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Friday
Mar152013

The Silence (2010)

That Dripping, Queasy, Beautiful Angst

On the surface, watching a two-hour German drama about killer pedophiles at 3am is a bad idea. Don't get me wrong: I love a good murder mystery, and have no problem reading subtitles,* but nothing about Baran bo Odar's The Silence had me rushing to press "Play". Fortunately, the charged, stirring performances and challenging ideas bursting at this film's seams are far more effective than coffee--and oddly fun in a way that makes the icky bits (a little) easier to handle.

The Silence begins with the 1986 rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl named Pia (Helene Luise Doppler) at the hands of college groundskeeper Peer Sommer (Ulrich Thomsen). Peer's best friend, Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), an awkward young student, witnesses the crime, but is too freaked out to step in. They dispose of the evidence and part ways, with Timo fighting guilt not just for his inaction, but also for the sexual urges he'd been suppressing in the hours leading up to the attack--which he spent in Peer's apartment, watching child pornography.

Flash forward twenty-three years. Pia's death, once the subject of a media super-storm, is now but a memory marked by a wooden cross in the field near where her body was found. But the mystery still eats at Elena (Katrin Sass), her emotionally crippled mother, and Krischan (Burghart Klaußner), the newly retired, alcoholic detective dogged by his career's greatest unsolved case. On the anniversary of Pia's disappearance, another girl is found dead, compelling Krischan to unofficially team up with an equally damaged young cop named David (Sebastian Blomberg), whose wife recently died of cancer.

If you're already feeling squeamish aboard this misery train, watch out: we haven't even left the station. The story also follows the new victim's parents (played with understated dread and battered, underlying love by Karoline Eichornn and Roeland Weisnekker), and we get a taste of the middle-aged Timo's new life--which includes an ostensibly happy wife and children.

Where most films of this kind would likely focus on the investigation's sensational intricacies or showcase boisterous performances of over-written dialogue, The Silence works its way under the skin by opting for a world view based in Naturalism. Bo Odar, adapting Jan Costin Wagner's novel, fills his movie with unhinged characters whose inner tortures contrast the relentlessly tranquil natural world in which they live. For every shot of David and Timo trying to keep their shit together, there are three fly-overs of oblivious woods and wheat fields. The only two characters to make it out of the story unscathed do so by accepting their place in a cold, uncaring universe. Like it or not, the film's hero (I use that term based solely on the winner of the Naturalism game) is a class A predator in every sense of the word; more importantly, he's a survivor.

It's not every day that I'm presented with a film that suggests the so-called "good guys" are suckers. I have to say, it's refreshing--intellectually and emotionally, too, if I'm being honest. Though there's a strong David Fincher influence in bo Odar's visuals and choice of material, The Silence is more akin to Todd Field's Little Children than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All three films tackle twisty, uncomfortable subject matter and center on deeply flawed characters. But for all its conspiracy, rape, and depravity, Dragon Tattoo ends happily. Little Children (also a movie about pedophilia) is a mostly effective drama that winds up a cartoon because its characters are either too stupid, too selfish, or too trapped in their own heads to forge better lives. But bo Odar's movie takes matters to the ultimate next level of cynicism, boldly stating that even the noblest of men is doomed to fall short of happiness as long as he aspires to control things other than his own reaction to inevitably unfair change.

I don't even agree with this thesis, necessarily, but the writer/director sells the hell out of his viewpoint. The most interesting argument comes disguised in the dynamic between Peer and Timo. The elder, the murderer, is aware that he's a monster and has seemingly made an agreement with himself to not fight what he sees as part of his DNA. Timo, on the other hand, has built such a wall of cognitive and spiritual dissonance, that we're led to believe he "cured" himself of his urges until Peer showed back up in his life. The Nature of The Silence is not the bogeyman of climate change or volatile volcanoes; it's Human Nature, a much trickier beast to wrangle--and an almost impossible one to reconcile with.

All that armchair psycho-babble is my long-winded way of saying that you should seek out The Silence at once. You bet it's tough to get through, as is all great, challenging art. It's also a gorgeous movie full of powerhouse performances and big ideas that will haunt you long after the lights come up.

