July 31, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Le Havre

by Vadim Rizov

Le Havre

Fatalist Finn Aki Kaurismäki's Le Havre is a comic-strip-colored take on France's inability to find a humane response to an illegal immigrant influx. The story follows the familiar contours of old-man-softened-by-young-boy sagas: shoeshiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms) helps stranded Gabonese youth Idrissa (Blondin Miguel) evade the law and make it to London. Soothing turquoise paint covers the walls, natural light floods the outdoors and Kaurismäki's usual taciturn deadpan comedy is swapped out for brisk dialogue bonding sessions. It's a change of pace for Kaurismäki, who—like the early work of aesthetic fellow traveler/friend Jim Jarmusch—prefers jokes that don't noticeably raise the surface temperature. Having effectively exhausted this mode into self-parody in his last feature (2006's Lights in the Dusk), Le Havre represents a major, much-needed artistic reset.

Marcel was a feckless unpublished writer in Kaurismäki's 1992 travesty of French artistic dissolution La Vie de Boheme. 20 years older, he's no more stable or worse off for aspiring to nothing more than subsisting in his quasi-licit trade. Across town, black-raincoat-wearing Inspector Monet (Jean-Pierre Darroussin) is called down to the docks, one of the authorities on the scene when an officer taps a seemingly empty crate with a nightstick and provokes a baby's crying. Rather than immediately unsealing the crate and getting some air in, a full containment task force is brought in. Idrissa runs away from the cops as Monet reprovingly stops one from shooting him down. "Are you insane?" he chides. "He's just a kid." Marcel discovers Idrissa hiding in the water and takes law-disregarding charge.

Le Havre

Unmediated reality only incurs in one scene, a 2009 TV news report of how the French government bludgeoningly dismantled a refugee camp dubbed "The Jungle." This authoritarian event was documented at length in Sylvain George's 2011 Figures of War (May They Rest in Revolt), a harsh 150-minute immersion in French refugee life that actively withheld points of identification, adamantly resisting the idea that people should be made to care about a humanitarian problem primarily through empathy. In one memorable sequence, a man waiting to sneak away speaks while scouring every truck which stops at an intersection to see if there's crawl space underneath to hang onto: his status as someone whose existence depends on constant disappearance, who can't stand in one place long enough to be related to, is the point.

Some of the raid is shown in Le Havre, the TV glared at with taciturn disapproval by the perpetual barflies at Marcel's local. The rest of Le Havre is unabashed fantasy, with the community pulling together to preserve basic human decency and cross-cultural pollination. Idrissa is unfailing polite, doing Marcel's dishes and addressing him as "sir." "My, my, a civilized family," Marcel notes. "My father was a teacher," Idrissa replies. This is the exact opposite of Figures of War's rigorous position, and it's an uneasy concept: if Idrissa wasn't wide-eyed and possessed of faultless manners, would he still deserve to be helped?

Le Havre

Neighbors pull together to do the right thing, implicitly hearkening back to the French Resistance. Everyone's ready to pull together at a moment's notice, save a neighborhood informer (Jean-Pierre Leaud) who spies on Marcel from his second-floor-window and calls the cops. The implicit ties to the Resistance—law-breakers and lawmen coming together for a higher moral cause despite the surrounding treacherous complicity with an unjust authority—seem meant to remind viewers that that allegedly pure cause was a comforting white-washed myth for post-war French trying to reassure themselves everyone was on the right side, and an invitation bring their own skepticism to this unabashed piece of wishful thinking.

For Kaurismäki, figuring out a humane response to an immigration process isn't just a political imperative but a cultural necessity. Like Jarmusch, he feels life just isn't as interesting without a constant stream of odd-looking people of all nationalities. The film's deadest sequence is a benefit concert held on Idrissa's behalf by Italian-born Roberto Piazza, aka "Little Bob," a French cult hero singing rockabilly in English. The musical number falls flat if you're not interested in unexceptional revivalist rock, but it exemplifies Kaurismäki's long-standing interest in dissolving national borders in favor of something like a pop culture international front.

Le Havre

In his '60s, Kaurismäki is, unexpectedly, becoming the reigning master of feel-good movies that don't coast on unearned sentiment. Wilms' brisk, unflappable good cheer sets the tone for Le Havre. In his Leningrad Cowboys trilogy, Kaurismäki stared down the end of the Cold War and the seemingly-inevitable-but-uncomfortable drawing together of new geopolitical neighbors with confrontational sarcasm. Here, confronting a problem beyond ideology, his approach is softer and more wistful, an ideal tonic for viewers in a bad mood, his sporadically manifested sentimental streak acquiring new urgency and resonance in the face of crisis.

Posted by ahillis at 3:01 PM

July 30, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The Boss of it All (2006)

by Nick Schager

The Boss of it All

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Mikkel Norgaard's bizarrely outrageous Danish comedy Klown.]

Lars von Trier shoots The Boss of it All with a camera system dubbed "Automavision" that allows him to select camera set-ups and then let the camera itself (via computer) decide when to move, adjust and edit—a system that's as random and chaotic as its bonkers story itself. Operating as both a straightforward workplace comedy and an off-kilter deconstruction of that genre, von Trier's film concerns an unnamed Danish company run by Ravn (Peter Gantzler), a monotonous milieu that's thrown into deadpan turmoil thanks to Ravn's decision to sell the company to gruff, profane Icelandic businessman Finnur (Fridrik Thor Fridriksson). The catch is that, for years, Ravn has operated as a tyrant, while passing the buck for his callous decisions to an imaginary superior, and when it comes time to sign the firm away, he hires a floundering actor named Kristoffer (Jens Albinus) to pose as the titular "boss of it all" in order to maintain his ruse and complete the deal. It's a premise that casts Ravn as the "director" and Kristoffer—playing "boss" Svend E.—as the "actor," providing a work-as-cinema metaphorical structure that von Trier treats as a constantly fluctuating battle of wills.

The Boss of it All

Von Trier is upfront about that very metaphor, having Ravn and Kristoffer discuss it on more than one occasion—a self-consciousness that extends to his unconventional herky-jerky aesthetics as well as occasional moments (including the intro) in which von Trier narrates to the audience about the project's lack of seriousness. "This film won't be worth a moment's reflection," remarks the director at outset as his reflection appears on the outside of Ravn's office building. Yet while there's certainly a sense that von Trier is working in a more lighthearted mode, caring less for actual workplace satire than for a strangely theatrical approximation of it, it's also true that he's at least semi-seriously after a critique-cum-mockery of acting and dramatic formula as well as of the pass-the-buck nastiness of capitalist enterprises. The latter is most forcefully epitomized by Ravn, a cheerfully self-interested scumbag without any compunction about screwing over his underlings in order to pad his wallet, but it's also felt via the six senior staffers whom he plans to fire, a motley crew of types that include the tart (Iben Hjejle), the weepy widow who's afraid of the copy machine (Louse Mieritz), the foreigner who can't speak proper Danish (Benedikt Erlingsson), and the angry redneck (Casper Christensen) who—in the film's funniest moment—greets Kristoffer's Svend E. by punching him in the face.

The Boss of it All

Kristoffer's role-playing is made more difficult by the fact that Ravn has advanced different made-up versions of Svend E. to each of his employees, and yet gives Kristoffer no insight into those various personas, forcing him to improvise on the fly. That comes to a head during a monumentally awkward encounter between Kristoffer and a female employee with whom Svend E. had apparently exchanged numerous emails which, it's eventually clear, included a marriage proposal—a situation that requires Kristoffer to be spur-of-the-moment creative and, it seems, is von Trier's means of celebrating the canny instincts required by great acting. Or, perhaps, it's simply a prolonged gag meant by the director to speak to the nasty manipulations and deceptions perpetrated by superiors against underlings in such workplace settings. Von Trier never truly allows his motivations to come into clear focus, in part because, like his camera, he's always lurching around to nail some new target or undercut some traditional trope, all while indulging in amusingly caustic bits such as meetings in which Finnur expresses seething contempt for all Danes.

