September 30, 2010

NYFF '10: Tuesday, After Christmas & The Robber

by Vadim Rizov

Tuesday, After Christmas

Radu Muntean's Tuesday, After Christmas is the director's fourth feature, the first to see theatrical release (scheduled for the indefinite future) and the fifth sample of the Romanian New Wave that'll have a chance to be seen by more Americans than just 300 New Yorkers. (This list includes The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, 12:08 East of Bucharest and Police, Adjective.) Fairly or not, they form a coherent portrait of Romanian society, despite their directors' varying formal agendas. In them, Romania is a land of fluorescent lighting and charmless Soviet‐bloc architecture, populated by the drunk and dispossessed, the obese and weary, built on top of a collapsing infrastructure combining bureaucratic officiousness with minimal health care, where everyone is rude to everyone else for no good reason at all.

As it happens, there's a late‐breaking shout‐out to 12:08 East of Bucharest in Tuesday, After Christmas. At the NYFF press conference, Muntean said it was nothing more than a tip of the hat to a friend and movie he admires, but there's more to it than that. By the expectations of Romanian films seen here (fair or not), we're in a whole new world here socially: conversations are conducted by iPhone, holiday shopping takes place in warmly lit department stores, and cosmetic dental care is available. We know this because Paul (Mimi Branescu) is having an affair with dentist Raluca (Maria Popistasu), who thrives on talk of modifying arches and speaks of overbites (and the weird cheekbones they might bring) in the same grave fashion a normal person would use to speak of a root canal.

Paul and his wife Adriana (Mirela Oprisor) are upwardly mobile themselves, unafraid to drop vast sums for pink corrective braces. What Adriana doesn't know is that Raluca's having an affair with Paul, which goes more or less where you'd expect. Early reviews of Tuesday, After Christmas have largely erred on the side of respectful but distant; this is an old story, molars aside. But what makes it extraordinary is the way Muntean turns the mundane and material cosmic, akin to Silent Light.

Carlos Reygadas uses duration and space as cudgels; no question who the god-auteur was there. Muntean's a more benevolent creator, one who frames superbly naturalistic performances within visually epic spaces while keeping his mastery slightly more covert. The opening may be the most convincing post-coital scene in film history, the first of many where spaces are given epic dimensions they don't actually have. Widescreen and plausibly warm light turn the potentially sordid into something that glows as much as the couple. From there on, Muntean frequently gives an already well-acted drama an extra visual dimension—most notably in a bravura dental office face-off where wife and mistress are brought together without the former recognizing the latter's true importance to her husband's life. The office is bathed in fluorescent light whose pervasive whiteness blocks out the outside world in favor of a glowing cocoon that lets every sharp emotional element stand out. Muntean's preference for long takes shot at close range charges every movement, which has to be carefully choreographed without drawing attention to itself. Directorial showboating, rather than a distraction, only heightens the stakes.

There's a class element, too: we see a pecking order above the usual Romanian cinema, and a level depiction of the apartments, bars, stores, cars and technology of a social world largely unexplored (or at least unseen on Western screens). These are the people who actually buy and watch 12:08. The acting is best‐of‐the‐year material, with not a single false note struck. The combination of casual class anthropology, deeply felt emotion and making epic space out of nothing is a knock‐out. This is one of the films of the year, good enough to risk lapsing into blurb-ese.

The Robber

While not nearly as vital, Benjamin Heisenberg's The Robber is worth seeing and talking about for several reasons, the biggest being that it's awfully fun to watch. That robber's a runner (Andreas Lust), and if there's one thing Heisenberg proves really adept at, it's executing amazingly fast tracking shots of someone running, just fast enough to keep him stuck in the same spot on the screen for rotely symbolic purposes (generally 1/3 of the way across the screen) while maintaining kinetic excitement. If you want to see a lot of running done with action‐movie grace, don't miss this: Heisenberg's got a terrific eye even in repose, and I look forward to his inevitable Hollywood action movie, which'll be at least as good as Tom Tykwer's underrated The International.

Heisenberg, though, seems to think he's making a serious existential film, in much the same way Tom Tykwer larded Run Lola Run with undergraduate stoner philosophy. When Lust isn't running, he's confronting Austrian society, most notably in the form of a stupidly unctuous parole officer (Markus Schleinzer) whose condescension is like John Hodgman without jokes. Another conventional failing: the inevitable girlfriend (Franziska Weisz) who basically acts as a top‐heavy tear generator who just doesn't understand why her b/f won't quit robbing banks between races. "What I do has nothing to do with what you call life," he sneers in typical tortured‐existentialist fashion, and that's it.

The Runner was produced in part under the auspices of severe documentarian Niklaus Geyrhalter, whose scolding films (Our Daily Bread, 7915 km) are very clear about their social agenda. What Heisenberg's getting at is unclear (surely there's something more pointed about Austrian societal discontent than is immediately obvious), but he doesn't attack the problem in a new way. The film at least has several grace notes, such as a scene in which the momentarily happy couple attends an explosion‐heavy movie and she just grins with guilty joy—it rings true. But the movie itself's the real guilty pleasure: this is the most kinetic film of the year thus far, and a rare (and happy) incursion of the slickly professional into NYFF, which could use more interjections like this.

Posted by ahillis at 12:50 PM

September 28, 2010

The Rich Pageantry of Malick's "Thin Red Line"

by Ryland Walker Knight

thinredline3.jpg

Any time filmmaker Terrence Malick releases a work of art it becomes an event--at least for his devoted “cult” following--given how rare an occasion that is. The allure of rallying around a lavish DVD edition of one of his features, such as this week's release of The Thin Red Line by the Criterion Collection, for die-hards, is that you can now foist a superior presentation of the film on a family member or friend; and if you're a curious spectator, you can heed the rapture of a loud Malick fan like me. Just as importantly, no matter your allegiance, you don't have to wait for that perpetually pending release date of Malick's next film The Tree of Life to be reminded of his import.

