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Tim Grierson on Director Andrea Arnold and Her Superb “Wuthering Heights”

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Breaking into Hollywood is never easy, but in the 21st century it’s still especially difficult if you’re a woman. A study produced earlier this year found that only 5% of 2011’s top 250 grossing movies were directed by women. (In case you’re wondering if that number is an anomaly, 7% of 2010’s top 250 had a female director.) There are plenty of reasons why that figure is alarming, but if you’re in need of a silver lining within that particularly gray cloud, it’s worth noting that we perhaps have more great female filmmakers right now than in any era of film history. Whether it’s a veteran like Chantal Akerman (whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” was the only movie made by a women to hit the Top 50 of the recent Sight & Sound critics poll) or vital independent voices such as Kelly Reichardt, Lynn Shelton, Lynne Ramsay, Debra Granik, Lisa Cholodenko and Nicole Holofcener, there are plenty of superb movies directed by women. (And this isn’t even mentioning Jane Campion or Kathryn Bigelow, who became the first woman to win a Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker,” and whose “Zero Dark Thirty” is one of the most anticipated films of December.)

Another woman who deserves to be in this conversation is Andrea Arnold. Like several other names on the above list, she flies under the radar a bit: Her first two films combined grossed just over $500,000. Hopefully, her third (and best) feature will help raise her profile. It’s her first adaptation, but it contains all the qualities that distinguish her as one of our most exciting new filmmakers, which is an odd thing to say about someone who’s 51.

Her new movie is “Wuthering Heights,” based on the Emily Brontë novel, and it opens in New York on Friday. (It’ll be moving across the rest of the country soon after.) This is Arnold’s first period feature, but she makes the tragic love story between Heathcliff and Cathy feel bracingly contemporary.

For those unfamiliar with the book, “Wuthering Heights” tells the story of a young, penniless boy named Heathcliff (Solomon Glave) who is adopted by a kindhearted farmer (Paul Hilton) who lives in the foreboding, isolated English countryside. (Fans of the novel will note that Arnold has chosen to make Heathcliff black, a nod to modern-day interpretations of the possible racial background of this brooding, mysterious character.) Heathcliff instantly takes a shine to Cathy (Shannon Beer), the farmer’s sweet daughter, and a bond develops between them — despite the irritation of Cathy’s bigoted brother Hindley (Lee Shaw).

Even if you skipped over Brontë’s classic in school, watching “Wuthering Heights” you can sense in your bones that a happy ending seems unlikely for Heathcliff and Cathy. But the precise way in which Arnold tells her story provides so much sadness and passion to the familiar text — according to IMDb, this is the 15th version of the book made for film or television — that its romantic anguish is as bruising as the rain that pounds down on the characters.

In a sense, Arnold’s directing career has led to remaking “Wuthering Heights.” Failed love and disconnected souls have long been a hallmark of her work. After ending a career as an actress and television personality, Arnold started making short films in the late ‘90s, winning the Oscar for Best Live Action Short for 2003’s “Wasp,” which was about a beleaguered single mother who tries to get back with an old boyfriend by trying to convince the man that her four kids aren’t hers. The gritty handheld camerawork, the luckless characters, the examination of class, the refusal to go for the easy resolution: “Wasp” can be seen as an introduction to everything Arnold would explore when she turned to features.

Her first feature, “Red Road,” about a woman (Kate Dickie) who works as a surveillance camera operator, and her second, “Fish Tank,” about a teen (Katie Jarvis) who grows strangely close to her mother’s sexy boyfriend (Michael Fassbender), were unsparing portraits of life lived on the margins of society. Arnold could sometimes be faulted for indulging in a sort of “poverty porn” — letting her characters go down dark paths that feel contrived rather than organic — but her skill with emerging or first-time actors was remarkable, as was her ability to make you care for such unhappy people.

