November 27, 2009

PODCAST: John Hillcoat (The Road)

THE ROAD director John Hillcoat (with Viggo Mortensen)

No stranger to mining lyricism from bleak landscapes, The Proposition director John Hillcoat (here working with screenwriter Joe Penhall) has poignantly visualized the burnt-out, grey wasteland of The Road—the 2006 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Cormac McCarthy, author of No Country for Old Men:

"John Hillcoat's The Road is an honorable adaptation of a piece of pulp fiction disguised as high art; it has more directness and more integrity than its source material … Viggo Mortensen plays a father—he is referred to only as the Man—wandering a post-apocalyptic world with his son, the Boy (Kodi Smit-McPhee). This is a world in which the unthinkable has happened, although it's never specified exactly what the unthinkable is: All we see are the effects. All animals have apparently died, and plant life is on the way out, too. Cities and towns lay abandoned and crumbled. And the roads, once so carefully built by man as the connective tissue of civilization, are now trolled by marauding redneck cannibals who have lost every vestige of humanity ... The Man isn't just teaching his son how to survive, foraging for food and the like, but teaching him to preserve the very things that make him—that make us—human." (Stephanie Zacharek, SALON.com)

Tucked away in a corner of the Soho Grand Hotel, Hillcoat and I discussed the real-life father and son who appear in The Road, how the hell he distilled Cormac McCarthy in under two hours (his original cut ran four-and-a-half hours), and what most people don't know his long-time collaborator Nick Cave does two or three times a day.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:49)
[WARNING: Minor book spoiler!]

Podcast Music
INTRO: Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, "The Road"
OUTRO: Nouvelle Vague, "Road to Nowhere"

[The Road is now playing in theaters everywhere. For more info, please visit the official site.]

Related: Flavorwire interviews John Hillcoat on Cannibals, Product Placement, and the Apocalypse.

Posted by ahillis at 11:59 PM | Comments (1)

November 25, 2009

THESSALONIKI '09: Begging That Question

by Ronald Bergan

Thessaloniki 2009

A shadow was cast over this year's 50th anniversary celebrations of the Thessaloniki International Film Festival, which wrapped on Sunday. The fest, one of the most stimulating (a wide range of new and newish movies, retrospectives, photographic exhibitions) and enjoyable (good food and parties, lively town), traditionally provides a shop window for Greek cinema.

However, this year, the Filmmakers of Greece (FoG), a group which consists of more than 200 prominent directors, producers and screenwriters, decided not to send any of their films and to boycott the annual State Film Awards, usually held at the end of the festival. Their aim was to amend what they see as an outdated Greek law. "We want a constructive film law that would set standards, regulations, and incentives more in line with the rest of the European & international film community," they declared. Actually, behind the formal announcement were charges of corruption and vested interests of those who hand out the State Film Awards.

Northless As a result, 18 narrative features, 6 docs and 28 shorts—essentially the bulk of this year's 65-film production—were withdrawn. With this action, FoG members forfeited over 300,000 Euros in prize money and, in some cases, the opportunity to have their films represent Greece at other international fests. All this comes in a year when Greek cinema has received public international acclaim in Cannes (Yorgos Lanthimos' Un Certain Regard winner Dogtooth), Berlin (Pano Koutras' Strella) and Locarno (Filipos Tsitos' Plato's Academy). Alas, festival goers were left with a selection of eight rather mediocre Greek films.

Otherwise, it was business as usual with a particularly strong international competition of first and second features. The winner of the Golden Alexander was Scadar Copti and Yaron Shani's violent but tender Israeli drama Ajami, a film whose structure—multipart simultaneous stories with interlocking characters—has become a narrative cliché. Among the notable films in the competition was the subtle, funny and moving Northless (Norteado), which won the best director prize for Rigoberto Perezcano of Mexico, shedding new light on the well-worn subject of Mexicans trying to get over the border into the USA.

