Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Party Down

Still mourning the end of Eastbound and Down, I noticed an advertisement for Party Down, a new comedy series on Starz. Starring Adam Scott, who was spectacular as the asshole brother in Step Brothers (and who had a devastating cameo in the Eastbound finale), I was eager to give it a try. The first episode is available for viewing just about everywhere, and I've embedded it at the end of the post. It's likeable, low-key, and downbeat with a killer supporting cast. Scott plays Henry Pollard, an out-of-work actor who turns to catering work to pay the bills. Ken Marino of The State fame is his boss, Ron Donald, a recovering addict who channels his self-loathing into micro-managing. The Great Jane Lynch plays another variation on her domineering, new-agey wacko persona, handing out terrible audition advice before attacking kids with super-soakers. She's my favorite current character actor, bar none.

Filmed in the handheld, intimate style of The Office, it draws distinct thumbnail portraits of its gallery of eccentrics, and Scott reacts with bemused resignation at the strivers around him, all pitching scripts and aiming for stardom. Co-produced and co-written by Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas (of Veronica Mars fame), it's a more subdued offshot of the Apatow productions (along with Rudd's participation, Freaks and Geeks' Martin Starr has a role), and a welcome one.

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Saturday, March 21, 2009

IFC News at SXSW:09

From opening night of SXSW '09, the world premiere of I Love You, Man

My interview with the director and star of Best Worst Movie, a documentary about Troll 2, which one of its actors describes as "the worst movie ever made of all time":

This one's with David Gargani, director of Monsters of the Id, a documentary that explores the subtext of 50's sci-fi and their impact on society.

I don't have an embed code for it, but you can also watch my interview with Beastie Boy and head of Oscilloscope Pictures Adam Yauch on IFC.com.


Friday, March 20, 2009

Hunger (2008)

I would imagine that being locked in a tiny prison cell for years on end, with nothing but a blanket and piles of your own waste for company, makes a man very attuned to the small details of life. The sound a cigarette makes when you take a drag. The way snow melts when it lands on wet skin. Steve McQueen's impressive film "Hunger," which won the Camera D'or for Best First Feature at last year's Cannes Film Festival, understands this. In its best moments, it makes us understand it as well.

Above all, it is a film of moments. "Hunger" tells a story, but it tends to skip over the most dramatic parts; it has characters, but it spends long sections of the film observing them while they say and do very little. Small gestures take on larger importance; in a movie about a hunger strike, a guard dumping his napkin's crumbs on the floor becomes a powerful statement. Though the prisoners live in filthy conditions – as the film begins, the inmates are in the middle of a "no-wash" protest – McQueen's camera finds incredible, even beautiful things in their world: a guard sent to clean the shit-covered walls of the prisoners' cells, dressed in the sort of outfit they make men wear when they're entering nuclear reactors, has to remove the helmet from his costume to better appreciate a mesmerizing spiral pattern of crap before he hoses it out of existence.

McQueen's camerawork is both assured and poetic, but it's his use of sound that really sets this film apart. For the first and third portions of the film dialogue is almost completely nonexistence; some scenes are so quiet that the introduction of the tiniest noises raises a huge impact. The movie features shockingly brutal violence, unflinchingly grotesque depictions of bodily wounds and sores, and yet the single moment that unnerved me with the most precision is one that occurs off camera. A radio receiver has been smuggled into the prison and hidden inside a man's intestinal works. To retrieve it he has to sift through a pile of excrement. McQueen's camera focuses on another prisoner's face, but we can hear what's going on. I will never forget that sound.

The film recreates the conditions in the H-Blocks of Northern Ireland's Maze Prison of the early 1980s where incarcerated IRA members, led by a man named Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender), undertake a Hunger Strike in order to protest the prisoners' lack of Special Category Status. The political underpinnings of the issue, the battles being waged beyond the walls of Maze Prison are left largely unexplored. McQueen isn't as much concerned with why Sands and the other inmates are striking but how; what the day-to-day realities of engaging in this sort of extreme protest are like. The men do not sit around debating; McQueen shows us a Sunday Mass where the priest yells to be heard over the din of a dozen men not praying or even debating the ramifications of their actions, but frantically planning and passing notes that have been smuggled into the jail by way of mouths, noses, and who only knows where else. Surely this must be how it was for the men of H-Blocks. They are locked away, cut off from the outside world. Their focus wasn't philosophy. It was pragmatism.

