May 30, 2012

The Good, the Great and the Grungy

by Vadim Rizov

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Overviews of the spaghetti western inevitably begin with Sergio Leone, whose presentation of Clint Eastwood as the ultimate laconic Westerner grows more iconic throughout the genre-codifying trilogy of A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Time progressively slows to a mythic crawl, as mundane quick-draw showdowns and bounty hunter pursuits become epic set pieces through sheer duration.

Westerns had been made in Italy and Spain before Leone (largely by non-Italians), but his worldwide success was unavoidably influential. Segments of Sergio Sollima's 1966 The Big Gundown anticipate 1968's Once Upon a Time in the West, with another swoony Ennio Morricone score emphasizing similar slow visual coups. A showy tracking shot through an obscure Mexican village starts with two women at market and stops at a criminal's face being lathered in an open-air barber's chair. The man in pursuit is Jonathan Corbett (Lee Van Cleef), an unofficial volunteer killer for Texas who's "more popular than David Crockett." Transparently corrupt railroad baron Brokston (Walter Barnes) wants him to run for Senate and offer official support for a new line. "I'm interested in Texas," Corbett moralistically scolds, "not your personal profit"—but accepts the shady deal anyway. One last job will seal his popularity: tracking down alleged child rapist and murderer Cuchillo (Tomas Milian).

The Big Gundown

Despite his disheartening susceptibility to official flattery early on, Van Cleef's Corbett still pulls off the requisite epic gun-slinging feats: the title's truth in advertising, with lots of Mexican stand-offs. In the opening, Corbett kills three robbers with cartoonish ease, having stayed ahead of them for 300 miles from Texas to Colorado. Untroubled by his Old Testament methods' brutality as such, it'll take his awareness of complicity with corrupt, sexually deviant business interests to force him into making sure his retributions are meted out correctly and accurately.

Gundown suffers from flatly lit interior scenes and Van Cleef's less-than-righteous behavior throughout. Compensations include copious gunfire and a memorably odd mercenary gunman in monocled Baron von Schulenberg (Gerard Herter), a stray German whose "good breeding" manners and sadism are intertwined. One fight nods to the director's (and genre's) sword-and-sandal epic roots, as a pitchfork stands in for a harpoon in near-gladiatorial combat between outlaws.

While spaghetti westerns make use of the traditional site of a frontier town surrounded by wilderness, there's never any space that—once finally purged of the uncivilized and murderous—can be expected to remain safe. The sense of a perpetually war-charged landscape is often made explicit in movies which make use of the Civil War and attendant lingering Mason-Dixon resentments. For Italians, their very own divide between the north and traditionally impoverished south finds a strong, deeply felt corollary here. In Sergio Corbucci's 1966 Django, the subject is racism: the film unambiguously condemns it, and any methods used to end it are acceptable.

Django

First seen dragging a coffin across a muddy plain in excruciating real-time garbed in a poncho, the reveal of Django's (Franco Nero) face is delayed until after the credits, as if to delay the bad news that this man isn't Clint Eastwood. It's a dull opening made palatable by a grandiose theme song hinting at a presumably tragic romantic backstory ("now your love has gone away") never otherwise present in the story. Django comes to a small town and, unprovoked, insults the racist forces commanded by rogue Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo), sneering "I thought [racism] was just for Southern pigs."

Eventually, Django reveals the source of his confidence: the coffin contains a machine gun, with which he handily mows down all challengers. He stands not just against racism but sexism, as manifested by bandito Hugo Rodriguez (Jose Bodalo). "I have the same right as every man toward every woman he likes," Hugo scowls when threatening sometime-prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak). "You sound just like Jackson's rapists," she spits back. Django's revenge against both types of wrongdoing is exhilarating in a Chuck Norris way, though craft takes a backseat to crude displays of force. Violent highlights aside, Django makes its strongest impression in its sodden town setting, one of the muddiest, squishiest-sounding in film history.

The film's up-with-armed-insurrection myth, no matter how poorly presented, was massively popular worldwide, a success attributed by Nero to viewers "who would love to be Django. They would like to go to the boss and say: 'Listen, from now on things are going to be different.' Django is that man." To capitalize on the association, producers of totally unrelated movies slapped the name onto their product. The "title" character (Tomas Milian) of Giulio Questi's 1967 Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot! is actually unnamed and miles away from Nero's grim, comic-book-style destroyer. Left for dead after being double-crossed during a gold heist, he's brought back to life by Native Americans who agree to act as friendly natives in return for his testimony about what death is like. Do white buffalo roam the afterlife? they ask, but never get an answer.

Django Kill... If You Live, Shoot!

The stranger's pagan-tinged survival stands in opposition to institutionalized religious hypocrisy, represented by "merchant" Oldeman, who moans "I taught half [the town] how to pray" even while plotting a murderous path to prosperity. Astonishingly and inventively bloody, Questi's film is drenched in gory Catholic stigmata imagery, with the stranger tortured while lashed in the crucifixion position. Religion also tinge the finale of the original Django, with Nero using a graveyard cross to provide the necessary support for his lame shooting hand. These religious overtones are a distinctively Italian component of the spaghetti western, without an American counterpart in the original films' largely secular aims and content.

Film Forum's curated three-week examination of the genre is a reasonable cross-section (the only commonly cited staple that's missing is the 1970 comic hit They Call Me Trinity) of a genre still rarely closely examined except by dedicated cultists. The digital projections of Django and The Big Gundown are among the better shown there so far, but many films are on 35mm, a last-chance-to-see for New Yorkers. Dig in.

Posted by ahillis at 1:00 PM

May 27, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Hidden (1987)

by Nick Schager

The Hidden [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the aliens-and-cops sequel Men in Black III.]

An aliens-among-us thriller containing social and gender critiques within its body-invasion exterior, The Hidden blends various influences into a fast, funny and surprisingly sharp B-movie. That's not necessarily what you'd expect from helmer Jack Sholder, whose credits include the abysmal A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge. Yet his direction has a fleet, no-nonsense quality—highlighted by a few extended handheld shots that give the material some jazzy energy—that's perfect for this tale of L.A. cop Tom Beck (Flashdance's Michael Nouri), who's introduced trying to stop the robbery-and-murder rampage of a trenchcoated everyman (Chris Mulkey). This villain's murderous habits involve stealing Ferraris and listening to hard rock and heavy metal, as well as a more general take-what-I-want attitude that, altogether, makes him a caricature of materialistic '80s greed and entitlement. Moreover, there's a strong sense that he also represents the ugliest side of uninhibited masculinity, an impression that casts him as the diametric opposite of Beck, a do-gooder super-cop on the job and a loving, protective family man to his wife and daughter at home. Beck's roadblock finally stops the baddie's downtown joy ride, which includes running over a man in a wheelchair—and, amusingly, after the thug crashes and vacates the vehicle unarmed, the cops still fire on him, in the process detonating his car and putting him in the hospital.

The Hidden

Unfortunately for Beck, his assignment has only just begun, as he quickly learns after being paired with FBI Agent Lloyd Gallagher (Kyle MacLachlan), whose interest in Beck's newest arrest spirals into a continuing manhunt for further killers who—it's clear to the audience but not Beck, who's flummoxed by the chaotic turn of events—are actually all possessed by the same evil slimy-slug alien who's using their bodies as vessels for its nefarious hijinks. Given Gallagher's true identity as a noble alien cop, The Hidden plays like a combination of The Terminator, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, They Live (also from 1987), and John Carpenter's The Thing. This patchwork lineage, however, doesn't prevent Sholder's film from carving out its own unique sci-fi identity. There's consistent comedic friction between the heroic Beck and the weirdly blank Gallagher (with MacLachlan radiating out-of-this-world disconnection), born not just from their odd-couple rapport but, also, from the fact that they stand for contending versions of upstanding manhood—Beck as the virtuous alpha male, and Gallagher as the detached avenger, driven to catch his prey so he can exact revenge for the slaughter of his partner, wife and daughter.

The Hidden

That Beck/Gallagher and their alien adversary present opposing visions of male virtue and wickedness is never pressed by The Hidden. But it's a dynamic that does take increasingly comical form once the villain jumps from the body of a heart attack-prone middle-aged man to Claudia Christian's knee-high-booted stripper (the very image of sexpot femininity that would be celebrated by the degenerate alien) and a dog (man as snarling animal!), before finally settling on a popular Senator (John McCann) as its main target host. The creature's desire to be a politician with presidential aspirations—a goal apparently driven by a hunger for power—seems ridiculously at odds with its established steal-screw-kill impulses. Nonetheless, this conflict never interferes with the action's momentum, which is aided by a variety of uniformly excellent villains (including, late in the game, the nasty-eyed Ed O'Ross). Meanwhile, Beck and Gallagher's rapport is playfully testy throughout, only momentarily stalling during a dinner at Beck's home in which Gallagher shares a strangely silent staredown with Beck's young daughter Julia (apparently, kids intuitively recognize his otherworldliness), and then learns the pleasures of beer and the hangover-curing wonders of Alka Seltzer.