Father's Acre Calin Peter Netzer's Medal of Honour (Medalia de Onoare), given its world premiere here, continues the unstoppable triumph of Romanian cinema. Another sardonic satire on the Ceausescu period, it focuses on the consequences of a 75-year-old man receiving, in error, a medal from the state for "heroic actions" during World War II. My own favorite was the haunting Father's Acre (Apaföld) by the very promising 29-year-old Hungarian Viktor Oszkar Nagy. With so many over-talkative, over-emphatic and over-plotted films around, it is a relief to find one in which expressions and gestures communicate more than words. In this case, it's an awkward East of Eden-type father-son relationship, and the adolescent son's sexual longing for his aunt.

Also unhooked on dialogue or plot was the sole US entry, David Lowery's St. Nick. I would call it "minimalist," if that term were not so overused. By limiting the film mainly to the activities of an 11-year-old boy and his 8-year-old sister, who have inexplicably run away from home, Lowery has provided insights into the behavior of pre-adolescents that many of us may have forgotten. The fact that they seem to come from a loving home doesn't alter the fact that kids have a need to be adult-free and create their own world.

St. Nick Outside the competition and rich sections such as Balkan Survey and Experimental Forum (good to see films by Carmelo Bene and Jeff Keen), Goran Paskaljevich and Werner Herzog—who both had retrospectives of almost their entire oeuvres—lent their benign and erudite presences to the birthday celebrations.

"Why Cinema Now?" was the slogan of this year's festival, and a thick book was put out in which the question was answered, at different lengths and in different tones, from the profound to the platitudinous, by a range of cineastes and film critics, including yours truly. Among the more succinct replies were those from Carlos Reygadas, who wrote: "Why cinema now? For the same reason semi-apes painted caves," and from Takeshi Kitano: "Why cinema? I have no answer to that. That's why I keep making cinema. I have been puzzling over another question that is just as important as yours, which is, why sushi now?" Actually, this year's Thessaloniki festival was a positive answer in itself.

Posted by ahillis at 10:36 PM

November 23, 2009

Ain't No Party Like a Holocaust Party

by Eric Kohn

Defamation Anti-semitism lurks in unsuspecting places, but only to those who seek it out. Defamation, Yoav Shamir's provocative documentary, released in select theaters last week, conveys at least that much. But Shamir goes one step further, arguing that awareness of the eponymous offense is buried in a confusion of past and present. Adopting an intentionally naïve outlook, he cheerfully follows members of the Anti-Defamation League on missions to spread the international battle against Jewish hatred. Simultaneously, his camera trails a group of Israeli high-schoolers traveling to Auschwitz for a class. In both cases, the Holocaust engenders a peculiar backwards logic that Shamir knowingly assaults: He believes that battles against anti-semitism are too often defined by earlier infractions. If "Holocaust," "Nazi" and "Anti-semitism" remain the key buzzwords in a battle against shadows, then the purpose of Defamation is to turn on the light.

DefamationShamir explains that the ADL, led by tough-minded Holocaust survivor Abraham Foxman, operates on a budget of more than $17 million each year, allowing for a wealth of resources and the motivation to use them. As one rabbi—hesitant to reprimand the ADL, as if it were Big Jewish Brother—concludes, Foxman "has to create a problem because he has a job." But what really irks Shamir is the sense of entitlement that appears to guide contemporary views of anti-semitism. He's not arguing that the ADL has no value as an organization, but rather that it traffics in anachronisms. Shamir hits on this problem when he films the Israeli students watching concentration camp footage set to solemn music, projected off a laptop in the classroom. The students look alternately uncomfortable and bemused, searching for the intense feelings of dismay expected of them. It's this presumption of gravitas, I suspect, that automatically catapults dismissible Hollywood encapsulations of Holocaust grief—I'm looking at you, The Reader—into the realm of sacred documentation. The pity party has become aestheticized.

Defamation That's not to say that misperceptions and hurtful xenophobic perspectives no longer exist. Shamir follows reports of anti-semitism to Brooklyn, notes that many of the allegations there involve African Americans, and stops a few on the street to get their opinions on their Jewish neighbors. His energetic sampling comes off pretty well until one member of the group references The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, that notoriously shameful piece of anti-semitic literature published in the late 19th century as if it were a Jewish plot to take over the world. But the reference is convoluted and the complainer sounds clueless. He's not a crusader looking to spread anathema, nor does he sound like somebody in favor of another attempt at genocidal elimination. He's simply operating under a misperception that dominant mainstream perspectives rejected long ago. He's bought into a blatant delusion and that makes him an idiot. Duh.

