Archive for November, 2009

"Black Devil Doll" Movie Poster

Oh, my. “Filmed In Negroscope.” “Rated ‘X’ by an All-White Jury.” “‘He’s a Muthafuckin’ Puppet!” “If You Think You’re Ready for Him — Think Again, Bitch!” The taglines here make it perfectly clear that there’s something to offend every sensibility in this 2008- lensed, low-budget (apparently it was shot for around $10,000), essentially straight-to-DVD (although it has gotten some limited horror convention and midnight-movie circuit theatrical play over the past year or so) shockfest (or should that be schlockfest?). Let’s briefly consult what’s on offer here against our handy checklist of  black puppet exploitation movie debauchery:

Gratuitous and often pointless nudity? Check. Oceans of cheap-looking blood? Check. Deliberate racially insensitive dialogue in abundance? Check. Purposefully OTT stereotyping? Check. Necrophilic rape? Check. Lewd bathroom “humor,” including fart sounds? Check. Foot-long puppet schlong? Check. Copious amounts of puppet jizz, including a facial? Check. Puppet rug munching? Check. Puppet ass munching? Check. Puppet diarrhea? Check.

Yup, it’s all there.

Black militant Mubia Abul-Jama (hmm, that name sounds familiar) is sentenced to die in the electric chair at midnight for raping and murdering 15 white women. As the clock ticks down on his life,across town bored and busty party-girl Heather (played by Heather Murphy) is fooling around at home with her ouija board. When old sparky kicks into action, Mubia’s soul (or whatever) is quickly zapped straight down to hell, but the power of the “mystifying oracle” vacuums (or, again, whatever) him back up into the real world and transmits his essence out of the board and into Heather’s Howdy Doody-type doll, instantly transforming the bow-tied, freckled white puppet into a militant Black Panther-type foot soldier in America’s unofficial race war (voiced by the movie’s director, Jonathan Lewis), and he’s only got one thing on his mind : Caucasian poontang.

He's a lover ---

Soon —as in within five minutes — Heather is unable to resist the Black Devil Doll’s “charms,” and he’s sliding her the wooden salami morning, noon, and night. However, our guy (err, our puppet) is not a one-woman kind of “man,” and in fairly short order he’s demanding that she bring some of her girlfriends around for him to — ummm — meet (okay, for him to rape and kill — and not necessarily in that order — if you want to be technical about things). She somewhat hesitantly obliges his request — I mean, she doesn’t really want to, but that puppet-lovin’ is just so good that she can’t say no.

He's a killer ---

Anyway, while her ex, a wanna-be white rapper who lives at home with his grandma and goes by the handle of “White-T” pines after her, Heather burns up the phone lines, gets a few of her uniformly slutty friends (played by Christine Svendsen, Erika Branich, Precious Cox, and the — ummm — generously, and pneumatically, enhanced Natasha Talonz, all of whom have to be at least a decade older than the characters they’re portraying, and none of whom are , sorry to be so blunt, all that especially attractive) to come on over to her house for a weekend of movies, wine coolers, and girl talk. When the Black Devil Doll sends Heather a little (or not so little, as the case may be), secret signal, though, it’s time for her to head on out to McDonald’s for about six or eight hours so he can get down to business.

He's a voyeur ---

Once she clears out, the girls all find convenient reasons to strip down to either next to nothing or just plain nothing (one has to shower, one has to bathe, one has to work on her tan, one has to sleep, one has to — yes — take a dump), and they don’t get dressed again for the entire duration (that duration being 72 minutes in total) of the film, because Mubia goes on a rampage and rapes and murders them all (again, not necessarily in that order — in fact, it’s usually the reverse).

When Heather gets home and sees what’s become of her friends, though, she blows a gasket (apparently she only thought Mubia-doll was going to rape them and was, you know, okay with that, but the killing thing is a bit much for her), rips off her shirt for no reason, and blows him (back ) to hell with her gun. Oh, and somewhere in the midst of all the other debauchery, our pint-sized (except where it counts) wooden revolutionary does a bunch of coke, and “White-T” crashes the “party” and our sex-crazed puppet murders and mounts him, too.

He's a cokehead ---

So, that’s the “plot.” The performances are as amateurish and unprofessional as you’d expect, the gore effects are beyond cheap (but at least they’re not CGI), and the dialogue is abominable and  brain-meltingly wretched (again, as you’d expect). In other words,  the sleaze is so thick you can cut it with a knife here, folks.

