Events

Kicking the Tweets
Search
Thursday
Mar152018

Porto (2016)

The King of Wistful Thinking

Years ago, the South Park kids dismissed all art-house movies as being about “gay cowboys eating pudding”. Though Porto contains exactly zero horses and/or desserts, this artsy, meandering puzzlement embodies the pretentiousness that Cartman and the gang so astutely observed.

Set in the titular Portuguese city, co-writer/director Gabe Klinger’s drama stars Anton Yelchin as Jake, an American expatriate who meets French student Mati (Lucie Lucas) on an archaeological dig site. They connect during a night of extreme passion, disconnect in the harsh light of day (thanks, in part, to Mati’s professor/ boyfriend, played by Paulo Calatré), and spend the next decade living in the past.

Klinger and co-writer Larry Gross rely heavily on narrative trickery, bouncing around Jake and Lucie’s timelines and perspectives in an effort to flesh out a love story that’s too weak (and, ultimately, too creepy) to be palatable on its own. Worse yet, Klinger twists Yelchin’s inherent sensitivity as a performer into the alluring mask of an abrasive man-child who decent moviegoers won’t actually want to see succeed. The filmmakers similarly short-change Lucas by giving her character a “crazy” past that is neglected in both the screenplay and the actress’s performance—and which feels designed to make Jake’s character less predatory by contrast.

It doesn’t work.

At seventy-six minutes, Porto might as well be six hours long. No amount of lush, urban European photography or attractive actors engaged in tantric sex* can make up for the gaping story void. Ultimately, Porto may only be remembered as a sad novelty: it contains one of Anton Yelchin’s final performances, and one of his least memorable roles.

*A casualty of Klinger and co-editor Géraldine Mangenot’s sensibilities is that we lose all sense of time and place, especially in the third act. On the plus side, you may just get a belly laugh when realizing that the half-dozen scenes of mind-blowing coitus did not, in fact, take place over multiple evenings. It’s no wonder Jake looks so gaunt, pale, and devoid of fluid ten years on.

Friday
Mar092018

The Sect (1991)

And 'Italian Horror' was its Name--Oh!

I came up with a party game while watching The Sect. Forgive my ignorance if this already exists, but it’s time to put Italian Horror Bingo front and center in the popular consciousness. Let’s break it down:

B=“Basement” Michael Soavi’s film, which he co-wrote with Giaovanni Romoli and genre icon Dario Argento, centers on kindergarten teacher Miriam Kreisl (Kelly Curtis*) who discovers a terrible secret brewing in the bowels of her modest German home. Like The House by the Cemetary, Opera, and The Beyond, this discovery takes just long enough for dark forces to harm people close to our heroine—without giving her enough time to actually stop said dark forces.

I="Identity" What’s the nature of the big bad thing in the basement, you ask? It’s connected to Miriam’s past somehow, and over the course of a tedious first act (not counting the grisly flashback that opens the film), we learn that she’s been a lightning rod for malevolence all her life. Are the cut-aways to gruesome, seemingly unrelated murders a coincidence? If City of the Living Dead taught us anything, the answer is, “Probably not”.

N="Nasty" In my limited but ever-expanding experience, Italian horror flicks are not designed as groundbreaking narrative achievements or acting showcases.** Fans show up for the gore, and while The Sect is somewhat restrained in the frequency of its murder set pieces, Soavi and company really make their squeamish moments count. From an innocuous mega-close-up of an eyeball absorbing an iodine drop; to a truly bizarre moment in which a character takes a hypodermic needle to the point of her nose; to the pièce de résistance involving hooks, a face, and an idea that should have made Clive Barker reconsider his day job, The Sect boasts downright artistic in-camera and practical effects that will make you stop peeking, pause the film, and study the frames.

G="Guardian" The “thing in the basement” must be protected at all costs by forces both supernatural and all-too-tragically human. As the title suggests, The Sect is about a cult of demon-worshiping hippies (and possible global power elites?) whose designs on poor Miriam may just involve an unborn child.

Best friends and would-be boyfriends are no match for the creepy old man (Herbert Lom) who befriends Miriam following a car accident; the possessed shroud whose favorite hobby is face-hugging meddlers; or the preternaturally intelligent bunny rabbit who pops up to occasionally chew on pipes, change channels on the television, and prevent Miriam’s doctor friend (Michel Adatte) from escaping the basement. Guardians aren’t exclusive to Italian horror movies, of course (one of the best examples can be found in the mainstream progenitor of this film, Rosemary’s Baby), but they’re always fun to spot, and to root for as they turn on whatever hapless fool tries to interfere with their plans.

