June 29, 2009

NYAFF '09: Film of the Week

Breathless If you've got the guts, you adventuresome types need to check out the final New York Asian Film Festival screening (July 2, 2:00pm, IFC Center) of South Korean actor Yang Ik-June's writing and directorial debut Breathless—that ain't no joke of a title. In its first stressful, claustrophobically close-up scene, a woman is beaten senseless in the streets while loan-shark enforcer Sang-hoon (Yang) observes indifferently, then brutalizes the victimizer before unexpectedly smacking around the woman as well (all the while berating her for being a victim). Sleepy-eyed, gutter-mouthed, mustachioed thug Sang-hoon instantly makes for an unsympathetic protagonist, and as his actions soon prove, he'll turn feral on anyone who so much as breathes the wrong way. His violent outbursts are so relentless that even working as a guy who beats up people for a living, his co-workers have to worry about getting beat up by him, too. Could there be a less likeable character in a more unpleasant viewing experience? Would it have been an easier swallow if the filmmaking were flashy or stylized, instead of unadorned and handheld?

Thus, I try to explain why I found the film perversely exhilarating, and why it's my "best in show" prizewinner at this year's NYAFF. 2009 may turn out to be the Year of the Irredeemable Sociopath in auteurist cinema, admittedly based only on the titular anti-heros of Pablo Larrain's Tony Manero (opening in NYC this weekend) and Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson (out in October). But where the former's wickedness is a sick byproduct of an oppressive sociopolitical environment, and the latter is a vaudevillian monster from a good home but in dire need of a creative outlet, Sang-hoon's deviant behavior is reacting to (and thus repeating) a cycle of family violence. It's a battle-scarred middle finger to everyone and everything (the audience, too?), as Yang uses broad movie psychology to validate its violence—which is, coincidentally, as purposefully cyclical as the action in The Hurt Locker, if more persistent and crude. Breathless This guy smacks around women, little kids, cops, and even his own father, so why are we still watching this grotesquerie? (And why am I laughing the same hearty but pained laughs from my first viewing of Bad Santa?)

It's because of Lady Game-changer. When Sang-hoon spits on a stranger one fine day, he doesn't realize he'll soon be socially shackled to his human spittoon Yeon-Hee (Kim Gol-Bi), a rebellious, trash-talking schoolgirl that's every bit as confrontational and potty-mouthed as him. With her own flashed-back history of family cruelty (a cynical theme emerges: teaching a cycle of violence is easier than learning it), Yeon-Hee makes a perfect foil for Sang-hoon, busting his chops while he's out busting heads. Quickly becoming best frenemies, the two text each other and ultimately bond in their own aggressive-passive (no, that's correct) sniping. When Sang-hoon opens up to her over beers by the waterfront, his emotional baggage ready to be unloaded late in the film, he tenderly lowers his guard with: "Sometimes you need to drink at a place like this, bitch." The odd coupling is what lightens the mood from upsetting to morbidly funny, as their charisma shares the same tone of beauty and illogicality of Harold & Maude, except a lot more knockdown brawling. Draw your own conclusions about whether such screen intensity is warranted, if an intellectual topic can be expounded upon through visceral means (if all the fighting was romanticized in any way, I'd personally have turned it off within 20 minutes), but in my days digesting it now, I'm especially drawn to the film's subversively positive epilogue: can violence really bring friends together?

Posted by ahillis at 10:19 PM

June 26, 2009

INTERVIEW: Kathryn Bigelow

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

THE HURT LOCKER's Kathryn BigelowIn the great tradition of tough-guy filmmakers like Howard Hawks, Don Siegel and Samuel Fuller, Kathryn Bigelow is one of the finest living crafters of male-bonding genre films. It may seem an odd fit, as the beautiful, elegant, highly intelligent 57 year-old woman was educated at the San Francisco Art Institute with a background in painting; she's hardly the eye-patch-wearing, cigar-chomping type like her Hollywood predecessors. When I asked her about this duality in 2002, she responded with genuine puzzlement. Why would a woman want to make muscular action films? Frankly, why not?

Bigelow's latest, The Hurt Locker—easily one of the year's best films, based on journalist-turned-screenwriter Mark Boal's interviews and experiences—revolves around the lives of three Army bomb techs (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty) in the last days of their Iraq tour, circa 2004. Yes, it's yet another right-here, right-now Iraq film, but it doesn't hurl any messages in our faces about the horrors or futility of war. It's not dreary, somber or self-serving. It's not about politics or politicians, wives or families, insurgents or Iraqis. Rather, we're presented with a sturdy combat film with lots of thrills and explosions and summertime-friendly action. It dares to suggest that, sure, war is hell, but it's not without its pleasures.

Can you please talk about this notion that war can be fun?

It has so much to do with the fact that Mark [Boal] was on an embed. Also, this is a combat film. This isn't about re-integration into the homefront. So you're there and he was there, and all of his observations, his terror, his experiences on a day-to-day basis, that was what we both wanted to preserve. Some of these guys are enjoying what they're doing. Some don't. You're given an opportunity to look at it through many different lenses. This was somewhat influenced by Chris Hedges' book War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. He talks about how it's a volunteer military. When Mark went over on his embed, he fully expected that Vietnam-era trope of the disgruntled soldier. But that's a draft military. These are men who are there by choice. Some guys liked being there! He was shocked and surprised. As he tried to unpack it further... he talks about the allure—not for everybody—but there is an attractiveness to combat.

Which is why there are so many war films.

The Hurt Locker War is the ultimate canvas in a way. It defines, sadly, history in that there's always been war. Obviously, that's a comment in and of itself. Apart from that, I suppose it's a genetically encoded desire to reaffirm your humanness. There's not a better test, or crucible, by which to make that evaluation. All your survival neurons have been switched on in order to live through an experience like that. Chris Hedges makes the case that, once all that is switched on, it creates a potent transformation. There's a hunger to replicate it outside the war zone, and it can't be replicated.