Defamation Holocaust movies, however, suffer from a different sort of misdirection, one that many continue to take for granted. (In fact, Shamir could have strengthened his argument in Defamation by using sample footage from some examples in this trend.) The route to sentimentality in Schindler's List is paved in guilt, generating a cinematic trope that percolates throughout countless entries in the genre. And while that film certainly has its share of powerful moments and deserves a spot in the canonization of Holocaust representation in cinema, there's an implicit danger in the Schindler's List effect. The movie, which quickly became the market standard for Holocaust narratives at the end of the 20th century, moves from the end of World War II to the present day with the ease of a quick scene transition and the introduction of color. With no added context, the finale places the selfsame Holocaust trauma into modern consciousness. It's an admirable effort, but also an unrealistic one. (Claude Lanzmann's Shoah, which consciously remains in the present and refuses to show any explicit imagery, suggests the proper alternative approach.) The Holocaust, terrible event that it was, does not haunt contemporary Jewish identity as it did for the generation that experienced it firsthand. Yet it continues to define the efforts of modern attempts to suppress anti-semitism, and has become the royal passage to brooding discontent on the silver screen.

Defamation But the situation has started to improve. Last year, the Holocaust genre reached a fever pitch with The Reader, Valkyrie, Defiance, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, Good, and Adam Resurrected delving into the topic as if it were the guiding edict of a blockbuster mentality. But only The Reader connected with a good amount of audiences and—thanks to a classic Harvey Weinstein coup—managed to sneak in a key role at the Academy Awards. Since then, Stuart Klawans called for a moratorium on Holocaust movies, and the industry appears to have paid attention. This year, the dominant Holocaust movie involves a bunch of Jewish soldiers gleefully scalping Nazi captives and ultimately changing the outcome of World War II. The Academy's shortlist for documentaries, which almost always includes an obligatory Holocaust entry, contains not a single one (although the ultimate progressive stance would have been to put Defamation on there). Society seems to have engaged in a shift from the need to retell the same story ad infinitum to a point where the freedom to deconstruct its significance holds more weight than simple redundancy. At this point, telling the same events over and over again runs a greater risk—bored audiences—than figuring out what comes next. Shamir's argument makes more sense than any given studio product, save perhaps for Inglourious Basterds. Storytellers stand a better a chance at coping with crimes of the past not by dwelling on them but by crafting fresh narratives out of old ones. In doing so, they can still evolve and—to borrow an overwrought term—never forget.

[Defamation is now playing in limited release. For playdates and more information, please visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:52 PM

November 21, 2009

PODCAST: Michael Shannon

THE MISSING PERSON star Michael ShannonIf you know actor Michael Shannon by name, chances are it's because of his searing, Oscar-nominated performance as head-case John Givings in last year's Revolutionary Road. Yet the Kentucky-born Brooklynite has brought his towering presence and curious intensity to dozens of projects, most notably Bug, World Trade Center, Shotgun Stories, and Werner Herzog's upcoming My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done. (Click here for my podcast with Herzog for Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, in which Shannon has a small role.) The actor's latest, which premiered at Sundance this year, is the post-9/11 noir thriller The Missing Person:
Writer/director Noah Buschel's third feature stars Michael Shannon as John Rosow, a private detective hired to tail a man, Harold Fullmer, on a train from Chicago to Los Angeles. Rosow gradually uncovers Harold’s identity as a missing person... [Plot spoiler redacted]. Persuaded by a large reward, Rosow is charged with bringing Harold back to his wife in New York City against his will. Ultimately, Rosow must confront whether the decision to return Harold to a life that no longer exists is the right one.

