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Indie-Gadda-La-Vida, Loca!
by the Perfesser

Hello once again, my studious subjects! I have deigned to descend my Ivory Tower of Solitude to inform you about three independent features I have recently taken in at the local art houses. Given the current dreck festering on the googolplex screens, I thought it would be nigh on eons before I was dragged out of--er, left the safety of my not-so-humble abode to see another film. After several days of scratching and moaning, however, I decided that yes, a flea bomb was in order, and so I dragged my delectable carcass outdoors. What I found were three rather enjoyable films to make a feast for any discerning cinemaphile: The Anniversary Party, Sexy Beast, and With a Friend Like Harry.

(By the way, if I find out which of you wankers thought it would be funny to give my precious felines your foul fleas, I will wreak my wretched revenge upon your lame arses. Hell hath no fury like the Perfesser forced to wear long-legged pantaloons during a blistering hot Global Warming summer.)
But, I digress.

My appetizer was an American feature, The Anniversary Party, written and directed by Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh. I don't know much about this Cumming fellow, other than he is well known for his THEE-ah-tur work, but I find that I quite like him, and I have always adored the talented Ms. Leigh.

Pseudo-affectionately referred to as a dreaded "WPx2" ("White People With Problems") film by one of my colleagues, The Anniversary Party shows us one day in the dysfunctional life of a recently reunited famous couple as their famous friends show up to wish them well on their 6th anniversary. We learn that Sally, a not-taking-aging-so-well actress played by Leigh, and Joe, a hot-shot writer played by Cumming, had split up rather dreadfully and have only been back together a scant five months before the party takes place. Naturally, their friends are concerned that having a party so soon is not such a good idea. Naturally, it turns out the friends are right, as the party slowly spins out of control.

The Anniversary Party, shot on digital video and then transferred to film, makes many trenchantly funny observations about the private lives of public people--most of Sally and Joe's friends are actors, photographers, or other people in the "biz." Truthfully, if I were at their party and the other guests got up to present skits, songs, and toasts to the couple, most of which pointedly noted the fact that the split was basically Joe's fault, I'd be very uncomfortable. But since I was merely a spectator safely sitting in half-lit comfort, I had no problem laughing at many of the proceedings while mentally noting that we academics never partake in such self-absorbed silliness. The film does take a more serious bent toward the end, and I felt slightly dissatisfied with the ending (it was far too wide open for my exquisite tastes), but all in all, I think all you smart folks will enjoy it. The only possible bad side effect: After seeing how well digital video transfers to film stock, any idiot will think s/he can do the same thing. God save us all from the oncoming deluge of fatally hip indie-ness!

My salad was a British import called Sexy Beast, a not-as-predictable-as-you'd-think gangster thriller starring Ben Kingsley as a terribly horrid thug named Don and Ray Winstone as a happily retired criminal nicknamed Gal. Seems Gal decided to forego his sordid work with resulting stints in prison, married his true love Deedee (Amanda Redman), and moved to a remote part of Spain to live in peace. His best friend and fellow criminal, Aitch (Cavan Kendall), and Aitch's wife, Jackie (Julianne White), also reside nearby.

As foreshadowed by a tremendous boulder which comes barreling down the hillside and nearly hits Gal before splashing into Gal's pool, so comes Don to Gal's to lure him out of retirement for "one last job." Oops, did I say "lure"? I mean "force." I mean "demand." I mean, this guy doesn't accept "No." In fact, what could have been a ludicrous argument (a rather Pythonesque "Yes!"/"No!" interchange) between Don and Gal turns into superb scene teeming with menace as Don's bullying intensifies.

Sexy Beast is both funny and brutal and is saved from sinking into a morass of cliché by the un-Hollywood ending and the excellent performances of the two leads, Kingsley and Winstone. Kingsley injects a massive dose of testosterone into the proceedings, yet his Don is not simply a beast; he has a vulnerable side, albeit mostly hidden, but enough to humanize him. Winstone imbues Gal with a cuddly (yes, I said "cuddly," so just shut up) cockiness that makes you root for him, even though he's a crook as well. Also of note is Ian McShane as the nasty-ass crime boss, Teddy Bass, a man of too-slicked-back hair and subtly scary intimidation.

Quick caveat for the language police: Hearing poor ol' Gandhi and pals prolifically spewing profanity after profanity may jar some viewers. Don't like that word which starts with an "f" and ends with an "uck"? Well, too bad. Profanity doesn't equal stupidity, and if you can't handle a few curse words, stay home and watch Seventh Heaven.

