Thursday, September 17, 2009

Animal Factory (2000)

Animal Factory (2000) 94 Minutes. Steve Buscemi, Director.

Animal Factory tells the story of Ron Decker, played by Edward Furlong, a young felon sent to prison for two years after being convicted for dealing in large quantities of marijuana, and his relationship with Earl Copen, a long term convict, played by Willem DaFoe. Decker is clearly in over his head, being sent to a prison full of hardened criminals, while he is inexperienced and naive. He falls in with Earl Copen after a short while and is taken in by Copen and his friends, and struggles to adapt to prison life.

Edward Furlong gives a good performance as Ron Decker. He comes of as inexperienced and uncertain of how to best interact with the other inmates. Furlong looks androgynous in the context of the other inmates, carries himself kind of shyly, and frankly, looks like the kind of guy who would wind up being a rape victim within the first few weeks of incarceration. As the film progresses, his character changes, becoming darker, and more acclimated to prison and prison culture.

Willem DaFoe is excellent as Earl Copen. DaFoe portrays Copen as haggard and wise, a jaded prisoner in a way that seems more genuine than say Morgan Freeman's turn as Red in Shawshank Redemption. (This is not meant as a slight against Shawshank Redemption, which I am also a fan of). There is a tired look in his eyes sometimes, and a calculating reptilian expression at others. The performance is sometimes very subtle, and at other times, animated. Copen has been incarcerated for so long that he knows how to exploit the place to suit his needs. DaFoe performance changes showing Copen's adaptation to what the situation needs to achieve his goal. He takes Decker under his wing and shows him the ropes, so to speak. He helps Decker find a better job in the prison, and helps him make the best of his situation, while Decker worries what he wants in return.

The film also stars Danny Trejo, whom Bunker befriended in Folsom Prison. Many other familiar character actors turn up in the film as well, such as John Heard (C.H.U.D., Chumscrubber), Mark Boone Junior (Memento, Seven), Chris Bauer (The Wire, 8mm), Tom Arnold (Rosanne, Freddy's Dead), Seymour Cassel (Convoy, Rushmore), and Mickey Rourke (Angel Heart, The Wrestler).

Mickey Rourke turns in a particularly noteworthy performance as a trans gender convict, who is Decker's first roommate. He gives a great monologue at one point in the film about how he was born the wrong sex. In the DVD's special features, there is a really amusing interview with Rourke where he talks about the lengths he went to in order to get into character for the movie, including flying across country wearing a bra and outfit similar to what he wears in the film. In the film's commentary, Danny Trejo points out that Rourke also wrote some of his own dialog for the film.

The film touches on other interesting aspects of prison life, such as race relations. There's a scene in the film where the African American convicts are staging a demonstration for better working conditions and one of the characters tells Decker that he'd join them except that they are all black, that he'd be shut out by some of his white friends if he did. In another instance, a white inmate is attacked by a black one who is mentally unstable, and tension ensues despite it not being a race related issue. It also touches on things like how the convicts perform certain actions and make decisions based on how that action will appear to other convicts. As Copen says at one point in the film, “All a convict has is his name, remember that.”

The film has a great atmosphere to it. The set design is excellent. The prison looks run down and aging, and provides opportunities for great visual moments. The place looks so beat up and old that you can almost smell the old building musty odor of the place. There is very little scored music in the film, with most of the sounds present being ambient noises such as footsteps, doors closing, alarms sounding and the like. The majority of the music is heard when a convict is playing a song on a guitar and the others are listening to it.

This was the second feature film by long time actor Steve Buscemi, who also directed Trees Lounge, and later went on to direct many TV series episodes such as Oz, The Sopranos, and Nurse Jackie. It was based on a book written by Edward Bunker, an ex-convict who passed away in 2005 at the age of 71, and also wrote the screenplay. Bunker, who wrote several books and films including the Dustin Hoffman vehicle, Straight Time, served time for bank robbery, drug dealing, extortion, armed robbery, and forgery. (This is according to Wikipedia which admittedly is not always the most reliable source of information, but I've read interviews with Bunker where he talks about several of these crimes.) He started out with juvenile detention centers while a minor, and in 1951, at age 17 he became the youngest inmate at San Quentin Prison. Bunker was in (and occasionally out) of prison for various offenses until 1975. Discovering that he was earning a living from writing and acting, he put his criminal days behind him. Edward Bunker appears in Animal Factory in a brief cameo, which is what most of his film performances amounted to, including his role as Mr. Blue in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

