Beyond the Multiplex

A powerful mystery-thriller -- and major festival hit -- about sex, violence, revenge and guilt. Plus: Douglas Coupland puts Gen-X angst on the big screen.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 12, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

In the obnoxious but charming little corner of the entertainment industry where I spend my professional life these days -- where, if you're not careful, you find yourself air-kissing someone and saying "See you at Cannes!" and meaning it -- there are a half-dozen or so movies every year that become scandalous or sensational or controversial without anybody actually seeing them. Or to put it another way, "everybody" sees them, meaning everybody in the semi-insider clique of a few thousand hollow-eyed people who attend film festivals compulsively, read cinephile blogs (what are your favorites?) and check the mailbox wistfully for the new issues of Sight & Sound and Film Comment.

There's a business trend story to discuss here, which is partly about the fact that film festivals are booming, even as the distribution market for small, ambitious independent cinema becomes increasingly difficult. Movies like "Battle in Heaven" and "Bamako" and "Los Muertos" and "Into Great Silence" (just to pick a few examples I've covered in the past year) could be described as hits on a certain level. They've packed festival screenings and sparked impassioned discussion and moved people to go out and read things and write things and make their own movies in response, all of which is pretty much the point of the whole exercise. But the cumulative total audience of all those films put together is basically zero, at least when you compare it, say, to the 3 million or so people who bought tickets for "Blades of Glory" last weekend. (Three effing million! Jesus H. Christ!)

But I do not come here today to debate the ever-so-interesting nuances of the filmgoing marketplace, nor to berate the masses for their execrable taste. (I'm sure "Blades of Glory" is the finest figure-skating comedy since, well, that other one.) Nay, my sermon this Thursday concerns "Red Road," a kick-ass, creepy, sexy mystery-thriller from Scotland that gets under your skin and wiggles around like a parasite. It's one of the movie-buff events of the year, or it ought to be. But it's in danger of becoming another festival hit, another well-respected movie that geeks like me (and possibly you, since you're reading this) talk about in terms of veneration but that hardly anybody actually sees. This must not be allowed to happen!

I've seen this before and I know the signs. "Red Road," which is the debut feature from British director Andrea Arnold, won the Jury Prize last spring at Cannes. (Basically, that's the third-place award, but it sure sounds good, doesn't it?) Then it played Toronto in the fall, where people loved it or hated it as the case may be -- it's a film that provokes a powerful emotional and visceral response -- and Sundance in the winter, where people loved and hated it some more. It played at film festivals in Helsinki and Cleveland and Bucharest and Santa Barbara, Calif., and I have no doubt that audiences in those places spilled out of the theaters talking about it.

So those people got to see it, and now Tartan Films (a plucky little art-film distributor I greatly admire) will play it for a few weeks in a few big cities, and pretty soon you'll be able to rent it from GreenCine and Netflix. That's how it works these days; I get that. But this one, folks, is some powerful cinema. You should see it on a big screen with other breathing humans in the room if you possibly can. "Red Road" is a genre movie that doesn't cheat you with cardboard characters and ludicrous coincidences. Its themes include sex, violence, revenge and guilt, but its settings and its people and its darkness and (finally) even its hopefulness come from the real world of human behavior.

As I wrote when I covered the film at Sundance, "Red Road" is anchored by an amazing performance from Scottish actress Kate Dickie, who plays Jackie, a single woman of 35 or so whose every word, every gesture, every mannerism conveys that there's something big she's holding back. Jackie works at a police surveillance post in Glasgow, monitoring the closed-circuit cameras that scan the city's notorious housing projects day and night. Arnold's script makes no explicit commentary on the 24-hour security state of contemporary urban Britain, but the film's pervasive mood of gloom and paranoia speaks volumes. (View and learn, aspiring politically minded screenwriters!)

One day while she's watching over the poor, depressed and marginally criminal from her panopticon viewing station, Jackie catches a glimpse of a redheaded guy (Tony Curran) hanging around Red Road, one of the most infamous Glaswegian housing blocks. He's not really doing anything, or at least anything unusual: He frequents hookers, smokes cigarettes in horrible little tea shops, drives around in a hand-painted locksmith's van trying to drum up some business, legal or otherwise. Is he who she thinks he is?

He is -- but we don't really know what that means, because stoic, lockjawed Jackie's giving nothing away. The guy's name is Clyde, and he's a lifelong Glasgow no-account who was recently paroled from prison. Clearly there's some history between him and Jackie, some history bad enough that she starts virtually (and then actually) stalking him, to the point of abdicating her actual duties. You may or may not guess what the back story is with Clyde and Jackie, but "Red Road" is only partly a detective story with its secrets buried in the past. Its real secret lies in the present, in the way that our lonely, vulnerable and -- let's just say this -- outrageously horny heroine gets drawn in by this dude, who may or may not have turned over a new leaf but is undeniably a charismatic bad boy with a twinkle in his eye.

