Pazar, Nisan 20, 2008

Stanwyck X 2

Forbidden (U.S., 1932) * * *
D: Frank Capra

Shopworn (U.S., 1932) * *
D: Nicholas Grinde

As part of a series of recent Columbia Pictures restorations, the UW Cinematheque last night screened two pre-Code melodramas starring Barbara Stanwyck. Stanwyck (1907 - 1990) is my favorite actress of the 30's, straddling the line between button-cute and drop-dead-sexy, and when given the right writers and directors, could make dialogue crackle, zing, or smolder, as appropriate. Perhaps best suited to screwball comedies (as in Preston Stuges' superior The Lady Eve, or Peter Godfrey's Christmas in Connecticut), she could also make lasting impressions in film noir (Billy Wilder's Double Indemnity) and sensationalistic pre-Code soap operas (the notorious Baby Face), where a low-cut blouse, a significant look, and a fade to black would also be accompanied by a suggestive double-entendre not possible a few years later. The two films screened, Forbidden and Shopworn, were both produced in 1932, two years after the Code was established, but two years before it began to be effectively enforced. Within that four-year span, the Talkies pushed the envelope as far as they possibly could, most famously with the nude skinny dipping of Tarzan and His Mate (1934). Stanwyck's career flourished in this period, although her truly great work wouldn't come until later; audiences were struck by her combination of beauty and natural, casual wit and intelligence. Watching these films over seventy years later, what's most intriguing is how modern Stanwyck's performances seem, like an '08 gal trapped in 30's clothes. It helps explain why she always seemed to prance over the heads of her co-stars.

Forbidden is an early film written and directed by Frank Capra, still two years away from It Happened One Night (1934) and four years from Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936). "Capraesque" calls to mind an idealized vision of small-town America, populated with lovable, quirky characters nonetheless espousing all-American values in the face of corruption; Forbidden actually begins with the most Capraesque scene, in that sense, as a bespectacled, schoolmarmish Lulu (Stanwyck) arrives to work with a lost, dreamy look in her eyes, and we see glimpses of a town that might as well be out of You Can't Take it With You or It's a Wonderful Life. But then Lulu decides to discover her inner lithe spirit, ditches the glasses, buys a sexy dress, and runs off to Cuba. (And here the pacing of the film switches from awkward and uncertain to rat-a-tat screwball.) There she meets an older man (Adolphe Munjou), and carries on an affair, unaware that he's district attorney Bob Grover, an important public figure with an invalid wife. For convenience of plot, turns out they also live really close to one another, and that her friend Al Holland (Ralph Bellamy), the editor of the local newspaper, is eager to catch the man in a scandal. A scandal is in the works: Lulu is pregnant--something she discovers right after discovering that Grover is married--and so she goes into hiding for about 9 months or so to avoid the societal shame of being a single mother. When Holland does discover Lulu with her toddler in a park--just as Grover shows up, and the toddler runs over to him yelling "Daddy!" (again they all live within about a block of each other)--a fiction is hastily arranged by Lulu that she's acting as governess for Grover, who just adopted this child. Which then means that Grover has a new child to take home to his surprised and delighted wife. It gets more tangled from there. The plot is breathlessly absurd, but its central purpose is to set up Lulu as the self-sacrificing woman, who gives up her life for Grover with little to no reward. The philandering husband is actually meant to generate sympathy in moments, which doesn't work, particularly for a modern, post-feminism audience. And yet the film has much to recommend it, thanks to Stanwyck and Capra. Stanwyck is a wonder to behold, although she has to endure the last stretch of the film in middle-age makeup that dims her flame a little. Most memorable is her introduction to Grover, dead-drunk in her cabin suite, having mistaken her room #99 for #66 (he explains that it's not the first time he's been upside-down)--but is sobered up by her beauty; Stanwyck, for her part, plays her confusion-turned-to-delight as note-perfect as one can imagine. Capra's screenplay, though convoluted, shines where you'd expect it to: with the clever dialogue and the character details, notably with Bellamy's dogged newspaper editor, Lulu's eventual boss, given some of the best lines in the film. Of course, the whole subject matter--unwanted pregnancy, premarital sex--could not be tackled once the Hays Code began enforcement. Funny, then, that for all its sensationalism, it remains old-fashioned to the core, setting up Stanwyck as the paragon of the martyred female, willing to do anything for her man--as Lulu suggests to the readers of her advice column. Capra seems to suggest that Lulu has found her perfect job at the paper offering romantic advice anonymously; of course, one might now think she's the worst possible candidate. According to the excellent program notes by the Cinematheque's Tom Yoshikami, Forbidden became Columbia's top-grossing film of 1932; it's easy to see why, with its satisfyingly-played potboiler elements.