The strangest guardian I can think of is The Sect’s reservoir of blue water. It’s full of spindly veins that creep through the house, winding their way up from an underground cistern—which, of course, is an…

O= "Opening to Hell" If you believe a random sampling of Italian horror movies, subterranean portals to perdition are as common in real estate as attached garages. Sometimes they act as infectious turnstiles, transforming those who venture inside into flesh-eating zombies; sometimes they are merely doorways that, once opened, unleash hordes of demons upon the idyllic European community of the week.

Soavi, Romoli, and Argento do things a little differently, using a combination of the blue water, human sacrifice, and Miriam’s fertile womb to bring forth a bouncing baby Beelzebub. In this case, the Devil (or whatever Satanic agent has been granted surrogate fatherhood) is alternately depicted as a crane, a resurrected dead guy covered in bright blue feathers, and a shadow on the basement wall whose erection we get to see in real-time (if you know where to look).

No matter which movie you choose to put on when playing Italian Horror Bingo, chances are you’ll win. Sure, many of these movies lend themselves to crossing tropes off a scorecard, but there’s often a creative zeal and a desire to disgust (or at least unsettle) that gives this sub-genre the edge over, say, off-brand slasher movies, torture porn, or franchise reboots.

The Sect, for all its aping of Polanski (and, yes, Argento), has a lot to offer—especially in its deliciously dark and ambiguous resolution, whose meaning you may just puzzle out for days.

Don’t agonize over it too much. There are parties to plan, after all.

*The resemblance to sister Jamie Lee is striking.

**In fairness, the latter is often hard to gauge, thanks to often comical English dubbing.

Friday
Feb092018

From Hollywood to Rose (2016)

Bridal Fare

Like Billy Pilgrim, the protagonist of Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse Five, From Hollywood to Rose is unstuck in time. Though set in modern-day Los Angeles, writer Matt Jacobs' screenplay sounds like one of those talky, pop-savvy reactions to the Kevin Smith phenomenon that littered late-nineties art houses--and its dreamlike interludes with after-hours oddballs wouldn't be out of place in 2001's  Waking Life. As co-directed by Liz Graham, the movie comes across as a mid-period John Waters joint, complete with over-the-top quirks and costumes, and acting that might most generously be described as "iffy".

Eve Annenberg plays Woman in Wedding Dress,* a middle-aged bride-not-to-be whom we meet shortly after she leaves her fiance at the altar. Wherever she's headed, she needs a bus to get there, and the film follows her for several hours as she collects people and experiences, and takes stock of her sad, twisted life. Among the late-night commuters are a violent criminal with an affinity for sewing (Krzysztof Soszynski), a mail-order bride (Chia Chen), and Woman's almost-sister-in-law (Isadora O'Boto), who isn't thrilled about the afternoon's events.

She also meets a pair of tubby slacker dudes who gladly press "pause" on their aimless evening to include Woman in their profane and deeply obsessive discussions about comic books, Star Wars, and Bruce Lee. For a fleeting moment, it seems as if Jacobs and Graham will abandon the people-watching motif in favor of a bizarre relationship comedy, as the more sensible but utterly directionless of the two guys (the "Dante", if you will, played by Bradley J. Herman) becomes infatuated with Woman. This detour doesn't last long, and the filmmakers wisely balance the rest of Woman's journey with a parallel look at the encounter's impact on the rest of the guys' evening.

Taken at face value, From Hollywood to Rose is a spaghetti-on-the-wall assortment of alternately funny, frightening, and flat run-ins that are meant to, I guess, elicit nods of recognition from anyone who's ever had to traverse the wasteland of broken dreams that is Hollywood, California. But if the filmmakers treat their characters as a collective freak show, it's at least one that Tod Browning would have been proud of. Jacobs and Graham show real affection for and grant dignity to even the most cartoonishly rendered, throw-away parts (I'm looking at you, Melt Down Bus Driver). And even though half the performances left me wondering about the low caliber of actors who didn't make the cut, I couldn't help but get swept up in the heart that emerged from Jacobs' words.

