May 31, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Submarine

by Vadim Rizov

Submarine

With his Bud Cort haircut and morbid sensibility, Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts) is too smart for Swansea, Wales, an industrial city mired in some seriously mid-80s Thatcherite doldrums. The trouble with Oliver is that he knows he's clever, which could justify anything: surreptitiously monitoring his parents' sex life, taunting an overweight girl to make local cutie Jordana (Yasmin Paige) notice him as a real livewire, or trying to trash the house of downhill neighbor Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine) who may be having an affair with mom (Sally Hawkins).

Submarine Fortunately, Submarine, Richard Ayoade's feature debut, is aware of Oliver's self-justifying nature and the ways it could warp him. Harold and Maude's winsome self-pity hasn't worn well, no matter what Oliver thinks, and that haircut can only make up for so much. Acutely aware of the long tradition of films about disaffected young men coming to terms with themselves, Ayoade doesn't duck the precedent: instead, like Oliver (who envisions what's happening now as a future nostalgic memory unspooling in his mind's literal projector), he nods to seemingly every single precursor. There's a 400 Blows-quoting dash across the beach, a The Graduate style leap into the pool, the aforementioned Cort-do, and—befitting the film's emphasis on sexual jealousy and youthful insecurity—allusions to Rushmore (itself indebted to Salinger, checking off the Catcher in the Rye box). In that film, Max Fisher's pining for Miss Cross is ambiently reinforced on the soundtrack by the crashing of beach waves and seagulls crying; the same sound effect accompanies Oliver's dreams of Jordana.

Submarine As a movie about an astutely self-conscious adolescent, Submarine has invited unimaginative comparisons not just to the pantheon of teen male self-pity/coming-of-age but to films like Juno, which actively court the label "quirky." That's unfairly reductive, and in any case Ayoade doesn't do the kind of hermetic tableaux associated with Garden State, The Royal Tenenbaums, et al.: the only moves he straight-out cops from Wes Anderson are a fondness for slow, anachronistic zooms-in and –out, and a vicious whip-pan within the classroom's confines. Mostly cinematographer Erik Wilson's camera moves like a demon, shaking and jolting behind the ever-agitated Oliver. Stylistically, the film is also compartmentalized—not by an arch narrator or chapter titles, but by dreamy fades (to red or blue) and disorienting dream sequences that are scary rather than cuddly.

Submarine Like many a comic turned semi-tragic clown, when Ayoade (a veteran of British TV, best known as a writer and performer on The IT Crowd) decides it's time to modulate the tone downwards, he can't figure out how to keep the energy going; the third act is a start-stop affair. Oliver's two most important relationships are with depressive father Lloyd (Noah Taylor) and Jordana, and his ill-treatment of the latter can be traced directly back to dear old dad. Ayoade hammers it home a bit too hard: when Oliver fails to show up on an important occasion knowing Jordana will be devastated, he hangs out with Lloyd (who's doing the same to his wife), which leads to an incisive conversation/grilling about Lloyd's depression. Too passive and helpless to answer with anything less than crushing honesty about his morose, non-shaven, stringy-haired existence, a father suggests to his son a few lessons about being self-aware of one's flaws vs. taking responsibility for them that our young hero must retain for the final act.

Submarine But it's his relationship with Jordana that leads to some of the film's biggest, swooniest gestures: their first kiss (and therefore Oliver's initiation into the world of relationships) takes place under train tracks, with shocking audio jolts from the locomotive passing overhead. (It tastes, he says, like "milk, pink mints and Dunhill International.") Jordana's the closest thing Swansea has to Anna Karina, a fact Oliver—who initially pursues her as part of a cold-blooded calculation about her body issues and attendant vulnerability—slowly grows to appreciate. He treats her badly anyway, a fact he only realizes once his growing paranoia has swelled to its maximum and burst. Jordana's exasperated outburst at film's end—"Why are you such a total dick?"—is a less gentle version of Margaret Yang's reproof to Max in Rushmore: "you were a real jerk to me." But Oliver's answer is the exact opposite of Max's puppy-dog "I know." "I don't know," he responds, the question and answer in no way exclusive to first relationships. Submarine isn't the story of how the dickish teen become a less-dickish adult: Oliver learns he is a jerk rather than a Very Special Person, but the next transformative move's on him.

Posted by ahillis at 2:39 PM

May 24, 2011

Look Who's Stalking

by Vadim Rizov

In the City of Sylvia

In the City of Sylvia stars Xavier Lafitte as a nameless young man who wanders through a Strasbourg summer with a notebook and a perpetually glazed look on his face. He sits in cafés and sketches, but really he's trying to get girls to contemplate his glossy hair and wispy mustache, though it's unclear if even he's aware of his obvious motivation. Later, he spends a lot of time following a poor young woman (Pilar Lopez de Ayala) he thinks might be Sylvie, a potential soulmate he met a few years ago and has been trying to find ever since. That, however, isn't an acceptable excuse for stalking, as the she tells him when he finally has the nerve to ask if she is who he thinks she is. Nicely but firmly, she tells him she isn't and he just scared the hell out of her. Suitably chastened, he skulks off to a bar, where he does a little air-drumming to Blondie's "Heart of Glass" and stops bothering people.

In the City of Sylvia

Sylvia is an intensely lovable movie about a less than impressive dreamer who seems to think that because he's having a reverie, it's OK to act badly. His walks, despite their dubious motivation, give director Jose Luis Guerin a great excuse to slowly travel through the home of the European Parliament and legislative capital of the EU. Strasbourg stands in for a generic European city—long paved streets devoid of cars, mingled architecture but nothing younger than 50 years old, beautiful weather—and the movie indulges in a bit of Euro travel porn; it could act as an ad for tourists contemplating a visit. Scenic charms aside, Strasbourg's depicted as a casually multi-lingual city, but the artist doesn't notice the various ethnicities, aside from a gypsy performance he witnesses. Class tensions, immigration growing pains and the like are generally overlooked; our hero mostly gawks at girls.

