Archive for March 2017

The Transfiguration

March 26, 2017

transfigurationMilo (Eric Ruffin), the African-American teenager whose struggles animate The Transfiguration, is enamored of vampire movies. He has a stash of them on videotape in his bedroom closet, and he prefers the “realistic” ones — like George Romero’s Martin or Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In. Milo might also enjoy The Transfiguration, because it, too, is realistic — vampires don’t burn in sunlight, and they definitely don’t sparkle. They just go around preying on the vulnerable, punching a hole in their carotid arteries and slurping up the gore. When I say “they,” though, I really only mean Milo, in the literal sense. The movie is full of metaphorical bloodsuckers, stealers of innocence, abusers and sociopaths. Such is life in New York City.

Since the movie isn’t religious at all — Milo would no doubt be unaffected by a crucifix or holy water if they were used against him — one might wonder why writer-director Michael O’Shea titled it The Transfiguration, other than that it sounded cool and dark. Nobody is really transfigured here in the Christian sense, although some might say the movie itself transfigures schlock into art. It’s funny about vampire films — they lean into the artsy mode, the elegant and the expressionist, far more easily than, say, werewolf films or zombie films. Just recently we had Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, and O’Shea’s film joins their number, reveling in the glum goth mood, the awkward silences, the gurgle of blood in the dark.

Milo meets a newcomer to his building — Sophie (Chloe Levine), an abused girl almost as affectless as Milo is, though she’s quicker to laugh. Milo is almost always clenched and blank-faced, but around Chloe he loosens up a bit. For a while, hanging out or watching violent videos, they seem well-matched, one’s psychological/emotional blank spots complementing the other’s. Milo’s even more dour older brother Lewis (Aaron Clifton Moten), an Army veteran, is at least happy to see Milo comfortable around someone, even if she’s a white girl. That fact makes Milo even more of an object of derision for the local gang, who enjoy tormenting him.

Milo’s connection with the gang doesn’t end up where you’d expect it to in a vampire film, and his relationship with Sophie doesn’t, either. The Transfiguration is bound to be called a cross between Martin and Moonlight, though it’s not as erotic as those films. What it seems to have under the hood is something about how inhuman conditions can produce inhuman people (or, as Stephen King would put it, “this inhuman place makes human monsters”); almost everyone we see exists in some spiritually null zone. There might also be something about how black teenage males are demonized, made the monsters of the media narrative. Milo might be the result of generations of neglect benign and not-so-benign. He doesn’t seem to have much race consciousness, though. He’s too deeply into his vampire fixation — like Martin, he believes he is one, so in terms of effect he pretty much is one.

The performances are uniformly natural and unaffected; O’Shea understands that quiet desperation speaks louder than hysteria. (He also has the wit to give cameos to Troma schlockmeister Lloyd Kaufman and art-house horror auteur Larry Fessenden, whose disparate styles influence this film’s.) People will sit together on the side of the wide frame, isolated yet united. The compositions are thoughtful, though always a little jiggly. O’Shea takes his time and creates an allusive atmosphere whose meanings are up for grabs. The Transfiguration could have snapped into sharper focus; it remains a bit thematically diffuse, a little underdone. But at its most haunting it earns its place in that bedroom closet next to Martin and the rest.

Advertisements

The Assignment

March 19, 2017

assignmentWatching Another 48 HRS on TV recently with the sound off, for some reason, I found myself drawn into the movement, the colors, the cinema. That movie is a lazy, stupid sequel, certainly not the finest hour of its director, Walter Hill. But Hill is a visual samurai, and for a few minutes I just let myself coast on the smooth, feral images. Hill’s latest, the controversial pulp thriller The Assignment, has a few moments like that. Too few. An alarming chunk of it amounts to two people in a room swapping stiff dialogue. Given the advance anti-buzz — the very premise an affront to the struggle of transgender people — I was anticipating a good crappy time, a low-rent guilty pleasure, but the sad truth is it’s too dull to be offensive.

Hill is only as good as his script, and this one, which he and collaborator Denis Hamill tinkered with for years, doesn’t do him any favors. A hitman, Frank Kitchen, a lithe and scowling fellow with a beard, kills a lowlife who turns out to be the brother of an insane plastic surgeon (Sigourney Weaver). The surgeon has her revenge by having Frank abducted and brought to her operating table; before long, Frank looks like Michelle Rodriguez, with the accompanying lady parts, and of course without his former man parts. I say “his” because Frank is not transgender; he had gender reassignment surgery without his consent, so the use of trans-friendly pronouns doesn’t quite apply here.