The Boss of it All

As if being blamed for everyone's professional and personal unhappiness weren't enough of a burden, Kristoffer's plight is further complicated by the arrival of his ex-wife (Sofie Grabol), working as Finnur's lawyer and immediately hip to Ravn's con. Unfortunately, the further it plods along, the less The Boss of it All proves actually funny; instead, it seems interested in presenting traditional comedy situations and gags, and then ever-so-slightly dodging those elements in favor of different, more detached and bizarre paths. Nonetheless, if the film never feels as coherent as it should, its finale seems to at least hint at von Trier's true meta intentions. In a desperate bid to stop Ravn from railroading his employees, Kristoffer, at the moment of signing away the company, delivers an extended monologue comprised of nothing but haphazardly combined melodramatic clichés and gibberish. It's a stew of mushy nonsense that Finnur hilariously slanders ("Thanks for sentimentality so nauseating that no living creature could possibly take it seriously") but which finally breaks the spirit of the schmaltzy-at-heart Ravn and forces him to confess his crimes, thereby ridiculously empowering Kristoffer with control of the company—and, in the process, suggesting that for von Trier, there's nothing as simultaneously idiotic and secretly effective as stale truisms and conventions.

Posted by ahillis at 8:27 AM

July 27, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Killer Joe

by Vadim Rizov

Killer Joe

William Friedkin's 2006 adaptation of Tracy Letts' first play Bug was a model of superior handling of inferior material. There was nothing wrong with the set-up: paranoid but polite combat vet Peter Evans (Michael Shannon) sucks vulnerable waitress Agnes White (Ashley Judd) into his delusion that his body is filled with government-designed microbes. The rising hysteria gestured towards metaphorical topicality without arriving at a point. Friedkin's virtuoso direction nonetheless amped up the tension one fractional zoom at a time, and his camerawork is similarly vigorous in Killer Joe, an adaptation of Letts' second, even more directionless play. Once again, a well-mannered outside menace—cop/contract killer Joe Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)—is introduced into already unstable lives with fatal results. If the point this time is comparably obscure, the results confirm the now 77-year-old Friedkin's ability to get a rise out of viewers in irresponsible but jolting ways.

Killer Joe

Tracy Letts' "Killer Joe" premiered on stage in 1993, a peak period for daytime TV viewers to watch self-professed white trash confront each other for rowdy audiences' condescending amusement. The drama was aware of the connection between its characters and their most common public forum: "No pre show music," the stage directions instructed, "only static from the t.v." The link wasn't lost on The New York Times' Ben Brantley when he reviewed the 1998 New York production, noting "a lot of beer, a little reefer, a whole lot of television" as the staples of the lives of the Smith family. In the film, the Smiths are an all-American clan in the most pejorative sense: mommy's shacked up and out of the picture, daddy Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) is a shiftless mechanic, new wife Sharla (Gina Gershon) is conducting an affair after her pizza parlor shifts are over and son Chris (Emile Hirsch) is in hock to local loan sharks. Only sleepwalking virgin Dottie (Juno Temple) stands out as having any potential to break the trailer park rut, since she harbors vague dreams of learning martial arts.

Killer Joe

Way behind on repaying $6,000, Chris proposes hiring Joe to take out mom, who's got a $50,000 life insurance policy payable to Dottie. Dad takes a little convincing, but over conversation at a strip club—Bud Light for father, regular Bud for son—Chris makes a decent case. Joe requires a $25,000 payment, cash in advance, terms non-negotiable—at least until he spots Dottie and proposes that she act as a "a retainer." Chris isn't thrilled (he harbors not-so-vaguely incestuous urges towards sis), but there's no choice. Father and son aren't assassin material, and everyone in the family needs the money.

Introduced sleepwalking in a nightgown, Dottie bears unmistakable hints of Tennessee Williams' Baby Doll, whose teen sexuality drove Karl Malden to frenzy. Here, she's a little less conscious of how her body works on men. Entering the trailer park, Killer Joe's introduced in a series of tight close-ups—boots on the ground, gloves pulled tight—suggesting he's an iconographic force of evil. The joke is that he's only just a little less pathetic than his employers, who lack the ability to resist even slightly more force. Dottie's left to dinner (tuna casserole) and defloration with Joe. Friedkin's visual language is clear: in her first tete-a-tete with Joe he's all close-ups, while she gets constant full-body shots.

Killer Joe

The family's frankly exploitative treatment of Dottie as an economic resource (rationalized as for her own future benefit to get her to karate school) is never fully verbalized. Unable to explain to his daughter that she has to give it up for matters to proceed, Ansel and Chris simply bounce. Dottie doesn't seem to mind: late in the movie, she soliloquizes that she simply has to get away from these horrible people, and Joe's her only exit strategy. The trailer park atmosphere is generically right on (crushed beer cans on the living room table, constant monster-truck footage on the TV) but also the stuff of a thousand shorthand script scene-setters. (Fittingly, Killer Joe is set in Dallas but was shot in New Orleans, which offers better tax breaks.) Every performance is pretty much perfect, but the dedication is misplaced. Characterization is sketchy and inconsistent: in what's effectively a five-character piece, it's remarkable that Killer Joe never plausibly fills out at least one of its players.

McConaughey's performance has monopolized reviews, along with the penultimate scene, which can no longer be deemed a spoiler. It's a two-part stunner, which begins with Killer Joe finally becoming the glowering monster he's not been the rest of the film to riveting effect. He knows something about Sharla Ansel doesn't, and taunts the husband with it. "I'm never aware," Ansel defeatedly admits when he realizes how fully he's been hoodwinked. "No need for name calling," Joe drawls at Sharla. "I'm a guest here." So far so good—the film's finally shifted from uneasy black comedy to tragic climax, with Texan politeness an ominous warning of imminent danger—until Killer Joe pulls out a chicken wing and, in the most-discussed moment, forces Sharla to fellate it.

Killer Joe

How you respond to this moment will depend on whether you're willing to accept Killer Joe as trailer trash exploitation fare or a superficially sleazy film with serious moral consequences. Friedkin's staging of this degradation is neither/nor: Joe looks bad-porn ridiculous, but Sharla—bruised and bleeding—has just received a The Killer Inside Me-level pummeling. A scene that's built to explosive heights collapses as irreconcilable tones collide.

This climactic would-be talking point aside, Killer Joe works much better than its source material would seem to allow. Room is made for Friedkin to briefly stage one of his deftest chases, with Chris running from his creditors like Benicio Del Toro in The Hunted. From the thunder-and-lightning trailer-park-on-fire opening onwards, Friedkin is typically virtuoso in pushing the tawdry drama along. McConaughey shouldn't overshadow the fine work around him (especially Church's deeply felt portrayal of a failed father resorting to parental chidings like "Watch your fucking mouth"). If the contempt is an unexamined given, blame Letts: the opening credits clearly establish that this is "William Friedkin's film of" his play. Assign blame and derision accordingly.

Posted by ahillis at 10:07 AM

July 24, 2012

FANTASIA 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

by Steve Dollar

11:25, The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate

Running 22 days straight, Montreal's Fantasia Festival is at least a week longer than any other film festival I've heard of, which in practice makes the event feel like two or three different festivals, depending on what stretch you attend. A significant part of the first week has been a kind of alternate New York Asian Film Festival, overlapping the New York fest's programs and adding to them: Most notably, North American premieres of new films by Takashi Miike (keeping fans on their toes with his own variation on a high school musical, For Love's Sake) and Koji Wakamatsu (11/25: The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate).

The latter film fits into the arc of Wakamatsu's recent work, like United Red Army, which offers hindsight on the violent revolutionary upheavals in 1960s Japan, a time and a culture that the filmmaker himself had a hand in shaking up, producing a series of radical cinematic statements thinly disguised as sexploitative pink movies. He's certainly grown statelier with age, and Mishima also addresses, from a sober-minded perspective, the seemingly bone-deep militaristic elements and nationalist fervor most recently excoriated in the brutal Caterpillar. This time, the director draws from the public life of literary phenomenon Yukio Mishima in revisiting the path that led the Nobel Prize candidate's ritual suicide—by seppuku—at age 45, after a failed right-wing coup attempt on Nov. 25, 1970. The deliberate pacing and static, austere quality of the camerawork and art direction emphasize tragic philosophical gravity over the cinematic dazzle that Soderbergh and Assayas used in their biopics about doomed revolutionaries from a similar period. "If this was a yakuza movie, there'd be a theme song right now," Mishima (Arata Iura) muses as he rides toward destiny in a car with his four young followers. It's a rare moment of levity, and an acknowledgment of aesthetic purpose.

