Beyond the Multiplex

Hilary Brougher's "Stephanie Daley" is a major American film, in spite of its indie pedigree. Plus: Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson visit the snuff motel.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published April 19, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

In my more cynical moments locked in the Dark Tower here at Beyond the Multiplex world HQ, I conclude that the interlocking machineries of independent cinema -- the Sundance Institute, the Spirit Awards, the worldwide parade of film festivals, the armies of middle-size, small and teeny-tiny distributors, and the entire career of Tilda Swinton -- have become a factory for churning out intimate, earnest relationship films that nobody really likes. OK, that's not cynicism. It's just the truth.

But then something comes along with exactly that institutional-indie pedigree -- something like writer-director Hilary Brougher's second feature, "Stephanie Daley" -- that's strong enough to make the whole enterprise seem worth it. "Stephanie Daley" was developed at the Sundance Writers' and Filmmakers' Lab, and premiered at that festival last year. It was nominated for a couple of Spirit Awards, while still unreleased, and it's been kicking around in distribution limbo for 15 months, on its way toward what will no doubt be a very modest release. Its cast is one of those disparate assemblages of film, TV and theater actors, none of them exactly a star: Amber Tamblyn, Timothy Hutton, Denis O'Hare, Melissa Leo and, yes, Tilda Swinton. (She's also an executive producer, which is just about as much of an indie imprimatur as you can get.)

So is "Stephanie Daley" a drama about a worried-looking group of family members trying to muddle through their lives? Well, yeah. But they're worried for a damn good reason. The title character, a high-school junior played by Tamblyn, may have killed her baby. Stephanie has become locally infamous as the "ski mom": She gave birth in a bathroom during a school ski trip (the location is Hunter Mountain, in central New York state), and the infant -- potentially viable after 26 weeks in the womb, if only just -- was later found dead in a garbage can, wrapped in toilet paper.

Sure, this is a torn-from-the-tabloids plot that would also serve for an episode of "CSI" or "Law & Order," and undoubtedly has. I don't think that's such a bad thing; too many independent films seem pathologically allergic to melodrama, as if the greatest works of the Western tradition didn't involve war, murder, sexual betrayal and unlikely coincidence. Furthermore, Stephanie's guilt or innocence is not Brougher's real subject, and we don't come away from "Stephanie Daley" with some objective truth about Stephanie and what she did or didn't know and do. Brougher writes near-perfect dialogue, and possesses that rare ability to create believable teenage characters who are neither overgrown children nor mini-adults. She's interested in the ambiguous shades of meaning between characters, the emotional and psychological chemistry that makes human relationships so magical and so poisonous.

To raise the stakes even higher, Lydie Crane (Swinton), the psychologist assigned to interview Stephanie and recommend whether or not she should be prosecuted, is herself 29 weeks pregnant, and gave birth to a stillborn child just a year earlier. Sure, that's far-fetched, but Brougher and Swinton sell it effortlessly. This is a small town without an abundance of shrinks, and Lydie is the kind of obsessive workaholic who thinks she can keep her work and life separated; she calmly takes cellphone calls while squatting to pee on the roadside behind her Grand Cherokee. (Brougher is herself the mother of two children, and I'm not convinced that a man or a childless woman could have written this script.)

You probably know Tamblyn from her television roles in "Joan of Arcadia" and numerous other shows, but she's something of a revelation here. Stephanie is a sympathetic but largely opaque girl, her need and diffidence tightly wrapped around a center of sadness even in flashback scenes, before she becomes a high-school pariah. She longs for affection that her parents (Melissa Leo and Jim Gaffigan), traumatized and socially isolated, can't or won't provide. Meanwhile, Lydie's husband, Paul (Timothy Hutton), is coming home later and later, smelling of Scotch; she finds an unfamiliar earring in the bathroom. Her own relationship with Paul's boss, Frank (Denis O'Hare), seems to have an emotional charge, and perhaps a history, we never quite understand.

Despite the inherent antagonism of their roles, Stephanie and Lydie forge an intense relationship during their interviews, almost without realizing it. In her own mind, Lydie remains detached and professional; in fact she leans toward the clinical conclusion that Stephanie was not deranged, and may be criminally culpable for her acts. Stephanie, meanwhile, tells Lydie things she hasn't told her best friend: about the charismatic 19-year-old Marine recruit who took her virginity and swore he didn't come inside her; about the personal "jinx" she detects around her in the universe; about locking herself in that ski-resort toilet stall and choking back her screams.

