January 31, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

by Vadim Rizov

Perfect Sense

Scottish director David Mackenzie's first feature to see American release was 2003's love triangle/murder drama Young Adam; unfortunately, critical attention dilated not on his strong visual sense but Ewan McGregor's penis. Silly but true: Sony Pictures Classics was about to cut his member out of the film for the sake of an R rating when the actor mocked them, leading to an NC-17 release. The takeaway image wasn't genitalia but one of the first shots, a swan's dirty belly shot from underneath the water’s surface, an arresting/original widescreen composition far more important than debates about sexual graphicness.

It's 2012: Michael Fassbender is displaying his Shame all over America, and Mackenzie and McGregor have reunited for another blend of sex and sadness. The director’s jokingly self-proclaimed "sex trilogy"—Young Adam, Asylum (2005) and Hallam Foe (2007)—is done: depictions of male sexual pathology have been discarded for the moment. Hallam—renamed Mister Foe for American consumption—defused adolescent Jamie Bell's creepily voyeuristic coming-of-age with puckish humor. Mackenzie tried Hollywood next: the result was the stillborn, shot-in-but-not-of Hollywood Ashton Kutcher vehicle Spread, and though casting him as a gigolo for older women was a nicely mean meta-stunt, the film failed to take off.

Perfect Sense

Back in Scotland for the new Perfect Sense, McGregor emerges from Young Adam's barge into apocalyptic drama. Ever game, the actor plays a chef named Michael: smooth in the kitchen and an equally adept pick-up artist on the street. Epidemiologist Susan (Eva Green) is his new partner; after he callously kicks her out of bed, she goes to work and discovers one of many patients who's lost his sense of smell. That can happen at birth ("anosmia," if you were curious), but its sudden emergence, along with the steady paring away of other senses, alerts audiences that they’re confronting a Metaphorical Disease, placing this closer to Children of Men than Contagion. Like the women of the former film's dystopian future, Susan is infertile.

The metaphor in question is the recession. It's no coincidence Michael's a culinary professional, as his job is jeopardized when the worldwide loss of smell is followed by taste. Just before those buds go, there's a surprising orgy of indiscriminate consumption in the kitchen. The sight of a restaurant's workers frenziedly guzzling cooking oil without realizing why they've suddenly turned so gluttonous isn’t one to forget soon—WTF sensory moments like this are Mackenzie's specialty. Such an approach is fascinatingly literal: the loss of a sense isn't just emblematic but an excuse to wonder what that sense's last moments of satiation would look like. The world is becoming more food-crazy/-conscious by the day, with Mario Batali now considered a morning talk show host and Gordon Ramsay taking his place alongside American Idol. Here, that small luxury is the first to be stripped away.

Perfect Sense

The first half of the film crosscuts between the disease's spread and the one-night-stand that grows into a long-term romance between longer-term loners Michael and Susan. Her disembodied commentary (of which there's far, far too much) reminds viewers that they're here to learn about the human condition, but it's mostly the leads' chemistry that compels. Michael stands underneath Susan's window during his smoke break—only he doesn't bring his own cigarettes, instead bugging her for one, then asking for a lighter. Their relationship is teasing and fun, as is the vibe in the restaurant kitchen, where the sous chef (Ewen Bremner) plays smell-my-finger games.

Perfect Sense is visibly strained for resources, visualizing Armageddon in a handful of spaces: kitchen, bedroom, deserted streets that don't require extras. Despite the ingenuity of maximizing a small budget, the last half of Perfect Sense is a mess—an amateur-hour, short-story platitude about what really matters. Mackenzie is let down by fabulously named Danish writer Kim Fupz Aakeson, who leans heavily on those overwrought voiceovers that address society at large with a high-falutin' "we," and ho-hum tributes to the importance of touch as the greatest of human senses. As the world goes down the drain, so does the movie: the broader in scope it gets, the soggier and more morose the dramatic conceit becomes. Still, there's a front-loaded breakthrough for Mackenzie in his first depiction of a healthy, sexually functional relationship. In Young Adam, McGregor's soul-sick affair unfolded entirely on a barge, like the one his Perfect Sense character takes to work. Mackenzie has swung the boat around to where he came from, but the carnality is no longer pathological.

Posted by ahillis at 2:41 PM

January 28, 2012

SUNDANCE 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

The Comedy

Dudes are fucked up. One of the recurrent themes of the 2012 Sundance Film Festival was the damaged state of young American manhood. Maybe I just happened to pick all the right movies, and tapped into a wellspring of generational critique. But it's hard to argue when films across such a wide generic range leak rancid testosterone as if it were a toxic spill.

The Bro-pocalypse could also signal a kind of counter-insurgency against the archetypal Sundance Event: The It Girl rom-coms, earnest dramas of family dysfunction, and high-concept documentaries about tree-huggers and weirdoes. Yet, in a warped sense, Rick Alverson's The Comedy swallowed all these things whole and vomited them back up, through the PBR-drenched esophagus of Adult Swim favorite Tim Heidecker (and collaborator pal Eric Wareheim in a smaller role; the two have also been making the rounds with Magnolia's Tim & Eric's Billion Dollar Movie). As slacker chump Swanson, the comedic actor is the star of his own urban deadbeat cavalcade of cheap nihilist jollies, riding his beer gut like a chariot through the trustafarian wilds of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. His sole purpose in life seems to be cheap antagonism of less-privileged city dwellers (foreign-speaking cab drivers take a lot of psychological abuse), getting drunk with his likewise schlumpen beer buddies in a sophomoric parody of a male-encounter group, and waiting for his invalid father to die—while terrorizing his male nurse with a trench-mouthed interrogation about prolapsed rectums.

The Comedy

Yes, the title is ironic. Or is it? Did I mention this slumming loser lives on a funky houseboat in the East River? The film's unsparing vivisection of a certain kind of hipster caricature is so dead-on it's downright freakish. Strangely enough, the relentless trash-humpty dumpster-isms distantly evoke the situationist antics of old Taylor Mead underground movie vehicles from the early 1960s, with the city streets a surreal playground. Here, however, the tone is not one of spiritual and sexual liberation, but of cultural bankruptcy and jaded disconnection. Assholism is the only currency left in anyone's pocket. Some could react to this manic-depressive wallow with despair or boredom, as if shackled to the radiator in mumblecore purgatory. Instead, I found myself enjoying it as a perverse documentary. By the time Kate Lyn Sheil shows up to give this feckless dude some play, acceding to a houseboat date after complimenting him on his dick cheese, it only leads to an occasion for Swanson to display an utter lack of humanity. The Comedy never strays from its errant ambling path, which makes it either excessively brave or ridiculously foolish. No movie at Sundance was happier to rub its balls in your face.

Simon Killer

Brady Corbet plays a different sort of sociopath in Simon Killer, the second feature from Antonio Campos (of Afterschool and Williamsburg's Borderline Films, whose Martha Marcy May Marlene ruled Sundance last year). On the face of it, he's a recent college graduate with a degree in neuroscience and a specialty in peripheral vision. He's also experiencing some kind of nervous breakdown after breaking up with his high school sweetheart, consoling himself by jacking off to bilingual sex-cam sessions on a laptop and chatting up comely strangers in his beginner's French. A lost soul wandering the streets with his earplugs pumping reggae and synth-pop, Simon finds his raison d'etre—or perhaps just a target for parasitical manipulation—in Victoria (Mati Diop), a slinky, dusky prostitute with a jagged cesarean scar who latches onto this hunky mope when a tout leads him through the door of a Pigalle hostess bar. Soon enough, the needy Simon has taken residence in Victoria's small studio apartment, where boldly graphic sex begins to reveal deep fractures in the lives of both lovers. By the time Simon hatches a blackmail scheme to fleece some of Victoria's rich and married off-campus clients, it's already apparent that things will end badly. The collaboration between Campos and the actors goes to stranger and more disturbing places than the B-movie scenario it first implies. Through a sustained tone of tense ambiguity and abstract visual interludes, the film introduces darkening shades of doubt as to Simon’s real identity, as Corbet gets his creep on. The violence is awful, in act and implication—Diop's performance evokes its own troubling complexities—which along with the raw sexual content insures Simon Killer both some harsh critical reception and polarized audiences. Its sheer risk and bruising commitment is, likewise, exhilarating.

