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On Blu-ray/DVD: CLIMAX (2019), THE KID (2019) and J.T. LEROY (2019)

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CLIMAX
(France/Switzerland/Belgium/US - 2018; US release 2019)

Or, Gasper Noe's WHO SPIKED THE SANGRIA? An enfant terrible and provocateur of the highest order, Noe's films are the definition of "acquired taste." With its end-to-beginning structure and an agonizingly long sequence where Monica Bellucci is raped, 2002's IRREVERSIBLE has, for better or worse, set the Noe template for fucking with and antagonizing audiences. CLIMAX splits the difference between IRREVERSIBLE and 2009's ENTER THE VOID, eventually pummeling the viewer with shocking imagery, sensory overload, and a sense of utter disorientation as society breaks down within the walls of an abandoned school where a dance troupe is having a party before embarking on a tour of Europe and the US. Set in 1996 and inspired by an actual event (though Noe takes some liberties and runs with it, to say the least), the story is pretty thin: at the party, the students gossip, talk about future plans ("America is heaven on Earth," one of the French students enthusiastically muses), hook up, and engage in some recreational drug use before they all seem to realize at once that someone spiked the sangria with LSD. Paranoia, suppressed grudges, and hallucinations give way to madness, like FAME and A CHORUS LINE going straight to hell, with the second half of the film relentlessly tripping balls as Noe goes overboard to bombard the viewer with one transgressive set piece after another.





It would all be rather puerile if he wasn't such a master stylist, expertly mimicking Kubrick with long takes down seemingly endless corridors, turning the camera sideways and upside-down (it's another stellar showcase for cinematographer Benoit Debie), bombarding you with sound and color and so much screaming and shrieking. He wears his love of cinema on his sleeve, and he gives some shout-outs early on with some visible VHS copies of Lucio Fulci's ZOMBIE, Pier Paolo Pasolini's SALO, Andrzej Zulawski's POSSESSION, and Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA, with one character even referencing the 1981 German drug addiction drama CHRISTIANE F. All Noe films are an endurance test to some extent, and there's a certain Chuck Palahniuk vibe to his work in the sense that his fixation on shock value seems to be stuck in the same place it was when he was a younger man with his 1998 debut I STAND ALONE. But regardless of how off-putting he may be at times, he makes up for it with the presentation. There's two jaw-droppingly dazzling dance numbers here, one part of an uninterrupted 13-minute take (Noe shot the sequence 16 times and used the 15th take), and he tops himself later on with the acid kicks in and we watch the mayhem--assault, someone set on fire, someone pissing themselves, a pregnant woman stabbing herself in the stomach, a rage orgy, etc--unfold in one 42-minute (!) take that comprises nearly half of the running time. Noe also utilizes every attention-getting trick in his arsenal to throw you off balance, starting with the closing credits playing at the beginning, the production company logos rolling around ten minutes in, and the opening cast and crew credits at the 46-minute (!) mark. The cast--mostly dancers, models, and other artists with lead Sofia Boutella (THE MUMMY, ATOMIC BLONDE) being the only professional actor--acquits themselves well using mostly improvised dialogue. Decidedly not for everyone and so aggressive in its potential for audience alienation that it makes Darren Aronofsky's MOTHER! look like a pandering crowd-pleaser, CLIMAX is probably the ultimate A24 release, and even they knew not to roll this out nationwide. (R, 97 mins)



THE KID
(US - 2019)


Almost half of the main cast of the 2016 remake of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN reconvenes in this earnest but unsuccessful retelling of the Billy the Kid saga. The title itself is a bit of misdirection, as the "kid" in question is not William Bonney, but rather, 14-year-old Rio Cutler (Jake Schur, son of Jordan Schur, one of a stagecoach full of producers). Rio is introduced killing his abusive, drunkard father, which sends him on the run with his older sister Sara (Leila George), with their vengeful, psychotic Uncle Grant (Chris Pratt) in hot pursuit. En route to Santa Fe, Rio and Sara stumble into a standoff between notorious celebrity outlaw Billy the Kid (Dane DeHaan) and a posse led by Pat Garrett (Ethan Hawke). Billy surrenders and is to be delivered to Santa Fe authorities, so the Cutler siblings hitch a ride with Garrett and his men. Billy and Rio bond along the way, especially after Uncle Grant catches up to them and abducts Sara with the intention of putting her to work in his whorehouse. Directed by Vincent D'Onofrio (who also has a small role as an incompetent lawman), THE KID is actually a cross between Billy the Kid fan fiction and an unofficial TRUE GRIT redux, especially once Billy the Kid exits before the third act and Rio begs grizzled Garrett to help him rescue Sara from Uncle Grant.