Postman Blues

But no worry. The yakuza weren't MIA. Another significant facet is the weeklong sidebar celebrating the centennial of Nikkatsu, Japan's signature movie factory, which was the subject of a 37-title retrospective at last year's New York Film Festival. Fantasia guest programmer Marc Walkow, formerly of NYAFF, opted to bring some different gems to light, including Shohei Imamura's three-hour faceplant into the greasy inbred madness of a clan of Okinawan hillbillies, The Profound Desire of the Gods (1968) and Sabu's mope-vs.-mayhem steeplechase Postman Blues (1997). The discovery, though, was the 1967 Massacre Gun—a latter-day film noir starring the eminent Joe Shishido in his prime. The actor signed on as a Nikkatsu contract player in 1954, the same year the studio resumed independent production for a postwar Japan. But his career didn't take off until three years later when he had plastic surgery, installing a pair of cheek implants that gave him the appearance of a chipmunk. Something clicked, and Shishido—who is still knocking 'em back today at a suave 78—became the go-to guy for playing handsome gangsters, public enemies and charming rogues. His role here accompanied two better known performances also on screen in 1967: in Seijun Suzuki's much-celebrated Branded to Kill and Takashi Nomura's rediscovered and mind-blowing My Colt is My Passport. [ed. note: Steve Dollar elaborates on that film and interviews Shishido here.]

Massacre Gun

Massacre Gun director Yasuharu Hasebe is the hand behind such cult favorites as the Stray Cat Rock series and Female Convict Scorpion. For this, his third outing for Nikkatsu, he recounts an underworld battle that begins after hitman Ryuichi Kuroda (Shishido) is reluctantly compelled by his yakuza boss to eliminate his girlfriend. While reeling from that, Kuroda's youngest brother, Saburo (Jiro Okazaki), is nearly crippled after he pummels the mob favorite in a boxing match. Then their nightclub is trashed. A man can only take so much. Along with middle brother Eiji (Tatsuya Fuji), a slick ladykiller with a hair-trigger temper, the boys go to war. Hasebe deploys one stylish set-up after another, grooving on editing rhythms that snap and crackle to the hard bop score, willing to try anything once. In one scene, the mobsters come to retrieve one of their own from a swimming pool, and as he's hauled up there's a match cut to a different henchman getting thrown against a wall. It's not all bodies and bullets in motion. In an atypical shot, the camera pulls far, far back to frame a man and a woman as tiny shadows against a horizon that fills the screen. And for all the visceral lunging across the lens—the show-stopping finale is a gun battle in which sniper Shishido turns one-man army along a desolate patch of highway—the film always circles back to the brothers' jazz bar, where Saburo sits at the drums, laying down gentle accents for a bluesy gaijin pianist whose lyrical laments seem to act as a commentary on the tragic spiral that is sucking everyone into oblivion.

Dead Sushi

Combat also rages in Dead Sushi, the latest crazy-faced opus from Noboru Iguchi, the cherubic auteur of Machine Girl, RoboGeisha and Zombie Ass—movies whose shameless excess and freakish mutant transformations are Japanese pop culture at its most giddily meta. The poop jokes and sexual embarrassments are held slightly in check this time as the director sets up what he terms a bit more of a "family" outing (so to speak). Demure Keiko (Rina Takeda) sets out to prove her skills to her father, a world-famous sushi chef, by taking a job at a country inn. Before long, she becomes entangled in an evil scientist's revenge plot that turns seemingly yummy toro and nigiri into death-dealing morsels of carnage. Appetite for destruction, indeed. Takeda, a real-life martial arts whiz-kid who mastered karate at age 11 to avenge the defeat of her own father, is Iguchi's sweetest heroine yet—but she kicks ass with the best of them. Call it Jiro Screams of Sushi, if you will, although the gags also nod to Gremlins and the Sorcerer's Apprentice segment of Disney's Fantasia. The cartoon element even serves up a secret hero: Eggy, the friendly tamago that squirts a face-melting acid! Eat at your own risk.

[Fantasia 2012 continues through August 9 in downtown Montreal. For more info, click here.]

Posted by ahillis at 5:45 PM

July 22, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Batman: The Movie (1966)

by Nick Schager

Batman: The Movie

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Christopher Nolan's trilogy-capping The Dark Knight Rises.]

There's absolutely nothing dark or particularly knightly about the Caped Crusader in Batman (also known as Batman: The Movie), with the only brooding found in Leslie H. Martinson's 1966 film—based on the popular 1966-1968 TV series—coming courtesy of billionaire Bruce Wayne (Adam West) staring passionately into the eyes of Dr. Kitka (Lee Meriwether), a/k/a the disguised Catwoman. Such lust overpowers him so completely that even Robin (Burt Ward), monitoring the rendezvous via closed-circuit TV in the Batmobile, has to turn away, admitting, "Some things have to be private, even for a crime-fighter." That cheeky moment boasts the only trace of actual emotion found in this goofball comedy, which was initially intended to launch ABC's bi-weekly television program but wound up being produced after the second season was completed, and released in between seasons one and two. And it's also, ultimately, indicative of this saga, given that it comes during a scene that runs far too long and, consequently, prolongs its joke—here, that Bruce is a horndog, and also a nitwit who can't recognize that Kitka is actually Catwoman—for far longer than it can possibly sustain itself. One can almost hear the film straining to stretch its runtime out to feature-length, its jokes and sight-gags extended to their campy breaking point.

Batman: The Movie

Certainly, the Batman TV series didn't by definition necessitate a bigger canvas; in fact, the small-screen is what afforded the program its greatest strengths: a visual focus on kaleidoscopic colors and skewed-angle close-ups of its larger-than-life villains; a lighthearted tone; a smirking self-awareness of its own insubstantiality; and an episodic structure that was marked by memorable cliffhangers and accompanying narrator reminders to tune back in next week, "Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel." Most of those elements are also present in Martinson's big-screen version, but the lack of a cliffhanger structure is surprisingly missed, as this 105-minute adventure never quite gets itself into a proper rhythm. It's a nagging problem felt from the outset, in which the narrator quickly helps provide the who-what-where-when-why as we see Bruce and "youthful ward" Dick Grayson race into Wayne Mansion, change into Batman and Robin while sliding down a pole to the covert underground Batcave—a notion rife with weird sexual and pedophilic connotations—and head out in the Batcopter to investigate a yacht carrying a super-secret device.

Batman: The Movie

That outing leads to the film's funniest moment, in which Batman, descending to board the yacht, only to have it disappear into thin air, winds up with a hungry shark attached to his leg—a dilemma solved by some Shark Repellent Bat Spray, but not before the Caped Crusader wallops the beast with a series of hard punches that resound with fists on rubber. Alas, the rest of Batman's lunacy is of a far more mild wink-wink variety, with the story only truly justifying its existence through its central selling point of bringing together the show's four biggest villains, with Cesar Romero's Joker, Frank Gorshin's Riddler, Burgess Meredith's Penguin, and Meriwether's Catwoman (replacing Julie Newmar, busy on another production) teaming up as the United Underworld to use a dehydrating device to turn the delegates of the United World Organization into pastel-hued dust. It's a scheme that involves convolutions of a typically cartoonish sort, including the fiends' intentions to kidnap Wayne in order to lure Batman to their lair (a plan obviously destined to fail), where they'll then use a giant Joker jack-in-the-box springboard to send Batman flying out a window and into the waiting arms of Penguin's exploding octopus.

Batman-the-Movie-round-bomb.jpg Serious scripting is, of course, of no interest to Batman, which exposes its own silliness at every turn, from the Dynamic Duo solving the Riddler's mind-benders via borderline-insane deductions, to Robin schoolmarmishly expounding on the greatness of the police and the evils of drinking, to Batman racing around a dock trying to ditch a ridiculously bulbous black bomb and finding disposal routes blocked by all manner of innocents (nuns, babies). Martinson's colorful, canted-angle cinematography has a vibrancy that's in keeping with the cheery tone, and Romero, Meredith and Gorshin are a boisterous trio who enliven their many contentious scenes together. It's West, however, who defines the film, his Batman (wearing a cowl with drawn-on eyebrows!) a suave smarty-pants hero with a calm arrogance and a self-seriousness that's completely at odds with his habit of using "Bat-" as a prefix for every gadget he owns, or the "Bam!" "Biff!" "Bap!" graphical explosions that accompany his fisticuffs (albeit here, only in the finale). Without anything approaching a dangerous, unpredictable, or indecent impulse, West's hero is a neutered joke, to be sure, but his cadenced line deliveries and spry physicality remain consistently amusing, reimagining the Caped Crusader as some sort of bizarre Halloween-costumed Rat Packer.

