Friday, May 22, 2015

MAD MAX BEYOND FURIOUS


 
You can practically feel the whole drive-in history of revenge-oriented biker pictures come roaring up from behind and crashing through the beginning of George Miller’s 1980 original Mad Max, informing the movie’s every lunatic move and guiding it as it charts a change in trajectory for the course of business-as-usual action filmmaking to come. Even the American International Pictures logo that accompanied the movie’s American release, which was initially shown in a dubbed version populated by American actors, lent a sense of connection to movies like The Wild Angels (1966), The Born Losers (1967), Hells Angels on Wheels (1968), The Cycle Savages (1969) and Chrome and Hot Leather (1971), many of which had been staples on the American International menu.  (AIP’s The Born Losers gave birth to its own mythology, introducing audiences to actor Tom Laughlin and a character, Billy Jack, whose next movie appearance would set him on a different sort of vengeance trail.)
 
Mad Max feels out-of-control dangerous right from the beginning, its high-powered cars thundering across a bleak, but still recognizable landscape on a high-octane trip to oblivion. (The complete societal collapse which would characterize the subsequent Mad Max films is here still only a work in progress.) Miller sets the movie’s high-speed action low on the highway—the threat of road burn seems constant-- and so thoroughly redefines the concept of that staple of ‘70s action filmmaking, the car chase, and the level of stunt work required to realize his anarchic, yet graphically elegant vision, that there could be no looking back, only constant forward motion.
For me, there may still be no single moment in Miller’s action portfolio to match the hair-raising sight in the 1980 film of the Night Rider’s car making an evasive move to avoid a wrecked truck and skipping sideways down the road (along a slightly compressed focal plane) before crashing in a ball of flame into another pile of cars. Miller’s signature image, that of a pair of bloodshot eyes opening wide in horror and intercut with the moment of impact, gets its grand, unforgettable introduction in this sequence.
Mad Max is, of course, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson), a traffic cop charged with maintaining the last vestiges of law and order in this increasingly shattered world, who will lose everything—wife, child, sanity— to an even madder band of punk bikers, led by the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), before the first picture is over. Mad Max’s final image, that of a deadened Max speeding down a seemingly endless night-shrouded road, leads straight into The Road Warrior’s dried-up, post-gas wars organizational breakdown, where paradigms of societal cooperation have disappeared in a desperate scramble for enough juice to keep the throttle wide open.  

 
Miller’s 1982 sequel, known in Australia simply as Mad Max 2, sets the pattern of Max as a wanderer and reluctant savior pressed into the service of a cause that is not his own—he only wants to scavenge for “guzzoline” and keep moving fast enough to keep his demons from catching up—that would become the series template to date. The landscape in The Road Warrior is even more barren, the mad punks now even more numerous, more scurrilous, motoring about in a fleet of vehicles seemingly cobbled together and modified from the world’s junkyard of mismatched spare parts. They’re led by the likes of the shrieking, Mohawk-capped Wez (Vernon Wells) and the unforgettable Humungus (Kjell Nilsson), with his strangely Nordic vocal stylings and the throbbing, mutated skull at all times covered by a goalie’s mask. (Jason Voorhees would popularize the look later that same summer in Friday the 13th Part III, but Miller and the Humungus got there first.)
 
The nomadic band of survivors with whom Max hooks up may be considerably less individually fascinating than their villainous counterparts (some things never change, even after civilization crumbles). Even so, the company of good guys include Bruce Spence’s vividly comic Gyro Captain (“Remember lingerie?”); a mechanic (Steve J. Spears) with useless legs who is hoisted about, like Peter O’Toole’s Eli Cross, on a crane; a warrior (Virginia Hey) who resembles Jennifer O’Neill in extreme survival mode; and the unforgettable Feral Kid (Emil Minty), who seems at times only one or two steps past Land of the Lost’s Chaka on the evolutionary timetable.
Miller doesn’t tip his hand until the end, after he’s finished his sequel’s mission of upping the ante on Mad Max’s insane vehicular propulsion with a climactic truck-car chase that would be the gold standard for years to come, but the saddened, articulate narration with which The Road Warrior begins (“My life fades. The vision dims. All that remains are memories…”) and ends (“As for me, I grew to manhood…”), turns out not to be the words of an older Max. That narration turns out to belong to the Kid, spoken from a time long after the movie’s story, and the personage of Max himself, has faded into the past and become myth. It’s just the right touch to send Max off into another endless night, its dark skies choked with burning rubber and exhaust fumes, a weary, burnt-out hero relieved to be alone yet again.
 