Brougher's camerawork is intimate and economical. (Her cinematographer is David Rush Morrison.) Lydie's face, wry and sardonic, and Stephanie's, looking as if it's about to slip beneath the waves of despair, become landscapes every bit as important as the scraggly Catskill scenery. I suppose many distributors were scared off this picture because it engages hot-button topics like abortion, sex education and fetal murder. Those issues aren't irrelevant to Stephanie's predicament, but they aren't what the movie's about, and Brougher's script never editorializes (which may frustrate some viewers). Despite an overly abrupt and oblique conclusion, this is a major American film, announcing the arrival of an independent director who deserves all the hype.

"Stephanie Daley" opens April 20 at the Angelika Film Center in New York, April 27 in Los Angeles, May 11 in Boston, May 25 in San Francisco, June 1 in Chicago and June 29 in Denver, with more cities to be announced.

"Triad Election": A saga of absolute power and absolute corruption, from the gory, glossy new wave of Hong Kong crime movies
Moving from the corner of the indie universe where people wear old sweat suits and mope at each other to the one where they wear black-market Armani suits and whack each other in fancy restaurants, we find Johnnie To's Hong Kong crime opera "Triad Election," another film-festival fave-rave that's taken a mysteriously long time to reach American audiences. To's film is known as "Election 2" in the rest of the world, and it is a sequel, more or less, to his 2005 "Election," featuring many of the same H.K. underworld characters. But it's altogether a darker and chillier affair, merciless in tone and existentially claustrophobic, which for all its stylishness never romanticizes these soulless lowlifes.

In telling the story of Jimmy (played by Chinese-language pop idol Louis Koo), a smooth-talkin', sharply dressed operator who's coerced into taking over Hong Kong's most notorious triad society by his "legitimate" business connections on the mainland, To is partly repurposing the later chapters of Michael Corleone's career from "The Godfather, Part III." But the portrait To paints of relations between Chinese state capitalism and Hong Kong organized crime, a decade after the former British colony was returned to mainland control, could scarcely be bleaker.

Conventions of honor, order and patriarchy have been swept aside, even among the ancient triads. In the new China's acquisitive, entrepreneurial culture, a life of crime is much like any other business, with slightly more killing: It's all about BMW limousines, hilltop McMansions, the best European suits and a bewildering array of double-crosses and deals-gone-bad. It's tough to follow all the switchbacks and reversals in Yau Nai-hoi and Yip Tin-shing's script, but To keeps the flow of assassinations, backroom intrigue and elegant lifestyle accoutrements rolling onward with deceptive ease.

"Triad Election" is something like a surprise candy, with a hard, sweet veneer and a shockingly bitter center. If John Woo's now-classic films of the late '80s and early '90s ("A Better Tomorrow," "Bullet in the Head," "Hard-Boiled") represented the baroque height of Chinese crime cinema, the veteran To -- who has made nearly 50 films in the last 27 years -- now rules the roost with a less lyrical, more cynical vision. Woo's heroes were often noble, even Christ-like knights, sacrificing themselves to a cruel system on behalf of the innocents they loved. In To's movies no one is innocent, and the social corruption has reached down to the soul. He orchestrates action scenes with an elegance that suggests Scorsese, but it's no accident that in the movie's grotesque and nearly unwatchable centerpiece Jimmy soaks his fancy suit with blood.

"Triad Election" opens April 25 at Film Forum in New York (in a double bill with "Election"). Other engagements, and DVD release, will follow.

Fast forward: Kate Beckinsale and Luke Wilson can't fill "Vacancy"; "The Valet" shacks up with a Parisian supermodel; "West of the Tracks" goes deep into China's industrial heartland
You know, I had reasonably high hopes for "Vacancy," a horror flick with Luke Wilson and Kate Beckinsale as a bitter, squabbling couple who get stuck in a remote motel that turns out to be an ongoing location for producing stalker-slasher-snuff movies. It was directed by Nimród Antal, the Hungarian-American director whose scungy sci-fi drama "Kontroll," set in the Budapest subway system, was among the strangest cinematic delights of the last few years.