In the City of Sylvia

Full of (yes) long tracking shots and very little dialogue, Sylvia might be dismissed as purely a "festival film," seeing DVD release after sporadic American showings and no theatrical distributor (it had a week-long run at New York's Anthology Film Archives). To get it out there, Guerin traveled the international circuit for a year, producing a video diary (2010's Guest) in which the director himself is the wanderer. Like Sylvia, it begins with Guerin sketching away, and he's eager to prove what an open-minded observer he is, spending much of the film visiting the city's marginalized, allowing them to recount their stories at length, a self-conscious corrective to the indulgent film he's promoting. It's very worthy-minded and slightly self-congratulatory, the opposite of Sylvia's skeptical view of The Artist.

In the City of Sylvia

Sylvia cinematographer Natasha Braier's camera travels slowly or stands still, creating a sketchbook richer than the young man's. Enjoyable digressive, it awards equal time to a surly street person rolling a wine bottle across the street and a persistent African watch salesman. The gaze is sometimes the femme-centric protagonist's, but it's largely Guerin's, stopping to observe while his quasi-hero runs around. Sylvia's not afraid to turn outright cartoonish, sending the pursuer after his quarry through back-alley passages, where he both disappears and reappears unpredictably. He's somewhere between distressed and bemused, but the film revels in the gorgeous weather, street life and colorful behavior on the fringes.

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It could be a complaint that Sylvia spends a lot of time fetishizing a number of interchangeably attractive women on the streets. This is true, even if it's the point of view of the artist, whose unswerving gaze is unnerving a lot of people. That the movie addresses this head-on through gives its fragmentary story a backbone; suitably chastened and freed of his sudden obligation to walk around the city moony-eyed, the young man becomes more relaxed and much less irritating. Otherwise, Sylvia is an outstandingly shot movie that's curious about the city it takes place in without leaning too hard on Guerin's good intentions in leveling the screen time given to the solipsistic stalker on vacation and the often far more intriguing dispossessed around him. He doesn't stop to look, but the film does.

Posted by ahillis at 1:25 PM

May 21, 2011

INTERVIEW: Alejandro Jodorowsky

by Steve Dollar

Alejandro Jodorowsky in THE HOLY MOUNTAIN

Now an avuncular 82, Alejandro Jodorowsky still has the air of a sly wizard about him—even over an Internet phone connection across the ocean in Deauville, France, where he was vacationing this week. This, after all, is the guy who once claimed: "Most directors make films with their eyes. I make films with my cojones." Not even age can wither that kind of spirit, as the Chilean émigré remains just as provocative in thought now as when he played the macho shaman in his classic cult movies El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), wildly influential hippie-era mindfucks that spun the tripped-out counterculture on its pointy little head.

The movies spent a long time in limbo, circulating on multiply dubbed VHS tapes for years before lingering legal issues were sorted out and they were released in remastered high-definition versions in 2006, complete with screenings at the New York Film Festival. Now they’ve been reissued in Blu-ray editions, and The Holy Mountain has a six-week run at MoMA's PS1 in Long Island City, where it will be screened three times a day in a theatrical gallery setting.

Paris has been Jodorowsky’s adoptive home since the 1960s, when his work in avant-garde street theater led him to create something he called the Panic Movement, a polymorphously perverse circus in which Antonin Artaud met lysergic freakout, and which forecast the metaphysical violence and sexuality of the films to come. As reported in the 1983 cult-film history Midnight Movies, by J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, the movement's grandest spectacle was a four-hour event staged in 1965 called Sacramental Melodrama.

"Against music provided by a six-piece rock band, a set consisting of a smashed automobile, and the visual frisson provided by a cast of bare-chested women (each body painted a different color), Jodorowsky appeared dressed in motorcyclist leather. He slit the throats of two geese, smashed plates, had himself stripped and whipped, danced with a honey-covered woman, and taped two snakes to his chest."

The Holy Mountain

There's not a huge leap from that to Holy Mountain, a landmark of visionary filmmaking pitched somewhere between magic ritual and surreal burlesque. It's a rude, rowdy satire of contemporary society framed by a transcendental quest that becomes a cosmic "gotcha!" It's also a reminder of a time when making a movie could be like a gunfight. Jodorowsky populated his cast with drunks, prostitutes, disabled dwarves, monkeys, one-eyed men, plenty of naked people and an impromptu circus of frogs and lizards in costume. The movie's mesmerizing design evokes multiple religious traditions and occult imagery, including a set constructed of original tarot-card paintings and a shocking parade of flayed, crucified lambs held aloft by villagers (the filmmaker paid a local restaurant to supply the carcasses, then returned them to be served as dinner). There is still nothing quite like it, although everyone from Dennis Hopper to Darren Aronofsky have taken cues from its method and madness. I reached Jodorowsky in a Skype-to-cellular call that found the director (and, for a much more productive stretch, author of comic books and graphic novels with collaborator Moebius) in a relaxed good humor. His admirable, if heavily accented English didn't always survive the compromises of the international connection which perhaps accounts for any inconsistencies in the transcript.

What do you think of the latest editions of the film?

It’s very, very good quality. The first time the public will see the film as I wanted to do it. We have only old versions, bad color.

Has the meaning of it changed for you over the years?

When I make this picture, I was not making a business. I was not thinking in money because movies are an industry. I was acting as an artist, a poet, and doing something that was coming from very deep of me. I cannot judge that picture because it is a part of me. It’s out of time. I did what I did. It’s like a painting. It’s there. Everything I wanted to know in The Holy Mountain, later I knew. I developed the Tarot, I developed all kinds of things while in the picture. It was like some step in the search of myself.

The Holy Mountain

Watching it again, I was struck by how damn funny it is—it’s kind of a cosmic joke, a send-up of society.

Spiritual problems, pictures are not speaking about that. Myself, I try to speak about that. You see the Spaghetti Western, the heroes are fighting for money all the time. They are seeking gold, they are not searching for consciousness. In El Topo, yes—the search is other, it’s another thing. The characters were searching themselves, changing. That is the difference. I still believe in this. Pictures can be the greatest art of all the arts. Movies can be art, not only industry.

Before you started shooting, you submitted to training in a method called Arica. What was that like?

