October 29, 2010

HALLOWEEN DVD OF THE WEEK: House (1977)

by Steve Dollar

House

Every minute, four ideas. That's the oft-quoted credo of celebrated French director Arnaud Desplechin, a guy who gets a lot of critical mileage for packing his films with rich, allusive layers of literary, musical and historical information, modulated through an effusive technique that can only be called encyclopedic. Unlike, say, his forefather Jean-Luc Godard in later years, his work doesn't require a decoder ring—but a Desplechin film both merits and rewards repeat viewings in ways that those by many of his peers do not. There's a lot to chew on, and it tastes pretty good.

House Well, let me tell you this: Nobuhiko Obayashi kicks Arnaud Desplechin's ass in the ideas-per-minute department. I have now seen the director's 1977 House (or Hausu, as it was released in Japan)—what, five or six times? I've seen it on an imperfect file downloaded from the Internet, in bootleg form on homebrewed DVD, really late at night on cable network Turner Classic Movie's TCM Underground, and splashed across the big screen, when the New York Asian Film Festival—in one of its most indispensable acts—revived it in a restored edition in 2009. And earlier this year, the film enjoyed a held-over run at Manhattan's IFC Center, as well as a nationwide tour of repertory houses. Now that Criterion Collection has, at long last, released House in the customary bells-and-whistles Blu-ray version, I can watch it again and again and again. And yet, this is a movie so drenched in neuron-frying crazy goo that every single frame has four ideas. It's a bottomless pit. A thrumming vortex. A nonstop rollercoaster plunge to the deepest, glowing recesses of what-the-fuck? It's so weird and wonderful I can't imagine ever really sorting it all out, and wouldn't want to—even if Criterion included a coupon for a free decoder ring with every purchase.

This clearinghouse of uncanny rumpus is a gothic fairy tale of the old dark house variety by way of the Japanese ghost story—the current revival of Kaneto Shindo's 1968 Kuroneko (Black Cat) is a stellar screen adaptation of this form. Only, it is shot through with the giddy rush and somewhat creepy pubescent perversity of what I suppose is some proto-otaku obsession with frivolous schoolgirls parading around like cartoon characters. They greet every passing occurrence as a non-sequitur revelation of "Eureka!"-like awesomeness, even their own gruesomely baroque deaths. But that still doesn’t tell you enough.

House Though he started out in the 1960s as an avant-garde filmmaker, by the late '70s Obayashi was primarily known as a producer of extremely hilarious TV commercials. Among the most popular was a series devoted to the men's cologne Mandom. They starred pock-faced American tough guy Charles Bronson, and you can watch them now on YouTube, where they glorify the beefy vigilante of Death Wish as both a testosterone-spitting horseman and a debonair, James Bond-like sophisticate, quaffing fine whiskey in his classy man-lair. Croon the silken theme tune: "All the world loves a lover…" These spots, some as brief as 30 seconds, are the DNA cels of House: the key to Obayashi's surreal, spasmodic approach. It makes perfect sense in a quick-hitting video burst, where there's no time or reason to heed petty mandates for narrative logic or connecting the dots. But when applied to 88 minutes, the ADHD-rattled vibe asserts a consciousness-altering whammy. Though Obayashi had never shot a feature, Toho—a studio that was at loose ends at the time with nothing left to lose—picked him to deliver what it hoped would be an action-thriller blockbuster, and gave him total creative freedom. So the director did what any sensible artist would do: He solicited ideas from his 11-year-old daughter Chigumi. (The treat-stuffed DVD includes an illuminating interview with the adult Chigumi and her father, conducted by NYAFF programmer Marc Walkow).

House What unreeled from her imagination was the saga of seven schoolgirls, a posse of precocious archetypes who go by nicknames like Gorgeous, Melody, Fantasy, Prof, Sweet, Kung Fu and Mac (which is short for "stomach," since she likes to eat a lot). School's out for summer, and they're off to visit the elderly maiden aunt of one of the girls. The spinster has a heartbreaking secret, and it's not that she owns a freaky-ass white cat named Snowflake. As the film's "reality," already a half-dreamed Saturday morning cartoon, becomes increasingly dictated by the strangely animate, um, décor, bad things begin to happen, and the cheerful Lolitas begin to succumb to "a fear too beautiful to resist!" No catalog of catastrophes would do the movie justice at this point, but in one brilliant setpiece Melody, who is a musician (of course!), is eaten alive by the piano she plays (and actually continues to play, even when there's no more Melody attached to her nimble fingers). The scene won first prize in the "Best Kills" film clip competition at the 2008 Fantastic Fest, but Obayashi never stops trying to top himself. He riffs on everything, evoking Tex Avery and Busby Berkeley, Henry Darger and bubble-gum pop songs, silent cinema and children's TV, surrealism and giallo, as he goes wild with superimpositions, Day-Glo matte horizons, cotton-candy color schemes, crudely animated special effects (like a watermelon that becomes a carnivorous, high-flying human head), and jaw-dropping juxtapositions.

