June 29, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: Terri

by Vadim Rizov

Terri

Terri sounds like a potentially unwatchable splicing together of two different kinds of movies: a Larry Clark cavalcade of teenagers with body issues and volatile hormones meets an uplifting crowd pleaser. The characters are stigmatized and/or isolated by their physical appearance and externalized mental problems. But having tackled the not-at-all funny topic of a grown man too paralyzed by a nameless fear to leave his parents' home in Momma's Man, director Azazel Jacobs has the appropriate slow rhythms and non-saccharine instincts to render unpleasant, difficult life moments in a tough-but-compassionate way.

At the forefront is awkwardly hulking Terri (Jacob Wysocki), an ungainly teen boy made daily sport of because of his size, whose best friend—seemingly by default—is obscenity-spouting JD Chad (Bridger Zadina), who obsessively tears his hair out by the roots while waiting for his many disciplinary meetings, leaving a nasty bald streak on his head. Other oddballs helping to shape Terri's understanding of people include his Alzheimer's-stricken Uncle James (Creed Bratton) and his schoolmate Heather Miles (Olivia Crochiciccia), who looks like a perfectly airbrushed Disney Channel tween idol airdropped into a decrepit high school.

Ostensibly, Terri is an outsiders-bond-together-and-grow film, but with harsh doses of physical reality: Terri's big in every way (bone structure, height, weight, girth). Instead of turning into a Precious-esque freak show, the film gives the audience time to get comfortable with the protagonist as he himself is learning to embrace being in his own skin.

Terri

Home is wood-planked, comfortably cluttered, and has just acquired some rodents that scratch up the basement at night. In an ever-rarer window of total lucidity, Uncle James tells Terri to get mousetraps. Killing the vermin proves easy and provides a peculiar break in Terri's otherwise repetitive, companionless routine of schoolyard bullying and looking after the household with minimal cash. Further inspired, Terri notches up a bunch of corpses in the nearby forest and attracts a hawk, who swoops down over the carcasses for some predatorial munching. It's the first time Terri's made something awesome happen—a bird of prey is there because of him!—but it looks like sadism to uncle James, who thinks otherwise powerless Terri is getting his kicks by murdering small defenseless animals. Terri can't communicate his wish to draw others towards him by any means necessary.

The forest is an enchanted zone, shot as a sun-dappled perpetual magic hour: no one's hiking or biking, leaving a people-less utopia where Terri can be completely comfortable. At the end of the trail lies school, where the lighting grows harsher and flatter and Terri's largely vain and preening classmates display absolute contempt for their home economics teacher. Terri's not dead meat (he's too big to bully), but he's a laughingstock who doesn't understand how to respond.

Terri

When assistant principal Mr. Fitzgerald (John C. Reilly) sets up Terri for weekly meetings to discuss his emotional problems, it seems inappropriate: Fitgzerald, as usual in Reilly's recent comedy performances, yells loud and often, unnerving those around him and displaying unearned familiarity with relative strangers. Yet he's not a creep, pedophile, or troubled adult trying to sublimate his problems by bonding with kids: his awkward, frankly dorky conduct could be a put-on. His Monday morning conferences are helpful as a diversion from Terri's usual tortuous monotony but essentially uninspiring; they're at least better than home ec. Still, Fitzgerald seems too hapless a figure to motivate any kid insecure about their future place in the world: seen only in his capacity as an administrator, he's a cartoonish figure who turns the already decaying office area into a farce of authority with no real consequences. Like Terri, the gap between what he means to convey and what comes out is often vast.

In the centerpiece scene, Reilly turns a lie into an Oscar clip-reel worthy moment that's actually moving. Most speeches from an eccentric-but-inspiring mentor to a troubled but good-hearted kid come off as unforgivably clunky. Here, Fitzgerald gives a version of the same story twice, first as uplifting kitsch: To spur Terri on, Fitzgerald shows him tragic pictures of a childhood bout with unfortunate back skin. Terri's bemused, but his problems aren't skin-related but how big his frame is, combined with bad eating habits and a general inability to communicate in non-autistic fashion.

Terri

As he retells it, Fitzgerald's speech then becomes a heartfelt rant about how well-meaning people lie to each other every day. Terri finds out this corny anecdote isn't one that has never told before (as promised), but exactly the kind of stock sermon told to any kid with problems. Angry, Terri confronts him with a simple complaint: he was lied to, and he feels terrible. Their office face-off is interrupted by a bigger interruption outside: Fitzgerald's been called a creep in graffiti form on campus yet again. After ordering the janitor to get some paint, Fitzgerald sits Terri down for an apology via short story, which is best not to discuss here, but Reilly knocks it out of the park: his schticky, awkward comic persona stops for a sincere, masterfully written speech that essentially tells Terri everyone lies without meaning to. The point is to get Terri to realize that his very real body issues (and how it makes people nervous) can be separated from his emotions; image-vs.-self-loathing problems haunt everyone but the dementia-afflicted uncle. Fitzgerald shows by example how to communicate what you really want to say, even if it gets screwed up the first time around.

It's worth dwelling on this monologue—a five-minute interlude in the middle of a hundred or so more minutes—because it's exceptionally conceived, and also gives the rest of an unnervingly ambiguous film a strong thematic backbone. Terri depicts the kids as all sexually fixated in their own ways, which may be the most realistic way to depict the teen years. The gap between what they think they want (sex, no matter how inappropriately timed or with whom) and the way they express it becomes the gutsy central topic, but treated entirely without exploitation. Terri isn't a feel-good movie; it's a lesson in communication and compassion that gives its title character just enough friends and self-confidence to get him closer to sex, an adult milestone he thought his body would forever prevent him from experiencing.

Posted by ahillis at 3:31 PM

June 27, 2011

Keeping the Bath Water

by Zach Clark

The Baby

[Editor's Note: In honor of THE BABY's release on DVD tomorrow, this appreciation could only come from Mr. Clark, a NYC-based filmmaker and a life-long fan of psychotronic cinema. His most recent feature films are MODERN LOVE IS AUTOMATIC and VACATION!.]

You can't un-see Ted Post's 1973 feature The Baby. What begins as a quasi soap opera for infantilists uses seemingly non-tongue-in-cheek camp and slasher tropes to mutate into an anti-morality play about families and normalcy. What's right is wrong. What's wrong is wrong, too. There are no answers, only questions. Hope is non-existent. You could call it misanthropic, or you could call it honest. Baby doesn't walk and Baby doesn't talk and there isn't really anything anyone can do about it.

The Baby The star of The Baby is Baby (played by David Manzy), a grown man who is also a baby. You have to see it to believe it. He wears infant clothes. He wants to play with toys and breast feed. His food is pureed and gets all over his face. But, he is not chasing the modern adult baby's dream of permanent regression. Baby has nothing to regress to. He's not pretending because he is a baby.