There was a guru named Oscar Ichazo. I was not a guru. I was a director and I needed to play a guru. I bring him to Mexico. He asked for a lot of money. I wanted him to enlighten me. The guru, he gave me an LSD! And then he was directing eight hours my visions. That was an adventure. It was a very difficult experience, because in Mexico it was new for that country at that time. The right wing of the country think I am making black mass, they get crazy. Was a big scandal. They fear something that was not real. The rumors. The people were saying I am diabolic, I don’t know what. And then they went to kill me. I needed to escape. I finished the picture in New York.

I’m sure the police loved having you there!

Yes. The police, there was a time I took them by surprise. I have this guy dressed up as policeman, and then I stopped the cars. Every shot was like this, without permissions. Only I needed to do it. I did it.

The Holy Mountain

Do you miss the insanity of movie making?

When I make a movie I am another person. The way I eat, very few. Rice, legumes. I don’t eat meat when I shoot. I don’t make love. Like a monk. It’s true. I don’t see friends. Only the family who is appearing in my picture, I am completely isolated. Only the picture. When I make a picture I don’t have a lot of money. I can’t lose time. You cannot sleep more than four and five hours day. You have a lot of problems. [He tells an anecdote about procuring animals from a zoo and employing superannuated scenics to paint the sets]. I have not a studio. It was underground. Without a star. The picture you see, they are not actors. They are people I find in the bars. Every person was what you see in the picture, they were that. That was an experience to shoot that in that way.

I am always impressed by the scene where you staged a circus with toads and lizards. You just don’t see that in movies anymore.

That was difficult to do the costume, then to dress the toad, [which emitted an acid spray when agitated]. When you put the costume [on the lizards] they would [blow out air] and escape the costume. We did it. In the middle of the market, the persons who were looking at the scene were really persons looking. Everything there was in reality, in reality I did these things. I didn’t want actors. Actors are a lot of ego. I used persons. I don’t want to be disturbed by the egos of these stars. These enormous egos. Art cannot go in the Hollywood system. It’s not possible.

The Holy Mountain

It’s been decades since you made a new film. Do you ever think about getting behind a camera again?

I don’t make more pictures because I have nothing to say. But when I have something to say then I make a picture. I don’t need to make a picture to live. For me, picture is a relaxation. I will be the producer of my next picture. I have not too much. I have a million dollars. But I will do it. And I will make the picture in order to lose money. I have that amount of money in order to lose that money. For me, a big picture I need to do with the intention to lose all the money. The production of movies today is the money. They are making a lot of money and then it’s a good picture. I understand. You go, because you need to take fun. You see the movie, you went out. You are still an idiot. In artistical picture, like in a museum, you see a masterwork and something happens in you. There is an opening of the sensibility. And then you will never forget what you see or what you listen to. You never forget. It can give to you something, not only entertainment. Not only go to the movie and forget the world for one hour and a half and go out to the same world. At the end of the year I will make another movie, The Dance of Reality. That is what I am doing. [Laughs]. I will be in the street but I will be happy!

That’s great news.

Yes, in the town I was born in, in Chile. The whole town will collaborate with me. I speak to the authorities. They will do it.

The Holy Mountain

Are you still doing tarot readings every week?

That is free. Every Wednesday. I go to a café near my house and I sit there and read the Tarot. Only for three hours. Twenty-two persons I read for. It’s always full of persons from different countries. It’s a real art, the Tarot. Not to read the future. You read the Tarot to talk about present problems, and past problems, not the future. The persons know without publicity. They know. They come. I need to make a lottery because there are too much persons. All kinds of person. All ages, all nationalities, all social levels. Every person. Emotional problems. Sexual problems. Wealth problems. A lot of problems have the people. What is my weight? I am doing well? I will get divorced. Human beings have a lot of problems today. The Tarot is optical language like paintings. Almost 40 years I have studied the Tarot. I wrote a book, The Way of Tarot. I don’t believe in prediction. There you can say anything you want. I read the Tarot to two presidents. I read the Tarot to French politicians. In Chile it was always one hour, the president.

It was a big surprise to see you on Twitter (as @alejodorowsky).

Yes, I will have 200,000 followers. Every day it’s growing. The twitters sometime I make in English. For me it is the new literature. The new poetry is there. It’s free, you do that because you love to do that. The characters are limited and you have immediately answer. Now when I make a sentence I know 200,000 people read it. You have immediately answer! Fantastic literary communication. Philosophical, also. A lot of persons speak idiocies, no? How they go to the bathroom. It’s silly. But if you use that technique with real soul, with a desire to communicate, it’s the most important invention of our century. That’s what I believe.

[Blu-ray editions of El Topo and The Holy Mountain are available now on Abkco, and for rent from GreenCine. The Holy Mountain runs through June 30 at MoMA PS1 in Long Island City, NYC.]

Posted by ahillis at 9:39 AM | Comments (5)

May 17, 2011

DVD of the Week: Diabolique

By Vadim Rizov

diabolique2.jpg

American movies, for whatever reason, are low on killings that take place in bathtubs and swimming pools. The French, on the other hand, have several films that famously make soaking yourself in water a charged event: 1969's La Piscine has a brutal pool-side forced drowning, and the centerpiece of Diabolique is a messy tub murder. The atmosphere is fetid from the opening shot, a scum-level view of a pool, which becomes increasingly important after Christina (Vera Clouzot) and Nicole (Simone Signoret) kill Christina's brutal husband, school headmaster Michel Delasalle (Paul Meurisse), and dump his corpse in the pool. When it doesn't rise to the top, the pool is drained, revealing a striking lack of dead people. Where's Michel? Numerous shots of puddles large and small hammer the question home.

Nominally a thriller, Diabolique (newly re-released on DVD in a digitally restored print via Criterion) is a pitch-dark comedy about taking responsibility and assigning blame. Henri-Georges Clouzot's 1943 The Raven (Le Corbeau, a not-so-thinly veiled parable against French collaboration with the Nazis, nearly destroyed his career, but his post-war work started immediately jabbing again at the post-war French republic. Both 1947's Quai des Orfevres and Diabolique have real mysteries at their core, and both deliver satisfying twists and resolutions, but the larger focus is on people working as hard as possible to avoid being indicted for or accused of anything. Guilt is merely a question of plausible deniability; as Christina and Nicole have a falling out, they both threaten to present their own plausible defenses to the police and leave the other person hanging.