Note: If you're in Chicago this week, you can check out The Silence on the big screen at The Music Box Theatre.

*Seriously, if one more idiot complains to me that subtitles distract them from what's happening on-screen, I'm going to ask about their harrowing struggles with highway billboards and TV commercials.

Sunday
Mar102013

The Evil Dead (1981)

Putting Away Childish Things

Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead is a movie for children and aspiring filmmakers--exclusively. While a ground-breaking, controversial "video nasty" in 1981, today it's the horror-movie equivalent of Stan Lee: a revered pop cultural totem that modern audiences simply can't turn to for thrilling, relevant entertainment.

It hurts to write that. For decades I thought The Evil Dead was one of the most disturbing films ever; so much so that I was unable to play the DVD without Raimi and star Bruce Campbell's lively, hilarious commentary track accompanying it. Yesterday, I revisited the movie on blu-ray and had to reconcile years of amber-frozen teenage memories with a production drowning in cheese and charm, but devoid of genuine scares.

Campbell plays Ash, one of five college kids who travel to a remote cabin in the woods for a weekend party. In addition to mounted deer heads and an antique clock, they also find a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a blood-inked book bound in human flesh. On playing the recording, they learn that a researcher and his wife had discovered the "book of the dead" in some ruins and brought it to the mountains for undisturbed study. Its incantations, when read aloud, unleashed ancient demonic spirits who possess and feed off of the living.

Cue Ash's friends being lured outside by strange voices and scary noises. Cue the woods coming to life and raping Ash's sister, Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss). Cue Scott (Richard DeManincor) freaking out and trying--futilely--to abandon his friends in the midst of a crisis. Cue Ash's girlfriend Linda (Betsy Baker) hosting and evil spirit and singing in a creepy litle-girl's voice. Cue everything else you've seen in movies that did a better job of copying The Evil Dead than The Evil Dead did at being a horror movie.

Don't get me wrong: this film is a massive technical achievement by an insanely talented young director. To watch The Evil Dead is to receive a master class in creating innovative shots, making the most out of a limited location, and delivering an audio mix that's far more intimidating than anything that happens on screen. But you'll have to suffer through atrocious acting,* fright-makeup that alternates between mildly effective gore and droopy gray oatmeal smeared on actors' faces, and a plot that drops dead thirty minutes in.

I know people don't necessarily go to horror movies for consciousness expansion, but The Evil Dead really stops being a movie a third of the way through--mutating into a demo reel for cinematographer Tim Philo, makeup effects artist Tom Sullivan, and editor Edna Ruth Paul (all working at the maestro's behest, of course). Once the demons take over everyone except our hero, the remaining fifty minutes are devoted to Campbell freaking out and chopping squishy limbs off of mannequins. And I'm not sure if the mark of a great horror movie is pulling the audience out of the story every five minutes to marvel at camerawork or wonder how long it took to film the seemingly endless stop-motion zombie decompositions.

It's hardly surprising that Raimi and company followed up this film with 1987's Evil Dead 2: Dead by Dawn--which is both a remake and a sequel. Watch these back-to-back and notice how the melodrama and poor execution of the first film are used as the second, more accomplished movie's comedic template. I've seen the sequels multiple times, and am amazed at how much of Dead by Dawn was lifted directly from the original (and put to much better use).

Other genre staples like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Hellraiser, or Night of the Living Dead can be watched and appreciated by anyone, un-ironically, without qualifiers or assurances beforehand about the great things they led to. The Evil Dead amounts to an impressive celluloid sketch that is unlikely to entertain those who don't already know who Sam Raimi is. Look past the fanboy admiration and rose-colored nostalgia and you're left, sadly, with a rather boring, well-filmed zombie movie.

This brings me to the forthcoming remake, which debuted at SXSW this weekend to mostly positive reviews. I won't wander too far into the wilderness of speculation, but when I first heard that a no-name director was being brought in to "re-imagine a classic", my eyes popped out and rolled across the floor (stopping at a dried-out, limited-edition Thing-prequel vomit bag). Horror fans have been stuck in this bear trap of mediocrity for a decade now, and it may be time to rise up against the faceless, money-grubbing pricks who won't leave horror classics alone.