Posted by ahillis at 3:40 PM

July 21, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Get the Gringo

by Vadim Rizov

Get the Gringo

The films of cinematic multi-hyphenates like Vincent Gallo and Jerry Lewis are beloved for presenting their egotism and naked need for approval in odd, self-interrogating, strangely disarming form. In a much less sophisticated way, Get the Gringo offers a terrifying chance to romp through Mel Gibson's id. He's just one of three credited writers on this pulpy action-thriller and didn't direct, but at least a superficial grasp of the Gibson persona (including his well-documented personal problems) is essential to making sense of a movie that would otherwise be inexplicable.

Gibson's in a Mexican jail, apprehended by corrupt police who snatch his $5 million in cash before leaving him to rot. The prison is a sort of semi-free-enterprise experiment, based on the long-closed Baja penal colony El Pueblito, where prisoners governed themselves and free enterprise, especially in drug sales, was openly practiced. (Predictably, richer convicts took control and charged outrageous rates for shelter, food, et al.) Career criminal Gibson must evade the attention of American and Mexican cons and corrupt cops (the distinction is non-existent) while saving a young boy (Kevin Hernandez) from murderous prison overlord Javi (Daniel Giménez Cacho).

Get the Gringo

Perhaps in part due to Gibson's most recent outbursts, Gringo has gone from DirectTV's on-demand service to DVD without a traditional theatrical run. It's an understandable shame: a 1500-screen release of this would count as one of the strangest mainstream events of the year. Gibson is, with unearned existential overtones, billed as "Driver," though one of the many exchanges where he gives a fake name gives a better idea of the film's true tone and ambitions. "Richard Johnson" is the pseudonym he gives a corrupt embassy official (Peter Gerety). "Dick Johnson?" the fat man sniggers (there will be many jokes about his weight).

Per his equally generic official billing, the "Embassy Guy" has arrived with a suitcase filled with Modelos. Given Gibson's tense public statements about alcoholism, it's revealing/unnerving to watch a film in which he's constantly either stealing money for beer and cigarettes or randomly getting offered alcohol. He doesn't even have to ask: people just know to give him a drink. This is played as a joke, but it's also an alcoholic's nightmare scenario (or ultimate excuse): even without seeking it, the booze finds him.

Get the Gringo

When it comes to women, Gibson also has some excuses. Driver's an ex-soldier whose wife went off with his partner in crime, the rat who named him in exchange for immunity. Whatever Gibson's crimes, they pale in comparison with a woman's unexpected betrayal and her treacherous collusion with an unjust law. Not only is he the wronged party, but females keep making trouble: when he follows the kid's mom (Dolores Heredia) with quasi-avuncular intent, she notices his stalking ways and punches him in the nose (Mel: "WHAT THE FUCK?"). Later, when they get more carnally comfortable, the violent flirting starts (Mel: "Can I bite you?" Mom: "Sure, but only if you bite really hard and don't leave any marks").

Driver is, perhaps, "Fun Mel," battling accusations of alcoholism and abusive behavior towards women with a self-deprecating voiceover and dialogue that scans alarmingly. (Gibson to kid as he slams him into a wall: "You're a mosquito! Sit the fuck down.") There are action scenes to solidify his badass persona, both realistic, well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat and more outrageous moments involving military explosives. The shot of Gibson diving in slo-mo to intercept a live grenade, swatting it back like a tennis ball to blow one person up, is a monument to homicidal overkill on par with Charles Bronson using a rocket launcher on a single guy in Death Wish 3.

Get the Gringo

Trashy and offensive as it is, Get the Gringo's sense of unsophisticated humor and blunt approach to Gibson's demons make for compelling psychodrama. It would be a nonsensical vehicle for any other star, and its violent excesses are as hypnotically deranged as Gibson's sense of humor is, to quote former co-star Helena Bonham Carter, "lavatorial and not very sophisticated." ("Weh-heh-heh," Gibson sniggers/groans, Butthead-style, when pulling a gun out of the toilet.) Other people's actions are gross or grosser (cf. Embassy Guy force-feeding peppers to hookers: "Suck it! Take it all! Eat the chili bitch!"), and the film's moral universe goes beyond Mexican drug-war brutality into the expected Passion of the Christ/Apocalypto universe of unhinged violence, this time as ostensible black comedy.

Longtime Gibson collaborator Adrian Grunberg refuses to notice anything odd in his first feature as a director: Get the Gringo's professional sheen places Gibson's perversity into even sharper relief. He's aided enormously by cinematographer Benoît Debie, whose speedy overhead and tracking shots are nearly as deft as his work on Gaspar Noé's Irreversible and Enter the Void (aptly cruel reference points). The smoothness of the execution makes Gringo as competent as it is disturbing. Perhaps this isn't a good film, but as an art-imitating-life jaw dropper, Gringo is bound for cult status.

Posted by ahillis at 10:51 AM

July 19, 2012

Enter the Void

by Steve Dollar

Beasts of the Southern Wild

Poor Hushpuppy looked so lonely. There she was, on a six-foot high cardboard promotional display, fireworks aglow in the scene from Beasts of the Southern Wild, stuck over in a corner, facing the water fountains and the bazoinking clatter of the video games. A few feet away at the 20-screen AMC multiplex, The Amazing Spider-Man loomed large and crime-bustingly formidable, gazing out at moviegoers as they surrendered their tickets at the entrance.

I'd like to think that the inconspicuous promo placement wasn't deliberate—just an accident of randomness. But it's also not like indie films, even those distributed by major studios like Fox Searchlight, are very well-served by major theater chains in off-the-radar markets like Tallahassee, Florida—my hometown, by the way, and where I spend at least half the year. A film like Beasts would seem to merit a little something extra than the usual multiplex throwaway strategy. Maybe marketing has something in the works, but they'd do well to know that the same tropical storms and hurricanes that wreak havoc on Louisiana hang a left turn on the nearby Gulf Coast, and only recently turned a few Panhandle towns into a local equivalent of the Bathtub, the mythical setting for Benh Zeitlin's gobsmacking debut. And there's an even more integral connection: screenwriter Lucy Alibar grew up across the state line in Thomasville, Georgia, and went to high school here.

Miracle 5 theatre

If this was a city that had an arthouse (or even an Alamo Drafthouse franchise), someone would be able to swiftly connect the dots and cook up some unique programming concepts that might expand the potential audience for this film (or any film) beyond the core of culture-starved moviegoers who require something more than this week's 3D spectacle to scoot out to the 20-screen complex (about the last successful business propping up a dying, 41-year-old shopping mall). But that is not the city I live in. Last year, the run-down (if cherished) Miracle 5 theater ran out of miracles and was closed by Regal Cinemas, the other theater chain that owns the city's big screens. The place was in dire need of an overhaul, but was not apparently generating enough return to make it worth salvaging. The ghostly plaza it once occupied will soon be home to a Whole Foods franchise. The Miracle—where during a brief career as a teenaged usher I corralled the box office queues for the run of Earthquake and The Towering Inferno, and later enjoyed a life-changing experience watching The Road Warrior—was not to be confused with any sort of fancy-pants cinematheque. It was simply the place in town that showed the most grown-up movies. The marquee for its closing weekend included Beginners, Page One and Tree of Life. Those are the kinds of movies anyone might reasonably expect to be able to see in a real moviehouse in a city of 360,000, one with a sizable white-collar demographic and 70,000 college students.

You would be wrong. The choice anymore is this: Superheroes at the mall, or 2 Days in New York on VOD. Anything else, forget it. Unless you want to surf the web, landing on excellent endeavors like Kentucker Audley's NoBudgeFilms.com, or just invest in DVDs to watch at home.

