Posts Tagged ‘independent film’

Oh, hell yes — now we’re talking!

Director Jason Eisener (screenplay by John Davies from a story by Eisener)’s new independent feature Hobo With A Shotgun is the second full-length feature to be extrapolated from the “fake trailers” that accompanied Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s Grindhouse double feature from a couple years back, and sometimes you just gotta kick back and enjoy the sheer tasteless spectacle of it all.

And tasteless is the key word here, folks. Hobo With A Shotgun is pure over-the-top cinematic mayhem that makes up for with heart what is absolutely, gloriously lacks in conscience. It’s a balls-to-the-wall splatterfest revenge flick of positively epic proportions that revels (as well it should) in its sheer, uncompromising lack of anything even remotely resembling good taste. If you’re feeling tired, this is one movie that will wake you the fuck up, and fast.

Me? I was hooked from the word go, obviously. Rutger Hauer (in a role he was positively born to play, talk about perfect casting) is an unnamed hobo who rides the rails into Hope City (more commonly referred to as “Scum City” and “Fuck City” by its residents), and quickly falls afoul of the local crime boss, a dementedly vile and sadistic little urchin who goes by the name of The Drake and who, along with his equally fucked-in-the-head sons Slick and Ivan, and the crooked cops they control, when he exhibits something remotely resembling an average human conscience. The Hobo (that’s all we ever know him as) has ever reason in the world to want to pursue revenge on the Drake clan after they fuck him up in a most undignified manner, but rather than satisfy his bloodlust, he just wants to save up 50 bucks to buy a lawnmower and get in the yard-care business.

It’s just a pipe dream, though, as The Hobo learns when he goes into a pawn shop to finally procure his lawnmower, only to have his shopping experience rudely interrupted by a couple of junkies pursuing a violent hold-up so they can get money to buy more of the drugs that The Drake has hooked them on. When the hoodlums threaten to shoot a baby in the store, The Hobo decides he’s had enough, grabs an old pump-action shotgun off the pawn shop wall, and starts blasting! Soon (after paying for his shotgun and shells, naturally) it’s all-out war as The Hobo, together with his teen-prostitute-with-a-heart-of-gold sidekick, Abby, starts taking the city back one shotgun shell at a time. nobody’s safe — pimps, pushers, hold-up artists, and in one particularly memorable sequence even a child molester in a Santa suit, all fall victim to The Hobo’s special brand of retributive justice — with interest.

Needless to say, the actions of this ultra-violent one-man clean-up crew don’t exactly sit well with The Drake and his boys, and that’s when out intrepid Hobo’s troubles really begin —

I don’t know how else to say it, people, but if you only see one movie this year, it should be Hobo With A Shotgun. While it doesn’t have the social conscience of Robert Rodriguez’s Machete, the first “real” movie to be based on a “fake” Grindhouse trailer, and certainly lacks its all-star cast (Hauer is, I guarantee, the only person in this flick you’ve ever heard of), it’s every bit as heartfelt and earnest an homage to the golden years of exploitation cinema, and maybe even more fun, precisely because it’s completely unburdened from trying to make anything like a relevant point whatsoever. Hobo With A Shotgun is here to party, and if you’ve got any sense whatsoever, you’ll join right in.

Lensed in the beautiful Halifax/Dartmouth area of Nova Scotia (a truly picturesque locale that I was fortunate enough to spend a few months in a handful of years ago and that takes a hell of a lot of work to look this shitty, believe you me — hats off to the production design team for their exemplary work here), Hobo With A Shotgun is a monumental achievement (no kidding) in the annals of Canadian independent cinema and deserves a wider audience than it’s probably going to get in limited release (Minneapolis residents take note — it opens at the Lagoon in a couple of weeks here, and we’re lucky, since it’s not getting much theatrical play beyond the two coasts) and on satellite and cable on-demand services (which is where I caught it since I couldn’t wait for it to hit town), and I can only hope that it’s eventual DVD and Blu-ray release will see this massive body-count revenge spectacular find a legion of appreciative fans. I’m proud to say that I was among the first in line. This is the real deal, folks, and if you’ve got the stomach for it, you’re sure to walk away from it wearing the most devious, shit-eating , flat-out unhinged grin you’ve had on your face in waaaaaayyyyy too long. Your friends and neighbors will question your sanity, sure, but they don’t matter and you don’t need them. You’ve got Hobo With A Shotgun. All is right with the world.

"Black Swan" Movie Poster

I’m just gonna come right out and say it — am I the only person who was just a little bit disappointed with this flick?

I know, I know — after Natalie Portman walking off with the best actress award at the Golden Globes last night this hardly puts me in the “popular opinion” camp. And I don’t want to slag her performance off in the least. She’s really solid as a hyper-competetive ballerina losing herself into the darker side of her starring role in “Swan Lake” and trying to hold onto her sanity as she explores a side to her nature she’s always kept under control. When she truly lets herself go and become the titular black swan, the resulting transformation from calm, cool, and collected to ferociously alluring is downright incredible . And so was everyone else in it, to be honest. Mila Kunis is terrific as her possiblly-looking-to-usurp-her “friend.” Vincent cassel is by turns understandably creepy and flat-out creepy as her boss at the ballet. Winona Ryder — who I didn’t even know was in the film — is great as the mentally-and-physically broken former lead dancer of the troupe. And Barbara Hershey turns in possibly the stongest performance in the entire film as Portman’s neurotic mother.

In addition, director Darren Aronofsky is back in top form here. After losing himself underneath heaping mountains of auteurism in The Fountain and then reigning in his strong visual and stylistic instincts a bit too much with The Wrestler, he really seems to have found his voice again here and turns in his best directorial effort since Requiem for a Dream. Aronofsky has a very real talent for bringing out the best in all his performers — always has — and that’s never been on display more grandly than it is here.

So why did I leave the theater feeling  a bit flat about the whole thing? Good question.

Maybe it’s just that my expectations had been pumped up so high — in fact, I’m sure that’s a big part of it, and it’s not fair in the least to judge Black Swan based on all the incredible buzz that’s been swirling around it. Hey, they can’t help it if people loved the movie and have been saying so at top volume. But mostly, I think, what left me feeling a little bit lukewarm to the proceedings was the fact that this type of story has been done before and, frankly, better.

Both Roman Polanski’s criminally-underrated The Tenant and, more recently, David Lynch’s Inland Empire dealt with similar subject matter — sure, in The Tenant the title character was “turning into” his dead predecessor in the apartment, aided and abetted (perhaps) by the other residents of the building, but the idea of losing oneself in another persona was the same. And with Inland Empire the parallels are even more striking, as Laura Dern and Justin Theroux literally find themselves becoming the characters they’re portraying in a film production.