V/H/S

All the nasty stuff is nothing remarkable in a horror flick, so it's a testament to the imagination of the team behind V/H/S that they found new buttons to push on the clunky deck that is the found-footage video genre. The premise: a group of drunk buddies are hired to break into an abandoned house and steal a specific tape. Without giving anything away, they end up sampling several, which gives rising young indie directors Adam Wingard, Glenn McQuaid, Radio Silence, David Bruckner, Joe Swanberg and Ti West occasion for a series of shorts built around inherent themes of voyeurism, sex, criminality, violence and the full vault of gnarly horror movie tropes. The formal qualities of degraded image quality, fuzzy scan lines, tracking errors and such, along with an array of defunct cameras used, creates a lot of aesthetic mischief. But certain episodes find a surprising subtext accumulating like dust on the tape head. David Bruckner (The Signal) grooves on the darker impulses of male bonding. In his segment Amateur Night, a "sharking" crew drags two drunk girls from a bar to a sleazy motel to make a sex tape, with harrowing consequences. The savage humor and bracing jump scares spring out of some explosive male hysteria, mirrored in the crazy zig-zagging camera and escalating mayhem. At one midnight show, a young couple both became sick during the sequence and required emergency medical attention (Simon Barrett, Wingard's screenwriting partner, used his volunteer EMT chops to stabilize the situation until help arrived).

They happily accepted tickets to the next show.

Posted by ahillis at 11:04 AM

January 26, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Naked Prey (1966)

by Nick Schager

The Naked Prey What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Joe Carnahan's Liam Neeson-vs.-wolf actioner The Grey, this week it's Cornel Wilde's seminal 1966 stranded-man saga The Naked Prey.

No tears, no pity, no mercy—Cornel Wilde imagines a world of desperate violence and frenzied anxiety in The Naked Prey, in the process not simply inventing the “man in the wilderness” cinematic subgenre but, more powerfully, delivering an enduringly caustic vision of life as hard, inflexible, and painful. Working from an apparent true story, director/star Wilde—the dashing leading man who, beginning with this film, became an auteur of idiosyncratic masculine fables—does away with all but the bare necessities for his tale about a safari guide known only as Man (Wilde) leading an arrogant, boozy fat cat (Patrick Mynhardt) through Africa. Encountering a local tribe, Man's employer refuses to pay the minor levy that the locals demand for passage through their land, a mistake which leads to the white interlopers' capture at the hands of a cheetah pelt-adorned chieftain, who in a prolonged sequence tortures his captors and their African employees. Wilde shoots this episode with stunningly stark, nonjudgmental brutality that immediately conveys his work's unsympathetic worldview—images of an African caked in mud and then roasted on a spit, of Mynhardt's European tied belly-down to the ground in front of a cobra slithering about a circle of fire, and of another man chased and stabbed to death by a mob of screaming, cheering women all express the filmmaker's blistering opinion of the wild as a kill-or-be-killed battleground.

The Naked Prey

The legacy of colonialism naturally informs both this intro as well as the subsequent saga in which Man, because of his kindness to the tribe, is given a sporting chance to live via his expulsion into the land, in the nude, to be hunted à la The Most Dangerous Game. Yet The Naked Prey is less a political polemic than a portrait of man's primal animalism, as bleak as a Stanley Kubrick opus on the subject and yet as blunt as a dime-store pulp novel. Wilde isn't after symbolic subtlety in either performance or aesthetics, his cast supplying turns of swift, striking gestures and reactions, and his camera moving with a similar alacrity that captures the inhospitable heat and hardness of the African landscape. The beauty of the environment (Wilde shot on location mostly in South Africa) is inextricably knotted up with its Jack London-ish cruelty, all sizzling sun in the blue sky, bushes full of brambles, and wildlife clashes to the death between snake and bird, lion and antelope, cheetah and baboon. The director's copious, deftly integrated footage of animals in the throes of do-or-die combat provide the context for Man's own transformation, begun when he kills his initial pursuer and assumes his loin cloth garb and spear and blade, and continuing throughout his flight across the land, which soon becomes a journey back to a more primitive state of survival in which his hunters already exist.

The Naked Prey

Man gradually learns to eat, to kill, and to endure through forced-by-circumstances instinct, and the bare-bones nature of The Naked Prey's plotting—defined by its breakneck progression and disinterest in nuanced twists or complexity—is amplified by the Oscar-nominated script's almost total lack of dialogue. Silence is its own form of reversion here, as the nameless Man morphs from a social creature into a primordial one driven only by need and fury, and Wilde's strapping frame and darting eyes forcefully get at the underlying base nature of civilized humanity. That said, there's no censure or condescension in the film, with Wilde's stance toward Man's increasing beastliness as detached as is his treatment of the tribesmen, who—far from being simply bloodthirsty savages—are defined by familiar, universal characteristics: vengefulness, pettiness, callousness, respect and honor. Africans, Europeans and wild predators are equated without prejudice, though not simplicity; rather, what Wilde strives for, and achieves, is a circle-of-life saga that embraces, in its stark snapshots of men impaled by spears and lions dragging their prey across the plains, the basic, brusque viciousness of self-preservation.

The Naked Prey

That Man doesn't just eventually triumph but, shortly before that, becomes a surrogate father for a child left orphaned by tribal warfare, does infuse the closing segments of The Naked Prey with a bit too much white-patriarchal arrogance, replete with respectful nods in defeat from his adversaries. Still, there's almost never a sense throughout this sinewy adventure tale that Wilde's intention is to place Man on a pedestal, especially in light of the callous strength and regality of the African hunting party's imposing leader (Ken Gampu). From the sight of Man leaping around, spear raised, as he thwarts his would-be killers' progress with fire, to his cat-and-mouse slaughter of his opponents, the film is all straightforward, no-delicacy propulsion. A tangle of fear, anger and borderline madness—epitomized by the way Wilde ruthlessly slashes another man's neck (the blade's contact with flesh cannily obscured by a tree trunk) or spits out the inedible food he finds along his hardscrabble path—it's a work of undiluted philosophical and emotional immediacy that embraces the kindness and cruelty of man equally, and with a gnarled, pedal-to-the-metal potency that its legion of genre offspring have yet to fully match.

Posted by ahillis at 1:24 PM

January 24, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Come Back, Africa

by Vadim Rizov

Come Back, Africa

Come Back, Africa's primary intent is explicitly polemical: to depict apartheid in action and show the world what it was condoning through inaction. After premiering at the 1959 Venice Film Festival, director Lionel Rogosin couldn't find a distributor and opened his own theater in New York* in 1960. By the time the film opened there, the Sharpeville massacre—in which South African police opened fire on a crowd and killed 69 Africans—had taken place, so his message came through amplified.

When evaluating revivals of socially important documents, a standard critical fallback is "flawed but powerful," a grudging assessment inadvertently implying worthy intentions trump bad filmmaking; such caveats don't help anyone and wouldn't get at what makes Come Back, Africa interesting. A few years ago, Film Forum's revival of Rogosin's 1954 On the Bowery unexpectedly drew sell-out crowds eager to soak up his non-judgmental, flavorful portrait of the long-gone bars and bums of Bowery St.; the film's easy flow—everyday homeless tragedy between binge-drinking—is comparatively relaxed alongside Africa's urgency. The opening shots show Johannesburg as a human-free monstrous metropolis: the script specifies "steel girders of new construction indirectly suggesting a crucifixion." The soundtrack is full of shrill whistles and pounding of doors, sounds of work and police persecution that are ambient constants for South Africa's black labor force.

Come Back, Africa

Before beginning the story proper, Rogosin takes in skyscrapers and crowds, with masses of men and women exiting trains in such a hurry it could be the stuff of slapstick. Throughout the narrative, Rogosin views passing laborers, and they look right back, curious but harried. New city arrival Zacharia (Zachariah Mgabi, a real laborer Rogosin found waiting for a bus) bounces from job to job, the most hypnotic of which shows real footage from 6,000 feet down in gold mines: you can't fake such palpable danger. To get even such a risky, unrewarding post, Zacharia has to assemble cubes into towers as part of a cognition test. "This image of black men mechanically assembling make-believe buildings recalls the symmetrical, towering skyscrapers in the opening sequences," writes academic Isabel Balseiros. "On the labor of these men rests the foundations of the modern city they are barred from inhabiting."

The architecture—with its sonic reminders of the people who built it but can't enter—makes an indelible impression; the narrative itself, however, feebly offers cyclical presentations of domestic arguing and white discrimination on multiple jobs. One scene towers over others: Zacharia—at this point multiple-times-fired and generally clueless—sits in on a group of South Africa's leading black intellectual dissidents drinking and arguing their way into the night. The drunkenness is real (the shoot broke up when Rogosin underestimated how much liquor was needed to keep it going), as are the sentiments, never more so than when the assorted company sneers at Alan Paton's book Cry, the Beloved Country as a weak liberal's inadvertently condescending expression of would-be solidarity for the African peoples.

Come Back, Africa

It's a long discussion—causes vs. symptoms, racial fault-lines, religion vs. secular idealism—but the takeaway line belongs to journalist Can Themba, speaking of a local gangster: "Sometimes he forgets the things that he wants and he remembers only the force." Rogosin intended to make a follow-up film for the U.S.—Come Back, America—and this scene keeps domestic audiences from getting too smug, a preview of militancy and violent resistance to come. The talking points are still relevant long after the dismantling of the apartheid state, not least being the intricate debate over underlying social causes for crime and disorder vs. individual responsibility.

