Sunday, October 6, 2013


There is a scene early in Matthew Johnson's The Dirties where aspiring director Matt (Johnson) describes the film he's working on as being a bit like Irreversible, an obscure French film from several years ago. That he's talking to a 12-year-old makes it funny. That the 12-year-old is also making a movie makes it funnier. Not laugh-out-loud hysterical, but it's the sort of joke that  makes one think The Dirties is going to be one of those smirky film buff comedies, something that Christopher Guest might do. Instead, it's not a joke at all, but a glimpse into Matt's mind, where everything seems "like a movie." The film eventually turns dark, delving into the grim reality of high school shootings and bullying. At an even deeper level it's about the perils of friendship, particularly when two outsiders get too closely involved in each other's lives.
Matt and Owen (Owen Williams) are a couple of Canadian high school students making a film about two detectives cracking down on a high school gang known as "the Dirties." When a teacher tells them they've gone too far - too much swearing in the film, and too much gun play - Matt takes things in a new direction, planning to actually kill the bullies at his school and getting it on film.

Matt begins fashioning himself as a killer, trying on different gloves and masks that will make him look scarier. He reads a book about the Columbine massacre and turns absolutely giddy when he reads the definition of "psychopath" and applies it to himself. Owen, the more pragmatic of the two, loses interest in the project for various reasons, namely a budding friendship with a cute girl named Chrissy (Krista Madison). Matt has a hand in bringing Own and Chrissy together -- he wants the best for his buddy, after all -- but he's off to the gun range on the weekends to practice picking off victims.
The film, which occasionally feels like an episode of Freaks and Geeks with automatic weapons,  may draw criticism for mixing laughs with tragedy, and the end credits which includes stills from classic Hollywood films make The Dirties seem more lighthearted than is probably intended. But its casual approach to violence is insightful. The boys who actually open fire in schoolyards are probably not too different from Matt. His brain has been flooded with comic books and action movies. Bully him enough, and there's a chance he'll go off. The bullies in this movie are aggressive louts, and when Matt eventually shoots them, you almost want to applaud. That he does it with the sort of panache he's seen in movies makes the murders doubly impressive. (I was reminded of Woody Allen's line at the end of Play it Again, Sam, when he quotes Humphrey Bogart's famous monologue from Casablanca and says, "I've waited my entire life to say those lines!" And so it is with Matt, who has waited his entire life to kill someone with the bravado of Sam Jackson or Clint Eastwood.)

But The Dirties isn't a comedy, and it's not uplifting, and it's not meant to be. It was sad when Own tells Matt that he's all talk and no action, not so much because Owen feels that way, but because Owen and Matt have simply become too close, until Matt's madness is seeping out and leaking onto Owen. It's downright melancholy when Matt asks his mother, "Do you think I'm crazy?"  It's also sad to watch the students scamper when Matt arrives at school with his arsenal. High school gun rampages have become so common that kids probably practice running for cover, just like a fire drill.
The Dirties is Johnson's first feature, and as writer, actor, and director, he makes an impression. He plays Matt like a dervish, constantly jabbering about movies, but always hinting at the sadness underneath his jovial front.  As his long suffering friend, Owen Williams perfectly shows the angst of being best buds with a misfit, an arrangement that can be amusing, but also vexing and, ultimately, overwhelming. The rest of the unknown cast  give fine performances, too. But it's Johnson's show. His debut has the kind of crazy energy that reminded me of other great indy debuts like She's Gotta Have It,   Reservoir Dogs, and Clerks; it has the verve and daring of a young man displaying his powers. Matt Johnson may never be as free or fearless again. He may never make another movie as good as this one. That's OK, because he made this one, and it's very good. It's the movie "Matt" the killer would have made.

Western flicks about revenge are a dime a dozen. Even westerns about female sharpshooters aren't all that cutting edge these days. But beautiful cinematography, a good cast, and a bravura turn by the always underrated Ed Harris, makes Logan Miller's Sweetwater  a better than average modern western. It's rather gross at times, with a lot of sex and violence and bits of black comedy, but it's not as groundbreaking as Logan might believe. What makes it work is not the eccentric stuff, but the basics:  the acting,  the suspense, and the scenic vistas that can only be found in westerns. With help from cinematographer Brad Shield, Miller turns in one of the prettiest westerns since the days of Sergio Leone.

In the late 1800's,  former prostitute Sarah (January Jones) is trying to build a life with her husband in New Mexico. Josiah, a religious leader from Utah (Jason Isaacs) murders her husband and takes Sarah for his own. Once she decides she has had enough, Sarah embarks on a bloody course of vengeance with the assistance of oddball sheriff Cornelius Jackson (Ed Harris), who happens to be investigating Josiah for a pair of murders.

Josiah is an unbalanced maniac, given over to megalomania and an over the top sexual appetite. Fittingly, he presides over a town made up of ruthless bankers, corrupt authorities, and perverts. When Sarah starts blasting away, you can't help think, "It's about time."  Sarah is as remorseless and unstoppable as one of Cornell Woolrich's avenging female angels.

Still, it's Harris as Jackson who keeps the show afloat. Capering around in the dusty streets like a madman, growling his lines of dialog, hair down to his shoulders like General Custer, and strutting like a banty rooster, Harris is a force of nature here.  His encounters with Josiah are full of tension, and even if their final meeting is an anti-climax, Harris is memorable, piling one strange mannerism atop another, until he has done the almost unthinkable: he's created a new western character, one as startlingly original as Brando's in The Missouri Breaks.

Dario Argento's Dracula 3-D is a case of a veteran filmmaker returning to the classics. When Dracula (Thomas Kretschman) hears  wolves howling and recites the famous line, "Listen to them...the children of the night...the music they make...," you're reminded that Dracula is almost a Shakespearean character by now, like Richard the Third or King Lear,  up to an actor's  interpretation.

Kretschman's turn as the undead icon won't stack up against the likes of Lugosi or Lee, or even Gary Oldman, but he does a credible job. Unfortunately, Rutger Hauer is lethargic as Van Helsing, and after a good start, much of the movie feels flat.  True, the film is beautifully shot, and Argento pulls off a few unique flourishes, including one where Dracula turns into a giant green mantis. Still,  Argento's Dracula  lacks a pulse.



No comments:

Post a Comment