The Hidden

Both suspenseful and silly, The Hidden plows forward with a confidence that helps overshadow its more glaring plot holes, such as the fact that the alien isn't stopped by gunfire, even though the bullets plugging holes in its human hosts should be striking the creature lurking inside. Gallagher's shiny silver laser gun is a nicely ridiculous touch, and the initial sight of the alien jumping between bodies via their mouths has a slick nastiness that delivers some requisite genre squirminess. After much prickly banter between the suitably mismatched Nouri and MacLachlan, Sholder and screenwriter Jim Kouf (using the pen name Bob Hunt) resolve things with a bizarrely fitting development that hybridizes the film's two ideals of righteous masculinity, as well as elucidates that bad aliens are, in their true form, greasy insectoid monsters, while good aliens are sparkly glowing green light. Funnier still, however, is an earlier moment—in which a young Danny Trejo mockingly yells at the alien (now in a police Lieutenant's body), "Hey hippie, what kind of dude are you?"—that definitively makes clear that, for a macho '80s E.T. desperado, there's nothing more insulting, or worthy of death, than being called a counterculture wimp.

Posted by ahillis at 5:11 AM

May 25, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Certified Copy

by Vadim Rizov

Certified Copy

Much of what's been written about Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy dilates on the question of whether an afternoon's worth of Italian countryside sparring between "She" (Juliette Binoche) and writer James Miller (William Shimmell) is actually a married couple role-playing a first-time meeting, or if the two are strangers playing a very strange game. Various third options consider the possibility of a film that can't be trusted (Last Year at Marienbad is frequently cited), a mutant text whose every moment must be unceasingly subjected to rigorous questioning to form a remotely plausible hypothesis.

Certified Copy

This rush to extreme interpretation is odd, since Certified Copy can be profitably taken at face value. You can certainly work on it, probe around the edges and come up with theories, but this would seem to be a secondary step rather than the default first move. Certainly Copy is playful, with its first shot—a lectern with a mic, a bottle of water—seemingly threatening an afternoon's worth of academic inquiry, a threat quickly defused. James speaks, and She makes her way to the front but has to leave fast: her brat of a son (Adrian Moore) needs to eat, and teases her about her reason for buying six copies of a book. "You like this James and want to fall in love with him," he says. Note "this": in this incarnation of a marriage that may need reinvigoration through an afternoon's roleplay, James is the graying writer thrives on attention from a younger, potential female acolyte. In another reality, there's another James who's much less lovable.

Perhaps that James is (as he often comes across) a fussy, irritable pedant who's rude to waiters and generally acts like the worst kind of Englishman abroad, fulfilling time-honored stereotypes through his behavior, whose face conveys instant pique when his every joke and word isn't glowingly validated, who says things like "I really don't like having to explain the obvious to you." She's mercurially moody (Binoche covers the entire emotional spectrum from tense irritability to happy glowing), continually re-presenting herself to a man who can only be met on his own terms, as if to see which mode might capture his fancy. The Tuscan village of Lucignano has a church with a steady stream of in-out marital traffic: newly minted husbands and wives and elderly couples surround the pair, offering visual alternate possibilities of their past and future. (Best detail: when James pettily declines to indulge She in a whim that would relieve her tension, behind him you can see a groom offering his bride eyedrops.)

Certified Copy

Kiarostami's first film shot outside of Iran doesn't overtly flaunt his ability to ignore a censor's dictates, though Binoche's mildly cleavage-flaunting dress was enough to get the film barred from public Iranian screening. Kiarostami's film far from home (whose modest erotic charge was sure to preclude exhibition in Iran ) premiered at Cannes, where he the release of jailed former collaborator Jafar Panahi? It's surely an in-joke when Miller begins his lecture with the wish that he could get the same respect at home, but it's also a part of the narrative: "home" may mean England, but it could also mean his domestic life with "She."

Shimmell's an opera singer, making him an obvious candidate to recite English, French and Italian dialogue with equally correct pronunciation, while Binoche is a similar outsider, a French woman living in Italy. The actors are linguistically/location-wise disoriented along with their director, who nonetheless easily reshapes Tuscany into familiar terrain. Miller's cell phone keeps going off at the worst possible moments, like the protagonist of The Wind Will Carry Us, who always keeps running up that rural hill to get reception rather than looking around. A lengthy driving sequence is Kiarostami x 2: shot both from far away to observe the car's progress across the landscape (as in Taste of Cherry, And Life Goes On and effectively his entire '90s body of work) and, inside the car, as if two cameras were pointed at 45-degree angles on the dashboard to record both faces (as in 2002's 10).

CERTIFIED COPY director Abbas Kiarostami

The tourist's gaze is indulged for a larger reason: the cypress trees go from backdrop to talking point when James uses them as part of the ongoing arguments about the intrinsic value of artistic copies. This may not be Kiarostami's densest work, but its ability to turn a simple scenario into the basis for philosophical inquiry is reminiscent of his 1987 Where is the Friend's House?, ostensibly a simple film about a kid trying to make a cross-city trek that doubles as a introductory treatise on epistemology (it might as well have been called What Is the Basis of Knowledge That Allows Us to Say Where the Friend's House Is?). The journey is both towards a concrete destination and a quest for knowledge.

"Maybe this discussion is stopping us from enjoying the view," James says, but for Kiarostami that's not true: a landscape can be enjoyed in all its overt loveliness and simultaneously enfolded into a larger thesis, interpreted and taken at face value depending on your feelings at the moment. The artistically exiled filmmaker finds new possibilities, new types of performances and a fresh start to his fourth decade of work while still insisting that the decision to (not) take events and locations at face value is an active choice. "The way she looks at her husband changes his value," She says of a friend, and that's the viewer's option as well. Certified Copy is simultaneously a face-value-beautiful afternoon and an opportunity for argument. Neither possibility precludes the other: the choice is yours.

Posted by ahillis at 3:19 AM

May 23, 2012

INTERVIEW: Robert Downey Sr.

by Steve Dollar

Robert Downey Sr., with friend and fan Paul Thomas Anderson

Something like the Dead Sea Scrolls of 1960s (and '70s) underground comedies, the five films assembled in the new Criterion Collection Eclipse set Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. have been out of sight for so long that their release this week marks a major rediscovery. Deliriously imaginative and madly subversive, black-and-white romps like Babo 73 and Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight deploy manic pacing and counter-cultural absurdity to critique Mad Men-era America while inhaling deeply on their own stoned grooviness. "I've paid my dues," exclaims one of Downey's impish observers, played by actor friends or maybe someone he met at a phone booth, "why should I pay my debts?"

The best-known feature, Putney Swope, achieved cult status for its outrageous satire of Madison Avenue, proposing what happens when a white, patrician agency is taken over by a black militant who renames it "Truth and Soul Inc." But they're all winners, whether showcasing the mercurial Elsie Downey (the filmmaker's first wife and collaborator) in dozens of roles in Turquoise, or riffing on beatnik reveries in Chafed Elbows, where an insatiable deadbeat chases a shy sexpot (Mrs. Downey as "Rhoda... Rhoda Dendron") across a Manhattan rooftop, telling her: "You put a heavy tremor on my ticker-roo-roo."

Downey, loquacious and leonine at 75, sat down recently in a Criterion conference room to talk about the films, getting tossed out of Yankee Stadium—twice—in order to shoot a scene, his abbreviated pitching career and giving some kid named Robert Downey Jr. his first shot at stardom.

Up All Night with Robert Downey Sr. It's amazing to see these films back in circulation—as if they ever were the first time.

They were dead. One was only gotten to me because one the actors I had given a print to. We couldn't find a negative anywhere. Another film they found in somebody's closet. Scorsese did all that for Anthology Film Archives. A guy named Andrew Lampert, he started it and the Film Foundation put up the money. And he showed them there. He cares.

I haven't seen any of them before, but it looks like they did a great job.

What amazed me is they looked better now than they did 40 or 50 years ago. I mean this is coming off nothing. Some of the guys in the room were laughing, but I don't remember it quite that way when I made the films. They were really enjoying it rather than saying, "This is weird."

They're really snappy. I hadn't been prepared for the rhythm.

That's good to know. I wrote him a note, Scorsese, and thanked him. He reincarnated these things. And that's what he does. How does he have time to do his other stuff?

What was it like looking at all these again?

