April 29, 2011

Tribeca 2011: Critic's Notebook 2.

by Steve Dollar

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Jurors at the 10th annual Tribeca Film Festival followed GreenCine Daily’s own recommendations, awarding the best narrative feature prize to Lisa Aschan’s edgy, estrogenized psych-out She Monkeys and top doc honors to Alma Har’el’s sweet and lyrical Bombay Beach – one film rigorously composed, the other a shambling, handmade assemblage.

Also richly rewarding was best actress winner Carice van Houten’s performance in Black Butterflies. Biographical dramas about tortured artistic souls set against a tense historical backdrop can be predictable, grandiose and rather pious. Dutch director Paula Van Der Oest avoids many of the pitfalls associated with the genre, although part of that is the relative obscurity of her subject, a poet with whom most Americans are not familiar (and therefore unable to draw comparisons to real-life knowledge of the character). Known as South Africa’s answer to Sylvia Plath, Ingrid Jonker killed herself in 1965 by walking into the sea at Three Anchor Bay in Capetown. The end is foreshadowed by the film’s opening scene, a “not waving, drowning” moment in which a struggling Jonker is rescued by her soon-to-be lover, the writer Jack Cope.

Van Houten (Black Book) is marvelous to watch, a tough, passionate whirlwind of an actress who summons the steely verve of a Judy Davis. She gives real backbone to the familiar arc of the self-destructive artist pushing against the social constraints of her time (South Africa in the Apartheid clampdown of the 1960s) while engaging in turbulent relationships with difficult lovers and a repressive politico father who, in horrific irony, was South Africa’s censorship chief (played by that hobo with a shotgun himself, Rutger Hauer, in art-house mode).

Movies like these earned the fest, which continues through Sunday, a little more respect this year. Even the array of pre-release star vehicles, a Tribeca trademark and/or curse, didn’t all suck.

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Everything Must Go, in which professional jackass Will Ferrell trades in his Ron Burgundy persona for a 12-pack of PBR to play an alcoholic fuck-up, was a nice surprise. Written and directed by Dan Rush from the Raymond Carver short story “Why Don’t You Dance?”, it’s a loose adaptation that taps into Ferrell’s inner sad sack to get at behavioral truths and, yes, redemption. The actor spends most of the film camped out on a front lawn in suburban Phoenix, portraying an ace corporate player whose fall from grace (and his AA meeting schedule) costs him his job, his wife, and everything else, save for all his possessions, now scattered across the front yard.

It could almost be a one-man play, as Ferrell interacts with his man-stuff, veering into monologues not unlike Tom Hanks stranded in Cast Away. But when the pretty pregnant lady who just moved into the neighborhood turns out to be Rebecca Hall, a woman with marital issues of her own, you suspect the movie may take a certain turn. It doesn’t, and Hall doesn’t even steal the show. A chubby kid called Christopher “C.J.” Wallace shows up, and makes the whole narrative click. The young actor (son of rappers Biggie Smalls and Faith Evans) is another lonely soul in this lawn-sprinkler limbo, and while the cranky-bonding/children-speak-the-hard-facts/mentoring-as-therapy scenario is completely predictable, you haven’t seen a 12-year-old performance this assured in a long time. The movie functions at a slightly absurdist level of reality – it’s a long way from realism – yet when it milks the tears of a clown, Ferrell makes the waterworks feel earned.

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By hook or by crook, I’m going to find the full six-episode BBC series that Michael Winterbottom edited down into his feature-length foodie wanderjahr, The Trip. No doubt, this reduction serves the comedic jousting of director favorites Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon (picking up where they left off in Tristam Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story), playing versions of themselves – a la Curb Your Enthusiasm – as middle-aged British frenemies on a dining tour of the breathtaking Lake District. But there’s less fodder for foodies and more droll foolery in the big-screen edition, which only offers fleeting glimpses of various gourmet ecstasies that await the actors. Coogan, or “Coogan,” has been dumped by his girlfriend and invites Brydon to take her place on the journey, paid for by a magazine that has assigned Coogan a feature piece.

As such, the story is a little reminiscent of Sideways, with Coogan’s narcissism as the “issue,” rather than alcoholism, and the pair’s unendingly hilarious dueling Michael Caine impersonations taking the place of Paul Giamatti’s wine-soaked rants. Underneath the fancy tablecloths, the flowing libations and Coogan’s string of one-night stands (a pretty concierge, a celebrity photographer), there’s a nuanced exploration of the nature of friendship and the self-esteem rattling demands of the actor’s life – an air of melancholy that makes the punchlines land harder than you first realize.

Addicts of sheer, unadulterated gastro-porn were better served by Jiro Dreams of Sushi. David Gelb's low-key documentary, which was picked up for theatrical release by independent distributor Magnolia last week, should be irresistible to Top Chef addicts. A 20-course meal at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a tiny sushi restaurant in Toyko's fancy-pants Roppongi Hills, will cost about $300 and be over within roughly 15 minutes. One of fewer than 100 restaurants in the world to be awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide, it is the sacred temple of master chef Jiro Ono, a tireless icon of Japanese cuisine who, at age 85, still never takes a day off. Much as I love close-ups of perfect toro being sliced and the gauzy, fashion-spread presentations of various fish after meticulous preparation, Jiro feels awfully restrained. It’s an engaging anecdotal history of a living legend that will make you crave a seat at Ono’s 10-seat sushi bar. But it could use some wasabi to enliven its pickled ginger style.

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A Matter of Taste has no such methodical slickness. Its run-and-gun feel is, however, in synch with the chaotic life of its subject, Tribeca chef Paul Liebrandt. Due to air on HBO this summer, it chronicles a decade in the life of the bold young Englishman trying to make his bones in the cut-throat Manhattan restaurant business. Liebrandt’s avant-garde concepts are a tad ahead of the curve, and his struggles to express a unique culinary vision make for unexpected drama as he learns New Yorkers would be just as happy with a good burger as with espuma of calf brains and foie gras.

Director Sally Rowe had the smarts to latch onto Liebrandt at the beginning of his career, following him straight through to his current success at Corton, and the long-term perspective gives her no-fuss documentary welcome if perhaps unintended affiinites with Michael Apted’s Up series. As Liebrandt speaks passionately about his cooking philosophy, the film becomes a climactic drama about a looming make-or-break review from (now former) New York Times critic Frank Bruni. The chef's self-deprecating wit keeps his Olympian ambitions on a human scale, but as he pushes to realize them the film turns into a gastronomic thriller.

Posted by cphillips at 2:18 PM

April 28, 2011

SFIFF 54: Critic's Notebook 1.

By Craig Phillips

sfifflogo.jpg There's an ice cream parlor down the street from me that is locally famous for its giant spinning wheel aimed at the indecisive or risk-taking customer. A plethora of flavors are listed on the wheel as well as several "free" spaces. You could end up with marmalade-tobacco crunch (okay, I exaggerate) but you could also really score. No, films are not like ice cream, but this is kind of how I've approached deciding which films to see at this year's San Francisco International Film Festival, while also trying to focus even more than in past years on films that may not have wide distribution. The temptations are there: Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Meek's Cutoff, Beginners - which I did see - are among the distributed films playing at SFIFF 54. But director Graham Legget and his team of programmers (Rachel Rosen, Rod Armstrong, Sean Uyehara and Audrey Chang) have done a fine job populating the fest with gems from around the world.

I also try to mix up my viewing choices also based on directors new and known, between moods dark and light, of various styles and formats. And, sometimes, just based on pure luck and convenience -- or on what the wheel spin tells me. Serendipitous surprises are the greatest pleasure of a film festival. Today and tomorrow I'll write about these pleasures (and at least one disappointment).

Nostalgia for the Light

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Patricio Guzmán, whose 1970s documentary trilogy, The Battle of Chile, and his bio Salvador Allende, focused on Chilean political strife, returns with the haunting, extraordinary dual-sided documentary Nostalgia for the Light. The film seems, at first, to be a change of pace for Guzman, as it begins as a look at a series of huge high desert telescopes in Chile's Atacama desert where the air is so incredibly dry that the night sky is crystal clear, perfect for watching the skies. But the film becomes the story of something deeper and darker: Two groups on a quest searching the past for answers, astronomers searching the skies, and in a parallel story. Chileans still searching for their "disappeared," loved ones missing since Pinochet's brutal dictatorship saw a period of terror that "swept away history and science." It's a difficult challenge, to make these two parallel stories jibe not only coherently but of a piece, but Guzman, who narrates as well, turns it into something profound and eerily natural.

