Chicago International Film Festival 2016: Part Two

A scathing horror-satire and a gritty eastern European crime drama

As promised, here are my capsule reviews of the two films I saw during the second half of CIFF 2016: Prevenge, a particularly dark horror-comedy written and directed by Alice Lowe, and Amok, a brutal crime drama set at a rough boarding school for orphaned boys.

Prevenge

Prevenge

United Kingdom, 2016. Directed by Alice Lowe. 88 minutes.

Culture probably fetishizes pregnancy more than any other concept, but when you think about it, it is a rather odd thing to carry the larval form of a complete stranger inside your body for the better part of a year, while it throws your internal chemistry all out of whack. (My friend John Bruni—I can’t tell you how many NSFW things are on the other side of that link, so consider yourself warned—used to sell bumper stickers that read It’s a Parasite, Not a Choice, a play on a classic anti-abortion slogan.)

Alice Lowe, the British writer/actress partly responsible for the awesome Sightseers, subverts the mystique of motherhood in her feature directorial début, Prevenge. Lowe (who was herself pregnant during the film’s production) directs herself in the lead role of Ruth, a single expectant mother and spree killer spurred on by the voice of her unborn child. As with Sightseers, Lowe deals in a specifically uncomfortable brand of dark comedy, playing with the audience’s sympathies as we learn more about Ruth and her motives and her victims become progressively less nasty. It’s a tough balance, and Lowe doesn’t always get it right, but when Prevenge works (and it works more often than not) the gallows humor and churning unease feed into each other for a unique frisson.

Amok

Amok

Macedonia, 2016. Directed by Vardan Tozija. 102 minutes.

Writer/director Vardan Tozija tells a familiar story in Amok, but that familiarity doesn’t dilute its power. Set in a rough-and-tumble subculture centered around an “adoption center,” a Brutalist monstrosity where orphaned teenage boys (nicknamed “rats”) live and are educated, the film follows its troubled—but essentially sympathetic, up to a point—protagonist Filip as he consistently runs afoul of a series of corrupt, exploitative, or indifferent authority figures. When a corrupt police detective finally pushes him too far, Filip strikes back the only way he knows how: with violence.

There’s only one way this story can end, but Amok isn’t so much predictable as it is tragic. Tozija brings a savage realism to an environment where even a high-school teacher has to be able to kick literal ass just to survive day-to-day. Actor Martin Gjorgoski gives Filip a dead-eyed stare that makes the character more terrifying than most horror-movie monsters. The moral of the story is clear: if you give the young and marginalized nothing to live for except violence, don’t be surprised when they deal violence in return.

Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight

A horror film from Laos, a race riot comedy from Australia, and more

The final day brought us a thriller from Spain, a supernatural horror film from Laos, and a black comedy from Australia.

(This final entry is going to be kind of brief, as I came down with a severe head cold on Thursday and am still recovering from feeling weak, feeble, and having a solid lead ingot instead of a brain.)

Continue reading “Fantastic Fest 2016: Day Eight”

Kill Me Three Times

A derivative dark, violent comedy that mostly works thanks to Simon Pegg.

Australia. Directed by Kriv Stenders, 2014. Starring Simon Pegg, Sullivan Stapleton, Alice Braga, Teresa Palmer, Callan Mulvey, Luke Hemsworth, Bryan Brown. 90 minutes.

If you’re anything like me, you’ve never asked yourself the question, “What would a Quentin Tarantino movie be like if Simon Pegg played the Samuel L. Jackson role?” Well, finally that question has an answer: it would be exactly like Kill Me Three Times.

This is one of those films that doesn’t progress in chronological order and you’re not supposed to go into it knowing how all the characters relate to each other, but I will muddle through as best I can. Pegg plays Charlie Wolfe, a hired killer stalking a woman named Alice (Alice Braga), a dental surgeon named Nathan (Sullivan Stapleton), and Nathan’s receptionist Lucy (Teresa Palmer). Nathan and Lucy are clearly up to something, and it doesn’t look good for Alice. But what exactly is going on, and how it connects to drunken, bitter hotel owner Jack (Callan Mulvey), garage mechanic Dylan (Luke Hemsworth), and corrupt cop Bruce (Bryan Brown)…you’re not going to start finding these things out until the second act.