 
Unfortunately, he doesn’t stay alone for long. The opening of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) finds Max wandering yet again, some years after the events depicted in the previous films. But quite unlike Mad Max and The Road Warrior, this time our hero doesn’t burst into the frame through the air-gulping carburetor chambers of a nitro-fitted V8 Interceptor. Rather tellingly, he’s first seen rolling across the endless, blighted landscape sitting in a crippled vehicle being pulled by a team of camels. Then he’s set upon by an airborne Bruce Spence (not playing the Gyro Captain this time—he’s barely playing any character this time) who separates Max from his carriage, thus forcing him to trudge into a strange boondock city called Bartertown on foot. It isn’t long before Max is co-opted into the town’s strange slave society, where brutal one-on-one fights are staged for the amusement of the citizenry, of course, but even more so for that of Bartertown’s evil overseer, the Amazonian wonder known as Auntie Entity. (Auntie Entity is played by Tina Turner, who should have dropped the mic after charring the screen as the Acid Queen in Ken Russell’s Tommy—there’s just no topping that cameo.)
There are several darkly humorous, designed-to-be-quoted lines in the Bartertown section of MMBT (“Ladies and gentlemen, it’s… dyin’… time!”), but everything leading up to the fight sequence feels arbitrary, overstuffed and indifferent, and so does the fight itself, as it turns out. The danger beneath the Thunderdome feels too safe, too prescribed, and nearly inert— now there’s a word fans of the previous two chapters would hope never could be used in describing a Mad Max movie. And it doesn’t help that the outrageous, occasionally lyrical bombast of Brian May’s scores, which lent the first two films a patina of Wagnerian tragedy, has here been replaced by the nondescript orchestral ornamentation provided by Maurice Jarre. (Turner’s pop hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” heard over the end credits, is the movie’s more memorable musical contribution—it may be the best thing about the movie, period.)
 
The metaphorical wheel-spinning continues when Max, having emerged victorious from the Thunderdome’s two-men-enter, one-man-emerges scenario, is banished from Bartertown and left for dead in the desert. This being a sequel with seemingly at least one eye on the looming shadow of Steven Spielberg, Max is rescued by a group of lost children, survivors of an air crash who think he’s the savior prophesized in their favored myth of a downed pilot, Captain Walker, who will someday return and lead them out of desolation. At this point, one can actually feel the movie creaking under the weight of too much applied warrior hero mythology. The second half is overpopulated by these charmless, uninteresting kids and Max’s halfhearted attempts to get them to understand that he’s not who they think he is, with Miller himself seeming all too willing to indulge the logy import of the Max mythology.
The demands of the plot find Max and kids breaking back into Bartertown to perform a rescue and hotfooting it out of town on some sort of train truck, pursued by Auntie Entity and her minions in another set of underimagined vehicles which look for all the dystopian world like mutated golf carts. And it’s here you may connect the movie’s general malaise and lack of narrative energy to the fact that it’s been an hour and 20 minutes before anyone in MMBT even fires up an engine. Eighty minutes without any car action. In a Mad Max movie. Even the vehicle used by Max and company in their escape is a disappointment—they hightail it aboard a modified train engine which rides a quite finite set of rails. Incredibly, the forward motion that all but defines the force of Miller’s vision is largely absent in this movie, and what there is remains restricted to a simple line—no side trips, straight ahead and, despite the presence of those pursuit vehicles, no real chaser.
This climactic rundown here seems as perfunctory and prescribed as everything else, and by the end it’s not just Max who seems exhausted—the entire series seems to have limped to a dead end. And a 30-year change of pace for George Miller, which included the production of three great movies made for children that couldn’t have been less post-apocalyptic—the Oscar-winning Happy Feet, the Oscar-nominated Babe and its brilliant sequel Babe: Pig in the City-- seemed to confirm that the saga of Mad Max would, in fact, be left alone to limp to an unsatisfying conclusion.
But now, after about 15 years of trying to make it happen, George Miller, the movies’ great, now-70-year-old punk of the pop epic apocalypse, has finally returned with a new Max Rockatansky and a renewed sense of urgency. His new movie, Mad Max: Fury Road seems like an epic summing up of everything that has ever compelled Miller to put images on film, and the use of similar words in their titles will serve to remind viewers, if they could possibly forget, which summer action spectacular truly embodies the furious. Essentially one long, extended chase, Fury Road is so dynamically, startlingly choreographed that you begin to feel as though Miller himself is possessed by the glorious promise of unchecked propulsion, directing his picture almost as penance for, and an exorcism of the inertia that plagued MMBT.
Mel Gibson has been replaced as Max by Tom Hardy (Locke, The Dark Knight Rises), and—no slight on Gibson, who always carried Max’s cynicism with the sort of gravitas from which one could hardly look away-- the new casting registers like an upgrade right out of the box. Hardy’s opening narration seems similar to that which opened The Road Warrior, but this time the speaker’s identity is no mystery, cuing us not toward any mythopoetic perspective on Max but instead offering a clue to the identity of the voices bashing around in his head. “I am haunted by those I could not protect,” he intones, “running from the living and the dead,” those dead embodied by the vision of a pleading pre-teen girl who addresses him as “Dad” and whose continual appearances undermine what’s left of his sanity, which isn't much.  (Fans of the series will likely remember that the child lost by Max in the first film was a toddler and a boy.)
 
Max is soon captured and enslaved by one Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, once the Toecutter), a psychotic dictator irradiated and ravaged by disease who presides from behind a sardonic metal rictus over the Citadel, a literal oasis in the desert where greenery is cultivated and an entire people remains subject to Joe’s control over a deep, apparently endless supply of water, which he doles out on occasion in order to keep the rabble in line. This aspect of Fury Road is likely to resonate with an extra frisson for the drought-stricken citizenry of California and the rest of the Southwest—“Do not become addicted to water,” Joe offers with a patriarchal  sneer as the thirsty gather beneath him, awaiting their periodic drenching. “It will take hold of you, and you will resent its absence.” (In the years since the gas wars that crippled society just before the time of The Road Warrior, we’re informed that the population has also set against itself in an attempt to secure possession of water rights as well. So we have that to look forward to.)
 
