Saturday, September 27, 2008

CUL DE SAC: MULHOLLAND DRIVE


Like all of David Lynch’s perverse, labyrinthine fantasias, Mulholland Drive defies classification. Is it a SoCal noir, a murder mystery shrouded in the grime and glow of Los Angeles? Is it a searing Hollywood satire, a guttural cry from the seedy underbelly of Tinseltown? Is it a puzzle-box waiting to be cracked and decoded, or a gloriously irrational mind-fuck meant simply to be experienced? The beauty and the burden of Lynch’s 21st-century head-trip is that it’s all of these things at once—or, depending on who you ask, none of them. Yet once you get down to actually peeling back the layers and unraveling the plot strands, to swinging open the various trap doors of this surreal funhouse, you’ll discover that Mulholland Drive is really, at its very core, something of a rapturous love story. That it chronicles the burgeoning romance between two women is both casually accepted and entirely the point: the film inverts and subverts its studio genre trappings, making glorious queer melodrama out of warped Hollywood nostalgia. Radiant in her joy and ambition, Naomi Watts is Betty, the wide-eyed ingĂ©nue, an aspiring starlet at Hollywood’s pearly gates. Laura Harring is Rita, her dark-haired foil, the enigmatic, amnesia-stricken femme fatale of her wildest dreams. Drawn together by uncertain circumstance, the two are plunged into a hall-of-mirrors mystery, yet as Lynch piles on the oddities and grotesqueries—the dreams within dreams, the crime movie subplots, the terrifying monster-in-the-alley tangents—the tension between his sleuthing heroines gradually intensifies, culminating in cinema’s most erotic expression of gay desire. This sex scene alone, about as passionate, frank, and emotionally ravishing as any ever filmed, earns Mulholland Drive a spot on this list. Fail though you might to untangle Lynch’s impossibly knotted narrative, what truly lingers is the blazing attraction between his love-struck bombshells, yearning as bright as the California sun on Betty’s hopeful visage.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

TRANSSIBERIAN


Slowly and quietly, while no one’s really been looking, writer-director Brad Anderson has become something of a bona fide master of suspense. It didn’t happen overnight. While his fan-boy contemporaries giddily filled their frames with violence and viscera, upping the depraved ante in a never-ending “Splat Pack” pissing contest, Anderson took a road less traveled and dutifully honed his slow-burn craft. Beginning with the supremely creepy Session 9, a steady hike into the pitch-black woods of irrepressible madness, the filmmaker’s forged a refreshing commitment not to shock tactics or gooey gross-outs, but to the lost art of building and sustaining white-knuckle tension. His is a cinema of menace and mystery, of honest-to-God atmosphere, and his movies—including The Machinist, that silly but hypnotic mood piece, and Sounds Like, his stylish contribution to Showtime’s hit-or-miss “Masters of Horror” series—hauntingly evoke that which resides in the “weak and the wounded,” the horror lurking in the hidden depths of the damaged human psyche.

Transsiberian is Anderson’s best film yet, not in the least because it weds his trademark psychological dread to a nail-bitingly intense, vacation-gone-wrong nightmare—interior and exterior conflicts collide, creating delicate stress cracks in the film's frosty, plate-glass surface. Early scenes suggest, none too promisingly, an art-house Hostel, with Woody Harrelson and Emily Mortimer as the would-be victims, an American couple traipsing blithely through scaaaary Eastern Europe. Navigating the far-reaches of Siberia via a rickety passenger train, the young lovers shrug off various warning signs (leering locals, ominous tales of police brutality) before meeting their wolf in sheep’s clothing, a charming Spaniard (Eduardo Noriega) with a mysteriously quiet girlfriend (Kate Mara) and a smile that lingers just a few seconds too long. Surely this enigmatic lothario can be up to no good, and all signs point prominently to the Eli Roth butcher barn—or, perhaps, to some gulag hellhole, Brokedown Palace in colder climates.

That’s where the movie seems to be headed, anyway. Its actual destination proves much more difficult to chart; Transsiberian is that rare thriller that’s surprises are neither baldly telegraphed nor pulled out of left field, its twists and turns predicated on the careful, patient unraveling of its various red herrings. If the airtight plot mechanics—a relentless turning of the screws, a cold sweat in the dead of winter—are reminiscent of primo Hitchcock, the underlying current of mental/emotional anxiety is pure Anderson. The relationship between our sitting-duck lovebirds, terrifically embodied by a frayed-and-frazzled Mortimer and a shrewdly cast-against-type Harrelson, proves more complicated than it first appears. And when the film finally makes good on its escalating tension, stirring the heretofore-placid proceedings into a nerve-jangling frenzy, the disruption feels like the natural outcome of scarcely-visible factors—in Anderson’s haunting estimation, violence springs from the fissure dividing an uneasy present and a blemished past.

