October 31, 2009
PODCAST: Tom Noonan (The House of the Devil)Among other things, Tom Noonan is a musician, playwright, and writer-director of two acclaimed films (What Happened Was, The Wife), but most will sooner recognize this tall, reserved but eerily intense gentleman as a memorable character actor from films as diverse as Manhunter, Mystery Train, and Synecdoche New York. His latest chance to effortlessly steal scenes arrives in Ti West's wonderfully slow-burning, retro-horror flick, The House of the Devil:
Sam (Jocelin Donahue) is a pretty college sophomore, so desperate to earn some cash for a deposit on an apartment that she accepts a babysitting job even after she finds out there is no baby. Mr. and Mrs. Ulman (cult actors Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov) are the older couple who lure Sam out to their creeky Victorian mansion deep in the woods, just in time for a total lunar eclipse. Megan (Greta Gerwig) is Sam's best friend, who gives her a ride out to the house, and reluctantly leaves her there despite suspecting that something is amiss. Victor (AJ Bowen) at first seems like just a creepy guy lurking around the house, but quickly makes it clear that Sam will end this night in a bloody fight for her life...Sitting down with Mr. Ulman himself in what sounds halfway through our podcast as if it might actually be Satan's homestead, Noonan and I spoke about his dramatic workshops, being naturally creepy, why he never reads the whole script, and anecdotal remembrances of working with John Cassavetes, Michael Mann, and Michael Cimino—"just a terrible human being." To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:33) Podcast Music
INTRO: The Fixx, "One Thing Leads to Another"
OUTRO: The Fugs, "I Command the House of the Devil" [The House of the Devil is now playing in select theaters and is available on VOD through Magnolia Pictures.]
October 27, 2009
DVD OF THE WEEK: High School Record
directed by Ben Wolfinsohn
2005, 75 minutes, USA
Factory 25 Where the Wild Things Are tried to emulate the untamed insecurities of childhood via impressionist sun flares and the pageantry of imagination, but it was a blockbuster rumpus too overearnest and laboriously designed to evoke such emotional authenticity. Far more successful in exposing the raw-nerve anxieties of youth onscreen is an older, rougher, hipper kind of wild thing altogether, Ben Wolfinsohn's High School Record, which could still be about King Max if he grew up to be a confused, complicated teenager who finally discovered garage rock. Neither caricatured like Napoleon Dynamite and its whitewashed imitators with hand-drawn titles, nor played for teens-gone-wild shock value (Afterschool, Kids), Wolfinsohn's naturalistic, semi-improvised series of awkward comic vignettes at a performing arts school absolutely nails the liberating/frightening social moments of post-pubescence in all their riches of embarrassments. Having not seen the inside of a locker since the mid-'90s (which reminds me of some sample dialogue that ages me, between two girls who hooked up with the same dude: "You wanna be his girlfriend now? That's so '90s!"), I still recognized enough of my younger unsure self that I was occasionally and unexpectedly laughing aloud. Wolfinsohn's follow-up to his shaggily charming 2002 doc Friends Forever (about young rockers who perform and tour, smoke machine and all, out of their van) technically lies in one of the laziest and most overplayed subgenres, the mockumentary, but the writer-director's instincts are pretty sharp. Making a record of their senior year in both senses of the word, cameraman/guitarist Nicholas (Nicholas Gitomer) and boom operator/drummer Susan (Susan Estrada) are the novice documentarians "behind" the camera (Wolfinsohn shot the film), capturing their classmates in vulnerably candid moments while occasionally rocking out in welcome interludes. (The two perform under the name My Little Red Toe, and share the soundtrack with hipster faves like Dan Deacon, Jad Fair, and No Age—more on the latter later.) Their naïve filmmaking decisions play into the atmosphere seamlessly and sparingly, as they deliberate over whether they should film a couple having sex in the science room, or if Susan should run after a student who has been escorted from class by a police officer. Unlike most mock-docs, there thankfully isn't that oppressive detachment when characters self-awarely mug to the camera, the most ghastly mistake made by narratives meant to look like non-fiction. (Seriously, haven't they got enough footage on The Office yet?) And the grainy, lo-fi digital look serves the subject matter both aesthetically (it's meant to be a DIY project) and thematically (how better to express daily humiliation than with a shaky cam?), without that too-polished, fake-amateur shooting that made Cloverfield so phony-looking. It's also refreshing to see a film about high-school characters that not only aren't stereotypes, but aren't so calculated in their fringe qualities to consciously subvert said stereotypes. Lovably irksome as he tries too hard to fit in, the most uncomfortable player has to be Caleb, played by Dean Allen Spunt—real-life drummer of the noise-rock duo No Age. (Adding street cred à la Rock 'n' Roll High School or Suburbia, many of the actors are musicians from the downtown L.A. scene based around The Smell.) Caleb desperately wants to be edgy-cool, and might've been the class clown if he weren't such a self-serious goon. He misreads a joke and puts epoxy in his hair because he thinks the London kids are doing it, tries to shave a "planetary ring" into his head but gets called a "doughnut-hawk" instead, and looks ill at ease wearing aluminum foil shorts to class. ("Is your dad the Tin Man, or some shit?" mocks a classmate.) Caleb occasionally dates and gets abused by horny swim-team frump Sabrina (Jenna Thornhill, of the catchy post-punk band Mika Miko), who is best friends with impulsive rich chick Erin (Jennifer Clavin, also of Mika Miko), who is seeing swaggering rebel-weirdo Eddie (Bobby Sandoval—yes, another musician). Their sparkly pixie teacher (Becky Stark, frontwoman of wistful indie popsters Lavender Diamond) is obsessed with comedy and good cheer, distressingly so, but when it comes out later that she moonlights as a gifted musician both Eddie and his father respect, she can't just be written off as the hippie-dippie kook. All but forgotten after Sundance and SXSW 2005, High School Record is decidedly a little movie with minor-key goals, but it's damn funny and has a surprising immediacy, just like every waking moment amongst one's peers at that tender age. Thanks to the good folks at Factory 25, a new music-oriented DVD label that was quasi-born of the ashes from Plexifilm (founder Matt Grady was their director of production, and worked on such films as Helvetica and Style Wars), Wolfinsohn's vivid classroom squiggle—or should I say chalkboard sketch, in reference to the film's best scene—has another chance to be uncovered. Also of note, being released today by Factory 25 are You Weren't There: A History of Chicago Punk 1977-84 and All the Way From Michigan Not Mars, a tone-poetic doc about Rosie Thomas, with Sufjan Stevens and Damien Jurado.