Joe also presides over a brood of female slaves who are literally milked and kept in perpetual pregnancy, the better to provide hopefully healthy, non-mutated, male offspring to perpetuate Immortan Joe’s lunatic rule. But not all females are exploited for procreational purposes. Joe’s right-hand woman (who just happens to be missing her own left arm) is Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a fierce warrior who is sent out on a mission to collect up a supply of gas and bullets which will keep the Citadel mobile and defended. But what Joe doesn’t know is that Furiosa has smuggled five of his most prized females, two of whom are pregnant, along with her— unbeknownst to anyone, they’re really headed for the “Green Place of Many Mothers,” a mysterious oasis of plenty where Furiosa was born. She intends to deliver the women to a new world where they can take up residence far away from the oppressive patriarchal rule of Joe and so many others like him.

 
As is so often the case, in movies as in life, the getting there turns out to be almost all the fun. Joe and his Warboys, mounted on a delirious assortment of surreally modified vehicles, each one seemingly more awesome than the last, give chase. (Here a special, awe-inspired salute must be reserved for the movie's production designer, Colin Gibson.) Max is literally mounted on the front of one pursuit vehicle, driven by a dying Warboy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) who seeks a glorious death while siphoning off Max’s replenishing supply of plasma. (Nux refers to Max as his “blood bag.”) As critic David Edelstein observed in his splendid assessment of the movie for New York magazine, seeing Mad Max: Fury Road for the first time may involve a slight disorientation, a sensation that the movie has started mid-story, and it’s something of a marvel to realize how Miller and co-scenarists Brendan McCarthy and Nico Lathouris, dole out important character information in seemingly reverse order, setting up revelations instead of simple backstory. A second viewing certainly relieved me of the obligation to try and beat the clock of the movie’s relentless pace, figuring out relationships and situations on the fly, and also made clear that everything you need to know is just as likely reinforced by what Miller and his brilliant cameraman John Seale are showing as much as what the characters can tell. And there is a lot to process.
But part of the joy of experiencing this movie is recognizing the degree to which its chaos is precisely modulated, our eyes being offered exactly what we need to see. Yet the movie never plays like a control freak’s vacuum-packed vision. The action sequences are breathless and relentless, but somehow Fury Road never tires you out. Part of that may have something to do with never getting the sense that Miller, despite this being the fourth picture of the series, is repeating himself. He shows us some of the most insane action choreography ever committed to film, edited at a pace that is much more in keeping with up-to-the-minute action movie velocity, yet he never loses the audience in a clutter of cutting. The fighting, man on man, vehicle and vehicle, is all staged and assembled with intense graphic intelligence and awareness—one action leads logically to another, and we’re left to follow a line of visual thought rather than throw up our hands in frustration at not being able to sort out shards of edited flash meant to generate artificial excitement.
And occasionally, mid-chase, Miller pulls back to orient the pursuer and the pursued in a long shot stretching over miles of desert, doling out an amused god’s sense of geographical and spatial relationships, a gentle reminder that no moment of respite can ever last too long.
 
There are levels of wit to discover within the design of almost every shot of this picture too, and you may find yourself laughing a lot in between shallow, adrenaline-fueled breaths. Film buffs will delight in how nods to filmmakers as disparate as fellow Aussie Peter Weir and Andrei Tartovsky have been woven into the landscape of motion within Miller’s points of reference. In one of my favorite seemingly tossed-off moments, during the quiet aftermath of a raging sandstorm, a long shot of a desert mountain turns out not to be quite what we thought it was. During one extended sequence, the front end of Furiosa’s truck catches fire and she uses the cowcatcher attached to its nose to churn up a giant cloud of red earth to extinguish the flames, a move which is then followed by a quick shot of the carburetor sucking in a forceful gulp of air. And when Max is finally given a proper introduction to the female cargo on the truck, Miller stages them hosing themselves off in what might, in other circumstances, register as the world’s end of wet T-shirt contests. Max, however, is more practical— he keeps a shotgun pointed in their direction and douses himself with a mighty drink of water.
 
Hardy is terrific here, going toe to toe with our memories of Gibson’s sexy disaffectedness in a feat of pop culture approbation that will likely stand alongside Mads Mikkelsen’s hijacking of Hannibal Lecter from the Oscar-winning likes of Anthony Hopkins. He even benefits from Miller’s delayed gratification strategy of keeping Max behind a harness mask for the first half hour of the movie—you’ll want more of Hardy’s magnetism, and Miller assures that you’ll get it.
Actually, the movie is full of faces you want more of— Hoult and Keays-Byrne, of course, but also Zoe Kravitz, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Riley Keough (Elvis Presley’s granddaughter) as Immortan Joe’s prized harem on the run, Nathan Jones as Joe’s overdeveloped son Rictus Erectus, John Helman as Slit, Nux’s rabid Warboy counterpoint, and Melissa Jaffer as the leader of the Vuvalini, a group of tough, weather-beaten old women who know the secret behind the Green Place of Many Mothers.
 
