Linked here is my weekend box office report for Motley Fool.
Based on a small sample of films so far, the 35th annual Portland International Film Festival is one of the most violent in memory. It's not gunplay, but gross, ugly, physical violence of a cruelly imaginative sort. In the British "miserabalist" horror film, Kill List, a man is brutally beaten to death in his kitchen. In Snowtown, serial killers torture a man slowly in a bathroom with hammers. Now, in Bullhead, something horrible happens to a kid.
The incident happens about halfway through the film, so forewarned viewers can sense the approaching event and at least close their eyes. But this terrible art of violence seems much too big for what first time director Michael R. Roskam wants it to represent, though Bullhead did go on to represent Belgium as an Oscar nominee for best film.
Bullhead (Rundskop) concerns one Jacky Vanmarsenille (Matthias Schoenaerts, who pulls a De Niro and bulks up for the role). Jacky is an existential isolate, a 30-year-old single man who runs the family cattle farm with his uncle. A shady veterinarian suggests that the Vanmarsenille family start selling their meat to gangster Marc Decuyper (Sam Louwyck), a member of what the film calls the "hormone mafia." Decuyper is dangerous, and the man behind the recent murder of a cop investigating his enterprise. Jacky, however, not only "beefs up" his cows, but himself as well. He is addicted to steroids, with the attendant physical changes and emotional instability. He is either sullen and withdrawn or RoboCop on a 'roid rage. The criminal element is the complicated jumping point for the rest of the film, which instead inspects Jacky's character, as much as it can from his glum exterior. In addition to Jacky's getting into bed with the devil, and his addiction issues, he's had a lifelong crush on a neighboring farm girl who now works in a shop for women's fineries. She speaks French and one of the film's observational stances is to reflect the tension between Dutch-speaking Flemish citizens and their French-speaking Walloon antagonists.
Jacky's steroid use is apparently meant to compensate for his lack of manhood. As a kid, a bully captured Jacky and crush his balls with two rocks as the assailant's gang looked on, in a sequence that serves as the thrust of the film's second large scale section. This is Jacky's defining moment, and a horrific one, but it's impact seems to get lost in the film's byways of a failing romance, a crime story, and side issues with a pair of moronic garage mechanics. Perhaps Jacky's emasculation is symbolic of Belgium's impotence in the European market, or of European manhood in crisis due to stagnation or the rise of feminism, or whatever – the film is oblique about its meanings, aside from a depressing or despairing opening voice over. What is clear is that the castration, taken both symbolically or literally, is too big an event to keep the narrative from derailing from both narrative and psychological plausibility.
Back in film classes kids had a tendency to make student films about a guy being chased.1 No explanation, and often no conclusion. A guy running. He leaps over logs, his feet splash through the the edge of a stream, he looks back nervously. Yes, these films usually take place in a woods somewhere. Someone is watching or chasing, but we never see who it is. Such movies had two virtues for their makers: they allowed latitude for interesting camera angles and swift editing, and they were vaguely "existential" or Kafkaesque.2 Tales of man's puniness in the face of higher forces.
Well, these students have grown up and some have entered the film business and what they make are chase films. In the mediocre ones, as usual, it doesn't matter who is chasing whom, it only matters that chasing is being committed. In Safe House, the viewer meets a certain Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), and in a few seconds he is running for his life. Who is chasing him? Why? Eventually we learn this, but even that solution is vague. Frost has a "file." It will embarrass people. Those who don't want to be embarrassed somehow know about this file and want to get it back. Frost is the anti-hero. He is a rogue CIA agent who turned "traitor" years earlier. His unwilling buddy is Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds), a CIA safe house clerk in South Africa where Tobin ends up when he has no where else to hide. After a chase from the safe house, a chase through a soccer stadium, a car chase through the streets of JoBerg, a chase through a depressed area, and a final confrontation at a safe house in the country so big it could pass for Trump Plaza, Weston finally learns, with us, what the whole thing has been about, and accepts the torch, so to speak, from Frost.3
The film follows the rules of the genre. No one can wing a running man, no matter how many guns are trained on him. Bad guys always anticipate where the runner will go. Oh, and when an older mentor says, "You know I'm looking out for you," that person is the main betrayer.
A large secondary cast is called upon to stand in command centers and look at oversized NCIS screens and speak spy jargon with a phone to one ear. This cast includes Vera Farmiga in the "Joan Allen" role from the Bourne movies,
Brendan Gleeson in the Brian Cox role, and Sam Shepard in the David Strathairn part. Also on hand are Rubén Blades as Frost's buddy and passport counterfeiter, and Robert Patrick as mid-level spook muscle. All are photographed by Oliver Wood to expose the realistic splotches on their faces.
The pace is swift but strangely enervating. The slow and quiet moments of talk between chases are even worse. In the Bourne films, the slow parts are just as interesting as the rest, but when Safe House pauses, it dies. Daniel Espinosa, a Swedish director of earlier crime films, maintains a reasonable level of authenticity, but soon characters are covered in blood and it devolves into one of those films where sanguinous men are crawling toward each other with shards of glass in their midst. Why are action directors constantly tempted to wound their heroes and make them inactive. I guess it's existential or something.
