November 30, 2012

To Romania With Love

by Vadim Rizov

Everybody in Our Family

[Everybody in Our Family and Three Days Till Christmas screen in NYC as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's "Making Waves: New Romanian Cinema," beginning tonight through December 5.]

The major titles of the recent "Romanian New Cinema"—The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, Police, Adjective, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the brief exchanges in the largely dialogue-less three hours of Aurora—have accustomed viewers to conversational interactions frequently taking the sudden form of often un-incited rudeness. The opening of Radu Jude's Everybody in Our Family seemingly represents similar terrain: sprawled in a half unmade bed, a man stifles his alarm. Finally sitting up and checking his phone, he mutters "Fuck you" to a voice mail. The question of who the "fucking cunt" being cursed is, at this stage, less notable than the man's hostility, already at full strength moments after waking.

Everybody in Our Family

Because something like a whole reel is devoted to largely cute father-daughter interactions, the film's midway reversal gets alarmed attention very quickly. Seemingly reasonable Marius is revealed as far from an audience identification point. His violent behavior in the claustrophobic apartment results in an admittedly tense second half, placing a child in continuous jeopardy without using the threat as a cheap tool for emotional investment.

Greater detail is undesirable, since Family doesn't have American distribution yet. Expertly acted without any overscaled moments puncturing the literally pent-up tension, Everybody in Our Family queasily treads the border of being unrewardingly unpleasant. The scenario pushes Marius steadily towards total lunacy, producing a vein of extremely dark humor veering towards live-action cartoon. Compelling though it is, a larger purpose besides moment-to-moment palpitation-inducement is notably missing.

Three Days Till Christmas

Radu Gabrea's Three Days Till Christmas reconsiders the 1989 last days of Romania's longtime leader Nicolae Ceausescu (Constantin Cojocaru) and inseparable wife Elena (Victoria Cocias). Ceausescu's long dictatorship—beginning with idealistic, anti-totalitarian rhetoric, ending in massive national impoverishment, infant malnutrition and the secret police excesses of the Securitate—was terminated in the three days leading up to Christmas 1989. Christmas' main strand follows Nicolae and Elena as they attempt to flee the country, then hole up with military protectors. As people rage outside and alleged "terrorists" fire on protesters, history's inevitability makes no impression on Nicolae, who bristles over being betrayed by traitors and foreigners.

Footage from state TV—communications from hastily assembled protester factions and their pre-broadcast squabbling about who speaks first—overlaps heavily with Andrei Ujica and Harun Farocki's 1992 compilation documentary Videograms of the Revolution. Composed solely of muddy, often informationally unclear TV footage from the period, it's must-see viewing for those interested in the period. Christmas' use of the same shots—while no less interesting a second time around—points to the fact that this particular sociopolitical moment has been extensively explored. These clips function as scene-setters for a film largely split between last-days reenactment and talking heads interviews with the real participants. Conceptually rich, the film unfortunately offers no tension between the recreations and the interview "truths"; the former flatly illuminate the latter.

Three Days Till Christmas

The Variety review reports Romanian viewers were peeved by climactic scenes of the terrified Ceausescus holding each other in bed, an eminently understandable response of distastes. The goal is the perpetually surprising news that historical monsters are people too, a point in no way germane to understanding Nicolae and Elena's traumatic hold on the Romanian political psyche. (The death count from their overthrow alone has been estimated between 1,104 and 1,247, the vast majority of them civilians.) Viewers who only learn about them here might conclude Nicolae and Elena—ranting in harsh, impeccably recreated fits—were shot to get them to just shut up.

Posted by ahillis at 8:41 AM

November 26, 2012

INTERVIEW: Kier-La Janisse

by Steve Dollar

HOUSE OF PSYCHOTIC WOMEN writer Kier-La Janisse

Montreal-based film critic and programmer Kier-La Janisse explores how her own life as an adopted child with disruptive behavioral issues is intricately wired to a particular strain of cinephilia in "House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films" (FAB Press; $29.99). On one level, Janisse offers a spirited, incisive, and refreshingly plain-spoken analysis of movies that range from widely discussed auteurist psychodramas (3 Women, The Devils, Audition, Antichrist) to more furtive enthusiasms of the sort once tucked away in the back corner of the kind of video stores where she once worked: The Mafu Cage, with Carol Kane as the infantile, volatile half of a Sapphic sibling relationship with Lee Grant; or The Witch Who Came from the Sea, with Millie Perkins as a sexually abused child who grows up to be a serial-killing seductress with a mermaid tattooed across her belly. But she also goes much deeper, recounting in sometimes shocking detail how her own experiences, and those of her family, were reflected in those films. Far from being an act of narcissism, the personal notes become a gripping drama of their own, a dynamic psychic undertow that tugs the reader into a richer understanding of the films that have marked Janisse's consciousness as indelibly as the tattoos on her skin.

I recently spoke with Janisse, who comes to New York this weekend to celebrate the book's release with a program at 92Y Tribeca.

The Entity

[Watch the trailer for The Entity here.]

Your book opens with a discussion of The Entity, a 1982 drama based on a popular 1970s account of demonic assaults on a single mother living in Culver City, California. Carla Moran, the character played by Barbara Hershey, is repeatedly raped and beaten by an invisible force—and everyone just thinks she's lost her mind. How was this movie so fundamental, not only to the book but to your own experience?

A lot of the movies in the book break down to—the women are not all necessarily characters where I relate to them. Sometimes it's that she reminds me of my mother or my sister. That's the House of Psychotic Women in my real life, my relationships with my mother and my sister. The Entity, before I'd ever seen it, I remember by mom talking about it when I was young. She was complaining to somebody on the phone that it was offensive and sensationalistic. This movie had really upset her. I don't know if she had seen it. As I got older, I always had this weird memory in my head of something really scary when I was a kid, but I was never sure if it was a fragment of a dream or a memory or what it was.

When I was older, an aunt told me I had been present when my mom had been sexually assaulted. Obviously, this is one of the reasons my mom was upset by that movie. But the way people in my family reacted when that happened, half of them didn't believe her. A bunch of the female members of the family said they went to great lengths to keep it out of the papers, to keep it quiet. They were worried she would be embarrassed. The men said, "Oh, she's crazy. That never happened," and the women were like: "No, it totally happened and we went to court over it." This is still going on.

