Dark Star: H.R. Giger’s World

Posted April 19, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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Some artists seem to have popped in from another dimension to show us what life looks like over there. They don’t appear to have any readily identifiable influences; one looks at their work and wonders where the hell it came from, how someone could start with a blank space and come up with … that. Picasso is one such artist; so is Jack Kirby, in the realm of comics; and then there’s H.R. Giger. A Swiss maestro of airbrushed surrealism, Giger etched his name in film history when he designed the creature in Alien. Suddenly, the relatively unknown artist’s name was synonymous with “biomechanical” and “psychosexual dread.” Giger’s bizarro-erotic nightmares won him a legion of fans and inspired a slew of artists, musicians, and tattoo artists. Some people have Giger’s work tattooed onto their skin; some have his autograph tattooed onto them; some have his face tattooed onto them.

Belinda Sallin’s documentary Dark Star, which finished shooting not long before Giger’s death last year at age 74, is a bit unconventional in that it doesn’t walk you through an A&E Biography-style synopsis of the man’s life. We don’t see photos of little Hans Ruedi Giger scampering around his back yard. We don’t know how he got started as an artist, or how his style developed, if indeed it did develop and didn’t just come out that way naturally. The movie comes across as a last visit with Giger, whose gait has been slowed and speech thickened by time but whose eyes still twinkle with mischievous spirit. We meet various people in his sphere, including an ex-wife and an assistant. They all help him deal with his paperwork and his massive collection of art and books — he’s a bit of a hoarder. A couple of the rooms in his mazelike Zurich house look like the rooms cluttered with chicken remains and human bones in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, except here the remains are just art.

The movie talks a little about Giger’s first wife, who killed herself in 1975, and whose fate is still a raw wound for Giger. Perhaps understandably, Sallin doesn’t engage with the long-standing rumor that Giger had his late wife’s skeleton stripped by carpet beetles and installed in his home. Then again, the tragedy is about the only whisper of darkness in Dark Star. Giger is surrounded by people who love and admire him. He’s turned his home into every creative person’s dream, including a sort of ghost train in his garden, which tracks through a variety of Giger-esque visions of birth. He even has the prerequisite standoffish cat (“Muggi III”) who has the run of the place. The movie is an appreciation but not really an investigation into Giger’s life or work or the connection between the two.

Sometimes a more conventional documentary can answer questions. I was curious to what extent, if any, Giger’s dark biomechanical sensibility was forged by growing up in Europe during wartime (Switzerland was famously neutral in WWII, but was bombed multiple times anyway by the Allies due to its closeness to Axis countries). I’m still curious. If you always wanted to watch Giger sign autographs or sit in meetings, Dark Star will be your jam. You do get to see some vintage footage of him at work with his airbrush, or on the set of Alien, though you’d think that was the only movie he ever worked on. (His alien from Species is referred to obliquely, but there’s no mention of, say, Poltergeist II or Alejandro Jodorowsky’s infamously aborted Dune.)

In brief, Dark Star is an object for Giger fans, not an argument for why he has fans. It’s made to be shelved alongside his Necronomicon and the Alien box set; it doesn’t bother cozying up to the uninitiated. Which is its right, I guess, but as a casual admirer of his work, I didn’t learn much, nor did the sight and sound of an obviously pained Giger make me feel especially good about gaining access to his “world.” At times, the camera seems intrusive, tracking him as he makes his halting way between shelves that groan under the weight of art books, or recording his slurred speech (stroke? mouth cancer?) as he speaks about his late wife. The film gets close when we don’t want it to, and vice versa.

1915

Posted April 12, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama

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If you look for narrative films made by Armenian filmmakers about the Armenian genocide of 1915, you will come up short. There are a few, but two of the most recent major films on the subject were directed by a Turkish-German and a pair of Italian brothers. On the other hand, movies like Atom Egoyan’s Ararat (2002) and now Gavin Hovannisian and Alec Mouhibian’s 1915 seem to need to hold the Turkish massacres of the Armenians at a distance, through layers of representation. Egoyan’s film dealt with Armenians trying to make a movie about the genocide, and 1915 is about Armenians trying to put on a play about it. Are the repugnant events themselves too painful still for Armenians to look at them and depict them straight on?