So I guess my main “beef,” if you will, with Black Swan is that this isn’t particularly new thematic territory to be mining, and it’s following in the footsteps of some better — if less universally-lauded — work that concerned itself with largely the same type of thing.

I don’t want to give the wrong impression here — I definitely think this is a film most folks will enjoy the heck out of and that everyone should see. the striking performances alone are more than worth it. But if I could offer just one piece of advice, it would be this — temper your expectations a bit. There’s plenty to enjoy here, but there’s nothing actually new going on.

"Hatchet" Movie Poster

“Old School American Horror.”

Shit, that sounds good, doesn’t it? That’s what writer-director  Adam Green’s 2006 indie-horror mini-sensation Hatchet (which has now spawned a sequel that came and went in ultra-limited theatrical release pretty fast, but should be available on DVD in the hopefully-not-too-distant future) promises, and I’m pleased to say that it delivers.

Need some evidence? How about cameos from cult horror icons Robert Englund (as a backwoods redneck), Tony Todd (as a French Quarter witch doctor/tour guide), and Richard Riehle (as a loudmouth tourist/soon-to-be-victim)?

Not enough for ya? How about most people’s favorite Jason, Kane Hodder, as the slasher (or hatcheter) himself, Victor Crowley?

Shit, how about that name — Victor Crowley, that’s got “iconic horror character” written all of it, doesn’t it?

Shit, I can see you’re still not convinced.

How about a healthy serving of bare boobs (not all of which are that great)? How about a simple-ass plot about a dumped-and-heartbroken college schmuck name Ben (Joel Moore) who goes down to Mardi Gras to forget his troubles but can’t get his mind off his ex so he heads out on a guided “haunted bayou” tour with a buddy and ends up hearing about the Crowley legend — the story of a horribly deformed young boy who was protected by his father until the locals came to kill him and Victor’s dad, while trying to save him, accidentally puts a hatchet through his skull — only to find that the legend is real, Victor survived, and now he’s hunting down and killing anybody who comes into his neck of the woods (or, in this case, swamp)?

Still not enough? Dear God you people are tough to please.

Okay, how about awesome effects by none other than John Carl Buechler himself, who also puts in a cameo in the film?

How about a huge body count and gruesome-as-hell deaths?

How about a totally insane non-ending of an ending that rips off both the original Friday the 13th and the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre at the same time?

How about I shut the fuck and you see Hatchet for yourself and come back here later and tell me about how right I was?

Now that sounds like a plan! Hatchet is available in an unrated director’s cut on DVD from Anchor Bay and features a flawless anamorphic widescreen transfer, a terrific 5.1 surround audio mix, and a great commentary by writer-director Green and co-producer Scott Altomare that’s well worth a listen, among assorted other extras. It clocks in at right around 90 minutes just like you’d expect, and while it does nothing — and I do mean nothing — new, that’s sorta the point.

Hatchet isn’t about breaking new ground, defying convention, subverting audience expectations, redefining the slasher genre for a new generation of fans, or any of that shit. Hell, it’s not even trying to be particularly scary, and its tongue is planted firmly in its cheek pretty much the whole way through. It’s more funny than it is frightening, but it never loses sight of what it’s trying to achieve and retains an attitude of playful respect toward all the horror conventions it’s aping throughout.

Simply put,  this flick  is about one thing, and one thing only — delivering the goods. And damn if it doesn’t do that in spades.

Hatchet is the kind of movie that could only be made by hard-core 70s and 80s horror fans, and it’s only made for hard-core 70s and 80s horror fans. If you love Michael, Jason, Leatherface, and Freddy, rest assured you’re gonna love Victor Crowley and Hatchet — and it’s gonna love you right back.

"Life During Wartime" Movie Poster

So, anyway, Todd Solondz is back with a new film, and not too many people seem to care.

I caught his latest, Life During Wartime, a sorta-sequel/sorta-variation on his 1998 breakout hit Happiness,  at a Saturday matinee showing at the Uptown Theater here in Minneapolis, essentially indie film central of the upper midwest, the day after it opened — and there were exactly seven people in the auditorium, myself included.

Talking briefly with a couple of moviegoers after the show, they essentially had the same reaction I did — it wasn’t bad by any means, but we all felt, I dunno — kind of underwhelmed by the whole thing. Todd Solondz has grown up and learned to divorce himself from his characters a bit, but I think I preferred the less-analytical, more directly-involved (for good or bad) style of his previous efforts. Hold tight and all will (hopefully) be explained —

First off, if you haven’t seen Happiness, don’t bother with this at all. Solondz assumes the audience is all familiar with the characters,  even though each and every one is portrayed by a different actor than last time around (Solondz seems hooked on the idea of changing our perception of his characters based on changing who’s playing them, and uses those changes as a way of questioning the fundamental nature of identity itself — an interesting and challenging move, to be sure, but frankly one that he used to much better effect is his last (and for my money best) film, Palindromes, where the actress (and in one case actor) playing the lead role of Aviva changed several times within the film itself), and he doesn’t bother to really provide much of a point of entry for anyone late to the party.

Fair enough, I guess, it’s his call to make, but certainly the effect on any new viewer is going to be alienating to say the least. But given that alienation is a central  concern in all of Solondz’ work, maybe that’s intentional. It’s certainly carried over into his overall approach approach as a filmmaker.

And that’s where my main beef with Life During Wartime lies — in his previous efforts, Solondz has either treated his characters with outright disdain (Happiness, Storytelling) or something approaching a sort of genuine level of sympathy and human concern (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Palindromes). In this flick, though, he approaches his subjects with a kind of detached, almost journalistic eye that works decently enough in conjunction with the minimalist production design and straightforward scripting in creating a sort of bare-bones, take-it-or-leave-it environment for his characters to function in, but it never really directly involves the viewer in any sort of way with the events unfolding onscreen.

I’m assuming all of this is quite intentional on his part (Solondz is too talented to assume anything else), and furthermore I can see why he’s chosen to go down this road — as with Happiness, the themes he’s dealing with here are intensely painful and harrowing, and viewing them through a kind of cold, clinical lens produces a juxtaposition, and a tension, between storytelling style and subject that’s interesting, to be sure, but in the end not entirely rewarding.

