Beyond the Multiplex

The hottest European film of the year; Rebecca Miller's visually luxuriant "Ballad of Jack and Rose"; and a grade-Z video thriller about a male appendage featuring a real-life porn star.

By Andrew O'Hehir
Published March 31, 2005 9:00PM (EST)

Those of us who love movies that are -- what's the right term these days? -- arty or challenging or outside mainstream conventions in some undefinable way have to live in that condition famously described by the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci as "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." As I've repeatedly insisted in this space, the spread of cheap technology and global communication means that interesting films are being made all over the world -- but how many of them do we ever get a chance to see?

By the time some little picture made in Ecuador or northern Finland or Natchez, Miss., makes it, by luck and pluck, through the heartless round of film festivals and competitions and finds some small distributor with a P.O. Box address and a Manhattan cellphone number, I'm rooting for it already. It's a survivor, like one of those last lonely sperm cells that has seen thousands of its compatriots die and made it, exhausted but alive, all the way up the correct fallopian tube. How can you be so heartless as to not wish it success?

That's why, as some of my more eagle-eyed readers have observed, Beyond the Multiplex tends to grade on a curve. It's one of the hazards of the film critic's vocation: A movie may be pretentious or juvenile or badly resolved, or have any of a thousand other flaws, but when it shows flashes of something out of the ordinary, something that wasn't learned in a three-act screenwriting class, I'm often so grateful I'll award an A for effort.

Maybe that's just soft-headedness, but it also stems from the knowledge that these little movies, whether they're knockouts or self-indulgent messbombs, still have almost no chance to reach a wide audience. This is especially true right now, when, for reasons we'll delve into some other time, the art-house audience seems to gravitate mainly toward documentaries (e.g., "The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill"). The best feature films I've seen in the last year or so -- off the top of my head, I'd point to Kristoffer Boe's "Reconstruction," Siegrid Alnoy's "She's One of Us" and Bahman Ghobadi's "Turtles Can Fly" -- opened briefly in a couple of big cities and then vanished. Those filmmakers may get their rewards in heaven, or at least on DVD, but even that is an article of faith, no more tangible than the doctrine of transubstantiation I was once halfheartedly taught.

So it's especially exciting to discover something like "Kontroll," the debut film from Nimród Antal, a Hungarian director who was born in the United States. (The film also has a really cool Web site in German, complete with video and music clips.) Part thriller and part romantic comedy, this noir-inflected yarn set entirely in the Budapest subway system has the high style, the grit and the emotional depth to become a genuine breakout hit. Is there room in our cultural consciousness right now for a flick flavored with the hipness quotient of Tarantino or "Trainspotting," but delivered in an unintelligible Eastern European language? I have no idea, but if "Kontroll" doesn't develop at least a modest cult following, I'll eat my copy of "The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film."

You know you're off to a good start when Antal's movie begins with a Budapest subway spokesman explaining that the story you're about to see is symbolic in nature, and that the roving bands of deadbeat, quasi-anarchist ticket-takers in the film don't resemble the real-life system's fine professionals. Well, I damn well hope not. The hero of "Kontroll," a sleepy-eyed, wounded-looking Brando type named Bulcsú (Sándor Csányi), is a onetime yuppie on a downward spiral who lives in the subway 24-7. He leads a small gang of ragtag "ticket control agents," who roam the trains and platforms in ill-fitting late-'70s fashions, occasionally donning sinister Nazi-style armbands to harass passengers for their tickets (and often to be harassed right back).

I've never been to Budapest, much less ridden the subway there, but in Antal's vision it's as if the era of late-communist decrepitude never exactly ended, but was invaded by "West Side Story," "Jackie Brown" and a whole lot of London DJs. As the rockin' club music plays under the harsh fluorescents and Bulcsú looks ever more battered, his crew fights for the soul of subterranean Budapest against a rival gang of sneering, leather-jacketed ticket collectors led by Gonzó (Balázs Lázár), who looks something like Bryan Ferry after an especially bad night of drugs.

You'll either groove to Antal's self-consciously grotesque underground universe, with its exaggerated comedy and violence, or you'll hate it. Four people sitting in front of me were driven out into the night by the first half-hour and, hey, it's tough to manage that these days. If the movie's overall narrative arc isn't so surprising, along the way it features narcolepsy, a Gypsy curse, Budapest's closest approximation to a mack-daddy pimp, and an athletic young vandal named Bootsie who lives to outfox and outrun Bulcsú and his boys. There's also a girl Bulcsú keeps running into (Eszter Balla), who's always dressed in a pink bear suit and turns out to be the daughter of Béla (Lajos Kovács), the semi-competent older trainman who serves as Bulcsú's late-night confidant.

Arguably Antal doesn't integrate the film's darkest elements with complete success, but the spooky subplot about a shadowy figure who pushes passengers in front of trains does provide some genuine semi-supernatural chills. But what works so memorably about "Kontroll" is its delicious, almost lustful capturing of seedy ambience, and its creation of a post-Kafka world that seems both unreal and totally convincing. Moody, mournful Csányi is a born movie star, and Bulcsú's quest for the gamine, bear-suited Sofie and, just maybe, for the strength to go back to the outside world feel like a genuine existential struggle. I'm not going to tell you this is the best European film of the year, but it's definitely the hottest -- it's the one you want to run out and see as soon as you possibly can.

