Wednesday, May 22, 2013


(US - 2013)

There's an interesting concept behind the anthology horror film THE ABCs OF DEATH:  producers gave a letter of the alphabet to 27 cult horror filmmakers (the letter "O" is handled by the two-person team behind the giallo throwback AMER), giving each $5000 and complete artistic freedom to do what they want with their letter and make a four-to-five-minute short film that must culminate in death.  As with any anthology, it's a wildly inconsistent mixed bag with several standouts and quite a few duds.  There's a tendency toward transgression and almost-childish shock value--look no further than the fact that three of the 26 segments prominently feature a toilet, and another has a guy getting his face dunked in a diarrhea-filled bedpan--but there's a few surprising winners spread throughout, often from unexpected sources.  The standout is probably "D is for Dogfight," by DEADGIRL co-director Marcel Sarmiento, a genuinely shocking, misanthropic piece about an underground fight club that pits man against dog (among the slobbering onlookers is a cheering toddler wearing just a diaper) with a surprising twist. "Q is for Quack" is a brilliantly-conceived meta piece where director Adam Wingard (A HORRIBLE WAY TO DIE) plays himself, bitching about being picked last for the project ("even after Nacho Vigalondo," his buddy reminds him) and being stuck with the letter Q.   "O is for Orgasm" is a color-drenched piece from AMER creators Helene Cattet & Bruno Forzani.  Music video animator Lee Hardcastle's claymation "T is for Toilet" presents a truly horrific potty-training incident that avoids the scatological direction of the other toilet-centric stories.  FRONTIER(S) director Xavier Gens' "X is for XXL" is a horrifying look at an obese woman who decides to take an electric carving knife to her body fat.  "M is for Miscarriage" is the shortest of the segments at around two minutes, but it packs a sick and jaw-droppingly dark wallop and again proves that hipster would-be horror wunderkind Ti West (THE INNKEEPERS) is best when taken in small doses. 

There's a lot of DOA material throughout--you can pretty much skip letters F-through-L (starting with Noboru Iguchi's useless "F is for Fart" up to Timi Tjahjanto's semen-drenched "L is for Libido"), and Simon Rumley's "P is for Pressure" is a real disappointment considering how great his extraordinarily unsettling RED, WHITE & BLUE was.  ABCs stumbles to its conclusion with a pair of late-in-the-game low points with Joe Schnepp's "W is for WTF?" and Yoshihiro Nishimura's "Z is for Zetsumetsu," but the unlikely Jason Eisener (the terrible prefab cult movie HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN) gives the closing stretch a lift with the revenge tale "Y is for Youngbuck," which gets a hugely catchy soundtrack with "Vengeance" by the synth-rock outfit Powerglove.  Other directors include Srdjan Spasojevic (A SERBIAN FILM), MAY star Angela Bettis, Ben Wheatley (KILL LIST), Andrew Traucki (THE REEF), and Jorge Michel Grau (WE ARE WHAT WE ARE).  There's some good stuff in THE ABCs OF DEATH, but you have to get around a lot of shit--and other byproducts of the human body--to appreciate it.  (Unrated, 129 mins)

(Brazil - 2012)

