Film 2009 #141 – Antichrist

Antichrist (2009)
Directed by Lars von Trier
Starring Charlotte Gainsbourg, Willem Dafoe

Director von Trier wants you to not simply be unsettled, but he wants you to be in a place where you are completely uncomfortable. Once he has you in that place he can begin to burrow under your skin and really get to work. The opening sequence of his latest opus, Antichrist is designed to do just that. The soundtrack is blaring, the images are stark and…um, yes that is actual penetration you’re seeing. And that heavily jarring scene is key to understanding what von Trier is trying to do in this film.

The plot concerns an unnamed couple (Gainsbourg and Dafoe) who are in the midst of orgasm when their toddler son falls out the window of their apartment to his death. Off screen, the wife spends time in a mental hospital and her husband wants to help her work through her grief. His motives are a bit suspect; does he truly want to help her or does he simply not want to be reminded of his own guilt? His desperate need to heal her leads them to their secluded cabin in the woods, nicknamed Eden.

Von Trier is playing his traditional game of taking a genre and twisting it around into something that suits his own aesthetics. The horror in the film is slow burning and abstract and, when the gore does occur, it is much harsher than American audiences are used to. I was reminded of Michael Haenke’s Funny Games (especially the American remake)in how it was intentional designed to play out slowly and then completely exceed the expectations of violence in the audience. Von Trier is setting out not only to antagonize an audience wanting to be spoon fed horror tropes but also to offend the film “elite” he see saws back and forth with as “darling” and “dismissed”.

The core of the film is less supernatural and more metaphorical. It’s intentional that the couple are never named and end up in a Grimm-like forest complete with talking animals. While superficially it is about one husband’s total lack of respect for his wife as an adult individual. On a larger stage it saying a lot about sexuality, guilt we associate with our children, and humanity’s relation to the world around it. Definitely not a film for the faint of heart but containing much more beyond the fervor surrounding it.


Film 2009 #180 – Ballast

Ballast (2008)
Directed by Lance Hammer
Starring Micheal Smith, Jr., JimMyron Ross, Tarra Riggs

It begins with the discovery of a man who killed himself with pills. His body is found in his home during the winter in a Mississippi Delta township and has a life-changing effect on the last three members of his family.

In the hands of a Hollywood studio this film would have felt the need to be over-emotive in its themes. Instead, first time feature director, Lance Hammer shows considerable restraint. Reactions are subdued and brooding, a truer reflection of how people deal with tragedy in their families. The landscape of rural Mississippi during the bitter winter adds to the tone of grief felt by the three main characters of the film. It’s interesting to note that the landscape is so wide open yet the characters all seem to be constrained and locked up in how they interact.

The plot follows Darius (Smith, Jr), Marlee (Riggs), and James (Ross). Darius is the deceased brother who attempts suicide on himself after discovering his brother. After recovering from the attempt, he delivers his brother’s will to the ex-wife and estranged son. Their various problems in life come to the surface and through their tense relationships with one another they come to an understanding.

The film presents an angle of the African-American experience rarely seen on film. Typically, we see only urban black youth in our theaters and Ballast focuses on the rural experience of the culture. The economic struggle appears more desolate and hopeless mainly because of the void-like expanse of nothingness surrounding them. Hammer chose to use local non-professional actors in the film and the choice results in amazing performances. The sadness and anger is so natural and real and truly displays the after effects of a suicide on the people left behind. The most revelatory aspect of the film is its abruptness. Throughout the film, jump cuts are used but most importantly the beginning and conclusion of the film are sudden. There’s a lot about the past we can assume from passing pieces of dialogue. As for the future, there are lot of plot points left unanswered but it fits with the cinéma vérité like tone of the picture. At the end, Ballast exists as a slice of life depiction of people dealing with tragedy across all fronts of their lives.

Film 2009 #177 – The House of the Devil

The House of the Devil (2009)
Directed by Ti West
Starring Jocelin Donahue, Tom Noonan, Greta Gerwig

Horror has become ironic, much to its detriment. The slasher films of the 1980s began to peel away at the true horrific atmosphere of horror, with characters such as Jason and Freddy becoming cartoon characters. Wes Craven’s Scream franchise pushed horror further away from the realm of providing actual scares and the torture porn borne out of the Saw series put the nail in the coffin. Young director Ti West makes a push to return to the slow burning tension of pre-ironic horror by composing this retro scare flick.

The film focuses on Samantha (Donahue), a college sophomore just signing a lease for an apartment she can’t afford. The landlady is played by veteran actress Dee Wallace, best known for her roles in ET and the classic horror flicks The Howling and Cujo. Samantha, desperate for money, answers a flier on campus asking for a babysitter. She’s driven to house in the woods on the outskirts of town by her friend (Gerwig) who becomes suspicious when the owner (Noonan) reveals that the babysitting gig was not what it seems. Samantha will be in charge of watching the family’s elderly grandmother while they are out. Samantha agrees to the change in terms and so begins the slow boil of the picture, ending in a macabre satanic denouement.

