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RETRO ACTIVE: It's Alive (1974)

May 19, 2012 - 7:00am
by Nick Schager

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the star-studded babies-'a-poppin' rom-com What to Expect When You're Expecting.]

Never has a movie made having children seem less appealing than It's Alive, Larry Cohen's terrifying examination of personal and parental anxieties. Cohen's genre gem is unquestionably a horror film, but its mutant-monster terror is its least scary element, not to mention the one Cohen cares least about, a fact made plain from a prolonged introduction sequence in which Lenore (Sharon Farrell) awakens in the middle of the night to inform husband Frank (John Ryan) that the baby is ready to go. That news instigates preparations to depart to the hospital, including getting dressed, packing up clothes, and waking their 11-year-old son Chris (Daniel Holzman) and taking him to stay with friend Charley (William Wellman Jr.), arrangements that Cohen depicts with a laid-back sweetness—be it Frank sticking a cat in slumbering Chris' face, or affecting a jokey Western patois as they drive through the night—that immediately creates intense empathy for this happy family on the brink of further joy. Cohen's fondness for his characters is genuine and infectious, but despite the lack of panic in the air, there's trouble brewing, first spied in Lenore clenching her face in unnatural discomfort, and then at the hospital, when she asks Frank for reassurance that the new child won't make him feel trapped "like the last time."

Continued reading RETRO ACTIVE: It's Alive (1974)...

FILM OF THE WEEK: Elena

May 16, 2012 - 3:01pm
by Vadim Rizov

Elena is didactic filmmaking and in interviews, director Andrei Zvyagintsev hasn't been shy in explicitly stating his fundamental criticism of the contemporary Russian underclass. "This is how they will behave," he noted in an interview conducted at the film's Cannes premiere. "At one point we considered calling the film The Invasion of the Barbarians." "They" are the title character's (Nadezhda Markina) son Sergei (Aleksey Rozin) and his family, notably grandson Sasha (Igor Orgutsov), whose grades are so bad he'll end up serving mandatory army time unless the right college officials are bribed. Former nurse Elena wants far wealthier second husband Vladimir (Andrey Smirnov) to provide the money, but he refuses on angry principle, insisting military discipline is just the right education for a directionless young man.

The harshest dialogue's always closest to the director's unambiguous public statements. Vladimir's daughter Katya (Elena Lyadova) is a disappointment ("a goddamned hedonist," father grumbles), but he's still planning to leave her the bulk of his money. Her brusque, cynical affection cheers him up. "We're all bad seeds," she declares in deadpan resignation, declining Vladimir's suggestion to try maternity as a cure for disaffection. "What's irresponsible is producing children you know will be sick or doomed, because their parents are sick or doomed." (This echoes Zvyaginstev's own viewpoint exactly: "It's also a myth that procreation at any cost is a necessity.")

Continued reading FILM OF THE WEEK: Elena...

INTERVIEW: Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr

May 15, 2012 - 10:54am
by Steve Dollar

Comedian Bobcat Goldthwait, whose career as a filmmaker has yielded such dark and excoriating satirical fare as Shakes the Clown and World's Greatest Dad, has been making the festival rounds for months with his latest comedy, God Bless America. The film, newly released, is the director's answer to Natural Born Killers and Network. Joel Murray (Goldthwait's co-star in One Crazy Summer) is Frank, a middle-aged corporate cubicle denizen abandoned by his wife and daughter and left to stew in his bachelor apartment, festering in anger, frustration and failure. One day, his fantasies of violent revenge on a reality show world spill over when he loses his job and is diagnosed with a brain tumor. With nothing left to lose, Frank goes on a rampage—and he reluctantly takes on a co-pilot in death-dealing, Roxy (Tara Lynne Barr), a teenaged sympathizer who hates the world perhaps even more zealously than he does.

I caught up with Goldthwait during the South by Southwest film festival in March, where he was premiering the film with its stars. During a chat in the lounge of the Driskill Hotel, the trio talked about their favorite reality TV shows, the death of common decency and Diablo Cody (don't ask, just see the movie).

