Saturday, November 22, 2008

More fun with Netflix:

(Image courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

A Dark character study starring Brian Cox, Red will stay with you after the credits roll. Cox stars in this smaller, quieter, more unsettling Valley of Elah-esq tale of a single man trying to find truth and justice in the ugly face of the modern world. When three teenagers find "old timer" Ludlow (Cox) out fishing with his dog Red they attempt to rob him. When he doesn't present himself an apt victim, they shoot his dog in cold blood. Ludlow does some footwork and locates the boys' families, confronting them first( with poor results) before turning to legal action. When the police fail to come through and a news special on Ludlow by a sympathetic reporter exacerbates the situation, he finds himself having to go to even greater lengths to get retribution. But each attempt by Ludlow for justice is returned in spades by the boys and their sadistic father in increasingly violent ways. However, Ludlow has a dark past himself, driving him to make sense of the situation and find satisfaction, even at a great cost. Brian Cox is the entire film, the supporting cast, as competent as they are. are just that -- supporting. In this case that is a good thing. Cox's movements and expressions, even when there is no dialogue to be had (often in this quite, brooding script) emotes and manipulates the audience. I've been awed by Brian Cox since Man Hunter (in my head he will always be the only Hannibal Lector) and am pleased to see him take the lead. Underrated and overlooked, this is a stunning, unforgettable independent film, showcasing both the skills of the star and the continued growth of auteur Lucky McKee. Standouts Kim Dickens (Deadwood) is memorable in her limited screen time and Kyle Gallner (Veronica Mars) is still playing a teenager, but developing into quite a character actor.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Documentary Derby!

For those of you who haven't heard me bitch about the endless pains of writing and drawing a graphic novel or been privy to my Sudden Death Overtime page counts, I would like to point out that one cure for the boredom of filling in large areas of negative space with black ink is a well-made documentary film. Lucky for me there are a number of them out there and readily available via cable TV and Netflix. SHOCK CINEMA has always included documentary film in its review sections, so in that spirit here's what's been on the menu for the past summer months and what I think of them:

First up is Kevin Booth's AMERICAN DRUG WAR -- now while I prefer the filmmaker to be as impartial as possible while dealing with controversial subject matter, I do think this pro-decriminalzation flick presents the issues well. The prime point of interest though is some great footage -- both archive and original -- of the state of drug use in the USA, past government action, good interviews with both pro and con subjects, and an amusing comparison between Los Angeles and Amsterdam. Ex-FEAR FACTOR host Joe Rogan makes an appearance more to support the cause then to offer any useful insight, but it's still nice to see him on screen. For the record, I am NOT a recreational drug user, having learned in my early teens that pot makes me dizzy and prone to vomiting, a reaction I also seem to have to Vicodin...

Amir Bar Lev's MY KID COULD PAINT THAT is based on the controversy presented by 60 MINUTES over whether or not a four-year-old child had created the abstract paintings her parents were selling for thousands of dollars through galleries across the country. In this case, while the filmmaker does make clear that his own feelings about the art changed in the course of filming, the tone is fairly impartial and presents both the views of the family and their retractors. A lot of the details of the story may go over your head or seem pointless if you do not have a background in the arts or if you lack interest in the fine art industry, but for me, especially the visual comparisons of the "real" paintings done on camera by diminutive Marla Ormstead and other works-in-question were all the evidence necessary, no other commentary needed. The best comment in the film comes from photo-realistic painter/gallery owner Anthony Brunelli, who stated that he arranged the girl's first show in order to say something about abstract art and the mess that followed illustrates his point well.

Eric Steel's THE BRIDGE is by far the most depressing documentary I've sat through in a long time, but at the same time absolutely engrossing. Filmed over the course of a year, and covering a fair slice of the twenty four people who plummeted to their deaths in 2004, he delves into the history of the Golden Gate bridge and the morbid fascination people seem to have with it. An overwhelming amount of the subjects investigated in this film seem to have had some form of mental illness and sometimes a history of suicide, but that does not lessen or prepare the viewer for the shocking footage of jumpers. Likewise interesting is the almost oblivious attitude of tourists and locals on the bridge (as exhibited by a photographer-cum-lifesaver who realized at the last moment the stranger he was snapping pics of was about to jump -- until he dragged her back over the railing). Beautifully shot, this original chronicle of a historically significant landmark and its grim allure stays with you long after the credits roll.