But as much as the movie is called Mad Max: Fury Road, it could just as easily be called Furiosa Road.  The beating heart of the movie is located within Charlize Theron’s angry, almost feral performance, and she holds the screen here in a way that she never has before. Her body language, her unwavering glare, the tension and wariness in her voice all contribute to Furiosa’s weary resolve—in this outrageously stylized role, she has never been more natural on screen, and certainly there has never been a character in this series so strong, so concisely delineated, one so capable of heroism and moral resolve, to provide a counter to Max’s haunted persona. Furiosa is the emotional nexus of the movie as well, and when her moment of devastation comes Miller and Seale honor her, and Theron, with the most memorable and moving of tableaux in a movie saturated with kinetic visual poetry.
Resistance going in to Mad Max: Fury Road is understandable—the movie has been showered with so much advance praise that it’s almost impossible not to feel like expectations have been unreasonably raised. And like Boyhood last year, the only reasonable response to the hyperbole is to remember that only time can reveal the enduring appeal and significance of any piece of art. Spending too much time debating whether or not Fury Road achieves instant masterpiece status is to risk missing what it has to offer in the here and now. But I would go so far as to agree with a friend of mine who felt, in his qualified admiration for Fury Road, that all other purveyors of modern action cinema should look at this thing and be embarrassed and ashamed.
 
In the here and now, Miller and company, as they did in 1980 with the original Mad Max, have once again raised the bar not only for the outrageousness of practical stunts, but also for how those stunts can be composed and arranged for maximum clarity and effectiveness and emotional resonance. In an age where computer-enhanced imagery (and there is some on display here) is the coin of the realm and editing has been reduced to slamming a succession of images together with little regard for what they all add up to, the relentless physicality of Mad Max: Fury Road is a particularly welcome tonic. While watching this amazing movie a second time last night and considering the prospects of every other action movie of the summer scheduled to follow in this one’s wake, I was reminded of the words of Bill Paxton’s panicked marine sergeant in Aliens, another big action movie from many summers ago: That’s it. Game over, man.
 
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Friday, May 15, 2015

WAKING LIFE: I'LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS



I’ve been trying to avoid reading too much about Mad Max: Fury Road in anticipation of seeing it for myself tomorrow night in what I suspect will be a perfect setting-- a drive-in. But refraining from indulging in the enthusiasm of writers like Sean Burns and David Edelstein, and more tempered takes from others like Michael Sragow and Alan Scherstuhl, until after I see the movie is something I could probably only manage for another 24 hours or so. Needless to say, I look forward to reading those pieces and joining in on the conversation after I finish my own journey tomorrow night. The 70% rating bestowed upon Pitch Perfect 2 doesn’t jibe with some of the more dumbfounded reviews I’ve come across this afternoon, so despite my crush on Rebel Wilson I feel safer taking a pass on this one than I might have otherwise.
One great alternative to both of those more heavily promoted movies is Brett Haley’s lovely and unexpected I’ll See You in My Dreams, which gives Blythe Danner the best role she’s ever had in a film, which she matches with probably her best performance. Dreams is one of those movies that, from a glance at the advertising, you probably think you’ve seen a thousand times (I know I did)—a heavily caricatured and overly sentimental romance for the Exotic Marigold crowd. But that preconception sells this nuanced, intelligent picture far short.

Danner plays Carol, a 20-year widow and former songstress who has settled into a comfortable but tentative life living off her husband’s life insurance. The movie begins when Carol loses yet another longtime companion (dog lovers should come prepared) and begins to feel more unmoored than ever. That’s when two men come into her life—she strikes up an unlikely friendship with her pool guy Lloyd (Martin Starr, who I barely recognized) and attracts the attention of a handsome stranger named Bill (Sam Elliot) who shares a name with her dead husband and lives in the retirement village where her Carol’s best pals (Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place and June Squibb) also reside.


Even having read a description of the setup you may have ideas about where I’ll See You in My Dreams is headed, but Haley, directing a script he co-wrote with Marc Basch, thankfully has other ideas. The scenario sidesteps just about every cliché of the senior romance/parent-child conflict drama with surprising grace, painting with subtle strokes a portrait of the way the world looks for those who are nearer to the finish line than their younger, more unsettled counterparts. Haley and Basch are both in their ‘30s, which makes I’ll See You in My Dreams what critic Stephanie Zacharek has described as a remarkable feat of sympathetic imagination, in addition to being an emotionally involving and beautifully crafted drama centered on two characters who belong well outside a movie studio’s most desirable demographic.

Danner brings a flinty, weary sensibility to Carol—she always seems to be sizing people and situations up, not to set up zinger after zinger but because she truly doesn’t know how she should proceed with the cards she’s been dealt. She can feel the seductive pull of isolation, and you can see her making a case for it, even when she’s pleasantly surprised by the developing relationship with Bill—the two match each other’s experience with a healthy dose of forthrightness about intentions and desires, and the enjoyment they take in each other’s company because of that forthrightness, which they likely don’t share with many others, is palpable. And Danner seizes the opportunity to engage us with Carol not through emotional histrionics, but with subtle glances and body language that suggest the memories of a happier life to which she’s having ever more difficulty keeping hold of, and the possibility of a new dimension of experience she might just be waking up to. It’s a lovely piece of acting, hopefully not too subtle to end up forgotten come awards season.