But the second half of the double-feature is definitely the "B"-movie of the bill, the lesser melodrama Shopworn, directed by Nicholas Grinde, who, indeed, grinded this one out. Stanwyck is fine, but is given less range to play as a small-town girl whose father dies in an accident involving dynamite and being buried by about 4,000 tons of rock; still, he lives long enough to tell her to keep her chin up and always keep fighting, because it's a hard world, and he wishes he could have given her a better life, she deserves more, go out there and etc. etc. (He's also played by an actor who looks like he's about two years older than Stanwyck.) She finds herself working as a waitress in a college town, regularly turning down the attentions of the frat boys, and naturally intrigued by the one student who doesn't hit on her--the studious mama's boy Dave (Regis Toomey). Turns out his parents are members of Society, and don't want their boy marrying a waitress, probably the first girl he's fallen for; they set up a trap which gets Stanwyck locked away at an institution for morally-regressed women (or something like that), where she does hard labor for six years before being released again into the world. Almost instantly she finds overwhelming success as a dancer on Broadway, which, of course, lets her turn the tables on those who done her wrong. (Ah, but she's really got a heart of gold, you'll see!) This was the second film of the evening in which, to offer a manufactured climax, someone pulls out a gun. In Forbidden, it pays off with delirious gusto; here, it's a sign that the screenwriter is running out of ideas, and appropriately enough, the gun is quickly pocketed with shame, as though the person wielding it is sorry that the screenwriter made her to resort to such a cliché. In a more interesting parallel, both Forbidden and Shopworn feature a shot in which Stanwyck's eyes are all that are visible amidst a cluttered array of bodies and props. One can only surmise that audiences of the 30's found Stanwyck's eyes to be her most alluring feature, and so the directors were trying to showcase them; nevertheless, the result is a pair of truly odd compositions. Shopworn is severely disadvantaged by heavy cuts suggested by the Code--proof, apparently, that they could exert influence even in 1932--and the cuts are quite noticeable in what might otherwise be seen as shoddy editing. Most jarringly, in the middle of one scene the dialogue is suddenly replaced by dubbing provided by different actors. According to Yoshikami's notes, suggestions of prostitution and abortion were removed altogether at the Code's insistence. What's left is a film in which nothing very interesting ever happens, and in which the male lead is completely overwhelmed by Stanwyck--he's a milquetoast, and we know that she really needs someone who can keep pace with her, a Cary Grant or a Clark Gable. Okay, so the film is lousy, but with a live audience--one that's just sat through the over-the-top madness of Forbidden--the campy melodrama is a hoot. For what that's worth.

It's great to see these films restored--and with an audience--but one can't help but wish that the uncut version of Shopworn could somehow surface. As such, the latter film is not really an entry-point into Pre-Code sensationalism, but for that purpose Forbidden serves really well. I'd also suggest Turner Classic Movies' two box sets, Forbidden Hollywood 1 and 2, the first volume of which contains the uncut Baby Face, the Stanwyck wonder in which she literally sleeps her way to the top of a company (in one extended montage). It would be a few decades before Hollywood got this dangerous again.

Pazar, Nisan 13, 2008

What Has Become of the Baron

The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (U.K./Italy, 1988) * * * *
D: Terry Gilliam

"What will become of the Baron? Surely this time there is no escape."
-Poorly-choreographed mermaids, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen

I first saw Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen when I was twelve years old. I was reading the Milwaukee Journal (the funny pages and the Movies section were all I read) and came across a review for the film. The review described flying heads on the moon, a winged Grim Reaper, a hot air balloon made of women's underwear, a three-headed gryphon, a fish that swallowed ships, and so forth. I had never before begged my parents to take me to a movie as I begged them to take me to Baron Munchausen. Smart move, in retrospect, since it was an exclusive engagement at the Oriental Theatre downtown, and one of the few theaters in the country that was showing the film; as Gilliam explains in a documentary in the new Blu-ray special edition of the movie, Baron Munchausen didn't even receive the standard arthouse release. I was one of the lucky few to see it on the big screen. My Dad took me, and it was the first time I'd ever been to the Oriental Theatre; it was (and is) an old movie house dating back to 1927, ornately built, with a giant main theater with heavy red curtains, looking just a bit like the decrepit but grand proscenium upon which Baron Munchausen relates his tall tales. I was the right age for this film, the perfect age. The only other Gilliam film I'd seen was Time Bandits--around when that came out, too--and although I'd found that movie to be quite frightening (oddly, the part that scared me the most was when the face of the Supreme Being chased the Time Bandits down a hallway; Gilliam made God terrifying), I was also enthralled by its fantasy, in particular the iconic image of the giant emerging from the sea wearing a galleon as a hat. Still, it's not that I went into Baron Munchausen thinking, "Oh good, it's the latest film from the director of Time Bandits." I had never heard of Monty Python. All that Gilliam/Python obsession came later, and so his view of the world--absurdist, fantastic, surrealistic, vulgar--was a wonder to me. At the ticket counter, my father said, "Two for...Baron Von Munchausen?" And, like Sally correcting her father in the film, I had to insist, "It's the Adventures of Baron Munchausen!" As the film began, right away I knew I was seeing a different kind of filmmaking--it seems less innovative now, but the mere notion that the title of the film was displayed only as the banner of a crooked flier for a play, pasted to the base of a decapitated statue, seemed really mind-blowing to me at the time. This was not going to be your standard escapist fantasy. When I saw the obese harem girls twenty minutes into the film, wading through the sultan's pool, being led by eunuchs amidst two dozen narrow columns and a menagerie of animals--I was warped forevermore. Sex, to my twelve-year-old brain, was a subject of great curiosity, but it was also very mysterious. So it is in the film. Whatever the sultan was doing with all those obese women, I dared not imagine (nor do I still); when the body-less Queen of the Moon began making exotic moans, complaining that her body was in bed with the King, I knew that sex was involved and was panicked that the movie might visit the subject so straightforwardly (I was with my Dad, you see); instead, the Baron nervously explains to young Sally that the King is just "tickling her feet," which then proves to be the case, luckily for me. Violence, too, seemed over-the-top yet innocent, storybook; decapitations occur bloodlessly, and one severed head still manages to wink at a harem girl when he lands in her lap. Could this film be on my wavelength? No, it had trumped me: it was presenting a reality even stranger than the stories and comics I was writing in my spare time. It was opening up my imagination into a wider universe.

