For the past few posts I’ve been talking about the horror that the new year begins with terrible new releases that only serve to fill in gaps as older releases, all of them from the October – December trimester, continue to play to justify award season demands (and the upsurge that a win can produce). Case in point, Parasite. At the start of the year, Parasite was playing — still to packed audiences, mind you, the movie has not lost much in momentum with the public — in a little more than 150 theaters. Come the end of January it expanded to 1,000 theaters, and then suddenly, throughout the entirety of February, to twice that amount. In that time we have had a litany of forgettable movies come and go with an incredible swiftness to the point it almost begged the question, “Why bother at all to release this pile of crap when you could have just opened more slots for Parasite and still make good money?” Of course, I will answer my own question. Movies picked up for distribution — even the truly awful ones — must get their just release (unless other forces are at work which make it then stuck in limbo). They have to play for the requisite seven to 14 days, take the money they can make, and run. And make the remainder of their impact via VOD platforms.
So, imagine the choices when your truly has seen all of the critically acclaimed films making their January/February bows. I’d already seen Clemency a year ago at a sneak peek (and my review of that one is pending and will appear shortly after a second view), The New York Film Festival entries Beanpole, The Traitor, Vitalina Varela, and I Was Home, But… are now in theaters come this writing. Of all these, I have not seen the last one and plan to before it exits the Lincoln Center. Aside from that, there is next to nothing for someone who enjoys good independent and foreign movies (and even an occasional misfire). What is someone like me to do?
Give any VODs and older releases making their appearance on home rentals a chance and see what it was that I missed, and feel safe knowing that if the rental didn’t really live up to my expectations, at least I didn’t;t have to shelve out almost 17.00 to go see it and walk out a bit underwhelmed.
So let’s start: Here are the rentals I have had a chance to see, which if you have not, you should.
VILLAINS, Dan Berk and Robert Olson, USA
Dan Berk and Robert Olson have come up with a rather clever premise of two somewhat dim-witted, in-the-moment thrill seekers who have a thing for holding up convenience stores without much thought of what may happen afterwards. In some ways, they may call unto question a slight — but note, very slight — relation to some of the less ingenious criminals living in the Tarantino universe, but I don’t want to be too unfair and take away from the Berk-Olson team who have come up with an original effort worthy of note in mirrors meeting their own darker reflection.
Mickey and Jules (Bill Skarsgard and Maika Monroe, a frequent actress in the horror genre) are a pair of inept criminals who wouldn’t know the way out of a scenario if they were staring at it right in the face. While they make out with some cash from a gas station after holding it up, their luck soon runs out. It turns out… they forgot to load up their getaway vehicle with the one thing they would need to make a clean split from the area and hide out in the middle of no man’s land while waiting to commit their next score. And that, my friends, is probably the one thing that would make us wonder if in fact these two are too stupid to live.
However, their luck turns for the better when they come across a stately home off the road. Logic states, where there is a house, there must be food, and a place to hide out for the night and if things get messy… hold the inhabitants captive, right?
Berk and Olson establish a rather suspenseful scenario not without some comedic elements in having their two hapless lovebirds do a home invasion that results in the two of them stumbling on a little certain detail that derails their plans in a rather steep way. When they eventually meet the home owners (Kyra Sedgwick and Jeffrey Donovan, both old enough to be Skarsgard and Monroe’s parents), at first they make demands on their find, and quickly find out they may be in over their heads. It all threatens to get a little out of control and I kept expecting the directors to go into French New Intensity with violence that would be just on the limits of bearable, but they instead stick to a scenario that includes power reversals, quease-inducing sexual acts of bondage, and Monroe’s sudden discovery of a moral side to her that propels the story headlong into a battle of wills in which anything might happen. Villains and its quartet of actors know they’re in a B-movie, and they all do the best they can with their characters without attempting to justify why they even got there in the first place. For the slog that theaters are in, this is the perfect rental for a cold Friday night.
CLIMAX, Gaspar Noé, France (2018)
You probably won’t want to see Gaspar Noé’s Climax, because if you know anything about his work is that he intends to shock, and often succeeds. If you recall Irreversible (2002), Monica Bellucci endured a rape scene that was unwatchable and he kept the camera dead on that terrible scene for ten excruciating minutes. The debates about why such violence against women had to be filmed ran rampant amongst those who saw the film, especially when it was a man doing the directing… and then, last year, Jennifer Kent did something just as shocking with her movie The Nightingale in which her heroine gets raped, twice, and that is still not the worst thing to happen in her miserable but historically significant story.
Nothing here comes even close to the in-your-face events of Irreversible, and yet, the movie still manages to deliver its shocks in a somewhat minor key. It’s almost as if Noé had stepped back and instead of filming some of its horror up close and personal, he chose to let his drone camera wander throughout a late 90s rave party that spirals out of control when someone spikes the booze (not a spoiler; the movie is free of spoilers) and focus on the vignettes that start to escalate in intensity with a certain detachedness. It’s probably for the best; one of the deaths involves an innocent and occurs off-screen, but it still manages to shock because of how utter lacking it is in human empathy, how bottomless its cruelty is. Another hard to stomach scene involves a pregnant party goer who gets assaulted in a rather horrifying manner only to have this repeated by a crowd and finally, by her own hand. Not your average party.
If this good cinema? If you like transgressive cinema, then yes, it will appeal to you, I personally was more amazed by the dancers themselves; I haven’t seen moves this unique since the early 90s when Vogueing was the rage thanks to Madonna stealing it from gay culture and pretending she came up with it. Acting-wise, no one really stands out; Sofia Boutella as Selva is the only thing that comes close to a lead and her character is thinly developed. If Noé can focus less on releasing the hounds of hell that he introduces musically when Cerrone’s Supernature takes a hold of the dancefloor, then we may care a bit more of what happens to these doomed party people. Noé is so enamored by the chaos waiting just around the corner, which happens midway through his 90 minutes of running time, we lose a bit of the human part of it, and all we get left are frenzied bodies contorting on the floor, babbling, self-destructing on acid.
You may ask yourself what was the point of it all, and perhaps there is no point other than to show nihilism as a night to remember or forget. In that, Noé’s two dance-oriented pictures are bookends that showcase what it might be if hell were here on Earth run by a deranged ringleader south of Buñuel at his sickest.