Continued reading INTERVIEW: Bobcat Goldthwait, Joel Murray, Tara Lynne Barr...

RETRO ACTIVE: Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)

May 11, 2012 - 6:11pm
by Nick Schager

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Tim Burton and Johnny Depp's fish-out-of-water vampire comedy Dark Shadows.]

Pair a flagging comedian with a floundering horror director and what you get is Vampire in Brooklyn, a marriage made in horror-comedy hell courtesy of Eddie Murphy and Wes Craven. The mid-90s-isms of this wretched collaboration are plentiful—cue Salt-n-Pepa's "Whatta Man" to underline Murphy's alpha-male sexiness?— and yet they're the least of this film's problems, so misbegotten and poorly executed is its every element. Working from a story co-conceived by Murphy and a script co-written by Murphy's yet-to-be-Chappelle's-Show-famous brother Charlie, Craven's pre-Scream debacle gets clunky wit' it from the get-go. Before we've even seen him, Maximillian (Murphy) narrates the set-up: with all his brethren dead, Max has left his Bermuda Triangle island home to find and marry the last of his line, who happens to be living (unaware of her vampiric nature) in Brooklyn. Given Craven's Haiti voodoo-themed The Serpent and the Rainbow, Max's nationality suggests that the filmmaker has a particular conception of the Caribbean as a hotbed of exotic evil. Those nonsensical notions, though, are overshadowed by the more basic absence of craft on display, as evidenced by an intro scene in which, after Max's ship crashes into a dock, John Witherspoon's hands-flailing caretaker investigates the vessel and finds a murdered crew in one amusement park ride-style close-up after another.

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FILM OF THE WEEK: I Wish

May 9, 2012 - 12:17pm
by Vadim Rizov

Japanese director Hirokazu Kore-eda's last film to receive American distribution, 2008's Still Walking, ended with a long shot of trains passing, "a moment whose metaphoric intent is clear," wrote Trevor Johnston. "Those trains have people on them with the same problems as the rest of us." Japanese National Railways' high-speed bullet trains serve a more optimistic function in I Wish, as well as providing some of its financing. Shane Meadows made use of Eurostar's funding for the delightful Somers Town, and Kore-eda is similarly adept in making sure he isn't compromised by his financiers.

Continued reading FILM OF THE WEEK: I Wish...

MARYLAND 2012: Critic's Notebook

May 7, 2012 - 10:25am
by Steve Dollar

Somewhere around 1 a.m. at the Lithuanian Hall in Baltimore, it hit me. Why shouldn't this be the place to have a passionate, detailed conversation about independent filmmaking? Film festivals take pride in the range of experiences they can offer guests and patrons, but nothing I've experienced quite compares with this backdrop: a packed, sweaty dance floor hopping with enthusiastic groovers, while a DJ plays deep soul classics and Charm City icon John Waters sits in a corner having an intimate chat with a fan. Behind the rectangular bar, burly old guys from the Old Country gruffly dispense $2 bottles of Utenos and Svyturys. I bump into an old friend I haven't seen in 20 years, and he immediately introduces me to an unalloyed artifact of the city. I don't understand too much of what he's trying to tell me, but from his T-shirt I know his name. The garment bears a likeness of his pixelated gaze and wild shocks of white hair framing a bald dome, and underneath his face the legend: Rezzy Ray Has a Posse.

We didn't talk for long, Rezzy Ray and I, as I had another posse to engage. In an adjacent room was a convergence of American filmmakers, brought to town for the Maryland Film Festival, which has evolved into an important annual summit meeting. The festival's particular focus is on the ever-emerging microbudget movement and smart, risky, handmade cinema, the kind that has to work hard to assert itself in a world where distributors often want everything and offer next to nothing.

Continued reading MARYLAND 2012: Critic's Notebook...

