The King Of Marvin Gardens
The last narrative film produced by the BBS production company also functions as a sort of final gathering of many of the major collaborators of the time period, from director Bob Rafelson and star Jack Nicholson, who worked with each other on both Head and Five Easy Pieces, to co-stars Bruce Dern and Ellen Burstyn, who had memorable supporting roles in Drive, He Said and The Last Picture Show, respectively. With so many familiar faces, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect something in a similar vein to what came before, but The King Of Marvin Gardens has its own way of going about things, best exemplified by the opening shot, an extended close-up of Nicholson as he goes through a monologue on his radio show. Nicholson, so often associated with larger-than-life performances, is remarkably subdued here, easily stepping into the shoes of a quiet, lonely man who reluctantly agrees to reconnect with his much more extroverted brother. In order for that to happen though, Nicholson’s character has to travel to Atlantic City, a setting that fits nicely with the energetic, but quietly depressed company he finds there. Along with Dern (who can play desperation as good as anyone), he meets Burstyn, one of Dern’s girlfriends, paranoid that she will eventually be cast aside by him in favor of her stepdaughter. and the local mob boss, played by Scatman Crothers.
The theme of reconnecting with lost family is not new to Rafelson and Nicholson, but here it’s only one element out of several, all vying for equal attention. At times, the film almost gets too bogged down in trying to give enough time to everything. Rafelson effectively employs a small degree of misdirection, setting up the element of danger with Atlantic City gangsters, while diverting attention away from the tension constantly building within the central unit, which is where the real action is. Despite the film’s exemplary material, and there really is quite a bit to admire, it’s not quite as successful as the best of the BBS productions, jumping about wildly in tone, relying a little too much on forced metaphors (the Monopoly connections get old fast), and lacking characters as strongly defined and memorable as Robert Eroica Dupea and Rayette Dipesto from Five Easy Pieces. Which is not to say that the film isn’t worthwhile; it’s just that it’s the kind of film that I really want to embrace, but it’s detached, sometimes overly-stagey storytelling kept me at arm’s length. 7/10.
The first sequence of Hou Hsaio-hsien’s 2001 film is one of the more arresting openings I’ve seen to a film in a long time. The camera follows lead actress Shu Qi as she moves down a bridge walkway at night to an evocative piece of electronic music by Lim Going, while an unseen female narrator from ten years into the future thinks back into the past. The narrator focuses her attention on the winding down of a relationship between the directionless Vicky and her DJ boyfriend Hao-Hao, whose lives seem to mostly revolve around spending time in clubs and just trying to get through each day intact. The rest of the film observes Vicky as she gradually shifts her life away from Hao-Hao, with Hou also quietly commenting on the kind of post-millennial malaise among 20-somethings. (also a defining feature of the final segment of his 2006 film Three Times). That subtext might explain the film’s approach to the relationship at its center. Hou chooses not to show much affection between Vicky and Hao-Hao; most of the focus is given to the relationship’s end, and his callous and confrontational attitudes towards her. It’s an uncompromising but honest examination, but it does raise the question of why Vicky bothered with Hao-Hao in the first place.
Hou’s style here is very deliberate, the camera always kept stationary and distanced from the action, with shots holding much longer than what is usually considered the norm. Locations will shift from noisy clubs to quiet apartments, but everything remains loosely defined, with Hou more focused on following character gestures and interactions than on establishing settings. It gives a subtly disorienting, hazy quality to the film, one that mirrors the aimless lifestyle and general dissatisfaction of the main character Vicky. Admittedly, spending an extended amount of time in the company of these characters is not the most easy task. At times, you want to shout into the screen at Vicky to break it off permanently and just move on. But even if her situation and her attitudes can sometimes be frustrating, she also feels very real, and there is an honesty to the film as a whole that makes the time spent with it worthwhile. 7/10.
The ABCs Of Death
I think I’m about ready to give up on the horror anthology, that particular subset of horror cinema that so frequently offers potential but almost always ends up disappointing. This new collection has a unique and attention-grabbing selling point: 26 different directors, each assigned a letter of the alphabet for a short film based around death-related subject matter. It’s not a bad selling point, and unlike the recent and safer V/H/S, it at least promises, and delivers, a good deal of variety. Apart from the more conventional offerings, you get a little bit of stop-motion animation, a giallo homage, one film shot entirely from the first-person perspective of a zombie, some attempts at science fiction, one or two productions that would evoke memories of Lynch or Cronenberg if they weren’t so inept, and some moments that outright defy categorization. The one common link between them all, unfortunately, is that none of them are much good.
The least interesting segments are, predictably, the ones that try to be scary or disturbing. It’s always tough for a horror anthology to generate any real terror, and it’s especially tough here with the large number of segments, each ranging from 2-5 minutes. Most of the filmmakers go for a more irreverent approach, but only a small handful are particularly interesting or memorable, and some of them are memorable for all the wrong reasons. The best of the bunch is the ‘Q‘ segment, where the filmmakers lament being given the ‘Q‘ segment and brainstorm different hooks and ideas to make their work stand out. The worst offender is the ‘L‘ segment, an incredibly sadistic and nasty piece focusing on a contest where two participants are forced to masturbate to increasingly disturbing images. It’s sick stuff, the kind of material where you can’t help but wonder “Who thought this was a good idea, and how do they sleep at night knowing they’re responsible for it?” Elsewhere, Ti West continues to quickly burn through whatever small amount of goodwill he had built up with The House Of The Devil. His contribution looks like something he took all of one hour to shoot, its only purpose to set up a cheap joke with the reveal of his letter’s association. Most of the segments though pass by with little to no consequence, and it’s too bad because that original idea is still somewhat interesting. Maybe everyone would have been better served if it had just stayed an idea. 2/10.