Transsiberian keeps you guessing to the end, hinging its rich suspense on what some characters know and others do not, on the precarious concealment of secrets big and small. Anderson’s probing camera catches fleeting glimpses of guilt and shame, the little tics and tells scrawled on faces, the waves of emotion passing through his characters’ ever shifting eyes. He makes real drama out of what we hide in our minds but reveal in our features. So satisfying are these games of high-stakes deception that it’s almost dissatisfying to see the movie finally, inevitably lay all its cards on the table. (Enter Ben Kingsley, exit loaded psychodrama, and cue the gunplay.) Still, even as Transsiberian neatly—too neatly—ties up its loose ends, a terrible ambiguity remains, hanging in the open air like a storm cloud on the horizon. There are fates worse than death, after all. Like living with what you’ve done.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

CUL DE SAC: BUT I'M A CHEERLEADER


Festivals ignored it. Critics tore it apart. And audiences? Well, they just stayed away. Released in the summer of 2000, But I’m a Cheerleader, a silly-sweet comedy about a peppy suburban teen (Natasha Lyonne) shipped off to “sexual redirection” camp, was an unqualified belly flop. And while it’s tempting to blame the film’s failure on a homophobic nation not yet ready to poke gentle fun at its own fears and prejudices, this candy-coated satire from writer-director Jamie Babbit (Itty Bitty Titty Committee) is admittedly pretty far from perfect. (Its plastic-and-Crayola aesthetic is as distractingly unpleasant as Juno’s and the supporting players, particularly the boo-and-hiss-worthy, right wing villains, are outrageous camp caricatures.) What’s saved the movie from both mediocrity and obscurity—it’s gradually amassed a real cult following on video and DVD—is its disarming sincerity, the beating heart beneath the pink polyester. Babbit turns the scared-straight rehab clinic into a house of farce and folly (playing hetero only turns these boys and girls on) but she treats the central romance between Lyonne’s closeted cheerleader and a rebellious, tomboy classmate (Clea DuVall) with a refreshing tenderness and honesty. And by roundly refusing to spoil or shatter its same-sex affair by the end credits, But I’m a Cheerleader stood, at the turn of this new millennium, as something of a first in mainstream American cinema: a gay love story that never stoops to punishing its young lovers, affording them instead the promise of a brighter tomorrow. For all its imperfections, that alone warrants a second life for this broad but winningly hopeful indie comedy.

Monday, September 8, 2008

CUL DE SAC: MAY


A former colleague of mine is launching a new webzine. It's called Cul De Sac. In the words of the editor:

"[We are] a magazine devoted to social analysis and critique from a queer perspective. Issues about or pertinent to an LGBT audience are our main focus, with special attention paid to social justice and cultural literacy."

Still in its infancy, Cul De Sac is expanding with the addition of new writers and will likely get a redesign in the near future. I've come on as a part-time staff member and will occasionally be contributing content to the "film" section. I see Cul De Sac as an opportunity to increase my readership, tackle social injustice via criticism-- a long-term goal, that one-- and to challenge myself by writing about a culture I'm not immersed in.

For the inaugural issue, myself and three other writers have composed a list of 40 essential films of the last decade that address issues pertaining to the gay community. Important distinction: these are not landmarks of Queer Cinema (i.e. films made exclusively for an American, LGBT niche market), but rather mainstream, indie-mainstream, or foreign features that focus on or relate to queer culture. Split into four categories (Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual, and Transgender), the capsule reviews will be ranked and posted on the Cul De Sac website, week by week. But I'll also be posting the pieces I write here, starting today with 200 or so words on Lucky McKee's May.

If you've never seen May, I implore you to read no further. I'd hate for my SPOILER HEAVY review to ruin anyone's first encounter with this strange, sad, funny and entirely distinctive genre pastiche. I'd call it the best horror movie of the decade were it even so easily classified as a horror movie. We debated whether the film even belonged on such a list, but I'd strongly argue that it's depiction of sexuality as an ever-shifting preference--love the person, not the gender-- makes it one of this new millennium's more interesting and nuanced explorations of bi-sexuality. In any case, however you label this low-budget delight, it's essential viewing for any fan or champion of fiercely independent American filmmaking.

