May 29, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Pontypool (Bruce McDonald, Stephen McHattie, Lisa Houle)

PONTYPOOL's Lisa Houle, Stephen McHattie, Bruce McDonald

Pontypool
Directed by Bruce McDonald
2008, 95 Minutes, Canada

Canadian cult filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo, The Tracey Fragments, and my personal favorite, Highway 61) tackles Tony Burgess' novel "Pontypool Changes Everything," a minimalist but slyly entertaining take on the zombie movie—if, of course, you removed the zombies and added the most terrifying semiotics lesson in horror history. From the official website:

Shock jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) has, once again, been kicked-off the Big City airwaves and now the only job he can get is the early morning show at CLSY Radio in the small town of Pontypool, which broadcasts from the basement of the small town's only church.

What begins as another boring day of school bus cancellations, due to yet another massive snow storm, quickly turns deadly. Bizarre reports start piling in of people developing strange speech patterns and evoking horrendous acts of violence. But there's nothing coming in on the news wires. So is this really happening?

Before long, Grant and the small staff at CLSY find themselves trapped in the radio station as they discover that this insane behavior taking over the town is being caused by a deadly virus being spread through the English language itself.

Do they stay on the air in the hopes of being rescued or, are they in fact providing the virus with its ultimate leap over the airwaves and into the world?

At the IFC offices, I sat down on the other side of a conference table from McDonald, McHattie and co-star Lisa Houle—who plays McHattie's producer in the film, and his wife in real life. Noting that our setup felt like a job interview, I tried to choose my words carefully (appropriate, given the film's subject) as we discussed language, what scares them, the Korean choir they had to contend with, and whether New York has earthquakes—not including what we may have experienced halfway through the interview.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Pontypool opens today in limited release, and is available on-demand via IFC's Festival Direct. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 6:36 PM

May 28, 2009

Zulawski & Raimi: The Hell They Dragged Us Into

[Steven Boone, who writes for The House Next Door and other fine film sites, steps in today like a man possessed.]

Isabel Adjani in POSSESSION

"To please the majority is the requirement of the Planet Cinema. As far as I'm concerned, I don't make a concession to viewers, these victims of life, who think that a film is made only for their enjoyment, and who know nothing about their own existence."
- Andrzej Zulawski

"My goal is not to offend people. It is to entertain, thrill, scare, make them laugh, but not to offend them."
- Sam Raimi

"I don’t give a fuck about the audience."
- Andrzej Zulawski

Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn (1987) and Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981) are two sides of the same cursed coin, producing in the viewer an identical effect—sheer giddiness at their audacious, divinely, demonically, deliriously inventive visual play. Each flick is a series of riffs on the notion of possession—Raimi's aimed at the grindhouses, Zulawski's at European arthouses. But both films are so dizzyingly choreographed that keen viewers will recognize them as two of the 1980s' most sublime horror classics. Like the possessed humans, hands and furniture dancing around in them, these films simply convulse with creative electricity. They forced their way out of their creators.

Possession & Evil Dead II: Dead By DawnBoth films support the concept that virtually any cinematic illusion can be achieved through mise en scène, performance, classic in-camera and physical effects, and sound. No matter what cynical eyes might make of these grisly films, they are drenched in the sweetest romance as much as blood—Raimi's for the juvenile excesses and nutty mythos of B-movies; Zulawski's for the depths of martyrdom a couple will endure simply trying to shore up a collapsing marriage. Every single shot of each film defines "lovingly crafted" and works in harmony with the whole. Neither is a precious art object or a calculated commercial exercise but a movie movie, propelled by the premise and life force of its lead actors.

But the earth's poles aren't nearly as distant as these filmmakers' sensibilities, career paths and temperaments. Sam Raimi began making films in suburban Michigan with his high school pals Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel. He parlayed this experience, at age 19, into his first low-budget independent feature, 1981's The Evil Dead. At that time, Zulawski was already embarking upon Possession as an established Polish auteur. Raimi is solidly middle-American. Zulawski is the quintessential Central European artist, reeling from the promise and devastation of the 20th Century's war years. Raimi flaunts Capra-esque cornpone optimism and a repertoire of humor ranging from G to PG-13. Zulawski's jokes could provoke stigmata; the kind of gallows humor one might improvise at a ritual castration. Raimi the man appears almost pathologically self-effacing, soft-spoken and schoolboy polite in contrast to Zulawski's cranky, politically charged contrarianism. Raimi is a college dropout raised on Marvel comics and television. Zulawski is an intellectual who devoured philosophy in Warsaw and Paris.

Possession So, too, go the paradoxes: Evil Dead II is arguably the least serious horror film ever to deliver bone-rattling jolts, yet Campbell's performance is deadly serious, even when subduing his re-animated severed hand with a copy of Farewell to Arms. Both films produce a sensation (in this viewer, at least) of overexcitement directly proportionate to the characters' suffering. Make no mistake, Possession is serious stuff, grappling as it does with the kind of emotional tortures that lead to murder-suicides. But it reminds me of an old Roger Ebert quip about Touch of Evil: it is a dark, unpleasant film that somehow brings a smile to your face.

Blame the camera. It prowls, eases and arcs around its raging, reeling, retching subjects in the manner of merry-go-round maestro Max Ophüls. But, of course, Ophüls famously cut away during the climactic duel at the end of The Earrings of Madame de..., whereas Zulawski would have lingered on it and Raimi would have followed the fatal bullet into its target's intestines. A staunch traditionalist might conclude from this distinction that Raimi and Zulawski are Ophüls' crude inferiors. I'd argue that each director has advanced Ophüls' technique, not by being so graphic but by pressing a new, lighter generation of film equipment to articulate greater intricacies of mood and sensation through camera movement.

Bruce Campbell in EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN The moving camera plays second only to the central performances by Bruce Campbell in Evil Dead II and Isabel Adjani and Sam Neill (but mostly Adjani) in Possession. Campbell's comic performance, in its complete physical commitment, is equal to Adjani's gorgeous psychosis. His headbanging gymnastics obviously owe much to the Three Stooges two-reelers he and Raimi paid endless homage to in their fledgling shorts. Adjani's performance owes more to Satan, along with those regions of the brain responsible for involuntary spasms, female hysteria and religious euphoria.

These days, it's usually the other way around: The camera is spasmodic while the individuals onscreen are nimble but stoic—with both qualities pitch-perfect in their numbing predictability. Well. I didn’t mean for this appreciation to lapse into a rant against contemporary filmmaking, but that's where most discussions of august veteran auteurs inevitably end up. Sure, before and after Possession, there is very little to tie Zulawski's work to Raimi's. Raimi went on to produce and direct solidly American popcorn entertainment for film and television, culminating in the Spider-Man trilogy. I doubt he will ever conjure up anything as diabolical and hallucinatory as Zulawski's banned second film, Diabel, or the long-gestating 1988 head trip The Silver Globe. Fine. But the lesson imbedded in this comparison is that genres and intellectual pedigrees are less reliable common denominators between filmmakers than the style and intensity of vision that give their work meaning, force, and indelibility. It’s a kooky but stimulating way to approach Raimi's latest, which bears a title that's pure Zulawski: Drag Me to Hell.

- Steven Boone

Posted by ahillis at 4:45 PM | Comments (1)

May 25, 2009

CANNES '09 PODCAST: Mike D'Angelo

We've been asked: why didn't GreenCine Daily cover Cannes comprehensively? First of all, who could (or would want to) compete with David Hudson for his meticulous round-ups of winners and links, and not unrelatedly, which one of you sugar mamas reading this was supposed to pay my way to France? I made an executive decision that the world didn't need one more armchair critic recycling opinions and industry (over)hype, and inroads have been made to mine fresh content for next year's event.

Until then, we turn to Mike D'Angelo ("a professional film critic for the past dozen years, primarily for Time Out New York and Esquire"), who has just returned stateside from Cannes, where he filed a sharp, utterly merciless series of reports for the A. V. Club. Sitting down at my kitchen table, D'Angelo and I discussed the unusual way he funded his 12-day expedition, why he feels Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon was a lousy choice to win the Palme d'Or, the significance of Twitter in film journalism today, and why he never seems to like any of the movies he sees (or so you think).

