February 28, 2009

Who Replies to the Watchmen?

Respected critic Anton Ego [With apologies, my "Film of the Week" column was stopped dead in its tracks yesterday when my screener for Albert Serra's Birdsong refused to be recognized by my DVD player or computer. There's a joke in here about the film's accessibility, but instead I'll just say that Astra Taylor's Examined Life was my Friday pick.]

The innocent and guilty will be equally protected today: When a certain major motion picture was released this weekend, a certain respected film critic brutally but thoughtfully slammed it, and he was hardly alone in his disapproval. Yet the director of said movie singled out said critic with a venomous, profanity-laden, character-attacking email, which will not be posted here, nor the website where the review ran. Having been forwarded the rant, I began thinking about the one-sided conversation that is film criticism. If opinions are like belly buttons (in which case, Karolina Kurkova is indifferent), might they be honed to help further the medium itself if filmmakers and their critics interacted regularly? Or would that just lead to hurt feelings and more excessively nasty e-tirades?

Uwe Boll, boxing critics one at a time Nobody likes to have their labors of love picked apart for their flaws. One of my major gripes with criticism today is that it's not constructive enough, and commentators are often writing more about themselves than they are the work they're meant to contextualize. Sometimes writing a bad review is more fun; I've said in the past that I'm allowed to be flowery when the films are good, and funny when they're mediocre. But that's ultimately a bad habit many arts journalists and bloggers are at fault for—myself included—and how many of us stop to consider that these filmmakers are potentially our audience? (They should be, anyway!) Would we write such blistering take-downs if we had to read them aloud to their faces? Are we being productive and offering them useful advice that they might cull from going forth, or when we don't like a film, are we lazily heckling to avoid engaging what it is we don't find engaging? Would one-on-one confrontations make us more honest, or would that interaction pollute any chances for objectivity?

I reviewed a low-budget indie that few people saw, and let's just say I had been severely underwhelmed. Two months later, while at a festival where both that film and my own were screening, I was forced by happenstance to meet the director. Not only did he recognize my name from the badge around my neck, he was able to quote back the harsher parts of my review while I barely remembered writing them. How awkward! The experience was gratifying for both of us, however, because in his directness, he never questioned my taste, just my specific opinions. We were able to discuss in more detail than my 250-word capsule could why I had issues with the film, what I thought could've been improved upon. In the end, even if we disagreed on some things, we agreed on others, and most importantly, had each other's respect—there was no more awkwardness as we drank beers and watched films together. Could this happen in every case? Of course not, we're all built differently and some have thicker hides. But if filmmakers valued that good critics weren't just a gang of moustache-twirling villains eager to dip their fountain pens in hemlock, and the critics tempered any condemnation with judiciousness as if they were facing each filmmaker with a practical performance review, what do you think we might accomplish?

Posted by ahillis at 10:39 AM | Comments (9)

February 26, 2009

PODCAST: Wayne Kramer

Wayne Kramer, CROSSING OVER
Writer-director Wayne Kramer won high praise for his debut feature, The Cooler, and his exhilarating follow-up, Running Scared, counts this film blogger among its cult following. As a South African native who became a naturalized American citizen the year before 9/11, it makes sense why Kramer's third film, Crossing Over, would tackle a hot-button issue he relates to: immigration. Starring an ensemble cast which includes Harrison Ford, Ashley Judd, Ray Liotta, Towelhead's Summer Bishil -- and one of my favorite character actors working today, Cliff Curtis -- the film is summarized by the filmmaker himself on IMDb:
"Crossing Over is a multi-character canvas about immigrants of different nationalities struggling to achieve legal status in Los Angeles. The film deals with the border, document fraud, the asylum and green card process, work-site enforcement, naturalization, the office of counter terrorism and the clash of cultures."

Kramer called me a few hours ago to chat about Crossing Over, the true stories he based it on, why he feels it's unfair to compare the film to Crash, and his personal reaction to some of the negative critics' reviews (spoiler alert: he wholeheartedly disagrees).

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Crossing Over opens today in theaters everywhere. For more info, visit the official (but temporary) site.

Posted by ahillis at 7:39 PM | Comments (1)

February 24, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet

Four Flies on Grey Velvet (4 mosche di velluto grigio)
Directed by Dario Argento
1972, 102 minutes, In Italian (no subtitles) or English dubbed
Maya Entertainment

Four Flies on Grey Velvet When Dario Argento's ultra-nutty horror spectacle Mother of Tears was released last year, I was far from alone in believing it to be the first watchable film of the Italian maestro's in two decades, which perhaps isn't the grandest of compliments if you've seen what came before. On the other end of his career, however, before hitting his zenith (everything from 1975's Deep Red through 1987's Opera), even his hokier-plotted giallos like Four Flies on Grey Velvet (his third feature and last leg in the so-called "animal trilogy," following The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and The Cat O' Nine Tails) bare more suspense, panache and memorable sequences than most of what passes for modern American horror and crime thrillers. Never before available as a legitimate home video release in any format until today, the uncut, vividly photographed Four Flies on Grey Velvet deserves a new cult following in your living room, the more friends and booze the merrier. Don't worry about twisting the arms of the squeamish either, as the bloody mayhem is so implicit that when originally released theatrically by Paramount, the film only carried a PG-rating.

Four Flies on Grey VelvetRock drummer Roberto (Michael Brandon) is getting weirded out by the suspicious stranger in the dark suit and sunglasses who appears to have been stalking him at band practice, on the streets, and now in the shadows outside an abandoned theater. Finally getting proactive, Roberto follows him inside and up the stage stairs, where the confrontation goes murderously awry: the man pulls a switchblade, and Roberto accidentally stabs him with it in self-defense. Before he can even process through the adrenaline fog while standing over the dead man's fallen body in the orchestra pit, spotlights illuminate the scene, and a second stranger in a puppet mask appears in the balcony with a camera and long lens. Who set Roberto up? Is he in further danger? Are his wife Nina (More's Mimsy Farmer), her cousin Dalia (Francine Racette), and the housemaid (Marisa Fabbri) in trouble, too? Toss in some blackmail, strained marital relations, infidelity, an ineffectual private detective, a rising body count, and the plot device that gives the film its title—when one victim's eyeball is photographed by a coroner, the last image she saw was permanently imprinted on it: four blurry houseflies on a velvety grey... hey, what is that surface?

When the twists get perversely convoluted, characters are knocked off in disturbing ways from the first-person perspective of the killer, and the camerawork is both rigorous and chic (one Hitchcockian murder features two top-notch tracking shots: a woman from the neck up as she falls backwards down the stairs, followed by the knife in center frame as it slowly plunges downward, reflecting her image), you must be filling up on a gooey, decadent Argento dessert. As Bill Cosby never said, "There's always room for giallo."

Posted by ahillis at 11:23 PM

February 23, 2009

10 Random Questions About the Oscars

Miley Cyrus in Narnia Barbie Since we liveblogged the Oscars last night (click here for our lively chat), it's only appropriate that an Academy Awards recap (see also: the winners list) be presented as a meme. I tag all of you in a photo of Tina Fey and Steve Martin.

1. Is it just me, or does the easily excitable Danny Boyle still seem as surprised as everyone that Slumdog Millionaire was the film of his to take the proverbial cake? "Really? This middlebrow crowd pleaser?"

2. How did Departures (a/k/a "the Foreign-Language Film nominee in the wild-card fifth slot that nobody has actually seen") win a trophy, Mr. Roboto? Even The Baader Meinhof Complex would've made a more sensible surprise.

3. Does Miley Cyrus in Narnia© Barbie® come with any accessories?

4. Sean Penn's a worthy winner, but in a parallel universe, could Mickey Rourke's Oscar speech have been any more raucous or outlandishly digressive than his wonderful acceptance rant from the previous night's Spirit Awards? (And as Question 4B, why hasn't anyone given Eric Roberts a meaty comeback role?)