I could not understand why the film, for the next several years, was referred to as a "disaster." I understood that it went over-budget, but I didn't see why that should affect one's opinion of the completed film. What I'd seen was not a disaster, but, in my limited experience, one of the Greatest Films of All Time. I didn't know this phenomenon of judging a film by its accounting books was already firmly established; I had never heard of Heaven's Gate. The truth is that, when this phenomenon occurs, most people don't see the finished product and indeed give it a wide berth, having already heard, from people reciting people reciting people reciting stories from Variety, that the film is a "disaster." When it came out on video, only two copies appeared in my local video store, and they proved tremendously popular. I had to stake out the place before I finally could rent Baron Munchausen, copy it using the old VCR-to-VCR method, and study it in more detail. I watched that old pan-and-scan copy endlessly. I tracked down the soundtrack of the film, one of (the late) Michael Kamen's best scores. I read the book Losing the Light, by Andrew Yule, which chronicled the making of the film warts-and-all, and at last understood the troubled production history. (I still recommend the book, the best ever written on the subject of Gilliam.) I won't go into the voluminous details of those troubles, as the three-part documentary on the new disc offers a good summary. But after reading the book, I could objectively conclude that some of the problems were caused by my new hero, Gilliam, though the great majority were not. I came away with the notion that Gilliam was a bit cursed (I was beginning to familiarize myself with the history of Brazil, as well), an idea that has spread and become another popular fiction as more and more of his films have hit near-legendary snags during the production phase, most famously with his aborted project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. That his star, Heath Ledger, died in the middle of Gilliam's latest film, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, has further given fuel to this myth, which is unjust not only to Gilliam but to the memory of Heath Ledger.

The new, long-awaited special edition release of The Adventures of Baron Munchausen on disc gives a chance for critics to reappraise the film, and for that it's most welcome. It helps that Gilliam has a bigger following in 2008 than in 1988, and it helps Munchausen's reputation that Gilliam drastically retreated from big-budget spectacles after the film's financial failure: he made the acclaimed, low-budgeted drama The Fisher King next (which, contrary to Munchausen, insists on the importance of reality over fantasy), then the efficient science fiction thriller 12 Monkeys, and the cult classic Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, which was a small enough production that it could afford to be a theatrical flop. Because of these retreats from Munchausen's scope and scale, the former film looks all the more rare and beautiful. It is Gilliam at his most unrestrained, letting his fancy take him where he pleases. Well, almost: the moon sequence was drastically altered at the insistence of the studio and the creditors, reduced in scale so that a city of 2,000 became 2 (Valentina Cortese and an uncredited Robin Williams); and the passage from the novel that made Gilliam want to make the film in the first place had to be eliminated entirely: the Baron's horse, bisected by a portcullis but oblivious to the fact, drinking from a fountain and letting the consumed water spill onto the ground behind it. Regardless, what made it onto the screen is so visually stunning that it doesn't miss those scenes, which, admittedly, would have slowed down the story anyway. You still have a vast army of Turks, with elephants and siege towers, storming the city; you still have the Baron (an excellent John Neville) riding a cannonball through the air; you still have Eric Idle racing to Spain to fetch a bottle of wine, one feet that spin like the Road Runner's; you still have winged, skeletal Death stalking the Baron throughout; you still have the inside of a great fish with its vast, half-eaten shipwrecks; you still have the Baron's arrival on the Moon, one of the most serenely beautiful ever to be committed to celluloid; you still have the Baron waltzing with Venus (Uma Thurman) through the air, surrounded by waterfalls, as stop-motion cherubs drape them in a ribbon for God's sake. It's time to fess up: it's one of the great, iconic fantasy films, right up there with Ray Harryhausen's best and both Thieves of Bagdad. I'd even go further and say that it improves upon Raspe's original book, which was a collection of charming tall tales that acted like individually separated jokes with tidy punchlines. Gilliam's film, co-written with Charles McKeown (who also plays Adolphus), is actually about something. It has some fairly profound things to say about aging, impetuousness, responsibility, and one's need for fantasy. It was something of a manifesto for Gilliam, and although it is often grouped with Time Bandits and Brazil as the third part of a trilogy (this, at Gilliam's own insistence), I think it works best when compared to nothing but itself, for it's a completely one-of-a-kind spectacle.