Simon (Simon Abkarian) has written a play called 1915, which has set off a firestorm of controversy even before anyone has seen it performed. Why? Because its plot deals with an Armenian woman who chooses to go off with a Turkish soldier who offers her — and himself — freedom. A great many Armenians are outraged by this — it’s as though a Jewish woman at Auschwitz accepted help from a kindly camp guard. The protesters are having too literal a reaction, though, as protesters often do. Simon has written a play about forgiveness, and self-forgiveness. The play, it turns out, is therapy for his wife Angela (Angela Sarafyan), who plays the Armenian woman in the play. Angela hasn’t acted in seven years, since her and Simon’s infant son died.

The climax of the play, which Simon won’t let his cast rehearse, hinges upon whether Angela, in character, can accept the Turkish soldier’s hand and forgive herself for leaving her husband and son behind. I’m not sure whether this is as urgent a subject as the actual Armenian genocide, which the movie doesn’t seem to want to look at directly, as if it were a solar eclipse, a black hole sun swallowing reason and happiness. Most of 1915 deals with backstage frustrations, and it suffers from the malady afflicting most movies about putting on a play: the play itself looks like dinner-theater dramaturgy. This may have been intentional in a metafiction like Birdman, but here we’re clearly meant to respect Simon’s play as an attempt to dig down to the truth.

The truth of what, though? The movie handles the difficult subject only tangentially, symbolically, glancingly. I’m sorry to say that the actress on whom much of the play’s and film’s pathos rests is rather inexpressive. And there’s a method actor (Nikolai Kinski, Klaus’ lookalike son) involved in the movie’s goofiest twist concerning a hostile interviewer. If not for Leigh Lisbão Underwood’s handsome cinematography, I’d peg 1915 as fairly amateurish, not to mention pretentious. The great modern film made by Armenians about their greatest catastrophe remains to be made, I guess. And here we have this inconsequential film being released in time for the genocide’s 100th anniversary. A shame, that. Maybe there’ll be a better one for the 150th.

Furious Seven

Posted April 5, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: action/adventure, sequel

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Everything we know about the making of Furious Seven — especially the tragedy of star Paul Walker’s death during production — informs our experience of the movie. It takes on an inadvertent subtext of fragility in the face of the world’s chaos, and that’s a pretty loud and dissonant ghost to be haunting the attic of such a goofily over-the-top blockbuster. Every action scene, every daredevil set piece involving Paul Walker, especially as the film moves past the hour mark, takes us out of the narrative as we ask ourselves, Is this it? Is this how they kill off Walker’s character? There’s a moment when his onscreen avatar, Brian O’Conner, seems to sacrifice himself so that someone else can live; the moment doesn’t last long, and it may, for all I know, have been part of the script even before Walker died, but it still resonates in a way that throws the movie’s high-flying escapist tone out of whack.

The plot is idiotic even by the standards of the Fast and Furious franchise. It has to do with Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham), the vengeful brother of the previous film’s villain. His motive is simply to kill everyone responsible for putting his bro in the hospital, including Brian, Dom (Vin Diesel), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), and Tej (Chris “Ludacris” Bridges). That makes six, and a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) fills out the furious seven (which is how the title appears onscreen, contradicting the marketing, which calls the film Furious 7). Ramsey has a surveillance thing called God’s Eye that can track down Shaw. A government bigwig calling himself Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) tells Dom he can borrow God’s Eye if he rescues Ramsey from a cadre of terrorists. Also, Iggy Azalea shows up. I laughed at that bit, figuring that in twenty years or so, a random viewer of Furious Seven will wonder who the blond woman is who talks to Michelle Rodriguez.

Otherwise, the movie’s appeal is sort of timeless, relying on outlandish stunts as well as prolonged fight scenes that would realistically put both parties in the hospital after thirty seconds. The skydiving-cars sequence has already attained action-flick legend status, though comparing the ensuing car chase to the truck chase in Raiders of the Lost Ark, as at least one critic has done, is just silliness. The presence of Kurt Russell reminded me unhelpfully of the dazzling climactic chase in Quentin Tarantino’s otherwise dull Death Proof, a chase done without computer enhancement of any kind. Here, so much trickery is used, including the digital recreation of Paul Walker in scenes he didn’t live to film, there aren’t any physical stakes. The increasing gigantism of this series has made it more 007-like, and changed it in a significant way from what it started out as — a B-movie in-name-only remake of a ’50s Roger Corman production — but has drained the action of credibility.