It’s been a full decade since everything went to hell for the Jordan family in the first film, and the three sisters who were the focal point of the first film have moved on — eternally depressed optimist (I know that sounds like a contradiction, but it’s not) Joy (Shirley Henderson) has settled down and married former (or so she thinks) obscene phone caller Allen (Michael K. Williams), but things aren’t going so well and she’s haunted by visions of her ex-boyfriend who committed suicide, Andy (Paul Reubens —one of the truly great things about this film is seeing Pee Wee Herman himself back in action). Uptight-and-always-in-denial Trish (Allison Janney) has moved to Florida and told her kids that their pedophile father Bill, who’s actually due to be released from prison any day, was a  great and heroic sort of guy who died a tragic death.  She’s met an older guy named Harvey (Michael Lerner) whose staunch support for Israel and sexual — well, normalcy — have made her fall instantly in love with him. And uber-successful sister Trish (Ally Sheedy) has given up poetry for screenwriting, moved to Hollywood, cut off ties with her family, and started dating Keanu Reeves. Yes, really.

Things start to go south for the family pretty much from the word go, though — Joy (who gives this film its title with one her corny musical compositions, as was the case with Happiness) learns that Allen hasn’t been able to give up his X-rated prank call habit and flees to Florida, then Hollywood, hoping to find solace with her family (good luck with that). Cracks start to form in Trish’s carefully-constructed dam when her 12-year-old son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) learns the truth about his dad. Things only get worse when the old man gets out of  jail and seeks out his their eldest son,  Billy (Chris Marquette) at college. And Helen is — well, Helen, and essentially completely divorced from basic concepts of human empathy and understanding, wrapped up in a completely self-absorbed cocoon of pure selfishness.

At this point I may as well admit that I find some of the casting choices a little bit disappointing in relation to the earlier film — the sisters are all well-chosen, but Jon Lovitz was a lot more interesting as Andy than Reubens is (painful as it is for me to say that), Philip Seymour Hoffman was a much more memorable Allen than Williams is, Dylan Baker was a much more terrifyingly real Bill than the detached and damaged figure Hinds portrays, and geez, Renee Taylor as family matriarch Mona can’t hold a candle to Louise Lasser (the ladies’ father, played with his usual consummate professionalism in Happiness by Ben Gazzara, is missing and presumed dead).

I have no doubt that a lot of the differences between how the characters came across the last time around and how they come across here can be more than adequately rationalized as being a realistic portrayal of where they are in their lives now versus where they were then, and represent a natural evolution of the kid of people they would become given the events that have transpired in their lives. I’m cool with that. But that doesn’t mean the actors, and the director, necessarily chose the best way to try to make this phase of their respective stories as interesting as the last was.

Sure, each character’s “arc” (God how I hate that term) is interesting enough in and of itself, but again, Solondz’ detached approach never makes any of the various plotlines as genuinely involving as it could be, and that makes all the difference here. And I’ll state again, while I have no doubt this artistic decision was made quite deliberately, it still doesn’t make for as satisfying a viewing experience as we got the first time around.

I guess a lot of folks are going to say that our guy Todd has simply matured as a filmmaker, but it seems like some of the fire in his belly has gone out a bit. Happiness was as genuinely disturbing to this reviewer on first viewing as films like Salo and Cannibal Holocaust (and no animals — or humans — were harmed in the process), but Life During Wartime feels less like a sequel, or even a variation, and more like an addendum. It’s central theme of forgiveness for the unforgivable feels heavy-handed and frankly shoehorned in, as if to prove there was more of a point here than just saying “oh, by the way, here’s what happened to these people in case you were wondering.”

I don’t to bitch too much here, this is still a more interesting and challenging film than 99% of what’s out there. But given the high level at which Solondz set the bar with Happiness, it has to be said that his folow-up feels like something of a missed opportunity.

"Best Worst Movie" Poster

Ah, Troll 2. Where would we be without it? Still talking about Ed Wood’s films, I suppose.

Wait, we’re still talking Ed’s films, aren’t we? So I guess my point’s been scuttled. If I even had one. So I guess this review’s got something in common with Troll 2 right there.

But actually, this review isn’t even about Troll 2 at all — it’s about the new documentary that’s about the new king of bad cinema, Michael Stepehnson’s superb Best Worst Movie.

Stephenson himself ought to know a little bit about the subject — after all, he was one of the stars of Troll 2 itself, a wet-behind-the-ears child actor back in 1990 who landed his first cinematic role as Joshua Waits, the little by who sees visions of his dead grandpa warning him to stop his family from vacationing in the scenic hamlet of Nilbog.

Stephenson’s not our main point of entry into the peculiar cult universe that has developed around Troll 2, though — that honor belongs to George Hardy, more specifically Dr. George Hardy, an Alabama-born dentist who was trying to make his mark as a part-time actor in the Salt Lake City area back in the late 80s and early 90s and found himself cast as George Waits, Joshua’s dad.

For George, who now practices dentistry back home in ‘Bama, the Troll 2 phenomenon has given him a chance to be what he always wanted to be  — a star, albeit a star known only to a select group of — uhhhmmmm — initiates, I guess we’ll call them.

We follow Dr. George as he goes from convention to convention, screening to screening, reuniting as much of the cast as he can muster up along the way, and it has to be said, this guy never stops smiling. Even as he admits to the severe fatigue and burnout he’s suffering from having watched the one and only film he ever starred in dozens of times over the years, and having  recited his famous “you can’t piss on hospitality — I won’t allow it!” line probably thousands of times, Hardy just keeps on smiling. He’s both grateful for him accidental cinematic immortality and sick of it in equal measure. Perhaps the film’s most telling moment is when he admits to his desire to get off the convention circuit treadmill (and Best Worst Movie offers perhaps the most realistic appraisal of the drudgery offered up by that particular “lifestyle” that you can imagine) and then, a split second later, when asked if he would be willing to appear in a Troll 3 if it were ever made (and director Caludio Fragasso and screenwriting/producing partner Rossella Drudi are, in fact, in pre-production on it right now) he answers “absolutely.” Dr. George loves the limelight and genuinely loves entertaining people, and his enthusiasm for his (I use this term loosely) art shows through in every moment he’s on the screen, even at a UK convention where nobody’s heard of his film, or him, and frankly they don’t seem interested in finding out about either. When George talks about how his heart has always been in acting but his father pushed him into dentistry, your heart sort of breaks for the guy even though he’s certainly got a very comfortable life.

