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Crimes of Passion (1984)
She's Still Remains A Mystery...
I have seen "Crimes Of Passion" many times over the years but I think I only just came to understand this movie more fully after watching it again recently. It is, as the poster states, a Ken Russell film, and has to be judged that way, as part of the oeuvre of a brilliant, mad genius who seems to have been one of only a few true, classic auteurs in cinema history. "Crimes Of Passion," for all its (many) flaws, for all its trash and sleaze, for good or ill, is, in its final form anyway, a cinematic work of art that defies convention. I think it also invites serious study.
Trying to describe the plot of "C of P" is the first clue to the deceptively complex nature of this film. If you viewed the movie circa 1984-1986 you saw the story of a vivacious woman played by Kathleen Turner who works in design by day and goes into drag to turns tricks downtown by night. She's pursued by a deranged priest who seems intent on "saving" her, possibly by using perverted sex to kill her, and an "average Joe" family man who, like Jimmy Stewart before him and Craig Wasson the same year "Crimes" came out, just can't stay away from what turns him on. The Average Joe character, "Bobby," played by relative unknown John Laughlin, is involved in a marriage and family that's fizzling and may possibly be the perfect antidote to what ails our confused working girl...if she can survive mentally and physically, that is. What one took away from the original version of the film was, chiefly, Ms. Turner's brave, fantastic performance (and how uninhibited she was mentally as well as physically), the berserk scenes with Anthony Perkins, the pinks and blues in the set design, the strange surprise ending and the sardonic tone--the plot almost seemed like an afterthought.
Like all of Russel's films "C of P" is impossible to understand or completely enjoy after only one viewing (for a more obvious example, try his "Gothic"). When I first saw the film on cable many years ago, like many a teen in the mid-to-late 80s, I was transfixed by the sex, violence, lurid color palette and over-the-top synth score; I was intrigued by the themes of obsession, religion and duality, mystified by the range of acting choices and choice of performers and utterly confused trying to figure out what it was all about.
Now here's the thing--that's how it played when the movie first came out. I don't remember the hoopla that surrounded "C of P" but I remember a similar outcry over "Body Double" which was in theaters around the same time. DePalma's film seems like a Disney movie next to Russell's now. Probably "Crimes" played, as it did on cable, so campy and over-wrought it became dark comedy...certainly you couldn't take the scenes with Ms. Turner and Perkins too seriously; as one reviewer suggested, those moments play out like bizarre numbers in an MGM musical film or something.
But apparently it was too much for the censors and the film was rumored to have been "heavily cut," something mid-80s film-goers weren't very savvy about. In fact, along with Spielberg's "Close Encounters" this may have been one of the first films to cause a buzz for being re-edited and re-released later.
At any rate, "C of P" did pretty well on cable and video so the men with the money decided to release an unrated VHS version of the film promising the enticement of things that were too "hot" for the original release. Again, this was back before this was a common practice; what, we wondered, could be more "naughty" than the extended and very sensual sex scene in the original cut, the montages of a naked woman and a bloody blow up sex doll, the blasphemy and explicit language and the lingering presence of a lethal vibrating sex toy?
The "unrated version" ploy worked like a charm; the movie sold like hotcakes and the practice of releasing a re-edited version of a film with footage you "haven't seen" is still common today (is anyone really that interested in a Director's Cut of "Girls Trip?"). Most of us were probably a bit surprised to find the extended cut scenes of "Crimes" consisted mainly of a raw, nasty bit of over-kill business involving Kathleen Turner in a leather S+M outfit abusing a corrupt cop with his own night stick, but to bear witness to the scene was to admit that, yeah, it was a bit further than R-rated movies went at the time...and also probably wasn't all that necessary to the plot. The inclusion of this scene and some inserts of classic, erotic (and explicit) artwork changed the tone of the movie somehow, at least for me--the inclusion of this new material made it more a film about a woman who goes through a kind of sexual hell but is saved by a dopey guy as she runs from a crazy priest. The film seemed trashier (if possible) and less redemptive somehow after watching how far "Joanna Crane" (and Ken Russell, in fact) could descend into violent, sexual excess with such seeming nonchalance.
Flash forward to the 90s and we got "C of P" on laser disc. Two things happened with this release that changed the film's tone further: deleted scenes and audio commentary of Ken Russell being interviewed by Barry Sandler, the screenwriter of the film.
Of the commentary I remember little other than Mr. Russell going on about the loveliness of Ms. Turner in her China Blue drag and leaving before the film was over, which was cute, and Mr. Sandler coming off as an articulate, intelligent and kind person. I had met Mr. Russell in person around the same time and found him to be lively, personable and sweet. We also learned that Anthony Perkins' character was not originally a fallen priest, which would have made a profound difference in how the character was perceived.
