August 28, 2009

PODCAST: Rob Zombie

HALLOWEEN II's Rob Zombie (and murderous pals) Metal god and psychotronic auteur Rob Zombie's 2007 remake of Halloween had an unusual twist on John Carpenter's slasher-movie gold standard, in that it treated the story of silent bogeyman Michael Myers as a sociological case study (Nathan Lee nailed it back then as "a biopic, and a superb one at that"). But even Zombie's first two features—House of 1000 Corpses and his high-water mark of a sequel, The Devil's Rejects—had proved him to be one of the more eccentric American voices in contemporary horror.

Zombie returns this weekend with Halloween II, which takes place mere minutes after the conclusion of his previous film (for which we spoke two years ago), but I couldn't tell you much more about how the new plot turns. As is becoming the frustrating norm with widely-released horror movies, the promotionally abbreviated H2 was not screened for critics, which is why my first question to Zombie was the obvious choice: "Are studios really that nervous about us?"

To listen to the podcast, click here. (19:15)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Rob Zombie, "The Devil's Rejects"
OUTRO: Roky Erickson and the Aliens, "I Walked With a Zombie"

Posted by ahillis at 3:03 PM

August 27, 2009

Shoah: Year Zero

by Vadim Rizov

Shoah By any reasonable measure, Claude Lanzmann's Shoah (1985) should've been the Year Zero of Holocaust documentaries. Not in the sense that it should've supplanted Night and Fog or made what came before irrelevant, but simply that it should've made some things clearer for those to follow. Like: don't use archival footage of the concentration camps. What little there is has been used and reused so extensively that it's been drained of any power, and to pretend otherwise is self-congratulation on the part of the viewer. And: the inherent gravity of your subject matter does not mean form gets to take a walk in the park. It's the opposite: great tragedy demands great artfulness if it's not to be trivialized. There is nothing respectful about being "hands-off" or "letting the material speak for itself"; it could just be coasting on good intentions.

Shoah

In the 24 years since Shoah was first released, no one seems to have learned anything from it. Remember the ghastly post-Schindler's List period when any documentary about the Holocaust would automatically win Best Documentary at the Oscars, just on subject matter alone? (Better yet, remember the winners? The Long Way Home? Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport?) Lanzmann's film, on the contrary, brings the rigor formally. And, at nine-and-a-half hours, it understandably doesn't get shown very often. MoMA screened it earlier this summer and will show it again Saturday Sunday; I went and was shocked that this major landmark in documentaries had all of about 30 people attending. Granted, nine-and-a-half hours in one sitting is pretty unholy; during its original run, its two parts were shown on consecutive days. But it's only a couple hours longer than Sátántangó, and New Yorkers rocked every screening of that at MoMA a few years back. I'll confess to having real trouble getting through the last two hours (though a one-day marathon is Fred Camper's preferred way of seeing the film). But it's worth it—this Saturday's screening deserves something closer to a full crowd.

Shoah What watching Shoah is like, generically, varies over its duration. In one way, it's a doubly-distilled time capsule: the footage dates from the '70s (not surprisingly, whittling down 350 hours of footage took four-and-a-half years), while the editing sprawled through the '80s. So Shoah is not without its period pleasures, although that's obviously a bad reason for watching it. At its best, what Shoah oddly resembles most is one of those globetrotting '70s spy thrillers, with Lanzmann as our man of adventure. This isn't as outlandish as it sounds. Interwoven throughout the film are interviews with former Nazi commandants, obtained furtively, and frankly, illegally. Inside each house, a tiny concealed camera transmits grainy black-and-white interview footage to a van with a rotating satellite dish parked outside, with the techs inside tweaking the transmission as it comes in. Over time, as the van pulls up outside one house after another, we recognize what's coming next; when such a shot opens the second half, it's like we're getting back into a groove with our favorite investigative team.

Shoah

Sometimes, Shoah is a indictment of staggered, contemptuous disdain, an angrily sarcastic film-essay—like the last reel of the first half, when Lanzmann reads out detailed, proposed modifications for trucks that'll kill Jews more efficiently through the exhaust during the slow drive towards the forest. "The load naturally rushes towards the light when darkness sets in," Lanzmann reads as his camera ever so slowly zooms onto the logo of a contemporary Saurer truck on the road—the same kind of truck being contracted for in the letter. Sometimes Lanzmann stages staggering set-pieces that play out for longer than you could think possible: in the best 40 minutes, he brings one Simon Srebnik back to the Polish village he was a prisoner in, filming him in front of a crowd of villagers who remember him. As the loyal Catholics indict themselves—including the man who declares the Holocaust happened as retribution for the death of Christ—their clump in front of the local church threatens to disrupt a march in honor of the Village Mary, something Lanzmann takes barely suppressed glee in. This section is one long, semi-comic outrage, and it's the film's argumentative peak. Chain-smoking, and in a hurry to pry away every last detail, Lanzmann's openly amused when Polish villagers assert that they speak "Jewish," but he doesn't have time or interest in getting sidetracked and rebuking anyone to their face: he lets them dig their own graves and keeps moving.

Shoah

Mostly, though, Shoah is an exacting, protoypical art film, one which derives its power from the duration of its shots and the film's willingness to linger among its many locales far past the point of narrative expedience—taking in forests and villages, forcing you to soak in the atmosphere. Much has been made of how the film, by lack archival footage or much visible evidence of what's being discussed, forces viewers to perform mental reconstruction in their head; there's certainly truth to this. But beyond the tension between past and present—the evidence that's been erased and the psychic scars that can't be—Shoah is a film that's minute-to-minute, forcing you to sit and take it in even when you'd rather not. As Camper wrote, "as the film progresses, its length gains another significance: the viewer begins to feel the way in which the film is taking a large chunk of time out of his day, out of his life. [...] We attend to it differently; it intrudes more directly into our thoughts and lives, an intrusion thoroughly appropriate to Shoah's subject."