It's an occupation mentality: when the authorities finally come to account for the dead and missing, who'll have something to be ashamed of or hide? Will the wrong person take the blame, and the real malefactors escape punishment? Decades before The Sorrow And The Pity, mainstream French cinema was working out its feelings about occupation and collaboration in not-so-subtle ways.

diabolique1.jpg

Christina and Nicole establish their alibis by luring Michel, unseen, to an apartment in Paris; they plan to kill him there, then plant the body at the school. The apartment building is shared by Mme. Herboux (Thérèse Dorny) and her tiresome husband (Noël Roquevert), who just wants to listen to the radio. Annoyed by the late-night sound of water running for the bath, he sits down to write a registered letter of complaint: his right, he pompously announces, as a citizen. Meticulously noting what time the water goes on and off, he takes the best witness testimony and written evidence any prosecutor could ask for as a matter of course. Later, to drive the point home, he offers to lend the women a steel suitcase whose indestructibility he vouches for by noting it survived the "retreat of 1940," when the French ceded Paris and the nation to invading Nazi forces.

In a nation unable to think honestly about its part in wartime and potential complicity with occupiers, it's not surprising that the children pay the price in intellectual honesty. Suffice it to say that Delasalle may not be dead, but any child bold enough to testify to having seen him is punished for dishonesty: some things should be witnessed but not testified to. One boy testifies that he feels like he "fucked up" after showing a private detective a key piece of evidence, and the final image is of a child sent to stand in the corner once again, after claiming to have seen someone they're sternly told couldn't have been there.

In an atmosphere this paranoid and furtive, it's not terribly surprising when abusive Michel berates Christina for having the nerve to tell a lawyer "our secrets" (i.e., that he's physically, mentally and sexually mistreating her). Silence is the default mode; what makes Diabolique comic is that the characters are constantly inappropriately, rudely honest and open with each other in a way that would make Noah Baumbach's collected misanthropes feel right at home. Michel tells his wife he's waiting for her death and schoolmasters cluck over the inappropriateness of a "wife consoling the mistress"; Nicole's overtly contemptuous treatment of her neighbors is a master class in exuding disdain.

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Everyone's in a bad mood, underpaid (the school itself is seedy and worn-down, with understandably exasperated staff and students) and default rude. That makes the last-minute shift in Diabolique — a dreamlike finale that suddenly kicks the film from grimy portrait of worn-down people and places to surreal visions that may or may not be hallucinations — all the more effective, an escape from drab reality that turns, with very little prodding, into an overt waking nightmare.

[Editor's note: The very worthy Criterion DVD extras include selected-scene commentary by French-film scholar Kelley Conway; a new video introduction by Serge Bromberg, co-director of Henri-Georges Clouzot's Inferno and a new video interview with U.K. novelist and film critic Kim Newman.]

Posted by cphillips at 12:39 PM | Comments (1)

May 13, 2011

Something Wild: Pandora's Jukebox

By Steve Dollar

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When it was first released 25 years ago, Something Wild seemed very much a part of the zeitgeist. As "morning in America" drifted into the senile platitudes of Ronald Reagan's second term, and Top Gun and Back to the Future cleaned up at the box office, some filmmakers were reconsidering the national identity, in particular, the apple-pie verities of small towns in what might now be called Red States - aka, the Heartland.

It was 1986, the Year of “Americanarama” (as Village Voice critic J. Hoberman named the trend). There were gas masks and severed ears in Blue Velvet. There was David Byrne's remake of Our Town as an eccentric Texas musical in True Stories - which felt like a self-conscious, theatrical riff on early Errol Morris documentaries, like Vernon, Florida. Two years earlier, Jim Jarmusch's Stranger Than Paradise had sketched out an escape from New York's Lower East Side into a depopulated landscape as a minimalist road movie. He was glancing in the rear view mirror at Herzog and Wenders, as well as Swiss photographer Robert Frank, whose 1955 book The Americans, Jack Kerouac observed, "sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film."

It's all swell to consider. But watching director Jonathan Demme talk about the movie in the interview supplement to the new Criterion edition of Something Wild, it's clear that the cultural moment wasn't nearly as significant to the director as simply reigniting his career, which he'd tabled in disgust after the “debacle” of Swing Shift - the abortive period comedy starring Goldie Hawn that was to be Demme's break into Hollywood but instead was snatched back and chopped up by the studio. As such, this screwballsy comedy-turned-thriller, conceived as an NYU Film School thesis by 30-year-old screenwriter E. Max Frye, offered Demme a chance to reinvent himself.

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Ironically, that's one of the film's pivotal themes. If the story begins as an East Village romp akin to the yuppie-takes-a-walk-on-the-wild-side scheme of After Hours or Desperately Seeking Susan, it quickly ditches that milieu in much the way nice-guy coffee achiever Charles (nee Charlie) Driggs (Jeff Daniels) blows off an afternoon at the corporate office where he's the new VP. He's just been picked up by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) at a funky downtown diner. Soon they're speeding through the Holland Tunnel and into deepest Jersey in a crazy sedan decked out like Graceland's Jungle Room, a thick reggae bassline rumbling in harmony with the motor.

Lulu is a piece of work: a mystery gal in a black dress and sheer stockings, garlanded with Afrocentric jewelry and sporting Louise Brooks bangs under which she bats her lashes at Charlie, a seemingly upright young American whom she just watched pocket his lunch check. “You're a rebel, Charlie,” she tells him, in a babydoll coo, “You just don't know it.”

What happens next is always a surprise, but the key throughout is the dynamic between the seemingly straitlaced Daniels and the free-spirited Griffith, the soul of good-natured human decency and the post-punk Pandora, luring an allegedly married man out of the air-conditioned nightmare into a sweat-drenched misadventure full of kinky sex, stolen booze, abandoned cars and various other crimes and misdemeanors at which point, Charlie learns Lulu's real name is Audrey, and she's hijacked him for the express purpose of having him pose as her husband at her 10 Year high school reunion.