To fool the authorities, Rogosin used various cover stories about what he was shooting: one involved capturing street musical performances, of which there are too many in the final film. Watch for the white Afrikaaners at their most progressive: standing and conspicuously "appreciating" the native music, the height of societal tolerance. Atmosphere trumps story, here as everywhere: Zacharia's brief stint in a car-repair garage is more notable for its view of the actual environment than his unconvincing pledge to join the African National Congress. It's almost certainly the sole fictional American take on South African apartheid between 1951's adaptation of Cry, the Beloved Country and the 1975 Sidney-Poitier-on-the-run action film The Wilby Conspiracy. Like any footage of a now-lost world, Africa is captivating even as it depicts a repellent society: the Sophiatown district was being torn down even while Rogosin was shooting, so the film has been a time capsule from the moment it was released, but the dissection of racial frictions haven't aged as much as we'd hope.

* A new 35mm print of Come Back, Africa screens at NYC's Film Forum starting January 27. For more info, click here.

Posted by ahillis at 1:50 PM

January 22, 2012

INTERVIEW: Gerardo Naranjo

by Steve Dollar

MISS BALA director and co-writer Gerardo Naranjo

With his bold visual style and intimate, if volatile, narratives, Gerardo Naranjo has been one of the most exciting independent directors to emerge from Mexico in the decade after filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and Alfonso Cuarón put the nation's cinema back on the international radar. While Naranjo, 40, always seemed keenly appreciative of the Godardian dictum, "All you need for a film is a gun and a girl," the phrase has never been more appropriate than for his new movie, Miss Bala. The narcotics thriller jacks up the stakes with pyrotechnics and gun battles in the real-life story of a would-be beauty queen (the sensational Stephanie Sigman) who becomes the pawn of a drug gang. The director shared his thoughts about this dramatic leap in a chat during the 2011 New York Film Festival, where Miss Bala had its American premiere.

Miss Bala

After making two relatively small films—Drama/Mex and I'm Gonna Explode—you really shifted gears here.

I felt I needed a change. I guess you can see, this thing is completely different.

You traded your toys in for a machine gun.

That's a good metaphor. I stopped playing little games, and I assumed the position that I could speak in a serious tone, a tone in which I had never spoken before.

Did that come out of needing to challenge yourself as a filmmaker, or with a story you needed to tell?

It began with some anger, to see the cultural products that we have: the media, the soap operas talking about the crime wave, the movies talking about violence. People were not talking about it with some other sensibility. The movies were comical and farcical, and they were huge hits. It's a lot of material depicting this but none wanting to make a note on the miserableness of it. It's always embellished. These guys have gold chains and parties all the time with women and the drugs and loud music. From what I knew that wasn't true.

What I see in the streets was something much more gray, much more pathetic, sad and full of ignorance. There is a good space to make something, maybe a movie that will reflect on that. We were coming [up] with different story lines. We discovered that it's a good idea that these guys are not having such a party. It's a job where you can walk up the ladder fast maybe but you can die very soon, full of paranoia, full of betrayal. They are killing each other like crazy. It's always a take on the funny side. I felt there was a possibility to make a movie that would speak with another tone.

Miss Bala

Almost all this material spoke to the process of becoming a criminal. "I am very poor. My son has leukemia. I don't have money for medicine so I become a drug person. I start killing people because that's how I'm going to cure my son." No one was making a description of the feeling a victim has when crime comes towards your life and starts infecting you and everything around you. I knew I wanted to make a movie without drugs in it, without torture, without a graphic description of violence, although I wanted violence to be all over the movie but in a feeling. I didn't have a story.

But then the headlines came to your rescue.

One day, the news of the beauty queen appeared. She's in a truck with heavy armory, dollars, a lot of drugs, and I grew fascinated with the news. I think its perfect for what I have to say. What this story can give us is a perspective where we don't have to get into the psyche of the criminals. We are just with the girl. We see how they speak, how they walk, how they look but we never go into the mind of the criminals.

When we had the perspective, we just had to set up a number of rules, limits of things we wouldn't do. The life of the movie comes out of contradiction. We were working with some thriller rules, some suspense rules and some action film rules. So we say OK, let's start destroying those rules. What if we destroy the rule of the thriller by not knowing what the bad guy does? We will commit to the ignorance of the girl. What if we don't see, as in a Schwarzenegger film, the guys shooting? But we turn around the camera so we don't see the ejaculatory process of the bullets going out, and we see the pathetic-ism of something being destroyed. We don't want the True Romance final showdown with feathers of birds flying in the air.

Here, everything has gravity. Everything has to be inglorious. It was a bit of an experiment to make these action sequences where you watch what you usually don't watch in a movie. We try not to put ourselves in the good hands of the cut. We're going to use long-form shots. We're not going to show everything. Most of the tension of the movie will come from people trying to see more and they can't.

Miss Bala

That's true. There's a kind of strange inertia at work, since Stephanie is often tied up, or crouched in a corner or stuffed in a dark room. It feels inexorable and agonizing.

There are two tensions that help the movie. The first one is the frustration at the girl's passivity. The audience wants her to do something but for me it's a perfect metaphor for a country that's not doing anything. Also it's a good discussion: what do you do as a normal citizen? Why doesn't she get the gun and kill the guy? Well, Bruce Willis would do that, but I don't think a normal person will run away that easy. These guys know too much. They have your number. They know where you live. We knew people would be anxious. We use it to bring you to the end of the film, trying to figure out what the hell is going on inside her.

Also, dramatically, I think we were very strong in not having her emotions come across. She's a good sufferer, another saint or Joan of Arc who takes all the pain in a very stoic way. She has a certain position against pain. She keeps a dignity. Another tension is the camera work. You don't see most of the things you want to see. The soundtrack is giving you a lot of information you wouldn't find out.

You mentioned how you found Stephanie, but she had auditioned for a commercial first.

When I met her, she hadn't done anything. She did a bad TV show, which I was very angry about. When I met her, we began the process of making the script. I told her a lot of lies. I told her a lot of bad things would happen to her. She seemed courageous. I said, not everything I told you was true but it's going to be hard. We shot the whole movie on video, shot by shot, with the actress and a lot of extras to help us. There were no guns, just brooms, chairs, in a big room. That was important for her to know the internal rhythm of the film. I wanted her to know her choreography. I do improvisations, but I don't want them to be kidding around or the movie will be eight hours. Then I cast the bad guy and put them together, and she really didn't like this guy. She was disgusted by him. She's from a better social status in Mexico than him. I said this is great. He provoked in her these things in reality.

Miss Bala

What was it like to experience the pleasure, in the blockbuster parlance, of blowing things up real good?

I'm a big lover of action films. The French Connection is a movie I will always love. I knew the theory of the concept behind it but I never had done it. I felt incredible doing the scenes. I never expected it to be such a rude, bleak experience. It's so loud your brain stops thinking. I never took that in account. There was a lot of safety for the crew. There were a lot of injured people because of the explosions because it gets into your skin, and we didn't know that. It was incredible. We just had one shot to do. That was most of the budget of the film in the action sequence. We didn't have much budget so each action scene was done just once.

What happened to the real Miss Baja?

She's working, trying to be a model and forget what happened. We met with her and she told us a bunch of lies, or she told us a very fantastic story that we were not very interested in. For a moment we thought about inviting her to become the actress, but I don't think it would have worked out. She was left out in the middle of the night and brought out in the back door of the office of the police headquarters. She was released in the most un-normal way, that's what we are saying in ending movie like that. There is a minimal trace of the possibility of the law being something that works in Mexico. Even if they want to destroy her life, they can't even jail her. They have used her in the way they want.

Miss Bala

People do seem very disturbed by her passivity. Is she a normal person who would act this way or is she standing in as a kind of symbolic persona?

What if she's been crying like Frodo in Lord of the Rings all the time? What is she us suffering like that, does that make it OK? I truly believe that people when they are in front of a very violent event,they freeze. They don't take action. I had a good friend who was kidnapped in a taxi. They took her credit cards, and went to the ATMs to take money out, a big tour all around the city. Every time they go to the ATM, they would leave her alone in the car. She didn't do anything and saw these guys are not killing me. But if I go and try to get out and they get me, it's the end.

Are you worried you may become a focus of criminal attention?

We want to think we didn't. That's why we made everything fictitious. Obviously, the guy has a genital problem, so that was my main worry. That some criminal would say, "We are not impotent, we are macho machines." Besides that, so far, the movie doesn't talk about crime is bad or governments are bad. In my mind, I feel this is the crowning of some cultural illegality that I was raised with: they tell you if you do a trick, you get ahead of everybody. We as a social group don't see the benefit of following the rules. That's the basis of the problems of this society. We need very soon a spiritual revolution. We failed to fix this country. It's up to a new generation. What we have to do first is get to know ourselves.

[Listen to our 2009 podcast with Gerardo Naranjo here.]