And there he is, Dr. George Hardy, delivering the line for which he'll always be remembered

For the rest of the Troll 2 cast, life hasn’t been quite so rosy. Don Packard, the genuinely goblin-esque general store owner in the film, has been in and out of mental hospitals his whole life (and was on a supervised leave program of some sort from one when he shot his scenes back in 1990). Robert Ormsby, who played dead Grandpa Seth, lives a quiet and apparently exceedingly lonely life in Salt Lake City. Margo Prey, who portrayed George’s wife, Diana Waits,  live with her ailing mother and obviously suffers from some mental health problems herself — she’s essentially a shut-in and is the only member of the cast to have eschewed all public appearances in conjunction with the movie so far — but George keeps trying!

As for the principals behind the camera, Fragasso still swears he made a great film that’s just misunderstood by the public and berates his cast at every turn for failing to deliver their lines accurately enough. The scene were they return to the original Utah filming locations and re-enact memorable moments from the film is absolutely priceless and conveys the sort of madness that can probably only happen when hot-tempered Italians try to shoot a super-low-budget horror flick in the heart of Mormon country. For her part, Drudi just sort of silently agrees with all her partner’s wild-eyed excoriations, probably figuring it’s the best way to avoid arguments.

The cult that’s formed around the film itself is explored pretty thoroughly here, as well — it never played theaters but was a mainstay on HBO’s late-night lineup back in the early 90s, back when they just needed to fill up airtime with movies whose rights didn’t cost much. Then it slowly caught on in VHS rental shops. Then the internet came along and everybody who had seen it and loved it began to realize they weren’t alone — and the rest, of course, is history. Now this product of Bizarro-World is right up there with The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Eraserhead at the top of the midnight movie pantheon.

Finally, for those who might be wondering whether or not you need to have actually seen Troll 2 in order to enjoy Best Worst Movie, I would say the answer is no — all the basics, like how it had nothing to do with the original Troll, how it was originally titled something else, etc. are pretty well-covered. I will say, though, that if you indeed haven’t seen it yet, after watching Stephenson’s film you’re going to want to. Right away. And that’s perhaps the highest compliment about Best Worst Movie that one can give. For my part, I went right from the 9:40 showing of this on a Friday night last weekend at the Lagoon theater here in Minneapolis to the midnight Troll 2 screening at the Uptown, just up the street, and had the best night at the movies I’ve had all summer, if not all year.

Now, if there’s any justice in the world, we’ll be hearing the name of Best Worst Movie announced on Oscar night, not as “best worst” anything, but as Best Documentary Feature. Needless to say I’m not holding my breath waiting for that to happen, but it definitely deserves it.

"Tony Manero" Movie Poster

First off the bat an item of trivia/housekeeping : I believe that out offering under discussion today,  Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s 2008 film Tony Manero is the first movie named after a character from another movie. But I could be wrong — and if anyone reading this knows of any other examples, I’d love to hear about them. I get the nagging feeling I’m missing something obvious, but then I think about it an honestly, nothing else springs to mind. So if you can prove your humble host to be incorrect about this, please do so!

And with that out of the way, let’s have a look at this profoundly disaffecting and alienating shot-on 16mm (and blown up to 35mm for theatrical release, resulting in a very apropos graininess throughout) slice of heartless, dare I say even soulless, indie sleaze from my sister-in-law’s home country.

Not that I mean any of that as criticism, mind you — this flick is supposed to be grimy, sleazy, disaffecting, and alienating, because that’s the psychic, and sociopolitical, landscape that its protagonist (and this character surely stretches the definition of that term to its limit) inhabits.

Alfredo Castro as Tony Mane --- errrr, Raul

Veteran Santiago-based stage actor Alfredo Castro (who also co-wrote the script along with director Larrain and Mateo Iribarren) portrays our central character here, a ruthlessly- sociopathic- yet-otherwise-completely-hollowed-out-shell named Raul Peralta, who makes his way in the world as a fifty-something dance troupe leader/small-time gigolo/smaller-time hood in Pinochet’s Chile circa 1978, and as the title suggests, he’s quite literally obsessed with the film Saturday Night Fever and, more specifically, John Travolta’s Tony Manero. He sees the movie alone in empty theaters on weekday afternoons. He mouths along to English dialogue he barely (if at all) understands. He practices Travolta’s dance moves in front of his mirror. He choreographs elaborate exact imitations of the movie’s disco scenes for his cadre of (all much younger than he) dancers to perform and permits no deviation or improvisation. He even owns a complete white suit-black shirt ensemble that’s an close to an exact replica of that worn by his idol as one can scrounge up in a country with a completely closed-off society and economy. But his Manero acts feels incomplete, and to that end he’s got two overarching goals he’s pursuing to achieve his dream of losing himself in the character forever and never coming back —

First, he wants to replicate the interior of the 2001 Club disco from the movie as closely as possible within the confines of his shared dance studio space/living quarters . He wants the mirrored disco ball hanging from the ceiling, the glass floor, the whole nine yards.  And secondly, he wants to win the “Chilean Tony Manero” look-alike/dance-alike contest being held on a popular lunchtime TV program. And being the true aficionado/creepy uberfan that he is, there are no lengths he isn’t willing to go, nor depths he isn’t willing to sink, to make these wishes into reality.

Hey, look, I liked that movie too, but sometimes you can carry things bit far

Raul’s not a remotely pleasant, remotely sympathetic, or even remotely involving character. He’s willing to kill an old woman for her color TV, and then swap that TV in for glass blocks for his dream floor. He’s willing to play off the affections of three separate women in and around the periphery of his dance troupe while giving no indication of remotely giving a shit about any of them. He’s willing to steal watches from dead bodies. And when one of his young dance proteges is thinking of entering the same TV Tony Manero contest as him he’s willing to — well, I won’t say it. He doesn’t kill him. But it’s damn ugly.

Simply put, this is a character that offers no point of entry for audience identification in the least. He’s cruel without necessarily even trying to be and doesn’t care about the results of his cruelty. He uses people for reasons any other human being would find completely pointless. He displays absolutely no emotional affect whatsoever, even when the shit is hitting the fan all around him. He’s become the kind of nameless, faceless, pitiless void one needs to be in order to survive on the low-rent fringes of the criminal underworld in a military dictatorship.  He doesn’t live, he just exists.

Larrain is obviously showing the kind of walking corpses that fascist rule reduce people to, but he’s also drawing some obvious prallels between Raul and General Pinochet himself. One is willing to subsume or overlook all else and all others in pursuit of empty, pointless small-time ambitions, while the other is essentially doing the same thing on a national scale. After all, does compassion-free single-mindedness make any more sense in pursuit of propping up a failing regime than it does in service of imitating a fictional god of disco?