One difference between this and other Iraq movies is that you feel like you're there.

That's the distinction I was trying to make. Those others are not combat movies, though I'm not familiar with everything that's been made on the subject so far. Not that Mark engaged in combat, but he certainly ducked shrapnel. He was over there. And because of that first-hand observation, it gave me an opportunity to put you in the Humvee. I wanted you to walk out of the theater and wipe the sand off your pants. There's a real visceral, raw, immediate immersion into a day in the life of a bomb tech. You're also looking at it from the soldier's perspective. You're not changing to, let's say, the perspective of an insurgent. They don't know if the guy on the balcony on the third floor looking down is hanging out his laundry, or is calling in your coordinates for a sniper hit.

I love that the film is in segments. It reminded me of Sam Fuller's The Big Red One.

That really had to do with Mark. These guys would go out 10, 12, 15 times a day. It's something like you're 48 hours on, 24 hours off and 48 on. So it's day-night-day-night, it has that nature. It's both repetitious and potentially catastrophic, simultaneously. You never know what you're going to encounter. It's so dangerous. When he was over there, there were maybe two or three other embeds. That was it. It's just too dangerous. Because he was reporting for Playboy, they let him in. He said he'd be standing next to the bureau chief of the New York Times, and the soldier would be like, "When do you want to go out?" He was like, "I don't have any of the girls with me!"

There's a brilliant, show-stopping sequence in which your characters are stuck on a ridge for what seems like hours, in a long-range face-off.

The Hurt Locker That was inspired by this rooftop fight in Fallujah. I certainly wasn't aware of these 50 caliber sniper rifles, whose range is 800 meters. You can shoot somebody a mile away between the eyes. These guys have to breathe a certain way to even have the potential for a degree of accuracy. They're such powerful weapons. I think it's an effective sequence because of the idea that that kind of distance is actually possible. It's a pretty extraordinary piece of equipment. I'm sorry it had to be invented.

Was filming in Jordan your first choice?

I would have gone to Baghdad if I had access, but it was hard enough to find a crew to go to Jordan. I don't think I could have found any followers in Baghdad. I actually scouted Morocco at first, but it paled in comparison to Jordan. The architecture's perfect. You could shoot 360 degrees. But the great bonus that I did not anticipate was the refugees. There were hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees, many of whom are actors because there was a fairly thriving cultural community before the occupation. These refugees are all living in Amman. All of my background extras and some of the speaking Iraqis, like the professor or the suicide bomber, are all Iraqi.

It's as close to the war zone as you can get. At one point, [cinematographer] Barry Ackroyd and I were about five kilometers from the border and I said, "Let's just go across, so we can say we shot in Iraq," and he said: "Too many snipers." They couldn't guarantee our safety. Also, the film commission is very effective. It's a monarchy, and the royal family was very supportive of this production. I started this trainee program. There's a film school there, and I enlisted various students in all the departments. They loved it! It ended up being a very hospitable and logistically productive place to shoot. But rolling into a neighborhood, it's really densely populated. We're rolling Humvees in, we've got American soldiers carrying M4s, but people were fascinated and intrigued and supportive. I loved shooting there.

[The Hurt Locker opens today in New York and Los Angeles, and in select cities on July 10. For more information, visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 1:08 PM | Comments (2)

June 23, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad

Last Year at Marienbad (L’année dernière à Marienbad)
Directed by Alain Resnais
1961, 94 minutes, In French with English subtitles
Criterion

I don't eat red meat, so it gives me no pleasure to cook a sacred cow like Last Year at Marienbad, an incontestably iconic and beautiful curiosity that simply hasn't held up as the masterpiece it's gushed to be. Perhaps in the context of 1961, this legendary collaboration between twin titans Alain Resnais and nouveau roman writer-turned-filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet was then the epitome of formalist, modernist European film artistry; it's a highly reactionary pooh-poohing of traditional narrative storytelling, academically detached from the confines of space, time and meaning to a meandering extreme of icy impenetrability. (It would be easy to see any single scene replayed verbatim as a spoof of Euro-pretentiousness on The Simpsons.) That's not to say it's entirely plotless, as momentum and suspense build from a loosely centralized, simple drama: a well-dressed man credited as X (Giorgio Albertazzi) pursues stunning woman A (Delphine Seyrig) inside and out of a massive baroque hotel. Did she agree to rendezvous with him a year after their last encounter, as he asserts in an elliptically repeated but varied conversation, or have they even met at all? Are her hazy recollections real, or being seductively implanted by his silver tongue?

Last Year at Marienbad

Beyond their unemotionally elusive banter, their incessantly shifting locales (including what may be the most precise analog match cut in history, in which Seyrig seamlessly twists around into a different room), Sacha Vierny's luscious 'Scope cinematography, and the drool-worthy costume porn (Coco Chanel famously dressed Seyrig), only non-sequiturs and irrational questions remain. Who are the other patrons of this magnificently Rococo-rific establishment, and why do they disappear and rematerialize, often standing as unsettlingly still as mannequins? Is this an unconscious sci-fi epic about aliens or wormholes or dreams? Could everyone be spinning their wheels in some purgatorial afterlife? Why do the people in the garden cast long shadows when the conically sculpted trees cast none at all? It's an unsolvable mystery that's far too calculated in its intangibility, a film that's less concerned with its relationship to viewers as it is with our post-game coffee talk. I certainly respect it as a text (would those Steadicam hallway shots in The Shining have existed without it? I'd also wager Altman's Quintet has played a game or two of Nim, and then there's that Blur video.), but as a cinematic experience, its lifeless superficiality frustrates me because it is so visually striking. Should my combined disappointment and dispassionate admiration be considered a complex thumbs-up? Why do I love Inland Empire, as arguably unfocused and indecipherable, but have little use for a second viewing here? (Yes, after years of hype in my cinephilic upbringing, I only recently sat down with Marienbad for the first time this week. What of it?)