What we have here isn’t truly transphobic. It’s really more of a gendernaut rewrite of Hill’s 1989 Johnny Handsome. In both films, the assumption is that surgery to change a scoundrel’s appearance will also change his heart; Weaver’s cracked surgeon sounds almost the same as Forest Whitaker’s much more altruistic sawbones in Johnny Handsome. In this case, it’s presumed that changing macho, cold-hearted Frank into a woman outwardly will also make him inwardly more feminine, less violent. Of course, the surgeon is also a woman, and she’s fairly cold and has no trouble getting thugs to do her psychotic bidding. Unpacking this movie for what it might say about gender will only result in clutter. It’s basically noir: people don’t change; people can’t change.

Towards the end, as Frank slaughters his way closer to the surgeon, Hill’s casual mastery of violence kicks The Assignment into gear. It’s cheaply done, and it’s depressingly clear that Hill’s days of having budgets like the ones he had for 48 HRS or Southern Comfort are long behind him. But there’s some snappy brutality. It doesn’t make up for the talkiness, though, or Hill’s habit of using corny scene transitions, or the highly expendable subplot involving Frank and a comely but unethical nurse (Caitlin Gerard). Hill was enamored of the film’s premise for decades, but he never made the premise into a movie. Weaver, sitting in a straitjacket, talks to shrink Tony Shalhoub for what seems like a lifetime, and talks and talks, and every time Hill goes back to this room and these two, we tap our feet and wait for the film to get started again.

Weaver tries for some Dr. Lecter sangfroid in bringing this arrogantly arch character to life, but it’s a monotonous, unsmiling performance from a usually good-humored actor. Rodriguez looks for something real in this pulp universe and fails, falling back into her sullen default mode. Walter Hill turned this material into a French graphic novel before he made the movie, and the movie has the same gritty, debauched tone as a European comics album for adults only. The acting needed to be heightened, the dialogue cruel and sharp as a shiv. There aren’t even quotable lines or amusing turns of phrase. The transgender community has far worse things to fear and rage against than this pallid exercise. Walter Hill alone may know why he still wanted to make this movie; the rest of us won’t know from watching it.

Who’s Crazy?

March 12, 2017

whoscrazy4-1600x900-c-defaultOnce upon a time, an American filmmaker in Belgium happened across a group of other Americans. The group were members of New York’s experimental Living Theatre, whose founders (Julian Beck and Judith Molina) were back in the States doing time for tax evasion. While waiting for their spiritual father and mother to arrive, the Theatre people herded into a deserted farmhouse along with the filmmaker — Thomas White — and created Who’s Crazy?, a barely feature-length attempt shown at a couple of festivals around 1966 and then considered lost for decades. During that time it was known, if at all, among jazz scholars because of its soundtrack by Ornette Coleman. Finally, in 2015 a print of the film was found in White’s garage.       

Like Coleman’s score — performed while Coleman and his collaborators watched the film — the action in Who’s Crazy? is largely improvised. We begin aboard a bus transporting a bunch of mental patients. The bus breaks down, an inmate escapes, and while two guards chase after him, the rest of the inmates break free and crowd into the farmhouse, where they enact various scenarios meant to illuminate or satirize societal tropes (trial, marriage, communal meals). Sometimes the inmates chant or emit barbaric yawps; other times they speak in solemn theater jive. Most often, the harried, lunging music, a boomerang spinning towards discovery, speaks for them.       

Modern viewers might have fun imposing connections between this and earlier or later works. It definitely shares DNA with Marat/Sade, King of Hearts, The Idiots, and The Ninth Configuration, not to mention the Living Theatre’s own The Brig. One actor, bearded and saturnine, could be a brother to Oscar Isaac in Inside Llewyn Davis; the cast in general shares that hipster aura. We’re always aware that we’re watching a performance — the movie doesn’t make us enter into the imaginative contract, where we agree to accept the shown events as “real.” White’s camera meanders or stares at a man numbly applying greasepaint, prefiguring Lance the acid-head surfer smearing camo grease on his face in Apocalypse Now.        

What makes Who’s Crazy? more than a curiosity, a relic from the noble-lunatic era of Leary and Laing, is its spirit of play — the actors are reaching for truth, ecstasy, life in death. All very po-faced and pompous, but fun to take in small doses (here and there it reminded me of some of the elliptical little theatrical whimsies Edward Gorey used to put on in Cape Cod). Like a lot of contemporaneous avant garde cinema, the movie is a result of shooting for hours and then manhandling it into some sort of order in the editing room. There’s a loose narrative with some cross-cutting creating what we read as subplots. Ultimately it comments on its own medium — experimental narrative often staggers towards postmodernism. Maybe two or three characters take turns owning the film simply because they get more screen time; we might feel there are equally prominent characters littering the cutting-room floor. Even avant garde in 1965 has its limits: no women or black actors (there are a few seen here) assume the center.       