That ties in with the way that Carla Moran in The Entity gets questioned. There are these two grueling scenes of her being questioned by psychologists, about what kind of wish-fulfillment was going on in her imaginings. A lot of rape victims undergo that same treatment, but with my mom it was in our own family. There was all this suspicion. But also, my dad was a psychologist—and he doesn't believe her. He still doesn't. In the movie, there are the psychologists and the parapsychologists, these two schools of people who believe her or people who don't.

That was your mother's experience?

Yeah. She later remarried and was in a relationship with her new husband that wasn't happy. But she didn't want to leave it because her family made her feel like a failure after her first marriage didn't work. My mom ended up self-medicating a lot when I was a kid. There are so many women in these movies that I talk about in this book that have the same symptoms, the same kind of problems my mom had. My memory of her as a kid is just being asleep. All the time. Just being really small and skinny and frail.

The Mafu Cage

There are a lot of memoirs that tie in the writer's personal experience with the films they love, but I've never read a book quite like this. It's pretty bold to reveal all this intimate, disturbing family history. Was that always intended, or did you arrive there over time?

It wasn't supposed to be like that. When I first started conceptualizing it, I'd already written a few essays in my fanzine, in my 20s. I was going to maybe have a book that had 10 essays in it. Then I'd go back and look at my old essays and think, "Oh, I don't like that." I started rewriting some of those. I would see more and more movies. I worked on it for 10 years and it changed all the time. I didn't like how it was going. Once I figured out how I wanted it structured, I rewrote everything from scratch within a few months. That was the hard part, trying to pin down what my point was, what story I wanted to tell. I can't just write down a bunch of random shit about these movies. The Internet is oversaturated with people's reviews.

I don't have an academic background and I didn't feel like I could come up with some important thesis like "The Final Girl." There has to be a reason people would care about what I'm saying, so I was going to add little anecdotes in a sidebar. I asked my dad if he would help me make actual prescriptions for the female characters. I was going to categorize the chapters according to their mental illnesses, but then I realized it wouldn't work because most of the illnesses that the characters have aren't based on real mental illnesses. Some are, but a lot are total composites that don't cleanly fit into one type.

I was telling some friends about this idea of having anecdotes and they were like, "That's what makes the way you look at the movies unique." I was really hesitant. I thought people really wouldn't care. Who the hell are you to write a memoir when you're not a famous person? But if I'm going to tell these stories and say I can relate to the character from The Piano Teacher, I have to explain that. That's going to mean telling some personal things that are going to be hard to talk about, I have to be honest. Once I started that, the writing came faster because I was writing from my own experience as opposed to from research. If you look at the bibliography, it's pathetic.

Possession

[Watch the trailer for Possession here.
For more Zulawski on GreenCine Daily, click here.]

In the end, was it therapeutic to get all this down in that kind of form? Was it troubling to dredge up?

I had talked a lot about the stuff from when I was a kid in group homes, because they make you talk about shit all the time. But I really hadn't dealt with my mother at all. I deliberately tried to push her out of my life. That was the biggest part of the book, just realizing how much of her story was entwined with my story. I hated her so much. It wasn't until I wrote the book that I had so much more empathy for her. As I was writing, I was like "God, she had a lot of tough breaks." Being able to say that I don't hate my mother, that was the biggest part for me.

The cover image for the hardback edition is the art from Andrzej Zulawski's Possession. That's a big one, and a movie that has gotten some long overdue appreciation thanks to a US theatrical run and major Zulawski retrospectives in New York and Los Angeles. Anyone's first encounter with it has to be a mindblowing experience. Tell me about yours.

I had seen the cover of the movie forever, but I never rented it. My friend Sam had a bootleg of it, a director's cut. I watched it and fell in love with the movie. I love its use of language, the ineffectualness of language, and the way people are trying so desperately to communicate with each other. All the main characters have different accents from different countries. Isabelle Adjani speaks in broken English, but according to people who've seen it, her performance is a lot different in the French version—she uses her own voice and gives a lot more confident performance. In the English version, she is actually struggling with the language. That contributes to the overall theme of communication breakdown. When she's giving these monologues about Sister Faith and Sister Chance, or miscarrying this creature in the subway, the movie is just so rich. I related to it on an emotional level. It's in this headspace. I have no idea if Zulawski would agree with anything I say about his movies. He seems to disagree with a lot of people.

I thought Possession was crazy until I saw Zulawski's Szamanka. You think you have a favorite cult director whose work is so extreme and beyond the limits of psychology or expression and then you see that. No one is even in the same ballpark.

The funny thing is, he doesn't like that people characterize his movies like that. He thinks his movies are very controlled. Maybe as a filmmaker you are very controlled, but it doesn't mean that what's going on onscreen isn't totally nuts. So I don't think he makes that distinction. We know that you know what you're doing. It's the images on the screen that are hysterical.

[Watch the trailer for Szamanka here.]

The growing appreciation for genre or "fantastic" films has made words like "crazy" the highest form of praise. Although maybe that also devalues them, because branding stuff like that can be cliché or patronizing.

That ties in with the theme of the book, too. Being labeled crazy or nuts as a person, that's considered a dismissal also. To be called crazy is to be called incompetent. I think part of doing the book was also trying to renegotiate what that word meant. Being able to say, "No, I am crazy." There are things I do that make no sense, behavior that I have trouble controlling. But I don't think I'd be able to do any of the things I've done that are good if it hadn't been for that manic sensibility.

[Kier-La Janisse will introduce The Mafu Cage and The Entity on Friday Nov. 30 at 92Y Tribeca in New York City, where she also will sign copies of "House of Psychotic Women." The program continues Saturday with The Witch Who Came from the Sea. For more info, click here.]

Posted by ahillis at 8:38 AM

November 23, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Red Dawn (1984)

by Nick Schager

Red Dawn [This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the North Korean-centric remake Red Dawn.]

