January 30, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Serbis

Serbis

Serbis
Directed by Brillante Mendoza
2008, 85 minutes, Philippines (In Tagalog with English subtitles)

Since its divisive reception at the Cannes and New York film festivals, the cavernous, dilapidated movie theater where most of Brillante Mendoza's perturbingly kicky, neo-realist melodramedy takes place has drawn quick parallels to the likewise run-down theater of Tsai Ming-liang's Goodbye, Dragon Inn -- which is to say, the similarities nearly end there. Both have queer cruising going on in the dark and blatantly symbolic qualities, but where Tsai's mythological theater itself is a nostalgic ode to filmmaking and filmgoing, the Angeles City X-rated movie house owned by the Pineda family in Serbis is the bigger-than-life stage for a familial microcosm of the poverty-stricken society outside. Perhaps Mendoza's film is better contextualized as the overlap between Tsai's and another NYFF 2008 film, the criminally undistributed Tony Manero, in terms of its similarly dysfunctional clan scraping by under one roof, only substituting Manero's violence for sex in an cultural area where harsh economics trump moral values. Sickly voyeuristic and still strangely humanist, Serbis allures like a scandalous soap opera, except there's not enough soap in the world to clean its grime away.

Serbis Characterizations and relationships are introduced in vignetted moments, and the building's every peeling wall is blueprinted exquisitely for the audience by strategic camera placement, either in fixed locations that turn the four-tiered labyrinth into an M.C. Escher tessellation, or in handheld tracking shots that follow characters upstairs, down and all around. Under the matriarchal management of Nanay "Mama" Flor, the appropriately named "Family" theater is run by daughter Nayda, her husband Lando and adopted daughter Jewel, who rotate between the ticket booth and a low-rent eatery, also operated out of the building. Nanay's young nephew Ronald, a cousin Nayda may or may not be having a secret affair with, runs the projector (a wonderful bit shows him, shirtless and sweaty, fumbling with the threading of the film like a bra being removed in the dark, the payoff being the moans from the screen). Her other nephew, Alan, paints the billboards, gets depressed about his girlfriend's pregnancy, and frets about the nasty boil on his ass. SerbisAnd all the while, as this family of many secrets, issues and mini-dramas (most of which, like the thief or the goat, you should chase down yourself instead of letting me ruin them here) runs their business, they pretend not to notice the gangs of trannies and gay prostitutes lingering in the back row of the auditorium, haggling for sexual favors in their home. Serbis translates to "service," an entendre that keeping on doubling: from the johns in the aisles to the family and its members, the business and its customers to, ultimately, the society and its citizens. Smutty and shabby with a blackened sense of humor that John Waters might love, Mendoza's hypnotic ant-farm portrait is dizzy with details, like a multi-paneled Chris Ware illustration dipped in a hellhole of hardship and lust.

Serbis As an addendum, Eric Hynes at Reverse Shot knew something I didn't (it wouldn't be the first time), that the theatrical cut does actually differ from the 94-minute film showed at festivals last year. By the sounds of it, this may have changed how I felt about Serbis altogether if I had caught it at NYFF:

"Perhaps in response to some Cannes critics who found the film jarringly pornographic, the fleeting, if memorable frames of hardcore have been excised. While the new cut effectively focuses Serbis on the Pinedas and on their memorable milieu, I did find the earlier version’s interjections of real sex genuinely provocative and smart, if a bit heavy-handed. Mendoza repeatedly transitions from projected pornography in the darkened theater to clumsy, explicit sex between his characters (now considerably less explicit)."

Serbis Serbis opens today in New York and Los Angeles, with releases soon after in San Francisco (Feb. 20) and Portland (Feb. 27). For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 3:12 PM | Comments (4)

January 29, 2009

PODCAST: Wyatt Cenac

Wyatt Cenac, star of Medicine for Melancholy Most recognizable for his hilarious stint as a fake-news correspondent on Comedy Central's The Daily Show, Wyatt Cenac also makes his feature debut as the star of Barry Jenkins' "enlightened and tenderly beautiful" Medicine for Melancholy. (Hey, that's what the critic blurbed on the trailer called it, and I trust his fine taste.) The official synopsis reads as such:

"Medicine for Melancholy is a love story of bikes and one-night stands told through two African-American twenty-somethings dealing with issues of class, identity, and the evolving conundrum of being a minority in rapidly gentrifying San Francisco -- a city with the smallest proportional black population of any other major American city."

Just before a post-screening Q&A at Columbia University on Thursday night, I told Wyatt our chat could be casual, so he put his feet up on the table and threatened to take his pants off. Ever the jokester, we discussed what his film is really about, the big-screen remake of a TV show he believes he should star in, and why we'll never fully be rid of Bush-era America.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Medicine for Melancholy opens this Friday at NYC's IFC Center, with releases soon after in Detroit (Feb. 13), Seattle (Feb. 20), San Francisco (Feb. 27) and Los Angeles (Feb. 27). It will be available On Demand from IFC Festival Direct beginning Feb. 4. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 10:29 PM

January 28, 2009

WEDNESDAY BRIEF: Four Birthdays

"I let the audience use their imaginations. Can I help it if they misconstrue my suggestions?"
- Ernst Lubitsch, born today, 1892

"The strangeness will wear off and I think we will discover the deeper meanings in modern art."
- Jackson Pollock, born today, 1912

"It isn't necessary to be rich and famous to be happy. It's only necessary to be rich."
- Alan Alda, born today, 1936

"I'm not a star. A star is nothing but a ball of gas!"
- Elijah Wood, born today, 1981

Posted by ahillis at 10:16 PM

January 27, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd
Far From the Madding Crowd
Directed by John Schlesinger
1967, 171 minutes, United Kingdom
Warner Home Video

Adapted by Frederick Raphael from Thomas Hardy's fourth yet first commercially successful novel (1874), Schlesinger's lavishly sweeping epic arrives on DVD for the first time, extended by three minutes to include the film's Overture, Entr'Acte, and a PETA-unfriendly cockfighting scene that was cut from the original American release. In her third outing with Schlesinger after Billy Liar and Darling, a perhaps never-lovelier Julie Christie headlines as Bathsheba Everdene, a strong-willed country heiress who coyly underestimates her power over men after becoming the sunny nexus of an orbiting love-quadrangle. Over the course of three hours, the seasons seamlessly change under the spectacular (and impeccably lit) Panavision lensing of director-to-be Nicolas Roeg, Malcolm Cooke's poppy editing, Richard Macdonald's classy production design, and Richard Rodney Bennett's folksy score, all evoking the rural feel and pace of 19th century Dorset without the typically modernized tranquility of most Hollywood period epics.

Far From the Madding Crowd

As if representative of Victorian England's various classes or ways of life, Bathsheba's pursuers include scruffy, impoverished sheep farmer and "everyday sort of man" Gabriel Oak (Alan Bates), honorable but snobbish and downright obsessive landowner William Boldwood (Peter Finch, in a Best Actor-winning role as awarded by the National Board of Review), and shallow scalawag Sgt. Frank Troy (Terence Stamp), a rapacious but strangely charismatic soldier whose shining on-screen moment is a hillside demonstration of swordplay/foreplay in Bathsheba's gasping presence. Each of the Hardy boys (couldn't resist!) bend over backwards to profess their love, but our feisty heroine has them all under her thumb. She calls the shots while running her inherited farm by herself, and unlike Hardy's novel, the casually misogynistic remarks have been wiped from the screen adaptation. If the technical resplendence and fine acting aren't reason enough to seek out this classic, how about its progressive feminist perspective?

Far From the Madding Crowd
"There are two problems with John Schlesinger's Far From the Madding Crowd, and they flaw what might have been an excellent film. The first is the decision to expand the characters into stereotyped romantic lovers, instead of showing them as complex people trapped in an isolated society. The second is the decision to avoid the real significance of Bathsheba's behavior in order to produce a homogenized, vitamin-enriched product to lure busloads of eighth-grade classes."

So begins Roger Ebert's 1968 review of the film, which I'd heartily dispute, and though you've had four decades to see the film and 135 years to read the novel: SPOILERS ALERT! True, Hardy's novel had the benefit of third-person narration, and even a replaying of scenes from other character's viewpoints, but while Raphael's script must be tidier based on the medium's needs, it's unfair to call the three lovers oversimplified. They are indeed complex, which is why the humble farmer who proves truest to Bathsheba is shown to be a world-weary fatalist when it comes to always getting the short end of the stick. (After Gabriel's early marriage proposition is rebuked, then his dog sends all of his sheep over a cliff to leave him destitute, he sighs: "Thank god I'm not married.") Farmer Boldwood's neuroses are, in part, related to his place in society; his pompous nature comes only from his professional success, but it's overcompensation for deep insecurity and loneliness. As for the soldier Troy, who tries to obtain this woman just because it's in his predatory nature to take on new challenges, there's bona fide love there for Bathsheba, but only after he elopes with her.

