Shallow Grave


There’s a guaranteed audience these days for the “sophisticated thriller.” In genrespeak, that’s the movie with a self-consciously twisting and turning plotline, overtly intelligent characters, and a calculated streak of nastiness allowing the viewer to feel truly decadent, giggling along with the filmmakers. Shallow Grave is such a movie, a British import about a trio of flatmates who conspire against their own better judgment to take advantage of someone else’s ill-gotten gains. When I saw it, with a “sophisticated” crowd on Manhattan’s upper west side, the folks to the left and right of me were swept up in the movie, cackling evilly or burying faces in hands when the proceedings on-screen became particularly gruesome. No doubt about it, this movie is a manipulator and a crowd pleaser. Continue reading

In the Mouth of Madness

Sam Neill (center) in In the Mouth of Madness

Horror films have always been prone to navel-gazing. Often neglected and sometimes maligned, the genre has tackled more than its share of Imponderables: what scares us, and why? What happens when you stick a knife into the tender underbelly of faith? What is the face of evil? What does it mean to be a storyteller, and what is the nature of film itself?

John Carpenter has done as fine a job as anyone at exploring these issues. From his landmark Halloween (whose unforgettable final moments offer up a chill that is pure cinema) through such underrated strokes as the paranoiac’s bedtime story The Thing, the anti-Reaganite They Live, and the sublimely creepy Prince of Darkness, Carpenter’s films have been smartly crafted with a real story to tell. It comes as no surprise that his newest horror picture, In the Mouth of Madness,, taps the offbeat yet ubiquitous Sam Neill to anchor a wacked-out tale that pokes sly fun at the Stephen King phenomenon while at the same time offering an odd picture of mass culture.

Neill plays John Trent, an insurance investigator sent on a mission to locate best-selling novelist Sutter Cane. Cane writes horror novels, the kind that make fans of “literary” fiction wrinkle up their noses. We get the impression that he’s a sort of amalgamation of Stephen King and H.P. Lovecraft, with a rabid contingent of fans who grow inexplicably violent — they break windows and bloody one another’s faces scrambling for copies of Cane’s new book at the local shop. A few of those readers, among them Cane’s former agent, wander the streets with bloody hatchets, drooling and raving. The problem is that Cane has vanished, after delivering just a few chapters of his newest manuscript to publisher Arcane. Trent sets off to look for Hobb’s End, the presumably fictional New Hampshire town where many of Cane’s stories take place.

Trent finds Hobb’s End, all right, a small town torn from the pages of Cane’s novels that’s not on any map. And he finds Cane there, as well (Jurgen Prochnow, having great fun as the messianic novelist banging out pages on a manual typewriter as the walls around him sweat and breathe). The story takes a Twilight Zone spin as Trent and Linda Stiles, his companion from Arcane, discover that the good townsfolk are acting out their parts in the books of Sutter Cane. The author is manipulating reality, and he promises that his new book will drive the entire world stark-raving mad. What about people who don’t read books?, one character asks at one point. Well then, he’s told, there’s always the movie (starring John Trent, of course).

Shot for the wide screen and brilliantly visual, In the Mouth of Madness is great fun to watch, with even the requisite cheap shocks doling out a good jolt. Sam Neill is always a pleasure, even when it seems that he’s hardly trying, and his staid characterization is balanced by a slew of icky demonic crowd-pleasing creations that fly in the face of his pronounced skepticism. The down side is that the movie isn’t really about anything, save perhaps the power of the media and the purported dangers of paying too much mind to pop culture phenomena (yawn!). Another old horror hand, Wes Craven (who has been savaged like few other filmmakers for his brutal debut feature,The Last House on the Left), did the genre a bigger favor last year. Even though both films empower the artist, Wes Craven’s New Nightmare went a bold step farther, offering a clever and impassioned defense of the horror film when it needed it the most.

