Thursday, August 22, 2013

A family ripped apart

First a prelude. In some cabin in some woods some goofy looking guy (American genre-indie auteur Larry Fessenden) reaches orgasm atop a pretty, bored-looking lady. He showers. She gets butchered. He’s next. A quick dose of sex and violence—a taste of what’s to come. And, before we get too comfortable, some reassurance for the freaks that You’re Next is indeed a horror film.

Us non-freaks will be more reassured by what immediately follows this prelude: character development! An affluent older couple, their four adult offspring and the romantic partners of said offspring converge at a cottage for the couple’s 35th anniversary. The whole family so rarely gets together—thankfully, since most of them can’t stand each other, brothers Crispian (AJ Bowen) and Drake (Joe Swanberg) most especially. The reunion’s freighted with potential disasters. Mom (Barbara Crampton) is a sweet-natured, heavily medicated bag of nerves; taciturn littlest brother Felix (Nicholas Tucci) turns up with a rigorously unfriendly girlfriend named Zee (Wendy Glenn); eager-to-please Aimee (Amy Seimetz) brings her vaguely foreign-looking “intellectual filmmaker” boyfriend (Ti West) to sup with her extremely white, not terribly intellectual clan. And here’s a portentous bit of exposition: Dad (Rob Bowen) has just retired from a lucrative gig doing marketing for a defense contractor. So the specter of violence is already in the air when, just as the family launch into their first full-on squabble around the dinner table, a trio of assailants in animal masks—manifestations of the family members pent-up rage?—suddenly place the house under siege. An arrow flies through the window. It is somehow appropriate that the first one to bite it is the suspicious filmmaker.

The choice to set-up You’re Next as a family reunion is perversely clever. The idea of witnessing your own family’s endangerment, injury or slaughter is genuinely horrifying; the fact that most of the family members half-hate each other only makes their bond that much more realistic. Understandably, everyone immediately falls apart or goes numb. The only one who seems at all capable of taking control of the situation is the one who initially seemed easiest to write off. Erin (Sharni Vinson), a literature major and Crispian’s cute young Australian girlfriend—and, ahem, former student—turns out to be more than graceful under fire. She’s good at making weapons out of household objects. She’s our final girl, an outsider and protectress, and ultimately the one with whom we identify and root for.

Prolific director Adam Wingard’s latest is actually a couple of years old already—it debuted at TIFF 2011—but it’s worth the wait. Well, mostly. Simon Barrett, who also scripted Wingard’s A Horrible Way to Die, has written about 66% of an exceptionally smart and effective genre film. It’s only once the initial disorientation wears off and we begin to realize the motives behind this seemingly senseless violence that things start to get a little dumb and deflating, leading up to a hokey-jokey ending. But maybe 66% is good enough? Working with an excellent ensemble cast, half of which are also laudable independent filmmakers—besides Fessenden, Swanberg, West and Seimetz are all directors—Wingard is in full control of the film’s ominous atmospherics and delicate tonal shifts—he knows just when to let the humour override the horror, and vice versa. You’re Next is easy to recommend but hard to completely love, falling just short of something really good. Of course, the way Wingard cranks out films, there’s good reason to hope the next one will be brilliant. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

The sound of SILENZIO

He could be K. coming to the Castle or Jonathan Harker paying a visit to Count Dracula. Just a man on an unusual sort of business trip. But the ever-so-cordial Mr. Gilderoy (Toby Jones, offering countless gradations of tempered disgruntlement) seems even less assuming than those unlucky literary forbearers. He is an English sound engineer come to Italy to commence mixing on a giallo film entitled The Equestrian Vortex —we are somewhere in the 1970s. This is not a horror film, Gilderoy is told—it’s a Santini film, Santini being the name of its director, a manipulative schemer and playboy of questionable talent. Whatever the case, Gilderoy just wants to do his job, which he clearly loves, and get his remuneration and travel reimbursements. But however touchy-feely these Italians may be, they seem alarmingly hesitant to cough up the promised cash. All Gilderoy can do is keep asking, keep working, and try to keep his head together.