Which brings us back to Woman in Wedding Dress. I attribute much of the success of Eve Annenberg's performance to her incongruously wide, expressive eyes and slack, unimpressed mouth. Her character experiences every interaction on two levels: the first in the here-and-now, taking in with great interest the assortment of disillusioned, heartbroken, or dangerously naive passengers and passersby; the second in the glimpses we see of her past and the mental picture we're invited to paint of the hours leading up to her first steps onto the bus. Annenberg registers a constant state of shock more authentically than any performer I can recall right now, and it's impossible not to want to see a split-screen of the real-time and and imaginary information flooding her mind's eye throughout the film.

Woman's trance shatters briefly toward the end when, after a dawn beach swim, she has the penultimate conversation of her eight-hour odyssey--in which she talks more than during the preceding sixty-plus minutes/ The liberation of Annenberg's thoughts from her mouth signify Woman's breaking (or at least cracking) of the spiritual chains that have shackled her for years. I won't give away the person with whom she speaks or the outcome of their chat, but I will say that this moment sealed the deal for me.

From Hollywood to Rose may have no idea when its time was or who its audience is. It may lack the conviction of its actors in rendering characters as either wholly believable or utterly farcical. It may even push the boundaries of how "inside L.A." is too "inside L.A.". But in its rocky, weird, and colorful struggle to present the human condition as universal in its freakishness, the film reminds us that we've all been a Woman in a Wedding Dress at some point or other, looking for something we can't quite describe and (hopefully) finding it in our fellow travelers.

*Most of the film's characters are listed only as costumes or character traits.

Friday
Jan262018

The Misguided (2018)

Abel-Bodied

The Misguided refuses to be categorized. In the squabbling, knotted-up relationship of twenty-something hustlers/brothers Wendel (Steven J. Mihaljevich) and Levi (Caleb Galati), you’ll find a familiar tragedy in which one criminal sibling pulls the nobler of the two down to his level. When college-bound innocent Sanja (Jasmine Nibali) breaks up with scumbag Wendel and dives into bed with wounded puppy dog (she thinks) Levi, no one would blame you for expecting an alternately sappy and tense love-triangle movie. And as writer/director Shannon Alexander’s camera follows Sanja and Levi on smoky, late-night walks and joy-rides around Perth, there’s no harm in thinking of The Misguided as a kind of Down Under take on Kogonada’s Columbus.

There’s also a “B” plot involving Sanja’s nosy little sister (Katherine Langford) and psychotically protective dad (Athan Bellos), plus a “C” plot about Wendel’s constant struggle between his half-fucked-up self and his fully fucked-up self (sex, drugs, and schemes are his oxygen). I’d like to say the three-pronged drama I described earlier is balanced out by the humor of the mirror-sibling side stories, but even the jokes are off-kilter—ranging from cutesy daddy-daughter dynamics to the can’t-look-away reality-show trainwreck of Wendel’s all-consuming ego.

This may sound like a mess (a hack might call it, “misguided”), but Alexander’s underworld-adjacent ride-along drops us in on a world where the poles of “Have” and “Have Not” fold in on themselves—in which drug deals are mundane, thirty-thousand dollars is a casually replaceable commodity, and love manifests in a barely readable continuum muffled by deceit, abuse, and betrayal. The film isn’t concerned with plot, but it is concerned with making these characters believable—even if contemplating the possibility that there are real Wendels, Levis, and Sanjas walking around might make your head hurt.

Speaking of which, in a climactic scene, Wendel and Levi square off in a playground, roughing each other up to enhance a lie about a drug deal gone bad. As Levi takes blow after blow after blow to the face, Alexander cuts between Wendel’s descending fist and a set of nearby metal rocking horses. In a flash, we see evil overlaid on innocence and wonder what could have caused these boys to become men who became monsters. The humor drains out of the setup, giving way to a profound sadness (and, frankly, squeamishness).

Alexander’s tinkering with our expectations extends to the manner in which he presents his feature debut: The Misguided glitches with pixel banding and split-second stops. Occasionally the camera drifts as if to imply a missed edit; one scene cuts out too soon, for what could be construed as either intentional or unintentional comedic effect. The result is a film that harkens back to the mid-aughts found-footage glut, though Alexander’s aims seem to be much loftier than simply trying to resurrect a trend that began its decline ten years ago.

There’s an audio cue at the very end suggesting this may not be a “movie” at all—rather a corrupted mental hard drive of memory fragments cobbled together by someone addicted to technology, narcotics, and vanity. In that moment, Wendel becomes the rocking horse and we become Wendel: voyeuristic captives to a chaotic past whose best bet is to pick a direction and stick to it.