We're learning that neither Charlie nor Lulu/Audrey are really who they appear to be - they can't even fool her mom Peaches (Dana Preu), who nudges Charlie over the kitchen sink after they drop by for an unexpected visit somewhere in the movie's Pennsylvania, “You've got a real wife somewhere, haven't you?” It's a loaded question. But in the film's centerpiece - the reunion scene - Demme suspends the narrative arc and just lets the camera hang out on the dance floor, with a party of extras busting a move to New Jersey post-punk heroes The Feelies, playing mostly covers (“I'm a Believer”) in front of a giant American flag. It's one of the most perfect moments in the last 30 years of movies, two characters who appear to have emerged from a thrift-shop chrysalis: Charlie in his new wave dress suit, Audrey now a blonde gamine with a pixie cut, cutting a rug as the soundtrack spills with song.

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And then. As the band plays the jittery chords to “Loveless Love” (an original Feelies song I like to call “Love Theme from Carlos,” since Olivier Assayas used much of the same music in his film), we meet Ray (Ray Liotta, oozing rattlesnake charisma in his big-screen debut, if you don't count the bomb The Lonely Lady). Audrey's convenience-store robbing ex-husband has just got out of jail, and any unease Charlie's felt at bumping into a co-worker at the dance is about to be ramped way, way up as Liotta snatches the narrative steering wheel and floors the movie headlong into thrillerville.

Back in the day, the sudden hairpin turn seemed to throw some critics, yet it fits right in with the movie's consistent strategy of unboxing surprises, going noir just as the femme fatale becomes the damsel in distress, yet never losing touch with the larger, humanistic sensibility that guides Demme's vision.

This is a film that begins, after a sweeping aerial panorama of Manhattan seen from the Hudson River, with a close-up of a boombox shouldered by a black teenager, and that rarely lets its lead actors linger in a frame unaccompanied by a random stranger with some kind of folk wisdom or shoot-from-the-hip inspiration. (In a similar way, Demme crams the soundtrack with non-stop source music, emanating from car radios, cassettes, storefront gospel churches, street musicians - combining new wave hits with a deeper curatorial sensibility that, like so many friends' record collections at the time, split the difference between streetwise and dubwise).

Adapting Frye's script to his own cultural interests, Demme illuminates a multicultural, magic realist America that thrives in all the overlooked margins - the 7-11s, the No-Tell Motels, the tacky gift shops and theme diners. It's not a little bit of an answer to The Americans, proposing not a nation of short-order melancholy but of vibrant congeniality.

If all that makes Something Wild a movie-within-a-movie, for me it's got a third reality. Demme, who got his start in the movie business writing reviews for a South Florida shopper, shot most of the film in and around Tallahassee, Florida. It's where I grew up, and live at least part of the time, and while many of the locations that stand in for New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Long Island aren't the same anymore, it's impossible to watch them flash by and suspend belief that it's somewhere else. The Pandhandle, then as now, remains substantially rural and small-town - indeed, it is so “Americanarama” that Morris's Vernon, Florida, is only about an hour's drive away.

Demme made terrific use of local resouces, casting professionals and non-professionals for cameos, right alongside the more obvious appearances by John Waters (as a sleazy used-car salesman) and John Sayles (as a motorcycle cop). The movie's mix-tape grooviness is surely redemptive, as is its near-perfect trio of central performances, yet the real genius was the director's openness to the moment.

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Jim Roche, an art professor at Florida State University and to this day one of the most throughly original characters around town, caught Demme's eye when the director drove past his studio, glimpsing an array of crosses in its windows. He thought he had stumbled across a folk artist (and in a way, he had), but after meeting up he cast Roche as the scraggly motel handyman who greets a badly hungover Daniel after he's survived that long first night with Lulu. Roche, tapping a literally divine inspiration, offered his own line of dialogue for the encounter and Demme agreed. So there he is, wearing a T-shirt that laments, “I Don't Love You Since You Ate My Dog,” handing Charlie some Alka-Seltzer, and some advice that, to this day, is the movie's most instantly memorable phrase: “Remember, no matter what, it's better to be a live dog than a dead lion.”

Posted by cphillips at 2:19 PM

May 10, 2011

DVD (VHS) of the Week: Sledgehammer

sledgehammer3.jpgBy Vadim Rizov

You've heard this one before: eight friends go out to a deserted rural house to party down. Ten years earlier, an adulterous man and woman were murdered; their son was never found, the killer never identified. The lambs to the slaughter don't know it yet, but their Budweisers are about to be lubricated... with blood.

According to its DVD jacket copy, 1983's Sledgehammer boasts the distinction of being the first direct-to-video slasher shot on video. The resources on tap are evidently scant: the budget appears to have gone mostly to the impressively-gruesome killings, courtesy of honestly named f/x pros Blood & Guts. The synthesizers and sledgehammer-yielding tall, carpenter-looking killer come from Halloween and the kills are straight Tom Savini territory. The X factor is video: Sledgehammer is the real Trash Humpers.

Intervision's new DVD lovingly preserves every trace of the bottom-of-screen tracking weirdness and other VHS degradations; predictably, Sledgehammer is unintentionally evocative. The opening sets the tone: a fixed shot of a house, held for a ridiculous amount of time. Technical incompetence, a way of padding out the running time, or inadvertent surrealism? It's all three: a texture that might've once seemed inexcusably sludgy begins to hold its own fascination, unintentionally predicting the fixed-master-shot style of arthouse filmmaking. The murder that follows is by the book: just as it's time to get it on, the hammer comes crashing down.

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Low-budget exploitation cheapies are normally time capsules by default, soaking up the housing, cheap diners and scuzzy people lurking wherever shooting is going on. Out in the countryside, no such luck: Sledgehammer is an oddly professional production in some ways, insulated from the outside world. The gang's driven to the house by a local yokel (Ray Lawrence), who promises to get the van's transmission back into shape; soon, he says, he'll have it "shifting gears faster than a good woman on her honeymoon night." Our hero by default is Chuck, played by Ted Prior, a former Playgirl model with the plasticine prettiness of a mannequin. The most engaging of the other characters is John (John Eastman), a burly lumberjack type with a beard that would be back in fashion by this point. John tolerates precisely zero nonsense: he tears beer cans in half with his bare hands, and his response to a ghost's promise — "We want to drink your blood" — is a crisp "Bullshit!"