The Thin Red Line, pitched as and in spurts understood as a war film, is hardly anything so simple. However, neither is it simply a poem. In his astute essay that accompanies this new Criterion edition, David Sterritt argues with credence for the film as a true action picture despite the poetry and the philosophy. True: there is war within it; there are deaths, largely ignoble, inflicted and suffered. Yet: there blooms a forest, too, up hills and at the edge of waters. The “natural world” looms even larger than the war. If Malick's The New World uses a river, and how it meets land, as its structural metaphor, The Thin Red Line no doubt find trees and grass-things that rise from the earth-as a defining framework; both branch, but rivers tumble and vegetation grows.

Even as the film's narration and monologues blend interior and diegetic (to say nothing of “natural”) spaces, you never quite know who or what is addressing you, in the audience, while watching The Thin Red Line. It seems accepted that an image's address is autocratic, says, This is something, and, Here's how to look at it. One of the great pleasures in Terrence Malick's cinema, in particular his last two films, is his willingness to layer meaning through a variety of aesthetic effects. Despite the facts that all of his films are shot in natural light on location, all are interested in physical labor of some kind, and all spend a good chunk of time looking at the world, there's never the sense that the physicality of any shot can be ascribed to any one register of meaning.

thinredline4.jpg

The opening is famous for its succinct portentousness: as Hans Zimmer's score amplifies a bass tone, a crocodile climbs down a mud bank, into an algae-covered river, and submerges, leaving the muck-water's swirl to dissolve into a what amounts to an establishing shot of tree roots. Danger lurks and the earth is old, fertile, an arena where violence can happen. Then the questions begin: What's this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself-the land contend with the sea?

All these questions are asked as a calming string of images, caught with a camera tilting or tilted upwards, often at trees and the light falling past them, succeed the threat of the first. In the first half-minute we're given a thicket of meaning to parse. In fact, it seems as though we could be asking those questions the film has posed (for us) at the outset.

There are no answers, of course, for questions such as these. They're offshoots of another question that, though seemingly simple, throws the world upside down: What's natural? Or, What's nature? This film has a few gestures towards that field of inquiry, but none of its turns-of plot, of language, of vantage-can offer any definitive position. The most natural thing in the film is this drift, which we might understand as the most natural thing about film itself: its ability to inhabit its subjects and its audience alike. I'm not talking about implicating the spectator's gaze or any such psychoanalytic phooey; I'm talking a whole other brand of gobbledygook that has to do with phenomenology. Which is a fancy, possibly flip, way of saying that Malick understands how movies help us see a world we can sense better than we can comprehend.

Sterritt's trick is to point out the ordinariness of Malick's characters (and Malick's own background). These are ordinary people, from the Midwest or the South (or the edges of our history for that matter), that have to deal with an event much larger than themselves-and that any one of them could die at any minute. By its mortal nature the story proposes a philosophical bent to questioning purpose, and naturally a character named Witt is the logical hinge of the film.

thinredline5.jpg

Played by Jim Caviezel as somewhere between aloof and saintly, Witt's the one with some faith in the picture. He claims to have seen another world, he believes in the light, he puts his calm trust in all his brothers in arms-even the ones who send him off to die or disparage his constitution-because that's what being a soldier is to him. Going to war isn't just fighting against the nameless and faceless at the top of a hill, it's fighting with (and for) the man beside you. And life, as it appears to Malick, is built on such trust, which amounts to faith. Because there's another thing many critics don't talk about when they talk about Terrence Malick, sage auteur of philosophy: he is a devout Episcopalian.

Granted, I do not know Mr. Malick personally. I can't vouch for his day-to-day practice. But I can say that his art evinces a strong belief not only in this world but in the importance of faith in this world. There's no preaching, nor any stake holding for any particular denomination, but there is a conviction in Witt that earns the film's admiration as truly Good. We never see him pray, nor say the word “God,” but his quiet communion with a large-leafed plant-letting water from his canteen fall down its fold-speaks to his ties to this world and enacts the central motifs in Malick in an almost too-tidy fashion. It's a throwaway moment, a simple joy at rest for this man, but it feels more weighted given how we've known Witt to be an observer. Everything he sees seems special. This construct is a flattering mirror for a director so beset on witnessing the splendor of our world and its possible, all-too-nigh corruption.

Notwithstanding that leap of logic, The Thin Red Line takes on this posture through other characters as well. Sean Penn's First Sergeant Walsh is Witt's counterpoint and they share a number of poignant tête-à-têtes about life, war, manhood, etc. Elias Koteas' Captain Starros embodies another form of Goodness in his desire to not see his men killed, to really preserve life amidst war's absurd barrage of goals and explosions. Woody Harrelson's cameo seems explicitly designed to point at one meaning of the film's title: in an unfortunate instant he pulls the pin on a grenade and blows himself up against a hill, saving his team while illustrating how easy and how stupid it is to die. Like anything smart, the film isn't interested in either/ors, so much as it's concerned with reconciling differences that make a difference.

thinredline2.jpg

That war is practically an antonym for reconciliation just ups the ante on the pathos of men coming to terms (or not, as it happens) with all that competes within themselves. Each man will navigate this world on his own, but the hymn of this film is that his world extends, even at the end, past his body. Starros is ordered to leave his men, but his protective mantle to defend his men is taken up in Witt's assent to his final mission; Witt's spark is extinguished but Walsh's face carries him in its lines, and his voice-over (or whoever's it is) beseeching his soul to inhabit him now, to be inside and out, to share in a vision of the world's vast and burnished cornucopia.

Images Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Posted by cphillips at 1:41 PM | Comments (2)

September 27, 2010

FANTASTIC FEST '10 PODCAST: Let Me In (Matt Reeves, Kodi Smit-McPhee)

LET ME IN star Kodi Smit-McPhee and director Matt Reeves It wasn't that Cloverfield filmmaker Matt Reeves had such a burning desire to adapt the same John Ajvide Lindqvist novel that became Sweden's 2008 poignant horror sensation Let the Right One In, but with English-language remake rights already in play, the chance to make a unique story his own was an intriguing proposition. To his credit, for a remake that audiences never asked for, Reeves' Let Me In (starring The Road's Kodi Smit-McPhee) is a surprisingly solid cover tune that is every bit as eerie, tender and bloody as the original film:

Chloe Moretz (Hit Girl from Kick-Ass) stars as Abby, a mysterious 12-year old girl, who moves next door to Owen (Smit-McPhee). Owen is a social outcast who is viciously bullied at school and in his loneliness, forms a profound bond with his new neighbor. Owen can’t help noticing that Abby is like no one he has ever met before. As a string of grisly murders occupy the town, Owen has to confront the reality that this seemingly innocent girl is really a savage vampire.

