April 30, 2009

TRIBECA '09 PODCAST: Damien Chazelle

GUY AND MADELINE ON A PARK BENCH filmmaker Damien Chazelle

They don't make musicals like MGM used to decades ago, so you have to hand it to Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench writer/director Damien Chazelle for channeling the spirit of innovators like Stanley Donen and even Michel Legrand in his gritty but beautiful, 16mm black-and-white debut, one of the bona fide treasures at Tribeca this year:

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench is about the often uneasy but always beautiful relationship between music and love. It tells the story of a young Boston jazz musician who drifts from affair to affair, his trumpet the only constant in his life. He makes a promising connection with an aimless introvert named Madeline, who immediately takes to his music. Their relationship is cut short, however, when Guy leaves her for another, more outgoing love interest. The two separated lovers slowly wind their way back into each other’s lives, through a series of romances and near-romances punctuated by song.

In town for the film's world premiere, Chazelle sat down with me to trumpet about Guy and Madeline's music and filmmaking influences, why he wanted to work with non-professional actors, the problem facing most indie-film scores today, and the question that his protagonist must himself face: what's more important, love or art?

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench screens once more at the festival on May 3 (Tribeca fest page). For reviews and more, check with David Hudson at IFC's The Daily, or for the film's official website, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 9:30 PM

April 29, 2009

SFIFF52: Tahoe, Our Month of Beloved August, Ferlinghetti

[Jeffrey Anderson offers up capsule looks at a few of the more intriguing films he saw this past week at the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival. I reviewed two more here. - Craig Phillips]

Lake Tahoe
****½ out of *****

When Fernando Eimbcke made his directorial debut with the wonderful Duck Season, he immediately and frequently earned comparisons to Jim Jarmusch: black-and-white cinematography, deadpan humor, a distinct lack of forward momentum in the plot. He probably won't shake that comparison with his second feature, the full-color Lake Tahoe

Our Beloved Month of August
**** out of *****

This head-scratcher comes from Portuguese director Miguel Gomes. If the film is to be believed, he started out with a giant tome of a screenplay about a girl, and her cousin and her over-protective father, but was unable to raise the money to shoot it. So the movie starts like a documentary about rural Portugal, with colorful interviews and great footage of local bands performing on stage. (They look like small-town fishermen, shopkeepers and beer-drinkers rather than performers; can everybody in Portugal sing this well?) Then, at some point, some of the folks we've met begin to turn into movie characters -- a girl whose job is to sit atop a tower and watch for forest fires becomes the movie's heroine -- and we get our little story of illicit romance and other amorous troubles. Our Beloved Month of August is a very long 150 minutes, and it requires a great deal of patience before it starts making sense. It's unwieldy and often frustrating, but ultimately quite rewarding. The final scene is so lovely and mysterious that you'll leave with a smile.

Ferlinghetti
*** out of *****

Bay Area-based filmmaker Christopher Felver directed this slight portrait of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who has spent roughly the second half of his life living and working in San Francisco, running the totally independent City Lights Bookstore and publishing dozens of great books and poetry collections under the store's publishing wing. One of his first publications was Allan Ginsberg's once-controversial "Howl," which immediately plunked Ferlinghetti into all kinds of hot water. (According to the movie, Ferlinghetti took the bullet and went to trial while Ginsberg wasn't even in the country; fortunately the good guys won.) The movie also makes the argument that Ferlinghetti is the best known and most widely read of living poets; his Coney Island of the Mind has been in print consistently for fifty years. But at only 75 minutes, the film barely scratches the surface of the man. Talking heads tell us about events and some clips show him doing his stuff, but new footage of the 90-year-old Ferlinghetti is few and far between, and even that much comes across as more reverent than curious. Still, the movie does make you want to hang out at City Lights and read more poetry. -- Jeffrey M. Anderson

Posted by cphillips at 10:04 AM

April 28, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Johnny Got His Gun

[We're extremely proud to bring Shooting Down Pictures cine-whiz Kevin B. Lee into the fold with a fabulous new video essay for GreenCine Daily's DVD of the Week. Headbangers, unite!]

Johnny Got His Gun
Directed by Dalton Trumbo
1971, 106 minutes, USA
Shout Factory

Posted by ahillis at 1:29 PM

April 27, 2009

SFIFF '09: Tales of childhood woe

[Craig Phillips spotlights, in his words: "two wholly different but equally memorable tales about poorly raised children, which were the highlights of my first weekend exploring the 52nd San Francisco International Film Festival."]



HANSEL AND GRETEL
Korea, 2008.

HanselGretelposter.jpg A young man, Eun-Soo, drives on a lonely forest highway while having an argument via cell phone with his girlfriend. This leads to what could serve as the greatest PSA warning about the dangers of talking on a cell phone while driving: his loses control of the car just long enough to swerve and flip over a ditch. In his dazed, bloodied state he wanders into a forest before passing out with a concussion. When Eun-Soo (Jeong-myeong Cheon) wakes, he's pleased to see a young girl -- wearing a little red riding hood, natch -- has found him. She offers to lead the dazed man back to her home, which welcomes him with a sign reading "Home for Happy Children" -- a good indicator that things are just not going to go well here. It's a house not made of gingerbread but seemingly too good to be true... And that's just the first few minutes of director Yim Phil-Sung's (Antarctic Journal) memorably dark fable inspired by, but also transposing, the titular Grimm fairy tale.

The son, Soojeong, seems to have special abilities that may begin to remind you of that famous Twilight Zone episode "It's a Good Life" (remade in the TZ movie), a boy burdened with a gift who wants to get everything he wishes. But the family history as it's slowly revealed will give you a great deal of sympathy for the life he's been cursed with. This "family" of three children of various ages (and you don't know the half of it) turns out to have a few surprising secrets underneath that initial layer of rosy-cheeked friendliness. Eun-soo does everything he can to try to leave the house, to return to his pregnant wife and ailing mother, but all paths away from the house seem to lead right back to it; it's a Bermuda Triangle in the heart of the forest.

The story gets a bit convoluted as it rolls on, rushing through a few too many plot points and explanations, but slowly builds the layers of dread. Eun-soo becomes more protective of the children while also battling against a deacon who'd ended up at the house and seems to cloak his own dark side under a veneer of insincere friendliness.

What the film also has going for it is the look, the lushly colored cinematography and art design are perfectly in tune with the story of a distorted childhood, of being stuck in time and place. The pastiche of creepy kitsch and domestic detritus -- odd bunny paintings (it's the best creepy rabbit movie since Donnie Darko), time warped cartoons, fluffy desserts, children's toys everywhere -- and the variations of forest light and darkness, all of this adds to the feeling of dread that hangs over the film.

It's as if Kore-ada's Nobody Knows took a detour through purgatory before returning to humanity.

It's not fun for the whole family, but it's a pretty memorable work.


