Sicario – Denis Villeneuve (2015)

There have been many films about drugs, and about the war on drugs. Most of them deal, a la Scarface, with the “gritty” street realities of the trade, or with power struggles within and between various factions of organized crime. (Such films are really just a variation on the more traditional gangster film, with drugs sprinkled over the top as a way to provide viewers with a vicarious high). Fewer films, such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, attempt to view the problem from a wider perspective and look at the structures that undergird the continual failure of this war, attempting to dramatize the failure of a systemic response to a systemic problem. Sicario, the new thriller from Denis Villeneuve, hews closer to this second model, but is a fresh hybrid. In some ways, it resembles an intragovernmental procedural of the Zero Dark Thirty school, with intrigues between and internecine battling among the FBI, DEA, CIA, etc. taking center stage. In other ways, though, it is a fairly straightforward revenge thriller, less Dirty Harry and more Death Wish (although we understand this only in the final quarter of the film, even if we’ve been feeling it all along). It is also an action film, and there are touches of the Western, the war film, and the bildungsroman, as we follow a neophyte officer from innocence to experience. What makes the film remarkable, though, is that it is all of a piece; the hybrid nature does not poke out, and the film does not seem a pastiche of various genres, but one sinuous, long, smoothly moving and tightly coiling snake. Unlike Traffic, which often jerks from one place, and tone, to another, and which also often becomes leaden and boring, Sicario is extremely easy to follow and consistently pleasurable to watch.

The film unfolds in three acts, with very little connective tissue in between (that is, just enough) and no flab or extraneous material. We begin at the scene of a purported kidnapping, which turns out to be a cartel-owned house in a Phoenix subdivision, the walls of which are stuffed full of dead bodies. At the scene of this crime, we are introduced to Kate Macer (Emily Blunt), our avatar in this world, as well as her friend and somewhat partner Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya) and her boss (Victor Garber). Kate works for the FBI, but as a liaison for kidnapping cases; she has no real experience within the world of drug dealing. After this introduction (which ends in a trauma I won’t reveal), Kate is debriefed by a room full of drug enforcement interests from various agencies. The most powerful man in the room is not her boss, but Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), the head of a task force dedicated to reducing cross-border drug violence. Matt is strange in ways that indicate he is a potential rogue presence: unlike the rest of those present, who are dressed in suits, Matt is very casually dressed (he wears flip-flops) and he takes a special interest in questioning Kate on her personal life and marital status. (We think he is hitting on her, but by the end of the movie, we understand he has a very different, and ice-cold, pretext for his questions). Kate is asked to volunteer for Matt’s task force, and after a little consideration, she does so. (Again, we spend much of the movie questioning why this seasoned force would want her on their team – it seems a Hollywood contrivance – only to have the reasoning made painfully clear in the final quarter of the film). Act two of the film involves the task force, with the aid of the mysterious Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), who seems unconnected to any official agency, retrieving a high level drug suspect from a jail on the Mexican side of the border and bringing him back to a military base on the U.S. side for questioning. Act three of the film takes up the search for a drug tunnel gleaned from information provided by said suspect’s interrogation. The drug tunnel operation is basically a ruse, however, to lure one of the cartel’s high level enforcers into contacting the big boss, revealing his location to the task force. The last part of the film deals with the aftermath of the tunnel raid, and the ultimate goal of everything that has occurred is revealed, both to Kate and to us.

