German actor Udo Kier has worked for the most idiosyncratic auteurs dead or alive—Andy Warhol, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Lars Von Trier, Guy Maddin, E. Elias Merhige, Dario Argento, Gus Van Sant and Werner Herzog among others—and he's also co-starred with Pamela Anderson in Barb Wire. He's the single degree of separation between extreme European art cinema and Hollywood popcorn overdrive, it seems, and even in his mid-60s, he's having trouble slowing down. "I made seven films in the last year," he said recently, chatting during a visit to Montreal's Fantasia Festival, where he was promoting a small but pivotal performance in the new horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre (itself pitched between sly European sensibilities and low-budget grindhouse mayhem). Besides projects with Maddin, a Bela Bartok biopic and the role of a Nazi leader on the moon in Iron Sky, he has a small role in Von Trier's forthcoming Melancholia, and was onstage at the Cannes press conference where the director caused a ruckus by declaring himself a Nazi.
"He is not a Nazi," Kier said, "That was a misunderstanding. What he wanted to say—he told a story that he was brought up Jewish, and his mother told him before she died that his father was named Hartmann. So he said, 'I'm German. I'm a Nazi.' Which was against the Germans, because he said actually all the Germans are Nazis."
The actor was ready to take a break, but the phone keeps ringing. He was looking forward to returning to his five-acre ranch in Palm Springs. "Now I have the happiest moments there by myself when I give water to the trees. I have 41 palm trees. It's so beautiful to stand there and smell how happy those trees are."
Over coffee in a hotel lobby, Kier reflected on his career and some of the notorious characters he's known over the last 50 years.
So you met Fassbinder when you were both teenagers?
I am born in Cologne, and raised, and of course that was one of the cities that was bombed most during the war. Saturdays I got always two dollars and I was living on the outskirts. I went to the center of Cologne and there was a very interesting bar, which had a really great mixture of truck drivers, secretaries and transvestites. And there I met him. He went to school. His aunt was from Cologne, he didn't live in Cologne. It wasn't a good time. Time in the bar, yes, but in Germany in general it wasn't a good time. We met always on the weekends.
Later, I went to school in London to learn English. I had never been to acting school. My goal was to get out of Germany. My idea was to learn a lot of languages and then work for a big concern like Bayer aspirin and travel the world. I went to London, and then I opened a Stern magazine and there was a double page of his big face [and a headline]: "The Genius and the Alcoholic." That's Rainer. Wow. I was discovered in England for my first film that came to me, which was called Road to St. Tropez, a short film where I played a gigolo. I had no knowledge about film or cameras or anything. They were very kind to me. They shot all my close-ups from very far away. All I did was look for the camera. But I didn't know I was in Cinemascope, only my face on screen.
So I went to Munich, tried to find Fassbinder, and found him. He said, "Through you when I saw you I didn't want to be reminded of my time in Cologne because it wasn’t a good time for me." And then he offered me a role in Fox and His Friends. And I said no because I didn't like the subject. I made a film, the next one with him, called Bolweiser (The Stationmaster's Wife), a story about a woman with three men and I am getting her at the end. Then we start working together, living together and working, I learned a lot.
It wasn't always easy. That one point 1980—we did Lili Marleen. He hated it because it was the second-most expensive film in Germany, so he said "Let's make a small film." We made a small film with Barbara Sukowa. And it was much better. Lola was much better. 10 million marks, then it was a lot. The thing was then it became much more difficult, so I took my distance, on Lola I did the sets, the first and last time I did it. I realized how much work it is, but I learned from that as an actor to respect also the sets that somebody worked so hard on.
It was an interesting time. In Germany they all started. Wenders, Kluge, Herzog, Fassbinder. You could never work with another director because you would have been a spy. If I had worked with Wim Wenders then Fassbinder would have said, "So tell me, how does he direct?" He had Bruno Ganz. Herzog had Klaus Kinski. Everybody had their own group of actors which was really wonderful.
Fassbinder is celebrated for the amazing group of actors he gathered around him.
Yeah, but he was very loyal. See, I like that. And now with Lars von Trier, I did almost, since 22 years, every movie. I started with the lead in Medea. Sometimes my role is very small. Well, he's a friend. It doesn't matter. I am part of it. It's like going to Denmark, having dinner and then he says, "By the way you're in the film." I worked later, I did two films with Werner Herzog, recently I did My Son, My Son What Have Ye Done?, and with Wim Wenders in America I did The End of Violence. But I think of all the directors, Fassbinder was a very interesting director because he really reflected Germany after the war.
Lars von Trier likes Fassbinder and, of course, he likes Tarkovsky, too. There are some directors who are great with directing women. Look at Fassbinder's films. They are all suffering. Looks at Lars' film, Emily Watson in Breaking the Waves, Bjork, Nicole Kidman, they are all suffering because I think [these directors] can transfer their inner fear and anxiety much better into a woman, they cannot do it into a man. The men are just figures. But even in Breaking the Waves, it's all about her, how she suffers.
I try to work with Gus Van Sant. I worked twice. And I am very grateful to him. I am an American through him. When he casted me in My Own Private Idaho in Berlin when we met, he said "I'm doing a film with Keanu Reeves and River Phoenix." I said I've never heard of them. And then my friend said, "Are you crazy? They are teenage idols." He got me my Social Security number and I came to America to do the film. I slept on the couch of a girlfriend's house and I had already packed my suitcase to go back to old Germany. She said why don't you stay here? Get a cheap car, get a little apartment and try to work here? I said no. Then one more glass of red wine, and I said, "Actually not a bad idea." I stayed. I got a Volkswagen, a red car, and a little apartment.
No, no, no, no. I hate that word. Always in Los Angeles. Hollywood is like, when you say Hollywood, people think you go on the train with Arnold Schwarzenegger. I learned how to do this. I had never done auditions in my whole life. I learned the whole thing which was very depressing. And now I don't do it anymore. I learned to audition and then I got films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, which I liked very much.
Jim Carrey, it was one of his first films and I couldn't believe how lively someone could be. I always say I am fascinated by Hollywood because the light is stronger and the shadows are longer. A lot of stars, I call them trailer stars, because they lose all their energy in the trailer, to complain. Looking back now, I'm 67 soon, I know it. And just to know it, just to know how it works. It's easier to work, it's an industry, like making refrigerators or cars. More money in, more money out. It's kind of a calculation. The first thing my agent told me, "Never mention the word art—that you made art movies—because art doesn't make money. You have to say Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and the dollars will appear in their eyes." It was true.