So, yeah, convoluted structure, snappy dialog, self-consciously retro soundtrack, stylized violence, awesome cars, hopelessly hip title sequences…have I compared this to Tarantino yet? I have? Long story short, don’t go into Three Times expecting something particularly fresh and inventive. The most original thing about it is that it takes place in Australia.

Well, that…and Simon Pegg. I like Pegg as an actor, but I do readily admit I find it easy to underestimate him. It’s not that I don’t think he has range; it’s more that his range often extends in directions I don’t expect it to go. He’s not an obvious choice for the charming, sociopathic Charlie Wolfe. Three Times‘s story and structure center around Wolfe although he’s very much a supporting character (if the film has a genuine protagonist it’s Alice, even though she doesn’t start taking the focus until the second act). Like Wolfe, this is a cynical bastard of a movie that’s never happier than when it’s hurting people.

Thus, the success of the entire film largely depends on Pegg’s performance, and he carries it off like Satan; Three Times works because he does. I don’t mean to minimize the contributions of the rest of the cast–particularly Stapleton, Palmer, and above all Brown, who’s probably the clearest villain in a film full of morally compromised figures. But most of the roles would work if the performances weren’t as good, because this is Pegg’s show.

Sadly, Pegg’s performance doesn’t quite counterbalance Three Times‘s biggest flaw, which is that it clearly apes the work of iconic, influential filmmakers such as (here it comes again) Tarantino or the Coen brothers without having the corresponding thematic depth. It’s a shallow film that’s perfectly happy operating entirely on a surface level, and I don’t sense any ambition stretching beyond being a dark, violent comedy with noir-ish elements.

And that’s perfectly okay; at the end of the day, there’s something to be said for pure entertainment value, something Kill Me Three Times has in spades.

KILL ME THREE TIMES poster

Maps to the Stars

David Cronenberg’s haunted Hollywood

United States/Canada, 2014. Directed by David Cronenberg. Starring Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Robert Pattinson, Kiara Glasco, Sarah Gadon. 115 minutes.

Maps to the Stars paints Hollywood as a ghost town in more ways than one. Both the main characters–aging, washed-out actress Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore) and cocky child star Benjie Weiss (Evan Bird) interact with the dead: Benjie’s is a young fan; Havana’s is her mother (Sarah Gadon), a starlet who died young. Other ghosts are metaphorical: Benjie’s dim memories of a long-buried incident involving his estranged sister, the legacy Havana’s mother left her in the form of accusations of abuse–and a juicy Oscar-bait role of a lifetime. And Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), though very much alive, haunts them both, an agent of chaos ready to turn lives upside down. In keeping with the film’s theme of duality, burn scars mar her soul as well as her skin.

The idea of Hollywood being a wretched hive of scum and villainy, entirely fueled by cocaine and crystals–the new age kind, not the methamphetamine kind–and utterly obsessed with itself above all, isn’t exactly new, particularly in the context of Maps screenwriter Bruce Wagner’s body of work (which includes Scenes from the Class Struggle in Beverly Hills). When Havana privately celebrates the death of a fellow actress’s young child (because it opens a role in her dream project), it shocks rather less than it should. We’re too used to the gallery of sociopaths we assume inhabits Tinseltown. The film’s structure is also a bit flabby, featuring too many diversions and not always gracefully juggling a large ensemble of dramatis personae, which includes John Cusack as a self-help guru and Robert Pattinson as an actor/writer moonlighting as a limo driver.

It’s up to director David Cronenberg (surprisingly, this is the Canadian’s first film shot in the States) to tame this wild beast, and for the most part he proves to be a good match for the material. It’s not for nothing that Cronenberg earned the title of provocateur, and longtime fans will recognize the frankness and sensation that most people associate with his name. Of all mainstream filmmakers, I can’t think of many others who would put Moore’s character into an explicit three-way with her character’s own mother. The visuals are up to Cronenberg’s standard, save for an unfortunate effects shot near the film’s end.

