Thursday, January 10, 2019

On Blu-ray/DVD: LET THE CORPSES TAN (2018), WHAT THEY HAD (2018), and GALVESTON (2018)

(Belgium/France - 2017; US release 2018)

If Alejandro Jodorowsky followed up EL TOPO and THE HOLY MOUNTAIN with an Italian crime thriller in the mid-1970s, it would probably end up looking a lot like LET THE CORPSES TAN, the latest from the Belgium-based filmmaking duo of Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Much like their previous efforts, the giallo homages AMER and THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, LET THE CORPSES TAN is a fetishistic rollercoaster ride of Eurocult worship, incorporating elements of poliziotteschi, spaghetti westerns, the work of French crime novelist and screenwriter Sebastien Japrisot (RIDER ON THE RAIN), and liberally borrowing soundtrack cues from 1971's tawdry ROAD TO SALINA as well as composers like Ennio Morricone and Nico Fidenco. Based on a 1971 novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, LET THE CORPSES TAN is riddled with bizarre, impenetrable, and hypnotic imagery but at the same time, it's the most narrative-driven of Cattet and Forzani's films thus far. The fusion of the wildly surreal and the rigidity of story structure don't always mesh, especially since the story is pretty much a standard-issue cops-and-robbers standoff on a sparsely-populated Mediterranean island getaway. The action centers on an isolated resort of adobe-style ruins run by misanthropic artist Madame Luce (Elina Lowensohn, who a brief moment in the '90s indie spotlight with Hal Hartley's AMATEUR and FLIRT and the title role in Michael Almereyda's NADJA). Among the guests are Max Bernier (Marc Barbe), a washed-up  writer, and Luce's sleazy attorney and occasional lover Brisorguiel (Michelangelo Marchese). There's also three criminals--Rhino (Stephane Ferrara), Gros (Bernie Bonvoisin, lead singer of the French metal band Trust, whose "Prefabricated" was on soundtrack for 1981's HEAVY METAL), and Alex (Pierre Nisse)--who sport Frankenstein masks as they pull off a gold heist from an armored car but get stopped by a trio of hitchhikers during their escape. The hitchhikers include a woman (Dorylia Calmel), who's just stolen her son (Bamba Forzani Ndiaye) from her ex-husband and escaped with him and his nanny (Marine Sainsily). As it turns out, they're all headed to Madame Luce's, as the criminals plan to use it as a safe house and the woman is tracking down her estranged second husband Bernier.

Things more volatile by the minute, especially once two cops (Herve Sogne, Dominique Troyes) happen by with news of the gold heist and an abducted child on the radio, completely unaware that they're about to walk into both situations at once. From then, it's a mix of violent shootouts and trippy imagery, with frequent cutaways to a nude woman looming over a miniature recreation of Luce's resort, populated by ants in an apparent homage to the opening scene of THE WILD BUNCH. There's more, from urination to champagne lactation to an overt reference to a really nasty moment in Andrea Bianchi's CRY OF A PROSTITUTE, and a foolhardy attempt by Brisorguiel to steal the gold and drive a wedge between Gros and his cohorts, and from a plot standpoint, there's little here that's going to surprise anyone, even with supernatural allusions regarding Madame Luce. There's still that sense of surreal delirium that's become synonymous with Cattet and Forzani, and they also use some impressive, rapid-fire editing techniques in conjunction with an occasionally non-linear time element that keeps bouncing back to show events from different perspectives. But by embracing both their style and attempting to stick to the structure required by a story and to do right by the novel, they're sometimes working at cross purposes. Cattet and Forzani are admittedly an acquired taste, but if you liked AMER and THE STRANGE COLOUR OF YOUR BODY'S TEARS, you'll generally like LET THE CORPSES TAN. The difference here is that you've got an abundance of plot and characters getting in the way of what this filmmaking team does best. (Unrated, 92 mins)

(US/UK/Canada - 2018)

Whether it was a lack of confidence or cash flow, it's a shame that distributor Bleecker Street didn't treat WHAT THEY HAD a little better, stalling its release at just 53 screens for a gross of $260,000. Showcasing some of the best performances of 2018 that nobody saw, the film is a semi-autobiographical look at a family affected by Alzheimer's, written and directed by a debuting Elizabeth Chomko, a playwright and occasional actress who conceived the project as a tribute to her parents. Elderly Ruth (Blythe Danner) gets out of bed on Christmas Eve and wanders out into a Chicago snowstorm wearing only her robe and slippers. Her husband Burt (Robert Forster) wakes up to find her missing and the front door wide open. He places a frantic call to his son Nick (Michael Shannon), who lives nearby, and Nick calls his sister Bridget, or "Bitty" (Hilary Swank), who flies in from California with her teenage daughter Emma (Taissa Farmiga). By the time Bitty and Emma land, Ruth has been found, and it's just the latest incident in an ongoing and inevitable decline that's now a few years running and one that stubborn Burt refuses to see as a problem. Bullheaded and devoutly Catholic, he believes in taking care of his wife on his own ("In sickness and in health...that's the deal!") and has no patience for "teenage doctors" who don't know his wife as well as he does. Nick keeps unsuccessfully trying to convince Burt--who's 75, survived four heart attacks, and is clearly physically and emotionally exhausted from being a round-the-clock caregiver--that Ruth needs to be put in a nursing home, and he's hoping Bitty, who has power of attorney if their parents are incapacitated, will back him up.