Tell me about Lars [whom Kier met when his own short film The Last Trip to Harrisburg shared a bill with The Element of Crime at a film festival in Mannheim].
When I saw Element of Crime, I could not get out of my seat. I said to the directors, especially the Americans, we can't go home because whoever made that film will get the first prize. And he did. I expected someone like Kubrick or Fassbinder dressed in black. Bad mood. Then here comes this student-looking young man. It was arranged so we had a beer and talked. I found a distributor for the film. He went back and about two months later I got a call from him.
"Don't shave anymore. Don't wash your hair. Come here in three weeks. I have to sell you as the king of the Viking army, the husband of Medea."
That was our first work, his then-wife was pregnant. Tomorrow night, his daughter is visiting me and she is 23. Always he says to people: don't act. I was cast as the king, and behind me was a line of all the actors from the royal theater playing all the old kings and I was the new king and someone says, "Jason!" and I turn around and look, and Lars said: "Stop! Stop! I forgot we had a star. Don't act. I have you a horse, a symbol of masculinity, I gave you two big dogs, you are wearing an iron shirt. Please don't act. Just be a tired king." That's the only thing he ever said in 22 years. Now when I get the script, basically it’s always written for me. Like the new one where I play a wedding planner.
Why I am not in bigger parts, his new films take place in America and I am not an American. In Dogville, I had to say "The boss wants to tawk to ya." You concentrate more on your accent than being there. I don't care how big the roles are with him. I think for an actor, the biggest compliment is if Variety writes more about you than you have text in the film. In Breaking the Waves, Emily says, "What do you want?" I say, "I want that you fuck the sailor and I watch." That's all I say in the whole film. When the film was in Cannes, and there was the press conference, people said, "You are so evil." I said, no, you are evil. You have an evil fantasy because you don't see me doing anything to her. You see the knife, but you don't see me killing her. But in your fantasy, you wanted me to kill her.
"Is there such thing as a sincerely calculated naïveté," asks J. Hoberman in his surprisingly quite positive review of The Future. "Or put another way, does Miranda July have any idea of how annoying she is?" The lanky 37-year-old filmmaker, author and performance artist—labeled as a quirky hipster by those charmed by her 2005 directorial debut Me and You and Everyone We Know, as well as by those who dismiss her oddball DIY sensibilities as overly twee—may prompt stronger opinions about her persona than her work. Is it because, while undeniably imaginative and frankly personal, her films always star herself? Or will some just not tolerate sudden flights of fancy, from interpretative dancing YouTube projects to anthropomorphized narrators? Ignore the jaded: July's The Future is a profoundly affecting, very funny yet far sadder piece on modern insecurities, or rather, timeless insecurities in the modern world:
When Sophie (Miranda July) and Jason (Hamish Linklater) decide to adopt a stray cat, their perspective on life changes radically, literally altering the course of time and space and testing their faith in each other and themselves.
During this year's SXSW Film Festival, I sat down with July to discuss The Future, exploring serious themes with fantastical conceits, being hyper-aware of her body shape as well as neurotic in general, and why it's not fair to use "quirk" as a pejorative.
To listen to the podcast, click here. (14:12) Podcast Music
INTRO: IQU with Miranda July: "Kida Co-Coma"
OUTRO: Leonard Cohen: "The Future (live)"
Despite its title, El Bulli: Cooking In Progress isn't so much a food documentary as a depiction of a refined industrial process. For foodie types, Ferran Adrià's three-Michelin-stars establishment is one of the most important homes of molecular gastronomy (or, as he defines it when imagining nervous diners' reactions, all that stuff using liquid nitrogen). For Adrià, semi-industrial hardware and unnatural-sounding additives are as essential as olive oil and fresh produce, tools rather than novelties. The food that comes out is not just highly visual—crackable, frail desserts, unusual foams, unnatural bulbous curves—but meant to taste like nothing you've experienced, with familiar ingredients prodded into new forms. Some people think it's pretentious gimmickry, but Adrià swears his only goal is to surprise and delight.
The theatrical release of Gereon Wetzel's stone-faced portrait of the titular Spanish restaurant's 2008-09 year is timed to coincide with the establishment closing its doors on Friday before converting into a culinary think-tank that launches in 2014—by which point the pesky diners will presumably be eliminated, leaving the creators to tinker in peace. In solidarity with its driven subjects, El Bulli sports precisely zero shots of customers to instead emphasize the cooks and wait staff. Coming up with an all-new, 30-plus-course tasting menu every year is no simple feat, so for six months Ferran Adrià and his core crew retreat from their Catalonian location to a lab in Barcelona. The film devotes equal time to experimentation and opening night, but it has no interest in life outside the kitchen.
El Bulli eliminates economic concerns from the equation entirely. You won't learn the price of a dinner (an average of 250 Euros), nor that the restaurant operates at a loss (more money comes in from licensed products and books). Adrià spends at least as much time doing paperwork and coordinating with others on the phone as tasting what his team comes up with. The appeal of shows like Iron Chef America or Top Chef lies partially in a benign form of luxuriance: shots of sober judges painstakingly evaluating the acidity and balance of tiny portions allow viewers to both ogle delicious looking dishes and vicariously take part in the good life through less envy-inducing ways than Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous ever did. When the chefs go shopping, they request four grapes. Is the economic crisis hitting you, the grocer asks. No, they just need four grapes; any more would be a distraction.
The testing process eliminates excess or spontaneous creativity. In Barcelona, Adrià functions as an administrator, leaving his staff to systematically subject ingredients to various reactions. A sweet potato will be sealed in a vacuum bag, fried and boiled, with no knowledge of what the outcome might be. Items are tackled one at a time, the results appraised, the best of them given to Adrià for approval, the results scrawled down in binders. Paper results are tacked to the walls, then transferred to a hard drive, with documentation trumping sense-memory; first comes the raw science, later the synthesis.