Cronenberg seems to have a knack for drawing bravura performances out of his casts and Maps is no exception. Moore shines the brightest, bringing a sad sympathy and relatability to a character whose actions often hew too close to Joan Crawford Mommie Dearest excess. Wasikowska’s Agatha embodies alluring and creepy in equal measure. Bird’s role is perhaps the toughest–Benjie’s not just a spoiled tyrant, he’s a spoiled tyrant navigating the treacherous waters of adolescence…and the unwitting victim of secrets and lies he had no part in. Bird tackles the role with a confidence which largely overcomes the occasional flaw in characterization.

While Maps to the Stars isn’t quite as essential as some of its director’s last decade-and-a-half or so of successes, it’s still a good film distinguished by strong acting and that certain something only Cronenberg can offer.

Originally published by Cinema Axis.

Frank

A sensitive yet unflinching examination of the relationship between artistry and anxiety

Ireland/United Kingdom. Directed by Lenny Abrahamson, 2014. Starring Domhnall Gleeson, Michael Fassbender, Maggie Gyllenhaal. 95 minutes.

A long time ago, in the north of England, there was a guy named Chris Sievey. He was a musician, a comedian, and a songwriter. Frank Sidebottom was the name of his signature character. When performing as Frank, Sievey would wear a gigantic cartoonish fiberglass head. Sievey died in 2010 at the age of 54.

Frank, co-written by Sievey’s longtime keyboardist, isn’t about Sievey or Frank Sidebottom. It’s about a guy named Frank (played by Michael Fassbender), frontman and songwriter for a band called the Soronprfbs. They’re kind of like the sound of Captain Beefheart’s Magic Band married to the lyrics of Daniel Johnston. Like his namesake, Frank wears a gigantic fake head onstage. He also wears it offstage. As far as aspiring songwriter Jon Burroughs (Domhnall Gleeson), the latest addition to the Soronprfbs, can tell, Frank never takes the head off. And yet it seems that Frank is the most normal of the posse, which includes a theremin player with an anger-management problem (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a sound engineer with a sexual attraction to mannequins (Scoot McNairy), a French guitarist who speaks no English (François Civil), and a drummer who doesn’t speak at all (Carla Azar).

Frank doesn’t wear the mask to call attention to himself, the way KISS does, or to distract from his real identity, the way the Residents do. Instead, the mask and the identity are the same. The head is his confidence, his charm, and his charisma; with it, he leads his motley crew of adoring weirdos on their journey. When Frank débuts his “most likable song ever,” you can see exactly how Frank would see it as “extremely likable music.” Even if it’s a full minute of squelching synths and shouted random references to Coca-Cola, the Beatles and ancient Egyptian royalty.

By now you can probably tell Frank is more about mental illness than about the absurdities of the music industry, which I think is a rare tack for a film about popular music to take, although I could be wrong. Fassbender and Gyllenhaal, as the craziest members of the band, have the toughest jobs. The crazy rock star is an archetype unto itself and it would be too easy to take their performances over the top. Instead, they modulate appropriately. Fassbender turns in probably the best “actor in a mask for most of the movie” performance I’ve seen since Hugo Weaving in V for Vendetta. Gyllenhaal’s extreme tendencies take a tender turn when we come to understand what motivates her. Gleeson brings the audience-identification character, a wide-eyed optimist who somehow becomes the yardstick for normal.

Lenny Abrahamson’s direction is top-notch and the production is solid all around. Of course, a movie about music needs good songs and Frank delivers several, mostly provided by Irish composer Stephen Rennicks, with impeccable drum work by Azar and vocals by the cast members. Fassbender’s delivery perfectly reflects Frank’s psyche, turning the haunting closing theme “I Love You All” into the highlight. Yes, the songs are weird, but do you expect any less from a band called the Soronprfbs?

Frank is a sensitive yet unflinching examination of the relationship between artistry and anxiety, a glowing tribute to outsider music and those who dare to blaze their own path…even if they have to wear a fake head to do so.

 

Frank poster

Calvary

A remarkable and beautiful meditation on the subject of death, that begins with one of the most striking lines in cinema history.

Ireland. Directed by John Michael McDonough. Starring Brendan Gleeson, Kelly Reilly, Chris O’Dowd. 102 minutes.