Posted by ahillis at 7:00 AM

January 20, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman (1971)

by Nick Schager

The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of the latest beast-vs.-bloodsucker saga Underworld: Awakening, this week it's León Klimovsky's Spanish monster-mash-up The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman.

Largely unknown stateside except in die-hard horror circles, Paul Naschy was for decades the undisputed maestro of Spanish horror cinema, and few of his many monstrous efforts were ever quite as memorable—or as financially successful—as The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman, aka Werewolf Shadow, one of the leading man's dozen films in which he assumed the role of lycanthrope Waldemar Daninsky. A dashing stud tormented by his beastly curse, Daninsky finds himself forced to face off against an evil bloodsucker in León Klimovsky's rollicking B-movie, which—after an intro in which two doctors debate the possibility of Daninsky being a werewolf, while his silver bullet-riddled corpse lies on a stone slab—places its initial focus on fetching blonde Elvira (Gaby Fuchs). With friend Genevieve (Bárbara Capell) by her side, Elvira travels to the French countryside in search of the tomb of Countess Wandesa (Patty Shepard), a vampiric witch killed during the Inquisition about whom Elvira plans to write an article. That journalistic motivation, however, is as quickly disregarded as is any trace of logic or coherence, beginning with her friend Marcel (Andrés Resino) randomly remarking about a forthcoming trip to Istanbul, "I've seen so many James Bond pictures, by now I know all the tricks."

The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman

That out-of-left-field statement is eventually explained by the fact that Marcel is a police officer—a bit of sloppiness that's characteristic of these unintentionally humorous proceedings. Things get even goofier once Elvira meets Daninsky amidst some ruins and, choosing to stay in his nearby home, is semi-molested by his crazy sister Elizabeth (Yelena Samarina), who greets Elvira by strangling her, then beginning to undress and caress her chest, and then smiling like a lunatic. "Try to forget her intrusion," suggests Daninsky about this incident, which he chalks up to his sis being "mentally disturbed" and Elvira shrugs off as no big deal. After another bit of Elizabeth-strangling nonsense, Elvira, Genevieve and Daninsky find Wandesa's tomb, and—knowing that the legend says the vampire can only be resurrected by removing the silver cross jabbed in her chest, and then feeding her blood—proceed to do those very two things. This idiocy is almost as hilarious as a subsequent skirmish in which Elvira is attacked by a robed skeleton-faced fiend, Daninsky stabs the marauder to death, and he then nonchalantly opines to a relaxed Elvira, "We better get back"—the last word on this seemingly traumatic but immediately ignored assault.

The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman

"Everything is so strange here, so absurd," says Elvira, summing up any moviegoer's reaction to this madness, which continues to indulge in lesbian titillation via Wandesa giving Genevieve a vaginal gash on her arm and then sucking blood from it, and later still holding hands and dancing in a circle with her new vampire mate. Director Klimovsky's visual sense veers between pedestrian and inspired, with ungainly close-ups and awkward master shots operating side-by-side with a host of memorable images, from Wandesa running in silhouette against a mountain ridge (climaxing with her leaping downward into darkness) to his signature device of shooting his cackling villains in dreamy slo-mo. Lurid colors and moderate gore are also part of the package, as is a supremely cheesy werewolf transformation scene in which Naschy flails about a room, his countenance sprouting hair in a manner that makes Teen Wolf's furry-faced make-up look superb by comparison. More puzzling, though, is that, even after years of suffering with his full moon-instigated affliction, Daninsky doesn't take precautions regarding his mutation—rather, he just allows himself to undergo his physical conversion while not locked in a cell or in one of the many sets of shackles that line the countryside, thereby leading him to thoroughly trash his home when taking wolfy form.

The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman

Between Klimovsky's relentless zooms into and out of close-up, terrible ADR work, and Genevieve seducing Elvira with kisses on the top of her chest, The Werewolf vs. the Vampire Woman manages to repeatedly amplify its foolishness, culminating with Daninsky's mate Pierre (José Marco) delivering one of the most stone-cold bonkers monologues in cinema history: in a car driving Elvira, he bluntly admits "I get angry when people think I'm crazy," then confesses to being a murder suspect, coos about Elvira's beautiful long, red hair, blurts out "You know, I think I could like you" and then, when she doesn't respond, ends things with an offhand "Eh." That scruffy, middle-aged Pierre has a young local girlfriend just furthers the film's picking-stuff-out-of-a-hat illogicality. And though Klimovsky evocatively envisions Satan himself as a spectral shadow crawling along a tomb's wall, his finale is as head-scratching as most everything that preceded it, with the titular battle between Daninsky and Wandesa ultimately amounting to a darkly lit scuffle that ends with laughable abruptness, and is followed by a love-conquers-all closing note that resounds with if-you-say-so silliness.

Posted by ahillis at 1:37 PM

January 17, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: The Ides of March

by Vadim Rizov

The Ides of March

Beau Willimon's play Farragut North was completed in 2004, drawing from anecdotal dirt overheard working for the abortive campaign of brief Democratic great white hope Howard Dean. No theater bit until 2008, when a momentarily less apathetic liberal electorate ate it up. In co-writer and director George Clooney's version—now portentously titled The Ides of March—candidate Mike Morris (Clooney) has his face displayed on a Obama-modeled Shepherd Fairey backdrop, but the film isn't really plugged into the current moment so much as a recurring character in Democratic politics; Morris' strength is his uncompromising, articulate liberalism, his weakness a compromised personal life.

The Ides of March

The combination of impeccable populist righteousness and personal stupidity is reminiscent less of Dean or Obama than Bill Clinton (or more recently, John Edwards). Far before Monica Lewinsky, Clinton's potential to betray liberal idealists' hopes through unmanageable indiscretions was subject for fictional fodder. For Ides, the main precedent is Joe Klein's then-anonymous novel Primary Colors and the subsequent, overwrought 1998 Mike Nichols-Elaine May adaptation, with John Travolta's livewire Bubba copy alternately transparently idealistic sincere and (off-screen) undermining his potential.

Nichols' focus was split nearly equally between candidate and staff, but the balance tips heavily to the latter in Ides. Until staffer Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) accidentally discovers his picture-/strategy- perfect candidate has career-ending peccadillos, Morris seems like someone perfect for both private and professional life. New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) warns Stephen such a candidate doesn't exist: "He'll disappoint you," she cautions. "They always do." This is heavy foreshadowing, but Stephen's more surprised to learn that his own mirroring idealism—a desire to do whatever ethically possible to advance a perfect candidate—is as degradable as his hero's; Ides has been written off as a banal "power corrupts" sermon. Despite a seriously misguided third act—one bizarre twist after another, with the frequency of a Mamet play, delaying the moment when the moral lesson is finally delivered—Ides can be appreciated for its quiet first-hour dive into backroom negotiations and minute-by-minute damage control.

On the set of THE IDES OF MARCH

Working per usual with Steven Soderbergh's ace editor Stephen Mirrione, Clooney calmly pins down messy, bleary-eyed offices in static, unexcitable medium shots, reducing background sound to a faint murmur or nothing at all; Meyers and staff are insulated from whatever city they're actually in, even as within the offices factional loyalties add to the chaos. The showiest, purely visual manifestation of this is in a single shot of three offices, minutely adjusting the focus between three officials separated by glass but unable to hear what anyone else might be saying about them. Meyers is a whiz-kid strategist who does damage control first and only considers the ethical implications later, sealed in a political bubble that the movie itself mimics. (The pockets of quiet also help neutralize the effect of the rapid-fire, vaguely Sorkin-esque dialogue, which without interruptions can turn cloyingly clever.)

As in Primary Colors, a staff's gradual, deepening disappointment with its candidate mirrors the public's, and in both the fall from true believer to hardened pragmatist is overblown, leading to third acts with disproportionately tragic casualties (resembling nothing so much as the Bill Clinton-killed-Vince Foster conspiracy theories). Clooney's politician is background noise, though he certainly gives himself moments designed to rally left-wing audiences, unflinchingly defending social welfare programs and nailing the would-you-support-the-death-penalty-for-your-wife's-killer question that so flummoxed anti-charismatic 1988 Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis. At a town hall meeting, he holds court expertly on what looks like a stage set—such events generally being, after all, staged dramas presumably demonstrating Democracy In Action. But Ides never lets viewers get swept up in the candidate's pull: it keeps the voters out of the picture, calmly dramatizing hired-hand cynicism the public normally only gets to read about after the election in book-length, campaign trail post-mortems.

