Beyond the Multiplex

Beat the heat with an icy-hearted French thriller, a chilling horror flick and a sweet-yet-sad Sundance hit. Plus: The best doc yet about life in Iraq.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 3, 2006 12:30PM (EDT)

Welcome to August. This is no time to sit on that busted lawn chair drinking a Slurpee (TM) and watching a neighbor's dog play in the sprinkler, dammit! We've got a pile of odd little movies to watch!

August is widely understood to be the dead zone of the film calendar, but it's actually more like the low-end casino's buffet table, covered with dreadful pickled things and a few unexpected surprises. Both Hollywood studios and indie distributors unleash movies that wouldn't work at any other time of the year: They won't make enough money to be summer blockbusters, they won't win any awards, and they're not the well-reviewed prestige pictures of the spring or fall seasons. (For these reasons and so many others, the eagerly anticipated and, one suspects, wretched "Snakes on a Plane" is the ultimate August movie.) Sometimes this means they're abominations that should never have been made. Sometimes they're unapologetic trash. Once in a while they're pretty good. Mostly they're just too weird for the 11 months when you're less occupied by beer, suntan lotion, fried food on a stick and unpredictable bouts of unconsciousness.

We've got, count 'em, six films to blast through this week, and if only two of them -- the Sundance award-winner "Quinceañera" and the spelunker horror flick "The Descent" -- have much shot of reaching a large audience, they all come under the heading of "hey, pretty good for a random movie released in the deepest doldrums of summer."

Veteran French director Claude Chabrol checks in with "The Bridesmaid," another of his arch, creepy thrillers; it's got a great cast and an icy heart to cool down your hot August nights. All evidence continues to suggest that the public has zero interest in depressing documentaries about the American occupation of Iraq, but Laura Poitras' "My Country, My Country" is the best one so far. Brett C. Leonard's "Jailbait" is a quiet, ominous little movie, enlivened by some of the filthiest talk I've heard on-screen in a long time. Jay and Mark Duplass' debut feature, "The Puffy Chair," is a crisp, no-budget micro-indie the way they used to make 'em, out of Cassavetes by way of Kevin Smith.

"The Bridesmaid": Proving your love to the crazy girl in the basement
I'm told by reliable sources that Claude Chabrol's "The Bridesmaid" is not a very faithful or straightforward adaptation of the Ruth Rendell mystery novel on which it's based. So maybe it helps to be as poorly read in crime fiction as I am, since I found "The Bridesmaid" to be a prickly, twisted, mean-spirited, borderline crazy and highly seductive picture. You could also apply all those adjectives to the film's smoldering femme fatale (perhaps losing the modifier "borderline"), a woman who calls herself Senta, although her real name is a matter of dispute.

Senta is played by Laura Smet, a young French actress a handful of you may have seen as the "other woman" in Frédéric Fonteyne's terrific film "Gilles' Wife." Smet is the daughter of actress Nathalie Baye and French rock idol Johnny Hallyday, so I guess that makes her the Francophone answer to Liv Tyler. She's not the world's most beautiful woman -- in "Gilles' Wife" she was forced to compete with Emmanuelle Devos, who is the WMBW -- but with her hooded eyes, slightly flattened features and reserved, amused demeanor she's a powerful, sensual presence.

Senta upends the bourgeois existence of a bathroom-fixture salesman named Philippe (Benoît Magimel, who was the costar of Michael Haneke's "The Piano Teacher"). It's not as if Philippe's existence wasn't already kind of odd. He has passionate feelings toward a garden statue named Flora -- who bears a strong resemblance to Senta -- and an affectionate relationship with his vivacious mother (Aurore Clément) that sometimes seems the teensiest bit too intimate.

After the low-rent backyard wedding of Philippe's ultra-square sister Sophie (Solène Bouton), Senta walks through a driving rainstorm in her bridesmaid's dress, which rapidly comes off after she finds Philippe at home alone, working on important contracts. "You're the one I've been waiting for," she tells him, and whisks him off to the basement apartment where she lives, beneath a crumbling, half-abandoned house where her mother (or perhaps stepmother, we're never sure; she's played by Isild Barth) dances the tango with a wordless partner named Pablo.

This is a wacky, almost whimsical take on both the Gothic and doomed-love traditions, but that combination is nothing new for Chabrol. He's now 76 and has been directing films since the late '50s, but in recent decades only "La Cérémonie" in 1995 and his "Madame Bovary" adaptation of 1991 have found any North American audience. If you're already a devotee of the so-called French Hitchcock, you know that he takes a dim view of almost all human relations and can make grim or violent situations seem farcical, or comic situations sinister. "The Bridesmaid" teeters on the edge of black comedy, or David Lynch-style surrealism, without ever quite plunging over the precipice. There's an overcooked soundtrack in the style of '40s melodrama (by Chabrol's son Matthieu), and Philippe seems to suffer from occasional hallucinations out of 19th century French painting.