October 24, 2009
PODCAST: Antichrist (Steve Dollar, Andrew Grant, Michael Tully)
A grieving couple (Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg) retreat to "Eden," their isolated cabin in the woods, where they hope to repair their broken hearts and troubled marriage. But nature takes its course and things go from bad to worse...After a Skype video conference with von Trier following last month's NYFF press screening (for further reading, see my recent interview with the Danish auteur), I shared some post-game commentary about Antichrist with freelance critic (and regular GreenCine Daily contributor) Steve Dollar, my esteemed Benten Films cohort Andrew Grant, and Hammer to Nail's own Michael Tully—who really just wants to treat von Trier to a day at an American amusement park. Dollar keeps thinking about Couples Retreat (they both take place at remote getaways called "Eden"), and Grant addresses that frequent charge of misogyny thrown at the 53-year-old filmmaker's work. To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:19) Podcast Music
INTRO: Björk and Thom Yorke, "I've Seen It All"
OUTRO: Marilyn Manson, "Antichrist Superstar" [Related: FlavorWire's Review: Mythological Revisionism or Misogynistic Schlock?]
October 21, 2009
Weirder and Wilder Thingsby Vadim Rizov Visiting a friend in Omaha this past weekend, I saw The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. at the lovely Film Streams theater. I'd never seen the one-and-only Dr. Seuss-scripted 1953 classic, and the spangly print certainly didn't disappoint. Mostly, though, it got me thinking about everything that's wrong with Where the Wild Things Are. Both are sui generis translations of maverick beloved children's authors to the screen in ways that could be "scary" or "inappropriate" for children. And there the similarities end. Even among surreal, culty kid's films (Return to Oz is my favorite, but Babe: Pig in the City and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure come to mind as well), The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T. is singular. A source of dismay for Dr. Seuss (who compared the reviews to an on-set accident where all the children vomited at once) and a financial calamity (losing over $1 million), this weirdest of all children's movies inevitably became a cult hit (yes, a musical version is on the way). Director Roy Rowland was a journeyman who began his career helming Robert Benchley shorts and acting as assistant to W.S. Van Dyke on the Tarzan movies, and ended up directing spaghetti Westerns. Among other things, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T is a film in which the director is clearly as confused as any of the spectators; watching him trying to figure out the most efficient way to shoot something this unprecedented is one of the film's bracing qualities. Most of the film takes place in a boy's nightmare, but even the bookending "real world" sequences are radically disorienting. Bart Collins (Tommy Rettig) lives with his mother Heloise Collins (Mary Healy), who forces him to take piano lessons he has no interest in from the downright fascistic Doctor Terwilliger (Hans Conried). Young Bart's only ally is the town's best plumber, August Zabladowski (Peter Lind Hayes). In the super cursory opening, Rowland shoots and cuts like an accidental Kenneth Anger, privileging lurid color, screen-filling close-ups of self-consciously mannered performances and a subtly deranged, artificial narrative flow. This suburbia is Sirk for kids; all is clearly not well. In most of the film, though, Bart is in his nightmare world, processing his fears through a bizarre scenario where Dr. T's simultaneously enslaving little boys to his ultimate practice piano while hypnotizing Heloise into marrying him. As an expression of childhood fears, Dr. T is simultaneously amazingly direct and utterly bizarre. In Bart's dreamscape, he's got a mother he loves—but who forces him to do things he doesn't like—and two competing father figures; the Oedipal complexes are too obvious to need explication. Here, Bart and Zabladowski bond; in a really unnerving sequence, their replacement-father/son bonding takes the form of an unnerving two-person close-up, each staring at the other dead-on, that makes it look as if it's about to turn into a pornographic NAMBLA ad. This isn't just me being unnecessarily perverse: Dr. T is thrumming with weird, inappropriate sexual energies. Bart's familial paranoia is hardly the only point of view, however: he disappears for whole reels given over to musical numbers and adult drama. Zabladowski cracks wise about preferring to think of himself as an "independent contractor" and whines about overtime pay; Terwilliger's egomania is clearly based off much more than animosity towards Bart, as opposed to the usual kidpic villains. This is a film in which childhood is as much about scrambled receptions of the adult world as the experience of "childhood." By the time both Joseph McCarthy and the atomic bomb have been invoked, we're in a world that's equal parts Freudian confusion, genuine childhood, and '50s Cold War zeitgeist. By not privileging Bart's viewpoint exclusively, it suggests larger worldviews and fears that can't quite be articulated but are clearly felt; to the extent I remember my childhood at all, that seems about right. That's way truer to the idea of "childhood" than Where the Wild Things Are. In the world cooked up by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonze, who we are as children is the same as what we grow up to be: fearful, incapable of processing our inappropriate emotions in any way other than the bluntest and most unsophisticated way. For too long, the argument goes, we've repressed our naïve, truthful reactions and true emotional selves. Talking about needing a "sadness shield" is the new sophistication. I'm not being hyperbolic; this is a movie whose trailer is scored with The Arcade Fire. Simplest thought = truest. And so on and so on. It drives me up the wall. The first 20 minutes of Where the Wild Things Are have been nearly universally praised, and I can see why: young Max's loneliness, need for attention from his mother and sister, and inexplicable fits of rage cut pretty close to the bone. Jonze's frequent insistence on roughhewn handheld camera has never seemed so right; we're as untethered and volatile as Max is. Yet, the trouble is once you see Maurice Pialat's 1968 L'Enfance Nue, you can't unsee it. That film depicts from outside what it's like to be around a troubled child, and the answer is sheer, unending abrasion: you can feel bad for the kid and still want nothing to do with him. That's