Lunches seem limited to simple fish-centric bases, taken communally in the kitchen. That brief respite and a shot of the exhausted staff after the opening are the sole moments of respite. The rest of the time, everyone's on the move. The importance of every ingredient is underlined by a title card—a wall whose tiles individually light up to form the title—and reaches a peak with this particular year's obsession with the textural contrast of the world's most elaborate, miniature ice cubes. The plates are grimly tasted, tweaked and revamped by Adrià, during which he never cracks a smile; instead, he complains a sandwich which is getting raves is too big to comfortably put in his mouth. ("Molecular" could refer to portions, too.) A waiter accidentally uses sparkling water instead of flat for a cocktail meant to highlight the taste of oil, and Adrià instantly adopts the innovation: as with any experiment, accidents can be as rewarding as calculated aims.
The film strips away personality; the only indication that it's about food rather than, say, synthetic polymers, is that the results end up in people's mouths. Bulli is not traditional Food Network porn; it's mostly a document of an esoteric business in action, with Adrià acting more as a curator than a traditional chef. "Progress" here means not just "in action," but "moving forward." Moving towards what, exactly, is another question, one the film has no interest in answering. Instead, like its subjects, it methodically tracks every relevant step of menu creation and restaurant operation. Foodies will probably swoon, but El Bulli prioritizes procedure over pleasure, demystifying strange-looking dishes back down to their constituent parts just like their patient testers.
Montreal's Fantasia Festival turns 15 this year, a sweet milestone for a grassroots event that now sprawls across three weeks every summer with an international array of horror, sci-fi, action, Asian, comedy and suspense flicks. There's a deep focus on the auteur, as well as the often cultish actors and crew behind fabled genre classics—oldies like The Wicker Man and Shivers were honored—plus guys like special-effects master Tom Savinihanging out, generating mayhem through their sheer badass aura.
The festival, which runs through Aug. 7, is huge enough to practically consume a huge chunk of the recent New York Asian Film Festival, for instance, purely as one of its many sidebars. Taste-wise, it's also exceptionally catholic, embracing everything from mumblegore (Adam Wingard's A Horrible Way to Die and What Fun We Are Having: 4 Stories About Date Rape) to wildly out of print Oz-ploitation sagas like Ted Kotcheff's beer-drenched Outback insanity Wake in Fright. It's not just blood, beasts and babes with big boobs—although there's plenty of that, too, and not just at the celebrated strip clubs of Rue St. Catherine, conveniently around the corner from the festival venues at Concordia University.
Opening weekend's big to-do was the world premiere of the new horror anthology The Theatre Bizarre. Produced by Severin Films co-founded David Gregory, it's the first of a new cycle of multi-director omnibuses to hit the festival circuit. Coming soon will be Paris, I'll Kill You and The ABCs of Death, a series of fatal vignettes spelling doom in alphabetical order, with a busload of directors to shoot each of 26 four-minute segments. Bizarre is a bit more modest. Its gang of seven includes aforementioned wizard of gore Savini, Richard Stanley (Hardware), Buddy Giovinazzo (Combat Shock, Life Is Hot in Cracktown), Montreal stalwarts Karim Hussain and Douglas Buck, Gregory himself, and Jeremy Kasten (who shot the wraparound story, starring Udo Kier as a life-sized puppet that comes to life in a creaky old moviehouse).
No one really expects too much from anthologies—at least, I don't. But part of their appeal is to see how economy of form inspires novel twists of storytelling. Most of these vignettes revolve around the emotional complexities of male-female relationships that, sooner or later, must see the romantic cede to the plasmatic. As a character puts it so eloquently, "Your penis and my vagina do not get along." The consequences of such a flawed equation are stunningly realized in Giovinazzo's short I Love You, told in a flashback as a Euro Guy named Axel (André Hennicke) wakes up on a bathroom floor with a nasty gash in his hand. The confrontation with his departing lover Mo (Suzan Anbeh) proves lethal in its corrosive candor, as every last shred of illusion is stripped away and male pride is left to simmer in a bucket of vitriol. It's so brutal and over the top, it's hilarious. But then... psych-out!The "gotcha" is a bit more predictable in Gregory's confectionary Sweets, in which actress Lindsay Goranson (Plague Town) plays a woman with compulsive eating habits who's given the sugar-tooth to her latest boyfriend, whom she's now trying to dump. No need to spoil any surprises, but it's fair to say the episode takes gluttony to disgusting levels of conspicuous consumption, evoking bits of Peter Greenaway and Dusan Makavejev in what can be described as surrealist excess. Ironically, it's probably the most thematically tight entry of the seven stories.
The domestic plight of Phase 7 (Faze 7) is as drastic, if treated with a light, deadpan touch. Coco (Daniel Hendler) and Pipi (Jazmin Stuart) are out shopping when the supermarket is suddenly beseiged with an onslaught of desperate shoppers. They're oblivious to all but themselves as they drive back to their apartment building. Pipi is very pregnant, and she likes to nag Coco about every little thing, so they don't notice that the streets have turned into a scene out of a George A. Romero flick. Nicolás Goldbart's Argentine plague comedy doesn't reveal too much after those glimpses: Most of the story unfolds in the confines of the apartment building, which is sealed off [REC]-style by a team of feckless disease-control bureaucrats. The tension develops between the couple over seemingly minor details (Coco's facial hair, his failure to buy enough light bulbs), even as the building's neighborly "committee meetings" turn into vigilante search-and-destroy missions, led by a downstairs occupant (Yayo Guridi) who's secretly a survivalist obsessed with George H.W. Bush's new world order. The film's deftly modulated tone strikes a perfect balance between dry absurdity and ballistic overdrive.
Retreat, the debut thriller from UK director Carl Tibbetts, shares a general premise: a couple is trapped in a house after news arrives of a viral outbreak. But the house is an isolated inn on a remote Welsh island, and the couple—played by A-list actors Thandie Newton and Cillian Murphy—have come back to sort out some deep-seated marital conflict that has her madly typing away confessional prose on a laptop and him gazing moon-eyed in passive confusion while chopping up a lot of wood for the rustic fireplace. Thank God Jamie Bell shows up. The former Billy Elliot is all grown up now. He rips a page from the Christian Bale Handbook of Psychotic Behavioral Technique for Screen Performers, and basically makes the movie worth watching. The narrative arc keeps you guessing, though not too hard: Is this stranger the military operative he claims to be, with a horrifying tale of a contagion suddenly sweeping Europe? Or is he some kind of crazy neo-Nazi thug come to get his kicks terrorizing a proud, hurting woman and her wimpy asthmatic dude as they circle each other failing to confront Their Issue? Is there even a virus? Why won't the ham radio work? Must Newton always play the same role she had in Crash? Can we just re-watch Straw Dogs instead?