FILM OF THE WEEK: The Connection (1962)

May 4, 2012 - 10:31am
by Vadim Rizov

[Presented by Milestone Films, The Connection opens today at NYC's IFC Center in a new 35mm restoration.]

Though credulous French viewers allegedly mistook it for vérité footage at Cannes, Shirley Clarke's 1962 drama The Connection is unmistakably a filmed play. A camera swoop through a ratty New York apartment halts for a sweaty, self-and-everyone-loathing monologue from waspy addict Leach (Warren Finnerty), fuming about his "so-called friends" and their junkie worthlessness. Far from naturalism, this is Eugene O'Neill territory, with a drug connection subbing for the long-awaited iceman in a purgatorial living room. Leach finds his place under a big sign posted above the bathroom for maximum dark comic value ("Heaven or hell...which will you choose?"), holding forth with barroom intensity and pointlessness about the speed of light and the body's transparency.

Clarke meticulously records Finnerty's theatrical version of verisimilitude. More of-the-time hamminess comes from Solly (Jerome Raphael), a middle-aged intellectual with a penchant for philosophizing at the slightest provocation. Leach's problem is his sexual incompatibility with every woman on the planet ("a queer without being a queer," one of the addicts sneers), while Solly's seen gazing at male nudes. Their sexual marginalization isn't necessarily related to their drug habit.

Continued reading FILM OF THE WEEK: The Connection (1962)...

RETRO ACTIVE: The Specials (2000)

May 3, 2012 - 3:05pm
by Nick Schager

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Marvel's superhero-team extravaganza The Avengers.]

Released before 2002's Spider-Man and the ensuing (and still-ongoing) onslaught of CG superhero spectacles, The Specials is something like Watchmen-lite, with its deconstruction performed not with an incisive scalpel but a feathery sarcastic touch. Unlike screenwriter James Gunn's more recent Super—which bluntly delved into the psychosexual madness underlying masked avengers' vigilantism—his prior likeminded effort is a humorously cheeky affair, focusing on a mundane day in the life of The Specials, the "sixth or seventh greatest superhero team in the world." That ragtag group of do-gooders is led by The Strobe (Thomas Haden Church), a pompous blowhard whose arrogance—epitomized by his fondness for recounting to team members his origin story, in which he likens himself to God—is laced with a melancholy born from the realization that he's woefully low on the superhero ladder. His problems are compounded by the contempt showered on him by wife Ms. Indestructible (Paget Brewster), who's secretly sleeping with smug Weevil (Rob Lowe), as well as by a bunch of paranormal misfits that include, among others, blue-skinned sexual degenerate Amok (Jamie Kennedy), dim-witted strongman U.S. Bill (Mike Schwartz), ill-tempered ghoul-summoning Death Girl (Judy Greer), and shrinking Minute Man (Gunn), whose name is constantly mispronounced "Minuteman" ("Do I look like a soldier from the Revolutionary War?").

Continued reading RETRO ACTIVE: The Specials (2000)...

SFIFF 2012: Critic's Notebook

May 1, 2012 - 1:20pm
by Craig Phillips

[The 55th San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 3.]

The distinctly deadpan feature debut of Lebanese filmmaker Rania Attieh and her American co-director Daniel Garcia, OK, Enough, Goodbye is a warm but not overly sentimental, low-key character comedy. Like the Middle Eastern answer to Azazel Jacobs' Momma's Man, the film concerns a 40-year-old schlub (Daniel Arzrouni) who still lives at home in Tripoli—a seaport city with a rich history dating back to the 14th century, which has since fallen on hard economic times.

The locale has an air of sadness about it; not just war-torn malaise but a feeling for things lost between generations, palpably seeping into this household as a mother regrets that her son is such a loser. She speaks of wedding ceremonies and gowns she used to make, while her sociophobic son can't get a date with anyone other than a prostitute. The unnamed protagonist works in a bakery and doesn't otherwise get out much. When his mother takes off unexpectedly, leaving him on his own, the story becomes about one man's searching—first for his ma, then for himself. It's hard to blame anyone's downbeat demeanor in a decaying, depressing environment, but this sourpuss only becomes more irritable after he's "abandoned." To the directors' credit, the film doesn't deride him but also isn't afraid to mine his neuroses for comedy.

