Tag Archives: 2012

BRIAN DE PALMA’S PASSION (2012)

Alain Corneau’s French thriller Love Crime (2011) turned out to be that director’s last film (he died in 2010). Despite a promising premise, it was an altogether unsatisfactory coda to a career. Enter , coming out of semi-retirement (his previous film was 2007’s Redacted) to improve on the original with the ultra-voguish, maniacally erotic remake, Passion.

De Palma, perhaps the most shrewdly experimental mainstream filmmaker of the last half century, is also one of the most polarizing. The conventional critical breakdown of his oeuvre goes: 1968-1972, early, blatantly avant-garde films (Greetings, The Wedding Party, Hi, Mom, Get To Know Your Rabbit) followed by 1973-1974’s narrative experimentations (Sisters, Phantom of the Paradise). 1976-1984: his sell-out to tinsel town (coupled with his ian obsessions—Obsession, Dressed To Kill, Blowout, Body Double). 1983-1998: gangster dramas (Scarface, The Untouchables, Carlito’s Way), overlapping with self-parody (1992’s Raising Cain, 1998’s Snake Eyes), and, finally, post-2000 fatigue (Mission To Mars, Black Dahlia).

Such a summary is a slipshod reckoning; gleaning an artist’s body of work through a brisk glance in a catalog, missing his edgy diversity, color, and gradual development.

Whittling down De Palma’s diving board to Hitchcock is also woefully inadequate. When an art critic listed 90 of Picasso’s influences, the artist wrote back: “You forgot Gauguin.” Sergei Eisenstein, , , , Michelangleo Antonioni, Dario Argento,  Sam Peckinpah, , Irvin Kirshner,  and Robert Flaherty have all informed De Palma’s work and are filtered through his pre-existing sensibilities, which include a background in mathematics and avant-garde narrative. This diversity renders De Palma far more eclectic than any of his predecessors or peers.

Contrary to the claims of populist criticism, an aesthetic path is rarely linear. De Palma’s malleability is evident in his returns to low budget satire (1980’s Home Movies), observational cinema (2007’s Redacted), and the Warholian pop vibe via mod thriller of 2002’s Femme Fatale and 2012’s Passion.

Still from Passion (2012)De Palma once again makes use of a grandly dated split-screen, juxtaposed to Pino Donaggio’s hyper-lush score, dressing and undressing the oozing, ribald, kinky milieu. More than once, De Palma quotes Dressed To Kill, throwing in and as the AC/DC couple who go the distance to liven up a potentially dull advertising firm with dark red lipstick, Skype, high-heeled Euro fashion, chic Debussy, explosive sex tapes, provocative primary colors, slow-mo pursuits, and a gleaming stiletto.

True to form, De Palma milks manipulative bad acting from his two leads, which punctuates the obligatory opulent set piece (an impressionistic ballet) and unfolding illicit crime caper.

Passion giddily enjoys being a movie for the sake of movies. A few bourgeoisie critics have complained that De Palma is simply stuck on repeat mode, but if you are willing to entertain his inviting disregard for neorealist trends, you may discover a deepening of his art and be transported into a celluloid Canaan.

366 UNDERGROUND: HEART ATTACK! THE EARLY PULSE POUNDING CINEMA OF KELLY HUGHES (2012)

DIRECTED BY: Kelly Hughes

FEATURING: Betty Marshall, Ernest Rhoades, James Peterson, Sarah Katherine Lewis

PLOT: We are introduced to the work of Kelly Hughes, the creative guru behind the assaultive public access series “Heart Attack Theatre,” through the words, experiences, and memories of the cast and crew who worked with him.

Still from Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes

COMMENTS: Kelly Hughes is an underground director who hails from Seattle. He established his prominence through “Heart Attack Theatre,” a series broadcast on public access airwaves from 1991-1993 that most bourgeois viewers would dismiss as trashy, reprehensible, or simply “shock for shock sake.”

I resent that last tautology the most. When pinned on an artist’s work, the cliche is frequently used to imply that the artist’s work is disingenuous, exploitative, and that the labor and the blood and sweat that they invested in it wasn’t meaningful as anything other than a cheap novelty to amuse a select few.

