December 28, 2010

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Way Back

by Vadim Rizov

The Way Back

When you have—as with The Way Back—an old-fashioned, grueling trek odyssey with plenty of far-off shots of tiny figures crossing a vast landscape, there's a danger in making it sound like an awards-season anachronism for the old folks. Describing the difficulties he had getting financing for his first film in seven years, director Peter Weir sounded surprisingly like a man who feels out of time: "One [studio exec] said 'We aren't in that kind of business anymore.' I thought what kind of business? Show business?" Truly, Weir has more to offer than mere old-school, impress-through-sheer-scale spectacle. That same sound byte might've been uttered by David Lean at his most peevish; when Lean was interviewed by Gerald Pratley on the CBC in March 1965 (collected in the out-of-print, Andrew Sarris-edited anthology Interviews with Film Directors), he sniped the kitchen-sink realism and other "obscure" films rising in awards prominence. Doctor Zhivago would be his last great success, and the kind of sweeping epic he'd come to specialize in was on the way out. "I, personally, often worry about being old-fashioned," he said. "But I like a good strong story. I like a beginning, a middle and an end."

The Way Back Lean's best films had much more to offer than such a dourly dutiful rundown; it's too bad Weir would defend his new film in such flat temporal terms. The Way Back is based on a memoir whose veracity is questionable: someone may well have escaped from a Siberian gulag in 1940 and trudged with companions to India, but it probably wasn't author Slavomir Rawicz. Regardless, Weir's movie cleaves closely to the narrative. A group of Soviet prisoners—along with gruffly anonymous, American engineer Mr. Smith (Ed Harris)—flee in the middle of a snowstorm and make their way through woods, fields, around towns, over railway and national borders, across deserts, ducking sandstorms, hiking over the Himalayas, etc. There's some of the inevitable wonkiness attending the spectacle of English actors attempting verrrrrry Rooooosian accents, but all the physicality is superb, which fortunately is some 70% of the movie.

The Way Back That includes Colin Farrell's Russian mafia type, who mostly acts/swaggers with his knife. He has the right idea, imposing himself corporeally in a story whose role requirements (Slavs speak functional English, portrayed by actors of various nationalities) don't leave much room for verbal subtlety. Farrell, Harris and the sole woman aside, no one boldly stands out (though they all get at least one Oscar-clip speech apiece). The intro is clunky—a clumsy Stalinist interrogation, prisoners meeting each other, much leering in shaky inflections—but Weir gets the men out of the camp in 25 minutes, not even bothering to fully show their escape. Their getting away is a prerequisite, and Weir doesn't waste time or insult audience intelligence by trying to get false suspense from it. The opening title cards let us know how many fled and how many survived: there's no question of how it'll turn out.

The Way Back Similarly, when the fugitives have to cross the border into Mongolia—across a railroad regularly monitored by guards with guns and dogs—we don't even see that; it's also a given. Weir's as skilled at knowing what not to show as when to stun, which gives his numerous epic moments true weight. This isn't quite a Herzogian dare, but still unabashedly muscular filmmaking minus the usual macho posturing. Survival tasks come one at a time, an unforced yarn in which every event has equal impact. The majesty of the locations is tempered by the surprising reserve and soft-spokenness of the stakes: it's closer to Gerry that way than the hundreds-of-extras approach to too many an epic, in which the scale of visual human expanse confirms social import.

The Way Back The film unfortunately but forgivably ends as it began: poorly, with a two-minute montage of the Cold War—rendered as the world's most predictable newsreel-highlights-presentation—that attempts to make god knows what kind of point about the decline of the Soviet Union. There's one politically incisive moment, when Farrell's thug—having lived to make it to the border-crossing—turns back, saying he wouldn't know what to do with freedom anyway. It's not an unfamiliar idea, but it's not one filmed often. (Certainly it's more useful than yet another monologue about the horrors of genocide.) The journey across countries is a physical rather than political trajectory, man vs. nature largely unmediated. It's about spearing snakes, searching for water and all that walking: grand-scale storytelling that understands tangible non-CGI wilderness is scary because it can kill you. Weir's Master and Commander wasn't really about the geopolitical stakes of the Napoleonic wars, and The Way Back similarly doesn't need its historical scaffolding. The elements don't change, but the rewards do. Hardly an anachronism, The Way Back is terrific, robust filmmaking at a time when no-F/X indicates poverty, and its relatively modest budget underscores the hardiness of its subject and director alike.

[The Way Back opens December 29 in limited release, and wider in January. For more info, visit the official site.]

Posted by ahillis at 1:15 PM

December 24, 2010

BEST OF 2010: Aaron's Top 33 Films

Today, Christmas Eve, is the beginning of my "Jesus year," appropriately. Though I was forced to stop at a mere 10 favorite films on my 2010 indieWIRE and Village Voice/LA Weekly poll ballots, why not keep going? For each of my birthdays, including this 'un, I present a fuller, more eye-popping list that will hopefully encourage you to seek out something new...

BUT BEFORE THAT: Starting tonight, I encourage all of you still in the NYC area to come out to Brooklyn's reRun Gastropub Theater for a FREE screening series I've programmed called "PINK XMAS: The Holiday Cheer of Japanese Sexploitation." Co-presented by GreenCine and PinkEiga, the two-week series (Dec. 24 - Jan. 6) will feature 6 of the wildest, weirdest "pink films" from Japan, including two from the Academy Award winning director of Departures). I'll be hosting and bartending tonight at the 8pm show, with doors opening at 7pm. For more info, click here.

01-Amer.jpg

02-Another-Year.jpg

03-Black-Swan.jpg

04-Daddy-Longlegs.jpg

05-Dogtooth.jpg

06-Everyone-Else.jpg

07-Exit-Through-the-Gift-Shop.jpg

08-Fish-Tank.jpg

09-Flooding-With-Love-for-the-Kid.jpg

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12-The-Ghost-Writer.jpg

13-Guy-and-Madeline-on-a-Park-Bench.jpg

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15-I-Am-Love.jpg

16-Life-During-Wartime.jpg

17-Lourdes.jpg

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19-Mother.jpg

20-Nobody%27s-Perfect.jpg

21-Piranha-3D.jpg

22-A-Prophet.jpg

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24-The-Red-Chapel.jpg

25-Scott-Pilgrim-vs-the-World.jpg

26-Secret-Sunshine.jpg

27-The-Social-Network.jpg

28-Steam-of-Life.jpg

29-The-Strange-Case-of-Angelica.jpg

30-Trash-Humpers.jpg

31-White-Material.jpg

32-Wild-Grass.jpg

33-Winter%27s-Bone.jpg

HONORABLE MENTION: Enter the Void, Jackass 3D, Marwencol, October Country, Rabbit Hole, Somewhere, Tamara Drewe, Toy Story 3, True Grit, You Wont Miss Me

Posted by ahillis at 12:49 PM | Comments (4)

December 23, 2010

INTERVIEW: Mads Brugger

by Steve Dollar

THE RED CHAPEL director Mads Brugger

Winner of the World Cinema Jury Prize for documentary at this year's Sundance Film Festival, The Red Chapel is yet another one of those documentary whatzits that made moviegoing such a glorious mindfuck in 2010. Only in this case, Danish filmmaker Mads Brügger doesn't trick the audience. He wheels the Trojan Horse of "cultural exchange" into Kim Jong-il's own private Neverland. Posing as the director of a half-Danish, half-Korean comedy duo called The Red Chapel, he somehow convinces the North Korean government to let the comedians perform before an audience in Pyongyang.

