Lost Highway: a movie review

Take home David Lynch’s neo-noir mindbender and you’ll get:

– a murderous modern fable on the dangerous slide from love to violence;
– a twisted meditation on postmodern anxiety over the individual’s inability to retain ownership over their own memories and internalized identity in the face of modern narrative and media;
– an adolescent abstract of Woman As Inscrutable Object;
– a messy muddle of a story turned inside-out around itself;
– the languorous Patricia Arquette cast as the femme fatale, complete with Barbara Stanwyck’s hairstyle from Double Indemnity;
– a disheveled brunet Bill Pullman doing his very best Kyle MacLachlan impression as the suspicious husband;
– a weirdly intimate glimpse of David Lynch’s own furniture, which was used on the interior set;
– a soundtrack featuring David Bowie, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, Trent Reznor, and a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song performed by Marilyn Manson;
– a sneaking suspicion that Michael Haneke’s Caché got a flash of inspiration from a scene in Lost Highway;
– a serious case of the creeps from Robert Blake’s indelibly disturbing cameo as The Mystery Man;
– really, really mad at me for suggesting you watch this, whether you love it or hate it.

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Black Swan: a movie review

Let me be frank: I expected to enjoy this film, but not to find it breathtaking or obsession-worthy despite the accolades of many, many respected critics. (I was prepared — even hopeful — that I’d be surprised. I wasn’t.) Is it still worth watching? Absolutely.

Black Swan has a core of intelligence and wit, but the finished product is — perhaps intentionally — a bit crude, both psychologically and narratively. Natalie Portman plays Nina, a tightly controlled, deeply repressed soloist in a prominent ballet company who longs to play the dual leads in “Swan Lake”… but to do so, she must transcend mere technical perfection and open herself to passion and, perhaps, to an inner darkness.

For experienced viewers of psychological suspense films, the surprises in this film are momentary: jumps and startles rather than character-driven revelations. The biggest difference between Black Swan and more generic films of its ilk springs from director Darren Aronofsky’s gift for portraying jarring physicality. The images of Natalie Portman’s too-delicate ballerina wincing and smothering her pain brought little gasps of dismay to my throat, and I jumped at the little reveals even when they felt obviously manipulative.

Unlike so much of Aronofsky’s transgressive work (Pi, Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler), Black Swan walks us step-by-step through some pretty familiar psychological-suspense themes: maternal oppression and conflict, professional rivalry turning into personal vendettas, identity crisis, repressed sexuality bursting out unbidden, the shifting lines between reality and fantasy.

Aronofsky even gives us a little metatextual goose suggesting that his coloring-inside-the-lines approach may be intentional. Early in the film, the ballet director, Thomas, gives a speech about the upcoming production of "Swan Lake" that foreshadows the events we're about to see played out, starting with "“We all know the story… Virginal girl, pure and sweet, trapped in the body of a swan" and ending with "Done to death I know, but not like this. We strip it down, make it visceral and real."

Over the next few weeks, Thomas creates a "Swan Lake" with some edgy elements that nonetheless looks strikingly familiar and traditional, as much a comfortable genre piece as Aronofsky's Black Swan turns out to be. It plays with longstanding melodramatic tropes of female competition and artistic hysteria and also toys knowingly with allusions, direct or oblique, to previous films covering similar territory, most strikingly The Red Shoes, Repulsion, Persona, Perfect Blue, and a whole handful of De Palma flicks. It’s a big splashy B-movie, half melodrama, half horror, all crafted with Aronofsky’s lavish attention and intention.

Lars von Trier’s AntiChrist: a movie review

(Note: I watched AntiChrist knowing almost nothing about the story, and this review will not mention specifics of the story so you may view it in the same unspoiled state.)

Despite Lars von Trier’s pedigree as crafter of upscale arty horrors, it feels odd to call AntiChrist a horror film… but it is truly horrific, and you should know that before you decide to rent it.

In the prologue, we learn that AntiChrist is predicated on the simplest, most brutally realistic horror: the horror of grief, of abysmal guilt, of mistrusting those we love best. But rarely is true horror so intensely wedded to wrenching drama. It’s engrossing and sorrowful and terrible… and deeply, truly scary. AntiChrist shatteringly portrays the crushing physicality of grief: no soft-focus gentle weeping and hankie-dabbing here, but the raw, biting panic and despair that could all too easily escalate into something still more horrible.

Be warned: as we’ve come to expect from von Trier, this film is stomach-churningly graphic (no, really. Really really really. REALLY), uncompromisingly bleak, and some critics decried AntiChrist as offensively misogynistic. I disagree, but that’s beside the point: the message to take away is that AntiChrist will not leave you munching the last of your popcorn as you hum a happy song. It’s grotesque, bleak, revolting, yet it has moments of real beauty.

