March 30, 2013

I DECLARE WAR Shows The Cruelty Of War Through The Cruelty Of Childhood

"You're no fun to play with."
Holy shit guys, this movie is for real.

The hook is simple: a group of kids spend the afternoon playing war out in the local woods.  While in reality they're carrying sticks for guns, we see the action play out the way they imagine themselves, complete with automatic weapons and explosions.  There's a great animated sequence at the beginning that quickly explains the rules: if you get shot, you must stay motionless until you count out ten steamboats.  You get hit with a grenade (a balloon filled with red paint), then you're dead and you go home.  Each team has an immovable base with a flag and the first general to get the other team's flag wins.  The film executes both sides of it narrative with deft precision; it's an insightful look at childhood friendship and romance while also poignantly examining the motivations and methods of warfare.  By the end, I could hear the words of the W.O.P.R. computer echoing in my head - "The only winning move it not to play."

PK is the reigning champ among the neighborhood generals.  He's never lost a war because he takes the game very seriously, studying historical campaigns and tactics in his free time.  (His favorite movie is Patton.)  This war is destined to play out differently, although not for the reason he thinks.  His opposing general, Quinn, is not only one of the smartest kids in the neighborhood, he's someone who actually understands strategy.  In the past PK has always been able to outsmart his opponent, but not this time.  This is the most important war he's ever fought and he knows it.  However, unbeknownst to PK, Quinn is soon ousted in a coup led by Skinner, a vaguely unstable kid who has a serious bone to pick with PK and isn't above breaking all the rules and inflicting actual physical pain in order to win.

The kids are universally great, each typifying not only a recognizable type of neighborhood kid, but also a stock war movie character, exemplified by awesome names like Joker, Frost and Sikorski.  Each gets their own moment to shine, both as soldiers and as kids trying to wrap their heads around the world around them.  Joker is a perfect example of this duality, constantly asking his fellow soldiers bizarre hypotheticals revolving around their dicks and imagining himself with Cyclops-style eye beams he uses to explode squirrels.  He's both masculine and immature, aside from being terrifically funny.  There's one girl in the group named Jess who, like most girls, is more emotionally developed than most of the boys around her.  She has a big crush on Quinn, so even after he's sent home she's determined to win the game to prove her love.  She uses any means available to her, often outsmarting her opponents or even using her "feminine wiles" to mess with the boys' heads.  ("I have killing techniques.")  Jess rocks, and even though she's on Skinner's army and PK is clearly our hero, you still find yourself rooting for her.  It helps that she has a few scenes where she imagines herself talking to Quinn about living in Paris that are downright adorable.  The only character I felt was sort of left hanging was Altarboy, a quiet kid with no real friends and no killer instinct  I kept waiting for him to get a winning moment, whether that be making a clutch kill, beating the enemy without needing to resort to violence, or just emerging from the fight with a true friend.  None of those things ever really happen, and as he's left alone at the base and never actually killed, the Altarboy literally feels forgotten.

Skinner is an outstanding antagonist, wounded and vengeful with just the right mix of sympathy and sadism.  He wants to destroy PK and he'll do whatever it takes, including throwing away all of the rules of the game.  It's a lovely demonstration of the true nature of war, where the only imperative is to destroy your enemy by any means necessary.  That includes the prolonged torture of PK's best friend Kwon, who's taken prisoner, tied to a tree and crushed under a board with heavy rocks.  The move throws PK for a loop, turning the game personal for a general who's become very clinical and detached about his combat strategy.  Kwon demonstrates absolute loyalty to PK because they're best friends, but eventually he suspects that his loyalty might be misplaced and that PK would sacrifice their friendship just to notch another victory.  Kwon might not be wrong, but there's no malice on PK's part.  Instead it simply stems from an immature understanding of real warfare.  That understanding is reinforced by the visual interpretation of violence, namely that gunshots leave no mark on the boys, and the only "blood" is the red paint of the grenade balloons.

The action, both real and imagined, is all really well staged.  I saw the movie as part of the 15th Annual Boston Underground Film Festival, so I was fortunate enough to participate in a Q&A with one of the directors and a producer after the screening.  Apparently all the kids underwent formal weapons training from the Canadian equivalent of a S.W.A.T. team.  (The film is fantastically Canadian, with Skinner at one point asking Kwon, "That hurts, eh?")  That training shows in their movements and gives the combat sequences a wonderful sense of authenticity, to the point that you often forget that these are actually just kids running around with sticks.  As great as the war stuff is, the director said that their primary goal was to make a movie that captures the experience of being twelve or thirteen and trying to get a proper handle on love and friendship.  In that regard they've succeeded fabulously, perfectly capturing what a coming of age tale is all about; the simplest of things feel monumentally important and mimicry often belies true understanding.

I Declare War is not only heartfelt and genuine, but also hilarious and endlessly quotable.  (I had a huge debate on what line to quote at the top.  My favorites include, "You can't stop war for juice," and "This is war, not fucking hopscotch!")  Drafthouse Films is distributing the movie, which should make its way into theaters later this summer.  I suspect it won't be a terrifically wide release, but trust me when I say that it'll be worth your time to seek it out.

This is another big win for Drafthouse and I can't wait to see it again.

Title: I Declare War
Directors: Jason Lapeyre, Robert Wilson
Starring: Siam Yu, Gage Monroe, Michael Friend, Mackenzie Munro, Alex Cardillo
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Brattle Theater, Boston Underground Film Festival

BEING ELMO Is Retroactively Creepy

"I knew that Elmo should represent love.  Just kissing and hugging."
Some things once you see them, simply cannot be unseen.  This is the malady that afflicts Being Elmo, the story of puppeteer Kevin Clash and his rise to fame as the man behind the incredibly popular Sesame Street character, Elmo.

In case you're unaware, Clash is currently engaged in three separate lawsuits alleging charges of sexual abuse with underage children.  In fact, a fourth case was filed just last week claiming that Clash had a chauffeur pick up a 16 year old boy in Pennsylvania and drive him to New York for "crystal meth fueled sex parties."  (As my lawyer brother-in-law pointed out, "Transporting across state lines?  That's fed time...")  Clash's attorney has filed a motion to have the suits thrown out on grounds that the statute of limitations has passed, but it seems unlikely to be granted.  Since these accusations were first made last year, Clash has stepped down from his role on Sesame Street both as a performer and as a producer.  The veracity of these claims remains to be determined (if it ever can be, conclusively), although it's probably telling that Clash hasn't actually denied the charges and is instead trying to get the cases tossed on a technicality.  Either way it's a real shame, as the guy's story is pretty amazing.

Clash found a talent for puppetry early on, and started constructing his own puppets and putting on neighborhood shows in his backyard and at parties as a Baltimore teenager.  His parents were extremely supportive, even when he would use their own clothing for puppet-building material.  His mother fostered his talents, putting young Kevin in touch with the man who created puppets for Jim Henson, the Santa Claus-looking Kermit Love.  After spending some time performing on a local cable show, Clash eventually moved on to work for one his childhood heroes, Captain Kangaroo.  From there he garnered the attention of Henson himself, becoming the first black member of Henson's stable of puppeteers.  Clash almost worked on Dark Crystal (his Captain Kangaroo commitments took precedence) before getting hired for both Labyrinth and Sesame Street.