Loosely (very loosely) based on the late Chester Turner’s shot-on-video 1983 underground mini-sensation “Black Devil Doll From Hell,” the Lewis Brothers (producer and co-writer Shawn and director Jonathan, respectively) have certainly “crafted” a deliberately politically and morally incorrect piece of modern-day exploitation garbage here, and it’s entirely appropriate that it’s released on a video label called Lowest Common Denominator Films, since that’s exactly the level this thing is operating on. Not that I mean that as a criticism, because I most assuredly don’t. As stated at the beginning, this is movie’s “mission statement,” if it were pretentious enough to have one, would be to piss off everyone all the time. In that respect, then, it can only be considered an unqualified success.

The DVD package is pretty nice on the whole, with a “making-of” featurette, a short selection of animated BDD cartoons, a trailer, a fairly comprehensive set of liner notes, a poster,  and a feature-length commentary from Jonathan Lewis voiced “in-character” as the Mumia-doll. Fun stuff all around.

He's a muthafuckin' puppet!

Needless to say, “Black Devil Doll” isn’t for everyone. Hell, in a rational and sane world, it wouldn’t be for anyone. But in the hopelessly fucked-up world we do actually live in, I have to admit that it had me laughing my ass off.

"Precious" Movie Poster

All the stars were lined up against this one as far as your humble (or so I always say) reviewer was concerned. It’s the latest “indie sensation, ” a Sundance smash with all kinds of “buzz.”  It’s based on a novel written by a pseudonymous one-named author and purportedly features a powerhouse performance by an equally pseudonymous one-named painfully unfunny “iconic” comedienne. It features supporting performances from not one, but  two music industry heavyweights (and if there’s one thing I can’t abide the very existence of, my friends, it’s rock stars).    And to top it all off, it’s executive-produced by two of the most loathsome media moguls this side of Rupert Murdoch, namely Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry.

In short, I walked in expecting a tear-jerker with a tiresome “empowerment” theme heavy-handedly tacked on at the end given the “philosophical” predilections of the mega- powers that be behind this film. And then there’s the already- thoroughly-recounted backstory of the title character herself : Claireece “Precious” Jones is sixteen, morbidly obese,  functionally illiterate, pregnant for the second time by her father (her first child has Down’s Syndrome), and endures a nightmare existence in a Harlem shithole apartment with her physically, emotionally, and (at least hinted at) sexually abusive welfare cheat of a mom , who sounds for all intents and purposes like a ghetto version of Cinderella’s wicked stepmother on steroids, forcing her daughter to wait on her hand and foot in “exchange” for a constant stream of uber-degradation. All in all, it sounds like a laundry list of every single rotten-ass thing in the world dumped into one (admittedly very large) flesh-and-blood vessel.

Oh, how wrong I can be. I say that because “Precious” (or to refer to it accurately by its painfully verbose official title, “Precious : Based On The Novel ‘Push’ By Sapphire”) is quite probably the best goddamn movie you’ll see all year.

Gabourey Sidibe as Precious

First, let’s get the single-most distressing particular out of the way. Oprah Winfrey and Tyler Perry both signed on as absentee “executive producers” after the film was in the can and after it wowed audiences at Sundance to such an extent that they knew they’d have a hit on their hands if they could attach their names to it in order to help secure it widespread distribution, which they were quickly able to do through the auspices of Lionsgate. Their actual influence on the on-screen product itself, then, is completely nonexistent, apart from apparently (and quite wisely) nudging Daniels to change the name from “Push” in order to avoid confusion with the sci-fi flick of the same name that came out earlier this year (and speaking of titles, might I just say that Daniels’ decision to run the opening credits in the ummm — literally-challenged style in which his protagonist would transribe them herself is a brilliant tone-setter).  Anyway, you can breathe a sigh of relief now if, like me, you’re not a huge fan of Oprah’s new-age self-help sermonizing or Perry’s put-your-trust-in-God-style “solutions” for all of life’s problems. There’s no trace of either to be found here.