House Looking ahead, it's easy to infer that House made a life-changing impact on anyone who saw it during its decades in cult-obscurity limbo. Tim Burton's Beetlejuice and Sam Raimi's The Evil Dead look like obvious inheritors, to mention only two. But the film's deeper context is anything but silly or shocking. As the girls are picked off one by one, consumed by a restless, avenging spirit, their joyous acceptance of a bizarre fate should not be taken at face value. There's a troubling undertow of melancholy. The story really serves as a subconscious exorcism of post-war anxieties (not for nothing is there a cameo by a mushroom cloud). Its amusement-park dynamics tap the nitrous-oxide hyperdrive of Japanese pop culture, but underneath the zany is a playfully transcendental brand of national therapy.

Posted by ahillis at 7:54 AM | Comments (1)

October 26, 2010

Try Harder

by Vadim Rizov

Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia One of the most fascinating essays reprinted in Jonathan Rosenbaum's new collection Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia bears the deceptively simple title "Rediscovering Charlie Chaplin." The more accurate title would be "Try Harder." The piece (originally from the September 2004 issue of Cineaste) was tied to a new issue of Chaplin DVDs armed with copious supplemental documentation and appreciations from major global directors (the late Claude Chabrol, the Dardenne brothers, et al.). "I think the period we're now living through may well be the first in which scholars have finally figured out a good way of teaching film history," Rosenbaum proposes of the "didactic materials" that classic films on DVD often come armed with.

With reference to Chaplin's films specifically, Rosenbaum finds the need for education urgent: in a world where it's easy to scorn the Tramp as sentimental and outmoded, he insists "one can't even begin to grasp Chaplin's importance without processing sizable chunks of the twentieth century." THE GREAT DICTATOR's Charlie Chaplin He then does his best to lay out some of that historical space briefly, and by the end even a hardened Chaplin skeptic may well be convinced they're the ones at fault. Not because of some facile argument about watching a film and making allowances that the film was "impressive for its time"; that presumes an awful lot of knowledge about what was normative and what could be expected at best from a given era. Rosenbaum's argument is simpler and more convincing: when you're looking at a film that has survived decades, has many substantive admirers and nothing in it speaks to you, you should probably do some reading on it, or at least watch the extras. You may learn how quickly your gut reaction can change.

Google Book search When DVDs were first taking off, NPR aired a worried little think piece about whether having access to hours of making-of footage would demystify movies, sapping them of a presumably fragile spell by showing the inevitably cruder back process. This is probably not something most people worry about a decade on: supplements are largely promotional gloss, but the praiseworthy ones almost invariably prove to be helpful. Bonuses like that are geared toward people who already like what they've seen and want to know more, but what Rosenbaum proposed is different. Basically, it demands that any viewer who is semi-conscientious start from something like a supplicant position, no matter how knowledgeable they already feel themselves to be -- not to pay lip service to classics that don't speak to you (life's too short), but at least to understand why and how they work for others. The extras are mandatory if you don't like what you saw; smart Google research is a valuable and increasingly breezy post viewing habit to get into, especially when starting from the (legally sketchy) Books option, which makes it simpler to skip over TV listings and other internet chaff by pointing towards verified sources and histories first. (Ditto tcmdb.com, which is almost invariably more informative on classic Hollywood than the usual IMDB grab bag.)

Fellini: too gaudy? Chaplin is a bona fide icon whose natural pop-culture afterlife is fading by the year. The gap between a popularity that never needed to be explained and his current near-proximity to museum culture can make him surprisingly hard to connect with. This is everyone's problem as a viewer as canonical reshuffling is inevitable and personal blind spots unavoidable. Right now, Akira Kurosawa's cultural cachet is under assault for similar reasons, with accusations of the work as being too crude, too literal, too drained of visceral juice. (I can sympathize and often feel the same way.) Perhaps there's a titan you can't vibe with: Maybe Fellini seems too gaudy, Godard too obtuse, and so on. Every icon has their potential, utterly subjective Achilles' heel for viewers. But in an era in which it's simpler than ever to read up on the underdocumented and overexposed alike, not trusting yourself is probably a prudent idea. Reading up may leave you still feeling unmoved, but the odds are higher now that there's material that'll undermine you softly rather than as an order from on cultural high. It's not (only) about respect, but alternate routes to pleasure.

Posted by ahillis at 12:35 PM

October 22, 2010

Sitges 43: A Bloody Good Time

demornay_sm.jpg

By Steve Dollar

Let's say this: Rebecca De Mornay was the sexiest of many psycho characters afoot at this year's Sitges 43, more officially known as the Festival Internacional de Cinema Fantastic de Catalunya. The actress, who takes the lead in Darren Bousman's remake of Mother's Day (think Saw, retrofitted for Martha Stewart), struck leggy poses in her leopard-print dress during closing night festivities last Saturday, received a coveted Time Machine trophy (“It looks like an electric chair … I'm so honored!”) and lent some international movie star glam to a festival whose stalwart attractions are typically hidden behind heavy make-up or smeared in fake blood.