The astronomers in the film consider themselves archaeologists of space in a way, only dealing with far more time separation than earth bound historians. "We manipulate the past," says one. The energy from the past takes millions or billions of years to reach us so when they look into the light of stars they are really looking into the past. Something, this film infers, that many on the ground have neglected to do. Guzman pointedly if subtly jabs at Chile's own denial and neglect of history -- the victims are forgotten or ignored by the government and many cataloguers of history, all would rather let the sands of desert cover up these atrocities. (In an odd coincidence, I'd recently watched Costa Gavras' Missing, a fictionalized thriller based on the Pinochet reign of terror, a far different film, of course, but would make an interesting companion piece with Guzman's work.)

Several people featured in the film search the barren desert for the remains of family who were victims of Chilean brutality, critics of Pinochet who were taken and thrown in concentration camps, such as the one in this wasteland near the observatory. One of those surviving prisoners tells Guzman about how in his time there he learned about astronomy, including how to concoct a homemade device that allowed him to measure the constellations, until the military banned astronomy lessons. But he managed to preserve his inner freedom. A woman searches for her brother, digging through the desert in search of the missing, poignantly armed with only a small hand shovel, even more moving when you hear the story.

Nostalgia for the Light is about the paradox of a country (and society) that has ignored so much of its darker past, that has kept its more recent past hidden. Guzman's film is gorgeously photographed, like a dreamscape of the heavens, and of hell on earth. While it doesn't always feel as if every ambitious dot is connected, it is a sober, and sobering work.

The Colors of the Mountain

Carlos César Arbeláez's appealing debut feature is set in the remote mountainous region of Columbia near Panama border, where a group of village boys' passion for soccer gives them some pleasure in a place disrupted by political strife -- as violent guerilla fighters increasingly dominate the villagers lives. When Manuel's new ball - a rare, decadent gift in an impoverished place - ends up on a mine field, he and his cohorts try to figure out if it's worth getting it back. The Colors of the Mountain's deceptively simple storyline may seem not quite enough to hang your hat on, and it could use more ferocity at times, but there's certainly more going on here than the kiddie story on the surface.

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A cast of non-professional actors, mostly children, is led by the wonderfully engaging Hernán Mauricio Ocampo a total natural as the soccer-obsessed Manuel, plus Genaro Aristizabal as the picked-on, nerdy albino kid they call Poca Luz, as well as the rest of the sweetly played young cast.

Manuel's parents have an increasingly tense relationship; his father wants to show who is in charge there since he feels helpless with his place in the world, trying to fend off threats from the guerillas to join them, or else, while protecting his family and his manhood. Meanwhile, a caring new, young teacher adds a positive presence to their otherwise drab lives. All of this is seen through the child's point of view and had me fearing it would veer off into sentimentality or even fantasy, but instead the director keeps things firmly rooted in reality.

Arbeláez's use of blackouts is an occasionally annoying affectation and the editing has its share of choppy moments but his touch overall and Ocampo's utterly natural central performance help keep the film from becoming too mawkish. In fact one of the best, most moving scenes involves a simple act: when the teacher has the students paint over a graffitied wall.

The film has a sunny sense of humor but overall there's a necessary air of sadness. Finding that ball is not going to solve the problems that engulf them. A bittersweet final shot seems to signal both resilience and harder times to come.

The Colors of the Mountain will thankfully be distributed by Film Movement this summer.

Attenberg

Athina Rachel Tsangari's dramedy was described by some wags as "Dogtooth Lite," I suppose because it is another quirky Greek film (there's another connection I'll mention later). That would be fine by me, and even if it doesn't really sum the film up, it's true this would make a pretty gentle companion, warm-up piece with Giorgos Lanthimos' already legendary film. This is a far warmer vision of patriarchy, however.

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Attenberg has its own deadpan charm, as Tsangari seems to wear her Godard influence on her maníki. Starts off with two women practicing tongue kissing, which denigrates into a spitting contest and then playful animal noises, setting the tone for the film's humorous moods and interludes. One of these women, Marina's father Spyros is dying of cancer, which puts her basically on her own devices for the first time in her young life. The film centers on this sexually immature woman's romantic awakening and exploration, she claims she'd never previously felt anything for anyone - even getting grossed out by bodily contact, now Marina (Ariane Labed) is trying to make up for lost time, her dad's illness a reminder of pending mortality. She can't quite figure out which side of the fence she sits on - maybe it's both. Fascinated and repulsed by male and female anatomy, including her own - she's more like a zoologist rather than a sexual being.

And in fact the title is a reference to Sir David Attenborough, whose name they knowingly mispronounce and whose nature documentaries are a favorite of Marina and her father -- the film offers dual conversations and multiple references about humans as animals. Tsangari was quoted as saying that she approaches dramatic filmmaking like an anthropologist: “I don’t use psychology,” she says. “I prefer biology or zoology. These are my tools." And in this film she proves herself to be as observant of the human animal as Attenborough is of wildlife, but this is a far more formalist yet playful film than that would imply. It is full of bouncey dance asides and cathartically silly walks that would make John Cleese proud.

Marina has an odd, sexually magnetic (both positively and negatively charged) friendship with Bella (Evangelia Randou), a relationship that manages to be deep and yet shallow and catty. And never mind Dogtooth, Attenberg in many ways would make a better companion piece with Mike Mills' Beginners (also screened at SFIFF, and which I adored), that it is about two melancholy characters dealing with the pending death of a father, a film about death that is full of quirk and zip and playful asides. And it has a refreshing sexual frankness. When Marina develops a somewhat anonymous if still caring relationship with a man -- whom she won't introduce him to her friend because she's worried she'll steal him, and won't introduce to her father because she's not sure it's worth it -- their scenes together are depicted with an erotic eye and yet full of a believable amount of awkward fumbling around.

Some of the animalistic and silly tangents wore a bit thin for me, but Tsangari mostly manages to unpretentiously balance the ribald and real with the poignant. I might have wished the film had a bit more narrative momentum, as my interest waned from time to time, but that would be missing the point in a way -- the film is purposely comprised of pieces, if not random then seemingly disconnected, as if a collage. But it is of a piece, too, the logic connecting it all becoming clearer as it unfolds. And it's hard to look away from a film with so much spirited word play and footplay.

There is one decided connection with Dogtooth here: The lovely, appropriately moody cinematography is by Thimios Bakatakis, who also shot Lanthimos' film.

Posted by cphillips at 4:29 PM

April 27, 2011

Film of the Week: Cave of Forgotten Dreams

herzogdreamsposter.jpg By Vadim Rizov

In the last few years, there's been several signs that the Werner Herzog persona — an increasingly dominant presence in his documentaries — is tipping towards self-parody. Last year's "Werner Herzog Reads Curious George" video was initially mistaken by many people as the real thing, a sign that others can now plausibly forge their own Herzog soundtbites. Some of the more dyspeptic sentiments in Encounters at the End of the World made critic Theo Panayides daydream about "a live-action 'Muppet Show' movie with Herzog and Tommy Lee Jones as Stadler and Waldorf." Now 68, Herzog stopped placing himself directly in harm's way some time ago, but has cannily realized he's still his own most sellable aspect, barking out mystic sentiments and ridiculously bold pronouncements on demand.

Fortunately, as a comic persona, Herzog is funny and self-reflexive. Still, sometimes cracks show. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams, by far one of Herzog's most strait-laced documentaries, is mostly intended as a kind of public service: documenting perfectly preserved 30,000-year-old cave paintings most people will never have a chance to see in person, a task evidently serious enough to preclude messing around. To prevent mold damage, the Chauvet Cave in southern France only opens for an elite group of scientists for two weeks' worth of study annually. Herzog's access is rare, and he takes it seriously.

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This may be a relief: Herzog's genuinely mesmerized by the paintings, and almost certainly would've been happy to just wordlessly depict them (the end, indeed, is a severe presentation of many drawings set to vaguely religious chanting, paring down viewers' attention much like Antonio Gaudi's wordless architecture tour). That enthusiasm doesn't cross over if you're not inherently interested in the subject. There's a few fuzzy conversations with scientists about the cave's present-day resonance and what it can teach us (much gassy talk of "the modern human soul"), but the images' power never really acquires connotations resonance. (As a counter-example in making an esoteric but dry subject interesting to the uninitiated, see Patricio Guzman's Nostalgia For The Light, which pits Chilean interest in astronomy and learning about the distant past against a willful refusal to think about the country's recent political past, a productive tension the likes of which Herzog doesn't attempt.) That's a polite way of saying this viewer barely passed Western Art I and can't really work up the historical imagination necessary to engage with these images, and so your mileage may vary.

