you should see The Visitor instead.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Unlucky numbers: Knowing

In just about any movie where the protagonist is a teacher you can usually count on a classroom scene in which the movie’s themes and conflicts are announced. It’s surprising actually how often the convention works. It’s a way of playing fair with the audience and certainly preferable to having the characters make similar announcements in the thick of a heated climax. Early in
Knowing astrophysicist and MIT prof John Koestler (Nicolas Cage) engages his students in a conversation about determinism, randomness and purpose. Koestler’s a man of science, the errant son of a pastor, and a still grief-stricken widower. For him, “shit just happens.” And if there’s one thing you can say about Knowing, it’s that a lot of massively cataclysmic shit happens.  

Call it disaster porn. Through a series of coincidences that are surely more than just coincidences Koestler gets his hands on a paper covered in numbers that’s been buried underground for 50 years, its author a creepy little girl who’s since grown up and died. During a drunken math binge Koestler unravels the document’s hidden code, which prophesizes a series of wickedly fatal disasters, most of which have already come to pass—but there’s still three left! Can Koestler, recklessly/stupidly throwing himself into the eye of the hurricane, prevent these catastrophic events? The little girl got all the other ones right, so hey, you do the math. But you may want to cover your eyes when the screaming crowds being crushed to pulp or the burning bodies stumble about begging for mercy. Some of this shit will give you nightmares.

For better or for worse, Alex Proyas, who helmed cult favourite Dark City, fully commits to the material, which means balancing Koestler’s personal revelation and Cage’s odd, sleepy breed of hysteria with the broader story of global apocalyptic hysteria. If you’re willing to go along with this thing, there’s something genuinely compelling at the base of all this. Loony, half-baked and more than a little friendly to religious nuts and conspiracy theorists alike, but compelling. Of course, there’s also something stupendously silly about numerous key points on which the plot turns: the messages scrawled under a bed, the skinny blonde stalkers in overcoats, the risible final images of some sort of paradise that cry out to be included as outtakes on a DVD for The Fountain. You have to admire Knowing’s willingness to go all the way with its catastrophic equations, yet it arguably could have benefited from a few hints of ambiguity, a little room for doubt. In life and art alike, certainty can be a precarious thing.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Remake/Remodel: Last House on the Left, Assault on Precinct 13

There are remakes and there are remakes. Remakes, renovations, revisits, re-imaginings. The terms mystify. Some sequels are actually remakes. Some remakes simply regurgitate foreign language hits into English. Some remakes, like Psycho (1998) or Funny Games (07) are close to Xeroxes, yet are often most interesting for revealing all those things in movies that can’t be Xeroxed. There are movies, such as Solaris (02), that we call remakes but are actually going back to the literary sources rather than the earlier movie. There are movies, such as Cat People (82), that we call remakes yet share very little with the earlier movie aside from its title. Some remakes aren’t initially presented as remakes at all, but are. These can be extremely interesting.

Adapted by novelist Ulla Isaksson from a 13th century ballad, Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring (60) is a bracing study in crime and punishment, revenge and repentance. Against Sweden’s larger paradigm shift from paganism to Christianity we see Karin’s transition from childhood to womanhood, a transition brutally interrupted by rape and murder. Soon after discarding her body stripped of valuables in the woods, Karin’s vagabond assailants take refuge in a nearby home. The home, it turns out, belongs to Karin’s family. The parents learn of their daughter’s fate and exact their wrath methodically and without mercy. It could almost be a horror movie.

Wes Craven’s Last House on the Left (72), newly reissued to coincide with the theatrically released remake, is itself a remake of The Virgin Spring. Its source material is uncredited, but justly so: it serves as a skeleton for something genuinely fresh, distinctive and autonomous. Craven’s Mari is, like Karin, pretty, somewhat spoiled, and blooming into a woman. The cultural paradigm shift depicted here however is a sort of reversal of that of 13th century Sweden, with Mari’s womanly awakening coinciding with the sexual revolution and the movement away from Christian values to neo-pagan ones. Craven accounts for the shadow side of this revolution by injecting  elements of violence that vividly recall the Manson murders.

