Weiner-Dog (2016)

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Todd Solondz doesn’t make movies to offer you an escape from your problems; he makes movies to confront you with them.  Ever since his 1995 breakthrough, “Welcome to the Dollhouse,” he has repeatedly offered up grim, uncomfortable stories of the dysfunction lurking just beneath the banal surface of suburban American life.  His films are variations on the interconnected themes of failure, depression, and emotional isolation.  Not exactly the stuff blockbusters are made of.

Yet the quirky writer/director has developed a loyal cult following who continue to be mesmerized by his sardonic vision of the world and the broken, faltering lives of the people who live in it.  Indeed, there is an almost masochistic fascination to these sad little fables of modern life, not unlike that can’t-look-away feeling you get when passing a gruesome accident scene on the highway.  Coupled with this morbid appeal is his tendency to feature recurring characters in his films (usually portrayed by different actors) alongside the new ones.  The desire to see what has happened to some of these familiar figures (and the hope that they have somehow managed to improve their dismal lives) is undoubtedly key in keeping his fans coming back for more, and it provides a major hook for the filmmaker’s latest effort, “Weiner-Dog.”

Those familiar with “Dollhouse,” which remains Solondz’ most popular and successful work, will immediately recognize this title as the nickname bestowed on that film’s pathetic anti-heroine, middle-schooler Dawn Wiener.  Though clearly intended to invoke that connection, and though that much-beloved character does indeed make her long-anticipated return here, in this case the name refers to a new central figure- a dachshund who becomes the pet of four different, unconnected people through the course of her life.

First, she is gifted to a young cancer survivor, Remi (Keaton Nigel Cooke), providing the boy with a brief respite from the stark home environment created by the antagonistic and seemingly loveless marriage of his affluent parents (Julie Delpy and Tracy Letts).  Then, she is adopted by the now-adult Dawn Wiener (the gifted Greta Gerwig)- still awkward and desperate for affection- who takes her along for the ride as she accompanies an old schoolmate on a road trip.  Changing hands again, she becomes the pet of Dave Schmerz (Danny DeVito), a has-been screenwriter barely clinging to his job as an unappreciated teacher at a film academy.  Finally, she ends up as a companion animal for Nana (the always-stellar Ellen Burstyn), an elderly and misanthropic invalid who receives a surprise visit from her long-absent granddaughter, Zoe (Zosia Mamet).

That’s it.  The dog connects the segments by her presence, but otherwise these are stand-alone vignettes, composed around Solondz’ usual themes and exploring the various ways in which human beings treat each other- and themselves- very badly.  As anyone familiar with the director’s work would anticipate, there’s not much hope to be found in these stories, and where there are glimmers of it they are subverted by the surrounding circumstances; and yet, the film has a strange and terrible beauty.

This is the hallmark of Solondz’ work; he shows us life at its cruelest and most demeaning- almost always with the explicit qualifier that it is we ourselves who are responsible- and yet he makes it somehow lovely.  He also makes it darkly funny; he is, above all, a social satirist whose stunted, minimalist dialogue conveys both depth of insight and an arch sense of ironic humor that revels in making us laugh at the things which most disturb us.  It might be argued that the laughter is a defensive reflex, a release of uncomfortable tension; this may be true, but it’s an authentic response, nonetheless.

Cut from the same cloth as his earlier films, this is perhaps Solondz’ most elegantly-made work to date.  Cinematographer Ed Lachman delivers a low-key study in composition that subtly elevates the aesthetic and allows us just enough of a cool perspective to distance ourselves without being able to completely detach.  That’s important, because Solondz wants us to reconnect with the primal emotions- fear, shame, guilt, loneliness, resentment- within us all.  He warns us that if they are left in the darkness to be stoked by our failures and losses, they can make our lives like those he shows us on the screen; those lives might seem absurd, exaggerated, and extreme, but he never lets us believe they are anything other than truthful.  Brutally truthful.

For non-Solondz-fans, it should be noted that “Weiner-Dog” (like all of his work) is likely to put off many viewers.  It’s bleak and unrelenting, with a pall of despair that hangs over it from beginning to end.  Animal lovers, especially, should be warned to consider carefully before seeing it; for the sake of avoiding spoilers, I’ll just leave it at that.

 

Anomalisa (2015)

ANOMALISA

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman has completed only a small handful of features since his 1999 debut (“Being John Malkovich”), yet despite his relatively sparse output, his name and reputation loom large, particularly among those cinephiles whose tastes run toward the edgy and intellectual.  His narratives, which seem to flow from dream logic rather than dramatic structure, are more like psychological case studies disguised as heavily symbolic brain-teasers, inhabited by figures that feel less like individual characters and more like shattered fragments of a single personality.  His latest effort takes the form of an animated film, but though “Anomalisa” is markedly different in its execution, it is cut from the same unmistakable cloth.

Kaufman’s screenplay is adapted from his own “sound play” of the same title, and, for the second time (the first was for 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”), he steps into the director’s chair, as well- though he shares it with co-producer Duke Johnson.  It focuses on Michael Stone, a successful self-help author who travels to a Cincinnati hotel in order to speak at a conference.  Though he is an expert on interpersonal relations, Michael is unable to distinguish people as individuals.  Everyone with whom he interacts possesses the same male face and voice- even the women- until he encounters Lisa, a young woman attending his seminar.  She is distinctively herself within the sea of homogeneous banality that surrounds him, and he begins to hope she can at last release him from the boredom and isolation he has felt for so long.

The above description may not read like the synopsis to an animated film, but “Anomalisa” is no ordinary animated film.  Shot in stop motion style, it utilizes puppets partly manufactured by 3-D printing, resulting in a somewhat unsettling effect that is simultaneously stylized and naturalistic.  It’s an effective style for the story being told; the world of the movie seems concrete enough to anchor it in reality, allowing us to forget the animated format as we are gradually drawn into the premise.  Much of the credit for this aspect of “Anomalisa” belongs to co-director Johnson, who supervised the creation of its technically stunning, intricately detailed animation.

The content of “Anomalisa,” while equally as creative as its visuals, is perhaps less innovative- at least to those familiar with Kaufman.  As with most of his work, it’s an observational fable that takes place within a Kafkaesque landscape of psychological dysfunction.  It challenges our ideas about the nature of identity and explores the effects of perception on our experience of the world around us.  It presents characters unable to make the emotional connections they desperately desire, who live in private bubbles of perspective and fumble blindly in their interactions with others.  And then there are the puppets; puppets have always figured prominently in Kaufman’s imagination, and here, they even take the place of live actors.  To say the film revisits Kaufman’s recurring themes is by no means a negative criticism, however.  On the contrary, those themes strike deep and resonant chords; they always yield new insights into our shared human experience, and the writer’s quirky imagination ensures that his work is always full of surprises.

Though the provocative ideas and visuals are the real stars here, credit also goes to the fine work of the voice cast.  David Thewlis (as Michael), Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Lisa), and Tom Noonan (as everyone else) eschew the usual exaggerated vocal styling of animation in favor of a nuanced, naturalistic approach.  Their effectiveness is likely due in large part to the fact that all three performed their roles in the original play, as well.  Composer Carter Burwell also carries over from the stage version (he actually produced it), contributing a delicate, moody score which perfectly serves the melancholy tone of the overall piece.

“Anomalisa” is certainly melancholy, even dark.  In addition to its complex and mature themes, it features profanity, full-frontal nudity, and even a somewhat explicit sex scene.  Needless to say, it is not for children, despite being an animated film.  Many adults might also have a hard time with it; its intellectualism, coupled with its stylistic conceit, creates an emotional distance that may leave some viewers cold.  This is a frequent issue with Kaufman’s introspective creations, but as always, those willing to stick with it will find that it has a lot of heart hiding under all its conceptual constructs.  There’s also a lot of humor in the mix.  Despite the philosophical weightiness of his material, Kaufman never takes himself too seriously; he somehow always manages to be both thought-provoking and entertaining, and it is this that makes him one of the most original voices in American film.  “Anomalisa” is a worthy entry to his canon, and like most of his work, it fully deserves to be called essential viewing.

The Revenant (2015)

 

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Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

With a title like “The Revenant,” one might expect the newest work by Alejandro G. Iñárritu to be a horror movie.  Indeed, though its name is meant only as a metaphoric reference to the central character’s experience, many viewers may find themselves horrified by much of its content and imagery.  This is not a criticism; rather, it’s a warning to viewers who might otherwise be unprepared for the level of intensity attempted- and achieved- by Iñárritu as he tells this story of determination and survival within the terrifying beauty of the natural world.

The screenplay, by Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith, is based “in part” on a novel by Michael Punke, which was itself based on the real-life story of Hugh Glass.  An experienced frontiersman, he was part of an 1823 fur trading expedition in the northern reaches of the Louisiana Purchase; abandoned and left for dead by his comrades after sustaining severe injuries on the trail, he managed to crawl 200 miles to the nearest settlement- despite his grave condition, the harsh weather, and the danger from hostile Arikara war parties in the region.  The real Glass became something of a legend, to be sure; through the combined dramatic embellishments of Parke’s novel and the movie’s script, that legend is transformed into a classical revenge tragedy exploring the contrast between the savagery and nobility of man.

To go into any more detail about the plot would be difficult, not so much for fear of giving away the twists and turns of the story as for the sake of preserving the revelatory power of the film’s key moments.  Iñárritu uses a fluid camera to immerse his audience, creating an effect which is less like watching a series of events take place than it is like being in the midst of them as they arise and recede.  It’s disorienting and overwhelming; the vast scope of the wilderness setting, the camera’s restless focus, the hyper-reality of the natural light and the meticulously crafted soundscape- all these combine to form an atmosphere pregnant with surprises, both wondrous and terrible.  When those surprises come, the film commands a visceral response that rises beyond mere involvement in its narrative and connects you with that primal corner of your psyche that still sends prickles up your spine whenever you hear an animal howling in the darkness of night.  Iñárritu, far from rehearsing yet another big-screen tale that could easily have been lifted from a samurai epic or “spaghetti” western, seeks to provide his audience with a concrete experience of unthinkable occurrences.

It may have been the director’s audacious vision to bring such remarkable things to the screen, but an expert team was necessary to realize it.  The film’s roving camerawork, though carefully plotted by Iñárritu, was executed by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also managed to give every shot a surreal and luminous beauty that haunts the memory long after the film is over.  Accompanying the stunning visuals is the ethereal score, composed by Ryuichi Sakamoto (in collaboration with Alva Noto and Bryce Dessner), which contributes its own sense of stark detachment and otherworldly grace to the action.  In front of the lens, Leonardo DiCaprio gives a raw performance, possibly his best to date, as Glass; he communicates a profound range of humanity with a minimal amount of dialogue, in spite (or perhaps because) of the sheer physical ordeal of filming the role.  No less effective is Tom Hardy as the darker half of the story’s human conflict, creating an unforgettable portrait of a man who has become hardened into the personification of self-serving indifference.

“The Revenant” certainly feels unprecedented, but it does not completely escape its very “Hollywood” roots.  It retains many of the familiar tropes found throughout decades of frontier adventure movies, and it yields to the temptation of rewriting history in order to provide the kind of satisfying climactic showdown expected in such fare.  Nevertheless, Iñárritu, who is Mexican, brings an outsider’s perspective to this inherently American milieu and transcends its form to offer something beyond expectation.  Even as he charts the inexorable force of will that drives the drama, he confronts us with the breathtaking enormity of Nature and thereby forces us to contemplate our own irrelevance in the face of its awesome power.  He took well-documented pains to do so- going over budget and behind schedule in order to shoot his film in sequence with natural light, under grueling and dangerous conditions which sometimes endangered his cast and crew- but the payoff is visible in every extraordinary frame.  “The Revenant” shows us a kind of cold, profound beauty that is rarely seen in a mainstream American film, and that is a precious reward for those who have the stamina to endure it.

 

The Witch: A New England Folk Tale (2015)

WITCH

Today’s Cinema Adventure originally appeared in

The Pride L.A.