I hadn't seen a couple since they were done in the '60s.

My favorite is the tongue-twister.

Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight? That was fun.

It's got a sketch comedy format, but moves so quickly that the sketches can’t develop much—you have to pick them up the next time they come around on screen.

It's like No More Excuses in a way, but quicker.

No More Excuses

In a weird way, it almost anticipates the way people experience media now, surfing the web: bop-bop-bop. At the time, it must have had people going "What?"

There also were experimental films just based on quick cuts. But back then most underground films didn't have much humor and the ones that did are the ones you remember. A lot of them are very heavy and poetic and worthy but they don't stick with you. Back then, anything that was amusing, or semi-amusing, was more fun. Maybe that's how I am. I don’t know how funny it is now.

The films?

The planet.

I don't know if the planet's very funny right now.

That's what I'm saying. I don't get the joke.

Well, Two Tons is terrifically funny, with all the spaced-out free association. That took you forever to make, right?

A couple of years. Because there's no real story, and the only actor who was consistent was Elsie. I could stop for two months and raise money to shoot some more. Edit that, and go get some more money. Most of it was written, and she wrote some, too. I don’t mind fuckin' around, but you’ve got to have something to start with. I don’t know if I ever mentioned this before. We shot one day on Babo 73 and we had run out of film. Kennedy was in Europe so we got to shoot all around the White House. I had to shoot one scene and I said, "OK, we got it." I didn't have any film. I didn't want to get anybody depressed. So at the first screening we had, one of the actors said, "Where is that fuckin' great scene we did?" And then I had to confess. We used to use small rolls of film from—you know when you see planes firing bullets in war movies and they have a camera there? That film is 100-foot three-minute rolls and we got a whole stack of that. That's what we were shooting. The camera was a wind up camera it could only shoot for 18 seconds. None of the sound was done there it was done later. And that's how we did it.

Babo 73

That explains the silent-era vibe to a lot of the material. I noticed that you used a lot of overdubbed dialogue to extravagant comic effect, as well.

On Putney, I had to because he couldn’t learn his lines.

Was it 16mm film in those little cameras?

Yeah. You're just thankful to get anything. Putney Swope was 35mm but that was an accident. Nobody wanted that film when it was finished. Why were all those early films shown in the Village and I can't get this one shown? The guy who owned all the theaters in New York, Cinema 5, he came to a final screening and he was late and I didn't know who he was and he was banging on the door. I said, "You're late! The screening started." He said, "No, no, I’m Don Rugoff* blah blah blah. Who are you?" "I'm the filmmaker." He said, "Let me in or you're not going to get this film shown. And you better hope I like it." After the film he came up to me, he was a weird guy. He said, "I don't get it, but I like it." And he opened it in two weeks. He loved movies, very unusual for a distributor. He did Monty Python, he did Trash by Warhol, he did Z. All these great films. And he didn't have to go to anybody, because he was the distributor and the theater owner. Lucky guy. He'd put full-page ads in the Times and out himself in the hole because he shouldn’t have done it.

I looked up your IMDB page and the blurb for Moment to Moment (aka TTOTTTT) almost reads like a bad review. Usually, those entries are pure hype.

Well, Putney Swope got minus a star in the Daily News. They put it in the ad. As a good thing. Back then, people were having more fun. Now it's too obvious.

Chafed Elbows

Putney Swope was based in part on your experiences at a New York ad agency. Did you really shoot a commercial spot for a hemorrhoid cream?

After Chafed Elbows and Babo 73, they brought me in to do experimental commercials and I had a salary. There was a black guy there who said, "Bob, you and I are doing the same thing and you make more money than I do." I said, let's go see the boss. The boss says to me, "If I give him a raise, I going to have to give you a raise and then we'll be right back where we started." The guy was sitting right there. I went home and started writing right there. This has got to be a film about what happens to people who are marginalized. Never mind the minorities on the street. How about the ones who get jobs? So that was that. Oh, and my brother-in-law smuggled me into a meeting at an ad agency and he told everybody I was from South America and I couldn't understand English. So I got some good info there.

They would probably shoot you today, but in No More Excuses you succeed in walking onto the field during a Yankees game dressed as a soldier from the Union Army. How did that happen?

The actor said "I'm not doing that." So I said, fuck it, I'll do it. I went to the ballgame and at a certain time I took the uniform and put it on over my clothes. Then I jumped over the fence and walked toward first base. Naturally, the cops come out. This and that. We had two cameramen in the stands, but they didn't have close-ups. The article in the Daily News [the next day] was the real thing. "Union Soldier walks on field and asks, 'Where are the Yankees?' We went back the next day, and we were able to walk into the stadium through the outfield—they were out of town now—and I went and got a close-up to cut into that stuff. [Downey was, once again, detained by security]. They didn't believe that we were making a film. They told me, "We’re taking you to Bellevue," because both cameramen were not there. Finally, they walked in. They had taken the film to the lab downtown, and put new film in. They knew what would happen: "Give us that camera." The cops didn't think these guys had already taken the film to the lab. I was ready to go to jail for doing that. But back then we all did stuff like that.

Your first wife, Elsie Downey, stars in many of your films, typically playing a multitude of eccentric female roles. She's a comic marvel. Did she ever act elsewhere?

She could do it without even talking about it. She just would go grab a different piece of clothing and fix her hair. It was just fun. I would maybe say something but she’d take that and do what she wanted. She had offers but she never really was interested in that. My kids and myself were sad about that. She went out to California and did one or two things. She could sing, too, and she was on The Ed Sullivan Show with a satiric improv group. When I talk to her about it now, she says we had enough on our hands with Robert. He was always quiet... but now.

How did you like The Avengers?

I'm not a comic book guy so I didn't know what was going on. He was great as usual. He's going to direct now. I'm happy for him.

Have you got a part?

In his thing? I hope not. I can barely walk, you think I'm going to fuck his thing up?

Putney Swope

He could return the favor for giving him his first job when he was five.

I did put him in Pound and he was great. He plays a puppy who comes in and gets adopted right away. One or two takes. All the other actors were asking, "How does he do it?" I don't know. We couldn't afford a babysitter. I think he secretly knew he could do it. His coming off the floor with his addictions is more heroic than any movie. He did it. I’m really proud of him. Everybody in our family had similar problems at one point of time or another, most of us, and nobody died, yet.

Paul Thomas Anderson has cast you in bit parts in a couple of his movies, though.

I can't remember any lines or anything. He'd say, "What are you going to do with this?" I'll do my best. I knew him before he made his first film. He's great. I'm proud of him, my god. I've seen 90 minutes of his new one. It's just good. It's not really about Scientology. It just takes place in the '50s.

I wanted to fact-check some folklore that I found online about you. Did you really strike out Yogi Berra when you played baseball in the Army?

Put it this way: I was a ballplayer in the Army in the stockade in Okinawa [mimes guzzling from a liquor bottle]. So they would take me out and let me practice with the ball club. The Yankees were touring Japan. So a few days before they said you're gonna pitch an inning or so. I hadn’t pitched in two months because I’d been in the stockade. It was raining the day they came through. I had a good first inning. They didn't get any runs. The second inning, I walked three guys and Yogi Berra hit a triple. I was right back in the fucking stockade.

* "He died. And he was funny about that, too. He said, "I have a brain tumor. It's all in my head." I put that in a film, because of him.

Posted by ahillis at 7:40 AM

May 19, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: It's Alive (1974)

by Nick Schager

It's Alive [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the star-studded babies-'a-poppin' rom-com What to Expect When You're Expecting.]

Never has a movie made having children seem less appealing than It's Alive, Larry Cohen's terrifying examination of personal and parental anxieties. Cohen's genre gem is unquestionably a horror film, but its mutant-monster terror is its least scary element, not to mention the one Cohen cares least about, a fact made plain from a prolonged introduction sequence in which Lenore (Sharon Farrell) awakens in the middle of the night to inform husband Frank (John Ryan) that the baby is ready to go. That news instigates preparations to depart to the hospital, including getting dressed, packing up clothes, and waking their 11-year-old son Chris (Daniel Holzman) and taking him to stay with friend Charley (William Wellman Jr.), arrangements that Cohen depicts with a laid-back sweetness—be it Frank sticking a cat in slumbering Chris' face, or affecting a jokey Western patois as they drive through the night—that immediately creates intense empathy for this happy family on the brink of further joy. Cohen's fondness for his characters is genuine and infectious, but despite the lack of panic in the air, there's trouble brewing, first spied in Lenore clenching her face in unnatural discomfort, and then at the hospital, when she asks Frank for reassurance that the new child won't make him feel trapped "like the last time."

