Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Blood Sweat & Cheers - That Evening Sun - The Escapist [IFFBoston Day - 5]

Blood, Sweat & Cheers (Dir. Al Ward)

I wasn't expecting much from the cheerleading documentary Blood, Sweat & Cheers, but I was hoping for more than the glorified home movie that we got.  I'm not sure what camera was used to shoot this, but I believe I might have one gathering dust in my closet.  And the grainy lo-def video wouldn't even be a problem if there was any sort of ambition going on.  I understand why it was shown at IFFBoston - I grew up next door to Burlington (the Massachusetts town where the bulk of the film takes place), it's about a half hour drive from Boston and who doesn't like to hear about hometown heroes?  But the film is entirely too in the pocket of it's subject, the Burlington Pop Warner Junior Midget cheerleading team.  It's not a boring subject, the team is one of the most decorated in the country and there's an innate drama involved with this sort of competition - similar to the pressure placed on the young girls of the gymnastics circuit.  If the film had any sort of perspective or anything interesting to say besides, hey check out these talented girls, it could have risen above the feature length recruitment film that it is.

That Evening Sun (Dir. Scott Teams)

There's no question that at this point in his career, Hal Holbrook is a national treasure -- a living legend that still has a few surprises up his sleeve.  Unfortunately, in That Evening Sun we're watching him go through the paces of a fairly routine grumpy old man story with Holbrook trying to hold on to his farm house.  Let's put it this way, watching a still ripped Clint Eastwood scaring some punks of his lawn with a shotgun carries a higher level of entertainment than Holbrook annoying a punk with his mangy dog and walking stick.  

That's not to say he doesn't have couple rousing I'm-80-I-can-do-what-I-want scenes, but they're nothing out of the ordinary. The best moments are when we're simply able to hang out with Holbrook and his old bud Barry Corbin as they reminisce and conspire.  Corbin has aged more than you might think since his days as a retired astronaut on Northern Exposure but wrinkles and grey hairs suit him like the frayed pair of overalls he sports in each scene he's in.  I would gladly sit through two hours hanging out with these two guys as they talk about trucks, dogs, lawns and big butted old girlfriends.  But towards the end of That Evening Sun, the longer it went on, the less interested I was in the Reader's Digest story about a man and his house.  The performances and direction are all sufficient if not great, if only the story had a little more bite to it.

The Escapist (Dir. Rupert Wyatt)

The story goes that writer/director Rupert Wyatt got in a bit of a row with Brian Cox one night which caused Wyatt to hole up and create The Escapist - a movie to let Brian Cox shine.  And for the most part this is a successful project - Brian Cox does indeed shine and it's the kind of film that really allows its actors to loose themselves in their creations.  Cox plays a long time convict looking to make a break for it.  He uses the respect and knowledge he's gained with his age and time spent navigating the politics of their prison society.  To accomplish his escape he enlists two fellow convicts - Liam Cunningham and a completely unrecognizable Joseph Feinnes (hard to believe that the thuggish fighter seen here is the same guy from Shakespeare in Love).  But as it turns out it is indeed tough to keep a secret in prison and before long more people are being enlisted to keep the plan afloat.

As seems to be the trend these days, any heist, break-out or plot hatching film can't be told in a straight forward manner and so The Escapist has its timeline sliced and diced with moments of the break-out mixed in with the events and scheming leading up to the event.  I'm not positive that this technique helps the film -- in the end it makes more sense but by the time that reason comes along you may be more than a little disappointed.  One of the unique joys of the break-out film, as with the heist film, is the build up and release.  In The Escapist you're plunged right into the break-out from the beginning and then you're in starts and fits throughout the rest.  These cut-aways to the action can help pull you out of the odd dull moment but the story should be strong enough that the scheming and plotting draws you in and can hold its own until the fireworks start.  I love watching the claustrophobic intricacies of prison life on film - was a big fan of Oz - and the scenes taking place before the break-out are great in The Escapist.  I would have liked to see scenes of the wheels turning in Brian Cox's head and watching his jump through hoops to keep his plan from falling off the rails them stand on their own and allow the suspense to brew.

In the final moments of the film, featuring a great tete a tete between Cox and a superbly creepy Damian Lewis, the flash forward/flash back technique gets a light shed on it but in this case it's not a good thing.  The question mark that had been hanging over the film since the first scene gets the one answer you were really hoping wasn't going to be the case.  It isn't a deal breaker, it's just unfortunate and turns the movie on its head.  Sometimes that can be a good thing, but when you liked the movie just fine the way it was it feels like a slight betrayal.  But as a testament to the great performances and direction, it still turns out to be one of the best films of the fest.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Best Worst Movie - Grace [IFFBoston - Day 4]

Saturday morning was beautiful in Boston. The sun was out and by the time I dragged myself out of bed it was already in the 70s. Perfect time to jump into a dark theater, right? Well, I have to apologize for skipping out on Crude, the new documentary by one of the directors behind the Paradise Lost films (and that Metallica doc) – a couple of my top documentaries of all time. Instead I took in the Red Sox/Yankees game on TV and fortified myself for a Saturday night double feature at the Brattle.

Best Worst Movie (Dir. Michael Stephenson)
In 1990 a movie called Troll 2 was released. It didn’t actually feature any trolls and had nothing to do with the 1986 movie Troll. It starred child actor Michael Stephenson and George Hardy, who played Michael’s father. 18 years later Michael Stephenson has crafted a genuinely hilarious and loving ode to the people behind the making of what many consider to be the worst movie of all time – hence the title of his documentary: Best Worst Movie. Luckily for Stephenson, George Hardy (see pic) is more than willing to go the distance with Stephenson – in 1990 and today, Hardy is a dentist in a small southern town who wants nothing more than to be an entertainer. The man is a bundle of energy (which may have something to do with the homemade power shakes he whips up every morning) and is the first person we meet as the story of Troll 2 unfolds and we eventually spend some time with everyone from the actors who played the troll—er, goblins, to the delusional writer and director.

Part of the reason Troll 2 is such a mess is due to the fact that you had a lot of first time or untrained actors in a film written and directed by ESL Italians looking to make an allegory about American families centered on killer vegetarian goblins. It was a project that was set up to fail from the beginning. But something happened over the past few years. Worn VHS tapes started getting passed around and soon people were quoting the movie at parties and screenings (even at the Brattle!) around the world are selling out. The movie does a fantastic job at examining what makes one bad movie infinitely more watchable and enjoyable than another and what causes a seemingly normal person to go and get a Troll 2 tattoo on his arm. In fact, it’s easily the best look at fame in the age of YouTube I’ve seen.

Best Worst Movie is the cherry on the fest for me – one of those films that I probably wouldn’t have tracked down if not for IFFBoston. It’s the funniest movie I’ve seen and filled with absolute jaw-dropping moments that capture real life equivalents of the UK The Office and Christopher Guest mockumentaries at their best/worst. Not many films can capture humor and heartbreak at the same time and Best Worst Movie is chock full of painfully funny scenes like Hardy trying to set a up a Troll 2 screening for his hometown and realizing that it isn’t going to get quite the reception that he got in NYC. So far, this is my pick for best of the fest. It’s a tough act to follow, but if there’s a film up to the task it’s Grace.

Grace (Dir. Paul Solet)

Grace doesn’t take long to get under your skin. Through the music, or lack thereof, the muted colors, the creeping camera and unsettling subject matter, it’s a hard film to shake. There’s an eeriness from the get go as we watch what will probably go down as the least erotic love scene to feature Jordan Ladd ever captured on film. Ladd plays Madeline and we can tell from her distant expression that the sex is purely for reproductive purposes – well, it isn’t for pleasure anyway. And it worked because soon afterward we see they’re picking out a midwife – and a very mysterious one at that.

I can’t imagine how overwrought I would be during the majority of time between finding out your pregnant until the thing can walk, talk and pour a bowl of cereal. Until then there’s a DMZ full of landmines of possible problems and life altering scenarios that could arise. Grace manages to capture a few of these worst-case scenarios and expertly feed of the built-in human emotions that go along with this subject matter. [Beware. A few spoilers to follow.] It isn’t long before Madeline’s husband is dead and she’s given the news that the child died in the womb. Through the help of the mysterious midwife, Madeline sees her pregnancy through and gives birth to the seemingly dead baby – until a moment later when the child, Grace, lets out a cry. Of course, this isn’t really so much a miracle as it is a curse. Grace seems to have an unhealthy appetite for blood and as it turns out may in fact still be dead since she’s smellier than your average baby and is attracting a lot of flies. It’s disturbing to watch in large part because if you ask yourself what the alternative is to what Madeline does in the film and there aren’t many appealing options. All of this leads to a downward spiral for Madeline that’s reminiscent of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion. Madeline shuts herself off from the outside world (except for some dark “vegan horror” television shows) and allows Grace to feed off her to the point of anemia and it all culminates in a dizzying confrontation between Madeline and her mother-in-law.

In good form, Grace doesn’t go about trying to answer all your questions – a tactic that I enjoyed quite a bit in the Deagol Brother’s Make-Out With Violence as well. Is Grace a zombie baby? A vampire baby? Was the mysterious midwife more like Ruth Gordon in Rosemary’s Baby than we were lead to believe? There’s also an implication made that the baby may have been led to crave blood due to Madeline’s (unnatural?) vegan tendencies. This was particularly amusing following the doc on Troll 2, but it’s a nice question mark to hang over the film anyway. In this regard, and in every other aspect of the film, more effort is put into Grace to make it a film that actually raises questions – and raises the bar on horror films (at least ones that want to actually be frightening) and this makes it a very easy film for fans to rally behind.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Beeswax - Big Fan - Pontypool [IFFBoston – Day 3]

Friday night featured the most ambitious, least sensible plan of the festival: Catch a 7pm film, Andrew Bujalski’s Beeswax, at the Brattle in Harvard Square and shoot over to the Somerville for the 9:15 screening of Robert Siegel’s Big Fan. When you’re planning out your film festival schedule a week or two in advance it’s easy to do so with rose colored glasses and see a 25 minute window as more than enough time to travel two T stops. But as you stand in line for your first movie it hits you, you’re on film festival time now – which is only slightly more reliable than a bus schedule on a Sunday night.


Beeswax (Dir. Andrew Bujalski)

So needless to say, I didn’t catch the ending to Bujalski’s latest, a sweet and often very funny film about two rather adorable sisters in Austin, one of whom co-owns a small boutique shop and happens to be paraplegic. The film falls squarely in Bujalski’s modus operandi (lingering scenes, dialog that tends to trail off) but still manages to feel refreshing for a few reasons. Jeannie (Tilly Hatcher) is the sister with the store and the wheelchair and it’s apparent from the early going that the fact she’s a paraplegic is only going to be a small detail. The big detail is that she has to navigate through some tricky legal and relationship terrain to successfully hold on to her store as her business partner is looking to get out of their contract. On paper it sounds like some boring movie crafted by the Small Business Association, and maybe if the person trying to hold onto their dream wasn’t paraplegic it might not resonate as much, but this seemingly mundane plot actually does make for an interesting story. What’s even more remarkable is the amount of humor that’s in Beeswax. Bujalski’s always had humor in his films, often of the awkward variety – one of my favorite kinds – but I don’t recall his films causing me to laugh out loud quite as much as I did in the first 90% of this one. A lot of these laughs came from the surprising performance of another director with a film at the fest this year, Alex Karpovsky. He plays a soon to be lawyer who’s had a romantic history with both sisters and find himself drawn back into their lives. His reply to news of one of the sister’s old classmate and boyfriend’s suicide, “Maybe if you were a better girlfriend he would have lived longer,” has so far gotten the loudest sustained laugh from any audience thus far at the fest. I’m looking forward to catching up with the last 15 or so minutes of Beeswax the next chance I get.

Big Fan (Dir. Robert Siegel)

Saying that Big Fan will probably go down as the biggest disappointment of the festival doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a horrible movie, it’s more a reminder to me that I should try harder to keep my expectations is check. I’ll continue to defend The Wrestler long after the buzz on that film drifts off into the ethers, but I won’t be surprised if Big Fan’s reception causes some re-evaluation of Siegel’s first script. With Big Fan being Siegel’s first directorial effort, there’s no doubt going to be many people wondering what this material would have turned into in the hands of someone like Darren Aronofsky (I still get eager to launch into rants about how good and under appreciated I think his directing is on that one). But ultimately you have to look at Big Fan and take it on its own merits and while there are a handful of funny to great scenes, it’s another film that seems stretched too thin to properly work as a feature. There’s something tonally off as well. Like I said, I love awkward comedy, not knowing whether to laugh or cringe, and there’s a fair amount of that sort of thing going on in Big Fan, but it’s all played broadly and with little consideration for anything resembling subtlety.

Patton Oswalt plays Paul (From Long Island), a New York Giants super-fan and garage toll booth employee who spends his days coming up with monologues to deliver over the phone to a late night sports radio show. For a couple minutes a night he can shine (at least in the eyes of his one friend who listens, dutifully enraptured) while the rest of his days he’s regularly beaten down by his cartoonish family and taunted by Philadelphia Eagles fans. Eventually, and unfortunately, he stumbles upon an opportunity to meet his favorite player on the Giants and it nearly kills him. There’s an interesting avenue that gets left more or less unexplored, about how and why his character is matter-of-factly happy about his existence living with his depressed/depressing mother and working his degrading job. He tells his mother as much, but it still feels like the only reason he doesn’t want a better job and a chance to leave home is because it’s his brother that’s making the offer. I can understand why someone would stay at a job that requires little effort, but it felt like there was a window here to seriously explore the man-child phenomena that continues to pop up in movies that was left closed. I think there’s a larger reason to why there’s a generation of people out there who refuse to grow up and I’d be happy if for once it wasn’t just played for laughs.

The film tries to juggle the absurdity of Paul’s situation, devoted so much to a team that he doesn’t want to let almost getting killed by one of the team’s players derail the season, with the sadness that a life this narrow looks like. In the end it doesn’t hit either tone very squarely and it gets bogged down with repetitive scenes that felt like they were there to pad the movie out to feature length. It’s too bad because the story is a good one to serve as a character study, only it doesn’t study the characters much at all.

Pontypool (Dir. Bruce McDonald)

Closing out Friday night was a midnight showing of Bruce McDonald’s latest experiment, Pontypool - a weird hybrid of Talk Radio, War of the Worlds and Night of the Living Dead. A grizzled talk radio host (think Don Imus if he was cool) played by Stephen McHattie, who still seems to be one DNA strand and an intense moment away from morphing into Lance Henriksen, is at the mic on a night when the townspeople all seem to be turning into a pack of rabid animals. Zombie plague? In keeping with tradition, the zed word is never spoken, and the real reason is even more ridiculous than the dead coming back to life.

McHattie nails the role -- his voice is a thing of pure beauty, oozing testosterone, and even serves as a driving force in the movie. He really holds the movie together when its hinges start rattling in the second half and the explanations start to get in the way of things. And the movie does hold together. As McHattie, the producer and their tiny basement radio station start to come under siege and the weird emergency messages start popping up and they try to get a hold on what exactly is going on, the movie grabs you, smacks you around and leaves you in a stupor before you can get to distracted by some of the more goofy elements. It's a good, solid, suspenseful horror film - effective close-ups, editing and use of their one room location. Even with the bizarro story elements (stuff that I'm sure reads better in Tony Burgess' original book) it's the best kind of midnight movie - fast paced, funny with some inventive scares and gore. Pontypool is the kind of movie that can keep midnight movies alive. . I already have a soft spot for McDonald – sometimes when I think about the words “independent film”, Highway 61 will be the first film to pop into my head – so I was a little predisposed at the idea of him taking on a horror movie but McDonald exceeded my expectations. Well done.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bronson [IFFBoston Day 2]

Dir. Nicolas Winding Refn

There were some technical difficulties starting off the Thursday night screening of Nicolas Winding Refn's (see also the Pusher trilogy) newest ode to violence, Bronson. But a few minutes into it, after an elementary school Charlie Bronson (or Michael Peterson, as he was known at the time) throws a small desk onto his cowering teacher, the glitches were fixed and the film was underway. Like the film Chopper before it, Bronson is a true life tale of a legendary convict who rose to prominence in the penal system. And like Eric Bana in Chopper, Tom Hardy rises to the occasion and delivers a performance of career prison inmate Charlie Bronson that's more reminiscent of a pit bull than a human being. But Hardy's face and body language (Hardy completely embodies the figurative brick shithouse in this film) is so expressive, he somehow does make you feel sympathy for this demented brute -- whose only answer to life's questions is a good lubed-up fist fight.

Nicolas Winding Refn has given the film a great, unique look as well. Shot on Super 16, there's a stark, grainy quality that is often framed in an appealingly kitty whompus (as my photography teacher put it) way. When Hardy's head is tucked away on the bottom left corner of the screen and he's contemplating what the hell just happened while the rest of the frame is cold, hard, grey concrete, it makes for interesting viewing. There's a smart, dirty quality to Bronson that reminded me of Alex Cox's early films.

But even great acting and photography can't save a film that suffers as badly form storytelling problems as this one. Badly paced, with a virtually non-existent character arc for its main subject, the film goes nowhere and has questionable purpose besides reminding us about the issue of prison reform. Charlie Bronson's story is without question ultimately a tragic one. And the film successfully makes an entertaining anti-hero out of him. But to what end? It's hard not to feel like the film spent 90 minutes spinning its wheels.

Without a doubt the movie would benefit from excising the numerous scenes where Bronson is on a stage in clown makeup addressing an theater audience or speaking directly to the camera giving narration. These scenes drastically slow down the film and prevent any sort of rhythm from falling into place. There are numerous other more imaginative, effective and interesting ways to get at the id of Charlie than by having pop up every five minutes to ham it up. It's a distracting technique and putting him in clown make-up just seems like a lazy way to make a point.

There's a lot of talent on display in Bronson. While some bad choices were made in terms of story, there are more than a few moments when everything falls into place and sparks are flying. (For better or worse I doubt I'll ever be able to get the scene of Charlie screaming at the prison guard he's taken hostage to grease up his backside before the other guards come crashing in.) Unfortunately these moments just don't add up.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Interview: The Deagol Brothers [Make-Out With Violence @ IFFBoston Friday]

The Deagol Brothers are hitting the IFFBoston scene on Friday at 10pm at the historic Somerville Theatre (buy a ticket here why don't you?) with their lovingly told summer romance film that just happens to have zombie in it, Make-Out With Violence. They've had a pretty busy schedule as of late (they just won Best Feature and Best Soundtrack at the Nashville Film Festival) but were able to find some time to answer a few questions...

RFC: Make-Out With Violence is your first feature, is it a story you've been brewing for a while? Can you give some background on how the film came about? I read that it took over two years and I'm wondering how much of the two to three years was spent filming and how much was pre/post production?

DB: We all went to high school together and have always been interested in making films, music, painting and art in general. We started to conceive of the film in the early 2000s. We wanted to make a film about our shared experiences in high school and we thought that making a high school movie also made sense from the stand point of working on a small budget with our high school and college aged friends as our talent. It was not originally conceived of as a horror film but we saw the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre and wanted to try the horror genre. We are not huge horror fans but we liked the idea of exploring the genre from a very sincere John Hughes angle. The idea of the teenage boy consumed by unrequited love also made sense to us in the context of a girl who is very physically present but may not be who or what you think she is. Not surprisingly many of the original incarnations of the script played out like "American Pie"-esque teen sex-comedies blended with Cronengberg like body horror. They were both crude and graphic. We slowly worked our way back to the John Hughes realm of teenage love and held on to the supernatural elements that we felt enriched the story without commandeering it. After working on the script in different parts of the country. We all moved back to Nashville to begin filming. We left jobs, colleges, and girlfriends for what we thought would be a year long production...

We started shooting in the summer of 2005. We shot again in the summer of 2006 with our final shoot taking place that winter. It was a total of about 8 weeks of filming but we kept running out of money or running up against production issues (like losing a lead actress, and then getting her back). The film was being edited throughout that period but it wasn't until spring of 2006 that we had our first picture lock. We then spent the next 2 years in post-production. Mostly we were working on sound design, ADR and the pop-soundtrack that drives the film, but we did make a number of edits to tighten the film up before we premiered the final version in Sept. 2008.

With Make-Out With Violence and your 2004 short film Robot Movie, it looks like you're creating a solid group of dedicated actors. Is it your vision to continue to work with these actors and keep the team together down the line? Are there aspirations for the Deagol Brothers to dip into the Hollywood pool or do you plan on continuing to use Tennessee as your muse?

If we get the opportunity to grow out of Nashville, we will probably go with it. That being said we are currently working on a new screenplay that we hope is flexible. It's our goal to write it in such a way that we could film it on a tight budget locally or expand it into something larger with the right funding. The story could have elements conducive to the TN region, but the locations we use are wrapped up in the characters we explore. At the moment, we don't have any plans to leave Nashville. As for the actors and actresses, we'd love to keep them around for as long as they're willing to work with us and we have parts that make sense for them.

When I first heard of Make-Out With Violence there were some comparisons to Wes Anderson and Sophia Coppola's early work and sure enough the film does recall The Virgin Suicides and I was also reminded a bit of Twin Peaks and River's Edge as the film deals with the emotional fallout and what happens between a group of friends when one of them dies. Was there specific films or filmmakers you were looking to for inspiration on the overall style of the film?

Interestingly we were deliberately trying to stay away from any sort of Lynchian, Wes Anderson or River's Edge influence. Our main source of influence were John Hughes, Terrence Malick and Tarkovsky's Solaris. We also turned to the music of Brian Eno at a very early stage of writing the screenplay. It helped set the tone for the film and aided in keeping 4 writers on the same page. As that music began to permeate the soundtrack and score it became a guiding force in the overall style of the film.

There are some spectacular shots as well, I really enjoyed how well you used the Tenessee locations. I noticed that you used the Panisonic VariCam - an HD camera with variable frame rates and shutter speed - and have three cinematographers credited, was there some experimentation going on to get some of these shots done?

Technically we had 4 DPs. We actually did all of our pre-production, and the majority of our test shooting, with a DP who left the production 4 weeks before shooting was scheduled to commence. We struggled to find a replacement and by the time we found one we were left with little to no time to prepare. We had a number of more complicated techniques and plans that were abandoned when our first DP left. Our second DP left after our first shoot so from there our gaffer took over as a transition to our third DP. It was not so much experimentation as it was the plight of making a low budget film that lead to us to having 4 DPs. Since we had 3 DPs for the actual production and we shot over the course of 2 summers and a winter our biggest concern was to maintain continuity. We tried to do that with a simple visual style that we thought was conducive to HD as a medium.

As a directing duo, does one brother handle the actors and one set up the shots a la the Coen Bros and the Hughes Bros or do you have a particular Deagol Bros way of delegating?

Not really. Due to the amount of scenes in the film, having two directors worked out to our advantage when we needed to shoot two places at once. We often found ourselves splitting up so that one of us could produce or location scout while the other directed. We try to get on the same page early on so we feel comfortable regardless of who ends up doing what. Once again we found ourselves at the mercy of working on a low budget production and out of necessity we discovered a working method.

For a first feature I was impressed with how well you were able to handle the tone of the film -- one of the toughest jobs a director has. While the movie does feature a zombie, I don't think anyone's going to confuse it with a traditional horror film - it's more of a delicate creepiness that is sustained throughout the movie and the music plays a big part in sustaining that tone. There's some great songs in the film that help with this. Can you give some background on how the soundtrack was built and how Jordan Lehning, who's credited with the score and the songs, fits into the Deagol Bros team?

We have been friends with Jordan since before High school and he worked on a number of short films with us throughout college. We approached Jordan about doing the score for this picture from the very beginning. Jordan acted in the film (he plays Rody) and worked with us throughout the entire process to create the sound of the film. We started by making mix tapes of music we thought would make sense in the film to try and get Jordan on the same page with us. Then he and his brother Eric (who co-wrote the script with us and also plays Patrick in the film) got together before we had even started the screenplay and recorded 3 songs in Boston where Jordan was living at the time. We immediately liked what they had done and started asking them to record more and more songs during the writing process. Jordan and Eric continued to record songs during production as well. It was a very organic process where the music and the film continually informed one another. Once post-production began we would edit to his songs or cut with temp track which he would use as reference to re-score or write music to match the scenes we had cut. Jordan performed almost all of the music in the film (with his brother taking the helm for many of the vocals) and is extremely gifted as a musician. We on the other hand have only a rudimentary knowledge of music based on listening to a lot of it but we eventually developed a working method that allowed us to communicate effectively. On a side note, Jordan just won the award for best soundtrack in a feature film at the Nashville Film Festival.

I happen to like that some of the big questions aren't answered in the film - such as how Wendy ended up a zombie - and the ending is left pretty wide open as well. Did you have answers to these questions in your mind while you were making the film, and is there a possible sequel being kicked around?

No, we're not interested in doing a sequel or answering any of those unresolved questions. In earlier versions of the script Wendy's story was much more explicit and as we began rewrites we became less and less interested in exploring that aspect of the story. We wanted to focus on the characters. We began to think of Wendy more as a memory/ghost and the cloudiness that is associated with something of that nature seemed appropriate. We felt a certain amount of obfuscation was more interesting because it opened up a larger emotional space for the characters. We were more interested in trying to achieve an emotional resolution rather than in achieving a resolution in the plot. We hoped the audience too would have more space to fill in the gaps and therefor have more of an active role in what they take away from the film.

The Brothers Bloom - IFFBoston 2009 Opening Night

Dir. Rian Johnson

Viewed: From the Balcony

It feels like it has been pouring rain off and on in the Boston area for days now. Last night, as the line of faithful film fans snaked around the block awaiting the call from the IFFBoston staff, it was downright punishing at times. But as it turns out, it was well worth the soggy feet and the hour plus wait as the opening night feature, Rian Johnson's The Brothers Bloom, was like a pure uncut dose of cinema.

The first seven minutes of the film, which I believe you can watch online somewhere or another, introduces us to Bloom and Stephen (the titular brothers played by Adrien Brody and Mark Ruffalo, respectively) as nomadic grifter pre-teens shaking down kids at the park. Narration during this part is provided by Ricky Jay, giving the film some immediate street cred and cementing the film's foundation as a con-artist fable. The Brothers Bloom is a colorful and even whimsical film, but that eye-popping production design and fanciful tone are as much a part of the story as Bloom's constipated soul and Stephen's god complex.

The con-artist is a character perfectly suited for film. Setting up the long-con -- roping in your mark, selling them on the scheme, keeping them on board until the final pay-off -- is part and parcel with the work filmmakers perform to create a world for the viewer to get lost in. In The Brothers Bloom, Stephen is essentially the director of Bloom's world, filling it with colorful characters, exotic locations and a manic pixie dream girl that will fall for him at the end of each job. But such an existence has worn Bloom down, and when we first see him as an adult, he's already grown weary and unable to celebrate their latest successful swindle. Bloom yearns for an unscripted life.

Stephen takes Bloom's ennui as a challenge to create the perfect con, one where everyone involved gets what they want. He sets up a long-con wherein Bloom will end up with his unscripted life and the mark (a rich, lonely, recluse played by the amazing Rachel Weisz) will get companionship and adventure. This focus on character sets the films apart and makes it much more a comedic The Grifters than another Confidence. There is some sort of con involving money and a book and smuggling antiques -- but the film is far more interested in the emotional stakes of Bloom and Penelope, everything else is busy work. It's fun busy work, but MacGuffin stuff nonetheless. The most fun comes from trying to figure out the theoretical mark, Penelope. Rachel Weisz prevents her from simply becoming a goofy flibbertigibbet and early on Bloom (and the audience) is left wondering if she is actually one of Stephen's creations or not. Stephen warns Bloom not to fall in love with her, but is it reverse psychology? It's hopeless anyway because this is Rachel Weisz we're talking about.

As well, you should resist all temptations not to fall in love with Rinko Kikuchi who plays Bang Bang, the secret weapon of The Brothers Bloom (both the movie and their team). She may be the oddest ball in a movie full of them. She barely speaks at all and her motivations remain a mystery besides the fact that we know she likes to blow things up, but she is a wonder to behold in the film and steals just about every moment she is on screen. And I'd like to briefly mention how nice it is to see Robbie Coltrane in a film that doesn't involve a boy wizard. He's not in the film for very long but he lovingly works his scenes for all they're worth.

Compared to Rian Johnson's first film Brick, The Brother's Bloom is a huge evolutionary step, cinematically speaking. If I remember correctly, most of Brick's unique stylization was in the dialog -- it's a story that could have made for an equally good novelization. The Brothers Bloom, on the other hand, uses every aspect of cinema to tell it's story in such a energetic way that I was completely swept up by it from the first frame. What really impressed me though was that the film was able to keep that energy alive for damn near all of its running time. It's rare that a film this alive is able to sustain that momentum. Amelie comes to mind, but I might suggest that this movie is even more entertaining than that one. Rian Johnson took questions after the film received a well deserved extended applause and spoke a bit about the challenge of keeping that momentum going -- especially in a film that has a couple of false endings. My only complaint is that there are a couple speed bumps in the back half of the film but by that time in the story it's only a minor hiccup. Oh, and there is one funny but disconcerting montage early on (when we get to witness the many talents of Penelope - chainsaw juggling!) that probably could have been treated in a less strictly-for-laughs manner. So it's not 100% perfect, but it's near the top of an already impressive year of films.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Interview: Paul Solet [Grace @ IFFBoston After Dark Sat.]

Paul Solet's Grace comes to IFFBoston this year with a full head of steam after a somewhat infamous showing at Sundance (two guys actually passed out during a screening). It's a film has everyone who cares about genre cinema screaming bloody murder that someone actually went and made a horror movie with purpose -- one that is in fact frightening. Grace centers on a woman (Jordan Ladd) who gives birth to a stillborn child that miraculously comes back to life. But the baby soon shows signs of being not quite right and, well that bottle full of blood on the poster isn't just an image drawn up by a promotional team. What's a new mom to do? It's playing the midnight showing on Saturday and you can buy a ticket here. And not only that, Paul Solet is a former Cantabrigian who graduated from Emerson and is more than a little eager to blow some minds on his home turf. He was gracious enough to answer a few questions for Reviews From the Couch and his enthusiasm is infectious even through email...

RFC: Grace is your first feature, but you've had a lot of success with short films including a version of Grace in 2006. I'm sure there are some of benefits to working on a story in a short format before making it a feature, but could you describe some of what your were able to learn from the short films and from working on Grace as a short film before diving into a feature?

PS: I think part of the art of filmmaking is working within the confines presented by budget and schedule, so shooting no budget shorts is a wonderful way to learn to stretch a dollar and a day. I've done shorts on all kinds of formats on all kinds of budgets, and each one has contributed to the next. The primary goal behind the GRACE short film was to demonstrate to potential financiers the capacity to handle a feature, so we approached the shoot essentially as a mini-feature. We cast real actors in Brian Austin Green and Liza Weil and shot on 35mm with a real crew, so the experience of shooting the short version of GRACE was literally a perfect test run for the feature. Working with actors always brings things to light for me that I may not have discovered alone in a room banging my head against a legal pad. As the writer and director, you're not always able to put the sort of sustained, exclusive focus on one character that a thinking actor will, so Liza taught me a great deal about Madeline Matheson just through watching her process that I was then able to incorporate into my work with Jordan Ladd on the feature. I learn so much on each project, and I know that won't ever stop as long as I keep my eyes open and stay teachable.

Horror movies are something I hold dear to my heart -- some of my earliest and best film memories are watching John Carpenter movies with my dad and being far too freaked out by even the goofy ones like Critters and Killer Klowns. Were you lucky enough to be brought up with a healthy dose of films that kids maybe shouldn't be watching? And what have been some of your more memorable, nurturing horror film experiences?

My parents did their best to shield me from what they felt was inappropriate, but I always found a way to watch everything I wanted to see - whether by going over to a friend's house with less present parents or watching with a stoned babysitter, I managed to devour everything in the horror, cult and sci-fi sections pretty young. When my parents realized I really had a passion for this stuff, and that I actually wanted to DO this myself, they became unflinchingly supportive. I definitely remember being terrified by certain films as a kid, but I think if I didn't have the films to be terrified of, I may have just filled that space with something else. Watching ALIENS, I have to say, scared the hell out of me. Utterly terrified (thanks cousin Paul....). I also remember Jack Sholder's ALONE IN THE DARK shaking me up. And of course, NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. But I had nightmares about C-3PO with an afro, so who knows what really did the damage.

Grace has gotten some comparisons to David Cronenberg's early, body-horror films -- which more than anything else gets me pretty excited for Saturday's screening. The TV show Fringe is also getting into some body-horror territory, albeit form a more sci-fi angle, and I think people are still discovering Takashi Miike and some of the Asian horror cinema that isn't about pale creepy ghost kids. American audiences have finally seemed to get tired of those J-horror remakes and the self-aware horror films of the 90s seem pretty ancient these days. One of the more divisive sub-genres to come around recently was the (poorly named) "torture porn" that could be viewed as a reflection of the George W. cultural climate, and this too seems to have come and gone as far as trends go. More than most, genre movies, and horror in particular, have a tendency to share trends and in some ways reflect the fears society is facing at the time, do you see new trend coming down the road and are there any filmmakers out there now that you're keeping an eye on?

There are a lot of young filmmakers that I'm totally excited about. Fabrice Du Welz who did CALVAIRE, Jaume Belaguero who did REC and THE NAMELESS, Pascal Laugier who did MARTYRS, Alexandre Bustillo and Julien Maury who did INSIDE - all of these guys are doing really powerful work. As far as societal trends being reflected in horror, I'm sure there's truth to that. There's always an appetite for horror. The usual discussion explores how horror is a cathartic experience. I'm sure there's truth to that as well. What excites me, though, isn't the academic analysis, it's the merger of story and horror we're starting to see more of. We're getting more films that are less reliant on shock to distract you from their lack of substance. When you've got writers like Adam Alleca working on films like LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT, things are changing. These are seriously talented individuals that grew up in love with genre films. It's not just a paycheck. My hope is that we're really moving into a period where horror films don't have to be vehicles for someone's exploitation checklist - breasts:check, blood:check, jump scare:check... - a period where the potential of the genre as a playground for exponential exploration of otherwise mundane subjects is the only exploitation we're seeing. Don't get me wrong, I love a gut punch, but if each incident of violence, each scare, is earned and informed by story, these things become so much more powerful.

What is it, do you think, that continues to make horror films such a great way for filmmakers to launch their careers? Making a good horror film, making it effective, isn't easy -- there are numerous pitfalls. Do you think this makes it the perfect genre to learn the ropes?

Horror is definitely a director's medium. It's so much fun visually, and there's so much room for innovation and style, but you're absolutely right, it's a tough genre to do right. The only thing harder is comedy, but there are parallels - in comedy, if they don't laugh, you failed; in horror, if you don't disturb them, you failed. From a business standpoint, horror has historically been as safe a bet as a financier can find for lower budget films because they're guaranteed a certain audience, no matter what kind of piece of shit they make. That's why there will always be a glut of bad horror films made by people that are looking to get as far away from anything remotely genre related as quickly as possible. It's different when a filmmaker loves the genre they're working in, and appreciates the potential it holds.

From the sound of your IMDb bio you seem to have a plan of attack in place for upping the ante of genre films, which sounds great to me because even though there remains a strong fan base for genre films, I'm happy if I can find more than a couple of great American horror movies per year these days. Do you plan on sticking with horror for a while or are you looking to mix it up? Do you already have some future projects in mind?

I do have projects coming down the pipe, yes, horror and otherwise. I'm not dogmatic about working within genre conventions. What's exciting to me is story. Like I said, I think the genre is a playground that enables unparalleled potential for exploring any subject because your only limitations are your own imagination and your responsibility as a storyteller to create a consistent universe, so I'll never hesitate to work in horror. At the same time, if a non-genre story moves me, I'm all over it. I just want to make good movies.

Thanks again for taking the time for this. Grace is really one of the top films I'm looking forward to this week. It's a great feeling to be excited about a horror film -- it doesn't happen enough.

Man, I'm so happy to hear that. I'm a fan first, always, and that is EXACTLY how I feel!

Monday, April 20, 2009

Trimpin: The Sound Of Invention [IFFBoston]

Dir. Peter Esmonde

Viewed: From the Balcony

Somewhere in Seattle, Washington a German immigrant who goes by the name of Trimpin (yes, just Trimpin) is building something. It may or may not involve a musical instrument but it probably involves some gears, an electrode or two and something found in a junk yard, all put together in an effort to create a sound, music you've never heard before, but Trimpin must hear. Trimpin, the film, follows this eccentric man, whom many of the interview subjects don't hesitate to call both a musical and technological genius, through his day-to-day life as inspiration strikes and slide projectors get turned into automated percussion instruments.

One of the inherent elements of a documentary is the drive to find inspiration in the lives of its subjects and Trimpin is no different and fairly successful at that. And unlike say Derrida, Zizek!, or How to Draw a Bunny, the film doesn't get too bogged down in its subject's philosophy and instead gives you just enough to be drawn in and even slightly enamored of of Trimpin. His childlike curiosity, energy and mind-boggling creativity make for some fun and even fascinating moments. Machinery built to tune a piano while it's being played by electronically programed fingers and a perpetual motion non-music music device can be tough things to wrap your head around but when you see the joy Trimpin gets out of making them and the happiness and wonder it brings to the people who witness them in action, it's easy to simply let these objects d'art (and d'music) confound and amaze in equal measure.

What really holds the movie together is a ongoing narrative where Trimpin and the Kronos Quartet craft a multimedia concert to be performed with toy instruments and sensor activated violins. We get to eavesdrop on the pieces of the creative process from beginning to end and Trimpin's unshakable faith and grinning optimism that it will all come together when other composers would be breaking woodwinds over people's heads is indeed inspiring. As the date of the concert approaches, I was surprised to find myself a bit eager and nervous at the outcome. It is easy to root for this crazy old man-child and I really didn't want to see him fail even when he would no doubt spin a failure into a success. And even if the actual climactic concert is one of those you-kinda-had-to-be-there performances, it was still a pleasure to see all the pieces fall into place.

At 79 minutes the film breezes by and does what every documentary should do -- make you want to fire up Google and find out more on the subject (and as it turns out there's some pretty wild installations and accomplishments that the movie doesn't touch on). So as an introduction to a formidable underground art character, Trimpin: The Sound of Invention is an entertaining primer.

You can check it out at the Independent Film Festival of Boston this Thursday (April 23) @ 10:15pm or Sunday (April 26) @ 8pm -- both shows are at the historic Somerville Theater. Buy a ticket here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Interview: Brendan Toller [I Need That Record! @ the IFFBoston]

Brendan Toller's first film, I Need That Record! is a heartfelt and often humorous documentary that follows the tumultuous relationship the music industry has had with the independent record store over the years. The documentary will make its east coast premier at the Independent Film Festival of Boston at 7pm on Saturday, April 25th at the historic Somerville Theater (buy a ticket here).

RFC: Can you give a little background on yourself and how this film came about? Some of the film's best moments follow the closing and after-life of your hometown record store. Was this the event that triggered you wanting to make a film about, as the title goes, the death and possible survival of record stores?

BT: I'm from Portland, CT a small town that like most of them-
has absolutely nothing to do. A few minutes away in Middletown, CT
there were a few record stores Record Express being the flagship one
that I grew up with. At least half of my collection comes from there.
Great people and a lot of great discovery- Clash London Calling, Neil
Young Tonight's the Night, Uncle Tupelo, Pixies, the Damned... They were a
chain of about 10 or so in new England and around 2003 Record Express
in Middletown was the last one hanging on. In the summer of 2006 it
closed, and while it didn't come as a shock to me I was heartbroken.
It's a tanning salon now. I can't even look on that side of the street
really. It's too painful. There's really a huge void in CT for a good
record store in that part of the state. Upon Record Express closing I
decided to pick up a camera and start making a movie about what in the
hell had happened in the past 10 years to have this happen. It's
something that I felt was always misrepresented in the press. They
were all quick to blame downloading and I knew that was a bullshit

How long did it take you to complete the film? Was there an extensive research phase in compiling the statistics after getting all the footage?

The idea hatched in 2006. The first person who agreed to do an
interview was Ian MacKaye. I had asked him after an Evens show. I
could barely speak I was so nervous, and looking at his reaction he
seemed nervous! But months later we set something up and there I was
at the Dischord house. Then in summer of 2007 I went cross country
with my two friends Jeff and Andrew to shoot interviews and record
store footage. Its amazing what different character and feel each
record store has based on taste and regionality. Then there was the 3
month period of research. I had been doing it loosely since the summer
of 2007 but I really hunkered down and read every book and article I
could concerning the changes of the music industry and the plight of
record stores. I mean everyday from 9am to 2am- reading. Then I
transcribed all 40 hours of interviews. I'm surprised my wrist didn't
fall off. I put the research and interviews together on paper. It's a
funny process- some things sound great on paper and then when you're
in the voice over booth actually saying it you think- 'what the hell
was I thinking!' Same with the interviews on paper it may look great
and when you watch it you think no way.

Probably the most common question you get asked is how you were able to get a hold of all the interview subjects in the film. Did you encounter any problems and were there any interviews you were unable to score?

The best advice I got in doing a project like this was- if you have an
important issue you'll be surprised who you might get to participate.
I want to make it clear that I have really no connections. I just made
a list of who I'd like to see in the film and wrote them via myspace,
their websites, and sometimes through their publicists. I'm still
amazed at how many people on the list are in the film. Sure I would've
liked to get Iggy Pop who used to work in a record store and I'm told
met the Asheton bros there, and I was disappointed Robert Pollard
didn't want to contribute (although he loved the film which is awesome
to hear from one of my heroes)- but in the end it all worked out. Some
interviews were just luck. Mike Watt was in town for 6 hours to do a
poetry reading and then was flying out to Japan or something. I got
him for a full hour! And of course there were problems like my car
breaking down and just barely making it to MIT to interview Noam
Chomsky... But overall it was an incredible experience.

In addition to writing and directing you also did the editing. You definitely managed to give the film a comfortable flow and I'm wondering how much footage did you end up shooting and have to deal with at the end? In the future, are you planning on keeping it the same DIY approach or was this due to your budget?

A lot of people will tell you that to do the writing, editing, and
directing is complete insanity and it is. I certainly would like more
help on the next project I do but I enjoyed involving myself with
every aspect. In the end I had something like 80 hours of footage.
This was my thesis project at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. When I
was in the the thesis concentrator's class I introduced myself and the
film telling everyone that I had 80 hours of footage down to 20 and
everyone burst out laughing. People had doubts, I had some doubts but
I think I have a great film that just needs to find a damn distributor
to get into stores. In the future I'd like to keep the same DIY
approach. I'd love some money for future projects. "I Need That
Record!" was probably made for under $5,000. I certainly don't need
the millions that Hollywood is dishing out for terrible shlock. It
amazes me the amount of waste.

The biggest pitfall that documentaries like this can fall into is wearing down the viewer with a long string of talking heads -- Robert Greenwald's films often get bogged down by this -- and you do a good job in keeping away from that style. I've read that Michael Moore is an influence and there's definitely a lot of humor in I Need That Record! (and the great footage of George Bush using an iPod that you use is very reminiscent of Moore's work) but are there any other films or filmmakers that you look to for inspiration as far as style or aesthetic?

Julien Temple is a filmmaker that I really look up to. His use of
archival footage, interview approach, and his track record with music
docs is simply astounding (check out "Filth and the Fury" and "Joe
Strummer: The Future Is Unwritten"). I think he's one of the most
underrated filmmakers working today. I can only hope to make a film as
beautiful as one of Jem Cohen's someday. He has an incredible eye and
great sense for structure. I love John Waters DIY approach- a band of
Baltimore weirdos set to make films of their own in the 70s when it
was near impossible to make a feature film of your own. I also love
the amount of risk Werner Herzog takes with each film he does. He's
always trying something new which can't be said of most directors or
people his age. I asked him a question when he was at Amherst College
a few years ago- "How do you form such intense relationships with your
subjects?" He took it as "Why are you so intense?" In his deep german

How did the cut-out animation come about? Is there any story behind the recurring hungry dinosaur?

My friend Matt Newman, animator extraordinaire, and drummer of the
rock band the Bunnies did all the cutout animations. It was a fun and
funny process. I would go and ask him to create something loosely
based on what was being said in the voice over. He has a great sense
of humor and a great collagic eye for images. We had talked about the
dinosaur as a symbol for a monstrous dying breed. It represents the
old school of thought in the music industry, the major labels,
corporate culture- destroying everything in its path...

There's certainly no lack of interesting, opinionated folk hanging out at record stores, and that applies to both sides of the counter, and you were able to catch some good moments with these guys. I imagine you were probably able to get some good tips from Ian MacKaye, Thurston Moore and the others but did you have a list already in mind of stores you wanted to visit? Was it an extended road trip going to these locations?

We planned a 3 week roadtrip out based on stores we found out about
online- a lot of indie coalition stores, and tips from friends. While
on the road we were tipped off on some great stores from owners,
shoppers, and people we stayed with. The one mistake we all made was
not saving up enough money for all the records we flipped through! I
don't want to name any favorites because they were pretty much all
great except for a few with $40 Beach Boys records (eye roll). I'd
like to put out a comprehensive list of all the existing record
stores, at least in the U.S., to come with the DVD of "I Need That

The majority of I Need That Record! deals with the downfall record stores have experienced, but there is an overall sense of hopefulness at the end of the film that hints at the possible survival. With the second annual Record Store Day coming up on the 18th, reports of sales of vinyl up 89% from 2007 to 2008 and stores like Amoeba still going strong -- there certainly is hope to be had. But was there anything specific that you got from this experience that gave you a sense that a turnaround is ahead for independent record stores? What do you think is in store for the future of the music industry?

I think there is still a huge need for physical locations where
music/arts minds can come together. Not to sound cliche but there are
more people making music, art, and films than ever before. I think
every community could and should have a space that nurtures those
endeavors. If indie record stores want to survive they need to build
their business model around the idea of supporting a community. This
is something the chains will never get. Do in-stores, have contests,
listening parties- make it interesting. Maybe start a record store
cafe, a record stores laundromat- why in the hell has no one come up
with a record bar?! Garage bands, artists, writers etc. are in every
town and they need a place to show their stuff and get started. People
want to go places, see people, hang out- computers haven't chained us
to our chairs just yet. As for the music industry- its always been a
battle between the majors and the indies. Indie labels like Chess,
Stax, SST, Matador, In the Red dictate the tastes of tomorrow because
people are more concerned about music than money. Until the indies can
establish the network, access, advertising, and distribution that the
majors have we're still going to have money grubbing suits with
cave-man-like thinking. A lot of the old ways have eroded in the past
10 years. People sell albums totally differently now. Nothing goes
platinum. The majors have been slow to get all this stuff- the
lumbering dinosaur while the indies are quick and nimble (maybe a
lizard?)... It will be interesting to see where it goes.

Lastly, my colleague Padraic is a big Drive By Truckers fan and he was a little sad that there was only a small, but brilliant, moment with Patterson Hood. I'm wondering if it was a brief interview, because it looks like you might have caught him on tour, or if there's a bevy of gold from Patterson and the others on the cutting room floor?

We had plenty of time- my sister and I went out to dinner with
Patterson- he's one of the nicest guys you'll meet. Unfortunately I
interviewed him a month before I was scheduled to have a rough cut. He
had a lot of great things to say but they were already being said by
other people in different ways. There were a lot of tough decisions
made- shooting the puppy as they say. Each interview was about an
hour so I have an incredible amount of awesome stories, insights, etc.
that will end up in the extras or a second disc to come with the
release which will hopefully be this Fall. Who doesn't want to see
Danny Fields talking about how he broke up the Beatles, Glenn Branca
pontificating on Madonna and Britney Spears, or advice from Watt?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Schedule and Tickets Now Available for IFFBoston '09

If you take a look over at the IFF Boston website this morning, specifically here, you'll notice that they've partnered with B-Side and have made available tickets and the full schedule for this years Independent Film Festival of Boston. B-Side can be a useful little program, it allows you to create your own schedule or calendar for the festival, to keep track of where you're supposed be and when and whatnot, as well as letting you rate the films once you've seen them. It's kind of like a Microsoft Outlook for film festivals. It also helps shine a light on the fact that it will be next to impossible for me to see everything I want to see -- sadly, Multiplicity is indeed a work of fiction.

I've already touched on the excitement here at RFC-HQ over Big Fan, Brothers Bloom, Beeswax, Summer Hours, Pontypool and World's Greatest Dad but we'll be ramping up to the festival with some spotlights on a few films that don't have the kind of hype that the big names behind those films provide and hopefully even a word or two from the people behind the films.

22 year old Brendan Toller has crafted an ode to the independent record store called I Need That Record! and it's filled with interviews ranging from Noam Chomsky to Thurston Moore.

Nashville filmmakers the Deagol Brothers are showing their 2 year labor of love, coming-of-age zombie drama that happens to have my favorite title of the fest, Make-Out With Violence.

And there's a rouge horror move (not to be confused with the ok horror movie Rouge) out there that according to some positive word of mouth may actually be (gasp!) really goddamn scary! That would be Paul Solet's Grace which is occupying the Sat night midnight spot on the festival's program.

We'll be getting to know these and hopefully a couple of other not-to-be-overlooked films a little better in the days leading up to the Independent Film Festival of Boston. Stay bookmarked.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

El Cant des Ocells (Birdsong)

Dir: Albert Serra

Viewed: From the Balcony (Harvard Film Archive)

Birdsong is only director Albert Serra's second film, but it seems that the comparisons to masters like Bela Tarr found on the HFA website were not exaggerating - the guy is good. Why? I'm not so sure yet. The aesthetics of Serra are not entirely original, and combine some of the best attributes seen in recent work by Tarr, Van Sant, and even the old Dogma 95 program. It's more, however, much more, than simply trying out old styles - Serra is doing something pretty amazing, and I'll see if I can at least describe it, if not explain it.

Shot in B&W, with all natural lighting and sound, and filmed without professional actors, Serra sets out to tell the story of the Three Magi's journey to see the infant Christ. It may seem hard to believe given all the iconography of the 3K, but their appearance in the Bible is all of 5 lines, found in just one of the Gospels. Matthew 2:7-11. This slight story may have been the inspiration for a little thing called Christmas, but it doesn't leave much room for a story.

The source material is especially surprising given that Serra's first feature - Knight's Honor- was based on Don Quixote, one of the richest literary texts in the Western canon. Both films, however, share a sparse landscape, little dialogue, and lots of time for the audience to think "what the heck is going on here?"

The answer on one level is: very little. The kings - two fat guys and one old guy - walk around the desert for a while, argue about which direction to travel and how best to sleep, stop in to warn Mary and Joseph about the Romans, and wander back home. That's it.

One might think such a narrative sketch could be allegorical, but for what? One useful thing that did come from the Q&A session afterwards was that Serra explained that he wanted his film to be free of references that would seem familiar - that there could be no possible way for audiences to "identify"with any of the characters. The reason, I assume, is to let the images say something new rather than make you think of something you've already encountered, and on this level the movie is an unqualified success; it's nearly impossible to do anything other than stare.

The two best moments of the film, in fact, seem much closer to contemporary video and film art than feature narrative films. In the first, we get an extended shot of the Magi wandering over a sun-bleached desert, beginning next to the camera but traveling a few hundred yards until the turn into a few small specs in the distance, only to realize they are lost and return to near the same spot. It must be 10 minutes, and all we get is the gradual diminution and movement of three figures, and it's riveting.

The other shot occurs when the Magi prostrate themselves on the ground after arriving at Mary and Joseph's house, and we hear the first (and last) music of the movie; a jarring industrial score, which seems both completely inappropriate and magical. It's a transformative moment, where you forget your watching a movie and enter into another world.

Oh, and I guess there is also the underwater shot of the Three Kings paddling across a river, the long debate on whether to climb a mountain or not, and the Godot-like conversations that meander from nowhere to nowhere.

In fact Beckett is the most obvious comparison, but even Godot's dialogue was about something relative to the story and, in the end, we get Estragon's fairly obvious monologue explaining the point of the story. But in Serra, the dialogue not only has nothing to with us, or with things we would identify with; it doesn't even have anything to do with what the characters themselves are doing. Aside from a few lines about travel plans and sleeping arrangements, most of the dialogue in the film could be said by anyone and, indeed, the conversations among the Kings could often be swapped with the conversations of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza from Knight's Honor without disrupting the feel of the movie. Especially given that most of the spoken language is in Spanish (there's also a bit of ad-lib Hebrew), you could easily take the words of the characters to be no more informative that the chirping of the birds, the cracking of twigs, or the ever-present wind.

In place of information, you just get images, and unforgettable ones at that. I'm not sure this is commercially viable, but it would be nice to see more films like this in the context of the theater instead of it's usual home in contemporary art museums. Ninety minutes or so of sustained attention is what is really required for this kind of stuff, and if you have the patience, there's no more rewarding visual experience out there.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Weekly Alternative - Vanishing Point

[There be spoilers, beware.] Something about Fast & Furious smells like Never Say Never Again. The original stars get dragged into a soulless retread of a movie they've already made before. Back up the money truck and put a glossy coat on a franchise in desperate need of a roughening up. So instead, why not take a look at a movie that just got a shiny new coat of its own, has so much soul there's a character called Super Soul and manages to kick all kinds of high octane ass.

Without even looking, I'm positive you can find all manner of lengthy dissertations on Vanishing Point on the web. It's a movie that is open to so many different interpretations I'm wouldn't be surprised if there's a Kowalski based religion somewhere out there looking for tax breaks. Vanishing Point is one of the great, bleak kick to the nuts of the 1960s love-in. Like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Badlands it shows us a society where flower power has failed and effectively presents us with its bloody carcass. It's like Easy Rider's more focused, economical, less pretentious, more entertining sibling. Rather than two hippies on motorcycles, we follow ex-cop Kowalski (the coolest Jew in cinema, played by Barry Newman) as he attempts to deliver a car from Colorado to San Francisco in under 15 hours.

Like Raul Duke in another fond farewell to the American Dream, Kowalski stocks up on some good speed and hits the road at full throttle and it isn't long before the police are on his tail. As he out runs the cops in his badass Dodge Challenger, it catches the attention of a radio DJ, the aforementioned Super Soul (pre-Blazing Saddles Cleavon Little), who instantly turns Kowalski into a folk hero. But Kowalski is no hero, he's just a troubled ex-cop who's resorted to delivering cars for money. The parts of the movie that aren't focused on Kowalski's attempts to shake the cops are peeks into how he got into this solitary existence. Vanishing Point is often accurately described as "the existential car chase movie". While on his trip west, Kowalski runs into other loners along the way but he never makes any real connections, even with the people who try to help him out. What starts out as a simple act of defiance quickly turn into watching a man play out his own demise on his own terms, more or less. The flashbacks take on the feeling of Kowalski's life flashing before his eyes during his last moments rather than a simple backstory device.

I don't think there will ever be a better time to experience or re-examine this burried treasure from 1971 than now, with the recent Blu-ray release. There's nothing quite like bathing yourself in the sounds of a growling Challenger engine getting a real workout. There are extras going into loving detail about the Dodge beast and the great soundtrack the film has to go along with the standard deleted scenes and director commentary -- which in this case is an actually revealing and informative one (I believe this commentary track was on the 2004 DVD release though). It's rare that movies so steeped in and speaking to the time in which it was made hold up as well as Vanishing Point does. I don't think there's a better movie to watch if you're looking to capture the feeling of the begining of the 70's -- or if you're just looking to see one of the greatest cars ever do it's thing. Whichever.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

BUFF - Anywhere, USA

Dir. Chusy Haney-Jardin

Viewed: From the Balcony

The Closing Night film for this year's Boston Underground Film Festival was a fairly straight-forward choice as far as BUFF line-ups go, but the film managed to win the directors choice for Best Feature this year (it also won a special jury prize at this year's Sundance). Anywhere, USA falls into what might as well be a sub-genre all its own -- the three loosely inter-connected tales film. But unlike Magnolia or Pulp Fiction or any Alejandro Inarritu film, the tales in Anywhere, USA are even less connected than most. Though the three stories supposedly take place in the same town (the name of which gets bleeped out whenever a character says it), the settings don't look the same or even play much of a part in tying the film together. Basically what we're given is three short films, the first of which is quite funny, followed by a more somber and less revelatory entry which leads to a long one joke finale. While the film is quite well made and the performances far better than expected, the movie does suffer from an unevenness and lack of a solid ending or overarching vision.

There's a somewhat mysterious narration that bridges the film's chapters and starts us off. We're told we'll be exploring three attributes: Penance, Loss and Ignorance -- the three chapters of the film. The beginning of the film has a great, dreamy quality. The soothing narration rolls over us as we're shown languid images of empty rooms, a bowling ball rolling down a miniature race track, a grasshopper on a perch. It's great because you have no idea what to expect and this continues during Penance, where we follow the relationship of Gene and Tammy, a defiantly redneck couple introduced by Gene stepping into the shower and Tammy whacking him over the back with a tennis racket. Penance. The story of Tammy and Gene is told in a clever manner as the subject of an afternoon gossip session between two local ladies spending the day tanning and sipping bottles of Kegger beer. Tammy and Gene were in love, Gene cheated, Tammy kicked him out, Gene began spying on Tammy and through the help of his friend Little Ricky ends up convinced that Tammy's new internet habit has opened the door for the Taliban to infiltrate their beloved All-American town. It's absurd stuff that has everything from the photography to the music working to create something uniquely funny and popping with a great energy. Gene, Tammy, Little Ricky and the two gossips are vivid, alive, fun characters to spend an entire movie with and so it's a bit of a shame to have to leave them 1/3rd of the movie in.

Penance is a hard act to follow and as we move into Loss it soon becomes clear that the tone is now far more serious and what was unique in the telling of the first story has now given way to more standard, idiosyncratic indie movie familiarities. Loss is still filled with rich detail and good performances -- amazing really, when you consider all but one actor in the film is making their feature debut. That one is the daughter of the film maker, Perla Haney-Jardin, who gives a very strong performance that does in fact recall Tatum O'Neal in Paper Moon (a movie which is even referenced here). It's kind of the curse of the second portion of the film, while the performances are quality, the characters have a familiarity that isn't exactly comforting. Perla Haney-Jardin plays the toughened, wiser-than-her-age kid who loses the last bit of her innocence when she discovers, the hard way, that there is no tooth fairy. With her thrift store clothes and her equally charming, bohemian guardian (in this case her uncle) there's nothing about her story that comes close to the inventiveness of the first portion.

And pretty much all is lost in the final third of the film, Ignorance. It has its fun dealing with an upper cruster who decides during diner with the wife and teenage son, much to their horror, to find a black friend. Yeah, it does sound a bit like that Seinfeld episode and it isn't any funnier. It goes on much too long and mostly repeats the same joke over and over again. Oblivious, rich white man desires black friend, wife shakes her head and takes another drink, son feels shame. Even more so than with the second story, with the Ignorance chapter, there's none of the discovery and excitement that permeated the first part. There's laughs to be had as there always are watching a determined idiot, but they're followed by a glance at your watch and a sigh.

Chusy is a film maker to keep an eye on though. It's immediately apparent that his own eye is quite good -- for a small budget first feature Anywhere, USA looks like a million bucks. And whether it be a case of great casting or expert directing, he has a way of making first-time actors look like seasoned professionals. At just about 2 hours there's half a movie worth watching here that will surprise you and have you believing that Chusy is the next big deal in a Wes Anderson kind of way. I don't have any doubt that he can create unique worlds and characters that are full of that same kind of loving attention to detail that you'd rush to spend time in, there just needs to be a stronger focus on fleshing out a singular vision for each film rather than the less satisfying little-bit-of-everything approach Anywhere, USA goes for. But it is hard to be negative towards a first feature that is as strong as this one is to show what Chusy is capable of. The road out of Anywhere, USA is certainly full of promise.