What a Bunch of Assholes: The Scatalogical Satire of Peter Vack

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

dir. Peter Vack

“I’m not fucking a fucking sober bitch pussy, and I’m not having sex like a..no…nobody else would have sex with me because how are they gonna do it? This day and age, all y—, the only way you fuck is if you go for a drink with someone.”

This is how Peter Vack’s 2017 indie addiction comedy Assholes opens, and it’s exactly the kind of irresponsible but fundamentally true diatribe that has become a red diamond in American cinema of late. The films of the 2000s are increasingly homogenized with even the so-called independent films bearing little resemblance to those made in the Seventies, Eighties or even Nineties.

With the exception of Harmony Korine’s tonal prose-poem The Beach Bum, I can think of few, if any, examples of recent movies that allowed their characters to be human, warts and all. Even long-form narratives aren’t permitted to be this honest or ugly. My mind immediately goes to the Hulu series Difficult People which focused on a duo of hopelessly despicable protagonists.

It’s worth mentioning that said show was canceled after its second season. So much for the artistic freedom of streaming services. I’ve gotta wonder if the Billy Eichner series was given the ax, at least in part, because of its equal opportunity insults. Indeed, nothing seemed to be off-limits in Difficult People, whether it was jokes about 9/11 being an inside job, the proliferation of pop-up restaurants or the obnoxious and out-of-control hipsterdom of 21st Century Manhattan (see: John Mulaney as Old Timey Cecil whose breakout line is, “My family invented the jelly bean. Fuck you!”).

Difficult People would have been a fitting and admittedly more mature title for Peter Vack’s directorial debut. In another universe I could even see the two being paired up for a retrospective. But not in 2020, not even if you’re Todd Solondz or John Waters. The former is relegated to the back pages of Amazon while the latter has to write books in lieu of directing motion pictures.

All “get off my lawn” nostalgic yearning aside, I’ve gotta commend Vack for the bold choices that he makes from frame one. A lot of ink has been spilled about Assholes being a “gross-out” movie, but it’s not the crassness of the dialogue or the hideous sight gags that are really so jarring. Instead it’s Vack’s keen attention to detail that other millennial filmmakers would be unlikely to think of.

In the very first sequence of the flick, as Adah Shapiro, pic’s girl in begrudging recovery, complains about how much she hates sober people we are treated to subtitles that cannot be removed by remote. These subtitles aren’t in another language other than our own. In fact, they are all too familiar to some of us.

“When I was not a sober person and I looked at ber people, I wod be like, whoa, like, you are li, lame. Like, I never gonna be like you. And now that I have crossed over to the sober fe, I stil feel that way, I do! I just still feel that way, and I, I jt, you know, nothing’s changed, and just, and it makes me feel incredibly lonely. Like, incredibly alone in this world because now I forced to hang out with people who I relateero…”

This is just a taste of Adah’s lament and the accompanying subtitles read like nothing so much as a regrettable text message that you send to a former lover at four in the morning before crashing on a park bench and waking up in your own urine.

It is this sense of authenticity that gives Assholes its real power. And it is this power that makes this more than what can fairly be referred to as a “gross-out comedy.” For every feculent fluid that’s highlighted on-screen there are a handful of exchanges that underscore the seriousness of the subject matter.

This acute authenticity extends far beyond the frankness of Adah’s sexual frustration to the way in which she projects her sickness onto her brother, something that virtually every addict has been guilty of at some point in their downward spiral.

I feel like I need to point out that Adah is played by Vack’s real life sister and that Adam Shapiro, her on-screen brother, is played by Vack himself. The actor-director’s birth name was Peter S. Brown. He and his sister’s parents are Ron and Jane Brown, a screenwriter and producer, respectively.

If one were to venture a guess as to the origins of Assholes‘ plot they would probably assume that it’s a work of autobiography. Fortunately for Vack and his sibling, this was never the case. The pair were raised on the Upper West Side by an entrepreneurial father and a mother who earned a living as a psychoanalyst.

While Vack has copped to the fact that they drew upon “past animosities” toward each other, this was not the crux of his idea for the story. In fact, the characters were originally written as ex-lovers and Vack only decided to alter the script after his sister performed the part of the ex-gf during a table read.