The real funny business is that the performers—the burly Simon Jul Jørgensen and the spindly, 18-year-old Jacob Nossell—are amateurs cast to portray the roles, picked because their Korean heritage made a good pitch to Dear Leader's propaganda-minded minions. As a twist, Jacob is a self-described "spastic," whose speech and movement, while impaired, are much more a challenge to the North Koreans, accustomed to "disappearing" the disabled from public view. (Those who meet Jacob prefer to think he is drunk). Also, Simon and Jacob are, by professional standards, largely inept. They're perfect for the Gong Show, or in this case, the Jong-il Show.

"At some point, I think they thought I was doing a very bizarre documentary about how wonderful making theater and comedy is in North Korea," Brügger said by way of Skype, during a conversation earlier this year. "Apparently, they also thought I was this strange mixture of crypto-fascistic theater director and documentary-maker, a constellation that really doesn't make any sense."

Brügger's sense that comedy is the soft spot of every dictatorship rings mostly true, though, even as the charade—both of the Dane's filmmaking endeavor and the surreal totalitarian movie set that is North Korea—begins to freak everybody out.

The Red Chapel

I'm totally amazed that you managed to pull this off. How did you?

The game play that I had envisioned for the film was that me, Simon and Jacob would make commedia dell'arte both on and offstage. At the same time, it was a basic documentary procedure. Let's set up a trap in the forest and see what happens. We were dealing with people who want to be very much, 100 percent, in control all the time. Everything had to be screened with the Koreans. There was very little room left for improvisation. Midway through, in Pyongyang, I said let's lean back and see what the Koreans will throw at us. We were constantly asking them if Jacob and Simon could do a performance at an accordion factory, where they make these enormous North Korean accordions.

We also asked several times if Jacob and Simon could meet with the North Korean clowns who work at the circus in Pyongyang. But things like that were apparently impossible to arrange. It is The Truman Show in Pyongyang. If you say one morning "Today I want to visit the National Library," that will not be possible because they have not had time to fix the settings and to prepare the people you are going to meet. We decided let's see what happens if they will come up with something out of the ordinary. Suddenly, Mrs. Pak [the handler/translator/mother hen assigned to escort the Danes 24/7] suggested we take part in this mass rally, which she called a small peace demonstration.

Were you nervous? Did you feel you would be able to exit when your two week visit was up?

The general atmosphere was paranoid. Being in North Korea is shock treatment for paranoids, because once you realize that if they are going to do anything to you that you are helpless and you can't do anything, once you think that through, then you start to relax in a strange kind of way. But at the same time, there was a constant atmosphere of threats, of "what if?" Some of that has to do with the kind of English they would speak. When we were having breakfast in the mornings, instead of "Please give me the sugar," Mrs. Pak would say "You better give me the sugar." My worst fear was that at one point Mrs. Pak would begin speaking Danish to us, which would totally freak me out.

The Red Chapel

Watching and knowing that your hosts can't understand Danish added a whole other level to the multifaceted deceptions.

We didn't know for sure, 100 percent. Also, before going I had looked into other instances when Western or foreign reporters or documentary makers were detained or punished because they pushed the envelope a bit too much. The only instance I could find was an American journalist named Andrew Morse who was one of the first American journalists to enter North Korea [in 2004]. While he was there, the regime claimed he was doing hidden recordings. They took away his laptop, destroyed it and his footage, and he was placed under house arrest for two weeks and forced to sign a statement that said he was a spy for the CIA. Then he was allowed to leave the country.

We thought if that was the worst-case scenario, it might not be pleasant but that was something you could deal with. But it really freaked me out when the case of the two American female reporters [Laura Ling and Euna Lee] came about. They were given 12 years in the camps: two years for illegal entry and 10 years for the intent to slander the reputation and good name of North Korea. And if that is the yard of how they measure things then we would have been in the camps forever. I'm not sure that we would have gone there having read what happened to Ling and Lee.

Also, you guys aren't attractive young women, so Bill Clinton is not going to come to your rescue.

No, and the former Danish prime minister is very boring and doesn't like to put himself in harm's way. I don't think the North Koreans would have been very impressed with him coming to town.

Other than Myanmar, which is probably a little easier to get into, is North Korea the last of the hermetically sealed totalitarian states?

It is the last bastion of the Cold War. You can't say that globalization has been completed until North Korea has ceased to exist. It is interesting that there is a place in this world where nobody has heard of Harry Potter, Justin Timberlake or the iPod. They have their own cultural aesthetics, their own music, their own way of doing things.

The Red Chapel

It's almost science fiction.

Yes, exactly. What made Ceauşescu mad was going to North Korea on a state visit. He goes there and sees the degree of control the Great Leader Kim Il-sung has over his people. He witnesses the mass rallies. That was the beginning of him driving Romania into total disaster and craziness, and the same with Robert Mugabe from Zimbabwe. In African terms, he was a reasonable guy, but he also goes to North Korea and comes back crazy. He invites North Korean special operations officers to come and train his own brigade, which he uses to kill all opposition. Many people are not aware of the evil North Korea has caused outside of North Korea.

You marshal these facts in the movie to justify your own deceptions, which begin to drive poor Jacob over the brink.

Yes, because at first in Denmark it aired as a television series without narration. In Denmark many people think of North Korea as people do Vietnam, Laos or China. So if you see what we're doing while having that impression, you would find our methods utterly despicable. Because of the way we are behaving, and the deceit used by us. It's necessary to know about what kind of place it is. You are dealing with the most oppressive totalitarian state in the history of mankind.

But not unlike South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, you mock that totalitarian order, like the scene in which you all come out in perfect North Korea military uniforms. There are so many reasons why it's funny, and one of those reasons is that it's not funny at all. Is that the best weapon to criticize a situation so grave?

Yeah, but my ambition was to make it an emotional rollercoaster ride. I don't mind if you're laughing at Simon wearing a strange, flamboyant lady's sunglasses and his Kim Jong-il outfit. Twenty minutes later, watching the marching scene or how [the North Korean officials] are handling Jacob as a stage performer, it's not funny at all. Then it's justifiable making a film that also makes people laugh. Most North Korean documentaries, you can hear the trumpets of the apocalypse in the background all the time.