SURFWISE is the story of an idealistic man who decided to drop out of conventional society and surf for the rest of his life instead. The conflict comes into play when you see how he relentlessly dragged his family along with him and expected them to share his alternative lifestyle. Nine children and two adults in a trailer, touring the land for the best surfing available is exactly as claustrophobic as it sounds, and the array of offspring bear the scars from it. While it's hard not to respect the man who brought surf culture to Israel and stuck so firmly with his dream, it is hard to believe he did the right thing. Jonathan Paskowitz and his family present themselves honestly and forthright, warts and angel wings, in this beautifully shot film by director Doug Pray. Excellent surfing footage both vintage and present day tops off the biography sections and kept me glued to the screen.

Because I will happily watch surfing or skateboarding in almost any form, I also sat down with BRA BOYS recently. While it does cover a good deal of the history of working-class surf-culture in Australia, the heart of the story is a self-defense shooting and the inevitable release from jail of pro surfer Koby Abberton (younger brother of the director Sunny). Because of the family investment, the narrative breaks down part way into unnecessary, heavyhanded pathos that take the viewer out of the experience of the film overall. However, that aside, it is an excellent overview of a pop culture phenomenon, and a statement about "localism" and the attempts by the government to prevent it from taking hold. Loaded with breathtaking surf footage, shocking candid videography of fights, parties and family reunions, I turned off the DVD player with a mixed bag of feelings for these fierce, if misguided punks. While the film ends with a statement of unity among surfers of many ethnic backgrounds, it is hard not to notice the lack of female surfers, or even any woman of importance or gravity in the lives of these men save their grandmother who housed them and encouraged them into careers as pro-surfers. Watching this, it's clear how Australia could produce disturbing social commentary like ROMPER STOMPER and BLUE MURDER. As an added plus, the soundtrack features an exciting array of local bands including several stunning tracks by The Camels. Russell Crowe narrates.

Last but not least, I happened upon BURDEN OF DREAMS: THE MAKING OF FITZCARRALDO on IFC the other day. While I've seen it before, and likewise seen the 1982 film it is about, it never fails to strike me just how much people suffer for their vision, suffer for the vision of someone else, and how dedicated people can be in the face of bodily harm and discomfort. Werner Herzog's reputation as an auteur and a madman is well presented and shot with exacting and heartbreaking cinematography. Not to mention that there's nothing like seeing the crew drinking hard liquor on set while patching up each other's wounds. While I do think it is vital to see FITZCARALDO first for the full impact and irony of the events of it's filming, Les Blank's BURDEN OF DREAMS stands alone as a testament to art.

Note: Many of these films have incredibly annoying Flash sites, but I offer you the links anyway:

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Bob Levis' GOLD at The Pioneer Theatre

In celebration of GOLD's upcoming Friday-night screenings at NYC's Pioneer Theatre (programmed by my longtime friend, Lee Peterson), here's my take on that hippie-happenin'.

GOLD [reprinted from Shock Cinema #21, 2002]

It’s always refreshing to stumble across an obscure, bizarre and baffling relic from the groovy late-’60s, when coherence was at a minimum and radical ideas were happily embraced by open-minded viewers. This begins with an opening-credit montage that includes police brutality, dead Vietnamese children, JFK’s assassination, Kent State, etc. -- so I was expecting a heavy message flick. But instead, it offered up a hippie-hodgepodge of political metaphor, barely-baked philosophy, sing-a-longs, bizarre camerawork, tinted stock, solarization, split screen, and gratuitous sex scenes that makes you wonder if the cameraman was on peyote. In other words, “Yow!” In addition, this no-budget odyssey stars improvisational comedy legend Del Close, along with fellow member of San Francisco’s The Committee, Gary Goodrow.

Its baffling story is set in an anachronistic Old West town (which contains electric guitars and mini-skirts), with all of the townsfolk in search of precious gold! Along the way, they’re attacked by modern-day soldiers and seduced by right-wing conspirators (led by a stick-in-the-mud referred to as “The Law,” played by Goodrow). There’s also a rigged election, trampled personal rights, evicted citizens, and “The Law” getting pissed whenever he spots nude flower children cavorting in the woods. No surprise, these elected-assholes feast on their power, by murdering anyone who represents freedom (or runs around in the nude) and by keeping all ‘lawbreakers’ in an animal pen.

Let's not forget a wild-eyed rebel (Del) who roams the countryside and is the only voice of reason. Oh, look, he’s hauling a big-ass cross! Could it be any more obvious?! Eventually he teaches the jailed common folk Revolution 101 (including molotov cocktails and guerrilla tactics), so they can rise up against their lowly oppressor, bulldoze their prison, fire off scrap-metal cannons, and to celebrate, everyone gets naked! Yep, there’s always some excuse to strip off your clothes for an orgy or skinny dip.

