Review: On the Rocks (2017)

“He’s a blue chip prospect!”

Do you have it in you to watch a man’s life fall apart, bit by painful bit? Do you have it in you to laugh?

Most known to me for their incredible web-series Kill The Baby, Alex Kavutskiy & Ariel Gardner’s micro-budget feature debut On the Rocks is a bravura exercise in sustained discomfort, hilarious and tragic in equal measure.

Chase Fein plays Dallas – a hangdog palooka with a kind heart and a recently deceased father. We follow him as he attempts to find stability and peace following this confrontation with mortality. Unfortunately, his girlfriend Karen (Nichole Bagby) is an insecure wreck, her older sister (Kate Freund) is an angrily supportive echo chamber, and her younger sister needs a place to live. Plus, his boss is an asshole, his AA meetings have given him a lonely crush, he doesn’t have a bed, his car won’t start, and his new house smells like his dead dad.

Over the course of an hour and a half, Kavutskiy and Gardner’s film systematically breaks down Dallas, pushing him from the only sane one in a room of lunatics to a self-destructive alcoholic just as worthy of his friends and family as they are of him. Shot in escalating long takes to the tunes of chaotic jazz, the writers/directors take the overlapping cacophonies that defined Altman’s work and twists them to new, hilariously bitter heights. Fein is delightful in the lead, his broken-down charisma grounding the film around him, but its his co-stars that get most of the laughs. Freund, in particular, has a blast playing the step-sister from hell, and Bagby maintains a ridiculous petulance that eventually gives way to something powerfully sad. While this descent into hell is consistently mean-spirited (in the funniest way possible), it’s the poignancy around the edges that give On the Rocks its staying power. By the end, when Dallas has been definitively broken by an actively shitty world, the only thing he has left are the people around him. Now, those people may have burned him, destroyed him in some respects – but they also care for him, they always come back to him somehow. The people are what matters. Of course that’s simple, but that simplicity feels like a blessing compared to the swirling hell that surrounds the message. When life is so unbearably confusing, something cliche can take you a long way.

“I don’t know what to say. It’s tough. Good luck to both of you.”

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Review: The Love Butcher (1975)

“No one loves a cripple!”

Erik Stern holds this together in the dual role of Caleb and Lester, the split personalities of a creepy gardener; the former a relatively harmless simpleton with a hunchback, the latter a suave misogynistic killer with a sweet toupee. Stern makes both personalities completely distinct without losing the connection between the two, and he manages to make conversations with himself resolutely compelling. He’s relentlessly threatening, but also the major source of levity in this greasy bastard.

The film surrounding his bravura performance is a mess of police procedural and stomach churning misogynistic mayhem. Unlike Donald Jones later Murderlust, The Love Butcher is gory and over the top, the hateful actions and words presented much harder to swallow because they are presented with such glee. In the world of The Love Butcher, hate is the closest thing any of these men have to affection, and every single one of them justifies their actions by a past sin of a woman. It’s really upsetting stuff, but, for a while, it’s also a really fun slasher, full of maniacal speeches and piles of bodies. The tone gradually shifts from semi-comedic to maliciously disturbing, and that shift isn’t completely successful.

But when you’ve got such delectably insane monologuing like “Your feminine pulchritude is detestable, and you were trying to drain the energy from me!”, it’s hard not to have a little uncomfortable fun.

Review: Raw (2017)

Rather than the gore-endurance test the marketing suggests, Raw shows its hand early as a startlingly intimate coming-of-age story centred around a complicated sororal relationship that is spiced up considerably by Julia Ducournau’s delightful gallows humour. The most upsetting moments in the film are not the moments of cannibalism (which are generally just hilarious), but the emotional pain inflicted through the semi-incestuous rivalry at the heart of the picture. Raw is about one woman trying to balance what it means to be a mature human person and what it means to be a mature human animal – and it’s also about her sister, trying and failing to be a teacher.

I mean, this was basically made for me, the tone is exactly my bag, and I guffawed multiple times in the theatre, especially when cued by the guttural, heavy metal organ soundtrack. Ducourneau has an eye for detail and character (she’s willing to go on these little amazing narrative detours just to add a flavourful side character, like a sassy old man with dentures), and this is a hell of a debut.

After the screening I saw, there was a brief discussion with a few female critics, and the best thing that came out of it was when one of the critics (whose first name I remember but of which I will refuse to butcher the spelling) said, “Heteronormativity is the true monster.” And the whole audience started hooting and hollering.

Review: Murderlust (1985)

The quotidian misogynist.

Thoroughly pleased by its ability to create consistent discomfort, Murderlust finds great power in following its fucked-up protagonist in extreme, banal detail.