Shoah director Claude Lanzmann Unless you're a Holocaust scholar, chances are you'll learn more about the details and mechanics of the Final Solution than you might've expected, which has its own sick fascination, but it goes beyond information: it's a genuine aesthetic experience in a documentary genre that's generally anti-aesthetic. It's the real thing, although MoMA's making a real mistake in showing it as a one-day marathon. I understand the thinking (MoMA's a museum, not a "theater"), but it takes a difficult movie and turns the act of watching it into a macho feat of filmgoing. The merciless last two hours—at which point the film is basically unbroken interviews, getting down to the most brutal and devastating testimony—were really hard for me. After Sátántangó, I know I'm prone to check out after the seven-and-a-half-hour mark, so just as Lanzmann was paring down his aesthetic to a bare minimum, I couldn't stop checking my watch. Still, regardless of circumstance: see it. A month later, I still don't regret giving up that Sunday.

Posted by ahillis at 6:16 PM | Comments (3)

August 24, 2009

PODCAST: Inglourious Basterds (with Joshua Rothkopf)

Quentin-Tarantino-Inglourious-Basterds.jpg

Has Quentin Tarantino matured as a filmmaker, or does his talky WWII actioner Inglourious Basterds prove yet another indulgent film pastiche? Is its Jewish revenge plot cathartic, or merely insensitive? Or can we chalk its sadism up to a writer's irreverence, and ignore its political incorrectness entirely? It's just a movie, right?

Time Out New York senior film writer Joshua Rothkopf (who recently spoke with Tarantino and star Christoph Waltz) doesn't have quite as much love for QT's Nazi-licious new epic as I do, which is why we met up for a "pubcast" at Brooklyn's Jakewalk bar—where we could spill our thoughts, and hopefully not our beer.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (24:21)

Podcast Music
INTRO: David Bowie, "Cat People (Putting Out Fire)"
OUTRO: Ennio Morricone, "Rabbia E Tarantella"

Posted by ahillis at 10:15 PM

August 22, 2009

Still Talking (to Hirokazu Kore-eda)

by Steven Erickson

Hirokazu Kore-edaHirokazu Kore-eda is the only major Japanese director of his generation who is a direct descendant of his cinematic forefathers' humanism. Many of the best Japanese films of the past 15 years—Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Cure and Pulse, Takashi Miike's Audition, Koji Wakamatsu's United Red Army—are almost defiantly post-humanist. They depict a country rife with violent impulses, gender conflict and distorted sexuality. This isn't just a product of "Asia extreme" branding and pandering; a family film like Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away is every bit as scathing in its depiction of middle-aged Japanese adults as Audition's torture-fest.

By contrast, Kore-eda's Still Walking (soon to be getting a theatrical release from IFC Films) shows contemporary Japanese family life as imperfect but not outright dysfunctional. It's one of the few recent films in which one can recognize the same society Ozu depicted in Tokyo Story. Kore-eda himself doesn't feel much kinship with his country's directors past or present. While he grants that "there's much for me to learn from classical Japanese cinema,” as he mentioned in our recent conversation, he's influenced more by Ken Loach, Atom Egoyan and Hou Hsiao-hsien, all of whom he praises for their work with non-professional actors and "off-the-set" approach.

Lessons from a Calf Born in 1962, Kore-eda made his debut as a filmmaker with two short documentaries made in 1991. While rather dry, However... shows an ambitious adoption of fictional techniques, turning the investigation of a bureaucrat's suicide into a detective story that probes the ugliness of Japan's welfare program. The more appealing of the two, Lessons From a Calf offers a charming look at an elementary school class raising a calf—and learning about aging and death in the process. Kore-eda was marked in much the same way by his documentary work; he learned "how fascinating it is to find out how personally I am affected and transformed by filming other people." While he always started out making documentaries as a path towards fiction, he says "documentaries turned out to be so interesting that I decided to keep working on them for television." However, it took Kore-eda's first two narrative features—Maborosi and After Life—to make his reputation outside Japan. The former tracks a young widow's grieving process, while the latter offers a spiritual but non-religious vision of an afterlife based around memory and film.

A non-fiction Memento avant la letter, Kore-eda's 1996 Without Memory—which gets its long-overdue New York premiere at BAMcinématek on August 31 (ed: admission is free!)—focuses on Hiroshi, a man whose short-term memory was obliterated due to a vitamin deficiency induced by medical malpractice following surgery. While Hiroshi can remember his first 30 years without difficulty, he wakes up every morning in a state of confusion and takes months to recognize Kore-eda and his crew. The director sticks closely to the facts of the case and Hiroshi's day-to-day existence, documenting fishing trips and visits to the supermarket. He doesn't push the material for either overt metaphorical or political value. Nevertheless, Without Memory contains both. It indicts a medical system that places money over human life and finds a Kafkaesque dilemma in Hiroshi's disorientation. It’s no accident that Kore-eda's subsequent narrative film, After Life, would also center on memory.

Still Walking Still Walking offers a loving but critical portrait of the contemporary Japanese family. It takes place at an annual family reunion, following the Yokoyamas for 24 hours (plus a brief coda). On the surface, it's a placid, nostalgic depiction of a get-together (with enough shots of food preparation to qualify as softcore food-porn), but as it develops, the family shows a startling cruel streak. This is best exemplified by Grandpa's castigation of an overweight neighbor as "a useless piece of trash." The statement doesn't come out of nowhere, as the man has a troubled history with the family, but it still hits hard.

