INSTANT 3: Buried Treasure

Three quick recommendations from the Netflix "Watch Instantly" section - this time, a few gems that I think qualify as "Buried Treasure," and are worth digging up.

1)  Hunger (2008) - Directed by visual artist Steve McQueen, Hunger depicts the HM Prison Maze of Belfast, Ireland in the early 80's during the hunger strikes led by IRA member Bobby Sands.  Sands is depicted by Michael Fassbender, in a career-making performance.  Fassbender has since gone on to feature in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds and the recent X-Men:  First Class, and will appear in the upcoming McQueen feature Shame.  But, Hunger is ultimately as much about the visual depiction of the prison as it is the performances.  One remembers Hunger not so much as a film, but as a painting.  Although a movie with a heavy subject, as well as visual aspects that might be repulsive to some, Hunger is one of the most stunning and concise films of recent memory (on par with another prison picture, reviewed in the last Instant 3, Bronson).  The textures and colors of Hunger will never leave you.  This visual aspect, combined with a narrative structure that is strikingly unconventional, proves to be a triumph for political cinema in a way few political films can claim.  Hunger's middle third is occupied by a scene that is the heart of the film, featuring Fassbender and Liam Cunningham.  It's one of those scenes that only comes along once in a great while; a lengthy, fairly static study of character that seems an uncommon task for film actors, and perhaps plays more like a two-man short play.  McQueen's willingness to allow the actors this space to breath, and for the audience to connect with Sands in a significant way, is one of the many unique aspects of the film.  I was reminded of Godard's Breathless, which is definitely an entirely different type of film, but similarly upsets the expectations of scene construction and duration for it's time, and comes from a filmmaker who would go on to grapple with similar questions of political content in film.  McQueen seems to understand the exact point where art and politics converge, and--in his first feature, no less--fuses the two in a way that is essential and indelible.

Steve McQueen's Hunger
2) The House of the Devil (2009) - Directed by Ti West, this homage to early 80's horror films is maybe the most deserving of recommendation here, considering the climate of current horror.  Although the vampire genre has had a couple of remarkable foreign entries (both also available to "Watch Instantly") with the Swedish Let the Right One In (Thomas Alfredson, 2008) and the Korean Thirst (Chan-park Wook, 2009), many serious film lovers have given up on a genre which, for the past decade, has only seemed interested in producing more green-tinted, J-horror influenced torture porn, Twilight movies, or 80's franchise reboots.  Somewhere in there, House of the Devil was released (maybe between Saw V and Saw VI?), which succeeds not only as a tribute to the good ol' days of 80's satanic ritual paranoia, but as a great film in it's own right.  Aside from a brief appearance by Dee Wallace (of The Howling fame) in the beginning of the picture, House of the Devil is a dead ringer for a horror film produced circa 1980.  The film eventually features a few other actors that keep it from totally pulling the wool over our eyes, but the supporting cast is just perfect here, including mumblecore darling Greta Gerwig, Roger Corman queen Mary Woronov, and the great Tom Noonan (recently doing an unforgettable turn on FX's groundbreaking Louie).  West's direction, for my money, has a better grasp on the relationship between the elements of suspense and surprise than John Carpenter did when he made the original Halloween.  Turn the lights off, and have fun with this one.

Ti West's The House of the Devil
3)  Stone (2010) - When I saw Stone last year at the Chicago International Film Festival, I had every expectation that it would do more wide release time than it did, but the film seemed to creep quietly onto the rental shelves within a few weeks.  I knew the film had some unconventional themes, and was hung with a misleading action movie moniker, but I figured the star power of DeNiro and Norton alone would propel it into a few more middle-American multi-plexes.  It's too bad that didn't happen, because Stone gives us a picture of an aging Michigan couple, parole officer Jack Mabry (DeNiro) and his wife Madylyn Mabry (Frances Conroy, of Six Feet Under fame), that is unique to modern commercial movies.  Stone's central theme is a struggle with faith, and it's depiction of an older couple asking questions about why they believe what they believe and why they still hold to their religious values within a marriage whose deep-seated issues seem to be unaffected by their religious dedication struck me as an fascinating and unprecedented depiction.  The characters of "Stone" (Norton), a prison inmate who has Mabry as his parole officer, and his wife Lucetta (Milla Jovovich, who--trust me--pulls this off), parallel the struggles with faith that Jack and Madylyn are experiencing, especially as Norton's character becomes progressively enticed by the lure of a religion (invented by the screenwriter) called "Zukangor."  Ultimately, John Curran's direction is nothing special, but he knows enough to keep the focus on the performances, and that the real core of this film has to do with DeNiro and Norton acting together in a room.  Perhaps more overtly flawed than the other two recommendations here, Stone falters in some aspects of storytelling later in the film, but ultimately the performers understand these characters so well that they leave you with an access to the film's primary concerns and questions, which, in light of a picture like Stone, seem so rare.

Robert DeNiro and Frances Conroy in Stone


nathaniel drake carlson said...

Loved Stone myself. Another one that exists to aggravate the IMDB crowd (as does something like Aaron Katz's Cold Weather). A very careful character study that's also a take on the general temperament of a whole society--what that society cultivates, allows for, can adapt to, etc. And, on a less high minded note, I have to add that Milla has never looked more stunning.

I agree with you on House of the Devil as well. For me it's really all about being an exercise in tension. In fact West is so efficient at this that the eventual reveal, when it happens late in the picture, was kind of anticlimactic somehow. It was powerful, yes, but needed to be even more so, maybe in a truly bracing way like the end of Dumont's Twentynine Palms. I suppose this kind of disruption would not have fit the whole early 80's tone West was going for but, really, neither does his more subtle experimentations in tension and elongation. It's all about exploring the boundaries of the familiar.

Jason Hedrick said...

That is an excellent point about House of the Devil. I think the picture definitely survives the ending, which I had nearly forgotten about in writing up this short rec, because the "getting there" is so well crafted...but now you have me thinking about the possibilities. Your example of Dumont's 29 Palms may be weighted a bit too much in the opposite direction, for my taste, where the ending is definitely the most memorable and interesting aspect of the film, in my distant memory of it. Now that I am thinking about it, I should tell you I got to see the Criterion Collection release of Chantal Akerman's "Jeanne Dielman," which is a film that definitely brought back that screening of 29 Palms at Facets we took in...8 years ago now? I will have to check out Palms again, and maybe catch up with his work that I haven't seen, in the meantime--Life of Jesus, and Hadewijch.