Beyond the Multiplex

A thrilling, chilling indie horror take on global warming. (Beware the spectral caribou!) Plus: A fascinating art-centric view of World War II.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Published September 20, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

After the ridiculous onslaught of releases since Labor Day, some semblance of calm has returned to the chaotic film universe. It's an illusion, of course. Next week the New York Film Festival launches the sober-and-serious moviegoing season in earnest, and in short order many of the weighty Oscar hopefuls of fall will be rolled out, from George Clooney's performance as "Michael Clayton" to John Cusack's turn as the monosyllabic widower of an Iraq casualty in "Grace Is Gone" to Halle Berry and Benicio Del Toro in the troubled-family saga "Things We Lost in the Fire."

Big-ticket Hollywood releases may be sucking up most of the money and attention, but the year continues to be surprisingly strong for independent (and quasi-independent) fare at the box office. David Cronenberg's "Eastern Promises" has already grossed more than $500,000 in limited big-city release, with a much wider rollout still to come. Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" has also opened strongly (on just nine screens) and Julie Delpy's Woody Allen-style romantic farce "2 Days in Paris" has grossed a startling $3.1 million. The terrific astronaut documentary "In the Shadow of the Moon" has middling returns so far, but should play strongly into the fall once it reaches general release.

It's perfectly true that the year's biggest indie hits tend toward lighter, sweeter fare ("Waitress" has earned nearly $19 million, "Becoming Jane" nearly $18 million and "La Vie en Rose" about $10 million), but I don't think that qualifies as scandalous news. All kinds of small, interesting and challenging movies have done well in many regions of the country this year, from Julie Gavras' "Blame It on Fidel" to the acerbic Argentine comedy "Live-in Maid" to the '80s skinhead saga "This Is England" to the witty costume drama "Molière" and the rerelease of Max Ophüls' classic "The Earrings of Madame de ..."

After two weeks of near-total sellouts at New York's Film Forum and heaps of love from critics, on the other hand, it still doesn't look like John Turturro's strange and delightful musical "Romance & Cigarettes" will be getting a general release. And strong reviews have done nothing to boost Craig Zobel's dark music-industry fable "Great World of Sound," one of the year's strongest American indies. But it's not like baffling corporate decisions and unpredictable audience response are new phenomena either. Taken as a whole, 2007 has me convinced that all the industry talk about new platforms and digital delivery and the damn iPhone is pretty much hooey. Old-fashioned moviegoing -- as in buying a ticket and sitting in the dark with people you don't know -- will remain the principal driving force of this business for years to come.

This week gives us a chance to explore for unlikely surprises among the rocks and weeds on the outer fringes of the biz: Indie horror auteur Larry Fessenden takes on global warming in "The Last Winter," probably the standout film of his still-young career; while the documentary "The Rape of Europa" offers a fascinating alternative history of World War II as a uniquely destructive cultural event. If you're an old-school art-film fan (or yearn to become one), Catalan director Albert Serra's minimalist take on the Don Quixote story offers a lovely zone of transcendence. Ann Hu's wispy, romantic "Beauty Remains" should delight a different audience, those who crave the luscious period love stories Chinese cinema does so well. Finally, New York audiences get a new print of Hal Ashby's psychedelic and farcical "The Landlord," exploring real estate and race relations in an almost unrecognizable Big Apple, circa 1970.

"The Last Winter": Did Dick Cheney's energy task force know about the spectral caribou?
Contemporary American horror movies are so not worth watching, for the most part, that I'm tempted to lavish more praise on Larry Fessenden (maker of 2001's "Wendigo" and the awesome mid-'90s vampire flick "Habit") than I should. But, for crying out loud, at least his pictures are driven by ideas, and he understands that horror stems from accumulated mood and atmosphere, not just scenes of evisceration and decapitation. I don't think the monstrous, goofy Arctic Circle beings who finally show up in the last few minutes of "The Last Winter" provide much of a payoff -- Fessenden seems to suffer from the genre's tendency toward literal-mindedness -- but they didn't ruin this tense and exciting film for me either.

Fessenden began his career as a sort of postmodern prankster (his early films include shorts titled "Jaws," "A Face in the Crowd" and "Chinatown"), and the catholic desire to blend seemingly incompatible elements is the strength of his work. If the frozen, isolated setting of "The Last Winter" -- the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, after a future congressional vote has opened it to oil exploration -- deliberately recalls John Carpenter's "The Thing," Fessenden has also cited Kurosawa's "Dersu Uzala" as an influence. Personally, I'd love to see him channel the Kurosawa-Tarkovsky current more strongly and make the Carpenter-esque horror in his films even more ambiguous or psychological than it is already. But I guess he's too devoted to crass concerns like, you know, actually attracting paying customers. Sellout!