It's Alive

Ominous undercurrents are amplified by Frank's chat with other expectant waiting-room fathers about how chemicals in food and smog in the air are leading to bodily pollution. Yet when Frank and Lenore's baby emerges from her womb as a squealing, clawed creature of death—a revelation visualized via a peaceful close-up of Frank gazing at newborns that's shattered by the background sight of a bloody doctor bursting through doors and then collapsing—the cause seems less environmental corruption than something far more elemental, and uncontrollable. Specifically, the monster's arrival, which involves slaughtering the delivery room staff and then escaping through a skylight, comes across as a manifestation of every angsty fear, worry, regret and hesitation that accompanies parenthood (and the act of childbirth). More troubling still, the baby's birth increasingly feels like the physical expression of Frank's own failings as a man and as a father, shortcomings which Cohen allows to slowly rise to the fore in the aftermath of this traumatic event, as it becomes clearer and clearer that Frank's disinterest in parental responsibility and emotional absenteeism (suggested by his keeping Chris away from the family home) are apparently also to blame for his new son emerging as "some kind of monstrosity."

It's Alive

Cohen's stance toward Frank, however, is far from sharply critical—rather, like its portrayal of his guilt, shame and resultant killing fury toward the beast, It's Alive presents Frank as a relatable figure of emotional contradictions, complexities and flaws. To that end, Ryan delivers a performance of poignant inner chaos, the anguish in his eyes and sweaty countenance felt as potently during quiet moments of teeth-brushing as it is during more obviously upsetting incidents such as a meeting with his PR firm boss that finds him helpless to avoid his transformation into a freak-show celebrity to be faux-pitied and politely shunned. Frank elicits both scorn and sympathy from the audience because he's at once subconsciously responsible for the monster and yet, consciously, not responsible at all, and that dichotomy drives the film's drama far more than any traditional horror-gore clichés. This B-movie's awfulness is located in Frank's eyes and inextricable situation, and consequently the action, tensely scored by Bernard Herrmann, barely bothers with traditional moments of suspense—and, when it does, the monster is spied so furtively, and its kills take place so quickly (and largely off-screen), that they feel like afterthoughts, or concessions to genre dictates.

It's Alive

As also suggested by investigating Lt. Perkins (James Dixon) remarking that his about-to-deliver wife previously suffered a miscarriage, to which a coworker replies "People who don't have children don't know how lucky they are," It's Alive posits having children as a burdensome process universally rife with fright, remorse and potential death. Amidst all manner of subtly sexualized imagery, Cohen slams environmental desecration, self-interested scientific researchers, and pharmaceutical bigwigs (who want to cover up the baby's existence, lest it be traced back to birth control pills!). His real interest, though, remains Frank, whose consuming inadequacies and feelings of culpability are summed up by his anecdote about the first time he realized that Frankenstein wasn't the name of the monster, but of the doctor who created him ("Somehow, the identities get all mixed up, don't they?"). It's Alive's compassion for its protagonist culminates, fittingly, in a vaginal womb-style sewer system where Frank, face to face with his offspring, finally understands the true selfless, unconditional nature of fatherly love. It's a heartening moment that Cohen, ever the provocateur, nonetheless makes sure to complicate with a sequel-ready final line that also encapsulates the film's overarching portrait of deteriorating parent-child dynamics as a burgeoning epidemic.

Posted by ahillis at 6:00 AM

May 16, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Elena

by Vadim Rizov

Elena

Elena is didactic filmmaking and in interviews, director Andrei Zvyagintsev hasn't been shy in explicitly stating his fundamental criticism of the contemporary Russian underclass. "This is how they will behave," he noted in an interview conducted at the film's Cannes premiere. "At one point we considered calling the film The Invasion of the Barbarians." "They" are the title character's (Nadezhda Markina) son Sergei (Aleksey Rozin) and his family, notably grandson Sasha (Igor Orgutsov), whose grades are so bad he'll end up serving mandatory army time unless the right college officials are bribed. Former nurse Elena wants far wealthier second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) to provide the money, but he refuses on angry principle, insisting military discipline is just the right education for a directionless young man.

The harshest dialogue's always closest to the director's unambiguous public statements. Vladimir's daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) is a disappointment ("a goddamned hedonist," father grumbles), but he's still planning to leave her the bulk of his money. Her brusque, cynical affection cheers him up. "We're all bad seeds," she declares in deadpan resignation, declining Vladimir's suggestion to try maternity as a cure for disaffection. "What's irresponsible is producing children you know will be sick or doomed, because their parents are sick or doomed." (This echoes Zvyaginstev's own viewpoint exactly: "It's also a myth that procreation at any cost is a necessity.")

Elena

A cut from her verdict on contemporary Russian society's moral decay to Elena's infant grandson on a bed is repeated even more pointedly towards the end. When the camerawork turns unexpectedly handheld and frenzied to keep up with an eruption of youth gang violence, this cut again connects the innocent of today with the disaffectedly loutish street soldier of tomorrow.

Where Zvyaginstsev's first two films The Return and The Banishment emphasized the natural world (and the director's oft-noted reverence for Tarkovsky), here he leaves it after an opening shot fixed on a tree branch as morning sunlight rises. Dimly heard sirens and car alarms are fainter still inside. Vladimir's wealth lacks ostentation: his bare apartment contains high-end consumer goods, but its primary purpose is to dampen the outside world. His only out-of-apartment trek is a Mercedes drive to the gym, but Elena takes the train to visit her family at Moscow's Soviet-bloc(k)-tower fringes. The transit noise inescapably rises above the Philip Glass score, as hawkers offer adult magazine for the purchase of unashamed passengers. Charged with heightened, aggressively surround-sounded ambience, the bright-lit settings bristle with ominous undercurrents that finally come to the foreground.

Class differences aside, Elena and Vladimir share a mutually misplaced belief in the sanctity of family bonds, placing those ties above all other social and legal obligations if need be. The steps Elena takes to secure her loved ones' survival are spoiler territory, but they lead her to an act of violence for the purpose materially enriching her feckless family and keeping them close at hand. As they gather around a big-screen TV at the end, there's no sense that their new circumstances will set the stage for Elena's loved ones to put down their Playstation controls and get a job. (TV, unsurprisingly, is another thing Zvyagintsev hates: it's "a deformed mirror, that man chooses for himself because he doesn't want to deal with his own personality.") Elena's acts echo the darkest received narrative of Russia's post-USSR trajectory: that power and capital passed from one small group of hands to another (often the same), frequently through violent acts. The film declines to explicitly state how Vladimir made his fortune.

Elena

This is the most decorous of recent Russian films depicting violence (unreported to the police, who either actively ignore or perpetrate the incidents) as an unavoidable, commonplace factor of Russian life. These scorched-earth state-of-the-nation dispatches link stratified but equally morally bankrupt social tiers of corrupt national life. In Alexei Balabanov's Cargo 200, a roadside breakdown places a Communist Party functionary's relatively well-off young daughter in the hands of an older, murderous regional police captain in '80s Russia, while his 2010 A Stoker depicted mid-90s Russia as a place where oligarchs casually order contract hits, with the bodies driven in broad daylight to large industrial furnaces for destruction After an upper-class social worker is raped in Angelina Nikonova's Twilight Portrait, she takes tracking down one of the officers as a chance to put her ineffectual office work into practice by infiltrating his apartment and trying to reform him personally. And in Sergei Loznitsa's My Joy, a truck driver's detour to the countryside leaves him stranded and transformed into a mute murderous hulk.

Killings and class frictions are relentless, intertwined constants in all these films. Glazed windows block out the outside world in Vladimir's, while Sergey's apartment is depicted in striking long shot as one of dozens, one of many public tragedies on casual display. Austerely condemnatory, Zvyagintsev's argument is convincingly apocalyptic (its original incarnation was as an English-language end-of-days drama), hypnotically rendered in slow zooms and tensely prolonged shots, making for the most visceral of jeremiads.

[Elena is now playing at Film Forum in NYC. For tickets and info, visit the website.]

Posted by ahillis at 2:01 PM

May 15, 2012

INTERVIEW: Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr

by Steve Dollar

GOD BLESS AMERICA's Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr

Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, whose career as a filmmaker has yielded such dark and excoriating satirical fare as Shakes the Clown and World's Greatest Dad, has been making the festival rounds for months with his latest comedy, God Bless America. The film, newly released, is the director's answer to Natural Born Killers and Network. Joel Murray (Goldthwait's co-star in One Crazy Summer) is Frank, a middle-aged corporate cubicle denizen abandoned by his wife and daughter and left to stew in his bachelor apartment, festering in anger, frustration and failure. One day, his fantasies of violent revenge on a reality show world spill over when he loses his job and is diagnosed with a brain tumor. With nothing left to lose, Frank goes on a rampage—and he reluctantly takes on a co-pilot in death-dealing, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a teenaged sympathizer who hates the world perhaps even more zealously than he does.

