Sex, Leins & Videotape #36. Paignton film critic Tom Leins scrutinizes this week’s strangest DVD releases.
Taking its name from one of Bangkok’s notorious red-light districts, Soi Cowboy (Network) is a stylish, unconventional art-house thriller from talented British director Thomas Clay.
The movie opens in Bangkok, where we witness scenes of domestic disharmony between a repugnant, morbidly obese European man and his young, pregnant Thai girlfriend. Seemingly imprisoned in their claustrophobic apartment, pregnant Koi seems reluctant to talk to her companion, let alone have sex with him. In spite of this, he showers her with stuffed animals and cheap jewellery, loading up on Viagra in case his luck changes. Despite the uncertain nature of his employment, Koi is hopeful that Tobias will pay off the mysterious ‘Uncle’ figure and whisk her away from the red light district where she used to ply her trade.
Halfway through, the movie jolts into a parallel storyline concerning Koi’s brother Cha, who is tasked with killing his older brother and presenting his head to a shadowy Bangkok mob boss in exchange for a lucrative pay-day. The connection between the two storylines seems tenuous at best, but the link eventually becomes apparent -with surprising results. This unexpected narrative shift is initially difficult to process, but the movie takes on far more clarity as it edges towards its freaky conclusion. Director Clay finally plays his trump card -with an extended David Lynch-style flourish -and leaves you pondering exactly what you have just been watching. While Soi Cowboy isn’t cohesive enough to rank alongside mind-bending Lynch movies such as Mulholland Drive, it remains a vivid introduction to a bold new talent.
Steven Soderbergh has a track record for mixing commercial money-spinners with smaller, more unconventional projects. His latest movie –The Girlfriend Experience (Revolver) -comfortably falls into the latter category. Real-life porn-star Sasha Grey stars as Chelsea, a high-end call-girl trying to scramble up the slippery sex-industry ladder. With a lucrative career giving lonely, affection-starved men the ‘girlfriend experience’ that they desire, and a devoted boyfriend with no qualms about her day job, Chelsea is well-adjusted and in control of her destiny -or is she?
In many ways the Soderbergh film that The Girlfriend Experience most resembles is 1989’s Sex, Lies and Videotape and the two movies share an unflinching, unconventional depiction of sexuality. Unfortunately, The Girlfriend Experience feels slightly half-baked in comparison and goes vague when it should come into focus. The cool soundtrack and dead-eyed Bret Easton Ellis-style blank generation poise are a potent combination, but The Girlfriend Experience falters when it reaches its abrupt conclusion, and the movie never quite delivers on its intriguing premise. An interesting experiment, but you can understand why Soderbergh toyed with releasing it under a pseudonym… Approach with caution.
Surprisingly enough, after hitting pay-dirt with notorious urban horror movie Candyman back in 1992, English director Bernard Rose has devoted his energies to filming the works of Leo Tolstoy. His latest effort, The Kreutzer Sonata (Axiom), sees Rose team up once more with Danny Huston (with whom he previously collaborated with on Ivan’s XTC in 2000). Huston stars as Edgar Hudson, a wealthy Beverly Hills philanthropist who is used to getting what he wants. At the outset of the movie the object of his affections is Abby (Elisabeth Rohm), an attractive concert pianist whom he meets at a party. Despite the fact that she is already married, the pair launch into a tempestuous affair, convinced that they belong with one another.
The movie picks up four years later, and finds the pair married with two children. Unfortunately, the honeymoon period is well and truly over, and Abby is growing restless -frustrated that her lifelong musical passion has been quashed by her newfound ‘domestic bliss’. Rather than helping Abby to overcome her issues, Edgar simply ignores them. Eventually, however, he relents and arranges for Abby to play with Aiden, a talented young violinist at an upcoming charity benefit. Only gradually does he realise that history is starting to repeat itself, and Abby and Aiden become drawn, inescapably, towards one another. Huston excels as the insanely jealous husband, and the constant, jagged-jump-cut sex scenes give the film an unsettling charge. It may be too pretentious for mainstream consumption, but The Kreutzer Sonata is a surprisingly involving yarn about the dangers of infatuation and jealousy.
If you are exhausted by all of this week’s talk of art-house cinema, consider taking a detour towards Stag Night (Kaleidoscope). Written and directed by Peter Dowling (the man responsible for Jodie Foster thriller Flightplan), Stag Night is a defiantly unpretentious stalk ‘n’ slash movie, set deep in the bowels of the New York subway system. Out on the town to celebrate his ‘last night of freedom’, Mike (Kip Pardue) and friends find themselves fighting for their lives when their train makes an unscheduled stop at a long-deserted station, leaving them stranded below ground. To their horror, this labyrinthine network of tunnels is now home to a family of feral vagabonds with a taste for human flesh.
Subway horror movies are notoriously difficult to pull off, but director Dowling goes straight for the jugular, favouring claustrophobic scare tactics over inventive narrative quirks. Stag Night may be utterly predictable, but it comes into its own when Dowling lets his frenetic camerawork do the talking -immersing you right in the thick of the action. That said, while the subterranean menace is well controlled, the subhuman sound effects leave a lot to be desired. Stag Night is cheap and nasty and all the better for it. Although it offers little for fans with sophisticated tastes, it is a grisly, effective thriller with some arresting set-pieces. All in all: a worthwhile throwback to the video nasty era.