 

The Witch, from first-time filmmaker Robert Eggers, is a horror movie which asks us to suspend our modern-day disbelief in order to accept that witchcraft, black magic, and Satanic possession are as much a part of the real world as its family of 17th Century protagonists considers them to be.  Subtitled “A New England Folk Tale,” and based on the lore of a region and era in which widespread hysteria over such matters infamously culminated in the Salem witch trials, it informs us that much of its dialogue is taken directly from official transcripts of first-hand accounts from the period.  It strives to convince us of its authenticity, seeming to insist that our ability to accept the literal truth of what it shows us is crucial to our understanding of the story.

Set in New England of the early 1600s, it follows a family of settlers who have been cast out of their Puritan community for their preaching their own strictly conservative beliefs.  They establish a farm on the edge of the wilderness, where father William rules the family with a firm but loving hand; he daily performs the hard work required to maintain their home with the help of his eldest, daughter Thomasin, and her brother, Caleb; mother Kate tends to her newest baby, while the young twins, Mercy and Jonas, spend their days playing with the goats in the stable.  For a time, they seem to thrive, living an austere but tranquil life.  Their fortunes take a turn, however, when baby Samuel, while under the watch of Thomasin, suddenly disappears from their midst.  Though William insists the infant was taken by a wolf, it soon becomes apparent that another sinister presence from the woods is responsible, and as its mysterious grip tightens around the isolated family they find themselves terrorized by events that challenge not only their deeply-held faith in God, but their faith in each other, as well.

In the hands of many directors, this plot would undoubtedly be the framework for a host of lurid thrills and cheap shocks.  Indeed, throughout The Witch, horror buffs may find themselves repeatedly expecting the requisite “surprise” pop-up frights, and waiting for the slow build to explode into a progression of ever-grislier mutilation and carnage.

Eggers, however, has a different experience in mind; through both his screenplay and his meticulous staging of the film, he avoids sensationalism and focuses instead on maintaining and reinforcing the kind of realism more reminiscent of a subtle period drama than an over-the-top fright flick.  Not only are the costumes and the settings simple and historically accurate, the language of the dialogue is written and spoken with the ring of period authenticity.  The cinematography (elegantly executed by Jarin Blaschke) uses mostly natural and available light to remain firmly rooted in the real world while still using plenty of shadow to evoke the implied darkness lurking in the heart of the story, and Eggers artfully frames his shots to create painterly images that are nevertheless tangibly naturalistic.

Perhaps most critically, the actors are uniformly superb, a true ensemble cast.  Each member of the family is portrayed with the kind of absolute honesty that reveals complex and unexpected layers of humanity; even the youngest children are remarkably believable, a fact which enhances the overall effect of the film’s horror immeasurably.  All deserve equal credit.  .

It is the film’s well-crafted realism, though, that may prove its fatal flaw, for some audiences.  Everything about it, from its title to its haunting score (composed by Mark Korven), tells you that it is a horror film, but- on the surface at least- it doesn’t play like one.  The pace is slow, and the implied menace is rarely shown.  Even the title character herself barely appears onscreen, though we are emphatically expected to believe in her.

The brilliance of Eggers’ movie, of course, is that it never really does expect us to do that.  The movie hinges on the certainty that we will question the reality of this family’s experience and analyze it on a deeper level.  This is no cautionary tale about danger in the literal woods; rather, it’s a warning about what happens when we isolate ourselves within our beliefs- at odds with our communities, our loved ones, and our own true nature.  The interpersonal drama of the little family we are shown gives us plenty of clues about the real evil that is tearing them apart, and it comes from within, not from without.  It is this sly and subversive subtext running through its center that makes The Witch stand apart within its genre.  It may not terrify, but it provokes, and that is what will linger in your memory.

Well, that, and a certain black goat…

Sinister (2012)

Sinister (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Sinister, the 2012 horror feature by director Scott Derrickson, about a true-crime writer whose research into the unsolved murder of an entire family uncovers links to a decades-long series of similar killings and connections to an ancient malevolent force.  Combining a standard cinematic narrative with elements of the now-prevalent “found footage” format employed by the horror genre, it relies heavily on mood and atmosphere, eschewing overt violence and gore for the terrors of a stimulated imagination and the deliberate build of suspense through tried-and-true methods of filmic storytelling.  Benefitting from intelligent writing and a strong and experienced cast headed by Ethan Hawke, it received mostly positive response from critics and was even named by some as the best horror film of the year.

Inspired by a nightmare in which he discovered a home movie documenting the hanging death of an entire family, Derrickson built a screenplay, co-written with C. Robert Cargill, in which this situation serves as the premise for a tale of real-life obsession and supernatural evil.  It begins as crime author Ellison Oswalt, moves with his family into a house located in a small rural town where a family has been brutally murdered the year before- except for a young daughter, who disappeared without a trace.  Hoping to recapture the success of his first bestseller after a string of subsequent failures, Ellison plans to research the sensational case up close; unbeknownst to his wife and children, he has gone so far as to purchase the very house in which the killings took place.  While exploring the attic, he discovers a box containing an old projector and several reels of Super 8 home movies; obviously curious, he takes them into the office he has set up in a spare bedroom and begins to watch.  When he begins with the most recently-dated film, he finds- to  his horror- that it shows the murder of the house’s former occupants, although any shots of the murderer have been edited out; even more disturbingly, the remaining films, dated over the course of six decades, contain a visual record of other, similar murders- each one the ritualized slaughter of an entire family by different, equally horrifying methods- and in each one, upon close inspection, can be found a glimpse of an ominous, dark-eyed figure watching the gruesome proceedings.  Though at first he considers bringing the films to the police, Ellison’s ambition to regain his fame and fortune wins out; he decides to pursue the investigation by himself, hoping to solve the case on his own and use it as the basis for his triumphant return to the bestseller lists.  With the help of a star-struck deputy sheriff and a local expert on the occult, he begins to piece together a pattern linking the various filmed murders, but the mystery only deepens- as does his obsession with it, leading him to heavy drinking and driving a wedge of alienation between himself and his family, who have begun to be affected by the sinister aura of the house.  It soon becomes apparent that Ellison’s ego-driven quest for answers has uncovered an ancient and diabolical secret, and that he may unwittingly be placing himself and his loved ones at risk by continuing to pursue the truth.

Derrickson’s efforts to create a truly frightening film went beyond the development of the screenplay itself, and involved a heavy focus on the creation of the central villain, whose wordless presence gives Sinister the bulk of its creepy power.  After abandoning his original conception of an evil “Willy Wonka” figure, luring children into his murderous trap, and transforming the character into an legendary Sumerian spirit rather than a demonic entity (to avoid rooting the film in a specific religious setting), he researched over half a million online images and drew inspiration from the visual style of “black metal” music- which is extensively used in the soundtrack- in order to achieve the look and persona of “Bughuul,” fondly known as “Mr. Boogie” by the children who fall under his spell.  The filmmaker’s instinct to get it right was a wise one- many otherwise effective horror films have been sunk by the presence of an unconvincing or laughable monster, but Sinister succeeds in dispensing chills largely because of the primal fear effortlessly elicited by its elegantly simple, utterly terrifying boogeyman. Made all the more disturbing by his ephemeral presence on the fringes of consciousness and reality, he appears only fleetingly onscreen, yet he leaves haunting, indelible images in the mind and makes us search for another look at him even as we dread the prospect of it.  Though the plot of the movie is driven, like so many other films in the genre, by characters making mind-numbingly stupid choices (why do horror characters never reach for a light-switch when they enter a darkened room?) and implausibilities that stretch the willing suspension of disbelief dangerously close to its limit, we forgive these clichés of the formula because of the palpable aura of inevitable doom conjured by our brief encounters with this otherworldly phantom.  From the first moment we see him, we know where things are going, and we are drawn into the journey towards that horrific culmination with the same illogical, obsessive fascination as the characters onscreen.

Not that Sinister is devoid of strengths besides the portrayal of its Sumerian specter; although the perfunctory and predictable pitfalls of the genre- cheap and sudden shocks, the usual reliance on creepshow staples such as evil children and menacing animals, the aforementioned brainless behavior of the potential victims- are undeniably present here, Derrickson and Cargill have infused their screenplay with enough intelligence to bring a sort of sense to these elements.  Their clever use of modern technology to facilitate the story not only allows for the visceral immediacy of the supposed “actual footage” upon which the premise hangs, but also for streamlining the narrative; the pursuit of information requires no more than a few keystrokes on a laptop, eliminating the need for lengthy expository scenes at the local library.  In addition, the rooting of the story in a tech-savvy modern world helps to heighten the contrast with the antiquated force of evil within it, and- more importantly, perhaps- serves to compound the isolation of our protagonist, whose vulnerability increases the as he retreats deeper into his self-created solitary confinement.  In addition, Sinister re-imagines the stock characters of the genre to a sufficient degree that they almost seem original.  The town sheriff is not a pompous buffoon, but a smart and authoritative figure with refreshing candor and obvious wisdom, and our confidence in Ellison is undermined almost from the outset, simply through the hostility and lack of respect he bestows upon this man; likewise, the deputy who later assists in Ellison’s research, though he seems, at first, to be the slack-jawed yokel we’ve seen so many times before, soon proves to be a sharp and savvy investigator, who might be a valuable ally if the ostensible hero were not blinded by his own sense of intellectual superiority; finally, Ellison’s wife and children, though ultimately relegated to the position of a plot condition, are not the clichéd ciphers so often seen in these roles- the kids, though troubled (understandably and believably so), are possessed of genuine and endearing personalities, and his wife (played by the lovely and substantial Juliet Rylance) is strong, supportive- within reason- and eloquent enough to deliver the film’s keystone monologue about her husband losing sight of his life’s true purpose in the pursuit of fortune and glory.

It is this last point that underscores what truly elevates Sinister above the level of schlock horror and gives it the weight and substance that allows it to be more than just a spooky campfire story.  In Ellison’s self-destructive determination to recapture his worldly success, he abandons his role as protector and companion to his family; indeed, he effectively separates himself from the rest of mankind, devaluing all outside influence and presuming to stand alone against a powerful evil which he has yet to fully comprehend.  Cut off from the source of his humanity, and with his stubborn ego undermined by self-doubt and self-loathing, he can only watch, powerless, as the forces he has unleashed proceed to overwhelm him and infiltrate the world around him.  It is this portrait of a man haunted from within, driven by his ambition but paralyzed by his fear of failure, that gives Derrickson’s movie its real power; the story of Bughuul and his ancient evil becomes a metaphor for the soul-consuming effect of displacing one’s humanity in favor of the blind pursuit of material success, and Ellison’s spiraling downfall is as much an indictment of the so-called “American Dream” as Willy Loman’s delusional road to suicide in Death of a Salesman over a half-century ago.  Of course, this is not to say that Sinister has social commentary as its ultimate purpose; the film is aimed squarely at scaring the bejeezus out if its audience, and it succeeds wickedly.   Nevertheless, while it is relatively easy to shake off the chills it brings by exploiting our fear of things that go bump in the night, this deeper level allows those chills to sink to the bone, leaving us unsettled and uncertain long after the final, gruesome images have faded from the screen.  It is also the presence of this underlying theme that allows the film to seem fresh and original even as it evokes and pays homage to the genre classics which influenced its director- most obviously The Shining, a movie with which Sinister bears many similarities in story, subject, and mood.

Derrickson’s slick direction goes a long way towards making the whole thing work.  He heavily utilizes his soundtrack, both musical and ambient, to create near-unbearable tension; the big visual scares come as surprises, emerging from the periphery of our gaze or rising from the shadows of the background; his use of authentic Super 8 film to recreate the ghostly snuff films which lure both protagonist and audience into the story lends a grainy realism that makes these sequences all the more disturbing, and his choice to cut away from these at their most gruesome moments, or show us the gore out-of-focus, in a reflection or in the background, forces our imagination to complete the picture with images more horrific and unthinkable than anything he could have put on film.  The director’s cleverness behind the camera, however, would be for naught without a strong performance from his star, and Ethan Hawke- an oft-overlooked but genuinely fine actor, particularly adept at playing likable losers on a downward spiral- delivers just that; in Hawke’s capable hands, Ellison avoids coming off as just another cocksure golden boy paving the road to his own deserved comeuppance and instead becomes a sympathetic Everyman, flawed but inherently decent, well-intentioned despite his over-confidence, and ultimately more devoted to his family’s welfare than his own success.  Though we see from the beginning that he is an unreliable figure in which to place our trust, we are drawn to identify with him nevertheless, largely due to Hawke’s honesty, which lets us inside the conflicted and desperate mind which drives him; he takes us along for the ride, bouncing between determination and fatalism, buoying himself with self-assured good cheer even as morbid self-doubt eats away at his core, and never letting us forget that Sinister, for all the arcane circumstances at its surface, is really about a man’s struggle with demons on the inside.