Clash was actually the second man to give life to Elmo.  The furry red monster had never really gained much traction in his early caveman-esque iteration, but when the original puppeteer got bored and let Clash take over, the character immediately and dramatically changed.  Clash wanted Elmo to represent love and affection, something that most all children naturally crave from adults.  Elmo could fill that constant desire from the kids watching, a flurry of hugs for those who need it most.  Unfortunately, this is also where the movie takes a really unfortunate turn for today's viewers.  When it was released, critics praised Clash and his story as sweet and heartfelt, an innocent tale about the power of pure love in a cynical time.  Unfortunately that innocence has been lost in the wake of sexual abuse charges and every time Clash is in the room with a child, it's hard not to feel creeped out.  The image that really sticks out is the pose Clash takes on when controlling Elmo.  He's ducked down, looking off to the side and talking in that high pitched voice while hugging and kissing a kid through his puppet surrogate.  It's incredibly dissociative, like his actions are being controlled by a completely separate persona.  As a performer I absolutely understand the practical reasons for this sort of physicality, and as a puppeteer it's not only no big deal, it's a mark of professionalism.  But in light of the recent allegations, it looks downright disturbing.

Regardless of the outcome of future legal proceedings, the whole thing is just flat out depressing.  Clash was friends with Jim Henson and Frank Oz, the rock stars of modern day puppetry.  Clash even performed (as Elmo) at Henson's funeral, one of the saddest events I've ever seen. (Seriously, watch Big Bird singing "It's Not Easy Being Green."  Then go get some tissues.)  I'm a HUGE Muppet fan, and Clash's talent is not only undeniable, it's awe-inspiring.  His ability to bring life to a pile of felt and fur is nothing short of riveting.  Hell, sometimes he's teaching other puppeteers using just his hand and even that looks pretty damn lifelike.  I wish I had the chance to watch this movie when it was released, before the man's reputation was forever tarnished.  It would have been a far more uplifting experience.

Unfortunately, some things simply cannot be unseen.

Title: Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey
Director: Constance Marks
Starring: Kevin Clash, Jim Henson, Kermit Love, Whoopi Goldberg
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (Laptop)

March 29, 2013

WIFE'S CHOICE: Late Night, Semi-Drunk MANNEQUIN Live-Tweet

"Reality is very disappointing."
Normally Wednesday night is when I let Jamie choose my argument, no refusal.  Whatever she says, goes.

So this week I totally ignored all those rules.

Wednesday night the Boston Underground Film Festival kicked off with a screening of I Declare War, a movie I've been itching to see for some time now.  So I swapped nights with her, giving her Thursday night instead, and she chose Empire Of The Sun for me to watch.  The only wrinkle with that plan was that her brother Eric and his wife Laura were coming to stay with us for the weekend, so Thursday night we took them out to our friend's bar.  I knew this would be mean another late night screening for me, but I had Friday off so I didn't mind staying up.  However, I suspected that I might not have a full appreciation for a long, depressing war movie at 1:30AM.  So I promised to watch Empire Of The Sun next week in exchange for a light comedy.

She chose Mannequin.

Since it was late at night and I'd had a few drinks, live-tweeting seemed like the natural decision:

Normally I would have prefaced all that with a basic setup of the plot, but I honestly don't think it would have helped.  I honestly think it's amazing that movies like this actually exist.  It's absolutely surreal.  Who thought this was a good idea?  AND HOW WERE THERE TWO OF THESE?  It's little wonder that the director Michael Gotlieb would go on to make the Hulk Hogan comedy Mr. Nanny.


Title: Mannequin
Director: Michael Gotlieb
Starring: Andrew McCarthy, Kim Catrall, James Spader, Estelle Getty, G.W. Bailey
Year Of Release: 1987
Viewing Method: DVD

March 28, 2013

WARRIOR: Two Balboas For The Price Of One!

"Sam, he ripped the door OFF A TANK!."
Gavin O'Connor's Warrior frequently invokes the spirit of Rocky, but it almost feels as if someone watched that movie and asked, "What if there were TWO underdogs?"

While I love the Rocky franchise (except for Rocky V, whose existence I refuse to recognize) and boxing in general, I've never been able to get interested in MMA.  While the fights themselves are certainly brutal, there's an element of grace and intelligence to boxing that's always felt absent from the meatheads of the UFC.  That feeling is partially driven by the actual fights, but also by the type of crowd the sport seems to draw - legions of Tapout-clad douchebags who are only interested in a bloodsport where two mountains of muscle inflict as much damage on each other as humanly possible.  The closest I've ever come to enjoying the UFC was watching Rampage Jackson drop that one guy on his head in Joe Carnahan's batshit awesome A-Team movie.

That said, I kept hearing that Warrior was not the simpleminded onslaught of testosterone it appeared to be when I saw the trailers.  At the same time, my friend Jeff Schwartz made the suggestion that I should do Manly Mondays to counterbalance Wifey Wednesdays, and while I don't know if I'll do it every single week, I still love the idea.  My running tally of potential screenings contains enough war movies, samurai tales and cowboy yarns to keep me busy for months, but I figured Warrior would be a good test run.  I have no doubt that in lesser hands, the film would be an absolute middleweight (nyuk nyuk), but the B- script is elevated to impressive stature by four individuals.

First and foremost are Tom Hardy and Joel Edgerton as dueling brothers Tommy and Brendan.  Separated as teenagers, Tommy cared for his sick mother while Brendan stayed with his abusive, alcoholic father.  They haven't spoke or seen each other since, with Tommy serving overseas in the Marines and Brendan marrying his high school sweetheart, raising daughters and teaching high school physics.  But in the wake of the financial collapse, Brendan is in serious debt and about to lose his family's house to foreclosure.  Desperate for money, he turns back to the fighting career he abandoned so long ago.  Meanwhile, Tommy has returned home using his mother's maiden name, looking to do the same for reasons that remain cloudy for much of the film.  They each end up competing for a $5 million purse in a winner-take-all tournament called Sparta, but both are considered long shots; Brendan is replacing a fighter who's injured days before the tournament and Tommy is only there because of a viral video of him beating up a ranked fighter.  Of course they work their way through the tournament until they have to fight each other in the final round, and even though there's never any doubt who's going to win the money, by then it's clear that there's plenty more at stake between them.  That's an impressive feat considering that the two men have only a single scene together before they enter the cage.  (Seriously, they fight in a cage.  Another reason I have trouble taking MMA seriously.)

Warrior was released after Hardy made such an impression on audiences in Inception, but before his masked turn as Bane in The Dark Knight Rises.  And man, if you thought he was marble mouthed as Bane, just wait till you see him as here.  To be clear, that's not a slam; Hardy makes a vocal transformation here that is fairly astounding.  The more time we spend listening to Tommy's slurred speech as he trains in a dingy old gym with his now sober father (Nick Nolte), the more the Rocky comparisons become  unavoidable.  (The film even takes place in Pittsburgh, further lending to the feeling that we're seeing a similar story play out in a parallel universe.)  Tommy is an exposed nerve, a raw killing machine with a singular focus.  There's no art to his fighting, he simply pounds his opponents into submission.  He does no interviews or press for the tournament, he enters the cage with no fanfare and he exits as soon as the fight has ended.  He's a man on a singular mission to win, and he allows nothing else to distract him from his cause.