There are many things this film does exceptionally well. First and foremost, it is structured in a very straightforward way, and with very little dialogue, but still manages to convey all of the intricacies and gray zones of the drug war, and of working across international borders and among multiple agencies, without ever belaboring it, getting bogged down in detail, or resorting to clichés (characters bemoaning inefficiencies, overly cynical explanations to newbies, etc). Fundamentally, the film is a thriller, and the structure and pacing pulls us through, tightening the ropes as it goes (in a way very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work). Each of the film’s acts centers on an action sequence – in act two it is the attempted assassination of the drug suspect before he can be brought onto U.S. soil, and in act three it is the infiltration of the drug tunnel. What makes the film work so well is not just the structure, but every other factor as well. First, there is the cinematography (courtesy of the always excellent Roger Deakins). It is both gritty and beautiful, and makes amazing use of available light – the darks (and there are many of them) are truly dark, night sequences are lucid yet atmospheric, and the sunsets of the southwest have rarely been more sensuously shot. At the same time, this beauty is grounded in a thoroughgoing realism, which is perhaps most on display during the trip into Ciudad Juarez to pick up the drug suspect. (The difference between Texas and Mexico is not night and day, but it is stark, grim, and the entire sequence seems to have been filmed on location at the border). A good part of the realism, and much of the lucidity of the staging, comes from the use of “technological” points of view. For instance (and especially in the unfolding of act two), we have many shots from the viewpoint of a drone; that is, a camera floating far above the action, but close enough to make clear the extent of the terrain being traveled into and through, and the exact location of all parties we need to care about. Unlike other films that have utilized such footage, Sicario does not spell it out as “drone footage” – we do not see HUD or targeting artifacts to betray to us “where” this footage comes from. In this sense, it is not jarring, and could simply be an aesthetic choice – the drone lies latent, behind this footage, unannounced. Villeneuve also makes use of infrared/night goggle footage and thermal imaging during the tunnel raid, and this footage is, while obviously tied to the equipment worn by the characters, equally seamless in its insertion. I would even dare to say it might be the first use of such footage that I would call lovely, and every use is purposeful in increasing the tension and putting us, as viewers, in the same zone of imperfect information as the characters. The music is subtle, spare, and works on us slowly, in pace with the increasing tension. The acting, like the rest of the film, is controlled and (unlike in some of Michael Mann’s work) never histrionic. (Indeed, Benicio Del Toro, who carries the last quarter of the film, has rarely been better). I suppose the film, like many actioners or thrillers, doesn’t have much of a politics beyond a weary, cynical resignation, but that does not bother me in the slightest, as it also keeps the script taut and without any unnecessary moralizing (we can see how failed things are, without needing to be told). Like Whiplash of last year, Sicario is a film that could easily appeal to a mass audience, but which also has much to offer lovers of serious film. I have no pithy or solemn words on which to end, except to recommend the film to one and (almost) all.

Four and a half stars out of five

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Brett Morgan (2015)

Who is Kurt Cobain in the year 2015? Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which boasts access to a trove of new material, some of which includes interviews with those closest to the musician, supposes to answer the question of who Kurt Cobain “really” was. Instead, the film winds up answering the question just posed: who is he now, who has he become in the minds of those who knew him, and those who didn’t, some 20 years after his death? The cachet of this new appraisal comes from the exclusive access the filmmaker had to Kurt’s personal archive, as well as from the cooperation of many formerly combative or elusive friends and family, including Kurt’s Mom and Dad, Krist Novoselic, and, of course, Courtney Love. In order to measure the distance between who Kurt Cobain is to us now, and who he was when he died, back in 1994, it is instructive to compare the current film, so very authorized by Kurt’s family, with Nick Broomfield’s muckraking account of the immediate aftermath of Cobain’s death, 1998’s Kurt and Courtney. Rewatching that film recalls the Kurt who was tabloid fodder, often portrayed as an equal victim of his own success and of Courtney Love’s supposedly predatory nature; unlike the Cobain of 2015, who is granted posthumous status as creative genius and social renegade, the Cobain of 1998 was yet another promising rock musician who tragically died young, done in by drugs, seedy hangers-on, and the pressures of success. While Kurt and Courtney is not a hatchet job, it does portray Courtney Love (honestly, in many ways) as the mover in the relationship, with Kurt as a kind of mute enigma, the voodoo doll on which the voluble Love practiced her dark magic. Montage of Heck serves as an important corrective to this vision; it reveals, through the archival materials, a more complex portrait of Cobain, and also a more nuanced, human one of Love. It is important to keep in mind while watching the current film that it is Love’s authorized version of events, and it is interesting to note that Love does take some responsibility for Cobain’s demise within. While Kurt and Courtney spends much of its time dealing with the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death, and Love’s possible role in it, it is also true that the earlier film has a larger cast of characters testifying to Cobain’s inherent depressive nature. That film becomes much more a whodunit, coming down eventually on the side of “Kurt, possibly with some pushing.” The pushing, in this earlier account, came from Love’s purported infidelity (with Billy Corgan, yuck) after which Cobain attempted suicide in Rome, and then succeeded in the States a few months later. Montage of Heck does not deal with conspiracies, and everyone treats Cobain in a more removed, psychiatric fashion, as a depressed, unhappy person for much of his life, who unsurprisingly killed himself. Interestingly, it is Love who raises the “pushing” theory in the current film, as she takes “responsibility” for Cobain’s death. (She claims she only thought of cheating on him, and Cobain intuited it, which was enough to send him into a profound depression. The context in which she wanted to cheat on him, and the actual details of the aftermath of the suicide attempt in Rome, up through his death in Washington, are never addressed by the filmmaker or Love). Why am I prattling on about this? Well, Kurt and Courtney were, at the time of Cobain’s death, wedded, both in fact and in the public’s mind, whereas now they are much less so, and there was a sense that when one spoke about who Kurt Cobain was, it was impossible to do so without Courtney Love. It feels much less the case in 2015, but if one is interested in the dynamics of the relationship, the two films, side by side, provide some opportunity for a comparative analysis (more of Love than Cobain, perhaps, as she is alive to bear forward her story).