Only a dozen years passed between The Virgin Spring and Last House on the Left, but standards of acceptable content went through their own sort of paradigm shift. Mari appears during the opening credits through an opaquely dappled shower door. She’s clearly naked, but we can’t yet see her nakedness, as though Craven is granting her one final moment of innocence before extinguishing it in a flurry of corruption and butchery. Craven’s rapist/killers force their victims to pee in their pants. They denude and disembowel them, and we see about as much of it as the low-budget camera and effects work provides for. Yet curiously, while Last House on the Left is more shocking than The Virgin Spring in the explicitness of its violence, it never even comes close to reaching its predecessor’s level of soul-chilling brutality. Craven skips Bergman’s final sequence of repentance, opting instead for an abrupt ending, signaled simply by the completion of the killing. Something is missing here, and you don’t need to know The Virgin Spring to feel it. But this absence is itself indicative of something happening in the post-hippie, teen exploitation milieu Craven’s movie inhabits. It is a far sleazier, clumsier movie, and I’d argue there’s something to that. It speaks to its age.

Howard Hawks’ late western Rio Bravo (58) drifts across the screen with an hugely pleasurable lack of urgency. The siege drama unfolds in long breaths, with many arrivals and departures, a slow-building romantic subplot, a musical detour, some elegantly choreographed wordless sequences and a wealth of character development extending out from the more boldly captivating shoot-outs. John Wayne’s Sheriff John T. Chance has to fend off a troupe of well-equipped adversaries who want to free his prisoner, and he only has the truly marvelous Dean Martin’s Dude, a boozer attempting recovery, and Walter Brennan’s Stumpy, a cantankerous old cripple, for deputies. Yet Chance never seems too worried. He’s John Wayne, and this a movie about tough men who don’t apologize, men rendered vulnerable yet incapable of self-pity. The old cliché about courage under fire is embodied here with elegance and depth.

John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13 (76), which was remade a few years back and has recently been reissued in a special edition, is itself a remake. Its roots are not as obvious as Last House on the Left’s, but Carpenter’s sense of indebtedness is made clear from the outset, when the opening credits inform us the editor is someone named John T. Chance. The reconfiguring is more radical, with Rio Bravo's sleepy Texas town traded in for a Los Angeles ghetto, the band of outlaws replaced by what seems like an army of suicidally determined gang-bangers, and, most importantly, Hawk’s relaxed amble is forgone in favour of tautness and severity. Assault is a clipped, decidedly unfussy action movie, which also makes direct nods to Sam Fuller—the child killing—and Akira Kurosawa—the silent waves of baddies closing in—while cementing Carpenter’s particular directorial voice. It’s pretty terrific.

There are goofy, low-rent cop show aspects to Assault you’d never associate with a studio-backed, star-studded class-act like Rio Bravo: Carpenter’s ninja movie all-synth score, the Charlie’s Angels-like cutaways to a plastic speaker during a radio conversation, the sometimes corny lines, ie: “There are no heroes any more; only men who follow orders.” (That line, incidentally, comes from the speaker.) Yet collectively, these elements brim with modest charisma and quiet individuality, traits perfectly in keeping with Hawks’ men and women. And Carpenter’s insertion of a woman into the quartet of cornered, insufficiently armed protagonists who must hold their own against the urban ambush is inspired, simultaneously maintaining a tough-talking, Hawksian spin on heterosexual courtship and infusing their dialogue with an active, modern female presence. Overall, Assault will never be confused with the sort of classical majesty of Rio Bravo, but it’s exemplary of another era and another approach to genre filmmaking, a paragon for anyone trying to breath new life into an old idea.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Talking ourselves to death: a precarious conversation with Bruce McDonald about a movie called Pontypool

In the beginning there was the word. In the end, perhaps the word will be all that’s left. At the start of
Pontypool we hear the disembodied voice of radio broadcaster Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) filling the theatre. He wonders aloud about disquieting undercurrents in coincidence and connectivity in names and events, and we can already hear how easily his words might begin to collapse in their meaning. Words collide and words confuse. Language is robust and infinitely prolific, but human understanding is fragile. Pontypool images the world ending precisely where language and comprehension intersect, not with a bang or whimper but something rather like a bark.