If you squint your eyes really tighly, he sorta looks like Travolta --- on a bad day 30 years in the future

There are moments of black comedy interspersed throught here, such as when Raul shows up a week early to the TV studio and finds himself there on “Chilean Chuck Norris” day, and when the theater he’s accustomed to seeing Saturday Night Fever at suddenly starts running Grease instead, we see Raul undergo the closest thing anybody this completely closed-off can have to an existential crisis when he witnesses Travolta playing another character on film and he just can’t handle it (an act of blasphemy that will cost the elderly projectionist and his wife who runs the box office their lives)  but mainly it’s just black, and unforgivingly so. Nobody this side of George Romero and Tom Savini has ever constructed such a perfect cinematic zombie, and Castro doesn’t use make-up and effects to do it (although he’s not above dyeing his hair and breaking out the blowcomb to more fully ape the appearance of the object of his obsession).

When things get too heavy in the film’s final reel, though, and the secret police start to move on the other members of his dance ensemble, specifically his aforementioned youthful protege Goyo (Hector Morales) for subversive political activity, we see Raul’s disaffected ultra-alienation for what it is — sheer cowardice. Here is a guy literally unwilling , even downright unable, to give a shit about anything outside of the pathetic singular concern that he’s whittled the focus of his existence down to.

Castro has crafted a powerfully singular performance unlike anything else you’ve ever seen here, but it’s literally impossible to “get into” what his character is all about because, quite frankly, you’re not supposed to. He’s dead in the brain, heart, and soul and watching that brought to the screen so completely convincingly certainly results in an absolutely unique viewing experience, but in no way is it an enjoyable one. There’s nothing for the viewer to grab onto, or find common cause with, or even understand. Raul racks up a body count not because he wants to, per se, or even just simply because he can — he just does it because, well, he does.

"Tony Manero" DVD from Lorber Films

Tony Manero received mixed and frankly often perplexed reviews when it played at venues like Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival, and was greeted with the same  general “yeah, it was well done, but what the fuck was it all about?” attitude when it played its limited US  theatrical run last year. It’s now been released on DVD from Lorber films (who handled said limited US theatrical run, as well) in a bare-bones, extras-free package. For what it’s worth, I found it to be utterly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen, and while I can’t say I exactly liked it per se, or found the character it was focused on remotely comprehensible, I do wholeheartedly recommend it as a true one-of-a-kind viewing experience.

"Pontypool" Movie Poster

Zombie flicks. You either love ’em or you don’t. I certainly love ’em, and so do plenty of other folks, if the recent box-office success of movies like “Zombieland” and the “Resident Evil” series are any indication. But the best and most groundbreaking of the bunch in recent years has flown somewhat under the radar.

2008’s “Pontypool,” from visionary Canadian director Bruce McDonald (best known for his distinctly north-of-the-border-flavored road movies “Roadkill,” “Highway 61” and “Hard Core Logo”) is a distinctively atmospheric, oftentimes downright scary entry into the zombie canon that has the potential to redefine the entire genre in the same way that George Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead” did back in 1968 and Danny Boyle’s “28 Days Later” did over 30 years later. But first, enough people have to see it, because great art that exists in a vacuum is still great art, to be sure, but if it enters into the public consciousness, by word of mouth or other means,  even if we’re just talking about on the level of horror and more specifically zombie genre fans, then it has the power to be transformational. And if there’s one thing “Pontypool” does — and does very well — it’s to take the zombie movie in a bold new direction by opening up some seriously new and (therefore naturally) previously-unexplored territory for a genre that many folks feel has become a bit shopworn in recent years.

Oh, don’t get me wrong — in many respects, McDonald’s film is very much a traditional  low-budget walking-corpse story. The principal cast of characters is very small. The action, such as there is, take place in an enclosed location with our protagonists under siege from the spreading undead infection that surrounds them (essentially Romero’s stock-in-trade scenario for his first three “Dead” films). And (again like Romero) the zombie plague, and the reaction of the surviving humans to it, serve, at their core,  as  stand-ins  for the filmmaker to cast light on certain contemporary sociopolitical issues.

So what, then, can truly be said to be so new about “Pontypool”?

That’s where reviewing this film gets tricky. Because you can’t give away what’s new and different and altogether revitalizing (how’s that for an ironic choice of words when talking about a walking-dead movie?) about this film without giving away some major plot points and therefore trashing the element of surprise for any potential viewers that might be out there. Suffice to say that I’ll offer just a couple of clues : in one scene a copy of Neal Stephenson’s cult classic science fiction novel “Snow Crash” can be seen lying on a desk, and it’s no accident that I chose to open this review by saying that I hope strong word-of-mouth buzz among horror fans will get this film wider attention. And I’ll say no more than that.

Writer  Tony Burgess, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel “Pontypool Changes Everything,” has really hit on a novel approach for how the zombification virus is spread here that utterly redefines both how one can become a zombie, and what it means to even be one. Yes, of course, it’s still transmitted from one carrier to the next, but that’s where any similarity to the living dead of old ends.  Because with “Pontypool,” all notions of how it’s spread, and for that matter why (the implications — and that’s all they are, implications — of who might be ultimately responsible for the origins of this particular plague are truly chilling) are completely blown out the window.

Radio shock-jock Grant Mazzy (veteran Canadian actor Stephen McHattie, best known to American and international audiences as Hollis Mason, the first Night Owl, in “Watchmen”) has gotten himself sacked from his (unspecified) major-market gig over a Don Imus-type brouhaha (again, the specifics are unspecified) and has found work in the only place he can, as the morning show host for an AM station that broadcasts out of a church in the small town of Pontypool, Ontario ( I looked it up and it’s a real place). How much of a comedown is this for our guy Grant? Well, the “eye in the sky” traffic commute reporter in Pontypool phones in his reports from his car that’s parked on top of the biggest hill in town and plays helicopter sound effects in the background, and the biggest local news story is an old woman’s missing cat (the name of which will have significance later).

Stephen McHattie as Grant Mazzy

With Grant in the studio are his producer, Sydney Briar (McHattie’s real-life wife, actress Lisa Houle), and his technician, a recently-returned Afghan war vet  named  Laurel-Ann Drummond (Georgina Reilly). That’s about it for the main cast of characters, apart from the town doctor who plays a part later.

What begins as a day not unlike any other quickly turns strange, however, when Grant begins to get phoned-in reports about a mob of crazed people converging on said town doctor’s office. Then more reports start to come in about large groups of people acting strangely and attacking random folks in the city, in the woods, and on the highways. Some of the reports, such as one about a car carrying a family being literally buried under a herd — that term is used specifically — of people are so bizarre (and so much more effective when heard and not seen —  showing anything like that on this film’s budget would have resulted in yet another cheap CGI spectacle, and we’ve had more than enough of those in more than enough other movies) that Grant and his cohorts don’t know whether or not they’re being played for fools in some sort of massive, town-wide hoax. When an in-studio guest starts behaving strangely, though, they know something’s up.