I’m getting far afield of the film itself, though, as anything more than a vehicle for reminiscing, hero worship, or gossipy armchair psychoanalyzing. In tone and style, Montage of Heck is nothing new, or special. It sticks pretty close to the style of gently investigative documentary popular these days, and is also reminiscent of Jessica Yu’s seemingly influential 2004 doc about outsider artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal. While the authorial voice is sometimes conspicuous in Montage of Heck, most of the story is told through interviews and archival footage. The film is comprised of four modes, or types of material: the “talking heads” (family and friends); archival video of concert performances, media reportage, and Kurt’s privately shot footage; animated reworkings of Kurt’s drawings, paintings, and objects; and longer, more “realistic” sequences of animation set to Kurt’s spoken autobiography. Of the four modes, the archival footage is the most powerful, and, indeed, comprises the most powerful section of the film, the middle in which the director builds the emotional power of the story to its peak by cutting back and forth between the private video footage of Cobain and Love’s home life with footage of their public one (sometimes music performances, sometimes interviews from the period). This part of the film not only reveals Cobain in close to full detail, warts and all, but also rehabilitates Love as the harpy hanger-on she is often seen as. Bearing in mind the material is selected, Love comes off as intelligent, witty, creative (if destructively so) and in love. Given the amount of archival footage one might guess exists based on hints within the film, if Morgan had stuck just with it, and crafted a documentary almost purely based around montage, he would likely have had extraordinary results. (For a blueprint of how to make this type of film, see Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack). Unfortunately, the rest of the modes are self-indulgent, border on the parasitic, and make you question the director’s taste (for instance, the deadly lame title sequence which juxtaposes Seattle punk with educational film footage from the 1950s and atomic bomb blasts). The worst offender in this regard are the animated sequences that feature Cobain’s drawings and other art animated and montaged to his music. Most of this stuff is fairly stupid and cliched, the kind of work you might find in any halfway thoughtful and disturbed teenager’s private notebooks. Perhaps the animations are cliched because Cobain’s drawings and art are cliched (many fetuses/broken dolls with staring eyes and holes in their heads, or Ed Roth style characters with exploding guts), but we the audience wouldn’t know, because in this mode, we cannot distinguish what is the artist’s original contribution, and what is the director’s. Yu’s work on Darger’s art in In the Realms of the Unreal is the first instance I know of where a fine artist’s work is animated for the screen, but it is a hideous trend. This way of dealing with material exists, one supposes, because the director is too insecure or timid to allow the art to speak for itself, the way it was intended – as a static image. By “jazzing up” the imagery to prevent boredom on our parts while simultaneously devaluing our intelligence, the director destroys the integrity of the original work, turning it into something that is far beyond the artist’s original intentions, while perverting the meaning. (Such stuff also smacks of the director trying to steal some of the artist’s thunder, parasitically repurposing the work into their own while also making it commercially appealing). When practiced on Darger, it is tone-deaf and idiotic, reducing the depravity and beauty of his world to twee weirdness. I would think, however, that Cobain would be appalled, as the film transforms his art from exercises in defiance, ugliness, and protest of a reductive culture into the kind of blitz spectacle, ready made for television, that our culture excels at. (Many of the sequences just repeat fragments of text written by Cobain in notebooks over and over again while the music blasts). It seriously leads me to question if the director understands Cobain’s viewpoint. Perhaps he is merely dim, but it comes off as though he is picking over Cobain’s corpse to masturbatory ends. Kurt and Courtney, by way of contrast, barely features any of Cobain’s art, but when it does, we see it in the right way: in the context of his ex Tracey Marander’s home, where it hangs on the wall, and we can take it in quietly. The other animated portions, which were parceled out to a variety of animators and set to Cobain’s spoken word reminiscences, are not as bad, but are far too literal. This overlong film (145 minutes) could have been edited down while enriching the end result by collapsing these two modes and eliminating the animated aspect all together. Why not use still images from Cobain’s archive of art with his spoken word material laid over the top? It would allow us to really see the work, to really hear his words, and further, it would tie the two together by way of chronology – the art would become the expression of the contemporaneous experiences Cobain is speaking of. Even if the director then chose to keep the film at two and a half hours, it would have allowed him much more time for further dipping into the archive, which we obviously barely get to sample. Instead, the director becomes stingy with the material while hitting us over the head with crass, loud displays of his “interpretive” prowess. (The talking heads are a mixed bag; Kurt’s mother, for instance, comes off as self-serving and revisionist, while his father seems anguished. Novoselic and Marander, who is also in Kurt and Courtney, seem to have the inside track on reality. As for Courtney Love, I will leave it for viewers to decide how sincere she is. Overall, there are far fewer interviews, and time devoted to interviews, than the promotional materials for the film suggest). While the ending is abrupt, almost purposefully so, the details of Cobain’s demise are fully chronicled elsewhere (notably in Broomfield’s film). It is a testament to Cobain (and to Courtney Love, it must be said) that despite the director’s meddling and simplification, there is still much of interest here, and much that feels fresh and new, as if we are finally seeing Kurt, for the first time, as himself. Even though we are left with a flawed portrait, it remains a compelling, if ultimately condescending, one.