On the way to work one abominable, very early February morning, Grant sees a woman approach his car, her words obscure. She slaps his window before receding back into the darkness. Shaken, he arrives at the studio, tucks into his stash of whiskey, and begins his highly enjoyable on-air shtick, the very masculine talk radio provocateur who “takes no prisoners.” But soon he and his colleagues will become prisoners themselves. Reports start coming in regarding crowds huddling around a clinic, riots without any apparent purpose, and murder. Something is infecting the citizens of Pontypool, Ontario, and it is spreading fast. Like gossip.

Adapted by Tony Burgess from his novel Pontypool Changes Everything, Canadian maverick Bruce McDonald’s latest feature is apocalyptic horror for the age of babble, a tension-riddled genre mind-fuck that does for the word what Videodrome did for the image. It has certain foundations in the bold proposals of William S. Burroughs and Marshall MacLuhan, in the claustrophobic scenarios of George Romero, in the irresolvable differences between English and French Canada—a theme it treats with pleasing irreverence. It harkens way back to the undead hi-jinx of McDonald’s very first foray into moviemaking, a high school horror flick called Our Glorious Dead. Just don’t call the rabid victims roaming the streets of Pontypool zombies. McDonald’s preferred term is “conversationalists.”

I met the always enthusiastic yet always relaxed McDonald on behalf of Vue Weekly one recent Friday morning in a Toronto bar. In signature cowboy hat—an accoutrement also worn by McHattie as Mazzy—he discussed Pontypool’s complex and prolonged genesis, his collaboration with cinematographer Miroslaw Baszak, with whom he previously worked on Roadkill, Highway 61, Dance Me Outside and Picture Claire, screenwriters Burgess and Noel Baker, who scripted McDonald’s cult favourite Hard Core Logo, the challenges of making a movie in such a stripped down setting, and the pleasures of persuasion in the world of independent cinema.

JB: Tony Burgess’ novel sprawls with locations, characters, layers of metaphor and even shards of autobiography. It slides from one impression to another along very tenuous points of connection. It would surely strike most filmmakers as uncontainable. I wonder how you all arrived at this point where you could just boil the premise down to its purest essence, to a chamber drama of sorts.

Bruce McDonald: It was a very long process. But what that attracted to me to it all the while was just that basic, crazy premise of the language virus. The funny thing about the dizzying amount of material in the novel is how in a weird way its unruliness was precisely what liberated us to just cherry-pick the few items we wanted and make up the rest. The only obligation was to stay true to the spirit of the book, which is the best way to approach an adaptation, really. Great books with lots of incident and ideas often seem like goldmines yet turn out to be traps. In any case it also took a long time because while Tony wrote the screenplay he was also learning
how to write a screenplay. You know, a novel is closer to a garden, where a screenplay is more like a machine.

JB: Noel Baker told me that years ago he’d worked on a version of
Pontypool with you guys that was actually much closer to the novel, but would have been a much more expensive project.

BM: Oh, yeah. And we haven’t thrown away that first script! In fact, the plan has been that if this one takes off we might do a little trilogy. Anyway, Noel was kind of Tony’s teacher. He’s a really great writer and a great pal. He introduced a sense of structural rigour that was foreign to Tony up to that point, a regime of tightening. Restrictions above all were tremendously useful for us in the process.

JB: Speaking of restrictions, I understand
Pontypool began as a radio play for the CBC?

