'X' Hits All the Right Thriller Marks

It may be as old as time itself but this is one story of crime and the corporeal that survives its contemporary update.


Director: Jon Hewitt
Cast: Viva Bianca, Wayne Blair, Peter Docker, Eamon Farren, Hanna Mangan Lawrence
Studio: IFC
Year: 2011
US date: 2011-04-08 (General release)
UK date: 2011-04-08 (General release)

The world's oldest profession meets the planet's first felony in the excellent Australian "erotic" thriller X. A wonderfully noir-ish effort from co-writer/director Jon Hewitt (and available via IFC On Demand and limited theatrical release on 8 April), this is a movie that exposes the sleazy underbelly of Sydney as only a native can. There is a cancer Downunder, and it breeds in strip clubs, hour rate motels, dirty street corners, and oddly enough, in the high rise exclusivity of depraved upper class society. This is a world awash in purposeful white slavery, where young girls see no other alternative than to sell their bodies for cash. Within this desperate dynamic sits Holly (Viva Bianca), an sex for rent performer who balances her trade between the occasional rich john and the bored housewives of the suburbs. She's hoping to escape, but she will soon learn just how many impediments there are to "getting out."

One of them is obsessive 'boyfriend' Ligurian (Peter Docker), a man of many appetites but one singular resolve - Holly will be part of his life, either here in Australia or in the Paris of her dreams. He will not be separated from her. Even though he's abusive and controlling, he does seem to care. Then there's Shay (Hanna Mangan Lawrence), a random waif Holly picks up to participate in a double act for a client. Lost and all alone, some manner of maternal instinct kicks in when she stumbles across the struggling teen. In the end, both witness something they shouldn't, resulting in an overnight chase through the slimy city streets, and a last ditch effort to find some kind of help. Holly turns to the only source of strength she has, while Shay befriends a would-be magician/cabbie whose optimism shines a tiny light into this world of wandering darkness.

X is not a pleasant film, at least from a subject matter standpoint. There is plentiful nudity and loads of sexual content, but this is not a celebration of Eros. Instead, it's a bath in the wanton gratuity of a metropolitan realm that would exploit anyone for the sake of some release. Men proposition and punish young girls who don't abide by their prurient, piggish demands while fellow hookers 'hire' sadistic street scum to knife and kick those they think are stealing their territory. It's a brutal, frank, and often graphic look at the grimy underbelly of the still simmering smut trade. Thankfully, Hewitt knows when to pull back, to avoid the sensational while keeping the shock value. From full frontal exposure (both male and female) to random acts of physical assault, X meters out is misery in narratively vital viciousness. Without the inherent level of horror, we'd never find ourselves rooting for such rotten characters.

Sure, Holly is a decent lady, helping others and using her friendships as a means of managing the psychological scaring her job provides. But when a companion cannot be reached by phone or front door, does she investigate to make sure she's okay? Does she stop the evening's pursuit to play detective and determine her gal pal's fate? Nope, she selfishly simply stomps off, angrily scouring the streets for someone to replace her missing mate. At this point in her life, Holly is all about the pursuit. She even abandons Shay at one point, leaving her for dead when it's clear she could help. This is not a hooker with a heart of gold, or a fallen women with a decent inner core. No, this is a business woman, and all throughout X Viva Bianca plays her as no nonsense, no bullshit... and oddly enough, no hope.

Hanna Mangan Lawrence is much more ambiguous as Shay. She has a haunting backstory (on reminiscent of the opening of last year's Oz underworld crime film Animal Kingdom) and a gritty determination that makes her initial forays into street walking all the more painful, especially given the dirty old man customers she seems to attract. This is a brave actress and she offers several brave turns here, from moments of pretend gumption to run for your life like purpose. She's the anchor of X, a recognizable key to entering this otherwise foreign -- and quite foul -- place. While we want both Holly and Shay to survive their horrific Hell night, we really hope the latter finds a way out. The former had her time and let it slip. Shay is someone who can be saved before the doors of desperation close completely.

For his part Hewitt is all slickness and style. He doesn't delve deep into the personalities at play here. Instead, X roams the various locations like a voyeur, peeking into places it really shouldn't. While there are odd moments of flash here (there hasn't been this much split screen in a major motion picture since Brian DePalma gave up his haughty Hitchcock homages in the '70s) and a tired techno drone to the score, the filmmaking does help define the atmosphere of dread. There are sequences that mimic the finest action films and moments of suspense that keep you on the edge of your seat. But Hewitt also treats the carnality with a similar slackness. He is not out to arouse as much as make the violence a direct outflow of the rampant sexuality.

It all comes together terrifically in a film that while blessed with more than a couple loose ends, still offers a stunning visual and emotional rollercoaster ride. It takes a while getting started and seems to follow a particular formula until -- BANG! -- a gunshot changes everything. Then the ID of the killer makes the situation even more intense. At the beginning, X appeared to be a simple story of a prostitute who wants to leave her former life behind and spend the rest of her days among the fanciful locations of a playful Paris. Instead, it turns into an ordeal that brings the entire nightmare of her past profession directly into the path of her City of Light fantasy. It may be as old as time itself but this is one story of crime and the corporeal that survives its contemporary update.


The Best Metal of 2017

Painting by Mariusz Lewandowski. Cover of Bell Witch's Mirror Reaper.

There's common ground between all 20 metal albums despite musical differences: the ability to provide a cathartic release for the creator and the consumer alike, right when we need it most.

With global anxiety at unprecedented high levels it is important to try and maintain some personal equilibrium. Thankfully, metal, like a spiritual belief, can prove grounding. To outsiders, metal has always been known for its escapism and fantastical elements; but as most fans will tell you, metal is equally attuned to the concerns of the world and the internal struggles we face and has never shied away from holding a mirror up to man's inhumanity.

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In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

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Two recently translated works -- Lydie Salvayre's Cry, Mother Spain and Joan Sales' Uncertain Glory -- bring to life the profound complexity of an early struggle against fascism, the Spanish Civil War.

There are several ways to write about the Spanish Civil War, that sorry three-year prelude to World War II which saw a struggling leftist democracy challenged and ultimately defeated by a fascist military coup.

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Beware the seemingly merry shades of green and red that spread so slowly and thickly across the holiday season, for something dark and uncertain, something that takes many forms, stirs beneath the joyful facade.

Let's be honest -- not everyone feels merry at this time of year. Psychologists say depression looms large around the holidays and one way to deal with it is cathartically. Thus, we submit that scary movies can be even more salutary at Christmas than at Halloween. So, Merry Christmas. Ho ho ho wa ha ha!

1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)

In one of my favorite action movies of the '80s, a post-Blue Velvet and pre-Twin Peaks Kyle MacLachlan plays an FBI agent who forms a buddy-cop bond with Michael Nouri while pursuing a perp -- a bodiless entity that plugs into the human id. In the midst of slam-bang action comes a pivotal moment when a startling question is asked: "How do you like being human?" The heart of the movie, rich in subtext, finds two men learning to embrace what's alien to them. In pop-culture evolution, this movie falls between Hal Clement's novel Needle and the TV series Alien Nation. On this Warner Archive Blu-ray, Sholder offers a commentary with colleague Tim Hunter.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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