The Red Chapel

The first time I saw Jacob and Simon in their Kim Jong-il suits, I thought they will eventually shoot us because they will understand that this is a mockery of them. But Mrs. Pak told Simon, "You display a very powerful emotion." When we went to the DMZ, Simon and Jacob were standing in a position where a bunch of tourists—I think Australians—could see them, standing on the other side. They were laughing at them, because they could easily see what they were doing. Then Simon asked Mrs. Pak, why are they laughing at us. She said, "That is just evil puppet army imperialist propaganda." She couldn't understand that they were laughing at Jacob and Simon because they were mocking the Dear Leader.

I wondered at certain moments if Mrs. Pak wasn't aware of what was going but had this role to play. It's a weird dynamic to figure out.

She is a very complicated character. At one point, we thought maybe she had had a handicapped child herself that had been taken away from her or killed at birth. There's a mystery. At first, I thought of her as a brutal, almost sadistic woman. It had a lot to do with the way she speaks English. She would call me and wake me up every morning at 7 a.m. I would say, "Good morning Mrs. Pak, did you sleep well?" She would say, "Why do you ask?" But there were times when she knew we were watching her—she was smiling and looking cheerful. When she did not know that we were looking at her, her facial structure would fall into place, and she would look like the most traumatized woman in the world, like she had gone through hell. It really freaked me out. She looked 30 years older. But it was only for 10 seconds. The general human condition of living in North Korea became visible for a few seconds.

When the guys meet the schoolgirls, for whom Simon so ardently wants to play and sing "Wonderwall," did you ever feel that genuine, human communication was being made that wasn't controlled?

We were never left alone one-on-one, but Jacob felt they had some genuine human contact with the schoolgirls. In some ways, they befriended each other. At the same time, you have to be aware that these schoolgirls are the cheerleaders of North Korea, especially the twins. They often go abroad with North Korean athletes as a visual marker. They are used as a prop. The regime has a strange fixation on twins and triplets. According to some old folklore, triplets could be a danger to the regime. So if you have triplets in North Korea, they are taken away from you and raised by the regime. I've seen this very, very freaky picture with Kim Il-sung posing with 10 sets of triplet children. It's the freakiest thing I've ever seen.

The Red Chapel

It's clear that Jacob has ethical and emotional issues with your enterprise, but was he ever at any medical risk?

He could handle most things. Sometimes he had to be in his wheelchair because he gets tired. Apart from that, he's functioning 100 percent. He had his breakdown during the first week of our stay there, even though I tried to explain to him what North Korea was like. No matter what you say or do, nothing can prepare people for actually being there. There is this ambiance, this atmosphere of melancholy and sadness which really strikes you. It's a feeling that is indescribable.

What became of Jacob and Simon after the trip?

Jacob came back to Denmark at least two meters taller than he was when we left. In many ways, what he has done was like Frodo going to Mordor and throwing the ring in the volcano. In many ways, it changed his attitude to life. Now he is a student at a university outside of Copenhagen, but he still performs as a standup comedian. Simon is very famous, like the Danish John Belushi. They are like brothers now.

Do they ever perform as The Red Chapel?

No. I thought they were like a 21st-century version of Laurel and Hardy. I thought it would be very obvious to put them onstage in Denmark, but the television series didn't create any opportunities for that.

Finally, did you ever hear from Mrs. Pak again?

I spoke with her on the phone a couple of times after we came back. She called me one Saturday morning when I was getting groceries. One day, when and if the "bamboo curtain" is torn down, I will immediately go to Pyongyang to find Mrs. Pak. It would be so interesting to meet her again, providing she can speak freely, to find out what really happened when we were there.

[The Red Chapel opens Dec. 29 at the IFC Center in New York City.]

Posted by ahillis at 11:23 AM

December 21, 2010

Notes on a Legacy

by Vadim Rizov

Tron: Legacy

I saw Tron: Legacy as God intended: in the earth-shaking confines of the IMAX Theater at the Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum ("The Best IMAX Theater in the World"). Opened in 1999 at a cost of $80 million, the Museum stands tribute to the late veteran politician, an eminently practical good-ol'-boy who, as Wikipedia notes, "had a total of five marriages, although some of them were repeats. He stopped drinking in 1981 and remained active with Alcoholics Anonymous for the remainder of his life." Bullock was actually a well-regarded politician even by liberals—he enacted water conservation and equal employment laws—but definitely a "character" who could only survive in Texas politics. His "colorful stories" include yelling "Show some leadership, you black motherfucker" at a senator, showing a reporter a gun to demonstrate precisely how much he disliked him, et al. Three posters hang from the building's side, summing up "The Story of Texas" (which has shown all day daily since opening) in three surprisingly honest words: land, opportunity, identity.

Surely few of the advocates for memorializing Bullock could have imagined how profitable that 400-seat IMAX theater could be; with many, many more IMAX 3D blockbusters to come, as a profitable attraction the IMAX theater may yet supplant the "Story of Texas" presentation that the theater really lives to show (everyday, non-stop). The screening was technically immaculate, free of children screening and patrolled by the law enforcement authorities of the state (who own the museum, natch), marred only by a seemingly endless, cutesy introduction from a staffer running his voice through a filter to sound like a computer ("Greetings programs," etc.) and ending directions about proceeding to the exits (overriding, temporarily, Daft Punk), the screening was calmly managed, quietly attended by a sell-out crowd and a total blast. Seeing the sky-high film in all its deafening glory was surely the only way to go about it (as a staggering 24% of people who paid to see it in the US this past weekend decided).

Tron: Legacy

Director Joseph Kosinski is the first David Fincher protégé to make a feature, and the initial 20 minutes of Tron: Legacy look like Zodiac's nighttime, or the perpetual darkness of the first half of The Social Network. (Fincher will be following Kosinski to Disney to make 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea, which places all the Jules Verne shout-outs here in a whole new light.) Even revving up relatively quickly for the main attraction, it's a plastic pleasure to watch. Especially cool is Garrett Hedlund's moody motorcycle ride across the city ("Center City," though a bus ad with a ".ca" URL reveals the Vancouver root; when your movie's getting expensive, best to cut corners in Canada).

Style aside, the Fincher reference is at least somewhat apposite because Tron: Legacy has at least some ideas about what the internet might mean culturally, making it a surprisingly appropriate companion to The Social Network. The original film only had Jungian symbolism to work with and shit to say about the technology it was built on. Like Avatar, Tron: Legacy is a paranoidly luddite, power-to-the-people spectacle simultaneously built on corporate money and a deep unawareness of its fundamental internal contradictions, but at least it touches on some issues. This isn't a coherent allegory, but it does at least somewhat mention what you could call "the Linux issue" (whether the internet should run on open-source and knowledge-sharing or already be 100% for-profit—the movie has no idea, really), the ethics of piracy and, oddly, net neutrality. (Who should pay for what on the internet? We know where the FCC currently stands...)

