June 29, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: 21 Jump Street

by Vadim Rizov

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street is the best-crafted, most consistently funny American studio comedy since 2007's Superbad. Both star Jonah Hill, a relatively unlikely leading man, here at his most slimmed-down, introduced in a 2005 prologue as a too-much-too-late Slim Shady lookalike aspirant to cool kid status, a nerd whose bumbling prom overtures to a hot childhood friend are met with unambiguously mocking laughter. The main joke is that his return in the present as an undercover cop along with admitted jock Channing Tatum makes Hill a popular kid on the ascent. His liberal pieties, quick bully-scorning wit and comfortably unconventional appearance help him fit right in, while Tatum's self-secure stupidity no longer is a sure route to popularity.

An R-rated comedy that's already proven massively profitable, the $42-million 21 Jump Street has already made $192 million worldwide. Ostensibly trading upon the market value of its once-popular TV series namesake, it has even less meaningful relationship to the show than, say, 1995's The Brady Bunch Movie, which mocked its model as an out-of-date, socially laughable anachronism. 21 Jump Street pays sardonic lip service in the form of an updated police station church, plausibly inspired by LA's Koreatown and complete with a meme-ready wood carving of a "Korean Jesus." "We had our production designer create a partially Korean Jesus," noted co-director Phil Lord; "not so much that it was impossible or grossly racist. Just slightly racist was what we were going for." A similarly deft attention is paid throughout towards characters that initially come off as stereotyped goofs are later revealed to have hidden comic depths. It makes sense that the only element to fall flat is Ice Cube as Loud, Belligerent Cop Ironically Played By Ice Cube—a one-note joke with minimal screen time not that far off from Not Another Teen Movie's "Token Black Guy."

21 Jump Street

Morton Schmidt (Hill) is sent back to infiltrate the nerds, his high-school nemesis turned best friend Greg Jenko (Tatum) the jocks. Since graduation, Morton's been Greg's non-stop remedial trainer, and the two have genuine rapport. Assigned to re-assume their high school roles as part of an undercover drug bust, they find a whole new social taxonomy exists. Striding through the parking lot, Greg's first shocked when his strategy for popularity (taunt anyone who tries to achieve anything) can't even identify who to pick on: "Those are jocks, those are nerds... I don't know what those are."

"Those" are unambiguously Wikipedia-defined hipsters, with carefully coordinated clothing and androgynously appealing style, led by (of course) James Franco's younger brother Dave. As drug dealer/earnest environmentalist Eric, he's always up for a good party and unable to see any contradiction between his sincere progressive beliefs (the kids are uniformly anti-homophobic and strongly environmentalist) and negative social actions: not so much as a drug dealer, but as a petty tyrant enforcing new norms about who's cool. The drug crisis—a standard "Jump Street" plotline, befitting a show that spawned a lot of PSAs—is laughed off as the excuse for a sequence of Hill/Tatum tripping (the latter nails his "Peter Pan" song audition under the influence) and an end-credits mock-Requiem for a Dream montage of TV-scavenged cheesy ephemera.

21 Jump Street

21 Jump Street acknowledges that the old model for American high schools in movies is obsolete: jocks vs. nerds plus assorted sub-cliques no longer applies. Tatum turns to musical theater and hangs out with programming nerds in the lab, while Hill takes up partying. Once-marginal beliefs are now normal and duly recognized in a mainstream context. In its portrait of a new, casual social liberalism, 21 Jump Street has a reasonably cogent message about the kids being OK.

Rewriting the high-school comedy landscape gives 21 Jump Street a spine even when scenes are clearly improvised. Dialogue is delivered at a rapid clip by every cast member, abetting jokes with forceful speed. Better yet, every shot of Lord and Chris Miller's film is meticulously composed in widescreen, every frame a crisp pleasure rather than a bleary staging ground for ad-libbing. Combining thematic focus with visual attentiveness, 21 Jump Street is a model comedy.

Posted by ahillis at 8:29 AM

June 27, 2012

BAMcinemaFest '12: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Black Balloon

Shorts—as in short films—have become a peculiar manifestation of film festival culture. Almost any festival you go to will have multiple shorts programs on the schedule. And guaranteed, the filmmaker you meet who wins the short-film prize will be back soon with something special, whether it's the guy who made Hesher (see the Down Under zombie mash note I Love Sarah Jane) or the guy who made Beasts of the Southern Wild (anticipated by Glory at Sea). I don't really know under what circumstances they are exhibited anywhere else outside the institutional/museum/repertory world. Nonetheless, YouTube and Vimeo appear to be terrific bounties for short-film surfing and many an auteur's DVD bonus features would be sorely lacking if they didn't include available and relevant short exercises that laid the groundwork for the masterpiece at hand.

Josh and Benny Safdie had the bright idea of packaging their recent short The Black Balloon (a prize-winner at Sundance) with The Red Balloon, Albert Lamorisse's 1956 classic to which it pays homage, along with Buster Keaton's The Balloonatic and the animated 1935 Balloon Land (The Pincushion Man) and circulating the whole shebang under the title: "Take Me to the Balloony Bin!" It's touring the United States now, through the agency of the CInema Conservancy, and just screened as part of BAMcinemaFest—now in its fourth year at Brooklyn's BAMcinematek.

The Meaning of Robots

The Black Balloon is another one of the Safdies' wisely and colorfully drawn New York stories, a balloon's-eye view, if you will, of human nature in its fullest expression on the streets of the city, where the sheer abundance of out-of-control randomness asserts patterns and logics of its own. In this episode, the titular runaway resurrects itself from the junkyard to rescue a hapless Ratso Sloman from recent catastrophic events in his life as a broadcaster. Well, at least it gives him hope that he can persuade former protégé (Eléonore Hendricks) to help him get his job back. The frazzled, fast-talking Ratso feels like an archetypal Safdie character, and the Howard Stern biographer plays it to the hilt. Soon enough, the restless balloon finds other adventures, floating through the sun-drenched smog to the psychedelic airs of vintage Gong—a soundtrack that, like so much else, evokes a kind of idyllic 1970s vibe.

Speaking of New York characters, Michael Sullivan is not lying when he says, "It's hard to imagine a life not making robots all the time." The shaggy-headed inventor rocks his mad-scientist style, looking like a cross between stage magician Ricky Jay and Christopher Lloyd's Dr. Emmett Brown in Back to the Future, as he reveals The Meaning of Robots to filmmaker Matt Lenski. The four-minute documentary seems far too short for the vastness of Sullivan's obsession but then where exactly would he stop? You see, this man has spent the last 15 years working on a stop-motion robot sex epic. His apartment is stacked with apparently hundreds of scale-model-sized robots, staring hard with angry eyes and erect nipples (and, er, robot boners), their anatomically correct physiques ready for their close-ups in the ultimate automaton porn flick.

Brute Force

The element of surprise is not diminished by reading the above paragraph. I've watched this movie five or six times and my jaw drops just as far at every glimpse. The brevity makes perfect sense, leaving minds blown and offering little in the way of deep psychological reasonings. By the time Sullivan proudly offers a gander at a robot horse butt, the WTF?-meter has officially imploded.

Extravagant and idiosyncratic personalities lend themselves well to the doc-short format, which is long enough to be intriguing and short enough not to turn sadistic. It's easy to imagine that a full 90 minutes of Brute Force might feel a tad excessive, but for 15 minutes or so its title subject—71-year-old singer-songwriter Stephen Friedland, whose stage name is Brute Force—captivates as one of New York City's most singular living legends, albeit one whose brief shining moment on the cultural radar came and went more than 30 years ago.