From this central contradiction springs the world of the film. Duality abounds. Everyone lies, deceives. Things are presented matter-of-factly most of the time, but every now and then, outright strangeness calls everything we've watched into question.

The Baby Baby's condition stems from his family keeping him that way. How? Mother's love and a cattle prod. Sometimes his sister fucks him, but Baby probably doesn't understand. After all, he's not an adult. Mrs. Wadsworth, Baby's mother, is shrewdly aware of this but she's fucked up—and so are her two daughters, Alba and Germaine. All three of Mrs. Wadsworth's children were fathered by different men. None of them are around anymore.

It's postulated that Mrs. Wadsworth is hurting Baby because of his gender, but she isn't. She loves him so much she doesn't want him to grow up just to be fucked up like everyone else. While she is protective of Baby, she does not shield him from the outside world. She goes to play bridge and comfortably leaves him with a babysitter (that is, until she finds him suckling at her literal teat). On Baby's birthday, Mrs. Wadsworth throws him a big party, a sequence that stylistically and thematically turns the whole world of the movie upside-down and contextualizes the Wadsworths as part of a society, not fringe dwellers.

The Baby Ann loves Baby, too. She's his social worker and has taken a special interest in his case. The Wadsworth women don't trust her. Her supervisors constantly question why she's so concerned. Why Ann's taken this interest, and the lengths to which she'll go to "save" Baby from his family are what drives the plot. Ann wants to help Baby but she's fucked up just like everyone else and so, in the end, everything goes sour. Isn't that how these things always go?

Maybe The Baby is about love, specifically between mothers and children, and "mothers" and "children." It's likely this uniquely maternal instinct was nothing more than a device for Post and screenwriter Abe Polsky to get from Sleaze A to Shock B, but historically, it's worth noting that the movie was released just a couple months after Roe V. Wade. A year or so later, the great Larry Cohen's It's Alive was released. That celluloid atrocity tells the story of a mutant infant who runs amok immediately after its birth. Considering the times and both directors' track records of crafting genre work with political subtexts, both may ultimately be pro-choice allegories, though their arguments seem to be inverted. It's Alive makes a case for abortion saving the life of the mother from damage caused by the child. Conversely, The Baby makes the case that abortion can save a child from its mother.

The Baby There is a strange, murky line between what is normal and abnormal in The Baby. The Wadsworth family is extreme, violent, camp. They are unapologetic and unashamed of their eccentricities. Their wardrobes match their personalities. They dress Baby in a caricatured fashion, Little Lord Fauntleroy chic. Performance is everything to them, and through which they show the world who they are.

Ann is normal. She is calm, rational, composed. She dresses conservatively. But it's all a front. There's some inexplicable situation going on with her husband, who we never see. She lives with an older woman named Judith whose relationship to Ann is never explained. She's not her relative or her lover; who is she? Secrets lie in Ann's house. Terrible, terrible secrets. In the end, we find out she might be worse than the Wadsworths but plays her life closer to the vest. Performance is everything to Ann, too, with which she hides her true self from the world.

The Baby When the end credits roll, it's unclear how to feel. Do we sympathize with the openly fucked-up Wadsworths or for the closeted deviant Ann? Whose crimes are worse? How far can too far go? And what was the point? The lack of a clear moral stance may be equal parts oversight and sign-of-the-Seventies, but intentionality be damned, The Baby's ambiguities are more subversive than its salacious subject matter.

Posted by ahillis at 1:55 PM

June 24, 2011

INTERVIEW: Mathieu Amalric

by Steve Dollar

TOURNEE director Mathieu Amalric (center)

Everyone's favorite French leading man, Mathieu Amalric, won the best director prize at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival for Tournée (also known as On Tour), an ambling backstage saga about an American burlesque troupe on the road in France, playing the creaky-theater circuit in a string of port towns as their manager Joachim (Amalric) sorts out his own personal drama. Many of the performers will be familiar to fans of the latter-day burlesque revival: Julie Atlas Muz, Kitten on the Keys, Dirty Martini, Mimi Le Meaux. They'll join Amalric for a screening and party as part of the third annual BAMcinemaFest's closing weekend. Earlier this week, Amalric spoke about his profound fascination with the ecdysiasts' art from Toronto, where he'd just arrived to begin shooting in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis.

How did you discover the neo-burlesque ladies?

It's a very strange way. I started to write something based on a diary that Colette wrote when she was on the road. Colette was a woman at the beginning of the 20th Century and she would do naked pantomimes. There was something in the way she would free herself by showing herself naked at that time that just struck me. I was looking for a spirit that had something to do with politics in a generous and funny way. Completely by chance, I fell on an article in a French newspaper about a world I had never heard about called New Burlesque. There were two photographs and I could see that the bodies were not exactly what they were supposed to be for women who were there to get naked, and it was close to what Colette was saying.

We started to write with a friend, and I saw burlesque for the first time in Nantes. We always wanted to do something that had to do with fiction. But I never asked them, for instance, what was private about their life. We tried to imagine something, and then we were really on tour. In France, people are not aware of burlesque like they are in America, and those women that think they are going to see France are not going to see anything but theaters, hotels and trains. And there's Joachim, who must have fantasized America [like] how the girls fantasized Paris and France. Two lies. It's about how they lie to each other.

Tournee

Paris is associated with burlesque historically. It's funny to hear that they don't know much about it now.

Oh, no. Now it's starting. There is burlesque in France. But it's really because they came to Nantes. That's where it started, in 2006.

Where did you go from there?

We tried to write a lot before, not with the girls. We tried to imagine a film, like boys imagining what's happening in the girl's room, where you never can enter. We tried to imagine their past, their shyness, their anger. They're queens during the night and shit in the morning and they have to start again, all the things you can feel when you spend time with them and that moved me a lot.

They were generously giving me something of their own life. But in the same time, they were always acting. There was no shot that was stolen. There is no improvisation, they were really acting, and they had to learn lines, play in a certain rhythm, and give that information at that moment, like actresses. It was a very strange experience for them. And something very warm happened with the crew. It was like an exchange we gave each other.

I can see that. Even though the moments have an unguarded feel, it's also like watching a charade.

Onstage, it was a real show. There was a real public, they are in the situation of performing. How to grab their energy: They need the public, they offered a free show, so we had all these people who came to see and we would shoot during that moment. All the other scenes were in hotels and behind the scenes. The work was to hide the work. Also, I had so much confidence in them, I would tell the story only orally. They didn't read anything,

Tournee

They made up their own dialogue?

Not really. In the morning there was something written. But that’s because I had wrote a lot before. Years before! [laughs] Because it was a long time with this film. How to give the impression that there's no director? You're just with people, and they don't know what’s going to happen.

So how did you accomplish that goal?