The movie is enjoyable too simply because of the company, other than Danner, we get to keep. Elliot is magnetic as usual— it’s a pleasure to see him having such an easy time with his costar. Perlman and Squibb veer as close to broad caricature as the movie ever gets, but though you think it may succumb to crass comedy in their scenes together, the movie manages to avoid too much of the obvious, even during a scene when the ladies break into Perlman’s stash of medical marijuana. And I can’t overstate how glad I always am to see Mary Kay Place, however small or less-small the role. I was almost as happy to see Max Gail pop up near the beginning as one of Carol’s suitors in an ill-fated speed-dating session, and disappointed that the movie has literally nothing else for him to do.


But beside the gift of Danner’s presence, the movie’s biggest pleasure is probably Martin Starr as Lloyd, whose tentative, platonic friendship with Carol may or may not carry undercurrents of infatuation (just another way Haley keeps us guessing). Lloyd is an aspiring songwriter with almost no ambition or confidence—he’s moved back to Los Angeles from Texas to live with his ailing mother, a situation he uses to excuse the shrugs he musters toward life—and Starr keeps us intrigued by never overselling Lloyd either as a social bumbler or a potential creep. He’s as grateful for his improbable connection with Carol as she is, and the little spark it strikes in him is delightful.

One of my favorite scenes in the movie is the one I dreaded most, when Carol and Lloyd hit a karaoke bar. Yet like so much else in I’ll See You in My Dreams it doesn’t take the painfully well-traveled path. Lloyd marvels at Carol’s sultry, slightly wobbly rendition of “Cry Me a River”(it’s when we first begin to suspect his fascination is deeper than he would ever intentionally let on), but Carol’s performance is tempered by Lloyd’s—he takes the stage first with an endearingly inept bash at “I Think We’re Alone Now,” which if anything is reminiscent of Britney Spears by way of Sueleen Gay, and it was in this moment I knew that Haley’s movie was going to be a whole lot better than the one I’d prejudged it to be.
If anything, Haley’s storytelling becomes even more confident as the movie goes along, and he guides us through the sorts of developments and possibly disabling narrative traps that have been mishandled so frequently since the cringe-inducing likes of Terms of Endearment. In fact, his touch is confident, so disarmingly light and marked with such ease that by the time I’ll See You in My Dreams arrives at its overwhelming and beautifully modulated final shot, the whole thing seems even more like a minor miracle. The fear is that young filmmakers not only won’t be interested in making modestly scaled movies like these, but that in the pursuit of ever-escalating spectacle they, and in fact an entire industry, will have forgotten how. Let the understated pleasures of I’ll See You in My Dreams be a lesson for them all.

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ALL-NEW FEAR OF THE VELVET CURTAIN: TALKIN' ABOUT EARL HOFERT

 

In anticipation of the great late-night sinkhole that's about to form come 12:37 a.m. Wednesday, May 20 (or, more precisely, Thursday, May 21) when David Letterman signs off of the Late Show for the last time, my Fear of the Velvet Curtain column this week is devoted to a personal remembrance of Dave's influence, a whole bunch of links to other, much better articles considering Dave's legacy, and my own little tribute to one aspect of his mighty career that has gone overlooked among all the pieces written so far:

"Okay, show of hands. How many of you saw Cabin Boy when it was released theatrically in January 1994? (Crickets…) I thought so.... There were about six people in the auditorium when my wife and I saw it on its very brief run at a theater in Westwood, and I remember stumbling out of the theater thinking that this movie could seriously be in the running for Strangest Movie Ever Made...About 10 minutes into the action, Elliot, still dressed in the powdered wig and lace jacket uniform of his exclusive fancy lad prep school, saunters through a coastal village looking for directions to the dock where he will board the Filthy Whore. And who should he encounter but a bum in a wool cap, smoking a cigar, who looks and sounds a lot like David Letterman. A quick check of the credits afterward reveals that the actor’s actual name is Earl Hofert… but I’d almost swear…"

Check in behind the velvet curtain this week and find out What We Talk About When We Talk About Earl Hofert (and David Letterman), now playing at Trailers from Hell!

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Friday, May 01, 2015

THE NITRATE PICTURE SHOW


 
I’ve never uttered the phrase “I wish I was in Rochester, New York right now” before, but I’ve been saying it to myself all day today. The reason? Well, today marks the beginning of a weekend-long (May 1-3) film festival entirely devoted to film conservation, particularly to that of the practice of rendering film prints on stock made of the extremely volatile compound nitrocellulose, or nitrate. The festival, called The Nitrate Picture Show, is happening at the George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film, which just happens to be home to one of the world’s largest collections of nitrate film prints, and some of the most gorgeous existing specimens of nitrate film stock still in existence will be on display. (The last nitrate prints were struck in the early ‘50s.)
The weekend will be filled with feature films, book talks, a roundtable discussion with renowned figures from the world of film archiving, tours of the Dryden Theater projection booth at George Eastman which, due to the specific requirements for nitrate projection should be a really interesting tour, and a workshop, which has been sold out for several weeks now, devoted to the process of actually making nitrate film.
I had a rare opportunity to speak with one of the men centrally involved in the creation and realization of the Nitrate Picture Show, Jared Case, head of Collection information, Research and Access in the motion picture department of the George Eastman House, who shared with me a ton of interesting information not only about the history of nitrate film, and why it looks so damn good, but also some fascinating memories about what film first made him understand the power of nitrate film stock. That interview is now up and running as a special feature at Trailers from Hell, and hopefully it will make you want to reserve a plane ticket for next year, in the hope that this very first edition of the Nitrate Picture Show will become an annual celebration.