Last Year at Marienbad

As I began to compartmentalize my feelings (pros and cons, I suppose; in theory, this film's surrealist sensibilities should've known the secret handshake to mine), I realized that the film actually shares quite a bit in common with Jim Jarmusch's equally divisive puzzler The Limits of Control. (A quick note: while Marienbad's divisive history is regularly written about—between winning the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival to Pauline Kael's "aimless disaster" dismissal and its inclusion in the Medveds' book "The Fifty Worst Films of All Time"—anything less than over-the-moon praise today seems to be condemned with smug, oh-you-just-don't-get-it condescension.) In Mark Polizzotti's essay, included with Criterion's unsurprisingly comprehensive 2-disc (or Blu-Ray) set, he writes about the mixed reaction, and the film's title could be easily replaced:

The ambivalence is understandable. Marienbad [The Limits of Control] blatantly toys with our expectations regarding plotline, character development, continuity, conflict, resolution—all those elements we’ve come to expect from a satisfying motion picture. Like its nameless hero, the film relentlessly pursues us with a barrage of assertions while giving us little to hold on to as convincingly true, until in the end...

Last Year at Marienbad

So now I'm truly flummoxed. Why does the older film seem like a musty artifact to me (a forced visit to Grandma's house!), and Jarmusch's latest such a rich, buoyant and bravely uncompromising experience? Are both just products of their eras, and in time, The Limits of Control too will feel like a faded trend, punished for its self-aware, stunted ambiguities in its own hermetically sealed prison of visual lushness? Maybe now is the time to ask the negative nellies who couldn't find use for the Jarmusch film to discuss their feelings on Marienbad. Form over function, style vs. content, rock beats scissors—I certainly don't care about broad qualifiers. However, when neither film resonates with my personal experiences by their artificiality alone, yet only one profoundly engages my worldview on beauty and art, should I be questioning the differences between the films or my instincts? Maybe Marienbad crawled into the corridors of my skull as it was intended after all.

Posted by ahillis at 1:28 PM | Comments (10)

June 18, 2009

PODCAST: Lloyd Kaufman

Lloyd Kaufman and the Toxic AvengerLast weekend, I was fortunate enough to be a guest at the deadCENTER Film Festival in Oklahoma City, where I sat on a panel following a screening of Paul Osborne's humorously revealing documentary Official Rejection. Chronicling the fulfilling highs and frustrating lows Osborne and filmmaker Scott Storm faced when their previous feature collaboration was taken to the festival circuit, the film debunks a few myths about the emerging auteur experience. Among the subjects sharing their two cents are Bryan Singer, Chris Gore, Traci Lords, Kevin Smith and the President of Troma Entertainment himself, Lloyd Kaufman—who also sat in on the panel, and showed characteristic dignity by doing his onscreen interview with dropped trou.

Kaufman, pictured here with his iconic star of the Toxic Avenger series, knows a thing or two about festivals and the evolution of independent cinema. As a filmmaker, producer and actor (and current chairman of the Independent Film and Television Alliance), Kaufman has been making cult indie movies under the Troma umbrella since the mid-'70s. Gleefully rife with debauchery, bloodshed, gross-out comedy, and other camp ingenuity, his work has been cited as influential by Peter Jackson, Quentin Tarantino and Takashi Miike.

Sitting down with the ever-affable Kaufman in his Manhattan home, our half-hour-ish chat was surprisingly more earnest than you might expect from a guy who had a cameo in Crank: High Voltage. ("The most serious interview I think I've ever done," he'd tell me later.) Broadly addressing the state of indie film in this desperate climate, Kaufman and I discussed TromaDance, net neutrality, why having his films bootlegged may not be such a bad idea, how his Chinese studies at Yale have helped him see the industry more clearly, and more tales of the devil-worshiping media cartels.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

[Kaufman's most recent directorial feature, the gonzo fast-food satire Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (a NY Times critic's pick!) is now on DVD, and his new book "Produce Your Own Damn Movie!" will be released on August 28.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:33 PM | Comments (2)

June 16, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: L'important c'est d'aimer

The Important Thing is to Love

L'important c'est d'aimer (The Important Thing is to Love)
Directed by Andrzej Zulawski
1975, 113 minutes, In French with English subtitles
Mondo Vision

L'important c'est d'aimerThe opening seven minutes of Polish iconoclast Zulawski's first French production—adapted with Christopher Frank from his novel La nuit américaine (no relation to Truffaut's Day For Night)—tease with such psychodramatic intensity that one might mistakenly brace for the button-pushing provocations of an exploitation flick. It opens with hard-luck actress Nadine Chevalier (Romy Schneider, who won a Best Actress César award in 1976 for the film) staring at the camera in someone's domicile, a woman's offscreen voice cueing her to back up, turn around and approach the body of a dead gunman leaning against a blood-splattered wall. We're on a movie set, and world-weary freelance photog Servais Mont (Fabio Testi) has just crashed the party, bribing anyone who questions him while taking unsanctioned shots of the movie star. The barking director demands Nadine mount the fake-bloodied corpse and profess "je t'aime," but in the moment, she can't perform, and Servais captures her vulnerable, tear-streaked visage before he's thrown off the set, his negatives taken, and a fistfight erupting with two crewmembers. Beaten, but not without getting in his blows, Servais escapes with a roll of undeveloped film hidden in his mouth, and takes off for another gig to shoot gay bodybuilder porn—a financial obligation to seedy loan sharks. Whether it's 1975 or 2009, sometimes we all have to whore ourselves out to get by in desperate times, so don't you go judging our ethically lax anti-hero. (Side note: will this new recession prompt for more characters sinking to the lowest of lows for a buck?)