Jason Statham gets into fights with Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel; Paul Walker dukes it out with Tony Jaa; Michelle Rodriguez and Ronda Rousey, each wearing fabulous dresses, wreck the dresses and each other. These bouts, though also physically dubious, pack more entertainment value than the overamped car vrooming and explosions and drones firing missiles all over L.A. Maybe it’s because we know two actual people — maybe two actual stunt people in most cases, but so what? — did actual training and actual rehearsals to perform the fights in actual space. It’s the sort of thing a filmmaker can stage anywhere, and doesn’t need to jet off to Abu Dhabi and destroy three skyscrapers and spend, in total, in the neighborhood of $250 million. I will say, though, that the franchise’s way of bidding adieu to Paul Walker is tastefully, even touchingly achieved. Well done. A simple overhead shot of two cars counts for more than half a dozen cars (mostly real, I learn, but who can tell?) plummeting out of an airplane. It’s what fans of the series will remember from this film, as they should.

Cheatin’

Posted March 29, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: animation, comedy, drama, romance

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In Cheatin’, the seventh animated feature by cult favorite Bill Plympton, the plot runs on a misunderstanding that could be cleared up by a short conversation — if the characters could talk. But this film, like Plympton’s previous Idiots and Angels, has no dialogue, so it takes the central married couple the length of the movie to figure it all out. This is frustrating, to say the least, but let’s give Plympton the benefit of the doubt and assume the frustration is intentional. The central married couple, Ella and Jake (“voiced” by Sophia Takal and Jeremy Baumann in what amounts to a series of grunts and screams), have communication problems. They’re madly in love with each other, but their relationship seems stuck in the physical realm. In brief, they’re humans who don’t realize they’re cartoons.

Other women are always throwing themselves at Jake, but he declines. Then one of the jilted women gives Jake a photo that makes it look as though Ella has been massively unfaithful, and Jake’s despair and rage lead to his own infidelity. I don’t think Plympton is trying to make any big statements about male/female relations; he’s just having fun riffing on a theme, as he always does. Plympton, though, may strike some as a talent that works best in short doses (while die-hard fans will cherish every minute they get). Even at only 76 minutes, Cheatin’ occasionally feels long, and I think that’s because individual sequences — even individual shots — tend to run on just a bit more than they need to. Plympton clearly relishes basking in his own visual exuberance, but after a while we may prefer the narrative, or what passes for it, to move along.

At other points, though, Plympton’s drawn-out strangeness seems the only way for him to work — the unique thing he has to offer as an artist. Nobody will ever call him a stiff cartoonist: bodies bend and stretch for yards, gravity and physics abide by Plymptonian rules when they aren’t disregarded altogether. Cheatin’ at its loosest and most lyrical is superb eye candy. But if an animator is to work at feature length, a story can’t just be a visually luscious riff. Now and again, the movie feels like a compilation of short “Plymptoons” that happen to share a theme and a pair of characters. I should admit, in case it isn’t apparent by now, that I’m not the biggest Plympton fan. I admire his sui generis style and his visual tomfoolery, but something about his stuff leaves me cold — an experience I noted when watching his first feature, 1992’s The Tune.

What’s my issue? I guess I get the sense that Plympton is into animation for its own joyfully manipulative sake, that he loves twisting and tweaking anatomy and nature as far as he can without stampeding into the realm of the abstract. But here’s just one small example in Cheatin’ of what leaves me cold. Jake has just found out (or so he thinks) that Ella has cheated on him. He jumps in his car and takes off. He howls in misery. He races a train. His teardrops bead up and fly behind him. He looks and sounds like a grievously wounded doofus with a nose that resembles nothing so much as a big fat dick. All of this is clever, amusing, and so on. Except it’s not supposed to be. We should be feeling Jake’s pain, or at least relating to it. Instead we chuckle and admire Plympton’s imaginative verve. And if Plympton would let Jake or Ella say a damn word to each other, their problem would be cleared up, and it would be a seven-minute cartoon — which it possibly should’ve been to begin with.

Can’t Stand Losing You

Posted March 22, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: documentary

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There’s probably a great documentary to be made about the swift rise and equally swift dissolution of the rock band the Police, but Can’t Stand Losing You isn’t it. It’s actually the second film to tell the Police’s story from the viewpoint of a band member — drummer Stewart Copeland’s Everyone Stares came first, in 2006, a year before the band got back together for a final world tour. Can’t Stand Losing You climbs into the shoes of Police guitarist Andy Summers, whose memoir provides narration and whose artsy photos offer images of occasional interest. Summers is an amiable and hardworking sort, but of the three Police, his perspective seems the least interesting.

