Tag Archives: 2010s

THE LOVE WITCH (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

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Anna Biller may be one of the cinema’s last truly exceptional auteurs. Sure, the term itself is thrown around a lot, and sure, it’s particularly challenging to register as one when dealing almost exclusively in homage. Somewhere and somehow, Biller – born and raised in Los Angeles – finds a way, but regardless of the individual viewer’s tolerance for the director’s unabashed parading of influences and intent, her voice is positively one-of-a-kind.

Nearly an entire decade may have separated Biller’s feature debut (2007’s VIVA) and her latest oddball offering, but the same powerfully progressive voice remains unmistakably in-tact. THE LOVE WITCH concerns, as you could probably guess, a contemporary (?) witch Elaine (Samantha Robinson) pursuing a suitable male companion by means of black magic. Holed up as the new tenant in a gorgeous Victorian-style mansion, she practices making potions, but as we learn from her voice-over narration in the coastal cruise intro, Elaine’s still got a lot to learn.

The heroine’s quest is initially driven by the desire to be desired – preferably by all who should happen upon her but more specifically by men. The trail of gullible bastards she leaves in her wake – including but certainly not limited to suave University professor Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a police inspector (Gian Keys) perplexed by the prospect of a tampon submerged in a bottle of piss, and even her own ex-husband – ultimately leads the witch on a path to reclaiming individuality that is as hysterical as it is genuinely insightful.

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Firmly rooted in a bygone era (or several), the film features, among other seductive delights, exceedingly over-the-top performances, vintage costumes and décor, music borrowed from the likes of classic gialli A LIZARD AND A WOMAN’S SKIN and THE FIFTH CORD (both scores courtesy of Ennio Morricone), and M. David Mullen’s photography is spot-on in recreating even the most seemingly insignificant ticks of 60’s/70’s occult-sleaze cinema to a tee. It’s a seamless evocation of everything it claims to be, but there’s much more to this beatific brew than an ornate toast to the silver screen of yesteryear.

A great artist is always flourishing, and flourish is precisely what the writer/director/set and costume designer/composer/etc. has done in her absence. True to such developments, this is perhaps the furthest extension of Biller’s vision that she’s graced us with yet; more interesting than the obvious parallels between a witch and the contemporary female is, well, just about everything else regarding the patriarchy that the film dares to challenge under the guise of an amusing, consistently vibrant entertainment.

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Biller would rather her indignant criticisms fester on the surface, which allows for a remarkably articulate confrontation of gender stereotypes that feels empathetic where it could have just as easily been perceived as preachy. THE LOVE WITCH neglects to give off the impression of a work influenced too much by invasive contempt, instead seeking to explore equality by way of humility. A medieval-style wedding late in the game, complete with faux duels and a puppet-toting jester, holds the key to the filmmaker’s stance on both passion and passiveness alike. Elaine’s maturation, twisted as it is, is hardly glorified; in fact, she’s just as damned as her predominantly male victims. Nevertheless, the argument appears to be that it’s time the sorceress had her day as well, however demented and morally conflicting it may be.

It’s easy to surrender to the film’s campy, hallucinatory charms but Biller’s decision to balance her immanent cinematic fetishisms with such a biting, subversive critique is the true stroke of genius. Getting lost in WITCH’s candy-colored ocean is one thing, extracting individually invaluable observations is another. Once again, the filmmaker reaches into the past in order to look to the future – that of man, woman, and our relationship with one another – and the culmination of this particular excursion speaks for itself, loud and clear. It announces its spectacular existence until it knows that it doesn’t have to, and if this is indicative of where we’re headed, we might just be in good hands.

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CAT SICK BLUES (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

 

There’s an audience out there (make that far out there) for contemporary exploitation cinema of the most unadulterated variety – I like to believe I fit in there somewhere and somehow – and it’s easy to imagine that there are those who go for this kind of stuff based purely on unorthodox spectacle. This is the market that Dave Jackson’s demented CAT SICK BLUES seems to be best suited for, and while it’s certainly not devoid of merit for merely curious parties, it can be inferred that for most, it bumps up against established limits a bit close for comfort.

That’s of course by design, as this bizarre cinematic concoction concerns a sleazy serial killer who runs around wearing a black cat mask as well as a grotesquely long strap-on dildo while suffering from frequent seizures; you see, he’s attempting to collect the blood of nine female victims so that he may resurrect his recently deceased feline friend. It’s an inspired and often amusing premise, and though Jackson seems to embrace the humor inherent in its dark heart, it nevertheless walks a fine line between fluff and ferocity.