The one exception to the techniques established in the sequences described in the previous two paragraphs is an already famous 22-minute scene between Sands and a Catholic priest (Liam Cunningham) who comes to visit him in prison. Sands reveals the plan for the Hunger Strike, the priest tries to convince him to change his mind. All of "Hunger" probably contains less edits in total than an average Hollywood blockbuster deploys over the course of a single action sequence but this scene pushes the long take aesthetic further, with its first 17 minutes captured in a single, static shot. The camera is placed at a distance from the two men, who sit in profile on opposite sides of the table, their faces obscured by the smoke from their cigarettes and the shadows cast by an off-screen window. McQueen's been training us all film to focus on the subtle interplay between image and sound but here the image becomes so static, it forces us to turn our full attention to the debate between the two men. This bold technique is undercut, though, by the actors' thick Irish accents and mumbling deliveries, a difficulty compounded by the sprinter's speed with which they plow through the scene.

It's also true that as clear a picture as he paints of the H-Blocks, McQueen doesn't give as vibrant a portrait of the men in it. Sands is the subject of the all-important dialogue scene and the picture's final third where Fassbender literally wastes away before our eyes, but he's barely in the film's first and longest chapter. Here, we spend most our time with a violent but contemplative guard (Stuart Graham) and a newly arrived prisoner (Brian Milligan). Including an inexperienced prisoner allows the audience to learn about Maze Prison as he does, but the fact that we never learn what happened to this character weakens the argument for his inclusion. Why not just follow Sands, to better understand his reality and his beliefs?

Maybe this is why "Hunger"'s first chapter is its most effective. Sands' discussion with his priest and his eventual hunger strike forces politics into a situation McQueen previously kept strictly apolitical. But in the early sequences you are totally immersed into the reality of Maze Prison for guard and inmate alike. There is very little context, because on the inside, prison has no context. There is just horror. And maybe, sometimes, in the least expected places, beauty.


Thursday, March 19, 2009

TCM and Bellamy (2008)

Things are low and lazy around here, with Matt covering SXSW and myself projecting Chris Davis' home run total for my fantasy baseball drafts. Sorry about that folks! I think he'll hit 30.

Here are some things to fill the absence:

*My new post on TCM about Claire Denis' luminous 35 Shots of Rum, recently screened at Rendez-Vous with French Cinema.

*This photo from Claude Chabrol's Bellamy (2008)
This was the other film I saw at Rendez-Vous, and it has all the hallmarks of a late work from a master. Digressive, playful, and self-reflexive, it's loosely based on Georges Simenon's Inspector Maigret character, filled out here (literally) by Gerard Depardieu. Like Maigret, Depardieu's Inspector Bellamy is more concerned with uncovering the motivations behind crimes than the crimes themselves, or even with attaining justice. Bellamy, like Chabrol, is more interested in the utter strangeness of humanity. It contains his normal gallery of eccentrics, including a dissolute brother, a insurance scam artist, and a homeless depressive. Balancing this unflattering portrait of a small French town is Bellamy's angelic wife, Françoise (the stunning Marie Bunel). Their relationship is a surprisingly beautiful ode to marriage, indulgent of each other's foibles while gently mocking them at the same time. An enviable model of growing old gracefully.

*go see Tokyo Sonata. Please.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Movie Morlocks

For those of you who can't get enough of me, I've started writing for TCM's blog, Movie Morlocks. I'll have a post up every Tuesday, starting with today's piece on Raoul Walsh's magnificent Me and My Gal, from 1932. It's all terribly exciting, and I'll be free to write on just about anything. It'll be just like Termite Art, only more Morlock-y.

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Saturday, March 07, 2009

Eastbound and Down

Take a gander at the sign in the background: "Kenny Powers: He'll sign your balls." If you don't find this at least moderately amusing, then Eastbound and Down will never lodge itself inside your brain (and I probably wouldn't want to have a nice spaghetti dinner with you). Of course, I find it to be hilarious. This is not surprising. Produced by the preeminent comedy writing/directing team of our time in Will Ferrell & Adam McKay (currently upending Broadway in their brilliant You're Welcome, America), the show is an exemplar of their improvisational approach to lowbrow shenanigans.