Tron: Legacy

It's not necessary to hyperbolically pretend that the brief talking points passed over in the film render it a startlingly acute view of Web Society 2K10 or some such. Despite the opening, briefly glanced-over notions, it's precisely satisfying as a tribute to the power of bludgeoning colors and brute spectacle to soothe and distract, featuring a mere four momentum-killing dramatic scenes. This is almost pure spectacle; this is not Kosinki's Pandora, and we don't have to learn about the environment. Promising and delivering two hours of shamelessly hollow spectacle is about as much as you could ask of $170 million.

Despite near-universal complaints that there's too much dismal exposition and dialogue, this is infinitely swifter than Inception, the year's other F/X-heavy technology-enables-worlds-within-world. There's a convoluted mythology that was created for a bridging graphic novel (Tron: Betrayal) and video game (Tron: Evolution). If you read up on all that, it seems mainly what virgin viewers might be missing is sleek, sexy co-star Olivia Wilde's explanation of who "Zuse" (not Zeus!) is. But probably few bothered to put that much work into the film beforehand, and anyway the most important thing is the sense of play Michael "Tony Blair" Sheen brings to the role, delivering straight '70s Bowie camp. (Between Sheen and Jeff Bridges' Zen master act, the movie has more room than you'd expect for actors, or at least outsize comedians who are game.) It's adorable how, despite all the talkiness, some things can't be explained (what are the Outlands?) and have to be taken on faith. Most of this legend is inexplicable or accessible only to true believers; rather, the movie has the good taste to skip over more of it.

Tron: Legacy

It seems de rigeur for negative reviews to complain about the oft-clunky dialogue, and indeed the scene where Hedlund describes the sun ("It's warm, radiant and beautiful") to Wilde is a particular groaner. Yet complaining about his lackluster lead turn misses the point—he's a warm, flexible body, and little more need be asked of him—as does complaining about the, like, 15 pages of dialogue. Similarly, some critics seem to find the overwhelming noise and imagery inherently beneath them. Dana Stevens misses the point when snarking over the film's "very, very loud and unrelenting ambient noise" and confessing she "may have snoozed through one or two climactic battles only to be started awake by an incoming neon Frisbee." She seems to mean that as an adult, she wants subtlety and restraint and finds bombast for its own sake boring. Sure, it's a mature position, but not a reasonable or helpful one when a film's very reason to exist is fundamentally frivolous.

Much as Wendy Carlos represented the aesthetic of the original Tron perfectly, Daft Punk—who, in cameo form, co-exist happily with the old/new design they're scoring—released an initially underwhelming score. Listened to with repetition before the film, it gives an intuitive rhythm for how each action scene (often confusing and/or overwhelming on the ultra-big screen) will progress. At deafening volume, this is highly rewarding. As a light-show with roaring accompaniment, quickly forgotten but dazzling in the moment, the film proposes that a certain kind of forceful disposability takes you way beyond the simple pleasures of a rudimentary narrative, and that with the right kind of attitude, noise and chaos can be as soothing as discipline and quiet. Pulverizing isn't a corollary of (or antithetical to) entertainment, but it's a kind of entertainment, one of the only ones mainstream film can offer right now, and hoping it goes way won't help anything. Let the wall of noise wash over you.

Tron: Legacy

Posted by ahillis at 1:32 PM

December 17, 2010

HOLIDAY DVD OF THE WEEK: Ten Thousand Points of Light

by Steve Dollar

Ten Thousand Points of Light

No less an intrepid globetrotter than Werner Herzog once declared that the most exotic culture in his death-defying travels was to be found in North America. Though I'd trace it back to William Eggleston's under-the-radar 1973 documentary Stranded in Canton, the genre that critic Jim Hoberman would later coin as "Americanarama" seemingly arose to prove Herzog's assertion. Between the late '70s of the director’s own Stroszek and into the '80s of Vernon, Florida, Stranger Than Paradise, Blue Velvet and Something Wild, all the hipper auteurs were, to varying degrees, taking detours into Waffle House Nation. Ten Thousand Points of Light Whether the tone was deadpan ironic, sideshow creepy or joyously phenomenological, these films nearly always relied on the perspective of a character in limbo, variously terrorized or liberated by the oddball milieu, even if the character was the filmmaker himself.

Shot during the holiday seasons of 1989-'90 and exhibited a year later, Ten Thousand Points of Light arrived at the end of the wave, its title spinning off of George H.W. Bush's 1988 speech at the Republican National Convention and its reference to "a thousand points of light." The Reagan Era was in slow fadeout, with President Bubba—Bill Clinton—looming in the wings, not yet a contender but soon enough to turn the White House into its own Americanarama set.

Ten Thousand Points of Light Unless you happened to be living in Atlanta at the time, you've probably never heard of George King's documentary. It's a modest little thing, observant of a local phenomenon that might have slipped into the backdrop of a Jonathan Demme or David Lynch movie. Every year, the Townsend Family of Stone Mountain, Georgia—a town built around an actual mountain whose bas-relief carvings of Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee make it the Mt. Rushmore of the Confederacy, complete with Pink Floyd laser shows—would decorate its home for the Yuletide. Paying a visit to the so-called "Elvis Christmas House" was a ritual, not only because the place was blazing with twinkling Christmas tree lights (about 45,000 of them), but because the family's profound affinity for the Baby Jesus left room to embrace the other King of kings—Elvis Presley.

Ten Thousand Points of Light "It seems that Elvis and Christmas goes together," the matriarch, Margaret Townsend says as the video begins. "You know nothing is going to take the place of Christ. Christ was born on Christmas Day. But Elvis was a good man, and he was always good to everybody." It's not every sweet old grandma who invites thousands of total strangers into her boudoir, which she has rechristened the "Fantasy Room" because it's decorated floor to ceiling with Elvis memorabilia, all the better, she tells these good country people, to… uh-huh, fantasize. The rest of the Townsend estate is no less grandiose in its all-American splendor. It's a kind of discount Graceland, with all its starry spangles sourced from QVC and various chain-smoking children and grandchildren serving as tour guides.

TEN THOUSAND POINTS OF LIGHT director George King King, an expatriate English documentarian who specializes in civil rights and social history, jumped at the chance to commemorate the Townsends and their epic roadside attraction when he learned that the family was going to pull the plugs. Or, in papa Raymond Townsend's parlance: "C'est la vie, sayanora, hasta luego, kung fu and chop suey—baby, this is it!" Shooting with what was at hand (a VHS camera that would make Harmony Korine proud), King could not have expected that Light might one day be released on DVD. Which it has, in a 20th anniversary edition, by the Atlanta-based archival music label Dust-to-Digital, a Grammy-winning outfit that specializes in meticulously researched and extravagantly packaged collections of raw Southern gospel, blues and folk obscurities.

Ten Thousand Points of Light This documentary fits right in, but not solely as local color. Though he's technically an outsider, King doesn't play the naïve filmmaker card, the stock in trade, for instance, of self-consciously wacky broadcaster Louis Theroux, whose Weird Weekends series thrived on quirky Americana. Neither, really, does he obsess over the bric-a-brac, mining details like the household's Santa Claus-themed toilet seat covers, or the Christ child replicated in molded marshmallow, for easy irony. Instead, in a brief half-hour, King lets the Townsends speak for themselves. Single mom Gloria chews over the on-again, off-again details of her marriage to a boy she met while flirting on-duty at Captain D's. Raymond, the soul of generosity, allows as to how fulfilling it is to walk carloads of revelers through his house, until someone decides to "get smart" with him. Then he pulls up his shirt to reveal his secret to keeping rowdies in line: a handgun strapped to his waist.

Ten Thousand Points of Light To bring long-ago fans of the Elvis Christmas House up to date, the DVD offers current interviews with the now Charlotte, NC-based Raymond, Gloria and Diana (who was a toddler when the original footage was shot)—suddenly turning a Dixie-fried encomium to old-fashioned dream making into an episode from The Up Series. As the bittersweet lilt of a honky-tonk refrain ("Daddy won't be home for Christmas, again") plays over the closing credits, the video leaves a pretty gosh darn poignant impression after all these years. It may be a blue Christmas without her, but somewhere in heaven, Margaret Townsend is dancing with Elvis.

Posted by ahillis at 11:16 AM

December 16, 2010

PODCAST: John Cameron Mitchell

RABBIT HOLE director John Cameron Mitchell
[photo by Nigel Smith / indieWIRE]

For a filmmaker associated best with exploring gender and sexuality onscreen in such audacious, stylized films as Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus, John Cameron Mitchell seems an unlikely but inspired choice to helm David Lindsay-Abaire's pared-down adaptation of his own Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, Rabbit Hole (opening in limited release on December 17, nationwide January 14):

RABBIT HOLE is a vivid, hopeful, honest and unexpectedly witty portrait of a family searching for what remains possible in the most impossible of all situations. Becca and Howie Corbett (Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart) are returning to their everyday existence in the wake of a shocking, sudden loss. Just eight months ago, they were a happy suburban family with everything they wanted. Now, they are caught in a maze of memory, longing, guilt, recrimination, sarcasm and tightly controlled rage from which they cannot escape. Becca hesitantly opens up to her opinionated, loving mother (Dianne Wiest) and secretly reaches out to the teenager involved in the accident that changed everything (Miles Teller); Howie lashes out and imagines solace with another woman (Sandra Oh). Yet, as off track as they are, the couple keeps trying to find their way back to a life that still holds the potential for beauty, laughter and happiness. The resulting journey is an intimate glimpse into two people learning to re-engage with each other and a world that has been tilted off its axis.

Calling from Los Angeles, Mitchell spoke with me about Rabbit Hole and why making the film was a personally cathartic experience, but our brief chat also touched on his love for comic books, why LGBT-themed indies are routinely mediocre, Hedwig on Broadway, and what he wants for Christmas this year.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (10:07)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Bright Eyes: "Down in a Rabbit Hole"
OUTRO: John Cameron Mitchell: "Tear Me Down (from Hedwig and the Angry Inch)"

Posted by ahillis at 3:31 PM

December 15, 2010

Too Much To Bear

by Vadim Rizov

Yogi Bear

Watching some of the greatest, most sophisticated technology in the world to date used to expertly render a bear's ass bouncing in 3D is sort of like observing someone use an iPhone to play solitaire: as an indicator of how far we've come, it's both impressive and depressing. Such is Yogi Bear, which uses Avatar-worthy 3D technology to present (among other sights) Yogi and Boo Boo dancing not just to "Baby Got Back" but "Don't Stop Believin'" as well. Computers have come a long way since rendering 2000's The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle, the first film to attempt translating beloved cartoon characters to the real world via CGI. TV's The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show being such a cultural high-water mark, it was mildly disappointing director Des McAnuff's film didn't know what to do with the iconic vaudevillians, and Piper Perabo clearly couldn't tell what direction her sightline was meant to be. Since then, we've been treated to much less disappointing, lowered-expectation renditions of monotone kitties (Bill Murray as Garfield, twice) and farting dogs (Marmaduke, an abomination against God). Forthcoming from the Warner Bros. mill are a Pepé Le Pew movie (voiced by Mike Meyers, naturally) and one for poor old Speedy Gonzales. Those digital, dubbed critters won't shut up anytime soon.

Yogi Bear Normally, such greedy spin-offs are greeted with weary indifference and shrugging resignation. But something about director Eric Brevig's multiplex product seems to have touched a nerve with people from the get-go. There is, in fact, a Google auto-complete for "yogi bear poster controversy," alluding to a first round of artwork in which Yogi, perched behind poor old Boo Boo, leading to suspicions of gay sex. (The LGBT slang term for hairy, heavy-set men was too easy to evoke in that poster's unfortunate tagline "Great things come in bears.") Then, for months, Tim Heidecker (co-mastermind of Comedy Central's Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!) and comic Neil Hamburger combined forces to warn people against the film. And just a few days prior to release came the quickly-spread "alternate ending," an independently conceived satire in which Yogi and Boo Boo re-enact The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Clearly, a tipping point's been reached. The wheels won't stop turning—there's nothing more persuasive than a five-year-old kid that really, really wants to see a movie and won't shut up about it—but that doesn't mean we have to like it.

Yogi Bear It's not that a childhood classic is being desecrated: in Yogi Bear's case, it's more that it's unclear why a never-particularly-beloved show by a notoriously cheapjack firm is suddenly being given all the visual gloss its creators never bothered with. Granted enough time and ubiquity, any children's character can become adored through sheer tenacity. That's fortunate for Hanna-Barbara, successful mongers of cut-rate goods for decades. Both the original Yogi Bear and The Flintstones cribbed heavily from The Honeymooners, only without the wit: H-B's gags were always pedestrian. Yogi's best asset was his lovably lunkheaded voice (modeled on Art Carney's Ed Norton) and predilection for lame rhymes. Initially, Yogi longed for escape; in his first appearance ("Yogi Bear's Big Break"), he spent the whole narrative trying to get out of Jellystone National Park, only to frantically demand re-admittance when it turned out the outside world was busily firing bullets on the first day of hunting season.

YOGI BEAR's Tom Cavanaugh Such grim themes of conservation underlie the new film, proving that Ferngully: The Last Rainforest is one of those rare movies that inexplicably haunts formulaic children's entertainment to this day. The problem, again, is lumber: the corrupt town mayor wants a budget surplus for his constituents to power him to the governorship, and rezoning the national preserve into a timber source is how it's going to be. Yogi (voiced by Dan Aykroyd, who occasionally slips into his old SNL salesman-patter mode) and Boo Boo (Justin Timberlake, in an impressively spot-on impersonation) are forced to team up with arch-nemesis Ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh).

Marmaduke Because mainstream kiddie movies must Teach Lessons, Yogi Bear is basically antithetical to the original's ethos: Yogi's antics are no longer a source of fun, but a serious threat to Jellystone's future. He accidentally sets a bunch of fireworks in motion at a still crowd, laying fiery waste to the ground. (His ursine forest companion Smokey would not be pleased.) After enough of these shenanigans, Ranger Smith finally turns the familiar catchphrase on its ear, chewing out our buffoonish hero with the memorable rejoinder "So tell me Yogi: how smart are you now?" With the character's sole raison d'etre called into question, the film proceeds through his arc of redemption. Such, strangely, has been the awfully counterintuitive case with all these ready-made franchises: the comic foibles that made the characters popular are turned into weaknesses to be overcome: Garfield had to save Odie, and Marmaduke had to get over his lack of coordination and master surfing. We always kill the thing we love.

YOGI BEAR's Anna Faris While Yogi Bear's advertising has been colossally smothering—and at least one more of its posters is just straight-up vile, with what appears to be cheese melted from the sun smeared all over the bears' noses and fur—is as innocuously wan like every other movie of its lunchbox-friendly stamp. It even omits the trailer's big joke about the diarrhea-like sounds made by Boo Boo's stomach during digestion, settling instead for Anna Farris noting she wrote a letter with "bird poop and spit." (There is, however, a parody of "La Bamba" playing in one scene that goes "La-la-la-la-la-lasagna," which makes you wonder if a former Garfield writer saved one for the vault.)

Yogi Bear Frankly, Yogi Bear is a disappointment precisely because it's not outright terrible. It's certainly peculiar: in the film's universe, people never blink at a talking bear but flood the park to see a near-extinct turtle. Otherwise, it mostly repeats the same formula of every '90s family flick in which a child (or child-like character) learns to obey one's elders while still "being yourself," and not seeing any contradiction between the two. The carelessly gross marketing and attendant, unusually grouchy responses aimed at it are more remarkable than the movie itself, which is, well, just as smart as the average kids' movie—offensive to the canon but tolerable in the moment. Before they fade, hang on to those memories of this leering, cheese-smeared beast who has come to steal the time of parents everywhere. Next year, the hyperventilation begins anew... here come the Smurfs!

Posted by ahillis at 2:23 PM | Comments (2)

December 12, 2010

Dead Poets Society

by Steve Dollar

And Everything Is Going Fine

Dead men tell no tales, yet through the magic of the moving image they find a new kind of life, not in the flesh but the flickering resurrection of their own archives.

Spalding Gray left behind 120 hours of film and video when he died in January 2004, following a jump off the Staten Island Ferry, a fateful occurrence that came as a shock to the public. Family and friends of the actor and monologist had long coped with his suicidal tendencies, which had been aggravated by brain damage from a dreadful 2001 car crash in Ireland. The circumstances of the accident are touched on, and poignantly so, but the very end of Gray's life isn't part of And Everything Is Going Fine. Steven Soderbergh fashioned the new documentary out of old home movies, low-key documentary footage, TV interviews and ghosty videotapes of Gray's early performances in the late 1970s – before filmed versions of shows like Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box and the director's own Gray's Anatomy made Gray an unlikely household name beyond the downtown Manhattan avant-garde theater scene he helped to invent when he co-founded The Wooster Group in 1975.

And Everything Is Going Fine As such, the film deals only with Gray's life as it was recorded, which means that most of its 87 minutes consist of the artist talking about himself, since that's what he did, not just for a living but as a way to live, certainly as a form of therapy: a first-person talking cure as memoir as existential canvas. It wasn't all about him, of course. "I am not Samuel Beckett," Gray insisted. "I am not a navel gazer. Beckett's a great writer but I'm not a minimalist." More like a prism, a man whose native neuroses and acute sense of life's uncertainties refracted the world he experienced into dryly comic anecdotes. He used extreme candor and exquisite timing to transform the ordinary and the outrageous into something that felt true. The stories let him surf the chaos, whether the moments were absurd—the difficulty of rising to the occasion during an abbreviated career as a '70s porn performer—or tragic, as was the suicide of his mother at age 52, an incident that haunted his life and work and therefore this film, whose reflections on suicide foreshadow his own.

"And I am there with my mother in Rhode Island and she is going mad. She's having a nervous breakdown. She's tearing her hair out from the back of her head and I am trying to calm her down by reading to her from Alan Watts' book Psychotherapy East and West, laboring under that romantic idea of R.D. Laing's that every person who has a nervous breakdown is so lucky because they come out the other side of it with such great wisdom, provided they come out the other side. And I was trying to help my mother try to come out the other side but she wasn't listening to Alan Watts.

And Everything Is Going Fine The film's purity of approach is refreshing, with a patchwork of formats depicting Gray aging and rejuvenating back and forth, over and over again, even as the narrative follows a linear course. Because the monologues (and selective interviews) find Gray circling back to the same themes and memories repeatedly, the chronology can juxtapose the performer at different stages of life. The late '70s of Sex and Death to the Age 14. The rising star of Cambodia and all the minor Hollywood roles. The mellow family man at home on Long Island with the wife and kids, a tremendous midlife shift that found Gray, in a later piece, hauling a boombox on his shoulder as he boogied to Chumbawumba.

"I'm a poetic journalist," he tells an interviewer. "I like telling the story of life better than I do living it."

Heroically whipped into shape by Gray's Anatomy editor Susan Littenberg, Fine makes a rather zesty task out of structuring its subject's creatively minded chaos. Gray still seems much too alive for a hipster postmortem and in its final image—of toddler Spalding dancing in a circles in his Rhode Island backyard, as music by his son Forrest plays on the soundtrack—suggests nothing so much as the eternal return.

I Am Secretly An Important Man

Gray was ever flying the flannel, but his patrician Yankee accent was at least a coast away from the grating, aggressive, prison-lingo littered voice of Steven "Jesse" Bernstein. The Seattle poet, who took his own life in 1991, became something of a living legend in his brief 40 years, a subculture hero whose admirers included William S. Burroughs, Kurt Cobain and Oliver Stone. A more defiantly underground character would be hard to imagine, but the Seattle rock scene of the late 1980s turned out to be an ideal milieu for Bernstein, who was as much a genuine outcast as many of the grunge kids imagined themselves to be. He was a skinny, bow-legged dude with Coke bottle glasses and a piercing stare, prone to bipolar episodes and drug use, and generally unemployable.

I Am Secretly An Important Man I Am Secretly an Important Man, which opens December 15th at New York's IFC Center, is a perfect title for Pete Sillen's documentary about Bernstein. The writer and performer remains such a secret that the film plays out as a kind of mystery, with the director playing investigator. Sillen was lucky in that Bernstein was obsessed with constant video documentation of himself and was an incessant collaborator, leaving a huge trail of pixels and paper—not to mention a string of ex-wives, ex-lovers and two now-grown sons. Some of the footage is so grainy and degraded it looks marvelously like the video equivalent of a photocopied 'zine. But while the film's immersion in form as content conveys a potent sense of the Seattle aesthetic, Sillen also had to roam farther afield.

Tracing Bernstein's evolution from a bright but offbeat Los Angeles schoolboy to the grunge poet laurate with homemade tattoos covering both his hands, Sillen finds a subject who's a bit Zelig-like. Bernstein had more unusual experiences before he was 18 than most people do in a lifetime. He met jazz piano genius Phineas Newborn Jr. while confined to Camarillo State Mental Hospital. He hitched a ride on Ken Kesey's magic bus. He worked as an opening act for the Holy Modal Rounders, whom he abandoned when he feared they were trying to hold him captive. And so on. Sillen's previous films include a pair of intimate, thoughtful documentaries on idiosyncratic Southern performers (Benjamin Smoke, codirected with Jem Cohen, and Speed Racer: Welcome to the World of Vic Chesnutt), efforts that thoughtfully take in the environment that shapes their subjects as much as the subjects themselves. Secretly is no different, attuned to informal, interstitial asides that don't seem necessary but enrich the viewing experience.

I Am Secretly An Important Man The film delivers only enough of Bernstein performing—an electrifying reading of his "hit single," Come Out Tonight, shutting down the hecklers as he opens for the noise band Big Black, audio excerpts from his Sub-Pop album Prison—to define his approach and arouse curiosity. Which is fine. Bernstein's actual life, lived on the edge but with a sometimes beatific sweetness about it, may have been the greater work of art. People approach Bernstein as if he was some sort of extraterrestrial, his older brother reflects, but "he was really Huckleberry Finn with a little extra chili pepper."

As a warm-up before the run of I Am Secretly an Important Man, Sillen will screen his short films, including the aforementioned Speed Racer, plus Grand Luncheonette and Branson: Musicland U.S.A. at 7pm on Dec. 14 at the IFC Center. He'll also show a brief working cut of his upcoming feature length documentary on the Masonic Order in America, Free and Accepted.

Posted by ahillis at 8:43 PM

December 9, 2010

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Milk of Sorrow

by Vadim Rizov

The Milk of Sorrow

There's a devastating moment in I Heart Huckabees when Lily Tomlin brings Jason Schwartzman into a room where a woman of indeterminate Latin American origin is chanting about famine ("we mashed locusts to make bread"). Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman like to bring her in as a "special treat" for their clients, a joke that serves as a quick mockery of the kind of poverty filmmaking made to pander to liberal audiences, in which learning about and watching atrocities somehow makes you a better person.

The Milk of Sorrow It's the kind of tone that could make you nervous about watching a movie titled The Milk of Sorrow, which does in fact begin with an old woman singing about her rape by Peru's Shining Path militia. Unless you're predisposed to fight for the preservation of oral indigenous traditions, feeling bored by someone's description of being raped is an odd, uncomfortable sensation that can simply make you feel like a terrible person. The Milk of Sorrow, though, isn't at all that film: it's probably the drollest comedy about rape on the record. That's reductive and likely sounds callous, but it's richer than that.

The Milk of Sorrow Writer-director Claudia Llosa enjoys wedding setpieces. Her first film Madeinusa is basically structured around one long bacchanalia: the "Holy Time" of Easter Weekend, when God isn't watching and anything can be done. This translates into the tale of a girl actually named "Madeinusa" whose father is intent on taking her virginity. Littered with religious iconography and only be taken allegorically, it's viscerally irritating in the same way any film that threatens incest in the first ten minutes is, with a humid atmosphere akin to Lucrecia Martel's La Cienaga. The Milk of Sorrow is similarly structured around celebrations and rape. Heroine Fausta (Magaly Salier, the lead in both films) so fears violation she plants a potato in her vagina. It sprouts and has to be trimmed, a quality that sounds more fitting of a Jan Svankmajer premise, or at least one steeped in magical realism. The strangest trait of The Milk of Sorrow is how much it neuters potential outrageousness.

The Milk of Sorrow The Milk of Sorrow is periodically interrupted by wedding sequences, which are staged as comic setpieces of kitsch, presided over by a jovial emcee who calls out dancing directions. Some Peruvian critics worried the film exoticized Andean Indians. ("The Milk of Sorrow" does for Peru and Peruvians what John Boorman's Deliverance did for the Appalachians and the mountain people of Georgia," read one Peruvian editorial. ) The film played better abroad, where those problems don't really come across if you don't have enough context: for better or worse, The Milk of Sorrow is focused more on the possibilities of showy rituals than how they make people look. As guests dance and the emcee behaves like a square-dance caller, it's hard not to be amused. Llosa films in long, unbroken takes away from the action, working in the Jarmusch-ian deadpan, observational mold of many a festival film.

The Milk of Sorrow Madeinusa premiered at Sundance, and Llosa's background is in advertising: if her first film rejects the crowd-pleasing requirements of both that festival and selling things, The Milk of Sorrow embraces anything it can do to make a potentially unwatchable subject not just watchable but enjoyable. The newer film is basically a very good Sundance crowd-pleaser in which a shy woman and a taciturn gardener bond. More specifically, he tries to look after her and walks her back while she constantly feels worried about rape (exhibiting the same behavioral patterns as, perhaps, an anorexic), but the tone's familiar: a low-key slowburner about a woman gradually trying to re-enter an at-ease mental state. In execution, it's like a better if narcotized take on The Station Agent. Its palatability is as strategic as Llosa's first film is irritating.

The Milk of Sorrow Claudia Llosa's work is haunted by Shining Path like the Romanian New Wave is always (obliquely or overtly) about Ceausescu's Romania and communism's hangover. Her first film goes about the subject in an overtly allegorical way, from its title character's name on down. The Milk of Sorrow is relatively non-didactic by comparison, and it's less dedicated to bluntly allegorical grimly unpleasant scenes. Neither are exactly "confrontational" (in the Gaspar Noe sense), but the second film renders one of the hardest-to-watch subjects in a palatable form. It sounds like a backhanded compliment to say, but against all odds, the film is fun. The more you think about that, the bolder that achievement seems.

Posted by ahillis at 11:49 AM

CONTEST: Micmacs DVD Giveaway

micmacsposter.jpg

An underground lair serves as the point of inspiration for this "deeply whimsical fantasy comedy (with echoes of Jodorowsky's Rainbow Thief) from French cause célèbre Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amélie, The City of Lost Children)," set in a post-9/11 Europe. In Micmacs, underdogs battle heartless industrial giants, our gang relive the battle of David and Goliath, with all the imagination and fantasy of Buster Keaton. "At its best, Micmacs is a robust, enjoyably lunatic game," writes Tasha Robinson. "It's social commentary by way of a good Looney Tune." And now you have a chance to win the Micmacs DVD thanks to a giveaway sponsored by GreenCine and Sony Pictures Classics.