Sitting down with Shannon to discuss The Missing Person, our conversation segued to the first time music made him cry, a certain auteur's fake food, and the delights of being in Kangaroo Jack.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:50)

Podcast Music
INTRO: J.J. Cale & Eric Clapton, "Missing Person"
OUTRO: The Jesus Lizard, "Boilermaker"

[The Missing Person is now playing in New York, and opens in Los Angeles on November 27th. For more info, please visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:47 PM | Comments (3)

November 19, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Exiles

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

The Exiles

The Exiles
directed by Kent MacKenzie
1961, 72 minutes, USA
Milestone Films

The Exiles Most people have probably never heard of Kent MacKenzie's historically and culturally essential film The Exiles (1961). Some clips of it surfaced in Thom Andersen's exceptional 2004 cine-essay Los Angeles Plays Itself—about the The City of Angels as depicted in movies—but unfortunately, most people have never heard of that film either. Andersen included it prominently because it managed to find vivid corners of the city that didn't actually look like set dressing. Now, thanks to Milestone Films (who also gave us the 2007 re-release and 2008 DVD of Charles Burnett's extraordinary Killer of Sheep), The Exiles has been released uncut on an outstanding two-disc set—presented by Burnett himself.

The Exiles It's difficult to argue the film as an artistic masterpiece; it seems to be influenced by the French New Wave films of the time, but also seems to have been put together in such loose-fitting fashion out of a sheer lack of resources. MacKenzie often repeats certain shots, and the audio doesn't always match the movement of the actors' lips. But the movie has an undeniable emotional punch and its historical place in cinema is indisputable; there's still nothing else quite like it. Shot in black-and-white, it begins with Edward Curtis photographs and introduces rock music by the Revels. We then follow seven American Indians over the course of a night. One man, Homer (Homer Nish), drops his pregnant wife Yvonne (Yvonne Williams) at a movie, while he and a buddy go off to play cards. Tommy (Tom Reynolds) and another pal pick up two women at a diner and go for a drive. Eventually, everyone ends up at the top of a hill for a late-night powwow, complete with drumming and chanting and incessant drinking—mainly Thunderbird wine.

The Exiles The three protagonists occasionally narrate with observations, thoughts and dreams, which MacKenzie recorded beforehand and synced up to the images. The men admit that they're mostly looking for happiness, or at least a good time, while Yvonne longs for some kind of simple stability. Beyond her beautiful, babyish face, she is by far the most fascinating character; she simply hopes things will be better for her baby. As for herself, she seems heartbreakingly caught between naïve acceptance and vague dissatisfaction of her place in life. Most revealing is the movie she chooses to watch: a 1957 Sterling Hayden western called The Iron Sheriff that is filled with white faces—and from what we can tell—no Natives. Imagine how she might have felt if she could have been dropped off to see The Exiles instead.

The Exiles Aside from the gorgeous new transfer, Milestone's two-disc DVD comes with a generous selection of extras. Author Sherman Alexie (Reservation Blues, screenwriter of Smoke Signals) and critic Sean Axmaker provide an illuminating commentary track. There are clips from Los Angeles Plays Itself, a theatrical trailer, stills gallery, and MacKenzie's student film Bunker Hill 1956, which inspired the feature. The second disc features three more MacKenzie short films—A Skill for Molina, Story of a Rodeo Cowboy, and Ivan and His Father—as well as three other shorts: Robert Kirste's Last Day of Angels Flight, Greg Kimble's Bunker Hill: A Tale of Urban Renewal, and the 1910 silent-era gem White Fawn's Devotion, considered to be the first American Indian film. There's even a selection of DVD-Rom bonus features, including the screenplay. Sadly, director MacKenzie died in 1980 and never saw his film get such a generous restoration.

Posted by ahillis at 10:55 PM

November 17, 2009

PODCAST: Werner Herzog

Werner Herzog, on the set of BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL NEW ORLEANS

From the official website of valiant filmmaker Werner Herzog's delightfully bonkers new feature, Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which should not be called a remake of Abel Ferrara's grimy 1992 cult classic:

Nicolas Cage plays a rogue detective who is as devoted to his job as he is at scoring drugs—while playing fast and loose with the law. He wields his badge as often as he wields his gun in order to get his way. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina he becomes a high-functioning addict who is a deeply intuitive, fearless detective reigning over the beautiful ruins of New Orleans with authority and abandon. Complicating his tumultuous life is the prostitute he loves (Eva Mendes). Together they descend into their own world marked by desire, compulsion, and conscience. The result is a singular masterpiece of filmmaking: equally sad and manically humorous.

