Liv Ullmann (The Bat Segundo Show)

[This is the third in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

Liv Ullmann is the subject of Liv and Ingmar, which is now playing the New York Film Festival. She has also appeared in many legendary movies.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Wondering whether his persona is predicated upon cries and whispers.

Guest: Liv Ullmann

Subjects Discussed: Maintaining patience while living with an eccentric genius, living in other people’s dreams, how women’s expectations have changed over the last fifty years, the spate of op-ed pieces about film culture being dead, the distinctions between storytelling and lies, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, pride in belonging to the storytellers, Scenes from a Marriage, telling your story in a documentary vs. drawing upon deep emotions as an actor, pretense vs. reality, what it really means to be a filmmaker, finding meaning in people who are difficult, getting negativity out through performance, not giving up, old people who grow bitter (and avoiding this), when the life in people’s eyes fades around forty, staying alive, Søren Kierkegaard’s idea of coming to the world with sealed orders, when shaking hands can be the most important gesture in your life, why Ingmar Bergman got such emotional performances from Liv Ullmann, Bergman’s bitterness over Liv not participating in Fanny and Alexander, Bergman’s efforts to restrict cast members from partying, efforts to control other people, what Liv and Ingmar did to relax, being an introvert, Changing, keeping the quest alive for the “lost kingdom of childhood,” and being disturbed by people who lie.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: Tolstoy once suggested that time and patience were the greatest of all warriors. And in watching this film [Liv and Ingmar], the great astonishment I had was how you maintained such grace and such patience with Ingmar throughout this entire run. I mean, here was a guy who locked the doors, who locked you and other cast members up, who built the wall around his house, who did all sorts of things. Didn’t let you see family and friends. Basically boarded you up. And I have to ask just from a basic standpoint, how do you maintain such patience with a figure like that? Is his genius enough to forgive his eccentricities? Were you just in a state where at that young age you were in awe of this man who was so intense and romantic? Just to start off here. I was really curious. I mean, that takes a lot of fortitude.

Ullmann: Well, you know, when you describe it, it sounds more dramatic than it really was. Because he built this house for us. And I think he had a dream that we would be there, painfully connected and really by ourselves. And that is a dream you can have when you are middle-aged, which he was. Because the world had been tiring for him. And I was so much in love that I didn’t question it. And it’s many, many, many years ago when women more easily took to that role. And I don’t think I questioned it so much as I sometimes felt, “I don’t think I could consider living like this for always.” Because I longed for things which were outside of this island. And it’s more when I look back at it, I think, “So that was the Liv I was then. And the Liv that I’m now wouldn’t let that happen.” But mostly it was an incredible time. It was five years of my life living on that island that I would never, never be without.

Correspondent: But you do say in the film, “I was trapped in another person’s fantasy.”

Ullmann: No, I didn’t say I was trapped. I said, “I think I’m living someone else’s dream.”

Correspondent: Living. Got it.

Ullmann: And why I corrected you on that is — one thing is to be trapped. Because that can hurt if you have your tale in there.

Correspondent: Sorry for the paraphrase.

Ullmann: But to live in someone else’s dream, that can be beautiful. And for long time, a dream can seem beautiful. But it’s not your dream. And if you are to live, you have to be in your own reality and/or in your own dream.

Correspondent: But surely even before all this, you had your own dreams. You had perhaps some kind of autonomy that was in bloom. When did you know that you had this independent imagination?

Ullmann: Well, maybe my dream was to live in someone else’s dream. For many women, that is a dream. At that time.

Correspondent: At that time.

Ullmann: Absolutely. But even today, I know women still are dreaming about man coming riding on the white horse. But we are talking now about fifty years ago. Or forty-five years ago. Women at that time, we had different expectations — or we thought we had — than women today. And sometimes I feel that women at that time maybe had a more realistic look at life than women today. I’m very happy.

Correspondent: More realistic? How so?

Ullmann: I think we said yes to moral life. We weren’t into Facebook and Twitters and computers. We didn’t look down at our hand all the time. We looked more at other people’s faces and things that were happening around us.

Correspondent: That actually leads me to ask you. If you have an age defined by smartphones and social media, the very intimate cinema that you made with Ingmar and that you have made on your own — I mean, what chance is there today for that to grow? To have an audience? There’s been a lot of op-ed columns in light of the New York Film Festival, in which people are arguing “Well, why aren’t there more films for adults?” or “Is film culture dead?” What are your thoughts on this? I mean, is it still very much alive? Or is this becoming a more exclusive audience? And what do you do as a filmmaker and as an actor to counter the limiting short attention spans?

Ullmann: I hope it is not dead. Because still, to sit in a dark movie house is one of the few places now that people can be and share laughter and dreams and incredible talent. Like you go and watch a ballet or opera or concert. But it’s less and less of that. Which is very sad. And we are more looking at TV and looking at lies from politicians and so. Or the computers and so. Life is more and more distorted from really who we are as human beings. And we’re living in a world of violence, of strong violence and terror. And so we really need culture. And we really need the art, the creation of people’s thoughts and who they are to remind us about who we are and why we are. And it’s harder and harder to find that out with the help of other people. And if we do it alone right now, we do it through machines, not through other people.

Correspondent: How do the lies of a narrative — because, of course, all narratives are essentially wonderful houses of lies that we open the door to — how does that differ from the lies that we have to endure in our culture? How can that offer us…

Ullmann: A storyteller is never a liar. Because, you know, it’s storytelling. And horrible storytelling — you know, it’s storytelling. And you take out from that the experience you really need, the shock you really need. You know, I’m in the middle now of reading a book. Very strange title. I cannot wait till…

Correspondent: What’s the name of the book?

Ullmann: The Pee…?

Correspondent: No worries if you cant.

Ullmann: It’s on my bed.

[At this point, the very kind publicist sprinted to the other room to grab the book.]

Ullmann: And I cannot wait til this afternoon when it is over and I will go back to that. Because it’s a lie. Because it’s a novel. But I’m getting so many thoughts about the time there was and time that is coming. And it has this strange title of….The [Guernsey] Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Correspondent: Oh yeah, yeah! I’ve heard about this. I haven’t read it.

Ullmann: It’s giving me so much joy and I have so few pages left! Now storytelling is lie. But that is real lies. But to stand on TV and say, “This is the truth.” Because that’s what they do! They don’t say, “No. Here comes a story.”

Correspondent: They say, “This is true.”

Ullmann: This is the truth.

Correspondent: If you are lying and you say that it’s the truth, it’s worse than if you’re lying, but it’s a story. So you accept it. It’s about believing.

Ullmann: And you don’t say it’s a lie!

Correspondent: Yes.

Ullmann: You say it’s a story. And I belong to the storytellers. And I’m proud to belong to the storytellers. And I feel we are losing them. Because it’s looked upon as some luxury and people want them to be quick and different and cartoonish. We’ll be lost world when it comes to who we are with our soul. What the soul is all about.

Correspondent: So you see some of the more cartoonish advancements in cinema, some of the more stylistic advancements, as very harmful for it? Is that what you would say?

Ullmann: I think, well, so many of it is harmful. And we have seen it. Because it doesn’t aspire to peace and connection and humanity.

Correspondent: Empathy.

Ullmann: It aspires to violence and to how many people can I kill within a minute. And it looks brave and strangely adventurous.

Correspondent: Yeah. I have to ask. I mean, you have put yourself emotionally on the line as an actor for all of these films. What’s it like to bare your soul for a documentary like this? Speaking of the difference between reality vs. narrative. And it’s also interesting. Because you’ve also been fortunate. In, for example, movies like Scenes from a Marriage, there is a middle ground where it actually takes on a documentary-like feel for a chunk of it. So what’s the difference as an actor? And how does this make you feel to tell your story on camera? Is that harder than inhabiting a character? What are the emotional differences here?

Ullmann: I don’t find it hard to talk about feelings and what I care about in life. And when I did this movie, I said yes only to do two days of interviews. And I don’t find that hard. It’s easier for me to be truthful than to make myself interesting. And it’s not hard at all. I find to pretend is harder. To lie is harder. Because then I’ll forget what I said in the other minute. I like to be truthful. I like to meet people who are truthful. I like when we connect that way, also because that’s the way where I find myself. I’m not different from other people. Other people have the same feelings that I have. And I think we miss that. That we are true to each other.

Correspondent: So when you pretend, it’s not rooted in anything solid for you. It’s not a memory that lasts more than, say, remembering what it was like to walk around with Ingmar and talk with each other. That that’s more of a meaningful memory and therefore that’s easier. Whereas if you’re tapping into the deep visceral guts of something, that’s something that you inhabit but that you don’t remember because that’s just the way it works for you? I’m just curious about this distinction.

Ullmann: Well, there’s a lot of things that I don’t remember. Oh maybe it was like this? And I will tell it. And that’s more storytelling. But there’s nothing wrong with that. But when I see, for example, this movie, there are things that had to do with me that I had forgotten and suddenly I see it. And I know that is the truth. And even stories that I have told about us. When I see it in a movie, a film that has been taken from other movies, I’ll say, “Oh, the reality was different.” And I welcome that. I think that is great. That my memories have now given color to things But when I see the real truth, I found it much more interesting. And for me to see this movie and to see certain things in this movie that I had forgotten, I like it. And thus the movie is a kind of gift to me.

The Bat Segundo Show #489: Liv Ullmann (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Charlie is My Darling

[This is the second in a series of dispatches relating to the 50th New York Film Festival. All of Reluctant Habits’s NYFF posts can be located here.]

They wrote new songs while holed up in motel rooms and flirted with women behind glass as they tried to eat dinner. When young girls were asked why they were drawn to the thin devilish man with the big lips, they could only reply, “I just like him.”

The Altamont Free Concert, with its rough Hells Angels security detail and the grim fate of Meredith Hunter, was only four years away, but Charlie is My Darling, which follows the Rolling Stones on a three day rush through Ireland in crisp and freshly restored black and white, proves that the raw sexual power the band held before a crowd was already well established. In one of the film’s genuinely thrilling moments, we see young people jump on stage, instantly transforming guitar cables into umbilical cords through a simple act of adolescent mischief. Drummer Charlie Watts tries to keep a steady beat as a kid leans very close to his right, eluding capture.

Charlie is My Darling might almost serve as an instructional film on how to be a screaming teenage girl in 1965, but the dark underbelly is revealed when we see girls with fractured legs carried away on stretchers.

Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night poked fun at a blockbuster band’s nonstop sprint from the fans, but this doc has a grittier feel. Part of this is human attitude. The band is well aware that it is responding to a long tradition of pop songs where romantic lyrics describe idealistic moments that have no real bearing to what people are actually doing. The band shows no reticence in remarking on this. Yet the film establishes its own humor, such as the Stones offering commentary over a clip of Mick Jagger schmoozing with important people and band members sneaking up behind kids on light afternoons.

It also features the Stones becoming increasingly drunker, singing Fats Domino and Elvis Presley tunes during a long night around a piano with the alcoholic accoutrements slid across the top. In more sober off-stage moments, we see them play the Beatles’s “I’ve Just Seen a Face.” Always keep track of the competition.

“You have to be very egotistical,” says Jagger when he is asked by a reporter about what it’s like to hold a crowd in such awe. Charlie is My Darling is a vibrant ride inside the Stones’s touring world, but it’s not as brave as Robert Frank’s infamous Cocksucker Blues, with its heroin-injecting groupies and its coke-snorting tips from Keith Richards. The shaggy and vivacious and cocky Brian Jones offers an early glimpse of the more explicit dissolution to come with some revealing statements about marriage. Godard would depict him on the outs in Sympathy for the Devil. He would be dead in a swimming pool not long after that.

Julie Delpy (The Bat Segundo Show)

Julie Delpy is most recently the writer, director, and star of 2 Days in New York.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Searching for a castle that doesn’t require too much physical exertion.

