Thursday, July 11, 2013

You Need to Get Out More: Berberian Sound Studio and This Is The End

Toby Jones in Berberian Sound Studio

Berberian Sound Studio, a small, oddball British film written and directed by Peter Strickland, is a ‘70s grindhouse homage of a different kind. Such directors as Robert Rodriguez (the Machete films) and Jason Eisener (Hobo with a Shotgun) have celebrated the supposedly liberating qualities of shamelessly over-the-top violent trash by making their own semi-parodies; Strickland has come up with a scenario that allows him to pay tribute to the enticement of gory Euro-schlock horror pictures, and the hard work of traces of genuine craftsmanship that went into making them, without pretending that 95% of those movies amount to nothing more than grand, unkept promises loosely held together by atmosphere and sadism.

Strickland’s film stars Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a meek, meticulously sound expert who had come to a “garden shed” of a studio to work on the soundtrack to an Italian torture-porn movie about the interrogation of witches. Except for a delectable, cheeseball-psychedelic opening credits sequence, the audience can only guess at what’s actually on the screen from the sounds we hear, and from Gilderoy’s reactions. The film-within-a-film is called The Equestrian Vortex, and the sound man seems to have been expecting something along the lines of National Velvet. He’s not a man used to employing his talents to heighten the effectiveness of a scene in which a woman has a red-hot poker inserted into her vagina, and if there’s one thing his employers are less interested in than his mild pleas that they honor their agreement to reimburse him for his plane ticket, it’s helping him get his bearings. The director, Santini (Antonio Mancini), is a lecherous dolt who sees the sound man as a new captive audience for his speeches about what he’s really up to. When Gildeory says that he’s never worked on a horror film before, the director haughtily corrects him: “This is not a horror film. It is a Santini film!” – adding that it is “about the human condition.” When Gilderoy has seen enough staged “interrogation” footage to get green around the gills, Santini lectures him: “These things happen, yes. It is history. I hate what they did to these beautiful women. Yet it is my duty to show it."

Toby Jones and Antonio Mancino (right)
Jones’ role might be the flip side of his Alfred Hitchcock in the HBO film The Girl, in which Hitchcock was portrayed as the most powerful director in Hollywood, yet a frustrated, tormented man whose late-in-life attempts to become a sexual predator only resulted in humiliation for himself and miserable work experiences for his star, Tippi Hedren. Gilderoy is practically asexual, and only betrays a hint of a smile when he gets to show off some of his virtuoso low-budget Foley skills when work is interrupted by a power blackout. Strickland gets some broad comedy out of a balding, mustached man in a recording booth throwing himself into his work as he voices a “demon,” and a Foley guy smashing a melon against the floor and then offering Gilderoy a piece. But his wittiest stroke is the way he uses the clich├ęs of the horror genre – the eerie singing, a reel-to-reel tape recorder playing cryptic oaths – to create a sense of unease, as if something not just crass but sinister were going on. These are the tools of Gilderoy’s trade, but for those of us who’ve seen too many horror movies, they have their own mysterious, mood-setting power. Berberian Sound Studio often feels like a horror film about a cult that’s planning to sacrifice a virgin, with Toby Jones as the virgin.

I enjoyed Berberian Sound Studio, but I don’t know how many people are as securely in the sweet spot of this film’s ideal targert audience as I am: not only do I share Strickland’s affection for certain kinds of genre movies and his interest in the mechanics of how they were made, but I have a hard-to-account-for soft spot for movies that check out one interior location and just squat in it, stubbornly refusing to take full advantage of cinema’s ability to explore the great wide world, whether we’re talking about the mastery of Robert Altman’s Secret Honor or something someone made for fifty bucks in their parents’ house that largely consists of people going to the window to check to see if the monster’s still out there. (Spoiler alert: it is.) Strickland doesn’t seem to know how to take his story to the next level without turning it into a real, conventional horror movie, which he clearly doesn’t want to do, so in the last sequences, he gets surreal, merging Gilderoy’s world with the world of the horror film, in a dreamlike way. I appreciated the effort, but it’s not as surprising or effective as the earlier scene when a woman approaches Gilderoy as he seems to be taking a walk in the woods in the dark. “This reminds me of home,” he says, in a blissed-out way. “Power cuts?” asks the woman. No, he says, the leaves – looking down at his feet, which are treading on dry twigs and foliage spread out on the studio floor.