Although he wrote songs for Del Shannon, The Cyrkle and the Chiffons, Friedland achieved something special when he released his first solo album, I, Brute Force – Confections of Love in 1967. The satiric material and deadpan performance style won the hearts of John Lennon and George Harrison, who signed him to Apple. But the failure of his ballad "The Fuh King" (you do the math) to pass muster with corporate censors in the US appeared to signal a swan song by the mid-1970s. Ben Steinbauer's intimate portrait of the artist as an eternal teenager captures Friedland in the midst of a 2010 comeback of sorts, and chronicles the cranky/affectionate give and take with his loyal daughter Lilah (aka Daughter of Force). It's one of those "only in New York, kids" New York stories that would have to be made up if it wasn't already true.

The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke

I can only begin to imagine what The Life and Freaky Times of Uncle Luke must be, as it wasn't available for pre-screening. According to advance billing, it's something like a NSFW live-action cartoon remake of Le Jetée transposed from the life of 2 Live Crew founder and First Amendment champion Luther Campbell, aka Luke Skyywalker. If it's not completely horrible, it's the movie of the year. Still, as imaginative biographical statements go, it's hard to top A Short History of John Baldessari. Using extremely speedy, staccato edits, a whimsical tone inspired by its subject—the 80-year-old conceptual artist—and the storytelling gravitas of Tom Waits, who narrates, filmmakers Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) impressively tell you everything you need to know about JB in the time it takes to brew some coffee. Even better: You can watch it here.

Inspirational line: "John Baldessari's studio door has two peepholes: Regular height and Baldessari height."

[BAMcinemaFest's short film programs Mixed Shorts and All-City Shorts screen Saturday at 2 and 4:30 p.m. at BAMcinematek, 30 Lafayette Ave. Brooklyn. For more information, click here.]

Posted by maian at 11:19 PM

June 25, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Tripper (2006)

by Nick Schager

The Tripper

[This week’s "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the history-rewriting presidential actioner Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.]

Political satire is nothing new to the horror genre, and on more than a few occasions—for example, William Lustig and Larry Cohen's Uncle Sam, or Joe Dante's Masters of Horror episode "Homecoming"—it's managed to find a suitable equilibrium with nasty carnage. Such a balance, alas, is nowhere to be found in The Tripper, the feature directorial debut of actor David Arquette, about a bunch of twentysomething friends who find themselves coping with all manner of clichéd slasher-madness circumstances, none more deadly than being pursued by an axe-wielding maniac in a Ronald Reagan mask. If you’re immediately wondering whether the Gipper—who's stalking victims at a drugged-out hippie-dippie Free Love music festival at Redwoods National Forest—eventually finds a way to carve "Just Say No" into his victims’ bodies, you're already one step ahead of this leaden effort. Arquette and co-screenwriter Joe Harris (Darkness Falls) intend for their material to be an everyone's-a-target lampoon in which no one is safe from being literally and figuratively picked apart. The problem here, however, is that by taking aim at all types across the political spectrum, the film plays less like a nihilistic equal-opportunity censure than a confused mess.

The Tripper

Given Arquette's own wacko on-screen and tabloid-celeb persona, that’s probably not a stunning outcome, yet it’s nonetheless dispiriting for a project that features enough notable talent—most of whom, presumably, are friends doing Arquette a favor (including his then-wife Courtney Cox, making a brief cameo)—to at least occasionally resemble a coherent piece of B-cinema trash. Unfortunately, the most fitting adjective to describe the plot itself would be “derivative,” as it details the been-here-before saga of some narcotized ciphers destined to be axe-fodder, save for nominal heroine Samantha (Jaime King), who still fears that her ex-boyfriend Jimmy (Balthazar Getty) is stalking her, and thus clings tightly to new beau Ivan (Lukas Haas). Their posse also includes Kevin Smith's frequent sidekick Jason Mewes and Boardwalk Empire's Paz de la Huerta, neither of whom provides their respective, trademark profanity and nudity in anything close to the quantity that might legitimize their participation in the first place. Rather, they’re just two of many characters who get high and occasionally blather on about George W. Bush in for-or-against soundbites that feign real interest in present-day (circa 2006) politics but really just pass the copious time before the bloodletting begins.

The Tripper

As a prologue elucidates, the Reagan-masked villain was turned psycho by a traumatic childhood encounter with anti-logging protestors in Redwoods forest that ended in chainsaw homicide, not to mention by watching hours of wartime atrocities on TV. That Arquette takes pleasure in both turning Reagan into a force of evil and in dramatizing the decimation of idiot hippies certainly allows him to play both sides of the fence. Yet it leaves the action feeling thematically adrift, a situation exacerbated by later, sketchy criticism of Reagan for freeing mental-hospital inmates back into society, as well as digs at greedy festival promoters—here embodied by Paul Reubens, whose main function is to repeatedly drop the F-bomb—and corrupt government officials. The one noble light around is sheriff Buzz (Thomas Jane), though the fact that he and Reubens' character are both saddled with bushy mustaches enhances the impression that Arquette doesn't really take any of this more seriously than as a game of splatter-happy dress-up. That's certainly true of his own tossed-off performance as one of the three hillbillies who terrorize Samantha and her friends—a trio so lame, they can barely even muster up requisite, stereotypical southern-friend nastiness.

The Tripper

Arquette's direction is passable except with regards to his corny visualizations of his characters' hallucinogenic trips—which, regrettably, occur quite often. As is par for such courses, no one opts to bolt the festival even after strung-up corpses begin appearing in the trees, and when Reagan finally stops lurking around the periphery and begins hacking up people left and right, the effect—via a scene somewhat amusingly scored to the punk-rock tirade "Reagan Youth"—is never close to frightening. Like far too many modern genre practitioners, Arquette fails to realize that, regardless of any other concerns, horror films' prime directive is to be scary, or at least attempt to be, and by not even making an effort in that department, he preemptively caps the potential effectiveness of The Tripper. Meanwhile, his inability to compensate for this misstep by lucidly analyzing the state of past or present American domestic and foreign policy, or even by giving his Reagan monster something truly funny to spout before slaughtering his victims, further downgrades this saga to a muddled trifle—albeit one, however, that’s still more politically cogent than Kevin Smith's similarly misshapen, but far more strident, Red State.

Posted by ahillis at 7:51 AM

June 22, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

by Vadim Rizov

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Given the bestselling success of Seth Grahame-Smith's Pride and Prejudice with Zombies and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, film adaptations were only a matter of time. The latter's premise is fundamentally offensive, trivializing both sides of the Mason-Dixon line: the South becomes the province of vampiric misdirection, with no messy lingering racial repercussions anywhere. Director Timur Bekmambetov's primary task is to deliver a product that's outrageous rather than merely ill-advised. Through sheer bombast and relentlessness, he succeeds.

As he demonstrated in his Russian blockbusters Night Watch/Day Watch and Hollywood debut Wanted, Bekmambetov's instincts are more American than most Americans. Scorning pro forma scenes of heroes agonizing over the right thing or any form of dramatic nuance, Bekmambetov prefers relentless speed and has notable contempt for the laws of physics. A car drove across a building's facade perpendicular to the ground in Day Watch, a plunging train provided the staging ground for a weightless fight in Wanted, and here vampires' super-strength gives Bekmambetov all the excuse he needs for more anti-gravity absurdity. This is only movie you'll see all year—possibly ever—in which a horse is thrown at someone else… in the middle of a stampede.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

The title tells the story. As a young man, Abe Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) witnesses merchant Jack Barts (Marton Csokas) cracking his whip into the face of a young slave (rendered in tasteless 3D, with the rope flying into the viewer's face). Outraged, he runs and intervenes. In return, Jack fires Abe's dad, who refuses to pay his debts. Barts comes to collect by sucking out the mother's (Robin McLeavy) blood, killing her. The desire for personal revenge is intertwined with a righteous hatred for slavery; a vampire slayer is born.