5. Even though glitzy musical numbers have been the bane of many a year's awards show, why was I so won over by Hugh Jackman's sweded recession spectacular?

6. Why didn't Man on Wire's Philippe Petit put the "fun" back in funambulism by tiptoeing up to the stage from the farthest balcony? Regardless, balancing an Oscar on your chin gets you in the highlights reel for the next six decades.

7. Does each year's loudest film always win Best Sound Editing? That's how I rationalized (and correctly predicted) The Dark Knight in my Oscar pool.

8. How did Greg Cannom win Best Makeup Design for Benjamin Button when he told me himself that he only aged Brad Pitt with practical appliances from ages 62 down to 47? I wasn't wowed on Blanchett's aging effects, either. It should'a been Hellboy II.

9. Speaking of Pitt, must we live in a world where any time Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie are in the same room together, we still need to point out ("Camera three, cut to…") a divorce that happened four years ago? Also, Brangelina will stop posing like royalty if you stop treating them like they are.

10. Aside from that, was this the most enjoyable, least offensive, quickest paced Oscars in years?

Posted by ahillis at 10:08 AM | Comments (11)

February 20, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Eleven Minutes (Jay McCarroll)

Jay McCarroll in ELEVEN MINUTES

Eleven Minutes
Directed by Michael Selditch and Rob Tate
2009, 103 Minutes, U.S.A.

In this week's Village Voice, I favorably reviewed the new documentary Eleven Minutes, whose official synopsis reads as such:

"It's been a while since the sharp-witted Jay McCarroll was dubbed 'the next great American designer' on Season One of reality TV’s Project Runway and he's anxious to finally show his first line of clothing. The feature documentary Eleven Minutes chronicles his year-long journey preparing his first independent runway show for New York’s Fashion Week in Bryant Park and the subsequent selling of his line to stores. The result is an in-depth, painfully raw and humorous exploration of the creative process and the constant balancing of commerce with art, fame with talent and reality TV with actual reality."

Coincidentally in NYC during Fashion Week (though mainly for the film, and to attend the Project Runway show), the now Philadelphia-based McCarroll sat down with me to discuss what it's like to have his life exposed to the masses, the misconceptions people have gleaned from his screen personality, and why he only retains the memories that have been recorded on camera.

To listen to the podcast, click here.
[WARNING: NSFW language ahead (Jay's, of course).]

Eleven Minutes opens today in New York and Los Angeles. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 2:27 PM

February 19, 2009

PODCAST: Oscars 2009 Pre-Game

Kate Winslet: will she finally win? The Academy Awards begin at 8pm EST on Sunday night, and as GreenCine guru Craig Phillips mentioned below, he'll be hosting an ultra-fabulous, high-tech live blog during the ceremony. I'll be making guest appearances throughout the night, as will a whole gaggle of witty film bloggers and other charismatic cineastes, and we hope you'll join us, too.

Until then, the San Francisco-based Craig and I had one last cross-country conversation about the nominations, who we expect to win, which was the worst year ever for Best Picture nominees (hint: it's been longer than you think), and how to turn both the Oscars and our podcast into a drinking game.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 6:14 PM | Comments (3)

February 18, 2009

In the Ghetto

Meddling Bloggers! If you're reading this now, be sure to link to it on your film blog.

I'm only slightly kidding, because even if not all of you write about movies in some capacity, sometimes it surely feels like we who do are only doing so for the benefit of one another. So for the sake of argument (read: ineffectual meta-exercise), let's assume that even if you don't have a blog, you're planning to start one this weekend, and let me ask: how do we make a difference, folks?

The tectonic shift in journalism—specifically the firing, laying-off, buying-out, et al. of established print critics—has both strengthened the contention against online film writers (we need the big guns now more than ever!) and considerably weakened it (it's no longer a viable career; or, said big guns have begun their own blogs), thus that's not really on my mind. I haven't been in the game as long as many (my first gig, a DVD review for Premiere Magazine, only happened in 2002), so I've always felt like I straddled the chasm between old- and new-media, and fully understand why we should try to get along in the same sinking ship. I believe the editorial process is crucial for the sake of accuracy, clarity, professionalism and upholding the integrity of language, but I'm also incredibly thankful that so many fellow cinema obsessives are willing to share their writings for free online; their passion is contagious.

Indie Film Blogger Road TripIt's online, in fact, where my colleague and pal Michael Tully recently reviewed a micro-budgeted documentary entitled Indie Film Blogger Road Trip, a seemingly self-important film that I avoided for its subject alone. For me, I wondered what else there is to know about a hodgepodge of opinionated film buffs who already use their forum to project their personalities. As expansive as the web is, online film writers tend to flock together (in real life, on social networks, comments sections), and if David Hudson's indefatigable linkage is any gauge, there really are new sites being created, well, daily. (Related note: Check out IFC.com today for their spiffy new redesign!)

We are many, so many that I can no longer keep up with it all. My RSS feed runneth over with raw streaming data, so on a day like today when I'm scouring for newsworthy or other potentially engrossing topics, the headlines start to melt together into meaninglessness. In trying to stay on the increasingly erratic pulse of it all, I'm spending more time thinking or reading about film than I am actually watching it, and then what about the rest of my being? How do I maintain a healthy, well-rounded life, plus a freelance career that includes this website—which I hope is useful and entertaining for my readers—when the absorbing and filtering of film news begins to take up far more time than the actual processing and writing? I never believed in cultural gatekeepers until the floodgates opened and invited this tsunami of information to drown us, and I don't think it's terribly cynical to say we've become the foamy crest on that tidal wave. Are we merely the 'zine equivalent of trade magazines? Do we reach readers outside of our insular circle of hobbyists and industry pros? Should we be trying? How do we make our collective voice louder and sharper in a world whose distractions multiply with each new viral fad?

Posted by ahillis at 10:40 PM | Comments (14)

February 17, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Moving Midway

Moving Midway

Moving Midway
Directed by Godfrey Cheshire
2008, 98 minutes, U.S.A.
First Run Features

Documentary filmmakers rarely know if and when it's appropriate to insert themselves into their own projects, but in his superbly entertaining and tough-minded directorial debut, New York-based film critic Godfrey Cheshire proves he's certainly seen and written about enough docs (notably those of Ross McElwee, who serves as a consulting producer) to recognize that his onscreen self is an essential role. Turning his camera on Midway Plantation, a centuries-old estate in rural North Carolina that has been in his family for generations, Cheshire introduces us to his cousin Charlie "Pooh" Silver and a Fitzcarraldo-esque plan to literally pick up the ancestral home and move it to a quieter locale, away from the highway, strip malls and real-estate developers now invading its space. Moving Midway is not another tired dysfunctional family memoir, however, nor is it just the story of an old building to be saved—but as an essay on the troubled legacy of American history itself, it's inspiring and complex and still warmly nostalgic without guilt.

Moving Midway As appropriately pointed out through movie clips (The Birth of a Nation, Gone With the Wind, etc.), the icon of a Southern plantation has different profound meanings depending on which side of the Mason-Dixon line you call home. Early on, Cheshire discovers Robert Hinton—an NYU professor of African studies whose bloodline traces back to the slaves who built Midway—and invites him along for the journey, beginning with a significant dinner at the mansion. The tension is palpable, or at least suspenseful, and it's not because anyone of the older generation shows any racist tendencies (best depicted in a whites-only Civil War re-enactment that shows people simply don't agree on what the war was even about). It's that the historical elephant in the room is finally allowed to trumpet through civilized confrontation and discourse in an era not terribly far removed; the energy is intense. While investigating the ghosts of his past (literally: plates fly off the shelves in Midway, attributed to the late Miss Mary Hinton, the plantation's former figurehead), Cheshire even unearths a whole segment of slave-descendent cousins he didn't know he had, and it's in a scene where he meets some of them that his background—one foot rooted in the South, the other in the metropolitan North where he now lives—that his function as curious, even-handed moderator is the genial embodiment of so-called "post-racial" America. The true meaning of evolution isn't about no longer seeing color, but being able to comfortably discuss race with anyone, to debate or debunk when necessary, so that we can have the grown-up conversations to truly move on. Moving Midway proves a vital stepping stone, and a witty treat that never feels like PBS homework.