In fact, one might suspect that Carpenter has been sleeping with the neo-conservative enemy, offering up a critique of the mania that could ensue when people read too many scary books. Still, the director is on record opposing censorship, and has always stood up to critics who called his films (The Thing, especially) too violent. We can only interpret the new movie as a love letter to horror fans, a brotherly nudge and wink toward our own cathartic experiences as we sit in the dark, waiting to be scared. At any rate, it’s a tremendous improvement over such Chevy Chase fodder as Memoirs of an Invisible Man, and we can hope that in his next film (a remake of Village of the Damned), Carpenter’s incisive, critical vision will snap back into sharp focus.

Nobody’s Fool

Melanie Griffith and Paul Newman in Nobody's Fool

This gentle film may have been the biggest surprise of 1994. I’m not usually one to get all warm inside over dramas of small-town relationships and redemption starring folks like Paul Newman, but Nobody’s Fool is nearly perfect from start to finish. Newman’s never been sharper than he is as Sully, a loser from way back who’s still coming to terms with his botched history and trying to put together what’s left of his life — which includes a recently returned son and grandson. Bruce Willis is unbilled in his best role to date, and director Robert Benton coaxes a warm and charming performance from Melanie Griffith, on whom I had given up completely. Capped by the regal presence of the late Jessica Tandy and based on an award-winning novel by Richard Russo (who was solicited for input on story changes), Nobody’s Fool qualifies as a minor masterwork, and should be perfect fare on some fragile, snowy night.

Three Colors: Red

Irene Jacob in Three Colors: Red

They don’t make movies like this anymore. Even the most self-conscious of European films, destined to be widely promoted in America with dull trailers, tasteful posters, and an art house blitz, aren’t as unapologetically indulgent as the recent films of Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski. His The Double Life of Veronique offers an oblique meditation on the properties of light alongside a metaphysical study of Veronique, a French woman who inadvertently photographs her perfect double (Weronika) while visiting Poland. Blue casts art-house standby Juliette Binoche (The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Damage) as a mopey French widow, and features a rich and overwhelming orchestral score and arresting imagery (a sugar cube touched to coffee fills the movie screen as the white crystals turn brown) that literally bring the film to a halt time and again. White is a neatly comic film about marriage and capitalism that travels from France back to Poland and offers up at least one show-stopping visual metaphor — the screen blazes white in illustration of Julie Delpy’s orgasm, reducing audiences to gasps and titters.

Kieslowski’s harshest critics maintain that the films sap the sympathies of an irredeemably gullible audience. They accuse him of arranging for fashionable Frenchwomen to traipse through his very European landscapes, murmuring New Age platitudes, sleeping with sensitive New Age guys, and pouting for the camera. The director’s newest film, Red, the culmination of his Three Colors trilogy which also includes Blue and White, they insist, is overblown claptrap, substituting notions of Fate and Destiny for credible filmmaking. The new issue of Film Comment (November-December 1994) juxtaposes a rich essay on the trilogy by New York Daily News critic Dave Kehr with a tirade against it (by Phillip Lopate) which insists that the film’s supporters have been aesthetically “bamboozled.”

Kieslowski’s audience is neither gullible nor easily amused. The concluding scenes of Red, which may represent the conclusion of the director’s career, tie the three films of the trilogy together so perfectly and unexpectedly that their themes resonate in a viewer’s head for days afterward. The films ostensibly examine the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity, but they do so in the service of a much broader agenda. Kieslowski has integrated three very distinct pieces into a triptych that folds in on itself and contemplates its own nature. In the process, his characters determine one another’s destinies, even as the director plays God.

