January 29, 2010
Posey's Waltz: Thoughts on the Sundance Traditionby Eric Kohn
January 26, 2010
SUNDANCE '10 PODCAST: Chris Morris ("Four Lions")
Could there be a more hot-button topic than terrorism these days? Although it is historically the subject of serious documentaries and intense dramatic films, renowned British comedian Chris Morris finds the humor (and ultimately the humanity) in this extremist world. Four Lions tells the story of a group of British jihadists who push their abstract dreams of glory to the breaking point. As the wheels fly off, and their competing ideologies clash, what emerges is an emotionally engaging (and entirely plausible) farce. In a storm of razor-sharp verbal jousting and large-scale set pieces, Four Lions is a comic tour de force; it shows that—while terrorism is about ideology—it can also be about idiots.Morris agreed to do only one other interview at Sundance besides GreenCine Daily, so I wanted to make sure politics didn't smother our conversation since—unlike Sacha Baron Cohen, who was able to shield himself from questions about Borat's anti-Semetic humor since he's Jewish—Morris risks people belaboring his intentions over what's clearly a lampoon. We discussed his brilliant new film, the real-life absurdities he discovered in his research, his 2007 lashing-out at novelist Martin Amis on the topic of Muslims, and the most trouble he's ever gotten into for a joke. To listen to the podcast, click here. (16:02) Podcast Music
INTRO: tUnE-yArDs: "Lions"
OUTRO: Braintax: "The Grip Again (A Day in the Life of a Suicide Bomber)" [Four Lions screens again at Sundance on January 28 and 29. For more info, please visit the festival website.]
January 23, 2010
DVDs OF THE WEEK: Whisper & Shout / Red Cartoons
Dir. Dieter Schumann
1988, 115 minutes, in German with English subtitles
First Run Features Red Cartoons: Animated Films From East Germany
1974 – 1990, 57 minutes, in German (no subtitles)
First Run Features As the exclusive North American distributor of the DEFA film archives (Deutsche Film-Aktiengesellschaft, the state-run studio of former East Germany, which disbanded after reunification), First Run Features has smartly doled out a pair of discs this past week showcasing unlike artistic mediums with plenty of thematic overlap in the GDR era: rock music and animation. Which isn't to say the illuminating rock doc whisper & SHOUT isn't highly animated in its own way, as hinted by a commanding title card: "Dieser film muß laut gehört warden" ("This film must be heard loud"). Dieter Schumann's roving portrait of the late-'80s East German glam-and-punk-influenced underground scene, the first in a proposed trilogy of "rock reports," isn't so much a backstage exposé as it is a sociopolitical thermometer of the period. (Surprisingly, the censors approved it, two years before the Berlin Wall fell.) All-access vérité passes like Woodstock, Dont Look Back and The Decline of Western Civilization certainly come to mind as we dip into the touring lives of post-punkers Feeling B (whose keyboardist Christian Lorenz and rhythm guitarist Paul Landers went on to join Rammstein), the more popular synth-centrics Silly, peacenik troubadours Sandow, and Chicorée—who later spins off into two-piece Die Zöllner after frontman Dirk Zöllner is booted by his bandmates for having too much integrity to sell out. Wait, really? Sure, but consider the artistic throughline between the bands—rebellion against the system, heard in the mostly charmingly labored metaphors of their lyrics—and the fact that only antiseptic, state-licensed and subsidized pop bands like the Puhdys (twice sneered at onscreen with the same contempt given to disco) were finding wide commercial success. Rock musicians could barely survive without government support, but who could fault the passionate rebels playing makeshift concert venues, too prideful to suck up to an oppressive regime that once reprimanded Silly for having an anglicized name? To be honest, more than two decades later, much of the music here won't necessarily have you clicking your way to the iTunes store, but the live performances are spirited time-capsules of a forgotten struggle, one Westerners should find colorfully exotic enough to raise a lighter. Sometimes it's even cheesy in the most agreeable way, as when André + Die Firma wail a new-wavey number with a repeating motif that translates to "Hot and horny are my dreams." What really juices whisper & SHOUT to 11, however, is the outside influence of the