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Take, for instance, the case of Claire (Shian Donavan), a young woman who the psychotic anti-hero Ted (Matthew Vaughan) takes a shine to after learning that they share similar grief over an absent pet in their respective lives. Soon after she’s introduced, the poor woman is subjected to a particularly fateful afternoon when an unstable fanatic intrudes on Claire’s privacy; killing, an internet sensation, by twisting its neck on accident before raping her on camera.

Much like the majority of the more affecting sequences, this is mostly just exceedingly uncomfortable, and then Jackson dares to show the animal being thrown out of the apartment window and hitting the pavement; initially bordering on unbelievable, and it more or less stays that way, but the sight of the corpse/doll rebounding off the bike racks on its way down brings to mind fond (and hilarious) memories of the infamous suicide from Euro-trash classic ZOMBIE HOLOCAUST, in which some sorry son of a bitch flings himself out a hospital window and loses his arm in the end, only to have it reattached in the next shot.

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The experience on a whole wears this kind of conflicted emotional pallet proudly, inspiring almost as many uneasy laughs as prolonged cringes. There are attempts at blatant social commentary (regarding the relationship between technology and the people) which remain almost remarkably one-note throughout and Claire’s potentially poignant sub-plot is unfortunately undercooked at best and genuinely tasteless at worst, with Jackson’s script failing to explore her trauma in any sort of subtle or satisfactory way. Sure, one could argue that the sleaze aficionados of old were hardly any more enlightened (in the traditional sense), but they certainly had more going on, and acknowledged that some semblance of humanism has to be brought with them into such transgressive terrain. The world the film envisions is neither condensed nor elaborate enough to support this kind of weight, and so it simply collapses under it; reveling in its own ugliness until it achieves only tedium.

The narrative essentially moves full speed ahead until it hits the home stretch. Jackson, a native Aussie, delivers the icky goods in spectacularly over-the-top fashion, generously rewarding viewers for their patience, and to his credit it’s impressive what unsavory horrors the writer/director and company are able to achieve on a low budget. This applies to the rest of the film as well; it looks nice most of the time and Jackson is able to get decent performances from his main cast. Nevertheless, it’s a film of several severe tonal and moral miscalculations, most of which are clearly intentional but no less debilitating. The brutal murders committed at the hands of Ted become increasingly more visceral as his spree goes on, resembling music videos at a certain point (what with slow-motion and insane amounts of hyper-stylized bloodshed) and let’s not even get into the synth score, which seems to imply heavily nostalgic undertones.

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It’s just not a good look for a film that constantly prides itself on how utterly distinctive it is, though mileage may vary based on one’s tolerance for this specific brand of pandering – which, to be fair, doesn’t necessarily define the experience, but it would be better off without it. It’s all a bit exhausting in the end, though not necessarily in the way(s) that its makers intended. There’s enough ambition here to garner interest in whatever Jackson has in store for the foreseeable future – in hopes that perception and perversion balance each-other out in the next outing and that the brain need not be checked at the door.

THE HEROES OF ARVINE PLACE (2014) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

There’s solace to be found in an engaging, down-to-earth drama rich with the sort of essential humanism that seems all but lost in the current cinematic climate, and that’s precisely how one might describe Damian Lahey’s frequently endearing THE HEROES OF ARVINE PLACE. At just 74 minutes, it’s akin to a warm hug from a close friend or relative following a considerable absence and is equally as delightful.

Cullen Moss is marvelous as Kevin, a single father of two young girls who’s just trying to make it through the holidays after losing both his job and his car on the same day. He adopts an attitude of impressive tenacity, and over the course of the next few days, the immensely likable widower does everything in his power to make something – anything – work. Between a Christmas party at his place, a sister in the psych ward, a meeting with one of his literary idols which could determine the future of his hopeful future as a successful children’s book author, and the promise of presents for his daughters; Kevin’s got a lot on his plate, and there’s more to come.

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Sure, there’s little here that will challenged a seasoned viewer but this doesn’t appear to be Lahey’s priority, instead honing his energies towards painting an effective portrait of a down-on-his-luck guy during one of the most stressful seasons. There are hints of a deeper underlying sadness here, but it’s kind of admirable how Lahey avoids discussing these things in thorough detail at any point; much like the charming character at its core, the film is just trying not to dwell.