MAY

The dating scene can be a real nightmare. Just ask May. Poor girl only wants to be loved, but finds the objects of her affection, male and female alike, scarcely worth the sum of their attractive parts. So what’s she to do with all those pretty pieces? In this delightfully unhinged, genre crazy-quilt—think Repulsion, recast as a twisted rom-com satire—Angela Bettis’ titular wallflower bounces between lovers of both sexes, her desperate need for companionship superceding all boundaries of gender or orientation. Writer-director Lucky McKee is shrewd enough to recognize May’s malleable sexuality, her openness to any potential suitor, as a product of her universal need for some form of human connection. Which is not to say he denies his eccentric, lonely-hearted heroine, whose nerd chic good looks and child-like sweetness mask her dangerous instability, a real sexual appetite. (She digs Adam’s hands and admires Polly’s neck, her desire rooted in anatomical wonder as much as biological urge.) In the film’s third act, a funny-scary free fall into total madness, May becomes something of a bi-sexual avenger, waging war on a cruel singles’ scene, on the men and women who shunned and scorned and abused her affections. And it's in the gonzo climax, the deeply disturbing and strangely moving last scenes, that she finally finds her Mr./Mrs. Right: the sexless, genderless love of her life, a soul mate she (literally) wills into being. Forget Carrie Bradshaw. Here’s the ultimate, modern, fed-up single girl—you can’t find a lover, make one.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

30 DAYS OF NIGHT


With its bursts of shocking violence, elegant, widescreen compositions, and tried-and-true boilerplate formula—stranded innocents besieged by marauding intruders in some secluded, wintry locale—30 Days of Night plays like a jittery tribute-homage to the rough-and-tumble classics of one-time horror master John Carpenter. Except Carpenter himself hasn’t made anything as visceral and sick-puppy cool as this B-movie gem in damn near two decades. Plagued by minor deficiencies in plot and character, David Slade’s grim and grisly vampire romp has a basic premise almost impossible to totally screw up: when night falls on a sleepy little hamlet in Northern Alaska, shrouding the town in darkness for a full thirty days, a pack of feral bloodsuckers seize upon a golden opportunity, swooping by for a month-long feeding frenzy. It’s Night of the Living Dead in The Thing’s frozen neck of the arctic, with all the requisites—exploding heads, bickering survivors, and what-to-do-with-the-infected moral quandaries—firmly intact.

Based, as so many pulp entertainments are these days, on a celebrated graphic novel, 30 Days of Night owes nearly all of its scary-gross pleasures to its helmer, a music-video veteran with an eye for both ominously barren landscapes and impeccably filmed gore and grue. Slade’s fidgety stylistic tics proved an annoying distraction in his first feature, the flawed but intermittently interesting Hard Candy. Here they’re the main attraction: between the director’s beautifully squalid color palette (hazy grays, splashed and speckled in hot crimson) and his consistently nifty staging choices (like a behind-the-jeep tracking shot improbably cribbed from Gerry and a stunningly elaborate bird’s-eye massacre sequence), the director proves perfectly adept at using aesthetics to heighten his film’s mood of pervasive, overwhelming dread.

As for his ravenous ghouls: screeching like prehistoric beasts, their mouths caked in bloody five-o-clock shadow, 30 Day’s vampires are a refreshing alternative to Anne Rice’s endlessly tortured, aristocratic undead. As led by a baroquely mannered Danny Huston, his eyes black pools of malevolence and his voice a guttural groan, these wild carnivores have twice the personality of their prey, the small-town archetypes passing for characters in this bloody but none-too-nuanced creature feature. With the exception of Josh Harnett and Melissa George, the pretty but bland leads—or, for that matter, Ben Foster’s delightfully weird, Reinfield-like scout, disposed of far too early—the humans here are little more than body count fodder, necks to be chomped on and heads to be gruesomely (and very realistically) severed. Yet neither the film’s thinly sketched victim-heroes nor its too-hasty shift from burgeoning suspense to unmitigated carnage detract much from the nasty thrills Slade dutifully, unpretentiously delivers. 30 Days may fail in properly pacing its month of mayhem—it feels more like one night than thirty—but it’s that same relentless, no-rest-for-the-weary momentum that makes it such a briskly satisfying genre offering. B+