Before the film's opening-night premiere at Fantastic Fest, I met up with Reeves and Smit-McPhee to talk about the film's '80s setting and soundtrack, avoiding camp, being a loner, and how a standalone script Reeves once wrote wound up becoming Under Siege 2.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (20:53)

Podcast Music
INTRO: The Greg Kihn Band: "The Breakup Song (They Don't Write 'Em)"
OUTRO: Blue Öyster Cult: "Burning for You"

[Let Me In was the opening night film at Fantastic Fest, and will be released in theaters on October 1. For more info, please visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:07 AM

September 24, 2010

PODCAST: Gaspar Noe / Enter the Void

Gaspar Noe

When you hear incendiary French auteur Gaspar Noé say things like, "To make a good melodrama you need sperm, blood and tears," one has to wonder if he actually hates his audience, or merely likes pushing the boundaries of their collective comfort zone. Noé's latest is Enter the Void, which I briefly wrote about in the Village Voice's fall film preview:

Irreversible provocateur Gaspar Noé unleashes another avant-garde assault upon audiences in this deliriously wicked, undeniably daring acid trip through Tokyo’s neon-splattered underworld. After young American stripper Paz de la Huerta’s drug-dealing brother (Nathaniel Brown) is gunned down by cops, the camera takes the p.o.v. of his disembodied spirit as it floats over buildings, through walls, down sewers, and even inside a fallopian tube. If you’re prone to seizures, anxiety, or staying in your comfort zone, might we instead recommend Kings of Pastry?

In New York, I sat down with Noe to discuss the afterlife, bad drug trips he's had, timeless movies, and why the 17-minute-longer version of his film (originally seen at Cannes) is not a "director's cut." Also, why oh why did I reference Eat Pray Love to a man who clearly wouldn't know what I meant?

To listen to the podcast, click here. (13:32)

Podcast Music
INTRO: LFO: "Freak"
OUTRO: Thomas Bangalter: "Rectum"

[Enter the Void opens in limited release today and is playing this week at Fantastic Fest. For more info, please visit the official website.]

Posted by ahillis at 8:56 AM | Comments (2)

September 21, 2010

Find a City, Find Myself a City to Live In

by Vadim Rizov

The Town (of Boston!)

Many directors would love to be considered the preeminent auteur of their area. Ben Affleck is not one of those people. Gone Baby Gone restored his reputation and got him critical waves and The Town ended up outperforming expectations to be the weekend's number one movie. Nonetheless, in pre-release interviews he was sheepish about his relationship to the city. Asked whether he'd keep returning, he hedged: "I don't know. I'm nervous. I don't want to be pigeonholed as Johnny Boston filmmaker." Still, he knew what was at stake: "New York doesn't so much care about a New York movie or a New York book or New York story. But Boston knows. Boston knows if you're from there."

Boston certainly does: one reason for Affleck's nervousness might be the burden of waiting for his hometown's verdict. Peter Keogh said it "might be the best movie set in Boston since The Friends of Eddie Coyle," even as he lightly rapped Affleck on the knuckles for not getting his neighborhood accent quite right. Ty Burr was less impressed: "I don't care what anyone outside the greater metropolitan area says," he growled. "The Town takes place in Movie Boston rather than the real thing," noting local audiences laughter at trailers suggesting Charlestown—Affleck's setting this time out—was basically Compton in 1992. This kind of on-the-ground authenticity fact-checking justifies local film criticism, concluded blogger the Cinetrix: no one from outside could do it, regardless of their other critical acumen.

Law Abiding Citizen (of Philly!) Indeed, that kind of spot-checking is necessary even for silly C-level blockbusters. Consider last year's Law Abiding Citizen, a non-Shyamalan chance for Philadelphia to get itself on-screen properly. It was scoured thoroughly by one R. Kurt Osenlund of Bucks Local News, who concluded he'd never seen the city shown so "handsomely" on-screen, from magisterial City Hall on down, and spotted the mayoral cameo. "If I didn't know better," he noted, "I'd think the movie was made specifically for Philadelphia audiences." As for everyone else? They're just watching a high-concept Gerard Butler movie.

How to watch movies and judge their regional authenticity? On a certain level it doesn't matter: it's a peripheral rather than a core part of the experience, and a nice bonus for locals, but not much more. Start to think of it neighborhood by neighborhood and you'll go crazy: to an outsider, the fact that Gone Baby Gone is set in Dorchester and The Town in Charlestown doesn't signify at all. The former film's more racially homogenous than the latter, but whether that's a function of the plot or location is impossible to parse.

Slacker (of Austin!) It's certainly irritating if directors get your city wrong, more so when viewers of those films refuse to believe the movie is wrong. Lots of people think Slacker is a "typical Austin movie," even though it's nearly 20 years old and became archival footage after five. Closer recent approximations would be Beeswax or Harmony and Me, both of which conspicuously avoid showing any presumable "local landmarks" and stick to the suburbs and coffee shops, which is indistinct and (in its indistinctness) very true to large swaths of non-conventionally-photogenic Austin. So how's that for authenticity?

Problems run deeper than that. Take Omaha, as depicted with ruthless precision by Alexander Payne in Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt. Much of it is, in fact, strip-mall sprawl and ugliness; there are nice parts too, none of which you will ever see in a Payne film. (As if in penance, his next project is shooting in Hawaii.) Does Payne have an obligation, as one of the few auteurs of Omaha, to present a well-rounded portrait? Tim Blake Nelson certainly does unlikely wonders with rural Oklahoma in his recent Leaves of Grass, a place people not from the area think about as often as they think of Omaha.

About Schmidt (of Omaha!) We need cities to combat not just the oft-generic American suburban layout, but the tendency to make Toronto or Los Angeles stand in for everyone, everywhere. Judging how they're represented, though, tends to fall under the rubric of "things and people impossible to find on a studio set." For everything else, we'll need local critics.