The women are less clearly drawn: their perms are sharp, but their one-on-one time is mostly giggly sex talk. Their personalities are mostly defined by not being irresponsible men: all of the guys on collection here evade their relationship commitments with food fights, binge drinking and pranks. (There's an unexpectedly sharply observed moment when a woman, trying to get her man's attention, tries to reach for his chest, only to be cut off by his arm raising a beer can back up to his lips.)

The cast are semi-pros; it's behind the camera that things get interesting in unintended ways. Twelve minutes in, director David A. Prior offers up Chuck and girlfriend Joni (Linda McGill) walking in goofy love for a solid two minutes in slow-motion while treacly music plays. The choice is pragmatic (they needed to get the running time up to feature length), but the effect is oddly hypnotic: instead of offering up a bunch of cliched shots, we're invited to just watch two people cavort in NFL Films-time, charging banal gestures.

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About an hour in, Sledgehammer starts generating odd frissons: the killer has the unnerving habit of disappearing through doorways, and all the empty rooms begin to take on a sinister ambient undercurrent that's erratic but surprisingly not that far off from Twin Peaks at certain moments. The gauzy video look blows out the rooms, creating weird light coronas; there's a particularly effective shot during a seance as the camera pans right-to-left across the assembled faces, with a candle at frame's edge rendering each facial expression (scared, goofy, non-acting) in sharp relief.

Sledgehammer isn't for everyone; I'm not even sure it's for me. But there's a weird air hanging over the movie, at the moments when messing around with crude video effects suddenly becomes just as scary as the filmmakers want. Alternated with all the sludge (effortlessly time-stamped in its sexual mores, not just the old Budweiser cans and hairstyles), the overall effect is unexpected: Sledgehammer becomes an interesting movie, rather than (just) bargain-basement exploitation trash to hoot at. You don't need to see too many of these kinds of films to get the idea, but as a sample, Sledgehammer is a worthy movie that comes out better than its makers intended.

Posted by cphillips at 1:24 PM

May 7, 2011

Go, Go, Second-Time Auteur

by Steve Dollar

Caterpillar

A onetime yakuza turned jailbird turned filmmaking enfant terrible, the now-75-year-old Japanese director Kōji Wakamatsu has long been loved by cinema cultists for an outrageous string of 1960s provocations made under the guise of the pinku eiga—or "pink" film. These typically low-budget sex romps could be as insane, surreal, or mind-bending as possible, as long as they included a minimum amount of nudity and softcore humping. Wakamatsu, seizing the opportunity, used the form to pursue the extremes, reveling in obsessive sex and violence as a leftist critique of Japanese society. Beyond the outrage and sleaze of The Embryo Hunts in Secret; Go, Go Second-Time Virgin; and Ecstasy of the Angels, was a form of perverse shock treatment.

Caterpillar Wakamatsu took a break from the camera in 1977, and didn’t return for 27 years. But he still wants to mess with your head. Don't get the wrong idea, though—Caterpillar is not The Human Centipede. It's worse. And it's worse because the horrors it details are not a fantasy, but a wartime allegory. War is hell, they say. And in this 2010 film, which opened in New York this week, that hell isn't only the atrocity of the film's opening frames, set during the second Sino-Japanese War of 1940. It's what happens when handsome village son Kyuzo (Shima Ohnishi) returns home from combat missing both arms and legs, his face horribly burned, with scarce capacity for speech or hearing. The helpless "war god" really is a caterpillar, and the constant burden of the horrified Shigeko (the sublime Shinobu Terajima, who won the best actress prize at the 2010 Berlin Film Festival), his wife, whose complex arc of emotions gradually betrays strange new emotions underneath the stoic acceptance of patriotic duty. She takes a certain pleasure in the reversal of marital dynamics.

Caterpillar The film is a brutal indictment of Japanese militarism and how it trickles down to the micro level of rural villages, where even a ruined shell of man becomes a local celebrity, paraded around in a wheelbarrow. Though he's working in a more stately fashion, with long static medium shots and measured rhythms, the director can be as thoroughly shocking as ever—and unexpectedly amusing even in such a dark scenario. Shigeko's first instinct, as she shares a quiet moment with her deformed husband, is to strangle him to death. Kyuzo resists, wordlessly gasping something urgent. He needs to relieve himself, and that basic biological necessity spares his life, as Shigeko begins to laugh at the absurdity. She finds an urn and patiently lets him fill it. But a good wife's duties never end. There's a terrific, old Harlan Ellision short story called "I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream." Well, that's Kyuzo's problem, too. About the only functional body part he's got left is his dick, which he soon puts to incessant use. The unsettling sideshow nature of the sex scenes quickly fade into a range of things: comedy, horror, domestic power plays, sweet relief, unholy torture. "Eat, sleep. Eat, sleep. That's all you do!" Shigeko screams at him. In a conventional melodrama, this would be the cue for a heartbreaking surge of emotion, perhaps, or some triumph of the human spirit crap. Here, though, her husband's plight has taken away his power to hurt Shigeko, even as his war medals for bravery empower her with newfound status in a village where everyone worships the military, save for a fey, portly fool who runs around eating flowers (a character the director describes as his pacifist surrogate).

Caterpillar Pushed to her limits, she finally begins punching him, reciprocating the treatment she's received at his hands, as Kyuzo suffers flashbacks to the crimes he committed in the emperor’s name: the savage rape and murder of Chinese women as Japan's troops rampaged through the mainland.

The film is adapted from a 1930s short story by Japanese mystery writer Edogawa Rampo (the pen name is a transliteration of "Edgar Allan Poe"), which was subsequently censored by the Japanese government during a war that saw unthinkable atrocities visited upon the Chinese. Opening in New York next week, The City of Life and Death is a Chinese fictionalization of such a scenario, revisiting the so-called Rape of Nanking, in which 300,000 people died in a mere six weeks. Wakamatsu, whose 2008 docudrama United Red Army (which has a delayed New York opening soon, as well) turns a critical eye to left-wing extremism of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and asserts that no war is just. Violence deforms hearts and minds as surely as physical bodies, and war merely institutionalizes it. Caterpillar, with its bravura performances and unflinching depictions of human indignities, graces and cruelties, brings a quietly devastating argument to the most intimate setting.