IT'S NOT ME, I SWEAR!
Canada, 2008

itsnotme.jpgIt's Not Me, I Swear! (C'est pas moi, je le jure!), a French-Canadian film from Philippe Falardeau, the director of the unappreciated Congorama (which screened here at the SFIFF 2 years ago), is based on Bruno Hebert's 1997 novel and its 2000 sequel. It's a disquieting coming of age tale set in 1968, which seems a bit of an obvious watershed year to set a film in, but to its credit the film never pushes this too hard, only uses the political upheaval going on across the world as something to touch fingers with -- and the children depicted here seem in tune with the political zeitgeist. Set in suburban Montreal, IIt's Not Me, I Swear takes place from the skewed point of view of Leon -- played by the unforgettable Antoine L’Écuyer, who seems to have stepped out of an early Truffaut film -- an acutely intelligent ten year old with a delinquent streak (in the most egregious example, he breaks into the wealthy neighbor's house, plays with their stuff and pees on their collection of fur coats).

His parents have a tumultuous relationship, with the mother the epitome of child-enabler -- she even tells Leon the right way to lie ("make sure you keep your story straight") -- before she abruptly abandons them for a Greece in the midst of a socialist upheaval. It seems hard to believe that even as self-centered and soul-searching as she is that, given her tight bond with Leon, and her constant worries over his cries for help, she would abruptly leave him, but, again, since the film is from Leon's point of view we don't know all the angles of her story.

At any rate, you can see why he's a bit messed up (the film could be used in any bad parenting workshop). He tries to hide his pain with increasingly desperate acts and Harold and Maude-ish suicide attempt ploys. He meets his match with Lea (Catherine Faucher), a girl with family problems of her own, suffering with an abusive, drunken uncle. Their budding friendship and subsequent aborted quest to escape, as the two kids help each other try to repair the damaged trail their wayward parents have left them on, forms the main thrust of the story. Leon also finds more comfort in a lonely corn field and in a local bowling alley than he does at home.

The film manages to navigate through subtle shifts in tone, with humor (a bit involving Leon lying about his eyesight is particularly funny) and pain equal partners. What is most heartbreaking is how much pain he causes his poor older brother, who just desperately wants to have a normal family in which everyone is happy.

Even though much of the film sounds, at least on paper, like a lot of other coming of age stories about warped pre-adolescents, like Hansel and Gretel, It's Not Me, I Swear has a unique feel to it, buoyed by the superb cinematography by André Turpin. Turpin, who also shot Congorama and the Genie Award-winning Maelstrom, has a lovely way with color hues, here using slightly blown out lighting that makes the film look like a more crisply shot home movie. And Patrick Watson's music score, augmented by appropriately emo songs, adds to the moodiness.

Falardeau's film ultimately ends up being both shocking and touching in equal measure, with several images near the end you won't soon forget.

Posted by ahillis at 11:16 AM

April 26, 2009

TRIBECA '09 PODCAST: Julien Nitzberg, Johnny Knoxville, Jeff Tremaine

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (Julien Nitzberg, Jesco White)

Eighteen years after producing Dancing Outlaw—the cult-beloved short film about hard-drinking, drug-devouring, tap-dancing Appalachian criminal Jesco White—filmmaker Julien Nitzberg returned to his Boone County home to document both Jesco and his extended deviant family. Making its world premiere in the Midnight section of this year's Tribeca Film Festival, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia will have you scooping your jaw off the floor, this meandering slice-of-life portrait as hilarious as it is intensely horrifying. Snorting and smoking and shooting (not necessarily with needles, but with guns!) anything they can get their hands on, the White clan are responsible for an alarming percentage of the area's 911 calls, and Nitzberg was given full access to their wicked antics for a full year.

Sitting down at the DIRECTV Tribeca Press Center, executive producers Johnny Knoxville and Jeff Tremaine (Jackass)—no strangers to bad behavior themselves—joined Nitzberg and I for a chat about how coal mining plays into the Whites' lives, the crucial moral difference between the film and Jackass, and the most dangerous moment Nitzberg experienced in all the 540 hours of footage he shot.

To listen to the podcast, click here.
[WARNING: Explicit language!]

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia screens at the festival again tonight, April 30 and May 2. For more information, visit the film's official Tribeca page.

Posted by ahillis at 4:46 PM

April 24, 2009

FILMS OF THE WEEK: Tyson, Treeless Mountain

Mike Tyson in, of course, TYSON Just a quickie before I head back into Manhattan for tonight's Tribeca Film Festival screening of Burning Down the House: The Story of CBGB... Two worthwhile films have just opened in limited release, so let me point my upward thumbs the right direction. First up is Tyson, which I mentioned in the Village Voice's spring preview:
Will Mike Tyson be remembered as the youngest heavyweight boxing champ in the world, or will that feat forever be weighted down by personal baggage—the publicly imploding marriage, the prison sentence for rape, the freaky face tattoo, and the animalistic threats of eating children? In this sobering, sympathetic doc, American cine-maverick James Toback (Fingers, When Will I Be Loved), a longtime friend of Tyson's, intercuts the requisite number of archive clips with new, candidly self-loathing interviews of this deeply bruised pugilist.

Treeless Mountain And here's an interview I did with Toback for IFC, who—and y'all can argue with me until you're mauve in the face—is an underrated and consistently fascinating auteur, even when he misfires. Did anyone actually see Two Girls and a Guy or Harvard Man? The latter may be the only worthwhile project Adrian Grenier has worked on beyond Cecil B. Demented. Relatedly, if you'd like the diametrically opposed viewing experience to another inanely materialistic episode of Entourage, check out Treeless Mountain, a truly little movie that needs all the love you have to offer:

Korean-American filmmaker So Yong Kim follows up her hauntingly beautiful 2006 debut In Between Days with this poignant, impeccably shot, semi-autobiographical tale of two resilient Seoul sisters, six-year-old Jin (Hee-Yeon Kim) and even younger Bin (Song-Hee Kim). Indefinitely abandoned by their mother at their alcoholic aunt-in-law's home, Jin and Bin find gently upbeat pleasures in what little they've been given. Deceptively simple, and more uplifting than heartbreaking, the film is brilliantly adept at capturing the world from a child's perspective.

Other weekend titles I've written about: Béla Fleck goes to Africa with his fancy banjo in Throw Down Your Heart (which may be slight and overlong, but the music's fabulous) and John Malkovich cameos in the trashy sci-fi/action/horror bore Mutant Chronicles, which isn't even a fifth as entertaining (unless maybe you've had a fifth of bourbon) as my interview with co-star Ron Perlman.

Posted by ahillis at 4:04 PM

April 23, 2009

Un Certain Disregard

[As the lineup for the 2009 Cannes Film Festival was just unveiled today, Vadim Rizov weighs in on the festival's history with local auteurs. He still doesn't endorse sexual abuse.]