I value this work more than I value, say, E. Elias Merhige’s grimly archetypal Begotten (1989) because it revels so cheerfully in its own nonsense, and the illogic consorts organically and gorgeously with those Coleman riffs. (The only other movie Coleman scored was David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, and Who’s Crazy? at times feels like one of Cronenberg’s early, intimate shorts.) There’s something fascist-apocalyptic about the movie’s milieu, a cold foggy place where wild innocents are pursued by bears with badges, but within that context the Living Theatre people celebrate and exult. (Apparently Mom and Dad didn’t much care for the result: Julian Beck sniffed that the movie was false to the Theatre’s “energy vector.”) Owing as much to silent comedy as to hip new notions of confrontational drama, Who’s Crazy? pleases by its very inability to please in a conventional sense. It gives the people what they want, though — conflict, thrills, love, music, song — just not in the usual package. Known for its jazz, it’s pretty jazzy itself, and ends up being a more potent tribute to that musical form than a certain recent musical that won a few Oscars.

They Call Me Jeeg

March 5, 2017

they_call_me_jeeg_italy_390The grimly realistic Roman superhero drama They Call Me Jeeg, which swept the Italian equivalent of the Oscars last year and will soon open in America, doesn’t put any particular emphasis on its feats of power and heroism. They just happen, in a gray-blue gunmetal world, and sometimes they go viral on YouTube. The title, perhaps bewildering to some, refers to a 1975 Japanese anime called Steel Jeeg. The protagonist, career thief Enzo Ceccotti (Claudio Santamaria), falls into a submerged barrel of toxic waste and emerges with heightened strength and healing powers. Alessia (Ilenia Pastorelli), the mentally unstable daughter of one of Enzo’s associates, is obsessed with Steel Jeeg and sees the newly super Enzo as her long-awaited Jeeg. At first, though, Enzo does nothing more noble with his gifts than, say, ripping off an ATM. And when I say “ripping off an ATM,” I mean he literally rips it off of a building.

In a movie like this, special effects are used in a matter-of-fact way, and it often leads to strange, memorable details; in a Marvel or DC superhero movie, for instance, you won’t hear the unique hollow thud-thud of a shoe being shaken with a severed toe rattling around inside it. You’ll hear it in They Call Me Jeeg, for sure. But you’ll also see things like Enzo making a ferris wheel turn with his bare hands to cheer up Alessia, who’s in one of the cabins — it’s a nicely understated but still grandly romantic moment. The severed toe belongs, or belonged, to Enzo, who has already healed from gunshots and now assumes he can simply duct-tape the toe back onto its little stump and wait for the flesh and bone to meld. What happens the following day is a deadpan sick joke, and it establishes that this slice of fantasy in a grubby real world has its limits. Enzo can’t fly, for example, but he can survive long falls, though even then he rises slowly and has to shake off the effects of the impact.

Even a stubbly superhero like Enzo needs a supervillain, and he gets one in the form of Fabio (Luca Marinelli), a manic and preening young gangster who relishes the theater of evildoing. Fabio fancies himself a singer and used to be on Italy’s version of Big Brother. He’s always holding rallies in his head, and the numbers are tremendous. At first I thought Marinelli’s performance was cringe-worthy, but soon realized he was playing a scared kid playing a bad-ass — putting layers of identity on the character. His flashy corruption runs counter to the cracked innocence of Alessia; Ilenia Pastorelli makes her a shattered girl stronger in the broken places, with a fantasist’s desperately escapist zeal. The acting in They Call Me Jeeg is far better than it needed to be, sharper and respectful of people’s complexities and need to see themselves as the center of their stories. The movie sneaks up and bounces some satirical riffs off of the nature of fame in the selfie/YouTube/Instagram culture.

The climax involves cobwebbed tropes like the ticking bomb and the antagonists facing off one last, big time. But director Gabriele Mainetti dials down the traditional histrionics, and we end up thinking more about the people involved. On some level, They Call Me Jeeg walks the same path as previous überschmuck films like Super, Defendor, Ichi the Killer, and Chronicle. But it also comments on its own genre in a way that those films more or less didn’t. The characters’ imaginations have been fed by the same pop culture that feeds ours; everyone acts the roles of the people they would like to be, but we see the cracks in the façades. Those cracks fuel the tensions of the film far more than punches or explosions do.