But what if some of those classics aren't all that great? Could a passionate kid with a bloody homage as his calling card be just the shot in the arm our beloved genre needs? I suppose we'll find out next month, when Fede Alvarez's Evil Dead opens nationwide. For now, I can say that I'm not nearly as skeptical as I was twenty-four hours ago. In fact, I say, "Have at it".

*Remember, this was loooong before Bruce Campbell was "BRUCE CAMPBELL!!!"

Thursday
Mar072013

Somebody Up There Likes Me (2013)

Bemusement Park

Fucking hipsters. Last night, I answered a knock at my door. Slouched against the frame was a kid in his mid-twenties wearing a replica of Mr. McFeely's costume from the old Mister Rogers' Neighborhood TV show. He mumbled "Speedy delivery", and handed me a long pressboard envelope sealed with a green wax "C". In a flash, he was back on his turn-of-the-century bicycle, frustratedly navigating the icy sidewalk in a way that suggested he hadn't worked so hard all week.

The envelope contained a hard copy of the review you're about to read; several gig flyers for the nerdcore banjo group Sandy Hook Gun Show; and a Cap'n Crunch box top (calligraphed with "Vintage 1983" on the back). In lieu of a cover letter or contact info, the two ringed pages--no doubt typed on a vintage IBM Selectric with an offset "k"--ended at a glitter-pen signature and a crude reproduction of Kurt Vonnegut's "asshole" drawing.

Unfortunately, I won't be able to attend The Music Box Theatre's exclusive premiere event this weekend for Bob Byington's latest movie, but someone apparently got an early look and sent me the following. Presented here, without comment or correction, is "Somebody Up There Likes Me: Being the Strictest of Critical Analyses for the Most Accomplished Accomplishment in the History of Independent Cinema by D.H. Wennington-Howsforth (aka 'Crunchy')".

Love is for fucking idiots and old people (redundancy alert!). But if I HAD to love something it would be Somebody Up There Likes Me, the best English-language film of the last forty-six years. In it, Keith Poulson stars as Max, a guy who finds a magical suitcase one day that makes it so he never grows old. And I don't mean he doesn't just age either--he basically just is in his early 20ies for the rest of his life. Which is great, because he doesn't have to care about anyone the way old people do as they grow old. He's just sassy and doesn't give a shit or have any kind of reaction to anything around him. Alot of movies try to make you care about the main character, but Bob Byington doesn't care if you care, and he refuses to let Max become what the squares might call "a relatable human being".

It's about time a film spoke to MY generation. The way Byington establishes Max's girlfriend Lyla's character (Jess Weixler) as a hot doormat who eats breadsticks all the time is GENIUS because he gets rid of the antique notion that you have to define your characters or commit to doing either a farce or a comedy with something to say. He blurs the lines all over the place so that by the end, nothing's really funny or really effective--which is HILARIOUS. I watched this with a group of acquaintances and we kept looking at each other to see if it was okay to laugh. We sat through the whole movie without cracking a smile. But after the credits, we had a four-hour conversation about why the dry irony was so funny and absolutely lost our fucking minds. My roommate even doubled over when I told him that Max's snarky, above-it-all reaction to Lyla's dad's cancer diagnosis and subsequent suicide was probably the funniest thing he would ever SEE.

In other kinds of movies it would be some big, dramatic deal that Max and Lyla had a kid that Max never made time for or even seemed to care about at all--or that he had a decades-long affair with a hot chick that he eventually hires to be his housekeeper so they could be closer to the bone zone. But SUTLM knows that love is a construct invented by college professors and greeting card companies. So the characters just bounce off of (and in and out of) each other and carry on with no one ever raising their voice or showing emotion.

The only exception is Max's best friend Sal (Nick Offerman) who threatens to de-rail the whole production by interjecting what old people call "wisdom" into the proceedings. Lucky for us, Byington quickly brings him down to Max's level--having him be a pothead and a poon hound who follows Max around pathetically for the whole movie. For a second there, I thought Offerman was going to class up the show by letting his character evolve. But the director kept that shit in check.