Posted by ahillis at 10:17 AM | Comments (1)

September 17, 2010

INTERVIEW: DA Pennebaker, Chris Hegedus, Jacquy Pfeiffer

by Steve Dollar

KINGS OF PASTRY's Chris Hegedus and DA Pennebaker

There are no tears in pastry, says Jacquy Pfeiffer, the cofounder of Chicago's French Pastry School and star of Kings of Pastry. The new documentary, from the illustrious filmmaking team of DA Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, follows the affable Frechman as he ventures into his own culinary war room: the fevered competition for the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France, which for the 16 chefs who make it into the finals each year might as well be the Nobel Prize in the art and science of patisserie.

Just as there's no omelette without some broken eggs, the contest pushes each chef to the absolute limit. As the cameras follow Pfeiffer through the arduous process—bolstered by his exceedingly patient and devoted girlfriend, Rachel—the story becomes a confectionary cliffhanger, as marvelous and terrifyingly fragile sugar sculptures teeter in peril. Even the world's greatest butter-and-egg men are humbled by the Olympian task of making the perfect creampuff.

I caught up with the husband-and-wife team of Pennebaker and Hegedus at their Upper West Side offices, where Pfeiffer joined them to discuss the joy (and horror) of cooking. All three have been onhand this week for the film's premiere at New York's Film Forum where, yes, dessert was served. WARNING: Minor Spoiler Alert!

[To Hegedus and Pennebaker:] Everyone knows you make historically resonant documentaries about politics and rock'n'roll. What attracted you to the kitchen?

CHRIS HEGEDUS: Jacquy drew us to it.

DA PENNEBAKER: All these films, as I say, are a walk in the dark woods. And these are pleasanter woods than we usually walk in.

CH: Most of your films are about people who are really good at what they do and they're about to take a big risk in their life. This is about the same as The War Room or Dont Look Back. We went out and met Jacquy and he's just such an amazing chef. The work they have to put in, and the time and sacrifice is just enormous, and we had no idea.

When you think about it, chefs are the new rock stars.

DAP: Right, they are.

KINGS OF PASTRY's Jacquy Pfeiffer Jacquy, do you feel like a rock star yourself?

JACQUY PFEIFFER: No, no thank you.

DAP: It seemed to us, it burst on my mind like a kind of star, this is something we should look into because we didn't know anything about it.

CH: I do think that chefs are like the new rock stars in a way. There's such a fascination with food and cooking. That's not exactly why we did it. We stumbled on it through Flora Lazar, a friend of ours who went to Jacquy's school. But once we dropped ourselves into the culinary world...

DAP: ...nobody could get us out.

Jacquy, how did you deal with having cameras around during an already enormously difficult occasion?

JP: We had an agreement. They would be like a fly on the wall. And they kept their promise. If it can help the culinary world to show this kind of competition, let's do it. When you compete like this, you just keep your head down and make whatever you're supposed to make and you don't even see who is next to you. You could have a ferocious lion next to you and it wouldn't be a problem.

I love that line when the president of the MOF says, "This cake is a moral dilemma." That opens up a whole dimension of thinking about food that most people never consider.

DAP: How do you rate taste?

JP: Exactly.

DAP: I'm really amazed that these guys can taste something and tell me what's in it like a good wine person could do. I can never do that.

JP: How do you rate something like this? It's like a painting or piece of music? It's all judged by humans. But you know that before you enter this game. You just have to go for it and do your thing.

DAP: These judges are pretty good chefs themselves. I would hate to have my films judged by prominent filmmakers though. I much more trust kids out of high school.

Kings of Pastry Were the other chefs okay with this?

JP: They were told. This is the kind of organization where we are told what to do. We are told that its 6pm and we have to leave the kitchen because time is up. Leave the kitchen. And anyone who still wants to fiddle around a little bit is escorted outside.

CH: But we were told. We did not get absolute permission to do it right before the competition began, and even then every day we were going to go back and ask the chefs and if we drove them crazy thenthat would be it. So we were also judged each day. But it was very small. We had cameras only. We didn't use boom mics, radio mics. Early on, we realized shooting Jacquy in Chicago that our radio mics threw off his very sensitive scales.

JP: I blame them.

DAP: There wasn't anything to record anyway. It was dead silent, like college boards.

CH: By the end of the third day, they just drew a little square this big for us to stand in and film from. We were very restricted because the idea that we would accidentally knock somebody’s table...

JP: Which happened before. A tripod fell on someone's sculpture and crushed this person's hopes. It’s already a miracle that you are allowed to be there. These kinds of organizations, they don't care. Because they don't have to.

It was heartbreaking when the guy...

JP: Phillipe Rigollot. His sugar sculpture.

CH: The smaller ones are called bijou.

...when it falls apart.

JP: Three years of work and sacrifice are on the floor.

And yet he rallies, which we don't expect. In the end, you didn't win, which of course we're all rooting for.

JP: It is what it is. At the end, they will decide what is what. You accept that or you don't show up.

CH: For me, what's wonderful about the film is it has the twists and turns of real life. And especially because this competition's theme was marriage, and that twists around at the end in its own way.

Will you compete again?

JP: As I say in the movie, I would do it again in a heartbeat. But it's just I did what I did, I achieved what I wanted to achieve. After that, you get the accolade or not, that's a different story. I have so many challenges at the French Pastry School. We started a foundation and expanded tremendously.

Kings of PastryWhat was the darkest moment?

JP: The darkest moment is when you are away from your family and you just work really late at night and it's really dark and you want to go home to your regular bed. And also the closer you get to the competition the more time you wish you had to prepare. Of course, if you had another six months it would still not be enough.

I'm really sorry to conduct this interview on an empty stomach. As I'm sure everyone will be wondering when they see the movie, exactly how were those cream puffs?

CH: Everything was so delicious. This is our favorite here, this cake that Jacquy made. [Points to hemispherical dessert on the film's poster]. It was so exquisite. We really learned how to taste texture and flavors, and sweet and sharp and everything in that one cake. And Jacquy threw it in the garbage. If we hadn't just met you recently we probably would have gone into the garbage and taken it out. When in my life will I have a cake like that? It's not cost-effective. No one would ever serve it anywhere.