In my third annual chat with Herzog, we sat down to discuss the importance of self-irony, playing homage to Klaus Kinski, what he's looking for in applicants of his first-ever Rogue Film School seminar, and why he has yet to bring his distinctive voice to an audiobook version of his filmmaking diary Conquest of the Useless.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:31)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Nicolas Cage, "Love Me Tender (from Wild at Heart)"
OUTRO: Schoolly D, "Signifying Rapper"

Posted by ahillis at 9:28 PM

November 14, 2009

PODCAST: Jason Schwartzman

Jason Schwartzman, at the FANTASTIC MR. FOX premiere In director Wes Anderson's stop-motion animated feature Fantastic Mr. Fox (read Vadim Rizov's "Film of the Week" review), 29-year-old actor Jason Schwartzman—who began his screen career working with Anderson as the overambitious teen hero of Rushmore, then co-starred in and co-wrote The Darjeeling Limited—lends his voice to the role of Ash. A runty young fox who longs for the attention and affection of his father Mr. Fox (George Clooney), Ash spends most of the story in a quiet jealous huff over his cousin Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson), who seems to be better than him in just about every sport—including the art of romance.

Sitting down with Schwartzman before Fantastic Mr. Fox's limited release, we discussed the film, familial competition, his hilarious new HBO series Bored to Death, his band Coconut Records (did we mention he was a musician before he was a thespian?), and a somewhat unusual vice.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:30)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Georges Delerue, "Une petite île"
OUTRO: Coconut Records, "Saint Jerome"

Posted by ahillis at 10:26 AM

November 12, 2009

FILM OF THE WEEK: Fantastic Mr. Fox

by Vadim Rizov

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Fantastic Mr. Fox is Wes Anderson's sixth feature and third to be pre-judged as a "Wes Anderson" film—a calcified pejorative often bearing little relation to what the movies are actually like. A "Wes Anderson movie," we're given to understand, is a series of candy-colored rectangular sets and frames boxing in little more than statically quirky characters. It's true that Anderson's thematic concerns have been consistent: dysfunctional families, absent/negligent paterfamiliases, '60s pop and rock songs, hermetically detailed mise-en-scène. But there are also meaningful differences between each one, rarely noted in negative reviews convinced Anderson has outstayed his welcome. After The Royal Tenenbaums—in which Rushmore's occasional cuteness thickened into an emotional mausoleum, with only Luke Wilson's suicide attempt breaking through—Anderson made two transitional films entering new terrain. Anderson's detractors didn't notice: two movies about bad fathers and tragic sons with suicidal impulses were two too many. Yet as Michael Sicinski simply noted of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, "Anderson moves the camera"; that is, in fact, a meaningful progression for the former king of tableaux and elaborate tracking shots. There are more narrative longueurs in Life Aquatic than any of Anderson's other movies—it's practically inert—but Anderson couldn't take his stand-up cardboard picture-book-shots any further and began looking for a way out. Even more woefully misunderstood was The Darjeeling Limited, largely jeered at as quirk embalmed within quirk unwisely backdropped by a fantasy India—even though the 15-minute double-funeral sequence in the middle was straight-up tragedy, the most emotionally direct and devastating thing he'd ever tried.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Fantastic Mr. Fox shows meaningful change both technically and thematically in a way that should be hard to ignore: it's Anderson's first non-widescreen movie since Bottle Rocket, and his first fully functional, non-divorced family. There's a prototypically irresponsible, egotistical father, sure, but by film's end he's changed his ways. Punishing an irresponsible dad and integrating him back into contented domesticity is a convention of the family film—which Fantastic Mr. Fox, despite its totally adult dialogue, functions as, thanks to spangly stop-motion and zippy chases—but it's a possibility denied in Anderson's other films, and he seems to mean it. More importantly, Life Aquatic andDarjeeling had their moments of tedium, while Fantastic Mr. Fox does not. Working in stop-motion, with visuals pre-timed to sound, has forced compression upon Anderson, ironing out his pacing problems: this is vintage screwball-comedy speed with no repose. It may be too much for some people, but it's relentlessly inventive. The verbal wit only stops for physical gags (everyone should enjoy Willem Dafoe's "psychotic rat," a mix of finger-snapping West Side Story gang member and out-of-place Western gunslinger), and there's zero downtime. The movie is never not clever, and its verbal digressions and jokes are more moment-to-moment surface hilarious than any of Anderson's past work.