People can talk all they want about how “disgusting” this film is, but I dare anyone to name another recent American film that has so lovingly paid homage to the composition of International arthouse pictures. From the off-kilter framing and overbearing lighting to the stilted dialogue and random outbursts, there is little here that could be compared to the likes of the Farrelly Brothers or a Judd Apatow flick.

Maybe Peter Vack isn’t the real asshole, maybe it’s people like me who get off on seeing something that so brazenly thumbs its nose at narrative convention and domestic cinematic structure. I suspect this was at least a consideration of Vack’s if not his full intent.

While I was watching Assholes I was reminded of a quote by Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki in which he complained about the state of modern cinema, saying, “In the old days you had one murder and that was enough for a story. Now you have to kill 300,000 people just to get the audience’s attention.”

If any quote explains the necessity of Assholes‘ verbal and visual excesses it’s this jeremiad. In a world that’s become increasingly desensitized to sex and violence on camera, the only logical next step is for a male and female protagonist to suck each others’ assholes and cold sores. Not because it’s particularly beautiful or artistic, simply because there’s nowhere left to go. How else will you get anyone’s attention?

While it can easily be argued that subtlety would be a better and craftier weapon against mainstream cinema’s excesses, it’s impossible not to acknowledge a certain brilliance in Vack’s politically incorrect presentation of drug-induced insanity.

One extended sequence in the first half hour feels so painfully real that it’s difficult to imagine it being filmed without the cast and crew landing in NYC’s infamous Tombs. And that’s before the birth of the shit-smeared demon woman from the mortal asshole.

It’s fitting that Vack and his sister grew up with a mother who specialized in psychoanalysis because the entire film could be read as one protracted 74-minute therapy session. This is not lost on Assholes‘ creator who makes it a point to include an analyst as a central character, one that seems perpetually put upon by his neurotic patients.

That the analyst is himself so desperate for a connection that he considers himself friends with these assholes reinforces the notion that Assholes isn’t merely about assholes and their obsession with assholes but, more importantly, about how we all have our heads wedged firmly up our assholes.

In short, Assholes is a family film that everyone should be able to connect with. One character sums the madness up quite succinctly: “It’s gender blind, it seems to be directed at all of us.” At the end of the day, these assholes are us.—Bob Freville

Feedback – Movie Review

(Breaking Glass Pictures)

Dir. Pedro C. Alonso

Review by Zakary McGaha

Feedback is a thriller that was quite fun, but providing feedback on it is…difficult. It’s not that I didn’t understand its more political aspirations; they’re pretty simple. However, the messages seemed mixed. Discerning exactly what the filmmakers were aiming for is difficult. The themes can be taken many different ways.

First off, it was cool seeing Richard Brake in a ghoulish role reminiscent of his “Foxy” character from Rob Zombie’s 3 From Hell, but his character in Feedback was a bit conflicted. On one hand, he wants to find his missing daughter, but on the other hand he’s just as confused as the viewer and is thus unable to stick to his guns (literally, he gets his gun taken away from him frequently).

The setting of this invasion movie is what drags it down a bit: it concerns a talk-radio host whose lavish studio is broken into while he’s on air. The fact that he is on air means we have to listen to his generic political ramblings which are disgustingly typical despite being presented as rebellious. They also wind up paralleling the mayhem that unfolds.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the story was given enough meat so as to overshadow the politics, but it wasn’t. Oddly, the political verbiage presented at the beginning, as well as throughout, seems to sneakily propel the film forward. Envision the story as a raft with the politics being the river.

Basically, the people who infiltrate the studio represent the “bad” political party full of conspiracy-minded skeptics (who happen to hold a secret grudge against our main protagonist) while the radio peeps are clean-cut, intelligent and oh-so-dangerous in their thought despite being given an uber-fancy, moneyed platform.

The odd thing is that the “bad guys” actually end up being right in many ways, yet they’re still strangely demonized. I’m debating the artistic intentions here. Is there supposed to be an “ah-ha” moment where we start rooting for the villains when we realize they were right? That would make sense, but this is never clearly translated visually.