The trauma is as absurd in Another Earth, a movie that practically jumps the shark from the jump. High school honors graduate Rhoda (Brit Marling) drinks and drives to celebrate her impending bright future when she spies a miracle in the night sky: a parallel planet Earth that has suddenly materialized out of the ether. Too distracted to watch the wheel, she plows head-on into another car, driven by a brilliant (aren't they always brilliant?) composer John Burroughs (William Mapother). The accident kills his child and pregnant wife, and leaves him in a coma. Rhoda trades in her next four years studying astrophysics at MIT from a jail cell, and gingerly comes home from the hoosegow wracked with guilt. She takes a job as a school janitor, still obsessed with Earth 2. When a hip-hop radio DJ (DJ Flava, "as himself") announces a contest to fly to the new planet, sponsored by a Richard Branson-style billionaire, she leaps at the chance, writing an eloquent poetic entry that she narrates in the soothing, hypnotic voice every living child longs to hear tell them a bedtime story.There are enough (not nearly as unpredictable as they should be) twists to pause the recap here, and Marling, who also co-wrote and produced with longtime friend, director Mike Cahill, is a column unto herself—with a second Sundance discovery, the superior The Sound of My Voice, also coming soon. The thing about Another Earth, though, is its fearless shark-jumping does nothing to dispel the film's deeply affecting tone of hopeful melancholy and transcendent longing. Well-crafted for an effort that wears its low budget on its sleeve, the drama unabashedly plays its strongest cards—Marling herself, radiant even in janitorial scrubs—and ever-so-gentle interactions between grievously damaged human beings that have a disarming ring of truth. It's as emo as it wants to be, an Oprah Winfrey Network movie of the week for hipsters, if you want, and so what? It's also garage-band Kieslowski.
Otto Preminger's 1968 satire Skidoo takes its title from a word dating back to the 1920s, meaning to get out while the getting's good. "Perhaps the first truly national fad expression and one of the most popular fad expressions to appear in the U.S.," says an edition of the Dictionary of American Slang from that later decade. That old jargon is used to describe fresh developments captures the film's central tension well: Preminger, who defied the Production Code by using the word "virgin" in 1953's The Moon is Blue and bluntly delved into the blackmailing of homosexuals in 1962's Advise and Consent (among his other battles with censorship), was no longer on the leading edge of pushing culture to new levels of permissiveness. But by Skidoo, using outmoded slang to tag a saga of free love and LSD comes off as an elderly guy throwing embarrassing jive at the kids. Skidoo features Jackie Gleason asking "What is he, a faggot?", and near-objectively portrays the fault lines of the '60s a year before Easy Rider and Medium Cool busted the counterculture open for adventurous multiplex viewing, yet has always been synonymous with irredeemable failure. (See also: Ishtar, Heaven's Gate, and other re-evaluated cases.) Skidoo isn't the sad attempt of a former taboo-buster to get hep with the rebels he helped spawn: it's exactly the sour but well-argued film Preminger intended rather than a jaw-dropping fiasco.
Gleason's abovementioned crudeness (an outcry in response to his daughter's hippie paramour) positions him as the logical descendant of The Honeymooners' Ralph Kramden and the predecessor to Archie Bunker, all ruddy prole instincts. Despite his biases against the psychedelic and flower-powered, Gleason's hitman "Tough Tony" Banks becomes a far better human being in jail (he's there to do one last job for the boss) than he is at home, defending a fellow prisoner's right to eat brown rice without being mocked and eventually choosing pacifism over hardhat self-righteousness. The film plays like a daring sitcom, appropriately opening with Tough Tony in front of the tube. Fleeting snippets aside, the two main components of the manically edited channel-surfing session are a clip of Preminger's own In Harm's Way (the last traditional epic he was able to make before becoming studio persona non grata) and ads of a woman decrying the "fat, disgusting" man Gleason resembles, whose maladies could be cured with deodorant. The self-loathing intro (with the word "An Otto Preminger Film" on the TV, as if this were just another night of lazy viewing) packs a world of insecurity and hatefulness before any of the characters even open their mouths.
Tough Tony is old-school, a dinosaur as antiquated as former mob boss God (Groucho Marx, in his final screen appearance—don't ask). Subversive casting is prevalent, i.e. "Mickey Mouse Club" mainstay Frankie Avalon as a particularly sleazy hood. Preminger films don't normally have stupidly obtrusive scores, but Harry Nilsson's sarcastically perky contributions somehow inform a widescreen laff-fest. Gleason stays offscreen for much of the film, but the perspective is firmly his: a quasi-libertarian, tolerant-as-long-as-it's-not-my-daughter viewpoint. The hippies are first represented by Stash (John Philip Law), who mumbles about "you dig" (re: the nothingness of everything) to Tough Tony's daughter Darlene (Alexandra Hay) before moving in for the big make-out session—Gleason's right to suspect lecherous skullduggery in his vacuous pronouncements, which tend towards a debased form of Zen where everything is nothing, beauty is everywhere and stoned bromides will change the world. The righteous locals, though, are equally myopic and closed off. "I do not know what brought you to my township, and I do not care to know," Tough Tony's shrill wife (Carol Channing) announces to a hippie gang at a town meeting, heavy-handedly backdropped by dual portraits of George Washington and Ronald Reagan. "We are proud of ourselves, our clean upright citizens, junior and senior. You are a backwards step in the evolution of mankind."
The plot infamously includes a climactic LSD trip, and it's typical of Preminger's characteristic pragmatism that the moment isn't just one of psychic transcendence, but also necessary for Tough Tony to get out of jail. The hallucinations look like a bunch of moving trash-can lids as filtered through a cheap kaleidoscope. Preminger's films rarely indulge in showy, attention-grabbing shots or heavy editing, preferring unblinking wide shots that give performers room to breathe. Trying to depict a hallucinogenic experience subjectively onscreen is always a crapshoot, and Preminger's approach turns the transformative experience into an accidental farce, undermining any alleged change in Gleason's character. Like a bad actor not getting the point of playing Scrooge, his final epiphany into embracing tolerance actually makes him less appealing, his articulate anger mellowing into dumb bliss.