The Raid: Redemption

Not that they don't trickle down. Steve McQueen's Shame, with full-frontal Oscar-bait performances from Michael Fassbender and Carey Mulligan, even lasted a couple of weeks. At the $3 discount theater. In the strip-mall outlet plaza, next to the pool hall/sports bar, playing to audiences of, apparently, four people (the night I went). The review in the local paper made the experience sound like non-consensual toenail removal with rusty pliers. It's a flop, I agree, but kind of a glorious flop that fascinates even as it flummoxes. The Raid: Redemption, the Indonesian head-buster and one of 2012's best films, even ran for a few weeks, turning an eight-screen dump into an ad hoc cinematic Salon des Refusés.

Regal has occasionally made good on a promise to keep booking arthouse fare at its major local venue, a multiplex adjacent to the city's other mall, but critically admired films like Nadine Labaki's Where Do We Go Now? or Oscar-winner A Separation tend to get lost in a multiplex and don't last more than one week. Last November, I took the chance to give Martha Marcy May Marlene a second look when it opened at the AMC theater. There were three other people seated for the Tuesday late show.

Now, it's not as if there are too few enlightened moviegoers. Almost every weekend, the Tallahassee Film Society screens something worthwhile in its unusual outpost: an out-of-service Amtrak station in a perpetually half-emergent arts district. Everything from Melancholia to Marley has had held-over runs, and the sober-minded programming roughly emulates the new-release schedule at New York's Film Forum a few months after the fact. The ambience can be distracting, as when someone decides to open the door in the middle of an afternoon movie, blinding anyone nearby with piercing Florida sunlight, or when a train rumbles by (oddly suitable for Lars von Trier's end-of-the-world drama). And the presentation is a little bit high-school cafeteria. But as a venue, it's established an identity, a following, and a track record (no pun intended).

Fermentation Lounge

Still, it's only one small cultural stronghold. Unlike Athens or Austin, college towns where the student population appears to feed a thriving arts scene, Tallahassee experiences a pathetic absence of spillover influence from the major campus (Florida State University). All the students seem to care about is pizza, beer and cover bands. Those 30,000 kids and their wallets might as well be a black hole as far as their positive impact on the city's cultural scene goes. Though they've got the campus rock venue and the campus movie theater, the bookings are of only intermittent interest to the world beyond, what's left of it. In the last year, the venerable "cool" record store closed, as did the venerable indie rock club and the all-age sidebar venue. But there are pockets of resistance and resilience. A plucky vinyl-only store abides, striving to fill both gaps with BYOB gigs of underground acts. In a similar vein, one of the co-owners of a radically good craft beer dispensary—The Fermentation Lounge—down the block has begun an outdoor screening series in the lot of an old factory, pulling a Rooftop Films number with screenings of kung-fu epics and public-domain staple Carnival of Souls with food trucks and enough esoteric IPAs on tap to drown in.

But if any city was ripe for some entrepreneurial wizardry of an arthouse/grindhouse/Drafthouse bent, Tallahassee sure is. We are rich in derelict mid-70s shopping plazas begging for redemption! If beer and pizza are served, students will probably be close behind. Throw in some canny curatorial moves for the 37 eggheads and film geeks and it might just work. And then I wouldn't have to sit in the front row for Moonrise Kingdom because it was slotted onto the smallest screen at the multiplex and there was nowhere else to sit (although that packed house was refreshing change up from Martha Marcy).

And then Hushpuppy wouldn't be so lonely.

Posted by ahillis at 9:03 AM

July 15, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: The American Friend (1977)

by Nick Schager

The American Friend [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the con-man documentary thriller The Imposter.]

European and American sensibilities collide in both form and content in The American Friend, German New Wave auteur Wim Wenders' 1977 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's Ripley's Game that blends Euro artiness and American pulp via the story of the unlikely relationship forged between Yankee hustler Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper) and German picture framer Jonathan Zimmermann (Bruno Ganz). Like Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai and Le Cercle Rouge, Wenders' film encases film noir fatalism in tonal and aesthetic chilliness. It's a marriage that makes it not only Wenders' best film—given an intricate narrative to work with allows for fewer of the director's pretentious proclivities—but a simultaneously stark and suspenseful portrait of alienation, blindness, and the search for (and confrontation of) one's true self. At the bleak heart of that quest is Jonathan, who's dying of a rare blood disease and is first introduced with his head bordered by an empty picture frame—a visualization of his desire to lock himself away in a quiet, inhibited life of work and family with his wife Marianne (Wenders' then-spouse Lisa Kreuzer) and son Daniel (Andreas Dedecke). At an auction, Jonathan spots a forgery, and the perpetrator of that scam, Tom Ripley (Dennis Hopper), finds in the doomed Jonathan a perfect patsy for a friend, Raoul (Gérard Blain), who needs a hitman. The devious wheels, quickly, are set in motion.

The American Friend

Wenders' stages this early-going with what might generously be called a disinterest in coherent plotting, and he's no more lucid with later twists and turns once Jonathan, enticed by the money he could make—and leave for his family—by committing a murder, agrees to the job. It's a decision spurred not only by financial considerations and, as one can sense in Ganz's troubled eyes, by a secret desire to perform such a heinous act, but also by a more fundamental fear of being erased and forgotten without having done something memorable for his son—a terror articulated, gracefully, in Jonathan's rumination about whether young Daniel will ultimately only remember him by his mustache, and by their home. Furthermore, it's a choice he's manipulated into making by Tom, who (via Raoul) tricks Jonathan into seeing further specialists who provide phony, more dire prognoses for his condition. Again, however, there's an impression throughout that Jonathan is a willing participant in his own deception, that, as his original doctor opines at one point, he wants to hear that he's on death's door, the better to justify his awakened, greedy and murderous impulses.

The American Friend

Friction is rampant—even a TV knob proves a source of potential static-electricity danger and pain—and so too is a consuming sense of confusion and aimlessness, epitomized by Jonathan, after pulling off his lethal assignment, clumsily walking into a trash bin and cutting his forehead, followed by a spinning overhead shot of Jonathan that suggests dazed lack of direction. Wenders shoots Jonathan stalking his victim on and off a train with a methodical patience that expertly balances natural soundscapes with Bernard Herrmann's portentous score, and gives the material its Hitchcockian anxiety. And Jonathan's later job, completed alongside Tom on another speeding train, is an even greater example of prolonged suspense through attention to details and the way life's unpredictability confounds the best-laid plans. Even Wenders' cameos, most notably Nicholas Ray as the forger employed by Ripley, convey a restless energy and mystery, as if the ghosts of cinema's past are taunting the present about its lack of clarity and definition—a murkiness encapsulated by the sight of an anguished Ripley lying on a pool table taking endless Polaroid portraits in a vain search to locate himself.

The American Friend

The fluorescent greens of that pool hall and the lurid reds of innumerable other locales give The American Friend a visual sumptuousness that heightens its mood of romantic dread, which soon overwhelms most concerns about plot particulars (it's never quite clear, for example, whom Jonathan is killing, or why Raoul wants these vaguely defined competitors dead). The film's true edginess, however, comes from Hopper, who—hired when his career had hit rock bottom thanks to a reputation for being drugged-out and unreliable—delivers a performance of quiet volatility, the actor's eyes alight with both scheming intelligence and a morose understanding that he's not completely in charge of his own fate and, more to the point, that the eventual outcome of his intricate machinations will inevitably be far from rosy. In a turn of controlled explosiveness, Hopper flashes conniving slyness as well as understated soulfulness, and his yin-yang rapport with the more reserved Ganz provides the proceedings with its true rollercoaster momentum. With their characters commencing as wary adversaries and developing into unlikely allies, tentative friends, and finally callous betrayers, Hopper and Ganz boast a cagey, opposites-attract chemistry that's part and parcel of a film which feels thrillingly fractured in its every element.

Posted by ahillis at 3:07 PM

July 11, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: Margaret

by Vadim Rizov

Margaret

In Margaret's opening minutes, 17-year-old Lisa Cohen (Anna Paquin) doesn't seem like a rewarding subject for a 150-minute character study (the length of writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's theatrically released cut), let alone the 188 minutes of the "extended cut" assembled for Fox Searchlight's Blu-ray/DVD combo release. Chided by teacher Mr. Aaron (Matt Damon) for obviously cheating (on an open book test!), Lisa flatly rejects the idea that she's ever developed an interest in something she initially thought was boring. Next, when gawky/clever crib note provider Darren (John Gallagher Jr.) asks her for a date, she disbelievingly laughs in his face. Then she goes shopping for a cowboy hat.