There must be other neo-noir films with female protagonists; like the classic detective-movie hero, Jackie is a hard-boiled character damaged by the past, whose pursuit of a cold case leads her to fall in love (or at least in sweaty, animal lust) with the wrong person. But I can't think of any, just offhand. Arnold's gotten in trouble with some viewers for her presentation of female sexuality -- Jackie does something she shouldn't and then compounds it by doing something much worse -- but I think it's a mistake to view this film's potent erotic charge through that prism. Sex is a dangerous and powerful force, whether you're a man or a woman, gay or straight. It speaks a kind of crude, bodily truth, and sometimes (even often) takes us into dark places we're not sure we want to visit.

"Red Road" is a thriller that doesn't sacrifice the essential mysteries of its characters and grim, post-1984 setting to the conveniences of plot. Yes, the back story of Jackie and Clyde is revealed and dealt with, far more satisfactorily than in most thrillers. But the real story for these two characters, and for the extraordinary young director Andrea Arnold, is what lies ahead.

"Red Road" opens April 13 in New York and Los Angeles. Other cities, and DVD release, will follow.

"Everything's Gone Green": Had enough wistful post-Gen-X romantic comedy? Blame Canada!
There's pretty much just one reason why "Everything's Gone Green," an agreeable, slacker-flavored romantic comedy with a nice star turn from Paulo Costanzo (of "Road Trip" and "40 Days and 40 Nights"), has gotten made and distributed. That reason is screenwriter Douglas Coupland, the one-time Zeitgeist-defining author who retains some iconic sheen for having written the novel "Generation X." Of course, "Generation X" was published 16 years ago, which means that Ryan, the shaggy, cheerful, bedroom-eyed fellow played by Costanzo in "Everything's Gone Green," would have been 13 years old and not yet motivated, presumably, by generational angst.

Well, some plants bloom every spring, and among those is the bush that yields supposedly eccentric romantic comedies about hapless guys with crappy jobs who are closing in on 30 but have yet to grow up, whatever that may mean. "Everything's Gone Green" could just as easily be set in 1967 or 1987 or (I imagine) 2027, but instead it's set now, in Coupland's hometown of Vancouver, where Ryan loses his job as a cubicle drone and his achievement-oriented yupster girlfriend on the same day.

Along comes a lovely, long-haired Asian chick named Ming (Steph Song), whose complications include a sleazoid yupster boyfriend of her own (JR Bourne) and an alarmingly cute Mandarin-speaking grandma nattering away in the background. Ryan takes a desperately bad job working for a giveaway magazine published by the British Columbia lottery authorities and becomes enmeshed in Ming's boyfriend's increasingly dubious financial schemes. He sheds his mildly ironic short-sleeve dweeb shirts and 1980-whatever Volvo for a black leather jacket and a brand new Mustang. But why would Ming leave one materialist asshole for another? Isn't she more interested in, you know, his soul?

Coupland's dialogue is crisp and reasonably funny, and there are some amusing side bits of business involving Ryan's parents, facing a late-midlife crisis of their own, and his deadbeat friend who has become the Vancouver area's leading producer of a certain herbal product. Costanzo is an immensely likable actor, and plays Ryan as a sleepy, sideburned innocent, genuinely wrestling with the realization that life might just ask more of you than paying the rent and watching TV. All the comic beats, minor switchbacks and dramatic crises of "Everything's Gone Green" are in the right place. Therein lies the problem.

This might seem like a nifty little relationship movie -- aimed at, you know, the kids of today (or at least the kids of yesterday) -- if you had never seen "Reality Bites" or "Office Space" or "High Fidelity" or the roughly 186 other feature films of the '90s and 2000s on the same theme. (Maybe none of those played in Vancouver.) As it is, Coupland and director Paul Fox seem to have arrived at the hipster-comedy party about a decade late, and their case of Pabst Blue Ribbon has gotten warm. As tepid and profoundly unoriginal as "Everything's Gone Green" is, it's got a wistful, winsome Canadian-ness that might give it some shelf life. Fundamentally, it's a well-executed formula movie, perfect for first-date couples or miscellaneous group outings. Is it wrong to expect more?

"Everything's Gone Green" opens April 13 at the Sunshine Cinema in New York; April 20 in Los Angeles and Austin, Texas; April 27 in Boston, Madison, Wis., Portland, Ore., and Columbus, Ohio; May 4 in Seattle; and May 18 in Chicago, with more cities to follow.

"Private Fears in Public Places": Stuck indoors through a Parisian winter, with a one-time art-film god
What the H-E-double-toothpicks is the deal with Alain Resnais? No, I'm actually asking. The former enfant terrible of international art cinema, who made such semi-watchable masterpieces of self-absorption as "Hiroshima Mon Amour" and "Last Year in Marienbad," is now 84, and has spent the latter portion of his career directing increasingly odd film adaptations of stage plays. What you can say, I guess, is that his arty avant-garde films and his stagy, talky films share a kind of severity, a vinegary temperament that I'm not sure I love but is distinctly Resnais' own.