Skidoo's screenplay is by Doran William Cannon, who wrote the equally half-baked, generational-discontent saga Brewster McCloud, which Robert Altman subsequently bent into something stranger. As reported in Chris Fujiwara's The World and Its Double: The Life and Work of Otto Preminger, Cannon was displeased by the director's methodical approach to his screenplay. Actor Austin Pendleton describes the original script's main virtue as having "a tone that was very much happening," which sounds dubiously like nothing at all. On the set, Preminger was also working with his son Erik (the product of a fling with stripper Gypsy Lee Rose) after being forbidden for many years to see him, and it could be said that Skidoo plays like the work of a father striving to bond with his child whose worldview he disagrees with entirely.
There are lots of films extolling the virtues of adolescent rebellion and experimentation (if not so many when the film was actually made), but few sympathetic to the viewpoints of their scared, left-behind parents. For all the joking around and outre plot twists, Skidoo may be the only film of the '60s that offers a plausible portrait of what a well-meaning dad (as opposed to a mobster) might make of the changes around him, serving as a referendum on the new youth culture from the reactionary side of the fence, with scorn and sympathy depicted toward both sides. It may not be "funny," but it's curiously and compellingly disorienting. Skidoo's sympathy for those too old and set in their ways to adjust to changing times remains surprising long after its more progressive counterparts have folded into the mainstream. Forget motorcycles and Steppenwolf; try Jackie Gleason sweating and the slow, protracted descent into illogic foisted on an old man who didn't ask for any of this.
Nothing would be greater cause for joy than to think that the 1970s-style sci-fi film is enjoying a second orbit. Writers in major daily newspapers and across the Twitterverse are talking about Solaris again (even if it's for the wrong reasons). Duncan Jones, whose 2009 Moon was a smartly devised homage to the era, scored big with his recent Source Code—which resonated more for its existential quandaries than any pyrotechnic flash. Two recent Sundance favorites, Another Earth and The Sound of My Voice, play off of fantastic premises with limited technical mojo, letting the script drive the imagination.
Even if that doesn't add up to a zeitgeist moment, it doesn't hurt that an actual film of the era and genre gets its never-intended American theatrical debut next week: World on a Wire, the 1973 production made by Rainer Werner Fassbinder for German television. At three-and-a-half hours, it was broadcast in two parts, and featured a full array of the director's familiar actors. Before his death in 1982, Fassbinder made 42 features in a 14-year spree that saw him escalate from the Warholian funk of Beware of a Holy Whore to international acclaim for the historical allegories of The Marriage of Maria Braun and Lola. Amid all that activity, which included the epic televised miniseries Berlin Alexanderplatz, there were lost items that became obscure and grail-like. At the top of the list is World on a Wire, which had been shown only once in the United States—in 1997—before a 2010 revival at the Museum of Modern Art, which screened a new 35mm print, struck from sources that included the orginal 16mm film and a 2k digital transfer overseen by the cinematographer, Michael Ballhaus. Janus Films is distributing the film, much in the fashion that it introduced House and Dillinger Is Dead to American audiences.
Fassbinder made the film over six weeks in early 1973 when he was taking a production break from Effi Briest, although in terms of release it falls between his Sapphic chamber drama The Bitter Tears of Petra Von Kant and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul, his homage to Douglas Sirk. But this is scarcely a bridge from one moody psychodrama to another. Instead, it's Fassbinder's Alphaville—with wider neckties, groovier furniture and sultrier babes. The futuristic story is set in an antiseptic corporate strata where scientists have invented a computer capable of generating a simulated world, a cybernetic projection of our that is being used as a model for marketing research.
Based on Daniel F. Galouye's 1964 novel Simulacron-3, the story tracks the steadily more aggravated mental state of Fred Stiller (Fassbinder regular Klaus Löwitsch), a scientist obsessed with multiple mysteries, including the death of a colleague and the increasingly strange nature of his own reality, which appears to be disassembling itself before his eyes as he races around in a haze of paranoia. Cyberpunk before anyone coined the term, the film evokes a kind of Philip K. Dick gone Teutonic Deluxe. Stiller, who has the solid build and receding hairline vector of a TV detective (which the actor played on the German series Peter Strohm), zooms through the city in a white Stingray, never takes the stairs when he can jump a guard rail, and consorts with his voluptuous blonde secretary (Barbara Valentin) and Eva (Mascha Rabben), the daughter of the suddenly deceased cyberneticist Vollmer, while men with big sideburns and wide-brimmed hats lurk everywhere, smoking cigarettes.
Even as it posits a meltdown between the real and the computer-generated realm peopled by some 10,000 "identity units," forecasting Blade Runner, The Matrix and—sure, why not? —Inception in its multiple realities, the film could also be Fassbinder's version of a James Bond intrigue. All the elements are there, most abundantly in the Peer Raben-designed haute '60s mise-en-scene of forever glassy surfaces, white-on-white décor, and globular furnishings that emulate Stanley Kubrick, whose A Clockwork Orange came out two years before (itself borrowing design schemes from William Klein's 1969 satire Mr. Freedom). Ballhaus's camera floats gracefully through this hyper-cool strata, with elegant tracking shots often at a voyeuristic remove or snatching what is really just a mirrored glimpse of characters who may or may not be flesh and blood, only then to stop and zoom in for a baroque flourish. The soundtrack at first consists of a jukebox of familiar classical themes, then gradually slips into more electronic textures as Gottfried Hüngsberg's original score grows ever trippier and more threatening.
Much as in Alphaville—whose one and only Eddie Constantine makes a cameo—and its dystopian offspring, paranoia and technology are flipsides of a coin. But beyond the immediate pleasure of Fassbinder's style and the generous company of his ensemble cast, the film is anything but a genre novelty from a filmmaker whose grandest works were investigations into 20th-century German history. Its space age bachelor pad swank is no cushion against deeper issues. The story is less about cyber-angst than it is the evergreen puzzle of life as a dream-within-a-dream that philosophers have forever tried to solve.
[World on a Wire opens July 22 at the IFC Center in New York. Other cities follow through the year. Check out the schedule here.]