Two and a half stars out of five

Dope – Rick Famuyiwa (2015)

Dope has garnered many comparisons to 1983’s Risky Business. The comparison is apt insofar as both films revolve around college-bound teens who, generally being straight shooters, want to live it up and taste some of the wilds of adulthood before heading off to school, and who get caught up in more excitement than they bargained for. Dope also has elements that throw back to Kid ‘n Play’s features from the early 1990s, as well as the Friday series of drug comedies. The film concerns Malcolm (Shameik Moore) and his two friends Jib (Tony Revolori) and Diggy (Kiersey Clemons), a trio of nerds who are obsessed with the hip hop culture of the 1990s. They watch old tapes of Yo! MTV Raps, are ardent collectors and defenders of the era’s music, and they dress in homage to the decade (Malcolm sports a hi-top fade too). They are intelligent, good students, and misfits, as besides their obsession with the past and geeky ways, Diggy is a lesbian, and Jib is of indeterminate ethnicity in this largely African-American neighborhood. The three live in the Bottoms, a tough section of Inglewood, where they have to continually dodge thugs at school who want to steal their stuff (mostly shoes) and drug dealers on the street, who want to take their bikes. One day, Malcolm happens to talk to and somewhat befriend one of the dealers, who asks him to be a romantic courier to Nakia (Zoë Kravitz) the neighborhood hottie who is studying for her GED so she can go to college. Malcolm of course develops a crush on Nakia, and offers to help her study for her GED, in the hopes that she’ll go with him to the prom. The drug dealer, Dom (A$ap Rocky), invites Malcolm and his crew to a party, and the three go, despite being under-aged and drug free, mostly to further Malcolm’s romantic designs on Nakia. The party, of course, is where the plot really picks up, as everything goes haywire – Dom is in the middle of a drug deal when gun-wielding robbers try to boost his weight, and in the midst of the mayhem, he secrets the large quantity of ecstasy into Malcolm’s backpack (unbeknownst to him). Discovering the drugs, and a handgun, the next day at school, Malcolm at first panics, then tries his best to get the drugs back to their intended source without getting killed, or arrested, in the meantime. After much hustling around and avoiding various rival drug dealers who also want to get their hands on the stash, Malcolm is directed to pay a visit to the big boss, who also happens to be the local magnate of a chain of payday loan storefronts and the man Malcolm is supposed to have his Harvard application interview with. This man, Councilman Blackmon (Rick Fox), is a pillar of the community, but runs a boys club that is a front for his drug dealing activities. Blackmon has no desire for the drugs, he simply wants the cash that Dom would have generated from them, so he tasks Malcolm with converting the drugs into money himself, as the best possible credential for his placement within the Ivy League. Being a nerd, Malcolm decides to make use of technology to aid him, rather than deal on the streets, and enlists the help of his “friend” Will (Blake Anderson), who helps them establish a listing on a dark web drug site and sell the drugs for Bitcoins. To cut to the chase, he gets it all done, avoids being killed or arrested, and, to an extent, wins the heart of the girl, all while various more and less serious hi-jinks ensue.