Guest: Julie Delpy

Subjects Discussed: Patriarchs who key cars, countesses who murder women for their virgin blood, aberrant and eccentric behavior in Delpy’s films, the advantages of flawed characters, The King of Comedy‘s Rupert Pupkin, domestic carapaces for odd people, mental institutions, emotionless people, arguing with people you live with, comic tension, loud family arguments in quiet cafes, characters who accuse others of raping children, anger issues, struggles to get quirky independent films made, why Chris Rock was cast, 2 Days vs. Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, German film financing, David Hasselhoff, Chris Rock in a straightlaced role, how romantic comedy becomes more alive when women are uncontrollable, leveling the gender playing field in narrative by offering complex women, romantic projection, thematic resonances between 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, toothbrushes that are confused with sex toys, how blue jeans woo men, how French people take their temperature, Delpy’s obsession with finding the right toothbrush sound, Stanley Kubrick, being a hands on filmmaker, color correction, the humor contained within The Countess, how to position an actor to stand appropriately on a throne of heads, Belvedere Castle, Merchant Ivory films, creating a fairy tale narrative, how boys like “feminine” aspects of fairy tales, the scarcity of women directors, how gender has affected Delpy’s reputation, being taken more seriously, the business aspects of cinema, nerds and cinema without emotion, why Hollywood is avoiding emotional directors, cold businessmen, Delpy’s indomitable work ethic, Delpy finishing The Countess while her mother was dying, and the financial repercussions of cinema.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: What of the interesting resonances between the two films [2 Days in New York and 2 Days in Paris]? The two that struck me: the thermometer becomes the toothbrush in New York. You have the thermometer joke. And then now it’s the toothbrush joke where…

Delpy: Toothbrush. Oh yeah. Like objects being put in the wrong spot. (laughs)

Correspondent: Exactly. Or blue jeans being used to woo a man. In the first film, we have mom ironing the blue jeans.

Delpy: The blue jeans.

Correspondent: In the second film, we have the blue jeans offer on air.

Delpy: The blue jeans are where?

Correspondent: The blue jeans, when Mingus is on the air. There’s that woman who offers them.

Delpy: Oh, the jeans! I see. That’s funny.

Correspondent: So I’m wondering. I’m guessing these were accidental. But I’m wondering if there were any conscious efforts on your part to mimic the resonances from the first film. To see if they would play a little differently in New York. Or older.

Delpy: Well, that’s something. For example, I think it’s something to do with — like I’ve always been amused that Americans — I mean, in France, if you take your temperature, everyone puts it in their butt. Just…I have to tell you. Just like if you’re a toddler. You just put it there.

Correspondent: It is a French thing.

Delpy: And I’ve always been having American boyfriends find this repulsive. That French people are perverts.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: Because we take our temperature in the butt. So we are perverts because of that. I always thought that was a funny idea. I mean, the thing about the toothbrush, I have the idea that, actually, they might have done really nothing with that toothbrush and that it’s all in his mind. That they might have used the toothbrush.

Correspondent: While they were having…

Delpy: Or it’s an object that wasn’t a toothbrush. But he’s convinced that they’re perverts using his toothbrush for sex toys. But I actually believe personally…

Correspondent: The toothbrush is your Pulp Fiction suitcase.

Delpy: (laughs) It is to me.

Correspondent: It could be used for naughty purposes. It could be used for rather eccentric purposes. They could be brushing their teeth as they’re doing it. We don’t know.

Delpy: Yeah. Who knows? They might have been brushing their teeth while doing it. But he’s convinced. Or they might have used another object that sounds like that toothbrush. But he’s convinced it’s his toothbrush. It’s this projection of this idea that, you know, once you have this idea that someone is perverted, you can imagine everything. And I like to use that. That is a kind of playful thing.

Correspondent: I don’t know. The sound sounded pretty similar to my ears. I’m wondering. Did you work with the sound guy to have it close?

Delpy: Actually, that was one of the hardest things to do. To find the right sound. And the banging on the wall. So it didn’t sound too trashy. To always find the right limit between really too crass and not too cute either.

Correspondent: Well, I’m wondering how you researched toothbrush sounds vs. dildo sounds. That would be a very interesting project for a sound man.

Delpy: I didn’t turn on dildos. I only turned on toothbrushes.

Correspondent: (laughs)

Delpy: I kept it to a toothbrush. But actually I did spend a lot of time listening to many different sounds of toothbrushes. And some toothbrushes, I just didn’t like the sound. So I kind of drove everyone crazy. I’m very…when I get into post-production, with all the mixing and the sound and all that stuff, I get really super duper duper duper…kind of precise on what I want. And that toothbrush, I drove everyone nuts over.

Correspondent: Well, like, how so? How precise can you get? Is there any sort of limit that you will reach before people are driven nuts or something? How anal are you here?

Delpy: No. I will work until I get what I want. I’m not like crazy, like going like a power trip. Like it’s too show that I have the power.

Correspondent: No Kubrick, 172 takes…(laughs)

Delpy: Even though they call me Stanley all the time. (laughs)

Correspondent: And not just because you grew a beard.

Delpy: Yeah, it’s because of my beard. Not because of my talent. I’ll tell you that. Because I get a little bit obsessed. Sometimes in details and stuff like that. But then when I have what I want, I’m fine. Then I’m done. Boom. And then I never talk about it again.

Correspondent: Well, like, how many takes did you do? Just to deflate the Stanley rumors here.

Delpy: Well, I ended up recording the toothbrush myself. Because I didn’t like any of the sounds. So I ended up taking a mike and going to record my toothbrush and the toothbrush I wanted to use in the film.

Correspondent: Are you hands on like that for cinematography? Or for other matters?

Delpy: Cinematography, no. Because I am not a very good — I don’t have the best visual ideas, you know? I’m not hands on cinematography. I’m very hands on sound. Music. Sound effects. Everything that has to do with sound, I’m very good. You know, I’m very obsessed also when we do the period of color correction. I get very — if I don’t get what I want, I will not stop.

Correspondent: What about placement of actors?

Delpy: Which is normal. I think it’s normal. I mean, if you’re a filmmaker, you want to get — it’s so much work to write. It’s so much work to shoot. And then you edit for three months and you work like a maniac. And then you end up in post-production. And you don’t want to suddenly have skin tones that are wrong. I mean, you can very quickly — now there’s such a scale of things you can do. It’s so large. You can go from a skin that looks sort of creamy to a skin that looks all greenish. I mean, you can do so much that you have to be really careful in color correction nowadays.

Correspondent: What about positioning an actor? Like, I think of the image in The Countess of the guy standing on top of the heads. I mean, how particular are you on something like that?

Delpy: Oh that, I’m very particular.

Correspondent: The angle of the head. Is the head just right at that particular angle? I’m just trying to get a sense of how precise you are really with these things.

Delpy: Yeah. I get very precise in scenes like that. Because, to me, I wanted it to look like a painting. Like a lot of 17th century painting I’ve looked at, based for this film. Like a lot and lot of Nordic painters. So I was really inspired by that. And I wanted it to look like that. Like something almost ridiculous, but kind of funny. I mean, the film, The Countess is not devoid of humor. I see the film as something a little bit funny at times. So it’s meant to be that way. Like even the craziness of wanting to stay young forever. I mean, she’s obviously such a pathetic character. Which makes me laugh. She makes me laugh actually. And so anyway, even this guy is kind of crazy. I mean, he’s sitting on a throne of beheaded Turks. So it’s kind of funny. If you’re dark. (laughs)

Correspondent: I thought a lot of it was funny, personally. But I’m a sick human being. But Belvedere Castle…

Delpy: But it’s meant to be funny.

Correspondent: Yes. Belvedere Castle, I wanted to ask you about this. You shot the end of 2 Days in New York at Belvedere Castle. And what happened with me when I saw the film — and this may be a terribly wonkish and pedantic question, but I feel the need to ask it nonetheless. I immediately thought, “Oh! The Bostonians. Merchant Ivory.” And the reason that I thought about that was because in 2 Days in Paris, you have this early moment where the American tourists come in and they have the red Da Vinci Code, which is almost serving as the red Baedeker tour guides that you see in A Room with a View. And so…

Delpy: Oh my god. That’s complicated.

Correspondent: And they are tourists, much in that mode, going through a city. And, of course, they come from Venice by train. So I think to myself, “Oh, there was maybe a Merchant Ivory nod there.” But I’m wondering, based off of these two things, whether emulating that sort of Merchant Ivory look and subverting it with wild behavior or astonishing developments was ever an interest of yours. And also: why you choose Belevedere Castle?

Delpy: Well, you know, I didn’t really think at all of Merchant Ivory. You looked into it like…oh my god. That’s pretty..

Correspondent: This is a problem of mine. I apologize. (laughs)

Delpy: That’s really cool. That’s really cool to read so much into something. No, I basically picked the Belvedere Castle because I wanted something high that made sense, that it was dangerous but not Empire State Building dangerous. Because Empire State Building — anyway, you can’t jump off the Empire State Building. Because it’s all blocked out. So it had to be realistic. And the Belvedere Castle is quite dangerous. Actually, if you jump, you can kill yourself. But I wanted it to be almost like a fairy tale. The film is a little bit like a fairy tale. It’s told to a child really. Because it’s told with these puppets. So I wanted this end to be in a castle. Like a fairy tale. And the princess, which is me, is saved by the prince, which is Chris Rock. But obviously the film is so not a fairy tale in its tone and everything. But I wanted it to be like a fairy tale. It ends in a castle like a fairy tale.

The Bat Segundo Show #475: Julie Delpy (Download MP3)

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The Bat Segundo Show: Joe Dante

Joe Dante appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #359. He is most recently the director of The Hole.

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Condition of Mr. Segundo: Doing his best not to feed Mr. Dante after midnight or before 10:10 AM on October 10, 2010.

Guest: Joe Dante

Subjects Discussed: [List forthcoming]

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: I want to talk about the inside jokes. There are a few in The Hole. I noticed the yellow smiley face from The Howling in the background at one point. But it seemed to me that you were almost dialing down the inside jokes within the shots with this movie.

Dante: I did. Because, at heart, it’s kind of a sad movie, if you think about it. When you find out what’s in the hole, it’s much more melodramatic and personal than you would expect. It’s not little monsters coming out. And so the tone of the movie, it’s a little tricky to do a lot of those nudge nudge wink wink things, which I learned early on in my career. That you can’t do things at the expense of people who don’t know what you’re talking about. In The Howling, I had a scene in which Roger Corman looks for a dime in a phone booth. And it was funny to people who knew Roger. But when people didn’t know Roger, it was like, “Well, the scene is over. Why are you lingering on this extra piece? Because it didn’t mean anything to me.” And I realized that you can’t do that. You have to play within the rules. And if you do something that’s off the point, it should be done as an aside or in the background or as a tail — so that people maybe notice the second time when they see the picture.

Correspondent: Well, this is interesting. You’re talking about a lingering moment. And this leads me to wonder if it’s more difficult these days — not just from a financial standpoint, but also from an aesthetic standpoint — for you to convince a producer to give you work. Because your movies do, in fact, linger on that beat. Like that Corman moment in The Howling you were just mentioning. I even watched your episode of CSI out of morbid curiosity, and I’m seeing all these really great Dante master shots that unfortunately are being butchered by the crazy editing that goes on with that show. So the question is: How can a guy like you, who is extremely skillful with these Panavision-like shots, the 70mm that you did in Explorers and the like — I mean, is this more of a tougher sell?

Dante: It’s not a tough sell. People hire me for various reasons. But when you sign on to do a TV series, you must adopt the style of the TV series. Now I can shoot the stuff any way I want. But I know that in TV, you do your cutting. You hand it in. And then you see it on TV. And it’s always different. Because the show runners come in. And they change it to the style that they prefer. So you shoot a lot of long takes. But you just have to give them enough material for them to turn it into what they want. It’s never an expressive job. You don’t really feel you’re putting yourself into it. Although as much as I could, I stuck myself into it. And I stuck people who were familiar to working with me in the show. And it was, I think, a little bit different. A little bit offbeat from the usual episodes of the show. But the problem with doing a show like that, there’s an overarching storyline that happened before you came and that’s going to continue after you’re gone. So there’s really not a lot of space for you to insert yourself. Because you’re doing a job of work. And you’re not the auteur of the show. The auteur of the show is the writers. Because they’re the ones who are mapping out this entire scenario. The great thing is if you can get in on the ground floor and get in on the pilot.