The New York Times' A.O. Scott praised Of Gods and Men as "supple and suspenseful, appropriately austere without being overly harsh, and without forgoing the customary pleasures of cinema. The performances are strong, the narrative gathers momentum as it progresses, and the camera is alive to the beauty of the Algerian countryside." On behalf of GreenCine and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment, you may enter to win the Blu-ray/DVD combo pack of what The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Rainer called "a transcendently uplifting tragedy." More on the film, now on shelves:
Loosely based on the life of the Cistercian monks of Tibhirine in Algeria, from 1993 until their kidnapping in 1996, OF GODS AND MEN tells a story of eight French Christian monks who live in harmony with their Muslim brothers. When a crew of foreign workers is massacred by an Islamic fundamentalist group, fear sweeps through the region. The army offers them protection, but the monks refuse. Should they leave? Despite the growing menace in their mids, they slowly realize that they have no choice but to stay... come what may.
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See the Of Gods and Men trailer below:
Shortly after his cage falls out of a car, pet chameleon Rango (voiced by Johnny Depp) gets blown around by the passing vehicles' fierce wind tunnels, at one point flying into a car being driven by Hunter S. Thomspon surrogate Raoul Duke (Depp) and his "too weird to live, too rare to die" lawyer friend. The Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas nod is a one-off that sets the tone: Rango is a hallucinogenic children's film. The lizard sports the same Hawaiian shirt, and the climax necessitates a heroic quest to Las Vegas, though the Depps don't meet again.The script actually manages to retain the motif and run with it, which is typical of the film's thoroughness: allusions are developed and sustained over the course of the film rather than just dropped in as jokey references for the grown-ups.
The Gilliam moment is also apt because Rango, like Brazil (or, more recently, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World), is a better fit for DVD viewing than in a theater, where the relentless maximalist gags and overbearing noise levels can turn from overwhelming to oppressive. As an animated film boasting the Nickelodeon brand name, Rango technically qualifies as a children's movie, and dutifully tells the story of a little lizard with a big heart who learns to believe in himself. That material, including the inevitable deadly speeches with teachable themes, takes up about 10 minutes: the rest is gritty, freaky if you fear snakes, and surprisingly wide-ranging in its cinematic shout-outs.
When an armadillo accurately named Roadkill (Alfred Molina) suffers a gruesome accident, it's an indication the cartoonish immortality of Wile E. Coyote doesn't apply here. Characters can die, adding an unusually tense air to a normally placid kiddie genre. The lizards themselves are incredibly grimy creatures: the variety of unpleasant characters populating the saloon in the town of Dirt—where Rango ends up—are covered with soot that rests in their jowls and between the lines of their faces. Water's scarce, and showers are out of the question: it's a frontier town with no tangible resources. It goes without saying that this isn't the kind of movie where friendly lions are vegetarians: the carniverous animals here kill others and eat them.
Despite the rough company, Rango establishes himself as a hero after lucking out and killing a hawk. He's appointed sheriff and acquires a lady friend, Beans (Isla Fisher); standing side by side, they look like a scaly "American Gothic." In due course, Rango must figure out how to defeat Rattlesnake Jake (Bill Nighy), whose beady eyes and low black hat are modeled on Lee Van Cleef in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. For inspiration, he turns to the Spirit of the West in a desert encounter that seems escaped from a mushroom trip: in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by flickering cacti, he has a chat with the Man With No Name. (Contemporary hard man Timothy Olyphant unsurprisingly does a fine job of channeling young Clint Eastwood.)
Duly inspired by a living icon, Rango heads back to town to defeat the gredy mayor, Turtle John (Ned Beatty, who between this and Toy Story 3, has a monopoly on villainous 'toon Southerners). A dead ringer for John Huston in Chinatown, Turtle John rants about water being power, which is definitely true for the town's mostly reptilian population. When Rango [innocuous spoiler alert!] finally achieves victory and breaks the Mayor's stranglehold on basic resources for capitalist gain, the mariachi/Greek chorus of owls that's been predicting his imminent death the entire film finally admits he's not going to die today, and the movie ends.
Rango is director Gore Verbinski's first chance to blow off steam after the largely administrative function of logistically controlling the second and thirdPirates of the Caribbean. As the creative goofing around of a man responsible for making over $1.5 billion dollars for Disney, Rango—from a script by John Logan—makes minimal concessions; Verbinski's off the clock and working for himself. Tonally it's all over the place, from impish non-sequiturs (many voiced by Depp, who dials down the tics) to tussles with Rattlesnake Jake that are scarier than anything in Toy Story 3. Several different movies are stuffed in here, but only the one aimed squarely at children is as dull as desert sand.
Characterized by Japan Society film curator Samuel Jamier as the "little brother" to the storied New York Asian Film Festival, the annual Japan Cuts sampler of contemporary Japanese cinema is often more unpredictable than its volatile sibling. The events, which overlap each other and share a fistful of presentations, pool their DNA without ever being clones. For every psychotronic shazam-a-thon like Ninja Kids!!!—Takashi Miike's doddering these days, it's onlu his second new film this year—there are a few mood-drenched dramas that contemplate life's colors with a Zen-like grace. The festival trailer offers wistful vistas of families staring out beyond a shore as waves coalesce into spiritual meaning, evoking not hot-wired sensation but a subtler embrace of sentiment.
That's surely the case in Three Points, a curious composite feature that stitches together dramatic vignettes, shaggy documentary excursions and an elegant, wacky-sad romance into a kind of patchwork of common threads (tattoo parlors, aspiring rappers, low-end yakuza, men and women together) and things that make no goddamn sense at all but are more entertaining for it (such as a homeless crab hunter with an uncanny sense of digging up crustaceans out of deep riverbank mud). The arc stutters from Okinawa (where all the documentary footage is shot) to Kyoto, where an assortment of Japanese hip-hop dudes navigate their way into and out of jail while dealing with relationship dramas, to Tokyo, where the most compelling story unfolds, almost as an urban fable. Director Masashi Yamamoto seems intent on avoiding any sort of groove, letting audience expectations ride on the roulette wheel, letting the shifts on tone and style keep everyone guessing. The final episode, Switch, fits within a certain latter-day Japanese mode of storytelling: a slacker parable. Iga (Jun Murakami), a not-bad looking deadbeat, rescues Saka (Sola Aoi) and her older lover from a gang that jumps the couple as they make out in an alley. Iga gets his ass kicked, but Saka returns to comfort him, and invites him home with her to recover. He then refuses to leave, gradually evolving from savior to creep to parasite to lover, as Saka reveals her own proclivity for becoming whatever it is a man desires, almost as second nature. (The actress is widely known in Japan as an adult video star, so there's also a casting twist at work.) There are deeper secrets to reveal, and the story's unexpected turns take on a dream-like exposition. Appearances are not what they seem, and love blossoms in unusual moments.