With hundreds of movies screened around the clock over 11 days in this seaside resort town a half-hour south of Barcelona, this marathon is all about connoisseurship of every sort of genre film, with an emphasis on horror and thriller. Think Austin's Fantastic Fest is cool? This is where they got the idea.

The boundlessly congenial programmers love to give recent (and soon to open) American multiplex fare a prominent platform for European premieres. Let Me In bowed here, with kinder-vamp Chloe Moretz and BFF Kodi-Smit McPhee killing the Spanish press with cuteness, though even those show-biz kids were upstaged by the twin sisters who posed, hand-in-hand, for the festival's marketing materials (posters, T-shirts, coffee mugs). That homage to The Shining, subject of a 30th anniversary tribute, may have been the scariest display at the fest - not least when the girls came out onstage opening night, sending a collective spine-tingle through the audience. The longer view from this cinematic Overlook offered an early forecast of what rough beasts will come slouching into cinemas in the coming year.

super_rainn.jpg

An unlikely such menace is Rainn Wilson (TV's The Office). Playing a jilted mope with a will to power in James Gunn's Super, his transformation into the divinely inspired Crimson Bolt spells doom for evildoers (that means you, Kevin Bacon!) and puts movie queue butting-in-liners on notice. This wrench-wielding vigilante parable will probably be lauded as “the real Kick-Ass,” but its odd blend of ultraviolence, sentimentality and good old American vulgarity makes the film a strange hybrid too unique to easily encapsulate. Any film that sympathetically spoofs Christian broadcasting, features gratuitous instances of tentacle rape, and gives the world an oversexed Ellen Page screaming obscenities as she blows away baddies in Supergirl drag gets me all gushy.

Super reflected a trend at Sitges this year, where the most satisfying fare featured fresh comic twists on burned-out formulas. Eli Craig's crowdpleasing Tucker & Dale Vs. Evil flips the script on The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as a pair of peaceful, beer-loving redneck hunting buddies (Alan Tudyk and Tyler Labine) fend off a crew of axe-wielding college kids. The restrung slasher tropes are fun, but it's the sketch comedy chemistry between the fuzzy-faced leads that makes it click.

rareexports.jpg

Finland's answer to Tucker & Dale, Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, also finds ominous intent in unexpected places: Santa Claus. Turns out Father Christmas is some sort of quasi-Satanic demon, who's been kept buried deep in a mountain, his ghastly, wizened elves an army of derelict old men, hungering for the blood of children. When an American exporter unearths Santa for sale in the West, all hell breaks loose - and only a child can save the day. It sounds dopey, but director Jalmari Helander - who accepted his best film honors via iPhone video from a snowy forest - has terrific fun poking at Scandanavian stoicism, not unlike the Coen Brothers in Fargo, and tweaking holiday lore. In a like-minded vein, Jerome Sable's promising The Legend of Beaver Dam, winner for best short, harks back to the campfire stories that have animated everything from Friday the 13th to The Blair Witch Project. And then it erupts into a giddy musical, as the nerdy kid vanquishes evil and gets the girl.

stakeland.jpg There no such wish fulfillment in Stake Land. Jim Mickle's post-apocalyptic indie is a low-budget answer to The Road, with tons more visceral action and none of the poetic meandering that puts audiences to sleep. As the vamp-slaying Mister (Nick Damici) and the kid he rescues (Connor Paolo) make a risky journey to the security of the northern territories, they pass through a dark mirror of an America that might come to exist if religious fundamentalism partnered up with, say, a mysterious contagion. Could Sarah Palin be a virus from outer space? (The film screens Wednesday, Oct 27, in New York as part of the Film Society at Lincoln Center's Scary Movies series).

Mickle's vision of a near-future gone berserker (the most aggressive breed of Stake Land's wolf-like bloodsuckers) is at least grounded in presumptive reality. Over in Japan, they're lacing the wasabi with LSD. Yoshihiro Nishimura's Helldriver is a delirium of Day-Glo video effects and eyeball-popping action - exactly what you'd expect from the mastermind of Tokyo Gore Police. The film is less obliged to narrative coherence than the master monster-maker's previous exploits, though with the alien-like presence of Eihi Shina (Audition) as a villain, plot complexities might only be an obstruction.