Fantastic Mr. FoxThat does not, however, mean that the film "lacks the heart of the director's best work" or, as Sight & Sound's Ben Walters charges, that Anderson's failed "to address the tension between living as a wild animal and shouldering responsibility for others." It's hard to get any clearer than Mr. Fox saying, straight-up, that he sometimes is tempted to be a wild animal rather than a father and husband, but it's true that the total time of expressly signaled deep emotion is pretty brief. Anderson hasn't just compressed his narrative, but his signifiers as well: apparently realizing that, yes, his obsessions do repeat themselves, he trusts you to follow the slightly changed pattern. The inappropriately (and, more importantly, ineptly) expressed sexual urges of the past—Max Fisher's impossible crush on Miss Cross, Bill Murray's off-key flirting in The Life Aquatic, Jason Schwartzman's hilariously unsexy copulation skills in Darjeeling—are sublimated into an obsession with food (more tellingly, stealing it before ravaging the plate).

Fantastic Mr. Fox Meanwhile, the ever-present fear of aging and death receives its own shorthand. Mortality tends to enter Anderson movies with the sudden unexpected use of contemporary songs rather than the usual '60s mixtape fare: Elliott Smith's "Needle in the Hay" in Tenenbaums, Sigur Rós in Aquatic. Here, Anderson switches off the Beach Boys and leans on Alexandre Desplat's score as Mr. Fox—after winning all the important battles of the plot—sees his biggest fear, a wolf, and makes his peace with it. It's essentially the same as Murray seeing the Jaguar Shark in Life Aquatic—a man staring at the deadly thing he fears and implicitly coming to terms with death—but expressed in a far more compacted manner that's all the more affective for how little time you're given to take it in.

Fantastic Mr. Fox Fantastic Mr. Fox is as exhaustively, cinematically cross-indexed as any of Anderson's past work, complete with other people's repurposed soundtracks (there's quite a few Georges Delerue bits from Truffaut films here), which suggests the usual charges that Anderson's essentially a sterile cinephile rather than an original thinker; it's also tempting to suggest that Anderson's movies—with their deceptively bright palettes and emotionally stunted characters—have always been a bit child-like, so him making a kids' movie is the logical end-point.

And sure, I sympathize: I can get frustrated with Anderson's too-easy insistence on signifying fun with old songs and serious moments with new music, with the intense emphasis on fashion for even the most minor character, and with what's been lost from his first two films (the possibility of raw awkwardness and need). But Fantastic Mr. Fox isn't just his most fully realized movie in a decade; it's the logical progression of his consistently misunderstood maudits, with man-children reconciling themselves to maturity sooner rather than later and childhood traumas resolved rather than festering permanently. It's also his funniest, most exuberantly inventive movie. It is, in fact, a Wes Anderson movie, which now means exactly what it did a decade ago: a major American comedy.

Posted by ahillis at 4:37 PM | Comments (1)

November 10, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Spread

Spread

Spread
directed by David Mackenzie
2009, 97 minutes, USA
Anchor Bay Films

Maybe it's a misnomer to hail an Ashton Kutcher indie vehicle the week's highest recommendation (the case certainly won't be made here that it's more or less worthwhile viewing than Up, Lake Tahoe or Ballast), but Scottish director David Mackenzie and writer Jason Dean Hall's clever, pruriently entertaining satire about a sociopathic hipster grifter deserves a better shot at exposure—no pun intended—after the damning reviews it's had since Sundance. It's a film that's easy to misread and dismiss as superficial pap simply because its characters are prone to repulsively opportunistic behavior.