Byington does this cool thing where he fast-forwards every five years to see what the characters are up to. This is cool because we get to see Max be more selfish and unable to cope with the fact that everyone he knows just becomes more pathetic with age. Lyla's dad leaves him and Lyla a crap-ton of money, meaning he never has to work at anything to get ahead. Even when the money goes away in a divorce he rebounds 'cause he kept a bunch of it hidden from his wife (ALWAYS a good idea if you're dumb enough to get married). There's this hilarious thing too where Max's kid is always seen wearing a blue button-down shirt and a red baseball cap--even as he grows old every five years. It doesn't make any sense, but that's why you laugh because it's so RANDOM!

The one thing I hated hated HATED about this movie is the fact that you see every girl naked except the one girl you really WANT to see naked. Clarissa (the affair chick, played by Stephanie Hunt--who for some reason begins the movie with a thick Spanish accent that goes away after one scene; again, SO funny). wears alot of bikinis and is always talking about wanting to get fucked. But we never see the goods. I guess she wants to be taken seriously as an actor or whatever, but I had a serious need to see dem tit-tahs (see what I did there?). Maybe its cause Hunt looks like a Spanish Natasha Lyonne before she got fat and crazy, but damn...

Everything else is great, though. Max keeps getting rewarded for being the world's biggest jerk, and everyone around him is a desperate, miserable idiot. The title suggests that he's leading a divinely-granted life or whatever, but that's the biggest punch line--cause Max knows (like EVERYONE who went to school) that there is no god. I think it's great that Byington made a movie that pretends to be about big issues and life changes but doesn't bother to have it make sense to anyone who's actually experienced half the things he depicts.

I had to sit through this bullshit movie once called My Name is Jerry, where this guy goes through a mid-life crisis or whatever. It coulda been awesome, except the main character was a nice, boring dude with problems. Fuck that noise! Max is so much better cause he's mean to everyone he encounters and his level of self-absorption is off the charts. Maybe "grown-ups" wouldn't give him the time of day (much less a job), but he's my fucking hero.

This movie is just like Byington's other flick Registered Sex Offender, but its better. This guy knows how to write smug assholes like nobody's business. And the day he matures as a filmmaker and comes out of his bubble where being a monster isn't something to be cheered for is the day they'll find me hanging from a skinny-jeans noose.

Tuesday
Mar052013

West Side Story (1961)

Cities of the Damned

West Side Story will mess with your head, especially if you live in Chicago. Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise's zippy 1961 musical is colorful, proudly multi-cultural, and bursting with life, just like my beautiful Midwestern home. But underneath both of these photogenic surfaces wages a hyper-charged youth-culture war, fought by desperate, directionless soldiers. If you've never seen the film, I don't blame you for raising an eyebrow when I suggest that West Side Story was The Wire of its day. Sure, it's goofy in parts--and corny by the standards of a generation who can't imagine teenagers casually wearing dress jackets--but the grit, anger, and violence in this urban re-telling of Romeo and Juliet will rip your heart out in mid beat.

Set in early 1960s New York, the movie spans thirty-six hectic hours in the on-going turf battle between Puerto Rican street gang The Sharks, and their Caucasian rivals, The Jets. Lead Shark Bernardo (George Chakiris) and lead Jet Riff (Russ Tamblyn) hate each other's guts simply, it is implied, because of age-old immigrant/native skepticism. This rivalry has trickled down to the lowest levels of each organization, creating blood-thirsty monsters out of even comic-book-reading simpletons and newly minted teenagers fresh off the boat. Following an opening number that sees a cluster of Sharks wandering into the wrong neighborhood, the gangs agree to settle their score after a high school dance later that night.

Riff tries to recruit his best friend Tony (Richard Beymer) for the fight, but the punk-turned-stock-boy doesn't want any trouble. After some coaxing, Tony agrees to at least show up to the dance--which is where he first meets Maria (Natalie Wood). She's a stunner--a gorgeous and graceful young girl with the loveliest Spanish accent Tony has ever heard. Yep, you guessed it: not only is Maria associated with The Sharks, she's also Bernardo's little sister.