So click on over to Trailers from Hell to read that conversation and get up to speed on the glory of nitrate!

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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

MS. ELIZABETH HALSEY'S ROTTEN APPLE, HOT FOR (BAD) TEACHER SUMMER MOVIE QUIZ



Can it really have been August 2014 since the last SLIFR movie quiz? An embarrassed look back at the virtual calendar confirms this amazing factoid, and before that one there was a wind-swept, tumbleweed-thick dead zone in between Professor Dewey Finn's outing and the one before that. So, before the student body starts getting restless and demanding some real return on their tuition investment, we here at SLIFR University feel that it’s time to get off the schneid and get back to the fevered pace of full-tilt cinemacademia. (Why did typing out that newly coined word make me suddenly thirsty?)
And who better to end this particular drought than that tall, cool drink of water from the bad side of the tracks, the one teacher on the staff guaranteed to make the class sit up straight, if only to make driving her stiletto heel through the top of the distracted student’s foot just that much easier? Yes, we welcome SLIFR U’s favorite substitute professor, low on positive teaching philosophy but high on shitty attitude, the Bad Teacher herself, Ms. Elizabeth Halsey, to introduce SLIFR movie quiz #24, her very own Rotten Apple, Hot for Teacher Summer Movie Quiz.

Ms. Halsey may not have your best educational interests at heart—she’s more likely to be caught staring out the window than even that distracted student with the perforated hoof. But one thing is for sure—she will keep the test-taking process lively. And she will take no shit from you clowns either, so keep your heads down and offer it not. Just remember the golden rules of SLIFR quiz taking and you will incur neither her wrath nor a bad grade:
1) Be sure to cut and paste the questions into the comments column and write your answers below them. This way, Ms. Halsey will be able to follow which question you are answering and you will be able to avoid her crumpling up your test form and lighting it on fire in the middle of her desk.

And 2) Be sure to be as long-winded and loquacious as the spirit doth move thee, for such logorrhea tends to make for better answers. It also increases the chances that she’ll fall asleep while grading your paper, thus allowing you to sneak out of class early while she snores it up at the front of the room.
So, if you’re ready, Ms. Halsey, heels sharpened and at the ready, has given us the go-ahead.  Get out your blue books, raise your #2s, bite the big apple (don’t mind the maggots), and let’s get started!

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1) Name a line from a movie that should've become a catch phrase but didn't *
2) Your second favorite William Wellman film

3) Viggo Mortensen or Javier Bardem?
4) Favorite first line from a movie

5) The most disappointing/superfluous “director’s cut” or otherwise extended edition of a movie you’ve seen? *

6) What is the movie you feel was most enhanced by a variant version? *
7) Eve Arden or Una Merkel?

8) What was the last DVD/Blu-ray/streaming film you saw? The last theatrical screening?
9) Second favorite Michael Mann film

10) Name a favorite director’s most egregious misstep
11) Alain Delon or Marcello Mastroianni?

12) Jean-Luc Godard famously stated that “all you need for a movie is a girl and a gun.” Name one other essential element that you’d add to the mix.
13) Favorite one-sheet that you own, or just your favorite one-sheet (please provide a link to an image if you can)

14) Catherine Spaak or Daniela Giordano?
15) Director who most readily makes you think “Whatever happened to…?”

16) Now that some time has passed… The Interview, yes or no?
17) Second favorite Alberto Calvalcanti film

18) Though both displayed strong documentary influence in their early films, Wim Wenders and Werner Herzog have focused heavily on the documentary form late in their filmmaking careers. If he had lived, what kind of films do you think Rainer Werner Fassbinder, their partner in the German New Wave of the ‘70s, would be making now?
19) Name a DVD you’ve replaced with a Blu-ray. Name another that you decided not to replace. *

20) Don Rickles or Rodney Dangerfield?
21) Director who you wish would hurry up and make another film

22) Second favorite Michael Bay film
23) Name a movie that, for whatever reason, you think of as your own

24) Your favorite movie AI (however loosely you care to define the term)
25) Your favorite existing DVD commentary track *

26) The double bill you’d program on the last night of your own revival theater
27) Catherine Deneuve or Claudia Cardinale?
 
(* Questions provided by long-time SLIFR reader and quiz participant Robert Fiore. Thanks, Bob!)