Spread Playing both into and against type, Kutcher is surprisingly quite compelling as chiseled stud Nikki, a former Midwesterner-turned-L.A. scenester with no home or job, except for his well-honed ability to bed rich single women in exchange for a free ride. He meets them at parties, woos 'em quickly, moves in a few days later, and suddenly has unrestricted access to their posh pads and platinum cards. It's less American Gigolo than it is American Psycho (and other plastic-wasteland tales by Bret Easton Ellis), complete with Kutcher's guttural, Christian Bale-like voiceover smugly and indifferently detailing his misogynistic hustler tricks: Make an ass of yourself to put women at ease. Flash a sleepy smile to be able to stay much longer than the morning after. Don't fuck them too well the first night.

The first half of the film presents an Entourage-like fantasy of casual sex and materialist binging: there's more gratuitous boinking here than Screwballs, and the City of Angels itself is appropriately shot like a luxury accessory, its neon glow and slick edges emphasized. Couched in all that, however, Spread eventually reveals a gloomy raincloud of a moral meditation about unhealthy lifestyles and self-delusion. Having already worked over sexy '40s-ish lawyer Samantha (Anne Heche) and finding himself the kept boy-toy in her $5-million hilltop home (it used to belong to Peter Bogdanovich, she sighs), Nikki predictably remains insatiable. When Samantha leaves on a business trip, he throws an enormous party to impress his friends and score more pussy, yet still takes his meal ticket for granted after Samantha comes home early, catches him with some bimbo, and decides to let him stay anyway.

Spread Nikki may be a predator, but he justifies to himself that he's being used right back, and it's that small hint of buried integrity (blink and you'll miss it) that illustrates he still has further to fall. Some have complained that the movie goes off the rails with the late entrance of Heather (Margarita Levieva), a pretty young thing with Nikki's same manipulative veneer—she, too, makes her living by conning lovers. Playing the part of the cold fish from their very first exchange at a coffee shop, Heather reluctantly warms to Nikki's goofy, confident charm. After practically yawning his way through a string of conquests, here is a girl that he can finally "be real" with, whatever that could possibly mean to him. A rather last minute subplot to the film (though most descriptions suggest otherwise), Nikki chases and sort of catches Heather while she keeps him wrapped around her diamond-digging finger, but he's neither smart enough nor emotionally prepared to realize she's a craftier grifter than him.

Spread is not actually about a shallow manipulator gaining profundity through humility; it's something more aloof, modern and depressing than that old chestnut. The film is told through Nikki's narrow point of view, so the sneaky final punchline may have been lost on some audiences wondering why Heather's character hasn't been more fully fleshed out beyond her lusty, scheming temperament: Here is a movie about a narcissist getting distraught after falling in love with himself.

Posted by ahillis at 4:20 PM | Comments (1)

November 7, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK & PODCAST: Wings of Desire

Wings of Desire In celebration of Criterion's deluxe double-DVD and Blu-ray treatment of Wings of Desire, my Benten Films partner-in-crime Andrew Grant and I rewatched Wim Wenders' 1987 masterpiece (and pored over the bonus features) to discuss the film's elusive magic and why a work so specific to East-West German tensions has aged so gracefully. Andrew reminisces about spending time in Berlin around the era of the production, with other topics of conversation including They Might Be Giants, Nick Cave's inner thoughts, Peter Falk's unconscious plot hole, a rather unfortunate sequel, and how Wings of Desire almost ended with an pie fight. If you haven't already absorbed its pleasures (or, god forbid, you only know its atrocious H'wood remake, City of Angels), here's the Criterion synopsis:
Wings of Desire is one of cinema's loveliest city symphonies. Bruno Ganz is Damiel, an angel perched atop buildings high over Berlin who can hear the thoughts—fears, hopes, dreams—of all the people living below. But when he falls in love with a beautiful trapeze artist (Solveig Dommartin), he is willing to give up his immortality and come back to earth to be with her. Made not long before the fall of the Berlin wall, this stunning tapestry of sounds and images, shot in black-and-white and color by the legendary Henri Alékan, is movie poetry. And it forever made the name Wim Wenders synonymous with film art.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:09)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, "From Her to Eternity"
OUTRO: They Might Be Giants, "Road Movie to Berlin"

Posted by ahillis at 10:34 AM | Comments (2)

