Review: Consuming Spirits (2012)

12 years in the making and featuring the use of multiple animation styles – from beautiful paper-cut outs to simple black on white cel hand drawn to crude model stop motion – Consuming Spirits is a creaky, sometimes frustrating elegy for family, community, and the unspoken bonds that create such.

Following three lonely individuals all involved with the local paper of a small, decaying town, Consuming Spirits spends its first hour and a half floating around a shapeless series of tragedies. It opens with a nun being hit by a school bus and getting left in the woods. From there, characters and miseries drift across the screen, seemingly without purpose and sometimes explanation. It’s compelling by virtue of the sheer strangeness of it all, the animation giving the plights weight when the writing does not. But it still feels like a big pile of nothing for a long while.

And then, in the last half hour, writer/director/a ton of things pulls it all together and gives meaning to the bloated morass behind it. Over the course of those final minutes, the pain and heartbreak finds truth in its connections, and Consuming Spirits becomes a ghost story where the spirits (that punny title is really not great) are just the memories of people moved on.

Review: White of the Eye (1987)

“He offered me homemade peanut-butter. What do you think that means?”

A serial killer is murdering house-wives in a ritualistic fashion across an arid southern city. The top suspect is David Keith’s Paul, a hi-fi stereo installation man who is known for letting the soundscape of a room echo through his head.

White of the Eye quickly pushes aside its serial killer mystery for a blown out, surreal character study of the enigmatic Paul, a man who seems to represent the corruption of American idealism. He’s described as once having dreams, of being the most intelligent man of his town – and now he makes his living selling sound equipment to bored housewives. This is a tale of consumerist possession. His wife, Joan (played by Cathy Moriarty), used to wear her clothes furred and her hair feathered, signifiers of a style long gone – and now she looks like every other woman on the block. The far out hippie spirituality of times past has been replaced with a new, darker kind. Paul is a spiritual man, but he enacts his ritual through the installation of stereos, letting the echoes blast through his skull, having a religious experience by embracing an empty system. And he brings in the old as well, pulling in aspects of Native American religion into his world, embracing a broken form paganistic yuppiedom.

It’s surreal and uncomfortable, lurid and philosophical, melodramatic and horrific – it’s a million things, many of which don’t seem to mesh on paper but come together to something magnificent on film.

Review: Sonny Boy (1989)

“Sonny Boy’s my kid. I made him what he is. And he ain’t no painter.”

A low-rent thief (Brad Dourif) accidentally kidnaps a baby when he steals a car. His boss (Paul L. Smith) and transgendered wife (played by David Carradine with remarkable grace and power, especially considering the type of movie surrounding) decide to raise the child, albeit as a feral instrument of destruction with no tongue. The titular Sonny Boy eventually escapes his twisted family, and his adventures bring unwanted attention upon his family.

On paper, this reads like a grimy Texas Chainsaw Massacre rip-off, but writer Graeme Whifler and director Robert Martin Carroll play it essentially straight, transforming what could be campy horror into surprisingly affecting melodrama. Their secret is sincerity; no matter how horrific or crazy the events depicted, the creators treat them simply as more obstacles to these characters’ happiness. This is a film in which multiple people are murdered via cannon, a film in which Brad Dourif gift’s his recently severed thumb to the boy who bit it off, a film in which a doctor is discredited due to his use of monkey parts – and it is still enormously affecting.

The surprisingly poignant core is helped immeasurably by the performances and score. Everyone here is incredible, especially the aforementioned Carradine and Michael Boston, who brings soul and pain to the mute Sonny Boy. Carlo Cordio (who also scored Troll 2, so I don’t know what’s happening) treats everything with an almost cheesy tragedy, a lilting harmonica that would be ridiculous if it didn’t cut through the insanity so well. And that’s saying nothing of the theme, sung by Carradine himself.

This is a film about devotion and unconditional love. It’s about what it means to love someone because of their flaws, because their flaws are who they are. It’s about being able to see the good in the worst, about finding love in a heart that seemed cold, and about learning to see one’s self as loveable. It’s about love in all forms, in all its power – good and bad.

I’ve been trying to convince myself out of this rating, because it seems kind of crazy, kind of impossible. Sonny Boy, on paper, is not a particularly great movie. Somehow, though, everything comes together in a singular alchemy of exploitation craziness and wistful burden.

There’s something to be said for sincerity.

Review: Wild Things (1998)

“They were acting! They were all acting!”

I remember seeing the cover of this in the video rental place as a kid, 9 or 10, and it always excited the part of my adolescent brain that was just getting curious about sex but was mostly frightened by the unknown of it. This cover, with the leering eyes, the implication of soaking wet bodies, the aggressively posed men at the bottom of the image – all of this tapped into that alluring fear of whatever pre-pubescent version of sexuality I possessed.