From the opening scene, featuring a bullshit-redolent corporate video from North Industries, the company that has won the government contract to begin ANWR exploration, we know that something is already going wrong at North's lonely Alaska outpost. One of the workers, a wide-eyed post-collegiate kid named Maxwell (Zach Gilford), has begun roaming the empty tundra on his own at night, inadequately dressed, and mumbling about what he sees out there. Hoffman (James LeGros), an environmental activist who's been hired for P.R. purposes, has become convinced that the ANWR ecosystem is melting down: Winter temperatures are well above normal and the permafrost is melting; building the "ice roads" needed to bring in heavy equipment seems impossible.

Project manager Ed Pollack (terrific character actor Ron Perlman) doesn't want to listen to any of Hoffman's left-wing whining, of course. The American people want "energy independence," dammit, and he's there to do their bidding. To make matters worse, Abby (Connie Britton), the tomboyish blond who is Pollack's No. 2, has slid into bed with Hoffman while Pollack (her ex) was away from the station. There's never any doubt where Fessenden's sympathies lie here, but neither of these adversaries is a cardboard cutout. Hoffman can be an arrogant prima donna at times, and as the crew becomes cut off from civilization and beset by one mysterious calamity after another, Pollack has to wrestle between the core ideology that has defined his life so far and the ineffable menace he can see building around them.

Gruesome and terrifying things happen in "The Last Winter," but there's no gratuitous gore or torture, and the film's real power comes from its building sense that something really, really bad is about to happen, not just to this lonely band of oil-field workers but to all of us. The vast and empty tundra, the mysterious decades-old oil well Maxwell can't stay away from and the spectral visions the crew begins to have at night -- all those things feel like symbolic or Jungian keys as much as clues to a literal mystery. As I say, the monster-movie element becomes too literal for my taste by the time Hoffman and Pollack must try to cross the tundra together on foot. But the very last shot of the film is devastating, precisely because Fessenden shows us nothing: a woman standing in a puddle of water, thunderstruck at what is unfolding before her.

"The Last Winter" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York and opens Sept. 21 at the Nuart Theatre in Los Angeles, Sept. 28 in San Francisco and Oct. 5 in Philadelphia and San Diego, with more cities to follow.

"The Rape of Europa": World War II and the Holocaust, reconsidered as art history
Maybe the best way to convince you to check out the enthralling documentary "The Rape of Europa" is to say that I, too, had no desire to see another damn film about the terrible things that happened in World War II. And at first glance, this film's subject seems trivial: Who cares what happened to the art and cultural artifacts of Europe when umpteen million people were slaughtered? Well, what Bonni Cohen, Richard Berge and Nicole Newnham's film (based on the award-winning book by art historian Lynn Nicholas) convinces you is that there's really no separating those things.

Human culture consists of a lot of stuff besides human bodies, and Hitler intended nothing less than a radical reshaping of European culture. Killing all those people was, you might say, the easy part. There was nothing random or careless about the Nazi looting of art and cultural artifacts. In city after city across Austria and Poland and Holland and France, elite German troops went in with carefully prepared lists of works to confiscate for Hitler and Göring's enormous private collections or to be shipped back to museums in the Reich. Fortunately, curators at the Louvre in Paris and the Hermitage in Leningrad were prepared, and enlisted armies of volunteers to pack, ship or hide many of the most priceless works of the Western tradition. (The "Mona Lisa" spent the war years inside a wooden box, in a private chateau in Provence.)

Most obviously, Jewish culture, and the decadent modernism associated by the Nazis with Jewish cosmopolitanism, were to be uprooted and destroyed. One historian observes that Hitler, a modestly talented landscape painter in his youth, was turned down for art school in Vienna the same year that Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka were admitted. There were several Jews on the committee, and the young Austrian apparently bore them a murderous grudge from that day forward. (Kokoschka would later joke that Hitler could have done much less damage as a bad painter, and he himself would have been a much less fearsome dictator.)

Among Hitler's goofier ideas was his plan to remake Linz, his modest Austrian hometown, into an enormous monumental city featuring the world's greatest art museum and his own massive mausoleum. During the final days in his Berlin bunker, he was apparently sufficiently detached from reality that he spent hours poring over his scale models of Linz, and before shooting himself left instructions that mausoleum construction should go ahead as planned. On his only visit to Paris on the morning after the French surrender in 1940, Hitler confided to Albert Speer that he had long planned to destroy the city, but since his reconstructed Linz would outshine Paris in every way, that would no longer be necessary.

As the tide of the war turned, the United States Army recruited art historians and other experts to help minimize the damage of battle and recover stolen artworks. Even so, the damage to Italy was immense; American troops destroyed the medieval Camposanto cemetery of Pisa (which is still, slowly, being restored) and the Montecassino monastery, home of the Benedictines, while retreating Germans blew up the Ponte Santa Trinità and much of the surrounding Renaissance architecture of central Florence. As the film makes clear, the devastation has not yet been made right; immense amounts of Jewish-owned art remains unreturned or unaccounted for, and thousands of German artworks remain in Russian collections, having been confiscated by vengeful Red Army soldiers. (It's tough to get all worked up about that, isn't it?) All in all, an exciting and terrifying new perspective on an era you probably thought you understood.