Godard and Truffaut 50 years ago yesterday, Jean-Luc Godard unleashed one of his charming little cri de couers upon Cinema As We Know It. The occasion was Truffaut's The 400 Blows being selected as France's sole official submission to the Cannes Film Festival. "[F]or the first time a young film has been officially designated by the powers that be to reveal the true face of the French cinema to the entire world," Godard exulted, before launching into another seething blast against the cinema de papa the Cahiers gang loathed so much. "In attacking over the last five years in these columns the false technique of Gilles Grangier, Ralph Habib, Yves Allégret [ed: another 18 names follow] ... what we were getting at was simply this: your camera movements are ugly because your subjects are bad, your casts act badly because your dialogue is worthless; in a word, you don’t know how to create cinema because you no longer even know what it is ... Today, victory is ours. It is our films that will go to Cannes to show that France is looking good, cinematographically speaking. Next year it will be the same again, you may be sure of that."

Hiroshima, Mon Amour And so it was, sort of. As it happened, The 400 Blows was joined at the festival by Hiroshima Mon Amour, which was then pulled from competition in deference to the outraged American delegation. 50 years later, Alain Resnais is back once again with Les Herbes folles, his fifth appearance in competition; to an extent, the New Wave became the establishment, as they wished. Things, of course, didn't change overnight: Allégret was back in competition in 1962, and arguably not another significant New Wave film was in competition til The Umbrellas of Cherbourg in 1964 (and that's a tenuous categorization). Godard, hilariously, didn't make it into competition 'til 1980, after he'd been safely absorbed into the canon. But the world had noticed. If the New Wave never wiped out the "tradition of quality" as much as they'd hope, they certainly made themselves felt internationally.

Swimming Pool In recent years, there's been a fair amount of bitching and paranoia about the lack of French films in competition, regardless of orientation. Leaving messy co-productions out of this and sticking to films in French by ethncially French directors, 2003 boasted five entries, none of which have really survived the test of time, even five years later. They included François Ozon's risible Swimming Pool, a minor entry from aging wunderkind Bertrand Blier, and equally minor works from André Téchiné and Claude Miller. (I'm reserving judgment on Tiresia, because of its Wikipedia summary: "it tells of a transsexual who is kidnapped by a man and left to die in the woods. She is then saved by a family and receives the gift of telling the future.") In contrast, 2004 only had two entries, and they were both weak: Olivier Assayas' token prestige pic Clean and Agnes Jaoui's Look At Me (Jaoui is precisely the kind of filmmaker Godard worked to eradicate, though frankly these days she does better with the kind of material Alain Resnais inexplicably chooses than Resnais himself). 2005 had two films, but they were Lemming and, uh, To Paint Or Make Love.

Un Carnet de Bal In truth, the great French Drought at Cannes has been greatly exaggerated: the past two years had seven French submissions, including major works like A Christmas Tale, The Class and Frontier of Dawn. Still, it's hard not to get psyched about a line-up so strong that informed speculation says Claire Denis' latest didn't make the cut because it was so crowded in there already. (I mean, they could've done away with Xavier Giannoli, but whatever.) The real point isn't whatever faux-panic we're having this year; the point is that Godard didn't win. We celebrate the New Wave, as always, just as we celebrate adventurous descendants like Desplechin. But things swing back and around; Allégret never left Cannes, and now we have Jaoui and her ilk, the traditionalists' heirs. They will never leave. One of the filmmakers on Godard's shitlist was Julien Duvivier; from May 1-25 (outlasting the Festival handily), MoMA will host a retrospective of his work. If you go look up the more obscure works on IMDb, battle scars still linger. Check out the bitter comments on e.g. Un Carnet De Bal: "While Godard and co were still in diapers, Duvivier, Renoir and Carné were inventing the best French cinema that had ever been. I would trade you all M. 'A bout de soufflé' filmography for 'un carnet de bal'." Copious [sic]s aside, it's telling and odd that way after the New Wave, some people are still angry, presumably still seeking out classicist cinema. The real question at Cannes (and in world film) isn't how many French films made it; it's what they represent. 50 years later, Cannes tilts highbrow, but still will never eradicate its middlebrow component. Not that that's a problem—I, for one, am pumped for this chance to re-evaluate Duvivier—but it's the status quo, just as it's been for 50 years. The New Wave's real achievement wasn't erasing the middlebrow, no matter how hard they tried: it was creating a separate space to co-exist in, if a more marginalized one commercially.

Posted by ahillis at 2:11 PM | Comments (10)

April 21, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Science is Fiction

Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve

Science is Fiction
23 Films directed by Jean Painlevé
1925-1982, 315 minutes, In French with English subtitles
Criterion

"Do you really believe that just because I cut an eye open in a film that I like this sort of thing? Operations horrify me. I can't stand the sight of blood."
- Luis Buñuel, to Jean Painlevé's request that Un Chien Andalou's most notorious image be real surgery footage.

Jean Painlevé (1902 - 1989) associated and collaborated with the Surrealists in Paris during the '20s, but like the title of Criterion's astonishing new three-DVD set, a 2001 critical evaluation and collection of his writings, as well as the doctrine he worked under, Painlevé first and foremost believed in the realism of science to create what could be mistaken for avant-garde fantasies. A fascinating multi-hyphenate, Painlevé was a scientist-theorist-filmmaker-educator-actor and more, the son of mathematician and two-time Prime Minister of the French Third Republic, Paul Painlevé. Why is Painlevé the younger so unknown with such an illustrious background? Perhaps it's because most of the 200-plus films (many co-credited to his life and work partner, Geneviève "Ginette" Hamon) he produced were technically of that classroom-chore variety, the scientific nature film. Long before Cousteau, he was one of the first to film marine life, developed his own underwater cameras to do so, and attempted to arouse widespread interest in his subjects through poetic filters: uncannily juxtaposed electronic drones and jazz soundtracks, tongue-in-cheek narration, artful winky-winks (Near the conclusion of a film about sea horses, an inserted matte background features racehorses circling a track), and microscopic zooms, with footage sped-up or slowed-down to illustrate life or mating cycles. His use of color is particularly rich, and while I personally prefer his films discovering vibrant hues where cameras hadn't gone before, some of his early black-and-white shorts are compelling because the limitation works abstractly.

Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve Most of Painlevé's films focus on a single organism, and his matter-of-fact titles would definitely get the Frederick Wiseman seal of approval, such as the aforementioned The Sea Horse, or Sea Urchins, How Some Jellyfish Are Born, The Love Life of the Octopus (my personal favorite—so perversely gooey and wonderful!), and Liquid Crystals. What's especially interesting about the subjects he found most compelling is they're typically misfits of the sea, whose everyday rituals could be construed as alternative lifestyles. As noted by Scott McDonald's accompanying essay, the films even seem to investigate "progressive gender politics" when canvassing hermaphroditic starfish, self-fertilizing jellyfish, and again, the sea horse—a species whose males are the incubators of the females' fertilized eggs. Painlevé used the cinema as a world explorer, but as an opinionated intellectual, he even incorporated his strong political beliefs. In perhaps his best known film, 1945's The Vampire, a rare venture above sea level into the realm of the South American vampire bat, he references not only Murnau's Nosferatu, and less explicitly, the real-life vampires sucking Europe dry at that time: the Nazis.

Science is Fiction: 23 Films by Jean Painleve Perhaps his films were more lyrical than informative as he tried to adhere to his "Ten Commandments" of filmmaking, but how could any junior high school student fall asleep while an octopus devoured a crab before impregnating some hot piece of tentacle? (I was never much of an academic nerd, but I would've eaten up The Fourth Dimension as a youngster, his partly-animated explanation of the titular concept, which is pretty smart and uncomplicated, considering that—even with an expert for a father—Painlevé wasn't particularly skilled at mathematics). Maybe the key is to bring in the indie-rock: Yo La Tengo's "The Sounds of Science," an experimental, instrumental, eight-film song cycle that they've been performing since commissioned in 2001, is included in its entirety on the first disc, along with an interview with the band. Want to spice up your curriculum and keep the kids awake, Teach? Get your hands wet with this weird and wonderful new DVD release.

Posted by ahillis at 3:49 PM | Comments (1)

April 20, 2009

A Drowning Nation: Interview with Trouble the Water filmmakers

Trouble the Water [trailer] looks deep and hard at America before, during and after Hurricane Katrina led to the flooding of New Orleans and, in particular, the Bush Administration's typical gross incompetence in responding to the catastrophes.

Directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal, the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Documentary category this past year. "Save for some righteous indignation at the close," wrote Manohla Dargis in The New York Times, "Trouble the Water makes its points without didacticism. [The film] ebbs and flows like great drama."

A producer who has worked with Michael Moore (Fahrenheit 9/11), Martin Scorsese, Bob Dylan and others, Trouble the Water is Lessin's feature debut. A co-producer on Fahrenheit 9/11, Deal's other credits include being an archivist for Bowling for Columbine, God Grew Tired of Us and Murderball. The film premieres on HBO this Thursday, April 23, before making its debut on DVD this summer from Zeitgeist Films.

In an exclusive interview now running on GreenCine, John Esther spoke to Deal and Lessin about Trouble the Water.

Posted by cphillips at 11:14 AM

April 18, 2009

Video Store Day

[I saw a handful of films that opened this weekend, and not one of them could I recommend as a "Film of the Week." If only I had gone to the advance press screening of Léon Morin, Priest at NYC's Film Forum, or went with a certain friend and editor of mine to see Crank: High Voltage last night... I kid, I kid.]

High Fidelity Today is the second annual Record Store Day, a grassroots celebration of the independent record store, which—guessing by the last time you actually walked into a mom-and-pop shop to buy a new CD or *gasp* some vinyl, instead of downloading an MP3 or listening to Pandora—has more economic anxieties than the rest of us. Over a thousand indie retailers in 17 different countries are participating, with a slew of in-store performances (Franz Ferdinand, Bill Callahan, The Breeders, Regina Spektor, Erykah Badu, and hundreds more), special-edition CDs, DVDs and 7" samplers, and freebies being offered. Will it help boost up the little guys, trying to stay afloat in a sea of gargantuan chains and media pirates, or is it little more than a pat on the head to those who have managed to keep their dreams alive? (Timothy Finn at the Kansas City Star even postulates that the event is potentially detrimental and pricier than it's worth.)

Be Kind Rewind Now, at the risk of conflicting interests—since, like some hair club for men, I don't just write for GreenCine, I'm also a proud member—I fear that the indie video-rental stores, also flagging, won't ever get their own event like this. When I ran one such store in Brooklyn a few years back, I always delighted at the over-the-counter question "What's good this week?" and felt the same way being on the other side of that question in similar establishments. So while some might make the argument about physical media's one foot in the grave to explain why we no longer value the personability found in a cool lil' video shop (also, as vice-president of a distribution label, I take umbrage that people don't still want to collect tangible, artfully packaged media), I think it would be worth the time, effort and inspiration to begin an event for the indie record shop's cinematic brethren. Maybe it wouldn't have single-handedly saved the rental department of Kim's Video, but in an age where we communicate as frequently on Facebook and Twitter as we do in real life, it would at least be refreshing to get face-to-face recommendations from passionate tastemakers instead of whatever Amazon.com keywords and algorithms dictate we consume.

Posted by ahillis at 12:35 PM | Comments (1)

April 16, 2009

PODCAST: Alex Rivera & Leonor Varela

SLEEP DEALER's Alex Rivera and Leonor Varela

"Adventurous, ambitious and ingeniously futuristic, Sleep Dealer is a welcome surprise. It combines visually arresting science fiction done on a budget with a strong sense of social commentary in a way that few films attempt, let alone achieve," praised Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. Visually arresting indeed, the debut feature from co-writer/director Alex Rivera may be the first sci-fi film set in a third-world locale:

"Mexico. The near future. Memo Cruz has always dreamed of leaving his tiny village and heading north. But when he is ultimately forced to leave, Memo finds a future so bizarre—border walls, shantytowns, hi-tech factories, remote control drones and aqua-terrorists—that it looks a lot like today."

Sitting down before its U.S. theatrical release, Rivera, co-star Leonor Varela and I jacked into a conversation about what the film's really about, the evils as well as the benefits of globalization, and how to find the balance between subtlety and ideological preaching in a sci-fi allegory... all after Varela offered up an amazing impression of a horse. (It was actually in context, but thank goodness I didn't have to transcribe that!)

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Sleep Dealer opens tomorrow in New York and Los Angeles. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 7:23 PM | Comments (2)

April 15, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Hiding Out

Hiding Out

Hiding Out
Directed by Bob Giraldi
1987, 98 minutes, USA
Lionsgate

"I can't hide here forever. My grades aren't that good."
- Jon Cryer, Hiding Out

Don't wipe your glasses clean, you absolutely read that title correctly. While I'd be lying if I attempted to defend this predictable, lightweight thriller-cum-teen comedy as some unsung masterpiece, I'll unashamedly admit that Hiding Out holds a dear place in my suburban-child heart. (Which is precisely what Lionsgate is banking on, but more on that later.) Jon Cryer—a year after enamoring teen girls as Pretty in Pink's Duckie, and two years after his role in Altman's neglected O.C. & Stiggs—stars as twenty-something yuppie Andrew Bujalski Morenski, a wealthy Boston bond dealer whose accidental entanglement with mobsters puts him in the line of fire before he can testify against these villainous inside traders. Under police custody, a shoot-out ensues and Andrew flees town, shaves his beard, bleaches the sides of his hair, and finds refuge at his charmingly goofy young cousin's (Keith Coogan) suburban high school as its oldest student. Put on the spot while enrolling, a nearby can of Maxwell House coffee saves his bogus story: meet new senior Max Houser. Will he be able to fool his classmates and teachers, get elected class president, find true love in a fellow student (Annabeth Gish) without being charged on statutory rape, thwart the hit men who have somehow tracked his scent, and still find time to roller-skate to Pretty Poison? I love the '80s, indeed.