Of all the places to invade America, Colorado—cutoff from any reasonable air or naval support—would seem a pretty terrible choice. But don't tell that to Red Dawn, John Milius' eminently ridiculous time capsule of Cold War paranoia and teenybopper play-acting, which finds small-town Colorado overrun by Russian and Cuban soldiers. The sight of paratroopers landing outside a high school classroom window is the sole iconic image mustered by Milius' film, which otherwise details, with dreary and unearned self-seriousness, the efforts of a local group of kids to hide in the mountains, school themselves in the ways of resistance, and then fight back against the invading commie hordes as the Wolverines (a name taken from their high school football team). Thus, the fate of American sovereignty rests in the hands of Patrick Swayze, Charlie Sheen, C. Thomas Howell, Lea Thompson and Jennifer Grey, who along with a few other nondescript twerps co-opt Latin America guerilla tactics in an adventure that—either laughably or insultingly, depending on your vantage point—embraces the role-reversal fantasy of America as the righteously subjugated underdog forced to battle back against tyrannical oppressors.

Red Dawn

Furthering that bizarro-universe situation is the fact that the nominal commander of the communist invaders is a Freddie Mercury-lookalike Cuban named Bella (Ron O'Neal) who repeatedly expresses confusion over how to operate now that he's not the insurgent, but the aggressor—a notion that reaches its hilarious apex during the film's climax, when Bella writes home to his wife that he misses her, hates the frigid cold of Colorado's winter (a sentiment that would no doubt be ridiculed by his Russian comrades!), and is morally lost without a revolutionary cause driving his actions. This upside-down fairy tale would be more tolerable if it were played with at least a bit of self-conscious humor, but no, Red Dawn is all solemn posturing and speechifying, most of it done by a cast of young Hollywood up-and-comers who carry with them not a shred of believable gravity. Milius and co-screenwriter Kevin Reynolds don't flesh out these kids as three-dimensional characters, but rather as stock types with predefined roles—the brooding leader (Swayze), the loyal brother (Sheen), the tragedy-damaged loose cannon (Howell), the tough chicks (Thompson and Grey) —whose main function is to flip-flop between acting battle-hardened and traumatized.

Red Dawn

Early on, Swayze and Sheen find their father (Harry Dean Stanton) in a reeducation camp, where the elder—before hilariously exhorting them to "Avenge Me!" —tells them that, no matter what happens, they shouldn't cry. It's advice that goes unheeded, as there's endless male weeping in Red Dawn, with everyone bawling after another member of their clan is killed, thereby turning the entire proceedings into some sort of unintentional Big Boys Do Cry comedy. Milius' story is concerned with the loss of innocence suffered by his protagonists, who are forced to assume adult responsibilities and roles until they can lie down and die near a public park swing set, a symbol of youth finally regained. The problem, however, is that amidst such a ludicrous The Commies Are Coming! scenario, this portrait rings ridiculous, especially given the Breakfast Club-style characterizations on display. Swayze's tormented alpha-male routine is the silliest of the bunch, all over-the-top agonized screaming, but it's almost matched by the performance of Powers Boothe as a downed American fighter pilot whose grizzled-vet jadedness merely confirms that both kids and adults alike behave like overwrought G.I. Joe phonies in this Us-vs.-Them universe.

Red Dawn

When not giving the teenage set a Rambo-style saga to call their own—replete with numerous sequences of the Wolverines attacking Russian soldiers and bases with a skillfulness that's out-and-out absurd—the film also doubles as a bit of unvarnished right-wing propaganda. In Red Dawn, the 2nd Amendment is what allows the kids to resist occupation—note the "They Can Have My Gun When They Pry It From My Cold, Dead Fingers" bumper sticker—and triumph is ultimately achieved through old-school mountain-man camping and hunting in the glorified natural splendor of Arapaho National Forest. With Jeremiah Johnson as their patron saint, the Wolverines are homegrown militiamen whose survivalist skills prove vital and valiant, even when they go loony like C. Thomas Howell and gun down a friend-turned-traitor—an act that's justified because the victim in question was a wimpy class president, not a venerated jock like Swayze and Sheen. It's all so much nonsense, even with the participation of the usually dependable Stanton and Ben Johnson (as a Wolverine benefactor). And it's undone by not only the unbearable affectation of its cast, but by the fact that, ultimately, a world with these kids as heroes seems less palatable than Russian occupation, which at least involves art houses showing nothing but Sergei Eisenstein's great Alexander Nevsky.

Posted by ahillis at 9:01 AM

November 20, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Once Upon a Time in America (1984)

by Vadim Rizov

Once Upon a Time in America

[The "complete European release version" of the film screens in a new DCP restoration at NYC's Film Forum from November 23 - 30. For tickets and info, click here.]

Just as the Fistful of Dollars trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West inflated standard Western plot beats through durational gravitas, Sergio Leone's 1984 Once Upon a Time in America—as the title explicitly signals—lends mythological heft to the normally fleet Prohibition gangster genre. Like 1939's The Roaring Twenties, it's about American economic outsiders climbing to success with illicit booze, with former partners becoming enemies: there, James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart; here, David "Noodles" Aaronson (Robert De Niro) and Max Bercovicz (James Woods). Just as in 1949's White Heat, events are often determined and underpinned by its antihero's sexually misdirected energy: in Heat, Cagney's devotion to his mother, and in America, Noodles' lifelong inability to win over Deborah (Elizabeth McGovern) frustratingly climaxing in a brutal rape just before the intermission.

Once Upon a Time in America

De Niro is eerily, vacantly enigmatic, a blank cipher whose sudden violent actions are eruptions of male screenwriter id. (Six Italian men, to be precise, whose attitude towards female characters/informed consent is objectionable; acceptance of this is a prerequisite to enjoyment.) Recreating 1920s Lower East Side Manhattan as a sort of Hasidic megalopolis, America's most compelling sequences are the childhood hour making up the bulk of the first half. Young De Niro is one Scott Tiler, while Woods’ kid surrogate is Rusty Jacobs, both goggly-eyed and youthfully over-emphatic. Around them, fabulously choreographed crowds swarm, with Noodles and Rusty often lost in bustling streets. The streetscapes are spectacular, even when interrupted by rude hijinks—the literal pants-down humiliation of a bullying police officer—closer to Italian sex comedy than anything generically American. Like the overwhelming misdirected extras in Jacques Tati's 1971 Playtime (which takes the same approach in a nebulous urban future), mass movement is more compelling than the individual's, a broader social story told through sheer aggregated detail.