BM: They’d asked me if I had any material and after racking my brains for a while I thought maybe there was something in this language virus idea. Which got me to thinking about Orson Welles’
War of the Worlds and that thing about only hearing terrifying things happening and not really understanding what’s going on. So we got rolling on this idea when it suddenly occurred to me that the radio play might actually make a pretty interesting movie, and the simplicity of the demands on location and personnel made it seem possible. Everyone got excited with the idea that we wouldn’t have to wait four years to make this movie—we could do it in three months. We considered opening it up to the outside world as we developed it, getting out of the one location, but it was Tony who insisted on just keeping it locked indoors, keeping it a sort of theatre of the mind.

JB: You think about how much of, say,
Night of the Living Dead takes place within the house. The claustrophobia of the siege drama can really work for a horror film.

BM: Yeah. Every once in a while a hand will bust through. There’s that constant terror of knowing what going on right outside. And the noises. You think too about
Repulsion or Assault on Precinct 13, these kinds of things, and you see how nicely Tony’s book weds itself to a certain B-movie-like energy.

JB: By enclosing the film almost entirely within the studio you not only ramp up the claustrophobia but also attune your audience to the smallest details and motifs. I’m thinking of the way you incorporate the simplest little things, like the boiling of a kettle to prickle the tension. And of course that kettle whistle pays off quite nicely later on when it becomes a prompt for an infected victim searching for a sound to imitate.

BM: People’s first instincts are so often about the big canvas. We tend to want to be able to go anywhere, shoot anything. It was actually kind of scary to think about shooting something in just one room. I was accustomed to these sprawling road movies where if you get bored you just go to the next town. Suddenly I was dealing with minutia, that little Joey Ramone doll that might say something about Grant Mazzy’s character, Lisa’s bracelet that was obviously made by a kid, the bottle of booze, the pills the doctor takes. All these little details become more important, more loaded. There are no costume changes, so you pick the one outfit and, bam, that’s the character. There are sections where we’d shoot everything in profile, some where the camera moves and others where it’s still, ones where we shoot through the glass, others where we stay inside. It just makes you reconsider what it really means for you when you use this lens, when you use this angle. It was fun to have fewer things to think about but to think about those few things in a much bigger way. It’s primal. It felt like we were making a film for the first time again. Miroslaw and I shot our first film together. 20 years later it felt like we were making our second first film together.

Pontypool initially seems a significant departure from your movies so far, yet it strikes me as being interestingly linked to The Tracey Fragments, which immediately preceded it. Both films operate around the principle of fragmentation, of image in one and language in the other. Have recent years found you feeling especially eager to mess with these fundamental elements of movies?

BM: There’s something to this idea of collage. My life feels like a fucking collage. Sometimes I just wish I could focus on one thing, you know? I’m always developing different projects at once. My brain’s always filled with too much stuff. So maybe it’s a reflection of my own sort of scattered, voracious interests in disparate things.

JB: There’s also that element in your work sometimes where it seems like you’re just wondering what you can get away with.

BM: Sure. Both of these last movies were like that. The fact that I could convince people to get on board with them delighted me. I mean, I’m as fond of big dumb popcorn movies as the next guy, but there’s no lack of people working in that department. I work in independent movies. We’re like pirates. It’s not so much that I want to be intentionally obscure, but I like to sniff out something fresh, something that’ll wake up the neighbours a little bit.
Pontypool was financed by this private guy and I think he was seduced by the genre nature of it and the containment. For him felt like a perfect first step into the film world. Yet the fact is that we’re making a movie about a language virus, which is pretty damned abstract and cerebral for a genre film. So we managed to convince this guy, we convinced the CBC, we convinced Maple Pictures, and hopefully we can convince an audience that’s there’s something pretty wild and interesting going on here.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Unfinished business: books from Aira, Curtis, Bolaño intersect in spooky buildings

Just last week I was reading Roberto Bolaño’s short story ‘Dentist’ and I was struck by something said by the titular character regarding what one feels when in an empty building, or rather, a seemingly empty building: “the reason you’re anxious or afraid is that you know, deep down, that there is no such thing as an empty building; in every so-called empty building, someone is hiding, keeping quiet, and that’s the terrifying thing: the fact that you are not alone… even when everything indicates that you are.”