Posted by ahillis at 1:27 PM

January 14, 2012

INTERVIEW: Joe Berlinger

by Steve Dollar

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Rarely has a documentary made such an impact on its subject as the series of Paradise Lost films, tracking the long and strange saga of the West Memphis Three. Over the last two decades, filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky have become part of the case, which began in 1993 with the shocking and mystifying murders of three eight-year-old Cub Scouts in West Memphis, Arkansas. Amid allegations of devil worship and a highly dubious confession leaked to the press, three high school boys—Damien Echols, Jessie Misskelley Jr. and Jason Baldwin—were convicted, despite no physical evidence that linked them to the crime. On Aug. 19 last year, Echols—who had been on death row—and the other two men, now in their mid-30s, were freed after entering so-called Alford pleas, a mixed bag that allowed them to profess their innocence while pleading guilty. The deal came four months before a hearing to consider new DNA findings that were expected to force a new trial.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, which is airing now on HBO, details the astoundingly tangled legal, political and human drama behind the 18 year saga of the WM3, in which the filmmakers found themselves intricately involved. Berlinger, who also has won acclaim for projects like the Metallica meltdown doc Some Kind of Monster and taken on the American oil industry in Crude, talked about the documentaries' role in the case and how it changed both the filmmakers and the community that was its focus.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Over the years, the Paradise Lost series has played a huge role in, ultimately, getting the WM3 free. How do you feel about taking the role of an advocacy documentarian?

Paradise 1 started off purely as a cinematic experience. As the years have unfolded, I've come to embrace the advocacy role of filmmaking. At the beginning of my career, I would have said 'Hey, I'm a storyteller first and a journalist second.' Now I'm in for both. Films can affect great social change. The journey of this series, the motivation, has been much more advocacy than storytelling. We started this film in 2004, but it doesn't mean we were working on this film everyday. Sometimes six months would go by with nothing happening. The question became, 'When do we end the film? When do we show it?' It was literally about when would it be the most helpful. We decided with HBO, the natural time to end this film was the one positive step in 18 years.

For the first time ever, after many, many, many appeals were denied, and the Arkansas Supreme Court affirmed the lower court's decision in denying those appeals, and that's been the pattern, Echols in 2007 argued that because there was DNA evidence that excluded him, it triggered this statute that says that if the DNA excludes the criminal defendants, it opens the door to an evidentiary hearing, to present not just the DNA evidence but any new evidence that's occurred over the past 17 years. The lower court felt that the DNA evidence wasn't even strong enough and that only evidence of guilt should be presented to the court, which is absurd.

So the Arkansas Supreme Court agreed with Echols. That resulted in the evidentiary hearing being granted for December of 2011. It was somewhat of an ending, in terms of cinematically having something to end the film on. More importantly, it gave us a reason for putting the film out there, which was to broadcast it in November to shine a light—to make sure the world was aware of what was going down. As it turns out, we all know what happened. Even the advocacy role still hasn't gone away because we want the film to be utilized to help fully exonerate these guys. The only way to do that is a pardon by the governor.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Did you have any inkling that they were about to be released?

No. My understanding is this whole thing got negotiated in less than two weeks. The idea was presented. The state grabbed it. The details were worked out. It's not like we're that inside, and from a legal standpoint they can't tell us what's going on. On August 15th or 16th, we were in a mix, completing the film for [the] Toronto [Film Festival] that had been in production since 2004. We get the call we better get down there on Friday because something big was happening. It was intimated to us that it was as big as can be. We assumed they were getting out. We didn't know why, we didn't know how, we didn't know it would be so convoluted and complicated and bittersweet as it was.

You wonder how in two weeks the state was able to negotiate the release of these guys and the answer is: all of a sudden, the pressure of the evidentiary hearing, which was going to prove embarrassing, because it had everything that was in the film, and the broadcast of the film itself, I think was something they were all deeply concerned about. It makes me scratch my head that DNA procedures could take that long. You would think that we have a justice system based on fairness and a desire to hunt down the truth. In fact, you know, there's been 18 years of foot-dragging but when it became in the state's interest... Think about that: convicted child killers, capital murderers, negotiated out of prison in two weeks, but the DNA portion of this took almost a decade to unfold. There's just something wrong with that.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Is there a trepidation about becoming part of the story, breaking the fourth wall?

Breaking that fourth wall is something we wrestle with all the time. While I love the work of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock, I'm not comfortable with making myself a character. We don't start off being part of the narrative, but when you naturally become part of the narrative then you can't avoid being part of the story. It's a tough line breaking that fourth wall. The Paradise Lost series, particularly 3, could be superficially written off as an exercise in pomposity because we are very self-referential in terms of the impact of the films. But that's missing the point, and the point is why does it take three well-funded HBO documentaries, a two-decade commitment to the story and well-heeled celebrity financial contributions to give these guys the kind of defense that they should have gotten when the trials first happened. Basically, it's about money and justice, which is an age-old theme in this country and becoming a bigger and bigger problem.

While establishing the innocence of the WM3, the stepfather (John Mark Byers) of one victim is implicated. And here, in the third film, you have him trying to implicate another stepfather. Was there concern about demonizing individuals in the same way that the West Arkansas media and community had demonized the WM3?

Very concerned, but also, again, and maybe I'm just kidding myself, I believe the suspicion directed toward Byers in the first and more in the second film, is not a concoction of the filmmakers. It is the filmmakers following a story. We're filming strategy meetings and other people's suspicions towards Byers in the first film. In the second film, the WM3.org people hired a forensic investigator to pursue this human bite mark evidence, which has been since discarded as a theory. But at the time, that was the prevailing theory and a lot of suspicion was aimed at Byers. I think we had a responsibility to Byers in the third film to show his change of heart and to show that a lot of that suspicion might have been misdirected. Similarly, we didn't say to Byers, stand up on a soapbox and point a finger at another father. Cinematically it's fascinating, and reportorially we're covering a story.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

One of the unexpectedly amusing aspects of the documentary is the almost time-lapse display of local TV news reporter hairstyles and mannerisms, which emphasize the passing of decades. How was this reflective of other changes?

The local media became a lot more professional in how they cover the news. They grew up with this case, and became more open to digging up answers as opposed to just kneejerk reporting without any context. There's definitely a change of attitude and that was accelerated. Over the years, the children who grew up with this case, as they became of thinking age [recognized] the absurdity of the Satanic hysteria that gripped not just that region but the country in the late '80s and early '90s. The FBI in 1993 or so demonstrated that none of the unexplained child abductions or homicides that had been previously ascribed to Satanic cults could be demonstrated to be that. All that stuff, with the passage of time, just felt silly.

The story really takes a turn when members of community that had once demonized the West Memphis 3 begin to champion their cause.

Attitudes have changed tremendously, to the point where—one of the great ironies in this case—the activist generation really made the WM3 issue an issue for John Fogleman. He was the prosecuting attorney, who shortly after the case in 1994 became a judge. He had put up a "tough on crime" sign right near the murder site, really benefited from the notoriety of the case, and became a judge. In 2010, he ran for the Arkansas Supreme Court and lost. Part of the reason he lost, we believe, is there were activists picketing his campaign, and they made the WM3 an issue. That did not go unnoticed by the power structure in the state.

Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory

Despite that, do you still get turned a cold shoulder?

There are some people, including one set of parents, that believes this is all a hoax by liberal, left-wing media and Hollywood. I love when I'm lumped in with Hollywood. I live an hour north of Manhattan. When we went down for the August 19th hearing, I was very impressed with how many people came up and said thanks for sticking with us, it's shameful what happened in our state. When we went down for the second film, doors were slammed in our faces and people were upset with us.

The attitude was that we came down and mis-portrayed the community and tried to portray everyone as a bunch of rednecks, which I don't believe we did. Making that second film four or five years after the first film came out was a very difficult task. That's one reason I think that it's the weakest of the three. We had lots of doors shut in our faces, limited access, and people were definitely not happy with us. As the years have unfolded, there was a growing warmth, reception and appreciation.

Now that the WM3 are free, do you think the mystery can be solved?

It would be great if it was possible. We've been trying for 18 years to figure this crime out. Some of the best forensic pathologists have done the hard work to figure out who didn't do it. Nobody has really been able to crack the nut of who did. This may be one of those crimes that never gets solved. For 18 years, it's been an enigma wrapped in an enigma.

Posted by ahillis at 2:35 PM

January 12, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Who Can Kill a Child? (1976)

by Nick Schager

Who Can Kill a Child? What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of Lynne Ramsay's creepy-kid drama We Need to Talk About Kevin, this week it's Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's cult classic Who Can Kill a Child?

Violence is a dangerous inheritance in Who Can Kill a Child?, Narciso Ibáñez Serrador's haunting 1976 horror story about childhood malice and adults' compromised response to it. Based on Juan José Plans' novel, and spiritually emulated a year later by Stephen King's Children of the Corn, Serrador's film opens with a grim newsreel-montage credit sequence of atrocities from WWII, the India-Pakistan and Nigerian civil wars, and Korea and Vietnam, with a narrator and onscreen text taking great pains to lay out the hundreds of thousands of kid casualties in each conflict. That downbeat intro provides underlined thematic context for the ensuing story, which turns to happily married English couple Tom (Lewis Flander) and pregnant Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), who, on vacation in Spain without their two children, decide to visit the remote island of Almanzora where Tom had once travelled 12 years earlier. Tom and Evelyn are outsiders—Evelyn cornily keeps asking Tom to define Spanish words like "piñata" and "gracias"—but, more to the point, they're adults, and their early discussion of a La Dolce Vita character's belief in killing children to spare them from their parents' mistakes not so subtly foreshadows the ethical dilemma they'll soon face.