Addressing Ebert's second point, there is actually deep and heartfelt consequence to Bathsheba's behavior. Her reckless ambivalence gets her husband killed, her worthy rebound imprisoned, and it's only then that she marries and makes wealthy the poor farmer with whom she's not actually in love. Some may read the film as having a happy ending (as if Hardy was capable of such!), but to my mind, the give-and-take dynamics are heartbreakingly complicated.

Posted by ahillis at 6:35 PM | Comments (2)

January 26, 2009

Statue of Limitations?

Unhappy-Go-Lucky? Even the barely religious will attend a Christmas Eve church service once a year, and I believe there's a case to be made that watching -- and more significantly, at least half-caring about -- the yearly pomp that is Oscar night fulfills a similar sense of pious obligation among filmgoers. Before you groan, "Oh crikey, not another useless rant about the futility of the Academy Awards" and skip onto your next RSS feed, let me stop you now. I enjoy the Big Show every year, or at least, the collective experience of watching it with friends, bitching about the overrated nominees (Richard Jenkins! The Reader! Frozen River! Benjamin Button!) and the snubs (Sally Hawkins! Bruce Springsteen! Charlie Kaufman the writer! Cadillac Records!), cheering the merits of Hollywood populism (Michael Shannon! Robert Downey Jr.! Wall-E!), and jeering hideous musical numbers or tacky dresses.

But the key phrase in all that is "collective experience," as in, would any of us enjoy the all-too-familiar speeches, memorial montages, self-satisfied stock footage of Oscar nights past, and glorified back-patting so much if we weren't surrounded by our friends and families, all of us easily bemused lemmings? Part of me doubts that we watch because we value the Academy's choices of what the "Best" actor/picture/whatever/whomever is, but then how often do we also buy or rent DVDs with those laurel banners all over it? Do we care more than we'd like to admit, or have we been subconsciously programmed by the habitualism?

The Academy Awards: already decided? We love 'em, we're mildly irritated by 'em, we pretend to be less interested than we actually are in 'em, and for some ultimate reason, we need 'em. Why? Is it truly our personal love for cinema, our want to root for our favorites in imperfect categories as selected by wholly subjective tastes? In some cases, mine included, the excuse is professional; we HAVE to keep checking that zeitgeist for its pulse, right? (Okay, that's a gross cop-out.) Is it, as I hinted, psychological -- either we watch because we'll have conversations, debates and excuses to congregate, or on the other hand, that keeping-up-with-the-Joneses compulsion because we don't want to feel left out?

I'm useless when it comes to sports, so forgive me if my analogy doesn't stick, but I'm wondering why we treat the Oscars like a casual football fan would the Superbowl, where it isn't relevant if you follow college games (indie movies) or the NFL playoffs (year-end prestige films), it's that one single golden event that matters. I bring this up not only because said game is apparently happening soon, but because it is a game; a competition by all definitions. I don't think it's unnatural to judge arts and entertainment (Vegas odd-setting on the Oscars is still hilarious to me, but I won't negate my own gig!), but that the trophy events sometimes mean more to us as a society than the individual works is a human logic I can't quite deconstruct with purpose, in part because we're internet-fed heartily enough to know better.

I wanted to wait a few days to process the various think-pieces and responses to the Oscar announcement to try to gain insight about why, beyond its water-cooler relevance, I watch the Oscars. A dear friend, someone who probably only sees a half-dozen films a year if he's lucky, asked me what I thought about this year's nominees, and seemed surprised that someone with my career path would be looking forward to the event without caring so much about the individual nominations. I didn't have an answer, and realized then that I honestly don't know why I care or don't care. The Academy Awards will likely never hit my personal lottery and completely match all the balls up to my predilections, will they? If the potential for major shake-ups remains as limited every year (Oscar marketing campaigns likely having plenty of pull within the Academy's safe tastes), why do I (and you, and you and you) still talk about this dog-and-pony show as if anything, beyond the fashions, sociopolitical climate and buffoonish red-carpet interviewers, has changed in eight decades? Is that a cynical response, merely a curious one, or all hot air? The Award goes to whomever can make sense out of why we watch.

Posted by ahillis at 12:58 PM | Comments (7)

January 25, 2009

WEEKEND BRIEF: If a Film Fest Falls in the Forest...

Sundance Film Festival 2009 From all the press coverage and first-hand reports I've been keeping up with during Sundance (including text messages, emails, late-night phone calls from tipsy colleagues, et al.), I'd wager that Manohla Dargis nailed the Park City disposition over the past week-and-a-half:
"It should have been a time for rowdy celebration: this year, after all, marked the festival’s 25th anniversary, a milestone that was largely eclipsed by the grim economic climate that thinned the crowds and fueled the nervous chatter on the icy streets. Only the presidential inauguration, a few sales deals and a couple of punches thrown by a critic (not me!) who had felt hassled by a film representative disturbed the low-key vibe."

Without actually setting foot in Sundanceland, I was lucky enough to catch 15 features screening at this year's festival, most of which were honestly better than average (and about which I'll be writing when they inevitably pop up at other fests, or hopefully, in theaters). Solid programming is one thing, but because the streets and attitude were quieter, it's perhaps the first time I've envied those who were able to attend. Rumor has it that some typically distended fests will be tightening their belts in 2009, with noticeable drops in the number of films and events scheduled, and so I'm curious if y'all agree that…

THE CONVERSATION: Could this be an accidental blessing of the droopy economy? Might there now be fiercer competition, meaning mediocrity will fall by the wayside as the cream rises? Or will there still be hordes of filler and a greater chance that excellent films will be overlooked?

Before I forget, Noel Murray at the AV Club has the full list of Sundance winners, plus a nifty list of the 20 most memorable characters. (Hi, Glenn.)

Posted by ahillis at 12:11 PM | Comments (12)

January 23, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Of Time and the City

Of Time and the City
Of Time and the City
Directed by Terence Davies
2008, 74 minutes, United Kingdom

Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills?
What spires, what farms are those?

That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.

A. E. Houseman's wistful poem, as narrated in the authoritative fireside bass voice of British auteur Terence Davies (Distant Voices, Still Lives; The House of Mirth), are the fitting first words heard in this bitterly, beautifully nostalgic eulogy to the post-WWII Liverpool that Davies has long left behind -- or should it be said that the city of that era left him? Only outwardly reminiscent of Chris Marker's wandering cine-essays or Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, Davies' nakedly personal retreat into his youthful memories isn't meant as an intellectual exploration of contemporary hindsights, even for all its high-falutin' literary quotations.

Of Time and the City No, Of Time and the City is pure, poignant tone poetry as it's rarely seen on big screens today, its dedication to meditative lyricism over the detached academia of postmodern annotation allowing viewers to graft their own personal remembrances of home-movie melancholy. As if assembled straight from Davies' head, the film is a seamlessly curated series of archival and newsreel footage from the '40s through the '60s, occasionally scored to various pieces of popular music, but mostly to his hypnotically grandiose voiceover (like Werner Herzog, you'd let this guy read you the phone book if he asked). Sometimes droll, regularly vitriolic, but never sentimental, Davies' stream-of-consciousness chronicle dances through sacred milestones (of the pro-wrestling match that instigated his first homosexual thoughts, of his Catholic guilt and later denunciation of faith, of his ecstasy for those glorious movie palaces!), favorite pages from his library (T. S. Eliot here, Chekhov and Yeats there), and thorough scene-setting recollections of mid-century architecture and working-class miserablism.

Of Time and the City You are there, even if there isn't there anymore, and it's to the credit of Davies' artistry that there's little trace of didacticism or ethnographic tedium. An hour-and-a-half tapestry of hazy, half-remembered memories juxtaposed in hazy, half-deteriorated clips shouldn't even resonate to non-Liverpudlians in theory, and yet I often found myself pensively dazing off into my remembered past. That memory is perhaps the most overlapped subject within Davies' filmography is fascinating, considering that when I interviewed him last week, he denounced the idea that his was a cathartic undertaking: "I thought at one time, when I started making my films, particularly the early autobiographical ones, that I would reach some catharsis. But I haven't. All it has done is highlight that which has been lost." On a screen, that's poetry.