Continued reading SFIFF 2012: Critic's Notebook...

TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #2

April 29, 2012 - 3:01pm
by Steve Dollar

I don't care what you say; the cinema is richer because Harmony Korine exists within it. Hopes for The Fourth Dimension were calibrated, nonetheless. The only advance word on the new film, a three-director omnibus with vaguely Dogme '95 overtones, was that it starred Val Kilmer "as Val Kilmer," playing a motivational speaker, who rides a kid-sized bicycle and dazzles the faithful at Southern indoor skate arenas. I had penciled it in as part of the Tribeca Film Festival's freakshow trilogy, which included the stunt-casted Elmore Leonard caper Freaky Deaky (Andy Dick and Crispin Glover as playboy brothers) and Francophrenia (James Franco as "James Franco," playing a soap-opera character named Franco). It's much better than that.

Kilmer's episode, "The Lotus Community Workshop," opens the show, lensed by Korine in an extreme panoramic aspect ratio that seemed to highlight the flotsam-jetsam aspects of the director's beloved underclass milieu. Kilmer, who these days might be called "Fat Val Kilmer," rallies an adoring circle of devotees with a nearly incoherent rush of free-association and ecstatic positivity ("Cotton candy!" "Velvet Killed Elvis!" "Vibe jack!"), each phrase peppered with kooky sound effects supplied by the roller rink's DJs.

Continued reading TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #2...

RETRO ACTIVE: Web of the Spider (1971)

April 26, 2012 - 3:39pm
by Nick Schager

[This week's pick is inspired by the Edgar Allan Poe-themed horror-mystery The Raven.]

Not to be nitpicky, but it would have benefited Web of the Spider if it had something—anything—to do with a spider. Or, for that matter, a spider's web. It's likely that director Antonio Margheriti intended his title to refer to the sinister trap set in his story by a castle proprietor for an American journalist, but that's hardly a reasonable reason for bestowing this 1971 film with its chosen moniker, especially given that it's a remake of Margheriti's own aptly-dubbed (and superior) 1964 Castle of Blood. Nonetheless, this Italian horror throwaway's problems aren't relegated to name alone, as the saga of a haunted abode and its spooky inhabitants is defined by lame-brained incompetence, a fate made all the more frustrating by the fact that it has the inspired idea to cast the incomparable Klaus Kinski as Edgar Allan Poe. Kinski opens the film flailing about a tomb with a torch in hand, lurching and spinning about with frantic, sweaty drunkenness, and smashing open a coffin before bellowing a hilarious "Noooooo!" Cut to a pub, where Kinski's Poe is regaling the patrons with one of his macabre tales, though what he truly proves interested in is Yankee reporter Alan Foster (Anthony Franciosa), whose disbelief in the supernatural—spurred by Poe claiming his stories are all reality-based—is soon challenged by Lord Blackwood (Enrico Osterman).

Continued reading RETRO ACTIVE: Web of the Spider (1971)...

FILM OF THE WEEK: Bernie

April 24, 2012 - 11:41am
by Vadim Rizov

A minor Richard Linklater film is better than no Linklater at all. Bernie reteams Austin, Texas' finest with Jack Black eight years after their major-studio breakthrough School of Rock. Linklater's talent for normalizing potentially over-the-top material is very well-suited for mainstream fare; the key shot of School of Rock comes when Black yields to the kids in his class—all bugging him to perform for them—and launches into impassioned song. A hack would've cut constantly between Black's mugging and the students' goggle-eyed reactions, but Linklater reduces this scene to one simple shot. Black sings as the camera slowly tracks back down the classroom aisle, recording his performance without cueing the audience how to respond.