JP: We were working on this cake and it was supposed to be a wedding cake. We tried to make it look different, like a dome. But there were so many different textures and layers that we had to work out many different options. Take a pizza, if you change where you put the cheese or where you put the tomato sauce, it completely changes the taste of the pizza. Same thing with the cake. We had like five, six, seven different layers and every time you've got to try this one on top, this one on bottom. If something on top is kind of sweet it might ruin it for everything else. So this was a prototype. Why would I keep it? It's not acceptable.

CH: More perfect than perfect.

JP: Not acceptable.

Posted by ahillis at 1:48 PM

September 15, 2010

The Enablers

by Vadim Rizov

I'm Still Here

Casey Affleck's I'm Still Here is (to put it mildly) ethically dubious; even if the film is a hoax, someone definitely got hurt making this chronicle of Joaquin Phoenix's six-month freakout, at least collaterally. Make no mistake: if none of the acts therein were staged (which seems unlikely) and there is, in fact, a Hell, Affleck is going there no matter how many times he recites his Hail Marys. But in all probability the project is some kind of put-on: it's too well-shot and deliberate to be a goof. That's a good thing, because I'm Still Here is all kinds of fascinating, capstoning an inadvertent trilogy with two other recent films on the topic of what happens when a talented artist has substance abuse problems and no one in his paid retinue can tell him anything because they need the money.

Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same I'm Still Here triangulates nicely with Brock Enright: Good Times Will Never Be the Same and The Carter, three documentaries that take different approaches in profiling an artist, musician and actor, yet all arrive at the same rough conclusion. Brock Enright—the most obviously staged and collaborative of the three, all gorgeous tableaux of very bad behavior—follows the asshat adventures of the titular artist as he freaks out about money, gets drunk, defecates and bellows about the importance of his own work, frequently all at once. Superficially similar to I'm Still Here, the film is, overall, far less puckish or fun to watch. It's also about money in ways that (suspiciously) I'm Still Here almost entirely ignores; specifically, the lack of it, and how fretting over it (combined with the self-obsession routine to ambitious artists) can be toxic.

That absence of a paid entourage forces Enright to turn his girlfriend, her family, et al. into people expected to accommodate him first and foremost, which doesn't quite work out. Joaquin Phoenix and The Carter subject Lil Wayne can pay for such unnatural treatment, and their documentaries take place in a different fiscal world. The message in both? If you have money and respect to fritter away, you can pay people to be your passive and active enablers, going completely to hell as a human being without being checked by anyone.

Lil Wayne These are, no doubt, "first world problems," and hardly new to this century. In the greater scheme of things, it's hardly tragic if Joaquin Phoenix decides to act like a boorish, psychotic fratboy, ranting and raving (between "dude"s) about what a positive, amazing, brave person he is. Similarly, the flaming debris of Dwayne Michael Carter Jr.'s life isn't inherently tragic, insofar as the damage zone is contained to a small radius: all three films play as grim, abrasive comedies. There's an unhealthy tension between how entertaining this is to watch and how terrible it really is. A&E's Intervention does this too, albeit without artistic justification—it's straight-up exploitation. The films, however, have a point beyond the importance of not combining heroin and Xanax: the rich and famous can hire people to fetch joints or get berated without raising a defense for days on end.

I'm Still Here and The Carter are also both about race, since both hinge on rap. Wayne cuts one interview short because an interviewer insists too hard that Wayne's musical roots must be in drumline music since he's from New Orleans. Wayne, understandably, isn't too keen on standing in for all the city's black music traditions. An even sharper moment exists in I'm Still Here, in which a disbelieving Diddy asks Phoenix if he's imitating rappers on the sly ("Are you sayin' 'Yo, wussup' when I'm not around?"). He's basically asking if the man who mastered Johnny Cash is now trying on a little rap minstrelsy, because there's no other explanation for his combination of posturing and ineptness. Diddy can question Phoenix because he doesn't need the money, but no one else within spitting distance has that luxury.

Joaquin Phoenix: Diddy put on a hoax? Whereas Wayne seems to have lil' clue to what a big deal he is in the media and gossip mills (he appears to exclusively watch ESPN and games), Phoenix is intensely plugged into the Internet. That turns out to be the only place he can receive bad news, with everyone from the biggest channels down to randomly uncompelling YouTubers telling him he's over and done with, just another morbid celebrity punchline. I'm Still Here, then, reveals itself to be more than a systematic mapping out of the ways celebrity gossip travels, from the real-time events down through the media life cycle: from local news updates to viral sensation. Unexpectedly, the line between exploitation and the ethically justifiable turns out to be invisible. Phoenix can disintegrate in real time for the public's bleak amusement, but at some point those callous japes could turn out to be the only way to reach him. Media breaks through the hangers-on, finally, delivering a very personal message. It's a scary world out there where a TV station can tell you something your friends can't. Maybe Brock Enright's biggest problem was that he didn't make Entertainment Tonight, and Wayne's is that he never watches.

Posted by ahillis at 8:44 AM | Comments (1)

September 12, 2010

Parts in Labor

by Vadim Rizov

George Clooney works hard for the money.

Last weekend, America celebrated Labor Day with The American: the country's then-number one movie is the story of a man who makes guns tailored to the needs of contract assassins (a rarefied field indeed). The week before belonged to Takers, about a bunch of dudes who only need to work once a year for enough ill-gotten heist gains to finance the other 364 days. We can extrapolate two pieces of data from this: only criminals can afford good tailoring, and the movies aren't very savvy at accounting for the workplaces so many people spend the majority of their working hours.

Nothing new to see here, obviously. "Hollywood knows dick about how poor and middle-class people live," critic Noel Murray noted in an interview with GreenCine last year. "There's a moment late in Marley and Me where Owen Wilson takes a new job as a reporter in Philadelphia and his family moves to a three-story, 4,000 square-foot country house outside of town. And all I could think was: No wonder newspapers are going broke. This dude's way overpaid." That goes double for the workplace—a mysterious, oft-breezed-through-but-never-lingered-in space that mostly seems to be where people check their email, take phone calls and flirt with coworkers.