These images seem seriously indebted to The Godfather, Part II's sequences of young Michael Corleone creeping over Manhattan rooftops. They were shot twice over: first in constructed sets in Rome, then in Williamsburg on streets modified with fiberglass and set decorations to mirror those abroad. The latter shoot—documented in a deeply entertaining 1983 New York magazine set report by Joe Klein—had Joe Litto (in charge of the transformation of South 8th and Bedford Ave.) explaining the scope and necessity of this twice-over set expense: the lumber for this 6-month operation alone cost $100,000, all for the sake of "perspective [...] you can shoot down the street, which you can't do in Rome." Besides perspective, they got the Manhattan Bridge, the dwarfing backdrop for the nearly comically excessive Grand Guignol bloodletting ending adolescence. One member of the gang—a piping flute-player, no less—is shot down, and Noodles takes revenge with a knife. Jailed as a child actor and emerging as De Niro, Noodles' intermittent, sexually-fueled flare-ups take up nearly as much time as shoot-outs and double-crosses.

Once Upon a Time in America

The elegiac pacing more or less successfully covers up for the often grotesque, sub-majestic dramatic events. How compelling they are will largely depend on your willingness to be smothered by Ennio Morricone's gorgeous but admittedly heavy-handed score, which often sets the tempo for the actors' movements. The characters' Jewishness largely acts as an excuse for young Deborah to declaim the "Song of Solomon"; ethnicity doesn't take any serious role in its characters' lives. There's a sense of an "America" conjured by outsiders, one slightly off from its recognizable cinematic sources. Bit players with convincingly organic vernacular dialogue break through this retuned interpretation, including Burt Young as a thuggish henchman (muttering "Life is stranger than shit" between mouthfuls) and Joe Pesci as his usual strutting self. But most of the cast spouts dialogue that seems directly translated from Italian without native speaker input.

Once Upon a Time in America begins and ends in an opium den; everything that happens after this point in the non-linearly-presented timeline may be a hallucination. Besides introducing this narrative ambiguity, De Niro's stupor mirrors the viewer experience. America's pacing pleasures are narcotic, creating a strong sense of time passing, crucial for endowing the final flashback montage with recalled resonance for patient viewers. Crudities and all, America earns its scope.

Posted by ahillis at 3:15 PM

November 18, 2012

Out on a Limb

by Steve Dollar

Rust and Bone

There are Hallmark movies of the week with fewer melodramatic deal breakers than Rust and Bone. The extreme events that more-or-less bookend the film are held in balance, though, by a miraculously sustained tension. The sixth film from French director Jacques Audiard (The Beat That My Heart Skipped, A Prophet) pulls off something sly, compelling affection for characters who are not immediately likable. Their crazy/desperate/fucked-up circumstances propel the story without lapsing into sentimentality, instead driving a flinty romance in which hopes that that the lovers beat the odds hover forever in the shadow of the next fateful instance.

Of course, it helps to start with performers as charismatic as these. Matthias Schoenaerts, trimmed down to human scale but still mighty buff from his smashing debut in Bullhead—and with plenty of leftover testosterone sloshing around, is Ali, a man at loose ends after suddenly claiming custody of his young son, whose mother has become too involved with drugs to care for him. Arriving in Antibes penniless after a journey from Belgium, Ali and the boy are taken in by his older sister and her husband, a working-class couple only a rung or two higher up a shaky economic ladder. Soon enough, ex-boxer Ali has landed the obvious gig, working as a bouncer at a cheesy disco. One night, he rescues a drunken Stéphanie (Marion Cotillard) from a harassing douchebag and drives her home. Gazing at her bare legs exposed by a short skirt, he chastises her. In return, she's brusque and snotty. Back at her place, domestic awkwardness ensues: a whiny boyfriend wants answers. Meanwhile, Ali slides her his phone number.

[Read Steve Dollar's interview with Bullhead director Michael Roskam here.]

Rust and Bone

If you know anything about this movie, you know what happens next. We see Stéphanie at her gig, leading a Speedo-garbed coed crew of whale-trainers in a dancing orca routine at a marine amusement park. No need to be coy about this. Cotillard, for me, ranks as the most beautiful actress alive. The eyes have it, and Audiard maps their emotive surface to spectacular effect throughout the film. He also knows how to stage a moment. The camera fractures movement into brief Cubist flashes, the framed tilted or swerved, brilliant sunlight glancing off the water, laying out a mosaic of sensation paced to the Southern California mall-rat thump of Katy Perry's "Firework." Then: Boom. Bad orca! Stéphanie collapses into the water when the whales flip out and is grievously injured, losing both her legs.

From here, the story becomes the matter of these two characters, both transformed and transforming, connecting with each other through a series of complications and breakthroughs that by the very end of the film wind up suggesting nothing so much as an O. Henry short story (although the film was actually knitted together out of several fictions from the eponymous collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, who interestingly enough once took steroids as research for his novel The Fighter, unrelated to the David O. Russell movie).

Rust and Bone

Stéphanie's haughtiness is replaced by a catastrophic depression. Out of the blue, she calls Ali, and the two strike up an unusual companionship. After an exasperated aside prompts a blunt offer, this turns into a sexual relationship, through which she reawakens. Schoenaerts gives the Ali the demeanor of a testicle on two legs: a bit dim to the needs of anyone but himself, yet with enough heart flickering like a bulb underneath to have a chance at a fuller consciousness.

The carnality of it all goes beyond sex into the camera's embrace of physical form. Even Cotillard's CGI-erased stems become part of that, in their absence, as Audiard makes the audience painfully aware of her character's struggle to reclaim routine movement. The flipside comes as Ali takes up underground street-fighting bouts, skull-crunching spectacles staged in grotesque detail, in which the loser is hammered into semi-conscious submission, left broken in the dirt. In one of the movie's many twists, Stéphanie goes along for the ride, watching from a nearby SUV with a mix of terror and arousal. Is she slumming or has she somehow found an arena that makes sense of her own suffering, a visceral antidote to her self-pity?