Posted by ahillis at 4:16 PM | Comments (1)

GreenCine's Oscar Live Blog! February 22, 4:30pm PST.

disembodiedoscar_large.jpgCome join us for an evening full of punditry, commentary, jokes, trivia, predictions, and general head-shaking as we host a live blog during Sunday's Oscar ceremony. The chat will be moderated by host GreenCine editor/writer Craig Phillips who will be joined throughout the evening by GreenCine Daily editor, film distributor and writer Aaron Hillis, plus a bounty of other film bloggers from around the country. Guest panelists jumping in will include Erin Donovan, Kathy Fennessy (SIFF blog), film blogger and US magazine and Flavorpill contributor Lisa Rosman, with quite a few more dropping by. We hope you'll join us, too.

Alone, surviving this year's Oscars might be a rather difficult chore, but together we can do it.

Note: You can also click the link below for the mirrored live blog page.

Posted by cphillips at 3:10 PM

February 15, 2009

BERLIN '09 DISPATCH: Kill Daddy Goodnight / The Bone Man

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man)

[Andrew Grant's final report from the Berlin Film Festival spotlights two of his faves from what everyone I've been reading has called a mighty disappointing year for the fest. Upward and onward, as they say! -AH]

Austria was well represented at this year's Berlinale with a handful of films in the Panorama and Forum sections, two of which turned out to be among my favorites at the festival—original, refreshing works that showed us that cinema from the land of Mozart and Falco has more to offer than Haneke and Seidl.

Das Vaterspiel (Kill Daddy Goodnight)Director Michael Glawogger, best known on these shores for his powerful 2005 doc Workingman's Death, was at the fest with his narrative feature Das Vaterspiel (here given the unfortunate English title Kill Daddy Goodnight), an ambitious adaptation of the successful novel by Josef Haslinger. Difficult to categorize, it's both a thriller and a tripartite, psychological family drama wrapped around a treatise on Germany and Austria's inability and/or unwillingness to deal with events that took place during the Nazi regime.

Helmut Köpping plays Rupert "Ratz" Kramer, a shaggy-haired, hash-smoking videogame programmer who for years has been creating his masterpiece: a game built around killing his hypocritical father, a champagne-and-caviar socialist cabinet minister who, in Ratz's eyes, is the very embodiment of political corruption. While working on his all-new 2.0 version (which includes a personalization engine that allows users to kill their own fathers), he receives a call from Mimi (The Free Will's Sabine Timoteo), a former college girlfriend now living in New York City. She asks if he can immediately fly to the States to help her with a difficult situation involving an elderly family member who has a dark past and has been hiding in a Long Island basement for many decades. It quickly becomes a challenging moral dilemma for Ratz, and one that casts a new light on his tumultuous relationship with his father.

Das Vaterspiel (Kill Daddy Goodnight) The film is set in 1999, a simpler time when a bleak Weltanschauung was rooted not in fears of global terrorism, but simple fin de siècle angst and the Y2K bug—which some felt would be the end of civilization as we know it. Continually bouncing between the present and several periods across the 20th century, Das Vaterspiel unfolds like a standard suspense thriller, but with the added complexity of historical weight (both individual and collective) on three separate families, which includes Ratz's struggles with both patricide and incest. His relationship with the suspected Nazi war criminal is explored but never fully reconciled; a sticking point for some critics, it's a perfect metaphor for the still-unaddressed issues of individual choices made during the Holocaust era.

The cold, eerie tone combined with the videogame subplot is reminiscent of Demonlover, though whereas Assayas traded substance for style, Glawogger's film is mostly a cerebral affair, but no less hip, stylish, or suspenseful. Das Vaterspiel explores questions and dilemmas raised in such films as The Reader or The Lives of Others, but without spoon-fed morality or convenient third-act resolutions. This is a powerful, challenging film, and one of the few at the festival that actually expected its audience to think for themselves.

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man)At the opposite end of the cinematic spectrum is Wolfgang Murnberger's The Bone Man (Der Knochenmann), a brilliantly acted and directed über-black comedy cum mystery-thriller set in a sleepy Austrian mountain village. Oh yes, it's a romance as well. Who knew Austria produced such films?

The Bone Man marks the third pairing of director Murnberger and lead actor Josef Hader in the role of Simon Brenner (following 2000's Come, Sweet Death and 2004's Silentium), the gruff but lovable middle-aged ex-detective who comes off like a Teutonic Columbo. Weary of his current job repossessing cars from desperate single moms for a remarkably sleazy boss, Brenner decides to embark on an extended getaway to the countryside. However, even this turns into a working vacation that, without giving too much away, results in a grizzly affair that lies somewhere between Sweeney Todd, Fargo, and The Crying Game.

Der Knochenmann (The Bone Man) A big-city outsider, Brenner is naturally given the cold shoulder by the staff of this tiny country inn, yet his interest in an attractive employee (Berlinale best actress winner Birgit Minchmayr) provides him ample reason to persevere. Though he was sent on a simple repossession job, Brenner quickly becomes embroiled in a convoluted plot that includes human trafficking, decapitated limbs, cannibalism, and lots of fried chicken.

The progressive tonal shift from the incredibly dark first third to the lighter, madcap macabre fare of the last is disconcerting to say the least, yet screenwriter Wolf Hass (who also wrote the source novel) manages the gradual transition with a smoothness that never feels forced. In classic comic form, the film's screwball finale is built around a masked ball (Blake Edwards would be proud), complete with drunken Austrians and a perfectly cheesy cover-band performing such Euro '80s staples as Opus' "Live is Life" and The Spider Murphy Gang's "Skandal Im Sperrbezirk." Murnberger's pacing and sense of timing is impressive, and he skillfully prevents the proceedings from slipping into comic chaos. Disparate threads are tied up, hearts are won (and broken) and as in any good mystery, the killer gets his comeuppance. Like the Coen brothers and Sam Raimi before him, Murnberger has found a perfect balance between the grotesque and the hilarious. The Bone Man may not be high art, but it proves that populist fare can be both smart and endlessly entertaining.

Both films are currently without US distribution, and though the festival reviews were quite strong, methinks the chances of them getting picked up are slim at best.

Posted by ahillis at 12:24 PM

February 13, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Two Lovers

Two Lovers

Two Lovers
Directed by James Gray
2008, 110 minutes, U.S.A.

"Love is preposterous and a lie. That doesn't mean it's a lie to you. In other words, you may think you're in love with another person, but really, what you love about that person tends to be what you project upon that person, and what you love in them that you feel you lack yourself."
- James Gray

What a curious title, Two Lovers. Like the movie itself and the believably grown-up affairs it depicts, that surface simplicity has multiple meanings, could be a basis for allegory, and mines rich if devastating emotion out of its ambiguities. Just try to forget for a moment that star Joaquin Phoenix is quickly becoming an eccentric performance artist of the Andy Kaufman variety in real life, and cherish what he claims will be his last film: a fantastic, sumptuously lit and shot melodrama of overlapping, shaky love triangles that is mature like nothing else yet on screens this year.