Brendan is the opposite side of that coin.  He doesn't possess Tommy's raw power, but he's a much smarter fighter.  Like Rocky Balboa, he's able to withstand insane levels of abuse against much more imposing pugilists.  Instead of knocking the other guy unconscious in a matter of seconds, he's in it for the long haul and uses quickness and leverage to pin his opponents and force them to tap out.  He enters the ring to Beethoven's Ode To Joy, a crucial component of the philosophy espoused by his trainer Frank (Frank Grillo, soon to face off against Captain America).  It's all about rhythm, serenity and focus, qualities which Joel Edgerton embodies wonderfully.  While Tommy fights to quell his inner demons, Brendan fights for the love of his family.  It's constructive, not destructive, and that gives him a remarkable inner strength.  Edgerton is an actor whose star has been on the rise for years.  He first appeared to American audiences as young Owen Lars in the Star Wars prequels and he's come a long way since then, playing one of the SEAL team members alongside Chris Pratt in last year's excellent Zero Dark Thirty.  It's just a matter of time before the guy really breaks out and becomes a household name.

Recognition must also be paid to Nick Nolte, who does his best work in over a decade.  (He's obviously great in Tropic Thunder, but that's a much sillier barrel of monkeys.)  Paddy starts the film a thousand days sober, listening to Moby Dick on audio tape and longing to reconnect with his estranged family.  While Tommy wants his help as a trainer, he has no desire to rekindle any kind of fatherly relationship with the old man.  Brendan is of a similar mind, having been so burned by his father in the past that he's only willing to communicate over the phone or through the mail.  Tommy's arrival cracks open a window of possible reconciliation, and watching him struggle to win back his sons is absolutely riveting.  It's the kind of work that I honestly didn't think Nolte was still capable of doing.  After Warrior he was rightfully praised for playing an elderly horse trainer on HBO's aborted drama Luck.  While I haven't caught up with Gangster Squad yet, I have a sneaking suspicion that a decade from now we'll be able to point to this film as the beginning of a Nolte renaissance.

Finally, kudos to director Gavin O'Connor.  First and foremost, he stages the combat with a visual coherence that's sadly absent from most fight scenes these days.  Part of the challenge of shooting MMA is that the fights often devolve into a tangle of limbs that can be more than a little hard to follow, but O'Connor makes the most of his almost two and half hour running time to give these fights plenty of breathing space.  While I couldn't always tell exactly how or where Brendan had leverage on an opponent to make them tap out, it certainly looked painful as hell every time.  O'Connor's best known as the director of Miracle, the story of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team.  I think that's a really fun movie that knows how to create dramatic tension despite the fact that we all know how that movie's going to end.  O'Connor also gets a great performance out of Kurt Russell there, so if nothing else I now believe that the guy has a knack for coaxing the very best from his cast members.  

(Spoilers for the following paragraph.)  The film's biggest flaw is that the character development is a little lopsided, but that's done purposefully to maintain a sense of mystery around Tommy and his motivations for as long as possible.  Brendan is not only fighting to save his family, but he also has all of his students watching and cheering him along from a drive-in theater back home.  Brendan's got an entire support system rooting for him and if he loses, then his wife and daughters lose their home.  Tommy's goals and proponents are much more removed and abstract, so it feels obvious that Brendan would emerge victorious.  But by then, I don't really mind that I'm not surprised, as the journey was really more important than the result.

Gavin O'Connor was recently drafted to take over Jane Got A Gun after Lynne Ramsay declined to show up for the first day of shooting.  The movie sounds great, a western about a woman whose outlaw husband comes home riddled with bullets, forcing her to enlist the help of an old boyfriend before her husband's gang shows up to finish the job.  Fortunately O'Connor's inherited a cast that includes Natalie Portman, Jude Law...and Joel Edgerton.  Warrior not only far exceeded my initial expectations, but it's now got me itching to see what O'Connor can do with really well cast western.  And maybe if we're lucky, this will be the film that finally launches Edgerton to the next level.

Title: Warrior
Director: Gavin O'Connor
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte, Jennifer Morrison, Frank Grillo
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

March 27, 2013

SPRING BREAKERS Believes In A Magic Place Y'All

"Look at my shit!"
To call Spring Breakers fetishistic might be the understatement of the year, but not in the way you might think.

When I saw the first trailer for Harmony Korine's latest, I called it "a neon nightmare."  Having now seen the finished film, the description feels even more apt.  More specifically, the entire film seems to exist in a sort of dream-state where events blur together and conversations run on a loop while emotions swing wildly from dizzying highs to terrifying lows. There is no middle ground, just characters bouncing from one extreme to the next with hardly a moment for the audience to catch their collective breath.

Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Corine) are four college girls desperate to escape the monotony of their Southern home and travel to Florida for a week of spring break shenanigans.  The only problem is that all four are flat broke.  Faith is the innocent Christian girl who spends her free time in prayer circles with her church youth group ("Are you jacked up for Jesus?"), while Candy, Brit and Cotty have much darker tendencies, a fact made clear when the three decide to rob a local restaurant using hammers and squirt guns in order to fund their trip to St. Petersburg.  They soon find themselves in a world of constant ecstasy.  It's all sun, booze, surf, music, drugs, scooters and sunsets.  Shadows and sobriety are a distant memory and no matter how destructive or potentially dangerous the situation, nothing seems able to throw a damper on the party.

The extended partying sequences are highly idealized, almost like what a teenager imagines the perfect spring break would be like.  When they're not packed into a crowded party or outdoor concert, the girls are lounging in the pool or dancing around a liquor store parking lot singing Brittany Spears.  Everything's in good fun and the girls never feel like they're in real danger, despite putting themselves into some truly scary situations.   We see one raucous party where kids are literally tearing down the ceiling of a hotel room, and Cotty finds herself in tiny back rooms, half-naked and chugging beer with sketchy guys who look poised to force themselves on her at any moment.  But that never happens and everything remains all smiles.  Even the sweet Faith gets into the swing of things, describing the vacation as a religious experience over the phone to her grandmother.  While she's curious about the seedier side of their trip and the criminal exploit that got them there, she focuses instead on the positive: spending time in a beautiful new place and "finding herself" with her best friends at her side.

It all comes crashing down when the police arrive to break up a party and the girls are all arrested on possession charges.  They spend a night in prison, only to get bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a local rapper and self-styled gangster who exemplifies the lifestyle that has these girls so enraptured.  This is where the movie really kicks into gear.  Alien is like a sleazy black hole, drawing them in with a sort of goofy, lovable charm that is also undeniably predatory in nature.  Faith immediately knows she's in over her head and gets on the first bus headed home, but Candy, Brit and Cotty embrace their own penchant for violence and wealth over safety.  The girls are soon inseparable from Alien, living in his palace of excess and donning pink ski masks with their bikinis as they get embroiled in a turf war with Alien's rival Big Arch.