Considering its restricted budget, THE HEROES OF ARVINE PLACE could be seen as a testament to the individual and collective talents on both sides of the camera, and how sometimes a decent feel-good yarn is just fine when crafted with such obvious care. Lahey’s direction and script are assured, and he’s able to get some excellent performances from his cast; Tarina Reed’s photography is simple but not lacking formal depth; and Craig Moorhead’s editing is consistently efficient.

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The score, from Brian Jenkins and Naarah Strokosch, is decidedly of a whimsical variety and sometimes threatens to sour the experience ever so slightly; it can feel, at times, almost as if the film is unsure of just how much it wants to indulge in fantasy and/or reality. It’s a middle ground that can feel too close for comfort, but given the material, it feels appropriate. There’s an intuitive empathy and sense of humor here that drowns out these little blemishes, and though the film may wear its heart on its sleeve to a fault, the pull of warmth reigns supreme in the end. It’s fairly easy to surrender to the film’s undeniably uplifting energies when one is in such positively personable company as this.

ANTIBIRTH (2016) – A REVIEW BY RYAN MARSHALL

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It wouldn’t be impractical to compare ANTIBIRTH, the messy (in more ways than one) feature debut from accomplished visual artist Danny Perez, to the unexpectedly PCP-laced joint or to the scatter-brained B-side to a profoundly psychedelic experience. Indeed, it’s precisely this kind of abnormal out-of-body ambiance that the film aspires to; evoking heavy shades of David Lynch, Cronenberg and many others as it stretches its admittedly thin concept to grotesque, kaleidoscopic extremes.

Brimming with all sorts of hazy, shamelessly abrasive potential from frame one, this grungy yarn concerns the plight of wayward trouble-maker Lou (Natasha Lyonne), who wakes up one morning after a night of heavy hedonism to the most sickening sensations. These are later discovered – first, by Lou’s best friend Sadie (Chloe Sevigny) – to be the symptoms of pregnancy, but neither of the two can recall the events which transpired that previous evening.

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There are at least a dozen movies attempting to co-exist here, but taking precedence over most others – at least for a while – is the hang out picture. The viewer assumes a sort of sleazy fly-on-the-wall perspective for roughly the first half of the surreal narrative, watching as Lou’s situation get worse and the she engages in mundane daily routine. Suddenly, disturbing visions of obscured memories begin to plague the poor party-goer’s mind, and upon the arrival of a peculiar old woman (Meg Tilly, delightfully bat-shit) in the small mid-west town, things take an unexpectedly twisted turn.

Perez is probably best known for his collaborations over the years with Animal Collective, in which he provided the band’s heady tunes with an appropriately imaginative visual companion (see the excellent and often overwhelmingly terrifying  “visual album” ODDSAC from 2010), so it’s no secret that his first foray into more grounded narrative work would be an ambitious one. Like that earlier film, ANTIBIRTH dabbles almost exclusively in gross body horror and Perez certainly has the means of dishing it out when the time comes, which is – rather unfortunately – too late in the game.

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Allowing for a better understanding of his past work, one might get the sense that Perez is more interested in exceedingly strange ideas and imagery than he is in people. This doesn’t always have to be a bad thing, but when the anti-heroine of the director’s abstracted world is one-dimensional at best and insufferable at worst, and those around her aren’t much better off, a gory good time then becomes an unnecessary struggle to locate anything of genuine substance. One could argue that the film’s indifferent attitude is embedded in its punk DNA, but when it accumulates to something as frequently unfunny, off-putting and shoddily constructed as this, it can be best chocked up to sheer ineptitude.

As expected, Perez is able to cook up some spectacular moments throughout – the idea of a quiet Michigan town teeming with experimental military activity and extraterrestrial conspiracy is an enticing one, and that sound design is pretty neat – but his stylistic flourishes end up being more debilitating – and, dare I say, amateurish – than exhilarating (the sequences set in the “Fun Zone”, a family-friendly pizzeria seemingly converted from an aging dive bar, are a fine example of this). Where it clearly wants to revel in oddity and excess, the film remains stagnant and can barely stay afloat, meandering on an already fairly weak foundation. It’s a leisurely, sedated, albeit colorful descent to whatever lies beneath the bottom of the barrel; you’re free to take that as you will, but the effort it requires to find something even vaguely inspiring isn’t really worth it.

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