Two Lovers Co-scripted by We Own the Night director James Gray and Ric Menello, and loosely based on Dostoyevsky's short story "White Nights," the Brighton Beach-set Two Lovers begins as bipolar Jewish thirty-something Leonard (Phoenix) makes a half-assed attempt to drown in the bay, glimpses of his ex-fiancée flashing through his anxious mind. He's tried this before, so says his overprotective mother Ruth (Isabella Rossellini) to father Reuben (Moni Moshonov) when their son comes home sopping wet, and locks himself in his room. Leonard's a mess, but it's obvious why even when his family doesn't notice; he's a passionate hobby photographer who is acutely aware and trying to dodge his predestined calling to run the family dry-cleaning biz. While some may find his nervous tics and odd behavior creepy, it's endearing to Sandra (Vinessa Shaw), the overly earnest beauty he's been fixed up with thanks to their parents going into business together. Leonard entertains the idea of dating her as it's what everyone else wants, but only when his time isn't spent pining for radiant shiksa party-girl Michelle (Gwyneth Paltrow), who happens to live across the courtyard from Leonard in an apartment paid for by her married lover Ronald (Elias Koteas). Sandra wants to take care of Leonard, but she's subconsciously his back-up plan, as is he to Michelle; as anchored to his obliviously lovesick viewpoint, the cosmic irony of this all is lost except to us, which makes his moments of heartbreak ours.

Two Lovers By rote, great character-driven dramas are compared to Hollywood's '70s heyday, but it's worth exploring why myself and others would do it again here. The lived-in, commonplace inhabitants of Two Lovers might be deal breakers for some: they're not necessarily affable, the relationships don't quite fit even when chemistry exists, and they aren't iconic or bigger than life as we're used to in cinema's constant need for expansion. (In fact, Paltrow seemed miscast to me at first because I had trouble separating the prim, proper princess from this deep-Brooklyn legal assistant who doesn't read, but that's precisely why Ronald and Leonard are endeared to her perceived sophistication.) These are everyday people with everyday crushes, troubles, and self-destructive flaws, and if they're not especially memorable on their own and the story rather unadorned, it's in Gray's textures and sincerity—and the ensemble's nuanced actions and legible body language—that universal emotional depth is found. On my first viewing, I was shaken by how fate smacked these characters around as if they'd ever be able to outrun it; watching it again last night, I was half-wondering what happened next to these people who live just 20 minutes away from my Brooklyn home.

Two Lovers opens today in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to come, and is already available on Video On Demand. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 10:14 PM

February 12, 2009

Thursday the 12th

Tomorrow is Friday the 13th, Saturday should technically see an audience resurgence for My Bloody Valentine, and next month Hollywood revisits The Last House on the Left... Will we ever run out of horror flicks to remake?

Tim Allen in SILENT NIGHT, DEADLY NIGHT

Verne Troyer in LEPRECHAUN, CHILD'S PLAY, GREMLINS

Isla Fisher in CHOPPING MALL

Posted by ahillis at 6:25 PM

February 11, 2009

The New Depression Cinema

[Hammer in hand, Vadim Rizov (The Village Voice, The House Next Door) makes an astute attempt at nailing down the gelatinous zeitgeist, at least in how the symbiosis of H'wood filmmaking and filmgoing will be affected by the ongoing economic collapse. Kick back with some boot stew and check 'er out. -AH]

Confessions of a Shopaholic In the time between Confessions of a Shopaholic's initial wave of advertising and its release, things have (to put it mildly) changed; a lightweight chick-flick parable about a woman with a spending problem who finds love and a way to pay for her material thrills (a frilly entertainment based on a 2000 book to be released in the middle of a mild economic downturn) is now a dispatch from a different age. Even if, as the Wikipedia page claims, reshoots have taken the recession into account, the question stands: do today's depressed audiences want vicarious materialism? Or will they turn indifferently on the film and run back to the more apropos comforts of Paul Blart and its ilk?

Trend pieces are the curse of the constant need to stall for real content; nonetheless, the excuse provided by Confessions is a good moment to think about the many claims being raised on behalf of how this new depression may or may not have an effect similar to the Great Depression's seemingly causal relationship to one of Hollywood's golden ages. Pretty much every media outlet has either weighed in with a variant or will soon enough. Joe Morgenstern tipped his hand by beginning his piece "Where are you, Fred and Ginger, now that we need you?", concluding the only thing that can save the movies is "originality." Unfortunately, Morgenstern's dubious example of the kind of originality we need is Slumdog Millionaire. MSNBC's Alonso Duralde went the hard-times-mean-escapist-thrills route, your basic recycled Great Depression argument. Spout's Karina Longworth conceded "I don’t have the answers! What say you?", but chose Shopaholic and He's Just Not That Into You as initial test-cases, which is significant for reasons I'll get into in a bit. The gloomiest prognosis came from The Village Voice's J. Hoberman, who concluded "Movies are expendable. Folks will give up $12 tickets, cancel Netflix, and cut cable to save their high-speed Internet connection."

Of course, they're all wrong about everything. Below, I'll explain why and offer my own cautious prognostications of the near-future. I was aided in my quest by Robert Sklar, author of Movie-Made America, whose magisterial overview of the scope of American film history is pretty untoppable; and Noel Murray, freelance writer for The AV Club, among other publications, who keeps a discriminating and incisive eye on mainstream American entertainment. My thanks to both.

The Depression 2.0? I. Counter-Arguments: What Won't Happen
Let's get rid of this obsession with the idea that hard times automatically equal good movies (a myth we owe as much to the '70s as the '30s). I don't want to give the Los Angeles Times' Patrick Goldstein too much stick as he's an industry observer, not a critic, but in an otherwise well-reasoned piece where he concludes you can never 100% guess what audiences will and won't go for, he signs off with "All we really know is that we know a good movie when we see one, whether the Dow's scraping bottom or running with the bulls." Goldstein, Morgenstern, et al. write with the calm assurance of men who know a "good movie" when they see one, and can be completely certain their readers will, too. For most, I assume, it's not nearly that simple. However, I'm not interested in the quality of the films being produced (well, I am, but not in this context). This is pure pop sociology.

The number one reason this new depression's movies won't resemble the '30s in any way: the studio system isn't built the same way. '30s Hollywood was a much more efficient machine. "When you think about comparing the role of Hollywood in culture then and now, there's no comparison," Sklar notes. "They're producing 400, 500, 600 films a year. They're very structured around stars and genres." The studios had a cultural monopoly, Sklar continues: "Hollywood was the only national medium, in a sense. Radio didn't really go coast-to-coast until '36." Compare the situation now: the proliferation of other media with more bang for your far-stretched buck aside, the studios don't work as hard or as much.

Night at the Museum 2 Scanning the release calendars from February through August confirmed what I'd suspected: if we get more than 150 wide Hollywood releases a year, it would be shocking. Virtually every single month clocks in at about a dozen wide releases (except for blockbuster-heavy June, when the studios seem to give each other a lot of space: as of right now, there are only seven wide releases scheduled for that month). Every month follows some variation on the same pattern: two or three loosely defined Films For The Whole Family (Night at the Museum 2 and the like), one or two explicitly female-oriented romantic comedies (next month's Confessions of a Shopaholic, for example, is All About Steve, starring genre queen emeritus Sandra Bullock), two explicitly male-oriented comedies predicated on the boobs-and-farts staples of the Happy Madison formula, two to four action movies (both high-budget tentpole affairs and more workmanlike low-budgeters like the upcoming Fighting), maybe one non-action-oriented thriller, one to two horror movies (sometimes evenly split between a PG-13 loud-noises affair and a graphic slasher), possibly one "urban" release (cf. Tyler Perry and Ice Cube movies), and a couple of unclassifiables (like the mistimed April release of the Oscar-bait-y The Soloist). That's it. That's all there is.

Given this monotonous pattern of releases—how rigidly every assembly-line film has to fit, with rare exceptions, into rigorously-defined genres with their own reliable demographics—two things become obvious: with the exception of event blockbuster movies, there's almost no chance for a film that everyone in the audience feels like seeing (so much for unifying audience entertainments), and that the genres cited as the Depression's most notable achievement—the screwball comedy and the musical—don't exist anymore.