The most jarring feature of the film is its aesthetics. West purposefully shot the film on 16mm to make it resemble the low budget horror films of his childhood. In addition, the plot capitalizes on the “satanic panic” that many of us 80s babies remember parents developing a paranoiac fear of. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is kept subtle, never going over the top until the final 10 minutes. West is definitely a student of this genre showing his expertise all the way down to the design of the opening and ending credits. A great film that shows its love for the old school horror film without having to drench itself in irony.

Hypothetical Film Festival #1 – Evolution of the Western

From time to time, I come up with ideas for film festivals. The themes can be as varied as a focus on a single director or genre and even antecedent film festivals, which feature films that inform about a certain director’s aesthetic. The parameter I set for myself with these festivals is that they can contain up to only 7 films.

This particular film festival programming was inspired by watching a Mad Max marathon on AMC and realizing that the plots were all archetypal western plots. The Road Warrior in particular felt like a post-apocalyptic Shane or one of Eastwood’s Man With No Name films. Without further ado, the list:

1) Shane (1953)
Directed by George Stevens
Starring Alan Ladd, Jack Palance

This film contains the most recurring Western plot of a mysterious stranger arriving to come to the aid of citizens being terrorized. Not much to add, other than the 1960s Batman series featured a cowboy villain named Shane that was a directed reference to this film.

2) The Searchers (1956)
Directed by John Ford
Starring John Wayne, Natalie Wood

Not Ford or Wayne’s first Western but arguably their greatest. The film has all the wonderful scenery of Monument Valley on display but also present Wayne in an atypical light. While, he is the hero of the picture, Wayne’s character is also a staunch racist and ends up alienated from his family because of this.

3) Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

Directed by Sergio Leone
Starring Charles Bronson, Jason Robards, Henry Fonda

Leone was a student of the American Western, John Ford’s work in particular. To make this “ultimate” western, Leone and co-writer Dario Argento watched dozens and dozens of Westerns. They were able to film on location in Monument Valley as well and Leone’s awe is apparent in the film. Not to be stuck making a dull, predictable film it was decided to cast Henry Fonda as the villain. This was such a controversial move that when the film was aired on American television the introduction of Fonda’s Frank killing a child was edited out.

4)Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973)
Directed by Sam Peckinpah
Starring James Coburn, Kris Kristofferson, Bob Dylan

The rise of the anti-hero archetype in the 1970s brought about Westerns with much bleaker protagonists than previously seen. These were men who traditionally had been the black hats in bygone eras. In the same way that Bonnie & Clyde turned the murderous gangsters into heroic figures so did Peckinpah with this portrayal of Billy the Kid. The film is also notable for having a soundtrack written and performed by Bob Dylan, a true sign of the change in this genre.

5) The Road Warrior (1981)

Directed by George Miller
Starring Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence

While at first glance, this film appears to be a punk-aesthetic sci-fi pic it is in actuality a remix of the Shane plot. The mysterious stranger (Gibson) shows up just in time to help a struggling group of survivors combat the maniacal barbarians outside their gates. In this reinvention, the Shane figure is a mercenary, only out for his own self-interest. He is broken eventually, in particular by the admiration of a feral child. A very refreshing take on a worn out plot.

6) Unforgiven (1990)
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Clint Eastwood, Morgan Freeman, Gene Hackman

This film is the tombstone (no pun intended) of the traditional Western. Eastwood was trained by the best when it came to the genre, Sergio Leone. As a result, he respects the tropes but also makes sure to emphasize that this film marks an ending of sorts. The protagonist, William Munny (Eastwood) is an old, broken gunslinger who is now living with the psychological fallout of his past exploits. The film also incorporates the anti-hero device with the villain being a corrupt sheriff (Hackman) allowing his men to terrorize his town’s populace. A bleak conclusion is apparent from the beginning and Eastwood delivers what some critics have referred to as “the eulogy of the Western”.

7) The Proposition (2005)
Directed by John Hilcoat
Starring Guy Pearce, Danny Huston, Ray Winstone, Emily Watson

Around the same time the West was being explored in the United States, Australia was undergoing a similar period of lawlessness and expansion. In this film, Charlie Burns (Pearce) is made a deal by the local law (Winstone) to bring in his older, more sociopathic brother (Huston) in exchange for the life of his younger brother. Hilcoat, who just recently opened The Road, presents a Western tone poem. The film moves between harsh brutality and transcendental contemplative nature. The terrain of Australia is given a deeply mystic atmosphere by the aboriginal influence and haunting score by Nick Cave (who also wrote the screenplay).

Film 2009 #109 – In The Loop

In The Loop (2009)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
Starring James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Tom Hollander, Peter Capaldi

“War is unforeseeable.”