Plenty of digital ink has been spilled talking about the casting for former Disney stars Gomez and Hudgens as over-sexed, violent party girls.  In reality Gomez's character is downright tame and she departs the film before it really turns twisted.  And while Cotty (played by the Harmony Korine's wife Rachel) is certainly more willing to live out on the edge, eventually she too is shocked back to reality after getting shot in a driveby and soon finds herself on a bus headed north.  It's really Candy and Brit who dive into the gangster life and never look back.  Aside from the film's crazy finale, they have an absolutely unreal scene in Alien's bedroom that proves the girls can be just as menacing as him.  They don't treat the gangster lifestyle like an affectation or a fashionable pose to adopt until something newer and shinier comes along.  They're dedicated.  They're in it.  When Alien declares the girls to be his "motherfuckin' soulmates," there's no doubt that the feeling is mutual.

So let's talk about James Franco for a minute.

The guy has become an easy target for ridicule the last few years, between his Oscar hosting trainwreck, his time spent on a soap opera and the multitude of college degrees he's recently undertaken on any given week.  Even I dumped on him a bit in my first reaction to the trailer.  Much like Tom Cruise, his public persona has overtaken his performances and we all kind of forgot why we liked him in the first place.  Well, get ready to remember because he is AMAZING here.  Franco absolutely disappears under his dreadlocks, tattoos and oral hardware, inhabiting a creature unlike anything he's ever played before.  He's lost all pretense here, eschewing any concern for self-image to create a character that will undoubtedly insinuate itself into our collective subconscious.  (Prepare yourself for dozens of memes in the coming weeks.)  The occasional stiffness seen in roles like Harry Osbourne melts away, replaced with a demonic charisma that quite simply demands your attention.   This is an iconic, career defining performance; when Franco dies, his In Memoriam clip at the Oscars will be Alien yelling, "Look at my shit!"

So what about that fetishism?  Well, there is certainly plenty of nudity on display here.  In fact the first five minutes or so are just slo-mo shots of breasts, six-pack abs and bikini clad asses soaked in beer and bouncing to the beats of Skrillex's propulsive score.  It almost feels like a Girls Gone Wild video, although there eventually comes a point of desensitization; the audience is strapped into a Clockwork Orange chair and shown so many naked body parts that eventually there's no real turn on.  The easy assumption was that the casting of ex-Disney stars was all about rushing to be the first to sexualize girls made famous for family-friendly material, similar to the way the internet treated the Olsen twins when I was in college (or, more recently, Hermione Granger).  While all the girls are essentially wading in the waters of debauchery to a certain degree, arguably the most innocent seeming of the bunch, Gomez, pretty much escapes with her dignity in tact.  While the sexual edge is undeniable (Hudgens, Benson and Franco have a threesome in his pool), there's nothing romantic or alluring about it.  It just becomes another signpost on the road to ruination.

Despite all the posters and the press materials, (i.e. the image at the top of this article) the focus isn't really on the sex.  No, the idealization is centered around escape.  These girls are unsatisfied with their home and their normal lives, but they're not interested in doing any of the legitimate work that might help them move on to a better place.  Instead of paying attention in class, they write dirty notes to each other and dream of spring break.  They don't have enough money, so instead they terrorize innocent diner patrons rather than accept that they can't have everything they want.  The repeatedly talk about escaping reality and getting away from the real world, and the constant party environment of spring break provides the perfect alternate dimension to hide away in.  It's no coincidence that when they first encounter Alien, he not only promises a life filled with easy money and flashy toys, he tells them he got his name because he's from another world, and promises to take them away from a life of dull mediocrity.  It's indicative of the mindset of an entire generation, one that fetishizes reward and success without any real skill or effort.  It's the cult of Kardashian taken to the O.G. extreme, and it's depressing as fuck.  I'm honestly not sure if Korine is trying to endorse this twisted manifestation of the American dream, or if he's simpy fascinated by it.  The ending feels ambiguous at best, horrifying at worst.  But either way I was enthralled watching it all play out on the screen.  And Franco really is single-handedly worth the price of admission.

Along with the thumping beats and constantly whispered mantra of "Spring breeeeaaaaaak," there is the ever present sound of a pistol being cocked, instilling a sense of increasing dread over the entire proceeding.  It's clear that someone's eventually going to pay the price for all this unearned success.  I have to wonder if that's not a warning for all of America's youth.

And if it is, will they bother to heed it?

Title: Spring Breakers
Director: Harmony Korine
Starring: James Franco, Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine
Year Of Release: 2013
Viewing Method: Theater (AMC Boston Common)

March 26, 2013

MARGARET Is An Emotional Wrecking Ball

"We are not all supporting characters in the drama of your amazing life!" 
"It's like their entire reason for existing is to prove how loud they can be.  I really don't find that all that interesting." 

Often times the story of a film's production will outshine the film itself.  Titanic was infamous before it ever hit theaters for running so insanely over budget and behind schedule.  Last year's Zero Dark Thirty caught all sorts of flack because a few moronic congressmen claimed that the Obama administration had given screenwriter Mark Boal and director Kathryn Bigelow access to classified documents.  (They hadn't.)  And this weekend will see the release of G.I. Joe: Retaliation nearly nine months after its original release date.  While the initial story claimed the studio wanted extra time for effects work and 3D conversion, it soon became clear that the film was going into reshoots because Channing Tatum was coming off a monster year at the box office and the producers were regretting the decision to kill his character off in the first ten minutes of the movie.  The more sensational the circumstances of the film's production woes, the harder it is for the actual film to stand on its own merits.

Enter Kenneth Lonergan's intimate and powerful drama Margaret.

I won't lie, part of the reason I was drawn to this movie and wanted it to be one of my first handful of screenings was the now legendary tale of the film's turbulent shooting and post-production.  In fact, for a while it looked as if the movie might never see the light of day.  Put simply, Margaret was shot over three years, which is a marvel unto itself, and then spent the next five years locked up in the editing bay.  Lonergan's deal with Fox Searchlight included final cut of the movie, but it also stipulated that the film had to come in under two and a half hours.  The closest he ever got was three hours.  The studio didn't want to fire him off the picture, as Searchlight had pretty much built its reputation on having strong relationships with auteur directors like Lonergan and Darren Aronofsky.  Instead, the production companies just stopped paying to let Lonergan keep editing, so he went to his friend Matthew Broderick (who has a small part in the film) and got a loan to keep working.  Sydney Pollack and Anthony Minghella were both producers on the film and they each worked hands on with Lonergan to help shape the final cut of the film, although both passed away before its ultimate release.  That's right, two legendary filmmakers died trying to get this thing finished.  (An oversimplification, I know.)  Finally MARTIN FUCKING SCORSESE stepped in with his longtime editing partner Thelma Schoonmaker and pieced together a sub-three hour cut that got a very limited theatrical release.  It's now available on DVD and Blu, along with Lonergan's own three hour cut.  (This isn't exactly a Richard Donner/Superman II situation, as Lonergan did eventually approve Scorsese's cut for release.)