"Kontroll" opens April 1 in New York and April 22 in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

"The Ballad of Jack and Rose": Lost on a beautiful island
My beat as a reporter involves seeing a lot of no-budget films from Kyrgyzstan or Upper Volta where the camera is nailed to a tree or tethered to a rampant goat, so I was immediately disoriented by all the elegant, swooping crane and dolly shots of luscious natural splendor in Rebecca Miller's "Ballad of Jack and Rose." My God, I thought, this movie must have cost a trillion bucks! I can't put it in my column! But no it didn't and here it is, and in the spirit of generosity (discussed above) I'm going to steer clear of the Miller-bashing party so many of my fellow scribes and film buffs seem to be enjoying at the moment.

Visually, "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is a lolling, luxuriant experience; we drift around the gorgeous East Coast island where a burned-out Scottish engineer named Jack (Daniel Day-Lewis) lives all alone in a former commune with his distressingly beautiful teenage daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle). We might be someplace off eastern Long Island or Nantucket or the coast of Maine, but we're really in a mythic America where '60s loners like Jack come face to face with heartless developers who want to bulldoze the Thoreauvian wilderness and put up identical McMansions by the dozen.

This is a lovely movie to look at, and as always Day-Lewis commands the screen, even with a character as inward and tormented as Jack, whose heart is failing and who is beginning to suspect that he's hidden his daughter away from the world for all the wrong reasons. The premise here has terrific potential, and I felt affection for all the characters, including Kathleen (Catherine Keener), the working-class mom who is Jack's secret squeeze and becomes Rose's desperately inappropriate emergency stepmother. Miller is even big-hearted enough to make the stereotyped suburban developer (played by Beau Bridges about as well as you could hope) display a genuine moment of grace.

It's also true that "The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is loaded with obvious symbolism out of a junior-year creative writing class -- when Rose is deflowered by Kathleen's stoner son, there's an actual poisonous snake under the bed -- and that the handsome production can't hide the fact that there's nary a surprising moment in the whole film. But when Jack vandalizes one of Bridges' building sites, and then plants his feet and delivers a monologue to Rose about the evils of suburban sprawl ("This isn't a house," he tells her, "it's a thing for keeping the TV dry") I knew exactly what world we were in. If this picture is any indication, Miller is on her way to becoming the female John Sayles, and honestly, people, it's not like that's a major crime against humanity.

In all seriousness, I think Miller is a talented craftswoman who has allowed her access to money and movie stars (she's the daughter of the late Arthur Miller, and is married to Day-Lewis) to distort her apprenticeship. People ridiculed Sofia Coppola for years, until she finally made them shut up. I feel prodigious emotion underneath the pretty, preserved features of "The Ballad of Jack and Rose," channeled into a vehicle that's a half-successful imitation of "You Can Count on Me" or "In the Bedroom." Next time out, maybe Miller should ditch the flowers, the chickens and the Bob Dylan songs, fire the expensive cinematographer, and just try to tell a story.

"The Ballad of Jack and Rose" is now playing in New York and Los Angeles, and opens April 1 in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle and other cities, with many more to follow.

"Nowhere Man": A quest for manhood, if you know what we mean
I'm always grateful to practice a little affirmative action on behalf of grade-C sleaze movies with a budget you could probably locate in your sofa cushions or your dryer, and Tim McCann's digital-video opus "Nowhere Man" is a fine example of the species. Anytime you've got Lloyd Kaufman, the notorious head honcho of Troma Films, appearing as a doctor who gets to say "corpora spongiosa," I'm onboard already.

Nobody really makes penis-slicing rape-revenge movies featuring porn stars performing truly embarrassing rap songs these days, and the world is a poorer place for it. Into this breach rides the indefatigable McCann, with this tale of Conrad (Michael Rodrick), a man who has viciously and, as things turn out, unwisely rejected his fiancée, Jennifer (Debbie Rochon), when he discovers that her colorful past includes a couple of porn films made with a prodigiously endowed costar named Daddy Mac (real-life porn legend Frank Olivier).

I won't try to summarize McCann's back-and-forth plot, or to describe his panoply of off-the-shelf video editing techniques, because words fail me in both instances. Suffice it to say that Jennifer retaliates against Conrad's abuse by confiscating, um, something really important that belongs to him. Something that used to be attached to him, in fact, and he's got to get it back if there's any hope of ... you get the drift. We do get to see some hilarious snippets of Jennifer's adult-film adventures, and to hear Conrad promising Kaufman's grave medic that if he fails to retrieve and revive the missing item, "you'll be reading about me on TV." Sadly, we never get to see any of "White Girls on My Jock," the film that made Daddy Mac such a titanic figure in the home-video industry. Maybe in the sequel.

"Nowhere Man" is now playing in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and will be released soon on DVD.

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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