Sunday, September 1, 2013



Passion, a stylish but sleepy thriller from veteran director Brian De Palma, is one of those films where people you think are lesbians are not really lesbians, killers are not really killers, and everyone has a pretty good excuse to be guilty of something.  

De Palma, who has mined similar ground in a career that began in the 1960s and has included several modern classics, based this, his 38th film, on a 2010 French feature Love Crime. According to the opening credits, he financed this remake with a lot of European money. Here's hoping the European backers are satisfied with their investment, because this one isn't likely to set the American box office on fire. Of course, there are enough De Palma flourishes, everything from weird masks to sexual intrigue, to satisfy his followers. In fact, when they hear the Hitchcock-like music that opens the film, they may think they're in a kind of Hitchcock-De Palma hybrid heaven.
Rachel McAdmans is the manipulative boardroom executive with a strange interest in her protege, Noomi Rapace. There is some sexual blackmail, and a couple of mean tricks involving McAdams' boy friend (Paul Anderson), but De Palma seems less interested in these characters than in creating a sort of sterile environment and making a statement about the antiseptic world of corporate advertising. Eventually, there's a murder and De Palma pulls out all of his familiar moves, even the old reliable split screen, all pushed along to dynamic  heights by Pino Donaggio's operatic score.
Unfortunately, De Palma has created a visually striking film, but he's forgotten the human factor. For a director known as a cold-blooded stylist, his best films - Carrie, Scarface, Carlito's Way - have always had characters we could care about. The characters in Passion are simply stick figures, commanded to look frightened on cue.
Suri Krishnamma's Dark Tourist  starts out as an intriguing look at a lonely man (Michael Cudlitz)  with a dark hobby - he travels the country visiting the sites where famous serial murderers did their ghastly business.  When we first meet him, he seems to have things under control. He works night shift as a security guard, he reads his serial killer books, and he soothes himself by listening to Hawaiian music. It doesn't seem like such a bad life. We hear his thoughts as he narrates the picture, ala Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, and while he seems a bit misanthropic, he appears content to live his life during the dark hours of the day. His latest trip is to northern California where a notorious arsonist killed dozens of people back in the 1960s.

We gradually learn that Cudlitz' character actually relates to the killers he idolizes. Like the men he studies, he had a dreadful childhood and grew up to be rather warped, particularly when it comes to sex. He has a taste for violent encounters with shemales, which lead to horrible guilt feelings.  Soon, he's taking advice from the ghost of his favorite murderer (Pruitt Taylor Vance), and acting out on his darkest whims. Cudlitz is very good in the movie, believable as a man being pushed and pulled by his inner demons.

The final part of the film goes down some predictable paths, but nothing quite prepares viewers for the site of Melanie Griffith as a kind-hearted waitress who takes  pity on Cudlitz. She gives a sensitive, sweet performance, one of her best in years. The only drawback is that 55-year-old waitresses in California farm country aren't likely to have had so much work done on their faces.

Fans of 1970s Italian splatter films might enjoy Berberian Sound Studio, a new film by Peter Strickland. It would also help if you have a fetish for analog sound gear.

Toby Jones plays Gilderoy, a British engineer hired by an Italian film company to help loop the sounds of a new film by Santini (Antonio Mancino), a famous director known for abusing actresses. Although Santini blanches at the term “horror,” his film is apparently about witches being killed. Most of the sound effects involve stabbing watermelons to create the sound of bodies being stabbed. Gilderoy , a sensitive soul, grows anxious over the constant sounds of death and violence.  He’s also assaulted by mind games as soon as he enters the studio. The Italian crew mocks him behind his back, and even to his face.   Still, he’s determined to see the project to its finish, even as the horrors of  Santini’s film begin to seep into his mind.
Berberian Sound Studio has the uncomfortable tone of a half-remembered nightmare, but it’s quite stylish and is at times beautiful to look at. Strickland’s attention to the minutiae of the Italian horror genre is flawless, particularly his explosive opening credits for Santini’s movie, the clunkily titled  The Equestrian Vortex.  The  quartet of actresses   hired to scream for the film within the film convey what must be an agonizing job.  Jones, too, is a marvel. He seems to  melt and  shrivel as the film progresses, as if working for Santini is draining him of life.
As was the case with many Italian horror films of the 1970s, we’re never quite certain of what’s going on. Has Gilderoy been lured to Italy as part of a satanic ritual?   Was he mentally unbalanced to begin with?  Strickland plays with us a bit too much, taking us down dead ends, setting traps that never spring.  The  atmosphere he creates, though, is  too unsettling to easily dismiss.
The best scene in the movie isn’t even meant to be scary. It takes place during a power outage at the studio. While waiting for the power to return, Gilderoy entertains the actors by rubbing a light bulb to create a flying saucer sound.  The scene goes on for a while, as if he’s serenading the Italians with his beloved sound effects. A crew member says, “Fantastic.”  Jones smiles shyly. The scene is beautiful because it shows a man quietly sharing his gift with strangers, and bridging a language gap with a simple little trick.   When the lights come back on, the actors groan. Light means a return to work and drudgery. The dark had meant, for a moment, something like magic.

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