So yeah, this movie's had some hurdles to clear.

I spent the better part of a decade hearing whispers of Margaret's demise while simultaneously reading stories from the few who had seen it, most claiming the film to be nothing short of a masterpiece.  The various rumors certainly stoked my interest, but the controversial production was not the only reason I was interested.  Lonergan is a flat out incredible screenwriter, a man with a deft mastery of the spoken word who's unafraid to explore the full depths of his character's chaotic inner lives.  "Unflinching" is the word that immediately comes to mind.  Like Sorkin or Mamet, he's a guy who I always show up for.  It also doesn't hurt that he assembled a cast of jaw-dropping talent: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Matthew Broderick, and Kieran Culkin all turn in wonderful performances, while folks like Olivia Thirlby, John Gallagher Jr., Rosemary DeWitt, Michael Ealy, and Krysten Ritter all appear in smaller roles before they went on to achieve greater success.

In my Bullhead article I talked about movies that focus on character over plot and Margaret is another great example.  High school student Lisa Cohen (Paquin) is out looking for a cowboy hat in New York City one afternoon when she spots a bus driver (Ruffalo) wearing just such a chapeau.  She tries to wave him down, running alongside the bus and laughing while the driver watches her through the door.  He's sort of flirting with her and, yeah, she's sort of flirting back and it's all in good fun until the driver unwittingly runs a red light and mows down a pedestrian named Monica (Allison Janney).  Lisa is left cradling the bleeding woman, who's calling out for her daughter also named Lisa until Monica finally dies in the arms of a teenager who is in no way prepared to deal with such a trauma.  When the police investigators inquire about the accident, she's so shaken and nervous that she tells them the traffic light was green, even though she knows otherwise.  She spends the remainder of the film struggling to make sense both of this brutal tragedy and of her own miscarriage of justice.

The bus accident is one of the most dynamic scenes I've ever witnessed on film.  It's shocking, it's violent, it's funny, it's sad, it's a few brief moments Janney creates an character so rich that her subsequent death is absolutely devastating despite having only just met her.  It's easy to see how such a moment would fuel Lisa's emotional turmoil throughout the rest of the film.  It's nothing short of a master class performance from Paquin, who gives an incredibly honest portrayal of the teenage mindset and experience.  She's an exposed nerve, desperate for knowledge and experience and holding absolutely nothing back as reacts to a world that is beginning to make less and less sense to her.  In many ways it's all about that moment when you realize that the adult world doesn't really operate on the rules you thought it did, and "doing the right thing" isn't necessarily as important to society as you were led to believe.  When Lisa tries to come clean about her false testimony, the cops have already closed the case and there are no real charges they can bring against the driver either way.  Lisa therefore inserts herself into the life of Monica's family in order to help them bring a civil suit against the bus company, but that only ends in an out of court settlement and a check to distant relatives.  Lisa wants the bus driver fired, to be held accountable for his actions and to be squarely labeled as at fault for killing a stranger, even if it was an accident.

On the one hand you feel for Lisa because in a way she's right.  A good woman is dead and seemingly no one is being held responsible.  While Lisa intellectually knows that's wrong, she has no idea how to appropriately express her frustration or relate to those around her.  This mindset is mirrored in classroom scenes where Lisa argues with classmates over the events of September 11th, the nature of terrorism and current events in the Middle East.  (Filmed in New York circa 2004, this is a film in which 9/11 still feels like an open wound.)  Her arguments are not necessarily wrong, but she screams and insults her classmate while other students sit with hands raised, wanting to join the conversation and annoyed at Lisa for ignoring the rules and talking over them.  Similarly, Lisa makes Monica's death all about her own distress, unable to actually relate to Monica's partner Emily or her semi-estranged family.  When she tells Emily about the confusion when Monica was asking about her nominally identical daughter, Lisa says that in that moment she felt like she really was Monica's Lisa.  This declaration only serves to anger Emily, but rather than empathize and/or apologize, Lisa turns indignant and calls Emily "strident."  It perfectly sums up the kind of self-centered, self-righteous perspective that typifies so many teenagers, determined to prove their own worth and that above all THEY UNDERSTAND, even if nothing could be further from the truth.

That's why I chose the above quotes, as they perfectly sum up Lisa's state of being.  While she probably doesn't realize it (and wouldn't admit it even if she did), she treats everyone around her as a means to her own emotional exploration, and is determined to make that exploration as loud as humanly possible.  This attitude also drives Lisa's relationship with her mother, a divorced actress who's starting a potentially career-changing stage show while entering into a new relationship for the first time in ages.  But when she tries connect to her daughter, Lisa's response is to tell her that she doesn't care because nothing in her mother's life is really important.  Lisa's friend Darren is clearly in love with her, but when she decides to start having sex she completely disregards him in favor of some incredibly bad decisions, the latter of which devolves into Hannah Horvath-ian levels of cringe-worthy behavior on her part.  Each individual component can be hard to watch, but they all come together to form an incredible tapestry of emotional catharsis.

There's so much more to Margaret.  I could write another full length piece just on Lisa's relationship with her family (Lonergan plays her father, appearing via long distance phone calls from California) or her interactions with her classmates and teachers.  Matthew Broderick has a few fantastic scenes, (particularly the King Lear scene), as does a babyfaced Matt Damon.  I can't wait to get a hold of Lonergan's longer version, as I'm curious to see how much of the editing style carries over to both cuts.  Some scenes are protracted arguments, while others jump-cut mid conversation or give us only brief moments surrounded by lingering shots of New York intersections or skylines.

Margaret is a film of epic nuance, a story that is both sprawling and intimate and will likely offer fresh revelations at least the next five times I watch it.  Even if Lonergan's script wasn't as phenomenal as it is, the performances alone are reason enough to check this one out.  It's certainly an investment of both your time and your emotions, but in the end each will yield a remarkable profit, and you'll be the richer for it.

Title: Margaret
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Starring: Anna Paquin, J. Smith-Cameron, Mark Ruffalo, Allison Janney, Matt Damon, Jean Reno, Kieran Culkin
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: HBO

March 24, 2013


"I should have known if a guy like me talked to a girl like you, somebody would end up dead." 

I knew when I started this project that there would come a day when watching a movie would be something of a chore, where I was fighting every natural urge in order to get through a screening just to live up to my own promise to myself.  I haven't quite hit that point yet, but Thursday night was pretty close.

It was my wife Jamie's 30th birthday, so after a deliciously filling dinner of lamb wrapped in philo dough and risotto with duck and jalapeno, plus the opening of presents (I got her a cookie scoop and a Silpat silicone baking mat, plus the 25th Anniversary Les Miserables stage show on Blu), needless to say I was pretty wiped out.  And so I found myself at 11:30pm, sitting on the couch with a movie still to watch.  I needed something short, something light, and something entertaining enough to keep me from falling asleep.

Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil seemed like a pretty good fit.