The penitent man has an opening line so striking even the priest expresses being impressed with it: “I was seven years old when I first tasted semen.” The abuser, it turns out, was himself a man of the cloth, now long dead. Denied a chance at revenge, the penitent man will instead kill a good priest, an innocent priest, which would be more discomfiting for the Church than if he were to kill a bad priest. The victim will be the man on the other side of the lattice, who has seven days to put his affairs in order. “Killin’ a priest on a Sunday?” he concludes. “That’ll be a good one.”

The priest is Father James (Brendan Gleeson). The penitent man isn’t revealed to the audience until the film’s end, but there’s no lack of suspects in his parish. A dull butcher (Chris O’Dowd, The IT Crowd) married to an adulterous woman (Orla O’Rourke); an incompetent fellow priest (David Wilmot); a surly mechanic (Isaach de Bankolé); an atheistic surgeon (Aidan Gillen, Game of Thrones); an unhappy millionaire (Dylan Moran, Black Books); an aged writer (M. Emmet Walsh); a down-on-his-luck barkeep (Pat Shortt). But Calvary isn’t much of a whodunit: Father James knows who made the threat, even if the viewer doesn’t.

Instead what writer/director John Michael McDonagh delivers is a meditation on death. It is, of course, a comic one: a film with lines such as “I think she’s bipolar, or lactose intolerant…one of the two” and “I feel I’ve exhausted all the possibilities of pornography,” which contains a conversation between two priests on the subject of felching and the sight of a man pissing on an expensive painting by an Old Master has earned the right to be classified as a comedy. But if it’s a comedy, it’s a singularly melancholy one. The subject of death hangs over Father James like a shroud over what might be the last week of his life. He entertains his daughter (Kelly Reilly), visiting from London after a failed suicide attempt; he gives the last rites to a foreigner on holiday, mortally wounded in an auto accident; he visits a former pupil (Gleeson’s own son Domhnall), imprisoned for serial murder.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bob Dylan once sang that “he not busy being born is busy dying” and I think McDonagh would agree with that sentiment.

So more than anything else, Calvary is a character piece and you need a great cast to pull that off. Boy howdy, does McDonagh ever get one. Casting O’Dowd as a bumbling, clueless fool, Gillan as a charismatic but slightly creepy charmer harboring deep-seated anger, and Moran as a haughty misanthrope may seem too obvious, considering the actors’ signature roles, but the film refuses to brook any discussion that they are any less than perfect for their parts. O’Rourke exposes the pain behind her character’s promiscuity. Reilly perfectly embodies every young woman (and man) who consistently makes poor choices despite knowing better. Killan Scott and Owen Sharpe, in minor roles, steal every scene they appear in. Looming over all of them as if he’s part of the landscape, Brendan Gleeson’s Father James, who, if not exactly beatific, then at least consistently determined to preserve his faith in God and man, even when he doesn’t understand the former and the latter disappoints him.

The last performance comes from the coastal Irish landscape, the perfect reflection of its people: majestic and beautiful, yet overcast and violent. It’s the last place on Earth you’d expect to find a thriving community of surfers, thanks in part to the legendary hero Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Calvary is a remarkable examination of humanity, its nature and its great obsessions, sex and death. A stunning work of truth and beauty, it stands amongst the very best films of 2014.

Calvary poster

The Double

A film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.

United Kingdom. Directed by Richard Ayoade, 2013. Starring Jesse Eisenberg, Mia Wasikowska, Wallace Shawn. 93 minutes.

About half an hour into the film, a long-haired, elderly gent wearing a tuxedo leans into a microphone and starts to croon. “I was born in east Virginia,” he sings, “North Carolina I did roam.” But the singer’s accent makes it clear that, wherever he’s from, it isn’t anywhere near Virginia. (He is, in fact, the Finnish rock star Ilkka Johannes “Danny” Lipsanen, of Danny and the Islanders.) The sequence is The Double in microcosm: it’s a film obsessed with artifice and content, whose words tell one story and its accent another.