Rust and Bone

Audiard and his cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine set the film in a world of expansive visual possibility, granting absolute primacy to the poetic force of the image. Subplots outline a social commentary parallel to the love story, but those feel less necessary than the emphasis on single stirring scenes. A solitary tooth, spinning in derelict motion, knocked loose in an abstract tableaux. The curls of a woman's hair shadowed against a door frame. Stéphanie, resurrecting herself, tentatively rehearsing her hand signals in a wheelchair as the Antibes sun blasts onto a rooftop, the bubble-gum beat of "Firework" animating the scene. (That's twice with the Katy Perry already, but give Audiard credit: He changes the way you hear the song). When the movie arrives at its Hallmarkest of all Hallmark moments, Stéphanie's return visit to the marine park, standing mute before an aquarium wall to commune with a whale, even Attila the Hun would weep. Just let it go, baby. Cotillard's performance has paid for your tears in advance.

Posted by ahillis at 10:38 AM

November 15, 2012

RETRO ACTIVE: Nosferatu the Vampyre (1979)

by Nick Schager

Nosferatu the Vampyre

[This week's Retro Active pick is inspired by the teen-vampire franchise capper The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2.]

The dawning apocalypse arrives with trancelike grace in Nosferatu the Vampyre (originally subtitled Phantom of the Night), Werner Herzog's remake-cum-homage to F. W. Murnau's seminal 1922 silent film adaptation of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. Though following the narrative template of Murnau's expressionistic masterpiece—which, without rights to Stoker's book, took some plot-detail liberties—Herzog's film is nonetheless its own living, breathing monster, a strange, hypnotic work indebted to the style of silent cinema, 19th-century realism painting, and his own documentaries. There's a hallucinatory quality to Herzog's vampiric saga that often drags momentum down to the point of torpor. Yet like so much of the German director's fictional output from this period, what's sought isn't excitement or horror in a traditional sense but, rather, an enveloping atmosphere of unreality, of madness, of the animalism that belies civilized society and human behavior. To that end, Count Dracula (Klaus Kinski) is the embodiment of man's baser urges and impulses, not so much tormenting Jonathan Harker (Bruno Ganz)—the man who falls under his spell via neck bite after visiting Transylvania to help close Dracula's real estate deal in Wismar, Germany—as unshackling him from his staid, conformist nature.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

If Nosferatu carves its own path, it's in its portrait of Dracula as a figure of borderline-tragic pain and suffering, all of it wrought from the lonely agony of eternal life. Kinski, Herzog's longtime combative collaborator, assumes an outward appearance that resembles that of the original Nosferatu's Max Schreck, his bulbous head bald and pasty, his ears enormous and fingers long, his eyes surrounded by dark rings, and his two front fangs protruding from his mouth like a rat. In not only looks but in the way he pounces on Harker's bloody finger during dinner at his castle, Kinski's Nosferatu comes off as a beastly creature. And still, Kinski, suppressing his anarchic wild-man theatrics, imbues Dracula with a soulfulness that's piercingly human, his forlorn eyes exuding misery of the solitude forced upon him by his vampiric condition. His lust for Harker's wife Lucy (Isabelle Adjani)—a figure of pale, porcelain delicacy defined by her own large, wide eyes—is less sexual than romantic, with the Count pleading at film's conclusion for Lucy to bestow him with a measure of the love that she has for Harker, and of which the Count has never been a recipient.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Repressed desire defines much of Nosferatu, and can be felt in its measured rhythms and quietly mournful score by Popol Vuhl. Herzog shoots his material with a patience that allows one to scrutinize the naturalistic details of his period settings and scenery, and which heightens the mannered silent-movie comportment and reactions of his cast, who gasp and cower with an artificial theatricality that meshes nicely with their grimy, gritty surroundings. The meticulously staged action often makes the film feel like an old-world painting come to slow, tortured life, with everything coated in a sense of otherworldly dread and menace, of dark things slowly emerging out of the shadows and—as in the case of Dracula's first encounter with Lucy—into seemingly safe, private abodes. When chaos finally materializes, in the form of Harker's employer Renfield (Roland Toper) cackling with lunatic glee while encased in a straight jacket in a grungy mental hospital cell, or of Dracula's cargo ship arriving at port—its inhabitants missing, its dead captain tied to the wheel, and its deck overrun by rats—it comes like a plague, gradually and unstoppably.

Nosferatu the Vampyre

Nosferatu's signature sights are of those rats, not only on the ship but, afterwards, on the streets of Wismar, crowding on top of each other while men carry lines of coffins through empty courtyards, the population undone by the Black Death that's followed in Dracula's wake. Animal pestilence destroys everything civil and pure in Herzog's spin on the iconic vampire story, leaving only death and insanity. In Herzog's most notable addition to his material, Lucy wanders through the town square as people gaily dance, drink, hug (and attempt to ride) goats, and sit in formalwear at long banquet tables for feasts, all of them heralding their doom with crazed revelry. This vision of anarchic decay fittingly ends with a quick cut to reveal the dining table devoid of guests and overrun by rats, and carries with it an air of hopelessness that continues to film's conclusion, during which it's made clear that—no matter Lucy's ability to use the promise of love as a lure to trap, and destroy, Dracula—the lethal hungers brought to life by the Count are, ultimately, timeless and inescapable.

Posted by ahillis at 7:07 AM

November 13, 2012

DVD OF THE WEEK: A Burning Hot Summer

by Vadim Rizov

French auteur Philippe Garrel's work has always been a tough sell. He began in experimental cinema in the '60s, personally processing his first short, and only gradually worked his way towards narrative. His American "breakthrough"—2005's Regular Lovers, four decades into his career—is a nearly three-hour, black-and-white, Academy-ratio portrait of May '68's discontented survivors. Rather than trying to convince the unconverted through synopsis and laudatory adjectives, I'd suggest just watching this abbreviated clip of French kids dancing to The Kinks' "This Time Tomorrow":

It's an ebullient moment out of time: young men and women momentarily freed of revolutionary rhetoric and responsibility, interrupted only by shots of Philippe's son Louis balefully staring down fun he refuses to join in. In Regular Lovers, Louis relived his father's youth. In the new drama A Burning Hot Summer, Garrel the younger is now embodying dad's late friend Frédéric Pardo (to whom Regular Lovers was dedicated). The dancing scene is revisited as Frédéric's unsubtly-named actress girlfriend Angèle (Monica Bellucci) grinds with a stranger (to the inferior strains of Dirty Pretty Things' "Truth Begins"), again with the younger Garrel glaring.