November 4, 2009

The Red Shoes: Relaced and Restored

The Red Shoes

Even in this age of Blu-ray and appreciation for all things high-def, many take for granted how complicated but vital a great film restoration can be. Buzzed about at this year's Cannes Film Festival as one of the most miraculous to date is the UCLA Film & Television Archive's restoration of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's 1948 masterpiece The Red Shoes, starring Moira Shearer as a gifted young ballerina forced to choose between her love for composer Marius Goring and a career as lead dancer and muse to ballet company impresario Anton Walbrook. In association with the BFI, The Film Foundation, ITV Global Entertainment Ltd., and Janus Films, the restored 35mm print—which Film Foundation founder Martin Scorsese has praised as one of his all-time faves and the most extraordinary use of the three-strip Technicolor process—dazzled a packed house at the DGA Theater last night. (The Red Shoes screens at NYC's Film Forum from November 6 – 19.)

Thelma Schoonmaker—Scorsese's three-time Oscar winning editor, and widow of Michael Powell—introduced the screening with a test sample showing a practical comparison of what had been done to correct for mold damage, shrinkage and surging color. Suffice to say, no superlatives can do justice to what was easily the most impressively eye-popping revitalization these eyes have yet popped for. Following the screening was a swanky afterparty at nearby Nobu 57, where I had a chance to speak briefly with Mr. Scorsese, Ms. Schoonmaker, and filmmaker (and fellow guest) James Toback about the event:

The Red ShoesMartin Scorsese:
"I first saw it when I was eight, and it stayed with me over the years. Even when it was shown on television in black-and-white every Christmas, we still had the magic of the film. Over the years, I began to realize it had more to do with wanting to create something artistically, and that drive. That's the thing that really carried me through the years, meaning, that's why I never get tired of the film. Then, of course, you add to that the beautiful way it was made. It's a pleasure to watch."

Thelma Schoonmaker:
"Marty's daughter is going to be 10 [this month] so he had been waiting, waiting, waiting for her to get old enough to show it to her. And you know, Woody Allen brought his daughter, and she's 11."

[On the aesthetic challenges of reaching a relative state of perfection:] "That was very carefully watched. We didn't want it to look like video which sometimes these things do, so we worked very, very carefully. It's about controlling highlights and contrasts and all kinds of things. We just had such a phenomenal team. Everybody who was in it loved it, and was giving much more than they should. The main thing was to make it look like film, and film of the period—not pump it up and do all the things they do with bad transfers these days. I've seen some horrendous transfers that just make me want to kill. [laughs] I saw one of a film David Lean made right after the war, and it looks like some modern movie. They just completely ruined it! We kept watching prints and making sure we didn't make a mistake."

[On the future of film restoration:] One of the problems is that digital is not stable. I hope you've got that point. You would have to take this restoration and migrate it to either another drive or another system that's come along. Who's going to be there to make sure it's done right if I'm dead or Marty's dead? That's the thing that's so frightening. The digital thing is wonderful, but it is not stable."

The Red Shoes [On the film's personal value to her within Michael Powell's oeuvre:] "This one is so important because it's about the world I live in, the world of entertainment. It is so honest in showing the jealousies and ego clashes and all the things that go into working in the world of art. It vividly lays it down in such an honest way. It's so wonderful how you're always backstage. You're not seeing things from sitting out front, but you're in it. You understand the incredible love of it, and yet the sacrifices you have to make when you're in it, and we all do. Our personal lives suffer very badly, and this movie just nails it, doesn't it? It's also about being willing to die for our art, which my husband did. With Peeping Tom, his career was ruined. He died for that film. This happens to many, many great artists. It's such a beautiful symbolism of that. It's so real, and ballet dancers to this day still think it's the best portrayal of [that world], even though the dancing has gotten much better."

James Toback:
"I see it every couple of years. It's always emotionally powerful. There are stretches of the movie that kind of flatten out, and then it has that jolt of tragedy at the end that never fails to get to me. It is very beautiful, the restoration. Love and death, music and high style are among my favorite phenomena in life and they're all on display. I think it's clearly the inspiration for Visconti in style—this sort of unembarrassed high emotion and operatic inflation without any self-consciousness. No one would do that today, and yet it works with great power."

[Related podcast: Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones speak to GreenCine Daily from Cannes '09.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:15 PM | Comments (5)