Said villains are never shown in a positive light while our main character, who is revealed to have some real skeletons in his closet, is consistently eloquent, well-mannered, well-dressed, and in possession of the “correct” political opinions. All of this is quite definitely presented in such a way as to make us root for him, despite it becoming obvious throughout the film that he’s a less-than-noble fella. Is that the point? Are we supposed to see that political opinions, no matter how nice and/or sincere, often mask evil souls?

The very last scene of Feedback makes me think I’m correct in my last theory, but it’s hard to rest on that given the stark, over-simplified “good-guy/bad-guy, black-and-white” presentation that never lets up even when the tables are turned and the plot twists are taken.

The more I mull over this, the more confused I get because no character is likable and no emotion is genuine; it’s hard to get any feeling at all from most of the film.

Perhaps that’s the point? Perhaps we’re supposed to be confused, because every character seems to have good sides and bad sides. But if that were the case, one would assume genuine emotion could show through the murkiness in one direction or the other, but it never happens. The characters simply go through the “home invasion” motions, there’s a bloody fight scene mixed with an explosion, and then an ambivalent epilogue.

With all that gabbing aside, let’s focus on the main reason people will watch this movie. How thrilling is it?

I would say it’s pretty good in that regard. There were some tense, painful moments as well as some cool visuals that seem to permeate Breaking Glass Pictures’ catalog. There are a couple cranium cracks, some finger torture and a lot of chasing. Plus, the masks the “antagonists” wear are genuinely creepy. If I saw tall, lanky weirdos walking toward me wearing such masks, I’d hightail it to the nearest crowd of well-to-do bystanders.

Finally, can I recommend Feedback as an entertaining thriller? Depends on if you mind the semi one-sided political banter that never goes anywhere tangible. I feel there’s more of this story left to be told. Why the ambivalence? Why the continual black-and-white portrayal of good guys and bad guys if the tables are supposed to be turned? Are we not supposed to have sympathy for the baddies given that they’re technically right? Perhaps those are questions a sequel can answer.

She’s Just a Shadow – DVD Review

by Zakary McGaha

Holy hell, this movie left me speechless. If you’re a fan of horror, trippy thrillers that take place in our world but don’t feel like it and/or bloody crime/noir, then you’re going to dig this movie.

The craziness is amped up to 11 on a scale of 1-10, yet it’s full of characters who are yearning for something. Sure, self-degradation, substance abuse and ultra-rape are all part of this movie’s fabric, but the characters retain a human quality that pits them in constant tension with their surroundings.

The gist of the story is that there’s a prostitution ring—not human-trafficking—and they’re dealing with both a bigger crime organization that’s out to get them as well as a fucking serial-killer who abducts women, jerks off on them and leaves them tied up on the train tracks. Meanwhile, many people involved in the main prostitution ring are wanting to get out of the whole ordeal, and not just because they’re tired of the constant violence.

The movie is beautifully shot. I’d dare say it’s prettier than Mandy. It’s also bloodier, more poignant and more insane. In fact, that’s a good way to gauge if the film’s for you before you watch it: if a crazier yet more concrete version of Mandy sounds like your cup of tea, then you can’t go wrong.

It’s hard to write about She’s Just a Shadow for the sole reason that it’s such a visually enticing film. It’s the type of thing you just need to experience.

However, I would like to stress one of its strengths again: despite being a super-visual film, it actually has a story. It’s not just style with no substance.

5/5 stars. The Motorist commands you to watch it!

Carga – Film Review

by Ben Arzate

Carga” (Breaking Glass Pictures; directed by Bruno Gascon)

In the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Viktoriya, a young Russian woman, hitches a ride with a Portuguese truck driver named Antonio to find a better life in another country. However, she finds that she’s been tricked by him and falls victim to a human trafficking network run by the brutal Russian mafioso Viktor. As Viktoriya struggles to survive and escape, Antonio bears the heavy guilt of his work and seeks to get out while Viktor finds that many cracks are forming in his operation.

Carga is the debut feature-length film by Portuguese director Bruno Gascon. He chose a heavy subject matter for his debut and, for the most part, handles it well. The story is told as a thriller, albeit an incredibly dark and often unpleasant one. I went in a little hesitant as the packaging around it, such as the incredibly heavy-handed tagline “It Could Be You,” suggested it was going to be a preachy morality tale. However, while it doesn’t shirk from showing the horrors of human trafficking, it avoids preaching, focusing on the characters and the story.