It's a riff on the traditional horror movie story featuring a group of good looking college kids spending a weekend at a cabin in the woods, destined to be killed off one by one in an increasingly gruesome manner.  The gag here is that our heroes are not the college kids, but Tucker and Dale, two well meaning rednecks that the college kids mistakenly believe are out to get them.  After an unfortunately awkward introduction at a gas station, Tucker (Alan Tudyk) and Dale (Tyler Labine) head off to do a little fishing and turn the cabin they just bought into their dream vacation home.  When they witness beautiful college co-ed Allie (Katrina Bowden) fall into the lake and hit her head, they fish her out of the water and take her back to their place to care for her.  Allie's friends, led by the cocky frat guy Chad, assume that Tucker and Dale are deranged hillbillies who have kidnapped Allie and plan to kill them all.  Fueled by an urban legend and one too many horror movies, the kids continue to misinterpret Tucker and Dale's good intentions for malevolence.  (Dale tries to leave them a note to tell them Allie is okay, but lacking paper and pen he carves "WE GOT UR FRIEND" into a log with a hatchet.)  They each attempt to escape or attack their imagined enemy, resulting in a series of amusing accidental suicides.

By now I shouldn't have to expound upon the comic virtues of Alan Tudyk, as any fan of Firefly can attest.  He's excellent here as always, although he doesn't really get a lot to do as Tucker.  If anything, he's kind of the straight man to Tyler Labine's Dale, who's a bumbling teddy bear with serious self-esteem issues.  Dale keeps putting himself out there to the world only to get shot down; even though he has something of a photographic memory, he never seems to be able to make the right words come out under pressure.  It's easy to see why he falls in love with Allie, who's both compassionate and unpretentious while also being drop dead gorgeous.  For those only familiar with Bowden from her work on 30 Rock, this is a refreshing change of pace from the aloof and self-assured Cerie.  Tyler Labine is absolutely the stand out though.  He's made good work of small roles in movies like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Zack And Miri Make A Porno, while scoring leads on quickly cancelled shows like Sons Of Tuscon and this season's Animal Practice.  Labine first popped for me on the CW's Reaper, where he played the best friend of a bounty hunting son of Satan played by Bret Harrison, a guy my friend Danielle insists is my doppelganger.   Looking at Labine's filmography, there's no doubt in my mind that his agents pitch him as a young Jack Black and it's easy to see why.  He's got a lot of energy and a great comic delivery, but he also brings a deep sense of pathos to his characters that makes him easily lovable.  Eventually someone's gonna figure out the right role for him and he's gonna break out HUGE.  Mark my words.

It's hard to watch this movie without immediately drawing comparisons to Cabin In The Woods, another movie that takes that basic self-described horror premise and turns it on its head, but that's actually a pretty unfair standard.  Setting aside the next-level genius of Cabin, the two films really have nothing in common other than the idea of messing with the same familiar set-up.  Tucker and Dale is a more overt comedy and, just like any good horror movie, the real reason we keep watching is to see awesome kills.  While each death is fairly entertaining, unfortunately they ultimately fall short of greatness.  Ideally each kill would either be really over the top funny, or reach Final Destination levels of Rube Goldbergian complexity.  There's a well setup bit involving a loose beam in Tucker's cabin that ends up funnier than I anticipated as well as an incident with a woodchipper that you simply know is coming as soon as you see the thing hitched to the back of Tucker's truck.  It's a great example of Checkov's old adage about putting a loaded gun on stage in Act I: by Act III it's definitely going to go off.

Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil is both funny and sweet, but overall it's a fairly middling effort.  There's pretty solid gore and some good zingers from the titular duo, but the overall message about not rushing to judge a book by its cover falls a little flat and a subplot about Chad's backstory doesn't quite make the impact it aims for.  (It's worth noting that while I didn't love Jesse Moss as Chad, the character's growing psychopathy over the course of the film is pretty damn great.)  A few more iconic kills could've pushed this one higher, but in the end it's easy to see why it was essentially stranded in the land of VOD.

But it was everything I needed it to be to keep me awake late on a Thursday night.

Title: Tucker And Dale Vs. Evil
Director: Eli Craig
Starring: Alan Tudyk, Tyler Labine, Katrina Bowden, Jesse Moss
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)

March 23, 2013


"Funny, now that I know these things won't kill me, I don't enjoy them."
Right as I started watching Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, I made the last minute decision to live-tweet my viewing.  I really enjoyed doing it for Titanic and, judging by the analytics, you all enjoyed reading it.  So I figured it was probably time for another run on Twitter.

As I'm getting pretty deep into the Apes series, it seemed likely that the franchise was about to go off the rails and get either truly silly or truly terrible.  Escape really played up the campy elements, reveling in the hilarity of the fish-out-of-water aspect of intelligent future apes living in 1970s Los Angeles.  However, the end of the film makes an abrupt ninety degree turn and gets truly dark and ominous.  Seriously, a guy shoots a newborn baby ape like six times point blank.  Fucking DARK.

While I was kind of hoping Conquest would keep with the lighter tone, instead it delves into the beginning of humanity's downfall and it's not a pleasant tale.  We've jumped forward about 20 years to 1991 and mankind is already in tough shape.  A plague has already wiped out all the dogs and cats from the face of the Earth, just like Cornelius foretold.  Apes have already become domesticated and are even performing menial labor like waiting tables and sweeping streets.  There's a quasi-futuristic, industrial totalitarian feel to the whole thing, and you get the feeling that humanity has been living in terror ever since Zira and Cornelius showed up and spelled out humanity's destruction.  Frankly, I'd have been scared shitless too once the dogs and cats all started dying, although I don't know why people would've started bringing apes into their homes in the first place.

Anyway, Conquest does a great job of painting humanity as the villains, leaving us with the impression that mankind deserves what's coming to them.  Unfortunately we don't really love the apes yet either.  The make-up work is sub-par here and we only have one talking ape that's a fully formed character we can really root for, Zira and Cornelius's son Caesar.  (There's no explanation as to why he's no longer named Milo.)  Roddy McDowell is back to play his own progeny, and he's excellent.  While Cornelius was an intellectual, Caesar is all raw emotion and he gets a powerful speech at the end to wrap up the picture.  I'm excited to see how they conclude this franchise next week with Battle For The Planet Of The Apes.

Now on with the live-tweeting!

Well, one more Ape adventure left to go.

What should I live-tweet next?  I'm open to suggestions...

Title: Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes
Director: J. Lee Thompson
Starring: Roddy McDowell, Don Murray, Ricardo Montalban, Hari Rhodes, Natalie Trundy
Year Of Release: 1972
Viewing Method: Digital Copy (TV)

March 22, 2013

Ownership And Exploitation Collide In SHUT UP LITTLE MAN!

"If you want to talk to me, then shut your fuckin' mouth!"
About a quarter of the way into Shut Up Little Man!, it occurred to me that the basic plot of my second documentary screening was very similar to my first, Winnebago Man.  Both focus on recordings that were passed around without the subject's knowledge and became viral sensations well before the advent of the internet.  Fortunately the similarities end with that basic set up and some of the overall structure.  While Winnebago Man feels somewhat light and charming, there's a darker underbelly to Shut Up Little Man! that the film happily did not shy away from.