In Danny McBride, Jody Hill, and Ben Best, they've found their dick joke soul mates. A trio of friends who met at school in North Carolina (David Gordon Green is a fellow traveler, who also directs a few episodes of the show), they collaborated on the indie The Foot Fist Way in 2006. In it, Danny McBride plays a Ferrellian karate instructor, an overweight blowhard who'd rather kick a kid in the head than impart a lesson. Ferrell & McKay loved it, and picked it up for distribution by their Gary Sanchez Productions.

Soon the NC boys pitched the story of a washed up, jackass ex-ballplayer who returns to his hometown of Shelby to be a gym teacher. Thus Kenny Powers (McBride) was born. Probably the biggest a-hole to ever grace the small screen, Powers is monumentally self-regarding, ignorant of his physical degradation and resultant fall from fame. He's shocked when his old bat sells for seven bucks on E-bay. Expecting a hero's welcome when he returns home, he's treated as an afterthought, especially by his ex-flame April (Katy Mixon), a teacher at the same school engaged to the principal (a yuppie glad-hander played by Andrew Daly). The majority of Powers' vanity is focused in her direction, from awkward come-ons to an ecstasy fueled dance of seduction.

McBride utlizes his ungainly frame and curly mullet to spectacularly uncomfortable effect, waddling into every frame with supreme confidence like he's Victor Mature in a swords 'n sandal epic. The show ultimately works because of its cast, which is rich in character work, especially John Hawkes and Ben Best, who play his put-upon brother and coke-fiend best friend, respectively. All play off each other with ease, shown in such small details as Hawkes spitting out his toothpaste into the toilet (while he's on it), McBride's attempt to "dunk" his tray of food into a garbage can, and Will Ferrell's absurd platinum blonde wig. It's this buildup of incidental bits of slapstick that makes the show great.


*Zachary Campbell shows more love for Termite Art's favorite actress Anna Faris over at Rouge, complete with quotes from Raul Ruiz.

*Spinster Aunt and I contributed to the "Varieties of Cinematic Experience" section in the new Believer. Buy it!

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Friday, March 06, 2009

My Watchmen Review

...is up on The Rumpus. Hurm.


Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Film Comment Selects: A Week Alone (2007)

The robust intelligence who runs Tativille recommended I see Celina Murga's A Week Alone, and I happily obliged. Regrettably the only film I managed to catch at Film Comment Selects (someday I'll possess you, Jerichow and Revanche!), it's an entrancing tale about the childhood rituals inside a gated community outside of Buenos Aires. Winner of the best director prize at last year's Thessaloniki Film Festival, Murga's mise-en-scene is unerringly precise and layered, using the paraphenalia of youth (bottles of Nesquik, video games, bracelets, studded t-shirts) to establish the daily rhythms and power structure of a household. A tale loosely told but finely detailed, the first half establishes the lazy tempo of a group of rich kids left alone for a weekend, led by the teenager Maria. They hide 'n seek and Marco Polo to their hearts content in the deathly serene subdivision. Langorous tracking shots follow the kids through the greenery. Innocent, edenic, and eerie. It feels like the entire adult population has disappeared, leaving their twentysomething nanny, Estelle, as the only adult presence.

The turning point of the film is the arrival of Fernando, Estelle's brother. His appearance (from outside!) reveals the cloistered nature of Mary's brood, who are never seen outside the complex (Maria claims she's been to Buenos Aires a couple times, but wasn't a big fan). As Murga backs away from the family's POV, the extent of the subdivision's security apparatus is shown, with its armed guards and "copycops." Fernando is not allowed to enter the complex until a phalanx of phone calls is made to the AWOL parents. Pulling back the veil away from the idyllic first half, the neighborhood gains the feel of a fascist Club Med.

Murga allows Fernando's difference to permeate the children's routines slowly. They ask where he's from (Entre Ríos) so many times it becomes an incantation. He sneaks into the sides of frames, observing the ping pong and girl talk just like us, unsettling some of the male kids, intriguing the girls, including Maria and her pre-teen cousin, Sofi.

Murga displays this new arrangement of power through new rituals. Where once Maria held back on the way to school to abscond with her cousin, she now trails behind alone, eyeing Fernando. These small punctures in their routine build to a bit of childish vandalism, and their resulting capture by the copycops exposes the fissures of the group. Sofi, as elegantly laid out through the film, is a bridging agent, able to communicate with Estelle on a level beyond master-servant. She declares her urge to receive her First Communion, and inquires about her nanny's private life. This curiosity about the world outside her compound keeps this makeshift family from disintegrating.