 To enter, email contest@greencine.com and include your name, email address, mailing address, and, if you're a GreenCine member, your username in the email, and "Micmacs" in the subject header. Entries without all this information will not be considered. (You will not be added to a mailing list!). One winner will be selected at random from all valid entries. You must be a US resident to enter. The deadline to enter is December 31. Winner will be notified by e-mail and announced in future editions of the GreenCine Dispatch newsletter.

See the Micmacs trailer below:

Posted by ahillis at 9:44 AM

December 7, 2010

PODCAST: Guillermo del Toro

CRONOS filmmaker Guillermo del Toro

Years before capturing fanboy hearts with Hellboy and Blade II (and auteurist minds with Pan's Labyrinth and The Devil's Backbone), Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro first found his international audience with 1993's Cronos, released today on DVD and a gorgeous Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection:

Guillermo del Toro made an auspicious and audacious feature debut with CRONOS, a highly unorthodox tale about the seductiveness of the idea of immortality. Kindly antiques dealer Jesús Gris (Federico Luppi) happens upon an ancient golden device in the shape of a scarab, and soon finds himself the possessor and victim of its sinister, addictive powers, as well as the target of a mysterious American named Angel (a delightfully crude and deranged Ron Perlman). Featuring marvelous special makeup effects and the haunting imagery for which del Toro has become world-renowned, CRONOS is a dark, visually rich, and emotionally captivating fantasy.

Discussing the creative path that led to making Cronos, del Toro spoke with me about how all of his films combine his childhood obsessions, the painstaking design process behind the titular scarab, his giallo-influenced 1987 short Geometria, and why his only vice in life is his man-cave of an office nicknamed "Bleak House" (featured in a amazing bonus feature on this disc).

To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:58)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Kronos Quartet: "Mini Skirt"
OUTRO: Synthetic: "This is Bleak House"

Posted by ahillis at 7:27 AM | Comments (1)

December 3, 2010

Once You Go Black

by Steve Dollar

BLACK SWAN's Natalie Portman

"The only performance that makes it, that makes it all the way, is the one that achieves madness." - Mick Jagger, Performance

Everybody's Lucifer had it right. The swivel-hipped satyr could as easily been giving stage notes to Nina Sayers, Natalie Portman's bedeviled ballerina, as she struggles to embrace the psyche-splintering demands of her performance in Swan Lake—which includes a dual role as the Black Swan, the Jungian alter-ego of the title figure, and the thematic engine of Darren Aronofsky's film of the same name. The dynamics were a bit different in Performance, the 1968 Donald Cammell/Nicolas Roeg film in which Jagger's hermetic rock god Turner plays mind games with a mob enforcer (James Fox) on the run, who has tumbled into his Dionysian lair. There, sexy druggy things ensue, before someone dies and Turner may or may not have become a doppelgangster.

BLACK SWAN director Darren Aronofsky Seeing as Performance hit screens in 1970, when audiences were as likely to be stoned or munching blotter acid as they were popcorn, its hallucinatory style—synonymous with Roeg—is practically inchoate compared to Aronofsky's carefully attenuated orchestration of Nina's mental meltdown in Black Swan. That's one of the new film's strengths, even as he taps into the cinema of insanity, doubles, shattered mirrors, bent psychologies, and edgy sexuality that includes films like Persona and Mulholland Dr., not to mention freaked-out classics of mental disintegration like Repulsion, and the thriller continuum that runs from Hitchcock to Cronenberg. Aronofsky keeps an impressively tight focus on the core of his story before it gradually spins toward a tripped-out climax that rates as the most exhilarating screen moment of the year.

BLACK SWAN's Winona RyderIt begins as backstage drama, almost a documentary in its matter-of-factness. The close-ups of Portman going through her preparatory ritual, cracking toes, pulling off bloody toenails, bolstering them with tape, the unyielding demands of the arduous rehearsals, the insecure glances and catty asides of the other dancers, the daily bulimic purging … it's all as process-driven as The Wrestler, the film's macho, low-brow flipside, which shares an obsession with physical suffering, persona management, and a devotion to an art form so complete it erases the lines between death and glory. Aronofsky's use of a similar, Dardennes-style camera angle—often shooting handheld close-ups from behind Portman's head—isn't the only obvious thing, but there are subtler resonances as well. Just as Mickey Rourke's doomed Randy "The Ram" Robinson encounters an old ringmate whose bladder now drains into a bag as he sits in a wheelchair, Portman's Nina gets a terrifying glimpse of a possible future when she visits Beth McIntyre (Winona Ryder, barely recognizable)—the ballerina she has replaced in Swan Lake—in the hospital. Heartbroken after being dumped from the role, and the physical affections of the Balanchine-like company director played by Vincent Cassel, she wanders into Manhattan traffic and gets smashed to bits.

BLACK SWAN's Mila Kunis It's not Nina's body that comes apart, even though the physical demands that the role made on Portman (and co-star Mila Kunis) saw her drop weight and strengthen sinews so that her entire corporeal presence changed dramatically—if, indeed, the camera makes a pleasurable fetish of detailing that transformation in its every facet. No, the fragmentation happens on the inside. The film stacks the deck against Nina, whose almost cyborgian drive for perfection is reinforced by the year's creepiest movie mom: Barbara Hershey's invasive stage mom as prison guard, a former dancer who abandoned the ballet to raise her child. Therese DePrez's wickedly conceptualized design pulls fascinating stuff out of the Hershey character's back story, having her be an amateur artist obsessed with painting canvases with big-eyed faces that suggest Margaret Keane on crack rock, but all meant to be childhood portraits of Nina. Likewise, Nina's bedroom (and/or cell) is a fairytale domain of pinkest pink, presided over by a menagerie of stuffed animal dolls that, as everything begins to go to shit, become as disturbing as that rotting rabbit carcass in Catherine Deneuve's refrigerator in Repulsion. Trapped in this pre-pubescent girly world, the classically frigid, virginal Nina finds her quest for perfection on a collision track with her role's command to be imperfect: to be the sinister Black Swan, driven by aggressive and sexual instincts whose cultivation Nina’s rival, Kunis's pill-popping, crotch-rubbing, cigarette-smoking Lily appears all too delighted to assist in.

BLACK SWAN's Natalie Portman This promiscuous near-twin and maybe-lover could be a double, an object of desire, a frenemy, or—more often than not—a fantasy projection. As Nina's spiral begins, she's haunted by an imagined Black Swan even as her compulsive scratching/self-mutilation appears to be encouraging black wings to sprout from her shoulder blades. Whirling up into dizzying absurdity as Nina explodes out of herself, the film's sense of the real becomes daringly lost within the character's own subjective vision, a psychosexual hall of mirrors in which she makes it, makes it all the way.

Posted by ahillis at 12:39 PM