Berberian Sound Studio is the second feature from English director Peter Strickland. It’s something of a horror film too, though the more time its protagonist spends on The Equestrian Vortex, the more Berberian Sound Studio begins to resemble a vortex itself. Gilderoy immerses himself in his work to an unhealthy degree—an alternate title could have been Audiodrome. Not a flicker of daylight penetrates the film, but the light of a film projector flickers away in scene after scene. This mixer’s sense of reality becomes mixed with that of the film he’s mixing—a film we never actually see. Mind you, while the film’s images are gorgeously lit and framed—images of foley artists massacring watermelons, of unhappy actresses overdubbing screams, of beautifully designed analogue gear in fetish close-up—we don’t really see much. What matters is what we hear, a meticulously textured sonic world slowly slipping away from the orderly and coherent until it shoots down an aural rabbit hole from which the film never returns.

Strickland has said that Berberian Sound Studio was inspired by music, specifically that of Nurse With Wound and Broadcast, who made the film’s excellent score. This comes as no surprise, not only because sound is central to the film—it’s literally the central word in the title—but because this film/object is less about telling a story than it is about the cultivation of a certain aesthetic/psychic space for the audience to inhabit. Watching Berberian Sound Studio so as to find out what happens next is probably not going to lead to a very satisfying experience—Inland Empire feels tidy and conclusive by comparison. Yet the film’s fascinating and often funny milieu is depicted with tremendous affection and detail. It is infused with a love of tape and moving parts, an interest in aspects of filmmaking rarely glamorized or dramatized, and an understanding of the peculiar, transitory relationships that form between the diverse artists and technicians that come together at various stages of production. I didn’t mind that Berberian Sound Studio didn’t really go anywhere, per se. I was happy to surrender to the creepy allure of this place for a time, and to heed the film’s most insistent visual refrain, an image of a flashing red sign that reads SILENZIO. Silence the part of your mind that wants any of this to make sense, and allow yourself to get lost in the hermetic realm of Berberian Sound Studio.    

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Jobs: a life in hissy fits and applause

At some point in his career people would just start applauding Steve Jobs before he even told them anything applause-worthy. Apparently he was just like that. Maybe people were just eager to be impressed. Maybe they were just scared. According to Jobs, besides being a human applause-prompter, Jobs was also a restless genius of bullying, a deadbeat dad, an impatient asshole incapable of empathizing with others (nervous investors included), a ruthless prick and a quasi-hippy whose habits of going everywhere barefoot and neglecting basic grooming died hard. The first scene of Jobs finds Jobs, to the sound of John Williams-style somber triumphalist scoring, introducing the first iPod, describing it as “a tool for the heart.” But did the Apple founder even have one? How accurately the Jobs of Jobs represents the real Jobs I couldn’t tell you. What matters for the purpose of this review is that you’re never going to get to know anyone, famous or not, through the graceless, impersonal bullet point/greatest hits approach to the bio-pic employed here. The kinks and nuances of persona are the first things to go. Jobs is crammed with event and devoid of character.

From smug college dropout to smug outlier at Atari to smug visionary business founder to smug titan of industry, Jobs sweeps us along the key steps in its protagonist’s rise to glory. The bit where he and his cohorts seek their first investors has an enjoyable giddiness, but mostly this is a laundry list over which haircuts and outfits gradually get more conservative and computers get more compact. The dialogue is mostly exposition, the camerawork fussy. Someone thought it a good idea to hire Ashton Kutcher. He clearly threw himself into the role of Jobs, but the role is roughly 50% impersonation (of Golem as much as Jobs) and 50% hissy fit. Kutcher freaks out a lot. Sometime quietly, other times like an infant volcano. He shakes, sputters, stares down, becoming only more remote as Jobs gets axed by his own company and later hired back. The part where he makes amends with the family he abandoned is elided. The film’s chronology ends in 2001 and Kutcher’s Jobs already seems exhausted. As are we, without the slightest feeling of having gained some new understanding of the man behind half of the devices we’re going to turn back on after the movie.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Vanishing act

Few films put us on edge so quickly. Arthur Hamilton (John Randolph) already seems on the verge of a nervous breakdown in the opening scenes of Seconds (1966), which follow the weary middle-aged bank executive on his train journey from Grand Central Station to his suburban Scarsdale home. He may be followed. The images seem taken from ankles or shoulders. Every space feels cavernous. The organ score seems lifted from a Vincent Price horror picture. The opening credits appear over images of gaping maws and distorted eyeballs, and if that first eyeball close-up makes you think of Marion’s face on the bathroom floor in Psycho (1960), you won’t be surprised to learn that this credit sequence was, like Psycho’s, designed by Saul Bass. 

