As is usual this time of year, I’ve been watching dozens of movies on disc that I didn’t have a chance to see in the theaters or write about in our pages. Many of them turned out not to deserve inclusion on any year-end awards list, I found some of them notable nonetheless. I thought I’d post some miniature reviews. These films are all available on DVD, so you can rent them over the holiday, or avoid them as the case may be.
Aaron Katz’ film starts off as a low-fi indie dramedy about a college dropout (Cris Lankenau) trying to find his way in life, but then halfway through the hero’s ex-girlfriend disappears, and the movie turns into a thriller. The first half is too slow, but then the hero’s sister (Trieste Kelly Dunn) and a work friend (Raúl Castillo) get involved, and the movie turns incredibly suspenseful without getting bloody. Instead, it generates tension from the way these people who don’t ordinarily seek out dangerous situations suddenly start messing with bad guys while keeping them at a distance. The film was shot in Portland, Ore., and makes good use of the city as a backdrop. I also like the whimsical bits of humor in the second half; at one point the hero (who’s a big Arthur Conan Doyle reader) brings the whole plot to a halt so he can visit a tobacconist and buy a Sherlock Holmes-like meerschaum pipe. This is a better Sherlock Holmes homage than Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.
I don’t hate Miranda July, but I understand why some people do. Those people will likely run screaming from her second film’s opening sequence, which takes the point of view of a wounded stray cat in an animal shelter, with the animal’s thoughts voiced by July herself, using a falsetto voice. Oooh, so much quirky girlish cuteness! I think I’m going to hurl! The thing is, this movie critiques — albeit in a non-confrontational way — the solipsism and perpetual childhood that July is so often accused of. She and Hamish Linklater portray a long-term couple who, feeling that they haven’t fulfilled their youthful dreams, quit their jobs so that he can join an environmental activism group and she can put together an Internet project in which she films herself creating and performing a new dance every day for a month. Neither project goes well, because these self-styled creative people aren’t really that creative. The film ambles too much to win over the July haters, but it’s a step forward for this talented filmmaker.
This film runs 86 minutes, and for about 60 or 70 of those minutes, it plays like the lost pilot episode for the most awesome TV show about college ever. Then Gregg Araki’s film falls apart, and rather spectacularly too. Thomas Dekker plays a bisexual freshman who starts receiving cryptic anonymous messages in his e-mail account and under his door, while his lesbian best friend (Haley Bennett, an actress I like giving a performance that I really don’t like) discovers that her new girlfriend (Roxane Mesquida) is a witch. Then they both get tangled up with a murderous religious cult of murderous whose members wear animal masks. Lots of really attractive people get naked in this movie and have all kinds of sex. Then again, you expect that from Araki, as much as you do the candy colors and the general soapiness. I do wonder where the settled, mature filmmaker who did Mysterious Skin a few years back went to, but this movie is fun up until the end. Watch for Juno Temple as a British girl who hooks up with the hero, and quite a few other guys besides.
The Last Circus
All you need to know is: Serial-killer clowns! Yes, plural. After a childhood blighted by the Spanish Civil War, Javier (Carlos Areces) joins a circus and becomes its “sad clown,” whose job is to take abuse from the “silly clown” Sergio (Antonio de la Torre). Unfortunately, Sergio is abusive in real life, particularly toward his acrobat wife (Carolina Bang), and when Javier falls in love with her and gets the crap beaten out of him by Sergio, he turns into a monster. This is a political satire about Spain during Franco’s regime, but you’ll remember Areces’ tremendous performance as a shlubby sad-sack who becomes a psychotic killer and the stylish visuals and gonzo spirit of writer-director Álex de la Iglesia.