1 The other type of student movie always began with someone waking up, looking at a clock.
2 At this stage, we should start blending the notions into Kafkastential.
3 Given what happens to the file, Safe House could be called the first WikiLeaks movie, just as Three Days of the Condor was the first Pentagon Papers movie.
Though he began as something of a joke, Woody Harrelson has turned into one of the screen's best actors. He has the long, angular face that the camera likes, and has a drawl that Matthew McConaughey must have studied in grade school. He has a sharp profile and an ageless look, and has managed not to let baldness confine him to demeaning oddball roles.
The joke status descended upon him because he had moved from TV's Cheers to starring across Demi Moore and Robert Redford in Indecent Proposal, in which the drawling Harrelson proposed to play an architect. Adrian Lyne's 1993 film is so weird in and of itself – its cast, its differences from the source novel – that a book could be written just on its implications. No one would read it, but the book would be interesting. But a few years later with Natural Born Killers Harrelson began to show gravity on screen, and after The People vs. Larry Flynt he was taken seriously, as a screen cowpoke, a druggie, a comic actor, and documentary narrator. Often he's been the best thing in a movie (2012), and he has shown a remarkable range, from a riveting yet hilarious cameo in No Country for Old Men to kudos for The Messenger.
For Rampart, Harrelson has re-teamed with Messenger's director, Oren Moverman, a writer turned director, and Mr. Moverman makes great hay with Harrelson's look and manner. The film begins with closeups of Harrelson's profile and you realize that we have a new Roy Scheider, who was similarly so lovingly captured on film by William Friedkin in Sorcerer.
Rampart is a bad-cop film and there have been plenty of those in recent years, from Internal Affairs, to Mulholland Falls, to Training Day, to the series The Shield, to Dark Blue, itself also taken from the work of James Ellroy, as is Rampart. Dark Blue took place in 1992 and Rampart is set in 1999; Dark Blue ends with the start of the Rodney King riots; Rampart is set in and around the time of the Rampart police scandal in Los Angeles. Like Bad Lieutenant, the narrative follows its main character, Dave Brown, around for an undisclosed frame of time, in this case from the period in which he brutally beats a suspect who has bashed into his squad car, to the later resolution of his issues.
Unapologetically racist – he would call it realism – Brown is a tough cop who pushes the rules as far as they will go, drinks heavily, philanders, and so forth, but is not a crook, a pimp, racist, gun runner, or any of the other crimes with which the 100+ Rampart cops were accused. Instead he is a reckless man whose life situation tightens around him as the story progresses. Among Brown's peculiarities is his having kids from two different women who are sisters (Cynthia Nixon, Anne Heche) and who happen to live next to each other. He still lives in back, and at the dinner table solicits sex for the night from each woman seriatim.
Critics and publicists are touting The Woman in Black on several fronts: as Daniel Radcliffe's first post-Harry Potter movie, as the rebirth of Hammer Films, as a fine deal for its distributor CBS Films, which bought the distribution rights for $3 million dollars, and which as so far made around $45 million (advertising costs are unknown). What viewers will want to know, though, is if it is worth seeing. In the experience, The Woman in Black is on the one hand classy in that "British heritage" way, and and on the other, boring, with a side trade in child murder.
The set piece of the film is a long sequence in which Radcliffe investigates the tenantless mansion, He wanders silently, slowly through knick-knack cluttered rooms. "Things" move behind him, other "things" make sudden noises. The image is dark, the music ominous. Actors love these kinds of scenes; they are the only character on screen, and the camera is usually held closely on their face. But at the end of this sequence, Radcliff has discovered nothing new, and the audience is asleep.
The time is the early 1900s. Cars have been introduced to the English landscape and Arthur Conan Doyle is touting mediums. Radcliffe is (the annoyingly Brittishly or Dickensianly named) Arthur Kipps1, a struggling, widowed attorney with a son who has been assigned "one final case," to settle the estate of a Mrs. Alice Drablow who lived in Eel Marsh House. The first of the film's four parts chronicles the traditional journey from city to country wherein Kipps is shown hostility by the locals. Kipps is fortunate enough to meet the local rich eccentric Mr. Daily (Ciarán Hinds) who explains to him and to the viewer the lay of the land. In essence, the "haunting" is in ghostly form of a child murderer, her practices affecting also Mrs. Daily (Janet McTeer, currently Oscar nominated for another film), though it takes a while to grasp that information. In the climax, Kipps has returned home, but at the last second the malevolent spirit spirit reaches out and threatens both Kipps and his kid. Suffice it to say that Kipps and Kipps fis go to a better place where they are reunited with wife-mom.
The Woman in Black started out as a novel by Susan Hill (a TV writer), then became a play, and then a TV movie aired in 1989. Why this material has such a hold on the public, if indeed it does, is baffling. It is a concatenation of clichés and predicable shock tactics, with a bogus faith in spiritualism and a debased form of Christianity (we will all be reunited with our loved ones in heaven).