The director of Seconds was John Frankenheimer. The film is regarded as the cap on his “paranoia trilogy,” following The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964). The Cold War was at the forefront of those pictures, which dealt explicitly with brainwashing and political assassination. In Seconds, that same claustrophobic atmosphere is bleeding out of the seemingly everyday. Based on David Ely’s eponymous novel and scripted by Lewis John Carlino, this story is exceedingly intimate, even if it too alludes to something akin to a vast conspiracy. Arthur’s nervous because he’s received a phone call from a friend he thought dead. The friend is trying to help Arthur change his life—by changing his face, his body, his voice, his name and occupation. By killing off Arthur. All it takes is money, which Arthur has, and a corpse, which the company whose services he will be obliged to solicit will take care of. This company seems to know what Arthur wants, even if he doesn’t. Arthur is ushered to their headquarters after being led through a meat packing plant, an all too apt analogue for the company’s business of transfiguration. By the time they’re done with Arthur he’ll look like Rock Hudson. Which is to say they change Arthur Hamilton into a painter named Tony Wilson, played by Rock Hudson. It’s the heartthrob movie star’s most startling and impressive performance. (Another interesting parallel to Psycho: where that film had its star vanish 40 minutes in, the star of Seconds doesn’t appear until 40 minutes in.) Our hero makes a go at this new life. He even finds himself a gorgeous younger lover (Salome Jens) to wipe out the memories of the wife he could barely kiss anymore. But something about Tony doesn’t quite take. Inside, he’s still Arthur. And this makes the company uneasy.

The collective desire for renewal at work in Seconds had been made into story before—there is some crossover between it and Ray Bradbury’s ‘Marionettes Inc.’—but Ely’s exploration of this perhaps specifically American idea of total self-reinvention took this desire to a sinister extreme. The film perfectly synthesizes the novel’s trajectory with the tools of cinema. Brilliantly employing wide-angle lenses, James Wong Howe’s endlessly inventive cinematography makes the familiar eerie, and the casting of Hudson was a stroke of genius—thank god Frankenheimer didn’t get his first choice of Laurence Olivier, whose performance would surely have felt studied and possessed none of the despair and, ultimately, harrowing hysteria on display here. Frankheimer’s casting of numerous blacklisted actors contributes to a meta-reading that only increases a sense of condemnation of American falseness and fear-driven values. As Alec Baldwin describes it in one of the supplements on Criterion’s new edition of Seconds, the film doesn’t invite you in—“it takes you hostage.”

Monday, August 12, 2013

Escape from planet ghetto

It’s the mid-22nd century and disease and pollution have driven the 1%—or, given the overpopulation, more likely the .001%—into space, where they live on a pretty spinning wheel called Elysium, get plenty of artificial daylight and receive medical attention from all-purpose healing beds that can eradicate a cancer or perform massive reconstructive surgery in seconds. Meanwhile, somewhere in a sprawling shantytown called Los Angeles, a paroled ex-criminal named Max (Matt Damon) works the assembly line in a factory that produces the very robot cops that routinely beat the shit out of him. One day Max’s asshole foreman tells him to fix a glitch and winds up giving him radiation poisoning that’ll kill him in five days. So Marx finds his old Chicano gang, who run a coyote operation that takes illegals to Elysium—this is, among other things, a border-crossing movie and a plea for universal health care—and insists that he gets put on the next flight. The gang boss says Max can go so long as he performs a wildly dangerous “data heist,” which means kidnapping a top-ranking Elysian and draining his brain of all sorts of codes that can be used to start a revolution, or something. To prepare Max for his mission the gangsters provide him with an exoskeleton that turns him into a fleshier Robocop.

If that strikes you as a lot of synopsis already, trust me, that ain’t nothing. Part of the problem with Neil Blomkamp’s follow-up to District 9 is that it’s overloaded with plot. What Elysium does well are the big, broad concepts and the action bits; things like details or character development, not so much. Elysium spends a lot of time on secondary characters, yet all of them—Jodie Foster’s evil, leaden secretary of defense most of all—remain boringly one-dimensional. Not that Max is all that nuanced. Damon has a knack for bringing an unlikely soulfulness to his action roles, but Max is humourless and the script’s one stab at endowing him with psychological need is a shopworn trope that has Max longing to go to Elysium since childhood. We get this information not from anything Max says or does but rather from gauzy, corny flashbacks that, like much of the subplot material, are extraneous and make the film drag, right up to its nonsensically hopeful ending.