Sion Sono, whose tortured Catholic teenage upskirt-peeper romance Love Exposure was a fantastic circuit favorite last year, was back with Cold Fish, also produced by Sushi Typhoon - the low-budget Tokyo genre studio that is releasing a slew of new flicks for American consumption next year. The set-up is brilliant: a chance meeting between two exotic fish shop owners leads to bloody mayhem when one of them turns out to be a bullying, remorseless serial killer. The story's slow, excruciating build to the big reveal is played for cringe-inducing black comedy (the killer is a glad-handing blowhard whose impositions include raping his rival's wife and inducing him to unwittingly assist on a kill). As the tone turns darker, though, the film devolves into a nihilist rage-fest that appears to have no greater point other than “Life sucks, so die already, bitch.”

sitgescartel.jpg Takashi Miike, a guy who knows from rage, goes back to the old school with 13 Assassins. It's a saga the Crimson Bolt could love, as a crew of samurai plot the demise of the rogue Lord Naritsugu. The final 40-or-so minutes boast an intense, dizzying battle scene, as the assassins take on a small army they've trapped like rats in a maze-like village. It's the kind of movie-movie excitement Shaw Brothers fans drool over, and represents the prolific Miike at his technical best.

Though a tender-hearted moviegoer might hope to see a film without a bodycount at Sitges this year, those were tough to come by. The visionary element that delivered several of last year's highlights (Dogtooth, Amer, Enter the Void) was absent, save for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. The surprise Cannes Palme d'Or winner was something of a surreal palate-cleanser between blood feasts. Its blissful, free-associative animism encourages viewers to go with the flow as the title character's gentle, deathbed reveries evoke visions of prodigal sons gone Yeti, forests full of sexually alluring ghost monkeys, and magic catfish who know how to treat a woman right. That the film appears to have been shot entirely on a pawnshop camcorder only adds to the appeal, making even the most, uh, fantastic occurrences look like part of a home movie.

Such respites aside, this was the bloodiest of the four years I've attended Sitges, violence a universal language that united every country and tongue. In some cases, graphic sexual horror could serve as a metaphor for institutionalized national malaise - as it does in A Serbian Film and The Life and Death of a Porno Gang, one DePalma-slick, the other Pink Flamingos-shaggy, both anatomizing Serbian social ills through the prism of pornography gone shockingly wrong. More often, such context was for wimps.

The Spanish Carne de Neon (Neon Flesh), an ensemble actors' fest featuring the irrepressible comic chops of Macarena Gomez, celebrates lowlife camaraderie with a Guy Ritchie flourish, but treats human trafficking as a punch line. No bueno. Far better was the home-invasion drama Secuestrados (Kidnapped), a taut, unflinching thriller that makes Hollywood fare like Panic Room look like My Little Pony. The Mexican-Spanish Atrocious, a no-budget handicam spooker shot at a desolate estate in Sitges, turns the Blair Witch template into a family vacation to hell with surprising effectiveness, squeezing new blood from an idea that should have been exhausted a long time ago.

soundofnoise.jpg

Sitges 43 did not lack entirely for the fanciful. The Swedish film The Sound of Noise offers a disarming riff about a tribe of post-punk acoustic pranksters who create public noise spectacles as a political act, while being pursued by a tone-deaf police detective. It's sort of Blue Man Group meets The Situationist Anthology, a clever sonic romance that will probably be in heavy rotation on Bjork's tour bus.

notrejourviendra.jpg A playful sense anarchy also pervades Our Days Will Come, the debut film by French director Romain Gavras (son of Costa-Gavras), a tour-de-force for European superstar Vincent Cassel. Part coming-of-age saga, part Hommes Gone Wild, the story yokes Cassel's dangerously freewheeling shrink to an emotionally disturbed lad (Olivier Barthelemy) whose red hair makes him the object of schoolyard ridicule. The film's obvious antecedents (My Favorite Year, Scent of a Woman, Good Will Hunting) in cross-generational male bonding comedy are less significant than the bipolar spree Cassel's beaky satyr makes of the premise - don't get caught dead in a hot tub with this guy - and Gavras' willingness to follow it all to the end, leaving viewers in a place they never anticipated.

Posted by cphillips at 9:45 AM

October 20, 2010

Cowboy Clint and Thereafter to Hereafter

by Vadim Rizov

HEREAFTER director Clint Eastwood

"What becomes a legend most?" asked a late-'60s campaign for Blackglama minks, and the same question comes to mind when considering Clint Eastwood's career as he enters his eighties. There can be little doubt of his legendary status as a screen icon of laconic retribution; though his renditions of the Man With No Name for Sergio Leone were intended in part as a challenge to status-quo Western morality, Eastwood's squinty charisma made him a screen deity nearly on par with John Wayne. The acerbic critiques of Western macho became less important than the simple pleasure of seeing a new model of gunslinger be awesome in an entirely new but equally fun way.