Opening aside, Abraham Lincoln largely steers clear of Mandingo-esque bad taste. Within 10 minutes, violence is endemic as Abe gets training from Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), learning to fancily twirl his ax and suss out vampires in the dark. Shooting in 3D often poses logistical problems: the slightest speck of dust or unplanned-for visual intrusion can throw off foreground-background relationships. Bekmambetov turns the medium's fallibility to his advantage. As young Abe lies by his dying mother's side, viewers' eyes are drawn not to the rote pathos of the moment but to a single floating dust speck, presaging the copious grains Lincoln often throws to get an outline of otherwise invisible bloodsuckers.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

Since sound's introduction, Hollywood's approach to period dialogue has often been a sloppy mash-up of faux-accurate-idioms and anachronistic vocabulary. Same here, as in the introduction of Mary Todd (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), who, upon introduction to her husband, says "Wow. You needn't call me ma'am." Insofar as Mary figures in at all, it's to enact the token scenes of uncomprehending-wife-chiding-husband-for-neglect-and-secrecy, which play even more like self-parody than the rest of the material. Most dialogue being merely serviceable, the overqualified cast compensates by rushing through it as if it were a newsroom comedy (props especially to Jimmi Sampson as Lincoln's friend "Speed," introduced throwing a delinquent tenant out with the threat to turn his balls into a purse).

You don't come to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for human drama: you come for outrageous setpiece chaos. Wanted's falling-train showstopper gets a climactic recap, and there's copious, often innovative depictions of various alternatives for vampire dismemberment. The extra-dimensionality is well-done, though Fox should've spent a few more dollars to avoid some of the sketchier CGI, which can get laughably threadbare. But Bekmambetov manages to power through 105 minutes of drama without becoming tiresome or repetitive. The climax—the "Gettysburg Address" over the battle, with snarling Confederate vampires rushing into the fray—provoked gales of disbelieving laughter at the screening. Whether or not this is intentional (I'm inclined to believe it is) is beside the point. If this movie must be made, this is the way to do it.

Posted by ahillis at 9:45 AM

June 18, 2012

INTERVIEW: Rosemarie DeWitt

by Steve Dollar

YOUR SISTER'S SISTER's Rosemarie Dewitt

To say that Rosemarie DeWitt is so good you don't notice her isn't meant as a slight. It's probably the highest compliment you can give to an actor. Few contemporary screen performers flow into character, story and scene as seamlessly as the 37-year-old Jersey gal, who began her career on the Off-Broadway stage before racking up plenty of notable credits on TV (Don Draper's bohemian femme fatale on Mad Men, Toni Collette's sister on The United States of Tara) and tons of indie cred in everything from Jonathan Demme's Rachel Getting Married to the 2011 critics fave Margaret. DeWitt is having a very busy summer. She co-stars with Emily Blunt and Mark Duplass in Lynn Shelton's shaggy-dog sibling comedy, Your Sister's Sister, and also has a part in the gutter-mouthed alien invasion farce The Watch (with Jonah Hill, Vince Vaughn, et al). This fall, she has a key role in Nobody Walks, the third film from indie writer-director Ry Russo-Young, in which she plays a Silver Lake psychiatrist whose sound designer husband (John Krasinski) gets a little too involved with their houseguest, a 20-something filmmaker (Olivia Thirlby) who's experimenting with more than the sound mix on her movie.

DeWitt visited New York in April for Sister's East Coast premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival, and took an hour to chat over coffee in the upstairs lounge at the Soho Grand Hotel. She was as warm and outgoing a conversationalist as anyone could ask for. My only regret was that it was too early too offer her some tequila, which goes over very well in the movie—as one may surmise from reading Vadim Rizov's review. But we are professionals here, after all.

Your Sister's Sister

In someone else’s hands, this story could have been really clichéd.

She's got a couple of things going for her. She started out as an editor, and these movies are really hard to make sense of without an amazing editor. She has really good taste in the truth of the moment. She knows when it's honest. The premise, same with Humpday, can be a little far out. I know the premise is whacked, but what would really happen in this situation? That's really fun to play.

It was mostly improvised?

Yeah. She comes up with what she calls a "scriptment," which is halfway between a script and a treatment. Often a scene will just say "Iris and Hannah talk in bed about Iris's feelings for Jack." And you'll make up the words from there. Sometimes, there would be a scene that was scripted and that was great. Most of the time, we knew the plot points we had to get to. Sometimes we wouldn't get to them in a scene, or feel it was the wrong place to say something, so it was sort of like a team sport where we'd have to regroup after every scene. we'd huddle up and say, "What did we get across?"

Were you running through single scenes a lot?

We weren't doing a whole lot of takes. The movie was shot in 12 days. We would shoot it until we got something that Lynn was happy with. As actors wearing all those hats—you're in the scene, you're writing the scene—we never knew our names. Our brains were Jell-O at the end of the day. We had to trust Lynn implicitly.

Were you in this cabin the whole time?

I wasn't. They lost an actress a couple of days before shooting, and Lynn called me on a Saturday and asked if I wanted to do this project. I said I'd love to. I hope it shoots on the Paramount lot, because that's where I am the next two weeks [shooting The United States of Tara], and it didn't. It shot in the San Juan Islands off the coast of Seattle. Everybody was there for 12 days, but I had to fly back and forth to L.A., which meant no sleep.

That probably worked well for your character.

It was perfect. The more wrecked I was the better it seemed to work.

It was also interesting, the Mark Duplass Effect.

I like that, the Mark Duplass Effect. Like there's a thing now.

He's everywhere. He's everything. But he's not the usual Matthew McConaughey guy.

He's like a hot Albert Brooks. He really has that self-deprecating everyman quality but he's also utterly charming. You can see how these girls would get into a pickle with him.

Your Sister's Sister

Emily's not someone I'm used to seeing in this kind of film. How did she manage?

She's great. Her first movie, My Summer of Love, was a completely improvised film, so I think she had a yearning to get back to that. That way of working is so liberating for an actor. You have those lightning-in-a-bottle moments that are almost impossible to find in scripted material. I wouldn't have known on paper, we had instant rapport when we all got in a room together.

Was that real tequila?

No. That would have been a good idea!

What's different about this comedy, for you, than the usual thing you see?

I didn't know it was a comedy when we read it, and when we shot it. Lynn gave us a copy of the film to see before we did the festivals. I didn't know it was funny then, either, and then I saw it with an audience at Sundance. What are they laughing at? We were playing it all for truth. I knew Mark was really funny in it. But I didn't know it was the comedy that it ultimately became.

She's known for comedy, right?

Well, she's made three films before and the first two were not. It could go either way. We had probably 40 movies in our movie because we improvised, and she chose to mine it for the comedy and juxtapose the moments against each other, so it became quite comedic.

So you guys thought you were doing this really serious drama?

Yeah. Even now, there are scenes, like the climax of the movie, we're getting all emotional. I can't believe they're laughing at this! We're pouring our hearts out here!

It's all about tempo.

Especially these improvised movies, they're really made in the editing room.

Did you know Lynn before this?

No. What happened was, I heard, that when they were throwing ideas around, Mark said, "If Rose is available she'll do it ... because she accosted me at an airport in New Orleans because she was such a fan of Humpday." Which I was. So, yeah, that's how that came to pass.

The sensibility of the film is a nice rejoinder to the airplane-movie version.

You love the ambivalence of the ending. These characters don't resolve everything. Their flaws are still their flaws. They're changed but they don't change. Sometimes in these very glossy slick versions of these stories, the people magically transform into some perfect person and that doesn't happen here.

The same can be said for Nobody Walks, although it's a completely different kind of film. What attracted you to it?