Senta's name is borrowed from the heroine of Wagner's "Flying Dutchman," and her life history seems (to the steady, staid Philippe) similarly made up or exaggerated. He's not sure how to handle her suggestion that to prove their love they must do four things: Plant a tree, write a poem, sleep with someone of the same sex, and kill a stranger. Philippe's a likable guy, but he's frankly not cut out for any of those four activities, and it takes him far too long to figure out that A) she's serious, B) she may already have all four bases covered and C) humoring her is a bad, bad idea.

"The Bridesmaid" opens Aug. 4 at the Angelika Film Center in New York; Aug. 11 in San Francisco; Aug. 25 in Buffalo, N.Y., Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and Wilmington, Del.; Sept. 1 in Rochester, N.Y.; Sept. 8 in Denver and Los Angeles; Sept. 15 in Philadelphia; Sept. 29 in Chicago and San Diego; Oct. 6 in Santa Fe, N.M.; and Oct. 20 in Dallas, Houston and Salt Lake City, with more cities to follow.

"Quinceañera": A virgin birth, a kinky three-way, and a rapidly changing neighborhood (through the eyes of those who are changing it)
Nobody wants to read any further grumbling from me about the Sundance Film Festival and its effects on the indie world, but with "Quinceañera," from the writing-directing team of Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland, I will rest my case. This picture won both the grand jury prize and the audience award at Sundance this year (a rare occurrence), and it's an engaging, sweet-yet-sad neighborhood slice of life, anchored by pretty cinematography and a couple of nice performances. Glatzer and Westmoreland offer an unhurried, affectionate portrait of Echo Park, an attractive area of East Los Angeles that has long been home to the city's Mexican-American middle class and is now being rapidly gentrified by white newcomers.

"Quinceañera" is a pleasant little picture that tries to capture the ambiguities of its world. Magdalena (Emily Rios), an innocent teenager about to celebrate her quinceañera -- a Mexican girl's traditional coming of age -- is kicked out by her evangelical preacher dad for getting pregnant, even though she insists she hasn't gone all the way with her studious boyfriend, Herman (J.R. Cruz). She's taken in by her tolerant great-great-uncle, a neighborhood institution named Don Tomas (Chalo González) who lives in a history-encrusted house surrounded by a beautiful garden. Don Tomas' magical domain also shelters Magdalena's cousin Carlos (Jesse Garcia), who looks the part of a hard-ass East Side gang-banger but has secrets of his own.

Carlos, in fact, is becoming embroiled in a complicated three-way with the white gay couple who just moved into the big adjoining house and are now Don Tomas' landlords. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of "Quinceañera" is that these guys, Gary (David W. Ross) and James (Jason L. Wood), seem awfully close to an unflattering self-portrait of the filmmakers. Glatzer and Westmoreland also live together in a house they recently bought in Echo Park, and as in the film, one of them has an extensive reality-TV career (Glatzer) and one is English (Westmoreland).

One assumes, however, that the directors did not lure a neighborhood kid into their world of sexual and material freedom and then betray him, and didn't evict a delightful old rake like Don Tomas from his house of 30-odd years so they could build a sauna. All these twists and turns would be enough for most movies, but "Quinceañera" throws in an utterly unconvincing subplot about how Magdalena might indeed be a pregnant virgin, along with some pedestrian intra-family drama. (This will matter to almost no one, but "Quinceañera" is at least in part a remake of English director Tony Richardson's "A Taste of Honey," which launched the "kitchen-sink" realism of the 1960s.)

Garcia is terrific as the semi-closeted Carlos, and González (a veteran of Sam Peckinpah's films) gives the film its heart as Don Tomas. To say the other actors are hit-and-miss is being generous. Rios is a newcomer and it shows; she can't deliver any line effectively that isn't sarcastic, and Magdalena's love scenes with Herman are earnest, well intentioned and profoundly embarrassing.

As docudrama, "Quinceañera" will engage your attention most of the way. Its portrait of Echo Park is complicated and interesting: As gays, artists and other real-estate pioneers flood in, the neighborhood's kids, mostly second- or third-generation Americans, look toward a larger society that still mistrusts them. Glatzer and Westmoreland clearly mean to confront the devastating impact people like themselves can have on a place like Echo Park.