The movie jumps back and forth in time, between the Police’s humble origins and eventual peak and their 2007 reunion. Summers tells us that during the band’s punk-club days, they were often covered in audience spit, that being customary in the scene. In what may or may not be a witty transition, we cut to footage from the Police’s reunion tour, and I thought to myself, Nobody would dare to gob onto Sting and the boys now. They’re elder statesmen now, their new-wave platinum blond hair trending towards gray. At least the audience responds to them more appropriately than it did in the Synchronicity era, when we catch film of young fans bouncing gaily up and down as Sting belts out the Jungian agonies of “Synchronicity II.” Older fans in 2007 listen to the same song and stay put. They’re old enough to have been packed like lemmings into shining metal boxes, and so on.

Summers goes through a mild variation on the rock-star lament. He punches the clock in a few bands (including the Animals) before finding the Police. He meets and marries psychiatrist Kate Lunken (no mention is made of Summers’ first wife Robin Lane), has a daughter with her, and finds it increasingly difficult to focus on family life as the Police’s star ascends. Kate asks for a divorce in 1981, but they remarry four years later. Given the craziness of the band’s lives at their peak (’77-’84), you’d think we’d hear some spicy stuff, but I guess Summers wants you to buy his book. He emerges from the Police experience, and sinks back into it decades later, without much insight into any of it. He’s clearly an everyman kind of guy, and the guy to talk to for idiosyncratic, pungent, poetic thoughts would be Sting, but I think we’ll be waiting a long time for his documentary about the Police. (He and Stewart Copeland appear in this film by default, in backstage and onstage footage both vintage and more recent, but neither sits for an interview.)

Was there a lot of tension in the band? Mostly between Sting and Copeland, we gather. A group interview conducted by MTV’s Martha Quinn is interrupted when Sting sprints away from the table with Copeland in hot pursuit, and the two legendarily came to blows during the recording of “Every Breath You Take” (while Summers quietly came up with the tune’s signature riff and laid it down in one take). Summers was and is a clean decade older than his bandmates and had more experience, yet they didn’t seem to take him seriously — I counted at least two occasions when Sting rubs Summers’ head affectionately but condescendingly, as though petting a beloved but stupid dog. How did Summers feel about this? The movie won’t tell you.

So this isn’t the definitive Police documentary many will want it to be. Nor is it especially moving as a musical document. I suppose hardcore Andy Summers fans — there may be several out there — will dig it the most, though of the three, his post-Police career was the least familiar to me. Which means nothing, of course, nor does the Wikipedia factoid that made me emit a bark-like laugh, that in 2012 Rolling Stone named him the eighty-fifth greatest guitarist of all time — hell, no national magazine has ranked me the eighty-fifth greatest anything of all time, so I shouldn’t talk. What matters is how interesting a movie subject Summers is and how interestingly he can paint a picture of the Police for us, and I’m afraid he comes up short both ways. Perhaps the person to talk to after all is Summers’ psychiatrist wife.

It Follows

Posted March 15, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: horror, overrated

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It Follows is a slow-burn, reasonably creepy horror film with an unusual premise that promotes subtext to text. Jay (Maika Monroe), a teenage girl, has sex with her boyfriend. Soon afterward, he tells her he has passed some sort of supernatural entity to her. She can only get rid of it by passing it along to someone else via sex. Otherwise, the thing, which changes appearance and can only be seen by its victim, will follow her slowly but implacably until it kills her. Mostly, the movie is a stylistic calling card in which its writer-director, David Robert Mitchell, shows how scrupulously he can ape John Carpenter. The comparison only holds sporadically, though. Parts of It Follows are so determinedly slack, and the performances so unaffected bordering on deadpan, that it seems like a mere exercise, not something that trades on legitimate fear.

Carpenter himself isn’t doing old-school Carpenter style any more, so I understand why this movie has been overpraised. It attempts to look and sound different from the usual contemporary horror. Any and all elements of it that make the viewer shiver — its stark widescreen images, its straight-backed slow-walking fiends, its synth score by Rich Vreeland — are pinched from vintage Carpenter, particularly Halloween. So it’s nothing original cosmetically, though it does play at times like a commentary on the have-sex-and-die motif that many pilloried Halloween for popularizing. The terror here becomes so linked to sex it’s practically venereal.

With the occasionally efficacious help of her lackluster group of friends, Jay hides from the following it, or tries to ward it off. Mitchell doesn’t waste much breath on exposition, or explaining the rules of this thing. It’s invisible to all but the person it’s following, but it can touch anyone and be touched, and it can be hurt, possibly killed. In a less laconic movie, we would’ve gotten a five-minute planning scene about how the teens scheme to electrocute the thing in a swimming pool, but here we just watch them setting up the trap with no preamble. How they know that electrocution might even work is left unspoken. The thing also has no backstory. It’s not getting revenge on anyone; it’s not stalking a long-lost sister or observing a holiday. It just exists and follows and kills.