The scientists being interviewed are largely asked questions as scientists, not as as the kind of potentially interesting eccentric character sketches that often fill out Herzog's docs (recently: the sinister coroner in Grizzly Man, the anti-social penguin scientist in Encounters). The most "Herzogian" bit — an alleged "experimental archeologist" dressed in caveman furs — falls flat. Inside the cave, though, straightforward science and ad hoc lighting pragmatics — Herzog wryly apologizing for not always being able to keep his equipment out of the frame — undeniably compel. The air of concentrated, unforced scientific discipline and focus inside is compelling and refreshingly intense, as is watching the crew work out the logistics.

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Aside from the truly mind-blowing finale (in which Herzog invites us to consider albino alligators as a metaphor for humanity), the only characteristically offbeat moment that connects is watching a scientist demonstrate caveman hunting methods. Though he knows how to hold the spear, he can't throw very hard or far, and Herzog points out, not unkindly, that if he had to hunt for his dinner, he'd be doomed. (The scientist concurs.) Consistent in Herzog's documentaries is a fundamental, unexpected niceness that's empathetic where others might be exploitative of condescending: he's genuinely enthusiastic about giving the non-famous a chance to turn themselves, briefly, into an interesting anecdote.

Similarly, his interest in the many diverse topics he's examined — medieval composers, Arctic scientists, Harlem preachers — always seems genuine; he always gives his full attention. Even at his slightest (this and The Wide Blue Yonder are two of the thinner movies Herzog's made recently — narrow in the footage's focus, mostly humorless), his work turns out to be surprisingly soothing thanks to its unforced gentleness and appreciation for everyone he encounters: surely the last late-career development you'd expect from a man who used to build movies from near-psychotic confrontations with Klaus Kinski and legendary, self-imposed brushes with death. The 3D captures the cave's contours in a totally anti-sensationalist manner, betraying Herzog's on-the-record skepticism about the format as useful for anything but such rare, specific challenges.

Posted by cphillips at 12:51 PM

April 25, 2011

TRIBECA 2011 INTERVIEW: Panos Cosmatos

by Nick Schager

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Hypnotic insanity of the finest order, Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow is one of the true highlights of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Playing in the genre-centric Cinemania program, Cosmatos' debut is a nightmarish acid trip with myriad cinematic influences—Stanley Kubrick, David Cronenberg, Dario Argento, John Carpenter and Ken Russell are merely a few of its most prominent spiritual ancestors—and yet one that melds and warps its many '70s and '80s sci-fi and fantasy elements into something distinctively unsettling. With a malevolence amplified by the obliqueness of both its form and content, the 1983-set story concerns a doctor, inhumanely creepy Barry Nyle (Michael Rogers), and his patient/captive Elena (Eva Allan), who may be a psychic, and whom he treats in a facility which an intro VHS recording indicates is concerned with achieving pure happiness through therapy and pharmaceuticals.

That somewhat basic description, however, doesn't begin to convey the uniquely beguiling madness that follows, all of it conveyed through dreamlike aesthetics that reach an apex during a flashback of unholy down-the-ink-blot hellishness. While in NYC for the film's festival presentation, Cosmatos—whose late father, George P. Cosmatos, was best known for helming Rambo: First Blood Part II, Cobra and Tombstone—spoke with me about VHS box art, action figures, and balancing otherworldly ambiguity with storytelling demands.

Panos CosmatosYou certainly haven't held anything back for your maiden feature.

I just love movies so much that I felt if I was going to take that leap, I wanted to do something that was different, that I hadn't seen before. Otherwise, there's really no point to make a movie.

When I was a kid, I wasn't allowed to watch R-rated or horror films for a long time. My parents wanted to shelter me from violent imagery. But we'd go to this video store, and I'd spend hours looking at the video box covers and reading the descriptions, just imagining my own films based on these descriptions. The memory came back to me and that was the core of Beyond the Black Rainbow, the idea of making one of those films, an imaginary version based on descriptions and looking at artwork.

Years ago, I read an interview with Kurt Cobain. He grew up in a small town and read about punk rock, but the only records that were available were Black Sabbath records. So he'd listen to Black Sabbath and imagine what he thought punk rock sounded like, and that's kind of where [Nirvana's] sound came from. If you don't have access to something, you create your own version of it.

The film feels indebted to the spirit, if not the letter, of many genre classics. Were there any specific films or filmmakers you consciously evoked?

Beyond the Black RainbowNot deliberately. But when I was writing the film, I was watching a lot of Jean Rollin films, [which] are filmed in a very flat, detached, almost uncinematic way. So I liked the idea of a Jean Rollin film but framed in a much more photographic way, like Michael Mann. I kept his mentality of how he framed shots.

There are a couple of shots that are quite Michael Mann-like, although maybe it's not apparent. But the films that inspired the attitude behind it were more stuff like Georges Franju's Eyes without a Face, Last Year at Marienbad, and even Alphaville—approaching genre material from a more esoteric perspective.

Though it's not a self-conscious retro effort, did you ever fear that the film might become too much like the recent spate of self-aware genre homages?

I knew there was a possibility that it might get lumped into that sort of thing, but I had to go for it. I knew that what I was doing was different. I'm not a fan of wink-wink, nudge-nudge stuff. When I'm making something, I tune out and just focus in on my own inner world.

How did you balance the material's dreamlike atmosphere with the need to provide a narrative throughline?

I shot more information than was necessary. That way, I could modulate exactly how much was being imparted in the final cut. I ended up muting it way down because I didn't want the storyline to be in the foreground, I wanted the mood to be. All the story is there, if you pay close enough attention. Everything you need to understand what's going on is all there, but I wanted to mute it. Hopefully, it's a movie that will reward repeat viewings, because other layers will come out when you watch it.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

A second viewing definitely provided clarity for me, especially since I went in the first time without knowing anything about it.

I think the best way to watch any movie is to not know anything about it. People these days, on the Internet, they get so much info beforehand. I think it pollutes the experience. Back in the late '80s, I wanted to see a film, and there was an ad in the newspaper with just a title—Paperhouse. I didn't know what the hell it was, I just walked in and watched it. I literally didn't know anything but the title, and it was one of the most intense moviegoing experiences I've ever had. I'd like others to stumble into this movie that way, too.

How did you settle on an aesthetic?

When I write, and as I'm starting to come up with a concept, I collect hundreds and hundreds of reference images for every set or character in the film, and I use those as inspiration. Also, I create a soundtrack, a playlist, and I listen to it as I'm writing.

[Sometimes] the story is imparted just through sound. A lot of that is in the screenplay, but it also developed more when we were mixing it. The sound designer on the film, Eric Paul, is an incredibly talented guy, and loves to create an incredibly dense soundscape. Still, I knew, even as I was writing it, that it was going to be difficult to pull off, to impart actual information through abstract sound. But I think we did.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

How did you shoot the whiteout flashback sequence?

We just filmed on a white set. The look was partially created in a color-correct, but then I re-filmed the entire sequence off a computer monitor.

So you had it playing on a monitor, and then filmed the monitor?

Yeah. I wanted to have multiple layers of distance on it, to seem like a faded artifact.

The finale, on the other hand, has a slasher-flick vibe.

I thought it was maybe time for a moment of comic relief. More Laurel and Hardy, Heckyl and Jeckyl. [laughs.] I like movies that surprise me and take unexpected turns.

I wasn't allowed to watch any of that [slasher] stuff. I went to a birthday party sleepover, and they showed First Blood—ironically—and when my parents found out, they flipped out and got really mad that I'd watched this violent movie. Strangely enough, after that, they didn't give a shit anymore what I watched. I mean, why bother trying to protect him anymore?

When I did finally get to watch these films, I think I overdid it. I started having chronic nightmares as a kid about Jason and Freddy. I liked the idea of—I don't know how to say this without it being a spoiler—taking one of these characters and making them pathetic and fragile, ultimately. Barry Nyle has built up this incredibly complex ego structure around himself. But at the end of the day, he's just this feeble, pathetic man.

The film is out-of-step with mainstream B-movie fare, as if functioning as a rebuke to its contemporaries. Have any recent genre films appealed to you?