Footlight Parade Movie production times have lengthened immensely, to the point where they're simply incapable of keeping up with what's going on in the outside world, even if that was desirable (and studios, as always, seem uncertain how much reality viewers want). As Sklar points out, a film like Footlight Parade "was able to respond to Roosevelt and get him in the picture" (in the infamous "FDR Jones" number at the end) "because the time that it took to shoot it, get it through post and get it in theaters was a couple of months," whereas today even the simplest, shoddiest movie seems to take a year-and-a-half, minimum. (Recall how shocked people were that Oliver Stone wrote, shot and completed W. in a year.) The only film coming out between now and August that could remotely respond to the new climate is the August 14 release The Post Grad Survival Guide, in which Ms. Alexis Bledel (Gilmore the younger) is forced to move back in with her family when she can't get a job. This is apparently slotted to be a Juno quirk-fest, so it's not even a good example. When Stone put out Wall Street two years before 1989's crash, he looked like a genius; now, when Wall Street 2 is announced to be coming our way, it seems predictable at best.

Related to all this is the death of the "poor but scrappy" archetype, because Hollywood's cut itself off from the "let's put on a show" movie. Musicals commonly centered around Mickey, Judy and the kids making good on nothing but their talent and self-confidence. This is impossible now, because the public knows exactly how their entertainment sausage is manufactured. Even the most removed-from-industry person has a fairly good grasp on what a venal, fearful place Hollywood is (in large part because the industry itself can't stop broadcasting the news); the idea of a performer breaking through on talent alone is too laughable to be taken seriously. If the point of the Fred-and-Ginger musicals (or the Busby Berkeley ones, for that matter) was that lucky breaks, hard work, resourcefulness and a winning personality can get you anywhere—the stuff the meta-musicals were made of—that's also not around anymore. It's a safe guess that the industry devoted to "entertainment news" (celebrity gossip) is almost as profitable as the movies they're tangentially related to; in some cases (e.g. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie), the gap between the cultural space occupied by a celebrity's off-screen presence vs. their box-office clout has grown unacceptably wide. (There's an argument to be made here that some of the most successful performers are those about whom we "know" the least: see, e.g., the ever-reliable Adam Sandler and his protégé Kevin James. Maybe performers like Pitt—who admittedly chooses some hellaciously uncommercial vehicles—spend so much time being famous for themselves that no one wants to see them off-screen.)

Fired Up! One of the reasons '30s comedies performed so well (and hold up so well) is that they weren't gender-split. There was always a man, a woman, a reason to get together and obstacles to surmount, but the respective partners were placed on equal footing. The gender split went other ways: for women there were the weepies, for men jejune action sagas. Comedies united. As pointed out above, this is no longer the case: while couples might still drag their long-suffering other halves into the theater, it's no secret that the audiences for, say, Bride Wars and, say, the upcoming Fired Up (whose marketing campaign seems to rely solely on the abbreviation "F.U.") are completely different. The stereotyped differences go on and on: bro-oriented affairs emphasize sexual success, self-satisfied slobbishness and gross-out jokes; female rom-coms fetishize clothing-related commodities and chivalrous, sincere men. The only thing everyone can seem to get together for is the latest Judd Apatow joint. Comedy's become an almost-exclusively gender-segregated genre.

Another reason the screwball comedy is dead: they focused on the rich. Depending on whose arguments you buy, this was either to mock them for audiences' delight, or to endear them through their foibles and the vicarious ostentation on display. Either way, the current climate is way too angry to make movies about the wealthy in a genial fashion: contemporary crowds have a much, much better idea of who's responsible for the current woes (or think they do, anyway) and socialite culture is virtually dead, absorbed into the business of celebrity worship. No one will watch any movie that lightheartedly treats of the rich, at least not for a while. In short, virtually every light comic genre capable of absorbing tough economic times has been cut off. Curiously, Confessions of a Shopaholic seems to be closer to this genre than anything else: it's the story of a gal whose spending outstrips her means, but figures out through pluck and luck how to close the gap. For that reason, it'll likely clean up pretty well.

Robinson and Cagney, original gangstaz The '30s emphasized working within genres as much as now; there were just more to go around (we no longer have, for example, the prototypical "ripped-from-the-headlines" film, the gangster film, the social melodrama, etc.). Sure, the industry posted a record January, but it's hardly a sign the industry is set for strong times ahead; as widely reported, theatrical attendance is down, while revenue up due only to increased ticket prices. The situation is obviously untenable. If anything, this period in Hollywood entertainment might resemble the '50s more than anything: then, as now, 3D is supposed to come in and save everyone, delivering something you can't get on TV then, YouTube or Hulu now. Hollywood's own personal crisis and declining market share has the bad fortune to dovetail with a horrendous recession; if anything, we're going to be looking at a relentless lust for novelty, the new escapism.

Without the novelties, then, on a certain level, the movies don't matter. "There is a social function for theatrical motion-picture going that will not disappear," Sklar says. "It's more about kids getting out of the house, kids going to the multiplex with their peer group, hanging out and gossiping or whatever on weekends; in a sense, the movie doesn't matter. It matters to a certain degree—Twilight, for example—but the existence of the movie theater is the crucial destination, not the movie itself, for teenagers and people who want to hang out. There's usually a kind of low roar in the theater." If you've been to a multiplex anytime in the last decade or so, you'll notice the waves of theater-hopping teens who come in and out of movies at their leisure; box-office returns can start to seem random.

Gran Torino Ultimately, no one knows anything. Think pieces can forecast in a vacuum of inconsistent data, studios can second-guess themselves, but all you have to do is look at two of the most unexpected hits of the last couple of months to see how little can be predicted successfully. One of those films is Gran Torino, which a fairly hacky AP piece quoted Tom O'Neil as predicting would flop because "Clint Eastwood is an automatic hitmaker and usually a guaranteed top Oscar contender. But Clint Eastwood as a despicable bigot?" What no one predicted was that Gran Torino would be viewed by audiences as a comedy (see it with a packed crowd and you'll hear roars of laughter); another factor is that it's set in decaying industrial Detroit, which seems to be subconsciously resonating with audiences. Another unexpected hit is the shoddy Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which is connecting precisely because it's set in minimum-wage hell among the obese and unhappy; it's a good moment for that, too. Yet it can be guaranteed those weren't deliberated factors when these movies were first proposed.

In short: the genres aren't the same, the resources are different, the entire climate has changed. The '30s are not about to happen again, cinematically.

II. What Might Happen
First up on everyone's mind: where will the zeitgeist materialize? On TV, probably. "When I interviewed The Shield creator Shawn Ryan late last year," Noel Murray notes, "he mentioned that he was developing a sitcom about get-rich-quick schemes. And Shield star Michael Chiklis has been working on a serialized drama about people caught up in a pyramid scheme. But in general, I don't expect that the existing sitcoms and dramas will address these issues except in ripped-from-the-headlines murder-of-the-week plots, as in Law & Order. If anything, we might get more escapist fare." Not necessarily, as schadenfreude certainly has a powerful tug; it's just that TV can simply work faster. I'm personally rooting for the return of the paranoid '70s thriller mastered by Alan J. Pakula: the upcoming The International, with its purportedly overblown mistrust about evil banks, may just hit the spot. Another person who seems well-attuned to the times is Tony Gilroy, whose upcoming release, Duplicity, couldn't be more perfectly titled or timed. If released today, Michael Clayton would perform much more strongly in this climate. The rich and powerful are going to be tarred-and-feathered cinematically.

