Friday, November 11, 2011

#120: Curdled (Reb Braddock, 1996)

Despite the patronage of Quentin Tarantino, Reb Braddock's sole feature film, Curdled, didn't make much money and received mostly negative reviews. Braddock has been unable to get any other film projects made, though he's enjoying a second career as the head of the film program at his alma mater, Florida State. This bad luck is unfortunate, since Curdled is an energetic, entertaining, skillfully paced, darkly funny film with lots of good performances (especially Angela Jones') and not much filler. Why did the critics beat up on a film that, at least in my opinion, is very good? I'm going to do some armchair speculating and put forth the idea that many deserving films receive a critical drubbing (and many bad or mediocre films receive praise) every year for two major reasons that have very little to do with the film's content, form, and style.

First, if you're the kind of movie fan with fervently mainstream tastes who thinks the purpose of film criticism is to find a consensus opinion about films you've already been bombarded with advertisements about and confirm your own taste without challenging you or pointing you to anything new (the consumer report or test kitchen approach to film criticism), then you probably have no problem with most newspaper, television, and magazine film criticism and the Rotten Tomatoes tyranny of the majority philosophy. Here's the first problem with that approach. It's mostly dishonest, though many of its practitioners have convinced themselves otherwise or just never thought about their part in upholding a boring status quo. Here's why. Most newspaper, TV, and magazine film critics are journalists, with journalism degrees. They don't have any film or film studies backgrounds. They're reporters who happen to like movies, but they approach film like journalists, and it shows in their writing. These are people who mostly think in terms of stories and language, not in terms of image, sound, and structure. They are also instructed in journalism school to write every article, no matter which section it's in, in language a fifth-grade student can easily understand. I don't have a problem with this populist approach when it comes to important news stories the public needs to know about, but it's a horrible approach to arts criticism and complex news stories (particularly foreign policy stories that require more historical background than the mainstream media is ever going to give you). Film is primarily a visual and aural medium, but popular discourse about the medium almost always forces it into that limited plot and story box, with some perfunctory cliches about the acting. I love a good plot and story as much as anybody, but it's the least important part of a movie. How that story is told visually is the real deal. I'm starting to digress here. Here's the second problem with the mainstream approach. When a movie with a lot of promotional buzz opens, the New York and Los Angeles critics review it first since it opens in these cities first. These critics have their own biases, pressures, unholy alliances with advertisers, and hidden agendas, but they get the first crack at publishing their opinions. The mainstream critics in the rest of the country see these reviews and hear the buzz by the time the film gets to their metropolis, hamlet, or burg. Most of these critics don't want to appear unsophisticated or wrong, so they tend to follow these early reviews like lemmings or sheep or whatever other belabored animal simile you care to use that's been beaten like a dead horse or whatever other belabored animal simile you care to use. Sometimes, the New York and L.A. critics are divided on a film. The rest of the country soon follows, dividing into two camps. It's both funny and sad how predictably the mainstream critics follow each other. The same handful of films get reviewed, talked about, discussed in the same terms. The public discourse is shaped. Curdled is one of those films that received a first round of negative reviews that just kept following it across the country.

Whew. That was a bit long-winded. Here's the second major reason good films get bad reviews: cultural pressure. What I mean when I use that term is that a person or situation involved in the making of the film has done something (or nothing) to draw the ire or confusion of the mainstream press, so the press dumps on the film to avenge itself or the public, regardless of the film's worth. This happened twice in the 1980s to two very good films, Michael Cimino's Heaven's Gate and Elaine May's Ishtar, to such an extent that they are still considered two of the worst films ever made, though mostly by people who've never seen them. Both films went over schedule and over budget and lost money at the box office, which the press gleefully reported. Cimino, the director of Heaven's Gate, and Warren Beatty, producer and co-star of Ishtar, had alienated the press shortly before both films began production. Beatty in particular had made several publicly disparaging comments about film critics. Both films had their share of flaws, but both were ambitious, visually interesting, unique, and politically prescient (the former about widespread corporatization, the latter about Mideast foreign policy and showbiz) and were unfairly trashed by nearly every major mainstream critic. Former critics' darlings Cimino and Beatty were taken down a peg, a whole peg. This happens all the time.

In 1996, Quentin Tarantino was one of those guys who needed to be taken down a peg. Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction had been moneymakers and critical successes, but Tarantino was taking his sweet time making a followup. In the meantime, Hollywood seemed to have gone to his head. He kept popping up in goofy acting cameos, his segment of Four Rooms was a bad idea in a bad film, he produced or executive produced several movies that weren't that great, and he kept showing up on talk shows in a Kangol hat acting like a coked-up, obnoxious goon. Also, Tarantino imitators were saturating the crime film market. Nearly every weekend between 1995 and 1998, some shitty Tarantino knockoff opened. This had very little to do with his still-excellent directing chops, which he showed off in the following year's Jackie Brown, one of his best and most underrated films.

The reason Curdled existed was also the reason it was treated unfairly by the critics. Tarantino had seen director Reb Braddock's student film, also called Curdled, at a crime film festival in Italy when he was debuting Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino fell in love with the film and its star, Angela Jones, and helped co-writer/director Braddock get the funding to adapt the short into a feature film. He even cast Jones in a small but substantial role in Pulp Fiction as the taxi driver who helps Bruce Willis make his getaway. The character was based on Jones' character in Curdled. Tarantino executive produced the feature film, convinced Miramax to distribute it, and put it out on video on his own Rolling Thunder imprint. Curdled had the misfortune to hit theaters during the peak of the first major Tarantino backlash, and I strongly suspect that much of the negative response to Curdled can be traced, intentionally or otherwise, to the prevailing anti-Tarantino sentiment. All this massive preamble is my way of saying that Curdled is a very good black comedy/horror/crime thriller that has been the victim of a royal screwjob. It's not a great movie, and Braddock is not an unsung genius, but this movie is a damn good time, damn it.

Curdled is about a Colombian immigrant in Miami, Gabriela (Angela Jones), who works in a bakery. She's a childlike, naive innocent with a sexual charisma she doesn't realize she has and an intense fascination with violent crime and serial murder. She keeps a murder scrapbook and is closely following the current wave of killings and beheadings of socialite women in Miami. One night, she sees a TV ad about a crime scene cleanup company that's looking for new employees. She gets the job, quits the bakery, and enthusiastically takes on the new position. I like the scenes in the workplace featuring the all-female, mostly Latino and Cuban staff (including Daisy Fuentes) and boss Lodger (Barry Corbin from Northern Exposure and No Country for Old Men). Soon, Gabriela's job puts her in close contact with the serial killer, leading to a lengthy final scene that combines suspense, humor, horror, music, and dance and a very funny and satisfying conclusion. That's all I'll say about it.

Braddock is clearly dealing with a limited budget, and the film is not exactly a visual feast, but he wisely avoids flashy overstylization and gets a lot of mileage out of his actors' graceful movements through the frame and facial expressions and a great soundtrack of cumbia music that is skillfully integrated into the narrative. Jones has a wonderful movie face that can play sexy, naive, frightened, and sophisticated at the same time, and her performance is a highlight. The jokes are all understated and funny, except when they need to be broader (though they're still funny). William Baldwin's serial killer (not a spoiler, the movie reveals this at the very beginning) could have been a lot more ridiculous but is not overpsychologized or overblown. The film's 89-minute running time never drags, and the editing is sharp and natural. Even the smallest characters are individually drawn and personalized. Each character has his/her own voice and personality.
I like this movie a lot. The critics are wrong. Give it another shot. Braddock also needs another shot. I think this guy can make another good film.

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