Beyond the Black RainbowI really liked Antichrist because I felt that that was a straight horror film that was totally untethered to the restrictions of a genre. But it's a horror film. I find that movie totally exhilarating for that reason, because there's nothing better than watching a film and having the feeling that almost anything can happen.

There's a Buñuel film, Belle de Jour. At the beginning, they create this sense that literally anything can happen, because a lot of it takes place in the imagination of the protagonist, and then almost nothing happens. Just the fact that they've created this world charges every scene with possibility.

What's the story with the baffling post-credits image of an action figure on the carpet?

I love when movies do that, like at the end of The Howling, there's just a shot of burgers being fried. I guess it was a shot that they couldn't put in the movie, and so they just put it at the end.

One of the things that inspired the set and costume design was Mego action figures and play-sets from the '70s. I wanted to have a Mego version of one of the characters from the film. There's a level of the film that's a dream film, and all of this could be taking place in the imagination of a kid. It's sort of like these imaginary films I created from reading the backs of these VHS boxes. Potentially, one way to look at the film is, this kid is watching TV in the suburbs, and imagining this entire world in the empty lot across the street.

Posted by ahillis at 11:45 PM | Comments (1)

April 23, 2011

TRIBECA 2011: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

Tribeca Film Festival 2011

No one ever really knows what to make of the Tribeca Film Festival, which marks its 10th anniversary with screenings of 93 features that continue through the week, mostly at a pair of Manhattan multiplexes—neither of which are in Tribeca. It's either dismissed as a bloated occasion for red carpet hoohah or misappreciated as a grab bag stuffed with sometimes surprising indies and documentaries, stuck in an awkward spot on the festival calendar after Sundance and SXSW, but immediately before Cannes. Which is to say, it's no country for name-brand auteurs, yet neither does it cultivate the micro-budget zeitgeist of the indie buzzfests.

Do some homework, though, and its amorphous sprawl yields a pretty decent do-it-yourself festival, particularly when it comes to foreign titles not yet acquired for distribution. That's not necessarily the case with all of these, but they're all solid contenders worth digging through the festival catalog to see.

Bombay Beach

She'll definitely piss off the documentary-with-a-capital-D crowd, and that's what I like about Alma Ha'rel and Bombay Beach. The Israeli director, whose background is in music video, literally stumbled into making this lyrical and lovely film on a spontaneous day trip after the 2009 Coachella festival. While shooting footage for a Beirut video with some locals she met by the Salton Sea, Ha'rel discovered a host of unusual characters making a life on the extreme margins of the notorious desert wasteland. Shot with a cheap HD camera in a sun-bleached palette, the film intersects at various points during a year in the lives of three main subjects: a young African-American football player taking refuge from gang violence in his native Los Angeles, a 7-year-old boy on a strict regimen of medications for a bipolar disorder, and a sage-like codger who scrapes together a living through illegal sales of cigarettes from a local Native American Reservation. It's way more impressionistic than investigative, as the intimate personal stories veer into dance sequences set to original music by Beirut's guiding force, Zach Condon. Conventionally minded viewers may balk at the scenes, which were rehearsed and staged, but it's a lot more rewarding to go with the film's casually meta, sympathetic flow. It's an American beauty.

Turn Me On, Goddammit

Giving a whole new context to the phrase "Norwegian wood," the teenage sex comedy Turn Me On, Goddammit would deserve an American theatrical release if only for the marketing potential of its insistent title. But first-time feature director Jannicke Systad Jacobsen has more going for her, notably a deft way with the half-wistful, half-cringey foibles of youth and a Scandinavian candor about biological imperatives. Newcomer Helene Bergsholm plays Alma, a 15-year-old girl living in a nowhere town on the southwestern coast of Norway. Her adolescent hormonal eruption commands her constant attention, as indeed the movie opens with the tall blonde lass sprawled out on the kitchen floor, masturbating to the hyperbolic exhortations of a male voice on a phone sex line—only to be interrupted when mom gets home from work. Again and again, Alma's rampant fantasy life collides with reality, creating increasingly awkward situations. Most of them involve a would-be boyfriend named Artur, whose failure to reciprocate her interests anticipates the film's dramatic crisis. Ms. Jacobsen has a lot of fun with the fantasy sequences, which are more silly than horny, although it's hard to imagine any kid shoplifting a Playboy for purposes of arousal when they could just prowl the Internet. Purposefully non-specific about its time frame, the movie seems to transpire in a more innocent age, but that's also part its charm.

She Monkeys

Across the border in Sweden, the edgier She Monkeys doubles the trouble as 15-year-old Emma (Mathilda Paradeiser) falls under the sway of the slightly older Cassandra (Linda Moli), who befriends her when she joins a competitive equestrian acrobatic team. How the manipulative Cassandra views her new friend is up for grabs, as the tension between them suggests they are becoming lovers, or frenemies, or cold-hearted competitors or all of the above. The film leaves a lot to the imagination, making metaphoric use of the lingering summer light to frame the recklessness and uncertainty of youth. Director Lisa Aschan, who took the prize for best new Nordic film at this year's Goteberg film festival, introduces a third character into the charged dynamic: Emma's 8-year-old sister Sara (Isabelle Lindquist), a precocious troublemaker who insists on buying a leopard-print bikini, so she can flirt with an older male cousin who babysits her. The tone pulls up shy of the creepy factor that's a signature of Todd Solondz, thankfully, but adds another dimension to the director's theme of "sex is power and power is sex." When the little girl takes a wrench and starts bashing a toy plastic pony on her windowsill, it's both hilarious and a little terrifying—forecasting a decisive act of violence as Emma and Cassandra's relationship reaches a cathartic turning point.

NEDS

The gals still have it a lot easier than the brutal, and brutalized, sods in NEDS. The third feature directed by the ubiquitous (and truly great) actor Peter Mullan, this trip back to 1970s Glasgow takes its cue from glam rockers the Sweet, "turning the page on teenage rampage." Bookish wimp John McGill (Connor McCarran) appears to be the center of an awkward-comic coming of age tale, navigating through the humiliation of the local juvenile gangs to rise to the top of his class. But when his better-off best friend rejects him, McGill goes rogue. It helps that he's matured into a beefy bruiser, has an older brother long lost to the thug life, and an abusive, alcoholic father (Mullan) who's as much a staple of these memoir-like dramas as a grease-sodden newspaper laden with fish-and-chips. The kid turns into a dangerous sociopath, falling in with a colorful crew of low-rent hoodlums called the N.E.D.S. (non-educated delinquents). It's a heartbreaking tonal swivel, but the film's juxtapositions of humor and horror make it riveting.

Beyond the Black Rainbow

An exercise in eyeball-throbbing perplexity, Panos Cosmatos' Beyond the Black Rainbow seems like an early favorite for the festival's must-see midnight movie. What Amer was to giallo, this menacing low-budget acid trip is to 1960s and '70s sci-fi movies. There's a waif-like young woman who's been consigned to some kind of asylum-cum-research-lab run by a sinister therapist who seems to have far more than a professional relationship with his patient. The story, such as it is (or, actually, isn't), creeps along for about a half-hour before everything goes 100% bonkers. The shrink, played by Barry Nyle, slips into a flashback sequence that hints at a top-secret experiment in drug-assisted mind control as colored lights flash and the soundtrack aches and oozes with Jeremy Schmidt's menacing analog synthesizer score. The special effects illustrate a mysterious transformation, as the actor emerges through some kind of wormhole looking like a lost member of the Blue Man Group. At its Kubrick-obsessed best, the movie suggests a nickel version of Enter the Void, daring the audience to make any sense of it. But its deliberate whatzitness is an essential part of the film's appeal, simulating the director's own sense of wonder (and terror) as a childhood viewer of outer-limits cinema.

Posted by ahillis at 11:46 PM

April 20, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Somewhere

by Vadim Rizov

Somewhere

The big epiphany in Somewhere comes during a slow zoom out from Johnny Marco (Stephen Dorff) and daughter Cleo (Elle Fanning) tanning poolside at West Hollywood's Chateau Marmont. The low-ebb plot—vacant action star Johnny takes care of his daughter for a few weeks and realizes he's been a lousy dad, or maybe a waste of space—reaches its climax here, with the two naturally bonding and experiencing a new kind of mutual contentment. As a viewer, you could ignore that obvious intent and get annoyed by the context: you're watching a Hollywood star hang out in an expensive locale, cocooned by unnaturally perfect California weather and accompanied on the soundtrack with a Strokes demo, a band—like writer-director Sofia Coppola—often accused of having inherited rather than earned success.