In addition to Ozu, Kore-eda's direction recalls Jean Renoir and recent Arnaud Desplechin. Granted, Still Walking lacks the freewheeling sensibilities of Desplechin's films and the manic edge supplied by Mathieu Amalric. The sound design is its most striking formal element; especially in the first half, offscreen space, filled in with the noise of children playing outside or taking a bath, is a vivid presence. By bringing together three generations, Kore-eda shows how the Japanese family has evolved. In a key line of dialogue, a character points out "These days, we’re not so abnormal."

Still Walking Still Walking feels like one of Kore-eda's most personal films. Asked if it stems from autobiographical roots, he claims "the setting is fictional. I don’t have a father who was a doctor and married someone who already had a child. But the emotions are autobiographical." The film is remarkably evenhanded towards the three generations it depicts. Kore-eda told me that "fundamentally, the film is from the perspective of a son looking at his parents. Then I also created the young boy in order to have a critical view so that it didn’t become too sentimental."

Kore-eda's latest, Air Doll, is sadly missing from the BAM retrospective, undoubtedly because it will receive its North American premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month. Its premise, in which a mannequin comes to life, sounds like one of his strangest films. According to the director, it's his first science-fiction film, inspired by an image in a manga he read nine years ago. While it received a mixed reception at Cannes, one hopes that it will follow Still Walking into the arms of an American distributor.

["The Films of Hirokazu Kore-Eda" is now playing at BAMcinématek through September 1. Still Walking opens theatrically in New York on August 28.]

Posted by ahillis at 12:37 PM | Comments (1)

August 20, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Absurdistan

Absurdistan

Absurdistan
Directed by Veit Helmer
2008, 90 minutes, In Russian with English subtitles
First Run Features

Heterosexually speaking, one of the greatest manipulative powers women have had over men since perhaps the dawn of time is the ability to withhold sex. From Aristophanes' ancient comedy Lysistrata (about a battle between the sexes that erupts after the women of Greece lock up their chastity belts in protest of the Peloponnesian War) to the Kenyan women's activist groups who even got prostitutes to take part in a sex strike this past April, this practice has long been effective, and deftly illustrates how foolish and base we men can be. While Veit Helmer's bawdy burlesque Absurdistan seems, at first glance, like a fanciful folktale reimagining of Lysistrata, it's actually based upon a real-life Turkish incident that the Tuvalu director had read about in a 2001 newspaper article.

Absurdistan

"When God divided up the peoples of the earth, so the legend goes, he wanted to keep the most beautiful corner of the world for himself. He was angry, because our people's emissaries arrived late, after all the land had been distributed. But because they were of such cheerful disposition he bestowed on my ancestors the most beautiful piece of land of all and withdrew into the heavens instead..."

The introductory narration in Absurdistan poetically describes the tumbledown, 14-family desert village where the film takes place, a tiny blip between Europe and Asia that was "occupied in succession by Persians, Tatars, Ottomans and Seldschuks," but now forgotten by the maps and everyone else. The community's youngest—tough-minded beauty Aya (Kristyna Malérová) and impulsive romantic Temelko (Maximilian Mauff)—were born in the same room on the same day, and have known they were soul mates since they got married as grade-schoolers. But when puberty hits, Temelko mutates into the same horny monster the other men have become, a bunch of lazy chest-thumpers who constantly feel the need to prove their virility.

Absurdistan But then the water pipeline that feeds into the village suddenly dries up, and as the men are too slothful to fix it, the women close their legs in retaliation, leading to a knock-down war between the genders. Lines are literally drawn (with barbed wire laid out!), and the newly emasculated men are continually thwarted in their not-clever-enough espionage: infiltrating the enemy in drag, escaping together on a bus, even attempting to secretly take out their frustrations on the poor sheep. As the women become an immovable force of gun-toting banditas, poor Temelko is grouped in with "the enemy" even when his passion for Aya is more loving than lusty. Is she not impressed with his homemade, manned rockets and cabled bathtubs that hover above the village by his donkey-wheel-cranked ingenuity?

Whimsy is the word, even if words themselves have little place in what's almost a silent comedy—movement and expressions are the common formal through line. (Helmer hired casting directors in 28 countries, and of the 2,400 actors seen, he clearly picked his cast not only on their abilities, but for their gloriously idiosyncatic mugs.) It's a simplistic, straightforward tale that's beautifully staged with the same wave of the magical-realism wand that powers Jeunet & Caro's Delicatessen (especially in its contraptions and rhythmic montages) and every Emir Kusturica film I've ever seen (fitting, as co-writer Gordan Mihic also worked on Kusturica's Black Cat, White Cat). Absurdistan has the kind of droll, ceaseless charm that can mesmerize you into a permanent grin (well, me anyway), so even when the sexual metaphors of plugging holes and discharge become eye-rollingly blunt, you'll still ask for a cigarette afterwards.

Posted by ahillis at 10:01 AM | Comments (1)

August 17, 2009

LOCARNO 2009: To Live and Die in Switzerland

by Ronald Bergan

The Two Horses of Genghis Khan As I trudge around from one European festival to another (pity me, dear reader), I boringly repeat the litany that there are too many festivals and too few good films. Yet, in the lovely lakeside Swiss town of Locarno, I was hoping to eat my words. (It's too expensive to eat much else!).

The center of the Locarno Film Festival (and of the town) is the splendid Piazza Grande, where crowds gather every night to watch "popular" films on the giant screen. These need not detain us long with the exception of the closing film, The Two Horses of Genghis Khan (Chingisiyn Hoyor Zagal), which is not a very low-budget epic as the title suggests, but a semi-documentary by Byambasuren Davaa, the Mongolian director of The Story of the Weeping Camel and The Cave of the Yellow Dog. With few concessions to western tastes, it follows the singer Uma Chahar Tugchi’s quest to find a horse-shaped violin neck on which are inscribed some lost lyrics of a famous song that recounts the tumultuous history of the Mongolians. The unusual journey through the wild landscapes of Outer and Inner Mongolia is amusing, illuminating, stimulating and moving.

To Live and Die in LA Also shown on the giant screen was To Live and Die in L.A.—part of a tribute to director William Friedkin, who received the Leopard of Honour. The film was as action-packed and as crass as I remembered it, but Friedkin, unlike his films, turned out to be witty and intelligent at the master class he gave, mainly concentrating on his best film, The French Connection (a long time ago!). One amusing anecdote revealed that he wanted neither Gene Hackman ("a very boring man") nor Fernando Rey, who was cast by mistake instead of Francisco Rabal.

Summer Wars One of the great strengths of the Locarno festival has always been its retrospectives. I clearly remember a comprehensive Orson Welles series a few years ago. Unfortunately, this year, from a personal point of view, I was particularly disappointed that the retrospective was Manga Impact—The World of Japanese Animation, showing no fewer than 28 feature films, and dozens of shorts and TV series. Everywhere one turned, there were child characters from various manga staring at us with their large Occidental eyes. No matter how technically miraculous most of them are, I'm afraid their content is mainly aimed at 12-year-olds and younger, or perhaps immature adults. I also fear for the future of the culture and literacy of the computer-obsessed generation. One of the better titles, as I was told by a Mangamaniac, was Summer Wars, in the International Competition, about a teenage girl who destroys a monster created by a young computer hacker... (pardon me while I stifle a yawn).

The Portuguese Nun The competition, mainly world premieres, was the usual mixture (for any "A" category festival) of the good, the bad and the ugly. Out of the 18 films, there were around ten of some interest. (I will allow the bad ones to rest in peace.) I particularly liked The Portuguese Nun (A Religiosa Portuguesa), by Eugène Green, an American who says he has "lived in Paris forever." A many-layered fable set in a ravishly shot Lisbon with passionate Fado songs, it is, in a way, like a Manoel Oliveira film made by someone else, but it goes beyond pastiche and/or homage to the Portuguese centenarian.

Buben.Baraban Diego Martinez Vignatti's The Tango Singer (La Cantante de Tango), with its accomplished play on time and space, evoked Alain Resnais (one of the signs of an auteur is that one references them). It had an uncluttered plot: the singer of the title tries to cope with the breakup of her marriage, mainly through landscape and song. With a number of films in which characters are seen (uncinematically) using a computer and texting, it was a relief that the heavily atmospheric and enigmatic Buben.Baraban, directed by Alexei Mizgirev, was set in an old-fashioned library in some awful provincial Russian town, which seems no different from Soviet times. Books play an essential part of the plot, and the librarian (the remarkable Natalya Negoda of 1988's Little Eva) is full of unbridled passion.

Nothing Personal However, the standout film of the competition was an Irish-Netherlands co-production called Nothing Personal (a two-pronged title), the first feature from the Polish-born Urszula Antoniak. Almost a two-hander, it focuses on a developing relationship between a widower (Stephen Rea) living in isolation on the west coast of Ireland (breathtakingly shot by Daniel Bouquet), and a bitter young divorcee (Lotte Verbeek), both attempting to return to a meaningful existence.

La Paura Although the word "film" is becoming a misnomer—because the majority of movies seen at festivals these days are shot on digital or are computer-generated—directors of real talent can use any technology at their disposal and triumph. My most vivid memory of this year's fest was La Paura (Fear), which was shot entirely on a cell phone by Pippo Delbono, better known as a stage actor. The tiny cameraphone, wielded like a sharpened knife, dissects the racism and hypocrisy of Italy through a range of quasi-related incidents. Delbono transformed the pocket accessory into an instrument of freedom.

She, a Chinese Post-Awards Update (or Post Mortem): You'd think a jury composed of Pascal Bonitzer (the French screenwriter who has written for Rivette and Ruiz); Hong Sang-soo, the Korean auteur; Jonathan Nossiter, who made Mondovino; adventurous Spanish producer Luis Minarro, and actresses Nina Hoss and Alba Rohrwacher would have known better than to give the grand prize, The Golden Leopard, to She, A Chinese—a pointless, episodic, exploitative United Kingdom-Germany-France coproduction about exploitation; it was one of the worst films in the competition. The fact that it was directed (clumsily) by Xiaolu Guo, a Chinese novelist living in London, doesn't make it any less unconvincing. The jury also had the ignorance or indolence to give both the Best Director and Special Jury Prizes to the same film, Buben.Baraban, when they should have known that the Special Jury prize, at most festivals, allows the jury to choose alternative films that missed out on a prize. What most international juries need is an experienced critic who could steer them in the right direction.

Posted by ahillis at 6:00 AM

August 14, 2009

One-Hour Zombies and the Man Who Killed Nicholson: The InFilm Experience (Part 2)

[And now, the wired-to-be-explosive finale to last week's "Limos, Brazilians and F/X," in which your spirited reporter traveled to L.A. for a 5-day guided tour of the F/X industry, one of several broadly curated, behind-the-scenes retreats available through InFilm—that is, for those of us (but not me) who can afford more than a staycation.]

InFilm visits the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Tuesday

At our first of two stops today to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Building, our quickly bonding group wandered through the Grand Lobby and Fourth Floor Gallery for the "ANIME! High Art—Pop Culture" exhibition, featuring animation cels, sketches, figurines, video installations, and other vibrantly colored artifacts that are rarely seen outside of Japan. Animation may seem off-topic for an F/X program, but the outing was more for the church than its sermon, and really, nobody was about to complain after stepping behind the pink curtain which hid an adults-only room full of sexy anime (all mostly free of pubic hair, as J-censorship laws required until 1991) and on one monitor, a shokushu goukan hentai... classic?

Anatomorphex We met physical-effects veteran Robert DeVine that afternoon at his Anatomorphex studio, this man who indeed killed Jack Nicholson—in Mars Attacks!, that is. ("He was a real gentleman, even though he was in his briefs from the waist down," said DeVine.) Having built stunt dummies and miniatures, robotics and prosthetic masks, and even the Jack in the Box head, our host generously played show-and-tell with his 25+ years' worth of creations and war stories. (Aww, look at the panda bears from Tropic Thunder!) As cinema falls further in lust with digital technology, the "practical effects" we learned about at what DeVine called his "mid-sized" effects house felt more impressive to me than the industrial-strength CGI we saw at Digital Domain. Not that he feels bitter, as he wasn't the first to discuss the importance of marrying tangible, analog magic to the computer-manufactured variety. My favorite factoid: whenever someone takes off a realistic-looking latex mask, Mission Impossible-style, watch as their arm reaches across and pulls it off from the bottom; the arm is then used as the guide to cut between the other actor and the actual prosthetic. DeVine was all too happy to give away his magician's playbook, as long as the questions kept coming.

John Lasseter, Hayao Miyazaki Later that night, we headed back to the Academy building to witness Pixar mastermind John Lasseter host a conversation with legendary animator Hayao Miyazaki, whose new film Ponyo opens in the U.S. this weekend. (My own review is here.) Lasseter's a friend and drooling fan, and clearly not the most original interviewer, but with the help of a translator, Miyazaki-san gave some surprising answers about his hallowed career. He spoke of his academic background in economics and political science, his early efforts (an animated version of The 47 Ronin?!), and gems of artistic wisdom like "Don't do something you've seen before. Unless you've forgotten you've seen it before." No, he doesn't plan to retire as is rumored after every new feature he directs. Yes, he draws manga for model magazines as a hobby. He makes his villains strangely likeable because they work harder than the heroes, and his films often feature scrumptious feasts for a profoundly easy reason: "I like to eat."

Warner Bros. backlotWednesday

Far different from what fannypack-wearing families experience on a Universal Studios tour, which probably changes very little from week to week, our specially requested tram ride through the Warner Bros. backlot and front was, as our guide/driver Dan admitted, the most comprehensively chatty tour he had ever given. Again, here's a pit stop that doesn't directly deal with effects minus a little moviemaking demystification, but learning about the original Warner brothers' plan for resourceful efficiency (sets double as production offices; every street, tree, sign and company parking lot can be used and repurposed) was inspiring. Sure, there were purposely no families or kids or foreigners to slow down for, and the trivia was collectible—oh look, we're driving past Chateau de Boss Hogg, directly across the street from Phoebe Cates' home in Fast Times at Ridgemont High—but it was the first time I felt hyper-conscious to being in a tourist group.

Rhythm & Hues At Rhythm & Hues, a far more casual, open-house environment than fellow big-time effects studio Digital Domain, our liaison offered up a smart, in-depth history of both the company and CGI effects. We froze our butts off in the server room (can you even imagine the pressure of an equipment failure on a project that will ultimately cost hundreds of millions of dollars?), and were allowed to walk through the cubicle farm of headphones-wearing freelancers as they tweaked sequences from the Benicio Del Toro-led remake of The Wolf Man and the unfortunately-named Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Squeakquel (sorry, kids: no photos or spoilers were allowed). We saw clips of upcoming work, and again, got to ask any high-falutin' or totally inane questions that tickled our collective fancies. Maybe picking these insiders' brains was what justifies the price of admission.

As a treat that night (depending on your taste), we were invited to a pre-release screening of Funny People. Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells entered the auditorium after a majority of our group had assembled in the back row. "Why are you way back here?" pondered Wells. "It was the only place where the group could sit together," suggested one of us.

"What, are we going to hold hands?"

Tatyane Mayer as Iron Man at Legacy Effects Thursday

For all its two-story toys (Avatar!), life-size figurines (The Terminator!) and in-progress head molds ([redacted due to confidentiality agreement]!) alone, the most Comic-Con-friendly workshop was Legacy Effects, formerly known as Stan Winston Studios before the F/X legend behind Jurassic Park and Aliens suddenly passed away last year. Like a bigger-scale Anatomorphex, Legacy might've been my favorite stop of the week, if mostly for two reasons: I'm still awed by the 3D printer, a machine that fabricates bonded resin molds, such as this one, which was "printed" while we watched; I had no idea such technology existed. The other memorable moment randomly arrived when we stumbled onto masks of Mickey Rourke and Robert Downey Jr. from the upcoming Iron Man 2. Two of the Brazilian actresses in our group—one of whom even worked on the first Iron Man—took turns putting on Downey's face, this life-like visage on nubile female bodies. It's a damn creepy sight to behold, as agreed Robert Downey Sr. (if I may appropriately name-drop) upon seeing my cameraphone pictures a week later.

Full Scale Effects blows up water for us! The afternoon became brutally hot, so it was a shame that so much of our trek around Full Scale Effects—a 30+ year "full service special effects company" (they all refer to themselves as "full service," I learned) that specializes in mechanical, elemental and pyrotechnic F/X—was outside or without the luxury of air conditioning. We sat in freshly fogged rooms, protected ourselves with goggles as crewmen shot off thirty-foot fireballs and blew up water buckets, held onto our hats in front of high-powered wind machines, and observed sizzling L.A. asphalt covered in fake snow. One of our team volunteered to be "shot" with a blood-bursting squib effect, but it was his impromptu reasoning of why his jilted lover shouldn't shoot him that fed us our recurring punchline of the day: "I'm just a film critic!" (video here.)

The Sci-Fi BoysFriday

I couldn't attend the screening at our hotel of The Sci-Fi Boys, an almost self-explanatory documentary from director Paul Davids about the '70s and '80s effects revolution, featuring talking-head interviews from Peter Jackson, John Landis and Ray Harryhausen. However, I'm especially sorry I missed the post-screening Q&A with Davids, who reportedly spoke freely and sincerely about making supernatural contact with the late sci-fi writer and collector extraordinaire Forrest J. Ackerman.

Lu Brites, Zombie Our last official stop of the week was Drac Studios, lovingly named for one of the company's first big assignments: Francis Ford Coppola's adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula (for which they won their first Academy Award). The gang reconnected with Monday's guest Paul Salamoff, and I briefly did with creative director and makeup artist Greg Cannom, with whom I spoke earlier this year before he won his Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Besides their commercial and TV work, Drac has worked on The Passion of the Christ (there's a crucified Jesus hanging on their wall) and Titanic, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Mrs. Doubtfire (boom, another Oscar!). While we ambled around the spacious "showroom" for an hour, our outgoing fellow attendee Lu Brites was given a zombie makeover. "Professionally applied, professionally removed" being the makeup artist's motto, Lu unfortunately wasn't allowed to keep her undead countenance to go cruising that night.

InFilm F/X, class of July 2009Back at the hotel, the group met up at the rooftop pool and hot tub for a final night of socializing, and contact information was exchanged by all. Tourist attraction or not, I've made new friends, have been offered places to stay in Brazil the next time I'm there (or, you know, the eventual first time), and even met up with someone from the group when he made his way to New York this past week. The question remains: is five days of jam-packed educational fun worth nearly three grand? That's not for me to say, and I'm too biased in both directions to give a fair answer anyway. But considering InFilm president and noted entrepreneur Marcos Wettreich's first-day speech was about enabling connections between film fans and professionals, I'd say that final night of cavorting was the proof in his proverbial pudding... or should I say canjica?

Posted by ahillis at 7:39 PM

August 10, 2009

A Canon With More Cannons

by Vadim Rizov

QT FestQuentin Tarantino loves movies, too many and not wisely. It's not that he doesn't recognize great, boundary pushing work for the artfag crowd: his Cannes jury awarded Tropical Malady in 2004. But Tarantino's better known as our foremost champion of junk culture: his now-defunct Rolling Thunder Pictures put out Chungking Express, but it also reissued The Mighty Peking Man. Anyone who has showed up for his marathon presentations from his personal collection ("QTFests" at Austin's Alamo Drafthouse and elsewhere) knows the very real risk of boredom from yet another film that's more fun to summarize than watch. But Tarantino's canonical reshuffling deserves attention, and his aesthetic has its critical equivalent. A contentious thread at Dave Kehr's website last year spiraled into a relatively civil argument about Nathan Lee, with Kehr summing up the case:

"There's nothing more natural than for each new generation to revolt against the taste of the last, usually by staking out territory that the oldsters considered beyond the pale. My generation did it by defending Hawks, Ford and Hitchcock against the Crowther-Macdonald-Kael crowd who had ruled that westerns and thrillers weren’t worthy of serious consideration. This generation—and I suppose Nathan Lee is its most formidable standard-bearer—has moved the goalposts again, this time to include gialli, Asian action films and 42nd Street exploitation."

Sure. And the problem is that if you don't trust the person pushing the reintegration, it's hard not to dismiss everything as undiscriminating, mouth-breathing enthusiasm, obscure fetishes being defended through overanalysis and rapturous prose.

Maniac Cop But I think I'm inclined to take William Lustig's choices seriously. Mr. Lustig is the CEO of cult distributor Blue Underground and director of the Maniac Cop series (which I've regrettably never seen), and he is now curating a series running through Thursday—"The '70s: Buried Treasures"—for Anthology Film Archives. Based on the three I've seen—Rolling Thunder and The Outfit, both directed by John Flynn, and The Outside Man—Lustig's a fine connoisseur of movies combining macho badassery with thoughtful form. (And yes, as it happens, Tarantino did name his distribution company after the former, then named his production company after Band of Outsiders as if to balance it out.) While it might normally be alarming that Anthology Film Archives is taking a week out of its usually-pretty-rarefied schedule to show old Charles Bronson flicks et al. [ed: related reading here], the fact is no one shows this stuff in a serious curatorial context (LA's Cinefamily is cool and all, but it's not quite the same thing, even though it might be the prototype for the next generation of rep houses). It's good someone stepped up.

Rolling Thunder1977's Rolling Thunder is the real deal, a Taxi Driver B-side I like even more, with the Vietnam-era psychosis made explicit (Paul Schrader is credited for the story and as co-writer). What's surprising is how far it is from the "insane veteran" cliché: Major Charles Rane (William Devane) did time in the Hanoi Hilton (the low-budget flashbacks are the one serious misstep), and then he goes out on a killing spree, but he has his reasons and they're not worse than anything else going on. Entering with genre expectations, you keep waiting for him to snap; the fact that his wife welcomes him home with a verbal "Dear John" is bad enough, and it's definitely a troubling indicator when he asks her new man to re-enact some rope tricks on him, but he keeps his cool surprisingly well. Rane isn't a victim of Vietnam, at least not in the traditional formulation; he's a guy who knows how to kill people and doesn't relate to anyone outside the military once he's back home. Instead of drifting into ennui, he's given the impetus to do the one thing he still knows when his wife and kid are killed. By film's end, he's the same taciturn guy he was at the beginning, the one whose advice for facing people you're bashful in front of is to "put your glasses on." He's slightly less human than the Terminator, but that doesn't mean he's a sociopath. This is a vigilante movie that makes the protagonist seem at least a little reasonable, which is always troubling.

Rolling ThunderDespite Tommy Lee Jones' above-the-title billing, he's a supporting player; the film is mostly a duet between Rane and local gal Linda (Linda Haynes), who likes him enough to go on the road for what she thinks is a weekend trip down to Mexico and turns out to be a mini-combat operation. One of the more remarkable things about Rolling Thunder is the way it flawlessly splits down the middle as both a killing spree and as a sad and richly detailed abortive affair. Linda and Rane fight, have sex, drive and negotiate the terms of their potential relationship; in one unexpectedly gorgeous scene, they fight in a field in a moment nearly worthy of Badlands. Linda's been around, and she's dragging Rane from marriage into the free-floating, ill-defined terms of freely accessible sex in 1973. He's dragging her across Texas, from his hometown of San Antonio down into Mexico, through various squalid bars, asking around for citizens of dubious social worth whose names have prefixes like "Fat." In other words, it's an edgy revisionist noir in a decayed Western landscape, and I wouldn't at all be surprised to learn it's a major influence on No Country for Old Men; it's just as tense, laconically brutal and aware that the border area is one big no-go zone on either side. In terms of Devane's eventual anatomical transformation into man-with-a-hook (the robbers shove his arm down the garbage disposal), it's not that far off from Robert Rodriguez's stupid Planet Terror, but what's risible in summary becomes plausible on-screen. Rolling Thunder is smart and funny enough to join the '70s canon of disaffected cynicism going down easy with snappy dialogue (Tommy Lee Jones to madam: "Are there any white girls in here?" Madam: "Go ahead and look around, gringo. Maybe you'll find your sister."); it's almost as good as this year's belatedly rediscovered sensation The Friends of Eddie Coyle.

The Outfit1973's The Outfit has a better reputation, presumably because Donald Westlake's crime fiction is less overly lurid and more genre respectable. The plot's a bit of nothing: Robert Duvall is none-too-pleased his brother was killed while he was in jail, and he aims to get some money from the people responsible. To affect this aim, he equips himself with a partner and a variety of artillery, and proceeds to get busy. In a world where Jean-Pierre Melville's work is readily accessible, this kind of baseline B-movie isn't quite sharp enough. Beautifully shot by Bruce Surtees, The Outfit's pleasures are smaller and more predictable than Rolling Thunder's: a sense of bummed-out, economically disenfranchised place, some terse dialogue (the final line is perfect), and brutality to spare. (Audiences at Anthology seem freaked by Duvall hitting women in the face, which proves how much has changed; they seemed to find it altogether inconceivable.) But it's finally not much more than warmed-over noir fatalism, without much of its own to bring to the party. It's a movie connecting the dots rather than creating its own genre.

The Outside Man As for The Outside Man, Lustig isn't the first to bring it to my attention; Thom Anderson features it in his brilliant, deserves-to-be-seminal-but-stupid-copyright-laws 2003 documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself, alongside other French-person-in-L.A. oddities like Jacques Demy's Model Shop. The first two-thirds basically imagine Dirty Harry as a Gallic assassin in an especially bad mood, stomping through L.A. (perhaps best of all when he slaps a whiny child who won't shut up because he wants to watch Star Trek). Anthology is hopefully showing the uncut European version—copious gratuitous full-frontal, huzzah—which would add a welcome touch of Euro-sleaze to a series that's sure to otherwise be drowning in a very specifically American strain of seediness. The Outside Man finally shows co-screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere's influence in the last act, beginning with the fantastic moment when the man's assassin freres show up and start bitching about having to wear black suits, because then they won't be able to pick up any girls. The finale—melting, seemingly waxwork corpse and all— proves Carriere was Luis Buñuel's collaborator after all. The film veers from gritty time capsule to active surrealist derangement without missing a beat.

The Outside Man screens tonight at 7pm. Rolling Thunder screens tomorrow at 9pm. The Outfit screens Thursday at 7pm. All screenings are at NYC's Anthology Film Archives (32 Second Ave at 2nd St.).

Posted by ahillis at 10:42 AM | Comments (2)

August 6, 2009

PODCAST: I Sell the Dead (Larry Fessenden, Glenn McQuaid)

I SELL THE DEAD's Glenn McQuaid & Larry Fessenden

Larry Fessenden's gap-toothed, shaggy-haired mug makes a memorable impression onscreen (Broken Flowers, The Brave One), and besides also being the cult filmmaker behind socially relevant horror gems like The Last Winter and Habit, Fessenden is a generous producer, too. For 20+ years, his production company Glass Eye Pix has helped emerging filmmakers get their projects off the ground, with a roster that includes Kelly Reichardt, Ira Sachs and Ti West (whose fantastically creepy The House of the Devil comes out later this year). Fessenden's latest production under his Scareflix horror banner is the morbidly entertaining I Sell the Dead, written and directed by former visual effects artist Glenn McQuaid, here playing homage to Hammer Studios, EC Comics and Young Frankenstein:

Never trust a corpse.

19th century justice has finally caught up to grave robbers Arthur Blake (Dominic Monaghan) and Willie Grimes (Larry Fessenden). With the specter of the guillotine looming over him, young Blake confides in visiting clergyman Father Duffy (Ron Perlman), recounting fifteen years of adventure in the resurrection trade. His tale leads from humble beginnings as a young boy stealing trinkets from corpses, to a partnership with seasoned ghoul Willie Grimes as they hunt creatures unwilling to accept their place in the ground. The colorful and peculiar history of Grimes and Blake is one filled with adventure, horror, and vicious rivalries that threaten to put all involved in the very graves they’re trying to pilfer.

I met up with McQuaid and Fessenden (full disclosure: we've met before) at Swift, an East Village pub that held a nostalgic place in Fessenden's heart, liver and oeuvre. The three of us chatted about the unexpected Grammy winner who co-stars in their film, why horror movies should be about working people, and Irish breakdancing gangs. For those who heard the recent news that Fessenden is directing a big-budget remake of The Orphanage for Guillermo del Toro, be sure to stick around until the end.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (21:12)
[WARNING: Mildly Explicit Language / NSFW]

Podcast Music
INTRO: Kate Bush, "Hammer Horror"
OUTRO: Flat Duo Jets, "Grave Robber"

[I Sell the Dead opens in limited release tomorrow, and will be available on-demand through IFC's Festival Direct on August 12. For more info, visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 9:22 PM

August 4, 2009

Limos, Brazilians and F/X: The InFilm Experience (Part 1)

InFilm Early last month, I was asked by one of my Facebook friends—AllMovie.com writer Josh Ralske—if I'd like to cover the inaugural program by the International Film Institute ("InFilm"), which bills itself as "a once in a lifetime, 5 day experience in the movie capital of the world." Ralske himself isn't affiliated with InFilm, but had been asked by Brazilian film journalist Pablo Villaça for some names of American critics who might be interested in attending, including myself and Hollywood Elsewhere's Jeffrey Wells.

Aaron plays with smoke machines Essentially, the multicultural staff of InFilm provides a guided L.A. tour for people who are passionate about film but don't have any insider access. The first week, which focused on special effects, had a steep ticket price of $2900, which included lodging in a swanky, four-star West Hollywood hotel, six days' worth of breakfast vouchers, a fancy farewell lunch, limousine transportation, traveling wi-fi access (which allowed me to post my Ulrich Seidl interview from one of our ever-changing modes of transport, a party bus with a sadly underutilized stripper pole), admission to each activity, but not airfare; it's definitely an event for well-off tourists. From my personal point of view, it's difficult to gauge whether that's ultimately a good value, as (a) I'm merely a journalist and don't have an extra three grand lying around, and (b) I already have greater access than most film-loving hobbyists. Was it fun? Did I enjoy the company of my 15 or so, mostly Portuguese-speaking companions? Did I learn a ton about CGI, practical and optical effects, with exclusive access and opportunities to ask industry veterans as many questions as possible? Yes, yes, and hell yes.

The gang visits the Margaret Herrick LibraryOn Day One, we began with a primer on special effects at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library, which was established in 1928, and housed since 1991 in a former Beverly Hills water treatment facility. Boasting over 10 million photographs, 32,000 books, and 80,000 screenplays (on a whim, I checked out the Brewster McCloud shooting script, simply because I could), this Mecca of Hollywood history would eat up a lot of my time if I lived in Los Angeles. It's a researcher's paradise, as long as you lock up everything but your laptop and a pencil, as almost nothing else is allowed inside. One of the librarians, whose name I sadly can't recall, set aside for our group some old Popular Science clippings on early F/X and original production art from sci-fi classics like 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture—beautiful, time-intensive sketches that may be forgotten by the next generation (no pun intended), more impressed by the CGI lens flares of J.J. Abrams' recent reboot. I also touched my first Oscar, the neglectfully unpolished 1950 "Best Black and White Costume Design" trophy shared by Edith Head and Charles LeMaire for All About Eve. Wearing a t-shirt and jeans at the time felt secretly embarrassing.

Digital DomainAfter lunch, we were given a tour of visual effects powerhouse Digital Domain, one of the "Big 5" effects companies, as a few industry types called it. (The list also includes Rhythm & Hues—where'd we end up later in the week, Sony Pictures ImageWorks, ILM and Weta Digital.) For such a whale of a company, so much so that their Frank Gehry-designed conference room is called "The Whale" (pictured at right), Digital Domain didn't electrify me, perhaps because it was the one disappointing stop during our entire excursion—admittedly because they refused to give us a taste of Their Next Big Project. We knew they worked on Titanic (James Cameron was a founder, after all), Transformers 2 (Michael Bay is a partner, after all) and won an Oscar for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but we didn't get to see any early stages of 2012, and our walkthrough mostly consisted of reception areas, empty editing suites, and poster-filled hallways. Even the massive screening room yielded only the same show reel that their corporate clients see before whipping out their checkbooks. Do I really need to see Speed Racer clips again? The one saving grace was that our liaison was able to answer our near-tireless questions about animatics, technological limitations (there are none, he said confidently), sharing work with other companies on the same film, and how much creative control they get during conceptual stages (not as much as you might think, as I interpreted).

Back at the hotel, we met with makeup-F/X artist Paul Salamoff, author of "On the Set" and "The Complete DVD Book" (with Chris Gore), whose most exciting claim to fame to our group was that he created the prop pup in There's Something About Mary. Having worked on big-scale productions (Land of the Lost) and cheapies (Full Moon Entertainment, Lloyd Kaufman, two of the Critters movies), Salamoff was an appropriate speaker for a quick-and-dirty lecture on the history of effects, which the group seemed to like, though I was a bit bored having learned the basics years ago. If only he had gone into more war stories (until we saw his portfolio later, there was no way to know how much he had done in his 20+ years in cinematic trenches), I wouldn't have felt the need to escape for a cup of coffee. Salamoff was an affable guy, though, and very receptive to left-field questions.

The tour picked up steam in Day Two, including a talk between John Lasseter and Hayao Miyazaki, a trip to a physical effects studio, and much more. CONTINUED HERE...

Posted by ahillis at 2:39 PM