It's like free jazz. To improvise, you have to be all together, and to have the same chords, places where you're going to meet. Between those points, it's not improvising. You're in a scale, like a harmony. They knew that in particular moments we had to learn information, they had to go quicker, things very precise. But, in the middle, they would be themselves. We wouldn't rehearse. We'd do a long mise en place, and we would shoot. It would be too long, of course. It would be seven minutes. Then we would use that material to go quicker, down to two minutes, one minute. That's where they were really actresses, using things that come from them. It's a strange mixture, but there was a story all the time.

Were they a hit at the shows?

Oh, yes. What you hear in the film is direct sound, the way the public reacts. We didn't ask anything to the public. They knew there was a film but we were hidden. If the theater would have been empty, that would be part of the story. If the audience would boo, that would be part of the story. Something happens, it's contagious. In France, it is incredible for women to see those bodies, being so free and beautiful and generous and funny. I was inspired completely by their spirit. That comes from them. I found it interesting: it would be nice if there was a man in this company because they don't need a man. He doesn't know how to be in the moment yet, like them. He's not there. He's dead. We talked about that a lot, how to make jokes about Joachim, this man.

Tournee

It was funny to discover that you had never intended to play Joachim yourself.

I didn’t write it for me. I was inspired by producers with who I worked a lot. Paolo Branco. In fact, I am in Toronto for the Cronenberg film Cosmopolis. DeLillo. We are shooting now. And it's Paolo Branco who is producing. I was inspired by this man, and by producers that would take crazy risks. I didn't think I was going to act.

You grew a moustache in homage?

[Laughs]. In fact, I had a beard and we did screen tests like that. Then I said: "What about the moustache?" OK, let's try the moustache. I really didn't want to do it. All my friends knew that I was going to do it but not me, My producers, who are two women, knew but I didn’t. I didn't want to do it. It's not my life to act. It's just like that. It was a good thing to be in the frames with the girls because we could do surprises to each other. How could I exist as a man in the middle of those incredible bodies? That's why it's so funny [for him] to be rude, and to speak Manlish... you know, when a man feels he's aggressed in his virility, he becomes a bit stupid. In the times we're in, it's so complicated between men and women. We don't know how to be with each other anymore. There's attraction and we're afraid of that and it's dangerous. So it was funny to have to do that myself in the middle of those girls, those women.

In the one scene, at least, when Joachim seduces the woman in the kiosk at the truck stop, he certainly knows how to communicate. That's a magical scene.

Mmmm. Mmmm. Yeah. Well, we all dreamt about that. It never happens in real life. That's why you do movies. Me, it never happened to me.

Tournee

You're not that smooth in real life?

It never happens. That's what a film is often constructed with, your worst nightmares. To be angry with your kids. The violence we all have in ourselves. Also, dreams like that. To be on the road and leave the family and live with women, it's great. You do a film!

How many performances did you see of these women, before you began filming?

I came to San Francisco, to Tease-O-Rama, and I saw, in two or three days, 150 numbers. There's one in Las Vegas also. Exotic World. I went there...

And then they had you hook, line and sinker. What is it that you find most fascinating about all of them?

You know what I told you about using generosity, humor and show to be more contagious and political than through words? I think it's more efficient than political speech. The times we're living in, we're all supposed to be perfection—if everybody could be the same, have the same body, have the same mind. There's something maybe a bit sick in our times, about this. I think they are really angry and sad against that. But they use something very energetic and full of sensuality and humor to transmit that in a way: the body is imprisoned by "everybody must be perfect." That's what really struck me, because you're laughing, and you are thinking about society and lots of things. You think and you laugh, in the same time. It's great.

[Tournée makes its NY premiere tonight at BAMcinématek as part of BAMcinemaFest, which continues through June 26].

Posted by ahillis at 11:18 AM

June 21, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Unknown

by Vadim Rizov

Unknown

It's a generic thriller title, but Unknown is a fitting word for the issue ailing Dr. Martin Harris (Liam Neeson). Known: Dr. Martin Harris, a real American biotechnologist, is scheduled to speak at a Berlin conference. Unknown: whether Harris, in shock and possibly brain-damaged after a freakish traffic accident, actually is Harris, a confusing problem since there's another man (Aidan Quinn) back at his hotel answering to his name, backed up by his loving wife Liz (January Jones). Discovering he apparently doesn't exist understandably bugs the doctor, who gets very belligerent with a hotel manager whose barely restrained impatience and clipped English suggest lots of experience dealing with testy Americans who can't be bothered to learn another language.

Unknown

Following up on his part in Taken as an alpha dad wreaking havoc against suspicious foreigners of color in Europe, Neeson once again gets to embody the Ugly American abroad, who's safe as long as he sticks to the expensive hotels and designated tourist areas but out of his depth anywhere else. Though marketed as Taken 2—with trailers emphasizing the very few moments where Neeson actually growls and hits people—Unknown is more fun and, oddly, more socially responsible, teaching its protagonist to adapt to the immigrants around him rather than reflexively punching them all.

Unknown

Most of the charge in Taken comes from its over-the-top luridness, from Neeson's every grimace and snarlingly strained accent to the ridiculously bone-crunching violence. From its opening shots, Unknown proves more a slow-burn thriller; it doesn't have to be sadistic to keep your attention. After cabbing it from the airport to the Hotel Adlon, Martin rushes back for a left-behind suitcase, only to have a refrigerator fall in the taxi's path, a nearly Final Destination-caliber accident that ends with Martin being pulled from the river by driver Gina (Diane Kruger), who then vanishes.

Unknown-Diane-Kruger.jpg

Without spoiling the twists, the broad outline of what follows: waking up in the hospital, Martin can't be sure of anything, not even if the freak accident was just that or a deliberate murder attempt staged by godlike tormentors. Stuck in the classic noir nightmare of returning to the hotel to find that no one has ever seen him, Martin goes on the run with Gina, an illegal immigrant peeved to have her shaky work-status endangered by the fact that everyone's trying to kill the lug she has to guide through the city. Assassins pursue the pair as they retreat into the non-English-speaking part of Berlin, from her cramped apartment to a nightclub where the doorman (presumably another migrant worker) knows Gina and lets the two in.

Unknown

The subtext couldn't be clearer: Xenophobia sucks. Unknown isn't particularly subtle about hammering this point home, from its passing depiction of Gina's cafe boss erupting into a monologue about illegal aliens taking everyone's jobs to its old-fashioned explosive finale, which blows up part of the Hotel Adlon—a structure that actually was destroyed at the end of World War II, rebuilt before being demolished by the East German government in '84, then again reconstructed on a grand scale in '97. The support structure that helps out Martin far away from his cozy room-service comforts is a network of illegals all looking out for each other: the climax literally blows up part of Old Europe, whose most benevolent attitude toward its migrant workers is to turn a blind eye to cheap labor.