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And as special bonus extra credit, to commemorate 10 years of movie quiz-taking fun, here’s a compulsively clickable look back at the 23 quizzes that preceded this one-- A COMPLETIST’S GUIDE TO 10 YEARS OF THE SERGIO LEONE AND THE INFIELD FLY RULE QUIZZES


 
MR. HAND’S SPRING 2005 POP MOVIE POP QUIZ  and a follow-up


 


PROFESSOR VAN HELSING’S JUST-BEFORE-SUNRISE WOODEN-STAKE-THROUGH-SPRING-BREAK MOVIE QUIZ and a follow-up


PROFESSOR JULIUS KELP’S ENDLESS SUMMER CHEMISTRY TEST


 


 


PROFESSOR KINGSFIELD’S HAIR-RAISING, BAR-RAISING HOLIDAY MOVIE QUIZ, plus a follow-up


PROFESSOR PEABODY'S HYSTERICAL HISTORICAL WAYBACK SPRING BREAK FILM QUIZ and follow-ups: Part 1  Part 2  Part 3


PROFESSOR SEVERUS SNAPE’S SORCERER-TASTIC, MUGGALICIOUS MID-SUMMER MOVIE QUIZ and a follow-up


 



 


PROFESSOR ARTHUR CHIPPING’S MADDENLY DETAILED, PURPOSEFULLY VAGUE, FITFULLY OUT-OF-FOCUS BACK TO SCHOOL MOVIE QUIZ and a follow-up


Part 1   Part 2  Part 3  Part 4  Part 5



 

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

FLOATING ON THE OCEAN OF HELENA LEE




In writer-director Jim Akin’s The Ocean of Helena Lee, the first thing you may notice about 12-year-old Helena Lee (and the young actress, Moriah Blonna, who plays her) is the diverting mole on the left side of her chin, the sort of punctuation which amplifies the beauty of the face which it interrupts—a face which manages to playfully mix the openness of youth with a preternatural wariness. That wariness is best reflected in Helena’s eyes, forever darting, absorbing, reconsidering the characters that scurry and spin along the Venice Beach boardwalk where she will play out her summer, and a couple seasons beyond, trying to wrap her arms around a world whose conflicting influences and absence of empathy worries, confounds and compels her.
This young girl spends less time with others her own age than she does in the company of her dad Micky (Tom Dunne), an aimless, well-meaning surf-bum with a philosophical bent (“I recommend time slowing down”) and only a vaguely defined sense of parental responsibility. She sleeps in the sand-littered closet of his cluttered one-bedroom apartment, almost more a roommate than a daughter, assessing the constant parade of sunbathers, strippers and hookers that pass his way against the very interactive memory of her recently deceased mother, Luisa (Maria Mckee), who haunts Helena with maternal comfort and soothing lullabies (written by Mckee and Akin) from beneath a diaphanous, shroud-like veil. She’s a muse from the beyond the grave who connects Helena with a nascent sense of personal contemplation, life’s mysteries, disappointments and its inevitable end, and the combination of Mckee’s soulful voice and spectral beauty fill the demands of the role
nicely.

Helena, as you might guess, is precocious, but in a muted sort of way, stuck uncomfortably somewhere between the adventure of growing up and an oncoming weariness from having seen too much too soon. While most girls on the precipice of their teen years are more worried about social situations and having fun, Helena is soberly considering a life as a writer (“Everyone’s got a story. Thing is, sometimes it’s hard to stay tuned in. I always wonder, what does the storyteller want? What do I want?”) The movie is thusly imagined as a loosely constructed tour through her imagination, as the temperament of her grief over her mother and dissatisfaction with her father shapes her observations as raw material for a story waiting to be told.
Blonna has an easygoing, naturalistic quality to her performance that never spills over into a Hollywood sort of precocious, yet she has confidence and a welcome directness. She’s not quite up to the demands of the dramatic confrontation she has with Micky near the end, when Helena calls him on his lack of focus as a parent (“My stomach hurts. I feel lonely. If I get hurt, you can’t even drive me to the hospital. Do you see me?”). But Akin’s movie isn’t built on confrontation, and the rest of Helena happily remains Blonna’s movie-- we just live in it.
 
The only time the movie noticeably breaks with Helena’s point of view is during a scene in which Micky confesses his own emptiness in the wake of his wife’s death (“I’ve got a black seed in place of my heart”) to a prostitute played by Kristina Neykia, last seen as a hobbled succubus in Akin’s casually brilliant After the Triumph of Your Birth (2012). Akin intercuts that confession with shots of Helena on the Venice boardwalk, as if to confirm the unconscious connection with her dad, a way of acknowledging that she’s aware of the existence of that black seed. She’s part of the scene, yet she’s not, in a way similar to how, in The Long Goodbye, Robert Altman imposed a reflection of Marlowe on the beach into an argument between Eileen and Roger Wade taking place in their Malibu living room. Akin comes close to that movie’s overall gliding, ethereal vision of Los Angeles too, though for quite a dissimilar end.
At one point, Micky inquires to Helena in the innocuous way that parents sometimes do about how school is going. “You know,” Helena replies. “I like to learn. Don’t like to be taught.” That offhanded comment resonates not only with Helena’s summer of discovery, but also with the fresh, distinctive style Akin is developing as a filmmaker. Only his second feature, The Ocean of Helena Lee feels even more confident than its predecessor, which juggled a circus’s worth of impulses and stylistic conceits without betraying a bead of sweat. His sense of where to break from scenes (usually a beat before you think they should) and how to tender connections between individual moments (Helena’s unnamed friend pops up every so often to ground her, and us, in a more common variety of teenage experience) speaks to his own intangible impulses as a provocative conductor of moments.
 