L'important c'est d'aimer The film soon reveals a love triangle not unlike the twisted psychological dynamics of a Polanski film, as Servais immediately falls for Nadine, except she's already married to clownish cinephile Jacques (irreverent pop dandy Jacques Dutronc), a passively sinister cuckold who puts the "imp" in impotence. Saved by her husband from a life of prostitution and debauchery but now morally indebted to him to star in soft-core trash like Nymphocula ("But of course," a flamboyant actor named Karl-Heinz Zimmer recognizes her work by title; it's the one with "two dykes in a castle with a dwarf"), Nadine flirts back with this new suitor, though her desires aren't so much physical as they are about intimacy and secret conversation. Barely staying afloat with his sordid day job (this may be the first film to blindside me with an orgy), the hopelessly romantic Servais borrows money to fund—and save Nadine with a starring role in—an amazingly gaudy stage production of Richard III, the lead of which is to be played by the aforementioned Zimmer (Klaus Kinski, colorfully stealing every scene as he was wont to do).

So the objectified image of beauty is thus torn between the image maker (Servais) and the image lover (Jacques), both emasculated by Nadine's fickle heart, their power games played with all the cards turned face up in each other's company. One particularly uncomfortable sequence features Jacques browbeating his wife in front of dinner guests (insulting her provincialism, breasts, and smoking habits) while Servais feebly observes, until Nadine accuses her accuser of being scared, calling his tactics embarrassing and useless. Who wields the power here? Is this marriage any less volatile than Nadine's potential relationship with a guy who is essentially owned by underworld heavies?

L'important c'est d'aimerAnd if the important thing is simply to love, as the title states, is that enough to save anyone from a life of exploitation? Zulawski populates his world here with more lecherous sickos, fiendish weirdos and profound violence than the first few Brian De Palma features combined, but his is no cinematic exercise in B-movie revisionism. Zulawski mines the gutter for the frayed humanity in tortured souls, where aching passions still burn (albeit dimly) after being nearly crushed by fate and obligation.

The central trio of performances (aside from the otherworldly Kinski, who Zulawski grabbed for his turn as Hamlet, not "the funny Italian things he did, like the Spaghetti Westerns," as he says in the DVD's included interview) are all rendered in complex timbres, perhaps moreso because Schneider apparently loathed the cocksure Testi from the get-go. Bookended with another bloodied body and a "je t'aime" now deliberate and heartfelt, L'important c'est d'aimer pushes this potentially soap-operatic melodrama (on paper, the plot is hokily half-formed) into an expressionistic, even magisterial series of emotional outbursts. Perhaps the collaborative keystone, though, is Contempt composer Georges Delerue's unmistakably lyrical score. Inspired by the Fellini-friendly "grinding sound with a little vocal on top" of Nino Rota, Zulawski asked Delerue to work against his sensibilities, to craft something that could "slap against the screen." Schneider's very appearance prompts many of these ostentatious musical swoons, so why does any of this work? Well, why does love work?

[For further reading, check out Steven Boone's recent piece on Zulawski's Possession as compared to Sam Raimi's Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn.]

Posted by ahillis at 8:54 AM | Comments (3)

June 14, 2009

A Dangerous Shift in Iranian Cinema

by Vadim Rizov

A few weeks ago, some utterly clueless study was conducted showing that the Romanian films so popular on the festival right now were, shockingly, not box office successes in Romania. Why anyone was taken aback by this is hard to guess. Most country's festival films have always been persona non grata—commercially and sometimes politically—in the places they emerged. (Recall, for example, Tony Rayns launching his war against Kim Ki-Duk by pointing out that his financing was almost entirely foreign, as if that were an automatic demerit.)

blackboards.jpg

From Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards

In the late '90s, Iranian cinema was the wave of the art-house future: Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and (grudgingly conceded) Majid Majidi were all enjoying fair success. Their films, too, weren't necessarily commercial hits in Iran (Panahi is used to having his work banned), but then something else happened: the amount of foreign cinematic attention paid to Iran these past few years—with the exception of Panahi's Offside—has been almost null. Kiarostami is off doing art installation-type dares to the audience, Makhmalbaf hasn't seen American distribution since 2001, Majidi continues to tickle the middlebrows with allegorical children and Panahi has to fight to make a film every three years. There is, of course, nothing inherently sinister about a country's cinematic profile temporarily ebbing a bit; certainly, given how the cinematic country du jour seems to change every few years (Iran, Korea, Thailand, Romania), it might just seem like some kind of anomaly. Given current events, that's really not the biggest of concerns right now. But what, precisely, has been going on?

There is, as it turns out, a good reason why much Iranian product has been virtually unexportable these last few years: it's been pretty much comically vile. More importantly, it adds up to a monolithic system of reinforcement for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; at some point, Iran has developed one of the most efficient cinematic/TV propaganda apparatuses on the planet, on a scale that's frankly kind of mind-boggling. Right now, the man who's shattered every box-office record in Iran is Masoud Dehnamaki.

masoud.jpg

Profiled in Newsweek nearly two months ago, Dehnamaki's big hit is Ekhrajiha 2 (yes, it's a sequel), an Iran-Iraq war movie based on his time in the service. Dehnamaki also spent time in the '90s in a paramilitary group that raided theaters and harassed women over immoral clothing. Babak Dehghanpisheh, who wrote the profile, claims the Iranian government "has funded an entire genre of movies, called Defae Moqadas or Holy Defense, which show Iranian soldiers as flawless holy warriors." There is exactly zero information about this on Google—the article is literally the only English-language return hit—but it's not hard to imagine how much of this product is floating around Iran. And the thing is, Dehnamaki's films—designed for maximal unity in nationalism—are linked to Ahmadinejad's canny sense of rural populism; even the least reverent portrayal of Iran on-screen is tied to Ahmadinejad.