From here, the story develops as all such stories do, with star-crossed lovers keeping their budding romance a secret, while also remaining loyal to factions that may never see eye to eye. What makes West Side Story special is that it's a musical--meaning all the tired back-story and exposition that's meant to put us in the characters' heads is delivered lyrically, memorably, and unexpectedly.

Rather than a sad-sack monologue about growing up poor in Puerto Rico, we get the lively showstopper "America", wherein Bernardo's girlfriend Anita (Rita Moreno) offers a glamorous, consumer-culture contrast to The Sharks' pity-party. Likewise, Riff and his gang recount their childhood tribulations with the up-beat, wacky number "Gee, Officer Krupke".This whirlwind tale of neglectful, drug-addled parents, parole officers, head-shrinkers, and judges is enough to make anyone insane--and The Jets sell themselves as compelling, lovable lunatics.

It's not all fun and games for the audience, though. From the gangs' climactic knife-fight under the highway to what I can only assume was Anita's foiled gang-rape at the hands of The Jets, West Side Story turns tragic very quickly, as if Robbins, Wise, and screenwriter Ernest Lehman (working from Arthur Laurents' Broadway script) wanted to lure people in with the promise of a good time and then force-feed them a thesis on race relations. It works, and only the culturally incapacitated can watch this thing and not think about similar struggles happening in their own back yards.

Tony's elderly boss, Doc (Ned Glass), balls up his fists in frustration as these kids pretend to be friends when the cops are around, but break out the switchblades, pipes, and zip guns as soon as no one's looking. Like Rebel Without a Cause (in which Wood also starred), West Side Story perfectly captures the showy turbulence of adolescent emotions that results partially from hormones but also from an innate lack of perspective. Tony, Riff, and Bernardo fight over streets and people who they assume were theirs to begin with--and wind up losing everything over absolutely nothing.

Though musicals have enjoyed a resurgence in recent years, this one might present a challenge to modern audiences. No amount of Glee re-runs or Les Miserables accolades can quite prepare you for the sight of choreographed, seemingly X-Men-strength deflection gestures and operatic warbles bursting out of perfectly good conversations. But West Side Story dazzles with great songs, greater performances, and a massive heart that makes us pull for these tragic characters It's just a shame that, fifty-two years on, so many of us are still deaf to its lessons.

Monday
Feb252013

After Porn Ends (2010)

Grab a Tissue

Two thirds of the way into After Porn Ends, adult-film expert Luke Ford undoes director Bryce Wagoner's previous hour by suggesting everything he'd captured may be a lie. The documentary profiles fourteen former porn stars, chronicling their tragic and/or accidental entry into the business; their at once glamorous and degrading careers; and their unexpected adventures in retirement. But Ford posits that we'll never know the truth about these people, whose entire professional lives were built around selling positivity and fantasy on camera.

It's a real buzz-kill, because After Porn Ends is so captivating. No matter what your views on pornography, Wagoner's film has something for you. Are you a decades-long skin-flick enthusiast? You'll likely get a kick out of learning where your yesteryear favorites ended up. Are you a casual, modern fan whose knowledge of everything adult before 1999 begins and ends with Boogie Nights? Here's some genre-spanning perspective for you. Do you hate pornography and believe that everyone involved is going straight to hell? Meet the handful of recently-saved Christians who dedicate their lives to eradicating the industry and walking current stars down the narrow path to Jesus.

In addition to Ford, the movie features a number of talking egg-heads who offer brief analyses of the porn-star psyche and how society treats performers once they break away from the biz.* There are some great observations here, but none as genuine as those that come from the stars themselves. The legendary Nina Hartley speaks as eloquently as a senator on all facets of her profession, while laughingly dismissing the notion of actually getting into politics: "There are too many pictures out there of me with a cock up my ass." Retired star/producer Randy West laments the fact that he can't participate in charity golf tournaments because most foundations think of porn as a filthy industry--even as they fall all over themselves to take money from politicians and multi-millionaire businessmen.

