Al­tered States gets un­real From J.D. Salinger to a Har­lequin ro­mance

RE­VIEWS

The Georgia Straight - - Viff ’17 -

I> BY ADRIAN MACK

t feels like the low­est form of but­ton-push­ing when a Hol­ly­wood movie puts a child in peril. Con­trast this with the treat­ment Seth A. Smith brings to his su­perindie ef­fort The Cres­cent, screen­ing at the Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val on Fri­day and Sun­day (October 6 and 8), which leaves a twoyear-old to fend for him­self in­side a huge and for­bid­ding beach­front prop­erty after his wid­owed mom up and van­ishes. If you’re a par­ent—not the vengeance-driven former spe­cialops kind of par­ent grossly over­rep­re­sented in Liam Nee­son’s fil­mog­ra­phy, but the reg­u­lar kind, like the rest of us—smith’s movie is an au­then­ti­cally un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I feel like this film’s got a spe­cific de­mo­graphic,” says the film­maker, reached by the Straight in Hal­i­fax not long after The Cres­cent knocked them out at the Toronto In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. “Our Mid­night Mad­ness crowd was all 20-year-old men, and they get it on a dif­fer­ent level, but I think par­ents truly will be creeped out in a dif­fer­ent way.”

No shit: be­sides the clear and ob­vi­ous phys­i­cal dan­gers, a har­row­ing su­per­nat­u­ral pres­ence in­creases the men­ace for poor lit­tle Lowen (won­der­fully played by the direc­tor’s own son, Woodrow Graves), whose very soul ap­pears to be the prize in a tale in­spired, Smith re­veals, by Mar­itime ghost sto­ries and the ev­i­dently haunted beaches in the vicin­ity of his own home. We know some­thing’s amiss when Lowen’s mom, Beth (Danika Van­der­steen), flatly states that she “feels noth­ing” at her hus­band’s fu­neral, just prior to re­lo­cat­ing to the omi­nous mod­ernist struc­ture at the heart of the film.

Scal­ing his story up into the meta­phys­i­cal al­lows the film­maker to ex­er­cise his ex­trav­a­gant vis­ual in­cli­na­tions. Beth is an artist whose psychedelic mar­ble paint­ings grad­u­ally come to rep­re­sent a sort of mem­brane be­tween the worlds of the liv­ing and the dead. In one of the film’s trip­pi­est moments, those rav­ish­ing oily frac­tals con­form into the shape of some­thing that looks like a three-di­men­sional in­cubus. Smith snick­ers: “Kinda self­ishly, I just wanted to mar­ble some­one. A per­son. I’d never seen it done be­fore.” (Nei­ther have we!)

You could say that The Cres­cent be­longs to an ex­ceed­ingly small but gen­er­ally awe­some sub­genre of quasi– avant-garde beach­side hor­ror flicks that in­cludes 1961’s Night Tide, 1962’s Car­ni­val of Souls, and the mar­vel­lously weird 1973 zom­bie flick Mes­siah of Evil. Which makes it grist for the mill in­side VIFF’S an­nual mid­night fea­ture pro­gram, Al­tered States. Like a cou­ple of other films in this year’s se­ries—the Lynchian body-swap­ping tale An­i­mals (October 9 and 11); the time-andspace-dys­func­tion night­mare of The End­less (October 6 and 9)—The Cres­cent takes a fash­ion­ably gnos­tic view of re­al­ity, wrap­ping up ul­ti­mately with a mind­fuck that cat­a­pults the viewer into a kind of po­lar­ity-switch­ing in­fin­ity loop we don’t see com­ing.

“It’s a time when peo­ple are ques­tion­ing things,” Smith of­fers. “Just the fact that Donald Trump is in the White House makes you feel like you’re liv­ing in a night­mare or a sim­u­la­tion. It just doesn’t make sense at all. A lot of things don’t make sense. Peo­ple are kinda push­ing new con­cepts and ways of look­ing at things, and I en­joy those sto­ries be­cause some­times you just wanna es­cape this world, right? It’s a pretty dark place.”