Paul Blart: Mall CopFor a long time, comedies have automatically conflated romantic and personal success: any given Kate Hudson vehicle makes material comfort a prerequisite for love (even as the work is carefully kept off-screen). If the success of Paul Blart means anything, it's that people are tired of this. To be blunt, if Alexander Payne had made Blart, we'd be looking at a thousand separate accusations of condescension; as it is, Blart cross-leverages Kevin James' sitcom following, family audiences needing an outlet for the kids these months, and a powerful (if frankly depressing) portrait of lower-middle-income desperation. In its own artless way, it's come closer to showing how a lot of people live, materially, than anything in a long while.

"Hollywood knows dick about how poor and lower-middle-class people live," Murray notes. "It's always either ratty trailers or $200,000 suburban homes for people who aren't obscenely wealthy. There's a moment late in Marley and Me where Owen Wilson takes a new job as a reporter in Philadelphia and his family moves to a three-story, 4,000 square-foot country house outside of town. And all I could think was: No wonder newspapers are going broke. This dude's way overpaid." How it'll happen is yet to be known, but a slightly more nuanced portrait of American economic life is on the horizon, even as more people follow Apatow's lead in trying to make more gender-inclusive comedies.

9/11 signifiers have been a go-to staple for a long time; that and a clever marketing campaign were all Cloverfield had going for it. The era of falling towers and Bush jabs is over for now; we've got a new disaster to grapple with. "Unless there's another major terrorist attack, those Bush-era signifiers may fade for a while," Murray concurs. "After all, there weren't so many movies or TV shows about robotic communist villains once Reagan left office and the Berlin Wall fell."

Room 222 A slightly dicier prospect: for the first time in ages, politics will be treated with respect onscreen. President Hope has a lot of goodwill to burn. Murray, again: "I think the key 'change' that the Obama era may bring is exactly that: a return to thinking of government and politics as well-meaning efforts to serve the public, and not as adversarial sport. So perhaps we'll see fewer films and TV shows about institutional corruption and more about people trying to make a difference. The age of The Wire and The Shield and The Bourne Identity may be ending, replaced by a return to shows like Room 222 and movies like Washington Story, where public service is heroic." We're too compromised to go that full-on route—the norm will probably be a little closer to movies like Charlie Wilson's War, where good intentions butt up against constraining circumstances—but the idea of taking politics seriously, as opposed to using politicians for stock villains and easily-mocked idiots, will probably make a return. That's one of the few similarities we might share with that last Depression. "Obama's going to be in office for at least four years," Sklar notes. "If they have liberal president movies, they'll have to get them out in the next four years."

The studios won't collapse. They can't. Many of the '30s studios went into receivership at one point or another, and a contributing factor was that they were their own financial entities. Today's studios are without exception part of huge conglomerates too huge to completely implode. Back then, Paramount was one of the studios that almost shuttered its doors; today, for that to happen, all of Viacom would have to collapse. That's about as likely as Renée Zellweger morphing into Carole Lombard, or Kevin James into Cary Grant. As always, we'll get the movies and times we've enabled and deserve.

Posted by ahillis at 6:53 AM | Comments (8)

February 10, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Simon of the Desert

First, a DVD-related tip: Over at the main site, Jeffrey M. Anderson talks to B-movie hero Bruce Campbell in honor of his directorial/starring/meta-referencing effort My Name is Bruce, out on disc today.

Simon of the Desert
Simon of the Desert (Simón del desierto)
Directed by Luis Buñuel
1965, 45 minutes, In Spanish with English subtitles
The Criterion Collection

"I am still, thank God, an atheist."
- Luis Buñuel, in a 1960 L'Express interview

Buñuelian references most commonly point to his early, little-s scandalous, capital-S Surrealist collaborations with Salvador Dalí (Un chien andalou, L'Âge d'or) or his later-career French masterpieces that made him an international art-house luminary (Belle de jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, That Obscure Object of Desire). But in between those eras—during an on-again, off-again Mexican exile of two decades—the legendary Spanish-born auteur directed 21 films, many of which works are in desperate need of rescue/distribution. From that underrepresented era, Criterion has today released 1962's The Exterminating Angel and this questionably unfinished parable of religious devotion, his last to be made in Mexico. Why questionably, you say? It's true that producer Gustavo Alatriste ran out of money after five reels were shot, hence the short running time, but what Simon of the Desert achieves with an appropriately laser-focused single theme—the extreme faith of a ascetic who lives atop a pillar in the middle of an arid nowhere—couldn't have been a tighter or more fully realized satire with whatever added details, aesthetics or gags might've been.

Simon of the Desert The windblown-bearded Simon (Claudio Brook), a character based on the 5th-century Syrian saint Simeon Stylites, has been praying on high for six years, six weeks and six days—a Satanic warning?—before the local peasants and clergy offer him a taller pillar to take root. (Had Buñuel been an American born a few decades later, perhaps the second column would've been marked by product placements, or branded with the benefactors' faces.) With repeated vertical camera movements and a combination of tight close-ups and wide-angle shots from above or below to accentuate Simon's elevated plane (shot in stunning, low-contrast grays by Gabriel Figueroa), Buñuel cynically but never haughtily examines the life this dedicated servant of God has made for himself, away from all others. Is he a fool who has wasted his life, as in the droll bit where Simon begins blessing every creature around him, stopping just short of sanctifying a piece of lettuce that was stuck between his teeth? Or is his pious nature meant to look foolishly self-righteous, since Satan herself (Viridiana star Silvia Pinal, wearing several disguises, from breast-exposing schoolgirl to lamb-kicking Jesus Christ) appears only to him to tempt him into his literal and spiritual descent?

Questioning even his own words on high, and justifiably growing more irritable with each prophecy or miracle (a thief whose hands have been cut off are restored by the power of Simon's sermon; a beat later, as the crowd walks away without a pinch of gratitude, the man even smacks his daughter), our martyred hero comes to realize in a hilarious, left-field ending set in a New York City discotheque, that his life's work may just be meaningless to anyone besides himself. Consider it the exploratory atheist movie Bill Maher wishes he could've made instead of his far less honest, pointed, modest, artful or funny Religulous.

Posted by ahillis at 6:11 PM | Comments (1)

February 9, 2009

BERLIN '09 DISPATCH: Ricky

Ricky [Andrew Grant checks in with his first of two reports from the Berlin Film Festival, currently underway.]

Greetings from the 59th Berlinale, where the mood thus far is as grey as the wintry German skies over the capital city. Today marks the halfway point of the festival, and critics here are in agreement that, as of yet, there has not been a single standout competition title. Several of the films have received half-hearted praise at best (Gigante; Storm), while others have been met with outright hostility (the appropriately titled Rage; Mammoth.) Things aren't faring much better in the other major sections of the festival, where none of the films in the Forum or Panorama have generated anything close to a buzz.

If there's a grim tone, it's decidedly so in many of the European films here, which deal with hot-button topics such as Iraq, the new wave of immigration and the growing economic crisis, or issues surrounding nations coming to terms with both their post-war and immediate past. With such a tremendous amount of thematic overlap, the films frequently seem like mirrors of one another.

Ricky The most contentious film of the festival to date is Francois Ozon's Ricky, which has found critics entrenched in either love-it or hate-it camps, with a greater percentage in the latter. It's a reaction not dissimilar to his last Berlinale appearance with Angel, which screened in competition back in 2007. I've never fully understood why his films are so polarizing.

When he's not being overtly audacious (Sitcom, 8 Women), Ozon can be a remarkably sensitive and gifted storyteller, and whether dealing with a crumbling relationship (5x2) or the final months of a cancer patient (Time to Leave), his forays into serious drama are rich character studies that steer clear of schmaltzy melodrama. Ricky is something of a hybrid -- a poignant look at the struggles of a working-class single parent in contemporary France and the concept of family, though with a fantastical element tossed in.

