The Devil's Rejects

Also: 5 x 2, Hustle & Flow, The Island, Last Days, Murderball, My Mother's Smile, and Saraband.

The Devil's Rejects

Opens Fri., July 22, at Varsity and others

Director Rob Zombie's sequel to 2003's twisted House of 1,000 Corpses comes from the most perverse, darkly infested recesses of his highly creative mind, and aims to provoke a retching reflex in all but the most extreme horror fans. The Devil's Rejects finds the Firefly family mired once again in a laughable carnival of clichés and copious amounts of ludicrous violence. Each degenerate family member lusts to kill—after mentally, physically, and sexually agonizing their victims. Meanwhile, they express a high level of loyalty and affection for one another and their alternate lifestyle as serial killers, strangely endearing themselves to the viewer.

This blood-spurting Western commences at the Firefly's 1970s desert Texas home with a machine gun shoot-out led by the revengeful town sheriff, played by William Forsythe. Narrowly escaping, Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and Otis (Bill Moseley) flee across the dust bowl to a remote motel, where they make a lasting impression upon some guests and a very unfortunate maid. After they're reunited with their father, Capt. Spalding (Sid Haig), the body count continues to rise, and they seek refuge at an adult entertainment park. In the end, the family meets its demise in a Bonnie and Clyde–style ambush along the highway. The slow-motion death scene is an excellent example of Zombie's effective use of the soundtrack to create an atmosphere of frivolity. Isn't death and dismemberment fun? (R) DARBY REED

5 x 2

Runs Fri., July 22–Thurs., July 28, at Varsity

Not so grim as Irréversible, not so funny as the famous Seinfeld "Indian wedding" episode, this coldly meticulous new French film from François Ozon proceeds backward from a couple's unhappy split to a romantic meeting on the beach several years earlier. There are five chapters, relating how the two of them, Marion (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi) and Gilles (Stéphane Freiss), met, married, and had a child, none of which is that hard to follow. So why the reverse chronology? In the first episode, the couple's divorce proceedings are dismal, and their farewell-sex rendezvous at a hotel room is downright ugly. You want to hate Gilles and side with Marion for dumping him. Then, as Ozon intends, things get more complicated as we sift, like archaeologists, through the strata of their messy past.

Next (earlier), at a dinner party, Gilles' gay brother warns, "It's better not to share everything" in a relationship when it comes to extracurricular activities. Marion speaks of the importance of "trust," which Gilles—in a rather cruel, shocking story he tells—seems to discount altogether. Chapter three (childbirth) seems to support her, while chapter four (the wedding) upsets things entirely. Finally, chapter five explains how they met at an Italian beach resort, where "trust" is hardly a part of anyone's vocabulary.

In contrast to the similar relationship crucible Saraband (see below), 5 x 2 certainly contains the truth of how lovers (and ex-lovers) behave in the modern world—with jealousy, lies, and evasions, plus cell phones to facilitate the untruths. Marion and Gilles are recognizably human, if not particularly admirable in their conduct. The acting is solid, too, but not in the service of any profound insight. Gilles, the "asshole" (as his wife calls him), isn't all bad, and Marion isn't all good. Ozon (Swimming Pool) films each episode with slight cinematic variations, but to no great effect. His central twosome are both flawed and conventional, scandalous and boring. The only thing his film teaches us is that if you ever take a new lover on a Club Med vacation and don't trust him or her out of your sight, don't be surprised about what you see afterward. (R) BRIAN MILLER

Hustle & Flow

Opens Wed., July 20, at Meridian and others

Producer Stephanie Allain had a run of good luck with her protégés John Singleton and Robert Rodriguez, so she thought her new find, writer-director Craig Brewer, should be a slam dunk. Brewer's script about a scrappy Memphis pimp who cherishes a Mickey Rooney–ish dream to find a barn, put on a show with his pals and hos, and make it as a rap star was very Rocky. In the wake of 8 Mile, and with her track record, how could it not sell?