Rock was a hit, but Linklater's 2006 Hollywood follow-up, a remake of The Bad News Bears, was a bust. Since then, financing for the kind of modest films the director specializes in has dried up, and Linklater's talked with wistful frustration in interviews about leaving Texas for a second European career. His first narrative feature since 2008's Me and Orson Welles, Bernie reconstructs the true story of Bernie Tiede (played here by Black), a Carthage, Texas (population: 6,700) funeral home employee with a reputation for exceptional kindness. One widow who benefited from his attention was Marjorie Nugent (Shirley MacLaine), who'd alienated everyone in Carthage, TX with rudeness and stinginess. After her husband died, Bernie gave her his coat at the funeral and showed up a few days later to check how she was doing. He became her nearly-live-in companion, until her demands became too much and he killed her.

Continued reading FILM OF THE WEEK: Bernie...

TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #1

April 22, 2012 - 8:10pm
by Steve Dollar

The end of the world was just the beginning of this year's Tribeca Film Festival. Serious consideration of apocalyptic themes have permeated all kinds of recent cinema, perhaps gearing up in a timely fashion for the Mayan Shakedown forecast for 2012, so it was no surprise to note the opening weekend's selection of First Winter—which considers the events that immediately follow An Event. What surprised, however, was the film. It's a low-budget ensemble drama made by a group of young Williamsburg denizens—yoga hipsters, if you will—whose retreat at a remote farm upstate suddenly feels a whole lot more isolated when the power dies and a transistor radio picks up disturbing, cryptic static out of New York City.

Echoes of 9/11 can't entirely be ignored, which makes this a resonant selection for Tribeca, a festival that came into existence because Robert De Niro's neighborhood became the site of its own apocalypse. But if anything, this strikingly accomplished debut by writer-director Ben Dickinson represents something of a reboot for the fest, which opened its 11th annual edition last Wednesday. A new team of programming honchos, including Geoff Gilmore (a former longtime chief at Sundance) and Frederic Boyer (formerly in charge of the Director's Fortnight at Cannes), appears to have made an impact. One promising development, in particular, has been an embrace of "no-budge"—the kind of post-mumblecore projects that Sundance and South by Southwest take pride in discovering.

Continued reading TRIBECA 2012: Critic's Notebook #1...

RETRO ACTIVE: Phenomena (1985)

April 20, 2012 - 9:56am
by Nick Schager

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the female boarding-school chiller The Moth Diaries.]

Dario Argento's fascination with sight takes sexually anxious form in Phenomena, the Italian giallo maestro's surreal 1985 saga of boarding school maturation. That carnal awakening isn't overt in Argento's film, which is nominally about a serial killer stalking young females in a remote Swiss village, a spree that coincides with the arrival of Jennifer Corvino (Jennifer Connelly), the daughter of a famous hunky movie star, at the imposing Richard Wagner Academy for Girls. On her maiden drive from the airport, Jennifer protects a bee from being swatted by hysterical Frau Brückner (Argento regular Daria Nicolodi), an act that's soon explained by the fact that Jennifer shares a telepathic bond with insects, thus making her a prime candidate to befriend local entomologist Professor John McGregor (Donald Pleasance). McGregor is fascinated by Jennifer's relationship with bugs, which—as when she causes one to emit its mating call out of season—boasts a quasi-sexual nature that's further heightened by Jennifer's use of this human-insect connection to help find the area's psycho. Jennifer comes into direct contact with that lunatic during a bout of sleepwalking (a habit attributed by school staffers to "schizophrenia") that leads her to a ledge where, in a moment of shocking brutality, she witnesses a young girl stabbed through the mouth with a blade.

Continued reading RETRO ACTIVE: Phenomena (1985)...

Hong Sang Two

April 17, 2012 - 3:23pm
by Vadim Rizov

2005's A Tale of Cinema inaugurated the second phase of Korean auteur Hong Sang-soo's career (Hong 2.0), introducing basic components returned to and toyed with in every subsequent film: drunken directors who swear to change their lives before lapsing a scene later, women alternately being idealized/treated badly but granted final telling-off authority, events repeating themselves with no explanation, goofily inelegant zoom shots. Oki's Movie (screening in NYC through April 22nd) is an excellent introduction for novices, distilling and compacting the familiar elements of Hong's last seven years into 80 minutes, his shortest-ever feature by eight minutes.