George Clooney still works hard for the money. Despite their perpetually least-beloved status, lawyers and police officers are granted at least a trace of reality onscreen; people don't necessarily love their run-ins with the law, but they can’t get enough of watching semi-recognizable due process (albeit mostly on TV). Perversely, high-earning lawyers don't get to wear suits as snazzy as their criminal clients. At the bottom end of the prestige and clothing ladder, journalists in newsrooms also used to fit into their own genre. No longer, though a chance Labor Day revisitation of Fantastic Mr. Fox brought me closer to current reality than poor Owen Wilson and his dog. Insofar as a movie about a talking fox who prefers corduroy jackets has any obligation whatsoever to uphold "realism," its depiction of a struggling newspaper writer who often feels poor isn't that far off the mark—and closer to the current State of Things.

In extreme fantasy, then, lies the only route for work onscreen, unless a film's ready to be grimly dutiful. Who would've guessed a lupine George Clooney would be closer to the mark than Julia Roberts in Eat Pray Love? That wouldn't be a worthwhile movie even if they included the sizable advance Elizabeth Gilbert got to write her "inspirational travelogue." But at least that wouldn't leave viewers puzzled as to where she got the cash to casually rent a Roman apartment for four months, then jaunt off to India. Even when the amount of taskwork required to finance a cool lifestyle is relatively picayune and glamorous, the movies shirk.

Eat Pray Love Rinse Repeat If even relatively fun work (and unrepresentatively successful writers) have the dirt of their day-to-day grind dismissed, the vast majority of jobs—soul-sucking as many of the current options are—are going to stay off-screen or tactfully unmentioned. Especially in a lousy economic climate, movies will continue pretending no one needs to work for the money and everyone's perpetually able to just focus on inner growth or plot obstacles. Your only career options onscreen? Crime or punishment. Choose wisely.

Posted by ahillis at 11:04 AM

September 10, 2010

Boffo Evil

by John Lichman

Resident Evil: Afterlife 3D

It’s jaw-dropping that the Resident Evil film franchise continues to perform better than those based on games with massive worldwide fanbases (King of Fighters, Tekken, FarCry—all of which were released straight-to-DVD). Yet since Milla Jovovich's first bout with virally infected zombies in 2002, the Resident Evil flicks have routinely opened the weekend within the top two positions and made between $17-20 million. (The only film to ever take down the undead hordes on an opening weekend? Ice Age.) For better clarity, the first three have outperformed the following at the box office:

  • Showtime, Y Tu Mama Tambien, Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)
  • Cellular, Criminal, When Will I Be Loved (2004)
  • Good Luck Chuck, Sydney White, The Jane Austen Book Club, Into The Wild, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Sea of Dreams, The Last Winter (2007)

With each release, the franchise fares better, churning out huge profits for eight weeks at a time; only 2007's Resident Evil Extinction was pulled on its sixth week, having already made $49 million (of note: none of the films were screened in advance for critics.) On the cusp of another weekend being ruled by quadrilogy maker Resident Evil: Afterlife—now in 3D!—why are these silly B-movies such a success?

A face only a mother could eat First things first: let's consider the triumphant career of Paul W.S. Anderson to be a happy accident. A British director who scored a controversial hit with 1994's Shopping—whose stars would become tabloid fodder (Jude Law, Sienna Miller)—Anderson thereafter fell into the uncharted territory of video game adaptations.

The mid-'90s were a simpler time, when the Mortal Kombat fad hit an all-time high. Anderson's movie based on that bloody fighting game took cues from Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport, and featured frenetic violence the likes of which faded-out VHS covers of Fist of the North Star only taunted in promising: exploding heads, flying blood, fireballs, etc. The coin-op's sensationalism was then delivered with a cast of C-tier actors held afloat with B-film demagogues Christopher Lambert and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and ruled movie theaters for the rest of the summer 1995. Mortal Kombat Anderson turned down the instant promise of a sequel in lieu of Event Horizon and Soldier, both cult-ish successes that couldn't dominate the pre-teen market like Kombat (hell, most audiences weren't even aware the latter was a "side-quel" to Blade Runner by that film's screenwriter, David Peoples, who nicked it—like most sci-fi stories big on themselves—from Harlan Ellison). It marked another important shift in Anderson's oeuvre as his first film to play to the fanboys, with references to characters being trained with the Colonial Marines’ weapons from Aliens.

Around that time, Capcom released the first Resident Evil game, capitalizing on a newly defined "survival horror" that served as the antithesis to popular first-person shooters or adventure games in which players could beat the shit out of any creature with the right weapon. Until this point in gaming culture, companies demanded franchise characters; Nintendo had Mario, Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog and Sony was desperate to make a bandicoot be its symbol for family fun. Capcom's counter-programming (as it were) was a dark, mature game splattered with pixelated blood and implications that characters don't get out alive.

By the time the third Evil game was announced, Capcom looked to zombie-flick godfather George A. Romero himself to helm what was sure to be a hit adaptation—and whom better? After all, Romero directed the game's Japanese commercials—and yes, note the late Brad Renfro as main character Leon S. Kennedy:

But this wasn't the angry, sociopolitical Romero who made Night of the Living Dead. Romero's attempt at a film was more in the goofy vein of his Land of the Dead, faithful to the original game but with a romantic coupling between its leads. Capcom wasn't thrilled with the undead melodrama and fired Romero. Anderson was brought on in 2000 and immediately did away with key roles. As he told Shivers Magazine (not online but gloriously republished by a number of sites): "There was no point in using the Jill Valentine character from the first Resident Evil game, as the fans would know she wasn't going to be killed because she pops up in the later games. The suspense dynamic of who is going to live, who is going to die and what people's allegiances are, was only going to work with new characters."

Multiple Millas! Hence the inclusion of "Alice" (Jovovich), an original character who has never appeared or been referenced in the game's universe. Resident Evil was launched on a familiar title and a premise that only loosely followed the first game. Jovovich became an ass-kicking tentpole hero, evolving throughout the series into such an unstoppable force that it became the grand joke of Resident Evil: Extinction: all attempts to clone Alice have only resulted in piles of dead copycats who couldn't measure up to the original. Have we mentioned that, by this second sequel, she's psychic and can blow shit up with her mind because, uh... Hey, did you know the Afterlife is in 3-D? Good! Attention diverted!