The enigma of J.D. Salinger gets 2

an­other tweak in the awk­wardly named Rebel in the Rye, an un­even biopic that will at least make you want to dig out your yel­lowed copy of Franny and Zooey.

How Salinger came to write Catcher in the Rye, which has been alien­at­ing ado­les­cents since 1951, is not ac­tu­ally as fa­mil­iar as his sub­se­quent ra­dio silence; after 1965, he never pub­lished an­other word. His early years are anal­o­gous to those of chrono­log­i­cal co­horts like Nor­man Mailer—that is, first-gen­er­a­tion Jewish-im­mi­grant sons with artis­tic am­bi­tions forged in the fires of World War II.

Ni­cholas Hoult—once the sweet star of About a Boy and more re­cently the wraith­like Nux of Mad Max: Fury Road—here plays Jerome David Salinger, called Jerry by friends. The Man­hat­tan-born lad was ex­pected to be a good earner like his fa­ther, Sol (Canada’s Victor Gar­ber), a cheese whole­saler from Lithua­nia. Jerry’s WASP-Y mother (Hope Davis, in a dark wig) sup­ported his cre­ative tal­ents, and al­lowed him to at­tend a writ­ing pro­gram at Columbia Univer­sity un­der the di­rec­tion of well-con­nected editor Whit Bur­nett—thereby al­low­ing the movie to dis­play its best as­set: Kevin Spacey, chang­ing it up as a rum­pled, sharp-tongued, but ul­ti­mately self-ef­fac­ing in­tel­lec­tual.

When Spacey is around, the screen crack­les, even when the hom­i­lies about “not let­ting your voice over­whelm the story” are too on-the-nose. Hoult’s New Yawk ac­cent is vari­able, and he works hard to hold at­ten­tion, gen­er­ally suc­ceed­ing, even if no one else gen­er­ates much ex­cite­ment in a tale that packs in a lot of his­tor­i­cal in­ci­dent on a lim­ited bud­get.

Be­fore the war, Salinger had a tor­mented af­fair with Oona O’neill (Zoey Deutch), who ul­ti­mately left him for Char­lie Chap­lin—which is a pretty in­ter­est­ing way to get dumped. As a sol­dier, he par­tic­i­pated in D-day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the lib­er­a­tion of Dachau—all con­tribut­ing to his PTSD, be­fore they had a name for it, to the ur­gency of his writ­ing, and to his ultimate seclu­sion in ru­ral New Hamp­shire. These events are rep­re­sented, briefly, and well-shot (if mostly in close-up). Other lim­i­ta­tions may ex­plain the ab­sence of Jerry’s work trip to Vi­enna, just be­fore the Nazis took over, and his friend­ship with Ernest Hem­ing­way, in Paris, while the war was still on. (Jerry’s later dis­cov­ery of an In­dian re­li­gious guide is made un­in­ten­tion­ally hu­mor­ous by the cast­ing of Bernard White, who plays a phony guru on Sil­i­con Val­ley.)

Even if the some­what stiff movie doesn’t quite ful­fill its prom­ises, it’s an im­pres­sive un­der­tak­ing for writer-direc­tor Danny Strong. As a mem­o­rably diminu­tive ac­tor, he’s bet­ter known as Doyle on Gil­more Girls and Jonathan on Buffy the Vam­pire Slayer. But he’s also the se­ries cre­ator of Em­pire, and wrote scripts for things as dif­fer­ent as Lee Daniels’ The But­ler, two Hunger Games movies, and Game Change, the HBO movie about Sarah Palin. Dude’s def­i­nitely got game.

> KEN EISNER

The Cres­cent Be­tween Us

Seth A. Smith’s art-hor­ror flick is among the mind­ben­ders in this year’s pro­gram of mid­night movies at the Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Film Fes­ti­val. Star­ring Ni­cholas Hoult. Rated PG

The movie adap­ta­tion of stars Kate Winslet.

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