That would also describe the tilt of Love & Loathing & Lulu & Ayano, at once a kind of broad spoof of the Japanese porn industry and an unlikely saga of a young woman's transformation. The film's bigger-than-life sensibility serves the turnabout of Junko (Norie Yasui), a mousy secretary lured into an audition where she throws on a day-glo wig and a schoolgirl uniform to become Lulu—a sexually emboldened human anime character who submits to the savagely comic shenanigans of a scene while shouting "I want to go to the comic book store!" She immediately attracts a rival, the seasoned performer Ayano (Mayu Sakuma), who has a hard-bitten attitude to go with her long legs and wiry physique. There's also the film's version of a 300-pound basement troll, an obsessed fan who stalks Lulu with increasingly disturbing confessions of devotion, foreshadowing a climax (ahem) that is one of the funniest (if also absurd and over-the-top violent) moments in any recent Asian film (which is saying a lot). Not so much a porn expose as an unexpected female buddy flick, Lulu works on a couple of levels. Director Hisayasu Satō has long been known as the "King of Pink," with a catalog of more than 50 pinku titles as lurid as Uniform Punishment: Square Peg in Round Hole! and Lolita: Vibrator Torture. Watching with that in mind, the film often feels like a self-reflexive commentary. Yet for all the broad laughs, there's also a spaced-out sweetness, most ecstatically expressed in a spontaneous refrigerated-beverage fight between Lulu and Ayano that veers from girls-gone-wild frivolity into something downright poetic.
Only lovers are left alive in Battle Royale, a fabled 2000 release—and the final film by Kinji Fukasaku—that was never distributed theatrically in the United States. Perhaps it might have, if the Columbine massacre wasn't so fresh in public memory, a salient event as the story concerns a class of high school kids turned loose on a remote island to wipe each other out. The film's tongue-in-cheek dystopia posits a future Japan under military rule where rebellious teens are kept in check by an annual "battle royale," in which the winner is the last schoolgirl (or boy) standing. Oppressed nerds are given license to kill. Girl's bathroom taunts are now answered with hand grenades. Freshly perforated, and to-die-for fashionable, crush objects confess their secret love for the girl who just blasted them with an automatic weapon. Cult hit to go! After a decade as a beloved video totem, BR has again made the big screen. (The Brooklyn Academy of Music notoriously screened the film in 2001.) The gallows humor, heartbreak ballad sentimentality and crunchy political commentary suggest a John Hughes comedy hijacked by Sam Fuller on a suicide mission—with brutally deadpan "Beat" Takeshi Kitano at the helm, playing the students' old teacher, still pissed off about a hallway stabbing incident years earlier. The action's Lord of the Flies/The Most Dangerous Game/Punishment Park vibes aside, it's really a tribute to the magic of young love. Teen spirit has a body count, but damn if it ain't sweet.
[Japan Cuts: The Festival of Contemporary Japanese Cinema continues through July 22 at Japan Society in NYC.]
Takashi Miike chooses the strangest times to assert himself. By IMDB's count, since 1991 he's directed or is wrapping up some 85 titles; if he's no longer cranking out five films a year, inconsistency is still his hallmark. Miike's best known for both Audition—Ozu meets torture porn—and a series of films that alternate between inspiration and filler with very little warning. If Miike was a band, he'd have an awesome greatest-hits disc that would make you get rid of all the albums proper.
13 Assassins is Miike's first film to see American release since 2008's Sukiyaki Western Django, a bizarre but amusing exercise in reconstructing the spaghetti western with Japanese people speaking phonetic English. Aside from that minor twist, Miike basically played the genre straight, showing his love for patchy action films with great setpieces by making one of his own. 13 Assassins is similarly devoted to the conventions of Japanese samurai cinema: if you enjoy watching shogun rulers greet visitors with ceremonious bows and robe re-arranging, you've come to the right place. The international cut's shorn of 16 minutes, mostly having to do with the titular warriors hitting up a brothel the night before the big battle, a three-reel stunner that effectively comprises the entire third act; the international cut is a strictly all-male affair.
Before the final battle royale, Assassins is mostly talk, punctuated by brief moments of savage brutality. Some of what Miike pulls out could never have made it into a classic-era samurai film. The 13 assassins must kill Lord Naritsugu (Goro Inagaki), an evil warlord who takes pleasure in torturing, raping, and generally giving the feudal system a bad name. Miike keeps most of the violence off-screen, save for the horrifying introduction of a girl whose limbs and tongue have been cut off; her squirmy appearance is a reminder of how shocking Miike can be when he really feels like it. Otherwise, violence is mostly just out of the frame's gaze, reinforced by convincingly juicy sound effects. The trick is that the men's honorable/suicidal bloodlust is closer to Lord Naritsugu's homicidal whims than any of them would like to admit; he's looking for excitement, they're looking for an honorable way to (prematurely) die.
In the last act, words cease and oxen are set on fire as part of a coordinated effort to transform a small town into a deathtrap reminiscent of nothing so much as Home Alone on a larger scale. Like the first two acts, which hum with the soothing efficiency of ritualistic samurai conventions, the finale makes time fly without doing anything particularly outstanding. The action emphasizes killing en masse ("30 down! Another 170 to go!") rather than highlighting choreography or outstanding fight moments.
It's crisp fun, but the coda is what makes the film special. Aside from filming pretty much every interior scene with flickering candle-light and amping up the occasional violence, Miike's done little up to this point to subvert a genre he obviously loves. For all its occasional weird moments, Assassins is a much more conventional genre update than, for example, Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi, which delighted in perpetual oddity for its own sake. But the ending here is all Miike's innovation. The battle's been won, of course, and most of the men are dead, per convention. The discussion two survivors have, though, is different: after being told by his dying uncle Shinzaemon (Koji Yakusho) that being a samurai is a burden and to just do whatever he wants, (specifically, "Go to America, make love to women.") Shinrokuro (Takayuki Yamada) talks to peasant Kiga (Yusuke Iseya) and says he's going to do just that.