Correspondent: Yes.

Dante: If you do the pilot for the show, which I did for Eerie, Indiana, then you get to not only choose the cast.

Correspondent: You set the aesthetics.

Dante: You set the aesthetic and you get to influence the way the stories go and which direction they go. And even sometimes who’s hired to direct them. So that’s very creative and interesting and fulfilling. Doing one-offs is financially rewarding and a chance to work with a lot of talented people that you probably wouldn’t get to see otherwise. But it’s never like making a feature. It’s never like saying, “Okay, this is my movie.” And that’s why I prefer on TV to do anthology shows. Because it’s much more like doing a short film than it is to coming in and doing it. Illustrating an episode of somebody’s series.

Correspondent: Is it also a way of staying in shape so you don’t atrophy?

Dante: Well, it’s also a way of paying the mortgage.

Correspondent: (laughs) That’s true. That’s really the reason you did the CSI: New York episode.

Dante: Uh, I did it because it would be fun. But also, yeah, I did it because I wasn’t working. The great thing about Eerie, Indiana was that if I was going a feature, I could do that. I could go away and then do more Eerie, Indianas. But then it went off the air. And then I couldn’t do that anymore. So the trick is to try and find a way to keep yourself employed that doesn’t turn you into a hack. Basically. I mean, I always try and do things that — for movies, my yardstick is I don’t make movies that I wouldn’t go see. And I think if more people did that, we’d have better movies.

The Bat Segundo Show #359: Joe Dante (Download MP3)

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Why Did Scott Pilgrim Tank?

The Expendables was the top grossing movie over the weekend, raking in $35 million, and beating out Eat Pray Love‘s $23.7 million. The Other Guys finished at third, with $18 million, followed by Inception at $11.4 million and, somewhat astonishingly, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World at $10.5 million. The results have caused some to scratch their heads, while others have reacted with the fury of an aging FOX News anchor just a few steak dinners short of a myocardial infarction.

Scott Pilgrim‘s box office failure over the weekend has little to do with Jeffrey Wells‘s deranged dichotomy of “the rank-and-file” warring with “the elite geek-dweeb set” — an impractical characterization that one expects from a paranoid schizophrenic looking for a few magic beans that will grow a tin foil vine. But it was evident from some of the film’s early reviews that the old reactionary guard — which included the hysterical Wells and the frumpy David Edelstein — were going to trash the movie for its audacious syntax — namely, the very visual language that allowed Kick-Ass to make nearly $20 million in its opening weekend back in April.

I don’t think the lackluster business had much to do with Michael Cera. But it’s worth observing that Cera has yet to prop up a phenomenally successful Hollywood movie on his presence alone. He’s found commercial success as a supporting character, although Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist, a $10 million movie that grossed $33.5 million, might qualify as a modest success. But when one considers that Scott Pilgrim‘s budget was closer to $100 million, the decision to use Superbad/Juno momentum as a selling point wasn’t terribly wise. Cera, assuming audiences haven’t tired of him by now, will probably be just fine if he can figure out a way to reinvent his one-note Williamsburg hipster schtick and keep his acting roles confined to second bananas. The man lacks leading man gravitas, and now has the commercial track record to prove it.

On the other hand, it’s possible that Cera can’t entirely be blamed for Scott Pilgrim‘s failure. One only needs to look at the moronic marketing quacks who pushed this movie as if they were lame ducks. Not only did the film’s bright red poster do everything possible to occlude Cera’s presence in the movie, but it failed to communicate what the movie was about. The “epic of epic epicness” tagline tells someone in the dark nothing at all about Scott Pilgrim. And you have to wonder how much money some Universal wordsmith was paid to whip up such anti-commercial inanity.

The first big mistake made by Universal — and there were many — was in failing to market this as a quirky date movie that a young couple might agree upon. (Or perhaps not. Abigail Nussbaum has offered a provocative post suggesting that Scott Pilgrim is misogynistic.)

The second big mistake was in opening Scott Pilgrim during a weekend in which the audience division came down to gender lines. If you were a man, you were expected to see The Expendables. If you were a woman, you were expected to see Eat Pray Love. The Expendables Call to Arms trailer, released a good month before the movie, permitted enough time for these demographic lines to become fixed. And Universal, rather catastrophically, failed to create a Scott Pilgrim trailer that used the movie’s humor as a self-deprecatory selling point to avoid both movies. (I should also point out that, despite my numerous requests to attend a New York press screening, Universal publicists failed to respond by telephone or email. This is not something I can say about the people at Lionsgate, who were very quick to respond, extremely friendly and accommodating. Guess which film received a 1,400 word essay here.)

While it’s true that Scott Pilgrim received a big Comic-Con buzz, it’s very clear that this didn’t translate into mass moviegoers paying to see the flick. It’s also clear from both Scott Pilgrim and Kick-Ass‘s respective takes that a more daring comic book movie isn’t going to translate into an Iron Man 2-style box office bonanza, even as audiences have signaled their desire to be challenged by plot-heavy movies like Inception. A risk-taking comic book movie with a $20 million budget can certainly make a healthy profit, but it’s a harder sell at four or five times the budget. This weekend certainly isn’t the end of movies like Scott Pilgrim. Just don’t expect future movies of this type to have large budgets or originate from the studio system in a good long while. Indeed, had Scott Pilgrim not been up against two pandering movies, it might have attracted more of the crowd. But apparently there’s gold to be panned when you use the Internet to pigeonhole prospective moviegoers into predictable demographics.

Review: The Other Guys (2010)

For the record, I enjoyed Anchorman. I was lukewarm on Talladega Nights. I skipped Step Brothers. But now that I have seen Adam McKay’s disastrous cop-buddy comedy, The Other Guys, I think that I can safely conclude that McKay is turning into a gutless fauxteur more on the level of Dennis Dugan rather than Judd Apatow. He’s a man who might improve his floundering artistry, were he to live by a more literal mantra of the comedy website he co-created with Will Ferrell. Had there been some creep screaming “Funny or Die!” into McKay’s tinnital ears every five minutes or a psychotic aiming a gun at McKay and his co-writer Chris Henchy as they were banging out their flaccid script, it is quite possible that The Other Guys would not be such a stunning sack of shit. At least I’d like to think so. And I’d like very much to believe that McKay is more than Anchorman. I am, after all, an optimist at heart. But the truth here is that McKay has turned out a film that is worse than Kevin Smith’s Cop Out, a movie that is not even worth folding your laundry by. That alone takes a stunning paucity of talent. McKay’s mind is a Costco storehouse of discount humor. He’ll point his mass audience in the right direction. But when it comes time to make a purchasing decision, you’re limited to the stock at hand. You’re then forced to stand in line a very long time for only a few saved bucks. And your only real consolation is the cheap hot dog on the way out.

The cheap hot dog in question is a series of helpful infographics playing during the closing credits, featuring such left-leaning stats as the plummeting value of an average American’s 401K account, the uptick in the average executive’s salary, and the growing disparity between the rich and the poor. There was a part of me very tempted to give McKay more of a pass for having the audacity to pull an unexpected progressive parlor trick at the end of a multiplex film. But then I remembered that I had just endured a particularly unfunny film, sitting next to two annoying ringers who laughed at every dud, that had contained abundant misogynist jokes and several strange potshots at the eco-friendly Toyota Prius. And if McKay wanted to make a statement about corporate greed within a mainstream comedy, then why didn’t he have the balls to do it during the preceding 90 minutes?

I’ve called McKay “gutless.” I’ve called him a “fauxteur.” Let me explain. McKay is gutless because he features a potentially funny scene in which two cops address an elementary school classroom, pointing out that African-Americans and Hispanics are more likely to get involved in crime. These are, of course, racially insensitive remarks. The camera cuts to a reaction shot. And the true horror of what these two cops are saying might have been funny and disturbing if the kids had been composed entirely of African-Americans and Hispanics, an ironic twist that would have improved the joke. But in the reaction shot, it’s a largely Caucasian crowd. McKay is a fauxteur because he doesn’t understand that repeating a gag several times over a movie doesn’t necessarily make it funny — particularly if it’s a tired cultural reference. Case in point: Will Ferrell’s character, Allen Gamble, likes to play Little River Band to rev up his masculinity. It’s somewhat funny to hear “Reminiscing” once, groan-inducing the second time, and nauseating the third time. (Also, if Gamble really was into “River Band,” would his taste not extend into tunes beyond the popular hits?)

Just as McKay disguised his Talladega inadequacies by casting Sacha Baron Cohen as a very funny Frenchman, he resorts to casting a British comedic legend (Steve Coogan this time) to quickly paint over the cracks in the wall. Alas, the astute McKay viewer will recognize quite rapidly just how much the man is slumming it. The criminally underused Michael Keaton fares better than Coogan and even finds some ways of improving the material with his performance, offering a spontaneous wink just after a so-so line to get a big laugh. But these living legends are merely the supporting players.

So it falls upon Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell to anchor the comedy. Both fail spectacularly. In Wahlberg’s case, it’s not his fault. He previously demonstrated that he had comic timing as a stiff sergeant in Martin Scorsese’s The Departed. But in The Other Guys, McKay has directed him to be a one-note caricature of that role. And his presence becomes needlessly tedious. Wahlberg’s character, Terry Hoitz, is stuck to his desk because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter. (Because of this, he is partnered with Ferrell’s Gamble, which I’ll get to in a mite.) Hoitz has an estranged relationship with a ballet teacher and even shows up at her studio to demonstrate his dance moves. But Wahlberg just doesn’t have the material to sell his character. He rants and complains about his failure to get some action on the streets, about Gamble’s reluctance to take a radio call. He makes goo goo eyes at Gamble’s wife. But none of these qualities offer us enough to care.

As for Ferrell, one must now ask the perfectly reasonable question of whether the man is still funny. I’m becoming increasingly convinced that he’s blown his wad and will end up starring in lackluster family films like Eddie Murphy: a withered husk of whatever jones he had in the first place. Allen Gamble falls into the same one-note Ferrell archetype. Suburban middle-aged dork has a crazy past and a wild streak that comes out from time to time. Which we saw before with Old School‘s Frank Ricard and on countless Saturday Night Live sketches more than a decade ago. In this case, before he became a police accountant, Gamble was a pimp in college. Aside from the fact that a police background check would make it utterly impossible for Gamble to be employed, the flashback that reveals this backstory relies not so much on wit or character detail, but on Ferrell increasingly resembling a pimp. Chains appear around his neck. He starts to talk in ghetto cliches. In short, it’s the kind of humor one can easily discover in a high school drama class, not what one expects of comedy professionals.

Hoitz and Gamble are paired together, but they never get any action on the streets (thus motivating the movie’s raison d’etre: “comedy” fused with noisy car chases and constant shoe pilfering). These guys are NYPD office drones. Gamble sifts through paperwork and finds the buildings erected without construction permits. And all this is, in Hoitz’s eyes, rather boring. The movie could have had a stronger premise if it had played this idea up. What if Hoitz and Gamble, these ostensible bureaucratic stiffs, actually uncovered greater danger than the assaults, robbery, and mayhem on the streets? Certainly, the end credits suggest that this angle may have been a stronger priority in an earlier screenplay draft. But had the film maintained this emphasis — similar to Ron Burgundy’s sexist values being challenged by the 21st century or the clash between Ricky Bobby and Jean Girard in Talladega Nights — it would have played more to McKay’s comedic strengths: namely, finding the comedy within ideological conflict.