The film doesn’t have quite the atmosphere or “walk on the wild side” tension that Risky Business does, for a couple of reasons. One is that Risky Business is about a fish out of water, a preppie white kid entering a world of sex and larceny that is quite foreign to his everyday experience. Dope is about a black kid from a tough neighborhood who, although a straight arrow, is quite familiar with the world he is entering into – in a way, it is more about his ingenuity and ability to play a variety of roles, rather than about adapting to various shocking yet arousing situations. Formal elements make the stakes feel lower too. Malcolm’s drug dealing, thanks to the magic of technology, feels distant and light weight, far from the street or danger, and is accorded a quite small parcel of screen time. The website goes live, the drugs move, the end. There are one or two shots of the crew using the chemistry lab to cut the stuff up, but that’s about it in terms of the hands-on portrayal of dirty deed doings. There are also simply fewer moments of threat than in Risky Business. In that film, the adults are absent because of a vacation – in Dope, the adults are usually absent, due to economic necessity or social contingencies. Which gets us to the main difference between the two films: race (duh). The differences between Risky Business and Dope provide a portrait of the differences between white and black America. For Tom Cruise, one wrong move would bring down a carefully constructed edifice of expectation and responsibility, destroying a life that would have no reason, except for perverse inclination, to fail. For Malcolm, the stakes are lower – not for his own care for his future, but for society’s. His father is absent, his mother is working and barely present, and, given his neighborhood and skin color, nobody expects that much from him, so his dilemma takes on the form of a fork in the road of existence. One way leads to Harvard, the other to prison, but oftentimes the roads overlap and cross, and how Malcolm navigates this split matters for him personally more than it does for anyone else. The film does a good job of playing up this doubleness (also reflected in the multiple meanings of the title), and making it clear that life for Malcolm, a bright, charming kid with promise, matters much less to society than it should. There are times it lays bare this hypocrisy in a way that is almost didactic, as at the end, when Malcolm, his problems solved, writes (and performs for the camera) an admissions essay that explicitly addresses the double nature of expectation that America places on its youth, depending on the color of their skin. The end of the film also smartly leaves us in suspense as to Malcolm’s success – we see a large envelope arrive from Harvard, we see an ambivalent reaction shot from Malcolm, and the film ends. Did he get in or not? Malcolm’s essay makes the point that, if he were white, we wouldn’t have to ask this question. By not answering the question and satisfying the audience, Famuyiwa reinforces the point – nothing in Malcolm’s world is ever a given in the way it would be for a white man and, yes, even in our supposedly post-racial society, we all know that Malcolm can do all the right things and still lose out big time. What complicates this view is that he doesn’t do all the “right” things, because he can’t – he does what he has to, in a world where there are no right answers, and where doing the “right” thing will potentially penalize him as much as doing the “wrong” one. The portrayal of Councilman Blackmon is thus not cynical, but plays up how the mindless praise we as a society heap upon the “entrepreneurial spirit” is a lie; both the Councilman and Malcolm are doing what America has told them to do (that is, pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps), but because they have done it within the world they have access to, and with the materials of that world, they have to, at the least, live a double existence that denies part of their identity. The true denial comes from a society that has attempted to put success out of reach for them a priori, by making the world they live in, and the paths out of it, all illegal. The film does a great job of showing this reality without being overtly political, and we feel for Malcolm and the way his life is twisted and confined by the lies we, who live in another world, tell ourselves about who we are. The proceedings, especially in the second half of the film, have the rushed, sketchy quality that much exposition has these days. The cast is fresh-faced and very appealing, though, and there is much that is funny and enjoyable about the movie, especially for anyone who remembers, and is perhaps nostalgic for, the 1990s. All the same, the second half plays out as expected, and by the end, is a bit rote and boring. We do need more films like this being made; films which do not play into the lies we like to tell ourselves, or which pretend that magical, shiny technology has somehow solved the problems of racial and economic justice that exist within our society. We need more films about what it is like to be black, or outside of any social guarantee. It is sad that such films are rare, and Dope serves as a reminder of how many films cravenly congratulate and coddle their audiences on having a politically correct attitude which amounts to having “solved” problems simply by refusing to acknowledge them.