Of Time and the City opens today at New York City's Film Forum. For tickets and more info, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 2:52 PM | Comments (2)

January 22, 2009

SUNDANCE '09 PODCAST: Michael Jai White

Black Dynamite

Actor and martial artist Michael Jai White (Spawn, The Dark Knight, HBO's Tyson) is the co-writer and eponymous superfly star of Black Dynamite -- a pitch-perfect, two-fisted and two-footed throwback to '70s blaxploitation, directed by Scott Sanders. Premiering in Sundance's "Park City at Midnight" section and already picked up for $2 million by Sony Pictures, the film follows a plot that seemed yanked straight from Fred Williamson's filmography:

When "The Man" murders his brother, pumps heroin into local orphanages, and floods the ghetto with adulterated malt liquor, Black Dynamite is the one hero willing to fight all the way from the blood-soaked city streets to the hallowed halls of the Honky House.

Before the festival even began, Michael Jai White and I chatted via this new-fangled Skype technology (okay, new for me, so I don't know how to improve the mildly robotic quality just yet) about his "period piece," the blaxploitation film he thinks would be nominated for an Oscar if it were re-released today, and why he would be thrilled to perform in a third Toxic Avenger movie.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Black Dynamite plays again at Sundance on January 23 and 24 (official page), and will likely be released in U.S. theaters in 2009. To watch the trailers, here you go.

Posted by ahillis at 7:47 PM | Comments (1)

"And the Oscar Might Go To..." The 81st Academy Award Nominations.

With the annual January ritual of the release of Academy Award nominations now upon us, it is, as always, followed by the annual January ritual of Carping About Oscar Snubs, too. Both are intertwined like ivy. It's all in the game, yo.

Herewith, then, are the 81st Annual Academy Award Nominations, just released this morning.

And for your consideration, here's one major snub in our estimation: how about Kristin Scott Thomas for I've Loved You So Long?

And where's Bruce Springsteen for song, from The Wrestler? Usually I complain about having to suffer through five nominated songs at each Oscar show, but did we really only have room for three this year?

I'm still scratching my head for the love shown The Reader.

Meanwhile, The Defamer offers up their own picks for Biggest Snubs, as well as a quiz.

But to remain positive for a moment, the actor nominations seem a fine lot and it's especially gratifying to see Robert Downey, Jr's bravura turn in Tropic Thunder (an American playing an Australian playing an African-American) get proper due.

The Foreign Language picks all seem a pretty reasonable lot, though one can't help but wonder why Waltz With Bashir couldn't have been nominated under animation, too, as Persepolis was a year ago?

More on IFC's Daily.

At any rate, Aaron Hillis will be following up here on Monday with a few more of his own thoughts on the nominations. Until then, just remember, it's The Oscars. -- craig phillips

Posted by cphillips at 9:55 AM | Comments (8)

January 21, 2009

SUNDANCE '09 REVIEW: In the Loop

In the Loop
In the Loop
Directed by Armando Iannucci
2008, 109 minutes, United Kingdom

A cynical, razor-sharp, truly laugh-out-loud farce about the symbiotic relationship between ineffectual, flip-flopping bureaucrats and the sneaky, petty spin doctors who need them, co-writer/director Armando Iannucci's loosely inspired expansion of his BBC comedy series The Thick of It values and cleverly parodies the power of language (vulgarity, doublespeak, jousting, meaningful ambiguity). A finger-on-the-button chain reaction begins with a single word as the British Minister for International Development (Tom Hollander) accidentally burbles to the media that war is "unforeseeable," much to the chagrin of the PM's foul-mouthed Director of Communications (Scottish scene-stealer Peter Capaldi, whose every insulting rant is a lightning rod for laughter), yet to the delight of those on the other side of the pond with their own pro- and anti-war agendas.

The ensemble of players are introduced when the information affects each personally -- among them a peacenik Pentagon general (James Gandolfini); his ex-lover, the US Assistant Secretary for Diplomacy (Mimi Kennedy); her ambitious aide (Anna Chlumsky); her old college friend, the aforementioned British minister's political advisor (Chris Addison); and the creator of a secret war committee (David Rasche) -- their transitory alliances, double-crosses, pointed media leaks and even sexcapades punctuated with snarky, under-the-breath swipes at one another. The one-liners come so fast and furiously that they won't mean much here out of context ("Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult" and "Like Bugsy Malone but with real guns" had me in stitches), but that's the brilliant and purposeful redirect of Iannucci's satire: while we strain to catch the marginal details and sort out the hierarchic squabbling, a war is being jointly planned by the US President and the UK Prime Minister right under everyone's noses. Dr. Strangelove would surely chuckle.

In the Loop premieres tomorrow night at Sundance (official page), and plays again on Jan. 23, 24 and 25. The film is currently undistributed in the U.S. IFC Films has picked up the film for U.S. theatrical distribution.

Posted by ahillis at 11:46 AM | Comments (7)

January 20, 2009

DVD of the Week: Frontrunners

Frontrunners
Frontrunners
Directed by Caroline Suh
2008, 82 minutes, in English
Oscilloscope Pictures

Watching the tears of joy stream down the two-million-plus cheeks in attendance of this morning's historical inauguration, my thoughts kept creeping back to Caroline Suh's largely vérité pop-doc Frontrunners, in which four NYC teenagers campaign in a student union presidential race where "race is a factor." President Obama may present the face of post-racial U.S. politics, but at the prestigious Stuyvesant High School, where the competition is so fierce that only the top 3% of its 25,000 applicants are accepted as students*, cultural diversity has long been an asset to winning the presidency. It's a known fact that over half the school's population is of Asian descent, so running mates are sometimes specifically chosen for not being Caucasian. Are the leaders of tomorrow being progressive or merely learning to pander at an early age? The prescience of Frontrunners may be the happy accident of being released in this transitional era, but watching how votes are drummed up by unpolished candidates -- each craftier than your average kid, but all still lacking the confidence and maturity of adulthood, especially on-camera -- the dynamics of electioneering have never seemed so briskly entertaining. (Especially when set to a hip indie soundtrack featuring Elf Power, The M's and Of Montreal. Nicely curated, Mr. Tully).

Frontrunners How important is the role of a student government? As the opening sequence answers, managing a $100,000 budget may be the biggest responsibility for one of these teenagers, so it's certainly more than planning proms. George -- an eccentric Max Fischer wannabe who speaks in five-dollar words and has his own curtained hallway lounge set up for meetings -- would like to re-invest said money, one of the few proposals ever mentioned. These are still kids, so their issues are typically less important than their past experience, debating proficiency, and of course, personality. If the portraiture is light (Mike is the cocky one, Hannah the over-ambitious Tracy Flick type who once co-starred in a Todd Solondz picture, and Alex the characterless underdog who his classmates mostly recognize for being tall), it's only because the Stuyvesant kids aren't voting on the leader of the Western world; the stakes are much lower in what could be seen as a popularity contest. That's the platform that the film runs on: whether one gains the support of the media (the school newspaper actually endorses someone; those poor fragile young egos!) or comes across as a slick-dick manipulator instead of a candidate of the people, every election still comes down to that one question: With whom would you rather drink a beer... er, Coca-Cola?

Stuyvesant High School* Stuyvesant is alma mater to four Nobel laureates, Oscar-winning director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, Obama's senior campaign manager David Axelrod, and the Beastie Boys' original drummer Kate Schellenbach (which might partly explain Oscilloscope's interest in the film).

Posted by ahillis at 1:29 PM

January 19, 2009

SUNDANCE '09 REVIEW: Bronson

Bronson
Bronson
Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn
2008, 92 minutes, United Kingdom

Ferraris are meant to accelerate from 0 to 60mph within seconds, not movies. But someone forgot to tell that to Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn (The Pusher Trilogy, Fear X) regarding this powerful and rigorously stylish tragicomedy, which builds to a primal scream during a bravura opening sequence (revamping Oldboy's one-man-army hallway scroll with mosh-pit intimacy), then maintains the intensity, with bleak humor and unexpected pathos, for an hour and a half. Based on the sensational milestones in the "career" of Britain's most violent prisoner, Charles Bronson (née Michael Gordon Peterson; named after the Death Wish star by a bareknuckle boxing promoter), the film breezes through the middle-class upbringing of a man who -- in 1974, at the age of 19 -- botched an armed robbery and was given seven years in the slammer, a sentence that has since been lengthened several times over based upon his penchant for starting prison fights and large-scale riots. In reality, he has lived 30 of the last 34 years in solitary confinement.

