Thursday, March 29, 2012


Wounds create monsters and you are wounded.

The above is one of my favorite lines from Shutter Island and it ran through my mind all throughout Bullhead, a portrait of a man so profoundly hurt by the world that he has transformed himself into a monster so that nothing can ever touch him again.

I’ve heard Bullhead described as a crime film and in the sense that it deals with people outside the law I suppose it is in a very rudimentary sense. But the experience of watching it is so far removed from the standards of the genre that it makes even more abstract fair like say Chopper or Bronsan look like Scarface.

Bullhead follows, Jacky Vanmarsenille a Cattle Farmer/black market hormone trafficker, whose possible alliance with a Flemish Gangster brings scrutiny at the worst possible time. That’s the basis of the plot but it soon fades into a hum of background noise. Jacky injects his own product, the same artificial hormones he uses on his cattle, turning his body into a swollen mass of muscle and tissue that is painful just to look at. This is fitting as a look into his eyes reveals yards of pain. In a way Jacky has transformed his external appearance to become a mirror and expression of his internal one.

As a portrait of alienation and isolation, Matthias Schoenaert’s performance as Jacky deserves comparison with Robert De Niro’s as Travis Bickle as a man so stunted and cut off from the normal world that the simplest day to day interactions are baffling and abrasive to him. Despite the hulking frame and psychotic capacity for violence, Schoenaerts spends most of the film with an expression of complete helplessness on his face. He’s utterly vulnerable and that makes him infinitely more dangerous.                                                                                                                                                                            

Its a physical performance, not merely in terms of the astonishing physical transformation, but the way he holds himself, the way he moves as if always expecting a blow. His response to the world is fear and violence, he doesn’t have a third option and he’s built himself for the second. The moments when the short chain on his temper do slip and the deep reservoirs of rage he holds for the world are tapped into are just awful.

Director Michael Roskam, creates a feeling of queasy unreality that never manages to slip into simple impressionism, as if the whole of the film is being seen through a red mist. It is an impressive debut to say the least. The film reaches a level of emotional intensity that left me nauseous throughout, not thanks to cheap tricks ala Gaspar Noe, but because Roskam had simply wound me so tight with no hope of release.

There is none of course, Vanmarsenille is denied even Bickle’s final burst of frenzied violence and instead goes out in the same confused impotent rage as the bulls in his pen. If Bullhead is not a crime film then perhaps  it is a noir. Though I would be hard pressed even to name a noir that is as hopeless as this one. A despairing portait of a man doomed by ghastly chance and circumstance, it is no slight to say that Bullhead is perhaps the greatest film that I never wish to see again.                                                                                                                                                                              

Monday, March 26, 2012

The FP

There is nothing worse than a one joke movie that knows it is a one joke movie. Take the like of Hobo With A Shotgun or Machete, love the films or hate them, the creators of both, after chortling over their titles for a few minutes, looked at each other and asked that crucial question,   OK  now what?

This is a question that the makers of The FP never bothered to ask themselves. Machete and Hobo both stand as continuous experiments in topping themselves. Dedicated to show something crazier and filthier than what featured in the preceding scene every five minutes or so. Bound and determined to top the initial outlandishness of their premise, with say Lindsay Lohan dressed as a nun, Steven Seagal with a Samurai sword, or evil Daft Punk with a lynch gun.

The FP has no such lofty concerns.  The premise of The FP is that in the small town of Frazier Park, (which looks roughly as threatening as Cambria) two rival gangs via for control of the area (it’s briefly insinuated that this is taking place in a Mad Max/Hobo With A Shotgun style soft apocalypse but this thread like anything else of interest in the film is quickly dropped). Their chosen methods for battling for dominance is a copyright free version of Dance Dance Revolution that occasionally yells at the players and eventually pronounces one of the duelers champ and the other chump.

In The FP everyone wears the type of self conscience eighties clothes that hipsters will eventually be forced to wear for all eternity in hell, speaks in a nightmarish patois of ghettospeak and white trash jargon  and take their Dance Dance Revolution very seriously. That’s it, that’s the joke. The movie doesn’t bother having anymore so don’t go looking. You’ll only strain yourself.

Well that’s not quite true, the predominantly white and Asian cast ends every sentence with the word “Nig’” that might be a joke if you look at it the right way, I suppose. There are more on screen blow jobs than in Boogie Nights and that’s funny right? I mean Blow Jobs who isn’t shocked by those? Oh and there’s training montages just like in the eighties and and a used condom gets thrown in the face of  two characters and and... I give up. All this cheerful vulgarity might have reached the level of early John Waters if the movie didn’t insist on being so fucking cute about it.

I can’t deny that a few laughs got startled out of me, (and truth in criticism the film does have one moment of almost brilliance when the love interest cries out, "How am I supposed to stand up for myself if their aint no one to stand up for me?"with an obliviousness that would make David St. Hubbins proud.) but the film shows what happens when a youtube short gets extened to feature length. Here’s a hint, it’s nothing good.

Drafthouse Films excites me like few things do right now. With their ever expanding network of theaters and strong vision and commitment behind it, Drafthouse Films has the opportunity to do nothing less than create an alternative universe of film. But if this is the best said universe has to offer perhaps they shouldn’t bother. By paying for it I have become part of the problem. I’ll be seeing Bullhead soon in penance.                                                                                                                                                                          
 I hereby pronounce The FP, Chump.          