because the movie has adults in it who act like adults; in Jonze and Eggers' world, though, childhood is more relatable than any putative form of adulthood. To be clear: what I'm not asking for is some kind of '50s world where men are buttoned-up and keep their emotions to themselves. Maturity takes many forms, and sometimes it's the healthiest thing to let it all out. The trouble starts when that mode of perception is never challenged or shaken — when tweeness becomes the ultimate wisdom and everything else is cynicism. That's what bugs me about Wild Things: it's not so much about childhood as about perpetual regression, and an endorsement of it no less. Work, relationships outside the family, culture, nuclear fears, everyday snark: everything Dr. T. shoehorns into the story of an equally lost and sad kid has been stripped away. Jonze and Eggers aren't really privileging kids; they're privileging their view of what childhood is, which is preparing for a world of emotional woes whose essence never changes. Making the wild things neurotic adults who grumble about their fears on the same maturity level as Max is a funny joke, but it also isn't a joke: Jonze and Eggers really seem to believe that's true. Myths about childhood change all the time: the very idea of it as a privileged time that deserves special care is itself pretty recent. One of the new big bugaboos is that parents from the '90s and onward have been too controlling and fearful, trying to shelter their kids from all harm while denying them the opportunity to express themselves. I see that Michael Chabon is the latest to parrot this mantra. "The sandlots and creek beds," he says, "the alleys and woodlands have been abandoned in favor of a system of reservations—Chuck E. Cheese, the Jungle, the Discovery Zone: jolly internment centers mapped and planned by adults with no blank spots aside from doors marked Staff Only." All of which is kind of true—but it's a manifestation of exactly the same kind of thinking as Eggers'. Childhood should be a rumpus, childhood is special, childhood should be scary because life is, childhood is where the imagination should flourish before adulthood kills it and all that remains is the sadness. It's of a piece with Wild Things' basic parenting philosophy—take your kid to a mosh pit and let them get it all out—and it's just as monolithic and prescriptive a viewpoint as keeping your kids locked up in the house all the time. So: Dr. Seuss vs. Maurice Sendak? Seuss wins. The true wild things are where the adults are.
October 18, 2009
PODCAST: Eric Red
"Her Husband's Dead, and He's Taking the News Badly" reads the irresistible tagline of Eric Red's first film in 12 years, in which abused wife Marnie (Famke Janssen) learns that stabbing her sadistic spouse three times is not enough to keep him away. After serving some time for murder, she's placed under house arrest in her spacious Brooklyn brownstone, fitted with an electronic anklet, and is soon haunted by hubby's vengeful spirit (a creepy Michael Paré, looking more like Michael Myers). Hand-wringingly tense, 100 Feet provides the chills expected from the writer of the wonderfully deranged Near Dark and The Hitcher.As part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Scary Movies 3 series (now through October 22), both 100 Feet and The Hitcher will screen on Tuesday, October 20th—the same day that 100 Feet lands on DVD. Ominously calling just before midnight on the 13th of this month, I spoke with Eric Red about both films, the unfortunate remake of The Hitcher, how he feels about a notorious review by Roger Ebert, and what scares him today. To listen to the podcast, click here. (14:58) Podcast Music
INTRO: Mark Isham, "Headlights (Main Theme to The Hitcher)"
OUTRO: Mark Isham, "Dust and Gasoline"
October 15, 2009
SITGES '09: Film Fest of the Deadby Steve Dollar Like swallows to Capistrano, the zombies return to the Catalonian seaside resort of Sitges every October—at least they have since 1967—and their number keeps growing. The 42nd edition of the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantàstic was a breeding pool for all things undead or otherwise beyond mortal kin or consciousness. Yet, Hollywood entertainments like Zombieland or increasingly blah cult auteur franchises, like George A. Romero's Survival of the Dead, were merely early Halloween window-dressing for this kaleidoscopic Cannes of cinematic extremism. The festival, which ran from Oct. 1-12 this year, celebrated the 30th anniversary of Alien and gave a career achievement award to Malcolm McDowell, likewise honoring Walter Hill, Ivan Reitman and the alarmingly vital octogenarian splatter king Herschell Gordon Lewis. (These may not always be so coveted. Last year, Abel Ferrara handed his trophy, a scale model of the Time Machine, to a hotel bartender to settle a tab). Everyone from Park Chan-wook to Viggo Mortensen to that spooky little girl from Orphan made appearances. [editor's viewing tip: click for Steve Dollar's reaction to an Orphan mask.] And if you turned around in the theater to see who was kicking the back of your seat, it was that Argentine provocateur Gaspar Noé, likely getting payback for sneaking ahead of him in line for breakfast buffet French fries. Duncan Jones's lovely, sad, charming Moon won a bunch of prizes. Too bad its star, Sam Rockwell, was unable to dispatch a clone for the fest's afterhours "karaoke apocalypse." Instead, it was "one of those kids from the new Twilight thing," as New Moon heartthrob Jamie Campbell Bower was generally known to the non-screaming-teen-female crowd of international industry types, bloggers, critics, and juror/troublemakers like Tim League, who apparently teleported directly to Sitges from his own Fantastic Fest. It's reflective of the festival's range that some of its most startling entries transcended genre slots, even as they jostled familiar concepts into uncanny new forms. Amer, from French-born, Belgium-based filmmakers Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani, grabs you from the dynamic opening credits, set to an intriguing acoustic guitar melody and a menacing gurgle of weird ‘60s electronica that turns out to be from a vintage Bruno Nicolai soundtrack. Soon, we're inside a young girl's head, inside a creaky old house, where eyeballs peep through keyholes and the bodies of dead grandparents lay in state, ready to reanimate in a hallucinatory blink. Constructed out of more than 900 separate shots, about one every six seconds, the film is nearly as keyed to optical reflex as a 1960s structural experiment. Its three half-hour segments trace the experience of the girl, Ana, from childhood to