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: True Stories (1986)

Taken at face value as satire, True Stories is condescending and simplistic – a tired condemnation of consumerism as a spiritual force. David Byrne could conflate a certain midwestern happiness with a naive embrace of capitalism – a musical number late in the game involving a series of advertisement-based Talking Heads members could be seen as the thesis.

I say all of that with a definite potentiality to all of the verbs. Could be seen as so and so. Because, despite what’s all there on the surface, True Stories never feels patronising, never feels like it’s making fun of Virgil, Texas, and the way its denizens – liars, fools, cheaters though they may be – live. Instead, Byrne finds legitimate awe and curiosity in the proceedings, bringing out the beauty of this specific time of America, where consumerism and idealism walked hand in hand. When a microchip company bringing up a small town could be seen as a sign of a happy future, where jobs were plentiful and technology was impossibly endless. Where never getting out of bed because one doesn’t have to is both a sign of laziness and a sign of prosperity. The film’s spirit is most embodied in the character of Louis (played by a young and impossibly adorable John Goodman), who eventually places an ad for a girlfriend on the TV, and whom Byrne embraces without an ounce of pity. He has the ability to advertise his love, so why shouldn’t he? Just because the festival celebrating the town’s “Specialness” is paid for and primarily exists as an ad for the electronics company doesn’t mean it can’t also be used as a venue to proclaim truth and beauty in the face of an infinite future.

An exceedingly optimistic film, even if such attitude is what immediately dates it as one from a long ago time.

Review: Blonde Death (1984)

“What’s wrong with a dad letting his daughter wear her momma’s big heels and walk all over daddy’s face?”

I went into this expecting an entertaining ineptitude, and nothing more. I was happily surprised to find that, while such ineptitude exists, it is clearly the result of a refusal to compromise a vision, not a lack intelligence or craft.

Every line in this film is gold and utterly quotable. It’s a hilarious, angry, screaming shit on the face of suburbia, consumerism, organised religion, sexuality – anything and everything under the sun. Writer/director James Dillinger was once called the “angriest gay man in Brooklyn” and he lives up to that title. He wields his wit like a crowbar, and every blunt joke and rant hits in a powerful, if obviously blunt fashion. This is a film where (SMALL SPOILER) the characters sneak into Disneyland (and actually film there) and poison the entire park with cyanide Tang. Take that, Escape from Tomorrow. James Dillinger, bless his bastard soul, rips my throat out and makes me cackle with what’s left.

To end this review, a bunch of wonderful quotes:

“Nice girls FUCK.”

“I’m so sexed up right now, I could pump it to a weasel in a mini-skirt.”

“When that bible study retreat collapsed, I just snapped.”

“We may even die!” “As long as you’re inside me when it happens.”

“Redneck pork belly duster driving can’t even tell a cli-TOR-is from a broken fan belt!”

“We went for a windswept drive through the vast mediocre swaths of Orange County.”

“We’re going to be one big happy menage-a-twat.”

“I haven’t cried since I saw ET, but this is too much.”

And, finally,

“Sure beats watching MTV.”

Review: Toni Erdmann (2016)

The hype is real.

2 and a half hours goes by in a minute, and at one point, I spontaneously broke out in applause and had to check myself. There is a set-piece near the end, in particular, that had me coughing and gasping for air from laughing so much.

But what gives Maren Ade’s film staying power beyond its hilarity is the profound sense of melancholy hanging over the whole enterprise. This is primarily a film about disappointment and communicative breakdowns. Neither Ines or her father Winifred are fulfilled by their jobs or their relationships. She, a woman in a male-dominated workplace that seems to actively trying to leave her behind. He, an aged piano teacher whose only friend is a blind dog and whose friends seem to tolerate him, at best. In each other, perhaps, they see hope for understanding and support. Despite how much they try, however, they can’t help but continue to disappoint each other. Even at the end, when its arguable that both parties have learned something, have changed in ways potentially for the better, there is still a chasm between them, an acknowledged divide that may never be crossed – maybe it was too late for him to try to raise her, too late for her to change course to a less encompassing career, too late for their minds to bend.

During a late-film detour to the Romanian countryside, Winifred tells an impoverished local to never lose his humour. Ines tells him that was an extremely bitter thing to say. And they’re both right, because that statement means two completely different things to them. They can try to find the middle ground, searching their shared memories for a happy time to cross, but they will never be the person the other actively wishes them to be, and therefore can never truly understand each other.

Review: Gerry (2002)

“Why don’t you make me a dirt mattress?”

A deadpan descent into emotional abstraction, Gus Van Sant’s Gerry is about two dudes getting lost in a world in which they were probably already floating.

Though heavily inspired by the films of Bela Tarr, the closest cinematic cousin to this I can think of is Monte Hellman’s 1966 Western The Shooting, another film set in an en un-ending desert with dialogue that goes in absurdist circles. But where The Shooting is interested in the relationship between journeys and destinations, Gerry seems more concerned about what happens when you have neither. Though ostensibly beginning with a goal, Matt Damon and Casey Affleck’s titular protagonists are always doomed to wander a wasteland of psychological abstraction. Driving their beat up city slicker Mercedes out into the wild, they talk of finding “the thing” at the end of “the wilderness trail”. Five minutes in, and already someone has said “fuck the thing” and they’ve lost whatever vague guiding principles they had to start. Gerry ultimately becomes (if it can truly be said to be about anything) about the acceptance of fate, of time and circumstance long since towering above you. You have always been Gerry, ever since you Gerry’d the Gerry, Gerry.

Despite how heavy all of that sounds, and is, Gerry is fucking hilarious, a true successor to Becket’s knack for pulling a joke out of nothing but circles.