They spent two years finding out, as everyone in Hollywood spurned Hustle & Flow. Brewer was forced to continue to rely on his stripper wife for fiscal as well as moral support. Finally, Singleton stepped up with his own money, and the finished flick sold for a record sum at Sundance. So Rocky supplies not only the formula but the marketing myth that could make Hustle's cash flow.

The thing that makes the picture score is also what initially repelled the studios: Instead of using an established rap star, the hero is played by Terrence Howard, a respected nobody who recently cracked prestige second-banana status in Ray and Crash. Howard is simply the acting find of the year. His sad, melty eyes make him the most sympathetic pimp ever, even before he launches into philosophically lecturing his ho about what separates men from dogs. The film's preposterous premise didn't call for a rap star; it needed an anodyne antidote to rap's vicious misogyny, know-nothing ethic, and pornlike repetitiveness of theme. Howard's sleepy star quality is just what pimpdom's public image needs.

For his character, Djay, is the Fezziwig of pimps. He truly loves his hos, even when they mouth off and he has to hit them (gently, especially when they're pregnant). 8 Mile veteran Taryn Manning has sass and wit as Djay's top white asset, and the hugely expectant black Shug (Taraji P. Henson) has singing pipes and a woeful-soulful gaze. Paula Jai Parker is pretty good as the wicked-stepsister ho we know won't keep her eyes on the prize.

There is no millisecond of unexpectedness in Djay's ascent: the humiliating pitches to rap headliner Skinny Black (rap-mockingly well played by the increasingly nonrisible actor Ludacris); the fateful meetings with a skinnier-than-Skinny-Black white music nerd (the excellent DJ Qualls); and a black church soundman pal (Anthony Anderson) with a disapproving Baptist wife. Djay's hit tune, "Whoop That Trick," is about as catchy as "That Thing You Do" and, like it, wears out its welcome after the fifth hearing, but you'll likely be charmed by his quest for le mot juste and mo' bling.

If you lack patience for formula filmmaking, you'll hate Hustle. If you savor watching an actor catch a skyrocket role, you'll love it. (R) TIM APPELO

The Island

Opens Fri., July 22, at Oak Tree and others

Words I never thought I'd write: Michael Bay, where have you been all this summer? Yes, we're talking about the air-brained auteur behind Armageddon and The Rock, but how much fun, honestly, have we had from the angst of Batman Begins or the carnage of War of the Worlds? Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, can't we enjoy at least one straightforward popcorn flick? The Island is both supremely silly and unreasonably fun by virtue of its derivative DNA. Bay and his stadium of screenwriters, bless their souls, haven't got an original idea in their heads. Set in 2019, their sci-fi pastiche borrows from sources including 1984, The Matrix, Metropolis, Logan's Run, Blade Runner, THX 1138, The Truman Show, Coma, Gattaca, and Kazuo Ishiguro's recent novel Never Let Me Go. It's less important that Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are being raised as organ-replacement clones in a secret industrial compound than that McGregor gets to exclaim (in an American accent), "I just have a feeling that something is wrong," and Johansson unlocks the secret to her femininity by studying her own image in a Calvin Klein ad. (I don't know why they didn't use the 2001 monkey music when she fingers her lips as if to say, "Oh, that's what these are for.")

Our two stars are being raised in a monochromatic test-tube environment with other unwitting "insurance policies" for their rich DNA-donor patrons in the outside world. (The place seems to have been designed by Leni Riefenstahl and The Incredibles' Edna Mode, with track suits to match.) Overseeing it all is mad scientist Sean Bean, who wears those kind of designer eyeglasses that signify evil. Like all the other "products" (born as adults from water-bed wombs), McGregor and Johansson have been brainwashed, with notions of sex erased and educational-maturity levels capped, as Bean explains, on par with a 15-year-old. (Funny how that's the exact target demographic of the film. Hmmm.) Which means that everyone acts like a kid. McGregor naively asks, "Why, why, why?" like a grade-schooler about their supposedly postapocalyptic confinement and chases a butterfly around the facility. Johansson, of course, is oblivious to the fact that she's beautiful. (Are there no mirrors in the year 2019?) This is why we go to the movies.

