Review: Casting JonBenet (2017)

Similar in structure and purpose to Rodney Ascher’s Room 237, Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenet presents the audience a pile of speculation regarding a mystery (in this case the murder of the titular child-pageant queen) to explore the nature of curiosity and psychological projection. Ascher’s approach abstracted his participants into conceptual objects, making them somewhat beyond judgement. Green, on the other hand, chooses to show her interview subjects, often speaking directly to the camera, and that lack of distance makes the condescension inherent in both projects unfortunately visible. It’s tough to watch Casting JonBenet and not feel like Green is begging us to laugh at these actors and their wild theories regarding the murder. In the early going, she edits the film for maximum comic impact and irony, which gives the eery impression that Green is exploiting her well-intentioned participants, rather than the murder itself, for our entertainment.

Fortunately, Green’s film gradually finds empathy for these people, ditching the sense of mockery for one of community. As the theories and personal projections pile up, the emotion takes centre stage. Perhaps this is part of Green’s point; that the human need for understanding is greater than any one foolish attempt. The last 10 minutes almost make up for the missteps, a startlingly powerful culmination of the film’s process, heartbreaking and intellectually satisfying in equal measure. Nevertheless, it’s a bumpy road to get to that rather humanistic finale, and one I don’t feel entirely comfortable condoning.

Review: Wild Side (1995)

“I take offence to that, the rape of my protégé. You know what you get for rape? 10 years in a cell with a gorilla! A psycho gorilla!”

The film that killed Donald Cammell.

A seedy neo-noir with the usual things to say about the relationship between sex and power, Wild Side is elevated by director Donald Cammell’s sensuously offbeat vision and the most Christopher Walken performance I’ve ever seen Walken do. He wears a jet-black wig in this movie and screams about having to go to meetings. He’s simultaneously distancing and entrancing.

Anne Heche stars as a banking exec who moonlights as a high-end escort. She gets tangled up in a sting operation set up by an undercover rapist cop (a hyper-macho Steven Bauer) to take down Walken’s corrupt financier. Unfortinately, Heche can’t help but fall in love with Walken’s girlfriend, played with effortless magnetism (but little actual character) by Joan Chen. Things quickly spiral out of control, as they are wont to do.

This is essentially soft-core Hitchcock, a rote erotic noir narrative that’s enlivened by the intensely strange script. Every scene goes on a little too long, every exchange a purple whatsit of psychosexual tangents, every line just a little off. Cammell shoots everything with his customary flat bloom lighting that pushes everything into a dream-like realm that is always suggesting someone is about to have photo-ready sex, even when no one is fucking. Cammell compounds the discomfort by vacillating between rapid fire cuts and languid long takes, constantly pushing the viewer off balance and almost, almost making them forget that what they’re watching is trite BS.

Tragically, this would be Cammell’s last film. Originally made for an exploitation production company with the promise of classing the place up, Wild Side was eventually taken away from Cammell and edited against his wishes. He killed himself. A couple of years later, friends and collaborators put together Cammell’s original vision.

I watched that cut.

Review: Punisher War Zone (2008)

Shame this idiosyncratic, female-directed, action/horror superhero movie didn’t make money, because … well that sentence speaks for itself.

Director Lexi Alexander and Screenwriters Matt Holloway and Nick Santora understand that the Punisher and heroes of his ilk – tortured antiheroes with simple motives – should basically be grounding forces in a movie like this, not the central focus. So, instead, most of the film deals with the villains – Dominic West’s (impressively ugly) Jigsaw and his brother, Doug Hutchinson’s Looney Bin Jim, who have this delightful warm dynamic. My favourite scene in the film is where Looney Bin Jim tells his brother that he “won’t ever have to see [his] reflection again.” And then he throws his body into every mirror in a hotel lobby. That’s nuts, but it’s also really sweet.

Everyone is playing way big here (save, strangely, for Wayne Knight, who brings a lot of pathos into the corners), which is the right choice for Alexander’s brand of hyper-unreality. This is the perfect empty neon sleaze, all night time, all backlit, all blood-soaked alleyways. It’s all so wonderfully tacky – like the montage of our villains gathering up allies in front of a projected American Flag, perverting Patton, obviously, but also calling to mind Blow Out. Everyone is a cartoon, but they’re all extremely endearing cartoons – West and Hutchinson are so ridiculous and awful that they become loveable. When the Punisher starts picking people off (in various gory fashions), it’s kind of scary and kind of weighty, because he’s literally killing off the life that surrounds his solemn centre. This is a goofy film, but one that doesn’t quite lose its edge.

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: 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s (1979)

“I done some really antisocial things in my life. Like robbing, shooting at people, raping people. Maybe I killed someone, I don’t know. But as you get older, you get wiser.”

By turns hilarious and terrifying, 80 Blocks From Tiffany’s profiles two gangs in late 70s New York City – The Savage Skulls and the Savage Nomads – in their daily routines, crimes, and philosophies. Director Gary Weis finds tiny civilisations of paradoxes in these gangs, which may had started with a simple protective goal in mind, but ballooned into something unwieldy and, at times, tragic. Both gangs consist primarily of African-American and Puerto Rican members, but both use extensive Nazi imagery for their brands. They both propagate extensive tough guy images, but the intricately painted designs on their leather vests suggest a delicate care for themselves. They all relish chaos and destruction, but confess in interviews to fantasising of simpler lives.

While most of this consists of interviews, there is some indelible, crazy shit shown as well, including the almost banal burglary schemes that involve climbing into open windows and lowering down TVs with rope, or hiring kids to walk slowly on crutches in front of trucks so that the contents may be stolen.

It all has a strangely hopeful tone even as Weis captures an underlying pain to all of this. And, somehow, 80 Blocks from Tiffany’s makes the seemingly cartoonish The Warriors look positively vérité. That doesn’t make me like Walter Hill’s movie any more, but it does make me laugh less at it.

Review: Ghost in the Shell (2017)

So immaculately designed to be of a future aesthetic that really hasn’t existed since the late 90s that it’s hard for me not to at least fall a little under its spell. Johansson brings a Deneuve-like blankness to the role that’s perfect for the role, recalling her amazing work in Under the Skin. As a person who never really cared for the original anime’s goofy sci-fi, philosophical speeches, this one’s purely superficial interest in those aspects worked for me. It moves like the original never did, probably because this is an action movie, first and foremost.

As for the whitewashing controversy – well, yeah, it’s still fucked at a very basic level. However, I was surprised to find that the writers had at least attempted a justification for it, a justification which has thematic threads throughout the script. Whether or not this was a post-controversy rationalisation, the choice the filmmaker’s make is purposeful and almost works. Ghost in the Shell attempts to be a commentary on a post-nationalist, globalised culture – one that informs its very production and the way film distribution is changing day to day. Is globalisation the result of the still lingering tendrils of imperialism? What will be its effect on the future? These are the questions that the film raises when it reveals the origin/rationale for The Major’s race.

Now, the big problem with this approach is that the film doesn’t actually make a statement regarding those questions. There’s no opinion posited, even though it feints at the obvious negative. And so it ends up feeling half-assed, insensitive. Which, I guess actually plays into the heart of its explorations.