But McKay and company appear more interested in wallowing in misogyny. Gamble is ridiculed for having a man purse. “I feel like we’re literally driving around in a vagina,” says Hoitz upon driving in Gamble’s Prius. Gamble gives Hoitz a gift: an FBI mug that spells out the acronym FEMALE BODY INSPECTOR. But McKay reveals just how much of a women-hating frat boy he is by having Eva Mendes show up as Gamble’s wife. The joke here is that Will Ferrell can’t possibly have married such an attractive woman. But despite Mendes’s character being a resident doctor, we never really see Dr. Sheila Gamble at work. We see her constantly cooking, constantly encouraging, and being told by Ferrell that her dinner tastes like dog testicles. And what’s the draw here in the relationship? That the Gambles have wild sex. It apparently hasn’t occurred to McKay that Mendes’s character may possess a professional life that supersedes such throwback I Love Lucy duties. Contrary to McKay’s fantasies, women are interested in more things than fucking and supporting their men. So it turns out that Ron Burgundy’s misogyny isn’t terribly removed frmo McKay’s. And if that isn’t enough, McKay thinks it’s funny that the homeless here like to engage in circlejerks (“It’s called a soup kitchen!”) within any abandoned Prius.

Much like a loutish neighbor who believes that skimming an issue of The Economist makes him a responsible citizen, The Other Guys would like its audience to think that its a liberal bomb trapped within a mainstream comedy. Hardly. The comedy here is a bit like watching a white supremacist group attempt to make sense of Brown vs. Board of Education. You really hope that the participants will become enlightened, but the atavism won’t go away.

Review: [REC] 2 (2009)

Nobody seems to agree on the precise pronunciation of [REC]. And I haven’t even brought up the potentially controversial notion of pronouncing the brackets. (A throat-clearing sound?) I had been saying it wrek — in large part because I spent some of my childhood living in a sketchy apartment complex with a dubious “rec room,” and enjoy a little symmetry in my horror nomenclature. I talked with a friendly horror aficionado before the screening who insisted on spelling it out ar-ee-see, as if the title were an acronym. Another film critic pronounced it with a long e. I must presume that the film’s title, much like the film itself, is what you make of it.

But just how do you name a sequel in a franchise based around a camera button? [REC] Again has little zip, suggesting to the audience that they’ve made some mistake, perhaps missing the taping of some vital House installment. [REC] with a Vengeance insinuates that the button has become sentient, transforming into some mechanical Charles Bronson-style vigilante. (This wouldn’t be entirely out of line for the [REC] films, seeing as how the camera is just as much of a character in as the reg folks gone aggro.) In the end, writer-directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza have opted for numerical superscript for their sequel — much like the Aliens films. I am pleased to report that the camera perspectives do indeed live up to this squared sensibility.

For those of you who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about, you should probably check out the original [REC]. Unlike many mindless horror franchises, the [REC] movies feel as if the filmmakers have given serious thought to the environment. (Or perhaps they know how to improvise better. The Saw series’s endless “twists” — in which the Jigsaw Killer’s plan becomes increasingly more baroque and laughably improbable with each installment — have readily revealed the creative bankruptcy in milking a cash cow.)

But with [REC] 2, you may be just as lost as the survivors if you haven’t experienced the previous film. Made in 2007, the first [REC] is a pretty terrific little horror film that presents a zombie plague entirely from a single camera perspective. Like The China Syndrome, there isn’t any music. But the results aren’t obnoxious like Mike Figgis’s disastrous (and dated) Timecode — surely the last decade’s answer to Woodstock or More American Graffiti.

A cameraman and a television presenter named Angela Vidal — both filming a disposable reality TV series called While You’re Asleep — visit a firehouse to find out just what firemen do. Angela awkwardly asks the fire chief, “You’re the boss, right?” She puts on a firehat and a uniform, jumping about for camera-friendly frivolity. She suggests to another fireman she’s interviewing that the alarm should go off for full dramatic effect. There is a basketball game that is interrupted by an alarm, which takes yawning firemen and bored camera crew to an apartment building, where a zombie infection is underway.

Life, in other words, needs to be shaped into a juicy narrative by the camera crew. But the viewer is part of a different narrative, thanks to the unedited tape that comes with the epidemic. While this may seem to echo the setup of George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (more satirical), The Blair Witch Project (a narrative designed out of a savvy marketing strategy), and Cloverfield (the handheld gimmick used to present a pedestrian Hollywood narrative in a “different” way), [REC] works so well because the camera is instrumental in portraying the panic. When the camera is hit, the audio gets bumped right along with it. Near the end of the film, the camera must rely on night vision.

The camera crew makes desperate efforts to maintain some journalistic facade when sealed in the building by mysterious government forces, continuing to conduct interviews with the survivors. But these efforts soon dwindle as the need to survive becomes more pressing. As the environment becomes more unruly, the cuts between the camera being on and off tell additional stories. Where Diary of the Dead placed its faith in the idea that young people would continue to seek fame when there wasn’t much of an audience left, and where Cloverfield‘s camerawork often proved ridiculously stable near cantilevered edifices, [REC] considered how people would act to apocalyptic events and how the camera would be instrumental in conveying this behavior. And this approach, thanks to Manuela Velasco’s fish-out-of-water performance as Angela and the more naturalistic acting (for horror, anyway), strongly suggested that Balagueró and Plaza had carefully studied The Battle of Algiers (certainly a good deal more than the Blair Witch bunch, who should be commended for bamboozling the American public).

[REC] 2 doesn’t quite match the first film’s gripping suspense, but it comes extremely close. Like the first film, the behavior, dictated by the camera, changes through the movie. We’re introduced to soldiers who are rather by-the-book and not particularly insubordinate. The ostensible commander insists on recording everything. But as the film progresses, a more human element of fear and frustration creeps in, and, with this, a very pleasing sense of revolt that is perhaps best signified by the liberal use of firearms.

[REC] 2‘s narrative feels more like a Valve video game or the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle — a journey to be filled in once you’ve explored the unknown space.

OBJECTIVES: 1. Get blood vial. 2. Go downstairs. 3. Find Patient Zero.

You get the idea. And if you can’t get behind this crass fun, then I sentence you to a lifetime of soporific Merchant-Ivory movies.

One POV shot, in which a soldier blows away zombies with a machine gun, comes across like a Left 4 Dead installment five years from now, with a better engine and more heat-sensitive hardware. There is a moment in which snipers shoot at the building that had me wondering if I was re-experiencing Half-Life 2. There is even a secret door leading to a bonus world, further cementing the gaming comparisons. Should cinema resemble a first-person shooter? In most cases, I would advise against it. But because the [REC] films are very much about playing with our narrative expectations with the camera-audience relationship, this cross-media mimesis somehow works. It wouldn’t work without the camera. And while sometimes this feels like a cheat, we are given enough unexpected developments to keep feeding in our quarters.

There are more cameras here than the first film — including several lipstick cams placed upon soldier helmets, reminiscent of the second Aliens film, that are occasionally patched into. There’s a second perspective emerging midway through the film. There are more characters — including a group of foolish teenagers. But there are also more opportunities for zombie destruction. Aside from some head explosions, there is also a very satisfying moment in which a zombie flails about with a bottlerocket in its mouth. At one point, when a zombie runs towards the camera, the image freezes on its quite open and terrifying mouth. The filmmakers also offer a greater attention to accumulating scrapes and bruises as our intrepid heroes are attacked.

If you can accept that [REC] 2 is a carnival ride, then you’ll probably like this flick as much as I did. I certainly enjoyed [REC] 2, despite all of its supernatural contrivances, considerably more than the boring art house film I’d seen earlier that day. And maybe that’s because Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza really love making movies — in a way that seems to have eluded the pretentious and the avaricious.

The Bat Segundo Show: Michael Haneke

Michael Haneke appeared on The Bat Segundo Show #316. Mr. Haneke is most recently the director of The White Ribbon, which opens in theaters on December 30th.

The Bat Segundo Show expresses profuse gratitude and thanks to translator Robert Gray for assisting in this conversation, which is presented here in German and English.

Condition of Mr. Segundo: Tying a white ribbon ’round the old oak tree.

Guest: Michael Haneke

Subjects Discussed: The roots of human behavior within Haneke’s films, the film as a ski jump, the relationship between the cinematic spectator and semiotics, the spectator’s lack of freedom, the director as god and Martin’s spared death on the bridge, the baroness’s moral choice, truth and the denial of inherent human nature, Anna Karenina, social status and imprisonment, terrorist acts that are tied to specific occupations, the mistreatment of young children, planning a film for open-ended interpretation, whether or not a film can be entirely calculated for the spectator, the use of the Z-axis to accentuate a prewar setting, the perception of daily life, the role of the police in Haneke’s films, the trouble with dramaturgical constructs, and the impracticalities of theory in everyday situations.

EXCERPT FROM SHOW:

Correspondent: In Funny Games, you have a scenario in which we don’t actually understand the motivations of the two killers. Cache, same thing. The actual motivation behind the videotapes is not entirely spelled out. And, of course, in The White Ribbon, we have a similar situation in which its more about the consequences than it is about the origins. And I’m curious why your films tend to not dwell upon the origins of terrible acts, as opposed to the consequences. Do you think that looking for the root cause of human behavior is a folly? At least with these particular characters in your film?

Haneke: (through translator) Mainstream cinema raises questions, only then to provide immediate answers so that the spectator can go home feeling reassured. But I think if film is to take itself seriously as an art form, then, like every other art form, it has to allow the spectators a certain freedom of possibility — of investing themselves, of grappling with the issues that are involved, of bringing their own feelings and explanations to the work that they are receiving. I always say that not only film, but every art form should provoke the spectator so that they feel motivated. The work has to be constructed in such a way that the spectator is led to investing himself in search for his own answers. I always say that not only film, but books too, are like ski jumps. They have to be built in such a way that people can jump properly. But the film is the ski jump and it’s up to the spectator to jump.

BSS #316: Michael Haneke (Download MP3)

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NYFF: Broken Embraces (2009)

[This is the second in a series of posts relating to the 2009 New York Film Festival.]

brokenembraces

There once was a time in which I flocked to a new Pedro Almodovar film with a mad and unstoppable gusto, wondering just what iconoclastic ideas Almodovar would unleash upon the screen. You never knew if you were going to get an extended rape scene brazenly challenging gender assumptions (the notorious sequence in Kika) or Antonio Banderas confronting some dormant and out-of-left-field sexual feelings (well, just about every Banderas-Almodovar road show). But then came All About My Mother, a perfectly respectable film that softened Almodovar and revealed that there was a pedestrian melodramatic filmmaker underneath the madness. Almodovar, like many filmmakers in their fifties, lost his bite. And all he had left was the lachrymose material.

And it is my sad duty to report that Broken Embraces represents more of the same. Broken Embraces may offer a film within a film (Girls with Suitcases) that bears suspicious similarity to Almodovar’s Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Girls with Suitcases is intended to be Mateo’s masterpiece, maligned by other hands. But when we actually see the footage, even the good takes that Mateo approves of aren’t particularly funny. And Almodovar falls into the all-too-common artistic trap of having other characters comment upon how brilliant and side-splitting an alleged comic masterpiece is, without injecting hilarity into the material itself. “Films have to be finished,” remarks a character at Broken Embraces‘s close. And it’s something you do blindly. But is Almodovar really all that blind?

Here’s a filmmaker fond of staging dialogue scenes by dollying the camera from character to character, instead of panning. Here’s a filmmaker fond of split diopters. Here’s a filmmaker who gets winning performances from his two leads. Here’s a filmmaker who can make a half-decent film in his sleep. So why does Broken Embraces feel like Almodovar settling for something less? Even a moment featuring a DJ doing drugs, with the obligatory MDMA reference, feels as if it’s been directed by a guy who hasn’t set foot in a club in at least a decade.