teenage groupies and other onlookers (even a police officer!) who support the cause. Nubile beauties sunbathe topless while being interviewed about their anticipation for a killer show. A scraggly kid smokes cigarettes and mouths every single word from the crowd. Riled-up boys aggressively jig at each other in a peculiar cross between a mosh pit and Riverdance. Schumann even tracks a young blonde named Tara, the ultimate Silly super-fan (see top photo) with a bedroom covered only in posters of her idols, and perhaps the film's most compelling scene is a fervent dinnertime discussion about her obsession and punky aesthetic with, presumably, her mother and grandparents. Having come of age in the chaos of the GDR, here's a girl who recognizes and connects to the pointed themes in her heroes' songs, except her generational angst cuts deeper for knowing two enemies: the socialist state... and her parents. Unlike those rockers making their critiques from the fringes, the East German animators included in the Red Cartoons collection quietly pointed their fingers from the inside. DEFA's animation studio produced more than 800 shorts since its 1955 inauguration, but it wasn't until the '70s when films were made for audiences other than children, which allowed a subtle creeping-in of social satire that would've been banned within live-action cinema (not that all GDR cartoons were censor-proof, as an on-disc essay further explains). Most of the 16 "adult" shorts here are cutesy, utilizing uncomplicated but vibrantly colored illustrative styles on sparse backgrounds—some of the later work even tries out mixed-media supplements—like a poor man's Schoolhouse Rock! or classic Sesame Street bit, or reminiscent of the Little Miss children's book series. If the animation techniques themselves seem dug up from a time capsule, the gently subversive ideas within are worth blowing the dust off of. The satirical weapon of choice throughout is O. Henry-style irony, like in Otto Sacher's 1978 Star and Flower, in which a man in the sky amongst his stars longs for a earthling's flower and vice-versa, their shared frustration leading them to destroy their respective treasures—East, meet West. The work of Klaus Georgi, represented in over half of the shorts, is perhaps the most directly engaging. In 1979's Variants, two neighbors whose houses butt up against one another (okay, we get it!) replay the same happening with three different joke endings: what to do when a pile of leaves has accumulated on their shared property line. In his 1988 short The Full Circle, industrial pollution has forced every businessman, high-society woman and playground tyke into a gas mask, and what does the nearby villainous factory produce? Gas masks. Saving the best for last, both here and on the DVD, Georgi's sometime collaborator Lutz Stützner's 1990 Island Joke sees three men survive drowning in the ocean by making their way to a small patch of land. Naked and freezing, they're magically greeted by a mermaid who offers up a long swathe of fabric to warm themselves. Cut back to: the still nude and chattering men, now saluting the flag they've dutifully hung. *rim shot*
January 21, 2010
SUNDANCE '10 PODCAST: Dax Shepard & Katie Aselton ("The Freebie")
Darren (Shepard) and Annie (Aselton) have an enviable relationship built on love, trust, and communication. After seven years of marriage, they wouldn’t change their relationship one bit. They still enjoy each other’s company and laugh at each other’s jokes, but, unfortunately, they can’t remember the last time they had sex. When a dinner party conversation leads to an honest discussion about the state of their love life, and a bikini photo shoot leads to crossword puzzles instead of sex, they begin to flirt with a way to spice things up. The deal: one night of no-strings-attached sex with a stranger for each of them. Can one night of freedom be just what they need?A few days before The Freebie's world premiere, I spoke with Aselton and Shepard about their collaboration, being too candid among friends, whether Aselton is concerned with the film's passing resemblance to Humpday, and if Shepard recognizes how miserably prescient Idiocracy seems with each passing year. To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:10) Podcast Music
INTRO: Antonio Carlos Jobim: "Dax Rides"
OUTRO: The Anomalies: "Employee of the Month" [The Freebie screens at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30. For more info, visit the festival website.]