Hiding OutEven getting past the movie's silly, implausible premise, Joe Menosky and Jeff Rothberg's screenplay blows its potential to really flesh out the concept: if you were returning to high school a decade later, wouldn't you seek revenge on bullies, tell off condescending teachers, and help out the awkward misfits? Where are the social obstacles caused by the generation gap? Why don't the screenwriters address the peculiarity of a nearly thirty-year-old man falling for a teenager? But that kind of nitpicking is a waste of time for an insomniac's 3am entertainment like this, and it's mostly for Cryer's relaxed charisma and his amiable supporting cast that the film is quite watchable. It's also a shame that director Bob Giraldi—a notable music video director responsible for such videos as Michael Jackson's "Beat It," Lionel Richie's "All Night Long" and "Penny Lover," and Pat Benetar's "Love is a Battlefield"—didn't seem vested enough in adding any visual flair to the proceedings, but yet again, we're discussing a guilty pleasure about the Famous Teddy Z going all 21 Jump Street.

Hiding Out, the Lost Collection DVDHappily revisiting it after several years, I probably had that faraway gaze and goofy grin of reliving my youthful movie-going, which makes sense since Hiding Out is one of eight dusted-off titles (all '84 - '90) in Lionsgate's "Lost Collection," subtitled "The best movies you totally forgot about." The set includes Morgan Stewart's Coming Home (another Cryer vehicle), Irreconcilable Differences (the best known of the bunch; watch for young Sharon Stone!), Homer & Eddie (a dramedy with Whoopi and the lesser Belushi), My Best Friend Is a Vampire (the poor man's Once Bitten), The Night Before (the poor man's After Hours), Slaughter High (a slasher flick you haven't heard of for a reason), and Repossessed (a Naked Gun-style Exorcist parody starring, naturally, Leslie Nielsen and Linda Blair). Except for Hiding Out, all of the films are presented only in full screen, perhaps to really cash in on audiences' edited-for-TV reminiscences, and each comes equipped with a trivia subtitle track. It's here, in the age of Pop-Up Video, where Lionsgate missed a golden opportunity to play up the camp factor of this motley crew of musty movies. Rather than offering fun, fascinating factoids on the filming of Hiding Out for instance, a clueless intern must've simply scoured IMDb for whatever boring data was available for some lifeless multiple-choice questions (looking at IMDb myself, my suspicions were confirmed): who cares if sound editor Barney Cabral had six Primetime Emmy nominations? Who would want to know the name of the high school where Annabeth Gish attended? (Literally the only surprise was learning Roy Orbison re-recorded "Crying" in a Grammy-winning duet with k.d. lang specifically for the film's soundtrack.) Oh well, at least I got to revel in my memories and learn the true value of nostalgia—it's $14.98 a pop at a retailer near you.

Posted by ahillis at 6:51 PM | Comments (5)

April 14, 2009

MIA DVDs 3-D

By Craig Phillips

taxingwomanYet another in my series of fully biased reports on movies that are frustratingly absent a current DVD release here in the United States (the other two lists are here, and here.) Here are ten more neglected films -- and this is one article I wouldn't mind seeing become dated, when/if these films finally do arrive on disc:

  • The List of Adrian Messenger: I'll confess that I haven't seen this one since I was a pre-teen (on television one night), but it was one of the first mystery films I both really loved and even understood, aside from the 70s all-star Agatha Christie films. Even if there's a chance it's now dated, the pedigree -- director John Huston, actors Kirk Douglas, George C. Scott, Robert Mitchum, et al -- should alone be enough to get this one its due on DVD. A real head-scratcher that it's not.
  • A Taxing Woman: Juzo Itami's wonderful film has long been OOP on DVD, which seems to occur to me every year on tax day. The titular tax agent is played by Itami's wife. Was followed by a sequel, also not on DVD in the States. Someone do an audit and find out why.
  • Barbarosa: Woefully underrated Western from woefully underrated director Fred Schepisi was mentioned again recently in Michael Sragow's review of Appaloosa, as both are throwback Westerns in the best possible sense. Barbarosa had a really crummy pan and scan DVD that came out ages ago that I refuse to acknowledge. Willie Nelson and Gary Busey in their prime (can't say the same these days).
  • Mickey One: Saw this in film school and begged the teacher to let me see it again, so much did it capture my curiosity and attention. Fascinating, if obtuse, Arthur Penn film with Warren Beatty as a guy who flees the mob, becomes a renowned stand-up comic, and then fears his own demise. The film works on several levels, and offers one of Beatty's best performances.
  • Humanoids from the Deep: Roger Corman presents...a truly perverse reworking of Creature from the Black Lagoon. It's cheap, it's gross, and entertaining, if nasty. With so much other schlock on DVD now why isn't this... schlock on DVD?
  • High Tide: Gillian Armstrong. Judy Davis -- in case anyone needed to be reminded what a terrific actress she is, here's one of her best, early roles.
  • Napoleon (1927) That Abel Gance's silent classic had been on DVD in Australia but not here has long been source of frustration for me and a ton of other American cinephiles to be sure. Much of this has apparently has to do with a battle over versions: Francis Coppola's Zoetrope has owned the rights to a "restored" version some years back (which actually ran quite a bit shorter than the original, and had a new soundtrack by Carmine Coppola) vs film restorer Kevin Brownlow's version, which is seemingly impossible to see outside of the UK. End our suffering!
  • brewster_mccloud.jpg

  • What Happened Was: Tom Noonan wrote, directed, and starred in this Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner about overlapping perspectives on an awkward first date. It's a terrific "little" film, in the best sense of the word.
  • Brewster McCloud: After Harold and Maude, of course, this (very) quirky Robert Altman sleeper is surely Bud Cort's finest hour (and 45 minutes). In H&M, he played a shy loner who lived with his mother and dreams up his own deaths; in Brewster he plays a shy loner who lives in the Astrodome(!) and dreams of flight. A surreal, even cartoonish satire that owes a bit to the French New Wave, it left people scratching their heads when it followed Altman's hit MASH, but has since developed a cult following. Needs to take flight on DVD.
  • 99 River Street: As far as I know, this tough, taut noir from 1953 has never even appeared on VHS, yet alone on DVD. I lucked into seeing a print shown at a film noir course in college and yet had forgotten about it until reading a piece online about underrated noir director Phil Karlson.
  • Honorable mentions (or, titles that will appear on future MIA DVD lists, if they don't arrive on DVD before then): A New Leaf; The Assault; FM and WUSA; Blues Harp (Takashi Miike).

    Happy note: I originally had Bunuel's The Exterminating Angel on this list, too, but then heard the news that Criterion was going to release it -- and lo! It's now out on DVD. Hurrah.

    Posted by cphillips at 3:15 PM | Comments (11)

    April 13, 2009

    Observing Rape

    [Vadim Rizov, in what he originally pitched as "this week in faux-controversy," calmly opens the ol' worm can just as others approach it with hysteria. Not that it needed to be said, but he clearly does not endorse sexual abuse. - AH]

    Observe and ReportThe internet, we know, does not encourage rational discourse, especially when everyone's generating content as fast as possible. Latest case-in-point: Observe and Report, which has quickly spiraled from Seth Rogen's Freddy Got Fingered for sheer alienation to a competitor for Irreversible's seemingly inviolable claim to Most Controversial Screen Rape of the Decade. I did not see this coming when I saw the film's world premiere at SXSW. There is certainly a "discussion" to be had here, but it's not occurring.

    To recap: about two-thirds of the way through the film, mall cop Ronnie Barnhardt (Seth Rogen) has coerced spiteful bitch Brandi (Anna Faris) into a date. She goes from pissed to pleased when Ronnie offers up his bipolar meds, washes down the ad hoc drug cocktail with a bunch of drinks, and vomits all over herself on the front lawn of her house. Cut to: Ronnie, mid-coitus, on top of Brandi. After a few seconds of thrusting, it dawns on him that Brandi is passed-out, and he stops, confused. "Why are you stopping, motherfucker?" comes Brandi's regal command—her head lolled to the side, all but insensate—and Rogen gets back to it. End of scene. When I saw this, the audience let out one of its loudest whoops; because I am an idiot, I'd forgotten about the concept of "informed consent." There are a few things here that seem fairly clear, though, and one is that Ronnie isn't, in his mind, a rapist. He's a self-proclaimed force for justice, and the cutting here is fairly unambiguous: when they started having sex, Ronnie was clear on the mutual consent, at some point Brandi passed out (or seemed to), and that's where we come in. That doesn't solve the problem of whether or not it's date rape, but it's worth noting, because some of the most hysterical commentary has leaped upon this gap in the footage as a key prosecuting point. Ronnie may be a rapist, but not intentionally.

    Observe and Report: condones date rape?Now, why didn't it occur to me this would strike most people as date rape? Mainly because Brandi isn't a real person. Observe and Report is incoherent in a lot of ways—it's fatally unclear on what's funny and what's unsettling, to the point that I suspect not even writer/director Jody Hill knows most of the time—but Ronnie's characterization is clear and psychologically unified: he's violent and bipolar, but he thinks he's a good guy. No one else in the movie gets that kind of treatment: they're all caricatures to varying extremes, as is Brandi. Everyone in the film is more or less presented in the warped way Ronnie perceives them from his delusional P.O.V., and that goes double for this encounter. It's hard to take things seriously when Anna Faris slays with her finest bubblehead act.

    But let's say we can all agree on what we're looking at is clear-cut, 100% date rape. The next question is: How is this worse than anything else that happens in the movie? Among other exploits, it's reasonably clear that Ronnie kills (or at least fatally injures) some drug dealers, beats the shit out of a bunch of teen skateboarders, shoots up heroin and point-blank shoots a dude at close range. Now, I do not want to create a hierarchical scale of moral outrages, which begs for trouble. It speaks volumes, however, that no one offended by the rape wants to argue about the rest, which is apparently unmitigatedly Evil and, hence, not likely to be taken as an argument for such behavior. The argument typically breaks down to the most emotive plea: rape victims will be traumatized by this movie. For the most strident attack, check in with Sady of Tiger Beatdown, who fulminates—in the classic rhetorical gesture of explaining at length what she won't do:

    "I could talk about how I am a person who routinely makes jokes about her own experience of sexual assault, and has maybe the least mature or gentle sense of humor in the world [...] and yeah, maybe I could 'give it a chance,' maybe I could try to be 'fair' about this, but maybe I just have better things to do than watch a movie that might be about a woman who gets a deserved raping [...] a movie that may very well insult me and every woman who's ever had an unwanted dick shoved into her body."

    Observe and ReportWell, little danger of that. It's been publicized far and wide that this movie will traumatize rape victims, so we're out of that particular quagmire. It is also fascinating (if typical) that the people most outraged by the movie are the ones who not only haven't seen it but refuse to see it; when Dan Kois got to this first on the Vulture blog, he concluded it was definitely rape but it was far from the worst thing in the film, and that conclusion has been basically carried down through most of the reviews. Because the thing is, if you watch the film, there is no way Ronnie can be interpreted as a good guy, and there is no way—whether or not you believe it's rape—that the act is depicted as endorsing date rape. Certainly, it couldn't be a "deserved raping" as Sady called it; that kind of Neanderthal mindset is obviously totally off the rails, and if Observe had gone there, it would deserve instant excoriation. (It's worth remembering the sickos who snipped Irreversible's rape scene out of context and circulated it on P2P networks as a porn video; that's heaps more troubling). This is a movie about a bipolar sociopath, that much is undeniable, and to that extent none of what he does in the film is supported. So what gets to be depicted, to what extent can it be used as a punchline, and who gets to say it? It's safe to say Rogen and Hill are catching a lot of flack as dudes, and Ms. Faris herself is being pummeled by bloggers for not speaking truth to power, or something.

    What say you, commenters? From where I'm sitting, there's a massive misreading of the film going on, and all the wrong questions are being asked. The right ones are:

    A.) In a society ever-sensitive (most of the time, thankfully) to women's rights, where do we draw the line in depicting rape? Are we setting a dangerous precedent the instant any kind of potentially non-consensual incident is depicted as anything less than a horrifying, traumatic event?

    B.) Why is it that we can't get a consensus on what Ronnie does precisely (e.g., Manohla thinks it's not rape), and what does that say about the honesty of discussing potentially ambiguous sexual situations in public? Why is it that the discussion is all about the outrage, and not about why, exactly, this might have been filmed and passed as acceptable (or not)? Let's assume, please, that Seth Rogen and Jody Hill are not actually fans of rape; this seems like an eminently reasonable assumption, all things considered. (The converse is assuming that they endorse rape, which is just insanity.)

    C.) Is it fair to say that given the amount of instant outrage this has sparked, the real discussion is about sexual mores and boundaries in America, not "whether or not the film endorses rape"?

    D.) BONUS ROUND: Some particularly aggrieved Jezebel commenters think Superbad is about date rape because it involves Jonah Hill trying to get a girl drunk so she'll lose enough judgment to sleep with him. True, or not true?

    Posted by ahillis at 2:27 PM | Comments (19)

    April 10, 2009

    FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Gervasi, Reiner, "Lips")

    Anvil! The Story of Anvil

    Anvil! The Story of Anvil
    Directed by Sacha Gervasi
    2008, 80 Minutes, U.S.A.

    There's that cliché about getting the band back together, but what if you never stopped rocking out, even when you were well into middle age and still hadn't achieved fame or fortune? Such is the passionate journey of life-long friends Robb Reiner and Steve "Lips" Kudlow, co-founding members of Anvil (a/k/a "the Canadian demi-gods of metal"). The Terminal writer Sacha Gervasi, who met and roadied for Anvil as a teenager, directs this wonderfully tender if admittedly uproarious documentary about the duo, now in their fifties, and their underdog story to finally achieve the success that any band who influenced Metallica, Slayer and Anthrax deserves to.

    Just before its U.S. theatrical release, I sat down for lunch with Gervasi, Reiner and "Lips" at Manhattan's Bowery Hotel, where we gabbed about friendship, fashion, the best summer holiday an English teenager could ever have, and my new Anvil-given nickname (which, frankly, is more flattering than the one Gervasi received over two decades ago).

    To listen to the podcast, click here.

    Anvil! The Story of Anvil opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and is already playing in Toronto. For more info, visit the official site.

    Posted by ahillis at 2:45 PM

    April 8, 2009

    DVD OF THE WEEK: La Grande Bouffe

    [If it's not one thing, it's the proverbial another: after my festival hopping last week, I came back to New York and contracted a good ol' fashioned grade-school case of conjunctivitis. GreenCine guru Craig tried to convince me to post about our favorite bouts of pinkeye in cinema, but we couldn't get past Knocked Up. Film of the Week/Podcast still coming on Friday.]

    La Grande Bouffe

    La Grande Bouffe
    Directed by Marco Ferreri
    1973, 129 minutes, In French with English subtitles
    Koch Lorber Films

    In 1973, Cannes jury president Ingrid Bergman condemned La Grande Bouffe as the most sordid and vulgar movie she had ever seen. (According to an unidentified talking head from Marco Ferreri: The Director Who Came From the Future, an excerpt of which is included on this newly standalone DVD, Bergman even vomited after a viewing). And yet, this scandalously morbid comedy went on to share that year's FIPRESCI prize with Eustache's The Mother and the Whore, meaning taste is always relative, and what a funny word to bring up in a film about food; or rather, its excessive consumption. How did the late Ferreri—Italy's subversive, surreal-humored nihilist—convince European all-stars like Michel Piccoli and Philippe Noiret to shoulder a film so debased that it has drawn comparisons to Salò and, as indicated by Roger Ebert's negative review that year, prompted co-star Marcello Mastroianni's then-lover Catherine Deneuve's refusal to speak to him for a week after attending a screening?

    La Grande Bouffe(For that matter, what convinced you, dear reader, to take a peek after the jump?) La Grand Bouffe is a debauched watch about debauchery itself, though its notoriety has clearly faded, not least for which we've been desensitized over time. For no explicit reason, four well-to-do pals—pilot Marcello (Mastroianni), television personality Michel (Piccoli), judge Philippe (Noiret) and master chef Ugo (Ugo Tognazzi)—have made a suicide pact to hibernate in Philippe's inherited Parisian villa and literally gorge themselves to death. Truly insatiable hedonists all, especially sex-crazed Marcello, the men invite three prostitutes to help consume the truckloads of delivered meats, and the scatological effects of their cause are about all we're given access to: after countless scenes of eating, drinking and fucking, we're then privy to the burping, defecating, puking, and dying. (You eye-rollingly expect and dismiss fart jokes in an American gross-out comedy, but Marcello massaging Michel's distended stomach to release a full half-minute of flatulence seemed genuinely shocking!) King pervert Marcello, an exemplar of their awful behavior, wears a thong as an eye patch to dinner one moment, and screws a whore with a vintage Bugatti manifold the next. Pigs devour pigs.

    La Grande Bouffe The only significant game-changer is the entrance of zaftig schoolmarm Andrea (scene-stealer Andréa Ferréol), who stumbles onto this mini-Sodom when her field-tripping students wish to visit the villa's linden tree where "Mr. Boileau" once sat under (17th century poet, critic and satirist Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, a possible hint to Ferreri's intent?). Later that night, just as the hookers first arrive, Andrea accepts her invitation to dinner, her voracious appetite politely revealing itself. Immediately, Philippe is smitten and proposes marriage, to which she accepts, and still manages to bang the other men throughout her stay; unlike the prostitutes, it's on her own terms. Is she destined to stay alive because she gives pleasure and can therefore survive pleasure unlike these out-of-control bacchanalians? Ah, and herein lies the divisive issue about La Grand Bouffe: Rarely are any of the character's conversations existential or sociopolitical or even intellectual at all, so if Ferreri means the film to be an ruthless attack on Western or merely bourgeois decadence (all the menu items are fit for an aristrocrat), or a probing critique on the unrestricted boundaries of human behavior, there are no fingers directly pointing; they're all stuck in mountains of pâté. If the film purposely and perversely evades any editorialization, are we meant to laugh or be thoroughly outraged? Again, there's that double entendre: it's a matter of taste. One man's feast is another's stomachache, and call me nuts, but I was less sickened than amused (though I'll certainly pay a bit more attention to my own moderation). With my belly full, I can only belch that Ferreri is the transgressive Buñuel, which makes The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie merely La Grande Bouffe for anorexics.

    Posted by ahillis at 11:23 PM | Comments (1)

    April 6, 2009

    SARASOTA '09 PODCAST: Nick Dawson

    Nick Dawson, HAL ASHBY: LIFE OF A HOLLYWOOD REBELOn Saturday night, my final hurrah at this year's Sarasota Film Festival, the annual Filmmaker's Tribute paid homage to the wild and wooly career of the late Hal Ashby. The fest had already unveiled a near complete retrospective of Ashby's work (Harold and Maude, Shampoo, Being There, etc.), including the world premiere of a newly found and remastered director's cut of his most neglected film, 1982's Lookin' To Get Out:
    "Alex (Jon Voight) and Jerry (Burt Young) are two small-time gamblers on a losing streak. Seeking to change their fortunes, the pair head off to Las Vegas with an all-or-nothing plan to bring lady luck on their side. But when Alex and Jerry meet a former call girl named Patti (Ann-Margret), things take an unexpected turn."

    Film in Focus editor Nick Dawson didn't just help re-discover this rare version of the film, he literally wrote the book on Ashby: Sarasota's retrospective was conceived in conjunction with the launch of Dawson's wonderful new biography (from the first 100+ pages I've so far read!), Being Hal Ashby: Life of a Hollywood Rebel.

    Though Dawson couldn't talk too much about the ongoing familial disputes he had come across in his six years of scrupulous research, he did reveal juicy anecdotes about Ashby's teeth, the films he never completed, and his own personal (if unusual) faves from the auteur's undervalued filmography.

    To listen to the podcast, click here.

    Posted by ahillis at 8:45 PM

    April 3, 2009

    SARASOTA '09: Films of the Week

    Sarasota Film Festival 2009DVD of the week? New York theatrical release of the week? Eesh, sorry folks. How do these overextended journalists do it? (Ms. Longworth, do tell.) On the road earlier this week at AFI Dallas, and now here at the Sarasota Film Festival, it's been a chore just trying to find both the internet access and the time to write in between screenings and panels, meals and parties—and for those of us who aren't 22 anymore, get in a few hours of sleep a night. Is it worth it? Does coverage of these smaller festivals that aren't on the Croisette, whose suns don't dance, hold interest for the out-of-town cineastes? If the film schedule's solid, hell yes (or so says me). It takes word of mouth and whatever buzz can be mustered in this distracted world to raise the indies and smaller foreign films up, and the Sarasota Film Festival emerges as one of the better programmed regional U.S. fests out there (see also: IFF Boston, Cucalorus, Sidewalk, Nashville, and obviously SXSW). Not that I wouldn't still be having a smashing time on booze cruises and singing karaoke (the ever-present film scenester's late-night hobby of choice) and attending fancy luncheons with Jon Voight and festival honoree Bill Paxton. Hey, the festival treats their visitors like royalty; I couldn't complain if I tried.

    Among the films playing at Sarasota, I've already seen and would heartily recommend St. Nick, Sugar, Treeless Mountain, Goodbye Solo, the short film Glory at Sea!, Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same, The Gates, Moon, We Live in Public, Sita Sings the Blues, Somers Town, Tony Manero and Tulpan, but I had a chance to catch up with a couple more films that really impressed me:

    Prince of BroadwayAs a big fan of director Sean Baker's work on last year's microbudget miracle Take Out, I had been itching to finally see Prince of Broadway, both of which were nominated for the same Indie Spirit Award (for best feature made for less than $500,000) in February. Like the Manhattan-set B-side to Take Out, which concerned a particularly stressful day in the life of a Chinese immigrant hustling as an Upper West Side delivery boy, Prince heads downtown to the Garment District, where charming hustler and illegal Ghanaian immigrant Lucky (Prince Adu) lures customers into a clothing store's secret backroom to hawk counterfeit handbags and sneakers. On the job one un-Lucky day, his ex-girlfriend Linda (Kat Sanchez) shows up with an 18-month-old baby, claims him to be the baby-daddy, and lackadaisically says she'll be back in two weeks to pick him up because she has other things to do. What's a struggling, neo-realist protagonist in duress to do? Though the words "shaky" and "handheld" have become rote in describing the doc-style camerawork in many an American-made indie, it's the appropriately kinetic, rough-and-tumble approach for a story that's both naturalistically scripted and believably improvised, if more choppily edited than Take Out. Maybe poverty-stricken social realism is currently en-vogue, but Baker and co-writer/producer Darren Dean have sculpted the street hustle, the dealings with the law and forced fatherhood, and a dual-immigration tale into something exceptional: a film that's heartbreaking, uncomplicatedly funny and coolly street-wise, sometimes within the same scene. It made me long to get back to my home in New York to love and hate it as I do.

    Trust Us, This Is All Made UpWriter-director (and occasional actor) Alex Karpovsky toyed with the blurred line between fiction and documentary in two hybrid films, The Hole Story and Woodpecker, but Trust Us, This Is All Made Up proves his first straight-forward doc; it's a quasi-concert movie, in fact. Chicago Second City alumni and improv specialists T.J. Jagodowski and David Pasquesi, better known as "T.J. and Dave," seem to share the same brain. For the last half-decade, the two have staged performances where, like the title says, they truly don't know what they'll be doing for each night's audience. They aren't exactly comedians, though what they do is clearly funny, and it all starts with three chairs on an otherwise empty stage. After introducing themselves to the crowd, they size each other up, read each other's postures and tics, then concoct a nearly hour-long play with multiple characters. In the film's first 20 minutes, the two dissect their methodology, their symbiotic relationship both on-stage and off, the nature of improvisation and creativity, and then they're off: at the Barrow Street Theater in NYC, Karpovsky films one full routine via multiple cameras, plus the wrap-up backstage talk where the two discuss the night's highlights, weaknesses and character flaws as if these personas they've created are real people they've only channeled. It's one hell of a gut-buster for sure, and as Karpovsky smartly told me during the post-screening Q&A, the reason he chose to only give us one of the five performances he filmed (instead of, as I had originally hoped, an intercut sampling of their diversity) was so that we, too, could see how their wits worked, or in one wonderfully rare moment, misfired. Had the film not been bumpered with the set-up and wind-down, it may have been a failure, but trust me about Trust Us, this is all mesmerizing and wholly original in this medium.

    And now back to more movies. In honor of Sarasota's full retrospective of director Hal Ashby's work, check back later this weekend for a podcast with journalist Nick Dawson—author of a new biography entitled "Being Hal Ashby: Mind of a Hollywood Rebel"—and, hopefully, an Ashby-related mystery guest. Next week, it'll be business as usual once again. Or at least, until the Tribeca Film Festival takes over my life. (Help!)

    Posted by ahillis at 3:06 PM | Comments (2)

    April 1, 2009

    PODCAST: Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden

    Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (left)

    While on my panel about distribution and marketing for filmmakers, a question arose about whether it was futile to get a film out to audiences when it didn't have a star-powered cast. As a case study, I pointed to last week's Goodbye Solo and this week's latest example, Sugar, a riveting new drama from Half Nelson writer-directors Ryan Fleck and Anna Boden (and no, you don't have to care a lick about baseball to get sucked into this smart, sophisticated slice of humanism):

    "Sugar follows the story of Miguel Santos, a.k.a. Sugar, a Dominican pitcher from San Pedro De Macorís, struggling to make it to the big leagues and pull himself and his family out of poverty. Playing professionally at a baseball academy in the Dominican Republic, Miguel finally gets his break at age 19 when he advances to the United States’ minor league system; but when his play on the mound falters, he begins to question the single-mindedness of his life’s ambition."

    As the film follows my travels this week from AFI Dallas to the Sarasota Film Festival (before it finally opens in limited release this weekend), I spoke with Fleck and Boden over the phone about that issue of non-professional actors, what they learned about the real-life exploitation of minor-league baseball players, and why they, as a couple, doesn't bicker when they collaborate.

    To listen to the podcast, click here.

    Sugar opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles. For more info, visit the official site.

    Posted by ahillis at 1:48 PM | Comments (1)