As the first interviewee, Ernest Rhoades, says as he recollects his experience working for Hughes’ “Lucky Charms Productions,” some artists simply create ugly and nasty things from pure love and passion. Some artists are just destined to be dismissed as ugly misfits. Despite being penniless, starving, and painstakingly filming under what most professionals would deem as intolerable conditions, they still work because they truly believe in what they are creating. I strongly emphasize with that warrior-like commitment.

And I’m sorry, Kelly Hughes, that you never were able to create the explosive-laden, cacophonous action film that you secretly always wanted to create.

But I do appreciate that you made something.

Heart Attack! gives us glimpses of the lo-fi, brazenly transgressive style of Kelly Hughes’ brief filmography. Obviously, the initial comparison that emerges is to the early films of  (though to be honest, I think that comparison is just inescapable for a lot of low-budget filmmakers like Hughes, as pointless a criticism as when people carelessly fling around the descriptor ian when reviewing weird films). Anyone familiar with the filmography of   will definitely notice the strange effect that Hughes gets from lo-fi VHS recording tape technology, the grainy texture and subtly abstract, impressionistic colors that making the visual aesthetic as tenuous and degenerative in form as the perversely grotesque content on display.

Though if we’re going to spend this much time pretentiously discussing art, I say let us recall the words of transgressive art’s intellectual forebearer, Antonin Artaud: “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, or invented except literally to get out of hell.”

Here is a brief listing of some of the films featured within Heart Attack!‘s breezy hour-long survey of Hughes’ lo-fi inventions in the public-access television medium:

• “Shot In Hughes’ kitchen”: A woman and a man stare in horror at the open kitchen cabinet. The man crawls inside it. It inexplicably consumes him. The woman screams.
La Cage Aux Zombies: An “upscale Grapes of Wrath lady” (played by a very handsome man) stares out of a rusting, dilapidated door window. S(he) has a cartoonishly shrill groan and an amputated arm, and salutes Hitler fashionably. More happens, but it is challenging to say where the other clips fit into the larger narrative. Looks cool, though.
• “Say My Name Before I Die”: A nude man and woman stand in front of a bathroom mirror. They are discussing monetary concerns. They begin to copulate lovingly.
• “An Inconvenient Whore”: A nude man stretches over the edge of a bed, moaning. A woman leans over his face and informs the strapping young prostitute that there is another client waiting. Moaning resumes.
• “Gut Reaction”: A grizzly man in the middle of the woods wields a chainsaw. His potential victim screams in terror. Hilarious Benny Hill-esque antics ensue. The woman escapes and is picked up by a good Samaritan driving a dingy pick-up truck. The grizzly man appears and straddles the truck, blocking the view of the front windshield. She admits that she previously had an affair with her gynecologist. We discover that the man chasing her was her former lover. And then there is dismemberment. Afterwards, she spontaneously gives birth to a gigantic lime-green toy serpent. Then her snake baby chases them off.

From what I saw of Kelly Hughes’ films, I genuinely liked them. The ensemble didn’t act poorly, either, for being mostly unrecognized and technically amateur by conventional standards.

But I won’t say anything definitively on Hughes’ cinema until I actually watch his films. In their entirety.

Because as a fellow misfit, and as a young reviewer, I believe he deserves my respect when I approach his films.

So until that day I see his films, I consider any opinion on the early cinema of Kelly Hughes as merely tentative.

Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes is exclusively available online at vhx.com. Watch Heart Attack! The Early Pulse-Pounding Cinema of Kelly Hughes ($3.99).

366 UNDERGROUND: THE LAST ROAD (2012)

DIRECTED BY: John Wheeler

FEATURING: Aaron Long, Simon Sokowlwoski, Laura Marklew

PLOT: A down-on-his-luck fighter with anger issues and a penchant for bringing his dog everywhere with him is killed; instead of going to Heaven or Hell, he is left in a Purgatory that looks like Birmingham and must find his place in a brutal, unforgiving afterlife.