I caught up with Goldthwait during the South by Southwest film festival in March, where he was premiering the film with its stars. During a chat in the lounge of the Driskill Hotel, the trio talked about their favorite reality TV shows, the death of common decency and Diablo Cody (don't ask, just see the movie).

GREENCINE DAILY: Before we get started, I wanted to tell you that I'm a huge fan of World's Greatest Dad. Although I was late in getting to it, it seems to have a life of its own.

BOBCAT: World's Greatest Dad didn't have people come to the theater, but that's been the MO with the movies I make. Being fortunate to have movies at film festivals, it's a little like those rich guys who play fantasy baseball. I get these few weeks of sold out crowds, and then the harsh reality hen the movie opens and there's no one in the theater. It doesn't bother me. The idea that's there's going to be a print of the movie is big, big stuff.

Do you think it's because they're too dark?

BOBCAT: I don't know why people don't go to my movies, but I don't take it too personally. I sound like Dirk Diggler, I'm gonna keep rockin' and rollin'... I'm going to keep making the movies. I'm just trying to live in a creative life.

Was making movies what you always wanted to do?

BOBCAT: Yeah. It took me this long in life to go, "Oh, this is really what I'm happiest doing." It's more rewarding than stand-up, it's more rewarding than all the other things I did. I have a whole new appreciation for actors. It's really hard. I think these guys did an amazing job. And I now realize that I'm a really bad actor.

God Bless America

What's he like as a director?

JOEL: He's pretty cool. He's very comforting and calm. He's not a yeller, unlike her. I was up against the fact that, in my head, this was a part he had toyed with playing himself. I kind of thought, [mimics Goldthwait] "H-h-h-ow would Bob say that?" But he wasn't demonstrative in any way.

TARA: And funny. This is my first film and I've been spoiled. He creates such an awesome, equal welcoming environment on set, and I know that's not going to be the case for 90 percent of the movies I do.

BOBCAT: This was a violent movie about kindness. Now while we're making this movie, if I'm a douchebag then I'm a huge hypocrite. because the whole movie is anti-douchebag. I remember once talking to a Teamster who worked with Bob Fosse on Star 80. They said, "Oh, we had so many laughs!" And I was like, "Wh-a-a-a-t?" That always stuck with me. It should be fun. Life's too short. He said every Friday night, Fosse through a huge party. "Alright, let's get done with the rape. Let's work on the party!" Do you feel there was a pivotal moment when American culture went down the tubes?

BOBCAT: I don't know if there was a tipping point for me. I'm not that angry I don't think, but I am upset and frustrated with the way things are right now. I don't know if it's a question of maturity you start thinking things seem worse, or if they really have gotten worse. I wasn't around during the '20s. But it really does seem right now we reward the dumbest, the shallowest, the meanest and the loudest.

Also with the rise of reality TV, there's less work for writers.

JOEL: These people, they're scabs. They're stealing jobs they shouldn't have. They're under-qualified people taking jobs away from writers and actors. You wouldn't have a plumber in your house who's cheaper than a real plumber but doesn't know how to do it.

A reality plumber.

JOEL: I just think it's an outrage. When I catch my wife watching The Real Housewives of Hoboken, I tell her, "Turn it off! They're taking food out of our mouths!" It's her guilty pleasure. I hate it.

BOBCAT: I do small things. If I click on a news story and I see that it's TMZ, I won't go over there. I don't want to be one more hit for that kind of nastiness.

I always thought like the O.J. Simpson trial was the beginning.

JOEL: But the O.J. trial also gave us 14 CSIs and NCISes, because everybody in America wanted to know how ot get away with killing their wife or spouse, so it also made work for actors.

BOBCAT: What is this DNA?

JOEL: There's 15 shows on now about how to get away with murder.

BOBCAT: The thing about murder always is that it's complete storytelling. People meet, something goes wrong, someone gets killed, someone gets away with it or they get caught. I watch a lot of true crime, and crime reenactment, and 48 Hours. When Joel's character falls asleep, watching the Charles Whitman story, that is me. I put on true crime and I sleep like a baby. There's a show called Snapped. It should be called Bitch Got a Gun.

God Bless America

This is a real show?

TARA: Oh yeah. It's women in relationships who kill their husbands. That's the whole show. I think it's on Oxygen.

BOBCAT: People think this is a parody. I'm not parodying anything. These are shows that I have seen. People say it's a little dated, it's because I'm not watching this stuff anymore.

JOEL: Some of the people who have see the trailer have said aren't you worried about copycat murders. Look at the news! You can't even copy half the murders that are going on. These murders are sensible, compared to taking your two sons, filling the house with gas and when the social worker drops them off blowing up the house.

BOBCAT: If we want to start banning violent works of fiction, I'm all for it but you better start with the Bible. Cut-your-baby-in-half King Solomon was the inspiration for the baby getting shot at the beginning of the movie.

I'm curious about the blowback from the kind of people you literally target in the movie. Has there been a lot?

BOBCAT: Before the movie came out there was a nice positive story done in the LA Times about it. I went on some conservative websites and they were very upset with me already. They hadn't seen the movie. They didn't know what it was about. It's a movie about kindness. People go, aren't you afraid of people watching the movie and being influenced by it. No. I hope people watch the movie. I hope people stop being douche-y. It's funny when I ego surf. White supremacists are mad. It's funny how he doesn't kill anybody of color! You're watching the trailer man. We shoot and kill the whole Reading Rainbow and some point or another. It's just people who are douchebags. Sometimes people bring up this movie Falling Down. That movie is about a guy who really wants to go to his daughter's birthday party. And then foreigners get in his way. Gangsters get in his way. That's not this movie.

Diablo Cody gets singled out for a special moment in your script, although she never makes the character's hit list. Have you heard from her?

BOBCAT: She wrote a blog that she was very saddened by me.

I thought she had a sense of humor?

BOBCAT: The point of that scene was, my daughter's really funny and when she says things that are funny people go, "You're like Juno." And she's like "Dad, I want to stab them in the throat when they say that." So Frank needs to say the line, "I only wanna kill people who deserve to die." Roxy needs to give examples of people who don't deserve to die. Obviously, I don't really think Diablo Cody deserves to die. At one point someone suggested I take it out, so I added another page about why Diablo Cody sucks. [laughs]. So you know, whatever, maybe her and I will eventually bro down.

JOEL: Young Adult's pretty good.

BOBCAT: As I was ego-surfing I saw one review of Young Adult and it said "This would have been a much better movie if it had been made by Bobcat Goldthwait." Poor Diablo Cody! But it was funny in this blog she wrote, she was like, "Please let me evolve. Juno was my grovel-ly voice." I was like, what are you nuts? Don't evolve. You're a successful writer who won an Oscar. What do you want to become? A Martian? A moon maiden? Lighten up, lady! That was a weird thing. I haven't been concerned with evolving. I'm not worried about people's perceptions of me. If you only know me from Police Academy or my early stand up, I don't have a problem with that. I've been making these movies because I love making them.

Posted by ahillis at 9:54 AM

May 11, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

by Nick Schager

Vampire in Brooklyn [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's fish-out-of-water vampire comedy Dark Shadows.]

