Friday, February 27, 2015

Antiviral

Brandon Cronenberg's directorial debut, Antiviral, is a dark, devastating critique of celebrity culture. It's a science fiction, body horror, black comedy thriller that examines the public's vampiric fascination with famous people and the outrageous lengths that fans will go to in order to connect with the objects of their obsession.

Television broadcasts blasting the latest tabloid exposés of the stars play in the background of Antiviral on seemingly endless loops but within the universe of the movie every single aspect of a celebritiy's being has the potential to be commodified. Muscle cells from the famous are harvested and turned into celebrity steaks and bacon bits so that the masses can cannibalize the public figures that they adore. And the posh Lucas Clinic offers the ultimate means of connection by giving fans the chance to be injected with viruses obtained from their favorite celebrities. In the opening sequence of the movie Syd March, a Lucas Clinic sales rep / technician, makes a persuasive pitch to client Edward Porris, ultimately convincing the young man to be infected with Herpes Simplex obtained from the beautiful, uber-famous Hannah Geist. The scene is horrifying but eerily seductive. What must it be like to be so entranced by a famous figure (or, more accurately, the public image she projects) that you will subject yourself to this kind of suffering in order to experience a physical connection with her? While it seems absurd on one level it is also entirely believable that this is the logical next step for our celebrity-obsessed culture. 

The only character we really get to know in Antiviral is Syd March, the story's amoral antihero. Syd has been smuggling viruses out of the Lucas Clinic, by infecting himself and extrapolating the corrupted matter off-site, and selling them on the black market. But exposing himself to all these illnesses has begun to take its toll on Syd's body. When he infects himself with a mysterious, untreatable disease that Hannah Geist has contracted he unintentionally launches himself into a race against time to find a cure, while trying to avoid becoming a commodity himself. Though the character initially seems shrewd and opportunistic, bucking the system for his own personal gain, it is clear by the end of the movie that his motivations are far more complicated and personal. Syd's rapidly deteriorating physical condition provides most of the movie's gore and, like his father David, Bradon Cronenberg gives good gore. There are some fantastically gruesome moments in Antiviral that are both squirm-inducing and surreally beautiful. And Caleb Landry Jones makes this sometimes inscrutable character's suffering highly compelling to watch.

I will cop to my own obsessive fangirl proclivities. I tend to like what I like in a way that's all-consuming so stories that explore celebrity culture and the public's relationship to it are fascinating to me. And while I like to think I'd draw the line at actually having myself infected with a virus in order to share a famous person's illness I can understand the slavish, delusional devotion that might drive that sort of impulse. While the actual plot of Antiviral is a fairly standard mystery thriller the ideas that drive the story make it especially unique and intriguing. The fact that none of the ideas presented in it seemed all that far-fetched made it even more compelling to me. And the movie's aesthetics are perfectly suited to the subject matter. Interiors are sleek and sterile, immaculate but largely devoid of personal touches, mirroring the flawless but hollow personas that public figures like Hannah Geist project. The film never explores the actual personalities of its celebrity characters. We only see them as the fans see them: they are perfect, near-mythical human beings, cyphers that the ravenous public clamors for because . . . why? Are they disheartened by or disinterested in their own lives? Is it easier to cling to the artifice of an ideal? Antiviral doesn't provide answers to these questions, it simply observes the behavior and allows viewers to draw their own conclusions.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Crazy Bitches

Crazy Bitches, Jane Clark's follow-up to her harrowing, heartfelt directorial debut, Meth Head, is, as its title suggests, a movie that doesn't take itself too seriously. I liked that about it. In fact, I liked everything about this movie. It's advertised as a "horror comedy sex-romp" and it delivers on all those fronts, in charmingly tongue-in-cheek fashion. It's funny, it's creepy and it's sexy. But what I loved most about it was the sharply observed writing and the endearing performances. It's a loving send-up of the slasher genre but it also manages to be a top-notch character study. That's very cool in and of itself but considering how many characters Clark is juggling it's also an incredibly impressive accomplishment.

If you know slashers you know the drill: a group of attractive friends get together for a weekend of rest and relaxation at a reasonably isolated location (in this instance, a ranch) and, one by one, fall prey to a crazed killer. More often than not the victims in these movies are high schoolers or college co-eds but Clark chose to cast older leads for her film. The protagonists in Crazy Bitches are old college sorority sisters (and their one gay male friend) who have been friends for years and treat one another like family; they have a history together, they know each other's faults and weaknesses (and sometimes exploit them for their own advantage or amusement) but there is also lots of love and affection within this tight-knit group. When the killer begins picking them off one by one (in creative ways that reference each woman's vanity) it hurts because, despite the fact that they're a flawed and, yes, rather bitchy bunch, they are also warm and relatable. They feel very real.

I have never acted in my life but I think, if that were my profession, I'd want to work with Jane Clark. She has written a fantastic, nuanced script that develops all of her characters equally and makes them feel fleshed-out and believable. She's got such a great ear for dialogue and the conversations between the characters ring very true. Clark is aided by an eclectic, appealing cast. Samantha Colburn is icily radiant as Taylor; there were flashes of genuine insecurity beneath her uptight exterior that really made me feel for her. Guinevere Turner is wonderfully snarky and sexy as the high-maintenance, very full-of-herself Belinda. I've loved Turner since Go Fish and she is always a treat to watch. I was completely smitten with Liz McGeever's Minnie, the youngest, sweetest, most sincere one of the bunch. McGeever is an absolutely adorable presence in this film. Every time I saw her I couldn't help but smile. And, as usual, I loved watching Blake Berris as Gareth, the libido-driven hillbilly ranch hand. More often than not Berris portrays dark, damaged characters so it was fun to see him provide the comic relief for a change. He's like a charming, dim-witted version of James Dean's Jett Rink. There's enough of an edge to his performance to make you wonder if he's a threat to the women he's trying to bed but, for the most part, he's a guy with more swagger than sense. He looks like he's having a great time and I had a great time watching him.