Americans were appalled when Ahmadinejad landed at Columbia University to deliver his charming beliefs doubting the veracity of the Holocaust's existence. But it's not as if he was coming from nowhere: consider the learned professor at a "film seminar" explaining how "Tom & Jerry" is pro-Jewish propaganda, aimed at improving the image of Jews after the Holocaust. (Everything is a Zionist conspiracy on Iranian TV, apparently: there are similar lectures on Chicken Run, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and lord knows what else.) For less intellectual adults, there's Black House, a sci-fi TV show (now sadly pulled from YouTube) in which the evil villains are Jews—in space! (It's like a parallel universe Mel Brooks.) For kids, there's a cartoon series called The Child and the Invader, which has to be seen to be believed.

In the '90s, a common tactic for the Iranian arthouse directors was to make allegories with children, thereby clearing themselves of the suspicion that they were being subversive. These days, it seems like it's almost impossible to practice any kind of cinematic culture of dissent even at that level of ass-covering. Even in the USSR of the '60s, directors like Larisa Sheptiko managed to make their films, even if they were instantly shelved for indefinite periods of time to be thawed out during glasnost. Not so in Iran, and the attack on filmmakers has ramped up massively: Makhmalbaf—who has been content in recent years to kick back and let his large family make the movies—had his website virally invaded after publicly getting in the tank for Hossein Mousavi.

This comes only a little while after the release of Roxanne Sabari, the American journalist jailed and released on (in all likelihood) trumped-up charges. Sabari is the fiancée of Bahman Ghobadi, who makes vaguely politicized movies about the Kurds, announced his desire to leave the country, and made a splash at Cannes this year with Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats, a loosely improvised narrative centered around Iran's indie rock scene, which apparently does exist. Even Iran's most prominent, internationally respected filmmakers aren't safe.

persiancats.jpg

Because of directors like Panahi, Kiarostami et al., it was possible until fairly recently to put a bright spin on Iranian film culture—and, by extension, the country. But as the events of the past few days show, that's an increasingly tough, near-impossible sell. In retrospect, Iran's cinematic silence is as ominously symptomatic as any other warning sign; when it's harder to make an underground film in Iran than even China, you know you're in trouble. (In a round-up of ten Iranian films not from the arthouse guild, Abel Karavel's three selections from this decade have all been either banned or unofficially pulled; one of the filmmakers was almost sentenced to death.) And while watching Iranian TV on YouTube, in its own twisted way, can be as hilarious as, say, the worst of Glenn Beck, it's no joke. Right now we're looking at one of the most ridiculously efficient propaganda machines on the planet, one that's shattered a vibrant film culture in under ten years. Ahmadinejad has much more to answer for, but the symptoms were there as much as anywhere else.

PS: For more viewpoints and reports on the situation in Iran from a cinema perspective, check out David Hudson's excellent compilation at IFC Daily.

Posted by cphillips at 9:46 PM | Comments (4)

June 10, 2009

Subways, Shitholes & Death Wishes

by Vadim Rizov

Taking-of-Pelham-123.jpgReleased three months apart, Death Wish and The Taking of Pelham One Two Three are twinned images of the subway as a microcosm of 1974 New York City: Death Wish the urban hell variant, Pelham a dystopian playground. Both focus on people with guns infesting the transport system and start a general acceptance of the city being as violent and out-of-control as could be. (The next year, the city almost had to declare bankruptcy, leading to the infamous Ford to City: Drop Dead Daily News headline, which pretty much sums up the overall tenor.) Both have lasted far past their initial sell-by dates as basic programmers. On the occasion of Tony Scott's ill-advised remake of Pelham, it's worth thinking about the ways the films complement each other.

What, Me Worry About Killing Scumbags?Death Wish came first and struck a major nerve, making back over seven times its budget. The asinine tale of a man (Charles Bronson) whose female relations can't go anywhere without getting raped or murdered, the film quickly devolves into Bronson prowling the subways and shooting anyone who tries to mug him, which seems to happen every damn night. It wasn't just the vigilante justice that struck a nerve with New York's weary citizens, who appauded every killing in the theater and even gave an ambivalent thumbs-up to Bernhard Goetz's real-life subway adventures. While some critics huffed and puffed, they couldn't tear the film down at the time; it took years for it to become a pop-cultural punchline. If critics' objections were mostly moral, it has to be said that on pretty much every level, Death Wish is a lousy, laughable work. There's a reason the superficially similar Dirty Harry has outlasted it. Dialogue is flatly expository whenever criminals aren't flouncing. My favorite bit is an early exchange between Bronson (at this point, still a left-leaner), who cops to being a "bleeding-heart liberal" for the "underprivileged." His co-worker proposes in return a rounding-up of all those people and "putting them in camps." Cuz, you know, they're "animals." Death Wish has no sense of humor to leaven its lack of proportion; its fascism is decidedly unstylish.

Death Wish 3: The Video Game Four increasingly cheap and laughable sequels aside, Death Wish's legacy is rather indirect. The Brian Garfield novel it was adapted from was supposed to condemn vigilante action, not endorse it; Garfield wasn't pleased by what happened. Ever since then, it seems like every time the material's revisited, it's been with the intent of subversion. A few years ago, another Garfield novel—Death Sentence—received an even more incompetent rendering, in which star Kevin Bacon's fighting back against the gang who started all the fuss in the first place meant more dead bodies than ever. Even worse was Jodie Foster's turn in The Brave One, in which post-Giuliani New York appeared, somehow, to be more dangerous than Bronson's. If the original film's essentially sociopathic urges can no longer be straight-facedly endorsed by Hollywood filmmakers, they've been (in an oddly predictable way) embraced by the more extreme right-wing blogosphere nuts. The quasi-lovable loons over at Big Hollywood use it as a constant reference point for great filmmaking endorsing "conservative" values. To commemorate its 35th anniversary, one S.T. Karnick praised its "uncompromising truthfulness." Similarly and more recently, Taken got the highest possible marks of praise for its portrait of Liam Neeson blowing away Arabs, a ready-made metaphor for defending vague Judeo-Christian values from terrorists, neatly combining xenophobia with a fundamental distrust for the creaky, slow-acting procedures of the law. Death Wish remains as disreputable now as when it came out. The basic template (man with guns stands up to villains, but outside the law) can be updated to the post-9/11 age as a justification for NRA membership, waterboarding, the works. It's so crude and generic you can tweak it however you like.

THE TAKING OF PELHAM ONE TWO THREE's Robert ShawThe Taking of Pelham One Two Three's legacy is weirder and harder to pin down. Though it's pegged as a heist movie, that's just the ostensible plot; the real subject seems to be growing pains of a city adjusting to its sexual, professional and (especially) racial mores one day at a time. Death Wish hedged its bets by being colorblind about the muggers, many of whom are lily-white (including a young Jeff Goldblum!); Pelham puts its racial cards face-up on the table, most notably in the moment when Walter Matthau finally meets up with police officer Joe Seneca, realizes he's black and mutters "Oh, I, uh, thought you were, uh, like a shorter guy or... I don't know what I thought." There's an openness to the racial conflict and disagreement (a willingness to even acknowledge it exists) that only really continued on-screen in other movies until (arguably) 1982's 48 Hours, then disappeared again until Inside Man (Pelham's spiritual descendent, with Spike Lee's usual racial over-concerns wisely used for comedy). HBO's "The Wire" featured characters honestly acknowledging the gap. Tony Scott's Pelham remake appears to be facilely "post-racial" in its pretense that we've actually healed all those divides, as if the fact that NYC's cleaned up in the last 35 years means they solved all the ethnic interaction problems at the same time. The thing about Pelham is that its vision of subway violence doesn't really mean anything: it's a hook for developing whatever kinds of tensions need to emerge between characters and groups. Unlike Death Wish—archetypal enough to be a crude Western update—it has no reusable application.

Spiro T. Agnew's America The original movies still circle one another, with their differing visions of what New York means, or might mean. Both are heavy on the 1974 atmosphere and the feeling that New York is, generally speaking, a shithole. For Death Wish, that's a call to arms, an excuse to blow the outsiders away and make Spiro T. Agnew's America great again; for Pelham, it's a prompt—not only to defuse and have fun with the tensions in scabrously enjoyable, honest dialogue, but to begin acknowledging that the problem isn't "haves vs. have-nots" or "law-abiders vs. criminals" or even simple recessionary criminal economics. The issue is a history of racial tension and how to defuse it; in the era of Jeremiah Wright and Gloria Sotomayor, when opponents find themselves unable to openly name their problems with people who engage in any kind of ethnic identity politics, that idea remains as prescient as ever.

Posted by ahillis at 1:37 PM | Comments (3)

June 9, 2009

PODCAST: Rutger Hauer

Rutger Hauer (photo by Mirjam van der Linden) Internationally renowned Dutch actor and filmmaker Rutger Hauer (Blade Runner, The Hitcher) again lends his name and talents to the third edition of the Rutger Hauer FilmFactory (June 18 – 28), a Rotterdam-based workshop program that unites 30 budding auteurs for masters classes with such notables as Paul Verhoeven and Robert Rodriguez. (Both of whom will be teaching virtually via Skype.) Other notable coaches include Polish filmmaker and artist Lech Majewski (The Garden of Earthly Delights), Golden Bear-winning Peruvian director Claudia Llosa (La Teta Asustada), and Belgian cinematogpraher Walther van den Ende (Joyeux Noel). Funded by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science; the Rotterdam Film Fund and other cultural organizations, the program challenges directors, producers, cinematographers, editors and actors from all over the world to make 12 to 18 short films in only 10 days. "Victims," Hauer playfully calls them.

I called Hauer today at his hotel in the Netherlands to discuss this year's edition of the Rutger Hauer FilmFactory, why he hasn't collaborated with Verhoeven since 1985's Flesh + Blood, and the experience of doing love scenes for Nicolas Roeg with the director's then-wife Theresa Russell. If you notice that Hauer's voice begins to sound a little glitchy near the end, keep listening for the ironic explanation.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 2:46 PM

June 6, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Stingray Sam

[DISCLAIMER: Cory McAbee has a tiny role in The Guatemalan Handshake, a Benten Films DVD release.]

Stingray Sam

Stingray Sam
Directed by Cory McAbee
2009, 62 minutes, U.S.A.
[currently undistributed]

Stingray Sam Rocketing through another monochrome corner of the gently surreal, weird-humored universe shared by his lovely, Lynchian 2001 intergalactic musical The American Astronaut (any film with characters named "The Blueberry Pirate" and "The Boy Who Actually Saw a Female Breast" makes my cut in this decade's cult canon), musician-filmmaker-actor Cory McAbee again follows his heart and whimsical mind to the outer limits with Stingray Sam. Modeled after old Buck Rogers serials and the like, McAbee's musical space-western yarn spans six serialized episodes, each "presented" by fictional every-corp Liberty Chew Chewing Tobacco, a satirical stand-in for the annoying overlap between entertainment and consumer culture (commercials, ubiquitous product placements, having to whore oneself to make a living).

Stingray Sam—not the film, but the ultra-cool, genteel, black-clad cowboy convict McAbee plays—reunites with his "little bit nice and a little bit mean" pal The Quasar Kid (Crugie), and together, in order to earn their freedom, they must rescue a button-cute moppet (Willa Vy McAbee, the director's daughter) from a genetically manufactured idiot overlord named Fredward (Joshua Taylor). Interspersed throughout are hyper-colorful cutout animations reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's Monty Python collages or even the pages of Spy Magazine, which help relay (along with wry, convoluted narration by David Hyde Pierce that sounds like he's reading from a lost Douglas Adams novel) the twisted plot details that a limited budget wouldn't allow for, including a corporate mascot rehabilitation program, a wealthy planet full of pregnant men, and well, anything filmed out of the atmosphere.

Stingray Sam The premise lends itself to some oddball cliffhangers, but the music, man—the music! McAbee, whose ever-evolving band was once called The Billy Nayer Show but currently plays as American Astronaut, has been toying with genre (rock, punk, cabaret, comedy), the autoharp, ukulele, et al. for over two decades. From rockabilly freakouts to an acoustic lullaby, the soundtrack here is diverse, catchy and easily the film's most exuberantly charming quality. These giddily choreographed show-stoppers are evenly peppered throughout, so any segment can stand alone without the context of an overarching narrative. (This is one-hundred-percent true: I was hooked after only seeing Part 5 at the Sarasota Film Festival the first time around.)

The episodic structure serves a dual purpose, too. It's not a coincidence that Stingray Sam—the film, not the character—takes place in a sci-fi realm, because McAbee is clearly looking to the future for artistic inspiration. After being commissioned by Sundance in 2007 to make a short film for mobile phones (Reno, aesthetically, is an obvious precursor to this feature), McAbee wanted to create a work that could be viewed on the biggest and smallest screens alike. Thus, Stingray Sam is populated with characters and action that fill the screen in high-contrast medium shots and close-ups; the film is visible enough to be a fun iPod diversion on an airplane, but it blossoms bigger than life in movie theaters. ADHD-addled kids can watch 10 minutes at a time, or take on the whole shebang in a lightning-quick hour. Who knew that such an otherworldly romantic could be such a pragmatist, too? Maybe McAbee himself was genetically engineered.

Stingray Sam screens tonight in New York at Rooftop Films, at the Brooklyn International Film Festival on June 8 and 13, at CineVegas on June 12 and 13, and at the Southside Film Festival (Bethlehem, PA) on June 19 and 20. For the trailer and other pertinent schtuff, visit the official site.

Posted by ahillis at 12:15 PM | Comments (2)

June 4, 2009

PODCAST: Allison Janney

AWAY WE GO co-star Allison Janney

Currently working overtime on Broadway in 9 to 5: The Musical, Emmy Award winner and Tony nominee Allison Janney (Juno, TV's The West Wing) can also be seen, beginning this weekend, in Away We Go. Co-written by married novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida (with whom I spoke recently), it's the first feature from director Sam Mendes that I've liked, perhaps because it's so warm and engaging that it doesn't seem like a Sam Mendes film:

Longtime (and now thirtysomething) couple Burt (John Krasinski) and Verona (Maya Rudolph) are going to have a baby. The pregnancy progresses smoothly, but six months in, the pair is put off and put out by the cavalierly delivered news from Burt's parents that the eccentric elder Farlanders are moving out of Colorado – thereby eliminating the expectant couple’s main reason for living there.

So, where, and among whom of those closest to them, might Burt and Verona best put down roots to raise their impending bundle of joy? The couple embarks on an ambitious itinerary to visit friends and family, and to evaluate cities. The first stop on the grand tour is Phoenix, where the duo spends a day at the (dog) races with Verona's irrepressible (and frequently inappropriate) former colleague Lily (Allison Janney) and her repressible family...

...and the rest of this sweetly funny (and from its early critical reception, underrated!) flick should not be spoiled. Janney was even lovelier in person than I imagined as we sat down to discuss my home state of Arizona, why she appreciates political doublespeak, the reason she thinks she'd be an awful mother, and the illicit on-set behavior of Sam Mendes (don't sue me, Sam Mendes!).

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Away We Go opens in limited release tomorrow. For more info, visit the official website.

Posted by ahillis at 3:33 PM

June 3, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: A Married Woman

Jean-Luc Godard's A MARRIED WOMAN

Une femme mariée (A Married Woman)
Directed by Jean-Luc Godard
1964, 95 minutes, In French with English subtitles
Koch Lorber

Macha Meril, A MARRIED WOMAN Subtitled Suite de fragments d'un film tourné en 1964 en noir et blanc ("fragments of a film shot in 1964, in black and white"), one of Godard's least known features from his most fertile decade ticked off censors and de Gaulle himself, if only for one image of a bidet and the article in the original title—"The" Married Woman might have implied that JLG was depicting the typically illicit behavior of every modern French wife. They certainly don't all cheat on their husbands like Charlotte (Macha Méril), who is introduced in the opening shot, sort of. Her left hand, wedding band giving away that she's the titular "A," slinks into frame and rests on an empty bedsheet. Then a man's right hand glides in to embrace her wrist from underneath, the first of many shots elliptically compartmentalizing and tastefully eroticizing a couple's tangled parts. (Her stomach, his hands; the back of his head, her hands; etc.) Charlotte's lover (he wears no ring) is an actor named Robert (Bernard Noël), but when she goes home to her pilot husband Pierre (Philippe Leroy), their sex is a nearly identical affair, in attitude as well as how legendary Nouvelle Vague cinematographer Raoul Coutard frames their bodies. When she unexpectedly becomes pregnant, Charlotte simply can't choose between the two men. Neither particularly stands apart, but the film does.

Philippe Leroy, A MARRIED WOMAN Shot in the year after his bitter Technicolor epic Contempt, A Married Woman feels not just modestly scaled but downright dwarfed in comparison, which is not to disparage any film that formally succeeds on lesser ambitions. As the love-triangle drama plays out, a dinner party begins a chaptered series of world-view monologues austerely delivered to the camera (Pierre talks of Auschwitz and the falseness of "Memory"; Charlotte pontificates the existential downside of "The Present"; their guest, little-known filmmaker Roger Leenhardt as himself, discusses the compromises and paradoxes of "Intelligence"; no longer asleep, Pierre's young son from a previous marriage adorably gives rules of "Childhood."), which are passed along to three more characters, too. Though he's no stranger to abrupt juxtaposition, Godard's talky fourth-wall busting doesn't actually interrupt the flow of his surprisingly straightforward narrative. Neither does Charlotte's whispered voiceover as peppered throughout the soundtrack, which sounds either like an unadulterated sampling of her racing inner thoughts, or a diary confessional so honest and guilt-ridden that it burbles out like automatic writing in a defeated intonation.

Macha Meril, Bernard Noel, A MARRIED WOMAN Only hinting until outright announcing as such in its second half, the film also reveals itself as a portrait of consumer culture's hypnotic hold on the lemming masses, as we witness Charlotte gullibly obsess over the women's magazine teaching her how to calculate if she has the perfect Venus de Milo bust line. It's tempting to interpret this only as a sign of her shallowness (not that she isn't), but the idea is authenticated when her excitable maid (Rita Maiden) is also shown buying into the same body-image bunk. Cycled inserts of brassiere ads mirror shots of Charlotte in her bra, which soon makes understood that the beautiful, candidly detailed close-ups of her perfect skin (sometimes putting on make-up or perfume, appropriately) are meant to fetishize, just as the billboard-blinded society she embraces has invited her to be gawked at and scrutinized. Did any other film prior to A Married Woman so effortlessly and damningly dissect the ugliness of beauty culture?

A Married Woman vs. Hotel Chevalier

RANDOM OBSERVATION: While watching the film last night, my wife remarked that a shot reminded her of Wes Anderson's Hotel Chevalier. I instinctively concurred, as if my memory had been jogged. Of course, the actual shot(s) we were thinking of combined Natalie Portman's pose from one shot with the bedroom layout of another, but it's noteworthy since the tone was similar enough that, even now, one scene would still remind me of the other for that fleeting moment. That said, Portman's bruised, skeletal nudity has nothing on 1964-era Macha Méril. Does anybody know much about her, besides appearing in Belle De Jour and at least two Agnes Varda films?

Posted by ahillis at 8:03 PM | Comments (2)

June 1, 2009

DVD OF (LAST) WEEK: Nenette and Boni

Nenette and Boni

Nénette et Boni (Nenette and Boni)
Directed by Claire Denis
1996, 103 minutes, In French with English subtitles
Strand Releasing

Nenette and BoniIn his secret diary "Confessions of a Wimp," sullen 19-year-old and Marseilles pizza-van operator Bonifacio (Grégoire Colin) professes his horniest dominant fantasies for the neighborhood baker's space-cadet wife (Valeria Bruni-Tedeschi, married to a perpetually flour-coated Vincent Gallo), but as his self-effacing title suggests, he's incapable of following through. Aside from his intense stalker stare and ineffectual come-ons (ordering from his object of lust "a nice, long French stick," she replies that they're all the same length), Boni's passion manifests itself in sensually shot masturbation sessions—and, as its undulating gurgle seeps into one of his lewd dreams, the Krups coffeemaker on his nightstand, which he awakes to with a smile and bedroom eyes. Later, it's the act of kneading dough that spurs on an orgasm, further proof that this teenager is coming of age in the distinctively impressionistic, lyrically detailed style of beloved auteur Claire Denis and her regular writing partner Jean-Pol Fargeau (Beau Travail, The Intruder, 35 Rhums).

Nenette and Boni Nenette and Boni isn't about sex or coupling, however, but intimacy and bonding. In Boni's mind, the baker and his wife symbolize an idealistically devoted relationship, which is far from what he has with Nénette (Alice Houri), his 15-year-old sister who has escaped from boarding school and arrived on his doorstep, seven months pregnant. Estranged since their parents' split at a young age, Nénette is at first an inexplicable annoyance to her brother (he gets angry at her for doing the dishes), perhaps because he associates her with the shady father he so despises. Until her arrival, Boni has also never had to answer to anyone as king of a ramshackle home he inherited from his dead mother, now filled with his crashed-out hoodlum pals. But it's her immature indifference to her approaching motherhood that eventually becomes the key to giving his life purpose and responsibility; to releasing his solitary soul.

Nenette and Boni It's a melodramatic premise on paper (right down to an ill-advised abortion attempt) that, in the wrong hands, might have succumbed to the sensationalism of its mildly incestuous undertones, but the point is that the siblings' emotional urgency for one another is beyond family, or even lovers. Aided by cinematographer extraordinaire Agnès Godard, Denis plays with sensory textures, evocative tableaux, searching close-ups, and even prismatic abstractions to articulate human behavior and sentiments that can't—or maybe aren't meant to—be articulated. The camera roams over rows of decadent pastries before cheekily settling on one more worldly delight, a sneaky voyeur's view of Bruni-Tedeschi's cleavage. A fleeting portrait of an innocent bunny staring us down from the palm of Boni's hand arrives while he's simultaneously urinating, encapsulating the tenderness that secretly lurks under his uncivilized demeanor. Perhaps some viewers might feel gypped that answers to the plot's basic setups are left guarded (Why does Boni hate his father? Who is the father of Nénette's baby?), but then they've missed out on the experience: this is a film that specifically illustrates how intangibly complex and ultimately enchanting a subject as severe as emotional co-dependence can be.

Posted by ahillis at 3:31 PM | Comments (3)