There's a few sporadic shootouts and some suspense, and it works best when Hawke (in a very shouty and intense performance) and DeHaan are onscreen, but it's prone to post-UNFORGIVEN revisionist philosophizing like Garrett declaring "It doesn't matter what's true...it matters the story they tell when you're gone!" at the start of a gunfight, thinking it's PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID when it's barely even YOUNG GUNS II. Sporting a ridiculous fake beard, an over-the-top Pratt is an ineffective villain and acts like he prepped for his role by binge-watching DEADWOOD. THE KID was probably a fun gathering of friends and family--father-and-son Schurs; D'Onofrio and Hawke go way back; D'Onofrio and Pratt were also in JURASSIC WORLD; and George is D'Onofrio's daughter with ex-wife Greta Scacchi--and it's certainly an improvement over D'Onofrio's previous behind-the-camera efforts, like DON'T GO IN THE WOODS and the unwatchable MALL, which he scripted and produced, but it's a generally forgettable endeavor. Lionsgate must've felt the same way as it topped out at just 268 screens at its widest release. (R, 99 mins)



J.T. LEROY
(US/Canada/UK - 2019)


Claiming to be from a broken upbringing with a prostitute mother working truck stops and in endless cycle of poverty, drugs, and sexual abuse, Jeremiah Terminator "J.T." LeRoy published three harrowing, semi-autobiographical novels and short story collections in the late '90s and early '00s that made him a literary sensation. It took several years, but "LeRoy" was revealed to be a character portrayed by two women: Laura Arnold, who actually wrote the novels, and her boyfriend Geoffrey Knoop's younger sister Savannah, who portrayed "LeRoy" in public for six years until the ruse was exposed. J.T. LEROY tells the story from SavannahKnoop's perspective, based on their memoir Girl Boy Girl. Knoop also co-wrote the script with director Justin Kelly (KING COBRA) and is one of 32 credited producers, and the more the film goes on, the more one senses there's some degree of score-settling going on. Albert's side was already told in the 2016 documentary AUTHOR: THE J.T. LEROY STORY, but here, Savannah (Kristen Stewart) is introduced arriving in San Francisco in 2001 to crash with her aspiring musician brother Geoff (Jim Sturgess) in the midst of the LeRoy phenomenon in literature circles. The mystique around LeRoy is reaching a boiling point, and two years since the release of his debut novel Sarah, he's still never made a public appearance, with Laura (Laura Dern) adopting a mumbled Southern drawl for phone interviews where she can pass herself off as a 20-year-old male writer. Under immense pressure from her publisher and the media to introduce LeRoy to the public, Laura convinces Savannah to don a wig and sunglasses and play the androgynous writer for photo shoots and interviews. It's harmless for a while, and Laura pays Savannah for her time, but the more she's required to be in public as LeRoy, the more she's forced to speak as LeRoy and make important statements and decisions. This relegates Laura to the sideline in another invented role as LeRoy's overbearing British publicist and handler "Speedie," and growing more resentful by the day that Savannah-as-"LeRoy" is getting all the attention and accolades.





It's hard to feel much sympathy for Laura, which is probably what Knoop is getting at in their script (Knoop now identifies as gender neutral and uses "they" and "their" pronouns). There also seems to be no love lost with Asia Argento, represented here by Diane Kruger as "Eva Avelin," a wild child European actress and filmmaker who's desperate to make a movie version of Sarah (in 2004, Argento starred in and directed THE HEART IS DECEITFUL ABOVE ALL THINGS, based on LeRoy's 1999 short story collection, but the ruse was exposed by the time the film was released in 2006) and is not above seducing "LeRoy" to get it, causing confusion for the bisexual Savannah. Stewart and Dern are very good here, but the in medias res storytelling gives the opening act no breathing room. To tell the "LeRoy" story, Laura Albert's story must be told for the sake of context, but before we even know what's going on, Savannah's already in the J.T. LeRoy disguise and we're only ten minutes into the movie. Knoop is so concerned with their side that we never really get a handle of either Laura or Geoff, as Sturgess is given nothing to do but pout because Laura doesn't have the time to devote to their band. Even Knoop's motivations for going along are frustratingly vague ("I like performing"). Barely released by Universal before being shuffled off to iTunes and Blu-ray, J>T. LEROY has an fascinating story to tell, but it seems unsure how to tell it. The general absurdity of it could've been helped by a more satirical or darkly comedic approach, but it's so glum and serious that it's ultimately a superficial navel gaze. (R, 109 mins)


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