It’s a polarizing and genuinely shocking work, and its brutal interplay of grace and gracelessness reminds me of nothing so much as a particularly nasty piece of Northern Renaissance religious art — though the religious symbols here are not so easily decoded, with good reason.

Say what you will about Lars von Trier, this is the first film in a long time to really scare me. Knowing his reputation, I was scared before I even hit “play.”

Pontypool: a movie review

From indie director Bruce McDonald (The Tracey Fragments, Hard Core Logo) comes Pontypool, a deliciously taut, intelligently told thriller that breaks all the rules of zombie outbreak films, starting with the most important one: there are no zombies.

What do I mean? If a zombie film has no zombies, what the heck does the word even mean? Well, exactly.

Grizzled veteran actor Stephen McHattie exercises his gruff charm and silky-rough voice as washed-up radio host Grant Mazzy, who starts the morning with announcements of missing cats and snow day rosters, and ends it as the lone broadcaster detailing a mysterious outbreak of violence and illness. The tale is a masterpiece of mediated storytelling: Mazzy and his crew are glued to their helm in the radio station, receiving updates from reporters and civilians in the field, which means that the tension is built by voices and words, not gruesome action scenes.

And it works. Not only does it work; the tension becomes a self-feeding cycle as it gradually dawns on the radio troopers that their reports may be compounding the disaster. This is a lean, elegantly economical piece of storytelling that builds to a horrific crest by allowing us to invest in the players, to piece together their relationships and characters and to imagine for ourselves the horrors offstage… and then the action starts to spill over.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]

The Room: a movie review

Most low-budget vanity projects end up unseen, unknown, unparodied. But not Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. For some reason, this talentless lump of movie rose to prominence as a perfect mistake, a failure of epic proportions, an exemplar of how to do everything, but everything, wrong. The Room became a cult film, spawning screenings around the country and attracting the attention of such media-savvy critics as The A.V. Club and Patton Oswalt, and has brought crowds of renters and theater-goers to their knees with laughter.


[Soak this in: this unpromising trailer actually makes the film look much more competent and well-crafted than it is. Yup.]

I have to admit: The Room had an unexpected effect on me. It’s almost impossible to describe how odd this film is. It’s not just hopelessly inept (though it is certainly that), but deeply uncanny, as if a group of non-Earthlings decided to make a Lifetime channel movie (but inexplicably decided to make it from the perspective of a misogynist) using signifiers that they thought actual humans would recognize: red roses and pillowfights are romantic; saying hi to doggies and supporting young persons of indeterminate age means you’re a Good Person; pictures and portraits of spoons depict, I dunno, domestic comfort.

In The Room, all the conventions of film language (and indeed, of normal life) are a little askew, and it fills the whole movie with a pervasive sense of wrongness. At first it’s pretty funny to see just how wrong it is, how utterly incompetent Wiseau is as a writer, a director, an actor — how completely he fails to convey even the most mundane of daily life to the screen.

After a while, my laughter wore off and a deep despair took hold. I still have not entirely shaken it. (Wiseau’s appearance didn’t help: he looks like Fabio after a week in the grave, and even the way his grayish skin clings to his golem-like frame is pretty unsettling.) Listen, I LOVE bad movies. But The Room is a different creature than, say, Road House or even Bloodrayne. I can understand how and why those films got made, and how and why Boxing Helena got made, and how and why most of absolutely terrible movies get made.

But I don’t understand how and especially why someone spent giant sacks of money to make The Room*, and viewing it made me wonder why anyone tries to do anything. Seeing the film plunged me into a pit of existential angst, and it took days to climb back out. The Room is the abyss, and I have looked into it.

*Unless it’s a money-laundering project, which doesn’t brighten my world-view much.

The Machinist: a movie review

Make no mistake: this is an unflinchingly grim film, and I’m still not sure it’s a good one. But it’s certainly compelling and wrenching to watch.

The Machinist is perhaps best know for the grueling physical transformation Christian Bale underwent to take on the part of Trevor Reznik, the chronically insomniac and obviously troubled lead character. From the first close-up, it’s brutally obvious that there’s no trickery at play here: Trevor’s cadaverous skull wavers unsteadily on the fragile stem of his throat. He’s not just skeletal but snake-like, all sinew and skin and horribly visible bone. Trim little gamine Jennifer Jason Leigh (as Stevie, friendly neighborhood call girl) looks positively lush next to him.