Already, incurious materialist Lisa's life has accrued unasked-for moral urgency. Her search for a hat frustrated, she spots bus driver Jason (Mark Ruffalo) wearing one. Running alongside the bus, waving to catch his eye, she looks distractingly flirty without meaning to. The ensuing accident is depicted without ambiguity: head turned, Jason doesn't notice that he's about to run a red light and plows into Monica Patterson (Allison Janney), who dies bloodily in Lisa's arms. The light was green, Lisa tells the officers on the scene, but wonders what version of events to give in her official statement. Actress mom Joan (J. Smith-Cameron) warns that the driver probably has a wife and kids to support, cautioning that telling the truth could lead to him losing his job. Lisa covers for the driver, and spends the rest of the film goaded into increasing frenzy by her guilt.

Margaret

Lisa's nearly always on-screen, minus a subplot about Joan's developing relationship with wealthy Colombian admirer Juan (Jean Reno). Here, Lonergan's relish for near-burlesque gets a workout: Reno's heavily accented performance is charming in a sort of Peter Sellers way, a heightened portrayal of a respectable man made unavoidably comic by his broad accent. His thoughts on Israel's tyranny don't sit well during a dinner with the late Monica's very Jewish friend Emily (Jeannie Berlin), who throws a drink in his face before storming out of the restaurant. The scene, like many in Margaret, is close to a social comedy of manners, as two people from entirely dissimilar backgrounds struggle to maintain small-talk decorum during an awkward dinner involving mutual acquaintances.

Margaret's powered by the crackle of colliding worlds. Beyond guilt and culpability, Lonergan's main subject is Lisa's dawning realization that the world exists far beyond her limited experience. In repeated conflicts with people from a wide variety of backgrounds, Margaret simulates chaos, cutting many scenes to seemingly random shards while stealthily building to a well-prepared gut-punch of a finale. The film's initial images—Manhattan streets in daylight, alternating between slow-motion and regular time—suggest we try to single out a point of connection. Sometimes the film isolates a meaningful fragment (kids dancing, a middle-aged man gazing up in beguiled distraction at something offscreen), and sometimes it's impossible to latch onto anything in the random groupings.

Margaret

Empathy is visually defined as an act of conscious focus, a lesson Lisa may or may not learn over the film's running time, but viewers won't be slow to pick up on it. It's arguable Lonergan overplays his intentions in his repeated pans across and zooms into anonymous cityscapes seen from privileged high-altitude building vantage points and in many street-level crowd shots. They're a pleasure to watch, already archival records of Lisa's cocooned Upper West Side life in 2005, when the film was initially shot.

Lisa strives to correct a well-intentioned mistake (lying out of class guilt) in the clumsiest possible way. Prodded by Emily, she gets involved with a proposed lawsuit aimed at getting the reckless driver suspended or fired. An unintended side benefit of seeking this kind of moral corrective is literal proximity to adulthood, as Lisa ditches her ostensible best friends for meetings with lawyers and strategy sessions with Emily. Striving to build a relationship with her new best-friend-of-circumstance, Lisa babbles about her role in the accident. Emily snaps ("We are not all supporting characters to the drama of your amazing life"), and kicks her out.

Margaret

Bit players and passing overheard dialogue suggest whole other movies. One moment's impact is wordless: English teacher Tassel (Matthew Broderick) finds Lisa and her friend smoking pot in Central Park and chides them for "smoking a J" before a school soccer game. Their stoned, mocking repetition of the outdated phrase follows him along with a queasy handheld shot from behind of Broderick stalking away in impotent rage. Everyone on screen is flawlessly characterized no matter how little time they have. Lonergan's successful ability to plausibly inhabit multiple characters' voices (whose words can't possibly be mistaken as redundant expressions of one writer's viewpoint) is a rarity.

Per Lonergan's instructions, cinematographer Ryszard Lenczewski hazes Lisa the whole movie, repeatedly de-emphasizing her in slow zooms or losing her entirely. The accident is depicted from multiple angles giving objective information, but the final impact is depicted through a POV depiction of Allison Janney's head slamming to the ground, the only subjective shot (an addition to the "extended cut"). In the finale, Lisa's self-centered perspective finally converges with the camera's eye. Mother and daughter are at Lincoln Center for The Tales of Hoffman. At intermission, Lisa stands alone, smoking on the balcony, then realizes the second act is about to start. Throwing the cigarette out, she rushes downstairs and the camera follows her from behind all the way.

Margaret

Finally, Lisa is the drama's heroine and literal center. She makes her way back to Joan, and as the second act's "Barcarolle" duet starts, the house lights don't go down. Camera shots alternate mother and daughter nearing tears with inserts of happily hypnotized audience members. In reality, the Met dims its lights, but Lisa and Joan hug in a golden glow, a moment theatrically heightened to heartbreaking effect. It's not the first fully stylized gesture (there's a refreshingly non-embarrassing dream sequence), but the full-throated concession to romantic sentiment gets to you. Margaret makes nothing less than the subjective acquisition of adult empathy its subject, and succeeds amazingly.

The hype surrounding Margaret was stoked by its well-documented pre-production turmoil, delayed release and critical resurrection, all neatly summarized in a New York Times article. While it'd be nice to discard this narrative before it overwhelms the actual film, it should be noted that Fox Searchlight is releasing Margaret to DVD along with an "extended cut" — a nice gesture, but a bit of a half-measure. This label is fairly accurate, since the 188-minute version is clearly a rough cut, complete with often-amateurish post-production sound and shaky visual quality. Projected this past Monday night in Manhattan, it was something of a video nightmare.

#TeamMargaret

This is a supplemental document to watch at home rather than something ready for theatrical projection. It's great that it exists, but those who haven't seen Margaret yet should watch the theatrical cut first. Even in its compromised form (assembled by Martin Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker), it's a dazzling and wrenching film, arguably strengthened by spoiler-ific decisions that shouldn't quite be discussed until more people have had a chance to see it.

The new cut does contain one scene that's a fully fleshed-out suggestion of what could've been. A simple diner chat between Lisa and Darren is counterbalanced by a slow zoom towards the pair that takes in three booths, and hence three other conversations. It's impossible to pick out which to focus on at first, heightening the urgency of this effectively non-narrative scene and explicitly decentering Lisa via audio, something the film otherwise mostly does visually. Many clearly transcribed-from-life passing quotables have been dubbed in with varying degrees of quality, demanding an actively sympathetic viewer's support to reconstruct the full potential effect. Still, this cut looks and sounds rough: you'll want to see it, but go with the theatrical version first.

Posted by ahillis at 11:06 AM

July 10, 2012

JAPAN CUTS 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

Tormented (Rabbit Horror 3-D)

Wabbits! Wabbits! Wabbits! Elmer Fudd would crap his pants and blow his (shotgun) load if he took the M15 bus uptown, just past the United Nations, and headed over to Japan Society this weekend. There, he’d encounter a far more formidable nemesis than Bugs Bunny: The never-ending hallucinatory fuzzy-wuzzy terror of Tormented (Rabbit Horror 3-D)—though this is the 2-D version. One of those films that gives Japan Cuts its edge, this latest lump of disgorged J-Horror is nonetheless more aberrant curiosity than culturally subversive reason-to-go-on-living.

The participation of ace cinematographer Christopher Doyle and J-Horror auteur Takashi Shimizu (The Grudge) has the promise of genius, and a six-foot-tall actor inhabiting a rabbit costume can only add to the psychotronic glory of it all. The latter haunts a little boy who, in an act of mercy, finishes off a deathly sick rabbit with a big rock one day at school. The kindness earns him the taunts of his peers, who call him "rabbit-killer." His mute older sister tries to offer solace, but their home is some kind of strange penumbral world of weirdness, with an artist father lost in his own world after the deaths of both his wives.

Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club

What happens next? I really have no idea. The story dissolves into its own strange internal dream logic (down the rabbit hole, indeed), but everything gets lost in the sickly green murk (what must this look like in 3-D?). Plot twists abound, but the movie never rises to the allure of its premise. I caught a similar "eh?" vibe watching Let's Make the Teacher Have a Miscarriage Club. [Watch the trailer.]