This review may seem like a rave, and in a way, it is.   I must admit that, for the most part, contemporary horror movies do very little for me; I find them gimmicky, shallow, and unimaginative, relying on gross-out tactics and cheap scares to make an impact without challenging the intellect.  They debase human behavior, fetishize violence and cruelty, and reinforce a simplistic morality even as they present a nihilistic view of a hostile and malicious universe.  Of course, these criticisms of the genre are not unique to its most recent expressions- far more horror movies have been lowbrow schlock than have been cinematic gems, no matter what the era- and there are certainly exceptions.  Sinister is one of those, a movie in which the shocks resonate to a deeper level and strike at fundamental issues in our collective psyche; it taunts us not just with primal fear of horrors hiding in the dark, but with the more sophisticated terrors of living in the real world- of failure, of inadequacy, of getting it all wrong, and perhaps worst of all, of playing in a rigged game where even your most determined effort only serves to ensure your ultimate defeat.  Sinister is not, in the end, a film of the caliber of such cinema greats as Rosemary’s Baby or The Exorcist, which weave philosophical contemplation about the true nature of evil seamlessly into their narratives, nor does it approach the subversive genius of Golden Age classics like King Kong or Bride of Frankenstein, in which the hypocrisy, greed, and intolerance of so-called normalcy are used to cast the “monsters” as more worthy of sympathy than those they terrorize; like those and other films of the genre, it invites us to think and to feel as it thrills us, but it falls short of true brilliance by never quite breaking free of standard formula, no matter how expertly it adapts the tropes to its own ambitious needs.  Nevertheless, it succeeds in chilling us to the bone without expecting us to shut off our higher functions in exchange for the thrill, and it manages to breathe new life into its clichés without being too clever for its own good (see my review of The Cabin in the Woods).  Sinister may not be a great movie, but it is, in my estimation, a good horror movie- and coming from me, that is high praise indeed.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1922777/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

Witchfinder General – U.S. Title: The Conqueror Worm (1968)

Witchfinder General (poster)Conqueror Worm (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Witchfinder General (released in the U.S. as The Conqueror Worm), the 1968 historical horror drama directed by short-lived filmmaker Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins, a 17th-century lawyer who used his self-appointed position as a prosecutor against sorcery and witchcraft to fuel a reign of terror across the countryside of Eastern Britain during the English Civil War.  Produced on a modest budget by Britain’s Tigon Studio, in partnership with American International Pictures (the U.S. company renowned for its success in churning out cheap exploitation films for the drive-in and grindhouse crowd), it was largely deplored by English critics for its then-excessive depictions of sadistic torture and violence and dismissed by American critics as insignificant and mindless pulp; nevertheless, it enjoyed considerable box office success on both sides of the Atlantic and was soon championed by a handful of critics as an underrated gem.  No doubt bolstered by the fact that its young director died of an accidental overdose of prescribed barbiturates and alcohol less than a year after its release, the film gained a sizable cult following and influenced a number of important horror movies over the next decade, and it is now regarded by many critics and enthusiasts as one of the best representatives of its genre.

Based on a little-known novel by Ronald Bassett, Witchfinder General is set in 1645, in the midst of the tumultuous war between the British Monarchy and the rebellious Parliamentary Party.  With bloody fighting going on across England and a lack of central governmental control, a state of near-anarchy prevails- particularly in the small rural villages which dot the countryside.  In the rebel-controlled region of East Anglia, an unscrupulous lawyer named Matthew Hopkins takes advantage of the chaotic atmosphere- and the puritanical fervor that exists in the area’s isolated, superstitious communities- by offering his services as a hunter of witches and sorcerers, extracting a steep fee from local magistrates in exchange for forcing confessions from suspected servants of the Devil and carrying out their subsequent execution.  With his unsavory assistant, John Stearne, he carries out sadistic torture and punishment upon the unfortunate accused, using his self-proclaimed power to terrorize and blackmail his way from town to town.  In the Suffolk village of Brandeston, he carries out one such persecution against the town priest, a kindly soul named John Lowes, from whose niece, Susan, he elicits sexual favors in exchange for showing mercy; when she is raped by Stearnes, Hopkins loses interest, and proceeds to torture and execute the old man- despite his previous promises- before leaving town to continue his bloody campaign and abandoning the devastated Susan to suffer the torment and ridicule of the locals.  Shortly thereafter, her fiancé Richard Marshall, a promising and heroic young soldier in the Parliamentary army, arrives to discover what has taken place; horrified and enraged, he “marries” Susan by his own authority in the desecrated town church, vows to extract vengeance on Hopkins and Stearne for their crimes against her, and sends her to another village, Lavenham, to await him.  Tracking the two scoundrels to the next town, he confronts Stearne in a tavern, but the henchman manages to escape and warn his master that they are being pursued.  Bound to return to duty with his regiment, Marshall must temporarily abandon his quest for justice; meanwhile, his quarry make their way to none other than the town of Leavenham.  There, as they perpetrate their usual horrific cruelty and murder in the name of justice, they discover the relocated Susan, and realizing that her young husband must sooner or later arrive to join her, the two scheme to turn him into a victim of their bogus inquisition before he can strike against them, setting the stage for a grisly final confrontation.

Director Reeves had previously been responsible for two well-received low-budget horror films, Revenge of the Blood Beast and The Sorcerer; he was hired to make Witchfinder General by Tigon executive Tony Tenser, who had read Bassett’s novel before publication and thought it would make the basis for a powerful film.  Reeves enlisted lifelong friend and previous collaborator Tom Baker to co-write the screenplay, but their first two attempts were rejected by the British censorship board on the basis of the heavy inclusion of graphic violence and torture.  The third draft, substantially tamed down, was approved; even so, the finished film still required so much editing before the board would permit its release that Reeves walked away from it, refusing to make any more cuts himself and leaving the studio to make the final extractions.  In America, censorship was not an issue, and the movie was released more or less intact, but the controversy over its gruesome content almost certainly helped to buoy its performance at the box office.

It is the violence of Witchfinder General, of course, that distinguishes it from so many of the era’s other horror movies- indeed, without it, the film could only marginally be called a horror movie, but rather would more accurately be described as historical drama.  From the standpoint of plot, it owes as much to the revenge tragedies of classical theatre as it does to the genre to which it belongs, but there is nothing highbrow about its script.  Reeves and Baker follow the standard formulas and conventions of such fare, and their dialogue, while not exactly banal, is hardly eloquent.  Nor are there any weighty socio-political observations made here; the film is not an indictment of religious hypocrisy or intolerance.  Hopkins is merely an unscrupulous opportunist acting in his own interest with no pretensions of moral superiority, and those who enlist his services seem unconcerned with church doctrine or spiritual corruption; the travesties of justice they carry out are motivated by greed and hatred, a desire to advance personal agendas rather than a firm belief, however delusional, in a religious cause.  If Witchfinder General has any cultural or psychological theme, it has to do with the breakdown of humanity in the absence of social order.  Where it rises above the ordinary crop of this era’s thrillers is in its pervasive mood, its evocation of unspeakable horror lying within the most mundane or idyllic surroundings.  The green and sun-drenched English countryside serves as a backdrop for monstrous cruelty and violence; from the deeply disturbing opening sequence in which a hysterical woman is dragged across a moor to be hanged by a strangely disaffected mob, we are inundated with scenes of brutality and bloodshed in the midst of picturesque beauty.  Soldiers are ambushed and perish in sudden explosions of gore, a sunlit field is the setting for an ugly rape, a quaint village square plays host to a gruesome immolation; the furtive torments enacted by Hopkins take place mostly in the dark, secret rooms and dungeons we expect, but they are only a portion of the savage grotesquery displayed by the population of this seemingly pastoral world.  Even the heroic efforts of our protagonist, cloaked though they may be in righteous outrage, amount to self-satisfying transgressions against the suspended ethical norm; and despite the viciousness of the film’s violence and suffering, in the end the most unsettling element is the calm, detached manner in which it is both perpetrated and observed.  Reeves gives us a world of cold dehumanization, in which the tranquility of the surroundings takes on an ominous chill, rendering the pretty landscape into a nightmarish wasteland in which nature itself stands in cruel mockery of man and his struggles.  There is ultimately no comfort, and no justice, that is not sullied and degraded by the cruelty of selfism, and in the absence of that moral center provided by a sense of community with others, there is no hope of respite or redemption.

Because it paints such a grim picture of human behavior, Witchfinder General remains a chilling and profoundly disturbing film experience despite the fact that over four decades of carnage on the big screen have rendered its once-extreme violence less shocking than quaint.  The amount of visible blood is minimal and unconvincing in its garishly-red theatrical stylization; the scenes of torture and torment are less upsetting for what they show us than for the off-handed manner in which they are enacted.  It probably goes without saying that modern-day horror fans will find it tame and even laughable, but for those with an appreciation for subtler-yet-deeper shocks will be rewarded for the time they devote to screening this unusual classic.  Apart from its overall effect, there are a number of other significant things offered here, such as the sweeping orchestral score by Paul Ferris- once usurped on home video versions, due to copyright issues, by an overdubbed electronic replacement, but restored in most available prints today.  Also notable is the use of authentic locations for the outdoor scenes; set against the backdrop of genuine architecture dating from the period, the bloody injustices perpetrated against victims of opportunistic persecution evoke the uncomfortable realization that similar events did, in reality, take place- events beside which, no doubt, the horror of these dramatized recreations would pale in comparison.

For most viewers, however, and particularly for those who are fans and buffs of classic cinema and its people, the primary interest will lie in the performance of horror icon Vincent Price as Matthew Hopkins.  It is well-documented that Price and director Reeves had a very difficult relationship during the making of the film.  Reeves wrote Witchfinder General with Donald Pleasance in mind for the lead role, a familiar but lesser-known actor who embodied the kind of soft-spoken, officious menace the filmmaker wished to portray; American International Pictures, however, insisted (in exchange for their investment in the production) that Price, their resident horror star and headliner of their highly lucrative series of Edgar Allan Poe adaptations, play the part instead.  Reeves was openly hostile and disparaging to Price on the set, and the normally gracious and polite actor responded- perhaps rightly so- by being argumentative and uncooperative.  In spite of this- or perhaps because of it- the finished product offers Price giving perhaps the performance of his career.  Eschewing his usual hammy, florid delivery and over-the-top expressions, the legendary actor instead presents us with a brusque, understated persona that makes Hopkins all the more deadly; he is a true monster, devoid of affectation or charm, and unlike most of Price’s creations makes no appeal to our sympathies.  The film hinges on this cold, inhuman quality, and the actor delivers it to perfection.  Price himself considered it one of his best performances, and it is a testament to the actor’s professionalism and manners that, once he saw the finished film, he wrote a letter to Reeves praising his direction and apologizing for his own behavior; nevertheless, he did suggest afterwards that, had the director been more straightforward in communicating with him what was wanted, he would have been happy to deliver it without protest.