All this would have changed my opinion about about the tone and nature of the film, but the deleted scenes added another level of explanation to the project somehow. The film already has a number of melodramatic, wooden-acted moments, some that seem straight out of a sad, low-budget TV movie; the deleted scenes presented on the laser disc, including a couples' backyard BBQ and a confrontation between a wife and the woman her husband is seeing behind her back seemed like something you'd find on theLifetime channel. In fact, these scenes just don't fit at all, at least if you see the film as the Ken Russell phantasmagoria it appeared to be in the original edit. So what gives?
Finally, a DVD of the film was released that included not only more deleted scenes but footage that had never been in the film before in any earlier cuts, now included in the film. None of the new scenes extended the outrageousness of the movie (with the exception of an exceptionally ugly and graphic bit of actual porn footage on a TV monitor), quite the opposite. Taken as a body, if you include all the deleted scenes available (which were surely in the green-lit script?) it would seem that originally the story of the film might have been meant to be played straight, and that the plot was about an average Joe in a crumbling marriage who gets involved with a woman who tricks at night and is pursued by a crazy person. The "China Blue" scenes that once seemed the raison d'etre of the project comprise a much smaller part of the big picture when viewed in this light...it's unlikely (but I have no confirmation) that Mr. Sandler envisioned the garishly-colored, over-sexed diatribe on American sexual mores that Mr. Russell crafted out of the script he had to work with (and Russell had done something similar with Chayefsky's "Altered States" just years before). Certainly it's hard to believe anyone but Ms. Turner, directed by Mr. Russell, could have gotten away with the (deliciously) ridiculous action in the "China Blue" scenes. Imagine, for example, someone like "Basic Instinct"-era Sharon Stone playing the part--it just wouldn't work, or be as fun.
And the movie IS fun, or should be, at least the original version we saw was, despite some unfortunate and, in my opinion, unnecessary misogyny (no film, EVER, should have the line, "strip...b!tch!" in it). The film as it plays now, which may be closer to the intent of the work I suspect Mr. Sandler originally concocted, which exists only when you look at all the deleted scenes and the most recent edit, is still good stuff. It's more realistic, there's a lot more compassion; John Laughlin's trajectory makes more sense, we find that Annie Potts' best work, and many keys to the "point" of the movie, were left on the cutting room floor to make room for more sex-with-nuns-and-dildos Russell-stuff (but that's not really a complaint). But the original conception of the film may have been a different, less outrageous movie. It seems possible that by editing the film into the shorter cut we saw in the mid-80s we were gifted with another berserk Russellian moving painting whereas if someone else had directed the movie we might have instead gotten an interesting but less-than-noteworthy melodrama.
Again, the film is flawed in any form--even in the first edit it seemed that (much like this review) it was a bit too long, it's unfocused and varies greatly in tone from scene to scene in any form, much like "Rocky Horror" it suffers from not having a clear protagonist (though again, the most recent edit makes Laughin the winner there with Turner relegated to supporting character), it hasn't aged well visually or thematically and the music, fun as it is, never actually worked (whether the use of Dvorak makes a "statement" or not I'll leave to others to discuss). But the power of the film can't be ignored--the visuals, the editing, the music, Ms. Turner and Mr. Perkins' performances, the themes and the unflinching discussion of sexual topics many people even today would run screaming from--all of these things combine to create a piece of film art that shouldn't be left out when discussing the works of Ken Russell specifically and the place of art films in film history in general.
A Wedding (1978)
"A Wedding" falls under the category of films that have to be experienced more than once to be appreciated, or perhaps even enjoyed. I saw it in the theater when it came out; I was a kid and the movie was billed as a mainstream comedy but far from laughing at what I witnessed I was disturbed by it. Raised on Disney films and related pablum, nothing had prepared me for the black humor, cynicism and nihilism that makes up what is, in my opinion, Robert Altman's most enduring work. It certainly isn't a film I'd recommend to anyone looking for light romantic fare (try "Father Of The Bride" and please, do wake me when it's over). It gets better every time you see it, certainly. The problem might be, as I've heard from non-fans of the films of Ken Russell, for those who didn't enjoy a movie the first time why on earth would they revisit it? I didn't see "A Wedding" again until I was older but when I did the film was on TV and possibly censored (there's a lot PG-rated cursing and some non-sexual but surprisingly lengthy--and superfluous--nudity), making it less of a shock to my then-conservative system. But viewing the film again I began to make sense of what at first appears to be chaos, a film that shows a world stuffed with hateful, base people acting in the worst ways humans can, and presents it for laughs. The same thing would happen when I discovered the films of John Waters some time later. I think a film like "A Wedding" goes down easier at home than in a theater, even more so after repeated viewings, where you can study the movie the way it should be studied, as an "art" film and not a mindless Hollywood comedy.