Three stars out of five

Heaven Knows What – Ben and Joshua Safdie (2015)

There is a school of art that celebrates the “poetry of the streets,” a mode which seeks to portray life lived at its most bare, contingent, and unmediated level. A lot of actual poetry falls into this genre, including much work by the Beats, who found inspiration in the low and, melding the lives and language of the down and out with the improvisatory ways of jazz, did indeed transform seeming dross into gold. Hubert Selby Jr. did similarly with his novel Last Exit to Brooklyn, a masterpiece of point of view and compassion that at the same time pulls no punches (and indeed still has the power to shock). Yes, there are many high points in this mostly 20th century school of art, but, I would aver, fewer cinematic than literary ones. The key here is transformation, and cinema can be very lazy in this department. Further, capturing the grit, grime, and vérité reality of life on the bum can become an end in itself, as if a lack of filter equals truth, and truth equals poetics. As the ability to make movies has increased, due to the video revolution, this genre has multiplied. The godfather of the contemporary arm of this subject is one Harmony Korine, whose Gummo almost single-handedly melded trailer trash stylings with pretentious wanna-be fine art. His films since then, for better or worse, have trafficked in meaningful meaninglessness (and suffered in proportion to their intended “beauty.” That is, Julien Donkey-Boy is awful, while Trash Humpers is actually pretty interesting). From his root stock, we can trace a line to Troma’s Giuseppe Andrews, whose massive filmography, including titles such as Touch Me in the Morning and Trailer Town, in which he also stars, documents the denizens of a trailer park in which Andrews also lives. Like the films of John Waters, who similarly celebrated “trash” living, such works bend the line between acting and life, and the films often make use of “real people” as actors, stock companies who live the art they create together. Whereas the films of Waters, although verging into camp (I would actually call them parodies of camp), create a full and verdant universe of expression by way of parody and appropriation, these newer films take up his mantle of outrageousness but wear it with “high art” style. Their master is actually Cassavetes, who tried to create a mirror of reality through improvisation and hand-held camerawork (itself drawing from the direct cinema documentary and avant-garde traditions of the earlier 1960s), and their approach to actors and acting is influenced by Herzog. Which is to say that, somewhere in the space, vast or small though it may be (as you judge it), between Harmony Korine and Troma, lies the film before us.

The story, such as it is, can be quickly summarized. The main character is Harley (Arielle Holmes), a pretty young homeless woman who happens to be in love with Ilya (Caleb Landry Jones), a freckled seeming-psychotic asshole her own age. Both are drug addicts, and it appears Harley sometimes prostitutes herself to obtain her fix. As the film begins, Harley and Ilya have just had a falling out over something – most likely her having recently sold herself, but it’s hard to tell, as we never get a firm sense if Ilya has a right to his outrageous attitude, or if he’s just mental. At any rate, Harley, to prove her love, offers to slit her wrists and kill herself. Ilya eggs her on, calling her bluff again and again, until she finally does it. “Thankfully,” she lives, and after getting out of the hospital, takes up with a friend (and nemesis of Ilya?) Mike (Buddy Duress), he of the glazed, dead eyes, slack expression, and limited vocabulary. Most of the film consists of them bumming around, trying to get a fix, meeting this or that person, screaming and yelling profanities, falling in and out of favor with each other, and so forth. Eventually Harley mends fences with Ilya, they have a brief rekindling of the mad loving, and decide to head to Florida together (why we never learn). Ilya bugs out on the bus, and demands to disembark in the middle of nowhere while Harley is sleeping. He returns to his freak cave, builds a fire, fixes, passes out, and then burns alive (his face melting, intentionally or not, like Toht’s in Raiders of the Lost Ark). Harley, after waking up on the bus, also throws a fit and is let off, only to return to Mike and his cohort in the night cafe, at which point our story closes.