The rest of the acting, perhaps surprisingly for a low-budget film of this nature, is fairly high in caliber, though there are a few clunky moments.  In the role of hero Richard Marshall, Ian Ogilvy- another lifelong friend of Reeves’ who appeared in his other films as well- is suitably likable while still maintaining a sort of rigid aloofness that helps to fuel his obsessive quest for revenge; contrasting this is Hilary Dwyer as his fiancée-then-wife Susan, whose warmth and sensuality shine through the prim and modest exterior her social role of her character demands, and who is able to communicate- though no dialogue alludes to it- that she herself might be better pleased to put the horrors of her experience behind her and seek refuge in a new life with her beloved than to watch him pursue vengeance in her name.  Robert Russell makes for an intimidatingly malicious Stearnes, though his naturally high-pitched voice resulted in having his dialogue over-dubbed by another actor (Jack Lynn, who appears in another small role in the film).  A few somewhat recognizable British character actors also pepper the cast, with Rupert Davies as the doomed John Lowe, and brief appearances by Patrick Wymark (as Oliver Cromwell), and Wilfrid Brambell (best known as Ringo’s dad in A Hard Day’s Night).  These and the other performers mostly distinguish themselves with their work, though Price dominates by virtue of his star charisma and his showy role; still, it would be wrong to call Witchfinder General his show- the film owes its eerie power to the vision of Reeves, whose ability to turn his mediocre script into a movie of true stature testifies to a keen talent that might have yet yielded greater works had his tragic death not prevented the continuation of his promising career.

Witchfinder General, it’s worth noting, was marketed in the U.S. by AIP as a pseudo-entry in its aforementioned series of Poe films; retitled The Conqueror Worm, the American print featured an overdubbed reading by Price from the 19th-Century author’s poem of that name, but apart from this manufactured connection there was no connection between Reeve’s movie and any of Poe’s works.  This piece of blatant commercial chicanery no doubt contributed to the fact that it was,  like many such films among its contemporaries, disparaged and disregarded by “serious” critics and scholars.  Despite this initial reception, its popularity and subsequent reassessment led to its becoming an influential and seminal work in horror cinema.  It spawned a host of similarly-themed imitators and has been credited with inspiring an entire sub-genre of macabre films with seemingly idyllic rural settings, culminating in the masterful cult classic The Wicker Man.  For my own part, though, Witchfinder General falls a bit short of the reputation it has gathered; to be sure, it contains a great deal of effective filmmaking, particularly in terms of establishing and maintaining mood.  The weaknesses of its script, however, compounded by a degree of sloppiness in the visual storytelling, keep it from reaching the level of quality necessary to classify it as a truly exceptional picture.  It’s not all Reeves’ fault- budgetary constraints- not to mention the imposition of censors’ demands- were at least partly responsible for the rough-edged clumsiness that sometimes overtakes the proceedings.  Even so, rather than a definitive masterpiece, the movie is ultimately just an ordinary thriller, decidedly amateurish in many ways, but distinguished by the imagination and talent of a promising young director and the work of a few worthy professionals among the cast and crew.  It is for this reason that it remains worth seeing today, but to call it one of the greats is an overstatement.  Instead, it stands as a sad indicator of what might have been possible for its young creator had his own tragic fate not intervened.

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s 2012 epic revenge-fantasy western, a movie that generated (and continues to generate) much controversy over its handling of the still-raw issue of slavery in the American past.  The tale of a freed slave who joins forces with a white bounty hunter to rescue his still-captive wife from a Mississippi plantation, it’s a characteristically violent entry to the Tarantino canon, paying homage to the exploitation films of old and using a mashed-up blend of genres to address complex social issues in a way that flies in the face of contemporary ideas about political correctness.  Unsurprisingly, it has drawn both passionate praise and passionate objection, primarily focused on its depiction of racism and its over-the-top violence.

Tarantino’s screenplay, like most of his others, brings together explicit influences from numerous pieces of cinematic history, most notably the spaghetti westerns and “blaxploitation ” films of the ’60s and ’70s- with a liberal sprinkling of the prime-time television shows from the same era.  Most specifically, he takes inspiration (and the theme song) from a particular 1966 spaghetti western called Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, a bloody tale of revenge which was considered at the time to be the most violent western ever made.  Though its plot has no resemblance to Tarantino’s story, nor does it involve issues of racism or slavery, the spirit of this original film is nevertheless a tangible part of Django Unchained– a title which also references Hercules Unchained, another Italian epic about a mythic hero who breaks the bonds of slavery to rescue the woman he loves.  Alongside these pulpy pop-culture sources, though, Tarantino draws from the Nordic legend of Brünhilde and Siegfried, adding a deeper mythic connection to the story and rooting its true thematic purpose to an archetypal level that transcends the racial subject matter on its surface.  Set in 1858, the film opens as a pair of slave traders march their chained captives- barefoot- through the Texas desert at night.  They are intercepted by a horse-drawn wagon driven by a courtly German, a traveling dentist named Dr. King Schultz, who has traced a particular slave to them.  After questioning the man he seeks, whose name is Django, Schultz offers to buy him, but the traders, uncomfortable with the German’s attitude and wary of the manner of his approach, refuse to sell; they order Schultz to leave and threaten to shoot him if he does not comply, at which point their visitor draws his gun and fires, killing one trader and trapping the other under the body of his fallen horse.  He gives the wounded survivor money for Django, takes the keys to unchain his purchase, and leaves the rest of the chain gang to free itself and deal with their former captor as they see fit.  Schultz, as he informs Django, is a bounty hunter, who tracks wanted criminals and kills them for the reward money; he is very good at his job, and he has sought out his new companion because the men he is now tracking were former foremen at a plantation upon which Django was once a slave, and he needs someone who can positively identify them.  He tells Django- whom he treats as an equal- that in exchange for helping find the wanted men, he will receive his freedom and a share of the reward.  As the two men travel in search of the fugitives,  Django reveals that he and his wife had both been slaves on his former plantation, but after they had tried to run away together, their owner had them sold to separate buyers as punishment; he plans to use his share of the bounty to pay for her freedom, but Schultz fears that a black man, legally free or not, will be at high risk if he returns to the heart of the slave empire alone.  The German makes a proposition- if Django (who clearly has a knack for the work) will partner with him as a bounty hunter for the winter, the two will find and liberate his wife together.  Django agrees, and the pair begins a series of adventures that will culminate in a deadly confrontation with one of the most notoriously cruel slave owners in the country.

Tarantino makes movies that are a critic’s dream, in the sense that they are- for better or for worse- an unapologetic expression of love for the medium of cinema in all its forms. He borrows elements from all genres, disregarding accepted notions of worthiness or quality, and puts them together in an eclectic mishmash of style that is distinctly his own.  He is as much an auteur as Kubrick, as great a showman as DeMille, and as much a master of exploitation as Russ Meyer, and, without discrimination between these differing aspects of the medium, he blends them into one audacious approach that invites comparison to another great maverick filmmaker, Orson Welles.  It may be premature to place him in such company, but his impact on the art form has been substantial and significant, legitimizing styles and forms from outside the mainstream that were previously dismissed as irrelevant or inferior, confronting difficult or taboo subject matter in a way which challenges and provokes his audiences, and breaking the established rules and conventions of cinematic storytelling even as he uses them like a master.  In short, his movies elicit strong reactions and give us a lot to think, talk, and argue about.  Django Unchained, with its pulp-fiction storyline constructed squarely around the inherently divisive subject of racism, is unquestionably his most provocative effort to date- and that’s saying a lot.

So much has already been written and said about Tarantino and his work; I’ve discussed him in my earlier review of Death Proof (a vastly inferior movie to Django Unchained) and I don’t feel it necessary to repeat myself here.  A description and analysis of his signature style is available in a vast number of other places.  In discussing Django Unchained, it is far more relevant to address the elephant in the room; by making a movie about slavery in which a black hero avenges himself on the white people who have perpetrated unspeakable cruelty upon him and his kind, the filmmaker throws aside any semblance of a protective veil and confronts his audience squarely with the difficult issue of race- or, perhaps more accurately, of attitudes towards race, both within the setting of the film and in contemporary society.  Here is a white filmmaker, using a traditionally white milieu (the Western, with all its mythic reverberations in the ethical and psychological landscape of American culture) to tell a story about white guilt and black revenge; this in itself invites debate about everything from Tarantino’s suitability to address the topic to his motivations and methods of doing so, as well as invoking questions of social responsibility in the approach he has chosen to take.  The film has been accused of racism against both blacks and whites, criticized for its perceived advocation of violence, and even described as an incitement to race war; it has been lambasted for both exaggerating and trivializing the horrors of slavery and for making this abhorrent institution the basis for a piece of slick pop culture escapism.  It has also been acclaimed for daring to address the subject of America’s heritage of slavery without equivocation, apology, politics, or preaching.  In other words, like all great art, it serves as a mirror; the interpretations and reactions of its audience are reflections of their own viewpoints.  Like an ink blot, it shows us the content of our own psyche.

This is not to say that Tarantino has put nothing of himself into the film; obviously, it is an extremely personal statement for him, one which expresses his own character and personality and clearly- in my interpretation- reflects his utter disdain for the entire concept of racism.  Django Unchained assumes at its core the inherent wrongness of racist thinking.  Without exception, those who embrace the idea of slavery are depicted as monsters, and though racism is the central condition of the movie’s world, it is ultimately a symptom of the overall inhumanity that pervades the social order.  Though it is a film which deals with race, the conflict here is not between black and white, but between ignorance and enlightenment.  Furthermore, it reflects a populist sensibility in its suggested equation of the proponents of slavery to the economic elite, who maintain their wealth and power by means of a legally-sanctioned hierarchy of enforced dominance; this is underlined by the fact that one of the film’s most loathsome villains is in fact a black man, completely indoctrinated into a system that dehumanizes himself and the rest of his race by the personal status he holds within it.  Conversely, the white Schultz, despite his mercenary profession, is clearly a fierce opponent of racial inequality and injustice (he refers to slavery as “malarkey” at one point), risking his own life and livelihood to strike a blow for freedom whenever the opportunity arises; and despite the title character’s assertion that his new vocation is appealing because he gets to “kill white people” and be paid for it, his true purpose is to seek justice for himself and the woman he loves.  Django and Schultz are champions of the oppressed and downtrodden, and neither their compassion nor their wrath are conditional upon race.  The story here is classic western fare, really; a wronged man seeking frontier justice against those who have done him harm, except instead of the archetypal white cowboy he is a freed black slave.  Though some may find this new twist to the old formula to be somehow disrespectful or inappropriate, the real shame, in my view, is that it took until 2012 for a mainstream Hollywood film to attempt it.  It’s a natural fit, and the inescapable sociological questions that it conjures, however difficult or painful they may be to those who would avoid them, are long overdue for confrontation.

Django Unchained is not, however, the first mainstream Hollywood film to address the issue of racism in a controversially irreverent manner; it’s not even the first western to do so.  In 1974, Mel Brooks similarly outraged and shocked the movie-going public with Blazing Saddles, a raucous and raunchy lowbrow farce that attacked the issue head-on, openly mocking racial stereotypes and exposing the inherent racism of Hollywood’s traditional myth of the Great American West.  Brooks’ film created controversy with its deliberately excessive use of “the ‘N’ word” (which I will not use in this forum, to avoid opening myself up to the same kind of controversy), intended to detoxify it through over-exposure and to turn it against itself by using it as an instrument of comedy.  It’s ironic that Tarantino’s film, 38 years later, has fallen under criticism for breaking the exact same taboo, using the epithet so much that it becomes a mere banality.  Ironic, but not surprising, considering that Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, written well over a century ago, still falls regularly under criticism for the same reason despite its anti-racist message.  Django Unchained is not Huckleberry Finn, nor is it Blazing Saddles, for that matter, though these works form an artistic heritage from which it is definitely descended.  Like them, it addresses a serious social issue- perhaps, ultimately, the most serious one affecting American culture- with a considerable amount of humor.  To be sure, it’s a grim sort of humor, to say the least; but it is irresistible, and the way he connects it with horrific imagery is one of the most significant devices he uses to give Django Unchained its unique power.  Nevertheless (though some have suggested it), Tarantino’s film is not a comedy- not even a dark one.  Like all of his work, it defies exact classification; though it follows the formula of a melodrama, it’s infused with elements of so many other genres, and marked by such a ferocious and unrelenting pattern of escalating tension and ultra-violent release, that the most accurate description is probably just to call it a Tarantino film and leave it at that.