Clint Eastwood and Matt Damon on the set of HEREAFTER But it's not Eastwood the actor we've been thinking about for the last decade, as much as the director. He's stated that Gran Torino will probably be his last performance, and In the Line of Fire was his last role under anyone else's direction, 17 years ago. His body of acting work contains a lot of '80s programmables, but most of them were either continuations of the Dirty Harry saga or collaborations with his loyal stunt coordinator Buddy Van Horn (Every Which Way You Can, Pink Cadillac). Even when he acted for others, Eastwood was the last guy likely to take a simple paycheck job for no particular reason. In general, he propelled his directorial career by placing a guaranteed attraction (himself) front and center; out of his 31 features, Eastwood only gave himself a break once a decade through the '70s, '80s and '90s (Breezy, Bird and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil), which meant he mostly got to keep working without worrying about genre. He was his own best financial guarantor.

Although his critical stock has fluctuated over the decades, his sudden canonization as The Last Great Hollywood Classicist coincided, more or less, with his sudden on-screen disappearance. Generally speaking, his Westerns have mostly been received respectfully: the ways he toys with his persona are both minutely complex and instantly comprehensible to the legions who've grown up with his films, with academic background optional. His other films were more of a mixed bag. Workaday criticism isn't overly interested in auteurist analysis, so whatever visual complexities Eastwood brought to, say, Firefox or The Rookie (two of his sillier movies) were discarded in favor of simple and hard-to-argue judgments: Firefox is naive conservative gibberish and The Rookie is formulaically stupid but blows shit up good. But no matter the context, Eastwood always gave us something fun to watch in his stoic line readings and coiled two-fistedness.

Clint Eastwood in FIREFOX From Mystic River (which premiered at Cannes, but certainly wasn't going to happen for a True Crime) onwards, Eastwood has entered a late-master phase where he's largely behind the camera. His absence has made it easier to see what, precisely, are his gifts. Stated from the most positive point-of-view, Eastwood's continual determination to avoid overstatement or bullying the viewer in any way has made for immersive films whose seeming languor allow for complicated ethical situations to be examined at an unhurried pace. A less charitable perspective might suggest that Eastwood's approach is one-size-fits-all, flattening scripts of all genres and tones into the same kind of film, over and over.

Frankly, a lot of what Eastwood does suggests the sins of latter-day Woody Allen, only delivered with a more consistent visual signature. He works prolifically: if he doesn't make a film one year, more likely than not he'll have two out the following year to rectify the balance. His movies almost uniformly clock in around 130 minutes; in one interview timed to Mystic River's release, he claims to have cut the whole film in five days (including golf and lunch breaks), and there's no reason to disbelieve him. What looks like unhurried mastery is always just this side of indifference.

Clint Eastwood and Cecile De France on the set of HEREAFTERIt's that combination of unforced craftsmanship and interest in simply doing the work rather than obsessing over it that has led some critics to adore and explain away any problems they might see, which takes some doing. Some of that just-doing-work attitude, granted, is self-created; screenwriter Peter Morgan was surprised to learn his first draft of Hereafter was deemed good enough to film immediately. (It wasn't.) Even a Hereafter defender like Richard Brody speaks of the film in mildly negative-virtue terms, where Eastwood's job is to "leach the fire and brimstone from religion." That's worthy, maybe, but hardly exciting.

Put bluntly, it can be hard to tell who Eastwood as director is; in his on-screen absence, all we're left with is chiarascuro and a mild but uninsistent curiosity that roves all over the place, never valuing one type of narrative or genre over another. As an actor, he gave his movies a thematic center, even as his too-easy-looking approach to thesping could make critics appreciative of overt strain suspicious. For this writer, the most rewarding film of Eastwood's last decade was Gran Torino, one of the only media products not named HBO's The Wire that tried to talk honestly about what racism and changing codes of masculinity look like. Once again, he proved to be his own most underrated asset. The rest of his movies have been, to varying extents, much more abstract: treatises on war (Letters From Iwo Jima) and American image-making (Flags of Our Fathers), self-consciously grand tragedy (Mystic River) and Million Dollar Baby's weird shift from modest boxing drama to larger Statement. After decades in which his persona seemed to force his films to be more or less small in their overt ambition, he's disappeared, leaving us with intricately shaded frames and neatly written tragedies. Whether that's valuable depends on how responsive you are to Eastwood working purely behind the camera: The Man With No Face.

Posted by ahillis at 6:30 AM | Comments (3)

October 17, 2010

PODCAST: Edward Norton and Tim Blake Nelson

LEAVES OF GRASS' Tim Blake Nelson and Edward Norton

Newly released on DVD and Blu-ray this week is writer-director-actor Tim Blake Nelson's Leaves of Grass, starring two-time Oscar nominee Edward Norton:

LEAVES OF GRASS is a comic thriller seen through the dual perspectives of identical twins, both played by Norton). Bill, a classical philosophy professor at Brown University, returns home upon news of his brother Brady's murder in a drug deal gone awry. Bill quickly learns that Brady's death has been grossly exaggerated, as he's swept up into one of his brother's crazy schemes. Alongside his eccentric mother (Susan Sarandon) and a beautiful woman named Janet (Keri Russell), Bill participates in his brother's wild plan, leading him on a twisted path filled with unique characters and life's most challenging questions. Also starring Richard Dreyfuss and writer-director Tim Blake Nelson, the film merges crime drama, drug comedy, and classical philosophy, as it attempts to answer one of the oldest questions in the world: What does it truly mean to be happy?