Cathy DeBuono, Andy Gala, Victoria Profeta, Nayo Wallace and Mary Jane Wells round out the principle cast and they all deliver equally solid performances. John W. McLaughlin is appropriately creepy and effective in a supporting role and Candis Cayne makes a brief but very memorable appearance as well. While the scares and the gore are effective Crazy Bitches is, for the most part, a delightful, engaging movie to watch. I can't wait to see where Jane Clark will go from here.

Friday, February 20, 2015

House of Last Things

The thought that ran, constantly, through my mind for the first half hour or so of Michael Bartlett's House of Last Things was "This is a profoundly strange movie." And while it is, at times, reminiscent of other movies I've never seen anything exactly like it. There's a B-movie, Twilight Zone kind-of vibe that it gives off at first that led me to believe I was simply in for a bit of campy, offbeat fun. So it surprised me when I passed the halfway mark and suddenly realized that the movie had become something darker and more sinister. It's never particularly frightening but, as it progresses, it becomes increasingly unsettling.  

House of Last Things is about a music critic, Alan, and his troubled wife, Sarah; the couple's marriage has deteriorated in the the wake of a personal tragedy so they leave their home in Portland and travel to Italy, hoping to mend their broken relationship. Alan hires a young woman named Kelly to house sit while he and Sarah are abroad. Kelly moves into the house and invites her younger brother, Tim, to stay there with her. She does not extend the same invitation to Jesse, her trashy, bullying boyfriend but he ends up crashing there all the same. Jesse gets the bright idea to kidnap a young boy, Adam, so that he and Kelly can collect a fat ransom from the child's parents. The only problem is nobody seems to be looking for Adam and his presence in the house begins to affect a change on Jesse and, to a lesser degree, Kelly and Tim. 

At its core, House of Last Things is a troubled ghost / haunted house yarn but the way the story unfolds feels fresh and unique. Even though they are thousands of miles away Alan and Sarah's experiences in Italy are still informed by the strange events that begin happening in their house. And the lives of the home's caretakers are likewise altered by Alan and Sarah's past tragedy. It's as if all the characters are inextricably linked together because they've all spent time in the house.

This is a peculiar and engaging movie with some strong, enjoyable performances. I only knew Lindsey Haun from her small role on True Blood and I thought she was quite charming as Kelly. There's something very endearing about her presence and that made it easy for me to care about what happened to her character. I was more familiar with RJ Mitte, thanks to his excellent work on Breaking Bad, and I thought he did a very good job here as well. His Tim, like Haun's Kelly, is sympathetic and appealing. Blake Berris has the toughest, but arguably most entertaining, role as Jesse. Berris has proven, on more than one occasion, that he is capable of turning unlikable characters into characters that people can care about but, I'll admit, Jesse was hard to care about initially. He's really a very unpleasant jerk, albeit an incredibly watchable and somewhat charismatic one. But once the house begins to take hold of him it's fascinating to watch the ways in which he transforms. And it's hard not to feel for him as he succumbs to whatever forces are at work around him. 

I have watched House of Last Things twice and I'm still trying to untangle some threads of the story in my brain. It's like assembling a puzzle but finding a handful of leftover pieces afterwards that don't seem to go anywhere. But, maybe, those bits aren't intended to fit, which just lends to the overall disorienting vibe of this quirky little film.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

Beyond the Black Rainbow opens with an informercial for the Arboria Institute: a state-of-the art facility that promises to bring happiness and serenity to sad and troubled individuals. But for a young woman named Elena (Eva Bourne) the institute is not a sanctuary, it is a virtual hell on earth. Elena is more prisoner than patient, confined to a spare cell of a room with only a bed and a panel of television screens. She attends therapy sessions with the enigmatically malevolent Barry Nye (Michael Rogers), who seems to derive some sort of sadistic pleasure from her persistent state of melancholy. The majority of the movie is devoted to the adversarial relationship between these two characters and Elena's ultimate attempt to escape the confines of Arboria. But the plot seems almost secondary, a delivery device for a series of unsettling and arresting visuals.

Beyond the Black Rainbow, written and directed by Panos Cosmatos, was released in 2010 but it is set in 1983. Like Ti West's The House of the Devil it is a modern movie that's meant to look like it was filmed during the era in which it takes place. It is futuristic but in a retro way; it's the future as filmmakers in the early eighties might have envisioned it. Since I grew up in the eighties I not only enjoyed the visual sensibilities of the story but I connected to them on a personal level. There were times when the movie felt like a long-lost episode of Nickelodeon's The Third Eye, a suspense, fantasy, sci-fi anthology series that I absolutely adored as a child. I could almost imagine myself watching Beyond the Black Rainbow as a little girl, equal parts terrified and fascinated. For that reason the movie felt not only nostalgic but eerily familiar. I really dug that about it.

The middle section of Beyond the Black Rainbow delves into Barry's back-story and explains why Elena is so important to him. For me this was the least compelling part of the movie, though I appreciated the story shifting gears mid-stream and going in a direction that I didn't expect it to go. I just think the movie is at its best when it doesn't attempt to provide an explanation for what's happening. There are some especially strong moments, particularly towards the end, that come very close to approximating the disorienting, illogical feeling of being in a nightmare. Stuff like that is more effective when it's left unexplained.

Overall, I found Beyond the Black Rainbow to be engaging, atmospheric and unique. I look forward to revisiting it whenever I get a hankering for a dose of trippy personal nostalgia.