January 19, 2010
Ciné Institute: Documenting Haiti
Aaron, could I implore you to read about and mention my young film students in Haiti, from Ciné Institute, the country's only film school, and their efforts to document the tragedy and recovery since the earthquake? I'm trying to raise awareness in our media profession for them, our younger brothers down there, showing us that in the face of CNN etc's version, there is a human, patient, hopeful, sober reality to survival and solidarity in Haiti before and after this tragedy. Although they've lost family and friends, school, equipment, their films… their dreams... their first instinct was to pick up the one or two cameras left in the rubble and be of service with them. They prove that a camera can be a vital and noble thing. Please spread the word and get their story out. Sorry to disturb you with this.Consider it done, Michelange. The clips—mostly shot from the southern coastal town of Jacmel—feature personal testimonies from the refugee camps and up-close-and-personal footage of the victims and damage rarely seen in other reports. To visit Ciné Institute's Vimeo channel directly, click here. If you'd like to contribute to the Haiti relief efforts, the American Institute of Philanthropy has rated the nonprofit charities.
January 14, 2010
PODCAST: Chantal Akerman
Over the past four decades, Belgian director Chantal Akerman (Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles) has created one of cinema’s most distinctive bodies of work—formally daring, often autobiographical films about people and places, time and space. In this collection, we present the early films that put her on the map: intensely personal, modernist investigations of cities, history, family, and sexuality, made in the 1970s in the United States and Europe and strongly influenced by the New York experimental film scene. Bold and iconoclastic, these five films pushed boundaries in their day and continue to have a profound influence on filmmakers all over the world.During a brief visit to New York in December, Akerman gave me the pleasure and honor of a sit-down to discuss these early films. Typically, I forewarn my podcast interviewees that I edit our audio later to make us both sound clearer, removing the uh's, hiccups, burps and spaces. I reluctantly obliged Akerman, who was against the idea, of course: "The spaces are the best part!" We chatted about the '70s avant-garde filmmakers who inspired her during her New York residency, the strangest job she had in the "phallic city," being Andrew Bujalski's thesis advisor at Harvard, and why she now takes back a title she once rejected. To listen to the podcast, click here. (26:50) Podcast Music
INTRO: Univers Zero, "Célesta (For Chantal)"
OUTRO: Jacques Brel, "Bruxelles"
January 12, 2010
DVD OF THE WEEK: Goliathby Eric Kohn
Directed by David Zellner
2008, 80 minutes, USA
MPI Home Video David and Nathan Zellner's Goliath is a passionate ode to old ties and new beginnings, steeped in metaphor, strangely evocative, yet hilariously deranged. The Austin-based sibling filmmakers seemingly know the tropes of mainstream comedy and work against them. A plot synopsis tells you almost nothing: Though essentially the story of one man's ties to his cat, the movie operates on a singularly bizarre narrative plain based around the ramifications of becoming a social pariah. It moves along in fragments of scenes, sudden outbursts and extended pauses. A climactic sequence involves as much emotional finality as it does absurdity and mayhem. In the final minutes, it's like a Looney Tunes cartoon came to life, invaded suburbia and absorbed its discontents. In other words, Goliath is purely unique cinema. David Zellner plays Guy, a lonely character embroiled in ugly divorce proceedings while vainly struggling with his dead-end office job and decrying the sudden disappearance of his titular feline. It's this third ingredient that provides a surreal kick to the narrative arc. Our hero desperately goes through the motions, posting flyers all around northeastern Austin and calling out for his missing pet. The filmmakers seem less poised to look down at Guy's pathetic quest than to inhabit it, as the movie opens with a montage of photographs showing the missing kitty in play and concludes with adorable shots of his eventual replacement. Everything else in the character's life seems not only secondary to Goliath but actually a distraction from his importance. A four-minute take in which Guy and his wife sign divorce papers goes on and on, stops being funny and grows terribly frustrating [editor's interruption: and strangely becomes funny again!], to the point where we know exactly how Guy feels. We want him to find the cat as much as he does. I won't spoil the fate of the missing pet except to say that it's not a pretty one. On the DVD commentary, the brothers reveal precisely how much realism they wanted to inject into the story, and it shows. (Their short films, particularly the Sundance 2010 selection Fiddlestixx, display their wilder experimental tendencies.) Everyone in Guy's insular world, from his steely-eyed bosses (including an utterly creepy Andrew Bujalski) to his dismissive ex, find faults in this strange man. Only Goliath, it seems, unconditionally accepted him. The tragedy of the cat's disappearance is legitimized by this implied relationship. "If we took it lightly," Nathan says on the commentary, "it would have trivialized the whole thing." Cat lovers everywhere, rejoice: Your obsession is understood. Goliath becomes a symbol more than a creature, which enables the movie to defy genre expectations. In trifles like Marley and Me or that infernal Beethoven franchise, animals are asked to develop character weight that's obviously above their capacity. Goliath's perpetual invisibility places the emphasis on the way he affects people. Which brings me to that maniacal climax. The Zellner brothers, who last appeared together onscreen for Bujalski's Beeswax, engage in a brutal face-off that combines slapstick with violent thrills. Guy has lost his mind, essentially gone postal. He projects his shortcomings onto an obnoxious neighbor (Nathan) and hurls the full force of his anger at his chosen foe. You get the sense that David and Nathan fought like this when they were kids—minus the mace and sharp objects (maybe)—because Guy's fury contains a powerful degree of authenticity where other actors may have turned it into farce. The movie ends with a combination of insanity and clarity. Goliath succeeds, then, because the Zellners take their subject seriously. Life itself, however, they turn into a grand joke.
January 4, 2010
BEST OF 2009: Gay Films on DVDby James Van Maanen
Beautiful Ohio Actor-turned-director Chad Lowe's quiet, acutely observed family drama is so specific that it builds into a grand picture of a time (the 1970s), place (suburban Ohio) and people (an unusual family trying, against all odds, to be "functional.") The cast is a mix of well-knowns—William Hurt, Rita Wilson, Michelle Trachtenberg—and little-knowns (David Call, Brett Davern), who all play so well together that each moment rings true. Beautiful Ohio is not for all tastes or those with short-attention spans, but as a familial drama drawn with enormous subtlety, it doesn't get much better than this.
Choose Connor Political scandal, coming of age and sexuality all mix in this remarkable debut from another actor-turned-filmmaker, Luke Eberl, who was only 20 at the time. Whip-smart about people and politics, the movie is cast well, too: Steven Weber is terrific as a Congressman who takes a bright high-schooler under his wing, exuding the right mix of charm, occasional honesty and steel innards. As his teen acolyte, Alex D. Linz makes a perfect foil; you can believe his every word, idea and stance. The pivotal character who bridges Weber's world to that of Linz is played by Escher Holloway, who possesses the kind of quiet charisma that should have us seeing much more of him in future.
Chris & Don: A Love Story Guido Santi and Tina Mascara's documentary tells the story of the very long-term relationship between writer Christopher Isherwood and painter Don Bachardy—venerable icons of gay life from a time when most were closeted, holding the door tightly shut from the inside for dear life. Full of terrific interviews and film footage from an era long gone, this inspiring and surprising doc is also, finally, extremely moving.
Johan An iconic fragment of the French gay '70s that has not been seen since its 1976 debut, this a kind of doc in which writer/director Philippe Vallois and his film both search for a replacement for his lover and supposed star—who is in prison for multiple petty larcenies, and thus, unable to either film or fuck. In fact, the movie comes close to being a near (and quite early) example of a mockumentary. It's full of knowing ironies; deliberately provocative (in its own day, but even now) with its views of handsome young men, often full-frontal and sometimes engorged; exhibiting sly humor combined with vexing self-satisfaction and self-pity. As was the wont of filmmakers in this era, the footage alternates between color and black-and-white. Trust me, all of it is fun.