With “Wuthering Heights,” she takes her work to a new level, although she hasn’t veered dramatically from her usual milieu. Both actors who play Heathcliff — James Howson is the character as an adult — and Beer are making their screen debut, and there isn’t a false note in any of the performances. And while Arnold’s previous work has zeroed in on modern-day ills, she herself recognized the connective tissue between her previous films and Brontë’s novel. “Think about Heathcliff,” she said before filming began, “he’s an outsider, he’s a Gypsy boy. It’s a big class story. All my films have been about class, and ‘Wuthering Heights’ is more of the same.” Quite right, but never before has she made her underdog hero so monstrously empowered. Both Glave and Howson portray Heathcliff as a quiet, powerfully introspective soul whose burning desire for Cathy is immediate almost from the start. Denied his prize by fate and Hindley’s cruelty, Heathcliff may be Arnold’s most despondent protagonist, but she gives him a heroic resolve that’s new in her films. As a result, her “Wuthering Heights” is a tragedy that plays out with such fire that you’re never convinced that Heathcliff won’t end up with his beloved.

And then there’s the way Arnold has constructed her film’s strikingly atmospheric look. Working with her longtime cinematographer (Robbie Ryan), editor (Nicolas Chaudeurge) and production designer (Helen Scott), Arnold has envisioned the moors of Northern England as a perpetually damp, bleak enclave cut off from the rest of the world. The book’s gothic tone is captured on screen without music — all the better to hear the wind blow through the lonely trees — and framed in the old-fashioned, boxy 1.33 aspect ratio, which makes the characters feel even more trapped in their environment. (It also denies the viewer the widescreen pleasures of the beautiful locales. Arnold isn’t interested in making a travelogue.) As with her previous films, “Wuthering Heights” is a feast of intensely sensual and immediate encounters. “Red Road” and “Fish Tank” both featured powerfully carnal sex scenes, and although her new film doesn’t possess a similar moment, an exchange between Glave and Beer amidst the moors ripples with such awakening passion that it’s spellbinding. Few current filmmakers translate their characters’ desires into screen language as potently as Arnold does, and the longing in “Wuthering Heights” is so viscerally visual that it’s a small marvel.

Without any major stars, this “Wuthering Heights” won’t catapult Arnold into the realm of commercial blockbuster filmmakers, although with any luck it’ll be one of the year’s top 250 grossers. But although one wouldn’t want to dismiss the importance of box office to help make a director’s life easier when it comes to financing his or her next project, works like Arnold’s should remind us that grosses matter much less than artistry. Like many of Arnold’s female contemporaries, vision and talent are commodities she has in abundance. If audiences aren’t interested in noticing, it’s their loss, not hers.

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John C. McGinley -Photo Credit Kim Simms/IFC

Necessary Evil

Get Freaky With New Stan Against Evil Photos

Stan Against Evil haunts IFC starting November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes.

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From the warped minds behind The Simpsons and The Walking Dead comes your next horror comedy obsession.

Stan Against Evil employs ghoulish horror and pitch-black comedy that’ll both tingle the spine and tickle the ribs. And before the demon-possessed festivities kick off Wednesday, November 2nd at 10P ET with back-to-back episodes, we’ve got a glimpse at stars John C. McGinley and Janet Varney as mismatched small New England town sheriffs Stan Miller and Evie Barret who find themselves pitted against witches, demonic goats and other bizarre horrors.

Check out the Stan Against Evil stars — both living and undead — in the brand new photos below. Follow Stan on Facebook and Twitter for more updates as we approach the scarifiying November 2nd premiere.

Janet Varney Stan Against Evil

Witch Stan Against Evil

Book Stan Against Evil

Demon Stan Against Evil

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Zombieland Jesse Eisenberg

Brain Dead

The 10 Funniest Zombie Movies

Catch Zombieland this month on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Columbia/courtesy Everett Collection

Zombie movies are based on our fear of mortality, but if there’s one thing action heroes do best it’s laugh in the face of death. The rotting, easily-shotgunned face of death. We’re enjoying undeath this month on IFC with Zombieland, so we’re also counting down the 10 funniest zombie movies. Run!

10. Army of Darkness

Ash Army of Darkness
Universal Pictures

Ashley J. Williams is the hardest working blue-collar demon fighter in movie history. (Even though he causes most of the problems he solves in the first place.) When he’s not defeating the Deadites, he’s delivering hilarious quips with typical deadpan flair.


9. Fido

Fido
Lionsgate Films

Fido is a fantastic comedy, but you should expect that with stand-up superstar Billy Connolly in the title role. A nightmarish 1950s-esque world of white picket fences and decaying flesh sets the scene for painfully funny interactions between the living and the dead — and it’s quickly revealed that the zombies are better family figures than many of the upstanding citizens.