I really loved her earlier film, and I really loved the script. Usually, it's the whole deal because you never know what's going to work, even when you work with the gods of filmmaking.

Lynn Shelton, Mark Duplass, Emily Blunt, and Rosemarie DeWitt

Even though it's about an affair, the story feels more like an observation of three women at different stages of life.

That's how we approached it, women at these different moments. For Olivia's character, it's the mess you can make of things when you don't have the vision of what the future can bring.

There's no judgment, though.

That's the real success of the film. It allowed them to be who they were. The moral compass, you couldn't find it.

How did you approach your character?

I had this image when I first read it. You know when you have a thread on your sweater? You want to pull it, but you don't want the sleeve to unravel. This time in this family's life could really bomb the whole system, or they could come out much stronger for it. You don't really know what happens with them.

Do you look for a balance of small, personal films and popcorn fodder?

Different scripts fall into your lap at different times, and usually it's the thing you need to be examining in your own life. I don't make a big differentiation between "Oh, this is a job that is going to pay the mortgage," or something I'm basically paying them to do. Neither of these movies are very heavy, but if you have emotionally taxing experiences, and then you can't help but be drawn to a comedy, which could be a studio movie where you get paid a lot. Your soul tells you what you need next. When you read a script, I don't know why, and all of a sudden you respond to bathroom humor in a way you never have before, it's because you need a break from excavating down in the depths.

Are you very Method-y?

I don't know. Actors end up with a little toolbox they take from and carry everywhere. My training was in the theater. It's interesting to talk about a movie that isn't really scripted because I typically do all my work from the script. With Lynn's movie, I got the job and I introduced myself the next day. "Hi, Mark Duplass, I'm Rosemarie DeWitt and I'm going to be taking my clothes off now and here we go." I'm still learning all kinds of different ways to work.

With or without clothing, the intimacy of these films is one of their big appeals. How did you get comfortable with that?

For that one, we were lucky. We had to take a seaplane, from Seattle to the San Juan Islands, and Mark is not a good flier. I met him on the plane and he was so incredibly vulnerable. I was talking him through it. That was our bonding time, that hour-and-change on the place. Then we sent to set and it was consistently on. That really was one night of shooting, from their introduction to the bedroom.

[Nobody Walks is playing at BAMcinemaFest this Saturday, and Your Sister's Sister is now playing in limited release.]

Posted by ahillis at 6:49 PM

June 15, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny (2006)

by Nick Schager

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the hair metal-loving '80s-era musical Rock of Ages.]

"When The Pick of Destiny was released, it was a bomb / And all the critics said that The D was done," croons Jack Black at the outset of his and partner Kyle Gass' new Tenacious D album Rize of the Fenix—a jokey admission of failure that's at once accurate (the film tanked at the box office) and yet sells the D's sole cinematic offering more than a bit short. Hitting theaters in 2006 thanks largely to Black's emergence as a big-screen star, Liam Lynch's musical odyssey neither fully satisfied the faithful nor roped in new loyalists, in part due to a script (by Black, Gass and Lynch) that was light on memorable one-liners and an original soundtrack that wasn't as consistently catchy as the group's superior self-titled 2001 debut album. In hindsight, however, the fate of this adaptation of Black and Gass' short-lived HBO comedy series—which amounted to three vignette-filled episodes of blistering acoustic-rock bravado and wacko-stoner surrealism—was undeserved. Rocking much harder than it has any right to, as well as both embracing and goofily screwing around with the clichés of rock-'n-roll, musicals, coming-of-age stories, road-trip adventures, and mythic journeys, the film grooves with a larger-than-life grinning-idiot verve that's indicative of both Tenacious D's tunes and the '70s and '80s arena metal to which it pays tribute.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

A cartoon marijuana-and-farting lampoon of THX title cards marks the inauspicious start to Pick of Destiny. That minor stumble, mercifully, is quickly offset by its intro "Kickapoo" number, in which a young "JB" (Troy Gentile, expertly replicating Black's devil-eyes and facial snarl) rebels against his religious father (Meat Loaf, given a trademark rock-opera verse) and then prays to Ronnie James Dio, who croons back to Black a prophesy about heading to Los Angeles to meet his creative soulmate. Lynch's fleet direction matches the song's rollercoaster stylistic fluctuations, though it settles into a more reserved mode once a now-adult Black arrives in L.A. with dreams of stardom. Black's naively hopeful exit off a bus, the Hollywood sign in the distance, is a nod to the type of small-towner-braves-the-big-city fantasy peddled by Guns N' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" music video. And that fondness for rock tropes continues once Black—having met an arrogant, long-haired Gass playing Bach on the boardwalk—becomes Gass' mentee, which entails learning how to execute Pete Townshend-esque power slides, and later leads to a heavy metal-style heroic odyssey when he and Gass discover that the key to all great rock guitarists' success was their use of the titular pick, which was sculpted from Satan's tooth and now sits in the Rock 'n' Roll History Museum.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

The Pick of Destiny adores pentagrams, wizards, sorcery, and bong hits while tethering such loves to an overriding belief in the majesty of friendship and a tasty riff. To that end, Lynch's film is best when it simply affords its two leads space to banter with laid-back idiocy—as when Gass dubs Black's maiden power slide attempt "awesome…ly bad"—or gives them time on stage at a local club's Open Mic Night, where (following the TV show's lead) their blustery performance is prefaced by a self-penned introduction of insane and profane overstatement ("They're here to come again, in your ear pussies," announces Paul F. Tompkins' exasperated event host). Unlike the series, which didn't delineate between fantasy and reality, Lynch's film uneasily strikes a balance between actual and imagined events, so that Beelzebub (a fang-licking Dave Grohl) turns out to be real, but Sasquatch (a doofy John C. Reilly) can only exist in Black's mushroom-addled brain. Still, if that inconsistency somewhat destabilizes the overarching tone, it doesn't interfere with the sheer ridiculousness of those moments, which—as with a museum break-in to steal the Pick, or a car race sequence modeled after a videogame JB and KG play—frequently heighten absurdity through sudden cutaways from madness to tranquil shots of people witnessing (or ignoring) said craziness.

Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny

Cameos from Tenacious D fans/supporters Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller (the latter also an executive producer) are pleasant sidepaths amidst Black's boisterous spazziness and his schizophrenic hostile-loving rapport with the deadpan Gass, who's funniest in a quick glance of stunned excitement upon being propositioned by a trio of young sorority girls. A late bit of gay-panic notwithstanding, The Pick of Destiny largely eschews pandering to the frat-stoner crowd by placing its emphasis on madcap-quest hijinks flavored with equal doses of pot, swords-and-sorcery, and actual musicianship—the latter of which remains Tenacious D's trump card. As in Black's slumbering dream of performing "Master Blaster" (a song about causing audience members' heads to explode through metal shrieks), the joke is not only that Black and Gass become increasingly encased in Rob Halford-ish studded leather jackets and eye-shadow, or that Gass plays a dual-fret guitar shaped like a woman's spread legs. It's that such musical parody ultimately comes courtesy of acoustic-duo songs that—regardless of their gonzo lyrics about detonating brains and Cutlass Supremes—also legitimately rock.

Posted by ahillis at 8:38 AM

June 13, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Your Sister's Sister

by Vadim Rizov

Your Sister's Sister

In writer-director Lynn Shelton's Humpday, Mark Duplass and Joshua Leonard talk themselves into a dare requiring endless verbal finesse and hedging to back out of. Shelton's Your Sister's Sister reverses the structure: first comes the act, then the discussions. Sent to recover from a year of mourning for his late brother at best friend Iris' (Emily Blunt) isolated family house, Jack (Duplass again) finds Iris' lesbian half-sister Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt) already there for a solitary retreat to work through the recent end of a seven-year relationship. A late-night tequila session leads to an ill-advised hook-up, whose ramifications at first seem within the boundaries of the merely temporarily uncomfortable. Surprisingly and satisfyingly plotty, Your Sister's Sister slowly introduces information creating a thornier dilemma whose not-to-be-spoiled implications threaten Jack and Iris' friendship and—more seriously—the two women's ability to ever talk again.