Yes, Ricky's special ability is without question an outlandish conceit. [NB: If you haven’t seen the complete trailer, and would rather not know the secret, stop reading now.] Yet this isn't about Ozon being playfully provocative -- quite the opposite, in fact. For the first half of the film, we're presented with a detailed portrait of Katie (Alexandra Lamy), a factory-working single mom doing her best to raise her young daughter Lisa, while struggling to keep the roof of their shabby council flat over their heads. She begins a relationship with co-worker Paco (Pan's Labyrinth's Sergi Lopez), and it's not long before Katie finds herself pregnant.

Ricky Life with little Ricky is a struggle for the new couple, and his constant need for food and attention soon drives them apart, further fueled by an accusation of child abuse when mysterious bruises appear on the baby's back. Once again alone with the emotional and financial responsibility of raising a family, Katie desperately turns to the state for support, but receives nothing. When it becomes clear that Ricky's growths turn out to be functioning wings, her immediate response is to adapt and support her (very) special-needs child.

Ozon uses something as absurd as a flying baby to emphasize the tenacity of the maternal bond and the unyielding heroic spirit of motherhood. Is it subtle? Not in the slightest. But does it work? Absolutely. A lesser director would no doubt milk the laugh factor in a series of comic set pieces, but Ozon shows restraint, limiting the visual effects to but a few sequences. Critics here seemed to be put off by its neither-fish-nor-flesh approach, with some complaining that it doesn't follow through on its fairytale premise, and others finding it too corny as a familial drama. The obvious twist on the Annunciation (the film's finest moment, in my opinion) was also a thorn in some viewer's sides who were offended by Ozon's use of Christian imagery. Though the fantastical conceit may appear superficial at first glance, Ricky is a surprisingly moving parable on the concept of family in an age where its very definition has become a political construct rather than a social one.

Ricky screens again in Berlin on Feb. 15 (festival page). Over at The Daily, David Hudson has more to say, plus links.

Posted by ahillis at 12:34 PM | Comments (1)

February 8, 2009

WEEKEND BRIEF: Online Distribution @ SFFS

Funny or Die Another quick tip for those who live much closer to GreenCine HQ than me... This Monday (Feb. 9) at 7pm, the San Francisco Film Society presents their monthly "SFFS Film Arts Forum" mini-conference, and tomorrow night's forum will begin with a panel discussion:
"It’s no secret that online distribution is changing the shape of the film industry. From giants like YouTube, iTunes and Netflix to emerging, intriguing sites like Jaman, Crackle and Funny or Die, filmmakers are faced with a distribution landscape that’s evolving daily. The latest Film Arts Forum -- the Film Society’s bimonthly information-sharing, discussion, networking, professional-development jamboree -- will assemble a panel to debate, demystify and debunk online distribution in all its varying forms. Panelists include Larry Daressa, codirector of California Newsreel; Danae Ringelman, cofounder of IndieGoGo; attorney George Rush; and filmmaker [and Webby Awards founder] Tiffany Shlain. Noted Bay Area film journalist Michael Fox will moderate. Also attending the event will be representatives from YouTube, Landmark Theatres, Wholphin, Caachi and more."

Personally, I remain unconvinced that online distribution is yet a viable outlet for feature filmmakers, which is to say that I'd be incredibly interested to what answers and certainties such a diverse group of panelists has to offer. It all goes down at Mezzanine (444 Jessie Street), so hopefully some of you can go, bring up The Curious Case of Kevin B. Lee to the YouTube folks, and please report back on everything.

For tickets and more info, visit the SFFS website.

Posted by ahillis at 7:47 AM | Comments (2)

February 6, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Coraline

Coraline

Coraline
Directed by Henry Selick
2009, 100 minutes, U.S.A.

Stop-motion animation wunderkind Henry Selick told me himself this week that he felt betrayed when studio honchos gave writer/producer Tim Burton an above-the-title credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas, which should be shared with Selick as it's his most durable directorial effort to date. But now the tables have turned with the wonderfully eccentric Coraline, as Selick is not only getting the lion's share of acclaim for his stereoscopic 3D adaptation of goth-hero Neil Gaiman's fantasy novella, but his dazzlingly meticulous production is so ahead of the industry curve that a couple critics have unfairly rejected the rest of the film for not being able to compare. It's obviously all subjective, that's the nature of our gig, but rather than reviewing a widely-released gem like Coraline, I'd only like to make a tiny case for why you should check out the most sophisticated and touching family film since Wall-E.

Coraline Peter Keough's two-star review in the Boston Phoenix claims the film's "existential anxieties about identity, illusion, reality, boredom, and fun" -- as adventurous 11-year-old Coraline (voiced by a "shrill" Dakota Fanning) discovers a portal in her family's new country manor to a parallel world of decadent delights and underlying menace -- "dares not go below the surface." Yet Keough never explains his reasoning, unless he simply no longer remembers what being a kid is like, to wield the necessary power to transform a dreary day/experience/life into a vibrant adventure. Coraline is faced with having to choose between the parents who ignore her and "other parents" who are more fun, who shower her with gifts, who go out of their way to express their love; she makes her ultimate decision based on soul-searching, and her thought processes are demonstrated, not spoken aloud. When she's punished for her curiosities, she remains unwaveringly inquisitive. Being a child ain't easy, but Selick's and Gaiman's collaboration taps into that wide-eyed kid brain. Or, to give just as much evidence as Keough did, he's just wrong and I say so.

Coraline Similarly, Joe Morgenstern writes in the Wall Street Journal that the film "finally succumbs to terminal deficits in dramatic energy, narrative coherence and plain old heart." Once again, nothing to back up a statement that curt. While it's true that the momentum clips quicker in the back half, the story is uncomplicated and lucid throughout, and that a project filmed frame-by-posed-frame has suspense is pretty exciting. Even Morgenstern admits that it might be too scary for little kids, and the last time I checked, fright is an emotional response, no? He may say "too lifeless to enchant older audiences," but yet again, I say nay. Desson Thomson also cries heartless in the Washington Post, and while David Edelstein is the only grouch who voices his disapproval of the story with any effort, I can only hope that if you do rely on critics for consumer reporting, you take a look at what the overwhelming majority have to say, too. Here on the bandwagon, we're having an exhilarating time.

Coraline opens today everywhere, but you really must see it wherever it's playing in 3D. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 3:18 PM | Comments (1)

February 5, 2009

BERLIN '09 PODCAST: Gerardo Naranjo

Gerardo Naranjo, I'M GONNA EXPLODE

I'm Gonna Explode (Voy a explotar) is the audacious third feature from Gerardo Naranjo (Drama/Mex, Malachance), a rising Mexican auteur who was also previously seen as the star and co-writer of Azazel Jacobs' The GoodTimesKid (which, with full disclosure, Benten Films will be releasing this summer). I'm Gonna Explode has indeed exploded on the festival scene: last fall alone, it premiered at Venice, Toronto and New York (reviews here), and can be seen later this week in the Generation 14plus section at the 2009 Berlinale. Here's the trailer, and the synopsis used by NYFF:

"I'm Gonna Explode is a mood-shifting mock epic that channels Pierrot le fou complete with Georges Delerue music, albeit transposing the myth of the Last Romantic Couple to an upper middle-class Mexico City exurb. Ramon, the son of a sleazy right-wing congressman, contributes to his new high school’s talent show by ineptly attempting to hang himself on stage. Maru is the only one who claps. They bond in detention, and then it’s off in a stolen Volkswagen with daddy’s gun to the end of the night… or something like that. Absurdist and ultimately heartbreaking, I’m Gonna Explode is further proof of Mexican cinema’s ongoing vitality, a prime example of its nuevo nouvelle vague."

Back at the New York Film Festival, Naranjo and I met up after a post-screening Q&A to discuss his own rebellious childhood, how writing film criticism has influenced his work, and the case to be made for living fast and dying young. Our interview wasn't originally meant for podcast consumption, so I've left all 15 minutes unedited, with the uh's, um's, and squeaks intact.