In one hilarious scene, petulant, previously inattentive Frédéric chews Angèle out at interminable length, crying out in would-be unbearable pain, then calmly apologizing for the overwrought gesture. A Burning Hot Summer primarily takes place as the season unfolds in Rome and the cracks of Frédéric and Angèle's relationship widen in the heat. The couple are joined by his best friend Paul (Jérôme Robert) and significant other Élisabeth (Céline Sallette). It's the present day, but the dialogue is firmly late-'60s, as Frédéric and Paul sit on rooftops and discuss Marxist revolution, despicable bourgeois mores and so on. You'd never know they'd left Paris: the decrepit peeling white walls and charming rooftop terraces are exactly the same, making for an anti-touristic gaze.

A Burning Hot Summer

Garrel often transcribes his dreams straight to the page, or so he claims—one way of explaining surprising scenes appearing out of nowhere. E.g.: Angèle is trying on clothes with Élisabeth. A moment of female bonding is unexpectedly diverted into a totally different direction when a rat appears and Angèle shrieks. Frédéric discards his chagrin, rushing to her side and wanting to comfort her—a perfect scene about a petty fight slowing but not halting the larger trajectory of a relationship's dissolution, ending with a goofily literal close-up of the rodent in question. The symbolism is incredibly overt, but disarmingly concrete in its presentation.

In a 1999 documentary profile for French TV, Garrel testified to the influence of his late father Maurice—a mascot/presence in many of his films, here in his last appearance—in teaching him that life's primary point is the loving, intense combustion between man and woman. It's a worldview that's both anachronistic and slightly unsettling (where would that leave non-heterosexuals?), but to enjoy his work, it's essential to understand and accept the unblinking romanticism. Nor, despite the emphasis on masculine brooding, does theatviewpoint turn boorish. When couples argue, more often than not the callow male gets served, as in 1991's I Don't Hear the Guitar Anymore, where a man refuses to say "I love you" because—as he preeningly declaims, very proud of himself for the staggering levels of aphoristic insight he's bringing forth—he's not even sure what these words might mean. For starters, the woman replies, saying would mean wanting to say them, bringing his sophistry to a swift end. Angèle's rarely that assertive, but A Burning Hot Summer balances her quiet fuming and Frédéric's often oblivious treatment, allowing for both's trajectories to seem equally tragic.

A Burning Hot Summer is (very, very loosely) a riff on Godard's Contempt, with actress Angèle appearing in a similarly unworthy production, a World War II drama featuring heroic Frenchmen mowing down Nazis with machine guns (more hilarity, and more contempt for the kind of movie Garrel would never dream of making). The real ideological battle's very much ongoing at home. In one of the Parisian scenes, Paul and Frédéric are walking down a street when they're passed by a group of running immigrants, followed immediately by pursuing cops with nightsticks. "Fucking Sarko," Frédéric fumes—a succinct, blunt, unambiguous declaration. The point is later hammered home when a dinner guest goes on and on about how France's cultural vitality is dependent upon new viewpoints. "Italy," he categorically asserts, "hasn't done anything since the Renaissance."

Garrel could be accused of spinning his thematic wheels: after Regular Lovers and 2008's The Empire of Dawn, this is his third film to feature Louis fuming his way through relationships with women far too good for his callow self. But every film's constituent elements are different: after two black-and-white works, his latest here is in color and widescreen. Flowing from scene to scene, scorning token narrative connective tissue, it's a total sensory recapturing of a lost past, interspersed with grumbling about the crappy political present. Elegiac memoriams are rarely this funny, pointed or pleasurable.

Posted by ahillis at 3:47 PM

November 12, 2012

DOC NYC 2012: Critic's Notebook

by Steve Dollar

The Central Park Five

Now in its third year, DOC NYC is an omnibus fest: Its 115 shorts and features mark an effort to create a populist documentary summit that plays strongly to specific constituencies within the ever-expanding culture that non-fiction filmmaking has become. As such, there is a distinct focus on beloved musical acts (Big Star, Kate McGarrigle) and profiles of pop culture phenomena (George Plimpton, Bettie Page), as well as the usual documentary forte: social issues. Those are most powerfully represented by The Central Park Five, in which Ken Burns (in league with daughter Sarah and David McMahon, her husband and longtime Burns associate) prowls Errol Morris/Werner Herzog turf to explore how five teenaged black and Hispanic boys spent a collective 33 ½ years in jail, falsely convicted in the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case.

Anyone curious what a Ken Burns movie would be like without Keith David's baritone or main characters who were already a half-century dead can now discover for themselves. The director insists that while the film varies in style, its core is consistent with those lavish PBS projects devoted to iconic American subjects. "Race is the central fault line of American history," Burns told me over lunch at the Toronto International Film Festival (which counts DOC NYC co-founder Thom Powers as a programmer). "It's why the Civil War happened, why jazz was created. The best story in baseball is Jackie Robinson. But this is really new and different. The story demanded new cinematic growth on all of our parts."

The Central Park Five would seem to be a shoo-in for an Oscar nomination, based on the heft of its story, the masterful use of archival materials to reconstruct events and the sadder, wiser testimony of the five adult men who finished growing up in prison. But DOC NYC, which concludes with the film's New York premiere on Thursday, has a few other winners. Here are three of them.