Shelton's setpieces alternate playful conversational evasions and ineloquent emotional explosions. The verbose fumbling shares a lot in common with Andrew Bujalski's work, notably Mutual Appreciation, which also ends with a group hug. That finale was overly satirical (the ritualized reconciliation clearly solved nothing), but Sister's "open-ended" final embrace lets everyone off the hook. Dramatically, this film follows Humpday's two protagonists' lead in backing away from potentially scarring follow-through.

Your Sister's Sister

The first two acts are strong enough to cover for the near-absence of a third. Opening audio snatches heard under black-screen credits perfectly recreate a small, gathering-of-thirtysomething-friends-with-white-wine low-key party's atmosphere: people being quizzed about how long they've been with their significant other, time-filling introductions ("I'm friends with Jack"), an aimless anecdote about "a frying pan with cheese in it." Glowering at the back of this din, Jack interrupts a remembrance of how his late sibling was inspired by Hotel Rwanda to undertake community service by recalling another important movie milestone years before: seeing Revenge of the Nerds taught his brother nice guys prosper more than over bullies, motivating a mercenary change of attitude.

"I'm not calling my brother a dick," he unconvincingly whimpers before abruptly leaving the room to glare at a hallway. Aware that he can't apply for a job or get on with his life in this condition, Jack follows Iris' command to bike out of Seattle and take a ferry to the isolated San Juan Islands to brood the bitterness out of his system. Iris' unexpected arrival leaves Jack rushing out of bed to cover up what happened. Hannah remains ambivalent about concealing anything from her beloved sister. Like the two male leads in Humpday, Iris and Hannah have no closed off conversational areas when they're catching up in bed. Blunt and DeWitt clearly adore each other, maintaining Cheshire Cat grins throughout their late-night chats. The end of this sustaining dynamic is the film's worst-case scenario.

Your Sister's Sister

Jack's blustering ("He gets a little posture-y when he's nervous," Iris explains) is consistently entertaining, with Duplass again demonstrating mastery of a bright dude-next-door persona. Eviscerating Iris' "terrible taste in men" (Converse, no socks, studded belts), Jack is an appealing, self-righteously sloppy everyman fighting through depression and bile with affable conversations. Jack comes to understand that the sisters' bond trumps his claims upon Iris' friendship or romantic interest, shuts up and removes himself from the situation, breaking with a film-long pattern of trying to evade responsibility by covering up the truth. The wordless fallout from all the verbal escalation takes the mostly filler form of postcard views of the landscape, alternated with Jack biking and the two sisters not talking.

Your Sister's Sister's merits are in its opening hour, as sibling bonding alternates with Jack sweating through a potentially cartoonish situation. Personal mannerisms shaped by liberal social norms are established through broad how-we-live-now gags (a vegan pancake breakfast where Hannah's tweaked for her refusal to use butter) and three distinct vernaculars: Jack's slacker-male version of persiflage, Iris' earnest affection, Hannah's blunt assertiveness. Moment to moment, the opening comedy-of-manners hour of contemporary sexual mores is unfailingly convincing, a verisimilitude lingering long past the cop-out finale.

Posted by ahillis at 5:42 PM

June 11, 2012

Space is the Place

by Steve Dollar

PROMETHEUS director Ridley Scott, with Noomi Rapace

Who isn't a sucker for a good outer-space yarn? Thirty-three summers ago, Ridley Scott chomped through the guts of that candy-ass Star Wars crap and unleashed Alien on the shrieking matinee masses. It was like a Sam Fuller war movie crammed in a tin can, a vessel simultaneously erupting with Cronenbergian body horror, externalized in the creepy-erotic majesty of H.R. Giger's design, and cannily importing a decade of splatterific outrage from the grindhouses and drive-ins to the budding twin cinemas of middle America. All that, and Sigourney Weaver—the Final Girl to end all Final Girls—hanging tough in her iconic panties, and a cat named Jones.

James Cameron upped the ante with Aliens, and Scott never looked back. Until now. The promise of Prometheus has had fanboys and girls in a steaming lather all year. And not undeservedly. The director hasn't done sci-fi since 1982's Blade Runner, and the digital revolution now offers the technology to imagine things on a movie screen that really do look futuristic. Ironically, perhaps, the film is a prequel to Alien, or rather presented as part of the Alien origin myth that can now progress as its own franchise. The razzle-dazzle CGI deployed suggests technological advancements that far exceed anything at hand in the quartet of Alien movies, a paradox we'll have to live with.

Prometheus

Sometime in the last decade of the 21st century, a pair of scientists uncover a series of startling similar cave paintings at remote locations around the world that suggest the possibility of alien visitors during mankind's prehistory. The eggheads, Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) are able to identify a configuration of stars in the drawings that are discovered to exist in our own galaxy. Out there lay the answers to existence—and an explanation for an opening sequence in which an ancient titan commits his flesh to seed the primordial muck out of which man evolved.

Soon enough in cryogenic time, the pair are onboard the spaceship Prometheus, now hovering above a desert planet whose mammoth rock formations may harbor some answers about the identity of the "engineers," as Shaw calls them, keepers of some divine spark whose cause her missionary parents served and died for. The ship's sleeping crew has been tended by David (Michael Fassbender), an android who obsessively styles himself—in grooming, manner and speech—after Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but also conveys an uncanny chill of otherness that another David—Bowie—projected in The Man Who Fell to Earth. It's a tribute to the adroit, nuanced turns of Fassbender's performance that he plays a rather sinister character whose wicked charm and ambition wins sympathy. He is, to quote the Forbes magazine slogan, a capitalist tool, in ways that only become apparent after the Big Third Act Reveal That Really Isn't Breaking News. But simmering underneath the duplicity, David encourages the audience to look for his own agenda. One of the flaws of the much-derided screenplay (co-authored by Lost's Damon Lindelof) is that it introduces themes and motifs such as this only to leave them dangling or only half-baked (kind of like Lost). It's all metaphysics for the ADD-afflicted. But, like the screenwriters, I don't care, either. It's too bad, but the acting compensates. Shaw, a true believer among empirical materialists, offers a complex profile of a scientific mind who won't discount faith, and finally proves to be a scrapping Ripley 2.0. And not least, of course, is Fassbender and his "Mum," Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron, veins coursing with freon), the corporate bitch-on-wheels who seems to have less of a soul than her automated minion (at least until the crew's sole burly African-American gent, the commander played by Idris Elba, torments her with his squeezebox repertoire and scores some sexy time).

Prometheus

The pair of them could free-style a lost in space chamber comedy in homage to Alien-creator Dan O'Bannon and John Carpenter's Dark Star, part of the sprawl of classic SF movies that are the DNA of Prometheus (down to the retro-clunky transparent air helmets). But then the film wouldn't get to uncork all its fancy 3D effects, or make use of the sublime, hypnotically freaky Giger interiors that surround the adventurers as they explore the caverns underneath a massive geological formation. There, natch, they discover some enigmatic chambers patrolled by deadly ... well, you know. In the film's most spellbinding, magical sequence, Fassbender's robot accesses a subterranean control room where he uncovers the Big Secret (no spoilers here) and is soon in the midst of a swirling holographic dance of the universe—as transported as a six-year-old at the county fair. It's the very kind of moment where all the technology at play and on display fully justifies itself, in symbiotic unity with the story.