Does anything set this film apart? Its most obvious distinctive aspect is the score. The movie “features” music by space music pioneer Isao Tomita, and has an original score composed by Paul Grimstad and Ariel Pink (who also has a bit part mixing it up at the band shell). The music purposefully overpowers the image, and is very heavy and intense when used. In fact, the best part of the film in my regard is the credit sequence. It takes place in the psychiatric ward, after Harley has attempted suicide, and contains no dialogue; the lengthy sequence plays out as a dumb show with thundering electronics, and shows how the filmmakers, if they truly wanted to provoke and innovate, could have constructed something like a grunge electro-opera. Dialogue is unnecessary in this film anyway. The title sequence shows we can fully understand what is happening without it, and the mostly angry shouted profanities kill whatever interest and mood the casting and photography create. (Note that I am not against profanity; if you want to see the baroque masterpiece of this little genre, check out Steve Ballot’s insane The Bride of Frank, from 1996. The profanity in that film is very creative, and transports the viewer). The second distinctive aspect of the film is the cinematography by Sean Price Williams, the inventive force that made Listen Up Philip more than half of what it was (he has shot all of Alex Ross Perry’s features, as well as the early mumblecore Frownland). The photography is lovely – unfortunately, what this film needs is not loveliness, but style and a point of view. While one may dislike the filmic sensibilities of a Giuseppe Andrews, one must also admit that his weakness is also his strength, and that, no matter how aesthetically yucky or off-putting the results, the director has a style and vision that make the films memorable, and what they are. The Safdie’s, though, don’t have a style – aside from a muted, wintry saturation level that gives the film a cold, brittle feel, and the aforementioned electronic portensions. They simply want to make a serious low budget film that recalls the ’70s. While one may find Korine pretentious, and infuriating, he at least provokes a reaction; Heaven Knows What merely provokes boredom. Scene after scene of junkies yelling at each other, acting shitty, looking truculent, or nodding off, with nothing to express beyond the angry ur-screams of their profanity. The script is adapted from a novel written by Holmes, titled Mad Love in New York City (or something similar). Darling, if this is a portrait of mad love, then A&E and LMN have produced more surrealism than the 1930s ever did. Mad love demands enough intelligence, brute though it may be, to understand the conventions that one is discarding. The main characters of this film exhibit almost no self-awareness. The approach feels juvenile, and the overall impression is one of true pretension; it is art because it is “tough,” “real,” or “raw.” In truth, it is unformed, and the reality portrayed is not transformed by a vision that can elevate us, or transport us, to a more profound understanding. Much sound and fury, signifying… that it’s time to yell further improvised swears before nodding off.

One and a half stars out of five

 

Inherent Vice – P.T. Anderson (2014)

I saw P.T. Anderson’s Inherent Vice on Friday, with a very game audience at the Angelika, and had a blast. It does a great job of capturing the feel of Pynchon, as well as the semi-benumbed miasma of drugged-outedness. Great performances by all, with pop-ups from everyone from Michael K Williams to Belladonna to Eric Roberts, but I especially liked Josh Brolin as sad sack Bigfoot (“motto panukeiku!”). Of course, this is Phoenix’s show, and he carries it off hilariously, doing more with mumbles and long drawn out hedging groans than anyone else could have. I would guess that how you feel about the movie depends on how you feel about Pynchon, as the movie is all “dialogue” and the “action” is difficult to follow. (I have not read the book, but would wager this is realistic not only to it, but to the world of drug-fueled conspiracies generally). Like a lot of Pynchon, there is not much of an emotional core here, but no matter, this is one to see for the performances. Tons of fun, it felt an hour shorter than it is. Anderson has grown on me as a director; his early films range from the over-rated and slightly dull (Boogie Nights) to the overly-long and truly awful (Magnolia) to hit-and-miss twee (Punch-Drunk Love), but since There Will be Blood (still his finest hour) he’s redeemed himself.

Three and a half stars out of five