"A Wedding" is, of course, a record, in real time, of a wedding event where the daughter in a nouveau riche family marries the son from a family with "old" money and just about everything goes awry. Along the way we are introduced to a never-ending cavalcade of family members. One might complain that it's good no guests showed up, it's hard enough to tell who everyone is even after a couple viewings, but I think that's the fun of repeat viewings--untying the tangled knots. I'm reminded of the film "1941" from a few years later; I didn't get that movie either until I realized the "plot" is basically one crash after the next. This is true of "A Wedding" as well; if you try to find a comfortable comedy plot line or look for single characters to follow you will be frustrated...you're much better off just relaxing and enjoying the big, rambunctious ride and allowing it to take you where it will go...you'll be dropped off safely when the ride is over, to be sure.
Roger Ebert, who gave the film a positive review, likened watching the movie to being an invisible guest at the ceremony and after seeing the movie dozens of times I can think of no better description. I also come up short while thinking of another movie that is similar in presentation. Certainly Altman did overlapping dialog before and after this film. I'm no great fan of his work but agree with many that when he hits the mark he hits it well...and when he phones it in it's a whole lotta no fun. Altman was fond of creating over-long movies where the plot revolved around groups of people intermingling with no apparent (at first) goal. Others, like P.T. Anderson, have picked up the mantle of this technique and run with it. But I'm hard-pressed to think of any movie that so effectively sticks you in the center of the "action" (such as it is; very little happens, it's like a filmed play), even when you dearly wish you could run away screaming.
But the real genius of the film to me is the line it walks between humor and horror. On the one hand you have Carol Burnett using her (brilliant) stock tools to illicit the familiar kinds of laughs you'd have found on her variety show at the time; on the other you have her in a truly uncomfortable situation followed by a moment of unflinching, devastating tragedy, where she plays it straight and hints at some of the serious acting work she'd perform in future roles. The cast of mostly-knowns (either then or now) is composed of dignified, familiar actors playing against type as a rogues' gallery of grand grotesques, but the more you examine these strange, mostly unpleasant people the more you (uncomfortably) begin to realize they're pretty much accurate portraits of the people you know (or are).
Finally, the mounting tension of wondering what on earth can possibly go wrong next (culminating in a convulsive fit and an act of infidelity) leaves you on the verge of going numb...but strangely satisfied. Just as in real life, there are no happy endings, there is seldom a satisfying resolution to the conflicts we experience and very little of what happens in the world makes sense. It all just sort of "is." But if you're lucky, you get a filmmaker like Robert Altman to point a camera at it all and help us to gain understanding of the world around us, or at least to laugh at the absurdity of it, even if we're crying at the same time.
"A Wedding" is far from perfect but is also a film I can't recommend enough, that is, at least, to serious lovers of cinema. I'm afraid it would be entirely lost on those expecting merely a "comedy," but there are plenty of those types of films out there--this one is for the rest of us.
The Escort (2016)
Good, but not for obvious reasons
I chose this film while randomly perusing Amazon Prime's lists, a strange new occupation I find a lot of us pursuing of late. I was looking for something in the vein of a Sebastian Gutierrez indie flick. I chose the movie based entirely on the description and poster, something I never do any more as my time is too precious to gamble on a bad movie. I was rewarded with a pleasant, if unremarkable, film that I'd definitely recommend, but for reasons other than the obvious ones. It wasn't bad and had a decent story but that's not what prompted me to write a review about it.
In downtown LA a young woman is earning her keep as a high-priced sexual escort and a young aspiring writer has lost his job and is looking for a good story. He's also addicted to an "instant hookup" app and ends up meeting our lady of the night in a bar when he thinks she's his next match. They form a partnership where he gets his story (about her) in return for watching over her while she deals with unsavory men, and if you can't guess what happens next this is probably the first movie you've ever seen.
I found the first 20 minutes or so enticing; the cast was attractive, the dialog crisp, the acting sit-com level or higher and since it opened with a woman having "specialty" sex and the male lead tramping around, it seemed like a film that was going to have an edge to it. It doesn't, and in fact it ends up being lighter fare, topically, than anything you'd see on prime time TV, but it passed the time. I started checking my phone at the half-hour mark and never really engaged again after that but I didn't turn it off either.
What really sold me on this film, and has kept me thinking about it for days, was the soundtrack. Not since the 80s or 90s can I think of a movie where I was so intrigued by the music playing underneath scenes and transitions, and the way it flavored my experience of this film. I've spent a lot of time in downtown LA and thereabouts and with the great photography and soundtrack the filmmakers really got the "feel" of the area right. It's not as easy a thing to do as one might imagine; making a film that accurately portrays a location isn't as simple as just planting a camera there, you have to get the feel of it right.