Prometheus doesn't sustain anything like that for long, as it seesaws between 2001-inspired philosophical questing and suspense/action/gut-gobbling good times. As to the latter, Scott offers a surprising latter-day parallel to the John Hurt chest-bursting scene of the original Alien, but this time reframes the concept as a kind of pro-choice endorsement. It's the instant when tender souls will blow their cookies, but its inclusion only validates the movie's awesomeness—flaws and all.

Posted by ahillis at 5:28 PM

June 9, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997)

by Nick Schager

Leprechaun 4: In Space[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Ridley Scott's sci-fi monster prequel (of sorts) Prometheus.]

In space, no one can hear you groan, but here on Earth, the exasperated cries elicited by Leprechaun 4: In Space are inevitable, and inescapable. Few '90s horror franchises more bluntly epitomized the genre's clichéd creative template, as the Leprechaun series followed up its disposable original (most notable for featuring a pre-Friends, original-nosed Jennifer Aniston) with a duplicative sequel and then subsequent installments defined by their central-location gimmicks (Vegas, Space, the Hood—twice!). It's the malevolent Irish creature's journey to the cosmos, however, that's most mind-boggling, as grindhouse icon Brian Trenchard-Smith's direct-to-video work not only rejects logic at every turn, but proves too lazy to even rip off its obvious influences with verve, much less cleverness. Of course, stupidity is almost the end goal of a movie whose very premise seems to be a joke. Yet if everything is intended to be a giant goof, it should certainly be funnier—and more fun—than the nonsense delivered here, which concerns the efforts of the titular creature (Warwick Davis, grinning and cackling with his usual cartoon glee) to marry alien Princess Zarina (Rebekah Carlton) and have her kill her king father by bribing her with riches, a scheme that will put the Leprechaun on the throne and thus soothe his everyone-looks-down-on-me insecurities.

Leprechaun 4: In Space

How did the Leprechaun make it to a distant planet to woo Zarina? Leprechaun 4 doesn't suggest an answer, but he's already there when a squadron of space marines—a group whose macho joking around and bickering is lamely modeled on the characters of Aliens—arrive under the leadership of a sergeant (Tim Colceri) who has a metal plate for half of his head and barks out profanities like a Tourette Syndrome sufferer with a Full Metal Jacket fixation. After blowing away a squealing puppet meant to resemble a space creature, one of the grunts finds and attempts to steal the Leprechaun's gold, a mistake that the Leprechaun punishes by slicing the guy to pieces with a lightsaber—a moment of such plagiaristic stupidity that one pines to see George Lucas' lawyers beam down to halt this madness. Alas, no such luck, and soon the marines are engaged in a laser-pistol shootout with the Leprechaun, despite the fact that the titular baddie should have no need for guns because he's a being with magical powers. Such illogical behavior continues throughout the remainder of Leprechaun 4, which has its villain use his supernatural abilities randomly and inefficiently, and at all other times has him engage his enemies not by incinerating them with spells or mutating them with enchantments, but via severely inaccurate firearms.

Leprechaun 4: In Space

After blasting the Leprechaun to smithereens, a marine urinates on his severed leg, thereby allowing the Irish imp to magically transfer himself into the guy, and later—after the marines have boarded their ship with an unconscious Zarina in tow—remerge out of the guy's crotch just as he's about to get it on with the sole female soldier (Debbe Dunning). The Leprechaun's rebirth out of this man's penis is an Alien chest-burster riff of the most juvenile sort, and in keeping with a brainless story that otherwise concentrates on bald, German-accented cyborgian Dr. Mittenhand (Guy Siner), who's trying to harness Zarina's regenerative powers to regrow his human body, as well as studly soldier Books (Brent Jasmer) and his awkward romantic rapport with Pamela Anderson-lookalike biologist Tine (Jessica Collins). These narrative elements are mere excuses to present women as skanky and/or greedy—and to always sexually objectify them—and men as homicidal maniacs or deviant creeps, save for the noble Books. Moreover, they're scripted with more egregious dialogue than the human ear should have to suffer, with the Leprechaun's one-liners the prime offenders, as when he bizarrely jokes, "As Shakespeare said, 'Shit Happens!'" and then spooks a would-be victim by crooning, from a concealed location, "Oh Danny Boy."

Leprechaun 4: In Space

The Leprechaun performs a rendition of "This Little Piggy" and tortures the sergeant by turning him into a cross-dressing song-and-dance clown (femininity is humiliating!), while Leprechaun 4 hilariously reveals its true attitude toward women during a finale in which strong, independent Tina, while racing to save the ship from self-destruction, has her pants torn off by Mittenhand, who's been transformed by a Leprechaun-concocted DNA milkshake into a spider-scorpion beast. That the film isn't scary goes without saying. Yet more disastrous is its desire to be campy, which instead results in a combination of dimness and desperation that's epitomized by Davis' mischievous-grinning shtick. The best that can be said about Trenchard-Smith's direction is that the action is in focus, and the only positive note about Dennis A. Pratt's script is that it doesn't immediately kill off its token African-American character, likely because he's played by more-capable-than-his-co-stars (and future Juwanna Mann headliner) Miguel A. Nunez Jr. Unfortunately, that's not nearly enough to blot out the intergalactic inanity of this sequel, which, given its contempt for its audience, fittingly ends with the image of a giant middle finger.

Posted by ahillis at 2:29 PM

June 7, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Paul Williams: Still Alive

by Vadim Rizov

Paul Williams: Still Alive

Paul Williams' best-known song is probably The Muppet Movie's "The Rainbow Connection," which kicks off the film with a camera plunge from the skies into Kermit's swamp. Stephen Kessler opens Paul Williams: Still Alive with an allusive riff on that shot, a clip of the singer-songwriter skydiving on a 1977 installment of CBS' long-discontinued annual special "Circus of the Stars." Williams' tunes remain pop standards: Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen," The Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays." The music enabled Williams to become a ubiquitous guest-star of the '70s; a friend who grew up at the time described him as "television wallpaper."

Growing up, Kessler was mesmerized by Williams. Transparently Napoleonic at 5'2", shaggy and dwarfed by his own outrageous glasses, he was, Kessler notes, "no one's idea of a leading man." Quick-witted quips and good timing gave him a decade of TV fame, a legacy Williams is semi-eager to disown. As his television time went up, he says, his songcraft declined. Watching himself on Merv Griffin, Williams can't stand revisiting his egotistical '70s self in action and worries about his daughter seeing the clip.

Paul Williams: Still Alive

The coda to his rise to fame is familiar "Behind the Music" material. Paul Williams: Still Alive boasts fantastic, non-YouTube-able archival footage, some of it dug up from the man's own self-storage vaults. One particularly revelatory clip shows Williams and Peter Lawford, zonked beyond belief, on "The Mike Douglas Show." Lawford was a devotee of Philadelphia's cocaine and needed a credible excuse to tell his family he was paying a visit, and Williams was more than happy to abet him by inviting him to guest during a week of co-hosting. Terrifying home movies from an early '80s family Christmas show Williams playing in the bathroom with a lighter that gives off a foot-long flame, a moment right up there with Steven Drozd shooting up in the Flaming Lips documentary The Fearless Freaks.

Sober and culturally marginal since 1990, Williams is the credibly self-analyzing center of Kessler's documentary. The film slots neatly alongside a number of recent first-person, highly subjective non-fiction works in which a person obsessed with their pop culture past tracks down the source (cf. Ben Steinbauer's Winnebago Man and Mark Moskowitz's The Stone Reader). The pattern is the same: after much travel and many false leads, the reluctantly tracked-down subject cozies up to their admirer. In these films, annoying interviewers redeem themselves by being diligent sleuths and never being less than honest with their interview subjects, even if they risk alienating them as a result. For Kessler, finding his subject is easy; getting him to stop glaring at the camera is the real challenge.