Informant

Speaking of Morris, the master of forensic cinema should feel mighty jealous when he sees Informant. Jamie Meltzer's portrait of a former radical activist turned FBI snitch is the stuff of great fiction, as the camera takes in the confessions of a squirrelly cipher named Brandon Darby. In 2008, in Austin, Texas, Darby belonged to an offshoot of a protest organization that planned disruptive actions at the Republican National Convention. If the movie, or the testimony of the defendants, is to be trusted, then Darby not only infiltrated their small group but encouraged and instructed them in the making of the Molotov Cocktails for which two young men were sent to prison for two years. This is the same Darby who won widespread admiration for working with militant and progressive African-American community members in New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward after Hurricane Katrina, taking a leadership role in rebuilding the neighborhood. There's a lot of back story to unravel, and the film's main flaw is that it takes so long to get to the point, and still seems to leave out key details—perhaps because in the end, someone like Darby may be unknowable, or, based solely on his first-person representation, suffering from some real mental issues. Yet, in sticking with his subject, unreliable narrator or not, Meltzer reveals a man whose craving for acceptance and attention can only be fulfilled by embracing extremes. (Disowned by his former activist friends and colleagues, Darby has become a kind of poster boy for the Andrew Breitbart set). If George Clooney doesn't option the feature remake version, he's nuts.

Shepard & Dark

Sam Shepard and his BFF, Johnny Dark, narrate their own twinned sagas in Shepard & Dark, and when memory fails to serve, there are letters. Gazillions of 'em. And Super-8 movies. And photographs. And if that doesn't work, Shepard plucks a Dylan tune on his old guitar and the moments come rushing back. A sometimes startlingly intimate exploration of love, friendship, manhood, the artistic instinct and the American road, the film plays like a long goodbye to what used to be called bohemia. There's a sense that the '60s never ended for Dark, a jack-of-all-trades who befriended Shepard, on the spot, in the Lower East Side, nearly 50 years ago. Now working in a Mexican deli in New Mexico, Dark radiates the simple joy of a man who is happy living alone with his dogs and his volumes (of books, letters, photos, musings). Shepard, arguably America's greatest living playwright, a movie star, a rock'n'roller, a latter-day cowboy, a legend every which way, arrives at his old friend's place a newly single man, having split from his companion of three decades, Jessica Lange. The year is 2010, and to pay some bills (or, perhaps, somehow expiate some guilt through revisiting old regrets), he's struck a deal to donate his correspondence with the gentle and generously spirited Dark to his archives at Texas State University. What happens is a mutual séance of sorts, as the men, acknowledging their crucial, even symbiotic relationship, also expose their vast differences in lifestyle and philosophy. It's a bit of the immovable object (Dark) vs. the irresistible force (Shepard). The remarkable thing is that director Treva Wurmfeld gets the famously hermetic Shepard to open up, revealing personal details that don't reflect well on him, but with a candor that speaks to real vulnerability. There's a lot of hurt lingering in this bromance, but the swings between tender and tragic make for a captivating, and richly emotional story.

Only the Young

Don't use up all your hankies, though. Despite its unsentimental perspective on childhood's end, Only the Young will trigger the waterworks before its done. An exceptional first film from the duo of Elixabeth Mims and Jason Tippet, this observational documentary hovers as a trio of friends—high school skateboarders Garrison and Kevin, and the girl who shares their mutual affections, Skye—navigate their way towards adulthood amid the ex-urban, post-crash nothing much of Canyon Country, California. The film succeeds in evoking what the kids actually feel, even if they fail to fully articulate those feelings, in a score of quiet moments, scattered between everything else that goes on in their lives of which we never see very much. "When you really want to be different, you go out and skate for Christ," announces their church youth group leader at one point, when the boys take part in a free taco outreach at the skate park, but the religious element that is part of all the subjects' lives is merely noted as another aspect of their existence. Much the same is the barely spoken economic issues everyone's family seems to face, especially Skye, who has been raised by her grandparents. Her father is in prison and her mother is, she explains, a heroin addict who gave her up at birth. Her basic need for family helps to explain why she clings to her friendship with Garrison even after he takes up with a new girl, whose preference for hip-hop dance moves, short hair and liberal values remain a source of annoyance. The film's nearly weightless touch, suffused with the sensual glow of the Southern California sun, mimics the gravity-defying arcs of the skaters through the air. Reality bites, of course: Kevin's always snapping the tip of his board off. Yet, to quote Garrison's treasured Black Flag, in brief shining moments, these kids rise above.

[DOC NYC screens through Thursday at both the IFC Center and School of Visual Arts Theater. Only the Young opens Dec. 7 at IFC Center. For more info, click here.]

Posted by ahillis at 10:14 AM

November 6, 2012

FILM OF THE WEEK: Skyfall

by Vadim Rizov

Skyfall

About halfway through Skyfall, James Bond (Daniel Craig) finally meets this installment's villain, Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). Per usual, there's plenty of time for 007 and his prey to chat, so Raoul explains his cyberterrorism operations in detail. "Everybody needs a hobby," Bond smirks. "What's yours?" asks Silva. "Resurrection," says Bond, speaking on behalf of an ever-anachronistic series perpetually plagued by production delays.

Skyfall follows a classic three-act structure. In the series' systematically explosive pre-credits sequence, Bond pursues a baddie and falls to his presumable death when MI6 director M (Judi Dench) orders agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to take a risky shot rather than letting Bond's quarry get away with the MacGuffin. In anonymous island exile, Bond sulks through the first act, moodily sipping a Heineken while a silent woman sucks at his pectorals, but news of an explosion at MI6 brings him back home: the claims of queen and country can't be denied. The "suspense" of the first act—is Bond finally so desiccated he can't get it together?—is a non-starter, leading to a kinetic second act of pursuit from Shanghai to Macau, then back to the UK. The climax and denouement are all on British soil, making this by far the most time Bond's ever spent at home.

Skyfall

In a word association test, Bond doesn't hesitate to answer "country" with "England." The good old British bulldog spirit that built empires lives on M's desk, in the form of a porcelain canine with the Union Jack on its rump. Skyfall asks viewers to accept reactionary sentiments as eternal verities. M defends MI6's mission asserting that what looks silly and quaint is vital, which extends to limitless counter-terrorist shoot-to-kill activities for the good of all, never subject to review from nattering prime ministers who don't understand what's at stake. Bond's always been a rogue MI6 representative, but the implications of his contempt for authority cut deeper in a time of barely disclosed drone attacks and shadowy international law enforcement. Wrapping this kind of plea for unlimited authority in the British flag makes this plea even more old-school: taken to its logical limit, Skyfall would extend to an argument for recolonizing the Empire in the name of the greater good. (cf. Eldridge Cleaver: "The 'paper tiger' hero, James Bond, offering whites a triumphant image of themselves, is saying what many whites want desperately want to hear reaffirmed: I am still the White Man, lord of the land, licensed to kill, and the world is still an empire at my feet.") The finale finds Bond as lord of the Scottish manor, defending his territory from maniacal foreigners.