Soon the BBC is calling. More and more truly unbelievable reports are coming in. And it’s soon quite obvious that this cold and snowy late-winter morning has brought something entirely new and dreadful to the sleepy hamlet of Pontypool. When one of their own, Laurel-Ann, begins to transform, all pretense (or hope) that it might be some sick and elaborate joke is gone.

Laurel-Ann's had better days

When the full-scale zombie siege of the studio finally begins in earnest, our protagonists are still trying to figure out, on the fly, how it can possibly be stopped, so flabbergasted ( and, for that matter, only partially informed)  are they as to the nature of the infection and it’s mode of transmission.  It’s pretty damn tough to figure out how to stop something if you barely understand how it works and find it hard to believe what little you do know.

Throughout the film, the claustrophobic studio setting and incredibly small cast of characters really works in terms of presenting the us-vs.-them, inside world-vs.-outside world, “bunker mentality” sense of atmospherics so essential to this story’s success. Sure, it’s indicative of a very tight budget, but it’s also indicative of how said tight budget can really be harnessed to the story’s advantage. Less is indeed more.

And speaking of less and more, now would be the time to point out that gorehounds are sure to be disappointed here. The level of blood and guts on display is pretty damn low, but that only makes it all the more shocking and disturbing when the violence really does start to hit home. Have no fear, though — even though the gross FX quotient here is pretty low,what few there  are really are  quite effectively staged and presented. That being said, though, the majority of the horror is “Pontypool” is psychological, and in the best horror tradition, what’s not shown is much scarier than what is, allowing the viewer to imagine in his or her own mind the unfolding terror taking place outside the studio walls — and threatening, of course, to get in.

A major hit at the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival, “Pontypool” nonetheless received scant theatrical distribution. It played some in Canada and on a small handful of  art-house screens in major US markets and got some play at various horror conventions and independent film festivals, but that was about it.

Now, the good folks at IFC (Independent Film Channel), which handled the distribution rights, have hit us with a one-two “Pontypool” punch : it’s just been released on DVD, and is also playing on IFC On Demand on cable TV. The DVD looks and sounds great, with crisp, clear 16:9 letterboxed picture (as if it wouldn’t, it’s essentially a brand new film) and top-notch 5.1 Surround sound mix. A commentary track featuring McDonald and Burgess is included (the good news from it — they’re planning two sequels!), there’s a selection of independent Canadian short films, the theatrical trailer is thrown in, and best of all there’s also the full-length original CBC radio drama (presented along with corresponding  stills from the film to make it easier to follow the audio action) that McDonald and Burgess developed before the full movie project was green-lighted.

They want in!

“Pontypool” isn’t just the best zombie film of the year (and I say this as someone who absolutely loved “Zombieland,” although it’s technically true that this was a 2008 production and that was 2009), it’s the best zombie film in many years. Entertainment Weekly has already declared it one of the 25 best of all time in the genre. And while I’m usually not one to agree with any statement found in any gossipy Hollywood rag, much less one that features a regular column by Diablo Cody, in this case they’re absolutely right. Hell, I’d go so far as to say it’s top 10 material.

So see it already.

Oh, and spread the word — it’s the only thematically appropriate response. That’s as close to a hint as I dare to get.

"Story Of A Junkie" Movie Poster

 There are words and phrases that you think you have a true understanding of, but you don’t. And I would submit that one of those phrases is “gritty urban realism.”  You might think you know all about it because you’ve read some books, or seen some films, that were gritty, urban, and realistic. But you don’t have any clue what “gritty urban realism” means unless or until you see Lech Kowalski’s “Story of a Junkie.” Then you become an expert on the subject in my book. And isn’t that what you’re absolutely dying to be?

No? Well, who asked you, anyway? Oh yeah. I  did. Time to get this circular imaginary conversation out of the way and move into the review phase of this — uhhmmmm — review, which is, I guess, sort of where I started, before I got sidetracked by — myself. “Story of a Junkie,” Christ — I sound like a junkie right about now.

Let’s get one thing straight right from the outset : “Story of a Junkie” is NOT a documentary. It’s far too realistic to be.

Shot in 1984 on the streets of New York’s Lower East Side (a.k.a. “Alphabet City”), this film follows the life of  Gringo, a desperate heroin addict, and those in his immediate orbit.  Gringo is portrayed by John Spacely, who is not an actor. He’s a real-life junkie. The stories he relates to the camera are not scripted, they’re real. The supporting cast are also real junkies, and the activities they undertake — scoring, shooting up, the whole works — are not staged, they’re real.

But I repeat, this is NOT a documentary film.

Oh, sure — the movie’s director, Lech Kowalski, is best known for punk rock documentaries like “D.O.A.,” “Born To Lose” and “Hey! Is Dee Dee Home?,” but “Story of a Junkie” is more like cinema verite, in that it combines actual interviews and footage of actual drug addicts with re-enactments of stories from Spacely’s life, not unlike what you find on all the true crime shows that litter the cable TV lineup, with the crucial difference here being that these re-enacted scenes do not feature (semi-) professional actors, but real Lower East Siders involved in the drug culture.

As such, it’s much more immediate, visceral, and powerful than any straight-ahead documentary could possibly be.

To be sure, the film has no “plot” per se, it’s entirely ad-libbed. And again, all the scenes depicted are real, as are the people and the locations. When a room full of junkies are shown injecting themselves in a shooting gallery, that’s EXACTLY what’s happening — a room full of junkies are injecting themselves in a shooting gallery. But when a dealer is gunned down in the streets, it’s obviously not a real murder that’s being filmed — but the raw and unvarnished nature of the film’s surroundings certainly gives it the air of absolute authenticity.

So “Story of  a Junkie” isn’t just a REPRESENTATION of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s, it’s a  RECORD of Lower East Side junkie life in the early 80s. Even if it’s not a documentary. Which is the last I’ll say about that, I promise.

John Spacely as Gringo --- essentially, himself

Forget “Trainspotting”  — Kowalski’s film is, without question, the most jaw-dropping, gut-punching, absolutely spot-on account of the addicted life ever committed to film, because it IS the addicted life committed to film.