The Last Road

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Every film that has been both excellent and unique enough to make it onto the List of the 366 weirdest films of all time has been guided by a strong sense of purpose, or at least a sense of identity. The Last Road is hopelessly lost on the very road it sets out on; it is the film equivalent of listening to someone decide out loud what they want to eat for dinner.

COMMENTS: It wasn’t that long ago that when people said the words “independent picture” in conversation, the image brought to mind was of a navel-gazing, impenetrable vanity project from someone who hadn’t had the career or life experience to demand a moviegoer’s attention span. With the explosion of pop culture indie-centrism in the early ’00s and the digital camera revolution, indies have come a long way since then, but a stigma still remains in the public consciousness from decades of snoozers like Smilla’s Sense of Snow and twee-fests like Garden State. The Last Road is an ambitious independent feature from first-time writer/director/key grip John Wheeler about life after life, and while it is obvious that the spirit here is willing, the body, unfortunately, is weak.

Set in the arsehole of Britannia, which will henceforth be referred to as Trainspotting-ham, it chronicles the misadventures of Toby, the angriest bloke who ever bloked. This guy is the worst; imagine an unemployed Morrissey with short hair who binge-watches MMA bouts and thinks he looks good in tank tops. He is a fighter with a nasty temper, a temper that is affecting his relationships at home and in the ring. His ill mother is subject to one of his tantrums and has a pint of milk dumped on her head as a result, and when his anger gets the better of him while talking to his shady underworld boss, it leads to his dog being viciously killed in front of his eyes (!!!). This sets him up for an (ultimately final) outburst in the ring, whereby his overwhelming explosion of violence leads his opponent, in desperation, to slash Toby’s throat with a nearby broken beer bottle and end his life. This is only the beginning of the story, however, as we are taken to the afterlife, where Toby is confronted with his poor life decisions by a shrewish blonde angel driving a Mini. She tells him that he has to find his own way to salvation, otherwise he can never be redeemed in the eyes of God. So Toby wanders the wastes of Limbo, meeting new friends, inciting bitter rivalries, and reuniting with familiar faces from his previous life.

…at least, I think so. The Last Road is really very noncommittal about what it wants to say or do. Or perhaps it is covering up a lack of narrative with visuals, strange set pieces, and maudlin introspection. Whatever the case may be, there is not enough happening (truly happening, not just tiresome flashbacks and unappealing static shots) to justify a 90 minute feature. Which is quite a setback, considering this is a 123 minute-long movie! That means lots of time taken up by the INNER TURMOIL of our hero, without context in the story or reasonable explanation.

And this is the most contentious aspect of the whole affair, because Toby’s struggle, the entire impetus of the film and the reason both he and the moviegoer set out on the sojourn that is The Last Road, is an informed attribute. We are not given an ounce of exposition as to why things are so difficult for him, why he is suffering on the inside, or what his motivations are for doing any of the seemingly arbitrary things he ends up doing. He is just an angry guy with a mission to redeem himself. But why? Who is this person? Why does he want to be redeemed in God’s eyes? Why does he need to be redeemed at all? Instead of answers, or something resembling an answer, we are treated to indulgent, laconic moments of on-screen anguish, as if Toby, in a wrestling ring on the seedy side of Trainspotting-ham, had died for our sins.

The Last Road is an independent feature that, while admittedly unique, lives up to that grand old indie tradition of being very difficult to watch. It is a shame, because it exhibits a wealth of potential from a first-time director: the shots are carefully composed, the sound design is remarkable, and the sets are eerie and full of nihilistic expression. But the delivery of these qualities in the form of unlikable characters trudging through a banal narrative ends up feeling confused at best and emotionally manipulative at worst (i.e. anything involving the damn dog). A similar-yet-better experience would be turning on What Dreams May Come with the brightness level on the television adjusted down 50%.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Trying to figure out what the film was getting at with certain characters and situations allows you to run with the narrative in a number of directions beyond the obvious, and that offers an extra level of engagement. It all comes down to whether you find the ideas presented interesting enough to ponder, of course, but I think the film delivers enough variety to avoid becoming too stale.”–Mark Bell, Film Threat (DVD)