Though publicized as a "Hammer film," it is so legally but in name only. Hammer horror had a particular look and pace, based on the use of the same sets repeatedly and by drawing upon the same small stock of writers and directors. More important, as shown by a dip into books on horror and Hammer by David Pirie and Kim Newman, Hammer never released a ghost story. They trafficked in remakes of Universal horror films and later witchcraft and sexed up vampiratrix tales. In fact, as Pirie points out interestingly, England did not have a tradition of horror films at all until Hammer came along, and Hollywood was left to adapt the stories of Mary Shelley, Stoker, Stevenson, and others. The Woman in Black is more like an uncanny tale by M. R. James, whose "Casting the Runes" was made into the memorable Night of the Demon. The Woman in Black caters to audience expectations, offering nothing new and little that is frightening or unsettling, beyond its contempt for our intelligence.
1 The character's name is different in earlier iterations of the story.
Thirty-five years ago, the Portland International Film Festival was born in a small then-new (now defunct) movie theater on SW Taylor, called, appropriately, the Movie House. This was formerly the Women's Club, and the auditorium was at the top of a grand staircase and hidden behind two sets of double doors that annoyingly opened off to the sides of the screen. The lobby was wooden and rustic, and the popcorn was fresh and claimed to be coated in real melted butter. On a folding table in the lobby was a big crock of free Kaukauna Klub Cheese and some Ritz crackers. Ascending the creaking, carpeted stairs one found an additional lobby on the second floor, with wrought iron balconies and a whole lot of mis-matched wooden chairs and couches. Before each film someone did an introduction, standing before the screen, a brief 15 seconds of fame. Sometimes it was the aged overweight hippie who looked like Mr. Natural. Other times it was a small, intense brunette with a bad temper imported from Seattle, the home base of Seven Gables Cinemas, the operator of the Movie House. In fact, everyone who worked at the Movie House seemed to be in a bad mood. Nevertheless, in 1977 Seven Gables introduced the film festival to the city and showed, what, some 80 films. The third festival alone debuted films ranging from Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, Assault on Precinct 13, The Champ, and Pirosmani, to the cinematic record of Robert Vaughn's one-man show F.D.R. A few years later the Northwest Film Study Center, as it was then known, took over the festival and has sponsored it ever since.
This year the festival boasts some 90 films to be shown at eight venues scattered around town. Among its most notable presentations this year is The Kid with a Bike (Le gamin au vélo, Belgium, 2011), the latest film from the Brothers Dardenne.
Typical of the Dardennes, the narrative is simple and begins – and ends – in media res. It concerns Cyril (Thomas Doret), who is confined to a foster home but looking for his father. In the course of his rambunctious search he bumps into a woman who helps him find his bike, which his father sold off after abandoning his son. The woman, Samantha (Cécile De France of Hereafter, High Tension, and Mesrine: Killer Instinct), who runs a small hair salon, agrees to take on the kid for weekends. They have a tense relationship as at first she helps him track down dad (Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier) who wants nothing to do with him, and then bails him out of a crime he commits with a local troublemaker, also done in order to supply some cash to his dad. But woman and child's idyllic time together after that is threatened when the victim of his crime seeks vengeance on Cyril.
This is perhaps one of the Dardennes' most accessible films. As is typical of their films, it is a tale on the run. Though tempting, it is difficult to classify Kid with a Bike as an entry in what Sight and Sound magazine calls "slow cinema," or the new contemplative international style in festival fare, because, like most of their central characters, Cyril is on the go, always rushing and never stopping to rest or ponder his actions. Here, though, his goal is simple (in previous films, the protagonists' goals were as broad as survival in a depressed urban landscape in Rosetta, and as complex as involvement with the Russian mob, in Lorna's Silence). The Dardennes' camera keeps up with these characters, gliding smoothly around a cluttered, dirty, compressed, and chaotic cityscape.
The Dardennes come out of documentary filmmaking and their pictures tend to stand back and watch and let you decide on what emotions to feel. There is no music to cue you. There is little foregrounding and rarely resolution or climax to the tales. That would be the easy way out. This distancing can be distracting and disheartnening, and to understand the Dardennes' viewpoint on their subjects requires a lot of reflection, a scrutiny of their mise-en-scène, and research into their early docs and later features. That's a lot of work for a film in a festival surrounded by 90 other works. Still, The Kid with a Bike's accessibility – and its Oscar-worthy pairing of an adult with a child – at least provides some entrée in the Dardennes' sensibility. Whether that sensibility has enough variety to warrant the attention it seems to demand would require a book to analyze.
During a traditional time of low attendance at the start of the year Hollywood releases its – to them – detritus. Chronicle may have seemed perfect material for this time of year because its demographic is strictly high school age males, particularly inhibited males easily bullied and left burning with a desire for revenge, which also seems to be the demographic for most comic book readers.
The Wicker Man was famously called "the Citizen Kane of horror films." It's long-gestating seauel, The Wicker Tree, could be called the Citizen Ruth of horror films.