Loosely adapted by director/co-writer Richard Ayoade from a Dostoyevsky novella, The Double stars Jesse Eisenberg as Simon James, a sad sack who lives and works in pretty much the same world that Brazil took place in. He lives across the street from his pretty co-worker Hannah (Mia Wasikowska), spying on her with a telescope. One evening, Hannah’s upstairs neighbor commits suicide. Soon afterward, a gentleman named James Simon takes a job with Simon’s employer and moves into the newly-vacated apartment. James, also played by Eisenberg, is Simon’s exact physical double, but is confident and charming while Simon is meek and forgettable. Can Simon stop James from rudely ejecting him from his own life?

It doesn’t take a Media Studies major to work out that much of this story works on a metaphorical level, and I think that’s part of my problem with it. The Double is clever, yes–one expects nothing less of Ayoade, who, although better known as an actor (The IT Crowd), is also a co-creator of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, and is part of a clique whose members are responsible for The Mighty BooshSnuff Box, and Sightseers. But too often “clever” becomes “too clever for its own good.”

I desperately wanted to engage with the film because, of course, I see a lot of myself in Simon James. I expect much of the audience will share that, and I’m dead certain Ayoade knows it. Yet he keeps us at a constant remove from the story and the characters, through the characters’ sheer unlikeability (even Hannah turns out to be a twit), through the obvious falseness of the world-building, and…

Here I must admit a personal prejudice, something that I just can’t get past. Brazil–a film I have worked very hard not to compare The Double to, and mostly succeeded–largely works for me because I can see a sort of Everyman in Jonathan Pryce’s performance, despite Sam Lowry’s creepier tendencies and mommy issues. Pryce can disappear into the role. Jesse Eisenberg doesn’t disappear into roles; you’re never not aware you’re watching him. (Yes, even in The Social Network, which largely works not by turning Eisenberg into Mark Zuckerberg, but turning Zuckerberg into Eisenberg.)

This especially applies to his performance as James: by barely modulating Simon’s personality and mannerisms, he turns into someone everyone adores, while the audience doesn’t see that much of a difference. The audience is not going to buy Eisenberg (or at least this particular version of Eisenberg) as a charismatic womanizer. And once again, I feel myself drawn to qualify that criticism with “…but that’s probably by design.”

So I do have to conclude by saying that while I didn’t particularly enjoy The Double–it didn’t work for me as entertainment, and it didn’t work for me as a piece of art to engage with–I do admire Richard Ayoade for creating something that made me think and giving me one of the toughest reviews I’ve ever had to write (this piece is almost three weeks overdue). In a world where the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits” is starting to look less like fiction and more like a documentary, that’s a victory in and of itself.

The Double

Rubber

An unexpectedly philosophical film, like a verbal game of “what if?” played by a pair of stoned college students in a dorm room.

France. Directed by Quentin Dupieux, 2010. Starring “Robert,” Stephen Spinella, Roxane Mesquida. 82 minutes.

A group of spectators have assembled in the desert. They are addressed by a man in a state trooper named Lt. Chad (Stephen Spinella). He delivers a monologue on the topic of things happening in movies for “no reason.” Why is E.T. brown? No reason. In JFK, why is the president assassinated by a complete stranger? No reason.

He then informs the gathering that, in the film they’re about to watch, everything happens for exactly no reason whatsoever.

The assembly is given binoculars, and their attention is drawn to a nearby junkyard, where a discarded tire (identified in the credits as “Robert”) has suddenly come to life. It rolls along under its own power, awkwardly at first, but soon with confidence. Soon it discovers it has the power to destroy. It encounters a plastic water bottle and rolls over it, crushing it. It encounters a scorpion and does the same. When it fails to crush a beer bottle, it concentrates and causes it to explode by the force of its will alone.

It continues on its journey, killing anyone and anything that gets in its way, and drawing a variety of bystanders into its crime spree: Sheila (Roxane Mesquida), a young woman on a road trip; Zach (Remi Thorne), a teenager who works at a motel; even Lt. Chad and the police.

Is the tire really alive? Are these bizarre events really happening, or is it all some sort of trick? Will the audience, stuck in the desert with binoculars and no food, live long enough to see any of these questions answered?

Let’s be honest here. No film is ever “just a movie.” All movies are products of the people who make them: their obsessions, their anxieties, their fears. What makes them laugh, what frightens them, what turns them on. It doesn’t have to be conscious. Most of the time, it’s unconscious. But anyone who creates art will find the things they think about reflected in that art. It’s inevitable. When you watch a movie, everything you see and hear is the result of a conscious choice. Mistakes are a choice. Randomness is a choice. As Neil Peart once pointed out, even the refusal to make a choice is a choice.