In 1987, two twenty-somethings named Mitchell D. and Eddie Lee Sausage moved from their hometown in Wisconsin to San Francisco, taking up residence in a ramshackle pink apartment building they quickly dubbed the Pepto Bismol Palace.  They quickly discovered that their next door neighbors, two older men named Peter Haskett and Raymond Huffman, largely spent their days drinking vodka and their nights angrily screaming and cursing at each other.  The walls of the apartment were so thin that the young punks could clearly hear these arguments at all hours of the night, and when Eddie finally tried to confront Ray one evening, Ray threatened to attack him.  Eddie and Mitch retreated to their apartment, stuck a microphone onto the end of a ski pole, held it outside their window, and started recording Peter and Ray's arguments*.  The cantankerous old men could see the microphone and knew they were being recorded, but that just made them fight even more, and over the next few months Eddie and Mitch recorded over 12 hours of profane, homophobic vitriol on cassette tapes.

Mitch and Eddie would make mix tapes (!) for friends and often splice in little tastes of Peter and Ray between tracks.  People started coming over just to listen in live and make whole copies of the unedited recordings.  The cassette tapes would then get copied and passed around, until Mitch and Eddie were finally contacted by the editor of a magazine for audiophiles that focused on found recordings, prank calls and other strange instances of audio verite.  They eventually started selling the tapes under the title Shut Up Little Man, which was a frequent exclamation of Peter.  The liner notes included a disclaimer that essentially renounced any kind of copyright, encouraging the listener to appropriate, adapt and distribute the recordings however they saw fit.  Shut Up Little Man started appearing everywhere, as comics, artwork, a DEVO song, and even a fully staged theater production.

It's at this point that things get really interesting.  Three different parties started to develop some form of a Shut Up Little Man movie: Eddie and Mitch, the L.A. playwright who wrote the stage play, as well as a friend of Mitch who was affiliated with another production company.  All these competing movie projects were faced with a unique challenge: First of all, when the play went up in Los Angeles, Mitch and Eddie made an abrupt about face and added your standard copyright to the tapes they were selling, leading to some debate as to whether there's any sort of legal ground for trying to put the artistic toothpaste back into the tube.  At the same time, it was clear that the two had never secured any kind of permission to tape their neighbors, whether they knew they were being recorded or not.  Regardless of Eddie and Mitch's dubious copyright claim, someone was going to have to track down Peter and Ray to get their legal blessing.

Here is where the tone of the movie abruptly shifts.  Up till now the whole thing has been pretty amusing, seeing old photos of these goofy kids contrasted with the hilariously hateful audio screeds of their cranky neighbors. They even go so far as to recreate certain scenes and incidents, with the older Mitch and Eddie playing themselves and some lookalike actors standing in for the now-deceased Peter and Ray.  There are interviews with some of the quirky artists who were inspired by Shut Up Little Man, as well as a few audiophiles whose basements are filled with old cassette tapes.  But once the search for Peter and Ray begins, the whole thing takes on an unsavory vibe.  Passing around tapes of your crazy neighbors swearing for your own entertainment is one thing, but now there's (potentially) serious money on the table, and it quickly becomes clear that nobody gives a fuck about these poor old guys.  By the time the movie deals come into play, Ray has died and Peter is living alone in a tiny apartment.  We watch as he's given a check for $100 dollars and signs a legal release to one of these would-be producers, and as they explain the entire legend of the Shut Up recordings, Peter seems to only have a cursory understanding of what's going on.  (He clearly doesn't fully grasp the situation or he else wouldn't have settled for $100.)  Eventually he even parrots back his catchphrase, "Shut up little man," just because he senses that it'll make these strangers happy.  It's a moment that's both adorable and heartbreaking.

The film craters out when Mitch tracks down Tony, Peter and Ray's occasional third wheel, who's now living in a single resident occupancy building after spending a few years in prison for assaulting Peter sometime after Ray's death.  He's the only other living witness to the events of the Pepto Bismol Palace, and the guys clearly think it's important to get him on camera.  It takes two visits, a six pack of beer, the promise of money and a whole lot of cajoling through the doorway before he'll even talk to Mitch.  It's a depressing scene, and it's clear that they've totally lost sight of the fact that these are actual people and not just tools to help them make a better documentary.  Again, we see Eddie and Mitch chuckling as Tony does his best Ray impression, which is a little unsettling because it feels like they're laughing at him, not with him; Tony is definitely not in on the joke.

Despite taking a weirdly depressing and uncomfortable turn in the last half hour, it's pretty fascinating to see these two middle aged guys who are still so inextricably tied to something that boils down to sophomoric fucking around and wasting time while stoned.  Eddie Lee Sausage is still selling tapes, CDs, bumper stickers and other paraphernalia out of his basement to this day.  It'd be like if I made a short film after college and then tried to live on it for the next twenty years, except the film was actually just secretly taped footage of my angry ex-military police officer neighbor yelling at me for 15 minutes and questioning my manhood after I had the temerity to host a loud dinner party ON THANKSGIVING.  (This really happened, although sadly I didn't have the foresight to get it on film.)  Eddie makes makes no bones about the fact that he believes he's making art, and if he had taken those recordings and tweaked or altered them in some way I'd probably agree with him.  (I admit, the fake labels for Peter Haskett Vodka are pretty clever.)  But it's just as easy to argue that he and Mitch are essentially just peeping toms, appropriating materials to which they have no ownership and exploiting the "hilarious madness" of two sad old men in the process.

Still, those recordings are pretty damn funny.

*Everytime I typed the words "Peter and Ray," I couldn't help but think of Peter Venkman and Ray Stantz.  The image of Dan Aykroyd snarling, "Go to hell, you fucking cocksucker," and Bill Murray screaming back, "Shut up, little man!" is fantastic.  This should be the plot of Ghostbusters 3.  

Title: Shut Up Little Man: An Audio Misadventure
Director: Matthew Bate
Starring: Eddie Lee Sausage, Mitch D, Peter Haskett, Raymond Huffman
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV/Laptop)

Wife's Choice: TANGLED In 50 Words Or Less

"Frying pans!  Who knew, right?"

It's cute.

It's sweet.

It's beautifully animated.

The horse and the lizard are great.

Zachary Levi should do more voice work.

The myriad uses for her hair are all very clever.

I have officially outgrown Disney animated musicals.  They're just not for me anymore.

That is all.

Title: Tangled
Director: Nathan Greno, Byron Howard
Starring: Mandy Moore, Zachary Levi, Donna Murphy
Year Of Release: 2010
Viewing Method: Digital Copy (TV)

March 21, 2013

BULLHEAD Is A Beautifully Tragic Superhero Tale

"My whole life, I've known nothing but animals." 