Coppola's self-consciously unpresumptuous films have been attacked for being solipsistically oblivious to economic and class tensions. Defenders will reply that the amount of vitriol directed at her alleged obliviousness seems to be potentially sexist, since male filmmakers are rarely flagged for repeatedly picking at their first-world concerns/neuroses on-screen (cf. Noah Baumbach or Wes Anderson). Both sides generally have a lot of evidence: the sheer wispiness of Coppola's work and the modesty of her interests seems designed to deflect strong antipathy. Typical IMDB comments-board redux on Somewhere: "How F'ING STUCK UP!"

Somewhere Coppola's The Virgin Suicides is about young women whose knowledge of the world is forcibly constrained by overprotective parents, while Lost in Translation strands two people in Tokyo. Both films are more than a little self-pitying in presenting scenarios where fragile people end up, through no fault of their own, isolated and misunderstood. Marie Antoinette and Somewhere seem funnier and more relaxed in contrast, partly because they embrace privilege and comfortable, unapologetic materialism head-on. American celebrity culture/journalism generally involves a complicated mixture of adulation and economic envy (and unsightly glee) at public breakdowns. Coppola's recent work has approached the territory with all the toxic connotations taken out: Marie Antoinette and Somewhere are calm insider's notes.

That pure, unmediated point of view (sympathetic to the point of ridiculousness with the overprivileged, but also carefully observant in normally sensationalized milieus) is an asset. Her sense of humor helps too: Marie Antoinette was stuffed with anachronistic comics like Molly Shannon and Jason Schwartzman, who couldn't play period to save their lives. Antoinette (to my mind, Coppola's best film) has little to do with history, but it's pretty funny on its own terms and no more anachronistic than the 1938 Hollywood spectacular on the same subject. Coppola fetishizes fashion, frivolity and sketch-comedy moments, while the '30s version fetishizes a now-dead Hollywood idea of how to make respectable middle-class period movies. Coppola's just more honest about how her view of the past is distorted.

Somewhere The Chateau Marmont is a step down from Versailles, so Somewhere's comic relief is accordingly more slight: Chris Pontius, of MTV's Jackass and Wildboyz. Here, he's apparently playing someone named "Sammy," Johnny Marco's best friend. Pontius doesn't appear to be acting at all in his scenes with Elle Fanning: he seems to just be an inherently decent guy who has no trouble hanging out with his friend's precocious daughter, quickly establishing a more natural rapport with her than her dad while recounting anecdotes about their youth torturing Johnny's picture.

Coppola and cinematographer Harris Savides used lenses left over from dad Francis' 1983 Rumble Fish, meaning the unusual levels of grain seem like a subliminal throwback. The hotel—an A-list celeb favorite for 80 years—and cocooned world where father and daughter move through seem slightly amber-preserved. (Johnny's brief trip to Italy to promote his new film seems like it could've happened anytime in the last 30 years, crassly, vaguely Fellini-esque awards ceremony and all.) As for Dorff, there's almost zero evidence here that he can act. He is, however, a suitably vacant presence, which is pleasingly frank: voids deserve empathy too. Somewhere is an inherently righteous film: it's about a father waking up to his parental role without being overly scolding, which is hard to argue with.

Somewhere But the film really presents a surprisingly low-key cross-section of the fortunate and bored, the textures of which outweigh the minor-key story. At one point, poor Johnny is forced to do a press conference for his new blockbuster, where the actor is forced to answer questions like "What do you think of the underlying postmodern globalism in the film?" Empty-headed Johnny has no retort for that one, and it's a dead-on recreation of that kind of gathering. Coppola's observant nature trumps whatever she's ignoring about class or privilege: she's shrewd at observing the out-of-touch and increasingly unsentimental. Having gained access to film at two of the world's great landmarks of luxury, she has likewise given us access to what her lifestyle might feel like.

Posted by ahillis at 1:57 PM | Comments (1)

April 18, 2011

ACTIONFEST 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Bangkok Knockout

What once were vices now are habits. Spreading like a brain-sucking virus, the gonzo contagion known as le cinema fantastique has rowdied on down into a peculiar Southern variation called ActionFest. Co-founded last year by director-producer-stunt man Aaron Norris (brother of Chuck), Magnolia Pictures co-founder Bill Banowsky and Magnolia/Magnet Releasing senior vice president Tom Quinn, the festival launched in Asheville, NC at Banowsky's Carolina Cinemas—a multiplex with a drafthouse heart (and myriad local craft beer taps) and a geeky video store clerk's sensibilities.

Other film fests honor great auteurs. ActionFest champions the pyrotechnics coordinators, the fight choreographers, and other unsung soldiers who make the movies go boom. This year's guest of honor was Buddy Joe Hooker, stuntman supreme, who’s worked on movies as different as Harold and Maude and Hooper, in which Burt Reynolds plays a stuntman whose name is, in part, an homage to the rugged daredevil. "The first time you do it, you don't know how bad it hurts," Hooker told a full house of fans at an afternoon Q&A. "By take two, you do."

13-Assassins-Steve-Dollar.jpg

There's something to admire in an event that aims to return Southern moviegoing to its drive-in roots. The roster of films ranged from titles that have enjoyed wide festival exposure, including Takashi Miike's masterful 13 Assassins and Evan Glodell's flamethrower-scorched romance Bellflower, to a notable revival of Battle Royale, and martial-arts docs Films of Fury and Fightville. Programmed by Colin Geddes, who runs the Midnight Madness series at the behemoth Toronto Film Festival, the lineup scored points for ferreting out a batch of overlooked foreign-market titles for US premieres.

Yet, as these kinds of things go, ActionFest is still trying to find its footing in that niche-within-the-niche of festivals devoted to genre moviemaking, which include Austin's Fantastic Fest and Montreal's Fantasia—firmly established cultural phenomena that are buzzing social occasions in those cities and irresistible magnets for every kind of cult-film freak. Hanging out at the Carolina Cinemas about 15 minutes south of the region's most charming downtown, it was difficult to have any sense that Asheville (at large) really gave a hoot about claiming ActionFest as its own. But maybe this left-leaning city of free spirits was beginning to cotton to monster trucks and chainsaw assassins. Attendance was up from the inaugural program, a sign that the event was finding its audience (not surprisingly: indie hipster kids, of which bohemian Asheville has a supply as boundless as its marijuana, craft-beer, and vegan biscuit gravy resources). And the movies kicked ass.

Heir Apparent: Largo Winch

The single biggest butt-stomper was Bangkok Knockout. A Thai mixed martial arts fight-o-rama, the production isn't as gloriously brain-damaged as, say, the weep-and-whomp Power Kids, but its blend of sincere bad acting, comic-book heroism and non-stop pugilism makes it perfect midnight fodder. I could outline the plot, except there isn't one. OK, well, there is this: A group of young fighters is tricked into competing in a series of deadly combats staged in a jerry-rigged warehouse for the amusement of an international cabal of high-stakes gamblers. For two hours, against all imaginable odds, they fight their way to freedom.

At the opposite reach of the budget and sophistication scale, The Heir Apparent: Largo Winch posits a hero who seems to be fighting his way from freedom. German hunk Tomer Sisley is a free spirit with a thing for far-flung locales, mystical tattoos, kung-fu fighting, and bedding exotic strange women who push him into harm's way, but he's also the adoptive only son of self-made Serbian billionaire whose sudden death propels him into a swirl of international intrigue. Jérôme Salle's 2008 adaptation of the popular Belgian comic book plays out like a Jason Bourne escapade cross-wired with Wall Street and 1980s Duran Duran videos, shot through with explicating flashbacks and punctuated by a feverish chase scene about every 11.5 minutes. As long as Sisley's tracing a fingertip along the curve of a sensuous spine or diving off of a cliff, the movie's better than most pre-Daniel Craig 007 treatments—yet at the same time, it's utterly frivolous.

Ironclad

Let that never be said for opening night's Ironclad. The mere thought of Paul Giamatti as King John, waging war against the Knights Templar and a host of rebel barons at Rochester Castle in 1215, had me chuckling. The scenery chewing! The grandiose period dialogue! The brutal savage swordplay! The buxom, and ever-fair, maidens! This had Spamalot written all over it. By the time Rochester Castle is a smoking ruin and nearly everyone's limbs have been hacked off, I was weeping. Ironclad is pretty goddamn magnificent. It helps, of course, to have Brian Cox, Charles Dance, Derek Jacobi and the painfully stoic James Purefoy hoisting pots of boiling tar over the castle walls to deter the King's troops while delivering lines with consummate English stagecraft. The CGI-assisted gore also patches over some budget constraints. This is the kind of movie where visceral verisimilitude is highlighted by the occasional fake-blood-drenched camera lens. Jonathan English's film will be distributed in the U.S. this summer, but you can also order it from Amazon UK.