Like the other movies that fit into that exclusive category, Django Unchained is not for every taste; those sensitive viewers who are easily disturbed by profanity and excessive violence- including violence towards animals- will likely be out of their depth here, and those for whom the issue of race relations is an uncomfortable topic are almost certain to find themselves offended.  For the rest of us, however, it’s a film that offers a wealth of cinematic riches.  Gorgeous cinematography by Robert Richardson evokes the visual qualities of Tarantino’s beloved filmic influences while asserting its own distinct flavor; imaginative, detailed costume design by Sharen Davis adds its own subtle commentary and playfully- but meticulously- incorporates iconic inspirations that help to establish the purposefully derivative pop-culture tone; the eclectic, carefully chosen mix of musical selections, which includes everything from segments of scoring lifted out of other films to ’70s pop standards to modern rap, continues Tarantino’s tradition of deliberate anachronism on his soundtracks, a technique which helps contemporary audiences to connect to the material and provides its own kind of commentary through the associations it creates; and, of course, there are the performances.

Tarantino’s writing, like Woody Allen’s, requires his actors to convincingly speak in his own voice, another hallmark of his canon; his dialogue, laced with intricate wordplay and possessed of his own distinctive syntax and structure, at once creates vivid individual characterizations and unifies his work with a singular verbal style, and challenges his actors to strike a perfect balance of stylization and reality.  The cast of Django Unchained meets this challenge triumphantly, with solid and unforgettable performances from all.  Jamie Foxx makes a perfect western hero, a seamless blend of Clint Eastwood and Isaac Hayes that bridges the gap between genres and helps the film to successfully accomplish the same feat; Leonardo DiCaprio is well-cast against type as the dissipated and off-handedly sadistic slave master into whose empire the heroes must venture to achieve their quest; and Kerry Washington, playing the object of that quest with quiet dignity, shines in her relatively silent presence amidst all the bombastic rhetoric spewed around her.  There are a number of familiar faces in smaller roles, ranging from TV icon Don Johnson (complete with white jacket) in a featured turn to screen veteran Bruce Dern in an unbilled cameo; even Franco Nero, the original “Django” from the aforementioned 1966 classic, turns up to participate in the most blatant of the film’s many in-jokes.  All these players contribute to Tarantino’s vision, both with their talented work and by virtue of the associations they bring with them.

The standouts, though, are the mesmerizing performances of Tarantino stalwarts Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson.  As Schultz, the former glitters with wit and intelligence without once letting us lose sight of his serious subtext; he gives us a man of scrupulous honor, grim determination, and unparalleled capability, as charming as he is deadly and as noble as he is practical.  He makes his character a ray of dazzling light in a very dark world, and brings the ethics of contemporary reason into the film’s primitive setting like an inexorable wave of progress bent on sweeping away the stubborn ignorance of the past.  In direct opposition to this paladin-like force of justice is Jackson, as the “old retainer” of DiCaprio’s household; a re-invention of the well-worn “Uncle Tom” figure, he fumes with what one of my friends called “misdirected rage,” diverting his considerable intelligence and power towards the protection of his master’s world- in which he enjoys his own high status- at the expense of his own people.  Wily, cantankerous, and proud, he is the true villain of the piece, having gone beyond mere acquiescence to an oppressive and inhumane system to become a ferocious guardian of it; in his complete lack of compassion, and in his unrepentant commitment to upholding the brutal status quo, he becomes arguably more reprehensible than the master he adores, and Jackson- though he finds the human truth of this twisted soul and plays it with utter conviction- makes no attempt to sugarcoat or shy away from the ugliness of this character.  It’s a delicious performance, perhaps the finest of the actor’s career, and its lack of sentiment drives home the movie’s indictment of compromise in the face of racial inequality by peeling off the benign mask of a stereotype and revealing the tragic betrayal of humanity that it represents.

The true star of Django Unchained, however, is Quentin Tarantino himself, and I’m not referring to his signature cameo appearance late in the film; no matter how big the names in his cast, it is his own name above the title which provides the biggest draw, making him part of an elite club of filmmakers whose reputation and celebrity in itself is enough to ensure substantial box office sales.  He has earned this status by his ability to make films that provide visceral, audience-pleasing thrills while still stimulating the intellect and stretching the boundaries of the art form.  Django Unchained is no exception; he keeps us riveted with a story which compels us at an almost primal level, confronts us with situations which force us to think about difficult issues, and dazzles us with his technical and aesthetic mastery of the medium.  He provokes us by finding visual poetry in horrific violence, creates profoundly resonant imagery with the elegant simplicity of his composition, and combines lowbrow content with highbrow concept to manipulate our emotions and bring us to a catharsis that satisfies on every level at once.  Perhaps most important (and ultimately, perhaps, most controversial); he invites us to laugh at things which would normally disturb us, helping us to distance ourselves from the issues at hand and simultaneously letting us share in his own perspective on the absurdity of human behavior; like his penchant for building tension through dialogue and his heightened, over-the-top stylistic choices, his use of macabre and ironic humor as a tool for audience alienation betrays an unmistakably theatrical sensibility, yet thanks to his gift for the medium of film, what he creates with these elements is pure cinema.

I could, of course, go on and on about Django Unchained, dissecting its details, tracing its themes, identifying its influences, and analyzing its effect; as I said, we love to write about Tarantino films.  In the end, it’s up to individual viewers to determine the merits of his latest piece of “dangerous art” for themselves.  As I mentioned above, it’s a movie that gives us back what we bring into it; Tarantino himself has discussed, in interviews, his love for “subtextual criticism,” the discussion and analysis of facets of a film that were not, in fact, intended by its creator, but which are present, nonetheless, by virtue of their having been perceived by the viewer.  It’s no surprise, therefore, that he builds his work in a way that encourages these kind of individualized reactions, and it’s highly likely he would acknowledge the validity of any point of view towards Django Unchained, no matter how far it veers from his own intentions in making it.  For myself, I’ve expressed my take on the issues at hand, and I’ve probably made my admiration for the movie itself pretty clear.  If I were to make comparative value judgments, I would probably place it pretty high on my list of Tarantino’s films, slightly above the youthful bravado of Pulp Fiction, about equal with the devilish boldness of Inglorious Basterds, and slightly below my personal favorite, the sublimely elegant two-part (so far) Kill Bill saga; but such distinctions are unimportant, really, when one considers his entire body of work as a series of variations on his recurring themes.  One arrangement of the melody may please you more than another, but it’s a pretty good tune all the way through, regardless.  For those who would avoid Django Unchained out of objections to any of its content or its handling thereof, there is probably nothing I can say to change your mind; but in addressing at least one of these concerns- the idea that Tarantino’s ultra-violent fantasy of revenge is itself a call to violence- I think it is important to remember that film, like all art, presents a metaphor for reality.  Though Django exacts a high payment in blood from his oppressors, and the filmmaker takes great pleasure in making us enjoy his lethal victories and cheer him on as the body count gets higher and higher, he- and the scourge of his vengeance- are not meant to be emulated in a literal sense, but rather to be seen as a symbolic cleansing of antiquated, ethnocentric fallacies, once and for all, from our culture.  We must be as ruthless and unforgiving in our quest to eradicate racism in our thinking as Django and Schultz are to eliminate the racists who stand against them.  That’s what the ink blot shows me, anyway.  You may see something different; but whatever it is, it’s a pretty sure bet that you will never forget it.  Django Unchained is that kind of movie; it stamps itself on your mind immediately, and refuses to fade away.  For that reason alone, there’s no arguing that, whether you love it or hate it, it’s destined to be a classic.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1853728/?ref_=sr_1

 

The Cabin in the Woods (2012)

The Cabin in the Woods (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: The Cabin in the Woods, the genre-twisting feature, from the team of Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard, that satirizes horror movie conventions within a larger science fiction framework as it tells the tale of five college-age friends who are secretly manipulated by a mysterious high-tech agency during a weekend getaway at a mountain lake.  Filmed in 2009, it was held from release by the bankruptcy of its studio, MGM, which could not afford the cost of marketing and publicity; eventually picked up by Lionsgate Films, it finally hit screens in early 2012, when the long anticipation by Whedon’s many fans turned it into a major box office success.  Lauded by many critics for its clever restructuring and skewering of the “slasher movie” genre, it managed to find its way onto several best-of-2012 lists in addition to becoming one of the year’s biggest financial hits.

The movie begins with the back-and-forth intercutting between scenes of a large-scale government tech lab where final preparations are under way for an elaborate and unspecified project, and a group of five young people getting ready for a trip to a secluded mountain cabin.  The kids- Dana (the sweet and comparatively wholesome “good girl”), Jules (the bleached-blonde sexpot), Curt (Jules’ jock boyfriend), Holden (Curt’s studious friend, brought along as a blind date for Dana), and Marty (the pot-smoking nerd)- set out in an  RV, and, though they have an unsettling encounter with the attendant at a run-down gas station on the road to the cabin, they remain in high spirits, looking forward to a weekend of good times.  Meanwhile, it becomes clear they are being remotely monitored by the technicians in the mysterious lab, who seem to have complete control over their environment.  Upon arrival at their destination, the five friends discover that the cabin- recently purchased by a cousin of Curt’s- is an odd and disconcerting place, adorned with gruesome art, fearsome stuffed animals, and see-through mirrors, and they eventually stumble upon a trap door which leads to a secret basement full of odd and arcane relics.  Among these objects they find a diary, written by the daughter of the cabin’s original owners; as Dana reads it aloud, it reveals a horrific tale of torture, disfigurement, and murder, practiced by the family in the service of their twisted puritanical beliefs, and includes a strange Latin invocation- which she also reads aloud, unwittingly calling the long-deceased clan back from the dead.  Perhaps even more sinister is the fact that all of these events seem to be under the orchestration of the observing lab technicians, who watch with satisfied interest as the murderous zombies slink towards the unsuspecting young people in the cabin.  Needless to say, the weekend getaway is soon to become a terrifying fight for survival, in which the would-be victims will discover that their perilous situation has larger implications more dire than any of them could suspect.

The screenplay for The Cabin in the Woods was co-written by Whedon and Goddard, who worked together on Whedon’s cult-classic TV series, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; though it took them only three days to write, it is undeniably clever.  It’s difficult to discuss it in much detail without giving away too many of its secrets, but it is safe to describe it as a mash-up of Friday the Thirteenth and Night of the Living Dead as conceived by H.P. Lovecraft. This in itself is creative enough, but it’s also apparent that the pair have a definite agenda here, in which they use a sort of meta-drama- self-consciously utilizing all the stock characters and conceits of the slasher film scenario- to explore the deeper psychological origins of the horror genre, linking it both to its ancient roots in the superstitions and religions of ancient cultural memory and to its modern role as a fetishized outlet for the primordial and antisocial urges that still lie at its core.  The story of the five not-so-innocent kids is enfolded into a larger plot that allegorizes the makers of such formulaic horror vehicles themselves, using an elaborate metaphor to satirize their motivations and criticize the growing trend towards “torture porn” within the genre.  The concept is ingenious, audacious and inspired; the writers have constructed a puzzle box of a movie, in which several layers of plot fit neatly inside each other, with each addressing larger and more significant themes, ultimately providing both homage to and an indictment of a genre which celebrates the bloodlust lurking in the core of human nature.  At the same time, they endeavor to create a movie which works simultaneously as a high-concept art piece and a wildly entertaining example of schlock cinema.  With the first goal, they come respectably close; with the second, however, they are much further from the mark.

On a conceptual level, The Cabin in the Woods works well; the underlying conceit, though veiled, is apparent from the beginning, allowing us to appreciate the way it informs the narrative as it gradually emerges to our full understanding.  It’s a good choice, because on the surface level, what we are given is far too ordinary to hold our interest for long.  The movie-in-a-movie storyline, with its hapless young victims being stalked and slaughtered one by one, is so familiar and predictable as to be completely devoid of shock; it’s deliberately derivative, of course, but the unimaginative, by-rote handling of the formula is no less dull for its intentions.  To make matters worse, the dialogue, loaded with obligatory comic banter and snarky “fanboy” in-jokes, is stale and stilted, with a decidedly sophomoric reliance on cliché and self-indulgence; the characters, though an effort is made to give them more personality and depth than the typical stock figures in such fare, still behave like one-dimensional stereotypes, and despite the fact that we are clearly told that their actions are being manipulated by their white-collar puppeteers, again, it makes little difference to our level of emotional investment in them- or rather, our lack of it.  It’s true that. as the movie expands from the killer zombie hillbilly scenario, they (the survivors anyway) are seen to have a little more on the ball than they’ve managed to show so far, but by the time this larger plot has taken over, so much screen time has been squandered on the regurgitation of shallow horror convention that it’s hard to care.  Even though it happens too late in the game, the development of the framing plot, in which we discover the real horrors of the cabin in the woods, is far more original and engaging, though it, too, suffers from the malady of unconvincing dialogue; the film’s final quarter is so much more interesting that it heightens our disappointment over everything that has gone before.  Still, when the movie finally reaches its endgame, fully revealing its devilishly clever dual purpose as a satirical exploration of form and a cynical commentary on human nature, it succeeds in winning us over with its sheer audacity, leaving us with a sort of grudging delight and making us wish that Whedon and Goddard had spent more than three days writing their screenplay.