Last March in Austin, during the SXSW Film Festival, I sat down with Nelson and Norton to discuss the technical and performance logistics of single-handedly playing twins, smoking joints (and fake joints), Horatio's "golden mean," and the reason nobody makes pot dramas.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (14:42)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Cab Calloway: "Reefer Man"
OUTRO: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen: "Seeds and Stems (Again)"

Posted by ahillis at 7:50 AM

October 14, 2010

PODCAST: Radley Metzger

Radley Metzger, director of SCORE

81-year-old filmmaker and distributor Radley Metzger has never been an artist who chased cheap thrills. Until the sea change of the '70s, when theatrically-released erotica was rejected in favor of hardcore pornography like Deep Throat, Metzger gained international acclaim for directing sophisticated, literate and lavishly stylized erotic films like The Lickerish Quartet, Camille 2000 and Therese and Isabelle. This week, Metzger's 1972 milestone Score, a film that Interview once said "hilariously hits the bull's-eye of bisexual chic," has been made available and uncut for the first on DVD/Blu-ray from Cult Epics:

SCORE is based on a 1971 hit Off-Broadway play that follows the erotic exploits of a happily married swinging couple (Claire Wilbur and Gerald Grant) who make a bet that they can seduce a couple of naïve young newlyweds during a weekend get-together at their luxury Riviera Villa. The young couple is played by Lynn Lowry, who starred in the horror classics THE CRAZIES and I DRINK YOUR BLOOD, and Cal Culver, who became an early gay icon thanks to his standout performance in BOYS IN THE SAND.

Though he rarely does interviews, Metzger agreed to meet me over a two-egg brunch on the Upper East Side, where we talked about "nudging the envelope," Sylvester Stallone, transplanting the stage play from a Queens apartment to a hamlet in Croatia, and why he hates me (but not really).

To listen to the podcast, click here. (20:06)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Unknown artist: "Where is the Girl?" (from Score)
OUTRO: Piero Piccioni: "Easy Lovers" (from Camille 2000)

Posted by ahillis at 10:20 PM | Comments (1)

October 12, 2010

Mid-August Lunch: More Than Old Folks Being Adorable

by Vadim Rizov

Mid-August Lunch

The arthouse isn't immune from peddling glorified YouTube cutesiness: earlier this year, Babies offered up viral‐adorable burbles on 35mm. (Cuteness on demand is nicely spoofed in Godard's new Film Socialisme, going from full-screen kitteh close‐up to the woman watching it; she meows, which is considerably less cute.) Similarly, the masses apparently love to watch sassy old folks being stylish and adorable, without any troublesome bodily failures getting in the way. Mid‐August Lunch, full of snippy old ladies and food porn, seemingly offers up more undemanding fare, and let's be clear: there's nothing inherently wrong with that. But Gianni di Gregorio's directorial debut is remarkably tough‐minded. His most notable credit previously was for co‐writing Gomorrah (director Matteo Garrone personally financed this project in turn), a juxtaposition hard to reconcile, though it's really not that far off: everyone's dying pointlessly, with no visible relief in sight.

Mid-August Lunch Mid‐August Lunch stars di Gregorio as Gianni, a wine‐swilling, debt‐swamped fiftysomething man taking care of his possessive mother (Valeria de Franciscis); di Gregorio shot the film in a family apartment, based on his own experiences in the '90s taking care of a now deceased mother he has described as "very possessive." Looking after her has meant giving up on a career, relationship or any hope of self‐advancement. Gianni's immediate pleasures are nicotine and booze, and any longer‐term gratification will have to be put off until after her death, which has been true long before the movie started. This is grim territory to begin with, and the introduction of additional incapacitated, essentially homeless‐but‐for‐family women (left by feckless sons on holiday) doesn't make things any more adorable. While Gianni's troubles can't be blamed on Silvio Berlusconi or local corruption, his situation's one with no end but death in sight. There's one topical nod (the landlord takes a holiday with a blond young scamp, much like the self‐valorizing national leader Berlusconi), but clearly Gianni is more just a victim of smothering family expectations than, say, a failure of state-run healthcare.

Mid‐August Lunch unmercifully trains its eyes upon decaying elderly bodies. The shifting relationships between Gianni and the exponentially swelling number of elderly ladies he's charged with caring for over Ferragosto, as mutually pleasant as they can occasionally be, never suggest anything like parity. For every moment of calm, Gianni pays over and over, corralling oft‐fractious and unrepentantly demanding women who are never willing to help out. His ability to look after the women always comes down to token monetary compensation, just enough to keep him sedated. We're watching a few days in the life of a man who long ago gave up on expecting anything for himself.