The harsh lighting emphasizes his dreadful emaciation early on, while it still has the power to shock. More shocking still, perhaps, is how quickly we grow accustomed to it. (Bale’s wasted frame, unsettling though it is to see, is not the most gruesome or triggering sight in this bleak, gray world. As the title suggests, Trevor works in a machine shop, and you know what that means. Uh-oh.)

But paradoxically, the realism of Bale’s emaciation, the brutal fact of it, kept pulling me out of the film… and more than that, it spurred me to question: is this movie worth the suffering Bale inflicted upon himself? Is this a piece of art worthy of that deprivation and damage, that self-immolating level of artistic and physical devotion? I suppose only Christian Bale is entitled to make that judgment, but from my place in the audience, I think that Bale’s sacrifice suggests a disproportionate, maybe even a penitential, commitment to craft… or maybe just a misplaced sense of the project’s artistic value.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film — not at all. The Machinist is a well-crafted, uneasy psychological thriller with a deeply unsettling tone. Bale brings his usual intensity and restrained energy to this role, and he manages a remarkable trick: in his scenes with amiable waitress/possible love interest Marie (Aitana Sánchez-Gijón), Trevor’s seemingly relaxed, suave banter is loaded with nervy, murky significance for the audience. Like director Brad Anderson’s gritty no-budget thriller Session 9, The Machinist is suffused with an eerie, uneasy sense of looking through another person’s eyes, suffering their anxieties, afflicted by their blind spots.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]

Possession: a movie review

If you’ve heard only one thing about writer-director Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 cult film Possession, it is almost certainly one of these two: either A) it features a rather untidy scene of Isabelle Adjani flipping out in a subway underpass, or B) it is completely banana-cakes insane. Both of these are understatements.

Possession is often labeled a cult horror film, and it qualifies on both fronts, but it’s also something weirder, something odder, something more self-aggrandizing than just cult or horror… something that might best be summed up as existential nutjobbery, or maybe domestic drama as eschatological disaster.

In the first few scenes, Mark (Sam Neill) returns from a long business trip to his home in cold-war-era Berlin and to his family. But his wife Anna (Adjani at her most luminous) isn’t sure she wants him to stay… and isn’t sure she wants him to leave… and that’s the most certainty we’ll see from either of them for the next two hours.

We know, as Anna might not, that Mark is some sort of shady governmental agent, that he wants to quit, that he’s being shadowed and that their home is under surveillance. Mark’s work means that a pall of nuclear-holocaust anxiety hangs over the first act of the film, but our writer-director downplays it until, rather suddenly and with a jarring comic note, he cashes in on it in the last act.

Though Mark and Anna insist repeatedly on the necessity of maintaining normalcy for their only-occasionally-appearing young son, Bob, both parents disintegrate almost immediately. Indeed, it happens at such a frantic pace as to be almost entirely uncinematic in its nature; it’s hard to develop empathy for characters who start out screaming and never stop, or to be anxious about their state of mind when they both go insane in the film’s first act.

The story itself is pretty coherent, surprisingly enough, if completely mad; Zulawski himself cheerfully recounts his elevator pitch for Possession: “it’s about a woman who [redacted] with an octopus.” And, uh, it is, if by “octopus,” he meant some tentacled… thing… that is either a mind-controlling monster, a gestating doppelganger, or a lump of abstract guilt and fury made carnal. Or all three.

But even this uneasy coherence develops despite the best efforts of Neill and Adjani as Mark and Anna. I can’t blame either actor; they are swinging for the fences in these roles, reeling around in an unremitting wallow of screaming marital discord, spitting blood and keening with agony and smashing cartons of yogurt again walls and trashing their homes and WHAT THE HECK. They’re clearly doing everything in their power — and I do mean everything — to present a harrowing portrait of a marriage in turmoil.

No, it’s the director who should be taken to task: he simply eschews moderation, ignoring the narrative and aesthetic forms that allow us to engage thoughtfully with a work: how quiet allows tension to develop, how calm lows allow us to see fervid highs and vice versa, how repetition robs even the most shocking displays of their power. Possession consists almost exclusively of climactic scenes, highly pitched scenes, vivid disorienting scenes that would be staggering if they were set against a backdrop of daily life, or if they capped a slowly climbing rise in activity.

Instead, these scenes spit out like the rambling of a madman, no punctuation or pause or respite. The whole movie passes like a fever dream, howling its fury and anxiety… up until the last few minutes, which are quieter. Here, the film’s most haunting moments unspool in relative calm, with no blood or beatings or tentacle-thingies, with none of the hysterically overwrought agony of the previous two hours, just the simple pleading of a child and an unforgettable sound in the background. It’s almost worth seeing for those few minutes. Almost.

Allow me to leave you with one last word: BANANACAKES.

[This review is cross-posted to The VideoReport.]