The main creative powers behind this unflinchingly honest slice of genuinely harrowing urban realism are director Lee Daniels (a former producer himself —  and no stranger to controversial material given that he was responsible for both “Monster’s Ball” and “The Woodsman” — who got into directing with the little-seen “The Shadowboxer” a few years back, making this his sophomore effort behind the camera), and screenwriter Geoffrey Fletcher, who have adapted the novel by Sapphire (a former Harlem-area teacher turned novelist and poet) with a refreshing directness that’s as admirable as it is unpretentious. Really, though, this is an actor’s film, and there isn’t one performance in here that’s anything less than spectacularly authentic. Daniels cast a wide net, from the aforementioned superstars of the music industry (namely Mariah Carey as the terrifically understated been-there-seen-all-that social worker, Ms. Weiss, and Lenny Kravitz as the sorta-hip-but-not-disarmingly-or-for-that-matter-distractingly-so Nurse John, who attends to Precious during her hospital stay after delivering her baby) to supporting-role veterans (the luminous Paula Patton as tough-but-kindly remedial school teacher Blu Rain — yes, really) to comedy stalwarts (Mo’Nique as the thoroughly wretched Mary, the previously-mentioned matriarch outta hell) to complete unknowns (right-off-the-streets newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as the titular protagonist herself, who skipped college for the day (she’s 26) to try out for the part on a whim and beat out 400 other contenders for the role,  finding herself cast literally less than an hour after her audition) and gave them all the trust and freedom to develop their characters  in whatever way felt right to them. The results are uniformly astounding without exception, and it’s no stretch at all to say that this is the best-acted film in recent memory.

Not to sound too gut-wrenchingly pretentious, but Sidibe as Precious is a straight-up revelation.  Painfully isolated within herself, her every movement an unconsciously-crafted defense mechanism designed to protect her very survival, she’s reflexively stoic and preternaturally cautious, yet still brightly inquisitive and not without some glimmer of realization that a better life is, somehow, possible even if she has no idea of how to get there. As apparently contradictory as this no doubt sounds, Sidibe is able to convey it all through her movements, demeanor, and overall affect to such a degree that you’d think she wasn’t even acting at all, so thoroughly complete is her realization of this multi-faceted character. Combined with Daniels’ (generally, although at times he does slide into different cinematic styles and visual themes, particularly during Precious’ numerous retreats into fantasy life, which she tends to project herself into when seriously awful shit — like her father raping her — is happening) naturalistic filming style, the overall effect is downright documentarian in its realism. She speaks very little on the whole (moreso as she opens up as the story progresses) but communicates volumes with every movement, gesture, even glance.  Hand her the Oscar now and get it over with.

And speaking of Oscars, the other ultra-noteworthy performance here is, of course, from Mo’Nique, who is at least as good as everyone has been saying, conveying with blunt honesty a sordid and soul-destroying inner rage that knows no outlet but formless and senseless violent physical and emotional outbursts directed at the easiest and most available target —  that being, of course, her daughter. She feels no sympathy for the incestuous abuse Precious has suffered, but rather blames her for “stealing her man, ” and is even — get this — jealous of the fact that this so-called “man” has fathered more children with their daughter than he did with her. She doesn’t want Precious to go to school and pull herself up out of her situation, she wants her to “go down to the welfare” and bring the check she’ll get there home to her. She has no grandmotherly love for Precious’ oldest, Down Syndrome-afflicted child and calls the baby a freak and an animal — yet a freak and an animal that she’s more than willing to coddle and pamper when her case worker from the welfare office is over on a home visit (then cruelly, and yes literally, toss aside the minute said case worker is out the door). And while all this does, indeed, make her a monster, she delivers an astonishingly raw, no-holds-barred,  bravura soliloquy towards the end at a meeting with Ms. Weiss (and Carey simply shines in this role, it must be said — she’s downright unrecognizable in her unglamorous earthiness, speaks as plainly as she looks, and is quite clearly both overwhelmed and used to being so — she can be officially forgiven for “Glitter” at this point, I would think. Oh, and watch for her absolutely golden nonchalance when Precious hits her with a question that Carey herself has endured countless times) that lays bare her own pain, confusion, and abject misery in a way that goes some way toward explaining why she is the way she is while in no way making her any more sympathetic. Quite the contrary, in fact — understanding her (partially, at least) only makes her cruelty all the more hideous. Never less than directly, forcefully, and consequentially immediate, Mo’Nique gives a performance for the ages.  Again, the Academy can just hand the little bald statuette over right now and be done with it.