For years Gilliam treated Baron Munchausen as the bastard child of his filmography. Perhaps the traumatic experience of making the film haunted him for a long while afterward, or perhaps he began to believe the critics who dismissed it as pretty but flawed. It's a relief, then, to hear him embrace the film on the new audio commentary, recorded with McKeown. He's come to grips with what he's made, and has begun to appreciate that he may never make a film like it again. Most of what he imagined somehow made it onto the screen. If that about 75% of Gilliam's intentions, well, at least that's pound-for-pound more imagination, wit, and grace than most films possess.

Pazar, Nisan 06, 2008

Day 4 & Wrap-Up: The 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival

En La Ciudad de Sylvia (Spain/France, 2007) * * *
D: José Luis Guerín

Today we saw two lightweight films with almost no narrative, but lingering, loving views of France, both filmed by outsiders to the country, clearly smitten. The first, from Spain, was this film, which actually owes a great deal to Jacques Tati's Playtime (probably one of the ten greatest films ever made). Dialogue-free for long, long stretches, José Luis Guerín's film follows the gaze of a young artist (Xavier Lafitte, looking like he just rode in from Peter Jackson's Rivendell) who sits at a French café watching the passers-by--mostly the many beautiful women, and drawing their profiles and the backs of their necks in his sketchbook with a charcoal pencil. A waitress gets her orders confused and spills a drink; a couple sit in icy silence for an eternity until one answers, "No, probably not. But I'll think about it." Young women gossip and flirt. Eventually our artist gets up and follows one of the women, pursuing her through labyrinthine streets, bumping up against street vendors, commuters, and street musicians, always in pursuit of the elusive woman, whom he thinks he recognizes from somewhere else. It's a languorous, sensual film in which almost nothing happens, but it nonetheless contains enough to recommend it, from the playful, Tati-esque running jokes in the background, to the complicated layering of faces, bodies, and moving trains reflected in windows like a palimpsest--the ideal woman glimpsed like a ghost somewhere beneath it all. Such a perfect simulation of a lazy Sunday morning spent lounging at a café that it should be sold as thus on DVD, like how they sell video fireplaces.

Flight of the Red Balloon (Le Voyage du Ballon Rouge) (France, 2007)
* * *
Hou Hsiao Hsien

This much-acclaimed feature from France by a Chinese director (of 2003's Café Lumière) drew a large Sunday afternoon crowd to the Orpheum, though the murmurs heard on the way out were just as sharply divided as those from En La Ciudad de Sylvia--either the film was a great work of art, or punishingly slow with nothing to say. I enjoyed the film, as I enjoyed the former, although I wouldn't call it a masterpiece, and to watch the two films almost back-to-back is a strange experience. One begins to feel adrift. In France. Like a red balloon. The film is inspired, of course, by the famous children's film The Red Balloon (1956), which I remember watching in elementary school. As with the original, an animate red balloon drifts above the head of a young child, but in this case it leaves the story for long stretches as we follow the boy, Simon (Simon Iteanu), and his new nanny, a filmmaker student named Song (Fang Song); we also meet his mother (Juliette Binoche), who works for a puppeteers' ensemble. The "plot" in this one is that she is trying to find a way to evict the man who's renting the room downstairs--he hasn't paid his rent in months, and she needs the money. Meanwhile, Hou Hsiao Hsien doesn't so much adapt the original film as he deconstructs it; Song is making a short based on the film, using Simon, and she helpfully explains how she's going to use special effects to pull off the stunt. By pulling back and watching Song film his Red Balloon movie for him, he pulls off a bit of framed theater that calls to mind Jacques Rivette. Flight of the Red Balloon, despite its brief moments of fantasy (when the red balloon materializes outside the context of Song's film, to visit an unknowing Simon), is set to the rhythms of life, with Binoche, as the single mother struggling to find moments of beauty in her harried life, giving a passionate, vital performance. Yet this film's chief trait is its very intangibility; it is as light as a balloon.

Fermat's Room (La Habitación de Fermat) (Spain, 2008) * * * 1/2
D: Luis Piedrahita & Rodrigo Sopeña

The closing night film of WIFF was Fermat's Room, in what can't be described as its North American premiere (because Tribeca wants to claim that title later this month), but a "special screening" that just happens to be before anyone else in North America gets to see it. One could make the argument, if Fermat's Room, this festival's Timecrimes, and the recent The Orphanage are any indication, that it is a golden age for Spanish thrillers. The premise is irresistible: four strangers, all of them brilliant mathematicians, are invited to meet at a secluded location to match their wits in an evening of puzzle-solving. All are to wear nametags bearing the name of a famous historical mathematician (i.e. "Pascal"), preserving their anonymity, although, as we'll find out, they already have pivotal personal connections. They meet in a rusting old building, but inside is a decorated parlor--with a dinner table, shelves of books on mathematical theory, and a chalkboard. Their host, the enigmatic Fermat, abandons them suddenly when he receives a call stating that his daughter has slipped into a coma; after he leaves--"accidentally" leaving a PDA behind--the door locks, and the PDA suddenly delivers a message: they have one minute to solve a puzzle. When they fail to transmit the answer via the PDA before the deadline, the room begins to shrink: they're trapped on all sides by hydraulic presses hidden behind the walls. And so the evening proceeds: a puzzle is given, they struggle to answer it, and only when they find the answer are they granted a few minutes' reprieve from the presses. But it's also a drawing room mystery, and thus while they solve the PDA's puzzles they also work to find out why they're being murdered, and what connection the four of them really have. Most of the movie's puzzles went over my head; they explain each answer, but (understandably) very rapidly; as one character explains in the first line of dialogue, "If you don't know what a prime number is, you should leave now." But that's not really true: while math permeates the film, it grandly succeeds as a taut thriller, something Hitchcock would have loved; he would have especially relished the bit of business about death-by-seatbelt, and you'll see what I mean when you see the film. A very fun movie, and a fitting crowd-pleaser for the closing night of the festival.