His latest is a French-language version of English playwright Alan Ayckbourn's "Private Fears in Public Places," which is one of those ensemble scripts in which six people collide, all in varying states of romantic or existential discontent. (To make matters more confusing, the French title of Resnais' film is simply "Coeurs," or "Hearts.") Resnais embraces the limitations of theater; all the scenes in "Private Fears in Public Places" are shot on indoor sets, and the only optical effects are little interstitial scenes of snowfall as we move from one place to another.

It's supposed to be a cold winter in Paris, and not just outside. Charlotte (Sabine Azéma, who is Resnais' real-life companion) is a chirpy, giggly Christian real estate agent who may have had a colorful past revealed on certain videotapes, and her aging-bachelor boss Thierry (the fine French actor André Dussollier) is perhaps too interested. His sad-sack sister Gaëlle (Isabelle Carré is rather too pretty for the role) makes Internet dates with random guys and thereby meets Dan (Lambert Wilson), a studly but depressed military vet whose long relationship with Nicole (Laura Morante) is on the rocks. Let's see, what else? Nicole and Dan are clients of Thierry's (unbeknownst to Gaëlle), and Dan's only confidant is a bartender named Lionel (Pierre Arditi), whose aging, abusive father is being cared for by Charlotte.

I found the interlocking bitterness of Ayckbourn's play (adapted by Jean-Michel Ribes) irritating and overly neat, and these people don't seem to belong to Paris or London or anywhere else, at least not anytime in the last 20 years. But something about Resnais' rigorous attention to the tiniest detail, his infinitesimal flourishes of surrealism and the metrical precision of Eric Gautier's camerawork -- not to mention the terrific cast of French cinema veterans -- finally sucked me in, and for a while the patent artificiality of "Private Fears in Public Places" seemed real, and the real world a dream.

"Private Fears in Public Places" opens April 13 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza in New York, with a national rollout to follow.

Fast forward: A hip-hop dreamer flourishes in "Rock the Bells"; avant-garde heroes Jack Smith and Alejandro Jodorowsky, still bewildering after all these years

I can't quite say enough for the tense, hilarious and totally serendipitous "Rock the Bells," a backstage documentary about hip-hop promoter Chang Weisberg's attempt to reunite the Wu-Tang Clan, the legendary (and famously unreliable) superstar rap group, for his 2003 Rock the Bells festival in San Bernardino, Calif. Weisberg actually pulled this off by booking all nine or 10 Wu-Tang members as solo artists, and then suggesting, what the heck, since they were all there, why not?

You don't have to know anything about hip-hop (and I basically don't) to enjoy this picture; anybody with an appetite for learning about how pop culture works at a granular level will get a kick out of Weisberg's increasingly unlikely tightrope act en route to fulfilling an impossible dream. When Wu-Tang member Method Man is cruising around San Bernardino in his limo, getting outrageously baked, and his bandmate Ol' Dirty Bastard (sadly since deceased) is "cracked out" in his hotel room, and nearly 10,000 fans are getting ugly inside the arena, you've got a level of high drama attained by few fiction films. Directed, produced and edited by music-documentary vets Casey Suchan and Denis Henry Hennelly, "Rock the Bells" is a must-see for music buffs. (Now playing at the Pioneer Theater in New York; opens May 4 in Los Angeles; May 18 in Seattle and June 8 in San Francisco, with more cities to follow.)

Mary Jordan's documentary "Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis" offers an intriguing, and profoundly frustrating, view of the New York underground hero whose 1962 erotic fantasy "Flaming Creatures" paved the way for Andy Warhol, John Waters, the "queer cinema" explosion and pretty much anybody who's ever made a movie starring his friends in weird Salvation Army outfits. Smith died of AIDS in 1989, and in the intervening years has been lionized by a tiny cadre of admirers and forgotten by everyone else. Jordan does everything you could ask to rehabilitate Smith, but this passionate, paranoid, prodigiously committed artist -- like the vanished downtown art scene he helped launch -- remains a fading enigma, his legacy ambivalent and his work just beyond our grasp. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York; other engagements will follow.)

Certainly one of Smith's more noteworthy acolytes (although I don't know if they ever met) is the Chilean-born surrealist Alejandro Jodorowsky. His 1973 Technicolor acid-trip experiment "The Holy Mountain" is returning to the big screen after a lengthy disappearance, and then finally appearing on DVD along with his midnight-movie hit "El Topo" and several other films. (The copyright owner, one-time Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein, has finally grasped that there's cash in psychedelic nostalgia.)

If anything, this almost wordless parable about a Christ-like apparition who becomes apprenticed to a diabolical figure in Puritan garb (played by Jodorowsky himself), whose apostles include the world's leading industrial figures, is even less comprehensible today than in the lysergic tide of the early '70s. Jodorowsky has no gift for narrative whatsoever, and "The Holy Mountain" has more in common with experimental photography, the Fluxus movement and the dawn of conceptual art than with cinema in the usual sense. Still, this is an extraordinary visual concoction, loaded with stunning primary colors, anti-religious caricatures drawn from Diego Rivera and a succession of dreamlike, grotesque vistas worthy of Dalí at his most deranged. (Opens April 18 at the IFC Center in New York; other engagements will follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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