The first 45 minutes of The Island are enjoyably ridiculous, and the rest is essentially one long chase sequence through water-dripping air shafts, spark-filled factories, and congested freeways where a helicopter strafing motorists is just another hassle on the morning commute. And if you've ever asked if it's possible to survive after clinging to a sign that peels from the top of a Los Angeles skyscraper, the answer is yes. Such are the wonders of Michael Bay–land, only we're not being asked to swallow extreme improbabilities—such as that Ben Affleck can actually act. Though a billion rounds of ammunition are pumped at our sweethearts-on-the-run by mercenaries led by Djimon Hounsou, McGregor and Johansson emerge even more attractively scarred and tousled, like 15-year-olds stepping off a particularly intense roller-coaster ride.

Maybe because he comes from the world of music videos and commercials, Bay is here for the first time capable of satirizing the corporate biotech fascism of the future. (Although, among the countless placement shots, I can't imagine why Apple, Puma, and Cadillac want to be associated with this kind of capitalism.) "People will do anything to survive," McGregor is warned, but Steve Buscemi and a few others show up to prove humanity isn't so bad. Bay isn't so ambitious to indict all of us living outside the clone cattle farm. In the good, dumb spirit of The Island, the closest he comes to sci-fi cynicism is when McGregor finally (inevitably) meets his genetic template—a very surprised and rather irate McGregor, speaking with his rightful Scots accent. It's a perfect Michael Bay moment: Copying actually feels original. (PG-13) BRIAN MILLER

Last Days

Opens Fri., July 22, at Meridian and Neptune

If you think Even Cowgirls Get the Blues was a crowd-displeaser, wait till you see Gus Van Sant's eerily otherworldly ode to Kurt Cobain's last days. (See interview) Cobainomaniacs who know way too much about his life will snarl at the film's bizarre departures from the way things must have really been in that sad, haunted Lake Washington mansion where he killed himself with a shotgun in 1994. People who don't know much fan lore won't get the many references to things rumored to have happened shortly before Cobain's death: the getaway to woodsy Carnation, the mysterious visit to a Seattle rock club, Courtney's frantic phone calls, the hiring of a private detective, elusive star behavior in an incredibly cold, disheveled home patrolled by young grunge courtiers in a zombified dream state.

You could make a powerful film about that scene, but this isn't it. Last Days is all about Gus and can only be understood on his own adamant aesthetic terms. It's the third film in his spectral, Dogme-like death trilogy, following Gerry and Elephant, but it's more like Gerry's wandering improv road show. Elephant's countdown to massacre gave it a certain organizing tension, but the rock-star suicide (poetically reimagined as a climb to heaven) isn't really the focal point here. Elephant flirted with motive; Last Days flings it out the window. Its Cobain-like star, Blake (Michael Pitt), mostly mumbles inaudibly though ragged curtains of dyed hair. He listens to visitors like a rock- industry exec (Kim Gordon), who advises him to think of his daughter and quit being a cliché, and some of his free-associating bandmates and housemates (Lukas Haas and Asia Argento among them). He scarcely responds, because he's not really a character but a Van Santian idea about the escape from personality, the quest to enter an impassive parallel universe.

Every character in the film exists in a skew plane, touching none of the others. Magician/actor Ricky Jay, playing the private detective, gives a Ricky Jay monologue. The whole film is in private code, referring not so much to Cobain's life and death as to the director's utterly private experience. He wrote the film in his own old mansion in Portland, musing about its resemblance to Cobain's. Thus, when Blake spends much of the film wandering the primeval woods near his house, it's inspired less by Cobain's last days than by Van Sant's deep reading for a high-school paper on John Muir. (There's no way you'd know this merely by looking at the film, of course, and the only reason I know is because he told me in the interview; maybe he'll also be so generous on the DVD commentary track.)