Almodovar certainly tries to inject his contrived story with a few interesting elements. He gives us filmmaker Mateo Blanco (winningly played by Lluís Homar), blinded by an automobile accident and denied his visual strengths. He also gives us a lip reader hired by a wealthy businessman named Ernesto Martel to make sense of secretly videotaped video. There’s the hint here of a broader moral dilemma concerning the relationship between sensory limitation and media saturation. Is Mateo really blind? When a mysterious stranger knocks on Mateo’s door, Mateo looks through the door’s eyehole. And we’re left to wonder whether Mateo is playing a role, just as the actors he once cast in his films played a role. (In the case of Penelope Cruz’s Lena, it’s an Audrey Hepburn wig.) We believe initially that the film itself may be using melodramatic elements to uproot our expectations. Unfortunately, Almodovar doesn’t quite follow through. It turns out that Mateo really is blind. And the roots of his blindness, both literally and metaphorically, are pounded home with all the subtlety of a jackhammer filling in for a clock radio at an early morning hour. Secret lovers? Check. Cliched fuck bunnies? Check. Animalistic sex scenes? Check, but the feral nature of these scenes just doesn’t ring true. Almodovar’s promising subtext subsides for an easy-to-guess storyline that is all about his father figure.

Almodovar’s strengths have worked best when there’s a natural edge and energy laced within his narrative. It’s not so much the story elements that have mattered, but the way in which Almodovar’s characters disclose wholly unexpected personality qualities at moments we can’t possibly predict. For Broken Embraces‘s first 30 minutes, Almodovar comes close to these instincts. He has Mateo (now in the self-made role of Harry Caine, a screenwriter who pretends to be a former adventurer) bed an attractive woman who has helped him cross the street. The camera dollies along the edge of a couch, eventually focusing on this woman’s raised foot and painted toenails, which fall beneath this line of demarcation upon seismic satisfaction. It’s a typical Almodovar moment: fun, perverted, and wildly improbable. One detects the indelible fingerprint of a younger and hungrier Almodovar. But this regrettably subsides to a pre-Internet flashback to the early 1990s, where Mateo falls in love with Lena, who is Ernesto’s mistress and the father of Ernesto, Jr., known in the present day as Ray X. Get it?

I was complaining on Twitter this morning about the needlessly bleak programming in this year’s New York Film Festival. I’m certainly not against depressing films, but the human spectrum also includes hope and felicity. But Broken Embraces‘s “comedy” feels stale and septuagenarian. And if Broken Embraces is the “comedy” to balance out all the heavy and esoteric dramas, then I suspect that this year’s programmers are probably humorless and terrified of letting anyone know that they enjoy ice cream. I don’t think it’s Hoberman’s fault. And for all I know, the insufferably smug Scott Foundas might even have a few decent jokes in him. But Broken Embraces isn’t comedy in the way that great films are comedy. It feels more like a Golden Girls rerun, which is strange given Penelope Cruz’s presence. It’s something you tolerate because nothing else is on. But you know deep down that Almodovar can deliver more. Let us hope he doesn’t calcify like Woody Allen.

* * *

On October 7, 2009, the New York Film Festival held a press conference with writer/director Pedro Almodovar and star Penelope Cruz. To listen to the press conference, as recorded and mastered by Edward Champion, click on the podcast below. Almodovar answered questions in both English and Spanish, with English translation provided by Richard Peña.

Press Conference: Pedro Almodovar & Pedro Cruz — October 7, 2009 (Download MP3)

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Review: Extract (2009)

extract

There’s a Preston Sturges comedy trapped inside Extract‘s enjoyable mess. This is a movie that the New York critics did not seem to appreciate. But if they end up hating this film, don’t listen to them. Even if Extract is imperfect, this is the right step forward for Mike Judge. Extract doesn’t quite match the laughs in Judge’s two previous live action features, but Judge has atoned for this by growing up a bit.

Judge’s central character is Joel Reynolds (Jason Bateman), a married thirtysomething who manages an extract factory but who, like the many seemingly well-educated couples in Idiocracy, hasn’t yet sired children. Back in the day, Joel got lucky with an old family recipe and worked his almond innovations into a money-making winner through his background in chemistry. (The great joke here is that none of the supporting characters who dream of riches are interested in learning how Joel found his ostensible fortune. But with a potential buyout from General Mills, they do seem to think he has more money.) Joel is often sympathetic to his workers. He’s willing to attend one of his worker’s fusion guitar shows. But he’s clearly no Marxist. (While Joel tolerates his workers’ eccentricities, perhaps more so compared with present workplace realities, there’s no indication here that the workers are unionized.) He does, after all, live in a gated community. His house, rather amusingly, doesn’t resemble anything close to a McMansion. One can easily imagine a nearly identical home just outside the gates.

Joel’s home may be his castle. But the patriarchal remnants of English common law don’t stop with his mortgage. His wife, Suzie, puts on her sweatpants at 8:00 PM every night, tying them up like a 21st century chastity belt, and Joel needs to get home fast if he hopes to get some action. He never does. Their relationship and sex life is a mess. And Joel lacks the royal effrontery to tell Suzie that he finds the sweat pants distasteful. The two never think of communicating directly with each other. Dancing with the Stars is the bigger draw. Indeed, Bowling Alone author Robert D. Putnam would probably have a field day with this film, seeing as how most of the problems arise because nobody thinks of directly communicating with each other.

Is this a cartoonish depiction of American domestic life? Even accounting for Judge’s animation background, not quite. This is also a film in which the wonderfully lively character actor J.K. Simmons plays it straight. There are skirmishes with opportunistic interlopers who can’t use the English language. (One makes a sad attempt to use “referral” as a verb.) Well-meaning but socially inept figures try to hold onto a sense of community rooted in Eisenhower-era community. And these social throwbacks are the only thing left. Joel’s neighbor Nathan mercilessly (and hilariously) hectors the Reynolds into buying tickets for a Rotary Club dinner. David Koechner plays Nathan like a cross between Stephen Root’s Milton and Gary Cole’s Bill Limbergh. While the New York intellectual type may quibble with Judge resorting to such archetypes, the truth of the matter is that anybody who has done time in the suburbs has encountered a guy like Nathan. Nathan rattles off phrases like “a real loose bunch” and “You know how it is when the wives are talking.” But is Nathan really the problem? Or is Joel?

Much as we might be inclined to declare Nathan a rube, it’s doubtful that he would hire — as Joel does — an unqualified gigolo to impersonate a pool boy and make the moves on his wife to test her fidelity. (I don’t want to give away the results, but I will say that this plan emerges because Joel spends much of his time hanging around a spacey bartender played by Ben Affleck. And what is more pathetic? The seductive plan that mirrors the most cliched porn formula imaginable? Or the fact that anybody signs on to test such a bullshit hypothesis?)

The film’s view of middle-class life is presented as a flat series of unadventurous incidents centered around dull routine, and the apparent excitement comes through a con artist named Cindy played by Mila Kunis, who may be the most problematic character in the film. Her get-rich-quick scheme relies almost entirely on the fact that the people she exploits are stupid. And not just stupid, but stupid beyond stupid. We are introduced to Cindy stealing a guitar at the beginning and we are asked to believe that a guitar shop would not, as most guitar shops do, have a person at the front checking the merch. This exceeds reality.

But Judge isn’t entirely contemptuous of the slow-witted, well-meaning, and prejudicial naifs that are populating his films with greater frequency. His work here, much like Idiocracy, wavers interestingly between populist comedy and quasi-elitist sentiments. He can never entirely adopt a position one way or the other, and this is what makes Judge’s work intriguing. He’s the only film comedy director who can momentarily convert a populist audience into elitists, but without anyone feeling terribly bad about it. And that’s because his seemingly one-dimensional characters possess interesting ironies. Take Extract‘s Step, an employee at Joel’s factory who hopes to live up to his name by securing the coveted floor manager position. He seems to think that his many years at Reynolds Extract will count in lieu of his professional capabilities. But after he suffers an accident that splices half his manhood, he isn’t interested in suing the factory. Step’s litigious impulses emerge not because of his inherent nature, but because of Cindy’s coercion, as well as an ambulance-chasing attorney (suitably played by the obnoxious Gene Simmons).

It’s worth pointing out that if Idiocracy is the end result of the current American one-two punch of entitlement and stupidity, then Extract serves to chronicle the present conditions. Characters may wrap their lips around a two-liter bottle of soda and guzzle it down, even ordering more soda from Domino’s out of laziness. But can we talk to them?

In age in which desperate men carry submachine guns to town hall meetings, Extract suggests that part of the solution may involve listening to these alleged rubes, and even hiring them despite their glaring inadequacies. The elitists who think that this film may be another laugh riot at the expense of the unwashed masses may be greatly disappointed that Judge has the stones to defy their prejudicial expectations. That, in itself, may be the quiet and possibly unintentional riot.

Review: Drag Me to Hell (2009)

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It cannot be an accident that one of Drag Me to Hell‘s central images involves loan officer Christine Brown eating a whole tub of ice cream without apology. And let’s be honest here. We’ve all been in that spot at some point. Christine, however, is lactose intolerant and she has a weight problem buried in her past. She does not care. She spoons down the ice cream anyway. It’s the ice cream that matters now. And while I don’t know how many uptight critics will declare this film some giant tub of ice cream, I’m here to tell you that Drag Me to Hell is one marvelous movie. It’s a grand and enjoyable gift from Sam Raimi — certainly more generous than his 2000 offering — and far more fun than I could have possibly anticipated. If you’re one of those types who’s forgotten the mad and anarchic joys of eating a whole tub of ice cream, then stick to the condescending remakes or reboots or revivals that are made solely to take away your dollars without granting you that cathartic liberation. (It’s worth noting that this movie does feature quite a lot of characters cavalierly asking for money. Perhaps it’s self-aware.) This movie, on the other hand, made me laugh and grin and holler and chortle like an undisciplined eight-year-old. Not many movies can do that. But this one did.

And it’s because Sam Raimi is clearly a man who loves movies. Not the junk shuttling out of the soulless factories supervised by Michael Bay and McG, but the silly stuff and the thrilling stuff. The loud sounds and spastic images that keep us returning to the movies. Raimi has a sense of humor that might be cruel if it weren’t so innocuously bizarre. The filmmaker who dared to insert a highly amusing and utterly gratuitous cabaret scene in Spider-Man 3 has gone even further here. And trust me: it’s all for the best. Here is a movie that introduces its protagonist stuck in traffic and listening to an elocution tape spouting forth such maxims as “There is no friction with the proper diction.” Here is a movie that features a nosebleed gone awry and gives David Paymer a line that is too goofy to be true. Raimi’s even slapped the old Universal logo from the 1980s at the head of his film. This is how movies used to be and could be again if only we wouldn’t settle for less.

Drag Me to Hell is not so much a return to Raimi’s roots, as some have suggested. It is a movie that successfully combines the eyeball-popping humor of the Evil Dead movies (don’t worry: eyeballs do pop here, despite the PG-13 rating), the fey dissolves of Darkman, the classy visuals of A Simple Plan (the deliberately framed crows are replaced momentarily by a cat’s coy positioning at bottom frame), Raimi’s more naturalistic experiments with actors in The Gift (here anchored by Alison Lohman’s earnest performance), and the empathy of the Spider-Man trilogy (thankfully not so sappy). Raimi, as it turns out, has been itching to give into his id all along. And we’re all the better for it.

If being a wild imp means having a vegetarian consulting a book titled Animal Sacrifices in the Services of Deities, then Raimi will go there. What I love so much about this movie is Raimi’s casual audacity. He’s balanced an earnest romance, some ridiculous and often side-splitting comedy, and some genuine jolts. A movie that dares to throw in so many disparate elements should not work this well. But it works because Raimi very much believes that it can work. And since he’s kept the budget fairly low, he doesn’t have to worry too much about studio interference. He’s given himself a safe place to experiment. But who knew the prototype would roll out like a top-of-the-line model?