Nope, I didn't recognize her either --- Mariah Carey as Ms. Weiss in "Precious"

Precious’s story is no doubt terrifying in the truest sense of the word, but it’s not without hope. When she’s expelled from school for being pregnant (did I mention this movie is set in 1987?) she is cajoled by her former principal into enrolling (against her mother’s wishes, of course) at one of those newfangled-at-the-time charter schools with a typically appropriate cheeseball name, “Each One, Teach One.” There she finds something of a support network for the first time in her life with a group of equally-illiterate “throwaway youth” students and a genuinely concerned teacher (Patton’s Blu Rain) who make the attempt to get through to her and she slowly, cautiously, stumblingly reciprocates their trust. Just as she’s  starting to come out of her shell, though, and safely delivers her baby, her mother hits her with the tirade to end all tirades when she gets home from the hospital, and she finds herself without a home when she needs one the most. The resolve Ms. Rain shows in getting her into some type of emergency housing  well past the eleventh hour is downright heroic, and soon Precious is back to slowly getting on her feet after arguably her biggest setback yet.

The worst, however, is to come, as some months after getting her into her halfway-house living situation, and progressing from a second grade to an eighth grade reading level at school, dastardly mother Mary shows up and delivers some news that provides the single-biggest cinematic gut punch of this young millennium. Without giving away what it is,  I’ll just say that it both underscores and overshadows all that remains in the film, and when Precious finally confronts her mother in the previously-mentioned scene in Ms. Weiss’s office, she does, yes, leave with some small sense of accomplishment and, dare I say it, “empowerment,” but even when she lets out a cautiously knowing  smile that comes from somewhere deep within while walking away with her two children at the very end in the closest thing she may ever know to triumph, the future is still uncertain, at best, for this extraordinarily resilient young lady. She’s gone some way towards turning her life around, but the future is unwritten and the darkest cloud of all (again, I absolutely won’t give away the details) still looms over her head. We’re not left with a strong sense tat it’s something she’ll be able to ultimately cope with, but at least we know she won’t be facing it, or any other tribulations to come, completely alone, and she’s also got a bit, just a bit mind you, more inner strength to see it through than she had before. It won’t be enough, but it’s a step in the right direction, and even though, in a voice-over segment early on Precious states “Ms. Rain says the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — whatever the fuck that means,” we do hope she has indeed caught on to the import of that statement by the time the film is finished.

Daniels and Fletcher are  to be congratulated here. In lesser hands this would threaten to be Lifetime movie-of-the-week material, so endless is the litany of degradations suffered the title character and so simple would it be to twist the ending into something artificially uplifting. And the structure of the story is such that just when one heart-breaking situation is beginning to be partially dealt with, another pops up. It would be easy to turn this, therefore, into a pathos-laden guiltapalooza, designed to exploit the sensibilities of a largely liberal  and quite likely largely white audience through cheap and overstated emotional manipulation (truth be told, notorious contrarian Armond White has leveled something like that very charge at the film, but given that he’s tried to make hay out of the fact that all the characters who help Precious are lighter-skinned while all the characters who hurt her are darker-skinned — never noticing, apparently, the fact  that the lead character herself is quite dark, rather torpedoing his entire argument about the film’s supposed hidden racial subtext — and that he thought crap like “Transformers 2” and “Norbit” were good movies, it’s pretty safe to say his views are based on nothing more than a reflection of his own rather desperate need to be noticed in today’s crowded market of cinematic opinion at any cost), but they have too much respect for their characters, their material, and their audience to go that easy route. Yes, you should probably bring some extra Kleenex with you to the theater, since there are a few moments where there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, my own included. But it’s in no way schmaltzy or overstated, a la Spielberg’s “The Color Purple.” The tears you shed here will be honest ones, that flow naturally based on the honest, no-frills presentation of dark, painful, and all-too-real subject matter. And there are quite a few lighter moments, as well, with some genuinely surprising humor and levity thrown into the mix at unlikely times, much as often happens in life itself.

In short, the story of Precious in not one of wildly exaggerated highs and lows, but of a real girl, living a real life, in a real world too many of us ignore all to often. There are a hell of a lot of Preciouses out there. This is the first time their story has been told in anything like a way that does them justice, not by painting them as hapless victims or as noble martyrs on the altar of the undeserved economic excesses that the rest of us enjoy (and, frankly, probably don’t deserve — I don’t know about you but in terms of sheer human value I think one Claireece “Precious” Jones is worth a hundred, or a thousand, or hell, a million corporate CEOs or Wall Street robber barns — if that makes me a bleeding-heart liberal pinko commie, so fucking be it), but by showing them to be exactly what they are — people, just like all of us, with the same fears, hopes, aspirations, and potential as any of us, but with a hell of a lot harder road to walk toward getting where they want to go.