I'm also intrigued by films that are focused on sex but don't actually include any sexual content. There are a couple of fully-clothed "humping" scenes in this movie but it's all fairly innocent and unobtrusive. It reminds you that a steamy sex scene with full nudity isn't always necessary to make a point. Films made before the ratings game came into play in the late 60s or so had to rely on technique rather than bared skin to convey sexual tension. Again...how it "feels" rather than simply how rutting looks when you focus a camera on it. It's not a common practice any more and I have no qualms about showing sexuality and nudity, it's just intriguing when it ISN'T shown, especially in a film that is ostensibly about a woman who sells her sexuality for a living.
Lastly, I found it interesting that the movie seems to take place in a world populated mostly by Caucasians. It's not something I really thought about until I saw this movie; the idea that these people dwell downtown but rarely encounter any racial (or gender, for that matter) diversity seems odd. Again, having spent a lot of time in these locations it's unlikely to say the least. It's not a judgment call, I'm wasn't offended, just intrigued...had the film been made 15-20 years ago it wouldn't have even crossed my mind.
Anyway, worth a look, which is actually quite an accomplishment.
The Voices (2014)
A Mean-Spirited Film Desperate To Be Liked...
Amazon Prime has become a great place to find quirky, cult-y movies of varying budgets from different eras, some of which are buried treasures. "The Voices" is definitely quirky as it straddles the line between ghastly horror and campy humor, but doesn't quite a achieve cult status despite how hard it, or director Marjane Satrapi try to please.
The plot concerns goofy and amiable Jerry (played by the likable Ryan Reynolds, who appears to be having more fun than we are) who we find out very quickly has some problems with his mental health. He lives in a day-glo world despite his lowly employment and lives with two animal companions who seem to be able to speak to him in his own voice, but with funny accents. These are the best parts of the film and almost elevate it to the goal it was striving for--had the writer and director been disciplined enough to really explore the interior landscape of a serial killer this might have been a dark, but fun journey into the mind of a psychopath who you find yourself inexplicably rooting for despite his horrendous mis-deeds.
Unfortunately the tone shifts drastically when Jerry starts interacting with the women in his office, and the film becomes a fairly standard "will justice catch up to the killer or not?" would-be suspense film.
The performances, particularly by Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick and Jacki Weaver are so good you wish these actors were in another movie (and maybe they thought they were). The scenes with Jerry's foul-mouthed Scottish cat and slow-but-steady Southern dog are brilliant; well shot, funny and creepy all at once. The anti-spetic tone of Jerry's mental state in contrast with the reality we're giving brief glimpses of is chilling and thought-provoking.
Where the film stumbles is the hubris of its creators ignoring years of film and story development and trying, like an enthusiastic new film school student, to see if it's possible to create an entertaining story with a central character who is almost impossible to empathize with. It can be done..."Psycho" is probably the best example, "Citizen Kane" qualifies, "The Last Seduction" ...more recently, anything done by Todd Solondz, although that's just my personal opinion since I like his films...But the truth is, it's very difficult to pull this sort of story off, and questionable as to why anyone would try.
Here we have a film that revels in the mistreatment of women as entertainment; we're shown graphic images of women being cut up and terrorized and there's absolutely no "payoff" other than some smug "wink wink" humor with talking post-mortem heads; the women are barely even grieved let alone considered well-rounded human beings. All of this is shown from the point of view of our pro/an-tagonist, who ultimately can't be considered empathetic if you have any human decency or morals. So you're left with no one to care about, at which point the film becomes a study of psychosis in general; this worked well in David Cronenberg's "Crash" but this film doesn't have the conviction of its anti-morals that one had.
Instead we get a "comedy" that contains close-ups of excrement, graphic depictions of gore, violence against women and what appears to be actual depictions of animals copulating and killing on screen, tee hee. Adding further insult to injury, there's a tasteless, tacked-on "Austin Powers"-ish musical number for the end credits that tries to suggest everything we've seen was all in fun. This kind of sardonic humor worked well in a movie like "All That Jazz," but this film just hasn't earned the right to that kind of well-thought-out cynicism, nor has it played by the rules of its own attempt (and almost success) at creating a sense of madness.
In the end "The Voices" is trying very hard, like the lead character who is in nearly every scene, to get our attention and be liked, any way it can...by being shocking, offensive, derivative, immature, or simply not going away (the movie is over 90 minutes long). Surprisingly, what it did best for me was send me to IMDb about halfway through to start composing a review.
Swiss Army Man (2016)
Learning how to live by hanging with a dead guy...