I shoulda known better. If I had a nickel for every European director who ever got sucked into the crap-encrusted sub-Hollywood basement of American filmmaking, I'd -- well, I'd have a pile of nickels big enough to piss off some Starbucks employee, anyway. Antal crafts this ludicrous enterprise with much the same grimy, attentive chiaroscuro that made "Kontroll" so effective, but "Vacancy" is a near-toxic mismatch of script, cast and director. Actually, Mark L. Smith's screenplay could scarcely have been salvaged by anyone. It's a lame-brained collection of hoary clichés from every attacked-by-the-yokels picture ever made, full of cars that won't start, phones that won't work, lazy and incompetent officers of the law, unkillable superhuman villains and a generalized urbanite paranoia of redneck malevolence. Plus, if you want to talk implausible -- we're supposed to believe these backwoods maniacs are going to all this trouble to make VHS tapes of their sadistic slaughter? Give me a break; there's no market for that.

Maybe if "Vacancy" were played for laughs, or for extreme shock value, or both, it might be rendered watchable. But Antal aims for some blend of the compelling, the earnest and the grotesque, and can't get even halfway there. First off, he wants us to care about Amy (Beckinsale) and David (Wilson), their pissy bickering, and their threadbare back story involving a dead kid. (You see this all the time in thrillers, and I think it's desperation: Instead of creating believable or sympathetic characters, just haunt them with the absolute worst thing that could ever happen to anybody.) Personally, I couldn't wait for the rural degenerates to get into that motel room and carve up these whiners. (Opens April 20 nationwide.)

I won't defend my enjoyment of Francis Veber's cheerfully silly "The Valet," except to observe that his fluffy French comedies are maybe 10 percent better crafted, and have better acting, than the median for Hollywood product. Also, even Veber's dumbest pictures (and this one's pretty dumb) have that slight tinge of bittersweet romantic philosophy that distinguishes French humor. Many of his scripts have been remade as profitable Hollywood vehicles, going clear back to Billy Wilder's "Buddy, Buddy" in 1981, and this one too -- about a parking-lot valet who shacks up with a supermodel -- will reportedly become a Farrelly brothers project.

As usual, Veber's basic elements are some lightweight, Beaumarchais-style romantic intrigue, a likable shlub in the central role, and some random bits of slapstick. (A rich lady's hair is set on fire with a flaming dish of whatever -- always a winner!) The hero of "The Valet" is François (Gad Elmaleh), a bug-eyed skinny guy who parks cars at the fancy restaurant across the street from the Eiffel Tower. His practical-minded girlfriend, Emilie (Virginie Ledoyen), has turned down his marriage proposal and he's in the dumps. But days later, he's got the leggy, blond supermodel Elena (Alice Taglioni) living in his shabby apartment. What the heck?

What the heck indeed. A nefarious CEO named Levasseur-- the great Daniel Auteuil, performing a series of double takes and slow burns -- is paying François to conceal his affair with Elena from Madame Levasseur, who is played with delightful, haughty elegance by English actress Kristin Scott Thomas. Elena still pines for Levasseur, and François still pines for Emilie, but in the meantime they're stuck together in a skinny little bed and she's actually a total sweetheart to go with the 8-foot gams, and well, you get the idea. "The Valet" is a sunny, cheerful, thoroughly artificial concoction, going nowhere with no particular speed. Still, better than your average airplane movie. (Opens April 20 in New York, Los Angeles and other major cities, with wider release to follow.)

I won't pretend to have seen all three films in Chinese documentarian Wang Bing's series "West of the Tracks" -- taken together, they are nine hours long -- but the first, "Rust," lives up to its reputation. Between 1999 and 2001, Wang lived and filmed in Shenyang, a decaying city in northeastern China that was once the nation's industrial heartland (and a symbol of socialist progress). Now a zone of largely empty factories, widespread unemployment and environmental poisoning, Shenyang has become a grim casualty of China's massive economic shift toward entrepreneurial enterprise.

Workers play chess, fight, joke about their declining health and bleak prospects, and then head back out to the hellish lead-smelting furnaces, copper-plating plants and loading docks while they still have jobs. It's a compassionate and absorbing film, leavened with surprising flashes of humor, that gradually surrounds you in its world, distilling essential human experience from the grim, majestic landscape and vast societal trauma. (Now playing at Anthology Film Archives in New York; there may be forthcoming screenings at universities and film societies in other cities.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

MORE FROM Andrew O'Hehir

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Beyond The Multiplex Documentaries Movies Thrillers Tilda Swinton