adolescence and into adulthood, advancing from a magical innocence (ripe with gothic tingles and primal scenery) to budding sensuality to, well... the film is a valentine to the giallo creep-outs of Argento, Bava, and Fulci. So a sexy, gap-toothed Euro Teen sashay for the benefit of a cliffside biker gang gives way to nocturnal stalking, black leather gloves brandishing a straight razor, and a dramatic return to forbidding corridors. With maybe 15 lines of dialogue, though, Amer is more iconic poetry than explicit narrative, not a giallo but an evocation of its tropes, conjured in a disorienting rush of susurrations and extreme close-ups of bellybuttons and parted lips. "Giallo is the perfect genre in which to talk about desire, about sexuality, about fear and desire," Cattet told me, sharing a post-screening interview with Forzani, who is both her creative partner and boyfriend. It's the first feature for the young couple, who have previously made experimental shorts. "When you are with someone you love, in a couple," Forzani added, "you see them always up close." Going this engaging pair one or two better as an eye-popping freakout is Enter the Void, the irascible Noé's first film since 2002's Irreversible (fondly remembered by one of this year's jurors as "an unending assault on the audience.") The film's stylistic gambits include, among other things, a protagonist shot exclusively from behind the back of his head, endless overhead "eye of God" tracking shots that swoop low into swirling dissolves, mushroom-trip strobe effects and a sex scene that resolves with an ejaculation shot from inside a vagina. Now that's an extreme close-up. The effort most likely to be denounced by critics in attendance as "a piece of crap"—besides Paranormal Activity, that is—Void was screened in a 160-minute cut that was even longer than those prints shown at Cannes and Toronto. Those inclined to enjoy the void probably did so because of Noé’s extensive post-production work with a digital effects studio to create a psychedelic meditation on the meaning of life (and afterlife). The film is better appreciated as metaphysics, more akin to Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain, as the sudden death of a young American drug dealer in Tokyo cuts his soul free to witness the aftershocks of his killing. The dialogue is largely flat and functional, and the camera's wandering amid the scuzzball depths of Tokyo's sex-and-drug dens offers nothing new for fans of the director's most transgressive impulses (well, okay, actress/model and former Jack Nicholson consort Paz de la Huerta doing naked pole tricks). "It's supposed to reproduce a DMT trip," Noé said. "When I went to see parts of the movie today, it was weird because by moments the strobing effects, as you try to refocus [your eyes] produces a double image. And I know there's no double image." Noé expressed his admiration for work by avant-garde filmmakers like Jordan Bellson and Tony Conrad. "I have them all," he said. "People say, 'Oh, you was pretending to do a movie like Kubrick. But at the end, it ended up looking more like a copy of Buñuel or Kenneth Anger.' I say, yeah, when you see Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome, it's a lot closer to that than 2001. Another reference for the movie was Tron. I told [the effects supervisor] that I wanted Tokyo to look like Tron." And as for the, um, climactic money shot near the end of the film? What sort of technology allowed him to frame that? "Very special technology." He laughed. "It was fun to have that cum shot on a big screen in Cannes." Arriving with no pedigree for outrage, Dogtooth proved to be as seriously disturbing in its way as, say, Eraserhead. Greek director Giorgos Lanthimos's film is, superficially, a domestic comedy about a middle-aged, middle-class couple with three grown kids living at home. Only, their son and two daughters are afflicted with a strange case of arrested development. They've never even left the family compound, where their parents have home-schooled them in détourned vocabulary and treat them like 7-year-olds. Shot in a flat, static manner that allows the weirdness to slowly warp the viewer's mind, the film suggests the inner world of a religious cult where incest is encouraged, role play is used as mind control, and the father is a God improvising an alternative universe. The perils of this hermetic order are evident soon enough, but Lanthimos strikes a nimble balance between the grotesque and the beatific. Fears that Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans would be a joke were happily unfounded. Werner Herzog's gun-for-hire un-remake of the classic Ferrara title is, indeed, Nicolas Cage's best whacked-out performance in years. Finally, the beast awakes! Post-Katrina New Orleans makes a suitably hellish landscape, feeding Herzog's love of the catastrophic, and Cage's riffing as a drug-addicted renegade cop flares into many a deliriously purple moment. Other than that, I offer only two words: Iguana Cam. As for the good, old-fashioned horror flicks, Sitges was the land of a thousand jump scares. Sequels like [REC] 2 and The Descent 2 delivered the shocks without the element of dramatic surprise that drove the originals. The British lads-gone-bad comedy Doghouse offered a new twist, though, when a boy's weekend in the country goes terribly wrong: On the outs with their wives and girlfriends, the blokes find themselves in a village where all the women are man-eating zombies. Unlike The Hangover, which happily endorses misogyny and wasn't even funny, Jake West's male-bonding fest actually promotes emotional growth and critical self-examination! This, even as his boisterous crew of punters is gradually picked off and dismembered by a mutant army of female stereotypes. Equally lethal is Australian actress Robin McLeavy in The Loved Ones. She's the high school good girl in Sean Byrne's mash-up of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Carrie and The Breakfast Club. Or is she? Accompanied by Kasey Chambers's lilting “Am I Not Pretty Enough?,” McLeavy's Lola takes revenge when she gets rejected by pretty-boy Brent (Xavier Samuel) for the prom, aiming to add her crush to a collection of basement-dwelling would-be boyfriends she’s lobotomized. The blend of grindhouse horror, pop spoofery, and sincere teenage drama jells surprisingly well, even mustering a convincing argument for why being a "cutter" (the emotionally rattled Brent likes to slash up his arms) can come in handy when someone's about to drill a hole in your skull. Such lessons are one of the gifts of Sitges, where the otherworldly really is a walk on the beach.
