Modern cinema: Real B movies are the best revenge

'Irreversible' & 'V/H/S 2': Modern exploitation cinema alive and well in Portland

In the middle of another summer movie season laden with massive spectacle both exciting and exhausting, moviegoers continue to endure or enjoy what’s fed to them at the multiplex. Regardless of one’s thoughts on the seemingly never-ending flow of mega movies each week, when it comes down to it, “Pacific Rim,” “The Lone Ranger” and the rest are essentially B movies with A-level budgets.

With this massive paradigm shift that’s been growing ever since “Jaws” and “Star Wars” irrevocably changed Hollywood, it’s easy to forget that true B movies—typically genre fare of the horror, science fiction, fantasy, crime and exploitation variety—used to be relegated to the grindhouse theaters of yore. They were and continue to be looked down upon by elitist, highfalutin filmmakers and moviegoers alike, despite the fact that some of the most exciting, innovative cinema has come from this seemingly inexhaustible well of shocks, sex and violence.

Just in time to offset the inevitable spectacle fatigue syndrome, adventurous moviegoers (you’re out there right?) in Portland have the opportunity to experience two very good, clear-cut examples of modern exploitation and horror cinema. B movies are alive and well in our fair city, at least this weekend. You just have to avoid the powerful, intoxicating draw of the heavily marketed blockbusters at the multiplex, and venture instead to just a few of Portland’s many great independent theaters.

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Monica Bellucci, center,  stars in "Irreversible" at 5th Avenue Cinema.

Monica Bellucci, center, stars in “Irreversible” at 5th Avenue Cinema.

5th Avenue Cinema will screen the notoriously challenging “Irréversible,” an arthouse take on the sleazy rape-revenge genre, a movie that’s only grown in infamy since it debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002. I’ve had the opportunity to screen in advance this transgressive film, and let me just tell say that seeing it on the big screen, projected on 35mm, is akin to someone with poor vision having successful Lasik surgery, seeing with new eyes how clear and amazing everything can be. Having only seen it prior to this on DVD and Netflix streaming, this very good print at 5th Ave is as good a case as any for the need to see a film projected on a big screen, in a dark theater, with good sound.

But to venture into that theater this weekend, which I am wholeheartedly recommending you do, you need to be brave and understand what’s in store. “Irréversible” earned its reputation as a standout amongst the New French Extremity (also known as New French Extremism), a sub-genre or movement coined by Artforum critic James Quandt to collect a host of transgressive films by French directors that came about at the end of the ‘90s, and has continued to this day but seems to be on its last legs. Other notable entries include “Inside,” “Martyrs,” “In My Skin,” “Trouble Every Day” and “Fat Girl.” In these films, violence and sexual taboos are pushed to a, well, extreme. Some of the most violent, boundary pushing images ever committed to film can be found in the aforementioned titles, and while that is understandably not the average moviegoer’s cup of tea, there is value in and around the shocks.

“Irréversible” is the ne plus ultra of this movement. Director Gaspar Noé, whose two other feature films, “I Stand Alone” and the mind blowing, visually innovative “Enter the Void,” prove he’s a director who wants to push the audience (some would say bully, but I disagree). He employs inventive camerawork (courtesy of his extremely talented cinematographer Benoît Debie) and pulsating electronic music (from Thomas Bangalter, of Daft Punk) with the re-appropriation and subversion of exploitation tropes. These include rape, revenge and hardcore violence, with nary a hint of political correctness.

In “Irréversible,” you will witness two things that you will not be able to unsee: a brutal fight that ends with a man’s head being smashed in by a fire extinguisher and a rape scene that goes on for what feels like an eternity. Even more interesting is that Noé somehow convinced famous European celebrity couple Monica Bellucci and Vincent Cassel to star in it. Imagine if Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie appeared in a brutally horrific tale of rape and the consequences of revenge, and you can begin to appreciate how insane this was.

But often lost in the conversation is the film’s power and brilliance, both technically and in its backwards-unfolding narrative. The story is told in reverse, a la “Memento,” which makes the shocks all the more effective and tragic when we eventually learn what’s at stake. It’s a difficult film, not one you’d call fun, but it’s a great piece of art nonetheless, and pushes the boundaries of cinema in exciting ways. Noé is known for long takes and an ever-floating camera. The camera in “Irréversible” is not bound by the normal rules of cinematography, or physics. Sometimes it spins around inexplicably, keeping the audience confused as to what it’s seeing. If you’re up for the experience and the disturbing imagery, there’s immense value in seeing this film.

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Over at the endlessly awesome Hollywood Theatre, this weekend will see the opening of “V/H/S 2”, a sequel to a Sundance-approved independent horror anthology film that played last year at the same theater. The original collection was an uneven, rather icky little piece of horror exploitation, intriguing in concept—found footage short films existing on the outmoded technology all loosely connected by a wrap-around storyline—with a few standout segments, but ultimately unsuccessful as a whole. The follow-up has the same formula, and thankfully does what a good sequel should do: expand, deepen and improve on the original. And in terms of anthology films (always a mixed bag), especially in the horror genre, “V/H/S 2” is one of the best.

The horror anthology "V/H/S/2" is at the Hollywood.

The horror anthology “V/H/S/2” is at the Hollywood.

It’s available on Video On Demand, so of course you could see it in the comfort of your home, but come on, what’s more fun than seeing a good horror movie in a theater full of strangers? The four shorts plus the wraparound story, which here gives background information on the first film, are all good, to varying degrees. Simply put, though, there’s one short, the centerpiece if you will, that alone is worth the theater ticket price.

“Safe Haven,” by Timo Tjahjanto and Gareth Evans, is a brilliant mashup of relentless horror and video game action. It’s so good it could stand on its own. Evans burst on the international genre scene last year with the insanely awesome Indonesian action film, “The Raid: Redemption” (landing a spot on my top 10 films of 2012). If you haven’t seen it, stop reading now and correct that as soon as possible. With “Safe Haven,” which concerns a group of documentarians who gain access to a cult for a film project that goes horribly, terrifyingly wrong, Evans expands on what he does best: escalating action that embraces modern video game aesthetics and pacing to a near-avant garde, supremely artful degree. It has to be seen to be believed.

So as the summer movie season crosses the midway mark and begins winding down and the next tiresome cycle ramps up (awards season, yay!?), it’s heartening to know that adventurous cinephiles have a respite from the spectacle fatigue. Today’s blockbuster’s are mostly watered-down, embarrassingly expensive B movies made for mass consumption. See the real deal this weekend, and take in just a hint of the endless possibilities of challenging cinema.

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Erik McClanahan is a film critic, journalist, podcaster, projectionist and manager (the latter two for The Northwest Film Center) living in Portland, OR. New episodes of his film podcast, Adjust Your Tracking, are released every Thursday.

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