“I know this is going to sound weird,” says Christine, “but I want to get my fortune read.” When was the last time you saw a movie in which characters were so straightforward about their oddball dealings with the supernatural? When was the last time in which you saw a filmmaker hold his camera on a staircase for suspense? When was the last time you saw a filmmaker commit himself to Val Lewton’s understanding of shadow over the crass CGI effects that are now de rigueur?

Raimi even subverts the usual gender roles, perhaps to atone for the infamous tree-raping scenes in The Evil Dead. The ledger is now corrected. The men in this movie are often hilariously inept — one whimpers at a diner; another boasts of his coin collection — and the women often kick ass. Raimi even explores cringe domestic comedy during one utterly disastrous dinner scene with the prospective in-laws. A psychic and a professor argue about Jung. The camera whooshes as feverishly as Evil Dead II. And the movie even evokes Tolstoy with its lively ending.

Let me be clear on this. If you do not enjoy this movie, then you simply do not have a soul. Drag Me to Hell is a wild masterpiece. And I don’t think I’ll see another movie this year that’s anywhere near as enjoyable. Sam Raimi has restored my faith in Hollywood movies.

Review: Terminator Salvation (2009)

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As resistance leaders go, John Connor is about as imposing as an out-of-shape hipster easily thrown out of the back door by an indolent bouncer. Christian Bale seems to think that growling all of John Connor’s lines in his Batman voice will somehow persuade audiences that he’s the savior of humanity. Alas, it only reminds us how badly The Dark Knight has aged just in the past eleven months. “If you’re listening to this,” he barks into a radio, “you are the Resistance.” Well, maybe we will be if more people lose their jobs. Because aside from the two-day coyote that Kyle Reese plops onto the dinner plate, these Judgment Day survivors aren’t altogether different from the bums on Venice Beach. And call me crazy, but you’re probably going to be dirty and more than a tad dispirited if you survive a nuclear apocalypse. Chances are that if Skynet is sending around HKs and scouts, and even some little mechanical critters in the water (an homage to Star Wars‘s trash compactor scene?), this evil empire is probably going to have the technology to intercept radio signals. It is, after all, self-aware. So why on earth is Michael Ironside barking his orders to invade Skynet over the air?

Terminator Salvation lacks the grit and the grace of the original, much less the pace and the pitch of the second film or even the idiotic fun of the third. It’s easily the worst installment of the series, although I enjoyed it more than the crappy Star Trek reboot. Which is to say I enjoyed the giant robot blowing apart a disheveled 7-11 (I guess he didn’t get his Slurpee, but I’m sure the producers will collect from the product placement) and Anton Yelchin brilliantly mimicking Michael Biehn as Kyle Reese, but somehow making the role his own. (A few words on Yelchin: He’s great. The kid will go places. Between Reese and Chekhov, he’s demonstrated that he’s that rare eccentric character actor who somehow sparkles even in dumb Hollywood blockbusters. Let us hope that the system will not corrupt him into a far less interesting talent.)

But I couldn’t care less about John Connor. You figure that he’d get some voiceover tips from listening to all those tapes of his mother (played by Linda Hamilton’s voice). But John Connor is so bland that I think his hopes of getting into the iTunes Top 100 Podcasts are slim at best, even if Skynet manages to kill all the podcasters. Bale was more interesting earlier in the year when an audio clip surfaced of Bale freaking out on set. In fact, I was hoping for a whole film featuring a psychotic Christian Bale scaring the hell out of his lieutenants. Instead, I observed a paucity of masculinity. We’re seeing less swagger in our action movies, and I’m starting to get concerned. (As it so happens, Ah-nuld makes a cameo appearance. He’s a nude and voiceless CG version with that silly swept hair from the first film. I kind of missed that silly swept hair. It seemed just right on a coldblooded killing machine. But rather conspicuously, Arnold’s penis is either missing on this T-800 model or permanently darkened by the odd lighting. This cannot be an accident.)

What does it say that I actually longed for a preteen Edward Furlong? With Bale’s Connor, we don’t even get the silly emo nonsense we got from Nick Stahl in the last film. Even Bale’s pathetic attempt to bark the trademark line “I’ll be back” was responded to with ridicule from the audience. Besides, a Terminator movie without Ah-nuld at the helm feels like a trip to Cabo San Lucas without tequila. You want to string up the travel agents who wasted your time.

The agents in question — represented by a team of screenwriters, some of whom were rewriting on the set and rewriting very close to the start of production — have attempted to atone for the lack of time travel by giving us a guy named Marcus (played by Sam Worthington) who signs on to be Helena Bonham Carter’s robotic bitch. Cyberdyne — not blown up, despite the second film’s events — has apparently transformed into a genetics company. And if you’re thinking that Harold Arlen songs are in Worthington’s future, you’re right and McG will probably send you a kewpie doll. Worthington isn’t a bad actor, but his character and motivations are utterly ridiculous. (Let’s put it this way. Ah-nuld’s silly line, “I know now why you cry, but it is something I can never do,” has more heft than the entirety of Marcus’s actions.) You mean to tell me that some random guy wandering around a Los Angeles wasteland and not knowing about Skynet for ten years is going to be immediately accepted by the survivors of humanity? And not even Paul Haggis, the Oscar-winning screenwriter, objected in the rewrites? With Marcus, we got silly Christ imagery when he’s executed in prison and silly Christ imagery when he’s strung up above a pit. Christ imagery may have salvaged David Fincher’s murky Alien 3, but it’s clear that McG is not good enough to follow in the mighty James Cameron’s footsteps. (Indeed, the film ends with Christian Bale wandering around a set very similar to the steely outpost at the end of Aliens. Whether this was a conscious nod to Cameron or not, Bale is so utterly inept and uninteresting that one longs for Sigourney Weaver to beat the shit out of Bale and lead humanity out of the doldrums. You know that she’d do it too. And she wouldn’t even have to use a funny Batman voice.)

To add insult to injury, the filmmakers have pissed away James Cameron’s odd but effective feminist subtext. The women of Cameron’s Terminator movies have always been extremely interesting, caught within an odd melange of libertarian and Third Wave sentiments. They are gutsy, feminine, strong, vulnerable, but also quite capable of going nuts. And they’re far more interesting than any of the men. When Josh Friedman signed on to do The Sarah Connor Chronicles (a rare intelligent program that has been sadly given the axe), he knew damn well that gender roles were one of the franchise’s secret ingredients. (The second season premiere ends with Garbage singer Shirley Manson — playing a T-1000 model — morphing from a urinal to her female form in the men’s room to settle a bit of corporate patriarchy. This moment represented what was quite possibly the most intriguing symbol of gender relations we’re likely to see in a television series in quite some time.)

But in Terminator Salvation, McG and his boys have given us three archetypes for women to choose from (discounting Helena Bonham Carter and former NEA director Jane Alexander, who surely must have needed the money to show up for such a thankless role): (1) John Connor’s wife, Kate, who is barefoot and pregnant and supportive, (2) Blair Williams, a boring by-the-numbers rebel who asks to snuggle up to Marcus for some body heat, and (3) Star, a mute girl, reminiscent of the feral boy from The Road Warrior, who is resourceful but not permitted to speak. It’s safe to say that, even accounting for Judgment Day throwing everything into whack, this doesn’t exactly consider 21st century developments. I understand that women can do far more than breed and kick ass.

For all the screenwriters paid for this silly movie, you think they’d come up with better lines than “That’s why I don’t trust you. I’m the only hope you have.” James Cameron’s dialogue has sometimes been silly, but at least the man knew how to make a goddam movie. At one point, Christian Bale shouts, “We aren’t machines. If we behave like them, then what is the point of winning?”

Which led me to wonder what the point was in watching this damn movie. I loved the Terminator movies growing up. I’m proud to say that they still held up last week. (If anything, the first film was even better than I remember. And I had seen it perhaps thirty times during my adolescence. Too bad that Ah-nuld went all soft.) I’m also proud to say that Josh Friedman has created a decent and thoughtful television spinoff. (It’s also worth observing that Friedman pretty much ignored the third movie.) For the powers that be to preempt Friedman’s efforts while advancing McG’s callow hucksterism is a sign that the machines have indeed won. The storm at the end of the first film came and went. It’s time to move on and ignore the Terminator franchise. There’s no fate but what we make for ourselves. And that includes avoiding bullshit blockbusters.

Review: Fighting (2009)

“Bob Semen is a freak but New York needs freaks. At his best he was hope for the hopeless and at his worst, no more than a lesson. An adventure to be lived and learned.” — Dino Montiel, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints

New York does indeed need its freaks. But few artists wish to broach the terrible truth that the richer and cleaner New York under Bloomberg doesn’t particularly desire them. Those seedy characters lovingly portrayed in Richard Price’s books and Abel Ferrara’s films now occupy the realm of endearing fantasy rather than representative reality. Ferrara himself notably attempted to reclaim his lost New York in 2007’s Go Go Tales (largely shot in Rome’s Cinecitta Studios and sadly unseen here in the States beyond film festivals) and the same can be said of Price’s last novel Lush Life, which, as Salon’s Richard B. Woodward and others have observed, doesn’t quite possess the authenticity of today. That’s a stunner, considering how dead-on Price’s previous achievements were. But the bums lost and were pushed rather rudely into the patchy remnants of the underground, causing our best artistic practitioners to drift into the past. Still, maybe the current economic downturn will fire up a few slackers to take any rug they want from the house.

Because of all this, it’s no surprise that the New York depicted in Dito Montiel’s second feature, Fighting, bears little resemblance to current New York. In Montiel’s universe, a hustler can get away with selling an all-too-obvious Harry Potter ripoff just blocks away from the publishing industry hubs in Midtown, African-Americans shout loudly about Billy Joel tickets, landlords post overdue notices on doors to embarrass tenants (rather than sliding them under doors), and gamblers fail to do the most rudimentary background checks on bagmen delivering half a million dollars. Montiel’s Manhattan is as true as the blown-up photo of an aerial view sitting behind one man’s desk, accessible through a door containing an equally cartoonish illustration of money. All this is something of a surprise given Montiel’s heightened attention to detail in his last film, A Guide to Recognizing Your Saints. (Yes, modern subway trains did often roll by in 1986, among many other notable gaffes. But this low-budget film felt right for the most part; especially with one powerful moment between Shia LeBeouf and Chazz Palminteri, just after LeBeouf observes a death, in which the father-son power dynamic seesaws twenty times in a New York minute.)

The inflexible authenticity booster — that Walter Benn Michaels sort of blowhard — would see all this as a bad thing. (If you missed Michaels’s small splash in the pool tended to by the gated community, Michaels stated, in all seriousness, that American Psycho — a novel, incidentally, turning eighteen this year — recalled Edith Wharton’s novels of manners and that Ellis had written a truer novel than Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Michael Chabon. This is the kind of wild and tenuously supported claim that apparently has you spearheading a New York Public Library discussion. You can observe the glum video results here, where the rigid Michaels comes across as some Richard Dawson-like figure of the literary world, a man very much in love with his own voice waiting for nearly everyone around him to supplicate to his ostensible intellect. I was surprised he didn’t get up from his chair, kiss Susan Straight on the lips, and entreat the audience to “play the Feud.” After spending ten minutes reading his essay aloud like some hoary and entitled hybrid of Ben Gazzara and Lee Siegel, Michaels doesn’t seem to consider that American Psycho might, in fact, be a satire or a pastiche. That the brand names and the consumerism juxtaposed against savage violence has less to do with dutifully reporting on manners and more to do with sending up entitlement. Michaels seems unable to come to complete terms with Susan Straight’s concern for location over character, which she admits to him and which defies his generalization of what authors seem concerned with, or, for that matter, David Simon’s affinity for seemingly unreal books like Schindler’s List. To give you a sense of Michaels’s subtlety, the man not only rolls his eyes, but remarks on rolling his eyes. And if he happened to be in the hood, I suspect that this hotheaded attitude would get the man beat with a baseball bat — a la Montiel. Michaels is also shockingly out-of-touch with such writers as Stewart O’Nan, Richard Russo, and William T. Vollmann, all of whom have devoted much of their fiction to working-class and/or alternative perspectives. And yet Michaels’s flummery has been lionized. Because it’s the New York thing to do. Too bad a few freaks weren’t invited to sit at the table. But, hey, this is New York.)