Unknown

Unknown underlines all this with a faceoff between two of its supporting players. It's always nice when a Hollywood movie stops dead, turns off all special effects to let dueling thespians ignore everything else around them (think John Cusack and Samuel L. Jackson in 1408 or Gary Oldman and David Thewlis meeting in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban). Here, we get Bruno Ganz (of Wings of Desire, but best known now as YouTube's viral Hitler from Downfall) and Frank Langella, whose casting nearly always signifies villainy. Ganz is the ex-Stasi interrogator-turned-private investigator Neeson hires for some help piecing together the conspiracy; Langella is the friend called to Berlin to vouch for him, forgetting that, given the actor's recent roles, he's almost certainly going to try to kill him. The ex-Stasi and current CIA boogeyman (given one of the more ridiculously '70s-ish backstories on file) have a tense, pleasantly hammy stand-off. The screenplay forces Ganz to explain (for the benefit of uneducated Americans, presumably) who the Stasi were, but the scene gets past exposition soon and—thanks to the veterans at center stage—achieves real historical resonance. Two Old World powers face off, their attitudes to each other still framed by Cold War alliances and conflicts; both will be rendered irrelevant and/or out-of-commission by film's end.

UNKNOWN director Jaume Collet-Serra

The action scenes are sometimes incoherent but include a couple of amazing setpieces: Martin Harris' escape from the hospital, outpacing one of those feel-no-pain, remorseless assassin types, and a nighttime car chase that takes full advantage of icy road skids. But a lot of Unknown's appeal is postcard-friendly: both in the upscale and neglected parts of Berlin, the city adds context for an ingeniously stupid thriller plot. Director Jaume Collet-Serra keeps things moving fast enough to paper over plot holes, which may be the only way to get multiplex audiences to sit through a movie with a serious point completely irrelevant to most Americans: be nice to your new work force, Old Europe.

Posted by ahillis at 1:28 PM

June 18, 2011

BAMcinemaFest 2011: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

BAMcinemaFest 2011

Has microbudget filmmaking come of age? The substantial volume of intriguing, nervy and recklessly original features lined up at this year's BAMcinemaFest suggests something's going on. Though it's not strictly borough-centric, the third annual fest serves an ironic cultural function. The curators from Brooklyn's BAMcinematek cherry-pick their faves from Sundance and SXSW (among other first-quarter indie buzz factories and the screener slush pile), then pipe 'em back from the provinces to the big city, where it turns out a good percentage of the filmmakers live anyway. Coals to Newcastle or not, the programming gives New Yorkers not out bird-dogging the festival trail their own private South-By (or Sarasota or Maryland Film Festival), tapping into a surging vitality (and, often enough, iconoclasm) that the city's signature celluloid summits have yet to grant much credence.

The Color Wheel

It's not polarizing in the same way as Bellflower, but let's give writer-actor-director Alex Ross Perry credit for bringing a scorched-earth policy into the realm of the darkly comic (more-or-less) two-hander. Sibling whack-jobs take a road trip in Perry's absolutely fearless sophomore narrative The Color Wheel, an agitated spin through what the filmmaker calls a "neurotic East Coast Jewish sensibility" that evokes Larry Davidian cringe-gasms and nostalgia for the inappropriate sexual urges that gave Phillip Roth's 1970s fictions their priapic pep. Perry plays squirmy misanthrope Colin opposite Carlen Altman as his domineering sister JR, an aspiring weather girl who cajoles him into accompanying her on a visit to her old college professor, a/k/a ex-boyfriend (Bob Byington). Everything that can go wrong does, and the downward spiral through a series of humiliations, embarrassments and degradations is like a steeplechase through social-misfit hell. The action unravels like one long, impossibly excruciating blind date, only in this case the couple knows each other all too well and they wear the absurdity of their mutual antagonism like a badge of honor. The verbal dialectic and editing rhythms have a jazzy snap that complements the grainy, old-school black-and-white images—somehow ideal for a movie called The Color Wheel.

Septien

Family affairs venture further off the deep end in Septien, Michael Tully's humid exploration of psychological funk, oddball brotherhood and the Faulknerian epigram, "The past is never dead. It's not even past." The writer-director casts himself (in full Jeremiah Johnson beard) as Cornelius Rawlings, a high-school football star who disappeared mysteriously in the middle of a game 18 years earlier. The prodigal returns to the family homestead, a farm outside an unnamed Nashville, where he finds his two brothers: Amos (Onar Tukel), a recluse who spends his days penning grotesque illustrations of sexual acts like a sub-Ivan Brunetti, and Ezra (Robert Longstreet), a religious nut and crossdresser who flutters about like an obsessive mother hen. Within a few moments, it's obvious why Cornelius might leave. The deep dark secret is why the hell he would ever come back? But the football hero doesn't say much, opening his mouth mostly to hustle fast cash in a tennis match with a dubious yuppie or gasp in ecstasy after huffing gasoline from a rag. The first 45 minutes establish an elliptical sense of narrative which may try those with no patience for so-called "boring" cinema (see the recent dust-ups in the New York Times and on Twitter regarding cinema aesthetics, or better yet, don't), but of course that's exactly the sort of choice that gives Septien its identity and originality. The lazy passing of time is an essential quality of life in the South, though not every moment can be lensed with the lingering observance that cinematographer Jeremy Saulnier (Putty Hill) brings to Super 16mm. Shit busts loose, in a big way, as the story progresses, beyond brilliantly acted gothic kookdom into a kind of ecstatic revelation.

Last Days Here

Speaking of gothic kookdom, the real-life disappearing act of Last Days Here matches Tully's fiction for out-of-the-box WTF-ness. Here are two comments from the documentary (made by Art of the Steal's Don Argott and Demian Fenton) on its subject, perpetually obscure rock vocalist Bobby Liebling.

"It's a little like being a devout Christian and walking down the street one day and bumping into Jesus and he knows your name and shakes your hand and asks you over for dinner and drinks and he calls you on weekends to go out." – Sean Pellitier, hardcore metal fan.

"It's like this caveman found frozen in the Swiss Alps somewhere... Bobby Liebling is still that frozen guy." – Ian Christie, author of Sound of the Beast: The Complete Headbanging History of Heavy Metal.

Sadly enough, the camera has already introduced us to Liebling. He's the once and future frontman of Pentagram, an early 1970s metal act whose brief flirtations with fame were always snuffed by the singer's self-destructive habits. Decades pass, as reels of unreleased recordings pile up along with disgruntled ex-drummers, as Bobby withers in his elderly parents' sub-basement somewhere in Virginia, alone with his stacks of old LPs and memories of glory days that never were as glorious as they might have been. Toothpick skinny with a ratty mop of gray hair, the once-freaky dark overlord is a druggy wastoid after years of abusing heroin and crack. It’s a heavy metal Grey Gardens. Miraculously, Pentagram comes into cultish vogue through its influence on a new generation of metal acts (the group often is cited as a precursor to the "stoner doom" genre), and Liebling is yanked out of his suicidal swamp—mostly though the efforts of Pellitier, who takes charge of the singer's life and career. Avoiding the all-too-easy Spinal Tap-isms, the film digs into the peculiar essence of metal fanhood as both amplified therapy and enduring counterculture, while serving up a devastating portrait of an ultimate cult hero as a pathological reject. (The theme carries through several docs to be shown, whether it's the skateboard champ of Dragonslayer or the Liberian cannibal warlord-turned-evangelist of The Redemption of General Butt-Naked. Both sound like sure things, yet neither proves quite captivating enough to carry a feature-length story).