Wrap-Up: A very successful year for the festival - very big crowds, and some big coups on films. One major problem, in my experiences and reading about others' online, is that the volunteers showing the films don't often check to see how the films are being projected and sound once they get the film going. At least half of the films I saw were slightly out of focus, or kept slipping out of focus, which is much more noticeable on a subtitled film. (Unless my contacts are battery-powered, and the batteries were running low.) But otherwise WIFF was a blast. Here's my ranking of the twelve films I was able to see, best to least-best--as my reviews indicate, I would recommend all by Bon Cop, Bad Cop, but even that proved to be a very popular film at the fest:

1) Timecrimes
2) Chop Shop
3) My Winnipeg
4) Mongol
5) Fermat's Room
6) Flight of the Red Balloon
7) En La Ciudad de Sylvia
8) The Substitute
9) Yella
10) Stuck
11) The Wonderful World of Sid Laverents
12) Bon Cop, Bad Cop

Day 3, Part 2: The 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival

The Wonderful World of Sid Laverents (U.S., 1963-1980)
D: Sid Lavarents
  • Multiple SIDosis (1970)
  • It Sudses and Sudses and Sudses (1963)
  • One Man Band (1964)
  • Stop Cloning Around (1980)
This brief program (45 minutes) featured four short films from the eccentric but multi-talented amateur filmmaker Sid Laverents, a retired engineer who, over decades, has amassed hundreds of home movies demonstrated his unique, slightly insane sensibilities. He recently turned 100, and some of his shorts have been preserved and restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, from which these choice selections were taken, introduced by a UW grad who interviewed Laverents and assembled the program. To call the films bizarre would be an understatement, but they're also charming and friendly, as though Laverents has invited you into his home and chosen to provide the entertainment for the evening. These entertainments include demonstrating, visually, how multi-track audio recording works (the brilliant "Multiple SIDosis," easily the jewel of the program, and depicted in the still above); attempting a zero-budget, live action recreation of cartoon mayhem when Laverents is forced out of his apartment by an exploding mass of bubbly suds; playing a couple of tunes as an extremely elaborate one-man band; and exploring in-camera trickery with the musical clone comedy "Stop Cloning Around." Loads of fun.

Mongol (Russia/Kazakhstan/Mongolia, 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Sergei Bodrov

Imagine Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible: Part One, as reimagined for the post-Conan the Barbarian, post-Lord of the Rings, post-Matrix crowd, and you have Mongol, an epic action film which isn't highbrow enough for the Eisenstein fans, but is, as my wife put it, "really, really cool." It tells of the rise of Genghis Khan, in his youth called Temudgin, robbed of his royalty and sent into exile after his Khan father is poisoned by a rival tribal leader. The story--told in flashback, but mostly in a linear fashion--is redundant as hell, basically depicting Temudgin getting captured and recaptured again, while constantly in pursuit of his bride, whom he chose himself when he was nine (a decision which is at the root of all his troubles, since his bride was from the wrong Mongol tribe). It's rescued from tedium by, oh, just about everything: the extraordinarily gorgeous cinematography, the excellent and nuanced performances, the folktale weight of the story, and the exciting and bloody action scenes, edited by UW grad and Oscar-winner Zach Staenberg (who was scheduled to attend, but cancelled because he was busy editing the Wachowski Brothers' Speed Racer adaptation). Staenberg must be singled out for praise here, as his exhilarating and harrowing editing slows down and speeds up the action, sometimes in a single shot, to make sure that the audience can follow what exactly is happening amidst all the dust, blood, and swinging swords. Nevertheless, director Bodrov (Prisoner of the Mountains) largely refrains from style-for-style's sake, apart from a few flashy touches--like an arrow that is launched across a vast plain, to land at the feet of the enemy leader as a declaration of war--that call to mind the mythic/storybook proportions of one of Zhang Yimou's recent action epics.