At the beginning of Rubber, Lt. Chad asserts the opposite, but his argument gradually negates itself. He says important things in movies happen “for no reason,” but not only are there reasons for most of the examples he gives, those reasons are glaringly obvious. That says a lot about what follows.

Let’s compare Rubber to two other films that explore why things happen the way they do in violent movies. The Cabin in the Woods addresses the issue of inexplicable character behavior in slashers. Like Scream, it’s pure entertainment with a meta level. You can play along at home if you like, but it’s not necessary to enjoyment of the film. On the other hand, Funny Games isn’t entertainment and I’m sure Michael Haneke would be pissed at the idea of anyone, anywhere, actually enjoying it. Not only does it nakedly manipulate events to fit a predetermined outcome, it literally tells the audience that it’s doing so.

For the purposes of the point I’m making, the crucial difference between the two films is that Funny Games features a character who knows he’s in a movie. Rubber either splits the difference or takes it a step further. Lt. Chad knows he’s a character in a movie, but he doesn’t know where that ends and where his real life, assuming he even has one, begins.

Horror-comedies are expected to have a degree of self-awareness these days but what I hope I’ve communicated here is that Rubber has a bit of a philosophical bent to it, definitely more than you might expect from a movie about a tire that comes to life and starts Scanner-ing people to death. But it’s not an intellectual approach to philosophy: it’s more like a verbal game of “what if?” played by a pair of stoned college students in a dorm room, or an 80-minute-long Conspiracy Keanu meme.

This means that the film is going to be an acquired taste from the get-go, and has a tendency to be uneven, probably by design. It’s amusing and often laugh-out-loud funny, but not consistently so. It has a tendency to drag a bit in places, particularly at the beginning (the sequence depicting Robert learning to roll and kill is a particular offender…I think I get why writer/director Quentin Dupieux filmed and edited it the way he did, but sometimes that footage seems endless). It’s definitely more than a little indulgent.

It’s also one of those films that’s largely resistant to element-by-element breakdowns of its quality, because many of its flaws (uneven pacing, stilted performances) seem to be part of the point of the film–features as opposed to bugs.

Ultimately Rubber seems to be the kind of movie you either get or don’t get. I get it to an extent, and enjoyed it quite a bit, but it felt like certain thematic/narrative choices got in the way of me embracing it fully. On the other hand, I don’t think it could be “fixed” without taking its uniqueness away from it; art’s like that sometimes. Maybe it’s your kind of thing more than it is mine–hopefully I’ve given you enough information so you can tell whether it is. But despite my mixed emotions towards it, I’m rather glad it exists.

Rubber poster

Retro Review: The Cars that Ate Paris

Described as a “horror-comedy” but neither scary nor funny, it’s more of a relic from a distant place (Australia) and far-off time (the 1970s).

Australia. Directed by Peter Weir, 1974. Starring Terry Camilleri, John Meillon, Kevin Miles. 88 minutes (Criterion cut).

Australia, the mid-’70s. The country is in the midst of an economic downturn. Unemployment is high and shows no signs of getting better anytime soon.

Arthur Waldo (Terry Camilleri) and his brother George travel the back roads in their automobile, moving from town to town, looking for work. One night, they decide to follow a lead and head to the rural town of Paris. George, the driver, never makes it there alive: he crashes the car and is killed instantly. Arthur, sleeping at the time of the accident, has only vague memories of what happened.

Once released from the Paris hospital, Arthur has nowhere to go and, the car having been destroyed in the wreck, no way to get there. He falls into depression, his survivor’s guilt compounded by phobia. Not too long ago, Arthur was in another automobile accident–one in which he struck and killed an elderly pedestrian. The jury acquitted him, but the incident left him with a fear of driving. If he didn’t have that phobia, it might have been he who died, not George.

The mayor (John Meillon) takes him in and gets him a job. But Paris is a peculiar little town. The hospital is very busy, as frequent automobile accidents ensure a steady stream of patients. Many of them are never seen again; others suffer unrecoverable brain trauma and become “vegges,” permanent residents of the hospital. The local psychiatrist employs unconventional methods of treatment. And the youths of the town are violent and unruly, prowling the streets in bizarrely-modified autos.