Our main man is a Sunday school teacher and security guard who moonlights as an explicitly misogynistic serial killer. We are not privy to the origin of his hatred, all we are given is the procedure to every aspect of his life. We follow our moustachioed asshole as he attempts to pay rent, as he rises up in the church, as he tries to go on dates, as he just lounges around his apartment. All the while, he contemplates killing the women he finds so dire. Murderlust is not gory, it’s not particularly exciting, but it is compellingly tedious. By bathing us in the whole existence of this self-loathing killer, director Donald M. Jones is able to acclimate us to his worldview, the true boredom that permeates every aspect of his life; when the murders finally do occur, they become cathartic, for him and the audience – finally something of interest.

And that’s the rub, the true power of this film. Jones forces us to empathise with this psycho, if only on a very primal level, partially created by our expectations of horror movies. Truly sickening shit that made me feel dirty.

Well worth a watch.

Review: Pigs (1972)

“It seems as though dead people don’t have any civil rights at all!”

Surprisingly thoughtful (if obviously problematic and gross) exploration of community and family dynamics, rather than the admittedly awesome man-eating pig movie I assumed I was getting into based on its poster.

Opens with our protagonist, Lynn (played by Toni Lawrence) being molested by her father before killing the old bastard. After escaping a mental hospital, she ends up living with an aged diner owner (Director/Writer Marc Lawrence) who – gasp – feeds the dead to his pigs. Instead of the terror coming from that dynamic, however, the two soon form a symbiotic bond, as her trauma-induced murders are protected by the old man’s body disposal techniques.

In its own strange way, Pigs (or Daddy’s Deadly Darling, the original and more accurate title) is trying to understand father-daughter relationships. What is expected from each side, and how the world views the often disturbing implication of close ones. Lawrence is aided immeasurably by the fact that he is playing opposite his actual daughter, and they truly do share a familial intimacy that helps us buy into their bond.

Unfortunately (well, for society, this makes it interesting for me), Lawrence’s thematic ideals are undercut by Lynn’s characterisation as a castrating lunatic who is beyond help, creating a gender dynamic that always shifts the blame slightly towards her. Also, while Lawrence often shoots this under the cover of expressionistic darkness, much of the light shots and scenes are goofy as hell, seemingly due (at least in part) to an outmatched budget.

Still, that goofiness has its charms – what other movie about sexual abuse and man eating pigs has its own theme song?

Review: Kinski Paganini (1989)

Klaus Kinski was a crazy person. Sure, his Wikipedia page opens by stating that he was German actor known for his work with acclaimed director Werner Herzog, but, mostly, he was a maniac. Find any video of him on Youtube, and you will find this old bastard screaming his head off, at anyone, for anything. He believed in his prowess as an actor so greatly it entailed a degree of danger; any challenge to his skill or himself was met with anything from a fistfight to a gunshot. He was a bad man.

He was also a genius.

Kinski’s directorial debut (and last film before his death) is an indulgent, disgusting, and maddening autobiography under the guise of a biography. It is also, despite its many frustrations, masterful – cinema at its most unhinged and visual. Against the odds, it becomes a poignant statement on the life of its main actor, who may have been an evil lunatic, but who was also one of the greats.

Kinski Paganini is a mess. Kinski initially offered Herzog his script, but Herzog declined, calling it “un-filmable.” So Kinski decided to direct it himself. When his producers saw the final cut, they panicked and cut it to shreds. Kinski’s director’s cut was eventually released to the public on this DVD, but it looks terrible. The theatrical version – though an impossible and failed attempt to bring sanity to Kinski’s madness – looks gorgeous. Kinski’s version, however, was never restored, making much of the naturally lit film near-unwatchable. Despite its hellish transfer, tracking down this versione originale is worth it, if only to understand the full majesty of Kinski’s ambition.

And Kinski is nothing if not ambitious here. Ostensibly a biography of famed violinist Niccolo Paganini – a notoriously lecherous violinist who was so musically talented that he was accused of possession – Kinski Paganini instead acts as a prismatic dive into the writer/director/star’s broken mind. The film consists primarily of montages, intercutting Paganini playing his instrument with him having occasionally un-simulated sex with scores of women. In voiceover, “Paganini” acknowledges his ugliness before confessing that his virtuosic playing still sends women into orgiastic desire for him. Eventually, our “hero” begins to die, and his son becomes his only companion; but those things don’t occur until very late in the film, essentially acting as a sad epilogue. Most of the film plays out thusly: Paganini plays, women masturbate; Paganini plays, women fuck Paganini; Paganini walks ominously through a town square, his son cries; Paganini plays, women beg for his member; Paganini grows sick, he plays to grow well again; and so on.