Stuck (U.S./Canada, 2007) * * *
D: Stuart Gordon

Stuart Gordon has produced a body of work more consistent in quality than most of the modern-day "masters of horror"; in fact, any greatest hits collection of the recent Showtime anthology of the same name would have to include his two standout films, "Dreams in the Witch-House" and "The Black Cat." His movies, almost all of them in the horror genre apart from the recent Mamet adaptation Edmund, reflect the work of a first-rate storyteller, provocateur, and grand guignol enthusiast. (He's also, hands-down, the best cinematic translator of H.P. Lovecraft, a well he will revisit again with his next feature.) Stuck is both typical and atypical of his output: atypical, because it begins as a straightforward drama, parallel portraits of a young nurse (American Beauty's Mena Suvari), on her way to a promotion, who spends her nights partying recklessly, and--unconnected--a middle-aged man in desperate straits, having just lost his job and his apartment (The Crying Game's Stephen Rea). Then their lives collide literally: she strikes him with her car late one night, and his body becomes lodged in the broken windshield. She panics, but unable to make this a hit-and-run, drives him home and hides the vehicle--bloody body and all--in her garage. But he isn't dead. What then unfolds is a razor-sharp satire (the selfish Suvari asks Rea, "Why are you doing this to me?"), as well as a hilariously miserable battle of wits between the two, as Rea agonizingly struggles to get out of the windshield, and Suvari tries to find some plan to dispose of this little problem, which threatens to derail her career path. With Stuck, Gordon played the Orpheum audience like a violin, and it was almost entertaining enough to just listen to the peals of laughter and disgust (usually at once) which rippled through the crowd at Saturday's late-night screening. After the film, Gordon conducted a short Q&A; the shy, witty (and, some say, squeamish) director related the real-life incident which inspired the film, commented upon his Hitchcockian cameo, and revealed that he couldn't get into the UW's single film class when he was a student in the 60's.

Cumartesi, Nisan 05, 2008

Day 3, Part 1: The 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival

The Substitute (Vikaren) (Denmark, 2007) * * *
D: Ole Bornedal

I didn't know what to expect from The Substitute--running into the theater so quickly, after getting caught in traffic, I didn't even have time to look up what country it was from, but I vaguely recalled that it had something to do with an alien disguised as a substitute teacher. I expected some modest laughs, hoping it wouldn't be too terrible. What a delight to find that it was an effectively mounted, ingenuity-stuffed throwback to the dark and satirical Joe Dante fantasies of the 1980's, like Gremlins and Explorers. Indeed, the substitute teacher for this Danish elementary school is an alien from outer space--from a breed that's replaced love with war--and she's intent on kidnapping a few specimens (all right, the entire classroom) to teach her race the unique traits of Earthlings. In the meantime, she demonstrates all sorts of wicked powers, like shrinking humans so that she can eat them, gobbling down chickens in a gory mess, summoning a doppelgänger of the Minister of Education from a hovering metal sphere that follows her wherever she goes, and even (worst of all) calling the kids out on their secret longings and inner weaknesses. She's bizarre and unpredictable, and keeps the proceedings off-kilter, even when you think you know the beats this kind of story should take. Ultimately, the story proves to be less than it seemed, but there's plenty to entertain along the way, and the child actors, who are very good, are given fully-realized characters to portray.

Chop Shop (U.S., 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Ramin Bahrani

Ramin Bahrani's first feature was Man Push Cart, a stripped-down homage to Neorealism (think Bicycle Thieves), filmed on a shoestring budget, that received deserved acclaim. Still, I half-suspected that maybe the acclaim was a little too rabid, that the comparisons to Robert Bresson were a bit premature. Now comes Chop Shop, an excellent follow-up that is superior to the earlier film, demonstrating a talent for realistic storytelling that is growing more compelling. Ale (Alejandro Polanco) is a young adolescent so streetwise that he could almost be mistaken for an adult, if it weren't for his height. He certainly seems to be in complete command of his situation, despite the fact that he has no parents, and he's living out of a garage. When his older sister, Isamar (Isamar Gonzales), arrives in the city, he happily gives her a home, while both plot to save up enough money to purchase a vending truck (shades of Man Push Cart) from which they can run their own business. In the meantime, Ale does auto body work and steals fenders and hubcaps to sell to the shop, storing his savings in a jar hidden in a dirty hole in his home, beneath a simple wooden board. Isamar is making money too, by turning tricks, and how Ale finds out--and how he copes, setting his makeshift maturity against the last embers of his innocence--fills out the narrative with real emotional depth. The story is efficient and simple, but Bahrani's documentary-style approach is so absorbing that I began to lose all track of my own reality, trading it in for the grungy world of Chop Shop's. When the lights finally came up--after a suitably minor-key, but deeply satisfying ending--I barely knew where I was. That's tribute enough to Bahrani's skills as a filmmaker, and the utterly convincing performances he elicits from his young leads and their co-stars.