October 13, 2009
DVD OF THE WEEK: Hardware
directed by Richard Stanley
1990, 93 minutes, UK
Severin Films Falsely but understandably advertised as "The Terminator for the nineties" and loosely based on the 2000 A.D. comics (making it a precursor to Judge Dredd), South African-born auteur Richard Stanley's cult-beloved feature debut had only a fraction of the resources James Cameron did for his Ahnuld-pocalypse. But even in its meager limitations, Hardware is both more cynical and conscious of human indignities as a horrific cyberpunk vision of the future. In this ruddy post-apocalypse, lawlessness pervades the land and Big Brother is always watching via omnipresent closed-circuit cameras, but there's no anti-fascist revolution underway; we compliantly voted the bastards in, just as effortlessly as we decimated the environment so that only the fittest scavengers survive. Technically, the villain of Hardware (and here's where that original comparison gets made) is a murderous combat droid called the M.A.R.K. 13, which is capable of regenerating itself with any old electrical appliances. However, what makes Stanley's nightmare more disturbing in an age of environmental crisis and seemingly endless warring is that mankind is responsible for developing this mecha-monster (it's not a next-gen species like the T-800, but a "population lowering" device), and in this world, we're also responsible for destroying the resources that might allow us to defeat it. Dylan McDermott headlines as Moses "Hard Mo" Baxter, a former soldier who now scours the scorched-earth area called "The Zone" for post-war debris that he can hock for cash to a shady dwarf. After an extended venture into the field, Mo returns to the post-industrial cityscape (really, everything in this film is "post-"—this is the end, my only friend), and reunites with his fair-weather girlfriend, a reclusive metal sculptress named Jill (Stacey Travis). As a romantic gift that keeps on giving, Mo brings her the skull of a robot carcass that he bought from a radioactively glowing-eyed nomad (Fields of the Nephilim goth-rocker Carl McCoy), a trinket that just so happens to house the brain of the M.A.R.K. 13, uh-oh. As the droid soon switches on, everyone in its path is disposed of via hallucinogenic poison injection, phallic drilling, eye gouging, and other clever gore effects that should be praised for their low-budget ingenuity. This limitation also dictates that most of the survival horror takes place within the confines of Jill's dark, grimy, overly computerized and therefore locked-down apartment, which is being peeped into by an obese pervert (a sickeningly funny William Hootkins), just another debauched consequence of these end times. He'll get his, it's telegraphed, but nobody is innocent enough to be safe, or a hero. (In the original cut of the film, Mo's first scene has him walking by some kids beating up an old man, but then-Miramax honchos the Weinsteins feared it would make him too unsympathetic a character.) After the shoddy-looking VHS version of the film that had been floating around (which is how I originally saw the film in the early '90s), Severin Films' remastered two-DVD set finally does justice to Stanley's fussy attention to detail and exaggerated stylization—you can tell he began his career as a music video director. The primary-colored gel filters throughout are straight from the Argento and Bava playbooks, and the monochrome blips and blinks of all the analog technology (which doesn't date the film given this is a devolved future) makes for more lucid imagery in widescreen. Hardware isn't a life-changing piece of genre filmmaking or even fresh storytelling, but its psychedelic unease, heavy-metal textures, nihilistic humor, DIY artistry and hold-your-breath-in-the-dark frights are still gloriously entertaining after two decades of special-effects advancements. Oh, and did I mention the special appearances from Iggy Pop as the voice of radio DJ "Angry Bob" and Lemmy from Motörhead as a surly water-taxi driver? Check out the video links below to see why this one's a truly rock n' roll cult classic... - Iggy Pop on Hardware
- Lemmy on Hardware
October 8, 2009
NYFF '09 PODCAST: Life During Wartime (Armond White, Andrew Grant, Sylvia Miles)Is Welcome to the Dollhouse auteur Todd Solondz a misanthrope, or a humanist whose characters just happen to engage in ugly, perverse, cruel behavior? For me, the answer has been made clear with Life During Wartime (screening Saturday, Oct. 10 at 9pm), Solondz's quasi-sequel to 1998's Happiness, in which all of the characters are now played by different actors:
Todd Solondz starts his latest and finest film to date by introducing us to Joy (Shirley Henderson), whose husband Allen (Michael Kenneth Williams) is not quite cured of his peculiar "affliction." Joy's sister Trish (Allison Janney) is hoping to stabilize her family life by marrying the recently divorced Harvey (Michael Lerner), but her soon-to-be bar-mitzvahed son Timmy (Dylan Riley Snyder) isn’t sure he wants another man in the house—especially as it seems his dead father, Bill (Ciarán Hinds), might not be dead after all. His portrait of these and several other major characters—beautifully rendered by Charlotte Rampling, Paul Reubens, Renee Taylor and Ally Sheedy—is tough, tender, at times startling, but never mean or condescending. For Solondz, "wartime" is not a historical period but a permanent condition: not only the constant battle between the sexes, but even more so the endless struggle between personal desires and the society set up to contain them.In my final podcast from the 2009 New York Film Festival, I chat with Andrew Grant, along with New York Press chief film critic and New York Film Critics Circle chairman Armond White, about Life During Wartime. We discuss the aforementioned misanthropy question, forgiveness, Todd Haynes and Luis Buñuel, but the party officially gets started when NYFF mainstay Sylvia Miles crashes our conversation to talk about the film and her upcoming role reprisal in Oliver Stone's Wall Street sequel—which only Armond could link back to the Solondz picture. To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:27) Podcast Music
INTRO: Talking Heads, "Life During Wartime (live)"
OUTRO: Devendra Banhart, "Heard Somebody Say"
October 5, 2009
INTERVIEW: Michael Stuhlbarg is a (Not Too) Serious Manby Jeffrey M. Anderson
The major talking point about the Coen Brothers' new film A Serious Man seems to be that it has "no stars," or is comprised of a cast of mostly unknowns. The leader of this unknown ensemble is Michael Stuhlbarg, who plays Larry Gopnik, a tenure-track professor and Jewish father living in 1967 Minnesota. Life doesn't seem too bad for Larry until a nearly unending list of terrible things befalls him, including a pending divorce, a car accident, a gambling brother, ungrateful children, a mysterious letter-writer, a bribery attempt, a lusty neighbor (on one side) and a threatening neighbor (on the other), plus a doctor's appointment and a bar mitzvah under the influence of pot. Larry seeks the help of three rabbis to help sort his life, and finds that their cryptic advice doesn't provide any easy answers. Really, the only thing you can do is laugh. It's up to Stuhlbarg to shoulder all this calamity and turn it into black humor, and he pulls it off.