With this statement from an interview Simon Foster, the U.K.’s Secretary of State for International Development starts a hellstorm of media attention. He’s met with the ire of the Prime Minister enforcer, Malcolm Tucker and told he has to work damage control. Foster and his aide Toby journey to the United States and attempt to play the political game.

Armando Iannucci came to fame in the U.K. through his work writing and producing comedic series, in particular Knowing Me Knowing You and I’m Alan Partridge, both semi-improvised shows starring Steve Coogan. He was also the mind behind The Thick of It, a satirical look at the goings on in the Prime Minister’s office and what would become the foundation of In the Loop.

While American filmmakers feel a need to make their political films hard-hitting or iconic idolatry, Iannucci opts for the stance of pointing out the epic buffoonery that goes on behind the scenes of the most powerful in the world. The relationships in the film are all a series of adolescent one-upmanship. The methodology of going to war for many of the characters is simply to prove a rival wrong or usurp their position.

Iannucci and his actors are extremely comfortable with language and the dialogue is strengthened by that confidence. There are moments that feel like the dialogic equivalent of a blockbuster film’s shoot out and explosion sequences. This is also an incredibly subversive film that works to show incompetence at every level and a disconnect between those in power and the people at the bottom. One particular sequence involves Steve Coogan playing a character whose mother lives next door to a government building and is calling Simon Foster to complain that the wall between the properties is slowly crushing his mother’s greenhouse. Foster, at the U.N. and rushing to save face for a series of flubs constantly shrugs the man off.

If you are looking for some strong counter-programming to the thoughtless films of the summer, In the Loop provides an alternative that is equal parts entertaining and incredibly intelligent.

Tentative Xmas Vacation Film Festival

Putting together a mini-film festival for the girlfriend and me when I go to visit. Here’s the line up so far. I always try to have an eclectic mix of movies.

Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
John Carpenter’s The Thing
The King of Kong
King of Comedy
The Talented Mr. Ripley


Film 2009 #121 – Tetro

Tetro (2009)
Directed by Francis Ford Coppola
Starring Vincent Gallo, Alden Ehrenreich, Maribel Verdu, Klaus Maria Brandauer

The Family has always been an important element in Coppola’s work. In The Godfather he examined the literal family and the symbolic family of the Italian mafia. The Outsiders and Rumble Fish took a close look at the divide between brothers by blood and brothers in gangs. Outside of his films, Coppola’s family has had an integral role: music in his early films was typical composed by his father Carmine, sister Talia and daughter Sophia employed their acting skills. And many of his family members have become involved in the industry, albeit changing their names for various reasons.

This element of family and changing names is a core part of Coppola’s newest film, Tetro. The film centers on Bennie (Alden Ehrenreich), a teenage boy living aboard a cruise ship who take advantage of a stop in Bueno Aires to visit his estranged brother Angelo (Vincent Gallo). Angelo has taken to calling himself Tetro (a variation on the family surname) and lives with a beautiful psychiatrist named Miranda (Maribel Verdu). Bennie finds Tetro is incredibly reticent to talk about their childhood and Bennie has been left in the dark about the family’s affairs his entire life. Their father, Carlo, a world famous composer is a dark shadow that hangs over them. As Bennie pries despite Angelo’s protestations he uncovers the dark truth about their family and finds his perceptions of life forever changed.

The film makes direct reference to Powell & Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, the tale of a ballerina driven to destruction by her mentor’s obsessions and Tales of Hoffman, a film adaptation of the opera about a poet struggling to find the middle ground between his literary passions and the passions of his heart. These inform us of the internal workings of Tetro, who presents himself to Bennie as a closed book. Bennie’s curiosity leads him to a suitcase full of Tetro’s writings which have dramatized their family’s history but also lack a concise ending.

Coppola employs an interesting technique with the present reality being a stark black & white while memories and fantasies are filmed in digitally faded Technicolor, resembling paintings almost. These color sequences are either memories from the direct POV of Tetro, meaning the camera is his eye, characters speak directly to him and us the audience, or they are ballet sequences composed of pas de deux between a male and female dancer. The music alternates between melodramatic opera and ethereal voices to symbolize Tetro’s strange reaction when staring into the heart of a lightbulb.

This film and 2007’s Youth Without Youth symbolize Coppola’s new direction. In the 1980s, the prestige he had garnered in the 70s frittered away and he began to focus more on producing and funding burgeoning filmmakers. The death of his son, Gian-Carlo also drove his own works to lessen or fail to love up to his promise. In interviews he calls this return his period of “student films”. These are the movies he wants to make and he has gathered enough wealth in his life that he can drop a few million of his own dollars into a film and not worry about whether it makes back its budget. This sort of artistic freedom is seldom seen in Hollywood anymore. Here’s to Coppola continuing this new artistic journey for years to come.