Friday, April 30, 2010

The Human Centipede (First Sequence)

To the list of bizarre and insalubrious objects that occupy our world, we must now add Tom Six’s The Human Centipede (First Sequence), which as you’ve probably heard involves a mad scientist experiment of unsurpassing zaniness. Grossness too. Following the modern exploitation template of callous Americans getting tortured abroad, Six’s film sets up a pair of nubile New Yorkers who catch a flat en route to a party in Germany as bait for a menacing ex-surgeon who imprisons the pair in his basement when they knock at his door for help. Along with a young (male) Japanese tourist, they’re subject to the sinister German’s pet project: sutured together into the eponymous creature, they’re transformed into a three-pronged entity, connected by conspicuously visible stitches, mouth to asshole, feeding on each other’s shit for sustenance.

Give Six credit for crafting a memorable central image. Even granting my rather severe ignorance of the state of the modern exploitation flick, I doubt there’s much out there to compare to the site of the trio crawling around on their knees, struggling to move in synch, while the horrible stitches in the mouth of the centipede’s “tail” ooze with puss. Or when the “head” confesses in subtitled Japanese which none of the other characters can understand that he’s sorry, but he’s gotta shit and we see the horrified face of the woman in the middle while their captor coos the word “feed” to his creature. Slicker and tauter than you’d expect, Six’s film is still nothing but cynical grindhouse nihilism. Deliberately unpleasant, as free of subtext as an Eli Roth gorefest, Human Centipede can’t be said to be entertaining, but it is compellingly watchable.

At least for fans of the next thing, the seekers of the extreme. The only difference is the film isn’t being tucked away in some grindhouse ghetto (well, actually these don’t seem to exist anymore), but touring the arthouse circuit thanks to a distribution deal from IFC films, so that it plays next to such innocuously genteel fare as Mercy. An interesting juxtaposition and one which has earned Six’s film more attention from the press than it would have received say, thirty years earlier, when it wouldn’t have been heard from outside the insular precincts of 42nd street. And, despite my now adding to that press, more attention than it deserves, since such perverse creativity as Six possesses is a dubious object of celebration. And after giving cinematic birth to his six-legged monstrosity, the only possible way to bring his project to an end is in an orgy of nihilism, which is precisely what Six does, the final tell of a cynicism that delights in repulsion for its own sake.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Wrapping Tribeca

My final two (or three depending on how you count) reviews from this year's Tribeca Film Festival are in the bag! While I cover Open House and Michael Winterbottom's disappointing The Killer Inside Me at the House Next Door, over at Slant, I take on Nicole Holofcener's vile Please Give which I'm covering in advance of its release this Friday, but which is premiering just before that release as part of (you guessed it) the Tribeca Film Festival. Since everyone else seems to love Holofcener's piece, seems I'm once again pretty much on my own with this one, but if you happen to see it and share my disgust for the film, drop a line in the comments section below. And once more, if you get a chance before the end of the fest, be sure to check out Mohammad Rasoulof's great The White Meadows.

Tribeca Film Festival

The Killer Inside Me (The House Next Door)
Open House (The House Next Door)

New Releases

Please Give
The Good Heart (Slant)

Monday, April 26, 2010

Tribeca 2010: Dream Home and The White Meadows

Since my latest Tribeca review for The House Next Door, covering Andrew Paquin's Open House, can only be classified, like my first two pieces for that publication, as an out-and-out pan, I wanted to take a little time to briefly discuss two films that I'm not covering for any other outlet, but which I liked considerably more than the films I've written about so far. Like any festival, Tribeca's a mixed-bag - especially when compared to that higher profile and much smaller (in terms of cinematic quantity) festival taking place uptown each fall at Lincoln Center. If Tribeca's still struggling, as the saying goes, to find its identity, it should be noted that in recent year's it's produced such masterpieces as Still Life, Still Walking and (this year) Mohammad Rasoulof's The White Meadows, which I discuss below. Which is all to say that Tribeca 2010 is anything but a lost cause and there are no doubt many more films than I was able to see that are well worth the ticket-buyer's attention.