The film was shot in 1968, in Northern California, but wasn’t released theatrically (in London) until 1972, and didn’t premiere in America until 1996(!), with director/producers Bob Levis and Bill DeSloge credited as “organizers.” Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most of the script was improvised on the spot. Since Close and Goodrow were both experts at double-talk, they’re pretty amusing when left to their unique talents. Optical FX consultant Zoran Perisic later graduated to films like SUPERMAN and RETURN TO OZ, and there are evocative music contributions from Rambling Jack Elliot and Motor City 5 (before they shortened it to MC5). Full of good intentions and crude as hell, this is an indulgent, energetic, 90-minute burst of hoary symbolism and lovable counterculture craziness. No question, it looks like everyone had a blast filming it, and with the proper ‘medication,’ most viewers will too.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

More adventures with Netflix

There was a time when renting wild import DVDs just didn't happen (unless you lived near Kim's Video or TLA rentals in NYC,and even then...) but now all sorts of neat releases pop up on Netflix, and while it takes me a while to work through them, some are worth pointing out. Here is one such example:

Wool 100% (Cinema Epoch)is a nice bit surrealist cinema, it's unorthodox approach is on display right from the opening credits. It tells the story of two elderly spinsters who live in a house covered by junk they have collected over the years. One day on a garpage picking outing they find a basket of rough, red wool and take it back to their Collier Brothers-esque lair. In the night it attracts a naked young woman who uses it to knit a really ugly sweater, she then collapses in despair screaming that she'll have to knit it all over again, leaving the sisters to cope with this unlikely chaos in their previously controlled and ordered world.

The junk especially is treated with great love and detail by the director. The sisters pour over garbage left on the street like jewelers over diamonds. They carefully catalogue all their finds in sketchbooks, complete with detailed drawings. The sisters themselves are artfully constructed. They dress in early Showa period fashion (1930's) one in western style the other in Japanese, their silver bob hair doos giving them the look of advertising art from the era. As a matter of fact, themselves, their house, their collections are so lovingly cultivated that it is almost heartbreaking to watch the knit obsessed little savage break it all up.

Gorgeously shot, edited and designed, Mai Tominga's fantasy is reminiscent of Jeunet and Caro's Delicatessen and City of Lost Children without being derivative. A good companion film to Nobuhiko Obayashi's (not released in the US) Hausu or underrated Higuchinsky's Uzumaki. Fantastic.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet 1922-2008

Alain Robbe-Grillet passed away on February 18, 2008, at the age of 85. Renowned as an author and critic, I was mostly aware of him through his film work, with many of Robbe-Grillet's directorial efforts reviewed in past issues of SHOCK CINEMA Magazine: TRANS-EUROP-EXPRESS (1967), EDEN AND AFTER [L'Eden et Apres] (1970), LE BELLE CAPTIVE (1983), and THE BLUE VILLA (1995). His films were definitely one-of-a-kind experiences, and it's a shame that so few of them are currently available on DVD in the US.

Reprinted from SHOCK CINEMA #11 (1997).

Are you in the mood for a four-star blast of arthouse weirdness? Well, you've come to the right place, because this devilishly clever production is as playful with its structure as it is sublimely cinematic. And just in case this sounds too upscale for your tastes, there's also a coating of then-racy S&M to keep the deviant contingent amused. Director-writer Alain Robbe-Grillet is best known as the scripter of Resnais' LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, but before that he was a successful avant-garde novelist, and afterward, directed several equally odd art flicks, such as EDEN AND AFTER and L'IMMORTELLE. By far, the gloriously twisted T-E-EXPRESS received the widest US release.

Beginning on a train running from Paris to Antwerp, we encounter a cabin full of filmmakers (including Alain R-G himself) discussing the idea of making a movie set on a train -- with a vague notion that it should involve cocaine traffiking. It then cuts to Jean-Louis Trintignant, who buys a suitcase with a false bottom, stuffs several powdery white blocks into it, and heads for the train station. But wait, because when he runs into the filmmakers, they recognize Trintignant, consider casting him in their movie, and finally give his character a name -- Elias.

The entire script is blessed with similarly self-reflexive turns which betray the usual, linear route of storytelling. And as Elias' adventure thickens, the script purposely incorporates all of the standard EuroSpy trappings, including sinister assassins, various creepy liaisons, and the requisite hot dame. The later is ably provided by Marie-France Pisier (whose later career included everything from artsy hits like COUSIN, COUSINE to Tinseltown turds like THE OTHER SIDE OF MIDNIGHT), as a sultry prostitute named Eva. She provides most of the film's sex appeal, and that's plenty, especially during a little (now-lightweight) bedpost-bondage with Elias.