As is the case in films like this, old wounds are reopened and the family gnaws on one another's nerves as only family can, but WHAT THEY HAD never panders and never goes the easy maudlin route. Having experienced Alzheimer's with her own mother, Chomko cuts through the bullshit and sugarcoats nothing, particularly in the script's many instances of dark humor, recognizing the ordeal as one of those situations where you frequently have to laugh to keep from crying. Danner plays Ruth with compassion and dignity, never overdoing it or going for cliched awards-bait moments, often speaking volumes just with a confused look on her face or a periodic flash of clarity (it's also heartbreaking to see Bitty's optimism when her mom sees her and excitedly says "Is that my baby?" only to soon realize Ruth says that to anyone younger than she is). Of course, those clear moments get increasingly rare as the story unfolds, and her family is forced to contend with embarrassing and uncomfortable incidents like Ruth in church flipping the bird to a fellow parishioner or drinking the Holy Water ("Well, at least she's hydrated," Nick deadpans), then hitting on Nick on the way home, completely unaware that he's her son. Bitty, presumably based on Chomko, has her own problems, namely an increasingly distant Emma and a stale marriage to Eddie (Josh Lucas), while abrasive Nick ("What are you, dead inside?" Emma asks, and he replies "Almost"), who resents his sister for living across the country and leaving him to deal with Burt and Ruth, has sunk his life savings into a bar and sleeps in its basement, seemingly never able to live up to his dad's standards (Shannon is terrific in a scene where he completely loses his composure and starts stammering when Burt keeps derisively calling him a "bartender"). But it's the great Forster who provides the rock-solid foundation of this ensemble with his best performance since JACKIE BROWN, making a complex character out of Burt that other films would just turn into a loud, Catholic blowhard. Even as he's laying down his "my way or the highway" stance on Ruth's care, Forster lets you see in his face that Burt is finding it increasingly difficult to keep believing his own excuses, but doing his best to ignore the fact that, despite his best intentions, he may be doing her more harm than good (also, nobody yells "What am I, some kinda horse's ass?!" quite like Robert Forster). He's a goddamn national treasure who, in a perfect world, would be a Best Supporting Actor Oscar front-runner right now, and it's unfortunate that this fine film completely fell through the cracks and was never given a chance by its distributor. (R, 101 mins)

(US - 2018)

Nic Pizzolatto's debut novel Galveston earned some critical acclaim upon its release in 2010, but didn't attract much attention from the book-buying public until his later success as the creator of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE. It's likely the success of that show (at least its first season, probably not the much-maligned second) that led to Pizzolatto adapting Galveston into a screenplay, and while he gets a "Based on a novel by" credit, he ultimately had his name removed from the film--script credit now goes to his vaguely hard-boiled pseudonym "Jim Hammett"--when he felt that director Melanie Laurent's reworking and reshaping of his screenplay into her own work during production was so extensive that he didn't feel he should take sole credit per WGA rules, so he took none at all. Laurent, the French actress best known for her performance as the vengeance-seeking Shosanna in Quentin Tarantino's INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, has very quietly been establishing herself--at least among critics and festival programmers--as a versatile filmmaker, with works that include narrative features (BREATHE, DIVING), and a documentary about climate change (TOMORROW). GALVESTON is her US directing debut, and it's very much a slow-burning, often mumbly mood piece that isn't in any hurry to get to where it's going, but it sneaks up on you in an emotional and often devastating second half.

Set in 1988, the story focuses on Roy Cady (Ben Foster), a 40-year-old New Orleans hit man who's introduced storming out of a doctor's office when faced with what he knows is a terminal lung cancer diagnosis. After narrowly escaping a set-up orchestrated by his boss, dry-cleaning magnate and Big Easy crime kingpin Stan Pitko (Beau Bridges), Cady goes on the run with teenage prostitute Rocky (Elle Fanning), who was being held captive by the men hired to kill him. Cady was just doing the right thing by rescuing her, with the expectation of dropping her off somewhere on his way to die in his hometown of Galveston, but the two form a tentative bond that's strengthened when Rocky insists they make a stop and end up with her three-year-old sister Tiffany (twins Tinsley and Anniston Price) after Rocky shoots their abusive stepfather. Cady's got files of Pitko's invoices that leave a paper trail of his corrupt and shady business dealings, and tries to blackmail his boss for $75,000 in an attempt to do one good thing before he dies and provide some money to Rocky and Tiffany to start a new life, but seeing as this is a downbeat, back roads noir written by Nic Pizzolatto, it's certain the worst will happen. It's easy to see why some found GALVESTON inert and uninvolving. Laurent is more focused on mood than action, so much so that a late Cady rampage at Pitko's business, done in a long take reminiscent of similar sequence in the first season of TRUE DETECTIVE, initially seems jarring, but it's a natural response given a key event that led to it. For the most part, GALVESTON is more early Terrence Malick than TRUE DETECTIVE, with fine work by Foster and especially Fanning, who does a marvelous job with Rocky's motel room revelation (that you'll figure out long before Cady does), which is just about the point where you realize you're more engrossed in this than you thought. (Unrated, 93 mins)

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