James Franco, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Jay Baruchel, and Seth Rogen in This is the End

Berberian Sound Studio is suffused with feelings of claustrophobia and alienation, but watching it, I didn’t feel those things as intensely as I did while watching This Is the End, the hit summer comedy from the Judd Apatow All-Stars. Part of the alienation come from having been lured to the theater by all those rave reviews: 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, or as I should put it, in keeping with the tone of the film itself, 83%, bitches!! The opening is not half bad. Seth Rogen, who co-directed with Evan Goldberg, and who, like everyone else in it, is using his own name and playing a version of himself, picks up his buddy, Jay Baruchel, at the airport. Baruchel, we’re told, is the one guy in Rogen’s circle who knew him before he was rich and famous, and so is therefore his one true “stay gold!” friend in the world. Then the rapture and the attendant apocalypse hits while everyone is at an orgiastic party in James Franco’s house, and when the smoke clears, Rogen, Baruchel, Franco, Jonah Hill, and Craig Robinson all are trapped together, hanging around the palatial mansion and complaining that they’re getting thirsty.

This Is the End is an example of movie-star privilege that pretends to be a satire of it. It’s meant to be a thrill for the audience to get to see these guys “pretending” to be whoring, druggy, selfish versions of themselves, though the energy level of the performances mostly stays at a level that makes a word like “pretending” seem unduly flattering. Rogen, who gave an honest and sensitive, if hardly pyrotechnically exciting, performance as a young cuckold last year in Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz, proves here that he is not the director to push himself into uncharted realms. Baruchel, whose big starring vehicle was a romantic comedy called She’s Out of My League – savor the word “my” (as opposed to “his”) in that title, as the key to both the gender and self-esteem issues of anyone Hollywood would expect might pay to see this guy headline a movie – clings to the notion that being a donut hole is some mark of integrity. The greatly gifted Franco shows once again that, when nothing is at stake, nobody can check out onscreen the way he can. Jonah Hill acts sociopathically nice, a “joke” that can give you nightmares from wondering what it can be like to be around him, like the people who decided that the very idea of a nice Jonah Hill would be a laugh riot. Of the central five, Craig Robinson is the most committed, playing some of his scenes, especially those in which he expresses fear and remorse and gratitude, with an intense sincerity that raises questions about just what kind of movie he thinks he’s in. On the other hand, he’s always ready to make with a comically exaggerated, high-pitched scream of terror whenever the filmmakers can’t think of anything else to do that might be amusing, which, considering their status as professionals, happens more often than you would expect.

Emma Watson, Jonah Hill, and Seth Rogen
The movie keeps Danny McBride in the wings until well into the first hour, then brings him out to provide a blast of invigorating, self-possessed macho bluster. He’s funnier than all five of his co-stars put together, but when he stays at his one note and there’s nobody on screen to balance him out, he gets old fast. (He ends up a cannibal cult leader wearing a skull on his head, which counts as the easiest-to-predict spoiler since Godot never did show up.) The only people who emerge from This Is the End fully intact are those who do quick drop-in appearances, notably Michael Cera, in a change-of-pace performance as a coke-addled sex addicted alpha pig named Michael Cera, and an axe-wielding Emma Watson. Other celebrities, such as Rihanna and Aziz Ansari, pop by for no detectable reason, unless it’s just because the guys thought it would be a blast to have Rihanna at their party.

“Periodically,” Pauline Kael once wrote, “a new comedy is acclaimed for all the things it wants to be but isn’t.” For all the acclaim This Is the End is receiving, I’m not even sure what it wants to be, unless this whole celebrity-culture thing has gotten so out of hand that seeing James Franco listlessly talk about having once fucked a drunken Lindsay Lohan strikes a lot of people as biting satire. Never threatening to rise to the self-lacerating heights of The Larry Sanders Show, this is more like a Rat Pack movie or a Hope-Crosby Road comedy, but without the good spirit, which is the first thing to go when Hope and Crosby spend ten minutes of screen time yelling at each other about the etiquette of coming all over someone else’s home. Franco and McBride do that here, and someone had to make sure the sound for that scene was right. There but for the grace of God, Gilderoy.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He regularly writes about TV and books for The A. V. Club.

No comments:

Post a Comment