The townsfolk harbor a bizarre secret. All those car accidents aren’t accidents at all; the residents of Paris cause them and loot the wreckage. Survivors are murdered, incapacitated or absorbed into the community. Arthur’s new neighbors hope to do the latter, but they won’t hesitate to the first two options to keep their secret.

Expectations can be tricky to manage sometimes. Let’s say you see a film that both IMDB and Wikipedia describe as a “horror-comedy.” Assuming you put much stock in the accuracy of either of those sources, you’re well within your rights to be disappointed when the film turns out not to be horror or funny. But how much of that can you reasonably hold against the film? Which faults actually belong to the film, and which ones belong to its public perception?

That’s my dilemma with The Cars that Ate Paris. I can’t figure out, for the life of me, how it ever gained a reputation as a horror movie. There are two creepy scenes and one shocking shot of gore, and that’s it. What’s more, it doesn’t seem to have the intent of a horror film behind it–writer/director Peter Weir doesn’t seem to be trying to scare the audience, and he doesn’t use much genre convention. Even the title is misleading: the titular cars don’t come into play until comparatively late in the film and never play much of a role. The spiky silver Volkswagen that figures in just about all of the film’s advertising and merchandising doesn’t appear until the movie is almost over and only appears in a few shots. It’s not the cars that are eating Paris, it’s the people.

The latter half of the phrase “horror-comedy” makes a bit more sense. Once one becomes aware of what’s happening in Paris, comparisons to Edgar Wright’s modern classic Hot Fuzz are obvious. Both films are social satires about insular communities going to extreme lengths to protect themselves and “the common good.” Late in the film, the Mayor and the town council installs Arthur in the newly-created role of town Parking Inspector, complete with uniform. (Arthur had a job as a hospital orderly, but struck out at that, so the town leaders need to find him something else to do if they’re not going to kill him.) But Arthur is passive to a pathological degree and turns out to be spectacularly unsuited to the position.

The problem, though, is that there aren’t many laughs in the movie. Even the situation I just described elicited no more than a few amused chuckles. If much of the film is intended as outright comedy, I can’t see it. I’m not sure whether this might be because the film is rooted in a forty-year-old representation of a foreign culture and I just don’t get it, or whether it simply isn’t, in an objective sense, very funny. Ditto with the social commentary: I can tell that Weir definitely has a point to make, and I think I’ve worked out a bit of what that point is, but I don’t know how all the pieces fit together.

Which doesn’t necessarily mean the film is a tough slog. The characters and situations are engaging enough to keep me interested, and there are several fine performances, particularly from Meillon, Robertson and cult character-actor Bruce Spence as a deep-fried mechanic who builds wind chimes out of Jaguar hood ornaments.

Ultimately The Cars that Ate Paris strikes me as a bit of an artifact, a relic from a distant place and far-off time. I just wish I could figure out what it has to say about that place and time. But I guess you can’t expect to win ’em all.

The Cars that Ate Paris poster

Cheap Thrills

A rich couple offers a family man and a petty criminal increasingly large amounts of money to perform increasingly dangerous acts. But their loss is our gain: Cheap Thrills is as funny as it is cynical and vicious.

United States. Directed by E.L. Katz, 2013. Starring Pat Healy, Ethan Embry, David Koechner, Sara Paxton. 88 minutes.

Let’s not mince words here: the global economic downturn sucks ass. The modern aristocracy–the ultra-wealthy, the 1% of the 1%–uses every means at its disposal to put as much financial distance between itself and the great unwashed as possible. Unemployment remains high, and those who do have jobs find themselves overworked and underpaid, the cost of living exceeding the value of their paychecks. More and more, members of the working class find themselves resorting to desperate measures to make ends meet.

That’s right, I think I do detect a faint whiff of social commentary coming from Cheap Thrills.

Pat Healy stars as Craig Daniels, a once-aspiring writer who gave up his dream in favor of an actual paying job at a mechanic’s shop. Then he finds himself a victim of what Corporate America euphemistically calls a “RIF” (reduction-in-force) and has no way to support his equally unemployed wife and infant child.