Antonio, the truck driver, is racked with guilt at delivering people into the hands of Viktor’s operation, but finds himself unable to leave under the threat of his family being murdered. This, likewise, is how Viktor forces the women enslaved in his ring to cooperate, doing his best to present his organization as an omnipresent threat. We soon find out he’s no super villain, however, when the police begin moving in on him and one his employees, who he believed to be his most loyal, decides to take Viktoriya and run after witnessing her suffer a particularly brutal assault.

The performances here are great all around. Michalina Olszanska as Viktoriya does an excellent job of portraying the trauma of what she goes through and yet maintaining determination to survive in a very believable way. There are many quiet and low-key scenes carried excellently by the actors and the cinematography. The most violent and disturbing scenes are rarely explicit yet hit with a hard punch. It’s clear Gascon has a lot of talent as a director.

I did find some problems with the story. While the villain Viktor and Antonio have time dedicated to their backgrounds, we learn almost nothing about Vikoriya. The only mention of where she came from and why she left is in a piece of text at the beginning. We do find out she has a family, but we learn nothing about them. I’m avoiding spoiling it here, but the conclusion of her story also relies on a contrived coincidence that was difficult to buy.

The American DVD release also leaves something to be desired. The film is subtitled in English in the parts where the dialogue is in Portuguese or Russian, and there are parts where the subtitles are difficult to read because they blend in with the picture (though that may be due to my TV) and there are misspellings and bad grammar littered throughout.

The extras include a making of featurette and one of Gascon’s short films Vazio. Vazio, translated to Emptiness in English, is about a man coping with losing his job and the respect of his family. He snaps and murders his family, his ex-boss, and commits suicide by jumping off a roof. The cinematography and acting are well done, but the film is a bit too on the nose. It was clearly written by someone with a lot of anger but no real direction to aim it in.

Despite some of its flaws, Carga is an intense and well-crafted film. It handles its heavy subject matter very well and shows Gascon as a director with a lot of potential. Because of the problems with the DVD’s subtitles, it may be better to stream this one, but it’s worth watching.

A Terrifying Probe into the Consequences of Female Naïveté: Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday

Review by Bob Freville

An official selection at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, Isabella Eklöf’s Holiday tells the story of Sascha, the goomah of a small-time drug lord. When we first meet Sascha, she is walking through an all-white airport, the noisy footfalls of her hot pink peep toe slingbacks a cacophony that seems to announce her very loud presence.

A sign hanging from the rafters reads “Welcome to Bodrum,” but it might as well read, “Introducing Sascha” as her long blonde hair and form-fitting clothes match the volume of her footwear and make it clear that she has arrived. At least that’s what the young trophy girlfriend seems to think as she struts with all of the confidence of a seasoned runway model.

That this confidence will be swiftly taken from her may be the point of the film, a slow burn chiller that is unlike anything you are likely to see in multiplexes this year.

Holiday‘s plot concerns what happens when Sascha finds herself at an intersection of opulence and anguish along the Turquoise Coast. After emerging from the airport, we see Sascha on a bus traveling through the port city of Bodrum.

Her glimpse of a sullen young woman sitting alone in a deck chair with nothing but desolate road on either side of her should be an ominous omen…if only perception was that cut and dry.

It should be said up front that this is not your typical thriller. From the opening titles, rendered in hot pink like Sascha’s peep toe wedges, to their accompanying display of a woman undulating in white undergarments, it is obvious from the outset that we are watching an auteur film. That is to say, this is less Turistas and more Knife in the Water.

A subtle theme of religious upheaval runs through Holiday; after the distributor (Breaking Glass Pictures)’ logo has vanished at the head of the flick, another company logo appears, this one for something called Heretic Outreach. This is peculiar in and of itself, but then we have the foreboding and distorted cover of the African-American spiritual “Sinnerman” which drives the opening titles sequence.

Before we can meditate on any of this, Sascha is smacked around by a serious man who works for her boyfriend, the significantly older Michael. It seems that Sascha is here to deliver $30,000 Euros, but she’s made the mistake of spending 300 of it during her journey.

Before the gravity of her situation can fully sink in, Sascha has been dumped into the waiting arms of her lecherous beau and he has fucked her, taken her on a joyride and showered her with the sort of bling befitting a “true princess.”