8. Dead Snow

Dead Snow ramps up the camp with an isolated group of teenagers battling an entire zombie Nazi division, and it doesn’t skimp on the gore in the process. One of our heroes looks really badass when he amputates his own arm to escape the effects of a zombie bite — only to look down in despair when a zombie chomps on his crotch.


7. Dead and Breakfast

Line Dance
Anchor Bay Entertainment

Dead and Breakfast is a musical zombie comedy, and even with all that you might not expect what happens next. You always knew a zombie movie would have to do a “Thriller” moment. You might not have expected the filmmakers to turn the Michael Jackson hit into a country-style line dance.


6. Dead Alive

Lord of the Rings-meister Peter Jackson cut his teeth on gory, outrageous horror comedies, and his 1992 New Zealand film Braindead (known as Dead Alive in America) is one of his best. It also can claim the definitive zombie baby scene.


5. Warm Bodies

Dead Heat
Summit Entertainment

Warm Bodies takes Romeo and Juliet to a new, gorier level. The warm and loving Julie falls for the mono-syllabic “R,” whose dead heart really is brought back to life by her affection. There’s a great parody of teen romance movies with a musical montage makeover sequence where the zombie is transformed into an attractive date.


4. Return of the Living Dead Part 2

Screwdriver
Lorimar Entertainment

Return of the Living Dead Part 2 is, true to its name, the revenge of the original brain-eating zombie movie. Part 2 goes all-out on the comedy, and while some super-serious fans may balk, there are a lot of great gags to enjoy. Our favorite has to be the zombie literally saying what’s going through its head, a hilarious moment as brain munchers rarely get great lines despite being the whole point of these films.


3. Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead
Universal Pictures

Dawn of the Dead is an unrelenting attack of undead horror and despair, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t time for fun. Because when you’ve got an infinite supply of zombies and ammunition while chilling on the roof of your gun store, you can kill time and celebrity look-a-likes.


2. Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead Records
Universal Pictures

Shaun of the Dead isn’t just an excellent comedy — it’s a love-letter to zombie movies. An early scene where the tired Shaun stumbles through a zombified wasteland as if it was another unpleasant work morning is wonderful, but the funniest bit has to be the life-or-death music reviewing scene, where our heroes decide which records can be spared or used to fight off a hungry undead.


1. Zombieland

Zombieland
Columbia Pictures

There are hundreds of zombie movies, but there was never any doubt which one was the funniest. Because only one has Bill Murray. His brief appearance as an actor whose zombie impersonation goes a little too well is an instant cinema classic. And also the funniest thing ever to happen because of Garfield.

For more laughs and scares, check out a sneak peek of IFC’s Stan Against Evil, premiering November 2nd at 10P with back-to-back episodes, below.

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Scary Movie 2

Rotten Fruit

Catch Scary Spoofs and Kung Fu Keanu on IFC’s Rotten Fridays

Scary Movie 2, The Matrix Revolutions and more are coming to IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Warner Bros.

Compelling plots, believable characters and plausible conflicts are standard in Hollywood classics. But sometimes our brains need a break, which is why IFC and Rotten Tomatoes have teamed up to give you the best of the worst, the “too rotten to miss” movies every Friday at 8P throughout September.

This month’s crop of “Rotten” favorites includes highlights (and lowlights) from Keanu Reeves, Sylvester Stallone and more. Check out the full schedule below and start planning your most sarcastic live-tweet commentary.

Rotten Fridays

“Too Rotten to Miss Movies” every Friday @8P on IFC.

The Matrix Revolutions (Tomatometer: 36% Rotten) – Friday, September 2nd starting @ 8P
Speed 2: Cruise Control (Tomatometer: 3% Rotten) – Friday, September 9th starting @ 8P
Epic Movie (Tomatometer: 2% Rotten) – Friday, September 16th starting @ 8P
Scary Movie 2 (Tomatometer: 15% Rotten) – Friday, September 23rd starting @ 8P
Rocky IV (Tomatometer: 39% Rotten) – Friday, September 30th starting @ 8P

Kick back with The Matrix Revolutions this Friday at 8P on IFC!

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