Some of the shit that comes from Spacely’s mouth will have you hitting the rewind button just to make sure you heard it right. He talks about how he was raised by a normal, loving family in Southern California, but lost his way in life when his steady girlfriend was hit by a truck and killed. She was pregnant once, and when she miscarried he threw the fetus in the trash because it was “nothing but a big period anyway.” He lost his eye in a fight with some drag queens. After another fight, he had to have a large slice of meat amputated from his body, When the doctors wouldn’t give it back to him, he stole it and snuck out of the hospital. He’s a nonviolent anarchist who years for another war in order to “awaken the consciousness of the youth.”

In short, he’s a mass of contradictions, but I don’t know what else you’d really expect from a guy in his condition.

There’s no comfortable distance between viewer and subject in this film. You’re plunged headfirst into Gringo’s world and there’s no “narrative” per se to follow — you’re as lost as he is. To the extent that any sort of linear “storytelling” is involved here, it comes pretty late in the game : through a set of circumstances typical, I’m sure, to junkie life, Gringo is separated from his beloved skateboard, and at the very end he gets it back. That’s about as close to a “storyline” as you’re going to find here. Mostly we just follow Gringo around, with plenty of interview asides with those he comes into contact with or even just people who happen to be around.

Given that this part of New York has now been gentrified beyond all recognition (along with, sadly, Times Square and other former shitholes), this flick is truly a historical record, not just of a time that no longer exists, but of a place that, for all intents and purposes, doesn’t either.

“Story of a Junkie” took some time to cobble into shape once all the footage was shot, and played some festival screenings and the like before finally getting picked up for proper (albeit limited) release by Troma, of all people, in 1987, and along with the similarly (mostly) harrowingly realistic “Combat Shock,” it remains one of the absolute best films ever to go out under their moniker. They’ve put out a great DVD release for it featuring a digitally remastered (but still appropriately grungy) print presented in full-frame,   a terrific commentary track by Kowalski (this film is actually even more interesting with the commentary on than without), an interview with executive producer Ann Barish (wife of the founder of the Planet Hollywood restaurant chain) that’s genuinely both interesting and informative, and the usual Troma-centric extras including and introduction from Lloyd Kaufman and a Kaufman-directed music video for the death metal band Entombed.

"Story of a Junkie" DVD from Troma

Plenty of films (most notably the aforementioned “Trainspotting”) show you what a junkie’s life is LIKE — this one shows you what a junkie’s life IS. Not to be missed under any circumstances.

John Spacely died of AIDS at some point in the early 90s. The times, the places, the people depicted here are all gone. But heroin’s still around, and still doing ( in concert with its evil twin, the “War on Drugs”) exactly what it did to the people in this film. The problem’s moved from the inner city shooting galleries to suburban schools and bedrooms. Everyone seems to be resting easier with it safely out of sight,  but the fact that it’s now largely out of mind, too — well, that’s something that ought to concern us all.  The locales and the people involved may have changed, but the problem remains, and whether viewed as cautionary tale, historical record, or some combination of both, “Story of a Junkie” is the most no-bullshit account of it you’re ever going to come across. Even if it’s still not a documentary.

Whoops, I said I wouldn’t bring that up again, didn’t I?

"Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans" Movie Poster

I know what you’re thinking. You’re outraged. Disgusted. Maybe even mortified if you’re especially sensitive, at the very least perplexed if you’re not. What kind of a human being would incorporate a play on words about the tragic flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the title of his post? I mean, that’s just beyond tasteless, right?

Yes, it is. And yes, you should be royally pissed at me right now. That’s intentional. You see, I want you to stop reading this review. I want you to shut your computer off. Hell, if you’re not winning the lottery or getting it on with the woman (or man, as the case may be) of your dreams right now, I think you need to stop what you’re doing. You need to stop what you’re doing, get in your car, on the train, on the bus, on your feet, whatever — and get down to the theater and see “Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans.” It’s just that good. Whatever else you’ve got going on can wait. In fact, I’ll even helpfully stop the review right here so you can get back to it after you return.

Long pause.

Followed by another long pause.

And another.

Then a final, really long one.

Okay, back? Good, welcome back.  Great stuff, wasn’t it? Now let’s continue, shall we?

No, Nicolas Cage and Eva Mendes have not just read the script for "Ghost Rider 2," despite appearances

I’m a lot like you, dear reader. When I first heard that independent film legend Werner Herzog was working on a “reimagining” of Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” my first reaction was “why?” I mean, it’s not like it’s a movie that necessarily has “remake” or “sequel” written all over it. Like most of Ferrara’s stuff, it’s a pretty singular work that doesn’t exactly scream out for a fresh set of eyes to reinterpret it. And Harvey Keitel’s performance — I mean, shit, how are you gonna top that? Hell, how are you gonna even come close to equaling it? Why try? What’s the point?

Well, there wouldn’t be any point. And Herzog knows that. And to his credit, he doesn’t even try to go that route. This new “Bad Lieutenant” only tangentially relates to the first in that it explores the same theme of a monumentally crooked and sleazy cop trying to crack a big case in the midst of a tremendous, and entirely self-inflicted, downward spiral in his life.  Apart from that, the two have nothing to do with each other. Gone are the obsessive visual and thematic references to Catholic iconography and catechism. The setting has been transposed from New York to a just post-Katrina New Orleans (well, technically the first scene takes place as the flood waters are rising, then we jump ahead six months,  into the city’s  “rebuilding” — and Dear Lord do I use that term loosely — period). Hell, even the main character has a different name, different set of life circumstances, different everything. In truth, the only reason I think Herzog stuck with the title is because otherwise audiences would have come out of the theater saying “you know, that one kinda reminded me of  ‘Bad Lieutenant'” — so by invoking the original so plainly he’s able to, at the very least ironically if not downright perversely, have this film taken as a more stand-alone work than if he had just called it something. File that under “go figure.” (And file this under “go figure,” as well — and probably of interest to absolute obsessives (who? me?) only (and it shouldn’t even be to us) — the title of this film in all the posters and other advertising is listed as “Bad Lieuteanant : Port of Call New Orleans,” while the opening credits read “The Bad Lieutenant Port Of Call : New Orleans.”)

The next thin your reviewer found a bit suspect in the pre-production stages, after wondering just why Herzog was even making this thing at all, was the casting of Nicolas Cage in the lead. Cage is a bit of an enigma, isn’t he? I mean, here’s a guy capable of delivering mind-blowingly good, once-in-a-generation performances in films like “Leaving Las Vegas,” “Lord of War” and “The Weatherman,” yet also of absolutely mailing it in, so to speak, in drivel like “Next” or the atrocious remake of “The Wicker Man.” In between the two poles we have his numerous stints as, either literally or essentially, a second-rate Elvis impersonator.