Before landing this rare leading role, Stuhlbarg appeared in small roles in several films, including A Price Above Rubies (1998), The Grey Zone (2001), Martin Scorsese's short film The Key to Reserva (2007), Afterschool (2008), Ridley Scott's Body of Lies (2008) and Cold Souls (2009). On television, he has appeared on Ugly Betty and Law & Order. But his formative time has been spent on the stage, having earned a Tony nomination for The Pillowman, plus a few Shakespearian turns in Richard II and Hamlet. The very kind and pleasant Mr. Stuhlbarg sat down for a brief talk with me about his new film.
A Serious Man reminded me of Barton Fink, not because of the content, but my reaction—it's one to be pondered. Like that prologue... I kept wondering what that was about.
We all were. When we were making it, we were: "What is this about? Why is this in here?" They just liked the idea, I think, of starting out with this thing, and it having a kind of resonance with the quote at the beginning of the movie. "Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you," in terms of a dybbuk coming into your life and trying to accept the craziness of it.
You were being considered for the roles of both Larry and Uncle Arthur. What was that process like?
Originally I came in and auditioned for the part of Velvel, the husband in the Yiddish parable at the beginning of the movie. So I had to learn that whole scene in Yiddish. That was my very first audition. I was going for a very small part. I went to a tutor and learned the whole scene in Yiddish. At that time, they weren't sure whether that part or any of those parts were going to be played by actors who could fake it and speak it phonetically, or people who could speak it fluently. They ended up going with folks who were part of the Yiddish theater in New York, and rightfully so. The movie went away for five or six months. Then I got a call to come in for both Larry and Arthur. I learned three scenes of each, went in and did it, and they laughed a lot. That made me feel really happy. Then I asked periodically as the weeks went on if I was still in the mix. They said, "You're still in the mix." Eventually I got a call: "You're going to get one of these parts. We just don't know which one yet." Maybe six weeks before shooting began, I got a call from Joel: "We'll put you out of your misery. You're playing Larry."
So you were just waiting at home!
Basically. I had to go about my life over the course of about 11 months. But it worked out really well. I did what I could and they didn't want to see me again. They thought it was enough, what I had done. They had a video camera in the room with them. So they had the evidence that they could go back and look at again, which I think they did a lot. I was certainly willing to go back in there, but once they get it in their heads of what they want... Once they hire the actors they let us do what it is that we do. They're pretty hands off.
Their text is pretty polished, and they stick to that?
Absolutely. It was the same text at my audition, and it remained that way through the entire shoot. It was finished from Day One. There were a few things that they cut from that script that they didn't put into the film. But those were few and far between.
I've always been curious about them, but I've at least interviewed cinematographer Roger Deakins. He's a genius.
That's a good word for him. He was so sweet. I didn't want to say or do anything to get in his way. He sets the tone in his weird way. They're sort of all three parts of the same head. It's kind of hard to explain until you see it. They answer each other's thoughts and questions. It's like working with three people who know exactly what they want to do. Roger will stand there for hours with his light meter, just waiting for the light to be perfect. It was a treat to watch them work.
Are they more approachable or distant as collaborators?
Absolutely approachable. They made themselves so available to me after the decision had been made that I was going to do this. I sent them three pages of notes, just questions about the script, and they answered them all. If they didn't answer them, they left it up to me. In terms of asking them questions on the set, they were always open. They love being asked questions. Sometimes they'll come upon things that they hadn't thought of. You can be part of the creative process.
I was reminded of something that was a misread on my part. When Larry approaches Mrs. Samsky's house and knocks on the door, I thought that it said—or maybe it was that I hoped it would say—that he would come to the door and knock, but make up his mind that he wasn't going to do it, and leave. They shot it two different ways, but my way made it in the movie, because I had misread it in the script. Then we changed the text a little to say, "I was gonna knock but I thought you weren't here." It seemed right for him.
This character is kind of passive. Everything happens to him, and mostly bad stuff. How do you approach a role like that?
It's funny because people have brought this up to me, but I had never really thought of him as being that passive. I feel like he's a certain kind of person, and he doesn't necessarily question a lot in his life. But under the circumstances, he does probably what he can to get out of these circumstances—if he has a way out. We're also, as audience members, just privy to parts of the journey. We don't get to see the backstories or the arguments that happened, perhaps, between Larry and Judith in the scene when Sy comes over to house, and it has been established that they're going to get a divorce. We aren't privy to those things. So I had to create them for myself, what I thought might have served the momentum going into the scene.
So you have his whole life fleshed out in your head, and that comes out in the scene.
Yeah. He does what he can. I think he tries to remain civil in an uncivil situation.
Does it offend you when people describe this movie has having "no stars" or "mostly unknowns"?
[laughs.] It's filled with actors! On one level, it allows the audience to really invest in these characters as who they say they are. One of the treats with having stars in films is getting to watch really talented people do different kinds of things. But another side of it is to watch people you don't know, and go, "Wow!" There's a lot of us in this film who have never done this kind of stuff, who have never had the chance. So it's a treat for all of us. And an oddity. And a gift.
This film is very steeped in Jewish culture and identity. It's something you don't see very often. Why is that? Are people afraid to see it?
I doubt it. It should be enlightening and interesting, hopefully, in terms of assimilated Jewry, which we don't get to see discussed a lot. At least submerged in—in 1967—the severity of the Hebrew school and the context of the bar mitzvah and the memorial service. You're thrown into this unique world. It should be enlightening for people who don't know anything about it, but there is a universality to its specificity, I believe. I think that's the most interesting storytelling, submerging people in a culture they're not familiar with, but realizing that we're all human and all going through our own particular troubles that are universal. There might be terms that some people are unfamiliar with, but that wouldn't stop them from enjoying the humor and hopefully the pathos.
There's a term in the movie, "gett," that half the characters don't even understand.
Yeah! I think that's part of the dichotomy. In assimilated Jewry, there are all these laws and traditions and rituals that are part of the tradition. It's why there are so many denominations of Judaism as well as in other religions. Each one chooses to use for themselves what they find to be most useful in terms of living the kind of lives that they want to live. You get some insight in terms of that. It's not The Chosen. It's not A Price Above Rubies. It's assimilated Jewry, and it's how these characters deal with these things.