Imagine the pitch: What if, on the eve of deciding you must take your own life in a remote location, you see a random dead guy washed up on the shore and, through a series of exercises in human physiognomy, including chronic flatulence and tumescence, the corpse (or zombie?) becomes your friend, teaching you how to live a more fulfilling life? Cheers to the studio(s) that funded this fun, clever, gross, touching and very dark comedy/bromance, and here's hoping discerning, intelligent movie audiences can continue to get more quality films that push envelopes the way this one does.
Taking a cue from the old story "Teig O'Kane and the Corpse," "Swiss Army Man" spends much of it's running time creating a relationship between someone at the end of his rope and someone who has passed the end of his rope, as our hero drags and carries around his talking cadaver pal. The conversations that take place between the living character played by Paul Dano and his new, deceased companion played by Daniel Radcliffe, include ruminations on growing up ashamed of your body and bodily functions and how it can translate into a broken sense of ego, destroying your ability to love and be loved. In fact, there's a possibility (spoiler here, perhaps) that all of this is merely a projection played out in the head of our hero. I don't think it is though; the fact that "evidence" is captured on video at the conclusion of this story suggests that the whole thing really was supposed to be taking place in the "real world," which makes the film a kind of dark fairy tale. I'm reminded of Todd Solondz' "Palindromes," which also (successfully) found whimsy in topics that are generally thought of in polite society as being taboo.
There is a lot of whimsy here...Dano's "Hank" exerts a great deal of energy to try to convince Radcliffe's "Manny" (or perhaps himself) of the importance of loving yourself and then others, while utilizing piles of junk to recreate scenes in real life (a cinema, a bus ride) that would make the castaways of Gilligan's Island proud (and the film has many such fun and familiar references to other works). The elaborate set-ups and the clever way this business is filmed reminds one of the work of Michel Gondry (and, unfortunately, sometimes succumbs to the same kind of preciousness Gondry's work suffers from) but is a feast for the eyes.
So too is the work of Radcliffe--what a dream it must be to be able to take on roles like this after the tedium of the Harry Potter films, and you can tell Radcliffe is having a great time. With his gravelly, stroke-victim speaking style and childish questions he creates a character something in-between the child robot in "AI" and Peter Falk. He jumps in with his entire (broken) body and goes places a lot of actors wouldn't have the (literal) guts to go. In fact, much of the enjoyment of the film (if that's what it is) is the focus on the flesh, guts and bones of "Manny's" dead body in all its repulsive, eruptive glory and it's hard to take your eyes off his fascinating, distorted face. David Cronenberg probably wishes he made this one. Dano is also fun to watch and gives a compassionate, touching, near-pathetic performance that veers just on the edge of going too far into child-like slapstick.
The film is far from perfect...the ending drags and one senses the filmmakers spent a great deal of time trying to outsmart today's sharp and literal-minded audiences. I found the ending satisfying but that's because I didn't have any expectations by that point. If the film had ended (spoiler again) in the "real world," it would have been awfully depressing but would probably have been more true to the set up. As it is, the ending fits into the "anything goes" premise set up earlier on.
There's also the "precious/cute" quality, the glorification of vulgar bodily function gags, long stretches that push credibility and a score that sometimes enthralls but often as not irritates. Clearly part of the reason this movie was made was to showcase digital effects but the effects work is sometimes a bit cheap looking (but I'm in the FX industry so maybe more critical).
But overall this is an original, engaging and well-produced piece of cinema that is meant for a specific type of audience. It's likely to irritate people who expected a mainstream comedy (to which I would query, did you watch the trailer? What were you expecting?), people who want Radcliffe to stay Harry Potter and people who are insecure with their sexuality (the film bravely crosses a line into glorification of two men experimenting with each other physically, hinting at necrophilia, as well as focusing on Mr. Radcliffe's bare derriere several times). But for the rest of us, who like films that challenge while entertaining, that offer shocks that exist for more than just shock value and are visually fulfilling, this film is a rare treat. It's free on Amazon right now, if you're at all intrigued, check it out while you can...it's a brisk, zippy little film that, even if you hate it, will probably stick with you, which is more than I can say for any of the endless Harry Potter films.
The Neon Demon (2016)
This film is not for "you"...
"Neon Demon" falls into that weird category of movies that aren't for everyone, which is what makes it wonderful.
Set in the high-fashion world of LA (??) "Neon Demon" takes its first cue from "Mulholland Drive," starting as the story of a young, blonde innocent played delightfully by a chameleon-like Elle Fanning who is sometimes innocent beyond belief and other times seductive, wise and deranged beyond her years. She meets a "friend" in Jenna Malone, who gives the film's most interesting performance as a possibly-predatory, possibly insane Lynchian lipstick lesbian and the movie then moves into Brian DePalma-land, filled as it is with ultra-clean, neon lit sets and the ever-pulsing electronic score. The plot follows Fanning's "Jesse" as she moves her way up the ladder of "success" in the cutthroat fashion industry and the malevolent forces that seem to be gathering, either to taint her quality or to, literally, feed on it.