Bronson With his shaved head, impressively twirled moustache and barrel-chested swagger, British actor Tom Hardy (unrecognizably bulked up after roles in RockNRolla and Layer Cake) gives an extremely physical juggernaut of a performance as Bronson, looking like a 19th century circus strongman if not for that devilish, shit-eating grin. (For better or worse, Bronson is an even more entertaining screen sociopath than Eric Bana's Chopper.) The film's kneejerk comparison could be A Clockwork Orange meets All That Jazz, if the many Kubrickian tableaux, long fades, Wagner and Verdi soundtrack, and "bit of the ol' ultraviolence" justified the former. The latter comparison is entirely our anti-hero's doing: even behind bars, where most of the film takes place, Bronson escapes into a theater of his own self-mythologizing mind, directly addressing the camera and an auditorium full of people in burlesque stage makeup.

Bronson director Nicolas Winding Refn Though he's never killed anyone, he causes two-fisted trouble as a way to gain fame; he even sees himself as a comedian, and it's here that Refn's (and co-writer Brock Norman Brock's) script gets tricky. The deification of brutal acts from a disturbed man's point of view are compartmentalized with great detachment (since an audience certainly couldn't condone what he does), yet the film is bravely dedicated to portraying the events on Bronson's terms. When a team of guards haul him away overhead from his latest escapade, we're to see the exodus as exhilaration: this is like crowdsurfing to him! Not so much about the sickness of celebrity culture, the point of the film -- which I'm predicting now will have some critics seeing red -- is that Bronson is a troubled artist without a proper outlet to vent. This manifests in several ways, including actual illustration, as an art teacher in prison helps him to release some demons with paint instead of the blood of others. (The artwork in the film is actually the real Bronson's, some of which can be seen here.) When it's not nihilistically goofy (the mental-institution dance party is a hell of a left-field chuckle), it's a mighty tough film, both on its surface and in its over-the-top formalist ambitions. Without much contrast in the constantly visceral, throttling experience before the closing credits finally allow us to breathe normally again, it's bound to become as Bronson believes himself to be: misunderstood.

Bronson premieres tonight at Sundance (official page), and plays again on Jan. 21, 22 and 24. For more info, click here.

January 17, 2009

WEEKEND BRIEF: "Deadline: Noir City"

Slightly Scarlet A quick tip for you Bay City rollers: Beginning next Friday, The Castro Theatre will be hosting the 7th Annual edition of the San Francisco Film Noir Festival (Jan. 23 – Feb. 1), and programmers Eddie Muller and Anita Monga have cooked up a nifty way to tie the twenty-something titles together:

"The theme of this year's festival is Newspaper Noir, with many of the films set in the world of newspapers, or, in some cases, publishing or radio. Come see how mid-20th-century media stack up against today's fourth estate."

Former MGM contract star Arlene Dahl (the Rheingold Beer Girl of 1946!) will grace the fest with a special appearance between screenings of two back-to-back films she made in 1956, Slightly Scarlet and Wicked as They Come. Of the films scheduled, 16 aren't even available on DVD, so you officially have no excuse not to go. Unless you don't live in SF, which I don't. Argh.

For tickets and schedule, visit www.noircity.com.

Posted by ahillis at 1:19 PM | Comments (3)

January 16, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Ad Lib Night

Ad Lib Night

Ad Lib Night (Aju teukbyeolhan sonnim)
Directed by Lee Yoon-ki
2006, 99 minutes, In Korean with English subtitles

Trying to stay a hop ahead of the cultural curve, my Friday column has been designated for shiny new releases or retrospectives each week, but considering my best options were a humdrum biopic on Biggie Smalls, a 3-D remake of an '80s slasher flick (don't get me wrong, I'll see this year's Snakes on a Plane, but how commendable could it possibly be?), and a shallow Ozu homage from Germany, I've decided to dip into the GreenCine DVD catalog and pull out a recent-ish, little-seen gem that is NOT AVAILABLE ON NETFLIX. Film of the Week, case closed.

Ad Lib NightOne of my favorite if overused descriptors of a film is "deceptively simple," that skilled maximizing of minimalism that unfortunately makes novice filmmakers with arty inclinations believe profundity can be mined from barely anything happening. There's definitely a richness to the third austere feature from South Korean filmmaker Lee Yoon-ki (This Charming Girl, Love Talk), which begins with a modest premise. On the streets of Seoul, two young men from a tiny village stop an attractive twenty-something girl (Han Hyo-ju), whom they've been searching for based on rumors of her whereabouts. Her name is Myungeun, or so they believe, and their quest is to bring her back home (for the first time since leaving in junior high) to see her father before he passes away from terminal cancer. Stone-faced and cagey, she aloofly denies that she's the girl they remember, but agrees out of their desperation to at least pose as the long-estranged Myungeun so that a dying man can reconnect with his "daughter" one last time. There's money in the deal, and she doesn't seem to want to meet up with the stranger who keeps text-messaging her anyway.

Ad Lib NightBased on a novel by Japanese author Azuko Taira (as is Lee's next film, My Dear Enemy, which premieres at the Berlinale next month), the story travels back to the house where every living friend and family member has holed up for the night by the morphine-blurry man's deathbed, all eating and getting drunk and poking into each other's business with raised voices. There's talk of an inheritance, the consequent feelings of greed and shame quickly blurted out as points of contention, and squabbling hierarchies become clear between the generations, even as others entirely internalize their feelings. "Myungeun" especially seems affected by her role here, and whether her melancholy stems from the regret of disappearing so many years ago (if she really is her) or because she has cathartically connected with this girl she's meant to be -- assimilated not just into a family but a history of family remembrances -- we clearly understand at the same time she does that this clan has only thin, empty-hearted strands connecting them to one another.

Ad Lib NightMany dysfunctional-fam tales play off the idea that you don't have to like 'em, so long that you love 'em, but here, the more honest reflection is that pettiness and selfishness can be stronger than familial bonds. This mysterious girl serves as our way into the overlapping dramas, but her participation is less significant to the narrative beyond the drive to the village and the one back to Seoul. Both of these sequences last about 10 minutes each; the former trip builds on the moral dilemma of whether the proxy-daughter ruse is justified, while the latter reveals a quietly affecting window into her personality and how the experience has forever shaped her. Shooting in a combination of static medium shots (usually portraying the girl's voyeuristic detachment) and far more handheld close-ups (big dramas in intimate spaces), neither of which drawing attention away from the emotional wallops wrought from a single pressure-cooked location, Ad Lib Night has a fly-on-the-wall immediacy that just seems, well, deceptively simple.

Ad Lib Night is available for rent from GreenCine. For earlier appraisals of the film, click here and here.

Posted by ahillis at 2:22 PM | Comments (6)

January 15, 2009

SUNDANCE '09 PODCAST: Ry Russo-Young and Stella Schnabel

Stella Schnabel, Ry Russo-Young YOU WONT MISS ME star Stella Schnabel, and director Ry Russo-Young

The 2009 Sundance Film Festival opens tonight in Park City, and while GreenCine Daily won't be representing in person -- like many others, which is apparently worth noting? -- I'll still be covering potential break-out films (with many thanks to the generous filmmakers and PR companies who helped get my peepers on these flicks from thousands of miles away). Beginning now, and carrying on next Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, check back for podcast interviews and spotlight reviews.

First up? A chat with writer/director Ry-Russo Young (Orphans, Marion) and co-writer/star Stella Schnabel, the creative force behind You Wont Miss Me, premiering in the New Frontier Features section. In Schnabel's first-ever interview about her first-ever screen role, she and Russo-Young and I discuss their collaborative improvisation, the pros and cons of having a famous dad in the biz, the terror of love, and the film itself, which Russo-Young describes as such:

A kaleidoscopic film portrait of Shelly Brown, a twenty-three-year-old alienated urban misfit recently released from a psychiatric hospital. Starring Stella Schnabel, featuring Rene Ricard and introducing other notable New York personalities, the film gives pathos to the frenzy of the youthful desire for acceptance.

Shot in a variety of styles and formats, YOU WONT MISS ME mixes non-actors with professionals, verité with staging, order with abstraction, to paint an evocative picture of a contemporary rebel.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

You Won't Miss Me screens at Sundance on January 16, 17, 18 and 22. For more info on the film, visit its festival page or Ry Russo-Young's official website.

Posted by ahillis at 5:10 PM | Comments (5)

January 14, 2009

The Revolution Will Not Be YouTubed

A moment of silence before we begin for the late, great No. 6. The L.A. Times has a thorough obit on Patrick McGoohan, who was 80, and Glenn Kenny supplements with a fine remembrance.

. . .

YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee

Some profoundly discouraging news from Matt Zoller Seitz that affects any of us who care about the future of film criticism:

"When the history of intellectual property law is written, January 12, 2009 should be marked as a decisive moment. It was the day that my friend, fellow House Next Door contributor and sometime filmmaking partner Kevin B. Lee saw his entire archive of critical video essays deleted by YouTube on grounds that his work violated copyright."