But the director also manages to fuse what he’s learned from a diverse band of European and American filmmakers with those impulses to create something that feels new, freshly imagined. One can discern the spirit of Kings of the Road-era Wim Wenders flitting around the edges of TOOHL, as well as Fellini’s affinity for unusual human and environmental beauty, and the movie is attuned to Helena’s inner spirit in such a way that it feels at times like a Dardennes Brothers joint on rollerblades, gliding effortlessly down the boardwalk to the beach-friendly strains of Mckee and Akin’s propulsive pop score.
This being a movie at least in part about Los Angeles, it won’t be a surprise to learn that David Lynch comes up in Akin’s internal conversation as well. Here though the Lynchian influence is more tempered than it was in the previous film. In Helena there is no equivalent to the eerie bombast of ATTOYB’s Answer Man, a character who seemed directly attributable to Lost Highway, and the foreboding and tearful empathy that courses just beneath the breezy context of Helena’s imagery seems much more organic, a product of the girl’s fertile imagination and her anxieties, in a way that the previous movie’s musical demon never quite achieved. There’s real tension here between being set loose and aimless in a sun-splashed paradise to contemplate the world, the idle idyll of summer, and the vast indifference with which these days of heaven seem to be enveloped. In the end, the most remarkable thing is that the writer-director is aware of all these influences too, yet always manages to stay true to his own much more heartfelt muse.
Akin seems to function on the periphery of the American independent filmmaking scene, in terms of distribution and in terms of the fierce visual intelligence with which his movies are made, and hat leaves lots of room for the sort of truly independent development of artistic personality that often gets crushed in the stampede toward more mainstream success. But I can imagine a sort of cognitive dissonance for some viewers in encountering The Ocean of Helena Lee. This is a movie that is, at its heart, very European in its storytelling temperament—that is to say, it rather proudly stands outside the sort of narrative behavior one usually encounters in a movie populated with and made by native Southern Californians.
 
Some will listen to Micky’s philosophical musings, which sometimes land with a clunk when one is expecting less poetically inclined dialogue, and cry “Pretentious!” Which is neither an entirely unearned accusation nor one from which Akin or other similarly inclined filmmakers should necessarily flee. The sort of articulated contemplations that wouldn’t seem out of place in a black-and-white German movie (with subtitles) about angels in Berlin might indeed play a little strange coming out of the mouths of beach bums and bohemian hangers-on knocking sand from the bottom of their sandals. But is that Akin’s problem or ours? The difference between lofty and insufferable, it seems to me, can be measured in the perception of sincerity, and by its probing of a young girl’s development toward intellectual independence The Oceans of Helena Lee can hardly be cast as a cynical bid for artsy hipster cred.
 
There is one major disconnect between Helena’s life and that of her peers in the real world. Though the chronology is ostensibly present-day, at no time is she ever seen tweeting, texting, taking selfies or operating any sort of personal electronic device. Chroniclers of modern-day verisimilitude will have to take note (it’s what they do), but this 4G-free phenomenon will serve to remind viewers that what Akin has served up here is a long way from the up-to-the-minute snark of something like Glee. The absence of electronic intrusions into a teenager’s life may, on the face of it, be “unrealistic,” but it’s also perhaps more significant evidence than any that Helena’s story, her desire to seek out her own point of view, to reinvent the world, as she puts it, takes place in the rarified world of imagination, filtered through the lens of artistic license and/or wish fulfillment of a very personal nature. In After the Triumph of Your Birth, Akin alluded to the difficult relationship between his seeker protagonist, Eli, and that man’s demanding, long-dead father. After completing a 100-mile journey of his own Eli pulls out a picture of his old man, a faded, folded and creased mug shot, and pays tribute. And as a prelude to the end credits of The Ocean of Helena Lee, a picture of that same man shows up again-- this time he’s posed in a surf suit very much resembling one worn by Micky early on in the film. Beside the faded, slightly blurry image a title card reads simply, “Michael Lee Akin—‘A Day to Surf’—Summer ’73.”
It isn’t much of a stretch to connect the dots, but the grace of Akin’s film is rooted in the writer-director never pushing the point. Among many other things, The Ocean of Helena Lee is a look through the eyes of a girl who wants to learn to see life her own way, as well as a tribute to those who helped her adjust her focus. It’s a perspective we can indulge in even more vividly thanks to the marvelous empathy of this filmmaker’s very personal, independent vision.
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If you’re in Los Angeles next month, you can see the world premiere of The Ocean of Helena Lee Friday, May 8, at the Egyptian Theater as an exclusive presentation of the American Cinematheque. That night the movie will be followed by a discussion with Jim Akin, Maria Mckee, Tom Dunne and others moderated by screenwriter Josh Olson and director Allison Anders, and that panel with then be followed by a live concert performance by Mckee, backed by Akin and Tom Dunne, performing music from the movie and more. Acoustic performances from Mckee will accompany each subsequent screening of the movie, May 9-13, in the Spielberg Theater at the Egyptian.

Then, to finish off the week of screenings and performances, a double bill of The Ocean of Helena Lee and After the Triumph of Your Birth will screen at the Aero on Thursday, May 14, capped by yet another full-band live performance by Maria Mckee. If you’ve never seen Mckee perform live before, this should rate as a can’t-miss/won’t-miss/mark-your-calendar sort of event, especially in conjunction with a screening of the new movie. You can get your tickets for any of the seven scheduled performances
right here, and I suggest you do so right now, because this opportunity won’t come around again.

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This review also appeared today on my "Fear of the Velvet Curtain" page at Trailers from Hell.

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