The first of four parts is a short film by Jingu (Lee Sunkyun)—still a college student, but already filming predictive nightmares of his onscreen alter-ego being accosted at a post-screening Q&A by the angry friend of a woman he callously broke up with. The last segment is directed by his crush/fellow student Oki (Jung Yumi). Jingu longs for Oki—at inebriated length, with melodramatic, near Wayne's World "I'm not worthy" outbursts—but never realizes he's involved in a love triangle with his rival film professor/mentor Professor Song (Moon Sungkeun).

Continued reading Hong Sang Two...

INTERVIEW: Jonas Mekas

April 14, 2012 - 5:37pm
by Steve Dollar

I remember the first time I visited the Mars Bar. It was 1997, and a friend dragged me there very late one night. It was the kind of East Village dive, just a block off the Bowery, that seemed like a hallucination: dank, dark, walls covered in graffiti and gonzo artwork, lots of cheap canned beer, a jukebox stuffed with Stooges, Motorhead and local scum-rock acts, and a clientele from... Mars. There were only three people in the place, besides us and the bartender, a young woman who looked exactly like the kind of neighborhood siren who you saw, naked, in an R. Kern photo collection: a dwarf, a blind man and a Native American. Was this a Tom Waits song? Somehow two of them got into a fight. And then someone was forcibly locked into the bathroom. More drinks were served, and eventually everyone was back at the bar, a thick haze of cigarette smoke (ah, the '90s!) the ideal ambience for the murder beat lurching out of the juke's tinny speakers.

"You've been in that bathroom?" Jonas Mekas asked me after I told him the story, in a tone one might use when debriefing a refugee from the abyss.

Now 89, the New York filmmaker and archivist speaks from experience. Mekas has spent a third of his life drinking at the Mars Bar. The dive at the corner of Second Avenue and First Street opened in the early 1980s, when Mekas was busy renovating the future site of his Anthology Film Archives, a block away.

"We came into existence together, so it was friendship," he said, chatting over Lithuanian beer and vodka shots at the Anyway Cafe, one of several East Village bars he frequents more often since Mars Bar closed last June (and was subsequently demolished). The demise of the bar, a refuge for the neighborhood's old-school bohemians, artists and rogues, prompted the filmmaker to edit more than 15 years of casual video footage into My Mars Bar Movie, which runs this weekend at Anthology.

Continued reading INTERVIEW: Jonas Mekas...

Beyond Here Lies Nyukkin'

April 13, 2012 - 3:08pm
by Vadim Rizov

The original proposed cast for the Farrelly brothers' feature was a dramatic power-house—Jim Carrey, Benicio Del Toro, Sean Penn—that would've underscored every eye-gouge and double-slap with considerable darkness. After more than a decade of development delay, the resulting The Three Stooges is an angst-free 91 minutes, the zippiest Farrelly project since their '90s Dumb and Dumber heyday. Watching it is like being run over by a bus and liking it.

The Three Stooges have their admirers, but it's hard for anyone outside of 12-year-old boys to summon up much enthusiasm for them, your humble critic included. (Bob Dylan's a notable fan, for what it's worth.) The shorts repetitively cycle through permutations of pain on dingy black-and-white sets. Expanding this to feature length turns the Stooges into the Blues Brothers: raised by long-suffering nuns, they're forced to venture out into the world to raise $830,000 in 30 days lest the orphanage be shut down. The three-act plot is divided into a trio of "shorts" that more or less mimic the length of a two-reeler. Frequent location changes and the Farrellys' usual flood-it-with-flat-light approach literally brighten up the drab template.

Continued reading Beyond Here Lies Nyukkin'...

RETRO ACTIVE: Con Air (1997)

April 10, 2012 - 2:18pm
by Nick Schager

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Guy Pearce's prison-break heroics in Lockout.]

Nicolas Cage is a paternalistic white American god who unites the country's disparate cultural-political schisms while sporting oiled biceps, stringy long hair, a scruffy beard and an overcooked southern accent in Con Air. That may not be immediately apparent from Simon West's 1997 blockbuster, a spectacularly stupid piece of mayhem spawned by Michael Bay's The Rock, which had, a year earlier, legitimized both Bay's more-is-better ethos and Cage's tough-guy credentials. Yet a peek beneath the insane bombast of this "high-concept" work—which hews to the extreme template of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, whose name tellingly appears during the opening credits over the image of an explosion—reveals West's film as a comprehensive catalog of action movie attitudes and paradigms, summing up all the clichés, racism, sexism, jingoism and all-around absurdity that defines the big-budget, testosterone-spectacle genre. At the heart of this dunderheaded maelstrom is Cage's Cameron Poe, a former army ranger who, after returning to sweet home Alabama to reunite with his wife Tricia (Monica Potter), winds up killing a drunken lout in self-defense after the man harasses Tricia. For this accidental murder, he is sent to federal prison for seven-to-ten years because, as the judge hilariously intones, "With your military skills, you are a deadly weapon."

Continued reading RETRO ACTIVE: Con Air (1997)...

RETRO ACTIVE: White Hunter Black Heart (1990)

April 5, 2012 - 2:29pm
by Nick Schager

[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by Willem Dafoe's ignoble expedition in The Hunter.]

Clint Eastwood's surgical dissection of the iconic alpha-male persona that made him the '70s biggest box-office draw began as early as 1980's Bronco Billy (if not before, lest we forget the goofball shenanigans of 1978's Every Which Way But Loose and its sequel). Yet that critical modus operandi, which would gradually come to dominate his latter body of work (up to 2008's Gran Torino), began in earnest with White Hunter Black Heart, an adaptation of Peter Viertel's novel based on his experiences as a screenwriter on John Huston's The African Queen. It is, on the face of it, a wholly uncharacteristic vehicle for Eastwood, who not only helms the film but stars as John Wilson, a blustery, boozy movie director-cum-adventurer whom the star embodies with the same swagger, fierceness and drawn-out drawl of the legendary Huston. Devoid of serious action or genre accouterments, it's a character study with a thinly disguised true-life backstory, and one that winds up perfectly suiting Eastwood's patient, unfussy direction, especially with regards to his depiction of Africa, a "dark continent" that Eastwood refuses to romanticize or sentimentalize, instead shooting it with a straightforward sense of danger and toughness.

Continued reading RETRO ACTIVE: White Hunter Black Heart (1990)...

FILM OF THE WEEK: Damsels in Distress

April 3, 2012 - 1:37pm
by Vadim Rizov

"What the world needs to work properly is a large mass of normal people," transfer student Lily (Analeigh Tipton) concludes near the end of Damsels in Distress. With his fondness for preppily dressed, decorous men and women behaving discreetly, writer/director Whit Stillman also seems to believes this, but he's too in love with eccentrically posited aphorisms for their own sake to make a convincing case for bland societal assimilation. Here, his leading lady is Violet Wister (Greta Gerwig, mastering Stillman's unusual cadences), her name a self-created yoking of two different flowers. Violet's a college student who leads a small, Clueless clique of self-appointed social reformers dedicated to helping "young people crying out for guidance."

This sounds terribly condescending, and one of the nicest jokes is that Violet's literally out of her mind, a former OCD kid prone to depression whose sharp comic timing is the result of mental imbalance. Adding Lily to her small clique introduces both romantic competition and dissent not forthcoming from Violet's two acolytes: boringly prim Rose (Megalyn Echikunwoke), who insists every single male on the planet is a "playboy type oper-a-tor" (a joke the film beats into the ground through repetition) and dim but insistent Heather (Carrie MacLemore).

Continued reading FILM OF THE WEEK: Damsels in Distress...

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