"Quinceañera" is exactly the kind of unambitious, faintly didactic indie film with redeeming social values -- I'm sure I won't be the first to call it "My Big Fat Mexican Birthday Party" -- that audiences flock to and critics grumble about. Hey, I've got to play my part, right? Glatzer and Westmoreland offer some decent sociology, some pretty pictures and a lot of mediocre, movie-of-the-week storytelling. If I expect something slightly more adventurous from movies that win awards from formerly supposedly cutting-edge festivals, I guess that's my problem.

"Quinceañera" opens Aug. 4 in New York and Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.

"My Country, My Country": Losing one heart, and one mind, in middle-class Baghdad
Laura Poitras' film "My Country, My Country" is a keenly constructed and tragic film, probably the best documentary so far to depict the Iraqi side of the current conflict. No, the competition doesn't amount to much at this point, and I'm not sure many Americans want to learn anything more about Iraq than they know already. Poitras focuses on the moral, philosophical and personal struggles of one politically moderate Iraqi doctor under the United States occupation, and the film succeeds largely because she fudges the "rules" of cinéma-vérité, providing frequent explanatory titles to help us with chronology and context.

The Iraq documentary has rapidly become its own genre, featuring stark but beautiful imagery, interwoven segments showing ordinary Iraqis on the streets or in their homes and amped-up U.S. troops in barracks or on patrol, and a general tone of ambiguous fatalism. You also have to show someone killing an animal, with as much blood as possible. I've seen at least two goats sacrificed in Iraq films, but Dr. Riyadh, the central character of Poitras' film, is a middle-class urbanite and only kills a rooster, which involves a lot less blood.

Rigorously murky films like Andrew Berends' "The Blood of My Brother" can show us a lot about daily life in post-Saddam Iraq (verdict: grim), but there are actually times when we need to be told things by people who know stuff. Poitras' film goes some distance in that direction. At least the things it shows us are adequately explained, which you can't say at any point in Berends' picture. "My Country, My Country" is tragedy rather than nihilism: It demonstrates that even a modern-minded Iraqi doctor who abhors violence and opposes the current insurgency also loathes the U.S. occupation and has no confidence in the idea of an American-imposed democracy.

Dr. Riyadh is an erudite fellow with a keen wit, a pragmatic cast of mind and a mournful sensibility. His middle-class Sunni Muslim family -- who hurl insults at each other, simultaneously laughing and wincing at the horrible news on TV -- will seem fundamentally familiar to Western viewers. They're devout but not fundamentalist, skeptical but not enraged. They seem a world away from the dreary, impoverished Shiite family of "The Blood of My Brother," with their anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and nutso religious leaders.

Poitras focuses on the buildup to the January 2005 Iraq elections, in which Riyadh at first intends to run as a Sunni party's candidate for the constitutional assembly. Intriguingly, those elections look even more bogus here than they did at the time. As one U.S. officer explains, coalition troops stay far away from the electoral process, in order to make it appear "more Iraqi." Does that mean Iraqi troops and police secured the integrity of the election themselves? No. The entire operation was overseen by a private security firm, or in plain English a band of Australian mercenaries.

Dr. Riyadh thinks it's a mistake when his party decides to back out of the electoral process, but over the course of "My Country, My Country" we see his optimism about the future fade into resignation and bitterness. His nephew is kidnapped by insurgents, only 2 percent of Sunni voters show up at the polls, and despite the supposed restoration of Iraqi sovereignty, American soldiers still shoot people in his neighborhood every day.

Documentaries like this one can show us the intimate lives of people far away from us, and can steer us toward certain realizations -- e.g., if the U.S. can't convince somebody like Dr. Riyadh that its intentions are good, it can't convince anybody. (Let's leave aside for the moment the question of whether American intentions actually are good.) But it's equally true that films aren't enough to explain how and why we got ourselves, and the Iraqi people, into this mess, and what if anything we can do to untangle it. For that we actually need writers, ideas, words, books. Heretical? Possibly. But see Poitras' moving film anyway, rooster killing and all.

"My Country, My Country" opens Aug. 4 at the Cinema Village in New York and Sept. 15 at the Music Hall in Los Angeles, with other cities to follow.

Fast forward: Is "The Puffy Chair" going to ruin our relationship? Cellmates debate doin' it with W. in "Jailbait"; chicks battle slimiest dudes ever in "The Descent"
Jay and Mark Duplass, brothers from Atlanta, are definite comers on the indie-film scene. Whether or not their first feature, a road-trip saga called "The Puffy Chair," is exactly your pint of microbrew, it handles its no-budget slackerville idiom with confidence and integrity. Mark Duplass, who also wrote the script, plays Josh, a New York indie-rock dude whose band has broken up and who is theoretically developing a paying gig booking other dudes' bands. Despite this alleged maturity, he's still the kind of loser who tries to save eight bucks on a motel room by smuggling his girlfriend and his brother past the suspicious proprietor. (Predictably, it doesn't work.)