Paul Williams: Still Alive

Kessler toys with a PBS-style voiceover, launching into a portentous ramble about Williams' Omaha childhood over black-and-white photos that are given the full Ken Burns effect. The gag lasts a minute before the soggy score stops and Williams chews out Kessler for interrupting him mid-anecdote. Kessler can be a pest, but he's mostly good company with the patience and money to follow his subject for two years and four months. The first gig he tags along for is a multi-night stand at San Francisco's York Hotel. A sign notes Sally Kellerman is booked for later in the year, emphasizing Williams' footnote status.

TV trumps the music, which Kessler doesn't show much love. There are montages of present-day concert crowds showing their love for Williams, and the soundtrack's larded with his work. But Kessler seems to have none of the devotion of, say, the fan I met at a screening of Phantom of the Paradise who hummed his way through the screening and said he'd seen it 100 times. The 1974 Brian De Palma rock musical has a serious cult, but you'd never know from this movie that Williams wrote not just soft-rock ballads for the lonely-hearted and upbeat pop tunes for radio consumption but enjoyably nasty tunes like closing-credits ditty "The Hell Of It" ("Good for nothing, bad in bed/Nobody liked you, you're better off dead.")

"Though your music lingers on, all of us are glad you're gone," Williams sang in Phantom, seemingly prophesying his potential fate. But Paul Williams: Still Alive turns into a surprisingly upbeat portrait of life as a second-tier star performing wherever they'll have you: driving to Las Vegas casinos, flying to the Philippines despite State Department warnings not to do so, posing uncomplainingly for infinite photographs. Trips to the nostalgic archives alternate with a winning portrait of Williams' third act. Short and snappy, Paul Williams: Still Alive adroitly juxtaposes an archaic form of fame with one of its practitioners' present-day survival.

Posted by ahillis at 3:03 PM

June 5, 2012

INTERVIEW: Amy Seimetz

by Steve Dollar

SUN DON'T SHINE's Amy Seimetz

She owns an IMDB page stacked with credits that many of her acting peers might take a lifetime to accumulate. But what many folks don't realize is that no-budge MVP Amy Seimetz started out with ambitions as a writer-director, which she takes to the limit in her debut feature Sun Don't Shine. Kentucker Audley and Kate Lyn Sheil star as a couple on the lam, rambling through the Gulf Coast of Florida, a lost wonderland of faded pastels and mosquito-bitten dreams. As we noted after the movie's premiere at SXSW this spring, the film evokes Terrence Malick's Badlands as a Suncoast eruption of l'amour fou—that glockenspiel chime on the soundtrack an affectionate homage—the story as much an experience of sensation and memory as forward action, suspended in small observances as the actors' voices float over the breeze as their car races south. The atmospheric style snaps into visceral engagement as the couple negotiates their situation, which becomes apparent soon enough, and the audience begins to sort out their place in a cinematic cosmos of getaway episodes.

Seimetz says that someone told her "it's a surrealist movie posing as a vérité movie," and from the jump, she's created an immersive experience whose cinematography and sound design enrich a minimal screenplay that pushes faces, character and passion to the foreground, using a pulp-noir genre template as a structure for something surprisingly visionary. During SXSW, I met up with Seimetz, at far too early an hour, to talk about the film over coffee. Sun Don't Shine has its New York premiere this Saturday as part of Rooftop Films' SXSW Weekend program.

Sun Don't Shine

The movie begins on a very bold note, with the viewer literally shoved right into the muck with this screaming, fighting, mud-slinging couple that they have no earthly idea about.

It's really fun to have secrets. It's really fun for people. After a while, I think maybe I'm having them expect too much. But, no, it jumps right in to the action from the get-go, and you don't know what's happening and you don't know what to expect next. I really wanted to make something where it's a really familiar story but you don't know where it's going to go.

All you need is a girl and a gun!

It's true. It actually is true.

It felt like you got rid of all the dramatic build-up and just cut straight to the emotion.

It's a really personal movie. Even in the narrative of it, it's a nightmare that I had. The specific plot points are things that happened in dreams of mine that are metaphors for whatever I've been going through. In terms of the period of time I wanted to explore, the experimental side of my brain wanted to wait until about 45 minutes into the movie, but that's pushing it a little far. I don't know if I can hold people's attention that long. I really wanted to find a space, after the crime and before the punishment, where it's suspended outside of any moral construct or social norm. They're suspended and grasping at things and making up their own rules, even with each other. They can only exist in this fantasy. Without getting too deeply personal, there were several really traumatic things that happened to me in the past year and a half—I didn't kill anybody—before it sets in what's actually happening. You can't say out loud what it is, because to say it out loud to somebody else means that it's happening.

This is somebody who has really been abused a lot. We don't go overboard. But she's a real damaged person and she's developed these coping mechanisms to maneuver herself through the world and survive. In my brain, she's a survivalist, but under these really horrible conditions. You want to be mad at her, but it's so upsetting. She knows her victim status, but she's also a victim of being a victim. She can't control it. I don't want to talk about the end of the movie, but in the end she makes a choice not to be the victim forever.

Things were scripted?

I wasn't a stickler for the lines at all, but I definitely had a traditional script for the movie. On set, if things started to get too complicated to grab a location, I just rewrote scenes.

Sun Don't Shine

I love that the camera work is so intimate and intense.

Like right in their faces, you mean? We had gone back and forth. It's a road movie, so we decided to go with getting stuck in the car with them. We also shot for a week, and we stopped, and then we shot for another two weeks. We were able to get all the footage and see what was working and then come back. It was doing pickups in reverse. I recommend that. You can see what's working in performances, and where the heart of the story is. My script was a lot colder. Kate and Kentucker on that first week were so sweet. There was such a softness to their relationship, I realized we had to allow that exist within this dark, crazy thing.

That creates sympathy, which then makes you uneasy as the story rolls along.

[Cinematographer] Jay [Keitel] and I have known each other for 10 years. The first thing I worked with him on was 16mm. You can stay on shots a lot longer with film, because it's moving. This grain that's alive, a breathing force. It's much more forgiving. Especially with how high the speeds are now, you can pick up a camera and shoot just the same way you shoot digital. It's not going to work like super-slick Hollywood, but you use all those things to your advantage. And the grade is so gorgeous. The opening shot, if we had shot digitally it would just have been white in the background, if we had lit for Kate's skin tone, it would have been blown out, We got the film back, and you can see the blue sky behind her face. We were shooting on 200 speed, and you forget how wonderful it is to have that grade. Especially when you've been shooting digital for so long.

Kate's face is a map of all the many shades of pink.

[The person] who did the color was really aware of that when we did the color timing in certain scenes, he incrementally—like when she was crazy in the car—he turned it up a little bit so it was bright pink when she was crazy and wild.

You grew up in ...

St. Petersburg. I knew every single location we shot at. It made everything really easy. We shot in Fort DeSoto, which is this state park. We cheated six different locations at that park for central Florida, and other parts of Florida, because there's so much vegetation around. There are so many looks to that park, and I knew all the spots because I'd gone there as a kid. it was really strange to throw people in there and say, OK have a fist fight now. I used to picnic there when I was three.

At the premiere, you told some funny stories about getting access to certain iconic spots like Weeki Wachee Springs, and various encounters with people who were really helpful in an almost naive way when you needed locations.

In Florida you have to have really good gut instincts about people because there are so many crazy people. I think the guy at Weeki Wachee—I had shot a documentary there before—said, "Oh you guys aren't going to do anything really bad." And we were like, "Uhhhh, kind of. We're going to pretend like we are."

SUN DON'T SHINE at SXSW 2012

You definitely have absorbed something inherently offbeat and vaguely sinister about the state, which filters into the vibe of the film.