Needless to say, the end result on display here proves my worried were entirely groundless, as the best always are. Cage is in absolute top form here, giving arguably the very best performance of his entire career. He’s wiry, main, and absolutely seething with, to quote my own headline, visceral intensity. He doesn’t sweat whether or not he’s sometimes so frightfully over the top that his performance reaches caricature-like levels — hell no, instead of tiptoeing up to that metaphorical line in the sand, he rubs and smears it out with his shoe and stomps all over the spot where it used to be just for good measure. He’s absolutely fucking gone as  drugged-up, degenerate gambler (and, oh yes, cop) Terence McDonagh, and he doesn’t look back. Keep up with him if you can.

And herein lies another crucial difference between the two “Bad Lieutenant”s. In Ferrara’s version, Keitel is just completely foul. He’s not what you’d call charismatic or engaging in the least (not that I’m saying this is a bad thing, it’s exactly the type of performance that was absolutely required in the “first” film). He’s already lost. The central thematic question in the “original”, therefore, is whether or not a guy who’s absolutely beyond all hope of redemption can still find it, if not earn it, by bringing to justice the scumbags who brutally gang-rape a nun. And frankly, whether or not he even should since she’s already forgiven them herself. It’s taking place on an entirely different psychological playing field than Herzog’s film, because in this there is still some, God help me for thinking this but it’s true, likable insanity in Cage’s character. He’s got dangerous, maybe even death wish-style reckless charisma oozing out of him on a goddamn cellular level. In that respect, one could argue that this new “Bad Lieutenant” is somewhat more accessible than Ferrara’s version, because McDonagh still has enough (barely) on the ball to pull himself out of his living nightmare if he really wants to. But damn, with lines like ” I thought it was coke but it turned out to be heroin and I gotta be at work in an hour,” and “Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!” you gotta wonder if he isn’t enjoying his ride to hell waaaayyyy too fucking much to stop the ride.

And that’s the brilliance (and I loathe the unearned overuse of that word way more than you can possibly imagine) of Cage’s performance here in a nutshell : he’s a coiled snake that you know will strike at any moment, and you can’t decide whether you’re dreading that or looking forward to it. Then you realize you’re doing both.

"Shoot him again! His soul is still dancing!"

The nominal plot of the film itself concerns Cage’s investigation of a brutal execution-style murder of a family of Senegalese immigrants, but as with Ferrara’s earlier effort, Herzog here concentrates far more on the backdrop this story plays out in front of (or, more accurately given the focus here, behind) — that of McDonagh’s exhilarating and dreadful descent into madness. Our guy Terry does everything a bad cop oughtta do : shakes down suspects for cash and drugs, gets in gambling debt up his eyeballs, rips shit off from the police property room, smokes crack, snorts coke, drinks booze, skips out of town, runs a thoroughly crooked investigation, helps the bad guys, screws around on his girlfriend (who’s a hooker herself, played by Cindy Craw—err, Eva Mendes), and worse. And while he doesn’t consistently engage in the type of outright abusively soulless depravity that Keitel did in the “original,” he pulls off one stunt so hopelessly fucked-up-beyond-all-reason that even old Harvey would probably blush.

The decision to set the story in the ravaged post-Katrina Big Easy really pays dividends, as well. Not only is it thematically appropriate on a pretentious “film scholar” asshole level (rising metaphorical flood threatens to swallow main character ), but the overall atmosphere of a decimated Third World-style “law enforcement” operation (although from what I understand the New Orleans cops weren’t exactly famous for honesty and integrity pre-flood, either) gives ample narrative “breathing space”  (did I just badmouth pretentious “film scholar” assholes a minute ago? I should have read ahead to the point where I sounded just like one — except I hadn’t written it yet. But I digress — as regular readers of this blog, if any such creatures exist,  know I so often do) to the idea of a situation where a guy like McDonagh could actually get away with some of this shit. On a purely aesthetic level, I’ve gotta congratulate Herzog, as well, for his decision to shoot this movie on an apparently cheaper grade of film stock than normal. It gives the whole flick an added level of immediacy and realism that a slicker overall appearance just couldn’t maintain. It’s a grimy story about a grimy guy shot in a way that looks grimy. Well played, Werner.

The rest of the cast holds up pretty well, too. While I’m sure nobody was dying to see a reunion of the principal players in “Ghost Rider,” Mendes does a nice turn as McDonagh’s high-priced hooker/junkie girlfriend, Frankie, Cage’s fellow Elvis-worshiper Val Kilmer is solid as his almost-as-crooked-as-he-is onetime parner, now subordinate, Stevie, the always-underappreciated Vondie Curtis-Hall turns in a seasoned pro’s performance as McDonagh’s commanding officer, rapper Xzibit is seriously bad-ass awesome as crime boss “Big Fate,” the (again always) underappreciated Brad Dourif turns in another dead-on perfect (because he always is) portrayal, in this case as McDonagh’s understandably impatient small-time bookie Ned, solid vet Tom Bower puts in  a solid vet turn as Terance’s ex-cop, ex-alcoholic father, Pat, and the (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) always underapp—forget it, I won’t even go there, I’ll just say Jennifer Coolidge has deserved a best supporting actress Oscar a couple of times now (and no, I’m not talking about her turn as Stifler’s Mom, although she sure is a million miles away from MILF territory in this movie — truth be told, I was thinking specifically of her roles in the various Christopher Guest-helmed ensemble/improv comedies, particularly “Best In Show”) and she’s an absolute scene-stealer here as Pat’s still-alcoholic second wife, Genevieve.

The two best Elvises (or is that Elvii?) since The King himself? Kilmer and Cage in "Bad Lieutenant : Port Of Call New Orleans"

So what we’ve got here, folks, is essentially the ultimate “bad cop” movie, and quite likely the best film of the year, period. It’s certainly going to take one hell of an effort to top it. Even Herzog’s usual, and frankly in other films sometimes jarring, asides into purely interpretative realms of surrealism (just what are the giant iguanas about? Each viewer will probably have a different explanation) work here since by the time he goes there, he’s already established such a forceful groove (do those two words seem incompatible together? I assure you they’re not) that you’re just willing to go with his frantically rushing flow.

And that’s it. I’m all out of praise to lavish on this movie. It grabs you from the word go and never lets up. It’s absolutely exhiliratingly debauched and I loved the hell out of it. All I can do at this point is tell you one more time  to rush right out and see it. But there’s no need for that because you already have. Right?

"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.