Day 2: The 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival

Yella (Germany, 2007) * * *
D: Christian Petzold

At every screening at WIFF, you're handed a ballot at the door, and on the way out you're asked to mark the little slip of paper and drop it off, grading a film on a five-point scale. It doesn't help that my mind can't really think in five-point grading scales, not even after a couple years of Netflix (perhaps it was those adolescent years spent checking out Roger Ebert video guides from the library). But it's even worse to try to judge a film on the spot, before you leave the theater. After the Friday afternoon screening of Yella at the Wisconsin Union Theater, I didn't know what to think. And after a half-hour-long argument with my wife about the film at Chin's Asia Fresh afterwards, I still didn't feel I could properly judge the merits of the film. Here's the problem. Yella is, by all appearances, a direct remake of Herk Harvey's 1962's horror classic Carnival of Souls, yet it doesn't announce its inspiration, leaving one who has seen the original film to keep wondering if this is a remake (until the ending, when it becomes clear that it is), and simply compare and contrast the two versions without an objective view of Yella's own effectiveness. (Incidentally, if Carnival of Souls were made today instead of forty-six years ago, it would most certainly be playing the Wisconsin Film Festival. It's a true classic of independent, zero-budget filmmaking, and worth seeking out - my review of that film is here.) The set-up is almost identical in both films. As in the original, the main character is caught in a car as it goes hurling off the edge of a bridge, and she crawls out of the water dazed and not quite herself. Yet she goes about her life, pursuing her dodgy career, and it's here that the details change dramatically enough to make Yella its own unique story. In the original, the protagonist, looking for a job as a church organist in Salt Lake City, is haunted by images of a walking corpse. In the 2007 version, Yella (Nina Hoss) is taking a job as an accountant, but her boss just got fired from the company, and her only prospect for employment is a young businessman who wants to take her on as his personal assistant for some shady, high-stakes business deals. At the same time, she is pursued by a specter--not of a ghoul, but of her psychotic ex-husband, the one who drove her off the bridge, and who apparently survived the crash. Most of the action takes place around a hotel, the kind you'd find near an airport in a nondescript part of town riddled by business parks and car rental lots. For some reason or another, hotel room doors are frequently left open, and the characters wander in and out of each other's rooms like lost souls, seeking companionship or violent, emotional confrontations. The arc Yella follows over the course of the film is curiously conflicted: on the one hand, she's developing a warm personal bond with her new boss, and seems to finally be finding happiness; on the other, she's becoming an increasingly impersonal and amoral dealmaker with little regard for the person at the other end of the table. Your feminist side wants to applaud her journey toward self-actualization, but it becomes increasingly obvious, as seemingly supernatural events keep intruding upon the narrative, that Yella is avoiding a harsh truth about herself, leading to a final revelation that you may or may not see coming a mile away. Since I'd seen Carnival of Souls, I knew the twist from the beginning of the film, and waited for its reveal; I admit that I have no idea how obvious it is to those unfamiliar with the original film--I'm also curious how effective the ending from that perspective. I feel like I can't judge the thing properly. But I am positive that it's a well-acted, beautifully edited thriller whose pace one might call "deliberate"--which of course means "slow"--though I found that refreshing: Yella has the patience to generate a slowly-building sense of dread. While refraining from overtly disturbing imagery, the film is almost psychically disturbing. I'm not sure that Yella adds up to very much in terms of meaning, but it's the rare genre film that largely avoids genre shortcuts to be effective.

Bon Cop, Bad Cop (Canada, 2006) * * 1/2
D: Erik Canuel

The setup of Bon Cop, Bad Cop is best illustrated in this photo. A dead body has been found on the border between Ontario and Québec--precisely on the border, suspended on the sign, and therefore overlapping the police jurisdictions of both territories (I didn't realize that highway signs marked borders so precisely, but perhaps the cops were too lazy to consult surveyor's maps.). A cop from each is assigned to the case: Toronto's tough-but-straightlaced cop Martin Ward (Colm Feore--read, Danny Glover), and tougher, loose cannon David Bouchard (Patrick Huard--read, Mel Gibson). Both are bilingual, but nonetheless Bouchard uses his French as a barrier to keeping Ward at bay, mumbling smartass comments in his native tongue. Both have a child and a woman tending the house--for divorcee Ward, it's his younger sister, who keeps a close eye on his teenage son, and for Bouchard, it's an ex-wife with whom he's still very close, and their young daughter, a ballerina. The murder is somehow tied to a conspiracy involving hockey teams--yes, this is the second film of the festival featuring Canada, hockey, and a ballerina, although, surprisingly for a buddy cop movie, there is less overtly homoerotic content than in Guy Maddin's film. Bon Cop, Bad Cop, really the first film to exploit the Canadian Film Board's government-sponsored resources to make a crowd-pleasing action film instead of an austere arthouse product, was a smash hit in its native country--which of course means that the country with which it shares a vast border has never heard of it. It's filled with Canadian humor, most obviously in its culture clashes between the Canadians and the Québécois, but also in little details, many of which, I'm sure, went over my head. But it does play to American audiences as a winking satire of Canadian culture, and is certainly worthy of a wider release down here. The problem is that it is really just a retread of the Lethal Weapon series, right down to the daughter-in-jeopardy climax; the humor, which is welcome, is unfortunately nowhere near as sophisticated, or as funny, as that found in last year's buddy-cop parody Hot Fuzz, and it suffers greatly by comparison. Still, the film was clearly a hit with Friday's night's capacity crowd at the Orpheum, who responded to the broad jokes and gross-out gags with tidal waves of laughter. I'm skeptical the film would work as well in a different setting, without such a pleasingly game audience.