There is only the hint of a story here, barely any arcs. Kinski is attempting to mirror the swirling memories of a dying man, and that non-narrative approach produces a fractured, impressionistic work that never lets up. Despite its pretentions, it finds a way to sneak staggering emotion into its heart. The climactic sequence, in particular, found me tearing up despite my rational annoyance at it. Kinski forced me to feel sadness for him (and his character), almost against my wishes.

Which leads me to a perhaps unsettling thought, which I will preface by saying that I do not condone any of Kinski’s behaviour, on or off film sets. Now, having said that …

Maybe Kinski was onto something.

Klaus Kinski clearly believed himself to be an artistic messiah. He believed himself worthy of all the pain he took and inflicted. In his mind, he was a great, and his belief in himself lead to persecution and glory in equal measure. It’s easy to see how Kinski saw himself in Paganini, and it’s surprising how much power he finds in the comparison.

That previous paragraph was hard to write. It makes me a little sick to give into the ego of a man who thinks it necessary to show himself engage in un-simulated sex in a film about his greatness – and that’s to say nothing of his personal life, and the alleged sexual abuse he engaged in with his children.

Again, I do not think that Klaus Kinski was a good man. I do not want to celebrate this film.

And yet, my rational protestations of praising Kinski’s cinematic id were unable to fight the waves of poignancy that arose from watching it. I wanted to dislike this, I wanted to hate it – but instead I found it strangely beautiful.

It’s tough be apolitical when consuming art. When everything is rife with systemic abuse, it’s hard to see Casey Affleck’s Oscar win as indicative of anything but a sexist system. It’s hard to believe that Woody Allen can say what he said at Cannes a couple years ago about his wife and still get actors to work with him. It’s hard to accept that Roman Polanski is still making films despite the fact that he is literally a runaway statutory rapist.

It’s a struggle, which itself seems strange. Morally, shouldn’t these men be put away, left to die away from the arts? Why, beyond the aforementioned systemic rot, is the separation between art and artist even a conversation?

I ask these questions, and I don’t have anything better to say than this: art is powerful. Art can transcend its origins and work magic on an audience, for better or worse. Sometimes horror creates beauty, and sometimes that beauty can be stronger than the horror ever was. In a perfect world, of course, we wouldn’t allow any of the awful stuff to happen in the first place. But it’s not a perfect world, it’s a broken one, and, if we fail to stop the horror, it makes sense to embrace any wonder that comes out of it.

Kinski Paganini is an ethically dubious proposition to endorse, but it understands the relationship between art and life in a way that I think is important to spread. I think promoting that message is a damn fine way to find something good in Kinski’s legacy, rather than just wallowing in the misery of the rest of him.

Remember hell, but look to heaven.

Review: Police Beat (2005)

“Your tree is dead, and if it’s not chopped down, it will continue to disturb and harm the living.”

Robinson Devor continues to convince me that the commercial failure of his sublime The Woman Chaser essentially robbed cinema of one of its great impressionists, pushing Devor deep into the underground where few can find him. His three features – this, the aforementioned Willeford adaptation, and his gorgeous zoophilia documentary Zoo – show an incredible ability to find the resolutely human in the absurd, something that brings depth to even his most esoteric outings.

Police Beat tells the story of Z, a West-African immigrant and rookie bicycle cop in Seattle, struggles to focus on the increasingly bizarre crimes he encounters due to his worry of his girlfriend’s infidelity.

This foundation allows Devor to craft an expressionistic tone poem that encapsulates the confusion of life. Police Beat is intimate and alien, it’s political and personal, violent and gentle. Z’s mind is fractured, and his world reflects that. His story, which takes place over seven days, spans across life and time, a fractured series of episodes of varying horror and hilarity, all belonging to a sense of otherness. The film pointedly takes place in the midst of the Bush presidency, and Z’s discomfort with his place in that United States – grateful for the chance to prosper but angry at policies that allow for such potential – manifests itself in his tenuous romantic relationship – loving but distant. Z is a moralistic, black and white force in a confusing world, and that friction seemingly affects his immediate reality. Men drown in piles of lilypads. A BDSM sexual encounter ends with a woman running naked through the park. A man walks into a house with the owner’s permission, walks upstairs and masturbates to birds, then leaves. There is no reason to this life, no consistency. But still, Z simply moves forward, unable or unwilling to confront his present for fear of his uncertain future. How do you comprehend the external when your internal is so confused?

All of this turmoil is captured in a gorgeous, stripped-back cerulean palette, reminiscent of Zulawski’s On the Silver Globe, though guided by Devor’s gentle, roaming camera. He shows us a raging monsoon but shoots it like a gentle rain.

A beautiful, profound, endlessly rewarding work.

“We’re going to learn the lindy dance.”