Pair a flagging comedian with a floundering horror director and what you get is Vampire in Brooklyn, a marriage made in horror-comedy hell courtesy of Eddie Murphy and Wes Craven. The mid-90s-isms of this wretched collaboration are plentiful—cue Salt-n-Pepa's "Whatta Man" to underline Murphy's alpha-male sexiness?— and yet they're the least of this film's problems, so misbegotten and poorly executed is its every element. Working from a story co-conceived by Murphy and a script co-written by Murphy's yet-to-be-Chappelle's-Show-famous brother Charlie, Craven's pre-Scream debacle gets clunky wit' it from the get-go. Before we've even seen him, Maximillian (Murphy) narrates the set-up: with all his brethren dead, Max has left his Bermuda Triangle island home to find and marry the last of his line, who happens to be living (unaware of her vampiric nature) in Brooklyn. Given Craven's Haiti voodoo-themed The Serpent and the Rainbow, Max's nationality suggests that the filmmaker has a particular conception of the Caribbean as a hotbed of exotic evil. Those nonsensical notions, though, are overshadowed by the more basic absence of craft on display, as evidenced by an intro scene in which, after Max's ship crashes into a dock, John Witherspoon's hands-flailing caretaker investigates the vessel and finds a murdered crew in one amusement park ride-style close-up after another.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Max makes his initial appearance on a wave of smoke-machine fog in a dark alley, where he rescues Julius (Kadeem Hardison) from Italian mobsters—ripping out Mitch Pileggi's heart and then quipping "Put a little heart into it!"—so he can make him his ghoul minion, replete with putrefying skin and falling-off body parts. "I am Maximillian. A connoisseur of death, you might say," coos Murphy's specter, but with his long flowing locks, well-manicured goatee, and dark black overcoat, he seems less a descendent of Nosferatu (board-stiff rising from the ground or not) than a vain '90s R&B singer dressed up for Halloween. When Julius tells a hungry Max that he can get some KFC and Max instead flicks flesh out of his teeth and retorts "I already had Italian," the mixture of racial stereotyping and one-liner cheesiness is almost too much to bear. Any such offensiveness, however, is still more interesting than Max's ensuing search, which is conveniently aided by the fact that his target, Rita (Angela Bassett), is a cop who just happens to be investigating the very ship murders Max perpetrated. Rita's mom went crazy in an asylum for seeing the same visions that now terrify Rita but—as when she dreams of discovering herself crucified in a doorway, leading to her waking up screaming and flailing about—are hopelessly laughable.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Bassett may be a more elegant and forceful screen presence than the rest of her mugging co-stars, but she does her best to match their overacting throughout Vampire in Brooklyn, her performance comprised mainly of hysterical freaking out and badass tough-girl strutting. Alas, no subtlety would have salvaged this material, as Max's pursuit of Rita involves one groan-worthy set piece after another, many scored to the sounds of Hardison's awful comedic-relief cackling and, in two cases, centered on Murphy's fondness for prosthetics-enabled impersonations. To get to Rita, Max shape-shifts into, respectively, a bellowing preacher and an Italian gunmen, both of them even broader caricatures than the one Zakes Mokae (a holdover from The Serpent and the Rainbow) plays as Dr. Zeko, the Caribbean-expat vampire expert whose insights eventually help Rita's dull-as-dirt partner-cum-love-interest Detective Justice (Allen Payne) thwart Max's plan. Murphy's role-playing shenanigans are a dreary example of look-at-me narcissism, and they further strand the proceedings between scary and funny—a netherworld that becomes more unpleasant as the story barrels toward its conclusion, and wisecracking banter sits more and more uncomfortably next to monstrous-faced bellowing and neck-biting.

Vampire in Brooklyn

Ultimately more disastrous than tonal inconsistency is simply Vampire in Brooklyn's cluelessness about how it wants us to feel about Max, who for the first two-thirds of the film is presented as a likeably dapper anti-hero for whom we're supposed to root, and then—once he's on the verge of securing Rita's affections—is suddenly positioned as a villain whose downfall we should crave. This muddled POV means that one never cares about these characters' fates at any point along their respective journeys. Then again, Craven's direction is so hambone silly that taking any of this seriously is nigh impossible. Despite his illustrious reputation, Craven proves downright incompetent when it comes to atmosphere, employing thunder and lightening, violent wind, and bright misty light with ridiculous frequency. His touch is heavy and exaggerated, which means it perfectly matches Max's double entendres to Rita like "I would love to have you for dinner," and his responding to Rita rejecting his proposition of eternal life with the scene-closing zinger, "Women." In his holy man guise, Max may preach "Evil is good!" but it's a sentiment refuted at every turn by Vampire in Brooklyn's insufferable cartoon spookiness.

Posted by ahillis at 5:11 PM

May 9, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: I Wish

by Vadim Rizov

I Wish

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's last film to receive American distribution, 2008's Still Walking, ended with a long shot of trains passing, "a moment whose metaphoric intent is clear," wrote Trevor Johnston. "Those trains have people on them with the same problems as the rest of us." Japanese National Railways' high-speed bullet trains serve a more optimistic function in I Wish, as well as providing some of its financing. Shane Meadows made use of Eurostar's funding for the delightful Somers Town, and Kore-eda is similarly adept in making sure he isn't compromised by his financiers.

I Wish

In Kore-eda's best known film, After Life, the newly dead have seven days to choose their favorite memory, which is filmed so that they can spend eternity with these moments. Inevitably, everyone ends up choosing ah-that-was-the-moment-of-my-life scenes of passing incidental pleasures: a sunny trolley ride, a quiet afternoon sitting on a park bench. By emphasizing the effort of recreating such a moment in long near-documentary sequences of the difficulty of film production, Kore-eda turned the process into something to be savored in and of itself, rather than hectoring us. Not so much in Still Walking, whose very title invites people to jump up and down with joy at not being paralyzed, and which came dangerously close to that-floating-plastic-bag-sure-is-beautiful smugness. Here, despite a sticky-sweet score from the band Quruli, Kore-eda lets moments unfold without forcing a message on each one.

Older sibling Koichi (Koki Maeda) lives with mom in Kagoshima, cleaning the volcanic ash from nearby mount Sakurajima that settles daily in his room before going to school. Younger Ryonuosuke (Oshiro Maeda) lives with dad in Fukuoka, high-fiving his way through the morning playground, belting out "OHAYO" ("good morning") like a miniature Japanese Seann William Scott. Their visible maturity levels are deceptive: Koichi's the one harboring unrealistic plots of bringing their divorced parents back together, while Ryonusuke revels in his new home.

I Wish

Koichi and Ryonosuke take after their custodial parents: Koichi's a worrier, Ryonosuke a feckless wastrel in embryo (so says mom). Koichi's fixation on making sure he's raised by a nuclear family denies the obvious reality that his parents' antithetical goals and levels of responsibility were a very good reason for splitting up. In Ryonosuke's flashbacks, his parents are always at alarming dinnertime odds, and he vows to never put up with that again. But Koichi is determined to force reconciliation. After hearing that the first two passing trains on the new line will make wishes come true for anyone who sees this moment, he plans an expedition to be there.

When the brotherly road trip finds a last-second spot to witness the locomotive miracle, Koichi's suddenly overtaken with flashbacks to "small moments" from the last two hours: a teacher's grip upon his shoulders, a student making a baseball diamond in the dust with his feet. This montage condenses After Life's message into a brisk 30 seconds, the only bold gesture in an otherwise tempered, gentle work that's content to bask in the presence of its uniformly endearing characters. Amiable father Kenji (Jo Odagiri) is given the task of delivering Kore-eda's thesis by way of a self-defense: "There's room in the world for waste. Imagine if everything had meaning. You'd choke." I Wish practices what it preaches.

Posted by ahillis at 11:17 AM

May 7, 2012

MARYLAND 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Maryland Film Festival

Somewhere around 1 a.m. at the Lithuanian Hall in Baltimore, it hit me. Why shouldn't this be the place to have a passionate, detailed conversation about independent filmmaking? Film festivals take pride in the range of experiences they can offer guests and patrons, but nothing I've experienced quite compares with this backdrop: a packed, sweaty dance floor hopping with enthusiastic groovers, while a DJ plays deep soul classics and Charm City icon John Waters sits in a corner having an intimate chat with a fan. Behind the rectangular bar, burly old guys from the Old Country gruffly dispense $2 bottles of Utenos and Svyturys. I bump into an old friend I haven't seen in 20 years, and he immediately introduces me to an unalloyed artifact of the city. I don't understand too much of what he's trying to tell me, but from his T-shirt I know his name. The garment bears a likeness of his pixelated gaze and wild shocks of white hair framing a bald dome, and underneath his face the legend: Rezzy Ray Has a Posse.

We didn't talk for long, Rezzy Ray and I, as I had another posse to engage. In an adjacent room was a convergence of American filmmakers, brought to town for the Maryland Film Festival, which has evolved into an important annual summit meeting. The festival's particular focus is on the ever-emerging microbudget movement and smart, risky, handmade cinema, the kind that has to work hard to assert itself in a world where distributors often want everything and offer next to nothing.

The Patron Saints

"It's like summer camp for filmmakers," noted Kris Swanberg, whose second feature Empire Builder premiered at the festival, during one of several panels devoted to relevant themes. With a lineup that included Craig Zobel (Compliance), Amy Seimetz (Sun Don't Shine), Kate Lyn Sheil (Sun Don't Shine, Empire Builder, The Comedy, V/H/S), Rick Alverson (The Comedy), David Lowery (apparently everything, but here notably as the cinematographer of Empire Builder and Reconvergence), Sophia Takal (Supporting Characters, The International Sign for Choking, V/H/S), Bill and Turner Ross (Tchoupitoulas), Rachel Grady (Detropia), Jonathan Lisecki (Gayby), Jodi Wille and Maria Demopoulous (The Source), Brian M. Cassidy and Melanie Shatzky (Francine, The Patron Saints), Joe Swanberg (V/H/S), and even Bobcat Goldthwait (God Bless America) genially popping up everywhere, among many others, it was a rich mix of talent that also wasn't limited to one creative circle.

