Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Over the Top Noir: The Perfect Sleep

What should audiences expect from a film which draws inspiration from Film Noir and Russian Literature? In the case of Jeremy Alter’s directorial debut, it results in one miserably angst-ridden protagonist, but at least he is filmed stylishly. After various producing gigs, including work on David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Alter cranks the Noir up to eleven in The Perfect Sleep (trailer here), which is now playing in Los Angeles and opens in New York this Friday.

Sleep’s narrator no longer has a name as such. Most who speak of him call him the “Mad Monk.” Ending a long self-imposed exile, he has returned to the un-named city of his youth (that seems to bear a strong resemblance to Los Angeles). Only one thing could lure him back to wherever: Porphyria, the woman he has sworn to protect.

The Monk and Porphyria grew up in the household of Nikolai, the Tsarist master of the underworld, living in a Summer Palace not completely dissimilar to Bradbury Building. Raised together in Nikolai’s home, even Porphyria and her protector are unsure of their exact relationship. She is the daughter of Nikolai’s brother Sergei and a woman presumably known but irrelevant to our story. He is the illegitimate son of Nikolai’s great love, whom Sergei corrupted out of fraternal spite. The father might be either brother or another person unknown. Regardless, the Monk’s feelings for Porphyria become such that he is compelled to banish himself to the wilderness.

Somehow, the Monk knows Porphyria needs his services, as old family resentments escalate into open warfare. Reluctantly he returns, immediately stepping into one of many beat-downs in store for him at the hands of Nikolai’s thugs. Yet, the Monk seems to have a superhuman ability to endure a pummeling, leaving a trail of dead henchmen in his wake. Is the Monk’s uncanny resilience something more than human and why is Porphyria named after a disease associated with vampires? Perhaps it is just coincidence, since Alter chooses not to belabor such questions. Shrewdly, whenever Sleep starts to stall, Alter throws the Monk into a violent melee—a strategy which has undeniable entertainment value.

Sleep is unapologetically over-the-top Noir to a deliberately ridiculous degree. At first, the Monk’s exaggerated hardboiled narration seems like it will get very old very fast, but it is so persistently outrageous, its sheer absurdity will win viewers over. This is definitely a film for those tired of boring character development. It is all about style, reflected in the perfect Film Noir visual sense of Alter and cinematographer Charles Papert. The greatest drawback is co-producer Anton Pardoe as the Monk. Yes, he is supposed to be stiff and emotionally withdrawn, but he lacks the menacing presence required by the character. Happily though, the supporting cast boasts a number of reliably intriguing character actors, like Patrick Bauchau, who brings to mind the great scenery-chewing Hammer Film villains as Nikolai. Also, Michael (Eddie and the Cruisers) Paré makes a welcome appearance as the somewhat corrupt Officer Pavlovich.

Like its protagonist, Sleep is at its best during fight scenes. When it gives the audience time to think, it starts to go awry. Still, its flashy style and take-no-prisoners attitude gives Alter’s film its own weird appeal that seems tailor-made for midnight movie screenings. (Also, check out the amusing anti-trailer for Sleep, featuring actor Gary Oldham, who previously collaborated with Alter on a music video.) It screens in Los Angeles through Thursday (3/26) at the Laemmle and opens at the Quad in New York this Friday (3/27).