What sets Animal Factory apart from the majority of prison films I have seen is that it feels very realistic. People going into this film expecting the typical prison film will be a bit disappointed. While films like Shawshank Redemption and American Me feel appropriately bleak and gritty, this film has an authenticity about it that struck me as fascinating. The interactions between the convicts feels very real. Even the way that they walk and the conversations that they have with each other feel somehow more authentic than I've seen in other prison films.

I've never spent time in prison, and I've only knowingly been acquainted with a few people who have over the years, so I can't speak as an expert on the prison experience. But the few times I have spoken with ex-convicts and literature I've read, such as Jack Henry Abbott's In The Belly Of The Beast, have lead me to believe that prison life is better exemplified by Animal Factory than by Shawshank Redemption or Oz. If anyone who reads this has served time and feels compelled to comment on this, I'd be very interested to hear what you have to say.

The commentary track on the DVD by Edward Bunker and Danny Trejo is really interesting. They both talk about the different people that they know that they served time with and how many of the characters in the film are based on those people. It's filled with anecdotes about prison life on everything from the boredom of prison and comments on prison food to explaining how some of the different scams that convicts pull on each other work. They point out many of the extras in the film were ex-convicts that they served time with, telling their stories. Bunker talks about working to get the film made, how it took five years to get made, and some of the aspects of filming the movie in a prison with actual inmates.

I really love this movie, and have always felt like it's been overlooked. I highly recommend it to fans of prison dramas. I love the performances in it, I think the set design is great, and that it's got great atmosphere. I really hope that people who haven't seen it check it out.

As always, comments are welcome!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Calvaire (2004)

Calvaire (2004) 88 Minutes. Fabrice du Welz, Director.

Calvaire tells the story of singer Marc Stevens, a traveling performer at retirement communities and Christmas parties, who has car trouble one night while traveling through the wilderness of southern Belgium on his way to perform at a holiday gala. When his van breaks down in the rainy evening, he encounters a strange young man looking for his dog who agrees to lead him to Bartel's Inn for the night. Paul Bartel, a lonely innkeeper, at first seems very friendly and eager to have Stevens as a guest, but things become more troubling as Stevens tries to get his van fixed and move on to his next gig. Marc finds himself in an increasingly disturbing position as his situation becomes more and more out of hand between dealing with Bartel's strange behavior and the even stranger population of the nearby village, whom Bartel clearly fears.

This is the first feature film by Belgian writer/director Fabrice du Welz, who would later write and direct Vinyan, a harrowing descent into madness film about a couple seeking their lost child in the jungles of Thailand. Calvaire stars Laurent Lucas as protagonist Marc Stevens, who's other film work I am unfamiliar with, but does a decent job in the film's lead role. Jackie Berroyer gives us an excellent and strangely moving performance as Paul Bartel, the innkeeper. Also starring the great Phillipe Nahon, best known to me from his roles in Brotherhood of the Wolf, I Stand Alone, and as the psychotic madman in High Tension, as the leader of the villagers. The last member of the cast that I felt was particularly noteworthy was Brigitte Lahaie, star of many 70s and 80's French exploitation and horror films (even the occasional hardcore film), who has a minor role in the film as Mademoiselle Vicky, one of the nurses at the retirement home.

Even though this film is presented to us as a horror film with a sprinkling of what may be darkly comic moments, I find it to be primarily a very bleak drama about loneliness. Almost every character in the film feels desperately lonely and isolated, and it's clearly had profound effects on them. The innkeeper is the most clear example of this, as he reveals early on that his wife, Gloria, has left him some time ago. We learn early on that Bartel was a comedian before becoming an innkeeper and that he quit doing comedy when Gloria left, as she broke his heart. His longing for companionship is clear from the beginning, and in Stevens, he sees a kinship as they were both performers. But the loneliness is clear in seemingly everyone that Marc encounters from Mademoiselle Vicky at the beginning to Boris, the strange man looking for his missing dog, Bella. The struggle to escape the sadness and loneliness that many of the characters appear to feel is what seems to be the primary motivation for their extreme actions.