NEIGHBORING SOUNDS, the first narrative feature by Brazilian documentarian and former film critic Kleber Mendonca Filho, is the kind of long and slow-moving film that demands patience and attention but the diligence pays off by the end.  The film looks at an ensemble of residents in a changing neighborhood of tower blocks in Recife.  One high-rise after another has been constructed as the upper-middle class has moved in, literally looking down upon the lower class at the street level, who will soon be displaced to make room for more towers.  Crime is on the increase, prompting Clodoaldo (Irandhir Santos) and a few friends to collect money from the residents and function as the neighborhood's self-appointed security crew.  As they establish more of a presence, it becomes clear that Clodoaldo has set up shop here for a reason.  We also meet old Francisco (W.J. Solha), a former sugar plantation owner who used to own all of the buildings but has made himself a fortune selling the properties to developers.  There's also Francisco's grandson Joao (Gustavo Jahn), who works as the area's leasing agent; his maybe-girlfriend Sofia (Irma Brown), who grew up in a house that Francisco now owns and has just sold to be demolished; Joao's cousin Dinho (Yuri Holanda), the resident car stereo thief; and stay-at-home mom Bia (Maeve Jinkings), who spends her days devising ways to quiet a neighbor's incessantly barking dog in addition to alleviating the boredom by getting high or rubbing herself against the dryer when it's on spin-cycle.  Even when very little is happening, the constant presence of Clodoaldo and his "security" team, coupled with the way Filho uses sound, usually coming from just outside the frame, succeeds in creating a profound sense of unease and tension throughout NEIGHBORING SOUNDS (with one shot that provides more of a jolt than any recent horror movie).  In a way, this is a very angry film in the way it presents the upper-middle class as living above and being better than those who live beneath and serve them, blithely dismissing them as they live among them in this endless, bitter class struggle, a fact that something Clodoaldo is clearly itching to remind them (and demonstrated in the way a parking attendant keys the car of a rude resident).  Almost willfully obfuscating and evasive at times, it isn't until the very end of the film (the next-to-last scene, in fact) that Filho lays all the cards on the table.  While some of the plot threads don't really go anywhere (Bia and the dog, for example), they do provide some character shading and a general "feel" for this particular place.  Slow but never dull, the beautifully-shot NEIGHBORING SOUNDS very gradually pulls you in, maintaining a very mysterious aura all the way to its surprise ending that expects you to have been paying attention from the film's very first images. (Unrated, 131 mins, also available on Netflix streaming)

(Australia - 2011; 2013 US release)

This visually arresting and occasionally ambitious debut from writer/director Ben C. Lucas starts as an Australian LESS THAN ZERO with a touch of Larry Clark's BULLY and also flirts with the revenge thriller genre.  With its total absence of adults in any capacity (there's no parents or teachers to be found), it functions more as a parable than a plausible narrative (at one point, against an obviously fake greenscreen sky, one character says "This place isn't real, anyway") and contains enough fantasy imagery of school shootings that it's easy to see why this only got a very limited US theatrical and VOD release two years after it made the rounds in Australia.  Despicable swim-team god Zack (CHRONICLE's Alex Russell) lords over the students of a posh private school ("When you're above people, you don't have to explain yourself to anyone, for anything") and keeps his bookish, introverted stepbrother Darren (Oliver Ackland) under this thumb, allowing him on the swim team but making him do all of his school assignments.  When Zack and his jock buddies see Darren and cute, brainy Xandrie (Adelaide Clemens) hitting it off, they decide to invite her to a party where Xandrie is drugged, raped, and left unconscious on a nearby beach.  Darren, under the impression that Xandrie left the party, is unaware of what happened until he tries calling her the next day and finds her phone buried between couch cushions in the basement.  When Xandrie reappears at school several days later, Zack and his crew have made sure that her reputation is ruined, that everyone knows she was "asking for it," and that she's just making up stories about Zack because "she regrets sleeping with him."

Lucas' use of color (there's a very striking shot of Xandrie appearing at the top of a staircase that looks like it belongs in an Italian giallo), framing, and creative editing techniques (this mostly unfolds in a linear fashion, but there are some interesting instances of back-and-forth cross-cutting between past, present, and future) are very well-managed by the first-time filmmaker, who gets strong performances from his three leads, even if 31-year-old Ackland, whose perpetual five-o'clock shadow frequently makes him look like he should be Russell's stepfather rather than his younger stepbrother, is a decade too old for his role.  Russell manages to make the cocky, smirking Zack truly hateful without resorting to cliches, and the promising Clemens (the Michelle Williams lookalike who's become a bit of a new scream queen with SILENT HILL: REVELATION and NO ONE LIVES) is very good as Xandrie.  Sometimes the intentional unreality is distracting from a storytelling perspective (when Darren is caught downloading video files from the laptop of one of Zack's asshole buddies, Zack's blase non-reaction reeks of plot convenience), and the climax gets a little too tech-geeky and ham-fisted in its messaging of social media and the sense of disconnect, but overall, despite a couple of minor rookie mistakes, WASTED ON THE YOUNG is a solid debut from a filmmaker with obvious potential. (R, 97 mins, also available on Netflix streaming).

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