The dentist’s little monologue is very much a detour, having no direct consequence on the rest of the story, yet this passage stood out, I suppose, because it rings absolutely true: an empty building becomes anxiogenic precisely when you don’t fully believe it to be empty, when you sense a presence whose intentions are, at best, unnervingly ambiguous. And this passage lingered in my mind just long enough for me to notice how it flowers fully in an altogether different text, Ghosts (New Directions, $14.50), César Aira’s wonderfully strange, characteristically taut and yet irreducible 1989 novel, translated by Chris Andrews and now published for the first time in English. The novel takes place largely within the confines of a Buenos Aires apartment building still under construction. The building, still without doors, flooring or even windows, is ostensibly empty, yet the family of a Chilean immigrant worker is squatting there—along with a company of phantoms who typically appear during siesta, naked, and covered in dust. The ghosts are all male. Are they immigrant workers who died on the job? Aira doesn’t say. The date is December 31st. The heat, we’re told, is supernatural.

Was Bolaño thinking of Ghosts when he wrote ‘Dentist’? It’s certainly possible, since Ghosts was first published long before ‘Dentist’ and Bolaño was a vocal admirer of Aira’s work. As well, there is the curious coincidence regarding the Chilean origins of both Aira’s central characters and of Bolaño himself. In fact, Ghosts, in its ebulliently playful, frequently funny way, is somewhat obsessive in its cataloging of the distinctions between the Chilean and Argentine characters and mores. In any case, the way the dentist’s digression on anxiety and empty buildings speaks to Aira’s novel made the reading of it that much more pleasing. However, until well into the novel’s final third, when they make a proposal that will put a character’s life in mortal danger, Aira’s ghosts are not necessarily rendered as terribly frightening. Actually the living squatters seem perfectly at ease with the daily apparitions of the dead squatters. Raúl, the family patriarch and building’s nightwatchman, even stores wine in the thorax of a ghost to keep it cool. (Maybe this is a Chilean thing?)

Though it drifts between a multitude of characters for the first half or so, Ghosts does ultimately settle on a single protagonist—Raúl’s daughter, Patri—and while Aira tends to subvert traditionally coherent storytelling whenever possible, there is an identifiable dramatic climax. But Ghosts is also a kind of jazzy essay, which performs its jig with one foot in vividly detailed, more or less realistic people, places and behaviour, and unfettered, often dazzling abstraction. The in-between state of a partially finished building evokes the purgatorial or transitory. “The architectural key to the built/unbuilt opposition,” Aira writes, “is the flight of time toward space. And dreaming is that flight. While habits, whether sedentary or nomadic, are made of time, dreams are time-free. Dreams are made of pure space, the species that arrayed in eternity.” So seen through Aira’s lens the novel’s setting, like its personage, is both material and rather less than material, And the presence of the ghosts, like that of the Chileans, calls into question the way we feel about architectural space, and—especially in places like my home province of Alberta, which draws so many with its promise of expansive, neatly contained and unsullied property—about the value we place on the seeming newness of newly built or renovated homes, places offered as a sort of tabula rasa upon which we can identify as exclusively ours, places we can gradually forge the imprint of our own experiences on and invest with our dreams of the future, unburdened by the psychic complications engendered by a history.

These thoughts lingered with me as well as I continued to read Barry Curtis’ Dark Places: The Haunted House in Film (Reaktion Books, $19.50), one of the most intriguing recent movie-related books I’ve come across in a while. Curtis has an especially deft hand with examining how a wide variety of cultural influences, from the Gothic to the Surrealists, converge to shape the 21st century notion of the ghost story. And he articulates is crisp, precise language the power of historical burdens on place and the numerous expectations we place on homes, even as out notions about what constitutes a good home evolves in an age simultaneously characterized by the conflicting lures of nostalgia and ecological awareness.

