The Piano Tuner of Earthquakes (U.K., 2005) * * *
D: The Brothers Quay
The second live-action film from the Brothers Quay, best known for their innovative and dark stop-motion animation shorts, strives for the logic of a fever-dream. At the outset, the mysterious Dr. Droz kidnaps an opera singer, Malvina, away from her lover and takes her to a rocky island, where he steals her voice. The plot proper begins when a piano tuner, Felisberto, is brought to the island--not to tune pianos, as he'd thought, but to repair the strange mechanical "automatons" that Dr. Droz has built, to be used, in some unspecified way, for an opera recreating the abduction of Malvina. Felisberto takes each automaton (actually intricate stop-motion animations) as a challenge, and struggles to decipher them and put their purpose into motion. He also becomes seduced by both Dr. Droz's kept woman, Assumpta (the Spanish actress and author Assumpta Serna), and Malvina herself, hiding behind a veil and staring out at the ocean from the beach. If you've seen Guy Maddin's "Twilight of the Ice Nymphs" you'll get a good sense of the style and tone of this film (and it should be no surprise that Maddin loves this film). It's a fairy tale filled with evocative (and sometimes blatant) erotic imagery. The characters frequently dream, but their dreams are only slightly more bizarre than waking life. The film is very, very slow, but there's so much to look at--and it's all so gorgeous--that you can't really complain. Terry Gilliam is listed as one of the executive producers. Zeitgeist, which has distributed many of Maddin's films, plans a larger theatrical release this year, followed by a DVD. I'd certainly like to see it again, as I think I might be underestimating it.
The Wendell Baker Story (U.S., 2005) * * *
D: Luke Wilson and Andrew Wilson
This is the new comedy from the Wilson brothers--and by "Wilson brothers," I mean all of them: Luke, Owen, and Andrew, who co-directs with Luke. Without Wes Anderson behind the camera or contributing to the script, the film lacks the extra push it needs to sculpt it into something really unique; although Owen Wilson, who co-wrote Anderon's first three films, reportedly helped polish the script. There's no denying it has hilarious moments. The premise--and it takes forever to get there--is that Wendell Baker (Luke Wilson) is an entrepeneurial Texan who starts his own fake-ID card racket for illegal immigrants. He loses his girlfriend and his dog by the time he gets out of prison, and he's given a job at a nursing home run by Owen Wilson and Eddie Griffin, who themselves have a racket: ship most of the elderly patients to slave-labor in Oklahoma while selling their meds on the black market. Wendell Baker tries to foil their scheme and win back his girlfriend and dog. Apparently this film's been around for at least a year; IMDB lists it in Owen Wilson's credits before Wedding Crashers, and a reviewer at that site apparently saw it exactly one year ago at another film festival. It's strange that it never saw a big release. It's no lost masterpiece, but it's better than most middlebrow comedies; the jokes are just a bit more clever. Will Ferrell cameos (no surprise there), but it's a very funny cameo that's not only clever but actually integrated into the plot. It's also nice to see Seymour Cassell (from the Wes Anderson company of players), Harry Dean Stanton, and Kris Kristofferson in significant roles as the patients, and the sweet-natured conclusion, though far-fetched as hell, leaves a pleasant taste. When people finally discover it on DVD, it will gain a mild following, which is what it deserves.
Wild Country (U.K., 2006) * * 1/2
D: Craig Strachan
I gave Isolation, Thursday night's midnight Irish horror movie, two stars, and I'm giving this, Friday night's midnight Scottish horror movie, two-and-half. But the gap in my mind is tremendous. I much prefer Wild Country. Isolation, though a little more slick and stylish, had a satirical, timely premise (mad cow disease reworked as a viral infestation that creates killer cow fetuses) that it squandered by delivering its cliched shocks and dialogue with a straight face. The characters were terribly unappealing, too. Wild Country is more lowbrow (and this is the one that doesn't begin with a woman plunging her hand up a cow's nethers), and seemingly lower-budgeted. But it's fun, and that makes all the difference for a horror film that's not going to be the next Rosemary's Baby or the Exorcist. Actually, this is a throwback to early 80's rubber-monster werewolf films, in particular the John Landis classic An American Werewolf in London. If you stretched that film's first act over 75 minutes, that's what you get here. Scottish teens in a church youth group go on a camping trip in the highlands, and overnight are picked off by a giant wolf that stalks them from the shadows. The creature effects are only occasionally enhanced by CG, as though they had about $12 left over for digital effects. The gore effects are great and sloppy, with arterial gushes, but the werewolf--the more you see of it--is painfully inadequate. That's okay. It makes all the difference that unlike Isolation, you can actually enjoy the characters here, in particular the lead, a young actress named Samantha Shields whose character gives up her baby for adoption in the opening scenes, and comes to develop a fierce attachment to the baby she steals from a corpse in a Scottish castle in the wild. As her friends are killed off, she begins to breastfeed the child and regret giving up her own. It's a nice touch to what's otherwise a get-drunk-and-cheer-the-gore kind of film. And the ending redeems much of its flaws. I would recommend a viewing for monster movie fans.