Mid-August Lunch The experience of watching the film isn't nearly as grim as that last description: Gregorio's brief running time, avoidance of onscreen trauma (and pointed aversion from the worst of it) keeps the film firmly family‐friendly, even as it stares mortality dead‐on. Gianni always has to be perpetually available, but he gets to drink all day and make delicious food while hanging out with a guy who answers to "Viking." That's not precisely a rich and rewarding social whirl, but it's also not the worst place to be trapped.

Who's at fault when there is only one person to do the right thing? Is it even the right thing? The barbs are aimed back at everyone equally: sons too busy to look after their mothers and transferring the burden back onto the less fortunate, women who won't let said sons go (and are left at the hands of other sons unable to firmly walk away). Anger is palpable, if never expressed. Not a film that'll make anyone cringe overly hard, its steely core is hard to overlook: beyond all the food and winsome accordions, Mid‐August Lunch contemplates the toll of taking care of the elderly, and concludes it's a steep climb unrelieved by goofing around. The cute moments are incidental, what sticks is the grind.

Posted by ahillis at 3:26 PM

October 11, 2010

PODCAST: Roger and Julie Corman

Roger and Julie Corman at Fantastic Fest '10

Even if you've never touched a movie camera, you probably have an idea just how idealistic and laborious a task it is to make an independent film today, let alone trying to get it distributed, exhibited or pretty much seen by anyone who didn't hold a boom or finance the damn thing. So it's baffling why, in an economy staying cozy in its slump, more indie hopefuls aren't modeling their methods after those of low-budget filmmaking titan Roger Corman.

Sometimes collaborating with his wife Julie (the former Chair of NYU's Graduate Film Department), Corman has milked exploitation thrills in just about every genre imaginable. He helped launch the early careers of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, John Sayles, Peter Bogdanovich, Robert Towne, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Robert De Niro and countless more. A sample of his discipline: In 1965, he made Monte Hellman stretch his budget for one western (The Shooting) to afford another, shot one week later in the same Utah desert. That second, equally groovy oater was Ride in the Whirlwind, co-written by and starring Jack Nicholson, another graduate of the Corman Film School. There's a reason the Academy gave this 84-year-old gentleman an honorary Oscar earlier this year.

Last month in Austin, Fantastic Fest also honored Roger and Julie Corman with a Lifetime Achievement Award, supplemented by screenings of his 1963 directorial landmark X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, and the couple's newly produced SyFy exclusive movie Sharktopus:

Eric Roberts plays a research scientist who, with his talented daughter (Sara Malakul Lane), develops a secret military weapon—a hybrid shark/octopus that can be controlled by electrical implants. But when the controls break down, the monster goes on a killing rampage at the resort beaches of Mexico.

At the Highball, the Cormans spoke with me about Sharktopus' point of view, how X: The Man With the X-Ray Eyes looks (har, har) many decades later, competing with major studio distributors in the post-Internet Age, and the late Dennis Hopper—another raw young talent guided by Mr. Corman once upon a time.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (13:40)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Bauhaus: "The Man With the X-Ray Eyes"
OUTRO: The Cure: "I'm a Cult Hero"

Posted by ahillis at 7:00 AM | Comments (2)

October 5, 2010

500 Million Opinions

by Vadim Rizov

The Social Network

Everyone who sees David Fincher's The Social Network feels they have an opinion that simply must be counted, a piece of context no one else does. That kind of urge to spontaneously fact-check rarely happens: most mainstream studio releases are so out of touch with the real world they might as well be science-fiction. Consider Life As We Know It, Friday's upcoming Katherine Heigl-Josh Duhamel rom-com in which the mutually loathing pair are brought together when friends die and leave them tasked with care of the leftover baby, at which point they dutifully fall in love. It's a premise so outlandish it might as well be a parallel universe documentary about the mating habits of Martians.

The Social Network The Social Network, by contrast, is a film about the founding of a ubiquitous website used by one out of 14 people on the planet; if you have the money to see it and live somewhere where it's showing, chances are you have an opinion about Facebook whether or not you're on the site. Other hot-button issues are involved: the internet bubble, Harvard, the death of the music industry, the millennial generation media outlets so obsessively and frantically keep trying to define—all are part of the package. You don't even need to be a pundit to get mouthy: a friend in Austin reported an ordinary viewer emerging and bitching about how the movie doesn't show the creation of the News Feed. Fincher fail!

The point here isn't to chide viewers for voicing their complaints, no matter how illegitimate they might seem: anyone who pays to see a movie has the right to wish for whatever they were expecting. What's interesting about this is the way people are demanding their version of reality be reflected, which rarely happens when your baseline movie is something like Life As We Know It.