A last nod to some of the criticism that’s been directed at this movie, this time from right-wing quarters — yes, it’s probably true that only an African American filmmaker could say some of the things this flick is saying and “get away with it.” It’s called cultural context, people. Precious dreams of having a light-skinned boyfriend and in one scene even fantasizes about being a blond white girl. This is not the same thing as saying she is ashamed of being black. It’s an acknowledgment that she wishes for a life, and an identity, completely different than the one she’s always known, and given her circumstances, who can blame her? Yes, her circumstances are, at their core, all about economics rather than race (and one hopes that, naturally bright as Precious is, she’ll eventually come to realize this — am I the only one who’d love to see a sequel where Precious really goes after those  most responsible for her victimization  and bombs a bank headquarters or a Wall Street investment firm? Okay, I guess I am.), but she’s a sixteen-year-old kid, and a poorly-educated one at that. It’s quite common for children in these types of circumstances to wish to have as dramatically different a life as possible, and that often extends to the most personal and central aspects of their very identity. But, yes, if a white filmmaker were to attempt to convey the exact same message, there would be an uncomfortable subtext of “lots of black people secretly wish they were white” attached to it. That’s just the way it goes, and that’s nothing to be exasperated about, so calm the fuck down my fellow white people. This bitching about how  “a white director would be called a racist if he made this movie” is nothing more than the cinematic equivalent of the tired and frankly stupid old argument around the use of  “the ‘N’ word” that essentially boils down to “if they can say it, why can’t we?” Frankly, those who engage in such useless “debates” do nothing more than sound like whining racists who still want to call black people n*****s and are upset that they can’t get away with it anymore. Shut up or grow up — or, better yet, both. Again, cultural context is all-important here, and we don’t all have the same life experiences.  If you can’t recognize that the message is not the same depending on who’s delivering it — and for what purpose — then you don’t have the intellectual maturity to recognize actual reality, and the fact that in  said actual reality the messenger to a great extent shapes and defines the message; the two are not inseperable.  Nor should they be.

“Precious” is not an easy film to watch by any means, whether you can directly relate to her story or not. It’s by turns heartbreaking, poignant, harrowing,  and even joyful. It’s not pessimistic, to be certain, yet it’s not forcedly optimistic, either. It’s just plain real. It asks all the right questions in just the right away and provides no easy answers.  From start to finish it’s true to itself, to its characters, and to their story. It’s vital and it’s  necessary. And it’s long overdue.

Something this powerfullly, unflinchingly honest only comes around once in a great while. This flick will rip your heart out and hand it back to you in pieces. Putting them together again is up to you. The hard work always is. Just ask Claireece “Precious” Jones — she knows all about that.

"The Box" Movie Poster

Oh, my. I wanted to like “The Box” so much. I am, you see, a huge Richard Kelly fan. Notice I didn’t say a “Donnie Darko” fan, even though I absolutely love that flick and feel it’s one of the few “cult sensations” truly worthy of its devoted fan base. No, I’m a Richard Kelly fan, because not only do I seriously dig Donnie D., but I think his much-maligned follow-up feature, “Southland Tales,” is even better.  Yes, it’s messy, unfocused, scattershot, overly ambitious, self-indulgent and, in many ways,  even juvenile.  But to my mind it’s also ambitious to a fault, multi-layered, challenging, funny, thought-provoking, ambitious, and even downright groundbreaking. Kelly’s “sins” with “Southland” can all be categorized under the “trying to do too much” category, as opposed to, say, Lars von Trier (I really should learn to leave him alone, I suppose),  whose chief failing with “Antichrist” is doing very little while employing obvious and insulting sleight-of-hand in broad daylight for the purpose of trying to hoodwink the audience into thinking he’s doing a lot.

After “Southland” tanked at the box office in spectacular fashion, Kelly apparently decided — or was forced — to pare down his ambitions considerably, and to concentrate his efforts on a tight little story that would play to his strengths while refusing to indulge his purported weaknesses. Would the result be an effectively creatively neutered Kelly or a sharpened, focused one?

Actually, neither. “The Box” is just a bland, lifeless time-waster.