The girlfriend, Emily, is played by Kathryn Aselton, who is Mark Duplass' real-life fiancée, and the spacy, Zen-minded brother, Rhett, is played by Rhett Wilkins, an old friend. Mark's actual brother, Jay Duplass, is the director. It's that kind of picture. In this case, that's not irritating. Nearly the whole thing is shot with a single hand-held camera, and much of the dialogue is improvised, especially Josh and Emily's hilarious, and entirely convincing, arguments about their fast-decaying relationship. When she demands to know the numerical odds that they'll end up married, and he manages to turn the conversation into a monologue about how she wants him to be something he can never be, you won't know which one of them to slap first.

Recounting the plot is pointless: There's a road trip in a Ford van, supposedly to retrieve an overstuffed chair (purchased on eBay) from a small town in North Carolina and deliver it to Josh and Rhett's parents. But every moment seems to test Josh and Emily's relationship, as well as Rhett's New Age nostrums. There's the aforementioned motel mishap. There's a late-night wedding, fueled by Southern Comfort. There's some semi-successful father-son bonding (Josh and Rhett's parents are played, predictably, by the Duplass brothers' mom and dad).

Mostly there's a striking intimacy and honesty to "The Puffy Chair." Everyone in this ensemble has an acute feeling for the ingenious self-torment specific to rootless middle-class kids in their mid-20s who are wrestling with conflicting ideas of adulthood. And while it would be accurate to call the film a comedy, the Duplasses are trying to wrestle something closer to Chekhov than to farce out of the lives of these semi-likable, highly recognizable people. Can't wait to see what they do next. (Now playing in Portland, Ore. Opens Aug. 4 at the Angelika Film Center in New York; Aug. 18 in Bethlehem, N.H.; Aug. 25 in Atlanta, Denver and San Francisco; Sept. 1 in St. Louis; Sept. 8 in Minneapolis, Seattle and Tucson, Ariz.; and Sept. 22 in Chicago, with more cities to follow.)

Another promising, if more baffling, debut comes from playwright Brett C. Leonard, whose film "Jailbait" has been kicking around the festival circuit for a couple of years. It's a claustrophobic, minor-key exercise that displays its theatrical roots and veers between wordless, expressionistic interludes and bouts of scabrous dialogue. A three-time loser pot dealer named Randy (Michael Pitt) is thrust into a prison cell with Jake (Stephen Adly Guirgis), a burly wife-killer with literary tastes and obvious designs on Randy. That much about the story is clear, but not much else.

Leonard has written two convincing -- if not the tiniest bit admirable -- characters, and both actors are effective, though I find Pitt's affectless mumble pretty shticky at this point. He wasn't playing Kurt Cobain in "Last Days"; he was just being himself! Guirgis' Jake is a combination of brotherly affection and pathological menace. His nasty time-killing tales (one of them posing the philosophical quandary of whether one should have sex with George W. Bush, should the opportunity arise, simply for the barroom story potential) possess a Mamet-esque desperate hilarity.

What happens in "Jailbait"? Not much, really. The nature of Jake and Randy's relationship is obvious, but Leonard is more interested in the question of whether they can confront it honestly, and which one of them holds ultimate psychological power over the other. A cryptic and unsettling film. (Opens Aug. 4 in New York, with more cities to follow.)

Why do horror movies expend almost all their energy in the first 45 minutes? I'm sure genre theorists have pondered this question, but it perplexed me again after seeing "The Descent," a potential smash hit from English writer-director Neil Marshall ("Dog Soldiers"). Certainly Marshall's premise is golden: A bunch of tough adventure-travel chicks go deep into an unexplored Appalachian cave, only to learn -- surprise! -- that it's inhabited by something or someone who views visitors primarily as dinner.

I won't get specific about the plot, but "The Descent" begins with one of the most horrifying shocks I've ever seen in a motion picture, and the general mood is one of deep, dark unsettling dream. Sarah (Shauna Macdonald), our protagonist, is taking the spelunking trip largely to forget a haunting tragedy, while not realizing how much the same memory implicates Juno (Natalie Mendoza), the über-macho expedition leader.

While the women's battle with the cave creatures has fine jump-from-your-seat moments, it gradually becomes the same chase flick horror fans have seen dozens of times. OK, it's a darn good one in most respects. Marshall is a highly skilled craftsman, in the bleak Anglo-horror vein that seems to dominate the genre at the moment, and writes relatively complicated characters. The ending involves the usual horror-movie indecision -- save 'em or kill 'em? Let's try both! -- which always pisses me off. If you need help with the faintly disturbing Freudian implications of the story, you're on your own. (Opens Aug. 4 nationwide.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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