The movie built on that script is certainly made well enough; directed by Goddard, with Whedon serving as producer (presumably too involved with his myriad other creative endeavors to get behind the camera on this one), it succeeds in emulating the stylistic sensibilities of the teen scream genre it draws from, using time-honored techniques of visual vocabulary to tell its story (with a good bit of sly humor) and expanding to a slicker, more contemporary mode as the focus shifts loose from the constraints of genre formula. There is nothing truly mind-blowing here, in terms of visual style or innovation, just smart utilization of the established tricks of the trade, but Goddard has clearly done his homework, and he pulls it off in a workmanlike fashion. More overtly impressive, from the standpoint of cinematic creativity, is the work of the movie’s designers and technicians, who give us a number of delicious visual treats, particularly in the climactic scenes involving an everything-but-the-kitchen sink catalogue of movie monsters ranging from the familiar (murderous clowns, werewolves, sadistic hell-spawn) to the not-so-familiar (a killer unicorn, a lamprey-faced ballerina, and a decidedly grotesque merman). These sequences were accomplished by an impressive assemblage of the finest effects artists and technicians in the industry, requiring the rental of extra facilities to accommodate the sheer number of workers, and shooting at the huge aerospace building of the British Columbia Institute of Technology, since the available studio space was inadequate for the necessary scale. The unprecedented effort was worth it- this section is by far the most fun and memorable few minutes in the movie, generating more actual laughs and thrills than the entire pick-em-off-one-by-one saga that takes up the first three-quarters of screen time.

The film’s other production values are solid, as well; the cinematography by Peter Deming, the musical score by David Julyan, the production design by Martin Whist – all these are several cuts above the level of the low-budget exploitation thrillers upon which The Cabin in the Woods depends for inspiration, which is not necessarily a good thing. A little amateurish roughness around the edges might have gone a long way towards bestowing Goddard’s film with more of the authentic grindhouse flavor it sorely needs.  The higher quality is appreciated, however, when it comes to the performances, since bad acting is rarely a plus, and since the film requires a bit more nuance from its players than the typical horror entry.  Though it’s notable that two of the cast members are Chris Hemsworth (as Curt) and Richard Jenkins (who shot their roles here before making it big as Thor and earning an Oscar nomination for The Visitor, respectively), the true stars are Kristen Connolly and Fran Kranz, as Dana and Marty, who are both charming enough, and more importantly project the intelligence and spunk needed to make them into a convincing hero and heroine.  Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are goofily likeable as the pair of elder-generation nerds who serve as team leaders for the mysterious behind-the-scenes project, and Hemsworth, Anna Hutchison, and Jesse Williams, as the remainder of the youthful adventurers, succeed in making their characters more than the mere ciphers they might have been.  Sigourney Weaver, who seems to have made a supplemental career for herself playing self-referential cameos in this kind of satirical sci-fi fare, makes a surprise appearance near the end, but disclosing the nature of her role would be too much of a spoiler; suffice to say that her presence onscreen is welcome and her performance is amusing without being over-the-top.

I suppose I should confess that I have never been particularly fond of the “slasher movie” sub-genre, though most of my generation, which grew up with them, seems to consider them essential touchstones of pop culture experience.  I always thought they were predictable and dull, and rarely frightening; consequently, I am perhaps not the best person to judge the effectiveness of The Cabin in the Woods, either as a legitimate entry or as a parody.  Many viewers have responded much more positively than I to Whedon and Goddard’s Lovecraftian mind-bender, but even I can say that it’s worth a look.  Even though, ultimately, I found it as predictable and unengaging as the films it sends up, it contains many aspects that impressed me, and yes, even entertained me.  For one thing, it has a lot more “heart” than most of these cold-blooded slaughter-fests, reminding us that alongside those savage instincts in our unconscious there are also nobler ones; though, in the end, the film’s “message,” if you can call it that, is cynical and even nihilistic, it leaves you with a more or less positive view of mankind- in the individual, if not in the collective.  It’s also a very smart movie, with canny observations about human behavior on the personal, social, and cultural level, and it weaves these into its formulaic plot in a way that illuminates the stock situations and conventions, revealing the deeper implications of the well-worn narrative structure and helping us to see it as more than mere repetitive drivel.  Finally, I can truly embrace its creators’ avowed purpose of decrying the level to which the horror genre has sunk in our modern era; most horror movies today are mindless spatter films, capitalizing on flavor-of-the-week trends and using sensationalistic formats to earn a quick buck and nothing more.  At best, they are meaningless, and at worst, they are thought pollution, celebrating cruelty and violence for their own sake and reinforcing some very ugly behavioral tendencies in an audience that is typically of a very impressionable age.  The Cabin in the Woods attempts to address this state of affairs by offering an alternative which both satisfies the need for a good scare and stimulates the intellect, as many (though certainly, admittedly, not all) of the so-called “old school” horror films tried to do.  It’s very clever, alright; unfortunately, in the end, it’s too clever for its own good.  Those who are likely to clue into the brainier aspects of the film will probably not respond to the horror, and those who are in it for the cheap thrills will undoubtedly be disinterested in any higher purpose.  Of course, there is a convergent group of viewers- most of them, probably, already fans of Whedon’s nerdy-cool fictional universe- who will find both levels of The Cabin in the Woods right up their alley, and they are the ones for whom this movie is made.  You might not be one of them, but it’s still worth watching; even if it doesn’t quite work (and even if it doesn’t look like it, at first glance), it’s refreshingly intelligent filmmaking.  There’s precious little enough of that out there, so get it where you can.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1259521/?ref_=sr_1

WARNING: If you haven’t seen the movie, you should know that looking at the pictures below might be a mistake.  I try not to provide spoilers, but some of these images might give things away that you don’t want to know ahead of time, and once you see something, you can’t unsee it, so view at your own risk.

Prick Up Your Ears (1987)

Prick Up Your Ears (poster)

 

Today’s cinema adventure: Prick Up Your Ears, the 1987 feature by director Stephen Frears about the short life and brilliant career of English playwright Joe Orton, whose rise to success in the theatrical scene of mid-sixties London was cut short by his brutal murder at the hands of his long-term partner, Kenneth Halliwell.  Based on the biography of the same name by John Lahr, the film approaches Orton’s life with a macabre sense of humor much like that found in his plays, and features superb performances by Gary Oldman and Alfred Molina (as Orton and Halliwell, respectively); it was greeted by enthusiastic reviews by critics upon its release, though its popular appeal was, naturally, somewhat limited by its subject matter- particularly outside of Britain, where Orton’s name is less familiar.  Nevertheless, it achieved relative box office success due to the wave of interest in British imports during the eighties, and, along with the previous year’s Sid and Nancy, helped to secure Oldman’s place as one of the most promising- and sought-after- young actors of the decade.

The screenplay of Prick Up Your Ears– penned by Alan Bennett, another renowned playwright whose own career dates back to the same era as Orton- is expanded from the book upon which it is based by the inclusion of author Lahr as a character, using his research and writing of the acclaimed biography- particularly through his interviews with Orton’s agent and close friend, Margaret Ramsay- as a means of framing the story.  This device allows for a non-linear exploration of Orton’s life, centered around the notorious murder-suicide which brought it to an end, that reveals key moments of the playwright’s history as it makes a more in-depth examination of his relationship with Halliwell.  In this manner we are given a narrative which chronicles Joe’s life from his working class youth in Leicester, where he pursues an interest in drama despite the intentions of his parents to educate him for a career as an office worker.  He manages to earn a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, where he meets and becomes involved with Halliwell, an older student attending the school through a small inheritance.  The two take a flat together, and begin an unsuccessful, decade-long attempt to collaborate as writers; Joe also indulges in an almost daily habit of anonymous sexual encounters in public places- mostly men’s restrooms- and writes about them in his diary.  The two are eventually arrested (for defacing library books) and serve short jail terms, during which Joe writes- on his own- a play that he submits to BBC Radio; it is accepted and produced, marking the beginning of his rise to fame- and also of the deterioration of his relationship with the jealous, insecure Halliwell.  As Joe becomes the toast of the London theatrical world, with smash hit plays and an offer to write a screenplay for The Beatles, Ken becomes increasingly morose and frustrated at being kept out of the spotlight, even after the couple spends a lengthy vacation in Morocco; finally, no longer able to face a life lived in the shadow of another’s success, Ken kills Joe as he sleeps, beating him savagely to death with a pall peen hammer, then takes an overdose of pills to follow his lover into death.

As a rule, I generally find film biographies to be somewhat unsatisfying; though, at their best, they can be a showcase for tour-de-force acting, superb direction and magnificent scenic and costume design, at their core they often suffer from an impossible desire to somehow encapsulate a person’s entire life and essence into a two-or-so-hour time frame, or to interpret their motivations and actions in a way that casts them in a particular light.  In truth, of course, even the strictest documentary cannot avoid inserting a subjective viewpoint, but biopics, at their most banal, make a deliberate effort to deify- or vilify, in some cases- their subjects, resorting to the manipulative tactics of melodrama and completely ignoring or altering facts in order to tell a more “satisfying” story.  The most artistically successful examples of this genre are those that use their subject as a means to communicate ideas about universal experience, or simply to entertain us with a little-known story from our past that may, hopefully, encourage us to learn more on our own.   Prick Up Your Ears does both.

Frears’ movie is blessed with the participation of numerous talented individuals with a clear affection for- and familiarity with- Joe Orton and his work, and they have here taken pains to create a picture of this influential and iconoclastic figure that presents his life in a manner that is, if not 100% factually accurate, at least true to his own vision of the world in which he lived.  Much of this is made possible by the use of his diaries as a source of information, both for the original published biography and for the screenplay; through this remarkable document, which has since been published in its own right, we are granted unprecedented access to Orton’s most private thoughts and experiences- most obviously his frequent and adventurous sexual escapades, recorded with particular pride and relish- and allowed to see the author’s own perspective on himself and his life.  Of course, that perspective- dark, cynical and full of deliciously salacious humor- comes as no surprise to those familiar with Orton’s plays, brilliant farces which skewered traditional theatrical forms while undermining and exposing the hypocrisies of social convention and the ugliness hidden behind the all-important facade of so-called “decency.”  Bennett writes the story of Joe and Ken as if it were itself penned by Orton, peppering the dialogue with lines that seem as if they were lifted directly from his writing and presenting the people that surround the two central figures as if they were characters in one of his plays.  This approach makes for a truly Ortonesque experience of Orton himself, but it also has the shrewdly observed added effect of showing how the playwright drew inspiration from the people and circumstances of his real life; seeing the world as Joe himself saw it makes it clear that his particular genius came simply from transcribing what he saw around him into his work.  The farcical absurdities of his real-life experience fed his writing, and the fact that they are here no less believable for their absurdity suggests that very little exaggeration was required to translate them to the stage.

Joe’s perspective is not, however, the only one brought into play in Bennett’s and Frears’ vision of his life.  The film is also, of course, heavily informed by Lahr’s biography, which casts a more detached and empirical eye on the playwright- in particular on his relationship with Halliwell- and allows us to see him in a more humanistic light, perhaps, than that toward which he might have been inclined.  This does not mean, however, that Prick Up Your Ears takes any kind of moral stance on Joe- or Ken, for that matter- in its depiction.  On the contrary, the movie takes pains to portray the pair as they were, without imposing judgment, and allows us to draw our own conclusions; though their end was undeniably tragic, and a good deal of the film can be seen as an examination of the factors that led up to it, there was more to Joe and Ken’s connection than their horrific final destiny, and Frears and Bennett make sure we see as many other facets as possible of their lives together.  Finally, in exploring their relationship, and the changing dynamics created by collaboration, success, fame, and failure, the movie also explores the way these factors are reflected in John Lahr’s marriage, and by extension, suggests certain observations about the nature- and the pitfalls- of mixing creative endeavor with romantic attachment.