Irene Jacob, the uncannily radiant star of Veronique, is Valentine, a Swiss model who we see shooting an advertisement for (of all things) chewing gum. In the film’s most memorable visual trope, her face is to be reproduced on a huge banner and draped against the side of a building in Geneva. Accidents and mishaps drive much of the action in Kieslowski’s films, and the most important relationship here is catalyzed when Valentine, trying to tune in a distant radio station on her car stereo, hits a dog in the street. The dog, named Rita, is bleeding, but alive, and Valentine tries to take it back to its home. Valentine finds Rita’s owner, the retired judge Joseph Kern (the perfectly crusty Jean-Louis Trintignant), who hardly seems to care whether the dog lives or dies. Kern leads a solitary life, but has a radio set up so that he can monitor the telephone conversations of his neighbors. Valentine initially finds his aural voyeurism repugnant, but a strange bond grows between the two characters as they relate their life stories to one another.

The film contains a great many telephone conversations, and indeed Kieslowski investigates the ways in which we humans communicate (or fail to communicate) with one another. It’s telling that the relationship between Valentine and Kern (they could be lovers if not for their age difference) is the only one in which two people seem to be gaining knowledge and support from one another (Valentine has a boyfriend, Michel, who is in England and who she plans to visit, but throughout Red she only communicates with him by telephone). It would be unfair to give away further details, since much of the film is wrapped up in the intricate relationships that color the lives of both Valentine and Kern, and an odd sort of “double life” that Kern himself is living. The film, and the trilogy, culminate in an act of God which hinges on the intrusion of the director himself, who decides the final fate of his characters.

Although Kieslowski obviously finds something fascinating in the face of Jacob (which is honestly the glue holding this film together), one is tempted to draw the conclusion that it’s Trintignant’s misanthropic old judge — who conspires to manipulate his own cast of characters — that the director feels the closest affinity with. It’s a very good sign, then, that the embittered judge finds some measure of satisfaction and redemption at the end of Red (which, incidentally, Kieslowski claims is his last film). Kern has a pointed conversation with Jacob at one point, asking her why she stopped to pick up the dog and take it to a doctor. Was it to help the dog, he wants to know, or was it to make herself feel better, less guilty? By the end of the film, the judge will be asking himself the same question about his own contrivance, one that is key for Kieslowski, who has said in interviews that he has come to believe people are inherently selfish.* Critics have complained that Kieslowski’s films are reliant on coincidence and overblown ideas about Destiny, but it’s a moot complaint when the director is so honest about his role as grand manipulator of his own world, weaving his presence thematically into the work. The culmination of his masterful Three Colors trilogy suggests there is Something Larger than Kieslowski’s characters. Whether that is the Deity or simply the Director is left for us to decide.

* See the discussion of Red in Danusia Stok’s excellent collection of interviews, Kieslowski on Kieslowski, published in the U.S. by Faber & Faber. ISBN: 0-571-16733-0.

Heavenly Creatures

Melanie Lynskey (left) and Kate Winslet in Heavenly Creatures

Two teenage girls sit outside their school building, comparing childhood memories. The one, Juliet, admits gleefully, “I have scars on my lungs!” Turns out she spent all too many of those early years in a sick bed, fighting off infection. The other, Pauline, lifts her skirt and drops her stocking to display a scar that runs the length of her lower leg. Doctors spent an eternity trying to excise something unclean from that young leg. As Pauline goes all weepy recalling the specifics, Juliet comforts her: “All the best people have bad chests and bone diseases. It’s frightfully romantic.”
Friends for life.

Of course, they’re friends in a Peter Jackson movie, so you may suspect there’s something sinister going on. “In the 1950s, Pauline Parker and Juliet Hulme were branded as possibly the most evil people on earth,” Jackson says in the press materials for Heavenly Creatures, which is based on the real-life diaries of Parker and the independent research of Jackson and co-writer Frances Walsh. “What they had done seemed without rational explanation.”