Holiday drops us into a candy-colored world of ice cream and potential pederasts, a world where so-called gentlemen size barely legal girls up like they’re cheesecake and talk to them like they’re idiots. If the presence of the song “Sinnerman” has any particular meaning here then the only sin we can divine is Sascha’s naivete. Indeed, her real crime is being innocent enough to think that men are pure of intention.

It’s not just Sascha either. Her friends are equally taken with Michael after arriving at his villa for a champagne-fueled vacation, and they all seem oblivious to exactly what it is that he does. Don’t ask, don’t tell.

When Michael is not peddling his poisonous wares, he is objectifying women. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. In a particularly discomfiting scene, Sascha has blacked out from excessive drinking and we are forced to watch as Michael pulls up her skirt, grabs handfuls of her ass and then delicately arranges her limbs however he pleases. He does this with the meticulous decisiveness one would apply to sussing out the ripest fruit or vegetable.

When he rolls her onto her stomach and spreads her legs apart, he smiles and squeezes his cock through his slacks. We cringe. He walks to the foot of the bed and gazes down at her, fondling himself some more. We wretch. It’s all we can do because the camera is not going anywhere. This scene is one long take, a single static shot that gives us no choice but to play voyeur.

As Michael continues to manipulate Sascha’s limbs, his hand mercifully falls away from his crotch…or maybe it falls not so mercifully as its removal means there’s one more hand clutching Sascha’s unconscious form.

From here the smile fades from Michael’s face and the act of groping becomes less about arousal and more about power. Like any low-life rapist, Michael is not turned on by women so much as the control he has over them. Whether or not Michael violates Sascha any further (we are thankfully spared anything more than this over-the-clothes manipulation) the impetus for it is the same—this isn’t about carnal appetite but man’s need for power and property.

When one thinks of the power dynamic between on-screen criminals and their women, it is impossible not to think of Karen Hill (Lorraine Bracco) in Scorsese’s GoodFellas or Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) on David Chase’s The Sopranos. Both of those characters were guilty of both innocence and complicity, and we see early on a similar mixture in young Sascha.

After she awakes from her bender, she overhears Michael talking to his colleague about a suspicious transaction that would involve the moving around of more than 3 million Euros, much of it coming from the mysterious “white account.” The squinty, brow-furrowing expression on her face is largely unreadable, but it definitely suggests some level of incredulity. Did I just hear that right? What could this mean? That sort of thing.

Sascha’s error is in abandoning this possible train of thought immediately. Next thing we know, we’re at a restaurant with her dumb tourist friends and talk has turned to whether or not sea bass taste like cod. When the younger members of her group verbally spar, it is the boys who have the last word.

One of them says to his younger sister, “Karsten, are you on your period? Do you need to change your tampon?” This shuts her down for good by trivializing the pain that women experience and reducing them to a lesser and more vulnerable sex.

To say that this film is very much a part of its time (the era of #MeToo and the presidential pussy grabbing age) would be to miss the boat entirely. This film would have been as relevant to the female plight thirty years ago as it is right now. But the fact that it is so soberly directed by a woman is something of import.

Females have long been a minority in the field of motion picture directing. When they are afforded the opportunity to do so in America, they are often maligned by male artists. For instance, post-modern novelist and pop culture critic Bret Easton Ellis notoriously shit-talked Kathryn Bigelow and her film The Hurt Locker, even going so far as to say that women aren’t fit to be filmmakers because they lack “the male gaze.”

Despite the fact that women have helmed some of the most groundbreaking pictures in world cinema history (see: Maya Deren, Chantal Akerman, Claire Denis, Catherine Breillat, Shirley Clarke, Sara Driver, the Soska Sisters, Marina de Van and the list goes on), it is rare to see them in the director’s chair for American productions.

Holiday is not an American film, it’s a Danish film featuring English-speaking characters of Danish and Dutch origin. But it is being released Stateside by Breaking Glass Pictures, the people behind 2017’s superlative Israeli drama Scaffolding. This is great news for fans of auteur filmmaking and great news for American women.

Indeed, all women should see this dangerous portrait of placid and passive femininity. Lest they one day find themselves in the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus with the other arm candy guilty of willful ignorance.