Logan Miller’s “Sweetwater” (titled “Sweet Vengeance” in the credits, though it carries the first title at Fantasia) is an idiosyncratic western with a decidedly contemporary sensibility, merging a stoic approach to violence with an off-kilter, nearly Monty Python sensibility. It’s an unusual fit, but an intriguing one, and despite the silence of the film’s leisurely-paced scenes of dialogue, there’s never truly a dull moment. Miller has a fantastic cast to thank for that luxury.
The central conflict involves a minor land dispute between a couple (Eduardo Noriega, January Jones) and the neighboring, cult-ish priest (a delicious Jason Isaacs) who believes in cleansing his holy land with the blood of blasphemers. When the pontificating pastor puts a bullet in Miguel (Noriega), its ex-prostitute Sarah (Jones) who opts for revenge, just as the town begins discussing this flamboyant, porcelain beauty with a fiery temper. At the same time, an irreverent wandering sheriff (Ed Harris) has stumbled into town, and he’s bound to tackle Prophet Josiah’s doctrine and philosophy word-by-word, bullet-by-bullet.
Harris and Isaacs are the highlight here, Harris taking on a jocular part that captures the spirit of his work in Alex Cox’s similar “Walker,” albeit with less political context. And Isaacs produces a riotous, memorable heel, capable of lecturing away his violent actions with a flick of the wrist and a shrug. It’s Jones who forms the weakest part of this triangle: the actress has the sort of beauty that would make her something of a found object in a Warhol project, but here, she’s stiff when she should be authoritative, frigid when meant to be sexual. It’s the sort of wooden turn that stops the film to a halt, keeping an agreeably violent and amusing western from its proper status. [B]
The world doesn’t need another zombie movie, but if we’re going to go down that well again, might as well do it with “The Battery.” This low-fi hipster apocalypse pits two friends against the void, with svelte Mickey (Adam Cronheim) worrying about their next meal, and bearded Ben (writer-director Jeremy Gardner) generally enjoying the free reign over a vacated society. The idea that these two formless dudebros are former baseball players never rings true, and in an early moment, a character removes his shoes to reveal spotless bare feet unlikely to belong to a post-apocalyptic hunter-gatherer. You’ll have to forgive the movie for doing a poor job at filling in the blanks.
The picture’s strength lies in the interplay between Mickey and Ben, both with their own insecurities. Cronheim’s Mickey is a jittery killjoy at every opportunity, but he brings a believable anguish to this loner, someone who hasn’t gotten over the heartbreak of his last girlfriend, one of apparently billions of lives lost. Funny and acerbic, Gardner’s Ben has opted to let himself go, hiding a general contempt for niceties underneath his bloodlust for zombies, ostensibly providing the muscle for the two of them. Mickey’s headphones suggest the desire to escape to a better place, while Ben’s survivalist instincts and casual brutality suggest a deep comfort level with shirking the expectations of modern society. As strong as the film’s aesthetics may be (it’s got an offhand pastoral beauty that recalls Kelly Reichardt), you sense it would be slightly unbearable with two lesser actors. That is not the case.
The zombies themselves aren’t much of a threat, though the radio voices coming from a group of professional survivalists provide nostalgia for Mickey, and danger to Ben. There’s a romanticism to Mickey’s infatuation with the female voice on the other line, but it may be something else: in a uniquely perverse scene, Mickey finds sexual pleasure in a particularly limber female zombie, only to see its head blown apart by Ben in mid-stroke. It’s a funny bit, but it’s also a strong moment of character for both of them, illustrating “The Battery” as a film with genuine interest in not the humanity that’s vanished from the world, but the smaller bits that remain. [B+]
There’s a different sort of storytelling apparent in “Ritual: A Psychomagic Story,” one that will provide innately confusing to viewers. That comes from the heavy influence of Alejandro Jodorowsky, the filmmaker who pioneered the art of psychomagic, a form of therapy that transports patients back to traumatic moments and forced them to relive them from a different perspective, possibly carrying on to the present day. It’s a bit trippy, and it serves as inspiration for this strange, languid, kinky film. Jodorowsky himself appears in one brief scene, whispering distant fantasies to a dreamer at night; it’s as if he’s a ghost to cinema, one who has only recently made a picture in the last twenty years (“La Danza De La Realidad”), expecting the older works to be the first step in a journey of the self. Unfortunately, 'Ritual,' directed by first-timers Giulia Brazzale and Luca Immesi, doesn’t carry that sort of confidence.
We learn that Lia (the luminous Desiree Giorgetti) is suffering from a deep depression, one that forces her to leave the metropolitan life and retreat to the countryside to be with her aunt. But this is told in fragments; the film begins with Lia disrobing obediently for her abusive lover Viktor (Ivan Franek) while also meeting with a therapist to put aside the demons of the past. Commitment is a major sticking point; she holds onto Viktor like he’s gold, even if he cheats, withstanding his abuse in the hopes of having a child. He is her only life vest, and while their dalliances are erotic, they usually conclude with a verbal abuse of some sort. Her one salvation seems to be with the ghosts of her aunt’s villa, those that greeted her as a child when she wasn’t yet ready to understand.
Partially scored by Moby, there’s a perfume-commercial elegance to the film that allows for random montages of the arresting Giorgetti in a number of peculiar positions and settings (Lady Gaga would love this film). The story becomes stripped away and Brazzale and Immesi seem to prefer a sensual overload of ideas and concepts to coherence: like “Amer,” that highly overlooked contemporary giallo from a couple of years ago, you can smell and taste “Ritual,” even if you can’t at all understand what’s in front of your eyes. Riveting it’s not, but “Ritual” serves as a handy introduction to psychomagic, even as its narrative spins in circles. [C+]