In St. Petersburg there's all these alleys in my mom's neighborhood and we don't have a fence, so it looks like people are wandering through your backyard. A lot of times people will wander back there I can hear them out the window and there's obviously something bad happening. Do I tell them go away? To not do the bad thing in the backyard. Or do I pretend like I don't see it?

A lot of people got lost en route to the Fountain of Youth.

They sent all the prisoners down to Florida to make it a habitable place to live. They sent all the rejected and dejected, and now suddenly, now you can vacation there! Vacation in the swamplands with, like, prisoners. There are a lot of beautiful things about Florida, too, but I can feel that part of it: No one's supposed to live here! But it's also so beautiful and primal.

It was fascinating to watch Kentucker have to be so relatively buttoned down.

We talked about the balance of what he does best, between that neurotic and that really charming offbeat sense of humor, and that sweet, sweet, sweet Southern boy. But also, balancing it with the strong, silent type from Two Lane Blacktop. With that, we really ended up with this great character for Kentucker. He's the straight guy, but also not really. He's crazy for doing this, too. And with Kate, she's just explosive. I love all of her performances I've seen her in. She can hold so much emotion inside. I said, "I just want to see you explode." She has so much in her eyes and she can keep it so contained and it's so crazy to watch her onscreen. She's so quiet and unassuming. But she can go from zero to 100.

Our perception of her character is always shifting throughout the film. And near the end there's a remarkable sequence that reveals a lot about who she really is.

I don't think she's bad. I think she's so terrified of being alone, especially going through this thing. She also has so much anger against men and so much anger against the world. She's pent up. You can only hold your breath for so long underwater, and when you come up for air, and you've been under for so long, it's like a really violent gasp. That's the opening of the movie. She's been held down for so long that now we're watching her explode.

DId you have this idea cooking for a while?

I wrote it for them. But I've been having this nightmare since I was eight. You can't print it because it's the story. But I switched it around. In my dreams, I'm what Kentucker's character is. Kentucker and I were talking about we wanted to make something together. He's just so strange. Whatever he says I find so interesting, even if it's yes or no. He has that magnetism. I told him about my nightmare and he said, that's a way better story than whatever we were discussing. Let's do that. As soon as I started writing it, I thought of Kate.

People mention Malick a lot when they talk about your film, for obvious reasons. But you've worked a lot with avant-garde filmmaker James Benning and I wondered how he has influenced you.

Did you see RR? He shot a bunch of different trains from all these angles. And in the sound design, what he did was really simple. I liked that stripped down effect. I'm watching trains because I love trains. That's why he made that movie. It's beautiful. I can watch trains for hours. I agree. But not everyone can. The sound of it is so gorgeous, I don't know how he recorded it. It was loud and rock and roll and you could really feel the trains. It was also distant and meditative and really peaceful and he'd incorporate all these other sounds from where he was sitting and watching the trains. Really simple sound design, three or four elements and then the train. It's not directly ripping off James Benning, but I really liked the idea that you could take these three sonic elements and you don't have to flesh out the whole... there are footsteps here, and hear them chewing and eating sandwiches and the rain. You can focus on the rain, and their faces, on the cicadas.

Posted by ahillis at 12:44 PM

June 3, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Piranha II: The Spawning (1981)

by Nick Schager

Piranha II: The Spawning [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the T&A-filled killer fish sequel Piranha 3DD.]

James Cameron may be credited as the director of Piranha II: The Spawning, but given his own rocky participation in the project—his Italian producers removed him from viewing or editing the footage he shot, and thus he had little to do with its final form—it's hard to slam the future "king of the world" for the legion of failures that define this sub-B-movie. A sequel to Joe Dante's smart and funny 1978 original (made with the legendary Roger Corman), Cameron's film is a misshapen mess that, unlike its cheeky predecessor, rips off Jaws to no appreciable effect, finding nothing but unintentionally corny comedy via its tale of a Caribbean resort terrorized by a school of flesh-eating fish... that can fly! Yes, the hook of Cameron's follow-up is that the military has bioengineered piranha with other animals' genetic material to create the ultimate airborne-aquatic killing beasts, which at the outset have fallen to the bottom of the ocean aboard a sunken supply ship. This carelessness doesn't seem to have brought the military out looking for the fish, however, which is as puzzling as the behavior of the intro sequence's couple, who out on a rowboat to try and fix the man's apparent performance-anxiety issues, decide to dive down to the submerged vessel for some sex—a carnal act that, as per horror dictates, naturally leads to grisly death.

Piranha II: The Spawning

The subsequent sight of teenage Chris (Ricky Paull Goldin) exiting the water with a phallic fishing pole in hand immediately foreshadows his own impending troubles with the feisty critters. Yet long before that can occur, Piranha II must first establish the rocky relationship between resort diving guide and marine biologist Anne (Tricia O'Neill) and her estranged police officer husband Steve (Lance Henriksen), as well as provide some "humorous" elements via an older woman's pursuit of a young resort stud and two topless beauties' mockery of a stuttering chef they trick (with false promises of threesomes!) into giving them free grub and booze for their oceanic fun. Considering the obvious forthcoming demise of these bimbos, this last subplot furthers the overarching portrait of sexuality as something that leads to peril and doom, but as with just about every element of the film, that notion is recycled from far better genre brethren. When not diligently rehashing familiar thematic ideas, though, there's even less going on here, as copious time is spent on Anne's dim budding romance with Tyler (Steve Marachuk), a student who, it eventually turns out, is actually also a marine biologist there to stop the piranha menace, which he helped create in the first place.

Piranha II: The Spawning

The fact that Anne and Tyler sleep together should mark them both as future fish food, except that Piranha II is—unsurprisingly, given its focus on Anne and Steve's gradual but inevitable reunion—happy to absolve people of their sensual sins so long as they recommit themselves to the nuclear family. These conservative values are of a dreary sort, and made even drearier by the proceedings' lack of suspense, which is so pervasive that it's hard to pinpoint where Cameron and his Italian overlords intended there to be scares. Certainly, it couldn't be the first real sight of the flying piranhas, which—with the creatures bursting out of a corpse to chomp on the neck of an anti-partying nurse, and then flying away by crashing through a window—is a moment of stupendous silliness. And that ludicrousness continues once Anne explains "the spawning," an annual phenomenon in which grunion crawl onto the beach (and are then caught and eaten by people), thus setting up a finale that finds the resort's callous director Raoul (Ted Richert)—the type of buffoon who scoffs at warnings despite in-his-face evidence of murder and calamity—going forward with a gala beach fish fry that puts his guests directly in harm's way.

Piranha II: The Spawning

While it would be a monumental stretch to suggest it foreshadows his The Abyss and Titanic (or even his Aliens of the Deep IMAX doc), Cameron's underwater footage is surprisingly evocative, albeit in service of one insanely dull sequence after another, culminating with Anne and Tyler attempting to outswim the beasts through the ship's ventilation shafts. Such wannabe-tense moments are still preferable to plot-forwarding asides involving a random Caribbean fisherman who uses dynamite to catch his prey, although Piranha II does deliver at least one moment of stunning—and, apparently intentional—hilarity when Henriksen's cop opts to save stranded Chris (and his would-be teen lover) by leaping out of the helicopter he's piloting, thus sending the vehicle crashing and burning into the ocean. As for the piranha themselves, their screechy chirping and wing-flapping is almost intolerably grating. Moreover, their third-rate rubbery-puppet appearance is so cheesy that not only are the strings via which they're controlled often clearly visible, but upon their biting human necks, it's easy to see that—in a far cry from Cameron's later special effects triumphs—they're only moving back and forth thanks to the thrashing hands of the very victims whom they're attacking.

Posted by ahillis at 11:23 AM