Kevin B. Lee, post-NYFF '08 Closing Night I mentioned Lee in my New Year's Day introduction as not just a link of interest (nor if I may name-drop, as a pal), but as an inspiration for the direction I'd like to see the art of film discourse taken. His ambitious "Shooting Down Pictures" project, to watch and share his contemplations on the 1,000 Greatest Films (as voted upon by 1,825 "critics, filmmakers, reviewers, scholars and other likely film types," according to They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?). Lee writes about each film as a separate post on his site, but his most fertile and innovative entries have been those which incorporate narrated video essays, an appropriate tool to illustrate and contextualize his thoughts on a medium of sights and sounds. His pieces were accompanied by thoughtful commentators like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Richard Brody, Mike D'Angelo and Seitz -- who was so inspired by the work that he gave up his New York Times writing gig to focus on filmmaking full-time. Do you see the importance here yet? Seitz further spells out the difference between what he calls "criticism pre- and post-millenium":

"Can a critic argue without clips? Sure. Film criticism has largely done without external accompaniments for a century and can continue to do without them. But it's important to note that clips and still frames have been a central part of cinema studies since its inception. Anyone who's attended a film history or theory course knows how valuable they are. Clips often determine the difference between learning something and truly understanding it. They're quotes from the source text deployed to make a case. Take them away, and you're left with the critic saying, 'Well, I can't show you exactly what I mean, so I'll describe it as best I can and hope you believe me.'"

...And God Created Woman Thanks to a three-strikes clause on YouTube, some 40 original video essays of Lee's have been indefensibly expunged for copyright infringement, even when full-length films exist online freely. (Lee never posted more than individual shots or clips, and with voiceover; it's hardly bootlegging.) YouTube may have been acting fairly within their guidelines, but they weren't using any clear-headed, case-by-case reasoning beyond their blanket rules of infringement, which means the simple answer to Lee's issues maybe simple be in finding a dedicated server to host his pieces.

As for the actual infringement (which I realize treads toward discussion of mash-up and remix artists who build something new from other people's copyrighted works), was it actually a trolling studio lawyer who blew the whistle, or merely a skittish YouTube? If the former, wouldn't Lee's work entice people to seek out the films he compassionately dissects and makes relevant to new audiences, thereby potentially making the copyright holders more profitable? And why should distributors, to quote Seitz one last time with feeling, "[be] permitted to dictate the terms under which their products can be quoted, interpreted, parodied, examined or otherwise discuss"? With the complications of technology moving faster than laws can be written and passed, is the First Amendment in danger of losing its power when a newly digitized angle of artistic exploration is only just dawning?

In an email to Karina Longworth at Spout, Lee wrote: "I'll miss not only the unparalleled audience reach, but the cool stats that YouTube had to offer (like learning that viewers would rewind repeatedly to watch Bardot's bare ass in my video essay for ...And God Created Woman)... But that's nothing compared to having the right to share my work in the first place."

The Conversation: What's the alternative for Lee to reach a mass audience, given that YouTube is still the biggest game in town? What can be done to shield artists and next-generation critics?

Posted by ahillis at 2:28 PM | Comments (6)

January 13, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Tokyo Gore Police

Tokyo Gore Police

Tokyo Gore Police (Tôkyô zankoku keisatsu)
Directed by Yoshihiro Nishimura
2008, 110 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles

"She is the only actress in the world who can look so beautiful just standing in the midst of a gushing spray of blood."
- Yoshihiro Nishimura, discussing Eihi Shiina

Yes, Criterion put out a slew of new Rossellini DVDs this week, but having survived a banal '80s suburban upbringing thanks to crusty, dusty VHS tapes of Evil Dead 2, Videodrome, Tetsuo: The Iron Man and Robocop (years before I saw my first Rossellini), it would be on my conscience if I didn't back this midnight mayhem with shameless, grinning aplomb. Mining the aforementioned cult classics for their biological degeneracy, sick wit and over-the-top social satire, Yoshihiro Nishimura's gonzo action-horror mutant is the cinematic equivalent of a Gwar concert, a vicious black comedy dressed in latex and spurting rivers of fake blood. It's about as inventive and savvy as low culture gets; whether you interpret that as a compliment or a backhanded thwack should pretty much dictate if your curiosity will be piqued.

Tokyo Gore Police An effects guru-turned-filmmaker, Nishimura (whose production design and F/X work can be seen in Suicide Club, Machine Girl and Strange Circus) could be described as Japan's answer to Tom Savini: what he lacks as a director of limited abilities, he makes up for in envelope-pushing visual flamboyance. The stage is near-future Tokyo, where the police force has been privatized, and therefore free to interpret and enforce the law with ultraviolent retribution, even engaging in public executions when seen fit. (Throughout the film, ubiquitous commercials promote how mowing down murderers with machine guns in broad daylight "will lead to more plentiful lives for us," at least when the TV isn't advertising suicide pills and wristcutters "with a cute design" for teen girls.) Mentally perturbed officer Ruka (former Benetton model-turned-actress Eihi Shiina, the quiet psycho from Audition, with little to do beyond posing manga-pretty), who joined the force after seeing her father's head literally explode, wears a skimpy schoolgirl uniform and carries a samurai sword to fight crime. She's a hunter of "engineers," a mad scientist-led string of criminals with key-shaped tumors in their bodies, all of whom share a genetic defect that grows icky, organic weapons wherever they become wounded.

Tokyo Gore PoliceIf inebriated enough, you won't notice that the film is perfunctorily directed to showcase the effects and production design, with too many dutch angles, slo-mo tableau shots and a projectile-cam directly ripped off from Sam Raimi, all bathed in neon pastels. Regardless, Nishimura maintains a propulsive momentum that doesn't give your jaw enough time to raise before it's dropping again with oh-my-god-I-thought-I-had-seen-it-all befuddlement: acid lactations, skin that flays open like double doors when a key is inserted, a gatling gun that fires human fists for bullets, S&M paraplegics who walk on swords for limbs, a prostitute with crocodile chompers for legs -- and in the most grotesque display of reimagined, objectified, Cronenbergian new flesh yet committed to film -- a living, breathing, urinating, IV-fed chair made from a woman's torso, the center of attraction at the most depraved fetish club ever conceived. Nishimura claims to have been inspired as a child by Salvador Dalí's distorted figures, and though his queasy fantasies are indeed the stuff of fanboy titillation, more adventurous cinephiles can still admire his unique artistry.

Posted by ahillis at 9:56 AM | Comments (8)

January 12, 2009

In the Realm of the 66th Golden Globes

Steven Spielberg, JAWSClick here for the lowdown on last night's Golden Globe winners, and then read on for some kneejerk thoughts that struck me while fast-forwarding through most of the show (bless you, my DVR), especially the TV-award segments:

  • Steven Spielberg. Humility is not an essential trait, but the 62-year-old blockbusterian came off unexpectedly pompous during his acceptance speech for the Cecil B. DeMille lifetime achievement award. In recalling the story of how DeMille's The Greatest Show on Earth inspired his desire to recreate and film the climactic train crash with his own model set (and thus, launching his love for moviemaking), he said: "I think what was on my mind when I was risking losing my Lionel train set was me thinking, 'Am I going to get away with this?' That anxiety has been haunting me throughout my entire movie career. Whenever I've tried to tell a risky story, whether it's about sharks or dinosaurs or about aliens or about history, I'll always be thinking, 'Am I going to get away with this?'" My question is, and I say this having admired and enjoyed plenty of his output (A.I., Jaws, Duel, Raiders of the Lost Ark), could Spielberg really be called a risky storyteller? As a sensational craftsman alone he deserves the DeMille honor, but has Hollywood's most sacred cow really been "inventing and reinventing cinema with each new picture" as his peer and pal Martin Scorsese claims he has for 40 years? Perhaps it's a silly question on a night of hyperbolic back-patting.

  • Heath Ledger. Even plenty of The Dark Knight's detractors have applauded the late Aussie actor for his menacing command of the screen as The Joker, and I happily hailed him my favorite supporting performance of 2008. Nevertheless, considering that these televised showcases serve little purpose other than the commercial gain of their trophy recipients (higher-profile projects, salary boosts, Hollywood influence, et al.), should posthumous awards be given out at all? This is a loaded analogy, but if we don't allow the deceased on political ballots, isn't Ledger's award a bit moot in the practical sense of judging performers like show dogs?

    Mickey Rourke, THE WRESTLER

  • The Hollywood Foreign Press Association. Why do people who watch this show (presumably, like me, for the guilty pleasure of observing drunken celebs behaving badly) generally believe this jury of journalists acts as Amazing Kreskin to the likely nominees and winners of Academy Awards? It's entirely subjective, man! There's also an inherit cronyism in the HFPA bylaws, which could be homogenizing the group's taste to a degree: all applying members must be sponsored by two active members to join the club. Isn't it human to befriend people with somewhat overlapping worldviews? All I'm saying is, don't expect Mickey Rourke to handily win an Oscar, nor Kate Winslet two of them.

  • Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Woody Allen's latest won the always bafflingly inclusive "Best Comedy or Musical" category, and while I have nothing further to add here, it's a perfect excuse to point to Allen's hilarious set diary in The Guardian, which is heaps more entertaining than any single moment in last night's awards show.

Posted by ahillis at 5:30 AM | Comments (34)

January 10, 2009

WEEKEND BRIEF: "I'll go out and bite a dog."

Ace in the HoleDavid Hudson collects links and comments on a trio of depressing news items concerning print journalism's further ebbing: LA Weekly's Ella Taylor (and others) have been laid off, Hearst Corp. is selling off the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or might just fold it altogether, the Chicago Sun-Times could possibly outsource editorial tasks to compensate for 25 to 30 new layoffs, and my tummy hurts. (Wait, sorry, I actually broke that last story.)

There's not a whole lot to add that wouldn't be stating the obvious about this mutating socioeconomic landscape, but in trying to keep a game face and pushing forth in such dire times, it's bizarre to think that only shameless opportunists like Chuck Tatum might survive in this industry, like cockroaches after world war. Watch a clip:

Posted by ahillis at 2:42 PM | Comments (2)

January 9, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Just Another Love Story

Just Another Love Story
Just Another Love Story (Kærlighed på film)
Directed by Ole Bornedal
2007, 100 minutes, In Danish with English subtitles

There he lies, schlubby Danish everyman Jonas (Anders W. Berthelsen), dying in the rain and lamenting in voiceover. Writer-director Ole Bornedal (Nightwatch, and its U.S. remake) didn't need such a blatantly self-mocking title to spell out that his downbeat romantic thriller is obviously not just that, nor did he need a character to underline the irony: "Beautiful women and a mystery. Isn't that how any film noir starts?" Yes, it does, and that's how -- in a convoluted but coolly unfurled series of machinations -- our self-consciously unremarkable hero wound up a chalk outline in the opening shot.

Just Another Love Story Jonas embodies the restlessness of the middle-aged status quo: a father of two, with a long-suffering wife who nags about the broken things they need to upgrade, and a job as a crime photographer that would seem more fascinating if he didn't secretly want to shoot landscapes instead of bloody victims. The shake-up comes when his rattletrap of a car breaks down (listen to your wife, buddy!) and indirectly causes frazzled driver Julia (Rebecka Hemse) to crash, leaving her in a coma. Compelled to visit the hospitalized beauty, Jonas inadvertently meets Julia's wealthy family and somehow winds up in a lie about being her new boyfriend Sebastian, whom nobody has met. By the time he strikes up the courage to admit he's an imposter, the fam refuses to believe, writes him a blank check, and convinces him that only his love and support can save Julia. Lo and behold, it does, and with Julia's conveniently blind, amnesiac rise out of bed comes Jonas' own awakening: an appetite for romance and adventurous whims, and a reckless dual life of adultery with this gorgeous heiress, a bona fide femme fatale. Why was she in Hanoi? What's in that suitcase of hers? Who was she running from? (Somewhere in the distance, a Bernard Herrmann score cues up.)

Just Another Love StoryBut the most pressing question remains: what happened to the real Sebastian (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), a sleazy brute who is thought to have been murdered (as Jonas' work buddy investigates via police channels)? Bornedal plays out the tropes with sporadic but bombastic classical-music flourishes and in elaborately lurid camera angles, entertainingly structured with flashbacks, flash-forwards, and flashes of memory (digital superimpositions behind characters' heads to illustrate their thoughts). There will be those who believe the film is "just another" revisionist exercise in genre style over dramatic substance, but considered as a cautionary tale of over-the-hill despair and the extreme consequences of not being able to stop oneself from engaging in impulsive, irresponsible affairs, it's a richer success. Jonas wouldn't have wound up in that rainy predicament if he had simply invested in a new bomber jacket, or maybe a penis-extending sports car -- which would've at least made his wife happy.

Just Another Love Story opens today at NYC's Cinema Village. For showtimes and more info, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 10:54 AM

January 8, 2009

PODCAST: Made in U.S.A

Made in U.S.A "Made in USA is the fusion in my mind of three different things: I wanted to oblige a friend, to tackle the Americanization of French life, and to do something with the Ben Barka affair."
- Jean-Luc Godard, in a 1966 interview

"The chance to see Made in U.S.A on the big screen provides an opportunity to rescue movie art and revive film enthusiasm. Cinephilia shouldn't just be the province of comic-book and videogame consumer culture -- or elitists. Godard’s lesser-known films point the way past genre conventions and into the modern soul."
- Armond White, NEW YORK PRESS

Screened once at the 1967 New York Film Festival and never shown on TV, video or DVD, Godard's conspiratorial Pop Art quasi-adaption of the late Donald Westlake's potboiler "The Jugger" (and his last film ever with ex-wife and long-time muse Anna Karina) will be presented in a dazzling new 35mm print for its official U.S. premiere at NYC's Film Forum (January 9 - 22). In honor of this rare Rialto Pictures event, New York Press critic Armond White chatted with me this morning about why this lesser-known work should make an impact.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Then: Armond's review of the film is printed in this week's New York Press, and IFC's The Daily has more related links.

Posted by ahillis at 10:20 AM | Comments (19)

January 7, 2009

Spouting Off on Distribution

Spout: Promote Your Film I regularly joke that you have to be some sort of masochist to want to be a filmmaker, and in a corroding economic climate like ours, anyone with a finished feature they're trying to peddle in the marketplace may as well kneel down and lash themselves with their own work print. With so many mini-majors folding, little money for advances to go around, more movies and less outlets to screen them, the odds are certainly stacked against the indie auteurs. And yet, as someone who has viewed the current commercial landscape through the eyes of both a filmmaker and distributor, I remain inspired that the creativity being put into alternative models and workarounds (at least until the real digital revolution hits us: a fast, cheap, accessible, HD quality one-stop shop for downloadable content in our living rooms, which is getting pretty damn close) may usher in Obama-style hope that we can hang on to. Until then, the other half of my lizard brain is skeptical that there are too many alternatives, making it difficult for viewers/filmmakers who can't keep up with what's available and valuable at any given time.

In a press release unveiled today, film news and discussion site Spout.com announced a partnership with MeDeploy.com to "offer independent filmmakers the opportunity to both connect with an audience and... allow that audience to purchase and download the filmmaker's movie directly" from the website. Spout has re-launched its Promote Your Film page so that budding Soderberghs and Cassaveteses (I really want to put one more "es" at the end of that) post their films in the Spout database, and there you have it: one more outlet in a confusing sea of many. Is it just finding the audience that's the problem, or is there still an invisible Rosetta stone out there that can bridge filmmaking debt to success and even profitability?

Iron Man vs. The Pleasure of Being RobbedSpout COO Bill Holsinger-Robinson himself says an important line in the release: "The Internet increasingly allows for a flat distribution playing field and for like-minded people to connect around mutual interests in communities of their own design." His angle is that the partnership will take advantage of both of these, and I suppose it could in theory, but I read "flat distribution playing field" as a half-empty glass, not as a pessimist but as a realist. I believe it's far harder to stand apart with hierarchies squashed and everyone standing on the same starting line, and so the question is really whether the availability of distribution outlets is the problem, so much as money (how to make it) and marketing (how to be unique enough to make said money). Not that commercialism should be the ultimate end goal for any passionate cinema scientist, but we all need to eat, right? I'd love film financiers to weigh in on this, because personally, I see parallels in the film industry to the wiping-out of the middle class, in which what might be left standing in this recession is a spectrum of extremes: Iron Man vs. DIY shoestring-budgeters, with very little in between.

The Conversation: Am I wrong?

Posted by ahillis at 8:53 AM | Comments (8)

January 6, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Ping Pong Playa

Ping Pong Playa

Ping Pong Playa
Directed by Jessica Yu
2007, 96 minutes, English

"We flavored the script with details from our own lives: the dad who sings Chinese opera while frying the breakfast Spam (mine), the grown man taking lessons at a Chinese school class of kids (Jimmy), the parent who insists everything was invented by the Chinese (all of us)."
- co-writer and director Jessica Yu

Underrated at the time of its release last fall, the first narrative film from erudite documentarian Jessica Yu (In the Realms of the Unreal, Protagonist) couldn't have been a more unexpected project: a squeaky clean sports comedy that self-mockingly riffs on Chinese-American culture by way of hip-hop.

Ping Pong PlayaDiscovered by Yu as an employee for the production company who helped fund her In the Realms of the Unreal, newcomer and co-writer Jimmy Tsai stars as Christopher "C-dub" Wang, a character so bad-mannered that his very existence in a cultural-experience story marks him, and the film, post-racial. (Hooray, it's about time that Chinese-Americans are allowed to have less than warm, thoughtful, hard-working heroes!) He's an emotionally stunted California slacker with a mall-kiosk job, pipe dreams of being a pro baller, and an affected jive bravado ("What up, my ninja?") that overcompensates for his insecurity of being overshadowed by his older brother -- a successful doctor and ping-pong tourney champ. Oversensitive to racial stereotypes (one of his t-shirts reads "I speak English"), C-dub plays cultural martyr while the rest of his suburban family has comfortably assimilated; when his mother is injured in a car accident, he's quick to pick a fight with the doctor whom he incorrectly presumes has implied that Chinese people can't drive well. He's also a shit talker, but you wouldn't hear anyone use that phrase because every expletive in the film has been cleverly masked by the sound of a basketball or ping-pong ball bouncing. It's refreshing to see a PG-13 comedy that isn't sickly sweet.

Ping Pong Playa With his mom out of commission, C-dub is coerced to take over her ping pong classes, and just as in The Foot Fist Way or most Will Ferrell sports movies, he abuses the opportunity to prove he's superior to a gaggle of little kids, then hustles them for money. The token love interest is the older sister of the most outspoken pipsqueak (and C-dub's most gushing fan), and the villains are a preppie master-and-valet duo who have been allowed to use the space to practice on the table-tops; can you almost smell the grand finale competition as all the Golden Cock tournament posters foreshadow?

Ping Pong Playa But if the premise itself is thin, even predictable (which is perhaps why so many have unfairly dismissed it), Yu has proven before that she has a bright visual élan and a lively wit, and she's fully aware that the quirky misfit behavior and family-friendly demeanor are not breaking ground. ("Unless you want to be the Chinese Napoleon Dynamite, get out of ping pong," C-dub name-checks.) The comedy's in the details, and they do breeze by nimbly: not the overly familiar training montages, but the subverting of stereotypes (C-dub's best friend is an African-American who just happens to be learning Chinese, and most every Caucasian character mispronounces Wang wong... er, wrong. One woman actually says "Me lovey ping pong long time" without a hint of self-awareness). Though its silly title and box art might be a turn off, Ping Pong Playa is smarter and far more entertaining than its comic brethren.

Posted by ahillis at 10:15 AM | Comments (5)

January 5, 2009

Based on a True... Nevermind

Che In the NY Times' Awards Season package, Dennis Lim's "Screenwriting Drafts of History" takes a look at the screenplays behind three political biopics: Milk, W. and Che. (Click each title for excerpts.) In profiling the writers behind these works -- Dustin Lance Black, Peter Buchman and Stanley Weister, respectively -- Lim touches on an issue that comes to my mind when sitting down with biopics of every flavor: "[E]ach went through a similar gantlet of intensive research but often arrived at different solutions when it came to the conundrums of biography: how to get at the private truth beneath the public person and how to reconcile the conflicting roles of fact checker and myth maker."

Of the three films, Milk may be the most standardized biopic (the inspirational underdog canonization), but for me, it's also the most accurate staging of the specific man its screenplay chooses to portray, given that (a) the demeanor and decade of Harvey Milk's life presented in the film were already meticulously detailed in Rob Epstein's remarkable, Oscar-winning doc The Times of Harvey Milk, a source for the film; (b) Milk was surrounded by great friends and colleagues who helped piece together the events for Black, even if all first-hand memories can play tricks on the truth; (c) the film concentrates far more on Milk's public persona and doings than his relationships behind closed doors. This isn't to say that events aren't fully dramatized and dialogue concocted (this is a movie, after all), but that the framing device of Milk nakedly expressing his philosophies while creating his will was literally tape recorded, there's perhaps less revisionism necessary in the recreation.

Che is also built on remembrances from family, friends and others who witnessed the upheavals in Cuba and Bolivia (as well as Che Guevara's diaries, which colored it an adapted screenplay in the Academy's eyes). But while it would be silly to gauge how much hazier the memories are from events that happened two decades prior to Milk's San Francisco years, the film also doesn't pretend to get under the revolutionary's skin. It's an ambitious formalist exercise in portraying guerilla warfare, not the humanizing of an icon that its poster campaign markets. For the film's sake, though, that's probably for the best, since there are plenty of controversial, bigoted aspects to Guevara's character that would need to be included if it were meant as a well-rounded portrait.

I won't even discuss W. much because I feel it's a missed opportunity on several fronts, and cramming a greatest-hits timeline of Dubya's screw-ups into a neatly ribbon-tied drama of daddy issues (invented dream sequence and all) renders it an ineffectual film that will likely fall through the cracks of time. It's a diverting enough dramedy (I laughed a bit), but it's mostly fascinating for some inspired casting choices and its timeliness to a sitting U.S. President. To Buchman's and Stone's credit, much like United 93, I don't think there's much potential for even an incendiary topic (in this case, the Bush presidency, not just the man) without some clarity of hindsight.

Lim covers some of this and more, but what interests me is the process of trying to portray real people played by other people, re-written by other people, filmed in other times. I mean, as entertaining as Man on the Moon was, did anyone glean anything new about Andy Kaufman? Should an imagined, quasi-biopic like Last Days be a more practiced standard? Why was Disney's Pocahontas considered more controversial than W., given that the latter is the one who is still alive (and in a position of power)? Should the fact that Howard Stern played himself in Private Parts have started a more honest trend?

More Questions for the Day:
1. Is timeliness to history more or less important than hindsight, when the memories are cloudier and the documentation less accessible?
2. Art is art, and there are no rules, but how much responsibility should screenwriters take to craft biopics as unbiased, warts-and-all portraits?
3. Is it fair to begin any film with the words "Based on (or even 'inspired by') a true story"?

Posted by ahillis at 9:25 AM | Comments (7)

January 3, 2009

WEEKEND BRIEF: 2008 in Rigor Mortis

Let the Right One In / Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains

Over at the main site, the team has compiled their final year-end tallies with two last Top 10 lists (we promise!). GreenCine renaissance man Craig Phillips' Best of 2008 would make Nigel Tufnel proud (it goes up to 11), with Let the Right One In taking top honors. Then, Erin Donovan details the year's Best Movies About Women, including a personal favorite of mine that received its long-overdue DVD release: Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains. For more GreenCine lists, including the best docs, B-movies, and gay DVDs of 2008, click here.

Question for the Weekend: Each year, somebody inevitably complains about there being a glut of Top 10 lists, or that nobody cares except for those of us making them. Is it important to chronicle the best films at the end of each calendar year, and is there a better model to do so than an arbitrarily numbered list?

Posted by ahillis at 7:51 AM | Comments (8)

January 2, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Cargo 200

Cargo 200

Cargo 200 (Gruz 200)
Directed by Alexey Balabanov
2007, 90 minutes, Russian with English subtitles

"I show what filth we live in. Society was sick from 1917 onwards."
- Alexey Balabanov, in a 2007 Wall Street Journal interview

Cargo 200Some have suggested Balabanov's admirably rigorous (if unsparingly fiendish) sociopolitical button-pusher to be a black comedy, which is unusual for a film whose grimy wasteland setpieces and tense grindhouse climax fit snugly between The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and The Last House on the Left; if and when there are laughs, they're decidedly the nervous kind. Set in the USSR during the back half of 1984 (and allegedly based on a true story), Cargo 200 takes its title from the shipping code for military corpses from the Afghan front, endless crates of which are frequently seen taking the train home. A single shot unsubtly but ably illustrates the title's intent: not moments after a plane is unloaded with said freight, a new battalion of soldiers marches onboard to become next week's vain sacrifices.

Cargo 200En route to Leninsk, a Scientific Atheism professor breaks down on the road, and seeks refuge at a remote rural shack run by seedy moonshiners. (Cue the audience screaming at the screen: "Don't go in there!"). While a pitiable Vietnamese employee repairs the car, the brutish proprietor inside engages drunkenly and belligerently with his guest about the existence of God, and blames the professor's godless Communist party for the nation's deterioration. The bootlegger's tightly wound antagonism is a suspenseful tease, as it's not until a discotheque-loving hipster drags his fiancée's girlfriend here to buy grain alcohol that the dominoes of depravity begin to fall: police corruption, kidnapping, torture, rape, murder -- and in a nauseatingly bravura finale, a tiny bedroom to house each of these sins at once. If I'm vague about the chain reactions, it's because it's crucial to let the events smack you in the face as they unfold, though Alexey Serebryakov's wonderfully self-possessed performance as the sinister police captain Zhurov (loosely based on Russian serial killer Gennady Mikhasevich, but looking mighty Putin-esque) can be singled out now before his icy deadpan stare haunts your dreams.

Cargo 200The film's exquisite production design re-paints the era in the muted neutral shades of industrial dilapidation, even if these production photos might suggest otherwise. The framings are beautifully spacious, but the decaying textures evoke without being romanticized or even drawing undue attention to themselves; they're merely the appropriate milieu for a story of human ugliness. Scarier than a psychodrama, but too restrained in its methodology to be called a horror flick, Cargo 200 doesn't try to titillate with shock value, and the references in the margins (aloof capitalists, ideological hypocrisy, police righting one wrong with a greater wrong, yawning ambivalence towards everyday atrocity, et al.) make all the difference. Balabanov rubs our noses in how I believe he truly sees his homeland's history, pronouncing him more a cerebral provocateur like Michael Haneke than a damaged fetishist like Eli Roth.

Cargo 200 opens today at NYC's Cinema Village. For more info, click here.

And for further reading, check out Vadim Rizov's interview with Balabanov over at the Spoutblog.

Posted by ahillis at 9:25 AM | Comments (6)

January 1, 2009

PODCAST: 2009 Resolutions for Film Criticism

Arthur Alternatively: "I resolve my film criticism to be nicer to people and lose 15 pounds."

Celebrating the end of an exhausting year and ringing in the new, I had a wonderful chat over cocktails with Time Out New York critics David Fear and Joshua Rothkopf, plus The House Next Door founder-turned-filmmaker Matt Zoller Seitz. Standing outside the Brooklyn Inn, the subject of our tipsy "pubcast" was the future of film criticism; specifically, what we all would like to see and do to elevate and spread it in 2009. These cats are sharp, so consider it a group-think addendum to the goals laid out in my introductory post.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 10:49 AM | Comments (9)

What'choo Talkin' Bout, Hillis?

Goodbye Dragon Inn

Happy new year, everyone. As my terrific friend David Hudson moseys on down to IFC.com to continue fighting the good fight with The Daily, the baton has been handed off here to yours truly. Thanks to David, the accommodating good folks at GreenCine, and especially to all of you for sticking around to see what evolves. It may be a bumpy ride until I learn how to drive this behemoth, but if you promise to be patient, I promise it'll be worth your dwindling attention span.

The world is collapsing in on itself! Arts journalism is dead, and so is cinephilia! In a wintry climate like this -- and I'm not talking about the weather, although seriously, what were those poor fools thinking by standing around in Times Square on an excruciatingly frostbitten night like last? -- there has been so much chatter (again: not just our teeth) about whether film criticism matters. I passionately believe it does, and with GreenCine Daily 2.0 or whatever you'd like to call the post-Hudson era, I intend to find a tone and platform that not only proves it matters, but encourages curiosity, discourse, and awakens new cineastes. Just as Sean Penn channeled Harvey Milk, my name is Aaron Hillis and I'm here to recruit you.

As a New York-based critic, I do bring something different to the table than David Hudson. GreenCine Daily won't be the large-scale news aggregate that it was yesterday (a full-time job for David), and it would be imprudent to attempt what he does on what's now a part-time shift. Also, as I myself still freelance for IFC.com, it would be unfair to myself, David, and you to become a direct competitor, rather than a complementary site with its own branded merits. You don't have to click the criticism link above to realize we're all scooping out water from the same sinking ship, but I'm optimistic that we can nurture and save our mutual appreciation for cinema from ghettoization and homogenization.

So how will this site change? I think it begins with my personal voice. The interwebs allow any yahoo with an opinion to rant about anything and everything, but I believe it's important to be both progressive and pragmatic (two of my favorite words, as you'll learn). Both as a writer and as vice-president of the indie film label Benten Films, I've championed films that I felt might otherwise fall through the cracks, and thus my role here will be curatorial. Currently and quite sadly, marketing dollars are becoming more powerful than the collective voice of art and culture critics worldwide, and I've noticed some ugly trends that clearly aren't helping the cause. Some writers pander cynically with mean-spirited snark and tabloid sensationalism to attract readers, while others get high-and-mighty on their academic soapboxes, sniffing at anyone who has even remotely populist tastes.

Profit motive and the whispering wind I'm of the old chestnut about attracting more flies with honey than vinegar, and though my own tastes are perhaps eclectic, I'm too much of an old-school hippie (minus the smelly armpits) to want any of that inaccessible from the masses. Isn't the "death of film criticism" argument about nobody caring anymore? Perhaps that's because very few are trying to bridge the extremes of the cultural spectrum, and even the so-called gatekeepers and tastemakers are too busy feeling threatened about their words no longer carrying weight to try to remedy the situation. I personally believe The Dark Knight deserved to be as thoroughly dissected and written about as Profit motive and the whispering wind, even if the latter is a tiny little gem that needed the attention more. It's an oversaturated world, and it's impossible to keep up, but there's no reason to alienate those willing to learn, absorb and contribute to the conversation. What's sorely lacking from the film blogosphere is this attempt to expand our base.

Anyway, before I tear off on a rant like one of those aforementioned yahoos, let me give an analogy that might bring my point in clearer focus: A few years ago, I ran a Brooklyn video store and made it more profitable than it had been in the dozen years prior. How? By directly engaging my customers, learning their leanings, prescribing them more challenging films that they might never have tried out otherwise (or inversely, recommending to the snobs the mainstream movies that stood out amongst the mass-market product), and simply having a dialogue that attempted to inspire, educate, enlighten, and yes, entertain. I see this site as a way to continue those efforts, especially the entertaining part. Why do so many film bloggers have to be so humorless?

You, my new friends, are smart and fiery. You're also busy, which is why I believe 2009 demands a quality-over-quantity model that cuts through the noise succinctly and with a laser's focus. We're no longer starved for more information as we were just a few years ago. When a site posts a dozen-plus times a day, I wonder: who reads all this filler? Two-line news items are recycled and bloated to four-paragraph blog posts. In trying to grab hold of everything, once useful sites are now digital diarrhea, and their influence is cheapened. Rather than posting several times a day, I'll be writing far less but more purposefully. I'll begin posing question(s) of the day to get you thinking, talking, and hopefully refreshing the page to continue our ongoing conversation.

I'm hugely inspired by Girish Shambu's comments section, which is sometimes more alive than his already meaty posts themselves. I loved how Stu VanAirsdale captured the regional flavor of the New York film scene with The Reeler (and I won't lie, I plan to write about what NYC has to offer since it is the blog's new home base), which he unfortunately doesn't have as much time for with his current gig. I think Kevin Lee's video essays might be the future of film criticism as technology improves at an escalated pace, and while he doesn't know it yet, I'll tell you publicly that I hope to bring his magic to GreenCine Daily. My dear friend Andrew Grant regularly champions new yet little-known-yet Asian cinema and forgotten '70s Hollywood at Like Anna Karina's Sweater, and it was his readers' feedback that inspired him to launch (then bring me aboard) Benten Films a couple years back. I want to take a little bit from Columns A, B and Z here -- along with other sites that I feel are forward-thinking -- and fashion something that brings everyone together, opens up a dialogue that anyone can join, and combats the notion that we're spread too thin as a culture. What say you?

On Tuesday, I'll launch a "DVD of the Week" column since this is GreenCine, after all. Similarly, Fridays will see my "Film of the Week," which will spotlight a new feature receiving a U.S. theatrical run. In between, there will be interviews and a gaggle of podcasts (stay tuned later today), light festival coverage, op-ed pieces, and of course, news items. But my emphasis will always be curation, original content (not just regurgitations that overlap a bazillion other blogs), and cutting through the noise. Although this is starting to become a manifesto, my posts won't regularly be this lengthy, mostly because I respect how full your days likely are. Keep it simple, stupid.

In the meantime, please give back. I'm only one voice in a choir, so it's up to you to keep me in tune. The comments section is open, or you can email me: cinephiliac at gmail dot com. In due time, the community building will hopefully extend to informal meetups here in New York, at festivals and elsewhere. In a leaner, meaner year like 2009, let's channel our energies on making this all matter.

Posted by ahillis at 8:25 AM | Comments (34)