In the opening sequence of Clio Barnard’s theatrical, grotesquely powerful documentary The Arbor, a woman, Lorraine, describes how she was so poor as a child, and left alone so often in her family’s cold-water flat, that she once set the bedroom furniture on fire to keep her two younger siblings warm. Mum, who was at the pub, used to wiggle the doorknobs off so the kids couldn’t disturb her in the mornings, so the kids got stuck inside. Somehow, the three children survived. Mum was playwright Andrea Dunbar, whose brutal autobiographical documents of underprivileged cruelty and struggle made her a kitchen-sink theatrical sensation at the age of sixteen: a slum kid baring her blighted soul—and scandalizing her neighbors—on the stage of the Royal Court Theatre, before dropping dead in her local pub at the age of 29.
Video interviews with the hard-edged Dunbar are lifted from old documentaries about her. Scenes from her plays (The Arbor; Rita, Sue and Bob Too) are recreated on the grounds of the once-slummy projects of her youth, now overrun with green grass and bemused middle-class families. Mostly, we hear the voices of her three children and family friends, who have been recorded over several years, and we see their words re-enacted and lip-synched by a skillful troupe of actors. The unnerving effect throws you off balance at first—is there a problem with the sound?—then it builds a mesmeric, unnerving sort of power. Freed from the talking-head strictures of conventional documentaries, Barnard is able to stage and manipulate the screen—appropriate, given Dunbar’s own heightened stagecraft, and, ultimately, the unreliability of these narrators.
Dunbar’s half-Pakistani daughter Lorraine (played by actress Manjinder Virk) emerges as an eerie echo of all the violent tough-living that her mother wrote about. She says her mother disavowed her on the basis of her race, though she speaks with a kind of frank, poetic economy which must be genetic: “I’ve got loads of childhood memories but none of them are really good,” Lorraine says. Later, she gripes, “[Mum] had the audacity to drop dead so I can’t even tell her how I feel.” Lorraine is deeply damaged: a crack addict turned heroin addict turned prostitute who can’t forgive her mother’s poor parenting, and who herself went to jail for the drug-induced death of her baby son. A less sophisticated take would scream “dramatic re-enactment,” but these interviews play, at once, like legal testimony, painful confession, and egotistical monologue. It’s a play, a police dossier, a séance.
Among gore-hounds, genre nuts, and lovers of all that is deeply bizarre about Japanese cinema, Takashi Miike is a freaky godfather. The director of The Dead or Alive Trilogy, Ichi the Killer, and Audition–among scores of other films–works so much, in so many genres, that his work has been as scattered as blood splatter—both in quality and concept, style and substance. By the chaotic standards of his career, his vicious new samurai film, 13 Assassins, is focused, lean and mean, ending in a forty-odd minute battle sequence that’s among the most powerful of his career. The action begins in the twilight of Japan’s Shogunate era, with the sadistic lord Naritsugu, who, clad in good-guy white, rapes wives for fun, shoots arrows into the heads of children for sport, and makes a woman a sex slave after chopping off her limbs and tongue. He’s not nice. So twelve honorable samurais and one dirt bag sociopath decide to take him down. A plot is hatched, katana blades are sharpened, and this magnificent thirteen attacks two hundred of the lord’s evil henchmen. In the final hour, Miike mostly plays down the comic gags that have inspired directors like Sam Raimi, and eschews the flashy, stylized blood geysers that has been adopted by Quentin Tarantino, favoring the ugly-pretty aesthetic at the core of the lo-fi gore of his early films. These honorable men realize the only way to win is to fight dirty, so they do. Samurais die unpoetic deaths. Nobody gives speeches. No individual kill is fetishized over another, or is as nastily choreographed as the hyperbolic violence in Miike’s best-known films. It’s all about quantity: There’s so much death! Thirty minutes in, you may be forgiven for uttering: Surely, the 200 bad guys have died by now, right? Please? When the last decapitated head has been kicked into the mud, any semblance of codified honor—the hoariest of Japanese action clichés—has been shredded, as easily as flesh.
Sympathy for Delicious
Church revivals and rock concerts have always had plenty in common, from swooning believers to messianic front men. So the premise of Mark Ruffalo’s disappointing directing debut is an audacious gamble, but not absurd. In fact, it’s admirable that Ruffalo, who plays a conflicted priest, took such a risk on his first film, but the scattered, predictable execution rarely matches the bravado of the premise. Dean, a grizzled, nihilistic paraplegic (Christopher Thornton), is just another homeless guy lining up at an L.A. soup kitchen until the day he discovers he can heal the sick from his wheelchair. Before long, he’s laying hands during rock gigs on a nutty “Healapalooza” tour. Dean wrestles with the expected contradictions (to serve or sell out) in mostly expected ways, surrounded by a morality-play chorus of supporting characters: Laura Linney, as the band’s craven manager, is corporate evil personified. Orlando Bloom, as the band’s cane-twirling lead singer, is a Guitar Hero avatar of rock clichés. Juliette Lewis, as the junkie bandmate, grumbles dissolutely. A third-act court case is too rushed to be convincing, and most of the cast’s lines are so on-the-nose, you can practically snort them. “I’m not going to be some sideshow freak,” complains Dean, who, perhaps most predictably, can cure the ills of others but cannot heal himself. Thornton also wrote the script. There’s some symmetry there.