To date, Anderson has written and produced all four films, but only directed the first and last; the middle entries were helmed by Alexander Witt and Russell Mulcahy, respectively. Each has only the faintest traces of the source material that you could—and should!—view as something related only in trademark. Milla's nemesis Nemesis They're almost like fan-fiction with an original Mary Sue (or omnipotent) character introduced purely to interact with the game's equally deified characters, such as Alice going mano-a-mano with the hulking Nemesis in Apocalypse or Tyrant in Extinction. In the Capcom universe, these beasts are deadly bosses causing hours of thumb cramping for frustrated gamers; in Anderson's universe, they're mere cameos for Jovovich to quickly dispatch.

It's for good reason: these aren't video games nor should they be considered "video game films." Here, no one cares who Chris Redfield or Leon S. Kennedy are—they're supporting players who can be freely killed off because they're second fiddle to multiplying Milla Jovoviches. Anderson still offers some red meat for observant fans, like the game's zombie Dobermans, who have become a reoccurring icon since the first film.

But maybe this is too much analysis for what amounts to running around and blowing up zombies. Anderson must know that if he treated the story concept as a mirror of the in-game universe—which has shifted from zombies to viruses to parasites that explode into The Thing-like monsters—that it would result in an (even more) incoherent mess. Audiences demand simplicity in their headshots; just ask those who paid to see Machete. The nature of a video game is to immerse oneself into a world, building a character so as to conquer that world: experience is gained, better weapons are acquired, challenges are unlocked. For a film to function, we have to submit with no two-way interaction to a story projected in front of us. Anderson hit the nail on the head when he argued why a character from the game can’t be the focus of a film: there's no threat, no danger. We know how it will end.

Resident Evil That's an argument you could give any work adapted for the screen, but more important for the gamer crowd who get a chance to see their favorite 2D textures and 3D-shaded heroes emerge into flesh to blow a decaying fiend away or stop their sinister ex-partner from destroying Generic City's town hall. Anderson gets the idea of fan service right, and it just so happens his version involves his wife, a sprinkling of references from a years-old game and, now more than ever, 3D!!! Look at the bright side, it's still a hell of a lot better than Super Mario Brothers.

Posted by ahillis at 9:36 AM

September 6, 2010

Millennium Auteur

by John Lichman

Satoshi Kon Satoshi Kon died on a Tuesday and came back virally when Makiko Itoh translated a posthumous blog post from the Japanese anime filmmaker; retweets inevitably followed. The stream-of-consciousness missive ran through his fears and acceptance of the situation to the brutal send-off Itoh clarified: "So, he is essentially saying to the reader, 'I have to go now, I'm leaving this world before you.'"

It's always heartbreaking when we lose a great artist, but the 46-year-old's online farewell was in line with his career: beating back death through the Internet's celebration of his work (if you need documented proof of this acclaim, look no further than The Daily Notebook's round-up). Simply put, Satoshi Kon's themes and ideas teach us how to cope with his loss.

As a director, Kon kept a keen eye on the changing ways we as an audience consume our media(s) of choice. Perfect Blue's original production fell victim to the massive 1995 Kobe earthquake, shifting from its projected life as a direct-to-video series to a one-off animated project given to an unknown talent and production house responsible for other cult-y films like Demon City Shinjuku and Lensman. Perfect BluePerfect Blue follows Mima, a pop star wishing to become an actress and leave her group behind, which ultimately leads to stalkers, a fake "online diary" that may or may not be written by her, and confusion about what's real and what's part of the entertainment world. (More meta-context: Mima works on a straight-to-video film whose role requires her character be raped, which then skews her own life.)

Kon emerged as an auteur of global importance just as anime was doing the same. 2001's Millennium Actress became his ode to film and twisting animation's boundaries, using post-war Japan's studio system boom to frame a love story. Paprika Kon's 2006 transhumanist opus Paprika presented us with a culmination of the motifs he initially poked at in the 2003 series Paranoia Agent, set in an urban wasteland populated by overtly "cute," seemingly saccharine characters with corrupt and even outright apocalyptic motives.

The titular character in Paprika is an in-dream avatar of Dr. Chiba, who works on a device that allows her into the minds of her patients. Of course, the device is illegal and untested, so when three prototypes are stolen and inevitably begin to bleed into the real world, a terrifying parade becomes the central invading dream throughout the film. During a press junket with Kon, I gleaned this:

"For us, the parade is a symbol of a nightmare. Usually when nightmares are portrayed in a film and anime, it's very dark. For Paprika, we wanted it to be disgustingly decadent and grossly colorful—and that was our idea." Among the dolls and frogs playing brass instruments, Kon noted the parade is "composed of a lot of things that people have thrown away as society progresses."

The procession grows throughout the film, invading real life and forcefully turning people into their own dream-selves. Think of it like taking the minority opinion that Inception didn't do enough with dream imagery and force-fed it a few sheets of LSD to a J-Pop soundtrack. Likewise, the film's Detective Konakawa struggles through his own dreamscape, shaded in film noir and movie theaters.

Paprika Yet at Paprika's climax, it is these same discarded figures—a 1950s wind-up toy robot, for instance—that save the world from a toxic merging of reality and dreams. When Paprika/Dr. Chiba is imported into the detective's subconscious and Konakawa has to transform himself into Akira Kurosawa in order to "keep the scene" going, he realizes to stop his dream he must "finish his film." Kon relied on what the Internet promised us: a globally accessible source that glues international references together. Even if you don't know who Son Wukong is, Paprika makes you subliminally aware, and Paprika uses the trait to empower herself.

In Kon's view, the audience and his characters are growing more connected by a collective unconscious. A reference like Wukong may only seem iconic to the Japanese as "the hero," but film buffs around the world understand Kurosawa being name-dropped as "the director." Over the years since its release, we grow and learn—quite easily in the Wiki-age—about these cultural allusions, which eliminates some physical boundaries. Kon explored this further in Paranoia Agent, which should be seen as a companion to Paprika. Hhere, the fear and acceptance of both technology and media is replaced by the Internet's fleeting collectables: memes. The series illustrates a Tokyo obsessed with images and psychosis induced by stories, and features a character who fittingly cameos later in Paprika.