Let’s say the new film is a “departure” from the director’s earlier work, which included the lowbrow zombie comedy Bad Taste, the wildly scatological muppet massacre called Meet the Feebles, and the exuberant zombie masterpiece Braindead (known in the U.S. as Dead Alive). Even so, you know you’re watching a Peter Jackson movie. The delicately grotesque caricatures, the skewed puritanism of 1954 New Zealand, and the stifling strictures of family life were all in evidence in Braindead, though one could hardly have imagined that Jackson could make his visions palatable for a general art house crowd. But that’s what he’s done here — and it’s absolutely brilliant, one of the finest films of 1994.

Heavenly Creatures is really the story of Pauline (Melanie Lynskey), a quiet schoolgirl of 14 who lacks friends but possesses a sharp and wild imagination. She quickly falls into a close partnership with a new student, the brash and fanciful Juliet (Kate Winslet). The two of them easily forge a relationship where they depend on each other for the magic that is clearly missing from their lives. Pauline watches happily as Juliet corrects her teacher’s French grammar and kisses a stranger outside a movie theater. They share an affinity for “the world’s greatest tenor,” Mario Lanza. They share a certain horror and fascination at the sight of Orson Welles. They spin endless tales tracing the lineage of an imaginary royal family, and they sculpt clay figures to represent the nobles of their fantasies. In one scene, the two of them dance around the New Zealand countryside in their underwear, finally collapsing on the ground, exhausted from their own enthusiasms.

The relationship only becomes stronger from there, as the two discover a passage into what Juliet calls “the fourth world,” a Gilliamesque fantasia of immaculate landscapes where their clay characters come to life and dance, copulate, and mete out justice to some of the authority figures populating Pauline and Juliet’s world. (Pauline’s diary entry explains to us that the two can perceive the fourth world only by using an obscure portion of their brains that “about 10 people” possess.) As the two bond through their fantasies, their relationship becomes more and more intense (to the exclusion of the rest of the world) and erotic (to the chagrin and embarrassment of Pauline’s parents). The tension rises as their friendship is threatened, and Pauline begins to go out of her mind with grief at the thought of losing her best and only friend.

The performances, which border on the farcical, go a long way toward the success of this story. Jackson has always had a talent for coaxing actors to play to the cheap seats while still keeping their essential humanity about them, which is the key to making sure audiences care about the human beings as horrible things happen. Although certain scenes cross the line into the grotesque, they are made far more powerful by the restraint and quiet beauty in evidence elsewhere. Heavenly Creatures is antithetical in many ways to the theory driving Jackson’s earlier work — break the taboos, explore everything in excess, be assured that too much is not enough. Jackson achieved catharsis by refusing to observe any boundaries in his seemingly out-of-control films. But Braindead, written by Jackson, Walsh, and Stephen Sinclair, certainly took pains drawing its characters, and the last half of that very gory film works as a very black metaphor for young Lionel’s difficulties dealing with Mum, Uncle Les, and the rest of his frightening family. And even Meet the Feebles devoted a tremendous amount of expository time to something very much like character development (on the other hand, it also devoted a lot of time to showing muppets being blasted into clouds of blood by machine guns).

At this point in his career, Jackson has exhausted the possibilites of the gross-out. Happily, he has turned his energies to something more delicate, and more affecting. This kind of film is a highwire act — if it’s not constructed perfectly, the results are disastrous. The story needs a wholly remarkable and absolutely believable friendship at its core, the kind you can believe supersedes all other human concerns. Jackson delivers, offering up characters who feel the same glee at thumbing their noses at society that the director must have felt as he made those early, low-budget affronts to good taste. At the same time, the film’s structure demands rational and beautiful segues from the real world into fantasia, a ballet of sensibilities that Jackson pulls off without a misstep. He has created a dark and transcendent love story, a graceful and complicated interweaving of innocence and obsession that begs our sympathy and compels us to understand the beautiful motives that can underly the most dreadful of human schemes.

Buffalo 66


Give him credit for chutzpah. Vincent Gallo’s directorial debut, Buffalo 66, is a semi-autobiographical yarn that overcomes blunt narcissism, striking an oddly convincing blow for optimism in the face of self-imposed misery.
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