Letters From the Big Man
Perhaps, though, no creature is as further removed from society as the Yeti. Letters from the Big Man, a return to the screen for director Christopher Munch (The Hours and Times), is a contemplative eco-thriller (of sorts) that could easily have satisfied without any gestures toward narrative at all. The transcendent beauty of the Kalmiopsis Wilderness in southwest Oregon, shot by cinematographer Rob Sweeney, is nearly enough by itself. Add Lily Rabe, as a hydrologist seeking isolation after a romantic bust-up, and you're all set. But there’s a new man in her life, and it's not the insta-smitten environmental activist (Jason Butler Harner) who stumbles upon her woodsy hideout. The slow build suggests, at first, that the Sasquatch is a hallucination, but gradually the myth steps into the real world. Rabe is terrific at acerbic understatement and a certain wistful self-regard that plays with refreshing subtlety. Munch is so effective with tone that it's almost a disappointment when more straightforward elements are introduced: Rabe's character, who has been sketching her giant furry companion during her sojourns in the wilds, works for an outfit that's clearing the timber. Her suitor is one of the "good guys," but his intrusive need to prove the creature exists complicates their relationship. He should know better to compete with the Big Guy.

BAMcinemaFest continues through June 26 at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Avenue, Brooklyn, with tons of filmmaker Q&As, parties and special events. Previously noted recommendations include Green, Jess + Moss, and The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye.

Posted by ahillis at 10:21 AM

June 14, 2011

DVD OF THE WEEK: Hall Pass

by Vadim Rizov

Hall Pass

In Hall Pass, Rick (Owen Wilson) and Fred (Jason Sudeikis) love their respective wives Grace (Christina Applegate) and Maggie (Jenna Fischer) but hate their lives, ostensibly because the sex and passion are gone. Fred's taken to masturbating in the car, setting off understandable alarm bells when the cops catch him in the act, while Rick can't get laid: the kids take up too much of Grace's energy. Confounded by their husbands' socially embarrassing discontent, the wives take the advice of neighbor Dr. Lucy (Joy Behar), their morning power-walking buddy: give the boys a week-long "hall pass" where they can sleep with anyone and see what happens. This is a corporate American comedy, so no spoilers here: the apparently intertwined values of monogamy and quietly dutiful suburban living will triumph in the end, the brief moment of transgression a reminder of how much safer and wiser it is to choose cautious stability over horndog impulsiveness. But the mildly eyebrow-raising premise is a red herring: the goal isn't getting laid, but Fred and Rick learning to live with their inevitably decaying bodies. Common sense and taking care of yourself trumps moral appeal.

Even during their '90s run as the Hollywood kings of the gross-out comedy, Bobby and Peter Farrelly were as identified with compassion for the marginalized and underrepresented as their penchant for shock gags: the obese in Shallow Hal, Siamese twins (!) in Stuck on You, dumb-sounding hicks from flyover country in The Heartbreak Kid (albeit as represented by Danny McBride, who owns this territory). That compassion extends to celebrities normally considered pop-culture punchlines: their oddball guest appearances include Tony Robbins getting better lines than Meryl Streep in Shallow Hal, so it's only natural that The View fixture Joy Behar should be a neighbor whose advice should be trusted. The Farrellys sincerely believe that, as the late Senator Roman Hruska once said, "there are a lot of mediocre judges and people and lawyers" in America who are "entitled to a little representation." Ethos and fundamental decency are always preferable to being a brilliant smartass, but the Farrellys' defensiveness isn't the unpleasant, aggressive kind typical of well-off people who inexplicably consider themselves oppressed; it's just a plea for a little compassion for boring but kind people. Those (granted, thoroughly unradical) values have always been part of their work, but they've aged better than their gross-out moments, which seem increasingly obligatory; Hall Pass is funny, but it's more effective when it's heartfelt.

Hall Pass

No longer comedy kingpins, the Farrellys seem to be feeling a big marginalized themselves: the most compelling scene has Rick ripping into coffee shop employee Brent (Derek Waters) when he rudely interrupts Rick's awkward flirting with barista Leigh (Nicky Whelan). Trying to chat her up, Rick asks what the cool music playing is. Snow Patrol, he's told. "Oh yeah," he says. "Good soundtrack. Pretty good movie." He's thinking of Snow Dogs, Brent snidely informs him, prompting Rick to go off in a low, even and thoroughly ticked manner. "This whole kind of I'm on the inside, too cool for school, let's make fun of the dorky suburban guy because I'm safe on this side of the counter routine's gonna get you hurt," he tells Brent. "Another thing? After you've lost your parents' money on your avant-garde piece of crap short film, you're gonna need a job. Guess what? It's guys like me that hire."

Rick's effectively pissed because a coffee shop employee with a prototypically condescending attitude's giving him stick about not having heard of Snow Patrol, a group of maudlin balladeers associated with the Grey's Anatomy second season finale; the Farrellys may or may not know this (keeping up with Pitchfork seems like the least of their concerns), but apparently they couldn't pass up the chance to make a Snow Dogs joke. Rick's mind defaults to hours spent watching kiddie movie garbage with his offspring, a more important pursuit than making dazzlingly cool mixes for the store. The film's got sparky comic set-pieces, but nothing quite like this scene's unfiltered anger. The targets may be a little off—Snow Patrol? the avant-garde?—but the message is hard to argue with: past post-collegiate drifting, options dwindle and gratuitous condescension becomes increasingly unappealing.

Hall Pass

The female nudity quotient is met for the particular high-concept premise, but the most curious moments address Owen Wilson's decidedly less alluring middle-aged body and the ways it fails him: he overeats at Applebee's and gives up one night out of sloth, gets too drunk another night and has to spend the next day in recovery mode, passing out in a hot tub when he should be getting ready to meet the barista—who inexplicably finds Rick's advances appealing (Hall Pass is laudable in many ways, but there's no use in pretending it's not a male fantasy). Wilson was never exactly Taylor Lautner, and though he's aged well, it's fascinating to watch him ill-advisedly take off his shirt at a club and dance on the bar top, middle-age flab and all. Hardly the stuff of pin-ups, but it's candid: this is Rick's body and it only goes downhill from here. Owen Wilson is now 42, and Hall Pass marks the first film in years where he doesn't seem to be sleep-walking and drawling his way to the next paycheck; his portrayal of a man coming to terms with increasingly diminishing returns on the self-gratification front feels heartfelt. The movie may not work up plausible empathy for the wives, but it successfully harnesses Wilson's own career travails and declining popularity to echo his character's over-the-hill resignation.