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

May 4, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Makioka Sisters

by Vadim Rizov

The Makioka Sisters

1983's The Makioka Sisters is Kon Ichikawa's second Junichiro Tanizaki adaptation. The first, 1959's Odd Obsession, more or less captures the black sexual comedy of Tanizaki's dysfunctional marriage novella The Key, substituting rising thespian and stylistic freak-outs to compensate for the actual nudity and sex that couldn't be filmed at the time. (Coincidentally, Tinto Brass' softcore take on the same material also debuted in 1983.) Superficially, Makioka—a social drama about four sisters that practically screams "autumnal"/"Chekovian"—is a good deal more respectable and less overheated than the sex-centric Obsession.

The Makioka SistersTanizaki's novel takes place from 1936-1941 and includes a big flood sequence; the movie compresses action to the year of 1938, and—presumably deference to budgetary considerations—ditches the flood, confining itself almost entirely to two houses. Exterior shots are brief and fleeting: the outside world recedes, giving each domestic exchange disproportionate influence. The claustrophobia helps to make The Makioka Sisters often funny and/or melodramatic, but it's also an economic horror story a la Austen's Emma, in which marriage is first and foremost an economic necessity, a ticket out of house confines increasingly hard to find as time rolls on. The fact that there's a war going on is in the extreme periphery of the sister's vision, and the film doesn't really care either. There's a passing reference from shifty rich-kid-turned-desperate-blackmailer Okubata (Kobatcho Katsura) about going to Manchuria to start over and occasional background flag-waving soldiers, but the focus is the hothouse atmosphere of four women forced to live together for years, with the outside world forcefully repelled.

The Makioka Sisters The two eldest sisters, Tsuruko (Keiko Kishi) and Sachiko (Yoshiko Sakuma), are married. Yukiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) must marry before her younger sister Taeko (Yuko Katewaga) can start courting, but she can't find a single suitable candidate. Group dynamics among four equally flawed sisters can be lurid terrain. Sachiko—the kinder, less status-obsessed of the elder sisters—lets her two unmarried siblings live with her, but the awareness that her otherwise mild-mannered, uncomplaining husband Teinosuke (Koji Ishizaka) lusts for Yukiko drives her, at one point, to maniacally squish and consume a fruit, as overt a camp signal of sexual hysteria as there is. (The maid just gapes.) Tsuruko is aging faster than the other sisters, and her measured speech patterns—a strained, artificial delivery meant to carry on class and breeding traditions—seem like something out of a horror movie next to her relatively informal sisters. Yukiko is nearly silent and seemingly lacks goals or aspirations, while Taeko's quest to start her own career, while understandable, also pushes her to stupid decisions like moving in with bartenders on a moment's whim.

Comic relief and moments of sisterly solidarity come during Yukiko's ritualized lunch meetings with prospective husbands: the strangest encounter is with a man whose profession centers around cultivation of the ayu fish. Taking charge, he begins discussing his studies with near-autistic emotional tone-deafness before presenting the death certificates of his first wife and children, just to have everything on the record. Such moments bond the sisters and offer up outside-world perspective. By the end, Tsuruko's lost her monstrous self-righteousness and belief in the family creed, and her sisters all reconcile themselves to living stably as individuals, rather than in relation to each other and the family name.

The Makioka SistersIt's a long way here from the rising panic of Odd Obsession, whose ending manages to kill more people out of sheer moral disgust than Tanizaki's original. A closer relative is Ichikawa's 1975 I Am a Cat, another history of Japanese social change largely confined to the living room (another adaptation, from Soseki Natsume's novel). A flatter and more ambitious film, Cat shows a professor and his friends sitting around and arguing. The late 19th century background, uneasily acknowledged, is creeping Westernization, which coincides with increasing militarization. Makioka is less ambitious about trying to make sense of all social changes over a large period of time, and better for it.

A man behind me at the press screening actually apologized to his companion for taking him to see the movie; taken at surface value, this would indeed be nothing more than a series of melodramatic twists executed with old-fashioned discretion. The staid surface is punctuated by regular jolts of perversity; the tone remains unpredictable rather than dutifully episodic. It's also, at the beginning and end, very '80s in an endearing way. After a tense all-sister lunch, the opening credits put them on parade: the pink light of their carefully controlled interiors matches the blossoming flowers outside, with the blossoming-and-dying metaphor obvious. Their springtime walk takes place to an enjoyably baroque synthesizer; the ending, returning to those blossoms, has big power ballad drums to play us out. Those bookends remind us where the film's coming from: a classical Japanese filmmaker reflecting on a period he lived through (Ichikawa was born in 1915 in the Kansai Region, home to Kyoto and Osaka), pretty much exactly 50 years later, with sardonic affection.

Note: The Makioka Sisters will arrive on DVD via Criterion on June 14.

Posted by cphillips at 1:55 PM

May 2, 2011

SFIFF 54: Critic's Notebook 2.

By Craig Phillips

Continuing on from my previous Critic's Notebook piece here on GC Daily, a few more films of interest that have screened and are screening at the San Francisco International Film Festival. For more random thoughts and comments you can follow me on Twitter: @craigary.

Hospitalité

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This droll black comedy from Japanese director Koji Fukada is about a printer named Kobayashi and his much younger second wife (and their two little children) whose lives are altered when they take in an odd stranger Kagawa (Furutachi Kanji), who claims to be the son of a former patron of Kobayashi's father, to live and work with them. Kobayashi's divorced sister Seiko (Kumi Hyodo), newly returned herself. is instantly wary of him and life gets even more complicated when Kagawa's wife turns up unannounced -- she's either from Brazil or Bosnia or somewhere else entirely, depending on who she is telling, but regardless she's far too open about sexuality (she stands on the balcony nude, for one thing) for the prim neighbors.

Hospitalité is full of surprises, building on each one naturally but with gentle purpose. The film plays like a gentler, grounded variation of Takashi Miike's Katakuris, and on the basest level this is the kind of plot we've seen American films take on with mostly poor results (a certain Owen Wilson comedy f'rinstance). Sure, in Hospitalité, the newcomer opens up a lot of proverbial closets in this seemingly everyday family, but what is surprising in Fukada's film is how each of them change, as the new guest uses his knowledge and manipulation of said secrets to take control of things.