The more intriguing question is whether there’s any value in the inauthentic. Should we dispose of a film like Fighting that is unapologetically artificial? Well, only a humorless cloghopper like Michaels would. For what it’s worth, I found myself pleasantly surprised to have enjoyed Montiel’s movie as much as I did, precisely because it seems to concern itself with deliberate fabrication as a response to a very real predicament of a city gone horribly gentrified. The movie feels like some bizarre homage to the action movies produced by Cannon Films in the 1980s. It’s almost as if the film is suggesting that even the kind of ridiculous bravado you got with Chuck Norris in Invasion U.S.A. would better serve New York than the neutered passive masculinity too easily settled upon today. The cinematography, much like those choppy action flicks shot in the pre-500 Tungsten days, avoids volatile high-contrast situations. It seems photographed directly for VHS. (The movie does end up employing a few helicopter shots for the climactic showdown.) But that’s part of the fun. Because Montiel’s metropolis is rendered as if some 1985 incarnation of New York merged with one prominently featuring billboards of the Legally Blonde musical. And the aesthetic resemblance here is so striking that I found myself extremely startled by the first appearance of a cell phone.

The fights in this movie, rather remarkably, don’t involve blood. These bouts are of the crunchy, bone-breaking, and drinking fountain-collision variety. The safe, crowd-pleasing type you’d expect from a Cannon movie. You could easily replace Michael Rivera with Billy Drago. My Cannon parallel theory may hold up when we consider that, just after every fight Channing Tatum is involved in, one of the gang members points his finger at the supine defeated opponent and laughs. And I haven’t even mentioned the cheesy subplot with Brian White’s Evan Haley. The rich New Yorker/poor small town implant vendetta between Evan and Channing Tatum’s Shawn MacArthur goes all the way back to high school.

Channing Tatum, incidentally, makes an iffy pugilist, both in look and in execution, but he does serve as a weird amalgam of Patrick Swayze’s Dalton, a young Patrick Dempsey, and Mark Wahlberg talking to animals. His character doesn’t smoke and he doesn’t quit have the guts to say, “I’m telling you straight It’s my way or the highway.” He desperately pursues Zulay Henao and insists on clarifying that a forced 20-minute breakfast in which he claims not to be hungry is a date. (I found myself inexplicably recalling the rather ridiculous way Richard Gere shovels eggs into his mouth in An Officer and a Gentleman during this awkward meet-cute moment. Perhaps the fights in this movie are meant to be as pleasantly incongruous as the smackdown between Gere and Louis Gossett, Jr. that comes out of nowhere near film’s end. My moviegoing companion seemed convinced that Montiel was channeling They Live‘s Nada. Now, in hindsight, I am skeptical of both claims. But this does demonstrate the free association risks that come with a particular aesthetic.) Montiel has better success with Shawn MacArthur when Zulay Henao’s daughter’s abuelita tells him to get the hell out of their apartment and refuses to understand his belabored gratitude in Spanish. Here is a MacArthur who doesn’t quite have the guts to say, “I shall return.” But he’s content to fight anyone he needs to for tens of thousands of dollars.

But the reason this movie worked for me as a guilty pleasure involves how something wholly inauthentic may very well have emerged from Montiel’s reality. In Montiel’s case, it starts with Bob Semen, cited in the quote that began this essay and one of the many gritty hues brightening the streets in Montiel’s memoir. Bob’s described in the book as running an “unbelievable illegitimate, straight-out false, television movie and modeling business on 52nd Street and Broadway, right upstairs from the Kit Kat Club.” (No surprise that this locale is where much of Fighting‘s action takes place.) Bob harbors grandiose dreams to turn Montiel’s band, Gutterboy, into a media sensation. One of his plans is a ten-million-dollar movie called No More Mistakes about the guy who invented the pencil eraser. (Which sounds as dubious as a ten-million-dollar

Bob never made it into Montiel’s film adaptation, but Frank the Dog Walker did. As played by Anthony DeSando, Frank is a languorous-tongued hustler who drawls out his vowels with a vaguely gay Queens timbre and expresses his dubious plans with spastic arm thrusting. And with Fighting, there appears to have been something of a schizoid split. Both Frank the Dog Walker and DeSando made it into Montiel’s second movie, but the double helix was split. Bob transmogrified into Frank, and this was a composite further altered by DeSando. But now Montiel has found an actor to carry these idiosyncrasies further, one who can improbably carry this somewhat preposterous but strangely entertaining movie.

Bob and Frank are now Harvey Boarden. And I don’t know if this movie could have worked without Terence Howard in the role, who improves on DeSando’s performance and improbably anchors the film. Here is a man who succeeds at his hustling in spite of his seemingly space delivery. He fills up dead air with little maxims picked up from his father and a steady drawl that involves lingering on one word across multiple sentences:

A: “I got a place around the corner. You can stay there until you find another place.” (“place”)
B: “We’re in a a $100,000 Mercedes. That’s where we’re going.” (“we’re”)
C: The “You tell…” that precedes Harvey’s efforts to delegate. (“you tell”)

We soon realize that it is these emphatic repetitions that has kept Harvey going. (And indeed, Fighting continues with the Altman-like overlapping dialogue rhythms that Montiel carried out in his first film.) Harvey may have stacks of Broadway tickets on his table. He may claim to be in the “tickets and sneakers” business. But he stays alive in this New York for the rich because he finds a way to inhabit each scene and demonstrate his worth through quiet repetition. And if the movie abides by the rule that a hustler is “someone who cannot win that wins,” then surely there is room for a world that cannot be authentic but that remains authentic in its convictions.

Make no mistake: this is a cheesy fighting movie. But Montiel knows very well that New York in real or fictive form needs its freaks. For those dwelling on the freaks being squeezed out, here is a movie that, for a time, offers hope for the hopeless.

Review: Crossing Over (2009)

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Wayne Kramer has made two exceptional motion pictures. The Cooler presented us with the wild premise of a pathetic loser played by William H. Macy whose temperament was particularly suited to “cooling” the luck of gamblers at a casino operated by Alec Baldwin. It needs no further encomia from me, but it’s certainly worth seeing. 2006’s Running Scared was a giddy, unapologetically caffeinated action flick that presented creepy child pornographers and a crazy climactic battle on a hockey rink. It was the kind of fun and scruffy and overexcited movie that perhaps comes along once every two years, and it was woefully misunderstood by such humorless snobs as Cynthia Fuchs, Harvey Karten, and Stephanie Zacharek.* Here was a movie that, much like Sin City, reveled in the absurdities of cinematic violence and only hoped that the audience would share in its zaniness. It was the kind of movie that a certain strain of entitled and elitist New York critic could never understand: a much needed corrective to the overrated and overly referential Kill Bill couplet. That Running Scared succeeded as well as it did, despite the potentially disastrous casting of Paul Walker, was to its immense credit. (And it’s worth noting that even Andrew Sarris wasn’t immune to Running Scared‘s over-the-top charms.)

But I’m sad to report that Kramer’s latest film, Crossing Over, doesn’t share these savage charms. There are two very funny scenes: one intentional and one unintentional. An Australian Jew who is far from faithful attempts to convince a federal agent of his religiosity so that he can secure a visa. A rabbi is enlisted to supervise, to ensure that he’s properly carrying out the kaddish. Not only is the Australian clearly unqualified, but he demands that the agent put his hands against his head in deference. The rabbi, hardly a dummy, gives the agent an okay, hands the Australian a business card, and tells the Australian that he expects to see him in his synagogue tomorrow. It’s a scene that’s vintage Kramer. A moment that defies our expectations and gives us something slightly absurd but believable. Unfortunately, later in the film, we encounter, shortly after a convenience store shootout, one of the most preposterous monologues I think I’ve seen in a movie in some time, in which a man attempts to persuade a young hood that citizenship was “the most spiritual moment of my whole life.” Even the austere crowd at the screening I attended couldn’t stop themselves from howling during this ineptly directed moment.

All this is in service of a Serious Story. There’s an immigration problem in Los Angeles. One that this movie won’t solve. It’s Serious. So Serious that immigration agent Max Brogan (Harrison Ford) can be seen staring into a television downing a glass of scotch as the camera dollies around his lonely and dumpy home in full Hollywood cliche. (A cat enters the frame of the first establishing shot, but the feline is never seen again. Presumably, Brogan was so miserable that he was forced to kill the cat.) But Brogan is driven by that audience-tested commodity of white liberal guilt. What could have been an intriguingly contrarian take on a morally-minded immigration agent caught in a corrupt system (and possibly a thespic comeback for Ford) becomes a formula no different from any other Ford hero. It’s so bad that one expects Ford to boom “Get out of my sweatshop!” in true Air Force One style.

(A few words on Harrison Ford: There was a time in the mid-1980s when Ford took on interesting roles in such films as The Mosquito Coast, Witness, and Frantic. He managed to shed the Han Solo/Indiana Jones image and demonstrated, at long last, that he was a surprisingly versatile actor. Alas, he returned to the money-making roles. So if you’re hoping that Crossing Over represents a return to these halcyon days, you’re probably going to be as disappointed as I was. It doesn’t help that Ford mangles his Spanish. Here’s a man who’s been on the beat for decades. You’d expect a guy of this type to possess some reasonable fluency. But, alas, as an actor, Harrison Ford has become a lost cause. I’m convinced that there isn’t another great performance in him, unless a ballsy director whips him into shape.)

Ray Liotta, who is looking more and more like George W. Bush with each role, is also in this film. He’s a guy on the inside who offers carnal quid pro quos to any hot babe willing to get on all fours for a visa. Liotta, who has this troubling acting tic of keeping his mouth slightly agape, is okay. But that’s only because Alice Eve is utterly amazing in this movie. Like any good actor, she plays not to serve any dormant solipsistic needs, but to keep the scene going. And she saves Liotta’s ass. Her character is an aspiring actress who wants to get ahead but who needs visa status. If this role were played by any other actor, this archetype would have easily transformed into a cliche. But Eve conveys such an accurate sense of removal and a quiet sense of horror when she’s trapped in sleazy motel rooms that she manages to add an emotional quality that this film is sadly lacking. (One wonders what Kramer could get out of Eve if he returned to the quirky sensibilities he established in his two previous films.)

Alas, this is a Serious Story. One in which the feds predictably intercede when a young woman (horribly played by Summer Bishil) delivers a controversial essay before a class about the 9/11 hijackers. (In 2009, the class still resorts to calling her a “sand nigger.” Which leads one to wonder: How long had this script been sitting in Kramer’s drawer? The IMDB, of which more anon, informs us that Kramer made a short film called Crossing Over in 1996. Oh, that explains it.) One in which Ashley Judd (married to Liotta in this) begs her husband to help her out. (She’s an immigration rights attorney.) Too bad that Judd contributes very little to the story. Should I mention the ridiculous brother-sister subplot, with the sister perceived as slutty? Probably not.

At times, this film is so hackneyed that one is tempted to momentarily hold up Crash as a Babel or Touch of Evil comparative point. It wrangles too many storylines and feels utterly phony in its sentiments. Which is too bad. Because this is the first film I’ve seen in which a law enforcement agent actually quotes the Internet Movie Database as an authority. And what is Phil Perry doing in this singing the national anthem? You can take the filmmaker out of the quirks, but you can’t take the filmmaker out of the quirks. Too bad these incongruities aren’t enough.

What the hell has happened to Kramer? Has he been led down an incompatibly damning mainstream path by the take-no-chances producers Frank Marshall and Kathleen Kennedy? Did superstar Harrison Ford demand script changes? Ford’s possibly exorbitant salary appears to have debilitated Kramer’s ability to provide the punchy and moody visuals observed in his two previous films. There is a slapdash and predictable feel to the editing. Every new scene is intercut with rote helicopter shots of the Los Angeles skyline and various interchanges, as if this second-unit footage is supposed to serve in lieu of a proper master shot.