To listen to the podcast, click here.
[WARNING: ONE MAJOR SPOILER]

I'm Gonna Explode screens at the 2009 Berlinale on Feb. 7, 8 and 14 (festival page). The film will also be available On Demand from IFC Festival Direct later this year. To visit the official site, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 2:15 PM | Comments (6)

February 4, 2009

Bottomless Barrels

Candy Land How difficult is it for a Hollywood screenwriter to craft an original story with wide appeal? That's neither rhetorical, nor a gripe about the 55 proposed remakes currently in the pipeline. (Arthur, as well as 10? Moore really is more.) From a strictly crass commercial standpoint, perhaps the economics do make sense when it comes to reinvigorating old franchises and cult genre favorites, so an eye roll is dismissal enough for Hellraiser, Akira, Westworld, or The Jetsons. Friday the 13th reboots next week, My Bloody Valentine last month, same as it ever was.

Except it gets worse. According to Variety, Universal has announced that their live-action adaptation of the Hasbro board game "Candy Land" is a go, directed by Enchanted's Kevin Lima. If, for instance, Amy Adams were to star, would we be shaken with white-knuckle suspense over whether she were able to take the Gumdrop Pass, or will she be confronted with crazy real-life obstacles like... losing turns? This might sound more ridiculous if Ridley Scott's Monopoly and Michael Bay's Ouija weren't also in the works (as are Battleship and Magic: The Gathering), and who could forget Clue? The possibilities sure are endless, H'wood. Why not Eli Roth's Operation? Wolfgang Petersen's Risk? Woody Allen's Scrabble? (Strike the last one, I might actually watch that.)

So now that we're reworking not just other movies and videogames (which, however annoying, make sense if you consider they have narratives), but recognizable cultural tangibles of all stripes (a mega-hit trilogy about pirates was birthed from a theme park ride, after all), how negligible will source material become in the next few years? I can't wait for the sporty action of Gatorade: The Motion Picture, the animated family adventure Pez Dispenser, and the CGI-effects comedy Bobble Heads. Is it studio marketing pushing audiences into seeing any dumb ol' product with a familiar brand, or are they just smart for cashing in on our doomed civilization?

Posted by ahillis at 6:34 PM | Comments (13)

February 3, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Days and Clouds

Days and Clouds

Days and Clouds (Giorni e nuvole)
Directed by Silvio Soldini
2007, 115 minutes, In Italian with English subtitles
Film Movement

It's not that we need another reminder of the demoralizing economy, but Bread and Tulips director Silvio Soldini's modest new captivator -- about a middle-aged Genoa couple whose relationship begins to buckle under the weight of financial duress -- exposes the tenuous politics of potentially every marriage with perceptive nuances, not the archetypal plate-throwing hysteria or maudlin austerity of countless European art-house dramas.

Days and Clouds Akin to the lead in Laurent Cantet's Time Out, balding neurotic Michele (Antonio Albanese, an uncanny Ron Carey lookalike) lost his executive job at the company he co-founded, but has refused to tell anyone for the past two months, including his art-historian wife Elsa (Margherita Buy) and 20-year-old daughter Alice (Alba Rohrwacher). Finally dropping the bomb on his better half that their upcoming Cambodian vacation and other luxuries will have to be downgraded, Michele refuses to scale back or tell anyone else out of unwavering pride; that he still pays for group dinners and turns down handouts may seem hard to relate for many viewers at a time like this, but Soldini has smartly written his characters with upper-middle-class accommodations so that the contrast is felt when they begin to slide into dire straits.

Days and Clouds Albanese and Buy are so comfortable in the parts and warmly believable together that you pull for them through thick and thin, even when their behavior illustrates how our possessions and lifestyles can, sadly, define us. Not knowing that her husband was hanging out on his boat all day instead of going to an office, Elsa quit her job to restore a ceiling fresco full-time, and now must work for peanuts (comparably) as a telemarketer during the day, a secretary at night. Michele mopes around, and for anyone who has ever been unemployed, the tics are painfully familiar: zoning out to the TV with impotent anger, cleaning the apartment just to feel productive, or on some days, not being able to get out of bed at all. In a truly humbling moment, Michele consents to a scooter deliveryman gig, then pulls up next to Alice and her quite gainfully employed boyfriend in the car beside him; she doesn't yet know about her father's situation, and the fixed shot of his helmeted melon from behind is a gut punch. In scene after scene, the couple responds to one another's prideful misdeeds (mostly Michele's) with alternating retaliation and apathy, sometimes appallingly so, but between Soldini's script, uncomplicated vérité style and the leads' chemistry, the underlying love they share is palpable, even when it makes more sense if and when they part. Days and Clouds is hardly an original narrative, but its naturalism and honesty and all-too-rare maturity all satisfy in a time when the shrinking of the middle class itself proves a cause of drama.

Posted by ahillis at 6:59 PM | Comments (1)

February 2, 2009

Lone Star Attractions

SXSW 2009 In mid-March, I'll be moseying down to the 2009 SXSW film festival (a grand ol' Tex-Mex time I try to hit every year, not least for being a former Austinite and alumni filmmaker), and now that the full line-up was announced this past weekend, here's a taste of what to expect.

The Hip Bone is Connected to the Mumblebone The m-word may unfortunately never die, but before pre-screening judgment is passed, let me say that I'm delighted whenever any facets of the DIY filmmaking community boost each other up: Andrew Bujalski appears in Dia Sokol's Sorry, Thanks, but his new film Beeswax will be in the mix, costarring Alex Karpovsky, whose third feature Trust Us, This Is All Made Up screens in the Emerging Visions category, as does David Lowery's St. Nick. Lowery costars in husband-wife team Joe Swanberg's Alexander the Last and Kris Swanberg's It Was Great, But I Was Ready to Come Home, and Barlow Jacobs (also in Joe and David's movies) has a bit part in Ry Russo-Young's You Won't Miss Me, as does Joe. Mark Duplass stars in Lynn Shelton's deservedly praised Humpday and Craig Johnson's True Adolescents, and while I'm sure as hell not drawing another chart, you practically need one.

Sundance Party, U.S.A. Besides Humpday and You Won't Miss Me, some other notable Park City leftovers have made the cut, including Adventureland, Grace, Sin Nombre, Passing Strange, The Yes Men Fix the World, Burma VJ, The Immaculate Conception of Little Dizzle, We Live in Public, and one of my favorites, the impressive sci-fi drama Moon. Unlike some other large festivals that turn their nose in the air to non-premieres, I've long admired SXSW's commitment to showcasing remarkable films, regardless of where they have or haven't played before. Take note, programmers!

Root for the Underdogs What I'm most looking forward to are the lil' gems that few people know about yet, which could have break-out potential. The Snake sold me on a Patton Oswalt recommendation and this brief synopsis, from a SF Weekly article: "a dark comedy about an inveterate womanizer in a post-feminist world, complete with a cameo by a screaming Margaret Cho." The website for the Japanese insect documentary Beetle Queen Conquers Tokyo features a mesmerizing trailer showcasing some dazzling cinematography. Local boy Tim McCanlies (Secondhand Lions) will be world-premiering The Two Bobs, about video-game designers in search of their stolen software, who "plunge into the strange world of Christian Venture Capitalists, aged Dixie Mafia hoodlums and bizarre Internet Spammers that inhabit Austin," according to the Austin Chronicle. And what kind of guy would I be to not mention Boston Phoenix critic Gerald Peary's long-awaited For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism, which is sure to get press, unless all the critics down in Austin happen to be talking heads in his doc, and conflicts of interest mean Perry will be crying in his queso... I kid, I kid.

Posted by ahillis at 9:43 AM | Comments (8)