13 Assassins ends by tipping its hat to a fun genre that nonetheless serves as a breeding ground for toxic male self-assertiveness and basically says "nah, time to move on." This is trying to have it both ways, but it's funny too. If you're ambivalent about taking pleasure from the sight of a stoic man mow down 10 people with a sword without ever blinking, believe me: here's a movie for you.
No moviegoing experience in America can top the New York Asian Film Festival. Behind its rather placid and matter-of-fact name, it is a multiple-personality-disordered cyborg ninja assassin that shoots lightning bolts out of its rotating nipples as it kickboxes to pixel dust the suffocating walls of cinematic conformity. Then it has sex with everybody. Okay, not exactly. Although last year, when the decade-old fest made its debut at the Film Society of Lincoln Center's august Walter Reade Theater, the Japanese action babe (and former pornographic video star) Asami revealed in an audience Q&A that she had enjoyed 1,000 sex partners, but that none of them were animals. She, like everyone else onstage, including the festival organizers, was wearing a fundoshi—the diaper-like garment favored by sumo wrestlers. It was as if a half-century of high-minded genuflection at the celluloid pantheon just got thrown out of a 77th floor window. Have you ever seen Martin Scorsese parade around half-naked through the aisles in a punch-drunk conga line? I think not.
That mandate for—how to put it?—audience engagement has been with the festival since its humble origins in 2002. And, remarkably, NYAFF's maverick spirit not only survived the move uptown, the summer marathon kicks off again today with one of its strongest lineups ever.
There's more of a retrospective tone this year, which seems appropriate for the decade mark. Hong Kong's Tsui Hark, one of the architects of the Chinese New Wave that began in the 1980s, is a guest of honor, screening his latest—the visually stunning return-to-form Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame—and greeting fans at “greatest-hits” revivals of gravity-defying Wu Xia epics, including the game-changing Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (1983) and the samurai masterpiece The Blade (1995). Yet, of equally strong intesest is the mortal combat in South Korean director Ryoo Seung-Wan's contemporary and ruthlessly earthbound thrillers, which highlight an impressive survey of recent South Korean films.
Ryoo's 2010 The Unjust finds the director of City of Violence (also screening) tempering his flair for full-tilt boogie in a tense, sinew-snapping war of wills that, in classic noir fashion, pits one incredibly screwed up character against a blatantly evil and self-interested antagonist. The conflict escalates, with endless collateral damage, amid a complex backdrop of deadly ambition, murder and lies. The deeply flawed, putative hero cop Capt. Choi (Hwang Jung-min) becomes a target for the slick, puppet-master prosecutor Joo Yang (Ryoo Seung-bum), after he acts on orders to find a fall guy to arrest for a series of schoolgirl killings. The tangled overlay of institutional moral rot, organized crime influence and triple-crossed deceptions illustrates a culture of corruption that infects anyone who comes into contact with it. There's enough detail crammed into two hours to drive a mini-series, or justify multiple viewings to stay on top of everything. But Ryoo's relentless, steamroller pace shows no compassion. His urban anatomy of low-life scum and high-powered rogues playing mind games while the innocent die may be chilly and despairing, but every five minutes something so brutal and shocking happens that you forget all that existential brooding and gasp for air. And as you recalibrate, the camera pulls back to an omniscent perspective, isolating individuals lost in a psychic limbo, their guts eating them alive.
Even so, the film is almost a humanist anthem compared to Jang Cheol-soo's Bedevilled. This female revenge freakout is likely the harshest piece of work screening this year. Actress Ji Sung-won plays a woman whose return from the big city to the remote island of her birth precipitates an epic bloodletting when her long-abused childhood friend (Seo Young-hee) finally snaps and her nostalgic vacation becomes a hayseed apocalypse. Elements of everything from Thelma and Louise to Deliverance to I Spit on Your Grave have been noted, and when the violence gets going, it's as visceral and fucked-up as anything ever produced by Korean cinema (not known for pussyfooting when a hammer or a hatchet is handy). If the extended set-up, which lays on the degradation, doesn't snuff your life-affirming spirit, the climactic assaults will really screw with your head. Love it or hate it, though, the film represents an amazing commitment from Seo, who won a slew of best actress awards for her feverishly demented performance, stoked by the film's tone of aggravated realism.
The fantastic also intrudes into daily life. Haunters is a bizarro-world hero flick in which an ordinary dude takes on a psychotic mutant with laser-beam eyes that turn people into hapless robot tools of his will. It's the directorial debut of Kim Min-Suk (screenwriter of The Good, The Bad and the Weird), and makes for a genuinely thrilling comic book adventure—the kind of popcorn movie that's a trademark of the fest. So, too, are gleeful adult entertainments like Foxy Festival, in which hapless robot tools come in very handy for its female principals. In director's Lee Hae-Young ensemble sex comedy, the gals just want to get their groove on. A schoolgirl has an age-inappropriate crush on a shaggy (and perhaps virginal) street vendor, who prefers the comfort of a sex doll. Her teacher has a sexually unsatisfying relationship with a cop whose macho posturing is deflated when he discovers her vibrator. And her mother, a sedate seamstress, accidentally unleashes an inner desire to become a dominatrix after an unexpected encounter with the owner of a neighboring hardware store, who has a puppy-boy fetish. The frisky, absurdist tone is the sort you might more readily expect from a Japanese film (see the manic, candy-colored Milocrorze: A Love Story, among a sprawling assortment those, featured in the festival and its kissing cousin, Japan Cuts, the annual survey of new Japanese film hosted by Japan Society). And, indeed, it goes to certain places a galaxy distant from a Jennifer Aniston rom-com, such as a scene where a heartsick housewife lovingly traces a finger across a skidmark in her lover's underwear while weeping in the laundry room. It's a cute, pervy trifle, but a refreshing reminder that it's not all psychosis and bloody hammers. And, as ever with the New York Asian Film Festival, there's a happy ending.
[The New York Asian Film Festival runs through July 14 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Japan Society. More info here, here and here.]
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GreenCine Daily is primarily written by GC Editor Aaron Hillis with contributions as noted. We encourage comments here and appreciate tips via email: