Sunday, March 30, 2008

Izgnanie (The Banishment)

Dir: Andre Zvyaginstev

Viewed From: Le Balcon

You have to love a director who will tell a reporter with no trace of irony that his movies are about "the pain and suffering of existence." In a wide ranging interview in the Brussels Daily Le Soir, the Russian-born Andre Zvyaginstev explained how his most recent film The Banishment (or, Izgnanie) worked as a meditation on life, death, and coming to terms with the unalterable realities of both. It was a pretty astonishing interview in that it read more like a conversation with a Noble Prize winning novelist in a literary magazine than a feature for the entertainment section of a newspaper. While some of this is due to a much more serious and, intellectually speaking, fawning European media, the the tone of conversation owes as much to Zvyaginstev's perspective. He is an auteur unashamedly interested in making audiences think about what they do not want to think about rather than entertainment. In other words, he is an artist. And as a two-and-a-half hour exercise in making people think about subjects they don't want to think about - including, but not limited too, infidelity, fratricide, abortion, the prison of family, madness, death, infanticide, loneliness, eternity - it is unquestionably successful.

First, think Malick, except without all the swirling. Zvyaginstev has his own voice, but there are two or three scenes that capture Malick's gift for finding the strange beauty in nature, such as a long scene which breaks up the second and third acts where we follow a stream of water running down a hillside as a storm begins. It is one of probably ten or so shots in this movie that other filmmakers would be happy to get once in a career.

But lest you think he is just another long-shot master, Zvyaginstev also has the talent to create tense conversation and even (perish the thought!) drama. Based on a novel by William Saroyan, The Banishment has the basic elements of drama but there are enough tricks in editing and sound to make M. Night Shyamalan proud. I obviously won't give away any of the good stuff, but there is a startling reversal as what you think will be a depiction of Hollywood madness (say, The Shining) gives way to a much darker and deeper madness that (I think) comes pretty close to capturing the real thing.

Here is the basic story I can give: a seemingly normal family (aren't they all) heads out of the city to spend some time at an ancestral home in the country. Before they leave with their two children, the husband Alex is forced to treat his brother Mark for a gunshot wound that he will not take to the hospital. Whether the trip and Mark's visit are related isn't made clear (by the end you realize that Alex received his wound from the area near the country home), but it's clear that there are dark secrets in the family. However, after a few bucolic days in the countryside, it turns out that wife Vera is holding out on the biggest secret of all, and the drama begins.

What makes the setup so perfect is that Zvyagninstev plays on the typical ideas of the hidden past, and takes a movie that initially looks like a Russian History of Violence and turns it into Bergman. This might sound like a bad thing (it does get pretty heavy), but the trick is when you realize you care more about the psychological drama of Vera and Alex than the possible criminal family or any of Mark's shenanigans.

In fact, the only problem I had with this movie was circumstance, as one of the most tense moments of the film was interrupted by a cell phone call in the theater. Now, I don't mean a ring, but an actual call, in which one of the audience members proceeded to answer his phone and chat for a few minutes. I had ssshhhed two people in the library that day and I was on the other side of the theater, so I waited for someone else to quiet the man. But almost as amazing as the man answering the call was the full two to three minutes before anyone got up and walked over to the man to tell him to shut up. Finally, a very large man got up to quiet him and we all went back to watching the movie. Truth be told, with all the heavyosity of The Banishment, I probably wasn't the only one who welcomed the break.

Friday, March 28, 2008

BUFF and IFFBoston are at it again, Pt. 2 -- The Independent Film Festival of Boston

So the Boston Independent Film Festival line-up has been announced and it's a helluva thing. I'm just going to list the movies with a remark or two. The remarks have no bearing on if I think they'll be good or not (for the most part), just whether or not I'm planning on seeing it. The website has a more descriptive list (as well as clips) up now but earlier this week when I was making this all I had was the names and I was working off of IMDb, so forgive the lack of info on a couple of these. I honestly think this is the most impressive line-up of films I've seen for a festival in this area. Congrats IFFBoston.

Narrative Features

AUGUST EVENING, directed by Chris Eska [the title makes me yawn]

BALLAST, directed by Lance Hammer [Mississippi suicide drama that's won some awards but I'll probably be skipping it.]

BEAVER TRILOGY, directed by Trent Harris (Buried Treasure screening) [Good lord, yes. This is one of those mythical movies that I've been reading about for half my life. Three short films about one man with an Olivia Newton John obsession. One movie is the man himself, one movie is the man played by Crispin Glover, and in the other one it's Sean Penn. I'm so damned jazzed to finally see this.]

BIG MAN JAPAN, directed by Hitoshi Matsumoto [Fake doc about a reclusive Japanese man who sometimes grows in size... probably not.]

BLOOD CAR, directed by Alex Orr [Alternative fuel source: blood... probably not.]

THE CAKE EATERS, directed by Mary Stuart Masterson [no good reason, but no.]

FLASH POINT, directed by Wilson Yip [I love watching Donnie Yuen do his thing -- Iron Monkey is a fantastic little kung-fu flick... I'll try to catch this one but it's not high priority.]

FROWNLAND, directed by Ronnie Bronstein [Sounds like a dark, slow comedy about a coupon salesman.... probably not.]

GOLIATH, directed by David Zellner & Nathan Zellner [There are a few of these generational slice-of-life comedies that I'm attracted to -- this one even has Bujalski in it. Yes, and see also Momma's Man and Woodpecker.]

JETSAM, directed by Simon Welsford [British cops and robbers... probably not]

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY, directed by Barry Jenkins [African American urban love story... probably not.]

MISTER LONELY, directed by Harmony Korine [After 8 years Korine is back with the story of a commune for celebrity impersonators with music by Spritualized. I'll be seeing this.]

MOMMA'S MAN, directed by Azazel Jacobs [see Goliath, probably yes.]

MONGOL, directed by Sergei Bodrov [Khazakstan's Oscar moninated Attila the Hun story... probably not.]

MY EFFORTLESS BRILLIANCE, directed by Lynn Shelton [No clue, judging from previous work probably bittersweet dramedy... probably not.]

MY WINNIPEG, directed by Guy Maddin [I'm simply mad for Maddin! Sorry. Yes.]

NATURAL CAUSES, directed by Alex Cannon, Paul Cannon, and Michael Lerman [People trying to connect in relationships, sounds kind of too touchy feely... probably not]

THE NEW YEAR PARADE, directed by Tom Quinn [Focusing on the children after the parents seperate... probably not.]

PHOEBE IN WONDERLAND, directed by Daniel Barnz [One of the more high profile films -- Felecity Huffman -- tagline: Dare to Live Your Dreams... yeah probably not.]

PING PONG PLAYA, directed by Jessica Yu [Asian-American with basketball ambitions... probably not.]

PINK, directed by Alexander Voulgaris [Sounds like a coming of age story from Greece... probably not.]

SAVAGE GRACE, directed by Tom Kalin [Julianne Moore stars in a based on a true story high-society London murder... probably not.]

SEVERED WAYS: THE NORSE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA, directed by Tony Stone [Could be a cool low-budget epic... probably not.]

Now we get into the big yeahs...

STUCK, directed by Stuart Gordon [Big Yes. Excited about this one.]

TIME CRIMES, directed by Nacho Vigalondo [Most probably... I heard some good things about this coming from a festival in Austin last year and I have a thing for low budget sci-fi.]

THE TRACEY FRAGMENTS, directed by Bruce McDonald [Sounds great. I'm a fan of McDonald's old stuff and this sounds like a very cool experiment -- like taking Time Code to it's limits. Ellen Page... yes.]

TRANSSIBERIAN, directed by Brad Anderson (Opening Night Film) [I enjoyed The Machinist and this sounds like it could be a great thriller -- could Anderson finally break into the mainstream? Yes.]

TRIANGLE, directed by Ringo Lam, Johnnie To, and Tsui Hark [I like these guys but the story doesn't do much for me... something about a treasure... maybe.]

TURN THE RIVER, directed by Chris Eigeman [Eigeman's always fun to watch as an actor and I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt with this own material. Highly possible.]

TWELVE, directed by Scott Masterson, Seanbaker Carter, Andy McCarthy, Garth Donovan, Luke Poling, Noah Lydiard, Megan Summers, Brynmore Williams, Joan Meister, Marc Colucci, Jared Goodman, and Vladmir Minuty

VEXILLE, directed by Fumihiko Sori [CG sci-fi anime... small possibilty.]

WOODPECKER, directed by Alex Karpovsky [I don't know why but I have a hunch about this one. I have no idea what it's about but looking at Karpovsky's last film this could be a cool little sleeper. Strong possibilty.]

Documentary Features

AMERICAN TEEN, directed by Nanette Burnstein [about Indiana high school cliques... probably not.]

AT THE DEATH HOUSE DOOR, directed by Steve James and Peter Gilbert [Wrongful death examination... p.n.]

CRAWFORD, directed by David Modigliani [About the town GWB calls home... p.n.]

DREAMS WITH SHARP TEETH, directed by Erik Nelson [About Harlan Ellison -- strong maybe.]

ELEVEN MINUTES, directed by Michael Selditch & Rob Tate [Hah. Doc about original Project Runway winner Jay... probably not though he can be entertaining.]

ENCOUNTERS AT THE END OF THE WORLD, directed by Werner Herzog (Closing Night Film) [Seen it... wonder if he's going to be there?]

FRONTRUNNER, directed by Virginia Williams [A woman running for president in Afghanistan... p.n.]

THE GREENING OF SOUTHIE, directed by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis [hmm...]

INTIMIDAD, directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin [Family re-united... probably not.]

JOY DIVISION, directed by Grant Gee [Yes.]

JUMP!, directed by Helen Hood Scheer [Jump-roping... nah.]

LIFE. SUPPORT. MUSIC., directed by Eric Metzgar [Probably something about the importance of music... p.n.]

THE LINGUISTS, directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberger [Two guys who study dead or dying languages... probably not.]

LIONESS, directed Meg McLagan and Daria Sommers [First women to see ground combat... probably not.]

MEADOWLARK, directed by Taylor Greeson [Who knows?]

NERDCORE RISING, directed by Negin Farsad [self explanitory -- maybe.]

NOT YOUR TYPICAL BIGFOOT MOVIE, directed by Jay Delaney [Sounds kinda cool -- Bigfoot as a way out of a dead end town... possible]

PUBLIC ENEMY: WELCOME TO THE TERRORDOME, directed by Robert Patton-Spruill [Another intersting music doc... possible. Paddy would probably want me to.]

SAVIOURS, directed by Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan [Who knows?]

SECOND SKIN, directed by Juan Carlos Pineiro Escoriaza [World of on-line gaming culture... maybe.]

SECRECY, directed by Robb Moss and Peter Galison [Hmm... political doc about government secrecy... possible.]

SEX POSITIVE, directed by Daryl Wein [Richard Berkowitz, a revolutionary gay S&M sex worker turned AIDS activist... nah.]

SONG SUNG BLUE, directed by Greg Kohs [Milwaukee's Neil Diamond tribute band/husband and wife singing duo, Lightning & Thunder, and their tragic love story... probably not.]

VERY YOUNG GIRLS, directed by David Schisgall [Young girls in the world of prostitution... nah.]

WE ARE WIZARDS, directed by Josh Koury [Couild be about Harry & The Potters... could be fun... p.n.]

WILD BLUE YONDER, directed by Celia Maysles [Documentary about the documentarian David Maysles... slight possibilty.]

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boston Underground Film Festival 2008

Emerson grad Jeremy Kasten's remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 killer magician movie The Wizard of Gore starts off this year's Boston Underground Film Festival (shouldn't it be Cambridge Underground Film Festival since none of the movies or parties take place in Boston?) off with a woozy first stride. Seemingly shot through a thin layer of cheese cloth, the agenda of this remake seems to be to take away all the gore and replace it with a dense, druggy, convoluted plot.

There was a Q&A after the film with the director, who seemed like a nice young man and before the film asked the audience to give him any questions they had rather than writing about it on the internet. Sorry, I had to catch a bus, man. I've been to enough of these festival screenings to know that the movie will not start on time and any scheduling you might try to do ahead of time is highly speculative and naive. Needless to say I practically ran over people on my way out once the credits started rolling in an effort to make it home before midnight.

The feature was preceded by a welcome from the festival's head honchos, the vampire bunny mascot, and two short offerings -- the first a horrible, laughable video for a Dwarves song (chorus, "I want to fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck, eat, and fuck you up") and the second an awkward Canadian movie by the name of The Demonology of Desire that had a good spirit and premise but some bad acting and timing that prevented the audience from really connecting with it. I suspect that the script for The Demonology of Desire makes for a great story but the young actors, probably around 15 or 16 years old, weren't exactly naturals on camera. These short films weren't exactly knocking any socks off and you could feel the audience getting restless. There were already a couple of technical glitches and 30 second pauses in between trailers and shorts -- people were ready for some crazy shit to go down, instead we were mildly diverted by The Wizard of Gore.

A silly looking but game Kip Pardue leads us through the mystery of Montag the Magnificent (Crispin Glover), a guy who performs a show in some dingy warehouse that involves him deriding his audience before performing some hideous act (vivisection, bear traps, etc.) on one of its members, only at the end of the show the person walks off the stage perfectly fine. When they show up dead of the the same causes a day later Pardue and his girlfriend (Bijou Phillips) quickly figure out that something is up.

Pardue isn't the most charismatic of leads and his chemistry with Philips is about as dull as they come. Fortunately there's Glover and an offbeat as ever Brad Douriff around to breathe life into the film. Whenever they appear on the screen you automatically light up. It's like a rush of oxygen is being delivered when they appear. I won't go too crazy about my disappointment with how Jeffrey Combs is treated here other than to say that taking the star of one of the greatest horror movies ever made and hiding him behind so much wig and beard that you can barely even see his eyes never mind recognize that it is in fact Jeffrey Combs is a bad, bad move.

The hardest thing to pull of in a horror movie is tone. This is the director's main obstacle to overcome -- how to make a movie that you're shooting over 3 months, or three years, carry an even tone when pulled together in the editing room. Music, lighting, performances, it's the director's job to make sure all these things gel together. In a horror movie you also have to create suspense in the proper moments, unease, an underlying feeling of tension, and if you're a horror movie created in the last 30 years you're probably going to be trying to balance some comedy into the movie as well. There's a lot of emotions you want to touch on in a horror movie and I suppose as a testament to how difficult it is to pull it all together it's the reason why we don't see many good ones. What happens here with The Wizard of Gore 2008 is that we end up running away from the horror genre all together and end up with more of a wishy-washy attempt at a hallucinogenic mystery movie than anything that came from the seeds planted by Herschell Gordon Lewis.

This bring us to many Why?s. Why even bother with making this a remake? Why make Kip Pardue so goofy looking in his L.A. Confidential get-up? Why remove the gore from a movie called The Wizard of Gore? What's with the smoke mirror? Even when the scenes with Montag involve him slicing open a "volunteer", the movie is so poorly lit or projected that you couldn't make anything out. There's some sort of smoke window device that Montag uses during his show that is given no explanation other than to further obscure the gore of the movie. The smoke window is pretty frustrating and it's possible that whatever technology they're using at the Brattle to project the movie was a little lacking but that doesn't excuse the rest of the mess as even if you separate the movie from the horror remake it may supposed to be and take it as the psychotropic mystery it tries to be it still falls apart in a clumsy pile of unfinished fits and starts.

Though I was a bit discouraged by the opening feature I pushed on and caught three more features and a shorts showcase over the rest of the weekend. I'm glad I did because as the weekend went on the movies got better and better, the quality a steady upward trajectory. First up was Pop Skull, a homemade nightmare of pills, ghosts and the murderous toll of heartbreak. If Wizard of Gore 2008 wanted to be a psychotropic, trippy mystery/horror story -- Pop Skull showed how it could be done properly in your back yard with a $3,000 budget and without fucking up the use of a perfectly good Jeffrey Combs.

The shorthand description of Pop Skull would be, it's kind of like a teenage Pi but with an even lower budget and scope -- instead of math the kid is just obsessed with his ex-girlfriend. Shot on grainy video in a lot of low lit rooms and trailers, director Adam Wingard uses wild and spastic editing tricks to make up for his limited locations and plot. This technique, as you may expect, is hit or miss, but I felt the ratio was more on the hit side than not. Sometimes these editing flourishes work great at creating mood or getting inside our main guy's disturbed brain. Other times it seems like he's simply trying too hard to jazz up a moment for no good reason. There's a few times where a one second moment will get repeated three times and the effect detracts and takes you out of the movie whereas the better moments like cutting to his memories of happier times, landscape and sky, bring you in deeper.

Our protagonist spends his days and nights in his small world down in his parent's basement in Birmingham, Alabama. He's the victim of a bitter break-up and is consoling himself with pills, tv and four track. This is sad enough but every now and then he sees ghosts -- weird images popping up in the corners of his eyes and behind hallway doors. His friend pops over once in awhile to drag him out, tries to talk sense into him and get him drunk but to no avail. His downward cycle is already in full swing and there's no stopping it.

Honestly, I think the director might not completely trust his own abilities. The moments where the camera lingers and the scenes play out without the jump cuts are truly mesmerizing, very creepy and effective. I got the impression that the editing got to be his gimmick and got the better of him sometimes. Wingard explained that the dialog in the film is mostly improvised and this tactic is perfectly used to gives us a fly on the wall feeling and, like I said, can make the scenes that are given some room to breathe hypnotic -- but it also makes the moments where he should've left well enough alone stand out. This didn't ruin the film for me but it was easy to notice the scenes where if he would have let the scene alone it would have worked much better. As it stands it's a good let's-watch-Daniel-go-crazy movie, in the vein of Clean, Shaven and Jacob's Ladder. A better than most first feature and definitely good enough to keep Wingard's name on the radar -- the man has a brilliant eye for using the space and environment around him for maximum effect. If I weren't already, this movie made me a bit scared of Alabama. (Also, I couldn't help but think of Band of Horses' "Is There a Ghost", it's far too literal to be put into the film but I like to think of the movie as some off-shoot -- it evokes that same southern gothic feeling that BoH excels in.)

Immediately afterwards was the You're So Not Serious (Shorts Program). As you can probably discern it was a collection of comically bent short movies. They ranged from the half hour long lucha libre inspired Ivory Bastards to the 2 minute Flash smiley face experiment 2000 Man. I'm not going to go into too much detail but I did want to give a shout out to Mark Leitzel, the guy who made 2000 Man because his achingly personal and artistic piece was overshadowed by the Thumb Wars inspired (seemingly) and pun filled Spudnik, an alternative history of space travel told through potatoes (funny for the first 30 seconds of its 7 minute run-on gag). In one of a few awkward moments in the festival, the three short film directors that were present that afternoon were brought up afterwards to field questions from the audience. The two directors that didn't make Spudnik got to stand there for what must have felt like hours while the people who were sitting next to the Spudnik director tossed glowing question after question his way. Then the guy's adorable little kid came out like on queue when the two other guys did get tossed an obligatory question. Meanwhile the guy who should serve as moderator simply stands off to the side, not helping at all by maybe tossing a couple questions to the other guys... Anyway, don't worry Leitzel, I think most people thought your 2 minute acidic stab at modern man was more interesting and meaningful than a space potato. Have you reached out to Spike & Mike?

There was a few minutes to get some fresh air and down some water and a Cliff bar before the last show of the night started. I was getting into this -- yes, I was a bit tired, I'd been in the same theater for 4+ hours, but I was up for the challenge of The Road to Nod. The program mentioned Bela Tarr as a comparison for this film -- how could I not check it out? Before we could dive into M.A. Littler's sweet cinematic lullaby there is of course the obligatory preceding short. This time around it was a nice little odd-ball entry called The Mutt and Mister-Man. And if I'm not mistaken it was the first thing I'd seen all weekend that was shot on film. Huzzah! This led into the second awkward moment of the day. It's a great little film by Seth Stewart. Two guys, maybe brothers?, are hatching some sort of plan that turns out to be nothing more than robbing a pizza delivery lady of fourteen, no fifteen, dollars. It's filled with knowing little moments like the introduction to the roommates -- opening up the packaging of a rotisserie chicken as a meal for two (breakfast?) with a side of whiskey shots. And the pizza lady who doesn't really mind being robbed, but do you have to use such language? It is a well shot, well paced short film with some great, funny moments. Now there were probably, maybe 15 people in the movie theater that weren't part of the director's friends and family. I'd just watched ten or so short films that had gotten a round of applause no matter what. Thing is, one person always starts the clapping, then everyone obliges. For one reason or another no one clapped for The Mutt and Mister-Man, a short film that was leaps and bounds more accomplished than any of the films in You're So Not Serious. But my question is, why didn't one of ten or so people that left in a huff clap? Why didn't the festival guy clap (he started the clapping at the end of Road to Nod)? Why is it that I feel guilty for not clapping? I don't care if it's the 50th time I'd seen my friend's short movie, if it was playing at a film festival I would have clapped at the end of it -- so I don't understand why there was this icy exit of ten people after Mutt and Mister Man ended. It was 9pm on a long day, given a little prod or knowing you were there they would have clapped.

Anyway, there was an interesting intro given to The Road to Nod from a representative of a Canadian film festival (I forget which), a sort of champion of The Road to Nod, who described how strange it was to be-friend a film through MySpace. He said that he'd spoken to the director M.A. Littler recently, who is busy shooting his next feature, and how he's building this next movie organically, in more of a drunken re-write fashion. He mentioned how he feels this bodes well for Littler, seeing it as a sign of the filmmaker growing since The Road to Nod is such a precise film. He was certainly right about that. Nod is an immaculately shot black and white film that gives both room to view it as precise and/or lyrical and meditative. I must say, this movie was the big surprise of the fest for me even though it stuck out while I looked over the program days before I watched it. There's no sex, drugs, vampires, zombies, rock n' roll or vivisections. What? I wouldn't call the Tarr remark in the program exactly appropriate. It is shot in that beautiful black and white that Tarr loves but there aren't any 8 minute takes or elaborately staged tracking shots. Well, there are a couple nice tracking shots... but it's mostly just a really cool low-key film noir.

Our man Parrish gets released from a six year stint in a German prison and one day later witnesses his boss, The Reverend, executed and before he can even adjust to life on the outside he has to adjust to life on the run. A good part of the film is watching Parrish cash in old favors from friends that may or may not be still in the business and may or may not be leading him into a death trap. One friend leads to another and we're led on a tour through these European back roads to the soundtrack of old blues tunes. The characters are from all over the map -- Parrish is from New Zealand, the actor reminds me of an older, blonder, bearded Noah Taylor -- and the movie does a fascinating trick of making the world seem vast and small all at the same time. It's a striking film that I hope gets a bit more exposure, or at least a page on IMDb. I fucking hate myspace but if it can help out a great film like The Road to Nod than I suppose it ain't all bad. But seriously, IMDb would be much better.

Last on the list was Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story. After a half day's rest it was a pleasure to wrap myself in what may be my favorite genre of all -- the documentary about movies. I'm a sucker for them, especially the ones that are simply unforgivingly romantic about the entire medium itself. One of my favorite movies of the past decade is Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, and one of the reasons it had such an impact on me was because I was able to see it in a theater at the Boston Film Festival. Seeing those clips of some of the best movies ever made on a big screen and hearing the life story of a guy who simply wanted to spread the gospel of movies -- not prestigious movies or high art movies; not just important movies or independent movies, just good movies -- everything from Lucas to Malick. William Castle was one of those guys and Spine Tingler! is one of those movies. He just wanted to make movies. Didn't matter what kind. Could be a high-society melodrama or a western, a gangster picture or a horror film, as long as he kept being able to make them he was happy.

It's a very lovingly told story of the man that reinvented the way movies were sold. This was back in the 50's when movies were still brought around, town by town. William Castle made going to one of his movies the big event for whatever town his film came to. Macabre was the first big one. Castle mortgaged his house and emptied his savings to make the movie and to make sure people showed up he offered up a gimmick -- an authentic Lloyd's of London insurance policy for $1,000 to anyone who may die of fright by watching his movie. He even hired real nurses to be present at showings and the spectacle grew more and more absurd from their. Castle is the connection between Hitchcock (who took a page out of Castle's book with his promotion techniques for Psycho) and John Waters -- between Orson Welles (Castle brought the rights for Lady From Shanghai to him) and Vincent Price.

Spine Tingler! was great way to end the festival for me. The movie just drips with love for the movies and once again reinforces my belief that someone has to give John Waters a talk show pronto, seriously, it's been obvious for over a decade that the man is simply suited for being part of what would be the best late night variety/talk show ever created. Someone get on this!

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Curiosities From the Queue -- The Nines

Anyone for some warmed over Lynch? Take a gander at The Nines, a not half-bad attempt at fucking with one's head in a more Hollywood friendly way. I know, don't over-sell it Sean, right? But actually it features some good to almost great performances by some people you wouldn't expect and a rabbit-hole story that actually packs some meaning. If only the writer/director could ease off on his god complex...

The autuer of The Nines is John August, long time writer, first time director. He starts off strong. Ryan Reynolds (like the other two main actors, he will play 3 different roles in this film.. wait, 3 main actors.... 3 different stories... 3 different characters... holy shit!) plays a television actor in the middle of a breakdown. He's first seen setting fire to his clothes, buying crack, asking a hooker how to smoke the crack, smoking the crack and freaking out about his bellybutton or lack thereof, and winding up in jail after flipping his car. It's a well paced and interesting intro that keeps the groove going while he's sentenced to house arrest, in a cozy place in the hill left unoccupied by an out of town writer (those clothes he was burning caught the rest of the house on fire), under the supervision of Hollywood problem fixer (honorary third Gilmore Girl) Melissa McCarthy. Only something spooky is going on in the house -- strange sounds and messages on post-its are popping up talking about something called the nines, sending an already teetering on the edge Reynolds into .

This portion of the film is clearly the strongest. It offers laughs, suspense, mystery, oh and a sexy Hope Davis, which really is too rare a thing these days. She plays the seductress from next door who's trying to keep Reynolds and McCarthy apart for some devious, unknown reason. Reynolds is given an ankle bracelet and once he breaks the house arrest boundary we're given our first Lost Highway-esque wormhole. Reynolds is now the out of town writer, David is now his agent, and McCarthy is now the childhood friend actress that Davis is trying to get Reynolds to replace for his new pilot.

Reynolds, McCarthy and Davis are all excellent in these rolls that they transition to. In this second part Reynolds goes from hetero-hollywood burnout to homo-hollywood screenwriter and the difference is a surprisingly confident and well played performance but since it's basically an impersonation of August himself it looses a bit of its punch. It doesn't help matters that this section of the film is done in pseudo-documentary, Project Greenlight style. I don't think there's anything more stale a gimmick than that right now and it doesn't fit the story at all. This section could easily have been shot in handheld DV to make it different cinematography-wise without having to resort to the fake reality show tropes. Watch this -- this is supposed to be footage from a reality show but like every other scene in this section of the film it works perfectly well without that idea hovering over it.

McCarthy basically lays out the mystery of the film in the end of the first section but we don't really understand what she was explaining until the third part. I won't go into it because it would be a spoiler and honestly you could go into a whole essay on trying to explain the premise of the movie. It's not a great film but I have to give it some appreciation for it's grand scope. I wasn't as entertained as I was watching the paint-huffing Southland Tales but I enjoyed seeing this conspiratorial spiritual journey play out.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

BUFF and IFFBoston are at it again, Pt. 1 -- The Boston Underground Film Festival

The Boston Underground Film Festival and the Boston Independent Film Festival are widely considered the only two interesting film festivals in town since the Boston Film Festival whithered and died (yet once a year around September it involuntarily spits out something like Beatrix Kiddo in a coma) on the vine about ten years ago. The only troublesome part about this is for film geeks on a strict budget like myself is that BUFF and IFFBoston hit you up a month apart from each other like a one-two punch to your wallet. Last year I passed on the BUFF with the romantic notion that I'd buy one of IFFBoston's hundred dollar passes. Even that didn't jibe with my bank account at the time and considering this month's RFC HQ-US relocation costs, I doubt it will this time around. So I'll be making a valiant effort to dip into both of these fests this time around.

The BIFF starts up next month from 4/23 - 4/29 and the schedule should be released within the next couple weeks so we'll get back to that when the time comes. Meanwhile, the BUFF packs its punch in one 4 day weekend from 3/20 - 3/23 -- so let's take a look at what BUFF has to offer:

The main attraction is clearly The Wizard of Gore remake (from an Emerson grad no less) featuring the remarkable eclipsing of the bizzaro powers of Crispin Glover, Jeffrey Combs and Brad Dourif. If channeled properly this could be something very special indeed. Taken from Herschell Gordon Lewis' 1970 feature of the same name, it's based around the premise of a Glover's Montag the Magnificent's dismemberment tricks not being so tricky after all. It's the opening night feature and even from the not so inspired trailer it looks like it should offer a fun ride for Glover and Lewis fans. Taking a look at the talk on imdb shows that some Lewis fans already seem fed up with the remakes of his low budget blood feasts (even though the remake scores a higher rating) but what else would you expect. I would think Lewis himself is probably giddy at the fact his work is being considered the stuff worthy of remakes.

The Wizard of Gore isn't the only movie his year with some name recognition. Otis features the indie stalwarts Illeana Douglas and Kevin Pollack, along with Daniel Stern, in a dark comedy serial killer picture. The description reminds me of Andy Richter's character on 30 Rock where he thinks he's perpetually headed to a high school ski trip. In this case we have a serial killer who thinks he's perpetually headed to his high school prom and kidnaps young women to take as his date and keeps them alive as long as they play the part. I'm always in the mood for some good Illeana Douglas and have nothing but respect for ol' Daniel Stern. Kevin Pollack on the other hand, even in his most palatable role in The Usual Suspects I wanted to slap that fuckin' stupid hat off his head and hold the gun while Kaiser pulled the trigger. The fact that it's directed by a longtime producer would usually give me shivers but since Tony Krantz's producing credits vary from David Lynch to MTV it's anyone's guess how this one will turn out. Since we're dealing with a premise that seems to takes some digs at the darkness under suburbia's facade we might be dealing with the Lynchian side of Krantz's brain. I'd say this one's worth a look.

Pop Skull looks to be the wild card in the BUFF features department. A supposed $3000 film that could be the next Pi or just a low budget style over substance calling card. If the budget is true it's an interesting movie nonetheless.

Spine Tingler! The William Castle Story could be a real joy of a documentary. I was (one of the only?) a fan of Joe Dante's Matinee with John Goodman as the William Castle surrogate. He was the man who created numerous gimmicks like the buzzing seats and the insurance policy audience members could use in case they got scared to death watching one of his productions to make the b-movies he released better than they actually were (check Herschell Gordon Lewis' promo for the original Wizard of Gore down below to see him employing the Castle created hoopla). In a time when people are deserting the theaters and preferring to watch movies on their computers or home theaters, the time is ripe for an examination of Castle who played a big part in making movie going as much about the experience of a live audience than the movie itself. He deserves that lovingly remembered documentary now more than ever.

The short films at the BUFF are the meat of the festival -- I'm sure that's how the festival got started as there's always a need for these films to find a place to show off. And there's no less than 99 of them playing over the course of these 4 days so you could very easily devote your time exclusively to the shorts and still not see all of them. Like a good film fest they are showing some before the features (like the regular cinema's should get back to doing instead of the 20 minutes of commercials) so I hope to catch a few. Hell, I hope to catch one of the short movie showcases but my ambition rarely catches up with my achievements so we'll just have to wait and see how this turns out.

I'll chime in with the results and a look at the IFFBoston when they release their schedule.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Margot at the Wedding

Dir. Noah Baumbach


In Into the Wild, Chris McCandless idolizes the life of a writer. Men like Tolstoy, Emerson, Thoureau and Whitman were his guides through the forests and the rivers, previous solitary figures who challenged nature to reveal its secrets, its hidden meanings and purposes. The job of the writer as McCandless saw it was to strip himself (and it was almost always a man) of all baggage, both literally and figuratively, and enter into the eternal world as a blank slate; to be reborn.

But had McCandless ever pursued an MFA, or attended a writer's retreat in the Midwest, it is likely his illusions about writing (if nothing else) would have dissipated quite quickly. Most writing today is not in the transcendentalist spirit of the epic of nature, but the small and personal battles in one's own life. The goal is not to strip away the ego and the hang-ups, but to investigate them. Put simply, the writer doesn't abandon his family, he immerses himself in them.

McCandless could have also learned this from watching a Noah Baumbach movie. His most recent film Margot at the Wedding, just released on DVD, returns to many of the same themes the won such broad critical praise for The Squid and the Whale - ego, insecurity and, above all, the and vanity at the core of art - only the narcissism and the selfishness has been amplified. While Squid's novelist Bernard Berkman was despicable in certain aspects of his personality, the novelist Margot, as played brilliantly by Nicole Kidman, is close to a monster. The painful dynamics of family, squeamish in Squid for anyone who had lived through a divorce, become close to criminal in Margot. At times, Baumbach's savage portrayal of artists comes close to parody, especially in Jack Black's obnoxious performance, but there is just enough realism to redeem Margot (the movie, if not the character).

The set-up is that Margot has been invited to the wedding of her estranged sister (and awesome Jennifer Jason Leigh). The two have not spoken in years, but for many reasons unrelated to the wedding, Margot decides to go, accompanied by her son Claude (Zane Paris). While the sisters initially bond, Margot is put off by Pauline's bumbling fiance Malcolm (Black) and begins dropping subtle and not-so subtle hints that she should leave him. As the week goes along, much of their old history comes back to the surface and the true reasons for Margot's visit becomes apparent: her own life is crumbling.

The relations between Margot, Pauline, Claude, and Malcolm are fascinating and while often cruel, seem at worst slight exaggerations of how people actually act towards one another, at least in elite Northeast families. Margot, as a novelist, has basically alienated her family by portraying their lives in fictional accounts: one story in the New Yorker about Pauline and her former husband had caused the breakup. She has made a series of terrible decisions throughout her life, but continues to see them as part of the artistic process, of freedom, self-exploration, and basically revelling in misery.

I wouldn't be surprised if people balked at this movie because of just how selfish, mean-spirited, and nasty Margot was. But what I realized while watching the movie was that it wasn't shocking because Kidman's portrayal of Margot was worse than dozens of other artist-as-asshole movies, it was shocking because the asshole was a woman. Actor's like Nicholson, Crowe, and Penn have made careers out of playing selfish and nasty characters like this, the ones who because they are so talented in other aspects of life, simply dismiss most people as stupid. There is no question that Margot is an elitist, and that she is completely obsessed with herself, but so is half of Hollywood. On the face of it, she is hardly different from the writer Melvin Udall from As Good as it Gets, except she doesn't offer a little charming smile after her asshole comments. Her novelty isn't in the personality; it's the gender.

But while Kidman's performance itself stands up to the best parts of Squid, the movie suffers from too many peripheral characters who add nothing to the story. Malcolm, in particular, is involved in several pointless subplots that seem to belong to another movie, as if the Farelly Brothers showed up at the Iowa Writer's Workshop. It's hard to blame Black (he is who he is), but it was a severe casting error to put him in a role that, as written, is barely recognizably human to begin with. A better actor could have paired some of the sitcom-level parody from Malcolm, but Black seems to feed on the stupidity and two-dimensionality of his role. There also seems to be some possible score-settling by Baumbach (whose parents are both New York writers) in Margot's sometime-lover and crime writer Dick Koosman, who seems written as a personal attack on someone close to the Baumbachs more than as a living and breathing person.

It may seem that after his last two movies, Baumbach has turned in on himself, and away from the family. While in Squid the Berkman parents were clearly autobiographical, Margot seems less like a portrayal of Baumbach's mom (Village Voice critic Georgia Brown), and more like a mix between himself and his parents. After all, it it he who is mining his personal life for art and fiction, who is publicly playing out the dynamics of his parent's divorce in front of millions of theater goers. If this is right, then Baumbach has done something amazing in fictionalizing many of his own feelings as both a writer and child of writers into the characters of Margot and Claude, making himself into both the perpetrator and the victim of abuses against family.

I do hope, however, that Baumbach discovers that other kind of writing and exploration sought for in Into the Wild. While McCandless clearly could have used a does of realism and the courage to face his family's troubles rather than run from them, writer's like Baumbach need to escape their own heads and family every once and a while and recognize that there are things as important as family worth writing about, territory worth exploring outside of the mind. After all, what made writers like Tolstoy, Whitman, Emerson and Thoreau great was that while they all sought a form of isolation at one point, they never abandoned the ideas and struggles of the external world. They engaged themselves not only in the classic artistic pursuit of self-discovery, but in social and cultural battles. Sure Tolstoy wrote reams about unhappy families, but he also wrote about Napoleon.



If you really wanted to write about Into the Wild you should have gone ahead and done such because wedging in the comments to the beginning and ending of a Margot review is a painful stretch, even morseso than my trying to compare Darren Aronofsky with David Fincher. I didn't read Krakauer's book but I do not think McCandless wanted to be a writer, or cared about the craft of writing at all. And if any writer was his idol it was Jack London and not becasue of the life Jack led but becasue of the world he wrote about in his books. Just because Chris kept a diary and wrote some letters to his sister doesn't mean he was aspiring to a writing career or living like a writer. And since when is living off the land and off the grid considered the life of a writer? I doubt McCandless thought Jack London lived without a bank account or a publisher. Nothing about Into the Wild made me think, here's a guy with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy's technique or world view. I think you might be projecting onto McCandless much like a lot of people have and do -- which is what makes him an interesting character for so many people.

But digressions aside, I did enjoy Margot at the Wedding quite a bit. I would say that the real shock, if any, regarding Margot's mean streak is who it's directed towards and the basic realization that Margot doesn't think she's cruel at all. Everyone loves a bastard. Look at the success of "House", a tv show succeeding on the premise that people will tune in to enjoy the daily verbal abuse of a talented asshole to his struggling underlings. Everyone likes a good bitch, too. More recently we've had Devil Wears Prada and the excellent series "Damages". There are numerous, wonderful bitch roles out there that the public has enjoyed watching. But these characters know they're assholes, well aware of it, tend to revel in it, and I think that has a large part in the viewers enjoyment. That and they generally aren't berating their siblings and especially not constantly spouting cutting, hurtful barbs at their impressionable, pubescent son. These are the reasons why some people might not click with Margot.

But Kidman is great in the role. She manages to not make Margot an alien, or some unidentifiable monster. I'm sure that's why she took the role, to step up to this challenge of making Margot human. There's always a hint of pity to her and it's basically the only thing the audience has to grab onto to make her worth watching. I think the rest of the cast was great in this respect too. Even Jack Black, I thought, managed to reign himself in and make Malcolm something more than a caricature. While I like to wallow in the pathos as much as the next guy (possibly more since I rank Mike Leigh as one of my favorite autuers), I thought the movie desperately needed the laughs he supplies and found Malcolm to be the most identifiable character. Like Claude, I like him. I've met more Malcolms in my lifetime than I have Margots. Sure, you could take his character arc out of the movie -- hell, you could make it a half hour short film about two sisters trying to reconnect and leave out everyone else if that's all you want to focus on. But for me Malcolm was just as fine an example as what the movie's about as any of the rest of them -- an ultimately wounded, pathetic person hiding behind a facade of pseudo-intellectualism and self-absorption. His line about looking forward to having a child so that he's no longer burdened with having himself be the center of the universe was one of the best lines in the movie.

While I can't say I connected with Margot the same as I did with The Squid & The Whale, or Kicking & Screaming for that matter, it was a joy to spend time with these characters even when it was unpleasant. While the movie isn't going to be doing much for any of these actors career-wise, it looks like it might crack the 2 million mark soon enough but won't crack 60% on the Tomatometer any time soon, I enjoyed seeing Kidman step away from her 5 year string of Unwatchables to remind me that she can indeed act (only when she isn't being paid?); and whenever Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up in anything it is generally cause for attention but here she was really given time to shine.

Of course, a good part of the success the actors achieve is due to the writing. I found it thoughtful good call that an effort was made to make these characters a product of their time. Margot's fascination with diagnoses and paranoia over Asperger's or autism was an especially nice touch. I do hope Baumach widens his scope a bit though I have this comlpetely unwarranted fear that his friendship with Wes Anderson may cause him to do otherwise. Funny that after two movies with similar themes you ask for Baumbach to move on but take me to task for asking the same of Anderson. Ah well, whatever.


It's been a while since you've seen Into the Wild, so I will cut you some slack, but two of your comments are baffling:

"Nothing about Into the Wild made me think, here's a guy with a deep appreciation for Tolstoy's technique or world view."

Really? Not that Anna Karenina was one of the last books he read? Or that Tolstoy, after a life a fame and celebrity withdrew into near isolation in the countryside? Or that McCandless's interest in the "regular people" of the world, and his romanticism, is almost exactly that of Tolstoy's?

"And since when is living off the land and off the grid considered the life of a writer? "

That would be since Walden. Or, more generally, since the Trancendentalist movement in America. Or, going further back, it would be Vergil and the Ecologues. Or more recently, since Kerouac and the beats. Or London. Or Steinbeck, or just about any of the other dozen examples of writers who wrote about nature or the road. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the struggle of the individual against society is the dominant theme of literature. You really don't think that, had he survived, he wasn't going to write about it? The only things he brings from civilization aside from necessities are books, a notebook, and pens! He quotes Tolstoy, Thoreau, and Emerson! The idea that he wants to write is hardly a projection.

I brought up the movie for the exact reasons I mentioned, that McCandless had a very romantic view of the writer (I don't see how you can argue this), and that it stands in sharp contrast to Baumbach's insider's view of the modern writer. Personally, I like the kind of writers McCandless liked a hell of a lot more than the MFA crowd that tend to dominate the scene today (Jonathan Safron Foer, Zadie Smith, Eggers to an extent) and who Baumbach grew up with. I thought it would be interesting to contrast the two views, but apparently I touched some nerve by actually suggesting that McCandless wanted to be a writer. Whatever indeed.

On the movie, I doubt we will come to a consensus on Black. I find him to be barely tolerable as a comedian, and were I still a 13 year-old boy (like Claude), I might like Malcom too. But as far as the goofball side characters, I much preferred Billy Baldwin's Ivan from Squid . I don't know why you think criticism of the way the side characters were written means I thought they should be eliminated; they should just be better written and/or acted.

To take on the last of your criticisms (you a bit grumpy from the move?), I view Anderson and Baumbach differently. The reason is that I see Anderson as a unique voice, whose appeal as both director and writer have little to do with content. For the most part in his movies, I don't care about what he is depicting, I am interested in how it is depicted. Other than Bottle Rocket, I've never felt any identification with his characters, and the stories are just scaffolding on which he can create his amazing visuals and dialog. Baumbach, on the other hand, is pretty much a by-the-numbers director whose strength lies (for me) in being able to identify with his characters and their situations. If you look at some of the great directors (Goddard, Allen, Altman, Bergman), the stories are usually secondary to artistic vision, and they can be successful mining the same territory over and over again. But since so much of Baumbach's movies rely on his personal experiences, and not direction, it can become repetitive.

Even with all of this, it seems we are on the same side (a slight majority) with people who actually liked this movie. Two million is pretty bad though, so I'm thinking the public appetite for the struggles of the children of writers is pretty low. Ironically, he would probably have a lot more success with these themes in The New Yorker or Ploughshares.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

My Blue Night

Warning: The following review is due to entering the wrong theater two weeks after arriving in Brussels. Expecting to see Eastern Promises, I pretended to understand a nice young girls' Dutch and ended up seeing this movie instead. Always, always, know which theater you should enter, even if it's embarrassing for a few seconds. The alternative is the following...

The first movie I saw by director Wong Kar Wai was 2046, the futuristic sequel to his breakthrough hit In the Mood for Love. At the time, I was unsure of what to think; the movie had shots of exquisite beauty and patience, but the pacing was awkward, with starts and stops for no apparent reason, and little in the way of understandable narrative. I would have dismissed it, but I felt I didn't understand it, that Wong was doing something with all of those odd cuts. In a word, it was exotic, and the setting, actors, and language all forced a distance to the movie, so that I gave it plenty of room for error. I didn't get it, but I thought if I knew more about Wong, I would like it.

Unfortunately, in Wong's latest movie, My Blueberry Nights (limited release in the states April 4), the exoticism is gone, and only the meandering story remains. In place of the iconic lovers of Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung in some futuristic Hong Kong, we a get Jude Law and (yes) Norah Jones in a drab New York eatery. I will get this part of of the way quickly for the curious: Jones is a poor actress, not inept or cringe worthy, but just overwhelmingly, punishingly, bland. But she isn't the reason the movie is so bad. The reason the movie is so bad is that Wong simply has no idea what real people in America think or do. (The screenplay was co-written by Wong and Lawrence Block, a writer who seemed to peak in the early 2000s with work on some things called "Tilt" and "Spine Chillers.")

The story is that Elizabeth (Jones) is trying to overcome a breakup with her ex-boyfriend and has left him his set of keys to pick up at a diner. The diner's owner is Jeremy (Law), another heartbroken loser who makes and bakes pies all day (you know you are in for a tough ride when you realize that pie eating will be the master metaphor for the film). Jeremy is in possession of a key jar, supposedly containing all of the keys that people have left for jilted lovers over the years. Now, these things may exist, but I've never heard of one. Instead, it seems like a contrived idea to allow Jeremy to go through each key, one by one, and explain the breakups that accompany them.

Elizabeth, curious to see if her ex-boyfriend will ever pick up the keys, begins to haunt Jeremy's diner late at night, and eats up all of his pie. It's pretty clear they are going to fall in love, but it's only 20 minutes into the movie, so many, many, more adventures will have to come before the inevitable romance. Instead of simply falling for Law, with whom she clearly has affection (Law and Jones do actually have some chemistry), she sets out on a journey of self discovery, waiting tables and meeting Hollywood celebr- sorry, I mean meeting "real" folks out across this great land of America. And all the while, she sends postcards without return addresses to Jeremy, who seemingly has done nothing in his life other than work the fryer and oven since his girlfriend left him. (As unbelievable as Elizabeth's New Yorker-turned-diner-waitress character is, it pales in comparison to Jeremy's lifeless cipher).

Along the road, Elizabeth actually does meet some good actors, including David Straithairn as a drunk and Rachel Weisz (by far, the best part of the movie) as his ex-wife, vamping up the southern hottie role quite well. Hell, even The Wire's Frankie Faison pops up as the bar's owner, and for about twenty minutes the movie is pretty interesting: Straithairn takes shots, Faison demands he pay the tab, Weisz looks frickin' gorgeous in high heels, black dress, and done-up hair. None of this is really cinematic in any way (just lame closeups of Stratithairmn sipping apple juice), or advances the plot (maybe Elizabeth learns a lesson!), but I like all the actors, and they looked like they were having fun.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth gets bored again and moves out to Vegas where she meets...Natalie Portman! Portman, in another WTF role where she thinks every character is just some insane, over-the-top person, is this time a poker player who is avoiding her dying father. If you've ever wanted to see what a road trip is like between Jones and Portman, here is your chance, as the two turn what should be an 8 hour drive to Reno into a three day adventure. (I'm assuming the trip was lengthened to allow a scene where the two ladies lie half naked in motel bed together.)

Something happens with Portman's dad, and of course Jones returns to New York to reunite with Law, but I pretty much tuned the movie out by this point. It was just too much to watch a movie where the writer/director is absolutely clueless as to how real people deal with love, abandonment, death, live, everything. I guess if you want to have an alternate universe where people fall in love after making speeches about the importance of serving blueberry pie, you can, but to combine that with realistic touches like greasy kitchens and small town bars just makes for a boring movie. I doubt Wong has ever been to half of the back-country America he depicts here.

But I don't fault Wong for making completely two-dimensional characters, but for making such dull two-dimensional characters. In what is supposed to be a lesson of self-discovery and learning to be who you are (that pretty much is the moral of the story), you have to have characters who actually seem conflicted, rather than just saying they hate their parents. Even Straithairn, who should be able to do better, is stuck with a one note performance of droopy eyes and slurred speech, about as believable as a drunk from a comic strip. It seems as if Wong and Block are only aware of this existential suffering that people go through, only aware of this thing called alcoholism which destroys families, only aware of how a spoiled rich girl feels about her father, but have no actual experience of these things in their own life.

When I first saw 2046, I thought the strange cinematography and odd language concealed something deeper in the director. Instead, it turns out that the visual shit was all there was to it. Stripped of time-traveling trains and gorgeous actors who pose more than act (and whose flat dialog can be concealed in sub-titles), in My Blueberry Nights, Wong has only his soul to bear. It ain't much.