Not everyone is as eloquent or easy to watch. Former California gubernatorial candidate Mary Carey comes across as a pure media creature, the kind of perky blonde with naturally large breasts who can't understand why those attributes alone haven't made her a mainstream superstar. Likewise, Shelley Lubben has a sad story of drugs, prostitution, and familial abandonment to tell, culminating in her founding the industry-bashing/performer-rescue outfit The Pink Cross. Her bona fides as a "star" are questionable, as she made a whopping three films between 1993 and 1994. I don't question her passion or her cause, but blaming porn for her poor life choices is a bit like blaming the Mars corporation for losing one's legs to diabetes.

This is perhaps After Porn Ends' greatest revelation: the idea that adult entertainment, like pills and booze, is a gateway to destruction--but only in the absence of self-control and a quality support system. Take Asia Carrera, arguably the 90s second-biggest female star (next to Jenna Jameson). A self-described, unpopular nerd in school, she got into modeling and eventually porn as a way to both pay for higher education and gain self-esteem. She did both, not only becoming a member of MENSA, but also conquering the industry and leaving of her own volition. Carrera moved her family to Utah, where pornography is illegal, to raise her two young children in anonymity. Wagoner skillfully unravels his star subject's deceptively happy life, culminating in a "Where Are They Now" end-credits note that will make your heart dip (it won't sink, 'cause Carrera's fate implies hope, but the post-script is definitely a bubble-buster for such an inspirational story).

Likewise, Richard Pacheco left the business in the early 80s just as the AIDS scare came onto the scene. His wife gave him an ultimatum: stop having unprotected sex with lots of strange women or stay married and be a father to their children. One of Pacheco's co-stars, John Leslie, also retired decades ago, having grown weary of (or simply having grown up) the travel, the headaches, and being away from his spouse. In the ensuing years, he became a painter. Yes, I thought the same thing as you when I first heard that the ex-porn star was now an "artist", but watching Leslie pull watercolors from flat-bed drawers in his studio, I immediately wondered where I could buy prints--or at least a large-format book of his collected works.

I would love to see Wagoner follow this film up with a look at porn in the Internet Age--specifically, what current producers and stars think of their careers and what life might be like after it's all over. This may be impossible, considering one of the staples of success in adult film seems to be a lack of self-awareness and forward thinking (barring rare exceptions like Carrera). But After Porn Ends only encapsulates the VHS and DVD era, barely tipping its toes into the massive changes in business models and delivery systems that on-line content has necessitated. Hell, this movie came out three years ago, which is practically centuries in the technology timeline. Maybe we'll get a sequel in a few years, catching up with stars old and new, like a skin-flick version of Paul Almond's Up series.

I guess that brings us back to Ford's assertion that one can never know when a porn star is telling the truth (look no further than Citizen Kane for a "legit" movie's parallel thesis). Were this a bubble-gum documentary in the vein of Justin Bieber: Never Say Never, I might second-guess my reaction to the performers' stories. Because the movie is the furthest thing from a glamorous depiction of adult entertainment as you're likely to find, though, I choose to take its subjects at face value. Thanks to Wagoner's compelling, devastating portraits, I'll never think of porn in the same way again. Consider this a glowing recommendation to film buffs and a stern warning to frequent masturbators--unless you're into shame-whacking, in which case After Porn Ends is a win-win.

A Note for Netflix Commenters: I discovered After Porn Ends when it popped up in my "Watch Instantly" carousel. Unsure if it was worth my time, I clicked on the star ratings and was blown away by this comment: "I am very much against pornography, and I was surprised to find that they do have porn scenes in this documentary. So, I had to turn it off. DO NOT watch this if you are not ok with full on porn scenes."

Three things:

  1. By this logic, Morgan Spurlock should have kept the Big Macs off-camera during his fast-food documentary Super Size Me.
  2. If you want to dissuade casual Netflix viewers from watching a porn documentary, don't mention that it has "full on porn scenes". Say something like, "Fortunately, there were no full-on porn scenes", and the majority of us will keep on browsing.
  3. Please don't claim that a movie contains "full on porn scenes" when its only depiction of hard-core penetration involves Asia Carrera talking about her husband's fatal car accident. Until you've seen Sasha Grey bark like a dog while taking on a room full of sweaty dudes, you have no idea what "full on porn" even looks like.

*And, yes, they uniformly look like the kinds of guys you'd see on the street and think, "He looks like he watches a lot of porn".