Timecrimes (Los Cronocrímenes) (Spain, 2007) * * * *
D: Nacho Vigalando

I loved this movie. Both brilliant and dizzyingly absurd, Timecrimes begins as a semi-surrealist horror film, permeated with terror of the unknown, before--as that "unknown" is gradually revealed, and every room of a spooky old house is explored from various angles, making its residents known--transitioning into a grandly tragic comedy. It opens with Hector, a middle-aged, paunchy man given to voyeurism, his binoculars permanently hanging from his neck, unexpectedly discovering, from afar, a beautiful woman stripping in the woods. When he subsequently spies her lying inert, he ventures into the woods out of fateful curiosity--and is stabbed in the arm with a pair of scissors by a man with bloodied bandages about his face. He flees, climbing a fence and breaking into a neighboring building, which appears to be abandoned, though it has a sinister laboratory in the basement. And what happens then...well, let's say this much: it's a film about time travel, primarily, and if you plan on seeing it, you'd best stop reading there. It's almost impossible to describe Timecrimes without robbing the film of its chief weapon--surprise and fear (as Monty Python's Spanish Inquisition would put it)--and the less you know going in, the more effective and wonderful the film becomes. Then again, I eagerly await a second viewing, since the various twists can only muddy the film's narrative even more. If you've seen any time travel film made after the Back to the Future trilogy, or even The Terminator films, you will accept the rules this film puts forth unquestioningly. The beauty of Timecrimes is that it knows you'll follow its frenetic premise, which then allows writer-director Nacho Vigalando to take you upon the wildest of Möbius-strip rides, making you wonder why you'd accept the bizarre rules of time travel stories in the first place. Timecrimes makes not a lick of sense, ultimately, and yet it is logical and precise, building upon each established premise and raising the stakes each time Hector is plunged backward in time. What Hector does--and why he does it--makes this film a mini-masterpiece of black satire. The bandaged man, the girl in the woods, the man in the lab, the terrorized wife--all of these elements are arranged and rearranged like some complicated mathematical equation. Or a very good joke which Kurt Vonnegut might have told. (Incidentally, to give you a sense of how difficult it is to instantly judge a film with those ballots-at-the-door, I gave this film a 4 out of 5 when I left the theater last night, suspecting--though I loved what I'd seen--that Timecrimes might not have held up by the morning. Instead, I wake up to find myself even more enthralled and intrigued. Dammit.)

Perşembe, Nisan 03, 2008

Day 1: The 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival

My Winnipeg (Canada, 2007) * * * 1/2
D: Guy Maddin

It's the tenth anniversary of the Wisconsin Film Festival, held every year here in Madison, and for many locals it's traditionally a frenzied four days of squeezing as many films into their schedules as possible. As I do every year, I'll be blogging the fest right here, although this weekend I'm not sure I'll find much time to do so, since I'm seeing so many. The first day is kind of slow--just one film for me--but it started the festival with a bang. I'm no stranger to Canadian dream-savant Guy Maddin (see this essay), but I'm still amazed at the pace at which he issues his films, as though spewing them continuously from some grungy backroom meat grinder somewhere in Manitoba. Well, Winnipeg to be precise, the coldest city on Earth as Maddin hyperbolically puts it in his hyperbole-strewn autobiography, My Winnipeg. It's an autobiography-via-municipal history, with Maddin portrayed recurringly as the passenger of a drifting train, struggling to stay awake as outside the window we glimpse snowy images of the frozen city (from every angle). His films have always been autobiographical (his father died when he was young, and reincarnated fathers play a role in his first short, "The Dead Father," as well as last year's Brand Upon the Brain!), but My Winnipeg goes further than most, as Maddin directly addresses the audience, providing his own narration. I've listened to his audio commentaries and so I'm familiar with the sound of his voice, but to hear his narration, set to his own subjective montages of stock footage, I was struck at how much he reminded me of Michael Moore, in particular the early sections of Roger & Me. Winnipeg might as well be Flint, Michigan--nostalgically remembered, but desolate and nightmarish at the same time. Of course, this is still a Maddin film, and so the vaseline-smeared lens plummets through a series of eroticized tall tales from Winnipeg's history and Maddin's personal memories, all enacted using techniques that call to mind Eisenstein, Cocteau, Bunuel, and Bergman. He even adds a new trick: animation, albeit pleasingly Soviet-styled cutout animation like the 1920's animated feature The Adventures of Prince Achmed. (I'd like to see a lot more of this in the future, please.) And it's filled with bawdy humor, camp, and Maddin's peculiarly poetic writing, which marries dreamy surrealism to deadpan hilarity. The height must be the feverish séance scene, set in a Masonic temple, in which a ballerina leads the proceedings (shades of Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary) and coaxes, um, ectoplasm out of one of the young male volunteers. I thought this would be a toss-off, truncated Maddin film, but he delivers: it's another low-budget epic, stunning to look at, and extremely entertaining. It seemed to win over the medium-sized audience at the 5:15 screening at MMoCA, including, I'm sure, many being introduced to his bizarre filmmaking for the first time.