In the ensuing years, I saw the cover of Wild Things again and again, usually next to Species or Poison Ivy or any number of other soft-core erotic thrillers that produced a million DTV sequels sold entirely on the promise of being socially-acceptable porn. I’ve since seen Species and Poison Ivy (or one of its sequels, I don’t really remember), and I admit to watching them almost purely for the promise of T & A. Being 15 and afraid of the internet creates strange cinematic urges.

Still, even with my search for almost porn I could get past my parents, I never returned to Wild Things. Even when I got older, the cover, the premise, it all brought back that fear that used to mingle with the desire.

Only recently, as I’ve delved deep into the realm of sleaze and exploitation, did I find the courage the watch it. Scott Tobias’s AV Club article on the film gave me the kick I needed.

And I’m glad I didn’t take the plunge when I was 15, because Wild Things is a cynical and bitter film that shows an absolute contempt for humanity – it just uses sex and sleaze as its vessel of hate.

Wild Things sees humans as greedy, self-servings bastards, each and every one of them is putting on a performance – no state of mind is permanent, no moral system is instinctual. We’re all actors, and we’re all ephemeral.

But on top of all that cynicism is a darkly hilarious neo-noir filled with sex and violence.

Matt Dillon plays a school counselor that all the girls love. After he presumable spurns Denise Richards’ student, she accuses him of raping her and takes him to trial with the help of another student’s (Neve Campbell) similar accusations. Dillon hires Bill Murray’s scene-stealing sketchy lawyer with a fake broken neck to defend him from the accusations. In the courtroom, it’s revealed that the accusations were false, fabricated by both girls as revenge. But, while Dillon and Murray celebrate, a detective played by Kevin Bacon starts getting suspicious.

And he’s right to be. Wild Things is a ridiculous film played hysterically, and it has at least 6 twists. Betrayals, reveals, threesomes, murders, sex murders, bribes – all of it, all the time. It keeps pulling tricks out of its sleeve for its entire runtime. However, despite how crazy and trashy this all is, it’s not dumb. It’s impeccably plotted, working like clockwork to deliver pay-off after pay-off, cloaking its intelligence in dumb, trashy sleaze. No matter how gratuitous or exploitative the sex and nudity may seem, it’s all building to its larger point: the fact that there is an audience for exploitation is just proof that humanity will take anything it can get to feel a sense of satisfaction.

You can watch Wild Things purely for the T & A, you can use a few choice clips to fuel a lazy afternoon if you wanted to. But if, after that session, a little part in the back of your mind feels darker … if there’s a shadow hanging over your psyche that day … it’s because writer Stephen Peters and director John McNaughton snuck their angry, broken hearts into your head.

Review: The Tarnished Angels (1957)

“Boy, that turned up nose sure is getting you down.”

As much as I wish this was in Technicolor, this is so great. I mean, Douglas Sirk just knows how to make a movie, you know? His visuals are so sumptuous and emotional AND funny – he can layer six different feelings into every shot. This is cinema.

What I’ve found, in my brief exploration of his work so far, is that, despite the clear satirical undertones of his films, Sirk also really cares about his characters. He’s laughing at the world around them, sure, but he’s not laughing at them.

And that secret sincerity is what makes this sing. You could probably predict every beat of this film from around the 25 minute mark, but that doesn’t matter. Real pain is powerful no matter how obvious it is.

There’s this moment about halfway through this which encapsulates everything Sirk does perfectly; Rock Hudson and Dorothy Malone share their first, illicit kiss in Hudson’s apartment mere feet from Malone’s child. Suddenly, a random party-goer from a neighbouring apartment bursts in through the door in a fucking skeleton mask. And it’s ridiculous. Sirk is clearly laughing at how artificial that moment is.

But, at the same time, that moment works as a microcosm of the true tragedy at the heart of the film; death’s spectre is at the heart of every great act of emotion. There would be no acts of heroism, no runs through airports, no tearful goodbyes, no New Year’s speeches – not without the very real chance that we could be gone at any moment, that this is perhaps our ONLY chance to make our move.

That is the true commonality of all the people. That fear, and that desire to make good on our time. Robert Stack may seem callous and wild here, but he just wants to impress his girl, he wants to show off to the reporter, he wants to make his son proud. He’s the same as Hudson the same as Malone.

Every outside is just another moon orbiting a different Earth.

“[I was fired] for believing that you were a strange, beautiful creature from an un-Earthly planet.”