Probably my favorite part, and perhaps the key to the entire film, is the story about the Goy's Teeth.
Me, too! That's what those stories are meant to be. To give us some insight into what other people struggled with and maybe glean some knowledge to live our lives in a positive way.
As an actor, were you spoiled on this project?
I think so. On Body of Lies, I was in D.C. for a week and I shot two scenes with Mr. [Ridley] Scott. It was thoroughly exciting when I actually got to do the work. A lot of it was sitting around and waiting. But when I got to do it, it was all very... [snaps fingers.] He knew exactly what he wanted, and I did it over and over and over until it took on a sense of meaninglessness, until it had a fluidity to it. One of the scenes was cut and the other was cut in half. A whole subplot, of Leonardo DiCaprio's wife and them getting a divorce while he's going through all the stuff in the Middle East, was cut from the movie. But this was a tremendous first leading role to have.
That's another thing about what I do for a living. With each job you take, with each film or television or theater piece, you have to take each piece as it comes, approach it for what it is, and hope it's not going to be where you just were—the last job you did. You approach each job afresh and use whatever you have to make it come to life for yourself and other people. I'm not going to expect the next gig that I have to be this one. It isn't. I already know that.
I shot a pilot for a new HBO series called Boardwalk Empire. It just got picked up, so I'm going to start shooting that in October. The pilot was directed by Martin Scorsese. It's co-produced by Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson and Tim Van Patten. It's written by Terence Winter, who wrote for The Sopranos, it's his baby, and it stars Steve Buscemi and Kelly Macdonald—both Coen Brothers alumni—and Michael Shannon, Michael Pitt, Dabney Coleman, Stephen Graham and Vincent Piazza. It's a fantastic group of actors. It's based on a book called "Boardwalk Empire," about Atlantic City on the eve of Prohibition. I play Arnold Rothstein, who was allegedly responsible for fixing the 1919 World Series. So it's a whole different kind of genre, and period piece, and it's been really fun so far.
But I guess the point of what I was saying is that it ain't gonna be like what I went through, and it has its own metabolism, joys and hardships. You do your best. Even if it was an off-Broadway play for no money, I would still give my heart to it.
October 4, 2009
FANTASTIC FEST '09: Bat-Shit Crazy Syrupby Steve Dollar Most film festivals are just film festivals. Fantastic Fest is a different beast. The premier American outpost on the global "fantastic cinema" circuit of festivals—devoted to all things action, horror, sci-fi and cult—FF spurts forth like a bottomless fountain of arterial spray for a week every autumn. This mutant brainchild of gonzo exhibitor Tim League and Ain't It Cool News geek guru Harry Knowles has evolved over the past five years into a singular cinematic freak magnet. What other major American film festival gives its prize for "best film" to something called The Human Centipede? Where else do audience members inquire of a director at the post-screening Q&A (in this case, for Yoshihiro Nishimura’s romantic splatterfest Vampire Girl vs. Frankenstein Girl) not details of budget or shooting ratio but: "Is there any body part you have not yet weaponized?" (Answer: "Yes. Nose hairs.") And what sane festival director promotes as a late-night party attraction a debate between himself and a filmmaker guest (German exploitation iconoclast Uwe Boll) that ends in a boxing match? Can you imagine the New York Film Festival's Richard Peña staring down, say, Steven Soderbergh in the squared circle? I think not (although Clooney might be up for it). Of course, it helps that the fest's host city is Austin, Texas—a.k.a Slackerwood—where League and his wife Karrie run a sprawling mini-empire of drafthouses (theaters that serve beers and bar food while you watch). A town stuffed with thousands of University of Texas students, homegrown auteurs like Richard Linklater and Robert Rodriguez, and a legacy of pop-culture eccentricism that gave the world the Butthole Surfers, Daniel Johnston and Roky Erickson, Austin is the perfect petri dish for Fantastic Fest. To paraphrase League, it’s like a big-ass nacho platter "drizzled in bat-shit crazy syrup." What does that mean, exactly? Instead of catching a screening at noon on my first day of arrival, I found myself on a gun range in the vast open wilds of Texas hill country, blasting a 12-gauge shotgun, along with about 40 other guests and journalists. Why merely watch the true-to-life New Zealand cannibal prison epic Van Dieman’s Land, when you can join one of the film's stars in the thrill of the kill? I even managed to work through my long-lingering teenage PTSD from Last House on the Left while hanging with its chief rapist David Hess (writer of various Elvis Presley hits, among other things, and now the homicidal helmsman in Smash Cut). Hess drew first blood, nailing a pair of clay pigeons. I, sadly, went 0-for-15. If Fantastic Fest is where movie geeks man (or woman)-up, an Outward Bound adventure for jaded culture vultures looking to get their groove back, it's wildly successful. And the movies are pretty good, too. The 70 features and 50 shorts unspool, mostly, in the Leagues' cinematheque-of-the-outre, the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema, a wonderland of model spaceships, microbrews and midnight movie madness anchored in a crummy '70s-era strip mall on Austin's southside. The joint looks like what would happen if a 14-year-old sci-fi fanboy, stoked on Japanese monster flicks and Night of the Living Dead, won the MacArthur Grant and blew it all constructing a Xanadu stocked with his every celluloid obsession. This year's slate included the now-staple secret screenings (the Coen Brothers, Terry Gilliam) and Hollwood galas, staged downtown at the vintage Paramount (celeb-studded stuff like Zombieland and Jared Hess' amusing-but-labored dorkfest Gentlemen Broncos). Those are great for buzz, but the real fun is in chasing down all the wayward tangents the fest spins together in its vortex of genre ecstasy. Anyone taken with the New York Asian Film Festival, whose top selections were reprised in Austin, would have reveled in the unofficial world premiere of RoboGeisha. Noboru (Machine Girl) Iguchi's latest opus to female empowerment via mutant transformation playfully (and, um, literally) explodes Japanese