Who Can Kill a Child?

After renting a boat—and following a hilarious aerial shot-to-transitional fade that abruptly skips the plot ahead four hours—Tom and Evelyn arrive at Almanzora, where they're greeted at the dock by children whose silence is more than a bit strange. Stranger still is that the nearby town seems deserted, and recently. Though Tom and Evelyn don't immediately link this discovery with the earlier news of bodies recently washed ashore on the mainland, Serrador's patience during these early passages is unnerving, allowing tension to build at a riveting slow-boil. The director's expert pacing is matched by his keen compositional eye, as evidenced by an ankle-level pan across a market floor that follows Tom's feet on the other side of an aisle while passing by a foreground corpse that goes unseen by the tourist. That visual panache continues throughout Who Can Kill a Child?, which utilizes low, upturned camera angles to unsettling effect (especially a later shot of a woman standing in front of a mountainside teeming with encroaching villains), as well as finds a consistently suspenseful balance between hectic chase sequences and moments of quiet dread. Those latter passages are the film's lifeblood, melding sparkling sunshine and interior daytime shadows to create an eerie sense of malevolence lurking on the edges of cheerful, seemingly innocent beauty.

Who Can Kill a Child?

An encounter with a young girl who touches Evelyn's baby (an act that directly factors into the finale) merely increases the couple's confusion, but the true reality of their circumstances isn't long in coming, as shortly thereafter Tom and Evelyn witness a smiling blonde girl beat an old man to death with his own cane, a murder whose terror is amplified by Serrador's decision to keep all physical contact off-screen (the man hidden behind a corner, and only the girl visible as she repeatedly strikes him). Stunned, Tom takes the man's body to a barn and, once outside to have a smoke to ease his nerves, hears the youthful laughter and chatter that peppers the film's soundtrack and embodies its horror. Peeking back inside, he witnesses a group of kids playing piñata with the man's corpse, wielding scythes to strike his body in a scene of escalating close-ups of laughing faces, swaying bodies, and blood. The madness of the situation confirmed, Tom and Evelyn proceed to frantically make their way from one point of the island to another in hopes of escaping, all while dealing with a mysterious phone caller, a surviving adult with too much trust in his daughter, and a paradise locale overrun by kids whose robotic evil seems the result of some sort of infectious group psychosis.

Who Can Kill a Child?

Serrador offers no definitive explanation for why the island's kids have gone loco, though as his prologue suggests, their behavior appears to be a sudden, communal response to cultural and political brutality perpetrated by the old against the young. Regardless of such motivations, however, Who Can Kill a Child? eventually turns on its titular question, with the issue of what constitutes an appropriate response to these mini-psychos coming to a head in a jail cell where a little boy wielding a pistol forces Tom to confront his own stomach for violence. Serrador's staging of this sequence is amazingly assured, culminating in two climaxes—first with a shot of blood dripping down a white wall, and then of Evelyn's teary-eyed face as she collapses to the floor, the victim of a shrewdly scripted, decidedly creepy narrative twist. From there, it's just a race to the desperate, amoral bottom, as Tom is forced into skull-smashing straits and, with the arrival of coast guardsmen, is ultimately doomed by cultural preconceptions about the innocent nature of children. The message is clear: beatific smiles and playful demeanors to the contrary, kids are merely nascent adults, and thus carry inside the capacity for the same brutal, vengeful heinousness as their elders. Or, rather: spare the rod or suffer the consequences.

Posted by ahillis at 4:17 PM

January 10, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Night and Day

by Vadim Rizov

Night and Day

Hong Sang-soo's films riff off of and build upon each other, which makes it unfortunate that 2008's Night and Day is one of only four Hong films to see an American DVD release. A key shift took place in 2005's A Tale of Cinema, which introduced voiceover and zoom lenses to his work, elements which he's wielded with increasing aggression since. Before 2005, it's safe to generalize that his films dealt in semi-tragic depictions of men callously taking sexual advantage of women without much agency or say in the matter. 2006's Woman on the Beach ends with said female pushing her stalled car over the sand (a physical, non-precious metaphor for Doing It Herself), and subsequent films have been bolder at both reusing the same basic plot ingredients—a confused film director, a love triangle/quadrangle, no real resolution, overlapping cast members—and giving women the final say. The tone's veered closer to overt comedy in recent years, and Night and Day's meandering 146 minutes are shaggy-dog humor, defusing potentially painful situations and playing them for counter-intuitively genial laughs.

Night and Day

Having fled South Korea to avoid prosecution for smoking marijuana, painter Kim Sung-nam (Kim Yeong-ho) arrives in Paris. Time is marked with the kind of detailed titled cards normally reserved for military advances and Tony Scott movies: on August 7, Kim lands at the airport and gets told by a sinister stranger (for no apparent reason!) to be careful. August 9, he ventures into the backyard to smoke and vows in voiceover to make a fresh start. The next day Kim goes out through the front door this time, notes the air is exceptionally clear and non-humid for a city, then goes right back inside. August 11, he finally ventures outside his boarding house's confines (to get more cigarettes), finally plunging himself back into the usual Hong vortex of sexual confusion and dishonestly articulated impulses.

Idle hands are famously the devil's workshop: with his extremities unoccupied with art, Kim tries arm-wrestling, elaborate hand-shakes (doing a half-assed bro-pound with his boarding house's proprietor), awkwardly fondling the three women he gets involved with, and—most ill-advisedly—quoting the Bible at ex-girlfriend Min-sun (Kim Yu-Jin). "If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off" (Matthew 5:30), he intones—this after bringing her to a hotel room, 10 years after the end of their relationship, a few years after his marriage, and mere days after learning she had six abortions without telling him while they were a couple.

Night and Day

Kim's voiceover is sincerely stupid—a major shift after the actions of men in films like 2004's Woman is the Future of Man, whose dueling frenemies both hook up with the same young lady in 24 hours; she hopes one is sincere, but they're both borderline evil in their insensitivity. Kim's actions are unintentionally negative rather than cynical: "We dated ten years ago but she seems to be angry with me," he notes of Min-sun, his confusion bizarrely unempathetic considering he couldn't even recognize her on the street. Nonetheless, he's aware that there's something wrong with his behavior, at one point breaking down into tears: "I've looked down on people," he weeps, before vowing to see only the good in people. It doesn't last.

Kim Yeong-ho is built like a linebacker; this is his first appearance in a Hong film, but he returned in 2010's Hahaha as Admiral Yi, a 16th-century Korean hero of naval warfare. This is the kind of intricate casting and character-tweaking Hong's restaging of similar situations allow for, and why it's a shame his work isn't more easily accessible: in Night and Day, Kim's character declares (for no explained reason) in a conversation with a fellow painter that van Gogh was a "good person," which leads to a debate over whether or not purposeful simplifications and distortions of historical people are merely dumb or can actually serve a useful purpose in the present. In Hahaha, a similar debate about whether or not Admiral Yi's heroism has been overstated leads to a tour guide's tearful declaration that no contemporary man could possibly live as well and kindly as Yi. Kim subsequently shows in dream form as the Admiral himself, to berate Hahaha's typically flawed male protagonist and urge him to see only the good in others—an impossible project his own character attempted in Night and Day.

Night and Day

There used to be a grim, blackly comic vibe to Hong's work, but this is one of his most amiable films, the story of a bumbler rather than of a straight-up heartless monster. One of the running gags is how—despite being set in Paris—hardly any French people are seen; instead, Korean students and émigrés cluster together in closed social circles, recreating their usual pathologies without any regard for their setting. There are women on the beach here too: no matter where Hong's characters are, they're always drawn to the same conditions. The title refers to Paris' long summer nights: we have trouble telling night from day, the boardhouse proprietor tells Kim. It's a simple analogy for the puzzlement Kim has for telling dream sequence from reality and his true impulses from his would-be moral moments, but he's not treated unkindly: Night and Day is lucid about his genuine confusion, a sharp story about a mixed-up man.

Posted by ahillis at 12:10 PM

January 7, 2012

Occupy This!

by Steve Dollar

99% (The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film)

One thing documentary filmmakers have to be good at is knowing to jump when a story's hot. Occupy Wall Street bubbled under the radar for a while before it became a media lighting rod. On Oct. 1 last year, Audrey Ewell was hanging out at home in Brooklyn, working on her current film project, with the laptop streaming a live video of the march onto the Brooklyn Bridge that became the first flashpoint in the movement. "Arrests were happening and people were chanting and a giant scene was going on," she recalls, "and the guy who was filming it said his batteries were running out and all of a sudden the screen cut out. At this point I was completely addicted. I switched on the news and there was nothing happening. A black out."