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Conan The Barbarian

The other day my TV broke completely without warning. As I fruitlessly puzzled over it for a while, trying to remember the last time it had worked for me and I realized that the last thing I had done with it was watch last year's Conan The Barbarian.

That’s right, the new Conan is so bad that it made my television commit suicide. My Blu Ray player is currently on twenty four hour watch in a locked ward.

Even setting issues of broken appliances aside It is official, if I see Marc Nispel crossing the street, I will not brake. With Conan he has entered the rarified company of the likes of Cassandra Claire and Joel Schumacher. No mere hack, Nispel is an active hate crime against genre fiction.

Looking at his two previous terrible films, both of which I utterly loathed, even I never suspected that Nispel had anything this incompetent in him. Both Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Friday the 13th are terrible films that completely misunderstand the appeal and approach of their source material (No points for guessing that this works pretty well as a description of Conan as well). But I have no doubt that Nispel accomplished, if we must sully the word, exactly what he set out to in each of those films. There is nothing in either of those films like the flailing, desperate out of control tone present in Conan. It is without a doubt the goofiest mainstream movie I can recall seeing, and not in a good way. It seems like everyone on the cast and crew were laughing their asses off before and after every take. When even Ron Perlman can’t be bothered to treat your movie with a straight face, you know you’re in trouble.

Conan begins with a shot from inside the womb for a fetus point of view as Conan’s mother is stabbed and Ron Perlman rips Conan out of the womb, bellowing “Name Your Son!” while Morgan Freeman narrates with the gravitas usually reserved for documentaries about major social issues for some damn reason or another. This is perhaps the sixth or seventh most ridiculous thing to happen in the film.

In all fairness the next ten minutes of the film or so can be described as “not entirely unpromising”. The film kicks off with a young Conan participating in a training sequence that gets ambushed that offers an interesting(ish) take on the character. The basic idea being that Conan survives not because he’s stronger, smarter, or a better fighter but simply because he has an amount of killer instinct that puts everyone else around him to shame.  The idea of Conan surviving through sheer viciousness alone still isn’t exactly Howard’s take on the character, but it is at least a take on the  character. Unfortunately this is more or less dropped when Stephen Lang comes and burns down Conan’s village before covering Ron Perlman in melted steel.  At which point child Conan is replaced by, “Buffed Out Billy Zane With VD Eyes.”                                                          

Conan begins his Quest For Revenge and the film devolves into episodic nonsense, and not in the good way that Milius’s film devolved into episodic nonsense. Stephen Lang makes a thoroughly unimpressive villain though his various facial expressions do suggest that he has electrodes strapped to his testicles. Rose McGowan, as his villainous second on the other hand, contents herself to doing that fucking Rose McGowan voice where she testily ultra enunciates every word she speaks on every line she is given.

The film has that inimitable look of failure, that of looking really expensive and incredibly chintzy at the same time. All the effects, sets, backgrounds and costumes looks like they’d be more at home in the service of a lesser Xena spin off than an actual film. The only good part of all of this is that it made watching The Immortals significantly less unpleasant, as while that movie is nearly as dumb as Conan it is nowhere near as abrasive to the eye.

All in all the thing that makes Conan maddening rather than merely laughable is that it more or less rules out any chance we have for getting another take on the material for quite some time. Robert E. Howard’s Conan remains to a large part unadapted, there’s a wealth of material for those who care to see it. But I’m not going to be  holding my breath.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Friday, March 2, 2012

Scenes #12: Songs In The Tree Of Life

"I heard there was a secret cord/ That David played and it pleased the lord"

Leonard Cohen 

One of the most common interpretations of Tree Of Life is that Brad Pitt is supposed to stand in for God. Or at the very least the God of the Old Testament. A figure of mystery and power, who occasionally dispenses some good advice. Someone who you know loves you but also scares the shit out of you.

It's an interpretation I have a hard time buying given that Pitt's character seems far too specific to be a mere symbol. Frankly there's a lot of my Dad in Pitt's character. The same love. The same drive. The same deeply rooted unhappiness and dissatisfaction. Which is part of what made Tree such an experience for me. 

But in this one scene the reading just works too well not to take it. But even then it can only be read partially. If Pitt in this sequence is God he's also the Father as well. 

And whenever the tormenting spirit from God troubled Saul, David would play the harp. Then Saul would feel better, and the tormenting spirit would go away. 1: Samuel 16:23

Pitt's Father is defined as a man without peace. Driven always by a tormenting "spirit". This is one of the few moments in Tree where Pitt is truly contented. For all his monologues and life lessons its one of the few times he's truly in touch with those he loves.

Yet even in this moment the seeds of discord are being sown. Note Jack in the bottom right of the frame.

And The Lord Respected Able and his offering. But He did not respect Cain and his offering. And Cain was very angry, and his countenance fell. Genesis 4:5

Recently released production art has shown that Malick planned, if not shot a Cain and Able sequence to go between the dinosaur sequence and the return to Waco. I can only hope the rumored six hour cut (which I would watch in a heart beat) restores it, just because of how well it would reflect this scene.

It's a moment of communication, that is to say communion, between Father and Son that happens with a naturalness, ease and completeness that Jack knows he is incapable of. RL's beatific smile is a slap in the face.

He does not have his brother's ability to forgive and bear the wounds. For Jack knowing his father will always be a war, one that according to the present day sequences will last the rest of their lives. The Gulf between Father and Son, God and Man. The longing for reconciliation that lies on both sides. Some can cross it with something as simple as a song.

And some can only look.