Tomorrow, When the War Began

The Australian high school kids who band together to save the kangaroos from the invading Yellow Peril in Tomorrow, When the War Began are even more outnumbered. What begins as The Breakfast Club meets Walkabout becomes a low-fat Ozzie answer to Red Dawn when the horny teens return from a weekend idyll to find their peaceful village is a ghost town. With some brave surveillance, they discover that their parents have been rounded up and imprisoned in concentration camps and the streets have been occupied by some sort of pan-Asian coalition army. Despite their differences—one girl is a devout Christian, and, OMG y’all, one of the guys is a Greek and a greaser!—the kids form a do-or-die resistance movement, like some Clearasil mujahideen. The cheesy tone of the dialogue betrays the film's source in bestselling young adult fiction, but if you're a sucker for insane chase scenes, like the one between a garbage truck and a pair of death-dealing, bazooka-armed dune buggies, it's easy to forgive. Better yet, the story telegraphs all the major character transformations. That may be a flaw in someone's book, but here it’s cause for delicious anticipation. It's not hard to guess which adolescent is most likely to go Rambo at the climax. Sometimes a bullet is better than a prayer.

A Lonely Place to Die

Of all the discoveries at ActionFest, the one deserving of the most unconditional love is the rock-solid UK thriller A Lonely Place to Die. The festival jury agreed, awarding it prizes for best film and director (Julian Gilbey). A tad too spoiler-ific for detailed summary, the drama quickly kicks into gear when a group of mountain climbers discover a young girl buried, but still alive, in a forest in a remote stretch of the Scottish Highlands. They rescue the child, who speaks only Serbian, but this may have been a horrible idea. Someone hid her there for a reason. And, as the rugged location supplies a backdrop for white-knuckled peril, we slowly discover who, what and why. Plus, a whole lot of Melissa George in snug thermal rock-climbing garb. Plus, the seedily awesome Czech actor Karel Roden, also seen in Largo Winch, as a gun-for-hire. Plus, a superbly executed finale involving a masked Pagan parade. Gilbey does a terrific job keeping audience expectations slightly off track, doing this when you anticipate that, and using his locations to generate maximum suspense.

Hopefully, ActionFest can pick up even more momentum next year. It's an original concept that promises unadulterated fun, a schedule packed with surprises, and parking-lot motorcycle jumping. Not even Cannes can top that.

Posted by ahillis at 12:04 PM | Comments (1)

April 14, 2011

PODCAST: Janus Metz

ARMADILLO director Janus Metz

As an intense documentary that sticks close to a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, Armadillo offers easy comparisons to the recent Restrepo, but filmmaker Janus Metz's shrewdly and artfully crafted examination of wartime behavior (which I wrote about briefly here) proves a grander epic with more cinematic ambitions:

The first documentary ever chosen to compete in the International Critics' Week at Cannes (where it won the Grand Prize), Janus Metz's ARMADILLO follows a platoon of Danish soldiers on a six-month tour of Afghanistan in 2009. An intimate, visually stunning account of both the horror and growing cynicism of modern warfare, the film premiered at the top of the box office in Denmark, provoking a national debate over government policy and the rules of engagement.

In the heart of Park Slope, Brooklyn (as if the kiddie squeals from the nearby romper room weren't a tipoff), Metz and I chatted over coffee about shooting beautiful images in the middle of a firefight, what scared him most during filming, and why it's crazy to want to "be all you can be."

To listen to the podcast, click here. (17:02)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Feather Da Gamba: "The Armadillo"
OUTRO: Scott Walker: "Two Ragged Soldiers"

[Armadillo opens in limited release on April 15.]

Posted by ahillis at 6:00 AM

April 12, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Princess of Montpensier

by Vadim Rizov

The Princess of Montpensier No one's ever enquired how many miles Bertrand Tavernier has energetically dragged his camera across: his movies literally move fast. The Princess of Montpensier's opening grabs your attention immediately, as bodies crawl on the green to a more removed view of sword-wielding horsemen mowing soldiers down, the image craning up as the riders keep chasing their foes across a stream. Tavernier's a sincere admirer/student of classical Hollywood, and the opening moments of Princess deliver raids, duels and rousing action. It won exactly one Cesar Award: for costumes.

Always respected but rarely fashionable, Tavernier began his career as a press agent: he promoted Contempt and Cleo From 5 To 7, among others, while taking notes. He began working in the '70s, placing him between the New Wavers he promoted and the new generation of movie brats (Leos Carax on one end, Luc Besson) that shook up French film in the '80s. His movies have conventional narratives (in France, he's a commercial filmmaker) and a surplus of vigorous style. His moving shots (horizontally or vertically) are played for speed rather than elegance: in 1981's Coup De Torchon, sometimes he's moving so fast the camera's shaking (as in Samuel Fuller's similarly urgent movies).

The Princess of MontpensierDespite the trappings of a Errol Flynn/Tyrone Power throwback (there's a fun staircase duel later), much of Montpensier is concerned with court intrigues, education and business transactions which shape every romantic impulse. Finding a love triangle inadequate, Tavernier offers up a six-sided tangle of allegiances. Marie (Melanie Thierry) is slated to marry Mayenne de Guise (Césare Domboy) but loves his brother Henri (Gaspard Ulliel). That becomes irrelevant when her father changes the arrangement and pairs her off with the Prince of Montpensier, played by Grégoire LePrince-Ringuet. (The seemingly relieved Mayenne, who realizes what a mess he's getting into, basically disappears at this point.) The Prince's aide, the Comde de Chabannes (Lambert Wilson), also fancies her but quickly disciplines himself into the role of courtly, sexless mentor and advisor. All this must be mediated by the Duc d'Anjou (Raphael Personnaz), an overtly leering satyr type who can't let the Princess ruin court diplomacy, heaving bosom or not.

The-Princess-of-Montpensier-eyeshadow.jpg It sounds like a bodice-ripper akin to Forever Amber, where global transactions change depending on a high-toned courtesan's whims. Tavernier fights off the impulse with typically fastidious research, displayed in odd, refreshing bits of trivia. There's a comical wedding dinner, where Marie's father (Philippe Magnan) gives accurate-sounding instructions on how to raise and prepare your very own freshwater eels. Even more alien is the ensuing night, where the two fathers play chess while the young couple enact the sacred act of devirginization, surrounded in their bedroom by a coterie of servants waiting to display the ceremonial hymen blood.

The Princess of Montpensier

"Michael Powell told me that he liked films where the hero is wrong in three or four scenes but without the author of the film pointing them out," Tavernier noted in 2002. "I adore that!" To that end, the otherwise admirable Comte—the film's ultimate linchpin—at one point delivers a ridiculous disquisition on poetry and the necessity of rhyme, chastising the Princess for her errant taste. Moments like that are a different breed of historical grounding, all of which mediate between Tavernier's classicist impulses (sneaking in an old-fashioned duel or a fitting scene of ballroom intrigue) and his urge to stay historically accurate. Critical response to Princess at its Cannes unveiling was pretty hostile, with lots of whining about how predictable all the 16th Century derring-do was. It's the wrong way of looking at things: Princess puts a predictable plot through the most vigorous of paces. It's the kind of B-movie Tavernier likes: straight thrills and action, verisimilitude and skepticism at the edges. (He's cited John Ford's self-dissecting, ambivalently right-wing Westerns as an early inspiration.)

THE PRINCESS OF MONTPENSIER director Bertrand Tavernier The story's flimsy, and at 139 minutes, this isn't a recommended introduction to Tavernier. However, Montpensier is as fun and fast as any of the veteran's past work. He's inspired by a lot of the same American directors that have served as touchstones to generations of French auteurs and auteurists, but he's much more appropriate in his appropriations than, say, a young buck like Serge Bozon, whose 2007 La France bears the same relationship to the cited works of Jacques Tourneur's Hollywood as would Andy Warhol's factory girls to classic Tinseltown stars.