In Austin, Texas there is a movie theater called the Alamo Drafthouse.  It is a cathedral for cinema fans, a place where the purity of the movie watching experience is held as sacred above all else.  Their standards for picture and sound quality are top notch, they have full food and bar service at your seat, and they'll kick your ass to the curb for talking or texting during the movie.  (Their homemade no-texting PSAs are legendary.  Here's their latest courtesy of James Franco, although this one is easily my favorite.)  The Alamo is famous for doing vintage screenings, rolling roadshows and special themed events.  For example, they usually do a yearly screening of the three extended Lord Of The Rings movies back-to-back-to-back while serving all eleven hobbit meals.  They also host Fantastic Fest, by all rights one of the coolest film fests around.  I've been lucky enough to have one of my shorts screen there as part of a (different) festival, but I've never had the chance to actually visit the place in person.  

In 2010, Tim League and the rest of the Alamo team started a film distribution company called Drafthouse Films, grabbing up the rights to all sorts of cool and interesting films which might otherwise have trouble finding an audience.  Since their founding, Drafthouse has amassed a collection of about fifteen films and pretty much every one of them looks like an incredible find.  I haven't seen any of them yet, but I intend to work my way through the list over the course of these writings.  

Now, onto the screening.

Most of my favorite movies generally fall into two categories.

The first type of film is plot driven, presenting a number of different puzzle pieces and forcing the audience to spend the movie trying to determine what's going to happen next and how it's all going to fit together in the end.  Ocean's 11 (and indeed, most any heist movie) is a great example.  While it's filled with memorable characters, our chief concern the first time watching it is figuring out how Danny and friends are going to get away with all that money.  The characters are there to service the plot; they are a means to an end.

The second kind of movie is a character study.  We're presented with a compelling protagonist who's struggling against some sort of obstacle.  The actual plot may be extremely personal or intimate and it might even be a little predictable, but the central character (and the actor's performance) is so compelling that we can't look away.

Bullhead somehow manages to pull off a bit of both.  It's a heartbreaking character study with a dash of badass crime drama thrown in for good measure.

You may remember Bullhead as the Belgian film that was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award in 2012.  (At the time, it was a big win for Drafthouse Films, as it was only the third film they had acquired.)  The plot focuses on organized crime in the Belgian cattle industry.  There's a huge underground trade in illegal bovine steroids and hormones used to maximize beef production, all controlled by different mobsters.  When an undercover cop is gunned down, the police are determined to track down his killers and avenge the death of one of their own.  The crime element is certainly well constructed, with the whole case hinging on a set of stolen car tires in a way that recalls Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, one of my favorites.

But the heart of the movie lies with Jacky Vanmarsenille, an enforcer who just wants to protect his family's cattle farm and get out alive before the police turn him into the fall guy.  Jacky, played by newcomer Matthias Schoenaerts, is an absolute BEAST of a man.  He's a hulking brute, often silent and always reasoning out the situation before him.  His imposing size is hardly surprising, as we quickly discover that he regularly injects himself with illegal cattle hormones.

At first we assume that his injections are solely to make him more intimidating to his opponents, but eventually we flashback and witness the incident that set the rest of his life into motion.  When he was a boy, Jacky had a crush on the pretty Lucia Schepers.  He goes looking for her one day and instead finds Lucia's psychotic older brother Bruno and his friends masturbating to porno magazines in the woods.  Bruno chases Jacky down and, in a shockingly brutal sequence, pulls down Jacky's pants and pulverizes his testicles with a brick.  Bruno raises the brick and smashes it down repeatedly as Jacky lies twitching in the grass, his eyes rolling up in the back of his head.  As a result, Jacky is forced to take testosterone injections for the rest of his life to compensate for his violent castration.

On the other side of the coin we also have Diederik.  As kids, the scrawny Jacky and the heavyset Diederik were the best of friends while their fathers were business partners in the cattle trade.  Diederik was the only witness to Bruno's attack on Jacky, but his father would not let the boy testify to the police because the elder Schepers would've ruined their business.  And so the two drifted apart and remained strangers until their paths coincidentally cross again 20 years later in the midst of a deal with Diederik's shady gangster boss.

Matthias Shoenaerts gives a star-making performance here that is nothing short of breathtaking.  Physically Jacky's a monster, but emotionally he's essentially still a child, his psychological growth permanently halted that fateful day in the field.  He remains enamored of Lucia, who now runs a perfume store, but has no way to express that love.  Instead he watches her from a distance and keeps a scrapbook of newspaper clippings and photographs.  After his attack, Jacky's mother asks the doctor if he's going to become gay, and while Jacky understandably remains a virgin well into adulthood, it's not clear whether he can actually have sex or if he's just ashamed to reveal his injury.  While Jacky usually burns off his "roid rage" by shadowboxing in his bedroom, he's still also prone to fits of violence.  He attacks two mechanics he believes to be scamming his brother and eventually follows a man he sees flirting with Lucia at a bar and beats him into a coma.

But credit also to Jeroen Perceval, as his portrayal of Diederik proves absolutely essential to the film's success.  Diederik unknowingly grows up to become the anti-Jacky.  He's a short, wiry, balding man who's become a mid-level gangster in the employ of the man responsible for the undercover cop's death.  But he's also secretly a police informant.  The last time we see Diederik as a boy, he's chasing down a police car trying to finally help Jacky and tell the truth about his friend's attack, but it's to no avail.  The experience was clearly just as formative for Diederik as it was for Jacky, but it sent him off in a totally different direction, spending the rest of his days ratting out criminals to make up for his failure to do so as a child.  He's also gay (and in love with one of his police contacts), which serves as a nice callback to Mrs. Vanmarsenille's fears about her own son.  Bullhead has a lot to say about what exactly defines manhood, and while Jacky is fascinating in his own right, it's the counterweight of Diederik that throws Schoenaerts's performance into stark relief.

While watching the movie I kept thinking of Jacky as a wounded animal.  He's powerful and intelligent, but also scared and desperate.  The film's final scene only reinforces that comparison.  However, upon reflection I can't shake the idea that Bullhead is actually structured like a dark, tragic superhero story.  We've got Jacky, our hero with near-superhuman strength and a tragic origin story that's akin to that of Spider-Man or Daredevil.  Lucia is the woman he loves but can never have, and Diederik is his nemesis, his polar opposite, the Mr. Glass to Jacky's "Unbreakable" David Dunn.  However, the interesting spin is that as we get further and further into the story, their roles essentially reverse.  Diederik proves to be the good guy, helping the authorities to bring bad guys to justice while Jacky becomes a destructive force that simply can't be caged.  And, much like some incarnations of Batman and The Joker, in the end Diederik feels responsible for his role in Jacky's "creation" and tries to help him pull his life back from the brink.  Hell, even the title feels like a comic book hero.

Bullhead is an absolutely incredible achievement and there's a good reason that Matthias Schoenaerts is already starting make his way into the mainstream of Hollywood.  Last year he starred opposite Marion Cotillard in Rust And Bone as well as an Oscar nominated short film.  Oh yeah, and Schoenaerts is currently working with his Bullhead director Michael R. Roskam on Animal Rescue, appearing alongside Tom Hardy, Noomi Rapace and James Gandolfini, working from a script by Dennis Lehane.

I'm sold.

Title: Bullhead
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Starring: Matthias Schoenaerts, Jeroen Perceval, Jeanne Dandoy
Year Of Release: 2011
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant (TV)