All the while, the camera returns to the filmmakers, who continue to discuss the plot of their -- or rather, this -- movie. They even rethink the storyline as it plays out on screen, and change events when a problem arises. As the line between reality and fiction is stripped away, this becomes a fascinating meditation on the creative process, aided by cinematographer Willy Kurant (whose career has veered from Godard's MASCULINE FEMININE to Barbara Eden's HARPER VALLEY P.T.A.). Methodically paced, to be sure, but there's always a swift sense of humor and a method behind the madness. Beautifully constructed and totally accessible, this brings the arthouse and the grindhouse together into a movie-addict's wet dream.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

When Comedy Fails: Two reviews by SC magazine contributor Mike Sullivan

With Meet the Spartans looming ominously over the horizon, I felt it was necessary for people to realize that not every parody movie is as excruciating as those that are written and directed by Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer. Typically, they’re much worse.

Nonetheless, in honor of the notly anticipated Meet the Spartans, let’s take a look back at some of the worst films this justifiably maligned genre has to offer starting with this justifiably unknown and barely released Italian misfire.

Mocks: Jurassic Park
Directed By: Jerry Cala

Synopsis: Jerry Cala, the pudding that walks like a man, plays a destitute chicken breeder who travels to the Dominican Republic in order enter his rooster in competitive cockfights. After a successful match, Cala’s “cock is stolen” by a pair of thugs named Jelly and Beans (Tee, hee!). The thugs turn out to be working for a short, lisping scientist named Dr. Eggs (Lawrence Steven Meyers who supposedly went on to produce the Diane Laine vehicle Unfaithful) who is creating a race of giant, prehistoric chickens.

What Went Wrong:
Mocks the Russian Roulette scene from The Deer Hunter by replacing the original film’s iconic revolver with six hand grenades filled with soda.

All of the female characters lust after Cala even though he looks like he’s melting and sounds like he’s perpetually asking a question.

Openly rips-off the 91/2 Weeks parody from Hot Shots and then attempts to outdo the original spoof.

Tries to wring laughs out of a scene in which Thing from The Addams Family fingerbangs (Thing-er-bangs?) a Morticia look-a-like (Rossy de Palma) as she watches footage of a botched surgery.

Endless moments where jokes and sight gags barrel along without a purpose or a punchline such as the scene where Cala boards a plane in which half of the passengers are monsters, the bit where an American Indian hatches from a giant egg and the unmotivated cameos from Sherlock Holmes, Jaws, The Yellow Submarine and Mandrake the Magician’s assistant Lothar.

The Final Word: Equal parts grating and disturbing, the film’s mere existence answers the question: “What if somebody took Bunuel’s Un Chien Andalou and dubbed in fart noises and cartoon sound effects over the original soundtrack?”

The Helix…Loaded (2005)
Mocks: The Matrix Trilogy
Directed by: A. Raven Cruz

Synopsis: In this severely muddled and convoluted movie, a group of stoners led by Nuvo (Keanu Reeves sort-a-look-a-like Scott Levy) and Theo (Vanilla “Fucking” Ice) discover a new designer drug called the Helix that, if used properly, can give its users a deep sense of enlightment. Aiding them in their quest are a pair of mysterious yet familiar characters named Infiniti (Samantha Brooke) and Orpheum (Dana Woods) who are searching for someone who can take the Helix without going insane. Unfortunately, events are complicated by Smack, Crack and Jonesin a trio of ill-defined, FBI drug agent cyborgs (or something) who will stop at nothing to acquire the Helix for their own faintly nefarious purposes.

What Went Wrong:
Tries to wring comic possibilities out of an obvious and dated target.

Struggles under the impression that movie references = jokes.

Gives us terrible dialogue that sounds like it was written by a random catch phrase generator (such as, “I see rabbit people,” “You’re making me sober…you wouldn’t like me when I’m sober” and “The first rule of the Helix is: you don’t talk about the Helix”).

Attempts to compensate for the terrible dialogue by encouraging the cast to mug uncontrollably and speak in silly voices.

Turns Lawrence Fishburne’s character into a midget (who later does a Brando impression for no particular reason).

Gives Carrie-Anne Moss’s character a penis.

Two words: Vanilla Ice.

Gives an inexplicable nod to the Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle one-sheet.

Fun Fact: Believe it or not, The Helix..Loaded somehow managed to have its worldwide premiere at Graumannn’s Chinese Theater. Not bad for a movie that’s basically just an expensive fan film.

The Final Word: The essence of the story, for a film like this which is parody and slapstick and kind of goofy and silly, it’s really kind of a underlying tone; and this is kind of something that is very dear to me: the self’s journey, the journey toward self-discovery, the awakening of the hero’s journey. And through this silly little method we have encoded underneath it a much larger, metaphorical mythology, and that is: every person is seeking throughout their lives a happiness or fulfillment.

- A. Raven Cruz on his film The Helix…Loaded

Mike Sullivan