Perhaps that contributes to his perpetual unfashionability: Tavernier mostly works with the conventional, and he films battles better than most. The most surprising fights, though, aren't between the knights on steeds and their fleeing enemies, but the lurkers on the ground, who—rather than just standing and waiting to be cut down—take control of their chargers' spears and yank them down. Casually depicted unfamiliar details, on the battlefield and in the royal court, add excitement to the fights and new credibility to the melodrama.

Posted by ahillis at 1:31 PM

April 8, 2011

DALLAS 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

OK, Buckaroos

Nothing really says Texas like Jerry Jeff Walker. Even though he was born (as Wikipedia informs us) Ronald Clyde Crosby in Oneonta, New York, his troubadour path led him from Greenwich Village to New Orleans and then to Austin, where he became supreme commander of The Lost Gonzo Band, inventing an intoxicated post-hippie vision of honky-tonk epitomized in songs like "Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother" and "London Homesick Blues"—with its immortal and besotted wish upon a Lone Star to "go home with the armadillo." Funny enough, Walker didn't write some of his most famous hits, which speaks to the collaborative nature of the 1970s Texas songwriter scene, but he did pen "Mr. Bojangles," the uber-sentimental portrait of a New Orleans street performer he met in a jail cell for which millions across the globe can either love him or hate him.

OK, BuckaroosOK, Buckaroos, the Walker bio that was the centerpiece of the Dallas International Film Festival (which concludes Sunday), is the kind of documentary that assumes no critical ironies. It's a love-in all the way. And Walker, seen in vintage fuzzy video clips as he shimmies around the stage in gym shorts, white socks and sneakers, is the kind of natural raconteur whose loquacious charms would be hard to resist. "Anything worth doing is worth overdoing," he allows, and the anecdotes about gambling binges, abandoned rental cars, and flying high on a private jet throughout most of the '70s as Jerry Jeff took cosmic cowboy music to the masses are thoroughly entertaining, but the story never goes much deeper. Thanks to the love (and business savvy) of a good woman, his wife Susan, the singer reinvents himself as a solo act after the music industry turns its back on him, and now stands as a Texas legend. He's still in terrific form, too, taking the stage to entertain moviegoers at the Dallas franchise of Gilley's (the bar made famous by Urban Cowboy, whose phenomenal success is cited in the film for deflating Walker's fortunes in the music business). With copious pours of McCallan's 12-year-old single malt, cowgirls busting mechanical broncos, and local couples showing the out-of-towners how to two-step, there was the Texas flavor you might have expected at South by Southwest in Austin three weeks earlier—but this was downtown Dallas. [see also: Steve Dollar's SXSW wrap-up.]

Small Town Murder Songs

In its fifth year flying solo after its partnership ended with the American Film Institute, the festival feels like a significant part of ongoing efforts to revitalize the city's urban core. There wasn't too much glitz this year—Ann-Margret was the big opening night guest of honor. The best bets, not unlike SXSW, were micro rather than macro. The Canadian drama Small Town Murder Songs was exemplary. Written and directed by Ed Gass-Donnelly, this frosty noir has a whiff of Twin Peaks about it: A local police chief in a remote Mennonite community in Ontario revisits his own dark places after the body of a young woman is found by a rural lake. Peter Stormare (who stuffed Steve Buscemi in the wood chopper in Fargo, another related film) is Walter, the cop whose struggle to end his history of violence has him on the edge of implosion. When a skeezy suspect is hauled in, his alibi is supplied by Rita (Jill Hennessy, aces), a local hard-knock gal with whom Walter, as he says, "has a history." Gass-Donnelly lights a slow-burning fuse of suspense, complicated by flashbacks that hint at some unexplained horror. The ambiguities are such that you suspect Walter committed the murder as a set up. But his sins are more existential, set against a stark folk-gospel soundtrack by the band Bruce Peninsula and chapter titles that evoke Biblical pronouncements.

Jess- + Moss

The film is also about landscape, in this case a raw, half-desolate beauty that's meant to reflect the hard-scrabble souls of the characters. Clay Jeter's Jess + Moss all but loses itself in the wide open spaces of rural Western Kentucky. Teenage Jess (played by 26-year-old Buffy the Vampire Slayer regular Sarah Hagan) and 12-year-old Moss (newcomer Austin Vickers) are strangely isolated companions on what seems like an endless summer idyll. The film's breathtaking Super-16 cinematography and experimental approach to narrative keep you guessing, as a mystery partially unravels through the cassette tapes the kids replay, almost ritualistically, in a bid to hang onto whatever their lives used to be. Abandoned houses, rusting silos, and neglected tobacco fields suggest the depopulated terrain and slowly disintegrating milieu of a zombie movie lensed by William Christenberry—or a kinder, gentler Tideland.

The pair's investigations of the natural world mingle with memories real and imagined and, amid much child-like roleplaying, Jess' growing sexual overtures to Moss, whose relationship to the older girl is unclear (sibling? cousin? next-door neighbor?). Ultimately, this Eden is a limbo, from which Jess has to navigate her way to childhood's end, its visual poetry limned in melancholy and anticipation.

The Oregonian

Likewise enigmatic, as in to the freaking max, is The Oregonian. A young woman (Lindsay Pulsipher) survives a bloody car crash only to emerge into a waking nightmare as she seeks help on a lonely country road. There's a crazy old woman whose laughter is a malignant echo, and a bearded fat dude who scrambles his eggs with gasoline, and all kinds of dead bodies that keep coming back to life, and some freak in a fuzzy green monster outfit, and everyone drools black goo out of their mouths. Shock cuts, slow (and fast!) zooms, whacked-out flashbacks, a disorienting electronic soundtrack, gallons of fake blood, dead leaves and the dirty ground, and it ... goes ... on ... forever. Calvin Reeder's feature debut has its own crackhead logic, but overlooks that what may be mind-blowing at 15 minutes feels torturous at 75. The garish, transgressive feel achieved for probably a nickel is nonetheless admirable, and hellishly fucked-up.

The Ward

I wish I could say as much for The Ward, genre legend John Carpenter's first feature since 2001's Ghosts of Mars. Maybe he just needed to get back in the groove, in which case this saga of a ghoul-stalked, all-girl mental institution makes a passable warm-up—if decidedly minor Carpenter. Hollywood hottie Amber Heard is Kristen, the newbie in the nuthouse, committed after burning her house down. Just like Sucker Punch, there's a comely cast of young ladies who each have their own unique attributes, and who all warn the antsy Kristen that escape is impossible. Slowly, horribly, the girls begin to die, one by one, as the ghost of a murdered patient named Alice takes her revenge—and Kristen tries in vain to convince Dr. Stringer (Jared Harris), although a mean nurse usually injects her with knockout juice before she can get very far. The movie's strong on gothic trappings, and Carpenter cold rocks the jump scares, yet the screenplay doesn't reach for much psychological depth. It's a scary movie, for sure, but not a memorable one. Fingers crossed that Carpenter settles development issues with the proposed Fangland or one of his other projects in the works, because this is one director who deserves an autumnal triumph.

Posted by ahillis at 11:19 AM

April 5, 2011

New Joy

by Vadim Rizov

Meek's Cutoff

Meek's Cutoff is, relatively speaking, director Kelly Reichardt working in maximalist mode. There are multiple easily-recognizable actors, as well as an active score by Jeff Grace (who has mostly worked on indie horror movies like The House of the Devil), enveloping ambient sound (courtesy of Gus Van Sant's regular sound designer Leslie Shatz), and a plot that can be broken down to three acts. Reichardt's two previous features, Old Joy and Wendy and Lucy, both clock in at under 80 minutes (the latter has a deliberately slow credits crawl to stretch it out to feature length); Meek's Cutoff is a hearty 104 minutes. Accessibility-wise, all this puts it way ahead of Old Joy, Wendy and Lucy, and Reichardt's debut River of Grass. The setting (the Oregon Trail!) and time period (1845) are instantly arresting and Different, the level of ambition on every tier overtly higher, an odyssey rather than a sketch.

Meek's Cutoff

The central dramatic question: is trail guide Stephen Meek (Bruce Greenwood) reliable or leading everyone to an early, water-free death in Indian country? Meek's Cutoff aligns itself with the traditional Western, sort of ("I love the way those films are sort of styled and shot, and the use of landscape," Reichardt noted at the Venice Film Festival, "but a lot of the themes are completely unrelatable to me"), but it's also very much for people who can prioritize—and hang with—stunning compositions over all else. Shot in 1.37, the square Academy aspect ratio conjures up both the old-fashioned, non-revisionist Westerns that Reichardt is homaging/critiquing and the newest in hardcore arthouse filmmaking, in which directors use an aspect ratio many theaters no longer have the right lens to project. Like There Will Be Blood, there's no dialogue for the first 15 or so minutes: unlike P.T. Anderson's film, there aren't any dynamite explosions to immediately demand your attention. So if you can't reconcile that persistent shots of wagon trains in motion can be as hypnotic as the actual story, flee now.