Based on Richard Matheson’s short story “Button, Button,” the first third or so of “The Box” plays out well enough, and definitely has a “Twilight Zone” feel to it, with two efficiently-established and well-played characters,  schoolteacher Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz), and her NASA scientist-husband, Arthur (James Marsden) staring into a financial black hole largely of their own making in the mid-1970s. Then, a mysterious stranger with a fucked-up, partially decimated face named (and you gotta love this handle for a Rod Serling-type mystery man) Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) shows up at their door with a box and an offer : push the button on top of the said box within 24 hours and you’ll get a million dollars in cash. There’s just one catch : somebody, somewhere in the world (who, he assures Norma, neither she or her husband knows) will die.

It seems like a horrible joke, in a way — the box is empty, therefore it can’t possibly do anything, so pushing the button must be meaningless, right? Hell, the money is probably even counterfeit.

Except Arthur tests the hundred-dollar bill that Steward left with his wife in the lab at work and guess what? It’s real. But the box itself — it can’t have any actual power, can it?

The trepidation  builds as Norma and Arthur weigh the decision to push or not to push in their minds, and this dramatic tension is really the highlight of the film. Unfortunately, once they do, in fact, make up their minds, the whole movie goes to pot.

Without giving away the choice they make, let’s just say it has consequences and leads to a completely uninvolving mystery that eventually comes full circle. We learn everything there is to know about Steward and his freaky little contraption, every question we have is answered (and even some we don’t), and the ending completes our little 360-degree loop in much the same way that Lynch’s superb ending for “Lost Highway” did. Unfortunately, there is none of the expertly-crafted ambiguity nor any of the multiple levels of meaning and interpretation along the way that make “Lost Highway” an effective and absorbing surrealistic mini-masterpiece. Kelly’s film ends up feeling more like a map of the unknown than a journey within it. All is linear, defined, and hopelessly constricting. Our guy Richard doesn’t trust the audience enough to make up our own minds as individuals as “Donnie Darko” and, to an even greater extent, “Southland Tales” did. In fact, the lesson Kelly seems to have learned from “Southland” is that we just aren’t smart enough to draw our own conclusions.

This doesn’t mean I think that he has emasculated himself creatively, for the ideas at play here are, in fact, suitably offbeat and unexpected. But they’re all laid out so directly and succinctly that they fail to capitalize on their potential to keep us guessing. It’s as if Kelly feels he has to answer each new question that arises in the order that they appear, preferably  within a ten minute (or so) time frame,  before moving on to the next one because our attention spans can’t handle leaving more than one thread unresolved  at a time.

We’re smarter than Kelly gives us credit for with “The Box.” And so is he.


"Antichrist" Movie Poster

Apparently, on at least one occasion during the publicity blitz for his latest film, “Antichrist,” Lars von Trier has referred to himself as the world’s greatest living director. Really. Not only is this a mistaken opinion, it’s just plain factually inaccurate, and “Antichrist” is ample proof of this, because the world’s greatest living director would, presumably, have at least something to say, and von Trier quite clearly does not.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have some things going for it. It’s almost painfully beautiful to look at at times, and almost each and every shot is worth framing as a museum piece. Unfortunately, it’s exquisite craftsmanship in service of nothing, as the “deep” and “meaningful” themes that von Trier spends the entire film announcing at top volume that he’s purportedly exploring are, in fact, nowhere to be found. von Trier has pretentiously dedicated this film to Tarkovsky, but has apparently only absorbed the techniques of surface visual majesty mastered by the Russian great while learning nothing from him of the art of truly exploring dark and harrowing subject matter. It’s rather like tracing an outline of the Mona Lisa and having the temerity to “dedicate” the finished “product” to da Vinci.

The most consistent criticism of von Trier’s previous work is that he’s used shock value to cover for the fact that his material is actually painfully superficial and half-understood, and while that’s an accurate enough summation of the inherent weaknesses of films like “Dancer in the Dark” and “Breaking the Waves,” it’s double, triply, quadruply true for the masturbatory, self-indulgent mess that is “Antichrist.” Never, in this reviewer’s memory,  has so little been insistently and vociferously packaged as being so much. von Trier’s stilted and hackneyed dialogue, so wretched it makes Ed Wood’s worst excesses seem naturalistic,  literally screams “Look at me! I’m important!” from start to finish, but announcing one’s importance and actually having any are far from being the same thing, a lesson that von Trier has, painfully and obviously, not yet learned.