Ewell's last film, the 2008 documentary Until the Light Takes Us [listen to our podcast], delved into the Norwegian black metal scene. The Occupy movement was a vastly different cultural eruption, and the filmmaker was far from alone in her compulsion to get as much of committed to video as she could. Within a few days, Ewell had organized a network of shooters across the country that now includes more than 75 participants, all capturing footage at various Occupy Wall Street actions around the country. Tonight, Ewell and co-producer Aaron Aites and Williams Cole will host a sneak preview of submitted footage via the online exhibitor Constellation with the modest $3.99 viewing fee going towards the group's already successful Kickstarter campaign.

99% (The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film)

Ewell characterizes 99% (The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film) as an "amazing über film" whose structure reflects the model of the movement it documents. It's also only the most ambitious of any number of collective and individual efforts to use expanded media resources to occupy cinema. As Michael Galinsky, whose activist-driven documentary The Battle for Brooklyn is shortlisted for an Academy Award nomination, puts it, stating what's immediately obvious, the crowded Zuccotti Park encampment attracted "more cameras than people." Along with Galinsky and partner Suki Hawley's Rumur outfit, it's also drawn groups like the Meerkat Media collective, The Brooklyn Filmmakers Collective and New Left Media, and individual filmmakers such as Jem Cohen, Jonathan Demme and Ken Jacobs, the sagacious avant-garde luminary who has been working on an OWS document shot in 3-D!

Whether the work tilts toward pure advocacy or achieves a more nuanced perspective isn't only a contemporary aesthetic or ethical choice. It's a question that defines the core of the form. "There's often a gap in regards to political movements in terms of the types of documentation that exist," said Cohen, a distinctive filmmaker with a commitment to urban street photography whose OWS newsreels ran as a series before selected features at the IFC Center last fall. "There's always a predictable pull where you have a situation that needs some immediate advocacy and what you usually get is a kind of agitprop. You'll also have some very long-term projects that may be more in depth. But they also are driven by a sense of advocacy or the social issue documentary tradition, in which there is usually a notion that it's meant to be a tool to change people's minds or a celebration among people who are already in agreement. What I feel is often lacking is a more observational approach, which has to do with another documentary tradition. It's not about claiming objectivity but recognizing that all events are to some degree ambiguous, and that there are positives and negatives. It's more about bringing something to people who are not able to be there and letting them develop their own feelings about it."

99% (The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film)

Cohen dedicated each of his reels to poetic documentarians like Dziga Vertov, Joris Ivens and Chris Marker—at 90, a strong supporter of Occupy movements around the world—whose films were "progressive and very much politically engaged but non-propagandistic." But he emphasizes that it's just his approach. Let a million pixels bloom. "I think the whole point of OWS is encouraging people to reinvent democracy from different angles and from their own terms," he says. "On one hand, it's a very communal project and on the other hand, it's about individuals who are not necessarily in agreement finding ways to see things anew."

Demme, who has filmed extensively in New Orleans charting the city's recovery after the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, began visiting Zuccotti Park in October, and has compiled a series of videos that he posts to his Clinica Estetico page on Vimeo. The filmmaker remains best known for The Silence of the Lambs, but also has made a series of documentaries focused variously on rock musicians like Neil Young and Robyn Hitchcock as well as themes of Haitian democracy and other social issues. Yet, he was knocked out by a YouTube clip of an Oct. 25 "mic-check" at the New York City Department of Education (Occupy the DOE).

99% (The Occupy Wall Street Collaborative Film)

"This is so well-filmed, so well-edited and it's available to see within, what, 36 hours, 48 hours of the event," he says. "How were they able to shoot it so well? My stuff is so raggedy. We shoot it on the fly. We cut it really fast because we want it to be vaguely current. And this thing just looked beautifully filmed." Demme says he started shooting out of sheer enthusiasm, without any long-term project specifically in mind, tracing a link between the young volunteers he met who were rebuilding post-Katrina New Orleans and the core motivators of the Occupy movement. "It makes me feel connected to a movement that I believe very much in. Any filmmakers who are providing alternative information to what we're getting in the more straightforward media are very valuable."

As Occupy moves into its next phase, the flood of media will begin to coalesce into a mosaic, but one that hopefully will have an organic vitality, not simply enliven the greatest-hits reel of the new millennium. For filmmakers like Demme, the footage is an act of engagement as well as a document. "There's a sense of history in the air. Nothing big has to happen. If you have a chance you go down. You experience it. You film. You cut something together. You share it with whoever happens to be interested in seeing what went on that day."

Posted by ahillis at 10:29 AM

January 6, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Antichrist (1974)

by Nick Schager

The Antichrist

What's new is always old, and in this recurring column, I'll be taking a look at the classic genre movies that have influenced today's new releases. In honor of the demonic-possession horror film The Devil Inside, this week it's Alberto De Martino's 1974 Italian Exorcist rip-off The Antichrist.

Part of the wave of cheap copycats that flooded international cinemas in the wake of William Friedkin's 1973 classic The Exorcist, Alberto De Martino's The Antichrist (a/k/a L'anticristo, though released domestically in 1974 under the lamer moniker The Tempter) makes no bones about its plagiaristic inclinations. Yet before it can get to its eventual derivative mayhem, this overheated Italian B-movie first feels compelled to spend an inordinate amount of time spinning its supernatural wheels. Paralyzed from the waist down by a childhood car accident that took her mother and was caused by her father not properly watching the road (look out for that dog!), Ippolita (Carla Gravina) goes to visit a Virgin Mary statue where the masses seek healing—a site where one crazy bugger goes insane and, fleeing outside into the rain, deliberately plummets to his death in one of director De Martino's many amusingly goofy rear-projection effects shots. Back at home, Ippolita expresses fury at her father Massimo (Mel Ferrer) for planning to marry Greta (Anita Strindberg), less because Greta will replace her mother than because Ippolita herself seems to have a not-so-subtle oedipal longing for dear old daddy. Aside from being angry, Ippolita doesn't believe in God, a problem that greatly concerns her uncle Bishop Ascanio (Arthur Kennedy), given that apparently "sexed-up devil worshipers are springing up everywhere" to prey on non-believers.

The Antichrist

Enter psychologist Dr. Sinibaldi (Umberto Orsini), whose rationalism is supposed to counteract Ippolita's irrationality (and cursorily referenced psychic powers). Dr. Sinibaldi suggests an aggressive form of "regressive hypnosis" that forces Ippolita to confront not only her mother's death—in a scene of wild screaming on a black leather couch drenched in light from a chandelier of glowing bulbs—but also her past life as a witch condemned to die at the stake during the Inquisition. That long-ago death sentence takes place in a strikingly designed circular brick room where the witch (also Gravina, in a blonde wig) is ensnared in a round cage while sneering monks in white robes decry her unholiness. Ippolita's experience of this ancient pseudo-memory proves the beginning of her own nightmare, as it opens a gateway between herself and her ancestor that climaxes in The Antichrist's most memorable sequence. As the walls above and around her change into blue, and then red, sky, a bedridden Ippolita is overcome by a vision in which the witch (through whom Ippolita experiences everything) is walked through a misty grey forest where a satanic orgy is taking place to a concrete slab where a man in a goat mask forces her to take Beelzebub's communion: the head of a toad (the body), the blood of a toad (the blood), and then some good ol' fashioned ritualistic sex to finish the whole thing off.

The Antichrist

Decapitated toads are the principal sign of the devil in The Antichrist, though like much of the action's religious mumbo-jumbo, there's no rhyme or reason why. Still, that randomness is part of this central motif's moderate effectiveness, and it's far preferable to the blather that takes up much of the film's middle section, in which Ippolita very slowly comes under the control of a malevolent invading spirit while her father frets, her brother Filippo (Remo Girone) looks confused about his role in all of this, Dr. Sinibaldi proposes laughable scientific theories and uncle Ascanio delivers standard gibberish about the irrefutable existence of Satan. Even the recurring strident-strings theme music for Ippolita's possession—courtesy of the legendary Ennio Morricone, working with Bruno Nicolai—can't muster up energy during these segments, and despite Gravina making a reasonably freaky center of attention, her Ippolita does little of interest. Mercifully, that changes once the Lord of the Underworld grants her the use of her legs, but even so, there's a persistent sense during even the more outrageous ensuing incidents—Ippolita seduces and then beheads a young stud, then convinces sibling Filippo to have some incestuous sex—that De Martino is content to merely rest on straightforward Exorcist-isms.

The Antichrist

Thus, green pea-soup vomit proves plentiful—including a sublime bit featuring Ippolita forcing a local magic-man to eat it out of her palm ("Lick it. LIIIIIIIICK IT!")—and levitation becomes a recurring parlor trick, all as Gravina foams at the mouth, her face pale and her short hair turned spikey in a way that makes her resemble a less composed Annie Lennox. Between the arrival of an old, balding exorcist monk (George Coulouris) who plays like a third-rate Max von Sydow, and Ippolita's ridiculous sexualized taunts (after telling her dad about screwing Filippo, she screams, "You like the idea, you shithead!"), The Antichrist ultimately lays bare its lack of originality, a fact that can't be masked even by the sensationalistic sight of Ippolita flashing her naked crotch to uncle Ascanio. When it comes to the film's general creative bankruptcy, however, nothing quite tops De Martino's amazingly misguided belief that the scariest thing about demonic possession is the netherworld creature's unflagging ability to make common household and bedroom furniture shakily levitate.