There's a lot going on under the surface here: commentary on Japanese xenophobia as related to new globalization, on communication, and on people's inability to change. We see this in the neighborhood watch of older ladies patrolling the neighborhood worried about crime, but more worried about outsiders. And in Kobayashi and Nastuki themselves, an odd couple in many ways, who have an "everything's fine" attitude at the start even though it's quickly clear that they are not.

The film's pace is a little sluggish at times but it remains engaging throughout. While Fukada doesn't treat it with the heavier touch of broad farce, thankfully, there is a fair amount of slapstick here, including several laugh out loud moments (one worthy of the Marx Brothers' Night at the Opera's stateroom scene). It also does not make any overt moral statements (this is not Pasolini's more sinister, less accesible Theorem, for instance).

The climax is an unexpected blast, like a hit from warm sake, followed by an ending of quiet renewal and redemption. This is Fukada's second feature, the first as far as I can tell to be seen in the US, and judging by his sure hand I am already most certainly looking forward to what he cooks up next.

A Cat in Paris
Specky Four Eyes

catinparis.jpgMy girlfriend and I eagerly took in A Cat in Paris thinking it had several things going for it: 1) Paris; 2) cats; 3) animation. Unfortunately it didn't take advantage of our goodwill in any of these things very well and we left in some disappointment, though I wouldn't go nearly so far as to call it a waste of time (the under-10 crowd in the audience seemed to like it, for one.) Because it has a US distributtion deal with GKIDS (who also put out the superior Secret of Kells and Sita Sings the Blues) I thought it worth a mention.

The first feature of Parisian artist/animators Alain Gagnol and Jean-Loup Feliciolli, of the French animation studio Folimage, the film's purposefully flat style (very 2D one could say, designs in the vein of Russian propaganda posters meets Friz Freleng's Pink Panther cartoons), while not a problem for me per se would seem easier to take in a shorter piece; over feature length the look begins to grate, especially with the character design a bit weak. But more of an issue was the script, which featured a crime/mystery plot so simple even that under 10 crowd was likely bored by it, and by some asinine dialogue. To be fair I'm not 100% sure how much of that is original script and how much is lost in translation; the print screened features an English language dub of varying quality. Some of the voices sound like non-American actors trying to do cliched American archetypes, others were British, or with French or Italian accents. For kids this might either be confusing, or fit just fine, but for me it felt like incoherent voice direction.

The film is about a mute girl named Zoe and her beloved cat Dino who has a secret life. The cat assists a likable cat burglar named Nico on his nighttime runs. The girl's father was murdered by a mafia kingpin named Victor Costa; her mother, a police detective, has made it her obsession to track the man down. The girl's relationship with the cat and friendship with Nico are the best parts of the film, with both an air of sweetness and good humor coming from that triangle. But elements of farce are pretty weak here, with a lot of missed opportunities for, frankly, more developed jokes, creative visual humor and characterizations. There are a few laughs, and a few touching moments, and again, I think younger kids will enjoy it well enough, but it's ultimately nothing special, alas.

specky4eyes.jpgFar more successful in my eyes was the animated short, also from France, that screened beforehand: Jean-Claude Rozec's Specky Four Eyes, about a poor boy saddled with terrible vision, who has to wear ludicrously thick glasses. Poignantly, he begins to feel that the real world around him, which he only sees when glasses are on, is either too mundane or ugly to see, and prefers it better when glasses are off -- when his vivid imagination does the seeing for him. In just 9 minutes this film does a far better job of creating a kid's skewed point of view and the well-meaning cruelty of adults than A Cat in Paris does in its feature length. I also really liked the film's black and white style - which looks like a mix of pencil and watercolor - and characterizations; all make it look like it came straight outta a beloved children's book

A Useful Life

usefullife.jpg Filmed appropriately in black and white, the Uruguayan A Useful Life is for cinephiles over all others; some might be put off by the relatively slow pacing, the film plays like a deadpan funny, if more naturalistic, Jim Jarmusch comedy, a sweet, slight but utterly endearing film. It is the work of another new-ish filmmaker, Federico Veiroj, (his first feature, Acne, played at Cannes' Directors Fortnight) who knows this territory well, having worked at Montevideo’s Cinemateca Uruguaya, where his film is set. It is the type of place that has a Manoel de Oliveira film festival, not exactly the stuff huge crowds are made of, and, not surprisingly since it seems to have about 7 loyal people in the audience for each screening, the theater finds itself in financial dire straits.

Uruguay's official selection for the 2010 Academy Awards, A Useful Life uses non-professional actors: the head of the theater is played by the real life head of Cinemateca, and the protagonist Jorge, is played by Uruguayan film critic Jorge Jellinek, who has a lumbering sad sack-ness that is quite appealing (he looks like a Latin-nerd version of Ray Romano). While this in some ways makes for some clumsy interactions they give the film an genuine sweetness. As when Jorge tries to steel up the nerve to ask a patron out to coffee; and Jellinek does well when finally needing to show emotion later in the film.

Talk about old school -- we see spools of film, the projectionist translates the title cards via microphone for some homemade narration, while Jorge makes an ad campaign for the fest via tape recorder. In fact, their whole world involves using outmoded technologies: faxes, telegrams, VHS (monte)videotapes, reel-to-reel recorders, pay phones and rotary phones - making it at first blush hard to date the setting, until you realize it's set today, a commentary on people who can;t quite let go of a time when technology was more physical, palpable, bulky, real.

A few parts of the film are a bit too slow-going, but there's an extremely subtle humor even then: a scene where the Cinemateca head talks at length and pretentiously about film structure and viewing is on the surface rather dry and talky but I saw it as a satire of how people who "love" and are engaged by film manage to inadvertently make it abstract and dull. And a scene where Jorge (briefly) pretends to teach at a law school by using a Mark Twain piece on lying as an introductory monologue is odd and quite funny.

As it progresses, the film picks up pace, too, finally mixing in a music score midway through, over a montage of sorts, and later adds in a "cowboy and indian" Western movie sound backdrop to a scene where an emboldened Jorge moves through the city. The film as a whole gets more cinematic as Jorge's world opens up away from the confines of the Cinemateca. Even a haircut scene becomes a cathartic pleasure. This little film is full of them.

Posted by cphillips at 1:51 PM