Friday
Jan122018

Bright (2017)

Color. Cut. Clarity.

I'm beginning to understand why so many people hate critics. In late December, Netflix debuted their $90 million stay-at-home blockbuster, Bright, an urban buddy-copy fantasy that quickly became one of 2017’s easiest punch lines. When the movie dropped, I was still playing catch-up with awards season and decided not to bother with something that had struggled to gain 27% approval on Rotten Tomatoes.

My wife and I finally watched Bright last weekend, darkly drawn in by the sustained critical assault against the “year’s worst movie”. We paused several times in that two-plus hours, wondering what, exactly, we were supposed to hate. By the time the credits rolled, we’d grown to enjoy the rocky chemistry between Will Smith’s bitter L.A. cop, Daryl Ward, and his partner, Nick Jakoby, a not-quite-gentle giant of a hulking blue orc, played by Joel Edgerton. We wanted to spend more time in writer Max Landis’ alternate reality, as realized by director David Ayer.

You’ve probably read that Bright is little more than a rehash of Alien Nation, mashed with Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings/Every Other Fantasy Movie. It’s a fair assessment, but an unfair criticism. In fact, all of the nitpicking about plot holes, ridiculous dialogue, and done-to-death story arcs can be just as easily leveled at movies everyone is supposed to love—including one of 2017’s biggest critical and box office successes, Wonder Woman. There’s no question that Patty Jenkins spear-headed a milestone for female filmmakers, but her record-breaking superhero flick is also just another overlong, predictable origin story.

You may have also heard that Bright is a weak race-relations allegory. Another surface point that only partially rings true. In Landis’ version of world events (which is similar to both Tolkein’s writings and last summer’s Justice League), the evil Dark Lord was defeated by the combined forces of humanity and elf-kind two thousand years ago. The orcs found themselves on the wrong side of history after their leader was vanquished, which explains their present day status as second-class citizens. Jakoby’s position on the police force is a first for his kind, and an early incident involving partner Ward and an orc-perpetrated robbery makes an already politically complicated situation untenable. Don’t look for the depths of Jakoby’s struggle in Landis’ action-movie-retread dialogue; watch for it in Edgerton’s wounded eyes, and in the disgusted, judgmental looks of his fellow orcs as he and Ward roll through the city. For all its popcorn-movie trappings, Bright is a movie rich in peripheral details of character and environment.

Ayer and Landis were, perhaps, the only ones who could have made Bright. Ayer has perfected his vision of grimy, gang-ridden, ultra-violent hellscapes and crooked cops in films like Training Day (which he wrote) and Sabotage (which he directed). Landis continues his unique experiments in genre bending and audience provocation with movies like Chronicle (found-footage superhero adventure) and American Ultra (conspiracy theory love story). I can only speculate that a string of poorly received would-be blockbusters from both creators (Suicide Squad, Victor Frankenstein, etc.) led them to Netflix; whatever the case, I'm glad they found each other. Bright is an entertaining if imperfect blend of elaborate oddball fantasy and the kind of well-tread buddy-cop formula that's easy to slip into.

Cinema obsessives will no doubt pick apart the references to The Fifth Element and a half-dozen on-the-run-all-night cop flicks. And I'm sure there have been a thousand eye rolls at the obvious trilogy setup.* But Ayer, Landis, Smith, and Edgerton appear to be really invested in creating a new paradigm--one whose edges will hopefully be smoothed out in the recently announced sequel, and whose potential for spawning imitators and innovators is unlimited.

You see, while critics were feasting on holiday snark, "real" people** were streaming Bright and, by most accounts, enjoying the hell out of it. Consider me officially stuck between two worlds, hoping for the best, but mildly concerned about getting caught on the wrong side of history.

*Our cop anti-heroes must stop Noomi Rapace's elven assassin from finding three wands that will resurrect the Dark Lord--wands that can only be handled by "one in a million" humans. And guess who just happens to be on the case when Wand #1 shows up?

**Yes, I understand that critics are real people. But going back to at least Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, I've noticed an amped-up animosity brewing in the schism between cinematic populism and the relatively small coterie of thinkers who've been, historically speaking, tasked with assessing the arts. It's impossible to pick a side (as If I'd ever need to), since I frequently vacillate between despising the holier-than-thou condemnations of my fellow critics (The Belko Experiment) and wanting to vomit when mainstream audiences call movies like mother! and The Last Jedi "terrible"--or, worse, "boring".