Every James Bond film walks a fine line between giving audiences the staple moments they came for and trying to introduce new kinks. You could probably make graphs charting the number of drinks consumed, women casually conquered, goofy gadgets introduced, disgruntled consultations with the home office, the amount of paid advertising present, then crunch those figures into numerical evaluations of a film's formulaic elements vs. freshness. This Bond still gets his martini shaken rather than stirred (though he leaves it half-consumed), picks up female admirers without visible effort, and conducts motorcycle chases wearing a proper formal jacket and tie which never distractingly floats into his eyes. "Sometimes the old ways are the best," Bond asserts in one of many pointed arguments for the series' eternal (ir)relevance. Later, M will recite Tennyson, Lord Alfred's "Ulysses" to a committee questioning her MI6 stewardship: "We are not that strength which in old days moved heaven and earth." Then Bond comes in and shoots some people, administering peace through strength.

Skyfall

The post-Empire angst is of greater interest than the series' attempt to deepen Bond by assigning him a tragic childhood backstory that "explains" why he has an "alcohol and substance abuse" problem. (Do cartoons need backstories?) The script goes cod-Freudian, with M's deferential "mam" becoming a surrogate "Mummy" for Bond and Silva. Attempts at psychological gravity or no, there's never a "new Bond," only some distracting feints in that direction until the time is right to reintroduce the old standbys and the unkillable super-spy makes all right with impossible timing and unwavering aim. The new Q (Ben Whishaw) refuses to give Bond the usual fancy gadgets, but fret not: the Aston Martin with machine guns in its headlights from Goldfinger will be along eventually, complete with a Bond brass blurt.

Director Sam Mendes and cinematographer Roger Deakins' shared job is to give old thrills fresh forms. Ever since his cinematic debut with American Beauty, Mendes tends for starchy, heavy-handed drama. Skyfall finds a fleet use for his technical acumen, and Deakins renders the film gorgeous. (One familiar image from their past collaboration on Jarhead: a nighttime field lit only by orange flames, only this time the background for running-and-gunning instead of contemplative staring.) The ostensibly moody touches are but window dressing for the most-muscled Bond on record (who, in 2006's Casino Royale emerged from the ocean like Ursula Andress in Dr. No) to give the audience what they came for. Nearly every Bond film coasts on franchise goodwill while delivering mediocre delights. Skyfall is the unreconstructed ideal, mixing preposterousness and expert stuntwork in perfect proportion.

Posted by ahillis at 6:03 PM

November 1, 2012

HALLOWEEN FILM OF THE WEEK: Repulsion (1965)

by Vadim Rizov

Repulsion

[If and when the power is restored to lower Manhattan, Repulsion screens at Film Forum in a new 35mm print.]

Roman Polanski's Repulsion is, famously, a subjective depiction of one woman's hallucinatory slide into madness. The subject is Carol, embodied by Catherine Deneuve, a reluctantly transplanted Belgian in the middle of swinging London (working at Vidal Sassoon's salon, no less). The trances she falls into during working hours indicate Carol is less than stable long before the knives come out. "You must be in love," one of the salon's middle-aged harridan customers says, but it's actually the opposite: Carol just wants to be left alone, left to withdraw from the pressures of unwanted male sexual attention. Her failure and attendant homicidal insanity form the film's trajectory.

Carol's descent has generally been accepted as (at least in part) the result of inarticulable sexual attraction unable to express itself. Thus Kenneth Tynan, reviewing Repulsion in Life magazine in 1965, describing her as "a demure, psychotic young virgin who wants sex but hates it, and hates the opposite sex for making her want it." This interpretation is reasonable, even dominant, embodied potently in the film's famous symbolic rabbit, an unprepared dinner left in its preparation stages by sister Hélène (Yvonne Furneaux), who goes on vacation with her (married) boyfriend. Carol takes it out of the fridge, where it sits and decays, attracting flies, underlining how Carol's happier with even rotting rather than consumed flesh. Alone in her apartment, she hallucinates the walls sprouting groping arms (perhaps a dark parody of the more benevolent limbs in Jean Cocteau's Beauty and the Beast).

Repulsion

Viewed today, though, it's very tempting to take Repulsion at face value as a portrait of insanity. There are moments of overt hallucination—walls crack and fall apart, an imaginary stranger lurks in Carol's bed for nightly rapes—but the first half of the film takes place in broad daylight. Walking down the street, the camera floats behind and in front of the famously beautiful Deneuve: now tightly exclusionary of outside presences, now far enough back to take in loitering leering men as far as the eye can see. "'Ello darlin'," says one man willing to articulate his glances. "How about a bit of the other?"

If there's much doubt as to what's real and what's not, every depiction of male sexual aggression is unquestionably plausible, effectively rendering the question irrelevant. It's basically documentary footage of how London's men would react to Deneuve on the street if they didn't know who she was. It's also worth noting that while sequences of Carol writhing in agony to the sounds of her sister indicate a certain push-pull attraction to sexuality, her sister may also be acting like a pig by loudly copulating late at night in a thin-walled apartment.

Repulsion

The argument for relating to Carol, rather than diagnosing her, was extended in Polanski's 1976 The Tenant, in which the director/star dresses in drag as his mind falls apart. If this is a ham-handed idea—Polanski plays the victim by implying that to be a woman is itself a punishment—it's an extension of Repulsion, in which Deneuve's pulchritudinous qualities are the sole reason for all the unwanted attention she generates. Repulsion may be a horror film, one packed with shock cuts that still jar, but it's also an unlikely plea for empathy with the harassed, whose murderous snap is regrettable but far from inexplicable.

Posted by ahillis at 5:55 AM