Funny you should ask, but it too begins with a scene of rabbit murder. Mizuko (Kaori Kobayashi), a mean junior-high schoolgirl with a disturbed glare, does the dirty deed, but she can't stop there. She forms a cabal with four classmates when they learn that their teacher Sawako (Aki Miyata) has a baby on board. And, well, this movie isn't called Let's Buy the Teacher Something Nice for Baby at Macy's Club. Their clumsy efforts at derailing sensei's pregnancy only earn them her contempt, there’s very little else Sawako can do when the school system is so cowed by indulgent parents who refuse to accept discipline of their children. The furtive teacher-student combat saga is familiar in Japanese movies, and unfortunately it would seem that director Eisuke Naito hasn't got much new to offer.

Hard Romanticker

The sick pathology has its moments, as when the girls, who have not studied their chemistry too closely, fail to properly dissolve a poison compound in a cup of tea they bring to their teacher, and screw up their mission. In the film's last third, the plot veers into pure thriller territory, though, and then takes a surprisingly serious and emotional turn that proves shockingly genuine—enough to prompt some reconsideration of what's happened in the previous 90 minutes... but not enough to eclipse Confessions, from Japan Cuts 2010. For sheer sick kicks, my vote goes to Hard Romanticker, with Shota Matsuda as a badass zainichi (Japanese-born, but of Korean ancestry), whose criminal adventures in a port city parallel gangland rampages, punk rock body counts and the occasional glue-huffing bachannal.

Several of Japan Cut's 38 features overlap with the closing days of the New York Asian Film Festival (which holds forth from the Film Society at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater), before transitioning into a solid two weeks of screenings, complete with special guests, after-movie parties and plenty of sold-out houses filled with passionate cinephiles (and Asian cinema freaks) for whom the program is bigger than Christmas and Halloween combined. For all the extreme elements—as yes, there WILL be a screening of Noboru Iguchi's cracked-out (in every possible iteration of the phrase) shitstorm, Zombie Ass: Toilet of the Dead—Japan Cuts is really about the pop culture that appeals to Japanese moviegoers. So you get a nifty sidebar devoted to actor Koji Yakusho, playing a role later taken by Richard Gere in the Japanese version of Shall We Dance?, a detective in Kiyoshi Kurosawa's creepfest Cure, and a noble samurai who goes out in a blaze of glory in 13 Assassins, to be shown in Takeshi Miike's extended director's cut (which includes one cray-cray whorehouse sequence deemed unfit for American distribution).

Love Strikes!

There’s also sweet fluff like Love Strikes!. Basically, it's The 31-Year-Old Virgin, the story of a nerdy, bespectacled beanpole of an otaku who works as a reporter for a pop magazine, where his co-workers push him into the dating world. An online friendsip turns into real-life romance between clueless Yukiyo Fujimoto (Mirai Moriyama), and unspeakably kawaii Miyuki (Masami Nagasawa). Or so he would hope. But he manages to turn every opportunity into an embarrassment, and then lingers like a sad puppy dog even though she has a boyfriend (who turns out to be a rock concert promoter). Mocked by his co-workers and lured into various liasons, Yukiyo doesn't stay a virgin forever, but he still manages to act like it—living out his passions in karaoke sessions and the occasional spontaneous J-Pop dance number. Through it all he seems awkwardly unequipped to deal with his mysterious arrival as a bitch magnet (everyone, it seems, wants him but the one he wants), and the torture continues until the very cusp of the closing credits. Nagasawa, who will be on hand for the American premiere, won a 2012 Japanese Academy Award for her performance as a goddess of mixed-messages (the kind every guy loves and hates), and the NYAFF’s Rising Star Asia award. While the film lacks the perverted grandiosity of Sion Sono's Love Exposure—a summit that is, perhaps, unreachable—its amiably hapless dithering is at once more real and more fantastic than Hollywood’s version.

[Japan Cuts runs from July 12-28 at Japan Society, 353 E. 47th St., New York City. The New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) continues through July 12.]

Posted by ahillis at 8:31 AM

July 9, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Chopper (2000)

by Nick Schager

Chopper

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Oliver Stone's criminals-and-drugs saga Savages.]

Fascinated by self-mythologizing criminals and the futility of their navel-gazing adoration, Andrew Dominik plumbs the twisted mind of Australia's most notorious convict with Chopper, the reality-fractured tale of tattooed lunatic Mark Brandon "Chopper" Read (Eric Bana). Dominik's film is based on a number of Reads' own books, and assumes their author's wacko view of himself and the world around him, plunging into its protagonist's headspace over the course of two distinct periods—1978, when he was incarcerated in Melbourne's Pentridge Prison; and 1986, when he was back on the streets—with a enveloping intensity. Bookended by the sight of Chopper watching himself in an exclusive TV news interview from his cell alongside two guards, a chat punctuated by Chopper gleefully calling himself "a normal bloke who likes a bit of torture," it's a jet-black comedy of volatile ferocity. Admitting to right-hand man Jimmy (Simon Lyndon) "I don't hate anybody" shortly before he viciously stabs a rival to death, then sincerely asking his victim, "You alright, Keith?", and then cheekily quipping to the guards who tend to this wounded man, "Keithy seems to have done himself a mischief!", Chopper proves a terrifyingly schizophrenic specimen, a cross between a pit bull and The Joker.

Chopper
Lurching between compassion, malice and paranoia, Chopper commits this murder with a nonchalance that rightly unnerves fellow inmates, leading Jimmy to gash the hand that feeds him by, out of the blue, stabbing Chopper in the gut with a shiv. "What's got into you," asks a confused Chopper after the first two blows, and after a few more, "If you keep stabbing me, you're gonna kill me" The bemused expression on Chopper's face amidst this brutal betrayal is horrifying, and amplified when Chopper removes his shirt to examine his wounded gut with a casual curiosity that—along with the gushing bloodletting—compels Jimmy's wimpy partner Blue (Dan Wyllie) to begin vomiting while apologizing to Chopper. Dominik shoots this scene with unsettling calm, and his consistent use of close-ups suggest not only the claustrophobia of Chopper's literal circumstances, but also the way in which he's a victim of his own warped fears, anxieties and overly inflated ideas about himself—the latter most clearly felt in his repeated, and laughably imaginary, notion that his murderousness is in fact some sort of noble vigilantism aimed at ridding the streets of drug dealers.

Chopper

Chopper's life quickly turns into a carnival, with Jimmy crazily prosecuting Chopper in court as the aggressor in their melee, and Chopper—in order to receive a prison transfer so he can avoid being slain by the many inmates who now find him an unwelcome presence—willingly having his ears sliced off, an act that includes him berating the man asked to perform the deed for not working quickly and efficiently enough. Cut to the mid-'80s and, though featuring a heavier, more inked-up body, Chopper is the same delusional narcissist as before, opening fire in a nightclub where the strobe lights reflect his explosiveness, and shooting an acquaintance (Vince Colosimo) simply because the guy won't lend Chopper cash. That Chopper drives this latest victim to the hospital for treatment, and then subsequently refutes claims that he did so to everyone he meets, is—like his bragging about, and then also denying, his working relationship as an informer for the cops—part and parcel of his own screwy headspace. Concocting and promoting multiple, often conflicting, versions of himself to best suit his present needs, Chopper quickly loses himself down the mental rabbit hole, and so too does Dominik's film, culminating with a sing-songy sequence about Chopper executing a man in a nightclub parking lot (which the cops, in hilarious "Boy Who Cried Wolf" fashion, won't pin on Chopper despite his confessing and handing over the shotgun used) that incorporates multiple, clashing accounts of what took place.

Chopper

As with his follow-up The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Dominik's film immerses itself in criminal delusions of grandeur while always remaining slightly detached from them, the better to eventually lay out a portrait of the useless destruction that comes from such self-aggrandizement. Dominik's story ends with the titular psycho alone in a cell, forced to at least momentarily face the no-glory consequences of his actions, but of course by its very existence, Chopper proves that notoriety does sell, especially with a headlining turn as volcanic and sly as the one delivered here by Bana. Previously best known as a stand-up comedian, the actor inhabits Chopper's pudgy frame with wild, careening charisma, suggesting danger with a slight shift in weight or via eyes that dart and glare with unpredictable menace. Showy only insofar as it captures the character's inflated ego, Bana's performance vacillates so naturally between comedy and cruelty, between tranquility and persecution-complex suspicion, that it transforms Chopper into an awe-inspiringly grotesque caricature of rage and madness—one who, to his ultimate downfall, truly embraced the idea, "Never let the truth get in the way of a good yarn."