There are many passages of gorgeous mournful beauty in Last Days, and shaggy-dog comedy of a highly peculiar sort. But its narrative makes as little sense as the stitchings on the back of a Persian carpet. To understand Van Sant's post-Dogme films, you have to make a leap of imagination to the other side of the rug along with him. Most folks won't care to join him there. And he's OK with that. (R) TIM APPELO

Murderball

Opens Fri., July 22, at Uptown

Let me dispel a few preconceptions you probably have about this smashing new documentary about the surprisingly violent sport of quadriplegic rugby (popularly known as "murderball"). First, quadriplegics aren't all reduced to Christopher Reeve–like near immobility. All have some impairment in all four limbs, but there's a wide range of function. If you're capable of propelling your armored wheelchair at Road Warrior speeds and crazy enough to risk malevolently multiple collisions with other nut jobs in pursuit of the ball, you're eligible to try out for the quad rugby team. No helmets. No pads. No mercy.

Second, it's not the Special Olympics. Utter this term to a murderballer and they might disable you on the spot. The Paralympics in which these athletes compete lack a sweet, everybody's-a-winner vibe. Everybody wants to win and to humiliate his rival. Our heroes aren't necessarily nice guys. The chief rivals in the film are fortyish Joe Soares and his younger successor as master of the sport, Mark Zupan. Soares got so mad about getting booted from the U.S. team that he defected to the Canadian team and led it to a 2003 world championship. The goateed, tattooed Zupan (who slightly resembles Layne Staley with a competition habit instead of a heroin habit) openly loathes Soares as a traitor. This lends tang to their tangles at the 2002 World Championship in Sweden and the rematch at the Athens Paralympics in 2004.

Third, these guys are not essentially different from you or me. Friends testify that they're not even different from the guys they used to be before illnesses and injuries disabled them. They're not role models. Zupan was always an asshole, even before he passed out drunk in his best pal's truck and was flung from it on the highway. For all the skillfully filmed sport combat footage, the film's true drama is the collision of personalities. Besides Zupan versus Soares, directors Dana Adam Shapiro and Henry Alex Rubin skillfully structure in Soares' poignant attempt to convert his adoring, unathletic 12-year-old son from a talented musician into the jock Soares craves for him to be; Zupan's effort to woo newbie quad Keith Cavill, paralyzed in a motocross crash, away from despair and into rugby; and the long-deferred reunion of Zupan and the drunk-driving pal who inadvertently crippled him (the least vivid subplot). We also get oodles of atmosphere, as the touring quad team pulls hotel pranks (the old limbless-guy-in-the-box trick!), bellies up to girls at bars (yes, they can screw—and marry), and talks trash with panache.

The final thing to bear in mind is that Murderball is not, like so many documentaries, notable only for its subject. Reality TV has made us too tolerant of inept filmmaking. Murderball is the real deal, a finely crafted work of art. (R) TIM APPELO

My Mother's Smile

Runs Fri., July 22–Thurs., July 28, at Northwest Film Forum

Marco Bellocchio's 2002 Italian multiple-prize winner is a tough kind of film to sell in the United States: a comedy so straight-faced you're almost afraid to laugh; a satire so tongue-in-cheek that you can't decide just what's being satirized; a calmly beautiful film about the ugliest aspects of human nature filled with attractive, sympathetic people. As a contrast to the usual summer lineup of deliberately trashy would-be blockbusters, its intelligent deviltry is almost too much to take.

Ernesto (Sergio Castellitto) is a graphic artist entering middle age with a broken marriage, estranged from his huge and volubly disapproving family, and suffering from a bad case of midcareer blues. From the first shot, he's shell-shocked by life, and the only thing keeping him going is his affection for his 6-year-old son. Even the news that everybody around him has been secretly angling with the ecclesiastical authorities for three years to get his unloved, dead (murdered) mother declared a saint doesn't, at first, rouse him from his torpor. Castellitto plays Ernesto like a Buster Keaton suddenly dropped down the mad rabbit hole of contemporary Italian Catholicism. The only reaction crossing his frozen, staring face at each appalling development is a stiff artificial smile, which unaccountably makes everyone who sees it nervous, wounded, or consumed with rage.

Castellitto is in almost every shot and dominates them all, but he's more than ably seconded by a supporting cast of some of Italy's most distinguished stage actors: Gigio Alberti as his hollowed-out craven of a brother; Piera Degli Esposti as his terrifying dragon of a great-aunt; and Gianni Schicchi (a regular in Bellocchio films for 40 years) as a shifty old coot as genially amoral as the actor's namesake.

The only cast member able to take focus away from Castellitto is hardly an actress at all. Chiara Conti is an ex-model (Miss Bellissima 1995, in fact) and looks it—think a very young Isabelle Huppert, without the maniacal glint. But playing the mysterious young woman who crosses Ernesto's path when he, and we, are just about to crack, it really doesn't matter if she can act or not—think Claudia Cardinale offering Mastroianni that glass of water in 8½.

After all the fuss about popes we've lived through recently, it's no secret that Mother Church is still a big deal indeed in Italy. Seeing this film, by a lifelong anticlerical and atheist (not to mention Communist), you realize that we're not as bad off over here in our evangelical-dominated country as we blue-staters tend to think we are. Sanctimony and repression may rule in Washington, D.C., but at least they're not got up in purple robes and a beanie. (NR) ROGER DOWNEY

Saraband

Opens Fri., July 22, at Seven Gables

OK, Ingmar Bergman is a treasure of world cinema. Yes, it's amazing that he was still making movies at the age of 85 (Saraband was shot for a 2003 Swedish TV presentation). There ought to be a statue, a medal, a street named in his honor, an entire wing of some museum. Let him have his due. Thing is, he had already earned most of those accolades by 1973, when he made Scenes From a Marriage for Swedish TV. Saraband—whose title, trust me, translates as nothing you care about—returns to Scenes' protagonists much later in life, now long divorced, in a kind of final face-off, a settling of old marital scores and grudges. Octogenarian Johan (Erland Josephson) lives as a rich recluse in the country, where his adult son (from a prior marriage) and 19-year-old granddaughter are also staying. With little pretext for a visit, ex-wife Marianne (Liv Ullman) crashes this not very idyllic idyll, which Bergman intentionally renders like the stage sets they are; Saraband is essentially a staged play, and not a very good one.

The story unfolds in a dozen slow scenes, opening with Marianne in direct address to the camera. If she's not yet a crazy old crone, she's close, and she seems to know it. Her two daughters (fathered by Johan) are gone, and she's basically got no one left to love/annoy—hence the trip to Johan's place, after 32 years apart. More so than in Scenes, Johan is not an easy guy to love; his grouchy bitterness has a kind of grandeur to it now. "My life has been shit, a meaningless, idiotic life," he declares. In essence, he has no more use for love, while Marianne at least wants to recover the memory of it. Meanwhile, Johan's useless son, Henrik, is sick of sponging off the old man and obsessed with making his daughter, Karin, into a cello soloist. "He has a fortune and he won't die!" Henrik despairs. "He's probably mummified by his own nastiness!"

All these melancholy parties are haunted by the memory of Henrik's dead wife, Anna, seen repeatedly in photographs and whose old letters suddenly turn up (again, the structure here is that of a 19th-century play—forget about telephones, e-mail, or communication that takes less than a week). Apparently, she was the one person in Sweden capable of love. Still, there is the matter of Karin, who needs to be saved from her noodly father; and Johan does finally take an interest (if only as a means of more pitilessly crushing his son). And Marianne, though borderline batty, does finally make some connection with her ex.

The only reason to sit through all this tedium is the performance quality of Erland and Ullman, who are never less than magnificent. Their characters look back at love with every emotion one might expect at a funeral—regret, rage, nostalgia, wistfulness . . . and even a note of tenderness or two. Saraband is very much an autumnal movie in this regard, perhaps the last Bergman will make. It's less a legacy to his career than a legacy to love, with two old souls not yet so sour that a few more drops can't be squeezed out of their hearts. (R) BRIAN MILLER

 
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