Dream Home

While I can't label Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home an unqualified success, it makes for a productive comparison - and serves as an instructive counter-example - to Open House, one of the festival's weakest entries. Like Andrew Paquin's film, Dream Home is a gory slasher flick about (a) character(s) who commit(s) crimes in order to fulfill his/her otherwise unachievable real-estate dreams. (Note the "house"/"home" in both films' titles). But whereas Paquin's movie is a dull mixture of tensionless plot mechanics and unimaginative slayings that leaves the characters' sense of economic discontent unexplored in favor of a stale psycho-sexual dynamic, Pang's work fully embraces its relation to the world around it, particularly the difficult real estate climate and rapid urban development of its Hong Kong setting - as well as showing a bloodily vivid imagination light years beyond the Open House director's dim reckoning.

Starring Josie Ho as Chen Lai-sheung, a young woman lusting after the dream apartment of the title, a modern complex occupying the once-impoverished neighborhood where she grew up, Pang's film follows its hero as she works multiple jobs to save up for her new digs. Finding the apartment still out of reach, she begins brutally slaying the building's bourgie inhabitants, driving down the desirability (and price) of the location. While Nicole Holofcener's Please Give (another Tribeca 2010 entry) pats yuppies on the back and tells them not to feel guilty about how they acquire their wealth, Dream Home makes members of that same class the victims of hilariously brutal slayings, while painting its biggest real-estate obsessive as a psychotic mass murderer. While the film relies too heavily on elaborately art-directed killings for my taste, I found myself reluctantly admiring the cleverness of their staging (chuckling while one disemboweled man tried to take a last hit from his joint only to find it no longer lit), and, less reluctantly, the level of the critique with which they're charged.

The White Meadows

I suppose when living in a country like Iran, where citizens are subject to seemingly random punishments from a totalitarian government, it helps to have a well-established sense of the absurd. Arrested a month and a half before the Tribeca festival along with fellow director Jafar Panahi, Iranian filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof builds his latest film The White Meadows out of a catalogue of images of incomprehensible ritual and absurd acts of punishment. (As of this writing, Rasoulof has been released on bail, but is unallowed to leave the country; Panahi, who edited the film, remains imprisoned). When, late in Meadows, we see a shot of a painter trapped up to his neck in sand because he stubbornly claims that the sea is red and refuses to paint it any other color, it's impossible not to read the scene as a commentary on the Iranian government's treatment of "subversive" artists. But while The White Meadows is certainly a political film, it should not be taken as a basic allegory, a simple matter of easy correspondences.

At once too abstract and too richly expressive for reductive interpretation, Rasoulof's film follows an aging man who paddles his boat from island to island in a salt-filled Iranian sea, landing on tiny masses of land to extract tears from the islands' inhabitants which he then collects in a glass jar. The meaning of the ritual is never explained and it's always accompanied by a ceremony specific to each island. While some of these ceremonies (as one where the participants symbolically place their troubles in a cloth bag) seem designed for healing, most have sinister overtones. In an image composed in equal measure of beauty and horror (neither of which are in short supply in Rasoulof's film), the inhabitants of one island send a young girl adrift on the sea to which she is to be "married". Pushed off on atop a makeshift bed, she floats past countless pans of fire also drifting in the water, the smoke forming an irrepressible black smudge at the top of the screen. Later, our intractable painter is forced to climb a three-rung ladder suspended in the middle of the sea and stare into the sun, an absurdist image of impossible striving and forceable blinding that stands at the heart of a film in which ritual - with its potentially positive connotations of tradition and wholeness - gives way to the palpably ridiculous which, in Rasoulof's vision, becomes not only an apt approximation of life under an oppressive regime, but of life in general in a world not designed for our ready comprehension.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Tribeca and More!

The Tribeca Film Festival kicks off in earnest today and my first two reviews are up at the House Next Door, covering a pair of rather disappointing films, including Brillante Mendoza's latest, Lola. My coverage of other new releases is spread across three outlets (surprisingly none of which are Slant Magazine): the Village Voice, the L Magazine and in my inaugural (and modest) contribution to the venue, Time Out New York.

Tribeca Film Festival

Lola (The House Next Door)
Travelogues (The House Next Door)

New Releases

Red Birds (Village Voice)
Behind the Burly Q (The L)
Oceans (Time Out New York)

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Early Spring Link-O-Rama

New Directors/New Films is over. Tribeca has yet to begin. And the theatrical pickings are as mixed as ever. For evidence, see below.

Death at a Funeral (Slant)
No One Knows About Persian Cats (Slant)
The City of Your Final Destination (Slant)
When You're Strange: A Film About the Doors (Slant)
La Mission (Slant)
NoBody's Perfect (Village Voice)