While the plot isn't all that original (people in high-profile creative jobs can be literal cut-throat monsters, Hollywood is a tough town, the price of naivete is destruction) and the film contains some tiresome, unsavory moments of young women being threatened and dominated by men (and one gratuitous scene with a cadaver that would have stopped the show completely if what followed hadn't been equally outrageous) what makes the ride worthwhile are the 80's-inspired set pieces. Project creator "NWR," whose other films I have not yet seen, tips a hat to Kubrick, DePalma, "The Hunger" and "Cat People" (to answer the question many have asked as to why a certain scene of an uninvited animal guest appears in the movie). I imagine that's part of the problem...I don't think a lot people who reviewed this film negatively got the "joke." I chuckled through the entire movie, and I suspect the director wouldn't have minded. My first clue was the use of a Kubrick homage key word...I can't believe any director would put such a bit of business into a film and expect it to be treated seriously...likewise the Lynchian cameo of Keanu Reeves and Allessandro Nivola. The pace, the characters, the over-the-top fashions, the color scheme (I have a color-blind friend who can vouch that people with color blindness prefer a world that looks the way the film is colored) the retro music score and the nods to other psychological thrillers...I was absolutely delighted to find someone had seen and loved the same trashy films I enjoyed in the 80s and 90s and made a film that not only commemorates those tarnished gems but takes them a step further (I had no idea where the film was going to end up and found the ending satisfying as well as repulsive).
This film is not for anyone who has pre-conceptions going in, it's not for those who insist on viewing cinema as an art form of "literalism" ("Cinema Sins," which I actually enjoy), it's not for someone in a hurry, it's not for someone who wants to see a "Syd Field 101"-scripted action story with commonplace character tropes. It's female-centric, the politics are left-of-center and the movie absolutely requires you to surrender yourself to the moment and not be in control. It's probably not terribly deep in intent. It has the lack of narrative discipline of a European art film, it's too long and slow, it succumbs to the visually and mentally repulsive on occasion and doesn't provide easy answers...I'm not even sure the movie is asking any questions. It seems like the sole purpose of the movie, like "Enter The Void," is to generate a sensory response, and there's certainly nothing wrong with that. Would that many mainstream Hollywood films today were better at doing that much.
When this movie came out I read a lot of reviews saying this movie was "bad," that it was a disappointment, that it didn't live up to the potential created by the director's other films. As usual I took the advice of these reviews and missed seeing the thing in a theater before remembering that often as not the movies that people shout are "good" bore me to tears. To re-frame my subject line in a more positive light, if you find yourself liking movies that mainstream viewers don't, this might be one for you to check out.
This film is not for "you"...
Have you seen the one about the little doggie passed from owner to owner who, in her journeys, shows us some insight into some of the darker--and lighter--shades of humanity along the way? Did you like it? Hate it? Were you irritated by it, or merely bored?
Good, you're still among the living.
I saw a new Solondz film was out and was mildly excited--I was disappointed by his last two; it felt as if he was going the route of a lot of once-popular auteur-esque filmmakers these days--tiny-budgeted direct-to-video personal statements without the boldness and brashness (or budgets) that made the director famous.
An acquaintance told me he'd seen it *in a theater* and he liked Solondz but hadn't heard of "Palindromes" or "Happiness" (????) and was ambivalent about THIS movie. Others were saying it was Solondz's first "feel good" film (perish the vile thought!). Then it showed up as a freebie on Amazon--in fact they were rolling out the red carpet for a filmmaker who had become, basically, un-bankable in our Captain America world (word of Solondz's still having to keep his day job despite his prolific efforts as a director was depressing too). Thank you, Amazon, I've just renewed my Prime account...
Now we have "Wiener-Dog," which both recalls what Solondz fans love about his past works and brings something new to the table. To those who would argue he's merely repeating himself...did you make it to the end, with the lyrical, poetic vision of younger versions of the Ellen Burstyn character...? No, this "Black(comedy) Beauty for the 2010's" is not his strongest work--the short and (mostly) incomplete nature of the stories included prevents us from getting too involved, unlike, say, Aviva's "hero's journey" in "Palindromes" or the scathing and dread-inducing pedophile's story in "Happiness" or the "I was almost there once" shudders "Welcome To The Dollhouse" evokes. But for all that it's a powerful piece of cinema that isn't easily forgotten, happily enrages the conservative and small-minded and, like the best of Solondz, pits an undying optimism and love of beauty against all the darker themes, visions of an unavoidable imperfect humanity and grue. What is a cynic, but a buried optimist, after all? To those who would say the film is "hateful" consider that Solondz has gone on record as saying he loves his characters (even the pedophile in "Happiness"), a very evolved way of looking at things in a world of "I need a bad guy to transfer all my anger and hate to." Solondz's films have the audacity to present a world without gloss and fantasy visions of humans as immortal superheros...and still makes it all entertaining. It's easy enough to love this year's favorite celebrities, beautiful or no--who loves the "little" people, the people with flaws and egos? and there are a lot more of them (us), after all.