The discovery of Dark Places, which is an essay primarily concerned with architecture and ghost stories, at the same moment that I discovered Ghosts, an essay-like ghost story deeply interested in architecture, has made for one of those deeply pleasurable coincidences a reader comes across now and then, when books come into your hands almost by accident only to then start speaking to one another, while you just sit back and take it all in, picking up one book to continue from page 91 just as the other is being put down on page 129. It’s like literary tag-team wrestling. As soon as I’m finished writing this I’m planning on going back and digging into Dark Places again… Except I’m alone, here in my apparently empty house, and it’s a little bit, I don’t know… creepy.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Young lust, blood lust, trust: Let the Right One In

It’s 1982, and in some anonymous Stockholm housing complex 12-year-old Oskar stands knife in hand before the window in his ginch, rehearsing revenge, or, more accurately, assuming the role of his oppressor. His reflection in the glass is doubled, rendering him ghostly in our first glimpse of him. Oskar is ash-blonde, elfin, soft-spoken, inward, and mercilessly bullied at school by a bunch of boys who look like girls. His parents are divorced. He’s an only child and seems virtually alone in the world. But on this night he sees a strange car pull up. A middle-aged man and a little girl are moving in to the apartment next door. The man immediately sets about covering up their windows with cardboard. For Oskar, who keeps a private scrapbook of news clippings on murder and death, the weirdness and secrecy that surrounds his new neighbours appeals instantly. Soon, this curiosity will turn into heartsickness. Oskar is going to fall in love for the first time.

Preadolescent romance isn’t something typically located in the comfort zone of most movies, but
Let the Right One In isn’t most movies. Oskar and Eli will connect the same way a lot of kids connect, through a sense of mutual alienation. Yet Eli’s particular sense of exclusion is more acute, and more permanent. When Oskar asks how old she is she tells him 12… though she’s been 12 for a long time. When he tells her he likes her, she asks him if he’d like her even if she weren’t a girl. He’s puzzled, but that’s just part of love’s delirium. It takes Oskar a while to accept what we’ve by now figured out. Eli is a vampire. This creates complications. But it also places Eli, who recognizes the genuine fascination with blood in Oskar’s murderous fantasies, in the role of his protector.

Let the Right One In, directed by Tomas Alfredson and freely adapted by John Ajvide Lindqvist from his own novel, is something special. It offers a highly original spin on the weary corpse that is the vampire film, yet rather than clutter itself with irony or obvious metaphors, it completely respects the rules of vampire mythology, something evidenced in the title itself. It is hushed, it’s pace methodical. It dazzles even while it draws you in like a hot bath. The sense of isolation felt by Oskar and Eli, so perfectly embodied with childish awkwardness by Kåre Hedebrant and Lina Leandersson, is heightened by the use of very shallow depth of field—it’s rare that more than a single character is in focus at any time. The pervasive snow and night conjure an atmosphere of crisp wintry dreamscape in which colours stand out, vivid and handsome. Close-ups or medium shots are starkly contrasted by static wide shots in scenes of violence, so that the violence plays out before our eyes as though on a stage.

This stylization is woven into the look and sound and story itself. Eli’s guardian –perhaps slave?—gases a teenager in the woods—a more awkward form of abduction is hard to imagine. When he strings up his victim from the ankles are prepares to drain his blood it’s hard not to notice how the woods are lit up like a football field. But Let the Right One In never tries to pass itself off as gritty realism. Many of the special effects are lovingly old school. There’s perverse pleasure in the spectacle of a woman rolling down a flight of stairs covered in rabid cats. It’s the child of Val Lewton, IKEA and Sally Mann,  and it's all somehow closer to fairytale, albeit a nightmarish one riddled with ambiguities surrounding death, child autonomy, sexuality and gender—something dealt with explicitly in the novel but wisely only hinted at in this far more subjective treatment. Screw Twilight