How can you beat that title? Thomas Cappelen Malling’s satire is based on a real-life person: Arne Treholt was a high-ranking Norwegian diplomat who was convicted of spying for the Soviets in the 1980s. The film imagines Treholt (played by Mads Ousdal) as the secret leader of a team of ninja warriors protecting the Norwegian border from Soviet invasion. You don’t have to know the particulars of the Treholt case to savor the deadpan Nordic humor here. A voiceover narrator describes the ninja’s history in reverential tones: “These brave Japanese peasants rose up against their samurai oppressors and beat the shit out of them.” The director seems to be having a ball imitating the look of 1980s films as well as staging inventive gags and reconfiguring his nation’s history.
A Serbian Film
This movie made me never want to have sex again. It’ll do the same for you, too. Srdjan Spasojević’s thriller is about a male porn star (Srdjan Todorović) who’s brought out of retirement to star in one last project, which is bankrolled by a pretentious rich dude (Sergej Trifunović) who won’t give him any details about the job. The movie’s supposed to make some satirical points about the conflict in the Balkans and how decent Serbs went mad and did terrible things. That’s fine, but when a film shows someone beheading a hooker with a machete and then continuing to have sex with the headless corpse, the subtler allegorical points tend to get lost. If that sounds appalling to you, that’s only the beginning of the depravity that this movie shows. Where The Last Circus succeeds as shock art, this thing fails. I saw things here that I seriously wish I had never seen. What was it all for? This movie scarred me for life.
Not to be confused with Skateland, Jim Mickle’s horror flick is about vampires, but it’s really a zombie movie disguised as a vampire movie. The vampires are mindless animals who have driven the remaining humans into small, heavily-armed pockets. The most promising idea here — the cult of white supremacists who see the vampires as instruments of racial purification — is wasted. Nevertheless, Mickle intersperses his action sequences with scenes dealing with how the humans are coping with the apocalypse, and he ends up sustaining a mood of contemplation that’s remarkable for the horror genre. A spiritual cousin to Let the Right One In and its American remake, this left me keen to see what this filmmaker does next. Gossip Girl fans will recognize Connor Paolo in the lead role.
Errol Morris has often been accused of lacking empathy for his subjects, but I never felt that was true until I saw this trashy documentary that I nevertheless couldn’t look away from. His main subject is Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming who in 1977 was accused of abducting and raping a Mormon missionary named Kirk Anderson, which led to a sensational trial in the U.K., where the alleged crime took place. Interviewed now, McKinney initially comes across like the woman in your office who always smiles and bakes cookies for everybody, but the more Morris talks to her, the more she starts to display near-psychotic levels of delusion. No one emerges from this looking good, not McKinney, not the absent Anderson, not the Mormon Church, not the paparazzi who followed the case, not even Morris himself. Yet there’s an undeniable sick fascination of being sucked into this woman’s all-consuming romantic fantasies.
This Norwegian horror flick is basically like The Blair Witch Project, except it’s about trolls. It’s good fun, too, beginning with three college students stalking a middle-aged loner (Otto Jespersen, best known as a comedian in his homeland) who lives in a trailer out in the countryside. They think he’s illegally poaching bears, but he turns out to be a government employee tasked with eliminate trolls. The movie falls flat at the end — why do all these vérité horror flicks end the same way? — but director André Øvredal provides humor and a light touch, and when we finally see the trolls, they are impressive indeed.
I’d never seen a movie from the Democratic Republic of Congo before this. If this thriller had been made in America, I’d think it was only fair, but the bare fact that it’s from the Democratic Republic of Congo makes it notable. Patsha Bay portrays Riva, a flashy mid-level criminal who steals a truck full of gas in neighboring Angola and drives it into the DRC, where gas shortages mean that he’ll make a bundle. However, he falls for Nora (Manie Malone), a gorgeous redhead who happens to be the moll of Kinshasa’s gang kingpin (Diplome Amekindra). To further complicate matters, a bunch of Angolan thugs arrive in Kinshasa as well, looking to recover their stolen gas. Writer-director Djo Tunda Wa Munga does it all up with some skill, and there’s a sympathetic lesbian character who gets caught up in the plot, which is notable coming from a country where homosexuality is still considered a taboo. This movie is a signpost in the unsteady progress of African filmmaking.