To those who object to the perceived mistreatment of an animal, or at least the CG glorification of it in the film's jaw-dropping final moments, it's SUPPOSED to be nasty. Did you see "Jurassic World," "The Force Awakens" or any number of big-ticket action films? (You probably did)...how many un-grieved, senseless deaths happen to unwitting bystanders in those films, one wonders? The tragic accidental death of a revered, humble animal in this film, presented unflinchingly and without fanfare, is more artistic, true and dignified than the horrifying slaughters that happen in movies made for children...but also reflects a bold and absurd "laughing equals crying" sense of humor that is a lot more complicated than the "laugh at every line" sitcom formula most audiences are used to. As a writing teacher told me once, "Sometimes kids need to hear that the 101 Dalmations did NOT survive, and were actually turned into coats after all," because that's as valid--maybe more so--than "they all lived happily ever after." I don't think it's a cynical joke the Nana character names her dog Cancer (and anyway, she could have been referring to the zodiac sign), but it is funny in a cynical way; when we stop laughing at tragedy we're really done for.
Lastly, to the critics who didn't get it (among them the Hollywood Reporter, New Yorker, EW, Travers and Reed--thankfully the reviewer on Ebert's page "got" it, as I think Roger would have), well, professional criticism is on the way out and thankfully movies like this get made, and seen, despite the tired personal rants of reviewers about what they personally don't like, based on their own simple biases. Oh, and the critics also neglect to mention that DeVito and Burstyn in particular give fantastic, noteworthy, touching performances.
Those of us who "got" this film know it was made for us, not all of "you," and are glad movies like this can still get made. The rest of "you" have everything else, and please do go enjoy mainstream, big-budgeted movies and keep Hollywood afloat so stuff like this can sip through the cracks now and then...
Lie Down with Dogs (1995)
A Product Of A Lost Era
"Lie Down With Dogs" probably only exists because it was a product of the mid-90s, and as such has become a bit of a time capsule of an era that is now long gone, for good or ill. In the early 90s entertainment with gay themes began to capture the interests of straight viewers; "Philadelphia," "Priscilla Queen Of The Desert," "The Crying Game" and the PBS mini- series "Tales From The City" were all successful and proved to Hollywood that there was money to be made in "gay cinema." The sole motivating factor in Hollywood is making a buck; suddenly gay meant cash, and there was a flood of gay-themed movies. Most of them were pretty terrible, some of them ("Broken Hearts Club," "Jeffrey," "Billy's Hollywood Screen Kiss," "To Wong Foo") had bigger budgets and tried hard, and sometimes succeeded. The main thing Hollywood created was content: for the first time in history, there was an abundance of gay-themed films that took the subject matter more or less for granted-- these were not stories about perverts, degenerates and losers, the homosexuals of these films were heroes.
Nowadays it's hard to imagine how a film like "Lie Down With Dogs" would get any attention at all. Gay-themed films are the "B-movies" of the day, micro-budgeted without much distribution, but there are scads of them. Most of them are, like "LDWD," fluffy, forgettable and mostly fun, low on budget, acting or story but entertaining enough--like a trashy summer read. "LDWD" in particular shows a time when gay men looked a certain way, acted a certain way and thought certain ways...just listening to the soundtrack is like hearing a time capsule of what the 90s *sounded* like.
I picked this movie up for a dollar out of curiosity recently and found that what the movie is "about" was of little importance--that it isn't about a conflicted gay man trying to come out in a straight world or writhing in shame is the significant thing. That it's a mindless comedy about a young man on the prowl for love makes it no different than thousands of rom-coms made for straight people, which is also significant. There are now dozens of such movies to choose from but that wasn't always the case, and in a weird way makes "LDWD," which is NOT a particularly good film, a bit of a landmark. Also too the fact that the "author" of the film seems to have passed away lends the film a bit of significance, or at least poignancy; all the bubble-headed, insatiable, selfish characters in the film would now be a good deal older as would be the target audience for this film, gay men in 1995. The 90s are gone, the world has changed and "Tommy" and his buddies would have passed the torch to a younger generation of egocentric P-Town tourists by now. It makes the film seem almost sad somehow, in that light. I would be surprised if anyone even remembers this movie at all in another 10 years (or even today), and that's not the end of the world, but as a time capsule of a different era I think it's rather thought-provoking.