Paranoia Agent Kon's career felt like a happy combination of the work Hayao Miyazaki and Mamoru Oshii crafted as Japanese animation grew into its global perch. He was neither as environmentalist or family-friendly as Miyazaki, nor as blatantly art-house in his execution like Oshii. Instead, Kon took our emerging future head-on and told us stories where the threat of Judgment Day constantly bubbled up in our cities, but all will be okay because no one would let the world self-destruct. Like the haunting opening of Paranoia Agent recommends, why not be amused by the marvelous mushroom-shaped cloud in the sky?

We've lost Satoshi Kon to the same worldly inevitability we all face. At the same time, the posthumous online distribution of his final words—a literal representation of the prescient ideas in his work—promotes the idea that our new global identity transcends pointless boundaries like geography and mortality thanks to the ubiquitous services that allow us to repost or retweet thoughts. Kon left us too early, but we're still hard at work until we rejoin him.

Posted by ahillis at 11:48 PM

September 2, 2010

Your Reference I Am Getting

by Vadim Rizov

The Sheikh's Batmobile Richard Poplak's The Sheikh's Batmobile, a very cool new book tracing how American pop culture has infiltrated the Muslim world, argues mass cultural product—rather than destroying the indigenous and increasingly rare—helps bring otherwise at-odds people together on a new plane of understanding, normalizing pluralistic values where that idea's unheard of. Poplak writes of Afghanistani bodybuilders training under watchful Arnold Schwarzenegger cut-outs and United Arab Emirates oil millionaires with too much money paying for custom-made Batmobiles. The argument goes all kinds of places (it's a compelling work of occasionally danger-baiting on-the-ground journalism) that raises an inadvertent point: Hollywood is very good at producing accidentally iconographic work, and very bad at taking account of the ways it affects people. They conquer mental space then don't acknowledge that.

Acknowledgment doesn't mean the simple act of references for their own sake, the more obscure the better (discussed by Noel Murray earlier this year), nor scenes of people watching/listening to cultural product, nor spoofs, pastiches and the kinds of obsessive Quentin Tarantino homages paying tribute to his misspent youth. What's missing is the really fascinating stuff: what happens when a movie becomes appropriated and fetishized for reasons that couldn't have possibly occurred to the originators, mutating way beyond original money-making intent.

Thomas Lennon in 17 AGAINObviously, making a movie featuring a character significantly warped by a different movie is a specialized and rather thankless task, one counter-intuitively better suited to foreign arthouse films rather than other Hollywood fare. A more-thought-out-than-usual mainstream example in recent years is in the recent Zac Efron vehicle 17 Again, when dweeby Ned Gold (Thomas Lennon) manages to win over foxy high school principal Jane Masterson (Melora Hardin) by revealing his casual mastery of Elvish; the two banter and mate over Lord of the Rings geekery. Maybe it's a mildly clever joke about overly obsessive fans (even if it seems like a stale rehash of two decades' worth of jokes about nerds learning Klingon), but it's hard not to remember that 17 Again, like the LOTR films, is the product of New Line Cinema; what sounds like a vaguely plausible character fixation is really corporate synergy, in-house product placement for one of the most visible cultural behemoths of the last decade.

A more sincere example of a personal movie fixation that really transforms said object is what E.T. does to The Quiet Man. John Ford's 1952 film is by no means obscure; it has John Wayne and was one of the year's top ten grossers. Still, the blarney-tinged Irish romance isn't what most people first associate with the Duke, and certainly not nearly as many people saw that as would end up embracing E.T. There, the alien's viewing of the big kissing scene moves him, his telepathic link forcing young Eliot to finally kiss the girl; any other movie with an epic moment of elemental romance would serve the same function, really. It's the very specificity of the reference, the lovingly detailed intercutting between cinematic past and present that seems to have believably taken up psychic space in Spielberg's cranium for the prior 30 years, making it more than a cute gag.

Tony Manero, but not John Travolta But most references are superficial at best. To really delve into this stuff we have to turn abroad, which makes sense: it’s the smallest films that have the most room to reckon with details Hollywood ignores. Studio blockbusters include flavor-of-the-moment songs because they can package them as a soundtrack, and rarely use film clips except for texture; references are jokes. (Also, clearing rights sucks.) Not so in 2008's Tony Manero [link: our podcast with director Pablo Larrain], whose deranged protagonist completely misses the point of Saturday Night Fever, that except for his dancing-floor nights, John Travolta's lower-class life is a slog, with limited prospects of the British Angry Young Man kind and no relief in sight. For Tony Manero's sociopathic antihero, though, Travolta must obviously be living in a gold-rush boomtime compared to Pinochet's Chile. It's a staggering act of incomprehension, using pop culture as a survival mechanism that no one involved in the actual film could anticipate, and it tells us more about how the film might've worked abroad than any DVD supplement could.

A less obtrusive but equally interesting example, from 2005: in Le Petit Lieutenant—a meticulous, drama-free portrait of disillusioned policework in contemporary France—the station is decorated wall to wall with massive posters for crime movies both French (Un Flic, Cop au Vin) and American (Se7en, Reservoir Dogs). The effect's mildly distracting, but it's also reconstructed documentary: director Xavier Beauvois took the detail from real stations, which makes you wonder if you really want cops with Tarantino fresh on their mind coming your way. Similarly, you can rest assured that that Titanic poster seemingly incongruously plastered on a Chinese village wall in 1999's Not One Less is less cutesy shout-out than realistic detail: the movie's just that global, its significance way beyond screaming 13-year-old girls.

Cameron Crowe's ALMOST FAMOUS Because licensing images and footage tends to be a drag, most Hollywood moves skip it, sticking to in-house footage and soundtrack songs (unless you're a mixtape kind of guy like Cameron Crowe, in which case that's the basic texture you work outwards from). It's not a dereliction of duty: big-budget movies, by and large, pretend to take place in a universe where people don't really care about pop culture, so busy and absorbing their own lives are. That isn't the universe most of us live in, unfortunately, so there's always something flawed and incomplete about these films. Not that you should hold your breath waiting for an account of Schwarzenegger in Afghanistan, but it’s perhaps the one lingering cultural after-effect that hasn't been reckoned with, even as a new industry "satire" comes on schedule every two or three years.

Posted by ahillis at 12:57 PM