Sunday, 31 July 2011

The Movie Exchange Club Podcast #01 / Mini-Reviews

Recently I appeared as a guest on The Movie Exchange Club, a new Podcast on, which you can listen to here: Movie Exchange Club. In this debut episode the Exchange Club (Me, Marcey, Bede Jermyn and Sam Inglis) allocated a movie to each member which they'd never seen before; we watched them, and then discussed them for your listening pleasure. I was given White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982), Everybody Dies But Me (Valeriya Gay Germanika, 2008) and XXY (Lucía Puenzo, 2007), all of which are reviewed below...

White Dog (Samuel Fuller, 1982)

Sam Fuller's White Dog is one of the most indecisive films I've ever seen. Does it want to be a borderline exploitative horror, a political drama, or a romance between Julie (Kristy McNichol) and the dog she adopts after hitting it with her car? It's a strange film - as strange as Fuller's 1963 cult classic Shock Corridor ("Nymphos!") - and even now I can't quite get my head around it. Paramount execs were quoted at the time as saying they wanted the film to be "Jaws with paws", and certainly Ennio Morricone's underrated score recalls that film in its alarming strings and mounting dread. But something tells me that Fuller wanted to make a different picture altogether...

White Dog - co-written by Curtis Hanson, who would later go on to direct L.A. Confidential (1997) - is a frequently interesting film, but rarely a very good one. Its tin-eared dialogue ("How did he turn him into a racist dog?") doesn't help matters, but the film really fails in its conceptual stages, with an overly obvious and underdeveloped metaphor about racism. Time and time again we're told that the dog is not the monster, but the trainer is - the man who taught it to attack blacks, likely by manipulating black drunks into beating the dog for a quick buck to meet their fix. But what point, if any, is being made here?

The style is so scattershot that it's hard to tell. The murders - and an attempted rape early in the film - play out like deleted scenes from a B-movie slasher, utilizing P.O.V. shots, shadows and an epileptic score to build atmosphere, always ending on a shot of the bloodied dog. But in the very next scene White Dog can feel like an entirely different film; a melodrama about a fluffy German Shepard and his owner, based on a true life story involving Jean Seberg, who charmed audiences everywhere in Godard's À bout de souffle (1960). Next the film appears to take a solemn stance on the topic of racism, which was met by (inexplicable) charges of being racist in 1982. It was, on the other hand, celebrated by critics. I find both facts hard to comprehend.

As we flit from scene to scene the film becomes more and more inconsistent, and the underdeveloped characters - badly portrayed too, for McNichol is not the best of actresses, especially when she's playing Seberg - do little to engage the audience, who are also condescended by the direction, which hammers home every message with zero subtlety; the church scene, for example, which makes a nod toward a stained-glass portrait of St Francis of Assisi. Where are the relationships here? Why should I care when characters are screaming "The dog busted outta the compound!" like we're in some cheap, grotty action flick that would be found in the bottom of a bargain basement? Like I said, White Dog is an interesting film, but by no means is it a good one...

Everybody Dies But Me (Valeriya Gay Germanika, 2008)

Everybody Dies But Me revolves around three fickle, naive and cruel teenage girls - supposedly friends - and that is why I both loved and hated the film, the feature debut of Valeriya Gay Germanika, who previously directed three documentary shorts. I can't really fault the film on a technical level; the screenplay is layered and honest, the performances raw and believable, and the handheld style observational, when it so easily could have become intrusive and alienating (think of Rachel Getting Married, Demme, 2008). So, it's a brilliant film, right? Well, yes, but that doesn't mean I have to like it...

I'm not one of these critics who has a low tolerance for unlikable characters. Many hate the films of Noah Baumbach, whose characters whinge incessantly about the difficulty of their middle-class lives, but I think the director - a more sensitive soul than many give him credit for - shoots those characters through an empathetic lens, and allows us to be turned off by them. We can judge them because they themselves are judgmental. There's no such feeling within the hermetically sealed world of Everybody Dies But Me, which locks us into the barbed emotional environment of Katya (Polina Filonenko), Zhanna (Agniya Kuznetsova) and Vika (Olga Shuvalova), who are as spiteful as teenage girls get.

My problem lay in the fact that I hated these characters so much and yet was not allowed to remove myself from them; it's like being trapped under ice-covered water, and searching for a crack through which to draw breath. There are nice characters - well, one - but she's used and abused by Zhanna, who is the most difficult girl to deal with. But she's almost the most complex, and this is what makes the film so great - hate them as I do, the characters in Everybody Dies But Me are certainly not cardboard cutouts or stereotypes; I hate them because they're developed, and because they feel like real people. People I'd have avoided in High School.

It's this honesty which means I can wholly recommend the film. The fact that it had such an instinctively emotional effect on me can only be a sign that it worked. Indeed, it's a great film. I just didn't like it.

XXY (Lucía Puenzo, 2007)

I've never seen a film quite like XXY. I've seen films which deal with the same subject matter, but never in such a delicate and poetic way; it's a film which so easily could have aimed for provocation, but its decision to opt for gentle character study is greatly rewarding. XXY tells the story of Alex (Inés Efron), an inter-sexed 15-year-old (she has been living as a girl, taking medication to suppress masculine features) who has recently moved to a small fishing village in Uruguay; the family previously lived in Argentina, but struggled with the way Alex was accepted by the community. Here they hope for a fresh start, and the film begins with the arrival of family friends - including the young Álvaro (Martín Piroyansky), who is conflicted by his feelings toward Alex.

What I loved most about the film was its setting. The film is shot through a soothing blue lens by DP Natasha Braier, who perfectly captures the calmness of the environment. The sea-life theme also runs a bit deeper than setting (which is gorgeous and evocative); Alex keeps clownfish, which are protandrous hermaphrodites, meaning that they are all born male, and some will later become female. The family name is also Kraken, which calls to mind the creature of sea-faring legend and fantasy. The opening credits are also beautifully designed, with a darkly shaded turquoise ocean revealing shadows writhing in its depths.

The drama is perfectly judged at all times, especially in a mid-way love scene between Alex and Álvaro, which takes an unexpected turn. The scene is equally awkward and intimate, and certainly it has repercussions for the rest of the characters, who begin to question the quality of life Alex is destined for. But the most interesting relationships on offer here are the ones between fathers and their children. In one scene Álvaro asks his father, "Do you like me?" "You're my son", the father replies. That answer is never good enough, and Álvaro calls him out. "Let's cut the crap and talk seriously." There's a long pause, and then the father picks his words. "Kind of."

It's that honesty and bluntness of feeling which makes XXY such a wonderful film. It's poignant and affecting, and doesn't offer any easy answers. Life hurts all of us, in complex and unique ways. Alex and Álvaro are proof of this, and their journey is fascinating.

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