A description of this project can only be, like descriptions of Lynch's other more obtuse works ("Inland Empire," "Lost Highway," "Fire Walk With Me" "Rabbits") a description of "what happens" during the running time, which is more or less a useless venture. Try to describe what you dreamed last night to a friend and watch his eyes glaze over. One would hope that someone watching this video has a vague idea what to expect...you don't go for a viewing of something by Lynch hoping for "Singing In The Rain" at the least.
This project is definitely "out there," and like the other films mentioned is more or less non-narrative, more like a tone poem...what "meaning" there is to be found is probably up to the individual viewer. As I've said before about Lynch, only the dreamer of the dream can really guess accurately what any of it "means" to him, our experience can only be what the artist has filtered through. So what do we have? First and foremost, this recording, culled from two live performances Lynch was apparently commissioned to do, contains some of the wonderful, spooky songs written for and recorded by the ethereal Julee Cruise. The pyrotechnics, flashes of lighting, metal-on-metal surroundings, frustrated sexuality and typically Lynchian sound effects evoke an "industrial" dread that pre-sages Cronenberg's "Crash" a few years later. It is by turns perversely sexual, horrifically surreal, sweetly sentimental and slightly dull, and all within 50 minutes. The possible highlight is a song that plays like a sad lament for a lost era of 50's doo-wop, with two blasé prom-dressed girls and a chorus of vivacious Vegas showgirls.
This is "Lynch-land," and if you like Lynch you'll probably enjoy it, if not you would probably find it pure torture...it looks a bit "90's" by today's standards, it is relentlessly dark and slow at times and I question how much forethought actually went into it (Lynch himself claims it was put together pretty fast) but it is inherently memorable...one is unlikely to forget some of the strong images, or the plaintive sighing of Julee as she floats through the air, the embodiment of an innocent heart broken, but not destroyed.
Noteworthy low-budget splatter flick
There's very little territory to mine in the "mad slasher" genre...it was all done in the 80's, re-done in the 90's and has been "retro" done again ever since. A recent trend has been to drop the pretense of any "mystery" about who the killer is or what he/she wants and just aim directly for the nearest artery, and open it...on screen, with an unflinching camera. This has resulted in scads of thoroughly unpleasant low budget shocker flicks commonly labeled "torture porn." The genre itself is nothing new...Herschell Gordon Lewis mined the viscera field until there was nary an eyeball left to be stepped on in the late 60's. The 70's are ripe with truly unpleasant, mean-spirited, ugly little films that exist solely for lovers of human suffering and unrelenting grue to whack their puds to. And then of course there are "motion pictures" like the "guinea pig" series from Japan that take things to the furthest extremes imaginable...just because someone had to do it.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is an efficient little direct-to-the-home-market piece of sludge called "Carver" that I found exceptional for a number of reasons. I resisted it at first...as I have grown up I'm no longer as interested in watching people suffer as I was as a teenager glued to pay-cable. But, like many fans I know, I'm always looking for something a little different than what the genre usually offers. By the time I saw this one I already knew about the infamous "outhouse scene" and was prepared for the worst. What I didn't expect was that the scene in question, and pretty much all the splatter, was the least interesting thing to me in the movie. I've found myself watching it on "Crackle" in its edited/censored form while doing other things around my place, because it makes good background distraction. Huh? My suspicion is that Franklin Guerrero Jr. is actually a competent and enthusiastic film director who is aware of the time-honored tradition of breaking into professional film directing via the low-budget genre. And as such, he also knows that the bar MUST be raised in order for a film to get noticed. So make a film that ups the ante on the disgust-o-meter and you're likely to at LEAST get a chance to make another film, as it seems Guerrero has done.
"Carver" is nothing new, in fact it's old as the hills: stupid kids make the "mistake" of camping in a place where there's a vicious killer who then proceeds to kill them on-screen for, essentially, our edification. "Carver" adds a clever twist by incorporating the idea of voyeurism-via-film as part of the killer's motive, but that is, of course, beside the point. The "point" is blood, and much blood is spilled and yes, it is rather satisfying in a visceral, sick way when a film doesn't hold back (and the effects are reasonably well done). It IS disgusting, but as Helen Mirren said of her role in "The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover," "It's all theater, darling..."
But kudos to the stunningly attractive Ursula Taherian, who seems to be a very credible actress and deserves more work, beyond low budget horror. Cheers also to Neil Kubath--the director was smart to have him carry the film...he's got an interesting face that wears a look of confused disgust with the world around him that I know very well from having had a similar little brother myself. His delivery is unusual and his position in the movie perplexing (he's not a hero, not an anti-hero, he simply exists, until he doesn't anymore). But the presence of Kubath, Taherian and some of the others, the gore and the premise (and yes, That Scene) anchor what would otherwise be an utterly forgettable entry into the genre and make this one, in fact, at least to this viewer, rather memorable.