I certainly hope that the title doesn’t apply to Kramer. If Kramer simply wanted to try out a Serious Story, he’s permitted one fumble. We’ll forgive him this dog and hope that he returns to form with the next. But if he has permanently crossed over into pedestrian filmmaking, then this would be grounds for deportment from the pantheon of lively filmmakers to keep tabs on.

* — An update on Saturday morning: Harvey Karten has written to me personally to assure me that he is not a snob. Rather mysteriously, he insists that he’s humorless. I will take his word on these two points, but I am not entirely convinced that he is entirely humorless and will conduct investigations to see if he is capable of blowing a raspberry or two. I am also willing to overturn my assertion about Cynthia Fuchs, should someone present compelling evidence. Zacharek, however, is beyond the point of no return, as her arrogant and uninformed remarks in this article indicate.

Review: Nothing But the Truth

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Before Jonathan Demme became a world-renowned filmmaker, he was a film critic working for a small newspaper. The glorious schlock producer Roger Corman was shrewd enough to give the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, the late and profoundly misunderstood Paul Bartel, Martin Scorsese, the woefully underrated Joe Dante, James Cameron, and John Sayles their early starts. And Corman saw something in Demme while Demme was working for him as a unit publicist. Demme got his first directing assignment from Corman in 1974: a not-bad women-in-prison flick called Caged Heat that features catfights, gratuitous nudity, and a score from Velvet Underground founder John Cale. Demme followed this up with two more films for Corman before being snatched up by Paramount to direct Handle with Care. The rest, as they say, is history. I’ve long had a theory that the unfettered freedom that Corman gave to guys like Demme was invaluable. They became serious filmmakers a few decades later. And when we consider that some of the top-grossing Hollywood entertainments of the past decade (The Lord of the Rings, the Spider-Man trilogy) came from, respectively, Peter Jackson and Sam Raimi — two filmmakers who, only two decades ago, could not be possibly be identified as having mass commercial prospects, the theory that exploitation fare serves as an essential training ground becomes more plausible.

Like Demme, Rod Lurie was also a critic before he was a filmmaker. Regrettably, he did not have a Corman-like figure who encouraged him to go completely wild. And this apparent restraint, whether self-imposed or dictated by studio forces, has prevented Lurie from being anything more than a by-the-numbers filmmaker. One watches Lurie’s films wondering if the id will ever burst completely to the surface. Here is a man who put “win” in the names of two soldiers in The Last Castle, and was silly enough to have a scene in which a 64-year-old shirtless Robert Redford moves rocks without rest across a prison yard. There is clearly great exploitation potential here. But Lurie seems convinced that he is making a deeply intelligent film with each offering. He’s infinitely more interesting when he relies on these goofy what-the-hell moments, such as the audacious casting of Jeff “The Dude” Bridges as the President of the United States in The Contender. Not only does Jeff Bridges play, well, Jeff Bridges, but Lurie also includes a silly scene in which this President offers a ridiculously oversized sandwich in an effort to “break bread” and is taken aback when his political associate does not accept the offer.

This struggle between wanting to pound moral issues into his audience’s skulls with all the grace and subtlety of a limbless deli worker trying to use the meat cutting machine to make a hero and embracing film as something that is often fun and inexplicable is what makes Lurie’s most recent film, Nothing But the Truth, perhaps his most interesting. While my moviegoing companion dismissed Nothing But the Truth as “a steaming pile of dung,” I felt compelled to defend the movie’s odder moments, even as I simultaneously recognized it as a deeply flawed political drama.

Beneath Nothing But the Truth‘s implausible and pleasantly preposterous politics beats the half-hidden heart of a perfectly respectable exploitation film. There are girl-on-girl jail fights and a conjugal visit in which a woman screams, “Thanks for the fuck! It really hit the spot!” These are not the scenes that one expects from an austere political drama, and the film held my interest during these moments because I wanted to see just how far Lurie would go. Personally, I do not believe that Lurie went nearly far enough. And I felt sad. Because American cinema needs more people who take chances. I concluded that the only way that Lurie could get attuned to his innate craziness would involve remaking the wonderfully terrible movie, Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS, a script incapable of being directed with total sincerity. An Ilsa remake would put Lurie’s naivete to an end and would finally release him from the needless task of making “important” films. Failing that, perhaps Abel Ferrara could be employed to hold Lurie hostage for a month and Lurie could emerge from the smoky anarchy with a newfound determination to make batshit crazy films.

nothing2Let us first ponder why a reprogramming along these lines is necessary. The film opens with a presidential assassination attempt with an unbelievable paucity of Secret Service agents. Later, there’s a stern judge who announces “Anyone want some tea? It’s from Greece” in his chambers at a wildly inappropriate moment. The newsroom of the fictive Capitol Sun-Times, more All the President’s Men than All the Present Realities, is utterly implausible with newspaper cuts and the Tribune Company’s bankruptcy in recent headlines. Everyone seems to have plenty of time to bullshit around in an editorial meeting. The graceful Angela Bassett almost sells her silly role as a top editor, until she urges Our Intrepid Reporter Based Heavily on Judith Miller (played by Kate Beckinsale) to get some rest, a wildly improbable request when today’s newspapers demand immediate copy to fuel sales. Our Intrepid Reporter lives in a very spacious house with another writer, who has written only one novel. (It’s safe to say that Lurie isn’t familiar with the financial ups and downs that would preclude such an affluent lifestyle.)

Lurie has this funny habit of getting one fact right, only to be completely wrong about another one. At one point, a CIA agent submits to a polygraph test. As anyone who had read Ken Alder’s interesting book, The Lie Detectors, knows, a polygraph is inadmissible in court, an unreliable measure, and entirely unscientific. (For more on polygraphs, you can listen to my podcast interview last year with Alder.) But Lurie doesn’t seem to know this, or at least never mentions it. Lurie does know that CIA agents are trained to beat a polygraph test (and this is mentioned). But if the CIA agent can beat the test, why would the investigation bother to carry it out? These numbskull decisions are at odds with the movie’s (perhaps unintentional) quirky charms.

Most egregiously, Matt Dillon has been cast in the role of the prosecutor who goes after Our Intrepid Reporter.

A few words about Matt Dillon: If you need someone to play a dick or a former high-school jock who is past his prime, Dillon’s your man. If, however, you need an actor to offer convincing authority, Dillon simply cannot be taken seriously. The director John McNaughton — a man, unlike Lurie, who knows how to have great fun with sleaze — understood the Dillon dilemma when he cast him in Wild Things and played this up. And one suspects from Dillon’s memorable appearance on Fishing with John that Dillon exhibits these qualities quite naturally.

Dillon is one of those guys who could easily be beaten up by out-of-shape thugs at a suburban bar. Sure, the bluehairs accepted his unintentionally hilarious performance in Crash and nominated him for an Academy Award. But the rest of us know that his attempts to take charge of a scene and exhibit masculinity are as dopey and diaphanous as a used car salesman trying to convince that he’s a friend. Had Nothing But the Truth possessed the courage to embrace its exploitation potential, Dillon’s casting would have proven to be a stroke of genius. But Lurie wants us to accept Dillon as a threat, because he believes too much in his premise, and has Dillon spout such silly lines as, “You know, vilify me all you want, but I had a job to do.” (To get a sense of how ridiculous this line is, imagine it spoken in Dillon’s voice, with that regrettable Dillon pause at the commas.)

nothing3Alan Alda, on the other hand, is very good as the attorney who defends Our Intrepid Journalist, even when he’s given a preposterous scenario in which he essentially whines to a judge, “Oh, come on!” That Alda can work these scenarios without diminishing his authority is a credit to his great powers as an actor. Lurie was lucky to get him on board.

Beckinsale is okay. David Schwimmer is ridiculous. Vera Farmiga has been better elsewhere. But I liked Floyd Abrams as the Judge. (This may be because he’s a well-known lawyer. Perhaps he gave Alda some helpful tips.)

Even Alik Sakharov’s camerawork here is befitting of a quickly made film produced by Corman: lots of long lenses with soft and blurry backgrounds, too many closeups, muddled editing. This appears to be an effort to create claustrophobia. But it only serves to reinforce the rhetorical Don Edmonds question raised above. What would Lurie do with Ilsa?

I am not quite sure if I’ve written a bad review. But I have spent far more words than I expected to on Lurie’s latest opus. And there are pages of notes I haven’t even touched on. I know that Rod Lurie is a bit obsessive about leaving comments at nearly every website that reviews his films. Perhaps he cares very deeply what some of us think. So, Rod, if you are looking for advice, do yourself and the film world a favor. Remake Ilsa. Stop injecting your screenplays with silly moral predicaments. Be honest for once and realize that there’s a great big cornball exploitation filmmaker inside you. If you’re true to that voice, then maybe you could be a Demme decades down the line.

The Devil and Miss Cody

Diablo Cody’s win over Tamara Jenkins for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar is perhaps the most egregious Oscar victory since Oliver! beat out 2001 for Best Picture in 1968. If this were a just universe, the appropriate executives would have taken Cody out behind the shed shortly after reading Juno and shot her down like an old dog. Instead, the Academy awarded Cody the Oscar for relying upon cultural references over emotional conviction, for using characters who are ironically detached rather than prepared to face the visceral realities of responsibility, and for encouraging Jason Reitman to employ the most insipid use of angst-ridden indie rock in cinema I’ve seen in some time.

diablocody.jpgLet us be clear on this. I saw all five Best Picture nominees. And while I liked the other four, it is an outrage that so many thinking people have been duped by Juno. Ellen Page’s snarky one-note performance, originating from the same creative morass that spawned such execrable “wonders” as Napoleon Dynamite, Little Miss Sunshine, and Wes Anderson’s films after The Royal Tenenbaums, is considered multilayered and superlative. Nobody has had the balls to call out Reitman for relying so heavily upon great character actors like Rainn Wilson and Allison Janney to disguise his creative deficiencies. Juno was nothing more than an extended episode of Arrested Development — a dreadful film in which such filmmaking tactics as six consecutive cuts of a van driving in front of a suburban house are considered “clever” and in which Michael Cera has been encouraged to abdicate his talent in favor of being typecast as the nice guy (and he will most certainly be typecast, if he takes another one of these damnable roles).

Juno is a film that would rather have its titular protagonist cry out “Thundercats, ho!” while she is going into labor than express anything tantamount to fright or second thoughts. It is a film content to have Jason Bateman name-check Herschell Gordon Lewis and Sonic Youth instead of having him emote over the difficulties of getting older. It is a film content with such cheapshots as Jennifer Garner presented as a yuppie mom caricature and another mom (played by Darla Vandenbossche) mocked for being older and overweight. (In fact, Vandenbossche’s sole purpose for being in this film is to be ridiculed by Cody. What does that say about emerging talent?) This is a film designed for people who do not feel or embrace the world in any genuine way. With the exception of Juno’s parents (played by Allison Janney and J.K. Simmons), I felt nothing for any of the characters in this film. They were uninteresting, solipsistic, and as hackneyed as the flattest of paper dolls. I was appalled at the film’s reliance upon artifice over conviction. Handing over the Oscar to that inarticulate waif Sofia Coppola was one thing. But giving it to Cody for Juno last night was a true injustice.

The best original screenplay of 2007 — Tamara Jenkins’s The Savages, which bristled with emotion and intelligence — was entirely ignored by both the Academy and the purported streetcred of the Independent Spirit Award for a film phonier than a second-hand Hallmark card. If awards ceremonies are anything to go by, Hollywood is in trouble. Homegrown talent can’t measure up. Not only is Hollywood awarding its acting laurels to the Europeans, but it now feel content to dismiss any screenwriter who dares to pursue the human heart in conflict with itself. It’s the hip adding machines like Cody who now matter. But despite Cody’s penchant for taking off her clothes, the naked truth of true emotion eludes her.