Between the panels, the parties and a freewheeling daylong conference that brought filmmakers together with programmers, critics and at least one distributor (and remarkably left no scars), the festival becomes what South by Southwest or Sundance might be for many if they weren't too busy pushing their own film or chasing deadlines to chill out and get real, and amazingly enough finally watch each others' films.

Empire Builder

Fostering that communal vibe at a festival that isn't about making deals or working the press is the genius concept here. On the one hand, Maryland is a kind of aggregator event that cherry picks the best or most apt titles that already have played Sundance or SXSW (or even the New York Film Festival, where foreign-language auteur events like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia and The Turin Horse made their U.S. premieres last fall), but in many cases have yet to reach festival screens in New York. On the other, that all but guarantees a satisfyingly strong schedule. It's more or less what Brooklyn's BAMcinematek will do in a few weeks when it launches the 2012 BAMcinemaFest, an event whose curatorial tastes argue for the vibrancy of so much work that exists under the radar of mass media/multiplex consumption—but gives audiences a truthful account of what's happening in America right now. But BAM programs its festival over a dozen days. Maryland serves up a strong, fast dose of cinema, packed into four nights of screenings that stretch over a weekend, with almost everything centered around the historic Charles Theater and an adjacent parking lot transformed into a tented HQ/lounge/bar zone. The design makes everything easy.

Though it's mostly not a "breaking news" festival like SXSW or Sundance, it was fascinating to re-watch films and reassess how they felt outside of the bubble of those omni-fests. For instance, the multi-director omnibus V/H/S, once you know what's going to happen in each episode, plays even more strongly as a comedy. Even if, objectively, it's far from perfect, the film delivers genuine excitement: laughs, subtle or extreme, peppered with scares that finally escalate into seat-bouncing freakouts. Underneath the decayed texture of the found footage concept, there's some fascinating crosstalk between the different writer-director teams whose casts usually are engaged in some kind of male-female power game. Compliance, as elsewhere, generated a lot of debate. The heard-on-the-street reactions to Zobel's chilling "based on a true story" drama of a sexual assault on a fast food employee incited by a prank call reminded me of Le Tigre's "What's Yr Take on Cassavetes?": Misogynist! Genius!

The International Sign for Choking

The "girls vs. boys" themes abided in debuts like Swanberg's Empire Builder, in which Sheil plays a frustrated Chicago housewife (married to Swanberg's real-life filmmaker husband Joe) whose one-week escape to a Montana cabin with baby (Jude Swanberg, in his first role) on board. Once there, in a grandly minimalist terrain lensed by David Lowery, she begins to experience a renewed sense of herself—a room of one's own, really—but soon falls in with the handyman (Bill Ross), and almost wordlessly finds herself back where she started. The improvised drama makes much of landscape and expression without much dialogue, to an end that felt head-clearing and meditative, leading up to a sudden, literally hysterical ending that then shuts down the movie cold. Zach Weintraub's The International Sign for Choking is similarly stripped down, with a character (Weintraub's Josh) at his own summit of discontent, uncertain how to move forward. Shot in Buenos Aires by the talented and often experimental cinematographer Nandan Rao (Green), the film might have taken place anywhere: Much of the action is shot in a bedroom against a brightly colored backdrop of floral wallpaper. Rao's knack for abstraction and playful use of focus seems to reflect Josh's own state of mind. He's a stranger in Argentina, stuck on a documentary commission and unable to break out of his shell, when he meets-cute with Takal's Anna (they discover each other playing knock-knock on either side of a wall in a rooming house). A fixation leads to unexpected stalker behavior involving Anna's dates, and the story carefully builds suspense of a highly existential sort.

What happens next to these films this small and personal is hard to say, but the Maryland Film Festival exists to keep showing them, and generating conversation about them that won't be over anytime soon.

Posted by ahillis at 9:25 AM

May 4, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Connection (1962)

by Vadim Rizov

The Connection

[Presented by Milestone Films, The Connection opens today at NYC's IFC Center in a new 35mm restoration.]

Though credulous French viewers allegedly mistook it for vérité footage at Cannes, Shirley Clarke's 1962 drama The Connection is unmistakably a filmed play. A camera swoop through a ratty New York apartment halts for a sweaty, self-and-everyone-loathing monologue from waspy addict Leach (Warren Finnerty), fuming about his "so-called friends" and their junkie worthlessness. Far from naturalism, this is Eugene O'Neill territory, with a drug connection subbing for the long-awaited iceman in a purgatorial living room. Leach finds his place under a big sign posted above the bathroom for maximum dark comic value ("Heaven or hell...which will you choose?"), holding forth with barroom intensity and pointlessness about the speed of light and the body's transparency.

Clarke meticulously records Finnerty's theatrical version of verisimilitude. More of-the-time hamminess comes from Solly (Jerome Raphael), a middle-aged intellectual with a penchant for philosophizing at the slightest provocation. Leach's problem is his sexual incompatibility with every woman on the planet ("a queer without being a queer," one of the addicts sneers), while Solly's seen gazing at male nudes. Their sexual marginalization isn't necessarily related to their drug habit.

The Connection

The Connection can be profitably viewed as an even-handed dual record of contemporary off-Broadway theater and bop only incidentally interested in heroin use. Many of the musicians weren't actually users, but saxophonist Jackie McLean taught them how to credibly mimic nodding in and out. When the connection finally shows up, Freddie Redd's ensemble doesn't stop their song: each monologue-averse quartet member drops out to shoot up, taking just long enough for another player to solo. After all four have had their fix, they all play a full-band reprisal, having never once lost control over song structure.

The Living Theater's original production had actors insulting patrons in the lobby during intermission, and young Martin Sheen (in his first stage role) interrupted the second act from the audience. More playfully, the adaptation subs out the on-stage director and producer and offers up a sacrificial lamb in the form of blustering documentarian Jim Dunn (William Redfield). "I know something about Eisenstein and Flaherty" he says in a badly misguided attempt to lend authority to his desire to capture unvarnished reality (both filmmakers noted for high artifice and overt authorial flourishes). Mostly unseen, cameraman J.J. Burden (Roscoe Lee Browne) observes with grim amusement his boss' attempts to ingratiate himself by stuttering how much he digs these cats rather than taking the obvious option of just shutting up and watching.

The Connection

Dunn and Burden have two cameras, the film ostensibly cutting between their viewpoints. The cinematography is mostly omniscient, executed by offscreen hands when everyone but J.J. is clearly too incapacitated to shoot. Instead of trying to develop two separate visual viewpoints, Clarke goes for vigorous movement that never duplicates an earlier move. "What do you want to hear?" a junkie fumes in schematic, audience-indicting protest. "That we're a petty, self-annihilating microcosm?" The play's guilty as charged, miles away from the urban rot of 1971's twin heroin landmarks, Panic in Needle Park (Manhattan) and Dusty and Sweets McGee (Los Angeles), similar open-air juxtapositions of actors and the real-life destitute. Less interested than those films in capturing unquestionably authentic locations, The Connection's vigorous record of a thorny production seemingly urges audiences to actively criticize and nitpick at the onscreen drama's credibility.

Posted by ahillis at 9:31 AM

May 3, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Specials (2000)

by Nick Schager

The Specials

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Marvel's superhero-team extravaganza The Avengers.]

Released before 2002's Spider-Man and the ensuing (and still-ongoing) onslaught of CG superhero spectacles, The Specials is something like Watchmen-lite, with its deconstruction performed not with an incisive scalpel but a feathery sarcastic touch. Unlike screenwriter James Gunn's more recent Super—which bluntly delved into the psychosexual madness underlying masked avengers' vigilantism—his prior likeminded effort is a humorously cheeky affair, focusing on a mundane day in the life of The Specials, the "sixth or seventh greatest superhero team in the world." That ragtag group of do-gooders is led by The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church), a pompous blowhard whose arrogance—epitomized by his fondness for recounting to team members his origin story, in which he likens himself to God—is laced with a melancholy born from the realization that he's woefully low on the superhero ladder. His problems are compounded by the contempt showered on him by wife Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), who's secretly sleeping with smug Weevil (Rob Lowe), as well as by a bunch of paranormal misfits that include, among others, blue-skinned sexual degenerate Amok (Jamie Kennedy), dim-witted strongman U.S. Bill (Mike Schwartz), ill-tempered ghoul-summoning Death Girl (Judy Greer), and shrinking Minute Man (Gunn), whose name is constantly mispronounced "Minuteman" ("Do I look like a soldier from the Revolutionary War?").