Posted by ahillis at 11:14 AM

January 4, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

by Steve Dollar

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Time's up, cinema aesthetes. Ring out the old, ring in the new. Stop looking at those 10 best lists and get on with your lives. The calendar has flipped over into 2012 and... I've already got a new #1. Nuri Bilge Ceylan's Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, which opens today in New York, will have plenty of competition throughout the coming year. Guaranteed, though, you will see very few films as masterfully designed and executed, or so heavy with thought that the extended silences that suspend the characters in time and space make even the most seemingly mundane interludes of dialogue (and there's a ton of dialogue by Ceylan's minimalist standard) feel loaded with quietly devastating significance. Imagine, for the sake of cultural transliteration, the banal, jocular nature of—say, a traveling salesman joke—shared between two gruff men, strangers yoked together by professional duty, breaking the boredom of a marathon overnight detail that threatens not to end with the dawn. On one level, it's just a little rough humor to pass time, break ice. But in this scenario, lines that might be throwaway someplace else turn resonant, the lure of hidden meanings plunged like an anchor against the elliptical drift.

Ceylan proposes a mystery, even though the crime has been solved. Much as in his 2008 Three Monkeys, there's a dead body to kick the story into motion. In that earlier film, a tragic accident and a cover-up set the stage for a domestic meltdown. Here, the corpse is the focus of an arduous search. As the film opens, a tiny caravan of cars winds slowly along an isolated road that curves through the Anatolian steppes. Dusk settles into night, the yellow glare of headlights illuminating a tall tree that divides the purple horizon, limbs rustling in the breeze. The stationary camera sits far enough away from the action that the entire scene unfolds against a painterly tableaux, the dialogue and slamming car doors close-miked so that you hear the terse, impatient voices before matching them to any faces.

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

As a long, long night unfolds, Ceylan often maintains this omniscient perspective, framing landscape against faulty memory as a posse that includes a police chief, a prosecutor and a village doctor accompanies a killer and his half-wit brother accomplice who will lead them, after much plodding and frustration, to the shallow grave where he buried his victim. (Their erratic path is symbolized when an apple falls from a tree at the once putative site, rolling every which way until it settles into the crux of two streams). That's only where the story really begins, however, the procedural ploy serving as a tool to uncover facets of character, culture and profound secrets that haunt each of the principals—as palpable as weather. In a particularly telling interlude, the kind of moment that makes Once a Upon a Time in Anatolia so demanding of close attention, the doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) stops to take a leak by a hillside. Lightning cracks, flashing visible the details of a face carved into the stone, which seems to pass judgment.

A policeman they call "Arab" (Ahmet Mumtaz Taylan) pontificates:

"None of us live forever, do we Doctor? The Prophet Solomon, well, he lived to 750. Gold, jewels... well, he died in the end, too."

And the Doctor replies, taking note of the storm.

"It's been raining for centuries, what difference does it make? But not even 100 years from now, neither you or me or the prosecutor of the police chief. Well, as the poet said, still the years will pass and not a trace of me remains. Darkness and cold will enfold my weary soul."

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

The director's expressive touch with extreme low lighting, a chiaroscuro palette articulated with Old Master aplomb by cinematographer Gokhan Tiryaki, would already have cast a spell. Yet here, too, the sound of the wind whipping, and very slow zoom shots towards the back of a head and a hangdog gaze interrupted by a single gathering tear. These stretches come closest to suggesting a kinship with Sergio Leone (whose Westerns the title evokes): solitary men with women scarcely in sight, their faces creased with melancholy and hard lessons, facing down the distance with hundred-yard eyes, swallowed up into the existentialism of it all. Eventually, the travelers make a pivotal rest stop at a small village where some essential anecdotes bubble up, deepening the themes of mortality, causality and the nature of meaning while seeding plot points that come into play during the final frames. As night passes into day, they will eventually find the body. It almost seems like a "spoiler" to spell out the conversations, which offset heavy philosophical ruminations with richly felt humor (not everything is lost in translation). But two or three things are key. They include the story, passed between the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), a single father, and the doctor, a divorced bachelor, of a woman who forecasts her own death to her husband, five months to the day she drops lifeless; and an anecdote explaining the eerie calm of the village, which needs a new morgue because the bodies of the deceased must remain unburied long enough for their children—who fled long ago for Germany—to return home and say goodbye. And then a ghost appears.

The final third of the film begins to unpack and illuminate details, still in a fragmented, nearly ephemeral way, that implies so much more than can be immediately processed. Subtleties of tone and angle of brow, the intensity of eyes that peer through a window at a woman and her child, and of the woman who looks back from a black-and-white photograph are almost casually shuffled. By the time the screen goes dark to the audible squish of an autopsy in progress, you're ready to go back to the start, digging for answers in the wet dirt.

Posted by ahillis at 8:29 AM

January 3, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Mildred Pierce

by Vadim Rizov

Mildred Pierce

In outline, Todd Haynes' five-part miniseries Mildred Pierce is nearly a gender-substitute copy of There Will Be Blood: a determined capitalist starts with nothing and rises to self-made success, but is fundamentally undone along the way by a tortured relationship with her child, climaxing with a Grand Guignol confrontation in a suffocatingly underpopulated mansion. Class status is an issue in both, but where P.T. Anderson went for big gestures and opaque characterizations, forcing viewers to interpret what makes the enigmatically misanthropic Daniel Plainview tick, the five-and-a-half hours of Pierce serve as a plausible, patiently portrait of how class envy and distinction—often unspoken and therefore particularly virulent feelings in American life—can literally drive someone insane over years of difficult social climbing.

Mildred Pierce

Mildred (Kate Winslet) has a daughter, Veda (Evan Rachel Wood), and three men in her life: husband Bert (Brían F. O'Byrne), his corpulent friend Wally (James LeGros) and elegant waster Monty (Guy Pearce). For five-and-a-half-hours, Mildred largely keeps her business head while making poor judgment calls with all three of the equally worthless/worthwhile men. She saves her worst decisions for Veda, smothering her as a young girl and succumbing to her every whim: that her daughter grows up to be (effectively) an evil whore is at least partially Mildred's fault, with her own pathological insecurities taken to their logical conclusion by her ungrateful spawn.

Haynes' most overly idiosyncratic movies are polyphonic narratives, such as Poison (three interwoven short films), Velvet Goldmine (dual storylines set in separate decades, explicitly modeled on Citizen Kane), or the six fractals of Bob Dylan in I'm Not There. In these movies (along with the ‘50s-colored faux-Douglas Sirk of Far From Heaven), Haynes is explicit about his visual reference points, flawlessly approximating out-of-date film stocks and lighting with scary plausibility. The Fassbinder-like stylings of Pierce invoke the acerbic German melodramatist (and fellow Sirkian) with many borrowed framings of characters through glass panes and windows. Also cited are ‪New Hollywood's early-'70s takes on the past (Chinatown, The Godfather), films which brought color to an era largely captured in black-and-white in its own time: Mildred Pierce discreetly revels in natural light.‬

Mildred Pierce

Haynes chose the path of extreme fidelity in adapting James M. Cain's novel; ‪the sudden final-hour leap into quasi-incestuous terrain feels both unpleasant and unnecessary, or at least at odds with the mundane-detail-oriented narrative focus of its most compelling sections.‬ Films over three hours generally make overt concessions towards the epic, either through grand scenes with milling extras teeming over spectacular landscapes or other assertions of grandeur (e.g., opening the seven-and-a-half hours of Satantango with a ten-minute tracking shot of cows). Haynes does neither: Mildred Pierce is, at its best, insistently quotidian. This is a film: producer Christine Vachon's vehemently insisted that this is a mini-series, not a movie, but nonetheless there have been marathon theatrical screenings. If you have the patience and time, watching the whole film in one day is recommended.

For all the sudden left-turns stretching plausibility in the narration and characterization, Mildred Pierce hangs together thanks first of all to Winslet, who deserves all kinds of superlatives as the lead in every scene, plausibly uniting all of the disparate impulses imposed on her by the sometimes implausible narrative. Her performance is the primary triumph in a project that doesn't overplay the parallels between its depiction of the Great Depression and the present-day recession. Economic insecurity as a fundamentally American trait is merely put into sharper relief by surrounding poverty, not created by it: the most absorbing parts depict Mildred's capitalist rise, from entry-level waitressing to the finer points of running a restaurant franchise, a meticulous record of survival under difficult circumstances. Men come and go; business dominates.

Posted by ahillis at 1:01 PM