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 10:08 PM | Comments (5)

May 21, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: The Girlfriend Experience (Glenn Kenny)

THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE costar Glenn Kenny

The Girlfriend Experience
Directed by Steven Soderbergh
2009, 78 Minutes, USA

Shot similarly to Bubble, Soderbergh's other low-budget digital drama featuring a cast of non-professional actors and utilizing "structured improv" (as the director called it in my interview with him), The Girlfriend Experience has made bigger news for the professional ringer who shoulders its story, 21-year-old porn star Sasha Grey in her first non-XXX role. (For my interview with her, click here.) From the official website:

Chelsea is an upscale Manhattan call girl who provides more than just a sexual encounter; for a price, she’ll simulate a complete romantic relationship—a girlfriend “experience.” Despite a wide variety of happy customers, Chelsea wants to expand her business. Her real boyfriend Chris, a personal trainer at a downtown gym, has come to terms with his girlfriend’s level of experience, not to mention the posh apartment they share as a result of her success.

But it's October of 2008 and the faltering U.S. economy is on everyone’s lips. One of Chelsea’s clients, a Hassidic jeweler, advises her against keeping her savings in diamonds—"Diamonds have no value. Keep it in gold." Meanwhile, she solicits advice from businesspeople (some of whom are clients) on how to achieve growth in a down market. Chelsea goes so far as to visit a sex connoisseur who runs an influential website and who promises Chelsea a favorable review in exchange for a free sample. Meanwhile, Chris finds himself at an impasse in his own career: training wealthy hedge fund managers, he’s generating plenty of business for the gym, but little of that lucre is coming back to him. Worse, his relationship with Chelsea has cooled--hardly a girlfriend experience at all. On the heels of a nasty web review from the sex connoisseur, Chelsea meets Philip, a new client from out of town who listens to her as she unloads her career anxieties to him. In Philip, Chelsea finally sees the promise of a real relationship—a real girlfriend experience—not just another transaction.

Sitting in my Brooklyn living room, I conducted my third and final Girlfriend Experience interview with film critic Glenn Kenny—a good friend, neighbor and colleague (for that matter, the guy who gave me my start in film journalism, damn him)—to jabber about his villainous supporting role as "The Erotic Connoisseur," how the film reminds him of Richard Lester's Petulia, the raunchy industry slang he picked up in his research, and whether he would've done a simulated sex scene if asked. [Warning: Mildly NSFW.]

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Also of note: Glenn's set diary has been posted at the Auteurs'.

The Girlfriend Experience opens tomorrow in limited release, and is already available via Video on Demand. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 12:21 PM | Comments (4)

May 19, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Directed by Peter Yates
1973, 102 minutes, USA
Criterion

It's all about Mitchum. Bullitt director Peter Yates' and screenwriter Paul Monash's faithfully grimy, tonally overcast adaptation of the crime novel by George V. Higgins (his debut, while still serving as an Assistant U.S. Attorney in Boston) has a couple crackerjack bank heists and wall-to-wall street chatter that's unpretentious but could still shoulder through crowds. Yet what'll ultimately hook you on this picture is Robert Mitchum's hangdog anti-hero Eddie "Fingers" Coyle, a low-level Beantown gunrunner way past his prime. In a characteristically subdued performance for an uncharacteristic role, Mitchum dims his own marquee glow to anchor the whole shebang as a desperate, drained—no, outright defeated—man whose "friends" would rat him out for a hefty reward, or more likely, if their survival counted on it.

The Friends of Eddie Coyle In a nutshell, that's what the film is about: haggling for survival amongst the stoolies and cops, criminal middlemen and the Man himself. Coyle, facing incarceration in New Hampshire after getting pinched but refusing to name accomplices, hopes turning fink will gain him enough political pull to not serve time. Plenty of colorful supporting players turn up with their own ambitions and compromises—Richard Jordan as the poker-faced police officer making dubious deals, Steven Keats as the jumpy arms dealer Jackie Brown (Oh, Tarantino and his references!), and an unexpectedly muted Peter Boyle as the bartender informant who earns his place in the film's epilogue—but it's the weight felt from Mitchum's self-realized melancholy (hello, rock; howdy, hard place) that gives this underrated post-French Connection taste of '70s urban suspense its muscle.

Included in Criterion's booklet is a lengthy excerpt from Grover Lewis' amazing profile on Mitchum entitled "The Last Celluloid Desperado," which appeared in the March 1973 issue of Rolling Stone. My favorite bit from that piece, taken from Lewis's visit to the Eddie Coyle set, captures the two-fisted legend in a sordid, too-strange-to-have-been-invented exchange—reprinted below. [Warning! NSFW.]

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
Alex Rocco seizes the moment to make some teasing comment about Mitchum's bulging bay section. "Yeah, I'm getting' a gut," Mitchum concedes with a philosophic shrug. "I'm lucky if I can stay under 190."

"Well, you eat a lotta cunt," [Mitchum's stand-in of then 24 years, Tim] Wallace puts in. "Plenty pro-teen in that."

"Nah, you're lyin'. I just breathe on it a lot. You ever see me doin' any of that stuff? That's against the law, man."

"You want me to tell the truth?"

"No."

"Listen, you guys, I gotta tell this story on Bob here. He was ballin' this babe this one time, see. He was in the saddle, see, and his nuts was swingin' back and forth in the air, see. And this babe's dog jumps up on the bed and takes his nuts in its mouth, see. Big sonofabitch."

"The dog was like half Great Dane and half bull mastiff," Mitchum muses. "Like a pony."

The Friends of Eddie Coyle
"Huge sonofabitch."

Mitchum nods. "Yeah, big yellow-eyed mother."

"So I walk into the room by accident, see, and this dog has hold of Bob's nuts like a retriever would hold a bird. I couldn't help it—I started laughin'."

Mitchum grins. "I told him, 'Don't laugh.' I very slowly got, uh . . . disengaged. And I smacked that motherin' dog—whap!—clear across the room. I woulda shot it if I'd had a gun."

"I tell ya, I had water in my eyes from laughin' so hard at 'im. There was water all over the place, in fact. The bed was wet, you can bet your sweet ass on that." Wallace cackles shrilly, then fixes the writer with a stern glare: "Don't put that in your fuckin' magazine, friend. It's a true fuckin' story, but jeez—Bob's wife, you know . . ."

Posted by ahillis at 9:18 PM | Comments (1)

May 18, 2009

Pigs, Pimps and Other Friends of Shohei Imamura

by Steve Dollar

Pigs and Battleships

Although he bowed out in 2006, at age 79, as a globally revered grand master of cinema—his nation's greatest living filmmaker—Shohei Imamura may have simply refined his touch over a 45-year career so that his gritty vision of Japanese society played more elegantly on the screen. He didn't stake his reputation on arthouse propriety. Not that you'd necessarily infer that from the somber, poetic tone of latter-day productions such as The Ballad of Narayama (1983). Over time, the director became so smoothly transgressive that his final feature, 2001's Warm Water Under a Red Bridge, could employ female ejaculation as a metaphor and not raise any eyebrows.

Because so many of his films from the 1960s—the period when Imamura broke with convention and boldly defined himself as a fearless observer of the human condition, mapping the gamier precincts of postwar Japan—have been out of circulation or otherwise hard to see, contemporary audiences have missed out on most of the ripe, juicy stuff.

Pigs, Pimps & ProstitutesCriterion delivers the goods with its new triple-disc set, Pigs, Pimps & Prostitutes. Its an apt summary of some of the major players in these robust dramas, and also the title of a 2007 retrospective at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's BAMcinematek that saw rare revivals of Pigs and Battleships (1961), The Insect Woman (1963) and Intentions of Murder (1964), all included in the box, as well as the mad ethnography-on-crack epic The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968), and the decade-closing documentary, History of Postwar Japan as Told by a Bar Hostess. Those latter films would have made welcome additions to the package, which also serves as a fitting companion to Criterion's edition of The Pornographers (1966), the most commonly accessible of Imamura's '60s efforts.

Watched in sequence, the films show off the development of Imamura's unusual balance of objectivity and outrageousness. Every biographical note talks about the director's impulse to break away from the stately transcendence of Ozu, for whom he apprenticed, and surf the hurly-burly of the underclass. What makes his films so pleasurable, even when the camera seems to impose an almost clinical gaze, is that irrepressibly earthy sensibility. There's an often grimy, grindhouse candor that animates these social anatomies and their gallery of misfits. Pimps, prostitutes, and pigs were some of the director's best friends, not to mention serial killers, bar girls, rapists, conniving husbands, hapless pornographers, petty hoodlums and incestuous country bumpkins.

The Insect WomanThose porkers are no mere symbol. Pigs and Battleships, which Nikkatsu's bosses despised on its release, is a broadly comic saga of occupied Japan. Its lowlife antics transpire in the port town of Yokosuka, whose black market thrives amid the influx of American servicemen. A series of unfortunate events turns a wannabe gangster's pork-vending scam into so much hogwash, as hundreds of pigs stampede, trampling the exploitative intents of the local crime syndicate and the Yankee arrivals alike. The film, in all its sordid vigor, represents Imamura at his most freewheeling. One memorable scene involves a yakuza version of the Three Stooges who, having whacked a rival and tossed him in the pigpen, later slaughter one of the swine for supper and discover... well, let's say they need a few extra toothpicks for this barbecue. Making splendid use of black-and-white Cinemascope shot in high contrast by Shinsaku Himeda, a restlessly mobile camera, a manufactured set of neon jazz dives and hive-like bordellos, and penumbral interior lighting that evokes noir-like intrigue even at the most mundane moments, Imamura enjoys a crackling pace. When the local punks leap into the air to dodge a round of accidental machine gun spray, it's as kinetic as a 15-second musical.

If he intended Pigs as a line in the sand, Imamura was slightly more inside the line with The Insect Woman. Rather than the drive-in movie implications of its English version, the film's original title translates as "Entomological Chronicle of Japan," which speaks more accurately to Imamura's almost scientific perspective. The movie opens with the image of a beetle painfully inching its way along an incline. The immediate parallel to a peasant girl (Sachiko Hidari’s Tomé Matsuki) who clambers out of her backwater farm life to become a Tokyo prostitute, then learns to manipulate her situation, is obvious but never gratuitous. No less than the heroine of James Brown's "Hot Pants," or porn star Sasha Grey in The Girlfriend Experience, Tomé uses what she's got to get what she wants. When her own daughter, raised by the family's simple-minded (and creepily intimate) patriarch, beats Tomé at her own game, the narrative becomes a generational parable of empowerment. As in the later Profound Desire of the Gods, which matches Russ Meyer's Mudhoney for hormonally unhinged hillbilly mayhem, the men are variously boobs, cuckolds, molesters or moneybags. As soon as they discover their power, the women shirk their passive roles (and their demure place in Japanese cinema) and become crafty and indomitable, surviving by any means necessary and with no apology.

Intentions of Murder The feminist angle is more oblique in Intentions of Murder, which I'll take as Imamura's 1960s masterpiece, along with the sloppier, wild-at-heart Profound Desire. The story follows the awful life of Sadako Takahasi (Masumi Harakawa), trapped in a common-law marriage with a small child and an asthmatic husband who is more preoccupied with his longtime mistress. Dogged by a family curse and beset with suicidal and homicidal fantasies she clumsily fails to realize, Sadako discovers her only passion in the arms of an erstwhile rapist. Ever more anthropological, Imamura observes much of the action as a voyeur—the camera positioned at a remove, peering through empty bookshelves or past a cage of hamsters (one of whom eventually eats the other). The film's arty arsenal of techniques and motifs include freeze frames, dream sequences, and flashbacks, churning locomotives and spectral hoodoo, a tingly musique concrete score by Toshiro Mayuzumi, and the always brilliant black-and-white cinematography of Himeda, who captures a pivotal turn in a wintry mountain tunnel in the charcoal and salt tones of The Third Man. The pizzazz gets self-conscious at times (the reflection of Sadako's face in the bottom of an iron that the rapist uses to threaten her during one of his assaults), but it's never less than thrilling to watch such talent rise to its moment.

All in all, it's as singular and sustained a body of work as any filmmaker can aspire to, made by a prophet of his nation's subcultural funk: something that would propel many a lesser voyeuristic film or photography career for decades after the 1960s. Before Japan was shocking and extreme, Shohei Imamura was doing the dirty work.

[Brooklyn-based writer and pork enthusiast Steve Dollar has written for such outlets as the New York Sun, Newsday, Time Out New York, Playboy.com and Paste, and occasionally wallows in celluloid and pixels at 24xps.com.]

Posted by ahillis at 3:43 PM | Comments (2)

May 16, 2009

PODCAST: Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones

Kent Jones, Martin Scorsese As announced in yesterday's press release from Cannes, the World Cinema Foundation (a/k/a WCF, founded and chaired by American auteur and all-around goodfella Martin Scorsese) has partnered with indie-film buzzmakers B-Side Entertainment, online cinematheque The Auteurs, and the DVD heroes at Criterion. Dedicated to film restoration and preservation, Scorsese's foundation—whose advisory board includes Wong Kar Wai, Abbas Kiarostami and Guillermo Del Toro—has just unveiled three new projects for 2009: Edward Yang's A Brighter Summer Day (Taiwan, 1991), Shadi Abdel Salam's Al-Momia (Egypt, 1969), and Fred Zinnemann & Emilio Gomez Muriel's Redes (Mexico, 1936). Under the new partnership, many more eyes will hopefully get to take in the fruits of WCF's efforts.

Still in France, Scorsese called me today to discuss this alliance, plus his holy grails of unreleased cinema, and what he considers the greatest Technicolor film ever made. As a podcast bonus feature, newly appointed WCF executive director Kent Jones also jumps on the line to discuss their "mini-empire of good guys" (why did I say that?) and humor me about Marty's famous motormouth.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 4:01 PM | Comments (1)

May 14, 2009

PODCAST: Ken Jacobs

DISCLAIMER: Ken Jacobs' short film The Whirled (1956-63) will appear as a non-exclusive bonus feature on Benten Films' upcoming DVD release of Azazel Jacobs' The GoodTimesKid.

ANAGLYPH TOM auteur Ken Jacobs

From the official Anthology synopsis on avant-garde pioneer Ken Jacobs' new feature Anaglyph Tom (Tom with Puffy Cheeks):

In 1969, Ken Jacobs broke new cinematic ground with Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, a feature-length work produced by re-photographing a 16mm film print of a 1905 Edison short. In that now classic film, Jacobs zooms into the image, exposing the inner workings, minor movements, background actors and bustling energy contained in the antiquated celluloid frames. Added to the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007, and included since 1970 in Anthology’s "Essential Cinema" repertory collection, Tom, Tom is an acknowledged masterpiece of structuralist and found-footage cinema, and has had a major impact on multiple generations of moving image artists and aficionados.

40 years later, and now camera-free, Jacobs revisits the original Edison footage with entirely new digital tools in hand. Anaglyph Tom is a state-of-the-art, delightfully disorienting 3D take on a very old subject. Rather than delving deeply into the image it brings the image off the screen to the viewer, presenting the ancient actors and antics in vibrant close-ups that literally dance in mid-air when watched with 3D glasses. Interweaving up-to-date footage of our current economic downfall into these timeless diversions, Jacobs crafts utterly mesmerizing manipulations throughout, pushing the limits of his software and our notions of the cinema.

On a perfect spring day in New York, I met Jacobs at the door of his Tribeca home (otherwise known as the set of son Aza's most recent feature Momma Man), then strolled to a nearby park to shoot the breeze* about the space between 2D and 3D, why he and his wife only watch TV on an 11" Amiga monitor, his thoughts on seeing Moonstruck for the first time, and how he plans to get back at his son for putting his parents in a movie.

* Speaking of breezes, I apologize for the sometimes jarring wind noise, though it might be appropriate for an auteur whose work has had its share of dissonance. From now on, I'll only record these indoors.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Anaglyph Tom begins its New York theatrical premiere tomorrow at Anthology Film Archives. For showtimes and more info, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 7:38 PM

May 13, 2009

SilverDocs GreenCine Contest

Attend the festival Variety calls "Non-fiction Nirvana" by entering GreenCine's SilverDocs Film Festival Pass giveaway! Enter now to win two Industry passes, which includes:

  • Invitation for one to Opening Night screening and gala (RSVP required)
  • NO TICKETS NEEDED for all regular screenings
  • Access to Conference programs and Festival Lounges
  • Access to sponsored Conference meals, happy hours and regular receptions

This year's festival takes place Monday, June 15 through Monday June 22 in the Washington, DC area. The Festival has built a reputation for presenting compelling and engaging films that connect with audiences in theaters, and beyond. SILVERDOCS will continue to program 100 documentaries, with the number of screenings per film in the program to increase. Now in its seventh year, SILVERDOCS serves as a launch pad for independent documentaries, and affords international filmmakers access to US audiences. Called the "Pre-eminent US Documentary Fest" by Screen International, and the “premier showcase for documentary films” by the Hollywood Reporter, the 2008 edition of SILVERDOCS screened sold-out shows to more than 21,000 participants who viewed the world’s best new documentaries and experienced free outdoor screenings and performances, panel discussions and many special events.

To enter, email contest@greencine.com and include your name, email address, mailing address and, if you're a GreenCine member, your username in the email, and "SilverDocs" in the subject header. Entries without all this information will not be considered. (You will not be added to a mailing list!). Winner will be selected at random from all valid entries. The deadline to enter is Monday, June 1st. Winners will be notified by e-mail and announced in future editions of the GreenCine Dispatch newsletter.

Posted by cphillips at 11:36 AM

May 12, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Wise Blood

Brad Dourif, WISE BLOOD

Wise Blood
Directed by John Huston
1979, 106 minutes, USA
Criterion

"I reckon you think you've been redeemed."
- Brad Dourif as "Hazel Motes" in Wise Blood.

Wise Blood John Huston (The Asphalt Jungle, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Fat City), in one of the last few films of his directorial career, appears in flashback as a fire-and-brimstone evangelist whose tent-preaching thunder terrifies his young grandson into wetting himself. That boy will grow up to be pale-eyed, paler-skinned protagonist Hazel Motes (Brad Dourif, inducing some serious heebie-jeebies in a career best), a drifting WWII veteran who has rejected the army and just about everything else—especially, fanatically and noisily, God. Thus, one might read Huston's casting as a wink, that even though it was Benedict and Michael Fitzgerald who co-adapted Flannery O'Connor's first novel, Huston equally recognized her strange, disturbing, southern-gothic tragedy was as much a farce, colored as black as a soul without purpose. Huston represents a nurturing cause and literal ancestry to Hazel's fervor, a comic analogy to both his role as a director and being as much an unbeliever as Hazel thinks he is. If that's not enough, Huston misspells his own name "Jhon" in the opening credits, the font an uneducated person's scrawl.

Wise BloodShot mostly in Georgia, easily recalling the photos of Walker Evans, and taking place in the sleepy fictional town of Taulkinham, Wise Blood follows Hazel's intense, head-down, double-stepping towards starting the Church Without Christ, which isn't so much atheist as it is nihilist, free of dogma and dues and false miracles. It's a church "where the blind don't see and the lame don't walk and what's dead stays that way," but whatever street corner Hazel twitchily makes his soap box, the competition is fierce and wildly eccentric. There's the phony preacher Asa Hawks (Harry Dean Stanton, surely gaining experience to play his corrupt prophet on Big Love), a con artist who pretends to have blinded himself while his nymphomaniac daughter Sabbath Lily (Amy Wright) coos at Hazel, and Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty), an even bigger money-eyed crook who hawks faith as if it were a used car. Wise BloodBut that doesn't make Hazel the default hero and all Christianity depicted as fraudulent, as while he rants "Nothing matters but that Jesus was a liar. I ain't saying that he weren't crucified, but it weren't for you," a secret conflict against his (non-)beliefs lies within him, literally under his clothes. Otherworldly in its characterizations (did I forget to mention the naïve, hyperactive 18-year-old obsessed with both a shrunken mummy and some guy in a bear suit?) but too sad or realistically perverse—even during a violent act late in the film—to be written off as a grotesque carnival, Wise Blood is not the tale of redemption or maybe accidental martyrdom that the final scenes superficially symbolize. It's about the powerlessness of existence, which is both as terrifying and absurd as that sounds.

Posted by ahillis at 4:49 PM

May 11, 2009

INTERVIEW: In "Adoration" of Atom Egoyan

Atom Egoyan, ADORATIONThe New York Times' Stephen Holden certainly adored Adoration: "A profound and provocative exploration of cultural inheritance, communications technology and the roots and morality of terrorism, the Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan nimbly wades into an ideological minefield without detonating an explosion." Here's a synopsis from the official site:
High school French teacher Sabine (Egoyan's wife and frequent collaborator Arsinée Khanjian) gives her class a translation exercise based on a real news story about a terrorist who plants a bomb in the airline luggage of his pregnant girlfriend. The assignment has a profound effect on one student, Simon (Devon Bostwick), who lives with his uncle. In the course of translating, Simon re-imagines that the news item is his own family's story, with the terrorist standing in for his father. Years ago, Simon's father crashed the family car, killing both himself and his wife, making Simon an orphan. Simon has always feared that the accident was intentional. Simon reads his version to the class and then takes it to the Internet. In essence, he has created a false identity which allows him to probe his family secret. As Simon uses his new persona to journey deeper into his past, the public reaction is swift and strong. Then an exotic woman reveals her true identity. The truth about Simon's family emerges. The mystery is solved and a new family is formed.

John Esther chatted with Egoyan on April 24, to some known as "Recognize the Armenian Genocide Day," an annual event protesting the continued denial of the 1915-1916 massacre of an estimated 1.5 million Armenians at the hands of the Turkish government, a theme explored in Egoyan's 2002 film Ararat.

Why did you want to make this film? Is your son telling stories about his parents in school?

[laughs.] Actually, it started because I wanted to tell stories when I was in school. I started writing plays when I was pretty young, and I've been thinking a lot about that impulse—how, at that time, it was about telling stories to friends, parents, and now [there's] the opportunity for a kid to create any sort of persona he wants. If he finds the audience, it's global. In a lot of my earlier films, I was dealing with ideas of there being something oppressive and malevolent about the way media and technology can suppress and filter emotion, but the reality now is that it's completely unfiltered and open. There is a freedom and exchange, which is very exciting. Yet there's a velocity and acceleration, which is troubling because people don't have time to consider. It becomes really easy to abstract identities. It almost lends itself to degrees of confabulation. I wanted to have a character emerge from the world, diverted by the excitement of a response, but realizing that's not going to lead to any sort of personal revelation. In some ways, the technology isn't designed to be cathartic. It sets up a number of possibilities but it's open-ended, by its nature. You still need a journey in the physical world. So those were some of the ambitions of the story.

Arsinee Khanjian, ADORATIONYou do allow Simon's mythical narrative to go on for a considerable time without verification. It takes some time before someone comes out and says, "Hey, this isn't the kid of those terrorists/ parents." We knew the banal backstories of "Octo-Mom" and "Joe the Plumber" within hours of their notoriety. Why did you hold off on verifying an act of terrorism?

The kids are so excited by the possibilities. In the workshops I did at various high schools, I said, "Suppose one of your friends did this?" For them, it wasn't really about ascertaining whether it was true or not. All the stuff the kids were saying in the film was actually what those kids were saying. None of it was scripted. They're smart kids and some of the ideas in the film came up in the workshops. They were probably more consumed with the way they were appropriating, to express their own story.

Then the narrative trickles into the adult world.

The adults know, but Tom doesn't know Simon was doing this. Sabine knows right off, and she probably knows why he's so attracted to that narrative. Then Principal Robert says, "Well, the other kids have to know that it's not true." Tom is not really in touch with what's going on until it gets out of hand.

What does Arsinée think of her role in this film?

It's a problematic role for any actor because she or he doesn't get the satisfaction, at any point, that someone's going to identify with the character. It's a risky role. The more distance I've had from it, the more the perverse it is. She's a traumatized victim, but she doesn't invite any empathy. She's irresponsible, very obsessive. She was probably stalking her former husband, but seeing Tom reawakens all these feelings. When she dresses up in the chador, she's not teaching the kid about tolerance.

Her character plays into a lot of Occidental fears. She is a smart, Muslim woman. And she teaches French, another threat to many Americans.

[laughs.] That's really interesting. So it's not a gratifying role for Arsinée. It's true to what that character would be, but it's not conventionally structured.

You typically do not have Arsinée play empathetic characters.

Why is that? We've been talking about that. One exception is Calendar, maybe?

Except her Translator leaves Photographer, played by you.

Generally, it's a big question in the relationship. I trust her to play those roles that are more challenging. Yeah, you're absolutely right. I can't really explain it, other than that I cherish the relationship and it's a course we took from very early on.

Scott Speedman and Devon Bostick, ADORATION Her Zoe in Exotica was empathetic, yet I remember reading how you said the shoot was hard for her because she was pregnant at the time and surrounded by beautiful professional strippers.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I see her in other people's films and I see this whole other possibility. There's a lightness, something really charming and winning about her. When we met, we had this idea we would make these films, like the cool little films we saw on the Left Bank. We wanted to do stuff that would challenge. That's just been part of the pact. I can't really explain it. It's interesting you bring it up.

This film also explores another central theme in your work: family grief. Why are you always going back to these elements? When I look into your own history it seems like you had a pretty good childhood. You rebelled a bit.

Yeah, well, I had a really complex relationship with my grandmother and that was something I was exploring in Family Viewing. Like any Armenian, it only goes back so far.

Yeah, why are you not at the rallies today?

Maybe I should have been. My grandparents on my father's side were survivors. It's funny, whenever I read books where people can trace generations of their family, I am reminded I can't. It just stops at a certain point. You don't really know… [gasps] …who they were. For me, it's your worldview.

But your grief is more immediate, often about the loss of a child—Next of Kin, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter. Of course, it was Simon's parents who died, but they were young.

It's imagining what those people were dealing with a lot of time. It's just something you absorb, and the idea of loss is something you're grappling with. In Los Angeles, it's understood: people know what [the Armenian Genocide of 1915] is about. But often people say, "What are you?" You say, "Armenian." And they say, "What's that?" Then you wind up talking about this story over and over again. It's always there. The family history is not as simple as it may seem. Every family has a certain mythology, and they live and die by those mythologies. There are orthodoxies we are supposed to believe. Once you begin to question them, all sorts of things emerge, and you have to reformat who you think people are.

Speaking of mythologies, another theme in this film, and generally rare in your work, is religion. And it's a rather scathing perspective.

In religion and orthodoxy, there are people who sustain positions of power. The grandmother, who is an absent figure in Adoration, obviously believed in this very much. She signed this very beautiful scroll. God knows why she left or why she left the grandfather, this malicious character who now claims his heritage. He now becomes the figurehead and owner of this mythology, and he's using it in a very cynical and violent way. Most of our major religions are based on reinterpretations of original texts by people who had reason to distort and reinterpret, based on needs they had to sustain their own power. That's a given. We all know that.

Rachel Blanchard, ADORATION It is not so much an attack on people who interpret religion but religion itself. You use XTC's "Dear God" in the film.

Belief systems are only viable if they work for individuals. Simon takes these objects that are supposed to be venerated, like his mother's violin. What is valuable about them? He reformats them. You can see how quickly generated intolerance and hatreds are. There's the rage of this guy, ["Third Passenger," played by Maury Chaykin], who could have been a victim on a plane that would have been shot down because he's Jewish. Suddenly, he takes it upon himself to absorb this whole history and becomes demonic. Every religion is culpable for having inflicted horrors in the name of God. It's all the same God, yet it's based on these various interpretations and it gets down to these fights about the children's crusade. There is such a litany of things that can be brought up against them and for, but ultimately the only thing that has any relevance is whether or not these things lead to a sense of personal dignity and value. I'm suspicious of any collective use of religion because it seems to systematically, at some level, oppress people. [laughs.] It's not because of the way the individual has treated it, but rather, the people who control the orthodoxy.

Retreating to what you touched upon earlier, a lot of your characters go through these storytelling rituals—the videotapes in Family Viewing, the reworking of a brother's death to fit commercially cinematic needs in Speaking Parts, the personal history and professional partnership between a stripper and the club DJ in Exotica; a serial killer playing videotapes of his mother's cooking show in Felicia's Journey, the retelling of the Armenian Genocide in Ararat, or the journalistic search in Where the Truth Lies—in order to get to the truth.

In those situations, the characters have been denied the truth, yet the pursuit is so important. There's a sense of using art, or some process they can create, as a way of claiming justice, vindicating or playing out a game where a concept of truth is explored, so there is some taste of resolution.

Do you feel you have been denied the truth?

I don't mean to use the national identity as a convenience, but it's a huge issue. It's a huge issue when something on that scale has been denied, and you spend most of your life talking about that. That's certainly the easy explanation.

You have certainly talked about it more since making Ararat. There are allusions in Next of Kin, but your "Armenian identity" did not really come about until Ararat. You made it your international identity as a filmmaker.

Yeah. That's something I was not expecting to do, but I realized on the scale of that film and the response to it, it warranted I take a clear position. Interestingly enough, Arsinée had to take a more ambiguous position than what she's normally used to as well.

Why?

She was raised in a more nationalist context where those issues were very black and white. I was raised in a place where I wasn't really taught it. I came to it later on in life. So there was a lot of hope I sustained about it, and the possibilities of things evolving and there being communication where there isn't. In the course of making Ararat, I had to become a bit more strident, maybe, and Arsinée less so.

[Adoration is currently playing in limited release.]

Posted by ahillis at 5:55 PM | Comments (1)

May 8, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Julia (Erick Zonca)

Erick Zonca, JULIA

Julia
Directed by Erick Zonca
2008, 144 Minutes, In English and Spanish

How did The Dreamlife of Angels director Erick Zonca, working from a script he cowrote with Aude Py, think that the typically reserved, sophisticated Tilda Swinton could so convincingly step into the shoes of a despicable, loudmouthed floozy? An unhinged character study that drunkenly stumbles into an accidental thriller, Julia is shouldered as much by Zonca's instinctual filmmaking as it does on Swinton's intense, knock-out performance:

Julia, 40, is an alcoholic. She is a manipulative, unreliable, compulsive liar, all strung out beneath her still flamboyant exterior. Between shots of vodka and one-night stands, Julia gets by on nickel-and-dime jobs. Increasingly lonely, the only consideration she receives comes from her friend Mitch, who tries to help her. But she shrugs him off, as her alcohol-induced confusion daily reinforces her sense that life has dealt her a losing hand and that she is not to blame for the mess she has made of it. Glimpsing imminent perdition, and after a chance encounter with Elena, a Mexican woman, Julia convinces herself—as much in panic and despair as for financial gain—to commit a violent act. As the story unfolds, Julia's journey becomes a headlong flight on a collision course, but somehow she makes the choice of life over death.

Sitting down with Zonca (and a translator he barely needed) at the Magnolia offices, I drank up his every word on alcoholism, unlikeable characters, the Helmut Newton photo that stuck in his mind, why he's different from Ken Loach, and of course, Tilda Swinton—with whom I would also chat about Julia in that same room a week later.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Julia opens today in limited release. For more info, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 12:18 PM

May 6, 2009

SFIFF '09: Dengue Fever vs dinosaurs.

Lost_World_1925_Poster.jpg[Craig Phillips here, reporting back from a special event at the SFIFF, which rocked the house.]

The experience of watching a silent film, especially if you have the rare opportunity to see one on the big screen, can be transportive. I often have found myself drifting off, imagining what it would be like to have seen the film when it originally came out, the experience of watching a movie was just that, an experience -- people dressed up, there was live music before and during the film, the things seen on screen in such a young art form were sometimes the first time they'd ever been seen. It was a magic lantern, indeed.

I had this in mind when I went last night to the San Francisco International Film Fest's presentation of the 1925 silent feature The Lost World, with live musical score by Dengue Fever, at the magical movie palace (and historic landmark) the Castro Theater. At the Castro, one is always put in the proper mood straight away even before the film starts with the delightful stylings of organist David Hegarty, who comes out of the floor on the pipe organ like some musical wizard.

Then came Dengue Fever -- a six member band based out of Los Angeles but inspired by Cambodia. Their music ranges from dreamy pop, lounge-y riffs and psychedelic rock, and are fronted by Chhom Nimol, a Cambodian-born singer with a transportive voice who sings mostly in the Khmer language. While it may on paper seem an odd pairing, this band matched against a classic silent fantasy film based (loosely) on an Arthur Conan Doyle story, it worked.

Harry O. Hoyt's film is both an incredible achievement for its time, with groundbreaking stop motion animation by the legendary Willis O'Brien -- and in places uncomfortably dated, i.e., the actor in blackface playing a Negro stereotype with jaw-droppingly cringe-inducing dialogue, and the silly romantic plots. But despite that and some clunky/incoherent action editing, the film remains quite entertaining. It tells the story of a young reporter named Malone (an earnest Lloyd Hughes) who wants to impress his fickle fiancee, who seems to require he prove his mettle to her by doing something brave. Doesn't matter what, as long as it's brave! So he weasels his way into an expedition led by the crazy-haired professor Challenger (the always memorable character actor Wallace Beery) who wants to prove there are dinosaurs in a lost valley in Africa. The expedition also introduces Malone to Paula White (played by the lovely Bessie Love), daughter of the missing explorer who's diary set off this whole expedition in the first place.

When they reach the magic plateau, they do indeed discover dinosaurs -- as well as an obnoxious ape man and his chimp companion (what their relationship is is never clear, I only assume that they are cousins, at least genetically). They witness several exciting dinosaur battles, all of them involving a rather nasty, hungry Allosaurus, which at one point fights a Brontosaurus, knocking the poor beast off a cliff and into a mud pit. Somehow, Dino survives both the fall and about a month stuck in the mud, and transported back to London (that part is never shown, we'll just assume they had a big boat and a rillly big cage), where something goes awry and the Bronto terrorizes the streets of London (I guess it had given up on its herbivorous diet) before eventually falling down off London Bridge. The film ends with it swimming away, looking awfully Loch Ness Nelly-like. Perhaps this is where the famous footage of the mystical beastie came from!

Clearly the story was a major influence on King Kong, which came out eight years later and for which O'Brien also did the creature animation, but while O'Brien had perfected his technique by the time of Kong, The Lost World is still a most impressive achievement technically. Sure, "...for its time" -- but, again, I pictured how it must have felt to see these creatures come alive on screen for a 1925 audience and give the film its proper due.

dengue fever

But with Dengue Fever's up-tempo, tropicalia, feverishly loungey music accompanying the film, it became even harder to lose interest. There were times where the music mixed with the surreal images on screen when I drifted off into a reverie, my own fantasia of dinosaurs, jungles, Tiki huts, martinis... wait, where was I?

In shows like this the music sometimes comes to the fore, with the film serving more as a backdrop; most of the time it's up to viewer, or dependent on which is more interesting at the moment. There were only a few instances in which I found Dengue's score intrusive or overbearing -- or completely out of synch with the music on screen. More often their score was an aural enhancement.

Dengue Fever provided an amazing soundtrack to what felt like a waking dream, a different kind of lost world than the makers of the silent film probably ever imagined.

Posted by cphillips at 3:58 PM

May 5, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK (INTERVIEW): Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind

[With full disclosure, my distribution label Benten Films is partnered with Watchmaker Films, who released Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind on DVD today. Separately, GreenCine had asked Kevin B. Lee and Keith Uhlich for their fascinating, in-depth interview with director John Gianvito, which was originally intended to accompany the Watchmaker release. Part 1 can be read below, or for the full piece, click here.]

John GianvitoJohn Gianvito spent much of the '90s burning through credit cards to produce and direct The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, a multi-layered critique of the First Iraq War. Though mostly neglected upon its release, in hindsight it is one of the most relevant films to describe the political and psychic traumas of this decade. Financially and emotionally exhausted by the endeavor, Gianvito planned a more modest follow-up, a short film inspired by Howard Zinn's populist study A People's History of the United States. That project evolved into Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind, an hour-long feature guided by a deceptively simple premise: a chronological tour of the gravesites of victims of social oppression as well as the activists who stood up for their rights.

The steady procession of historical narrative (as told by the tombstones), graced by a soundtrack consisting of the ambient surroundings, transforms vérité documentary into a hypnotic aesthetic that combines a meditation on nature, remembrances of past heroic struggles to better the lives of others, and a stirring call to carry their legacy into the present. These three themes permeate the following interview with Gianvito, conducted at the film's 2007 Toronto Film Festival premiere. (Kevin B. Lee and Keith Uhlich)

What were the origins of Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind?

Prior to Profit Motive, I had finished my third 16mm feature, The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein, that took me more or less six years from realization to completion. It was a project that was focused on the experience of the first Persian Gulf War. At the time, I didn't know for sure that there would be a second one, though in essence that first war never did cease. The interval between was more or less a constant state of seige upon Iraq. Emerging from that project, I found myself even more undone by the realities of U.S. actions on the world. So, knowing what any film takes out of you, I was trying to find a subject that I could devote a chunk of my life to that contained within it some seeds of hopefulness.

Profit Motive and the Whispering WindI went back to re-reading large sections of a favorite book, A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. Howard is someone I know slightly. He had been very kind to me about Mad Songs. So as I read this, somewhere along the way, the impulse emerged to simply want to give something back to this monumental examination of our nation's history. For those who don't know the book, it tells the story of the United States from Columbus onward, but from the point of view of those who were typically omitted from standard texts: Native Americans, African Americans, women in general, labor leaders, anarchists, and people who collectively tried to make this a more just and egalitarian nation.

The thought was that the title of the film would be "A Poem for Howard Zinn." I imagined it as a 10 to 15 minute short, something I could do easily on my own without a huge crew, without getting the 13 credit cards I needed to make my previous film. Little by little, the project evolved, and it ended up entailing three summers of driving around the United States in search of traces of our progressive past, predominantly in cemeteries, but also in sites where certain struggles [and] certain massacres happened, where there remain some indicators identifying that place.

Of all the possible approaches to cinematically interpreting the book, how did you settle upon the idea of visiting gravesites?

I wish I remembered when that idea first came to me. I suspect it had something to do with living in Boston, where one is surrounded by the tourist trade marking New England's historic past. Directly across the street from the office where I teach, there's a very old cemetery, [the Central Burying Ground, established in 1756]. A few blocks away is the site of the Boston Massacre as well as the memorial, both of which I filmed for the project. From the beginning, I was thinking that this is a very odd idea and I wondered if it was going to work. What could be more static than filming a headstone? People might say, "Why did you make this as a film? Couldn’t you make this as a photo book?" And then I thought, if it's just people's names and dates, is that going to be so interesting to people? I certainly didn't know that I would find all these other ingredients, including various texts that end up being on the stones, gifts or gestures that had been left along the side of the sites, and all the other things you experience over the course of the film. It became a kind of unfolding puzzle slowly revealing what my film would be.

As I began encountering the reality that individuals of great import often resided in remote and poorly kept sites, or found that other people had also made pilgrimages and left tokens of their esteem, or that there would be interesting quotes here and there, or took note of the curious dynamics between the present-day location and its historical past, little by little the allure of all this pulled me in and I began to think that this might work. I began to jettison other visual elements I had been developing, although I always had it in my head that there would be this element of the wind in the trees, some potency between the stillness of these sites and the sequences of the trees on an aural level alone.

Profit Motive and the Whispering WindIn other interviews, you've alluded to having a pantheistic viewpoint, something shared by Andrei Tarkovsky, about whom you've written a book. When you visit a site, how does that perspective play in terms of filming your environment?

I don't know if you've heard of the Japanese dance movement called butoh. One of its founding performers was a dancer named Kazuo Ohno, an amazing performer who danced well into his 80s. He used to dance in women's clothes and gave some of the most amazing performances I've ever seen. A friend of mine once had him as a guest at an outdoor dinner party and people asked him if, after dinner, he might do an improvisation. He obliged and everyone was awestruck with how perfect his improvisation was. There wasn't a single misstep. Everything fell into this perfect embrace. A woman came up afterwards, said how marvelous it was and asked him how it was possible. Without hesitation he said, "Well, it's easy. I'm surrounded by the dead."

I feel surrounded by the dead. A number of the closest people in my life have passed. I have received communications from them many times, and I myself communicate to them many times. That's on the most personal level. If you extend that to wherever you travel, you start to ponder the layers of history and past life that share the spaces we travel through, which makes me think of the quote that I open Mad Songswith, by Cesare Pevese: "Everywhere there is a pool of blood that we step into without knowing it."

The fact is that, by and large, we often don't think about these strata of history. In Europe, people do more so because they have more respect for those histories. In Rome, old buildings are always kept. Even if they're not habitable anymore, they're respected enough that they're not destroyed.

To continue reading the interview, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 4:56 PM

May 4, 2009

SFIFF52 REVIEWS: The Paranoids, Rudo y Cursi, Good Cats

[Craig Phillips strikes back (Sorry, I'm told it's apparently Star Wars Day) with three more recommendations from this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, ongoing through May 7. –AH]

The Paranoids (Los Paranoicos) The Paranoids (Los paranoicos)

Argentinean filmmaker Gabriel Medina's offbeat first feature moves a bit slow, but it's still inventive and enchanting enough to make one curious about his follow-up work. Essentially a character study, the film follows Luciano (Whisky's talented Daniel Hendler, looking a bit like a Uruguayan Paul Schneider), a quirkily neurotic, procrastinating screenwriter who earns a living entertaining at kids' parties (garbed in a Smoochy-like suit as his character "Cachito"). He spends a lot of time brooding in his apartment because he's, well, paranoid and sociophobic. He's such the perfectionist that he's spent years struggling over one script, and unsurprisingly, all his anxieties make it hard for him to have a girlfriend. (In the midst of a fling, he's terrified of contracting an STD because the condom breaks.) After he accidentally puts his performing partner in the hospital, his life is changed (in shades) when his longtime friend Manuel comes to visit. A TV producer, Manuel thinks Luciano's writing may be of interest to a Spanish program called "The Paranoids"—which, as Luciano discovers, is largely based on him. Things are further complicated when Manuel's girlfriend Sofia stays with Luciano while her beau works. Packed with emotional issues of her own, Sofia and her host find themselves intrigued by each other.

The Paranoids is unsettling at times; it's described as a dark comedy but I didn't find it particularly hilarious, though it has a certain downbeat drollness. (It's hard not to chuckle during the boxing videogame sequence). Medina does a nice job keeping the balance between comedy and tragedy, where Luciano's life is constantly teetering between. It's not the most gripping of plots, but the film is more a mood piece, enhanced by Lucio Bonelli's lovely cinematography. Even with only a peripheral knowledge of Argentina's recent economic collapse, it's clear that the country's anxiousness about its tenuous future is perfectly reflected in Luciano's fearful personality. The other main reason to see the film is Hendler's performance. Playing someone who could potentially grate quickly, he manages to make his nervous protagonist sympathetic, even endearing. Check out Lost Embrace on DVD for another great Hendler role. I look forward to more from both Medina and this charismatic young actor.


Rudo y Cursi Rudo y Cursi

Diego Luna is Beto (a/k/a Rudo, meaning both "crude" and "tough") and Gael Garcia Bernal plays Tato (a/k/a Cursi, or "cheesy"), two rural Mexican half-brothers with ultra-competitive streaks, in this brisk, irresistible sports comedy from Carlos Cuarón (half-brother to Alfonso, who directed Luna and Bernal in Y tu mamá también). When they're not picking bananas for tiny wages, they're found playing soccer on the most ramshackle fields imaginable—Rudo the goalkeeper, and Tato a show-offy striker—but even if these hardscrabble fields offer games more pure, the two both dream of making it big. They're each discovered by a corruptive but charming agent nicknamed Batuta, or "baton" (played with alegría de vivir by Guillermo Francella), who seems to have a different babe on his arm every time we see him. Understanding straight away that the boys have clearly had a life-long competition with each other, Batuta plays brother against brother, ultimately getting them both into the Mexico City spotlight. Tato becomes a star player, earning his nickname for his fancypants playing and lifestyle outside the game—he dates a TV hostess/model, and pursues the career that really matters to him: singing professionally.

Batuto narrates the film in a fourth-wall-breaking way, but unlike many superfluous voiceovers, I found his insights especially amusing. Lines like "Wars are mistaken for games, and games are mistaken for wars" give the film another playful layer. The earliest parts of the film are most charming, when simple pleasures can be found in Cuarón's depiction of poor, rustic Mexico. When the plot inevitably moves to Mexico City, the film becomes a bit more predictable, with Cursi's ascent happening awfully fast. But while sports-movie clichés sneak onto the field (gambling problems, drugs, shady agents, untrustworthy women, ethical conundrums, right up to the Big Game With Seconds Left on the Scoreboard Clock), I found myself fairly forgiving because the film ultimately glides smoothly on the effortlessly appeal of both leading actors. Despite us essentially knowing the outcome, the conclusion still satisfies; it's an appropriate ending. Soccer movies are rare enough; good ones are harder to find. Even the mega-popular Bend It Like Beckham had fairly unrealistic soccer scenes. While I wouldn't rank Rudo y Cursi even close to a classic, fans of the game will find plenty to enjoy in how it captures all the levels of the game, from the banana fields to the huge estadia, in the world's most popular team sport. For non-fans, there's still enough humor and spirit, and Luna and Bernal's not insignificant charisma, to hold interest.


Good Cats Good Cats

Director Ying Liang, whose previous two films (Taking Father Home and The Other Half) also played at SFIFF, has made a provocative narrative about the New China. Set in the city of Zigong (Sichuan), which has so been late to develop that it's playing catch-up, the film depicts eager real estate developers corruptly and too-quickly trying to rid the city of its "peasants." Ying is already becoming a "master of the bleak comedy" (as Roger Garcia correctly wrote in the fest's synopsis) and Good Cats might be his best yet. It centers around Luo Lang, a young man trying to make ends meet as a driver for a local business magnate, i.e., "boss," whose weight seems in direct proportion to his greed. Luo is in an unhappy marriage, isn't satisfying his in-laws' expectations, and watches as his failed former mentor drinks himself to death. Shot on digital video, the film has an immediacy that makes the tribulations of Zigong seem all the more naturalistic. Interestingly, Ying uses long takes and distant shots to let the audience choose where to look in any given scene. While this is occasionally distancing, it enhances the realism and the Jarmusch-like deadpan wit (such as a running gag in which Luo's rickety motorbike refuses to start).

The title playfully refers to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's famous quote: "I don't care if it's a white cat or a black cat. It's a good cat so long as it catches mice." (There's also a running kitty motif here, with alley cats constantly "mao-ing" in the background.) It's not an entirely developed conceit, but it's at least clear that Ying finds a profound irony in that statement—the drive for economic windfall has led to a lot of greedy, shortsighted cats getting involved in Chinese development. Similarly, the impending Beijing Olympics form a tongue-in-cheek backdrop, with creepy-cheerful iconic advertising surrounding the protagonist on every nearby television screen and billboard. Good Cats is a bittersweet portrayal of the New China, but it also works as a satire, full of richly textured characters and amusing set-pieces. The haunting music in the film doesn't hide in the distance; Chinese indie rockers Lamb's Funeral appear to perform dirge-like ditties at several key moments (including the unforgettable final scene), like some sort of death-metal Greek chorus. (Sadly, as the director noted in the Q&A, the band has since dissolved.) It's sad to think this film may not get a wide international release. Seek it out if you can. Given the number of people who are circulating DVDs in China these days as sort of homespun film festivals, maybe someone, perhaps even the director himself, can dupe a copy for you.

Posted by ahillis at 10:28 PM

May 3, 2009

TRIBECA '09 REVIEWS: Here and There, Seven Minutes in Heaven

[Andrew Grant, a man beyond the limits of control, closes out this year's Tribeca Film Festival with a spotlight on two narrative debuts that screened at the fest. –AH]

Here and There (Tamo i Ovde) The forced financial belt-tightening that's occurring in nearly every sector has, unsurprisingly, begun to trickle down to arts programs that relied heavily on corporate sponsorship; the Tribeca Film Festival was no exception. Yet the consensus amongst many critics is that this year's leaner lineup has been more of a blessing than a curse, and the hit-to-miss ratio was higher than ever before. Sure, there were the usual red-carpet, star-studded draws, but nothing on the preposterous scale of, say, 2006's RV premiere. For 2009, the most noticeable and welcome change to the program was the overall strength of the debut narrative features, many of which had a style, confidence, and maturity that's uncommon in first films.

Serbian-born NYC resident Darko Lungulov's Here and There (Tamo i Ovde) has a distinct 1980s Amer-indie feel to it, which is hardly surprising given that legendary indie producer Jim Stark (Down by Law, Night on Earth) had a hand in getting the film off the ground. Set in both New York and Belgrade, Lungulov's dramedy is built upon a dangerously-close-to-formulaic premise that quickly blazes a unique path. Archetypal New Yorker Robert (David Thornton) is a down-on-his-luck, cynical and jaded 52-year-old sax player with Ratso Rizzo bravado (replete with "I'm walkin' here!" moment) and a permanently unkempt mane of black hair and three-day stubble (imagine a cross between Ted Kaczynski and a Baldwin brother). Kicked out of his apartment, he meets Serbian man-with-van Branko, who soon offers our disheveled hero a chance to earn $5000 by marrying his fiancée in Belgrade, and bringing her back to America. It's an ideal setup for a screwball comedy that fortunately shifts gears as the action moves to Belgrade, where Robert finds himself smitten with Branko's mother Olga, played by Grbavica lead Mirjana Karanovic.

Given Stark's involvement and Lungulov's admitted idolization of Jim Jarmusch, the film feels surprisingly more reminiscent of early Hal Hartley, particularly in such quirky minor characters as an America-hating cab driver and a dubious New York Samaritan. Even the shambling, apathetic Robert comes off as a latter-day Henry Fool. There's only a hint of political ideology or commentary on recent events in this tale of two cities, with discourse limited to lines such as "you don't live in Belgrade, you survive in Belgrade." At times, the film leans toward the sentimental, but Lungulov adroitly steers it away from some cliché-riddled cliffside disaster called How Robert Got his Groove Back. With its near sprightly pace and remarkably strong performances, Here and There is a rom-com for the love-is-dead crowd, a subversive and clandestine example of an overly familiar genre.

Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva Dakot Be Gan Eden)Similarly couching its narrative intentions is Seven Minutes in Heaven (Sheva Dakot Be Gan Eden), a psychological neo-thriller from Israeli newcomer Omri Givon. Though more overtly political than Here and There, Givon wisely avoids any grand statements, opting instead to focus on an individual tale of grief and loss. Something of a showcase for incredibly gifted lead actress Raymonde Amsalem,Seven Minutes in Heaven deals with the post-traumatic effects of a terrorist attack. Shortly before their wedding, Galia (Amsalem) and her fiancé Oren are severely injured during a bus suicide bombing. Though clinically dead for seven minutes, Galia manages to survive, but is left with third-degree burns over most of her back and arms. Oren, however, has been left in a coma, and the film opens with his passing, leaving Galia with a brooding sense of survivor's guilt, and a need to piece her life back together. The arrival of an unrecognizable necklace in the mail and the repeated appearance of Boaz, a handsome and helpful stranger, only strengthens her resolve to learn what happened on that tragic day.

In one of the film's most revealing scenes, Galia visits a hospital administrator in hopes of learning the identity of the paramedic that saved her life. There's a lengthy back-and-forth required to determine exactly which bus attack she's a victim of—year, month, and location are barely enough information. It's the film's most political moment, yet doesn't point fingers or make condemnations, instead subtly capturing the reality of just how commonplace such attacks have become. As Galia's quest for catharsis continues, the film ventures into the metaphysical, and there's a significant twist, though it's far more cerebral and meaningful than a Shyamalan third-act gotcha. Seven Minutes in Heaven is a powerful, quiet but rather intense psychological portrait, often as uncomfortably claustrophobic as the rehabilitative synthetic skin suit that Galia is forced to wear. At the center of attention in nearly every scene, this is a challenging, demanding role for Amsalem, who pulls it off with tremendous skill and grace.

Posted by ahillis at 12:28 PM

May 1, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK (AND INTERVIEW): The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL Who knew that a Jim Jarmusch film could be the most divisive of the year thus far? I'm not ready to address The Limits of Control and all the knee-jerk, unconstructive naysayings I've read that don't actually engage with what the film is or how it does (or doesn't) work, at least until I see it a second time, since I was too mesmerized by the experience to take many notes. In lieu of that, I present to you the extended version of an interview I did with Jarmusch for IFC.com, the first part of which can be found here.

GREENCINE DAILY: Wong Kar-Wai once told me that when working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, they share a largely unspoken, instinctual shorthand with one another. Was your relationship with Doyle similar?

JIM JARMUSCH: We were more the opposite, man. We talked and talked and talked incessantly. When I was preparing, he would come to New York for a week and a half at a time, maybe three times. We spent every day together for eight hours, just talking about the film, not about the film, about things we saw on the street, about photographs Chris had taken, looking at unrelated things, and listening to music. I've known Chris quite a long time, 12 or 15 years. I love just talking to him about anything. He's very quick, so sometimes he'll say things to me, philosophical things we're discussing that I don't understand what his point is, and then a few days later when I'm not with him, I'll be thinking it over and be like, "Oh! I see what he meant." I don't know if I'm just slow, or if his ideas are hard to enter sometimes.

Isaach De Bankolé, THE LIMITS OF CONTROL Speaking of music, I'm a big Boris fan, who is all over the soundtrack. I read that you had already planned to fill the film with this conceptual Japanese noise-rock while still sketching it out. What's your process of matching image to music?

When I'm writing or trying to think up an idea for a film, I hone in on music that seems to open up my imagination for that particular world in my head. That happens very early over and over, like Neil Young for Dead Man, or [for Ghost Dog,] RZA's beats and instrumental tracks on the B-sides of vinyl Wu-Tang stuff I was collecting. Or Mulatu Astatge in Broken Flowers was inspiring me, and I was like, "How the hell do I get Ethiopian music in a film about a guy in the suburbs?" So then it led me to have Jeffrey Wright's character be of Ethiopian origin. In this case, it was Boris and Sunn 0))), and that electric feedback-y soundscape stuff they make that I love so much. Those things came very early, while I was even just writing the 25-page treatment—well, it was more like a prose short story that we started from. So they were sort of in a little boat I was in, going down the river. I had them inspiring me. Then I got Earth in the movie and a lot of great stuff. I love the Black Angels, but I only used a little instrumental piece at the end of their song, "You on the Run." Anyway, those things were there very early, but the music always leads me. That's always happened.

Tilda Swinton, on the set of THE LIMITS OF CONTROLI stay abreast of new music by geeking out on music blogs, but how do you find all this cool music? Do you still go to a lot of record stores, or do friends keep you tuned in to new artists?

I'm not a Web guy because I don't have a computer, although I often ask people to look stuff up for me. I don't know, it's sort of a general antenna because I love music. You know, there are music stores that in the past I depended on a lot, like Final Vinyl, that used to be great to order things anywhere in the world that were in print, or what's his name, that little shop on Bowery just south of 8th street. Damn, I love that guy. He's always been really cool. There's Other Music, and in New Paltz, there's Rhino Records that is really run unlike any kind of Rhino chain—the guy there, Rick, is amazing. Those record stores are important, but they've been less so for me recently, maybe because I haven't stopped in very much. I always read the British music press, and I try to listen to what underground radio exists, or college-type radio. I'm just always scanning, and I've always been that way, like, music, music, music. I love to get playlists off of [Jersey City's] WFMU or WVKR in Poughkeepsie—Vassar has a good radio station. WFUV has a good morning show in New York, and there's some underground hip-hop shows on WKCR, the Columbia station. There's the beautiful Sunday morning country shows that I listen to, classic country.

I love radio, and I love finding things randomly. Like, I don't have TiVO for TV because I keep thinking, "Well, then I'll just program everything and I won't scan," and scanning is when you find things you weren't expecting. Not that TV isn't, for the most part, a big wasteland of garbage. But you do learn things if you scan around, more than if you have a programmed idea of what you're going to watch. I don't watch that much TV. I watch Turner Classic Movies, science shows and Antiques Roadshow, you know this one? I love Antiques Roadshow. I have this thing I always imagine. Okay, they think suddenly, they have some vase and it's worth $8,000, you know? I always equate it to: what kind of a used car could they buy with it? [Jarmusch makes a sad horn noise] "You can buy a 1986 Honda Civic!" I don't know why I do that... I'm going off in stupid places.

Bill Murray, surrogate Dick Cheney No, I appreciate it. Now, I know why Bill Murray is so great in your films, but what's so great about working with him? In the press notes for this film, you mentioned that you two liked to "talk around the character."

Yeah, we like to talk about it in the past. What's really fascinating about Bill is that, since I've known him, his procedure is always evolving. When I first worked with him in Coffee and Cigarettes, he wanted to pretty much improvise everything, and he didn't want to talk about it or rehearse it. Then with Broken Flowers, no rehearsing, no specifics, but we would take long, long walks for hours at a time, and talk about things that eventually affected our idea of that character. I thought he would improvise a lot, and he said, "I want to stick close to the script." Then in this film, he said, "I want to rehearse, and I want to do the dialogue as written. I don't want to add anything." So that was even a different step. He's just an interesting work in progress. I'm always a little surprised, like, "How does he want to approach it this time?"

That's fun, and I learn a lot from Bill about a lot of things, especially human nature. His capacity to observe and feel what people are feeling, even strangers, is uncanny. I've seen him numerous times run out of his way to help somebody try to get something out of the trunk of their car, or help with their luggage at the airport, or in a restaurant, talk to someone he doesn't even know that looks sort of down. He'll go over and respond to that: "Hey, the world hasn't ended yet, what's going on?" Amazing. He's really observant with compassion, so I love to just hang out with Bill and see how he's going to react to what we encounter in the world. I learn more from that, maybe, than anything specifically about acting, preparing or filmmaking, because it's all intertwined in the end. I really liked having him play somebody with not an ounce of humor this time, which might be frustrating for people's expectations. I don't know, that's not my problem. I choose the actors I want for the best collaboration to create something, and I really liked him being nasty and condescending. Every fucking school principal or authority figure I've ever had in my life has always, at some point, said, "You just don't understand how the world really works." Hearing Bill's character say those lines for me, I don't know. I certainly heard that a lot in my life.

The Limits of Control opens today in New York and Los Angeles, then expands to more cities beginning May 8. For more information, visit the official website.

Posted by ahillis at 5:28 PM | Comments (2)