La León Gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Latin American panoramas and a couple of hunky guys are the main reasons to view Santiago Otheguy's La León, an interesting if slow-moving character study of a good-looking middle aged fellow in a tiny port town whose gayness seems to ruffle the feathers of only one particular tugboat captain. Problems inevitably ensue, but the odd and oddly appealing life our "hero" leads almost makes up for the movie’s sleepy pacing. And, oh, that cinematography!
The New Twenty Chris Mason Johnson’s stylish but deeply-felt tale of college chums reuniting 10 years later is a killer ensemble piece, beautifully acted and full of smart writing that bares character while keeping the plot unfurling nicely. So well do we grow to know these half-dozen people that, by the film’s end, we don't really want it to. One of the unusual strengths of the movie is that it shows a group of friends in which gay and straight characters easily intermingle yet still have their issues.
Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist Sure, it's the subsidiary characters here who are gay, but they're such a delight and drawn so interestingly that it’s no wonder the film won a GLAAD award. Not that Nick and Norah themselves aren't a lot of fun: who can resist the easy charisma of Michael Cera and Kat Dennings? And Ari Graynor is way-weird as the zonked best friend. The movie has plenty to offer, including its take on the New York and Brooklyn music scenes. Watching it is like getting an extra-special tour of the Big Apple and environs.
Pageant Ron Davis and Stewart Halpern-Fingerhut's documentary tracks a recent Miss Gay America competition, bringing us close to several of the leading contestants. We get to know them, sometimes their friends or significant others, and why they want so much to win. Most fascinating of all is the twosome made up of a contestant and his best friend (who isn't gay but still clearly loves his BFF, and will do anything for him).
RocknRolla This was also a GLAAD nominee for "Outstanding Wide Release Film"—surprise—for the unusual way in which it handled homosexuality among the British gangster set. Although it's not the main theme, it comes back and back again (in the form of supporting character Handsome Bob, played by Bronson's Tom Hardy), and used in a funny and shockingly non-judgmental manner. The movie itself is lots of fun, with smart turns from Gerard Butler, Thandie Newton and especially Tom Wilkinson, nearly unrecognizable in this role.
Save Me Movies that have tackled the question of Christian sexuality or "ex-gays" (men who have supposedly fought and succeeded in surmounting their homosexuality via their strong belief in Jesus)—Saved!, Fall From Grace, For the Bible Tells Me So—have found the Christian part of the equation wanting. What makes director Robert Cary's Save Me such a find—and a fine example of the religion-struggling-with-sexuality bind—is that, here, both sides are filled with caring, decent people trying to do the right thing. The combination of sharp writing and direction, coupled with excellent performances from Judith Light, Stephen Lang, Chad Allen, Robert Gant and Robert Baker, results in one of the best this year.
The Secrets 's broadside against the fundamentalism of the Orthodox Jewish community in Israel is full of life and growth for its protagonists, as well as some of its lesser characters. In a female seminary, the bond experienced by two girls results in some truly wonderful experiences, as well as disappointment and sorrow. By the end of this remarkable film, which features the magnificent Fanny Ardant in a supporting role, you’ll feel like you yourself have made an important journey.
Stealth Although officially released on DVD in 2008, Stealth is a film I didn't catch up with until this past year. But as it’s so good, I must include it as one of this year's bests. Lionel Baier, who directs and stars, gave us the unusual Garçon Stupide a few years back, and his latest is even better—lighter, funnier and more accomplished. A young man's discovery of his Polish ancestry leads him to question his gay identity and take a cross continent trip to his "source." Along the way, he's met with surprise and personal change, taking the viewer on (dissenters might say "for") some ride!