My main course was a heaping helping of a rich, dark French dish called With a Friend Like Harry, one of the best films so far this year. Directed by Dominik Moll, With a Friend Like Harry quickly immerses us in suspense and never lets up until its morally ambiguous end.
The story: Michel (Laurent Lucas), his wife, Claire (Mathilde Seigner) and their three young girls are on vacation and going to the family's country house to continue fixing it up. At a stop along the way, Michel meets up with Harry (Sergi López), a former classmate. Michel doesn't quite recall Harry, but Harry instantly recognizes Michel, and the two become reacquainted. Harry, along with his beautiful but vapid girlfriend, Plum (Sophie Guillemin), wastes no time insinuating himself into Michel's life and eventually becoming Michel's self-appointed guardian devil.

That's right. I said, "devil."

You see, Harry has a slight problem. He's obsessed with Michel because in their younger days, Michel was a poet and writer, and his dark visions appealed to the deeply disturbed Harry--he even memorized Michel's poems and recites them over dinner to Claire, who never knew her husband was a writer. Harry wants to fix Michel's chaotic life so that he can go back to his writing and complete the science fiction novel he began in school. For Harry, that means removing all distractions from Michel's surroundings.

Of course, being more psycho than Norman Bates, Harry goes about removing distractions in rather disquieting ways. First, he forces a new car onto Michel and Claire because their old one broke down and had no air conditioning anyway. Next, he notes that Michel's parents are somewhat overbearing and life-draining where Michel is concerned. Harry "removes" them as well (hell, after seeing that pink monstrosity of a bathroom the parents had fixed up as a surprise for Michel, really, who can blame Harry here?).

We, the audience, are fully aware of Harry's insanity, which makes for sustained suspense as we wait and hope that Michel and Claire become aware of it before it's too late. Credit the delicious tension not only to Moll's direction and to Moll and Gilles Marchand's script, but also to the masterful performances of Lucas and López. Lucas makes the long-suffering Michel quite sympathetic, even when Michel acts a bit selfishly, and makes you want to support everything he does, even when that everything results in his morally ambiguous actions at the end.

López's Harry is one of the scariest bastards ever to be put on screen. Possibly the most suspenseful moment comes early in the film when Harry first runs into Michel in a public restroom. López-as-Harry stands there, hands dripping wet, a slight smile on his expressive face, intently gazing as Michel washes his hands and face. Michel doesn't even notice him, so Harry continues to stare, a sequence of sustained creepiness that is downright haunting. We don't get a full glimpse of Harry's complete lunacy until well into the picture, a deft move on Moll's part because it keeps the audience on edge wondering how truly demented the man behind the wan smile is. López's superb acting keeps Harry from becoming a caricature.
As usual, it takes a foreign film to illuminate the true banality of evil in a way most American films can never touch. The fact that With a Friend Like Harry has been so successful in its limited run probably means that a Hollywood re-make is in our future. Thus, I make the following plea to all creative Hollywood types who loved this picture: Leave it alone. You can't improve upon it, so don't bother trying. If you think you can, compare the truly frightening Spoorloos (a.k.a. The Vanishing), a Dutch/French film, with its vapid Hollywood clone, simply called The Vanishing. Where Spoorloos shows that evil can remain undetected beneath the mundane surface of a so-called normal life, the American re-make caves in to the Hollywood desire for a clear-cut happy ending where the hero triumphs and evil is vanquished in a rather grisly way. The happy ending diluted the message of the original film into palatable pabulum for the non-discerning moviegoer. So I'm warning you: Leave Harry alone. After all, Raymond Lemorne is still out there and ready to step in if you don't <cue ominous music>.

Okay, I know I said three films above, but I recently added a delicious dessert from Britain to cap off my meal (and wash the scary taste of Harry out of my mouth, so to speak): the re-mastered Monty Python and The Holy Grail. All these years later and that film is still hysterically funny. There are supposedly a few added scenes--though I only spotted one--but at least it was pretty funny. Hmm, perhaps if Hollywood does want to get its stinking paws on Harry and re-make it, I can just say "Ni" to them until they desist….

Well, the Tower is aired out and the felines are eager to return to their fluffy beds and multitude of treats they get after each bath. Until next time I am needed, I remain yours in cinema worship, the Perfesser.

P, Harry was sexy in a psychotic madman way- Emily Blunt


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