Of course, for most people who have even heard of Joe Orton- outside of theatrical and literary circles, of course, and often even there- the lurid and scandalous circumstances of his death are far better-known than his work.  Frears and Bennett make certain that their audience knows, right from the start, that this event is the central focus of the film, a sort of epicenter from which everything else radiates.  The movie opens with a glimpse into the final, terrible moments, followed by the discovery of the bodies and the subsequent invasion of the bloody scene by the authorities.  We are, however, given only a peek, so that for the rest of the movie, we are left to hope for the kind of graphic, gruesome detail we want to see- and we do want to see it, as Joe himself would likely understand better than anyone.  Indeed, it is this gory revelation that the director uses as bait, like a carrot dangling before us as we make the journey through Joe’s life and times, motivating us to stay with the story so that we can get that nasty payoff at the end; and Frears gives it to us, alright, in a harrowingly real depiction of the brutal murder and its aftermath that is likely to affect even the most hardened viewer and leave nightmarish, lingering visions for some time afterwards.  Yet even this dose of cold, hard realism in the midst of the film’s wacky theatricality is in keeping with its dedication to the flavor and spirit of Orton’s work; his writing, for all its juxtaposed sophistication and irrepressible rude-boy naughtiness, carried at its center an acute awareness of the ugliness of human experience, an ignoble convocation of bodily functions- sexual, scatological, and otherwise- which makes ludicrous all attempts to dignify it with pretense or affectation, and is made all the uglier by the mean-spirited cruelty with which we treat each other.  Orton’s brutal death at the hands of his lover- the ultimate bodily function as a result of the ultimate cruelty- serves as a reminder of the nihilistic truth of which he was a champion.

The darkness that underlies all the glib merriment, though, is only a part of the Orton mystique; though he was bent on exposing the inherent nastiness of the human condition, he also derived a great deal of fun from it.  He was a literary rebel, using his wit as a weapon against the stifling social conventions that made him feel like an outsider; he was a master marksman, and his wicked skills gave voice to a new generation that despised the stodginess of their moribund culture as much as he did.  More to the point, though, he had fun doing it; Joe Orton was all about having fun, an obvious fact to which his hedonistic lifestyle plainly attested, and the glee he felt in skewering the pompous and the conventional was almost certainly his main (if not only) reason for doing it.  That glee comes across in his writing, and is readily shared by audiences who see his plays, which are still frequently performed today.  It also comes across in Prick Up Your Ears.

Aside from Bennett’s screenplay, the movie benefits greatly from Frears’ steady, assured direction.  Noted for his skill in handling stories about socially isolated people adapting to new circumstances, a theme which runs through most of his films from My Beautiful Laundrette to The Queen, he shares with Orton an origin in Leicester, a fact which no doubt helped to solidify his understanding of and connection to the material here, and has a long collaborative history with Bennett.  He crafts his film with a perfect balance of the cinematic and the theatrical, creating a blend of gritty realism and heightened style enhanced by flourishes from both media; he also exhibits a showman’s knack for storytelling, managing to form a cohesive and unified narrative which engages our interest and remains easy to follow throughout its non-linear structure.  He is aided by meticulous production design which smartly re-creates the atmosphere of London in the swinging sixties, contrasting it with the mundane and utilitarian environment of working-class Leicester, as well as with various institutional settings and scenes of the seedy sexual underworld that arise within Joe’s checkered story.

Most importantly, though, Frears’ film is blessed with the magnificent performances of its two stars.  Oldman and Molina are electrifying, offering layered, chameleonic portraits of the cheeky, good-natured rude boy and his arch, affected lover that reveal the traits, both positive and negative, in both without sentimentality or comment.  Oldman truly seems to channel his subject, not only bearing a strong physical resemblance to “the most perfectly-developed playwright of his day” but capturing the particular seductive swagger that is evident in photos and the few films that survive of Orton; it’s not mere mimicry, however, for he also infuses the doomed writer with a palpable humanity that allows us to truly involve ourselves with him emotionally, and understand why even those who thought him shocking and indecent found him irresistible and endearing, nonetheless..  The more difficult task, though, is Molina’s; he gives us Halliwell in all his insufferable pomposity, and takes us through his deterioration without varnish, and yet he, too, finds the human element here that makes poor Ken as much a tragic figure as Joe- a man of intelligence, wit, and emotional generosity, clearly affected by psychological issues that might have been more readily understood and addressed in our modern day, but which, at the time, were subject to as much stigma and shame as his homosexuality.  Molina gives a heartbreaking performance, and it is largely thanks to him that Prick Up Your Ears succeeds in capturing the full ironic scope of the Orton-Halliwell saga.  In the third principal role, that of legendary theatrical agent Margaret “Peggy” Ramsay, Vanessa Redgrave is, as always, superb; her glittering charm and sophistication light the screen, but she also gives us a clear view of the character’s opportunistic and manipulative aspects- she, like Joe, is “getting away with it,” but that doesn’t make her any less likeable, in the end.  Redgrave’s presence also adds an important pedigree that links the film directly to the world it portrays; she is, of course, a member of one of Britain’s great acting dynasties, and was deeply immersed in the London theatrical scene during the era in which Orton was active.  This connection is, perhaps, immaterial in terms of practical application to the execution of the film, but it does contribute a sort of authenticity to the proceedings that does seem, to me at least, to have an effect, however intangible, on its sense of validity.  Wallace Shawn (another renowned playwright) uses his familiar nerdy intellectual persona to good effect as biographer Lahr, Frances Barber has a touching turn as Orton’s sister, Leonie, and Janet Dale provides a memorable illustration of classic Ortonesque caricature as Joe and Ken’s doting landlady.  In smaller, cameo-style roles, familiar English character actors such as Julie Walters, Richard Wilson, and Margaret Tyzack bring their considerable talents into the mix, contributing much to the overall perfection of tone and style that makes Prick Up Your Ears such a delightful marriage of film and theater influences.

It’s pretty obvious, by now, that Prick Up Your Ears is a highly recommended cinema adventure, as far as I am concerned.  The fact that I am personally a great admirer of Joe Orton is really not a factor in my enthusiasm for the film, except in the sense that my expectations of any work dealing with him are stringently high, making Frears’ movie all the more impressive to me for its worthiness to the subject matter.  I am confident that this smart, stylish and accessible piece will be an enjoyable experience for almost any mature viewer, whether they are fans of Orton or have never heard of him; even if you have no interest whatsoever in theatrical history, British or otherwise, Prick Up Your Ears offers up a fascinating story that is no less entertaining for being true.  That said, it should be mentioned that it is a film in which homosexuality plays an integral part, and it does include extensive, if not graphic, depictions of gay sexual behavior; if such matter is uncomfortable for you, for whatever reason, then consider yourself warned.  This subject brings up an important point concerning Prick Up Your Ears, and indeed about Orton himself; though the playwright was not overtly involved in any form of struggle for gay rights- his death took place two years before the Stonewall riots in New York, after all- and though the film does not address or take any sort of stance on the issue, the subject is inseparably woven into the fabric of this story.  As gay men living in a society that criminalized and ostracized their kind, Orton and Halliwell lived their lives as disenfranchised outcasts, forced to suppress their true nature in order to avoid persecution and even imprisonment; though it was the older Halliwell who helped Joe to accept and embrace his sexuality, it was the younger man who would go on to live an audaciously open life in the face of societal disapproval, and despite his efforts to bring Ken along, he was unable to overcome the obstacles of shame and insecurity that would eventually result in the tragic conclusion of their love story.  Each man took a different direction in reconciling his sexual identity with cultural expectation, and though this was clearly not the only factor in the murderous frenzy that took their lives, it is beyond question that it played a substantial part.  In this way, though on the surface it seems only a parenthetical circumstance that defines the two central characters, homosexuality- or to be more specific, the rejection of homosexuality by so-called “normal” society- is the issue at the core of Prick Up Your Ears.  Those with a more militant bent might wish that Bennett and Frears had taken a more direct assault on the social injustice that marked the cultural landscape of Orton and Halliwell’s England; but the story, like Joe’s plays- and Joe himself- speaks for itself.  Joe Orton chose not only to be open about who he was, but to flaunt it; he simply was, and the strength of that assertion was sufficient to make him an icon.  Prick Up Your Ears is a celebration of that bold spirit, and it tells Joe’s story in a voice very much like his own; that makes it not only a testament to the lasting mark he made  in his short life, but also a bloody good time.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093776/?licb=0.2046471543502929

 

Winter’s Bone (2010)

Winter's Bone (poster)

Today’s cinema adventure: Winter’s Bone, the 2010 thriller by director Debra Granik, based on the novel by Daniel Woodrell about a teenaged backwoods girl who goes searching for her missing father within the meth-entangled and dangerous web of her extended family. Gritty, realistic, and haunting, it received almost universal critical acclaim but failed to generate much box office success, perhaps due not only to its bleak subject matter but also to its lack of well-known actors; nevertheless, the performance of its young leading player, Jennifer Lawrence, catapulted her to stardom, leading to important roles in two of 2012’s biggest movies- the blockbuster adaptation of The Hunger Games, which turned her into a household name for most of the under-twenty set, and the runaway sleeper hit, Silver Linings Playbook, which may well snag her the Oscar that eluded her here.

Set in a poverty-stricken rural community within the Missouri Ozarks, Granik’s movie (which she co-wrote with Anne Rosellini) explores the dark realities of life within an insular world of strict and deeply-ingrained ethical traditions, where the interrelated and secretive residents keep to themselves and form a tight protective ring against outsiders. In the midst of this isolated world, Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old who dreams of escaping into military service, is effectively the head of a household in which she cares not only for a mentally unstable mother but two younger siblings; her absentee father, Jessup, like many of the local men, is deeply involved in methamphetamines- or “crank,” as they refer to the drug- and is currently on bail, awaiting a court appearance for violating his parole. The town sheriff shows up at her doorstep- catching the immediate interest of the curious neighbors and initiating the lighting-fast chain of gossip that keeps the community informed about everything that happens within its confines- and warns her that Jessup has, in fact, used their house and property as collateral in his bail bond, and if he fails to appear in court, Ree and her family will lose their home. Though Ree, with the fierce and defiant family loyalty she has been raised to maintain, insists that her father will show up, she resolves to go looking for him; she meets, however, with immediate resistance from her closest relatives- particularly her father’s brother, Teardrop, who warns her to keep her nose out of a situation that is more complicated and dangerous than she knows. Not to be deterred, the strong-willed Ree continues to ask questions among the friends and family that make up her extended circle, and eventually follows her father’s trail to a more distant relation, Thump Milton- a terrifying figure who presides over the region’s illegal drug trade. Though he refuses to see her, she persists in her efforts to confront him, even after she begins to deduce that Jessup is already dead; the result of her efforts is a vicious beating from Thump’s ferocious wife, Merab, who then- along with the rest of his family- takes the girl captive. She is unexpectedly rescued by her Uncle Teardrop, who shows up and assumes responsibility for her, swearing she will keep her mouth shut or he will answer for it himself. He tells her that her father is in fact dead, killed by someone in Thump’s gang when they learned he was giving information to the sheriff in order to protect his own family, but that he doesn’t want to know who the killer was because he will then be required by family loyalty to seek vengeance. For Ree’s purposes, however, the important factor now becomes finding Jessup’s body, for if she can prove he was dead before his court date, his bond will no longer be forfeit and she can save her family’s home. Her cause seems hopeless, even when Teardrop agrees to help her despite his oath, putting his own safety at risk; but with eviction imminent, the deeply-rooted code of family honor begins to work its powerful influence, and help emerges from a surprising source. Even so, Ree must still endure a number of horrific tests to her mettle before her family’s security can be restored.