The-Social-Network-3-Eisenberg.jpgDiscussing why involves some spoilers, even though it's really not that kind of movie. The basic starting point for most of these attacks, no matter their specific angle, is always the same: the movie's factually inaccurate and therefore on some level a failure, the latter charge being pretty indisputable. That suggests two things: the movie's basically fiction (so what else is new, even in the world of films "inspired by true events"?) and that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director Fincher—two bright guys not precisely known for slacking, underestimating their audience's intelligence or failing to do their homework—fully expected people to realize this (or research it) and then accept that they made a fictional narrative film, just like almost everything else on the market.

Which doesn't stop people from getting upset, or at least supremely irritable, and suddenly demanding empirically verifiable reality: not just from the actual legal story (so buried in nondisclosure agreements it's probably impossible to pin down), but from every single narrative and contextual decision made. There was, most prominently Nathan Heller's Slate article about how the movie misrepresents Harvard in general and Mark Zuckerberg specifically, which for sheer accuracy in reporting could, I suppose, be counterbalanced by the excitable viewer next to me who raved about how he knew Zuckerberg and how spot-on Jesse Eisenberg's impersonation was; either way, the issue's not terribly relevant.

The Social Network If the film is fiction (and from this point on let's just agree it is), then the question isn't whether it's inaccurate, hyperbolic or outdated; the question is why it's shaped like that. The answer seems pretty simple: this is a movie told from multiple POVs, and the fictional Zuckerberg feels like a Jewish outlier in a hell of bullying WASPs. The dramatic irony that results is worth the distortion: his nemeses the Winkelvoss twins (Armie Hammer) get shut down by university president Lawrence Summers when they beg for special privilege, and he's the one who gets the girls despite his burning resentment that the world is run by people with an unfair head start, but Zuckerberg still feels put upon. Even more broadly, it's hilarious that a guy who can create one of the biggest, most prescient websites of the internet's young history simultaneously thinks the social world of college (the very thing he's trying to replicate) is stuck somewhere in the '50s.

There are also charges of misogyny, most notably and predictably from Jezebel, which charges (not unreasonably) that, the real Zuckerberg is apparently not a ragingly sexist dickhead, so why would Sorkin turn his world into a frat boy's fantasy viewed by an equally insensitive outsider? The answer here's pretty much the same as above: the opening montage, cutting back and forth between Zuckerberg's unalluring drunken night of coding Facemash and his imagined fantasies of non-stop, on-demand hedonism for the rich and privileged points out just how out of touch he is about how to get what he wants. He gets all the sex and easy acclaim, but always imagines something better somewhere else — sex fantasies whose realization in the film are reserved exclusively for the nerds.

The-Social-Network-5-Fincher-Sorkin.jpg The bigger picture here, of course, is that both Sorkin and Fincher are leery of and sort of hostile towards the real world's Facebook, so they made a movie about a guy whose ability to perceive the actual world around here is constantly compromised by vaguely understood, hazily received impressions he got from somewhere once and never really bothered to verify. In other words: it's a movie about Facebook and the dangers of trying to understand and live in a world defined by other people's selective representation of their reality. In a not-so-oblique way, the film engages with the very thing Sorkin and Fincher aren't that interested in. Their reality's just as mutable as a Facebook profile; they just have a better story to tell.

Posted by cphillips at 2:54 PM | Comments (3)

October 3, 2010

FANTASTIC FEST '10 PODCAST: Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs

Stuart Gordon and Jeffrey Combs

It has been a quarter century since filmmaker Stuart Gordon and actor Jeffrey Combs first collaborated on the manically clever horror-comedy Re-Animator, a mad-scientist cult favorite that many believe to be the seminal film adaptation of legendary author H.P. Lovecraft's work. Together, Gordon and Combs share an eccentric oeuvre of grim and gory curiosities, such as From Beyond (which, in addition to Re-Animator, was screened at Fantastic Fest 2010), Fortress, Castle Freak, and The Black Cat—an episode of the "Masters of Horror" TV anthology starring Combs as gothic scribe Edgar Allan Poe. Most recently, the two have returned to their stage roots with Nevermore, a funny-sad, one-man play with Combs reprising his Poe before a live audience:

Dennis Paoli wrote the play, using a compilation of historical accounts, actual monologues, articles, letters and Poe's own words to construct the definitive portrait of American's most famous macabre poet. The play ran for months in Los Angeles and received unanimously glowing reviews. After seeing the show in November, we immediately invited Jeffrey Combs and director Stuart Gordon to come to Austin for this year's Fantastic Fest. Although not a film, NEVERMORE was the very first show booked for this year's festival.

I sat down with Gordon and Combs at the Highball (Austin's combination restaurant, karaoke bar and bowling alley) to discuss their tag team's origin story, the trick to adapting Lovecraft's thorny tales, peculiar reactions audiences have had to Nevermore, and how a Re-Animator joke I made with Gordon two years ago has since become a reality.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:49)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Richard Band: "Re-Animator (prologue)"
OUTRO: The Vaselines: "Lovecraft"

Posted by ahillis at 12:48 PM | Comments (2)