The Specials

Dysfunction is the Specials' specialty, though that seems poised to change with the forthcoming unveiling of their action figures (an honor akin to the Oscars). Still, even that momentous event is downplayed by Gunn's tale as merely another facet of the daily drudgery faced by superheroes, who operate out of an office fielding requests from weirdoes (Ms. Invincible explains to a caller that they don't have archival nude photos of past members), and spend most of their time having pity parties about lack of recognition (Weevil says that being a Special is akin to being "the last sailor in line behind the whore"). Gunn shrewdly casts superheroism as a vocation driven by marketing concerns: Minute Man worries his costume is too "gay," and a rival outfit recruits Weevil because his blue outfit fills a need for their upcoming Beanie Baby dolls. Those concerns, however, never supersede Gunn's characterizations of his protagonists as goofy, socially screwy outcasts searching for acceptance and community. That portrait is aided by Real World-style confessional interviews in which the Specials' latent anger, misery, emotional retardation and bizarreness comes to the fore, never funnier than when Minute Man crazily opines (after failing to woo new recruit Nightbird (Jordan Ladd), "The great thing about not getting the person that you love is that you can still think about that person and masturbate, which is essentially the same thing."

The Specials

The fact that it preceded the last decade's superhero blockbuster trend likely contributed to The Specials' under-the-radar fate, though equally culpable for a lack of recognition is Craig Mazin's direction, which is so flat, ungainly and all-around uninspired that the film resembles a second-rate sitcom. Mazin never met a medium-shot he didn't want to light in dull hues and frame in the gawkiest way imaginable, and the effect is that the aesthetics—while mirroring the material's depiction of the Specials' routine busywork and bickering—work at odds with the zippiness of Gunn's script. That's most notable during a paparazzi-flashbulbed blow-up between Strobe and Ms. Indestructible about her infidelity, with Mazin barely able to even shoot a single punch to the face without employing graceless edits, and then ending the scene with time-lapse dissolves that have all the panache of an amateurish wedding video. That form-content dissonance drains The Specials of considerable electricity, although not enough to sabotage its funniest sequence, in which the Specials' toys wind up looking nothing like the members, with Minute Man turned into an African-American, Death Girl reimagined as a meat thermometer-wielding evil clown, and genius Mr. Smart (Jim Zulevich) given a Richard Dawson head.

The Specials

Gunn doesn't do much with his initial new-recruit-joins-the-team narrative strand, but the shagginess of the action proper is befitting a story about personal and professional disappointment, insecurity and ennui. Scant drama emerges from Weevil and Death Girl contemplating offers to join other crews, Amok thinking about returning to his youthful villainous ways (which involved trying to give the world scabies), and Strobe's petulant attempt to disband the Specials. Regardless, Gunn's writing, rooted in a deep familiarity of superhero lore that never leads to allusion-overload, has a crackling energy that's enlivening. The Specials is one-note, and yet that one-note is a strong one that reaps consistent laughs, as with U.S. Bill, a dumb-guy-says-dumb-things caricature whose non-sequitur idiocy is nonetheless hilarious, be it his opining about cocktail punch "Some things have flavors that taste good on your tongue, dontcha think?" or crazily cackling at a shadow on the wall behind his mother's head that makes it look like she's wearing a hat. Most amazing about Gunn's deconstructionist work, however, is that via the profane Amok—a desperate misfit with borderline rape-fantasy sexual hang-ups—he manages the superhuman feat of making Jamie Kennedy mildly amusing.

Posted by ahillis at 2:05 PM

May 1, 2012

SFIFF 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Craig Phillips

Ok, Enough, Goodbye

[The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 3.]

The distinctly deadpan feature debut of Lebanese filmmaker Rania Attieh and her American co-director Daniel Garcia, OK, Enough, Goodbye is a warm but not overly sentimental, low-key character comedy. Like the Middle Eastern answer to Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man, the film concerns a 40-year-old schlub (Daniel Arzrouni) who still lives at home in Tripoli—a seaport city with a rich history dating back to the 14th century, which has since fallen on hard economic times.

The locale has an air of sadness about it; not just war-torn malaise but a feeling for things lost between generations, palpably seeping into this household as a mother regrets that her son is such a loser. She speaks of wedding ceremonies and gowns she used to make, while her sociophobic son can't get a date with anyone other than a prostitute. The unnamed protagonist works in a bakery and doesn't otherwise get out much. When his mother takes off unexpectedly, leaving him on his own, the story becomes about one man's searching—first for his ma, then for himself. It's hard to blame anyone's downbeat demeanor in a decaying, depressing environment, but this sourpuss only becomes more irritable after he's "abandoned." To the directors' credit, the film doesn't deride him but also isn't afraid to mine his neuroses for comedy.

The characters are candidly depicted in documentary-like interviews (one of whom is a neighbor child our sad-sack hero must babysit against his will), though the conceit is a bit awkward in conjunction with the film's running voiceover narration. But OK, Enough, Goodbye has an immediate, realistic feel that subtly grounds the humor. The energy level threatens to flag at times, but Arzrouni proves to be a compelling presence. He hires a poor Ethiopian maid to clean house, except she's really there to keep him company; of course, she doesn't speak a lick of Arabic and doesn't understand his rants. The unlikely pair, along with the neighbor boy briefly form an oddball family unit, at least until our momma's man finds himself a more fitting companion. And, OK, that's enough, goodbye.

Rebellion

After a foray into Hollywood as an actor (Munich, Haywire) and director (Babylon A.D., Gothika) following the critical success of La Haine, Mathieu Kassovitz returns to France as the director of Rebellion, a provocative and highly effective thriller that trades on his dual history as provocative auteur and flashy studio hack. The film is based on a bloody 1988 incident that occurred in the French territory of New Caledonia; more specifically, Ouvéa Island, a deceptively beautiful tropical landscape that offers such Apocalypse Now-like imagery as helicopters against an orange Pacific sky.

Kassovitz also stars as Captain Legorjus of the Gendarmerie (military police), a skilled negotiator who is called in when indigenous Kanak separatists attack and take French soldiers hostage in an uprising. Legorjus is almost too compassionate for the job, butting heads with the more truculent soldiers who think of the natives as savages. While it's filmed from a French viewpoint, one gets a sense through the captain's open-mindedness that things are more turbulent than his countrymen pretend.

Well-paced and commendably tense, Rebellion unfolds as a commando flick with a ticking clock (there are only 10 days to find and negotiate with the hostage takers) but manages to navigate the political complexities—and absurdities—of the situation. A French general tries to take advantage of the event's unexpected "gift" by making a name for himself as a war hero; similarly, career-minded politicians are more concerned with elections than humanity, and a pompous French colonial minister rejects proposals while eating his luxurious breakfast. "Words always take longer than weapons," the negotiator reminds the minister, but words ultimately end up as deadly as harsh truths are revealed in what it means to be a "good soldier." The separatists aren't especially interested in talking; the rebel leader tells Legorjus that without the nickel in the mountains, the French wouldn't know they exist.

Rebellion runs a bit longer than necessary, but it's easy to appreciate Kassovitz's patience in letting details gradually unfold. Working with cinematographer Marc Koninckx, the film stunningly captures the exotic landscape—not just the jungle canopy but the rocky, volcanic terrain; an otherworldly maze of caves, craters, hiding places. While it's not peak-era Costa-Gavras, it's still mighty compelling material—and if you're not riveted by the tragic finale, tell it to the French government.

Winter Nomads

Manuel von Stürler's beautifully conceived Winter Nomads follows a shepherd and his young female apprentice as they trek across a snowy Switzerland. The journey is called "transhumance," a centuries-old and increasingly rare method of feeding sheep naturally in grassy areas. Von Stürler confidently shoots in a vérité style: there is no narration to explain who these shepherds are, their personalities and backstories trickling out along the journey, with only the occasional mingling of Olivia Pedroli's gentle guitar score to remind us there's a director behind it all.

It's hardly a Disney movie, but the exquisite milieu, adorable canines, comical sheep and donkeys make for a family-suitable nature travelogue. The narrative tension comes from man's relationship to beasts, or a man and his naïve, stubborn apprentice as she learns the surprisingly complicated ropes. They sometimes rely on the kindness of strangers (one nearly resident gifts them slices of leftover pizza), though not everyone is so neighborly about their route, and not all lambs are lucky enough to simply be used for sweaters.

Though reminiscent of the recent, Montana-set documentary Sweetgrass—also a vérité portrait of shepherds—von Stürler's film is more satisfying. One especially sweet scene features master and pupil celebrating Christmas, eating cake at their sodden camp as distant church bells ring out midnight mass. Winter Nomads is meditative, but never dull.

Posted by ahillis at 12:20 PM