cultural and gender-role clichés, opening up the biggest can of she-devil whup-ass since the glory days of Russ Meyer. The film's Verhoeven-on-crack-flavored-Ramen-noodle insanity is best captured by a popular trailer circulating on the Internet. But on the big screen it's more emotionally surprising (believe it or not), as the story chronicles sibling rivals who must become semi-cyborg assassins before ultimately embracing each other to save Japan from a diabolical military-industrial cult. Colleagues Nishimura and Iguchi, along with League and NYAFF’s Marc Walkow, engaged in a post-screening fundoshi parade—yes, those are ass-baring Japanese sumo diapers—and then submitted to a humiliation ritual at the hands of the movie's formidable Tengu Twins, embodiments of traditional Japanese demons played by samurai sword-brandishing actresses Cay Izumi and Asami (garbed in latex bikinis and red tengu masks with large phallic noses). Later, Izumi showed off her professional pole-dancing skills at The Highball, League's brand new combo bowling alley/karaoke lounge/Mad Men-chic liquor bar, adjacent to the Alamo. Despite all the crazy juice, some of the fest's best entries weren't so much fantastic as extraordinarily well-crafted. Aleksey Balabanov's Morphia, based on the memoirs of Mikhail Bulgakov, concerns a Russian country doctor's spiral into drug addiction on the cusp of the Bolshevik Revolution. It's an immaculate period piece laden with frosty hardship and a dank, sepia-toned palette. Slow-moving and episodic, and given to often visceral realism, it was almost counter-programming amidst the surplus of zombie hayrides. Likewise, the deadpan Down Terrace offered a detour from the undead, the oversexed, and the extremely graphically violent. This left-field charmer from British writer-director Ben Wheatley and writer-actor-editor Rob Hill took the prizes for best film and best screenplay in the Next Wave category in an underdog triumph. It's a gangster movie with most of the gangster stuff left out. Hill's Karl, a bespectacled 30-something who looks more like a computer programmer than a killer, is sprung from jail back into the tortured bosom of his middle-class Brighton crime family. Everyone turns massively paranoid as the rat is sought out and relationships slowly melt down. It's a bit like Mike Leigh doing The Sopranos— Hill's real-life, non-actor parents play the Mum and Dad with casual incisiveness—sans left-wing politics or Journey hits. Although, Robert Hill's stoner patriarch gets off a spacey improv on the death of the 1960s and plays a lot of sincerely amateur acoustic slide guitar. As events turn more blackly comic, '60s British folk classics brim on the soundtrack, setting a tone of dreamy melancholy that cuts against expectations, creating just the right amount of emotional undertow. Perhaps most surprising is the film’s producer: Mondo Macabro, a UK DVD outfit best-known for its essential Indonesian flying monkey head epics. Other crowdpleasers were a tad more anticipated: Nicolas Winding Refn's Bronson, with Tom Hardy in an Oscar-bait performance as England's most violent prison inmate, was a sure thing, grandly theatrical if too stingily minimalist. Ti West's The House of the Devil gave fans of 1970s and early ‘80s horror a welcome shiver of déjà vu. All slow zooms, freeze frames, cheesy '80s hits and feathered hair, the film's meticulous build-up strands a pretty coed in an old, dark house owned by a creepy couple (Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, deliciously diabolical) and beset with strange rumblings that may, or may not, imply a looming Satanic sacrifice during a lunar eclipse. All lensed in gloriously grainy 16mm, no less, the film makes an effective reminder of the importance of the lingering take in horror. Sometimes nothing is scarier than anything. Crazy Racer, from China's mainland, achieves the giddy momentum of Kung Fu Hustle with hardly any of the CGI and very little of the kung-fu. At its delirious best, the film suggests that the only thing wrong with Guy Ritchie's caper movies these days is that they aren't in a Chinese dialect. Hao Ning's jittery exercise in triple-cross gangster lowlife mania follows a champion bicyclist out to avenge his exile from the sport after making an unfortunate arrangement with a sleazy virility drug manufacturer. That's about all I could figure out, but maybe all anyone needs to know, as the director filters a Three Stooges-intense commitment to physical comedy through whiz-bang edits and framing effects. The film was a lot like Fantastic Fest itself: Way too much going on to keep track of, including a Jess Franco retrospective with the 79-year-old Euro-sploitation director happily holding forth from his wheelchair, and the local premiere of Lars Von Trier's Antichrist, a film that might seem mind-blowingly provocative anywhere else but here. The film prompted an offhand review, in pure King of the Hill cadence, from a late-night karaoke contestant at the Highball: "How ‘bout that Antichrist? Bustin' balls! Yee-haw!" It also supplied some last minute inspiration for the Alamo's in-house T-shirt vendors, who honored the festival's main meme in a commemorative garment: Chaos reigns! [Tim League/Ti West photo courtesy of David Hill, www.davidhillphoto.com]
October 2, 2009
NYFF '09 PODCAST: Harmony Korine
The title is to be taken literally. Harmony Korine revisits the backwater horrors of Gummo, this time with a cruddy, bargain-basement form to match the degraded content. The episodic tale of a band of cretins (among them a masked and wigged Harmony and Rachel Korine) who go around brutalizing dolls, molesting plant life, and—yes—rubbing up against garbage cans, Trash Humpers suggests an exhumed underground movie, or a new form of freak-folk art. Among the parade of abjections: pancakes with dish soap, gay jokes without punchlines, Eng and Chang sock puppets. But then—a sweet lullaby to make it all better. Can something so regressive also mark the maturing of an artist? More than a prank, this is Korine's purest film yet: a work of jolting humor, true ugliness, and unexpected pathos.Sitting down with Korine today before his final NYFF screening, I asked the Nashville-based filmmaker about his eccentric father, the strangest VHS tape he's ever found, the dream project he'd like to make, and whether he takes pleasure in acting out the nihilistic fantasies of a "garbage fucker." To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:28) Podcast Music (per Harmony's request)
INTRO: Al Jolson, "Just One of Those Things"
OUTRO: Al Jolson, "If I Only Had a Match"