Posted by ahillis at 8:06 AM

July 6, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Daisies (1966)

by Vadim Rizov

Daisies A tornado took Dorothy out of black-and-white Kansas into colorful Oz: destruction bred creation and imaginative release. The link in Vera Chytilová’s Daisies is brusquer. Two girls are sitting in what appears to be some kind of bathhouse: Marie I (Jitka Cerhová) is the brunette, Marie II (Ivana Karbanová) the blonde. A brief discussion of the state of the world leads to the conclusion that it's spoiled, and hence the Maries will be too. Marie I slaps Marie II, knocking her backwards out of the black-and-white interior into a colorful field.

"Even those of us who love Daisies have trouble finding the proper terms to account for it," blogger/theorist Steven Shaviro wrote in 2007. Many dazzling, ahead-of-their-time effects literally saturate Daisies, their connection to broader ideological dissent rarely obvious. Within a brief scene, Chytilová will cut every few seconds to slather the shot in another pop-art monochrome. Train journeys are rendered proto-video blur, with the passing landscape anticipating the similarly dizzying effects Wong Kar-Wai would conjure up with more resources in Happy Together. The effect resembles a surlier A Hard Day's Night, with each effect is indulged for its own pleasure.

Daisies

The Maries are something like Beavis & Butthead in the bodies of Celine & Julie (minus the boating). Their personalities are basically interchangeable, signaled by a shared Woody Woodpecker-snicker deployed for the slightest (or no) reason at all. Like Celine & Julie, their mutual companionship is more than enough to sustain them, and the duo disdain all other company, male or female. Solidarity is manifested through a uniformly destructive approach to the world around them. Marie I has a thing for picking up men—older, with fussy facial hair—and getting them to take her to dinner, where Marie II shows up. After slavering consumption, the older man is inevitably sent packing on the train.

The girls are basically goons, but it's important to note that their contempt isn't solely reserved for men. A (relatively) famous sequence has them slicing up foods both phallic (sausages) and ovary-esque (eggs) while a disappointed courter pleads with Marie I over the phone. The duo steal money from a woman (a landlady?) who just wants to make them coffee and have a chat. Their primary interest is in consumption: food's a big motivator, but they're equally wasteful with alcohol (drinking Pilsner Uquell through straws to get messed up faster) and makeup (smearing eye shadow like primer).

It's hard not to think of the scene in The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the film anyway) where the hip young things of the Czech Spring find, to their disgust, that a hip nightclub has been infested by graybeard party hacks. Grotesque food consumption is traditionally the province of the wealthy and aristocratic. The Maries' endless appetite is selfishly political: it's not much of a stretch to imagine that the elderly men they prey on as Communist functionaries, the only people who can hook up a lavish meal. Probably non-coincidentally, the final banquet involves the Maries crashing an empty stateroom with a lavish smorgasboard laid out for those who haven't arrived yet. They grab the Johnnie Walker Red and get to work, devouring all before them and destroying the careful plating with venomous glee.

The girls reject everything but food, answering the phone with "Rehabilitation center. Die die die." Their systematic reign of consumption and destruction leads to a suitably apocalyptic finale, in which punishment is administered in pro forma fashion. "I'm bored," one of the Maries announces relatively late. "I can't be thinking up new things all the time." At a slender 74 minutes, Chytilová is aesthetically exhaustive without leading to exhaustion. The whole film could be broken down into non-ideological visual cannon fodder for music videos. Steely in its rejection of a stratified and sexist society, Daisies remains tough and surprising.

[ Daisies screens in a new 35mm print from June 6 – 12 at BAMcinématek. For tickets and more info, click here.]

Posted by ahillis at 2:16 PM

July 2, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Magic (1978)

by Nick Schager

Magic

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the man-and-his-doll fantasy Ted.]

"We're gonna be a staaaaar!" crows Fats, the ventriloquist dummy controlled by Corky (Anthony Hopkins), toward the beginning of Magic, but stardom is something to be feared as much as coveted by the showman protagonist of Richard Attenborough's adaptation of William Goldman's novel (itself seemingly indebted to The Twilight Zone episode "The Dummy"). That hopeful exclamation is made while both Corky and Fats are spied in a mirror, a recurring visual trope that speaks to the mounting duality and insanity of its confidence-lacking main character, who after early struggles at amateur nights—where he responds to audience indifference with vitriolic rage—finds himself on the precipice of stardom upon taking to the stage with Fats. A big-eyed, sailor-capped wooden sidekick, Fats is the motormouthed Id to Corky's Ego, and his profane (at least by 1978 standards) brashness makes him an instant hit, as well as marks him as a potential breakout sensation to agent Ben Greene (Burgess Meredith), who believes that "magic is misdirection," and that Fats will be the key misdirection element that will allow Corky's act to transfer properly to TV. The only problem, alas, is that Corky, when offered an NBC pilot, won't take a medical exam, purportedly "on principle" but, in truth, because he fears what doctors might discover about his mental condition.

Magic

Attenborough depicts Corky's early nightclub failure through silent flashbacks intercut with Corky's more rosy-eyed retelling of the night to a friend, a sequence of subtle dreaminess that establishes the material's guiding disconnect between fantasy and reality. Fleeing Manhattan and the celebrity earned from Tonight Show appearances, Corky visits his upstate NY home to find only memories of childhood alienation and parental death, and thus moves on to the Catskills in search of Peggy (Ann-Margret), a beautiful former schoolmate running a lakeside resort with her roughneck real-estate agent husband Duke (Ed Lauter). With Duke initially away, Corky and Peggy strike up a romance that makes Fats jealous, and their relationship is solidified by a trick in which Corky appears to psychically guess Peggy's playing card. This supposed supernatural bond helps legitimize Peggy's dream that she might flee her husband for a life with Corky, and her inner struggles between fanciful desire and actual circumstances make her a fit for Corky, whose ventriloquist schizophrenia remains in relative check until Ben reappears to confront him about his state of mind by challenging him to go five minutes without speaking as Fats—a challenge that Corky fails, punctuated by Fats blaring out about his owner "You're crazy!"

Magic

Suffice it to say, that's an understatement, and by forcing Corky to confront his own lunacy, Ben is beaten mercilessly with Fats, and then dragged out into the middle of the lake to be drowned. That Corky has to further fight a not-quite-dead Ben out in the middle of the water is apt for the magician-turned-killer, who's such a head case that he can't even properly pull off an easy murder. Failure is the thing that most terrifies Corky, and with good reason, since on both a personal and professional level, he's a disaster tearing apart at the seams, despite the fact that he's managed—preposterously, it must be added—to successfully woo Peggy. Hopkins embodies Corky with an increasingly helter-skelter frenzy that's present even during quieter moments, dancing in his wide, wild eyes, and his performance is all the more compelling for its ability to marry Corky's madness to relatable anxieties and discontent, which are also shared by Duke, whose real estate career (like has marriage) has fallen apart and left him adrift. Manic without ever being melodramatically histrionic, Hopkins captures a chilling sense of being a prisoner to one's own conflicted impulses and angst, culminating with a sequence in which he, via Fats, becomes both puppet and puppetmaster.

Magic

The third-act appearance of Duke leads to love-triangle tensions that are rather pedestrian, and spiral the material into more rote thriller realms until the conclusion, in which Corky is forced to confront his at-odds longing for happily-ever-after escape (and salvation) with Peggy, and his insecure dependence on Fats for self-assurance. By this point having relied a tad too heavily on mirror reflections as well as overlapping and/or foreground-background compositions of Corky and Fats, Attenborough stages his climax with a patience that enhances suspense. And even when Goldman's script makes plain Corky's twisted neurosis via somewhat blunt Corky-Fats dialogue, their final conversation is legitimately poignant, and amplifies the general creepiness of Fats himself, a dummy whose giant head, clattering mouth and wiggling ears make him a memorable figure of displaced psychosis. Even more haunting still are Attenborough's playful suggestions that Fats might be not only a proxy for Corky's craziness, but also, perhaps, alive— an implication most chillingly made in a late shot that, lingering on Fats a second after Corky has risen from his side and walked away, catches the dummy's eyes moving with pitch-perfect horror-movie-eerie mischievousness.

Posted by ahillis at 12:54 PM