In adapting Woodrell’s novel for the screen, Gravik and Rosellini have focused tighter attention on Ree, removing details about the surrounding characters and their lives and making the teenage protagonist our sole access into the isolated society in which she lives; this allows us, like her, to discover the truth as she delves deeper into the mysteries concealed there. This world seems, at first glance, familiar enough, and straightforward in the sense that it conforms to our expectations and assumptions about the lifestyle of the people that inhabit it- at least, on the surface. So, too, does Ree believe she knows the score; she has been raised in this harsh, savage environment, and she is all-too-well-acquainted with the inflexible morality, the angry and abusive men, the suffering of their women, and the hard-scrabble existence that might better be described as survival than as life. However hardened and wise-beyond-her-years she may be, though, there are unseen depths to be plumbed here that she cannot yet fathom, and we are to accompany her on the grueling voyage of discovery she must undertake. It’s a rite of passage for her, by which, for better or worse, she becomes a fully-initiated member of her “tribe,” and by which, as witnesses, we are forced to set aside our own deeply-rooted preconceptions and see the ancient and universal patterns that tie these strange, seemingly alien people to the same core of humanity that unites us all.

To be sure, it’s a hard pill to swallow; for most of us, presumably, the world of Winter’s Bone seems a horrible, dehumanizing place, populated with people who, locked into a rigid and insulated Old Testament mentality that stretches back for generations and precludes any idea of progressive or compassionate thinking, strike us as just plain mean to the core. The men are brutal and arrogant in their assumption of male privilege, the women bitter and hostile in their endless drudgery, and the notion of equality is a moot point; the roles are proscribed by a tradition as unbendable as the unwritten laws about keeping out of each other’s business. Even deeper than the unquestioning acceptance of socially-sanctioned dysfunction, however, is the mandate against betrayal of blood; family trumps everything, and it is this imperative that fuels the conflict here, placing Ree and all of her relatives- both near and distant, ally and antagonist- in a complex moral dilemma that throws the entire social order of the community out of balance.

It is here where Winter’s Bone connects, perhaps unexpectedly, with the primal archetypes of classical mythology; both book and movie have been compared to the Greek story- as told by Sophocles in the final installment of his Oedipus cycle- of Antigone, in which the title character demands the honorable burial of her brothers’ bodies after her uncle, the king, has declared them traitors and forbidden it. Antigone decides for herself that her uncle’s decree is unjust, immoral, and contrary to the law of the gods; the kingdom suffers in turmoil and the king’s family is torn apart by the conflict, until Antigone takes it upon herself to defy the law, burying the bodies and suffering her uncle’s wrath in consequence of her actions. In Sophocles’ version, she eventually hangs herself while imprisoned, and the king is subsequently punished by the gods, suffering the loss of his own son and wife, for his hubris; in other variations of the tale, however, Antigone is saved by the intervention of the gods, and the natural order of the kingdom is restored. In Winter’s Bone, Ree enacts this same drama, standing against the injustice done to her family despite the danger of retribution from the male-dominated power structure presided over by Thump and his clan; alone among the women of her community, she has no man to rule over her, having inherited- by her father’s abdication- the role of provider and protector, and this in itself is an affront to the ordained status quo; but like Antigone, Ree transcends the social order by virtue of special circumstance, and invokes a power greater than the worldly dominion of Thump and his “kingdom,” the timeless and sacred bond of family. It is this bond that ultimately dictates the outcome of Winter’s Bone, exerting its influence through an irresistible sense of duty and honor, and overriding the unnatural dictate against compassion which has been imposed by an egocentric tyrant.

You might think that a comparative analysis between classical Greek literature and a tale about modern-day hillbilly speed freaks is a case of reading too much into a few coincidental parallels, but Winter’s Bone contains a number of clues that this connection is intended, not the least of which is a climactic journey by boat which evokes a passage to the underworld across the River Styx- a common element of many Greek myths; and should the references to pagan mythology fail to appeal to you, the plot is also rich with suggestions of Old Testament stories about strong and righteous women like Ruth or Judith, who step outside their traditional feminine roles to perform acts of bravery and heroism under dispensation by God Himself. These ancient underpinnings share a strong proto-feminist sentiment, which fits Winter’s Bone, despite its modern-day setting, by virtue of the rarefied environment in which it takes place; the characters live in a social vacuum, created by a combination of economic hardship, mistrust of outsiders, and fundamentalist beliefs, which has left the core of their cultural identity unchanged for countless generations, and though they may be surrounded with the weathered trappings of the modern world- motor vehicles, power tools, and guns (lots of guns, everywhere)- they exist only on its fringes, observing customs established by ancestors beyond their memory. In this context, Ree’s assumption of a moral authority in the search for her father, a self-appointed elevation above the accepted station of her gender, is a serious transgression against the social contract of her people, and the shock waves it creates are momentous enough to rock her entire community.

All these lofty themes and classical allusions add a great deal of resonance and weight to Winter’s Bone, but they are not its whole purpose; layered over the structure of its drama is a portrait of life as it is today for a very real segment of the population. The deplorable poverty of this Ozark community- and thousands like it- fosters an atmosphere of desperation, an attitude of disenfranchised resentment, a dog-eat-dog survival code, and an eye-for-an-eye sense of justice. It’s a place where drugs offer both an easy escape from the day-to-day ordeal of living and an opportunity, for enterprising individuals, to rise above the crushing economic hardship which surrounds them; the cost of turning to this social scourge, of course, is that it turns the community upon itself and forces an even greater isolation from the outside world- a phenomenon seen time and again in poor areas from the rural south to the inner-city streets of the biggest urban centers of the world. In her movie, Gravik uses a documentarian’s approach, creating an in-the-moment authenticity to the action through improvised dialogue, hand-held camera work, and the casting of most of the extras and supporting players from real residents within the Missouri shooting locations. Her scenes play out against a backdrop of ramshackle buildings, cluttered rooms, overgrown yards, and remote woodlands, all saturated in the muted, icy tones of Michael McDonough’s cinematography and capturing the stark character of the region during the inhospitable season of the film’s title. In creating such a tangible sense of place, the director reinforces our feeling of being participants in the drama, making it harder for us to judge these people by our own sensibilities, however much more enlightened we may feel ourselves to be. Even so, the ease with which this society can be used to transpose a story reflecting the moral values of a millennia-old civilization is, in itself, a devastating piece of social commentary.

Winter’s Bone has another level, of course, a more visceral and immediate experience than the intellectual stimulation provided by its reworking of classical myth and its contemporary social observation; it is, on its surface layer, a noir-ish thriller, in which the typical urban landscape is substituted for a bible-belt backwoods setting and the hard-boiled private eye is recast as a hard-edged teenage girl.  It is here that Granik’s movie solidifies itself as superb filmmaking, keeping us riveted with its taut suspense and its constant aura of dread; it’s a testament to the director’s faith in her material that she permits the story to work on its own, eschewing showy cinematic technique or overt depictions of violence and horror. Nothing particularly horrible happens onscreen in Winter’s Bone, with a couple of notable exceptions, but there is a constant expectation that, at any moment, something could go terribly wrong; the air is pregnant with danger, even when we are unsure from whence it comes. When violence does occur, it happens in sudden bursts, catching us unaware and giving it the uncomfortable edge of realism- an approach which only reinforces our constant, nagging fear. As Ree goes deeper into the web of deceit and treachery that hides the answers she seeks, the interwoven relationships and the complexities of the situation become progressively convoluted, making the plot as opaque- and the morality as ambiguous- as in any novel by Raymond Chandler, and despite the pastoral backdrop, the drama is no less gritty. In the end, though resolution is achieved, many questions remain unanswered; in the best noir tradition, the mystery being explored here is really the human experience, and accordingly, the solution can never be complete. The real question of Winter’s Bone is not who did what to whom nor even why they did it, but how to make sense of it and give it meaning.

In all this analytical discussion, it might be easy to neglect giving credit to the cast for their substantial contributions. First and foremost, of course, is young Jennifer Lawrence’s star-making turn as Ree, a remarkable achievement for an actress of any age, in which she forgoes the temptation to sentimentalize and instead gives us an honest portrait of a steely, no-nonsense product of her environment, and yet still manages to let us see the little girl underneath an exterior forced to grow up too fast. John Hawkes is riveting as Uncle Teardrop, another double-edged figure, capturing his volatility and menace and then peeling back the layers to show us the sensitivity and compassion he is forced to repress and the sadness of a man resigned to his station and his fate. Dale Dickey is unforgettable as Merab, perhaps the movie’s most enigmatic character, the sphinx-like guardian at the gate who personifies the adamantine epitome of female power in this backwoods culture- and offers, perhaps, a glimpse of Ree’s future. Sheryl Lee (Laura Palmer of Twin Peaks fame) has a touching cameo as Jessup’s former mistress, tracked down in her home by the determined Ree, and Garret Dillahunt is effective as the sheriff, whose tough-guy front fails to mask his absolute- and justifiable- fear of the people under his jurisdiction. The rest of the cast- many of them non-professional, as mentioned above- add an authentic flavor to the proceedings with their simple, glamourless portrayals; particular mention should go to Marideth Sisco, who makes a powerful appearance as a singer in a living-room bluegrass ensemble as well as contributing her haunting vocals to a handful of other traditional songs prominently featured on the soundtrack.

So, you may ask, is it worth watching? The answer, from my perspective at least, is a definite and resounding yes. Winter’s Bone is a deceptively simple, well-crafted movie that keeps you thinking for days after viewing it, and it’s virtually impossible to find a flaw in its execution, short of nitpicking about divergences from the novel or matters of personal taste. It is not, however, an easy movie to digest, let alone categorize. It presents a harsh and unpleasant vision of a world most of us would prefer not to see, and offers little hope or solace for those who like their slices of life tempered by a Hollywood ending; it will doubtless be equally unfulfilling for viewers who feel the need to walk away with a clear-cut moral stance about what they have just seen. On the surface, it might seem easy to determine the right and the wrong of the various characters’ positions in the events depicted here, but Gravik’s film, like its source novel, will not allow us to make so pat a judgment; though much of what we see may shock us or offend our sensibilities- particularly in regard to the treatment of women and the role of drugs in this community- it is soon becomes difficult to separate our feelings into comfortable black and white categories. Ree is sympathetic, but she her full indoctrination into the ways of her people is never in question- she mistrusts and disrespects the laws and authority of the outside world as much as any of the others, and she makes it clear both by word and deed that she is cut from the same cloth as the rest of her sizable clan; though she fantasizes about escape, she embraces her as a Dolly woman, and there is little doubt that after the final frames, despite the rebellious crusade she has just completed, she will carry on the unbroken tradition of this world, taking her place as a staunch and redoubtable member of the community and teaching the siblings under her charge to respect and preserve its ways. Likewise, Teardrop seems at first to personify everything that is wrong here, unapologetically snorting speed, waving his gun around the kitchen table, and physically dominating “his” women- but as the story progresses we are forced to acknowledge not only his nobility and his kindness, but his own status as a victim of the very behavioral code he represents. He is forced to be a brute, just as surely as the women are required to be subservient. Finally, though the world of Winter’s Bone seems unrelentingly bleak and inhospitable, throughout the film is a thread of the universal redemption that is offered by the shared experience of family; keepsakes, memories, and old photo albums surface throughout the story, and when we see Ree with the little brother and sister that have become, in effect, her children, the dire circumstances that surround them seem distant and unimportant. In the end, it is this sense of the importance of family that comes through, giving us a feeling, however vague, that no matter how much the world may conspire to drag us down, the eternal bond of blood still endures to give us purpose and at least a glimmer of hope that our struggles are not in vain. The title, Winter’s Bone, as explained by the book’s author, is a reference to the idea of a “bone” as a small token, or gift; the coldest season, in this sense, offers up a consolation, for those who work hard enough to find it.  In the story itself, the title is evoked by several circumstances- the most literal will be grimly obvious when it arises- but is, perhaps, finally most pertinent in the way that the tale offers up, out of its difficult and dismaying mix of complications, the clear recognition of family as the center of human existence. It may not be much, but it’s something.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1399683/