That’s when he runs into his childhood friend Vince (Ethan Embry), who’s turned to crime to make a living, and a pair of happy-go-lucky newlyweds Colin and Violet (David Koechner and Sara Paxton). The later two are rich and looking for a good time. What’s their idea of a good time? Paying Colin and Vince increasingly large amounts of money to perform increasingly outrageous, insane, and/or dangerous acts. $50 to slap a stripper’s ass, $200 to punch a nightclub bouncer in the face. The catch is that Colin turns it into a competition, so that while both Craig and Vince can break into a neighbor’s house and take a dump on the floor, only one of them gets $1200.

What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, of course, and thank God for that, because Craig and Vince’s loss is our gain: Cheap Thrills is as funny as it is cynical and vicious.

The screenplay, co-written by Trent Haaga (also responsible for ChopDeadgirl and many Troma productions) and David Chirchirillo, is a gem that succeeds on every possible level. Its surface goal is to amuse the audience with the sight of people doing stupid and disgusting things for money, and if that’s all you want, you’re not going to be disappointed. Shitting on the neighbor’s floor is only the tip of the iceberg.

But comedy often depends on pathos to give it depth, and Cheap Thrills sits atop a veritable motherlode of the stuff. It’s hard not to feel for Craig, who had so much going for him, but never realized his potential and ended up in this unfortunate situation. But you might also find yourself sympathizing with Vince, who might well have never had anything going for him, and even if he did, he was never able to find a legitimate vocation. If Mel Brooks had written this movie, he might have said, “Tragedy is when you lose your job; comedy is when you haggle the price to cut off your own pinkie finger.”

The characterization works just as well for Colin, the film’s nominal villain. He’s got just about every possible material possession money can buy, and he can easily acquire those he doesn’t have. But where does he go from there? Paying people to humiliate themselves for his and his wife’s entertainment is as good a start as any.

Violet gets the least development of the four main characters but that actually works in her favor. She’s quiet, for the most part, content to observe the circus instead of becoming a direct participant (except for a couple of particularly powerful scene). She acts the part of the vapid and bored Real Trophy Housewife, letting Colin get all the attention while their marks underestimate her.

So, yes, we’ve got a crackerjack script here. That doesn’t mean anything if the cast doesn’t have the comedic chops to pull it off, and do they? Boy howdy!

Healy’s performance is a complete 180° from his turn as the bad guy in Compliance, but his unassuming and slightly nerdy demeanor pays off handsomely in both roles. He’s perfect as the film’s hapless Everyman, a guy who’s desperate to take care of his family–and who among us can’t relate to him? Embry similarly puts in a strong performance as Vince, a guy who’s more than happy to buy you a beer or a line of coke, but will also fuck your shit up if you mess with him. Paxton’s waifish Violet is a nearly spectral presence, blending into the scenery as much as a woman as gorgeous as she is possibly can, and ensuring that you rarely notice her when she doesn’t want to be noticed.

But Koechner steals the entire show in a performance that I can call “Oscar-worthy” without any sense of hyperbole or irony. He’s been a reliable supporting player for years, usually in projects far beneath his considerable talent. (A Haunted House, anyone?) Here, the material gives him a chance to shine and he rises to the challenge with gusto. His interpretation of Colin is the film’s lynchpin: a villain so open and friendly and charismatic that he’s impossible to hate, a guy who’s got money falling out of every orifice yet puts on the show of being the regular guy so well that you sometimes forget he’s richer than Mitt Romney.

With everybody writing and acting all over the place, it’s easy to overlook first-timer E.L. Katz’s direction. His style may not be particularly showy, but it’s very subtle, with some memorable compositions (anything involving Koechner and a steam iron, as seen above). The editing–which is as crucial to a comedy film than any one-liner or funny-man performance–is exceptionally tight, with not a frame going to waste. (Also, loved the tip of the hat to Funny Games at the end!)

The best comedy–at least to me–doesn’t just make us laugh. It makes us uncomfortable, it holds a mirror up to us and points out the things we’d prefer to ignore. Cheap Thrills does all this, and more–and it never forgets to entertain.

Cheap Thrills poster