And truth be told, that’s the damned thing not only about film, but about all art in this fallen world of ours — yes, cinema, novels, poetry, painting, all forms of artistic self-expression are important — unfortunately, in this day and age, the overwhelming majority of people with the free time, financial resources, and wherewithal to produce it aren’t. It’s wonderful that folks have something to say and a well-nigh endless variety of mediums in which to say it, but that doesn’t mean that most of those who are doing so are worth listening to. Self-absorbed, self-indulgent, overwrought pretentiousness is crap no matter how skillfully it’s communicated or how boisterously it declares its own perceived greatness. von Trier has a definite gift at the art of visual communication, but to date the messages he’s conveyed have bordered on complete worthlessness, and with “Antichrist” he finally crosses that border without trepidation. It’s a giant headfirst leap into complete and utter pointlessness, a madman laughing with abandon as he pisses in his audience’s face for no other reason than he can,  and then has the temerity to tell them they’re not worthy to drink it.

von Trier’s trajectory is clear from the get-go, as first we get his name splashed across the screen (not “a film by Lars von Trier,” or “a Lars von Trier film,” just “Lars von Trier”), then we get the movie’s title card, then we get thrust into the “epilogue,” a scene of black-and-white operatic beauty as the lead characters, He and She (they’re never given names, and frankly don’t do anything in the film to deserve them, although both roles are tackled with consummate professionalism by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively, who both deserve far better material than they’re given here), fuck in the shower while their toddler-age son, Nic, tumbles out an open window to his death. Yes, we see some quick full-on sexual penetration here, but the real “pornography” here is von Trier choosing to film a child’s death in slow-motion elegance. It’s the first of countless instances of him trying to be “shocking” and “transgressive” that completely miss the mark and end up being more cheap and exploitative than even Shaun Costello or Zebedy Colt on their worst days.

Quickly we learn that He is a therapist, though not a Ph.D., and She is, or was, a graduate student working (when she does) on her thesis, the topic of which is, I kid you not, “gynocide.” And like the filmmaker himself, their trajectory is also painfully plain to see from the outset, as they are trapped in a downward — hell, a doomward — spiral right out of the gate. She can’t cope with the loss of their son while He, at least on the surface, is coping all to well and seeks to “cure” her not only as her husband/lover (whether or not they’re actually married is never spelled out), but also as her therapist. They try to work through things at their posh artist loft-type home, but when that doesn’t work out, it’s off to the wilderness and isolation when they retreat to a cabin they presumably own in a deep, dense forest called — yawn — Eden.

Let’s be honest, we don’t need von Trier to hit us over the head with the idea that city folk who head out to the woods are fucked, it’s been a constant theme in horror cinema for years, and von Trier, for all his visual aplomb, doesn’t do the concept nearly as much as justice as, say, James Bryan did in “Don’t Go In The Woods,” to pick just one example out of literally hundreds.

Oh, but von Trier has so much more to say here than just that. Doesn’t he? Why, just ask him. And therein lies the problem. Underneath all the overstated psychodrama — is He really looking to help She, or is He seeking to draw her more deeply into his web of manipulation and control? Is She really imbalanced, or does She merely accurately sense the threat He poses to her freedom? Does He even really care about She, or is He merely seeking to gratify his own ego by “curing” her? Are both of them merely stand-ins for the silent tyranny that underscores all male-female interpersonal relationships? — there just isn’t much there. It’s as if von Trier thinks the act of stating that he’s “delving into” these larger themes is tantamount to actually doing so. Sorry, Lars, bot no amount of grandiloquence can disguise the fact that the median temperature of this film is ice cold and that the “passions” at its core are pure plastic.

He is never shown to be anything more than a two-dimensional manipulative bastard and She is a raw, emotionally imbalanced basket case who only feels alive when being fucked, being hurt, or both at once. He is pure calculation, She pure emotion, and both are out of control in their own respective fashion. Of course, She is the one we’re supposed to have some modicum of sympathy for, being that von Trier is an enlightened type of guy, and even when She’s screwing a 20-pound wight through the flesh and bond of He’s ankle in order to hold him down, the message is that She is fighting back, asserting her control and independence through the only avenue He has left her, namely by imprisoning him physically in the same manner he has imprisoned her psychically and emotionally. There’s this supposedly bold, anti- misogynist (wow, talk about going out on a limb — misogyny is bad? Why, I had no idea. What tough stand will he take next? Is genocide evil, too? Murder? Rape? Torture? Damn, talk about gutsy!) statement at the heart of the proceedings here, you see.