Now playing at the Angelika Film Center and Paris Theatre in New York. Opens Sept. 21 in Chattanooga, Tenn.; Sept. 28 in Boston, Los Angeles and Washington; Oct. 5 in Baltimore and Philadelphia; Oct. 7 in Tulsa, Okla.; and Oct. 19 in Cleveland, Dallas and Sacramento, Calif., with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Love among the ruins of old China in "Beauty Remains"; Cervantes' noble knight meanders through "Quixotic"; affordable New York real estate in "The Landlord"
A love triangle set in the late 1940s, as Mao Zedong's People's Army is about to sweep the old order of China away, Ann Hu's "Beauty Remains" is distinguished by a ghostly, intimate atmosphere that will linger with you long after the plot has faded. Fei (the lovely Zhou Xun) is a servant's daughter attending school on a mysterious scholarship; she hasn't seen her biological father (a rich man who was her mother's employer) in many years but is summoned to his house after his death. Complicated plot devices are employed to drag out her relationship with her haughty half-sister, Lady Ying (Vivian Wu), who needs Fei's consent in order to sell off Dad's belongings and flee the approaching Reds.

Between the sisters, inevitably, comes Lady Ying's debonair fiancé a gambler and lady killer named Mr. Huang (Wang Zhiwen). "Beauty Remains" has too much voice-over narration, and sometimes the smeared mists-of-memory camerawork is so thick it seems as if Qingdao is enveloped in an encroaching communistic fog. But Hu, a Chinese-American immigrant who made a mid-career switch from business to filmmaking, approaches these characters with genuine passion and compassion, and her evident talent shines through the timeworn material. Acting by all three principals is tremendous. (Opens Sept. 21 at Cinema Village in New York; other cities may follow.)

Albert Serra's sly, leisurely and plotless "Quixotic" attracted a small but loyal cadre of admirers at Cannes last year, under the English title "Honor of the Knights," which is closer to the Catalan original. Now I can see why. "Quixotic" is indeed about the aging Don Quixote (Lluís Carbó) and his hapless sidekick Sancho Panza (Lluís Serrat) as they wander the Spanish countryside in hopes of defeating villains and restoring a golden age of chivalry. OK, it's not really. That description sounds as if there might actually be a story to this film, in some ordinary sense, and fails to convey the picture's mysterious combination of serious and sardonic tones. Some commenter on IMDB has dubbed this movie as "Beckett meets Cervantes," and that about captures it

"Quixotic" has no story, but it's about other things: its own lovely, deceptively miscellaneous photography, the golden Spanish light of dawn and dusk, the sounds of crickets, the heat of the day and the splash of water. Maybe it's about two men who love each other but don't fundamentally know each other, or just about two guys going nowhere in particular who stop to eat walnuts, talk briefly about the intentions of God and go for a swim. Serra belongs to the same general European tendency as directors like Béla Tarr and Cristi Puiu and Pedro Costa, meaning he makes deliberately ambiguous films that are meant, more than anything else, to prod or lull the viewer into a contemplative state. But "Quixotic" is a witty, dry, lovely and unpretentious picture; while you have to adjust yourself both physically and mentally to its diurnal rhythms, I never endured the moments of tooth-pulling boredom I've occasionally felt with Tarr and Costa. (Opens Sept. 21 at Anthology Film Archives in New York.)

Hal Ashby's debut film "The Landlord," made in 1970, is something like a Marx Brothers movie charged up on LSD and left-wing politics. A wealthy and naive socialite named Elgar Enders (played by 29-year-old Beau Bridges) buys a brownstone in a downtrodden neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. -- it's in Park Slope, today the most gentrified area imaginable -- and endures a series of madcap and/or erotic misadventures in his relations with the African-American tenants. It's a haphazard ride, full of strange Brechtian asides, awkward racial politics (the script was by black writer, actor and director Bill Gunn), memorable supporting performances and random, hilarious scenes that have nothing to do with the plot. In the best of these, Lee Grant, as Elgar's mother, and Pearl Bailey, as the building's mother hen, get flat-out plastered together. (Anything to get those two actresses in the same room, right?)

In some respects "The Landlord" isn't very good; Ashby feels much more in control of his material with "Harold and Maude," made the next year. But it's a compelling and adventurous spectacle, which feels simultaneously like a time capsule and a crucial influence on such recent films as "The Royal Tenenbaums" and "Half Nelson." (Now playing at Film Forum in New York; other engagements may follow.)

Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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