Is it a metaphor, then, for sexual guilt? As I said, the usual subtext of slasher films here becomes text, so it’s tempting to take it back to subtext, but not much seems to be going on under the hood. Mitchell can set up tense and satisfying sequences, but the thing he hasn’t understood about Carpenter in his prime was the way Carpenter started out low-key, to lull us into a voyeuristic rhythm, and then gradually ratcheted up the suspense. Mitchell goes from a scare scene to a slack scene; the result isn’t a tightening grip of horror or a downward spiral towards confrontation, but an alternating jostle of brake and gas pedal, brake and gas pedal.

The movie begins to feel padded out, and not one but two boys offer to take on Jay’s burden, which might have come across as a witty commentary on horny teenage boys nobly volunteering to take one for the team, but doesn’t. Most of It Follows is humorless except for a fart joke early on and the washed-out dialogue between the kids. (Parents are mainly absent here.) We get quotes from Eliot and Dostoyevsky, but no particular insights into the characters, other than an anecdote about the kids finding porno mags in the woods. The movie unfolds in a universe with little or no adult supervision, and the police can’t help; we might have been encouraged to feel the kids’ frightened isolation and helplessness, but instead we just passively observe them while the Carpenter-copy soundtrack goes bloop and zhoom and other noises. I wish I had better news about It Follows, but really, don’t get your hopes up.

Two Men in Town

Posted March 8, 2015 by Rob Gonsalves
Categories: drama, remake

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William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) stands straight, moves slowly, and seldom smiles. He’s been in prison for the last eighteen years for killing a deputy, but good behavior has bought him a parole — a chance he seems earnest about not wasting. Very quickly, William settles into his new life; he finds a job, he finds a girlfriend, he moves in with her. If you’re thinking there are elements from his past violent life willing to drag him down, though, congratulations on having seen more than a few movies. Fortunately, Two Men in Town, a remake of a 1973 French film, doesn’t rest much of its weight on its plot. It’s a mood piece, an actors’ showcase, set out in the desert of New Mexico where sun and dust and sky are the whole world.

William is haunted by two men from the bad old days: Sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), whose deputy William killed, and Terrence (Luis Guzman), an old associate who wants to pull him back into crime. Men lead to damnation, but women point to salvation: William’s parole officer, Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), is tough-minded but wants him to do well, and his bank-clerk girlfriend Teresa (Dolores Heredia) shares William’s yearning for a simple, honest life. There are very few twists in store, which is good but can make the movie seem a bit lightweight. William has anger issues, and he converted to Islam in prison, and he enjoys tooling around on the cheap motorcycle that was one of his first post-jail purchases, and that’s about all there is to him. Simplicity.

Director/cowriter Rachid Bouchareb seems interested in William’s conflicts as iconic, metaphoric. He is a Free Man who will never truly be free. William is black and his nemesis the sheriff is white, but nothing much comes of that. The sheriff has a couple of scenes, in fact, that underline his compassion in certain contexts; he works border patrol (just as Keitel did in the sorely overlooked The Border) and feels badly about the suffering of illegal immigrants, and he throws a party for a returning soldier from Afghanistan. I imagine these details are here (if they aren’t imported from the 1973 film) to show the sheriff as a multifaceted man whose life doesn’t entirely revolve around hovering over William and waiting for him to fuck up.

The scenes between Whitaker, who underplays and simmers, and Keitel, whose rage at the death of the deputy feels genuine, are powerful enough to raise the question of why their conflict is never resolved. Not much else is, either. Two Men in Town, like a lot of desert-set cop dramas (The Pledge, Electra Glide in Blue, El Patrullero), sort of lets its story drift upward and away, like a shimmering highway mirage. Waiting for a climactic scene between William and Teresa? Sorry. How about between William and Emily? Nope. So you have to get your enjoyment in bits and pieces, from the mood and the landscape and the performances. Blethyn is just about the hero of the piece, and deserves better than to have her character all but forgotten about. Ellen Burstyn turns up for a few minutes as William’s adoptive mother, and though it’s fine to see her, all she did was make me reflect that the only other movie featuring her and Harvey Keitel was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, forty years ago now, and that they don’t have much more time to reunite properly (they don’t share any scenes here). And I’m reasonably sure that wasn’t what I was supposed to be thinking about during her scene.


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