Tativille already beat me to the punch on writing about this one, but I couldn't help it. So much so that I've already ordered her debut, Ana and the Others. More please.

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Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The Other Side of the Wind blowing into Cannes?

It's still alive. In a recent Variety article about Frank Marshall's work on The Other Side of the Wind, there's a quote from Peter Bogdanovich about the film buried at the bottom:

"'It's going to happen in the next month or so,'he says. 'We're aiming for Cannes. Everybody wants it. It's film history. It will be something for it to finally be seen after all these years.'"

Bogdanovich has been sounding this horn for years, ever since Oja Kodar secured a deal with Showtime in 2002 for financing to complete it. A handy timeline at Wellesnet details the tortured history of the project, ever since Welles' daughter Beatrice sued over her rights to the project. Beatrice has long suppressed much of Welles' late work, much of which he produced together with his partner Oja. Beatrice's suit was settled in March of '07, but then the work was put on hold in late '08, perhaps due to the fact "that the negative is still unavailable for inspection in the Paris film vault where it is being held by French Officials", as Wellesnet opines.

Did Bogdanovich finally get access to the vault? Who knows? But we can still dream that a version of Welles' final feature could soon hit screens, 45 minutes of which were already edited by him. It could be the film story of the year, or another over-optimistic tease from Bogdanovich. Let's hope for the best.

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Goodfellas Red

I discovered Goodfellas on Netflix Instant View last night. And as I was watching, something caught my eye that I'd never noticed before. Even though every other credit in the film is white, the title card is red.

Since I just watched Raging Bull again last month, I knew that title card was red too — in fact, the red title card is the single use of color in an otherwise black and white film.

Certainly, I was aware that Scorsese liked to play with the color red in his movies, particularly in the bar in Mean Streets. As Roger Ebert wrote in his "Great Movies" essay on the film, "The real world is shot in ordinary colors, but then Charlie descends into the bar run by his friend Tony, and it is always bathed in red, the color of sex, blood and guilt." And obviously, the bar in Goodfellas, The Bamboo Lounge, is lit with a similarly rosy glow:

After the title card caught my eye, I became obsessed with the use of the color red in Goodfellas. Where previously, I'd only made note of it in the Bamboo Lounge scene, I began seeing it everywhere. Ebert describes the red of Mean Streets as a connection to "sex, blood, and guilt." In the book Gangster Priest: The Italian American Cinema of Martin Scorsese, Robert Casillo says the red in Goodfellas is associated with "blood, violence, suffering, and passion." But I think it's even more basic than that. Nearly every bad deed of all shapes and sizes is accented onscreen by a splash of bright vibrant red. When the wiseguys do something as bloody as beat a man to death for insulting one of their crew, they do in another barroom filled with crimson light:

And when he comes to in their trunk as they try to dispose of the body, the car's brake lights cast an impossibly strong red glare on De Niro and Pesci:

The sequence even ends with a highly unusual fade to red:

When they have to go back six months later and dig up the body, things get even more abstract. It's as if the gangsters' sins have stained the film stock.

In the daytime, things get a little bit trickier. In these cases, Scorsese fills
the frame with bright red objects. Consider this shot, where Henry Hill (Liotta) teaches a guy not to touch his girl. There's the car, the toolbox, the flowers, even the house itself:

While it is true that all of these examples so far have involved the violence that Casillo mentioned, there are plenty other examples that don't. When Hill first explains how Jimmy the Gent (Robert De Niro) hijacks trucks without force:

Or when Hill spends a paranoid day driving around his neighborhood, prepping a batch of cocaine for delivery, and he keeps calling home to ensure his brother his properly stirring his bright red "gravy":

Or on Hill's first date with Karen (Lorraine Bracco), where his influence and generous tipping allows them to skip the line at the Copacabana:

In Goodfellas, red isn't just the color of sex or violence. It's the color of all sin, from graft, to vice, to murder. Scorsese doesn't discriminate. A fundamentalist would probably tell you God doesn't either.

(ODD SIDE NOTE: Did you know Steve Martin's character in My Blue Heaven is based on Henry Hill's life after the events chronicled in Goodfellas? Weird, wild stuff.)

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