Posted by ahillis at 11:49 AM

June 11, 2011

Pigs on the Wing

by Steve Dollar

Ride That Pig to Glory

Too much pork for just one fork. That was the motto for the North Carolina neo-hillbilly trio Southern Culture on the Skids. It also should belong on a bumper sticker, attached to the back of Joe York's Ford Taurus station wagon. The filmmaker, based in Oxford, Mississippi, logged 40,000 miles of mostly rural backroad in the last year-and-a-half, chasing across a region that stretches from the shrimp-and-slide-guitar shores of East Texas to the white-picket-fenced pastures of Virginia. This weekend, York is in New York City, sharing some of what he’s documented at the Big Apple BBQ Party, an annual throwdown where the nation's top BBQ chefs convene to show 'cue-starved urbanites how it's really done.

It was only last month that York found himself in Mansure, Louisiana, deep in the heart of Cajun country. It was there he discovered that "you can pretty much stand anywhere on the road down there and you'll meet someone who'll invite you to come eat a pig." He ate a whole damn lot of pork on his trip, which he offers a taste of in the new short film To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish. The piece, which premieres Sunday during festivities at Manhattan's Madison Square Park, samples the revelry at a far more rustic, hog-roasting celebration: the Cochon de Lait Festival. Every Mother's Day weekend, the town becomes the site of a massive public ritual, as some 30-odd pigs get hoisted up on metal racks that resemble a giant, improvised coat-hanger contraption, and are cooked into a state of sublime tenderness before a roaring blaze. The outcome, cochon de lait, is named for the suckling pigs that constituted the original dish—literally, animals that are still subsisting on Miss Piggy's milk. When it's done right, the pork is juicy on the inside and crunchy on the outside, as the white flesh is encased in crispy skin known as cracklin'. "When you screw up the skin, you screw up the whole pig," York says. If everything's done right, the pig turns into a sandwich, with the skin used like slices of bread.

To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish

To Live and Die is only the latest in a nearly thirty film oeuvre that York has built up in the past decade. The archive is distributed by the Oxford-based Southern Foodways Alliance, an institute of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi. Each of them details an intimate encounter with regional tradition and its keepers: the family that runs a South Carolina barbecue house (CUT/CHOP/COOK), a fifth-generation Georgia cattle rancher (CUD) or a pig farmer who likens raising livestock to the art of the tango (Ride That Pig to Glory). The subjects "are so rooted in place that they really can’t exist anywhere but their own ecosystem," says York, a passionate champion for rugged, joyous, idiosyncratic, poly-cultural Americana versus what he terms a creeping national monoculture. "I love being an insider looking at your own region almost in an outsider way," he said. "I'm constantly amazed at how much diversity there is right next door. I don't have to go to Italy or South America to get my fix."

York, who holds a degree in anthropology from Auburn University and a master's degree in Southern studies from Ole Miss, is lucky in that he has a "studio" to back him. In this case, it's the SFA, whose director, John T. Edge, has probably done more than any journalist to advance the cause of BBQ and other deep Southern food traditions. Their efforts will be poured into a larger-scale production, due to be completed next summer: Southern Foodways: The Movie.

CUD

As a filmmaker, York keeps it basic: a Panasonic HVX-200 video camera, a wireless mic and a shotgun mic, and a good pair of walking shoes. "The footage is really a conversation between two people," he says. "It's just us hanging out." That intimacy, and York's usual self-effacement on the other side of the camera, echoes the cinema-vérité style of the DA Pennebaker/Maysles Brothers era, though the productions are notably slicker: there's usually some sort of minimal soundtrack music, and cleanly edited scenes that can sketch a narrative arc in as brief as six or seven minutes. The core of each is some unguarded reflection, snatch of philosophy, or comical riff that conveys soulful meaning. In CUD, for instance, a conversation with cattle-man Will Harris of White Oak Pastures (Bluffton, Ga.), it's the sight of Harris kicking back on his Jeep at sunset, a trusty hound at his side, drinking straight out of a bottle of red wine as he gazes out at his pastures. The perfect, unfiltered moment.

York, who basically learned filmmaking on the job, cites two main inspirations, and you can guess them without resorting to a lifeline: Errol Morris and Les Blank. Werner Herzog Eats His Shoe, which Blank made to commemorate the German director's paying off a bet with Morris, was a game-changer: "I think every first-time filmmaker in the world should see that film," he said. "It really speaks to why the hell you should even do this."

To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish

Watching Blank's Creole documentary Dry Wood recently, York was struck by its determined style. "Les is not afraid to hold on a shot of a guy digging a trench through a flooded pasture for a minute. That is just incredible. That's the heart of the picture, as it happens. You're watching this thing that’s only going to happen once in the history of the world."

York hosted Blank during the filmmaker's visit to the Oxford Film Festival this year and wasn't disappointed by the auteur of Garlic is as Good as Ten Mothers. They had made plans for a fancy dinner, but a flight delay meant Blank arrived after the restaurant closed. York was stuck ordering pizza. "And there was Les in the kitchen," he recalls, "chopping up a clove of garlic for every single slice of pizza."

[To watch York's documentaries online, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance website. A freshly edited cut of To Live and Die in Avoyelles Parish screens Sunday at 4pm at the Big Apple BBQ Block Party in NYC. Visit Demonstration Tent 1 by Madison Park between 23rd and 26th Streets.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:28 AM

June 9, 2011

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Trip

by Vadim Rizov

The Trip

The Trip is a lightly plotted comedy travelogue whose six half-hour BBC episodes have lost 50 minutes to make a digestible 111-minute feature. Most of the running time features Steve Coogan and decade-plus collaborator Rob Brydon riffing at will during a six-day road trip. (The two also played mock versions of themselves in 2005's Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, directed by Michael Winterbottom, again behind the camera here.) The destinations are dictated by food: Coogan's been invited to write up his culinary journey for The Observer, despite not knowing the first thing about the recently emerged high cuisine offered in otherwise obscure Northern English villages. With girlfriend Mischa (Margo Stilley) in New York City and their relationship on indeterminate hiatus, a callowly broken-up Coogan sets out with replacement companion Brydon to eat at a number of astonishingly upscale rural pubs and restaurants.

It's a journey that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago, when standards of British cuisine were cheap and shoddy: in her book The Anglo Files, American journalist Sarah Lyall recalls being horrified by a breakfast in the mid-90s where a breakfast tray was left outside her door "the night before [...] a carton of milk and two slices of buttered white bread cut into triangles (and wrapped in coming-off cling film)." No longer: the places Coogan and Brydon eat are real, their website addresses included in the press kit. One is L'Enclume, where the duo gamely make their way through an extensive tasting menu; the website lists three such meals, starting at £69, in a village (Cartmel, Cumbria) populated by an estimated 1500 people. It's a changed world of culinary options dotted in otherwise towns whose buildings and roads appear not to have changed since the '30s.

The Trip

Though the restaurants are taken seriously, with brief kitchen shots of earnest men plating one elaborate dish after another, the food porn factor is light; much more time is spent filming the countryside. Despite momentary skits of "Steve Coogan" acting like a rude, self-centered idiot, most of The Trip is jocular fun. Both men love the terrain, sincerely comparing the foggy view from a ferry to the paintings of J.M.W. Turner and declaiming Wordsworth at the sites that inspired his poems. Coogan and Brydon's shared cultural inheritance is Romantic poetry and painting, BBC jingles, and many hours of popular movies on TV, whose performers remind them of their own relative lack of global fame.

In stubbornly provincial terms, Manchester born and raised Coogan insists North England could be its own country, an assertion the Welsh Brydon isn't having. Mostly they stick to common reference points present in both their geographically disparate upbringings. Brydon's a relentless impressionist; he and his companion occasionally face off to see who can do a better Michael Caine or Woody Allen. They talk about British actors who attained nearly-equal fame in the US: Caine, Richard Burton, Michael Sheen (himself a Tony Blair impressionist in The Queen). Coogan obsesses over his failure to crack the American market: his only recognition comes in dreams, as Ben Stiller tells him how all the auteurs (Noah Baumbach, Wes Anderson) and mainstream successes (the Farrelly brothers!) want him. For a comic like him, there's no form of self-flagellation quite so galling as recognition from another, much more successful colleague.

The Trip

The trivial plot arc has Coogan wondering whether or not to go to America to both stay with Mischa and keep plugging away at an American film career, a battle he's effectively lost already (his most recognizable roles were in the shamelessly bad A Night at the Museum movies and Tropic Thunder, where he's unceremoniously sacrificed for a gag early on). The film simplifies the successful-hollow-man vs. modestly-prominent-family-man dynamic shamelessly: Coogan stares emptily through his gorgeous apartment's sliding door out to a relentlessly bleak, underdeveloped area while Brydon returns home to his suburban wife and child in a featureless area much like the one where Coogan's parents (visited briefly) still live, far from their rootless son, entrenched in solid British values of medium-scaled ambitions.

Heavy-handed as it could be, The Trip believes in a fundamentally decent country full of majestic scenery and historic ruins, underpinned by a strong poetic tradition. There are undeniable tourist pleasures to be had in the lovingly filmed landscape, with two pleasantly skeptical visitors who regard what's around them not as a sightseer's marvel but as their casual birthright. The small-town atmosphere doesn't always overwhelm them: they note that their first stop looks like a place where a "Miss Marple" mystery might be shot. Mostly, we see two people driving and enjoying each other's company but pretending they don't. Coogan's a famously prickly comedian, whose persona often relies on his own or others' discomfort; watching him crack up for real every now and then makes the film sweet, regardless of the downbeat finale.

Posted by ahillis at 11:30 AM

June 8, 2011

SilverDocs 2011 GreenCine Contest

Thanks to our good friends over at SilverDocs, GreenCine is thrilled to present for the second time, a unique opportunity to win 2 Industry passes to the festival Variety calls "Non-fiction Nirvana"! Industry passes include: 

  • Invitation for one to Opening Night screening and gala (RSVP required)
  • NO TICKETS NEEDED for all regular screenings
  • Access to Conference programs and Festival Lounges
  • Access to sponsored happy hours and regular receptions

The festival takes place Monday, June 20th to Sunday, June 26th in the Washington, DC area.

Now in its ninth year, AFI's Silverdocs will continue screening and debuting the best the documentary world has to offer, with notable docs including The Swell Season, Revenge of the Electric Car, El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, Beats Rhymes & Life: The Travels of a Tribe Called Quest , The Bully Project, The Interrupers, and so much more. This year will also feature a symposium on the work of renowned documentarions Chris Hegedus and D A Pennebaker (check out our interview with them for Kings of Pastry), numerous filmmaker forums,  networking events, and performances. Continue reading for details on how to enter!

To enter, email contest (at) greencine (dot) com and include your name, email address, mailing address and, if you're a GreenCine member, your username in the email, and "SilverDocs 2011" in the subject header. Entries without all this information will not be considered. (You will not be added to a mailing list!). Winners will be selected at random from all valid entries. The deadline to enter is Friday, June 17th.  Winners will be notified by e-mail and announced in future editions of the GreenCine Dispatch newsletter.

Posted by maian at 3:14 PM

June 7, 2011

PODCAST: Richard Rush

THE STUNT MAN director Richard Rush

How have you never heard of retired filmmaker Richard Rush? He twice directed Jack Nicholson in late '60s-era AIP films (Psych-Out, Hell's Angels on Wheels), kick started the buddy cop genre with Freebie and the Bean, won the notorious Golden Raspberry Award for Worst Picture with Color of Night, and was once praised by François Truffaut as his favorite American filmmaker after seeing his incredible 1980 genre-twister The Stunt Man—now on Blu-ray and an Ultimate Edition DVD from Severin Films:

It defied all odds to become the most unexpected and acclaimed cult hit of the '80s, and it remains one of the most slyly subversive and thrillingly original action/comedy/drama motion pictures of all time. The legendary Peter O'Toole—in an iconic Oscar-nominated performance—stars as director Eli Cross, a deliciously megalomaniacal madman commanding a film-set circus where a paranoid young veteran (Steve Railsback) finds himself maybe replacing a dead stunt man, possibly falling for the beautiful leading lady (Barbara Hershey), and discovering that love, death and the mayhem of moviemaking can definitely be the wildest illusions of all. THE STUNT MAN now features a stunning HD transfer supervised by Oscar nominated producer/director Richard Rush, plus new interviews and commentaries with Rush, O'Toole, Railsback and Alex Rocco, all in the ultimate edition of the classic that the Los Angeles Times calls "as innovative today as CITIZEN KANE was in its time!"

From his home in California, the 82-year-old Rush spoke with me about how the world's merging of satire and reality ultimately inspired him to make The Stunt Man, plus more on Freebie and the Bean, the debacle surrounding the final cut on Color of Night, and why he's thanked in the credits for Quentin Tarantino's Death Proof.

To listen to the podcast, click here. (18:07)

Podcast Music
INTRO: Dominic Frontiere: "Film Caravan (from The Stunt Man)"
OUTRO: Dusty Springfield: "Bits & Pieces (from The Stunt Man)"

Posted by ahillis at 3:14 PM

June 3, 2011

INTERVIEW: Djo Tunda Wa Munga

by Steve Dollar

VIVA RIVA! director Djo Tunda Wa Munga

If you've only thought of the Congo in terms of Hearts of Darkness and the carnage of the Second Congo War, the new film Viva Riva! is an eye-opener. The first feature from former documentary filmmaker Djo (Joe) Tunda Wa Munga is also the first contemporary Congolese drama to be made by a homegrown director.

Patsha Bay makes his charismatic screen debut as Riva, a cunning thief who's after the heart of a gangster's woman (a riveting, and dangerous redhead named Nora, played by Manie Malone). His insatiable—well, let's call it bravado—leads him to ill-advisedly pursue her while hiding out in the Kinshasa underground after heisting a gasoline truck from his former boss, an Angolan gangster (Hoji Fortuna) who is tearing up the city to find him and get his precious gasoline back. The pace is non-stop, and there's a seductive charge to the vividly choreographed sex and violence, but also plenty of telling details underpinning the comic flourishes with social commentary. As much a mosaic of the hedonistic and pulsing capital city as it is an eccentric crime story, the confidently made Viva Riva! is a free-spirited film noir splashed with a vibrant African palette.

Munga spoke with GreenCine Daily this week while promoting the film, which opens June 10th in New York and Los Angeles.

Viva Riva!

I'd heard good things about it before I saw it, but Viva Riva! really overturned my prejudices about African film being dry and political and not very much fun.

One of the challenges of young African filmmakers is to change that image. When you say to people you're going to an African movie, it sounds like homework. We want to challenge that and create new excitement for the audience. The social context of Africa is still important, but maybe we can find a new way to bring things to the audience.

The social critique is right there, but the vehicle that delivers it isn't steered by overt politics. It's fun.

Exactly. A vehicle. That's a word I often use. That’s the reason why I took a genre approach. First, it’s easy for the audience. I’m not talking about a Western audience [necessarily]. Just for Africans and Congolese, we have a high level of literacy. Then you want to bring a film that will be easy for the audience to grasp, and a genre film is the easiest to bring complexity to. You have the hero, you have the villain, it's quite easy. But the hero is not the regular hero. He's hero, anti-hero. Did he steal the money? You don't really know. Then you get into this dark part about his character—about his family, his relationship to money, to prostitution. In that sense I was able to put certain issues about Africa and my country on the table.

When did you begin working on the script?

My first draft was finished seven years ago. What I had in mind was to make a film about Kinshasa, and I didn't know which angle to start with. At the time, I was also a journalist and I went to the southwest of the country next to the border of Angola, and met some smugglers there. They were going to Angola to get some fuel because they had fuel there. They would smuggle it to Kinshasa, resell it, make money, party like hell, and when they were broke they would go back to Angola. When I interviewed these guys, I thought they were the real Kinshasa people. They had the gasoline shortage at the time, it was really harsh.

Viva Riva!

What is the film industry like in the Congo?

There is no industry. There is no institution. There is no cinema. We are rebuilding from scratch. This is the first production that we have in 25 years, and the first production in Lingala [the Bantu tongue of northwestern Congo].

Are there other people making movies?

I have one colleague who makes documentaries. Most Congolese filmmakers are abroad. Some of them are coming back but it's a very complex process.

You employed a highly skilled French crew for the film. My idea was to make a film as a cinephile and for cinephiles. Writing the script the way I did, when I presented it to television they just took it. They didn't take it as a small African film, they took it as a genre film, so they put good money on it. When you have television onboard, it's easier for the other partners to get involved.

Is Kinshasa much as you show it, or is a sexed-up, glamorized version?

Kinshasa is one of the safest places in Africa, in the world. The picture I show of Kinshasa—apart from the violence, you have violence in many cities—is very safe. What we see in the news is 2000 kilometers in the east of the country. It's quite a distance. It's a different area.

Would you say that you created a world within a world? Is that underworld genuine?

What I'm talking about is just there. The club that you see is a real club. It opened two weeks after the end of the shooting. We shot in many natural places, places that do exist. The only thing that I did, I arranged it a little bit. [The brothel] may have been a little bit too dark. You still have the prostitution as it is, but I put some art elements inside—a vision about the Congo today.

Viva Riva!

How much was entertainment and how much was realism?

I tried to create a balance. What is difficult about the genre film, about the film noir, you need at the same time to bring to a certain tension and sense of reality, and create that distance with the humor, where people still say this is like a feature film. It was difficult to find, to create something that will find its own tone.

Maybe because of the French connection, I was thinking about the rich tradition of 1950s French caper movies. The ensemble cast and comic flourishes also seemed, given a cultural stretch, akin to the eccentricities of Elmore Leonard's crime novels. Were there films that inspired you here?

I didn't have a specific film in mind. You can feel certain directors I admire, like Sergio Leone, and the Chinese/Hong Kong movies of the '80s. The project I really worked on in terms of concept was Stray Dog, from Akira Kurosawa, 1949. It was a very interesting concept with this detective who loses his gun, or somebody stole his gun, you're not really sure. He starts chasing the person and discovers Tokyo after the Second World War. That documentary base mingled with the fiction, I found it really great. And for Kinshasa, I thought this is what we should do. To bring the fiction and documentary together and have a good story.

I suspect you created a lot of excitement.

There's a lot of joy in this production, a lot of fun. The Congolese and the Westerners mingled really well, and we had a lot of support from the population.

It was funny to me, how the local gang boss lives in a big house but none of his cars will run because he has no gasoline. It undercuts his stature a little bit. No matter how badass they act, none of the characters are on top of the situation. Except for Riva, who challenges everybody.

Because he is free in his mind. The important thing about creating these characters is they have a sense of different interaction with the environment. Everybody, including the priest, can suddenly be affected by the gasoline [crisis]. We are all human, we are all in the same environment, and we all need to find survival mode.

Viva Riva!

Casting a film like this, which has so much invested in the unique personality of a place, must have been a fascinating process.

I had a casting director and she went to meet people in Kinshasa. Her name is Kris de Bellair. It was her first trip to Africa. She works on Michael Haneke's movies. You can imagine what type of mentality she gave me! It was quite a contrast. I wanted someone neutral. She went into the city to bring in material. None of the characters of the people she brought were the stars of Kinshasa.

Manie Malone, the stunning actress who plays Nora, where did you find her?

In Paris. Nora is someone really unique. We didn't find that person in Kinshasa. She had that wild and fantastic look of a femme fatale that I thought was essential for the film. She came and she learned Lingala and she worked really hard. She did it.

So you're not working with a real experienced cast. What challenge did that pose?

You prepare more. It's not having a routine, but you know where you want to bring the people. When you do preparation, the people get comfortable, you get comfortable, and sometimes you get that magic that you need for the scene.

Viva Riva! comes out in NYC and Los Angeles on June 10. For more info, visit the official website.

Posted by ahillis at 1:17 PM