Or maybe you don’t. You could be forgiven for missing it, certainly, since the overall tone of the film is, in fact, relentlessly misogynistic and even downright sadistic. Not that your reviewer is necessarily averse to the idea that hitting an audience over the head with an idea, and indeed even incorporating the worst excesses of said idea, is often the best way to expose that idea and to subvert its power. On the contrary, one of my favorite films of all time is “Cannibal Holocaust,” which deftly and expertly incorporates the techniques of “mondo” or “shockumentary” filmmaking in order to to lay bare its grotesque excesses (incidentally, this is a movie that has only gained power and resonance over the years with the advent of “reality” television and DIY, “YouTube”/handheld-style filmmaking, but I digress), but Deodato was willing to throw caution to the wind and to cross the very lines he was condemning in order to communicate his point — to make himself a hypocrite in order to make his film both honest and genuinely harrowing. It’s shocking not only for what it shows but for the power with which it shows it, power that can only come from absolute authenticity.  von Trier hasn’t even got the guts to give his “deep and resonant” themes anything more than the most cursory glance. He gives us a story of two bourgeois characters “inflicted” with shallow bourgeois problems  and thinks he’s addressing universal themes when, in truth, we actively want both of these people to die, and the sooner the better, their “inner turmoil” be damned. And therein lies another missed opportunity — in order to give a fuck about these people’s problems, we’ve got to give a fuck about these people in the first place, and we’re never given a reason to do so. Two upper-class, self-absorbed slimebags have tragedy visited upon them? Too bad for the kid,absolutely, but given that von Trier himself chose to film his death in such an artistically prurient and, yes, pretentious manner, we never feel too much heartache or loss there — in fact, the child and his death are just a tool to be used for the filmmaker to get at the “meat” of the purported psychodrama that plays out between the couple themelves, a means to an end, nothing more.  But that end is nothing but the cinematic equivalent of a lifeless suburban cul-de-sac — traveled to in style, I’ll grant you that, but it still doesn’t mask the barren worthlessness of the destination itself.  Sure, von Trier’s knock-out punches connect on occasion ( the talking fox, for instance, actually works), but they’re delivered with weighted gloves — his actual fists themselves have no power.

And so “Antichrist” is testament to nothing more than the power of artifice. It’s pretense declared as meaning, gutlessness self-proclaimed as bravery, the US invading Grenada in order to declare the world “safe for democracy,” all delivered by a filmmaker who’s gotten in deep over his head without ever leaving the shallow end of the pool. The stated intent of “Antichrist” is to challenge the viewer every single fucking step of the way, but in the end the only challenge is to sit through the whole thing to the end.

There’s symbolism aplenty, delivered time and time again, in the form of a pregnant doe and the aforementioned talking fox and the fictional “three beggars” constellation, and acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, but in order to interpret it successfully, or even unsuccessfully, first you have to actually actively care about what it all might mean. “Antichrist” never gives you reason to. It’s just two solid hours of celluloid navel-gazing for its own sake. Apparently von Trier was emerging from a — yawn — long, deep depression (oh, the unique existential pain that must come from being a wealthy, self-obsessed “indie” filmmaker) when he conceived of this flick, and is attempting to engage some of the issues he dealt with while in said — yawn again — depression without crossing the line into full-blown on-screen therapeutic release. I dunnno, if I were him, I’d be a hell of a lot more depressed now, if I had faced the “long, dark night” of my soul and this was the best I could come up with.

There’s a scene in the film that could effectively stand in for the entirety of “Antichrist”  as a whole :  He, knocked unconscious by She, is lying on the floor with a monster erection, and She takes takes said hard-on in her hands and yanks on it until it ejaculates blood all over her. That’s all von Trier is doing here — jerking us all off, collectively, until we cum more as a means of registering our disgust than anything else.

Perversely, the inherently nihilstic undertones sledgehammered away at throughout “Antichrist” are proven to be true not by anything said by the film itself, but by its mere existence. Yes, we are a hopelessly fucked lot in general, and yes, all is lost, and yes, existence itself is quite likely pointless — any species that can produce even one member as shallowly self-absorbed as von Trier proves himself to be with “Antichrist” is well beyond any hope of redemption. All of our efforts at nobility, altruism, generosity,  and kindness aside, the fact that even one human being could come up with anything this wretchedly egotistical is, I’m afraid, enough to damn us all. So if there is indeed any higher power at work in the universe who sits in judgment over all of creation, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the entire human race for the fact that one of us made this film. I hope you won’t hold it against us as a whole, but really, if you decide to do so, I can’t say that I’d blame you.