The wagons move against a landscape that seems infinitely expansive in every direction. At night, camped out, the darkness is pervasive in a way that puts you into the same hushed, fearful mode as the travelers. It's not the same thing at all, but recall the ambient all-encompassing night IMAX landscapes of Tron: Legacy. Now imagine them rendered naturally, in a real landscape, with nothing serving as a buffer. It's scary out there; the sound design and score are equally spooked.

Meek's Cutoff

Like Gerry, Meek's Cutoff respects the idea of nature as a savage environment whose neutral mode is overt hostility. The plains, skies and mirages are all dazzling. Tension erupts between trail guide Meek and a Cayuse Indian (Rod Rondeaux) whom the wagon train "captures" and wonders what to do with. Anyone familiar with Reichardt's oft-unsubtle liberal talking points will be unsurprised to realize the Cayuse isn't about to slaughter them all. He doesn't even get subtitles, the better to hammer home the point about how the fearful travelers can't be bothered to have someone with them who respects the locals enough to speak their language—and we've now lost the Cayute language entirely. (Rondeaux speaks in the film in Nez Pierce, itself known to about 100 people, its long-term survival status in doubt.)

The allegorical connotations of an American posse moving through unfriendly terrain for which they have neither the language nor resources to navigate successfully are too evident to further flesh out, as is Reichardt's treatment of the Native American. It's difficult, if you're liberally inclined, to argue much with the broad strokes of the filmmaker's politics. It is, however, possible to retroactively wish that Wendy and Lucy didn't feature a blond, all-American youth sporting a crucifix as the grocery store fascist who busts destitute Michelle Williams for stealing vegetables, or that a long, unbroken excerpt from Air America provides part of Old Joy's ambient soundtrack.

Meek's Cutoff

In that light, what's really exciting about Meek's Cutoff in the context of Reichardt's work is that, by virtue of time and place, none of those contemporary nods to right-on politics can make it in. Meek's is politicized, though not in ways that seem particularly "thought-provoking" (the thoughts it provokes are crystal clear, as is the case with that adjective). But the film is breathtaking visually while confined to the vocabulary and concerns of 1845. It also has one of the tensest set-pieces of the year, where the group tries to get two wagons down a high-grade slope without smashing all of their water and supplies to smithereens.

All the usual period trappings—the fixing of busted wheels, the fireside preparation of meals—are conveyed with a level of detail that gives these Western tropes new life, or perhaps their first accurate onscreen rendering. The hushed air and tangible sense of a difficult production struggling almost as much as its characters saves the film from any kind of Colonial Williamsburg sense of watching contemporary actors struggle to act "period." Meek's looks great, but it also respects the mythological intensity of the Western form, even as it corrects the historical record.

Posted by ahillis at 1:59 PM

April 3, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Source Code

by Steve Dollar
Source Code

Anyone weaned on what now is called fantastic cinema should be warmed by the budding career of Duncan Jones. Like the best science-fiction writers, he understands the genre as an imaginative prism to reflect on the human condition. He knows that it's not about the hardware but the software: the emotions tied up inside of extreme existential situations made possible by weird science, and the philosophical what-ifs those scenarios provoke.

SOURCE CODE director Duncan Jones with MOON's Sam Rockwell The melancholic Moon, Jones' 2009 debut, also revealed the director's reflexive awareness of the canon. Sam Rockwell plays a technician on a solitary, multi-year assignment to a lunar base who encounters a duplicate version of himself, amid other odd discoveries like... he's a clone. But even if his memories belong to someone else, his bio-engineered heart is real, as is his fragmenting mental state. The slow reveal isn't exactly a surprise, but it gives Jones plenty of time to evoke associations with outer space sagas like 2001, Silent Running and Solaris, even as Rockwell's knack for split-personality performances encourages empathy and even a few laughs.

Source Code Two years later, Jones goes Hollywood—after a fashion—with Source Code. The presence of Jake Gyllenhaal, America's sweetest hunk of leading mancake, pretty much guarantees box office. And the premise, silly as it may be, proves irresistible. A guy finds himself on a train sitting across from a pretty girl. He has no idea how he got there. As they interact, he realizes that he's not at all who he appears to be either, and as the camera notes a very specific chain of events, he wanders to the bathroom and gazes in the mirror. Yup, he's some other dude. WTF? Then everything blows up.

Source Code Boom. Gyllenhaal, playing an Army pilot named Colter Stevens, comes to, strapped inside a cramped module. On a flickering video screen, Vera Farmiga (in military garb that makes you wish her character's name was Lt. Svetlana) materializes and only gradually clues in Stevens on his mission. Through some esoteric mumbo-jumbo—It's the parabolas, man!—that only happens in movies like this, a top-secret government project has found a way to extract from the brains of dead people material that allows an instant replay of the last eight minutes of their lives. How scientists then manage to project a second individual into that now parallel reality isn't really explained and really doesn't matter because—zap!—Stevens is going back to that train again, replaying those fateful eight minutes in endless variations, until he finds a terrorist with plans to nuke Chicago. It's going to be a long day.

Source Code The train has already been blown to smithereens, which means Christina (Michelle Monaghan), the girl who flirts with him, is already dead. But Stevens is going to save her, altering time and space—even if a pompous scientist (Jeffrey Wright, in a tongue-in-cheek performance) tells him that's impossible. Jones gets away with so much more than he should given the preposterousness of all this. But it really goes back to the emotional thing. What starts out as a kind of Groundhog Day gone post-9/11 thriller (with a touch of La jetée for flavor), turns out, in many ways, to be a variation on Moon (man on a lonely mission whose circumstances are not what he thinks they are). The film trades heavily on the chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Monaghan, at times suggesting (quite incidentally and perhaps only to me) a kind of Certified Copy for mallrats—although the more profound relationship is with Farmiga's character. And it shamelessly tugs at the tear ducts even as the train speeds toward eternity. The real problem isn't the bomber, who mostly provides an excuse for the kind of sleuthing gamesmanship you see every week on TV. Nor is it even the girl, who lends the romantic appeal a movie like this needs to distract from the implausibility of even its own logic. It's how Stevens, whose last real memory is being airborne above Afghanistan, can get in touch with his father to tell him he loves him. And then: get the girl. And then: bend time and space. Hey, it’s Jake Gyllenhaal. No prob.

SOURCE CODE director Duncan Jones The story's cyberpunk conceits dovetail nicely with the romantic formula, basically giving Jones and screenwriter Ben Ripley elbow room to explore the cosmic significance of it all while satisfying both parties in any potential date-movie situation. While Jones ain't exactly Tarkovsky, he shares a lot of the same source code as the Russian mystic. This time through the loop, it's sealed with a kiss.

[Further clicking: our SXSW podcast with co-star Vera Farmiga.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:19 AM | Comments (1)

April 1, 2011

PODCAST: James Wan, Leigh Whannell

INSIDIOUS's Leigh Whannell and James Wan

Perhaps lumped in with the "Splat Pack" filmmakers (Eli Roth, Rob Zombie, Alexandre Aja) for the sheer volume of gore and goring that the sequels to their self-proclaimed thriller Saw unleashed, director James Wan and writer-actor Leigh Whannell will surprise audiences with the straight-faced camp and old-school spookiness of their maniacally enjoyable new film Insidious:

The writer-director team behind SAW and the filmmakers of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY redefine the haunted house genre in INSIDIOUS. This horror film is the terrifying story of a family who shortly after moving discover that dark spirits have possessed their home and that their son has inexplicably fallen into a coma. Trying to escape the haunting and save their son, they move again only to discover that it was not their house that was haunted.

Sitting down with Wan and Whannell in midtown Manhattan, the three of us discussed the delicate balance between silly and scary, whether they're drawn more to creating or subverting, the avant-garde composer who inspired their eerie soundscapes, and whether they think Poltergeist is "a Tobe Hooper film" or "a Steven Spielberg film."

To listen to the podcast, click here. (15:19)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Hasil Adkins: "Haunted House"
OUTRO: Jerry Goldsmith: "Carol Anne's Theme" (from Poltergeist)

Posted by ahillis at 2:07 PM