The film, while having a simple premise and rather linear plot as a survival/escape from wilderness madmen movie, has interesting little things about it. While typically a film will give the viewer a good idea of what the main protagonist's motivations are and an idea of what kind of person he is, this film does not. He is intentionally left vague to us, he is almost like a vessel to be used as a focal point for the other things that happen in the film. We know very little about him. On the other hand, we are given a much more clear idea about the history and motivations of Bartel. Often, at least while as long as it is left up to him, Stevens seems to be disinterested in the lives of those around him, and interacts with them only in as much as is required of him.

Another perhaps interesting side note is that we see very few women in the film. Once Marc finishes packing up his van and leaves the retirement home that he performs at in the beginning, the film never shows us another female character. The village seems to not have a female population. It's as if they have all vanished. The only indicator that this is not the case is in a tiny scene Bartel passes a group of identically dressed children in the woods. The viewer is left to come up with their own conclusions about why this is, and what it means.

One of the interesting directorial choices I noticed in this film is that there is almost no music in it. The majority of the sound in the entire film is made up of ambient sounds and times when characters are speaking. This only adds to the sense of isolation, in a way, by not using the music to add tension to the environment. The one time that music is present in the film, it is because a character is playing a piano in what might be the strangest dance sequence I have ever seen. Truly creepy and unsettling. The director also tends not to show very much on screen violence, the majority of it happens off camera. This may be due to budget constraints, or may simply be a directorial decision. It's a fine choice, as the material is strong enough to still feel disturbing and have a sense of dread building without using visual effects to achieve it. There is a lot of violence in the movie, we just tend to see it's effects afterward, similar to the famous ear sequence in Reservoir Dogs.

Also of note, I was excited to see that viewers are once again treated to the excellent camera work of Benoit Debie. Benoit Debie is one of my favorite cinematographers working today. He has impressed me very much with the handful of films he's worked on that I've seen. (Irreversible, Calvaire, and Vinyan.) As much as Vinyan seems to get divided reactions from the few people I've spoken to that have seen it, everyone at least seems to appreciate the camera work in it. I may review it here one day, as I found myself deeply affected by the film and consider myself among it's fans. I am looking forward to seeing his work in Gaspar Noe's Enter The Void.

Fabrice du Welz pays homage to many films and filmmakers with his first effort, and speaks openly about it in the interview portion of the DVD from Palm. The name of the innkeeper, Paul Bartel, is surely a reference to the director of the same name who helmed efforts such as Private Parts and Eating Raoul. There are shots in the film that reminded me of Straw Dogs, particularly during a siege segment of the film that is amazing to behold visually. I found myself also reminded a little of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Psycho, and of course, Deliverance. But the film feels neither regurgitated nor like he's ripping off those films. He's clearly shown a distinct vision and style in Calvaire, he's taken those elements and refashioned them in his own way. If anything, he's showing the audience that he is as much a fan of those earlier works as we are. As he himself puts it in one interview, “With [Calvaire], I feel like a young painter who is surrounded by many great masters. And very simply, he paints his first piece, his first important piece. So, obviously, he references his great masters. But he tries to do it with his own personality. That is what I tried to do.” I, personally, feel like he succeeds.

I recommend this disturbing little film to any of you out there who like dark, unsettling movies about madness and survival in extreme situations. There is a very low body count to it, so those looking to see bodies littered about the screen, this one isn't for you. I think it's a great movie and was one of my favorite films of 2004. In America, it's distributed by Palm Pictures and can be found easily enough to rent on Netflix, or can be bought from Amazon and other retailers. It is in French with English subtitles, and the DVD includes a very nice “Making of...,” theatrical trailer, and previews for other Palm films. As far as I am aware, no dubbed version exists, which suits me fine.

That said, I chose to review this film, because it seems like not a lot of people have seen it here in America. I really enjoy it, and I hope that some people who might stumble onto this blog who haven't seen it will give it a chance. I really look forward to seeing what Fabrice du Welz does next.

As always, comments are welcome! =)